Precipice of Darkness

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chapter seven  

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death foretold and magic

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Jo set the pot of tea down and wondered if she should go fetch the bottle of whiskey cream as well; Yohji, Aya, Mickey, Teddy, Ed and Jei were seated at the table, and for once they didn’t seem interested in finishing their dinner. It was enough to unnerve her and the staff busy working the dinner shift.  

“So do you think it’s a bad sign that the precogs are staying home,” Ed asked as he used a crust of bread to push about the bits of stew still left in his bowl.  

Jei’s brow furrowed as if he was giving the matter some serious thought and then shook his head. “Considering that the precogs in question are Crawford and Cassandra, it’s too difficult to tell. They could be fixating on the weather for tomorrow or just trying to drive us all mad for the hell of it.” There was a note of extreme exhaustion to his voice, as if he spoke from experience.  

“Why am I willing to bet that it’s probably the latter?” No one answered Teddy’s rhetorical question other than to shake their heads or reach for the remaining wine bottles. “So what, to be a precog you have to be both a soul gaki bound and sadistic as hell?”  

Jo gave the back of his head a smack before she went to fetch the whiskey bottle and some more coffee. “Don’t talk about Cassandra that way,” she chided him, even if it might be true about Crawford.  

Teddy sniffed as if choking back tears while he rubbed his head. “Oh come on, you can’t tell me that a bit of a clue about the king’s announcement wouldn’t be nice right about now!”  

“For once the idiot’s right,” Yohji agreed, a slight grin tugging at his lips while he poured some tea for Aya. He’d been mostly quiet so far that evening, obviously stressed about the upcoming verdict even though Aya had been… well, not his usual self but only seeming a little quieter than normal.  

When Teddy appeared ready to protest in a loud manner over the insult, Mickey sighed and gave his younger brother another smack to the head to calm him down. “No fighting in the kitchen,” he reminded everyone.  

Teddy rubbed his head some more, causing strands of his long black hair to come loose from his braid, and glared at his brother before settling on a pout. “Yotan’s the idiot, not me,” he grumbled, but Jo returning to the table with coffee and whiskey had him shutting his mouth in a hurry before he stirred up any more trouble.  

“Right now, I think there’s a plethora of idiots,” she informed the room at large before she sat down. “And I’m about to start seeing if introducing them to my rolling pin won’t cure them of the condition.”  

Yohji and Teddy gave the impression to that they figured it was a god idea to behave because they suddenly found pouring themselves some coffee to be truly fascinating. Across the room, Ani and Kira chuckled to themselves as they tended to the dishes and the food, and Mickey gave Jo a wink while he stacked the dirty plates to get them out of the way. Ed had his head ducked as if he was trying to avoid drawing her attention, and Aya… Aya looked her way, the action deliberate, with more than a gleam of silver in his eyes before he busied himself with his cup of tea.  

All right, so she got the hint that it would be very wise to avoid teasing Yohji if at all possible, since it was now clear that Aya wasn’t as unaffected by the situation as he appeared; at least the young man was thoughtful enough to spare her the warning before things got dark and scary. She wondered why he was down in the kitchen if he was upset and decided that it must have to do with Yohji. Too bad Reiichi wasn’t here to help her keep a watch over the couple, but the Guard had been called to the palace shortly after breakfast.  

“It’s quiet without the Guard,” she commented as she poured herself some coffee.  

Yohji grimaced, busy settling himself into a more comfortable position on the bench, his left arm wrapped firmly around Aya’s waist. “Eh, I bet Ken, Miko, Yuushi, Reiichi, Eri and Naru will show up later demanding to be fed.” He glanced at Aya for a moment before he looked back at Jo. “Though I think that Omi and Nagi might stay at the palace for a little bit.”  

Judging from the way that Aya’s shoulders hunched forward and the room darkened around him, Aya wasn’t happy with that fact. Yohji was quick to lean over and nuzzle his mate’s right temple while Jo and Mickey exchanged a worried look and Teddy snatched at the whiskey bottle.  

“I still can’t believe that those two plotted with the city’s witches,” she said after a minute, uncertain if it was wise to bring up Omi’s plan just then but wanting to shift the topic a bit away from the boys’ absence. “From what Yonekuni told us, it might be what swings the king’s decision in our favor.”

“That and Birman getting the dirt on the highborn,” Teddy murmured over the rim of his coffee mug. “Is there anything that woman can’t find out about a person?”  

“Ha, that’s something I try not to dwell upon too much.” Yohji actually smiled and shook his head. “She always knows too much for my liking, and swears that it’s ‘for the good of the country’.” His smile faded a little when he hugged Aya closer.  

“Reiichi trusts her,” was Aya’s contribution to the conversation, and it made Yohji smile again, this time a wide smirk that had Jo swear to herself that she’d pull the trouble-maker aside later and ask him some questions.  

Ed, who was trying to snag the whiskey bottle in a surreptitious manner, gave the table’s guests a derisive look-over. “What do you get into that you have to worry about the Spymaster?”  

Jo gave Yohji’s right arm a pinch as soon as he opened his mouth. “Don’t even start or we’d be here all night,” she warned him and then Teddy, who looked offended that he’d had his fun spoiled. “I’m not joking about the rolling pin.” She waved her right hand at Mickey, who had also noticed the way that the whiskey bottle was inching toward Ed’s mug; if the young man wanted to try alcohol, let him. They all learned their limits the hard way and Mustang would be by later to help clean up.  

 Ed had just poured himself a generous dollop of liquor into his coffee while Jo debated if it was time to go fetch the apple cobbler, when Jei lifted his head to stare at the garden door and exposed his impressive set of teeth. A moment later, Reiichi entered the kitchen, a tired expression on his face and wearing a formal Guard uniform, of all things. Jo decided that maybe dessert would be needed after all.  

She bestowed upon him a smile in passing. “I hope you’re here with some news.”  

“Yes, I am.” The fact that he seemed merely tired and not stressed or hopeless relieved some of the tension that had left her feeling every one of her years and then some. “A bite to eat would be appreciated.”  

“I think we can manage something.” Jo smiled in a teasing manner and motioned to Maddox to fix the man a bowl of stew while she grabbed the dessert and a stack of plates before hurrying back to the table. Everyone’s attention was focused on the Guard, and Reiichi certainly took his time sitting down next to Aya.  

There was a slight frown on his face, perhaps from the long day and the ache in his scarred calf, and then he grinned, appearing every bit as handsome as the younger men who sat around him. “The official release is probably being made just now, but the king held a private announcement with Omi, Birman and Botan a short while ago. He discussed the matter with his Council and found in favor of Botan.”  

It was as if a fresh breeze ran through the room, the release of tension was that tangible. Ed let out a loud whoop of joy while Teddy and Yohji took to laughing, Mickey pounded the table a couple of times while Ani came over to hug Jo. Aya was quiet, but Jo caught a quick flash of silver when he nodded at Reiichi before reaching for a plate of apple cobbler.  

She patted Ani’s arms about her and then resumed cutting up the dessert, mindful that hungry bounds could be troublesome bounds. “How do you think the Court will react?”  

That dampened the mood around the table a little as everyone fell silent to hear Reiichi’s opinion. He shrugged and thanked Maddox for his dinner before saying anything else. “On the whole, I think Birman, Botan, Omi and Lady Peacecraft did an excellent job of arguing for the cessation of the use of bound blood that there will be little talk of favoritism on the king’s part. The wizards made it seem that they were trying too hard to benefit themselves at the expense of others.”  

“Which is basically true.” There was a growl to Ed’s voice as he waved his thankfully empty mug about. “Look, I’m all for research and new knowledge, but you don’t need blood to improve spells. Just talk to Omi for ten minutes and you can figure that out. They’re taking the easy way out to make their magic powerful just because it’s been the standard for the last thousand years.”  

Reiichi nodded before he reached for the pot of coffee. “Kritiker’s and Esset’s Wizards set a dangerous precedent when they used any means necessary to win the Binding War. I think their results have blinded people to the cost of their actions. For once, the king seems willing to consider more than the immediate benefit of the wizards’ chosen tactics.” He paused for a moment while he stared into his mug. “And I think it helped that not only did Omi show up, standing on his own, but that he had Birman at his back during it.”  

That didn’t sound very odd to Jo, considering how Omi was a bright young man and Birman clearly supported him, but Reiichi’s words made Yohji suck in a deep breath and Aya go inhumanly still. “You’ve got kidding me.” Yohji stared at Reiichi as he spoke, a hint of silver in his green eyes and his attention focused on the Guard. When all Reiichi did was give him a bland smile, he let out a slow hiss. “Did the Court react? What about Shuuichi?”  

“I don’t think the Court even noticed, considering that their attention was reserved for the king and the wizards.” Reiichi rubbed his forehead as if he had a headache. “But Shuuichi did, and… I don’t think he was too surprised, considering that Birman has always championed Omi. It may have helped sway his vote, somewhat.”  

Jo narrowed her eyes and tapped the knife she was using to cut up the cobbler against the table. “Okay, what am I missing?”  

To her surprise, it was Aya who answered, his voice quiet yet containing a hint of sibilance. He finally moved as he spoke, to pick up a fork to push around his dessert instead of eating it – which was a very disturbing sign. “The Spymaster reports to Kritiker’s ruler, as does the Captain of the Guard and the Royal Wizard, but if Birman has visibly chosen to support Omi, the Crown Prince, by literally standing at his back then she is signaling that her loyalties lie more with him than the king. She may have done it to show Shuuichi that she feels that she has an issue with his policies, or as proof of her belief in Omi’s abilities to rule Kritiker as a future heir. Either way, it’s a very strong statement.”  

Yohji nodded before nuzzling the top of Aya’s head. “It’s a damn strong statement, and I can’t help but feel that she did it in part to enforce the bound policy that Shuuichi haphazardly put into effect after his wedding since she knows politics inside-out. She also knows that Omi will do everything he can to protect bounds and push for our rights, while Shuuichi is just using us to win his war.” He sighed and closed his eyes for a moment. “And, well, she’s always believed that Omi will make a fantastic king, not to belittle the kid’s genius. Just look at what he pulled off today.”  

“Yes, I believe Shuuichi realized that if he ruled in favor of the wizards, he would not only give them too much power and provide Esset with even more fuel to hate us, but he would lose one if not at least two of his trusted advisors.” Reiichi frowned at his mug before reaching for the bottle of whiskey, which provoked a pitiful whine from Ed. “I just hope that Manx didn’t catch Birman’s little show at Court today, or else Birman’s job may become a bit more difficult. There was too much going on for me to be sure if she did – at least she made no overt reaction at Court.”  

Jei laughed in a particularly creepy manner and bared his sharp teeth. “That should be fun to see, the queen taking on Birman.”  

Shoving a large plateful of cobbler Ed’s way to placate the young bound – and in hopes of sopping up the alcohol he had drunk – Jo glared at Jei and then Reiichi in a manner that had Mickey and Teddy scrambling from the table with the dirty plates. “The queen should be worried about raising her daughter, not hassling someone who has an important job to do.”  

Reiichi lifted his mug as if in a toast and smiled with a touch of bitterness, all signs of exhaustion fading from him for the moment. “Perhaps we can smuggle you into the palace so you can convince her of that fact. I’m sure Princess Ooka would appreciate it, not that she lacks for people to look after her.”  

“Hmph, plethora of idiots indeed.” Jo finished portioning out the dessert and then sat with her arms folded across her chest. “So what needs to be done now?”  

Reiichi, Aya, Yohji, Jei and Ed looked back and forth at each other and made various hand and facial gestures while enjoying bites of cobbler. Ed shoved a large forkful into his mouth and swallowed. “Well, Roy should be on his way here to pick me up, and I imagine it’s back to the Army base where he’ll be stuck in a bunch of meetings and I’ll read through all of the books Aya leant me.” He motioned to the huge stack of wrapped books that waited for him by the back door. “At some point before the war we should be deployed for the border.”  

A hint of concern flickered across Aya’s face over that fact, and Jei leaned across the table until he was closer to the earth elemental. “Look, Crawford’s been pretty tight-lipped about his visions since the war is getting closer, but the one thing about you and Mustang that he will admit to is that you’ve got a shot at taking down the Elders.” That didn’t seem to be a surprise to Ed, since the teenager nodded. “Nothing’s changed on that front. So keep your eyes open for a chance to slip into Berin, and don’t act all surprised if we meet up somewhere along the line, okay?”  

Just then, Ed appeared to own every one of the seventeen years that he claimed and a few more, with the harsh set of his jaw and the hatred glimmering in his golden eyes. “We’ll get there if we have to burn, break and shatter our way to the damn city, that I swear before all of the gods.”  

Jo shivered at the thought of the young man making such an oath, but the rest of the people at the table nodded in agreement as if it was expected of him. Aya rested his head against Yohji’s shoulder, prompting her adopted son to smile tenderly before he spoke up.  

“Well, hopefully we won’t be doing anything quite so dramatic for a while yet, but we still need to deal with those agents in town.” His left eyebrow arched while he grinned in Jei’s direction. “Perhaps you remember them?”  

Jei growled and pointed a clawed finger in Yohji’s direction. “I nearly froze my nuts off because of you, of *course* I remember them.” He growled for another few moments and then seemed to take out his anger on a bite of dessert. “Crawford’s supposedly doing something about them, I think he’s off with Cassandra tonight, drawing more unsuspecting fools into his plan. Let *them* freeze their asses off,” he sniffed.  

“Your contributions for this country will be duly noted,” Reiichi teased, a mocking smile on his lips as he sat there with a mug of coffee held cradled between his hands. “Do I want to try and figure out what Crawford is up to?”  

“Uhm, I’m thinking… no.” Ed drawled out the last word while he shook his head in an exaggerated manner.  

“Smart kid.” Jei flashed a toothy grin around the table. “Best not to dwell too much upon it. Not like you can stop whatever he’s gonna do.”  

Yohji grunted, busy flipping his fork through the air. “Now that’s reassuring as hell. Still, he has to have something in mind to make things better.” Then he seemed to think about it a little more while everyone at the table gave him incredulous looks, even Aya. “At least I think so….”  

“You kids and your idealistic hopes.” Jei made a derisive sound and snatched up the bottle of whiskey before leaving the table. “I’m headed to Trowa’s.”  

Jo stood up as well. “Let me put something together for him and Duo.” She hadn’t seen much of the couple in the last few days and hoped that they were both all right. Maddox helped her to assemble a basket full of stew, bread and cobbler while Jei prepared himself for the cold outside, and he had barely left when Ken, Miko, Eri and Naru finally returned home.  

“Close the damn door!” Jo chided them as they stood shivering in the doorway, letting the cold wind blow into her warm kitchen.  

“Sorry!” Naru struggled to close the door behind him and then was quick to shed his heavy winter coat, and almost forgot about his boots until Ani flicked some dishwater his way. He grumbled the entire time it took to shed them, and then joined his friends over by the table. “Takes so long to get rid of everything.”

“It takes even longer to wipe up the floors,” Ani shot back, a rare glower on her pretty face.  

Eri grinned at her partner, who had his head ducked as if that would save him from Ani’s wrath. “Maybe you should clean them a few times until it sinks in about removing your boots.”

“Oh hush,” he told her without any real heat. “I’d just mess it up and have Jo and Mickey mad at me.”  

Mickey, who had gone to fetch more wine from the cellar, paused in pouring it and smiled. “I’ll just do what my mom did, and make you keep cleaning them until you do the job right.”  

The remark prompted a laugh from Yohji. “I remember that! She assigned a floor to each of us.” He rested his head against Aya’s, his expression turning a little sad. “It took you a couple of weeks to learn not to use too much water, and I kept getting into trouble because Schu would try to help me figure out shortcuts. Meanwhile, Teddy thought he could get away with just sprinkling a little water down.”  

Miko accepted a bowl of stew from Jo with a wry grin. “Let me guess, you and their mom were taking bets on which of the three idiots would figure it out first, right?”  

“All of the staff was in on it, to be honest.” The memory brought a wistful smile to Jo’s face. Miyuki had been so amused by her boys, even when they had caused trouble, because there had rarely been any malice to it. If only she were still around to see what they were up to now. “But it was usually a safe bet to put your money on Mickey when it was a wager like that.”  

He blushed a little at the praise. “I don’t know, considering what I was up against….”  

Yohji stuck his tongue out at his foster brother; at least Teddy had gone to listen to Koyu play, or else things would get noisy again.  

Jo sighed as she finished handing out the stew and then sat down. “And to think that I’d hopes that you’d all grow up one day.”  

Reiichi gave her left arm a sympathetic pat. “Sometimes the gods give us an unfair burden,” he murmured before pushing up his glasses. “Now, I assume that the king has formally made his announcement?”  

Ken stared at his bowl of stew in a forlorn manner but let go of his spoon after a moment. “Ah, yeah.” He rested his arms on the table, his hands clasped in front of his meal in a protective circle. “The wizards were *not* happy, but I don’t think anyone was really that surprised after what went down today. I heard a lot of muttering about how giving in to the wizards would make it seem like the Army and the Guard just served as living targets for the war.”  

“It wasn’t just muttering – I picked up a good bit of thoughts along those lines, and it wasn’t only from Army and Guard personnel.” Eri held out her wineglass to be filled, her dinner temporarily forgotten. “A lot of the lower ranked highborn and Court officials have family who serve in the organizations, as not all children can inherit and it’s a good way to gain some notice.”  

Miko produced an inelegant snort as she buttered a roll first for herself and then for Ken. “And the government pensions are pretty nice, too.” Her hands free once more, she gestured to her uniform. “The highborn usually go into the Army, buying themselves a comfy officer’s commission, and now it’s come to bite them in the ass since we’re actually going to war. They may not be the ones doing all the dirty work, but in a war there’s always a chance that they’ll see some action.”  

“Yes, so Lady Relena’s argument carried a particular amount of weight, and the fact that Omi provided an alternative source of magic worked in our favor.” Eri nodded in thanks to Mickey and then stared into the full glass. “I still sensed some hatred for bounds, but it wasn’t as strong as I’d have expected. I think… it seemed more like a learned response than anything, and there was a counterbalancing revulsion at the thought of using blood in spells. Botan did a good job of getting the message out after the Setan caravan kidnappings.” She shuddered a little as if in remembrance of the young lives lost back then and made quick work of her wine.  

It was terrible, what had happened to those poor children, but maybe there was something good that had come out of the tragedy if it could help save the lives of others. Jo hugged her arms tight around herself and hoped that people would think of those children whenever someone mentioned bleeding a bound.  

Reiichi bowed his head for a moment, as if deep in thought, and then nodded twice. “Well, we always knew that it would be an uphill battle, but the first fight has been won.” He gave a tight-lipped smile to Aya, who nodded back. “Birman, Botan, Yuushi and Omi won’t let the king rescind the ruling, not even after the war, so the groundwork has been laid. I’m certain that all people are thinking about now is keeping our troops safe and not antagonizing Esset any more than necessary. They don’t need to know that we’re planning beyond the war with this strategy.”  

“The next few days will be important.” Yohji jerked his right hand through his hair as if frustrated over something. “Dammit, I’m sure Cass and Crawford are staying away because of Aya and me, but I wish they’d tell us *something*. There might not be a reaction from people right now, but if the wizards can come up with a decent argument around everyone’s fears, then Shuuichi will cave if he thinks he’ll lose the support of either the Army or the Court before the war.” A bitter laugh escaped him while he tugged on his hair. “He might not even care if he loses Birman or Omi.”  

Jo slapped her hands on the table at those words, which made Ed and Ken growl in surprise. “Don’t say that. The king loves his son.”  

“Yeah, he does, but he doesn’t need him as an heir anymore.” Yohji spoke the words softly, well aware of painful honestly behind them.  

Jo wanted to argue, to say that he was wrong, but she knew that if Omi was here, he’d agree with Yohji – damn the gods, he’d probably say it was for the best. She felt the stinging prickle of tears in her eyes and at first believed it was because of them that the room began to darken.  

“Wizards, soul, water and earth.”  

It took her a moment to decipher the sibilant words, and judging from the stunned expressions of everyone at the table, she wasn’t alone. Jo wiped at her eyes and stared at Aya, who sat there with his eyes cast pure silver while he gazed off into the distance.  

“Cat….”  

Reiichi motioned Yohji silent and leaned forward, closer to Aya. “What was that, Aya?” He ignored the warning snarl that Yohji gave him, along with the incredulous looks from Ken, Miko and Naru which clearly indicated that they thought the man was insane. “Could you please repeat it again?”  

“He said something about wizards,” Ed mumbled while he fumbled for one of the notebooks that he always carried in his pockets.  

“Wizards, soul, water and earth.” Aya tilted his head to the side as he continued to stare off into the distance – or at least, Jo thought that was what he was doing, as it was difficult to tell with his eyes like that. “It feels like their magic.”  

Ed nodded while he scribbled onto his notepad. “I think he means water and earth elementals. Didn’t Jei mention something about that being the agents’ talents?”  

“He was pretty certain that the woman was a water elemental, and that the guy might be earth,” Yohji confirmed, the snarl still in his voice. He sat there with both arms wrapped around Aya’s shoulders and a fierce glare on his face which clearly warned everyone not to mess with his mate.  

“Duo ran into the woman and confirmed for us that she is a water elemental. Apparently, he knew her back in Esset. And there are plenty of soul gaki bounds, on either side of the war effort.” Reiichi began to type something onto his left gauntlet while he studied Aya. “What about the wizards? Clearly this has something to do with the Esset agents, but I don’t understand the wizards’ part. Are Jei and Crawford right in that they seek to discredit wizards?”  

Aya was silent for several seconds, and then seemed to turn his attention to Reiichi. “I can’t see the future like that. I just know the magic seems tied together, and it leads to a feast. We’ll be there to feed. And when we can feed like that, things can go very good or very bad for you.” To Jo’s dawning horror, he didn’t appear bothered at all over the outcome.  

Reiichi stared at his friend a little longer then bowed his head. “Thank you.” He was quiet again before he resumed tapping against his gauntlet. “That… this is probably what Esset had intended, to do something that would destabilize things here so soon after the king’s ruling. They’ll either make it look like bounds are to blame or incite the wizards to fully turn on Shuuichi until he has to do something to placate them. And of course, it just pushes us that much closer to war.”  

“Yes.” Eri appeared pale, and she eyed Aya in a wary manner. “No matter what happens, it’ll make Shuuichi appear weak and misguided – not only to his Court and people, but to the surrounding countries.”  

Only Ed seemed unaffected by the recent event. “Yeah, as much as I hate those old bastards, you have to admit that they can come up with some clever stuff. Well, them and their advisors.” He finished scribbling down notes and looked up to smile at Aya, not seeming to realize that his friend hadn’t returned to ‘normal’. “Good thing we have people like you around to trip them up.”  

Aya blinked a few times, as if startled, and the silver gradually faded from his eyes. “Uhm.” A slight furrow formed between his brows, a sign that he was clearly confused just then.  

The glare smoothed out from Yohji’s face and he smiled at Ed. “I think he means ‘thank you’.” Exhaustion quickly replaced the smile and he tugged Aya onto his feet while standing up. “Come on, it’s time we headed upstairs.”

Aya allowed himself to be pulled away from the table and led away, probably at his limit for social interaction for the night. Jo wished the couple a good evening, along with a few others, and had the feeling that everyone was relieved when Aya left the room with the possible exception of Ed. She loved the young man and owed him a debt for restoring Yohji to his former self, but… the gods didn’t make things easy by having Yohji’s mate be a kage, that was certain.  

Mickey reached for a full wine bottle and was quick to uncork it. “Thank the gods that he’s on our side.”  

“That’s pretty much my thoughts.” Naru was one of the first to hold out his glass to be filled.  

Jo glared at both of them, but couldn’t really say much since the hand holding up her glass was still trembling. “Did what he say make any sense to you?” she asked Reiichi, who was still busy tapping messages.  

He frowned for a moment before shrugging. “We knew about the agents, but he said ‘wizards’, not magic or spells. That makes me wonder if it’s going to be a particularly active day, whenever the agents make their move. I just wonder who will cause the most damage.”  

Ed’s eyes went wide and he started scribbling again. “I wish Aya was still here so we could ask him some more questions. It’s gotta be awesome, to sense magic like he does.” He pushed aside his mug so he could write more in his notebook, muttering under his breath all the while.  

“Why do I bother talking to you, when you only make things even more complicated?” Jo glared at Reiichi, who gave her an innocent look in return before concentrating on his gauntlet.  

“We’re going need more wine,” she told Mickey.  

*******  

Tsuneo paced back and forth as if there was some hope that the rapid movements would ease his frustration. “How could the king be so foolish?”  

“You have to admit that Botan and his allies managed a very powerful, united front.” You could barely bother to look up from his wine glass while he spoke, a perfect picture of nonchalance. “The Crown Prince parading the witches in front of the king was a particular stroke of brilliance.”  

Emil made a gagging sound in the back of his throat as he shook his head. “Between those bitter bitches and Peacecraft, *we* looked like fools. Add Birman’s damning information on our patrons and it was a losing fight even before Botan gave his list to the king.”  

Tsuneo would dearly love to know each and every name that was on the list; he could guess who among the more… ‘squeamish’ among his brethren had probably signed, but he had to wonder if some of those who had claimed to back him but had been unable to join him at the capital had hedged their bets and also thrown their support behind the Royal Wizard. For so many wizards, all that mattered was to be able to study and practice magic, by whatever means – and it burned him to realize that he had become a means to an end.  

“Let’s see how foolish we look when this country is overrun by bounds determined to tear out people’s throats,” he muttered as he spun about on his left heel. “Do they think the gods will send another kage to protect them from the hordes of bounds that Esset is about to unleash?”  

“If only Yoru had taken better care of the last one.” Emil sound wistful, his chin rested on his left palm and his gaze distance. “Think of what we could do with a kage’s blood! There has to be a reason why such powerful creatures existed, and to have something that is impervious to spells… it’s *such* a waste.”  

“Exactly.” Tsuneo almost picked up the vase that held some dried flowers and threw it in frustration before he gained some self-control. “I hear that Yoru and Sreedhar Razak had been working on something with the kage’s blood, but Sreedhar seems to have disappeared and none of Yoru’s notes can be found since his death.” Even before he had died at the king’s wedding, Yoru had complained that a lot of his research material had been claimed by the Crown when he had lost his position as the Royal Wizard. “But there’s little sense in dreaming about kage blood when we can barely use bound blood as it is.”  

Emil sat up straight and slapped both hands on the table in evident frustration. “That’s another thing I can’t believe! Here we are on the verge of a war with Esset, a country basically being run by bounds, and Botan goes and somehow wins a stay of execution on the creatures here? The gods must be laughing at us now!” A look of pure disgust came over his face during his tirade, an emotion that Tsuneo was well familiar with just then.  

However, You still appeared in a contemplative mood as he sipped his wine. He held the glass cradled between the fingers of his right hand and shrugged at Emil’s fervent declaration. “Oh, I don’t know about that; it seemed like the one bit of sense in their argument today. Somehow I don’t see Esset taking too kindly to us bleeding bounds dry for spells, either.”  

Both Tsuneo and Emil stared in shock at their companion, who gave them a rueful grin in return. “What? This is why I didn’t want to make things so public in the first place and asked if we could just have a private audience with the king. I didn’t want to rile up such sentiment before the war.”  

“This isn’t the time for ‘I told you so’,” Emil muttered while he folded his arms on top of the table. “We wanted to present a unified front and it was decided by our patrons and majority that we had the best chance of winning if we forced the king to make an open ruling before the Court.”  

“I know.” You’s grin faded and he set the wineglass aside. “Unfortunately, Botan managed to do the same with his allies and gathered a more impressive group of supporters than we did.”  

The room was quiet for a minute or two after that, until Emil shifted in his seat. “What are we going to do next?”

Tsuneo forced himself to stop pacing as he laid out their plans for the foreseeable future. “I talked to several of the others before we left the palace, and they’re willing to remain in the city as long as they’ve their patrons’ support or jobs lined up. While we’re here, we can see if the king remains firm to his decision to back his Royal Wizard.” He could only pray to the gods that the man would see the error of his ways soon enough – before Kritiker had to pay for his mistake.  

“If we go by the previous war, Esset should be sending some provocateurs across the border once hostilities start, or even before.” Emil tapped the fingers of his right hand against the table as if to emphasis his words. “I’m willing to bet all of my charms that they won’t wait too long, considering the arsenal of bounds at their disposal.”  

“That’s if they haven’t already started, considering the weather and some of the crimes that have occurred in the last few months.” Tsuneo felt furious at just the thought of it, at the creatures wandering around unchecked with the ability to alter people’s thoughts or to ruin their crops with a bit of magic, and now the check of the possibility of outright death was gone should any bounds be caught. One had to rule over these creatures with a strict hand, considering their demon natures.  

You nodded as he poured himself some more wine. “I’d like to remain at Court since I’ve a feeling that Esset may try to sneak an agent or two into the palace.” There was a bland smile on his face when Tsuneo cursed out loud at the possibility. “One would hope that the Captain and the Spymaster would be on guard after what happened at the princess’ birthday celebration, but I wonder….” His expression grew thoughtful and he failed to finish his sentence in favor of drinking the wine.  

There were times when Tsuneo wanted to throttle the man, his skills in crafting spells aside. “You wonder what?” he asked through gritted teeth.  

“Oh, just a hypothesis that I’d much rather wait to gather more information on before making any statements.” You waved his left hand about and resumed drinking his wine.  

Tsuneo shared an exasperated look with Emil before reaching to pour himself something to drink; it had been a long, frustrating and ultimately disappointing day and the last thing he needed was one of his own colleagues to be this vague. Let You ponder his precious ‘hypothesis’ – there was still work to be done if they were to have any hope of saving Kritiker.  

*******  

Mirko stood by the window and watched the falling snow with a sense of trepidation. He should be pleased to see it, should welcome the knowledge of a mission soon to be completed, yet all he saw was something that benefited an enemy and a signal that tomorrow, they would have to bring their mission here to fruition. He understood what they were doing and why, there was just an underlying fear in risking his life in a country filled with people who would gladly see him dead.  

Across the room, Jacquelyn stirred from where she lay on the bed and raised up in a sitting position. “Are you going to stay there all night watching it snow?”  

“Not all of us can sense the weather.” He turned so he could look at and smile at his partner. “We need to keep track of things through more mundane means.”  

She shook her head, her long dark hair falling about her shoulders. “Oh yes, because ‘mundane’ is one of the first things that come to mind when I think about you.” She smiled back, yet the expression seemed false, failing to reach her eyes. For the last couple of days, there had been something ‘off’ about her, something almost sad.  

He forced himself to maintain the smile. “Well, it’s heartening to know that I’m something special in your eyes.” When all she did was continue to smile at him in that false way, he sighed and leaned against the window-sill. “All right, are you worried about the mission tomorrow? Or is it something else?” He wanted to know, because it was dangerous enough to face a city full of humans, Guards and Army personnel let alone a partner who didn’t seem ‘all there’.  

Jacquelyn appeared hesitant for a few seconds before she combed her hands through her long hair, pushing it away from her delicately featured face. “I saw Duo the other day.”

It took a moment for him to understand the importance of what had been said. “Wait – you *saw* him or you *spoke* to him?”  

She blushed a little and began to play with the hem of her pale blue sweater as if she was desperate for something to do with her hands. “I *spoke* to him. I made sure that it didn’t appear to be more than two friends catching up, and he went along with it. He always treated me well.”  

Mirko liked Jacquelyn – she had a quiet beauty to her and a shy sense of humor that had him paying close attention to what she said and did so he didn’t miss the funny little asides she would slip into the conversation. He supposed that she was used to trying to not stand out because of her nature, and as a result did his best to be careful around her, to not make it seem as if he was about to take advantage of her. Yes, she was a water elemental and attractive on her own right, but he liked more from his girlfriends than how strong their demon souls were and could think with more than his dick. Well, most of the time….  

So that was why he had accepted this mission without any complaint, once he had found out that she was his partner. He knew it was dangerous and that there was a strong chance that they might not return to Berin, but he trusted Jacquelyn and he felt enough affection for her that if there was some way to improve her standing in the Elders’ eyes, he would do his best. Yet there had been the assumption that she would do her best as well, as desperate to please the Elders and ensure that the mission was a success as he was so they didn’t end up dead – or worse, as failures.  

“You risked the mission by seeing a deep undercover agent, one of the Elder’s favorites?”  

She flinched at the question, probably from the loud volume in which it was asked or the anger that he didn’t try to keep from his expression. “Mirko… I wouldn’t have done it if I thought it would put us or the mission in danger.”  

She sounded so upset that he forced himself to take a deep breath before he said anything else, his hands clenched around the wooden frame of the windowsill. Damn the gods, she could have kept quiet about the cursed meeting, so maybe he should listen to her. “All right, *why* did you go meet him?” All he knew about Duo was that the young man was one of the strongest fire elementals alive, a bit of a troublemaker, was usually partnered with Heero and supposedly got away with pushing the limits of the Elders’ orders. Oh, and he was one of the few higher ranked bounds who never took advantage of water elementals, which might explain Jacquelyn’s ‘treated me well’ comment.  

“Like I said, I knew him back in Berin.” She blushed a little as she ducked her head, her hair falling a little onto her face. “Nothing long term came out of it since he was always going off on missions for the Elders, but he made sure to let the others know that if I had any problems, he’d take care of them. He didn’t have to do that for what was basically a fling.” She paused then, as if lost in thought, and Mirko felt a pain in his chest over the fact that here was an intelligent, powerful woman in her own right reduced to having to look for protection all because of an accident of birth. That the people they served *allowed* her kind to be used and mistreated because wasn’t that what water elementals were made for all those centuries ago? Succubae bounds could control the attraction and turn it against their ‘prey/food’, but the most water elemental bounds could hope for was to dampen it or use their talents to subdue or kill the lust-addled fools drawn to them.  

He was so lost in anger just then that it took him a minute to realize that his partner had resumed her explanation. “I guess all I thought about was that there’s a bit of history between us, and he’s stationed here now. It’s not ideal, being surrounded by humans, but he’s managed to do well for himself and not get found out, and if he decided that he wanted to try for a child with me, then the Elders would let me stay, no?” She sniffled a little and wiped at her nose with the back of her right hand before tucking aside the hair blocking her eyes. “We wouldn’t really have to be trying to get me pregnant. I didn’t think he truly cared for me that much, but he was nice and seemed sincere in wanting to keep me safe.”  

Something in the way she casually mentioned the fact that she had approached another bound, another *man* to have a child made Mirko want to tear something apart, to use his talent to make something shatter to pieces while his demon soul howled in possessive anger. He struggled not to snarl while he focused on the fact that Duo had clearly said ‘no’. Why in all of the myriad hells *had* the man said ‘no’? “Why… why did he turn you down?” His voice was rough as he asked the question, prompting Jacquelyn to look at him and frown.  

“He said that he’s living with Trowa for the mission.” The blush returned to her cheeks, and this time she didn’t hide her face. “It makes sense since Trowa’s so powerful and they’d want to fend off any… potential suitors.” A slight frown tugged at her lips while she spoke. “I’d complicate things, even if Duo tried to hide our relationship, and… well, he always seemed so protective of Trowa.”  

That bit of news helped to shock Mirko from his rage.  “Trowa? I thought Duo could barely stand him. It’s Jei and Crawford who look out for him.” Those two had taken responsibility for the water elemental ever since he had arrived at Berin…. No, he didn’t want to think about Trowa’s arrival at the palace. Much better to remember what Jei had done to anyone who dared to even give Trowa so much as a lustful glance until the young bound had been able to control his talent, even if he wouldn’t be able to eat for the rest of the night. Maybe even tomorrow.  

The smile on Jacquelyn’s face just then was rather wistful.  “Yes, I know what it looks like, but still….” She fell silent for a moment before continuing on. “Regardless, Trowa is more important than me, so I understand why Duo turned me down, even if he said he’d try to figure something out.”  

“Do you really want to avoid returning to Berin that much?”  

His question seemed to take Jacquelyn by surprise. She stared at him for several seconds before replying. “It’s not… I mean, I don’t….” She let out a long sigh as her shoulders sagged.  “I hate feeling as if I’m property to be handed about. I want our kind to be safe, I just fail to see….”  

“Sometimes the Elders’ actions are difficult to fathom,” he supplied for her.  She wasn’t the first person to dare complain about how it seemed that their lives were a series of orders, jumping to the commands of those with stronger demon souls. For most, it was the price that had to be paid to live w/out fear of being killed by humans. Yet they had been here in Kritiker for a couple of weeks now, in the heart of the country for several days, and no one appeared to suspect them for what they were. In fact, the king had just ruled in *favor* of bounds this very evening.  

And tomorrow they had to carry out their orders and do something that would stoke the fear and hatred against their kind. Mirko wondered if the gods were laughing down on him just then, or if the Elders had known about tonight’s judgment thanks to Crawford. Either way, they would have to go through with their mission – failure was never an option, not unless they wanted to die, them and anyone they cared about. Their deaths would be in vain, as he knew that there were other agents already in the country who would be assigned to complete the mission or something similar within the day of their failure.  No, it was best to finish what they had started and then he could think of what it meant that his partner was so afraid to return to Berin that she was willing to remain behind enemy lines.  

He pushed himself away from the window and approached the bed, something inside of his chest tightening at the way Jacqueline flinched at his nearness. He leaned down to give her a soft kiss on the forehead before continuing on to his own bed. “Get some rest since we’ll have a busy day tomorrow.”  

“Good night.”  

Jacquelyn left to prepare for bed behind the screen set up for privacy, and Mirko fussed with his bedding while she washed and changed her clothes. Tomorrow would be a busy day, and he could only pray to the gods that there wouldn’t be any trouble while they carried out the Elders’ plan. There would be some loss of life – but nothing compared to all of the bounds that the humans had killed over the centuries, so he did his best to shove aside any guilt that he felt.  

*******  

Reno stretched out on the bed, a purr rumbling in the back of his throat as he breathed in deeply the air still scented from his and Rufus’ sex earlier. The sheets, made of fine cotton, felt soft against his sensitive skin, and he was almost tempted to roll up in them and go back to sleep. Only the faint hiss of the shinigami kept the sated drowsiness at bay, and he was careful to keep his eyes heavy-lidded when Rufus returned to the bed.  

“You look as if you’re trying to burrow your way into the mattress,” Rufus teased as he sat down near Reno, his right hand reaching out to push back the tousled strands of hair that had fallen onto Reno’s face. “What are you, part ferret?”  

“Hmm, that would make you one kinky bastard, wouldn’t it?” Reno smiled and tilted his face into the caress. “You’re too dressed right now,” he complained, his mind filled with images of what his mate could do to him once he was freed from the sheets.  

Rufus’ breath caught in his throat and he leaned down for a forceful kiss that, despite its brevity, left Reno’s lips tingling and his pulse racing with lust. Then the bastard pulled away and shook his head. “That’ll have to wait until later.” He sounded regretful about the fact and his emotions over the link were almost as frustrated as Reno’s, but he still didn’t tear off his clothes and fuck Reno, so he was a *true* bastard.  

<A ‘bastard’ who has a job to do, as distasteful as I may find it.> Rufus frowned as he tugged on a lock of Reno’s hair. “You know that I need to test a compulsion that Schuldig and I worked out on one of my ‘victims’.”  

“Was that today?” Reno yawned and worked an arm free to cover his mouth. “Thought it was sometime this week.”  

Rufus muttered a curse beneath his breath and got up from the bed to go over to a small fancy cabinet to sort through the bit of flash that he was going to wear for the day. “You’re going to drive me insane with your inability to tell time.” He seemed to think about something and then sighed. “Even more insane.”  

Pushing aside the sheets, Reno sat up and shrugged, smiling a little as the shadows settled around him. “Eh, it’s an over-rated talent when most days are the same.” His grin widened when that statement earned him a frustrated snarl from his mate. “So, do I get to tag along today?” He kept his thoughts carefully schooled just then, focused on the possibility of going out and wanting to protect his lord and lover. Oh, and of course the chance of mayhem and death. That was always fun.  

It really wasn’t any surprise when the killjoy paused in fiddling with some gold cufflinks to turn around and give him a rather impressively withering look. “I *know* you have more of a brain than that, so don’t even *think* to turn this into a fight. There are still wizards inflicting their presence upon the city, I’m doing dirty work for Esset that is technically treason against Kritiker even though the Spymaster is aware of it, and there is the matter of the two other Esset agents out there. *No*.”  

“Bah, there went hoping the sex was so fantastic that it warped your brain.” Reno laughed as he fell back onto the bed. “You’re so gonna owe me latter, though.”  

“Yes, yes, more sex and probably an inordinate amount of food and wine.” Rufus’ voice was a low grumble, yet his emotions were amused. He came over and leaned down for another kiss, this time to Reno’s forehead, before he left the room.  

Reno lay in the bed for several minutes, giving his mate plenty of time to leave their home before he relaxed and let slip the leash from his thoughts. It had been a bit of a risk, asking to tag along for the day, but if he hadn’t have tried then it would probably have raised some suspicions. As it was, he would have to be careful with his emotions since his mate hadn’t put a full block up on their link and he didn’t want Rufus to figure out that he had left the house to go ‘play’ with Aya.  

He stretched his talent as much as he could until he felt all of the wards that he had scattered through the house. Putting them to use, he tracked the presence of everyone who had remained behind that day, the gokenin whom Rufus hadn’t taken (he thought it was Rod and Cyril) and the servants, and judged when it would be a good time to slip outside. He spared a few minutes to wash off and get dressed, unconcerned with grabbing anything to eat since he’d shared a breakfast with Rufus earlier and there would be food out in the city. Not to mention the shinigami kept hissing in his ear about the ‘feast’.  

“I know, I know, I’m hurrying out for it, aren’t I?” he snapped at them as he pulled on a black cloak, more for the sake of anybody seeing him than for the cold. He’d have his shadows, but he’d been yelled at often enough by Rude and Tseng and Cid about needing to put on ‘appearances’ that he slipped the heavy material over his shoulders just in case he had to drop the shadows at some point. That done, he opened the garden doors enough so he could creep outside, smiling a bit at the wards that his fellow gokenin had cast in a futile effort to keep track of him, and then darted across the small clearing.  

<Hurry or you’ll miss the feast!>  

<You young ones, no sense of importance.>  

<Kisei will wait for no one, not even Her favored servants. Rush we must, to enjoy what she has prepared for us.>  

Fuck all the gods, it was like being stuck with a lecture from Reeve, Rufus and Tseng at the same time, Reno thought as he raced through the grounds while shaking his head. Did Aya have to put up with this all of the time? No wonder he tried to hide behind his books whenever possible. “Look, I’ll get there when I get there. Not like I could have left when Rufus was still around, and *don’t* start on that ‘golden one’ shit, okay?” He figured that he’d be hearing enough of the Rufus bashing later today, when his mate realized that he’d slipped out and gotten into… well, whatever in all the hells went down today. His saving grace was going to be the fact that he’d be full of energy when everything was all said and done, which meant that *Rufus* would be full of energy.  <Just hurry. We should be together for the feast.> The shinigami sounded all huffy now, as if Reno had ruined its day by being both late and refusing to let them bash on Rufus.  

“Who doesn’t want to be on time for chaos and catastrophe?” He actually felt a bit disappointed by the shinigami’s inability to detect sarcasm and rolled his eyes while he climbed up the wall of a four-story building. Ah well, chances were good that Yohji would be tagging along, so that meant that someone would be more frustrated than him by the ‘hissing bastards’.  

*******  

Yohji let out a low groan as he was hauled up onto yet another roof. “Cat, *please* tell me that this is it.”

His mate seemed to stare off at nothing for a moment, and then were was a long, low hiss. Aya nodded a few seconds later. “We’re here.” He pushed back the hood of his black cloak, the cloak that Yohji had all but forced him to wear; it was a particularly overcast day so the sun didn’t bother Aya too much, especially since he was hidden by shadows, but the idiot had to realize that it was best to go out with some sort of outwear during the middle of winter.  

For himself, Yohji was damn grateful for his charmed coat and the woolen sweater beneath that, especially after an invigorating run across the city. The wind could be damn cold up on the rooftops. He sidled closer to Aya and hugged him close. “So, how long do we have to wait?” He shivered a little at the thought that they were up here in anticipation for a bunch of people to die.  

Aya shrugged as he looked out over the city. “I’m not sure, but it should be soon.” He turned to look to the left, and a few seconds later Reno crawled up onto the roof. “You made it.”  

“Eh, I’m not about to miss this.” Like Aya, he was wearing a black cloak, but before Yohji could point out this fact with some sort of satisfaction, Reno undid its clasp and let it fall to the floor with a huge grin of satisfaction on his face. “Damn thing is so annoying.”  

“I swear to the gods, I will laugh my ass off if both of you catch colds,” Yohji grumbled while he shook his heads. “No sense at all to come in out of the cold.” He didn’t need to look at his mate to know that Aya was giving him the same patronizing expression as Reno, he could feel it over their link. “What I have to put up with.”  

“You love it.” Reno joined them near the edge of the roof, his gait a slinky walk that probably indicated that Rufus should wonder just how much time his mate spent up on rooftops. “Who else shows you fun times like this?”  

‘Fun times’. Yohji tried not to think about how many people were going to die this afternoon – he was here to make sure that Aya and even Reno were kept safe because he loved his mate and felt some affection for the suicidal idiot that was Aya’s best friend. He also had a glimmer of hope that if there was so much death and magic going on at the same time and place, that the gods had some reason for two shinigami souls being here, and there was something that Aya and Reno could do other than feed. Maybe there was only so much they could do between the gods’ demands and the Elders’ bloodthirstiness, but he had to have some hope that there would be some good to come out of today’s sacrifice to Kisei.  

*******  

Cassandra tugged the hood of her golden-hued cloak further over her head and made sure that she had a firm grip on Haru’s right hand. The streets of the southern Fabric district were busy this time of day, with people out and about shopping despite the coldness of the season – well, perhaps because of the freezing temperatures as they sought to buy warm material for clothes. She was familiar with the area after so many years of working as a seamstress, although today she was using her talent to keep people from recognizing Haru and herself.

<Are we close yet?>  

She gave Haru’s gloved hand a squeeze. <I think so – this seems to be the area that Jei thought the agents were targeting, so it’s best that we stay around the perimeter.>  She felt… not exactly a vision, but a twinge of warning that was best to heed, a very slight premonition that came from time to time when danger was at hand. The last thing she wanted was to place herself and her foster daughter too close to a building that probably would be crashing down all too soon.  

It frustrated her, the lack of any true visions about the danger and likely deaths that lay ahead; Crawford had seen something, a few flashes of destruction and the impact it could have on the future they were twisting with all of their ability, but she hadn’t seen a thing. That worried *and* frustrated her, and made her wonder…. She snuck a glance at the darkened alleys around her and frowned at a grey and black striped cat as it strutted away as if unconcerned about the teaming humanity that surrounded it. Were Aya and Yohji somehow involved in all of this?  

 <Cassandra, are you ready?>  

She wanted to stamp her foot and snarl in annoyance, yet all she did fuss with the royal blue charmed cashmere scarf that Botan had gifted to her last Solstice. <Yes, I am out here in the cold while you are safely hidden away, waiting to do all of the hard work. With a *child* no less,> she sent back with a pulse of contempt.  

Crawford was quiet for a moment, a hint of anger creeping over the link, before he finally replied. <Why yes, why don’t I parade around in front of the Esset agents and let them know that I’m betraying the Elders. That will go down *smashingly*, won’t it?> He didn’t give her a chance to reply to his sarcastic comment. <Be careful, I think the time of my vision is about to approach.> Then he severed the connection with enough force to leave her with a slight headache.  

“Oh, one day I am going to tie that man up, slather him in butter, rosemary and thyme and then give him to Jei as a gift,” she muttered while she tugged Haru toward the fountain in the middle of the street; it should offer some protection when people started stampeding in terror.  

The young girl giggled at the familiar threat. “That will be funny to see.” She fussed with her dark green cloak as if cold, despite the similar charmed scarf she wore, her chin tucked down into the soft, warm fabric. <We passed someone who had very good shields while you were ‘talking’.> She sent a mental image of a woman with dark brown hair and an expensive cloak, her features fine enough to mark her as a bound. <I think there was another person, too, but they were too far away for me to get a good read. They felt male, though.>  

Cassandra patted Haru’s hand while sending reassurance and pride over their private link; somehow, perhaps because of what Schuldig and Masato had done to her while her talent was still latent, Haru had become quite adept at spotting other soul gaki bounds and could even tell when a succubae bound was using their talent on her. Crawford surmised that it was a sensitivity of sorts to psychic talent – one that the Elders would love dearly to possess. She didn’t need to actively scan to spot others of her kind, just be in their vicinity to sense them. The ability was proving useful today, even if the news wasn’t very heartening.  

<She doesn’t look like one of Crawford’s agents,> Cassandra admitted. <Remember to keep your shields strong and let me know if she or anyone we don’t know gets too close.>  

<I will,> Haru promised.  

So Crawford wasn’t the only one to think up using soul gaki bounds to influence the crowd. Cassandra felt a fresh wave of hatred for the Elders, for how they had to destroy what she and her friends were trying so hard to build here in Kritiker, and had just begun to curse them anew when there was a loud groaning sound. All around her, people paused in what they were doing and stared about in confusion even as her heart clenched in sadness when she realized that that sound meant. A few seconds later, the awful groaning gave way to a thunderous crash, the calamitous noise lasting what sounded like an eternity as people began to scream and start running about. Some went racing into the cloud of dust that came spreading outward, some away from it, while all Cassandra could do was hunch over with Haru clinging to her as the impact of so many deaths hit her mental shields.  

For what seemed like an endless amount of time, it was her mind entwined in Haru’s, their thoughts wrapped around each other’s as they physically clung to the other, mental shields overlapped for support for the added strength to block out such suffering/shock/anguish/pain/turmoil. Beneath it all was the blooming darkness of a life fading out, dozens of souls consigned to Kisei in what had to be minutes, and when the worst of those bursts were over, she reluctantly allowed her mind to creep beyond the safety of the mental shields.

There was still so much pain and confusion from the crowd around her, people dashing about and crying out for some sort of explanation. She held Haru close and shifted through what thoughts she could in an effort to find out what had happened. A dreadful moan slipped free when she realized that the agents had targeted a building that housed several popular shops and restaurants, and well as a busy market next door.  

“-the Furosode building! It’s nothing but rumble!”  

“What about the people who work there? What happened to them?  

“-something like this happen? How could the gods-“  

The cacophony of people’s voices was just as bad as their thoughts, but Cassandra did her best to withstand the mental tempest and keep track of what she could. Beside her, Haru trembled from the onslaught but latched on to her as if a using her a beacon in a storm, a grounding of sorts to keep from being swept away by such strong emotions. They rode through all of the conflicting snippets from the minds around them, aware of the growing anger and need to accuse somebody, *something* for this tragedy, and waited for what they needed to do.  

<Are you ready? Be prepared, Haru spotted some Esset soul gaki bounds.>  

<Barely, but I’m here,> Eri sent back, sounding weaker than normal but focused.  

<Gods, this is horrible.> Yonekuni’s mental voice quavered a little. <Why am I not surprised that those bastards would take advantage of something like this?>  

<Because they have ever felt that the end justify the means. Now *focus*> Huan sent over the link, his mental voice astringent and serving as a balm of sorts for all of the turmoil that they felt.  

<Uhm, not to make a bad situation worse, but I think I see a couple of wizards gathering,> Quinn warned them. <Cass, they’re headed your way.>

Cassandra swore in her native tongue while she rose to her feet and tugged a slightly dazed Haru along, thankful for both of their small statures and psychic talents as they wove their through the crowd to find an abandoned doorway to huddle inside. “Use a bit of illusion to hide us, yes?” she asked of her foster daughter.  

Haru nodded once and concentrated, and Cassandra let out a sigh of relief when people began to cluster around without paying any heed to them at all. “I can sense the woman again,” Haru warned her. “And maybe three others. It’s hard to tell with so many people about.”  

“I’m not surprised.” They were near enough to the building implosion and the gathered crowd that the agents were probably headed here to do the most amount of damage that they could. Using the ‘eyes’ of the people around her, Cassandra began to track the progress of the wizards moving toward the disaster area and cursed again, this time over the fact that the Fabric district was too close to the Magic district. The opportunistic bastards had probably rushed here as soon as they’d heard that something had happened.  

<Get ready – we will have to start working together any moment now,> she warned her friends. Silent agreement washed over the mental link between them. Sparing a brief moment to wonder if Jei was successful in tracking down the agents responsible for this tragedy, Cassandra held Haru close and then closed her eyes to better concentrate on what was happening around her.  

*******

Aya watched the scene unfolding below him with Reno by his side and Yohji behind him, his mate’s arms wrapped around his chest. It was almost like partaking in a play or a summer festival, settled before the stage while actors raced about performing some elaborate script; below them people were recoiling in horror from the death and destruction about them, almost mindless in their actions in how they staggered about.  

Meanwhile, energy thrummed through him from the deaths that the building’s collapse had spawned, with the occasional warm burst as another soul departed as the debris continued to settle.  

<Another soul, another spark to feed Kisei,> a nearby shinigami crooned.  

One brushed along Aya’s cheek in an affectionate gesture. <Promised a feast we did, no?>  

“Yes, you did.” He hadn’t even felt as many deaths at the same time at the king’s wedding, and shouldn’t have to feed for several weeks to come as long as he used his talent wisely.  

“Eh, you think it’s over?” Reno asked as he looked over the edge of the building they were standing on to peer down onto the street below. “Still an awful lot of squawkin’ and runnin’ around.”  

Yohji sighed as he tightened his hold around Aya. “You know, I *hate* only hearing one side of a conversation.” A pulse of anger flowed over their link. “If you’re asking anyone, I’d have to say…  there are a lot of pissed off and upset people down there, which in my experience usually means no, more bad shit is gonna happen.”  

Reno grinned while he sat down on the building’s edge. “Great! As much as I love a free meal, was sorta hoping that more would happen rather than some loud noise, a big cloud of dust and a feast.” He started to swing his legs back and forth while he looked out over the streets.  

Behind Aya, he could swear that there was a faint whimpering sound amid various hisses of approval. “Is it a dubhach thing or are you just naturally insane?” Yohji asked. “Never mind, allow me the delusion that it has nothing to do with your nature and I’m not tied for the rest of my life to someone who finds what just happened to be all amusing as hell.”  

“It’s a bit too noisy for that,” Aya admitted, though he kept the part that at least the sky was overcast so they weren’t here on a sunny day to himself. For some reason, he didn’t get the impression that Yohji was comforted by what he had just said. He shared a confused look with Reno before deciding to change the topic. “I sense magic.”  

The words caused Yohji to tense behind him, while Reno just nodded and hummed beneath his breath for a moment. “Yeah, I’m pickin’ up on that, too.” He gestured with his hands, sparks flying from his fingers. “There’s a lot of soul gaki magic and wizards prepping spells down there.”  

Aya could feel the magic building in the air, the clash of bound and human magic as they grew stronger. He urged Yohji to move closer to the edge of the roof so he could see and hear better what was happening on the streets, and his mate gave in with a worried grumble. “Your shadows better still be working.”  

“I think someone would have noticed us up here now, especially with the way that Reno’s throwing sparks about.” Aya tilted his head back to rest on Yohji’s shoulder. “It feels like Cassandra and Haru are down there doing something.”  

That served to gain Yohji’s attention. “Eh? Don’t tell me that Crawford roped them into helping him out.” Yohji frowned as he stared out over the city. “I can’t believe that Cass is down there with Haru when there’s a bunch of wizards and Esset bastards running about.”  

Reno made a rude noise as he sent a wave of sparks in one direction. “I put my money on those women. Anyone who deals with Crawford on a regular basis isn’t to be fucked with, no?”  

Yohji’s emotions were a mix of exasperation and amusement. “You really do drive Rufus absolutely insane, don’t you?”  

The question made Reno pause in dangling half off the roof just long enough to shoot Yohji a disgusted look. “Haven’t we been over this before? Now maybe we want to pay attention to what the blood-thirsty wizards are doing down there. Things are… getting weird.”  

“Weird? Weird how? It’s not exactly normal, considering that two bounds just imploded a building and it looks like a riot is about to happen.” A note of panic was building in Yohji’s voice and he released Aya so he could get a better look of what was happening himself. “Aya?”  

Aya made a hissing sound as he tried to make sense out of what was happening: there was the strong feel of soul gaki bound magic, as if Cassandra and Haru as well as other soul gaki bounds were doing their best to influence the crowd around them, and he thought he picked up the feel of other, lesser talents working against them. Mixed in with that was the sense of wizards drawing closer, of spells simmering all around him, and the growing presence of fresh deaths waiting to happen.  

<Foolish humans, rushing to their ends.>  

<Yes, yes, all go to Kisei, claims them she does even if they fear her,> another shinigami crooned as it took to draping itself along Reno.  

“Wait, I thought we fed already today.” Aya reached out to the shinigami and stroked along their flittering forms, desperate to understand what was happening.  

<Sometimes the mortals throw themselves into Kisei’s arms,> one explained while it twirled around Aya as if a burst of dark smoke.  

<Yes, young ones, learn this you must. Death and magic create opportunities to feed, to feast. Gather with the pack and fed well.>  

His mind seized on the word ‘opportunities’, which was not the same as ‘pre-ordained’. “So these lives aren’t ones that Kisei has marked for today?” he asked, while casting a desperate glance Reno’s way. His friend nodded quickly in understanding while Yohji turned from the edge of the roof to stare at him in concern.  

“Aya?”  

He ignored his lover for the moment and focused on the shinigami, waiting for their answer. “Are they?”  

There was more hissing, the sibilance low and rough as if the shinigami were displeased about something. <No,> one of them finally answered. <But all mortals must go to her in the end.>  

“Yeah, *the end*,” Reno spat as he leapt to his feet. “And I’m betting for a good bit of ‘em, it’s gonna be in a few more months when the war starts, but that doesn’t mean we have to do nothing now, right?”  

“I’m getting damn tired of all of this hissing!” Yohji shouted as he reached out to tug on Aya’s left arm. “What the hell is going on, Cat?”  

Aya spared his mate an apologetic smile and a quick kiss before pulling away. “I think we’re about to do something that might make you, Rufus and Jo angry with us, but it’s for the best, I swear.” He undid the clasp of his black cloak and let it fall to his feet so he had more freedom before joining Reno on the ledge. “I hope that we’re going to stop whatever magic the wizards are about to cast before it kills a lot of people.”  

Yohji cursed under his breath before lunging after him, his right hand snatching at Aya’s left. “Damn you and your love of heights,” he muttered as he joined them on the narrow ledge. “We’ll have words about how your friends are a bad influence on you later.” His voice was angry and the emotion filtered over their link, but there was also love, a hint of amusement and hope, along with that familiar sardonic grin on his handsome face that Aya cherished. “So you said that Cass is down there, right?”  

“Yes.” Aya felt the magic continue to build and frowned, about to snap at his mate over what was the point to all of this.  

“Good. Maybe I can see if I can help her out and try to keep the whole damn quarter from realizing that a pair of shinigami-souled idiots are up here using their talent.” The smile remained on Yohji’s face, but there was a glint of silver in his eyes and a hint of sibilance behind the words.  

“Ha, he’s fun when he’s all pissy, isn’t he?”  

Aya glared at his friend yet couldn’t find the energy to dispute what Reno had just said. “We’re not idiots,” he muttered as he did his best to knock his left elbow back into Yohji’s side, which was padded by a thick sweater and his wool coat.  

“Says the grouchy cat who was supposed to just come here, enjoy a feast and watch a show. Now hush, I’m trying to talk to Cass.” Despite Yohji’s gruff tone, his lips twitched into a bigger grin while love and exasperation flowed over their link.  

“Yep, definitely pissy. Must be a blond mate thing. Mine’s swearing right now that once I get back he’s gonna be so deep inside my head that I won’t be able to think up shit like this anymore. That’s gonna be fun.” Reno bounced on his toes a few times and hissed in amusement. “So what are we gonna do about the spells?”  

Maybe Yohji had a point about Reno being a bit insane. Aya sidled closer to his mate while he gave the question some thought, still sensing the building magic as well as when Yohji’s talent began to take effect. He shivered a little at the feel of it and then forced himself to focus the same time he slipped his fingers beneath the cuffs of Yohji’s sweater and coat so his mate could ‘feed’ off of his energy. “We need to counter-act the magic.”  

The look Reno gave him just then was one of blatant mocking. “Really? Can’t we just let the magic tear the damn city apart and feed some more?” The shinigami hissed their agreement.  

Friend or not, Aya bared his teeth in warning. “I was about to continue. I think if we combine our talent, it might confuse things a bit more than if we just cast out shadows.” The main thing was to avoid cloaking the area in shadows, which would alert anyone who was familiar with kage to Aya’s presence, and probably cause a mass panic if not a bloodthirsty mob tearing down the quarter looking for him.  

Reno tilted his head to the side while he considered that for a moment and then held up his left hand. “I usually use shadows to disrupt wards, but yeah, the sparks will work, too. Just keep too many of ‘em away from people unless you want to feed.” As he spoke, bright sparks began to dance around his fingers.  

Aya snorted in derision while he began to cast shadows very faintly out over the city blocks before him, the sparks dancing among them until it was a mix of not quite darkness or light but a grey, shimmering almost-mist. “I would think that we’ve fed enough for one day.” His body thrummed with energy, felt so bloated with it that his skin glowed.

That provoked a sardonic laugh from his friend. “Seriously? Can our kind ever feed too much?” Reno’s smile took on a wry twist as he produced more sparks of light to be merged with Aya’s shadows. “There’s always gonna be more death.”  

For once, the shinigami were silent – all they did was curl even closer around Reno and Aya.  

*******  

Yuushi coughed, his throat sore from yelling and breathing in the dust that filled the air, and used the fury that filled him at the thought of so many innocent deaths to find the strength to help carry an injured young woman to the triage area that the local healers had set up. One of them, an older gentleman whose light green robe identified him as a priest of Eisei, rushed forward to snatch the injured woman from Yuushi and ran off with her as if she weighed nothing. He stared after the priest for a moment, a bit nonplussed, until his gauntlet pulsed with a message.  

Reminded that there was still one hell of a disaster to clean up, Yuushi turned around and headed back the way he had come, ignoring the message from Kikyou – he was too busy to give ‘details’ to his boss. As it stood, he would be explaining later how ‘fortunate’ he was to be in the area, crossing from the southern Magic district to the Central one just as the implosion had occurred, in order to ensure that the wizards were settled after last night’s verdict. Kikyou probably would be suspicious of how the Guard was so organized over today’s tragedy and watch Yuushi like a hawk to see if he tried to take the credit or parlay it into any advantage at Court, but in the end, the main thing was the lives saved.  

His people, who had done their best to prepare as much as they could beforehand, were busy on the scene, both bounds and humans alike. Eri and Yonekuni were scattered farther back, ready to help Cassandra with whatever it was that Crawford had come up with to fight back against Esset. Several of the strongest earth bounds who felt it was safe to work so ‘openly’ were using their talents as surreptitiously as they could to shift about the fallen debris, either to stabilize it or move it off of any survivors. A couple of wind elementals were using their talents to vent the air a little, to aid the survivors and try to contain the dust that cluttered everyone’s lungs, and other bounds used their enhanced senses to track down the survivors or their enhanced strength to lift the debris. It was a risk, being here when there were Esset agents about and wizards about to descend, but they were willing to save lives and trusted in their human partners.  

Yuushi shouted and tapped out orders for several more minutes, until he felt a mental presence. <Yuushi, the wizards are here, about six of them,> Eri warned.  

Cursing the god of complications, he sent Cerise off on an errand to the healers to get her out of the way and then went in the direction that Eri had indicated, where he found a crowd gathered around a small group of men. Unlike everyone else in the area whose clothes were covered in a layer of grey dust and mud, soaked from sweat, melted snow and even blood, the men were still impeccably dressed. They looked vaguely familiar, as if they had been present at Court the night before. He was a bit surprised to not see their ringleader Kido here, but supposed that it was whoever had been closest from the Magic district.  

“Can I help you gentlemen?” Yuushi called out as he approached, busy pulling a rag from his belt in an attempt to wipe the grime and blood from his hands; his gloves had been ruined within minutes of arriving to help with the wounded.  

One of the wizards, an older gentleman with a liberal amount of grey through his dark blond hair, frowned as he stepped forward. “We are here to assist you.” His hands, covered in fine gloves that wouldn’t last half as long as Yuushi’s had, waved through the air to indicate his associates.  

“Thank you. Do any of you know healing spells? Detection spells? Something to help us shift or stabilize the rubble while we try to find the survivors?” Yuushi frowned when no one stepped forward. “I’m sorry, what help do you think-“  

The spokesman cut him off with an arrogant wave of his right hand. “We might be able to set up some wards to help stabilize the remains of the building once you shift it about, but we offer some protection from the cause of the collapse.”  

The words sounded like utter nonsense, and already tired from his brief efforts at saving lives, Yuushi blinked his sore, grit-filled eyes several times before responding, aware of how the crowd around them was stirring about. “I’m sorry, what exactly to you mean?”  

“I am saying that-“  

“*You’re* the fault that the cursed building collapsed!” A man who might be several years older than Yuushi – it was difficult to tell with the fine coating of grey dust that covered almost everyone – stalked forward until he was a few steps away from the wizards and thrust his left hand forward in an accusatory manner. “You’re the fault my son’s hurt! What happened to the damn ward to melt the snow?”  

As if that was a cue for the crowd, a flood of voices and fury rained down on the wizards, accusations and contempt for them and their skills. A couple of the younger wizards flinched away from the mob and huddled together, while the rest appeared outraged to have the people turn against them. As much as Yuushi felt that the wizards deserved some of the antagonism shown toward them, he ordered the nearest Guards to intervene and push the crowd back before something bad happened.  

The older wizard motioned with his hands and shouted to be heard over the noise, his voice somehow amplified. “Enough! It’s not our fault that the building has collapsed and your loved ones have been killed or injured! It’s the work of bounds, creatures sent from Esset to tear-“  

“It’s always bounds when it comes to you wizards!” a young woman shouted. Her dress was torn and smeared in blood, her right arm covered in bandages. “Anything to blame so you can stay needed!” Her cry was picked up by the crowd, who pushed back against the Guards.  

<Eri! Aren’t you supposed to be doing something?> Yuushi struggled to hold back several people who were shoving him in their attempt to get at the wizards.  

<We’re trying, but the Elders also set up some of their local agents who are soul gaki bounds. They’re working against us!> Her frustration came through the link along with the effort she was putting into trying to control the crowd and a hint of pain.  

Yuushi was about to say something else, and caught a slim figure somehow forcing her way through the furious mob. At first he was about to stop her, until he recognized her as one of the witches from Court, the dark haired one who had stood behind… Keiko? This time her hair was pulled back in a simple braid and her clothes, a plain dark cloak over what looked to be leggings and a sweater, were also dust covered and torn, indicating that she too had been here helping with the victims, not up to a Court visit. He motioned to Declan to let her through to the wizards.  

She came to a halt before the men and let out a blistering curse. “What are you doing? Either help the injured or go home!”  

One of the younger men glared at her and began gesturing with his hands. “We don’t have to listen to the likes of you! Clearly this is the work of the demon natured and must be stopped!” Around him, the rest of the wizards began to gesture, to mutter under their breaths and reach for various items beneath their cloaks.  

<Oh curse all the hells, I think this is going to get bad,> Yuushi sent to Eri the same time he shoved his right shoulder into some poor fool’s stomach so he could free his hand up to use his gauntlet to warn his people. <Magic is about to be cast.>  

<Do the gods hate us today?>  

Yuushi didn’t think that needed to be answered.  

The dark-haired witch cursed again as she tossed back her cloak. “Kisei take you all, you’re going to get us killed! Listen to these people for once and put away your pride!” When an ominous glow began to gather around the group of wizards, she raised her own hands into the air and started to chant.  

Yuushi had no idea what in all the hells the wizards were planning to do, if they were going to stun the crowd or had spells to seek out bounds – out *his* people – or if it was just going to be something flashy, something to try to cow the crowd and most likely piss everyone off, but the air became charged and difficult to breathe. Instead of calming the crowd, the mood around him turned even uglier, as if people had reached their limit on magic and wanted nothing more than to destroy those casting it. After all, it had failed them today, had harmed their loved ones, and now someone had to pay the price.  

As the wizards raised their hands, the witch cried out even louder and… something like a grey fog began to fall from the sky, to spread out from behind her. Yuushi wasn’t the only one to stare at it in amazement, his Guards and the crowd watched as if charmed as the fog flowed over the wizards, seeming to defuse their spells in progress.  

As the witch’s magic overpowered the wizards’, the angry mob around Yuushi appeared to have switched fury and bloodthirstiness for befuddlement. They remained staring up at the sky for several seconds before slowly beginning to disperse, heading back to assist the healers or search for more people trapped beneath the debris.  

<Uhm, not that I’m complaining, but what’s going on?> Even the wizards appeared affected, staring about with confused expressions on their faces.  

Eri’s mental voice was filled with relief. <Yohji is helping Cass and Haru with the crowd by adding his talent to theirs.>  

Well, that explained everything but the confused look on the witch’s face as she looked at her hands as if they didn’t belong to her. Yuushi ran his hands through his filthy hair and hoped that Jo had a bottle of wine waiting for him when he got home. <Do I want to know about that grey fog?>  

The silence that greeted his question gave him one hell of a headache. <So, two bottles of wine, and *Reiichi* can deal with telling Birman about what the hell Aya and Reno were up to, yes?> Because if Yohji was still here, then so were those two, and if this was unexplainable, it *had* to be their fault.  

<Can we go hide away once we get those bottles of wine?> Eri sounded so plaintive just then, and Yuushi couldn’t really blame her.  

Feeling as if he would need to soak for a day to get all of the dust and grime off of him, he sent back a mental agreement before going to see if there were any more lives to save. And if the work would distract him from what Yohji, Aya and Reno had done today, so much the better.  

*******  

Jei crouched against the side of building, mostly hidden in the shadows. His senses were fully extended as he tracked the two Esset agents, locked onto their scents as they scurried through the city streets. Behind him was pure chaos, blood and terror and the reek of death in the air as stone crumbled, but he forced his demon nature to lock onto the prey in front of him. He wouldn’t let these two get away, not after what they had done.  

<Any idea of where they are going?>  

<I think they’re trying for the river. Looks like… block the intersection of Weaver and Weft streets,> he sent to Natsumi, his lips sliding farther back from his teeth when there was a similar predatory surge to her thoughts. Oh yes, she wanted these bastards caught just as much as he did, wanted to sink her mind into them just like he waited to tear into them with his claws.  

He kept shadowing them through the bedlam-filled streets, sticking to the dark alleys and occasionally ducking into the crowds, the hood of his cloak pulled forward to hide his savage countenance. The madness skittered through his brain, heightened his senses and made him just about *taste* his prey, cut through the awful dust that lingered in the air. His world filtered down to the backs of two bounds, dressed in cheap cloaks covered in the fucking dust that seemed to be everywhere, and he wouldn’t lose them even if they descended into a thousand hells.  

<All right, we’re on to them now. We’ll help you herd them toward the warehouse on Weft street.>  

<Isn’t that a bit too fucking close to the river?>  Not that Jei cared since he had the black ring on him – if the bitch tried to bleed him dry, he’d return the favor, sucking her clean of blood and earning a nice meal. Crawford might pitch a fit, though. So would Duo. Hmm…. Maybe he’d be getting a better meal that he’d hoped for.  

<Sorry to burst your happy little dream there, but that’s what Trowa’s here to do – pull the little bitch’s fangs.>  

<Always gotta ruin my fun.> Jei bared his teeth even though Natsumi was just a voice in his head and turned the corner at a full run, uncaring if he gave his presence away now. The prey was spooked and desperate to find somewhere safe to put up a fight, away from human eyes, and all he registered as was a slightly too fast, cloaked figure. Natsumi must have called in some Guards to block the intersection leading to the river, which drove the agents toward the warehouse where everyone was waiting for them.  

<Well that and a slight mental coercion. Have I mentioned lately how much I *love* these stones?> Natsumi almost seemed giggly over the link, either pleased with how the black stone boosted her talent or the prospect of ‘play’ that loomed ahead.  

Jei smiled just then and was grateful that Kaede was no nowhere around – if only things were a little different….  

<Indeed, you’re just my type.> Natsumi sounded a little wistful about that, which made Jei wonder about who had warned her about the young fire elemental back in Berin.  

He shook such thoughts from his head because the warehouse loomed in front of him, with the two agents darting through a side door. Thanks to a warning from Natsumi, he skirted around that entrance and went to one further down the western side, which had been ‘hidden’ from the bastard thanks to Natsumi’s enhanced talent; the origin of the black stones might creep him the hell out, but he had to admit that they were useful as fuck in protecting him from magic and things like this. Using skills gained from sneaking around the last few decades, he snuck into the large warehouse with barely a sound and tracked down the Esset bastards’ by their voices.  

“-wards should hold out whoever was chasing us,” the man said, his deep voice worried.  

“Yes, but I swear I thought I sensed someone in here for a moment,” the woman, the water elemental, complained, her voice always squeaking with the fear that reeked from her pores. Jei took a deep breath as he wondered who was blocking her talent – Natsumi or Trowa. He turned to the bounds who were approaching him and tilted his head to the side in silent inquiry.  

Natsumi shrugged. <Trowa is doing something with his talent to block hers. I don’t quite understand it myself.> Behind her was the water elemental with Duo almost pressed against his side, Sophia and Miriam. <So, ready to get this over with?>  

Jei let his wide grin speak for him, and almost chuckled at the way Duo flinched and Sophia huddled against Miriam’s right side. With Natsumi walking beside him and the two women following along almost reluctantly, he strode forward from the shadows until the two agents could see him.  

“Oi! You two really think a bunch of pathetic wards are gonna keep us out?” Of course, Jei kept to himself the fact that most of them had already been in the warehouse and that he was immune to wards, but his statement had the effect of both startling the agents and confusing the hell out of them as the meaning sunk in.  

The earth elemental tried to protect the water elemental, judging from the way he moved in front of her, his hands held out as if to call forth his talent to either crush them or bury them in the earth. However, all it took was a wave of Miriam’s left hand to negate whatever the hell he was trying to do. When he started cursing, his partner’s brow furrowed and she bit her lip, only to gasp a moment later.  

“Jacquelyn-“  

“Oh, no, don’t think so,” Sophia interrupted as she conjured up a ring of fire around the two, guessing that they were probably about to rabbit now that their abilities had been stymied. “You’ve already caused enough destruction while let loose.”  

The agents stared in shock as they huddled together, looking back and forth at the four of them, Jei with his claws and fangs out, Natsumi dressed all prim and proper but her eyes gleaming red behind her glasses, Sophia and Miriam standing with their hands clasped together and looking as if they were about to run an errand at the local market. “You’re… you’re bounds!” the earth elemental stuttered out as if he was still trying to come to grasps with the fact. “Are you Esset? Aren’t you Jei? Did we do something wrong?”  

Jei flipped back the right side of his cloak while he stepped forward. “Well, you’re partially right. I’m Jei and you seriously fucked up, but no, none of us are really for Esset.” He gave them a few seconds to figure out how really fucked they were.  

The water elemental clutched her partner’s left arm while shaking her head from side to side as if that would invalidate what had just been said. “But… you’re from Esset. You work for the Elders, how can you-“  

“How can I be a good little lackey and let them fuck us over?” Jei demanded to know with a rough snarl, his fangs on full display. He stalked over to them until he was almost in their face, Sophia lowering the flames so he could approach that close without being burned. “Maybe because I’ve got a fucking brain in my head? Maybe because I’m thinking past this damn war they’re cramming down everyone’s throats? You’ve got to be a fucking idiot if you think you’ll ever be free if you put into power people who treat you like disposable trash.”  

The water elemental appeared ready to cry at any second, but the earth elemental had enough backbone to return a bit of glare Jei’s way. “And what is the alternative, eh? Kritiker kills our kind.”  

Natsumi joined Jei in front of the two idiots. “Which is why the king just proclaimed a stoppage to using bound blood in wizard spells and the Army bleeding them for that purpose. That is, unless the wizards are able to prove that you two morons were the cause of the building collapse today and rescind that decision.” The disproving look she gave them actually made them duck their heads in unison. “I wonder if that might have been any reason behind the Elders sending you on a mission like this.”  

“I don’t… that is… the humans have killed so many of us,” the earth elemental stuttered out as if he was clinging to some sort of rationale.  

“So you think by killing them you’ll balance the scales? It just feeds into an endless cycle, and there’s so many more of them then there are of us,” Natsumi snapped back in a rare show of anger. “Esset hasn’t changed in a thousand years, but Kritiker *is* changing. Look at what its king and Royal Wizard have just declared, and look what we are doing today.” She glanced at Jei, who nodded. “And if you don’t believe me….”  

The two agents looked up in time to see Duo and Trowa walk out from the darkness that had hidden them. Idiot that he was, Duo waved, dressed in his Guard’s uniform, while Trowa was wearing an outfit suitable for Court. “Hey, Jacquelyn. I said I’d try to do something to help you.”  

The water elemental gaped at him for several seconds before snarling. “So you betrayed me? I thought-“  

He cut her off with a burst of flames from his right hand. “If I was going to betray you, you’d be dead right now for all of the deaths you’ve caused.” Just then, Duo’s eyes gleamed red and a hint of sharp teeth lurked behind his lips, his face set in grim lines and his lean body taut with restrained violence. For once, Jei could understand what Trowa saw in the idiot and made him consider Duo a worthy mate – not that he’d ever let Duo know that. “But I know all too well how little an option the Elders give us and that sometimes things happen for a reason. So shut the hell up and listen to what we’re telling you.” The last few words came out as a rough growl.  

The woman, Jacquelyn, made an audible gulp before nodding twice. Meanwhile, her partner kept looking back and forth between everyone and her as if wary of an attack.  

Duo glanced at Trowa and relaxed a little. “What Jei and Natsumi are telling you is true. Part of Kritiker is working hard to become a haven for bounds – it’s not out in the open just yet and probably won’t for decades to come, but we’re safer here than you think. Changes are going on at higher levels than you can imagine.”  

Sophia spoke up as well, her voice soft and shy. “Yes, we came here several years ago and established a home for ourselves.” The smile she bestowed on her lover was breathtaking and actually made Jacquelyn blush. “We’re happy here, unlike we ever were back in Esset or Cretia. We feel safe.”  

“But you’re in *Kritiker*,” the earth elemental said, his voice lacking the vitriol it had contained earlier.  

Miriam nodded. “It’s not perfect, and we don’t go openly using our talent. But the changes, they are there. There have always been safe havens here, and now more bounds are coming to the city every day. *I* would never have come here if we were at risk.” She held Sophia’s hand up to her chest. “We wanted a home.”  

<So, what do you think,> Jei sent as he watched the two agents before them, the way they shivered and all but clung to each other, their scents clearly confused and the fight all gone from them. <Do I get to eat them or what?>  

<Sadly, I think you get to go hunting later tonight,> Natsumi informed him with a good bit of amusement. <It’s like Duo warned us – they’re not really bad people, just caught up in the Elders’ brainwashing. But they seem to finally be starting to think for themselves now.>  

The two shared a look between them for a few seconds and then the earth elemental put his left arm around the woman’s shoulders. “Okay, so what’s next? You’ve caught us, and it’s clear that we can’t do much about that.”  

Duo patted Sophia on the right shoulder to make her drop her flames. “Well, that’s sorta up to you. I have to take you in because of what you’ve done.” The water elemental sobbed upon hearing that. “But Yuushi and Birman will understand that you’re under orders, so as long as you cooperate….” He paused to shake his head. “There’re all sorts of way you can make it up to Kritiker.”  

Trowa spoke up for the first time. “You can’t go back to Esset, not after what you’ve done. But if you can prove yourselves trustworthy, you can rebuild instead of destroy.”  

Jacquelyn gulped again. “They won’t… they won’t try to use my talent to…..” Tears slipped down her cheeks as she shook her head.  

Duo snarled and snaked a hand around his mate’s waist as a weird tingling sensation filled Jei’s body. “No way in any fucking hell! Keep some farms from being flooded or help find some wells, maybe, but you think I’d work for people who would do that? That *Trowa* would?”  

Trowa shuddered as he took a deep breath, and the tingling sensation slowly faded, which caused Jei to let out the breath he didn’t realize that he’d been holding in; it had been a over a year since he’d felt something like that, a sure sign that Trowa was on edge. “I swear to you that I’ve never been used that way since I’ve been working for Kritiker.”  

Jacquelyn sobbed again as she wiped away her tears, and her partner’s head was hanging low upon hearing Trowa swear like that. “All right. We’ll go with you,” was all he said, but Jei knew that the fight had truly gone all out of him; there was enough possessive protection in him for the water elemental that he’d probably destroy a hundred more buildings if it meant keeping her safe.  

“Damn, looks like I go hungry today after all,” he grumbled while he motioned for the two agents to follow him, shoving Duo forward to lead the way back to the Palace. Ah well, at least he could still terrorize this idiot, he consoled himself.  

*******  

Rufus was seated at the desk and watching the double glass doors that led out to the garden when one of them opened slightly to let his wayward mate slip inside of the room. Reno seemed to be glowing against the darkness of the black cloak he was wearing, his tousled hair as bright as a flame and his eyes full of silver. He paused when he spotted Rufus waiting for him, then closed the door behind him and let the cloak fall to the floor.  

Rufus blinked his eyes twice when he realized that it wasn’t just the dark material that made it appear as if his mate’s pale skin was glowing, that Reno seemed to shine from an internal light. “Just how much did you feed today?”  

An apprehensive smile spread across Reno’s face, crinkling the red lines across his sharp cheekbones. “A *lot*.” A purr roughened his voice and sparks flickered around his fingers as he forced them through the tangled mess that was his long hair; clearly someone had been running along rooftops again. “There were so many of them, most of ‘em all at once, a feast just like they said.” His eyes became unfocused and he swayed a little from side to side. “Don’t think I’ll need to feed for *weeks*.”  

Oh yes, Rufus had felt that ‘feast’, had nearly lost control of his shields when that wave of energy and delight/completeness/satiation had smashed into him. He supposed that he should have been grateful for it, because every soul gaki and succubae bound in the city had to have felt all of those deaths, and as powerful as he was, being unprepared for it would have left him in some serious pain. Yet his link with his mate and the blast of energy had given him a means of protecting himself.  

He *hated* the fact that he was in some way grateful that Reno had slipped out again without telling him and done something with his talent, something… well, not even Birman was certain what it was, only that no one had yet connected it to a pair of suicidal, idiotic shinigami bounds. *Yet* being the key word. “So, do you have any clue why I’m furious with you?”  

Reno stood there for a moment, his expression and emotions uncertain, before he literally slinked his way toward Rufus; his motion wasn’t so much as sexual as utterly boneless and more than a little inhuman, as if he was more shadow than man. “I am very, very sorry,” he said, in a tone that actually sounded contrite for once, and sank down onto Rufus’ lap.  

About to tear into the fool for what he had done, Rufus was caught up in how Reno was moving, that too-liquid motion, the way his eyes were so silver, without any hint of aquamarine or green, the fact that his human soul was so *quiet*. He muttered a curse to Kisei while he tore off the white kid gloves he wore and then threaded his hands through his mate’s hair, more from a need to *feel* him, to hold onto him than to discipline, and dove as deeply as he could into their link.  

For once, Reno didn’t try to fight him; earlier in the day, his lover had seemed amused and even accepting of his threat to deepen the link between them as an attempt to create some type of leash. The ‘human’ side of Reno should hate that very thought, whereas the demon side of him probably welcomed anything that strengthened their bond. Right now, Rufus was finding Reno’s demon soul dominant, yet the imbalance wasn’t causing the usual internal battle that normally led to Reno trying to destroy himself. His human soul appeared dormant, accepting of its fate… withered.  

<What happened today?> Rufus demanded, even as he poured through his mate’s memories.  

<Eh, the shinigami insisted that Aya and me be there for a feast.> Reno shrugged then draped his arms over Rufus’ shoulders. <We got the feeling that it would be bad to turn ‘em down, so we went. Yohji tagged along to keep us out of trouble.> There was an under-thought of how *Yohji* wasn’t such a controlling bastard. <A lot of people died, some wizards tried to stir up some shit but we stopped it, and then I came home.> He frowned while he scratched at the back of Rufus’ neck. <I didn’t let anyone see me, I just did what the shinigami wanted, got a nice big meal that should last a while and I came home after a little running. What’s so wrong about that?>  

Rufus closed his eyes and fought the urge to smack his head into something very, very hard. What was wrong with that? Reno had, with Aya’s assistance, used his power in front of a couple of hundred humans, a handful of them wizards and Esset agents, and did something, either feeding that much at once or whatever he’d done with Aya, possibly both, that had… shifted his nature. Something had happened to him, maybe something positive as for right now he appeared more stable, but Rufus didn’t trust ‘appeared’. He also didn’t trust anything when the shinigami were involved. Why had they insisted that Reno and Aya be there today?  

“Eh, so are you pissed off or what? You don’t feel so pissed off anymore.”  

Rufus opened his eyes to see Reno staring at him with concern, his brow furrowed and his eyes back to aquamarine. However, the silver was still there in tiny shards that spun around, much like the sparks he could cast. What had happened to them changing green?  

“Give me a little time, I’m sure I can manage it if you really want me pissed off.” Rufus yanked his mate close for a kiss that was more desperate than passionate, was his attempt to reassure himself that at least their bond hadn’t changed. A sense of relief washed through him when Reno purred in delight and kissed him back with fervor, nails once again scratching at the nape of his neck, thighs clamped hard against his hips and thoughts filled with hope about how this would soon lead to sex.  

No, the bond was still there, as were the emotions, if anything even sharper now, so potent that Rufus was left gasping as they flooded into him, all that need/lust/happiness/love. He had never felt so energized, so sated after so little, and needed to break off the kiss so he could make sense of everything.  

“You okay?”  

“It’s been a very long, trying day,” he informed the bundle of mischief that somehow he’d been saddled with as a mate – he still didn’t buy that whole ‘it’s your fault for forcing the link’ line that Crawford pushed on him. “I spent over an hour doing some very delicate yet demanding coercion work on a highborn that’ll lead to Esset getting some not quite incriminating enough documents, found out that the man I’m bonded to until death was off playing with shinigami and mucking about with wizards, and then had another lovely tea with Birman while dealing with the fallout of both of those events.” This time he *did* tug on Reno’s hair to help drive home the point he was making, for all the good it was doing him. <No more running off without telling me. At least give me the satisfaction of arguing first before you rush headlong toward our destruction. I’ll have some gratification of getting the last word in, then.>  

Reno blinked a few times before grinning like the mad idiot he definitely was. “Oh yes, I much prefer *my* blond,” he purred before leaning in for another searing kiss that left Rufus feeling as if he wasn’t the only one who would be well-fed for weeks.  

*******  

Jo looked at the people gathered around the table and shook her head as she headed over to fetch the latest bottle of cream whiskey. “Do *any* of you ever worry about becoming alcoholics?”  

“Considering that there is a war about to break out, that’s basically a rhetorical question at this point.” Birman reached for the liquor to add to her cup of coffee. “I’d be more concerned about how much caffeine we manage to drink so late at night and still go to bed.”  

Reiichi laughed while he waited for the bottle next. “I think I became immune to it about my fifth year as a Guard. It may be a requirement to join up.”  

“We do seem to build up quite the tolerance,” Yuushi agreed. “You never know what shift you’ll be on from one month to the next, thanks to the casework, even if you’re at the Palace.”  

Yet it was clear that all of them loved what they did, the craziness of their schedules and the danger aside, Jo thought as she put together a plate of something to eat. When she returned to the table with enough sweets, cheese and cold cuts to appease everyone, she looked at Crawford and Cassandra as if to ask what were their excuses.  

Crawford smiled while helping himself to some almond cake. “Like most things, it takes an awful lot of caffeine to affect a bound.”  

Jo almost made a comment about how unfair things were, between the ability to burn off sweets, not get drunk on a bottle of wine and now this, until she thought of everything that bounds had suffered over the last thousand years. “That must be why Aya is even grouchier in the morning before his pot of tea.”  

Most of the people gathered around the table chuckled over the joke, but soon sobered. Sitting down beside Cassandra, Jo poured herself only half a cup of coffee since she did want to go to sleep sometime tonight and added a dollop of the cream whiskey before holding the mug up near her chin. “Okay, so how did it go? All I got out of Yohji before he shuffled a damn near glowing Aya upstairs was that Aya’s stuffed, a good bit of people died, there nearly was a riot but he helped Cass put an end to it while Aya and Reno stopped the wizards from doing something stupid.” She had nearly throttled Yohji for barely using more words than that, but she hadn’t been exaggerating about the ‘glowing Aya’ part. His skin had been almost luminous in the fading light and his eyes pure silver. When she heard latter that almost two hundred people had died today, she hadn’t been surprised.  

Cassandra rubbed her eyes as if she was exhausted. “Yotan was of great assistance today. Esset had several of their soul gaki bounds there to instigate the crowd, which made what we were doing to calm things down so difficult. As soon as Yotan lent his talent to me and Haru, the crowd calmed down.”  

Looking around the room, Jo noticed the serious expressions on everyone’s faces. Cassandra was a very powerful and talented soul gaki bound – her main ability may lay in foretelling the future, but she was still powerful. Somehow, Jo doubted that the others who had helped her were weak bounds, so for them not to be able to manage something without Yohji’s help meant it shouldn’t have made so much difference for *one* bound to change things that much. Yet Yohji’s assistance did.  

She remembered how easy it was for him to sway someone into doing what he wanted, to charm them. Now he could do it to a district, one panicked and angered over mass destruction? To think that everyone worried about what Aya could do….  

<Exactly. Aya’s talent is death and destruction, but Yohji…. Yotan can probably face down a battalion and have them fall upon their swords, if he puts his mind to it.> Cassandra seemed upset about it, as if heartbroken at the thought of Yohji being capable of so much death himself.  

Jo wasn’t happy about that possibility, either, but if it came down to Yohji dying or someone else, she’d rather Yohji survive. She also knew that if it came down to *Aya* dying or… well, Yohji would face a hell of a lot more than a battalion for his mate.  

<I think that is what scares us all right now.>  

“So Yohji did his thing while Aya and Reno somehow undid a heck of a lot of spells,” Yuushi continued for Cassandra. “I’m going to need to talk to Aya tomorrow, since I assume Rufus isn’t going to allow anyone near Reno for the next set of moons.” His mouth twitched into a quick smile before he resumed being serious. “From what Naru tells me, I think a quarter of the district has lost its spells or have had them weakened, but no one is saying anything about shinigami or kage. Hell, no one thinks that a kage can do something like what they just did, breaking spells and wards in a matter of minutes like that.” Yuushi tugged on his bangs as if he wasn’t pleased that they’d done it at all.  

Meanwhile, Birman smiled as if she could easily think of how useful it would be to have Aya and Reno do whatever it was that they’d done for her again. “Yes, but it’s giving credence to the belief that somehow, the wizards’ spells have failed. The grey fog or mist from today is attributed as a bit of flash to a witch named Amaya, and we’re keeping a close eye on her in case she makes a connection between Aya and Reno and what really happened.”  

“I think she’s smart enough to realize that anything that discredits the wizards is good, especially if it helps the witches. Her kind don’t seek to harm bounds,” Reiichi pointed out.  

“Still, we’ll keep an eye out on her.” Birman took her job seriously, which was a comfort to Jo considering that one of the culprits was a couple of floors above, probably serving as a ‘snack’ for a particularly troublesome foster son.  

She glanced over at Crawford, who merely smiled back at her. Well, hopefully that meant that this Amaya wouldn’t be any trouble, or else Crawford could find somewhere else to eat for the next few decades.  

“What about the building collapse?” she asked instead, now that she knew that Yohji and Aya should be safe. “There’s been a lot of gossip about it, but the one thing everyone’s agreed on is that a lot of people died.”  

Birman’s smile disappeared and she appeared aged several years just then. “186 people died, 132 injured, over half of them critically, and half of a city block impacted by the destruction. I wish there had been some way to prevent this.” She sounded so uncertain and quiet, unlike the Spymaster Jo had known for years.  

Crawford was quick to shake his head. “You know that’s not true from what we’ve learned today, not to mention my visions and Aya. The Elders had enough agents in the area that they would have moved on to other targets immediately if they thought those two were in any way incapacitated.” He turned to Jo, his lips pressed in a thin line. “The two agents agreed to assist us in return for clemency and gave up the safe house where they were staying.”  

“Yes, all in all it’s been a rather busy day, between the recovery effort in the southern Fabric district and tracking down Esset agents.” Reiichi ran his right forefinger over his left gauntlet. “I don’t know what was worse, the building imploding or the thought of fires throughout the city.”  

Yuushi shuddered, almost spilling his full mug of coffee and whiskey “At least there’s some hope of recovering people from a collapsed building. You know there’s no way we could have done that in a building set on fire by a fire elemental.”  

“Especially when it was surrounded by crowds driven out of control by soul gaki bounds.” Cassandra reached for a piece of cheese and then seemed to think better of it. “But why didn’t we see this?”  

Crawford stared into his mug for a moment before he shook his head. “Perhaps because it was only a possibility, waiting for the two agents to fail. Perhaps because Aya, Yohji and Reno were so heavily involved in the initial part of the timeline. Or perhaps, like Aya and Reno insisted, Kisei demanded a sacrifice and was going to get one.” He didn’t appear very happy with that possibility.  

“So what, over three hundred people had to have their lives ended or damaged because of a demanding god?” Jo wanted to hit something so very badly just then.  

“So we can lay these deaths at the feet of Esset,” Birman admitted with a weariness that spoke of more than a lack of sleep. “We’ve done our best to hide the fact that it was bounds behind it, but you know that the wizards will find a way to say it wasn’t *their* fault, and I can’t argue with them when it’s true. So that leaves outside interference.”  

In other words, Esset won out in the end. Jo was beginning to see why Jei and Ed detested the Elders so very passionately. “It’s going to drive the Court and the city into a frenzy.” A sense of dread filled her chest.  

Cassandra’s eyes were bright with tears. “Come spring, be ready for war.”  

Reiichi pushed his cup aside. “We knew it was coming regardless, and something would have pushed us onto this course of action. We were basically set after Princess Ouka’s birthday celebration. Now there will be no reason for delay, for debate, for testing the water. Any argument against it will be silenced.”  

It finally sunk in, how this would be the last winter for some of her loved ones, her friends, her customers. Jo wondered how many of the Guard would return to the Koneko past this spring, how many gathered at the table would be back the following winter. Perhaps Cassandra and Crawford knew, with their ability to foretell the future, their eyes already shadowed with darkness. She thought about Aya, hiding so much in his room, and realized that he could probably tell her if she asked. Just then, she had never been so thankful to be mortal, to be human and limited to five senses. It would break her heart to lose the people she cared about as it happened, but to know about it beforehand?

“Well, Kisei’s had her damn sacrifice today, let her be happy with it,” she spat out, ready to wage a war of her own against the goddess if she dared to touch any of the Koneko’s own. “She’s had more than enough blood. That’s something *I’m* not open to debate about.”  

Around the table, everyone sat in silence.  

*******  

Yohji ran his fingers along Aya’s bare back, frowning slightly at the feel of scars beneath his fingertips. The marks of abuse were still there, just like the faint lines along his mate’s forearms, though these seemed to bother Aya less; he barely reacted whenever Yohji touched them these days, other to let out a soft sigh now and then.  

Yohji leaned down to kiss his mate’s left shoulder, then smiled when he couldn’t resist a quick bite of his own that left a faint impression of teeth marks in the pale, still radiant flesh.  

“Very funny.” Aya spared him a glare over his marred shoulder before letting his head fall back onto the pillows.  

“I think it’s only fair,” Yohji teased as he curled up against his lover, his hands still roaming along bare flesh; at each touch, each caress, a trickle of energy flowed into him and tingled along his nerves. He squinted a little in the room’s dim light and wondered if his own skin had taken on a faint glow as well. Hmm, it *had* been a very impressive ‘feeding’ just then, he thought to himself, their lovemaking especially languorous thanks to all that delicious sunlight that spilled out of Aya. Yohji didn’t need to worry about draining him too much – probably wouldn’t need to worry about that for weeks, such a wonderful thing, and had been able to draw out the pleasure for both of them.  

Aya grunted softly and shifted on the bed, his hair falling onto his face and an eartail trailing along his marked throat. “Don’t tell me you’re still hungry after all of that?” His deep voice was a little raspy, for once not because of the sibilant hiss he used when speaking to the shadows or going all ‘shinigami’.

“Mmm, no, just enjoying being able to touch you like this and still feed.” Yohji picked at the eartail, wrapped it around his fingers and gave it a gentle tug before he draped it over his mate’s shoulder. “Either I have to try to tamp it down as much as possible or I can only let go of the hunger during sex. It’s nice to be… all of me right now.”  

Understanding and love flowed over their link. “It’s nice when that happens, isn’t it?” Aya closed his eyes for a moment, his right hand moving to capture Yohji’s and entwine their fingers together.  

“So is that what it felt like today?” Yohji rested his chin on his left forearm and waited for an answer; he knew what he had felt over the link earlier, but wanted Aya to put it into words.  

At first all he got for his efforts was a shrug and then Aya closed his eyes as if about to fall asleep. When more than a minute had passed that way and Yohji had given up hope of an answer, Aya began to speak. “It did feel natural, feeding on all those lives with the pack and Reno there. I think that’s how it’s meant to be, instead of by myself and on one or two lives at a time.” Aya’s brow furrowed and Yohji picked up on a sense of disturbance. “Maybe that’s what the shinigami were trying to prove to Reno and me today.”  

Maybe. Yohji wasn’t too happy with that idea – either the ‘pack’ mentality or the ‘all those lives’ – but the part that had made him such a good Guard wondered if it was so simple. “Yeah, but it wasn’t the only time when a bunch of people have died.” While perhaps not on such a grand scale, thank the gods, bad things happened all the time: building fires, food poisonings, spells gone wrong, storms, things like that. Why had the shinigami insisted on today to get Aya and Reno together? Was it so they could use their talents? Why couldn’t they stop the building from collapsing but could prevent the wizards from doing something that would spark a mob into going out of control?  

He rubbed his forehead a few times against his arm before whining and cuddling against his mate. “I think the gods are trying to drive me crazy.”  

Aya made a scoffing sound and shifted a little closer. “What do you mean, try? They’ve long since succeeded. Idiot.”  

Yohji’s eyes narrowed and he freed his hand so it could creep along a certain sardonic cat’s hip.  “Well, if I’m such a crazy idiot, I can’t be blamed for what I’m about to do, no?” He smirked in anticipation as he shoved Aya onto his back and then straddled his startled lover’s hips.  

“Oh for-“ Aya gave up on whatever curse he was about to utter and took to glaring at Yohji instead, for all the good it would do him. Just then, he looked utterly too adorable with his lips slightly pouted, his long bangs falling into his violet eyes that utterly lacked any silver save for the brief flashes of candlelight they reflected back, and his pale skin luminous from all of the energy that crackled beneath it. Oh sweet gods, but Yohji was so going to enjoy his own private ‘feast’ over these next few weeks, even if there was a lingering guilt on what had fueled it. “You’re such a damn glutton.”  

“How can I not be, when you taste so damn good?” Yohji leaned down for a kiss, savoring the way that Aya parted his lips and welcomed him, kissed him back with intensity despite their earlier lovemaking. The emotions that rushed over their bond helped to push back the faint sense of concern/sadness/weariness/fear/affection that he felt emanating from the rest of the inn, emotions that he didn’t want to face from his friends any time soon.  

The feel of Aya naked before him, body eager for him yet again, was the best type of balm after such a trying day. “Just relax,” he whispered after he broke off the kiss, radiating as much love/reassurance/desire/need as he could while he trailed kisses along Aya’s neck and chest. He felt the way his mate tensed up at first, then seemed to force himself to relax, felt the trust and love that flowed back into him as he inched his way downward.  

Aya’s cock had softened a little; Yohji stroked it several times before licking along it from root to tip and then taking it into his mouth, holding it loosely at the base while he sucked on it. He kept careful watch on Aya’s emotions, mindful of the way the pleasure slowly overtook the reservations that his mate had over what he was doing the longer the blowjob went on, how that pleasure spiked at the certain things he did. Aya liked it when he would break off now and then to swirl his tongue along the head of his cock, the soft little moans he made, how he pressed his tongue along the hard flesh as he moved upward.  

The sunlight pouring into him burned stronger, made him feel as if he was lit within by a star. It seared through his nerves, made him so sensitive that he noticed every twitch of Aya’s body beneath his, every shift of the bed and the sheets. His left hand fumbled for his own cock, slick with pre-cum, and only a couple of strokes had him moaning and on edge. Beneath him, Aya shuddered and clawed at his shoulders, breath coming in gasps and head thrown back as ecstasy and sunlight poured over their link.  

Yohji sucked Aya down hard two more times and then pulled back, hand pumping the base of his cock as Aya came in his mouth. The exhilarating burst of energy and pleasure was enough, along with another trembling stroke of his hand, to make him come as well, his fingers falling lax around his own cock. He felt energized and drained at the same time, barely finishing swallowing Aya’s release before he collapsed on the bed beside him.  

His mate lay with his right arm over his eyes and his chest heaving, as if he had just run a long distance. After a few minutes when Yohji moved to pull him into his arms, Aya growled a little in protest and managed to move his right elbow enough to poke him in the ribs. “Go wash off.” Despite the snarl in his voice, his emotions were much more affectionate.  

“Fine, I see how you are.” Yohji sniffed as if offended but did as he’d been bid. Considering that Aya hadn’t complained about the blowjob, things were going rather well – and to be truthful, he was a bit messy just then. Yohji grimaced as he shuffled to the washstand and spent a minute wiping himself down. When he returned to the bed, he handed Aya a clean, wet washcloth. “I think we’re going to need to change the quilt.”  

That statement earned him a glare, but Aya got off the bed in a much more graceful manner than Yohji had and stood to the side cleaning himself while Yohji fixed up the bed for the night.  

Once the bed was ready, Aya slipped between the clean sheets without saying a word. Yohji set the dirty quilt aside with the rest of the laundry that would go out to be washed the next day and added a little more wood to the fireplace before joining him, grateful that the sheets had been warmed up by their body heat earlier. He sighed in pleasure, and didn’t let the faint hiss he heard in the darkened corners of the room bother him. “Hmm, now this is a nice way to end the day.”  

He got another poke to his ribs. “Don’t jinx things. There’s still a few hours left.”  

“There’s my optimistic cat,” he cooed in response, and laughed when he was poked again. “All right, I’ll be good.” He hugged Aya closer and sighed in happiness before calling out the word to extinguish the candles. Hmm, it did indeed look like they were both glowing now – he hoped that went away by morning or else Jo would have to bring them up their meals for a day or two. Oh, wouldn’t that be a shame?  

“OW! Dammit, I’m going to start wearing armor to bed or something.” He rubbed his sore ribs before seeking out an eartail to give it a yank.  

“Stop thinking whatever you were thinking and go to sleep.” Aya sounded tired, which he really shouldn’t be considering how much energy he had in him, but it had been a pretty eventful day. Yohji grumbled under his breath a little, hugged Aya even closer and closed his eyes.  

He found it a bit difficult to fall asleep right away too, and didn’t think it was because of all the energy he’d ‘fed’ upon that evening. He could still sense those negative emotions downstairs and had a feeling that Birman, Jo, Yuushi and the others were discussing the fallout from today; Cassandra had told him that the Guard was hunting down some of the Esset agents in town once they caught up to the two who had been responsible for all of the deaths today. He was also willing to bet that he and Aya were part of the topic, between Aya helping to defuse the magical situation and him using his talent to calm the crowd. It seemed the closer they got to the war, the more they showed just what they could do and the more it freaked everyone out. What the hell did everyone think they were going to do during the actual war? Just stand there and look pretty?

“Yotan….”

“I know, Cat, stop being an idiot and go to sleep.” Yohji couldn’t help but smile as he pressed a kiss against Aya’s forehead. Maybe he’d end up scaring away all of his friends by the time this damn war was over, but there was one person who would always love him for what he was – an overpowered idiot and all.  

*******  

Heero was preparing to finish up his shift for the day at the palace and was hoping to run into Relena before he had to report back at the barracks when a highborn bumped into him. He gritted his teeth and muttered out an apology when the man, dressed in dark blue and red, grabbed him by the left arm.  

“You there, you should be able to deliver this for me, yes?” Heero realized that the highborn was Ginjiro Hashisaki, who worked under the Minister of Defense. “Give this letter to General Haruko.” In his hands was a sealed letter – along with a larger envelope that was unsealed.  

Confused, Heero looked about and didn’t see anyone nearby in the hallway or who was paying them any attention. There certainly wasn’t any pages to be seen who could run the errand. Wondering if this was some sort of trap, he extended his talent just enough to muffle their conversation. “Yes, my lord. I’ll give them to him right away.”  

“Good.  He’s expecting that letter so it’ll be a demotion for sure if you slack off or mess up.” The highborn sniffed in disproval as if he doubted that Heero could accomplish such a simple task; Heero wondered why he kept stressing ‘letter’ when there were clearly two documents. “Be on your way, Private Black.”  

Heero almost faltered when he heard what the highborn had called him in an offhand manner. He glanced back as furtively as he could manage, yet the man seemed to have forgotten his existence; he approached another group of highborn and engaged them in conversation, chatting and laughing in a manner that Heero was used to seeing here in the palace.  

Striding through the hallways as if he had a goal in mind, Heero waited until he was in a section frequented by Army personnel and slipped into a private alcove, which he warded with his talent to warn him if anyone approached. The sealed letter he ignored, as it was most likely warded to warn anyone if it was tampered with, but the larger envelope appeared free of any spells and seals. He slipped his hand into it and pulled out the documentation, then almost cursed out loud.  

Somehow, Hashisaki had slipped him bits of the information that he had been trying to find out on the Army’s war planning for over a year. There was some rough estimates on what would be needed to supply the troops and where it would be stationed, enough that Esset could cripple the lines in a time of war. This information was vital to Esset – if the source could be trusted.

Yet Hashisaki had known one of Heero’s code names, which only a select few in Eto, such as Crawford, Jei, Trowa and Duo, should know. He tried to think of what he knew about Hashisaki and could only recall that he’d seen him about in Court, usually in Minister Nakagawa’s presence.  

As he stood there trying to decide what to do, it occurred to him that he had seen the highborn in Lord Shinra’s presence the other day, the same day that the awful disaster had occurred in the southern Fabric district. The Elders had sent Shinra here to do something, as the man was a powerful soul gaki bound. Had he somehow managed to convert Hashisaki? That might explain how the highborn had seemed to only think that there was one letter instead of the two that he had given Heero.  

Assured for the moment that this wasn’t a trap, Heero replaced the documents back into the larger envelope and then slipped it beneath his uniform’s jacket before leaving the alcove. He needed to get out of the palace as quickly as possible and carry out his ‘assignment’, then stash the incriminating documents away. They felt like a lead weight against his chest.  

Esset would have a much better chance of winning the war with this information, yet as he fastened his cloak against the cold wind and started on the detour that would take him around the damaged section of the city, he had to wonder…. What should he do with it? Would more innocents be hurt, like those in the southern Fabric district? Would it benefit bounds, in a time when they were beginning to move away from the bloodshed and hatred here in Kritiker? The more these thoughts raced about in his head, the heavier the envelope felt against his side.  

He should be happy that his job had just become easier, that his duty could be fulfilled to his country. Yet he kept hearing what Duo had said, that he should do what was best for *Esset*, and wondered what Relena would do.  

*******  

Duo waited in the red room at the Celadon Leaf, fussing with the cup of tea that Trowa had just poured for him. “How much longer do you think they’re going to be?”  

Trowa gave him that look which translated into ‘it’s a good thing you’re so sexy because you’re really trying my patience’ – at least, that’s how *Duo* translated it. “Last I checked, I was a water elemental, not a precog.”  

“You know, it’s amazing how much sarcasm you can manage while being so deadpan. I think it’s why I adore you so.” Duo propped his chin up on the palm of his left hand and smiled.  

Trowa stared over his right shoulder as if he wasn’t in the room, yet the corners of his mouth twitched ever so slightly and love/amusement/affection flowed over their link. Oh yes, the man was *crazy* about him.  

Duo had just taken a sip of his green tea when the door opened to admit the people they’d been waiting for – Jacquelyn, Mirko and Quinn. He supposed that Nicole and Makoto were waiting outside, perhaps talking to Liu and Huan.  

“So do you guys have everything you need?” he asked, noting that they were dressed for the cold weather in thick cloaks, boots and gloves but lacking any packs.  

Quinn nodded, his shaggy black hair flopping around his face with the motion. “Yeah, the horses are loaded with enough stuff to make the cousins very, *very* happy.” His teeth flashed behind his close-cropped goatee.  

Trowa poured three more cups of tea and passed them about. “Hopefully you won’t have too much trouble traveling this time of year.”  

“Well, *I* wasn’t happy when Crawford dragged me down here to help out with things, but it’s always good to have an excuse to see some friends and get a bit of shopping in. Plus, Rei is gonna be able to do some really awesome cooking with the spices and herbs I picked up.” Quinn’s dark brown eyes glazed over as if he was already imaging those future meals. Duo hadn’t had a chance to taste the air elemental’s cooking, which was supposed to be almost as good as Jo’s, but he promised himself that one day, he and Trowa would have to pay the man a visit.  

“So, how do you two feel about how it all turned out?” he asked Jacquelyn as he got up to approach her, leaning his right hip against the table. He hadn’t seen her much after turning her over to Yuushi and Birman, just checking up now and then to let her know she hadn’t been abandoned.  

She didn’t appear as pale and hopeless as she had the last time he’d seen her – there was a rosy flush to her cheeks and her hair was pulled back into an elaborate braid. Also, she was actually smiling, something she hadn’t done much back in Berin, at least in a genuine manner.  

“I never had a problem with Shin, so I think we’ll get along fine. And I… I like the thought of being away from a city and a court, up in nature.” She glanced over at Quinn, who was busy snacking on the dumplings. “Quinn says it’s beautiful up there, and quiet.”  

Never having been a fan of the whole ‘nature’ thing, Duo decided to let her go with her delusions. “That’s what everyone says. It’s a pretty exclusive area, all in all, so you should be left in peace until after the war.” That’s when she and Mirko would be expected to pay up for what they’d done.  

The smile slipped a little from her lips. “Yes. I imagine we’ll be busy then.” Yet she seemed more resolved than bitter, which reinforced what Natsumi and Eri had told him. “Hopefully Shin and Gou can help us train so we’ll be of the most benefit to everyone.”  

Mirko came over to join them. “I don’t think I ever thought I’d be able to use my talent for anything other than destruction. I’m actually looking forward to learning something new.”  

In a way, Duo was envious of them – as a fire elemental, there wasn’t that much ‘beneficial’ he could do with his talent. He could warm and protect, but on the whole, fire was a destructive force. Jacquelyn and Mirko had the chance to create, to shelter and encourage growth now that they were given the opportunity to do something other than fight and destroy. “Just remember that you’re free of Esset,” he told them in a gruff voice. This would all be for nothing if they went back to the Elders.  

Jacquelyn and Mirko swore that they wouldn’t, and there was a few minutes of idle conversation before Quinn let them know that they had to leave. During it all, Trowa was rather quiet, choosing to observe rather than talk. Duo gave Jacquelyn a hug goodbye and Mirko a pat on the shoulder, then went to stand beside his mate as everyone left.  

“Silver for your thoughts?”  

“Hmm, I’m honored you think so highly of them.” Trowa fell silent for a few seconds as if cautious of what he was about to say. “I doubt Crawford would let them go if he felt they were likely to betray us, especially if it put the cousins at risk.”  

“Nope, I imagine that Quinn and Yuda will be scanning their thoughts for a good while to come, just to make sure they don’t think of betraying them,” Duo said in agreement.  

“And we have to learn to forgive at some point, considering that we’re at war and all of us will be doing things we’ll regret.”  

Duo wrapped his arms around his mate’s waist and rested his head on Trowa’s shoulder. “That so much about them or what you think we’re gonna do?” Or what they had already done – Jacquelyn wasn’t his only friend from Berin, and Duo was certain that a lot of people would consider him and Trowa the worst of traitors.  

“I just… war brings out the best and worst in people, and we’ve barely scratched the surface of both.” Trowa’s emotions were in flux, flashing back and forth too quickly for Duo to make sense of them.  

“Hey, don’t worry.” He shifted until he stood in front of the man he loved more than anything. “Nothing you do will ever drive me away.”

Trowa’s face was bleak for a moment, before a sad smile curved his lips and darkened his gorgeous eyes. “Why am I so afraid that we might be tested on that?”  

Duo reached up to slide his right hand through Trowa’s long bangs. “Because the gods love to fuck with us, but it doesn’t change a thing. We’ll *always* be there for each other, until death.” That’s what it meant to be mates.  

Trowa stared for a few more seconds before closing his eyes and leaning in for a kiss. He was still clearly disturbed over something, but he seemed to decide to trust in Duo and the love they shared. It wasn’t perfect, wasn’t the happiness that Duo wanted, but life wasn’t perfect so he took it. And if anything tried to take this away from him, the man he loved and the life they’d built together, he would burn it to ash.  

*******  

Ed stirred the pot of soup he was making and wished for the tenth time that Al was here; it smelled all right and he didn’t think he put in too much paprika, but the potatoes were lumpy and for some reason he couldn’t cut up chicken to save his life, so some of the pieces may have cooked a bit longer than they should and… well, dammit, *someone* should be home by now to see if he’d made a right mess of dinner or not, right?  

But Al was busy with the Winrys, who had taken on a lot of extra business because of the whole southern Fabric district disaster, forging as much metal as they could for tools needed in the recovery effort. Never mind that a few earth and fire elemental bounds could probably clear up the mess in a day or two, humans were stubborn like that. Aya had told him that the Guards did have some of their bounds helping out where they could and that the rubble had been stabilized to help make the clean-up easier, but still. Humans and their stupid pride.  

And fire elemental bounds and their stupid jobs. Ed set the spoon aside so he could rub his temples; something was keeping Roy late today and whatever it was, it wasn’t good. There had been a lot of meetings the last few days, as the blame for all those deaths had fallen onto Esset wizards and each day Roy had come home looking more and more grim. Ed swore that he was in a permanent bad mood because of his mate, yet they couldn’t stifle their link since it would just mess each other up even more than the wear of Roy’s job. So he focused as much as he could on working in the library, his own research and the few answers to the questions he had about shinigami that Aya had deigned to answer.  

The last wrung a smile out of him since he probably knew a good deal more about shinigami, kage and dubhach than almost anyone else now, not that he could go around sharing that knowledge. But still – who knew that they glowed if they ‘ate’ too much? That fact must have been lost over the centuries. And no dubhach had lasted long enough to meet up with a kage, so they’d never been able to merge talents before. How interesting that-  

“It’s a good thing I picked up some bread on the way home.”

“Gods take you, walk a little louder next time, you old pervert!” Ed shrieked as Roy’s arrival startled him from his thoughts. He’d been focusing so much on the notes he wanted to write down that he hadn’t even realized that Roy had returned home, and scowled at his mate when Roy leaned in for a kiss. His foul mood lasted a few more seconds, until he remembered about the bread. “What did you get?” he asked while he snatched at the bag in Roy’s hand. Ooh, there were *two* soft loaves in the cloth bag, the honey wheat kind he *loved*.  

“I can see that I’m forgiven.” Roy chuckled as he undid the buttons of his dark blue uniform jacket, the sound tired but amused. “Is that chicken and potato soup that I smell?”  

“Yeah, it should be done now.” Ed turned off the heat beneath the pot and set down one of the loaves so he could cut it. “Go set the table, okay?”  

Roy gave him a mocking bow before doing what he was told, and within a few minutes they were ready to eat. Noticing that Roy had poured some white wine for them both, Ed felt a knot of worry form in his chest. “So, that bad of news, eh?”  

He didn’t get an answer right away, since Roy chose to drain his glass of wine first. “Well, it’s not quite as bad as if I’d broken out the whiskey.” He poured himself another glass and then tasted the soup, the tired smile from before returning. “This is good. Thank you.”  

Heat spread across Ed’s cheeks, causing him to duck his head. “It’s pretty simple. You should be grateful I made you anything, really.”  

“Yes, I am.” Roy reached out to run his fingers along Ed’s right cheekbone, causing the heat to fade along the path his fingertips traced. “Very grateful.” He fell silent again for a few seconds. “I don’t know if it’s easier to tell you this without Al being here or not, since I’m uncertain how this affects him.”  

Anything that involved his brother – or not – snagged Ed’s attention. “What do you mean?” he demanded to know.

“We received new orders today.” Roy reached over to capture one of Ed’s right hand. “Certain key units, such as mine and Hughes, are to report to the front lines next month.”  

Ed stared at his mate for a few seconds. “Front lines? You mean… Esset?”  

A corner of Roy’s mouth twitched. “I hope that’s what it means, or else we’re fighting more than one country.” He laughed when Ed growled in frustration. “Yes, we’re to report near Esset and prepare for the rest of the Army’s arrival.” His smile slipped away. “You and Al don’t have to come, you know.”  

That bit of nonsense provoked another growl from Ed. “Like you could last two days without me!” He also remembered what Jei had told him, that Crawford had seen him and Roy fighting the Elders; this put that vision so much closer to coming true. “I’ll bury you so deep in the ground if you try to leave me behind!”  

There was a rush of love/gratitude/concern/happiness over their link, before the concern won out. “I just wanted you to know it’s your choice, as you’ll have to leave behind your friends, your job and an awful lot of your books.” Amusement flared up that last part. “Hughes doesn’t want his family to come, which means that he’ll be unbearable to put up with until the war is over.”  

“Please, he’s unbearable to put up with now,” Ed joked, and felt happier when Roy smiled. “But… you think Al won’t come?” His heart clenched at the thought.  

“It’s his choice, and while I know he’ll want to be there to help us, he can always be of use here in the city, using his talent to forge weapons or learning to heal,” Roy explained while he continued to hold Ed’s hand. “Let him decide, is all I’m saying. I know about Crawford’s vision as well, and Al’s not in it. I’d rather that be because he’s here than….” Roy’s mouth pressed into a thin line and something dark flashed in his eyes.  

Ed had lost his mother and his mentor, and some people claimed his father, absent bastard that he was, had been a good man. He wasn’t going to lose Al, and he’d even fight to keep his old pervert of a mate safe, too.  

“All right,” he forced past a throat gone dry. “It’s his choice.” Roy had been saying all these months that he’d have to let Al follow his own path, he just hadn’t thought it might be this soon.  

As if reading his thoughts, Roy gave his hand a squeeze and leaned over for a brief kiss. “The two of you will figure out what’s best, I have faith in you both. Now eat your soup before it gets cold.”  

“What’s the use of having a fire elemental as a mate,” Ed grumbled, but he did as he’d been bidden. If Roy seemed a bit generous with the wine that evening, he kept any comments about his mate trying to get him drunk and being a pervert to himself, since it felt good to be a little tipsy. He had the suspicion that there wouldn’t be too many evenings in the near future where they could let down their guard like this.  

At least, not until they killed the Elders.  

*******  

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