Shadows Chronicles

*******

by nekojita

*******

Yuushi had just finished with the weekly status reports that Kikyou insisted on having ready before his meetings with Manx and had set his fountain pen aside to give his poor, aching fingers a rest when there was a rapping sound on his office door. A moment later, Eri opened the door and entered his office, a puzzled expression on her face and a fresh carafe of coffee in her left hand.

"Is everything all right?" he asked as he leaned back in his chair, pleased as always to see his girlfriend but a bit confused as to why she was visiting him like this during working hours. While she sometimes did stop by for a drink or a snack while on duty, it was usually in company of her partner or another Guard.

"I think so," Eri said, her voice distracted and a distant look in her dark brown eyes as she set the carafe down on his desk. She nodded once when he fetched two clean mugs from the filing cabinet behind him and settled in one of the chairs facing his desk. "I received the oddest of messages to pass on to you."

"Oh?" Ah, then this did have something to do with work, which was a relief; they both went through great pains to keep their relationship 'professional' while in uniform and he wanted to make sure Reiichi had no reason to tease him about *anything* later on.

Eri must have picked up on that thought because she smiled a little as she inhaled the steam rising from her mug of coffee. "I'd say you’re being unduly paranoid but then again, I know the man in question. Naru would be here as well except that we ran into Botan on the way to your office and he wanted to get a few ingredients for a spell from him before he forgot *again*." She shook her head at her partner’s obvious forgetfulness. "So it’s just me to tell you about Tyra’s message."

He frowned a little as he attempted to recall the name, using the time it took to sip his hot coffee to place it. The mention of no family name tipped it off as a bound, and he remembered that there was a soul gaki bound stationed out by Shima. "What did she have to say? Was it a general message or did she have anything to relate from Conn?" He was the highest ranking Shadow Guard in that area, a good friend who had lost a couple of fingers on his left hand during the fight at the king’s wedding and so had been ‘farmed’ out to the countryside. Conn Cindrich seemed to be taking the change of locale rather well and Birman was ecstatic over the chance to recruit to the Shadow Guard and her spy agency away from the city, but Yuushi missed his friend’s ability to spin tall tales over drinks.

This time it was Eri’s turn to frown into her mug as if she wished it was something more potent than coffee. "I know Tyra’s not the strongest of soul gaki bounds, but the connection was good enough that she could have sent more than she did. That’s what’s so confusing. All I got was that a wizard’s headed our way but that Conn’s already sent two of his best to handle him. She gave me an image of the man," and Eri’s lips twisted again, this time in a grimace that made it clear how much she and any other Guard were aware that a talented wizard could easily change his appearance, "and said that the two Shadow Guards would handle him. I get the feeling that it was more of a courtesy alert than anything." For a moment, her eyes flashed with anger and he caught the sight of sharp teeth; he was willing to bet his pension that she wasn’t pleased with the idea of sitting out on a wizard hunt because of two other Guards calling ‘first dibs’.

"Did she say who these Guards are?" he asked, curious despite himself.

Eri finished her coffee and set the mug aside. "Kurogane and Fai." She stared at him, clearly waiting for some sort of explanation while he retrieved a notebook from a drawer in his desk, mindful to open it with his right hand – the hand that bore the special black stone ring that Botan had given him. It took him a minute to flip to the correct page, as every few weeks more names were added to the growing list of ‘special’ Shadow Guards.

"Let’s see, flesh gaki bound and air elemental." That was an odd combination, he thought as he set the book back in the warded drawer. "I take it that you haven’t heard of them?"

"No, but I can ask around and see if Blair has." Eri rose to her feet, her hands smoothing down the front of her long uniform coat. She gave him a warm smile and turned to leave, her errand finished, before pausing in mid-step. "Oh! There was one more part of the message that I almost forgot." She once more appeared confused. "It got lost in the wizard and the rest, but Tyra clearly said to pass on that Conn wanted you to know that *you* have to deal with *them*." She tilted her head to the side as she looked at him, her confusion growing when she realized that he had no idea what the message meant. "It’s not a code of some sort?"

"None that I’m aware of, unless I was more drunk than I thought that last night Conn was in town," he admitted with a shaky laugh. "It was only one wizard, correct?"

"Yes, a Fei Wong Reed."

Dammit, Conn must be enjoying too much of the local brew up there in the north or something. Yuushi rubbed his hands over his eyes and remembered too late about the ink stains on his fingers when he heard Eri stifle a giggle. "Then he must be referring to the Guards," he muttered as he pulled out a handkerchief to try to wipe away the ink from his face. As if he didn’t have enough to worry about, now that Conn had sicced some troublemakers on his city.

Maybe it was time to make Reiichi the official Shadow Captain and take an early retirement.

*******

Arthur waved the family of silver traders through the Gate and eyed the waiting line with some trepidation. The cold, snowy weather had done little to slow traffic into the city for the day, and most of the people appeared upset at having to stand around freezing while waiting their turn to announce name and intentions before entering. It was times like these that he wished he was still patrolling the streets, even if his post was warded for warmth and he got to stay out of the worst of the weather.

<Now, now, what happened to the spiel you were giving that young woman the other night about all Guard duties being so worthwhile, hmm?>

<All is fair in lust and war,> he sent back to his partner, doing his best not to grin when he noticed the answering smile on Sabine’s face as she inspected a wagon loaded with firewood. Ah, it was a good thing he wasn’t attracted to blondes, much favoring dark hair and pale skin, like the girl in question the other night at the Koneko.

Sabine finished checking out the wagon and motioned for its driver to continue through the Gate. She stepped toward Arthur so they would be ready for the next inspection, and a cheerful voice, much unlike the usual grumbling of the day, cut through the air.

"Looks like we’re next, Kuru-tan!"

"*Shut up* and get moving," a much deeper voice answered, sounding even more annoyed than normal for someone stuck waiting out in the cold.

Arthur turned to see an unusual pair approach, contrasting even down to their clothes. They were both male and tall, yet the one on the left was very broad shouldered and solidly built, dressed all in black with the hood of his cloak pushed back onto his shoulders. Beside him, wearing a long, full hooded white coat that completely encased his slim form was another man who came up to the very tall man’s shoulder. Even their coloring differed, the man in black possessing short, spiky black hair, tan skin and reddish eyes, whereas the shorter man was paler, with bright blue eyes and blond hair a more golden shade than Sabine’s. He was smiling as if the gods had blessed him in every way imaginable, while his dark company glowered enough for a flock of storm crows. They were… rather odd, which was saying something, considering that Arthur worked as a Gate Guard.

<Sabine?>

<I’m not picking up much besides surface thoughts since they have very good shields. Offhand, I’d suspect them of being bounds or wizards,> she sent back over their link as she approached him to help with the ‘inspection’.

"Name and business in town?" he called out to the two men as they approached, each bearing a small pack over their left shoulders. They also bore a sword on each of their left hips, the taller man a long, dark curved blade and the blond a lighter, straight sword as well as a staff in his right hand. Weapons weren’t that unusual, especially if people were traveling the roads alone, but bounds and wizards preferred to more… natural talents for defense.

The blond man smiled as he tilted his head to the side. "Oh, we’re just passing through while looking for an old friend!" he called out in a sing-song tone, the bright smile on his face as he stopped in front of Arthur and he leaned on his staff. The hood of his coat was pushed back enough to expose his face, and the effect of his smile and presence was enough to make Arthur’s heart race for a moment as he was caught staring. Despite the fact that he wasn’t normally attracted to blonds or men, there was something appealing to the stranger….

Beside him, his black-garbed companion made a growling sound that cut through Arthur’s musing. "Kurogane and Fai," he snapped out in a deep voice as he knocked his right shoulder against his companion. "We’re here to meet up with an… acquaintance." There was a good deal of heat in the words, each one spit out as if a curse, and Arthur’s attention focused on the man with rising suspicion. He was about to question him for more detail when he noticed the tall man raise his left arm and push back the sleeve of his black shirt to reveal a hint of a copper wrist band with familiar markings. A quick glance aside at his companion and an identical band was flashed beneath a white sleeve, and he felt a brief greeting pulse over his own band.

<They’re the ones from Sakacho, I just got that much from their thoughts,> Sabine sent as she stepped aside. "Well, good day to you then," she bade the men as she motioned them on the way, acting as if they were just another set of travelers entering the city.

Arthur did the same, nodding in passing and forcing himself not to turn around and watch them leave. If they were doing their best to sneak into the city to track someone down, then he wouldn’t ruin things for them. It wasn’t often that Shadow Guard from outside the city came for a ‘visit’, so there was a lot of interest about these two already. He was sure to get a few free beers tonight from retelling this story.

<Even the bit where you stared at the one like a lovestruck fool?> Sabine asked as she questioned a trader.

He frowned as he went to inspect the woman’s cart. <I think you’re exaggerating.> At her mental scoffing, he thought it over. <Well, it’s wasn’t as bad as the newbies are around Yohji, but he did take me by surprise. Not so much in a lustful way but… sorta like Trowa,> he admitted with a wince, as everyone in the Shadow Guard knew to be careful around Duo’s mate or risk being singed, even if there was something about the quiet man’s presence. <Was he a water elemental?>

Sabine shared his frown for a moment, which made the poor trader blanch and insist that she had the proper permits for all of her goods. As his partner assured the woman that everything was in order, she sent that she didn’t recall Yuushi or Eri saying anything about that. Which left Arthur feeling rather confused for the rest of his shift, and suddenly nervous to be around blond men.

*******

Fai smiled as he twirled around in the street, his coat flaring out around his legs as he took in all of shops that lined either side and the people bustling about. Ah, this was *so* much nicer than Sakacho, was nicer than even Shima, and it had been years since he had been in a city larger than that. "Oh, look, there’s a soba stall!" he cried out as he poked Kurogane in the right shoulder with his second best staff. "They even have green tea noodles!"

His mate made a low, deep growling sound and swiped at the staff, but Fai had learned well by now that it was best to always be a moving target. "And there’s a tea shop! Hmm, I can smell the scones from out here!" He took a few steps in its direction. "Hot tea and fresh scones, doesn’t it sound *wonderful*, Kuro-pu?" he teased the grump, knowing well there was little that could be done while they were surrounded by all these human witnesses. "I could have three pots by myself just to warm up-"

"We’re not here for tea!" Kurogane shouted as he stomped over to catch up to Fai, his loud voice drawing attention to them as he struggled not to bare his fangs. "Get it through that addled head of yours!" He reached out to grab hold of Fai’s shoulders and gave him a couple of shakes, annoyance and a hint of hunger/exhaustion coming over their link.

"But I’m soo co-cold," Fai replied with a dramatic sniff. "We’ve been walking all day and it’s freezing and I’m tired and hungry." He sniffed again, well aware of the crowd that had gathered around them, now murmuring about the rude brute being so mean to the lovely man/woman (well, he hadn’t cut his hair in several months so he supposed he shouldn’t complain too much about their confusion). He did his best to continue sniffling and looking pathetic as Kurogane picked up on the murmuring, and almost ruined it by smiling when his stomach let out a very loud rumbling. The sight of the facial tick on his mate’s face was close to breaking him, but he held on long enough for Kurogane to finally snap and let out a loud curse before dragging him over to the tea shop.

"The gods *hate* me," Kurogane grumbled as they entered the shop with its wonderful aroma of teas and baked goods. "They must, to curse me with *you*."

Fai laughed as he slipped forward to give his mate a quick hug before dropping his pack and staff beside a chair and then sat down, mindful of his coat and sword. "I make things interesting for you," he pointed out with a cheerful smile.

"In both Thracia and Xan an ‘interesting’ life is considered a curse," Kurogane shot back as he dropped down in the other chair, but amusement flowed over their link despite the glare on his handsome face. In spite of his complaining and muttering about curses, he certainly got upset if Fai didn’t feel up to his ‘trouble-making ways’.

"They just don’t know how to have fun." Fai pouted over that fact for a minute, until a young woman came over to take their order. Her eyes widened at their request for a dozen scones and tea sandwiches, until he laughingly told her that they hadn’t had anything to eat that day in their rush to reach the city. Which was a blatant lie, but it should cover for their appetites until they reached somewhere safe for their kind. He could have gone a bit longer without food, but it was best to feed Kurogane’s hunger whenever possible.

Once the woman had dropped off their tea, he made a little motion to indicate that he had put his talent to use to prevent anyone from overhearing them. "So, we’ve finally reached the city, and in good time, too."

Kurogane grunted as he checked his pot. "As long as the information is correct, Reed should be here in two day’s time." He bared the tips of his fangs as hate/anger/anticipation rushed over their link, the emotions similar to what Fai felt. "He might even be here already."

Fai almost made a comment about the information having to be true, considering what they had paid for it, but he knew it to still be a sore subject for the other man and thought the shop to be too nice a place to risk a fight. So instead, he went with a diversionary tactic, something he was rather good at by this point in time. "Mah, what are we going to do until then?" He batted his eyes as he settled his chin on his folded hands. "I know, you can show your undying love for me by buying me presents! It’ll be like the honeymoon we never-"

"No way in *any* of the hells!" Kurogane insisted as he slammed down the pot of tea he had just been pouring, causing its lid to rattle from the force. "Where do you get these insane ideas? We’re working, not playing foolish games!"

"Hmph, such a mean husband you are." He dropped the ward preventing the sound of their voices to carry very far as the human returned with their food. "Here we are in the city, surrounded by all these wonderful stores, and you can’t even spare a few coins to buy your loving spouse a few trinkets. I’m not wanted anymore, am I?" he declared in a sorrowful voice, with a dramatic sniffle and watery eyes. For his part, Kurogane appeared ready to resume yelling, until the young woman set the large platter of food on the table and gave him a dirty look before patting Fai on the shoulder in sympathy before leaving, offering to return with something special.

The way that Kurogane’s left eye took to twitching was very amusing, as was his teeth grinding together as he did his best to not growl in the presence of humans. Judging from the emotions rushing over their link, it would be a tie between Fai being bitten or fucked once they were alone later – well, considering that he was mated to a flesh gaki bound, one usually led to the other so both were fine with him. He had basically ensured that they would be heading straight to the inn once they finished with the tea rather than waste any time searching blindly for Reed; he wanted the wizard dead just as much as his mate, he just had enough sense to know they weren’t going to find him while wandering around without a clue.

So, go meet up with the Shadow Guard, gather some helpful information while resting and enjoying a proper meal, *that* was a plan. And if he got to rile up his dear Kuro while doing so and snag the better sandwiches while the man sat there glaring at him, all the better.

*******

Aya sighed as he looked out over the main room and sidled a little closer to his mate. The Koneko was doing very good business tonight, full of people looking to spend time with friends and enjoy a bit of good food and alcohol out of the cold and darkness. It would only get busier as the winter Solstice approached, and then be quiet for a couple of weeks afterward. He hoped for the peace of the holiday to arrive soon – especially since the kitchen wouldn’t be a safe haven for another day or two.

Yohji slid an arm around his waist and hugged him a little closer. "Once you’ve had enough to eat we’ll head upstairs," he promised, and Aya knew that his mate was half tempted to risk Jo’s temper to put together a tray of food and take it up to their bedroom. He shook his head and reached for his glass of wine, unwilling to get Yohji in any trouble on his behalf. There were several friends around him and the shadows to help filter out the press of humanity, he should be fine.

Luckily, Nagi and Marta arrived bearing full platters of food, and Nagi made sure to set his down near Aya. "Your partner’s an idiot," he hissed at Eri before he left, and he made sure to send a stern look Yohji’s way as well.

Eri and Yohji sighed in cadence, causing Yohji to laugh as he placed several roasted chicken thighs on Aya’s plate. "For once I can’t argue with him," he admitted with a rueful tone.

Eri smiled as she helped herself to some of the roasted vegetables. "No, neither can I as I’ve no clue what possessed the fool to try and renew the spells himself." She motioned at the table and the missing bread baskets. "At least Omi and Botan managed to undo the damage, but not in time to save the day’s baking or Naru from Jo’s wrath."

"Huh, I’d say *all* of us from her wrath, not to mention I’ll be smelling moldy bread for days," Ken complained before biting into a chicken leg.

Reiichi poured some more wine for himself, Aya and Yohji. "While the lady in question is undoubtedly in a less than pleasant mood, the worst of it is indeed directed Naru’s way. I had to pack him a change of clothes to last him until Solstice, on the hope that she’ll have forgiven him by then."

"Well, if he’s not going to be here for the next week or two, then I’m going to take advantage of his empty bed. My apartment is drafty as hell during the winter." Miko shivered and then draped her left arm over Ken’s shoulder. "Now to find someone nice and warm to get my bed all toasty," she cooed into his ear.

"Shoulda had the wizard use a fire elemental instead of a flesh gaki demon instead, as all I’ll do is tear your sheets and leave a mess," he shot back, for an instant stunning more than just Miko with how blasé he was about being turned into a bound. Aya paused in eating his meal to watch what would happen next while Yohji laughed, amusement and pride flowing over their link.

Miko stared at her partner for several seconds before smiling and actually blowing in Ken’s ear. "Ooooh, I do so love a kinky man."

Now it was Ken’s turn to laugh as he blushed a violent red, and he jabbed his partner with the bare chicken bone to make her back off. The two resumed eating, while everyone else chuckled and exchanged looks. What those looks were about, Aya was uncertain, but neither was he that interested to be honest. He just wanted to finish eating and get upstairs to do some reading, especially since there wasn’t any dessert tonight.

He had just finished one helping and was halfway through the second when he felt bounds cross over his wards. Considering the amount of Shadow Guards alone who came to the inn, that wasn’t very unusual, but Eri twisting in her seat as she set aside her fork at minute later was. "Natsuko just notified me that there’s been a request for one of the special rooms," she said, her quiet voice gaining everyone’s attention.

"Eh?" Yohji’s left hand pulled away from Aya’s waist so his right could stroke along the golden gauntlet on his wrist. "From whom?" He turned to look at Aya, as did everyone else at the table.

"Bounds," Aya told them. He could sense flesh gaki strong and clear, but there was something about the other… one? Two? There was a strong sense of air elemental, but there was also something of water to it as well, like an echo but not. He shook his head as he tried to make sense of it.

"I asked her to send them over here," Eri explained. "They showed her bracelets like the Guards wear, but I want to be certain."

So much for a quiet dinner and then an evening spent reading, Aya thought with some annoyance as he ate the last few bites of his meal. He had the shadows pull one of the remaining wine bottles a little closer as he waited for the bounds to cross the crowded room, his mate a tense presence beside him. Yohji toyed with his golden gauntlet, tugging several strands free only to let them go a few seconds later, his green eyes intent on the door to the hallway.

A minute later, the bounds entered the main room, causing Aya to shiver slightly as they crossed his wards. The taller man was the flesh gaki bound, and once again he was left confused about the blond wearing the heavy white coat. He definitely sensed air magic, but there was still that tingle of water magic about the man as well. They both looked about for a few seconds, until the taller bound noticed their dark corner and grabbed his companion’s right arm to drag him in this direction.

"Too bad Tyra didn’t send along an image of the bounds who are supposed to be coming, but from the little I’m picking up from their thoughts, I believe it’s them," Eri announced as she watched the men approach.

"Let’s be dead certain, okay?" Yohji insisted with a hint of a growl to his voice. Eri flushed a little and nodded.

The two men managed their way through the crowd, probably in part because of the scowl on the flesh gaki’s face and the fact that his black cloak was folded back to reveal a sword. Aya was certain that all of the Guards in the room were keeping a careful watch on the pair, which would make things annoying if they were a threat; he would just rather be able to kill them quickly and go back to his quiet evening.

"Hello!" the shorter of the two bounds called out as they approached the table, sounding cheerful and a little tired. "We heard there was plenty of food and wine waiting for us here!" He came to a stop a couple of feet away and managed a half bow despite the fact that his companion still had a hand on his right arm, his blond hair falling onto his smiling face. "I’m Fai!" He motioned to the silent figure standing beside him, his blue eyes twinkling with amusement. "And this big grump is my partner, Kuro-tan."

Kuro…tan?’s red eyes narrowed and he revealed a hint of his fangs as he glared at Fai. "Oi! Who goes around introducing people like that?"

"Aw, is daddy grumpy from walking all day?" the blond, Fai, asked as he hugged the other man’s arm to his side.

"What the *hell* were the gods thinking when they stuck me with *you*?"

Yohji chuckled as he leaned forward to get a better look at the arguing bounds. "Uhm, I’m gonna go out on a limb here and guess that you two are mates." His question made the men quit their squabbling and fall silent as they stared at first Yohji and then everyone else at the table. "Oh, don’t worry, this corner is warded against eavesdroppers. It’s not a good thing for most people to hear certain topics or notice some peculiar traits."

The flesh gaki bound released Fai’s arm and stepped forward, his right hand on the hilt of his sword and his body partially in front of his mate. "I’m Kurogane." He motioned with his left hand at Eri, Ken and Miko, who were still dressed in their Guard’s uniforms. "I take it we got sent back here because of what we showed the woman up front?"

Eri nodded and held up her left wrist to reveal her copper bracelet, then tapped her fingers against her left temple. "Yes, Natsuko contacted me and wanted to be certain that they were authentic. Would you mind sending me a message? My code is my name, which is Eri, followed by a short tap."

Kurogane frowned as he released his sword so he could do as he had been asked, while a smiling Fai pressed against his back to watch. "Satisfied?" he asked a moment later when Eri nodded again.

"Yes, thank you." Eri motioned toward the table, where there were several empty seats. "It’s best to be certain." She then introduced them to everyone.

Aya sipped his wine and refrained from mentioning that they could have just asked him if the magic in the bracelets that the strange bounds wore matched that of the Guards’ at the table since Botan and now Omi and Takashi made all of them. However, maybe it was best that he had kept silent or else they’d be pestering him to do something similar in the future, which would annoy him and no doubt infuriate Yohji.

"Mah, I don’t blame you with how scary Kurogane looks," Fai teased as he sat down and unbuttoned his thick coat. "See? Sooo scary," he cried out as his mate took to glaring at him again. "Who would trust that?"

"Hush up and eat," Kurogane snarled as he undid his cloak to reveal a black tunic beneath. "Then you can’t talk such nonsense." While both of them set aside their outer garments and Fai his sword and staff, Kurogane was careful to keep his sword nearby. Aya paused in sipping his wine when he felt some magic from the weapon, which was unusual for a bound; why would a flesh gaki carry a charmed sword when most relied on their claws and teeth? He looked at Yohji and sensed the same puzzlement over their link, and knew that his lover sensed it as well.

Ken was careful not to look at Kurogane, most likely because the other flesh gaki bound was ‘stronger’ than him, but the rest of the table gave the strangers their attention. "So, how long have the two of you been in the Shadow Guard?" Miko asked as she helped herself to some more chicken.

"About a year now," Fai answered with a smile – actually, Aya doubted that he had stopped smiling yet. "We’re among the first that Sergeant Conn recruited."

"I remember him," Yohji said as he stroked his hand along Aya’s back. "He’s a good guy, so it’s not surprising that he got stationed up north. I’m sure Kikyou saw it as a chance to get rid of a rival for Captain even if Conn didn’t have as strong a claim as Yuushi or him, passed off as pasturing out a wounded Guard."

Ken laughed and managed to look up from fighting with Miko over the remaining drumsticks. "Yeah, that was a good choice on Birman and Yuushi’s part. Conn never liked Court politics so that’s why he asked to stay out of the running, even though he had the experience and the respect."

"Conn has all of our respect." Kurogane’s voice was deep, and managed to convey a solemnity to the words despite their brevity. He paused in shoveling some of the pork roast that Marta had brought out onto his plate to look over the table. "He’s earned a lot of bounds’ trust despite being a human."

"Which is in part the purpose of the Shadow Guard," Yohji remarked with a false cheerfulness. "To have trust on both human and bound parts, and prove that we can work together, na?"

"Very true." For once, Fai appeared serious… but it didn’t last for long. Once again he was smiling and holding his glass out for wine. "That is something to drink to!"

"Idiot," Kurogane growled as he smacked the man on the shoulder, but Aya thought he saw a hint of a smile when Fai pouted and complained about being abused. He was grateful when he noticed that Marta was returning to the table with several bottles of wine held in her arms.

"Is that what we look like, Cat?" Yohji whispered as he leaned in for a quick nuzzle to Aya’s neck.

"Hmm, I hope not," Aya whispered back, a slight smile curving his lips at the love and amusement that he sensed.

"So, since we all agree that Conn is a paragon of the Guard, what brings the two of you down here?" Yohji asked as Marta deposited the bottles on the table.

"Yes, Tyra mentioned something about a wizard?" Eri added as she was quick to grab one of the bottles, although she poured some of the wine first into Kurogane and Fai’s glasses.

The two men shared a quick glance between them before Fai shrugged and sipped his wine. "Ah, very good. Well, it seems that there’s a wizard who is hunting down bounds to use their blood in spells. We’ve been after him for a while, and his trail leads here." Fai tilted his head to the side as he spoke, a wide smile on his lips that lacked warmth. Aya didn’t need his mate’s talent to know that there wasn’t any humor or happiness in the man just then. "Conn was good enough to send us on this mission."

"Hmm, any particular reason he chose you two?" Yohji asked as he tapped the fingers of his right hand against his wine glass.

For a moment, it looked as if Kurogane and Fai were going to be quiet, but then they must have remembered about Eri. "As Fai said, we’ve been after the bastard for a *while*," Kurogane spat, his red eyes bright with hatred. "Longer than we’ve been in the Guard. Conn figured that since we know him well, we’ve the best chance of taking him down."

That or the man knew there was little chance of holding the two bounds back, Aya suspected. He wasn’t the best judge of emotions, but he was willing to bet there was something personal going on here.

"So we’ve another wizard chasing after bounds in the city, just what we need." Yohji’s voice took on a growl as he spoke, and his arm tightened around Aya’s waist. Judging from the anger, possessiveness, love and worry over their link, Aya was going to have a difficult time going outside by himself in the near future. His eyes narrowed as he turned toward his over-protective mate. "What does he want, to live forever or something?"

"No, to bring back the dead," Fai answered, his tone flat as he stared at something in the distance. Once again, Aya sensed that dual magic from the man.

"That’s… not possible." Eri appeared sick just at the thought of what Fai had said. "The souls are gone, A-" She winced in pain as Aya felt a rush of rage and concern wash through him. He reached for Yohji’s arm to help calm his mate.

Fortunately, Fai and Kurogane seemed caught up in their own thoughts and missed the tiny slip. "Reed’s a sick bastard and doesn’t care for logic," Kurogane said with a cruel laugh. "He’ll keep killing and trying to get his spell to work." He touched the sword beside him for a moment before reaching out to stroke his hand through his mate’s loose blond hair, the touch just as fleeting. "We were told that if we came to Eto at this time, we would finally catch the bastard," he said, his tone gruff.

Fai shook himself as if to rid himself of something. "Yes, we had to pay dearly for the information, but the source is supposed to be very reliable." His good mood began to rally as he searched for his coat. "In fact, part of it was that we were to pass on a message to someone here named ‘Crawford’. She was very insistent on that."

Mention of Crawford seemed to cut through Yohji’s foul mood. "Eh, what is it? He’s not here tonight."

Fai retrieved a sealed letter and frowned at it, held in both hands. "Oh, well, where can we find him? I would have thought he’d be here, from what she said."

Aya held out his hand. "Crawford comes here, but on his own schedule. If you give me the letter, I swear to you on all the stars that I’ll pass it on to him, seal unbroken." He looked the man straight in the eye, aware that in this dim light that his eyes would be flashing silver.

Fai started, his mouth opening twice without any words before closing and then he nodded and handed over the letter. "Thank you." He managed a weak smile. "If I know my dear little Kuro-puss, we’ll be out looking for Fei Wong at first light so we’ll probably miss Crawford." Beside him, his mate was choking on the wine at hearing the latest endearment.

After Kurogane managed to breathe again and stopped yelling at his mate, Aya nudged his own in the side. "Are we done here?" he asked, letting his emotions express how tired he was in dealing with people and all the noise. All he wanted was a quiet room, a comfortable bed, a good book and his lover nearby. Perhaps, if Yohji was persuasive enough and got him out of here without delay, he could even do without the book.

Something of that last thought must have been betrayed in his emotions, because Yohji grinned wide enough for a flesh gaki bound and grabbed a bottle of wine. "Well, it’s been a pleasure to meet the two of you, and I’m sure we’ll see you around," he told Kurogane and Fai as he rose from the table. "And I know we can’t get rid of the rest of you," he said with a laugh as Ken and Miko started to chide him about leaving so early. Twining his fingers in Aya’s, he led the way up to their bedroom.

*******

Kurogane surveyed the room they had been given, mindful of any hidden traps or surprises. They’d been told that they could trust the Koneko, and it had been proven a haven for bounds and Shadow Guard but he wasn’t the type to put faith in other’s promises. He much preferred to trust his own senses and his mate’s wards.

The room eventually proved to be what it appeared, housing only the furniture and the closet and facilities room, the fireplace filled with burning wood that warmed the small space. Fai was busy with the wards that should warn them of any intruders during the night, so he set aside their bags and put his sword by the bed. Once that was finished, he decided to wash up, and was pleased to find the wash bowl charmed to warm the water.

"Ohh, no cold water! Very nice," Fai cooed as he pressed against Kurogane’s back. "Traveling’s been rough to my delicate nature."

Kurogane snorted in derision at that bit of nonsense; his mate may look young and unimpressive from a fighting viewpoint, but Fai was one of the most stubborn, determined and dangerous individuals that he knew. He came across as silly and innocent, hiding the steel will that would see him through any and all battles. It was just that sometimes – okay, *most* times – that Kurogane wanted to strangle him for that silliness. Why the gods….

"Such a shame that Reed couldn’t be considerate enough to show his face during the summer," he snarled as he wiped down his chest.

"Isn’t it?" Fai raked his nails along Kurogane’s bare chest. "We really must take him to task for his lack of manners." Something dark pulsed across their link, and he knew that if he turned around just then, there would be a disturbing smile on his mate’s face.

However, the emotions didn’t worry him as they were a mirror of his own; the wizard had signed his death warrant a hundred times over for the deaths he had caused, and at the top of the list were the ones that struck at the heart for him and Fai. Reed owed them *blood*, and the soul gaki witch better be right about coming to Eto to lay claim to his death. Though there had been something odd about how she had phrased that….

There was another scratch of nails along his chest. "Are you done yet? Or should I just go check out that hot spring downstairs?" Fai whined.

As if the man was going anywhere, especially with how much of a pest he’d made himself since they’d entered the city. "You’re staying here," Kurogane growled as he grabbed the hand clawing up his chest by the wrist and turned around. "I think *you* need to learn some manners as well." His eyes narrowed and his lips pulled back from his teeth as he yanked his mate forward.

Yet all the idiot did was smile. "Uh-oh, looks as if Kuro-pappa is angry with me. What am I going to do?" Fai shivered as if in terror, and before Kurogane could yell at him for yet another ridiculous nickname, raised his chin to expose his slender neck.

There was so much Fai could do just then if he didn’t want Kurogane’s hands on him, he could force him away with a thought or knock him to his knees without a touch or break most of the bones in his body by smashing him through the wall. So much power hidden behind that smile, and as usual Fai managed to derail his brain with one tiny gesture. Kurogane snarled as he gathered the man up in his arms and stalked toward the bed, uncertain just then about whom he wanted to curse at the most – the gods for binding them together, Fai for knowing him so well or himself for being so weak before the fool. Take all the hells, maybe it was the three of them.

It didn’t help that Fai was laughing as they tumbled onto the bed, his emotions a mix of excitement, desire, smugness and the one thing that made it bearable, something so warm and enveloping and frightening that Kurogane did his best not to think about it. They had both lost so much that they were leery of acknowledging any more bonds between them than they must. Perhaps after Reed was gone they could both put a name to it, but until then, it would remain unacknowledged between them.

However, passion they could give in to, and Kurogane’s demon nature had ached all day long to have Fai beneath him, to dominate the man, to try and force some sort of control over him. For all that he might as well try to stop the tides of the ocean or rein in the wind as truly lord over Fai, at least for a few minutes he could have the irrepressible bastard’s neck in his teeth and body beneath his and *know* that he was kept out of trouble. For a few very pleasurable minutes, at least.

Fai was still laughing as he tugged at their pants, their tunics and sweaters having been discarded earlier in favor of washing up. The damn laces took forever to untie, and only the fact that they had a limited amount of clothes kept him from slicing them with his claws. Once he had them loose and was pulling the pants down Fai’s long legs, his mate twisted about to fetch the jar of lubricant from one of the bags near the bed. That left him to work on his own clothes while enjoying the site of his mate naked before him, Fai’s pale skin and golden hair glowing from the candle- and firelight.

After the pants were the tossed aside, he reached out to touch a fading bite-mark he had left on his mate’s lean, muscled left thigh, another on the jutting hipbone higher up, a third, fresher one on the right collarbone and the last mark he had left on his mate’s neck the night before. "Hmm, sometimes I think you mistake me for a steak," Fai teased as he hooked his feet behind Kurogane’s knees.

"No, more like a noisy pest who needs to be silenced," he complained as he settled between his mate’s thighs, hands still stroking on the marks he had left. "Steaks don’t talk back all the time."

"So mean!" Fai pouted for a few seconds, until Kurogane leaned in for a kiss. His lips were nipped at first, which only served to fan his desire, something that the fool knew all too well. He growled in the back of his throat as he deepened the kiss, tongue thrusting in deep as his hands settled on Fai’s hips. Part of him wanted to bite down, to dig in his claws and leave marks for all the world to see, to draw blood that could be shared between them. He had to struggle with that side of himself, to rein in the need for violence the same time that Fai pressed up against him and drew sharp claws down his back, wrapped a slick hand around his cock and began to stroke it in slow counterpoint to the scratches.

"Bastard!" Kurogane hissed as he broke off the kiss, not needing to look to know about his mate’s pleased smile. Instead, he buried his face in the crook of Fai’s neck as he fumbled for the lubricant, nuzzling for a moment as he slicked up his fingers. Just as he pressed one inside of his mate, he bit down Fai’s right shoulder, his sharp teeth easily drawing blood that quickly stopped flowing. He licked at the spot several times before he added another finger, nibbling a little on sweat-slick flesh and trying not to moan as his back was raked again.

As soon as he judged that Fai was ready, he pulled his fingers free and stilled Fai’s hand on his cock, shifted between his mate’s thighs and pressed against him. He could feel Fai’s impatience and need, could feel his demon soul driving him on to claim his mate as he nuzzled Fai’s neck once more, his right hand wrapping around Fai’s cock just before he snapped his hips forward. As he thrust into his mate, he bit down as well, marking him once more.

Fai cried out his name and arched beneath him, nails tearing into his back and emotions pouring into him. Kurogane used the pleasure, need and that encompassing warmth he felt to hold back the hunger and madness, to focus on the desire and his own frightening emotion in turn as he continued to snap his hips back and forth, only leaning forward for the occasional kiss or nip. Fai writhed on the bed, stripped of all masks for once, reaching for him to pull him closer, marking him in return with those sharp nails, until the air was saturated with the scent of sex, sweat and blood. Kurogane wanted to bend down, to either kiss him or bite, and so leaned back instead, pulling his mate’s hips onto his lap. The shift was enough to push Fai to climax, and the feel of such gripping tightness, of ecstasy surging through him, snapped through Kurogane’s control as well.

He snarled as he came, teeth snapping shut as he let himself fall forward, onto his mate. All he wanted was to feel Fai beneath him, to breathe in his scent until the world became solid once again. He stayed like that until he felt Fai’s arms wrap loosely around his back and Fai begin to shift beneath him, and then began mindful of his greater weight.

Pushing himself off to the side, he stretched out beside his mate and hissed when his back touched the bedspread. "Dammit, did you leave me any skin?" he complained, even though the scratches would soon be healed.

Fai took to pouting again as he touched his neck, the bites still fresh even if they weren’t bleeding. "I don’t want to hear it when I look as if I got attacked by a rabid dog, oh *rabid dog*." He hit Kurogane’s left calf with his toes as he repeated the last two words.

"Hmph." Well, it was the man’s own fault for baring his neck like that, but if he tried to point it out, Fai would keep him up all night arguing… and the damn shame of it all was that he’d make sense. Kurogane had learned early on in their bond to not try and win any arguments, it wasn’t worth the massive headache in figuring out his mate’s labyrinthine logic. No matter how much you tried to follow it, you got lost along the way and just gave up, ensuring victory for Fai. The bastard was sneaky like that.

"So… I assume you’re going to drag me all over this city looking for Reed tomorrow, even though we’re not supposed to find him until the day after," Fai remarked as he rolled over to run his fingers through Kurogane’s short hair.

Suspicious of his mate’s breezy tone, Kurogane narrowed his eyes and caught Fai’s hand to bring it down to his mouth. "There’s always a chance that the witch got the date wrong," he muttered before nipping at Fai’s wrist, right at the pulse point.

Fai grimaced, though he doubted it was about the bite since he was long used to them at this point. "I thought the reason we sought her out and I gave up my favorite staff and you your mother’s dagger was that she’s *never* wrong. So why do I have to suffer trudging through the cold, hmm?"

Because he couldn’t rest, knowing that Reed was so close. Because he didn’t want to trust in a bunch of strangers and sit in an unfamiliar inn doing nothing. Because he enjoyed being on the hunt with Fai by his side, even if the man bedeviled him with jokes and silly nicknames and everyone stared at his mate because of his looks and nature until he wanted to rip out all of their throats. "Because I so enjoy the way you shiver," he said instead with a pleased grin that showed off all of his sharp teeth.

"Oh, you are *so mean*," Fai cried out, the familiar insult ringing through the air even as that warmth pulsed over their link, along with amusement and a hint of respect. "You love to see me suffer, don’t you."

"It’s only fair, na?"

Fai smiled, the expression tender for once, not mocking or silly. "That it is." He leaned forward for a brief, gentle kiss. "So, what do you think of these city Shadow Guard, hmm? And the fabled Koneko?"

Since Fai’s demeanor had become serious, he took it that his should as well. Kurogane sat up in the bed and stretched his arms over his head to work out the kinks in his now healed back. "Eh, it’s clear that Eri is pretty powerful since she picked up our thoughts rather easily, but I could take down that Ken in a fight." He hadn’t come across any other flesh gaki bounds in the Shadow Guard yet that were stronger than him. "But Yohji is really strong for a succubae bound, and I can see why so many of the Guard respect him even if he works more for the Spymaster now." Mated as he was, he still had felt his attention be drawn toward the blond a time or two. Flesh gaki bounds were also a little more susceptible to the ‘pack’ structure of bounds, and something in him recognized Yohji as being a heck of a lot more demon than any other bound he had come across – Yohji and his lover.

"Yes, but what about his boyfriend, Aya?" Fai asked, as if picking up on his thought. "He was very quiet this evening, except about the letter, but I believed him when he swore the oath. You don’t often hear those words anymore, and there was something about his eyes…." Fai stared off into the distance as if trying to recall something. He was the scholar of the two of them, and a little older, so if there was something odd to figure out then he was the one to do it.

"I just know he’s got to be one of the strongest bounds out there," Kurogane added as he bent over to fetch some dried jerky from his bag. The meal earlier had left him feeling full, but sex always made him a little hungry.

"I’ll figure it out," Fai muttered as he got off the bed to go wash off. "After all, I’ll need something to occupy my time as you drag me all over the city."

That left Kurogane feeling a bit hopeful, since if Fai was busy trying to figure out a mystery, maybe his mate would be too occupied to stir up much trouble. *Maybe*.

*******

Yohji stood out in the hallway, talking to Natsuko about the day’s new customers when Kurogane and Fai returned. Judging from the frowns on their faces and their annoyed emotions, he guessed that they hadn’t found the wizard. "Not much luck today?" he asked as they shrugged off their cloak and coat, respectively.

Kurogane’s frown turned into a glare. "No," he snarled. "The witch better be right about tomorrow." He grabbed hold of Fai’s left arm and dragged him into the main room, most likely to get something to eat.

Yohji shared a look with Natsuko and smiled. "Well, better hope that Jo has a lot of food stocked for the night." As Natsuko laughed, he headed to the library, where his mate and a few friends waited for him.

Once he crossed the threshold of the room, he could feel Aya’s shadow wards ensure that no one else would enter the library. "Did you miss me?" he asked as he settled into a chair beside his mate, his left arm sliding along Aya’s shoulders.

Aya gave him a cool look, yet his emotions betrayed him as always. "I’ll take that as a yes," Yohji said with a laugh as he leaned in to nuzzle his mate’s neck.

"Before the molestation starts, can we get down to business?" Crawford asked.

Yohji looked up and across the table at the precog, who was adjusting his glasses. He leaned away from Aya yet kept his arm around his love. "Well, if you insist." He laughed as he shifted away from the worst of Aya’s elbow to his ribs. "Okay, Fai and Kurogane just returned, without the wizard’s head in their possession."

"Nice," Eri mumbled from her spot on the couch, Yuushi at her side.

"Isn’t it?" Yohji asked as he bared his teeth. Bloodstains and brainy bits aside, he wouldn’t have any objections if they brought home such a gory trophy if it meant one less wizard with a hard-on for bound blood out there.

Yuushi cleared his throat as if he had any hope of steering the topic onto less gruesome ground. "So, I take it to mean they didn’t have any luck today?"

"I think it’s pretty safe to assume that." Yohji looked over at Crawford. "Was there anything in that letter you got from that friend of theirs about this mission?"

Crawford was usually pretty good about hiding all signs of emotion, be it physical or emotional, but something about the question made him actually twitch. "Not really. Just that they would need some help in obtaining their objective." He shifted his glasses farther up his nose as he looked at Eri. "Did you pick anything up from their thoughts yesterday?"

She shrugged as she slid her fingers into Yuushi’s. "Just that they had been told that they could find the wizard at the temple of Juujiro in the eastern Temple district."

Reiichi frowned as he tapped the hilt of one of his silver and black knives against his chin. "Juujiro has fallen out of favor of most people, especially in the eastern district. She’s mostly worshiped in the northern and southern Temple districts at this point. That particular temple has been deserted."

It looked as if Crawford was about to say something, but before he could, Aya took to hissing. The sound alone was enough to make everyone in the room fall silent, yet Yohji felt a rush of coldness and a sense of ‘fading’ that he only felt when Aya was in close communication with the shinigami that made it clear that his mate wasn’t showing his displeasure over something. He tightened his hold on Aya and glared at the shadows as if he could stake his claim on his lover that way, and felt a wave of gratitude when Aya fell quiet.

"The shinigami are expecting… a meal at the temple sometime soon," Aya said to a mostly silent room, the only other sounds that of breathing and the fire crackling in the fireplace. His voice contained a hint of sibilance, and his eyes sparked silver in the flickering light. All Yohji cared about was the emotions he felt over their link, that of love, concern and a worrying tired acceptance. "They’re not very good with judging time, but it may be tomorrow."

"The… soul gaki bound whom they went to for information is very rarely wrong," Crawford said, breaking the quiet. "I’m not surprised that the shinigami confirmed things."

Reiichi flipped his knife once and vanished it. "I thought you and Cassandra were the only precogs alive right now." He smiled as he asked the question, but there was a hint of steel behind the words.

Crawford smiled as well, the expression much the same as the Shadow Guard’s. "I said we were *probably* the only ones alive, as I can’t claim to know every bound in existence. As for this particular woman…." There was something about his emotions just then, something guarded yet respectful. "She walks her own path, as always, and defies anyone to label her. All I can say is that she *knows* things, not necessarily the future but what you need." He shrugged as he removed his glasses to clean them with a cloth. "But her answers never come without a price, even if she wished to give you them. Sometimes the price isn’t worth it so you have to be careful what you ask."

Yohji wanted to know why Crawford knew so much about the woman, and knew that if he asked the question that he wouldn’t get any answer. Crawford loved holding back whatever he could, and this seemed like a rather big thing, whoever this woman was, especially in Crawford’s past if she was sending him messages. Yohji might as well go out into the garden and expect the trees to start talking back. "But we can trust her, yes?" That’s what we wanted to know."

"If she told them that they would find the wizard at such a place and time, then yes," Crawford replied as he slid on his glasses. "*If* that’s what she said."

Great, they were playing games of semantics now, Yohji thought as he rubbed his aching head. "Cat… is it too late to spend the day in bed?" he whined into Aya’s right ear.

Aya turned and nipped his chin. "*Now* you suggest it," he whispered back.

"Why do I have the sudden sinking feeling that we’re not going to spend the day in a nice and warm library room tomorrow?" Reiichi asked, voicing all of their silent fears.

*******

Fai gripped his staff between his hands as he and Kurogane approached the abandoned temple. There were few people around them as they approached the crumbling building with its four wings, each laid out on part of a crossroad that led to busier parts of the eastern Temple district. Poor Juujiro had fallen onto hard times indeed, as people bustled about on their way and forgot about the power that rested at the heart of all intersections. For a second, Fai thought of what might have happened if different choices had been made, different paths followed and offered up a prayer for the neglected goddess; he might bear much sorrow for how his life had turned out and the sacrifices made, but they were the best that he and his dear brother could make with what had been given to them. All that he could do was make those who had blocked off those other roads for them pay – and pay dearly. At least he should get some of that revenge now.

Beside him, Kurogane reached out to stroke a gloved hand through his hair, a silent appeasement before his mate settled that hand on his charmed sword. Poor Kurogane, not always so good with words, but it was all right; sometimes words hurt too much, and he much rather preferred someone who understood at his side to remain there no matter what than all the sweet platitudes the world could offer. There was the bond tying them together, the passion and the something much more, and there was the need for revenge as well. It would be oh so sweet to bring down bring down Fei Wong Reed together.

He exchanged a quick glance with his mate before extending his talent outward, silencing any sound they might make and sensing if the bastard was already in the abandoned temple. All he sensed was a few small bodies, most likely rats and maybe a cat or two, which he shooed away with bursts of air. Once that was done, he motioned to Kurogane that they could enter the building.

The inside was hardly any better than the outside; Juujiro’s priests must have stripped the temple bare before deserting it, and anything else of value had probably been stolen as well. The walls were bare, other than some patches of grout that revealed where once precious mosaics must have been. There were still a few rotting benches scattered about, though the altar area was bare save for some moldy cloth that had been torn down and used for a nest or two.

"Is there anything more depressing than a de-sanctified temple?" Kurogane asked with a quiet growl as he settled himself in the shadows of the altar area, where the four wings intersected.

Fai thought of the abandoned tower where he and his brother had been locked up, of the cold, wet stone, the rotting linen and wood, the lack of adequate food and the always pervasive chill. "I can think of one or two things," he replied in a quiet voice.

Kurogane’s head snapped up, most likely because of the emotions he had sensed over their link, yet all he did was pull Fai closer as a sense of possessiveness rushed between them. Fai allowed himself a moment to rest his head against his mate’s chest, aware that he was older now, was mature in his own talent and the gift his brother had given him as well as stuck with a stubborn, protective bastard the gods had seen fit to saddle him with until the end of his days. He smiled at that last bit as he pushed away.

One thing to say about Kurogane – the man certainly knew how to remain quiet. Hell, he could give a very good impression of a statue. Fai was doing his best not to fidget or whistle or *something* to alleviate the boredom of waiting when there was finally the sound of a door scraping open. He pressed back against his mate as they both turned toward the southern wing, from where the sound had originated.

They watched as Fei Wong Reed slowly walked forward, the dim light reflecting off of the monocle he wore in his right eye and the white fur lining the cuffs and collar of his black robe. He hadn’t seemed to have aged at all since that awful night when he had appeared before Fai and his twin, so full of magic and confidence. Fai’s fingers tightened around his staff until the wood creaked, and only the hate he felt rushing from his mate helped to center him.

He wasn’t the only one whom Reed had hurt, who wanted to tear the wizard apart; Kurogane was owed just as much a chance to claim a blood debt as him. That meant that he had to rein in his power and do this smartly, to not be rash and make a mistake. Taking a deep breath, he shook his head to clear it of dangerous impulses and leaned against his snarling mate. "Wait, Kuro-kun."

The silly nickname served its purpose and helped to center Kurogane as well. He felt a spike of indignation in all the hatred and hunger and then Kurogane began to control his emotions. "Damn you," his mate muttered as if he *knew* he wasn’t going to be able to live this down and then they both watched as the wizard continued to approach.

Reed walked several more steps and then pulled something out of the bag he wore strapped across his chest. It looked to be a charm of some sort, made of gleaming green stones and copper wire, and he just began to chant when Kurogane’s claws pricked at Fai’s left shoulder. "Now!"

Fai didn’t need the word hissed in his ear, but it was best to let his mate think that he was in charge now and then. He used his staff as a focus for his power and lashed out with air to slam Reed back into a wall, the best way he knew to diffuse a wizard’s spell. He also used his talent to pull the air from the wizard’s lungs and to still it around the bastard, to prevent any more spells from being uttered.

Still, it looked as if Reed had been around the temple long enough to set up some defenses, and his dark eyes narrowing were all the warning that they had before turning around to see an oni charging at them. Kurogane unsheathed his sword and called out the words that unleashed the spell.

"
Shouryuusen!"

As the wave of energy tore into the demon, Fai drew upon all of the moisture in the air to wash over the floor in hopes of wiping away any blood or runes that the damn wizard might have left as wards. Kurogane was already on the way to kill Reed, when the appearance of an older, heavyset man with graying hair disappeared to reveal that of a much slimmer, younger man with black hair and glasses. He clutched at his throat as he struggled to breathe, his dark eyes wide as he stared at Fai and Kurogane.

"Is it an illusion?" Fai asked as he watched for any more traps.

Kurogane leapt toward the man, his charmed sword held high as if to strike. "Dammit, he doesn’t *smell* like Reed! I don’t think an illusion charm can fake that!” But before he could lash out with Ginryū, another two oni appeared.

Fai whirled around as he heard the growls and pulled on his talent, prepared to lash out with both air and water for whatever good it would do since he knew that his mate’s sword would not be ready for another blast just yet, when something dark blurred in front of him first. The oni snarled in obvious hatred and then cried out in pain before disintegrating, slashed apart by darkness.

"Dammit, Cat! I told you to leave one for me!"

That voice sounded a bit familiar, and as Fai stood there staring in disbelief, the blur of darkness revealed itself to be the quiet redhead from the Koneko, Aya. What seemed to be shadows pulled back to reveal him holding a black katana similar to Kurogane’s that disappeared as well, leaving him dressed in a black cloak with a silver lining. The redhead frowned as Yohji, owner of the familiar voice, also stepped out of the shadows, bundled up in a dark blue coat and wearing sunglasses. "I wanted to see if I could take them out with my wires now," Yohji continued with a hint of surliness in his voice.

"Sorry," Aya answered, his voice so raspy it hurt to hear it. "I just… I *really* don’t like their kind."

"Hmph." As Fai tried to make sense out of why the two men were here, *now*, Yohji leaned in to kiss Aya and even *more* people showed up. There was the Shadow Guard Eri and what must be her partner, a young man with blond hair, the older man Reiichi and another man with glasses and black hair who had pale blue eyes. Something about him, the cool way he regarded Fai and what should be a shocking situation reminded Fai of someone….

"Uhm… someone want to tell me what is going on here? Please?" Fai asked as he took a few steps back to stand beside his mate.

"Screw ‘please’ and tell us what the hell you’re doing here!" Kurogane yelled as he stabbed his sword in Aya and Yohji’s direction. "And why the hell you just took out my prey like that!"

"Uhm, Kuro-kun? I don’t think it’s wise to yell at a kage like that," Fai remarked as he patted his mate on the shoulder. "Hence my ‘please’." That was the only thing he could think of for Aya being able to appear out of the shadows like that, not to mention take on two oni by himself without the aid of a powerful charmed weapon. He had been suspicious since noting the man’s odd eyes the other night and now everything made sense.

The way Kurogane’s eyes bugged out and his jaw dropped at the revelation was rather amusing, as was the wave of panic, shock and disbelief at the announcement. Fai would enjoy it more if he wasn’t holding back a bit of panic himself at the thought of being in the same building as a kage and wondering if he’d done anything to offend Aya the other night. "Kage? You’re joking, right?"

"Uhm, for once I’m not." He found himself biting his lip when Kurogane’s shock only increased. "We probably should have figured it out already with the whole ‘Shadow Guard’ thing."

"You’d be surprised how many people don’t make the connection," Yohji remarked as he draped an arm over his lover’s shoulders. "So, is this guy the wizard you’ve been after? You gonna let him choke to death?" He motioned toward the stranger collapsed behind Fai.

"Hmm, no and no." Reminded of the man, Fai turned to face him and relaxed his power enough to let him breathe since Kurogane once more held his blade to the wizard’s throat. "This is distinctly *not* Fei Wong Reed, despite what we had been promised." He bared his teeth at the man as his power leaked out to cause mini whirlwinds to form around the temple.

"Try to mutter another spell and I’ll slice open your throat," Kurogane snarled as he pressed the sharp blade a little harder against the wizard, causing a trickle of blood to form. "Who the hell are you?"

"Wouldn’t you like to know," the wizard taunted, his voice hoarse and his scent heavy with fear despite his show of defiance.

"His name is Kyle Rondart." Eri moved closer as she broke into the conversation, her eyes bright and her demeanor predatory. Her partner was close behind her, his watchful presence a contrast to his youthful looks. "From what I can tell, he was sent here by his master, Fei Wong Reed, to gather several important ingredients and then to return with them." Her smile took on a cruel edge. "Oh, he doesn’t like me finding out where that is, does he?"

"Get out of my head you-" Rondart bit off the curse as Kurogane pressed the blade closer and Fai cut off the air around him. His eyes conveyed the hatred he felt, and Fai smiled with delight in the face of it.

"Yes, where is he supposed to meet up with Reed," Fai asked in a sing-song voice, very interested in the answer.

Eri tilted her head to the side for the moment and then nodded. "Sabakushi, in three week’s time."

He exchanged a lingering look with Kurogane. "Well, that doesn’t give us much time now, does it." Sabakushi was near the border with Thracia and would be quite the trip. "Is there anything else of value in his head?" Above Kurogane’s blade, Rondart’s eyes opened wide and he tried to make sound come out of his mouth, against Fai’s power.

Again, Eri tilted her head as she put her talent to use. "He would try to convince you otherwise, but all that I’m finding is that he’s a lackey sent out to gather provisions. He uses illusions to make it appear that he’s more powerful than he is, and most of the spells were given to him."

"Yes, a lot of the magic around here doesn’t have his ‘feel’ to it," Aya added as he approached the wizard. "I doubt he would be able to summon oni on his own."

"So the best he could give us is where to find Reed." Fai nodded to Kurogane, who pulled his lips back to let his fangs gleam in the temple’s dim light. Ginryū gleamed as well, flashing for a moment as it tore through Rondart’s throat. Blood sprayed through the air, falling away from Fai to land on the dirt floor.

Aya drew in a shuddering breath as Rondart’s body slumped forward, and Fai thought he saw shadows writhe around the temple’s dark corners. When the kage opened his eyes, there was that hint of silver he had seen back at the inn. Aya stared directly at him, his eyebrows drawn as if in confusion. "How can you be both air and water?"

Kurogane growled as he snapped the blood from his blade and moved as if to approach the kage, which would be a sure act of suicide. Fai held his staff in front of his mate to hold him back and smiled. "I was born air elemental, but my twin was water." His smile faltered as he thought about his brother. "We were very close, almost like mates, and when he died… a part of him remained with me."

Aya continued to stare at him with those unusual eyes for several seconds and then blinked. "Hmm. Turner mentioned something about the bonds of twins in his ‘History of Unnatural Magic’….."

Yohji whined as he buried his head against his lover’s left shoulder. "Oh hell, now you’re gonna spend the next week in the damn library," he complained, his voice muffled by Aya’s cloak. The pained sound he made when Aya jerked his elbow backward came through a bit clearer.

As if his lover hadn’t said anything, Aya continued. "And your mate carries a charmed blade." Obviously, the stories about kage sensing magic hadn’t been embellished at all.

Kurogane bared his fangs as he held up Ginryū. “It was my father’s, who was human. It’s been in my family since the Binding War.”

He waited for Aya to ask about Kurogane’s mother or how Fai’s brother had died, but Aya just stared at them, his eyes a mix of silver and violet. There was a stillness to him as if he knew how easy it was to delve into violence, to give into pain and madness and lash out at the world for some kind of surcease.

Instead, it was Kurogane who spoke first. "Look, as much as we’d love to answer your questions," he said with obvious sarcasm, "we have a good bit of distance to travel thanks to someone sending us to the wrong place."

The unknown man finally spoke up. "I don’t know, I believe you were told to be where you needed to go. What were your instructions? To come to Eto if you wanted to find your wizard?" He sounded a little amused, as if he knew a secret that they didn’t.

Fai held his staff with both hands as he smiled at the man. "And who would you be?"

"Crawford. I thank you for the letter." The man smiled in return as he adjusted his glasses, the expression definitely amused now.

Fai blinked, surprised that this was who they had been asked to give the letter. The witch had made this ‘Crawford’ sound like an errant child, not a full-grown man and possibly a bound considering the company. "Uhm… she told us that if we came to the temple of Juujiro on this day, that we would have Reed’s death in our hands."

"Were those her exact words?"

"Yes, they were," Kurogane snarled as he sheathed his sword with a loud ‘snap’. "And the only deaths we managed were a few oni and some useless wizard."

To Fai’s surprise, Crawford actually chuckled despite Kurogane glaring at him as if ready to tear him apart and then turned to Aya. "Well then, how can we let them besmirch a lady’s honor?"

Aya stared back at Crawford for a moment with a raised eyebrow before resting his head against Yohji’s for a few seconds. Then he turned to face Fai and Kurogane. Again, something in his demeanor was so solemn, so contained that it stopped Fai’s attempt to crack a joke because he had a feeling that Aya was understanding things that were being left unsaid.

"Unsheathe your sword," he told Kurogane, his voice a sibilant hiss.

"Why?"

Yohji stood behind his lover, his arms loosely wrapped around Aya’s upper chest. "Just do what he asks." His voice was made harsh with anger, and for a moment it was a contest of wills between the succubae bound and Kurogane. "It’s for your own good."

Fai touched his mate’s left arm. "Go on, I trust them." For some reason he did; the witch always kept her word.

Kurogane growled beneath his breath but unsheathed his sword and held out the blade in Aya’s direction. The kage reached out his right hand, his fingers covered in darkness that crept over the blade and entwined with its sharp silver for several seconds before vanishing, the only mark left a drop of blood. Kurogane cursed as it happened and then fell quiet.

Then Aya held out a ball of darkness in his hand and looked over at Fai. "Take it."

Gathering his courage, Fai reached for the ball, which felt ice-cold. He shivered as he held it in his hand, and then the ball writhed and opened up, crawling along his arm much like it had along Kurogane’s blade. He could feel his mate’s surprise and fear, yet he was more intrigued himself and noted how the coldness traveled his body until it eventually faded to a slight, lingering chill along the back of his neck, hidden beneath his hair.

"What did you do?" he asked.

"I bound some shadows to Kurogane’s blade so it can better fight demons and help protect him from spells and wards. The shadows I gave you will protect you from magic and wards as well, but they’ll only last for a short while." Aya hugged one of Yohji’s arms closer to his chest. "It should be long enough for you to find your wizard and face him."

"So now you not only have Reed’s location, but the means to kill him in your hands," Crawford commented as he tucked his own hands into his coat’s pockets. "I would think this trip has been very much worth your while, no?"

Fai stared at his mate’s sword and thought about the hidden shadows and the protections they would provide. His talents could help prevent a wizard casting any new spells, but there was little to do against tripped spells but try to stave off the magic. To be immune to it…. He bared his teeth at the shock that would be in store for Reed now.

"Thank you very much." He bowed low to Aya in gratitude. "This lets us honor some long owed promises now."

Aya was quiet for a moment and then bowed his head. "You’re welcome." He didn’t say anything else before pulling the shadows around him and vanishing, along with Yohji.

Fai blinked in surprise at the kage’s sudden disappearance. He started when Reiichi gave his shoulder a gentle pat. "Don’t mind him, he’s not much on goodbye’s or long speeches." The man grinned and motioned at the dead wizard. "Should we arrange anyone to help clean this up or will you be enjoying a meal before returning to the road?"

"Meh, wizards always give me indigestion," Kurogane complained as he resheathed his sword. "I’m sure I’ll be able to find something later tonight. This one never shuts up and that attracts the robbers."

"Ah, but you’re so cranky without a midnight snack, Kuro-puu," Fai exclaimed as he jumped up and wrapped his arms around his mate’s neck. "I just do my best to help you out!"

They had an awful lot of distance to travel and not long to cover it, but *this* time, it seemed that Reed’s death was certain. As they left the temple, Reiichi mentioned about a stable where they could borrow horses and Eri and Naru went off to find another flesh gaki bound they knew to take care of the body. Crawford had disappeared at some point, though Fai doubted it was in as dramatic a manner as Aya and Yohji.

Fai smiled up his mate as he hooked his right arm through Kurogane’s left. "Well?"

"Time to give a certain bastard a long-overdue beating," Kurogane said with an evil grin.

"Sounds good to me." Fai whistled cheerfully as they followed Reiichi through the crowded street.

*******

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