Precipice of Darkness

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chapter two

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warnings and machinations to come

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Kikyou set aside the pen and pressed his fingers against his temples in an effort to stave off a budding headache. He had a meeting with General Haruto and the queen in less than an hour, and he still had to go through his notes on the crime statistics through the kingdom as well as finish this report on the increased traffic through the city’s Gates within the last month. Haruto was going to argue *yet again* in favor of the Army taking over control of the Gates for ‘security purposes’ – Kikyou would sell himself cheap in the eastern Leather district before he allowed the man to wrest a duty that had always belonged to the Guard away while on *his* watch.

No, he would probably agree to Birman’s proposal of a partnership between their two organizations, to the many hells with Manx’s claims that it would just be another ‘slight’ against the Army when all of them were supposed to be working together. Why couldn’t the queen see that Haruto wasn’t offering any compromise when he insisted on stationing Army personnel at the Gates so the Guards supposedly could be free to patrol the streets?

Dammit, this wasn’t doing anything to help his headache. Kikyou was about to summon a page to fetch a pot of willow bark and lavender tea when Tsubasa entered his office, the expression on man’s broad face solemn and a stack of letters in his large hands. "Please don’t tell me that there are more documents for me to sign today," Kikyou joked, and then forgot all about his headache when his assistant didn’t respond. "What’s wrong?

Despite his large size, Tsubasa moved with an efficient grace around the massive desk so he could hand the letters to Kikyou. Stacked on top was one in creamy vellum with Kikyou’s official rank written in dark brown ink. "I thought you would want to see this right away," Tsubasa explained, his deep voice just as somber as his expression.

Letting the other missives fall onto his desk, Kikyou flipped the top one over to reveal the dark brown wax seal with its impression of a stone tower looming in front of a river. He reached for his letter opener and broke through the Ishikawa family seal, and felt his tension fade away as he read the request formed out of such elegantly written words. "Michi Ishikawa is officially petitioning me for the death records of the Fujimiya family." A smile broke out over his face as he sank back into his chair.

Tsubasa was still for a moment and then motioned for the letter, which Kikyou handed to him. He read it for a minute before nodding. "The request appears in proper order, as we’d hoped. Should I send out the response?"

"Wait a few days, as we can’t risk anyone wondering why you’re answering a minor lord so quickly when we’re obviously busy." Kikyou felt the satisfaction of a long and well-plotted plan falling into place despite the new complications it would bring him at this time.

"Understood." Tsubasa bowed and set the letter on the desk. "Is there anything else you need right now?"

Rejuvenated by the good news, Kikyou sent him off to fetch a light meal before the meeting and began to sort through the rest of the mail. Nothing else appeared to be vital, and he was too much on edge now that his plans for Aya were finally progressing. All he had needed was for some highborn to notice Aya’s resemblance to Arashi Fujimiya and her young son, and to wonder just how trust-worthy Prince Reiji’s word really was in light of his past actions. It had been a bit of a risk, considering that the curious person might seek out the king or the Spymaster, but the Guard was in charge of signing off of the death records so….

Now Tsubasa would work with Michi Ishikawa and eventually reveal the fact that there had never been any proper death records filed for the Fujimiya children. There had only been Reiji’s word that they had succumbed to sickness soon after their parents’ deaths – who would have suspected a prince of lying about the death of children back then? Once enough people had doubts that Ran Fujimiya was truly dead, then it would be time to pry ‘Aya’ out of his self-imposed exile. The man deserved to be at Court, to be among his peers and not slaving away at some inn. Whatever Reiji had done to him could be fixed if he was allowed to live as he was meant to be – as a highborn. Kikyou would show him his proper place in the world.

He imagined Ran here at Court, dressed in fine clothes the color of purple and silver; with his intelligence, haughty demeanor and cool beauty, he would fit in without any problems.

*******

Aya almost flinched as he came near the elderly woman in the hallway and cursed himself for not using the shadows or taking the back staircase. He averted his gaze and mumbled a pardon as he scurried around her, taking as wide a berth as possible as if the dark aura she exuded was a physical presence. The younger woman who provided her with some assistance in walking called out a question about what the Koneko was serving for dinner, but he was moving toward the stairs quickly enough that he could use that as an excuse for failing to answer; if not, it wasn’t as if his reputation would be harmed all that much more at this point in time. He’d heard the whispers about Yohji Kudoh’s rude, anti-social lover and was only bothered by them because he knew that they upset his mate.

He managed to summon forth a weak smile for Touya when he reached the main floor, though he didn’t linger for very long since there were several people milling about in the front parlor. Struggling once again with the urge to call shadows to himself, he wove his way through the humans, careful not to touch or pay them too much attention, until he reached the sanctity of the library. A wave of relief washed over him as soon as he stepped past the room’s familiar wards and found only Yohji and Reiichi waiting inside.

"Cat…." Yohji rushed over to him, a physical presence as well as a flood of concern/love/faint hunger. "You look exhausted." He cupped his hand against Aya’s left cheek and a trickle of heat and energy flowed into Aya.

"I’m… it’s all right," Aya assured before the idiot took to fussing. "It was just more crowded than I expected." He glared at Reiichi over his lover’s shoulder, since it was the Shadow Guard’s fault that he’d run into so many people; Reiichi had pointed out that people needed to see him from time to time or even more rumors would start about him.

Yohji’s body tensed and his emotions darkened, then he forced himself to relax and leaned in to give Aya a brief kiss. "If you think it’s crowded now, wait until Koyu starts to play," he murmured before he led Aya over to the couch to sit down. "So let’s hope that Botan gets his ass here before then." He continued to hold onto Aya’s hand as they sat together.

Reiichi poured a cup of tea and brought it over to Aya before he resumed his seat in one of the padded leather chairs. "I get the impression from the message that Birman sent me yesterday that he has something important to report." He shrugged under the weight of Aya and Yohji’s regard and sipped his own tea. "All I know is that Manx has been in a bad mood this past day, and that there was a report of an unauthorized guest in Botan’s office yesterday, whom he allowed to stay rather than have the Guard physical haul away."

Trust Reiichi to be up on what happened at the palace, even if he had spent most of that time at the Koneko. "So it has something to do with wizards," Aya guessed.

"When doesn’t it have something to do with wizards or magic when it comes to Botan." Yohji’s emotions were growing turbulent, a sure sign that he would soon go into ‘possessive/protective mate’ mode soon. Aya slanted a look his way while enjoying his tea and received a sheepish grin in return; Yohji was aware that his demon nature was beginning to get out of control and would do his best to keep it in check before he ended up with a few new scars on his left shoulder.

"Considering that he *is* the Royal Wizard…," Reiichi drawled and then shook his head. "The question is, what are the other wizards up to? I can take a few guesses, but I’d rather not beg for trouble and will wait for Botan to provide some answers." He set his cup aside and folded his arms over his chest, a slight frown on his handsome face as if he could will the wizard to show up.

As if the gods had decided to humor the man – which Aya thought might be entirely possible – the library door opened a few seconds later to admit not only Botan, but Omi, Nagi and Takashi as well. It wasn’t as surprising anymore to see the three young men together now that Yohji had used his talent to resolve the issue that Takashi had over Omi’s royal status, and as it grew closer to the war, Botan tended to include his new apprentice in important matters as much as possible. Nagi seemed to be along to bring some refreshments, but it was a foregone conclusion that anything involving Aya and Omi would also involve the earth elemental’s presence – or else there would be a shattered wall or two.

Beside Aya, Yohji shifted about on the couch. "Great, how can we be expected to have a serious discussion when any type of riff-ra-ah!" He glared at Aya while he rubbed his sore ribs, and Aya resumed drinking his tea. "Grouchy bastard," Yohji muttered while he snuggled closer.

There was a slight, smug grin on Nagi’s face as he set the very full tray of snacks on the table near Aya. "If you have your boyfriend under control now, perhaps we can start the serious discussion." He stared down his nose at Yohji as he handed Aya a plateful of almond cake.

Yohji bared his teeth at Nagi then swiped a finger through the cake’s icing. "Botan, please tell me there’s a reason why you’re here."

"Unfortunately, it’s not because I wanted some of Jo’s cake." The wizard frowned while he made himself comfortable with his own plate of dessert and cup of tea, and the room was quiet while everyone settled into their respective seats. "I had a rather unwelcome visitor to my office yesterday. One Tsuneo Kido, a middling powerful wizard who seems to have been appointed as the representative for a large number of his kind who have been trying to reach me these last several months." He pushed his plate of dessert away as if his appetite had left him and begun to play with the embroidered cuffs of his dark blue robe. "Do you need me to go into depth on what he wanted to discuss with me?"

Aya felt some of his own appetite wane as he toyed with a piece of cake. "No offense, but most wizards are only concerned about their spells and how to make them more potent." He let his fork fall onto the plate and began to rub the scars that marked his left forearm hidden by the sleeve of his black shirt; even though they had long since healed, at times like this he swore that they ached with a long-ingrained pain. It was so easy to remember all of the occasions that Masafumi had ordered him bound and sunk the knives into his flesh, how it felt when the blood drained from his body until only a few drops-

Yohji hauled him halfway into his lap and growled, the sound low and savage. "I don’t care about the trouble it’ll cause, but if those bastards think they can drain bounds of blood without any-" He growled again as he nuzzled Aya’s right temple. "I will choke each and every one of them to death." The emotions that crossed over their link were turbulent, were mix of love/concern/anger/hatred/possession/reassurance.

"That’s if there’s any left for you to deal with, Kudoh." For once Nagi didn’t seem concerned about Yohji’s treatment of Aya, which was telling enough. The earth elemental’s dark brown eyes possessed a fiery gleam to them and his lips were pulled back to expose his sharp teeth.

Fortunately, there was Reiichi to defuse the tense situation in the room. "Before we start a mass slaughter of wizards, which will lead to a lot of over-time on my part and may just play into Esset’s hand, could we please *try* to be the slightest bit rational? Hmm?" He waved a fork laden with cake in front of Nagi’s face while looking beseechingly in Yohji’s direction. "I’m going to assume that since Botan called us here that he might possibly have a plan, being the Royal Wizard and all." Sarcasm dripped rather heavily from his deep voice. "Let’s listen to it before the killing spree begins."

Yohji let out a deep breath and loosened his hold on Aya, the same time that Nagi allowed himself to be dragged backward by Omi. "I’m always willing to listen to sense before engaging in mass homicide," Omi commented on while shoving a plate full of dessert into his boyfriend’s hands.

"No promises," Nagi muttered, but he began to eat the cake while tucked against Omi’s side, and the red gleam was gone from his eyes.

"And people wonder why I’ve started to drink so much since moving to the city," Takashi muttered while he snatched at a bottle of wine. "Botan, could you *please* continue on before any more threats of genocide raise its head, hmm?"

Appearing a bit dazed as if he hadn’t expected the evening to go this way, Botan nodded and cleared his throat. "As I was, well, trying to say, Kido appeared in my office and raised the question on why there’s been a lack of bound blood made available for spells when there’s a war looming in the future." He paused for a moment, which caused Yohji to tighten his hold on Aya again, and then let out a slow breath before resuming. "I told him that there wouldn’t be any officially sanctioned bound blood available from now on, which caused him to go storming off while muttering dire threats, and then informed the king about the encounter." Botan looked at Aya and Yohji as he continued. "Manx wasn’t too happy about me making a declaration without her approval, but Shuuichi understood my reasoning. There will be an official declaration made soon, though I’m sure that word has already spread throughout the wizard community that they can’t expect any more bound blood to be offered to them unless they buy it through the black market. Judging from Kido’s reaction, some of them aren’t going to be happy about it."

Aya really didn’t give a damn what the wizards’ felt about being deprived of their precious blood supply, and judging from his mate’s emotions, neither did Yohji. "So the poor bastards aren’t going to be able to use the blood of other living beings to cast spells the easy way. Give me a few centuries and perhaps I’ll be able to scrounge up an iota of sympathy for them." Yohji glared at Botan, his arms still wrapped around Aya as if to protect him. "Don’t those idiots realize yet that Esset is counting on them to use the same damn tactics in this war as in the last?"

Botan rubbed his forehead as if he had a headache. "I don’t think they realize that Esset has the intelligence to learn from the past. They tie ‘bounds’ too much to the country, and have a low opinion of your kind." His hand fell to his side as he looked around the room. "If their magic has barely changed in the last thousand years, why would Esset’s? Even if I presented what we’ve learned from Hans-Achim, I doubt that they would believe me. They won’t trust it as valid intelligence until they face it on the battlefield."

"At which point in time it’ll be too late." Reiichi stared at his wineglass as if it was a scrying bowl and frowned. "For all of the benefits that your kind can provide, you’re still rather stubborn and set in your ways."

That earned a weak smile from Botan. "Because we’ve been used to so little competition the last couple of thousand years. We’ve been rather cut-throat to ensure that it’s been that way – look what my kind did to ‘witches’, ensuring that women possessing magical talent wouldn’t be taken serious, and we were even more cruel to bounds, our own creation."

Takashi frowned and shifted in his chair, an eager light to his brown eyes that was always there when he might learn something. "I always wondered why the witches were so belittled when I knew that one of them, my own aunt, was just as powerful if not more so than many of the wizards who were teaching me."

"Because at some point it was decided that women couldn’t be powerful enough to handle magic as men." Botan held up his hands as several of the people in the room took to glaring his way. "Please, remember that this happened centuries ago and that I had no part in it. Personally? I think some male wizard got his ass handed to him by a female apprentice and couldn’t get over the blow to his ego. That or enough of my male colleagues decided that there wasn’t enough patronage to go around for everyone and that it was best to cut out half of the competition by slighting those who weren’t born with a penis." He shook his head to show what he thought of that particular line of thought. "Either way, they convinced everyone that only those who were men had enough ‘talent’ to be proclaimed proper wizards while women could cast spells but weren’t good enough to do more than enchant things for backwards villages." For once, Botan looked his proper age, that of several decades. "I think it was largely the Court backing them that did it."

Aya pressed back against Yohji’s chest and closed his eyes. "The Court has always been about playing favorites." Bitterness washed through him at the thought of how much damage had been wrought by the Court and its games.

The feel of Yohji’s warm lips against his forehead and the love his mate held for him made him feel safe and centered. He opened his eyes to notice Botan staring at him. "Kritiker isn’t a perfect country, but it’s still better than some," was all the wizard said.

"That’s not a reason why we should just let it stay as it is." Omi leaned forward, his eyes bright with passion. "Part of the reason we’re going to war again is because we haven’t really changed at all in the past thousand years. We’ve played into Esset’s hands on that front, and unless we do something now, we change how we accept bounds and… and probably even more than that, we’ll just face the same issue in a few more centuries."

The room was quiet for a minute or two after that, as if everyone was weighing the worth of Omi’s words. "It’s not just bounds who have an issue with the status quo," Takashi commented in a quiet voice.

"No, and sometimes we forget that fact, being mere humans," Reiichi commented while he cleaned his glasses with the hem of his grey tunic, his blue eyes appearing brighter without their customary mask. "The favored ones are the wizards and the highborn, of course, and then the skilled humans."

Aya could feel the twist of lips against his skin and knew that Yohji grimaced at that remark even without the benefit of sensing his mate’s emotions. "Well, as long as you can cite a bound-free pedigree, that is. I still remember all of the offers I had to join an agency that would pay me well to do background checks on any and all marriage offers." His arms tightened around Aya yet again.

Botan’s face contorted as well and he stared into his cup of tea as if he wished he could change its contents. "Yes, I know the slander that my magical brethren have said against witches to discredit them, and that’s to insinuate that they get their talent more from bound blood than the same way that we wizards do. I believe that many witches seem more accepting of bounds because they are basically fellow outcasts – I’m not sure that it ever occurred to the wizards who started that rumor that it might bring together the two."

"Which might benefit us in the end, considering that Esset is hoping to fragment us in any manner possible and that there’s a hidden strength in witches and bounds," Omi insisted, his tone fervent and his right hand clutched in Nagi’s left.

"They might not need to put too much effort into it, as I think our own wizards will do a wonderful job of it on their own," Botan admitted with an exhausted sigh. "There will be an official announcement from the king within the next few days about the cessation of collecting and using any bound blood in light of the coming war, but I’m certain that Kido and his associates will not accept that answer." He looked directly at Aya and Yohji as he spoke. "I wanted to warn you of such a response ahead of time, so you weren’t caught unaware. The king has made his decision… but I’m sure there’s about to be a furor in the Court about it, especially since Kido appears to have his backers."

"We’re sure that you and Birman will be there to smack them down as much as you can." Yohji held Aya against him tightly and let out a slow breath. "And they’ll probably do their best to go about getting the blood illicitly." No one disputed that statement.

Takashi disrupted the quiet by tapping his fork against his empty plate. "Maybe there’s something…." Then the young man fell silent and stared at his empty plate, a serious expression for once on his handsome face. Aya stared at him for a few seconds and then glanced over at Reiichi, who was doing much the same. The Guard met his gaze and shrugged; he could tell that the man was thinking much the same, that without a soul gaki bound present that it was difficult to be certain what the young wizard was planning and that they would have to wait to find out. However, it was clear that they both trusted Takashi; once he got over his hang-up over Omi’s rank, he displayed no issues with Aya’s kind or how often Yuushi, Birman and Botan were working counter to the official going-ons at the Court. They would trust him with his nascent plan for now – after all, if there was any real issue with it, Crawford or Cassandra would give them some sort of warning.

"There better be something, because I refuse to let a bunch of blood-thirsty lazy idiots tear this country apart when we already have enough enemies." Nagi sniffed in distaste before taking a bite of cake. "Humans," he said once he licked his lips clean, as if he couldn’t think of a worse insult.

Fortunately, the humans in their midst, including his boyfriend, didn’t take the insult personally. "We’ll come up with some sort of plan, even if it’s just siccing Jo on them," Reiichi said, his eyes twinkling and a small smile curving his lips.

"That or Schuldig. I heard him bitching the other day about having to lay low because of the Esset spies in town." This time, Yohji’s arms tightened around Aya with enough force to make him squeak a little, which earned him a mumbled apology and the remnants of his lover’s dessert. "As much as I hate the thought of bloodshed, I sorta wish the damn war would start soon because it’s going to be a bitch, waiting to see what Esset gets up to before the real horror starts."

Reiichi set his fork onto the table. "Considering the damage that they did at the princess’ birthday celebration and the information that you guys have researched from the last war, I don’t want to think about what the next few months are going to be like." He paused to consider something and then tapped on one of his gauntlets. "In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re behind this push for bound blood. It would be a good way to drive the bounds hiding here toward Esset."

Botan rubbed his forehead harder than before, as if his headache had intensified. "It wouldn’t surprise me, either, at least in the part that my fellow wizards, who should be intelligent men, don’t seem to be considering the fact that our counterparts are surrounded by bounds and so might possibly have figured out a way to work around spells fueled with bound blood." He looked utterly disgusted for a moment. "Unfortunately, I’ve been expecting this request for a while now. It would seem logical to most people to do whatever is necessary to win the war against Esset."

Yohji snorted in derision while he rubbed his hands up and down Aya’s arms. "Yeah, except for the fact that those people aren’t the ones draining the blood from other people or facing off against thousands of furious bounds. Not yet, anyway."

Aya shook himself free enough to be able to resume eating his dessert. "Was there anything else you wanted to discuss?" As far as he was concerned, they were beginning to talk in circles; they now were aware that the issue of bound blood was going to be made public, as was the Royal Wizard’s stance that it was no longer an accepted practice to use it. They could argue the rest of the night and the following week over how people would react to that decree and why, and it wouldn’t change much of anything.

"That was the important matter that I came to tell you about," Botan admitted. "I didn’t want you to be taken by surprise should any rumors reach you here."

Aya finished the last bit of cake and set the plate aside, suddenly tired of the conversation and being surrounded by so many people. Some of his emotions must have transferred over to Yohji, as his mate shifted behind him and combed gentle fingers through his hair. "Thank you for your consideration." He held back the remark that if Botan was truly concerned about the matter, he would have held such an announcement years ago; he didn’t understand what it was about humans and their foolish societal mores. They wasted so much effort jumping through hoops to please each other, and Aya didn’t see any benefit of such behavior. He wore himself to the bone just trying to get by with the bare minimum, and still offended most humans on a daily basis.

It looked as if Reiichi and Botan wanted to say something in return to his comment, but Yohji was pushing both of them to their feet so any attempt at conversation was cut off. "All right, I think we’re heading upstairs for the night." Yohji nodded in Reiichi’s direction while he herded Aya toward the library’s door. "Let us know if anything of interest happens, all right?"

"What, like if we kill a few foolish wizards?"

Nagi’s jaded remark sparked a heated debate, but Yohji had already shoved Aya out into the hallway so he didn’t get a chance to hear much of it. By that point in time, he was grateful to be away from their friends and eager to be back in their bedroom, so he summoned the shadows around them while Yohji draped his left arm over Aya’s shoulders. "I think you’re a bad influence, Cat," Yohji murmured as they hurried their way up the stairs.

"Hmph, as if you wanted to spend your night listening to a bunch of senseless prattle."

Yohji didn’t say anything until they were safe in the sanctuary of their room, his expression a mix of sadness and chagrin. "It’s not all a bit of nonsense, Aya." He reached out to tuck back the hair falling onto Aya’s face. "Botan has a reason to be concerned about the other mages."

Feeling tired, Aya sighed as he leaned into the caress. "It’s the same threat we’ve put up with for centuries, Yotan." He shuddered a little as he rested against his mate. "The same threat I’ve faced for years. Being bled dry isn’t a new concern of mine, it’s an old nightmare." A weak smile broke out over his face as he looked up at Yohji, as he struggled not to grip at the scars on his wrists. "I didn’t hear anything new tonight," he admitted.

Yohji gripped his shoulders with a painful amount of force. "The *hell* you didn’t. What about the part where the king isn’t going to let those lazy bastards drain any more bounds dry?" His emerald green eyes blazed in the semi-darkness of the room with a spark of silver in their depths. "Botan was warning us that the king’s decree might spur those assholes on to some action as well as the fact that they had finally sought him out. Why aren’t I surprised that you only hear the most negative thing?" He shook his head as if in despair, even though his emotions were a mix of anger/amusement/desire/concern/fear.

"Because past experience has taught me that it’s usually the worst that happens when it comes to humans," Aya explained while he draped his arms over his mate’s shoulders.

That earned him a melancholic smile. "Really? Am I the ‘worst’ that could have happened to you?" Yohji asked as he pulled Aya closer.

"Idiot, you’re not human," Aya explained while he allowed his neck to be nuzzled. "Of course you’re an exception."

Yohji went still for a moment, and then began to nudge Aya toward the bed. "I see that we still need to do a bit of convincing to show you that things have changed." His voice had taken on a husky tone, and his emotions were shaded by a familiar hunger. "That good things can come in all sorts of ways." His happiness and humor was warm and addicting enough to make Aya smile as they sank down on the bed. "Such a grouchy cat."

Aya nipped at his mate’s left shoulder once it was bared, Yohji’s dark brown sweater tossed into some corner of the room. "I’m being a realist," he told the idiot, and hissed as his own shirt was yanked off without much ceremony.

"Aya… there’s going to be enough darkness ahead with this war, don’t go looking for more," Yohji chided, his handsome face uncharacteristically grave and his emotions dulled with concern.

Aya didn’t say anything, just reached out to tuck back a lock of golden hair and let the love and trust he felt for Yohji flow across their link; he couldn’t put much faith in humans other than the few he considered friends and he would never be convinced that the gods favored him, but he would always believe in Yohji. It must have worked, because the sadness was replaced by a faint smile as Yohji urged him to lie back on the bed and set about removing the rest of his clothes. As soon as Aya was naked, his mate hastened to shed his clothes as well and stretched out beside him.

For once Yohji seemed to be finished with words, which never were one of Aya’s strong points; he settled for letting his emotions pour over their link, the familiar sense of love/hunger/pleasure/desire while his hands and mouth drew forth pleasure from Aya. They writhed against each other while hands stroked and caressed, as mouths nibbled and sucked and tongues licked and laved. Aya knew all of his mate’s body, knew where to touch and stroke and how firm to grasp to have Yohji panting against his neck while he shivered at the ecstasy that coursed through his own. He gasped at the feel of teeth scraping along his neck and whimpered in pleasure, his eyes drifting shut as his left hand tangled even deeper into Yohji’s hair. The emotions, always so easy to overwhelm him most of the time, became thunderous as they tore through him, forcing his body to betray him as it surrendered to the ecstasy. He struggled to retain some control of his body as he came, to keep his hand sliding along Yohji’s cock until the pleasure spiked again and he heard his mate growl out his name.

Giving in to the ecstasy still trembling through his veins, he let out a shaky breath and rested against Yohji, soaking in his lover’s warmth and scent. A pleased sigh escaped him when he felt his mate’s arms wrap around him, and even the feeling of cooling slickness along his body couldn’t urge him from the bed just then. He wanted to rest for a moment, to enjoy being here with Yohji, just the two of them with the faint hissing of the shinigami in the far corner of the room, for a little longer.

Then he shivered with a chill and finally forced himself to pull away. "Clean the bed," he grumbled as he went to wash himself off, stumbling a little from exhaustion when he stood up. He heard a low growl from Yohji as an answer, and then the rustling of bedcovers as the man wisely did as he’d been asked. Aya gave himself a quick wipe to clean up, pulled on his robe and returned to the now clean bed with a damp cloth so Yohji could tend to himself, and didn’t protest when he was pulled in for a kiss.

"So demanding you are," Yohji complained once he let him go, but his eyes were sparkling in the room’s dim light and his emotions were pleased. He cupped Aya’s left cheek and returned some of the energy he’d ‘stolen’, enough so Aya felt a bit more alert. "Do you feel up for a soak in a bit? It shouldn’t be too crowded down there once Koyu begins to play."

"That would be nice." Aya suspected that they’d stop by the kitchen once they were done, to talk to Jo about what Botan had to say and perhaps see if Birman or Crawford were going to visit tonight.

"Good." Yohji went to return the cloth to the washbasin and fetched his own robe, then built up the fire to help warm the room. When he returned to Aya’s side, he tugged him back onto the bed and curled up beside him. "Until then, why don’t we talk about what had you so upset before our meeting in the library, hmm?

Along with being a realist, Aya decided that he truly wasn’t much of a talker. He tugged at a corner of the bedspread and wrapped it around him in an effort to block out the image of his mate’s expectant expression.

*******

Rufus was reading through the latest documents to have arrived from his estate in Esset when the papers were snatched from his hand and Reno sank down on his lap. "Don’t ya ever get tired of lookin’ at those things, hmm?" his mate asked while the important documents aside and then wrapping his arms around Rufus’ neck.

Doing his best to rein in his temper, Rufus reminded himself that at least the papers hadn’t been flung in the direction of the fireplace, like they had been the last time; Reno did seem to learn *some* lessons. "Those ‘things’ help to ensure that a certain someone is kept warm, fed and in constant supply of wine, I’ll have you know." A hint of a snarl shaded his voice even as his hands slid around Reno’s waist to tug the impetuous idiot closer.

"Eh, they just keep you busy plottin’ shit. There’s more fun ways to spend your time." Judging from the thoughts filling Reno’s head and the way he began to nuzzle Rufus’ neck, the dubhach did indeed have some much more interesting ideas of how to spend an evening at home. A slight purr began to build in Rufus’ throat as his mate’s emotions flooded into him, so potent and heady; he couldn’t make himself be concerned anymore at how only Reno’s love, desire, happiness and pleasure were what he craved to feed upon anymore, at how other emotions were bland and unfulfilling when moments like these left him sated to the point that he thrummed with excess energy.

He grabbed a handful of his mate’s long hair and used it to tilt back Reno’s head until he could kiss him on the lips – ah, someone had indeed been in the wine tonight. He nipped at Reno’s lush bottom lip and was scratched along the nape of his neck in return, yet Reno didn’t try to pull free. Oh no, his irrepressible lover decided to flood his mind with images of them fucking on the bed, of Reno’s lean, pale body spread out beneath him, crimson hair tangled on the sheets while Rufus held his wrists pinned to the bed and-

"*My* *lord*."

Rufus growled as he broke off the kiss, the same time that Reno hissed like a cat drenched with water and sparks filled the air around them. "*What*, Rude?" he demanded to know while he glared at his gokenin, his breath coming out in pants as he struggled with his demon nature; he was too on edge just then to use his talent without causing the earth elemental some harm.

Rude must have picked up on some hint of this because he took a step back while shaking his head. "I’m sorry, sir, but you have a guest." He paused for a moment while giving Reno a pointed stare. "An *out of town* visitor, from the looks of it."

A trill of fear raced through Rufus while his hands tightened their grips on Reno enough to make his mate hiss again, this time in discomfort. Forcing out a slow breath, he fought to control himself enough that he could use his talent to search out this ‘visitor’, and easily found the unfamiliar mind within the confine of his home; thanks to the bond with Reno, he had absorbed enough of his mate’s shinigami-nature that the strange bound didn’t pick up on having his mind scanned. "Dammit, he’s from Esset."

Reno stilled against him, his emotions becoming cold and distant as his shinigami nature took over. "Is he a threat?" he asked, a slight rasp to his voice and a hint of silver swirling in his eyes.

Giving the crimson strands still tangled in his left hand a sharp tug while he shook his head, Rufus glared at his mate. "Don’t even think about it. He’s here to deliver a message and his keepers will notice if he fails to return." Which was unfortunate, because it would be so much easier to claim that the bound hadn’t ever arrived to deliver said message. "Let’s get this over with," he declared, the snarl back in his voice at the thought of dealing with one of the Elders’ lackeys.

Reno grumbled as he was released and climbed off of Rufus’ lap with great reluctance, yet when it was clear that Rufus wasn’t ordering him to remain behind a bit of his foul mood lifted and a pleased smile settled on his face much like that of a cat about to toy with its favorite prey. For his part, Rufus straightened out his clothes and sent a mental command to Rude to keep an eye on his fellow gokenin; he decided it would be much quicker and simpler to just allow Reno to tag along than to fight over having the dubhach locked up. It was becoming easier to find a balance they both accepted with each passing month – even if he feared the start of the war would ruin all of their hard work.

As soon as he deemed himself suitable, he strode out of the office and toward the receiving room which his talent had indicated that Tseng had safely secured their ‘guest’ within. Rude and Reno fell into step behind him, and even though he couldn’t see his mate, he could sense every step he took, could tell every expression that crossed his face because of their link.

Tseng and Elena were waiting for them in the receiving room, while a quick scan revealed that Rod and Cyril were outside ensuring that no other agents were attempting to infiltrate the mansion. Tseng motioned for the servant who was currently pouring the seemingly middle-aged man a cup of coffee to finish and then leave the room, which the female air elemental hastened to do after giving Rufus a polite curtsey.

"I hope you’ve found the courtesy of my staff to be sufficient," Rufus said as he settled into a padded leather chair not too far from where their ‘guest’ sat, his tone polite even though he saw no reason to carry forward with this pretense for much longer; it wasn’t that typical for him to receive guests this late in the evening.

The bound – a fire elemental, from what Rufus could pick up from his thoughts, and an old one at that – nodded as he picked up his cup of coffee. "Yes, they’ve been most welcoming to me. I’ve heard that you were always kind to potential clients." His grin was sharp before he hid it behind the rim of the porcelain cup, and even though there was a marked amount of grey in his light brown hair, his golden eyes were bright.

"Ah, and are you really here to discuss swords?," Rufus asked as he leaned back in his chair, all the while mindful of how Reno had taken position in the shadows by the fireplace and each time those gold-colored eyes glanced in his mate’s direction. He had to remind himself that it would only raise suspicions if he attempted to hide the redhead, would draw attention to Reno if he kept him locked up instead of by his side, among his gokenin but slightly back as befitted a hired sword who was retained more for his skill in bed than in fighting.

The cup of coffee was set aside still half-full, and the unknown bound bared his teeth in a manner that made Tseng shift about with obvious discomfort. "I heard that you liked to cut to the heart of the matter, Lord Shinra. Allow me to properly introduce myself as Jonas Becker." He bowed his head the slightest amount, leaving Rufus more with the impression that he was unused to doing so for anyone other than the Elders than an insult meant against him. "I mean no offense in asking, merely in confirming that one can speak freely in your house?" There was a hint of a smile on his face, as if he already knew the answer to his question.

"Of course. I don’t allow any humans within the confines of my home other than as guests – which I’m sure the Elders have informed you." Rufus tapped his right forefinger against his temple. "I can tell that you have something important to pass along, so why don’t we stop wasting time?" He already had a very good idea of why Jonas was here, but he couldn’t reveal how much his talent had increased in the past year or so without raising some very unwelcome questions.

Jonas’ smile strengthened and he picked up his abandoned cup to enjoy another sip before answering, clearly savoring the attention that was focused upon him by Rufus and his gokenin; oh yes, here was a man who enjoyed his job as the Elders’ lackey. "Well, if anyone does inquire about my visit tonight, they will be told about a commission for a sword, no?" He paused for another swallow of coffee. "I will leave the finer details to you, as I’m not an expert in such matters." There was another pause and then he set the empty cup aside. "I hope that you remember your conversation with Lord Anthony from this past summer, no?" The mask of joviality that the man had been wearing slid away, to reveal a hardness to his gold eyes and tightness to his mouth.

"We had several conversations," Rufus remarked, seeing no reason why he had to make this easy for the other bound – especially since the man possessed some impressive mental shields that shouldn’t be so easily breached.

That response earned him a mouthful of sharp teeth bared at him, which provoked a low rumble of a growl from Tseng in warning. Rufus waved him silent while sending a mental reassurance to Reno to keep his mate back in the shadows. "I doubt all of them had to do about you planting coercions in humans’ minds, Lord *Shinra*," Jonas snapped, deliberately insulting Rufus by using his human father’s family name like that.

Even as his gokenin seethed in anger over the continued insult, Rufus merely smiled at the other bound, refusing to show any other display of emotion. "Pardon me if I prefer to not make assumptions, *Becker*." Even though the family name was most likely an alias, the use of it was enough to fluster a bound who had probably spent the majority of his long life shunning such an identifier. It took an obvious moment for Jonas to regain control of himself.

"As I was saying, you received orders about planting coercions, yes?" He barely waited for Rufus to nod in agreement before he continued, the words bit out with a sharpness that betrayed his temper just as much as his bitter sense and the emotions radiating off of him. "Then the tasks are done?"

Rufus had to be careful how he answered; it was made clear that the Elders would attempt to recall him at some point, and that their agents were scattered about Eto and Kritiker. "As I told Lord Anthony, I have the basic understanding of how to create coercions and did my best with those I’d been ordered to… alter. However, coercions can become mutable over time if they’re not constantly reinforced, and even a strong mind can overcome them." He leaned back in his chair and flicked at a piece of lint that clung to the left sleeve of his white coat. "As was evident with Shin, I believe."

"It’s not wise to go there, Lord Rufus," Jonas cautioned, but it lacked the heat from before; if anything, all of the Elders’ loyal lackeys wanted to put the whole Shin ‘debacle’ behind them as it showed a weakness in their precious dictators.

"I merely strive to point out that coercion isn’t perfect, and I am far from being as talented as others." Rufus kept his expression and tone mild as he responded, which was difficult with Reno’s amusement flowing so strongly over their link.

Jonas stared at him for several seconds as if weighing the veracity of his words before seeming to take them at face value. "True, but you had best be doing your utmost to make your attempts work." He reached into his pocket for an envelope, which he set on the table beside him. "I have new orders for you, which are to go into effect within the next month." As if he couldn’t bear to remain in Rufus’ company any longer now that his task was done, he pushed himself to his feet and hastened to the door.

When Elena moved to intercept the man, Rufus stopped her with a curt wave his hand. He could tell that Jonas didn’t have any other valuable information to reveal and he would rather the bound leave before anything happened that would give him something incriminating to take back to the Elders. "Good evening, Mr. Becker," he called out as the fire elemental left the room. <Make sure he leaves the premises,> he ordered Rod and Cyril.

<Understood, sir,> Rod sent back.

While he communicated with his other gokenin, Tseng fetched the envelope and examined it for any signs of tampering or danger. Once he was certain that it was safe to pass along, he handed it to Rufus. "I have a feeling that I’ll be needing to speak to Birman tomorrow," Rufus complained while he glared at the plain envelope.

"I suppose it’s a good thing that you already had plans for tea with Lady Kotone, then," was all Tseng said, but the bastard’s thoughts were filled with images of Rufus suffering through several pots of weak tea and plates of oversweet cakes while being reminded again and again and *again* of how he resembled his mother.

<Stop laughing,> he ordered his mate as he yanked the chuckling bastard down onto his lap; Reno let out a squawk while he slid from his position of leaning against the side of the chair but quickly made himself comfortable. <She makes you eat those cakes too, you know.> For some reason, the insane woman felt that the dubhach was ‘too thin’ and needed some ‘meat on his bones’. Meanwhile, her maids had much more predatory thoughts about Rude, so it was a rather uncomfortable visit all around, yet the woman was highly respected at Court so Rufus couldn’t get out of the damn invites.

"Hmph, *I* like the cakes."

"You would." Rufus shook his head and wondered what it was about shinigami-bounds and sweets; if only the world knew that the ‘fearsome’ creatures could be placated by a trip to the confectionary shop, some of their mystique would be greatly lessened. After shifting Reno’s bony left elbow out of his sternum, he used a sharp nail to open the envelope and see what new mess had been dropped into his life.

He surveyed the short list of names, which really wasn’t much of a surprise as he’d already added coercions to several highborn of similar rank – what caused a sickening ache in his chest was that they expected him to add a twist that another soul gaki bound could more easily ‘influence’ that person. Something made him wonder if Lord Atsuo Makimoto’s halted attempt to gain access to the Record’s department had made the Elders suspect that Rufus hadn’t been as diligent with his orders as possible.

"Yes, I’m definitely going to need to speak with Birman," he repeated, and felt a headache form as he considered the next part. "And Schuldig as well, because I can’t imagine that they’ll have too many options for this second part of their plan other than him, dammit." He tightened his hold around Reno’s waist as he handed the letter to Tseng.

The flesh gaki bound was exemplary at containing his emotions, yet the slight tension in his broad shoulders physically betrayed the anger and dismay that he felt. "I believe you’re correct, my lord. They need you to get close to the highborn, but after that, it should be easy for Schuldig to plant any secondary orders."

"Which is going to cause some problems for Birman and the Shadow Guard, as it’ll look suspicious if everything is blocked." Rufus closed his eyes for a moment and rested his head against Reno’s neck, for a moment grounding himself in his mate’s scent and fractured thoughts. From what he could pick up from over their link, Reno was feeling very protective of him and willing to ‘fry’ any Esset agent who dared to threaten them and their new home. Tightening his hold around his mate’s waist, Rufus frowned and attempted to focus better on Reno’s emotions, to sift past the strong pulse of need/anger/possessiveness/desire until he felt the growing hunger that often would resemble his own. <Tseng, we’ll need to arrange an outing for Reno soon. I want his appetite sated before it drives him to do something foolish,> he sent to his head gokenin while forcing his eyes open.

Tseng’s expression remained impassive as he set aside the sheets of paper. "So we’ll be heading to the palace tomorrow, and perhaps the Koneko in the evening for a private discussion?" He paused to wait for Rufus’ answering nod. <I’ll send a message tonight to Birman about the meetings, and see if she has any... loose ends that need tended to that Reno can take care of while we’re at the palace.>

Rufus nodded again and couldn’t resist a quick swipe of his tongue along Reno’s neck; it would be much… tidier for Reno to feed off of some Esset spy marked for termination than to risk feeding in public, and he would look forward to a mate thrumming with energy. <A good idea.>

He had just slid the fingers of his left hand through Reno’s hair and leaned in for another quick taste of his mate’s pale neck when he caught a faint hissing sound; the noise was quiet enough that he thought he imagined it, until he picked up on Tseng, Elena and Rude’s unease as well as Reno’s spark of attention. When the sound was repeated and the room darkened, he pulled back enough to look around the same time that he motioned for his gokenin to leave with his free hand. Tseng hesitated for a moment, while Rude and Elena were quick to flee the now dark library. When Rufus repeated the gesture, Tseng left as well.

"Reno-" Rufus was cut off by his mate hissing in return, his voice sibilant and low, yet he remained curled against Rufus’ chest and didn’t try to pull his head free from the slight hold that Rufus still had on his long hair. When he fell silent, there was an answering hiss, a much shorter response, and then silence.

Wishing he understood the shinigami language and only mildly placated that Yohji couldn’t make any sense out of it either, Rufus gave his mate’s hair a gentle tug. "What in all the hells was that about, hmm?"

Reno hissed again, but this time it was clear that the sound was in annoyance and not a response to any shinigami. "Dammit, you want me bald or somethin’?" He sent a few sparks at Rufus’ chest while glaring before closing his eyes and letting his head rest back against Rufus’ hand – as if he was exhausted. "Promise me not ta get all controlling and lock me up, okay? Then I’ll tell ya what they said."

"Reno-"

<*Promise!*> Reno opened his eyes, and the sight of green that was quickly turning to silver along with the sense of Reno’s two natures starting to tear at each other made Rufus push aside his anger and the sudden rush of protectiveness.

"All right, I promise." The words were like acid in his mouth, but he forced them out. The only sense of vindication he felt was that it put Reno’s natures back in peace.

"Okay." Reno let out a shaky breath and closed his eyes, hiding the tell-tale silver of his shinigami nature. "They… the shinigami wanted to warn me about the palace. They’re not too happy about me going there, something about there being a lot of wizards hanging out there soon." The last few words came out in a rush, and his shoulders hunched up as if he was bracing himself for Rufus’ reaction.

For his part, Rufus’ demon soul clamored about the need to protect his mate, to keep him safe and to lock him up where no wizard would ever find him. His human part reminded him about the new promise – and damn Reno for asking it of him while knowing about the wizards – while focusing on what Reno had just said. "What do you mean by ‘soon’?," Rufus asked, his fingers clenching in Reno’s hair and his right arm sliding tightly around his mate’s waist.

Reno grimaced a little yet didn’t protest, he just shifted so he rested even more against Rufus. <You know us/the shinigami. We/they suck at telling time.> His thoughts whirled around the difficulty he and Aya had on keeping track of events, on remembering if something would be a day/week/month in advance or happened one/three/ten years ago. The very few times that the shinigami had revealed anything about the future to Aya or Reno, they had never been able to give an exact date because of their poor sense of time – it seemed innate to that particular type of demon.

So Rufus was left with the decision of taking Reno with him to the palace when there may or may not be strange wizards about, while Esset was clearly watching him for some sort of reaction and he had a mate who needed to be fed soon. There was that dreaded ‘soon’, again. If there was about to be a plague of wizards at the palace, he would rather have one last visit in now, while it was safe, and then make it seem as if he was just rotating through his gokenin or something to explain Reno’s absence. "You live to cause me headaches, don’t you?" he growled as he tugged once more on the strands of red hair in his grasp.

Reno hissed again yet didn’t try to pull away. "You love it, you anal-retentive bastard." He arched his neck while looking up at Rufus with heavy-lidded eyes. <They’re just concerned now, not panicked. I think….> He tilted his head as much as he could while still caught in Rufus’ grasp. <Their/our ‘soon’ and your ‘soon’ ain’t the same.> He bit into his bottom lip as he puzzled at how that word could *possibly* have two different meanings.

And that was a classic example of how Reno would never be normal, would continue to drive him insane until his dying day; the idiot never would truly understand that everyone else, even other bounds who would eventually lose their fine grasp of years, would consider ‘soon’ to be so flexible. What exactly did a shinigami consider the definition of ‘soon’? Rufus had the impression that he would that find out eventually.

"Here’s hoping that you’re correct, because if I come across a single wizard who isn’t Botan or one of his assistants tomorrow, we’re leaving immediately and you’re not allowed off of these premises until after the war," Rufus promised him.

"You domineering, obsess-"

Rufus silenced his mate with a kiss, and after a mumbled snarl and a nip to the tip of his tongue, Reno submitted. There were a few fragmented thoughts of controlling mates and strategically applied sparks, but Reno was getting better at quitting while he was ahead. After ensuring that none of the staff would enter the room for the foreseeable future, Rufus focused his attention entirely on his mate and looked forward to a feast of emotions that would leave him sated for days – and more than energized for whatever the Fates might have in store for him.

*******

Crawford had to wonder which of the gods he had so badly offended – possibly several of them at this point – to have brought about this particular gathering of bounds in his own *home*. It was all well and good to be inflicted with their presences at the Koneko, where he could eventually leave, but they were in his *home*. He would have to talk to Omi about some wards in return for some advance warnings of what was to come in hopes of keeping most of the riffraff at bay; there was no chance of locking out Aya, Reno and their mates because of shinigami-bound talents, but that should cut down on the unwanted traffic rather significantly.

"Look, I’m getting damn bored of sitting on my ass and fucking Masato’s," Schuldig said for what had to be the eight time that evening. If he made it to a tenth time, mate or no mate, necessary part of the future or not, Crawford was going to strangle the brat to death.

Ed looked up from the book he’d been skimming through and grimaced in disgust. "Ew. I mean, just… *ew*. Did anyone ask to hear about your sick sex life? Hell no." He tugged up the hood of his red coat over his head as if it would muffle out any more unwelcome sounds or conversations.

Schuldig leaned toward the blond teenager with his eyes narrowed and a particular smile on his face that usually meant that he had found new ‘prey’. "What, you jealous? Roy being like his big brother in that he doesn’t do any fucking, or- ouch!" Schuldig jumped in his seat as if something had just jabbed him in the ass – or most likely, burned him, at the same time that Masato took to growling. Meanwhile, Roy smirked and laid a proprietary hand on Ed’s left shoulder.

"I don’t believe that *our* sex life is up for discussion," he warned with a hint of sharp teeth to his smile and red sparks in his dark eyes. The living room began to grow warmer while the four bounds faced off, until Jei let out a savage snarl that made them look away from each other and at him.

"I’m about three seconds away from tearing out throats," he told them while still reclining in his perch on the window sill. "And I’m feeling a little bit hungry tonight." When he smiled, he made sure to show *all* of his teeth, which put Roy’s earlier grin to shame. "So stop acting like idiots before you end up dead and as dinner – and not necessarily in that order."

Roy made a show of holding up his hands while both Schuldig and Ed muttered under their breaths and Masato smiled while shaking his head. For his part, Crawford gave his partner a thankful nod before clearing his throat. "If all you’re here for is to squabble with each other, I believe you’ll be much more comfortable at the Koneko." He knew better than to hope that they would leave for the inn, even without using his talent.

Schuldig, brat that he was, gave him a smirk that was so similar to Roy’s as to be disturbing and shook his head. "But you haven’t told us anything useful yet, *Papa*."

Wondering yet again why the gods had inflicted the insolent brat on him, Crawford gritted his teeth together and did his best to remember all of the reasons why he needed Schuldig alive for the next year or two. "Because I haven’t *seen* much for you and Masato within the next few weeks, which means that you’ll probably be involved with either Aya and Yohji or Reno and Shinra. Hence my silence and the orders to continue to remain inconspicuous before you do something incredibly inane and risk drawing Esset’s attention to all of us," he hissed out.

As if to prove that he wasn’t paying attention to anything that had been said, Schuldig waved his right hand about and shrugged. "So, what, you don’t know anything that’s going on? I’m not buying it."

Wishing that he had something at hand that was very, very heavy and very solid to throw at the offspring the gods and Cassandra had decided to inflict upon him, Crawford struggled to control his temper before he answered. "There are a great many of things that are going to happen, most of them revolving around the Court and wizards. There will be various attempts by the Army to extend its powers, which is why my brother is here imposing his presence upon me this evening. And during all of this, Esset will be testing our defenses and spilling blood whenever they can."

"I don’t suppose that you’ll be a bit more detailed about the Esset plans than that, will you?" Ed narrowed his eyes and leaned toward Crawford as much as he could without shaking off Roy’s hand. It was at moments like these that Crawford could see the resemblance between the boy and his father.

At least he had the grace to give the boy an apologetic smile. "You should know by now that I won’t reveal too much in a time of flux. My visions are uncertain enough as is, I won’t risk destabilizing things even more or bringing about the wrong future by saying something I shouldn’t."

Across the room, Jei let out a loud snort that cut off any complaints from the unwanted guests before they could start. "Everyone should be grateful that he’s even thrown you the bones that he has. I’ve never seen him this talkative as is." The grin he gave Crawford was rather mocking. "Getting singed seems to have given him a bit of an incentive to not be as much of an asshole that he normally could be."

"Thank you, Jei," Crawford told his partner, the words heavy with sarcasm.

"You’re more than welcome." Of course the bastard chose to ignore the sarcasm and virulent glare sent his way.

Schuldig didn’t appear appeased despite Jei’s defense of him, but Masato at least seemed to have some common sense. He reached over to tug on his mate’s right arm and gave him a pointed look, no doubt sending him a message over their mental link at the same time. "We understand what you’re saying, it’s just difficult to stick to home when we know that something should be happening soon." He shrugged again, his dark blond hair brushing against his shoulders and his golden skin appearing to glow in contrast to the brown and white sweater that he wore. Someone was certainly taking advantage of all that ‘quiet time’ to feed very well, if Crawford was any judge of things, yet he forced that thought aside before Schuldig picked up on it and either started bragging or squabbling again.

"As I’ve already said, the fact that I’ve seen very little of either you or Schuldig in upcoming weeks means that you’ll be entangled in something involving one of the shinigami-bounds or their mates very soon." He let out a huff of breath in a rare show of frustration. "If anything, you should be concerned about what *that* event will be, considering that you are two agents of Esset and I doubt it’s going to be anything simple or pleasant." Why did he have to deal with so many idiots?

<Hey, I heard that!>

<And well you should. I have too many things to worry about than putting up with you being bored,> Crawford shot back at his son before strengthening his mental shields, well aware that the brat was hoping to find a stray thought about visions. "In regards to you, Roy, your best course will be to continue what you’re doing and to work with Birman as she has several plans to circumvent Haruto already in motion. If I see anything that requires your notice, I’ll send a message to you." He struggled to get the words out in a civil tone; he was doing his best to hold up to the ‘arrangement’ that had been established between him and his brother. Just thinking about it made the rune burned into his chest ache, but he refused to rub it with Roy sitting in front of him. "So I fail to see why *any* of you had to inflict yourselves upon me this evening," he couldn’t help but add before reaching for the book that he had been reading before these ingrates had intruded upon his quiet evening at home.

"Perhaps we’re getting a bit jittery just sitting around waiting for Esset to make a move," Roy commented with in a mocking tone, yet he was tugging Ed to his feet as he spoke. "If you swear that you haven’t seen anything that requires for me to take action against Haruto or Mizushima to protect our people in the Army…." He waited for Crawford’s curt nod before motioning Ed toward the door. "Then I think we’ve wasted enough time here for the night."

There was the muffled sound of Ed complaining about being hungry and needing to pick up some books from the Koneko before going home, quickly cut off by the closing of the apartment’s front door, which left Crawford only two more hormone-addled morons to deal with before he could have some peace and quiet. "Well?"

Masato gave him an apologetic grin before grabbing hold of Schuldig’s left hand and practically dragging him out of his chair. "I think we should go see if Cassandra has any fried fish left over to feed us and then head home ourselves." When Schuldig looked ready to complain, he gave his mate a heavy-lidded stare that shut him up quickly – one that Crawford insisted that he wasn’t envious over the slightest bit.

"Sure, fried fish and maybe some of that cake of hers," Schuldig said while smacking her lips. "She’s been baking a lot more since taking in that kid." He tried for an annoyed frown, but his emotions were more pleased than jealous that his mother had found someone to fuss over and keep her from being lonely.

"Just as long as you *go* before I start snacking." Jei bared his teeth again, which worked wonders in getting Schuldig and Masato to move more quickly in gathering up their coats and hurrying out the door – and again, Crawford tried not to feel envious at all. Once they were gone, Crawford let out a slow breath and left his chair to go find a bottle of whiskey. "So, you really didn’t have much to tell any of those fools," Jei asked when Crawford returned to fill both of their empty mugs with the potent alcohol.

"Nothing that wouldn’t mess up the little bit that I could see of the future." He frowned as he set aside the bottle and picked up his own mug, which he held cradled between his hands. "The closer it gets to the war, the more… muddled things become. There’s Aya and Reno to consider, who are heavily involved in too many events, and the fact that too many decisions will be made that affect too many outcomes. Even Cassandra’s talent will be stymied by all of the possible futures overshadowed by shinigami-bound presences. We can only hope for glimpses here and there, and that what we’ve set into motion will play out through the end." He stared at his partner and dared him to contest what he had just said.

Jei seemed to think over all of that and then bared his teeth again, this time his expression so much more feral than it had been before. "What good will the two of you be from here on out, then?" He asked with a hint of hunger in his voice, as if he could taste soul-gaki blood on his tongue.

"Because even a rare glimpse here and there can save a war," was Crawford’s instant reply. "Remember the old saying about horse shoe nails and wars, and how the smallest of details can derail the mightiest of plans." He didn’t shy away from the madness that gleamed in Jei’s golden eye and took a sip of the potent whiskey to whet his dry throat. "Cassandra and I can still provide that lost nail."

His partner stared at him for several seconds, until that feral gleam slowly faded away. "Yeah, that you can do," he replied in a raspy voice. Jei rubbed his hands over his face and then tossed back the mugful of whiskey. "Let’s just hope your ‘nail’ is a wizard’s torn out throat or two."

The response, as bloodthirsty as it was, drew out a smile from Crawford with its familiarity and comfort. "I’ll see what I can do," he said before finishing his own whiskey. He poured them both some more before returning to his chair to finish reading his book.

*******

Birman sighed as she poured some more coffee for both her and Trowa. "I’m really sorry to be keeping you here so late."

"It’s all right, it’s not as if you’ve asked me to go through some nonsense reports or to re-file the cabinets yet again," he told her with a slight smile; and once again she was reminded of the fact that if he wasn’t a water elemental bound with a mate and she wasn’t his superior, along with a handful of some other very good reasons, she just might be tempted to take advantage of the late hour and close quarters. However, she *was* his superior, he did have a mate – a very, *very* possessive and one prone to throw fireballs at that – and she wasn’t going to dwell upon this matter any longer. They had more important things to focus upon, which didn’t mean she couldn’t enjoy the effects he had on her for a few rejuvenating seconds.

Her hormones placated for the time being, she forced herself to focus upon the matter at hand, and that wasn’t a slightly smiling Trowa with his long hair disheveled from a rather busy and eventful day and an overlarge dark green sweater sliding a bit down his right shoulder. She would lay odds that some Shadow Guard was tasked with seeing the water elemental safely home this evening on pain of severe burns. "No, we’ve just got too many of our people stalking wizards, of all things." Frowning at the reports that littered the table, Birman decided that it was no wonder that her tired mind would rather focus on how pretty Trowa looked than the mess that lay out in front of her.

"It says something about how well disciplined your people are in that they’re merely stalking the wizards and not killing them," Trowa remarked as he picked up his mug while gazing about on the various sheaves of paper scattered on the table. "A lot of bounds would use this as an opportunity to get some payback."

"And don’t think I wonder if they’re just waiting for me to give the order to pull them in and start hacking away." Birman rubbed her temples in attempt to stave off the pain that had been throbbing for most of the day – actually, since Manx had went on a rant about how Botan shouldn’t have made any declarations to Becker without consulting her and the king first. "If I find any of them blooding a bound once the official announcement is made, I’ll give it, too. I won’t bother clearing it with Botan first." Her friend could have as much of a fit he wanted, it wasn’t *his* people who were in danger.

"Which is why we’ve sworn to you," Trowa whispered, his green eyes glowing in the room’s dim light. "It’s also why I’m putting up with what seems to be a constant flow of misery and…." Trowa tilted his head to the side and appeared to concentrate. "I think he’s attempting to emotionally blackmail me right now." The smile from before was gone, replaced by the indifferent mask that Birman had learned was *never* a good sign. It usually predated some overly friendly highborn coming down with chest pains.

"Oh dear, should I let you go for the evening?" she asked, not wanting to get inbetween two quarrelling mates even if they still needed to plan for which agents would be at Court during the official announcements and the upcoming shifts for the next few days.

There was a deliberateness to Trowa’s movements as he poured both of them some more coffee that reminded her of a snake about to strike. "*No*." There was also a hint of a rare snarl to his voice, which might be what caused him to shake his head. When he next spoke, his voice was as smooth and impassive as it normally was when he was dealing with anyone from the Court. "Unless you have somewhere else you need to be."

"Not really." At some point she would need to go home to feed the cats and get some rest, and she would like to swing by the Koneko within the next day or two, but right now it was important to get this work out of the way. The Court would be in an uproar once the official announcement was made, and *then* she would make herself scarce to avoid the highborn fallout of Botan finally making a stand. "I would prefer to get the groundwork settled now and hide out at the Koneko while the Court and half the city is in a tizzy, to be honest."

That earned her a ghost of a smile from her assistant. "I can see the logic in that. I imagine that it will be nice to not have to deal with Shen while all of that is going on, either."

She gave Trowa her own impassive stare for daring to bring up that pest. "No, by all means, I’ll let you handle him since he seems to like you so much."

"If you really want to smack him down, why don’t you just let Reiichi have a go at him?" Trowa asked while he began to organize the papers.

Now *that* was a discussion she wasn’t willing to have any time soon, especially when there was a knowing look on Trowa’s face whenever he glanced up from the table. All she did was huff a little before saying, "because I’ll never hear the end of it, siccing someone of Reiichi’s level on ‘poor’ Shen. He’ll probably file a formal complaint of abuse or something and create an international incident."

Trowa didn’t say anything else on the topic, he merely continued to organize the papers while sipping his coffee. Once the table was covered in neat stacks, he handed one of them to her and they began to discuss the available agents who would be best suited to cover the king’s announcement on the topic of cessation of bound imprisonment and collection of bound blood for magical use. Birman had the impression that the water elemental was humoring her, but considering the fact that she couldn’t risk calling him on it without hearing his thoughts on the matter, she decided to let it go and concentrate on getting some important work done before Duo stormed into the office and dragged his wayward mate home.

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