Precipice of Darkness

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chapter 5

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teas and snow

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Heero gave a curt nod to Privates Halloway and Tokai who were stationed at the eastern gate leading from the palace into the city. It had been another long, frustrating day spent ferrying sealed messages back and forth where he only heard snippets of important conversations, just enough to know that Kritiker was seriously preparing for war and making some fundamental changes to the Army’s battle structure. He supposed that he would find out soon enough before they shipped out to the battlefield, but the sooner he could get the information back to Esset, the more time Wufei would have to come up with an appropriate strategy to counter-act the… the….

Heero frowned and came to a halt as he found himself mentally stumbling on what *exactly* Kritiker was to him anymore. After spending over a year training and working with many of the men and women in its Army, they were no longer anonymous strangers to him. Whenever he thought of receiving a new order to eliminate a threat or to create any more tension, he kept flashing back to the human daughter of Duo’s partner – the way she had stared up at him with that shocked expression. While he prided himself on always fulfilling his orders and being of service to the Elders, there was a sense of relief that nothing had been requested of him since last summer.

He wondered if Trowa and Duo had any such issues with their assignments; the little that he had tried to breach the topic with Trowa had lead to no such acknowledgements from the water elemental, although Trowa had always been a bit… reserved and excelled at going undercover. Did Duo have a problem with the thought of betraying his fellow Guard? He had taken his partner’s death very hard, after all. Yet Duo was always rather emotional, which was probably why the Elders had chosen him to deal with humans in the first place.

Lost in his thoughts, Heero almost snarled when he felt a hand grab onto his left arm. He was surprised to see the focus of his thoughts standing beside him, an annoyed frown on his face and wearing a Guard’s uniform. "Have you gone deaf or something?" Duo snapped.

"I… no, my ears are fully functional, as always." Heero frowned as well and wondered what the fire elemental was doing here, out in the city not far from the palace. "Is there something wrong?" Duo had avoided him from months, barely speaking to him unless it was for some Guard/Army matter or related to Trowa.

Duo made a clicking sound with his tongue and held out a cloth bag that was filled with something bulky. "Trowa has some books that he wanted to me to give to you." There was a hint of animosity in his voice, which wasn’t surprising considering what Heero had done to his late partner, but at least the air around them wasn’t filled with sparks or growing warm.

"Oh, thank you." Heero’s motions were a little jerky as he accepted the books, and it belatedly occurred to him that the package may be some type of excuse for Duo to meet up with him. "Is that… all?"

"Eh, it’s cold as hell out here. Let’s go get a cup of tea since Trowa is still working for a couple more hours." Duo shoved his hands into the pockets of his dark blue wool coat and walked away without waiting for an answer, leaving Heero to stand there stunned for a moment before stalking after the idiot.

Since Duo seemed to have a destination in mind, he followed behind the fire elemental, trudging through the snow and the crowd. They went through the shopping district and eventually came to a small courtyard that was filled with potters for plants and dormant vines. Duo paused in front of a green-painted door and motioned for Heero to step inside.

"Where are we?" he asked, more than a little suspicious considering the animosity that his former partner had held toward him the last few months.

"It’s a teahouse called the ‘Celadon Leaf’ – you may have heard of it." When all Heero did was give Duo a blank look, he sighed and shook his head. "You really need to get out more, Heero," he grumbled as he opened the door. "This place is pretty good." As he stepped inside, he waved to a middle-aged Xanian man who was busy serving a few customers. "Good evening, Huan. Mind if we use one of the back rooms?"

The man nodded once. "I’ll bring some refreshments in a minute."

"Thanks!" Duo grinned as he motioned for Heero to continue to follow him through the shop, which was decorated in a Xanian manner with low, lacquered black tables and chairs. He opened a red-painted door and led them into a room set with two small tables. "We should be able to speak privately in here," he explained as he began to unbutton his heavy wool coat.

Heero did the same and draped his outer coat over the back of his chair. They had just sat down when the man from before came into the room with a tray heavy with a porcelain tea set and several lacquer boxes, which he set on the table before them. Once he was finished, he bowed once and then quickly left.

"We should be good for a while," Duo commented as he pushed the various boxes about, until he opened one and revealed some white buns. When he bit into one, Heero smelled red bean paste and was quick to grab a couple of them while he waited for the green tea to finish steeping. A more thorough investigation of the rest of the ‘boxes’ revealed there to be an assortment of meat and vegetable buns and dumplings.

"Yes." Heero put his talent to use to muffle their voices while he helped himself to the food. "Have you come here often?"

Duo shrugged and judged that the tea was ready. "It’s close to the palace and has pretty good food, so we’re here about once a week." He glared at Heero as he poured them both some tea. "That’s Annan and me, my new partner. You gonna kill him, too?" There was a hint of red to his indigo-hued eyes and a flash of sharp teeth as he spoke.

It wasn’t a surprise to have that accusation tossed at his face, and in a manner it was best to get it out of the way now, Heero thought to himself as he sipped his tea. "Not unless I receive orders." When Duo began to snarl, he bowed his head. "Not unless it’s absolutely necessary," he amended after recalling that young girl’s face, and readied his talent to deflect a wave of sparks – or worse.

To his astonishment, the snarl faded away and all he heard was the snap of teeth biting through dough and some quick chewing. "Good, you seem to finally be thinking for yourself," Duo said through a mouthful of food. Thankfully, he must have swallowed before Heero looked up and was ‘graced’ with a smile. "I always thought that you could be so much more powerful once you started doing that."

The praise made Heero duck his head again and fiddle with his tea cup. "I’m already strong enough to take you down," he mumbled.

"Pfft, you wish." Duo made another disrespectful sound and helped himself to more snacks. "The only thing that saved me from frying your ass was Trowa, ya know?" He paused to make quick work of a dumpling, which provoked Heero’s appetite. "Kept going on and on about how unprofessional it was to kill a colleague." Duo rolled his eyes and waved his left hand about as if trying to brush aside what must have been an impressive lecture from Trowa.

Heero managed a smile as he snatched up the last of the chicken and mushroom dumplings. "You’re too afraid of him to make him angry."

"Who isn’t who has half a brain? The man may be quiet, but he can be nasty as hell when he’s pissed off." Duo shuddered before he poured them some more tea. "Living with him has only driven that point home, especially if you leave a bunch of dirty dishes in the sink." Despite the fact that he lived with the ‘nasty’ water elemental, Duo appeared rather… content at the moment.

Even though he felt that he had done his duty in carrying out his orders, Heero regretted that his actions last summer had led – among other things – to a rift in his… ‘friendship’ with Duo. While the man annoyed him with an ease that few others could replicate and could bewildered him within moments, Duo also provided a sense of comfort with the way he acted as buffer between the world of humans and conflicting emotions. Trowa was a true friend and in some ways understood things that only Heero did, but Duo… Duo was like a filter, a new way to experience life.

"I must admit that I’m surprised that you haven’t come begging to me to be my partner again as of yet." Heero narrowed his eyes and looked Duo up and down. "Perhaps you’re masochistic?"

"Fuck you," Duo scoffed while he tossed a bit of garnish in Heero’s direction. "I know enough to not piss off Trowa that much, and no, I’m *not* masochistic. If I got off on pain and abuse, I’d still be working with you."

Heero bowed his head in acknowledgement of the taunt; there wasn’t much he could say, considering how he had killed the man’s human partner. "Yes, I suppose that’s true." He didn’t feel much of an appetite anymore.

There was a heavy sigh and a loud clunk, as if something was set down on the table with force. "You know, I thought you were acting a bit unusual tonight, and that just confirms it. What, no ‘I’m the one in pain for being stuck with you’? No familiar rant about loyalty, obedience and the usual shit?" Duo sighed again and sat back in his chair, a tired expression on his face. "What’s going on, Heero? It’s not like you to be so… unfocused like this."

"’Unfocused’, that seems to be the correct word." Heero attempted to marshal his thoughts as he held the delicate cup of tea between his hands; for all that he never would have voiced them in Berin – would never have *thought* them there – for some reason it felt right to say them to Duo, someone who fought for Esset yet had the courage to let his displeasure be known over how certain things were run. "It’s just… nothing has been quite how I imagined it ever since we got here."

Duo waited for a minute for him to continue and then spoke up in a soft voice. "And how was that? Public blood-letting of bounds in the streets every week? Open pogroms about how we’re all to be killed on sight?" Despite the quietness of his voice, the sarcasm in it was clear.

"Maybe, yes, I don’t know." Heero sighed as he tried to deal with his internal confusion then sipped his tea. "Some of them do hate us."

"And some of them don’t. Most of them just go on with their daily lives." Duo wiped his hands on a napkin and reached over to rest them on top of Heero’s. "Look, I know that we haven’t been this far inside of Kritiker before, but we’ve done enough raids that you should have had *some* idea of what we’d face. And that was people who put up with digging in the dirt and selling trinkets and who just want to keep their family together, even if their brother or daughter is a ‘filthy’ bound."

Heero had always thought that it must have been shame that had prompted the family members to fight back when they came to retrieve the bound to take to Esset, where that person would be safe. Only now he had to wonder if that person really had been appreciated by their family and not driven out or killed. "It’s so different from what the Elders told me it would be. My troop doesn’t want to go kill bounds, they just want to keep their country safe and remain home. I see more bloodthirstiness in the palace than I do out on the street or in the barracks."

"That’s because the highborns won’t be the ones out on the front lines," Duo commented with a dry chuckle. "And I have to wonder how many people have lost family members to Esset over the last few decades." His hands tightened over Heero’s as he spoke.

Yes, there would be a good bit of Kritiker-born bounds in Esset’s army, and now Heero realized that they may not hate their home country as much as he had always assumed, that they may not see themselves as ‘liberated’. Could an army be effective if it was divided? "Things aren’t so clear anymore. My goal… it now appears clouded," he admitted with some shame. The hated target of humanity now bore the face of a traumatized little girl.

Duo squeezed his hands once again before releasing them and sitting back in his chair. "Then the best advice I can give you is you need to take the long view on this; we still have some time before the war, so keep your eyes, ears and your *mind* open until then." He tapped his fingers against his right temple. "Like I said, you’ll be an even better weapon for *Esset* when you use that brain of yours to its full capacity. So start thinking for yourself, see the world around you for how it truly is and not how people tell you and you’ll make a decision you can live with."

He drank some tea and then reached into his pouch for some coins, which he left on the table. "With a bit of help from Jouyoku, you’ll make a decision that *all* of us can live with," he added with a smile. "And now, I’m gonna head back to the palace and see if that tyrant of a Spymaster is done working my roommate into exhaustion for the day since it’s his turn to make dinner." He gave Heero a wink and rose to his feet. "Try not to beat those Army kids up too much, okay?"

"Hmm, I’ll pretend I’m practicing with you, as that usually reminds me to restrain myself before I cause any serious damage." Heero smiled in the face of his friend’s sudden glower. "Please thank Trowa for the books."

"Yeah, well next time he can deliver them himself and put up with your stuck-up ass." Duo continued to mutter to himself as he left the teahouse, yet he appeared pleased despite the incoherent insults. Heero watched him leave before finishing the tea and the remaining dumplings.

He was halfway to the barracks when Duo’s odd phrasing had sunk in – that he would be a better weapon for ‘Esset’ and not the Elders. For so long, he had devoted himself to his country’s leaders, had strove to make them proud. Esset and the Elders should be one and the same to both him and Duo, yet now… now he found what his friend had said reverberating inside of him. For Esset. *For* *Esset*.

What if he fought for what was best for Esset, just as Relena cared so much about what was right for Kritiker?

*******

Jei hugged his dark grey cloak a little tighter around his body, grateful for the heat charm that Omi had provided as it kept the worst of the frigid wind from penetrating through the thick layers of wool and leather that he wore against the elements. Just a little past winter solstice and he was already desperate for spring to arrive, anything to put an end to the seemingly endless waves of snow and freezing rain that pelted the city – snow that Esset was becoming desperate for, all because of those fool Elders.

He stifled a snarl building in his throat and did his best to slink through the shadows while hampered by the knee-height build-up of snow. The one benefit of being out this late at night was that there were few other people out and about; it was just that those few other people were usually out for a reason and he didn’t want to draw their attention to him or scare them away. Right about now some of Aya’s shadows could come in handy, or better yet, to be home by a warm fire.

He swore that Crawford had to have some idea of why he was out here in the cold and the snow, and he would *savor* biting into the bastard one of these days. Oh yes, by all of the gods he would let his teeth linger in that man’s flesh, would pause before ripping away a mouthful of blood and muscle and skin, would-

The slight whiff of gentian perfume, which he had only smelled on one person since arriving in Eto, caught his attention and derailed his thoughts before his demon nature took over. He took a few deep breaths before he identified which direction the scent originated from and then decided that he might as well borrow a page from the kage’s book, so to speak. Claws made it very easy to climb up the wooden façade of a pottery store, and once up on the rooftop, he had a better view of the streets. Hmm, maybe Aya and Yohji were on to something with their rooftop runs, since a good bit of the roofs had been cleared recently or charmed to prevent the heavy snow from causing them to collapse….

Jei allowed himself a toothless grin at the thought of dragging his fussy partner up onto the roof for a hike across the city and then got down to the task of tracking down that Esset scent. Mindful of making any noise, he crept about until he could peer around a chimney onto the street below, where two figures stood mostly cloaked in darkness; if it wasn’t for his enhanced senses, they’d be almost impossible to spot. He loosened his hold on his demon nature to make it a little easier to focus upon them.

"-one?"

"No, it hasn’t been that well kept up." The smaller figure, the one who wore the perfume, shook her head. "We need to find one in better shape."

Her partner let out a frustrated growl and stomped away. "How are we supposed to tell? It’s not like there’s a sign on the…" His voice faded away as he got out of Jei’s range, and Jei had to resist the urge to race after them, to run them down, slice their hamstrings and then gut them, pull out their intestines and chew on them until they screamed out why they were here…. Dammit, Crawford had ordered him to leave the Esset agents alone, to observe only and do his best to figure out *why* they were in the city without betraying the fact that they knew there were agents sniffing around.

Struggling with the madness, he waited a minute and then jumped down to the street. Going over to where they had stood, he took several deep breaths and bared his teeth; ah, gentian and sweet musk and rain, he would bet Crawford’s blood that the woman was a water elemental. He would be able to track her scent now, and that of her partner as well, who had a hint of iron to him which probably made him earth. At least one good thing came out of being in the freezing cold the last couple of nights, now to see if he couldn’t figure out what the hell they were doing here.

He turned to look at the building they had studied, and for the life of him couldn’t see what was ‘wrong’ with it. The brick building housed several stores and what looked to be a few apartments on the top few floors; by no means was he an architect, but it appeared in good shape to him. While he stared at the damn thing as if it continuing to do so would give him some sort of clue that he could take back to Crawford and so earn a night’s reprieve from this damn assignment, it began to snow. He looked up at the sky for a few seconds and then began to curse as he once more scaled the nearest building and then hopped over to the ‘inadequate’ one.

Unlike several others he’d crossed that night, there was a buildup of snow on its mostly flat roof. It looked as if either the spell to prevent the snow from forming on it was failing or that the person in charge of keeping it clear was a bit lazy. It must be a bitch, to keep up with all of the snow this winter, but the humans and the wizards were doing a pretty good job because Jei hadn’t heard of any occupied buildings collapsing from the snow or ice buildup. Oh, there had been a few fires because not everyone could afford *those* spells, but everyone knew the dangers from several feet of frozen water collecting on top of their heads and took care of it before it caused too much damage.

Now what if something happened to a building that was ‘in good shape’? Jei would bet his remaining eye that people would either blame bounds or wizards if something went wrong, depending on the circumstances and how those two bastard agents were sent here to spin things. If *Aya* was having premonitions before Crawford, then most likely there was going to be a pretty high body count; that meant those old pricks had someone in mind to take the fall. An earth elemental and a water elemental could probably do a lot of damage to a building exposed to the elements, even with a heat spell or two on it.

He was tempted to follow the trace of scent winding down the street until it led him to where the agents were hiding and then unleash his demon side, to feast on sweet blood and tender flesh. It was a struggle to rein in that part of him and force himself to return home instead, to not risk revealing to the Elders and their lackeys that there was someone willing to oppose them just yet. Dammit, Crawford would be insufferable to deal with if he did something as foolish as that. Well, even *more* insufferable to deal with, Jei told himself as he jogged through the snow.

*******

Crawford marveled at the printed page before him, with its blatant typecasting of an ‘Esset’ lord who was a misogynistic, abusive, narrow-minded cretin of a brother towards his poor, beautiful, fragile innocent of a sister about to be rescued by a dashing hero of Kritiker blood – it might be worth starting the war early by sending several volumes of the book to Quatre’s sisters. Of course, those ‘fragile innocents’ just might turn the war to Esset’s favor in their righteous indignation, but it was amusing to imagine what they would get up to in their-

The vision struck him with such force that he lost all awareness of his surroundings, of sensations – even of the pain that accompanied his talent – of everything except the flashing images. There was Heero, wearing a Kritiker Army uniform while facing Esset’s army. Gou, Rei, Shin and Gai with hands clasped together while the turbulent sky above them stilled. A pale grey-stone building crumbling in the daylight, dust and cries of pain and sorrow rising from the ruins. Hatred flaring anew between wizards and bounds; a new, stronger distinction between what was human and what was not. Omi, his face solemn, facing the Court while Birman stood at *his* side, her dark eyes shining with pride. Kritiker driven farther into distrust, division – at Court, out on the streets, on the battlefield. Roy and Ed before the Elders, hands clasped together. Wufei, wearing armor and a sword in his hand with Helena by his side. A young girl with dark hair and golden eyes.

Crawford gasped as the vision left as abruptly as it had come upon him, his head aching as if it had received a blow. His hands trembled in his lap, the book now lying on the floor as he hunched over from the pain. In a minute he would get up and brew himself some tea for the agonizing headache, but right now he needed to make sense of what he had just seen. Everything was so jumbled together – something would happen that could alter the future, that would put what he had worked so hard to create into jeopardy, but there were still threads of *his* future in place. The Elders were making their move, but that didn’t mean that the bastards would win.

He was still gathering the strength to move when Jei burst into the apartment, bringing a blast of cold air in with him. "I know what they’re up to! They’re going to-"

"Kill a bunch of people by imploding a building," Crawford finished for him, his head aching even more now thanks to the idiot’s loud voice. "Could you please shut up and go make me-"

It was his turn to be shut up when a snarling Jei punched the chair on either side of his neck and leaned in, lips pulled back to expose his very sharp teeth and his golden eye blazing with animosity. "Oh no, you annoying bastard! You don’t go having a vision *now* after I’ve been freezing my balls off for the last several nights!"

Taking several breaths to help lessen the pain as well as to remind himself why he needed his partner alive for at least a few more years, Crawford then raised a trembling hand to push Jei out of his face. "I’ve seen the end result and the effect. You were sent to gather what my vision would leave out – such as the who and hopefully the how. Now *get* *me* *some* *tea* *before* *you* *lose* *those* *fucking* *balls*." For added affect, he did some teeth-baring of his own.

Perhaps because it was rare when he allowed his demon nature to show like that or when he resorted to profane physical threats, but Jei merely blinked a few times before pulling away and walking into the kitchen. Crawford closed his eyes and focused on breathing to try to dull the pain, and after what seemed to him to be an excruciatingly long amount of time, Jei returned with some tea.

"Here, drink the damn thing," his partner mumbled as he set the mug down on the table beside Crawford. Then he sat in the opposite chair and took a swig from the bottle of whiskey in his hand.

"Thank you." Crawford sipped the hot beverage, which Jei had added a heavy dollop of honey to mask the stringent herbal taste somewhat. "Now, what did you find tonight?"

For a moment it looked as if Jei was going to be difficult, until he sighed and shook his head. "I’m pretty sure that they sent a water and an earth elemental, just like your brother said. They’re searching for ‘an adequate’ building, and from what I can tell, that probably means one with a good ward on it against snow or something." He paused for another swig of alcohol.

Wincing a little from the hot tea, Crawford nodded once it seemed that the motion wouldn’t cause him too much pain. "That would make sense, considering what I saw tonight. I think the Elders want to cause trouble for Kritiker’s wizards, and having people think that they’re failing in either maintaining their wards or selling fakes, on top of the bad publicity they received last year over the fake charms, would be a great start." He sipped a little more of Cassandra’s blend and wondered for a moment if the woman couldn’t add *something* else to improve the taste. "The wizards won’t stand for any loss of status."

Jei made a rude sound that didn’t do Crawford’s headache any favors. "Ya think? Let me guess, your vision have anything to do with wizards getting nasty with bounds as a result?" His grin took on a cruel edge when all Crawford did was raise his mug in acknowledgement of his partner’s acumen. "Anyone ever wonder about if the Elders are gonna be able to stop screwing us bounds over after doing it for so long?"

Crawford held out his mug for Jei to add some of the whiskey to it. "Sometimes I despair over our countrymen’s blindness," he answered, in just as bitter a tone as Jei’s. The only good thing was that willingness to do *anything*, to use any weapon at hand, did drive some talented people to their cause. "At least we know what they’re going to do now, thanks to your frozen balls." He held up his mug in a toast.

"They’re the true heroes of this war," Jei muttered as he raised the whiskey bottle as well. "Should have a damn statue made in their honor." They drank in silence for a minute or two before he sighed again. "So what now? As much as I’d love to see those wizard pricks twist in the wind, guess we can’t let the old bastards get their way." A hint of madness colored his voice and shone in his eye as he spoke, yet he sat still in the chair and kept his teeth hidden.

"Unfortunately not." Crawford bent down to pick up the fallen book. "We won’t be able to rely upon Aya or Yohji, and Reno probably should be avoided as well." Anyone ‘shinigami-souled’ or closely tied to them would be a poor choice, considering that they were trying to avoid deaths that were supposed to happen. "It’s a good thing we have a few other friends."

Jei made another rude sound. "You mean it’s a good thing that you have so many little lackeys just waiting for you to pull their strings." He glared at Crawford over the top of the whiskey bottle. "Sometimes I don’t know who’s the bigger tyrant, you or those prick Elders."

"Then I clearly need to do a better job," Crawford replied with a smile before he forced himself up from the chair to fetch some more tea; it would be a busy night.

*******

Quatre closed the heavy wooden doors of his private library behind him and turned to greet his lover, only to catch sight of the man huddled in a dark corner with Alexis, their heads bent close together. "Oh sure, don’t even give me the courtesy of carrying on your torrid affair in your own quarters," he called out as he tossed the nearest object – a particularly hideous piece of porcelain he’d always hated that had been a gift from his third cousin – in their direction in a mock display of jealousy.

Wufei looked up at him with narrowed eyes and used his talent to send the ‘artistic’ rendition of a basket of blooming flowers shattering against the nearest wall. "I forbid you from reading any more of that child’s appalling novels; both of your brains are turning to mush from all of that romantic *nonsense*." He made the last word sound like the ultimate curse.

Beside him, Alexis stifled a giggle and stepped toward Quatre, a stack of books held cradled in her left arm. "I’m afraid that any ‘torrid affairs’ have been placed on hold in favor of finding some suitable reading material for Helena." She held out one of the books in his direction.

"Ah, and here I’d hopes of causing such a dramatic scene and having an excuse to hole myself up in my quarters for the next few moons with a broken heart." Quatre gave Wufei a pointed look before accepting the book with a smile. "Considering how neglected I’ve been…."

"Idiot." Wufei deposited a stack of books onto the nearest table and approached Quatre, his thoughts clear on how annoyed he felt over this attempt at ‘guilt’ and yet none-the-less plagued by the emotion because he had been so busy the last few weeks – they both had. Quatre’s time was increasingly taken up with ensuring that Helena’s education proceeded at a pace where she would be able to hold her own against the other Courts in less than a year’s time, while Wufei was often called into the Elders’ presences to discuss the upcoming war. What little spare time Wufei did have, he usually was trying to assist Alexis with Helena’s lesson plans while Quatre carried out assignments for Crawford. There was a wonderful sense in that they were doing something for Esset in the upcoming war – it just didn’t leave them much time for each other.

<I know.> Quatre reached out to wrap his arms around Wufei’s shoulders and felt a sense of peace when he was embraced in return. <I’m sorry… it’s as you’ve warned me so often – I play the part of a fool so much that it’s becoming second-hand.>

Wufei gave a sharp nip to his lips before kissing them gently. <Just a little longer, and the real you will emerge.> His thoughts focused on the war for a few seconds. <And then I’ll drag you out of here, by the hair if I must, and there will be no more of this foolish lord act of yours.> His emotions were dark with passion, possessiveness and love, and Quatre reveled in them for a precious few seconds; whenever he needed reminded of who and what he truly was, his lover was there for him.

The kiss deepened, became almost savage as they both gave in to that possessive need, and Quatre found himself dropping the book he’d been holding and tugging at his lover’s white tunic when he heard Alexis clear her throat and sensed her growing amusement.

"Not that I don’t appreciate the show, gentlemen, but I’m wondering if it’s meant for me."

He broke away from Wufei with a sigh and took a moment to put his clothes back in order before picking up the book, something about Xanian children poems. "I suppose I should be grateful that you spoke up now and not in a few more minutes," he admitted, and had to bite back on a grin when Wufei took to glaring at the both of them.

"Hmm, I had thought to leave, but you were right in the way to the door." Alexis managed a smile that kept most of her sharp teeth covered. "Perhaps I could have waited until you were rolling about on the floor and then stepped over you."

Wufei made a hissing noise and went over to the bar. "The two of you drive me to drink more than that child," he grumbled as he began to pour them each a glass of red wine, saving the largest portion for himself.

Quatre snuck in a quick kiss to the adorable grouch’s left temple as he accepted his glass and then beamed with pride at Alexis. "Do you notice that Helena is ‘that child’ whenever she manages a particularly satisfactory lesson?"

"Yes, I’ve heard about how well she’s picking up the new language," Alexis remarked as she went over to the stack of books. "We’ve spent the last hour looking for something that should be easy enough for her to translate as well as new material on Xanian and Cretian laws."

"She should be completely proficient in at least one other language by now," Wufei huffed as he snatched the book from Quatre’s hand. "Kritiker’s doesn’t count since it’s so similar to Esset’s, and I refuse to let her shame me in front of my countrymen. She *will* speak like a native Xan by the time she assumes the throne and have the basics of at least Thracian by then."

<Do you have a feeling that there’s an ‘or else’ in there?> Alexis sent, her thoughts shaded with amusement and sympathy for their human charge.

<Indeed. If I didn’t think that Helena was up to the challenge, I might try to smuggle her out of the palace,> Quatre sent back while he sipped his wine. "I don’t know where you’re more terrifying, love – on a battlefield or in a classroom."

That quip earned him a ferocious glare that soon turned into a pleased smile which reminded him of a well-fed cat. "I’m not to be trifled with in either setting," Wufei all but purred in response. Then his expression turned serious, his emotions taking on that almost frightening edge of focus that called out to Quatre’s demon soul and stirred something cold and predatory inside of himself. "Speaking of battlefields…."

Wufei set aside his wineglass and went over to the table that held a detailed map of Kritiker and Esset. "The Elders are compiling the information that Trowa, Heero and Duo have been sending and are making their plans for their army. Nothing is set in stone as of yet since we still have several more moons to go, but we need preliminary base work now for support."

Quatre and Alexis joined him at the table, all books and wine forgotten as they surveyed the map; there were no figures or additional lines added to it, just in case the Elders or those loyal to them came into the library. "Is any of that information going to be potentially damaging?" Quatre asked, voicing the question that he knew weighed heavily on both his and Alexis’ minds.

It was reassuring to see Wufei shake his head, yet there was a hesitancy to the motion. "Trowa is very adapt at sending information that seems useful but isn’t, and we worked out a code before he left that passes along things that can help limit damage on our end." For a moment, Wufei tapped the representation of Kritiker’s capital, Eto. "He’s helping code Duo’s messages now that they’re mates, and that information has always been more vital about the king’s defenses as well as city infrastructure." He paused again as he surveyed the Kritiker portion of the map. "We may have some difficulties if it’s true what Crawford and Alexis’ friend are saying, about the Guard gaining some new duties during the upcoming battles. The Elders will expect Trowa and especially Duo to feed them plans then."

Alexis leaned forward to tap one of her extended claws against the illustrated flag that represented the Army base located in Eto. "That’s only if they learn about the change, yes? Didn’t Crawford say that your air elemental friend would fight for you?" There was a rasp to her voice and a hint of red in her eyes; she didn’t like the thought of the Elders gaining the upper hand nor any potential risk to her new ‘friend’, judging from her sudden shift in emotions.

"Crawford always thought the potential was high if Heero got away from the Elders, which is why he didn’t object to him being included in the mission with Trowa and Duo," Quatre explained. "However… he’s not infallible."

That statement earned a snort of derision from his lover as Wufei trailed his fingers along the map. "Not something I want to hear after throwing my lot in with him." He stared at the line dividing the two countries as if he could will away the barrier. "No, I doubt that he would have been so calm about risking Trowa and the mission if he felt that Heero would be a problem, and there’s Heero’s latest reports."

"How so?"

At Quatre’s confused question, he looked up and shrugged. "From the start it’s been slow going for him to get any truly substantial information. He’s managed a little within the last few moons… but lately he sends more on Court politics than battle strategy. I would expect more effort from him considering his past enthusiasm for his missions."

That was very intriguing to hear – and the implications even more so to consider. "If he truly does break free from the Elders, it’ll make it that much easier to fight the war with a minimal loss to both sides." Quatre surveyed the map before him and called upon everything he knew about battle strategy; he wasn’t the expert that his lover was, but he knew enough to see certain key points and weak spots.

"Yes, especially if Trowa, Duo and Heero can coordinate their correspondence." Wufei tapped a spot along the Esset/Kritiker border. "If we can keep the war from becoming too bloody, it should be easier to broker a peace."

"And if our side has a new leader, one whom they can see who will treat bounds and humans the same, it may give them some incentive to turn away from the leaders who have done nothing but used them for centuries," Alexis offered with a low growl.

Wufei slapped his right hand onto the table. "Which is why you must make sure that the child is ready! No more of that horrid fiction!" He spun away from the map and stalked back to the bookshelves which lined the room. "I’m sure I can find some suitable books on philosophy which can keep her entertained."

"You do know that we need the girl alive and relatively sane for her to take the throne, don’t you!" Quatre called out after his lover. He had visions of a broken-down Helena, muttering about books and sadistic teachers, huddled on the floor before Esset’s Court.

"Maybe we can convince him that Kritiker’s army is composed of illiterates and unleash him upon them a few moons early? I imagine they’ll surrender in no time," Alexis mused as she went to fetch their wineglasses.

*******

Trowa accepted a cup of tea from one of the servants roaming around the room and sipped the hot beverage, his attention focused on the tearoom’s many attendants. <Since when did Lord Harataki start attending these events? I thought he found them a waste of time.>

Her back facing the elderly highborn while she engaged in small-talk with two highborn ladies and a minor Court official, Natsumi smoothed down the skirt of her beige and pale pink gown and used fussing with its voluminous material to pause in the discussion for a moment. <This is the first time I can recall him attending anything other than one of the Queen’s events.> Something similar to predatory interest flowed over the link. <Have you picked up anything attention-worthy so far?>

<Nothing before this. We can probably leave soon.> As Benten Kure, one of Lady Meara’s distant relatives, his only ‘excitement’ so far that afternoon had been to escape a rather clumsy attempt by Lady Uyeno to pair him up with her oldest daughter; that had provided some amusement to Natsumi, who for all effects appeared as his mother, Lady Ana Kure. Trowa had the distinct impression that she spent half of these assignments fending off marriage offers and had to resist the urge to go stalking down to the Royal Wizard’s offices to find out whoever it was who had cast the damn illusion spell he was forced to wear. It was bad enough to be in a room full of humans and tamp down what he could on his water elemental nature *without* having to wear an attractive demeanor.

He understood the appeal of a handsome face to draw people to him and urge them to talk, he just wished it wasn’t in this Court. Too many of the highborn seemed attracted to him, even when he did his best to pull in the awful effect that drew people to his kind. He could feel the stares sent his way, could smell the attraction when all he did was stand there sipping tea, dressed in a dark grey tunic of thick velvet that had been chosen for warmth and not a flattering cut.

Noticing yet another highborn lady with what appeared to be a daughter in tow heading his way, he set aside his cup of tea and moved in Lord Harataki’s direction, determined to try and find some worthwhile intelligence so he could leave soon – hopefully before Duo picked up on his uneasiness and became worried enough to arrive at the palace to make sure he was all right. He stopped to chat with a few people along the way, careful to ensure that his destination wasn’t a clear goal, and had the feeling that Shen knew about this identity from the way the ambassador gave him a wink when he paused for a moment with him and Ambassador Emir.

<Oh, he definitely knows, and the insolent bastard actually patted me on the ass when we were over at the petite four table earlier,> Natsumi informed him. <I’m going to make sure that he has such lovely nightmares tonight.>

Trowa smiled at that bit of news, which made Lord Yuji’s adjunct stutter in her discussion about the weather. <It is amusing, this steep learning curve of his. Any idea yet of what’s going on? I should be over there in another minute.>

<Hmm, just that Lady Misaka has told Lady Ayako that she’ll have a special guest here tonight. I’m hoping to find out who it is before we go.>

Now that didn’t sound ominous at all. Trowa had just left the blushing Court official behind and had the Lord and Lady in his sights when he almost literally ran into someone who seemed to deliberately step into his path. "Ah, Benten! I was hoping that you’d be here today. How is your mother?"

There were times when Trowa wondered what it was that he’d done in a past life to earn the gods’ scorn like this. "Yasuhito, I thank you for the inquiry." He used the excuse of bowing slightly to put more space between them. "She’s doing well." He gestured in Natsumi’s direction across the room. "In fact, she’s right over there, if you wish to speak to her yourself." Let the stubborn man take the hint and go; there had been too many ‘fainting’ spells around ‘Benten’ in the last few months for him to risk another one today.

Unfortunately, the highborn merely smiled and bridged the space between them. "Oh, that’s good to know, but I really was hoping to see you today." He smiled, the expression appearing friendly yet Trowa noticed the way that the man never looked away from his face; most people would probably consider the young lord a good ‘catch’ with his looks, obvious wealth and Court connections, but Trowa fought not to shudder from the weight of the man’s obvious attraction. "There’s exciting things going on! Come."

Before Trowa could respond, he felt his left arm be grabbed by the human and it was all he could do to slam a block on his mental link with his mate at the same time that he tamped down on his initial reaction to lash out with both talent and body. He wanted… he wanted to *push* until the blood in the bodies around him exploded, to lash out until bones broke beneath his hands and feet, to *do* something until that awful, *awful* touch *went* *away* and-

<*Trowa*! It’s all right! I promise you, it’s all right!> It took him a moment to realize that it was Natsumi’s panic that he sensed and not just his own. <He’s not going to hurt you, I *promise*. I’m in his head and if he so much as even thinks to harm you I’ll scramble his fucking brain until it’s red mush pouring out of his ears, do you understand?>

<…yes.> Trowa managed a shaky breath as he put one foot in front of the other, his demon nature reassured by Natsumi’s oath. <I… thank you.> As the panic faded somewhat, he began to realize where Yasuhito, babbling on about surprises and exciting times, was leading him. <This… might not be that bad.>

His partner sent along a pulse of reassurance. <I can see that now as well, but I’m still heading over there.> She was quiet for a moment, as if trying to figure out what to say next. <Please tell me you’re not on an open link with Duo.>

Trowa kept a bland smile on his face, allowing that slight bit of emotion for the sake of his highborn persona when he wanted to retreat behind the safety of his emotionless mask. <I blocked it in time, but I can’t keep it up too long or that’ll have him just as worried as a panic attack.>

The wordless sense of frustration, concern and anger he felt from Natsumi echoed what he was feeling as well; he wanted to hit the idiot human who was presenting him to Lady Misaka, Lord Harataki and another man who stood out from the two highborn in their elaborate clothes; he was closer to Misaka’s age, maybe about thirty or so, with dark brown hair lightened by exposure to the sun that was also reflected upon his skin. While it was clear he didn’t spend the majority of his time inside, like the highborn around him with their predominately pale skin that they wore as a badge of honor, he didn’t appear uncomfortable in the new clothes of fine wool and leather.

"Misaka, you remember Benten, don’t you?" Yasuhito finally came to a stop and patted Trowa on the back as if showing off a prized horse in front of a crowd.

The young highborn lady looked Trowa up and down, her dark eyes heavy-lidded as if she was about to fall asleep at any moment. "Ah yes, Benten Kure." She leaned closer to Harataki as if to whisper in his ear even though she didn’t try to be quiet. "You remember, Kota. They’re Minister’s Oshiro’s kin."

"Hmph." The elderly man nodded and shared a lingering look with the stranger before turning to face Trowa. "So, do you share your great-aunt’s political views?"

Shifting to escape Yasuhito’s touch, Trowa turned the movement into a polite bow. "Good day, sir." He frowned slightly as he straightened up. "I would hope that I support the king as fervently as she does, but… well, I pride myself on thinking for myself."

Harataki smiled, the expression making his gaunt face appear even more skull-like. "That is pleasant to hear in this day and age."

"Indeed it is." The younger man at his side stepped forward, his hand extended as he gazed intently at Trowa. "Please, let me introduce myself – I am You Abe."

Trowa forced himself to accept the hand held out to him. "It’s a pleasure to meet you." He noticed the way the other man’s grip tightened around his fingers and the hold lingered while the man continued to stare at him. It was difficult to stop himself from jerking his hand back and to keep smiling in a polite manner, especially when he picked up on a whiff of desire. "Are you from Eto?"

"Hmm, no." Abe finally released his hand yet continued to stare. "I’m from further east, near Fukuyama." He tilted his head to the side and stepped closer to Trowa. "Have you been there? You seem familiar for some reason."

"No, I haven’t." There was something about the man that was off-putting, that made Trowa want to leave as quickly as possible.

"Like most of Oshiro’s kin, they spend their time either up in the Takai Mountains or here in the city." Misaka’s voice dripped with scorn, which was at odds with her delicate, almost doll-like features. "Did you happen to cast any spells up that way?"

At the mention of ‘spells’, Trowa forced himself to remain calm and still. <Did you catch that?> He was torn between lashing out with his talent and touching the precious ring on his right hand in reassurance.

<Dammit, I would have spotted him earlier but he has strong shields. Now that I know what to look for, I can pick from Misaka’s mind that he’s here to argue against Botan – and he’s not the only one here today. More will be arriving in the next day or two.> Hatred tinged Natsumi’s thoughts.

Abe laughed and shook his head. "No, I can’t say that I have." He reached out to tuck back a lock of Trowa’s hair. "I think I would have found an excuse to stay there if I had." The smile he gave Trowa then was full of heat and promise, almost as offensive as the intimate gesture had been.

For himself, it was all that Trowa could do to remain still; why was this wizard interested in him? He’d been able to control his talent for the last few years, could dampen down the effect his kind had on people much more than most water elemental had, so why was it failing him today? Some of Kritiker’s highborn seemed attracted to him regardless if he controlled the effect or not, while Abe… Abe was one of the few wizards he’d ever been around for more than a few minutes, other than Omi and Botan.

He needed to get away from Abe before the wizard figured out what he was. "You are too kind." He ducked his head to avoid the touch, trying to appear shy more than offended. "It’s an honor to meet you." <Where are you? I need an excuse to get away from here.>

<On my way, as soon as I can manage without causing a scene.> Natsumi sounded frazzled, and Trowa picked up snatches of conversation behind him. He attempted to step back but was stopped by Yasuhito’s hand on his arm once more, the highborn reeking of jealousy. Kisei take the fool, but he was going to *lose* that hand in a moment if he continued *touching* him.

"I’m thinking that perhaps it’s time for something more invigorating than tea," Yasuhito offered as he attempted to pull Trowa closer. "Why don’t we-"

"Ah ha! There you are, my lovely plum blossom!" Shen cried out as he approached Trowa, a huge grin on his face and his hands clearly extended as he reached for Trowa’s shoulders. "I have been missing you so much!" He hesitated just the slightest bit, probably only noticeable to a bound, before he grabbed Trowa by the shoulders and pulled him forward for a kiss on the lips. If it was any other human in the room just then they would have had their hearts exploded for such an audacious act, but Trowa mostly trusted the ambassador.

<What?> he sent to his partner.

<Go with it – I think he’s trying to rescue you.> Natsumi was equally amused and stunned at the moment, with amusement quickly winning out.

<I can always kill him later, I suppose.> Trowa forced his body to relax against the smaller man, and felt relieved when the closed mouth kiss ended after a few seconds.

<That or watch while Duo does it.> Natsumi was standing off to the side, part of a gawking and twittering crowd that had gathered around them.

Once he noticed that Trowa wasn’t fighting him, Shen was quick to pull him against his right side and beamed at their ‘audience’. "Naughty, you are," he chided Trowa. "I see I still have to teach you proper manners – consorts in Xan would never leave their lovers alone for so long." He made a show of pouting as he gently grasped Trowa’s left hand in his. "I think it’s time your revered mother and I had a talk, yes?"

Natsumi picked up on the cue and stepped forward. "Really, Ambassador, such matters are usually more private." She put on a good act of a disapproving mother as she motioned for Shen and Trowa to join her. "Let’s take this somewhere else, now that you’ve shamed my son in front of my friends."

Shen drew himself up to his rather inconsiderate height and hurried after her, arguing all the while. "Shame? Me? You should be praising the gods for your good fortune, my lady. The Tian family is one of honor and prestige!" He managed to keep up a steady stream of babble as they left the tearoom, and for once Trowa didn’t mind the contact with a human male as it helped him to escape from Abe’s presence. He swore that he could feel the weight of the wizard’s attention the entire while that they were in the room.

They were still attracting curious stares once they reached the busy hallway, and only that fact kept him from pulling free from Shen’s hold. <Where to now?>

<Birman’s, since she noticed that we’re a bit late for our meeting today.> Judging from the way that Shen flinched beside him, Trowa felt it safe to assume that Natsumi was including the ambassador in on this conversation. <So save all of the questions until then.> Natsumi put a bit of force behind the words, a sure sign that the stress of running into a wizard was wearing on her demon soul.

Shen made a tsk’ing sound as he hurried toward the Spymaster’s office. "She shall not do all of the speaking this time." His scent was tinged with concern and a sour hint of fear for some reason, an odd note for such a usually fearless man.

Trowa didn’t think that Shen cared that much for his reputation here at the Court, and would have to puzzle out the mystery some other time; right now, he had to calm himself enough to lower the block on the link that he shared with Duo to allow some emotions to cross before his mate came charging into the palace. Considering that there was at least one enemy wizard in the premises, that would be a disaster of epic proportions, so he took a few deep breaths and refused to think about the hand currently entwined with his. Everything was all right. Nothing could hurt him here, surrounded by friends and allies. Crawford hadn’t seen anything that would lead to him being harmed. He was strong, able and protected by a ring that would shield him from magic. He was no longer a young child. Things would be all right. And if things weren’t all right, then he would use his talent and skill to tear whatever sought to harm him into tiny bits of unrecognizable meat.

*******

Birman hunched over the documents that were spread out over the table; she appreciated Trowa’s ability to obtain and organize the material necessary to keep abreast of all of the various missions her people were currently engaged in at the moment, but she could do without all of the details right about now. Damn the Elders, the neighboring countries and the Court for being such meddling bastards, as it would take most of the afternoon and a good bit of the evening to get through all of the information.

She poured herself a fresh cup of coffee and started on the nearest pile, which had to do with Mariela’s latest reports, when it occurred to her that Trowa and Natsumi weren’t there. It shouldn’t have taken them this long to scope out any vital guests at the tea party she had sent them to a couple of hours ago. Frowning at the realization, she set aside the piece of paper in her hand and ‘reached’ for her soul gaki bound assistant. <Natsumi? Are you->

<*Not* *now*.> There was an edge of panic to Natsumi’s thoughts, along with a push of command. Birman found herself blinking several times in surprise as she sat back in her chair and then was on her feet before she forced herself to sit back down – Natsumi hadn’t requested any help, so charging to the ‘rescue’ might make the situation worse. A quick wave of assent/appreciation only confirmed that thought, which made Birman sigh in frustration and palm a knife into her left hand.

Dammit, something was happening with her assistants, something that made her wonder if she should alert the rest of her people and the Shadow Guard. After a moment’s consideration, she set the knife on the table and sent a message over the copper bracelet she wore to warn everyone in the palace to be on watch.

/Reason? The response from Yuushi was immediate and not unexpected.

/Unknown, something is happening to Natsumi/, she sent back as she felt a mental query. <Tell your boss that all I know is that something is holding Trowa and Natsumi up here at Court, and Natsumi doesn’t want to be bothered,> she informed Eri with a sharp snap of exasperation and concern.

<All right.> There was a pause while Eri relayed the message. <I won’t risk contacting her then, but Blair and I will see if we can tell what’s happening from the people around them.> As two bound Guards with a strong presence at the palace, they were among the few Shadow Guards who remained at Court at the moment, albeit mostly in the Guard’s section.

There was another pause, one that dragged on for a such a painful amount of time that Birman was about to reach for her flask when Eri finally ‘spoke’ again. <We’re still not sure what’s going on, but Natsumi, Trowa and the Xanian dignitary are headed toward your office. From what Blair has picked up, he thinks there was a wizard in the tearoom where they were gathered.> Concern and hatred flared over the mental link.

"Fuck Uyokyokusetsu and his sense of humor," Birman cursed as she snatched up her knife, uncaring if she insulted the god.

<My feelings exactly.> Eri gave off the impression that she was snarling, wherever she was, and her ‘attention’ drifted away for a moment. <Yuushi is issuing new orders to Duo and Annan to keep them away from the palace for another hour or so, just until we’re certain that nothing… bad happened to Trowa.>

<What good is that with their link?> Birman could still recall each time she faced a furious Yohji and shivered, the hilt of the knife clutched painfully tight in her palm.

Eri didn’t answer at first, and Birman was afraid that she had made too valid of a point and was about to go tearing out the door to find her assistant. <Well, if anything really had happened, then I think a good bit of the city between the central Glass district and the palace would be on fire by now.>

The succinct answer startled a laugh out of her. <Okay, I’ll concede the point to you and sit here. Just make sure that Duo doesn’t come barging into Court throwing fireballs anytime soon.>

<We need more water elementals.> Eri broke off the link, her emotions tinged with annoyance but more confident than when she had initiated the communication. Birman felt her bracelet buzz with bursts of messages, warnings about mages around the palace and various bounds offering suitable places to hide out until the mages were gone. About to start tapping on the desk with her knife just to have something to do, Birman almost cut herself in surprise when the door to her office opened after just a minute or two.

Natsumi was the first one through the door, appearing as a well-dressed middle-aged highborn lady who had enough money and authority to be respected yet was anonymous enough to be left alone. Behind her was Trowa, with an illusion to appear as her son, and almost shoving him into the room was a panicked Shen. As soon as the three of them were inside, the two bounds dropped their illusion spells while Shen all but charged toward Birman.

"You!"

"And a good day to you, too, Ambassador," Birman replied to his frantic greeting. "Did you enjoy your tea?"

He slammed his hands onto the table, sending various papers flying and prompting dangerous gleams of red in Trowa and Natsumi’s eyes. "You must send a letter to Xan at once!" he ordered as he leaned in her direction.

"I fail to see how I *have* to do anything," she replied as she narrowed her eyes and tapped the blade of her knife against wood.

The sight of the naked blade caused Shen to draw back and slide his hands into the full sleeves of his black and gold tunic while he struggled for some composure. "What I meant to say, honored Spymaster, is that it would only be fair of you to send a letter."

Why was she wasting her time on this, when she had wizards in Court and most likely a rampaging fire elemental on his way to her office? "Not now, Shen," she all but growled as she flipped the knife about in her hand.

"But… but!" It was almost amusing to see the pain in her ass sputter like that, but she had more important things to do. About to order him out of her office, she stopped short when Trowa stepped forward and, for a very brief second, touched Shen’s left shoulder.

"Birman, I think you should listen to him. He’s owed it." That spark of red was still in Trowa’s lovely dark green eyes, the only sign of emotion on his otherwise impassive face; for him to be so expressionless meant that something had indeed happened in that damn tearoom.

Cursing more than one god this time, Birman set the knife aside and forced herself to count to ten in an effort to calm down. "All right, will someone tell me what happened?" Since it was obvious that Shen was involved, there was no point in throwing him out before getting an explanation from her people.

Natsumi bowed her head as she joined them at the table. "As I’m sure you’ve heard by now, several wizards showed up at Court as guests of various highborn at some of the teas today. One of them was at Lady Misaka’s tea."

"Well, that confirms Leanan’s report that she’s siding with Kido." Birman shared a look with Natsumi before turning to Shen. "I assume that you have some inkling that there is a contingency of wizards here in Kritiker whom are banding together to force the issue of being able to have bounds at their disposal to aid their magic?"

Shen grimaced as he glanced at Trowa and Natsumi, his arms drawing tighter against his chest. "I had some idea that your wizards are up to something, yes. Are they actually that insane to demand such things when Esset is about to start a war?"

"Supposedly, their argument is enough bound blood will win the war in their favor. They probably don’t realize the cost of human blood Esset would extract in return, and they don’t see bounds as anything but livestock for their spells." There were days when Birman worried that this job was driving her to drink, and then there were days like this when she didn’t think she could drink enough to remain sane in this world. When all Shen did was stare at her in aghast horror for several seconds, she nodded at Natsumi. "So, Lady Misaka had a wizard at her tea."

Natsumi pushed her glasses up, her claws slightly extended as if she struggled to control her demon nature. "Yes. I am relieved to say that between our shields and the… well," her gaze flickered to the ring she wore before she looked back up at Birman, "other measures we’ve taken, he didn’t realize that we’re bounds."

Yet something must have happened, or else there wouldn’t be such tension in the room just then, or that stressed response from Natsumi earlier. "You seem rather certain." Birman deliberately looked back and forth between Trowa and Natsumi several times. "Did you draw his attention?"

Long familiarity with Trowa enabled her to catch the slight manner in which his shoulders hunched forward, as if he was drawing in to protect himself. "I’m afraid that I did," he admitted in a quiet voice.

Since Shen was already involved, she saw no reason not to ask the question out loud. "You were suppressing your water elemental nature, right?" She knew that Trowa did his best to tamp down on the attraction that most people had for his kind as much as he could while working at Court.

He nodded, while Shen turned to look at him with a curious expression. "I did the best I could, but I worry sometimes that there are a few people here at Court who are over-sensitive." A slight frown tugged at the corner of his lips as he glanced at Shen for a moment. "You know, the ones who cause Mariela and the rest so many problems."

Ah, Yohji’s old admirers. Now that Birman thought about it, several of those had been among Trowa’s victims the past year, ‘discouraged’ with heart palpitations and fainting spells. "So a long story short, a wizard noticed you. What happened next?"

Shen stepped forward, his hands waving about with a fancy flourish that sent his full sleeves fluttering about. "*I* happened, Spymaster, which is why I need you to write a letter." A slight blush, so very unusual on the brazen pest’s broad cheeks, made Birman stare in amazement. "I… ah… well, when it became obvious that this unknown man was making our Trowa uncomfortable, I…." The blush became brighter as Shen sputtered.

"He made a great fuss over his ‘consort’ ignoring him," Natsumi finished for the obviously flustered dignitary. She was smiling as she poured herself a cup of coffee. "It was very amusing to see, and I’m sure the entire Court will be talking about it for days. Did a great job of getting Trowa away from the wizard before he could get too close to him and deflected the attention from whatever Lady Misaka had in mind." She raised her mug in Shen’s direction as if to salute him.

Unfortunately, Birman could only see a new problem that was now presented to her. "The entire Court, you say?" Dammit, how soon until Duo found out about this?

"Yes, tongues were wagging even on our way here." Shen appeared to recover himself and grinned. "I would say that you owe me, yes?"

Of course the man would scheme to turn this into his favor. Birman spared a look Trowa’s way to make sure that he was all right – she couldn’t imagine how he must have felt, coming under the scrutiny of a wizard, possibly unwanted attention at that and feeling unable to defend himself. She could only hope that the impassive front he had retreated behind meant that he was struggling to keep his emotions stable enough to not panic his mate and wasn’t a sign of trauma. The slight nod he gave her in return relieved some of the worry she felt for him and allowed her to focus on the problem directly in front of her.

She spun around to face Shen and stabbed a finger in his direction. "I owe you, yes? How about I keep you from being fried to a crisp?" At his confused expression, she grinned, the expression one of exposed teeth and malevolence. "Have you heard of bounds having mates?"

His expression was blank for a moment, then his lips moved without speaking for a few seconds. "Ah, you mean like spouses, yes? Only stronger, no? Some of them claim a tie between them, like a marriage blessed by the gods?"

"We call it mates," Trowa explained. "It doesn’t happen to all of us, but I happen to be one of the few who have a mating bond." He managed a sliver of a smile when Shen turned to him in surprise, the expression smoothing out when Birman slapped her right hand onto the desk to reclaim Shen’s attention.

She continued to give him that evil grin until he fidgeted in discomfort. "Yes, Trowa has a mate, a very protective young man who happens to be a fire elemental. A very protective, *powerful* fire elemental who will *not* be pleased when he hears that you’ve claimed Trowa as your consort."

Shen’s dark eyes went wide and he almost lunged across the desk to grab hold of her hand. "*That* is what I came here to talk to you about! You must write a letter now! My fiancée must know that I lied to protect one of your people and am not cheating on her!" His voice became sharp with what seemed to be genuine panic.

<Natsumi?> Birman, Natsumi and Trowa stared in stunned silence while Shen started to babble on in rapid Xanian; Birman could only pick up certain words which made it seem as if he was describing a possessive girlfriend – when he should be worried about an extremely possessive *boyfriend*.

<From what I can tell, they’re madly in love and she’ll gut him with a hair pin if she suspects him of either cheating on her or letting her down. I think we now know why he’s been able to resist Shigeko and the ladies here at Court.> Natsumi was clearly amused by this latest development.

Well, it was refreshing to learn that Shen was the devoted type, as well as honorable. Birman pried her hand free and slapped him lightly on the top of his head to get him to shut up. "Okay, I’ll write you your damn letter. In Xanian at that, just so they don’t send someone worse than you that I have to break all over again," she grumbled.

"Thank you!" Shen bowed as much as he could over the desk and then moved away to stand in front of Trowa. "Ah, not that I am ashamed to let people believe that I am your lover. Or one of your persona’s lover." He managed an impish grin as he bowed again.

The slight smile returned to Trowa’s handsome face. "It’s all right – I can understand about possessive lovers." Just as quickly as it had returned, the smile vanished once more when he looked over Shen’s shoulder at Birman. "I think I blocked out most of everything, but Duo’s probably picked up something judging by a sense of agitation I get from him. We should probably expect him here soon."

Birman rubbed her hands across her eyes before dropping them to her sides. "Great. Warn the Guards at the entrances to try to slow him down," she told Natsumi. "We can’t have him barging in here when there are wizards about."

"Understood." Natsumi mentally relayed some message before setting the mug aside and going to the closet to grab what turned out to be some cloaks. "Blair and Eri are helping to clear a path for me, so I’ll get Trowa to the Moon garden. Once Duo arrives, we can all leave from there."

It would be best to allow the two mates to meet up in some semblance of privacy. "Good thinking. I believe that Shen and I have some letters to write and will be here for a while. Send a page with some food and a hell of a lot of wine." If she was going to be stuck answering more questions about bounds from the pest, she was going to need it.

Natsumi flashed her a knowing grin as she escorted a cloaked Trowa from the room. "Yes, ma’am." <Good luck!>

"So, about these ‘mates’," Shen started to ask as he sat down at the table. "How do they go about becoming ones? Is the bond particularly strong?"

Birman wondered if she could get Shen to the Koneko and have him find out from Yohji and Aya just how ‘strong’ the bond could be on his own.

*******

Aya just finished the last of his cake when he felt Yohji flinch beside him. He turned to look at his mate and found him glaring in the direction of the upstairs library as if he could see through the ceiling. Puzzled for a moment, he then turned toward Reno, who was rolling his eyes while he drank some wine.

"They’re being idiots," Reno explained once he finished drinking, already reaching for the wine bottle to refill his empty glass.

"And then some." Yohji waited until Reno filled his glass to snag the bottle and then topped of Aya’s and his as well. "I swear, those two are going to give me a headache with the way they’re arguing. I feel sorry for anyone who can pick up emotions who’s within the next block or two, they’re going at it that much." He grimaced as he hugged Aya closer to his side. "You’d almost think they’re trying to kill each other or something."

Reiichi, who until then had been content to read a book across the room, thumped his gauntleted left wrist against his chair’s wooden arm a couple of times as if to be certain that he had everyone’s attention. "Then perhaps someone should go and ensure they *don’t* kill each other, considering how much we need them." He gave Reno a pointed look, to which Aya’s friend just shrugged aside.

"Eh, don’t bother me – both me and Masato were told to stay away since we’d be distractions." He shrugged again and sipped his wine. "I’m not goin’ up there."

Reiichi seemed to try to win him over with a stern look for a few more seconds, but it was obvious that Reno was used to putting up with Rufus and so was rather immune to them. After a quiet sigh, the Guard changed tactics and shifted his gaze to Yohji. "Well, you’re mated to neither of them, correct?"

"Wait a minute, why me?" Yohji demanded to know while he clutched Aya closer to him, prompted a huff of discomfort from Aya from the tight embrace. "I always get stuck with the shitty jobs!"

"Because you’re the succubus bound and a trained Guard," Reiichi informed him. "Now let poor Aya go before you squeeze him to death and come join me." He set his book aside then stood up and gave Yohji a disproving look that made it clear that he expected to be obeyed and was disappointed that he had to wait these precious few seconds before it happened. "The sooner we get them to start cooperating with each other, the sooner you can go back to molesting your mate."

Annoyed at being smothered to death, Aya smacked Yohji in the ribs to make him let go. "Just… go," he told his lover. "Reiichi’s right." He gave Yohji a quick kiss to take the sting out of the order. "We won’t have any peace tonight until they’re gone."

Yohji growled for a few seconds before leaning in to nuzzle Aya’s neck. "I’ll be back soon; I’ll get them to cooperate with each other if I have to smack their heads together." Then he stood up, his hands tugging at the hem of his dark green sweater before he motioned for Reiichi to follow him. "Come on, killjoy. Let’s go bash some sense into those idiots."

"By all means." Reiichi smiled as he tagged along, a dark sardonic shadow who still managed to be graceful despite his limp. Aya waited until the two men left the room before turning toward his friend.

Reno was grinning at him, and they didn’t need any words as they called the shadows to them and left the library themselves, slipping out the front door while some new patrons came in to spend the night drinking with friends. They made their way toward the back of the Koneko, into the garden and up the wall, the thick snow proving to be no burden to them when they could call upon the shadows to ease their way.

The city looked so beautiful on a winter’s evening, Aya thought to himself, with the snow blanketing so much of the streets and the buildings, lending a coat of white to everything. Flakes were falling from the sky, a cascade of glitter in the darkness as if miniature stars.

"It’s pretty, isn’t it?"

It took him a moment to realize that Reno had spoken, their thoughts were so similar.

"Yes, it is." He looked at his friend and realized that they were staring in the same direction. "Odd, though, to consider how it can be so lethal."

Reno snorted in amusement and held out his hand as if to catch the snowflakes; neither of them had bothered to fetch a cloak or gloves before they came out, so Reno only wore a thick white linen shirt with a black leather jerkin over it. "I think these things might have a bit of help, considering what’s to come." The snowflakes gathered in his hand, clung to his hair and on his shoulders as if he was made of ice.

Aya held up his own hand and noticed that the snow stuck to his grey sweater as well. "You have a point." He dropped his hand and stared off toward the southern Fabric district. "I told Yohji what I could, but the shinigami are still talking about death." Not only the shinigami, *he* could feel it, could almost taste the energy if he looked in that direction long enough.

"You said that you were warned not to change too much." Reno let out a slow breath and ran his hands through his long hair, sending snowflakes scattering through the air. "Well, yeah, I think this time, it means that a price is still gonna be paid." He held up his left hand when Aya tried to protest. "Can’t always have your way, ya know."

No, Aya had learned that lesson quite a long time ago, he thought as he glanced over his shoulder in the direction of the small shrine. "I just thought that she’d be getting enough deaths from us soon enough to let these slip on by."

That startled a laugh from Reno. "When are the gods ever satisfied?" The bitter truth in that reply provoked a twisted smile from Aya.

"Ah well, I should enjoy the bit a fresh air while I can – I’m sure Rufus is gonna lock me up once we get back home." Reno groaned as he stretched his arms above his head. "Seems ta be a strange taint of magic in the air, no?"

Aya tilted his head to the side as he shifted enough to look in the direction of the palace. "Hmm, now that you mention it." He concentrated on the wards he had placed in various spots there, left largely dormant because of the amount of people, bounds and charms that inhabited the large building. After checking a few of them, he hissed in distaste. "Wizards."

"Guess the pack was right about them showing up soon." Reno’s eyes took on a silver cast while sparks danced around him, made the ends of his hair float as well. "I’d like ta send a few souls ta Kisei right about now."

"Soon enough," Aya promised. Surely they wouldn’t just be fighting Esset in the upcoming months, and any chance they had to take out wizards who would bleed their kind dry would not be passed by.

<Soon, young ones?> Perhaps attracted to Reno’s display of talent or just the fact that they were away from their mates and other people for the first time that evening, the shinigami had decided to join them. Aya smiled as one wrapped around his chest, a comforting presence, and another tangled itself in Reno’s hair until he took to laughing. <Soon we will feed, yes?> the one wrapped around Aya crooned.

<Yes, much to feed upon. You young ones must join us.>

Reno shook his head as he reached up to stroke the shinigami coiled in his hair. "Eh, I’m not sure that’s a good idea."

<No! Join us you must!> all of the shinigami insisted together.

Aya and Reno exchanged a long look, their expression a mixed of wry amusement and befuddlement; they knew that the last place their mates and friends would want them to be was anywhere near where some Esset agents were busy plotting, despite the fact that they could take care of themselves. Yet they had a feeling that it wouldn’t be a good idea to ignore the shinigami when their ‘pack’ was being so insistent. "We will do our best to be there," Aya told them, careful not to make it a promise.

<See that you do,> the shinigami twined around his shoulders purred.

"Ah, that’s gonna be fun." Reno laughed as he twirled around on top of the wall, a flash of red, white and black amongst the snowflakes. "Gonna take a bit a’ sneakin’ to get out to join the party."

"You could always just *ask* Rufus to go," Aya pointed out, even if he thought the probability of the soul gaki bound saying ‘yes’ to be highly improbable.

The resulting bark of laughter from Reno set the shinigami to hissing in displeasure. "Yeah, that’ll work out well." Reno came to a stop facing the Koneko, his face tilted up to the inn’s top floor. "He’s been better lately, but I think that request would end up with me bein’ locked up. Wizards in town has him all twitchy." He looked down at Aya, shinigami coiled in his hair and draped over his shoulders until part of him appeared to be bleeding off into the night. "Think it’ll be better ta just be a bit sneaky and put up with his temper afterwards."

Well, if Reno was set on going, then Aya had better have a talk with his mate about them being there as well. "Don’t make me have to hurt him," he warned. Reno smiled as he understood what wasn’t being said.

"Nah, he’s gotten better at that, too."

<Feh, best to just shed yourself of the golden ones,> the shinigami in Reno’s hair hissed. <Break your bonds and be free.>

"No." Aya and Reno spoke at the same time, in the same flat tone, and the shinigami settled at their denial – at least for now. It wouldn’t last for long, but Aya would enjoy the reprieve from their harping on the ‘golden ones’ while it lasted.

He turned to look back over the city, at the city rendered quiet and still by the sparkling blanket of snow. As much as he loved summer and the beauty it brought to the garden, there was a part of him that wished that winter would never end; there were the long dark nights, the quiet that hovered around the falling snow, and the fact that the war wouldn’t start during this season. The fragile peace would last a little longer, just like the quiet purity of newly fallen snow. Come spring with its warmth, promise of food and accessible roads, then there would be no stopping the Elders. Both Esset and Kritiker would start positioning their armies for the bloodshed to come.

<Soon we will feast.>

<Soon.>

*******

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