Precipice of Darkness

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chapter four

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arrivals and assignations


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Shen sighed as he picked up his cup of thick, bitter coffee; it would be a bit more palatable if there was some milk or sugar available, but unlike Emir, Khryses apparently believed in serving the beverage black and strong enough to stimulate a dead horse.

"Is there something wrong?" the Cretian ambassador inquired, his bushy, grey-shot eyebrow arched over his left eye.

Shen managed to swallow the potent drink without grimacing due to the benefit of many years of training to hide his true emotions, and gave the man a bland smile. "No, I was just wondering how much longer we’ll be left waiting for some sort of official declaration from Kritiker’s king."

Khryses set his empty cup aside and folded his hands over his belly, which showed signs of enjoying a Court-rich diet during his stay here in Eto. "Yes, there has been something going on lately to have the highborn scurrying about." Yet that was all he said on the matter before reaching for one of the dainty tea sandwiches that had been set out for Shen’s visit.

Now that was an interesting show of restraint, Shen thought to himself as he sipped more of the ghastly coffee; normally, Khryses quite enjoyed a bit of gossip. For the Cretian ambassador to be so reserved all of the sudden made him suspect that Khryses had an idea of what was going on and wasn’t in the mood to share.

It wasn’t as if their two countries were the staunchest of allies, yet neither were they at risk of war like Kritiker and Esset. Cretia wasn’t as well off as Xan, considering its lack of size and resources, so Khryses was probably here on orders to observe and find a path for his country that would benefit it the most should a war break out. If this latest flurry of activity did have to do with wizards, as Shen suspected… what were Khryses’ thoughts? Cretia didn’t outright persecute their bounds, but perhaps its rulers had finally come to realize that they might be a commodity to trade with neighboring wizards….

Still, if Khryses didn’t want to discuss the topic, then Shen wouldn’t push. All he did at the moment was continue to give his host a bland smile and choke down the awful beverage. "I think all of this snow is driving the Court mad. I know that I’m beginning to forget what the gardens look like in bloom and how it feels to go about outside in anything less than four layers."

That provoked a laugh from the older man. "Imagine how I feel, when I come from a much warmer climate!" Khryses rubbed his hands over his arms, which brought attention to the thick, dark brown woolen tunic that he was wearing.
"I’ve been told that it’s even cold back home, which is causing great distress. I sent my family cloaks, boots and sweaters for their winter solstice gifts this year."

"Ah, if it’s one thing that my people are used to, it’s facing Nature and her seasons." Shen spent the rest of his visit discussing the weather with Khryses, his demeanor complacent whereas his attention was focused on the topics the other ambassador was *not* raising during their conversation. Wasn’t it odd that not once was the word ‘bounds’ mentioned, when any other time Shen talked about the weather, people would have something to say about how the magical creatures just *might* be influencing it?

His poor tongue tortured enough with that hideous drink, Shen wished Khryses a good day and begged off by citing another obligation. The Cretian ambassador wished him a fortunate day in return and they agreed to meet again soon before Shen left. He noticed a page hovering out in the hall once he exited Khryses’ quarters and spared a moment to wonder who had sent the man a message, but knew it for a foolish exercise since he couldn’t see the note and Birman would have his hide if he interrogated the young woman. Ah, what he wouldn’t give to have some of the Spy Master’s ‘special’ agents….

Thoughts of the Spy Master and her assistants made him reflect back on his discussion – or lack of one – with Khryses. It was looking more and more likely that there was indeed something going on with the wizards here in Eto, and wasn’t it suspicious that people appeared to want to keep him uninvolved? Hmmm. Shen tucked his hands into the sleeves of his golden robe and pondered just who it was who wished to keep him uninformed. There was Birman of course, but it was her job to keep outsiders out of Kritiker’s business. Then there were the wizards themselves, who might not think it worth their time to involve him, and by extension, Xan as well. That was an insult to Xan if that was the case, he thought with a frown that sent a minor lady stepping out of his path with a disapproving huff. Not that he particularly cared to involve himself with this country’s wizards, as they tended to put themselves and their magic first and foremost.

He was halfway to his own quarters when he recognized a familiar figure dressed in a drab gown with her hair pulled back into a tight bun and her lovely face almost masked with a plain set of glasses. Really, why hide such beauty? Oh, his heart was firmly in the hands of his beloved Mei Fen – who would flay the skin from his still breathing body with amazing skill and grace for even *thinking* of dishonoring her with infidelity – but he could still admire the atheistic around him, and Birman did employ those of a very pleasing to the eye nature….

Shaking his head to rid it of the particular train of thought, he took a few quick steps forward until he was beside Natsumi and smiled; one thing he had learned from dealing with Trowa was that it wasn’t the brightest of ideas to latch on to Birman’s assistants in a physical manner. One day he would find out if it was a bound thing or not, this… displeasure over physical touch, but for now he would respect the distance. "Ah, just one of the people I was hoping to see!"

To give credit where credit was due, Natsumi’s expression remained suitably impassive as she turned her head in his direction. "Ambassador Shen, have you been indulging in some variety of narcotics or other inadvisable substances this early in the day?" she inquired, her voice pitched low enough that only he could hear.

"Bah, only that *horrid* swill that Khryses Melis insists is palatable." He grimaced to show what he thought of that grave mistake in hospitality. "I would much prefer that it had been wine despite the hour of the day." Then he smiled to show his joy in finding one of Birman’s trusted assistants. "Now my day has improved, even if my poor tongue has suffered unimaginable abuse."

"I’m glad that one of us can make such a claim," Natsumi remarked as she pushed her wire-rimmed glasses further up her adorably pert nose. "I must point out that I am very busy."

"Too busy for me, one of your employer’s favorite people?" Even if Birman was a rival, he had to give even *her* credit for the grace that her people showed; Natsumi’s expression remained the same in the face of that blatant provocation.

"Yes, even for… such as you." It was clear that the bound was about to make her departure, so Shen focused his thoughts on his meeting with Khryses – to be exact, on what he thought the man was keeping from him and hence Birman. There was a very slight sigh that he took to mean that Natsumi must have picked up on his thoughts, and then the young woman held out her right arm in a stiff manner. "Would it be that we are headed in the same direction, Ambassador?"

He bowed slightly before he slid his left arm through hers. "If you are headed to see the lovely Birman, then yes, I believe so." A bright smile spread across his face as he fell in step beside her. "Who am I to turn down the chance to spend some time with two lovely women? And if Trowa can join us, then it’s an embarrassment of riches. It almost makes up for the abuse I suffered earlier." He shuddered in horror as he remembered that terrible ‘tea’. "At least your employer knows how to properly entertain a guest."

A slight smile tugged at the corners of Natsumi’s mouth. "As long as you are indeed a ‘guest’," she pointed out. "You might not want to push too far on her hospitality."

"See, *that* is exactly why I much prefer Trowa," Shen remarked with a pronounced pout. "*His* manners are impeccable and he never resorts to threats."

The smile slipped from Natsumi’s face as she stared straight ahead. <The thing with Trowa, Ambassador, is that he doesn’t *give* you any threats. He just strikes. And then it’s much too late.> There was such a… a *somberness* to her… thoughts? that made Shen realize that she was very earnest in her warning to him.

"I… I hadn’t realized that… I gave any cause of concern in his regard," he whispered, all good humor chased away by her warning.

Natsumi gave his arm a quick squeeze. <No, you haven’t, which is why he gets along so well with you and why the Spy Master allows you to work together. I merely thought it was worth mentioning.> She was quiet for a moment as they made their way towards Birman’s office. <Sometimes… your kind can take things for granted with my kind. I simply wanted to remind you that you can’t be so impulsive with us until you know us better. It’s clear that *we* will be working together from now on.>

Part of him couldn’t believe that he was walking through Eto’s palace with a bound by his side while talking to him telepathically. That said bound reported to Kritiker’s Spy Master and had helped to save his life, and was giving him advice on how to deal with other bounds… sometimes it seemed as if he had died last summer and this must be some absurd fantasy. Then he realized that if he was in the afterlife that there would be more virgins throwing themselves at him and less snarky Spy Masters tormenting him, and shook his head. "Thank you, the advice is greatly appreciated."

"Your mind… is truly unique," Natsumi remarked as a genuine smile transformed her into a stunningly beautiful woman. "I can see why Trowa puts up with you, and why Birman usually spends the evening at the Koneko draining wine bottles dry after dealing with you."

"Hmph, I must go to this ‘Koneko’ one day as it must be the most joyous place on this earth. Surely she goes there out of celebration from having spent time in my most august presence." Shen tilted his chin up and put on his most offended air.

"Something like that. Perhaps you should wait until the war is over before you visit – we wouldn’t want to deal with both Esset *and* Xan at the same time," Natsumi teased as she glanced aside. Her warning only served to make Shen even more intrigued about this ‘Koneko’, whatever it was.

"I believe the word for *you*, my lady, is ‘tease’, yes? How can one of my nature resist such a challenge like that?"

Natsumi’s mask of impassiveness slipped to reveal… Shen wasn’t sure *what* entirely, but Mei Fin surely wouldn’t approve of the spark of amazement and lust on his part at the otherworldly beauty flashed before him for a moment. <You are about a century too young and a soul lacking for my tastes. Plus, I like flesh gaki bounds. They are… suitably demanding.> She gave him a wicked grin before her expression settled to the familiar blandness and she once again pushed her glasses up her nose. "And how is that my problem?"

It was rare that Shen was rendered speechless, but he was for at least two turns of the hallway. Then he slanted a glance at the quietly smug bound walking beside him and shook his head. "And here I thought it was just your employer who was evil."

"You’re learning," Natsumi told him with a slight smile curving her unpainted lips.

He decided that it might be best to leave this particular conversation out of his next coded letter back to Xan.

*******

Duo left Anna-Marie’s shop with a bag full of freshly made croissants and a small crock of honey butter and hurried down the busy street to his apartment. He could tell that Trowa was already home, but from the sense of exhaustion that he was picking up over their link, he didn’t think that his mate had done much since arriving a short while ago.

He ran into Sandra’s husband John on the steps as he headed upstairs and exchanged a few complaints about the weather in passing, all the while doing his best to swallow a growl of annoyance over being delayed in reaching his mate and home. Fortunately – for John – the human seemed to be on an errand and soon waved goodbye to go off to do his wife’s bidding, leaving Duo free to race up the stairs to reach his apartment. The day hadn’t been too bad, if one didn’t count the coiling sense of stress that enveloped the Shadow Guard at the thought of wizards descending en masse upon the Court, but right now he only wanted to spend some time with his mate. He just hoped that Trowa felt the same way.

Opening the warded door, he entered his home and instantly felt a sense of peace envelop him. There was the tangible ‘safety’ of his and Trowa’s wards wrapped around the perimeter of the apartment, the heavy scent of his mate flowing into him with every breath that he took, the tingling sensation that filled him the closer he came to Trowa with each step. After so many years of living on his own, of convincing himself that he didn’t need anyone, his entire being was now focused on another person… and he was entirely content with that fact.

He just wished that he hadn’t been an idiot the other night and tried to manipulate the bond between them to ‘encourage’ Trowa to leave work at a decent hour. It was… he hated it when Trowa worked himself to exhaustion at the palace, a place surrounded by a bunch of asshole highborn who had no problem simply taking what they saw as their ‘due’. Duo realized that his mate could more than defend himself, he just didn’t want Trowa to be placed in a position where he *had* to do something like that. As it was, too many of the highborn bastards had come down with ‘heart palpitations’ in the past year or so from daring to make passes at the water elemental. They were lucky that they hadn’t had some choice body parts burned to charcoal as well.

"Uhm, you lying down?" he called out since he felt that Trowa was still awake but didn’t see him in the living room. Gin wasn’t to be found, either.

"In the kitchen." Trowa’s voice sounded quiet and a bit distant, but there was a pulse of happiness/love over their link that helped put Duo at ease. He smiled as he hurried to go find his mate.

Trowa was in the process of cutting up some fish scraps for Gin, which explained why the furball hadn’t tried to trip Duo while he removed his boots at the front door. There was also a pot of tea brewing but no sign of any dinner being reheated. Duo held up the bag of pastries when Trowa looked his way. "I brought some dessert home. Figured we could have them after the leftover stew."

A tired but lovely smile spread across Trowa’s face. "They smell delicious." He finished preparing Gin’s dinner and scraped the fish into Gin’s bowl, which he placed in front of the frantically mewling cat. Once that was done, he leaned in to give Duo a quick kiss before going to wash his hands.

The bit of affection made Duo feel as if his talent was consuming him; heat spread through his body and sparks filled the air for a few seconds as his demon nature purred in happiness. It had *hurt* to have Trowa upset with him, even if he had merely given in to the impulse to do something to make sure that the man he loved returned home safely. He realized afterwards that he should have handled things better, that he could trust the Shadow Guard and Trowa’s coworkers to look after the water elemental should something happen to Trowa, but…. Dammit, sometimes it was difficult, dealing with all of these new emotions and the bond.

His hand clean and dry, Trowa bridged the distance between them to take the bag away from Duo and to set it on the counter. "You’re not working late with Annan today?" he asked, his voice quiet and his own emotions a little unsettled, but a far cry from the ‘cold shoulder’ he had been giving Duo since the other night.

"No." Duo shook himself and slowly reached out to drag his mate closer. When Trowa didn’t resist or pull away, he smiled and purred quietly. "Since Birman informed Yuushi about the whole ‘horde of wizards pouncing on the palace anytime soon’ mess, none of us bounds are supposed to be working overtime if we can help it – at least around the palace. I think Yuushi would put all of us on leave if he could, if he wasn’t afraid of it drawing too much attention to us."

"It’s an interesting test, seeing if we draw any unwanted attention our way," Trowa admitted as he rested against Duo, tension slowly leaving his body the longer they were in contact. The sense of relief and pleasure that Duo picked up over their link made it clear that he was pleased to finally be touching each other again, which just drove home how pissed off Trowa must have been in order to hold out so long to make his point. "The Shadow Guard has done well for the last couple of years."

"Yeah, we even fool our own ‘kind’." Duo wrapped his arms around his mate and pressed a kiss against the right side of Trowa’s neck. "Still doesn’t make me eager to face a bunch of wizards." He managed to hold back any concern about how *Trowa* would do – hell, out of the two of them, he was certain that his lover, the spy extraordinaire, would manage much better than he would, who was known for his short temper.

Trowa produced a quick, deep chuckle that made Duo feel all warm and tingly once again. "Mmm, I’m certain that if you don’t char them to ash that you’ll think of something to assay their suspicions. You’re good at coming up with things on the fly – well, most of the time." He dug his nails into Duo’s waist as if a non-too subtle reprimand.

"Hey, I do pretty damn good when I’m facing an enemy," Duo admitted as he put enough space between them so he could look at his lover. "It’s when I’m dealing with someone who matters to me that I sometimes take things a bit too far." His voice was rough with all of the emotions that were jumbled inside of him to the point that his chest felt tight and aching with them, yet Trowa smiled and leaned in for a tender kiss.

The brush of soft lips against his own and a quick flick of tongue that made him pant in eagerness cleared the befuddlement that he felt and his body burn with desire. Trowa pulled away without anything more than that, but remained close enough for Duo to feel his heat and to be calmed by his presence. "How can someone be so intelligent and yet so dumb at the same time?"

It took him a moment to realize that Trowa had directed that question at him. "Gee, I’m really feeling the love right now," Duo commented, his voice thick with sarcasm even as he pulled his mate close enough for a proper kiss. Trowa complied this time, his lips parting to allow Duo to taste him, and soon they were both purring in pleasure. For the first time in what felt to be much too long, Duo’s demon nature was at peace; his mate was in his arms and happy to be there, with no barriers between them.

"I guess the same could be said about me since I’m your mate," Trowa murmured when they finally broke apart, arms firmly wrapped around each other and foreheads bent together.

"Hmm?" Duo blinked a few times until he remembered what they had been talking about before the kiss. "Oh, yeah." He grinned as he patted Trowa’s firm ass. "That’s okay, I still love you."

For his selfless declaration, he got a slap to his chest and a huff of disappointment while Trowa slipped away. "I feel so reassured. I would feel even better if you didn’t do such foolish things in regards to our relationship." He gave Duo a pointed look over his left shoulder before going to fetch the leftover stew.

A sheepish grin spread across Duo’s face. "Yeah, well, I just don’t like you working so late at the palace, especially after all those highborn keep hitting on you. I know that Birman keeps an eye on you, but…." He shrugged as he tried to put his feelings into words and hoped that the link between them helped explain what he had trouble with just then. "The bond aside, it would kill me if anything happened to you."

In the process of setting the pot of stew on the stove, Trowa turned to face him. "I’m not going to let any highborn take me down, I promise you." A spark of red flashed in his dark green eyes and his emotions were turbulent for a moment. "I watch over myself while I’m there."

"I know, Trowa." Duo sighed and rubbed his right hand over his face. "It doesn’t stop me from worrying." He couldn’t risk losing anyone else he loved – and he hadn’t loved the others as much as he did Trowa.

They were quiet for several seconds before Trowa left the stove to embrace him once more. "That’s the idiot part of you coming through," he said in a soft voice. "Not that it’s a bad thing, but you’re pretty amazing when you’re not one."

"That’s just your sneaky way of saying that you love me even when I’m not a moron, right?" Duo nuzzled his lover’s neck and it was if he was thrumming with joy from all of the love and contentment that he felt – from the both of them. He could feel Trowa’s smile when his mate’s mouth pressed against his cheek. "How about I warm up some dinner for us?"

"That might be a good idea." Trowa remained still for a few more seconds before letting him go. "So what does Yuushi have you doing for the next few days?" he asked as he went over to the counter and surveyed their wine collection before selecting a bottle of red.

"We’re spending part of the day in our regular neighborhood and then doing our reports offsite at a safehouse." Duo used his talent to heat up the stew and smiled when it was ready. When he carried it over to the table, Trowa had already set out some bowls and silverware for them to use and was pouring the wine. "We’re only to report to the palace if we need to go in front of a Judge or turn in any official documents."

"Hmm, Birman has ordered all of the agents who are not working on anything critical to remain away from the palace. Those of us who are still there either have the black rings to protect us or are tucked away in less obvious locations." Trowa ladled some stew into his bowl yet didn’t eat anything right away. "We know the palace well enough to fade away safely should the worst happen."

"Yeah, it helps that you’re not stuck wearing blue uniforms and usually have illusion charms on you," Duo commented as he motioned with his spoon to his clothes. As much as he would hate to admit it, people would comment if Birman’s closest associates disappeared.

"Yes, which is why we’re willing to remain." Trowa nodded and then seemed to remember to eat. He had several bites before he spoke again. "Besides, Heero would probably wonder why both of us have vanished and do something… extreme."

Mention of their former Esset colleague startled a growl from Duo before he could control himself. At least he hadn’t set off sparks this time, he thought a bit ruefully as he picked up his wine glass. "And have you been talking to Heero lately?"

"Not too much, considering how busy I’ve been with work." Trowa paused to take a bite of the stew. "He checks in with me from time to time, but he seems to spend most of his breaks when at the palace with Relena Peacecraft." His expression was that bland mask that he used to fool most people when he was dropping a bit of sensitive information on them and he was interested to see how they would react; Duo had spent a lot of time over the last several years learning all of his mate’s ‘tells’.

"Hmm." Duo had a little more wine before he answered. "They seem to be getting along well, for a peace-mongering highborn human and-" At Trowa’s sharp look he smiled and reached for the wine bottle to refill both of their glasses. "A diligent Esset bound spy."

Trowa accepted his full glass with a grateful nod. "Lady Relena is rather vocal about her dislike for the upcoming war, but I think it might do you some good to give Heero a chance to speak to you. During our last few exchanges, he’s…." He paused for a moment and frowned as if he sought to find the right words. "He’s clearly been after information, yet it isn’t his usual ‘for the good of the Elders/Esset’ eagerness. I honestly believe he’s attempting to figure a few things out for himself and he *does* listen to you." He stared at Duo, his green eyes bright and his emotions earnest and confident.

It was almost frightening, how much faith Trowa had in him, Duo thought as he struggled to breathe. He inhaled slowly and reached out to stroke his fingers along the back of his lover’s left hand. "You sure about that? It seems to me that we fight most of the time and he calls me a lazy idiot – and not in the mostly good way that you do. I always thought that he respected you more."

The smile that Trowa gave him just then left him breathless again, but for entirely different reasons. "There’s respect between Heero and myself for our proficiency at our jobs, yet we’ve both lacked… certain skills that have always come easy to you. Neither of us could have infiltrated the Guard the way that you did, in a manner that requires building such close bonds and interacting with so many humans." Trowa turned his hand over and threaded his fingers between Duo’s. "He may have chided you over your emotions during the years that you’ve worked together, but I’m willing to bet you breakfast tomorrow that a lot of that was based on envy. You are… a much more complete person than we’ll ever be." A flash of pain accompanied those words, even though Trowa’s handsome face betrayed nothing.

Duo gave his mate’s hand a comforting squeeze. "Don’t sell yourself short, love. You may not let down your guard often, but it doesn’t mean you don’t feel." More than anything, he wished he could have been there to protect a young Trowa from the abuse that had been inflicted upon him. Barring that, he wished that he could have burned those bastards to ash for even *touching* his mate; knowing the pain that Trowa felt to this day was part of the reason that Duo was so protective of him, even if it made him an idiot from time to time.

Love and gratitude flowed over their link before Trowa pulled his hand free. "There’s a difference between feeling and doing something with those emotions." He was quiet for a moment, seemingly focused on drinking his wine. "I think Heero might finally be doing something with his."

"Yeah, you’ve said before that he’s interested in Peacecraft, and I guess the only thing that surprises me is that he still is after… after what he did to Toshi." Duo forced down a bite of stew at the thought of his dead partner. In a way, it wasn’t that much of a shock that Heero wouldn’t feel guilty over killing a human, but could he continue to see them as little more than cattle if he was cozying up to one of them? "All right, I’ll talk to him – and I won’t singe him this time," he promised, having an idea of what his mate was going to ask of him before Trowa could even open his mouth.

"Surely the gods will reward you for such restraint."

Duo rolled his eyes at the bland comment and then leered. "It’s not the gods I want a reward from."

Trowa smiled, appearing less tired than he had when Duo had first come home. "Well, put on some coffee for yourself and we’ll discuss an appropriate reward over dessert."

"Yes, sir!" Duo jumped to his feet and hurried to comply, nearly tripping over Gin who was hovering around in hopes of being given some scraps from dinner.

*******

Relena stepped out into the garden and began to walk around; she kept her path purposely random in case any of the servants were watching her, even though she had sent as many of them that she could off on errands and told the rest that she just wanted to spend some ‘alone time’ out among the snow-covered plants. She was bundled against the cold in a thick cloak, boots and gloves, the hood of the cloak pulled forward as she wandered along the tended-to paths through the dormant garden. The fading sun cast an orange glow on the crisp snow.

She had reached the gazebo when a shadow broke away from the wooden structure and revealed itself to be a slim figure dressed in dark blue. "Good evening."

Her heart was racing, but not from fear. "Hello, Heero." She smiled at him and held out her hand for him to help her up into the gazebo. "How was your day?"

"It was fine. We did a lot of drills and went over some new documents," Heero said as he led her over to a bench. "How about you?"

She frowned as she sat down, and then gave his hand a squeeze so he knew that her displeasure wasn’t about him. "It was a very frustrating day at Court. The king is obviously busy planning something with the Royal Wizard while several highborn have been holding sequestered meetings with people whom I think are wizards. It doesn’t bode well for the war when there’s such cross-currents at Court." She fell silent as she thought of what the wizards must be plotting.

Heero took her hand between his and gave it a gentle rub. "You think they’re up to something?"

"Yes, that’s what has me so afraid. The wizards have always tried to have things their way, and…." She bit her lips and shuddered with suppressed tears. "They’ve always been so bloodthirsty." How could they do that to other living beings? When she thought of them harming poor innocents, when those people had her brother’s face….

"Kritiker’s wizards have always put their magic before anything else," Heero remarked, his tone carefully even as if he was afraid of censor.

Relena jumped to her feet in protest. "That doesn’t make what they do any better! What good is winning at any price? What makes us any better than Esset if we have so much blood on our hands?"

Heero was on his feet as well and quick to grab hold of her hands again. He stared intently into her face as if to read her emotions that way, his blue eyes dark with emotions that he refused to show on his handsome face. "You truly do believe that, don’t you? You don’t care if the people are hurt are human or bound?"

"We can’t be truly human if we make such a distinction. Why would the gods ensure that bounds continue to flourish if they wanted them to be hunted down?" Sometimes it felt as if she was moving her mouth and nothing was coming out, for all the good her protesting did. She spoke up at Court and everyone ignored her, put down her arguments as the usual ‘Peacecraft’ complaints about anything remotely warlike. No one understood that her respect for life included *all* life – for too many people, the line was drawn at bounds. She had always thought that they deserved protection even before she had found out about her brother and the family secret.

Heero continued to stare at her for several seconds, and a sad smile turned up the corners of his lips. "You actually give me… a sense of hope. It’s most unexpected." He continued to hold onto her hands and led her back to the bench inside of the gazebo.

They sat down and huddled together for warmth in the wooden structure. She enjoyed being with someone who made her feel safe and who didn’t seem to expect anything out of her except that she be herself. "I wish there was a way to keep out the world," she whispered as she rested her head against his shoulder, the wool of his uniform’s coat rough against her cheek. "I don’t want to think about all of the suffering and violence that will be coming for us soon."

He raised his hand to touch her other cheek. "Maybe… maybe something can be done to keep this safe." Then he fell silent as if he was thinking about something. "If you really are honest about wanting peace among human and bounds."

She closed her eyes and hugged his arm tightly between hers. "What type of future can we have without peace? That is what my father taught me, and every day I believe in that more and more. It’s what I want to pass on to my children, to give them a safe world where they won’t know hatred." And if by some chance one of them had the same bound blood as her brother, then she wanted them to grow up safe and loved, to not have to worry about discrimination or fear of violence.

All she wanted was for the war to go away and for Millardo to come back. She wanted her family to be whole once again, and more and more, she wanted Heero to be a part of it. If she had to fight the Court to bring about her dreams, she would, and she would hold on to Heero for as long as she could to ensure some happiness.

*******

Masato curled up as much of his body as he could into the shadowy nook and nursed his beer, a slight grin on his face as a spike of envy went through him at the thought of his son; Yohji wouldn’t have any trouble at trying to avoid attention right now, being a mate to a… to Aya. No, he probably would blend into the shadows without any trouble, and not only because of the fact that he took after his mother with his more slender build. Ah well - while Masato was blessed otherwise in the mate department, he at least had decades of experience to counterbalance broader shoulders and a couple of inches extra height. It also helped that Schu was doing such a good job of drawing everyone else’s attention away from him.

<Damn right you’re blessed to have me, Old Man,> the brat grumbled at him. <And I say that this is the last tavern we’re hitting tonight. After we finish this round, you get to take me home and have your wicked way with me.> Schu hid a particularly lascivious grin behind the rim of his mug, but there was no mistaking the rush of emotions that flowed over their link. That quick flash of a smile seemed to just make the people gathered around him all the more interested.

<Dammit, Brat, you’ve definitely jinxed us now.> Masato sighed as he downed a good bit of his own beer, for a moment closing his eyes and enjoying both the drink and the emotions he shared with his mate. Once upon a time he would have savored ‘drinking’ in all of the other emotions from the crowded room, would have picked up on the lust and desire that he encouraged from the people with his talent. Now there was only one person whom he fed from, and that would have to wait until they finished this shitty task tonight.

Lowering the mug, he tried to shift through all of the emotions, to filter out something other than the usual tipsy/happy/horny/slightly depressed/tired/drunk/arousal that he associated with the press of humanity in a tavern. After some effort, he thought he picked up on an unusually sharp spike of interest/focus that had little of the way of inebriation or arousal to it, and quickly snared Schu’s attention. <Try scanning near the bar.>

<Thanks.> Schu had to be careful with his shields in such close quarters and preferred not to do random scanning unless he had a target in mind. <Ah yes, looks like the gods are in the mind to fuck up our evening.> Anger flared over their link before he got his emotions mostly under control. <I *hate* it when that prissy bastard is right.>

Well, at least Schu wasn’t pissed off at him, Masato thought as he sipped his drink. <Kind of difficult for Shinra to be wrong when you’re the strongest soul gaki bound around,> he soothed his furious mate. <Now is the woman coming over any time soon?>

<Yeah, I gave her a slight tweak to rush this along,> Schu sent as he sulked for a moment. When some poor fool offered to buy him a beer, he sneered at the man and sent him off with an insult, but at least his mood was mostly restored by the spiteful action.

The poor man’s place was taken by woman from the bar, who had to be some type of bound; if Masato was close to her, he could probably take a guess as to what type. From this distance, he thought she might be an elemental as she didn’t have the usual type of tension that most gaki-bounds possessed from an effort to either remain in control or keep up their shields.

<She’s an earth elemental,> Schu answered for him as he portrayed a hint of interest in the woman, who was dressed in a gown of finely woven dark brown and gold wool. She was pretty in a way that most bounds were, of delicate features and long, dark brown hair almost the same shade as her dress, pulled back from her face with a carved wooden barrette. Oh yes, she was definitely a spy, dressed just enough to entice but not enough to stand out too much while at the Summer’s Folly.

<We’re going to enjoy a drink at a table,> Schu warned him, so Masato sent along assent while his mate went to discuss business with the Esset spy.

As they left, Masato inched forward just enough to partially reveal himself from the shadows as he searched the tavern, and sure enough, he saw what had to be the woman’s partner across the room; this bound was familiar to him, was a flesh-gaki bound who had passed along a few messages to Schu and him over the past year. The older bound nodded once, a curt bow that caused his white-streaked black braid to slide over his left shoulder, then both he and Masato stepped back into their respective ‘hiding’ spots. They knew the other was there and watching out for their partners, which was acceptable behavior when surrounded by so many humans.

He finished off his beer and remained out of sight, his glamour tampered down as much as he could control it, until Schu sent him a message that it was time to leave. Making sure to act as nonchalant as possible – and aware that Timor could scent any panic even in this much of a crowded room – Masato set his mug on the nearest table and left the inn, bundling up his coat as he walked and waiting until he was outside before activating the heat spell that Omi had given him the night before.

It was cold as any of the hells and snowing, which caused him to curse despite the heating charm in his pocket as he shuffled along to the agreed meeting place to wait for his mate. At least the spell did keep the worst of the winter’s wind away as he stood there for several minutes, and he had to smile when he heard Schu’s curses before he caught sight of his mate.

"Bloody fucking hell, who thinks up this shit? Those old bastards deserve to die just for making us suffer like this," Schu muttered as he hurried over to Masato’s side. "Why couldn’t you be a fire elemental?"

"Because then you’d have ended mated to Duo, or worse, your own uncle," he pointed out with a great deal of amusement. "Wouldn’t that be fun?" he asked as he leaned in for a quick kiss.

The brat was actually stunned quiet long enough for that kiss, and then smacked him on the shoulder. "Asshole." His lips split into a wide grin. "Though it might be worth it just to see how freaked out that bastard of my father would be…."

"Always the evil silver living with you, Brat," Masato teased as he hugged his mate against his side. "So, how did the little chat go? You sell us out to Esset yet?"

"Don’t laugh, one of these days I’ll end up as king and you’ll all be my slaves." Schu smirked as he shoved Masato down the road. <It’s pretty much what Lord Prissy Pants told us last night.> His smile faded as a pensive look took over, his green eyes growing hooded and his emotions turning serious. <I’ve a list of names that I’ve a feeling Birman and Yuushi will know very well, and we’ll have to use glamour and illusions to get near at least half of them.>

Masato felt some of his good mood vanish at the news. <So we’re going to go through with this?>

<We’ll have to do something, Shinra and me.> Schu squeezed his arm and they walked for about a block in silence. <I think we can create a dual-set of compulsions – make it look as if they’re following orders but put in some safe guards.>

<If anyone can do it, the two of you can.> Masato was sure of it; for all of his malice, Schu could be a down-right clever bastard. The trick of it was to make sure that the malice was directed at those who truly deserved it.

<See, that’s why we get along so well – you understand me. Anyone else would try to change me for the ‘better’.> Schu pulled him to a stop and tugged his head down for a kiss.

<Nah, you’re the best when you’re a ‘brat’,> Masato teased as he savored his mate’s talented tongue. He laughed as he pulled back just in time to prevent from being bitten.

"Asshole," Schu growled as he shoved him once again. "Come on, let’s head home and work on that ‘wicked’ stuff." His salacious grin belied the serious tone to his thoughts. <Tomorrow will be soon enough to work with Shinra and Birman on what to do about Esset.>

*******

Omi tugged on Nagi’s hand and led him through the crowded market; it seemed that the cold weather and snow didn’t do much to deter people from doing their daily shopping. "I think her stall should be up ahead."

"I’m getting sick of being bumped into by rude… people," Nagi warned, his tone sounding mostly testy but with a note of strain that was evident to anyone who was familiar with him. He might have become used to dealing with humans over the last couple of years from living at the Koneko, but the people there gave him a fair amount of space out of courtesy and his association with Aya. It wasn’t that often that he had to face crowded markets like this, especially without Aya by his side to supply… whatever ‘shinigami-bound’ effect it was that managed to provide a bit of breathing space that Omi had to admit would be most welcome right about now.

It must be due to the lull in the snow that everyone was determined to get their shopping done before the weather worsened or the temperatures dipped even more once the weak sunlight vanished for the day. Even here, in a part of the market more known for its esoteric goods than daily items, they could barely walk more than a few steps without having to dodge people who were hurrying about their way to buy things.

"Uhm, I don’t think they’re doing it on purpose." Omi stepped a little closer to his boyfriend in hopes that he would take the brunt of that ‘bumping’ and spare some poor unsuspecting shopper from being slammed aside by Nagi’s talent before the earth elemental’s temper frayed; he had to say this for Aya, despite being the most anti-social person he knew that Aya at least kept his bound nature under control while there were witnesses about. Well, most of the time….

Nagi made a derogatory sound yet allowed Omi to remain next to him as they hustled through the crowded market. One or two of the people around them seemed to stumble out of their way, yet other than that, he mostly kept his talent under control as they searched for Takashi’s aunt.

He could have sworn that Takashi had said that his aunt had a booth tucked in a corner. They passed a booth selling ribbons and another selling spices, which caused Nagi to shake his head and hurry along until they were past the strong aromas wafting from the gaudily decorated stand. He barely dodged an older woman burdened with several bags who seemed more intent on her next purchase than avoiding the people in her way, and it was as he tugged Nagi closer in hopes of keeping his boyfriend from mentally tripping her or doing something worse when he finally caught sight of the dark blue cloth draped booth.

"It’s here!" he cried out in excitement as he practically dragged Nagi over to where the older woman with grey-streaked hair sat. Other than the same dark brown eyes as Takashi, she bore little resemblance to his friend; if anything, she reminded Omi of Botan with the air of self-assurance and restraint that she had about her, and a weariness that spoke more of an advanced age that she didn’t show than exhaustion. "Uhm, excuse me, but are you Keiko?"

The woman gave him and Nagi an assessing look for several seconds before nodding. "Yes, I am. Please, be seated." She motioned at the two wooden chairs that were set before the blue-draped table. "What can I do for gentlemen such as you today?"

Omi hurried to sit down, and frowned at Nagi when his boyfriend was a little more hesitant to do so; he knew that Nagi wasn’t too keen on them approaching an unfamiliar magic-user, but witches were much less known to persecute bounds than wizards and nothing that Takashi had ever told them indicated that his great-aunt had ever harmed a bound. After a few more seconds, the earth elemental sat down as well. Omi smiled at him in gratitude and reached for his left hand to offer some comfort.

"My name is Omi Tsukiyono and this is my friend, Nagi. Perhaps you’ve heard of us?"

Keiko’s bland expression warmed into a friendly smile. "Ah yes, my nephew has mentioned you to me several times." Her eyes narrowed in what looked to be amusement when she glanced at Nagi. "You are a fellow assistant of Botan’s are you not?" she asked Omi when she turned her attention back to him.

"Yes, I am." He paused as she began to pour them all what smelled to be green tea from a flask that she fetched from beneath the table; when Nagi gave a quick sniff and then sipped it, he knew that it was safe for him to drink as well. "Thank you."

"I can’t imagine that you’re here in need of any spells from me, since Takashi tells me that you’re very powerful and quite talented." Keiko held the small metal cup in her right hand and stared into its content with a slight frown on her face. "Or did you come to me because there’s a problem with my nephew?"

The question made Omi choke a little on his tea, so he hurried to set the cup down as he coughed to clear his throat. "No, it’s not that!" He sighed as he felt a slight poke to his right side despite the fact that he held Nagi’s left hand and got the hint. Fumbling about with his left hand, he pulled out the sleeping cat charm that he had made and set it on the table, noting how Keiko’s eyes went wide. "Have you heard about Botan’s recent visitor?"

Her dark eyes narrowed again, although this time he was willing to bet that she was not amused. "There is a rather interesting rumor among… my associates that a fellow wizard paid Botan a visit and left… shall we say in a bit of a foul mood?" A sharpness took over her smile, indicating that she felt no sympathy for Kido’s thwarted plea to Botan. "My associates have also noted that there’s been a lot more wizards in the city as of late, being the pompous asses that they usually are and buying up needed items."

She set her tea aside untouched and tapped the fingers of her right hand against the table-top. "What I don’t understand is why two young men, one of them a wizard in training and one…." She looked hard at Nagi who sat there utterly still and then glanced aside, her face growing pale and her head bowed. "Why two young men are here asking me that question and not the Royal Wizard."

"What has Takashi told you about me?" Omi demanded to know, his voice roughened with an edge that he had picked from the last two years of living with Yohji, Aya and Nagi. He might never be a bound, not like Ken, but he learned when to stand his ground and when to push hard, and right now he needed to know where he stood with this woman.

Keiko turned to face him, her motions slow as if she did so with great reluctance. "All he said was that you are very powerful, the most powerful wizard he’s ever known, so much so that he doesn’t know how he’ll ever grow to match you. And… that you’re a good friend. He’s also said that he better not ever get between you and your lover, and he…," her gaze flickered over to Nagi for a moment as the air seemed to grow thick around them, "he always laughs when does, but he seems a bit scared at the same time. There’s usually only one type of… person… who is that possessive."

"Yet you sit here," Nagi said, speaking up for the first time as the air continued to grow heavy around the booth.

Keiko let out a slow breath and nodded. "Because if I’m right, and you’re with *him*, a wizard, what’s a witch to you?" She offered them a smile that was probably meant to be brave but was too tremulous for that.

Nagi gave her a stare that he must have learned from Aya, and just before Omi could kick his ankle, snorted once and finished his tea. "It’s not so much the magic as how you go about it." Just like that, the atmosphere returned to normal.

"Ah, then it’s a good thing that witches tend to respect nature and your kind." Keiko seemed to visibly relax – at least for a few seconds. "I’m going to box that boy’s ears for this one," she muttered as she dumped her tea onto the ground and pulled out a small silver flask.

Omi grinned as he leaned against his boyfriend for a moment. "To be fair, Takashi is honoring our trust in him. Now, back to the main point if we can? The ‘why are we here?’"

She paused in pouring what smelled to be a potent liquor into the small metal cup and sighed. "Yes, yes. Just give me a moment." After tossing back the alcohol, she rubbed her lips with the back of her right hand and set the flask aside. "Botan didn’t send you, did he? Because I’m not adverse to smacking him, either."

"No, he didn’t. In fact, I think it might be best if he didn’t know about this at all." Omi sat up straight and did his best to come across as serious, now that it was time to put into motion the plan he had thought about the last few days. "He’s busy playing politics at the Court, and what he doesn’t realize is that the wizards are used to doing the same. While he may have the king’s backing, the wizards will be able to rally much of the Court to them and the last thing we need at a time of war is such division amongst us."

Keiko nodded as if to show that she was following along. "You’re rather well-informed about Court politics for someone so young, and you’re not saying anything that I and my associates haven’t argued before. Kritiker wizards have entrenched themselves among politics, highborns and the Court for centuries – they’ll do whatever they have to in order to ensure that they can practice magic as they see fit." Once again she glanced at Nagi as she spoke and quickly looked aside. "It’s how they managed to discredit us female magic-wielders and persecute bounds for so long. That there *is* a war looming will only give them more incentive and support as no one will want to face Esset without them."

Omi felt a surge of excitement as Nagi squeezed his hand, an offering of silent encouragement right before he dove in on his plan. "Yes, but what if we offer them an alternative? Something that more people might be able to relate to, being commoners?"

It took a few seconds, but he could tell when Keiko understood where he was going and why he was here. The silver flask was set back down on the table as she leaned forward. "And just how do you think a wizard in training like you is going to be able to pull that off?"

Nagi snorted again and, after a quick glance around to ensure that they were suitably blocked from the rest of the market, used his talent to pour Keiko some more alcohol. This time, Omi did manage to kick his boyfriend, but only a soft tap and after the flask was set back down. "To be perfectly honest, I didn’t give you my real name when I first introduced myself…."

*******

Yohji looked at the stack of books piled around Aya and sighed. "You couldn’t have liked… I don’t know, sewing or knitting or something? I could picture us going through the centuries with me trying on an endless amount of sweaters, or in a house covered with all of these depressing as hell tapestries." Then he thought about the latter for a moment and shook his head. "Okay, maybe the second one isn’t that good of a suggestion. I’d probably have nightmares from the shit the hissing bastards would tell you to embroider."

Aya looked up from the book he was reading to glare at him; the only comforting part of it was that there was no hint of silver in his violet eyes. "Go away," he hissed, sounding much like those damn shinigami at the moment.

"Aw, you don’t mean that." Yohji was mindful of the books as he sat on the table near his mate.

"I do if you’re here only to spout nonsense," Aya grumbled before going back to reading. "And it’s reasons like this that the shinigami don’t like you."

No, the shinigami *hated* him because they wanted their precious ‘young one’ to shed his physical self and become an insubstantial hissing bastard just like them, which Yohji refused to allow to happen. However, he wasn’t going to go down that road when he already had a grouchy mate on his hands. "But Aya, *everyone* loves me," he declared as he draped his arms over his lover’s shoulders and smiled.

That earned him another glare, yet he picked up on a mix of amusement, exasperation and love over their link. "How many times have I told you that you shouldn’t drink before dinner?"

"Says the man who was down there inhaling rum cake just this morning. I guess it’s fine as long as there’s a handful of sugar around it." Yohji’s smile faltered as the glare intensified. "Uhm, so what are you reading now?"

"Unfortunately, nothing on how to curb succubae bounds," Aya remarked in a surly tone. When Yohji affected a crestfallen expression, he sighed and held up the book in his hands. "I’m researching the effect of bounds on the physical world around them."

"And why would you be doing that?" Yohji waited for an answer, but all Aya did was stare evenly at him for several seconds before arching an eyebrow and resuming reading. "Ah, I see," he commented after a minute. It probably had something to do with what had Aya standing on the wall in daylight and him willingly going to talk to Crawford. "You want to know how I drive everyone crazy, right?" He did some impressive eyebrow action of his own.

His joke earned him a sigh as Aya set aside the book. "Seriously, no drinking before dinner."

"I wasn’t drinking. Promise. However, I wouldn’t mind a bit of a snack." He grinned in a salacious manner as his lover gave him another blank stare and then slid onto his lap. "Since you’ve been ignoring me for books again."

"Hmm, maybe I’ll talk to the shinigami about some embroidering ideas since my reading traumatizes you so much," Aya murmured as he tilted his face up for a kiss.

"Ha ha, very funny." Yohji pressed his lips against Aya’s and moaned in delight at the feel of sunlight trickling into him. Cool fingers slid through his hair and gave the strands a gentle tug as he began to undo the ties of Aya’s woolen tunic. When his hands came in contact with bare skin, the sunlight increased as well as the pleasure he sensed over their link. For himself, there was as much hunger as desire/pleasure, an aching need to have his mate, to taste him and hold him close until the rest of the world faded away.

Aya panted into Yohji’s mouth, all signs of anger or disinterest gone as he gave in to his emotions. As much as he might shut himself off from everybody else, as much as he might withdraw from ‘human’ contact, here was something that he was still true about – their bond and what they meant to each other. He let go of Yohji’s hair to clutch at his shoulders, to pull him as close as possible while Yohji worked on unfastening their pants, his arousal as evident on his body as from his emotions.

Yohji freed himself first, his hands shaking as he undid his laces, and then was fumbling at the laces of Aya’s pants as he broke off the kiss to nibble his way down his mate’s neck. The way that Aya stuttered out his name, so full of need and short of breath, made him growl with a possessiveness that overwhelmed his human nature, that had him sucking hard on pale skin to leave a mark. The resulting rush of love/ecstasy/desire that accompanied the sunlight was enough to make him dizzy.

He closed his eyes in attempt to rein in his demon nature and pulled away from Aya’s neck long enough to lick the palm of his hand, which he then wrapped around both of their cocks. That prompted another cry from Aya and the feel of sharp nails digging into his shoulders, which spurred him to grin as he pressed his mouth against his mate’s neck once again. Between his saliva and the pre-come dripping from both their hard cocks, his hand slid up and down with ease along the sensitive flesh, its pace growing more frantic as the pleasure/need coiled inside both of them.

The ever-present hunger spurred him on, demanding more of that addicting sunlight, more of Aya’s emotions and mewls and passion-laden scent. There was a distant thought of making love to his mate properly, of possessing every inch of his beautiful body, but right now he had Aya’s desire and need and neck between his teeth and sunlight coursing through his veins; he had Aya’s love and nails piercing his back through thick wool to claim him in return and both of them were so close, pleasures entwined and bodies writhing together. His hands could barely move between them, slick with fluids and sweat, sliding on hard, smooth skin as they panted together in time. The ecstasy was all the same at that point, the hunger shared, and both of them began to shudder as if the same orgasm tore through them and one voice cried out in release.

The brilliant flash of sunlight stunned Yohji, left him in such a state of euphoria that it took a particularly savage dig of teeth into his left shoulder to realize that he still had his own teeth pressed hard against Aya’s neck. "Dammit, Cat," he complained as he pulled away with a wince, his tongue darting out to lick at the blood on his lips.

Aya’s glare made a return as he swiped at his rather spectacularly bruised neck with his right hand, which ended up smearing the blood around. "I’m running out of turtlenecks!" he hissed.

"And I think I’ve nothing but scar tissue left." Yohji rubbed his abused shoulder and was enough of a gentleman to not mention his abused back, which was already healing. Ah hell, at least Aya had tugged the sweater down before biting – not that it did him much good, since the sweater was filthy for other reasons. He grimaced a little and looked about for a napkin or something to clean them up with and found a tray from earlier that Nagi must have brought up for Aya. "At least your neck will heal." In a few days, he thought to himself in a smug manner.

While his lover couldn’t read thoughts – thank each and every one of the gods – he must have picked up on some of the emotions behind it because his glare took on a bit of a virulent edge. "At least you can hide your shoulder," he pointed out with the slightest of sibilant hiss.

Deciding that this wasn’t the way he wanted to ruin their post-sex afterglow, Yohji handed over the napkin to Aya first. "What does it matter when you’re just going to be here at the Koneko for the next few days, na?" When all Aya did was accept the piece of cloth with a slight huff, he narrowed his eyes and reached out for the nearest eartail to tug. "Right? Remember the bit about the pissed off wizards and all?"

Aya’s brows became furrowed as he cleaned up. "I haven’t forgotten, and I don’t intend to leave here unless it’s necessary." He was quiet as he wiped himself clean and restored himself to order, then handed over the napkin with a tentative smile. "But you have to admit, things don’t always work out the way we hope."

Yohji leaned in for a quick kiss as he accepted both the napkin and what he felt was Aya’s ‘peace offering’. "Just as long as you keep me informed and at your side, okay? We kick wizard and Esset ass *together*."

The more certain smile he received just then was worth all of the abuse his poor shoulder took – not that he’d ever admit it to the stubborn cat that was his mate. "Yes, I promise." Aya reached out to cup the side of his face as he spoke, and the fact that he made an oath out of it meant that he didn’t intend to try to trick Yohji in any way ‘to keep him safe’. That didn’t mean that the gods might not interfere and separate them when it came time to fight, but at least Aya would look to Yohji to be at his side when they took on their enemies.

"Such a smart kitty." Yohji smiled at the rush of annoyance he felt and brushed the back of his fingers along Aya’s left cheekbone as he sent back some of the energy he’d just feasted upon. "And I promise to do the same. We always fare best when we face things together."

"Hmm, when you’re not drinking too much," Aya teased, his eyelids heavy and a faint smile curving his lips.

Well, two could play that game. "And when you can be bothered to leave your precious library," Yohji shot back as he straightened out his clothes the best he could. "Or when you’re not stuffing yourself with sweets."

"Do *you* really want to talk about gluttony?" Aya asked as he attempted to cover up the latest bruises on his neck.

That prompted a laugh from Yohji. "All right, you might have a point there." He leaned in for a quick kiss. "But really, it’s not my fault. Blame my father."

That earned him a light smack to his left shoulder, but the smile never left his lover’s lips. "I don’t think you give your mother enough credit." Casting an assessing look at the pile of books, Aya frowned a little and then shook his head. "Let’s go grab a change of clothes and take a bath."

Now that sounded like a wonderful idea, and not only because Yohji needed to get rid of his sweater right about then; anything that got Aya out of the attic library for a bit was a good thing. "We can see if Jo has any more rum cake left, and I think there was sheppard’s pie for lunch." Nagi might have actually left some for Aya.

"You chide me for eating sweets and then you basically bribe me with more. You’re a very strange man, Yotan." Aya smiled up at him as he pushed Yohji off of his lap so he could stand up.

"Hey, I am a very complex individual, I’ll have you know." He chuckled as he wrapped an arm around his mate’s hip and led him out of the attic library. A veil of shadows covered them as they left the quiet room, which was probably a good thing considering the state of their wardrobe at the moment. "And if you’re eating rum cake, then I can have some." He just barely dodged the pointy elbow aimed at his ribs.

"At least there’s no icing to be smeared all over me," Aya said with an aggrieved sigh. "You just have to share it with Teddy."

Mention of his hyper foster brother made Yohji shudder a little. "Gah. I’ll be surprised if there’s any left by the time we get to the kitchen." Ah well, he would rather enjoy a nice soak with his lover anyway. Some quiet time in the hot spring, a good meal and maybe he could grab a minute with Reiichi and have the man come up here to check out the book that Aya had been reading; he knew that his lover couldn’t say too much because of whatever the creepy death goddess had warned him about, but that didn’t mean that Yohji, being a brilliant person, couldn’t work around things. Reiichi, being an equally brilliant Guard, might be able to pick up something from the book that Aya had found interesting and get that information to Crawford. It was a pain to have to go about things in such a roundabout manner… but one did as one must to appease the gods.

*******

Jacquelyn felt her feet slip out from under her on the snowy road, but Mirko was there to keep her from falling with a strong grip on her left arm. "Thank you," she whispered to her partner as she was assisted back onto her feet, his large hand firm and warm as it remained wrapped around her upper arm for a few more seconds.

"Are you all right?"

"Yes, just… tired," she sighed. They had moved as quickly as they dared toward Eto in the last couple of days, switching horses and even walking whenever they needed to draw as little attention to themselves as possible. Now that they were in the city, they could get some rest, but they needed to reach a safe place first. Also, they wanted to get a ‘feel’ for what was needed from them to make their task successful.

"Just a little longer, and we should reach the safe-house that Jonas set up for us." Mirko sounded as exhausted as she felt, but at least he was steady on his feet and his tall form appeared to discourage the few other people who were out this late at night; she wasn’t used to being out in a city like this, especially one filled with so many *humans*, and was grateful for her partner’s protective presence. All of the water elementals had heard of the horror stories of what would happen to them at the hands of humans, about what Trowa and countless others had suffered. Jacquelyn didn’t intend to ever suffer the same fate if she could help it, even if she wasn’t as powerful as Trowa, her grandmother or the rest.

Mirko’s left arm wrapped around her shoulders. "We’ll be warm soon, I promise. Just a little longer." He squinted as he looked at the snow-covered streets. "I think we’ve a couple more blocks to go and then we head east. After that, it should just be a block or two, as long as nothing’s changed too much since the last time I was here." He sounded a little uncertain, but then again, it had been a few decades since his last mission in Eto.

Jacquelyn smiled and rested her head against his side for a moment. "I’m sure you’re right since I can feel us getting closer to the sea." A part of her felt a spark of excitement about being so close to the water. "Let’s just hope that we reach the house before it starts snowing again."

He rubbed her left arm a few times as if to help warm her up. "At this point, I’m so cold and hungry that I don’t see how being snowed on any more can hurt." His gloved right hand lifted to brush at the growth of blond hair that covered the lower part of his face in a vain attempt to provide some warmth during their travels. "I just want to sit near a fire, eat till I’m stuffed and take a hot bath."

"I’ll save the bath until tomorrow if it means I can get some rest first." Jacquelyn tried to ignore the painful clenching of her stomach from hunger as she thought about a warm, soft bed. "But at least the snow will prove useful to us." She could feel the already accumulated snow and ice all around her – on the streets, in the trees, and more importantly, on the buildings. Once they reached their destination and got some rest, it would be easy to use both of their powers and find a suitable target.

Mirko laughed as he fussed with his thick cloak. "That’s fine with me, just means I can have a nice long soak in the tub." He grew quiet as they walked past a man who was huddled in a doorway of a tavern. "We’ll be there soon." Either it was nervousness from all of the humans around them or that he truly did believe that they would reach the safe-house soon, but he grew tense and hurried their pace.

"I know." She tried not to shudder at the thought of running into a pair of Guards before they reached the safe-house and focused on keeping her feet moving. Just a little longer, and they could rest. Once they were fed and got some sleep, then they could work on the Elders’ mission and help ensure that Esset won the upcoming war. She didn’t know why it was so important to cause the damage within the next few days, but if the Elders wanted it done, then she would make it happen.

 

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