Family Bonds

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chapter eight

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Revelations and confrontations

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Jo set a plate covered with slices of apples and pears, along with some soft cheese and bread, down onto the table. "Well, that was certainly a busy breakfast, wasn’t it?"

Emmie wrinkled her nose at the plate of fruit and sipped her hot chocolate. "Do you think lunch will be as busy as that?" she asked, with just the slightest hint of a whine in her voice. Beside her, Maddox moaned and reached for something to eat.

Jo shared a look with Kira and they both smiled. "You two might be happy to hear that I doubt it will be," she said as she picked up some apple slices and bread.

Kira nodded and poured herself some more hot chocolate from the pitcher on the table. "Since the rest of the caravans have begun to arrive, everyone will stop by for breakfast and for dinner, but not for lunch. They’ll be too busy looking for bargains to eat here – all the street stands should do very good business in the next couple of weeks."

"And much luck and profit to them, as we’ll make up the lost lunchtime with the other meals." Jo didn’t begrudge them the money since the Koneko wouldn’t be hurt – in fact, since so many of the caravan workers would seek to stay at the inn, they’d still make quite a hefty profit for the month. And it would be rather nice to count on things being a bit quiet during the day for once.

While she and Kira were pleased to hear that more caravans had arrived at the city, Maddox and Emmie didn’t appear to be very happy. Maddox picked at a piece of bread while Emmie stared into the mug she held between her hands.

The kitchen was quiet for a couple of minutes, and then Maddox set aside the crumbled piece of bread and picked up a pear slice. "I guess our uncle should be arriving soon," he said, his voice hushed.

Kira gave Jo a significant look at that statement. "I haven’t heard of any of the northern caravans arriving yet," she said, busy twirling a strand of hair around her index finger. "I think you’ll be staying here a little longer." She smiled and let go of her hair. "Long enough that I should be able to finish teaching you a few simple embroidery stitches and you can help me with my dress," she told Emmie, who smiled in return and nodded in agreement.

If Jo had her way, the two children weren’t going anywhere – and she was dead set on getting her way. Cassandra had told her she didn’t see any visions of Emmie being a bound but she still wasn’t going to let her go off with some uncle who barely saw the girl once a year, if even that much. No, not after having met Aya and Nagi, not to mention the bound strays who had stopped by in the last few weeks, assured that the Koneko was in fact a haven for their kind. She couldn’t prevent them from going on their way since they were adults. At least they had their powers to protect them and knowledge of other bounds to turn to for help – Emmie and Maddox didn’t. Even if Emmie wasn’t a bound herself, she could still be abused or hurt by people because of her blood, and Jo didn’t think that Maddox would just stand by and let that happen. They’d both be much safer if they stayed at the Koneko.

But how to get them to stay would be the problem, she thought as she munched on a slice of bread covered with cheese and apple. It was clear that Emmie and Maddox both enjoyed working here, and each day they seemed less and less happy at the thought of leaving. Maddox had been firmly ensnared by the prospect of learning to cook, while Emmie just seemed to want to remain near Yohji and the rest of her new friends. Jo didn’t think they’d put up much of a fight if they were offered permanent spots.

No, the main problem would be their uncle. Maybe he’d be a wise man and realize that a caravan was no place to raise two sheltered children… and if not, she was certain she could beat some sense into his thick head. As it was, she didn’t think any caravans right now would be happy to take any children on, be they related to workers or not, after what the Setan caravan had tried to do.

"I think it’ll definitely be a few more days before the rest of the caravans arrive," she said, and instantly attracted everyone’s attention. "Yuushi mentioned last night that the Guard will inspect all caravans before they enter or leave the city to make sure that none of them are trying to smuggle anything in or out."

Kira wrinkled her nose and shook her head. "I can’t believe that people would actually treat children like some sort of merchandise." She let out a heavy sigh and shook her head again. "I mean, I know some people do very bad things but to calmly order others to kidnap children and then to keep them prisoner for several weeks so they could be sold just… well, it seems more evil than usual, I guess that’s what I’m trying to say."

Jo stroked her hand through the silky hair that fell down Kira’s back and nodded. "I know what you’re trying to say." Because they took strays in, the Koneko’s staff was very familiar with the evils people perpetrated against others. Having been strays themselves, some of them were *very* familiar with that evil; just ask her, Ani or Aya. But Kira had come from a good, if money-obsessed family that had mostly forgiven her for running away and she them for trying to marry her off, and she hadn’t experienced firsthand some of that abuse and hatred.

"At least they found the monsters responsible for the kidnappings and killings," Jo added after a quiet moment. "And maybe people will learn something from the fact that it was other humans who did such an evil thing and stop trying to blame everything bad that happens on bounds." She sniffed in anger and helped herself to another snack. "People are idiots." Her attention was on the two children who sat across from her; she noticed when they both sat up straighter and exchanged a quick look when she mentioned bounds.

It seemed that Kira noticed as well. "On the one hand, I remember the stories my older sisters told me when I was a child about bounds so I’d be too afraid to sleep at night." She grimaced and then laughed at the memory. "The rotten brats. But on the other hand… well, all the bad things I’ve known to happen in my lifetime have been the fault of humans, not bounds. I feel sorry that they’re stuck with the blame for everything."

They had to be careful, Jo thought as she nodded in agreement. All they knew was that Emmie’s mother was a bound; they weren’t sure how the two children felt about the magical creatures. Eri had listened in on their thoughts when she was around them but hadn’t invaded their privacy too much, and only knew that Emmie felt a lot of resentment towards her mother and that both of them feared bounds a bit. Fear was something they could work with and move the two past – hate was another thing entirely. As much as Jo wanted the two to remain here at the Koneko, it wouldn’t be possible if they hated Yohji, Aya and their kind.

"Humans do love scapegoats, especially when they’re jealous of bounds in the first place." She bit back on a smile at the incredulous look on Emmie’s face as she said that.

"What… what makes you think that?" Maddox asked, his voice quiet and demeanor intent.

She shrugged and poured herself more hot chocolate. "Let’s see, bounds are usually very attractive people, they live a very long time without growing old and they have amazing powers. You don’t think a lot of people are jealous of that?" She snorted loudly before she sipped her drink. "I can name at least ten people who would give almost anything to be able to live for a few centuries while remaining young and beautiful."

Maddox blinked at that statement and glanced at his cousin. "I didn’t consider that." He frowned for a moment as he draped his left arm around Emmie’s shoulders and hugged her close. "Most people I know don’t have good opinions about bounds."

"You mean they don’t *say* anything good about bounds," Kira quickly clarified. "Mostly because they’re afraid that people will think they’re foolish for not being scared of such frightening ‘monsters’." She shook her head at that bit of nonsense. "From the stories my sisters told me, I expected there to be rampaging bounds all over the country, killing and eating people on a daily basis. Then I grew up and realized that it wasn’t true. You hear all these terrible stories about them… but when have those stories ever been proven true?"

Emmie sidled closer to Maddox, but her attention was on Jo and Kira. "You… you don’t think they’re monsters? Really?"

"Really," Jo replied. "I could tell you true stories about humans that would make you lose sleep for a night or two, but I don’t know of any true ones about bounds." She took another sip before she spoke again, her voice quiet yet steady. "You meet a lot of people, working in an inn for almost twenty years. Some of them have been bounds – oh, not all of them admitted to it, but I learned a few things as well during that time." Maddox and Emmie appeared utterly astonished at her confession. "They were often troubled and couldn’t stay for very long, but all of them were civil and none of them ever gave me or the Koneko any grief. As far as I’m concerned, their kind is always welcome here." That might be laying it on a bit thick but she didn’t think Maddox and Emmie would pick up on anything too subtle.

Thankfully, Kira lightened the rather serious mood by laughing, the sound bright and warm. "Well, *most* of them are civil, one or two recent guests aside." She winked at Jo.

Smiling in return, Jo nodded. "Yes. Well they got better the longer they stayed here, you have to admit. It wasn’t so much a lack of manners on their part but that they hadn’t had many opportunities to put those manners to use."

There was a loud gulping sound and Maddox did a good impression of a carp out of water for a few seconds. "You’ve met bounds?" he asked, his voice a high squeak.

Jo nodded again. "Yes, and I’m sure I’ll meet some more in the future. As I said, their kind is welcome here as long as they behave themselves." She shared a quick glance with Kira and decided it would be best not to carry on about the subject for too long. After all, she didn’t want to make the children suspicious about why they were suddenly talking about bounds, nor did she want to risk saying something she shouldn’t. For right now, it would be best that Emmie and Maddox didn’t know that there were several bounds living at the Koneko. As much as she wanted the children to stay – as did the rest of the staff – she had no right to put Yohji, Aya and Ken in danger, not to mention Eri, Cassandra and the other bounds who were regulars here.

Both Emmie and Maddox appeared stunned, as if they’d just been told that they’d shared lunch with the king. Jo bit back on another smile when she thought about how the two would react when the truth could finally be told. They hadn’t met the king yet, but they had shared breakfast just this morning with his son, who was busy practicing magic in the library with Botan and Aya.

A soft chuckle slipping past her lips, she got up from the table to fetch some more hot chocolate and make something a little more filling for a snack. Oh yes, it would be very interesting indeed for the children to learn that they shared a roof with a succubae-bound, a flesh gaki-bound, a former wizard turned Guard and a Captain of the Guard as well. Then, there was the crown prince, Royal Wizard and Spymaster who paid regular visits, not to mention quite a few other bounds. If all those shocking things didn’t do them in, maybe they could handle the fact that a kage lived on the premises. One thing was certain – however they broke the truth to Emmie and Maddox, it had better be done gently.

*******

Roy watched as a very shaken and pale Sergeant Breda left his office and waited for Lieutenant Havoc to appear. During the slight pause, he did his best to keep control of his temper and to hide his emotions over the link with his mate. It wouldn’t be a very good idea to let a certain stupendously idiotic earth elemental bound know that Roy was utterly livid, or else Ed might make the connection and realize that the majority of that anger was directed at him. After all, Roy’s mate had plenty to be paranoid about, considering what he’d done in the past week or so.

Just as the temperature in the office went up a degree or two, Havoc knocked twice on the door and entered, a guarded look on his face. Roy gave a curt nod to signal the man to enter, which Havoc did - albeit in a very wary manner.

"You wanted to see me, Colonel?" Havoc asked, the question clearly enunciated despite the unlit cigarette dangling from his mouth.

Roy arched an eyebrow at the mention of his new rank which wouldn’t be official for another two days. Ignoring the obvious suck-up attempt on Havoc’s part, he fixed a stern gaze upon his subordinate. "Yes, I have a few questions for you." He nodded for Havoc to step closer to the desk, which the man did after pausing for a couple of seconds. "Did you find much of interest at Masuda’s bookstore?" Deciding not to drag this out, he cut right to the heart of the matter.

At first, Havoc seemed to have forgotten the significance of his visit to that particular bookstore, but Roy could tell when it finally sunk in. The succubae-bound’s face flushed a bit and his cigarette suddenly drooped, as if crushed in half by clenched lips. Havoc reached up to grab the damaged cigarette from his mouth and moved to toss it aside before he remembered where he was. "Ah, Masuda’s bookstore?" he asked, clearly stalling for time while he laughed nervously. "I’m not much of a book person, sir."

Not sure his patience – or more importantly, his rather fractured control of his temper – could stand for Havoc to be evasive right now, Roy leaned forward, the palms of his hands pressed onto the top of his desk. "Lieutenant Havoc, you are usually a well respected and appreciated member of my department." As he spoke, balls of flame formed in the air and inched toward Havoc. "I’ve placed a lot of trust in you and, for the most part, have not regretted doing so." The flames now surrounded a sweating Havoc. "However, if you do not tell me everything about your visit to that particular bookstore within the next two minutes, I will singe off at least two layers of your skin, am I clear?" When the man nodded frantically, Roy felt a little more of his control slip. "Tell me what the hell Edward is up to," he snarled, his voice savage and deep with barely restrained fury.

Havoc actually jumped several inches into the air at the demand, only just managing not to burn himself on the balls of fire that surrounded him. "He didn’t give me a choice, sir! Dammit, he told me I had to do it or he’d-" He quickly snapped his mouth shut and began to sweat some more.

Right now, Roy didn’t give a damn what his mate had used to blackmail Havoc into going to that bookstore. Later, he’d probably try to find out how Ed managed that but today his problem was with the blithering idiot who was his mate, not Havoc. "All right, so he forced you to go to the bookstore," he said, voice and temper a little bit calmer now. "What I want to know are his instructions to you and what you know about his motives behind them."

As the flames pulled back a little and shrunk in size, Havoc took a deep breath and managed a nervous chuckle. "Boss really managed to piss you off, didn’t he?" Letting out a yelp as the balls of fire surged forward, Havoc tried to fend them off with his hand. "Okay, I’ll tell!" When the fire halted a few inches away from him, he chuckled again, face pale and covered with sweat.

Normally, Roy wouldn’t use his power like this against a subordinate but he had to know what Ed had done so he could repair whatever damage he could. Besides the burning, gnawing emotions associated with the need to protect his mate – no matter how much trouble Ed managed to bring onto himself – he had to make sure that Ed and Al were alive and not in Esset’s custody so they could fight in the upcoming war. Everything he and his brother had sacrificed for, and many other bounds as well, could be ruined if Ed was killed or captured. "Go on," he told Havoc and made the flames pull back once more.

Running a shaking hand through his hair, Havoc closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Once he seemed to have collected his thoughts, he let the air out slowly and opened his eyes. "Okay, so Ed approached me over a week ago to ‘help’ him." He let out a bitter laugh and reached into his mostly unbuttoned uniform jacket to pull out a battered tin cigarette case. "He told me that he wanted me to go the damned bookstore and find out some information about a bunch of old books that had been sold there recently." Opening the tin, Havoc gave Roy a quivery smile. "I didn’t see what harm this would do and figured he just got an itch for some books he couldn’t have so I agreed." He shrugged his shoulders. "It didn’t seem like a big deal at the time. I figured he’d owe me after that."

Much more collected now that Havoc was cooperating, Roy willed a tiny flame to light the cigarette. He honestly didn’t like having to bully his subordinates like this. "So you went to the bookstore and found out what?"

Havoc took a deep drag on the cigarette and held his breath for a moment. "That some guy by the name of ‘Aya Kudoh’ had sold them." He didn’t seem to notice how Roy’s back stiffened at the mention of that name. "He must be related to Yohji Kudoh since he lives at the Koneko. You remember that smug prick, don’t you, sir?" His smile faded when he realized that Roy was furious once more. "Uh, guess you do," he mumbled under his breath and took another drag from the cigarette as he stared cautiously at the balls of flame.

It took Roy a moment to control his anger and panic. Out of all his people, only Hawkeye knew what was at the Koneko. He hadn’t trusted Ed and Al, or even Hughes with that very dangerous piece of information. No, the fact that a kage lived in the heart of the city was a secret that needed to be kept in the utmost of confidence.

And here Havoc had just given the kage’s new name to Ed. "Why did he want that information?" he asked, his voice deceptively quiet.

Havoc realized that Roy wasn’t anywhere near as controlled as he appeared and began to sweat even more. "Uh, something to do with a bunch of old books. He wanted to track down some more of them and buy as many as he could." Wiping at the sweat that dripped into his eyes, he grimaced. "But you knew that, right? That he had Breda buy the books with the gold he made? Don’t know if he went to the Koneko yet to get some more, but I warned him to be careful."

The temperature in the room went up by several more degrees in the space of two seconds. Roy struggled to control his temper and abilities when the door to his office swung open to admit Lieutenant Hawkeye, who quickly closed it behind her. She then hurried over to the window and opened it as the air in the room began to circulate and slowly cool down. Folding her arms over her chest, she turned to face Roy, her face carefully blank. "Is something wrong, sir?"

Her calm voice gave him something to focus on as he struggled with biological imperatives and raging anger. Not only had Havoc unknowingly told Ed about the kage, he’d also found out about Ed’s special ability. Roy was torn between burning Havoc to ash and allowing him to live because of the loyalty he felt toward one of his own.

"Sir?"

Taking a deep breath, Roy made all of the fire within the room vanish which helped to cool the air by several degrees. Once that was done, he stared intently at an ashen-faced Havoc. "If I ever suspect that you would ever so much as breathe a hint about Ed’s ability to transform metals, I will burn you until there aren’t even ashes to be scattered in the wind, do you understand?"

Nodding furiously, Havoc stuttered out that he did and then bowed low. It didn’t matter to Roy that this was a fellow bound, that this was someone he trusted and counted on to be there in times of need, he really would destroy Havoc if there was any hint of danger to his mate. Oh, he’d feel guilty about it later, but it wouldn’t prevent him from doing so.

Threat out of the way, Roy quickly tried to remember Ed’s schedule. The idiot had spent most of the time he wasn’t working, eating or sleeping the last two days reading books, and had mentioned that he’d be a bit late coming home from work tonight. In fact, Al said he’d be late as well. There was a chance that they had some sort of errand to run, maybe something for the Rockbells, but he was willing to bet that they’d go to the Koneko today. Glancing at the clock on his desk, he realized that they were probably on their way there now. Cursing Hughes for not getting the information on what Ed had been up to last week to him until just an hour ago, he quickly hurried from behind his desk.

"Lieutenant, I need to leave for the day," he told Hawkeye. "I believe that Edward and Alphonse are headed to the Koneko in hopes of… purchasing books from one of the residents there." More than likely, Ed wouldn’t stop at offering money to get the books, not if they were about the Elders. Hawkeye’s eyes went wide when she heard mention of the inn, and she quickly nodded in understanding. "They’re going there in large part thanks to Lieutenant Havoc, but I’ve no time to discipline him right now, so please see to him and to Sergeant Breda as well." He didn’t trust his own judgment in punishing the two men while he was this furious, but he was sure that Hawkeye would do an admirable job of ensuring that they never went along with Ed’s harebrained schemes again. Not bothering to wait for a response, he rushed from the office.

Still, as he headed for the hallway, he heard the distinctive loud ‘bangs’ that signaled Hawkeye’s use of her power, the noise cut off once he stepped out of the office. His faith in the woman proven true once more, he hurried as fast as he dared. Once off the Army base he had some hope of flagging a carriage down to get him to the Koneko quicker than he could walk and still appear human. He had to get there before Ed did, had to prevent the idiot from doing something to anger the kage. If he didn’t… he wondered if there would be a Koneko left standing and knew that his mate would most likely be killed, along with himself and probably Al as well. Then Kritiker wouldn’t stand a chance against Esset during the war. Not to mention he’d be the slightest bit upset at not living long enough to beat the shit out of his brother.

*******

After a very filling lunch, Emmie wandered up to her and Maddox’s room to wash off and change her clothes. It had been a *very* busy breakfast in a kitchen made stifling hot from all the ovens blazing. She felt a bit drained from the heat and all the hard work but it was a good feeling, one that made her feel like she’d been a lot of help. Maddox had told her last night that there’d been no mention of them having to pay for their room and board, and she had the sneaking suspicion that there wouldn’t be a bill at all. Just the other day, she saw Yohji feed two customers until they were stuffed and then send them on their way with a basket filled with food, all for no charge. When she’d asked him about it, he told her that sometimes people ran into a bit of bad luck and that the Koneko stayed in the gods’ good graces by helping people like that out. So she worked extra hard now because it seemed as if that would be the only way she could repay Yohji, Jo and the others’ for their kindness.

However, she and Maddox had the rest of the day off and Yohji had promised to take them to a small street festival once he finished helping Ichiro clean out the stables. She frowned a little when she remembered that Aya would come with them as well and hoped that the quiet man didn’t pick on Yohji or ignore her the entire afternoon.

Clean once again and wrapped in her robe, she hurried over to the small cupboard that held her clothes and picked out something to wear. As she tried to decide between the thick yellow tunic with ribbons attached to the hem or the pretty grey sweater covered with pink roses, Maddox entered their room, his hair still wet from the quick bath he must have taken down the hall.

"Which one do you think is best, Maddie?" she asked her cousin as she held up the two articles of clothing.

He wrinkled his nose at the nickname before he considered the two tops. "I think you should wear the tunic. It’s not as cold today as it’s been lately and it looks more festive." As he explained his choice, he joined her at the cupboard and pulled out a bright blue tunic and a pair of dark grey leggings. "I’ll get dressed out here."

"Okay." Deciding on a skirt, she picked out the light blue one that Ani had just given her the other day and a pair of long socks. Then, she hurried over to the screen and stepped behind it for some privacy. While she had to admit that it was nice to have Maddox nearby in a strange place, she was beginning to long for a bit of privacy. She’d never had to share a room with anyone before, let alone a boy, but she wasn’t about to ask Jo or Yohji if she could have a room of her own. Especially since it seemed that they wouldn’t accept any money from her for it.

Pulling on the clean outfit, she felt a shiver of excitement at being dressed in such fine clothes so she could spend the afternoon at a festival. Even though Yohji warned her that it was a small festival, she knew from listening to Touya and Ani that it would still be so much fun. There would be lots of food and games, booths selling things she’d never imagined before and live music. Yohji had even promised to win as many prizes as she could carry home, which made her cheeks suddenly become very warm and a big smile spread across her face.

Once dressed, she took a moment to brush her hair and wished that it wasn’t so short. Ani and Kira’s was so long and looked so pretty, and they had all these lovely ribbons and barrettes to hold it back while they worked. Yohji really liked to tease Ani by pulling her ribbons free all the time but Ani never seemed to mind as she always laughed and tugged on his hair in return.

There was a tight feeling in her chest for a few seconds as she thought about Yohji and Ani, but Maddox knocking on the screen’s wooden frame distracted her. "What?" she asked as she walked out in front of the screen.

Maddox blinked a couple of times when he saw her and slowly smiled. "You look pretty," he said, which made her cheeks heat up once more. "I wanted to know what time Yohji said he should be ready to leave."

She glanced at the clock and realized that that Yohji probably wasn’t finished with helping Ichiro just yet. "He said he should be done by two o’clock." That meant he still had half an hour to go. "Maybe he’s finished already, though." She certainly hoped so, she really wanted to spend as much time as possible at the festival.

Smoothing his hand down the front of his tunic, Maddox frowned and looked at the clock. "Maybe. Oh well, I guess there’s only one way to tell. We can see if he’s in his room and if not, stop by the stables." A hint of excitement crept into his voice as he spoke and she knew that he was looking forward to having some fun, too. This was the first chance they’d had to go to a festival here in the city

They hurried from the room, anxious to leave as soon as possible. Emmie crossed her fingers and hoped that Yohji was done with work for the day. Aya was supposed to be helping Botan and Omi with something, but she’d heard him tell Yohji to get him from the library when it was time for them to go so it was Yohji they had to wait for.

He wasn’t in his bedroom since no one opened the door when they knocked. Exchanging a look with her cousin, they continued on their way downstairs. Eri and Naru were in the kitchen as they walked through it on their way to the garden, neither of them were dressed in their Guard uniforms.

"I see someone’s going to the Weavers’ Street Festival," Naru commented as he sipped a cup of coffee.

Making her long skirt twirl around her legs a little, Emmie smiled and nodded. "Yes, we’re going with Yohji and Aya." She noticed that Naru had on a bright red tunic with an even brighter yellow pair of pants, while Eri was actually wearing a very pretty, lilac-colored dress. "Are you going, too?"

Eri nodded and fussed with the skirt of her dress. "If you don’t mind, we’ll tag along with the four of you." For some reason, Naru stifled a laugh just then, even though Eri appeared a bit nervous.

"Uhm, the more the merrier, right?" Maddox said, his voice a little higher than normal. Emmie looked up at her cousin, who was staring at Eri. Glancing at the Guard, Emmie wondered if he was surprised to see her in such a pretty gown, the short hair that usually fell onto her face pulled back with a beautiful pair of barrettes that glittered in the light. The few times that they’d seen the woman before, she was either dressed in her uniform or in something plain and dark. Eri appeared very pretty all dressed up. Maybe Naru was her date for the night, Emmie fervently hoped so.

"I’ll go see how much longer before Yohji’s ready to leave," she said, suddenly a bit uncomfortable in Eri’s presence. She wished she had such a lovely dress to wear and had to remind herself that Maddox had said that she looked pretty. Surely Yohji would think the same.

She heard Maddox follow her outside. As she stepped into the garden, she took a deep breath to enjoy all the lovely scents and smiled when she realized that it was indeed warmer than it had been the last few days. She’d need a cloak if they were out past sundown, but she should be able to show off her outfit until then.

"I hope you don’t get the bright idea to help Yohji while you’re dressed like that," Maddox said as they made their way to the stables, the tone of his voice amused.

She frowned at him over her shoulder. "Hmph. I’ve more sense than that, you know."

"Right, this from the girl who ruined her Winter Solstice outfit by trying to help in the kitchen last year," Maddox pointed out. "And garlic sauce smells much better than horse crap."

"I know that." She glared this time, both annoyed and slightly hurt upon being reminded of that incident. Several of her aunts had yelled at her for making a mess of her new clothes, but her father had just laughed and insisted that she wear his new tunic for the rest of the family dinner. She missed him so much.

Before she could snap at her cousin for thinking that she’d willingly clean stalls while dressed like this, she noticed that Yohji was out in the garden with three other people. Smiling at the sight of him, she hurried over in his direction and called out his name. He didn’t seem to hear her, and as she approached, she noticed that he didn’t appear very happy. In fact, he seemed to be arguing with two of the three men, the one dressed in a long red coat and the older man who was wearing what appeared to be an Army uniform. She heard the words ‘slut’ and ‘bastard’, and the two younger men seemed to be pleading with the older man to leave. The next thing she knew, Yohji was surrounded by fire, the sight of which made her scream in fear.

*******

"So, this is the Koneko," Ed said as he and Al stood in front of the inn. "It looks a lot nicer than I thought it would, considering a bunch of thick-headed Guards hang out here." While the inn was rather large and in good shape, he wondered how someone who lived here could afford such rare books. After all, the Koneko wasn’t a castle or anything and this wasn’t a very expensive part of town.

Al elbowed him slightly in the side. "You sound just like Roy, you know." At his glare, Al merely smiled sweetly and nodded his head in the direction of a small, black wrought-iron gate off to the side. "I hear it has a very nice garden."

Groaning slightly at his brother’s fascination with growing things, Ed focused his glare on the inn’s front doors. "You can check it out later, Al. Right now I need to find Aya Kudoh and talk to him about some books." However, before he could take more than two steps forward, he found himself grabbed by the arm and tugged toward the garden gate. "Al! Let me go. You can see a bunch of stupid flowers later!"

"No." His voice serious, Al continued to drag him over to the gate. "I don’t need to be clairvoyant to know that we’ll probably be leaving the Koneko in a hurry. I want to see the garden *before* you manage to upset Aya and everyone else in the inn."

Oh great, his little brother sure held a high opinion of him and his bargaining skills, didn’t he? Ed thought as he begrudgingly allowed himself to be pulled into the garden. It had nothing to do with the fact that Al was bigger and stronger than him from working so many hours at the Rockbells’ forge. He just had a soft spot where Al was concerned. "All I’m going to do is offer to buy some books," he grumbled and jerked his arm free from his brother’s grasp.

Al gave him a knowing look and shook his head. "I’ve seen you do this before, Brother. First you’ll offer money. Then, if that doesn’t work, you practically harass the person until they agree to sell the books to you." For a moment Al’s expression was disapproving but the look quickly faded. "I wish one of us was a soul gaki-bound; it would make getting the stuff we need so much easier."

"I know what you mean." Deciding to ignore his brother’s erroneous opinion of his bargaining skills, Ed also wished that there was an easier way to get the information that was essential to taking the Elders down. Okay, maybe he did tend to argue a bit with the books’ owners if they weren’t willing to sell right away, but he needed those books for a very important reason, not just to have a rare collection gathering dust on the shelf.

As they walked deeper into the garden, he slowly found himself growing impressed despite his earlier misgivings. There were quite a few trees here, humongous ones at that which made it clear they’d been planted a long time ago. High, red brick walls surrounded the garden and there was plenty of grass among the trees, flowers and shrubs for people to have picnics or hold gatherings. Most of the flowers were past their peak, but there were still a few around to help scent the air and offer a splash of color. He never would have thought that there was so much land to be found inside the city like this, outside of parks and some highborn’s home.

"Maybe the Kudohs can afford the books if they have this much land," he muttered as they slowly made their way around the garden.

Al looked up from a row of budding chrysanthemum plants and smiled. "I asked around a little about the Koneko. It’s been here for centuries, and over the years the owners have been said to slowly add to the property whenever the land around them goes up for sale." There was a distant look in Al’s eyes as he concentrated on what he’d learned. "Oh, and the owners have always been Kudohs. In fact, the family is famous for owning the Koneko and working as Guards."

"Then the inn must do great business because you don’t join the Guard to get rich," Ed sniffed. Part of him knew that he had let Roy, Hughes and his other Army friends’ negative opinions of the Guard to affect his judgment but he didn’t really care. Between having spent the last couple of years living on an Army base and being a bound, he didn’t have much love for the Guard. "It looks like they just added a new addition to the place," he said as he nodded toward the brick and wood wing. "Maybe that’s why they sold the books."

"Maybe." Al ignored the flowers to study the inn, a slight frown on his face. "Or perhaps they needed to pay some back taxes before they could get the permit to build."

"Whatever." Ed tugged at his coat and continued on his way, not really concerned about why the books had been sold. The only thing that mattered was the possibility of Aya Kudoh possessing more books. "Hey, there’s a stable, we can probably ask someone to go fetch Aya and bring him out here." This way, they’d have some privacy while they bargained. He didn’t want to chance being overheard by someone who might either make an offer for the books themselves or talk about the sale. Roy would be furious if they attracted any unwanted attention during their search for information regarding the Elders.

Al brightened at the suggestion and quickly nodded. "I could look around while you… uhm, talk." He pretended to cough in order to hide a smile when Ed glared.

"I’m not going to pick a fight or anything, just offer him a ton of gold for the books," Ed grumbled and made a mental note to never bring his brother with him again when he went to buy books. Really, it wasn’t as if he’d hit Aya over the head and steal the things – Aya was a patron at the library, after all. He’d make an offer and if it got turned down, figure out another way to get the books. If Aya had to sell the things to help pay for the new wing or back taxes, then he more than likely couldn’t afford much in the way of security to protect the rare tomes.

They headed to the stables, a fair-sized building made of red brick with a cedar-shingled roof. No doubt about it, the Kudohs spent some serious money on their inn. As he and Al approached the building, a familiar looking man walked past its open doors and smiled.

"Well, you two don’t look as if you have any horses, so what can I do to help you?" the handsome blond man asked. His smile faded a little as he stared at them. "Uhm, don’t I know you?"

Al, ever the friendly one, nodded and gave the man a slight bow. "Hello. I believe you’ve seen us before at the Royal Library. My brother and I both work there." He smiled as he straightened up and motioned toward Ed. "His name is Ed and I’m Al."

"I’m Yohji Kudoh." The man bowed slightly, and luckily didn’t seem to notice Ed’s slight jump at the name. So this was Aya’s boyfriend, as well as the man who Havoc had warned him to avoid at all costs. He didn’t think that Yohji was much in the way of a threat – other than Winry finding out about the way Al mooned over the man whenever he was in his presence. "Don’t tell me you’re here to fetch some overdue library books!" Yohji laughed, his wavy blond hair clinging to his slightly sweaty face. There was a stray stalk or two of straw poking out of his hair and it was clear that he’d been busy working before he left the stables.

Before Al could say anything else, Ed stepped closer to the man. "We’re not here for overdue books but I do need to talk to Aya Kudoh. It’s very important. Can you bring him out here?" he asked, hard-pressed to keep his voice polite. Dammit, if there were more books on the Elders inside the Koneko, he wanted them *now*. The ones they’d bought the other day had already yielded some very important facts… and left them with even more questions which needed to be answered.

At the mention of Aya’s name, Al sighed loudly and Yohji’s smile completely vanished. He took a step back from Ed and Al and folded his arms over his chest. After a moment, his right hand began to stroke along the thick gold bracelet he wore on his left wrist. "Aya’s busy right now," Yohji said, with a hint of a warning in his voice. "Tell me what you need him for and I’ll do my best to help." For a moment he seemed suspicious, but then he suddenly smiled and Ed felt the breath catch in his throat at how beautiful the man appeared to be.

Feeling a bit dazed, he shook his head and tried to ignore the voice inside him that whispered for him to trust Yohji and to do whatever the man asked. For some odd reason, an image of a frowning Roy formed in his mind and prevented him from doing just that. "No, it has to be Aya. Go get him." He looked up at Yohji and glared as he tried to straighten out his conflicting emotions. "Get him now."

*******

Yohji scowled at the kid who dared to order him to fetch Aya. Something wasn’t right with these two boys, something that drew his attention to them when they came into the garden. And now they wanted – fuck, *demanded* - that he go fetch his mate. No way in any of the myriad hells was he going to listen to the brat.

Aya was safe inside the library, busy assisting Botan with Omi’s magic lesson. He’d stay there too, until Yotan got the kids off the Koneko’s grounds, even if he had to pick them up and throw them over the wall himself. The demanding, rude one was pretty small and shouldn’t require much effort on his part, while the taller, politer one appeared to be thoroughly dazed by his glamour. Maybe he could just toss the shorter kid over the wall and ask the other one to leave.

"Like I said, Aya’s busy." There was a hint of a growl in his voice, one he fought to suppress. "Be good little children and go on your way, okay?"

The taller of the two, Al, nodded and even took a step back when the shorter one grabbed his brother by the arm to stop him. "Who are you calling so little they should be pushed around in baby carriages?" he yelled loud enough to startle a couple of horses in the stable. What the brat lacked in size he made up in lung capacity, that was certain.

Yohji stroked his right hand along his gauntlet and fought the urge to pull a few strands free. These were kids so he’d give them another minute or two to remember how to use their brains and leave before he resorted to force - but only a few minutes. "Listen, kid, get the hell off my property, okay?" he all but snarled. "You and your big brother aren’t welcome here. If you don’t leave soon, I’ll let your superiors know that you have this nasty habit of making pests of yourselves when you’re not busy working," he threatened. He’d do it, too. There was no way that Aya was going back to the Royal Library with these kids working there and waiting for him. Considering his renewed contacts at the palace, it wouldn’t take much effort on his part to get them fired.

The short kid gaped at him for a moment, and even the taller boy seemed to snap out of his glamour-induced daze and winced. Then, there was a yell which was louder than before that made the horses inside of the barn become even more restless. "Big brother?!"

Yohji winced as well and unfolded his arms so he could rub his ears. "Listen, kid, if you spook the horses, I’m gonna let them stampede all over your ass, do you-" The sudden movement of something dark green caught his attention and this time a growl slipped free. It took him a moment to recognize the man who practically ran into the Koneko’s garden but when he did, he was very unhappy. There was no call for that bastard to be here. Why *was* the bastard here?

Dressed in his military uniform, Roy Mustang slowed down as he approached. For a moment there was a frown on his face but it quickly smoothed out into a smug smile. "Edward, do you know that you can be heard all the way out to the street?" He reached for and seized the boy’s arm. "Now, in a civil tone of voice, tell this… nice man ‘goodbye’. You, too, Alphonse." His smile became mocking as he nodded to Yohji. "We’ll be going now."

While he should feel relieved that the kids were leaving, Yohji wasn’t happy about who came to fetch them. There was no reason for someone from the Army to be here. He suddenly grew more suspicious, especially since there was a sense of… ‘something’ to Mustang that warned him of danger. Something he’d never sensed before in all the times he’d run into the smug bastard at the palace.

However much as Mustang seemed to want to leave, Ed didn’t and jerked his arm free from the man’s grasp. "How did you know - what the hell are you doing here? And we’re not leaving until I talk to someone," he growled, his golden eyes glowed with anger. Yohji could easily sense that emotion, along with a hint of fear and desire – and a very strong sense of determination, especially when Ed mentioned Aya.

"You will leave Aya Kudoh alone," Mustang snapped, his voice rough and his dark eyes furious. From him, there was a much stronger sense of fear and determination.

The mention of Aya’s name, which Ed hadn’t said out loud, and that sense of fear coming from Mustang made Yohji’s spine grow stiff and his upper lip pull away from his teeth the slightest bit. How did Mustang know Aya’s full name? What did he know about Aya to make him fear Yohji’s mate so much? Reaching out, he tugged Ed closer to him, away from Mustang.

"Wait a minute, I want to know why the hell this kid wants to see Aya so badly." He smirked at Mustang before he glanced down at Ed. "So, why are you here bothering the hell out of me and being such a nuisance?" He wanted some answers quickly before he lost control of his bound nature.

Ed’s face flushed bright red while his brother, Al, took a sudden interest in the ground and appeared to be doing his best to vanish into thin air. The emotions he felt from them indicated that they really didn’t want to say anything just then and their fear had grown, along with a sense of guilt. From Mustang, he sensed a very powerful spike of jealousy and anger.

In fact, Mustang moved impossibly quick and yanked Ed back by his arm, jerked out of Yohji’s grasp. "It doesn’t matter, they’re leaving." There was no mistaking it, his voice was a deep snarl now.

Yohji’s suspicions only increased, along with the intense desire to protect his mate. "No, I want some answers first, dammit." Once again, his right hand stroked along his gauntlet as he fought the urge to pull some strands free and use them to tie Mustang up. "They’re here bothering me; I want them to tell me what has them yelling and you so upset before they leave."

Despite the fury in his eyes, Mustang gave him a smug grin. "You’re in no position to ask any questions and expect answers, Kudoh. You’re not a Guard any more."

Stung a little by that comment and the too sweet tone of voice in which it had been said, he barely managed to swallow a growl in time. "They’re on my property with the intent to harass, dammit; I can do what I want. Hell, I can have some Guards here in a couple of seconds if you insist. I bet I’ll get some answers then."

That seemed to ruffle Mustang’s composure a bit, and Ed let out a yelp as the hand around his arm tightened enough for Mustang’s knuckles to go white. "That won’t be necessary," the asshole said, his voice utterly lacking its usual annoying smoothness. "Go find some slut like yourself to amuse yourself with and we’ll be on our way."

This time there was no holding the deep and savage growl back. Mustang answered him with the same while Ed and Al appeared worried and desperate to leave. Both boys took a step away from Yohji and Mustang, Ed hampered by the hold on his arm.

"Roy, let’s just go, okay?" Ed practically pleaded and Al instantly echoed him.

Eyes locked on Mustang’s, Yohji gave the man a nasty smile. "You heard the kid, get going. As owner of the land you’re standing on, I’ve decided that I don’t particularly care to have a bastard like you tainting it with your presence. But leave the kids, they have a couple of questions to answer." If Mustang didn’t leave in two seconds, he really would call Naru, Eri and any other Guard who was present. Then, later, he’d track Mustang down to find out what he knew about Aya. "Get the hell out of here," he repeated as he reached for Ed’s arm once again.

His hand had just touched the kid when intense heat made him snatch it back. Cursing, he jumped away as balls of fire formed around him. With a snarl, he pulled strands from his gauntlet with his singed right hand while shadows crept along the flames and smothered them. There was a look of surprise on Mustang and the kids’ faces, with Al pleading for them to stop, all of which Yohji took in as he threw the wire out to entangle itself around Mustang’s neck. The bastard couldn’t create any more fire to burn him with if he couldn’t breathe, now could he?

*******

His attention so focused on finding any weak spots in the ward Omi had just created, it took Aya a moment to realize that the growing sense of annoyance he felt was not his own. Wondering what it was that bothered his lover so much, he opened his eyes and stepped away from Omi. "The ward is still weak at the top and doesn’t extend past the floor," he told the sweating teenager.

With a heartfelt sigh, Omi lowered the ward. "Darn it, I keep forgetting about those two areas." He pushed his bangs back and then snuck a glance at Botan, who had a disapproving expression on his face. Omi chuckled nervously at the sight and, in a matter of seconds, his eyes grew impossibly large. "I’m sorry."

Botan shook his head as a low chuckle broke free. "Don’t even try the big eyes on me, you’re not the one who has to explain to your father how someone dropped a fireball or boulder on your head and why there is no longer an heir to the throne." His disapproving look made a comeback when he stepped closer to Omi. "I know it’s difficult to create a ward that protects from all angles, but you have both the power and focus to do just that, Omi. I won’t let your lessons progress any further until you make a complete one."

Omi flushed at the rebuke and his eyes narrowed at the mention of no more lessons. "All right, I know you have a very good reason to want me to do this." He let out another sigh and ran his right hand through his damp hair. "Could we maybe do it outside next time? I think I would remember to ward beneath me a lot better if I’m standing on the ground and not a wooden floor."

"That’s because the earth is a living medium." Botan dropped his stern demeanor and draped his left arm over Omi’s shoulders. "And it’s a large part of why I want you to be able to do a complete ward. An elemental bound or a cunning wizard can and will take advantage of the area beneath you unless you ward it, and above you as well. But otherwise, your wards are almost perfect."

"Thanks." Omi smiled at his teacher and then looked at Aya. "Did you see any other flaws?"

"Hmmm?" Shaken from his attempt to figure out what was bothering Yohji, he slowly shook his head. "No, not from the floor to about three feet above you." He resisted the urge to pull shadows around him and brood, a response to the anger and annoyance that washed through him.

"As I said, otherwise, Omi’s wards are almost perfect. In fact, once he manages a complete ward, there should be no more flaws as their cohesiveness lends to their strength," Botan said, his tone that which he usually used when he lectured Omi on magic. "Uh, is something wrong, Aya?"

Realizing that he was glaring at the wizard, Aya shook his head. "I’m sorry, something is really bothering Yohji." He debated blocking their link but if Yohji was in a bad mood, doing just that might piss him off even more and make him come looking for Aya. And if Aya’s mate bothered him while being in a truly pissy mood, he was going to bite the idiot and let Jo beat him over the head with a frying pan. That just his emotions made Aya feel this grumpy was bad enough.

In the process of gathering a few of the spell books that he’d brought to the lesson, Omi laughed and looked in the direction of one of the room’s windows. "It’s a nice, sunny day outside, I don’t see what he has to be so upset about."

"Unless Ichiro gave him a lot of work to do," Aya commented as he tried not to think about how sunny it was. He looked forward to going to the street festival with his lover, but knew that Yohji would fuss over him until the sun went down. Maybe the day’s brightness was what had Yohji so annoyed.

"I doubt that. More than likely, Ichiro just wants Yohji out of his stable so he can have peace and quiet once more," Botan commented. "Since Omi appears pretty tired and I know you have plans, I think we’ll end the lesson here for today."

Aya nodded in thanks. He had intended to stay and help Omi and Botan until Yohji was ready to leave, but now he could go to see what was bothering his mate so much. Pulling the hood of his black and silver jerkin up, he began to leave the library.

Omi hurried to follow him. "Um, Aya, would you mind if I tagged along today?" he asked, his eyes once again larger than normal and this time, they possessed a hint of tears. "Ken and Miko are busy helping Yuushi with a few things tonight since there’s this big function going on at the palace and Botan has dinner plans with Cassandra, so I thought-"

"Yes, Omi," Aya sighed, a slight smile curving his lips. There was no doubt Omi would continue on and on with all the reasons why he should be allowed to go if permission wasn’t granted, not that Aya minded if he tagged along. After all, Yohji had invited Maddox and Emmie, and it was highly likely Reiichi or Naru would go with them as well to keep an eye on him and Yohji.

"Thank you." The smile Omi gave him was sincere, no sign of crocodile tears or pleading eyes. "I’m hoping that there will be lots of candied apples for sale. I want to buy a dozen to send to Nagi."

Since they were closer to the front door, Aya went through it to get to the garden. That way he could check on a few things while he was outside and walk in the shade. As he slowly made his way to the stables, he felt Yohji’s anger become stronger. "Nagi should love them, he always enjoyed apples." For a moment the pain of missing his dear friend was more potent than Yohji’s emotions, but then there was a huge spike of anger, possessiveness and dislike. Frowning from the strong emotions, Aya hastened his pace.

"Aya, is-"

Omi’s voice faded away between the twin sensations of Yohji’s pain and unfamiliar magic. Snarling loudly, Aya called upon the shadows as he raced toward the stables. Even before he rounded the corner of the new wing, he could feel the presence of several people in the garden. Strongest was a furious Yohji, then Ichiro, Maddox, Emmie… and three strange bounds. The one who reeked of magic was now wrapped loosely in Yohji’s wire. He could smell smoke and burnt grass and, as he neared, he saw flames burst into being about the garden. Without even thinking, he willed the shadows to smother the fire and the man casting it.

The tall man dressed in dark green fell to the ground, entirely encased in shadows. Because he was a bound and Yohji was barely wounded, Aya didn’t kill him outright – for now. As coldness seeped into his emotions, he wanted to know what made one bound attack another and be certain that this wasn’t part of some larger plot before he crushed the strange bound with his shadows. Seething in anger, he continued toward Yohji and stumbled when the ground suddenly quaked beneath his feet.

Sensing more magic, this time from the blond in the red coat, he threw a ward up around the Koneko’s garden. He felt his energy drain from using his power in sunlight like this, and there was the strong temptation to just smother the three strange bounds, to kill them and drink their energy in. However, he fought against it for now, largely concerned about his mate.

Yohji seemed to guess that the smaller blond was responsible for the earthquake and quickly pulled some more wire out to throw around the boy’s neck. As the strands reached their target, however, he let out a cry of surprise. The strong emotion rushed into Aya and made him stumble again. The taller boy, the one in the green jacket, had just done something to Yohji, something that made him drop to the ground, body frozen as if he was paralyzed.

Reaching his mate, Aya had the shadows form into armor around his body and as a katana in his right hand. His left hand he kept bare, just enough so he could reach down and touch Yohji’s face to send a trickle of energy. As he did this, he stared coldly at the two boys. Yohji didn’t seem wounded but Aya could sense his mate’s anger and confusion, and Yohji could barely seem to move.

"Oh, Brother, this doesn’t look good," the taller of the two said as he shook his right hand, the one that had touched Yohji.

The boy in the red coat clapped his hands together and, with the use of his talent, made a large blade form from the end of his right hand. "It’s you, isn’t it? Get those black things off Roy, dammit! He can’t breathe!" he snarled, sounding much more vicious than he appeared.

Making sure that Yohji wasn’t really hurt, just stunned and immobile, Aya protectively took up position in front of his mate. He could hear someone screaming Yohji’s name and horses whinnying, but all that mattered was the threat before him. "Shi-ne," he whispered, determined to make sure the boys couldn’t harm Yohji. If they tried to do so while his mate was incapacitated, he’d destroy them.

"Don’t… kill them, Cat," Yohji murmured, his voice slurred and weak as he struggled to regain his coordination. He even tried to sit up, his hand around Aya’s calf for support. "Need… to…."

Worried about his lover, Aya broke off glaring at the boys to look down – and tumbled Yohji back when he sensed movement rushing toward them. The smaller boy charged at him, his weapon held high.

"Let Roy go, dammit!" the boy screamed.

Unsure why Yohji wanted the boys alive when they proved so determined to kill them, Aya was willing to obey the request only as long as there was no chance of Yohji being hurt – even if the boys were bounds. There was no way he’d allow Yohji to suffer any more pain. His katana turned into a staff so he could use it to easily block the boy’s attack. As he spun around, he knocked the staff into the other boy, who tried to approach with both hands held outward.

"Al! I’m going to fucking kill you!" the smaller boy cried out as the one in the green coat was knocked to the ground from the blow to his stomach. Once again the earth rocked beneath Aya’s feet and made him sway back and forth before he regained his balance. Not about to let the earth swallow his mate up, he weaved a fine mesh of shadows into the ground to stabilize it. The boy’s eyes went wide when he used his power to no avail, and the surprise left him open to a hit from the staff. Unfortunately, unlike the other boy, something seemed to cushion the blow since he managed to get back up a few seconds later.

Hampered by Yohji’s repeated request not to kill the strange bounds and by using his power in such bright sunlight, Aya felt himself grow weaker with each passing second. Between the ward all around the garden and into the ground – not to mention the shadows about himself and around the fire elemental-bound - he wasn’t sure how much reserves he had left with which to fight, especially after being drained the other night. Just one life would give him enough energy to soothe his doubts but there was no one here he was allowed to kill.

Deciding to pull most of the shadows off the unconscious fire elemental-bound, he once more took up guard in front of Yohji, who seemed to be recovering control of his body. The blond in the red coat appeared torn between the other boy and the fire elemental but, after a quick check on the other boy, he hurried to the unconscious man. He hunched over him, his weapon held at the ready and once more he tried to make the earth shake. Some of the trees around the garden rustled and creaked but there was no other movement.

While this went on, the boy in the green coat managed to lift his upper body off the ground, his weight supported by his elbows. "Ed… stop that," he murmured, his attention focused on Aya. "I don’t think that’s going to work."

"He nearly killed you and Roy and you want me to stop? Did you take a blow to the head or something, Al?" the other boy, Ed, spat out.

"’Cause you attacked first, you idiots," Yohji contributed to the conversation, his voice still slurred but not as weak. He even managed to gain his feet by holding onto Aya for support on his way up.

Reassured that Yohji could, more or less, stand on his own, Aya called a protective circle of shadows around their feet. He wanted to have the shadows form a wall around his mate but remembered the promise he’d made a few weeks ago. He’d honor that if he had to, but the boys weren’t going to be allowed to live much longer if they continued their assault. "Let me kill them," he hissed as shadows encircled all three of the bounds.

Ed released an incoherent yell upon hearing that and tried to lunge at Aya, the sharp blade on his arm held high. However, he didn’t get very far before he was tripped by the other boy. "Ed, stop and think, dammit! That’s not going to work!" Al cried out, his arms wrapped firmly around Ed’s legs. "You’re going to get all of us killed! Don’t you know what he is yet?"

"A dead bastard, that’s what! He hurt Roy and you! Dammit, Al, let me go so I can rip his heart out!" Ed complained loudly while he struggled to get free. "Use your head for once, Al!"

"I am! And that’s why I know we’re lucky to be alive right now!" Al wailed and held steadfast. "You and your lousy bargaining skills! You’re going to get us killed!"

As Yohji’s amusement filtered over their link, Aya watched the boys, not quite as sure as before that they were a threat any longer. The emotion made him look quizzically at his lover.

Yohji gave him a wink, his face still a little pale and held his right hand cradled against his chest. "They’re a couple of kids and they didn’t seem to know what you were before the fight broke out."

"Is that why you don’t want me to kill them? Because they’re kids?" Aya asked, his head tilted to the side.

"We’re not little kids who need babysat, you bastard!" Ed yelled as he tried to crawl his way toward Aya and Yohji, Al still wrapped around his legs. "You hurt Roy and Al!"

"Because that asshole decided to try and burn me!" Yohji snarled, his good mood completely gone. "He started things – no, actually *you* did by coming here and demanding to see Aya." He stepped forward to stand right beside Aya.

"See me?" Aya’s hands tightened on the shadow staff as it grew sharp blades out of both ends. "Maybe we should kill them." He couldn’t think of any reason why these three bounds would come here to see him and pick a fight with Yohji unless it was for something bad. They might be from Esset.

Yohji put his slightly singed hand on Aya’s left arm to stop him from moving forward. "I don’t want to do that until we get some answers." He glanced around the garden for a moment, and Aya felt a wave of regret when Yohji noticed something. After a warning glare to Ed and Al, he looked in the same direction his mate was facing and realized that Omi, Maddox and Emmie were staring back at them from behind one of Omi’s wards. He forgot that he’d included them in the garden wards when he’d activated the magic. Because of the sunlight, he had just reinforced his usual shields encircling the garden rather than create new ones.

"Eri will fix things," Aya said quietly.

Glancing back at him, Yohji smiled sadly and shook his head. "I don’t know about that, seems the truth had to come out at some point." Then he scowled at the strange bounds. "You guys have really managed to ruin my day, do you know that? Now, tell me why the hell you’re here and don’t try to lie because I can sense it if you do. Did you come because Aya’s a kage?"

Ed finally stopped trying to crawl toward them and stared in shock. "Kage?" He blinked at Aya, his tanned face turned pale as he finally seemed to realize what his brother had alluded to. "Oh, fuck."

"That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you, Brother!" Taking advantage of Ed’s stillness, Al practically climbed over his brother until he could hit him on the head. "Where’s your brain been lately? Why did you think I wanted you to stop fighting? We’re lucky to be alive right now!"

"So I take that as a ‘no’," Yohji chuckled and stepped toward the unconscious fire elemental-bound. "At least, from you two. I’m not so sure about this asshole." He nudged his toe into the man’s side.

Ed’s reaction was instantaneous. While he seemed to have calmed down moments before, he tried to reach out with his power to attack once again. "Leave him alone!"

Yohji blinked at the boy’s vehemence and shared a look with Aya. "Uh, listen, kid, if we wanted him dead he wouldn’t be breathing right now. This asshole attacked first so don’t blame us for knocking him out." As Yohji spoke, golden threads left the unconscious man’s throat and reformed on his gauntlet. "He’ll wake up soon enough, and then I want to ask him a few questions."

Despite Al’s best efforts, Ed managed to crawl to the fire elemental bound and crouch over him. "Just leave him alone," he snarled. "I’ll kill you if you touch him again."

"Let me guess, you’re mates?" Yohji sighed. That statement surprised Aya and made him lower his weapon. Ed and Al seemed to be taken aback as well and stared at Yohji.

"You… you’re a soul gaki-bound, aren’t you?" Al asked after a few seconds.

"Succubae-bound," Yohji replied with a smile and draped his arm over Aya’s shoulders. "Here’s my mate. Can you see now why it wasn’t a good idea to demand to speak to him and then attack me?"

"That… does explain a few things." Al’s voice was very quiet while Ed continued to stare at them with his mouth hanging open. "You can sense Ed and Roy’s link?"

"Not exactly, but Ed feels the same way about that asshole over there that I do whenever someone tries to hurt Aya so I took a guess." Yohji sighed again and hugged Aya. "I’m not too sure about Mustang since he’s an officious prick, but I don’t think these kids are any danger. You can drop the armor now, Cat." Then he leaned forward to nuzzle Aya’s neck. "Besides, it’s not like you need it to kill them if they do try something else. Let’s get everyone inside and have Eri sort things out for us, hmmm? I can feel you getting weaker the longer you’re out in the sun," he whispered.

Aya debated against vanishing his armor for a few seconds but decided to trust his lover. He let the shadows fade away and tugged his jerkin’s hood forward to hide his face from the sun. Yohji had spoken the truth – he was getting tired from using his talent while he was in bright daylight and decided it would be best to conserve it for now. However, if Al, Ed or Mustang tried anything else, he would kill them in an instant and not have to worry about being drained of energy for a while.

*******

There was the sense of pain from a powerful headache, as well as the feeling of worry, fear and anger. With a loud groan that did nothing to help the pain, Roy forced his eyes open and found himself staring into Ed’s upside down face. For a second he registered how anxious Ed appeared, and then his own anger bubbled to the fore. "You’re a fucking idiot," he snarled and reached for his mate to pull him closer for a vicious kiss. Ed tensed and tried to pull away as Roy ravaged his mate’s mouth but he refused to let go. No, the damned brat needed to be taught a lesson, he thought as he thrust his tongue deep into Ed’s mouth.

"Great, the asshole wakes up and molests an underage kid. Why am I not surprised?"

Pulling away from his mate with a loud snarl, Roy forced himself as upright as he could manage – more or less into a sitting position – and glared at Yohji Kudoh. "Go to hell," he muttered, his throat more than a little sore from whatever the bastard had wrapped around it before he passed out. Then a few more memories came back to him of how exactly he lost consciousness, and he couldn’t look away from the redhead standing beside Kudoh.

Crawford had given him a description of the kage, and he was indeed one seriously pale individual who possessed very red hair and startling purple eyes. There would be no mistaking him from anyone else in the future. Roy was surprised that no one had figured out what exactly Aya Kudoh was by now and tried to either kill or capture him. Then he remembered that this was someone he was supposed to protect with his life and the kage had almost killed him. All thanks to Ed’s impulsive stupidity.

"Wait a moment, Roy," Al asked as he scrambled to his feet with one arm over the boy’s shoulders for support. Despite how lousy he felt at the moment, he was going to face this standing up. So he ignored the request and forced his body to move. Once upright, he reached out to grab a hold of Ed’s left arm. His mate glared at him but remained quiet, something that was very unnatural but quite welcome in this situation. The few emotions Roy could pick up over their link had to do with shock, worry and fear. The stupid idiot better be worried about what Roy was going to do to him once they got home, he thought as he glared. All because of some stupid books, he’d almost gotten-

"Listen, enough with the glares and the snarls," Kudoh said, his voice just as annoying as ever. Roy turned to face the bastard, his hand still wrapped tightly around Ed’s arm, and found not just Kudoh giving him a dirty look but the kage as well.

Thankfully, in the face of those looks, his brain finally kicked into gear. Maybe it was the prospect of still possibly dying today that made him push his fury toward Ed aside and start thinking. "Do you always assault your guests, Kudoh?" he asked as he straightened out his uniform as much as he could and strived for some air of dignity and authority. As he did this, he noticed that there seemed to be a dark ward all around the garden and that there were a few people hiding behind a magical ward a dozen or so meters away. Great, just what they needed, he thought, witnesses to the kage’s power. Crawford was going to have his hide for this and it wasn’t even his fault. Maybe his brother would think twice before he let two people mate without taking into account that one was a teenage idiot.

Kudoh gave him a nasty smile and draped his left arm around the kage’s waist. "Let’s see – who started things? Your mate shows up rude as all hell and not going away when I tell him to, and then you start flinging fireballs around." His eyes narrowed and he hugged the kage closer to his side. "I hear the Army really, *really* doesn’t like bounds. Wonder how they’d feel about finding out that one of their own is a fire elemental-bound."

Roy jerked Ed back when his idiot of a mate was about to go after Kudoh. "Don’t start another fight," he warned while he fumbled with the pouch on his belt. Now that his brain was working, he was putting a few things together. "I hear the Guard isn’t too crazy about bounds, either," he retorted, his voice perfectly calm in face of Kudoh’s threat. "Let me guess, I’m not the only one with a mate to be worried about here." He knew that the kage was mated to someone from the Koneko and assumed it was a Kudoh from his new last name. However, having the unfortunate luck of having dealt with Yohji Kudoh in the past, he hadn’t realized that the man was a bound and so never suspected him of being the kage’s mate. Crawford was definitely getting his ass burned the next time they saw each other.

Bowing his head, Kudoh chuckled for a moment. "Still an observant asshole, I see." His good humor instantly faded away. "Get your hand out of that pouch and tell me how the hell you knew about Aya," he said, a deep growl in his voice.

"I’m trying to show you something," he snapped back, and very slowly pulled out the token he’d been searching for from his pouch. "It’s not a weapon." Even more slowly he held it up in the air, especially when a black knife formed in the kage’s hand. "Recognize this? Crawford gave it to me."

"Who is Crawford?" Ed asked as Kudoh stepped forward to claim the charm.

"Not now, Edward," he hissed and gave the boy yet another warning glare. "I’m trying to get us out of this mess you thoughtlessly created thanks to your stupidity, so have the courtesy to be quiet." His anger flared to life at the thought of how much danger they were in because of Ed. They both could have been killed, and Al as well.

Ed tried to throw his hand off his shoulder and glared right back. "Don’t tell me what to do, you prick. What are you doing here in the first place? Everything was fine until you showed up!"

As he growled at his mate, Al dared to push between them, a hand on both of their chests. "Uh, now really isn’t the time for this!" Al cried out, his face pale with fear. "Stop being idiots, you two. I don’t want to be killed because you can’t stop fighting for ten minutes!"

"Alphonse-"

"Why are you-"

They were both cut off when Kudoh cleared his throat. "Ahem. Question time isn’t over, children," the bastard had the audacity to say.

Both Roy and Ed turned their furious gazes onto the man, but Kudoh didn’t seem disturbed by their vitriol in the slightest. Then again, he had a kage beside him so what did he have to be afraid of? Once again Roy was reminded of what was at stake here and why it was so important to think and not just react. He needed to push his feelings for Ed aside as well as his anger, concern and protectiveness, until they got out of here alive. The fact that the dark shadows which surrounded the garden began to melt away made him wonder if things were getting better or worse and this thought helped to improve his concentration.

Kudoh held the charm up. "Okay, this is authentic. Now all we have to do is make sure you got this legitimately and then we’ll let you go." There was a warning in his voice, one that made it clear that they wouldn’t be going until he said so. That made Roy want to growl, especially since Kudoh could annoy him on a good day but he fought with his demon nature. Wit and quick thinking were required right now, not fire. There wasn’t much he could do against a kage.

He took a deep breath and ran his hands through his hair in an effort to buy a few seconds to collect his thoughts. Gods, but Kudoh *really* did annoy the hell out of him, and he wanted nothing more than to force Ed against a tree, to make his mate bare his throat in submission and fuck some sense into him. Judging from Kudoh’s now greatly amused smile, he realized that the man must be able to sense his emotions. Didn’t Crawford say that the kage’s mate was a succubae-bound?

"How did you get the token?" the kage asked, his voice deep and sibilant.

"Crawford gave it to me," Roy answered truthfully and as pleasantly as he could. There was no reason to antagonize Aya Kudoh, after all. "I’ve known him for over three decades. He’s the reason I joined the Army and I’m helping him fight against the Elders." Beside him, Ed started at the mention of his enemies but thankfully remained quiet. They had a chance of getting out of here alive if Ed continued on his sudden silent kick.

Continuing, he told Kudoh and Aya as much as he dared with several unknown people gathered around them. The two bounds didn’t seem bothered by their audience so he assumed that the people could be trusted, even the two women and two men who joined the three children who had been hidden behind the ward. "He informed me of your arrival this past spring and made sure I knew your new name and where you lived in case there was ever a problem." For a moment he envisioned smashing his fist into his brother’s face in thanks for all the things that Crawford *hadn’t* said. "If I ever heard that an Aya Kudoh was taken into custody, I was to gather those loyal to me and make sure that you were released unharmed. That’s why I know who you are," he told the kage. "These two are my wards, entrusted to me by Crawford himself. They had no clue about either of you because I never shared that knowledge with them."

"Because you’re a secretive bastard," Ed muttered under his breath, but before Roy could do anything, Ed jumped into the air and glared at his brother as he rubbed his left shin. "Al!"

"Brother, please, just be quiet," Al pleaded, his tone more than a little exasperated.

"Well, I don’t think you’re telling a lie," Kudoh said as he looked at the charm. "The kids weren’t lying either when I asked them about Aya but…." He glanced over at the crowd of people, at the woman in the pale purple dress in particular.

"They’re telling the truth," she said. "They meant no harm to Aya, though the older boy was considering stealing from him if he wouldn’t sell him some books."

Feeling his blood grow cold, Roy realized the woman was a soul gaki-bound and must have just read his and the Elric siblings’ thoughts. He fervently hoped that the mental shields he worked so hard to develop held strong as there were some things he didn’t want any stranger to know, even one trusted by the kage. The woman gave him a cool look for a moment before she glanced away.

"Books, this was all about books?" Kudoh sounded incredulous and amused. "I hate to break it to you people, but books aren’t the most important thing in the world." For that statement, he received a truly nasty glare from his mate.

There was no hope that Ed would remain quiet after something like that was said. "You moron, of course they’re important!" Ed snapped. He glared a moment at Kudoh while Al sighed wearily and then turned his attention to the kage. "Aya… we came here because we found out that you sold some very rare books to Masuda’s bookstore recently. I – we need everything we can find out about the Elders. I want to buy whatever you own that mentions them. Please," Ed pleaded, his anger faded beneath desperation. For a moment, Roy could understand what had driven his mate to do something so foolish, but it still didn’t negate the fact that Ed had taken too many risks in his quest for knowledge.

Aya stared back coldly for a few seconds. "I’m sorry, but I can’t sell those books to you. Don’t ask again and don’t even think to steal them." Shadows skittered around him for a moment, a clear warning.

Roy worried that Ed would force the issue and start another fight but Al whispered something in his brother’s ear that he couldn’t quite make out. Something about there being a better time and things not being all bad, it seemed that the advice actually got through Ed’s very thick skull.

"Is there anything else that needs to be answered?" Roy asked, wanting nothing more than to leave this place as quickly as possible. His head still hurt, he wasn’t crazy at all at the thought of someone rifling through his thoughts and there wasn’t much more of Kudoh that he could take. Despite his headache, he managed a low bow in the kage’s direction. "Aya Kudoh, I’m very sorry for any trouble we caused. My mate and his brother were a little too eager in their quest for knowledge, and I’m afraid I let my concern over them bothering you influence my actions in a hasty manner. We honestly wish you no ill will and strive to keep you safe." There was no way in hell he could include Kudoh in the apology without gagging.

Judging from the scowl directed his way by the bastard, Kudoh picked up on the fact that he’d been left out of the apology but kept his mouth shut. Aya seemed to consider things for a moment before he nodded, and Roy felt a weight lift from his shoulders. The last thing a smart person wanted was a kage to be pissed off at them.

"If any of you ever attack Yohji or someone else at the Koneko again, you won’t live to regret it for long," Aya said, his voice chilling to hear. "Also, I have no more books for sale."

"Dammit," Ed mumbled, but a warning look from Roy made him shut up once more.

"We understand," Roy said, his right hand once more grasped tightly around Ed’s arm. "Once again, we apologize." Al immediately echoed his sentiment, but it took Ed a second longer. He could strongly feel his mate’s disappointment and had to resist the urge to throttle him then and there. All of this over a bunch of old books… did it never occur to the idiot that if he’d been polite, he might have been able to borrow them?

"Then, if no one objects, we’ll be on our way." Kudoh had the audacity to wave goodbye and wish them to never return, but everyone else let them quietly walk out of the garden.

Roy steered the siblings toward one of the busier streets near the Koneko in hopes of quickly flagging down a carriage to take them home. "Not one word," he told the two boys. "I want you to be perfectly silent on the way home. Too many people have found out about things they shouldn’t have today for it to happen again, am I clear?" he asked, his eyes narrowed as he glared at his mate and his ward. Al shuffled his feet and nodded in agreement while Ed appeared ready to argue – until Roy let his emotions flow over their link. Ed’s eyes went wide in shock at the fury, concern and lust, and his face grew pale save for two bright spots of red on his cheeks.

"Alphonse, you will spend the night at the Hughes’ house. We’ll discuss your punishment tomorrow." For a moment Al’s morose expression was replaced with concern but a quick glance at his brother made him nod again. No doubt he was worried about Ed but there was nothing he could do. And no matter how furious he was with Ed right now, Roy wouldn’t really hurt the boy. He would most definitely spank Ed’s ass until it was bright red and then fuck him into the mattress, which he had every intention of doing, but do no true physical harm.

By the time he was done with his mate, Ed wouldn’t be able to sit down for several days. And each time he felt the slightest pain, he was going to recall exactly why he was suffering. If he didn’t seem to properly learn from the lesson, Roy would repeat it until Ed realized that his actions had very powerful consequences on the world around them. If he wanted to transmute lead into gold in order to buy books, then he would do so with the knowledge of everything he risked to himself and others. There would be no way to defeat the Elders if he got himself captured and killed before the war began. That was the heart of the lesson, and Roy had a glimmering of hope that, once it was screamed at him long enough, the idiot would see reason. If not, neither of them was going to be able to do much sitting in the foreseeable future.

As he climbed into the carriage that stopped for them, Roy considered his aching head and sore throat and was more than willing to be a bit uncomfortable for however long it took until Ed stopped being a suicidal idiot. Simply put, there was too much at stake for Ed to continue to act this way. As fond as he was of his own life, Roy also had to think about Al, Hughes and his family, Hawkeye, Havoc and the rest of his people. His anger increased as he reflected on how much they’d been put at risk by Ed’s actions this past week. Oh no, there was no way he was going to take it easy on his mate.

*******

Omi watched Aya face the two strangers from behind the ward he’d created around himself, Emmie and Maddox as soon as he found the cousins standing still in shock from the fight that took place in the garden. While no one seemed interested in attacking them, or even noticed them, he felt it was the safest thing to do while surrounded by Aya’s shadow wards. And, as if to do Botan proud, his magic did extend beneath him into the ground. Though, to be perfectly honest, he hadn’t thought to do so until the earth shook a couple of minutes before.

"I don’t believe this," Maddox whispered, a trembling Emmie held tightly in his arms. "What are they?"

Omi scratched his head and considered the two young men in the long coats. "Off-hand, I’d say they must be earth elemental-bounds since the ground’s quaking and I don’t see things bursting into fire or being torn apart." He tried to offer the two a reassuring smile and received blank looks in return.

"You actually know what they are?" Maddox asked, this time his voice not so quiet.

Emmie didn’t give Omi much of a chance to answer that question before asking some of her own. "Why are they attacking Yohji? Who is that all in black? Where are the Guards?"

What to answer first, Omi wondered, and wished that Botan had taught him some confusion or knock-out spells. In fact, considering that he was once again stuck behind a ward while his friends were being attacked, he became determined that Botan would start teaching him some offensive spells very shortly, even if his wards weren’t perfect. All he could do at times like this was to stay alive, which wouldn’t do him any good once his shield came down or if the people he cared about outside his wards were hurt.

When Emmie and Maddox repeated their questions with rising notes of hysteria in their voices, he realized it was time to stop musing about Botan and spells and to try to put these two at ease. He briefly thought that it was a shame that he couldn’t reach Eri’s mind because of Aya’s ward and then focused on the problem at hand.

Taking a deep breath, he tried to answer their questions as well as he could. "I know what the two strangers are – or think I know – because I have several friends who are bounds." He paused to check the ongoing fight, and was pleased to see Yohji standing on his feet and all of the strangers laid out on the ground. "They’re not monsters like people say they are," he stated, though this wasn’t the best situation in which to be making that point.

"They attacked Yohji," Emmie just had to mention.

"Yeah, well…." Omi shrugged and wondered when he could safely lower the ward. Practicing them all morning long had worn him out. "We don’t know exactly what happened here. The bounds I’m familiar with wouldn’t attack without reason – and neither would Yohji."

"Why isn’t anyone noticing them?" He felt like sighing when the girl asked even more questions. "Why is everything surrounded by black, and who is that with Yohji?"

Oh well, Omi mused, the truth was bound to come out sooner or later, especially if the cousins stayed at the Koneko like Jo and the others wanted. If Maddox and Emmie couldn’t handle the truth, he was sure that Eri could make them forget everything that happened today as soon as Aya lowered his shadow wards. "No one’s noticing us because Aya’s warded us and the garden too, from the looks of it. Uh… he’s the guy in black. He’s a bound too, and so is Yohji." Hopefully, the affection they felt for Yohji and familiarity they had with Aya would help them get over the shock over finding out that their friends were bounds. Hopefully.

However, it didn’t look that way after a few seconds had passed. Maddox stared at him in shock while Emmie couldn’t look away from Yohji, her mouth wide open. Omi thought to make a comment about carps but decided that now wasn’t the best time for levity. What he wouldn’t give for Schuldig to be here to crack some jokes, or put his power to use and make the cousins forget what they were seeing.

Emmie’s mouth opened and closed a few times and she took a deep breath before she spoke in a quiet, intense voice. "Yohji’s a bound? He… he doesn’t… eat people, does he?"

Omi wondered if it was stress or exhaustion that almost made him say that Yohji had a tendency to ‘eat’ Aya whenever possible, and that Aya didn’t seem to mind in the least. Luckily, he caught himself right before the words could slip free. "Yohji – ah, no, he doesn’t eat people. He’s a succubae-bound, not a flesh gaki-bound." Flushing a little, he realized that what he said didn’t sound at all good. "Not that flesh gaki-bounds eat people, mind you." Well, not good people.

The young girl stared at him with tears in her eyes. Beside her, Maddox flushed a bright red and hugged her close. "It’s okay, Emmie," he whispered.

"It really is," Omi was quick to add. "See, they aren’t even fighting any more." He debated lowering the ward but decided it would be best to wait until Aya wasn’t armed anymore.

"He’s a bound." Emmie closed her eyes and took another deep breath, the sound hitched as if she fought to hold tears back. "He’s not a monster, right?" When her eyes opened, instead of fear they contained a burning light, as if she had come upon a stark realization. "He’s not a monster, he’s much too nice to be one. Not all bounds are monsters."

Omi had to wonder if she was saying that because Yohji was a bound or if she really believed it. "He’s not a monster, neither is Aya nor any of my other friends." He gave the girl and her cousin his most convincing smile. "Upon my honor, they are *not* monsters. Yohji and Aya are two of the most loyal, giving people I know, and I trust them more than I do most humans." He spoke with honest conviction and willed the two to believe him.

Emmie tilted her head to the side and glanced out at the garden. "He’s something special," she said, and nodded once. "I know he won’t hurt me. Jo and Kira have to be right." Then her attention focused on him. "What’s a succubae-bound?"

Before he could even begin to think how to explain Yohji’s true nature to an underage girl, Maddox – face even redder than before - thankfully came to his rescue. "Uh, what I want to know right now is what the heck is Aya? He seems more like a wizard than any bound I’ve heard about."

Great, just when it looked like things were going so well, Omi thought and bit back on a swear word. He could only hope that Emmie and Maddox had been spared the more terrifying stories about Aya’s predecessors. "Uhm… well… he’s a kage," he said, his voice hushed. "And he’s no more a monster than Yohji!"

Maddox’s face paled while Emmie’s took on a puzzled frown. "No, he’s not," she said, her voice exasperated and her hands on her hips. "Aya’s not four meters tall, doesn’t have any horns or long claws and I’ve never once seen him drink blood. He doesn’t even like his meat the slightest bit bloody," she snorted. "He’s not a kage."

How was one to argue with that, he wondered and jerked his hand through his hair in frustration and growing exhaustion. "I’m sorry to inform you that you’ve heard some truly ridiculous stories about kage, but Aya is indeed one of them." Letting his hands drop to his sides, he gave the cousins a beseeching look. "Listen, you can’t tell anyone about this." Knowing it was a little bit of a dirty trick, he played on Emmie’s feelings for Yohji. "It’s bad enough that you know about Yohji – there are people who would gladly kill or hurt him for what he is, but if anyone even *thought* that Aya was a kage, they’d destroy the Koneko just to try and kill him." Maddox seemed to really care about the inn, not to mention his cousin, so hopefully this would work against the boy. "And… and if anything happens to Aya, it’ll hurt Yohji too. They’re mates."

"Mates?" Maddox asked as he stared at the bounds out in the garden. Beside him, Emmie looked like she wanted to do nothing more than to cry once more. Checking on his friends, Omi glanced at them and was pleased to see that Aya had dropped his armor and weapon. Yohji had his arms around his lover, and the two strange bounds seemed to be trying to revive their unconscious companion with some success. "Oh, sweet gods, it really is Aya," Maddox said, shock evident in his voice. "I thought… I mean he’s… no wonder he doesn’t seem to like anyone…."

As Omi decided it was safe to drop his ward, Emmie motioned to Aya and Yohji. "What are mates? Does that mean they’re really good friends?"

Before he could grasp the concept that he had some very unpleasant explaining to do, Omi was more or less saved by Yohji’s actions. His friend touched his wounded hand to Aya’s lips and smiled as it was kissed, then bent his head forward to replace his hand with his own lips. While Omi realized that Yohji’s main intent was probably to get some energy from Aya to heal his wound, he still felt the urge to kick the man just then. "Uhm, they’re a bit closer than ‘friends’," he mumbled, and felt his cheeks heat up when Yohji grabbed Aya’s ass and pulled his lover closer. "You could say they’re sorta like a married couple." A married couple that never got past the honeymoon stage of their relationship. As the kiss went on, he wondered if he should cover Emmie’s eyes or something.

He turned to face the cousins and found an utterly shocked expression on Maddox’s bright red face, and this time Emmie really was crying. Feeling like an utter heel for being the one to break the news to the girl, he wondered how Aya would react if he went over and kicked Yohji in the ass right now.

*******

Maddox stared down at the mug between his hands and wondered if it was possible that he was still dreaming. That maybe, just maybe he hadn’t come in from the Koneko’s garden where he found out that Yohji was a bound and Aya was a *kage* of all things. Oh, and that he’d definitely had his question about whether or not the two men were in a relationship or not answered once and for all. Things were too surreal right now. Here he was, seated at the table and given a drink that smelled rather strongly of rum, and all around him were bounds.

"Are you sure those three won’t be causing any more trouble?" Jo asked as she handed two very full cups of the rum drink to Yohji and Aya and then went to fetch some for Omi and Botan.

"I’m pretty sure. After all, the asshole had a token from Crawford," Yohji said, his voice slightly bitter and rough. "Crawford entrusted him with the truth about Aya in case something happened and, supposedly, he came here once he found out his mate wanted to buy some books from Aya." Yohji draped his right arm around his quiet… boyfriend’s shoulders, his injured hand just the slightest bit red, as if it had been sunburned. "I guess he wanted someone in the Army to know in case of disaster or something. All I know is that he was telling the truth." He paused to sip his drink. "And that he’s even more of an asshole than I thought. Did you see his mate? Poor kid can’t be much older than fourteen."

Jo gave him a stern look and then turned to stare at Aya. "And your thoughts on the matter?" she demanded to know.

Aya shrugged and pushed the hood of his jerkin back until it rested on his shoulders and Yohji’s arm. "I can’t sense their emotions like Yohji can, but I don’t sense any danger over the situation. I trust Crawford."

"I picked up nothing that would indicate that they meant any harm to Aya," Eri volunteered when Jo fixed her gaze on the woman. "While not all of his thoughts were clear to me, I didn’t get any that indicated this Mustang meant to turn Aya and Yohji into the authorities. All I could sense was his concern that people might find out about Aya, an intense dislike for Yohji and the impression that I wouldn’t want to be his mate for the next few days." She blushed a little and lifted her cup to her lips while Maddox tried to accept the fact that the pretty woman was able to read his thoughts. If the ground opened up and swallowed him whole just then, it wouldn’t be a bad thing….

Naru, seated beside her, frowned and gently rolled his mug between the palms of his hands. "But… they’re mates. How can he do anything to-"

"Not now, Naru," Eri said, her tone brooking no argument. She glanced over at Emmie and seemed to hide her expression behind her mug once more.

His arm around his cousin, Maddox gave her shoulders a gentle squeeze. Emmie kept staring at Yohji, her expression one of heartbreak and disbelief. As he leaned closer to ask if she was all right, she pushed her drink aside. "You’re mates?" she asked, her voice thick with pain and confusion. "Yohji?"

Yohji took a deep breath and gave her a warm smile. "Yeah, Sunshine, Aya and I are mates." He leaned toward Aya then stopped suddenly and sat back on the bench, but his arm remained around a very quiet Aya who stared into his mug as if it contained a very interesting book.

"Mates?" Emmie repeated, and Maddox wondered if it was a good thing or not that she seemed to care more about that fact than finding out that Yohji and Aya were bounds. To think they’d worried about the Koneko staff finding out about her mother….

"Yes, Emmie, we’re mates." Yohji sighed again and reached out with his left hand to touch Emmie. Around the table, Naru, Omi and Botan suddenly found other things to focus their interest on instead of Yohji and Emmie.

She started at the touch and a tear rolled down her cheek. "You’re… you’re…." She broke out in a sob, and before Maddox could do anything - could even think to do anything - Yohji suddenly appeared at her side. He gathered her up in his arms and held her tight, all the while whispering her nickname.

Jo came over with a cloak in her hands and wrapped it around Emmie’s back. "Poor thing is in shock, no doubt. Too much to take in at once." She glared at Yohji as if she held him responsible for everything.

He frowned and placed a kiss on the top of Emmie’s head as she sobbed about how he couldn’t be a monster or be married, especially to a guy. "Hey, *I* wasn’t the one who started things. If you’d had the ill luck to run across that brat and the way he demanded to see Aya, you’d have hit him over the head with your rolling pin and the asshole who came after the brat would have tried to burn the Koneko down." He hugged Emmie a little closer, the girl held in his arms as if she weighed nothing. "Hush, Sunshine. I’m sorry to have scared you like that."

"-guys can’t be married to each other, can they? Are you sure you’re not just good friends? You’re supposed to be married to a girl, don’t you know? Aya’s very pretty but he’s not a girl," Emmie mumbled between sobs, her arms wrapped around Yohji’s neck. "This is just a joke, isn’t it? You like girls, don’t you? What’s wrong with girls? I don’t care that you’re a monster, I don’t-"

"Hush," Yohji repeated and sat down on the bench with Emmie curled up on his lap. He ran his hands through her hair and made her look up. The smile he gave her was a bit sad. "Sunshine, I’m not a monster, and neither is Aya or any other bound."

She sniffed, her face red and wet with tears. Maddox wanted to hug her, to tell her everything would be all right but it seemed like she needed to hear that from Yohji. "And you’re not married to Aya?" she asked, her voice a bit hopeful.

Maddox glanced at Aya to see how he was taking things. The redhead had been even quieter than normal ever since the fight had ended, leaving Yohji and Eri to do almost all the talking. Aya stared at his boyfriend and Emmie, his face expressionless but there was an odd silver gleam to his eyes.

Yohji picked up a napkin and wiped the tears off Emmie’s face. "Sunshine… we’re definitely, er, married." His lips twisted into a wry grin and he glanced at Aya for a few seconds. "It happens sometimes to bounds, regardless of their sex. Aya and I were meant for each other and we’re very happy to be mates. Nothing can change that fact."

Emmie sniffed and rubbed the back of her right hand under her nose. "But, bounds don’t always stay married. My mom-" She flushed when she realized what she almost told everyone.

Yohji exchanged a significant look with Jo, who pursed her lips and tucked back the hair falling onto Emmie’s face. "We know about your mother, sweetie."

Jo’s statement shocked Maddox, from the looks of it just as much as it shocked Emmie. The cook smiled gently at them and tapped Maddox’s mug. "I think the both of you need to have a drink. There’s a lot that needs to be explained."

He did as he was told and choked down some of the potent drink while Yohji helped Emmie to take a few sips. His cousin appeared to have been as shocked by what Jo had just said as by the fact Yohji had a boyfriend. "You know about my mother?" she asked, her expression very confused and a little fearful. "How do you know that?"

Surprisingly, it was Eri who spoke. "Because you’ve been watched ever since you left home." She began to run her right hand through her hair but had to stop to remove the barrettes holding it back.

Maddox felt a lump of fear from in his chest. "Did… did our families tell you about us?" he asked, terrified that his father or one of his uncles would walk into the room any moment now.

Eri shook her head. "No, as far as I can tell, your family has no clue where you are. In fact, they haven’t been able to leave your village ever since you two ran away." She smiled, and for the first time he noticed how pointy her teeth were. As she explained things, Jo refilled everyone’s mugs and put a plate of cherry tarts on the table. "Do you remember anything during your time in the woods of Umeko Mountain?"

He thought about Eri’s question and glanced at his cousin, who seemed just as confused as he felt. "No. Should we? Nothing happened."

Eri’s smile grew a little wider. "That’s because there are bounds who live on the mountain. They normally keep to themselves, unless there are poachers or thieves in their territory. One of them is a soul gaki-bound like me and when she came across you two, she read your thoughts to see if you were trouble." Her smile slowly faded as she spoke. "She learned why you were running away from home and decided to help, along with her friends."

Leaning forward in Yohji’s arms, Emmie frowned. "Bounds live on the mountain and read our thoughts? Really?"

"Yeah, and why did they decide to help us?" he asked, more than a little disturbed that his thoughts had been read on a frequent basis. In fact, that disturbed him even more than knowing that they’d been in the company of so many bounds. "We only ever heard stories of demons in the mountains, not bounds who help people."

"I didn’t say that they helped everyone." Eri squirmed in her seat as if she was a little uncomfortable and took a sip of her drink. "They only came to your aid because of Emmie’s mother, really." At their confused silence, she let out a deep breath and continued. "Emmie’s the daughter of a bound so almost any bound who finds that out will willingly help her."

"Did… did they know my mother?" Emmie asked as she shivered and leaned back against Yohji.

"No." Eri looked down at the table, her expression sad.

Reaching out with his left arm to pick up his mug, Yohji took a long swallow of the drink before he set it back down on the table. "Listen, I know you two are confused as all hell right now. You find out that several of us are bounds, see a fight, and now you’re being told that we knew about Emmie’s mother." He hugged Emmie close and gave Maddox a reassuring smile. "Trust me, I’ve been there. Believe it or not, I didn’t know I was a bound until a few months ago." He glanced over at Aya, his expression softening into something so tender and content that Maddox felt his cheeks heat up at the sight of it.

"But at least I’ve grown up with several good friends who I knew were bounds so it wasn’t as much of a shock for me," Yohji continued. "And one thing that I learned while growing up is that bounds really care about their children… but can rarely stick around to raise them."

"You mean that they run off like my mother did?" Emmie asked, her voice muffled as she sniffed tears back. "My dad really loved her and she just left."

Reaching out, Eri brushed aside the tear sliding down Emmie’s face and grasped her chin. "She didn’t ‘just leave’, Emmie. Look, you’re still very young and there are a lot of things you don’t know yet, but I can honestly say that your mother left because she loved your father and you very, very much." At Emmie’s dubious look, Eri sighed and shook her head. "I know you don’t believe me but please listen. When a bound has a child with a human, the odds are favorable that the child will be a human. And while that child grows up and the human parent grows old, the bound – like your mother – won’t age at all. There’s also their true nature to consider, which makes living around a lot of humans very difficult because a bound can’t always hide what they are."

"And sooner or later," Yohji said, his voice as bleak as the expression in Eri’s eyes, "people will realize that the bound isn’t human like they’ve pretended to be. At best, they’ll try to kill the bound. At worst…." He stopped to hug Emmie tightly to his chest. "Sunshine, I really do know how you feel. My mother was human, my dad wasn’t. He couldn’t even wait for me to be born before he had to leave for my mom’s sake. I grew up hating him for leaving my mother, but I realize now he did what was best for all of us, even though it caused him a lot of pain."

Emmie stared at him, her eyes wet with more tears. "Your dad left you? Didn’t he want you?"

Yohji’s mouth twisted into a bitter smile. "I can’t honestly say if he really wanted me or not, but he loved my mom a hell of a lot and knew that more than anything, she wanted a child of her own. So he left us both to make sure that my mom and I wouldn’t be harmed by anyone who might track him down. It’s what bounds do, Sunshine. They leave once it’s safe to do so and hope that their kids grow up happy. Like Eri said, most of the kids will turn out to be human so it’s better that no one suspects that they have bound blood in them. That way they can live a normal life."

"Our kind do it because we care about our children and want them to be happy and safe." Eri looked back and forth between Emmie and Maddox as she spoke in her quiet, serious voice. "If your mother didn’t want you, Emmie, she never would have had you. She risked a lot for your sake, and then she left her home so you could grow up with your father. Yohji’s right, it’s the best thing we can do to make sure our children don’t suffer just because their mother or father is a bound. I know several bounds who did exactly the same thing as your mother even though it broke their hearts. We love our children just as much as humans do theirs, maybe even more because we have them so rarely. And one thing we all try to do, regardless of whether or not we ever have kids of our own, is to watch after another bound’s children to make sure that they aren’t harmed because of what their parents are."

That was the most Maddox had ever heard Eri say, and her earnest, pained manner seemed to affect more than just him and Emmie. Jo, Omi and Botan sat with saddened expressions and Aya had his head bowed once more. Maddox felt like he needed a few minutes to absorb what he’d just learned, especially since it went against what he’d been taught. Bounds were supposed to be uncaring monsters, not kind, giving people he thought of as friends. Emmie’s mother was supposed to be some sort of heartless tramp who abandoned her husband and daughter to go off and have some fun, not a poor woman who had broken up her family to keep them safe.

It seemed that Emmie needed a little time herself as there was a couple of minutes of silence before she spoke. "My… my mother really loved my dad? She wanted me?" He knew that she was speaking about her darkest fears, that her mother had never loved her and left her dad because of her. That had bothered Emmie over the years. He didn’t think that she had really reflected much on the fact that her mother was a bound because she was used to not thinking about the woman because of the pain she felt over being abandoned.

"She wanted you, Sunshine," Yohji told her with another hug. "And because she wanted you, a bunch of bounds made sure that you got here safely in one piece. They watched over you and offered you rides, made sure you stayed in safe places and had enough to eat."

Thinking back on their journey here, Maddox was stunned to realize that Yohji spoke the truth. "You mean… Timothy and Elspeth and-"

"Yep." Yohji’s smug grin was echoed on Eri and Jo’s faces. "You didn’t end up at the Koneko by chance, you know. Word got round to us eventually, though we would have taken you in anyway. We don’t turn away strays be they bound or human." Once again he glanced at Aya, who still stared into his mug.

"You knew all about us?" Emmie squeaked, her face turning red. "You knew we ran away from home and my mother…?"

"Yes." Yohji tucked the hair falling onto her face back. "We knew about you and we wanted you to stay, and we still do. You’re safe here and we’d hate for anything to happen to you, even if some of us are monsters and love other men." He didn’t laugh when Emmie’s face turned even redder and his tone was serious.

Considering his own reason for leaving home, Maddox didn’t want to say anything just then but he noticed a knowing yet reassuring look from Eri. His own cheeks turned warm and he thought that Aya had the right idea to see if something was in his mug…. But he found that he couldn’t remain quiet for much longer. "You’re not monsters," he said, his voice quiet and cracked. True, he was still a little frightened by Aya and Eri, but he didn’t think they were evil. "You took us in when our own family didn’t want us. Thank you."

As Emmie echoed his sentiments, Jo folded her arms over her chest and nodded. "I won’t hear any more talk about monsters since I would never let any stay at the Koneko." She gave a stern look to Yohji and a much gentler one to Aya. "This wasn’t the way I’d hoped you would find out the truth about the Koneko but it’s probably for the best that you know. And you’re more than welcome to stay here however long you want and need." Now, she gave Maddox a hard look. "You will both be safe and welcome here. Think twice before you decide that maybe the Koneko isn’t the best place for you, for whatever reason. You’ve been protected the entire time since you left home but that won’t always be the case in the future, I’m sad to say."

He nodded in understanding and reached out to rub Emmie’s cloaked back. "I… we realize that. Thank you." The thought that they might have a permanent home here made his throat tighten up, but he couldn’t accept the offer without talking it over with Emmie first, in private. They had to get used to the fact that they would be living with several bounds… and Aya. But no matter what stories he’d heard about bounds, he couldn’t forget that Emmie was part one, and that the few bounds they’d run across had treated them with kindness and caring. They were luckier than they had ever realized.

Sniffling a bit, Emmie leaned back in Yohji’s arms. "You really don’t like girls?" she asked, as if that was the only thing that really mattered in all that they’d learned this afternoon. Maddox wished he could crawl under the table, especially when everyone but Aya and Eri began to chuckle.

Yohji gave her nose a pinch and smiled. "Oh, I still like girls, but I love Aya. I’m sorry, Sunshine, but you showed up a little too late. I’m already taken." He glanced at Aya and frowned when the quiet man didn’t look up at first. Then Aya raised his head and after a few seconds managed to give Yohji a slight smile. "Nothing’s going to change that fact, Emmie," Yohji continued, his voice suddenly very husky.

Emmie sniffed some more but nodded. She hugged Yohji one more time and then slowly climbed off his lap and sat down beside Maddox. "I guess it’s too late to go to the festival," she mumbled as she picked up her drink.

Omi glanced outside, and Maddox looked as well and was shocked to see that it was still light out. With all that had happened this afternoon, he felt as if it was past midnight or later. "I don’t know, I think we still have lots of time and the festival’s supposed to go on for a few more days," Omi said.

Yohji looked outside as he made his way back to Aya. "What do you say, Cat? You still in the mood for a bit of fun?" He tugged gently on an eartail, and Maddox was surprised to notice that Yohji’s hand was entirely healed. "Hmm?"

Aya batted Yohji’s hand aside with a slight hiss and glanced around the room. "If everyone still wants to go, that’s fine with me." There was an odd note in his voice, a slightly sibilant quality that made Maddox shiver to hear it.

He didn’t ponder the oddness of Aya’s voice very long because Emmie chose then to tug on his sleeve. "You still want to go, don’t you?" she asked, her expression hopeful and a smile on her lips. Her face was a bit splotchy and her eyes red from crying, but she no longer appeared so shocked or heartbroken.

"Yeah, I want to go." He did, too, if only for the chance to escape his thoughts for a little while. There was a lot to think about and even more to accept, but deep down he felt that things would be all right. There was something about the Koneko’s people that made him trust them, no matter what they might be. Well, as long as Aya didn’t go all black and scary again, and Eri didn’t keep reading his thoughts, that was. He suddenly wanted to go outside and be with a bunch of other people, to put aside what had happened today until he could better understand it.

"Well, I think you should eat before you leave, and Yohji, you reek of some of the less pleasant aspects of horses," Jo pointed out. "Go wash off first or everyone will abandon the festival as soon as you arrive," she sniffed.

Instead of appearing offended at being told he smelled, Yohji merely smiled and tugged on Aya’s arm as he stood up. "Come on, you can help me wash my back." Aya gave his friend a glare but didn’t seem to need any more coaxing to follow Yohji out of the kitchen.

"Great, we’ll be here for another hour at least," Naru muttered, and then let out a loud yelp as he bent down to rub his leg. He glared at Eri and Omi, who were both seated near him but all they did was smile.

Emmie’s happy expression faltered as she watched Yohji and Aya leave, and Maddox felt a bit of pain for her. This wasn’t how he had wanted her crush to come to an end. Jo seemed to notice her sadness since she came over to coax Emmie into trying a few of the tarts and to stroke her hand through Emmie’s hair.

"Go on, eat something now," Jo said. "It’ll make you feel better, I promise. Go out and have some fun tonight and things will make more sense tomorrow, you’ll see."

"Thank you, Jo," Emmie replied as she did as she was told. The look Jo gave her and Maddox then was very tender and understanding, and he realized that whatever doubts he had about Aya, Yohji and Eri, Jo was someone he could trust. Tonight they’d go to the festival and have some fun, and tomorrow they could talk about the future.

He had the feeling it was going to be one very interesting conversation.

*******

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