Loose Ends

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by nekojita

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Aya looked up from the book he was reading when Omi sat down at the table across from him. It was a bit unusual for the teenager to be up here in the library by himself, without Nagi or Botan accompanying him, even if he had brought up a tray of tea and snacks. Marking the page in the book, Aya set it aside and waited to see what his friend wanted from him.

Omi poured them both a cup of tea and set a filled cup in front of Aya. "I thought that you might be wanting a snack right about now," he explained, and followed the drink with a slice of Jo’s almond cake. "You’ve been up here all morning."

"Thank you." Aya sipped his tea before having a bite of the cake. "Where’s Nagi," he asked, deciding to get to the heart of the matter since he had just found an interesting passage about soul gaki bounds in the book and hoped to return to it sometime soon: he couldn’t sense emotions like Yohji could, but he had the impression that Omi had sought him out for a reason.

Omi set aside his own cup of tea and gave Aya a look that he had come to realize was the younger man’s attempt to influence others to feel more inclined into giving in to whatever Omi was about to ask of them. "I was hoping to talk to you about Nagi." When all Aya did was stare at him with a blank expression, Omi let out a frustrated breath and sat back in his chair. "Okay, you know how everyone is talking about how the Crown Prince seems infatuated with Princess Helena, right?" He grimaced as he talked, clearly unhappy with the present situation that his ‘alter’ ego found himself in.

Aya nodded, since the rumors had made their way to the Koneko within the past couple of weeks. "Everyone understands that you were friendly with the girl during her visit to Eto and that the Court is making more of a… well, story out of it than what is really true." He didn’t understand why that was the case, except that the Court enjoyed spreading falsehoods and that someone probably felt it benefited them to say that there might be an arranged marriage between ‘Mamoru’ and Helena at some point in the future. There were probably people who hoped that the approaching war between Kritiker and Esset could be avoided by such a simple act.

"Yes, exactly." Omi fidgeted with one of the napkins that he had brought with him. "I gave Helena a present to make her feel welcome, and some of the people at Court are harping on that." He rolled his eyes as if to show his disdain for their reactions.

None of this was exactly new to Aya or explained why he was having his precious research time interrupted. "So why are you here asking me for help?" He respected Omi and considered him a rare friend, but there were times when he didn’t understand the boy at all.

Omi stopped fussing with the napkin and looked straight at Aya, a genuine, beseeching expression on his face. "Because I want to give Nagi a gift. I feel so bad that I gave something to Helena, even if it was something small and just a formality, that I want to prove to him how much I love him. I need your help in deciding what that present should be." He continued to stare at Aya, making it clear that he expected an answer of sorts.

Feeling the desire to cloak himself in shadows, Aya rested his chin on his left palm while he took a bite out of his cake. Seriously? Couldn’t Omi have bothered Yohji with this? Why was he the one being sought out over something like this? He licked a bit of icing off of the fork while he tried to figure out the latest mess that had been dropped into his lap while behind him, he heard the faint hiss of the shinigami. They reminded him of how terrible he was at human matters – at even some bound matters, as his fellow bounds still had a bit of humanity to them – and wondered if this was some sort of prank that Yohji had arranged. Yet he could see the fervent hope in Omi’s big blue eyes and knew that the younger man truly did love his best friend.

He gave the question some serious thought, even if he couldn’t quite understand Omi’s predicament; it was clear to him that Nagi still loved Omi despite the rumors, and he didn’t understand how giving a near stranger a gift could jeopardize their relationship. Helena had gone back to Esset and Omi had sworn that he would never marry the princess, that he would abdicate any claim to the throne if his father tried to force any royal marriage. Nagi was more than smart enough to know that sometimes things needed to be done out of responsibility and had no impact on the present or future.

"Nagi’s not really very materialistic," Aya said after careful consideration. "He’s the type to prefer actions to anything materialistic." Then he thought about it some more. "Unless you use your connections to buy him a confectioner’s shop," he added in a thoughtful tone. That might be the only time that Nagi appreciated Omi’s wealth and status being used for his sake.

Omi’s shoulders slumped as he leaned over the table. "I was hoping that you would tell me that he had always dreamed of owning a pony or a fancy sword or something." He reached out to flip through the pages of one of the ancient books scattered about the table, only to stop when Aya hissed in warning. "Didn’t he talk about wanting something back at… before coming here?" he asked in a quiet voice.

"No." Aya took another bite of cake and washed it down with some tea. "He was too busy working and only complained about having enough to eat." At Omi’s forlorn expression, he decided to have a bit of pity on his friend. "In all honestly, I believe him to be happy with what he has. If he’s lacking in anything, it’s protecting his loved ones." He knew that Nagi was driven in learning to develop his talent, which was what he had done in Berin with Jei and Crawford. "But I thought you would know this by now." After all, the two had been lovers for the last couple of years.

The look that Omi sent his way was full of reproach. "I wanted to be sure that I wasn’t missing anything obvious. Don’t you sometimes feel that way when it comes to Yohji?"

He had a point, one that made Aya snap his teeth against the fork. He narrowed his eyes as he set it down on the plate. "So what do you want from me?" he asked while he picked up the half-full cup of tea.

Omi sighed and rubbed his fingers through his blond hair. "I guess… well, if you don’t think I can really buy him something…." He fell quiet as he stared at the table. "Perhaps I can make him something?" He looked up at Aya, his expression becoming hopeful. "Something like the gauntlet that Botan made for Reiichi? I mean, I know he has his talent, but it requires energy and using it could let people know that he’s a bound. It could be a good thing to make him something magical that he can use in front of people and not worry about…." He blushed as his lips twisted in a pained smile.

"About being dragged off to be killed or drained of his blood," Aya finished for him, his voice betraying no sign of his emotions even if his wrists ached at the memory of what the Takatori had done to him. "It’s a good idea."

"Thank you." Omi nodded several times, as if relieved to know that Aya approved. "Uhm, there’s just one thing…."

"You’ll need something from me to make the gauntlets like Reiichi’s," Aya finished for him, seeing no reason to drag this out. He would have to supply his shadows at the least, and a drop or two of blood to help anchor them would be best for Nagi’s protection. Omi wouldn’t know how to refine it, like Botan did, but there seemed to be something about Aya giving it freely, along with his shadows, that still made it potent and ‘set’ the magic. That way, it shouldn’t be a concern if he wasn’t around to ‘recharge’ the spell if Nagi needed it.

Omi reached across the table to grab hold of his hands, the sleeve of his blue shirt nearly landing in Aya’s cake in his eagerness. "Thank you!"

It was times like these, when Omi smiled so openly, so full of happiness, that Aya understood what it was that drew his friend to the human. He had no doubts that Omi loved Nagi with all of his heart, which was why he was so upset over the rumors and doing his best to come up with some idea of a gift to express his love and concern. He just wished that he didn’t have to be drawn into this nonsense, he thought to himself as he attempted to withdraw his hands so he could finish his cake and tea.

*******

Yohji wasn’t certain what was going on up in the attic library between Omi and Aya, but judging from the sense of unease, hunger, faint amusement and resignation he was picking up over the link he shared with his mate, he didn’t think he had anything to be jealous about just then. That really didn’t seem like the emotions of someone about to begin a torrid affair with a younger man in his experience, he told himself with an amused smile before he sipped his coffee, and noticed Jo’s concerned look. He shook his head and smiled a little more, which seemed to put her at ease.

Meanwhile, Nagi continued to batter the poor chopping board while in the process of prepping the vegetables for some beef and barley soup. Convinced that all was well on the Aya and Omi front, Jo set her own mug of coffee down and frowned. "We just had the knives sharpened the other day, you know," she chided the little demon before Maddox could make any complaints. "They’re supposed to last at least a week."

Nagi looked up from dicing the celery to glare at her, his dirty look faltering after a few seconds. "I’m sorry," he mumbled, and resumed chopping with a more normal force.

"Well, seeing as how I haven’t drained Aya too much lately, it can’t be my neck you’re pretending to hack at there," Yohji teased while he held his mug cradled between his hands. That earned him a brief glare as well, but he felt a flash of amusement and swore he saw a brief curve to the little demon’s lips.

"I don’t know, Kudoh, Omi seemed very insistent on taking some snacks up to Aya," Nagi sniffed, which was just face-saving bitching on his part because if Aya truly was in need of a snack, Nagi would have been the one running the errand. However, it worked in giving the kid an excuse in opening up because he set the knife aside and folded his arms over his chest. "Takashi is being an even bigger idiot than you," he explained.

Yohji sipped his coffee while he took in that bit of information. "Huh, so is he acting all afraid of you or Omi?" He hadn’t been around the young wizard too much since Omi had returned to the Koneko, having spent his time ensuring that Aya ‘settled’ down all right after killing Satori and the Esset bounds.

Nagi sneered as he used his talent to float the chopped bits of vegetables to the waiting cauldron of soup, which Maddox was checking. "He keeps bowing in front of Omi and calling him ‘your highness’. I don’t think he even notices that I’m there, to be honest." Judging from his emotions, Nagi didn’t care in the slightest about being ignored, but he was furious over Omi being upset by the ‘royal’ treatment.

Yohji tried not to wince as he shared a look with Jo. If there was one thing they both knew, it was that Omi hated being treated as ‘Mamoru’ by his close friends; he felt that people were seeing him as nothing more than a figurehead than his true self. "Well, stupidity is better than him running around screaming about demons, no?" he offered.

The scathing look he received made it clear that Nagi had a difference of opinion. "Seriously, how can Aya put up with you?" he asked before once again hacking away, this at some poor onions.

Jo bit at her bottom lip as if to hold back a laugh, which did little good when Yohji could sense her amusement, dammit. After a moment, she cleared her throat. "What I think Yotan is trying to say is it’s easier to shift one’s mindset when it’s not filled with abject fear or prejudice."

"Or I can empty it by smacking it against the wall," was Nagi’s muttered reply.

"Ah, perhaps Botan might have some issues with that," Maddox pointed out as he left the soup to go fuss with the baking chickens. "Perhaps you should try a more diplomatic manner first before violence."

Nagi shifted his glare to the other teenager while Yohji sighed into his coffee mug. It was becoming perfectly clear that he was going to have to intervene in this situation if he didn’t want Cassandra haranguing him sometime in the near future, let alone Jo. That was *if* Nagi didn’t complain to Aya, and then he’d have an unhappy mate to put up with as well, and then there wouldn’t be any peace *or* sex until a certain idiotic mage apprentice realized that even if Omi was the crown prince that he just wanted to be treated like everyone else. Nope, best to just give in now and keep his sex life as is.

"All right, I’ll talk to Takashi," he promised with a bit of ill grace, having hoped for some quiet after having dealt with the whole Esset mess. "See if I can’t glamour a little sense into him or something."

Nagi gave him an even look for several seconds in response and then made an ‘hmph’ing sound as he sunk the chopping knife into the wooden board in front of him. "Just be certain you don’t mess anything up, Kudoh."

Yohji grit his teeth together in an effort to keep from growling; at least Jo seemed to appreciate his constraint and patted him on the left arm a few times before getting up to fetch some more coffee and a flask of whiskey. "Listen, you little demon, I damn well know how to glamour someone!" He took a few deep breaths to calm down. "Just be glad I don’t try to glamour some sense into Omi to find a better boyfriend!"

"Gentlemen!" Jo’s sharp voice cut across the snarls that filled the kitchen and made Yohji and Nagi look away from each other. "Behave yourselves or you can eat dinner elsewhere tonight – just the two of you," she warned them.

Snatching at the bottle of whiskey that she had just set on the table, Yohji poured the liquor into his mug until it almost reached the rim. Then he added a splash of coffee for appearance’s sake and took a big gulp. He hoped that Aya was done with the research stuff soon, because that flask wasn’t going to last if he had to put up with this abuse much longer.

*******

Aya entered his bedroom with a stack of books in his arms, the shadows helping to open and close the door. He could tell right away that Yohji was already in the room, emotions flowing warmly over their link and the air inundated with his mate’s intoxicating scent – as well as a lingering undertone of whiskey and baked chicken. He sighed as he set the books down on the desk and crossed over to the bed, where Yohji was resting. "How bad is it?" he asked.

"Hmm, trust you to skip the small talk, Cat," Yohji teased as he drew Aya down into a hug. "Have I mentioned how annoying Nagi is lately?" he growled.

For a moment wondering if Yohji had found out about Omi’s request, Aya blinked in confusion before being distracted by a kiss. He forgot about his current emotions and gave in to the ones his mate drew forth from him, those of passion, love and need, as the kiss lingered on. Yohji’s hands slipped beneath the dark grey shirt that he wore and skimmed along his back, a feather-light caress that made him ache for more.

Yohji broke off the kiss to nip at his chin. "The little demon has me doing his dirty work for him," he complained, and it took Aya a few seconds to remember what they had been talking about a minute before. He frowned as he straddled his lover’s lap, his arms sliding over Yohji’s shoulders. "Wants me to talk some ‘sense’ into Takashi before he bashes the poor kid’s head through a wall."

"Oh?" Aya played with the loose ends of Yohji’s shoulder-length hair as he contemplated that image. "Did he ask Omi out or something?" That would provoke his friend’s possessive nature.

Yohji chuckled, the sound low and warm. "Nah, though that would be pretty fun to watch, if a bit messy at the end when Nagi loses his temper. The kid’s having trouble getting over the fact that Omi’s the king’s son." He rolled his eyes to show what he thought about that, and for a moment Aya wished that he had been around when Yohji had first become a Guard and been given the duty to watch over the young crown prince. Just how had his lover reacted upon meeting ‘Mamoru’ back then? Somehow… somehow he imagined that Yohji hadn’t been that impressed, as there was an innate sense of confidence to him that would enable him to hold his own even when faced with someone of royal blood. He didn’t think it was due to Yohji’s succubae soul, but rather a special facet that was pure ‘Yohji’.

"I would have thought that Botan would try to make him see reason by now," Aya commented, though to be honest the matter didn’t really concern him. As long as the mage remained silent about bounds, he could kowtow to Omi as much as he wanted.

Yohji shrugged, his hands still busy beneath Aya’s shirt. "I guess that didn’t work very well, so now Nagi wants someone else to try." He sighed as he pulled Aya a little closer. "In a way, it can be a problem if other people notice Takashi being all deferential to someone who’s just supposed to be Botan’s informal assistant. So I’ll have a bit of a chat with him and use a little glamour." He didn’t sound too happy about the plan, and his emotions were a bit hesitant as if he wanted for Aya to object about something.

For his part, Aya was only worried about someone noticing that Yohji was using his talent on Takashi, which shouldn’t be a problem as long as he did the glamouring here at the Koneko. He also trusted Yohji and knew that his mate was very powerful and had grown quite skilled in using it within the past year. All he did was lean forward to give Yohji a kiss while letting his emotions ‘speak’ for him, his lack of concern and pride in his lover.

His actions were met with a rumbling growl, Yohji’s hands pressing hard against his back for a moment before sliding downward to cup against his ass. He tangled his fingers in his mate’s hair as hunger, desire and love poured into him, so hot and potent that he felt made almost drunk on the strong emotions. It took him a moment to realize that the world truly was spinning around him when Yohji flipped him onto the bed, between the sudden movement and all of the turbulent emotions between them.

Laughter filled the air, the sound bright and loud. He glared at his lover for Yohji’s audacity, but the truth of it was that he adored the way that Yohji could always surprise him, could turn something so simple into an event full of fun and pleasure. He hissed a little and scratched his nails along Yohji’s neck in mock anger even as he knew that his own traitorous emotions betrayed the love and happiness that he felt. All he got in return was a pleased grin before he was kissed again while Yohji’s skilled hands began to undo the laces of his pants and push them down his hips.

Resting on his side, he snaked his left hand from behind his mate’s back and down his chest, until he could return the favor of undoing tight laces as well. There was an increase in the desire they felt between then, a sharp spike in Yohji’s hunger and flashes of pleasure as skin was bared. He moaned as Yohji’s hand wrapped around his hardening cock, his hips thrusting forward into the strong grip. That earned him a pleased chuckle and a flash of satisfied amusement over their link, to which he retaliated with a quick scratch along his mate’s stomach.

Yohji shifted his hand to encase both of their cocks, skin slick and hard against the other as they slid along inside of that hold, and Aya entangled their legs together as he tilted his neck backward. He lost himself in the wonderful sensations that his lover always drew forth from him, the ecstasy and satiation, the feelings of completion and security. Yohji’s mouth roamed along his neck while his hand continued its steady strokes, the soft graze of teeth a teasing counterpoint to the sure spikes of pleasure steadily growing inside of Aya. He tugged on Yohji’s hair to pull him closer, his nails bit into his mate’s hip in a need to hold onto him, body and emotions wrapped around and within him as if to never be separated.

Giving in only made everything so much sweeter, so much stronger. There was a faint burn of lassitude beneath the ecstasy, so familiar now as Yohji’s hunger washed through him, but it no longer frightened Aya. He closed his eyes and arched his back, let his head loll to the side a little more and cried out when he felt Yohji bite into his neck. The quick spike of pain sizzled through his entire body and mixed with the pleasure, heightened it to the point that it all became too much and he found himself lost in the swell of emotions.

There was an echoing wash of bliss that signaled Yohji’s completion as well, but Aya was only too happy to merely lie there on the bed in a boneless heap for a few minutes than think or do anything else. He kept his eyes closed as a soft purr escaped him, limbs still entangled with Yohji’s, and would have been content to fall asleep. So of course the idiot had to go and move.

"So I take it that you approve of my plan, no?" Yohji had the gall to laugh when Aya managed to open his eyes enough to glare, in the process of sitting up on the bed. He smiled and leaned down to give Aya a kiss on the forehead, lingering long enough with the gesture to return some energy. "Do you want to be there when I talk to him?"

Awake enough now to notice how filthy his clothes were, Aya grimaced and shook his head. "Not really." Takashi didn’t know what he was, other than a bound, but he imagined that Yohji’s glamouring would work better with fewer distractions around. "Besides, Omi’s requested my help to create a gift for Nagi so I’ll be busy with that." He sat up as well and began to pull off his dirty shirt and pants while Yohji went over to the wash basin, busy stripping along the way. "He’s going to ask Rufus for a pair of knives that he’ll enchant, and I’ll lend some of my shadows," he explained when he sensed his mate’s curiosity.

"Huh." Yohji wiped himself clean and then returned to the bed with a damp towel for Aya. "Why can’t he just swipe something from the royal vault? Kid’s gotta be such a show-off now that he knows a few spells," he joked, even though Aya could tell that his mate was proud of Omi.

"Just be glad that he’s not giving Nagi something he really wants, such as a certain ‘idiot’s’ head," Aya remarked as he cleaned himself. The jab earned another laugh from Yohji, who reclaimed the towel with a kiss.

"Touché, Cat. I’m sure the little demon would love to have my head mounted on the wall, but you’d never let that happen." He tucked back the bangs falling into Aya’s eyes before going in search of some clothes, which Aya realized was for the best as they needed to eat some dinner.

"Not when it’s much more amusing to watch Jo smack it," he admitted while he pulled on a clean pair of pants.

Yohji affected a hurt look for several seconds before he crossed the room and pulled Aya into his arms. "So it’s fun to watch me be abused, is it? I think certain people have been a bad influence on you, Cat. Maybe we should stay up here for a bit longer."

Catching the evil grin on his lover’s face as he was toppled onto the bed again, Aya wondered if they were going to make it down to dinner at all that evening – and if he really minded at all. Oh well, at least he had a few tins of cookies stashed away.

*******

Omi almost leapt from the chair in excitement when he saw Reno and Rufus enter the attic library. "You got it already?"

Rufus nodded as he unwrapped the silk-covered bundle he was carrying, while his mate went over to where Aya was reading. "You’re fortunate that my chief sword maker sent an arrangement of knives before the summer solstice in case I wanted to give some away as offerings or gifts. I remembered that this was in that shipment and thought it might meet your requirements," he explained while he set the exposed knives on the table in front of Omi. "They are made from Thracian steel, which is the purest metal."

Excited at the prospect of having Nagi’s gift ready so soon, Omi started to shift aside various books and notes so he could get a better look at the pair of knives. As he had asked of Rufus, the knives were the long, slim kind that Nagi favored, double bladed with a simple hilt. Jei had taught Omi’s lover how to fight with these type of knives if he couldn’t use his talent – or at least not in such an obvious manner – and now Omi wanted to make sure that Nagi would always have such a pair on him.

While his expertise was more in throwing them than fighting in close, he knew enough about knives to recognize quality when he saw it. Picking up each of the knives in turn, he checked them for any flaws and for their balance, and was pleased to find them as perfect as to be expected from the Shinra forge. "Thank you very much, Rufus, these will do," he told the soul gaki bound.

Rufus smiled and folded his arms over his chest, looking like the proper image of a highborn with his handsome looks, lofty air and immaculate white and black outfit. "I’m pleased to hear that, or else it would take at least two months for something to be made to order. And that’s if Reeve can free up some time as he’s busy with requests as is."

Omi grimaced at the thought of it taking that long. "By that point I might as well wait for the winter solstice," he grumbled, unhappy at the thought of putting off Nagi’s gift that long. "Do you want to stick around for the spell?"

There was a look exchanged between Rufus and Reno, one that had the dubhach throwing his hands up in the air. "Oh come on, dinner’s not gonna be ready for a couple of hours and I promised not to go near the sharp things," Reno snapped, his eyes narrowed in obvious annoyance yet still their normal aquamarine color. He must have noticed Omi’s confusion because he shook his head and settled on the table near Aya. "Lord High and Mighty has a problem with me being near any knives. He even has someone cut my meat for me most of the time."

"Let’s just say I believe in keeping you from certain… temptations," Rufus remarked in a tone so bland that he had to be furious. When it looked as if Reno was about to complain some more, Aya reached out to grab hold of his right arm. The touch made Reno jerk and stare at his friend, then sigh and shake his head again.

Knowing that Aya would normally take Reno’s side in any argument against Rufus, Omi figured that his friend must have decided that Rufus was right for once and that it was a matter that was best left quiet. Cassandra had told Omi and Nagi a bit about dubhach, about how all the ones in the past had killed themselves, so he decided that Rufus did have a good reason to be a bit paranoid about his mate and ‘sharp things’. So he decided that it was best to continue on as if the most recent topic hadn’t happened. "It shouldn’t take that long for me to cast the spell since I’ve been practicing it."

Reno and Rufus shared another look, which ended with Rufus combing his fingers through his hair. "All right, I must admit some interest in this as my gokenin could probably use some similarly enchanted weapons."

Ah, that explained why Rufus had said they could ‘discuss’ the price later, Omi thought as he set about clearing the table of the precious books, just to be safe. Aya came over to help him, and he noticed that Reno returned to Rufus’ side, which appeared to make the soul gaki bound happy. "Uhm, I probably should have asked you if it was all right to do this now," he said as the thought occurred to him.

Aya shrugged as he finished stacking the books on the other table. "I promised to help, and it doesn’t matter to me if we do this now or later."

For some time, Omi had worried that Aya was just being nice to him for Yohji’s or Nagi’s sake, but it was clear that the quiet man really did see him as a friend. He knew he was fortunate that Aya didn’t hold against him what his uncle and cousins had done to him, that he had looked past the ‘Takatori’ name, and was grateful for their friendship. "I really appreciate this." His heartfelt honesty was greeted by one of Aya’s rare smiles.

Once the table was cleared off, he set the knives and a few strands of Nagi’s hair in the center of it, surrounded by a quick chalk circle that he drew. He also placed the characters for ‘earth’, protection’, ‘ defense’ and ‘mutability’ at respective points around the circle. "Okay, I’m ready for your help, Aya."

Approaching the table again, Aya picked up each of the knives and touched their blades to his left index finger, causing a red bead of blood to flow along the sharp edge. Once that was done, he was careful to set them back into the center of the circle, where there was now a pool of shadows along the inner part of the chalk line.

His arms wrapped around his mate, Rufus craned his neck to get a better look at the circle. "You’re not going to use refined blood?" he asked, his voice once more carefully bland.

"No, and not just because I haven’t a clue how to go about refining it," Omi explained. "Aya and I discovered that if a drop of blood is freely given, not just by a bound but by anyone possessing magic, that it serves as an anchor for spells." He tapped his own gauntlets together as if to illustrate his point. "I had wondered why the original gauntlet spells require blood, or are tied to them somehow."

"I don’t mind giving up a drop or two, though I refuse to help provision the entire Army." There was a hint of sibilance to Aya’s voice as he stepped back from the table. "That would be as bad as being bled."

And it would defeat the purpose of the whole ‘freely given’ part, Omi would suspect. Not that Aya would need to go to such extremes, when a wizard’s blood would be almost as good, as long as they didn’t need a kage’s unique powers for the weapons.

However, he did want Nagi to be protected from magic and for the knives to be hidden when not in use, so that was why he had asked for Aya’s help. Waving his friends quiet, he stood in front of the table and began to chant in a low voice as he worked on his spell. The words served as a focus for his magic, a way to call the necessary energy to him to bend reality to what he wanted done. The energy rushed to him, as if the room was packed full of the necessary elemental spirits; between the miniscule blood offering and Aya and Reno’s presences, it probably was the truth. Omi bent the magic to his will and poured it into the knives, made something inert contain the possibility of malleability with but a thought. Then he tied the knives to Nagi using the hairs he had pulled from his boyfriend’s brush the other day, ensuring that the weapons could never be turned against Nagi, and began on the final phase of the spell.

He made a curt gesture in Aya’s direction, and then the shadows within the circle flowed across the table until they covered the knives. Omi willed the shadows and their properties to become part of the knives, aided by the bit of blood that Aya had given to the blades and the fact that his friend also wished for the shadows to protect Nagi. The knives remained coated with blackness for a few more seconds, and then silver began to gleam through until it looked as if the blades were covered with a faint patina as if from age.

The knives trembled on the table and then flowed into thin bands, the perfect size to wrap around a wrist. Omi concentrated a little more, and the two bands became one, as if a thicker bracelet, and then enlarged into shape as if to form a torque one could wear around their neck. He let the words fade away before allowed himself a loud cheer; he had managed to create his own ‘gauntlet’ of sorts, without any of Botan’s help.

"Did you see that?" he asked as the knives once more reverted back to their original shape.

Aya nodded as he approached the table. "Yes, they’re able to take on multiple forms. It’s very impressive." He once again offered Omi a quick smile.

Reno pulled away from Rufus with his left arm outstretched as if to reach for the knives and was jerked back against his mate. He looked over his shoulder to glare at Rufus for a couple of seconds before settling against him with an aggrieved sigh. "That’s really cool. I know the shadows should hide them, but it’s still a good idea for him to be able to wear them as something other than gauntlets in case wizards start checking for them."

"Yes, that’s why I wanted them to be a bit different," Omi explained. After Yoru and Garcia, he wanted to make sure that Nagi would be protected if he faced a wizard who knew about kage. There was also the fact that they didn’t have a clue how much the Elders knew about Aya’s kind, either.

"I probably didn’t see things as clearly as the rest of you, but what I did see was impressive." Rufus held Reno tightly against him as if anxious about letting the dubhach near the weapons. "If you feel like making more of these gauntlets, Omi, I’m sure we can come to some sort of agreement."

Omi paused in wiping away the chalk circle; he did owe Rufus for the set of knives, and it would be nice to have some money that he didn’t receive from his father. There was also the fact that Reno could probably provide the shadows for Rufus’ gauntlets and not Aya. "We can discuss it after I give Nagi his present." Right now, he wanted to see his boyfriend’s face when he gave him the knives.

"By all means." Rufus inclined his head as if doing Omi a great favor, which made Reno roll his eyes and mumble something under his breath. As the dubhach was spun around and kissed silent, Omi shared a look with Aya. The kage shrugged and motioned for the door.

"I think it would be a good time for a break right about now, no?" Aya asked as he skirted around the oblivious pair of mates.

Omi laughed as he wrapped the silk cloth around the knives. "Yes, I agree. Casting magic is hard work." He was a bit surprised that Aya was leaving Reno alone like this, and then remembered that Reno had said something about sticking around for dinner. He also recalled that Yohji had been absent for most of the morning, out running errands for Jo, and figured that Aya was missing his own mate right about now.

His suspicions were confirmed when Aya turned around right before opening the door. "Don’t ruin any books," he warned with a hint of sibilance to his deep voice. "And there will be fish stew and roast pork for dinner." He waited until Omi was out of the room before closing the door behind him. At Omi’s curious look, he shrugged. "Reno’s happy and Rufus wasn’t as controlling for once," he explained when they resumed heading for the kitchen. "Also, I’ll give them about an hour before mentioning to Yohji that they’re up here. It’ll make him happy to catch them in something if they haven’t come downstairs by then."

The explanation made Omi laugh. "Which, knowing Reno, he’ll make sure to keep Rufus busy just to give Yohji a good show. I think I understand why Rufus drinks so much when he comes for a visit!"

"He just better hope that he doesn’t mess up any of the books," Aya remarked with a gleam of silver to his eyes.

Which was why Omi and Nagi never fooled around up in the attic library. Well, that and they never trusted the lock on the door to keep Yohji out. He smiled as he thought about his boyfriend and hurried down the steps, eager to find him.

*******

Nagi frowned as he noticed that Kudoh was in a good mood, busy smirking as he sat beside Aya with his left arm around the redhead. For his part, Aya didn’t look too tired or upset, he had a slight smile on his face as he sipped a glass of wine; part of his high spirits might be the fact that Reno and Rufus had stopped by for dinner, the latter appearing upset over something. Nagi really didn’t care what had bothered the overbearing lord as long as Aya hadn’t been drained dry by the glutton and Omi was sitting near his friend.

He hurried over to his boyfriend, grateful to be home after a day spent running errands for Crawford. He didn’t understand why the precog had been after him to work lately, other than saying something about putting on a show for some of the spies that the Elders had sent to the city after the ‘disaster’ that was Princess Ouka’s birthday celebration. At least Crawford had told him this evening that he didn’t need to show up for the near future, something that he was relieved about as he hated for Omi to go to the palace by himself. Especially since Kudoh still had to have his little ‘chat’ with Takashi over how to properly treat Omi.

"Nagi!" Omi rose from his seat to greet Nagi with a kiss and then pulled him down to sit beside him. "I was beginning to get worried about you!"

"Oh please, as if anything could hurt a li- ow!" Kudoh winced in pain as he rubbed his left side while Aya looked over to glare at him. "Oh come on! I meant it as a compliment!" The idiot seemed to realize that it was best to keep his mouth shut as he sighed and leaned over to nuzzle Aya’s cheek. Unfortunately, Nagi’s friend closed his eyes and appeared to forgive his idiot of a mate.

"Thank you, Aya." Omi gave Kudoh a glare as well before returning his attention back to Nagi. "I thought you were only supposed to be gone for a couple of hours today." His glare turned into an expression of concern.

"Hmph, I think Crawford enjoyed having someone reliable to run errands for him and took advantage of the fact. I doubt there was ever anyone from Esset observing me in the first place." Nagi gave the empty plate in front of him a dirty look before he used his talent to fill it with some roast pork and vegetables. "At least I don’t have to go back tomorrow."

"There’s something inherently untrustworthy about that man," Rufus agreed with a hint of a snarl to his voice. "I think he enjoys making all of us jump when he issues commands."

That made Reno laugh and lean against his mate. "What’s the saying about pot and kettles, eh?" When Rufus turned toward him, he gave the lord a sweet smile. "Like you go more than an hour without barking out orders and expecting to be obeyed," he commented in a rather sweet tone.

Much to Nagi’s surprise, Rufus smiled and reached out to stroke his fingers along one of Reno’s cheekbones. "Says the man who almost never listens to those orders."

"Yeah, because it gets you all hot and bothered when I don’t," Reno purred. He was leaning forward when Jo slammed a bottle of wine down on the table.

"Mind your manners and your hands while eating," she reminded everyone. "And fair warning, Ken and Miko should be finishing up their shifts soon."

"So less talking and more eating unless you want to be growled at," Yohji translated with a laugh as he ladled some more fish stew in Aya’s bowl and then his own.

Nagi took the words to heart and redoubled his efforts to eat his dinner, nodding in thanks when Maddox placed a full platter of pork on the table. He hadn’t much of a chance to eat all day while running Crawford’s errands so the delicious food was almost as welcome as being able to spend the evening with Omi and Aya.

"There’s some fruit tarts and spice cake for dessert," Omi told him when he finished his third helping. He seemed nervous for some reason and shifted about in his seat. "Did you have a good day?"

"It was busy, but at least it wasn’t raining," he said as he wiped his plate clean with a piece of bread. "What about you? Did you help Aya with some more research?" He knew that his friend was still spending most of his days up in the attic library rather than interacting with people, and appreciated that Omi was keeping him company when not working his shifts or studying magic.

A faint blush spread across Omi’s cheeks and the conversations around the table fell silent. "Uhm, for a little bit." He reached under the table for something that was wrapped in white silk. "I did a bit of spellcasting with Aya’s help. It’s a present for you," he explained as he handed over the bundle.

Surprised by the gift as it wasn’t his birthday or a holiday, Nagi stared at it for several seconds before he accepted it. "But… I don’t have anything for you," he said in a quiet voice, glancing over Omi’s shoulders to look at Aya in hopes of an answer. Was this a human custom? Was something expected of him? His friend gave him an encouraging smile and nodded so he began to unwrap the silk.

"Oh! It’s nothing like that," Omi exclaimed "It’s just… I wanted to make you something." He became quiet as the knives were revealed. "They’re like the gauntlets Reiichi and I wear, and Aya gave some of his shadows so you’ll be protected from magic and can make them disappear if you want."

Nagi stared at the knives until he realized what Omi had intended with the gifts. Setting the silk aside, he held a weapon in each hand and concentrated on them as his boyfriend had once described using his own gauntlets. A smile spread across his face as tarnished silver bands formed around each of his wrists. He leaned over to give Omi a kiss. "Thank you."

Omi smiled, the expression one of relief and hugged him. "I just… well, you’re not into books and there’s only so many sweets I can buy you unless you want your own shop. I figured these would keep you safe, especially if you can’t use your talent." He was almost babbling, as he tended to do when he was nervous about something.

"No, they’re perfect," Nagi assured him – though the sweet shop would have been an impressive gift as well, if impractical. He supposed that Ken and Jei would always be hanging out there for free food. "Now I can use Kudoh for target practice."

"Hey!" the man objected while hugging Aya to his side. "That is in no way funny!"

"Who said I was kidding?"

"I should-"

The bourgeoning fight was cut short by Jo arriving at the table with several slices of cake. "Do you need to take that outside?" she asked as she turned to the side as if to leave with the cakes. Yohji cast a frightened look at his mate and shook his head in a frantic manner, while Nagi debated and quickly discarded the thought of using his talent to snatch at the desserts. He shook his head as well and promised to antagonize Kudoh later, when neither Aya no Jo were around.

Appearing rather pleased with herself, Jo set the pieces of cake in front of Aya, Omi and Nagi, then went back for more slices. Kudoh gave Nagi a cold look before pressing a kiss against Aya’s right temple. "You know that Birman’s going to want the ring now that you have your own set of special gauntlets," he warned while he watched Aya eat his cake, a fond expression on his face.

Nagi paused in eating his own dessert and shrugged. "That’s fine." If it would prevent the Spymaster from bothering Aya over giving any more blood so new rings could be made, it was for the best.

Reno began to purr when he received his own cake. "I think you should hold out for a favor or something if she wants it that much. There’s not many of them, right?" He paused to lick his fork clean. "Supply and demand, then. It would be nice to have a spare royal pardon on hand or something."

His comments provoked laughter from almost everyone in the kitchen, although his mate was shaking his head. "While I’m proud to see that you’ve *finally* picked up some sense of business acumen, why am I filled with terror over what you’d do with that royal pardon?" Rufus shook his head again then sipped his wine.

While everyone but Aya began to suggest what Nagi could ask in exchange for the ring, Nagi reached under the table to hold onto Omi’s hand. They exchanged a brief smile before they resumed enjoying their dessert and the wild comments, and he looked forward to when they could head upstairs so he could properly thank his boyfriend for the present.

*******

"So, what do you think Maddox is making for dinner today?"

Takashi almost jumped when Miko lashed out with her left arm and smacked her partner in the stomach. "He said something about roast lamb at breakfast this morning, so you *better* not eat an entire platter by yourself again!" she warned, her voice furious and her pretty face pulled into an angry scowl. He was taken back by the sudden change in her demeanor as well as by the fact that she was hitting, well, a flesh gaki bound.

Ken smiled at her, and Takashi felt his heart race when he caught the quick flash of too white and *way* too sharp teeth for a moment, and was surprised that the Guard risked such a thing even if there wasn’t anyone else around them as they headed down the alley near the Koneko. "But I just love roast lamb! It tastes almost as good as-"

Miko smacked him again. "Don’t you dare say something that’ll ruin my appetite! I’m on to you, you sneaky bastard!" She still sounded furious, but Takashi noticed that her lips twitched as she spoke, as if she fought not to smile.

Her partner laughed, thankfully with his fangs out of sight, and gave her a quick, one-arm hug. "Aw, as Yohji would say, ‘where’s the fun in that?’." He winked at Takashi as they continued on their way. "But seriously, Maddox’s lamb is just as good as Jo’s. That mint sauce recipe he brought with him is really good."

"Yeah, the kid is doing a great job," Miko agreed. "And it’s fun to watch him stand up to you gluttons."

"It should be interesting to see what happens when Emmie joins the Guard. I bet she’ll be gunning for Kikyou’s job in another ten, fifteen years." The Guards laughed as if they were looking forward to that happening, the previous signs of their ‘fight’ all gone.

Takashi shook his head as he followed them into the Koneko’s garden. He was still trying to figure these two out – they loved to pick on each other, but he didn’t think they were dating or anything. Was it something to do with Ken being a bound? He really didn’t know that much about bounds, especially flesh gaki bounds. Botan had told him that most of what he’d heard about the magical creatures had probably been lies, and that all he needed to worry about flesh gaki bounds was to never get in the way of their meals and to try not to have any bleeding wounds around them. Ken struck him as someone who was very friendly and who did his best to put everyone else at ease, not at all like some raving, blood-thirsty monster. Though the Guard did like to tease Miko a lot about his appetite and how tasty she looked….

It was a bit weird to find himself surrounded by people who ate raw meat and who could read his thoughts, but he was so relieved that he finally knew what Botan had been hiding from him these last few months. There was still a little bit of fear as he got used to Ken, Eri, Nagi and the others, more in getting used to what they could do and knowing how to handle himself around them than in what they really were. Like Botan and Omi had told them, at heart they were just people, albeit ones with special abilities and an additional demon soul, but they loved, had dreams and strove to do their best just like him. It was difficult to think of someone as a mythical monster when you saw them as a friendly Guard or they served you food or were dating your friend.

He ducked his head when he thought of Omi, still embarrassed to think of all the times he had teased the crown prince. Bounds he could get used to, as they were trying to lead the same life as he was, but Omi…. Omi was going to be king one day. How could King Shuiichi let his son run around working in an inn? That was even more difficult to understand than bounds in the Guard!

"Uhm, you gonna close the door or you gonna wait until Jo reminds you to do it with her rolling pin?" Ken asked.

Reminded that he was standing in the doorway of the Koneko’s kitchen, Takashi blushed and shut the door behind him. "Sorry, I was busy thinking of something." He removed his brown cloak and hung it near the door, then looked about the room. Maddox was busy cooking, along with Bethwynn, Kira and Ani. It appeared as if Omi and Nagi had the afternoon off, and Botan either hadn’t shown up yet or was in the library or main room.

"Has Botan arrived yet?"

"No." Reiichi and Jo were seated at one of the tables, a carafe of coffee between them and a plate of cinnamon rolls. Miko and Ken hurried to join them, prompting Jo to shake her head. "I just got finished sending Omi and Emmie upstairs with enough food to appease the Ravenous Horde and Aya, and now I have to put up with you?"

Ken somehow managed a truly pathetic expression as he snatched up three cinnamon rolls. "But it’s such arduous work, keeping the city safe," he moaned.

"Oh yes, we walked about all day while this one charmed half the shopkeepers into giving him free samples." Miko shook her head and snagged the last roll for herself. "He’s going to waste away to nothing if we’re reassigned back to the palace any time soon."

Reiichi laughed while he poured the two Guards some coffee. "What’s that saying of yours, Jo? About the unfairness of bound metabolism?"

"Truly the gods are unjust," she complained as she rose from the table with the empty plate in her hands. She looked at Takashi and motioned toward the door leading into the Koneko. "You should probably wait in the library for Botan. I’ll send some snacks there in a few minutes."

"Thank you." Not wanting to be under anyone’s feet as they prepared for dinner, Takashi hurried out of the room and toward the library; he knew that Botan enjoyed spending time in the quiet room, which was somehow warded to contain spells and conversations.

He was expecting to find the room empty this close to dinner time, and was surprised to see that one of the inn’s staff was already there, reading a book. What was even more surprising was that it was Yohji, whom he almost never saw without his boyfriend, the redhead Aya. Takashi paused just inside of the doorway. "Uhm, am I disturbing you?" he asked, uncertain if he should wait here for Botan or not.

Yohji closed the book and set it aside as he looked up; for a moment, the candlelight reflected in his blond hair and made his golden-toned skin gleam until Takashi couldn’t look away. Something tightened in Takashi’s throat and made his chest seize in a painful manner, something that made him aware of Yohji as he never had been of any other person. Then the sound of the door closing behind him snapped him out of whatever it was that had snared his attention, let him take a breath and look away.

"Nah, it’s okay," Yohji said, his voice warm and… not quite smooth, but flowing with a hint of a rasp. "Actually, I wanted to talk to you about something."

"Really?" Takashi frowned as he stepped further into the room. What was Yohji again? Hadn’t Botan said something about him being a succubae bound, but that he didn’t feed from anyone other than Aya? The wizard had assured him that Yohji was safe to be around, as was Masato, because of them being ‘mated’, whatever that meant. "About what?"

A grin spread across Yohji’s face as he leaned back in the padded leather chair where he was sitting. "About Omi." He motioned for Takashi to come closer.

Doing as he had been bid, Takashi wondered why Yohji wanted to talk about the crown prince. From what he had seen, the two young men were friends, despite the fact that Yohji and Nagi didn’t get along very well. That might be because Yohji treated Omi with an appalling lack of respect. "What about him?"

"You know, he really doesn’t like it when his friends are standoffish with him." The rasp in Yohji’s voice deepened, yet it made it even more pleasant to listen to, for some reason. His green eyes seemed to glow in the room’s dim light, twin beacons in his incredibly handsome face. Takashi sat in the chair opposite from the man, unable to look away. "He just wants you to be friends with him."

"But… but he’s the crown prince," Takashi argued, his voice growing fainter with each word.

"He’s not only that," Yohji countered as he shifted to lean forward. "If that were the case, he would stay at Court and play mindless games with the other highborn. He wants to do more than that, he’s learning magic and seeing what really goes on in this country." He paused, yet his attention never wavered from Takashi. "He doesn’t care at all about what status his friends have or haven’t got, so why should you care? Why should anything change between you now that you know who his parents are?"

The words made perfect sense. They were similar to what Botan and others had told him in the past couple of weeks, but something clicked inside of Takashi now, made him feel a bit ashamed of himself. "I guess… I didn’t want to risk offending him," he stammered out.

Yohji offered him a lopsided grin. "Trust me, you can’t do that by treating him like a normal person. No, the only way to offend the kid is by insulting his bastard of a boyfriend or to treat him as if he’s nothing but the crown prince." Then the grin disappeared. "Not that you should do either, dammit." He sounded a bit regretful about that.

"Okay, I won’t," Takashi promised. The pain from before returned when Yohji appeared upset for a moment, but he quickly shook his head and smiled.

"That’s good." He rubbed his right hand over his face and seemed to mutter something about ‘Aya’ and ‘owed big-time for this’. Then he took a deep breath, and when he spoke again, his voice sounded… well, it sounded normal. Also, Takashi found that he could look away from the man for the first time in several minutes. "So, you’re waiting for Botan?"

"Uhm, yeah." He shook his head since he felt a little dizzy all of a sudden. "He invited me here for dinner and to talk about a few things he didn’t want to bring up in front of Haruto," he explained.

"Then he should be here soon. Most likely he stopped by Cass’ first." Yohji looked as if he was going to say something but stopped, just as the door opened to admit Nagi, who was carrying a tray filled with food.

"Did I interrupt anything?" the young man asked as he stared pointedly at Yohji.

The blond man sighed as he stood to his feet. "No, I’m done here now." He must have finished reading his book because he left his chair. "I’m going to pry Aya away from the Elrics before they plot to buy all of the books in the damn city."

"Bring him down for some dinner," Nagi commanded as he set the tray filled with pastries and a carafe of coffee on the table near Takashi. "He doesn’t need you draining him dry tonight."

"Oh for-" Yohji pressed his hands to his temples as if to stave off a headache. "Listen, you little demon, he’ll be down if he feels like it!" he snarled before storming out of the room.

Takashi stared after the blond man and then gave Nagi a cautious look before deciding he had best fuss over a cup of coffee. He didn’t know what was going on between the two young men, but if he thought that Nagi didn’t like him, then he could only pray that their relationship didn’t degenerate to the level that it was between Nagi and Yohji.

"Let’s just hope that you’ve at least come to your senses," Nagi muttered before leaving the room, causing Takashi to stare after him despite his resolution to keep his head down. There was no doubt about it, bounds were very, very strange, he thought as he reached for a cherry Danish. Even stranger than girls.

*******

Jo was just cutting into the first of the spice cakes when Yohji and Aya entered the kitchen, Yohji’s left arm wrapped around Aya’s waist and a very pleased smile on his lips. She set the knife down and rested her fists on her hips as she shook her head before crossing the room to meet the couple. "I’d make a comment about you being late for dinner, but it looks as if *one* of you has already ‘eaten’!" she chided.

Yohji’s green eyes went wide and he clutched at his heart with his free hand while Aya gave a sleepy look around her at one of the tables, where Reiichi, Birman, Ed, Al, Roy, Takashi, Omi and Nagi were sitting. "Jo! Just what are you insinuating?"

"Oh, go sit down and let Aya have some supper before he passes out," she ordered a she smacked the smart bastard on the arm. "I’ll bring you over something and save him a nice big slice of cake." That made the kage tug on Yohji’s hand, as expected, and earn her an evil glare from Yohji as well. She gave him a knowing grin as she made her way to the stove, where Maddox was already putting together plates of roast lamb and mashed potatoes for the two men.

"So they came down after all," he commented.

"A good bit of their friends are here tonight, so I thought they might." Or rather she had hoped, as Aya had been a little better in the past few days, with Reno’s visit and helping Omi with some magic. He still refused to spend much time out in the main room, but he seemed to realize that everyone he cared about still treated him as ‘normal’ in the kitchen and could be enticed down here for some food and sweets.

The plates heaped with food, she took them to the table and told the two that she expected to find them clean before she’d allow any dessert. Yohji gave her a wink that indicated that he’d make sure his ‘cat’ ate well tonight, which was only fair when the man kept ‘snacking’ on him all the time, but Aya did perk up a little when presented with some food. That and Ed had launched into some discussion on using bound talents to twist elements into weapons, so Jo figured that he’d be drawn into an actual discussion for once.

She left Aya to his lover and friends and returned to sit next to Cassandra, who poured her a fresh cup of tea. "Yohji is looking well tonight," she commented with a mostly stifled giggle.

"He’s damn near glowing," Jo muttered before sipping her tea. "I think he’s taking advantage of Aya having ‘fed’ recently."

Botan grimaced a little at the mention of the Esset agents and wrapped his hands around his mug of coffee. "At least it’s a sign of things returning to normal around here." He glanced over at the table, and smiled at what appeared to be the sight of Omi and Takashi joining in on Ed’s rather spirited discussion. "Or what passes as normal for this place," he joked.

"Be quiet, or else I’ll blame you when things go wrong," Jo snapped. "I thought a wizard would know better than to tempt the gods by now."

He bowed his head as if in remorse while Cassandra giggled. "Where would we all be without your guidance?"

"I know I’d be a lot less stressed," Jo grumbled. Yet she smiled as she surveyed the room once again, filled with her friends and loved ones. There was much laughing and arguing and fighting over food, noise and activity and people going in and out. As Botan said, a ‘normal’ night. She would take it and count her blessings.

*******

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