Shadows Falling

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chapter one

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by nekojita

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opening gambit

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Roy tugged at his gloves as he neared the final quarter of his patrol of the border, grateful for the well-designed Army uniform that did a fair job of protecting him from the chill; he only extended his talent the barest of amounts to warm himself and Riza while they completed their afternoon circuit. The lieutenant could block the wind blowing from the west, but she was trying to downplay her talent considering the amount of bounds and wizards in the area, on both sides of the border.  

“I’m definitely sensing more bodies than I did the other day,” he warned Riza, his voice pitched low so the various soldiers hurrying past them to carry out their duties didn’t overhear. “Some are large enough to be horses or cattle, but the rest have to be humans and bounds.”  

Riza appeared to consider that for a moment. “And a good bit of them soul gaki in order to cloak their thoughts, perhaps earth elementals as well.” Her brow furrowed as her quick mind took to plotting; she wasn’t quite on Crawford’s level, but she was still a skilled strategist. “Perhaps we should position Logan, Vann and Gakushi along the border.”  

He smiled as he nodded in approval of the suggestion. “If anyone asks, they’re just doing some surveying.” That would be a good enough excuse to have some of the more senior flesh gaki bounds along Kritiker’s side of the border, where they would be downwind of Eto and hopefully able to estimate how many people they were scenting.  

That Esset was taking any precautions at all in hiding their numbers was a bit worrisome, but Roy supposed it may have something to do with the fact that they had failed to revoke the king’s decision on backing Botan’s renunciation of the use of bound blood in wizards’ spells and hounding bounds to be arrested and killed. They could no longer be certain that the bounds here in Kritiker would back them in the war, though all indications were that they still didn’t suspect bounds in the actual Kritiker Army. If Roy was under a misbelief on that front, then he hoped that the gods would allow his spirit to be reincarnated in some form that would immediately return to torment *all the hells* out of his brother for however long Crawford would live.  

The other thing that probably caused the Elders some consternation was walking towards him as he and Riza finished up their (hopefully) final task of the day and returned to the central part of the Army base stationed outside of Heiyashi. Tsuzune Mihara was dressed more for the cold early spring weather than any concern with how she appeared, her boots worn and patched several times, the thick green cloak around her shoulders obviously a discard from before the Army had switched to its new blue uniforms, and her colorful black and blue skirt her own. Despite the clothes, her long black hair was always pulled back into an intricately braided bun and her demeanor was one of rapt attention. Even now, she stared at Roy as if studying him for some unknown detail.  

“Major General Armstrong would like your report on the border,” she said by way of greeting.  

Used to the witch’s curt manner by now, Roy smiled and motioned for Riza to proceed him to their tent. “There were no obvious signs of tampering with the border or altering the wards, but I’ll leave that for your colleagues to confirm. I will say that while they’re being careful to not move their troops too close to the border… I’m beginning to suspect they are building their army just out of sight.”  

Tsuzune didn’t say anything about his ambiguous warning –she merely nodded before she continued on her way - yet she did report directly to Major General Armstrong. While Olivier Armstrong wasn’t a bound like her younger brother, she knew what her brother was and that the blood ran in their family, and supported bounds in the Army. Anything that made the organization – that made a *person* - stronger was a good thing, especially if it would protect Kritiker. She had become quite the vocal champion of witches as well, so as a result Tsuzune and her colleagues obeyed her orders as if she was the king. While they might suspect what Roy was, all that mattered to them was that Armstrong relied upon him as one of her most trusted officers.  

Certain that the ‘troop’ buildup would be addressed between Armstrong’s attention and the flesh gaki’s report, Roy headed to the tent that housed his field office. He found Riza there going through the notes that had arrived while they had been out, and Jean busy updating the map spread out on the main table. “Where is everyone?”  

“Breda and Falman are still double-checking the supply lists with all of the other squadrons, and Fuery is delivering your orders,” Riza informed him. She looked up from the sorted notes and shook her head to let him know nothing important had been delivered.  

The nice thing about being so far away from the capital and the majority of Army generals was that he’d escaped most politics and the idiotic orders that went along with them; Major General Armstrong was in charge of this base, though she did have to answer to General Ouchi. At the moment, she was largely left to manage the base at her own discretion.  

“Then I’m heading ‘home’ for the evening. Send a messenger if my presence is required.” Roy highly doubted that he’d be bothered for the night, even if they were technically in a war zone, as spring hadn’t officially arrived, but the gods did love their surprises.  

Riza and Jean wished him a good night as he left, and several acknowledgements were called out to him as he made his way to his personal quarters. He didn’t see any sign of Maes along the way and wondered where his friend had gone off to – no doubt Maes was very busy with his own tasks, and he was definitely throwing himself into work since he’d left his wife and daughter behind in Eto. As much as Maes adored his family, he felt that a battlefield was no place for them, nor was any village or city on the outskirts of an approaching war. Several friends back home promised to watch out for Gracia and Elicia to ensure that they didn’t become targets of the Elders’ agents.  

He probably was inflicting himself on Major Marquise when off-duty, Roy surmised, in the ongoing quest to get the man to admit to his bound nature. Wishing his friend the best of luck, Roy ducked into the tent that had been set aside for himself and his ‘ward’, sighing in relief at the feel of his and Ed’s magical wards as he passed through the outer tent flap. Fervently missing their cottage back in Eto, he still managed a heartfelt smile at the warmth that enveloped him once inside, along with Ed’s scent and the aroma of rabbit stew. “Something smells delicious.”  

Ed looked up from the pot he was stirring and frowned, the expression at odds from the rush of affection/pride/satisfaction/contentment that flowed over their link. “Yeah, well, if you were hoping for something fancy then you’re out of luck. Be thankful that we found enough rabbits as is, with so many people about.”

“At least they should be mating soon, cold weather or not,” Roy pointed out as he removed his cloak, gloves and outer coat before sauntering over to give Ed a kiss. His fingers tangled in the blond hair that tumbled down his mate’s back and the kiss turned into a more lingering gesture than he had intended, but Ed didn’t seem to mind until his stomach rumbled in hunger. Laughing as he pulled away before he got swatted, Roy went to sit down at the tiny table where they ate. “So who did the skinning?”

“Brosh, of course!” Ed smiled in delight as he set about serving them. “Ross told him that we set the traps and cleared them, so it was his turn to do some work.”  

And of course her partner would obey the stern woman. Roy was grateful that Maria was looking after Ed while he was busy during the day, keeping the inquisitive teen mostly out of trouble. Ed wanted to do something to feel useful, other than his usual studying of the Elders’ past, and putting to use some of the skills that his old teacher had taught him at least kept them fed better than most of the soldiers.  

Roy took a bite of the stew and moaned in appreciation. “Just let me know if you sense anything odd,” he said after a minute of assuaging his appetite. “I think Esset is starting to build up their troops but doing their best to hide it from us.”  

That announcement made Ed set his spoon down into the bowl of stew and take to frowning again. “Really?” He appeared to stare off into the distance, his eyes unfocused as he concentrated on what he’d been told. “Ross won’t let me get too close to the border so I can’t sense too much, but there’s something I’ve been meaning to try since Aya and Reno did that thing in the Fabric district….” The bond between them became ‘heavy’ with the sense of concentration and excitement, and he took to just shoveling his dinner into his mouth without seeming to taste it as he focused on whatever that ‘thing’ was, which he’d forgotten to explain.  

A year ago, Roy would be yelling ‘no way in any hell at all’ at his lover and preparing for a fight to leave both of them furious for at least a week. Half a year ago, he would be demanding an answer for what that ‘thing’ was and how it could possibly go wrong. Now… he got up to help himself to more food, and dumped half of what was in his bowl into Ed’s so his mate could keep on eating undisturbed. Would he like what this ‘thing’ was, based on the little he knew? The words ‘Aya’ and ‘Reno’ were never a good sign, especially combined with ‘Fabric district’. Roy got up again to go fetch one of the bottles of whiskey he had stashed away and drank straight from it. No, maybe it was best that he didn’t know the details. What was important was that he trusted Ed.  

They both knew what was at stake here, knew that they were this close to Esset and anything they did wrong could start the war early, when things were still unprepared. They had been promised that when the time was right, they would be the ones to fight the Elders, and they actually had a chance to kill those bastards. One of the things that Ed wanted the most was to repay those old, evil fucks for the deaths they had caused and he wasn’t going to mess it up when he was this close. He also wasn’t going to have anyone’s blood on his hands besides the Elders and those loyal to them, if he could help it. Roy was determined to keep what innocence of Ed’s he could at this point, after everything the gods and his family had conspired against them.  

After Ed had scraped his bowl clean and blinked in confusion when his spoon came up empty, Roy sighed as he handed over the bottle of whiskey. “Just let me know when you’re going to try this ‘thing’, so I can get Hughes going on one of his homesick rants. That’s usually good for clearing out the camp and getting the witnesses down to a minimum.” He did his best not to snigger too much at the glare sent his way as he went to refill both of their bowls.  

“It’s going to work, dammit,” Ed muttered around the mouth of the whiskey bottle. “When have you known my ideas to fail?” At Roy’s scathing look when he returned with the bowls, Ed’s face became flustered and he took a long sip of the alcohol. “Well, *this* one will work!”  

An earth elemental whose talent was only surpassed by his brilliance, trying something that was inspired by two insane shinigami bounds. The terrifying part of it all was that was that Ed would most likely succeed. What was going to happen in another five or more hundred years, when another driven bound read about what Ed and the rest of them had done?  

“I know,” Roy admitted as he sank back onto his chair, his appetite now gone. These things needed to be done, were only the beginning of what they would do, but he sincerely hoped that the gods were pushing them into this war for a reason – to end what had been started almost a millennia ago. If this was just another link in a cycle, he had to wonder what new invention his mate would be leaving behind for future mayhem.  

*******  

Birman looked down on Funato Tani’s swollen face and felt detached, almost calm, for several seconds before the beginning of a guilt-tinged anger filled her. She reached for the cloth that lay near the middle-aged highborn’s head and draped it over his face and bruised throat before standing up and turning to address Natsumi and Trowa. “Have you searched his office? Is it certain that this was a suicide?”  

“Ken’s been through the office and didn’t scent anyone other than Tani within the last several hours besides our own people,” Natsumi reported. “Both he and Magdalene haven’t found any suspicious substances in the quarters, either. Naru did a quick check for charms and only found the usual, though we’ll need Reno or Aya to be certain.” Her demeanor was professional, almost blank, her face a perfect mask and voice utterly even until the very end; there was a slight stutter as she mentioned the shinigami bounds’ names.  

Trowa knelt beside Tani’s body and held his right hand above it for several seconds, his brows furrowed in what appeared to be concentration. “I don’t sense any unusual compounds in his blood other than some alcohol, and not an inordinate amount at that. He’s only been dead for about two hours, judging from coagulation.”  

How the man knew such a thing…. Birman shook her head and decided that she really didn’t want to know – well, it was a curious thing, but she had a feeling that how the Elders had trained Trowa would leave her even more furious than the fact that a Court official she had allowed to be ‘used’ by Esset had ended up dead. “Dammit, *why* is he dead? If it wasn’t outright murder, then we need to speak to Schu and Shinra.”  

Standing up with a grace that proclaimed his bound nature as clearly as if he had made it rain inside the room, Trowa frowned, a rare show of open emotion, and exchanged a quick look with Natsumi; Birman assumed that they were just as upset over this latest strike by Esset and worried about her reaction to it. “Let me arrange a meeting between them,” Trowa offered, his voice calm as his expression once more smoothed out. “It’ll be easier for me to get them both together and won’t attract as much attention.”  

“What, then if Lord Shinra is seen hauled into the palace so soon after a suspicious death? Perhaps that’s what Esset wants,” Birman pointed out in a peevish tone, but she knew what Trowa was trying to say.  

<There’s also the fact that, illusion spell or not, it might be best for you to not be running all over the city right now. That’s what Trowa is trying *not* to say,> Natsumi sent to her while the soul gaki bound began to sort through various papers on Tani’s desk. <If there was something behind this suicide, it might be to flush out the Spymaster.>  

Birman did her best not to glare at her assistant as she stepped farther away from the body. “Question Shinra and Schu, see if they had anything to do with the compulsions that might have caused this and if not, if they can find out what happened. Also, warn Shinra that I’m going to want him around the palace more often – him *and* Reno.” Oh, wasn’t that going to bring more joy into her life.  

Trowa, in the process of inspecting a stack of letters that had been scattered about on a small table, paused to stare at her, his expression the blank mask he wore when he thought people were being a rather spectacular type of idiot. “Is this before or after I don a full set of armor?”  

“Oh, don’t be so dramatic.” When Natsumi scoffed at that statement and folded her arms over her chest to watch the discussion, Birman conceded that Trowa had made a slight point. “All right, he’s not going to be too happy, but we need a shinigami bound’s ability to foretell death at the palace, and of the two of them, Reno has the only reason to be here. Since I can’t imagine that Shinra will allow his mate to wander around without him, they’ll both be at Court.”  

“Logical, yet I don’t imagine he’s going to see it that way.” Trowa closed his eyes and seemed to pray for a moment, that or imagine himself at another job. “I’ll have to hope that Reno is there, since he’ll probably love the idea.”  

“Oh yes, he’s definitely a dubhach,” Natsumi remarked, the words wry even as her expression was grim. “But we’ll need him, if Esset is doing away with the coerced agents. I checked on Tani several times the past few days and would never have suspected that he was planning on killing himself.”  

“I know.” The papers that Birman found tucked in a locked drawer indicated that he still had access only to the ‘false’ information that they were allowing him to feed to Esset, and once they finished searching the office, they would permit Ken and Miko to carry through with the official notification of the man’s death. She had to be thankful that the page who had attempted to deliver a letter to the highborn had kept her wits about her and notified a Guard without causing any fuss after discovering Tani’s body hanging in his office.  

Still, she would rather be at the tea that Lord Mayurama was holding just then, which the three of them were dressed to attend. Trowa at least was probably grateful for the reprieve, as lately a certain wizard had taken to hovering around Court and stalking ‘Benten Kure’; she didn’t know what stressed him out the most, the wizard’s attention or having to pretend to be Shen’s ‘consort’ whenever he posed as the highborn.  

After a quick but thorough search, she had to admit that nothing did seem suspicious and that they couldn’t risk anyone commenting on Tani’s absence any longer. “If foul play’s involved, it has to be on the coercion side. I think we’ll have to announce the suicide and see what happens.” She wasn’t happy with giving in to Esset on this.  

“What if we tried to cover it up?”  

She shook her head as Natsumi voiced what she had already considered. “I’m not ready to force Esset’s hand on this just yet. There may be another coerced agent that’s… more ‘important’,” she hated to say that, to treat any poor soul who had their mind twisted like this as trivial, “who we may have to cover up closer to the war. No disrespect intended to the dead, but Tani wasn’t a Judge or a Minister, let alone a close relative to the king.” He wasn’t anyone whom the Court would feel would need a serious blood debt over, when the news broke.  

Trowa restored order to the letters he’d been reading through. “If anything, this may have been Esset testing the waters. They may wait to see Kritiker’s reaction before carrying through with more deaths.” As always he was the analytical one, looking for a strategy behind every action.  

“Which is why we need Shinra at Court. Let Esset believe that we’re holding him under suspicion, I don’t care. As long as Reno can give us some advance warning before Esset does something foolish enough to wipe out the people who have their country’s best interest at heart.” The Elders seemed focused on eliminating anyone who sought to help Esset, as if by leaving those prejudiced against bounds in place only helped cement the hatred they had been spouting against Kritiker the last several centuries.  

Finished at the desk, Natsumi fussed with the skirt of her dark grey dress while she eyed Birman with something resembling care. “Yes, but you know both Reno and Aya have been very reluctant with revealing such things in the last few months. They keep claiming that there’s only so far they can intervene, especially after what they did in the southern Fabric district,” she mentioned with obvious reluctance.  

“Then he can press his lips together and say nothing for once when he sees something bad,” Birman said through gritted teeth. “I don’t care how he does it, but all he’ll have to do is point them out. That’s not *him* interfering, it’ll be on my head and I’ll argue it to Kisei if I have to, dammit.” Reno was a shinigami bound, he was made… well, born for war more than any other bound alive. Birman didn’t think of the bounds who worked for her as tools or weapons, just uniquely skilled people, but there was something to the fact that Reno *and* Aya had been born around the time of Esset and Kritiker going to war. The gods obviously wanted two shinigami bounds around for a reason, so she was damn well going to put their skills to use.  

<Understood. It’s just… their skills are rather terrifying.> Natsumi fiddled with her glasses, a rare discomfort displayed through her motions while Trowa was absolutely still, which meant that he was included on the discussion. <And it’s clear that their talents are bleeding into Shinra and Kudoh.> From Natsumi’s thoughts there came a flash of how Yohji had helped subdue the crowd in the southern Fabric district, and how strongly Shinra’s coercions had taken effect.  

“Then that’s even more strength we’ll have to use against Esset,” was all that Birman said as she prepared to leave the office, having enough of death at the moment. She refused to fear Yohji, not after having worked with him over the years, and if he trusted Aya then that was good enough for her. After all, she had oaths from the two men, and she knew that as bounds that it was almost impossible for them to break the sworn words. Shinra… she knew that he wanted the safety of his mate and his people more than anything, and that wouldn’t happen in Esset, so she trusted him as well.  

Trowa paused by the door for a moment before motioning that it was safe to leave. “I’ll speak with Eri and Reiichi to arrange for a meeting with our friends as soon as possible. Perhaps another guest or two will show up and shed some light on recent events.” Now that they were out in the hallway, Trowa wore his usual placid expression and was careful to not use any names that might be overheard by the wrong people.  

Natsumi tapped the rim of her glasses with a carefully sheathed claw, appearing aloof except for the bright gleam in her grey eyes. “They never seem to have much to say these days.” <If I have to hear either one of them complain another time about the excuse of ‘too many possibilities to see clearly’, you’re buying me drinks one night.>  

Considering how much a soul gaki bound could drink, that was no idle threat. Birman bared her teeth ever so slightly at her assistant before turning toward Yuushi’s office, where Ken and Miko were waiting for them. <Do *you* want to deal with Crawford on a regular basis?>  

As Natsumi had met the man in question twice, each time while on business with Birman, she was quick to shake her head. <I think I much prefer dealing with our favorite pest here.>  

“A wise woman,” Birman murmured. Seeing the Guards standing outside of Yuushi’s office, the slight smile slid from her face as she prepared herself for the announcement that would soon become official and the reaction from the Court. Manx would probably try to involve herself in the investigation, another attempt to undermine Birman at her job that had become all too familiar the last few months. One problem at a time, Birman reminded herself as she straightened her back and prepared to deal with the latest issue.  

*******  

Yohji frowned as he sorted through the cedar chest to stack various sweaters and pants aside. His expression lightened for a moment as he came across a pair of leather pants that he’d been searching for most of the winter, grateful to find them in decent shape, and he didn’t bother to look over his shoulder as he threw them in the direction of the bed. “Catch!”

He heard a weary sigh from his mate, who was curled up on the bed. “What *are* you doing?” Since there was more a sense of curiosity than annoyance, he assumed that he hadn’t hit Aya with the pants.

“I’m trying to find a pair of boots,” Yohji explained as he gave up on his search. He knew where a good bit of his summer tunics were and some of the older sweaters that Ani had made him, but no boots. “Looks like we’ll have to go shopping.”

He noticed from the way that Aya’s face smoothed out that his lover wasn’t too pleased with the suggestion, even if he didn’t have the ability to sense his emotions. Over the last few months, the shopkeepers still hadn’t gotten over their reserved reaction to Aya, preferring to deal with the rest of the Koneko staff rather than him. Since Aya would rather stay at the Koneko than interact with most people, it didn’t seem to bother him too much, even though Yohji was ready to start throttling anyone who looked so much as askew at his lover.

Rising from the floor, he crossed the room to join Aya on the bed, his hands reaching out to comb through the ragged crimson strands that fell onto his mate’s pale face. “Maybe we can try that new cobbler in the southern Leather district. Vernon swears his one friend is a natural when it comes to working with leather goods.” Not only would it be giving business to a bound trying to establish herself here in the city, it should spare Aya some barely masked hostility and Yohji a headache from holding back the impulse to commit mass homicide.

Aya tilted his head into the caress and graced Yohji with a slight smile, his emotions turning ‘warm’ with love and gratitude. “If she’s as good as Vernon says, we can both get some new boots.” His eyes took on a silver cast as he seemed to stare off into the distance. “We’ll need them soon.”

“Soon, but not just yet.” There was no point in rushing toward the war, not when it would be here soon enough. Yohji tugged on Aya’s shoulders until they both ended up lying on the bed. “I’m a delicate flower, I’m not about to rough it with a bunch of unwashed soldiers until I really, really have to, thank you.” He sniffed for added emphasis.

That earned him another smile from Aya and a lessening of the silver, those lovely eyes turning back to a normal, violet shade. Aya hummed a little as his left arm slid around Yohji’s waist. “Delicate flower, was it?”

“Terribly delicate. I think you need to keep a close eye on me to make sure that I’m being treated properly.” Yohji grinned as he shifted closer so he could nuzzle at Aya’s neck. “There’s so many mean bastards about, you know.”

“They wouldn’t happen to smack you on the head for being silly, would they?” Aya sounded exasperated, yet he really was amused and happy as he gave a tug to Yohji’s shoulder-length hair. “Why would they do such a thing, I wonder.”

Yohji managed another exaggerated sniff. “Because they’re jealous as hell?” He grinned when he actually startled a deep laugh from his lover. “Aw, you know it’s true. I’m just too gorgeous, brilliant and sexy for them,” he informed Aya as he straddled his mate’s hips.

“Don’t forget ‘delicate’ as well.” Aya lay sprawled on the bed, almost glowing in the afternoon light that trickled through the windows, his eyes heavy-lidded and silver from the reflected sunlight. “That explains your cautious and humble nature.”

His hands sliding beneath his lover’s dark grey tunic, Yohji bowed his head in a demur manner. “I’ve never been one to boast of the ample gifts the gods have bestowed upon me.” He had to bite at his bottom lip when Aya snorted – rather loudly at that – in derision. Hell, he swore that there was even a faint snickering sound over from the shadows. “I am merely a blessing that they… oh hell, I can’t say it with a straight face.” He buried his face in Aya’s neck as he laughed, enjoying the love and amusement that washed into him.

Aya’s fingers combed through his hair, the touch relaxing. “Nice to see you’ve reached your limit of ridiculousness for the time being.” He gave a strand another tug. “I’m sure you’ll manage to rally before dinner.”

“Hmm.” Yohji breathed in deep Aya’s intoxicating scent, his hunger stirring between that and the feel of Aya’s body beneath his. They still needed to do the shopping at some point, but the day was a bit too sunny for his liking; the new boots and anything else they might need for their extended stay near the border could wait for a more overcast day. The weather might be warming up finally, yet he didn’t think that the war was about to start for another couple of moons.

Right now, he had Aya in bed with him and emotions mostly calm. He shifted back enough to pull at the tunic that was covering all that lovely skin he wanted to touch, and received an exasperated sigh in return as Aya lifted up enough to help remove the article of clothing. “I thought you were a ‘delicate flower’. Shouldn’t you be resting or something?”

Eyes narrowing at the mocking tone of that question, Yohji shifted lower to straddle his mate’s thighs as he worked on the lacings of Aya’s pants. “I said I was ‘delicate’, not an invalid, which I would need to be to not want you. Now, off with these.” He tugged at the mostly undone lacings in emphasis before removing his own clothes. Aya arched an eyebrow as if to say he wasn’t terribly impressed with Yohji’s commanding air but would humor him regardless.

They shifted about enough to finish disrobing, and each brush of skin against skin fanned Yohji’s hunger to a feverish point, leaving him to feel almost consumed by its need. The sensation of sunlight pouring into him was a bittersweet counterpoint, more pulses of heat that flowed through his veins, yet a heat that fortified, that left his nerves shivering in ecstasy.

Mindful of how they had already spent the day in their room, of how they barely seemed to leave it anymore, he rolled onto his left side, Aya eagerly following as if loathe to break the almost full body contact that they shared. Their legs entwined together, hands almost frantic in stroking along exposed skin, mouths ravenous for the taste of each other, Yohji shivered almost as much from the sunlight burning through his veins as he did the shadows that were draped over him as if a cool veil to hide him and Aya from the world. He moaned into his mate’s mouth as Aya’s hand wrapped around his tumescent cock, his hunger raging forward until his lips slid down pale skin so he could feel the frantic pulse of a heart against them. Aya’s desire/pleasure/love flared as well, his body arching against Yohji’s as Yohji stroked his cock in return, both of them desperate for the feel of each other, to touch and taste and wrap around each other as tightly as possible. The pleasure continued to build until Yohji felt as if he’d become immolated from it yet he still sought more, his own and Aya’s as he bit down on his mate’s neck and pumped his hand a little faster and-

The pleasure burst inside of him, so blindingly potent as they came together. There was a tiny flash of pain amidst so much ecstasy, a spot of darkness to make all the light so much brighter, and Yohji felt as if the sunlight was soaking into his very bones; ever since the winter, since Aya had fed so much, it had been so much *stronger* than before and he’d been feeding from the excess ‘energy’ that had filled his mate. Between all those deaths in the southern Fabric district and the steady stream of spies and saboteurs that Esset sent into Kritiker… yeah, Aya was always well-fed.

Yohji sighed as he felt Aya squirm a little against him and let go of his now softening cock, and did the same before he got up from the bed to go could fetch a cloth so they could clean themselves; Aya was getting a little better about that, but he’d be much more comfortable lying around in bed if he was clean. The shadows had retreated back to the corner of the room, so Yohji noticed that they still had some time left before dinner would be ready. “What do you want to do tonight? You up to heading downstairs for a bite to eat and maybe play some chess with Reiichi,” he asked while he damped the washcloth.

Aya was slow yet graceful as he sat up in bed, a slight grimace on his face as he swiped at the mess on his stomach. Then his eyes turned silver as he stared off into a dark corner of the room and Yohji heard a few faint hisses for a couple of seconds. When Yohji returned to the bed and offered his lover the damp cloth, Aya accepted it with a distracted nod and began to clean himself. “We should go downstairs since Rufus and Reno will be joining us.”

Well, that should make Aya happy, having his friend come for dinner, except Rufus was trying to be extra careful about things with the war being right around the corner and didn’t tend to drop by anymore just for the hell of it – if Reno got lonely, he’d send the dubhach with a couple of the other gokenin. “All right, did the hissing bastards say *why* those two are being all sociable?” Yohji managed a smile when Aya handed the cloth back to him.

“Hmm.” Aya cocked his head to the side in a manner that usually was adorable when his eyes weren’t glowing silver and his face void of emotion. “There’s been a death at the palace. I suspect it has something to do with that.”

“Cat….” Yohji almost asked if the death was anyone he knew and stopped himself; Aya could be a bit insensitive at times, but he wouldn’t be acting like this if it was one of the bounds or people that were their friends – he’d show *some* bit of emotion. No, what probably had Aya going all ‘shinigami’ on him right now was related to the death, but not on a personal level. Yohji swiped the cloth over his chest and stomach before tossing it at the wash basin and stared down at his mate sitting so still on the bed, his mind focused on what was happening right now… on what was probably *going* to happen. Aya staring off into the distance while refusing to look at him and doing his best ‘I am not human’ impersonation probably meant….

“Okay, I get it,” Yohji sighed as he sunk down onto the bed and wrapped his arms around his lover, and held on tight until Aya slowly relaxed into the embrace. “What do you say about having a proper bath and then seeing if Jo has any sweets we can sneak in before dinner?”

The way that Aya fully relaxed against him meant that he’d guessed things correctly, especially when the stubborn fool began to purr ever so slightly. “Hmm, some tea would be nice,” Aya admitted.

“Then let’s grab our robes and some clean clothes and have a nice soak.” Yohji pressed a kiss against Aya’s right temple before pulling his mate off of the bed, a huge grin plastered on his face the entire time. He did his best to keep his emotions even as he did what he’d suggested, and managed to win a smile from Aya when he picked up his lover’s crimson robe and flapped it about. Aya snatched it away before slipping it on, seemingly returned to normal as he picked out an outfit of dark clothes to wear for later.

Yohji watched the man he loved more than anything move about the room and rubbed his thumb along the platinum ring he wore that had belonged to Aya’s father; so Rufus was going to be here later tonight in regards to a death at the palace, a death that was going to be just one of several, if he judged correctly what Aya’s silence had been about just then. Deaths that Aya felt that he shouldn’t interfere in, that needed to happen or else… yeah, no one wanted to piss off a goddess, especially when she was the goddess of death and they were about to face a war.

“Yotan?” Aya was standing beside the door with a worried frown on his face. “Are you ready?”

“Always when it comes to you,” Yohji replied with a slight leer.

Aya rolled his eyes and opened the door. “Incorrigible.”

“And you love me for it.” Yohji hurried to his mate’s side and slid an arm around Aya’s waist.

“I think ‘love’ is much too strong a word,” Aya muttered as he gave Yohji’s ribs a light tap. He sighed in such an aggrieved manner when Yohji took to sniffling again, which prompted Yohji to laugh and promise the poor abused man a shoulder massage during their bath.

*******

Rufus sat back in the padded leather couch in the Koneko’s warm, quiet library, suspicious of the reason he’d been called here for the evening; he’d heard of Tani’s death earlier that day and had to wonder if the highborn had something to do with this. He’d expected to be grilled about the man the moment he stepped inside, yet instead, he sat there with a glass of wine in his right hand and Reno curled against his left side and did his best not to react to Schuldig being in the same room while he waited for Trowa to get to the point of this whole meeting. “Any day now – I’ve a thousand other things I could be doing instead of sitting here,” he finally snapped.

“Yeah, such as me,” Reno mumbled.

“Oooh, so sorry to bother someone as important as you,” Schuldig sneered from his seat across the room. “Not as if the rest of us-“

“Schu… not now.” Masato rested a hand on his mate’s shoulder and shook his head, his shaggy blond hair flying about from the deliberate movement. “Let’s just hear out Trowa and not start any fights.”

Schuldig pouted at the reprimand and glared at Rufus. “But *he* started it.” His bottom lower lip actually jutted out and he folded his arms over his chest, appearing like a spoiled child despite the fact that he was a supposed adult; his unruly reddish hair and the fact that he seemed to be wearing one of Masato’s sweaters didn’t held with the image.

Before Rufus could say anything, Trowa stood up from the small couch where he’d been sitting beside his own mate and held up his hand, commanding a lot of attention for a normally quiet young man. He appeared as if he’d come straight from Court, still dressed in fine if plain silks, which glimmered in the candle- and firelight. “This will go much more quickly if both of you are quiet.” He waited a moment as if to see if anyone would dispute that fact before speaking again. “Have either of you heard about Funato Tani’s death?”

“What? Did someone kill that guy,” Schuldig asked as he leaned forward in his chair.

“I heard that he’d been found dead, but little more than that,” Rufus admitted. “My people were still trying to sift through the rumors before I was summoned here.” Beside him, Reno stirred a little before going utterly still – dammit, he *knew* he should have questioned his mate.

Trowa nodded before he resumed sitting beside Duo, who draped a possessive arm around his shoulders. “He was found hung in his office, and from what we can tell, it was a suicide in that there was no obvious signs of magic or outside interference in his death.” His face was impassive as he glanced back and forth between Rufus and Schuldig, yet there was a hint of red in his eyes. “What Birman and I want to know is, what were your last compulsions with the man?”

Rufus looked across the room to meet Schuldig’s gaze and nodded once, allowing the other soul gaki bound to describe their orders when it came to Tani. Schuldig grimaced a little before he spoke up. “That’s just it, there wasn’t anything special about the guy – in his head or with the orders. We did the same set of coercions with him that we did with everyone else, with the exceptions that we put in one or two fail-safes to make sure that he didn’t come across anything damning – and before you ask, nothing we did would make him kill himself. He would have turned himself in so you’d know the damage, not off himself and let Esset get away.” He didn’t sound particularly upset that the guy had killed himself, just annoyed that his work was being questioned – to be honest, that was how Rufus was feeling at the moment.

Trowa seemed to consider that for a moment and then nodded. “All right, then did you come across any new coercions that the Esset agent was planting in his head?”

This time Rufus spoke up. “No, we didn’t.” He slid the fingers of his left hand through Reno’s hair to help center himself and shook his head. “Look – we couldn’t exactly go rummaging through Tani’s head on a whim, not without exposing what we were doing. Coercions and telepathy don’t work that way.” Across the room, Schuldig was nodding in agreement, a slightly bitter expression on his face as if he hated the fact that he was backing up Rufus. “In order to figure out what the other soul gaki bound was doing in Tani’s head, we would have had to break those coercions.”

“Even with your… enhanced skills?”

“Yes, even with my newly acquired talents,” Rufus ground out. “I may be more adept now at sliding past people’s mental barriers, but it still doesn’t excuse the fact that in order to find a mental compulsion, you have to dig them out, to trigger them, and then either break them then or deal with the consequences of setting one off at the wrong time.” His fingers clenched around cool, silky hair while Reno hissed softly. “It’s why we had to push so hard when working with Shin – even if it wasn’t for his bond with Yuda, we wouldn’t have been able to draw out the ordeal for more than a few more days since you can’t start breaking coercions and walk away halfway through them.”

The room grew quiet after that, save for the crackling of the fire. Reno settled back against Rufus’ side and allowed Rufus to stroke through his hair, a mostly sleepy presence in Rufus’ mind. Schuldig and Masato seemed to have some sort of mental conversation while Duo held on to Trowa’s hand while the water elemental appeared deep in thought. After a couple of minutes, Trowa looked up from the floor and shook his head. “So we’re back to the theory that the Esset agent was behind Tani’s death. We’re putting out leads on who that agent is, but now we’re left with the ‘why’.”

“It’s not like Esset doesn’t rejoice anytime someone from Kritiker dies,” Duo pointed out, speaking up for the first time in several minutes.

“Yes, but Tani was a low-level Court official in the City Planning office,” Rufus pointed out.

“Maybe they were just testing to see if the compulsion would work?” Masato rubbed at the back of his head while he frowned in the direction of the fire. “It’s not easy, overriding someone’s will to live like that.”

Schuldig frowned as well. “Yeah, he does have a point. I was always taught coercions like that weren’t a sure thing, since the will to live can be the strongest instinct in the body. Though I’ll have to admit, Tani wasn’t the strongest-willed bastard around.”

Trowa stared at Schuldig for a few seconds before turning to Rufus. “Would it be reinforced if the soul gaki bound who set up the coercion was around?”

“If they or another who knows about the coercion, yes, I imagine so.” Rufus had an uneasy feeling all of a sudden. “You are beginning to suspect it was a test, aren’t you?”

Trowa nodded while he tapped on his gauntlet. “Yes, so it seems, and we missed a key element during our search.” Beside him, Duo was cursing quietly and sending out a message as well. “Birman and Yuushi won’t be pleased at the idea of an Esset agent in the palace.”

Schuldig laughed at that one, the sound devoid of humor. “No shit. Because Birman is *so* okay with enemies on her turf. I swear that woman was meant to be born as a flesh gaki bound or something.”

“The agent probably gained access to the palace and then left – we’ve been surveilling everyone who has longer-term access at Court.” Trowa appeared distinctly unhappy all of a sudden, a rare show of emotion for the usually quiet man.

Great, so Esset was sneaking agents through the palace, just what Rufus wanted to hear – and it dawned on him what he *wasn’t* hearing just then was anything from his mate, not a snarky comment nor thought, no bitching or any sociopathic comments. “What, don’t you have anything to add to this discussion,” he asked as he tugged on a long lock of crimson hair.

Reno glared up at him, a flash of silver in aquamarine eyes before he merely shrugged and resettled against Rufus’ side. All right, something was *definitely* going on here, something that left Rufus with an uneasy feeling in his stomach. The only times that Reno was this quiet and… and *placid* was when he was planning something or when he was up to his pretty neck in shinigami trouble.

“Actually, Birman is hoping that you do have something to say about the situation, Reno.” Rufus glanced back at Trowa to find him staring with some uncertainty in Reno’s direction. “She… well, she would like for you and Rufus to be in attendance at the palace on a more regular basis.” Judging from how stiffly he was sitting on the couch and how tense Duo was beside him, he had an idea how… how fucking preposterous that request was.

Schuldig and Masato rushed to their feet. “And that’s our cue to leave, good night everyone,” Masato muttered as he practically shoved his mate toward the door. He didn’t wait for a response but merely slammed the door shut behind them.

Once the door was closed, Rufus leaned forward so he could focus better on the suicidal idiot sitting across the room. “Excuse me, did I just hear you ask my mate to appear at the Court more often after saying that it seems that there’s an Esset agent wandering about?” He flashed his teeth at Trowa while his claws became unsheathed.

Trowa nodded, the only motion he made even as the fire burned brighter over in the fireplace. “Yes, I did.” He paused for a moment before forcing on, his voice a little tighter than before. “Look, I understand that it’s a difficult request to ask of you, but Reno’s talents are very important to us. We need-“

“He’s my *mate*, your needs aren’t important,” Rufus spat out. “I’m not about to let-“

“Stop it.”

Everyone went quiet at the sound of Reno’s sibilant voice as he unfurled himself from Rufus’ side and stood to his feet. His eyes were now pure silver and the shadows in the room much darker than before, which Rufus didn’t believe to be a cause from the furiously burning fire and candles. “I can decide things for myself,” Reno insisted, his voice still little more than a hiss.

Rufus was on his feet as well and his hands reached for his mate to… to what? To pull him back? To shield him from the fear he could feel radiating from Trowa and Duo? All he did was end up holding onto Reno’s shoulders and giving them a gentle shake. “I’d believe in that better if you weren’t always trying to kill yourself.”

Reno hissed again and smacked his hand into Rufus’ chest, sparks flying about at the impact. “I haven’t tried anything for *months*.” His voice was loud and clear just then, free of the sibilance but sharp with anger. “If anyone’s got a death-wish it’s you for pissing me off so much!”

This, from the idiot who didn’t see anything wrong with parading in front of a city full of wizards? Who flung his talent about in front of hundreds of witnesses? Rufus felt a headache coming on and fought the urge to rub at his temples. “Why would I bother to tell you what to do when you never listen to me in the first place,” he ground out while pulling Reno in closer.

For a moment he thought he was going to get a face full of sparks, and then Reno actually appeared chagrined for a few seconds and laughed. “All right, ya got me there.” He nuzzled at Rufus’ throat before pulling away a little. “But you’re not hiding me away forever.”

Rufus sighed in frustration before bowing his head to bury his face in his mate’s tousled hair. “I fail to see what good it’ll do to go to the palace.”

“Uhm, we need Reno’s ability to find magic,” Trowa called out, his voice revealing none of the unease he felt just then. “Not to mention to foretell death.”

Reno stiffened in Rufus’ hold at the second part and settled against his left side, all traces of his good mood now gone. “I can’t do anything with that,” he told Trowa, the silver now back in his eyes.

Trowa seemed to pale a little and pushed back Duo when his mate tried to shift in front of him, but he had the courage to look straight at Reno when he spoke. “Yes, you can. Birman said she understands if you can’t come out and speak directly about any deaths, but any type of-“

“You’re not listening.” The sibilance was back in Reno’s voice. “Why do you think Aya’s not here, eh?” Reno gestured around the room for a moment. “Shit’s gonna start happening real soon now, and we can’t get involved with you guys, not unless it’s to feed.” A slight grin turned up the corners of his mouth and excitement pulsed over his link with Rufus at the thought of feasting on a soul’s energy. “We pushed things this winter an’ we can’t keep on depriving Kisei without things *really* going to shit, okay?” He wouldn’t stop staring down at Trowa until the water elemental looked away.

Rufus didn’t like how Reno had talked about the goddess of death so blatantly, as if he *knew* how she felt on the matter, and had to wonder what his mate was doing with those damn shinigami when he wasn’t around. But before he could send a message over their link, Duo cleared his throat, his arms wrapped around Trowa as if to shield him from Reno’s anger.

“Ah, you said you couldn’t ‘deprive’ Kisei, right?” He waited until Reno nodded. “But that doesn’t mean you can’t give Birman and Yuushi a warning about when someone’s gonna die as long as they don’t do anything about it, right?”

Reno tilted his head to the side while he considered the proposal, a hint of curiosity and amusement playing over his link with Rufus. “Yeah, that would work as long as you guys agree to not fuck with things and try to keep them alive.” He bared his teeth at Duo and Trowa while holding up a hand covered in sparks. “People are gonna die, you’re not able to change that. It’s just that time.”

Rufus could feel their anger and their shock at the way that Reno blithely accepted the fact that people had to die in a time of war and knew that there was nothing he could do to make them accept the fact that his mate was a shinigami bound, that Reno *had* to feed off of the souls of people and so to him… well, dying was more than a part of life, it was a necessity. As long as those deaths weren’t part of the handful of people he considered ‘pack’, he couldn’t care less.

As for himself… Rufus was annoyed that it seemed that Birman had gotten her way, more or less, and that Reno would be in some danger in the near future. Yet… it would look odd, if Rufus tried to hide at his small estate for the foreseeable future, even more so if the few times he left the house’s grounds were with any of his gokenin *but* Reno at his side. The couple of times he’d done it in the past had attracted some comments, and that was something he couldn’t afford with the war drawing close and Esset focusing their attention on anything that would help them defeat Kritiker.

“I’ll increase my visits to the palace, but it will be on *my* schedule,” he informed Trowa. “I have various requests for weapons that will explain my presence, but it I’m there too often that will raise suspicions I want to avoid.” Not to mention it would leave it open to Birman requesting more unreasonable assignments from them in the future.

Trowa rose to his feet, with Duo scrambling to join him. “That should be acceptable.” He gave Rufus a courteous bow and eyed Reno with a slight trepidation before skirting around them for the door. “I’m sure Birman will be in contact with you very soon.”

Birman, not Trowa. Rufus surmised that the water elemental bound had reached his limit of dealing with Reno for the time being and would force his employer to deal with them next time. Ah well, it was only fair since Birman was the one who wanted to put them to work. It was fine with him, since he could deal directly with the one making the demands of his mate and hopefully curtail them before this got out of hand. *Hopefully*.

He let out a slow breath and rubbed the back of Reno’s neck, which prompted a low purr from his mate. “Kisei, eh? What makes you an expert on her all of a sudden, eh?”

There was a flash of… *something* in his mate’s eyes just then, and something across their link that he couldn’t describe, before Reno rocked up to give him a kiss. <Don’t go asking questions you don’t want answered,> was all Reno said before he pulled away with obvious reluctance. “Ah, I think Yohji’s coming this way.” Reno frowned in the direction of a darkened corner of the room and hissed. “Yep, definitely think you’re about to get some more company.”

“Me?” Rufus cursed about meddling gods and bounds as he went back to his chair for his wineglass, and all the while his fool of a mate laughed. “This is why I wanted to stay home tonight!”

Reno rushed forward to give him a quick kiss before slipping away. “Hmm, now you know how I feel when you leave me to go play with a bunch of boring humans.” He paused at the door to stick out his tongue at Rufus. “Come find me when you’re finished.”

No doubt the fool was off to ‘play’ with Aya, may the gods take pity on the inn. Rufus filled his glass to almost the rim and drained it dry in a matter of seconds, sputtering a little toward the end, and then refilled it. Yohji walked in on him as he was draining it dry a second time.

The succubae bound eyed him for a few seconds before holding up the bottles of whiskey that he’d brought along. “Ah yeah, figured you’d need something stronger since we’re going to be talking about shinigami.” Rufus noticed that the perimeters of the room had grown dark, indicating that they were now warded inside room.

“At least you came prepared,” he growled as he abandoned his wineglass to go grab one of the bottles.

*******

Aya sorted through the stack of books left on the one table while he waited for Reno to join him; he missed Ed and how the teenager had always helped to keep the attic library tidy, something that the others who used the precious books for their research on bounds and the Elders weren’t always so good at remembering in their haste of finding what they needed.

<Join us, you should,> one of the shinigami urged as it crept across the room toward Aya. <A meal, and so close by.>

“That should be Suzuya, who’s been ill the last few months. I’ve noticed that she’s been getting darker the last few times I’ve seen her.” Aya shook his head and went to a shelf to put away the books on soul gaki bounds that Eri must have been reading. “No thank you – I try not to feed off of the regulars.”

<Feh, food is food,> another shinigami chided him as it curled around his shoulders. <All that matters is the pack.>

Yes, they would see it that way, but Aya didn’t want to risk Jo or anyone of the staff finding out about him feeding from someone they knew about since there were times when the humans seemed uncomfortable enough around him; it had been bad enough after the whole Fabric district mess when his skin had glowed for several days. “It’s all right, I’m not hungry right now.”

The shinigami brushed against his cheek in a cool, soothing caress. <Yesss, you have been feeding well.>

That was one way of putting it, he supposed. Sliding the last of the books onto the shelf, Aya closed his eyes and rested his head against the smooth wood of the bookshelf for a moment as he thought about all of Birman’s assignments in the last few weeks, of the spies and traitors he’d ‘sent off to Kisei’ for the good of the country. He didn’t regret the lives he had taken, not when he knew that Esset needed to be stopped, it was… it was just at times he wondered if he really had shaken off the shackles that Reiji Takatori had placed upon him so long ago. Perhaps he wasn’t an abused slave any longer, but he still was little more than an instrument of death to be ordered about, and those deaths would only rise in number as the war approached.

“It’s as if the gods don’t want us to be anything other than-“

The door to the attic was thrown open, cutting off his comment to the shinigami, as Reno burst in as if chased by flesh gaki. “Bah! I hate puttin’ up with this ‘tell us what you know’ bullshit! Much prefer when everyone treats me like an idiot, I can get away with *so* much more shit that way!” He stomped over to the large padded chair which Aya and Yohji favored and flomped down into it, his long hair flying everywhere and an extremely disgruntled expression on his face. “Eh, wouldn’t happen to have any alcohol up here, would ya?”

The shinigami took to hissing and whirling around Reno while Aya crossed over to the table to where a couple of wine bottles sat; he’d been prepared for his meeting with the dubhach. “So, I take it the meeting with Rufus, Trowa and Schuldig didn’t go very well?”

<Why bother with the golden ones? Chains, they are. Sever the chains,> one of the shinigami urged as it swirled around Reno.

“Yeah, yeah, same old song from you.” Reno gave it a quick stroke before shooing it away in favor of accepting the bottle from Aya. “And no, the meeting didn’t exactly go so good.” He took a long swig from the bottle before explaining any better. “Trowa did get him ta agree for us ta spend some time at the palace, but I told him that I can’t prevent any deaths. Duo came up with the solution that I can still warn them so they know who’s gonna die, but the first time those idiots try ta prevent it, I’m clamming up.” He glared at Aya, his eyes now a pure silver, and slashed his right hand through the air.

The shinigami took to hissing again while Aya shook his head at how Trowa and Duo were pushing things a bit far. <Tell you we did, Kisei will not brook anymore interference. Kisei demands her sacrifices.>

“We know,” Aya answered for them both while Reno stared back with grim acceptance before he resumed drinking straight from the bottle. “That’s why we haven’t said anything more about the deaths and why Reno told them not to interfere. It’s just….” He let out a slow breath as he jerked his right hand through his hair. “It’s human nature to meddle, from what I can tell.” They couldn’t seem to grasp that sometimes, the gods would have their way no matter what.

“’Meddle’ is putting it fuckin’ mildly,” Reno muttered when he finally lowered the wine bottle again. “Do ‘em a favor once or twice and they keep thinking that it’s a normal thing.”

Aya felt the urge to reach for a wine bottle himself and rubbed at his left temple instead. “I told them not to count on such events occurring again, that there was only so much I could do….” He folded his arms over his chest and hunched over as if he could hide in some way. “Yohji seems to understand, at least.”

“Yeah, let’s see if he can convince Birman and Yuushi.” Reno tapped his fingers against the mostly empty wine bottle and shook his head again. “You know there’s gonna be more deaths. Shit’s just gearing up now.”

<There will be a feast of feasts,> the shinigami crooned. <Kisei is owed her due.>

“Yes, we know.” Aya could still remember his thankfully brief conversation with the goddess of death and all the lives she expected him to reap for her. He rubbed at his face and thought of all the ‘darkness’ he was beginning to see on the people around him, the hints of shadows that slowly crept over the people of Eto. On most it was the merest of taints, but on some it was darkening by the day, hinting that the deaths wouldn’t wait for the official start of the war. “Oh, screw it.” He reached for the bottle of wine after all.

“Go Aya!” Reno cheered as he curled his legs up in the chair and waved his own bottle about for a few seconds. “It’s more fun ta have a drinking buddy.”

“It’s even more fun to not be up here worrying about how not to tell everyone who’s been targeted for death while our mates our downstairs trying to figure out what to do with us as if we’re a bunch of recalcitrant children, but *this* is what our lives have become,” Aya grumbled as he used the shadows to uncork the bottle.

“Oooh, someone’s a bit pissy tonight. I’d say you’re not getting any but judging from that fresh bite on your neck, it ain’t true.” Reno gave him a huge smirk before using the shadows to fetch another bottle of wine. “I’d say let’s go for a run, but you’ve a stash of wine an’ I feel like drinking tonight.”

Aya held up his own bottle in a silent toast. “So to drinking and bitching, then,” he declared as he settled himself in a sitting position on the table, his legs crossed and several of the shinigami curling around and settling upon him.

Reno cackled a few times while he uncorked and then raised his new bottles. “’Drinking an’ bitching’ indeed! Been a couple of weeks since I vented about my ‘golden one’, eh? Not that he’s been all that bad….”

<The golden ones hold you down! They will never understand how you should be free!>

“Ah yeah, you guys always make a drinking an’ bitching session fun.” Reno stroked his right hand along the shinigami curled around his shoulders. He smiled over at Aya, his eyes tinged with silver yet his expression amused.

“Of course, that’s part of the reason we do it with them,” Aya pointed out while the shinigami continued to rant on about the ‘golden ones’ before moving on to humanity in general.

*******

Yohji couldn’t help but smile and shake his head when he noticed how full Rufus poured his glass of whiskey. “That rough of a meeting?”

“You’ve no idea.” Rufus drained half of the glass before taking ‘his’ bottle and the glass back to the loveseat where he’d been sitting, leaving Yohji to settle at one of the library’s tables with his own bottle and glass. He filled it about halfway before tossing back the twelve year old whiskey, which burned a comfortable warmth down his throat.

After a minute or two passed in silence, save for the sound of the fire crackling and glasses being set down, he sighed and motioned in Rufus’ direction. “So, you gonna tell me how it went?”

Rufus poured himself more whiskey before he spoke. “Let’s see, it’s been determined that Esset most likely has an agent that they’re slipping into a palace to enforce a suicide coercion on the agents that Schuldig and I have set up for them to use, and Birman has asked that Reno and I increase our presence in the palace so she can put to use my mate’s ability to sense magic and death.” He glared down at his once more mostly full glass of whiskey and drained it again, and Yohji could sense the anger/unhappiness/possessiveness that was roiling inside of him. “Aren’t you unhappy that you missed out on all the fun?”

Yohji dismissed the sarcasm in the question and shook his head. “You have to know that Reno can’t interfere in any more deaths, right? What we did this past winter was… well, sort of a one-off. We only saved those people based on a technicality, from what I can tell.” The shinigami had said that they weren’t quite marked for death just then, that their deaths were a possibility. Yohji didn’t think that anyone the Esset agent was targeting was a ‘possibility’.

The look Rufus gave him just then was so scathing that Yohji half-expected to feel some heat along his skin at any moment. “No, that wouldn’t at all explain why Reno, someone who loves to share his opinion with the world, suddenly didn’t have anything to say on the topic, now would it?” The soul gaki bound let out an explosive breath and poured yet another glass of whiskey yet didn’t drink it. “He’s told me several times that he can’t interfere, that he’s been warned not to do it. I won’t risk anything happening to him… but he can trust me.” Rufus’ anger spiked just then and he picked up the glass to toss back the alcohol.

Yohji had the impression that what angered Rufus the most wasn’t Birman and Trowa just then, but that he felt that Reno was holding back on him. Familiar with the sensation himself, Yohji poured himself a drink and attempted to organize his thoughts as it burned down his throat.

“Look… it can’t be easy for them – for Reno and Aya. Right now they know things that I… yeah, it can’t be easy for them to look out at people and know who’s gonna die. It doesn’t help that the knowledge could probably help out with the war, and if they let the wrong thing slip, it could make things worse.” He stared into his empty glass and remembered Aya’s blank expression from earlier, remembered how Aya would draw away from people these days and prefer to hide up in their room. All that effort to turn him more ‘human’, and the simple act of interacting with other people was hurting his lover because of Aya’s talents. Sometimes… sometimes Yohji wish he had the power to touch the gods so he could kick their asses for what they did to the man he loved.

A rude noise disrupted him from his thoughts. “I *know* that.” Rufus’ face was a little flushed, as if the wine and whiskey was starting to catch up to him. “Why do you think I don’t force Reno out unless he wants to go? He doesn’t usually give a damn about most people so I don’t think he’s as affected as Aya, but still, he doesn’t push to tag along as much as he used to, only enough to keep from being bored.”

And of course to come to the Koneko to visit Aya, who seemed most amused at the moment, if Yohji was to judge from their link – things had seemed a little dark for a bit, but for all the trouble he could cause, Reno usually did cheer Aya up during his visits. “So right now, our big problem seems to be that we need to make everyone else understand that they just can’t use our mates to solve all of their problems – that their talents aren’t to be used for others’ benefit just because they exist.” He felt some anger of his own at the thought of Aya being forced to do anything against his will.

A bitter laugh escaped Rufus just then. “Right, because people take others’ concerns into mind when it comes to winning a war.” He sighed, the sound so tired just then, and poured himself some more whiskey. “You know what they’ll say – that shinigami bounds were created for war. I hear it in their thoughts all the time that Reno and Aya were created for this, that they should be put to use for what they’re obviously intended to do.”

That anger turned into a true rage when Yohji heard that. “Then they’ll have to get to Aya through *me*, first,” he ground out, his right hand seeking out his golden gauntlet at the mere thought of *anyone* using Aya as a weapon.

Rufus raised his glass in a mocking toast to Yohji. “You think I’ll let them do that to Reno? All I’m saying is that tonight they were here asking. Be prepared for when they stop asking so politely and come to twist the oaths we made in our faces and force our mates to decide between angering the gods and seeing us hurt.” He paused to drain the glass dry and then threw it across the room, into the fireplace. “What’s that damn saying about fairness and war?”

Yohji matched the bitterness in Rufus’ tone with some of his own. “I’ve another saying for you – the one about never messing with a kage’s mate.” He waited until Rufus looked up at him. “Something tells me that it’s the same for a dubhach, no?” When a hint of a smile twisted Rufus’ lips, he nodded and held up his bottle of whiskey – screw the damn glass. “If Birman, Yuushi – fuck it, if the king or even Crawford think they’re going to use Aya or Reno however they want, they’re going to have a rude awakening.”

“I’ll drink to that,” Rufus raised his bottle as well and then they both had a drink; Yohji figured he’d have to escort a tipsy Rufus to the kitchen pretty soon, but for right now, it felt good letting off a bit of steam with someone trapped in a similar situation as him. He just better tell Mickey to stock up on the whiskey since he had the feeling that there would be a few more nights like this in the upcoming months.

*******

Jo stared at the inebriated - *inebriated* - bounds in her kitchen and wondered what she’d done to offend the gods this time. Rufus was sitting at one of the table’s benches with Reno ensconced firmly in his lap, his normally finely tailored white and black outfit in a rare disarray and his blond hair tousled while Reno ran his hands beneath the fine linen white coat with a decidedly evil smirk on his face. Meanwhile, Yohji was trying to tug on one of Aya’s eartails while the standoffish redhead actually hissed at him, oblivious all the while to the fine line he was treading with his mate. She sent a befuddled look to Maddox, who was busy fixing up some after dinner plates, and then rolled up her sleeves so she could deal with this latest mess.

“Who wants some coffee?” Maybe that would help sober up these fools.

“Tea, please,” Aya said between swatting at Yohji’s right hand.

“Ya got any dessert left?” Reno leaned back from licking Rufus’ chin to fix her with a devastatingly charming smile; for someone who had grown up with Yohji and Teddy, she was actually stunned for a couple of seconds before she shook her head and glared.

“What have I told you about the ‘no molesting in the kitchen’ rule, dammit!”

“It’s not molesting if he’s willing, right,” Reno scoffed as his hands roamed a bit lower beneath the coat.

Grateful that Emmie and Neely weren’t here right now to see this, especially since *Yohji* was one of the tipsy fools, Jo prayed to the gods for patience before she started smacking people left and right with her marble rolling pin. “Just how much did you fools have to drink tonight?”

Yohji gave up on grabbing one of Aya’s eartails for a moment to frown and look in her direction. “Uhm… before or after the shit got real?”

That…. No, she didn’t want to know, not without a few drinks herself, Jo decided. “Who wants dessert with their coffee and tea?”

It didn’t come as much of a surprise when all four of the idiots waved their hands – well, Aya merely nodded, which was to be expected with his reserved nature. Jo went to fetch the almond cake she had set aside ‘just in case’, and made sure to cut some very large pieces while Bethwynn assisted her by putting on some water for tea and bringing a carafe of coffee to the table.

“So, did you at least settle the ‘shit’,” she dared to ask when she started handing out the cake.

Yohji’s frown turned into an outright glower as he poured himself a cup of coffee, while at his side Aya paused in decimating his piece of cake with fork in midair. “Uhm, we have a plan or two in place, but it all depends on how certain people will act. If that makes any sense.” He picked up the mug with both hands and pretty much drank all of it down without pause.

Well, *that* was reassuring. Jo turned her attention onto Aya, who shrugged before he took a bite of his cake. “People are idiots,” was all Aya said before he took another bite.

Really, what had she expected out of him, when he barely left his room anymore or said more than five words together at a time? Feeling the need for a drink herself, she glanced at Rufus and Reno as if there was a hope that they had anything of interest to say.

Reno had at least shifted off of Rufus’ lap so he could focus on his piece of cake, and he seemed to be too busy eating to speak. Rufus returned her look and rolled his eyes while he added some cream to his coffee. “Birman’s trying to use Reno for his… unique abilities. I believe we’re all under the general belief that it’s not going to end well if she keeps pushing.”

Finally, someone with an answer, more or less, even if Jo had an even bigger headache now than she had earlier. Determined to seek Reiichi out in the morning and have a talk with the man since Birman tended to listen to him, she huffed a little and poured herself some coffee, too. “Shouldn’t Crawford or Cassandra be stepping in right about now?”

Yohji paused in nuzzling Aya’s neck to give the question some thought, his head cocked to the side as if puzzled by it. “Eh… they’ve been pretty quiet lately, and any time you try to pin them down, they’ve been really evasive. I think the closer we get to the war, the more they’re trying to distance themselves from what’s going on.”

“There’s less choices right now.” Aya’s deep voice rang out through the room and carried a hint of sibilance. “Their talents work best when they can alter things, but now we’re getting too close to the war and there’s less options for everyone involved.”

“Which means that you and Reno are more heavily involved as well, which should cloud everything they’re trying to see,” Rufus pointed out. “They must not be too happy right about now with you two.”

Aya gave Rufus a flat look for several seconds before he resumed eating his cake. Bethwynn approached Jo with the pot of hot water, her hands trembled as she set it down on the table.

Jo patted the girl on the arm and pushed her back toward the sink with a reassuring smile; she knew that Bethwynn still felt a bit of awe and fear around Aya and Reno, which was picked up by Yohji when he glowered in the poor girl’s direction. “I would think that they’re used to it by now,” she said in hopes of a distraction.

“Eh, they should be, but it’s probably in part why they haven’t been around lately. We still have a couple of months until the war starts up proper, but between the Army being dispatched to the border and now a dead body in the palace, it looks as if it’s not going to be too quiet, that wait until late Spring.” Yohji spoke about the poor dead person so blasé that it took a moment for it to sink in to Jo.

No wonder that Reiichi, Ken and Miko had been so late returning today, and had been so quiet during dinner. They mustn’t have said anything to Jo about the murdered person because they knew that Rufus and Reno would be asked to help out, and so wanted them to be approached without any advanced warning. Oh yes, she would *definitely* be having words with Reiichi and Yuushi in the morning; Jo didn’t like surprises, especially surprises that would affect Aya and Yohji in the end. She was half tempted to go out into the common room after the two gentlemen right now, but knew it would be better to wait until after her temper cooled down a little.

“Do we need to get Omi involved?”

Yohji seemed to seriously consider her question for a moment, his cup of coffee held up to his chin. Then he glanced at Aya and shook his head. “No… at least, not yet.” He tucked Aya a little closer to his left side and looked over his mate’s head at Rufus. “Let’s wait a bit before dragging him into this – if Birman keeps pushing things, we can use him to maybe rein her in.”

“He is one of the few people she’ll listen to,” Rufus agreed.

Half draped over his shoulder while he licked at his fork, Reno hummed for a second or two. “Yeah, she’d be a damn fool to mess with that kid.”

Rufus pinched the bridge of his nose with his right hand while his left tugged on his mate’s red hair. “You live to torment the vast majority of this city, but Omi you respect?”

“Eh, the kid’s got balls. Anyone who stands up to a flesh gaki like Jei is either insane or deserves some respect.”

“You….” Rufus shook his head back and forth a few times. “You make no sense.”

“Yeah, because I’m stuck with you.” Reno abandoned his fork to lick at Rufus’ chin once more.

Yohji laughed at their antics and leaned over to slap Rufus’ right shoulder. “I’m thinking maybe you should take him home for the night.”

Appearing a little dazed at the moment, Rufus slowly nodded twice. “Yes… I think you’re right.” He stood up in a rush and pulled a protesting Reno to his feet. “Jo, I thank you for your hospitality, as always. Yohji, I fear we’ll be talking again in the near future. Good night, all.” That said, he hauled a protesting Reno out of the kitchen before anyone could respond.

Jo could only smile at the man’s antics. “Do I want to know what he meant about talking to you?” She turned to look at Yohji, who was more fiddling with his cake than eating it.

“Eh, it has to do with Birman, mostly.” Yohji looked up at her and then glanced down at Aya, who seemed more interested in his tea than what was happening in the room.

So she was left to surmise that Yohji and Rufus weren’t happy with whatever Birman was asking of Aya and Reno, which most likely had to do with their bound natures. Considering how most of the people who knew the truth about Aya seemed to be so skittish around him lately because of his ability to foresee death, she could guess what about their ‘natures’ Birman was probably interested in.

Sitting down at the table so she could pour herself a cup of coffee, Jo wondered why there always had to be a new problem – it wasn’t bad enough that the neighborhood was shunning Aya, that the majority of those who knew what he was seemed to fear him and that they had a war looming over their heads. No, now they had to deal with people who were supposed to be friends wanting to use Aya and Reno for things that even she realized couldn’t be done. “So, you decided that drinking tonight was a bright idea?”

Yohji shrugged, the movement stifled a little by the fact that he was still holding on to what now appeared to be a sleepy Aya. “It was either that or go on a rampage, so figured it was better to drink.”

Maybe he had a point there. Jo leaned back on the well-worn bench and sighed. “At least the only thing you massacred was a few bottles of whiskey, judging from what you smelled like when you came in here.”

“Hmm, and probably a few wine bottles up in the attic, judging from how happy Reno was!” Yohji laughed as he nuzzled Aya’s right temple. The redhead sighed a little but allowed the affectionate gesture, for the most part seeming content just to be at Yohji’s side.

For all that he appeared to be in a pleasant mood just then, Jo caught the sharp look that Yohji gave her and knew that they’d be having a more private discussion later on, when they were alone. For her part, she huffed a little as she collected Rufus and Reno’s empty plates and chided Yohji to drink some more coffee before he left for the night, and wondered when she could slip away to visit Cassandra when it was evident that her dear friend was reluctant to stop by the Koneko. Since it was growing clear that Cassandra was also reluctant to talk to Yohji and Aya, Jo would go in their stead for some answers – and Cassandra better be prepared to talk because Jo had the feeling that the time for riddles was long past.

*******

It was quiet in the park this early in the morning; most people were too busy preparing for a busy day ahead to enjoy the solitude and beauty of nature at the heart of the city, and the fact that the park’s greenery was still hidden behind a layer of snow was yet another reason for people to stay away. Yet the signs of spring approaching was there for those observant enough to notice, with the way that the many species of birds flitted about with bits of twigs and various snatches of stolen fluff in their beaks, the scampering of small mammals, the restlessness of the tiny deer…

Crawford watched it all with a detached eye, a paper cup of cooling sweet tea held in his right hand as he waited for his companion to arrive. A pair of doe had just flitted past him when Birman finally arrived, her pale cheeks rosy from the cold despite the heavy dark grey cloak that she wore. “Sometimes I swear that *you’re* the fire elemental, considering your love of meeting out in the cold,” she chided as she approached.

He noted the sleeping cat charm that was pinned onto her cloak and laughed, certain that no one would overhear them despite the fact that this area of the park appeared abandoned. “Come now, they say fresh air is good for you now and then.”

She made a rude noise to that and shook her head, the hood of her cloak falling back to reveal that her black hair was twisted up in an intricate braid; it seemed that someone was going to be spending time in Court today, probably under some sort of illusion spell. “If I wanted fresh air, I’d have joined the Army instead of going to work for the Spymaster.”

“There’s some truth to that.” Crawford finished his tea in several swallows and then crumpled the cup so there was one less thing to worry about before motioning with his chin for Birman to walk beside him. “I take it your request for a chat has something to do with Tani’s death yesterday?”

“Yes, and I’m hoping that you or Cassandra didn’t have any forewarning of the event.” That didn’t come across as an accusation in any way, but there was a note of exasperation to Birman’s voice and thoughts. He took it that someone had been very busy for the past day with trying to contain the fallout from the highborn’s death.

“Sorry to destroy your image of us precogs being all omnipotent, but no, we had no clue about the man’s death.” He had to smile at Birman’s snort of derision just then. “I can tell you that things… have gotten a bit murky since then, but we haven’t been able to see what exactly is changing.” He felt so frustrated just then – the war was approaching so *soon*, and every little change mattered so much. It didn’t help that Cass was becoming so fixated on the threads that affected Schuldig and Botan, was doing what she could to limit the damage to her son and… well, there was only so much that could be changed. She knew that back at the beginning, the foolish woman.

Birman canted a look at him from the corner of her eyes and frowned. “That’s not exactly what I wanted to hear, you know.” Before he could complain, she waved her gloved hands about. “I know, I know, too many threads and it doesn’t help that Aya and Reno are involved, to say nothing of their mates. But you could… oh, I don’t know, act like the precogs in the plays and novels and make up some mumble-jumble just to placate me long enough to get back to the palace where I realize it was just garbage and then rant to poor Trowa all day about you.”

At moments like this, he could see why Jei was so insistent on why no one but him would ever get to eat this woman. A rare grin spread across Crawford’s face as he shook his head. “’A great disturbance looms ahead, and things will lie uneasy at the palace. Take great pains in the choices you make, as enemies are near.’ Does that help?”

She looked half-impressed for a few seconds before she rolled her eyes. “You’ve a great future ahead working a booth in the market, you know.” A bitter laugh escaped as she rolled her eyes some more. “The sad part is, you probably right there.” She folded her arms beneath her cloak and sighed. “Any ideas who those ‘enemies’ might be? Rufus and Schuldig both agree that Esset sent a spy into the palace to trigger the suicide compulsion in Tani, and I won’t bet a bad copper that they’re stopping with him.”

“Unfortunately, I fear that you’re right.” He gave the matter some thought for a little bit as they strolled down the deserted path that winded around an iced over pond. “Quatre told me that a couple of the upper level ones have been missing from the Elders’ Court lately – I had assumed that maybe they had been dispatched to the front line. Perhaps one or two of them have been sent here instead.”

“If you can, write up their descriptions and give it to Trowa, please.” Birman’s arms seemed to be shifting about beneath her cloak, probably as she tapped something on her gauntlet. “I’ve asked Rufus and Reno to stop by Court as much as they can – I know Reno’s reluctant to use his ability to foretell death to our benefit, but *some* sort of reaction would be of immense aid to our cause.”

Mention of the dubhach and his highborn mate gave Crawford pause for a moment, and he stopped walking as he debated if he should warn Birman about something he’d caught flashes of in the future or not. When she noticed his stillness and gave him a questioning look, he sighed and shook his head. “I’m wondering if Tani’s death has something to do with Shinra, as we’ve known that there’s a chance that the Elders wants to rouse suspicion against him in order to ensure that he doesn’t get too settled here. From the little I’ve seen of the future… I believe he’ll end up back in Esset before the start of the war.”

Birman didn’t appear too pleased with that announcement. “I thought you helped arrange things to get him and Reno *out* of Berin. You telling me that you’re just going to stand there and allow him to go back?”

A flash of anger sparked in him and made him bare his teeth at the Spymaster. “I’m not ‘allowing’ anything – I’m merely stating a most likely fact based on a vision I’ve seen. I did what I could to get Shinra and more importantly Reno out of Berin because the longer Reno stayed at Court, the more likely it was that the Elders would figure out what he is.” Crawford pushed aside his cloak so he could run his fingers through his hair as the frustration built in him; dammit, why did it seem that some days, no matter how hard he tried that all the carefully woven threads would split apart at the slightest interference? “I don’t *want* Reno to go back, but at least he’s spent time here in Eto where he’s formed a strong bond with Aya, where Shinra has agreed to fight for Kritiker and where they’ve been out of the Elders’ sight. If they have to go back to Berin, we’ll do what we can to delay it as long as possible.”

Birman stared hard at him for several seconds, the ‘mask’ on her face the one she wore when she did her duties as Kritiker’s Spymaster, one of cold analysis and disconnect, and then finally nodded. “So we have to deal with probably a powerful soul gaki bound under orders to cause trouble by making our highborn and officials kill themselves, and in the process help frame an important ally who’s mated to a dubhach, lose said ally and dubhach to the enemy side of the war, and wait for Esset to ramp up their infamous terrorism campaign before the actual war starts.” Birman huffed a little as a hint of annoyance crept over her lovely face. “Am I leaving out anything of importance?”

“Just that Shinra won’t be the only one leaving for Esset,” Crawford reminded her. “At some point, the Elders should be recalling me, Jei, Nagi, Schuldig and Masato.” He smiled slightly when the Spymaster took to swearing. “To be perfectly honest, I’m counting on it as soon as the weather clears enough to allow for quick travel.”

“I didn’t quite forget about it, but I try not to dwell upon too many bad things at a time,” Birman admitted while she resumed their stroll through the park. “Omi’s *not* going to be happy, and neither is Aya.”

They weren’t alone in being upset about Crawford and his compatriots having to leave Eto, but they were among the more powerful. “I think the only one who will be pleased with our departure, besides the Elders, will be Kaede.”

That provoked a laugh from his companion. “Ah! Yes, I hadn’t thought about that – maybe I won’t be there to see you and Jei off after all.” Birman chuckled for a few more seconds before turning serious once more. “Every day, I’m reminded about how real the war is, about how inevitable it is. We really have reached the point of no return, haven’t we?”

He thought about that question for a moment and rubbed at his eyes before he answered, for a second lost in the memory of all the visions he’d seen over the years, all the threads that twisted about that led to a very specific event – and a specific darkness. “To be honest, I think it was irrevocable once Aya was born – Aya and Reno. The gods wouldn’t waste a shinigami soul after so long without one, let alone *two* at the same time.”

They were both quiet after that, and while the company was welcome on such a cold, dreary day, Crawford knew they both had a lot of work to do. “I’ll send the information to Trowa by this evening, and have Jei find out what he can about any new Esset soul gaki bounds who have entered the city.”

“Thank you.” Birman bowed her head for a moment before she fussed with her cloak. “I’ll keep you informed with what’s happening in the Court since Rufus and Reno will be involved.”

“It would be appreciated, since their presence will hamper what little ability I have at this point of ‘seeing’ any events there.” He paused for a moment before deciding to just go ahead and ask the question anyway. “How are things with the queen?”

The look Birman gave him just then did not bode well for the person in question – if Manx still had her old rank of Captain, the woman’s life would be one of misery, but her marriage to the king was probably shielding her somewhat from the Spymaster’s obvious ire. “I understand that Manx is very loyal to the king, but her pettiness isn’t doing her any favors. I’ve dealt with worse over the years, but… for all that she thinks she’s defending Shuuichi from my ‘disloyalty’, she’s only hurting him with her antics.”

Crawford was certain that Birman had indeed endured worse for being the bastard of a highborn at Court, but he also knew that she could more than handle herself even in the face of the queen’s wrath. However, her words helped to explain a vision or two that he’d had of the future after the war. “All that matters in the end is that Omi has your support.”

She made a clicking sound with her tongue and gave him a look that proclaimed him a blithering idiot. “The boy has *always* had my support and nothing is going to change that – tell that to Manx.”

It almost would be worth Crawford’s while for him to make the effort to sneak into the palace and have a private audience with the queen just to see the woman’s face when he did so, but he had better things to do with his time. “I think I’ll pass.”

“Wise man,” Birman muttered.

That startled another laugh out of him. “Well, not that it isn’t always enjoyable to spend time with you, but I think we both have a long list of things demanding our attention,” he told her with a touch of regret.

“Hmm, too bad none of your kind has figured out a way to stop time as of yet. That would be helpful since those darn lists keep getting longer and longer.” Birman sighed as she waved goodbye to Crawford. “Let’s hope we don’t have a need to see each other in the near future.”

“And a good day to you, too,” he bade the Spymaster before heading off in a different direction.

*******

Dieter slipped into the tavern, grateful that it was mostly deserted at this time of day save for the few hardcore drinkers huddled along the plain, worn oak bar that ran the length of the eastern wall of the smoke-filled main room. He strode onward to the far corner where Annalise was sitting alone, though he was certain that her partner, Haise, was lurking around here somewhere; if he wanted to, he could track down the flesh gaki bound by his thoughts, but it was too much effort right now.

“Good day to you,” Annalise said by way of greeting, her voice low yet smooth, containing none of the stress she felt to be surrounded by so many humans.

“Good day to you,” he returned as he settled in the chair perpendicular to her so he wasn’t sitting with his back to the room. “Have a good shopping expedition?”

“Hmm, it was decent. Found a few things you might like.” She picked up the basket that had been sitting on the floor next to her chair and placed it on the scarred tabletop, the contents seemingly innocuous enough should anyone think to look – some folded shirts, a blue wool sweater and couple of knitted scarves that hid some bags of coins inside.

“You know I’m always terrible at buying things for myself.”

“Who could forget the outfit you wore for the winter solstice party.” Annalise shuddered in delicate exaggeration, her fine features marred with horror, and they fell into a mostly senseless discussion about his lousy tastes in clothes that was well-practiced.

<So you had no problems entering the palace yesterday,> Dieter asked while she continued to prattle on about why yellow shouldn’t be worn with that particular shade of orange.

He pretended to grimace as he poured himself a beer from the pitcher set out on the table. <No problems at all – the illusion held up because it was so minor, though I would have been in trouble if I’d cast anything stronger. Our intel about all the anti-glamour charms that the Royal Wizard and his apprentices have cast is correct. I’d best stay away from any areas dealing with the royal family just to be safe.>

<It is suspicious, how talented the Royal Wizard has become in the last two years…> Annalise pretended to become annoyed at one of his responses and waved her hand about in a flustered manner, the sleeve of her fine, embroidered beige shirt fluttering about with the motion. <But that’s not our mission at this point. I’m under the impression that you’ll be required to return to the palace in the next couple of days, so don’t be surprised if * comes for you.>

Since the man could be a sneaky bastard at the worst of times, Dieter wasn’t too worried about any of the Kritiker Spymasters’ agents tracking him back to his apartment through the flesh gaki bound. <That’s fine, I now have enough gold to pick up a few new trinkets to explain my presence at the palace.> Just one of the many artisans running around, delivering items for pampered highborns so willing to be distracted by the possibility of their loved ones dying in the near future…

<Good. I wish we dared to slip something charmed into the palace, but at least we’re gathering some information.> Annalise pretended as if it was the taste of her beer that made her grimace. “Really, Armand, you have such common tastes.”

“Someone has to, in order to make you look good, my dear.” He rose up, the basket in his left hand, and leaned in to give her a kiss on the cheek. “I’ll see you next week.”

“I suppose.”

No one at the bar paid him much mind as he left, though he caught one or two hopeful glances back Annalise’s way now that she was alone. Certain that the earth elemental could take care of himself, he sauntered out of the tavern and went on his way, his red cloak flapping in the sudden gust of wind and causing him to curse a bit at the cold. Just in case he was being followed, which he doubted because he didn’t sense any minds concentrated on him, he spent about an hour perusing the stalls that lined the streets along the blocks leading away from the tavern, his feet taking him in a random pattern until it was about time for lunch. Then he headed for home, where he would stash away the money and fix himself a snack there before heading out to find a proper lunch.

Eto was a wonder, this marvelous city with all of its shops, restaurants and taverns. People walked past him without a care, completely blind to the fact that he was the enemy – even a pair of Guards gave him a polite nod as they went on their way. To think that in a couple of months that most of them would be dead and his fellow bounds would own these streets… he smiled in pleasure at the thought.

*******

 

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