Family Bonds

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chapter four

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forthcoming intersections

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Aya sighed in weariness and pressed his face against the soft, lavender-scented pillow. Part of him wanted to ignore the whispering voice inside his head that told him the sun would be rising soon, a voice he’d listened to all those years at Timbergrey Castle and even here at the Koneko when he had an early shift. The bed was so warm and comfortable, his mate still asleep and snoring softly. Aya wanted nothing more than to remain curled up against Yohji’s back and to sleep until he no longer felt tired, but he had promised Jo that he’d do the baking this morning.

At least a good night’s sleep had restored most of the energy that a day spent out in the sun had stolen from him. That, and the fact that Yohji had only fed enough last night to placate his hunger, allowed Aya to heed the voice instead of ignore it. After a gentle nuzzle followed by a soft kiss to the nape of Yohji’s neck, he regretfully pulled away from his mate and slid out of the bed, careful to make sure as little warm air as possible escaped past the thick curtains. He shivered from the early morning chill when he went to the fireplace to restore some heat to the room. Careful stirring of the ashes and placement of small bits of wood coaxed the fire back to life and ensured that Yohji would awaken to warmth. The task tended to, Aya set about getting ready. As he’d shortly be covered in sweat and flour, he just washed off at the basin instead of going down the hall to one of the bathing rooms.

Once clean and dressed in a pale grey tunic and pants, he reluctantly left the room. Afraid of falling prey to temptation, he didn’t stop to give his lover a goodbye kiss, uncertain that he wouldn’t just give in to the impulse and curl back in bed. He spared a dark thought about how Yohji had corrupted him, someone who used to always be up with the sun even after spending most of the night reading.

However, even if he’d rather be in bed, there was a benefit to being up so early - the Koneko was usually quiet this time of the morning. A few customers might be up by now, eager to be on their way, but they made every effort not to disturb anyone else. Aya enjoyed walking down empty halls weakly lit by oil lamps, enjoyed not having to smile or wish ‘good morning’ to strangers. His trip to the kitchen was delightfully uneventful.

Once in the large room, he stoked the mostly banked fires in the hearths and the stoves. Then he made a pot of coffee and put some water on for tea. While he ran to the cold room to fetch the eggs, butter, milk and yeast he would need, Mickey joined him downstairs. They shared a friendly nod in greeting as the large man poured himself some coffee, and Aya left the chore of offering the few customers who were awake some sort of breakfast to Mickey. He wasn’t very good at waiting on people, and Mickey was much better at quickly preparing some eggs, sausage and toast. Aya had learned how to bake from Jo, but his cooking skills were still sadly lacking. All it took was something to distract him and the next thing he knew, the eggs were overdone and the sausage burnt.

But preparing dough was something he was good at, something he had the patience to do. Setting the butter nearby but not too close to the stove to soften, he carefully measured out the proper amount of dry ingredients he would need. Then he mixed the yeast with some warm milk and let it develop as he began to prepare the dough. Doing as Jo taught him, he formed a large ring out of the dry ingredients on top of one of the kitchen’s tables and then placed all the moist ingredients inside. Carefully blending everything together, he soon had the first batch of dough finished and set aside in a huge, charmed bowl to quickly rise.

Now to make several more batches of bread, shape the dough when it rose enough, place the loaves in the ovens and start on the cinnamon rolls. A slight smile formed on Aya’s lips as he thought about all the work that needed to be done. As much as he loved spending mornings in bed with his lover, to slowly wake to the new day with Yohji’s arms around him, he enjoyed his morning baking shifts. There was a warm glow from the fact that Jo trusted him with such an important task, that he was doing something to help the Koneko. He still felt as if he really wasn’t working as hard as everyone else but he did his best. Maybe one day he’d feel comfortable enough around the customers to not be so snappish with them, but until then he’d have to do the best he could here in the kitchen or out in the garden.

He spent a quiet hour or so, alone except for the few occasions when Mickey came into the kitchen to drop something off or pick something up. Aya soaked up the solitude, one of the few times when he was ever really *alone* in the Koneko, when things were quiet and unhurried. Soon enough the customers would wake up and want something to eat, and Yohji wouldn’t remain in bed all day if he wasn’t there. Things would become the familiar sense of craziness that existed at the inn, and even if Birman stayed away, he would have more than enough to keep him busy until nighttime. After dealing with Kikyou yesterday, he was in the mood for some peace and quiet.

Yohji had offered to work the lunch shift so Ani could spend some time with her girlfriend, but both he and Aya had the rest of the day free. They’d made plans to spend a few hours shopping, mostly just to be able to walk around the city and enjoy each other’s company, and Aya had to return some books to the Royal Library. Uncertain as to when Birman would need them for a mission, Aya was determined to enjoy the ‘time off’ as much as he could. Some time spent alone with his lover would be perfect, especially when they settled into their room at night. He owed Yohji a massage in thanks for the marvelous one he had received last night, and he was certain there would be a pot of mulled wine for them to enjoy.

The bread finished, he decided to try to get the cinnamon rolls in the ovens before Kira arrived to make breakfast. There was so much to be done between the baking and the cooking – Aya had no clue how Jo managed to do everything by herself. Whenever she had her mornings off, it always required at least two of them to take over her job.

He was busy shaping the sweet dough when there was a timid knock on the kitchen door. Frowning at the thought of a customer trying to bother him already, he left the dough and went over to open the door. A thin teenager, hair tousled and clothes disarrayed as if they’d been hastily thrown on, blinked at him and took a quick step back.

"Ah… I… ah… is… is Jo here?" the boy stuttered.

Aya didn’t know why the boy seemed so scared. "She’s not working just yet," he said. The boy didn’t look like someone sent from the bakeries or shops that the Koneko did business with, and he should have come to the back door if he was here on an errand. "Do you want something?" He couldn’t quite keep his voice perfectly civil, not after being interrupted by someone who clearly didn’t have much common sense.

If anything, the boy appeared more terrified but, surprisingly, stood his ground. He swallowed loudly and tugged at his disheveled clothes with shaking hands. "Uh, I’m Maddox. I… Jo said something about helping with breakfast… I’m supposed to be working to help pay for the room…." His voice drifted off as Aya stood there staring at him.

Unhappy at having his quiet time alone cut short, Aya sighed and opened the door so the boy could enter the kitchen. "Get in here." He tried to remember if Jo had told him he’d have a helper today, but he’d been so tired last night that she could have told him that the King would come to scrub the floors today and he wouldn’t have noticed. "Did she tell you what you were to do?" he asked as he headed back to the dough.

Maddox crept into the kitchen as if he was afraid to draw any attention to himself. "She said I could help with the dishes and getting the plates ready, sir."

The ‘sir’ made Aya look up, first with befuddlement and then with anger. Had it been directed at him? "Don’t call me that," he said, his voice sharp once again. After spending a day at his father’s castle yesterday, he didn’t want to be addressed in any way other than ‘Aya’.

The boy actually took a step back at the reprimand, his tan face suddenly pale. "I’m… I’m sorry." When Aya managed to stop scowling at him, he made a sound like a nervous, choked off laugh and once more tugged on his tunic’s hem. "I don’t know what else to call you, si-." Color flushed his cheeks as he quickly ducked his head.

Oh. Aya was left confused once more as he tried to remember if he’d introduced himself or not. An annoying voice in the back of his head laughed at him over his lack of manners, sounding suspiciously like Yohji. "It’s ‘Aya’," he muttered as he stared at the sweet dough.

"Aya." Maddox earned another scowl from him for the way he said the name, as if there was something wrong with it, which caused the boy to take another step back. Realizing that he was being rude, Aya sighed and tried to control his temper. Spending the day with Kikyou and having the past shoved in his face when he just wanted to move on always put him in a bad mood. He’d looked forward to some time alone to regain a sense of calm but Maddox’s arrival had thrown him more than he wanted to acknowledge right now. He’d dealt with the past enough yesterday and didn’t need any more painful reminders – which spending the morning in the presence of a young man who had managed to do something he hadn’t certainly was one.

Then he reminded himself that Maddox didn’t deserve any abuse for saving his cousin’s life. "There’s a sink full of dirty dishes," he pointed out, voice still a bit gruff but softer than it had been moments before.

Maddox nodded and rolled up his sleeves. "I’ll start on them right now," he said as he hurried over to the sink.

Aya watched as the boy picked up one of the pans left to soak overnight so he could reach down and pull out the drain plug. Jo said that the boy claimed to be sixteen, but he had a difficult time seeing Maddox as being that old. The boy wasn’t very tall and was rather skinny; he even appeared awkward while doing something as simple as washing dishes. Aya tried to think back to how he was at that age and couldn’t see anything in common with the teenager before him. Back then, he’d already had several years of Shion’s weapons training and had ‘worked’ for the Takatori for the last two of them. He’d already become an accomplished thief by then and had learned to kill.

The painful memories of all he’d done for the Takatori, of all he’d allowed them to do to him for his sister’s sake made him draw in a sharp breath and close his eyes. The scent of sugar and yeast, of cinnamon and orange rind helped to center him, to remind him that he was here at the Koneko and not back at Timbergrey. Since returning from the Takatori’s castle, these attacks had happened less and less, but there was still the possibility of something knocking him back into the past, into the memories of pain and hopelessness. Usually Yohji was there to help him when that happened, but now, with the scent of fresh bread baking and the spice-laden air, he refused to relinquish his grasp on the present.

"Ah, Aya, su-sir?"

A hesitant, stuttering voice made him open his eyes and helped dispel the last of the tainted memories. He blinked twice as he turned toward Maddox, his hands full of sticky dough.

Maddox gave him a nervous smile and motioned toward the sink full of pots and pans. "Where are the brushes for scrubbing these?"

Aya shook himself and stepped closer to the table so he could place the dough on top of it before he went to help the boy. He opened one of the doors below the sink and pulled out a small clay vessel filled with the brushes used to clean the pots. "Here." When Maddox nervously accepted the container from him, he let out a slow sigh and almost combed his hands through his hair before he remembered they were covered with flour and bits of dough. Maddox was a guest at the Koneko. Was a stray. Despite the pain and guilt he awoke in Aya, he didn’t deserve to be snapped at. "Are you hungry? There are some pastries, and - if you can cook for yourself - some eggs and sausage." Nagi was almost Maddox’s age and had always been hungry. Even though his friend was an elemental bound, Aya knew that a healthy appetite was supposed to be common for most teenagers.

There was a moment of silence when Maddox stared at him in surprise, followed by a shaky smile on the boy’s part. "That would be nice, s- ah, Aya. I mean, I can make myself something after I wash these, if you don’t mind." A hint of a blush spread across his cheeks as he focused his attention on the sink full of dirty dishes.

Aya watched him for a few seconds before he shrugged his shoulders and walked away. He’d been polite and made the offer, the boy could eat whenever he liked.

Feeling rather discontent, Aya returned to making the cinnamon rolls, his smile from earlier now long gone.

*******

Maddox tried to cover a yawn with the back of his right hand – and promptly started gagging when he got a mouth-full of soap bubbles for his trouble. Quickly wiping his lips on the shoulder of his shirt, he glanced around the kitchen to see if anyone had noticed. Aya was too busy preparing what looked to be a huge bowl of white frosting, and Kira was fussing with a large skillet filled with a simmering mix of sausage, peppers and onions. With his pride safely intact, Maddox grimaced at the awful taste in his mouth and continued doing the dishes.

He idly wondered when Emmie would come down to help him out, and couldn’t hold back a grin when he thought about her reaction to finding him already in the kitchen working. That would serve her right for sneaking down here yesterday, leaving him asleep in bed and managing to get herself a job as well. He was still a little upset that she would be working, but he had to admit that the Koneko seemed like a rather nice place and his cousin would be bored senseless without something to do. They were both used to being busy, either helping Emmie’s father or Maddox’s mother.

His cheeks grew warm when he thought about how he’d almost overslept again this morning, and resolved to set the alarm tonight before he went to bed. After so many years of getting up early, he hadn’t thought he’d need to use the clock but figured he must still be tired from traveling. He didn’t want to chance reporting late for work tomorrow and making someone mad at him – not when he needed the job so much.

As he rinsed off a plate, he snuck a glance at Aya. A part of him was still amazed to see someone with such pale skin, and he’d never seen hair in such a deep shade of red before. Oh, some of his cousins had tried to use henna in their hair to turn it into an auburn shade and Roger’s was naturally red, even though it was more of an orange-ish color than Aya’s. But skin as white as Aya’s… everyone he knew at home was as tan as himself, if not darker from working in the sun all day, as were most of the people he’d seen along the way here. He’d heard that some of the highborn kept their skin pale to prove that they didn’t have to do menial labor for a living, but he didn’t think a highborn would live in an inn, let alone have a job there. Although Aya was handsome enough to be some lord from the tales his mother and aunts used to tell him and his cousins when they were little.

He didn’t realize that he was staring at Aya until the man looked up from the bowl of icing he was stirring and gave him a chilling glare. His cheeks burning from embarrassment, Maddox picked up another plate and gave it his complete attention. It wasn’t until the plate and two others were washed and set aside to dry that he allowed his thoughts to drift again. Why was it that the Koneko was filled with such attractive people? With handsome men like Yohji and Aya and Mickey, and pretty women like Kira and Ani around, he felt so plain and uncomfortable. He could barely work up the nerve to speak to any of them for fear of saying something that would embarrass himself or offend them. He’d rarely felt this way with his cousins or his friends. Back home, he just had to be careful to not reveal who he was really attracted to, and there’d been too much risk in acting out his feelings. As it was, the little bit he’d done with Trevor had landed him in so much trouble….

A splash of water as several plates went into the sink interrupted his thoughts. "Sorry to do this to you when you’re almost done, but here are more dishes!" Touya said, his words muffled by a mouthful of toast. "The morning crowd’s finally arrived so there will be more dirty dishes coming!"

"There will only be dirty dishes if people have food to put on their plates!" Kira chided as she handed the boy a very large bowl filled with the sausage hash. "Finish eating and get back out there!" She gave Touya an annoyed look that melted into a smile when he stuck his tongue out.

"Yes, ‘Jo’. Mustn’t let a little thing like dying of starvation get in the way of running food out to our beloved customers." Touya made a face as he carried the bowl out of the kitchen, the grimace turning into a smile when Kira laughed at his antics. Maddox even grinned, happy to see someone his own age having so much fun while working here. Everyone was very nice to him when he worked yesterday, but then again, he hadn’t worked with Aya….

He snuck another glance at the man, who didn’t seem to have even noticed Touya’s presence. Aya finished stirring the icing and was now busy lining up the baked cinnamon rolls

"Touya’s right about the breakfast crowd, so why don’t you let those dishes soak for a bit and help me get this food ready?" Kira asked. Maddox jumped in startlement, feeling a little guilty to have been caught staring at Aya once again; but the young woman just smiled and motioned toward all the pans on top of the stove. "We need to get this onto some plates for Touya to take into the main room, and to slice more bread as well." She smoothed her hands down the front of her yellow apron and turned toward Aya. "How much longer on the rolls?"

"A few more minutes," Aya replied. His deep voice sounded distracted as he slathered icing onto the sweets, his head bent forward so far that his long bangs covered his face.

"Well, they smell delicious." Kira hummed a short tune as she fetched several large serving platters. "Keep it up and Jo will make you bake every morning!"

Aya looked up just then, and Maddox was surprised to see a slight smile on the quiet man’s face. Aya appeared so normal, so happy when he smiled….

"Ah, Maddox? These are a bit heavy." Kira sounded a little out of breath as she struggled to set the heavy platters onto a table.

"Oh, sorry!" He hurried over to help her. "What would you like me to do?"

She gave him a kind smile as they unstacked the plates. "Why don’t you slice the bread? Let me fetch the baskets." He watched her hurry over to a cabinet, for a moment struck by how pretty and kind she was for a moment. The way (almost) everybody here made him feel welcome and appreciated left him feeling rather homesick. He wasn’t treated as an outsider or held at arm’s length by anyone other than Aya. Here, there was a sense of belonging that he hadn’t experienced in the last few weeks he’d lived at home. No wonder Emmie didn’t want to talk about leaving the Koneko, considering the kind treatment and acceptance shown to them since they arrived.

He was busy slicing bread when Yohji entered the kitchen, hair pulled back in a loose ponytail and tunic mostly unlaced. There was a sleepy grin on his face as he looked about and nodded in greeting. "Good morning, everyone."

"Morning, Yohji." Kira stood on her toes to give him a kiss on the cheek. "You look as if you slept well. Are you hungry?" For some reason Kira’s face flushed a bright red and Yohji’s grin grew even bigger. "I mean, do you want some breakfast?"

Yohji laughed, the sound warm and tingle-inducing, and patted Kira’s shoulder. "I think I’ll start off the day with some cinnamon rolls. I’m *starving*." That just seemed to make Kira’s face turn even redder. Maddox felt some sympathy for the young woman – there was *something* about Yohji that made him develop goose bumps just by being near the man, and his hands had begun to shake when Yohji laughed. He was very grateful for the fact that he was wearing an apron right now.

A wicked smile on his face, Yohji approached Aya and laughed again. "Hmmm, still icing the rolls, are we? Can I help?" Something in the way he said the last few words made Maddox’s cheeks heat up. He had to put the knife aside for a moment, his hands were trembling so much, and he couldn’t help but stare at Yohji.

Much to his surprise, he noticed that Aya was glaring at Yohji. "I’m doing fine on my own. Take a roll and go away." He was shocked to hear Aya speak so rudely to a fellow worker.

Yohji, however, didn’t seem shocked at all. "Ah, come on, Cat, you’ve still got a few dozen left to ice. Give me the bowl and I’ll help you out."

Aya protectively clutched the bowl to his chest and stepped away from Yohji. "Go. Away. You should still be in bed."

Acting as if his feelings were hurt, Yohji picked up an iced roll. "But I got up so I could help you out down here." He sniffed dramatically and pretended to wipe away a tear. "All I want to do is help." Suddenly smiling again, he licked the icing off the roll. "Come here, Ca-"

"Ah, Yohji, maybe you should listen to the man. Don’t make me fetch Jo’s rolling pin!" Kira’s cheeks were still a bit pink, but there was an amused gleam in her blue eyes. "Now’s not the time to, uhm, ‘help’ Aya."

Yohji’s smile fell as soon as ‘rolling pin’ was mentioned, and he turned around to frown at Kira. He looked as if he was about to say something, but the frown smoothed out when he glanced at Maddox and he sighed before he took a bite from the cinnamon roll. "Oh, right," he said after a few chews. "Guess I’ll help out some other day."

Aya, bowl of icing still clutched to his chest, stared at Yohji for a few seconds before he set the bowl back down on the table. "Get some food to eat, Yotan." His voice was softer than it had been a few minutes ago, and his frown slowly faded as he resumed icing the rolls.

"I will, after another roll." Yohji approached the finished pastries and snatched up another one. "These are delicious." All the response he got from Aya was a quiet grunt, but Yohji’s comment seemed to please him.

Maddox picked up the knife and sliced some more bread, his attention divided between that chore and the two men. He’d gathered from what Jo and the others had said that Yohji and Aya were friends, which would explain why Yohji hadn’t been offended at the redhead’s behavior. He’d been warned that Aya was a reserved individual when Jo and Mickey had described the inn’s workers to him, but he was still surprised by Aya’s antisocial nature. The quiet man had barely said anything to him after asking if he wanted breakfast hours ago. Everyone else at the Koneko had asked him so many questions, about where he was from and his travels to the city - but not Aya.

Placing some of the sliced bread into a basket, Maddox glanced over at the two men. Yohji was sitting on the edge of the table while Aya continued with his task. Just as Maddox was about to slice another loaf of bread, he saw Yohji reach out and grab Aya’s left hand just as the redhead set down an iced roll. A gentle smile on his face, Yohji tugged the hand to his mouth and licked along the icing-covered fingers.

The knife in Maddox’s hand created a loud ‘thunk’ as it hit the table with considerable force. He jerked his left hand back, half afraid to find out that he’d cut his fingers but he couldn’t take his eyes off the two older men. Yohji and Aya didn’t seem to notice a thing as they stared at each other, a warm smile on Yohji’s face and a slighter, but by no means cold one on Aya’s.

Maddox only managed to look away when Touya burst into the kitchen and snatched up several baskets of bread to carry back out to the main room. He stared down at the loaf on the table and tried to make sense out of what he’d just seen. He knew he wasn’t at home, that the same taboos didn’t apply here. Yesterday during lunch, Ani had chatted about how she planned to spend the afternoon shopping with her girlfriend, and no one had seemed to be against the relationship. The few glimpses he’d caught of the main room last night before Jo had sent him and Emmie to their room had shown several same sex couples enjoying dinner and drinks with their friends. That kind of behavior was accepted here in the capital.

He snuck another glance at the men to find that Yohji had left Aya to go over and fix himself a plate of food. Neither of them appeared as if anything had happened just then, nor did Kira as she teased Yohji about having a healthy appetite. If anything, she seemed to flirt with the handsome blond man, and he flirted right back while Aya calmly finished icing the rolls.

Maybe he had just imagined things, Maddox thought as he grabbed the last loaf of bread. Maybe Aya and Yohji really were just good friends and had been teasing each other. He wasn’t sure if he was willing to accept that they might be lovers. For one thing, Emmie would be broken-hearted to learn that Yohji wasn’t single, and he *really* didn’t want to have to try to explain it to her that Yohji was in love with another *man*. He shuddered at the thought of that conversation.

Another thing he didn’t want to dwell on was how no one here thought any less of Ani for having a girlfriend or of Yohji and Aya acting like lovers. Quite frankly, it hurt too much to dwell on that for very long after how his family had reacted to him. The Koneko was a lovely place, was something he could only have dreamed about back home, with its spells and many floors, with the hot spring downstairs and the bustling city beyond the garden walls. He didn’t want to think about how he and Emmie had been welcomed at the Koneko when they were outcasts back at home. It… it just didn’t seem right that strangers could accept them when their own family couldn’t, that he could be himself here without being treated with disgust. He wouldn’t think about it because they couldn’t stay in the capital for very long. A man having another man as a lover was one thing, but Emmie was still the daughter of a bound and he doubted the people he’d just met would accept that.

Once Glen showed up, they would have to leave the city or risk the truth being discovered. Even though both he and Emmie liked the Koneko, they couldn’t stay for very long. That fact was painful to realize, as was the one that they might never find another place where they would both be welcomed. But as much as that thought pained him, at least Emmie would be out of danger if they left.

*******

Omi stifled yet another yawn as he worked on searching through Botan’s books for a description that matched the silver and garnet charm before him. Usually helping to identify the objects they’d brought back from Timbergrey was pretty exciting, but he was rather tired today.

Botan seemed to notice his exhaustion. "Is my company that boring?" he asked as he set a mug of coffee in front of Omi.

Shaking his head, Omi smiled and picked up the cup. "I’m sorry; I didn’t get much sleep last night." His smile grew as he thought about why that was so.

As if he were a soul gaki-bound, Botan laughed out loud and seemed to read his thoughts. "So, I take it that you’ve had some luck with the hikyaku sphere at last?" When Omi blushed at the question, he laughed some more and sat down at the large table covered with many books. "So, how was it?" he asked, a merry twinkle in his dark eyes.

"Well…." Omi shook his head again and had a sip of coffee while he tried to organize his tired thoughts. "Nagi hasn’t had much time to practice with the sphere, but we were able to talk last night." A pleased smile spread across his face. After months of exchanging the occasional letter, he’d finally be able to ‘talk’ to and ‘see’ his lover. "I think we both need to work on some concentration exercises as things could have been… more ‘solid’, but we could hear each other." From the records about the spheres he’d found, they should be able to create their own world whenever they used the magical objects. They should be able to touch each other, to feel as well as see and hear. As wonderful as it had been to see Nagi, it had also been so very frustrating. They hadn’t been lovers for very long before Nagi had had to leave, but he missed the pleasure they had found in each other.

"But at least I know he’s doing all right." He took another sip of coffee, grateful for the warm beverage even if it was bitter from sitting in a carafe too long. "He said that the Elders have accepted him, Schuldig and Masato, and while they’re being watched, no one seems to suspect them of still being loyal to Kritiker." He didn’t like to think about what would happen if the true reason that his lover and the others were in Esset was ever discovered. "Nagi’s learning to use his power and said it’s actually kind of nice to not have to hide what he is there." No wonder some bounds had willingly left Kritiker to serve the Elders.

"What about the others?" Botan asked as he began to neatly stack some of the books.

Omi blushed again. "Ah, they’re ‘doing okay’, he said. Schuldig and Masato can’t let anyone else know that they’re mates, so that’s a bit of a problem. According to Nagi, there’s this water elemental who’s pretending to be Masato’s lover. With his power, it’s easy for him to make it seem as if Masato is marking him." He ran his hand down his throat and shivered in sympathy. While he liked it when Nagi kissed him there, he wouldn’t want to sport the bruises that Aya and Yohji did all the time.

Botan laughed at the news, the sound deep and warm. "Oh, no! Considering how jealous Yohji can be, I don’t want to know how Schuldig is reacting to that! From what Cassandra’s told me about the boy, he doesn’t like sharing what he considers ‘his’."

"Well, Nagi said Schuldig isn’t too happy about the situation, even if Masato’s not doing anything to Trowa, the water elemental. He doesn’t like the fact that Masato has to hang out with Trowa while in they’re public and is taking his frustrations out on Crawford." He tapped his finger against the half-full mug of coffee and smiled at the image in his mind of Schuldig bitching out the unflappable precog. "I guess things are pretty lively when they’re back in their quarters." Nagi had complained about how his room was right next to Masato and Schu’s, and had asked Omi to make him some silence charms.

Done stacking the books around him, Botan rested an elbow on the table and propped his chin up on his hands. "I don’t know the gentlemen very well but I can easily imagine what poor Nagi must be going through from hanging out at the Koneko these last few months." His eyes grew unfocused and a soft smile curved his lips. "Not to mention that Cass talks about Schuldig, Crawford and Jei from time to time. She really misses her son."

Omi felt sorry for the woman who had no choice but to send her only child off on such a dangerous mission. He’d only known Nagi a few months, not all his life, hadn’t raised him as Cass had done Schu. "At least she can have visions about him from time to time."

"Yes, though I think she’s fearful of seeing something heartbreaking," Botan pointed out. At Omi’s worried look, he leaned over and gave him a hug. "I’m sorry, that didn’t come out right. From everything Cass has seen, those five will play important parts in the upcoming war. Aya’s involvement in that hinders her sight of what exactly happens, but she’s convinced that everyone will be fine until then, at the least. That doesn’t mean that Schuldig and Nagi aren’t in any danger before the war, but they should be able to escape any harm." He sighed and gave Omi another hug before he pulled away and sat back in his chair. "Of course, even knowing that, Cass still worries. Schuldig can take care of himself but it would still hurt her to see him in danger and not be able to do anything."

"She must worry a lot about him," Omi agreed. He finished off his coffee and set the empty mug on the table, his right hand still curled around the warm ceramic container. Since he didn’t like to think about all the things that could go wrong for Nagi, Schu and the others, he decided to change the topic a little. "Nagi was really happy to get all the packages I sent him." He couldn’t help but smile with joy at how pleased his lover had been. "Apparently, he had to fight with Jei over the honey nougats, but I sent enough that he eventually gave Jei some just so the man would go away." That the bound had willingly eaten something bought by a wizard had surprised him, but Nagi said that Jei seemed to avoid thinking of Omi in that way. This made him feel better, as it was obvious that Jei and Nagi had become very good friends. "I wonder if I can find something like those here in the city," he mused out loud.

Botan folded his arms over his chest and seemed to think about that for a moment. "Your best bet would be to ask Yohji’s friend Lilla, since her family are beekeepers. Maybe they know how to make something like what you bought in Timbergrey, or would know someone who does. If all else fails, abuse your power and send some poor lackey to fetch more for you!" Botan winked at that bit of advice. "Just let me know beforehand so I can have that person bring back some more ribbons, too. Cassandra was very pleased with the ones I gave her. She said that she’s never seen the like of one or two of them anywhere in the city’s markets."

"I used to think that you could find anything within the city’s walls." Omi leaned back in his chair and picked up the silver charm he’d tried to identify. "Sometimes I forget that there’s a whole other world out there. Everyone acts as if the capital is the most important place on earth."

"I guess it is from a political viewpoint, at least if you’re a highborn." Botan rubbed his right hand along his closely shaved beard. "You definitely need to go outside its walls more often and see more of the world."

"I’d like that," Omi replied in a soft voice. He wanted nothing more than to be able to travel with Nagi, to visit other countries and learn new things. There was little hope of that happening before the upcoming war with Esset, but he thought there might be a chance afterward, if he and Nagi survived. "If Manx has a child, my father should be able to let me travel for a year or two." Then he wouldn’t be the only heir to the throne.

Botan gave him a kind look and reached over to tousle his hair. "If you asked him, I’m sure he’d let you go. Right now isn’t a good time, but in a few years…."

After the war, of course. That didn’t need to be said, not when it was all Omi could think about some days. Even though they weren’t ready for it yet, he wished it would start soon, so that the wait would be over. He had no chance of spending his days with Nagi, of being able to do whatever he liked until the war was fought and won. If Kritiker lost… he didn’t want to dwell on that. Most likely there would be nothing for him and his lover at that point but death.

The only thing to do to prevent that fate from happening was to learn all he could before the war started, to become as powerful a wizard as he could manage. Any chance of future happiness relied upon Kritiker’s victory. "How much longer are we going to spend researching Reiji’s belongings?" he asked in a sudden change of topic. "I thought you were going to have some of your apprentices take care of this."

Botan blinked for a few moments, appeared as if he’d been shaken out of his train of thought. "Ah, yes, these things." He held his hand out for Omi to place the charm on it, then held it up to the light. "There are a few things I don’t trust them with, not after what happened at the wedding. We should be done in another week or two, and then we can resume your lessons." He gave Omi a searching look before he placed the charm onto the table. "I know this must seem very boring to you, but learning how to identify and research such things is very important. Not only will you be able to identify charms your enemy might use against you, but you’re learning something during the work. While you’re a very bright young man and show amazing aptitude when it comes to casting spells, not every lesson is going to be exciting or flashy."

Omi felt duly chastened by the lecture. "I know, Botan, and I’m sorry. I just…." He shrugged his shoulders as he tried to think of the right words. "I want to learn as much as I can to help Nagi and the others. I know I need to learn the basics first, but it’s still frustrating at times."

"I understand, Omi." Botan sighed as he rose from the chair. "There’s so much I want to teach you before that happens, but if you don’t know the basics, you’ll be a danger to the people you’re trying to protect. It doesn’t seem like it a lot of time, but Cass says we have at least two more years before the war starts. Trust me when I tell you that I can teach you an awful lot before then. Also trust me when I say that you aren’t wasting your time by researching these things." He went over to one of the room’s many cupboards and opened it. Searching for a few seconds, he pulled out a tray of charms similar to the one that Omi had just held.

"These are some of the ones I’ve already identified," he explained as he set the tray on the table. He lightly touched his index finger to a charm made of a milky white stone surrounded by tarnished silver. "This will allow anyone with some magical talent, no matter how little, to create bombs like Naru’s." Next was red jasper carved into the shape of a large cat. "This will enhance a person’s senses, not to mention their physical speed and agility. Imagine a spy putting it to use, or a sentry." He touched a flat black stone with brownish spots. "This one works on the principle of sympathetic magic. You can use it to literally boil a person’s blood if you have something of theirs in your possession. Do I need to continue?" he asked Omi with a sobering look.

"No." Omi felt slightly ashamed. "I guess I never thought about using the things we found at Timbergrey as weapons." He really should have, too, after learning to use the hikyaku spheres over the last few weeks. His uncle and cousins had hoarded so many magical items, it was only sense to think that a good bit of those objects could be put to a good use.

Botan snorted once while he returned the tray to its cabinet. "Now do you see why I don’t want just anyone handling what we brought back?" He carefully locked the cabinet’s doors. "When compared to what a bound can do, the charms might not seem very impressive, but our Army will be largely human. Once we identify everything Reiji collected over the years, we can find ways of reproducing the charms so our Army is properly equipped. Maybe we won’t have as many bounds fighting for us as Esset will, but this will help to even the odds.

"By the time the war starts, you’ll be an expert on creating charms if I have any say in the matter." Botan returned to the table but didn’t sit down. "Not only will you be able to recreate an existing one, but to create new ones whenever inspiration strikes. And once you master charms, you’ll have an easier time casting spells as the principle is basically the same. The only thing lacking between many battle spells and charms is a solid focus for the magic."

Omi was silent for a minute or two as his instructor looked down at him. "Have I mentioned lately that I didn’t get much sleep last night?" he asked as he tried out his best hangdog expression. "I swear, I’m not usually this stupid."

He must have been more successful than he hoped as Botan laughed and once more tousled his hair. "Yes, you have and no you aren’t. I’m not blaming you for being bored or asking questions, Omi, but have some faith in me that I’m not just treating you as slave labor." Botan sat down and tapped his right hand on the stack of books. "You’re not exactly getting traditional training here as I’m trying to teach you as much as I can before the war. Also, I doubt you’ll ever have the three or four decades that most wizards take to reach a high level of knowledge, not with you being the heir to the throne. I promise, however, that you’ll know just as much if not more than most wizards, and you’ll be a force to reckon with by the time I’m done."

"Thank you, Botan," was Omi’s earnest reply. He hadn’t really stopped to think about what Botan was teaching him, caught up as he was in the excitement of learning magic. "I’ll try not to complain so much," he said with a teasing smile.

Botan’s snort was a rather eloquent response to that bit of nonsense. "I won’t hold my breath, not as long as you’re a teenager. I expect you to complain on a daily basis!" But his smile showed that he wasn’t really bothered by the prospect of complaints. "However, if you’re good tomorrow and identify a few more charms, I’ll let you help me decide which ones we should create for Reiichi. He wants something that will give him some sort of advantage when dealing with bounds or magic."

"I know he felt pretty useless back in Timbergrey." Omi’s thoughts drifted to what he could create for the man. "He’ll need something both offensive and defensive in nature."

Botan’s knuckles rapped the side of his head. "Think about it tomorrow. Right now, I believe you could use some rest and maybe a bite to eat. You might not think so, but I’m willing to bet that using the sphere last night drained you more than you realize."

That would explain why Omi felt so tired today, but it was still worth being this exhausted to have had a chance to talk to Nagi. "Thank you, Botan." Recognizing a reprieve when he was given one, he closed the books in front of him and stood up. "I think I’ll take a nap before dinner." Then spend the night reading his charm books to try and figure something out for Reiichi. He could always stop by the Koneko tomorrow and let Aya know that Nagi was doing fine.

*******

"Brother, I don’t think this is a very good idea. Why don’t you let me talk to Masuda?"

Ed ignored his younger brother as he shoved the door open to Masuda’s bookstore. Al had no reason to be so worried, all he was here for was to find out if Masuda really did have Zhaoxing’s treatise on the Binding War. He couldn’t believe that such a rare book had been found in the capital, not after he’d spent the last three years searching for it.

"Brother-"

"Al, I know what I’m doing," he muttered as he stalked over to the store’s owner.

"Hello, Edward, Alphonse," the middle-aged man greeted them, his hands busy wrapping a book for a customer. The elderly woman spared them a puzzled frown before she thanked Masuda for the package and quickly left the store.

Not in the mood for pleasantries when Masuda had something he desperately needed, Ed slapped his gloved hands onto the now bare countertop. "Where is Zhaoxing’s book?"

Masuda blinked in surprise while Al heaved a heartfelt sigh. "Do you mean his treatise on the role of magic during the Binding War?" Masuda pushed his glasses up his nose. "News spreads fast, doesn’t it?"

"So you do have it, right?" Excitement filled Ed, made the fine hair on the back of his neck stand up. "What do you want for it? Thirty gold coins?" Masuda blinked again at the large offer. His daughter, busy off to the side wrapping some books, gasped out loud while the bookseller slowly folded his arms over his chest and stared at Ed.

"That’s an incredibly rare book, Edward. This is the first time a volume has been available in over twenty years."

He could feel his brother’s disapproval but he didn’t let it bother him. "Okay, whatever anyone offers you for the book, I’ll pay half again." He refused to think about how rare the book was and how rich and determined some of the city’s book collectors were. Masuda knew by now that he was good for the money and never questioned where he, an orphan raised by an Army officer, got it.

"I know of four other people who have searched for that book a lot longer than you’ve been alive, Edward. So, to be fair to everyone, it’s going up for auction." Masuda adjusted his glasses and gave Ed a kind smile. "I’m sorry, but the book is already at the Thurston Auction House. If you’re willing to spend that much money on it, I doubt you’ll have too much trouble." He reached below the counter and pulled out a folded sheet of paper that he slid across the counter. "Here’s a list of everything I’m putting up for auction. I know you’re interested in several of these books, and I planned to inform you of the auction the next time you stopped by." Masuda chuckled when the paper was snatched from the countertop. "I should’ve known that word would reach you before then. I understand that your supervisor is also interested in the auction?"

Yes, and the woman never intended for Ed to find out about the sale, either. Only the fact that the head librarian Torii thought that she was safely out of his hearing range when she’d mentioned the book to another librarian was the reason that he was here now. He must have missed the bit about the auction, dammit.

He’d known Masuda for over three years and didn’t waste any more of his breath trying to bargain for the book. If the bookseller said it was up for auction, then that was that. Masuda couldn’t afford to play favorites with his customers, and the books Ed needed so badly were usually sought after by many people. So few books on the Binding War had survived all these centuries, especially the ones written before people had become biased toward bounds.

So, list in hand, there was nothing left for Ed to do but bow to the bookseller. "All right, thank you for thinking about me." He laughed sheepishly as he scratched his head. "I didn’t know about the auction, just that you had the book. I’m sorry."

"I understand, Edward. I wish I could sell the book directly to you." Masuda bowed in return and rested his hands on the counter. "The texts on Esset that you’ve been waiting for should arrive next week. I hope to see you then." He glanced at Al. "I’m sorry to say that I still haven’t found Nagamura’s study of human anatomy just yet, Alphonse."

Al spoke up for the first time in minutes, his voice soft. "Thank you, Masuda. I’m sorry to put you through so much trouble."

"No, no, I enjoy the thrill of the hunt!" Masuda smiled, looking so much like an excited owl just then that Ed expected him to sprout wings and take off in flight at any moment. "A good day to you both."

Recognizing a hint when he heard one, Ed slightly bowed again and let Al drag him out of the bookstore. Dejected at being unable to buy the book outright, his mind whirled through possible ways for him to win it at the auction. He wouldn’t be able to bid on the book himself, not when he was so young. Also, considering how high the bidding was bound to go, he’d need a lot of gold, something that would attract unwelcome attention if it were traced back to him.

"You’re busy plotting, aren’t you?" Al asked when they were a safe distance from the store. "You only get quiet like this when you’re up to something. And what were you thinking, barging in there and shouting out huge sums of money like that? What if someone overheard you say thirty gold coins?" His voice broke on the last few words. "They’d want to know where someone as young as you could get that much money."

Shrugging himself free from his brother’s grip on his coat, Ed brushed himself off and then thrust his hands into the coat’s pockets. "The only customer was the old woman, and I didn’t say anything until she took off." He glared at his brother. "And don’t go talking about me as if I was Roy! I’m not plotting anything bad, just trying to figure a few things out! You make it sound like I’m a manipulative, conniving bastard just like him," he grumbled, more than a little stung by the imagined comparison.

Pushing back his thick, dark blond bangs, Al looked up to the heavens for a moment and sighed like an old, weary man. "You know, you two are definitive proof of reincarnation and karma." At Ed’s puzzled frown, he smiled as he strolled down the crowded street, past various book and stationary stores. "I had to do something bad to be stuck with you two, and since it certainly didn’t happen in this life, it *had* to happen in a past one!"

"Great, Al, hit a guy when he’s down. First you make me out to be just like Roy, and now you act as if being my brother is some form of punishment from the gods." This wasn’t turning out to be his day.

Al’s expression instantly turned apologetic. "I’m sorry, Brother, I was just teasing." He wrapped a long, lean arm around Ed’s shoulders. "I’m really sorry."

He could never remain upset with Al for very long, and normally he’d just tease right back, not let it affect him like this. "It’s all right, Al." He hugged his brother back, and the two of them continued on their way home, their arms around each other’s shoulders. "I’m sorry for snapping at you like that. I’m pissed off about thinking how much those books are going to cost now since they’re going up for auction." Pulling the list out of his pocket, he held it up so his brother could read. "Zhaoxing’s Treatise, Turner’s ‘History of Unnatural Magic’, Le Fey’s ‘Shadow Victory’…." He sighed as he read down the list. "I’d give my right arm for these books."

"And so would about half a dozen other people that I can easily name." Al sighed in commiseration and took the list from him. "These are very rare history texts, even the ones not dealing with the Binding War. I wonder who sold them to Masuda? We know of all the important collections within a hundred kilometer radius of the city, and haven’t heard one word about any being sold."

That was what Ed had focused on, once he’d read the list. "I know. Somehow, we must’ve missed someone, or maybe some lucky person discovered the books after a death in the family." For a moment he thought about Reiji Takatori. He knew several people who were waiting with baited breath to see if any of the exiled Prince’s books were offered on the market. Rumor had it that the King had sent some Guards to catalog the Prince’s belongings just a few weeks ago. Hughes was almost positive that there was truth behind that rumor.

Al seemed to be reading his thoughts. "Some of these books… some are just old and could be found in a collection passed down through the generations, but some of these other books… they were rare when they were printed, and could only be afforded by a highborn or someone truly wealthy."

"I haven’t heard of any highborn families down on their luck, lately – not that they would sell the books to someone like Masuda in the first place." Ed chewed on his bottom lip as he thought about the matter. "According to Masuda’s notes, not all of the books are in perfect condition, either. It almost seems as if it’s two collections, not one. More common, less looked after books and well preserved, limited editions."

"Very odd." Al handed the list back to him. "You’re going to need a lot of gold to get the ones you want." There was a hint of reproach in his voice.

"I’ll be careful, Al." He had to be, because if Roy ever found out that he was transmuting lead into gold…. He winced as he thought about how well that ‘discussion’ would go. Roy would give him hell for risking himself like this, but he had no choice. They needed the books to find out all they could about Esset’s Elders, to find the bastards’ weaknesses. He’d chance someone finding out he could create gold to get his hands on that information. If he were careful enough, things should be fine. After all, he’d been doing it for the past three years. Masuda and the other book vendors just assumed that he had a trust fund of sorts, a misconception that he and Al had carefully cultivated. "Things will be fine, you’ll see."

The look his beloved brother gave him wasn’t very reassured. "Famous last words, brother. I just hope that Roy’s too mad at you to care about me." Al hunched his shoulders, the hood of his thick green coat riding up and making him look like a pensive turtle.

"Great show of faith there, Al." Ed glared at his brother but kept his arm around Al’s hunched shoulders. They continued on their way home in silence.

*******

Ken knelt, his left hand rested on the polished wood floor as he bent forward and breathed in deeply. There were so many scents in the room, many were old but several were new. Mostly he smelled the young girl who had vanished from the room just last night, smelled her and her family. He followed the freshest scent over to the window. "Dammit, I can’t pick up much of anything, other than that she left this way," he growled in frustration as he carefully opened the window.

Yuushi appeared just as frustrated as he joined Ken at the window, gloved hands lightly skimmed along the ledge and found a few threads of pale pink cotton. "Yet another dead end." He sighed in annoyance as he leaned against the wall. "Nothing to indicate that she was forcibly taken through the window?"

Ken took a few more deep breaths before he shook his head. "Too much traffic has gone past it this morning for me to tell. Nothing on the window itself, but that just means whoever took her didn’t touch it." He could easily imagine the young girl hearing a noise in the middle of the night and getting up to investigate. Once she opened the window to look about, it would be pretty easy to grab her and pull her out. "I smell a little fear, but not much."

Miko, busy searching the room for any clues that others might have missed, joined the discussion. "I hate to say it, Yuushi, but there has to be magic involved in these kidnappings. Some of the Guard’s best have been through this room and couldn’t find anything to indicate why the girl vanished." She carefully set aside the stuffed rabbit in her hands and headed toward them. "Most likely they charmed her to the window and then charmed her silent or asleep when they pulled her through it."

Yuushi didn’t seem happy to hear that, but he nodded anyway. "I wanted to rule out everything else before I contacted Botan for help." He slid the cotton fibers into a paper envelope and tucked it into a pouch on his belt. "They’ve definitely refined their technique," he said in disgust.

Ken felt a growl build in his throat as he thought about the sick bastards doing the kidnapping. He was certain that all three of them were aware of how expensive the charms that had most likely lured nine year old Nadia to the window last night could be. There was now evidence that the charms had only been used in two out of the last three abductions. The bastards could probably afford the money for the charms by having sold some of the children they kidnapped earlier. "Okay, I’ll come out and say it – if we’re dealing with magic, we also need Aya’s help."

Taking off the gloves and running the fingers of his right hand through his hair, Yuushi nodded. "I planned to talk to Birman and Botan this evening, and will ask him and Yohji to help us out the next time I see them." His expression grew wearied as he looked around Nadia’s room which appeared disheveled because of numerous Guards searching through it, but was otherwise clean. Most of the stuffed animals were placed on the shelves above the bed, and an elaborate dollhouse filled one corner of the room, the family of porcelain dolls gathered around a tea set in the kitchen. "Maybe Botan can find something we missed."

Ken doubted that but didn’t say anything out loud. After all, the wizard hadn’t found anything yet. "What about Yonekuni, sir?" he asked, mentioning one of the Shadow Guard’s soul-gaki bound recruits. He hadn’t seen the man or his partner, John, when he arrived, but then again, he’d been rather intent on searching the missing girl’s room for any clues.

"He thinks he recognizes two men from the parents’ memories who were also customers at the Davidson’s store." Yuushi tapped something on his copper bracelet and waited for a reply. "He’s currently working with Maria to provide some sketches for us." Looking up at Ken, he shook his head slowly. "They were here two days ago, so I doubt there will be any scent left for you to find."

Considering that Nadia’s parents owned a popular business selling pottery, he doubted it as well. "I’ll check, just to be on the safe side." If, by some chance the abductors were bounds, he could probably pick up some sort of scent. However, that was highly unlikely, as someone else would have noticed that by now, not to mention that no sane bound would attract attention to themselves by kidnapping children. No, this time the monsters were human.

"Hopefully, Yonekuni found a good lead," Miko said in a quiet voice. "Having an idea what some of them look like is the best lead we’ve come across yet."

"At least we’ll know who to search for," Yuushi agreed. "They’re starting to be rather daring with the abductions now, so we can only hope that they’ll slip up soon."

"Yeah, and I can’t help but wonder if the sudden rush is because of some caravans due to arrive." Ken fought to keep his claws sheathed while he thought about children being smuggled out of the capital so they could be sold elsewhere. If they were lucky to still be alive, that was. With Nadia’s abduction last night, all the Guards were waiting to see if another dead body would turn up. For some reason, not all the victims were being kept alive as it seemed that a kidnapped child was found dead not long after another one was taken. That would most likely be when they needed Aya.

Miko’s worried voice cut through his dark thoughts. "They’re clearly feeling some sort of pressure. Word’s spread that children are being snatched so it’s not as easy for them to find victims out on the streets. Who would’ve thought that they’d resort to taking a child from her own bedroom?"

"That’s what worries me." Yuushi reached out to gently squeeze Miko’s shoulder in comfort. "But the child before this was abducted from the streets, so there’s still some hope that they’ll take the bait that Naru and Elise are waving in front of their faces."

Ken grunted at the thought of the bastards trying to kidnap Naru, who had at least ten very potent magical stones hidden in the revealing outfit he wore as a child prostitute, or Elise, an air elemental bound who had stopped aging prematurely. He’d heard her describe how she could very easily use her talent to fill the suspects’ bodies with air until their joints popped and they screamed in agony but were still left alive for a soul gaki-bound to read their thoughts. "Considering how most parents will probably have their kids sleep with them from now on, the bastards’ only hope might be targets like Naru and Elise."

"So I hope." Yuushi tugged his jacket straight and gave Ken and Miko a wan smile. "After I talk to Nadia’s parents, I need to make a report to Kikyou, then try to catch Birman and Botan. I hope to see you two later tonight." He nodded goodbye and left.

Miko gave the room one last glance then nudged her shoulder into Ken’s arm. "We should get going as well."

"Yeah. Let’s check the shop first." They went down the quiet house’s hallways until they reached the door dividing the living quarters from the family’s business. But try as he might, he couldn’t make out any individual scents other than Nadia’s family and his fellow Guards. The abductors were definitely human.

Miko’s frown grew when he shook his head, and they backtracked through the house to leave. As they approached the back door, he could hear Yuushi talking to Nadia’s parents, thanking the sobbing couple for allowing the Guards to search the house. Not wanting to witness the poor people’s grief, he quietly crept past the kitchen and went out the back door with Miko on his heels. "Dammit, I wish I could have found *something*," he muttered once they were outside.

Easily matching his pace, Miko walked beside them as they left the small shopping district and headed for the palace. "You did, Ken. The fact that you could barely smell the girl’s fear and didn’t find any type of drugs means that the abductors had to have been using magic. I mean, we suspected that after Rory Davidson was taken, but this pretty much confirms our suspicions. Between knowing that and Yonekuni’s descriptions, we can try and track them down by visiting every charm shop in the city."

The fact that charms didn’t seem to have been used during the first few abductions gave him hope that they had been purchased recently, not made by a wizard hired by the group, but he didn’t want to point out that there were an awful lot of charm shops in the capital. "Maybe Botan will give us a few leads on where to start." While the Guard were paid decent money, he never really made enough to go shopping for many charmed items. Where to begin such a search was completely beyond his knowledge.

"Do you think that Yohji and Aya will mind helping us out?" Miko asked as they stepped around a cart filled with chrysanthemums.

He didn’t need to give the question much thought. "Nah. If anything, Yohji will be pissed off that we didn’t ask for their help earlier." His ex-partner had a soft spot for cases involving women or kids, more than likely because of the Koneko’s habit of taking strays in. "Let’s just hope we don’t need Aya’s special skills."

Miko grimaced and nervously tucked a strand of hair back that the wind had blown across her face. "There hasn’t been a body in over four days."

"I know." He had the sobering thought that there had been two kidnappings during that time. The odds were against them finding all of the kids alive and that galled him. "Dammit, I hope they try taking Naru tonight and end up having their balls blown off." And once Birman and Yuushi got all the information they needed, Ken and a few other Guards wanted some time with the pricks who thought kids were expendable merchandise. No one was going to object to them not showing up to receive their sentences from some Judge, not if the Guards cited sufficient evidence. Child-killers never received much mercy.

*******

Yohji couldn’t help it; whenever he was out with Aya by his side he just *had* to smile. Even if he was worried about it being too bright or the streets too crowded, he enjoyed this time with his mate and the fact that the rest of the world could see that Aya was with him. Plus there was the pleasure of having Aya right beside him, there to talk to and to touch. Even though they both worked at the Koneko and for Birman, they didn’t always have a chance to work together, so time spent in each other’s company was relatively rare.

Clouds mostly obscured the afternoon sun today but Aya still wore his black cloak, the hood pushed back enough to reveal his face. Thanks to the cool weather, a lot of people were dressed in cloaks so Aya didn’t stand out as much as usual. Yohji had a feeling that last week’s hot weather had probably been summer’s last ‘hurrah’, and that autumn was definitely setting in early. He was unsure if that was good or bad – if it meant that the elemental bounds in Kritiker had managed to set the damage that Esset’s bounds had done right, or a sign that the weather was going to be messed up for some time to come.

"What do you know about influencing the weather?" he asked Aya as they walked down the cobble-stoned alley that led to Cassandra’s house.

Aya glanced at him before he seemed to give the matter serious thought. "Precious little, I’m afraid. I’ve read texts about how it was used in the War, and there have been instances where villages sought bounds out in cases of weather detrimental to crops. There were a few that actually protected some bounds so they always had good weather and lots of rain during the spring and summer, and cases where bounds were killed because it was believed that they’d caused droughts or flooding."

Why didn’t the latter surprise him, Yohji thought to himself. Humans seemed to delight in blaming any of their problems on bounds, but he was heartened to hear that some had fought against the prejudice. Of course, they had mainly done it to ensure their own crops, but still…. "So you don’t know much about how one goes about controlling it, na?" He made sure to pitch his voice low enough that only his mate could hear him.

"I’m afraid not," Aya said as he shook his head, crimson hair fanning out and sparkling in the weak sunlight. "I never thought it possible for me to influence the weather so I focused on other things."

That made sense. Aya seemed knowledgeable about so many topics that Yohji tended to forget that his lover didn’t know everything. There was a flash of anger when he thought that if Aya had remained under Takatori control he would have spent centuries studying until he did know almost everything, yet would have never had the chance to experience anything but pain and shame. There was only so much that books could teach a person, and life was a wonderful educator. Yohji enjoyed the times when he could take his mate out and introduce him to things he’d been kept from the last ten years or so.

At Aya’s curious look, he smiled and reached out to gently caress his lover’s cheek. "I was just thinking about the weather and how screwy it’s been lately. Thought you might know something about it, but it’s not important," he explained, answering Aya’s unspoken question.

"Ah." Aya stepped closer to him, until their shoulders brushed together as they walked. "I’m happy that summer’s almost over. Cooler days and longer nights are good." He gave Yohji such a warm, heartbreakingly lovely smile just then that Yohji missed a step and stumbled. "Are you all right?" Aya asked as he grabbed Yohji’s elbow.

"I’m fine, Cat, other than the fact that I can’t seem to think and walk at the same time. No blond jokes, okay?" There was another lovely smile from his mate, but Yohji didn’t let it affect him as much this time. "So you like autumn and winter, do you? I figured spring and summer would be your favorite seasons since you like plants so much."

Aya shrugged. "Some plants still grow and bloom in the autumn, and I love the sight of trees when their leaves change color. Everything is so brilliant, so crisp for a few weeks, and then it turns white and crystalline. You see things stripped down, see what’s hidden for most of the year, and there’s a beauty in that." A rueful smile crossed his face as he tucked his bangs back. "That and the days are short. I don’t have to worry so much about being outside in the sun."

"Why am I not surprised by that, Cat?" Yohji laughed as they approached the back door of Cassandra’s house. "There’s something to be said for long, cold nights. They just cry out for snuggling in front of a fire with a loved one by your side and a pot of hot chocolate or mulled wine nearby." He gave his mate a wink right before he knocked on Cassandra’s door.

She appeared after two knocks, slightly out of breath and face covered with flour. "Come in, come in, but wipe your boots! I cleaned the floor today." Once they were inside, she hurried over to the counter where she seemed to be in the middle of coating several pieces of fish.

"Is this a bad time, Cass?" Yohji asked, even as Aya sat down at the table. He noticed that there were three cups of tea sitting there, steam rising into the air and assumed that Cass must have somehow ‘seen’ their arrival.

"Feh, it’s not the best time nor the worst, and it’s not your fault. Sit down, I just need to bread these." She waved an uncoated fish in the direction of the table. "A fitting took longer than I expected so I’m a little behind on preparing dinner." Busy once more breading the fish, she glanced over her shoulder and smiled. "Please don’t think me rude for not inviting you to stay, but I know it’s a waste of breath to do so."

"Yeah, we just stopped by for a quick chat on our way to dinner." Yohji sniffed the fragrant steam rising from the tea and smiled. Ah, chamomile and hibiscus with a bit of mint - something nice and refreshing, and one of Cassandra’s best blends. "We won’t interrupt your dinner with Botan."

"I should hope not, especially since it seems that you’ve spent more time with him these last few weeks than I have." She frowned at the fish she was coating and set it aside. "Everyone’s so busy, lately."

"That’s life for you," Yohji commented as he sipped his tea. "Things should get even busier now that it’s caravan season and the holidays aren’t too far off."

"Did you come here to cheer me up, Yotan? If so, I’m not impressed. Hmph."

He exchanged a smile with Aya over how grumpy Cassandra sounded. He was pretty sure that Botan wouldn’t remain this busy forever, not once he finished going through the things they brought back from Timbergrey. The wizard had even talked about how he looked forward to the approaching holidays and having someone to celebrate them with him for the first time in years. But Cassandra was the type of person who liked to complain a bit, to vent her frustrations and then move on. If he knew her half as well as he thought, she’d be all smiles for Botan when he arrived for dinner, completely over this bout of grumpiness. She never stayed in a bad mood for long.

"We have plans of our own tonight, but thought we’d stop by since we haven’t seen you for a few days," Aya explained, his hands wrapped around his mug.

"Bah, busy, busy, I said. Suddenly everyone wants their winter clothes made *now*". Cassandra glared out the window and wrinkled her nose in disgust. "The caravans better arrive soon, as I’m running out of fabric." She breaded the last piece of fish and set it aside, then washed her hands. Once this was done, she turned to face them with a bright smile on her face. "But I do enjoy the work, and the money is good. A wise bound knows to save for the future since it might be a long one."

Yohji stood up so he could pull Cassandra’s chair out for her to sit down. "Come on, Gorgeous, you’re dating the Royal Wizard. Make him set up a huge trust fund for you and quit working."

She laughed at that bit of nonsense and smacked him lightly on his arm. "Foolish, Yotan, I don’t need to depend on a man. Besides, I said I like the work, finicky customers aside." She picked up her cup of tea and took a long sip. "Now, you have dinner plans and I’ve a wizard to feed, so let’s talk about serious matters." Her smile faded a little, the light in her eyes grew more compassionate. "The Koneko has two new strays, or so I’ve heard."

That was pretty much cutting to the quick of things. "Well, that was one of the reasons we came here," Yohji acknowledged as he pushed his empty mug aside. "What can you tell us about them, Cass?"

Her expression grew distant as she stared down at the table. "I’m afraid Aya’s involvement clouds things somewhat, but I’ve seen a few things." She sighed as she looked up at them. "Some things are still uncertain, but the Koneko’s heart may well grow by two if the children have the sense to recognize what they’ve found."

He took that as meaning that the kids might become permanent residents, which wasn’t a bad thing. Emmie and Maddox were good kids, and the Koneko needed some more people now, not just workers but some people they could trust. The inn really could use more staff to help with all the new strays who showed up on their doorstep with increasing frequency these days.

Aya beat him to the most important question they came to ask. "The girl… Emmie… we’re told that her mother is a bound. Is she one as well?" Aya’s face was carefully blank, but Yohji felt a spark of pain from his mate.

"No." Cassandra didn’t hesitate a moment to answer. "No, she took after her father’s blood."

Yohji felt sorry for the girl upon hearing the news. He was well aware of the prejudice that bounds faced, of the danger. Finding out that he was one and the bond he shared with Aya, the abilities that made his life more interesting and complex eclipsed that danger. While a part of him was afraid of the prospect of living for centuries, the rest of him was thrilled by it, knowing that he had a long time to enjoy his life with Aya, to learn and experience new things if the fates allowed.

Yet those things would not be available to Emmie, even though she’d be treated much like a bound if anyone found out about her mother. She might not be captured and have her blood drained for spells, but many people would kill her to prevent her from bearing a bound child. Most people would treat her as an outcast, would refuse to allow her to marry into their family. She would have a short, unpleasant life if the truth were discovered.

"The poor kid," he said out loud, his voice thick with sorrow. Both Aya and Cassandra seemed to agree with him, their expressions sad. For a moment he was struck with the fact that most people - *human* people - would be appalled that they felt remorse over the fact that a young girl wasn’t a bound. He had to wonder if there would ever be any hope of his kind living alongside humans without fear of being killed or used.

"Being a bound is not easy; very few are born who won’t know pain and sorrow, but even fewer would wish to have been born as something different." Cassandra, her motions slow and expression thoughtful, rose from the table to fetch some more tea. "Our powers, our demon souls make us so much more than any human can comprehend. There are things that we will experience that they cannot ever imagine. The blessing of a long life is that there will eventually be enough joy to balance the sorrow if we’re allowed to live out our life span."

"For some of us," Aya said, his voice tight with pain and loss.

Cassandra poured more tea into his mug and then stroked her hand through his hair in a soothing gesture. "You’re still so young, Aya. Would you sacrifice what you have now and what you will have in the future to avoid the pain of your past?"

Aya glanced quickly at Yohji and then stared down at the table. "I just wish that others hadn’t suffered for my sake."

"That is not your fault." Cassandra stroked his bright hair one more time and moved to fill Yohji’s mug. "Despite what you may think, you were not responsible for their fates."

Aya appeared as if he wanted to argue, but after a moment just sighed and sipped his tea. Yohji leaned over to touch his mate, to caress his cheek and give him a smile. Aya wasn’t the type to let go of his pain and guilt that easily, but he hoped that one day his lover would realize that all the blame for what happened rested solely upon Reiji Takatori.

"So she’s not a bound, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t in danger," Yohji said to return the topic back to its original subject. "She needs the Koneko’s protection. I know she and Maddox are waiting for their uncle to arrive; have you seen anything about that, Cass?"

She gave him a light tap to the back of his head. "I don’t the time or the energy to see everything, Yotan. All I know is that she is human, and that the best possibility for her future lies in her staying at the Koneko." She sat down in her chair, her hands folded in front of her on the table. "I think the Koneko’s god has drawn her there, her and her cousin."

He could easily believe it. Whoever the old deity was who had once been worshipped on the Koneko’s grounds centuries before, still seemed to have an active part in the inn and its staff’s lives. Somehow, he didn’t think it was a stroke of luck that Aya, a kage, had come to the Koneko and found his mate. "They’re more than welcome to stay, as long as they can honor the Koneko’s creed of accepting all that need help, be they human and bound."

"I wonder how they’d react if they knew that several bounds lived there," Aya said, voice curious and lacking the pain from earlier. "She might hate our kind because of the prejudice she faced over her mother."

"I don’t know, she seems like a sweet kid." Yohji hoped that she wouldn’t be as prejudiced about bounds as most humans were. She was young enough that she could learn to ignore the hate that she’d probably been taught to feel in regards to bounds. As much as he liked the girl, and Maddox too, if she couldn’t overcome such prejudices, then she had no place at the Koneko. He wouldn’t allow there to be any danger to Aya, Ken and the other bounds who came to the Koneko.

Cassandra patted his hand and gave him a reassuring smile. "There is no sense in worrying about what will be when we still have to face the now. If she’s meant to be at the Koneko, then it will happen."

"Says the woman who can see the future," he teased, but he leaned over to give her a hug in thanks. Looking over at Aya, he found an amused expression on his mate’s handsome face. "I think she just likes knowing more than the rest of us."

"More than likely, but don’t try to tell me you wouldn’t be the same way if you were a soul gaki-bound and not a succubae-bound." A slight smile curved Aya’s lips. "I imagine you’d be rather infuriating."

"Instead of the incredible sex god I am now, you mean?" He couldn’t help but grin at the way Aya rolled his eyes in response. "The gods knew what they were doing when they made me a succubae-bound. I mean, think of how much better your life is now that I’m in it, you lucky thing."

The sigh from Aya just then was one of long-suffering. "You do enjoy your delusions, don’t you, Yotan."

Cassandra laughed out loud while he stuck his tongue out at his ungrateful lover. "I also believe the gods knew what they were doing with you, Yotan. But I think you need to convince your mate of that." She gave him a wicked smile. "Now take him home and prove to him how lucky he is to have found you and leave me to make dinner in peace. I hope to stop by the Koneko in another day or two, and we can talk more then."

"Ah, in other words you don’t want Botan to come while we’re here and make him jealous over the fact that you’re entertaining the city’s two most handsome men." He winked as he rose from the chair. "I think that’s our cue to leave, Cat. Let’s go have some dinner."

"Don’t forget that I need to stop at the Royal Library first," Aya said as he joined Yohji by the door.

"How could I possibly forget something so important?" he teased, and barely avoided Aya’s elbow being knocked into his stomach. "Ah, right, Library then dinner. I think you need to get something to eat, Cat. Clearly hunger is making you a bit grumpy."

The sound of disgust from his mate was rather amusing, as was Cassandra desperately trying to stifle her giggles. He couldn’t help but laugh himself as he waved goodbye to her and then ushered Aya out the door.

*******

Ed cursed under his breath and looked around once more. If that idiot Havoc didn’t show up soon, he’d have to try this another time. Roy would be suspicious if he was gone for too long – it wasn’t that far of a walk to go fetch a bottle of wine for dinner, after all. He’d give Havoc five more minutes and then he’d have to go.

Two minutes later, the succubae-bound sauntered toward him, cigarette dangling from his lips and hands tucked into the pockets of his long, tailored coat. "Hey, Boss, funny running into you out here." He looked about, mouth tugging down into a frown. "Ah, where’s Al or the Lieutenant Colonel?"

"Al’s cooking dinner, and I don’t know where Roy is." Ed shrugged his shoulders then grabbed Havoc’s arm, making him jump at the contact. "I imagine he’s home by now, so I need to fetch something for him to drink and get back there myself." Part of him clamored to return home right *now*, to be where his mate was after a day spent away from the man. He did his best to squash that need since he had to take care of this first. Besides, he wasn’t some weak-willed twit who couldn’t live without his mate constantly by his side.

"You’re alone?" Havoc tried to pull his arm free. "Do me a favor then, let go and get out of here." His left cheek twitched in a nervous tic. "The Lieutenant Colonel is already pissed at me for sleeping with Colonel Rimsky’s wife. He’ll *kill* me if he finds me with you, and we’re not talking a nice, quick death either."

Determined not to let go, Ed gave the Army Lieutenant a nasty smile. "So shut up, walk with me to the store and do what I ask and there won’t be a problem." Desperate times called for drastic measures, and he needed Havoc’s help to find some important information.

"Dammit." Havoc tried once more to pull his right arm out of Ed’s hands, in fact, he looked just about to shove him aside to get out of his grasp. But before he touched Ed, he jerked his left hand back. Seems the man realized that the more he touched Ed, the more Roy could smell his scent. "You’re an evil bastard, Boss," he sighed as he tossed his cigarette aside. "What do you want?"

As much as he didn’t want to hold on to the man forever, Ed wasn’t about to just let him go. "Swear you’ll do what I ask." When Havoc frowned, he sighed and resisted the urge to kick the idiot in the shin. "Don’t look at me like that, it’s nothing bad, I promise. You’ll even enjoy doing this for me." He gave Havoc a confident grin.

Havoc didn’t seem very convinced of his sincerity, but allowed himself to be easily pulled along. "Okay, it’s not as if I have much of a choice knowing how stubborn you can be. I swear I’ll do what you ask, but it better be fun or else."

Assured of victory, Ed released Havoc’s arm and smiled. "I swear you’ll like it." As he began to explain, he peeled off his gloves, an old pair that he felt no regret over tossing to the ground. "I need you to find out some information for me." That seemed to get Havoc’s attention and erased a bit of the man’s frown. "There’s a bookstore by the red bridge in the west paper district - the Tsunekuni Family Bookstore. I want you to… ah… go there and talk to the owner’s daughter. Just *talk*, mind you." He felt a little guilty over setting a succubae-bound onto the girl, but he couldn’t think of any other solution. Masuda would never reveal who sold him the books and he didn’t know any soul gaki-bounds he could blackmail into getting the information for him. They would tell Roy about his plans and then he’d be in trouble. Havoc, however… Havoc was always up for a bit of fun and could easily be coerced if he knew there was a chance of a meal involved. That and he seemed to like doing things behind Roy’s back – as long as there wasn’t any chance of him being caught.

"Daughter, eh?" Havoc lit another cigarette as they made their way to the nearest wine seller. "How old and how cute?"

He felt a bit dirtied by this but wasn’t about to let a little thing like a conscience keep him from getting the books he and Al needed. "She’s at least eighteen years old, dark brown hair and reasonably cute." When Havoc appeared ready to complain, he held his hand up. "Look, I’m not an expert on that type of thing." He felt his cheeks grow hot at Havoc’s knowing look and refused to hit the man over it. Right now he needed the bastard too much. "I know she’s had at least one boyfriend since he came to visit once while I was shopping." And he knew that they’d broken up since Mayumi had been crying over the boy just a couple of weeks ago. Really, he’d be doing her a favor by helping her get over the breakup, or so he tried to convince himself. "You don’t have to… you know… *feed* from her, just lay on the charm and find out something for me." Havoc wasn’t the strongest of succubae-bounds, so if Mayumi didn’t really like him, he couldn’t force the issue of sex. But he at least had enough power to charm a young woman into revealing who had sold her father the books, or so Ed hoped.

"Her father recently bought a private collection of some really rare books." He handed Havoc a copy of the list. "Ask her about a few of these and take things from there. Just… be nice to her, okay?" If he didn’t need those books so badly, he wouldn’t be doing this. He knew he’d feel guilty over the matter, but this was the only choice he had. There was a very good chance that there were more books he needed where the others had come from. Maybe he could try to buy them directly from the seller, or steal them if he had to.

Havoc pocketed the list, his smile returned brighter than before. "Find out where the books came from, I can manage that. When’s the best chance to get her alone, eh?"

"Around eleven. Her father usually meets with his brother-in-law around then and leaves her in charge of the store. She’s not always there in the afternoon, so make sure to stop by before noon." That should make it difficult for Havoc to do anything other than charm the girl; which didn’t mean that they couldn’t arrange to meet later, if Havoc’s interest was piqued, but there was nothing Ed could do about that. At least Havoc wasn’t that bad of a guy and wouldn’t hurt the girl. Most of his ‘meals’ were left tired but happy, and he rarely fed from the same ones twice. He couldn’t risk being discovered. "Just… be nice to her, okay? Don’t be a jerk or I’ll kick your ass."

"Hey, it all depends on how much energy I have to expend to get her to talk," Havoc pointed out. Knowing Mayumi and how talkative she could be, Ed didn’t think the succubae-bound would need to use much of his talent.

"Oh, and tell Breda I need him to go to an auction for me." Ed motioned to the list that Havoc had pocketed. "They go up for bid in four days, and I want as many of them as possible. Give him the list and tell him it’s the same arrangement as last time." He’d make sure there was enough money in his account by then, although it meant he’d be using most of his day off tomorrow transmuting lead into gold. But at least Breda didn’t need to be ‘convinced’ to do him the favor since the man enjoyed the thrill of the auction and the looks on the faces of the people he outbid.

Havoc took a long drag from his cigarette as they approached the wine store. "You know, Mustang’s not going to be too happy with me for disappearing during the middle of the day. I mean, I can come up with some sort of excuse, but he’s more likely to question it if he’s pissed off at me like he is right now." Holding the butt of the cigarette between his thumb and forefinger, he turned to Ed and winked. "You’re gonna have to do something about that," he pointed out as he flicked the butt out into the street.

Ed expected that Havoc would want some sort of equivalent exchange for the ‘favor’. "And what do you expect me to do?" he asked, keeping his voice low so the people around them didn’t overhear. "It’s not my fault that you’re an idiot who can’t control his hunger." Really, the succubae-bound had been an idiot to sleep with a superior officer’s wife.

"We’re talking about the same hunger you expect me to put to good use for you, right? I can start controlling it as of tomorrow, if you’d like." Havoc smiled at Ed as he stood there, hands balled into fists that he wanted to smack into the smug succubae-bound’s face right now. "Nothing to say, Boss?"

"I’m just wondering how well Roy would take it if he found out about that one time you wanted to see if your power would work on a mated bound," Ed hissed, fighting desperately to keep his temper under control and to not shout the words at Havoc. When the man’s face lost all its color, he managed a slight smile. "I haven’t forgotten about that."

"Wasn’t as if I was going to do anything," Havoc mumbled as he leaned against the store’s outer wall. "But if you tell him about that, I’ll be too dead to be of much use to you."

The idiot had a point. A low growl slipped past Ed’s control for a few seconds. He thought about the books as a way to calm down. "What do you want?"

Havoc’s smile made a quick comeback. "Nothing too difficult." He shoved his hands into his pockets and leered. "The Lieutenant Colonel’s *always* in a good mood when he comes into the office smelling of you. Just be nice and ‘affectionate’ tomorrow morning and he won’t care if I take off for a few hours. Maybe make him a bit late for work, if you can, and that way he can’t bitch about me taking a long break." When Ed remained quiet for several seconds, his grin grew even wider. "Do I need to draw you some pictures of what you need to do or what? Judging from how bruised your throat always is, I didn’t think you had any trouble getting the Lieutenant Colonel to jump you."

Clutching the collar of his coat closer to his neck, Ed glared. "You’re an asshole," he spat, torn between anger and embarrassment. It was bad enough that he was mated to Roy; did all their friends have to know what was going on between them? Between the marks and always smelling like each other and the fights that led to sex wherever they happened to be when their tempers snapped…. He let out a shaky breath, the sound very close to a growl. "You better get that information for me. And don’t forget to tell Breda about the auction!" He glared for added emphasis before he stalked past the man into the wine store. Havoc had the gall to laugh as he left, but he knew enough to be long gone by the time Ed had purchased the wine and headed toward home.

With the bottle of wine tucked beneath his left arm, Ed made his way back to the small cottage he shared with his mate and his brother. He tried to convince himself that he didn’t feel at all guilty for using Havoc to get the information he needed from Mayumi, and that the thrill of pleasure that grew with each step was from the thought of soon possessing the rare books. It had nothing to do with the fact that he’d soon be near Roy, that he would have to do his ‘best’ tonight and tomorrow morning to ensure that the man was in a good mood. Grumbling about how Havoc had gotten the better end of their little ‘agreement’, he hurried home.

*******

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