Shadows Falling

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foreshadowings

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chapter two

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What would happen if he decided to say ‘to hell with Court’ and removed the fine robe he had just finished belting closed and crawled back into the nice soft bed just a few feet away, Botan wondered as he forced himself to leave Cassandra’s small, warm bedroom. Would the world really come to an end? He snorted a little as he made his way down the steps to the first floor at the thought of all the dramatic people who populated Shuuichi’s Court, not to mention how busy Omi, Takashi and Haruto were at the moment. Why in all the hells had he ever thought that it would be a good idea to rise up to the rank of Royal Wizard?

Making his way back toward the kitchen, he heard the sounds of people moving about but no one talking, which would be unusual in any household but this one. He stood in the door way and smiled as in front of him, Cassandra and Haru bustled about, hands busy as his lover waved them about as if silently telling a story while Haru nodded and continued to cut into what smelled to be a freshly made loaf of nut bread. They went on like that for another minute or two, until Botan chuckled and stepped into the kitchen proper.

“You know, you two would give a poor guy a complex about his hearing if he didn’t know any better.”

Cassandra paused in mentally telling whatever it was to Haru to smack him on a shoulder, a becoming blush spreading across her cheeks as she leaned up to give him a kiss. “Bah, such foolishness this early in the morning.”

“Well, I might as well try to get it all out now before I head to the palace.” He gave her a quick hug, his hands sliding along the silky fabric of her pretty golden dress, before he stepped aside to smile at Haru. “What does she have you doing today?”

“Cutting patterns after I run out for some supplies.” Haru smiled back as she brought him some of the sliced bread and then went over to the stove for the pot of coffee. Meanwhile, Cassandra fetched some spiced porridge for him.

“Thank you,” he told them both, a prideful warmth settling in his chest at the thought of how well they looked after him. “So, a busy day for all of us?”

“So it seems.” Cassandra fussed with collar of his blue robe for a moment before sitting back in her chair so he could eat. “There are many people who need outfits prepared before the summer.” Her lips pressed into a thin line for a moment.

Yes, the remaining soldiers, Guards and highborn who had yet to report to the border for the war, Botan and his apprentices included. He paused in eating for a moment as he thought about the approaching war and his duties. “We’ll all be very well prepared, at the least,” was all he said.

“That you will be.” Cassandra was quiet for a moment before she left the table, a troubled expression on her face.

Something was bothering his lover, something that cast a shadow over her usual cheerful demeanor… something that she wouldn’t share with Botan. He wanted to ask her what it was, if there was anything that he could do to help, but in the end there was only so much that could be done when one’s lover was a precog. He knew that Cassandra was reluctant to speak about some futures because of the risk of interference, and also because she didn’t want to share the burden of the knowledge she possessed. Botan could only hope that things would work out in the end – Cassandra and Crawford were doing everything that they could to ensure that Kritiker won the war and that the price of that victory wouldn’t be too high for those involved.    

While he ate, Haru asked – out loud this time – Cassandra a couple of questions about what she should pick up at the local market before she reached for her green cloak. Once dressed for the cold outside, she gave Botan a kiss on the cheek before leaving; the girl was beginning to grow up into a lovely young woman, one who made him ache for the time he’d had stolen from him with Kaede, the opportunities to see his daughter mature even as he cherished this new family that he’d found.

Mindful of his own responsibilities, he finished his breakfast and took the dirty plates over to the sink. “I doubt I’ll be back in time for dinner tonight,” he told his lover. “Shuuichi wants to meet tonight to talk about all of the charms for the Army and the Guard.”

She didn’t appear pleased with the news, but he knew that she wasn’t upset with him. “The king needs to learn to trust his people more,” she grumbled as she reached up to brush her fingers along his left cheek.

“I think the definition of a king is to ‘meddle’.” He laughed at her expression just then, a charming mix of disgruntlement and annoyance. “Take care.”

“The same to you.” They shared a lingering kiss before he went off to finish preparing for the day, since he knew that she had enough work to occupy her and he needed to leave as well. It was almost painful, leaving Cassandra’s warm and cheery home, but he had a feeling that either Birman or Yuushi would be sending one of their people out for him soon if he didn’t.

Mindful of all the work that waited for him, he flagged down a coach after walking a few blocks away from Cassandra’s home and made good time to the palace, where the expected bedlam welcomed him back to work. Several highborn or assistants of the highborn attempted to wave him aside, but he ignored them with a skill honed over the years. He noticed that there seemed to be a few more Guards stationed along the hallways today, and attributed it to Tani’s death – not a pleasant thought at the moment.

Finally making it back to his office, he smiled to find Omi and Takashi busy making charms while Nagi sat near Omi and read a book. “Good morning – where’s Haruto?”

“Eh, some Court official grabbed him, I think she reports to Minister Kiryuuin,” Takashi explained as he held up a finished charm; judging from the iolite stone, it would probably go to one of the archers in the Army to help improve their aim.             “We didn’t think he’d be gone this long.”

Botan wondered if his apprentice had been cornered over something to do with Tani’s death, since the man had ultimately reported up to the Minister of Infrastructure. “I’m sure he’ll show up soon,” he said as he removed his cloak. “Anything else of interest occur this morning?”

Omi paused in his own spellcasting to motion to the pile of letters that waited for Botan on his desk. “I think a few people are eager to talk to you.” There was a distinct gleam of pity in his blue eyes before he lowered his head back over his work.

“Wonderful,” Botan muttered as he surveyed the pile – why did it seem that the damn things multiplied each day? “Where’s one of Naru’s bombs when I need them?”

Takashi laughed and paused in the charm creation long enough to pour himself a cup of coffee and to bring another over to Botan. “We could always say that a spell got out of hand, except we’ve used that excuse three times in the past month.”

“Hmm, along with ‘the elements seem to be disturbed in the office from all the spellcasting’,” Omi added as he finished with his latest charm.

Botan sighed with regret as he accepted the mug. “In other words, we need more inventive excuses for why the mail is mysteriously vanishing.” It wasn’t as if he trashed anything important, he was just getting tired of various highborn feeling that they could pull rank for useless requests when he was busy trying to prepare for a damn war. It just seemed better to ignore all of them than pick and choose between them, which was a political suicide of sorts. “I think for today, there’s going to be an unfortunate accident with the carafe of coffee when we test out a charm, “ he decided upon.

“Pay attention, Takashi, since *this* is clearly what separates a Royal wizard from the rest,” Omi teased.             

Takashi laughed while Botan pretended to glare at a certain cheeky brat. “Trust me, I’m taking down notes.”  A huge grin spread across his handsome face when Botan turned the glare on the young man.

“If I wanted abuse, I’d go suffer out there in Court,” Botan complained, which prompted a fresh round of laughs from Omi and Takashi – for Nagi’s part, he merely continued to read from his book, a silent presence at Omi’s side. When Botan began to sort through the pile of letters on his desk, the elemental bound glanced up from the book to give him an inscrutable look only for a moment. “How’s the work on the charms?”

“Eh, we’ll be back on track once Haruto’s here to help us out.” Takashi rubbed the back of his neck as if he was sore, which was probable because of the long hours required to sit and work on charms that was being demanded of him and the others lately. “I’m about to flinch upon the mere sight of a semi-precious stone at this point.”

“Imagine if we didn’t have the witches to help us out… among others.” Omi dumped a small bag filled with sardonyx and gave his boyfriend a gentle nudge in the side. Nagi made a soft growling sound before he put his book aside and then held his hands over the stones with his eyes closed. As with every time he did this, Botan attempted to figure out what he was doing, to try to ‘see’ if he could sense some sort of magic but never could, and after about a minute the dark-haired teenager huffed and opened his eyes. He seemed annoyed with Omi now that the task was finished, yet Omi smiled and leaned in for a kiss that was returned without any reservation before Nagi resumed his reading, now settled a bit more closely against the crown prince’s side.

Humming a little in happiness, Omi began to sort through the stones before he began to work on the fire charms, while Takashi watched on with a bit of wistfulness; the young wizard had a lovely girlfriend of his own, but Botan could understand that hint of longing from observing a couple who seemed perfect for each other. He knew that Shuuichi and definitely Manx kept waiting for Omi’s case of young ‘infatuation’ to end, but Omi and Nagi’s relationship just grew stronger with each passing day. After putting up with several mated bond pairs, it was refreshing to see a couple where those involved weren’t forced together because of some mystical connection, just the fact that they loved each other deeply and truly.

Botan had just finished sorting through the letters and started on his second cup of coffee when Haruto returned. His missing assistance seemed in an unsettled mood, yet summoned a smile for everyone as soon as he closed the door; Haruto still stood out from the others in that he dressed in a fine robe of pale gold and brown, unlike Omi, Nagi and Takashi’s plain knit sweaters and either linen or leather pants, but he was much more friendly and open with his fellow apprentices than he had been at the start. “Good morning, Botan.”

“Hello, Haruto.” Botan set aside his mug of coffee and nodded in greeting. “So, I hear you were popular today.”

Haruto’s frown returned as he scratched at the back of his head. “Only because you weren’t available, sir. Lady Hinata wanted to make a request in person for some new wards at the offices for the department of Infrastructure. I get the impression that the… recent death has affected them greatly.”

“Yes, I’m sure it has.” Botan tapped his fingers against his desk for a moment and then nodded. “Of course we’ll honor the request – I’ll send a message that I’ll deal with it, since the three of you are busy enough at the moment.” He’d have to speak to Birman about this, both to let her know about the wards and to see if she had any clue about the request. She’d told him last night that Tani had been one of the unsuspecting double-agents for Esset, which left him wondering if there were any more left within the department of Infrastructure.

Haruto appeared relieved to have passed on the message; he seemed to be loyal to Botan and Shuuichi, but he could become flustered if pulled between various factions of Court, no doubt a holdover of his upbringing. Meanwhile, Omi cast a lingering look Botan’s way before resuming his work on the charms, no doubt very aware of what was keeping Birman so busy the last day or so since the damn brat seemed to know *everything* anymore. Botan was beginning to wonder if he wasn’t a latent soul gaki bound, somehow.... That, or Birman was trying to raise him up to take over her position as Spymaster as well as the throne. Somehow, Botan wouldn’t put it past the two of them.

Wondering why he couldn’t even get past mid-morning without a new conspiracy seeming to rear its head, Botan rubbed at his temples and thought rather forlornly about how he could have gone into the family pottery business instead.

*******

Jo waited until Neely had Yohji distracted with a request to assist her with fetching some items from the wine cellar and headed upstairs, where she was certain Aya was spending the day – Yohji didn’t usually ask for so much tea if they were curled up in their room, so she guessed that they were doing some research in the attic library. Well, *Aya* was doing some research in the attic library. Grateful for the charmed necklace that allowed her entrance into the special room, she hesitated a moment outside the warded door before entering.

“Hi, Jo.”

Aya had his back to the door and was standing in front of a bookshelf across the room, his head bowed as he read from the book, yet somehow he knew who it was who had come up here. Jo shivered a little before she straightened her back and smiled. “Hi, Aya. Feel like putting Yohji to work today, do you,” she asked as she headed toward a desk covered with books.

“Hmm, Rufus explained a little to him about what happened at the palace, so we’re looking up about coercions,” he explained as he finally turned around; there were a few candles glowing in the attic, their light reflecting in Aya’s violet eyes until they shone silver. Normally he was more careful about that, but… well, Jo supposed he wouldn’t bother when he was up in a room warded by his own shadows.  “The little we’re finding just indicates that it’s possible, to force someone to die that way, but it has to be done by a very powerful soul gaki bound.”

She swallowed past a throat gone tight and rested her hand on top of a book that looked very old, its leather cover soft beneath her fingertips. “I thought… well, I thought what made Yohji so special was that he could… ‘coerce’ anybody to do anything he wanted.” Including kill themselves – something she hated to think about, at least in relation to the smiling, charming young man she’d helped raised.

Aya gave her such an utterly blank look for a moment that she was about to snap at him to get him to show *some* emotion before he shook his head and set down the book he’d been reading. “What makes Yohji special is that he can coerce one or more people with a thought and make them do his bidding with ease, past things they would normally resist such as murder and death.” He spoke of such a horrible thing in a normal tone of voice, but she caught a flash of silver in his eyes that had nothing to do with the reflecting light since it remained even as he shifted about. “A soul gaki bound can’t do that without laying some ground work at first, and even then, a strong enough will should be able to resist them.”         

Jo thought about what Aya was saying as she tidied up the books in neat stacks. “So it won’t always work, what this agent is trying to do?” Aya nodded, a slight smile on his lovely face as he watched her restore order to the table. “Coercions don’t always work? How come they did for Shin? I would think if it’s possible for them to fail, it would be for mates.”

“Because you had two very old and knowledgeable soul gaki bounds, once two of the most powerful of their kind, work on him over a long period of time,” Aya explained as he hitched his left hip onto the table, his hands folded onto his lap. Jo thought she saw something dark shift about on his grey sweater but chose to ignore it in favor of fussing with the books instead, especially since Aya was in a rare, talkative mood. “Also, they weren’t negating the mating bond itself, they put in place compulsions that affected Shin when he was around Yuda – semantics, I know.” He shrugged when Jo scowled at that. “The bond itself was left untouched and Shin fought against the compulsions for a long time before they finally grew too strong. I’m willing to bet that he shouldn’t have even been able to stand Yuda in the first place.”

The Elders owed so much for all the things that they had done over the years. Jo muttered a curse to the gods for letting those old bastards inflict so much pain upon the world before she straightened up. “So, you think you found out something that can help Birman and Yuushi?”

Aya shrugged and motioned to the now neat stack of books. “I’m sure Reiichi and Eri will look through what we found, and hopefully it’ll help. But what they really need to do is find the Esset agent.”

Yeah, Jo was certain *that* was easier said than done. “I’m sure they’re working on it.” She sighed and rested her hands on her hips. “I’m headed to see Cassandra this afternoon,” she announced, the real reason she’d come up to visit Aya. “Is there any message you’d like for me to take to her?”

It wasn’t often when she surprised the kage like this anymore, but he blinked a few times and cocked his head to the side as if he didn’t know what to say. After several seconds, he shook his head. “No, nothing I can think of, other than ‘hello’.” He paused again for a moment. “I’m sure Yohji can think of something, though.”

“Yes, I’m certain of that, too.” Jo’s lips twisted into a wry grin for a moment before she sighed. “But I wanted to ask you first, just… well, just in case.” She knew not to push things with Aya, that he was being so withdrawn for a reason, but she just wanted to check. “If you want, you can always write it down and I’ll take it to her that way.”

A rare smile curved Aya’s lips at the offer. “Jo… it’s all right.” His eyes became pure silver but somehow, it wasn’t that frightening when he continued to smile just that little bit. “I know what’s expected of me, what’s coming, and nothing Cassandra says is going to change it. She has enough to worry about for now without me pestering her for glimpses she can’t see anyway, and I’m fine with it. You need to focus on keeping the rest of the Koneko safe and not Yohji and me.”

She scoffed at that last bit and ached to grab onto him, to cup his face between her hands and give him a little shake but that hint of a shadow kept her still. “Don’t be foolish, Aya. You’re part of the Koneko so I’ll always worry about you – that and you’re stuck with Yotan. Not enough hours of the day for me to do all the necessary worrying about *that* idiot,” she grumbled in an attempt to hide her nervousness.

He seemed to stare back at her for a moment before slowly blinking. “Do… what you must. But I still think the others need your concern more than us.”

That caused her to take a step forward. “Does that-“ She cut off as it hit her, what she was asking.

Something akin to concern flashed across Aya’s face and he shook his head, his long eartails flashing about in his haste. “No! That’s – that’s not what I meant.” He sighed as he wrapped his arms around his waist. “This… it’s so difficult, to know what to say anymore.” He sounded so uncertain, so lost, that she wanted to envelope him in a hug.

“I’m sorry, I just wanted to see if I could help in some way.” Jo sighed as she fussed with her apron, her fingers smoothing the fabric over her thighs. “I know how hard it’s been on you lately.” She hated to see him hiding in his room or up here so much lately, as if afraid of interacting with people.

Aya was quiet for a moment, and just when he looked up, the door opened and Yohji rushed in. “Is everything all right!” His face was flustered and his dark chestnut colored hair dusted with cobwebs, which caused Aya’s smile to return as he strolled over to his mate to brush away the debris.

“Everything is fine. What happened to the tea and snacks you were supposed to bring up?”

Yohji stared at Aya for a few seconds before he helped brush at the dust that covered his green sweater, just a shade darker than his eyes. “Uhm, Neely needed help bringing up a few cases of wine from the cellar.” He cast a suspicious glance in Jo’s direction before he caught at Aya’s pale hands and pulled his lover in for a quick kiss. “Hmm. She’ll be bringing up something in a few minutes as ‘thanks’ for the help.” His smile faded as he glanced at Jo. “What were the two of *you* doing up here?”

“Jo’s going over to see Cassandra and wondered if I wanted to pass along a message.” Aya’s voice just then contained a hint of a purr, so Yohji just blinked in surprise as he pulled the redhead to his side. “You have anything you want to say?”

The look that Yohji gave Jo just then let her know that he had his doubts that she was merely  up here to see if Aya wanted to say ‘hi’, but since Aya seemed fine at the moment, he wasn’t too unhappy. “Just tell her that we miss her, okay? If we have to put up with Schu’s visits, we should be able to see her,” he grumbled. “And I’m sure that Emmie and Neely would be more than happy to spend time with Haru.”

“I think the girls meet up to do some shopping, but I’ll pass that along.” Jo twitched the skirts of her blue dress and gave Yohji a smile. “I’ll go help Neely bring up your snacks.”

“You do that, since I swear she had me carry about ten cases of wine upstairs.” Yohji rolled his lovely green eyes and sighed. “She’s been hanging out around Mickey too damn long.”

“Better than her taking after you or Teddy, no?”

That prompted a laugh out of the fool even as he hugged Aya closer. “All right, you’ve got a point.” He nuzzled a seemingly docile Aya and smiled. “Make sure to have some treats on the tray, okay?”

She smacked him on the arm as she walked past. “Just make sure that we don’t walk in on anything indecent when we come back up here,” she chided.

“As if- ow! You and those damn bony elbows, Cat!”

Leaving the two alone for the moment, Jo smiled as she closed the library door behind her.

*******

Cassandra watched over Haru as she began to cut into the thin blue wool material spread out across the large table. “Yes, be sure to keep it smooth.”

Haru nodded in understanding as she focused on the task before her, her teeth biting gently into her bottom lip and her brown eyes narrowed slightly as she stared down on the area where the sharp shears cut into the fine wool. As soon as she finished the pattern, she took a step back with a suddenly indrawn breath and looked up at Cassandra. <Well?>

“You did a wonderful job,” Cassandra reassured the girl. “So good, in fact, I’ll let you do the rest of it!” She clapped her hands together and laughed, especially when Haru grimaced a little and shook her right hand.

“Thank you… I think.” She grimaced again as she neatly folded and set aside the finished piece of what would be a summer cloak, something for the soldiers to wear at night or during inclement weather, but Cassandra could feel her foster daughter’s pleased emotions. “Maybe sewing is more fun than cutting.”

 

“Says the child who was moaning about how boring it was to stitch seams just the other day,” Cassandra chided as she walked away. In a way it wasn’t that fair, making Haru learn the tailoring trade since she knew where the girl’s true talents lie, but it kept her out of trouble and it never was a bad thing to learn some patience and pick up skills that might be helpful later on in life. Also, Haru wanted to be of some use, and she was still a little young to go off running errands for Crawford and Birman unsupervised. A little young… but not for much longer, Cassandra thought to herself as she put on a pot of fresh water for tea. Time moved on so quickly, and before she knew it Haru would be a young woman standing on her own….

Cassandra had just poured the hot water into the teapot when there was a knock at the back door. Smiling at little in anticipation of her guest, she hurried to let Jo in and smiled in greeting. “Good day to you.”

“One of these days I’ll manage to surprise you,” Jo muttered as she slid in from out of the cold, her black coat clutched against her chest as she shivered a little. “I thought it was supposed to be spring soon.”

“Hmm, it will come soon enough.” And then loved ones would leave with the rain and warm winds, Cassandra thought to herself as she helped her friend shed the heavy wool outer-garment. “I would say that then one will complain about the heat, but the last few summers have been unseasonably cool.”

“As much as I hate sweltering, it’ll be good once the seasons get back to normal,” Jo agreed. She turned around with a hand raised to fuss with her hair, most of it pulled back in a braid, and caught sight of the tea and plate of sweet bread set out on the table. “Was my arrival that obvious?” Her lips twitched as if she wanted to smile.

Urging her friend to sit down while she poured the tea, Cassandra shrugged a little. “I knew someone was coming, and since I couldn’t see too clearly, that it had to do with the Koneko somehow. I guessed it was you, especially when I could hear you muttering outside my door.”

That prompted a laugh from her friend as Jo selected a couple of slices of bread. “Sneaking around was never my forte, I’ll admit.” She waited until Cassandra had poured them both some tea before continuing. “You’re missed, you know. Everyone said to tell you ‘hi’.”

The admission made Cassandra smile, especially since she was certain that it wasn’t just for her talent. “It feels like forever since I’ve stopped by.” She sighed a little into the cup of tea that she picked up, which caused the steam to flare about into the air.

“Then come for dinner one night.” Jo gave her a kind look before she shook her head. “I know it’s not easy for you, but surely it won’t hurt too much if you stop by for an hour or two.”

Cassandra thought about what she wanted to say, what she *should* say, before she spoke. “Jo… the Koneko has been my second home ever since I arrived here, and it holds a beloved place in my heart. It’s my family, as much as Schu and Haru are, and I know that if I ever need a place to stay that it is there. That said…” she let out another slow breath and set the tea aside, “I can’t quite return to it just yet. There is so *much* that needs to be done right now, so much I still need to *see*, and I can’t risk the one or two glimpses that are still open to me being… being overshadowed.” She hated to say that, to make it sound as if it was Jo’s beloved Yohji and Aya driving her away, but… in a way, they were. She didn’t blame the two, not when they were being nothing but themselves, but Aya’s very nature thwarted magic such as hers and she needed every bit of her gift to ensure that those she loved remained… that she didn’t lose….

A small, broken sob stole past Cassandra’s control and she found herself crying in front of Jo, just a tear or two, and then Jo was beside her, those strong, wiry arms wrapped around her. “Oh Cass… you silly fool, you don’t have to keep it all inside. We’re here for you, you know. Whatever you need, we’re here for you.”

She allowed herself to close her eyes and let the sorrow slip free, just for a few seconds, because Jo was so warm, her emotions so soothing, so understanding, and it felt so *good* to have someone giving her comfort just then.

“We’ll be there for you,” Jo repeated, and Cassandra looked up to find Haru standing at the edge of the table. Her foster daughter nodded, her expression solemn and mind carefully shielded as she allowed Cassandra her privacy, and Jo stepped back while she handed Cassandra a napkin to wipe away her tears.

“Thank you.” Cassandra’s voice was quiet just then; she didn’t quite trust her talent at the moment.

“It’s nothing.” Jo resumed her seat at the table while Haru sat down as well. “Cass… you know if you need anything, you can send a message or Haru to the Koneko. We miss you… but, well, I guess I know why Yohji and Aya haven’t pressed to come visit.”

No, especially Aya, and if Aya felt reluctant to come here, then Yohji would follow his mate’s cues. Cassandra dabbed at her face with the soft cloth and took a steadying breath. “It would probably help if I sent a message myself, but we have been busy.”

“Everyone is, and it’s just going to get worse, between half the city seeming to leave for the war and Kira determined to hold her wedding while everyone’s still around for it.” Jo poured them some tea before sitting back in her chair. “At least she wore Mickey down on that one.”

“I think it’ll be pretty, getting married in the spring,” Haru commented. “It’s nice, to have something to look forward to then.” She cast a nervous glance in Cassandra’s direction.

Yes, she had to remind herself that there would still be things to look forward to, that life as always moved on. She had known that from the very beginning and some things couldn’t be changed, even if she was doing all she could to hope for the best, to spare whatever pain she could. “You’re right,” she agreed with Haru while forcing a smile on her face. “Now, why don’t you tell us all about Kira’s plans, yes?” She held up her cup of tea and nodded at Jo. “It seems we’ve missed much of the good gossip.”

Jo gave her a look which indicated that she knew a change of topic when she heard it, but she humored Cassandra by beginning to describe the frantic sewing the poor woman had been doing all winter long, even having Emmie, Neely and Marta help out as well. Cassandra listened on, determined to forget her problems for a short while.

*******            

Yohji tapped his fingers against some leather-bound old book and surreptitiously eyed his mate through the fall of his bangs; Aya had his head bowed as he read through another old book, barely moving at all in that inhuman way of his except for the occasional flick of a finger when he turned a page. After a minute or two, Yohji sighed and shook his head. “Come on, have you really discovered anything new in the past hour or so?” It would be time for dinner soon.

A flash of annoyance over their link let him know that Aya didn’t appreciate the question, but at least it got the stubborn bastard’s attention. “You don’t have to stay up here,” Aya grumbled as he flicked another page.

No, Yohji could interact with other people while Aya hid up in the dark and let the shinigami tell him why it was so bad to do things like hang out with ‘mortals’ and have ‘flesh’ and a bunch of other shitty things that made Yohji want to shove a torch into every shadow he saw at times, especially when there were days when Aya felt so *distant*. Oh, he knew that Aya wasn’t going to go all insubstantial on him again, at least not willingly, but just because Yohji didn’t completely understand all that hissing just yet didn’t mean he didn’t know what they were saying. Nope, not when Aya was quick to change the subject whenever he asked or Reno dropped hints after a bit of drinking… or a fight with Rufus.

“Why would I want to leave your so cheerful side, hmm?” Yohji leaned over so he could press a kiss against Aya’s forehead, and smiled when he felt that annoyance morph into something more tender. Aya ducked his head even more over the book, but Yohji swore he saw a hint of red spread across pale cheeks. “Seriously, find anything new?”

Aya sighed as he closed the book with some care. “No, not really.” He frowned and sat back in the chair with his arms folded over his chest. “If it were truly easy to coerce someone into killing themselves then the tactic would be used more often, I suppose.”

“So we’re back to the theory that it takes a strong soul gaki bound and a weak-willed person, and not everyone will be susceptible.” Yohji reached for Aya’s left hand so he could thread their fingers together, content to have that bit of contact with his mate at the moment.

“Hmm, that or they’re already contemplating doing something drastic.” Aya stared at his fingers entwined with Yohji’s as a frown dragged down the corners of his mouth and silver began to swirl into the violet of his eyes. “From what I’ve heard, it’s not easy at Court – the politics and the pressure.”

Yohji could easily understand what his lover meant, both from his days as a Guard and the times he’d gone to the palace after realizing that he was a succubus bound; he was so grateful that his talent had been ‘blocked’ during his days of working for Manx since it could be painful at times, sensing the desperation and greed that permeated the palace. “So basically, Schu and Rufus are going to need to check the emotional wellbeing of the people they’ve set up as inadvertent spies for Esset.”

Aya nodded in agreement. “I don’t know if there’s some way that Esset can arrange it to take advantage of things or if they just did their research that well when selecting targets.”

“Yeah.” It was frightening to think of Esset having that much foresight, but the Elders had been planning this war for decades if not centuries. Yohji let out a grunt of frustration as he rose to his feet and tugged Aya along as well. “Come on, let’s go get something to eat.”

His lover resisted for a moment and then gave in with ill grace. “But it’s nice and quiet up here.”

“And there’s plenty of tea and sweets downstairs, not to mention real food.” Yohji had to smile at the way that Aya’s eyes glazed over at the mention of ‘sweets’. “Jo’s not gonna keep bringing up trays of food to you, you know.”

“Why do you think I put up with you,” Aya teased, and if it wasn’t for the fact that Yohji could sense the amusement over their link, he’d leave the sarcastic bastard up here to starve. As it was, he yanked Aya closer so he could nip at his mate’s lip.

“Ha, ha.” He smoothed his right hand along Aya’s back and gave him a smack on the ass while he smirked. “Remind *me* again why I put up with this abuse.”

He caught a flash of silver when Aya snapped his rather sharp teeth in Yohji’s direction. “If you want to see real abuse-“

Yohji laughed while he shoved Aya out of the library door. “No, no! That’s perfectly okay! I like my ribs just where they are!”

“I was planning to go for your shoulder this time,” Aya growled, “considering that I’m a bit hungry.”

Yohji was so stunned by that statement for a moment that he stumbled to a stop, until he caught the hint of humor over their link. Then he did some growling of his own as he pushed a slightly smirking Aya up against the wall. “Oh really? What makes you think that I’m here for you to chew on, eh?” He narrowed his eyes when Aya’s smirk became more defined. “You bastard….” Closing the space between them, he pressed their lips together and savored the sunlight that flowed into him, along with the amusement/love/desire and the feel of Aya’s fingers sliding through his hair as the kiss deepened. Just as Yohji’s hands began to creep up beneath Aya’s dark purple sweater, he heard the sound of someone clearing their throat.

“Sorry – I figured that I’d wash up a little before dinner.” Reiichi sounded rather apologetic as well as amused.

Pulling away from Aya with a curse, Yohji glared at the Shadow Guard as if that would do any good. “And we’re stopping you from doing that?”

“You’re kind of hard to miss – that and I have to wonder if I’ll be stepping over you on my way back out. Oh, and Naru will be on his way up here shortly.” Reiichi gave him a too innocent to believe smile before ducking into the rooms he shared with Naru and Yuushi.

Yohji whined a little before tugging Aya away from the wall. “Sometimes I wonder if it wouldn’t be worth our while to move on out of here.”

“*Now* you think of it,” Aya muttered, but he smiled at Yohji as he led the way to the stairs. “You know they’ll just show up on our doorsteps every day.”

“Not if we find someplace very, very far away.”

“And where would that be?”

Yohji took a moment to ponder that question. “Uhm… maybe Cretia? How do you feel about Thracia?” His question prompted a rare laugh from his mate, which had him smile as he followed Aya down the steps. “Maybe somewhere out in the desert?”

“Yes, because my kind and the desert go together so well.” The left corner of Aya’s mouth turned up a little as he glanced over his shoulder at Yohji.

“All right, maybe we’ll try for Xan, then. Someplace with a lot of snow and long nights.” Yohji wouldn’t mind the lack of sunlight if it meant that he wouldn’t have to worry about his mate being unable to go outside at all.

“You’ll need to pick up a new language, then.”

Yohji lifted Aya’s left hand to his mouth and pressed a kiss against it. “I’m sure you’ll motivate me somehow.” He waggled his brows for a moment and adored the exasperation that washed into him for a few seconds.

“Incorrigible.”

“That’s just your way of saying ‘I love you, you idiot.”

The smile Aya gave him just then, so tender and bare, let him know that he was right. Aya didn’t resist when he pulled him close for a hug, just for a few seconds, and Yohji breathed in deep his mate’s scent as he enfolded Aya in his arms. How he loved to feel Aya’s heartbeat next to his own, to know that the man he loved more than anything was safe and whole at his side. He pressed his lips against Aya’s temple and savored the feel of him, the taste of sunlight and then let him go, and smiled at how Aya lingered against him for a few seconds before moving away.

They were quiet as they made their way to the kitchen, and some of his happiness faded when he noticed how Aya flinched a little when the sounds of everyone gathered inside the room greeted them before they entered, and how his mate kept his head bowed at first as if afraid to look at everyone. Yohji covered for him by smiling at everyone in greeting, and was a bit relieved to see that the room wasn’t too ‘crowded’ tonight – there was Jo, which was to be expected, and of course Maddox, Bethwynn and Kira were helping to supply the customers with food while Reiichi, Omi, Nagi, Ken and Miko seemed to have settled in for a bite to eat. “So, have the gluttons left anything for us,” he asked of Jo.

“Hmph, they’re certainly acting as if they haven’t eaten a bite the entire day,” she grumbled while she carried a tray full of sliced mutton swimming in gravy over to the table. “You’d best sit down if you want anything.”

Picking up on the fact that it hadn’t really been a suggestion, especially with the way she had been eyeing Aya, Yohji tugged his lover over to the table and grinned at Reiichi. “You shouldn’t be such a pig, you know,” he teased the older man.

Dignified as always, all Reiichi did was arch a narrow black eyebrow and give a mysterious smile in return. “Yes, because we all know about *my* prodigious talent for putting away food.” He slanted a glance at Ken while he spoke, who managed to somehow shove four rolls into his mouth at the same time.

“Buh-huh?” Ken seemed to pick up on the fact that he was now the center of attention and blinked, his brown eyes wide as he swallowed all that bread. “I miss something?”

“Only your brains,” Miko chided him as she shook her head, an affectionate smile on her face when Ken turned to her with a hurt expression on his face.

Across the table, Nagi clicked his tongue in apparent disgust and used his talent to push the bread basket toward Aya while Omi poured all of them some wine. “So how was your day? Did you find much up in the library,” Omi asked before a fight could begin.

Aya shrugged, and when Yohji was afraid that he would use the excuse to eat to avoid talking, surprised him by joining the conversation. “We didn’t find too much more today, but there might be a section in Yoneda’s book that could help you with a spell or charm to bolster against coercion.”

Ah, Yohji had wondered about that spike of interest from his mate a couple of hours ago and wondered if that was it. Judging from Aya’s carefully blank expression just then, he’d say that Aya was emphasizing the ‘could’ and that was why he hadn’t mentioned it before now.

Still, Omi looked as if he’d just been given another Solstice present while Reiichi paused in dishing out his own dinner to stare at Aya, his expression pensive. “Really? I’ll read it after dinner! Maybe Eri can help me out once I look it over.”

Aya nodded once and then shifted his attention to Reiichi, as if aware that the man had been looking at him. Reiichi picked at a piece of meat but didn’t eat it, his lips pursed together for a moment before he did finally speak. “If you’d found something like that, you could have notified us earlier.” He spoke in an even tone, as if mindful of not sounding reproachful.

“I knew Omi was busy, and I suspect that *if* the spell works, no one but Omi will be able to cast it,” Aya explained. “It’ll take a melding of magic with bound talent, and he’s the only one who’s come close to that as of yet.” There was a tiny hint of sibilance to Aya’s voice just then. Yohji slid his left arm around Aya’s waist for… well, in part for comfort, but also to let his mate know that he was there for him.

Reiichi was quiet for a few seconds before he nodded. “Well, it’s a good thing that Omi is very talented, isn’t it? I’m sure he’ll figure it out.” He gave the kid a proud grin before he focused on his dinner.

“Yeah, it’s either that or he’s gonna fry some poor guy’s brain, one or the other.” Ken grinned at Omi as well, until he let out a yelp and reached beneath the table as if to rub at his leg.

Yohji snickered a little as he reached for his wine. “Not too smart there, Ken-ken.” He laughed in the face of Ken’s glare and paused for a sip of wine. “So, how are things at the palace?”

“Eh, the same as usual.” Omi gestured with his fork a little and nudged Nagi in the side to make the little demon stop glaring at Ken. “Everyone’s talking about the war, either about when it’s going to start or how much land to take away from Esset once we win it or a bunch of other stuff – it’s like it hasn’t really sunk in yet that people are going to die.” He stared at his plate for a moment and set down his fork so he could reach for his own wine glass.

Done fussing over at the stove with Maddox, Jo joined them at the table and gave Yohji a thankful smile when he poured her some wine. “It’s the Court – a lot of them aren’t involved in war other than to hound the king to do this or that.” She reached over to give Omi a comforting pat on the right shoulder.

“That sounds about right – we’ve had an influx of highborn in the last couple of weeks from their country estates and I’m sure it’s only going to get worse.” Ken grimaced before taking a huge bite of mutton and mashed potatoes.

“Ugh, it’s times like these that I wish I was out on patrol, since we need to try to stay up on all the visiting highborn.” Miko shuddered for a moment and rubbed at her left temple. “I’m having nightmares about all the damned heraldry.”

Reiichi managed an elegant snort at that complaint. “All you’re really doing is watching them go back and forth. Try keeping tabs on them *and* their insane plots.” He snorted again when Miko’s eyes glazed over and Ken did a sort of whimper.

Yohji chuckled a little while he nudged Aya in the side to make sure that his mate ate enough. “Always have to have the last word in, don’t ya?”

“Only when I know I can show others the error of their ways, which is often.” Reiichi smiled in evident pleasure before he took a bite of his own supper.

That prompted more laughter from around the table, but before Ken could start an argument, Jo held up a hand in warning. “There should be more eating and less talking.”

“Hmm, but some of us are talented enough to do both.” She didn’t look impressed with Yohji’s logic, so he batted his eyes at her before focusing on his meal for a few minutes.

He’d just wiped his plate clean and Aya had finished his wine when Jo spoke up again. “I had a… well, interesting visit with Cass today,” she said, and judging from her emotions just then, she was a bit hesitant to bring up the topic.

“Oh, and what does that lovely lady have to say, hmm?” Yohji hugged Aya closer to him while he waited for Jo to continue, and knew that he wasn’t the only one paying close attention just then.

Jo began to fiddle with her empty wine glass, her fingers – gnarled from years of labor – twisting back and forth along the fine stem as she stared at it rather than looking up at any of them. “Well, it’s as you expected, she hasn’t seen much because of you and Aya, and she’s trying to stay away so the little she can see isn’t affected by you. I think she’s looking out for Schu and… well, Haru and Botan and everyone else as much as she can.”

“That makes sense.” Yohji picked up a sense of unease from his foster mother just then that made him wonder what would happen if he asked Aya if there was any darkness, any ‘shadows’ around the people closest to Cassandra… and realized that he didn’t want to know that answer. “In other words, I guess I won’t get much of a chance to see her until after the war.” He’d miss Cassandra – she was just as much an adoptive mother as Jo, especially after his own mother had died.

“It’s a shame about Cassandra,” Ken agreed, his brows drawn together as he sat hunched over the table. “But on the bright side… I guess that means no Crawford, too?”

Miko scoffed a little as she draped her right arm over his shoulders. “You would see that as a positive.” Then she seemed to think about it a little. “Hmm, no, you’re right, no smug know it all bastards are good.”

“A smug, know it all bastard who can see the future,” Reiichi reminded her. “But in a way, it’s oddly comforting to know that the future rests in our hands now, for better or for worse.”

“We’ve certainly worked hard enough for it the last couple of years.” Omi rubbed at one of his golden gauntlets for a moment.

“Yes, we have.” Yohji didn’t like how quiet his mate had become, nor how little of Aya’s emotions crossed over their link; when he looked over at Aya, he found his mate staring in a pensive manner down at the table with a hint of silver in his eyes. “That’s why this war is ours to win.”

Aya stiffened against him at those words, and for a moment he was afraid that his lover would say something like ‘don’t tempt the gods’, something to ruin the moment, but all Aya did was look at him and give him a grim smile. Instead, it was Reiichi who was the voice of doubt.

“There’s still work to be done before the war is even *fought*, so don’t go counting on victory just yet.” He pushed himself up onto his feet and stared at Aya. “You said there was more information – is it up in the attic library?”

“Yes.” Aya’s voice was a bit thick, considering it was the first time he’d spoken in a while.

“Good. Then I’ll review it as well as let Birman and Yuushi know about any updates and go over a few other things before turning in for the night. What will the two of you be doing tomorrow?”

Yohji shrugged a little when Aya didn’t answer right away. “If it’s not too sunny, we’ll probably head out to get some new boots and a few other things we’ll need for traveling.”

Something dark crossed Reiichi’s face for a moment. “It’s a good idea to be prepared – one never knows when the weather will let up or if we’ll be on the move sooner than expected.” That statement prompted a stab of pain from Jo and waves of anxiety from Bethwynn and Maddox.

Reiichi bid them all a goodnight and was promised a late night snack from Jo as he left the room, and while Yohji debated about seeing if they could get their dessert to go, Omi turned toward him with his eyes all big and a hopeful smile on his face. “You’re not planning on doing anything tonight, right?”

Uh-oh, he knew that look, but before he could make up some excuse, Aya spoke up again. “No.”

Dammit. Yohji tried to surreptitiously elbow his mate in the side, but Aya squirmed out of reach – and Nagi eyed the two of them with growing suspicion.

“Good!” Omi dropped the ‘aren’t I cute’ act and focused his attention on Aya. “Then would you mind helping me look over that information you found? I might have better luck with you and Nagi helping with the spell.”

Since it meant a chance to spend the evening with the little demon, Yohji knew what his mate’s answer would be and bared his teeth at Omi even as Aya agreed. The little shit was rather smug about it, too, and flashed Yohji a quick smirk.

“And I think that’s our queue to head out to the main room before they plot something that’ll turn us into their mindless slaves or something.” Ken grabbed a few more rolls while Miko snatched up the remaining wine from the table.

“Aw, you try *one* harmless little compulsion charm and you’re marked for life,” Omi grumbled as the two Shadow Guards retreated from the table.

“We’re on to you, kiddo! Have fun abusing Yotan tonight!” Ken laughed as he hurried from the kitchen with Miko right behind him.

“Why does everyone love to abuse me,” Yohji sniffed while he nuzzled at Aya’s left temple.

“Maybe because you’re a clingy idiot.” There was a rasp of a growl to Aya’s deep voice as he pushed back at Yohji, but he was pretty much pleased at the moment – too bad some of that might have been from the fact that Jo had returned to the table with a large platter of almond cake.

She gave Yohji a knowing look before she started to cut into the cake. “You can have some dessert before you all go off messing with magic.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Yohji and Omi said in unison, while Aya and Nagi basically grunted softly and did their best not to drool. Wouldn’t you know it? Jo served those two little ingrates first.

Yohji smiled at his purring mate and shook his head; that had been a decent dinner for once – there had been no hissing, no ‘shinigami’ spells, no people freaked out by Aya’s nature. So his mate hadn’t really spoken much, at least Aya had been here with everyone and interacted a little. It was a good night.

Even if he had to put up with the little demon for the next couple of hours, it *was* a good night, Yohji thought to himself. He enjoyed his cake and the way Aya was curled up at his side, and hoped that there were many more before the war dragged them away.

*******

Why did it seem that the more he struggled against something, the more inevitable it became? The last thing Rufus wanted was to spend any time at the palace, yet not only had Trowa harped on him about being here with his insane mate in tow, but he’d returned home from the Koneko to find a message requesting a certain ‘task’ be completed within a carefully defined timeframe. Oh yes, he had a feeling that the gods were delighting in the torments that they had lined up for him just then.

Not only was he displeased with the fact that Reno was strolling along at his back, an alert presence humming along in his mind as he strode down of the many hallways of Kritiker’s palace, but he could pick up the various thoughts of the people he passed along the way, and they… they were *not* comforting. There had always been a hint of distrust directed his way because of his father’s blood, but it had grown stronger over the last couple of months, and the fervor building over the inevitable war with Esset wasn’t doing him any favors. People were wondering just how much he could be trusted, just how strong his ties back to Esset truly were despite the fact that he seemed to have left the country in disfavor, and there were some distressing thoughts on how he had been in the company of Tani these last few weeks….

Rufus refused to allow any of the discomfort he felt from those revelations to show on his face, even as he cursed the Elders and their machinations. Instead, he made his way to a tea that Lady Uyeno was hosting at the moment. He noticed a definite ‘chill’ in the air when he entered the room, and did his best to present a bland façade when the highborn lady welcomed him to her party.

<Eh, it’s a bunch of stiffs standing around and drinking hot water – what’s the fun here?>

Rufus made some polite talk while he sent a private message to Rude to be on watch for any unexpected behavior from Reno. <You’ve been to teas before – you should know by now that they’re boring as hell and all you get to do is stand around until I say it’s time to leave.> He didn’t like how… how *cold* Reno felt just then, this sense of… he couldn’t put it quite into words just then, what he picked up from his lover. Usually, there was boredom and annoyance and a hint of malevolence, all things that came from his… his ‘human’ side. Unfortunately, that had been ‘lacking’ lately – had been lacking since that damn ‘excursion’ to the southern Fabric district. Rufus didn’t know what had happened that day, but Reno… Reno had been much too much a shinigami ever since then.

He never would have expected himself to miss that ‘human’ side, to miss that messy, troublesome soul that often led to confusion and pain – Reno had been less unbalanced lately, but he had been more difficult to figure out as well, and less sympathetic to… well, a lot of things. It was as if he welcomed the upcoming war and was even more impatient with anything to do with people dying. More impatient with a lot of things, really.

<It’s just a bunch of senseless talk over *tea*,> Reno sent back with a surprisingly strong amount of scorn. <And you don’t even let me have any of the sweet cakes.> He was distinctly unhappy with that last bit.

Shinigami-bounds and their damn sweet tooths.... Rufus gave a passing highborn a strained smile while he struggled to deal with his mate. <There are plenty of cakes at home.>

<But I want->

<*No.> Rufus backed up that command with a bit of compulsion and heard a faint, physical whine from his mate in response. <You can wait a couple of hours, dammit.>

There was a sibilant snarl over their link along with a flash of cold that made him shiver, and the sense of ‘Reno’ retreated a bit from his mind. Rufus refused to look over his left shoulder at the idiot, certain that he’d see his mate pouting at the reprimand – especially since he could pick up on Rude’s unease. Dammit, the last thing he needed just then was any sort of distraction.

Forcing himself to focus on the task at hand, he scanned the room for Ginjiro Hashisaki’s presence so he could slip a new coercion in the man’s mind that would make it easier for whatever Esset had in store for the poor soul. He’d already sent a message to Birman that Esset was going to use the man again, and could pick up on Natsumi hovering around the back left corner of the room. It took about twenty minutes and one hell of a boring conversation with General Haruko on what type of hilts would best serve the Army in the upcoming war before he could finally pin down the elusive Court official.

What he did notice when he finally came across Hashisaki was how Reno’s attention *spiked* for a moment and then his mate purposely wandered off toward the nearest petite four table while Rufus used the cover of fussing over fixing a new cup of tea as he made idle chit-chat with Lord Konno about how well the witches were integrating with the Army as he forced the coercions into Hashisaki’s mind. If he wasn’t so used to Reno’s odd behavior and multitasking, he would have let some of the exasperation he felt just then slip, but he managed to get his assignment done and excuse himself from Lord Konno without too much fuss. Before anyone could notice Reno’s peculiar behavior, Rufus idled by the snack table himself and herded his lover aside while deflecting everyone’s attention.

<And what the hell is this about? I told you to wait until we were at home to indulge in that damn sweet-tooth of yours!> He glared at Reno as he snatched away the mostly empty plate of small cakes, while Rude used his impressive bulk to block them from view.

Reno stared at Rufus with eyes that contained too much silver for his liking, his usually expressive face unusually impassive. <Nothing. Just… hungry.>

That… wasn’t right. Reno didn’t back down from a fight, didn’t come back with such a weak excuse or just stand there in the face of Rufus’ anger with such a bland look on his face. Something wasn’t right. Forcing aside his temper, Rufus did his best to think things through, to recall what he’d felt from his mate leading up to right now. Then he did his best not to swear as he reached out to brush his fingers along Reno’s marked left cheek, mindful of everyone around them. <Dammit, Hashisaki, *really*?>

When Reno didn’t respond to that, didn’t so much as blink or nod or even *breathe*, Rufus handed back the plate of sweets and sighed. “I *hate* being a fucking pawn,” he muttered, which finally provoked a response from his lover - which was for Reno to blink those gorgeous eyes of his and frown. “Eat your damn cakes since we’ll be leaving soon.”

“Uhm, okay.” Reno didn’t look too happy at the moment, probably because he could figure out that Rufus wasn’t happy, but another quick caress to his face let him know that it wasn’t his fault and the silver faded from his eyes. “Hate this place.”

<I do, too.> Rufus tugged at the sleeves of his embroidered white coat as he faced the room again, as he looked out over all of the Kritiker highborn laughing, chatting and plotting as if what they did right now would really matter in the face of what was coming. So few of them truly could affect the outcome of the war – right now one of the ones who could was sipping her cup of tea while an older highborn prattled on about war affecting shipping routes.

<Natsumi?>

<Yes, Lord Shinra?>

Natsumi’s mind was as sharp as ever, despite the boring lecture that was being imposed upon her. <Please pass on to Birman that Hashisaki’s mind has been prepped for the next coercion that Esset will inflict upon him. Also… I’m not 100% on this, but I’m willing to bet quite a lot that he might be one of their next victims. Reno… just had a reaction to him.> He hoped that he didn’t get his mate in trouble for passing that on.

There wasn’t a response at first, though he could sense Natsumi’s shocked emotions over the connection; the woman was skilled enough that she hid what she was feeling while she continued her conversation with Lord Konno, though Rufus thought he noticed a slight tremble in how she was holding her teacup just then.

<Thank you. I shall be certain to pass that on to Birman.>

<Good. We’ll be leaving shortly.> He didn’t wait to see if she had anything else to say as he motioned for Rude to continue through the crowd; all he wanted just then was to make his way toward the exit and leave the palace before anything else could happen.

How many more times would something similar like this would happen? He wished he could reach back to latch on to Reno’s arm and pull his mate in close, to make sure that Reno wouldn’t get into trouble or that someone wouldn’t attempt to drag the man away… there was such a feeling of dread in him just now, of how things could go so wrong while they were here. The thought that they would keep coming back….

He didn’t know whom he hated more just then, Kritiker or Esset. Both drove him on to fight his own nature, to put what he strove to protect most at risk for very different reasons. For so long, he’d wanted to put this war off as possible, and now all of a sudden he wanted it over with so it was done and Reno was safe. Not much longer now….

What worried him was that the closer they got to the war, the more it seemed that it felt as if a noose was tightening around his neck. The gods must have a purpose for Reno, for having a dubhach born in such a turbulent time, it was just he had to wonder why he was tied to Reno – and what it would mean to those close to him as well.

*******

Duo paced around the living room and told himself for about the tenth time that there was no need to be so paranoid, that for all intents and purposes it would just seem as if Trowa was inviting his ‘friend’ over for a bite to eat. Yuushi and Birman knew about tonight’s plans, as did Crawford, it was just… gah, why did he have to imagine all of the things that could go wrong?

“You’re thinking too hard again.”

The sound of his mate’s quiet voice, along with the feeling of concern/amusement/love over their link made him growl softly as he crossed the room and snatched at the glass of wine that was being held out to him. “At least I’m thinking, I guess,” he muttered before draining the glass dry.

All Trowa did was arch his left eyebrow in a rather telling and elegant manner and then refill Duo’s glass before handing him the wine bottle and then disappearing back into the kitchen. He returned a moment later with a tray  covered with two empty glasses, a plate full of various cheeses and meats and another bottle of wine – leave it to Trowa to remember the small details, such as that they were technically entertaining Heero tonight. “Just don’t fret too much that the stew burns.”

“I have to be of some use around here, I suppose.” Duo rocked up on his toes so he could brush his lips against Trowa’s, more for the sake of comfort than any true desire, and felt some of his unease fade away at the contact. As long as he had *this*, had Trowa by his side, then things would work out somehow.

Trowa had just set the tray down on the small table in front of their couch when Duo felt someone pass the wards he’d set up on the stairs outside. Judging from the way that Trowa paused while pouring the wine, so did he, and neither of them were surprised when there was a knock on their door a minute or so later. Duo chased Gin away from the entrance and pasted on a smile as he allowed Heero inside.

“Trowa! What did I say about inviting just anyone home? Next thing you know, all of our good silver will be gone,” he joked as Heero stepped inside and began to undo the buttons of his dark blue coat.

Heero’s blue eyes narrowed in what seemed to be annoyance, but send a sacrifice to all the gods, it looked as if he might actually be *smiling* a little. *Heero*. “Very funny, Duo. I see your sense of humor is just as pathetic as always.”

“He’s already been into the wine,” Trowa explained as he stepped forward, a glass of wine in both hands. He waited until Heero shed his winter coat and boots before handing one over. “How have you been?”

“Busy.” For a moment, there was a flash of exhaustion over Heero’s face before he offered Trowa a grateful smile for the wine. “I’ll be leaving for the border in a few days’ time, which is why I wanted to meet up now – I finished the assignment that Major Marquis tasked me with and am gathering the final items now.”

Duo got the impression that Heero wasn’t too happy with leaving the capitol, and that it didn’t have anything to do with the fact that he’d be stuck in the middle of a camp for the foreseeable future. “You must be happy that the war is finally starting soon,” he said as he led them all over to the table, where Trowa had set out the snacks.

Heero’s familiar scowl returned as he sat down in the spare chair, his wine glass held in both hands as he stared into it. “It’s what we worked toward for so long… I just… I wish I felt as if we were better prepared.”

The sense of surprise/shock that Duo felt then wasn’t just his own – he knew some of it was Trowa’s as well even though his mate’s expression was just as impassive as always. “Eh, but the Elders have been working toward this for… well, forever.” He laughed a little while he reached forward to pick up a few pieces of meat and cheese, and hoped that Heero didn’t notice the way that his hands trembled.

Fortunately, Heero seemed lost in his own little world just then. “But… what exactly have the Elders been working to all these years? I want… it’s best for Esset, the outcome of this war. That’s what I’ve been working for, these last few months.” He finally looked up from his glass, his dark blue eyes intent and his expression… well, his expression a bit frightening just then. “What have *you* been working for?”

Duo had to swallow the last of the cheese past a throat gone tight while beside him, Trowa was suddenly a bundle of taut nerves. Yet as always, his mate put on a façade of nonchalance as he answered Heero. “As ever, we do whatever we feel is best for *Esset*. We send back the information that will help our country out in the long run,” he said in a calm, even voice.

Duo could have kissed Trowa just then, yet he forced a cocky smile on his face as he spoke. “Yeah, it’s like I’ve always said – you have to do some thinking of your own.  Use your head for once.” He hoped that off the cuff answer didn’t come back to bite him.

Heero was quiet for several seconds before he lifted his glass of wine and drained in within several seconds. Once the glass was empty, he stared with a flat gaze at Duo and Trowa. “I *am* thinking of what’s best for Esset. That’s why I volunteered to stay behind here in Eto, and why I’m… why I’m thinking before I do anything.”

Duo really, *really* wanted to ask *how* Heero was ‘thinking’, but he didn’t need Trowa’s spark of warning to keep from saying anything as he motioned toward the snack tray. “That’s good – thinking is always good, at least that’s what I gathered from all the times Trowa’s bitched to me.” He bared his teeth in Heero’s direction. “Might have been a time or two when you griped about it.”

Heero glared at him for a second or two, and then scoffed as he glanced aside and picked at the snack plate. “Please – I mentioned it *each and every day we were assigned on a mission*.” He sighed in a heavy manner as he selected several pieces of meat. “Trowa, you have my utmost condolences for being assigned a long term mission with this idiot.”

Trowa swirled his wine about for a few seconds before he answered, his left shoulder hitched a little higher than the right; if it wasn’t for the humor that Duo could sense over their link, he’d feel the uncontrollable urge to pinch his mate just then. “Oh, we all have our burdens to bear.”

“Still, it *is* a lot to ask of you.”

“Oh *fuck* off,” Duo snarled as he snatched up a handful of snacks. “You two ever wonder what in the many hells *I* have to put up with, eh?”

Heero and Trowa shared a look for a few seconds before Heero scoffed and Trowa leaned forward to pour them both some more wine. “No,” they both answered at the same time.

Duo growled, which prompted Gin to come pouncing up to his legs and stand up on his hind legs to paw at Duo’s knees. He snatched up the grey and black cat while he glared at Heero. “I don’t think there’s enough wine here tonight to get me through this dinner.”

“Tough,” Trowa told him as he gave the back of Duo’s head a light smack while he stood to his feet – and then managed to pull Gin free a moment later. The damn cat actually purred as it curled up in Trowa’s arms. “You’ll have to eat a bit as you drown your sorrows – we can discuss what’s best for Esset over dinner,” he informed Heero as he led the way toward the kitchen.

“It’s nice to see that Trowa doesn’t put up with your nonsense,” Heero remarked as he stood to his feet. “Or else nothing would ever get done.”

Feeling a growl build up in his chest, Duo gulped down the rest of his wine before he followed the two into the kitchen. It was good, Heero thinking for himself. It was also good that Trowa had stocked up on wine before tonight. What wasn’t good was that Duo had to put up with this act for another hour or two before he received his ‘reward’ from his mate. “Hey! I do some work around here!”

“’Some’,” was Heero’s succinct reply. “Really, Trowa, I don’t know how you’ve managed all this time.”

“We all do what we must,” Trowa murmured as he began to dish out the beef and vegetable stew. “Now, any new developments that you want us to focus on before you leave for the front line?”

“I believe that Lady Peacecraft has some promising theories on how any remaining bit of Kritiker government should be formed,” Heero commented as he sat down at the table. “We can’t count on Esset being in total control of an outlying territory, and she has some good ideas of how to integrate humans with bounds. I think we should be focusing along those lines, on something that will hold a stronger peace for our two races and the newly claimed land.” He sounded a bit pensive at first, but grew more confident when neither Trowa nor Duo argued with what he was saying.

Trowa nodded to show that he was paying attention, while a sense of hope flooded over the link he shared with Duo; Crawford had always assured them that there was a chance that Heero would think for himself, that he would break from the Elders’ strict mind control, and here was the beginning of that hope. They had never thought that their friend would turn his back on Esset, but he was finally showing signs that he believed that humans and bounds should work together, that the two shouldn’t be enemies… and it was damn close to when the war would break out. Duo continued to glare at his old friend while snatching at bites of dinner, all the while waiting for the chance to send Crawford and Jei a message that finally, *finally*, that hope seemed to be paying off when they needed it the most.

*******

A glass of white wine held almost clutched in his right hand, Quatre gazed out over the various bounds gathered in the small ballroom and wished he had some of Dou’s temerity just then and could come up with an excuse to leave this… this pathetic shade of a party.

The Elders were ensconced in their furs and embroidered cloaks up on the dais, seeming to be barely awake except for the occasional glimmer of their eyes as they glanced about the room. Quatre could feel the press of Sense’s mind now and then, and made sure that his mental shields were *perfect*, that he barely sipped at it despite all of the waving about he did with the glass.

Around the room, his… colleagues were equally on guard. For once Karen and Yasuhisa weren’t at each other’s sides and squabbling as usual, but separate so they weren’t distracted by the friendly banter that passed as conversation between them. Alexis was chatting with several elemental bounds, as ever mindful of where Tan Xi was with her own little group of clinger-ons – a group that was somewhat smaller now, with Lord Anthony in exile, Kimbei off on a mission and Martha… well, no one liked to dwell on what had happened to the fire elemental.  The succubae bound just barely remained in the Elders’ good graces, but judging from the poisonous looks she kept throwing Alexis’ way, she would love to find a new scapegoat in order to make herself appear better.

The worst of it was Wufei standing at attention just a few feet away from the ancient bounds, as always doing his best to not seem so utterly bored. Quatre glanced away from his lover before his cheerful mask slipped – he *hated* to see such a proud and reserved person on display like that. Yet would it be that much better when the Elders sent Wufei off to lead their army to fight against Kritiker? The time was soon approaching when they would finally allow Wufei a bit of freedom in return for blood and death.

Everyone here – all the bounds with at least half a demon soul or more – were torn between that sense of anticipation of escaping Berin and the Elders’ heavy hand and the fact that they would have to risk their lives in order to gain that freedom, to fight against humans and hope there truly was some sort of better future in store at the end of it all. What Quatre was picking up here and out in the palace’s many hallways was that, despite the Elders’ propaganda, too many people were uncertain about what they were fighting for, that things would be any different after so many years of basically indentured slavery. Yes, the humans would be less in number… but the Elders would still be there, yes?

Those thoughts were carefully guarded, but they were there. The Elders and their chosen few had pushed too hard these last few years leading up to the war, and while Quatre’s heart bled at the pain his people had suffered… he had to hope that it meant they were willing to open themselves up to new possibilities once the fighting was done, that they would follow Helena and accept Kritiker as an ally and not an enemy.

But that was for *after* the war. Right now, he merely smiled while some tipsy air elemental babbled on about how annoying it was to work with so many fire elementals and did his best to push aside any thoughts other than those dwelling on the *now*. He was just here, enjoying some wine and good company while times such as these lasted, nothing else. What more could anyone expect from Lord Quatre Rabera-Winner?

*******

Cloaked in shadows, Aya remained still as everyone else in the main room was somehow in motion, either dancing or walking or moving their arms about, busy talking and laughing and singing along with Koyu and his Harper friends. Aya had found a little bit of space for himself in the corner, a corner that everyone ‘mysteriously’ avoided for some reason, and watched the activity in silence.

“I’m surprised that Blondie’s not draggin’ you out on the dance floor.”

“He’s busy helping Mickey with something – I think it’s to do with the wedding. No doubt he’ll be here soon enough once he realizes I’m not upstairs.” Aya didn’t react to Reno’s presence since he’d been expecting his friend. “I imagine that’ll be in a few minutes, now that Rufus is here.”

“Maybe a little longer, since he got waylaid by Yuushi.” Reno sidled closer to Aya and frowned, his long red hair dappled with drops of water. “Some pretty bossy humans around here.”

That remark startled a small huff of laughter from Aya. “They’re everywhere – it just so happens that *here* are ones that can make Rufus listen to them.” He canted a slight smile at his friend. “I’m sure it annoys him more than it does you.”

“Yeah, you got that right.” Reno returned the smile for a few seconds before shaking his head, which caused the drops of water to scatter into the air. “Hmm, I see it’s showing up here, too.” He motioned to the crowded room. “Noticed it at the palace today.”

The slight bit of good mood from teasing Reno vanished utterly in Aya as he glanced back at the new spots of darkness in the crowd. “Yes, I picked up on it.” Soon the shinigami would be crooning about the ‘feasts’ for them to savor, as if the city wouldn’t soon be torn apart again by the Elders’ latest attempt at terrorism.

They were both quiet for a short while, until the current song ended. “Eh, what are you gonna do this time? Rufus figured out something from me today, but I didn’t say anything about all the new shadows I saw.” Reno sounded more curious about Aya’s intention than upset about the prospect of multiple people dying.

Aya shrugged as he stepped away from the wall; he really didn’t want Yohji to find him down here. “We can’t – the shinigami were clear about what would happen if we kept interfering. But I can remind Yohji that the Elders have a history of striking at certain targets before and during the war and have him figure things out.” His mate was intelligent and should guess at what Aya wasn’t saying – wasn’t *able* to say. Lives would still be lost, but maybe the worst of the damage could be avoided.

“Maybe.” Reno’s expression was unusually solemn as he stared at Aya just then. “There’s gonna come a time when you’ll stop worrying about saving a few human souls, you know.”

He sounded a lot like the shinigami just then, and Aya didn’t know if that he argued with Reno’s point if he would be doing it for Yohji’s sake or his own so all he did was nod once in parting before he headed on his way to his room.

*******

The weariness of the long day weighed down on Ukina as she shuffled along the finely decorated hallway of the royal family’s personal quarters. All she wanted was to deliver the letter to the Spymaster, but it seemed that the woman was still sequestered with the king – shouldn’t they be taking a break soon? Why had it been *her* day to be stuck on duty at the Records department?

She’d just begun to pace down the hall again when she noticed the figure headed her way, which caused her to straighten her back and draw in a quick breath. All the protocol training that had been drilled into her head flashed through her tired brain, and she attempted to both bow at the waist at the same time as she took a hasty step back. “Good evening, uhm night, Your Highness,” she stuttered out.

“It’s rather late, isn’t it,” Queen Manx asked, a hint of a smile on her pretty face as she motioned for Ukina to stop. “Please tell me you’re not here to deliver a message for my husband.”

“Uhm, no, ma- ah, Your Highness.” Ukina held out the sealed note she’d been tasked to deliver to the Spymaster. “It’s for the Lady Birman.”

Was it her imagination or did the queen’s smile slip a little just then? “I see. Well, I’ve no doubt that they’ll be in there for a while longer, so why don’t you give the note to me? I’ll hand it over once they’re done for the night.”

Ukina stared at the queen with some uncertainty, torn between what she knew as her duty and what she felt was a command from the *queen*. Even though the queen was standing there in an informal gown little more than a white robe, her red hair left unbound around her shoulders, it was clear that she expected to be obeyed. And… well, really, it was just a message from the Records department, something about a Court summons or the such, not anything too important….

She bobbed her head as she passed on the sealed bit of paper. “Thank you very much, Your Highness.”

“You’re welcome. Really, making someone your age stand around all night – I’m sure you have much better things to do.” The queen gave her an almost impish grin and motioned for her to be on her way. “Good night.”

“Thank you again, Your Highness.” Ukina managed a much more graceful bow this time before turning around, grateful that she was done with her page duties for the night. Too bad she really didn’t have anything ‘better’ to do than to go back to her room and get some rest, not when there would be a thousand new messages to run all over the palace tomorrow. At least she’d get enough sleep tonight, thanks to the queen.  

*******

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