Precipice of Darkness

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chapter one

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discoveries and declarations

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Yohji braced himself when he heard the faint sound of hissing through the door of the attic library. Dammit, why did Birman need Reiichi to run a background check for her on a day when Ed had an early shift at the Royal Library? Didn’t she have enough of her own people, with the way she was latching on to any interested soul gaki and succubae bound who entered the city? He did his best to suppress the growl building in the back of his throat while he opened the door, as being confrontational would only incite the spiteful shinigami to heap even *more* abuse on him.

To no surprise, he found the library engulfed in darkness to the point that even *he* had difficulty seeing anything. "Ah, Cat, a little help here?" he called out as he took a cautious step forward. He let out a sigh of relief when the darkness lessened enough that he was able to see where his mate sat reading as well as the furniture – and couldn’t help but smile when the shinigami hissed in displeasure. While he might not be able to discern actual words yet from the hissing sounds, he did understand the emotions and intent behind the sibilant noises. Aya was certain that he would pick up the language eventually.

"There you are," he remarked as he made his way over to Aya, who was curled up in the large padded chair, surrounded by shinigami and a stack of books. "What are you researching today?"

"Ed asked me to look through Liang’s biographies of Xanian ambassadors since I’ve a better grasp of the language than he does." Aya tilted his face upward, so Yohji was only too happy to oblige the subtle request for a kiss.

"Hmm, if the previous ambassadors to Kritiker were anything like Shen, then it must make for amusing reading," he commented as he settled on the arm of the chair, mindful of the books. "Are you finding out much?"

Aya shrugged as he marked his place in the book that he’d been holding and set it aside. "Not really, though there are a few interesting phrases that I’ve noted down and will pass on to Trowa so he can ask Shen for clarification. It’s obvious that the dignitaries of time did see enough that they sent back information that would eventually lead to the Xanian emperors officially shutting their borders to bounds, but I’m not sure of just how much of a role they played in the actual war." He frowned as if reflecting upon that puzzle, the expression smoothing out a little when a piece of the shadows writhed away from the chair and wrapped itself around his chest. As if the response was automatic to him, he stroked his right hand along the shinigami while they both began to purr softly.

Jealousy burned through Yohji at the sight of his mate being comforted by a shinigami, but before he could do anything, Aya looked at him with violet eyes shifting to silver. He canted his head to the side while his hand stilled and let out a sigh. "You came to see me?" he asked, the purr gone from his voice and his emotions a mix of confusion, love and curiosity.

"Yes." Reminding himself that Aya was his mate and wouldn’t leave him for a bunch of interfering shadows, Yohji smiled and held out his hand. "Jo asked me to run some errands for her, and I figured that since it’s such an overcast day outside that you would want to come with me." He continued to hold out his hand while he sent hope, happiness and love over their link. It had been too long since Aya had gone with him on any errands, and he really wanted to get his lover out of this dark room for a little while. "We can stop by to see Cassandra along the way, and visit Eleanor’s for some fudge and candy apples." No, he wasn’t above resorting to bribery at all to get what he wanted.

Aya was quiet for a moment, doing that kage stillness thing that bothered Yohji and freaked out too many people while hesitation overwhelmed his emotions, before giving himself a quick shake. "All right, I suppose it would be nice to see Cassandra." He didn’t sound entirely convinced of that, but all Yohji cared about was that he was leaving the library.

"You know she’ll have a nice big pot of tea waiting for us," he promised as he grabbed hold of Aya’s hand and pulled him from the chair. For all the times their friend complained that Aya’s shinigami nature interfered with her talent to see the future, she somehow managed to anticipate their visits. Yohji grinned as he used his grip on his mate’s hand to tug Aya closer for a proper kiss, savoring the feel of the man he loved in his arms, the warm emotions flowing over their mental link and the ‘sunlight’ pouring into him. "Hmm, just remember that I have to carry a few things back for Jo and don’t make me buy up all of Eleanor’s fudge, okay?"

The smile that Aya gave him just then, small and a touch wicked, was enough to make him wish that Jo hadn’t insisted that he run out *now* for the damn spices. "That’s not my problem, is it?" Aya asked, the purr back in his voice. This time, Yohji didn’t mind the roughness because it promised wonderful things when they returned from the shopping excursion.

"Oh, you *so* love to torment me, don’t you?" Not that he minded all that much.

Aya’s smile grew just a little bigger before he pulled away, his hand still held captive in Yohji’s. "Someone has to try to keep you in your place," he insisted as he headed out of the room. "Jo’s too busy to do it all of the time."

Yohji snorted in derision to that bit of nonsense. "Right. Somehow I can see Jo smacking me down with one hand tied behind her back and the other busy whipping up a cake for you." He allowed himself to be led downstairs, into the bustling kitchen which smelled of cinnamon, roasting chicken and beef stew.

Maddox was busy fretting over the chickens while Bethwynn and Ani were peeling vegetables. Yohji made a swipe at the green ribbon holding back Ani’s long brown hair which matched the dress she was wearing, and got a giggle for his efforts as she ducked her head. "Go cause trouble elsewhere, Yotan," she chided, the affection she felt for him almost making him dizzy.

"Ah, but I thought you liked my trouble the best," he told her with an exaggerated pout. That caused her to giggle again – at least until Jo, who was in the middle of making what smelled to be some spice cakes that were most likely for a certain ‘cat’, cleared her throat loud enough to be heard across the room.

"I need those spices *today*," she informed him while holding up a dripping wooden spoon in a rather threatening manner.

"Yes, yes, I know." Yohji sighed as he wrapped his arms around Aya. "Forgive me for wanting a little company while I slave away for you."

That he had managed to convince Aya to go outside surprised Jo, though she kept the emotion from showing on her face. Instead, she set the spoon back in the large mixing bowl and wiped her hands on the yellow apron she was wearing before approaching the two of them. "Forgive *me* if I’ve come to mistrust your work ethic a little after having to drag you out of your bedroom so many times." There was a bit of a bite to her voice while she complained, yet she smiled and reached out slowly to brush aside the ragged crimson bangs that were falling onto Aya’s face; Aya allowed the intimate gesture, something he didn’t accept from more than a handful of people.

Yohji growled softly, certain that he could get away with it when he was holding Aya so close. Judging from the look Jo gave him, she knew that the noise was nothing but a prideful show on his part and allowed it to pass despite her ‘no growling or snarling in the kitchen’ rule. "If everyone’s done picking on me, can we leave now?"

"Yes, by all means go inflict yourself upon the poor, unsuspecting masses." If it wasn’t for the fact that he could sense Jo’s emotions just then, Yohji would do a hell of a lot more than growl. Instead, he buried his face in Aya’s hair, which was getting a bit on the long side, to hide his grin. Why did he have to live with a bunch of smart asses?

"Come on, Cat, let’s go buy those stupid spices and a bunch of fudge that only you and Emmie will get to eat," he told his mate when he finally could school his expression into a mock glare. Aya’s amusement joined Jo’s, but at least his mate was kind enough not to dispute his lie.

He fussed over Aya by the coat rack, making sure that Aya’s black cloak covered all of his lover’s pale skin. A part of him was saddened by the fact that Aya had taken to wearing such dark clothes again, though at least today the shirt beneath the black jerkin was grey. When he was given a cool look and a hint of bared teeth, he backed off to pull on his own dark blue wool coat and tinted glasses.

"Dammit, it’s cold!" he proclaimed as soon as they stepped outside, the wind seeming to seek out any exposed parts of his body. Grateful for the charms on his coat and gloves, Yohji sidled next to his mate, who appeared unaffected by the winter weather; from what he could pick up over their link, Aya truly wasn’t as bothered by the cold as he was. Considering how cold the shadows could be, that made sense, yet Yohji worried that this was one more thing that drove Aya farther away from the little bit of humanity he had gained in the past couple of years. It was *normal* to feel things like heat and cold, to be affected by temperatures because despite their demon souls, they still resided in mostly human bodies. Unfortunately, it was as if even that limitation was slowly fading from Yohji’s mate the more Aya fed from human souls and used his powers.

At least Yohji’s own ‘human’ limitations earned him some sympathy as Aya stepped closer to him. "I don’t see how cursing about it is going to make things warmer," Aya commented, his deep voice so bland that it took Yohji a moment to realize that he was being teased.

"Hmph, I’ll remind you of that ‘cursing’ bit the next time you tell someone ‘shi-ne’," he teased back, and laughed when he managed to block an elbow from his padded ribs. Maybe he should have allowed the hit, since between the knitted sweater he was wearing and the wool coat, it was better than worrying about Aya waiting to get his licks in later, when he wouldn’t be so protected. Ah well, watching out for his lover’s revenge would keep him on his toes….

Much like everyone had expected, this winter was turning out to be just as cold and nasty as the previous two; there was still another month until Winter Solstice and already there was several inches of snow on the ground. People tended to rush around during the day when there was some sunlight to do their shopping and errands, so they could be somewhere warm come nightfall. The Koneko wasn’t doing as much business from city residents unless they were locals, bounds, Harpers or the Guard, but the rooms were almost always booked so the inn wasn’t suffering any.

Since the sidewalks were crowded with shoppers, Aya remained close to Yohji’s side, the hood of his cloak pulled forward to hide his face. There were several friends and shopkeepers who called out to Yohji as he walked past, their voices faltering in their greetings and their emotions turning uneasy when he waved back at them. He frowned at their responses, his own uneasiness growing the longer he was out as he picked up on the reserve, distrust and confusion around him; he was used to sensing friendliness, trust, happiness and even lust/desire when he was out among the people he had known for years.

The emotions only got stronger when they reached their destination of Farad’s shop. Aya hesitated before following Yohji inside, which added to Yohji’s confusion just then. His attention was focused on his mate, which was what made it even more startling when he felt the wave of unease, distrust and displeasure when Farad seemed to notice whom his latest customers were. "Yohji… it’s… good to see you. How can I help you?"

Taken aback at how dispassionately the greeting had been said, Yohji frowned at the man while he removed the tinted glasses. "Hi, Farad. I’d like two pounds of cinnamon sticks, a pound of nutmeg, and half a pound each of ground cardamom, cardamom pods and paprika." He rattled off Jo’s shopping list while he wrapped his left arm around Aya, who was pressed against his side. His lover hadn’t pushed back his hood or undone his cloak at all, which was almost as good an indication as his emotions that he didn’t feel comfortable in Farad’s shop despite the many times he’d come here before on errands.

"Of course, just give me a few minutes to gather everything." Farad inclined his head and then hurried away to put together the spices without offering Yohji and Aya some spiced tea to drink, like he always did. In fact, there was of none of the usual socializing, no chatting about Farad’s family or questions about how Jo, Mickey and Teddy were doing. Yohji was left with the impression that the older man was trying to get him and Aya out of his shop as quickly as possible, not even bothering to haggle much over the price of the spices.

Yohji accepted the package from the man and left the spice shop, just wanting to be away from Farad before he did something stupid like growl in confusion. Once back on the street, his temper didn’t improve as people once again were acting odd and distant around him, waving half-heartedly to him or pretending as if they were busy and ducking quickly into stores rather than stop and talk to him.

When they reached Eleanor’s confectionary shop, it wasn’t much of a surprise to find the shopkeeper busy with several customers; ever since Omi had been taking some treats back to the palace, word had spread about Eleanor’s fudge, candied apples and other sweets. However, Yohji grew angry again when all his old friend did upon seeing him was smile and call out, "Naomi will assist you, Mr. Kudoh."

At least he could feel the affection, regret and a bit of wariness that radiated off of Eleanor, which was a better mix of emotions than he had sensed from a lot of people today. Still, he hadn’t been ‘Kudoh’ to her in years, so he was about to turn around and leave before Naomi stepped in front of him and Aya. "Ah, are you here for some fudge?" she asked, her nervousness evident to anyone who wasn’t a succubae bound.

"Yeah, several pounds each of your chocolate and chocolate with walnuts, if you have it." Yohji struggled to keep his voice civil, and let out a slow breath before he spoke again. "And a dozen candy apples, too," he added when Aya gave his left arm a gentle squeeze.

"We should still have enough left. It’s a good thing you came this early, though." Naomi prattled on about how good business had been lately, and Yohji felt some of the tension inside of him ease as it seemed that *someone* was treating him normally. That it was Naomi, a former stray who had only known him for about a year was a bit of a disappointment, but he would take what he could get right about now.

The young woman was quick in putting together his order, moving about with a confidence that she had been lacking when she first arrived at the Koneko. Looking at her now, with her neatly braided hair and pretty white and rose-colored dress, it was difficult to think of her as an abused runaway. She had flourished upon living on her own, and she seemed to think that she owed some of her good fortune to the Koneko. While Yohji didn’t like to leave any former strays with the impression that they were indebted to the inn for the help that was freely given, he did want some answers on what was going on – especially since he had the suspicion that it was connected to his mate. So he waited until Naomi accepted the money for all of the sweets and handed him a rather heavy bag before leaning in close. "What’s going on," he whispered, his voice pitched low enough that she and Aya should be the only ones able to hear. "Why is everyone acting like they don’t want Aya and me around?"

His demon nature flared when Naomi’s brown eyes flickered in Aya’s direction for a moment before she ducked her head. "I’ll stop by for dinner tonight," she whispered back before thanking him for his business. Eleanor did the same, calling out to him as he headed toward the door, yet she didn’t say anything about Aya.

Somehow, it didn’t seem as cold outside anymore, not when Yohji was so furious. He had grown up in this district, had run around these streets since he was old enough to walk and had patronized these stores for years. A lot of these businesses thrived because of the Koneko, and now they were giving his mate the cold shoulder? If he found the slightest hint of them planning to do more than, then there wouldn’t be a shopping district left for much longer….

He almost dropped the bags of groceries he was carrying when Aya tugged on his left arm. "Come on," Aya mumbled as he pulled him down an alley that would lead them back to the Koneko.

"Hey, I thought we were going to Cassandra’s for some tea!"

"That was before Jo said she needed the spices right away." Aya frowned, and Yohji got the impression that his mate would *not* be pleased if the spice cakes were delayed for any reason. "We can stop by later, if she doesn’t come to the Koneko."

"But-" Aya tugged on his arm again, and he began to pick up a sense of anxiousness and… well, ‘exhaustion’ wasn’t quite the right word for that emotion, it was more like a sense of resignation. Yohji grew suspicious again as he gave in to his lover’s demand and headed home.

"You know, Aya, you didn’t seem surprised to be treated like that by everyone," he commented when they reached a more secluded part of the alley.

It was a little difficult to tell because of the heavy cloak Aya was wearing, and probably a layer of shadows beneath it as well, but he thought that Aya’s shoulders hunched forward a little at the question. "Not now, Yotan," was all that his mate said, and in a quiet voice at that.

His suspicions confirmed, Yohji snarled beneath his breath and did his best not to crush the bag of candied apples that he held tucked into the nook of his right elbow. As it was, it was a very tense, quiet walk back to the Koneko. When Jason saw them, something about his expression must have terrified the poor kid because the earth elemental high tailed it back to the barn along with the horse that he had been grooming outside.

Yohji waited until they were inside the kitchen, and then he practically threw the spices in Jo’s direction and dropped the sweets on the nearest table before spinning around to face Aya, uncaring that he still had his coat and boots on. "All right, so when in all of the hells were you going to tell me that the local shopkeepers were treating you as if you had the plague or something?"

Jo, who had been storming up to him to probably smack him for throwing the spices, paused when she heard him growl at Aya. "What are the shopkeepers doing?" she asked as she set the bag of spices aside.

"They’re giving Aya and me the cold shoulder, barely able to stand having us in the shop long enough to take our money," Yohji informed her while he unbuttoned his coat. "And Aya didn’t seem surprised at all." He continued to stare at his mate, desperate to puzzle out the resignation, sadness and exhaustion he felt over their link. "Cat… *Aya*, tell me what is going on. Is this why you haven’t run many errands lately?"

Aya continued to stand there so perfectly still for a few more seconds before he let out a loud sigh and pushed back the hood of his cloak. He even rubbed his face, either in weariness or some residual ache from being out in the weak sunlight. "They seem uncomfortable to be around me anymore," he admitted.

Yohji and Jo shared a concerned look before he reached out to pull Aya into his arms. "Dammit, then why haven’t you said anything?" He didn’t bother to try to pin down when exactly the change in behavior had occurred, since Aya was terrible at keeping track of time; it would make more sense in trying to get the information out of Naomi when she stopped by later.

At first Aya was stiff against him, and then he relaxed into the embrace. "Because a lot of people have been acting like that," he mumbled, his face tucked against the crook of Yohji’s neck.

The answer made Yohji’s demon nature flare again when he realized what Aya meant; ever since Princess Ouka’s birthday celebration, some people seemed uneasy in Aya’s presence. Despite Yuushi and Birman’s efforts, it was almost as if the Shadow Guard had an idea of what Aya could do in predicting a person’s death, and so some of the Guard were avoiding him now. There was also the fact that the more Aya used his talent, the less human he came across, a fact that was becoming even more difficult to hide amongst those who could recognize the signs of bound behavior. Yohji had given up on the fight over asking Aya to interact with the guests anymore, since it would only lead to his mate being upset and people possibly realizing that Aya was a bound, let alone a kage. That was why he and Jo hadn’t pushed when Aya had decided to stop running errands for the inn.

It had never occurred to Yohji that Aya had stopped doing something that he had enjoyed in the past because the people seemed to be shunning him. Usually it took more than a few minutes here or there for Aya’s ‘odd’ behavior to be noticeable, and considering what he had been like when he had first arrived, Yohji would have expected the shopkeepers to be used to some oddness from his lover by now. "Yeah, but these are people who have looked out for you in the past. I don’t understand why they’re treating you like this now."

Jo nodded as if she was thinking much the same thing. "I’d hope that if there was a problem that Cassandra would have warned us, too," she pointed out. "Or why no one’s said anything to *me*." There was a flinty look to Jo’s dark eyes and a roiling anger to her emotions that made Yohji feel almost sorry for the first local shopkeeper that the cook came across; no one messed with Jo’s family and escaped from her wrath.

"Well, Naomi’s going to stop by later for dinner and hopefully provide us with a few answers." Yohji rubbed his hands up and down Aya’s back. "I think until then, we should go have a chat with Cassandra."

He was surprised when there was a hissing sound and then Aya pulled away from him while shaking his head. It took him a moment to realize that the initial sibilant noise hadn’t been from his mate, and that was when Aya hissed back in a quick response. "I’m going to stay here." There was a sense of stubbornness over the link as well as exhaustion, most likely indicating that Aya had reached the limit of sunshine today, even as weak as it had been. "Reno should be arriving soon."

That explained what the shadowy bastards had been hissing about, Yohji thought as he combed his fingers through his hair and tried to decide if he wanted to leave Aya here with another shinigami-bound, unsupervised. The one good thing was that he felt pretty certain that Aya was too tired of sunlight today to go off gallivanting through the city and causing mass mayhem, but that still left a lot of other mischief that Reno could drag him off into….

"Go on," Jo urged him while dragging Aya off to one of the tables. "We’re going to frost some cakes together without you around to give us any grief." She gave him a quick nod, as if promising to look after Aya while he was at Cassandra’s.

A bit chagrined at missing a chance to lick some frosting off of his mate – at least until he remembered that he would be enjoying those cakes later – Yohji let out a much aggrieved sigh and starting buttoning up his coat again. "Make sure to put lots and lots of frosting on those cakes," he ordered before giving Aya a kiss goodbye. He really didn’t like leaving his lover behind, but he wanted to check a few things with Cassandra.

"Idiot." Aya nipped at his lips before sending him on his way, a spark of love and affection warming him as much as the spell on his coat.

*******

Cassandra was busy adding embroidery to a customer’s dress when she ‘felt’ a wall of darkness muffle her talent. "Haru, please pot on a pot of tea. We’re about to have guests."

<Yes, ma’am,> the girl responded, and must have immediately set aside the bolts of lace she’d been sorting through because about a minute later Cassandra could hear the water running in the kitchen. <Should I prepare any snacks?>

<Hmm, it would be nice if you would slice some of the poppy seed cake,> Cassandra sent back, pleased at how well the girl was able to focus her thoughts now. While Haru wasn’t as powerful a soul gaki bound as Schuldig, she did possess a strong demon soul and was already talking about how she could put her burgeoning talents to use as a spy. From the little that Cassandra had seen of her adopted daughter’s future, it would be a good fit for the child – especially in light of her past on the streets.

She smiled and shook her head while she contemplated on the fact that her son was a successful thief and ‘traitor’ and her daughter would soon enough be quite happy as a spy, and how most mothers would be appalled if they heard about her children’s career choices. Oh, but they were powerful and content with their lives, for the most part, and that was what mattered to her. Once the war was over, Schuldig would be free of the obligations that had been placed on him, and he could go about stealing to his heart’s content, in as much that Masato didn’t try to rein him in for both their sakes. She was thankful that her ‘trouble’ had found such a good, stable man to be his mate.

She had almost finished the hem of the dress when there was a knock on the kitchen door. Setting the dress aside for later, she hurried to go let Yohji and Aya inside, and stared in confusion when she only found Yohji standing at the threshold to her house. "Ah, is Aya… cloaked?" Anymore, it was rare for the two mates to be separate from each other.

Yohji shook his head then leaned down to give her a kiss in greeting before stepping inside. "Sorry, Gorgeous, but he stayed home today." It was clear from his expression that he wasn’t very pleased by that fact, so it would likely be a short stay on his part. "I think he had too much sun earlier, and Reno’s supposed to be stopping by."

"Oh my, that’s not good." The way that Yohji smiled at her, the expression a bit amused and a lot sardonic, let her know that he understood that her response was to both statements; she knew he worried about Aya being ‘carried away’ by Reno’s presence.

"Yeah, so excuse me if I skip the pleasantries. Hi, Haru, I swear you grow taller each time I see you." He smiled at the girl as he took a seat at the kitchen table.

Haru blushed and ducked her head while she poured two cups of tea, still possessing enough grace to ensure that the water didn’t spill. "I, ah, thank you." The poor child, flustered by Yohji’s succubae nature, set the pot aside, wiped her hands on her skirt and bowed her head. "I’ll finish sorting the lace," she stated before fleeing the room.

At Yohji’s puzzled look, Cassandra shook her head. "It’s that age. Give her another year and you won’t affect her so much."

"Please don’t tell me that Emmie will act like that." He grimaced as he reached for a slice of the cake.

"Hmm, probably not as she will be… more inured to you." Cassandra shrugged before taking a sip of the spicy black tea. "So no pleasantries, yes? Something must be wrong."

The way that Yohji bit into the slice of cake, as if he wanted to tear into something – or someone – made it obvious that there was indeed something wrong. "You could say that, and I’ll assume that you haven’t seen anything." He waited for her to shake her head. "The locals are treating Aya as if he has something contagious." His voice was thickened with a growl, and there was a disturbing glint of silver in his lovely green eyes.

Aware of how dangerous it was to deal with a bound who felt that his mate was threatened – doubly so for one bonded to a kage – Cassandra took a deep breath before she asked what needed to be answered. "Do you think they know he’s a bound?" She braced herself for a violent reaction.

Yohji snarled and his body coiled as if he prepared to launch himself at a target, but all he did was slam his left palm onto the table, causing the silverware and porcelain to rattle. "If I did, then I’d have already glamoured the whole damn district after tearing apart whoever tried to hurt him. No, if they thought he was a bound then they’d feel hate or fear."

Thank the gods that he still had enough sense to realize that he couldn’t kill everyone – at least, as long as people didn’t try to harm Aya. Cassandra took another sip of tea in an effort to steady her nerves. "Yotan, I swear to you that I haven’t seen anything that would indicate that Aya is in danger, and there are enough repercussions if that were the case that I *would* see something." Not only was there the fact that they needed Aya to win the upcoming war, there was the very disturbing reality of Yohji, Nagi, Reno and probably others decimating at *least* the city if anyone were to try to detain or harm the kage. In the past, people had worried about what would happen if someone had hurt a kage’s loved one; now they had to be concerned about what a kage’s mate or friends would do in retaliation, as Aya had formed several close bonds with some extremely powerful individuals.

Yohji stared at her for several seconds before looking away and picking up his own cup of tea. "Okay, I appreciate hearing that." He sighed a little before having a drink. "Naomi is supposed to stop by tonight and hopefully give us some answers, but it’s always reassuring to check in with you."

Knowing that he relied upon her made something warm spread throughout her chest. She smiled and reached for his left hand. "Thank you." Many of her kind felt that their power was a curse, and at times it was very painful to know what the future held when there was a loss of some sort. Yet it was worth it be able to give her loved ones some sort of comfort or insight, and her friends did their best to not demand too many answers; even now, Yohji didn’t want to know so much what was going to happen but if there was an immediate danger. "I’ve seen some trouble for Botan and the Court, but Aya and you should be fine."

His lips twisted and he gave her hand a gentle squeeze. "Trouble for Botan usually translates into wizards. Should I be grateful that Aya’s mostly sticking to the Koneko now, other than some midnight roof runs?"

"I think anything that keeps him from drawing too much attention to himself is a good thing," she had to admit, even if it brought a frown of concern to her dear friend’s handsome face. "What’s coming can’t be avoided," she warned. "We’ve known that a war was unavoidable, and people will have to choose their sides before the coming year." She shivered as she recalled some of her visions. "Masks will be tossed aside, revelations will be made, and magic will be unchained. Fitting it is, that the true lines of war will be drawn in the time of darkness, because it is in darkness that will decide the outcome of this war." One vision overwhelmed her, of two great armies clashing, of death growing on each side, of a wave of shadow and a wave of light racing to each other until the darkness won out and there was nothing, no light, no armies, only total darkness and then her talent could show her no more….

She was startled by the warm touch to her face. "Cass?" Yohji’s evident concern made her blink and pull back, a slight blush on her cheeks from forgetting herself like that.

"I’m fine, Yotan," she assured him, her smile a little shaky and her hand trembling as she reached for her cup. "It was just a vision."

"So I gathered, and quite a good one from the sense of hope I picked up from you." He was quick to refill her cup as soon as she set it down.

"Yes." As odd as it was, considering the literal and figurative darkness of the vision, it did fill her with hope. "Which is why you shouldn’t worry so much about Aya," she told him.

"That’s like telling a mother cat not to fuss over her kittens." He wrinkled his nose and helped himself to another slice of cake. "Even if it’s not exactly maternal, what I feel for my particular ‘cat’." The disgruntled expression quickly changed into a leer.

"You are as much trouble as my son," Cassandra told the irrepressible young man while giving his other hand a light smack. "And speaking of trouble…."

Yohji quickly swallowed his late bite of cake. "Yes, I’d better get back home and see if Jo has managed to keep Reno from leading Aya astray. Last time that particular trouble-maker was there, he wanted to use the shadows to convince the guests that the inn was haunted." He rolled his eyes even as the corners of his mouth twitched upward. "I can only thank the gods that Teddy isn’t a kage or dubhach."

"I fear for the sake of our world if that was true." Cassandra smiled as Yohji laughed and bent down to give her a kiss. "I believe that Haru and I may stop by later for some dessert. It would be for dinner…"

"But a certain wizard enjoys the company of two beautiful ladies while dining," Yohji finished for her. "He doesn’t like to share, it seems." He gave her a wink and snatched up one more slice of cake before buttoning up his coat. "Thanks for the tea, Gorgeous."

"Goodbye, Yohji." She watched him leave and sat there for a moment, happy to have comforted a friend as much as she could, before picking up the dishes to wash them.

*******

Jo had just set the plates of roast chicken, vegetables and mashed potatoes in front of Yohji and Aya when there was a knock at the back door. She exchanged a look with Reiichi while she waited for Maddox to let their guest in, and wasn’t surprised to find out that it was Naomi. The young woman appeared cold and a little uncertain, as if she wasn’t sure if she should be here.

"Come in, we’re having chicken for dinner tonight," Jo called out as she went to fetch plates for Reiichi and Naomi.

"Uhm, thank you." Naomi hurried to do as she was told, and was sitting at the table by the time Jo returned with the full plates.

"Have something to eat first," Jo told her while giving Yohji a stern look; she knew him well enough that he would interrogate the poor girl before she even had a bite to eat.

He grumbled a little and resumed eating his meal, his left arm draped around Aya’s waist while the redhead ate his meal with a concentrated demeanor that made it clear that he wasn’t pleased to be down in the kitchen tonight. Aya seemed to be doing better lately while surrounded by his friends and a visit from Reno usually put him in a good mood, so it was likely the upcoming discussion that had him upset.

Reiichi must have picked up on this fact because he was quick to pour everyone some wine. "Have I mentioned how grateful I am that Ani knows how to knit such wonderfully warm sweaters?" he stated before taking a bite of carrots.

As almost everyone at the table – Yohji, Yuushi, Nagi, Omi, Takashi, Miko, Ken, Eri and even Naomi - were wearing sweaters made by the young lady in question, Jo wasn’t surprised when people started nodding in agreement. "I’d say that she should start her own business, but then she probably couldn’t make them for us." Omi frowned as he tugged at the sleeve of his own light grey and white sweater.

"I’m just surprised at how many different types of yarn there are out there," Miko commented as she batted Ken’s hand away from the basket of rolls so she could grab one. "I went shopping with her one day and got a headache from trying to keep track of them all!"

"Oh please, you weren’t the lucky fool who was dragged along to carry back everything she bought!" Ken bared all of his teeth at his partner and tugged the basket closer to his plate. "I never thought that wool could be so heavy!"

The two Guards took to their usual squabbling while everyone ate their supper, and Jo did a mental countdown as she watched Yohji all but squirm in his seat. As soon as Naomi finished her meal, Yohji tapped an empty wine bottle on top of the table to get everyone’s attention. "All right, while Jo’s either getting you seconds or about to torment all of us with dessert, what the hell is going on in the shopping district?" He just barely managed to keep a growl out of his voice, and Jo had to sip her wine to refrain from commenting on how Yohji shouldn’t complain about Aya’s ‘direct’ nature anymore.

The question made everyone fall quiet and Naomi fiddle with her napkin for a moment. She looked as if she wanted to get up and leave, yet there was a core of steel to the young woman that had given her strength to leave her abusive husband and start a new life. "I’m sorry, I really thought that you knew already."

"It’s not your fault," Jo told her, cutting through before anyone else could say something. "You’re here now, so don’t worry." She didn’t want Naomi to blame herself; she knew how much she owed Miyuki and the Koneko for giving her a new life, and she didn’t want Naomi to be beating herself up right now for any imagined debts.

The young woman gave her a grateful smile before turning back to Yohji. "It’s… well, it’s a bit odd to explain. From what I understand, there’s been some people who’ve come looking for Aya?" She glanced in Aya’s direction, but the redhead was staring at his empty plate as if it was a book. "Ah, so people have been asking questions about him, and you and the Guards have asked them not to tell anyone anything about him…." Her voice trailed off and she paused to drink more wine while Reiichi and Yuushi exchanged significant looks and Yohji was clearly struggling enough with his demon nature to make Eri and Ken nervous. "Then there’s been talk about a war with Esset, and people have been putting two and two together." Naomi shrugged as she looked away from Yohji.

The room was quiet for several seconds, with not even Maddox or Kira making any noise, and then Reiichi spoke. "So they think he’s… what, from Esset?" The question made Eri flinch.

Naomi shook her head. "No, not exactly. From what I can figure out, they think he might have been spying on Esset or something, as they know that he does some stuff for Birman." She let out a shaky breath and rubbed her arms as if she was cold. "Eleanor told me that there’s no way that Yohji would have anything to do with Esset, that he’s worked for the king too long, and it’s clear that the Guard is looking out for Aya. He’s important somehow. Everyone’s just worried that danger will follow him to them."

"It’s true that he’s important, and he’s not working for Esset," Yuushi assured her. "He and Yohji are doing important work for the king, and that’s all I can tell you."

The assurance appeared to put Naomi at ease. "It’s clear that you trust him. Like I said, people are just worried for themselves. The talk of war has everyone on edge."

The shopkeepers weren’t the only ones on edge; there was a silver gleam in Yohji’s eyes, Aya was probably a second or two away from calling the shadows to him and Ken looked ready to flee the table at any moment. Jo was grateful that Naomi had explained things to them, but they needed to get her out of here before something happened.

<I was going to send her home, if you don’t mind.>

<Eri, I won’t object in the slightest,> Jo assured the soul gaki bound. She had just stood up to clear some plates when Naomi rose from the table as well.

"I think I’m going to head home now, since it’s probably going to be a very busy shift tomorrow."

"Let me prepare you a slice of cake," Jo told her, and hurried to do so. It kept Naomi distracted while she pulled on her cloak and boots, and hopefully the promise of dessert would calm Aya a little.

Once the cake was wrapped up, she handed it to Naomi and saw the young woman out the door. Even as she turned back to the kitchen, she heard Yohji call out Aya’s name.

"Aya! Dammit, come back here!" Yohji was halfway off the bench and obviously trying to catch his mate, who must have called the shadows to him as soon as Naomi was on her way out, when he realized that Aya was already gone. "I swear that one day I really will put a collar on him!"

"Do that and I will snap your arms off, Kudoh," Nagi hissed as he leaned around Omi to glare at Yohji. "And then I’ll break your legs."

"Oh, don’t even start on me, you little-"

"Gentlemen!" Reiichi exclaimed, putting an end to the burgeoning fight. "And I use that term lightly," he added, which made Nagi and Yohji turn their fierce looks his way, which he blithely ignored. "May we please focus on the important matter at hand?"

"Which would be the fact that Aya is receiving some unwelcome attention and speculation from the western Shopping district," Omi summed up for everyone while refilling wineglasses, including his own. Considering the circumstances, Jo figured it was a good evening for wine and didn’t stop him.

Yohji gave Reiichi and Nagi one more glare each before sitting back on the bench. "Why the hell hasn’t anyone figured out what’s been going on down there yet?" He pointed a finger in Yuushi’s direction. "I thought you had Shadow Guards keeping a watch on things!" he accused.

"Scanning thoughts to make sure no one realizes that Aya’s a bound, yes. But they do their best to respect people’s privacy," Yuushi snapped as he smacked his right fist onto the table. "Why is this the first we’re hearing about this?"

The silver gleam was more potent in Yohji’s eyes, which prompted a whine from Ken. "Don’t go blaming Aya! You know he’s terrible at telling time! A week or a month is all the same to him anymore! What I want to know is-"

Jo took the knife that she had used to cut the cake and slammed it into the middle of the table, which assured her of everyone’s attention. "I don’t really give a damn about casting blame right now," she told the argumentive idiots. When there were no shadows leaping out to attack her, she had at least confirmed that Aya had indeed left the kitchen and continued. "What I care about is how we’re going to fix things."

Reiichi gave the knife a speculative look for a moment and then pushed up his glasses. "Well, it’s too late to do anything about what’s already done. We all had very good reasons to ask the people to protect Aya’s whereabouts and new identity, even if we never thought things through to how they would respond to such repeated requests."

"Because we’ve done such things before," Yohji muttered as he reached out to give the knife’s blade a flick with his fingers.

"Yes, but never when we’ve been about to go to war with another country," Omi pointed out. "I think that’s what really is the problem here."

Ken batted Yohji’s hand away from the knife so he could swipe at the remaining bit of frosting that clung to the blade. "If you think it’s a problem now, what’s going to happen when people realize how much bounds are involved in this war?" he asked before licking his finger clean. Then he let out a yelp when Miko smacked the back of his head and Yohji took to growling.

"Is… isn’t there a spell you can use or something?" Takashi asked. "Something to make people trust Aya more?"

The question brought a thoughtful expression to Omi’s face, but he quickly shook his head. "Considering that his mate is a powerful succubae bound, if they don’t trust him now, I don’t see how they ever will." Eri was quick to nod in agreement.

"It might cause even more suspicion if there’s a sudden change of regard toward Aya." Reiichi rested his chin on his palm and stared at Yuushi. "I think it’s time that we stationed a soul gaki bound in the quarter."

"We’ve been trying to avoid having too many bounds there in case any Esset spies get suspicious." Yuushi met Reiichi’s stare and seemed to have a silent battle of wills with the man. "It can’t be Annan because of Duo."

"No, I’m thinking Yonekuni, because Alexis should be able to give him some warning considering her connections in Berin."

"Hmm, that has some merit. We can shift-"

Yohji’s growl cut off the two Guards’ discussion. "I don’t care who you shift to cover the area, as long as it’s secured. There’s not going to *be* a district if people start talking about Aya being a bound," he warned. Jo shuddered at the image of Yohji rampaging through the streets, eyes flashing silver and golden wires flying out to slice into everything. No one would raise a hand against him, not once he turned his special glamour against them.

"It’ll be done," Yuushi told him, his expression wary as if he had the same thoughts as Jo. "Just give us a day or two."

"Fine." Yohji rubbed his right hand over his face as if he was tired and then stood up. Somehow he managed a smile for Jo, even though he was obviously still in a foul mood and his eyes were tinged with silver. "So, think I can get some cake to take upstairs? I don’t imagine that Aya’s gonna budge from our room tonight."

"Just be sure to leave him some energy to be able to eat," she ordered him while she went to slice the cake, and didn’t remember about the knife until she reached the prep table. Fortunately, Nagi used his talent to float it over to her and it wasn’t dulled much from her little show. She pretty much gave Yohji half a cake to take upstairs, along with a pot of tea, since she was sure that Aya could use something to both make him feel better and to recover from his lover’s ‘fussing’. "There will be something nice for breakfast."

The answering smile Yohji gave her was the first genuine one he’d managed in almost an hour. "Thanks, it’ll be appreciated." He leaned in to give her a quick kiss on the cheek before taking the tray. "I guess that means I’ll be seeing you gluttons in the morning," he called out before leaving the room.

Nagi shouted that *he* was the glutton, but everyone else settled down after that. Jo continued slicing the cake while Ken got up to fetch some coffee and the bottle of whiskey; everyone was nursing a cup of the two when she brought a tray of the dessert over to the table, and Reiichi had a mug ready for her when she sat down.

"Well, that went better than I expected," she remarked after a nice long swig of the spiked coffee.

Takashi laughed, the sound a bit high-strung, and shook his head. "I thought succubae bounds weren’t supposed to be so scary."

"He’s almost pure demon, he’s had Guard and spy training, he’s mated to a kage and he was raised with Schuldig and Teddy," Ken ticked off in-between bites of cake. "I don’t know how much scarier he can get, other than being a kage himself." Everyone around the table murmured in agreement while enjoying their cake, even Nagi.

*******

Aya sent the shinigami away when he heard Yohji enter their bedroom; while he had appreciated their company when he had first entered the room, he knew that his mate would be upset to find them clinging to him just then. A couple of them hissed in disappointment before sliding away, but all of the shinigami were gone by the time Yohji crossed over to the bed and pushed aside the dark green velvet curtains. "There you are, Cat."

"Hmm." Aya rolled onto his side and looked up at his mate, who smiled down at him while brandishing the tray he carried as if it was some sort of prize. "Everyone leave yet?" He hadn’t felt any of their friends go over the wards he had placed around the back of the kitchen and the garden, and he hadn’t thought that Yohji would be done socializing this early yet.

Yohji sat down at the corner of the bed and set the covered tray beside him. "Last I saw, they were still talking and getting ready to stuff themselves on Jo’s cake." He smiled as he pulled off the white towel covering the tray. "I did manage to pry some of that cake away for us, I’ll have you know." His voice deepened into a purr and his emotions were amused and affectionate, if still a bit worried.

Pushing with his arms, Aya managed to sit up and lean forward until his head rested against Yohji’s left shoulder. "That’s a lot of cake. You must have put up quite a fight." He reached out to pour himself a cup of tea while Yohji wrapped an arm around his waist.

"For you, Cat, I’ll do anything." Yohji’s tone was light while he spoke, but his emotions took on a serious edge; it was clear he meant what he said, and for a moment Aya hid his face against his lover’s neck. He knew that Yohji would do whatever he could for him, he just… it hurt that Yohji *had* to, anymore. That the man he loved couldn’t even walk beside him down the street without having people turn away in fear or distrust….

Warm hands curved around his face and pulled it in for a gentle kiss. "Don’t feel like that," Yohji whispered against his lips. "Whatever it is, it’s not your fault."

"Your friends shunned you today because of me." Aya looked at Yohji as he spoke, unwilling to just ignore this latest problem. "I could understand them not wanting to deal with me, but for them to-"

Yohji silenced him with another kiss, and he found himself toppled backwards onto the bed. As much as he wanted to continue this discussion, to make Yohji see how bad it could be for him, an association between them, what really mattered was to feel his mate holding him, to kiss him back and breathe in deeply his scent. He needed Yohji so desperately, to confirm that here was someone who would always accept all of him. Desire, need and love flowed into him, so comforting and addicting, and he allowed himself to savor the kiss, the feel of Yohji settling on top of him.

When his lover began to tug at the lacings of his jerkin, Aya snatched at Yohji’s hand while flipping over until he straddled Yohji’s hips. He could feel the surprise radiating from his mate, along with a bit of pleased smugness. "Oh, is someone feeling a bit frisky tonight?"

Aya merely smiled while he released Yohji’s hand so he could trail his own along his mate’s chest. Once he reached the hem of the light brown sweater, he tugged it up to reveal skin the color of pale gold, so firm over tone muscles. His actions drew a sharp breath from Yohji, which made his smile all the sharper and urged him to lean down and kiss the exposed skin.

While he did that, his hand were busy undoing the laces of Yohji’s leather pants, and after some shifting about he and the shadows were able to pull the garment away from the long, lean limbs. He could sense Yohji’s building anticipation and hunger, could feel that it was only a matter of heartbeats before his mate reached for him to pull him close and strip him bare. So he ordered the shadows to wrap around Yohji’s wrists to trap his lover’s hands before just such a thing could happen.

"Cat?" The confusion was plain in Yohji’s voice, yet he still trusted him despite the dubious situation and didn’t struggle against the shadow bonds.

"It’s fine, Yotan." Aya shifted forward for a brief, reassuring kiss before settling between his mate’s spread thighs, and he felt a flash of understanding before he wrapped his fingers around Yohji’s tumescent cock. It had been… he couldn’t really recall the last time he had done something like this… Yohji’s birthday? Winter solstice? Some special occasion like that, and part of him was saddened by the fact that it took such an event to make the man he loved happy, while another part of him was busy shoving aside painful memories. Yet tonight he just wanted to do something special for Yohji, to prove to him how much he really did love him, especially when the past seemed so determined to reassert itself.

Blanking his mind of everything but the emotions he felt over the link he shared with Yohji, Aya leaned in to lick along the length of his mate’s cock. All that mattered was the emotions he felt in response to his own actions, the feel of smooth skin beneath his tongue and lips, the sound of Yohji’s breath catching and growing heavier. He slid his mouth up and down his mate’s hard cock, his tongue curled around its underside, and the rush of ecstasy, of building urgency and hunger that poured into him helped to push back the slight urge to gag and pull away. When he heard Yohji begin to pant and felt him tense beneath him, felt the hunger and ecstasy peak sharply, he grasped the base of his mate’s cock with his hand and began to pump along in time with the strokes of his mouth, and did his best to focus on his mate’s emotions. It was Yohji he kept in his thoughts when the first wet bursts hit his tongue, when his body threatened to rebel by gagging and pulling away. Yet he forced himself to remain still and swallow, to keep his mouth on his mate’s softening cock while Yohji shuddered gently and rasped out his name.

When the pleasure began to dim across the link, Aya finally allowed himself to pull away, to wipe at his mouth and reach for the cup of cooling tea to take away the taste. He was just sitting up and had the cup to his lips when Yohji was there beside him, a soothing hand combing through his hair and another giving him a napkin from the tray to clean his face and hand. "You didn’t have to do that, you know," Yohji whispered while nuzzling his neck.

No, he didn’t, and Yohji didn’t have to do a dozen things that he did in an effort to make Aya happy. So all Aya did was rest against him and say, "it’s getting better."

"Maybe I should have named you ‘Mule’ instead of ‘Cat’, because you sure are stubborn as one," Yohji teased. He placed a kiss against Aya’s forehead and then reached for the tray, which he pulled closer so he could cut a large piece of cake. "Not that I want to wait much before making you feel just as wonderful as you made me, but I’m under strict orders to ensure that you’re not too tired tonight." He did that ridiculous thing with his eyebrows while handing over the slice of cake. "So I guess I’ll let you have a little something now before I have *my* treat."

"Idiot." Yet Aya smiled as he accepted the plate. "So does that mean I get all of the cake if you’re going to have me as your treat?" he asked before having a bite.

Yohji leered as he reached out to swipe a bit of frosting from Aya’s dessert, earning him a snarl in warning. "Hmm, I’m open to compromising. How about you get all of the cake if I get a bit of the frosting?" The way he licked his finger clean made it clear what he intended to do with that frosting.

Aya nibbled at his bite of cake while he debated the offer. While it was true that he enjoyed the dessert, he would benefit from the deal in the end. He would just have to make sure they were in agreement of how much frosting, or else there went his snack for later.

*******

Botan was going through the pile of correspondence that had been building for the past several days when the door to his office was opened. As there was still another hour until the training session with his apprentices and Birman usually gave him a warning knock before entering, he was startled by the unexpected company at this time in the morning. He was even more startled to realize that his ‘guest’ was another mage. Coming along at Tsuneo Kido’s heels was a flustered Haruto, who was breathing heavily as if he had been running.

The young man stepped forward as if to prevent Kido from moving any further into Botan’s office. "Sir, I apologize for the interruption. I tried to stop him once I realized that he was headed this way." While Botan’s assistant spoke, the copper bracelet on his left wrist began to vibrate.

Having a feeling that he knew what this was about, Botan held up his right hand to motion for silence before responding to Yuushi’s query if he was all right. "I see that you alerted the Guard about our visitor." He had to grin while he tapped out his reply, wondering if Haruto had created a cacophony in his attempt to stop Kido; the young man had felt a keen embarrassment over the whole Esset affair and had been eager to make up what he felt was a failure on his part to help protect Botan.

Kido spoke for the first time since entering the office, after making a chortling sound. "Yes, one would think that I had been here to steal the crown jewels or something. I had to use an illusion spell to prevent being hauled away by the Guard." He brushed at the sleeves of his dark blue tunic as if to rid it of dirt.

Haruto moved as if to push the wizard from the room, so Botan called out to stop him. "Haruto, please go assure the Guard that there’s no call for alarm." At his assistant’s surprised look, he leaned back in his chair and shook his head. "Yes, his manner of reaching me is… a breach in protocol, but I’ll hear him out. *This* time," he stressed for Kido’s benefit. If the wizard had put so much effort into and taken such a risk to see him, he would find out why the message was so important. "Come back in an hour, for your session."

"Yes, Sir." Haruto didn’t appear pleased to be sent away, but he was too well trained to do anything but follow orders. The look he gave Kido in passing made it clear that he would be back in an hour, and if the wizard was still here at that time, then Haruto would be only too pleased to practice some spells on him.

Botan waited until his assistant was out of the room – and most likely on his way to inform the Guard, Takashi and Birman of the situation – before he spoke to his ‘guest’. From what he knew about Tsuneo Kido, the man was a wizard of middling strength and several decades of skill who made a decent living providing charms to minor nobles. "What can I do for you?" he asked while motioning to the chair in front of his desk.

Kido accepted the offer to sit down with a slight inclination of his head and moved to take the seat. "Thank you. I must say, it’s very difficult to get an hour or two on your calendar, Royal Wizard." There was a slight edge to his cultured voice. His whole appearance, from the fine materials of his dark blue and black clothes to his neatly trimmed dark brown hair and beard screamed of money and fine taste; he would blend in well at Court. Botan did his best to keep track of the more important wizards around Eto, and he knew that Kido hadn’t changed his appearance just to sneak into the palace today.

"I’m a very busy man." Botan motioned to the stacks of correspondence on top of his desk. "It might have slipped your notice, but the country is at the precipice of a war with Esset at the moment. That demands a fair bit of my attention." He allowed a hint of sarcasm to shade his tone.

Kido’s light brown eyes narrowed at the intended reproach, and he appeared to study the paper for a few seconds. "Perhaps you should hire a secretary, then, so you could realize that there are several missives from your fellow wizards waiting for your response." He leaned toward the desk. "In fact, we have been trying to contact you for several months now, and haven’t received any answer."

A queer feeling settled in Botan’s chest at those words; he was suddenly suspicious that he knew where this conversation was leading. "For the last several months, I have been occupied with orders from my king."

"That shouldn’t prevent you from fulfilling your duties as the Royal Wizard," Kido snapped, his hands tight around the arms of the chair. "You have been petitioned for information and supplies that could be vital to Kritiker winning this war!"

Tired of pretending that he didn’t know what this was about, Botan pushed aside one of the stacks of paper. "I assume that you’re referring to the requests for bound blood." He felt sick just saying the words.

"Yes!" Kido released his hold on the chair and sat back. "For over two years, there hasn’t been any-"

"And there won’t be." Botan cut him off, not wanting to hear any more of this topic; he knew what Kido wanted, what he was going to point out. Since Shuuichi’s wedding and the creation of the Shadow Guard, there had been no turning over of any captured bounds to the Army or the wizards. Shuuichi had allowed the Guard to neglect that ‘duty’ ever since he had assumed the throne, but it was only after the wedding that elements within the Guard and the Army had been authorized to ensure that it stopped completely – as well as Botan. "If you need me to say the words to make it official, then I will. Don’t look for there to be any more blood given to you from me." The sickness inside of him grew stronger, not from refusing to give the blood but from taking a stand like this. He knew what he was doing was right, but he and Birman had hoped to avoid such a direct confrontation for a while longer.

Kido stared at him with obvious shock. "You… you can’t be serious. I understand that you have… reservations about using blood in spells, but you can’t let your own personal distastes stand in the way of us winning this war!" His voice rose as he spoke, until he was shouting by the end of it.

"It has *nothing* to do with ‘personal distaste’!" Botan shouted back, his hands flat against the desk as if to prevent himself from lashing out at the idiot in front of him, either by physical or mundane means. "You are sitting there talking about using the blood of a living creature in spells, just to make your job easier!" Why couldn’t these idiots see that what they were doing was wrong?

The chair that Kido had been sitting in hit the floor with a loud ‘thud’ when he jumped to his feet, his light brown eyes flashing with anger. "’Easier’? Is that what you think this is about? That we’re *lazy*? We’re about go to war, Botan! War against a country that has hundreds if not thousands of bounds! We need every advantage that we can muster, and if it helps winnow out a few bounds before they try to tear out our throats, then all the better!"

He knew that many bounds hated his kind, and he could rationalize why they did. But sitting here and listening to Kido just now, to how he clearly thought that the only good bound was a dead one – and drained of their blood at that…. Sometimes he wondered how his friends stomached being around him. Right now, he could barely stand being around his own ‘kind’. "I am *very* well aware of what the future holds for Kritiker, and who we will be fighting." For a moment, he almost let slip what Birman and Natsumi had unearthed in Hans-Achim’s mind before he remembered that now wasn’t the time. "I also am aware of the fact that the more we bleed any bounds dry, the more we will cause those ‘hundreds if not thousands’ of bounds who are fighting for Esset to hate us even more. There *are* bounds here in Kritiker, and only a fool would drive them into our enemy’s arms by treating them as nothing more than a disposable product."

Kido sneered. "As if they won’t stab us in the back. You’re a weak fool, Botan, and you’re putting this country at risk. There are many of us who feel we need to be as strong as possible if we’re going to win this war."

Botan met his mocking stare and motioned toward the door. "Be that as it may, but *I* am the Royal Wizard, and as long that continues to be the case, then I will refuse to allow any captured bound to be drained of blood and that blood to be distributed." It was still too soon to push Shuuichi to openly rescind the death penalty against bounds, but at least it was within his power to have it be known that he was using his title to shut down the official trading of bound blood. "If you want to do your part for Kritiker, then I suggest you start practicing your spellwork."

"You are just one man, even if you are the Royal Wizard." With that ominous declaration, Kido spun around and stormed out of Botan’s office. He wasn’t displeased to see the man leave, he just wished that the whole meeting could have been avoided.

Unlike Kido’s arrival earlier, it wasn’t much of a surprise when Birman snuck into the room a few minutes later. He was in the process of re-sorting his correspondence when she set a silver flask down on the desk. "I’m under the impression that you could use this right about now." While her expression was serious, there was a hint of amusement in her voice.

"You have no idea," he told her while snatching up the flask. As usual, it contained a rather potent whiskey, which caused him to splutter a little after a few swallows. "How do you manage to get any work done with that on you?"

"I only use it in case of emergency." She smiled as she took it back and replaced its cap. "Which, oddly enough, means I’ve been using it a fair amount these past couple of years."

He laughed at that comment. "Yes, I imagine you have." The humor faded away as he thought of why she had felt the need to give it to him. "I suppose you heard about my guest."

Birman nodded while she righted the turned over chair and sat down in it. "Tsuneo Kido, a wizard in mostly good standing." She contemplated the flask for a moment before tucking it into the leather pouch on her belt. "Trowa is tracking down how he got into the palace; we’re willing to bet that one of the highborn gave him an invite for him to be able to get so close to your office."

That made sense; there were several highborn and Court official offices near his own, so it wouldn’t take much effort to sneak past them if one had the proper approval to reach that point. "And I take it that I don’t need to tell you what he was here for, either?" There were times when it was annoying, how Birman seemed to know everything. This was not one of them.

"I’m willing to bet you drinks at the Koneko for a week that it was something to do with bound blood." She grimaced as she stared at her wrists. "You know, how many of those bastards have actually *seen* a bound be drained? Maybe they wouldn’t be so eager for their precious blood boost if they did, or if they found a dead body with its heart cut out."

She had a point, as a lot of the wizards who used blood or organs to enhance their spells only received the ‘end’ products. "Some might be discouraged, but sadly I believe others might not care since they refuse to see bounds as little more than demonic creatures." Sometimes he wondered if he would be the same, if it weren’t for the fact that he had found out that he had bound blood in him as well – and so did his daughter. "Needless to say, you won’t be buying me drinks any time soon."

"So what did you tell him?" She reclined back in the chair, appearing innocent with her hair pulled back in a simple braid and dressed as if a minor Court official. "Your infamous ‘go fuck a flesh gaki?’"

That reminder startled another laugh from him. "No, not this time at least. Though I have a feeling he’ll be back so I’ll have another chance." Then he sobered up as he thought about the recent discussion. "From what he implied, he and his colleagues aren’t going to accept that I want them to fight this war without the use of bound blood."

Birman tapped the thumb of her right hand against the silver ring with the black stone that she always wore. "What amazes me is that while they go on about needing to improve magic with the use of bound blood, they haven’t put any thought to what Esset wizards have done for the past thousand years." She sighed as she held up her hand, the ring sparkling in the sunlight streaming through the room’s windows. "Sometimes I wonder if Esset isn’t the only isolated country."

"Well, all I know is that we can pretty much count on me making an official proclamation about my stance on bound blood," he told her as he rose from his chair. "Do you want to tag along while I go inform the king about that fact?"

She smirked as she stood up and joined him. "Why not? It’ll be amusing to see how much of a fit Manx throws when she finds out."

Trust Birman to find something ‘amusing’ about a declaration that would have half of the city’s wizards out for his own blood by the end of the day.

*******

 

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