Shadow Conversations

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Shadow and Desire, Fire and Earth

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"Here we are, home sweet home." Yohji stepped onto the porch and shoved the bundle of candles in his right hand under his elbow so he could wave his hand with a slight flourish as he bowed. "Such a quiet and humble abode, na?"

Aya snorted softly and breezed past, his black clock billowing out to brush against Yohji’s legs.

Smiling, Yohji followed his lover, pausing to nod in greeting to Teddy before he went up the stairs. He could feel Aya’s happiness to be out of the day’s weak sunlight and back home, and felt much the same way about returning to the Koneko. As he grew more accustomed to his demon nature, the inn had become a sanctuary of sorts. He didn’t seem truly comfortable anywhere else in the city, with the exception of Cassandra’s home.

Entering their bedroom behind Aya, he shrugged his coat off and tossed it and the bundle of candles onto one of the room’s chairs. Once Aya removed his cloak, Yohji snatched the garment away and threw it after his coat. Ignoring his lover’s warning glare, he pulled Aya into a loose hug, his arms wrapped around Aya’s waist. "Happy to be home?" he asked as he bent his head to nuzzle his lover’s left ear.

"Mmmm." Aya draped his arms over Yohji’s shoulders and purred, the sound soft and pleased. "Although I don’t mind running errands." He leaned against Yohji and rested his head on Yohji’s right shoulder. "We really need to tell Jo that we finished them," he said, his voice shaded with exhaustion.

Yohji noticed that his mate didn’t try to pull away and go downstairs so he held him closer. They would have to report to Jo soon but Aya needed this time alone, away from the people that had crowded around him all day long. Yohji also needed the time with Aya as well, a chance to embrace the man he loved and feel a weak trickle of sunlight enter his body, to not have to share Aya with anyone else. "In a few minutes, Cat," he murmured as he pressed a kiss against his lover’s temple.

They stood there for a while, holding each other close until the tensions of the day seemed to melt away. While Yohji knew that Aya enjoyed running errands for the Koneko, he also sensed how much it wore on his lover. Yet as much as he wanted to order his mate to remain here, he never would do that. Aya had spent most of his life as a slave rarely allowed outside Timbergrey’s walls. There was no way he’d accept having his freedom curtailed now that his captors were dead, and Yohji would not break the faith Aya had in him even if it would appease his demon soul. He would just do what he did today and tag along whenever possible, to both enjoy Aya’s company and to make sure he was safe.

There was a faint nip to the side of his neck. "You’re getting all possessive again," Aya pointed out with a faint rumble of a growl in his voice but his emotions mostly amused. "I’m fine, Yotan." He pulled away just enough so he could look at Yohji’s face.

His arms tightening around Aya’s waist, Yohji smiled and shook his head. "Hey, there’s no way I’m ever going to stop feeling that emotion, but what’s important is that I don’t always act upon it, right?" He kissed the tip of Aya’s nose and chuckled. "I’m not as dumb as you seem to think I am."

Aya’s frown at the kiss softened into an amused smile. "I don’t think you’re dumb, just thickheaded at times." He gently rapped the knuckles of his right hand against Yohji’s skull. "You are learning, though." His smile turned into one of pure happiness, the emotion shining in his eyes and radiating so strongly over their link that Yohji momentarily forgot to breathe. "I guess there’s hope for you," Aya teased as he leaned forward for a kiss.

Still chuckling, Yohji eagerly helped to breach the distance between them and groaned in contentment as their lips met. His hunger was mostly sated from this morning so he savored the kiss as a simple yet heartfelt expression of passion and love. He gathered Aya close, his arms carefully wrapped around his lover’s lower back as they kissed, tongues brushing against each other’s and breaths mingling. There was the impulse to walk backwards toward the bed and fall onto it with Aya in his arms but he resisted. They hadn’t eaten much today and beneath the love and desire that he felt from his mate was a sense of hunger.

He reluctantly ended the kiss and sighed as he nuzzled Aya’s bowed forehead. "What do you want to do tonight, love? Should we ask Jo to fix us a tray of food and curl up in bed?" There was something very enticing about the thought of having Aya by his side all night and not sharing his lover with anyone.

Aya grunted quietly and stepped away, his arms stretched out so his hands could remain on Yohji’s shoulders. "Koyu mentioned that his friend Rebecca would stop by tonight to play. I thought that maybe we could have dinner downstairs and listen." He spoke hesitantly, as if not sure that Yohji would agree.

While Yohji would dearly love a quiet night alone with his mate, he quickly nodded and smiled in agreement. "That sounds like a great idea." Aya did need to be out in public more often, both to get over his dislike for crowds and so everyone knew that he was still Yohji’s. They could have their night in another time, right now listening to some wonderful music with Aya beside him and a pitcher of beer on the table really did sound nice. "Perhaps I can talk you into a dance or two." He grabbed Aya’s left hand from his shoulder and held it out in a dance position, then quickly twirled his mate around. "How about at least two fast dances and definitely a slow one?" he asked, pleased yet again to see a smile on Aya’s face.

"One fast and one slow," Aya countered as he came to a sudden halt. He kissed Yohji again, this time a quick brush of the lips before he turned around and hurried over to the closet. "I want a bath before we eat. I still reek of the smokehouse we visited."

"Bound senses can be a bit of a pain at times," Yohji commented as he joined Aya in picking out something clean to wear. Warmth spread through him at the image of Aya naked in the hot spring and his hunger stirred enough to let him know a light ‘snack’ would be greatly appreciated. Desperately hoping that the bathing room was empty – or at least filled with people who could be easily persuaded to leave – Yohji snatched the first clean clothes he found up and motioned for Aya to hurry. "You’re full of great ideas tonight. A nice bath, then a stop in the kitchen to let Jo know about the orders that’ll be arriving in the next few days, and finally dinner and drinks." He winked at his lover as they made their way to the door.

Aya bumped his left shoulder against Yohji’s right arm and shook his head. "Why do I have the impression that I’m going to need a nice, hearty meal after our bath?" he asked, once more sounding amused.

"Because you know me so well, Cat," Yohji quickly replied and ushered his mate out of their room.

*******

Ed searched through the kitchen for the sixth time and chided himself for expecting a result different from the previous five. There literally was no food to be found, other than about a cup of uncooked rice and a jar of those disgusting pickled plums that Al claimed to like. Nope, no food at all and Ed was *starving*. He contemplated going to the nearest store and asking the owner to set up a tab to be paid off tomorrow when the house’s front door opened and closed.

Knowing that Al was busy helping the Rockbells with an important order tonight, he sighed loudly and reluctantly went to the living room as if approaching a battle. Things weren’t as tense as they’d been two weeks ago but he was still a little uncomfortable around Roy. His mate remained angry about him going to the Koneko and didn’t pay him much attention unless they were having sex. That wasn’t even something that had happened much in the last two days, Ed thought with an annoying sense of frustration, since Roy was so busy with work.

"Don’t bother to take your coat off," he informed a scowling Roy as the man began to remove his dark green uniform. "There’s nothing to eat in the place so we need to go shopping." He folded his arms over his chest and waited to see if the bastard picked a fight by blaming him for not keeping the groceries stocked. Roy wasn’t the only one working a lot of hours lately.

Roy paused for a moment and then continued to remove his coat. "I thought Alphonse was supposed to go shopping yesterday," he said, for once sounding more distracted than angry. He folded his coat over his arm and began to unbutton his shirt as he evenly regarded Ed.

Refusing to allow himself to stare at his mate’s now exposed throat, Ed closed his eyes for a moment as if he were beseeching the gods for some patience and not struggling to control his hormones. He wished he could stifle the emotional link with Roy but wasn’t prepared to get his ass spanked again for doing so. "Al’s been too busy helping the Rockbells to do any shopping." He opened his eyes to glare at his mate. "And don’t you dare bitch at me since this is the first night I’ve been home before eight o’clock."

"I’m happy to see that the Library has finished with its inventory for the season," Roy commented as he headed to the bedroom. He still sounded more distracted than anything, and that emotion along with confusion and anger surged over their link. Ed debated following Roy and warily decided that it would be best to not seem like he was avoiding the bastard.

"What’s gotten into you today?" he dared to ask as he flopped onto the bed. He lay on his belly and folded his arms so he could rest his chin on them. "Ever since you became a Colonel you’ve been in a pissy mood but not this bad."

Roy arched his left eyebrow as he looked Ed’s way and shrugged his shirt off. He appeared as if he was going to say something just then, but shook his head instead. Once the shirt was neatly placed on a hanger, he spoke. "We’re going out to eat." A cream colored shirt in hand, he went to the bed to stand in front of Ed. "You will behave yourself tonight, do you understand? You will not start a fight, you will speak only when you’re spoken to and you will make no mention of any books." He spoke in a very grave tone of voice and the emotions that Ed felt over their link made him swallow whatever smartass comment he was about to make. There was no way he was going to start another fight without Al here to back him up.

"Where are we going?" Ed asked as he cautiously sat up on the bed and tugged at the hem of his black tunic. He was very suspicious about the situation since Roy said something about books, not to mention that his mate was *not* pleased with something. "I can run out and get something if you want to stay in," he offered, the words hesitant as he honestly didn’t know how Roy was going to react when the bastard was in a mood like this.

"To the Koneko." Roy practically spat the words out as he shoved his arms into the shirt, then removed his uniform pants to replace them with a dark blue pair. Yanking the shirt across his chest, he glared at a spot right above Ed’s head while his fingers worked on the buttons.

Ed almost fell off the bed in shock when he heard Kudoh’s inn be mentioned. "You mean the Koneko in the west Green district? The one you’ve given me nothing but grief over for me daring to visit the place? Have you lost your mind, Mustang?" he asked, his emotions incredulous and more than a little angry.

Roy actually smiled at the questions but it wasn’t a happy expression, not when his dark eyes appeared to turn black and there was a mocking tilt to his lips. "The state of my mental health has been dubious at best for the last few months," he replied in an even tone that betrayed none of the anger he felt inside. When Ed glared at the perceived insult against them becoming mates, Roy’s smile became a bit more genuine. "I’m not very happy to have to return to the Koneko, Ed, but it’s something I need to do. Now, get ready so we can arrive there before the majority of the dinner crowd." Once his shirt was buttoned and neatly tucked into his pants, Roy turned toward the dresser and the small mirror hung above it.

Ed stared at his mate for a few seconds before he rummaged through the closet for a fresh tunic. "What do you have to do?" he asked, never one to leave a question unanswered for long. Waiting for a response, he changed into a red and black tunic before he repeated himself.

When Roy seemed determined to ignore him in favor of combing his hair, Ed placed his fists onto his hips and stomped over to the bastard. "Look, Roy, either tell me why we’re going there or I’ll stay home." He ignored the plaintive way his empty stomach rumbled at the threat. "I’m sick of the way you keep secrets from me all the time, you bastard, and don’t see why you want me to go with you if you won’t tell me anything." Contemplating kicking his mate in the leg, he settled for a fierce glare instead. There was no way to tell what would happen if he turned the fight from verbal to physical and he was too starved to spend the night having sex.

Setting the comb on the dresser, Roy tucked his bangs aside with his fingers and sighed at his image in the mirror. After taking a deep breath, he turned to face Ed. "Fair enough," he said with a curt nod. "The reason I’m taking you with me tonight is that I’m hoping that perhaps Yohji Kudoh will at least talk to you." His mouth twisted into a bitter grimace when he mentioned the innkeeper’s name. "Hughes overheard a very interesting rumor today – that the Guard is recruiting bounds."

Torn between gratitude that Roy was actually explaining things to him and astonishment over that revelation, Ed leaned against the desk with his jaw hanging almost all the way down to his chest. Several seconds passed before he could put together a coherent response, not helped in the slightest by the way Roy grew more amused during the time of silence. "The Guard is recruiting bounds?" he managed to ask, his voice rough with shock. "Is that some sort of trap? How did Hughes find that out? Does anyone actually-"

Roy placed his left hand over Ed’s mouth to silence him. "I don’t know if it’s a trap. Hughes said he ran into an old friend of his great-grandfather’s last night. They had a couple of drinks and the man let something slip about Hughes leaving the Army for the Guard." Releasing his hold on Ed’s face, Roy sighed and slumped against the dresser, his arms folded over his chest. "The bound didn’t say much but it was more than enough for Hughes to become curious and start checking things out. What he’s found is that at least two bound acquaintances of his have joined the Guard."

"And that’s enough to make you think that those blue coat bastards are knowingly hiring bounds?" Ed asked, his voice thick with derision. "It’s their jobs to track bounds down and kill them, not recruit them." He couldn’t believe that Roy was buying the stupid story.

Roy’s eloquent answer as a soft snort. "I suppose you have a point… but the Army has the same policy toward bounds yet several of us have joined the organization." He brushed a piece of lint from the front of his shirt. "Perhaps there are bounds in the Guard as well – Kudoh was one for several years." A terrible frown settled on his face as if he contemplated something very dark. "There has to be a reason why *he* took the kage to the Koneko, and I don’t think it has everything to do with Kudoh being his mate. Something is going on and I’m being kept in deliberate ignorance," he muttered.

One thing Ed had learned over the years was when Roy spoke of a mysterious man in a tone that was usually reserved for murderous pedophiles, it was best not to ask too many questions. He had the suspicion it had something to do with the Crawford who had been mentioned at the Koneko but each time he brought that name up, Roy’s temper would flare. "You really think Kudoh will tell us the truth?" he asked, intensely curious about the situation yet concerned that there would be another fight. After the shock of Roy being injured had worn off, he’d realized just how incredibly suicidal it had been to try to fight against a kage. He wasn’t going to willingly fight Aya again if he could help it.

"There’s only one way to find out." Shaking his entire body as if a dog waking up from a nap, Roy focused his attention on Ed. He picked the comb up and in seconds had Ed’s braid undone. "I’m going to do something that in all probability I may very much regret, Edward. I am going to trust you to behave yourself tonight and help me with this assignment. We need to verify the truth and ensure that the bounds aren’t being taken advantage of, is that clear?" he asked in a brusque tone that was at odds with the gentle way he combed Ed’s hair and re-braided it. "For once, forget your own personal agenda or I’ll never trust you with anything important again." He used the comb as a lever to make Ed lift his chin. "Do you understand?"

Feeling the concern, doubt and resolve that flowed over their link, Ed glowered at his mate but didn’t curse him as a stupid bastard. "Yeah," he answered in a soft voice, his gaze never wavering from Roy’s. "Our people come first." He still felt ashamed of how much he’d almost put into jeopardy two weeks ago. Al and he would have their revenge one day but it wouldn’t be worth anything if they doomed their race in the process.

"I’ll be damned, there’s hope for you yet," Roy murmured, and before Ed could protest the insult, he found himself being thoroughly kissed. He resisted the impulse to kiss back for only a few seconds, and had just slid his fingers through his mate’s short hair before things came to an abrupt halt. Panting, Roy took a step back and tried to restore order to his hair. "We need to leave now."

"Someone likes barking out orders a bit too much," Ed grumbled, mostly to hide how much the kiss had affected him – along with the thought that Roy was beginning to treat him as more of an adult, an *equal*, at least. He would do whatever he had to so he didn’t let his mate down and have his failure held against him for the rest of his life. Roy didn’t give him many opportunities like this and he hadn’t expected one so soon after their recent fight so he wasn’t going to mess up this time.

The loud rumble of his stomach as they left their house reminded him that there was more to be found at the Koneko than answers. "Uhm, we are going to eat dinner there, right?" he asked as he hurried to catch up to his much taller mate. Why did the man have to be all long legs?

Roy’s warm, amused chuckle made everyone in hearing distance turn and stare. "Yes, Edward, you’ll be fed." He reached over to brush aside the bangs that fell onto Ed’s face, the touch turning into a gentle caress for a brief second. "Just remember that I’m a colonel now and not a general, so please don’t order everything on the menu. I don’t think my salary can handle your voracious appetite."

"Bastard," Ed swore as he glared at his smirking mate.

*******

A small moan of contentment escaped from Aya’s throat as he spied the huge cake that rested on top of one of the Koneko’s kitchen tables.

Jo must have heard because she looked up from the bowl of cream she was vigorously stirring and smiled. "It’s a spice cake."

Aya uttered another appreciative moan and stepped closer to the table. The cake was covered with what appeared to be Jo’s famous butter cream frosting and a dusting of cinnamon. "Is it for any special occasion?" he asked as his fingers itched to swipe through the icing so he could have a taste.

"No, just felt like seeing you drool this evening!" Jo laughed as she set the bowl of cream into a large bowl filled with ice. "I usually save baking them for the cooler months and thought today would be a good time to make one."

"Hmm, Jo’s spice cakes are really good. She still doesn’t have much of a knack for making chocolate ones, though," Yohji teased as he joined Aya to stare at the dessert. His right arm slid around Aya’s waist and gave his right hip a squeeze.

Jo whacked the wire whisk against the rim of the bowl and glared for a moment before the expression changed into a rueful grin. "I never claimed to be the best cook around."

"But… I think you’re very good!" Maddox was quick to claim from over by the spit where he was busy turning the stuffed chickens. His face was flushed and he actually dared to give Yohji a disapproving look.

Yohji bowed as deeply as he could while still holding onto Aya. "I meant no offense, truly. Jo is a culinary genius… except when it comes to chocolate cakes." He stuck his tongue out when he finished speaking.

In response, Jo laughed and tossed a dish towel his way. "I think I can get them to turn out decent now but I admit I do other types of cakes better. I can never seem to get the chocolate to melt right."

"Nah, they are really good, Jo. I just couldn’t help but tease you a bit about them." Yohji hugged Aya closer and gave him a wink. "When Teddy was about eight years old, he wanted an all chocolate cake even though the ingredients were so expensive. Jo tried her best but it was the first time she’d ever used that much cocoa for anything other than hot chocolate," he explained.

Jo resumed making the whipped cream. "You should have seen how everyone kept insisting it was the best cake they’d ever had and ate all of it." She shook her head and chuckled, the sound a little sad. "Cassandra had to dose everyone for digestion that night." She looked off into the distance, as if remembering something.

"You redeemed yourself the following year," Yohji offered as he smiled brightly at the cook. "And your hot chocolate is among the best I’ve ever had." Aya and Maddox quickly agreed.

Her good humor restored, Jo again shook her head. "I still prefer spice, vanilla and white cakes to chocolate ones, even if the price of cocoa has fallen in recent years." She checked the progress of the whipped cream and beat the mixture some more. "I’ll be sure to save you two some of the cake tonight, for *after* dinner." Her expression became stern as she looked Yohji and Aya up and down. "Both of you are still too thin."

"Don’t start lecturing us, we’re about to go sit down and eat." Yohji left Aya’s side to give Jo a kiss on the cheek. "You going to join us later?"

"When things slow down a little." Jo gave Maddox an appraising look. "Maddox and Kira should be able to close the kitchen tonight," she calmly replied.

Aya didn’t need to be a soul gaki to know that her words greatly pleased Maddox. The boy’s face became even more flushed and he didn’t think it was from the heat of the fire place. Jo didn’t often hand over control of her kitchen and almost never at night. Aya had only worked alone in the morning and that was because he was good at baking. His cooking skills weren’t up to feeding customers anything other than bread or cinnamon rolls but Maddox had been working very diligently in the kitchen ever since arriving at the Koneko. Despite the bit of pain Aya felt when he looked at the teenager, he was happy that Maddox had found his place here.

Yohji gave Jo a hug and then swiped two fingers through the whipped cream. Putting his bound speed to good use, he got out of the way before she hit him with her left fist. He approached Aya and held out his cream-covered fingers. "There should be some great music being played tonight," he commented, the pleased smile on his face taking on a hungry edge when Aya licked his fingers clean. "Though I’m not sure how long we’ll stick around." His voice became husky with passion and his green eyes almost glowed with the emotion.

At his lover’s gaze, Aya felt tingling warmth spread through his body. Memory of Yohji’s mouth and hands on his body while they soaked in the tub just a few minutes ago rushed through him and made him close his eyes as he fought to not moan out loud. The day had been spent walking all over the city with rarely a moment alone with his lover. He began to regret his idea for them to spend the evening in the inn’s common room.

"We better go now if we don’t want to find our table taken," Yohji informed Aya, a hint of huskiness to his voice but his eyes now sparkling with smug pride. Aya felt some of his lust fade as he realized the idiot was pleased at being able to affect him so easily and barely resisted the impulse to smack Yohji on his scarred shoulder. Instead, he bared his teeth slightly before he turned toward the door.

"We’ll save you and Ichiro a seat," he informed Jo and tried not to snarl when Yohji’s arm once more settled around his waist. He looked at his mate and frowned. "We should be there that long." The corners of his mouth twitched at the crestfallen expression on Yohji’s face at that news.

"Such a mean cat," Yohji sniffed as they made their way toward the common room. Aya merely arched his right eyebrow in response – and almost regretted his words to Jo when he noticed how busy the common room was this early in the evening. Word of Koyu’s friend playing tonight must have gotten around.

Yohji’s arm around his waist gave him the courage to enter the crowded room, though he did pull the hood of his dark grey jerkin up and forward to cover his hair and most of his face. He hated the feel of so much attention focused his way and barely resisted the urge to call the shadows to him. When he was out shopping, it wasn’t as difficult to be among so many people because he could always move away from them, but he felt slightly trapped to sit at a table and be surrounded by all these humans. Upon seeing that most of the tables around where he and Yohji usually sat were filled with Shadow Guards, some of the tension left his body.

His mate pressed a kiss against his cloth-covered temple. "We could always go upstairs or out to the garden," Yohji whispered into his ear, as always a reassuring presence.

Aya knew that Yohji was just reacting to his emotions and refused to allow himself to be annoyed at his mate’s protectiveness. He was tempted to leave the crowded room but managed to keep walking forward. While Yohji didn’t begrudge him their evenings spent upstairs, he knew that Yohji enjoyed being able to listen to music, dance and drink with his friends. Aya just wished that it wasn’t so crowded tonight. "Where did everyone come from?" he asked they made their way to the table.

Nodding at Reiichi and Yuushi, Yohji chuckled for a few seconds. "If you think this is bad, wait a couple more weeks until it’s the start of festival season. This will be considered a slow night, then."

"Oh." Aya resolved to spend his evenings either in the kitchen, the library or upstairs in his room during that time period. He had thought that he was getting better about being in the presence of so many humans since arriving at the Koneko, but now he realized that he’d approached his limit of what he could take. There was actually a moment’s longing for his quiet, isolated room at Timbergrey castle. "How do you manage to spend so many nights in such a crowded room?" he asked, certain that people other than himself had to find this very nerve-wracking, all the noise and so little personal space.

Yohji glared at someone blocking their way and stroked his left hand along Aya’s hip. "First off, I guess I’m just used to it since I grew up here." He shrugged and motioned for Aya to slide onto the bench against the wall, so they could sit facing the room. "Then there’s the fact that before… before all these people meant that there’d be someone willing to spend the night with me in the room somewhere."

Sensing his lover’s embarrassment and shame, Aya leaned against Yohji and caressed his right hand along Yohji’s left cheek. His fingers briefly combed through wavy strands of hair before his hand fell back to his lap. "I can’t imagine how it must feel to be… what you are," he whispered, certain that Yohji’s enhanced hearing would hear what he said. The words were the honest truth; he could not imagine being forced to seek out company night after night, almost always someone new, to allow those strangers to touch him and more so he could feed. Shivering in distaste, he rested his head against Yohji’s shoulder. There was a flash of possessiveness and smugness when he thought that his mate no longer had to do that anymore, not since they had met each other.

"I don’t know, I’m pretty happy about it now," Yohji purred, his lovely voice deepened by amusement and desire. "Although I must admit that I feel sorry for others like me who haven’t been so lucky to find their… well, true love." He seemed to stare at something, so Aya lifted his head to see what attracted his lover’s attention. Looking across the room, he noticed that Li was longer sitting at the end of the table nearest them but had moved to the one farthest away. Even the people he’d seen sitting by her when he walked past the table had moved as well. She must have sensed his and Yohji’s notice somehow because she looked their way. When she saw Yohji, she flinched sharply and seemed to draw into herself.

Aya was surprised by the way the succubae-bound appeared to be afraid. He nudged his elbow into Yohji’s side to get his mate’s attention. "What’s going on?" he inquired with growing suspicion, and had to nudge harder to get Yohji to stop staring at the woman. "Why does she always act terrified of you?"

Yohji grunted softly as he looked at Aya and rubbed his abused ribs. "Dammit, we need to fatten you up some more. Your elbows are almost as pointy as your teeth," he complained with a frown. When Aya frowned as well, he sighed and shook his head. "Look, it was one of the days when you were off with that asshole, Kikyou. I was just trying to get a bit drunk so I didn’t have to think about you spending the evening with him when I realized she was using glamour against a customer." He paused in his explanation and shrugged, his expression sheepish and his emotions embarrassed.

Narrowing his eyes, Aya turned so he could better face his lover and snapped his teeth together. "I’ve felt her do that numerous times at the inn: she needs to feed." He wished Yohji would just get to the point before he lost his temper.

"Ah, yeah, she has but for some reason…." Yohji shrugged again and tangled his fingers in Aya’s right eartail. "I was upset about you and when that happens, I tend to be more… well, I’m not myself." He wrinkled his nose then bared his teeth for a moment. "You could say that I decided to prove to Li that I was the more powerful of us two."

Aya sighed in exasperation and tried in vain to free his hair from his lover’s grasp. "I think I can guess the rest." Yohji was a very powerful succubae-bound while Li was only about half as strong. The woman must have been terrified. While Aya thought he should probably chastise his lover for the slip of control, he didn’t do anything but give Yohji’s hand a squeeze. Sometimes there was no reasoning with their demon natures, especially when they were distressed about something.

"I apologized the next time I saw her but she still keeps her distance," Yohji said, his voice a little sad and his expression regretful. "I thought all the problems I had with my dad were because of him leaving my mom all those years ago but I’m beginning to wonder if it’s not because of what we are."

Giving up on freeing his hair, Aya leaned forward as much as Yohji’s hold would allow. "Your kind are very solitary, at least with each other." He’d read that it was rare for succubae-bounds to pair together, other than on the few occasions when they were mates.

"Which is why I’m so glad I found you," Yohji murmured as his right hand pushed Aya’s hood back a little so he could brush his lips against Aya’s forehead. "So very glad."

Closing his eyes, Aya leaned against his mate and felt at ease for the first time since they’d walked into the inn’s common room. Faintly, he could hear the sound of harps being tuned and a myriad of human voices laughing and talking, but above it all was the sound of Yohji’s heartbeat. He was happy and comfortable and safe, things that he hadn’t been for so very long before he’d met Yohji.

"I can tell that you’re very glad too," Yohji chuckled as his arms wrapped around Aya’s shoulders and another kiss was pressed against Aya’s forehead. "You know, if you made me any happier I’d be a blithering idiot."

"I don’t know, it can be argued that you always were one, Yotan." The sound of Cassandra’s amused voice, followed by a series of giggles barely smothered, made Aya open his eyes and sigh. He pulled away from Yohji enough to see their friend standing by the table, dressed in a lovely gown of pale yellow embroidered with pink and white flowers along the skirt and sleeves’ hems and all over the tight bodice. Her hair was pulled back with gold ribbons and there was a hint of red to her lips. Aya was willing to guess that she was supposed to meet Botan tonight and smiled slightly in greeting.

Yohji sighed as well and mostly released his hold on Aya; his left arm remained around Aya’s shoulders. "For a gorgeous woman, Cass, you can be a terribly mean and insulting one as well," he growled, but Aya sensed that his mate was just as amused by the teasing as he was. "And you look like a trollop," Yohji blatantly lied, returning the insult from earlier.

Cassandra’s smile became wider and she batted her eyes. "Thank you, Yohji, that’s just the look I was going for tonight." She stuck the tip of her tongue out and joined them at the table. "To think that your mother ever despaired that you would learn proper manners," she teased as she adjusted her skirts around her on the bench.

"Must be because of the influence of some unsavory people who were always here when I was a kid," Yohji shot back, his left arm falling to settle once more around Aya’s waist. "So, when is Botan going to arrive, Gorgeous?"

Preening under the nickname, Cassandra hummed happily as she fussed with her hair. "In another hour. He has some boring dinner he just *had* to attend at the castle and then he’ll come here." She tilted her head to the side as she stared at Yohji, her smile slowly becoming a frown. "Yotan, don’t tell me you had nothing better to wear, I know that’s not the truth," she said with a displeased tone as she pinched the material of his brown shirt’s right sleeve. "This is little better than a rag."

Yohji shrugged and smoothed his right hand down the front of the old shirt. "I know but that’s what makes it so comfortable, Cass. Besides, it’s not like I have to please anyone but Aya now," he pointed out with obvious delight as he nuzzled Aya’s neck.

For his part, Aya liked the shirt even if it was a little threadbare in spots. Yohji’s skin appeared even more golden against the dark brown fabric that was so soft to the touch. Also, Yohji’s wonderful scent had saturated the worn material. "I like it," Aya said, his voice soft and roughened by a faint purr.

Sighing wistfully, Cassandra shook her head. "You’ve changed, Yotan, but I honestly feel it’s for the better." She smiled warmly at Aya and bowed slightly. "Thank you."

Suspecting that she referred to him being Yohji’s mate, Aya nodded in acknowledgement. He was spared from having to say anything by Maria’s arrival. She set a very large platter filled with slices of chicken, roasted potatoes, asparagus and carrots on the table, and behind her was Touya with a basket filled with sliced bread and a small tub of sweetened butter and a pitcher of wine. "Jo said there will be no cake until you eat everything," Touya pointed out while Maria wandered over to her brother, Declan, who sat with his fellow Shadow Guards. "She let me have a slice already and it was delicious." Touya appeared very pleased and quickly stepped out of Yohji’s reach.

"Hmph, damn brat," Yohji swore at Touya as the boy wisely fled from the table. His glare faded when he looked at the platter of food. "That’s an awful lot of food, even for us," he remarked as he grabbed Aya’s plate.

Cassandra smiled mysteriously as she poured them some wine. "Perhaps there will be others to partake in the feast."

Knowing that particularly smug tone of voice, Aya tilted his head to the side as a frown settled on his face. "Have you seen something?" he asked, careful to pitch his voice low enough so they wouldn’t be overheard.

"As always, your presence masked much of the vision to me but I foresaw a gathering of great power." Cassandra’s smile vanished, to be replaced by an expression of concern. "Please, Yotan, control your temper tonight. Much rests on things going well, on rational thoughts besting silly prejudices. For all to go as hoped, you four must become friends of sorts," she tried to explain. "I just wish I had seen things more clearly."

Yohji patted the fretting woman’s left shoulder. "I’ll do my best, Cass." He would too, Aya was certain as he felt his mate’s serious mood. Yohji was usually a wellspring of warmth, happiness and desire, his emotions a soothing yet invigorating balm to Aya. However, now those emotions were focused, serious and slightly worried.

"I know you will." Cassandra patted his hand on her shoulder and smiled. "But I don’t think it would be at all remiss if you had something to eat and a little bit of wine to ensure that you are well-fed and comfortable before your guests arrive." Her smile made a comeback and some of the tension left her body.

Aya reached for the bread so he could butter a couple of slices for him and Yohji. "The sooner we eat, the sooner Jo will allow us some cake," he informed his mate with a warning look.

Yohji stared blankly at him for a moment and then laughed. "Right, Cat, nothing comes between you and your sweets." He gave Aya’s right eartail a quick tug and then began to fill both their plates with some of the delicious-smelling dinner. "Let’s just hope our guests don’t have a thing for spice cake or there’ll be bloodshed." While Cassandra chided him not to joke about something so serious, Yohji gave Aya a wink as love, happiness and desire flowed over their link.

*******

Roy shoved his hands deep into his black coat’s pockets as the Koneko’s front doors closed behind him and Ed. He couldn’t believe that he had willingly come here, not after the events little more than two weeks ago, and that he’d allowed Ed to follow along. True, he was the person in possession of Crawford’s token and so shouldn’t be harmed as long as he didn’t start a fight, but he still wished that he could have handed this assignment to someone else. Hughes would have done it willingly but the man had no such token and had a wife and daughter at home. Besides, if the rumor about the Guard was a trap to entice bounds into danger, he and Ed were more than powerful enough to give their would-be captors some serious pause.

He noticed that the young man with hip-length black hair and a long, bright blue robe who was stationed by the stand in the inn’s foyer was busy with a customer, and motioned for Ed to step into the doorway of the large common room from which a fair amount of noise emanated. Roy didn’t want to give the impression that they were trying to sneak into the inn – which they were, of course – but he also didn’t want to run into anyone who might remember them from the fight in the garden. He just hoped that the soul gaki-bound wasn’t around this evening. Shivering slightly at the thought of the woman invading his mind again, he swiftly followed his mate into the room.

"Stay close," he snarled as his right hand latched on to Ed’s left arm. His emotions became unsettled as he thought about Ed being lost in the crowded room, prey to Kudoh or anyone who would mean the boy harm. For a moment he regretted listening to Hawkeye and Hughes’ advice that he bring his mate along but he might need Ed tonight. At the very least, it would be easier to create a diversion by causing the ground to shake than things burst into fire in such a crowded inn. The last thing their kind needed was for the Koneko and all its guests to be burned to ashes if a fight broke out. That would most likely trigger a massive hunt for bounds within the city walls and well beyond.

"Like I have much of a choice when there’s this many people crammed into the room," Ed grumbled, his emotions a mix of hunger, excitement and annoyance. "Does the Koneko give away free food or what?" He quickly turned his head to the left when a young woman walked past with a huge platter of beef and vegetables, his eyes widening and his stomach rumbling loud enough to be heard over the room’s din.

"The food is not free but I hear it’s very good," Roy replied as he searched through the room. A feeling of unease spread through his chest when he noticed there were at least three long tables occupied by men and women mostly dressed in Guard uniforms. He was willing to bet a lot of them must be here either before or after their shifts, as only about half of them were drinking. Even so, they were a loud, rambunctious presence.

Ed noticed the Guards as well and growled. "Damn blue coats," he swore, his golden eyes flashing with distaste. "Shouldn’t they be working or something? No wonder all those kids got kidna- ow!" He glared at Roy as he rubbed his just-smacked head. "What was that for?"

Grateful for enhanced senses that meant he didn’t have to speak very loud to be heard over the noise, Roy glared at his mate and once again mentally cursed his brother. Crawford deserved to gutted by a dull wooden spoon for introducing Ed into his life. "May I just point out that it’s not the brightest of ideas to insult certain people when they outnumber you by at least twenty to one," he said, his expression perfectly civil but his tone anything but. "I see that while you most definitely know how to read, your mathematic skills leave much to be desired, Edward."

Ed glared at the insult and pulled himself up to his full height – which wasn’t very impressive at all since Roy topped him by a good head and a half. "Whose bright idea was it to come here in the first place?" he asked, and Roy could all but hear the word ‘bastard’ that was left unsaid. For once.

"What did I say about attempting to behave, Edward?" Roy held his right hand up in warning, his fingers pressed together as if he were about to snap – and then something caught his attention. Make that ‘someone’. Seated at the table on the far right, he could swear was a fire elemental named… Petra? No, Pendra. They’d run into each other one night over a decade ago when he’d been on his way to the capital. Her dark brown hair was cut shorter than he remembered but he could just barely make out the beauty mark beneath the outer corner of her right eye. She was dressed in a Guard uniform, as was the man seated next to her, his looks non-descript and his hair a muddy blond color. He put his arm around Pendra’s shoulders as he poured more wine into her glass, and she knocked her elbow into his side once the drink glass was full. There was an air of camaraderie to the couple and the people around them.

Roy told himself that he could be mistaken in his remembrance of Pendra and he was merely staring at a woman who appeared similar to the fire elemental. After all, he’d just spent one night with her several years ago. Even if he was correct, she might be hiding the fact that she was a bound from the Guard. The people around her certainly didn’t seem to be afraid of her, something that he imagined most humans would be if around someone who could cause them to burst into flames with but a thought. However, he began to wonder if Hughes hadn’t stumbled across something very important last night.

A sharp pain to his left ankle made him shake his head and glare at his mate, who glared right back. "If you’re going to ignore me, I’ll just sit down at the nearest table and order something to eat," Ed said, the words petulant despite his fierce expression.

Barely resisting the urge to kick back, Roy reminded himself that he had to be the adult here since that was clearly something Ed wouldn’t be able to manage for at least another ten years or so. Most likely twenty, with his slow rate of maturation. "I know someone who is sitting at the Guards’ tables," he informed Ed as he pulled the boy after him, away from Pendra’s sight. Now where the hell was Yohji Kudoh? The man better not be living up to his reputation and screwing around. Roy wanted answers *now* and wasn’t going to let a thing like Kudoh’s overactive sex life get in his way.

"Really? Who?" Ed asked as he craned his neck to look in the direction that Roy had stared at earlier. "How do you know him?"

Not about to tell his mate that he’d had a very pleasant sexual encounter with Pendra in some hovel of an inn, Roy ignored the last question. "It doesn’t matter, what does is that I can confirm that there is at least one of our kind in the Guard." If Hughes was proven correct and Roy found out that his brother had been aware of what was going on…. The next time Crawford showed his face anywhere near the city, he was going to see just how fast he could heal from being burned.

In moving away from where Pendra sat, Roy finally caught sight of his prey. Mostly hidden by shadows, Yohji Kudoh sat in one of the room’s corners, his table not far from the Guards’. Beside him was a slightly smaller figure whose face was protected from view by the voluminous hood of his jerkin, but the two long strands of red hair that trailed down the front of the dark outfit were unmistakable. Seated in front of them appeared to be a slight woman, judging from her clothes and the fall of grey-streaked curls down her back.

"Remember, don’t offer to buy the man’s books," Roy warned Ed as he approached the table. Dislike and apprehension roiled in his stomach the closer he got to Kudoh, his hands clenched into fists and his lips pulled back from his teeth. He was barely able to get a hold of himself before Kudoh noticed their arrival.

Roy was certain that Kudoh cared just as little for him as he did for the ex-Guard. They had never gotten along during the years they were forced to interact with each other when Roy had been a liaison between the Army and the Palace. Kudoh had taken evident pride in making him waste hours at a time when he attempted to see the Spymaster, Royal Wizard or Captain of the Guard.

Kudoh’s own lips pulled back in the beginning of a snarl and his arm slid from around his mate’s body to brace in front of the kage, as if to prevent him from harm. The corner seemed to grow darker and the middle-aged woman turned toward Roy.

"What the hell are you doing here?" Kudoh asked, more of a demand than an inquiry. "Didn’t you get the impression that you’re not welcome?" His glare intensified when he looked at Ed. "We’re not selling any more books, is that clear?"

Roy grabbed Ed by the left shoulder and pulled him back, so he stood behind Roy. "We’re not here for books," he declared, barely able to hold back on an insult as he did so. Something about Kudoh just annoyed the hell out of him. "And the last time I checked, the Koneko was open to all customers."

"Yohji, remember what I told you," the woman quickly interrupted when Kudoh opened his mouth to speak. "Do not fight." She turned to fully face Roy, her golden, wrinkled face set in a worried frown. "The same applies to you. There will be no answers and no agreements if you both act the part of aggressive fools."

Surprised to have a stranger speak to him in such a manner, Roy did some frowning of his own and examined the woman. If she were a bound she would be very old, several centuries at the least, and it was never wise to mess with an elderly bound. Their demon natures tended to become stronger than their human ones by that point in time. Also, there was something about her, something in the way she gazed at him with clear grey eyes that reminded him of his brother and a few other soul gaki-bounds. The look hinted at secrets and more being visible to her than he was either aware of or wanted to show.

Ignoring his mate, who growled that he was old enough to protect himself, Roy bowed his head. "Madame. I am Roy Mustang," he said, his voice perfectly smooth.

The woman stifled a giggle with her left hand and curtsied slightly. "You may call me Cassandra." She didn’t mention a last name, which just reinforced Roy’s suspicion that she was a bound. Their kind tended to leave off that name as they did not want to get their family in trouble for being related to them. "Please, sit down. There is plenty of food and wine." She arched an eyebrow as she turned toward Kudoh and Aya, as if daring them to say anything, then smiled as she sat on the bench.

Pulling free from Roy’s grip, Ed quickly did as he was told. "Something smells really, *really* good," he babbled as he reached for a plate. "I’m starving-" Roy’s hand pressing hard against his left shoulder made him shut up, thankfully.

Roy sat beside the teenager. "I told you to be quiet tonight," he hissed at his foolish mate before he nodded to Aya. "Good evening." He didn’t expect much of an answer but Aya surprised him by pushing his hood back to expose his pale, perfectly impassive face.

"I agree with Yohji, I did not expect to see you again." Aya’s voice was deep and slightly rough, as if he didn’t use it very often, but at least it wasn’t that terrifying sibilant hiss from before. Also, the malice that was present in Kudoh’s voice was lacking in his – in fact, there was very little evident emotion at all. Roy shivered… and noticed that the corner had grown darker.

Aya nodded as he leaned against Kudoh. "We should not be overheard now." His eyes took on a disturbing silver cast. "Nor should you be able to affect much with your power."

Well, that was one way to ensure a mostly civil discussion on his and Ed’s part, Roy thought in a rather dazed manner. Even though he knew Aya was a kage, he was still a bit shocked to be in the man’s presence and witness the use of his power. Glancing at Ed, Roy was surprised to find his mate staring with obvious interest at Aya.

"There are lots of stories about what your kind can do," Ed commented, a fervent gleam in his eyes that bespoke of a new quest for knowledge. Roy was about to drag the foolish brat from the table when he noticed that the silver faded slightly from Aya’s eyes.

"Like most things, I’m sure there are many falsehoods to the tales. However, that would mean there are also some truths," Aya remarked, a hint of interest in his deep voice.

Kudoh stopped glaring at Roy long enough to roll his eyes and rest his head against Aya’s. "Cat, I’m not in the mood for some theoretical discussion tonight, okay? I get that enough when Reiichi’s around. What I really want to hear is why the hell Mustang felt the need to bother us." He resumed the glare, all but radiating distrust and dislike, his arm a protective curve around Aya’s shoulders.

The idiot, Roy thought as he snorted out loud. Kudoh sought to protect a kage, of all things. If he was so inclined, Aya could kill Roy and Ed in a few seconds without having to lift a finger. Still, he pressed closer to Ed and struggled not to return the glare. He was here for information, after all, and it annoyed him to no end to allow Kudoh to guess how much the prick got on his nerves.

Deciding to get this over with before he was antagonized to the point where he did pick a fight, Roy folded his arms over his chest and gazed as evenly as possible at Kudoh. "I heard an interesting rumor and decided that the best person to ask if it was true or not was a Guard. Well, an ex-Guard in your case," he said with a slight disdainful sniff. The sight of Kudoh’s eyes narrowing in anger made him smile in pleasure.

"And what rumor would that be?" Kudoh asked, a hint of a snarl to his voice. "That we actually work for a living, unlike you lazy-ass green coats? Last time you saw any real action was years ago." A nasty smile spread across his face as he leaned against the wall. "Hell, you weren’t even much help the night of the king’s wedding."

"Yotan, I fail to see how this is you behaving," Cassandra chided, and while three of the four adults at the table took to glaring at each other, Roy noticed that Ed was surreptitiously reaching for the platter of meat and vegetables – a platter that somehow inched closer without any hand touching it. However, there were an awful lot of shadows around it. Roy glanced at Aya and found him looking at Ed with what appeared to be a hint of sadness.

Kudoh has the grace to seem a little ashamed at the reprimand but that didn’t stop him from glaring at Roy. "Look, the only reason I haven’t kicked your ass out of here yet is because it would cause a scene. I’m here tonight to enjoy a good meal, listen to some music and have fun, not talk to an egotistical Army bastard."

Roy slowly reached into the pocket of his coat and pulled out a familiar token. "I am not visiting you on an Army issue but a bound one," he informed Kudoh with icy haughtiness. "I am not happy to be here but I realized that you have the best chance of providing me the answers I need – if you can get over your petty feelings for a member of the Army."

For a moment it appeared as if Kudoh was going to start a fight; his right hand stroked the gold weapon in his left wrist. While Cassandra and Aya frowned at him, he heaved a long sigh and shrugged his shoulders before he let go of the bracelet and reached for the pitcher of wine. "Mustang, tell me what the hell you want to know so you can leave. You Army pansies love nothing more than to talk, talk, talk instead of getting to the point," he grumbled as he poured wine in his, Aya and Cassandra’s glasses. After a moment’s pause, he filled two glasses for Roy and Ed.

Choosing to ignore the slight against his organization, Roy calmly sipped the wine while Ed attacked his plate of food as if he hadn’t eaten in years. "Then I’ll get to the point in hopes that you’ll understand what I’m saying, Kudoh." He set the glass of wine aside and folded his hands together on the table’s top. "What is going on with bounds and the Guard? I’ve… heard rumors that our kind have infiltrated the organization."

The corner of the room darkened even more before Cassandra flung out her left hand to rest it on top of Aya’s arm. "Don’t, please. I sense no danger from this question," she said in a rush, as if trying to make the kage see reason before something terrible happened. Roy felt a very strong urge to call forth flame for protection and Ed paused in his eating, his left hand stroking over the metal band on his right wrist, the action an echo of Kudoh’s from earlier.

"I told you word is spreading, did I not? Please, trust me when I say this… this is something necessary and important to the future," Cassandra pleaded. Her courage in facing a kage whose eyes had gone pure silver amazed Roy, who would have gladly fled from the table if his legs were willing to cooperate at all and move. Fear and dread filled his body and made it heavy as lead.

"Cat, I don’t think that’s necessary." Yohji’s voice was soft and held no hint of fear as he tenderly tucked aside the crimson bangs that fell onto Aya’s perfectly impassive face.

As quickly as the corner had darkened, the shadows pulled back. The sense of coldness and doom vanished with them, and Roy realized that he could breathe and move again. Gathering his scattered wits to him, he resolved to have as little to do with the kage as possible from now on.

"I read about the sensation of cold being associated with your talent but I wasn’t sure if I should believe it or not," Ed eagerly remarked, as if discussing some interesting book he had found in the library that day. "Do you drain power or heat through your shadows? I wonder where the energy goes…." He stared intently at Aya as his greasy hands patted the front pockets of his red coat as if in search of something. After a few seconds, he pulled out a small notebook and a pencil. "All bound powers require energy, the amount dependent on how much talent is exerted. Perhaps that’s why your kind are so powerful – you can drain energy from your surroundings and not yourself," he said as he quickly made notes on the paper.

"Edward, you are going to get us killed," Roy hissed at his insane mate, the left side of his face twitching from a nervous tick. "Shut. Up." Ed looked up from his paper to frown at Roy, a faraway look in his eyes that meant that he was too busy thinking up theories to worry about a little thing like death.

Aya cleared his throat, his eyes now violet and an expression of interest on his pale face. "No, I don’t get any energy from my shadows," he explained as he picked his glass of wine up and held it cradled in his right hand.

"That doesn’t mean that the shadows don’t drain energy from things," Ed replied with a puzzled frown. "Maybe they keep it for themselves," he muttered as he furiously scribbled down more notes.

Roy shook his head and glanced around the table, utterly confused by how things had been so bad one minute and then gotten to this ridiculous point in another. He was surprised to see a sympathetic look on Kudoh’s face when they looked at each other, and Cassandra had taken to giggling quietly. Disturbed by the fact that he felt a connection with Kudoh on *anything*, he cleared his throat and snatched Ed’s notebook from the boy’s hands. "Correct me if I’m wrong but we’re here to discuss bounds in the Guard, not Aya’s power," he said in a stern tone of voice.

Ed had the audacity to grin sheepishly and scratch his head. "Sorry, it’s not often I get to ask a kage about his powers." Roy winced upon hearing the word ‘kage’ spoken out loud, even if Aya had assured them that they couldn’t be overheard. Then Ed’s smile faded and he grabbed at the paper in Roy’s hand. "Give that back," Ed growled.

"Look, Koyu’s about to start playing at any minute so let’s get this over with, okay?" Kudoh practically begged. Hating to admit that the prick had a point, Roy returned the notebook to his mate and stared at Kudoh in an expectant manner.

Kudoh sighed again and glanced at Cassandra, who quickly nodded her head. "Well, I guess it really isn’t a secret any more and you’d find out soon enough since you’re a bound," he grumbled. "However, let me just state that if the Army suddenly takes action against any bounds in the city, I’ll take great pleasure in slicing you into cube steak, Mustang." He smiled as he issued the threat, a sibilant note to his voice that made Roy shiver in dread.

Shoving a slice of bread in Ed’s mouth when the idiot opened it to either ask more questions or yell at Kudoh for the threat, Roy leaned over the table and spoke in a low, serious voice. "If you doubt the token, I swear to you on my blood and souls that I am not here as part of some Army trick to hunt bounds down. I will never betray my people like that. Now tell me, is the Guard recruiting bounds?"

Kudoh nodded, the movement slow and reluctant. "I’m surprised you don’t know already if Crawford gave you that token. Because of the Spymaster and Royal Wizard arguing for the sake of the bounds who fought during the wedding reception, the King authorized a new division of the Guard." He turned to look at Aya for a moment and smiled as he hugged his mate close. "They’re known as the Shadow Guard and they were formed in the hopes of defeating Esset." His attention focused once more on Roy, his normally expressive face bereft of all amusement and malice. "They’re actively recruiting bounds and so far, it’s been a success," he continued as he nodded toward the table of Guards. "Not all of the Guards are aware that many of the new recruits are bounds, and a new Captain of the Guard has been established for the Shadow division. Kikyou has no clue what’s going on." There was a smug tone to his voice as he proclaimed that fact.

Roy sat there for a minute and tried to assimilate all that information. The Shadow Guard had been created and was being run by its own Captain. The king supported the organization, as well as his Spymaster and Royal Wizard. His gaze drifting over to the tables of Guards, Roy knew there was no way in any of the hells that his brother didn’t know about the Shadow Guard. Once again, Crawford had deliberately kept him in the dark about something important. The next time he got his hands on the bastard, he was *not* going to control his temper. "How many are there?" he asked Kudoh in a subdued tone as he searched for Pendra amidst the Guards.

"Let’s just say… most of them over there are Shadow Guards," was Kudoh’s evasive answer as he motioned toward the Guards. "And they’re growing in number every day while word spreads that the Guard not only is recruiting bounds but allowing them to use their talents to help people."

"For all that has been done to our kind over the centuries, many of us have the desire to help people, be they human or bounds," Cassandra quietly remarked in between sips of wine.

Ed nodded and helped himself to more of the food. "Yeah, some of us just want to do things that humans take for granted, like work for a living." There was a sad note to his voice, the same emotion could be felt over their link, and Roy assumed that his mate was thinking about Al. Other than his revenge on the Elders, Al seemed to want a ‘normal’ life the most. For himself – and Ed as well, he suspected – Roy couldn’t figure out the attraction but to each their own. If Al could be happy being a blacksmith or, the gods forbid, a Guard, then the boy deserved that chance.

His plate full once more, Ed stared intently at Kudoh. "Do they have a chance at a normal life or are they just weapons?" he asked in a harsh voice, the question similar to one on Roy’s mind.

"The king and, to some extent, the Spymaster do view them as weapons," Kudoh responded in a tone tinged with bitterness. "However, that’s not all they are. I wouldn’t allow Birman to wield any power over our kind of that was the only way she thought." He sighed and leaned forward, his elbows on the table and his fingers buried in his hair. "Every bound who joins the Shadow Guard knows they’re expected to fight in the approaching war. They’re not idiots; it doesn’t need to be spelled out, you know." He snorted quietly as he stared into his glass of wine. "But they won’t be tossed aside after the war is over."

"No, they won’t," Cassandra added, her voice sounding as if she spoke from a distance and her eyes unfocused. "As long as there are bounds, there will be the Shadow Guard. The sacrifice of blood will always be honored, even during times when their numbers and duties are few. Like the moons, the Shadow Guard will wax and wane but will never vanish."

Finally realizing what the woman was, Roy stared in awe at Cassandra. Pre-cogs were so rare…. Other than his brother, he didn’t know about any more of them until now. With two pre-cogs on their side, even if their power was limited by Aya’s presence, Kritiker should have a good chance at defeating Esset. "Then I guess I should help spread the word about the Shadow Guard," he said after a moment’s pause. There was a stab of remorse and embarrassment that there was no similarly recognized group among the Army. He knew of almost a dozen bounds scattered throughout the military but they kept their true nature secret.

Kudoh cleared his throat and sat up straight, his arm once more around Aya’s shoulders. "You can’t just blab it about, you moron. We can’t risk word getting back to Esset about the Shadow Guard," he snarled.

"I fail to see how I can do any worse than the foolish bound who mentioned the organization to a human friend of mine," Roy snapped back, his fingers itching to rub together and set Kudoh on fire.

"So if other bounds are idiots it’s acceptable for you to be one, too, is that it?" Typical green-coat thinking-"

"Aya, do you think mates feel each other’s pain as a way to make sure that the idiot in the relationship isn’t strangled to death?" Ed asked, his loud, angry voice easily cutting across the burgeoning argument.

Aya cleared his throat and seemed to consider the question while Roy and Kudoh stared in shock at their mates. "That does sound like a very plausible way to prevent two bounds dying because of stupidity on one of their parts," he remarked, emotion slowly creeping into his voice. The annoyance was echoed on his face by the way his eyes narrowed and his lips pressed together.

"You calling me an idiot?" Kudoh demanded to know as he tugged on one of Aya’s long strands of hair.

"Am I not merely stating the obvious?" the kage asked as he tried to bat Kudoh’s hand aside. "Is now really a good time to indulge in a petty rivalry between organizations?" He scowled first at Kudoh and then at Roy. "Cassandra said that tonight’s discussion would be important to the future. I fail to see how you and Yohji squabbling like a couple of children gives our side any hope of winning the war."

Roy stared at Aya as evenly as he could while he barely resisted the impulse to pinch a sniggering Ed. That would only make the boy yell and rant, which would end any chance of a civilized conversation tonight. "My apologies for sinking to the same level of immaturity as your mate."

"Oh, if that isn’t just typical behavior for a green-coat," Yohji muttered, his complaint coming to a quick end in the face of evil looks from Aya and Cassandra.

"Did you ever stop to think that the best chance Kritiker has against Esset is if both the Army and the Guard works together to defeat them?" Cassandra asked, her voice very cold and disapproving. "That perhaps the first step to reconciliation may be meant to occur at this table tonight?"

Kudoh and Roy eyed each other for a moment and snorted in derision at almost the same time.

Aya made a very annoyed hissing sound and snapped his teeth. "You’re both being idiots," he informed Kudoh and Roy with a fierce scowl.

"I’ll second that," Ed mumbled.

About to chastise both the kage and his traitorous mate, Roy ended up not saying anything when he saw Aya’s expression change from annoyed disgust to one of pleased anticipation. The shadows seemed to thin out a little and Roy twisted in his seat when he realized that another woman, just as middle-aged as Cassandra, stood at the end of the table. He also realized that the Harpers had begun to play; all the people in the packed room were quiet so they could hear the lovely music.

The strange woman held in each hand a plate which contained a very large slice of delicious cake, a pronounced frown on her face as she stared at Kudoh and Aya with narrowed eyes. "You haven’t finished everything on your plates," she pointed out in a low voice.

"Ah, well, Jo, we had guests show up and haven’t had much of a chance to eat," Kudoh hastily explained while Aya used a slice of bread to wipe up some of the gravy on his plate and then shoved it into his mouth. "We’ll be finished in a moment, I promise!"

Cassandra laughed at the same time she nodded a greeting to the other woman. "He speaks the truth for once. They were just finishing up on seconds when these two arrived." She inclined her head in Roy and Ed’s direction.

From the fierce look he received from Jo, Roy had the impression that she wasn’t that happy to see him or his mate. That confused him as he could swear he’d never met her before. "We’re sorry," he began to apologize, only to be cut off by Ed.

"Ah, the food is really, *really* good here." Ed snatched up the mostly empty platter of food and held it to the woman. "Is there any chance of getting some more?" He beamed at the woman, bread crumbs and spots of gravy clinging to his smiling face.

Jo continued to stare coldly at him for all of four seconds and then sighed. "I’m glad that someone likes my cooking," she muttered and cast a brief, dark look at Kudoh and Aya, who were both very busy cleaning their plates. "Don’t even think to eat your dessert until you’ve finished dinner." She set the cake slices on the table and looked at Ed once more. "Would you like some spice cake?" she asked as she accepted the platter, a pleased expression on her face that strengthened when Ed vigorously nodded his head and made happy little squeaks. The expression quickly faded when she looked at Roy and the empty plate before him. "Hmph."

For some odd reason Roy felt decidedly unsettled to have upset the woman. "Ah, make sure there’s enough for me, please," he sputtered and reached for a slice of bread. He hadn’t eaten any dinner today, after all, and if he was going to pay for Ed’s meal he might as well enjoy some food himself.

Jo ‘hmphed’ again and walked away from the table. Even with her departure, Aya and Kudoh continued to quickly eat until all the food on their plates were gone. With a happy noise reminiscent to Ed’s squeaks, Aya shoved his plate aside and snatched at the cake. Roy could only stare in wonder as the damn near mythical creature began to purr after the first taste of the spice cake, his eyes closed and lips curved in pleasure.

"I hope Jo comes back soon," Ed whined as he stared with envy at Aya. "That looks really good."

"You better eat more dinner first if you’re smart," Kudoh remarked as he finished his meal and reached for his cake. He glanced from it to his mate several times and with a gentle smile pushed the dessert closer to Aya. His expression hardened when he focused his attention back on Roy and Ed. "Why is it you come here when you’re not wanted and manage to get fed? Not to mention Jo’s sharing her spice cake with you, too." He actually seemed to pout for a moment before he laughed and shook his head. "Life’s just too odd."

Roy could only nod in agreement. While Ed whined about how hungry he was, he shared another sympathetic look with Kudoh. "Yours has a sweet tooth as well, I take it?" When Kudoh grinned in acknowledgement, Roy sighed. "Thank the gods for bound metabolisms." Although he doubted that Aya inhaled the amount of sweets that Ed did… even if he was making rather quick work out of the slice of cake, going so far as to scrape the remaining crumbs and icing off the plate with his fork. Setting the clean plate aside, Aya glanced at Kudoh and smiled so tenderly that Roy felt embarrassed to be witness to it. He sternly told himself that he wasn’t jealous over the obviously very close bond between Aya and Kudoh. They were just like the stories his mother had told him about mated bounds, deeply in love with each other and able to communicate without words.

Meanwhile, he was stuck with a bottomless pit of a brat. Still, as Ed let out a crow of delight upon seeing Jo return to the table with a large platter of food, trailed by another member of the Koneko’s staff who carried a tray covered with several slices of cake, he felt some pride in how Ed had managed to behave tonight. There was some hope for the boy, desperately needed hope considering what would happen in the upcoming years. Also, he couldn’t help but note that Aya, despite what had happened during their last visit, seemed to get along with Ed. Perhaps because they both clearly loved books, perhaps not, but now Roy had a potential leverage of sorts with the kage. He could always send Ed and Al to the Koneko with messages or to arrange any meetings.

He embarrassed himself by letting out a sharp yelp when a fork poked into his side. Turning toward the direction of the attack, he found a grumpy Ed staring at him. "You’re plotting something again, I know it. Can’t you just sit down for one night, eat some food and listen to some music? That way you won’t get either of us into any trouble."

"Poke me with a fork again and you won’t be able to sit for a week," he warned his mate, who just scoffed and resumed burying his plate under a mountain of food. While Ed inquired to Jo if he could take home some dinner for Al, Roy let out a slow breath and realized that his mate had a point. He’d completed his agenda for the night and now had something to think about. Tomorrow, he’d have to call a meeting with Hughes, Hawkeye, Havoc and a few other bounds he trusted and discuss tonight’s revelations. But until then, there was little he could do, and after such a hectic week he could use the rest. Jo’s food smelled delicious and the music was both lovely and lively. For a moment he contemplated teaching Ed how to dance but he couldn’t risk anyone he knew seeing them together like that.

There was another odd, distressingly strong spike of jealousy when he glanced at Aya and Kudoh. Both men seemed to have become lost in each other again, Kudoh busy attempting to wipe icing over the tip of his mate’s nose. For his part, Aya glared at the idiot but there was a slight but distinct smile on his lips and Roy could hear a faint purr. Aya caught Kudoh’s hand and deliberately licked the icing from the blond’s fingertips, the looks the two men exchanged so heated and intense that Roy squirmed in his seat and had to look away.

This time it was a bony elbow that poked into his side. Since Ed seemed to be listening to him somewhat tonight, Roy let it slide with only a slight growl.

"Is that how mates are supposed to act?" Ed asked in a hushed voice. Roy could feel some confusion, disdain… and clear envy over their link.

"For some bounds, yes," was his just as quiet reply. "Most times, it takes several decades to develop such a… strong connection." For Aya and Kudoh to have such a powerful bond already…. No wonder Crawford was so certain they could control the kage through his mate. Roy actually felt some disgust at his brother thinking to use the love that Aya and Kudoh clearly felt for each other against them if need be.

"Huh." Ed stared at the couple for a few seconds and then returned his attention to his dinner. Some impulse made Roy reach over and ruffle his mate’s hair, to enjoy the feel of the thick strands as they slid along his fingers. Ed paused in eating to give him a confused look that slowly turned into a hesitant smile.

For the first time in over two weeks, Roy felt at peace. He had hated feeling so angry at Ed but had forced himself to do so to teach his young mate a lesson. Ed truly did need to think more before he acted… but he seemed to respond to Roy trusting him, as he had tonight. Maybe there was a lesson to be learned for the both of them.

Not that he’d ever clue Ed in on that fact, he thought as he teased the teenager to eat all of his dinner in the very faint hope that it would make him actually grow a centimeter or two.

*******

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