Family Bonds

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chapter five

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Darkness, Hope and Dreams

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Unhappy to be standing in front of Yohji and Aya’s room, Yuushi glanced at the closed door then turned to look at his friend. "Are you sure they just returned?" More than a little nervous, he shifted the large stack of folders tucked under his left arm up a little higher.

Reiichi sighed as he closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose, right below his glasses. After a few seconds, he shook his head and gave Yuushi a wry grin. "Now why would I be sure? It’s not as if watching after those two is one of my responsibilities, correct?"

All right, maybe he deserved the slight sarcasm just now. Yuushi smiled back in apology. "Listen, I highly doubt you’re going to be the one to knock, which means I get to bear the brunt of their anger if they’re… in the middle of something." His smile faded as he recalled how furious Yohji had been the one day he’d interrupted him and Aya in the garden. That was the *last* time he was going anywhere near the lavender patch, if he could help it….

As the door to Yohji and Aya’s room opened just then, Reiichi didn’t have any more time to reply to that statement other than to wince. Aya gave them what was for him a rather mild glare. "We happen to have very good hearing." Yuushi was pleased to notice that, other than tousled hair, the kage was dressed as normal.

Yohji appeared as well, standing close behind his lover. "Reiichi, what in all the hells is up with you having conversations right outside our door? Either learn to knock or go talk elsewhere, okay?"

Yuushi’s friend laughed at the comment and stepped inside the room once Aya and Yohji got out of his way. "I don’t know; it seems like a great way to get your attention."

A little puzzled about what the men were referring to, Yuushi followed Reiichi into the room. Several lit candles were set out here and there, and he could smell the spicy aroma of mulled wine. He was a little amazed to find that – for once – there were fewer books here than the last time he’d visited the two bounds. "I hope we’re not interrupting anything… well…." He gave up on the apology at Yohji and Reiichi’s amused smiles. "I need to talk to you two about something."

Yohji’s smile vanished at the words and Aya stepped closer to his lover, an intent expression on his face. In fact, both of them looked very attentive and serious, which made Yuushi feel a bit better. It was bad enough that he had to interrupt their rare time off, at least they didn’t seem too upset with him – at least, not yet.

"Does this have something to do with the missing kids? That case is still open, isn’t it?" Yohji asked, reminding Yuushi that the man had been one of the Guards’ best not too long ago. Just like then, Yohji seemed to know a little bit about everything that happened in the city.

"I’m afraid so." Yuushi carefully leaned against one of the room’s many bookcases and folded his arms over his chest as he thought about the best way to get Aya and Yohji’s help on the case and bring them up to date. "Another child was abducted this morning. That brings the total up to fourteen – that we know about. To make matters worse, they took her from her own bedroom while her family slept."

Aya started at that bit of news, his face quickly became an impassive mask while his eyes seemed to flash silver. "How did they manage to take the child?" he asked, his voice as carefully blank as his face.

Reiichi spoke up from his place over by the fireplace, where he had been standing quietly. "The Guard believes that magic was involved, and Botan agrees. Yuushi and I just got back from conferring with him about the abduction." The teasing manner he’d displayed minutes before was gone without a trace, his voice analytical and slightly cold as he talked. "He’s compiling a list of charm shops for the Guard to investigate in hopes of finding some leads to the culprits, but…."

Taking the opening provided to him, Yuushi interrupted his friend. "But there’s a chance that they didn’t purchase the charm locally, not to mention there’s a hell of a lot of charm shops within the city’s walls alone. Since magic is involved, we thought you might be able to help, Aya." He shifted his attention to Yohji. "Also, you were always very good at investigations, Yohji. There were several times when you caught something the rest of us missed."

"Yeah, thanks, Yuushi." Yohji didn’t appear very flattered upon hearing such praise, but then again, he never seemed to care about such things back when he’d been a Guard either. "Is there any other reason why you think Aya and I would be of some help?"

The man was still as sharp as ever, Yuushi thought with a tinge of apprehension. "Well… this fact hasn’t been made known yet except to one of the families involved, but three of the children have been found dead. Considering how well their bodies were hidden and the fact that we’re not entirely sure of how many homeless or orphaned children have been taken, we’re not certain if that the number is correct." His hatred for the people responsible for the abductions flared hot and potent at the thought of more children being killed and their bodies stashed as if they were inconvenient trash. "We usually find a body after a number of children have been abducted, and there hasn’t been one lately."

Aya’s eyes flashed even more silver at the news but otherwise he showed no emotion. "So you suspect that there might be another one soon," he calmly stated.

"Yes." There were many times when Yuushi forgot what Aya really was, when he saw him as purely human. In a way, it was much easier to think of the quiet man that way instead of being a magical creature of immense power. He was never very comfortable about approaching Aya to ask him to put his kage nature to use. Part of that was guilt over the fact that he was using Aya, and the rest… the rest, quite honestly, was fear at not knowing what he was about to unleash. "Is there… any way you can help us?" he asked, his voice quiet, forced past a throat gone tight.

"Shit, I can’t believe you didn’t ask us for help sooner!" Yohji growled while Aya seemed to consider the question. "Three kids dead-"

"The Guard has managed without your assistance before," Yuushi said, his pride stung by the assumption that the Guard couldn’t do anything without Kudoh’s assistance. "You’re too busy with Birman’s jobs for us to count on you to help with every difficult case, but we realized that we needed you now since magic is involved." There was some guilt at the thought that maybe if he’d asked for help sooner, things would have been solved by now, but his Guards had done their best.

Yohji appeared as if he wanted to say something else, but Aya’s hand on his shoulder kept him quiet. At some point in the exchange, Reiichi had left the fireplace to stand by Yuushi’s side, a comforting presence considering the fact that he might have pissed off two extremely powerful bounds.

But Yohji didn’t say or do anything, other than to scowl briefly, while Aya regarded Yuushi with a level gaze. "I’m not sure how much help I will be, but I’ll do my best. Unfortunately, there’s too much active magic in the city for me to easily trace something as weak as a charm and my… other talents can’t do much unless the death has been recent." The room seemed to darken a little.

In a way, it was heartening to learn that Aya couldn’t do everything. "Any help you can give us will be greatly appreciated," Reiichi said, echoing Yuushi’s thoughts. "We’re sorry to interrupt your night off, but Yuushi and I were hoping that, if you agreed to assist us, we could go over everything and bring you up to date."

The two bounds exchanged a potent look and then nodded. "Well, to be honest, we were expecting you guys to show up sooner or later, so we don’t really mind," Yohji explained as he combed the fingers of his right hand through his hair. "I mean, those kids are more important than sitting in front of a fire drinking some wine."

"Thank you." Yuushi was really grateful that Aya and Yohji had agreed so easily. He could have forced them to help if they’d refused, which would only have fostered bad feelings in not only the two men but the rest of the bounds in the Shadow Guard as well. But they cared enough not to be bothered with something like losing more of their rare vacation time. "I talked to Birman and she agreed to try to make sure you still get a day or two off after we solve this case."

Yohji just waved his hand at that bit of news. "Yeah, and as soon as we find the bastards who’re doing this to kids, there will be some other case we need to work on, or Birman will have some special mission that can’t possibly wait for a few days." He laughed, the sound not as bitter as Yuushi would have expected after such a complaint. "Ah well, it beats waiting tables so I don’t really mind." He leaned over to nuzzle Aya’s left temple. "What about you, Cat?"

"I have no problem with being helpful," Aya answered in a quiet, serious voice. "Besides, we gave our word."

"You gave your word to Birman, not me, so any time you decide to help the Shadow Guard out is greatly appreciated." Yuushi didn’t want either man to think that he regarded them as slaves unable to turn a request down.

"Thanks, Yuushi." Yohji motioned toward the thick files that Yuushi held. "Are those the case files? Can we take a look at them?"

"That’s why I brought them." Yuushi waved the paperwork about. "Reiichi has volunteered to help you go over everything. I hate to ask for your help and then run, but there are some things I need to take care of tonight." Such as catching up on some paperwork that Kikyou had left for him. Sometimes, he felt worn down by trying to manage both the Guard and the Shadow Guard, felt that the work was never finished but he had yet to regret his deal with Birman. Besides, he had hopes for a short break in a few days – if they managed to wrap this case up. That reminded him…. "Aya, you might be pleased to hear that Kikyou is about to be very busy shortly. Both the King and Queen want a better understanding between the Guard and the Army in face of the upcoming war. He should be occupied with quite a few meetings in the next few weeks."

"Especially when you consider how little love there is between the Army and the Guard," Reiichi murmured, his voice once more light and slightly sardonic.

With one arm around the waist of his slightly smiling lover and the other held out for the files, Yohji laughed. The sound was bright and warm, making some of the exhaustion Yuushi felt melt away. "Oh, I find it rather amusing that Manx is trying to promote good will with ‘those lazy green coats’ considering she’s partially to blame for the mutual hatred."

Reiichi chuckled and pushed his glasses up, his eyes twinkling merrily and with a hint of malice behind the lenses. "To be perfectly honest, the… dislike between the two organizations goes back centuries, at the very least. She did nothing more than uphold a long-established tradition. However, her involvement in the ‘patching up’ process helps to drive the fact home that Kritiker needs its two best military organizations to work together for once."

"I don’t know much about the politics between the two organizations, but if it keeps Kikyou away, I’m quite content," Aya replied, his right hand rested on Yohji’s left arm, which was still wrapped around his waist.

"Indeed," Reiichi agreed, and then prodded Yuushi’s side. "If you’re going to leave, would you mind stopping by the kitchen and asking Jo very politely to put together a tray of coffee, tea and light snacks for us? I’ve a feeling it’s going to be a long night and some refreshments would be greatly appreciated."

There were times, Yuushi mulled as he handed over the case files to Yohji, that he felt confused about who was really in charge – him or Reiichi. The fact that his friend often found ways to order him about – all politely caged in the guise of requests, of course – made him suspect that he wouldn’t like the answer. "I guess so, since I’m headed there anyway." Catching Reiichi’s triumphant smile, he decided to ignore it and wished the men a good evening. He had more than enough to do tonight that would make his mind run in rather disturbing circles.

*******

Emmie frowned at the sink and wondered how so many dirty dishes could fit into what seemed to be a pretty small space. She’d been washing them for twenty minutes now, and just when she thought she’d cleaned the last one, there would be another dish to be scrubbed.

Picking a bowl up, she glanced over her shoulder to watch Jo show Maddox the proper way to shape a cinnamon roll. She didn’t think it was quite fair that he got to learn how to bake while she was stuck with the dishes, even if Maddox had washed them for most of yesterday. Baking seemed much more fun than washing dirty dishes or changing the sheets on the beds.

"Cut them a little thinner," Jo told Maddox. She stood behind him and watched closely as he sliced into the spice and sugar covered dough. "That’s it." Reaching for the cut dough, she slowly rolled a strip until it formed a nice-sized pastry. "That’s about how big you want these to be. This way, we should get about eight dozen from each batch of dough. Once they’re rolled, we need to let them rise a little longer and then they’ll be ready to be baked."

When Maddox nodded in understanding and set about rolling the dough, Jo turned to look at Emmie. Nervous about the sudden attention, Emmie quickly returned to work on the dishes. She didn’t want Jo to think that she was slacking off.

"Once those are all washed you can dry them and stack them on the table," Jo said as she approached the sink. "We’ll definitely need all of them for breakfast once the rest of the customers wake up." She smiled and reached out to tousle Emmie’s hair. "Don’t look so happy about that!" she chided.

"Are there always so many dishes to be done?" Emmie grumbled. She felt like she was back at home during one of the family gatherings, stuck in the kitchen helping to clean up after a huge meal. At least then she’d had her cousins around to talk to and laugh with to help the time go by faster. There was a sharp pang in her chest when she realized that would never happen again.

Jo seemed to pick up on her pain and patted her left shoulder in comfort. "Sometimes it seems that way, but not always. Dinner’s the worst time since so many people show up and eat all evening long, but we always manage to get things done." Jo laughed and went over to the stove. "We’d better get things done or the customers won’t come back!"

"Everybody talks about how good the food is here," Maddox commented while he continued to roll the dough. "Maybe they wouldn’t mind dirty plates as long as the food stayed the same."

"*I* would mind," Jo said, her voice suddenly almost as rough as a growl. "People can get good food all over the city, but they come here for the hot spring and because they’re assured a nice, clean place to stay." The expression on her face had Emmie sending Maddox a dirty look before she focused on finishing the dishes. If that was how the cook reacted to the thought of work not being done, she didn’t want to know how Jo would react to the real thing!

Maddox mumbled an apology, to which Jo ‘hmphed’ a response before stirring one of the many pots on the stove. Everything was quiet for a few minutes as they all were busy with their respective tasks, then Jo sighed loudly and set a metal lid on one of the pots. "Ah well, it’s time for Ichiro’s break. I’ll be back in a little bit," she informed them as she poured coffee into a carafe and then set it on a wooden tray. "Finish the dishes and the rolls, then take a bit of a break yourselves." Her voice was still a little gruff but her smile was genuine as she assembled a plate covered with danishes and sliced nut bread for the tray.

"Thank you, Jo," Maddox responded, his hands still busy with the cinnamon rolls. Emmie echoed him as she grabbed what *had* to be the last plate in the sink, and then Jo was out the door.

Plate quickly cleaned and rinsed off, Emmie pulled the plug from the bottom of the sink and snatched up a towel so she could dry her hands and arms. "That wasn’t a very good joke," she told her cousin with a glare. "I think you really upset her!"

Maddox returned her dirty look but didn’t stop rolling the pastry. "It didn’t come out quite the way I meant it," he grumbled. "Besides, I don’t think she’s that upset or she wouldn’t be telling us to take a break. Which we can’t do until you dry those dishes."

"Hmph, I know that." Purposely turning her back on her cousin, she began to dry the stacked dishes. No more than three plates into the pile, her anger vanished, replaced by a sense of exhaustion and regret. "I’m sorry, Maddie." Bowl in hand, she turned around so she could look at him. "I just don’t want Jo or Yohji to get mad at us and kick us out."

Down to the last bit of dough, Maddox smiled and bobbed his head. "I know what you mean, but you worry too much. Besides, if they’d kick us out over a lame joke, maybe this isn’t such a great place to stay or work."

She frowned at that statement, her mouth opened to disagree before she thought better of it. The Koneko was a wonderful place, and she was being silly for worrying so much. But it was so nice here, everyone was so kind and Yohji…. She didn’t want to leave. Oh, she’d only been here for a couple of days but, after coming all the way across Kritiker to find Uncle Glen, there hadn’t been any other place that felt… that felt so much like home, but only better. With everything that had happened after her father’s death, and even during the last month when he’d been so sick, home hadn’t been the happiest place. But the Koneko was filled with sunlight and laughter and the wonderful scent of flowers and baked bread. She didn’t feel scared or threatened here. Well, unless Aya was scowling at her, and even then Yohji would tug on his hair or something and make him stop. She was safe here.

In fact, she’d even heard Yohji politely but firmly ask a customer not to tell such ridiculous stories when the man had gone on about how flesh gaki-bounds were stealing children to eat. He’d given the man such a stern look that the customer had quickly shut up and left after finishing his lunch. Teddy had muttered something about the Koneko not needing any clientele who were that stupid and hoped out loud that the man wouldn’t come back. She’d been shocked at the way he and Yohji handled the matter, at the way they almost seemed to be defending flesh gaki-bounds, and that none of the other staff appeared to disagree with them when Teddy mentioned the incident later that day. Maybe… just like the way women could date other women and people didn’t have to get married before they turned nineteen years old… maybe things really were different here and not everyone hated… her mother’s kind. She sincerely hoped that was true.

Lost in her thoughts, she almost dropped the bowl she was drying when Maddox suddenly appeared beside her. Barely managing to keep her hands on the damp ceramic container, she hugged it to her chest and gave her cousin another glare – which quickly faded when she realized that he was there to help her with the dishes. "You startled me," she grumbled.

"Well, if you like I can leave you alone with your deep thoughts and wet dishes," he teased, a warm smile on his face as he continued to dry a plate. "I wouldn’t mind a chance to sit down and eat some danishes before you get to them!"

Oh, why did he have to be so mean? He enjoyed picking on her much too much, she thought as she stuck her tongue out at him. "You should be nicer to me."

"Right. Then you wouldn’t know who I was." Maddox laughed as he waved his towel in front of her face. "Besides, I *am* being nice to you."

She watched him pick up another dish and couldn’t help but to pout a few seconds longer. He didn’t need to make that comment about the danishes – she couldn’t help herself, they were so good. Almost as delicious as the cinnamon rolls, which wouldn’t be ready in time for their break, unfortunately. Then the thought that there’d be another break later on, when the rolls were ready, cheered her up.

They made quick work of the dishes and stacked them on the table, just as Jo had asked. Then they quite happily followed her instructions to take a break and have a bite to eat.

Wrinkling her nose at the fact that Maddox was pouring himself a mug of coffee, she got up to fetch the pitcher of orange juice. She didn’t mind drinking the stuff when she first woke up, but that was about it.

Their drinks poured and their favorite danishes picked out, they settled at the table for a nice snack. Golden sunlight began to make the eastern facing windows of the kitchen glow, the warm rays finally making their way over the top of the garden’s brick walls. Soon enough most of the customers would begin to wake up, which meant they’d be busy washing dishes and preparing breakfast, so Emmie was determined to enjoy the break while it lasted. She had just finished a cheese danish when the kitchen’s back door swung open.

Expecting to see Jo, she was shocked to realize that it was a stranger who had entered the kitchen and removed his thick cloak. He looked to be just a couple of years older than herself and was dressed in such tattered, *revealing* clothes that she felt her cheeks grow warm. Didn’t he realize how tight his shorts were? How tiny they were? Not to mention that the gaudy vest he wore revealed more than it covered and he actually had *makeup* around his eyes. She’d heard stories about people who dressed like that, and blushed some more when she thought about what her uncles had called them.

The strange boy stood there and stared at them for a moment, his big, blue eyes blinking a few times. She could only stare back while she tried to find her voice, and the next thing she knew, the table began to rock as Maddox suddenly pushed himself away from it.

"What are you doing here?" her cousin yelled as he launched himself at the stranger. Emmie stared in amazement before she quickly stood up and hurried to join Maddox in subduing the boy. What had possessed him to try to break into a respectable inn during the day?

"Hey! Sto-ah!" Maddox knocked the boy to the ground, and she tried to help by sprawling over his legs as he struggled to get back up. With Maddox sitting on his chest, he wasn’t having much luck. All he could do was sputter for breath and try to push the bigger boy away.

"Emmie, go get Jo! Tell her there’s a thief here."

She didn’t want to leave her cousin alone with the boy, not when the stranger was struggling so much, but they needed help to deal with him. He might be small but he was really strong.

"Emmie… ow!" Maddox got a better grip on the boy’s arm that had just smacked into his chest. "Go!"

Leaping to her feet to obey, she just managed to turn around when she was stopped short by the sight of Jo standing in the doorway, arms folded over her chest and an incredulous expression on her face. "What in all the hells are you three up to?"

"Jo! We stopped a thief," Emmie tried to explain, at the same time Maddox and the stranger yelled as well.

"He just walked in here-"

"Get… oof… off of me! Jo!"

"Everybody, stand up *now*" Jo said, her voice not as loud as theirs but somehow still managed to be very clearly heard. "On your feet!"

Maddox gave her a dubious look at the order but hurried to obey, and once he was off the boy, the stranger scrambled to his feet as well, one arm wrapped around his chest.

Jo nodded once and then shook her head. "Emmie and Maddox, I’d like you to meet Naru. He lives here."

Of all the things she expected to hear from Jo just then, *that* certainly wasn’t it. Emmie’s jaw dropped as she looked back and forth between Jo and the boy, whose skimpy clothes now revealed even more skin thanks to a few new tears.

"But… but… he lives here?" Maddox stuttered, eyes wide in amazement and confusion. "I thought… the Koneko…." She couldn’t believe it either, that someone like *that* lived in a respectable inn.

The boy seemed to pick up on what her cousin was attempting to say and glared as he tried to tug his shorts down a bit farther. "I’m not a prostitute," he snapped, and then his face grew flushed. "I, ah… well, I’m just pretending to be one." He glanced at Jo with a pleading expression.

The woman chuckled softly and closed the door. "Naru’s a Guard."

"What!?" Emmie didn’t mean to say it quite as loudly as that, but she couldn’t believe it.

"I’m a Guard," the boy, Naru, answered, just as loudly. "And don’t say that I’m too young, I’ve been a Guard for almost four years now!"

"Actually, I think she’s doubting you more for the fact that you look like a streetwalker than for your age." Jo chuckled again and motioned with her hands for them to move toward the table. "Naru’s been working nights on an important case," she explained, all traces of good humor gone from her voice. "He hasn’t done much more than sleep here during the day this past week, which is why you haven’t met him yet. He lives on the top floor with Yuushi and Reiichi."

"And I’m late getting back today," Naru added as he rubbed his bloodshot eyes.

Jo looked as if she wanted to say something , but just pursed her lips together and headed over to the stove. "I know you were up all night and need some rest," she said a minute or two later, "but you should have something to eat before you go to bed."

Naru glanced up from the plate of danishes and sliced bread he’d been eying and nodded. "That’s probably a good idea," he said, the words distorted by a huge yawn. "I didn’t get a chance to eat during work at all."

Emmie couldn’t hold back the questions any longer. "You’re really a Guard? What do you do? Ow!" She turned to glare at Maddox for kicking her leg just then. "What was that for?"

Maddox looked at her as if she was an idiot, but before she could figure out what his problem was, Naru’s soft laughter distracted her. She turned toward him, a puzzled frown on her face.

"Yeah, I’m a Guard." He rolled the cloth wrapped around his left wrist back to reveal a copper band similar to those she’d seen Declan and Cerise wearing. "As for what I do…." He glanced over to where Jo stood, her back to the room. "Well, since I look so young, I tend to act as bait for people who try to take advantage of or hurt children." He chuckled nervously and tried to tug his dark red vest closed. There just wasn’t enough material to cover his chest.

"Oh." Of course Emmie had heard about prostitutes and had even seen a few on their way here – despite Maddox’s attempts to ‘hide’ the people from her. But she was shocked to think that children would sell themselves, which seemed to be the case with the way Naru was dressed. Nor did she like to dwell on the fact that people abused children regularly enough that the Guard had special people working on those cases. Her family wanting to send her away aside, she’d never heard about any of her cousins or friends being harmed in any way back home. After hearing the rumors about children being snatched from their beds yesterday, she began to realize why Maddox had fussed over her so much on their way here and why Yohji, Jo and the others didn’t want her or Maddox to go exploring the city by themselves.

As she thought over these disturbing facts, Jo returned to the table with a tray of food for Naru. She set a cup of hot chocolate in front of him, followed by a plate covered with scrambled eggs and bacon. "Here. Have something to eat or your stomach will rumble so loudly while you sleep you’ll disturb all the guests on the floor beneath you," she chided the young Guard. "And I don’t care how ‘tempting’ you need to be, you’re going out there with a bit more clothes on tonight!" She stepped back from the table, her hands balled into fists that rested on her narrow hips. "I refuse to have to nurse you back to health should you come down with pneumonia, do you hear?"

Even though her voice sounded harsh, Naru smiled brightly and laughed as he bowed his head in thanks. "Don’t worry, Omi made me a charm to keep me warm, and you wouldn’t believe the competition I have out there. If you think my get-up is bad, you should come out and see Elise tonight!" He managed a few chuckles in between bites of a cherry danish. "Her skirt barely covers her a-ah." He suddenly seemed to notice the nasty look Jo was giving him. "Right. Time to eat breakfast," he mumbled as bits of pastry crust fell from his lips.

"I can imagine well enough," Jo said, her voice so quiet and grave that Emmie found herself scooting closer to Maddox. Jo was usually a bit gruff but she’d never sounded like this before. Emmie watched in silence when Jo suddenly left the table to fetch Naru’s cloak and then returned to drape it over his shoulders. "And cover yourself up – I don’t want Ani to catch you dressed up like this."

"Yes, Jo," Naru answered, sounding much more subdued than he had moments ago. "I’m sorry."

Jo merely grunted in response and returned to the stove to fuss over the pots. Naru gave her a sad look before he returned his attention to his meal. With the sudden air of tension that filled the kitchen, Emmie didn’t need Maddox to kick her or pinch her arm to keep her from talking. While she really wanted to ask Naru some questions about working for the Guard while being so young, she realized that now wasn’t a good time. She’d have to wait til later, maybe catch him before he went back to work tonight.

She’d always dreamed of being a Guard when she grew up. Her father, unlike most of her family, hadn’t laughed at her but, instead, had told her how respected Guards were while he traveled with Uncle Glen. Because of the way he had reacted to her hopes, she always felt she might have a chance to become a Guard one day. The truth about her mother had seriously shaken that dream, but if she wasn’t a bound… well, couldn’t she still become a Guard? Yes, she was small but Naru didn’t look much bigger than her and he was one! Maybe there was still a chance. Even if she had to dress up in a skimpy outfit, she was willing to try her best.

So, even though she had to keep snapping her jaw shut so she didn’t pester Naru with questions right now, she didn’t give up hope. Yohji seemed to know an awful lot about the Guard, as did Reiichi, so maybe she could ask them some questions later. Or she could try to sneak into the main room during dinner, when there were so many Guards at the Koneko and try to talk to them while they ate.

She didn’t have a place with her family anymore, save Maddox and hopefully Uncle Glen. While the Koneko was wonderful, she couldn’t let herself hope to stay here very long, not with Uncle Glen on his way. But maybe, just maybe… if she didn’t turn into a demon…. Breath catching in her throat, she began to fervently pray that Maddox was right, that she wouldn’t become a bound. She’d lost everything but her dream and her cousin, and if she took after her mother, then she’d lose both of those things. The gods couldn’t be that mean, could they? So she just had to hope that things would work out, that she wouldn’t lose anything else and that one day, she could join the Guard. There was nothing else left, really.

*******

Roy resisted the urge to sign his signature with a flourish as he finished the last of the paperwork stacked on his desk. There was no doubt in his mind that Hawkeye would soon leave him an even larger pile of documents to be read and signed than he’d just finished, but that fact didn’t put a damper on his good mood. Leaning back into his padded leather chair, he closed his eyes as the corners of his mouth tugged up into a sated grin. No, mountains of paperwork couldn’t make him regret arriving late to work this morning.

He could still smell Ed’s scent. The way it clung to his body, to his hands and hair had made it difficult to concentrate on the paperwork at first. To leave home today was an even more difficult task to do. To walk out of the bedroom that was strongly scented by their lovemaking, to leave Ed curled up in their bed, half asleep and not complaining for once, appearing so utterly ravished with his bruised throat, tousled hair and languid body. Roy didn’t know what had gotten into his mate last night and earlier this morning but he hoped it happened more often. With the way Ed could be so incredibly standoffish about their bond, it was extremely frustrating to wait until need and lust wore Ed’s resistance down and he admitted to Roy that he needed or wanted him. That had only happened a few times since they’d become mates, but Roy had hope that it would occur more often as their bond grew stronger over the years.

With a bit of luck, Ed would still be ‘in the mood’ when he finished with work. At times like these, Ed would usually either try to put some space between them or pretend that nothing had happened other than Roy ‘being more of an old pervert than normal’. However, the last time this situation had occurred a month or so ago, Ed hadn’t tried to downplay things or pretend it was all Roy’s fault, and Roy had felt a rare sense of contentment over their link. Right now, what he picked up from Ed was a sense of exhaustion, along with concentration that said his lover was honing his elemental abilities. Beneath those emotions, he could feel anticipation and excitement.

Perhaps it wasn’t too much to hope that those latter emotions were directed toward him. As much as he hadn’t planned or wanted this bond with Ed, what was done was done and they needed to make the best out of the situation. Which could only happen when the two of them embraced their bond. If Roy was going to spend the rest of his life mated to a younger, arrogant, know-it-all brat with more power than common sense then he wanted to enjoy all the benefits of their ‘relationship’ that he could. Considering the way Ed had practically dragged him into their bedroom last night and had barely allowed him to leave this morning, he had some hope that Ed was beginning to feel the same way.

Either that, or the damned brat was planning something and wanted Roy to be in a good mood for when the surprise was sprung on him. He wouldn’t put it past Ed, not for a moment. He’d always thought of his brother, Crawford, as the most determined person he’d ever met – until Ed had been dumped into his life. ‘Stubborn’ didn’t even begin to describe his mate. Neither did ‘devious’ or ‘foolhardy’. Opening his eyes, Roy stared across his office at nothing in particular and wondered about what his lover could be planning. Maybe Ed had found a lead on some information outside of the capital and hoped to put him in such a good mood that he’d either allow Ed to go track that information down or to accompany him on the task.

That seemed highly plausible, and before Roy could think of any other reasons for Ed to be so devious, the door to his office opened without a warning knock. Expecting to see Hawkeye enter the room with another huge stack of papers, he was slightly taken aback to find out that his company was none other than Hughes – and a smirking Hughes at that. That wasn’t always a good sign. If the man was here to ruin his good mood with a barrage of baby portraits, he was going to singe Hughes’ goatee off.

"There he is, the Army’s finest, most dashing officer," Hughes proclaimed as he flopped down in the chair facing Roy’s desk.

Suspicious at that bit of flattery, Roy narrowed his eyes and placed his gloved hands flat on the desk in warning. It wouldn’t take much for him to snap his fingers and sear off more than Hughes’ goatee. "What do you want?" If his friend was trying to butter him up right away, then Hughes probably wanted him to baby-sit or something.

Hughes sniffed dramatically and pretended to wipe away tears from his eyes. "Such a shame to see one so glorious be afflicted with such a potent case of paranoia. Why do you think I want anything? Maybe I’m here to do *you* a favor."

"Why am I so suspicious? Maybe because I’ve been your friend for almost ten years and have yet to see you ‘do me a favor’ that didn’t lead to one on my part in return." This time it was Roy who sniffed dramatically, in annoyance. "I’m not babysitting Alicia this weekend so if you’re here for that, then go away." Some of the contentment he felt earlier began to fade.

Clutching hands to his chest as if he was wounded, Hughes gave him a betrayed look before he slumped down in the chair. "That… that was so *cruel*." He sniffed again. "And here I am, the bearer of good news." His voice took on a wavering edge, as if he was barely holding back tears.

Roy lifted his right hand from his desk and pinched his fingers against the bridge of his nose. "Maes… I’ve had a pretty good day up until now, but I must admit that I’m not in the mood for any of your games. Tell me what the good news is and don’t even *think* of asking for a favor or get the hell out of here." He didn’t want to waste any of this precious free time before Hawkeye descended on him with enough paperwork to keep him busy the rest of the day on Hughes’ foolish dramatics. "And don’t even try to pretend you’re all hurt – you’re the most indestructible human I’ve ever come across."

His expression changed from one of utmost sorrow into amusement when Hughes sat up a bit in the chair. "I’ll take that as a compliment." The sunlight shining through the windows reflected in Hughes’ glasses and, when added to the knowing grin his friend bestowed on him, Roy felt a little uneasy. No, things usually were very bad when Hughes smiled like that. "Now about that bit of news…," Hughes drawled.

"Maes," Roy growled, patience almost worn all the way through. Hughes was a great friend but a very tiring one as well.

His smile became even wider, Hughes suddenly rose from the chair, quick enough that Roy couldn’t help but start in response, his fingers poised to snap. But all his friend did was stand at perfect attention and then execute an equally perfect bow. "Congratulations, *Colonel*."

Roy was shamed to admit that it took a few seconds for the impact of the words to sink in. "I… is it official?" he asked as he leaned back in his chair, stunned that his promotion had finally come through.

"Yep – or it will be in another day or two." Hughes returned to the chair, body slumped comfortably once more. "A little bit longer so all the bigwigs can be notified of the decision and prepare some silly ceremony for you, but the paperwork’s official." He sneered at the stack of documents on Roy’s desk. "Saw it myself. Even the king signed off on your promotion. I hear he was very impressed with how useful you made yourself during the wedding reception fiasco."

Roy waved his hand as if to dismiss that last comment. "I’m just a lucky soldier who was in the right place at the right time." With his most trusted men on hand to assist in the chaos that resulted from the battle, all thanks to his brother. He shared a knowing smile with his friend.

"Yes, very lucky, I’d say, and one of the youngest to reach the rank of Colonel." Hughes’ smile took on a wicked edge. "Well, at least with how the Army is counting your age."

"I have it on good authority that I’m still very young for my kind," Roy replied in a perfectly serious tone of voice. After all, it was only Ed who considered him ‘old’. "And not many common-born people have reached the rank of Colonel within ten years," he reminded his friend.

"No, not many at all." Hughes laughed out loud and pounded his right hand on his knee a few times. "I’d say this calls for one hell of a party, but I guess we have to wait until the official word is out." He pouted for a second but then his good mood quickly returned. "Oh well, that just means we have a couple of days to plan it!"

The thought of what Hughes could come up with in the way of party plans quite frankly terrified Roy. "I think you should leave the arrangements to Gracia," he told his friend, his suggestion backed by the sudden appearance of tiny dancing flames.

Hughes’ pout returned and for longer than just a second this time, but right when Roy began to despair that he’d never get his point through the man’s thick skull, Hughes smiled and nodded in agreement. "You’re right, I’m sure she’ll come up with a wonderful party." His smile turned simpering as he appeared to think about his wife. "Plus, I’m sure Ed and Al will attend, so we’ll have to tone things down a little for them. Us big kids can always celebrate later with a keg or three of beer!" He laughed and clapped his hands together.

Before Roy could agree with those plans, Hughes’ expression once again became rather wicked. "You know, I stopped by first thing this morning to tell you about your promotion, but it seems you weren’t here." He waggled his finger as if Roy was a naughty child. "Too busy corrupting poor Edward to come to work on time?"

The trouble with having a close friend being someone from Intelligence was that the bastard thought he was entitled to know every little detail about Roy’s life and then be able to safely harass him about it. "Hughes, I’m warning you now, *drop it*." Not that Roy had much hope of the idiot taking the hint, not after Hughes had failed to do so these last several months. However, the dancing flames grew a bit bigger in size and sidled a bit closer to Hughes.

Who seemed not to notice how close he was coming to being turned into a huge pile of ash. "Now, now, colonels are supposed to be respectable!" he said, finger still wagging back and forth. "They shouldn’t be corrupting some poor impressionable youth!"

"I’d love to see you call Edward that to his face," Roy grumbled as he vanquished the flames. No sense in wasting any energy on a suicidal moron, after all. "First off, you obviously don’t know much about a lot of the colonels around here and secondly, Edward’s pretty knowledgeable when it comes to ‘corrupting’." He couldn’t help but smile then, not when he thought about what happened earlier that morning.

"I could have lived without knowing that last bit," Hughes complained as he wrinkled his nose. "And he wouldn’t be so knowledgeable if it wasn’t for you." After that last comment, he wisely dropped the matter. "He should be pretty excited about the news, as will Al, I imagine. You can finally move into new quarters."

"I already have a place in mind," Roy commented as he smoothed his palms over the top of his desk. There was a rather nice house not too far from the office yet it was secluded enough that no one should notice if he, Ed or Al let the control over their powers slip a little bit. He’d been hoping that his promotion would come through before someone else moved into the house, and for once things had worked out to his advantage. "We’ll be a bit closer to you, so I imagine that you’ll have Alphonse for company on a regular basis."

"Alicia will be ecstatic to hear that," Hughes replied, his eyes shining with maniacal affection as he mentioned his daughter. "You know," he added with a reproachful look, "she misses playing with her ‘big’ brother Ed. She doesn’t quite understand why he’s always busy ‘playing’ with you these days."

Roy combed his fingers through his hair and sighed. "She’d better understand because things can’t change back to the way they were," he warned. The longer he and Ed were mates, the less time they would have for others. There was a painful sensation of constriction for a few seconds when he thought about the few mated bounds he knew. If he and his mate didn’t kill each other with their fighting, then there would come a time that they could barely spend a day apart without suffering. To be tied like that…. He shook his head to dispel the frightening thought. They were mates and nothing could change that fact now, not even death. Considering the strength of their bond and that they were both elemental bounds, the death of one of them would lead to that of the other. And he had no intention of shuffling off this mortal coil because Ed had been an idiot and gotten himself killed.

Glancing at his friend, Roy was surprised to see a mixture of sympathy and longing on Hughes’ face. Confused by the display of emotion, he arched an eyebrow in silent inquiry.

Hughes stared at him for a few seconds longer, then sighed and pushed his glasses up so he could rub his eyes. When he was finished, he adjusted his glasses and gave Roy a sad smile. "I know you and Ed don’t think so, but you’re both pretty lucky."

"What, to be mated to each other?" Roy’s voice rose with each word and he winced to hear how loud he became. After taking a moment to control his shock, he frowned and leaned back in his chair, his arms folded over his chest. "You definitely have a very twisted definition of ‘lucky’."

"Let’s see if you’re right," Hughes said as he held up his right hand, clenched in a fist then uncurled his index finger. "First off, you know when you’ve found the person you’re destined to spend the rest of your life with when you run across them." His middle finger uncurled at this point. "Secondly, you have the benefit of sensing what they feel so there’s little uncertainty in the relationship." His ring finger joined the other fingers standing up. "Thirdly, you never have to worry about driving that person away by making a mistake or saying something you’ll regret. Need I say more?"

Roy had always known that Hughes was an incurable romantic. Here was a man who wanted others around him to be married so they could experience ‘wedded bliss’ of their own. But sometimes it was too much. "You humans really don’t understand what it means to be mated, do you?" He shook his head at Hughes and his idealized view of the situation. "Just because you’re mated to someone doesn’t mean you’ll always get along and sometimes you don’t want your lover to feel your emotions because they can be more hurtful than anything you can say or do." Reaching for the pen lying on his desk, he slid its cap on and then slowly flipped it from end to end on top of the glossy, wooden surface. "I won’t even go into how any choice in the matter is taken away from you when you run across a potential mate, nor how you lose so much freedom for the rest of your life." Everything became a series of compromises and sacrifices. While the thought of fucking Ed made him hornier than hell, he had to give up seeing other people, some of them women he’d been rather fond of in his own way. He was trapped in a relationship with just one person, a feat of monogamy that had been unnatural to him before he met Ed. And that was only the start of things he had to give up once he couldn’t fight the impulse to not touch Ed several months ago.

Despite his best efforts to make Hughes understand, his friend just shook his head and waved his examples aside. "Trust a pessimist like you to try and make something like that sound so awful. I remember how it was between my great-grandparents, even though they died while I was still so young. My great-grandpa wasted away within weeks of his wife’s death."

"And yet you still think that me being mated to an irresponsible hothead with a death wish is a good thing." Roy shuddered at the thought of how Ed was going to lead him to an early grave because of his mate’s obsession with revenge. "I’ll say it again, Maes, you’re insane."

"Must be from hanging out with you for so long," was Hughes’ quick retort. Smiling with humor now, he slowly rose from the chair. Once he was standing he stretched his back out, arms in the air as several bones made cracking noises. "It’s hell getting old," he grumbled as he rubbed his left hand against the small of his back.

Old age wasn’t something Roy would experience for centuries to come, if ever, and that thought saddened him. Hughes was human and so he would grow old and die in a few decades. It wasn’t very pleasant to dwell on how deeply the loss of his friend would hurt. Pushing that thought aside, Roy forced a smile onto his lips. "This from a man who is more childish than his four year old daughter."

As if to prove his point, Hughes stuck his tongue out at Roy. "Keep saying mean things like that and I’ll make sure you won’t be invited to dinner the next time Gracia makes her famous beef stew. That is, if colonels will eat something so common as that."

"Now, Hughes, you know how much your wife adores me, so I’ve no doubt that I’ll be invited over the next time she feels like making that dish. In fact, I’m sure she’ll gladly do so if I mentioned how much I’ve been looking forward to her stew." He smiled sweetly in the face of his friend’s vicious glare. Try as he did to ignore the fact, Hughes knew that his wife and daughter utterly adored Roy. "Hmm, you know I should stop by this week and ask for her assistance to set up the new house."

"Sometimes I swear you’re really a succubae-bound trying to pass yourself off as a fire elemental," Hughes grumbled as he walked toward the door, the glare still on his face as he looked over his shoulder. "Do me a favor, Roy, and stay away from my women! Go corrupt Ed to your heart’s desire."

In the face of Hughes’ disgruntled complaint, all Roy could do was laugh while his friend stomped out of his office. At least, he laughed until Hawkeye appeared in the open doorway, a huge stack of papers in her hands. The laughter trickled to a heart-felt moan as the Lieutenant stepped into his office and made a bee-line for his desk.

*******

"Yohji!"

Maddox looked up from the apples he was peeling to find his cousin practically bouncing on her toes as Yohji entered the kitchen. She had the biggest smile on her face, as if she’d just been given a huge stack of winter solstice presents, while Yohji appeared to be a bit unhappy.

"Heya, Sunshine," he replied, his new nickname for Emmie making her bounce a little more. His expression softened into amusement when she latched onto his arm and led him over to the table.

"Are you hungry? Thirsty? I can get you something!" The words rushed past Emmie’s lips and Maddox wouldn’t have been surprised if Yohji hadn’t understood them, as jumbled as they were. But the handsome blond just laughed and tousled Emmie’s hair as he allowed himself to be pushed onto the bench.

"Now that you mention it, some coffee would be great." Of course Emmie rushed right over to the stove to fetch him a cup. Yohji watched her go, a bemused expression on his face.

Beside Maddox, Kira giggled quietly but didn’t stop peeling apples. "Have you finished shifting the kegs?" she asked once she got control of herself.

"Yeah." Yohji brushed what looked to be dust from his dark brown tunic and smiled. "We rolled out some of the cider we’ve been saving from last year and had a mandatory tasting to check its quality." His smile widened and he leaned forward, head propped up by his left arm resting on the table. "Mickey thinks we’re going to make a killing on it. It’s even better than the last batch."

"So, no doubt he’s in the office right now, calculating how much he can charge per pint." At Yohji’s laugh, Kira at first sighed and then joined him. "He worries about money way too much."

"Well, he’s thinking of the future," Yohji replied and gave the young woman a knowing grin. Maddox was surprised to see Kira blush so brightly, which only made Yohji laugh some more.

"What’s wrong with thinking about the future?" Emmie asked when she returned to the table with not only a mug of coffee but a plate of cheese and meat slices. She ended up blushing herself when Yohji gave her a smile of gratitude. Oh hells, his cousin sure had it bad, Maddox thought. Wasn’t she too young to be developing a crush on someone? Not that he blamed her, considering that the object of her affection was Yohji.

"Thanks, Sunshine." Yohji paused to take a sip of the coffee. "Nothing at all wrong with thinking about the future… and the person you want to spend it with," he finished, a wicked gleam in his eyes.

"You’re rotten," Kira moaned as she threw an apple core at him. To Maddox and Emmie’s surprise, Yohji quite easily caught it right before it hit his head. Kira, however, didn’t seem surprised at all. "Shouldn’t you be doing something right now other than bothering us? I’m trying to teach Emmie and Maddox how to make pies."

Yohji just shrugged as he reached out and tilted a bowl to see its contents. "Apple cranberry, one of my favorites." He grabbed an apple slice and took a bite. "Actually, since I’m done with the kegs, I thought I might see what Aya’s gotten himself into." An odd note crept into his voice just then, one that was almost possessive and worried and an utter failure of an attempt to seem not very interested. That only made Maddox wonder anew what the two men’s relationship truly was. The few times he saw them together, they tended to disappear long before he could figure it out. The fact that they shared a room together made him think they were in fact lovers, but maybe they were just good friends. For Emmie’s sake, he seriously hoped so.

Kira didn’t seem at all surprised by Yohji’s question and tried to throw something at him again, this time an apple peel that was easily batted aside. "Don’t eat the apples until *after* they’re baked, or else we’ll never get the pies made," she said, her voice gruff like Jo’s. "As for Aya, Cass stopped by so he decided to help her pick some herbs."

That bit of news made Yohji frown, especially when he glanced at the kitchen window. "It’s pretty bright out there today."

"He’ll be fine," Kira soothed as she handed over an apple slice. "Stay here or you’ll just make him angry and then we’ll have to put up with you sulking all afternoon." Yohji stuck his tongue out at the advice and then ate the apple slice.

"Is something wrong?" Emmie asked. Maddox swore that the girl couldn’t go without asking a question for more than ten minutes, especially if Yohji was involved. He was happy that she felt comfortable enough to be so curious and was very grateful that the Koneko’s staff didn’t seem to mind having to answer all of those questions. He was also very grateful that he wasn’t the one who had to answer them all the time. "Why are you worried about how bright it is outside? What’s wrong with Aya?"

Yohji sipped some more coffee before he answered, almost as if he were stalling for time. "Well, maybe you noticed that Aya is a *wee* bit pale." At Emmie’s rather vigorous nod, both Yohji and Kira began to laugh again. "Yeah, he’s rather white. The problem is that Aya has this nasty tendency to burn whenever he spends too much time out in the sun, and that makes him sick. Stubborn man that he is, he doesn’t seem to think about that very much when he’s out playing in his garden." Yohji frowned and looked outside again. "He’s already a bit weak."

"Wow, I didn’t know that was why he’s so pale," Emmie said. She had a matching frown to Yohji’s as she began to resume her job of grating a stick of cinnamon. "Why does he go outside, then?"

"Because he’s a-"

"Because he enjoys working in the garden," Kira replied, loud enough to cut Yohji off. "And he feels that he’s helping the Koneko out by doing so. Ever since he’s been here, we’ve gotten a lot of compliments about the garden. None of us really have a green-thumb, so it’s been neglected for the last couple of years."

Yohji nodded while he picked up a slice of cheese. "He’s almost gotten it back into the shape it was while Mom was still alive. I don’t want to think about his plans for next spring." He shivered in mock terror.

Kira giggled and clapped her hands. "Oh, I can see it now! Both you and Jo will be outside with him, trying to hold a tarp over his head to keep him in the shade."

"That’s not a bad idea." Yohji actually seemed to be considering the idea. "Maybe I can get Botan to create some charmed fabric that will follow Aya around like a demented awning or something."

Everyone laughed at the idea. Maddox could very easily imagine the ferocious scowl on Aya’s face as an enchanted tent of fabric followed him around the garden, and he’d only known the man for a few days. No, he didn’t think that Aya would find the idea helpful at all.

The sound of the kitchen door scraping open had all of them falling quiet and turning to see who was entering the inn. Mindful of the mistake he and Emmie had made earlier, Maddox remained in his seat when three strangers – two of them dressed in Guard uniforms - headed toward the table, seeming perfectly at ease at being in the kitchen. Kira smiled warmly at them so he guessed that they were welcome here, although Yohji’s hopeful expression turned to mild annoyance.

"You didn’t happen to see Aya out there, did you?" he asked, his tone of voice the slightest bit churlish.

The youngest of the three, a blond boy about Maddox’s height and age by his guess, nodded and slid onto the bench beside Yohji. "He’s helping Cassandra harvest some lavender. She told us to make sure you knew that she was keeping him in the shade and he asked us to pass on the message that you worry too much." The boy’s smile grew when Yohji sighed and shook his head. "He also snapped his teeth, but I’m not sure if I was supposed to pass that on." For some reason, Yohji winced and rubbed his left shoulder.

Still smiling, the boy turned to face Maddox. "Hello, I’m Omi. You must be Maddox and Emmie." He nodded toward Emmie, who was too busy staring at the Guards.

"Right, manners. Thank the gods Aya isn’t here right now," Yohji muttered as he stood up from the table. "Maddox, Emmie, the pretty girl over there is Miko, and the idiot she got saddled with as a partner is Ken if you haven’t met him yet. He lives here, she doesn’t, unfortunately."

"Ha, ha, Yotan." Ken, yet another handsome young man with warm brown eyes, glared at Yohji’s back as the blond man headed toward the stove. "At least I was invited to live here, unlike you!"

"Mom had quite a few years to try to drown me while I was still young," Yohji joked as he brewed some coffee. "So I guess she must have wanted me after all."

"Yeah, well, your mother also wanted Teddy, so I think that casts a rather dubious light on the lovely woman’s sanity," was Ken’s retort. "Grab us some sandwiches while you’re up, too."

"Yes, oh gorgeous and wise Master, I live to obey," Yohji sneered back.

A bit taken aback at the way the two men snapped at each other, Maddox couldn’t help but stare. Omi seemed to notice. "Oh, don’t worry, they’re always like that with each other. If you think this is bad, you should have seen them when they were still partners," the boy explained.

Emmie’s attention perked up at that bit of information. "Partners?"

"Yep, partners." Yohji returned to the table with a pot of coffee, three mugs and a large plate covered with slices of cheese, beef and bread on a tray. "I’m still trying to figure out what I did to offend the gods on that one." He winked as he set an empty mug in front of Miko. "What about you, have you figured it out yet?"

She laughed and tucked the strands of brown hair that were falling onto her tan face back. "No, can’t say that I have. I don’t remember committing any mass homicide in this life, so maybe I’m being punished for what I did in a past one or something."

"Hey now!" Ken cried out as he quickly assembled a rather large sandwich with most of the meat that Yohji had brought over. "You make me out to be like Esset’s Wizard or something. Did it ever occur to you two that maybe *I’m* the one being punished?"

"Nope," both Yohji and Miko answered in unison. They exchanged a look and then smiled. "We’re definitely the ones to suffer," Yohji replied cheerfully.

Maddox swore that Ken had actually begun to growl, but before anyone else seemed to notice – Kira and Omi were both too busy laughing – Emmie spoke again. "You were partners? Yohji, you were a Guard?"

Yohji blinked at the question and combed his fingers through his hair. "Uh, yeah. For a few years." His expression turned a bit sad. "I quit about two years ago."

"Why would you want to quit the Guard?" Emmie asked, clearly incredulous that anyone who had become a Guard would willingly leave the organization. Considering how closed Yohji’s expression became at the question, Maddox wished that he were near enough to kick his cousin’s ankle to get her to shut up.

However, she seemed to realize that she’d overstepped her bounds when Yohji just sat there shaking his head while everyone else besides Maddox avoided looking at her or him. He saw her cheeks turn pink before she bowed her head. "I’m sorry, Yohji."

Yohji was quiet for a few seconds before he reached out to tousle Emmie’s hair. "That’s okay." He glanced around the table as if realizing something. "Hey, where’s Botan? Aren’t you here for a lesson, Omi?"

The shift of topic seemed to work and helped put everyone back at ease. "No, he’s busy with something right now." Omi wrinkled his nose in disgust. "He’d rather not teach me the type of spells he’s using today and I have to admit that I agree."

Yohji looked a little puzzled by that. "Okay, if you say so. Never thought there’d be a day when you’d come across something you didn’t want to learn. Must be a spell to repel little demons or something." A hint of a smile teased Yohji’s lips as he said that. "Maybe if I ask him very nicely, Botan will teach it to me instead. Then I can ward the Koneko against the nasty creatures."

Omi’s grey eyes went wide at the comment and his mouth opened and closed a few times like a fish out of water. "You… oh… wait until I tell Aya what you said!" He bunched his right hand into a fist and smacked it into Yohji’s arm.

Emmie and Maddox shared a look, one that clearly asked ‘what the heck are little demons and why is Omi so upset?’. Meanwhile, Miko and Kira started another round of giggles while Ken just grinned around the huge sandwich he was busy eating.

"I can’t believe how mean you are!" Omi yelled, voice cracking in anger as he continued to hit a laughing Yohji.

"Use Jo’s rolling pin if you really want to leave an impression," Aya said, his deep voice tinged with amusement. Everyone went still when he spoke, and Maddox knew that he hadn’t so much as heard the door open or close, let alone notice the redhead’s approach to the table. Yet there was Aya, magically appearing beside Omi.

Yohji reached out and tugged the man closer, pulling him between himself and Omi. "Cat, you’re supposed to be defending me! Traitor. Ah, how long have you been standing there?" he asked rather nervously.

"Long enough to hear you insult Nagi," Aya replied in a calm manner. He reached up and unclasped his black cloak. His face looked a little flushed, and both Yohji and Omi tugged him down onto the bench between them. "Don’t start fussing," he complained, voice suddenly rough.

"You were supposed to be in the shade," Omi pointed out as he reached up to brush Aya’s bangs back.

"Yeah, and what happened to ‘it’s a sunny day today so I think I’ll stay inside’?" Yohji added. Both of them fussed over Aya much like the way Maddox’s overprotective Aunt Eva fussed over her two young sons. He had to smile at the scene before him, especially with the way Aya’s glare grew stronger by the second while Yohji and Omi seemed oblivious to it. At least, he found the situation amusing until he noticed his cousin staring forlornly at Yohji, all hunched over in her seat.

He decided to try to distract the two men and maybe make them stop paying so much attention to Aya. "Omi, you said something about learning spells?" He hated to come across as rude or nosy, but it was the only thing he could think to ask just then. With the way Yohji had obviously been bothered by Emmie’s question, he didn’t want to bring up anything that had to do with the Guard.

Omi blinked and shifted away from Aya. "Yes, I did. I’m studying to become a wizard." He said the words rather shyly, as if uncertain of what kind of a response he’d get in return.

A wizard. Yet again, Maddox wondered about the Koneko and the people he met here. Several Guards – one the aide to the Captain, if he’d heard Reiichi correctly, a woman everyone obeyed as if she were highborn, a man who could pass himself off as a highborn, Teddy, and now a wizard’s apprentice. Was it like this at other inns? At least now he sort of understood why there were so many Guards here since Yohji had been one, but….

Unsurprisingly, Emmie butted in before he could marshal his thoughts and pose another question, which was probably a good thing. "A wizard? Really? You get to learn spells like the ones that heats our water or makes the bread rise so quickly?"

Laughing, Omi nodded and leaned over the table so he could look at Emmie. "Yes. Just yesterday, I spent half a day trying to learn the spell for instantly heating liquid." Maybe it was Maddox’s imagination, but Omi’s warm grey eyes seemed to darken with sadness for a moment. Then he was once again a smiling, happy teenager. "I never realized how much a wizard has to know."

"Don’t listen to the kid, he’s loving every moment of it," Yohji teased as he reached behind Aya to tug on the back of Omi’s shirt.

"Because I’m hoping to one day find a spell that’ll make you behave, Yotan," Omi shot back. He appeared about to try to hit Yohji again, but one look from Aya made him lower his hand and glance away. "Well, it is a lot of work but I do like learning new things."

"Just think, one day you’ll be able to say that you knew Omi the wizard," Miko said, speaking up for the first time in several minutes.

"Yeah, and you can hit him up for free charms right now since he needs to practice making them. Speaking of which, you were supposed to learn that sharpening spell and fix my razor." Ken rubbed his jaw, which showed a hint of stubble.

"Aw, is Ken-ken afraid of nicking his soft, delicate skin?" Miko asked as she draped an arm over her partner’s shoulders. "We wouldn’t want anything to mar your radiant beauty, now would we?" She made kissing sounds. "Want me to give you a shave?"

For a Guard, Ken seemed awfully terrified of a young woman, one who was his partner at that. "There’s no way in hell I’m letting you and a sharp object get anywhere near me." He scrunched his face up like a little child confronted by something scary and actually whimpered. "I want my mommy."

Miko blew softly in his ear. "I’ll be your-"

"Ahem." Kira tapped her paring knife against the bowl of sliced apples. "Aren’t you two on duty?"

Miko pouted as if she’d just had her favorite toy snatched away, while Ken blew an exaggerated sigh of relief and bumped the elbow of his left arm into Miko’s side. "Guess I got a stay of execution," he teased his partner.

"Only for a few hours," Miko shot back as she removed her arm from around his shoulders. "Oh well, for breaking my heart like that, you get to buy the drinks when we’re off duty."

"Why am I always stuck buying drinks?" Ken complained while he reached for the plate of snacks Emmie had prepared for Yohji.

"Because I say so." Miko nodded as if that was the end of the argument.

There was no doubt this time; Ken was actually growling but everyone else seemed to find the situation very amusing. While Kira congratulated Miko on training her partner and Yohji and Omi offered suggestions of what Miko could get Ken to do next, Maddox exchanged an amused yet befuddled look with his cousin. They’d definitely never met such an interesting crowd of people before as they had so far at the Koneko. There was a part of Maddox that wished they could stay longer than a couple of weeks to see who else they’d meet. He actually felt a stab of pain when he thought about how they’d be leaving soon, possibly never to return.

With all the fussing, teasing, laughing and friendliness here, it was almost as if he and Emmie had found a new home. One that took them in, made them feel welcome and treated them like everyone else, not as charity cases or shameful secrets. No matter how much he tried to keep in mind the fact that they’d be leaving once Glen got here, he noticed that he was beginning to wish he could stay here. Maybe Emmie’s love of the place was getting to him, maybe it was that he was learning things that interested him, such as baking and cooking. Maybe it was not knowing how things would be with Glen and his uncle’s caravan. But it was unrealistic to think that they could stay forever. Not with the matter of Emmie’s mother and the fact that their family could easily track them down here.

Surrounded by laughter, Maddox felt something cold settle in his heart. He’d thought it was so easy to leave home and start a new life. The truth was it had been easy to walk away from his family and their disgust of him. But now… now it was so difficult to keep walking away. He could only hope that things would be just as good with Glen and push away the little voice that said maybe he’d already found a new home for him and Emmie. A home that was slowly yet surely growing to be more difficult to leave than his real one. However, what choice did he really have? The most important thing was to keep Emmie safe. And maybe someday they’d find another haven like the Koneko.

*******

Ed grasped Izumi’s necklace in his ungloved right hand, felt the weight of the gold, its warmth drawn from his body, its density. Then his power enveloped the precious metal, every minute part of it, and once he was calm and centered enough, he reached out with his bare left hand to touch the lead bars stacked in front of him.

His power flared to life, a bright blue glow that hid the lead from his sight. But he could still feel the metal, could sense how it differed from the gold necklace he held and slowly, patiently, he forced the lead to change. Tiny sparks of… something… danced and writhed inside the lead, shifted about in a fluctuation of energy that he had to precariously tame while at the same time he poured in more of his own until the two metals finally became the same.

Four gold bars now lay in front of him, a small fortune to most people. He let out a slow breath and wiped his damp forehead with a shaking hand. All total, he’d created twenty bars today. Each time it took him a little longer, his energy slowly evaporating as he fought to change the metal’s basic properties. But he did it, and now he was almost done. His goal was twenty-five bars, which should be enough for the books and the auction fees, not to mention he should then have a little left over in case he needed some extra money in the future. Between work and Roy, he didn’t often have much time to transmute gold. As it was, once he rested a bit and created the last batch of gold bars, he’d have to wait another day to fashion the metal into proper coins and weights that Breda could use at the auction. That was the easy part, however, and didn’t require anywhere near as much energy and effort as today’s transmutations did.

Still, if turning lead into gold was that easy, everyone would be doing it. As far as he and Al knew, Ed was the only bound who could do this. Not even Al could manage it, but then again, his area of expertise lay in the elements that made up the human body, not metal and earth. Which was a good thing, because if Roy ever found out what Ed was doing, he’d need all of Al’s healing skills and then some.

"Yeah, but the perverted bastard isn’t much help in getting me the books I need, now is he?" Ed muttered as he slumped against a large oak tree he used for both its shade and as a screen in case anyone else came by. In a moment he’d put the gold bars in the lined knapsack he’d brought, but he needed a few seconds to catch his breath. The last bit of transmutation had really drained him, and he hadn’t had as much energy as usual to begin with today thanks to being exhausted from barely getting any sleep last night.

As much as he wanted to blame Roy for his fatigue, he could only work up a vague sense of irritation, and most of that was directed at the sense of smugness he felt from his lover and a faint twinge of pain whenever he shifted on the ground. His body, while a bit sore, had definitely enjoyed ‘putting Roy in a good mood’. He felt his cheeks grow warm at the thought, and an emotion that felt perilously close to contentment seeped through his bones until he slowly relaxed.

Dammit, he was just a young male, Roy was his mate and rather talented at sex, and that was that. He’d set out to seduce Roy for a specific purpose and it hadn’t been to make either of them feel better. There was no reason for him to be so happy when Roy had proved all night (and morning) long just how much of a pervert he really was. Besides, no matter how attentive and giving Roy had been last night, his lover would do his best to kill him if the man ever found out what he was doing right now.

"Just how suicidal are you?" Ed spoke out loud, his voice as low as possible to imitate his mate’s. "Do you have any brains floating around in that tiny head of yours? Do you have any idea how humans would react if they knew what the hell you were doing right now?"

"What are you bitching about? I did what you wanted me to do."

Havoc’s voice, more than a little confused and irritated, made Ed squeak out loud and lurch forward in an attempt to stand up. "What are you doing here?" he tried to growl – but the sound still came out as a startled squeak.

Sauntering forward so Ed could look at him, Havoc appeared, dressed in his dark green uniform, cigarette dangling from his lips and hands pushed into his pants’ pockets. "I came here to tell you what I found out from Mayumi. Thought you knew I was here when you started bitching." He frowned at Ed, the expression turned into amazement when he finally noticed the gold bars on the ground. "May Jouyoku fuck me until he’s bored… you can really do that, can’t you? I thought Breda was pulling my leg."

Annoyance lent Ed the energy he needed to shove the gold bars into his bag. "Breda shouldn’t have said anything," he growled, unhappy at the thought of word getting back to Roy about what he’d done today. At least Al was at work now and could try to claim innocence over what he did to the lead bars they bought from Pinako.

Havoc removed the cigarette from his mouth and waved it about. "Hey, it’s not like he’s shouting it from glen to glen, if you know what I mean. I just… got him to tell me the truth when I passed your message on as well as the list of books last night." He grinned, a sharpness and smugness to the expression that made Ed want to smack the man. Did the man have to be such a succubae-bound?

"Well," Ed grumbled as he tucked the strands of his hair that would fit behind his ears back, "did you find out anything from Masuda’s daughter?"

"You mean the lovely Mayumi?" Havoc’s grin became even more smug, which made Ed want to pick up a lead bar and bean him in the head with the heavy thing.

"You were supposed to find out some information, not feed," Ed reminded him, feeling a little guilt-ridden for siccing such a pervert on the poor girl and a lot annoyed at Havoc for being even more of a pervert than Roy. Which was quite a feat, to be honest.

Havoc snorted as he dropped his cigarette to the ground and stubbed it out with his toe. "I was supposed to get the information however I could." At Ed’s warning growl, he waved his hand in a dismissive gesture before he shoved it back into his pants’ pocket. "Don’t get your tail in a kink, boss, I didn’t even touch her. She’s cute but not much of a challenge. All I did was lay on the charm until she gave me a name."

"More like you don’t know what to do when they just give in like that since you’re used to working for your meals," Ed muttered under his breath – but not quiet enough for Havoc not to hear.

"Listen, do you want the name or not? I need to get back to work, and if Mustang’s pissed off at me for taking another break, I’m gonna tell him that I was running an errand for you. Think of all the fun you’ll have trying to explain that." Havoc’s smug grin returned, and only quavered slightly in the face of Ed’s ferocious glare.

"He’d kill you first before he questioned me," Ed reminded the idiot. If Havoc wasn’t so good at worming information out of people, he never would have bothered with the man. "Yes, he’s still in such a good mood that he wouldn’t care less how often you vanished from work today, and yes I want that name. Now."

Havoc slouched against the tree and looked down at Ed. "Okay, then, let’s get this out of the way and then I’m gone. Mayumi said the guy who sold the books to her father is named ‘Aya Kudoh’. That ring any bells?"

"No… oh, wait, yeah." Now he remembered the redhead from the library - book-thief extraordinaire. But why was Aya hanging out at the Royal Library if he had books like that at home? And how did he come by such rare and expensive books? "Did all the books come from him?" There went the theory that the books came from two different collections since the same collector had sold them.

"Yeah, or so Mayumi claims. I made sure to ask about a lot of the books on your list." Havoc’s grin faded away and he pulled a small, battered tin out of his left pocket. Once it was opened, it revealed his stash of rolled cigarettes. He pulled one out and slid the tin back into his pocket, but all he did was slip the unlit cigarette between his lips. "She said that Kudoh does a lot of business with her father and uncle, and that he didn’t want anyone to know that he was selling the books." There was a definite air of smugness around Havoc.

Ed fought with the impulse to roll his eyes since he wanted this conversation finished and Havoc gone. There were still five bars left to transmute, and he needed to get back home in time to rest up a bit and start making dinner. "Did she happen to say where I can find him?" If not, he could always snoop around the Library’s records to find where Aya lived.

"Yeah, she told me but there was really no need." Havoc slouched against the tree, arms folded over his chest, the unlit cigarette still dangling from his lips. "’Kudoh’s not exactly a common name around here. In fact, the only ones I know about have a history of being Guards and run an inn in the western Green district called the Koneko."

Havoc’s face twisted into something resembling outright dislike or disgust, an unusual expression for the man but Ed just put it down to the Kudohs’ connection to the Guard. Really, why grown people had to make such stupid distinctions like who worked for what organization, he couldn’t understand. "Did Mayumi verify that he lived there?"

"Yeah." Havoc pulled his lighter out of his pocket and, despite Ed’s scowl, lit the smelly stick of dried tobacco. "Stop giving me a nasty look – I don’t want Mustang smelling you on me when I get back." He took a deep drag and blew the smoke downward, onto his own chest. "So what now, boss?"

Busy lining up the last five bars of lead, Ed paused in his task and wondered if he really couldn’t have had someone other than Havoc help him get the needed information. Unfortunately, the answer was ‘no’ and since he’d probably need Havoc’s assistance in the future, he’d best be civil. Mostly. "You get your ass back to work before Mustang or Hawkeye gets suspicious, and tell Breda I’ll stop by on my way to work the day after tomorrow. He’ll then spend as much of this money as possible to get me as many books as he can and we’ll all be happy." Well, he would be at least.

It was Havoc’s turn to roll his eyes. "No, I mean what are you going to do about Kudoh?"

"Oh." Ed blinked a few times and gave the matter some serious thought. "I’m going to be busy the next couple of days, but I should be able to stop by the Koneko this weekend. I’ll see about buying some books off of him then." If the man had any books left – he hoped that Aya hadn’t sold the best ones to Masuda.

Taking another deep puff from his cigarette, Havoc held his breath for a moment before he released the smoke. "Listen, you better be careful if you’re dealing with a Kudoh." The expression of distaste from earlier returned. "I’ve dealt with one of them a few times, back when he was a Guard. Both Mustang and I did. There’s something about him…." He shook his head and sucked once more on his cigarette. "If this Aya Kudoh’s a close relative, you’ll probably have your hands full getting any answers out of him, let alone books. And for the sake of *all* the gods, avoid Yohji Kudoh if you can. That man could put a succubae-bound to shame."

Ed would have thought that something like that would make Havoc like the man, but that didn’t seem to be the case here. He couldn’t help but wonder if Havoc was talking about Aya’s boyfriend. The blond man did seem very affectionate but not with anyone other than Aya, so he didn’t think there would be any problems. Still, he’d better act like he was taking the succubae-bound’s warning to heart before Havoc did something stupid like worry and go tell Roy the truth. "I’ll make sure Al goes with me when I stop by the Koneko. Is that careful enough?" he asked, more than a little snappish from exhaustion and frustration. Wouldn’t the man just leave *now*? "Don’t you think that Hawkeye might be looking for you right about now?"

At the mention of Hawkeye, Havoc actually jumped a few inches into the air. "Ah, you might have a point there. Just watch yourself, okay? You and Al both. And if things go wrong, I had nothing to do with any of this, right?" Havoc stared hard at Ed until he nodded in agreement. "Okay then, time to get going."

A cigarette was waved in Ed’s direction and then Havoc was gone. He kept a careful eye out for the annoying man for a few minutes, not quite sure that Havoc had gone away that easily, but he truly was alone once more. Energy level a bit restored during their talk, Ed decided it would be best to push forward and finish the last of the bars. While not many people usually came into this area of the woods, he didn’t want to chance anyone else running across him. Also, Roy would be done with work in another couple of hours.

He tried to ignore the shiver of pleasure that ran through him with that thought. More than likely, Roy would be curious – and not a little suspicious – over why he’d been so… ‘affectionate’ last night. Which meant that Ed would have to pay close attention to his mate tonight and would have to be ‘affectionate’ once again. His body, tired and still a little sore, seemed infused with blissful warmth all of a sudden. Disturbed by the intensity of that emotion and the desire he felt for Roy, he fiddled with the lead bars and tried to tell himself that he was just horny. Several months of good sex had left him eager for more, even if it was with a pervert like Roy. It wasn’t as if he really enjoyed spending so much time with his mate, with having Roy’s attention focused on him, Roy’s hands and mouth-

Ed’s breath caught in his throat as he refused to finish that train of thought. He was just reacting to the bond forced on him, that was all. He was doing this to get the information he and Al needed to take the Elders down, that was all. They’d sworn to avenge their mother and their teacher no matter what the cost. That’s all last night and today with Roy was to him, the price he had to pay for his revenge. That was all.

Disliking how hollow the explanation sounded, he forced himself to stop thinking about Roy and their screwed-up relationship and to focus on his power instead.

*******

Yohji frowned when he walked into the huge, trash-filled warehouse with Aya by his side. As the sensation of Aya’s emotions faded, replaced by a familiar sense of distance and cold, he could feel the strong waves of anger, sorrow and regret that radiated from the Guards gathered inside. The emotions were terrible, punishing in their intensity as everyone focused on the dead body half-covered with filthy, rotting cloth.

Yuushi’s concern about another dead child being found had proven true. Dammit, Yohji wished that the Guard had asked for their help sooner than this, or that he’d approached Yuushi or Birman days ago – but he hadn’t known about the deaths. That one thought helped to somewhat appease the guilt he felt. And he couldn’t remain pissed off at Yuushi for too long because the man had a point about not turning to him or Aya every time the Guard’s investigations hit a snag. But it was still awful to approach the body of a dead child and wonder if he would still be alive if Yohji had done something sooner.

Miko greeted them as they approached the body. She gave them a wan smile in welcome and nodded, while everyone else was either focused on the dead child or studiously trying not to look at Aya. Yohji could now sense a growing taint of fear from the majority of Guards, the dank emotion was directed at his mate. While, on one hand, he could understand that it was the fact that Aya was a kage that made them so afraid, he could barely hold back a growl of fury. Aya was here to help them, the *Shadow* Guard, a group basically created because of Aya. To think that his mate had helped to save the lives of a lot of the people gathered here, and they were stepping out of his way as if afraid that Aya would lash out at them or something. Hell, a few of the nervous people were even bounds.

But Aya didn’t seem to notice or care how the Guards reacted to his presence. He was focused solely on the dead boy. Even though Yohji didn’t like to be far from his lover when Aya went ‘shinigami’ like this, he forced himself to stay where he was and allow Aya to investigate the body on his own. Most likely, Aya would confer with any shinigami gathered about and wouldn’t want any distractions. When he was done, then it would be Yohji’s turn. He had to be professional during the wait, to push down the need to be by his mate and offer him comfort. More than likely, he’d be bitten if he tried anything like that now.

So he returned Miko’s weak smile and folded his arms over his chest, filled with the sensation of cold from everyone’s emotions. "Heya. Where’s Ken?"

"Out searching for any trace of scent he can find," Miko answered, her voice hushed and eyes shadowed by grief. "He… ah… couldn’t remain around the body for very long, just enough to pick up the scents still clinging to it. We figure the body’s been here for at least two days."

"Huhn." Yohji forced himself to take a deep breath, his enhanced senses unhappy at being assaulted by the building’s foul air. Some of the stench was from the assorted trash left to rot, but over it all was the unmistakable putridness of a decaying body. Two days wasn’t that long of a time and the weather hadn’t been very hot, thankfully, but he felt that the odor should be a little stronger. The thought puzzled him as he looked around the building.

"I take it you’ve searched everything?" While he’d mainly been on baby-sitting duty during his career, he had assisted with several investigations. Perhaps, due to his partially muffled bound senses, he’d been able to pick up on things other Guards had missed, and that was why he had often been called to crime scenes much like this one.

"Actually, we’ve just begun to go through things." Miko threaded her fingers through her hair and gave the short strands a few tugs, almost as if she was trying to force herself to remain awake or aware. Considering the lateness of the hour and the fact that she’d been on baby-sitting duty all day, he couldn’t blame her for being exhausted. "Ken went through things first to find any scents, and sweet gods did he bitch up a storm about how nasty everything in here smells." She let her hands drop back to her sides and a tired smile lightened her shadowed eyes. "Yuushi wanted us to pretty much leave things alone until you and Aya got here."

The Shadow Guard Captain stood not too far from the body, his concentration focused on Aya who was crouched beside the dead boy. Yohji could hear faint hissing noises from where he stood and wished, not for the first time, that he could understand the shinigami’s language. There were moments when he felt that he *almost* understood what the demons and Aya were saying, so there was hope that he’d learn more over time. Not that he was all that eager to talk to shinigami, not after Aya had told him about how they always urged his mate to leave Yohji to join them. He’d almost lost his mate to the damned things once before and he refused to ever let Aya go. Maybe it was a good thing he couldn’t speak to the demons since he really didn’t have anything nice to say to them.

Shifting his attention from his lover and Yuushi, Yohji observed the Guards as they carefully picked through the scattered debris. It was rather easy to tell the bounds from the humans by the way certain Guards breathed through their mouths or, with faces twisted by grimaces, lifted various objects to their noses to be sniffed. There were several expressions of amazement and respect on the faces of the bounds’ human partners. "So, did Ken find anything?"

Miko’s smile faded at his question. "Well, he said there was some faint traces of human scent clinging to the body and the floor, but I don’t think he has much hope of tracking them very far due to all the traffic in this area. But he did say that there was something odd about the body." She glanced over at Aya. "I imagine that once Aya is done, Yuushi will finally let us examine the poor kid."

He looked once more over at Aya. His lover’s body blocked most of the child from his view; all he could see was matted dark brown hair. "Have you identified the victim yet?" he asked, the words painful and harsh in the quiet atmosphere.

"We think he’s one of the street kids who’d been snatched," Miko said, her voice just as worn and aching as his. "I don’t know what’s worse – having to break the news to a child’s family or handing one over to a shrine without a name."

Pain roiled off of the young woman, and before he knew what he was doing, he hugged her close. The sudden sense of surprise he felt from Miko made him gently release her while he managed a nervous laugh. "Right, that’s Ken’s job," he joked as he did his best to strengthen his mental shields. All the potent emotion here affected his empathy so much that he was beginning to react to it without thought.

But at least Miko managed a smile and her pain faded a bit. "Please, Ken’s too afraid that I’ll try to tackle him to the floor and take advantage of him to give me a hug." Her laugh was much more genuine than his as she patted his right shoulder. "Little does he know that he’s even cuter when he gets that panicked look in his eyes."

"I wouldn’t know, Ken’s always been off-limits to me." He patted Miko’s shoulder in return and stepped away. "Besides, I have someone much cuter to tackle to the floor and take advantage of, if you ask me." Waving goodbye, he went to join his mate.

Aya was now standing over the dead body, eyes a shining silver half hidden behind thick bangs. "You okay, Cat?" he asked as he approached his lover, worried that Aya was losing himself to his kage nature.

Instead of answering him verbally, Aya lifted his head and met Yohji’s gaze. A hint of emotion came through the coldness of Aya’s demon soul, the slightest taste of love and assurance. Then he turned away to stare down at the dead body, crouched beside him and reached out a gloved hand.

Before Yohji could warn Aya about not touching the body, Aya’s hand stopped just short of the boy’s filthy, blood-soaked shirt. "He was killed three days ago in an old tannery on Herrs Street." Aya’s sibilant voice echoed through the mostly empty warehouse and made several of the Guards start in fear.

Not Yuushi, however. The Shadow Guard Captain squatted beside Aya and ignored Yohji’s warning growl at their closeness. "Herrs Street? Is that where they’re keeping the other children?" His blue eyes shone brightly in a suddenly flushed face. Yohji could taste his sudden flare of hope and excitement.

Unfortunately, Aya couldn’t provide him with the answer he wanted to hear. "All I know is that the boy died there." He tilted his head to the side and hissed for a moment, and soon there was a sibilant response. "We don’t think that anyone’s there now."

Yuushi’s face portrayed none of his dashed hopes. Standing up, he searched about until he found Miko. "Go get your partner and head for the abandoned Fitzpatrick Tannery. Have Cora and Bae Young meet you there. If the place seems deserted, find whatever you can and then make a report. If you need more help, don’t hesitate to call for it."

Miko didn’t bother with a response other than to nod as her right hand frantically tapped on her copper bracelet. Maybe this time, Ken would have more luck in finding a trail left behind by the kidnappers.

Yohji watched her leave and then knelt beside his lover. "What else did you find out, Aya?" he asked in a hushed voice. Unable to hold back any longer, he slid his right arm around his lover’s waist and smiled when Aya leaned against him.

"They didn’t make it a quick death." Shadows writhed around the body, around the entire warehouse until the mage globes that provided light seemed to dim for several seconds. Then Aya let out a deep breath and his body trembled, as if he were bothered by a horrible image or thought. "He was bleeding to death before they removed his heart."

"What the fuck?" Yohji asked, shocked by what those bastards had done to the poor kid. "Why would they do that?"

"I think to give the heart to a wizard." Aya’s voice took on a clinical edge, like when he talked about something he’d read from his books. "While not as potent as bound blood, such an offering to the spirits would provide a boost to a spell – especially since the heart was from a young victim. I’ve read about Esset wizards doing that during the War."

Yuushi made a sound of disgust and shook his head. "We had a case about someone selling body parts to a wizard a few years back." Despite how appalled he was over someone doing that to a child, Yohji could tell that the bit of news had strengthened Yuushi’s hope. "Maybe this is the connection we needed to find out who made the charms they’re using now."

"Botan should be able to help," Yohji explained to Aya when his mate appeared puzzled by Yuushi’s comment. "Part of his job is to keep track of all the wizards in the city, of what type of magic they specialize in and if they have a good or bad reputation. Last time, he helped out by giving us a list of suspects." He squeezed Aya’s hip before he looked back down at the dead boy. "First, they abduct kids and then they start killing a few of them. Next, they change the way they’re snatching them and now they’re selling body parts. They’re getting out of control, Yuushi."

"I know," Yuushi agreed in a serious voice. "I’ve ordered the Guards stationed along the main roads to report back on the caravans’ progress. At least two of them should arrive in a few more days. I think the killers are getting desperate or over-eager now that their way out of town is about to arrive."

The news did strengthen the belief that the children were to be taken by caravan to wherever the abductors planned to sell them. Yohji personally believed that the bastards were getting desperate since they were now using magic to get children and how they managed to pay for that magic. Yuushi might have called him and Aya in to help with this mission, but the truth was that the Guard had done a pretty good job cracking down on the abduction ring even if they hadn’t caught anyone yet. The increased patrols and intense scrutiny had made it difficult for the bastards to just snatch a kid off the street anymore, which was most likely the reason behind the change in tactics.

"If they are using one of the caravans to smuggle the kids out of the city, then they’ll need magic to hide them. The kidnappers must realize that the caravans will be searched," Aya contributed to the discussion. He remained crouched by the body.

Yohji and Yuushi nodded in agreement. "If you say the death took place three days ago, they might have traded the child’s heart for the charms they used to abduct Nadia Harris." Yuushi scowled and his voice grew rough as he mentioned the reason why the boy had been killed. "I don’t know much about charms, but I think they’re going to need a lot of magic to hide the presence of a dozen children."

"Which means that it’s more than likely there will be more deaths." Yohji didn’t want to think about finding another poor child like this. He also didn’t want to think that, for such an elaborate magic, it would more than likely mean several children’s hearts. Then something occurred to him. "Yuushi, the reports you left with us said that two of the dead children were also from the streets and the other child came from a poor home. It’s clear that they’re killing off the… less ‘valuable’ children whenever they kidnap one in better health." Or ones who were still virgins.

Yuushi seemed to pick up on his thoughts. "So, more than likely they’ll want to sacrifice another ‘worthless’ child." His eyes blazed with fury, the emotion so strong that Yohji had to fight to breathe for a moment and could only center himself in the icy calmness he felt from Aya. "We’re not sure of the exact number of street children they’ve abducted, but we don’t think they… have many left."

"So they might be looking to snatch another one or two so they can pay the wizard," Yohji finished for him. "I think that if you’re hoping these bastards will take Naru or Elise, this is the best chance you’ll have."

His right hand busy tapping on his bracelet, Yuushi nodded but didn’t bother to look at Yohji. "Botan’s busy working on something that he thinks might make the abductors ‘snatch the bait’. Li volunteered a few drops of her blood, so…." His cheeks took on a hint of red and he deliberately avoided looking up as he explained.

Unhappy with the thought of any wizard using bound blood in a spell, Yohji had to admit to himself that Li didn’t seem the type to be talked into doing something she didn’t want to do and was grateful that Botan hadn’t needed any of Aya’s blood. However, he couldn’t hold back a question. "This isn’t going to set a precedent, is it?"

This time Yuushi did meet his gaze. "I refuse to let my people be used like that. If one of them wants to volunteer their blood, that’s one thing, but to be honest I’d rather not become dependent on charms or spells like that. As it is, Botan’s made it clear he’s only going to do this for special situations. He said that he’s spent several decades using blood as little as possible for his spells and he’d rather keep things that way if he can."

Yohji wasn’t worried about Botan abusing bound blood, not when the man slept with Cassandra. In love or not, he didn’t think his dear friend would tolerate anyone who took advantage of bounds. "Just checking," he said, a little startled but very pleased with the vehement answer he received from the Captain.

He gently nudged an elbow into his lover’s ribs. "You about done there, Cat?"

"One moment. Step back," Aya said, his voice almost incomprehensible due to the thick sibilance with which he spoke. Suddenly uneasy, Yohji and Yuushi did as he asked. Remaining crouched by the dead child, Aya began to hiss and was soon answered. Only this time, the shadows began to crawl all over him until he was obscured by a shimmering, dark cloak that hissed and crooned in an inhuman chorus of voices. Realizing that these weren’t Aya’s shadows, Yohji let out a startled grasp and tried to grab Aya’s arm. But, as his flesh touched the shadows, it was chilled by an intense cold and his fingers sunk through Aya’s arm as if it were intangible. Memories of what had happened at the wedding made him panic. "Aya! Dammit, you promised you wouldn’t go!" he yelled as he tried without luck to touch his mate. Aya, his eyes closed and mouth open, didn’t respond – but the shimmering shadows did. Yohji felt something cold slam into his chest and he went flying through the air.

"Yohji!" Yuushi hurried after him and offered a hand to help pick him up off the floor, several feet away from Aya and the odd shadows. All the Guards quickly gathered as far away from Aya as they could manage.

"What the hell happened?" Yuushi demanded once Yohji was back on his feet, little worse for wear other than what felt to be a frostbitten hand and a sore chest and ass. "What’s wrong?"

Pushing past the man, Yohji stumbled back to Aya, who was no longer covered in what he just now realized must have been shinigami. "Aya!"

Shaking his head as if dazed, Aya slowly leaned back from the body and turned toward Yohji. "Yotan," he said, voice still sibilant but his eyes no longer a pure silver. "What’s wrong?" He reached out and gently stroked his hand down Yohji’s chest. "Are you all right?"

Yohji couldn’t help it; he grabbed his once again solid mate by the arms and gave him a good shake. "What’s wrong? You were vanishing again. What the hell do you think you are doing?" he yelled, his voice more than a little panicked.

Not surprisingly, Aya didn’t appreciate being manhandled and snarled as he batted Yohji’s hands aside. "I had the shinigami give me a portion of the child’s energy so I could help identify the wizard or any spells created with his heart."

"You can do that?" Yuushi asked, interrupting Yohji while he tried to think of the best way to call his mate an idiot without leading to massive blood loss on his part.

"Yes," Aya hissed, his gaze locked on Yohji.

"Well dammit, give a person some warning next time!" Yohji sputtered and reached out to yank on an eartail. "You nearly gave me a heart attack just now." He yelped when his hand was batted aside but didn’t stop glaring at his mate. "I didn’t know you could do that either!"

Aya matched his glare for a moment, and then glanced aside, his brows furrowed and his teeth nibbling on his bottom lip. "I… didn’t realize that," he said, his voice hushed but returned to normal. "Are you all right? I felt… something."

Sighing, Yohji let go of his anger and gave his lover a hug. "At least I know about it now, but I’d appreciate some warning next time." He was still learning just how much Aya could do as a kage, and there were times when Aya stumbled onto a new talent that surprised them both. "And I’m fine. Your friends didn’t seem to like me interrupting your little ‘exchange’ with them but I’ll survive."

Aya frowned and glanced angrily at the shadows, but before he could do or say anything, Yuushi cleared his throat to get their attention. "Ah, thank you, Aya. That’s going to come in very handy once we track the wizard down. May I ask for your help in detaining whoever that is?" When Aya agreed, Yuushi smiled in gratitude before he turned to scowl at all the Guards gathered about. "It would be nice if the rest of you were doing something to help solve this murder."

The Guards instantly scrambled to return to whatever it was they’d been doing before Yohji had been sent flying by the shinigami. Yohji spared the demons a few more dark thoughts and hugged Aya to his still slightly sore chest before he reluctantly let go and stepped aside. The contact seemed to soothe some of the pain away. "They’re not the only ones who need to get back to work. You done, Aya?" He wanted to see if he could find any clues left on the boy’s body and then go home. Aya had really given him a bad scare just now and he wanted to get his mate alone, to remind him of all the reasons why having a solid body was a good thing. He also wanted to get out of this warehouse that reeked of death and filth as soon as possible. They’d already figured out a couple of good leads tonight, now to give it his best effort and get out of here before Aya did something else to scare him to death.

When Aya nodded, he reached out to stroke his right hand along Aya’s cheek and then forced himself to concentrate on the dead child. "If no one else objects, I’m going to turn him over now." When Yuushi said that was all right, he braced himself for whatever it was that he might find and tried to gently roll the body over. It wouldn’t move. While the boy must have lost most of his blood in the tannery where he’d been killed, enough of that and other bodily fluids had remained for him to stick to the floor. Fighting back his gag reflex, Yohji used more strength until the body finally rested on its back.

His body was already beginning to bloat, so it was difficult to distinguish the boy’s features, but he was small enough to be barely more than ten years old. Maybe add another couple of years due to poor nutrition. His chest was raggedly sliced open, a gaping hole where his heart should have been. Yohji felt hot fury build inside of him as he looked upon what those bastards had done to an innocent child. Now he understood a little better what had pushed Aya to do something so risky as to feed from the shinigami. Seeing this, he was about to do anything necessary if it would solve this case, even if that meant giving a few quarts of his blood to Botan. The bastards weren’t going to get away with this, they weren’t going to be given a chance to mutilate and kill another child. That was a promise.

*******

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