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Shadow Conversations

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Soul and the Five Elements

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"This is an *utter* waste of time."

Though Crawford agreed with the softly growled words, he gave his companion a reproachful look. "We’re showing our respect and loyalty to our leaders," he told Wufei, his voice grave and quiet. At the earth elemental bound’s disgruntled expression, he couldn’t hold back a slight smile. "How can that possibly be a waste of time?"

He had no doubt that if they weren’t in the Elder’s grand reception hall, surrounded by at least a hundred bounds, Wufei would have explained in great detail just how silly this gathering really was. However, while the younger man did have a bit of an impetuous temper, he did know when to control it and so he just glared at Crawford for a few seconds. "Loyalty and respect can be proved in a much better way other than standing around doing nothing," was Wufei’s gritted reply.

"True." Crawford bowed his head slightly to acknowledge his companion’s point. "But this is what is expected of us at this time, so we must do our best to please."

"Hmph." Rather wisely, Wufei didn’t continue the argument. Now was not the time to go on a tirade against the Elders, not when so many of their truly loyal followers were around. "I guess such a gathering can be a bit interesting to watch, but pardon me if I’d rather be analyzing Kritiker’s battle strategies." Wufei’s left hand fidgeted with the golden sash tied around his waist as he once more looked out at the crowded room.

"Your devotion to duty is admirable," Crawford replied as he surreptitiously studied his ally. His visions and Wufei’s sworn vow proved that the elemental bound was tied to his cause, but there was something about the younger man that urged a sense of precaution when dealing with him. Maybe it was the quick intellect that Wufei didn’t deign to share with everyone, or maybe it was the sense of immense power barely constrained. Either way, there was a sharp edge to Wufei, one that hinted of danger. There was a reason why the Elders considered the young man one of their favorites, even if Wufei had every intention of seeing the ancient bounds dead. "The gathering should only last another hour or two, and then you will be free to do what you will." The words were said with a delicate irony as they both knew that freedom was the very last thing to be found in Esset.

Wufei’s dark eyes flashed with quickly smothered rage. "Just a little longer." The words were spoken with quiet intensity of a vow. They stared at each other for a moment, and Crawford’s power whispered through his mind, showed him an image of Wufei, covered with blood and ash, curved sword in hand.

"At least some people are enjoying themselves."

The words broke Crawford free from his talent, made him blink his eyes a few times as he turned to find what had caught Wufei’s attention. He found his companion staring across the crowded room, toward the flicker of bright gold. "I see Quatre has no problem doing his duty," he remarked before he took a sip of his wine. The disgusted look on Wufei’s face just then made his lips curve slightly, which he hid behind the wine glass.

"He actually *enjoys* these silly gatherings," Wufei muttered in disgust as he glared at his lover. Suddenly, Quatre turned to glance their way, an amused smile on his face. Crawford wondered for a moment if Wufei had sent a telepathic message to the blond man or if Quatre had just sensed his lover’s emotions, but in the end it didn’t really matter. Quatre waved his hand toward them and resumed his discussion with Heero. From the looks of it, he was trying to draw out the reticent air elemental bound and not having much luck.

"Quatre does his best, as always." Wufei glanced at Crawford over the cryptic words, and they exchanged a significant look before Wufei sniffed and turned away to pick up a glass of wine.

"I don’t know if he’s that way because of his talent or his true nature, but there is one person who doesn’t enjoy the peace of solitude." The words came out sounding like a complaint, but Crawford had known Wufei long enough to tell that no offense was truly meant. Quatre could do little wrong in Wufei’s eyes. "Which makes it rather odd that he’s trying to have a conversation with Heero."

"I think he enjoys the challenge and is one of the few people who will brave the man’s glares long enough to say more than two words." Crawford flicked his fingers against the half empty glass of wine and smiled slightly as he pictured-

He quickly tilted the glass toward his mouth and concentrated on the crisp tartness of the wine. That wasn’t a thought he should have right now, not in a room crawling with other soul gaki-bounds. While he *knew* that his shields were impenetrable by all but one other bound, he still wasn’t about to do something so foolish. It was bad enough that he was standing here thinking about treason.

"Wow, Crawford, way to knock back the alcohol!"

The loud, cheerful voice and the way Wufei growled in annoyance clued him in on who had just joined them in this quiet corner of the room. Crawford mentally sighed in annoyance and set his glass aside before he turned to face the fire elemental bound. "Good evening, Duo."

Duo, long hair pulled back into a high ponytail and face flushed with what Crawford assumed was a fair amount of ‘knocking back the alcohol’, laughed as he sidled up to the table and grabbed a glass of wine. "Okay, maybe you didn’t have enough because you still sound all stiff and formal." He tried to drape an arm over Crawford’s shoulder, but thanks to the difference in their heights and Crawford’s quick step aside, failed to do so. "This is a party, and here are two of the biggest grumps around hiding in the corner." Duo stopped complaining long enough to swallow half of the wine. "Ah well, at least you picked a corner with a nice supply of alcohol."

Wufei wrinkled his nose in disgust and set aside his untouched glass of wine. "Crawford, I wish you a good evening. Duo… I suggest you remember that this is a social gathering and *not* a party and behave accordingly." With a loud sniff of disdain, the earth elemental bound headed in the direction of his sociable lover.

Duo made a face at Wufei’s departing back and finished the rest of his wine. "I don’t know how Quatre can stand him. I mean, Wufei’s an interesting guy but he’s as fun as a wet blanket. It’s not as if they’re mates so poor Quatre’s not stuck with him, you know." He scowled for a moment at his empty glass of wine before he set it on the table and rubbed his hands against his face.

Wishing that Jei was here to talk to the young man and not keeping an eye on Nagi and Schuldig, Crawford swallowed a sigh and debated on whether or not to have another glass of wine. Something told him that Duo wasn’t as drunk as he seemed so he decided to forgo the drink. The fire elemental bound wasn’t on their side yet so he still had to be cautious when in Duo’s presence. "I believe there’s a saying about love being blind," he commented as he removed his glasses and cleaned them with his handkerchief.

There was a startled burst of laugher from Duo, who took to leaning against the wall, his long hair draped over his should and down his chest. "Oh, I don’t know about that – Wufei’s got an amazing ass. More like love is deaf so Quatre doesn’t have to hear all about battle tactics day and night."

"I see," Crawford said in a mild tone of voice as he put on his clean glasses. "Having never made a proper evaluation of the man in question’s ass, I’ll take your word for it."

Duo gave him a wolfish grin and folded his arms over his chest. "You need to pay more attention to the present, Crawford. Keep worrying about the future and you’ll miss out on living the now."

"How insightful. I hate to disagree with you, but my duty is to focus on the future," he reminded the younger man. The flash of annoyance and hatred that crossed Duo’s fine features as he quickly glanced toward the raised platform where the Elders’ sat didn’t escape Crawford’s attention. Oh yes, Duo might not be part of his plan as of yet, but it would only be a matter of time. He’d taken several steps to ensure that.

Drunken mask in place once more, Duo grinned in a rather silly manner and shrugged his shoulders. "Guess that’s the price you pay to be part soul gaki, then. Too bad you missed out on all the fun." Tiny flames burst into life around Duo’s head and shoulders, danced brightly for several seconds and then disappeared. "The only downside to being an elemental bound is having to pay the grocery bill!"

Things weren’t quite as simple as that, but if there was one thing Crawford has learned it was to never argue over an irrelevant matter with a fire elemental bound who felt the need to display his talent. Roy had ingrained that lesson in a rather quick manner.

"Not all of us can be so blessed," Crawford said. No, Duo wasn’t anywhere near as drunk as he seemed tonight, which made him wonder why the young man was putting on such an act. While it was true that Duo enjoyed the dubious freedom from constraint allotted to him as one of the Elders’ favorites, he usually preferred to play the part of a jester and not a drunk. When a possible answer occurred to Crawford, he reached out for his son’s mind.

<Schuldig, is Masato here with Trowa?"> he inquired, confident that no one else could overhear the mental conversation. Not only were he and Schuldig two of the most powerful soul gaki-bounds in the room, there was the fact of their true relationship to each other.

There was a sense of deep unhappiness and annoyance before Schuldig’s mental voice snarled inside his head. <Yes, he is. Can I mention how fucking happy I am to be here right now?> Schuldig complained.

While he understood why the man was so unhappy and was confident in their ability to communicate undetected in this manner, Crawford wasn’t about to get into this discussion right now. Besides, it wasn’t like Schuldig or Masato had any choice in the matter. <Send him over to me, please. And you better not be trying to get Nagi drunk,> he added as an afterthought. When Schuldig was this unhappy, the damned brat tended to create trouble in whatever manner he could. Crawford spared one dark thought for a certain woman’s parenting skills.

<Right, as if I’d try that again with Jei watching the kid.> Through their link he could sense Schuldig’s frustration and disappointment.

Crawford was once again thankful for the close bond that had developed between Jei and Nagi. Masato was old and wise enough to handle himself in a crowd like this, and Schuldig – despite his tendency to create trouble – had the sense to not offend anyone powerful enough to cause them problems. Nagi, however, was unused to interacting with so many people, and ones seeking to use him to their advantage at that. Jei did a great job of watching over him and teaching him what he needed to know so one day he could attend a gathering like this and hold his own. Nagi was a very powerful bound and so was accorded some respect, but he was very young and considered fair game by people who thought to try and use him.

<Masato and Stoneface are headed your way.> Schuldig’s tone just then was an awful mix of maliciousness and pain.

<Don’t call him that, and you know there’s no reason to worry.> Why was it that he had to soothe the spoiled brat over this matter again and again? This time, Crawford couldn’t hold back on the sigh. <Stop being so childish.>

He got a mental raspberry for his sage advice and felt the urge to growl. Exerting the emotional control that Schuldig seemed to lack entirely, he took a deep breath and picked up another glass of wine. Noticing that Duo was watching him, he smiled in apology. "I’m sorry, I was just checking up on someone. Would you like another glass of wine?"

Accepting the glass, Duo frowned and looked out at the crowd around them. "I can’t believe you let Nagi attend these things." Just then, he sounded a lot older than the eighteen or twenty years he appeared.

"While he is still rather young, Nagi has the intelligence to handle himself," Crawford pointed out. And there was a very powerful flesh gaki-bound by Nagi’s side the entire time, more than willing to take a bite out of anyone who tried to use or abuse the boy. "Besides, his presence is mandatory." As was that of every bound of a certain level of power who was in the area at the time of these gatherings.

This time Duo did a better job of masking his true feelings of having to obey the Elders’ every whim, but Crawford still caught a hint of hatred and annoyance. Duo usually did a very good job of hiding his emotions, which meant that he was truly bothered by something to let so much slip this evening. Crawford’s suspicions on what was affecting the younger bound was confirmed when Masato and Trowa approached them.

His hands clenched around the stem of his wine glass when he felt a quickly smothered wave of pain and longing from Duo and a weaker echo of the emotions from Masato’s companion. Duo stepped away from the wall, a silly grin now on his face, and drained the glass of wine before he greeted the couple. "Trowa! Masato! I didn’t think you two would show up tonight." He gave them a lewd wink. "Dare we believe that it isn’t true love after all?"

Masato, mindful of the role he was forced to play, snarled quietly and exposed a hint of teeth. "Don’t be so foolish." He reeked of Trowa’s scent and bore several bruised marks on his throat, marks that were echoed on Trowa’s as well, just as Masato’s scent clung to the quiet man. Masato’s arm was draped over Trowa’s shoulders in a possessive manner.

Usually a playful young man, Duo’s face twisted in anger and the dancing flames from earlier made a comeback. But as he stepped closer to Masato, a fine mist appeared out of nowhere and dampened the flames. Crawford, aided by a helpful vision, stepped out of the way just in time to avoid the mist.

Duo blinked in surprise, his anger melting into pain as he stared at Trowa. "Ah, sorry about that," he said, once more the affable fire elemental bound he usually appeared. "Guess I had a little too much to drink tonight." While he smiled in apology to Trowa, he noticeably didn’t look in Masato’s direction.

"Duo." Trowa’s voice was quieter than normal, and it seemed as if he wanted to say something more before he shook his head twice.

"I know, I know." Duo laughed as he tugged on his ponytail before he threw it back over his shoulder. "I should be ashamed of myself. Guess it’s time to get my ass out of here before I really do something stupid." He quickly turned to Masato, a savage gleam in his eyes and lips pulled back from his teeth. "Sorry about that." Before Masato could respond, Duo brushed past Trowa and hurried away.

His suspicions confirmed, Crawford stepped closer to the befuddled couple. "Why am I not surprised that he managed an excuse to leave early?" Duo had probably put on the show of being drunk so he could escape the gathering with as little offense as possible – and in hopes of no one realizing the real reason for why he fled.

Turning to watch Duo leave the room, Trowa frowned slightly, a rare show of emotion that bled into his voice. "But… he wasn’t drunk."

Unable to either dispute the water elemental bound’s claim or explain the truth behind Duo’s hasty exit, Crawford could only shake his head. "To be honest, I’m surprised that he lasted this long. Duo always manages an excuse to be one of the first to leave." And only the fact that the Elders needed someone as powerful as him in their army prevented the brazen young man from being punished for the ‘slight’. Crawford’s power revealed that Duo would be given an unpleasant assignment in the future, however, and he carefully filed the vision away to be analyzed at a later time.

He noted how Trowa continued to stare after Duo, and how the tall water elemental bound took a slight step away from Masato. There was that faint sensation of pain and longing, with a good bit of confusion added in this time, and Crawford felt a rare stab of guilt. Both Trowa and Duo were oblivious to the bond between them, hampered by Trowa’s painful past and Duo’s fear of another loved one being used against him. Crawford knew that one day soon they would realize the truth and ruthlessly used that bond to his advantage. Masato needed someone to pretend to be his lover so as to hide the fact that he was mated to Schuldig, and with Trowa on their side, Duo would have no choice but to join them before the approaching war. It wasn’t often that he allowed himself to feel guilty over what he had to do to ensure that the Elders were defeated, but this was one of those times. His guilt wasn’t helped by the reproachful look Masato was giving him right now. Having his own mate, the succubae-bound recognized the cause of Trowa and Duo’s suffering but had been sworn to silence.

Soon enough, Trowa stifled his emotions and smoothed out his expression, once more the quiet, unflappable young man he was known to be. He stepped closer to Masato and even snaked his arm around the man’s waist, a rare public display of affection.

Masato seemed taken aback by the embrace and gingerly tightened his arm around Trowa’s shoulders. Because of his bond with Schuldig, he was one of the few people who Trowa trusted enough to allow to touch him, and Masato only did it often enough to convince people that they were lovers. "Ah, do you think anyone would mind if we left as well?"

Sensing Masato’s hunger and noticing the fact that Duo’s exodus had led to a few other people leaving as well, he once again shook his head. "I don’t think anyone important will object if you do." If anything, the Elders and several other people would be pleased to note Trowa and Masato leaving together and assume that they now had something to use against the two bounds. The stronger their relationship appeared, the more control the Elders would assume they had over the ‘couple’.

Also, Schuldig would soon vanish as well, and no one would think it odd that he returned to his quarters – the quarters he shared with Masato. That way the mates could enjoy an evening together while Trowa spent the time in quiet peace. "I think I’ll go check up on Jei," he said as he nodded in goodbye to the two men. Trowa was never very happy at these gatherings and now had an excuse to leave early without causing offense. That fact and the one that he’d be left alone for the rest of the night assuaged Crawford’s guilt.

Making his way over to Jei and Nagi, he noticed that Schuldig was headed toward the door. More than likely, Masato had sent him a telepathic message, and Schuldig wasn’t about to waste any of their precious time together. Crawford thought to tell the boy to slow down, but realized that it wouldn’t be the wisest thing to try and get between two mates. Hopefully, Masato would drain Schuldig enough tonight that the brat would be too tired to cause any trouble tomorrow.

"Ah, now that’s not a smile I like to see," Jei commented as Crawford approached. "Doesn’t bode well for someone."

"Be reassured that it isn’t for you and hand me a glass of water, please," he asked his partner. All the wine tonight was a faint buzz in his blood, enough that he wouldn’t risk having another drink.

For once, Jei did as he was bid and with a smile at that. Off to the side was Nagi, his face perfectly impassive. Crawford felt a surge of pride for the teenager and how he handled himself. He’d heard whispers about Nagi being his son due to their similar coloring and nature, and he’d done little to dispel those rumors. The best way to hide the truth was behind a lie, and since Nagi wasn’t a precog like himself, the boy was relatively safe. Not to mention that the Elders believed they had a new leash on him and one on Nagi as well.

"Can’t you give it a rest for one night?" Jei whispered in his ear as he handed over a glass of water. "Sneaky bastard."

He didn’t wonder how Jei had managed to pick up on the thread of his thoughts, not after they’d worked together these last few decades. Jei knew him better than anyone else alive – he wasn’t sure if he should find comfort in that or not.

Clearing his throat, he drew Nagi and Jei’s attention to him. "I’m not sure if it would be a good idea to return home just yet, but thankfully, Quatre has invited us to his quarters tonight." He felt a wave of relief and annoyance from Nagi, who would be grateful to not have to listen to Masato and Schuldig’s antics.

"Huh, he always has a decent spread for his guests so why not." Jei nudged Nagi’s right shoulder. "You have any objections?"

"No." Just the one word, said in a calm manner, but Nagi’s eyes sparkled with relief.

"Then let us inform our host of our plans," Crawford said as he motioned his friends to follow him to where Quatre held court. There would be other people at the soul gaki-bound’s little get together, but they would subtly be encouraged to leave until only those Quatre and Crawford trusted remained. Then they could talk as freely as they dared, and that fact helped to make the last few hours bearable. All in all, it wasn’t a bad evening, not when there was a chance to plan for the future.

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