Precipice of Darkness

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chapter 3

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meetings and resulting resolutions

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Aya was sipping the last of his cup of tea when he felt… an urge to go outside, something beckoning him away from the warmth of the Koneko’s kitchen and the murmur of voices as Maddox and Jo conferred over the day’s meals. He glanced around for his mate and wondered if Yohji had stopped by the office to talk with Mickey after seeing Emmie, Ken and Miko off for the day. Lacking a good reason to remain inside, he gave in to the calling and, after setting aside the empty cup and gathering the shadows around him, left the kitchen.

The sky was overcast with the promise of more snow; when he stepped off of the shoveled paths the already fallen snow threatened the tops of his knee-high boots. The garden was a sea of white, with the covered plants and bushes appearing as rounded waves hidden beneath the snow and the trees carefully tended to by Sebastian and Marta. Few people bothered with the area during winter unless they were staff, and it was currently deserted. Aya made his way to the southern wall and climbed it with ease, the shadows still cloaking him from sight while he stood on top of it and stared in the direction of the southern Fabric district. A sense of hunger and anticipation slowly built inside of him the longer he stood there and watched, and soon the shinigami came to join him; they curled around him and purred in delight.

<Soon, young one.>

<Join us, will you?>

He smiled and shook his head as he contemplated the direction where he was looking. "Maybe." The ‘sense’ he had wasn’t the strongest, so did that mean-

"Cat." Somehow, Yohji managed to express a good bit of the exasperation and worry that he was currently feeling when voicing just that one word. "What in *all* of the many hells are you doing standing on top of a wall with the hissing bastards?"

The shinigami were indeed hissing now, showing just how little they cared for Aya’s mate as they writhed around him and the wall, several of them slinking away in displeasure. Aya stroked his right hand along the one coiled around his shoulders and sighed, a bit regretful for the destroyed peace of his morning – and the fact that he could no longer hide from Yohji with the shadows. "I’m looking at something."

Yohji muttered a curse to Innin the same time he glanced up to the heavens and ran his gloved hands through his hair. By the time he looked back at Aya, a hint of a smile tugged up the corners of his mouth. "No, here I thought that you were standing covered in shinigami on top of a fucking wall in the middle of the morning without wearing a coat so you could practice your balance or something." He let out a long sigh while he scrambled up the wall to join Aya. "You drive me crazy, you do know that." While he climbed, shadows skittered over to cover him.

Aya didn’t think that last statement deserved an answer, so all he did was grunt softly and resume his watch. The last of the shinigami slid away when Yohji approached, and he only snapped his teeth together once in a show of temper before allowing himself to be carefully pulled against his lover’s chest.

"You really aren’t cold, are you?" Yohji was clearly concerned by that fact, judging from his emotions, which confused Aya. He tilted his head back to look up at his mate.

"No. It doesn’t bother me." It was one less thing to worry about, as far as he was concerned.

Yohji sighed again and closed his eyes as he pressed his face against the side of Aya’s head. He seemed to just focus on holding Aya tight and breathing in his scent for a few seconds, his emotions calming into the familiar mix of love/desire/happiness with a little curiosity. Pleased to be with to his mate even if he was outside during the day, Aya tugged Yohji’s arms closer around him and began to purr.

"Hmm, cat on a wall," Yohji teased after a minute. "Guess it’s better than you jumping around rooftops, but still, it’s a bit surprising to leave you for a minute and find you out here like this." He gave Aya a quick squeeze. "What’s so interesting that you had to climb up here to look at it, eh? There’s nothing too exciting in that part of the city."

Tension shot through Aya’s body at the question, as he realized the implications of what Yohji was asking from him. Kisei’s terrible, awesome voice reverberated through his mind once more, her warning to him when he had asked about what he could do about the deaths he foresaw. Something was going to happen in the southern Fabric district, something that would allow him and his pack to feed – would telling Yohji about it be ‘meddling’? How much could he interfere without risking the wrath of Kisei?

"Aya?" Yohji pulled on Aya’s left shoulder until he looked up at him. "Is everything all right?" The concern he felt overshadowed the rest of his other emotions.

Aya was still for several heartbeats, until a solution occurred to him. Then he nodded and rested his head against the crook of Yohji’s neck. "Ask Crawford to look into what might happen in… in the southern part of the city." He wouldn’t narrow it down any more than that, though he was certain that Yohji was more than intelligent enough to guess where he had been looking and give Crawford a bit more of a hint. They both knew that it was hopeless to say anything about time; if Aya was sensing something, it couldn’t be too far off, but that could mean anything within a day or a week to him.

Understanding flashed over Yohji’s handsome face and along their link. "Okay, I’ll see if he’s had any visions in that direction." His right hand lifted to pick at one of Aya’s eartails. "You trying to take over his job or something? Because if you turn into an insufferable know-it-all bastard, I think we’re going to have a few words."

Aya hissed as he batted at Yohji’s hand. "That’s not very funny."

"Neither is you abandoning me to come out in the cold to play with a bunch of anti-social shadows," Yohji complained. "So why don’t we head back inside where it’s warm and there’s a few cinnamon rolls waiting for us?" He stared at Aya until Aya let out a slow breath and nodded.

"All right. We’ll enjoy a snack and maybe a nice soak in the hot spring, and if Crawford doesn’t show up for a bite to eat this evening, I’ll go looking for him." Yohji let go of Aya so he could jump back to the ground, and then held out his right hand in a clear invitation for Aya to join him down there. When Aya did so a moment later, he clasped Aya’s hand in his and smiled in evident happiness. "To think that I believed it to be too cold for anything to happen for the next couple of moons."

"You didn’t do anything lately to annoy the gods, did you?" Aya asked with a sense of growing suspicion. While the gods might not be favored beings in his existence, he didn’t go out of his way to antagonize them like *certain* idiots did, such as Yohji, Schuldig and Teddy.

The look that Yohji gave him in return for his question was much too innocent. "Who, me?" When Aya glared in return, he laughed and gave Aya’s hand a quick squeeze. "No, no, I promise I’ve done nothing intentional this time. No missed offerings, no blatant slights, no muttered insults." His smile slipped as he led them back to the Koneko. "But maybe it doesn’t matter what we do, when they seem hell-bent on giving us a war."

He made a very good argument there, one which had more supporting evidence each day. Aya rushed forward a couple of steps and gave his mate a hasty kiss before they reached the kitchen’s door. "Just be certain that you don’t do anything foolish in the near future."

Yohji’s grin returned as he paused in opening the door. "You know, if you’re so worried about offending the gods, perhaps we can see about earning Jouyoku’s favor this afternoon." His expression took on a lecherous air and he did that ridiculous thing with his eyebrows that he must believe to be enticing or something.

Aya shook his head as he lashed out his left hand to smack the idiot’s side at the same time he pushed open the door and released the shadows gathered around him. "Why did my mate have to be a succubae bound," he muttered as he entered the kitchen.

"You know you wouldn’t want me to be anything else," Yohji told him, wheezing a little from the pain as he followed on his heels. "Think of what *your* poor shoulder would look like if I were a flesh gaki bound!"

That line of reasoning actually made Aya stop for a moment and frown in displeasure as he imagined it, which gave Jo time to descend upon them with full mugs of hot toddies. "I can’t believe you went outside without a cloak!" she chided Aya while shoving one of the mugs into his hands and then motioning for him to sit at the table nearest the fire. Then she turned her attention onto Yohji. "And you! What possessed you to keep him out there for so long?" She gave the side of his head a smack before bestowing on him the other mug. "It better have not been so you could have a ‘snack’!"

"Ow! Dammit, Jo, one of these days I’m-" Yohji took one look at the murderous scowl on the cook’s face and stalled by sipping the hot toddy. "Ah, yeah, one day I’m going to sic Emmie on you and see how you feel, being badgered day and night by a lovely woman who only has your best interest at heart." He managed a nervous smile and had another sip. "Hmm, this is delicious. I think I’m going to go sit next to Aya." He scooted around Jo as if she was an oni and hurried over to Aya as quickly as he could without spilling any of his drink.

Across the kitchen, Maddox was busy mixing a blend of spices for something; his head was bowed and his shoulders shook, but he refrained from commenting. Yohji shot him an evil look for a moment before slipping his left arm around Aya’s shoulders. They drank their hot toddies in companionable silence while Jo fussed around the large room, returning to the table with a plate full of cinnamon rolls, danishes and sweet bread.

"Marta said we’re due for some more nasty weather over the next couple of days, nothing bad enough to shut things down but a good bit of snow and ice none the less." She joined them at the table but didn’t have anything to eat or drink, a sign that she wouldn’t remain seated for long. "Spring can’t come soon enough for most people."

"Everyone should be used to the hard winters by now." Yohji made quick work of a cheese danish while craning his neck to look out of the kitchen window, as if expecting to see snow falling. "The cousins are actually helping to spread the misery a bit all over the country, rather than the western part getting hit the worst like the last two years, but it’s not going to get better until we can oust the Elders and stop the orders that are mucking up the patterns in the first place."

"Even then it’s going to take a few years to put everything back to normal," Aya reminded his mate. "It’s easy to upset the balance of the weather patterns, but once they’ve been allowed to remain… ‘broken’ like this for so long, it’ll take at least that much time to set them right." He and the Elric brothers had spent a couple of weeks reading up on it, trying to understand what all was needed to repair the damage once the war was over; all they had learned was that Shin, Rei, Gou and Gai as well as the other elemental bounds would have much work ahead of them for at least two or three years to put the weather patterns back into their rightful place and ensure that they stayed there.

Jo appeared tired as she nodded. "It’s always easier to break something than to fix it, I think that’s been said many a time before. I just wish people would listen for once."

Yohji offered her a wry grin while he hugged Aya close. "Yeah, well maybe you should try smacking them with your rolling pin while doing that telling," he offered, which managed to provoke a soft chuckle from her.

"Maybe I should. I would hate to let all those years of smacking sense into you go to waste," she shot back as she rose to her feet. "Now finish eating and then go soak." She gave both of them a pointed look after issuing that set of orders, and then went over to assist Maddox with whatever he was preparing.

Yohji whimpered for a few seconds, his mouth near Aya’s right ear, and then pulled away enough so he could grab another danish. "Homicidal ancient bounds, blood-thirsty wizards, meddling gods, too affectionate shinigami, and *she’s* what scares me the most. My life is too messed up for words," he muttered sotto voice so Jo wouldn’t hear him.

Aya paused in nibbling on a cinnamon roll to give his mate a warning tap to the ribs.
"So don’t do or say anything to make her upset, or *I’ll* be upset as well," he warned. The last thing he needed was to share in the idiot’s headache.

"I am *so* abused," Yohji whined.

*******

Rufus strode through the halls of the palace with Reno and Tseng at his back, his face impassive and his talent extended as much as possible without risking his mind being overwhelmed by the press of thoughts from the myriad of mentally unshielded humans around him. Elsewhere in the palace, Rude and Elena were headed to Lord Satoru’s office on an ‘errand’; the pretense of delivering an order allowed them to be nearby should the worst happen and Reno’s sense of ‘soon’ be completely messed up.

So far, Rufus wasn’t unearthing any hints of danger to his mate; there were memories of a wizard practically forcing his way into the Royal Wizard’s office, made notable by the fuss one of Botan’s assistants raised in the attempt to keep him out, but little else that stood out in the minds that he scanned. The wizard hadn’t been seen since being escorted from the palace, and Rufus didn’t catch any glimpses of any other visitors for the Royal Wizard. Still, he kept pushing with his talent for any information he could find as well as anything that might reveal that the people he walked past might be more than a mere human.

All he got for his efforts was a budding headache and an impressive sense of how many bounds that Birman had recruited either into her own spy network or the Shadow Guard. When did the woman find the time to sleep, let alone do her job? Rufus had grudgingly thrown his lot in with Kritiker in hopes of keeping Reno out of the Elders’ tainted hands, and had felt his hopes of victory against Esset increase significantly when he realized that Crawford had been hiding the fact that a kage resided in Eto. When he also took into account a network that a ‘mere’ human had built….

<You’re feeling better all of a sudden. See, I told you it wouldn’t be so bad, us coming here today,> Reno sent over their mental link.

Rufus barely resisted the urge to turn around and glare at the idiot. <Do *not* tempt the gods with a challenge like that, you fool. I will consider things to be ‘bad’ until we get out of here in one piece, without the Guard or the Army hunting us down.>

The response he received from his mate was more along the lines of an emotional pulse of rudeness which made him grit his teeth to keep his composure. Trust Reno to not take anything seriously, including the potential to come face to face with a cadre of wizards while in the heart of Kritiker’s palace.

Fortunately, they were near Lady Kotone’s chambers and would soon be securely behind closed doors – and away from the majority of inquisitive eyes. Rufus could always coerce Lady Kotone and her staff if Reno got out of hand in front of them, but it would require too much effort to do so in public like this. He was all but counting down the final steps that led to the lady’s door when a tall, lean man dressed in a page’s uniform stepped into his path.

"Excuse me, Lord Shinra, but I have a message for you from Lady Kotone," the young man told him the same time while bowing slightly and holding out a letter.

Tseng moved to Rufus’ left side and intercepted the letter, which he handed to Rufus with obvious caution. "Thank you." Rufus motioned for Tseng to move back once he recognized Trowa beneath the veneer of an illusion spell that darkened the water elemental’s skin tone and hair color, and caught the slight nod Tseng gave him when the gokenin finally noticed the familiar scent.

Judging the letter to be safe, Rufus opened it and read the short message. "I hope Lady Kotone isn’t too indisposed," he remarked as he folded it closed.

Trowa bowed his head in acknowledgement. "The healer is still with her now, but it didn’t appear to be serious. Unfortunately, as the note indicated, she won’t be able to meet with you today and has arranged for a meal to be prepared since you came all this way. Please follow me." His attitude was that of the perfect servant, pure deferential and eager to please. Rufus motioned to his gokenin to do what had been asked of them and they all trailed in Trowa’s wake.

It wasn’t much of a surprise when they were led to a quieter part of the palace, one inhabited more with Guard personnel, and that the room which housed their meal also contained Birman. The Spy Master was dressed in a very pretty lavender and grey gown which offset her dark hair and pale skin, and she sat at a table that contained more than enough food to feed several bounds. Sitting beside her was another woman, just as well-dressed albeit in darker colors and wearing glasses.

"Good day, Lord Shinra."

"Good day, Spy Master." Rufus nodded in acknowledgement before joining her at the table. "I must say, I hope you didn’t incapacitate Lady Kotone too much in order to arrange this meeting."

Birman smiled and glanced aside at Trowa, who took the seat on her left, and then at the woman seated at her right. "No, Trowa and Natsumi handled her with great care, I assure you. The lady will be her old self again by the end of the day."

The other woman, Natsumi, nodded once. "All it took was a little dizziness and a bit of compulsion, really." Her mental shields were very impressive, so Rufus used the ability that he gained from Reno to slip past them enough to ascertain that she told the truth and withdrew from her mind. "Someone has a lot of experience with the dizziness part."

Trowa’s placid expression smoothed into utter impassiveness as he poured himself a cup of tea. "Better a health scare than homicide, no?" he asked in a perfectly flat tone, but the emotions and flashing mental images that Rufus picked up from the water elemental belied that impression. Somehow, he had the feeling that Trowa’s ‘victims’ were indeed getting off very easy even if they were suffering from induced heart palpitations or mini-strokes.

"Let’s just hope the war starts soon, or else there won’t be too many highborn left here in Eto," Birman muttered as she held out her own cup to be filled, yet Rufus sensed that she was a bit amused at the attention that her assistant garnished – or perhaps it was more correct to say that she was amused at how he handled that attention. He really was trying his best not to pry too much in the woman’s mind since he was uncertain of the effect of his new talent against one of those damn black rings.

Beside him, Reno paused in perusing the food laid out before them and shrugged. "That a bad thing? Seems to me that there’s too damn many highborn runnin’ all around." He gave Rufus a pointed stare before tugging a plate full of petit fours closer.

Rufus merely tugged on a lock of the insolent bastard’s hair by way of reprimand and then swiped a lemon cake when Reno squawked in protest before focusing his attention back on the spy master. "Please tell me you went to all of this effort for something," he asked before popping the small cake into his mouth. Hmm, it was really good, a thought he made sure to send to his mate.

Birman had a slight smile on her face as she watched them, which she hid behind the rim of the tea cup as she sipped the hot beverage. By the time she was done, the smile was gone and her demeanor was once again that of Kritiker’s infamous Spy Master. "And here I was about to ask you if I had wasted my and my people’s efforts for nothing." She set the cup aside and folded her hands on the table on front of her. "I believe you had something important to discuss with me?"

Forcing his thoughts to disentangle from Reno’s, Rufus snatched up one more cake with a bit of reluctance and washed away its sweetness with a swallow of coffee from the cup that Tseng had prepared for him. "Yes, I’m afraid that I do." Once all traces of icing was wiped from his hands, he reached into his white coat for the sealed note that he had tucked inside before leaving his house earlier. "It’s best for just you to handle this," he explained as he held out the folded paper, as Trowa had made to pass it on to Birman.

The three spies, being adept at their professions, were quick to pick up on the faint black whirls that covered the white and black stationary; a precaution that Rufus had asked Reno to provide ‘just in case’ since they had come to the palace. Birman’s smile made a return as she gestured for Trowa, who had a longer reach than her, to accept the note.

"That’s all right, as they both have a ring of their own now," she explained as Trowa safely passed on the note.

Reno paused in his decimation of the tiny cakes and sniggered. "How much did it cost ya to get Nagi’s ring?"

Annoyance flashed over Birman’s face, but her smile made a quick return. "Omi will make an *excellent* king." Judging from the fervor of her reply, Rufus was left with the impression that there was a story that needed to be told the next time he visited the Koneko. "I commend the security measures you’ve taken," she told Rufus as she held the note in her right hand, the same one that bore the silver and black ring made from Aya’s tears and blood. The bit of shadow that Reno had bond to the paper faded away, leaving it safe for her to break the wax seal. She began to frown as she read the list of names neatly written on the white parchment.

"The Elders sent one of their lackeys to my household with that list and new instructions for me," Rufus elaborated while he picked at a strand of Reno’s hair and twirled it around the fingers of his left hand, drinking in the rush of pleasure over their link that the bit of contact generated from his mate. "Instead of the usual type of coercions, such as ‘answer everything that this person asks’ or ‘retrieve this set of documents’, what I’m supposed to implant is… a susceptibility to future coercions, if that makes sense." If he were talking to normal humans, he would attempt to explain better, yet he had the feeling that anything more would be a waste of breath with this group.

Natsumi let out a faint gasp as she motioned for Birman to hand her the list. "What they’re telling you to do would leave some very well-ranked highborn and Court officials open to orders from another soul gaki bound with very little effort on that agent’s part."

"Yes, I’d basically be laying the important groundwork and the other bound, as long as they’re of appropriate strength, can issue a high level command with passing contact." As much as Rufus hadn’t wanted to come to the palace, at least the visit wasn’t turning into a waste of his valuable time. Beside him, Reno was a happy presence between the sweets and being curled up next to him, while Tseng was as vigilant as ever, on the watch for any possible danger. "It’s my belief that they would probably have Schuldig pass on the orders, as he would be able to take advantage of the type of coercions they’re asking me to set up the easiest and with the least amount of risk."

"I’d have to agree with you." Birman took back the list and set it on the table. "He’s been laying low on Crawford’s orders, but I think we can arrange a meeting with him at the Koneko to discuss what to do when one of the Elders’ agents approach him." She looked up at Rufus. "Do you think they’ve made this change because they doubt your loyalty?"

The question made Tseng stir beside Rufus and provoked a sharp stab of… of something dark and hot from Reno that he wished he had the time and privacy to better explore. Instead, he gave the hair trapped around his fingers a gentle tug as he shook his head. "No, if they doubted me then they would find an excuse to pull me back to Berin. What I think prompted the change is them taking you, the Guard and Botan seriously for the first time since they decided to go forth with this war." He wished that Reno had left some of the petit fours and made do with a bite of a tea sandwich while he organized his thoughts. "It may also be that they suspect that you don’t find me as innocent as they’d hoped, but that’s secondary to a new tactic."

Trowa nodded as he sat with a teacup held cradled in his hands. "I must agree with Lord Shinra, and add another possibility as well. If they feel that Kritiker suspects him to have had something to do with the mostly failed attempts at sabotage and spying that have resulted from his previous coercions, then this might be their way to both ensure that these attempts are successful and yet cast more doubt upon him." His right hand shifted from the cup to tap the table near the note. "He will have been seen in company of the affected people, yet not immediately around when they will do whatever it is that the Elders want them to do. This may be the Elders’ way to ensure that they gain whatever it is that they want as well as drive a wedge between Lord Shinra and his new home without risking the same outcome as the agents they sent for the princess’ birthday celebration."

Rufus had heard that the water elemental was rather brilliant at infiltration and strategy, yet this was the first time he got to see it in action; no wonder the Elders had kept him so close and considered him a ‘favored’ one – and that Birman had made Trowa her second. However, his admiration of the man’s ability was tempered by the growing fear that he really wouldn’t have a choice about returning to Esset – that he *and* Reno would have to go back.

A sharp pain to his left leg shook him from his thoughts. <Eh, what’s with you all of a sudden?> Reno dug his sharp nails into Rufus’ thigh again, his human side dismayed by Rufus’ emotions and his demon nature growing unsettled.

<Just imagining the damage you could do unchecked if I was detained for any reason,> Rufus shot back, then grabbed hold of Reno’s hand and pried it away from his leg the same time that he sent a quick mental reassurance to Tseng that he was fine. <You’d lay the entire city to waste in a mere hour.>

<Asshole.> Despite the insult, Reno’s two natures settled down and he once more curled up against Rufus’ left side. "So you’re saying that the Elders are being all manipulative an’ shit. What else is new?"

"Indeed, nothing new about that." There was a trace of bitterness in Trowa’s voice as he resumed cradling his teacup against his chest. "What is new is the fact that they don’t have as many people loyal to them as they’d like to think for this war."

Birman took care in folding up the note and tucking it into what looked to be a warded leather portfolio. "Let’s hope they don’t realize how wrong they are about that until it’s too late." Once the note was safely put away, she looked up at Rufus. "Speaking about realizations and loyalty, have you heard about the visitor to Botan’s office the other day?"

That caught his attention, even as distracted as he was by the thought of Reno being anywhere near the Elders. "I must admit that I haven’t, as consumed as my attention’s been with my own visitor. Would this have something to do with the thoughts I picked up here at the palace about a wizard’s rather impromptu meeting with Botan?"

"As always, I’m impressed at your ability to unearth things, Lord Shinra." Birman’s smile took on a flat nature while Trowa had gone still and blank and Natsumi focused her attention on Tseng, who sat across the table from her; the gokenin has growled softly at the mention of ‘wizard’. "Yes, it does indeed have to do with that meeting. I’m sure a man as intelligent as yourself can figure out what topic came up for discussion between them."

Rufus sent a wave of reassurance to both Tseng and Reno before he answered; the last thing he needed was an out of control flesh gaki or a room full of sparks just now. "Somehow I doubt it was about a new method of warding," was his initial sarcastic reply. He let out a short huff and leaned forward to pour himself some more coffee, which prompted a hiss of displeasure from his mate at the disturbance. "How do wizards get anything done when they seem to obsess over bound blood so much?" It was an unfair comparison to all wizards, he realized, but by the gods, sometimes it *seemed* like the whole breed couldn’t think of anything but how to get bound blood and using it.

Judging from the way that the left corner of Birman’s mouth twitched ever so slightly, she saw the point he was trying to make. "There are times, certain company excluded, when I wonder the same thing. What I am very relieved to let you know," she paused to look at Tseng just then, who sat there with a hint of exposed fangs, "is that Botan pointedly told him that there wouldn’t be any bound blood made available to Kritiker wizards from now on, and then backed up that claim by speaking to the king. The official proclamation hasn’t gone out yet, but it’s only a matter of days." There was a gleam to her dark eyes and a powerful sense of pride and justice that radiated from her that indicated where she stood with her friend and colleague on this issue.

Sitting back in his chair with a cup in one hand and his left arm draped around Reno’s shoulders, Rufus considered what his mate had told him last night. "You’re going to be swarmed with wizards here very shortly," he warned the spy master and her people out of mutual respect. "Knowing you, you’re probably expecting some sort of response, but be prepared." He glanced at Trowa as he spoke.

The false smile smoothed out into a grim line as Birman leaned forward, a sharp glint in her eyes. "And have you suddenly become a precog, Lord Shinra, or have picked up something that I should be made aware of?" This was the face that few people probably saw, and mostly those who sought to harm Kritiker.

"Nah, don’t give him any more of a swelled head then he’s already got," Reno drawled as he waved his left hand about in the air. "The shinigami weren’t too happy ‘bout me coming here. I’m sure they warned Aya ‘bout it, too."

Natsumi shuddered at the mention of ‘shinigami’ and looked aside while Tseng growled a reprimand to Reno about his improper behavior. Meanwhile, Trowa remained impassive even as his emotions betrayed a flash of surprise/fear/curiosity, and Birman was oddly satisfied.

"Ah, that is a sufficient explanation." A wry grin twisted her lips and she turned back to Rufus with something akin to sympathy in her eyes. "Let me guess, no real idea of ‘when’, right?"

"Of course not." He didn’t bother to contain the frustration he felt over that fact. "Just ‘soon’, for all the good that does us." When Reno made to either complain or comment, he gave the dubhach’s hair a warning yank. "However, I think it’s safe to assume that it’ll probably be within the next few days if we go by Botan’s most recent actions."

Trowa set his teacup aside and jotted something down on a piece of paper in front of him. "I’m certain that Kido and his associates must realize that for Botan to make the statements that he did, that he has some sort of royal backing. They are probably marshalling whatever support they can and plan to present a united front to the king as quickly as possible to make an impact."

"Hence that ambiguous ‘soon’." Birman tapped her fingers against the charmed portfolio and shared quick glances with her employees. "The action isn’t unexpected, more it’s the united show of force that we’ll have to prepare for that will require a bit more effort on our part." She turned back to Rufus once more and bowed her head. "The notice is greatly appreciated, both so I can warn my and Yuushi’s people and adjust our strategy."

"So you’ll understand if we forego any more scintillating conversation and the delicious snacks in favor of safely making our departure before we test the limits of said ‘soon’," Rufus said while dragging a protesting Reno to his feet. "Or the gods’ humor. I wish you all a good day."

Birman, Trowa and Natsumi wished them the same as he tugged Reno along, with Tseng a comforting presence at their backs. Rufus had to allow some distance between him and Reno once they were out in the hallway; it was a tense journey through the palace as he used his talent to discourage any small talk and to ensure that they made their departure as quickly and as safely as possible. He checked with Rude and Elena to ensure that they were safe, and gave them some new instructions to follow up on a couple of thoughts he had picked up before they were to return home.

Tseng waited until they were in the carriage to speak, the hint of red in his dark brown eyes a sign that he was still on edge. "Do you think the Elders anticipated this confrontation with the wizards when they sent you the new orders?" For a flesh gaki bound he was unusually focused for his kind and able to see possible traps and tangents that the more… unstable blood- and flesh-obsessed bounds missed.

Rufus considered it while he deepened the link between him and Reno and skimmed his mate’s thoughts as well; they both were suspicious, yet neither of them had sensed the presence of any other precog besides Crawford during their stay at Berin. "I’m not quite sure how they would manage such a thing, other than through centuries of experience," he said after some contemplation. "Which isn’t to say it that it’s impossible, but it’s a lot of supposition on their part. They are probably playing the odds at this point and hoping for the best."

That answer made Tseng growl softly and his eyes narrow, as if he had sighted prey and now waited for an ideal moment to strike. "They’ve survived for a very long time by playing the odds, Rufus." The lack of formality on his part was a way to drive his point home.

"I know." Rufus felt very tired; his head ached from the press of humanity at the palace and the need to hold up his shields for so long as well as from what he had learned during his discussion with Birman. Reno being curled up next to him helped, and a feeding in the near future was the best possible cure, but right now there were so many dangers fencing them in that he doubted the tension would disappear entirely.

<Why are you so stressed?> Reno demanded to know as he nuzzled Rufus’ neck. <You’ve got me, Aya and the shinigami on your side, what’s some old assholes compared to that?>

Oh yes, what were some ‘old assholes’ who had survived one nearly catastrophic war already and were planning to resurrect the wizard who had brought about said war, a few dozen bloodthirsty wizards, a bunch of meddling gods and a horde of brainwashed bounds – not to mention the army of humans – when he had fickle shinigami who seemed to hate his guts and two sweet-addicted, hair-brained shinigami-bounds to stand up against all of those enemies for him?

Tseng was unduly concerned and Reno rather annoyed with him when he burst out laughing and continued to do so after a couple of minutes, yet their growing doubt over his sanity didn’t make him stop until they almost reached home.

*******

Jei threw a few more pieces of coal into the fireplace and had to admit that Duo had done a pretty good job in warding the apartment; the wind outside hadn’t let up all evening, yet this was only the second time in the last several hours that he had fed the fire to keep the place warm. Fire elementals certainly were handy during the winter months, even if the pretty ones tended to-

He let out a curse as he forced his thoughts away from Kaede. She was safe back in Esset, at least for the time being, being looked after by several people he could trust. Kisei take his remaining eye, but judging from her last letter to him, she had enough of a temper built up that he pitied anyone who tried to harm her; she’d fry them to ash in a heartbeat, she would. He smiled at the thought until he realized that he was still thinking of the girl and then snarled in frustration.

Forcing himself away from the fire, he stomped over to where he had been sitting and had just picked up the book he’d left on the chair’s cushion, purposely ignoring the knowing look his partner was giving him because it was much too late at this point in time to find a new one, let alone too cold a night to deal with burying a bunch of cracked bones, when there was a knock at the front door. "You expecting anyone?" he asked while he set the book back down.

Crawford, also in the process of setting a book aside, shook his head. "No, especially not in this weather." He frowned, his eyes losing their focus as he stared in the direction of the door. "I… don’t think we’re in any danger," he said after a few seconds, a hint of effort shading his deep voice.

"Great, there goes my hopes for a late evening snack," Jei grumbled as he went to find out who was bothering them during this lousy weather; he doubted it was just to pay them a friendly visit. When he opened the door it was to an empty hall, there wasn’t anything but the scent of snow and fresh air that he could sense, and then… something dark, something reminding him of the night swept past. He let out a snarl more out of surprise and whirled around, back into the apartment, and was stunned to see Yohji standing inside. Shadows slid along his body and pooled at his feet, leaving him there dressed in his dark blue wool coat and black boots, untouched by snow or freezing rain. Hell, even his scent was muted, a fact that raised the hair on the back of Jei’s neck.

"Uhm, good evening? Rotten weather we’re having out there?" Yohji strived for one of his usual raffish grins, but his demeanor appeared a little strained; Jei realized that Aya wasn’t anywhere near the succubae bound.

Crawford must have realized this, too, and had risen to his feet to approach their guest. "Yes, it’s a rather miserable night out, which is why we chose to stay home. I take it there’s a reason you came to visit us, and alone at that, on such an ill-fared evening?" He adjusted his glasses a little higher up on his nose. "I am assuming that you *are* alone."

"Yeah, Aya’s not lurking about – at least not here." Yohji shrugged and began to unbutton his coat to reveal a green wool sweater beneath it.

"And is there a reason why you left your mate elsewhere?" Crawford asked, which was a pretty good question in Jei’s opinion; it was rare to see the two bounds apart anymore, and a bit disturbing to know that Yohji could go about on his own cloaked in shadows like that. Jei made sure the door was locked behind him and went back to his chair, leaving the hosting duties to his partner.

Yohji shrugged again and went over to the spare chair to sit down; it was also distressing to see that the pool of shadows by his feet moved with him, heedless of the casting of light in the room. "Actually, he’s sort of the reason why I’m here." He fixed an even look at Crawford, and a hint of silver appeared in his bright green eyes. "Have any interesting visions lately?"

The question seemed to annoy Crawford, who let out a faint hiss and jerked his right hand through his neatly combed hair with more force than usual while he sat down as well. "I am getting very tired of telling people that if I *did* have any-"

He was cut off in mid-rant by Yohji waving about his hands and shaking his head. "No, wait, I’m not insinuating anything, honest." Then he grimaced a little. "Well, not this time." Yohji let out a slow breath as if he was gathering his thoughts while Crawford blinked twice in obvious surprise and Jei wondered if maybe it wouldn’t be a good idea to go out for a walk, nasty weather be-damned. "Look, it was an… well, innocent might not be the correct word, but I just wanted to know if you really had any visions lately about a certain part of the city, okay?" The strained note was back in his voice, a line of tension in his body that put Jei on edge; Jei knew he was powerful, that he was strong and fast and could rip most things apart. He also knew that Yohji… all it would take was a word from Yohji, or a flick of golden wire or those shadows curled around his feet, and Jei was meat. Those thoughts made the demon inside him whine and want to flee the room while the succubae bound was this much on edge.

Yet all Crawford did was tilt his head to the side and smile, lips curved just the tiniest bit, as if he had been presented with an intriguing puzzle, the bastard. "I’ve had one or two visions lately, but nothing so much focused on the city or a part of the city itself. Tell me, what did Aya see?" When the tension in Yohji’s lean body increased and the silver in his eyes become brighter, all Crawford did was smile even more. "Ah, I’m right, aren’t I? That’s why *you’re* here and not him. He saw something with his shinigami abilities and feels he can’t interfere, at least not directly, isn’t it?" The meddlesome, arrogant bastard sounded too pleased for words.

Jei growled and was about to make for the nearest exit as the shadows around Yohji’s feet writhed and the succubae bound appeared ready to move, yet a moment later all of the tension was released and Yohji sighed as if in relief. "Pretty much, yeah." He rubbed his face with his hands and then combed them through his shoulder-length hair. "Aya wouldn’t say much – I don’t think he felt as if he *could*, but I’m here and I’m telling you to focus your talent on the southern Fabric district, okay? I think something is going to happen in the next few days that will attract the shinigami."

Crawford’s smile vanished as he considered what he’d been told, and Jei’s concern over Yohji’s stronger nature being unleashed turned into something else entirely. "Hmm, I doubt Aya would feel that I should become involved if it were over a few paltry deaths. That I haven’t seen anything yet means that it might not be of significance to the upcoming war – but things can change over a single action in these uncertain times," he added, which seemed to forestall an angry comment from Yohji. Crawford looked away from their guest and summoned back his smile as he turned his attention to Jei. "It looks as if you won’t have much time to finish that book after all."

Maybe it would have been better to take on a furious, shinigami-mated succubae bound after all, Jei thought to himself. "Why do *I* have to go out in this miserable weather, eh?" he complained, even though he had suspected it would come to this as soon as Crawford had gotten involved.

"Because Yohji, being tied to Aya, can’t have any involvement because of his nature affecting my talent as well as possibly offending Kisei with his presence. As for myself, it might raise some suspicions if Esset is in anyway behind what is causing Aya’s… ‘death premonition’. You are the least likely to stand out as you are normally roaming the city in search of your meals."

"Oh, sure, blame my appetite and stick me out in the cold for the foreseeable future!" He was certain that Crawford’s smile took on an evil edge just then. "This is you getting me back for letting Cassandra in here when you’re laid up from the visions, isn’t it?" he accused his partner.

"Perish the thought." There was a hint of a smirk on the bastard’s face when he pushed up his glasses.

"I’m going to-"

"All right then, I’m heading home and will let Aya know that everything’s taken care of," Yohji announced, cutting through Jei’s snarl as he stood and buttoned back up his coat. "Try not to play too rough until you find out what’s going on, okay?

Jei snapped his teeth shut and did his best to force down the anger. One day… one day he would eventually know what it felt like to sink his fangs into Crawford’s flesh, and that was a day that he would relish with great joy. Until then, he would just have to endure… and keep feasting on tall, dark-haired and blue-eyed men whenever he could find them. "Don’t you have an anti-social mate to get back to?" Jei snapped at Yohji.

All that remark did was make Yohji grin like a fool. "Why yes, I do, and I’ve got a much better night ahead of me than you two, I think. So I’ll just see myself out." He gave Jei a wink and the shadows crawled up over him until he vanished from view.

"Fuck, but that is creepy as hell," Jei muttered as he watched the door open and close as if by itself.

"Mmm, it is a very useful talent to have."

When Jei turned to agree, he got a face-full of material of his coat being thrown at him. "Now get out there and see what’s happening at the southern Fabric district while I try to put my talent to use." Crawford walked past him and headed into the kitchen.

One day, Jei promised himself as he pulled on his coat. One day he would finally get to take a bite out of the asshole, and he would indeed savor the hell out of it.

*******

Botan stared down on the pile of sealed letters that were stacked upon his desk and felt a headache forming behind his eyes. "When did these arrive?"

"All morning, sir," Takashi informed him. "I’ve counted at least eight different pages." He blushed a little as he rubbed the back of his head. "A few of them stayed to chat a little and went on about how the Court’s in a bit of a tizzy over all these wizards coming and going for private meetings."

Omi smirked at his friend. "’Tizzy’, eh?"

Takashi’s blush became more pronounced. "Well, that’s how Nami described it."

Botan allowed himself a moment to wonder which of the particular lovely young pages who lingered outside of his office was ‘Nami’ and would have to ask either Birman or Trowa. Then he forced himself to deal with the growing problem that was in front of him rather than the chance to tease his assistant. "That is one way to describe the Court reacting to obvious intrigue among the city’s wizards." He began to sort through the stacked letters. "It’s going to take me all afternoon to read these." That wasn’t even taking into account responding to them, which would be another day’s worth of effort; he would need to pull Haruto back from watching the Court to help him with that, perhaps ask Birman to have one of her spies take over the young man’s post if possible.

"I guess that must be the downside of being the Royal Wizard." Omi sounded solemn when he made that statement, but there was a spark of humor in his blue eyes. For his part, Nagi kept his head down in the book he had brought with him and seemed determined to ignore the humans around him – even the one sitting next to him.

"I would be cautious about remarks such as those, because you have a title or two associated with *your* name," Botan warned.

Omi laughed and, after giving Nagi a quick hug, rose up to approach Botan’s desk. He appeared a little tired after a day spent creating charmed objects, yet it was clear that he was happy to be here despite the work and obvious problems. "Very true. Let me see those notes." He rummaged through the letters at a much faster pace than Botan, sorting them into four haphazard piles based on their wax seals. "If I were you, I’d deal with them in order of rank," Omi explained as he tossed the letters about. "The lower ranked highborn will be used to receiving responses in a less-timely manner."

The boy had a point. Botan noted that the pile which contained the seals of the highest ranked families was manageable enough that he could read through it and respond to it with enough time left to not be late for dinner at Cassandra’s tonight. "And to think that Birman says that you’re just a pretty face," he told Omi.

Even that blatant lie got a response from Nagi, which was a derisive snort. Takashi laughed out loud while Omi chuckled a few times in obvious delight. "Well, I’m sure there were moments when Lady Meara despaired for me, but she eventually drilled into my head all of the family crests of what she considered the important Court families."

"I wonder if we can have Lady Meara deal with these highborn." Takashi joined them at the desk and looked back and forth between the growing piles that Omi was nearly done sorting. "They seem to be sticking their noses into something that shouldn’t involve them – especially since the king hasn’t even made the announcement yet."

"They’re human. It’s what your kind does," Nagi muttered while he continued to read.

Omi flashed his boyfriend a quick grin while Takashi appeared a bit offended. For his part, Botan was used to the earth elemental’s prickly attitude toward all humans other than Omi and had to admit that Nagi was correct in his assessment of human nature. "If I may refine what Nagi has just said – they’re *highborn*, of course it’s what they do. If they think they can influence something in their favor, they’ll become involved. I’m certain that Kido and his associates are promising their patrons and whomever else they can reach offers of favors, protection and free or discounted spells if they do their best to ensure that the king continues the persecution of bounds and the use of bound blood in magic." He felt disgusted over the fact that lives were being traded so callously.

"It… it must be so easy for them to agree to it when they feel that their bloodlines are so pure," Takashi said after a moment of silence. "I mean, I’ve heard stories about how the highborn…." He flushed again, but this time Botan doubted that he was thinking of some pretty page and arranging a date.

Omi glanced over his shoulder at his bound lover before he continued in the line of what Takashi had started. "It’s a very popular story, what Ranmura Fujimiya gave up when he married a beautiful young woman without a known bloodline. Most women think of it as a romantic tale, but around the Court, it’s a warning about what you’ll lose if you aren’t careful." He smiled at Nagi, making it clear that he didn’t give a damn about giving up the throne for Nagi. "I’ve only ever heard of Relena Peacecraft speaking in favor of what he did." For some reason, Omi frowned after mentioning the young highborn lady.

"Yeah, but my point is that most of us common folk have a skeleton or two in the closet." Takashi clutched at a charm that he wore around his neck. "We’re not as strict as the highborn about the background checks before marriages, especially if we… well, if we’ve witches in our families. In fact, a lot of times it means that we marry into other ‘witch’ families."

That was something that caught Botan’s attention, and Omi’s as well if he was to guess from the sudden flash of interest on the young man’s face. "I didn’t realize that," Botan admitted.

"We don’t go around publicizing it." Takashi hung his head, an action he did when he felt that he did something wrong. "Uhm, don’t let my great-aunt know I told you, okay? I think she’s trying to arrange something for my younger brother, Kise."

"Of course not," he promised. There was a quick motion out of the corner of his eye, yet by the time he glanced over at Nagi, the young man was once again busy reading his book. He had to wonder if Takashi might find himself blackmailed by the earth elemental in the near future… and hoped that Takashi had the sense to remain in Nagi’s good graces. Ah well, it wasn’t his problem; right now he had to figure out how to respond to these letters and help Shuuichi with an official declaration to the Court. That was only the beginning, as he would have to deal with what would happen when it became clear that bound blood was off-limits, but as Cassandra would say, deal with the immediate first and see how that changed what followed.

"I think we’re done with any lessons for the day," he informed his assistants. "Omi, before you return to the Koneko, can you please have Haruto come here to aid me in drafting the first round of responses?" He might not trust the young man with all of his secrets just yet, but Haruto did know the Court best. When Omi nodded and went back to his desk to gather his things, Botan turned to Takashi. "I’m going to need to have several pages on standby to carry the letters once I’ve finished drafting them. Can you go round up a few of them, and come back with some refreshments to carry us through the next couple of hours?" He bit back a smile at the way Takashi’s cheeks grew pink.

"Yes, Sir." Takashi nodded before he headed for the door, an uncharacteristic ungainliness to his step in his rush to leave.

"Fool," Nagi sneered as he tucked away his book and went to Omi’s side.

"Now, now, we’re not all blessed to find who we’re to spend our life with while so young," Botan chided the earth elemental. The past two years of dealing with Yohji, Aya and Jei gave him the strength to merely smile in the face of Nagi’s inhuman stare before the boy sniffed and sidled closer to Omi.

"I think it’s a good idea for us to head on home now." Omi seemed hard-pressed to keep from laughing as he waved goodbye to Botan before grabbing Nagi’s hand and pulling out of the office.

Myriad gods, what was his life coming to that he actually thought that dealing with treacherous wizards and the *Court* were the easy part, Botan wondered as he sank back into his chair.

*******

Schuldig shivered from the cold as he hurried through the Koneko’s garden with Masato almost pressed to his right side; even taking into consideration the time of evening and the clouds obscuring the moons, the garden appeared darker than it should, the shadows beneath the trees and shrubs larger and blacker than normal. It was as if Aya’s presence was tainting the inn, was taking over a place that was like a second home.

<I’d bury that thought deep before we arrive – you know that if Yohji picks up any hint of it in your emotions, he’s not going to be happy.>

Schuldig spared a low growl for his mate yet didn’t bother with any reply since he knew that Masato was merely trying to look after him; as annoying as the thought that he ‘needed’ to be looked after, or that he had to police his own mind to appease his best friend just because said best friend was mated to a-

He shook his head to clear it since they were almost at the Koneko’s back door. <I deserve a back rub and a blow job when we get home tonight,> he demanded while he waited for his mate to open the door for him. <And breakfast in bed tomorrow.>

Masato chuckled while he opened the door and bowed as Schuldig strutted on through. <For such admirable restraint, how can I say ‘no’?> He got in a quick pat to Schuldig’s ass before closing the door behind them. "Mmm, something smells delicious," he called out while the two of them began the process of removing their many layers of outer-garments.

"Great, more of you gluttons arrive. All I need now is for the Elric brothers to appear," Jo complained as she approached, her grey-streaked hair unraveling from its bun and her blue apron covered in various stains. Despite her frazzled appearance, Schuldig picked up from her thoughts that she was pleased to see them – as long as he behaved tonight – and that she had missed them over the last several days. He made a show of yelping when she gave his right shoulder a light smack and berated him about being a bad son for neglecting his mother, then leaned in for a quick kiss on his cheek before being ordered to go warm up by the fire.

The stars might fall from the sky, the seas might dry up and succubae bounds might one day finally be sated, but Jo would never change. He found some comfort in that, just as he did in his mother’s endearing way of fussing over his hair and calling him ‘Trouble’.

<That’s because you *are* trouble,> Masato sent, along with a wave of love/desire/amusement.

<The best damn bit of trouble you were ever blessed with, and don’t you forget it.> Schuldig sniffed in a haughty manner as he put Masato in his place, and made sure to grab the best spot left by the fireplace. Gathered at the table and eating dinner were Yohji, Aya, Omi, Nagi, Reiichi, Ken and Miko, which wasn’t a big surprise, as well as Shinra and Reno, which was. A quick scan revealed that Shinra’s gokenin were sitting out in the main room, gathering information and doing a bit of socialization with the Shadow Guard.

"So, we get a message to drag our asses out despite the shitty weather, and here we are." He motioned to Masato and himself sitting at the table. "Someone wanna tell us what’s going on?"

"Eloquent as always, Schuldig." Shinra grimaced as he pushed aside his empty dinner bowl and made to speak again, but Jo’s looming presence had him sighing and reaching for his wine glass instead. What was really annoying was that Schuldig could pick up from everyone’s thoughts – well, those who weren’t shinigami-bounds or mated to the damn things – that it was the prissy lord’s tale to tell. He gritted his teeth together and had to satisfy himself with a few bites of fish chowder until Jo was placated enough to go assist Kira with assembling some snack trays for the guests.

Yohji sniggered at something, probably at how cowed they were by a human woman, and nuzzled Aya’s bite-marked neck. "You two been out and about lately, other than to annoy Crawford?" he asked when he pulled away.

Masato paused in blowing on a spoonful of his chowder. "Other than seeing him or Cassandra, no, not really," He glanced at Schuldig and frowned, their thoughts echoing each other’s on what new mess they were going to find themselves in now; for his part, Schuldig would actually welcome a bit of work if it meant an end to the boredom, not that he’d admit it out loud and *never* to Crawford. "We’ve been doing our best to lay low and stay out of trouble." His lips twitched at the last word, the bastard. Oh yes, someone was going to give out a *hell* of a blow job tonight. Maybe even two.

Shinra set down his wine glass and leaned forward, his expression that usual mask of haughtiness that made Schuldig want to twist things inside his head until he had him doing a striptease on the table or something equally embarrassing. However, something had to be bothering him because Reno was a mass of tension beside him, his eyes a mix of green and silver as well as shadows writhing against the wall behind him. Well, that explained why no one but Aya and Shinra was sitting near to the dubhach.

"I assume that you’re using your talent to mask these… excursions of yours, correct?"

Schuldig nodded at Shinra’s question. "Yeah, there’s no way in hell I’m going to let any of those Esset bastards track me back to my mother’s, and I doubt you want them to know about me coming here," he replied with a hint of a snarl.

The way that the prissy bastard waved aside his vehemence made him really, *really* regret that Reno was mated – forcibly at that – to an asshole like him. "An Esset agent paid me a visit at my home, but it’s less suspect for them to do so since I have customers arriving all the time asking for commissions. The purpose for him seeing me was to issue new orders."

Judging from the way that Reno was near vibrating beside the other soul gaki bound and that the emotions of the humans’ gathered at the table took on a dark turn, Schuldig received the impression that the next bit of information wasn’t pleasant. "Let me guess, I factor into these new set of orders. How lucky for me." He kicked Masato’s right foot to make his mate stop growling.

Shinra’s lips twisted as if in a hint of a grin. "Considering that the new orders are to plant a coercion so another powerful soul gaki bound can easily issue another order to activate the compromised humans, I’d say it’s more than likely that you factor into their plans. I don’t know of too many other loyal, suitably talented agents that they have in the city."

Masato snorted in amusement as he tapped his spoon against the rim of his bowl. "Oh please, you’re going to give him even more of a superiority complex than he already has." That snide comment earned him another kick.

"What we’re thinking is that it’s more than likely the next time you’re approachable, you’ll receive new orders." Reiichi shifted a little closer to Ken to leave more space between him and Masato, clearly not wanting to be caught up in any game of footsies.

"Great, which is the next night or two, depending on this crappy weather." Schuldig dropped his spoon in favor of alcohol. Once he drained half of his wine, he elaborated. "We’re supposed to visit a few taverns every ten days or so to ensure that we’re ‘approachable." Enough venom practically dripped from his voice to make it clear what he thought about that particular ‘leash’, prompting Masato to rub the small of his back despite all of the kicked ankles.

"Look, I’m not a fan of the present weather," Miko said with an exaggerated shiver, her hands wrapped around a half-empty bowl of chowder. "But if it’ll get us answers to the ‘is Esset planning on using Schu or not?’ question, then I say you take one for the team, borrow some heat spells from the wonder wizard over there and drag your lazy ass out tomorrow night, okay?" Everyone but Aya stared at her in surprise – well, everyone but Aya and Ken, the latter of which was beaming at her with pride, the besotted idiot.

Schuldig considered tweaking *her* thoughts to get her to do a striptease on the tabletop, until a certain meddling succubae bound reminded him about the damage a pissed-off human armed with a rolling pin and a jealous flesh gaki bound could do to him. Annoyed that he never seemed to have any fun while at the Koneko, he pouted while Masato brushed a kiss against his left temple. "Just as long as we do get those heat spells. I’m not about to freeze off my balls for anyone."

<Yeah, especially since I like those balls of yours,> Schuldig grumbled. If it wasn’t for Yohji and Jo, he’d show just how much he *liked* those balls right now.

<Later, Brat.> Masato’s happiness lightened his bad mood a little.

"I think I can help out a little." Omi perked up at the idea of being able to use magic, even though it was clear from Nagi’s thoughts that he wished that his boyfriend didn’t have to waste the energy for two lazy idiots. Schuldig stuck out his tongue at the protective earth elemental, safe at the fact that they were in Jo’s kitchen and Nagi couldn’t retaliate for once.

"Great. Not that I doubt Lord Shinra, but the sooner we can confirm what Esset is up to, the sooner we can plan our own strategy." Reiichi smiled as he pushed up his glasses, his expression much too innocent for the tangle of thoughts in his head. Schuldig just ‘peeked’ for a second before deciding that he’d leave the man alone; his mother had taught him that there were some minds that it didn’t pay to delve into, that it was like sticking one’s foot into quicksand and the Guard’s mind definitely qualified as a prime example as that. Reiichi had picked up shielding his mind much too easily, and naturally could shift his thoughts back and forth so quickly that it was dangerous to do more than skim the man’s mind.

"I know that you have to be careful about Esset finding out about you being a traitor, but do you want any backup for tomorrow?" Ken asked, his concern for Schuldig and Masato coming through clear; even though he was now a bound and had learned somewhat to shield his thoughts, he was still shit at masking his emotions. He wasn’t the only one concerned about them, just the only one willing to voice it.

A sharp jab to Shinra’s side made the man growl and then clear his throat. "Yes, I can have one of my gokenin follow you if it would make you feel better, as they might not stand out as much as a Guard." Reno hissed at his mate, only to fall silent at the furious look that Shinra turned on him a moment later. If Schuldig was to take a guess, Shinra had refused to let Reno be that gokenin.

When Schuldig looked at Yohji, his best friend shrugged and glanced at his mate. Aya remained impassive with his head slightly bowed, yet something seemed to pass between them. "We could always follow you cloaked in shadows," Yohji offered. Judging from the hint of silver in his eyes and the slight edge to his voice, he wasn’t too happy to extend it, but it didn’t stop him from doing so.

<Brat… tell him ‘no’,> Masato sent in a rush, his emotions a jumble of pride/panic/fear. <He’ll do it if you say ‘yes’, but that’s the last thing we want. All the hells, it’s the last thing the *city* wants.>

<I know.> Sadness filled Schuldig as he shook his head. "It’s all right, Yotan, we’ll be okay." As much as he would love for his friend to be there watching his back, he knew it was a huge mistake to even consider it; Yohji would be too much on edge about Aya being anywhere near an Esset agent – and there was no way Aya would allow Yohji to go without him, which would affect Masato in return.

"How about-"

"No!" Everyone at the table shot down Omi’s offer, not about to risk the crown prince anywhere near an agent from Esset. Omi glared at them for what he saw as them coddling him, while Nagi did his best to resist smacking his boyfriend for being a fool.

Thankfully, Reiichi cleared his throat and helped to cut through the sudden tension. "I’m sure we can arrange for some of the Shadow Guard or Birman’s agents to be there, if you like. It would be a good opportunity to tag another agent before the war starts, after all." He made it sound like a chance to complete a long overdue errand or something, when the little hint of emotions that slipped through his shields were very predatory.

"Now that sounds doable." Schuldig exchanged a quick flow of thoughts with Masato, and neither of them saw much of a problem with the offer; there was no way that Reiichi or Birman would send anyone along who would draw the agent’s attention and be a danger to Kritiker, themselves or Schuldig and Masato. There was something to be said about working with professionals.

<Not to mention that with Yohji and Aya kept at home, your mother would be letting us know if she thought you’d be in any danger,> Masato pointed out.

<Well, there is the fact that all of this mess stems from Lord Prissy Pants over there, but if he’s just the messenger, then his influence over Mom’s talent should be fading out soon.> Schuldig did his best to keep from sneering in Shinra’s direction, as the bastard would probably take it out on Reno. <It might not hurt to swing by her place before heading home.> He thumped his empty wine glass and pouted until his mate refilled it. "So we get stuck going out in some shitty weather. I bet Crawford’s happy about this."

For some reason, that made Yohji laugh. "Ah, well, you’re not the only one who’ll be suffering." He glanced at Aya, his expression turning tender as he tugged on an eartail. "Maybe you’ll run into Jei while you’re out and about."

Schuldig had the impression that there was more to the story than that, and cursed the gods for the fact that he couldn’t read his friend’s mind anymore. As it was, Aya and Reno shared a quick, indecipherable look while the kage batted aside Yohji’s hand. He wasn’t the only one to catch that, as Shinra frowned and turned toward Reno.

"Was there someth-"

There was a clattering sound from across the kitchen as pots fell from their hooks on the wall. Jo let out a screech and dropped the knife she was using to slice up some cheese, and Kira nearly dropped a stack of plates. Around the table, Masato, Ken and Schuldig took to growling while Nagi, Shinra and Yohji were hissing, Omi had his hands up as if to cast a spell, and Miko and Reiichi held a knife in each hand. Only Aya and Reno sat there unaffected, which was suspicious as hell, Schuldig thought as he forced himself to calm down.

"Nagi, if you’re playing tricks I will roast you on the spit!" Jo spat out as she stalked toward the pile of fallen pots.

"It wasn’t me! I would have made them fall on Kudoh’s head," Nagi mumbled as he huddled next to Omi as if the kiddo could protect him from Jo’s wrath – which wasn’t a bad idea, considering how big a soft spot that Jo had for Omi. As arguments went, his was pretty good, even if it had Yohji glaring at him with obvious ill-intent; Omi might have Jo in his corner, but Nagi had *Aya* in his so all Yohji could do was glare.

Jo spared a malevolent look for everyone at the table before she began picking up the pots, during which everybody seemed to decide that it was a very good idea to focus on eating their dinner. From the thoughts that he could pick up, Schuldig found that he wasn’t alone in wondering just how much Aya and Reno’s shadows could impact the physical world around them; however, he doubted anyone was going to start that little discussion when Yohji had that silver gleam in his eyes and Shinra kept flashing his sharp white teeth in-between hasty bites of the delicious chowder.

<Can you blame them, Brat? I’d have my hackles raised if anyone dared make some insinuations about you,> Masato sent while he poured them some more wine.

<Yeah, but this is just talking about some jinxed pans.> Schuldig peered over the rim of his glass and noted the hunched shoulders of Miko and Ken who weren’t even teasing each other, the way that Nagi leaned toward Aya as if to protect him, and the assessing flicker of Reiichi’s blue eyes as the man watched for any signs of trouble. <They’re supposed to be our allies and here we sit terrified of them?> He even liked Reno, but this was such bullshit, sitting in the Koneko with a bunch of friends too scared to speak because of two people with shinigami souls.

Masato sighed and nudged him in the side. <I think it has more to do with not pissing off Yohji and Shinra more than Aya and Reno at this point. You’d have to be an idiot to not realize that either Aya or Reno, or both of them, weren’t happy with the previous topic and something happened to cut it short. I’m not the telepath here, but I’d be willing to bet that right now, everyone’s worried about pissing off their mates or bringing up something else that’ll upset them.>

So once again, precious Aya got special treatment. Schuldig opened his mouth to be the one to break the tenuous silence. As soon as he did, Shinra looked his way, sparks of silver dancing in his blue eyes and a cold expression on his face.

<I’m already having to deal with one headache tonight, don’t go adding to it,> Shinra sent to him, a sibilant ‘tone’ to his mental voice.

Schuldig at first felt indignant to be chided like that, until he realized how easily the other soul gaki bound had breached his mental shields. Shinra was weaker than him - not by much, but still, was weaker. Dammit, why were things so complicated when shinigami bounds were involved?

He was startled when a plate of spice cake was set in front of him, and looked up to see a rather sympathetic-looking Jo standing beside him. "I’m not sure what you’re up to, but it’s probably best you just have something to eat and let it go," she advised before setting a slice down in front of Masato. Judging from her thoughts, she was used to people being confused/frustrated/anxious whenever Aya and/or Reno were about.

<It’s good advice. Let’s just finish our meal and go talk to your mother.>

Schuldig hated having to let anything ‘go’ without a fight on his part – he also hated the prospect of getting smacked with a rolling pin. At least he had a nice, big slice of cake and the room seemed to be back to normal; Miko was trying to steal a bite of Ken’s cake and laughing at the way he growled at her, Omi and Nagi were being so sickeningly sweet with each other that Schuldig wanted to gag just from watching them for a few seconds, and Reiichi was talking to Yohji and Shinra something about the Court while Aya and Reno seemed to carry on a private conversation based on various fork wavings and potent looks.

<Definitely *two* blowjobs for all of this shit,> Schuldig sent while he finished his cake.

*******

"So cruel you are. Here I’ve invited you over to a lavish meal cooked by my darling wife, and what do you do? You force me to slave away all night while my beloved family languishes without me. No, cruel doesn’t even begin to describe the depths of your maliciousness," Hughes proclaimed with an exaggerated sniff.

Roy set aside his fountain pen and rested his chin on his right hand. "All right, I’ll ask even though it’s sure to give me a headache. What, pray tell, is the reason for my sudden ‘maliciousness’?"

Hughes clutched his hands to his chest, about where he kept the miniature portraits of his wife and daughter. "Because you’re so jealous of my family, of course! You can’t stand the thought that I have my lovely Gracia and Elecia waiting at home for me while all you have are-" just in time he caught himself, although the brief flash of teeth Roy gave him might have helped, "those two mischievous bookworms." He chuckled nervously and smoothed his fingers along his beard. "Jealous, I say."

Major Merquise, who had been sitting across the room and going through a large stack of supply requests, set aside the papers in his hand to give Roy a rather pitying look. "Is he trying to get out of his commission with a medical excuse?"

"Sadly, this is his natural condition so it’s not going to work," Roy explained as he began to rub his aching temples in an attempt to stave off that predicted headache. "The healers just ignore him at this point as a hopeless case and the higher ups think he might actual help us in that the gods are said to favor the mad."

"Hey! I’m standing right here!"

"Yes, when you should be sorting through that pile of requisitions and not complaining about having more work dumped on us by General Haruko." Roy had to pause for a moment before he ended up growling out the words; while he and Hughes knew that Merquise was an air elemental, the major hadn’t revealed to either of them the fact that he was a bound. "Unless you want to go to the palace and disrupt his meeting with the queen to bitch about your lack of quality time with your family." He might not be able to growl, but he could still do sarcasm.

Hughes huffed in indignation as he went over to join Merquise in trying to wrangle some order out of the massive pile of paperwork that had been ‘delegated’ to them that afternoon. "*Someone* is in a bad mood today," he said with a disapproving sniff before sitting down. "It’s probably because he doesn’t have a beautiful, adoring wife to-"

"Hughes, I know of at least thirty-five ways to kill you and make it look like an accident, I swear to the gods," Roy warned.

"And I’m very interested in learning those methods, purely to confirm if they’re the same ones I know," Merquise added as he shoved one of the stacks of paper in Hughes’ direction. "For the good of the Army, of course." He gave Hughes a smile that was careful to hide his sharp teeth when the man stared at him in betrayed shock.

Hughes sniffed again, but at least he finally began to sift though the papers. "I’m working with a bunch of blood-thirsty, *single* psychopaths. Oh happy joy." Somehow, he made the ‘single’ descriptive sound like the worst insult possible.

"I thought that was what the Army was all about," Roy remarked as he picked up the list he had been ignoring for the past ten minutes and attempted to scan it for mistakes. "Sign up, get a regular paycheck and hope to commit sanctioned murder in the name of king and country, praise the gods."

Merquise made a sound as if he was stifling a laugh while Hughes’ expression just then was one of pure offense. "It could be worse, you could be stuck at Court." Hughes’ expression changed to one of horror and he quickly busied himself with the paperwork. "I much prefer dealing with a more… honest version of psychopaths, thank you." Then something seemed to occur to the air elemental and his demeanor became closed-off once again.

Roy wondered what had set the highborn off this time, when Merquise had been letting down his guard around them the last few days; it was a common occurrence, one he and Hughes had experienced several times by now. They would work together with Merquise on various projects and the man would appear to be relaxed around them, to treat them as equals if not friends, and then suddenly pull back. Roy had dealt with many bounds in his life, and recognized one who was terrified of his true nature becoming known. He wished that he could confess to Merquise about his own demon soul, but Crawford hadn’t told him that the time was right for that yet.

He rubbed his eyes and then picked up his pen again as he examined the list that Liza had put together for him. He highly doubted that the Lieutenant had made any mistakes, but there had been incidents in the past where she hadn’t been given the most up-to-date information. After catching three important items that had been left off, he started to curse under his breath and noticed a pulse of concern over his link with Edward; he paused a moment so he could send some reassurance back and smiled when he felt his mate’s emotions settle back into a familiar blend of concentration/hunger/smugness/happiness which suggested that Edward was spending the evening buried beneath a pile of books.

Almost through with this particular list, Roy once paused in his work when he felt another’s mental presence, this time the sensation much more ‘foreign’ than before since it was someone other than his mate. However, he did recognize the soul gaki bound ‘pressing’ against his mental shields so he lowered them enough to allow the contact. <Hello, Lieutenant Ross.>

<Hello, Colonel. I thought you might like to know about the two Esset bounds who slipped past the border today,> Maria Ross sent, her emotions tightly contained and her ‘voice’ a faint projection inside of his head. As always, she sent along the bare basics of a message as if doing her best to limit the mental contact as much as she could.

<Yes, I would appreciate any information that you can give me,> he replied back as he slid a small piece of paper on top of the list. While he did that, he caught Hughes’ attention and gave his friend a signal; almost immediately, the too-clever bastard began to inflict himself on Merquise in a calculated attack that would both distract the air elemental and most likely scare him away from married life for *decades*.

Ross sent along images of the two bounds, taken from a distance. <I wasn’t able to scan them too deeply as they had well-developed shields, but from what Brosh and I can tell, the man is an earth elemental and the woman is water.>

Roy was careful to keep any surprise from that revelation from showing on his face while he jotted down the physical characteristics of the two bounds: a tall, lean man with blond hair and blue eyes and a brunette woman of average size with dark brown eyes and the familiar water elemental attraction. <I wouldn’t think that Esset would spare any water elementals right now.>

<I know, sir, which is why I felt it very important to contact you. There must be a reason for them sending the two towards Eto.> A hint of concern crept over the link, which was a very telling sign from Ross.

A reason that couldn’t be good for Kritiker. Roy wondered if his brother had any idea of what was coming their way and had the feeling that he wasn’t getting home any time soon tonight. <Thank you, Lieutenant. As always, you do excellent work.>

Ross accepted the praise and cut the link with a barely acceptable amount of delicacy, leaving Roy with the urge to rub his forehead again. Instead, he slipped the piece of paper that he had written the information she had sent along down on beneath the various lists that Liza had left for him, certain that his Lieutenant would find it in the morning. Then he looked up to notice that Merquise had a glazed look in his eyes and that Hughes was busy expounding on the ‘glory’ of pregnancy.

"I thought we were hoping to get through that paperwork tonight, not test out a new method of torture."

Hughes finally shut up and turned to glare at Roy. "See! *That* attitude is exactly why you’ll never have kids, you… you heathen!" He folded his arms over his arms and pouted for a few seconds, at least until Merquise snapped out of his stupor and shoved over yet another stack of paper.

No, the reason he’d never ‘experience the radiant joys of fatherhood’ had to do with the fact that he was mated to another man, but considering the fucked-up mess that was both his and Edward’s families, that could only be a good thing, Roy thought to himself. It was bad enough that *Crawford* could continue the bloodline on his father’s side, and Roy’s mother could always find a new victim and give him another half-sibling. The mere thought of it made him shudder in horror.

And if he had to spend another evening stuck listening to Maes Hughes prattle on about childbirth, potty-training and playing with dolls, then Roy was going to rethink the whole ‘survive the war’ plan and beg his bastard of a brother for the next possible suicide mission.

*******

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