Shadow Conversations

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Soul and Bubhach

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Rufus stared at the letter held in his wax-flecked hands. Even before he broke the red seal on the linen envelope, he knew what it contained. He had been prepared to receive just such a missive for the last few months, but expectation was not the same as reality.

There was a hesitant knock on his office’s door, and a quick mental scan revealed it was Reeve who awaited acknowledgement, not Tseng. Sending a pulse of agreement to the other bound’s mind, he set the letter on his desk, sat further back in his chair, and carefully retrieved a white cotton handkerchief from the pocket of his black vest.

Good morning, my lord," Reeve gravely intoned while he gave Rufus a respectful bow. The expression on his handsome, goateed face did not seem very pleased, and his attention appeared focused on the letter. "I heard there was an envoy from the Elders."

News certainly traveled fast, which was to be expected with several soul gaki-bounds around. His hands now clean, Rufus set aside the handkerchief and sighed in exasperation while he motioned to the letter. "The Elders request my presence. Considering their allowance for my personal household, they expect me to remain in Berin for some time." He felt growing annoyance as he contemplated the ‘request’, annoyance and anger. He was *not* someone to be ordered about, made to leave his quite comfortable home and jeopardize his business all on the whims of three senile bastards.

"How long do we have?" Reeve asked as he stood in front of Rufus’ desk, his hands clasped before him and his brow furrowed.

"A month. They are indeed being generous, going so far as to offer assistance to move my household." Rufus refused to allow himself to growl over the impertinence of the letter, barely masked by polite court language. "We shall be ready to leave in three weeks." There was no way he’d allow the Elders’ soldiers to escort him and his people to their prison. At Reeve’s understanding nod, Rufus shook his head. "You, however, will remain behind."

"Pardon me?" Reeve’s usually polite tone was ruffled by surprise. "Sir… you don’t want me to go with you to Berin?"

Rufus shook his head again. "No. I want someone I trust to remain here while I placate the old fools and find out what they’re really after from me." He so dearly wanted to growl, to lash out at some unsuspecting mind and rip it to shreds, but he forced himself to remain calm. This was not unexpected. Rumors put the war with Kritiker barely more than two or three years away, of course the Elders would gather their forces in the short time that remained. If anything, he should be surprised that they had waited this long, but his sources indicated that the Elders had been expecting some sort of weapon to arrive in the last few months. Apparently, they had been sorely disappointed and now had to rely on more ‘conventional’ resources.

"Sir…." Reeve was agitated enough to run the fingers of his right hand through his thick, dark hair. "I should be by your side, sir. Anyone can run things here; your talent will ensure that they are properly instructed on what to do at all times."

The man had a good point, but it was one that Rufus had already considered and discarded. "Very true, but it is conceivable that there will be moments when I won’t be able to remain aware of what happens here. Then it will be necessary that someone I trust, someone who is familiar with both the business and my plans for the future is here to ensure that things continue to run smoothly." He folded his hands together and held them at chest level, his talent focused on Reeve to search for any moment of hesitation or doubt. "You are that person. Scarlet shall remain for support; together, the two of you will ensure that things run smoothly and that Heidegger is kept in check." A slight sneer pulled at his lips upon mention of the human. If Heidegger wasn’t good at his job, Rufus would have killed him years ago, unwilling to allow a holdover of his father’s to remain. But useful or not, the man wasn’t to be trusted.

"Are you displeased with me, my lord?" Reeve asked, his tone plaintive and his expression mournful. Rufus picked from his thoughts that it wasn’t a reward, having to keep the ambitious human in check.

Chuckling at the thought of Heidegger continuing to be thwarted, Rufus unfolded his hands and reached once more for the letter. "I promise you, Reeve, it’s not meant to be a punishment. You are my first choice for the job." His only choice for the job. "Hopefully, we won’t be detained for more than a few months in Berin."

As if reading Rufus’ thoughts, Reeve heaved a deep sigh and shook his head. "They will probably try to keep you close until the war begins. Even if you weren’t a bound, the fact that you are the biggest and best manufacturer of weapons in Esset makes you very important."

"Yes." For a moment, Rufus wished that he was a fire elemental, like Scarlet. Unfortunately, he could not set the paper in his hands on fire with a mere thought, as she could. "That is another reason why I don’t want you to come. They don’t know that you’re ShinRa’s best weapons designer and I want to keep it that way." They’d put *his* employee to work non-stop creating new and inventive weapons to use in the fight against Kritiker, and Rufus would never see any of that profit. Not to mention that Reeve would probably be worked past his endurance; Rufus would never allow anyone loyal to him to be treated in such a manner.

Reeve started slightly at the news but quickly stilled. Then he bowed his head, the motion as respectful as always. "I understand, my lord. I will ensure that the company does not suffer from your absence." When he straightened, he looked directly at Rufus. "If I may ask, sir, who do you plan to take to Berin?"

That was something which Rufus had debated for the past ten minutes, and he knew that Reeve wasn’t asking about his household staff. "As much as I’d like to leave him behind to handle the compound’s defense, I know Tseng will never agree to stay." He frowned slightly as he thought about his head of security. "That means Elena will come as well. Since I’ll need my best people in Berin, I suppose that dictates that Rude and Reno will be included in the security detail." Which was something he didn’t want but he had an image to uphold. If he didn’t arrive with his usual guards, someone might wonder why he had left them behind.

There was silence in the room for a few heartbeats before Reeve shook his head and growled, the sound low and utterly unexpected from the usually very civil bound. "My lord… sir… I do not recommend that Reno goes with you," he said, his voice rough and worried.

"I fail to see how I can so obviously leave two of my best men behind," Rufus snapped, his calm disturbed by how fervently Reeve believed he was making a mistake. "You know the Elders expect a show of strength from me, an example of what I’ll be able to provide during the war. Also, they seem to be doing their best to gather as many powerful bounds to them as possible. If I leave Rude and Reno here, I truly believe they will just be summoned in the future."

"Then take Rude but leave Reno." Sweat began to form on Reeve’s flushed face. "They know Rude is powerful, that should be enough for them. If they ever suspect Reno’s true nature…." He shook his head, his black hair fanning out from the frantic motion

"Rude is Reno’s partner and one of three people who have any hope of controlling him during his… spells." Rufus’s lips twisted as he thought about his lover’s extremely manic or depressive behavior when humanity got to be too much for his demon half. "Besides, I’m certain we’re being carefully watched. I can explain leaving a trusted employee with little fighting skill behind but not breaking up half of a valued security team." Yet again, he cursed the Elders and their need to control everything. He had carefully planned everything in anticipation of the approaching war and didn’t appreciate having those plans upset by a bunch of senile old control freaks. "I have thought this through, Reeve," he lightly reprimanded his employee.

"I’m sure you have, sir." Reeve rubbed his forehead with his right hand and let out a slow breath. "Reno is more… balanced when he’s around you, but I still worry about him. If he gets out of control while there, the results can be disastrous."

"You’re not telling me anything that I don’t already know." The urge to destroy something returned and Rufus’ fingers clenched around the offensive letter. Reno was his trump card, the carefully guarded secret that Reeve had brought to him several years ago. He was not going to sacrifice all the hard work he’d put into making the dubhach as stable as possible, nor hand over to the Elders an incredibly rare and destructive power. If he had any hope to ensure his people and his company survived the upcoming war, he needed Reno.

Reeve shook his head two more times and then straightened his shoulders. "Very well, my lord. Three weeks isn’t a lot of time, even if we knew that this day would arrive. I’d like to go over several matters with you before your departure to be certain that I understand my new duties." Once more he was Rufus’ competent, obedient assistant, utterly trustworthy as long as Rufus honored his obligations to his people. Most of the time Rufus believed in ruling through fear but Reeve was someone who always commanded respect, someone who could not be bullied despite his polite, almost meek personality.

"Thank you, Reeve." Rufus nodded slightly in acknowledgement of the fact that Reeve had every right to complain over the circumstances and was appreciative that he had accepted them instead. "I’ll arrange-"

He was cut off when the windows of his office, partially opened to allow a refreshing breeze to circulate through the large room, slammed open. The papers on his desk flew into the disturbed air and swirled around in several mini-tempests, a distinctly unnatural phenomenon. Realizing something was wrong, Rufus searched with his talent for the minds most familiar to him, the minds of the people he trusted the most.

From Tseng, Elena and Rude he sensed overwhelming panic, fear and shock, along with the image of blood – too much blood against too pale skin. From Reno… from his lover all he got was pain, weakness and something so dark, so alien that he shied from Reno’s mind and shivered violently.

"What’s wrong, sir?" Reeve asked as he stared at the dancing paperwork.

Rushing to his feet, Rufus headed straight to the door. /Reno’s just tried to kill himself again, dammit,/ he snarled into the earth elemental bound’s mind. /In the armory./ He didn’t wait for Reeve’s response but raced ahead, his mind intent on those around his dying lover. He sensed Rude’s desperate attempt to heal Reno, to stop the flow of blood that dragged Reno closer to that desired death with each drop spilled. Tseng struggled to control his demon nature in the face of so much blood while Elena used her power to prevent anyone from approaching the armory.

Putting his bound speed to full use, Rufus raced through the hallways of his home and burst out into the back courtyard. The armory was several hundred meters away, a squat, soot-grey building surrounded by stacks of cut wood and bags of coal. The few seconds it took him to cover the distance felt like an eternity measured by each slowing beat of Reno’s heart. Focusing his talent, Rufus thrust his consciousness deep into his lover’s mind. That cold, alien darkness remained but was weaker than before, a disturbing, purring presence that gloated over its impending death.

He didn’t have much of a chance to control Reno’s shinigami soul but he could at least rouse the man’s human one. /Reno! Damn you, I ordered you *not* to kill yourself. You are oathbound to obey me!/ As he came to a sudden halt by the concerned and frantic gathering around his lover’s prone body, he sent as much energy as he could. /Stop being such a coward!/

There was a spark of annoyance over the forced link, followed by regret, just as he pushed his way past Tseng to see Reno sprawled on blood-soaked ground. Rude crouched over him, the bald man’s large hands wrapped tightly around Reno’s upper arms. From wrist to elbow joint, the inside of his limbs was lacerated flesh. He hadn’t merely sliced his arms this time, he’d practically eviscerated them.

A quick scan of Rude’s mind informed Rufus that the earth elemental bound was doing his best to send Reno much needed energy while slowing the flow of blood. Snatching the torn clothes from a stunned Elena’s hands, Rufus fell to his knees by his lover and tied them as tightly as possibly above Rude’s hands.

"Sir… his power…," Rude attempted to explain, his normally tan face ashen with exhaustion and concern.

"I know." Once the tourniquets were finished, Rufus shoved his fingers into Reno’s long, ragged hair and lifted his lover’s head from the ground. "Reno." As he snarled the name, his power drove deep into his lover’s mind. If Reno had been fully aware or not drained of both blood and energy, he doubted the tactic would work but with an immense force of will, he dragged Reno’s human soul to the fore. <Remember your promise, dammit!> he cursed the redhead, hoping that being reminded of the oath would be enough to break the shinigami soul’s control.

/Don’t… wanna…./ The weak complaint made Rufus’ heart speed even faster and he once again poured more energy into his lover. /Let… go./

/NO./ Just the one word, backed with as much resolve as Rufus could muster, and after a couple of agonizing seconds, the trickle of blood from Reno’s shredded veins slowly stopped. Without Reno’s demon soul fighting Rude’s talent, the flesh began to heal.

Rude uttered what sounded to be a garbled curse and closed his eyes to concentrate on healing Reno as much as possible. His talent lay more in pulling energy from the earth and using it to increase his strength, but he could at least mend flesh and direct that energy into another body. All the while, Rufus remained in contact with Reno’s human soul, despite the intense pain he felt from being so deeply submerged in his lover’s divided mind.

Once Reno’s arms were mostly healed, pale flesh marred with a latticework of red lines, Rude released his partner and slumped back onto his heels. Rufus remained beside his lover for a few more seconds, unable to make his fingers release Reno’s damp, tangled hair until he was certain that the idiot was safely unconscious.

"Tseng."

Rufus’ head of security stepped closer, his hands clasped behind his back and his usually impassive, golden face marred by a worried frown. "My lord. I am sorry."

Waving the apology aside for the moment, Rufus forced his tired body to stand up. As he went to brush dirt from his knees, he grimaced when he realized that the bottom half of his white pants were soaked with Reno’s blood. "Put him to bed, but by the gods clean him first. Restrain him as well if I’m not there by the time you’re done." He would take no chances that Reno might not wake up and attempt to finish what he had started.

Rufus noticed that Reeve had caught up at some point in the last few minutes and watched as the man knelt beside Reno. Reeve tenderly brushed aside the hair that fell onto the unconscious bound’s face and ran his fingers over the newly scarred arms. "How did this happen?" His voice was as haggard as the expression on his face.

Rude tried to stifle a groan when he rose to his feet. "We came here to drop a few things off to be repaired." He heaved a weary sigh and rubbed his hands over his face, seemingly unaware that they were covered with blood. Elena mewled in disgust and handed the large man the remainder of cloth in her hands. "Thanks."

When Rude’s face was mostly clean again, he stared directly at Rufus, his emotions a mix of shame and regret. "I didn’t think he might try anything around all the weapons. He’s been good the last few weeks, and we both needed some gear fixed since we assumed we’d leave with you for Berin."

"I don’t believe he’s been as ‘good’ as you think," Reeve commented as he helped Tseng lift Reno from the ground. "Look past the wounds and you’ll see that his arms are very thin, as is the rest of him." He glared at Rufus with blatant reproach. "When was the last time you saw him eat?"

"He doesn’t weigh as much as he should," Tseng interrupted as he cradled Reno in his arms. "Even with all the blood loss." A slight growl entered his voice at the mention of blood and he breathed through his mouth as he spoke.

Momentarily stunned by the latest revelation, Rufus wracked his brains to try and remember the last time he and Reno had shared a meal. The past few weeks had been very busy because of increased work orders and his attempts to better infiltrate his spy network into both Kritiker and Esset’s capitals.

When he didn’t immediately reply with an answer, Reeve’s expression grew even more upset and disgusted. "My lord, you are supposed to look out for him. That is the reason I brought him here."

Not about to be chastised by an employee, Rufus scowled furiously at Reeve and tugged on the sleeves of his white coat. "He’s still alive. This is the first time in almost a year that he’s attempted suicide." Even to him, the words sounded hollow and cheap. He did his best to look after Reno – had taken him as his lover and shared his quarters as well as his bed. However, he also had over a hundred people he was directly responsible for, several thousand when everyone who worked for ShinRa was taken into account. There was a limit to the amount of attention he could focus on just one person.

Tseng paused in departing with Reno, his gaze riveted on Rufus. When he was given a curt nod, he left with Elena by his side. She used her talent to keep the scent of blood from overwhelming her flesh-gaki partner.

Rufus waited until they were gone to resume his conversation with Reeve. "What would you have me do? Read his mind every moment of the day? You know he can block me if he wishes, and he’d never stand for such an invasion of privacy." He folded his arms over his chest and tried to ignore the sensation of sticky cloth drying against his legs.

Reeve hung his head slightly at the peevish tone and stroked the fingers of his right hand over his goatee. "My lord…. He’s already lived longer than Caleb, and I believe that is largely due to your and the others’ care." He nodded in Rude’s direction, who leaned in exhaustion against a stack of wood. "Though his… spells might occur less often, the seriousness behind the attempts has strengthened." Reeve’s dark eyes shone with pain and sorrow. "The next time he might be successful."

Then the second known shinigami-human hybrid would be dead, Rufus thought with a sharp stab of pain. He told himself that he was merely concerned over the loss of such a rare and valuable bound. "I won’t allow that to happen, I promise," he replied, his voice deepening as he swore the oath. He wouldn’t lose Reno. The stubborn, suicidal fool was too valuable to be wasted in such a stupid manner.

He turned to face Rude, who stumbled to stand properly at attention. "You are to make sure that he eats at least one meal while on duty with you, and report to me any attempts on his part to skip them." More than likely, Reno had purposely starved his body of needed energy to improve the chances of killing himself this time. "Also, he is forbidden to be around any unattended weapons." No doubt Reno would throw a fit at being treated ‘like a kid’ but Rufus wasn’t going to go through this again. "Reeve, I want you to come with me to my quarters and search for any sharp objects he might have hidden there." The last time Reno had attempted suicide, he had made a second attempt while everyone had believed him to be too weak from the first try to do any more damage to himself.

"That would be for the best." Reeve’s lips pressed together in a straight, grim line, his emotions a mixture of unhappiness, guilt and resolve. The earth elemental bound blamed himself as well as Rufus for not noticing Reno’s suspicious behavior the last few weeks. Rufus did nothing to correct Reeve’s thoughts, more than willing to have someone else at fault for what happened today. "He’s as clever as he is stubborn."

"He’s an idiot," Rufus snarled as he stalked past Reeve. If there was any possibility of him reaching into Reno’s messed-up head and… ‘tweaking’ a few things, he’d do it in a heartbeat and earn some well-deserved rest. He had a business to run; he couldn’t waste precious time on some fool who thought that he’d be better off dead. Reno was of more use alive, so Rufus would ensure that his lover remained that way.

He ignored the few people who called out to him while on his way to his quarters, barely aware of the fact that Reeve quickly followed in his steps. This was ridiculous, having to search through his own damn quarters just so Reno didn’t slice himself open one day. A shudder of fear shook Rufus’ body as he thought about how the last kage had killed herself. If Reno had attempted to behead himself today…. No, drastic action was obviously necessary, Rufus assured himself as he entered the large building made out of smoothly cut light grey stone bricks. The last thing they needed while in Berin was for Reno to try and kill himself. That would attract too much unwanted attention.

What were his choices, Rufus wondered as he strode briskly down a long, carpeted hallway, past various sentries who bowed to him and quickly opened doors. Reno’s thoughts were almost impossible to influence, thanks to his hybrid nature. But his emotions were more open to manipulation. Rufus smiled and remembered the few times when he had caught Reno’s suicidal impulses in their early stages. Surprising, how easy it was to turn a death wish into fierce lust, not that he was one to complain.

Perhaps it was because of Reno’s unique nature but he was highly susceptible to a need to belong to something, to ‘cling’ to someone. He’d developed an intense bond of friendship with Rude and was one of Rufus’ most loyal employees. That was indeed something Rufus could use to his advantage.

Finally reaching the rooms he shared with Reno, Rufus shoved the slightly open door aside and went directly to the bedroom. He found Tseng and Elena still there. Tseng was in the process of wiping Reno’s naked body clean with a damp cloth while Elena tied closed a fabric bundle. Her nose was wrinkled with distaste while Tseng’s lips were pulled back just enough to show a hint of very sharp teeth.

Tseng immediately acknowledged Rufus’ presence, his voice roughened by a growl. "My Lord." Elena echoed the title and stepped closer to the bed, the bundle still in her hands as she bowed slightly.

"I’ll finish that," Rufus informed his head of security. Reno’s foolish actions must have greatly disturbed him if he hadn’t thought how cleaning off all that blood would affect a flesh-gaki bound. Still, Tseng’s legendary control of his demon nature had held.

His movements graceful but hurried, Tseng moved away from the bed with a flash of gratitude so strong that Rufus almost missed a step. He recovered quickly and accepted the wet cloth from Tseng. "I told Rude that from now on, Reno is not allowed around any unattended weapons. If he so much as comes within thirty yards of the forge or armory, you have permission to tie him up and dangle him upside down from the roof for several hours."

Tseng managed to cover his fangs and curve his lips into a tight smile. "As long as I can gag him as well, to spare all of us hours of insults and complaints, sir." He bowed his head for a moment. "Is there anything else?"

Remembering what had happened before Reno’s latest act of folly, Rufus frowned as he dipped the cloth in pinkish water and twisted it sharply. "I finally received summons from the Elders. We leave in three weeks." He telepathically sent all vital information from the letter to Tseng, along with his plans for their departure.

"I understand, sir." Tseng bowed again and motioned Elena toward the door, his mind abuzz with orders and details that would fully occupy his time for the next several weeks. "Will you be reporting back to your office today?" he asked and paused at the doorway for an answer.

"No." The word came out almost incoherent from Rufus’ anger at how his valuable time was being wasted, all because some redheaded idiot.

"Understood, my lord." Tseng bowed once more and left, grateful to be able to leave the mess that was Reno in Rufus’ hands. Snarling at his unconscious lover, Rufus slapped the wet cloth against Reno’s chest harshly enough to leave a red mark.

"You should know better than to disobey me," he snarled as he forced his hands to wipe away the remaining traces of blood as gently as he could manage. That wasn’t an easy feat as he desperately wanted to shake Reno awake and then smack some sense into him, but Tseng wasn’t the only one famous for his self-control. Rufus carefully wiped along first Reno’s left arm and then his right, his anger slowly fading as he contemplated the marred skin. He would have to have Reno’s illusion charm altered to hide the scars; they would attract too much attention since bounds rarely attempted suicide in such a manner. Normally, their demons souls pushed them to live no matter what so scars as numerous as this would make others curious. At least there were no scars from the time Reno had tried to hang himself, though there was a thin, reddish line from where Reno had thrust a knife into his chest. Good thing the fool had gotten the angle wrong and only nicked his heart.

When Reno’s body was clean, Rufus fetched a fresh basin of water and attempted to remove as much blood as possible from his lover’s hair. He sighed in exasperation at the sight of the short sections of crimson strands, a legacy from a couple of months ago when Reno had decided he was bored with how he looked. Thankfully, he’d started around his face and the top of his head so the damage hadn’t been that great before Rufus put a stop to it. Once Reno had snapped out of his odd mood, he’d refused all offers to evenly cut the ragged strands and restore some semblance to his hair. Looking back, Rufus should have realized that his lover’s demon nature was slowly getting out of control, but Reno was so impulsive on a daily basis that it was difficult to tell what was merely one of many personality quirks and what was a sign of an approaching dark spell.

"You should be kept on a leash at all times," Rufus coldly informed his lover. "If you aren’t going to keep the promises you made, I just may very well lock you up someplace small and dark until the war." Then he wouldn’t have to worry about Reno doing something so foolish that it brought the wrath of the Elders down on all their heads, or succeed in killing himself at last. However, as tempted as Rufus was to issue the order, he kept his mouth shut and telepathic power idle. Such an action would be sure to break all faith that Reno had in him, and he was loathe to cause that to happen. There was something very addictive in knowing that you were the center of someone’s world; knowing that they would kill and die for you. Of course, right now Reno would happily die for anyone so perhaps it was a rather dubious honor.

When Rufus finished with Reno’s hair, he set about cleaning himself as well. Removing his bloodstained pants with great relish, he then realized that he must have gotten blood on his hands at some point and his entire outfit was smeared with the drying fluid. Grimacing in distaste, he shed his clothing and scrubbed himself clean of blood before pulling on a white robe.

As he combed back the hair that fell onto his face, Reeve joined him in the bedroom with what appeared to be a dark red napkin wrapped around something in his scarred left hand. "Pardon me, my lord, but it’s best that I search here as well." Reeve paused and bowed his head until given permission.

Rufus slid his arms beneath his unconscious lover so he could pick up and then tuck the idiot into bed, his attention mostly focused on Reeve. The earth elemental bound did a quick but thorough job of searching the room for any hidden metal objects. He would take a few steps and stop, run his hands over whatever furniture or object was in reach, and twice removed something that had been cleverly tucked away. A long, thin needle and a hilt-less knife were added to the other confiscated items wrapped in the napkin.

Reeve’s expression was grim once again when he approached the bed. "I’m afraid it’s not very good, my lord." He held out his left hand to show the various sharp objects he’d found before he set them on the nightstand. "All that is left for me to check is the bed." A faint hint of red crept over his cheeks when he stared at the large piece of furniture.

If Rufus found out that he’d spent the last few months sleeping on top of an arsenal, Reno was going to walk to Berin. "There’s no chance that the weapons weren’t merely misplaced and not hidden?" he asked, conscious of Reno’s habit of picking up something of interest only to set it aside when he found a new ‘shiny’.

"No, not upon consideration of where some of these were carefully hidden." Thankfully, the only thing Reeve found was the knife that Rufus kept tucked beneath the mattress on his side of the bed and, after a moment’s pause, Rufus allowed the man to confiscate that weapon as well. Reeve stared intently at the metal objects in his hand before he carefully wrapped the napkin around them, as if trying to hide something that caused him shame. "What are you going to do? You can’t take him to Berin when he’s like this." Reeve’s voice was bleak and broken, the outward expression of his dark thoughts that focused on the very real possibility of losing Reno in one manner or another.

/That will *not* happen./ Rufus glared at his employee as he sent the forceful thought. "I won’t leave Reno behind." He cut Reeve’s argument off with a curt wave of his right hand. "Think about it, dammit. Reno was well aware that I expected a summons from the Elders any day now, and he would have known about the messenger arriving earlier. I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that he chose today to make another stupid attempt on his life." Rufus surmised that Reno either expected Rufus to be engaged with the messenger and unable to stop the attempt or hoped that if it failed then he would be left behind. Reno, curse his two souls, could indeed be very clever at times. Most times, really, unless he got it into that addled head of his to kill himself or became too bored.

"That… does indeed sound quite plausible." Reeve sighed and cradled the bundle of weapons against his chest. "You’ll have to do something to keep him in line while in Berin."

Snorting at the ease in which Reeve stated the impossible, Rufus waved his employee away and shrugged off his robe. "I’ll do my best," he informed Reeve with a cold tone as he held up the bed’s blankets to slide beneath them. He wasn’t about to tell the earth elemental bound his plan on attempting to control Reno, unwilling to hear any arguments.

Reeve hesitated for a few seconds, ready to ask Rufus just what he had in mind before he thought better of it. Shaking his head, Reeve quietly left the room and then the apartment.

Grateful to be left alone at last, Rufus let out a slow breath and rolled onto his right side so he could look at his unconscious lover. Other than appearing paler than normal, Reno could be mistaken for just being asleep. However, when Rufus used his talent to read his lover’s thoughts, the truth became clear. Reno had retreated into the only oblivion left to him, his demon soul quiet for the moment. That meant Reno’s human nature was in charge right now, and that leant Rufus hope that he would be able to use his talent to influence the redhead’s emotions.

But that would have to wait a little bit longer. Right now, he was exhausted from sending the suicidal idiot precious energy and needed to restore himself before he could undertake his plan to establish some control over Reno. Inching toward his lover, Rufus draped his left arm over Reno’s chest and closed his eyes.

*******

Rufus judged it to be several hours later when he awoke, his eyes flying open and his talent reaching for Reno’s mind. He was relieved to find his lover still unconscious, though this time more from exhaustion than an attempt to retreat from reality. Reno seemed mostly recovered from his suicide attempt, his body was low on energy and blood but he should be able to wake up soon.

Combing back the hair that fell onto his face, Rufus contemplated what he was about to do. He needed to form some kind of link with Reno, an emotional one that could not easily be broken whenever Reno felt the urge to hide things from him. Something akin to a permanent telepathic bond that many soul gaki-bounds had established during the War for the sake of reliable information networks. He knew what to do in theory, however...

Reno wasn’t just a bound, he was a shinigami-human hybrid. There was only one known case like his in the almost thousand years since Ban was born, and Caleb hadn’t lived past his seventeenth year. Reno was twenty-six, and the last ten years had been quite the struggle on Rufus’ part. Like Caleb, Reno possessed a limited invulnerability to magic, depending on how much he relied upon his demon soul – the very soul that constantly cried out for him to end his life.

From the little information Rufus had been able to unearth about kage, it was believed that they came into being when a shinigami-human child was conceived. Before the child’s birth, something would happen to the human soul of the child, leaving the demon in possession of the body. Scholars theorized it was too much of a strain on a human soul to be in such close contact with a force of death, but Rufus wondered if it wasn’t the shinigami soul that suffered the most. Reno would have been a kage if his human soul had died but it apparently was too stubborn to know when to give in.

Of the very rare species dubbed the dubhach, only Caleb and Reno had lived past puberty. Thanks to Reeve’s contacts among the bound community and Rufus’ unquenchable desire to learn as much about his kind as possible, they’d realized the importance of a child born to a bound mother who possessed blood red hair and pale skin. Rufus had hoped that Reno was a kage, but a dubhach was almost as good. While his lover didn’t have much control over shadows, he did have that limited invulnerability to magic, greatly enhanced speed, the ability to disappear into darkness, and a talent unique among all the bounds.

Rufus was counting upon that unique talent for use in the approaching war. He was still uncertain which side to favor, Esset or Kritiker, but once he was convinced of who would be the winner, he’d offer that side his total support. He would ensure that his people made it through the war safely and were protected afterward. But for that to happen, he had to be sure that a certain stubborn idiot didn’t die on him first.

Rufus didn’t see any other choice at the moment than to try and force the emotional bond and deal with the consequences later. More than likely, he would leave himself open to Reno’s sudden mood swings but he should be able to handle those.

Closing his eyes, Rufus concentrated on what he needed to do. Reno still lay sprawled on his back with his head tilted toward Rufus. Reaching for his lover, Rufus pressed against him, slightly worried at how chilled Reno’s skin felt. Concerned it was because of the blood and energy loss, he set about warming Reno as best he could.

While he’d initially taken Reno as a lover in an attempt to strengthen the bond between them, Rufus had to admit that it hadn’t been much of a sacrifice. Reno’s body was slender and well-toned, and his coloring was delightfully exotic – the pale skin, waist-length crimson hair and aquamarine eyes that, as improbable as it sounded, really did change color depending on Reno’s mood. Also, Reno could be shockingly adventurous in bed, willing to be submissive or dress up or comply with whatever perverse thought entered his or Rufus’ mind.

His body reacting to the presence of his naked lover and the feel of smooth skin slowly warming to his touch, Rufus shifted even closer. Thankful for his enhanced strength, he slowly and carefully pulled, turned and lifted Reno until his lover rested on his right side, his back pressed against Rufus’ chest. Stirring slightly during the movement, Reno moaned low in his throat and snuggled closer, his consciousness gradually registering the hands stroking along his chest and the kisses pressed against the back of his neck.

Rufus caressed both his lover’s mind and body. While he distracted Reno with pleasure, he used his talent to burrow deep into the redhead’s mind, going farther than he’d dared to go in the past. Reno’s demon soul was a cold presence that he was tempted to shy away from but he refused to allow himself to fail. The shinigami was the one that craved companionship the most and wanted nothing more than to be freed from its cage of flesh so it could rejoin its kind. Rufus needed to entangle it thoroughly in human emotions, to make it yearn for the companionship that *he* would supply, and hope that bond calmed it enough so it stopped pushing Reno to kill himself. If he failed… then he would figure out something else that would save the fool

While the prospect of sex with a groggy lover wasn’t entirely thrilling, between the challenge Rufus faced and the thought that Reno had dared to disobey him, to try and leave him, spurred Rufus on even though his lover’s body seemed to have difficulty responding to his actions. He could feel the pleasure he provoked from Reno and concentrated on that, making the emotion that much stronger until it overwhelmed him.

Rufus’ breath grew ragged as his body responded to the feel of Reno’s ass pressed against his crotch, and to the slight tilt to Reno’s neck that left it better exposed as he kissed the unmarred skin. Brushing aside his lover’s hair with growing impatience, he dragged his teeth along Reno’s neck and grinned when he heard his name moaned in such a plaintive manner. Both of Reno’s natures slowly became entangled in the emotions, the instinctual urge for one bound to surrender to another.

Rufus might not be as powerful as Reno, but he was much more ruthless and determined, and that was all that mattered now. That ruthlessness drove him to push his mind even further into Reno’s, to entwine their thoughts and emotions together. His teeth bit into the flesh of his lover’s neck, the pressure just short of breaking skin as his tumescent cock rubbed against Reno’s ass.

/You promised you would obey me, Reno. You gave me your sworn word. Bounds don’t break their promises, especially to each other./ He growled the words into Reno’s semi-conscious mind, taking full advantage of his muddled state. Rufus could feel Reno struggle to fight past the building ecstasy to make sense out of what was happening but he wouldn’t allow that to happen. His left hand curled around his lover’s slowly hardening cock while his teeth once more sunk into flesh, this time hard enough to taste blood.

/Acknowledge that promise, Reno. Acknowledge *me*. Give in and I’ll protect you, I’ll keep you whole and by my side./ Lost in the emotions, the *need* to bind Reno to him, Rufus was barely aware of what he said, he only knew that he did whatever was necessary. His power reached blindly into his lover’s mostly conscious mind, grasping at whatever it could use to form the link that would give him better control over the suicidal idiot.

Reno began to struggle, one moment trying to pull away and the next pressing against him. "Just… let go, dammit," he managed to snarl, but his voice was weak while his emotions rebelled at the thought of being abandoned.

/No./ Rufus strengthened his talent and licked along his lover’s bitten neck while his hips rocked forward with growing force. He had to get Reno’s promise while his lover’s two diverse natures were more or less unified and too distracted to realize what he was doing.

"Don’t… need any pro… tection," Reno gasped, his thoughts fracturing when Rufus began to suck on the left side of his neck. "Oh… gods…." His left arm flopped about a few times before he managed to swing it backwards enough to tangle his fingers in Rufus’ hair. Still exhausted from the blood loss, his body struggled to react to the pleasure, unable to withstand its intensity for much longer. He began to pant as he squirmed against Rufus. "No… don’t make me… promise."

Feeling his lover’s resolve waver beneath the need to not be alone, to have someone always there, Rufus smiled and trailed kisses along Reno’s arched neck. "You’ll never be alone, Reno, I’ll be here. But you must promise me that you won’t leave." Anger rushed through him and made him growl at the thought of Reno abandoning him in favor of death. /Give in,/ he ordered as forcibly as he could, both his arms wrapped tight around his lover. /Now./ Once more he marked the stubborn fool, right below Reno’s left ear as he purposely tweaked the ecstasy they both felt even higher, far past Reno’s current threshold.

"Ah!" Shuddering in Rufus’ arms, Reno’s natures fought for a few precious seconds, torn between conflicting needs. His shinigami soul wanted to be free… but also was drawn to the thought of constant companionship, the hopes of a tight bond similar to that between other demons. His human soul had its pride but also had respect and affection for Rufus, and the ingrained habit to obey when ordered. Both agreed that they were lonely and tired of the terrible ache of solitude, desperate for any hope of salvation. That was what Rufus counted on and he flowed even further into his lover’s mind, doing his best to fill it entirely, even the frighteningly cold, demon side.

"Yeah. Okay."

The words were sighed so softly that Rufus barely heard them; instead his attention was drawn to Reno’s acceptance and surrender, the sudden rush of peace that followed Reno’s compliance. He only had a few delirious seconds to gloat before a surge of bliss so powerful it slammed into him like a wave of water coursed through him, sparking an orgasm so intense that his thoughts lost all cohesion. There was no way to tell from whom it had originated, both of them were equally caught in the savagely potent emotion, and lost in each others’ minds while the bliss consumed them.

Rufus gradually became aware of reality after an unknown amount of time, his body still tingling from the climax and the sweat cool on his skin. Even as his thoughts coalesced into *his*, he still felt an echo of Reno in his mind, his lover rendered even more dazed by what had just happened. However, his concern quickly died when he realized that there wasn’t such a clear split between demon and human in Reno’s thoughts any more, that they seemed to have returned to what existed as normal for a dubhach.

"Reno."

There was a sense of annoyance, the strong desire to be allowed to sleep and a bit of interest in what Rufus wanted. Surprised by how clearly he could feel Reno’s emotions, Rufus hugged his lover closer. "Try to kill yourself again and I’ll make your life so miserable that you’ll regret your failure for the rest of your very long, arduous existence."

The only way he could tell that the weak, garbled sound was a bitter laugh was by sensing Reno’s emotions. "Good," Reno mumbled, too tired to voice how he was amused by the threat.

/I’m serious,/ Rufus reiterated as he began to gently work free the long crimson strands trapped between his and Reno’s bodies. /I won’t allow you to take your own life./

/Bastard,/ was Reno’s muddled retort. Part of him wanted to give Rufus hell for helping to save his life yet again, and another part wanted nothing more than to enjoy lying here in bed with Rufus so close, but both sides were done in by exhaustion. Rufus sensed all this and smiled as he nuzzled his lover’s neck while Reno struggled to remain awake, only to lose the battle in less than a minute.

Normally he didn’t accept retreat from a fight but Rufus allowed his lover the much-needed rest. Judging from past experience, the worst should be over, now that Reno’s shinigami nature was appeased and at rest. Feeling oddly drained himself, Rufus debated whether or not he should get out of bed and clean at least himself off but succumbed to exhaustion before he could.

*******

"I also want the contracts for coal renewed before I leave. Once more people realize that the Elders are mobilizing an army, prices will become outrageous." Rufus paused in handing Reeve the corresponding paperwork when he felt Reno’s approach. All day long, he’d been distracted by his lover’s presence in the back of his mind. Since the link was so new, he’d been worried about causing any damage if he stifled it, so he had suffered the barrage of emotions.

Reno strolled into the office, his lips pursed as he whistled, his hands clasped behind his back, and wearing the most wrinkled black coat that Rufus had ever seen. His hair was even more of a mess than usual, the shorter strands sticking up in every direction and the rest pulled back in a tangled ponytail. Still, Rufus allowed the lapse in uniform since his lover was actually in a good mood.

"Hey, boss, gonna break for lunch soon?" Reno drawled, a smile on his face and his eyes shining with good humor. If Rufus hadn’t sensed his emotions all morning long, he would be as shocked in the change in his lover’s attitude as Reeve currently appeared.

"Reno." Reeve set the paperwork aside so he could give Reno’s left shoulder a quick squeeze. "How are you?" He flushed a little as he asked the question, well aware that he might not get a pleasant answer.

However, Reno just shrugged and sat down on the corner of Rufus’ desk. "Woke up as hungry as a flesh gaki, but other than that…." He shrugged again and glanced at Rufus as a wicked smile formed on his face. "Since no one else was in bed, I figured I’d at least get up and grab a bite to eat. That didn’t tide me over for long so I decided to see if the boss man had any lunch yet."

Rude hovered in the office’s doorway while Reno talked, and from his mind Rufus found out that Reno had eaten a surprising amount of food for breakfast. Considering how much blood he’d lost yesterday and the fact that he seemed to have been starving himself for weeks, that was reassuringly normal. Between Reno’s good mood and his restored appetite, there was hope that the idiot was past any suicidal urges for the time being.

"Some of us have work to do," Rufus replied with a smooth tone and set aside some paperwork. He sent mental commands to Reeve and Rude for them to leave, and the two men were quick to obey. "I fail to see any reason to keep you around if all you’re going to do is eat."

Moving with blinding speed, Reno changed his perch from the corner of the desk to Rufus’ lap, the chair squeaking from the added weight as he draped his arms over Rufus’ shoulders. "You had a chance to get rid of me yesterday but you blew it." The teasing tone to his voice belied the regret and anger he felt over the attempt being foiled, but he was also oddly happy with Rufus and content about being alive. Most of the overwhelming loneliness that Rufus usually sensed from his lover was gone.

Elated and a bit confused over how well the link was already working, Rufus wrapped his arms around Reno’s bony hips. "*I* decide when to get rid of you," he gently rebuked, the sense of contentment echoed in his own emotions now that he had an awake, mostly happy Reno so close. "Don’t expect to go anywhere for a long, long time."

"Except to Berin, right?" Reno leaned forward and nuzzled Rufus’ right ear as he asked the question. "Rude said we leave in three weeks."

"That ‘we’ part depends on if you’re going to behave or not," Rufus snapped, reminded of how much they could all lose if Reno got out of control. He gave his quietly growling lover a smack on the ass before he reached into a desk drawer for a small box. "Don’t even think to give me any grief over that, Reno. I can’t risk you having one of your spells in Berin," he explained, his gaze intent on Reno’s face.

Reno had the grace to grimace and stick his tongue out a little, his emotions shifting from anger and betrayal to embarrassment. "Seemed like a good idea at the time." He frowned then, his thoughts becoming a jumbled mess at why suicide didn’t seem like such a good idea now. Even taking into account the redhead’s mercurial nature, Rufus was aware that this drastic swing to a good mood wasn’t normal after a suicide attempt, but he couldn’t sense any falseness to it. Whatever he’d done with the link had improved things more than he could imagine.

Deftly removing one of the silver earrings from Reno’s left ear, he replaced it with the one he’d taken from the small box. /You are to wear this at all times, do you understand? That is an *order*./

Reno hissed, the sound low and annoyed, and cupped his hand over his left ear. "Magic. What gives, Rufus?" His eyes lightened to a green so pale that they took on a silver sheen when he leaned back and glared.

Rufus tapped his right thumb twice against the gold band around his right ring finger, temporarily stopping the spell that allowed him to see through any illusions. Reno’s appearance changed before his eyes, crimson hair muting into reddish brown, greenish-silver eyes taking on a more hazel cast and pale skin darkened to a light ivory tone. He shared the image with his lover as he reached for Reno’s left arm. The new illusion even managed to hide the scars. It paid to be able to thoroughly blackmail a powerful wizard.

"Never take it off, Reno," he continued as he tapped the ring again, Reno’s natural appearance restored before his eyes. "I don’t want any uncomfortable questions asked while we’re in Berin, and you best believe that we’ll be closely watched from now on. The last thing we can afford is for the Elders or one of their spies to figure out what you really are – or worse, assume that you’re a kage." He couldn’t quite control the impulse to shiver at the thought of Elders thinking there was a kage alive for them to use.

"Damn thing tingles." Reno shook his head, his long hair flying about like a multitude of whips and the silver earrings and their assorted jewel dangles jangling together from the brisk motion. "Couldn’t we just try the dye again?" His glare melted into a petulant frown.

Amazed at how well his lover could sense magic, Rufus slid his right hand beneath the black jacket and the mostly unlaced white shirt of Reno’s uniform. "An illusion is much more practical. We won’t have to worry about the dye fading or your roots showing with magic," he purred as he stroked along Reno’s spine. Besides, this way he could still see his lover’s exotic coloring, how pale skin took on a blush from arousal, the contrast of blood red strands falling over bright, aquamarine eyes.

"Hmm, see, you don’t like it very much either." Reno’s voice was a rough purr as well; he leaned closer again to nip at Rufus’ jaw. "Anyone ever tell you that you’re paranoid as hell?"

Rufus was distracted from the lust that poured into him from the new link and the enticing way Reno squirmed in his lap by what his lover had just said. /How do you know what I’m feeling?/ he demanded to know, Reno’s hair grasped between his fingers and used as a hold to make the redhead pull away and look at him.

/Can sense it, you bastard. You did something last night, didn’t you?/ For a moment Reno glared back but then he rolled his eyes and looked down his nose at Rufus. /I’ve felt your emotions since I woke up, and sometimes it seems like I can read your thoughts./ He didn’t seem terribly disturbed by the link.

Searching his lover’s thoughts, Rufus could sense an echo of his own surprise and unease. The link appeared to go both ways, something he had not expected to happen since Reno wasn’t a soul gaki-bound. Fortunately, Reno couldn’t seem to really read his thoughts, only his emotions to a degree that Reno could very accurately guess what Rufus was thinking. His unease grew at the revelation and his first impulse was to immediately stifle the link. However, the more he studied the forced bond between him and Reno, the more he became certain that it wasn’t one that he could easily break. That shouldn’t be the case – was it because of Reno’s dubhach nature? Whatever the reason, the strong bond seemed to be responsible for Reno’s good mood. His shinigami nature was appeased by the link with Rufus, with no longer being so ‘alone’.

Rufus was pulled from his musings by the sensation of warm lips pressed against his mouth. "If you’re not gonna feed me, can we have some fun, then?" Reno murmured, his emotions a delight mix of anticipation, desire, need and hunger. In fact, he was so hungry that the rumble of his stomach could be heard over his loud purrs.

Rufus deepened the kiss for a few enjoyable seconds, as always more than willing to partake in the pleasure of Reno’s presence. Unfortunately, there was a lot that needed to be done today and the dubhach really should eat as much as possible to fully restore himself. Reno was still a little weak from the blood loss and, with all that was going on, needed to be able to wield his power at a moment’s notice. With much regret, Rufus ended the kiss and pushed his lover from his lap. "I guess I better feed you, then."

Reno actually pouted for a moment as he stood up, until his stomach rumbled again. "You’re gonna be boring as hell until we leave for Berin, aren’t you?" He didn’t wait for Rufus’ answer, just shrugged and then tugged on the hem of his white shirt. "If I’m not gonna get any sex then I want something really good for lunch. Let’s go to the Crystal Star." His wicked smile implied that the meal would be Rufus’ treat.

"You’ll have whatever the kitchen has prepared," Rufus sternly informed his lover. "I don’t have the time to go out for lunch, nor am I going to spend a week’s worth of profit filling your empty stomach." He poked the body part in question and sniffed. "Think about that the next time you purposely starve yourself."

"You’re going to bitch about that for the next few months, aren’t you?" Reno’s handsome face twisted with disgust and he threw his hands into the air. "Can’t you just let it go already?"

One moment Rufus was still, the next he had Reno bent backwards over the desk, his hands buried in his lover’s hair and their bodies pressed together. /You tried to kill yourself, you stupid bastard. You tried to break your promise to *me*. I will harp on it as long as I want and you will bear it,/ he snarled and leaned closer, until his lips brushed against Reno’s neck. He spared the still-bruised flesh a gentle kiss and then parted his lips, opened his jaw and *bit* down, desperate for blood and submission. /Never again, Reno. *Never*. *Again*./ He would not lose the foolish man, not like that.

Reno’s body went rigid beneath his for a few seconds before it relaxed as a low moan was uttered. Strong arms wrapped around Rufus’ back and pulled him closer. "Pushy bastard," was Reno’s verbal response, but over their link, Rufus felt submission and assent.

He knew he couldn’t wring more of a promise from Reno than that, not without provoking the shinigami soul, but he found himself appeased. The demon aspect of his own nature hummed happily as he lapped up his lover’s blood, content that the point had been made. Regretting the fact that he had obligations today that didn’t allow for at least a half an hour of passionate sex in his office, he reluctantly pulled away. Later, he promised himself, as his right hand trailed along Reno’s tattooed cheek. He would not be able to deny himself Reno’s body for long; his hunger for it acute and demanding.

"We’ll eat lunch, and then you and Rude will assist Tseng in preparing for our departure," he informed his lover, his voice hoarse with barely suppressed desire.

With a wide grin on his face, Reno once more sat on the edge of the desk and stretched his arms over his head, the motion languid and his feelings pleased. "So we can do dinner at the Crystal Star." His voice was hoarse as well, but with a wanton huskiness that made shivers run up and down Rufus’ spine. "It’s a nice, long carriage ride there and back."

Rufus cupped his right hand against the nape of Reno’s neck and allowed himself one more hungry, ardent kiss. /Swear that you won’t remove the earring without my permission and I’ll treat you to dinner./

This time it was Reno who pulled away first, his kiss-swollen lips moist and pressed together in an annoyed frown. /Do you always have to be so manipulative?/ At Rufus’ answering smug smile, he sighed and shook his head. "I swear to you that I won’t remove the earring unless you say I can." He wrinkled his nose as he fingered the dark blue stone that dangled from the enchanted jewelry. "Feels like a damn bug is buzzing in my ear, you know."

"You’ll get used to it," Rufus calmly replied and used his hold on Reno’s neck to urge his lover to move from the desk. The earring blended in with the others that Reno wore and wasn’t as likely to be lost as would a necklace or ring, considering the redhead’s careless nature and often physically demanding job. "Now are you going to sit here and complain or have lunch with me?"

"Can’t I do both?" Reno’s good mood was instantly restored with a bright smile as he hopped off the desk. He sidled up to Rufus, much like a cat looking for some attention. "I want some wine at dinner tonight, too. You didn’t let me drink the last time we went out."

"Because you had to work later that night." His arm still around Reno’s shoulders, Rufus tugged on a waist-length strand of hair. "I’ll allow the wine if you dress properly. That means no wrinkles and you actually comb your hair for once." He smiled at the thought helping Reno with the last task, and how his lover’s tolerance for alcohol would probably be affected by what had happened yesterday. Dealing with a tipsy, horny Reno could be very, *very* enjoyable. Good thing Rufus could alter memories, especially if Reno didn’t wait until they were in the carriage to have ‘fun’. Judging from how much he hungered for Rufus now, sex was definitely on the agenda for tonight.

Rufus willingly pushed aside his concerns over the new link, to be dealt with another time. Right now, he wanted to reinforce whatever it was that had Reno so balanced between his two natures, and back to his wicked, irreverent self. He also had the Elder’s latest edict to handle, along with ensuring that his business was in good hands while he was in Berin. The mystery of what exactly he’d done last night would have to wait. There were too many other things to worry about now, and he’d need the link in the upcoming days to ensure that Reno didn’t fall back into depression again and make another attempt on his life.

Besides, he’d probably just made the link a little stronger than he’d intended and could easily adjust it later. Listening to Reno rattled off everything he wanted to order tonight, Rufus allowed himself to enjoy this rare moment of happiness. With the war approaching and the Elders flexing their power, there wouldn’t be many opportunities like this in the future.

*******

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