Storm Warnings

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by nekojita

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chapter one

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potential bonds and risks

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Gai paced back and forth, his attention never leaving his cousins as he repeatedly crossed the room. The large bed appeared bigger than usual, despite having three men stretched out upon it; he knew it was because of how frail Shin and Rei appeared, curled up on their sides as if to make themselves as small a target as possible.

His cousins lay side by side, clearly seeking comfort in each other as they poured more of their energy into controlling the weather. Pale blue and lavender hair mingled together, a sign of their pure bound heritage, which was partially responsible for this mess. Gai growled as he tugged on his own hair, the brown ends of blond strands were his own mark. Lying near the foot of the bed as if to block anyone from attempting to reach Shin and Rei was Gou, his mismatched eyes closed in concentration and leaving him to appear perfectly normal amidst the rest of their oddness.

Ever since he had been born, Gai had taken pride in his two-tone hair, even if it was not as striking as his cousins’. Few bounds in Esset or anywhere else could claim that no humans had bred into their bloodline since their race had been created, and the marks that would have them captured and killed anywhere else were badges of honor here. Yet now he was ready to cut off the dark ends of his hair, to grab the henna that some of the women and even a few men here at the palace used and hide the unusual colors that made Shin and Rei stand out. There was not much he could do about Gou, other than get some of those smoked glasses he had seen other bounds wear, but he doubted his headstrong cousin would wear them anyway.

No, those ‘badges of honor’ were now being used against them, he thought with growing bitterness. Very few bounds were stronger than all four of them, and none could come close to controlling the weather as well as Shin and Rei did while working together. To think that as little as a year ago, they had been proud of those distinctions and willing to do whatever they could to help the Elders.

Now Gai had to watch as his cousins slowly killed themselves, forced past their endurance by cruel orders. Oh, Gou was holding up so far beneath the strain, always the physically strongest of the four of them. There was also the fact that he merely aided Shin and Rei while they manipulated moisture and airstreams, supplying them with a sudden draft of heat or lack of warmth to help turn weather systems around. It was still Shin and Rei who bent the weather fronts to their will, who made air move in patterns that were against its nature, who drew the moisture from whatever source was possible and ensured that it fell only where it was wanted. At least, they had been able to do that with little trouble until the last few months.

Dammit, Shin had warned those old bastards that Esset was being plunged into a drought, and had they listened? Hell no. A savage growl reverberated inside Gai’s chest as he continued stalking about, nails extended as if the Elders were there to be sliced into bits. Despite the very rocky path they had all walked for the last three years, Shin had dared to incur the old bastards’ anger and tell them something that they needed to yet did not want to hear. With all the rain sent to Kritiker to flood the enemy and cause famine, Esset had been left to dry up.

He could feel it whenever he extended his power into the earth beneath him. There were huge, echoing caverns where water had existed just a short time ago, drained first by normal usage and then by water elementals when there was no rain to refill the needed rivers, lakes and streams. He could sense the suffering of plants that drove their roots as deeply as they could in search for more water, could sense the growing need of animals as they foraged for disappearing water. Despite some very strong doubts, Shin had found some underground reservoirs and assured that Berin had enough water to last at least two years, but the rest of the country was not so lucky. They had heard of at least five water elementals burning out their talents in the last few months, driven too far as they attempted to mimic what Shin had accomplished.

When they had talked about the war a few years ago, it had been with the assumption that he and Gou would ‘lead the charge’; they had the more destructive powers, could swallow up entire squadrons by creating rifts in the ground, or burn the soldiers to ash. They had practiced their fighting skills in anticipation of the battle, and now…. Now Gai was forced to pace about while his cousins used their talents in a less straightforward manner, in a way that he could not do much to assist them. The inability to help angered him just as much as watching two of his dear cousins fade away.

To make matters worse, his talent did not lie in healing, only destruction. He could only supply a slight bit of energy and monitor their conditions with his five senses, hearing focused to catch the sound of slowing breaths and stuttering heartbeats. Growing worried, he approached the bed, uncaring if he broke anyone’s concentration.


The strain was now beginning to show on Gou: dark hollows under his eyes, lips pressed into a thin line and clothes that had fit better just a couple of weeks ago. In stark contrast to him were the other two, and Gai grew afraid as he looked at them. Rei’s long hair had grown dull and tangled, the shadows around his eyes pronounced and his lips scabbed over where he had bitten them. Such minor wounds should heal quickly, yet he did not have any energy to spare.

If Gou had lost a little weight, Shin had lost too much. He looked as if he had not eaten in weeks, even though Rei and Gai forced food down his throat every day. Any color he had possessed was gone, washed away by exhaustion, and the most telling sign was that his hair had been left unbound, as if he did not even have the energy to tie it back. Both he and Rei had always been more… more ‘delicate’ than Gai and Gou, prone to use their talents to fight rather than their bodies, even though they had trained just as much and grown just as skilled.

A stray thought flittered through Gai’s mind about how Yuda would *kill* him and Gou if he saw Shin like this, and unlike he had done in recent years, he did not shove it away as soon as it appeared. The truth was, they deserved their dear friend’s anger over what had happened lately, and there was nothing he regretted more than not leaving with Yuda and Ruka. They could have found a way around the Elders’ tampering, could have hidden themselves as a large group if they had tried hard enough. Could have….

His musings were cut short by the sound of Shin struggling for air. Thin, dark-colored eyelids flew open to reveal glazed over golden eyes, the pupils tiny pricks of darkness. Shin gasped once more and went still, eyes unseeing and chest not moving.

"Dammit, don’t do this!" Gai screamed, and as he moved toward the bed Rei ‘woke’ up and rolled over to face Shin. Gai was stopped from hitting the water elemental in the chest by Gou grabbing his fist, all his attention focused on Rei instead. It took a few seconds for Gai to realize that his cousin was forcing air into Shin’s lungs, and after a few rapid heartbeats, Shin let out a shuddering breath. His eyes drifted closed, and Rei moaned out his name before collapsing against his chest.

That was when Gou released Gai, and despite evident exhaustion, managed to crawl toward the two unconscious men before Gai reached them. He stared intently at Shin and Rei while checking their pulses, which had to be damn difficult with the way his fingers trembled. Deferring to his eldest cousin as always, Gai waited over a minute before he pushed Gou aside. "Let me do that," he snapped, not in anger but out of concern. "You’re more likely to fall on top of them and crush the air out of their lungs at this point."

That prompted a very weak chuckle from the fire elemental. "I think I’ve done enough damage to them." He did not say anything else while Gai checked on the two, and managed to pull himself up into a sitting position while Gai fetched a blanket to drape over the sleeping men. He wished more than anything that he had some spare energy to send to them, but his reserves had been drained by doing just that these last few months.

"I think they need rest the most right now, and then we’ll have to force some alcohol and broth down their throats." He did not like doing that when Shin was not awake and could make sure that the fluid did not go down the wrong way, but there were not any other water elementals he trusted to help right now. Not when it was clear that the Elders were still upset with Shin daring to warn them of their folly, and especially not when Trowa was gone from Berin. That made Shin the strongest water elemental around, and there were enough crazy bounds here who relished possessing that title. If it did not mean Shin’s death, Gai would gladly let them take it and then watch them be worked to death.

Gou took a deep breath and slowly let it out. "Give me ten minutes and I’ll make something for them." Neither of them trusted the kitchen staff at this point, but it was usually Rei who did the cooking. Oh well, the alcohol should kill the taste of the broth, Gai told himself.

The room was quiet, both of them focused on ensuring that Shin and Rei continued to breathe. Gai tucked back a strand of Shin’s blue hair and wondered where the precious white ribbon was that usually held it neatly tied. Shin would never willingly lose it, so it probably was in his room, perhaps in the carved teak box that held his few cherished possessions. If he had continued to wear it in the face of the Elders’ disproval, Gai doubted that it had been misplaced at all.

It usually was funny to think about how he was considered the hot-headed and impulsive one of the bunch, even more prone to lose his temper than Gou, a fire elemental. Yet Shin was the one who quietly went on his way defying the Elders, at first by refusing to have nothing to do with Yuda, then by keeping his memory alive. Really, it should not have surprised them when Shin took the Elders to task, even if it had been done in the politest way possible. So it really was not any wonder that Shin was the one who was suffering the worst right now.

Gai snarled for a moment and sat down on the bed by Gou. "He’s dying, you know." The words were snapped out in a mix of anger and fear, his eyes narrowed as he dared his cousin to disagree.

Instead, Gou let out a slow breath and nodded. "They both are, but I doubt Shin will last out the month at this point." He reached out toward the water elemental, his hand falling back to his side after a few seconds. "At least we managed to stop the storm from crossing over into Kritiker, so it’s raining here now."

"Glad to know Shin didn’t nearly kill himself over nothing." Gai growled over the dark look Gou sent his way, and was surprised when the older man glanced aside first.

"I’m only relieved for the fact that it’ll buy us some time." The words were spoken so softly that their meaning did not sink into Gai’s mind for several heartbeats. When he stared with astonishment at Gou, the fire elemental held a finger up his lips. "Anyone around?"

About to say ‘hell, no’, Gai reined in his temper and used his common sense for once. He reached out with his talent – he might not be able to heal, but he could sense the minerals in a person’s body and knew that no one else was in their quarters. He took it a step further and searched for any precious stones that were centers for spells; one of the things he had learned in the last few years was to sense the faint ‘dissonance’ that occurred in stones that had been charmed. "Nothing."

Gou’s shoulders slumped forward at the word. "Good."

"What’s going on?" Gai demanded to know, a glimmer of hope forming in his chest. "What do we need time for?" If the idiot said for Shin and Rei to recover, he was going to be covered with bites and scratches that would take at *least* a day to heal.

Ignoring the question for a moment, Gou reached out again, this time adjusting the blanket that covered Rei. "We’re leaving." When he looked at Gai and saw his astonished expression, he actually managed a weak smile. "You look like a carp, I’ll have you know."

Snapping his jaw shut, Gai allowed himself a growl for a few seconds. "No jokes right now, dammit." His eyes once more narrowed as he did his best to figure out if Gou was serious. "We’re really gonna try to run away?"

"What choice do we have?" Gou, normally the one cousin always in control, always level-headed and willing to see things through, appeared anxious for the first time in Gai’s recent memory. "They’ll die if we don’t. I’d rather risk capture and being killed as traitors than to see them… to see them fade away." His hands clenched into fists, tiny flames dancing over golden skin.

Really, one day Gai would learn to think before he spoke, maybe pick up some of Shin’s patience while he was at it, too, but it had been too stressful around here lately. "Yuda was right," he said, and refused to feel any regret over the words.

Gou’s head jerked up and mismatched eyes glared at him, so bloodshot that the red iris of the left one appeared to be bleeding out. Then Gou shook his head. "Don’t even think of that name, not until we’re out of here and somewhere safe."

"Why not?" Gai bounced on the bed a couple of times, not that Shin or Rei seemed to notice. "It’s true. If we’d gone when Yuda wanted us to, then none of this would have happened!" He would not have to watch his cousins slowly kill themselves over insane orders.

This time it was Gou who did the growling. "The Elders would have sent every last bound at their command after us if we had all left! And it would not have done Shin any good, not when he was still under their compulsion! He would have just suffered while on the run, dammit!"

That was the truth, but Gai was not in the mood to face it right now. "Like today is any better? You think they’re gonna just let us go?" He was afraid – not for himself, because he had come to realize these last few months he would rather be killed than keep bending his neck to the Elders, but he had mostly behaved for his cousins’ sakes. However, Shin and Rei could not even defend themselves right now, and even if they disagreed with the plan to leave, he was not going to give them any chance to remain behind. "Besides, Ruka probably could break through the compulsion."

"Not while doing his best to hide all of us." Gou’s bout of anger seemed entirely spent, as was his remaining energy. Even as he continued to sit upright, his shoulders slumped forward and his fists dropped into his lap. "Look, I refuse to argue about this now. We discussed our reasons for staying behind three years ago, and you agreed then." When Gai felt a stab of guilt over being reminded of that fact, Gou noticed it and gave him a faint smile. "None of us can see the future, sadly. At least if we leave now, we won’t have to worry about the Elders sending some of their best after us."

That made Gai feel a lot better. "Yes!" He shivered a little at the thought of Jei tracking them down, grateful that the very scary flesh gaki bound was out of the country, as well as Heero. If Gou regained his energy before they left, between the two of them they had be more powerful than even a large group of bounds sent after them. Well, there was General Wufei, but the Elders *never* let him leave Berin. "It’ll take a lot of planning."

Gou nodded in agreement. "We should have a couple of weeks to do it, at least." He shifted about to look at their unconscious cousins. "Shin can help, once he regains some strength."

"Yeah." For the first time in months, Gai did not feel upset at not being able to help out his cousins since it meant that he had not been weakened as much as they had. In fact… despite his utter failure in Rei’s domain, he came to a decision that it was time that he did more than pace about. "Get some rest, Gou. I’ll go heat up the broth for the three of you."

There was an expression of panic on his cousin’s face for a moment, which was replaced by annoyance when Gou realized that he did not have the strength to get off the bed after failing to do so several times. "You *do* know the difference between broth and alcohol, right? Anything in a bottle you keep *away* from flames."

"Sweet gods, how many times do I have to hear about that, huh? You put the fire out before it caused any damage." Not that Gou had saved him from Rei’s wrath, however…. Gai crossed his arms over his chest and made a show of standing onto his feet. "At least I know the difference between salt and sugar!"

"It was an honest mistake," Gou grumbled while stretching out on the bed.

"Yeah, apparently I’m the only one who can make any other type." Gai glared at his cousin for a few seconds, giving up when he realized that Gou refused to look in his direction. "You just better hope that I don’t dump any of that salt in yours. Hmph." Feeling rather righteous, he stomped out of the bedroom.

When he reached the small room that Rei had managed to convert into a kitchen, Gai let go of the anger in exchange for bubbling hope. What would it be like to live outside of the palace? To be able to do whatever he wanted, to go wherever seemed interesting and fun? To no longer have to worry about his dear cousins being used against him or to see them in pain?

If they got out of Esset… he *knew* that Yuda and Ruka were not dead. After all, the Elders would have paraded their remains about the palace as a warning to anyone else thinking about fleeing. No, his friends were alive, and he was certain that once he and the others escaped, word would get back to them. Yuda was tied to Shin, even if that bond was still tenuous enough that it had allowed him to leave, and Rei was the only person who Ruka had truly loved. They had only left Esset because they had no other choice, and Yuda had sworn to be with Shin one day.

But before that could happen, Shin, Gou and Rei had to regain as much strength as possible, and they all had to figure out a way to leave here that would give them a decent chance of making it somewhere that they could hide. Kritiker was the closest country, and the Elders would have to be careful or else they would kick off the war before they were ready.

Just a little longer and they could be free. That or dead, but with the way things were going here, Gai did not see how it would be any different if they remained in Berin.

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Yohji shifted slightly against the pile of pillows stacked in front of the bed’s headboard, easing the ache in his left shoulder and earning an annoyed hiss from his lover. Despite that sharp rush of air, Aya’s emotions were calm, the hiss probably automatic by now. Slam the door while Aya read, get a hiss. Thump about the room looking for something that had been misplaced, get a hiss. Comment on how the dark green sheets made him look utterly pounce-able, get a hiss. Do said pouncing… well, that usually resulted in another scar to Yohji’s already ragged and abused left shoulder, but it was worth it in the end. Oh yes, especially when his ‘cat’ stopped biting and put the damn book away….

Aya had been reading for about two hours now, lost in his book to the extent that Yohji doubted that his lover noticed that his own book now rested on top of the bed. They had decided to take advantage of the quiet day by curling up together and doing a bit of reading, Aya anxious to do more research while Yohji wanted to see if a popular book that both Jo and Mickey had recommended was worth his time. For the most part it was an enjoyable, amusing read, but no book in the whole wide world could compete with his mate. He had set it aside about half an hour ago and delighted in having Aya leaning against his chest, hips nestled between his thighs.

His hunger was a faint whine in the back of his mind, mostly satiated from this morning, but always willing to be indulged. Since they had taken care of the traitor who had been ready to run back to Esset with some news that no one in Kritiker wanted the Elders to know just yet two nights ago, Aya had plenty of energy to spare to Yohji’s hunger. However…. Yohji shook his head at the remarkable lack of lust to his thoughts.

While he would never think to say ‘no’ if Aya turned around and demanded sex right then, he was surprisingly happy with the way things were just now. In the past year, he had managed to rein in his hunger enough that it did not rob him of all logic, and he had come to cherish quiet moments like this. A little more than a year ago, they had faced down an insane wizard, traitorous princes and a pack of oni; enough had happened that he no longer feared losing Aya all the time, nor felt that desperate need to claim his mate. No, their relationship had deepened once they had been given enough time with each other to focus on their emotions and their bond. Beyond any doubt, Yohji knew that Aya was his mate and he was Aya’s, and nothing would ever come between them. Well, nothing other than what appeared to be a very engrossing book.

He smiled and combed his fingers through Aya’s right eartail, purring softly when his hand was not batted aside. Peering over his mate’s shoulder, he stared at the unfamiliar characters until a couple of them began to make sense. Living in the capital as well as a popular inn, he had had a good grasp of foreign languages before he joined the Guard, and had been encouraged to increase that knowledge while he worked for the king. However, that had mostly been in understanding the spoken language, so he only knew how to read his native tongue and a bit of Esset, since the two languages were similar.

Spending all this time with Aya as well as the ravenous horde must be rubbing off on him, because he was slowly picking up more written languages, such as the Xanian that Aya was so intently focused upon. "Something about bloodlines?" Yohji asked, his voice pitched low so as to not disturb his lover.

"Yes." Aya sounded annoyed enough to start snapping his teeth at any moment. Yet his emotions belied that churlish tone, a warm mix of pride and happiness that made Yohji dare to give him a quick squeeze. Every time Yohji had checked to see if he was reading the characters correctly, Aya had responded the same way, and each time there had been a wave of those positive emotions. More than likely, he did not know how to respond to anyone who dared to interrupt his precious reading in any other manner.

Pleased that he had only been wrong once so far, Yohji hugged Aya closer to his chest and purred a little more. While sex was enjoyable as hell, moments like this were to be cherished, and the time would most likely come when he had need to read a bit of Xanian. Since the country had not been directly involved in the Binding War, its scholars had studied the war extensively from a viewpoint mostly detached from any prejudice or presumptions. When enough bounds had fled to the country for that particular magic to appear in Xan’s population, the country’s scholars had been driven to research bounds and their creation in order to understand the impact to Xanian culture. Between helping Aya and the Elrics with their research into what had happened during the last war and the fact that Xan was a bit more tolerant of bounds than most countries, it could be said there was a pressing need for him to learn the language sooner rather than later.

"That’s ‘fire’." Yohji stopped playing with Aya’s hair long enough to use the eartail to point out a particular character.

The grunt he got from his reticent mate translated into ‘yes’, prompting him to give Aya’s neck a quick nibble. More time passed in silence, the only noise the faint sound of some children playing a game of catch out in the garden, thanks to the windows pushed wide open to let in a pleasant breeze. Yohji recognized more characters, but did not say anything since he had already checked them with Aya earlier, and he was so happy at the moment that he did not want to spoil anything. He had an armful of his sexy lover, the day was proving a welcome relief from the usual heat of the summer, and the bed’s linens still held the scent of their morning lovemaking. All that he needed to make things perfect was for Jo to bring them a couple of trays of food and wine, but he knew better than to wait for that to happen. No, they would have to venture downstairs at some point and put up with hanging out with their dearest friends. He grinned at the thought before switching his attention to Aya’s left eartail, now that the right one had been finger-combed smooth as silk.

He had run his fingers through the crimson strands a few times before Aya sighed, the sound faint and lacking its usual annoyance, and put the book aside. To Yohji’s surprise, he twisted around until they were facing each other, Aya now kneeling between his thighs.

"Sorry," he said, risking a painful smack or bite to his fingers to reach out and tuck back the eartail he had just been playing with. Once more he was filled with surprise when Aya merely tilted his head into the caress and purred. "I didn’t mean to interrupt your reading."

This time, his hand was grabbed and pulled from Aya’s hair toward Aya’s mouth, where it was given a playful nibble. "Right, that’s why you kept playing with my hair." While Aya’s tone was pure annoyance, his eyes were bright with the amusement and love that pulsed across their link, and his lips – when not pressed against Yohji’s hand as the mock gnawing continued – curved in a slight smile.

"I was just trying to see if you were hungry. Considering the way you’re treating my hand like a chew toy, I guess we better go downstairs for some food," Yohji teased, his happiness increasing in the face of a playful mate. While Aya may have moved past the worst of the pain that had kept him trapped in the past, he had never be considered a ‘mischievous’ person, so moments like this were always very special.

"I can only hope that whatever Maddox made today tastes better than you," Aya shot back, then turned Yohji’s hand over so he could place a gentle kiss against its palm. "I’m sorry, is this too boring for you?" He motioned to the book that Yohji had put aside almost an hour ago.

"Well, I must admit that the ongoing saga of if Lord Tsukiyono is or is not the father of our intrepid hero Shirou is more interesting than I’d thought it would be." Yohji thumped his left hand against the book. Yet there was something wrong… not so much with the book but Yohji’s take on what would normally be a convoluted plot. When his mate was a damn near mythic bound *and* the son of the king’s best friend, he was involved in plotting against evil rulers and doing his best to ensure that his country won an approaching war, and he could literally charm the pants off of anyone, a mere novel’s plot did not quite have the same impact that it might have had over a year ago.

"But not interesting enough, apparently." Aya let go of his hand and smiled when Yohji rested it against the nape of his neck.

"To be honest? I like learning new things, I guess." As well as being useful, especially in something that Aya considered so important. His mate and the Elric brothers were convinced that they had find out enough information about the Elders and how they planned to fight the upcoming war by studying the previous one. Add to that the potential for a very long life, and he had a lot of learning to do.

Aya’s smile turned tender, his eyes a pure violet with no hint of silver. "There are lots of things you could learn. You don’t need to stay here with me and be bored." His emotions were a swirling mix: a wave of sadness followed by love, then anxiety.

Combing his right hand through Aya’s soft hair until it rested behind his neck as well, Yohji smiled and urged his lover closer. "But I like staying here with you, and I’m not bored." He focused on his emotions, aware that Aya had a bit more trouble sensing them than he did. "I’m perfectly happy right now," he whispered, while staring deeply into his lover’s eyes.

Aya was still for a moment, not even seeming to breathe, before he sighed and rested against Yohji. "I doubt the ‘perfectly’ part." The rare, mischievous smile from before returned. "After all, there’s *something* we could be doing that I think you enjoy a little more." His deep voice became even deeper, roughened by a purr that made Yohji shiver in delight to hear it.

"Ah, yeah, I suppose," Yohji drawled, his happiness just then sharp enough to make his nerves tingle. He shivered a little more before letting his left arm slide down Aya’s back and wrap around his mate’s waist. "Any clue what that ‘something’ might be?" He waggled his eyebrows for added emphasis, and grinned when Aya began to laugh. Oh gods, but that sound was so beautiful.

Running his hands down Yohji’s chest, Aya tilted his head to the side as if considering something. "Hmm, taking a nap, maybe?" He laughed some more when Yohji mock-growled and dragged him even closer. "Having a drink?"

"You’re getting closer." Yohji did the teeth snapping for once, still pretending to be angry. "How about I enjoy a nice meal, hmm? Maybe a yummy helping of cat." He did some laughing of his own when Aya hissed at the nickname, the sound quickly smothered by a kiss. Nails pricked against his chest for a couple of seconds, Aya’s indignation fading into lust and pleasure.

Well, he had been planning on being good while his mate read, but if Aya was in the mood…. He wrapped his arms tighter around Aya, wanting to feel that lithe body against his own. His hunger flared to life at the contact, racing through his blood as the kiss deepened. Gods, but Aya could make him *want* so damn much. Despite his control, despite over a year together, his need for his mate only grew stronger each day. If the gods continued to bless him, that would never change.

His hands sneaked beneath the light grey shirt that Aya was wearing, skating over fading scars until Aya shivered as well. The feel of supple skin beneath his fingertips, the slick warmth of a tongue against his own, the intoxicating scent that made his heart race with every breath…. He felt as if his body was too hot and his clothes too restricting, he needed to be rid of everything that was between him and his lover right *now*.

Aya must have felt the same way, his hands pulling at the laces of Yohji’s un-dyed shirt. Drinking in the lust, love and pleasure that he felt over their link, Yohji smiled and broke off the kiss so he could nibble on his mate’s neck. Aya mewled softly, the sound erotic as hell, and Yohji could not resist scraping his teeth along unmarred skin. He would leave his mark there, a temporary sign of the lasting bond between them, his demon nature urging him on. Wanting to draw out the moment, he pulled back just long enough to rid them both of their shirts before pressing his mouth back against his mate’s neck.

Aya hissed in pleasure, his fingers tangled in Yohji’s hair as he held him close. Yohji did not stop until there was a dark bruise left, sunlight rushing into him as his hunger reveled in the feast. The demon part of him appeased for now, he drew back and slid his hands beneath the back of Aya’s pants.

"I don’t think you’re gonna be reading for a bit." He tried to keep his tone light, but the desire he felt made his voice rough. What he needed right now was Aya, was the sunlight that poured into him from the man he loved, the incredible pleasure that always left him wanting more.

"Don’t care," Aya purred in response, the silver bright in his heavy-lidded eyes. He wriggled his hips, causing Yohji to moan and his fingers to squeeze firm flesh. Yohji was about to make a smart remark in return, but the feel of Aya squirming some more against him pretty much robbed him of words. Ah well, they were overrated, anyway, when they could sense each other’s emotions and show just how much they wanted and loved each other.

The sunlight spiked as Yohji pushed down his mate’s pants, the room darkening as the shadows sheltered them from the outside world. Cool tendrils trailed along Yohji’s shoulders and back, a teasing touch that was followed by the warmth of Aya’s fingers. Yohji moaned again, desperate to get rid of the last of their clothes so he could soak in that warmth all over his body. "You drive me crazy."

Aya’s response to the growled words was a throaty laugh. "Good." He shifted back enough to wiggle out of his pants. "It’s only fair." He gave Yohji an intense look as he tossed his pants aside, then tugged at the partially undone laces of Yohji’s.

Yohji chuckled in response, allowing his mate to shift aside enough that he could get rid of his pants as well. "Why, do I drive you crazy, Cat?" He dragged Aya back onto his lap, giving that delectable ass a squeeze before reaching for the lube. "You want me that much, hmm?"

He yelped when his hair was given a harsh tug. "The first is true," Aya muttered, his temper making a quick return. Yohji whimpered a few times, eyes wide as he did his best to appear innocent, the expression only lasting until Aya snorted in derision. He laughed and hugged his lover close, nuzzling Aya’s neck a few times before initiating another kiss. His bottom lip was nipped for his trouble, but Aya soon gave in, anger washed away by desire.

Despite the feeding from earlier, Yohji’s hunger grew insistent, urging him on until he scooped some of the slick gel onto his fingers. Aya broke off the kiss to gasp when Yohji’s finger pushed inside, his hips moving once again as his fingers clenched against Yohji’s shoulders. Not wanting to lose that contact, Yohji chased after his mate’s mouth, brushing lips against a pointy chin and nibbling his way upward. What sounded to be his name was sighed into his mouth, followed by Aya’s tongue.

Oh gods, but he thought that he could go without all food and drink as long as he had this amazing, *delicious* sunlight pouring into him, making his nerves tingle with heat and pleasure, his body invigorated by the tantalizing energy. There were times when this was all he wanted, the rush of Aya’s emotions and life force, and the rest of the world did not matter at all. Time did funny things when they were like this, both speeding up and slowing down, leaving him confused and only able to focus on each of Aya’s breaths and racing heartbeats, each clench of fingers against his skin and soft moan against his mouth.

When he finally pushed inside of his mate, those breaths caught and that heart beat even faster, the slight ache of pressure replaced by the stronger sting of nails biting into flesh. Aya’s head lolled backward, his mouth wide and eyes tightly closed, pale face flushed with a redness that spread down to his collarbones. Taking what was offered to him, Yohji leaned forward to suck on his lover’s neck, moving in time with Aya for each thrust.

He was inside of Aya, enveloped in warmth and tightness, dumbfounded by wonderful friction and motion. And as he was in his mate, Aya was inside of him, so turbulent and intense, a tidal wave of emotion and energy. Whenever the sunlight blazed even more fervent as a result of a particular thrust or scrape of teeth, Yohji felt as if he would implode as it charged through his veins and settled into the center of his chest. Sweet gods, but was it *potent* and addicting, and he did his best to send it over his link to Aya how wonderful he felt, how incredible it was to know that he could make Aya feel this good. Even more important than the pleasure was the love that coursed through them as if through a loop, never ending and only growing stronger with each pass.

Sharp nails raked down his chest as Aya’s back arched, his deep voice breaking the room’s silence with a strangled cry of passion. The sunlight was charged with even more ecstasy, an inferno that charged through Yohji and destroyed him with its strength. He came as well, teeth biting down until a trickle of blood flowed into his mouth, that coppery tang able to ground him through the maelstrom of emotions and pleasure.

When he could finally catch his breath, his face was tucked into the crook of Aya’s neck, his mate leaning against him as if there was no more energy left in his body. Feeling a bit guilty that the thought might be partially true, Yohji returned some of the energy he had taken in, smiling when he brushed his fingers along Aya’s bruised neck and only the bite healed, sealing closed yet still bearing the imprint of teeth. There was more guilt when he realized that the scratch marks on his chest were already gone. "You need sharper claws, Cat," he mumbled, brain still hazed with pleasure and blood buzzing through his veins so loudly that all other sounds seemed muffled.

So he more saw Aya’s snort in response than heard it, though he very easily felt the prickling of pretty sharp nails. "Maybe I just need to dig them in deeper." Aya’s voice was dulled with exhaustion, his motions languid as he continued to drag his fingernails up and down Yohji’s chest. "Or do some biting of my own."

"Just not the left shoulder, please." Yohji smiled as he rubbed the faint scars, permanent reminders of the need to keep his possessive demon soul in check. It was damn hard and he knew he would never go very long without a new bite mark added to the collection, but it was only fair considering how often he left his mate’s neck looking mauled. Even if Aya’s marks faded by the end of the day, they would be back soon enough.

Aya hit him on his shoulder instead of biting it. "Idiot." There was no real sting in the word and his expression was softened by affection, and he followed the insult with a lingering kiss. Yohji held him close, as always amazed at just how much he could love another person and how little it took from Aya for him to be almost delirious with happiness.

"See, I told you I need to do a lot of learning." He laughed when Aya rolled his eyes at that, his smile fading when his lover slowly got off his lap and then the bed. "What do you want to do now?"

Aya paused in wringing out a washcloth and gave the question some thought. "How about a soak in the hot spring and then some dinner?" He glanced over his shoulder while he cleaned himself off, his emotions hopeful and at peace.

Yohji’s smile returned and he got off the bed himself. "Count me in." That way they could get something to eat before Ed and Al showed up to do a bit more research, and he would be in a good enough of a mood to deal with Mustang hanging around. "Maddox said something about steamed salmon." He could not resist pulling free one of the eartails trapped beneath Aya’s robe and giving it a tug. "Just the meal for a cat, na?"

Scoffing at the joke, Aya once again caught Yohji’s hand and gave it a bit of a harder chomp than he had back on the bed. "I think sex must make you stupid or something. That would explain a lot."


"Be prepared to call me an ‘idiot’ for a very long time." Yohji chuckled as he drew his lover in close, Aya’s face tilted upward for a kiss. "Because I’m definitely a lost cause, then."

"Mmmm." Aya did not pull away for a good minute, his face flushed once again and eyes bright with happiness. "Most definitely."

"See, we can agree on something!" Laughing as he followed Aya out of their room, Yohji spared a thought that something had to be on the way to the Koneko soon, as things were too good and peaceful lately. A wonderful day like this with the man he loved would have to be balanced out *somehow*, and no matter how much he disliked the bastard, he had to admit that a couple of hours spent in Mustang’s presence was not enough of a counter-balance. Ah well, as long as he had times like these every now and then, he could put up with the gods’ fucked up sense of humor.

*******

As much as he wished to sigh in impatience, Crawford sat quietly at Cassandra’s kitchen table and waited for the tea in the pot she had just filled with hot water to steep. It gave him a few minutes to put his thoughts into order and verify that the latest visions did not conflict with ones in the past. The future was always open to change, based as it was on the past and present. Sometimes those changes were through actions of his own, so he had to remain aware of what was no more and what was new so as to not let the complex threads he had painstakingly woven together come unraveled.

A mug of tea fragrant with the scents of ginger and lime was placed next to his clasped hands. "You never come by just for tea and conversation," Cassandra accused, standing beside the table with her hands resting on her hips.

"Yet you insist on serving me something and wasting my time," he replied, a slight smile settling on his features at the way she ‘hmphed’ in anger and stalked over to the counter, where there was a freshly baked cinnamon cake. She literally hacked off a piece and put it on a delicately decorated porcelain plate, which was set beside the mug of tea. Only then did she sit down across from him.

"Thank you." He inclined his head to show that he did indeed have some manners. "Now may we discuss some important matters?"

Cassandra’s lips pressed together for a moment, then she stared into the cup of tea that she had poured for herself. "Have a vision, did you?"

For a moment he considered some scathing retort for such a ridiculous question, but indulging in their long-held rivalry would not help anyone at this point in time. "Yes, I did. How about you?"

It appeared as if Cassandra had to struggle with the same impulse before looking up at him and smiling, the expression more forlorn than pleased. "About many things, but this afternoon…." She picked up the cup and breathed over it, more a sigh than an attempt to cool the hot beverage.

"There were two futures for a moment," he said, when it appeared that she was unwilling to continue. "One where Shin died and Yuda led a failed attack against the Elders, starting the war early." He had felt cold for almost an hour after that vision, terrified and furious over how easily all his sacrifices, all his hard work, had turned to ash because of one bound’s desire for revenge.

Cassandra nodded, her dark eyes bleak with a remembered horror. "So much death there was, enough to rob Aya of his humanity."

And two precogs of their son, one of many lives that would be lost. He had been surprised at the stab of pain he had felt upon seeing Schuldig’s death and wondered how such an annoying brat had managed to become slightly important to him.

But that was neither here nor there, not when the future had changed a moment later. "Fortunately, it was a very short-lived possibility." He sipped his tea while Cassandra nodded and wiped what appeared to be tears from her eyes. "Shin still lives." For now, at least.

"And so Yuda will not endanger everything just yet." The sorrow left her, replaced by disdain. "Have a leash on him, don’t you? Oh no, clever Crawford would never let someone so powerful wander about and be a threat to his plans, hmm?"

He gave her one of his most charming smiles and felt pleasure when she sniffed in disgust. "Of course I do. I knew of his plan to escape the Elders before he did, and made my plans accordingly." That had been to get himself, Jei and Trowa out of Esset so they could not be part of the hunt. All the trouble that had been was worth the fact that Heero had finally failed while on a mission, and he had been able to lay some very important groundwork at the same time. "Jei and I found him not far into Kritiker, and I got an oath out of him to not return to Esset until I said he could."

Cassandra snorted again, this time in amusement. "How did you manage such a thing when Shin was still there?"

"By a promise in return." He made her wait for the rest of the answer and tried the cake, which was almost as good as one of Jo’s. "I told him that I would see to it that Shin and his cousins would leave Esset within five years, under my protection. Once they were safe, then I would send for him."

The disapproval was back on her features, but only for a moment. As much as Cassandra enjoyed taking him to task over his actions, even she had to admit that what he had done was very important. "You’re interfering with mated bounds again."

He put the empty tea cup down on the table with more force than intended, and actually was relieved that he had not broken the delicate thing. "I took advantage of the bond, that I won’t deny, but *I* was not the one who interfered. Thought and Sense forced a compulsion on Shin; Yuda can’t touch him for very long before Shin is filled with agony. They were very clever in ensuring that those two would never mate." Quite a few people might curse him for what he had done over the years, but Aya and Yohji, Trowa and Duo, even his own brother and young Elric had to admit that he had not kept them apart and almost driven them mad with longing and need. His only crime was bringing one pairing together before it was their time, really, and from what he had seen lately, Roy did not have much to complain about.

"Oh, no." Cassandra’s small right hand pressed against her mouth in an attempt to stifle her cry of pain. "How…" She stopped and shook her head. "They have no qualms at all, do they?" The hate she felt for the Elders was thick in her voice, and Crawford allowed himself a moment to be overwhelmed by that emotion as well.

"Schuldig’s help will be necessary, not only for Shin but Rei as well. After Yuda and Ruka’s escape, the Elders ensured that Ruka could never contact his lover." If he did not know what lay in store for those ancient bounds, he suspected that he might have been driven insane with frustration and helplessness decades ago. The bastards thought of everything, it seemed, and people thought that *he* was a manipulative asshole.

Judging from the look that crossed Cassandra’s face, her hatred had grown even sharper. "He’ll do it, even if it distracts him from what else you’ve in store for him."

Crawford had the feeling that his son would face his mother’s wrath if he attempted to get out of a bit of hard work. Undoing what Thought and Sense had done would take quite a lot of effort, but of all things he actually had some faith in the brat. "It won’t interfere with his next assignment." He smiled at the thought of Schuldig having to do something other than feed Masato and complain for once.

It seemed that Cassandra was amused as well, and this time she tried to stifle some faint giggles. "My poor boy." She giggled again before her demeanor once more turned serious. "That is quite an oath to fulfill, you know." There was actually a note of concern in her soft voice.

As if he would ever promise something he could never honor and risk the gods’ fury. "Once I leave here, I will speak to Xao Li and have him send his sister a message. Quatre and Wufei will have to halt their tutoring a bit and arrange for Shin to escape." His friends would have some trouble with that, he was sure, but they would manage. Too much right now rested on getting Shin and his cousins out of Esset, and not just to prevent Yuda from starting the war too early.

"The Elders have never hesitated to use weather as a weapon before, and they’ve already done enough damage." He spoke his thoughts out loud, his eyesight growing blurred as old visions swarmed in his head. "Trowa and the others have done what they can to limit the damage here, but the Elders have miscalculated when it comes to Esset. By removing their strongest control over the weather, we’ve some hopes of lessening the damage."

"Before desperate people do foolish things, or other countries feel that drought and famine gives them an opportunity to strike." Cassandra did not refill his cup as she did her own, but he took no offense since it was clear that he needed to leave soon. "There’s so many risks we’ve had to take, and we can only hope that things balance out in the end."

He refused to feel any guilt over what they had done and would do; it had been a gamble, leaving bounds powerful enough to control the weather in the Elders’ control, but there was a time for everything. Now, it was imperative to get Shin and the others to a place where they would be safe and could undo what they had been ordered to do this past year.

"I wonder when would be the best time to let Jo know that a few more strays will be stopping by."

Cassandra giggled again. "I’d wait for a quiet afternoon if I were you. Better yet, send Jei since he heals faster."

Crawford gave her a cold look as he rose from the table. "That’s very reassuring." He gave a slight bow again before leaving, having several important things to do as soon as possible.

*******

Quatre set his cup of tea aside and considered the move on the chessboard in front of him. On the other side of the board, Alexis smiled that slight smile of hers and leaned back in her chair, her fine-boned right hand reaching for her tea.

The good news was, he saw a chance to get out of her trap without losing too many of his pieces… but he had no clue what she had spring on him next. He salved his sure to be battered pride with the fact that she had been playing the game for longer than he had been alive, but it was still a bit disheartening. Was it so much to ask of the gods that, after taking a strategic genius for a lover, that he could find *someone* he could beat at chess? It was not as if he suffered from a profound lack of cleverness or anything….

Oh well, at least he was spending a peaceful and enjoyable evening with someone he had come to view as a good friend. Lately, Alexis could be found in his quarters, supposedly as they worked out the ‘details’ of her bearing his child. He felt a stab of jealousy when he thought of how Wufei had been the one to come up with that idea, even if he had to admit that it worked well as an explanation of why Alexis was often found in their company. No one other than Quatre’s lover and sisters were aware that he planned to pass on the family title to whatever niece or nephew proved the most suitable heir – knowing his sisters, it would be a niece, as they were still irked by their father’s insistence that a *boy* take over the Raberba-Winner title. Since bounds were not known as the most fertile of people, no one would expect Alexis to become pregnant any time soon.

Having sacrificed his rook, but hopefully saved his queen, Quatre sat back in his chair. Alexis studied the chessboard for a moment, her smile growing firmer as she nodded. "I wasn’t sure if you’d see that possibility."

"I am proud to say that, after being beaten mercilessly by Wufei for almost four years now, I’m rather good at finding ways to delay the inevitable!" They laughed at his joke, and he could feel Alexis’ joy at finding a ‘worthy’ opponent.

"I would think that after a few more years, he’ll be about the only one able to defeat you." Her hand moved as if to push her rook forward, but did not go through with the motion. "Perhaps-"

Whatever she was about to say was lost in the noise of the library door being flung open and then slammed shut. Wufei stalked into the room, his expression so furious that Quatre expected his lover to go for his sword at any moment. What had happened now? Were the Elders’ favorites abusing another bound?

"I refuse to deal with such stupidity!" Wufei bellowed, and around the room various bits of metal began to rattle.

Since his lover’s thoughts were in too much disarray for Quatre to make any sense out of, he could only smile in the face of such anger. "Who’s being an idiot this time?" he asked, half afraid of the answer.

"That damn girl!" was Wufei’s instant response, shouted loud enough that Quatre and Alexis winced in pain. "She doesn’t even know about the Traflinger Battle!" He came to a halt in the middle of the room, arms crossed over the plain black shirt he wore and eyes blazing as if he were a fire elemental.

It was one of the very rare instances when Quatre honestly did not know what to say, and was certain whatever he came up with would not be any good. "Ah, Tralfinger?" What was Wufei yelling about, and why was he so upset?

Unfortunately, his suspicions were proven true when one of the most disgusted looks he had ever seen was sent his way. "That’s *Traflinger*, and it’s clear you don’t know about it, either!" Wufei actually threw his arms up in the air. "Heathens! I’m surrounded by a bunch of illiterate, moronic heathens!"

Not very pleased at being insulted like that, Quatre did his best to hold onto his smile and his temper as he turned toward Alexis. "Do you have any idea what he’s referring to, or should I just accept the fact that his mind has finally snapped?" He ignored his lover’s growl just then, not in the mood to placate someone who had just labeled him as a moronic heathen.

Alexis seemed to be doing a better job of controlling her temper, if her smile was any judge of the matter. "I believe he’s talking about the Battle of Traflinger, which was definitive in establishing the border between Esset and Kritiker about… oh, seventeen hundred years or so ago?" Her smile faded a little as she thought about the date. "A little less than that, really. Its importance is that the treaty resulting from Esset’s loss of that battle cut it off from all access to the sea."

Some of Wufei’s anger faded, while Quatre slowly grew mortified. "I… I should have known that," he said with some confusion, wondering how he could have forgotten something so important. His tutors had been among the best in the country, and what they had not known, his older sisters had been perfectly willing to pass that knowledge on to him.

"To be fair, it’s not often mentioned in the history texts written by Esset historians, since they would rather let people believe that Esset never had access to the sea. The Elders are partially to blame as well," Alexis explained, her expression calm once more.

"True, but that girl should know it anyway! A ruler should always know the truth behind things, even if they keep it hidden from everyone else!"

Quatre stared at his lover for a moment, wondering if his brilliant mind truly had snapped. "Have you… been into the vodka again?" He knew Wufei often complained about needing a few drinks before dealing with Helena, which was awfully unfair to the poor child. If anything, she was the one who deserved some alcohol, considering the way that Wufei glared at her all the time. That she learned anything at all was a testament to her intelligence and desire to improve her knowledge.

"Shi ne," Wufei hissed in anger, the ancient curse making Quatre laugh rather than be insulted or upset. He left the chessboard to give his indignant lover a kiss.

"You don’t mean that," he said when Wufei tried to squirm away.

"… No, I don’t." Wufei stopped being so prickly and held him close. "I apologize, but it’s appalling, how little they’ve allowed that girl to learn over the years. She would be as good as thrown to the wolves if she went to any Court in her present condition."

From his thoughts, Quatre picked up that Wufei was not so much bothered by the girl’s ignorance as the fact that she was intelligent enough to absorb all of this knowledge and had been deliberately deprived of it. The Elders truly had not expected anything from her other than to have sex with the man they picked as her husband and to produce an heir. Most likely, she would be killed once the infant proved strong enough to survive childhood, as had been planned for her father before he took his own life to save hers.

/I guess they don’t want to risk her developing a mind of her own and being a problem. In a way, it’s reassuring because they must trust us greatly to allow us to tutor her,/ he sent in an effort to appease his lover. There were times when Wufei was blind to the realities of politics, of the ‘necessary’ evil rulers gave in to on a regular basis, the Elders more than most. Helena had best be able to take the throne after the war because Quatre did not know if his relationship could withstand him being a regent or, the gods forbid, a king. No, Wufei would constantly fight with him over many decisions, which would only tear his heart apart even more as he balanced what had to be done to protect Esset against what was truly right. Rufus Shinra would not be bothered with such difficult choices, so let him give advice to a hopefully stubborn and wise Helena.

"Hmph." Wufei grasped the back of his neck in a rough manner for a few seconds, before his grip slackened and turned into a caress. /I’ll just have to add more time to her daily lessons to make up for such ignorance. If she does go to Kritiker in the next year, I’ll make sure she won’t be an embarrassment to us./

Thinking about how poor Helena would take the news about an even longer lesson spent with Wufei glaring at her and mumbling about stupidity beneath his breath, Quatre was startled by a knock at the library’s door. He pulled away from Wufei to see Rashad standing in front of the now open door.

"My lord, you have a guest." The tall gokenin stepped out of the way to allow Gai Li to enter. She bowed when she realized she had his attention, the ends of her black hair almost sweeping against the floor.

Wufei’s anger vanished immediately, and Gai Li was quickly the focus of the room. Alexis set her cup of tea aside and, after a moment’s hesitation and a quick nod from Quatre, came to stand beside him.

"Gai Li, it’s always a pleasure to see you." Quatre gave her a warm smile, well aware of the risk she took to be here. Judging from her carefully shielded thoughts, she was not here to pass on a dinner invitation.

"And you, Lord Raberba-Winner." She bowed again, then stood up straight and looked directly at him. Now he could see the beads of sweat on her forehead and the tension in her shoulders, and without any more thought on his part he shoved his way past her shields, uncaring of the pain he caused. A slight moan passed his lips, the guilt quickly pushed aside as he made sure that she was not here as part of a trap or a betrayal.

As soon as he found the reason for her visit, he immediately pulled out of her mind and bowed low. "Please, forgive me." Beside him, Wufei slid his sword back in its sheath while Alexis put her hands behind her back, as if hiding them.

To her credit, Gai Li managed a wan smile. "I understand, my lord." Her chuckle just then was as weak as her smile. "I’d much rather deal with you than General Wufei."

Wufei cleared his throat, a sound he sometimes made when he was embarrassed, yet refusing to show it. Glad that he had not been the only one to react to the threat that Gai Li had possibly represented, Quatre threaded his left arm through the crook of his lover’s right. "Thank you for being so understanding. Would you like some tea? Or something stronger?"

"No, thank you." Gai Li tucked back the hair falling onto her face and squared her shoulders. "I’ve a few messages to deliver after this one." She gazed evenly at him for several heartbeats. "Need I say anything about what brought me here?"

Quatre flushed a little, yet knew there had been no way to control his demon soul once it had sensed a possible threat. "I only went in deep enough to find out why you were so upset. I know you’re here because of Crawford, but not much more." He had been able to rein himself in that much, at least, instead of risking permanent harm to Gai Li’s mind.

She gave him another bow, nerves making her err on the side of politeness. Thankfully, she began to speak after that since Wufei and Alexis were growing worried about how this meeting was being dragged out. They could sense that Gai Li was here for something very important and wanted to know what.

"I hope you’ll forgive me my haste, but I’ve several errands to complete and had not expected to visit you today." Gai Li paused as if to gather together her thoughts. "Crawford had a vision." That she was skipping the usual pleasantries and getting straight to the message was another sign of its importance. "Two of his agents will shortly be on their way here to take Gou, Shin, Rei and Gai back to Kritiker with them. I’m to tell you…." She paused again, staring at nothing and not seeming to notice how the three of them looked at her in shock. "Things will unravel if they’re not gone from Esset by the time all three moons are full."

That was not something Quatre wanted to hear – any of it. His shock at hearing that Crawford requested that four of the most powerful bounds in Esset be… were they to be forced? Assisted? Regardless of how they left, the fact was that the Elders would not want to let them go. But if there was a chance that everything that they had worked for these years would be destroyed and the sacrifices that they had made had been for nothing, then Quatre would see to it that the cousins were gone from Esset.

"Did he say how we were to achieve such a thing?" Wufei asked, his thoughts echoing Quatre’s even as he focused on the matter at hand.

"No, only that one of the agents will be a soul gaki bound and that Lord Raberba-Winner should make sure to have a gokenin or another trusted servant be at the market as much as possible, starting in a week’s time. She’ll contact that person and assist with any plans you’ve made." Gai Li smoothed her hand along her dark blue tunic as if to dry it of any sweat, a drop of which slid down the side of her impassive face. She was doing her best to control her fear, but she realized the danger posed to all of them now. That she had passed on the message and had no thoughts of betraying them to the Elders spoke volumes of her loyalty to Crawford.

"I see." Quatre exchanged a long look with his lover before stepping forward, his hand dipping into the pouch at his waist. Deliberately selecting several gold coins, he held them out to Gai Li. "Thank you. I believe in a week’s time you should pay me another visit, this time to inform me that there is news of a vendor making his way to Berin with some casks of vintage Xanian wine."

Gai Li was more than clever enough to understand his goal behind the new assignment and smiled, this time the expression genuine. "Yes, my lord. All would expect a finder’s fee of sorts for bringing you news about one of your favorite beverages." She bowed a final time, the coins clenched in her right hand, then turned to leave the room. Silence reigned for a good minute after the door closed behind her.

"That was very smart," Wufei said, nodding in approval as he faced Quatre. "Once your gokenin ‘meets’ with the arranged vendor, Crawford’s agents can be the ones to deliver the wine." His eyes were bright with emotion again, this time excitement; bored almost to the point of madness with being trapped in Berin, of course he would relish a chance for some action and a way to strike back at the Elders that was not all plotting.

Quatre smiled in pleasure, happy as well to be doing something, even if it was dangerous enough to cost them all their heads. "I believe you should be angry with me, hence the importance of me being the one to buy the wine. Fortunately, we have the perfect excuse set up for a fight." No, he would not allow himself any satisfaction of pretending to quarrel with his lover over sleeping with Alexis, not when Wufei had thought up that particular cover story.

As quick as ever, Wufei picked up on what was not being said and flashed him a smug smile before his expression turned serious. "That would be a suitable reason." He looked over at Alexis, who had been quiet during their exchange. "Should we apologize for dragging you into this?" By now they trusted her enough to know she would not run to the Elders with Crawford’s request, but it was a lot to ask her to join them in the conspiracy to deprive the Elders of their best way to control the weather.

Alexis smiled, a very beautiful sight with the sparkle in her dark eyes and the coy tilt of her head. She swished about the skirts of her dark red dress in a coquettish manner before lifting her chin and looking directly at each of them for several seconds. "I’ve always wondered about Crawford and just how powerful his talent is. His father was a very disturbing… man." For a moment, her lips pulled back enough to flash the white gleam of sharp teeth. "One was afraid of one’s own thoughts, never knowing when he had seen something and mentioned it to the Elders. Crawford did not seem quite so gifted… yet he always possessed the oddest of luck."

"I think it’s safe to say that there’s very little of ‘luck’ in anything that Crawford does." There was a lot about Crawford that could not be defended, not even by Quatre, but as much as he despaired at times over the man’s actions, he had to admit that Crawford never did anything without a very good reason.

"Yes, I feel I must agree." Alexis stopped playing with her full skirts, instead folding her hands in front of her. "That Gai Li came now…." There was a fleeting look of sadness to her face, quickly replaced by the impassive smoothness that she wore as a shield against the Elders and their followers. "I hear many things, and lately there has been talk of Shin and Rei remaining in their rooms not because of the Elders’ displeasure, but because they don’t have the strength to leave their beds."

Wufei nodded while Quatre felt a pang of hurt over how exhausted the two elemental bounds must be from using their powers so much. The last time he had seen Shin or Rei… they barely had the strength to stand, and it was evident from the way that Gou and Gai hovered around them that they were not well. After that day when they had found Shin in the hallway, the water elemental was never seen without his cousins right by his side.

"I’ve been told that the Elders have relented in their demands, since the city now has an adequate water supply." There was a rough growl to Wufei’s voice, his emotions turbulent with scorn and hatred. "The last rumor that I heard was that the cousins would be forced to take lovers as soon as they recovered enough to ensure that their bloodline is not lost." Despite him suggesting a reasonable explanation to Quatre for Alexis’ presence in their quarters, there were few things that offended him more than the ‘unions’ the Elders forced upon their more powerful bounds. Even if Xan had a history of arranged marriages in its culture, Wufei had always been quick to point out that much more was taken into consideration with those marriages than just producing a powerful bound child.

Alexis nodded, the motion mostly covering another flash of teeth. "Yes, that’s what I’ve heard as well. Apparently, I was to be considered for such an… honor, until recent developments, that is." She nodded toward Quatre. "I’ve always thought that few things would bring Yuda back to Esset faster than Shin being in danger or claimed by another as a lover."

Giving that statement some thought, Quatre left the two bounds to go to the room’s bar and pour all of them a hefty shot of whiskey. "If I remember things correctly, you knew Yuda rather well, did not you?" He was certain that Alexis believed the succubae bound to be alive, which was not something that he doubted much himself.

She accepted the glass with a polite nod and sipped the drink, while Wufei swallowed all of his at once and then took Quatre’s as well, exchanging a grateful smile for it. "His talent was so powerful that he had a way of making one feel special when near him. Not that there was anything more than affection and friendship between us, but we were lovers upon occasion." There was a strong wave of hatred and anger radiating from her just then, such as she usually felt when in Tan Xi’s presence. "While I will admit that at times I might have wished for more, there was always…." She frowned as she rolled the glass between her small hands. "He was clearly waiting for someone, and when he finally crossed Shin’s path, it was evident who that person was. After that, he chose to only feed from strangers and once at that, the only way he could be loyal to Shin."


Even without his empathic ability, Quatre could tell that she was regretful about that. "I’ve always felt that the gods would spare no punishment over how the Elders interfered with their bond." Rare hatred crept into his voice, causing Wufei to toss the empty glasses onto the couch and wrap an arm around his shoulders.

"Oh, yes, I’m certain they’ll pay for it, but at this point it will be one crime in many." Alexis went to the couch to pick up the glasses, then to the bar to refill them. "However, back to Crawford and his rather frightening talent, what few people know and fewer people suspect, is that Yuda trusted me enough to ask for my help in leaving Esset." The glasses full of whiskey once again, she turned and smiled at the shocked expressions on Quatre’s and Wufei’s faces. "It was a lovely hunt, taking care of anyone who suspected, and I haven’t been that well-fed since."

No wonder Tan Xi never openly moved against Alexis, Quatre thought as he accepted the glass, and this time he did not allow his lover to drink the potent alcohol. "So I assume that you would be the perfect person to help us plan getting Shin and his cousins out of the country as well, na?"

She smiled and bowed her head, careful not to spill a drop of her drink. "I believe I would have a few suggestions." Once more, her gaze grew vacant. "It won’t be easy, since Shin and Rei are obviously so weak and there are four of them… on the other hand, we’re lucky in that Crawford is sending a soul gaki bound to help them escape. Again, I begin to wonder about all that talk from his father about him not being as powerful." She shook her head as if to clear it of a stubborn thought. "I would be more than happy to help in whatever way I can."

Wufei snorted at that, but waited until his drink was finished to speak. "Anything to twist the Elders and Tan Xi’s tails, hmm?"


The smile on Alexis’ face just then was too pleased for words, as if she had been given her detested rival and told to enjoy her meal. "Oh, that never crossed my mind." The smile faded, to be replaced with concern. "In all honesty, I’m doing this for Yuda. He was a true friend and I know how much it hurt him, not being able to claim his mate. The only thing he asked of me before he left was that I look after Shin. Until now, I had believed that would be best done by tearing out the throats of any other elemental bounds who thought they could replace him, and I have to say that this is a lot more satisfying if not as tasty."

There was no derision in Wufei’s tone this time. "Your help would be greatly appreciated." He held up his empty glass and stared into it for a moment, as if entranced by the small drops that slid along its curved sides. "The main question I have now is whether we’ll have to force them to leave, or if it will be of their own free will."

That was something that Quatre had been wondering himself. Taking a sip of his drink, he let the whiskey burn its way slowly down his throat as he gave the question serious thought. "Shin has already spoken out against the Elders, and Rei always follows his lead. I believe… if we offer him a chance to get Rei away from the Elders before he’s either burned out or worked to death, as well as to see Yuda again, he’ll take it."

Wufei nodded, the glass now cradled against his chest as if a precious thing. "And Rei will go along with us for the chance to save Shin. That leaves Gou and Gai, who are not idiots and have clearly sided with Shin, considering the way they’ve turned down the last few invites to parties. I believe Martha’s actions may have finally broken whatever loyalty they felt toward the Elders."

"The best way to know for sure is for me to read their minds." Quatre wiped the back of his right forefinger along his lips as he thought of a good excuse to visit the cousins. "I suppose I could stop by and ask them for some advice on Fatima’s behalf." His sister was very careful to never reveal just how powerful a water elemental she was, and was the reason why his family’s estates had not been affected by any real droughts as of yet.

Alexis spoke up after a moment’s contemplation. "I’m not sure that is the correct approach to take with them, as they would have little reason to trust your offer of help. Perhaps it would be best for me to stop by as I’m known as a more… neutral presence in Court. I can swear to them on whatever oath they want that I’ll see them safely out of Esset." The conviction on Alexis’ voice was among the strongest emotions that she had ever revealed, and the claws were out on her entangled fingers. "I’ve a letter as well that will convince them of our sincerity." Her right hand rose to touch the smoky quartz that hung on a silver chain around her neck. "Yuda gave it to me before he left, in hopes that one day, Shin would flee Berin as well."

From the sounds of it, they had a chance of making this mad plot work. Quatre quickly shoved that thought aside and whispered a prayer to the gods, asking their forgiveness for being so presumptuous. All they could do was give this mission their best effort and trust in Crawford. Chances were good that there were things going on that they did not know about, things that prompted Crawford to send such a dangerous message through Gai Li; Quatre had the impression that his friend had not been able to waste any time by sending it through other couriers. Could the cousins be plotting their escape even now, driven to such a drastic action by Shin and Rei’s fading health?

He sent a message to Rashad to prepare a large enough meal for three bounds, one of them a flesh gaki, and to bring it to the library as soon as possible. He had thought to attend a party later tonight, and a grim smile curved his lips as he thought that now was the perfect time to start the rumor of his falling out with Wufei. They would spend the evening making plans, and tomorrow his lover could stalk around the palace, complaining loudly to all who would listen about how he was being treated as an afterthought, while Quatre obsessed over an heir.

/I guess the girl’s advanced lessons will have to wait another week or two./ Even if the words were ‘spoken’ inside Quatre’s head, Wufei’s tone just then was overwhelmingly grumpy. Yet what made Quatre smile was the regret he felt over their link; Wufei had actually been looking forward to those lessons.

Being smart enough not to mention how the ‘girl’ was growing on the disgruntled bound, Quatre wisely nodded in agreement and changed the topic to inviting Alexis to stay for dinner.

******

Eri set her saddlebags on the floor by one of the kitchen's tables, some of the unease she felt at leaving for Esset fading as she looked at both the meal laid out to be enjoyed and everyone gathered in the room.  Of course, Jo and Maddox were present, busy putting more plates and dishes on the table, and Naru as well, appearing as glum as she had felt just a minute before.  Yohji and Aya sat next to each other at one side of the table, Yohji's expression solemn for once, while Aya's was imperturbable as always.  Mickey, Kira, Teddy and Koyu were there, even though she knew they normally had a lot of chores to do this late in the morning, and Reiichi, Omi and Nagi smiled at her in greeting.  Well, not Nagi, not exactly, but his lips twitched slightly as if he meant to but just did not know how.  Considering he could be as reserved as Aya, she did not doubt that he had some problem with the expression.

"Don't tell me that you're this eager to get rid of us," she teased, a little uncomfortable with all the attention directed her way.  There was also a niggling voice in her head commenting on Yuushi's absence, even though she knew he was busy with work at the moment.  

Yohji's serious demeanor was replaced by one of amusement.  "Well, I won't say that we're unhappy with the thought of the place not blowing up for the next few weeks...."  He laughed when Naru glared at him for the comment, his left arm rising to be draped over Aya's shoulders.  "And it'll definitely be quieter than normal."

"That's because I bring a wealth of entertainment and joy wherever I go."  Naru crossed his arms over his chest and pouted for a moment, but only until a plate covered with cinnamon rolls was placed near him.  Forgetting all about his indignation, he grabbed for several of the rolls, just barely beating out Teddy for them.

"I believe that’s more along the lines of ‘amusement and incredulity’, but by all means, have no trouble sharing that with the people of Esset." Reiichi’s tone was so dry just then, it took a few people several moments to realize he was once again teasing Naru. Considering that there were few times when he *did not* tease Eri’s partner, she was surprised that it took her friends that long to catch on.

Naru’s mouth opened and closed a few times before he swallowed a bite of cinnamon roll. "I’m definitely not going to miss you," he responded with a pronounced pout, yet she could feel his happiness all the same. While it was a bit unfair, someone of Reiichi’s caliber ‘picking’ on Naru all the time, her partner saw it for what it was – the loving teasing of an older brother. Reiichi would never bother to put so much effort into doing that to someone he did not either really like or really loathe, and despite Naru’s often clueless appearance, he could easily tell the difference between the two. That ‘tormenting’ and the way that Yuushi always looked after him, even if it was trying at times, was a source of great joy for Naru.

In a way, the three men were a lot like bounds in how they had found a new family and clung to it with all the love and strength they had. Reiichi might still have his siblings and their families, but there was a distance between them because of his job, the secrets he knew and the things he had to do to protect his king. Yuushi and Naru were more than happy to be there for him, and they were closer than many blood brothers that Eri knew.

Funny, how she was thinking so much of family lately. Ever since taking Jo and Mickey up on their offer to live at the Koneko rather than worry about finding her way back to her apartment each night, she had felt the rather odd sensation of possessing one once again. It had scared her at first, considering the pain involved in her leaving her parents so long ago, but… it was growing very welcome. While she knew that the invite had partially been extended so the Koneko would have a powerful soul gaki bound around most of the time to make sure no Esset spies found out about the inn or Aya, she was treated as more than just a guest or employee. If anything, she had the suspicion that she was ‘staff’ now, yet another stray taken in by the Koneko and given a chance at a happy, fulfilling life. She swore to herself that as soon as the war was over – assuming that she survived – that she would spend a good bit of her time investigating the inn’s nameless god. For her life to turn around so much, he had to be a very powerful being, which was exceedingly odd when one considered that he had no formal temple, acolytes or even a name.

A nudge to her left side made her snap out of her thoughts and look to Reiichi, who smiled in a sympathetic manner. "I know it’s a very scary thought, being stuck with Naru for the next few weeks, but you need to work past the horror and have something to eat before you leave."

That made her smile, as did Naru’s disgruntled and loud snort in return. "Thank you, that’s a very valid point." She began to help herself to the chicken pasties that were on the table, her smile growing when Jo filled a mug with coffee for her and gave her right shoulder a gentle squeeze. No doubt the fear she felt over going into Esset would return soon enough, but for now it was time to enjoy good food and the company of true friends.

Yohji waited until she had helped herself before grabbing some of the food for Aya and himself. "Don’t worry, Jo’s packed a few bags for the two of you, and Aya said he could ward yours to keep a certain bottomless pit from raiding it." He laughed when Naru made a production of pulling a white stone out of the hidden pocket of his light blue shirt and throwing it at Yohji, and Eri figured it was only because the stone was not glowing with a spell that Aya did not react to the joke. "Looks like a lump of sugar," Yohji said as he held up the stone, then folded it into his right hand and concentrated. After a minute or two, he threw it back at Naru.

However, the stone was not pure white anymore, but a faint grey. When Naru caught it, tiny tendrils of darkness raced up his arm and made him yell in surprise. "Yotan! That’s not funny!"

"Oh, I don’t know, I found it amusing." Yohji grinned at Naru until the Guard grinned back, and Eri knew that there were no hard feelings between the men.

Teddy was the one who did not appear very happy right now. "I don’t think it’s very fair, how you’re beginning to get Aya’s shadows to do tricks for you." Not that Eri blamed him for feeling that way, not when Yohji usually tried out his latest talent on the poor man. Well, Teddy would be a ‘poor man’ if he did not usually deserve the pranks….

"All that power, and you use it for jokes, Kudoh. I have no idea what the gods were thinking when they stuck Aya with you for the rest of his life," Nagi grumbled, but everyone knew from his deadpan expression that he was only teasing Yohji. If he really was upset with the succubae bound, the kitchen’s utensils would be rattling back and forth in warning.

Yohji, ever the adult, stuck out his tongue while Aya merely munched on one of the pasties. "Oh, like you don’t use yours for kinky sex."

"Kudoh…." Nagi slapped his hands against the table as he growled out the name, and now it did not look as if he was fooling around. Fortunately, all it took was a laugh from Omi as he urged his boyfriend to sit back down again to break the tense mood.

"What, you jealous, Yotan?" Omi asked, looking much too innocent just then for the thoughts that were in his head.

"Hell yes."

Just like that, and everyone was laughing and happy again. As always, Eri was amazed at how the mood could change so quickly with this group, usually moving away from anger and hurt in favor of happiness. She shook her head and resumed eating, and it was after a couple of bites that she realized that they were acting like this for her and Naru. Considering Yohji’s empathic ability and the way Jo, Reiichi and Omi were very good at picking up a person’s true mood, she should have known that they wanted to make her feel better before heading off on the mission.

As if sensing her mood now, Yohji stopped trying to nibble on Aya’s pasty and looked toward her. "So, you’re ready?"

Considering the trust she felt from her friends, Eri did not grow worried when she thought about the mission. "Yes, other than Yuushi saying that he had something for us and not being here." She frowned a little, upset at both not being given the items and the fact that Yuushi was not going to say ‘goodbye’ to her.

Reiichi waved his right hand as if brushing aside her worry. "I’m sure he’ll get it to you in time. Anything else that’s bothering you?" The smile on his face just then was purely professional – all teasing was pushed from his mind as he focused on ensuring that she and Naru were as prepared as possible.

"Other than going into Esset to help several powerful bounds escape against the Elders’ wishes? No, not really." She kept her voice as calm as possible as she spoke, more to hold back the fear than any bitterness. When Crawford had approached her and Yuushi about this mission, she had understood his reasoning and had little way to argue against his plans.

The truth was, she had spent the last several decades doing a very good job of hiding her true strength and not drawing attention to herself. She had kept to Kritiker her entire life, studiously avoiding anyone from Esset. The Elders and their lackeys most likely had no clue at all who she was, let alone her talent and how powerful her demon soul was. While she was not in Schuldig or Lord Shinra’s league when it came to power, she was not that far out of it, either. Considering that the most powerful soul gaki bound in Esset right now was on her side, she should be fine.

"Give me your hand." Yohji’s command took her by surprise, and after frowning for a few seconds, she did as she was told. Her surprise grew stronger when Yohji gave her right hand a gentle squeeze then turned it over to Aya, whose fingers were cold. She opened her mouth to say something, not sure what, exactly, when that coldness grew. Aya’s eyes turned silver as shadows flowed over his fingers onto her hand, not stopping until they coiled around her wrist in a black band that appeared as if a fresh tattoo. Shivering a little from the chill, she looked from her wrist to the kage, now very uncertain about what she should say.

"I know you have the ring, but that’s strictly defensive. This will protect you if you’re attacked or if there’s a charm you need to destroy." Aya’s voice contained a faint hiss, yet his face was not as impassive as before, which was a great relief since she was still rather terrified whenever he went completely ‘kage’ on her.

"Thank you." She managed not to pull her hand away until his slight grip on her fingers vanished, and she rubbed her right wrist a few times before she realized that the cold band would not warm up. Oh well, it was something that she had grow used to, she suspected, and in truth she was very honored by Aya’s gesture. While she and Naru each had one of the very rare black stone rings that would protect them from magic and any attempts to read their thoughts, possessing a weapon such as this could very well save their lives at some point.

Naru fidgeted on his seat and wiped his hands on a napkin before daring to look at Aya. "Uhm…."

"No, sorry." Yohji’s lips curved in what might have been taken as a smile save for the dangerous gleam in his eyes. "No offense, but it’s a hell of a risk for Aya to do that for one of you, let alone both." And if there was anything that Yohji refused to allow happen, it was any sort of risk to his mate. In truth, Eri was shocked that Aya had given her any shadows in the first place.

As if he could read thoughts, Aya leaned against his protective mate and joined his hand with Yohji’s. "The mission is important so I don’t mind doing this, but you have your bombs, Naru, while Eri can’t cast any spells." The hiss was gone from his voice and there was no trace of sadness or pain, as was often the case whenever he used his talent like this.

While Naru nodded in understanding, Reiichi gave him a pat on his shoulder. "Besides, should the worst happen, they’ll figure out that you’re a wizard and Eri a bound. The last thing they’ll expect from her is to affect spells in any way." It came as no surprise that Reiichi knew what Aya was going to do, and he had probably sided with Yohji to limit the ‘gift’ to one person.

"That’s okay, I’m lucky enough to have a ring." Naru rubbed his fingers over the black stone on his left hand. "And the last thing I want to do is cause trouble for Aya." He truly was not upset over not getting his own band, both a little scared of Aya’s talent and too much of a Guard to risk someone else for his own sake, especially someone who would be very important in the upcoming war.

Reiichi smiled and patted him again. "And I’m sure Eri can tell you that you’ll be a lot warmer without the shadows!" There was amusement in his voice just then, and a knowing look in his eyes as he glanced in Eri’s direction.

"Yes, very much so." She would have to find a leather strap or a wide enough of a bracelet to cover the band of shadows, but that would not be much of a problem. Her respect for Reiichi grew, since he wore two gauntlets imbued with shadows, and she sent that thought along.

/You’ll get used to it soon enough,/ he assured over the link she had created between them. /Just treat the shadows as you would any other charmed item – focus on what you want them to do, and be aware that they’ll react to extreme stress./

She had seen Reiichi’s gauntlets in action and understood what he was trying to say. /Thank you./ They could make a slight detour through a market on their way out of the city, and she could pick up something to cover the shadows then.

His good mood seeming to be restored, Yohji toyed with Aya’s hair and helped himself to more food. "While I don’t envy you this mission, from the sounds of it Crawford has everything set up for you to get in and then out of there."

Being reminded that a precog foresaw a successful mission helped to reassure Eri. "Yes, so why aren’t you volunteering?" she could not help but ask. Then common sense returned and she actually winced in fear of Yohji’s response.

Fortunately, he did not take the question seriously and laughed instead of growling. "Hmm, I guess Crawford would feel that would be too easy!" He hugged Aya close, his grin slipping a little as he no doubt thought about his mate being anywhere near the Elders.

Nagi glared at Yohji for a moment before shifting on his seat to look her way. "As much as I hate to do so, I agree with Kudoh." He made sure that his voice dripped with derision when mentioning Yohji, causing almost everyone in the kitchen to smile over their long-running feud. "Crawford has a very extensive network of people you can trust for assistance."

Eri pushed her empty plate aside and leaned toward the earth elemental. "Have you ever met these cousins we’re supposed to rescue?" Crawford had not told her much, other than to impress upon her the importance of getting them out of Esset and the things she needed to know for the sake of the mission; no wonder the man had managed to hide his true loyalty for all these years, considering how little he gave away, even to his own comrades. Considering that she could not talk to Schuldig for more than five minutes without a fight breaking out, she had not approached him or Masato for any information. When she had gone to Omi and Nagi’s room last night for information… she had left after picking up a rather strong emotion from both young men.

Never one to just blurt out words, Nagi appeared to consider what he was going to say before speaking, his mental shields unusually strong. He had definitely spent enough time in Schuldig’s presence to learn how to shield his thoughts, and she had noticed his tendency to strengthen them whenever anything to do with Esset or Aya was brought up. When he did speak, it was clear that he was choosing his words with care.

"Crawford and Jei didn’t allow me outside of our quarters very much, and never alone. I know they didn’t like it, but the Elders wanted all of us to attend them on several occasions, which were the only times that I saw the cousins." The way that Omi slid an arm around his shoulders and hugged him tight revealed that mentioning the Elders bothered him, even if his emotions and expression were under tight control.

As if aware of his mental shields, he lowered them enough that she could see images similar to what Crawford had revealed to her yesterday. "Gou was the one I saw the most; he’s a fire elemental." Eri frowned as she regarded the image of the tall, dark-haired bound. Mismatched eyes like that were rare, especially when one was blue and the other red. They would have to find some smoked glasses for Gou, because it was a trait that would make him easy to trace.

"Gai was usually with Gou whenever he went out, and I heard that he loves to play pranks. He’s the only one I actually talked to, and he seemed… surprisingly friendly," Nagi continued. Along with the image of the bound was the thought that he had reminded Nagi a bit of Omi, hence why he had actually responded to the earth elemental. She could see why, with the long blond hair, even if the strands turned brown at the ends and Gai’s eyes were more a green hue than a true blue.

"Rei and Shin were always together, too, but I only saw them twice." Nagi reached up to entwine the fingers of his left hand with Omi’s right and leaned against his boyfriend in a pose that mirrored Yohji and Aya’s. Eri found herself stifling a smile at the thought of how the two close friends had found such similar lovers. Then she shook her head and focused on what Nagi was saying and thinking. From the concentration she felt around the room, she was not the only one learning things right now.

Pausing to wet his throat, Nagi licked his lips before he continued. "Jei told me that they’re really half brothers, Rei and Shin, though everyone calls them ‘cousins’." Jei must not have done a good job of explaining why that was so, judging from his confusion. She studied the two men whose images appeared in Nagi’s mind, noticing their similar slender builds and heights, the unusual shades of their long hair and the shapes of their faces. One could see the close blood tie between them, echoed in the familiar way they stood next to each other, Rei’s arm draped over Shin’s shoulder as if to either protect or seek strength from the golden-eyed bound. "I think… most of the bounds closest to the Elders seemed upset with Shin, so he kept to his quarters a lot."

Crawford had told her that, if worse came to worst, that these were the two that she *had* to get out of Esset. As air and water elementals, they would have the most control of the weather, and he had volunteered the information that they had lovers who would tear Esset apart if the young men were harmed. As much as snatching four bounds out of the Elders’ clutches bothered her, another thing that made her fear for this mission was involving herself with two bounds who were meant to be mated yet had not because of outside interference. She had forced Crawford to swear that Shin’s would-be mate would not interfere with the mission, and he had not been pleased with the oath. However, her insistence had prompted a vision of sorts, and he had left the inn inquiring about Jared’s location last night. More than likely Jared would be the very unlucky bound who would have to find Yuda and then keep the succubae bound from interfering with the mission. That had made going into Esset seem a lot safer….

Again, it appeared that her thoughts or emotions were more evident than she had like, this time with Yohji responding to them. "Crawford said that those two are very weak due to pushing their talents too far." His gaze shifted from Eri to Jo, who stood at the end of the table with a carafe of coffee in her hands, her lips pressed together in anger. Then he turned his attention elsewhere, staring at Aya with a tender expression on his face as he tucked back one of his mate’s eartails. "And that their minds have been… tampered with by the Elders." The love changed to that over-protectiveness that always made Eri want to move as far away from the succubae bound as possible. "You will let us know if they’re any threat, right?"

She did not think there was any answer that she could give but one. "There is no way I’d bring anyone who would be a threat back to the Koneko. If I feel any of them are a danger, I’ll stash them somewhere else in the city." This was her home now, too, and she would not do anything to destroy it after being without one for so long.

Yohji nodded, seemingly reassured over her determination to protect the Koneko and Aya. "Okay." Things grew quiet after that, Naru busy eating as much food as possible before they left, while she was in no hurry to go to Esset. However, no more than twenty minutes passed before Reiichi cleared his throat.

"The morning traffic should be gone by now," he said, a sad smile on his face as he looked back and forth between Naru and Eri.

"At least it’s not raining today." Eri pushed away from the table with a surprising amount of regret, but told herself that she had a job to do. A very important one that she had agreed to do, at that, and the sooner it was done, the better.

Jo approached and handed her two very full sets of saddlebags. "Here’s the food. I don’t know about Aya charming them for you, but Omi put some spells on the bags that should keep the food good for a while." When Eri accepted the very generous present, Jo’s expression turned grim again. "There’s also some of Cassandra’s special tea in there, the one that helps build up strength."

Eri nodded in gratitude. "I’ve some whiskey in my bags, which won’t work as well as the tea. Thank you." Jo accepted her smile with one of her own and a slight nod.

Naru swiped a set of the bags and draped it over his shoulder. "Oh, sure, you bounds and your excuses to always have liquor on you. I’m not buying it for a second." He grinned wide enough to convey that he was only joking, so Eri smiled as well.

"Says the man who can’t handle more than three shots before he’s out for the night!" That prompted a grimace from her partner, who reluctantly agreed that she was correct.

Yohji and Reiichi helped them with their bags, and they went outside to find Ichiro and Jason waiting with the horses. Yohji and Aya had offered for them to ride theirs, and Aya slipped past, the hood of his black jerkin pulled up to protect him from the sun, to pat the nose of his grey gelding. While Ichiro put her bags on the horse’s saddle, Eri made a point to bow low in appreciation for Aya’s generosity.

"I’ll take good care of him."

"I know." The thing about Aya was that he did not waste any words, and had no problem in showing his displeasure. That he managed a faint smile and handed over the horse’s reins with no hesitation was a clear sign that he did trust her with the animal, which had better breeding than the Guard’s mounts. "He’ll be happy for the exercise, I’ve no doubt."

Yohji did not seem so concerned about his animal, other than to give it an affectionate pat on the rear. "Remember, they’re used to riding at night, so trust them." That had been part of the reason for Eri and Naru to borrow the beasts, along with the need for horses with a lot of stamina for speed. Once they got closer to Esset, Eri and Naru would travel at night, when it would be safer.

She had just gotten up on the horse when Yuushi came charging through the back gate, riding as if a horde of flesh gaki were nipping at his mount’s heels. She was half afraid the horse would slide over the cobblestones as it came to a halt, but it managed to keep to its feet.

"I’m sorry!" He rode the bay horse up to Eri’s, his face flushed and his blond hair falling onto his face. "Botan took a little longer with these than he had expected." He handed over a leather pouch with great care, and from his thoughts Eri picked up that they were full of charmed stones.

"I told him that I could help!" Omi muttered, followed by a yelp when Yohji gave him a light smack to the back of his head. Nagi glared in response, but since Yohji was holding Aya in his arms as if to protect him from the sunlight, there was not much he could do to retaliate.

Yuushi laughed and sat back in the saddle. "Trust me, he was regretting not having you do them in the end, but I guess they’re a bit more complex than what you’re used to." His thoughts on the matter were that, prodigy or no, he would rather have Botan cast the spells that his Guard would rely upon with their lives than Omi. "There are illusion spells in there for you and Naru, as well as the four bounds. A few other things, too; Botan said there’s a note for Naru to read." He glanced at Naru, who nodded in excitement, clearly happy to have a few spells to play with for this mission.

"I should be able to tell the spells apart at the least." When Eri offered the pouch to her partner, he shook his head. "I trust you to look after them, that way I won’t be blamed if they get lost!"

She actually laughed and tucked the precious bag inside the thin leather vest she wore over her brown shirt. "You are a brat." Still smiling, she turned back to Yuushi. "Is there anything else, Captain?"

He seemed to hesitate for a moment, then to her shock she found the front of her vest grabbed to pull her forward. About to protest, she was silenced by a very passionate, albeit sloppy kiss… not that she was complaining. Not about that, at least, but the both of them being on horseback and in front of a crowd was not ideal in her opinion.

She could so easily read his thoughts – his concern for her well-being, the fact that he was not happy with the mission but trusted her to see it through and be successful. That faith in her was as heartwarming as the other emotion she felt, something she was too afraid to put a name to right now, it was so new. Instead, she savored the kiss for as long as possible, until the two horses shifted about enough to part them.

"Ahem." Yuushi still appeared flushed, but there was no sign of regret on his face. "Be safe and I’ll see you soon." He smiled at her before looking at Naru. "And no, I’m not going to kiss you, but I wish the same for you, too."

Naru pouted as he urged his horse forward. "I always miss out on the good stuff." He made a show of blowing Yuushi a kiss before turning his horse toward the gate. "We’ll be back soon enough! Things just got too interesting for us to be dragging this mission out!"

Having the feeling she might be using her talent on her partner to make him stay quiet about what had just happened, Eri suppressed a slight groan and smiled one more time at Yuushi. "I think I have to agree with him for once." Oh yes, she wanted to be back as soon as possible to make sure that Yuushi intended to continue with what he had just started. Captain or not, he had expressed a clear interest, one she would not let him run away from. Even as a bound, she had learned that life was too short to let a chance like this pass her by, and there was no way she would let Birman snatch this man from her, friend or not.

"Just see to it that you both come back in one piece." Yuushi’s smile faded. "I talked with Colonel Mustang, and he’s arranging for some of his people to patrol the border. All you have to do is get back into Kritiker and they’ll make sure you’re safe after that."

"Thank you." She bowed her head, grateful that he had taken such care for her and Naru, aware that it was not what had motivated the kiss, but that they were his responsibility. Knowing that she could trust the people at her back once they crossed into Kritiker was a huge relief; now to just trust Crawford’s people in Esset. "We’ll see you soon." It was a promise she made to herself.

She waved at her friends gathered in the courtyard, putting up with Yohji, Jo and Reiichi’s knowing looks. Then again, there were benefits to being away from people who knew her so well for a few weeks.

"Eri’s got a boyfriend," Naru sang as they rode through the gate.

"Eri’s also got a longer reach than you and can make you walk into Berin’s Court to kiss the Elders," she warned, not about to put up with this nonsense for the entire mission.

"Now, now, don’t start abusing your authority just because you’re dating the Captain!" The bastard laughed at her and mostly avoided the swipe to his head.

"How about I dig through your memories and tell Elise about your last few girlfriends, hmm?" The threat was not a serious one, but reminding her partner that he had a lover of his own seemed to put him in his place. He was back to pouting, but as long as he remained quiet, she could live with that.

Suddenly, the prospect of them being too busy running for their lives for him to tease her was very appealing.

*******

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