Shadow Conversations

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Shadow and Earth  

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Busy slicing a loaf of wheat bread, Aya looked up when Emmie, several books and notebooks tucked under her left arm, tugged once again on his apron. “Yes?” he asked with a hesitant smile, unsure why the girl wanted his attention.  She hadn’t needed any tutoring in weeks and she knew that Yohji was out with Mickey.  

Emmie returned the smile, hers much more certain and warm.  “There’s somebody out front who wants to see you.  He said his name is Ed and he has blond hair.”  

“Ah.  Thank you,” he said as he set his knife aside and then glanced at Jo.  

“Go on, Emmie can finish that up as she tells me how her lessons went today.”  Jo made shooing motions with her left hand, a plate of sandwiches and sliced vegetables in her right as she made her way over to them.  As she set the plate down in front of Emmie, she gave him a concerned look.  “Unless you don’t want to speak to him, that is.”  

“No, that’s all right.  I invited him here the other day so he could look at the books upstairs,” he explained as he untied the apron strings and removed the garment.  

Jo snorted softly as she took the apron from him and folded it.  “Ah, so he’s *that* young man.  I’ll send a tray up to you in a bit as I imagine neither of you will be coming down any time soon.”  She laughed at his put-upon sigh.  “Don’t even try to tell me you won’t lose track of time while up there with a fellow bibliophile.”  

He decided it would be best not even to argue, not with Jo.  “Thank you.  Please let Yohji know I’m up there when he gets back.”  Considering how excited Ed had been to learn about his special collection, he didn’t think he’d be back down any time soon, but not for the reason that Jo thought.  More like he’d have to stand watch and make sure Ed didn’t try to borrow all of the books.  

Rolling down the sleeves of his shirt as he walked out of the kitchen, he glanced up and found Ed waiting for him by the stairs.  The young man practically hopped from foot to foot in impatience, which made the bright red material of his long coat flap around his legs.  

“Hey, Aya.  I hope this isn’t a bad time.”  

“No, it’s fine.”  He nodded at his new friend and then gestured toward the steps.  His morning shift in the kitchen had technically been finished over an hour ago, but he hadn’t minded staying there and helping Jo out.  “We need to go upstairs,” he explained.  

“Right.”  Ed burst into motion and jumped onto the first step.  “Which floor?”  

“They’re in the attic.”  Even though his legs were much longer than Ed’s, he had to move quickly to keep up.  A small smile spread across his face at Ed’s enthusiasm.  Yes, he knew the young man worked in the Royal Library, the perfect job in his opinion, but even he was surprised by Ed’s love of books.  The smile strengthened as he wondered how Ed would react when they reached the special library.  

Ed definitely was very eager to see the books he’d brought back from Timbergrey and kept for himself and other bounds.  So eager, in fact, he nearly knocked into Ani as she stepped onto the stairs, a pile of clean bed linen in her arms.  “Sorry,” he yelled but kept on going, and Aya looked back in time to see his coworker shaking her head and giggling.  And people thought that he was crazy about books….  

“Man, you must have had fun carrying them all the way up here,” Ed commented as he raced up the steps.  

“We figured the more out of the way they are, the better,” Aya explained as he stepped out in front since they neared the attic floor.  “Less chance of anyone stumbling across them.  The only people who stay up here are Reiichi, Yuushi and Naru, and the occasion bound in need of a room for the night.”  They walked past the door of the Guards’ quarters and the few small rooms that had been knocked together in the last few months, up to one that was half covered with shadows.  He held up a warning hand in front of Ed.  “I’ve warded the door – never try to enter the room without my knowledge.”  Ed seemed like a very bright young man, he doubted his friend needed explained to him what a pair of protective shadow wards could do to a person.  

“That’s a pretty good idea.”  Ed nodded in approval and once more waited impatiently for him.  “I’m hoping to find some books on wards, among other things.  Seems to me I should be able to do something with my talent, even if it’s just with earth and buildings.”  

That was a very interesting concept, Aya thought as he bid the shadows to withdraw.  They were set to do so automatically for Yohji, Cassandra and anyone who bore a shadow ring, but he didn’t see the need to tell Ed that just yet.  He didn’t think he had any cause to distrust the young man or he wouldn’t have invited him up here, but he couldn’t help but be a bit cautious of the room’s contents.  Thanks to these books, Reiichi had been able to identify him for what he was and put his talents to terrible use, and Masafumi had been able to make the blendings.  

The shadows now writhing along the sides of the door, he turned the knob and pushed the door open.  “The books are warded as well, but more for me to keep track of them when they’re borrowed.”  Oddly enough, he didn’t have any doubts about lending some to Ed – he knew the man would take care of them and keep them from harm or discover, though he wasn’t sure why he trusted that feeling so strongly.  As different as he and Ed seemed, he sensed that they had more in common than most people assumed.  That was a very odd feeling, as he usually didn’t trust too many people that quickly – just Yohji, Nagi and Reiichi, before Ed.  

Ed opened his mouth as if to reply and then snapped it shut once he stepped into the room.  Just enough sunlight filtered through the partially closed shutters that the vastness of the book collection was made obvious.  Aya almost smiled at the response, his lips twitched as he closed the door behind them and then lit several candles.  

“All… all of these are about bounds?” Ed asked in a squeaky, stuttering voice.  

“Hmmm, not quite all.”  Aya gestured to the bookshelf on the left of the window.  “Those are history books dating back to right before and during the war.”  

“Sweet gods,” was Ed’s reply, his manner so reverent that Aya half expected him to fall onto his knees at any second.  “How did you ever find them?”  

There was a flash of pain for a moment, Aya’s hand pressed against his chest and he had to reassure a sudden panicked inquiry from Yohji.  But the feeling faded a little quicker than usual, in part because he knew that Ed hadn’t meant to dredge up painful memories for him and that those memories were slowly fading.  “Many of them are from the royal family’s private collection that Reiji Takatori took with him when he went into exile.  The rest were donated by several bounds or I managed to track down these last few months.”  Largely with Yohji’s help, who had been invaluable in persuading their owners to let them go.   Aya didn’t mention that some of them were from his father’s collection nor that he’d spent a few nights putting old skills to use to obtain the books.  

“To think of all the time I’ve spent scouring the Royal Library….”  Ed shook his head and made a sound of disgust before he strode purposely over to the shelf Aya had pointed out.  “If Reiji had taken them, no wonder I couldn’t find them.  I mean, I knew they had to be somewhere because of my research, but….”  His voice trailed off as he gently stroked the gloved fingers of his right hand down a spine of a book.  “I don’t even know where to begin.”  

As much as he wanted to keep the collection private and his natural distrust of most people, Aya found himself motivated to make a very rare offer.  “If you promise not to borrow too many books at the same time – say five or six, only – I can arrange so you have access to the collection.”  He couldn’t keep the books to himself, not when another bound needed them and from what he’d learned of Ed’s past, he had good reason for his research.  

The look Ed gave him, golden eyes wide open and jaw hanging down almost to his chest made Aya smile in amusement.  “You… I mean… I could?”  Ed’s voice was squeaky once more.  “Al and I… what we could… *thank you*,” he finished, the words laden with heartfelt gratitude.  

Aya hoped he didn’t regret this, but he had a strong feeling that he wouldn’t.  “I need something that you wear often so you can circumvent the wards.”  

Ed stared at him a moment longer and then his hands scrambled inside his black shirt.  “Here, I always were this,” he said as he tugged out a silver chain and then held it out to Aya.  

Gingerly touching the fine chain, Aya studied the small pendant that hung from it.  Made of silver, the background oxidized so the raised symbol, a winged snake entwined around a cross and a crown above, stood out in bright contrast, it was an unusual adornment.  He looked at it for several seconds before bidding a small bit of shadows to settle against the pendant.  “Make sure you hold the pendant up to the door before you try to enter, and the ward will recognize you.”  But just the ward up here – he wouldn’t put too much stock in this odd feeling of kinship with Ed, and the wards on the books would warn him if anything happened to them.  

He let go of the pendant, and then let out a yelp of surprise as strong arms wrapped around him and hugged him tightly.  Barely able to control both his reaction to the sudden embrace and the shadows that now seethed around the room, he managed to work one hand free and pat Ed’s left arm.  “Ed, that’-“  

“Thank you, thank you, thank you!”  Ed finally let him go and gave him the brightest, biggest smile he’d ever seen.  “The stuff I can find… Al’s not going to believe this!”  He let out a loud ‘whoop’ of happiness and practically danced over to the one bookshelf.  “You just saved us *so* much time!  I can’t wait to read everything here!”  

More than a little bemused at his new friend’s exuberance, Aya chuckled softly and sank down into one of the room’s two chairs.  He had the sudden conviction that the Koneko would be seeing a lot of Ed and his brother from now on.  

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Ed felt his lips curve into a huge grin as he flipped through the pages of the book.  “Yong Xi’s account of the battle of Nakyushu….  I’ve looked for this ever since we arrived here, you know.  I never did believe that all of the copies had been destroyed.”  He wouldn’t let himself believe that, and here he stood with the only indepth account of the actions during one of the Binding War’s most important battles of the bounds who would later become the Elders.  

“Hmmm, that book.”  There was a spike of jealousy that Aya could so calmly refer to such a treasured item, as if he read such things every day.  He probably did, Ed thought as he eyed his friend, who searched through one of the room’s many shelves of books.  “Greer clearly used it as a resource for his book on how bounds affected Kritiker’s battle tactics during the war.”  

Aya frowned as he continued looking, the expression lessening slightly as he pulled out a book bound in dark blue leather.  “Here it is.”  He walked over to Ed and handed him the book.  “If you’re looking for information on the Elders, you’ll want this as well. The references are a bit vague, but if you know what you’re looking for, you’ll find some valuable information in there.”  

“Thanks.”  Ed carefully accepted the book, and a small part of him thought that the two texts he held were probably worth more than the Koneko itself.  That Aya trusted him with them….  He didn’t have that many friends and had never really felt the lack of them, but something warm and… and ‘filling’ infused his chest at this display of trust and friendship.   Part of him wanted to give Aya another hug in thanks, but he remembered how Aya had flinched from his embrace earlier, and how the room had become full of moving shadows.  So he settled for a big smile instead.  “Honestly, Aya, I can’t thank you enough for this.”  

His thanks seemed to make his quiet friend feel uncomfortable, as Aya ducked his head so his ragged bangs hid his face from view.  “You’re welcome,” he said, his voice almost too soft to be heard.  

“You know, the problem is going to be what to take home tonight,” Ed said to change the conversation into a more comfortable area.  For a moment he thought to ask Aya if he could take maybe ten books at a time, but let out a long sigh and told himself to not push things.  Aya was being more than kind enough to allow him up here whenever he wanted and to borrow any books, so he’d just have to stop by here as often as possible.  

“What are you most interested in?” Aya asked, his voice back to normal and his chin up so Ed could see his face.  “There are several more books about the Elders, if that’s what you want.”  

Leaning against the windowsill, Ed held the precious books against his chest and considered the question.  “Well… I think these two are a good start for now.  Al wants to learn more about healing so I’ll take a book or two on that for him, and I did want to do some research into wards.”  That left another book or two, though he’d be pushing Aya’s limit.  “I’d also like to read up on mated bounds.”  

He received an odd look from Aya before the man moved to another wall and pulled out a new book.  “There are several books on that topic, but I think this is one of the best.  It was written by a pair of elemental bounds who were mates.”  

Accepting the book, he quickly flipped through the pages.  “That sounds about perfect.”  Skimming the pages, he found out that the pair had been fire and air elementals, but that was fine.  Maybe he could finally get some insight into Roy’s crazy thinking process now.  

Aya once again searched the shelves for something.  “You’ll find a whole shelf about wards over here.”  He picked out a few more books and then set them down on the small table in the middle of the room.  “You can decide which one you want to take – I haven’t read any of them so I can’t be of much help there.”  

But he seemed to have read the book about the mated bounds.  Emboldened by the level of trust he felt from his new friend, Ed scooted from the windowsill and plopped down into a soft chair.  “Can I ask you something?”  

In the middle of straightening out some books, Aya stiffened the slightest bit and slowly turned to face him.  “A question?” he asked, voice quiet once more.  

Ed had always thought of Aya as a very quiet, private person - albeit a sneaky book-thief with a boyfriend who possessed a bit of a voyeuristic streak – but he wasn’t about to be put off when he’d finally found another bound who had a mate.  There was only so much he could learn from books, and right now he needed all the help he could get.  “Yeah, I’d like to ask you about your bond with Yohji, if you don’t mind.”

The way that Aya blinked in surprise and almost looked relieved convinced Ed that he’d have to be very careful what questions he asked his friend in the future.  There was an air of caution and ‘touch-me-not’ to Aya that hinted at a dislike for physical contact brought on by things he really didn’t want to know about, and for someone to be grateful to be asked what many would consider such a personal question….  He had the feeling that Aya’s past wasn’t pretty.  

“You want to know about my relationship with Yohji?”  Aya frowned as he sat in the other chair.  “I thought that you’d been mates with Roy for longer than Yohji and I have been together.”  

Discomfort made Ed squirm about a little on his chair.  “Yeah, well, we’ve been mates for about a year, and I really don’t know much more now than when we got together.”  His face grew hot as he thought about that day.  “Uhm, I’d really appreciate being able to talk to you about a few things.”  He tried to reproduce the look that his brother gave him whenever Al wanted something.   

Aya stared at him for a few moments, and then his frown crumbled into a look of confusion and doubt.  “I’m not sure what good I’ll be, but I guess it’s all right.”  

“Thanks!”  He flashed his friend a quick grin and decided to ask his questions before Aya changed his mind.  “Do you ever really want to hit Yohji?  How do you get around feeling his emotions if you do?”  

There was more blinking on Aya’s part, then he settled back on the chair, arms folded over his chest.  “You can’t hit Roy?”  

“No.”  He set the books onto the chair and leaned forward, fingers threaded through his hair in frustration.  “Well, I’ve hit him a few times, but I always feel his pain as well, so we usually just scream at each other.”  A low growl escaped him just then.  “The bastard knows that too, and purposely annoys the hell out of me.”  

“Oh.”  Aya looked as if he already regretted the discussion.  “I think that’s because you’re both elemental bounds.  Yohji and I feel each other’s pain but….”  Aya’s brows furrowed as he slid his fingers through an eartail.  “I never thought about it, really….  Yohji….  We don’t hit each other when we’re angry.  And I feel a little of Yohji’s pain when I bite him,” a hint of pink crept across Aya’s face, “but it’s more like an ache that’s easy to ignore.”  

“Huhn.”  He hadn’t tried to bite Roy before, not outside of sex… and come to think about it, he hadn’t felt any real pain then, but he just assumed that it was because Roy was such a pervert that he’d enjoyed it….  “I think I can manage that.”  He snapped his teeth together in an experiment and was satisfied by the sharp ‘click’ of a sound they created.  Oh yeah, he’d have no problem doing that, he thought with a wicked grin.   

“Is that all?” Aya asked, shaking him from his thoughts.  The poor man was looking at the door with evident longing.  “Yohji should be back soon….”  

There were a lot more questions he wanted to ask, but he’d give the book a try first – for all but one.  “Just one more,” he pleaded, and Aya gave in with a sigh.  “How do you deal with the link?”  At Aya’s obvious confusion, he tried to clarify the question.  “I mean, one day you’re just yourself and the next you’re stuck with this other person for the rest of your life.”  He was still trying to adjust, and it didn’t help that he hadn’t even so much as dated before Roy had pounced on him.  

The room was quiet for a few moments, and then Aya cleared his throat.  “I don’t know, to be honest.  I wasn’t even aware of the bond at first, but now….”  He shrugged and played with one of his eartails, brushed the long hair against his neck.  “I’m not trying to be evasive but it’s difficult to even recall how things changed.  All I know is once I accepted it, I felt… complete.”  Aya sighed again.  “Maybe it would be best if you talked to someone else.”  

“That’s just it, there is no one else.”  Ed pouted at his lap as he ground his teeth together in frustration.  “And I don’t think Roy has much of a clue, either, even though he pretends to know everything.”  He looked up at Aya and smiled.  “But I’ve already learned something new from you.”  

Aya didn’t appear to be comforted by that fact.  “You should try reading the books.”  

“Okay.”  He would, and if he still had some questions, he’d just track Aya down and ask them then.  Maybe if he got Aya a little tipsy his friend would be more willing to open up.  “I know I’m being a pest, but I want to know more about the bond.  I mean, you got off lucky, you’re mates with Yohji.”  Who seemed like a nice guy, even if Roy called him a slutty ex-Guard and treated him as if he were trash. Then again, Roy was Army… and an arrogant bastard at times.  “I’m stuck with Roy.”  Whatever he’d done to the gods to deserve that fate, he had no clue other than it had been pretty bad.  

“But all mates are supposed to be compatible, I thought.  That’s why we don’t just mate with anybody, and why there aren’t so many of us.”  Aya appeared lost in thought as he considered the issue, his eyes focused on the far bookshelf.  “I was told that the stronger the bond, the more one complimented their mate.”  

That earned a laugh from Ed… until he thought about it as well.  He knew his bond with Roy was pretty strong, considering how poorly they did when away from each other for too long and how strongly they felt each other’s emotions.  “Oh, hell no,” he muttered as he pounded his right fist into the arm’s chair.  “We’re not compatible, no way in hell.  I mean, he’s *old*, he’s a pervert, and he’s the smuggest bastard I’ve ever come across.”  Roy did not *compliment* him in any manner.  “I mean, half the time I want to kill him.”  

Aya merely stared at him, left eyebrow arched and his expression clearly asking ‘and the rest of the time?’.  Ed decided that he no longer wanted to continue this discussion.  “Ah, thanks for talking to me about this stuff,” he lied.  Great, now he had even more questions than before.  

But Aya seemed to have a little more to say.  “While I’m not an expert on the matter, everything I’ve read about mated bounds indicates that the bond occurred for a reason.  While some of us do fight against the bond forming, I’ve not read of anyone regretting the link once it’s happened.”  

He thought about that a little, about what he truly did feel for Roy.  “Okay, I wouldn’t go so far as to say I ‘regret’ being stuck with the idiot – I just wish it hadn’t happened so soon. I mean, I turn sixteen and I’m stuck with Roy for the rest of my life, maybe for several centuries.  And I also wish that Roy wasn’t such a prick at times.”  A smug, know-it-all prick at that.  

“Perhaps you have so much trouble because of your age difference,” Aya pointed out.  “Yohji’s only a little older than me, but his father did mate with his friend Schuldig, who’s almost a century older.”  Aya got up from the chair and resumed straightening up the books.  “They did their best to resist the bond in the first place, and they did seem to have some trouble adjusting to it because of their age differences.”  His expression became pensive for a few moments.  “I would think that things would get better as you get older and the age difference isn’t as great.”  

“So you’re telling me I have to put up with this until he’s no longer three times my age.  Just great.  Thanks for the uplifting chat, Aya,” he grumbled, but deep down he had a spark of hope.  He wouldn’t mind if his relationship with Roy turned into what Aya had with Yohji… he just didn’t know if he could hold out for a few decades without trying to kill Roy when his mate was in one of his ‘moods’.  Then he thought about what Aya had told him earlier and realized he did have a way of reigning Roy in when he became too much of a bastard.  

At first he thought Aya’s smile was in return of his, then the door opened and in walked Yohji, in the process of shrugging out of his dark blue coat.  He tossed the garment onto the table, next to where Ed’s coat lay, and went straight to Aya.  

“Hey, Cat.  Why am I not surprised to find you in a library of sorts?” he asked as he wrapped his arms around Aya.  

“I’m helping Ed find some books,” Aya said as he turned in his boyfriend’s arms.  “How’s Futoshi?” he asked, his voice somewhat muffled as he tucked his face against Yohji’s shoulder.  

“He’s doing fine – in fact, his wife just had a baby boy a few days ago.  Futoshi went on and on about now he had two children to take over the family business.”  Yohji pressed a kiss against Aya’s forehead and then looked at Ed.  “Are we going to have to kick you out of here or what?  It doesn’t look as if you’ve moved in yet, like I figured you would once you saw all the books.”  His tone was light, but his expression was the opposite – a dark warning that promised quite a bit of pain.   

Ed was taken back by the look and couldn’t respond for a moment.  As he tried to figure out what he’d done to deserve it, Aya glanced up at his mate, his expression confused.  Yohji was suddenly smiling once more and leaned forward to gently brush his lips against Aya’s.  

“Idiot,” Aya mumbled before his mouth skimmed along the side of Yohji’s neck.  

“Guilty as charged,” Yohji laughed, and as Aya stepped away from him, he gave Ed a rueful grin.  “Sorry about that.”

”Uh, okay.”  He had the feeling that Yohji had explicitly warned him that Aya was off-limits – which didn’t make much sense since he was mated to Roy and Aya to Yohji.  Maybe the bond turned some people into idiots, he surmised, which would explain Yohji’s behavior just now and most of Roy’s.  

There was the sound of shuffling footsteps just outside the door.  Aya quickly headed over to there and opened it to reveal the same girl who had gone to fetch Aya for him earlier.  She stood there, cheeks a little flushed and what looked to be a very heavy tray in her hands.  “Yohji!  You were supposed to bring this up!  Jo’s very upset with you right now.”  

“Ah, thanks, Emmie.”  Yohji chuckled nervously and took the tray from her.  “I’m sorry for making you come all the way up here.”

Yohji seemed to have the same effect on the girl as he did on Al, Ed noted with some amusement, as she quickly reassured Yohji that she didn’t mind coming up here.  “Just watch out for Jo, all right?” she warned before she left.  

Setting the tray down on the table, Yohji whimpered softly and looked pleadingly at Aya.  “You’ll let me stay up here, right?  I mean, I’m not going back down there without you.”  

Attracted by the smell of cinnamon and coffee, Ed rose from his chair to investigate what had been brought up.  “Who is Jo?  A bound?” he asked as he spied a large plate covered by plump, round cinnamon buns, fragrant steam rising from them.  He immediately began to salivate.  

“No, she’s the cook here,” Aya explained as he handed Ed one of the rolls.  “Careful, it’s hot.”  

“She’s not just a cook, she’s psychotic,” Yohji muttered as he pressed against Aya’s back and hugged him around the waist.  “Please don’t kick me out, Cat.”  

“Then be quiet.”  Aya held up a roll so Yohji could take a bite out of it.  

His own roll half gone, Ed reached out and snagged another one.  A library like this and delicious snacks, he definitely had to come here more often.  Just wait until Al found out what he’d missed today.   

As he looked up at Aya and Yohji, the latter who was profusely thanking his lover for being allowed to hide up here, he decided that his new theory was correct.  If Yohji was afraid of a mere human, then forming a bond with another bound did seem to have an adverse effect on some.  A little voice whispered inside his head that Roy really hadn’t changed that from before they’d become mates, but he ignored it.  There was no way of telling if they both hadn’t been affected by the bond as soon as they’d met.   

Wistfully eying Aya, who had turned around to face his mate and tease him with the half-eaten pastry, Ed poured himself some coffee and then returned to his chair.  Maybe it would just take a little more time and then his relationship with Roy would calm down a little.  Maybe they both had to adapt a little more to the bond and each other.  He thought a little guiltily that they both were stubborn as hell and could stand to give in a little, just as Al repeatedly told him.  Okay, so they both had some work to do.  And if Roy kept being a smug asshole and felt that no additional effort was required on his part….  Ed smiled and snapped his teeth together through the roll.  Well, now he had a pretty good idea of how to convince the bastard otherwise.  

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