Family Bonds

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chapter seven

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Resolution of darkness, part two

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Yohji crouched beside his mate, his left hand on Aya’s shoulder. Omi flanked his other side, and Reiichi knelt near Aya as they stared at Trautmann’s house through a veil of rhododendron leaves. The wizard flaunted his status with a small garden that surrounded his house – which was located not far from the eastern Leather district, a location that was neither very valuable nor desirable within the capital’s walls. Yohji began to see why the bastard was helping kidnappers for money and body parts. From the little he could tell from the surrounding area and from recalling Botan’s notes on the wizard, Trautmann most likely coveted a way to gain even more status and wealth. He probably wanted a nice house with a garden in an even better – expensive - part of the city. Enough so that he was willing to sell kids into slavery and to even have them killed. As if a bit of land, some gold coin and a reputation were really worth the price those poor kids paid.

Trying to rein his emotions in, Yohji reminded himself that, right now, he had to be calm and logical. After a moment’s struggle, he managed what he thought of as his ‘Guard mindset’, a mental place of slightly detached emotions and strong attention to details. Since he’d left the Guard almost two years ago, he hadn’t had much reason to put it to use until he began to work for Birman a couple of months ago. Tonight, he needed it to keep his wits about him to make sure that Omi and Reiichi didn’t get hurt, and that Aya didn’t go all shinigami on him again.

They had clear orders to take Trautmann into custody, and he didn’t have much doubt that Aya would easily manage to do just that. What worried him was Aya doing so without attracting any unwanted attention or going overboard and killing the wizard. Botan had reassured them that whoever was involved in the murders of the children would face a death sentence, but Botan and Birman needed some answers from Trautmann before that happened. So Aya killing the wizard would be a bad thing, as odd as that sounded. Annoyed as Yohji was with Yuushi saddling them with Omi and Reiichi, he could understand why the Shadow Captain had done so. Still, he didn’t need any more worries right now when he wanted to make sure that Aya didn’t turn insubstantial again, and not get thrown across the small yard by his mate’s jealous ‘playmates’. Omi and Reiichi better keep a sharp eye out for themselves and not get in the way.

No, right now he was mainly worried about his lover, who had called once again upon his kage nature. But while Aya’s eyes were pure silver, the color molten and glowing in the light of the cloud-obscured moons, he could still sense some emotion from his lover. There was mostly anticipation but a bit of sharp anger as well, and disgust. He didn’t doubt that Aya wanted to kill the wizard and force him to pay for what he’d had done to those poor kids.

"We need him alive, Cat," he told his lover and gave Aya’s shoulder a gentle squeeze. Aya turned to look at him, moonlight reflected in his unnatural eyes. "Just take him down with as little fuss as possible and hand him over to Reiichi and Omi," he continued, his voice low and soothing. The last thing he wanted was to start a fight with his mate while hiding in a murderous wizard’s back yard, but it seemed that Aya couldn’t think properly when he gave in to his kage nature like this. A little fazed by his mate’s continuing silence, he smiled in the face of Aya’s blank stare, the expression a little shaky.

Aya stared back for a few more seconds and then leaned against him. "I don’t sense anyone in the house other than Trautmann, who is working on a spell." Aya’s voice was sibilant and quiet, as lacking in emotion as his expression but he didn’t pull away when Yohji hugged him closer. Feeling his mate’s growing exhaustion, Yohji sent a little extra energy and thought about how much Aya had used his power so far tonight.

"He must be preparing something for when…." Omi’s hushed voice trailed off as he audibly gulped, his tan face suddenly washed pale but there was a burning, angry look in his eyes. "As much as he deserves to suffer magical backlash, it would be best to wait until he’s finished since we don’t want to chance his spell getting out of control. There are his neighbors to think about, not to mention the damage he could do to himself."

"I can handle the spell’s backlash," Aya informed them, and to prove the truth of his words the garden’s shadows began to creep up the yard’s stone wall and into the sky. Despite the energy that Yohji had just fed him, his exhaustion increased. Yohji wanted to tell him to stop, but understood that Aya had to create wards to keep any innocents from being harmed.

Reiichi watched the shadows’ progress for a moment and then lightly touched Aya’s left knee. "Won’t someone notice the house vanishing if you do that?" he asked while he quickly withdrew his hand before Yohji even had a chance to growl.

"It hasn’t happened yet." As Aya spoke, he rose to his feet in a smooth, uncoiling motion while Yohji and Omi scrambled upright in a less dignified manner. Reiichi, of course, stood up almost as gracefully as Aya, even with the lame leg. There was a spark of jealousy on Yohji’s part for a moment, before common sense kicked back in. While the man might occasionally show him up at such times like these, there was no relationship between Reiichi and Aya other than friendship.

Aya must have sensed his emotions, though, since he once more leaned against Yohji before he continued to explain. "I haven’t tried doing this during the daylight, but the few times I’ve done it at night, no one seemed to notice that anything vanished, just like back at the pleasure district."

"Yes, but we were hiding in shadowed places to begin with," Reiichi pointed out as he adjusted his glasses. "And this is an entire house you’re hiding, in a neighborhood that, while it’s not one of the best, pays a little more attention to what’s going on than back in the pleasure district."

Beginning to growl, Yohji shifted around so he could better face Reiichi, his left arm draped over Aya’s shoulders. "This really isn’t the time for a discussion. If Aya says no one will notice, I trust him," he growled.

Reiichi didn’t seem put-off in the slightest and merely shrugged. "We can’t do anything until Trautmann finishes his spell, correct? There’s still the backlash to him we have to worry about. And I think it would be a bad thing if someone noticed that something was wrong and alerted him to the fact that we’re here," he replied, his voice and demeanor annoyingly calm. "Also, if he finds a way to alert the kidnappers, Yuushi’s job will be that much more difficult."

Perhaps sensing that Yohji wasn’t in the mood to have a nice, rational debate at the moment, Omi stepped between him and Reiichi. "I trust Aya’s word as well, and think our best chance of getting out of here without attracting any attention would be if we worked quickly," he said, the words rushed as he tried to prevent a fight from starting. "Aya, is he still casting a spell? Yuushi and the others should be ready soon."

Aya stirred and stepped forward, away from Yohji. "He’s still working on the spell. I can capture him as soon as he’s finished."

"Good." Omi nodded in approval and then fixed both Reiichi and Yohji with a stern look. "This is what we’re going to do. Aya, once he’s finished, can you bind him with your shadows?" There was a moment of hesitation before Aya nodded. "Once you do that, we’ll enter the house. I want you to break all the wards and spells you find, Aya." Omi looked away from him and stared intently at Yohji. "After Aya is done handling the spells, you’ll deal with Trautmann. Make sure he’s tied up well enough that he can’t talk or gesture." Omi’s gaze flickered to Aya for a moment, and then back to Yohji. "We need him alive but not conscious - not right now at least. You have some experience in subduing suspects so I trust you to knock him out."

"It would be easier to take him back to the palace if he weren’t awake," Reiichi added. "But I’m sure Botan and Birman would like to be able to question him as soon as possible."

His anger fading more into mild annoyance, Yohji sighed as he stepped closer to his lover. "I do know how to knock a guy out and not put him into a coma. But if you’re that worried, I can practice on you before we go inside." He arched an eyebrow at Reiichi, who smiled back.

"I have faith in you as well, Yohji," the Guard said, amusement coloring his smooth voice. "I was just pointing out a simple fact. But if you wish to practice some other time, I’m sure I could provide you with a list of ‘volunteers’."

Despite the gravity of the situation they found themselves in, Yohji had to chuckle a little at the snappy comeback. Trust Reiichi to always be able to have the last word. "I think I can easily imagine the names of a few of those volunteers."

"It’s a good thing Yuushi’s not here," Omi mumbled, his voice pitched low but not low enough to be missed by Yohji’s enhanced sense of hearing. He scowled briefly at Yohji and Reiichi before he turned to watch the house. "Oh, that’s right, he’s on the other side of the district waiting for us to get Trautmann so he can take care of a bunch of murdering kidnappers."

Getting the not so subtle hint, Yohji also focused his attention on Trautmann’s house as his arm snaked around Aya’s waist. If he concentrated hard enough, he could swear he got a tingling sensation when he looked at the southern corner, the one with the shuttered windows on the first floor. Just after he identified what portion of the building radiated it the strongest, Aya pulled away once again.

"He’s finished." Shadows raced from Aya’s feet, across the small garden and toward the wizard’s abode. Just as they reached its threshold, Aya followed them, a dark blur. Yohji started and quickly followed. As he ran, he felt Reiichi send the message to the Shadow Guard that Trautmann was about to be captured.

"Slow down," Yohji hissed as they approached the front door. "Reiichi and Omi are too far behind us." Aya didn’t look at him but paused in front of the door with his hand on the doorknob, until their friends caught up. Once Reiichi and Omi were close, shadows formed around them, especially Reiichi, who appeared surprised at first but then seemed to quickly adjust to having shadows draped all over his body. He wasn’t immune to magic, after all, nor did he have a ring to protect him from spells so he might need the armor.

Now that they were grouped together, Aya opened the door and entered the house. His right hand on his gauntlet, Yohji closely followed him, fully alert and wary of any surprises. He heard loud yelling that was mostly muffled, and felt a sharp spike of fear/rage/disbelief that he figured was from Trautmann. Omi and Reiichi were right behind him, nervous yet eager.

As focused as he was just then, he swore that he could tell whenever Aya broke a spell. There were these bursts of energy that made his skin tingle, always right before Aya would take another step forward. Upon hearing a constant chattering sound, Yohji whirled around and found Reiichi almost entirely covered in shadows and reacting to their icy presence. But the man nodded to him and kept moving forward, a shiny knife in each shaking hand.

"Cat…," Yohji asked, not quite sure of the question he wanted to ask.

Aya didn’t look back, but there was the feeling of reassurance over their link. "Trautmann has more spells than I expected." The reassurance faded somewhat under the sensations of guilt, exhaustion and disappointment. "I… so many things…."

Just as Aya seemed to know what he wanted to ask, Yohji knew what his lover was trying to say. "You’re manipulating too many things at once, aren’t you? Let me go after Trautmann while you make sure he can’t cast any more spells, okay?" When Aya turned to look at him, he gave a reassuring smile. "Don’t worry, he can’t harm me."

"He better not," Aya snapped, for a moment he became more human than he’d been all evening long. Yohji flashed him another smile before he raced ahead. As he ran, he felt something similar to cobwebs around him, faint impressions of restraint that sent shivers up and down his spine as he ‘broke’ through them. It took him a moment to realize that the cobwebs must really be wards, and then he was at the southern corner of the house.

As soon as he touched the closed door in front of him, shadows surged forward and threw it open. He leaped into the room, strands of wire coiled in his hands, and found Trautmann on his hands and knees. The wizard appeared disheveled and wide-eyed, and was attempting to crawl toward a table covered with several books and gleaming amulets.

Yohji didn’t give him a chance to get there. He threw the wire out, careful to avoid the bastard’s throat, and willed it to bind, not cut. There was some small temptation to slice into Trautmann just a little bit, to make him bleed and cry out in pain but he forced it aside. As his wire wrapped around the wizard’s body and trapped his arms to his sides, more shadows settled on the bottom half of Trautmann’s face. Either obeying Aya or his wishes, they prevented Trautmann from uttering any spells, which was perfectly fine with Yohji. Then he allowed some wire to loop around the wizard’s throat and tighten slowly to cut off the bastard’s oxygen.

It didn’t take very long after that for Aya and the others to catch up. As soon as Aya entered the room, Yohji was there at his mate’s side and touched his cheek to send him more energy. There were dark circles under Aya’s silver eyes, and a boneless quality to the way he moved his head and arms. Between everything that Aya had done tonight, all the people whose presence he’d masked and the wards he’d created and broken, Yohji figured that his mate was fast approaching his limit. "Are you all right, love?" he asked before he encircled Aya in his arms.

Aya purred softly and nuzzled the side of his neck. "I… this is the first time I’ve tried to do so much at the same time. Too many wards." Yohji held on even tighter when Aya began to slump a little. "Easier to just rip things apart," he murmured.

Omi tentatively touched Yohji’s shoulder when he entered the room. "Botan said that’s a basic principle of both magic and reality," he said in a shy voice. "I know it drains me more to cast wards than any other spells." When Yohji smiled at him, he seemed to gain some confidence and ran his fingers lightly over Aya’s hair. "Once we bind Trautmann so he can’t cast any more spells, you can take the ward down from around the house." He hurried over to the wizard, where Reiichi was waiting.

"Ah, Yohji, I think he’s passed out now," Reiichi commented and squatted beside the immobile wizard. Yohji checked to see if he felt anything from Trautmann before he decided that the bastard was indeed passed out and not faking, then he willed the golden wire to return to his gauntlet. Reiichi grunted as if in surprise when the strands released Trautmann, then pulled rope from the canvas bag slung across his chest.

As he and Omi began to restrain the wizard, Aya slowly pulled away from Yohji and crossed the room. He headed straight for the table that Trautmann tried to reach before Yohji had stopped the bastard and stared down at its contents. After a moment, he gingerly picked up a few amulets, disgust plain on his face, and approached Omi with them.

The teenager looked up when Aya stopped in front of him. "Here," Aya said, his voice the most sibilant that Yohji had ever heard, "these are the charms he made with the boy’s heart and blood."

Omi gulped, the sound loud in the quiet room, and held out a shaky hand. He grimaced when Aya let the amulets drop onto his palm, and quickly transferred the things to the pouch on his belt. "Thanks, Aya." The words didn’t sound very sincere, but then again, Omi had just been given something so gruesome that Yohji couldn’t blame him for lack of enthusiasm. Personally, he never wanted to touch the things.

Reiichi finished tying Trautmann up and then rose to his feet. "Is there any other evidence in the room, Aya?" he asked, his voice quiet and eyes concerned. "I’m sure Botan can deal with the rest of the spells and things, but we need to be able to tell him what’s here."

Aya closed his eyes and swayed where he stood. By the time Yohji was at his side, there were black lines over much of the room that drew attention to various objects. "He used blood in a lot of spells around the house, including the ones I broke through to get us here. It’s… almost as bad as Timbergrey," he finished, the words slightly slurred from exhaustion.

A little worried about how tired Aya appeared, Yohji exchanged a concerned look with Reiichi and hugged his mate. "Cat, are you all right?" Aya tried to pull away, but Yohji didn’t let him. "What’s wrong?"

Taking a deep breath, Aya let it out slowly before he answered. "I’m… not getting any energy back. Too many wards and not enough… destruction."

It took Yohji a moment to decipher that. Aya had spent the night hiding quite a few of the Shadow Guard, not to mention warding all the kids in the eastern Pleasure district. Then he’d blocked the alley off so they could capture the suspect and hadn’t dropped the wards there until they’d reached Trautmann’s house – only to reestablish those same wards here. Add to that protecting Reiichi, restraining Trautmann and any spells he tried to unleash, breaking all those wards and spells in a matter of minutes when it had taken him hours at Timbergrey… and there had been no deaths during all of this. He knew that his lover fed from the energy released at death, and there had been none tonight. In fact, Aya hadn’t been around any deaths for some time. No wonder he was drained.

And, as much as Yohji wanted to give his lover more energy, the demon part of him refused to do so when Aya was this weak and they weren’t at home. One of them needed to be strong, especially when they weren’t in a safe place, such as the Koneko. So all he did was place a kiss on top of Aya’s head. "Drop all the wards, Cat. All the ones except those marking the spells, okay?"

"Mmmm, kids are still in danger," Aya mumbled into his shoulder.

When Reiichi seemed to suddenly appear beside them, neither of them could hold a snarl back. Reiichi jerked the hand away that was about to touch Aya’s shoulder. "Ah, you can drop them now, Aya." He blushed slightly and smiled, the expression nervous and utterly unlike his usually calm demeanor. "Sorry to eavesdrop but…." He shrugged and seemed to regain control of himself. "I think you two must have missed it, but Yuushi and the others are taking the kidnappers into custody as we speak."

"But the kids on the-"

Reiichi pushed his glasses up and cut Aya off. "They’ll be fine – well, as good as they can be, and should be receiving a free meal soon. If Yuushi is raiding the warehouse, he must feel confident that all the suspects are accounted for, and I’m sure Eri and Yonekuni would know if they weren’t." His expression became tender and a little remorseful. "You can’t ward them forever."

"No." Aya put a little distance between him and Yohji, just enough so that he could take a deep breath and rub his eyes. "It’s done." The sense of energy draining from Aya stopped, but he was still exhausted.

Yohji released his mate from the embrace but kept one arm around Aya’s waist. "Okay, so Yuushi and the others have everything under control?" Reiichi nodded to confirm this. "Good. And you two can take this bastard back to the palace, right?"

Reiichi glanced at the bound wizard and frowned. "I was hoping for your help to get him into the cart, but after that, yes, we’ll be fine."

Sighing, Yohji realized he couldn’t expect Omi and Reiichi to carry the unconscious wizard to the cart they’d hidden a couple of houses down from Trautmann’s. Of course that meant that Aya would have to cloak them, but hopefully a relatively small use of his talent wouldn’t drain him that much more. Then they could go home and he’d put his mate to bed if he had to tie him up and hit him over the head with Jo’s rolling pin.

"Let’s get this done, then. I think it’s past our bedtime," he joked and reluctantly moved from Aya’s side. As he bent down to pick Trautmann up, Omi took his place beside Aya. Yohji felt a slight spark of anger and protectiveness that quickly faded. Omi was Nagi’s, the poor kid, and wasn’t trying to do anything to Aya. In fact, considering that Nagi counted on him to watch over Aya in his place, if there was anyone other than Yohji with whom Aya would be safe, it was Omi. That was something that even Yohji’s demon soul could comprehend.

Reiichi rubbed his hands up and down his arms as he followed Yohji out of the room. "I agree completely. All I want to do is have a nice, long soak before going to bed. Those shadows of yours are marvelous, Aya, but I feel as if I just spent the last six hours walking around naked during Winter Solstice."

Yohji was unable to refrain from asking. "Do you do that often? I can see that this year’s Solstice is going to be one very interesting day," he teased as he made his way down the hallway with Trautmann slung over his shoulder. There were no more cobweb tingles, which showed that Aya had done a very thorough job of destroying Trautmann’s wards. Too bad Aya couldn’t feed from broken spells, even if they were fueled with blood.

When they reached the front door, Aya made them stop. "I have to ward the place to make sure no one breaks in," he explained. "Omi, tell Botan that the ward will vanish when he touches his ring to the door." Then Aya closed his eyes and swayed some more, while Yohji contemplated dropping the wizard to the ground and going over to his mate. Fortunately for Trautmann, Aya finished before he could do just that, and placed a hand on Omi’s shoulder for the walk back to the cart and their horses.

Unsurprisingly, they didn’t run into anyone on the way there, which annoyed Yohji since it meant that Aya wasted the energy to hide them from nothing. But once the wizard was in the cart he became Omi and Reiichi’s problem, which meant that Yohji and Aya could go home. "Be careful," he told his friends as he untied the reins of his and Aya’s horses. He kept a hold of the ones for his horse but handed those belonging to Aya’s to Omi. "Here, take the horse with you."

"Uhm, okay." Omi accepted the reins and tied them to the back of the cart before he climbed up to sit beside Reiichi. "Be careful yourself!" he said, his voice hushed enough so they wouldn’t disturb any of the neighbors.

Reiichi didn’t appear very happy but he made the horses pulling the cart take a step forward. "Yes, please be careful going home. I can always ask Birman to-"

"We’ll be home by the time you can arrange an escort for us and for them to get here, not to mention that Trautmann won’t be out of it for much longer so *go*," Yohji told his friends, touched by their concern but eager to get back to the Koneko. Reiichi shut his mouth, his lips pressed into a grim line, but did as he was told while Omi waved goodbye.

"Okay, Cat, time for us to go home," he told Aya, who was leaning against a wooden fence as if he didn’t have the energy to stand upright on his own. As if to prove him wrong, Aya pushed away from the fence and stepped closer to Yohji’s horse.

"I could’ve ridden by myself," he said, his deep voice shaded with exhaustion.

Yohji reached out to tug gently on one of his mate’s eartails, and tried not to worry when Aya’s resulting swat to his hand was much slower than normal. "I’m sure you could, but I’d worry so much about you falling out of the saddle that we’d be too busy arguing to get home before sunrise. Humor me, love, and ride in front of me." He didn’t feel comfortable with Aya being very far away from him while he was in this condition.

Aya stared at him for a few seconds, the silver slowly fading from his eyes. "Stubborn, over-protective bastard," he muttered under his breath and began to mount the horse.

Smiling at having gotten his way without a big fight, Yohji waited for his lover to settle onto the saddle before he swung up as well. "Guilty on all counts. You’d think a classy lady like my mom would’ve had the courtesy to marry my father just so I’d be legitimate. Then again," he said as he held on tightly to Aya, "considering the fact that my dad’s Masato, I don’t blame her too much."

"Yotan, shut up and get us home. I feel like I could sleep for the next three days," Aya mumbled as he leaned against Yohji’s chest.

"Whatever you want, Cat." Yohji spoke, not in jest but, in perfect honesty and kicked the horse into a fast trot. He just wanted to get home himself, and the thought of spending the next day or two in bed with his lover was a happy one. If Jo was still up – and he wouldn’t be surprised if she was since all of them associated with the Shadow Guard were still out this late at night – then he’d make Aya have something to eat before they went to bed. Part of him was half-tempted to go help Yuushi and the others but with his luck, by the time they got there all the kidnappers would either be dead or in custody. He wouldn’t risk being able to get Aya a quick meal on such a lousy chance. No, the best thing would be to go home, let Jo fuss over them and then sleep until at least noon tomorrow. They were safe at the Koneko, and they’d done more than enough tonight to help a lot of other people to remain safe as well. There was a bit of pleasing warmth inside his chest at that thought. Now to get Aya home and he’d be totally content.

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Yuushi tapped the command that would allow his message to be ‘heard’ on all of the Shadow Guards’ wristbands, then asked Ken a question. /Are you inside yet?/

There was a slight pause before Ken sent an answer. /I’m in. Give me a couple minutes to take out a few sentries./

Miko’s message was right on the tail of Ken’s. /Looks like Yonekuni was correct – the kids are all split into two groups. Is there anyone with them? I’m the room next door to some of them and can’t tell./

/There isn’t anyone with the kids they’re planning to give to the wizard since they’re all tied up,/ Eri tapped. /However, someone’s now checking up on the other kids. More than one person. Three./

Hidden in an old storeroom next to the one that the kidnappers seemed to be using as an office, Yuushi quickly assessed the situation. /Miko, get as close as you can to the children without being spotted. Make sure the children don’t get hurt. Eri and Naru – help her once the wards are down and keep one of the targets alive. Ken – hide the bodies until after Botan breaks the wards,/ he reminded the bound.

/Yes, sir,/ Ken sent back after a few seconds. For a moment he worried about Ken’s new demon nature, but he trusted the man to do as he’d been ordered.

/Botan?/

The wizard didn’t need any more of a message than that to guess what Yuushi wanted. /Less than five minutes, Yuushi – unless I keep being interrupted./

Getting the hint, Yuushi decided not to ask for another update. Instead, he crept toward the room’s door, mindful of the mice scurrying about with soft squeaks from being disturbed. He didn’t want to do anything that would alert the targets, even though Yonekuni was supposedly influencing their minds to lull them into a calm state.

Yuushi had been the first one in, so they could see if the wards could be successfully breached with Birman’s ring. Not that they’d expected the ring to fail but he wanted to be sure to not put the children into any unnecessary danger if he could help it. After all, it was easier to explain the presence of one unkempt, seemingly drunk man who had crawled into a warm, dry building for the night rather than several Guards. Next came Ken and then Miko, and the magic had yet to fail them. While he waited for Reiichi to tell him that Trautmann was in custody, Ken could take care of a few of the sentries and Botan work on breaking the building’s wards. Once all that was done, then it would be the Shadow Guard’s turn to make quick work of the fifteen targets. He tried not to think of everything that could go wrong before then.

/I’ve taken three out,/ Ken sent over their bracelets. /That’s it without causing a fuss./

Make that twelve targets now scattered about in the old building. /Eri, where are they?/ he tapped, not wanting to disturb Yonekuni as the bound influenced the targets’ minds.

As always, Eri quickly came through for him. /Three with the kids – Naru and I will handle them. Two next to you. Two more on sentry duty on the north side of the building. One sleeping on the second floor. One on his way outside – the east door. Three in the kitchen./ As she tapped the message, images of where all the targets were flashed through his mind. Thanks to Eri and Yonekuni, they not only knew how many targets there were but where, and had an accurate layout for the building. Because of them, he felt a carefully banked spark of hope that, with all this information, his Shadow Guards should come out of this relatively unscathed. Over his years as a Guard, he’d lost more than a few good friends to faulty or missing information on missions such as this. For that reason alone, he was extremely grateful to all the bounds who had joined the Shadow Guard.

/I’ll take the one about to go outside,/ Ken replied. The message snapped Yuushi from his thoughts and he once again concentrated on what was *about* to happen and not what might.

Just as a particularly fat mouse ran over his left foot, Reiichi sent the message Yuushi was waiting for. /Trautmann’s about to go down,/ was all his friend sent, but that was more than enough. Yuushi trusted that the wizard would soon be in custody, alive and mostly well, and now they didn’t have to worry about any magical retaliation other than a few booby traps already set in place. All of the Guards knew where they were and how to avoid them, thanks to Yonekuni and Eri.

After all the frustration that this mission had caused the Guard, all the guilt, sense of helplessness and fear with each child kidnapped, everything was *finally* falling into place. Hell, he could put up with stepping on mouse droppings and inhaling cobwebs just as long as the mission came to a successful end. Just a few more minutes and they’d be able to get to the children.

He was at the door and slowly twisting its handle open when Botan sent the message. /Wards are down, no alarms set off. Good luck./

That was what the Shadow Guard had been waiting for. /Now,/ Yuushi told his people and then yanked the door open. He had just stepped into the hallway when the building shook from several loud explosions and there was the sound of breaking glass.

Naru’s bombs went off, designed to draw the targets out, attracting them by the noise, flash of light and smoke. There was another tremble and more shattering glass as several bounds put their powers to use, but Yuushi ignored that when he saw the door he was headed for begin to open. Pulling his whip-sword free, he held its hilt in his right hand and a small charm Botan had given him in his left. According to Yonekuni, the man with the grey mustache and dark brown hair was the one they needed to turn over to Birman and Judge Okihara alive, he reminded himself. So he wanted to capture the man before he had a chance to either escape or be killed.

Naturally, it was the room’s other occupant who stepped outside first. Lashing out with his left foot, Yuushi managed to knock the stunned man aside, right into a wall. Knowing that he didn’t have long before the man regained his feet, he quickly darted into the doorway and found the main target.

His hair tousled and mustache partially covered by his right hand as he coughed, the target barely had a chance to look at Yuushi before the charm smacked into his chest. Yuushi paused only long enough to be certain that the charm did its job and was satisfied when the target went down, his eyes closed. Both hands on the hilt of his weapon, he turned to face the man he’d knocked aside – and had to duck quickly beneath the sword swung at his neck.

He easily sidestepped away from his attacker, away from the unconscious man on the floor that the Shadow Guard needed captured alive for questioning. That was the only reason he spent the next several seconds ducking and weaving to move away from the kidnapping ring’s leader instead of focusing on killing the bastard with the sword. His attacker didn’t have nearly as much skill as he thought he did, but Yuushi didn’t want to trust too much in luck so he waited until he lured him into the hallway. Once there, he lashed out with his weapon, a clean stroke heralded by the singing sound of flexible metal slicing through air, and then his attacker was a headless body slumping to the floor.

Out of the smoke came two figures, but all he did was shake the blood off of his whip-sword and nod in acknowledgement to Toshi and Blair. "Get him out of here," he told his men. Blair nodded once before he entered the room, and returned a moment later with the main target slumped over his shoulder.

"We’ll get him to Judge Okihara right away," Toshi said, his attention largely on what was happening down the hall, on the screams and thuds that echoed their way. "What about Miko’s target?"

"Bae Young and Cora will handle that. This one is more important." Yuushi waved his left hand at the two men, his weapon still gripped in his right. "I’ll join you once everything’s taken care of here."

"Yes, sir." Blair bowed his head slightly and then suddenly he was halfway down the hall, the target draped over his shoulder and his long braid of hair swinging back and forth from his speed. Toshi cursed under his breath and held his sword at the ready position before he raced after his partner. Yuushi only spared a moment to watch them go. One of the mission’s two main objectives was now complete – they had a witness to justify what was happening here. The other one was to rescue the children, so he headed for the room where most of them were being kept.

As he approached the back of the building, the air grew thick with smoke and foul with the scent of blood and bowels. He almost tripped over a dead sentry, his eyes drawn for a few seconds to the man’s chewed upon throat before he regained his feet. The sound of fighting died down as he ran, and he only came across one skirmish on his way. A quick look at how Ogden had just slashed his claws through the target’s stomach convinced him that the Guard didn’t need his help so he continued on.

There was a lot of smoke at his destination, which gave him slight pause before he entered the room, whip-sword at the ready. His eyes teared up and he suppressed a strong urge to cough as he sought to see what was going on.

After blinking his eyes a few times, he noticed that it wasn’t much. Miko and Eri were busy tying up a woman with short, blond hair stained with blood, but he didn’t think it was from the unconscious woman. More than likely, it was from the two bodies scattered on the floor – in the case of one, quite literally. If he had to take a guess, either Miko or Eri had used her sword on one, and Naru used his bombs on the other. Roswitha and Li were over in the corner where the children were huddled, sobbing and shaking and clinging desperately to the Guards who tried to soothe them. Not very far from them, Naru was busy writing something in white chalk around what remained of a window. He paused to nod over his shoulder at Yuushi, chalked a few more squiggly lines and then touched them. As the lines began to glow, Naru slowly slumped down to the floor, a tired smile on his face. It took a few seconds before anything happened, and then the smoky air filtered through the opening, making it possible to take a deep breath and see clearly.

"Is everything all right?" Yuushi asked as he wrapped his sword around his waist and then approached Eri.

"The kids are fine, if a little shaken up." She cast a nervous glance their way and rose to her feet, the unconscious target thoroughly bound and clearly not going anywhere. "What about your target?"

"On his way to Birman," he answered. <What about the other children, the… sacrifices?> It seemed that the fighting was over and ‘all clears’ were being sent over their wristbands, which made it difficult to tap a new message. He could override everything as Captain, but it was much easier asking Eri this way.

She closed her eyes for a moment. <They’re fine, if scared out of their minds. Reiko and Bettina are with them. Everyone seems relatively unharmed, sir,> she said before he could even ask that question. He hadn’t thought there were any serious casualties in the Shadow Guard from the lack of messages asking for a healer, but he felt happy to have that ‘officially’ confirmed.

"We need to get this target to Birman as well, and then clean things up." He sent another private message to Eri, concentrating on making his thoughts easily heard. <I don’t want the children to be moved until all the bodies are cleared away.> An image flashed through his mind of the dead sentry with his throat torn out.

Eri nodded in understanding. <Ken and Ogden left a few messes, I’m sure.> She turned to face Miko, who was keeping a careful watch over the unconscious woman on the floor and busy checking that she was indeed securely tied up. "Ah, Miko, I think it’s best that you go fetch your partner." <I sent a message to Moritaki telling him to do the same, sir.>

"Thank you, Eri," he said, the words heartfelt and accompanied by a smile. As overwhelming as it was to be the Shadow Guard’s Captain, he knew that Eri helped him greatly with the taxing job.

Miko checked the rope around the target one more time before she stood up. "Great, I bet I’ll have to find a barrel of water or something to help clean him off." At first she wrinkled her nose, and then a sly grin came over her face. "The water will be freezing thanks to this crazy weather. Oh, and Ken’s really going to need a good dousing, too." Yuushi swore she was whistling under her breath as she hurried from the room.

He shook his head at the thought of throwing several buckets of very cold water on a man who could easily rip your throat out without even trying, and made a note to check into the Guard’s disability fund. Miko appeared to be a prime candidate for the mental health benefits.

As the tapped messages finally drifted off and Bae Young and Cora arrived to transport the unconscious target to Birman, he concentrated on more important matters. Quickly tapping a message of his own into his bracelet, he asked for a casualty report.

Declan’s partner, Cerise, reported that Declan had received a serious cut to his left arm, and Renaldo informed Yuushi that he’d fallen victim to a rotten floorboard and had broken an ankle. Those were the two most serious wounds, already being tended by their partners. The two Guards would be fine until they made it back to the palace where healers could work their magic.

Something that had been wound tight inside Yuushi’s chest since entering the building slowly unraveled and finally let him take a deep breath. His people were fine, for the most part, the children were safe and the mission was completed. While there were still some important details, such as the clean-up of all the bodies and the panicked children, he felt confident enough to consider this mission a success. At least, this part of it. Shaking his head, he quickly tapped out a new message.

/Reiichi?/

/Things are fine,/ his friend tapped back. /Trautmann is in custody and will be at the palace in an hour./

Now, as long as they could keep the children from realizing that they’d been saved by several bounds, things should be fine, Yuushi thought. Considering the way they clung to Li, Roswitha and now an incredibly unsettled Eri, he doubted that they knew that their saviors were anything but Guards. /Anyone injured on your end?/ he asked, a little curious about the wizard’s condition but trusting that Reiichi had kept Aya from killing Trautmann.

/No. Aya… is exhausted but that’s all. Omi, Yohji and I are fine. Trautmann is in one piece./

He frowned as he deciphered Reiichi’s message but decided that now wasn’t a good time to inquire further about Aya’s health. If things were serious, Reiichi would have said something. He could wait until he met up with Reiichi at the palace to find out more. /Thank you./

/You’re welcome./ There was a slight pause, and then Reiichi continued. /I missed this./

/Good, then you won’t mind working with Aya and Yohji again. See you soon./ Yuushi could easily imagine the expression on his friend’s face just then, a smile and an arched brow, no doubt. He knew that Reiichi missed being an ‘active’ Guard, even though keeping watch on Yohji and Aya was very important. Judging from how he’d made sure that Aya or Yohji hadn’t killed Trautmann tonight, he felt that Reiichi was more than up to the task of ensuring the two bounds didn’t go overboard on any future missions.

A very plaintive voice cut through his thoughts. <Captain, may I please put the children to sleep?>

Turning around, he found Eri with a crying child in her arms, from the looks of it, she was about to burst into tears herself. <It’s all right with me. I think they’ll be easier to manage that way.> Not to mention they wouldn’t notice anything strange when they were removed from the building, such as scorch marks from flames that hadn’t spread very far in an old, decrepit wood building or holes that had been easily punched through walls.

<Thank you.> Immediately, the child in Eri’s arms stopped crying, his eyes drifted closed as his sobs died down. One by one, the rest of the children followed suit.

The children taken care of, he left them in Li, Roswitha and Eri’s hands and went to see what was going on outside the room. Most of the smoke had cleared from the air, and made the damage all the more noticeable. Eri’s suggestion had been a very good one, as he couldn’t see how the building could take so much abuse and still remain standing. Naru’s bombs had taken out a couple of walls, and he surmised that the rest of the damage was done by elemental bounds. There was also blood everywhere, although he didn’t see any bodies. Following a fresh trail of blood, he came across Eaton, busy dragging one of the dead kidnappers by the foot.

Eaton dropped the dead man’s right foot and gave Yuushi a slight bow. "Captain."

"How goes the cleanup?" he asked, and picked up the body’s left foot. "I’ll give you a… I’ll help you out," he said.

Eaton grimaced and picked up the foot he’d just dropped. "Thank you, sir. There are still several bodies and assorted bits left."

"Where’s your partner?" he asked, grateful for the fact that they weren’t too far from the building’s southern door which led to a small, fenced in courtyard where they could store the bodies until they were transported to the palace. Judge Okihara had to see them before they could be cremated, but since she knew about the Shadow Guard, she wouldn’t make a fuss over the condition of the chewed upon or burned ones. One body even appeared to have fallen from a several stories tall building, it was so mangled.

"Making… sure… oof… that all the fires are out." They had a little trouble getting the body past a partially collapsed wall, but soon had it outside. Yuushi wrinkled his nose at the blood on his hands and almost wiped them on his shirt before Eaton handed him a mostly clean rag. Thanking the man, he then tapped a message to Pendra.

/Once everything’s cleared out, I want you to burn the building to the ground. I don’t want to risk anyone sneaking in after we’re gone./ Or worse, Kikyou or a regular Guard arriving to inspect the building. He realized that he had to start thinking of better ways to clean up for the future. Since bounds could do things that no human could, they left a lot of incriminating evidence behind. He wouldn’t have them putting themselves and the Shadow Guard at risk by being sloppy at hiding that evidence.

/Understood, sir. All that’s holding the building up right now is Julia, so it’s best to burn it down before it collapses on its own./

He tapped his thanks and then stared back at the building. Three targets were on their way to Birman and Judge Okihara to be ‘questioned’ on everything they knew about the kidnapping ring. More than likely, Eri or another soul gaki-bound should be there to assist with the interrogation, but he wanted his people to get a little rest first. After the building was cleaned up, that was. He couldn’t leave for the palace until he was assured that all the evidence was collected and the bodies accounted for, then they would carefully remove the children and the place would be burned to the ground. As soon as the children were on their way to the palace, he’d send Guards for their parents – those who had them. The rest, he’d try to see safely ensconced in an orphanage in hopes that they stayed there rather than go back onto the streets. Maybe being kidnapped and almost killed or sold into slavery would make them realize that the streets didn’t hold much in the way of prospects for a long life.

Cursing softly, he realized that he needed to report to Kikyou now. While this mission had been left to him because of Kikyou’s required presence at Court and the ‘discussions’ with the Army, his Captain needed to know that they had suspects in custody and that the children were safe. Luckily, Mathias was still stationed at the palace and should be able to convince – by mental coercion, if necessary - Kikyou that his presence would not be required at the interrogations. Not when he had a willing lackey like Yuushi to send, someone else to spend a sleepless night while he focused on ‘more important matters’. There were times when Yuushi wished he could order one of the Shadow Guard to do some major tweaking inside Kikyou’s head but knew he couldn’t have them abuse their power like that. Once one exception was made, others would be as well and that would lead to trouble. That and someone would be bound to notice something was wrong when Kikyou began to act like a normal human being instead of a stuck-up, power-hungry bastard.

He’d wait a little longer before he sent the message, after he was certain of a few more things. Foreseeing a very long night and then day ahead of him, he combed his fingers through his hair and took a deep breath before he returned inside. He crossed the paths of a few Shadow Guards as he walked about, all of them busy cleaning up or collecting evidence, and was pleased to notice their smiles. There was a feeling of achievement and satisfaction, and he made sure to let his people know that they’d done a great job. The children were safe and soon to be returned home and the suspects caught. Once they were done here, his people could go home as well, content that they’d made a difference.

It was easy to tell the bounds from the humans right now. Guards like Roswitha and Eaton had worked similar cases to this one, had seen the Guard come together and complete other dangerous missions. But Li, Moritaki and Reiko… they’d done more than a simple patrol or arrest tonight. They’d been able to use their powers beside humans, to work together and not endanger themselves for revealing their true nature. And while there were a few odd looks Ogden or Pedra’s way, there were more people teasing Ogden about liking his meat a bit rare and squirmy, or asking Pedra if she was planning to make a few extra coins this fall by lighting holiday bonfires and the such.

Despite the fact that he wouldn’t be able to rest any time soon, let alone get some sleep, Yuushi felt revitalized. The Shadow Guard had just proved that it could be all that the King and Birman had hoped for. In the last few months, he’d been able to create something that few people would have thought possible, and there was a bit of pride in that. Oh, there was still a ton of work ahead of them, lots more headaches on his part but they proved it was worth it all. And perhaps now that the bounds realized that they could use their powers alongside their human partners and do some good, that they would be kept safe after doing so by Yuushi, Birman and others, more bounds might step forward. Which would definitely mean more headaches on his part as he tried to figure out who to partner with who and so forth, but he was up to the challenge. There was more on the line than the lives of over a dozen children, after all. But this was a great start.

*******

"Oooh, is that cherry pie I smell? I bet it’s *delicious*!"

Maddox looked up from the block of cheese he was slicing when he heard Naru’s loud, cheerful voice. The… it was difficult to think of him as a young man when he appeared younger than Maddox, but at least Naru was dressed in his uniform today and not the skimpy rags he wore when they first met. Beside Naru was a thin, quiet woman who had been introduced to Maddox the other day as Naru’s partner. Both had their attention riveted on the table that currently bore several freshly baked cherry pies.

Jo set aside the spices she was measuring for the mulled wine and folded her arms over her chest. "Don’t even think about having some pie until you eat dinner first," she chided the Guards, her face drawn into a stern frown. Once again, Maddox was amazed at the way the woman would stand up to anyone and end up cowing them in the end, even a pair of Guards. Naru and Eri shuffled their feet and quickly glanced away from the pies, and, once Jo cleared her throat, they hurried over to sit at one of the kitchen’s tables. Jo shook her head as they scrambled to sit down on a bench, a slight smile turning the corners of her mouth up.

"You won’t have to twist our arms on that one!" Naru exclaimed, his good mood seemingly restored by the prospect of dinner and dessert. He smiled brightly when Jo set about putting plates together for him and his partner, all the while grumbling about how the Guard were obviously never allowed to take food breaks while on duty because, hey, why bother? They’d just show up at the Koneko and expect to be fed.

He ducked his head to hide his own smile at Jo’s grumbling. If there was one thing he’d learned during his stay at the Koneko, it was that while she might complain a lot and berate the people brave enough to enter her kitchen even more, she never seemed able to allow anyone to leave until they were thoroughly stuffed with lots of delicious food. Both he and Emmie had put some weight on since they arrived, making up for the pounds they’d lost while traveling and the last couple of strained weeks living at home. And not even standoffish Aya would ignore Jo when she told him to do something, which usually was to sit down and eat. Just today, she’d forced him to eat a huge lunch, but then again, he appeared really tired.

"Where is your cousin Emmie?"

The question, asked in Eri’s quiet, lovely voice shook him from his thoughts. He felt his cheeks heat up when he glanced at the Guard. While she didn’t seem to put much effort into her hair or looks, she was still a very attractive young woman, and he liked that while she seemed to have little to say, she noticed everything. Well, he liked that about her most of the time….

Luckily, he could answer her without stuttering – too much. "Uhm, she’s out with Kira tonight." As nervous as he was, he had to smile at how happy Emmie had been to go out and do some shopping with Kira, along with the promise of stopping somewhere for dinner. She probably would have been happier if it was Yohji and not Kira, but she was still pleased to be able to go see more of the city.

Jo approached the table and set two plates down that were overflowing with roast beef, vegetables and bread pudding. "Kira heard there was a sale on lace down in the western Thread district and there was no holding her back." She snorted in amusement as she wiped her hands on her apron. "She took Emmie with her to help beat all the other buyers off."

"I’d think that Mickey would do a better job of that, but then again, the lace is probably meant for him, in a round-about way, so he can’t help," Eri remarked as she picked up her fork and knife to cut the beef. Maddox was amazed to see a hint of a blush on her cheeks. "Uh, that’s still the tradition, right? The groom’s not supposed to see the bridal gown or the bride’s hope chest until the wedding?"

"It is in some families, such as Kira’s," Jo soothed, and ran her hand along Eri’s right shoulder. "She has to do all her embroidery in Ani’s room now that she’s sharing Mickey’s." Jo chuckled and left the table to fetch some hot cider.

"Oh, okay." Eri’s blush slowly faded while she cut up her food. "It’s difficult to keep track of things like that." She glanced at Maddox out of the corner of her eye, then stared down at her plate.

He was a little confused with the exchange and wondered if Eri came from a small, isolated community like he and Emmie had. There were a lot of things done differently here in the city, and often he found himself doing something that would attract odd looks or an amused chuckle. That was part of the reason he liked to spend most of his time in the kitchen, because he didn’t feel like Jo or the rest of the Koneko staff made fun of him. That and he’d always enjoyed helping his mother prepare dinner and found a strong interest in learning how to cook. The fact that Jo was willing to teach him so much made him happier than he’d been in a long time. Also, there was now a chance that he might be able to find a job as a cook somewhere, when… when they had to move on.

Naru paused in shoving food into his mouth as quickly as he could to take a long gulp of the cider. "The Thread district, right? That reminds me, I need to buy a couple of new shirts." He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "Do you think Cassandra will make them for me? Kikyou will be paying for them, so money’s no object!"

"I don’t see why not, considering she makes clothes for a living," was Eri’s wry answer, and she flashed a quick smile in the face of her partner’s glare. "Don’t tell me that you had a growth spurt and nothing you own fits any more."

Naru moaned in between bites of his bread pudding. "Oh, don’t I wish. No, I cut up a few things so I’d have something to wear on the last mission. Since I’m not planning on ever wearing those outfits again unless I’m stuck on a similar mission – or if I want to be arrested for public indecency- then I guess I better buy some new clothes soon." He scowled at his food for a moment before he took another bite. "I hope I don’t need to dress up like that again."

"So do a lot of other people," Jo commented as she placed a plate of more bread pudding down on the table.

"You can at least hope that you don’t have to go undercover like that again until it’s summer," Eri said, her voice perfectly dry. "You made me cold just looking at you dressed in so little clothing."

Maddox figured out that they were talking about Naru dressing as a prostitute and had to agree. Magical charm or not, he was amazed at how little Naru had worn when he’d left the inn the last few nights. At least now he was properly dressed for the unusually cold weather.

Setting the sliced cheese aside on a platter, he dared to break into the conversation. "Uhm, so is everything… solved?" He wasn’t quite sure how to talk about the Guards’ latest mission. Emmie would probably know the right terms thanks to her fascination with the Guard, which made him feel slightly annoyed at his cousin and glad that she wasn’t here. "I mean, I know you caught the kidnappers but…." Suddenly, he wasn’t sure how much he was supposed to know. A lot of what he knew about the children being kidnapped he’d overheard here in the kitchen or from the inn’s guests today. Everyone seemed to know someone whose child had been kidnapped and had been returned during the night.

Eri nodded and held a cup of hot cider between her hands. "Not everything’s all wrapped up, but we’ve done as much as we could. Now that we know it was the Setan caravan that was to take the children out of the city, it’s in the Spymaster’s hands to backtrack their route and find anyone else involved. Then the local Guard will step in to handle it from there," she explained.

"And I can’t see her allowing her people much rest until they’ve tracked down every lead," Jo added, in such a forceful way that Maddox wondered if she knew the Spymaster personally or something to be so certain. "Maybe a kinder person would feel sorry for anyone involved with that ring, but…." She pursed her lips together and spun around quickly to return to the stove.

Everyone watched her stalk away. "I don’t think they’re going to get much sympathy, not after what they’ve done. Slavery is bad enough, but when it’s young children…," Naru said, his voice drifting off as he shook his head.

"They’ll be properly dealt with, I’m certain." Eri rose from the table to fetch some more cider, and paused to return the soothing gesture that Jo had given her. "Did you know I’ve one or two friends who are expressing an interest in joining the Spy Guild? They feel that their talents… lie better there than with the Guard."

That surprised a loud, rough bark of laughter from Jo. "Ha! That’ll definitely make Birman’s day! Maybe then she can give poor-" She didn’t bother to complete that thought but instead went back to preparing the mulled wine. At least she had a slight smile on her face, so she didn’t seem to be as upset any more.

But once again, Maddox was left with the impression that he was missing out on a lot of the conversation. Naru and Eri didn’t seem confused at all about what Jo had been trying to say or who she referred to, while he was left in the dark. That happened a lot around here, and sometimes he swore that parts of some conversations must take place silently somehow, as people answered questions he never even heard asked. While he understood that these people lived and worked together, spent most of their waking lives around each other, he’d never felt so left out.

Noticing that Jo appeared to be lost in her thoughts as she made the mulled wine, and that Eri and Naru were busy eating, he decided not to mention the kidnappings again. From the little that had been said, it seemed that the danger of kids in the city being snatched was definitely gone. Maybe Jo would relax her rules about him and Emmie not going outside the inn’s grounds unless accompanied by one of the Koneko’s staff, but he wasn’t going to hold his breath. The cook hadn’t told them it was okay to do so today, after they’d heard the news, so she’d probably insist that they stay here until their uncle arrived.

Thinking about Glenn, Maddox shivered slightly and had to force his right hand to hold the cheese knife a bit steadier. There had been a lot of shocked people here at the Koneko when they found out that a supposedly respectable caravan like Setan had been involved in smuggling kidnapped children out of town. While he was relieved that his uncle wasn’t involved with that caravan, he couldn’t help but think about how easily it could have been different. Considering the way that the caravans depended on each other and how some people drifted back and forth between the various trade organizations, he had serious doubts about how safe Emmie would be once they went with their uncle.

He trusted Glenn, and he was willing to bet that, when he thought of how close the man had been to Emmie’s dad, that Glenn might know about his cousin’s mother. That had been part of the reason why he’d decided to come here when they ran away from home. But now he wasn’t so sure, not after hearing all these stories about how valuable bound blood was and wizards using it for spells. Glenn could be trusted – could the same be said for his coworkers?

They weren’t sure if Emmie was a bound yet or not, or how her true nature might manifest if she was. If it did or if anyone managed to find out the truth about her mother…. Maddox could easily envision their family tracking them down and spreading rumors to force Emmie to return to them.

Shaking his head, he tried to tell himself that he was being silly. Surely his family wouldn’t risk tarnishing their own name by doing something like that. But try as he might, he couldn’t get rid of this fear that someone would find out the truth about Emmie and want to cause her harm. What would he and Glenn do if that happened? The caravans were no longer the safe harbor from his family as he’d imagined a couple of months ago.

The odd thing was, if he no longer felt that living with his uncle was a good idea, he did feel a sense of safety at the Koneko that was more than a little puzzling. These people were strangers – albeit kind ones – with no blood relation to them. Strangers who had taken them in, refused to accept any money, didn’t overburden them with chores to pay for the room, and who fussed over them on a daily basis. Jo had even begun to teach him how to make many of the inn’s most popular dishes and desserts, something he didn’t think she did with everyone who stayed here, not even the staff. Touya didn’t do any cooking at all and Teddy was rarely allowed into the kitchen, but he had spent the day learning the Koneko’s supposedly famous recipe for shepherd’s pie. That thought warmed him deep inside, and he couldn’t help but think that he didn’t want to leave.

He’d tried over the last few days or so to keep in mind that he really would have to leave, but with each passing day, he tried to dwell on that fact less and less. At home, he’d always enjoyed helping his mother prepare meals, even though his father had chided him that it was ‘women’s work’. Because he’d been expected to grow up and take an active part in the family’s farm, he hadn’t thought much about a career in cooking. Now there was a faint chance that he could do just that in a place he liked, but he would have to leave whenever his uncle’s caravan finally arrived.

Setting the knife down, he frowned and began to place the last of the sliced cheese onto a platter. No, he definitely didn’t want to think about leaving the Koneko. After all he’d put up with back at home, he actually found a place that allowed him to learn a craft he enjoyed, and one that didn’t seem… one that didn’t care if a guy liked another guy or not. Ani had a girlfriend who Jo had fussed over when she stopped by the other night, and he’d overheard Mickey say something about Teddy still trying to get his *boyfriend* Koyu to stop sleeping at friends’ places and come back home for more than playing the harp during dinner. Then there were Yohji and Aya, who he *swore* were more than just friends. He hadn’t caught them outright kissing or anything, but they were two grown men who seemed to find excuses to touch each other an awful lot, were almost always in each other’s presence when they were home and were both often locked up in their room together, like right now.

As if somehow able to read his thoughts, Eri pushed her empty plate aside and asked Jo a question. "Where are Yohji and Aya?"

Jo snorted when she came over to pick up the empty plate. "Upstairs, where else?" When Naru opened his mouth to say something, she gave him a frown and jerked her head in Maddox’s direction. Once again, Maddox was left with the impression that things were being kept from him. "They said something about wanting to get some rest while they could. Poor Aya still looked a bit exhausted today."

Naru snapped his mouth shut, then opened his mouth again a moment later for a bite of roast beef. Once he was done with that, he propped an elbow on top of the table and rested his chin on his palm. "So does that mean Reiichi’s here as well?"

"No, he wanted to run some errands and said he wouldn’t be back until late tonight." When Naru finished cleaning his plate, Jo took that too, placed it in the sink and approached the table with all the pies. "Yuushi’s busy at work, and Ken and Miko are still at the palace." Jo sniffed as she cut up a pie. "For once I’ve hopes of having some food left over for tomorrow." For someone who worried all the time about running out of food, she certainly cut the two Guards rather large slices of pie and set them down in front of them with another sniff.

She noticed Maddox staring and gave him a smile and a wink as she wiped her hands on her apron. "It’s a good thing Maddox’s been here the last week to help me cook, or I’d never be able to keep up with you lot! I’ll have to find a way to keep him here so I can have a rest every now and then!" There was another wink before she turned around and began to assemble a plate of various snacks for the customers out in the main room.

Maddox felt a golden warmth infuse him at her words. Even though she was probably just teasing, he was very happy at the thought that Jo wanted him to stay. That was something he wanted as well, more and more each day. Surely he wasn’t too wrong to imagine that Emmie and he had been accepted here and made welcome. He didn’t know of any other guests who were invited to go shopping with the staff.

They could earn their keep by continuing to help out, and he felt that they’d be happy. Certainly it would be more difficult for his family to track them down at an inn in the middle of a huge city, rather than with their uncle. And Emmie loved it here just as much as he did –

He shivered slightly when he thought about his recent suspicions about Yohji and Aya. If they stayed here, at some point they’d find out if Aya and Yohji really were involved with each other. As little as he looked forward to his cousin finding out that Yohji was in love – with a *guy* at that – it still didn’t make him want to leave. She’d get over it. After all, he’d gotten over his first crush when he was about Emmie’s age.

Shaking himself from his thoughts, he occupied himself by helping Jo with the platters of snacks. Now wasn’t the time to daydream. First, he had to talk to Glenn, who just might insist that he and Emmie go live with him after all. But if his uncle didn’t mind them living here, then he’d have to work on Jo and Mickey. He could only hope that Jo could indeed use his help on a permanent basis, and that he and Emmie had found a new home. As for his cousin being a bound… they’d cross that bridge when they came to it. If they worked at the Koneko, maybe they could save up some money in case they had to run away again. And that way, they wouldn’t ruin Glenn’s life if the truth came out.

*******

Curled up on the window seat, Aya leaned back against Yohji and looked out the window at the garden below. While it wasn’t properly autumn yet, the leaves on several of the trees were taking on hints of yellow and orange. Most likely because of the cold weather, the leaves were already beginning to change color. Having arrived at the Koneko this past spring, he could only imagine how the garden would look in a few more weeks. With the chrysanthemums in full bloom and all the oak, maple and dogwood trees about, it should be a beautiful sight to behold.

"Hmmm, what are you thinking about?" Yohji whispered in his ear as he was hugged tighter.

"The garden… I haven’t seen it during autumn yet," he truthfully replied, a little drowsy from all the wine they’d had so far this evening and very content just to be here alone with his mate. As it was, he couldn’t help but purr at the feel of Yohji’s arms around him, at Yohji’s lips as they brushed against his left ear.

"Ah." Aya shivered in response to Yohji’s answer. "Just wait, Cat, it’s really beautiful. All the trees changing color and crisp, cloudless nights…." Yohji sighed in happiness and placed a kiss right below Aya’s ear. "In another week or two, Mickey and I will go out and clear the spot for the fire pit. We hold bonfires for all the major festivals during autumn and pretty much whenever the weather’s nice and we feel like throwing a party." Yohji chuckled and hugged Aya closer. "I can’t wait for Kisei’s Night. We have this *huge* bonfire and people are here dancing and drinking all night long."

Aya tried to remember the last time he’d celebrated that holiday. Thinking back, he recalled having a cup of hot cider with his parents but little else. Considering that they were living at Timbergrey at the time, there hadn’t been any family graves to visit, which might explain why his parents were always so quiet on that night. "I… I doubt I know how to celebrate it properly," he admitted reluctantly, unwilling to make Yohji upset over how he’d spent the last decade.

There was another kiss right below his ear, the touch soft and lingering enough to make him shiver, and then Yohji tugged on his left arm until he turned around to face his mate. "Well, other than stopping at the shrine in the back, there aren’t any special rituals we hold here." Yohji brushed back Aya’s bangs as he explained, the touch once more gentle and lingering. "Once night comes, we just tend to get drunk and dance around the bonfire until either morning comes or we pass out." Yohji’s smile was amused and a hint wicked. "That’s not exactly true – I’ve, ah, spent part of the night in the stables quite a few times."

The sense of embarrassment and anxiety made Aya snap his teeth as he straddled Yohji’s lap. "Not any more. *I* refuse to roll around in a pile of straw, and you’re definitely not doing that with anyone else." The words came out as a growl when he thought about Yohji having sex with another person. That was never going to happen again.

Yohji chuckled again, the sound warm and pleased. "I never was a big fan of being scratched by straw in the first place. Good thing we have our lavender patch, na?" He leaned forward to nuzzle Aya’s neck.

"Hmph." Aya couldn’t work up much more of an answer just then, not with Yohji’s lips pressed against his neck, but he didn’t think he really needed to say anything. His lover was a smart man and knew he’d have a very painful, short life if he cheated. Though truth be told, Aya wasn’t really worried about that, this new feeling of jealousy aside. That wasn’t possible while he felt so much love and desire, and especially not when Yohji was doing something slightly ticklish but very enjoyable to that rather sensitive spot right below his ear again….

His fingers clenched in Yohji’s hair and his hips began to rock back and forth, against Yohji’s. The warm, languid buzz from the wine quickly turned into something hotter and fiercer, something that left him even more befuddled but in a wonderful way. His breath caught in his throat when Yohji’s teeth grazed his neck, when Yohji’s hands slid beneath his leather pants and possessively cupped his ass. He couldn’t stop moving, couldn’t still his hips or calm his breaths, couldn’t stop the shivers of excitement that raced through his body or the low moans of need and desire that poured from his lips.

Then Yohji’s teeth sunk into his flesh, not hard enough to break the skin but with enough force that it felt as if a lightning bolt jolted through him, a blazing path of heat and need that went from his neck straight to his groin. He cried out, the sound distant to his ears because of the blood rushing through his body, and tilted his head back in complete surrender. This was his mate marking him, making him burn with desire and want, making him feel… not weak but…. He cried out again as teeth bit down even harder.

With the way his head was spinning, it took him a moment to realize that Yohji had moved from the window seat and was heading toward the bed, with Aya in his arms, legs wrapped around his waist. Then Aya was falling into softness with Yohji firmly on top, pressing him down even further while the scent of his mate and sex that clung to the bed linen made him even dizzier. All he could do was gasp for air and wrap his arms and legs even tighter around his lover.

Growling softly, Yohji shifted on top of him, his face flushed with desire and so beautiful it made Aya forget to take another breath. Then his lover leaned down and his breathlessness was utterly exacerbated by a kiss so passionate that all he could think about was how much he very desperately needed Yohji.

"Aya," Yohji purred as he pulled away the slightest bit, a tender smile on his lips when Aya mewled in protest. Yohji grabbed Aya’s arms and tugged them away from his shoulders, ran his hands along them until he reached Aya’s hands and threaded their fingers together. Their joined hands rested against the bed, on either side of Aya’s head. "Aya… I want you, love."

"Yes." The word came out little more than a hiss, and Aya forced himself to continue, to put his feelings into words because it made his lover happy when he did so. "Want you too, Yotan." At the questioning look from his lover, he spread his legs wider and rocked his hips upward before his right leg hooked behind Yohji’s knees.

Yohji seemed to pick up the hint and smiled some more, the expression utterly pleased and wicked. "You want me, huh?" He ground his hips into Aya’s until Aya mewled again. "How would that be?" Leaning down, Yohji once more placed his mouth against Aya’s neck. "Do you want to fuck me? Just like this, with me on top? I could ride you so hard that they’ll hear your screams downstairs."

"Yotan…," Aya snarled, affected more than he cared to admit by that image and frustrated at the teasing. He didn’t want to talk about the sex, he wanted to *do* it and cursed the fates for giving him such a talkative mate.

When he struggled against Yohji, all his mate did was laugh again, the sound low and wanton, and press him even harder against the bed. Trapped like this, unable to move very much with his hands pinned down should have made him panic, should have killed the pleasure and need he felt, but it was Yohji’s weight that trapped him, Yohji’s hands that held his bound. There could never be any fear in this, not when he felt how much Yohji loved and needed him. Although the trace of smugness he felt made him snap his teeth together in warning, his anger melted away when Yohji put his own teeth to use and scraped them along his jugular. All he could do then was go limp and moan.

Looking down at him once more, Yohji gave him a tender smile and a soft, quick kiss on the lips. "Or maybe you’re the one who wants to be fucked, hmmm?" His lover rocked his hips again, and the feel of that hard, large cock against his own, even separated by their pants made him gasp in need. "Oh yeah, maybe that’s what you want. You beneath me as I drive into you hard and fast." Yohji paused in the description to nibble on his right ear until he couldn’t stop shivering in pleasure. "You’re much too hot for me to do it slow this time. I can still make you scream, can make you desperate for each thrust into your beautiful, hot body. You fit me so well… can you feel me inside you already, Cat?"

Aya’s lips were so dry he had to wet them first before he could answer. "Yes." He could indeed already feel Yohji inside of him, could imagine his lover’s cock stretching him to his limits, pounding into him until he couldn’t do anything but writhe from the intense pleasure of it. As incredibly good as it felt to fuck his lover, it was even better to let Yohji do just that to him, to let go in absolute trust and love and allow Yohji to do whatever he wanted. He could only ever be so with his mate, and the freedom in that was both exhilarating and frightening, utterly addictive and necessary.

"Good." There was another kiss, even more searing than before, so much so that Aya didn’t even realize Yohji had released his hands until he felt his pants being tugged down. Even now that his hands were free he couldn’t move them, not with the way Yohji looked at him with so much need, so much passion that all he could do was lie there placidly. His mate’s stare kept him perfectly still save for another swipe of his tongue over his lips and his minute trembling when his lower body was exposed to the cool air. A needful moan slipped past when Yohji pulled off his own shirt and then unlaced his pants, his large, dark red cock thrusting out eagerly. Then, another moan as Aya’s shirt was unbuttoned and pushed aside, loosely trapping his arms but he couldn’t care in the slightest because Yohji was once more on top of him.

"Mmmm, such a quiet cat all of a sudden," Yohji remarked, his voice throaty with passion. "I think I like this." His hands ran up and down Aya’s sides while his cock rubbed against Aya’s. "Makes me feel like I can do whatever I want, na?" Yohji’s thumbs circled roughly around Aya’s nipples and made him gasp, made him squirm with pleasure that only intensified even more when their cocks rubbed against each other’s. "You’re always so quiet but this time… can I do whatever I want?"

He had to answer his mate’s question. "Yes." There was no apprehension in the answer, not with the way he trusted Yohji to not do anything that harmed or scared him. If anything, there was a building thrill in laying here like this, in letting Yohji provoke him into a response, in letting Yohji do whatever he wanted with no resistance, no power struggle. He gave all that up to his lover willingly, with absolute faith. It wasn’t so much submission as it was a gift of love and trust, one that Yohji richly deserved.

A gift that Yohji recognized and cherished. "Thank you," Yohji said, voice reverent even as his hands roamed Aya’s body in a possessive manner. "I *am* going to fuck you until you scream. I want to hear you, Aya, want everyone else to hear you so they know that I’m doing this to you, that I’m in you so deep and hard you can’t hold back any more." Yohji’s hands cupped his ass and lifted it slightly. Yohji’s hands spread Aya’s ass cheeks apart the same time long fingers pressed on either side of Aya’s opening, the same time he rubbed his cock against that spot until Aya couldn’t keep still.

All Aya could do was moan his mate’s name and toss his head back, his eyes closed and his fingers clenched in his own hair. Yohji tormented him for several more minutes, fingers stretching him little by little and cock rubbing against him but not quite entering until he couldn’t do anything but whine in frustration.

"Yotan…," he pleaded, breath coming in hitching sobs and body covered with sweat. He tingled all over and ached deep inside but didn’t do anything but say that one word, still willing to leave everything to his mate.

"Aya." There was such smugness and pride in Yohji’s voice, a possessive love that flowed into Aya until he whimpered softly. His neck throbbed in the spots that Yohji had just marked and his cock twitched, woefully ignored.

Lean, cloth-covered knees slid beneath his hips and lifted his ass higher from the bed. Yohji’s right hand left him, provoking a frustrated snarl from him that quieted when it returned, fingers slick. He groaned deeply as those fingers pushed into him and twisted, couldn’t stop his hips from jerking back as the deep ache longed for the feel of something inside him.

A kiss was placed on his chest, right above his furiously beating heart. "I’m going to make you scream now," Yohji said, a vow that was more a promise than a threat. That was all the warning that Aya had before his mate’s teeth were once more on his throat, sharp and insistent. Not expecting that, Aya did indeed cry out, the sound loud and shocked, as Yohji marked him deeply. The pain bled to pleasure as he offered his throat, his head tilted back as far as it could go.

Yohji bit down a little bit more – and then pulled away quickly. But before Aya could complain something thrust inside of him, so hot and hard that he cried out again. His body stretched to take the wide, solid length, welcomed it entirely and then clenched around it, as if unwilling to let it go. His entire body trembled from the pleasure even before Yohji pulled back slightly and pushed in again, right against his sweet spot. His hips on Yohji’s thighs, Yohji’s arms beneath his knees to hold him in place for each thrust, there was little he could do in such a position but rock his hips slightly to try and take his mate in even deeper.

"Look at me, Aya."

At first he resisted the command, but Yohji’s hand on his cock made his eyes fly open, and once he caught sight of his lover’s face, he couldn’t look away. Darkened blond hair clung to Yohji’s sweaty face, his eyes burning with emotions that seared through Aya and made the ecstasy burn even hotter than the cock pounding into him with so much force that the bed shook. The tingle grew with each thrust, with each slide of slick hand along the length of his cock. He stared into Yohji’s eyes as he gave his body and energy to his lover, as he took back intense love and pleasure. His breath caught in his throat until he was gasping for air, Yohji’s name stuck in his throat as he struggled against feeling so deeply, so strongly.

Then Yohji tossed Aya’s left leg onto his shoulder and rose up onto his knees at the same time he gave Aya’s cock a squeeze. Yohji’s name burst free, a loud scream that echoed throughout the room. Shaking from the ecstasy, Aya’s hands sought for his lover, just out of reach, so they fell onto the bed and gripped the sheets, twisting them more with each thrust. He felt like he was on fire, felt scorched by the blood pounding through his veins so loudly that he couldn’t hear Yohji cry out his name but could only see his lover move his lips.

As he fought for air, the heat, the ecstasy blazed so high that he became overwhelmed. His orgasm gripped him so tightly, so thoroughly that he shuddered as bliss wracked his body, made him feel as if his heart would burst from its intensity. His hands went limp by his trembling sides, his throat sore as Yohji thrust a couple more times and came with a loud, inarticulate yell. The wave of his mate’s orgasm had him moaning and shivering once more, the feelings so powerful they were almost painful. He fought to seperate his emotions from Yohji’s, to feel just his own body as it struggled for air.

They both lay there for a few minutes, shivering and gasping, covered with sweat and languid enough to feel boneless. The tingling sensation remained with Aya a little longer, weaker than before, and slowly gave way to a sense of pleasant exhaustion. He felt a little sore as well, and it was a bit uncomfortable with Yohji slumped on top of him like that but he couldn’t have moved just then even if Jo had barged into the room. As it was, it seemed to take all of the energy left in him to lift his right hand and stroke his fingers through Yohji’s hair.

"You’re going to be unbearably smug about this, aren’t you?" he managed after a few seconds, his throat sore and dry. Gift or not, if Yohji made one comment about his ‘awesome dick’, the man was going to be in some serious pain once Aya could work up a little energy….

With a muffled groan, Yohji gradually lifted his head and shifted back until his cock slowly slid out of Aya’s body. "I think I have every right to be, don’t you?" The only consolation Aya had was that his mate’s throat sounded just as sore as his.

"Hmph." He should be a little upset, both at himself and Yohji, but he felt too good at the moment to work up annoyance or disgust. Deep down, he understood what he’d offered his mate, understood that being submissive didn’t mean being docile or weak. He suspected that was his true nature winning over his human emotions and conditioning. He’d found a strong mate, found someone worth his trust and his love so it was only natural to offer himself like this. It strengthened their bond and led to mutual pleasure so there was no reason to be upset or feel slighted. The more Aya allowed himself to be what he was – a kage – the more he felt like he did now. As confused as he could be by human emotions, he realized that they and human preconceptions influenced him more than he’d suspected.

Yohji stretched out beside him, draped an arm over his chest and chuckled. "You know, if you’re going to bite me, please do it now. I feel too good to even notice the pain." He leaned forward to place a kiss against Aya’s left temple. "You didn’t have to do that, but thank you." Love, devotion and happiness flowed over their link.

"It felt good," was the only explanation that Aya could offer. He turned toward his mate and slipped his right arm over Yohji’s waist as he tucked his head under Yohji’s chin. Settled comfortably now, he didn’t think he could move for a good half an hour or so, and for once didn’t mind the sensation or smell of semen drying on his skin. He was too tired to be bothered by old fears right now.

"Still, thank you," Yohji murmured and kissed the top of his head. "It… it feels so good to know you trust me like that, not to mention it’s a serious thrill. I’ll have to try it myself some day." There was a promise in the words, one that made Aya smile when he thought about Yohji stretched before him, obedient and willing.

 

"Yes," he agreed, and then breathed in deeply. When he had some energy a nice bath and soak was definitely on the agenda, but he was content now, sweaty and sticky as he was. Yohji’s hands slid beneath his shirt and gently stroked down his spine until he shivered and squirmed at the touch, and then began to comb through his hair.

The only thing that disturbed his contentment was the slight sense of anxiety from his mate. "I, ah, wasn’t serious about them hearing you downstairs, you know. I mean, gods, you sound so amazing when you scream my name like that but… but hopefully Jo didn’t hear," Yohji said, even stuttering over the cook’s name. "I can just see her chasing me all around the kitchen, yelling about me disturbing the customers’ rest and that ‘this is a wholesome establishment, dammit!’" The sound Yohji made just then was a piteous moan. "Doesn’t matter that you had a good time, oh no, she just has to pick-"

"Yotan, shut up." Aya then snapped his teeth right above his mate’s shoulder to emphasis his point. The idiot was the one who had set the terms for their sex; he wasn’t going to listen to this whining now when all he wanted was to take a short nap.

"Yes, sir," Yohji sighed, but the apprehension faded beneath love and amusement. "I’ll just sic you on her." He seemed about to say something else, but a quick nip to his shoulder made him finally shut up and hug Aya close.

 

*******

Roy whistled the cheerful melody of the current most popular bawdy song around the Army base as he made his way home. Life… was pretty good. Usually, he didn’t think such thoughts for fear of jinxing the current run of good luck he’d been blessed with, but he was pretty happy. Crawford was, by all accounts, too busy back in Esset to bother him, he’d received official word of his promotion and would be confirmed a Colonel in just a few days’ time, and he hadn’t had a fight with Ed in almost a week. To be perfectly honest, they’d been too busy screwing each other’s brains out to have a fight. His lips curved in definite satisfaction as he thought about his mate. They hadn’t had this much sex since they’d first given in and become mates, and Ed was much more… advanced now than he’d been back then. It was all Roy could do to drag himself off to work each morning and force himself to remain there for his entire shift when there was a willing Ed waiting at home for him. Well, Hawkeye played a small part in him showing up for work and actually doing his job, as he had this odd attachment to being able to breathe….

He caught sight of his house and his grin grew wider. Soon enough, he would trade in the little cottage for someplace that would actually afford him and Ed a bit of privacy. There was a stray thought to how embarrassed poor Al must have been these last few days, but he tamped the guilt down with the promise to give the boy a nice room far away from Roy and Ed’s bedroom where he could read in peace when he was at home. Maybe Al would feel comfortable enough to bring the Rockbell girl home one night so Ed wouldn’t have to feel bad about his brother being off on his own. Then again, Ed wasn’t too happy about the fact that his baby brother had fallen in love with a human. There was very little that the siblings fought over, but that topic was one that never failed to drive a wedge between them, if only for a couple of hours.

But right now Ed was happy, so he couldn’t be upset with his brother. The joy and contentment Roy felt over their link made him whistle a bit louder as he stepped onto the cottage’s small porch. Lately, a good mood for Ed meant a very enjoyable night for himself. It seemed as if Al was going to be left to his own devices yet again tonight.

However, when he opened the door, he didn’t find his mate or ward in the living room, awaiting his presence. Considering that he’d practically been tackled upon walking through the door these last few nights, he frowned with worry as he looked around the empty room. He could sense that Ed was nearby, and the teenagers’ scents were strong enough to indicate that they’d been in the house recently, but they clearly weren’t here in the living room waiting for him to come home.

Nor were they in the kitchen, and there was no supper ready either. Slowly growing more annoyed than worried, he decided to check the rest of the small house. Ed wasn’t curled up in their room, a fact that had him yanking off his uniform coat in frustration as he looked about the empty room, so that left one more place. Stalking out into the hallway, he headed for Al’s room.

"This dialect requires some translating, Brother. I think we came across it in Javier’s book on the established trade routes pre-Binding War, but a few of the particles are a little different."

"Huh. Well, that book is on the far left bookcase, third shelf from the top. Take a look, Al, and see if you can figure it out. You’re much better at translating than I am."

Ed and Al didn’t even look up when Roy opened the door and leaned against its frame. The two brothers were sprawled out on Al’s bed, with quite a few books strewn all around them. Both of them were busy reading, and there were notebooks on hand for them to jot something down that they found to be important.

After being ignored a little longer while the brothers flipped a few more pages and made some more obscure references, Roy cleared his throat. His first impulse had been to dart small flames back and forth beneath their noses, but if he’d learned one thing living with the Elric siblings the past couple of years, it was that he never let his flames get anywhere near their precious books. Unless he wanted to start one hell of a fight, that was.

Al blinked his eyes as he looked up, and a hint of red spread across his face. "Ah, Roy! You’re home already?" He twisted around to glance at the clock, a rare curse word slipping past his lips when he noticed the time. Ed continued to read, apparently oblivious to everything, but Roy knew better. His mate was purposely tuning him out.

"Yes, I’m home." He bit back on a sarcastic comment because Al was a sweet kid and didn’t deserve it. "More books from the library?" he asked as he pushed away from the doorframe and approached the bed. There was finally a reaction from Ed when he reached for one of the books, but his reflexes were faster so Ed couldn’t prevent him from picking the book up. "I haven’t seen these before." He gave his mate a warning glare and held the book up so he could look at its spine, and couldn’t help but note the brothers’ reaction to his curiosity. Al’s cheeks turned even redder and he quickly buried his nose in the book he’d been reading, while Ed suddenly blocked their link.

"We’ve been saving up some money from our jobs and bought them today," Ed snapped and sat up straighter on the bed, his long blond hair falling around his shoulders. "So put the book down and leave us alone. Go bother Hughes or someone." He actually made shooing motions with his left hand, the right clutched possessively around one of the new tomes.

Roy had been realistic enough to know that Ed probably wasn’t going to remain so needy and complacent for very long – it just went against his mate’s very nature, he sadly admitted – but this sudden snap back to ‘normal’ after several days of Ed practically dragging him off to bed…. His suspicions from earlier in the week came rushing back to the fore, but he didn’t let anything show on his face or transfer over the link. He had much more experience masking his true feelings than Ed did, and he didn’t want to tip the idiot off right now that he’d figured out that something was going on.

"Let me guess, you’re both going to stay in here until you’ve looked through all those books at least once, just like you always do." He motioned toward the kitchen. "Did you think to eat before you started your reading frenzy?" he asked, his voice slightly curious and a little exasperated. This was a familiar role for him to play, one where he was clearly a bit annoyed at being abandoned for the sake of their research but not about to insist they stop.

Al glanced up from his book and shook his head. "Uhm, now that you mention it… we didn’t make dinner, did we? I’m really sorry, Roy." He did indeed appear upset at the lapse, but Roy noticed that Al didn’t put the book down or try to get off the bed. And Ed was once more ignoring him in favor of reading.

He knew that the brothers tended to get obsessive over their quest to find out all they could about Esset’s Elders. They spent most of the money they earned from their two jobs and the allowances he gave them on whatever books they could find that would aid them in identifying the ancient bounds’ weaknesses. However, they didn’t tend to find very much, and whenever a promising book came along, he had gotten used to being ignored for a day or two. He glanced at all the books on the bed and then looked closer at the one in his hand. Now he usually had a very good memory, but he couldn’t recall ever seeing them go nuts over this many books at once. The one he held appeared to be very old, the letters handwritten instead of printed.

While he wasn’t the expert on books that the Elrics were – he’d had more pressing concerns growing up such as staying alive and out of the Elders’ hands, not to mention trying to keep Crawford from dictating his every action once he ran across his brother – he knew a few things about them thanks to being the brothers’ guardian. Right now, he was willing to bet that he held a very valuable tome. As he carefully flipped through the thin pages, he noticed a slip of paper bearing the sigil for the Thurston Auction House.

"Hey, I paid for that, not you, so give it back!" Ed reached out to grab the book from him, and mindful of how old it was, Roy let it slip from his hand. There was the usual defiance and anger in his mate’s eyes and voice… and a hint of anxiety as well. This, from a person who yelled at him on a daily basis so often, that it seemed only natural for them to act like that with each other. But something had Ed worried, and it was related to the books, Roy was willing to bet. Very expensive, rare books that had been auctioned off recently, if he had to guess, and he didn’t usually guess unless he was pretty sure of the answer.

Oh, Ed was definitely up to something, and considering the way Al was once more hiding behind a book, shoulders rounded and an air of ‘please don’t notice me’ around him, Roy was willing to bet his mate had dragged his brother into things as well.

But all he did was smile and brush back the hair falling onto his face. "So there’s no dinner ready, and I’m sure we’re all starving." He let his voice grow husky on the last word, and gave Ed a heated look. Not that he expected any sort of positive reaction, but it amused him to see Ed’s cheeks turn pink and spot a hint of longing appear in golden eyes. After the way they’d spent the last few days, their link had only become stronger, their need for each other more potent. Ed swayed on the bed a few times before he managed a weak scowl and muttered curses as he held the book up in front of his face. As for Al, his shoulders became even more hunched, and it appeared as if he was trying to burrow down into the bed to hide.

Amused even though he felt a growing anger over what the boys could have possibly done to get the books, Roy chuckled and took a step toward the door. "I think we definitely could use something to eat. I’m going to go out and grab us some dinner."

Al stopped trying to hide behind his book long enough to wave his hand in goodbye, while Ed resumed ignoring him. Over their link, Roy could feel a faint sense of relief before Ed realized his control over it was slipping and he once more put a block up.

Suspicions pretty much confirmed, Roy returned to his room to change out of his uniform. Once dressed in a pair of dark, comfortable pants and a thick tunic that Al had given him last solstice, he grabbed his coat and left. However, he didn’t head directly to the shops that lined the street outside of the main entrance of the base. No, he decided he wanted some company on his walk and swung by Hughes’ house first. If he needed some answers, the odds were his friend would have at least a few of them. What Hughes didn’t already know, he would shortly find out.

Roy knew it wasn’t possible, but his friend did make him wonder at times if humans couldn’t pick up bound traits. With his uncanny ability to ferret out secrets, Hughes seemed more like a soul gaki-bound than a human. Unfortunately, Roy’s friend was entirely human, and his amazing ability could only be put down to dogged perseverance and high intellect. What a waste.

Soon enough, he found himself on Hughes’ front porch and knocked twice on the door. It only took a few seconds before his friend opened the door, a huge smile on his face when he was recognized. "Roy! What are you doing here?" Hughes asked as he waved him inside. "Where are Ed and Al?"

Shaking his head, Roy held up his hand. "Listen, I hate to bother you, especially right before dinner-time, but I was hoping you’d take a walk with me." From inside the house he heard Alicia’s voice cry out about her ‘Uncle Roy’ paying a visit, so he leaned around Hughes to give the girl a smile and a friendly wave. Fortunately, Gracia was holding her daughter’s hand and prevented the child from coming over to hug him, or else he’d have to spend an hour playing with her and listening to Hughes go on and on about how amazing his daughter was. "Hi, darling, I’m just stopping by to borrow your father for a little bit. I promise to come by again in another day or two with Al and Ed." If the brothers were still alive then, that was.

Hughes gave him an odd look but after turning to share a glance with his wife, just shrugged and reached for his coat hanging by the door. "You’re lucky that Gracia just put the roast in the oven so I’ve got some time to kill." Pulling his coat on, he turned again to blow kisses to his family. "I’ll bring a bottle of red wine back."

"That sounds wonderful," Gracia said with a beautiful smile as she picked her daughter up and held her in her arms. "You really must stop by for dinner, Roy. I’m planning to make some stew the day after tomorrow."

Roy couldn’t help but chuckle when he heard his friend’s heavy sigh. "Then we’ll be here," he promised as he waved goodbye. "And I’ll make sure your husband picks a decent bottle of wine for once." Gracia gave him a wink before Hughes stepped outside and closed the door.

"Hmph. By decent you mean expensive," Hughes grumbled and tugged the collar of his coat up. "Some of us have young children to raise and can’t be so frivolous." His unhappy expression took a wicked turn. "So, I guess that means you’ll pay for the wine! Thanks, Roy, you’re the best." He patted Roy several times on the back before he complained about the cold and shoved his hands into his pockets.

Figuring that a bottle of nice wine was well worth this chance to talk to Hughes, Roy just nodded in agreement. "I guess it’s the least I can do in thanks for Gracia’s promised help to pack the house up." He couldn’t resist needling his friend, not when Hughes was more than happy to do the same to him, and smiled when Hughes grumbled once more.

"You’re pure evil, Roy," Hughes muttered and gave him a dirty look. "If you were a succubae-bound I’d turn you in on the principal of the matter. You’d be much too dangerous to be allowed to roam free to take advantage of all those poor, innocent people. Gracia’s just lucky I’m here to look out for her," he sniffed.

"I think it’s more like the other way around," Roy couldn’t help but point out, and gave Hughes a peaceful smile in the face of the glare sent his way. His friend’s wife was most definitely the level-headed one in the marriage, and had an unlimited amount of patience to be able to put up with Hughes’ crazy notions and behavior. "Don’t forget, I knew you before you had the good fortune to meet Gracia. Remember when you almost burned the apartment down when you tried to bake a chicken – but forgot to pluck it first?" He had to laugh at that memory. "If I hadn’t been there, you’d be a pile of ash now."

Hughes sniffed in wounded dignity and picked up his pace so he walked in front of Roy. "I knew you couldn’t cook it with feathers, I just waited to see if you’d point the ‘mistake’ out. Being the bastard that you are, of course you didn’t." Hughes sniffed again.

"Well, in my defense, I never before came across a grown person who didn’t to know how to cook a chicken and could only watch in horror." Despite the anger at whatever trouble Ed had gotten himself and Al involved in and the fact that he was out here on a cold evening to fetch a dinner that should have been made and ready for him, Roy smiled at the invoked memories. Granted, not all the times back then had been good, not when he’d been trying to recover from having to kill his own kind on Army orders, but Hughes had been there for him. The joy and warmth faded when he realized that his dear friend wouldn’t be there forever. Some bounds wanted as little to do with humans as possible because of how brief their lives were, and he’d already suffered some pain from choosing to live among them so closely this last decade or so. But he wasn’t sure if he’d ever made as dear a friendship that he had with Hughes with anyone of his own kind. For however long he lived – which, thanks to Ed being his mate might not be very long – he’d cherish Hughes and everything his friend had done for him.

There was a snort of disgust from Hughes but he slowed down enough for Roy to catch up. "You’re just lucky I didn’t make you sleep on the couch for a week after that incident, especially when you were laughing so hard you almost couldn’t put the fire out." Roy was treated to a particularly dark look, and then Hughes was his normal, affable self once more. "But you’ve never told Gracia that story, and for that I’ll help you with whatever favor you’re about to ask."

Roy wasn’t surprised that Hughes knew he wanted something, and the fact that his friend didn’t appear to mind in the least brought back some of the vanished warmth. "I need you to be really sneaky, Maes." As expected, Hughes’ eyebrows arched and a curious smile curved his mouth. If there was one thing that Hughes adored almost as much as his family, it was being sneaky and finding things out that others didn’t want him to know. "Edward and Alphonse are up to something, though I suspect that Edward is the ring leader," he explained, a slight growl slipping into his voice when he thought of what new bout of insanity his mate might be involved in now.

"Ed in charge of some crazy scheme? Whatever gave you that mad idea?" Hughes teased as they finally passed the base’s front gates. "You know, the two of you are very much alike-" When Roy turned to glare at his friend, Hughes held his hands up in surrender. "Let me finish. You both have this annoying tendency to scheme whenever there’s something you really want, and nothing on this earth or in all the hells will dissuade you from your course once you’ve decided on something. The only difference is that you tend to think things through a lot more often than Ed does." There was a wicked smile on his face. "I think this is the gods’ way of showing you how much you annoy your friends on a daily basis with all your plots and such."

This time, Roy’s growl wasn’t quiet. "At least *I* have the sense not to do something crazy enough to bring the entire Army and every wizard in this country down on our heads," he snapped, the words forced past clenched teeth. There was an intense urge to burn something, but he managed to keep a tight rein on his temper. The past three years of living with Ed had greatly improved his control. "Are you willing to take the chance that Edward won’t do just that?"

There was silence for about a block as Hughes stroked his short goatee and seemed to think about that question. His face twisted in a grimace and he cleared his throat before he answered. "No, I’m not willing to chance it, especially when I know I’ll be thrown in the brig with you lot… if I’m that lucky." He sighed and shoved his hand back into his pocket. "What has he done now?"

Grateful that his friend was now taking him seriously, Roy managed to bank some of his anger. "I came home today to find him and Alphonse curled up on their bed with at least seven books that appeared to be very rare and very valuable. Judging from the way they were scouring through them, I’d be willing to say the books had something to do with a bunch of old bastards we all know and hate." Hughes nodded to show that he understood what Roy wasn’t willing to mention while they were out in the open. "This, after a week when Edward seemed determined to ensure that I was in the best mood possible, and when he was extremely diligent in practicing his… special talents." It was his turn to sigh, both with regret that Ed’s efforts to placate him had come to an end and the fact that he’d allowed his mate to get away with it.

"Ah, yes, the reason why Al’s been spending the last several evenings at my house and why we haven’t seen you and Ed at all outside of work." Hughes bared his teeth in amusement, which made Roy have to fight back the urge to snarl and smack his friend. "You know, if you hadn’t stopped by tonight, I would have ended up paying you a visit." Chuckling, Hughes took a big step to the side, as if making sure he was out of Roy’s reach. "Hawkeye’s been worried as hell about you. You’re actually finishing your paperwork each day instead of being the huge slacker you usually are. Now I have to tell her it wasn’t because of some nefarious plot on your part but just the fact that you couldn’t wait to get home to play ‘hide the sausage’ with your underage-"

"He’s. Sixteen. Years. Old." This time, there was no keeping the growl back, and if there weren’t so many witnesses around he’d burn off *all* the hair on Hughes’ body until he was as bald as a baby. "Drop. It." His threat must have been effective for once, since Hughes gulped loudly, offered him a shaky smile and actually shut up.

Of course, being Hughes, he didn’t stay quiet for long. "Okay, so you think Ed’s up to something, and it involves his favorite ‘past time’ and a bunch of books," he recounted, his voice a little more subdued than normal.

Struggling to regain control of his temper, Roy nodded. Between his suspicion and anger at Ed, the fact that they were both blocking their link to each other, and Hughes’ annoying needling on a subject that he didn’t find amusing in the least, his temper was the slightest bit frayed. Still, he’d asked Hughes to join him for a reason, and the sooner he found out what Ed was up to, the better. "I managed to get a close look at one of the books. Not only was it extremely old, but it contained a slip from the Thurston Auction House. Considering how close Edward and I have been lately, I don’t see when he could have gone to bid on it, let alone pay for it, and you said that Alphonse has been with you the last few nights."

"Yeah." Hughes nodded, his right hand once more stroking his goatee while he glanced off into the distance. "The Thurston house usually only deals with high-end items, so I can’t imagine how the boys could afford such expensive books, let alone seven of them. I mean, I know they work hard and all, but I doubt I could buy anything other than a dented, tarnished salt shaker there." His good humor slowly crept back, most likely aided by the thrill of the chase, as it were. "If it’s something to do with books, Schezka would know, I’m sure," he said, and Roy had to agree. His friend’s secretary was even more obsessed with books than his mate and ward. "Give me a day or two to find out some stuff, all right?"

At times like these, with Hughes so easily agreeing to help and flashing him a cocky, pleased grin, Roy understood why he put up with the man during his more annoying phases. "Thanks, Maes, I greatly appreciate this." He did, too. There really was no telling what Ed was up to, and considering the lengths his mate had gone to in an attempt to keep him in the dark, he didn’t think it was anything good. The sooner he found out, the better their chances of survival.

Laughing loud enough to startle the two young women walking in front of them, Hughes draped an arm over his shoulder and gave him a warm hug. "No problem, Roy. I’m always glad to help a friend who’s about to buy me the most expensive bottle of wine in the liquor store." His wicked grin took on a besotted edge. "Gracia’s roasts are always so good that dinner deserves nothing but the best wine tonight." Then his expression turned crafty and he poked Roy in the ribs. "But you don’t get any! Not after the way you’ve manipulated my wife into packing up your house for you, and the way you’ve ignored us this past week." He pretended to sniff a tear back. "You have no idea how much it breaks my heart to have to explain to poor, dear Alicia yet *again* how her Uncle Roy has neglected her because he’s too busy…." One potent glare was enough to make Hughes chuckle nervously and stop what he was about to say. "Well, look at that, we’re at the store already."

Which meant that Hughes got to live a little longer, even if he did make good on his threat to have Roy buy him a very expensive bottle of wine, but at least it wasn’t the most expensive. Roy picked up two bottles for himself since he figured he’d need something tonight to keep him calm enough not to kill Ed. Well… kill was such a strong word, but he wasn’t past a bit of maiming at this point, even if he’d feel Ed’s pain. Once again, he sent a heartfelt curse to his brother in thanks for saddling him with such an ill-suited, immature brat of a mate.

"So, what’s for dinner, then?" Hughes asked when they left the liquor store.

Roy thought about the question for a moment, and then indicated for his friend to turn right. "There’s a stand not far from here that sells wonderful beef sandwiches." His mouth watered slightly as he thought about the spicy, hot meat with its cool sauce wrapped in thick naan bread. "While they’re far cry from Gracia’s pot roast, they’re pretty good and I doubt Edward and Alphonse will care as long as dinner is edible."

"I know the place, I stopped there for lunch the other day." Carefully tucking the bottle of wine under his arm, Hughes whistled for a few steps along the crowded street. "So, other than it involving a bunch of grumpy, possessive old bastards, any other idea what Ed’s been up to?"

Roy had a pretty good idea, but not only was this not the place to mention it, he really didn’t want to tell Hughes his suspicions. There were precious few secrets that he kept from his friend, but one of them was Ed’s ability to change the properties of various metals – such as lead into gold. It wasn’t so much that he didn’t trust Hughes, but…. The best a bound could hope for if they were captured was to be killed instantly. To be kept alive and bled so a wizard could easily cast spells… he’d even heard of various bounds maimed in a way that their captors believed would affect their abilities, such as blinding a soul gaki-bound with the ability to see the future or a flesh gaki-bound so their other senses could be even more powerful. Those fates were terrible enough, especially when one took into account how long a bound could live, but if word got out about what Ed could do…. His mate would be kept alive and forced to transmute lead into gold until the day he died, and his captors would do their best to make sure that day was a long time coming. Hughes would never willingly give that information up, but he had a wife and a child who could be used against him.

"Let’s just say that if my suspicions are correct, Edward will not be able to sit down for at least a week, and I’ll gladly suffer along if it means that I managed to beat some sense into him for once." Hughes gave him an odd, slightly hurt look but didn’t press for more information. He seemed to understand that it was best that he didn’t know everything when Roy was obviously reluctant to explain. Considering the fact that they were busy plotting the overthrow of a government, it was one of the few times that Hughes didn’t try to weasel an answer out of him.

"Do me a favor, Roy, and let me know when the spanking’s about to commence." Hughes’ hurt expression vanished, and the oh-so innocent one that replaced it made Roy instantly wary. "I’ve some leave time accrued, and I think that would be the smartest time to take it. Both you and Ed will be such grouchy bastards that no one will want to be around you until both of you can sit down once again!"

Ignoring his now laughing friend, Roy refused to allow his teeth to grind together and stalked down the street toward the sandwich stand. Between Hughes and Ed, it was a miracle that he wasn’t a raving lunatic by now. At least he had a reason to be saddled with Ed since they were mates, but Hughes… he willingly put up with this abuse. Then and there, he swore that the next time he ran into Crawford, he was going to give his brother a good, swift kick in the ass. The bastard *had* to have seen what was going to happen when his path crossed with a certain annoyingly cheerful yet cute Army recruit all those years ago.

*******

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