Storm Warnings

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chapter two

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hopes of freedom

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Botan strode into the Koneko, so focused on his goal that he barely acknowledged Jo and Maddox’s greetings. He gave them an absent-minded wave of greeting and once it was clear that Yohji was not there, headed straight for the door leading to the rest of the inn. Out in the hallway, his next destination was the library, which only contained a couple of happily reading patrons. Since neither of them were redheads, he had little hope of Yohji showing up here soon and so continued on his quest.

He got lucky on the third try – when he knocked on the door to the office, it was Yohji who greeted him a moment later. "Good afternoon, Botan." Bright green eyes narrowed with suspicion as Yohji stepped out of the way and ushered him inside. "Is something wrong?"

"Yes and no." Botan took a deep breath and stepped farther into the office while his friend closed the door. "Good afternoon, Mickey."

The large man nodded in greeting from where he sat behind the desk. After a long look from Botan, Mickey began to put aside the papers that he and Yohji must have been working on. "Good day. I think now might be the perfect time to ask Jo about being charged for two hundred kilos of sugar." A disgruntled expression settled on his expressive face. "I know we’ve plenty of people here who adore sweets, but that seems like a lot for one week!"

Yohji chuckled and got out of his brother’s way. "Hey, for once you can’t blame all that sugar on Aya! The last time he inhaled a cake, it was from that new bakery down the street."

Mickey laughed as well and smoothed his right hand along his goatee. "And Omi’s been stuffing Nagi silly with blueberry ices, so he’s in the clear as well. Unless Jo’s holding back on a surprise party for one of us, it’s definitely a mistake." He nodded to Botan and Yohji as he crossed the room. "I’ll see about getting us a snack, too." When Yohji opened his mouth, Mickey gave him a gentle punch in the left shoulder. "No, I’m not dragging Aya here so you can have that ‘snack’. You’ll have to settle for coffee and some pie!"

"Meanie." Yohji pouted for a few seconds while his brother laughed, his demeanor turning serious as soon as Mickey was out of the room. "Okay, so what’s going on that’s good and bad?"

The man was picking up some traits from his lover, Botan thought to himself with a slight grin, surprised by how quickly Yohji cut to the chase. After all, he had not mentioned anything about Aya, the Koneko’s staff or bounds, or that he was here on official business. He wondered if his emotions were disturbed enough and Yohji’s talent sharp enough that he pick up on them so easily. A lot had changed in the past year….

"I’ve come here to ask a favor of you and Aya," he said, cutting to the quick of things as well.

Yohji leaned against the edge of the desk and motioned to the chair set not far away before he folded his arms over his chest. "This isn’t about needing blood for spells, *right*?" His lips pulled back in an expression that could not be called a smile, not after Botan had spent so much time around bounds.

Shivering a little from the implied threat, he shook his head as soon as he was able. "No, it’s not about that." Then he frowned and reconsidered his answer. "Not quite. I don’t want any blood from you, Aya, or any other bound." He said the words slowly and clearly, wanting to make sure there was no lingering doubt in Yohji’s mind. His friend had been very upset the time when Aya had donated blood for Reiichi’s gauntlets and more rings, and Botan knew their friendship would not last long if he asked Aya for any more.

Yohji tilted his head to the side and seemed to think about something for a moment. "Okay, so if you’re not here for blood then it’s for magic, right? Is this for the king?" He had always been a very bright young man, no matter if he chose to come across as lazy and middling intelligent.

Botan was left wondering if Yohji was picking up thoughts as well as emotions, which was a very disturbing idea. "No, not quite." He took a deep breath and held up his right hand when Yohji frowned. "Give me a minute to explain."

"Okay, but for a wizard, you’re not talking much," Yohji muttered, a slight scowl on his face and the shadows around the desk shifting about. "Aya’s been feeding pretty regularly lately, so we’re in no hurry for a new assignment."

That was not exactly what Botan wanted to hear, but he had faith that the two men would take him up on the mission that he was about to propose. "Do you remember me talking about a Victor Garcia?"

Yohji’s brows furrowed together as he thought about the name, and he nodded several seconds later. "That’s the wizard who marked Reno, right?" The suspicious look was back on his face, the emotion shading his expressive voice. "You had to make Rufus swear not to hunt down the bastard himself once you figured out who he was."

"Yes." Botan shivered again, not entirely happy to recall that evening. Rufus had turned from a well-mannered young man into something cold and bloodthirsty, as scary as Aya when his shinigami nature took over. "I’ve asked some… associates to look out for him and one of them got back to me yesterday." He removed the letter from the pouch hanging at his waist and handed it over. "Victor’s done a very good job of laying low, which gives credence to the rumors that he’s dealing with bound blood. A mutual acquaintance told my associate that he’s planning on returning to the capital in the fall, when the caravans come. Supposedly, he feels that all the attention will be on the caravans to make sure nothing like last year repeats itself, and he’ll be able to sneak in and out of the city with ease."

Taking a moment to read the letter, Yohji carefully folded it closed before returning it. "And? Where does the favor come into play, hmm?" While he had a slight smile on his face, his eyes were unusually cold. Botan assumed it was because of a wizard using bound blood in spells.

"I want you and Aya to search for him come fall."

"I see." Yohji’s smile strengthened, yet his eyes and his tone remained cold. "You want Aya to look for a wizard?"

Beginning to feel a little uneasy, Botan nodded as he put the letter away. "I’m sure Victor will be using an illusion charm to hide his true appearance, so Aya’s talent will be very useful." Not to mention he could sense any magic, as well as be invulnerable to whatever traps Victor might set.

"I see," Yohji repeated, and Botan imagined that there was a hint of a growl to the words. He was about to say something to his friend when all of a sudden he found himself lifted into the air, bound by gold wire and shadows. The clearest thought amid the dazed muddle in his head was when had Yohji moved?

He was suspended by the wire and shadows, so thoroughly bound by them that he could not gesture for any spells and could barely speak – not that casting spells right now would do him any good against a kage’s mate. Yohji stood in front of him, head tilted to look up and a disturbing hint of silver in his emerald green eyes.

"You’re feeling hurt and betrayed right now, as well as pretty scared." He bared his teeth again, the expression as far away from a smile as possible. "Confused as hell, too." The words were snarled in fury, the room darkened by shadows that writhed around Yohji and chilled Botan to the bone. "Probably trying to figure out ‘why’, right?"

"Yes." He managed to choke out the words, hampered not only by the wires but by fear, as well.

"Hmm." The bitter grimace on Yohji’s face slowly softened into a smile, the snarl faded until he sounded like his usual charming self. Yet the hint of silver remained, and he made no effort to free Botan. "Think about it for a minute." He tapped his right forefinger against his temple, for the all the world appearing as if he was having a normal conversation. "What you just asked, I mean."

Botan struggled to breathe and choked some more, letting out a wheezing breath when the wires slowly relaxed. "I… you, hunting down another wizard…." What had he said that had provoked Yohji to such violence?

"You asked that *Aya* hunt down another wizard." Yohji’s smile remained in place, though there was a note of anger in his voice for a moment. "Oh, not any wizard," he continued when Botan did not know what to say. "A wizard who suspected that Reno, a *dubhach*, was something special enough to mark him. A wizard who probably has a good idea what to look for when hunting a dubhach or kage."

The wires suddenly let go; before Botan’s feet could touch the ground he was flying through the air again, this time propelled by Yohji until he slammed against a wall. "Yohji!"

The smile was still on Yohji’s handsome face, one of the most disturbing things in this encounter. "Botan." Even worse, he sounded as pleasant as always, not even a hint of a growl in his voice. "Explain to me what would make a normally brilliant man be *stupid* enough to suggest that I let Aya anywhere near a wizard like that."

His back afire with pain and his head aching as much from recent events as from the hit against the wall, Botan struggled for something to day. Yet words escaped him, as did logic, until he could only shake his head. "Sorry."

"Ah, I’m sure you are." Ever so politely, Yohji let his feet touch the ground and supported him until he could stand on his own, then helped him to straighten out his robes. "You are an old friend and someone I’ve always felt that I could trust," he said, and this time his voice finally lacked its normal warmth. "So today, I’ll consider this a mistake made over your concern to catch a dangerous wizard." He lifted Botan’s chin so they looked directly at each other. "But if you ever again think that you can use Aya as some sort of bloodhound to track down or deal with *anyone* who might have an idea of what he truly is, I’ll snap your neck without any hesitation. Is that clear?"

This was Yohji threatening him, the young man he had watched grow up, Miyuki’s beloved son who had followed her into the Guard. The young man whom he had despaired over after the attempt on the king’s life, the man he viewed with growing respect and awe in the past year. Someone he always considered to be a friend, someone who could be trusted to keep his word and be there for those he cared about. Witty, carefree Yohji, who loved teasing those closest to him. Right now, he terrified Botan.

It was all he could do to nod in understanding. "Good." Yohji stepped back, the silver slowly fading from his eyes. "Never endanger Aya again, be it by accident or not. The next time you think of a mission for us, carefully consider just how much a threat it could be to him." When Botan nodded again, Yohji offered him a sad smile. "I’ll forget that you even offered us this mission." That was all he said, his voice uncharacteristically quiet as he stared intently at Botan. When he felt that his point had been made, he left the room, just as quietly.

It took Botan a few minutes before he could leave as well, his limbs trembling from pain and shock. His back felt as if every inch of it were bruised and he guessed that he should count himself lucky that it was unbroken, his head hurt and there was ache in his chest as he wondered if he had just destroyed the friendship he shared with Yohji.

Finding Cassandra standing out in the hallway with a basket in her hands was not much of a surprise, not after what he had just been through. She said nothing as she offered him a shoulder for support and helped him down to the hot spring – which was locked, of all things, and of course she had the key. Silence prevailed as she undid the belt around his waist and helped with the rest of his clothes, her hands gentle as she washed him off as quickly as possible. It only took a couple of minutes before he was sitting in the circular pool of hot, mineral-heavy water. He prayed to the gods that it supplied its usual healing magic.

Cassandra removed her slippers and sat on the edge of the tub across from him, her skirts folded up so she could put her legs in the roiling water. "I’ve some creams that should help once you’re done with your soak, and some tea as well." Her soft voice was as sad as her expression.

"Thank you." Botan let out a weary sigh and slouched a little farther down on the bench. "You knew?"

She shrugged at the question, hands busy twisting her hair into a bun. "I saw enough to know that you’d do something to upset Yohji, and remembered your message about the wizard." Her head tilted to the side as she examined him intently. "You fared… rather well."

Botan found himself laughing at that, and swearing to never speak to a bound again in the Koneko’s office – he did not want to think what would happen the third time he angered a bound in there considering how the previous two times had turned out. "And you didn’t bother with a warning this time, either?" As much as he feared for his relationship with Yohji, he had to wonder what was going on with the one he shared with Cassandra.

His lover was quiet for a good minute, her attention seemingly focused on the water as she kicked her feet back and forth. "To you, Yohji is human. You’ve known him since he was a child, a *human* child. Even when his true nature became known to himself and others… he acts more human than any of us." She looked up finally, her expression even sadder than before. "Part of you knows that he is a bound, but that pattern, that habit of seeing him as human remains. As much as it pained me to let you come here today and ask that question, it had to be done."

As he stared back, her appearance changed. One minute she was the young-appearing, beautiful woman he loved, another the one in late middle age whom he had first met. Then young again, with glowing eyes and fangs for teeth, her delicate hands held up to reveal sharp claws. The next, she was not even human, but a demon, a gaki, so real that he trembled in fear. Then she was herself again, yet the claws were still there, the teeth whiter and sharper than his own, that glow still in her beautiful grey eyes.

"You know that many of us are bounds," she continued with more force behind her words than before. "Yet you think of us as human first, then demon. For many of us, that’s not the case. For Yohji… his human nature is a terribly thin veneer over his demon soul. Only for the tampering that Schuldig and I did does he seem more human than most, but that is merely an ingrained habit for him. The longer he is bound to Aya, the weaker that habit will become."


Her words reverberated around the stone walls of the bathing chamber, a reminder of the hiss in Aya’s voice – and now Yohji’s, from time to time. Botan considered those words with care, all that was said and even what was not.


Cassandra was correct in that he tended to think of Yohji as human more times than not. Oh, he knew not to mention Aya’s blood and its usefulness for magic, or to try to get between the two men whenever they became intimate, but those were relatively little things. How long ago was it when he had chided Birman for not considering their bound natures and how it affected them? He was certain that his friend would never make the mistake that he had today.

"Thank you," he said after a moment’s pause. As soon as the words were out, Cassandra hurried around the tub to sit by him, her hands gentle on his shoulders.

"I’m sorry, I truly am, but the wrong mistake at the worst time…." She sucked in her breath then rested her head against his. "Better this reaction than another."

"Yes. I could have mistakenly threatened Yohji in front of Aya." Botan patted her hands, grateful that the hot water was already relieving the pain in his back, arms and neck.

The sound Cassandra made was not quite a laugh. "Oh no! I fear you would need much more than a soak and some ointment after that."


They both were quiet for several minutes, until he decided that the water could do no more good for his back. "About that ointment…."

"Yes." Cassandra’s strength belied her small body, and she helped him out of the pool with ease. Once he was standing, she gently dried him off and then began to rub a lotion smelling of eucalyptus and other potent herbs onto his back. "This for now, and when we get back home, I’ll give you a massage. By tomorrow you should be fine."

"I hope so, because if Birman finds out about this, she’ll never let me forget it." He sighed as he pulled on his robe. "Not that I’ll need to be reminded." As long as he lived, he doubted he had ever forget that mix of Yohji’s charming smile and cold voice, the utterly inhuman eyes that had looked back at him with no emotion whatsoever.

Cassandra wrapped her arms around him in a tender hug. "Don’t be afraid of him, please," she whispered, her voice trembling with pain. "He knows it wasn’t deliberate, and now that his point is made, he won’t bear any grudge. All he did was what his nature drove him to do."

That was a bit of a lie – Botan knew that Yohji would brook no threat to his mate and that he was damn lucky to get out of things with a sore back and a headache. "I won’t." He would remember that Yohji was indeed a friend and that he had deserved such a harsh lesson. "Speaking of Yohji, where is he?" Despite his resolve, he would rather not face the man until he was certain enough time had passed for Yohji’s temper to cool down.

"I saw him head upstairs." Cassandra walked around until they faced each other. "I don’t believe he’ll be leaving his bedroom anytime soon."

"No, not considering his nature." If anything, Botan would have to worry about *Aya’s* temper the next time they met, if the kage was interrupted in the middle of a good book to appease Yohji’s demon soul. Yet with Cassandra’s arms around him and the sweet smile for his sake, he could find some humor in the situation. "Too bad Yohji’s not as fond of almond cookies as Aya."

Cassandra laughed and grasped his right hand, quickly threading their fingers together. "No, but he does have a fondness for whiskey, so we’ll stop by a shop I know tomorrow." The sorrow was gone from her eyes, which sparkled with happiness once more. He could still see the hints of demon in her, but she was the woman he loved and he trusted her with all his heart. He would just have to pay better attention to that demon soul, and those of his friends, from now on.

"Promise me this," he said as they made their way upstairs. "I’d rather avoid such painful lessons in the future, if possible."

She seemed to consider that for a moment. "If I can temper what fate has in store for you in that regard, I will." The sadness returned for a few seconds. "Unfortunately, the gods often have other things in mind."

"Yes." He lifted their entwined hands and gave her fingers a kiss. "Maybe we should stop by a few temples tomorrow, as well."

Appearing pleased with the thought of spending most of the day with him, she smiled, as lovely and cheerful as always, which did just as much if not more to ease the pain he felt as the soak in the hot spring.

*******

Body still tingling with the aftershocks of ecstasy, Aya lay unmoving on the bed while Yohji wiped him clean with a damp cloth. He was a little more tired than usual; Yohji had drained a lot of energy from him tonight, but he said nothing. Right now his mate was calm and happy, a distinct contrast to how he had been before storming into their room and initiating a rather… fervent bout of sex.

As if reading his thoughts, Yohji stretched out next to him, left hand stroking along his chest as energy trickled back into him. Opening his eyes, Aya looked at his lover, right hand trembling only a little as he reached out to tuck back the wavy blond strands that fell onto Yohji’s handsome face. He smiled when his lover began to purr, eyes drifting shut once more as he enjoyed the moment, the scent of both of then heavy on the air, his body utterly relaxed and Yohji’s love pouring into him.

Long fingers caressed his neck, which throbbed slightly with each beat of his heart. "Mine."

"You’re such a possessive idiot," Aya mumbled in response to that one word, shifting about a little at the intense emotion that flowed across their link. Part of him thrilled at that possessiveness, while another part wanted to shove Yohji’s hand aside and insist that he was *no one’s*. The fact that the latter was untrue, that he belonged just as much to his mate as Yohji did to him, kept him still.

Yohji chuckled, as he often did whenever Aya called him an idiot. "Guilty as charged." He shifted on the bed, and Aya felt warm lips brush against his bruised neck. "But you still love me, right?"

"Hmph." Aya gave his mate’s hair a quick tug and said nothing, allowing what he felt to speak instead. He loved Yohji with every last bit of his strength, and knew that would never change. Proof of that was how he bore with the caresses and his mate’s obvious need to ‘mark’ him tonight, as if to show to the world whom he belonged to. No, not when he had felt such a strong surge of fury and protectiveness earlier, when Yohji’s need to hold him close and prove the bond between them had been so blatant during their lovemaking. "Are you going to tell me what happened?" he asked, voice quiet and calm, in no way demanding an answer.

His throat was nuzzled for several seconds, then Yohji pulled away enough to lay back down on the bed. Strong arms wrapped around Aya and urged him onto his side so Yohji could press against him, holding him close. "Uhm, no?"

Aya sighed at the uncertainty in his lover’s tone, all too easily sensing the unease that Yohji felt. "All right." For once, he would not pry, content with the belief that whatever had caused such a strong reaction was now resolved. He would hate having to explain himself if the situation were reversed, and he trusted Yohji. The fact that he had not been drained dry helped to keep him from growing angry as well, a clear sign that the ‘idiot’ had learned an important lesson or two.

"Are we going to spend the night up here?" he asked after a moment of comfortable silence. If they were, then whatever had happened must have been pretty bad.

Yohji grumbled something beneath his breath, his hands gentle as they stroked up and down Aya’s chest. "I guess we could go down for something to eat once the dinner rush is over." He snuggled closer to Aya’s back, and warm air against the nape of his neck made Aya shiver. "Unless you’re hungry now, that is."

That was not the case, and if by some chance Aya grew hungry before things calmed down in the kitchen, he could always enjoy a tin or two of almond cookies. What mattered the most was spending some time with the man he loved, ensuring that whatever had bothered Yohji so much was a threat no longer. So he shook his head, feeling sleepy enough that he did not bother saying anything else.

Besides, the part of him that made him want to purr at the contact and the marks on his neck was happy right now, proud of how Yohji had dealt with a possible danger. No matter that Aya could look after himself or that he hated to feel as if he was being treated as a fragile possession, that he could entrust Yohji with his safety was very important. The time may come when they only had each other to rely upon, and there were many areas where they needed to be equals. Not being able to protect the other might cost them their lives.

If there was one thing that Aya realized he longed for more and more each day, it was to have as many years as possible to spend with Yohji. To have gone from longing for death to a burning desire to live… at times, he wondered if Ran had been an entirely different person, he had changed so much since taking on his sister’s name.

"Hey, none of whatever that is or else I’ll really do something stupid. Would much rather you be mad at me than upset," Yohji mumbled as he nuzzled behind Aya’s left ear.

"I’ll remind you of that the next time you make me angry." Aya reached behind to tangle his fingers in his lover’s thick hair. "And I’m not that upset, I swear. Just… thinking about how much things have changed." He paused for a moment before continuing, his voice quiet but tone contemplative. "For the better."

Yohji’s chuckle was too pleased for words. "Of course, since you have me now. Things can only keep on getting better." His loud laughter filled the room when Aya gave his hair a couple of gentle tugs.

"You’re an-"

"Idiot." Yohji finished the familiar phrase for him and gave him a lingering kiss on the nape of the neck. "And, as *I* always say, ‘yes, but I’m your idiot’." He chuckled again, this time the sound low and seductive. "So who’s the possessive one now, hmm?"

Aya snorted at that comment and rolled over to face his mate. "Can’t we just consider it a tie and save me from kicking you out of bed?" He smiled at Yohji’s exaggerated shudder in fear.

"Such a smart Cat." Yohji reached for Aya’s hip and pulled him closer. "Then again, you’d have to be in order to realize what a catch I was."

This time, Aya did not get a chance to show his derision, not when he found himself being kissed with a passionate intensity that made him moan in delight. It seemed that Yohji had not quite gotten over what had bothered him earlier, after all. Aya would make a point of finding out the reason for this behavior… once things ‘calmed’ down. Before the pleasure took over, he idly thought that he probably would not have the energy to go downstairs for dinner after all.

*******

Yuushi set the pitcher of beer on the table and sat across from his best friend. The knowing smile on Reiichi’s face made him want to snatch the pitcher back up and drink all of its contents in one go. "Can we get this over with as quickly as possible?"

Both of them had been very busy the last few days, and Reiichi had never been one to rush through something that he well intended to savor. Yuushi had enjoyed the brief reprieve, but now it was time to get this out of the way.

"They should be at the border by now," Reiichi calmly remarked, the grin slipping for a moment, probably over the thought of the danger that two friends were now facing.

"Yes." Yuushi said nothing else until he poured himself a drink and took a sip, all the while forming a prayer in his head and sending it to whatever gods would listen. "They’ve the rings and a pouch full of charms, not to mention that they are two of the Guard’s best. They should be fine." He hated how it was clear to even him that he was doing his best to rationalize away any fears. Then he hated how the tactic failed.

Reiichi bowed his head for a moment. "The mission is a very important one; Crawford would not send them if he thought they might fail." He stared at Yuushi for several seconds. "They’ll be back soon enough."

"I hope so." Yuushi had told himself much the same – that Crawford would send those who would complete the mission rather than risk failure, and the precog most definitely wanted those four ‘cousins’ in Kritiker as soon as possible. Considering the recent debriefings that covered the devastation that flooding had done in various communities, Yuushi wanted them here as well. The damage should have been worse than it was, but the king was careful not to reveal that fact and had ordered as much food and grain as possible to be imported from other countries. There would soon be special delegates from Xan, Thracia and Cretia visiting Eto to discuss the increase in trade.

As it was, Yuushi was busy dealing with the Shadow Guard and doing his best to locate all the bounds who were keeping the flooding to a minimum. Blair spent most of his time sending out word amongst bounds who could be trusted that the king wanted whoever was responsible for preserving the many farming communities and Kritiker’s food supply to receive compensation of some sort; the bounds in the Shadow Guard had made it clear that such efforts would require a lot of time and energy, and Yuushi agreed with Birman in that those bounds deserved protection as well. Crawford had let slip the other week that at some point before the war started, Esset would grow desperate enough to stage raids into Kritiker to build up its army.

With Blair occupied with the elemental bounds, Eri had been filling in for the adjunct – and just like that, Yuushi’s thoughts were back on the woman. He sighed into his mug of beer before draining it half dry.

As sharp as ever, Reiichi picked up on his change of mood. "As I said, they’ll be back soon enough." He set his own beer aside and sat up straight, hands clasped together in front of him on the table. "What will you do then?"

"Hmm, what do you mean?" Yuushi asked, hoping to stall for a little time before he faced this topic. All the pathetic attempt gained him was a dramatic rolling of the eyes on his friend’s part.

"What’s going to happen with you and Eri, hmm?" Reiichi asked, for once not dancing around a topic. "Don’t tell me you’ll take back that rather passionate kiss. There were witnesses, I’ll have you know." He sounded very pleased about that last bit.

Yuushi wondered if he could come up with some sort of mission to send the man somewhere for the next year or two, but knew that Birman and Aya would protest. "I can hardly forget about the witnesses part," he grumbled before admitting to himself that it had been his own fault. He had hoped to pull Eri aside before she had left and speak to her for a few minutes, but Botan running late with the spells had ruined that plan.

"Do you regret it?" Reiichi asked, the question spoken so softly that it took a few seconds for the words to sink in.

Shaking his head, Yuushi reached for the pitcher to refill his mug. "No, I don’t." He stared at the creamy foam of his beer while he put his thoughts together and then sighed. "Well, I wish I’d held off a little longer… but the mission made me realize that I haven’t thought of Eri as just a friend and coworker for a while now. I didn’t want to live with regret should something happen." Which, the gods willing, would not. They owed him a little bit of happiness, after all, taking away his parents at a young age then sticking him with Kikyou as a boss.

Reiichi laughed and refilled his mug as well. At Yuushi’s glare, he shook his head in an attempt to downplay his display of humor at the serious topic. "I’m just laughing at how ridiculous it is to expect things to proceed in a rational manner at this time." He waved his hand in the direction of the kitchen, where Yohji and Aya were enjoying their dinner. "I fear that things aren’t going to make much sense for a good while, so it’s best to just do what you have to do and accept it."

The man was too damn wise for his own good, Yuushi thought to himself. Reiichi usually saw to the heart of the matter, that clear insight often making those around him rather uncomfortable. That Reiichi would also say what most people did not want to hear… yet Yuushi liked that about him. Well, most of the time. "Do you think I made a mistake?" he finally asked, trusting in his best friend’s opinion.

Reiichi hummed for a few seconds, eyes unfocused as he considered the question. Fortunately, it did not take him long to come up with an answer. "No." He flashed a comforting smile as he wrapped his hands around his mug of beer. "You’ve never been anyone to let your feelings affect your job, not when it matters. And Eri is quite the catch, if I say so myself. A lovely, intelligent woman who seems to have a fondness for you." There was only the slightest hint of teasing in Reiichi’s tone and smile just then, and Yuushi knew he was lucky to get off so lightly.

While he was not too sure about how it would work, dating a subordinate, he took some comfort in the fact that, once it was official business, he could usually distance himself from his emotions when necessary. That had been part of the reason he had picked Blair as his adjunct in the first place, already aware that he was attracted to Eri. But-

He did not have much time to linger on any doubts he felt. "We are well aware of what the future will bring," Reiichi said, his earnest voice cutting into Yuushi’s thoughts. "I say you find whatever happiness you can now." His expression was unusually somber, the words spoken with obvious conviction.

Unable to speak for a minute, Yuushi nodded then finished his beer. That was part of what had driven him to kiss Eri, to risk so much to see how it felt to give in to that longing. Whatever his doubts, that kiss had been worth it, as had Eri kissing him back. When she returned, they would have to figure out what to do with their feelings in respect to their jobs, but dammit, he was willing to take the chance. Too much could happen in the next few years that would leave him with so many regrets; being more than friends with Eri would not be one of them.

"So, Naru has Elise and I may now have Eri, so where does that leave you?" he asked to put an end to the silence and the seriousness of the conversation. Somehow, he was not surprised at all when his friend gave him a very mysterious smile.

"Maybe I have someone in mind," was all that Reiichi said, that smile growing stronger as he stared off at nothing. "But I think I’ll take things slowly, and enjoy for as long as possible being able to tease you and Naru about your respective lady-loves."

Yuushi sputtered on his mouthful of beer, not quite ready to hear ‘love’ just yet. And he had not expected that response from Reiichi, which immediately made him wonder who the lucky woman was. However, judging from the too cheerful look he got in return, he knew better than to pry for any information just yet. No, he would be quiet and just keep his eyes open in hopes of figuring out who it was that had snagged his friend’s attention, and do his best to deflect any teasing on relationships Naru’s way.

*******

Alexis smiled at Gou as the handsome young bound bowed slightly and ushered her into the room, careful not to expose any of her fangs. For a moment she allowed herself to look over the man’s impressive physique, the way ragged brown hair fell onto his strongly featured face – and ignored the shadows beneath the mismatched eyes. The ‘cousins’ had always been very attractive young men, much sought after for more than their pure bloodlines. Even as she was regretful of losing the attention of a skilled lover, she understood why Yuda and his dear friend Ruka had been ensnared by Shin and Rei.

"Can I get you some tea?" Gou asked after a moment’s silence, a bland smile on his face as he motioned for her to sit down on an overly padded chair.

"That would be lovely." She noticed that the room was not the tidiest; at least two pots of tea were already out, one sitting on the table next to her chair, another on the low bookshelf across the room. Those pieces of furniture and several others bore markings of dust, and the candleholders were covered with melted wax as if the candles had just been replaced once the previous ones had melted. Gou appeared to notice her attention and the slightest hint of red colored his cheeks. "Gai, please brew a pot of tea for our guest."

The earth elemental practically jumped into the room from the doorway he had been hovering beyond, a suspicious look on his animated face. His green eyes were bright with hostility and there was a hint of white poking into his bottom lip. Alexis easily ignored the signs of threat and continued to smile, the expression growing more genuine while Gou quietly berated his cousin to remove the dirty dishes from the room and do his best to *not* ruin something as simple as a pot of tea. As he left, Gai was grumbling under his breath about how anyone could confuse teaspoons with tablespoons.

There was no sign of Shin and Rei, which was a bit distressing as Rei was known to be the host out of this particular foursome. Was he still so exhausted that he was stuck in bed? That would make getting the cousins out of Esset that much more difficult, and she had been hoping to use the chance of seeing Ruka as a means to convince the bounds to go. Even if Quatre had assured her after a very careful scan of their thoughts that the cousins were seeking a means of escape, it did not guarantee that they would listen to her and take her help.

"The tea should be ready in a minute," Gou said, his voice deep and reserved. Even with the obvious signs of strain on his face and the wrinkled state of his blue silk tunic, he strove to be a good host. She knew that he wanted to know what she was doing here and then quite possibly toss her out, but he sat across from her, hands folded on his lap and a mostly pleasant expression on his face.

"Thank you." She was just as pleasant, fighting the urge to giggle when she heard the obvious sounds of distress from the kitchen. Perhaps she should skip the tea…. "Your presence has been missed at a few of the functions that have been held recently. Luann asked me to pass on to you that she’s been bored to tears without someone to discuss metalworking with who knows what they’re talking about."

Gou smiled at the mention of the earth elemental who was almost as renowned for her skill at crafting weapons as a Shinra swordsmith – it was the first true emotion he had shown since her arrival. "The last we spoke, we were arguing about what type of hilt is best suited for a short sword." He allowed himself to be distracted with the small talk while Alexis did her best to figure out when to move on to a more serious topic. She spent several minutes learning more about swords than she had ever had before, not being the type to rely upon crafted weapons when she had her own fangs and claws. Fortunately, the topic seemed to put the fire elemental at ease.

That was, until they once more had company; Gai returned with a tray bearing a pot of tea, several cups and what looked to be a plate of petit fours, and Rei, wearing a robe made out of soft, cream-colored fabric, was right beside him. Gou was on his feet in an instant, rushing to his cousin’s side and urging Rei to sit down on the couch. "You should go back to bed," he hissed, the half-smile from moments before utterly gone and replaced with concern.

Rei laughed softly and brushed aside the lavender strands falling onto his pretty face. "Nonsense, there is no way I’d leave a poor guest to deal with you and Gai." He looked at Alexis while he motioned for Gai to set the tray down on the table in front of him. "You were talking about fighting or weapons, were not you?" With his head tilted to the side, long hair framing his face and eyes half-lidded, he looked more like a woman than a man, his soft voice doing little to break the illusion. Yet Alexis had heard stories of how Rei had fought to protect Shin and Ruka, and knew that anyone who thought of him as too feminine to be a threat was wrong. Then again, many people had learned the painful way that she being petite in stature did not mean she was unable to tear them to shreds if sufficiently motivated.

"We were discussing swords," she admitted with a slight bow, followed by a smile as she accepted a cup of tea from the young bound. "But to be fair, I was the one to bring up the topic."

"Ah." Rei nodded in understanding and continued to pour more tea, his hands shaking all the while.

"I was being polite and letting the lady set the discussion," Gou replied, a frown on his face as he accepted some tea. "It seemed more proper than demanding to know why she is here." Now that Rei had joined them, he did not seem to care so much about niceties.

Alexis did not mind that at all, not when she now felt she had a chance to get these men to listen to her. "Well, the official reason I am here is to do my best to convince you of how fulfilling it is to involve yourself in the procreation of new life." She sipped her tea as she let that bit of nonsense sink in, pleasantly surprised by its taste. "Oh, this is delicious."

Gai was staring at her with plain confusion, Rei with his eyes narrowed slightly in either anger or suspicion, and Gou with open contemplation. "The official reason?" he asked, taking charge as he often did when it came to matters concerning the cousins.


"Yes, that’s the reason I’ll tell anyone when asked why I visited you," she explained, pausing for a dramatic moment to reach for a petit four. Quatre had put his talent to good use to have one of the Elders’ assistants approach her with that ‘suggestion’, the best excuse they could come up with for her to visit. Considering the deception she was involved in right now with Quatre, it was rather inspired. "My compliments on the dessert as well," she said, mouth flooded with the taste of strawberries and cream.

"Thank you," Rei bowed, his slight frame trembling a little as if he had difficulty with his balance. "I’ll give you more if you tell us the real reason you’re here."

"Certainly." Again careful not to reveal her fangs, Alexis smiled and set the teacup aside. For a moment she debated asking if Shin could be present, then felt it might make the cousins feel even more on edge. "I’m here to offer you my help," she said, trying not to be too blunt and provoke outright hostility.

The cousins exchanged looks with each other before returning their attention to her. "Why would we need your help? You’re a flesh gaki bound, unable to affect the weather." Gou spoke the words slowly, as if to not cause offense or to stall for time.

Ah well, there seemed little else to do but cut to the heart of the matter. "I’m not here about the weather, but to make sure that you escape from Esset." Even as she sat there, back straight, hands resting on her lap and ankles crossed beneath her long black skirt, she prepared herself for any sort of attack.

Judging from the way the air grew heated and agitated, she had provoked a response from the younger bounds, but no outright attack, thank the gods. Rei held out his hand as if to keep Gai from moving, while Gou’s fists clenched as if he wanted to pummel something. They might be young, but they were not idiots, which meant that it should not take too much effort to make them see reason. "After all, I’ve some skill in doing just that," she continued, her voice as even as possible as she tried to placate the bounds. "Yuda and Ruka were very grateful for the help I gave them."

Mention of those two caused another reaction; Rei cried out as if in pain, his hands flying to his temples while Gou snarled and Gai jumped from the couch. However, the earth elemental did not launch himself at Alexis, rather he ran out of the room while Gou looked ready to burn her to ash. "That is not funny," he growled, leaving his chair to give comfort to Rei.

The wind elemental pushed aside his cousin’s hands and glared at Alexis. "This better not be a joke or a trap!" The air around him stirred, causing strands of his long hair to fan out around him.

"Don’t say anything else!" Gou hissed, his mismatched eyes almost blazing with anger. "We don’t think this is very amusing, and it would be a good idea if you leave," he told Alexis, deep voice rumbling with fury and hatred.

"I don’t believe that you’re-"

"Let her explain," a soft voice said, making Alexis stop what she was trying to say as soon as she heard it. Everyone turned to watch Shin walk into the room, his left arm draped over Gai’s shoulders for support. Like Rei, he was dressed in a robe as if just out of bed, its white color highlighting the pallor of his skin.

"Shin!" Rei pushed aside Gou and went to his cousin, hands fluttering around as if to assure him by touch that the water elemental was all right. Shin smiled as he captured them, holding them to his chest and whispering too quietly for Alexis to hear. From what she could tell, Gai’s arm around his waist was the only thing keeping him on his feet just then, and his eyes were slightly glazed as if he suffered from a bad fever.

Not looking much better himself, Rei helped his cousin to the couch and continued to fuss over him, pouring him tea and urging him to drink. Meanwhile, Gou divided his glares between Alexis and Gai, who both managed innocent smiles in the face of such virulence. The fire elemental finally settled his anger on Gai. "What were you thinking?"

"That Shin should be here for this!" Gai growled, looking utterly furious for all of ten seconds, before his expression turned sheepish. "That and he was already out of bed," he admitted in a quieter tone.

"I want to know what’s going on," Shin explained, a teacup perched precariously on his right knee while his left hand settled the small glasses he wore on his nose. He stared evenly at Gou for a few seconds before looking to Alexis. "Yuda told me about you." Unlike his cousins’, his tone was quiet and thoughtful, and only the extreme sadness in his eyes betrayed his true feelings. "He cared a great deal for you." He motioned with his left hand to the quartz necklace that she wore. "That was a gift."

"Yes." Alexis rubbed her fingers over the large stone warmed by her own body heat. A sad smile curved her lips as she thought about the gift. "It was a solstice present." She had made an offhand remark at how it had been years since anyone had given her jewelry, and he had surprised her with the necklace the following winter solstice. Yuda had known her well enough to realize that she did not care for the flashier stones, instead finding the quartz himself and having it cut just for her. He had been like that – always striving to give the people he cared about what they truly wanted or needed. "He also gave me something else." The sadness she felt grew as she reached into the pocket cleverly sewn into the black skirt and pulled out a letter that she had kept hidden for the last few years. Now all she had of Yuda were memories and the necklace, but her friend deserved to have his mate by his side after all this time. Besides, now there was hope that they would cross paths again in the future. "It’s for you."

Gou snatched the letter from her as she held it out Shin, and the three cousins gave him disproving looks while he held it up to the sunlight that came through the room’s windows. Some of the sadness turned to respect and amusement at the way he insisted on protecting his cousins, so she put several of the small cakes on a plate and settled back in her chair to enjoy them while they read the letter.

Shin cleared his throat, causing a flustered Gou to hand over the letter. Rei was practically draped over his left shoulder as he opened it, while Gou and Gai focused all their attentions on the two men as if to judge their reactions.

There was silence save for the crackling of thick paper as Shin smoothed it out, followed by the water elemental inhaling sharply as he read. She thought she saw his eyes glimmer with tears for a minute, but he managed to control his emotions enough for them to not spill free. Beside him, it was clear that Rei read along as well, the look of pain growing stronger on his face until he hid it against the crook of his cousin’s neck.

When Shin lowered the letter to his lap, Gou snatched it free and read it, Gai perched on the arm of the chair beside him. What looked to be hope flashed across his face for a few heartbeats, quickly to be replaced by suspicion. "How do we know this is real?"

Gai hissed like an angry cat and smacked his cousin on the back of the head. "Why do you have to go and ruin everything!"

"Gai." Shin did not say the name very loudly, just enough to get the earth elemental’s attention. "Whoever wrote that letter knew things that I would swear were only known to Yuda and me," he explained to Gou, his left hand clutching Rei’s right one tightly.

"Besides, what’s the worst that can happen if it’s a trap?" Gai asked as he practically bounced on the arm’s chair, looking like a child with the huge grin on his face and the rumpled state of his white tunic and pants. "Can’t be worse than if we take a chance to get out of here."

The other three bounds stared at him, their expressions incredulous, and then Rei began to laugh, once more hiding his face in the crook of Shin’s neck. That left the water elemental and Gou to look each other, appearing as if they were exchanging thoughts, and Gou let out a long sigh. As he turned to face Alexis, Shin closed his eyes and slumped against Rei in evident pain.

Gou studied her intently for a long moment before he nodded. "Do I need to go into a long speech about burning you to ash if you dare to betray us?"

"I’d rather you didn’t," Alexis admitted, careful to wipe her hands on one of the napkins that Gai had brought out. "There’s also no need for it as my offer is genuine." She let her gaze linger on Shin, her heart contracting at the expression of longing and pain that he wore. "Yuda was a good friend and only ever asked one thing from me. If I can honor that request and give him the joy he deserves, I’ll be content." She knew that she did not completely mask the sadness in her voice, but Gou did not push her for an explanation. She did not have many friends these last few decades, not when she had learned that being a very powerful bound meant that anyone close to her was often subjected to the machinations of others intent on proving their worth to the Elders. For a few seconds, that sadness turned to hatred; when had things become so twisted? There had been so many bounds, herself included, who had come here in hopes of building a safe place for their kind. The Elders had seemed to want the same thing, yet the last couple of decades had seen that hope become a terrible parody of their original dreams. Too many people now believed that any price was acceptable, as long as Esset won the upcoming war – that things would become better after that. Yuda and Ruka had been among the first to point out the shameful things done to ‘strengthen’ Esset, and had paid a very high price for their honesty.

Alexis had not been prepared to run away with them, preferring to stay here and limit the damage however she could, to know that there was at least one person in place to do their best to stop the Elders if worse came to worst. Even then, she had regretted leaving the two men on their own, and now… now she had hopes of repaying Yuda for his friendship and concern, as well as a chance to fix something that the Elders had done their best to break. Unlike almost three years ago, she had hope now that she *could* fix things, had found people she trusted who shared her goals. Once again she had be staying behind and facing the risk that went with that, but it did not matter. This time, she had so much more hope than back then.

Tucking the hair that tickled her left cheek behind her ear, she smiled at Gou. "I swear that I will forsake all light and joy, will accept never-ending darkness and pain if I dare to betray the four of you. I will see you into the safe hands of people whom you can trust, who will reunite you with Yuda and Ruka." She put all the conviction that she could into the words, looking at each of the cousins in turn as she spoke. As if feeling the weight of her gaze upon him, Shin straightened up and opened his eyes, so solemn and quiet yet just as determined as she was.

Nobody said anything for what had to be a couple of minutes, and then Rei clapped his hands together. "Well, the oath is very impressive and I have all faith in you, but I don’t see how either thing will get out us of Berin." He tilted his head to the side until it rested against Shin’s. "We need more practical things for that, like disguises and horses and maybe a nice big bag of gold."

Gou shook his head, a true smile on his face that made him appear younger than he had a few minutes ago. "You make a very good point." He turned to Alexis, hope shining in his mismatched eyes. "What can you do for us? We will do whatever we have to, but…" He motioned slightly toward Shin and Rei, then with more emphasis at the room around them.

Taking that last gesture to mean that they had limited resources, Alexis smiled and leaned forward to pour herself more tea, shaking her head when Rei apologized and offered to pour it instead. "No, I can do this. As for what is needed…." She considered what she had discussed with Quatre and Wufei the other night. "It’s not just me who is involved in this, you must understand." She met Gou’s eyes and gave him a reassuring smile. "There are others who owe Yuda favors, as well as people who you can trust that want the Elders’ best means of controlling the weather safely out of their hands." It was a bit of a gamble, admitting that last bit, but she sensed that Gou and the others would accept help from strangers if they knew why it was being offered. "Two people are on their way right now to see you to Kritiker."

The cousins did another round of enquiring glances, and this time it was Shin who spoke. "Will we be exchanging one prison for another?"

Alexis laughed at the question, sparking anger from Gai and Gou. "Do you truly think that Yuda and Ruka would let that happen?" she asked, her tone gentle. "I believe with all my heart and both souls that you will be free once you reach Kritiker." Quatre believed the same, and he knew Crawford much better than she did.

Shin nodded in agreement. "Thank you." He still clutched Rei’s right hand, and it was heartbreaking to look at the two of them, so desperate to hope yet afraid to do just that.

Setting aside her tea, Alexis slowly rose to her feet. "I’m afraid I don’t have much to tell you right now, but more information will be forthcoming." She allowed no doubt to enter her voice, wanting to convince the four bounds and put their fears to rest. "My advice is to rest as much as you can, and to pack lightly. The people who Yuda’s friend has sent for you will be arriving soon, and they will handle getting you out of Esset." As much as she would like to be able to tell them more, there was too much at stake to do so. If anyone suspected what was going to happen….

Gou rose to his feet as if to escort her to the door. "We’ll all rest up, even if I have to tie a person or two to their beds." Judging from the rueful smile on Shin’s face and the indignant look on Rei’s, there was no doubt who he was talking about. "And…." Gou actually blushed and ducked his head. "It seems I am interested in what you have to say." He glanced back at his cousins. "After all, it would be best if at least one of us was back in the Elders’ good graces. Yet I’m not very familiar with most of the bounds here." The guileless expression on his face was almost enough to convince Alexis that he was serious about the initial matter that had brought her to their door.

Pleased that Gou was able to think so quickly on his feet as well as put on a good act, she bowed her head a few inches. "It’s very understandable. Perhaps you should attend a party or two with me so I can make some introductions." That would give them the perfect excuse to speak to each other, as well as ensure the Elders that at least one or two of the cousins were willing to ‘behave’.

"You have my thanks." He reached out to give her shoulder a lingering squeeze, and she felt another constriction in her chest at the gratitude on his face.

"Just be free of here," she whispered. As long as Yuda had his mate by his side finally, then she would not care one bit about the risk she took. And once the two bounds were together, perhaps she could finally move past the man and find a new lover of her own. Ah, but powerful succubae bounds did spoil a person, she thought with a small smile. It was a shame that from what she had been told, most of them seemed to be finding mates of their own. She would just have to settle for a man who filled her with joy, then.

Leaving the cousins to make their plans, she hummed as she went on her way back to her quarters, the quartz stone clutched in her hand.

*******

Shin sat cross-legged on his bed, a long white ribbon in his right hand. He could still recall the day that Yuda had given it to him, the feel of his love’s fingers stroking through his hair as it was pulled back and bound. He shivered at the memory, both in longing and pain; the compulsion was powerful enough that even recalling the past provoked a headache. Yet he gladly bore with the pain, as memories were all he had these last couple of years.

At least, all he would have for just a little longer. Opening his eyes, he looked around the room at all the things that would be left behind. His cousins had agreed that it would be best if they took as little as possible, both to ensure that they did not weigh their horses down as they fled Esset as well as to sow some confusion in their wake. If it looked as if they had not planned their escape, perhaps it would be thought that they had been abducted by Kritiker or Xanian spies.

That meant he would have to leave his harp behind, and there was a dull ache of pain at that thought. How many nights had he played it, first for his cousins and then for Yuda? His love had given him the ribbon to keep his hair from entangling with the harp’s strands, and he knew that Yuda loved to hear him play. He told himself there would be other harps, what mattered was seeing the man he cherished once more.


It had felt as if his heart had been torn out of his chest when Yuda had left, a wound that never healed. He had been incomplete these last couple of years, yet he knew it had been the right thing to stay behind. All that he wanted was Yuda safely away, and there was no way they could have escaped together when he could not bear the succubae bound’s touch for more than a few seconds.

Alexis had assured Gou that the compulsions that had split him from Yuda and kept Rei from communicating with Ruka would be broken. To be able to touch Yuda again, to truly be lovers…. Shin hissed in agony and clutched at his head as desire raced through his weakened body.

Soothing hands stroked through his hair, and for a moment he thought they belonged to Yuda. Then he heard Rei’s soft voice and almost cried, heartbroken once again. No, he would never be more than half-alive until he was back with Yuda.

"You’re burning up." Rei gathered his unbound hair, and for a moment Shin thought his dear cousin would reach for the ribbon in his hand. No one but Yuda could bind his hair with it, and he began to struggle to break free when something soft brushed against his neck. "Hush, it’s one of my own," Rei explained, so close to him that he could guess his thoughts.


"Thank you," Shin whispered. Once his hair was bound back, he accepted a large mug of tea and began to drink, aware that he needed to build up as much strength as possible. Chances were good that his talent would be needed during the escape, and he would give his all if it meant seeing Yuda again.

Rei’s arms wrapped around his shoulders, his cousin a welcome warmth against his back. "Drink all of that, and then I’ve some dinner for you." He poked at Shin’s collarbones, causing Shin to flinch and almost spill his tea. "I won’t have… Yuda can’t say that I starved you, all right?"

"I know." Shin sighed and tilted his head until it rested against Rei’s. "But you have to eat as well. Ruka’s not going to like sleeping with a bag of bones." He smiled at Rei’s indignant gawk at that jab.

"He’ll sleep with me even if I’m as skinny as you or as fat as… ohhh!" Rei poked him again, but his anger melted into laughter. "I don’t care what he thinks, I’ll hit him over the head and drag him off to bed."

"Somehow, I doubt you’ll have to do that." Shin patted his cousin’s arms and resumed drinking, a little jealous over the thought that Rei and Ruka had at least been able to be lovers. This time, there would be nothing keeping him from Yuda, he swore that to himself. They had wasted so much time already.

Cool hands brushed against his forehead once he finished the tea, and Rei sighed with concern. "You need to rest. Let me fetch you some dinner, and then you’re to sleep, okay?" He fussed like a mother hen with a lone chick, so worried that Shin grabbed his cousin’s hand and gave it a grateful squeeze.

"I promise I’ll rest." All he wanted was to be with Yuda again, and spending the agonizing time between then and now sleeping was fine with him. Even if his dreams led to more pain, he would bear with it.

"You better." Rei was quiet for a minute, his arms no longer wrapped around Shin and the empty mug in his hands. "Do you mind if I sleep here tonight?"

"Not at all." Shin caressed his cheek, a soft touch of affection and gratitude. Neither of them could replace the men they loved, but it was comforting to have someone who cared about you holding you close all the same. They had grown up together, sharing the same bed until only a few years ago. Since Ruka and Yuda had gone… they slept together more often than not, aching with loneliness and sadness.

Rei smiled and moved from the bed. "Thank you. I’ll be back soon!" There was a lightness to his step that had not been there just two days ago, and Shin knew it was not from his agreement to share a bed tonight. Ruka might not be his dear cousin’s mate, but Rei loved him with all his heart. Despite the danger in running away, neither he nor Rei gave a damn about the risks as long as there was a chance that they could be whole once again. When they were back with their lovers… Shin’s power flared for a brief moment, the humidity in the air turning into sharp shards of ice before dispersing back into vapor. Whoever was foolish enough to try to tear them apart again would fail, that he swore to himself.

*******

Crawford was in the middle of eating some very delicious grilled trout when Trowa was finally able to join him for the evening. He smiled at his friend, the expression slipping when he noticed the man trailing after Trowa. To be fair, they were mates now, but it was getting very annoying how Duo seemed unwilling to allow Trowa out of his sight whenever they both were not working.

Trowa nodded in greeting, the motion flowing into a graceful shrug which implied that he knew that Duo’s presence was not appreciated, but he had no say in the matter. Crawford doubted that was true since Duo was always so eager to please the water elemental, something he was willing to bet that Trowa took advantage of from time to time.

"Good evening." He pushed his dinner away a couple of inches, and was unsurprised when Duo quickly divvied up the remaining trout on the serving platter onto two clean plates.


"Good evening." Trowa gave his mate a smile in thanks for the food placed before him. "I apologize for us being a little late; we ran into some of Duo’s coworkers." His voice was its usual calm tone, but the expression on his face was tender. Perhaps Trowa was not the only one taking advantage of his mate’s affections.

Duo paused in eating long enough to chuckle a few times. "Sorry, but free drinks are too damn good to pass up." He flashed his teeth before stuffing his mouth with more of the fish, his eyes bright with happiness and his scent mingled with Trowa’s. Somehow, Crawford did not think that the two men were late only because of the Shadow Guard.

However, he made no scathing comment about how they were acting like succubae bounds instead of elemental ones, not when he was pleased by the slight smile on his friend’s face. Trowa had not changed as much as Aya had upon finally bonding with his mate, but the differences were there to anyone who knew him well.

One telling sign was the fact that he actually brushed aside his long bangs while eating, the rest of his hair pulled back into a neat braid and his face mostly exposed. While Crawford was certain that at least half of it would be covered when it came time for the water elemental to leave, it was still rare for Trowa to be this ‘open’ in front of his friends. Yet if Duo was nearby, the hair was tucked aside more often than not.

Another sign was the lack of tension in Trowa’s shoulders; normally, being in a room filled with strangers would make his lean body tense with worry. Crawford did not believe that his friend had completely relaxed his guard while surrounded by humans, but he did not seem coiled tight with tension, either. There was also the fact that he did not even hesitate to sip the wine that Duo poured for him.

Those changes of habit and a few more let Crawford know that Trowa was happy with Duo and finally moving past the horrors of his childhood. Oh, any person foolish enough to force their desire on the water elemental would end up dead, most likely, but Trowa no longer seemed to live in fear that everyone but one or two trusted companions would try to hurt him. He also seemed to finally realize that someone touching him could be a good thing – as long as it was Duo.

Not even Jei could complain about how the fire elemental treated Trowa. Any possible doubts that Duo’s concern for his mate could be dispelled upon seeing the two men together. Even now, a couple of months after they had become lovers, Duo would always initiate any contact with caution. Crawford watched as Duo’s left hand lightly touched Trowa’s right shoulder, the way he paused as if waiting for Trowa to brush aside his hand. When that did not happen, Duo’s smile strengthened and he slid his fingers along Trowa’s back to his left side, hand eventually settling on his lover’s hip and urging him to sit closer. Trowa did just that, his eyes drifting shut for a few seconds as his left hand settled on top of Duo’s.

No, the men were happy together, that much was evident, and Crawford allowed himself a smile of satisfaction that was easily hid behind the rim of his wine glass. Yes, he did meddle with people’s lives and no, he would not stop doing so until well after the war was over. If only Jei, Roy and the others would realize that he had good cause for all that ‘meddling’ and quit their incessant bitching about it, they would have much more energy to devote to fighting Esset. He had done nothing wrong in assisting in Trowa and Duo’s relationship, and neither man would be so content with life if they had become mates back in Berin. An old memory floated through his mind, painful enough to make his smile fade and his glass become empty as he drank all of the wine in two gulps.

"So, not that I’m gonna complain about good food and free drinks, but I doubt you invited us here just for our company," Duo said once the fish was all gone. His tone was mostly light, containing just enough of a growl to warn Crawford that all was not forgiven just yet. Duo still held the slightest of grudges over how certain things had been revealed to him – not against Trowa, which would have gotten his balls bitten off, but against Crawford and Jei. Neither of them truly gave a damn, as long as the fire elemental treated Trowa right and did not do anything to put them all in danger.

Crawford’s left eyebrow became arched as he poured himself more wine. "I don’t recall inviting *you* at all, be it for food or mayhem." His tone was just as light, the anger he felt glowing in his eyes instead as he tilted his head just *so* to stare at Duo. He held the man’s gaze only long enough to make Duo squirm on the bench for a moment, ever mindful of Trowa’s bond with the idiot.

Trowa sighed, the sound loud and annoyed. "I’m a few seconds away from going to the library and staying there until you two stop fighting with each other." Something about his tone, the uncharacteristic quiver of emotion in his voice and the shadows under his deep green eyes made Crawford sit up straighter and set aside the glass of wine.

"I was merely stating a fact," was his calm reply, this time lacking any emotion that might be construed as antagonistic. "That’s not to say you can’t retire to the library if that’s what you want to do."

Appearing uncertain for a moment, Trowa frowned and then shook his head. "Why did you ask me to come tonight?"

Crawford bowed his head in gratitude that his friend focused on work instead of continuing the argument. "I was hoping that you would remain here while I talk to Jared about an important mission." That captured the attention of both elemental bounds. "I believe that a… calming presence will make things go easier," he explained, mindful of anything that would imply that he expected more from his friend than for Trowa to sit there and allow the soothing effect of a water elemental to placate Jared during the discussion.

Despite his care, Duo frowned and hugged Trowa closer, the embrace extremely possessive for a few seconds. "What the hell are you going to ask him, huh?" It was clear that he did not like the thought of Trowa being used in any way, yet he controlled his temper enough to only allow a flash of teeth.

For once, Crawford knew that Duo would not care about any ‘meddling’ on his part. "To do something that will ensure that the weather patterns don’t become any more disturbed than they already are." He guessed that some of Trowa’s exhaustion came from attempting to alter the weather enough to prevent the city from being flooded; Birman always took great care in how much she worked the bounds she hired, now that she was aware that they could be pushed too far.

Both of the elemental bounds were taken back by that statement, even sharing a confused look before focusing on Crawford. "Jared is a flesh gaki bound." Trowa’s voice was soft, as if he did not quite trust the wards that Botan and Omi had set up to ensure that no one eavesdropped on their conversation.

"Yes, he is, and perfectly suited to find and fetch the two men I want him to bring back to Eto."

Despite the many negative things that had been said about Duo – his impulsiveness, his ability to rub most people the wrong way with very little effort, his laziness when faced with a mission he did not like – no one had ever claimed that he was not intelligent. That he could be a blithering idiot at times, yes, but that could be said about anyone. Duo had a brain and, despite what he preferred for most people to think, he did use it. "You’re trying to find Yuda and Ruka, aren’t you?" he asked, eyes intent on Crawford’s face as if to spot any attempt to lie.

"There is no ‘trying’ to it. I have a general idea of where Yuda and Ruka are, and all I need is to send someone to fetch them." Crawford leaned back until his shoulders rested against plastered wall and picked up his glass of wine. "I know you’re already aware of Eri and Naru being sent off to Berin." He waited for his companions to nod before he continued, inwardly delighted at surprising the men. "They’ll be bringing back the cousins."

To anyone who had lived in Berin, all one had to say was ‘the cousins’ and they instantly knew who was being mentioned. Even though the four men were not ‘cousins’ in the literal sense – Shin and Rei were half-brothers, in fact – the Elders had raised them together with the specific intent of forming a close bond between them that would enable them to better control the weather. As a result, Shin, Rei, Gai and Gou had never left the palace in their entire lives, the only constant in their existence was being near each other.

Trowa and Duo were well aware of this fact, and as to what had led Yuda and Ruka to escape the Elders’ rule a couple of years ago. Another look was exchanged, this one assessing rather than confused, and then Crawford had their unwavering attention. "Isn’t it a very strong risk, taking four of the Elders’ most guarded ‘servants’ from them?" Trowa asked, his voice as calm as always. Only someone who truly knew him could tell how pleased he was at the thought of the Elders losing something they greatly valued.

"I fear that the greater risk would be to leave them where they are," Crawford explained, then paused to sip the delicious white wine. "Shin and Rei will be dead soon if they continue to use their talents unchecked, and the weather will be affected to the point that it will take decades to correct." He stared pointedly at Duo, leaving unsaid that it would most likely fall onto Trowa’s shoulders to fix the weather, something that would risk burning out his talent and his life as well.

Duo picked up on that silent warning, his arm tightening around Trowa’s waist. "So you’re bringing them here to set things back to normal?"

"In part. I fear that the weather won’t truly be ‘normal’ until after the war, but the Elders have caused too much damage to let things continue on unchecked. By having the cousins on our side, at least they can halt some of the changes to the weather patterns that they themselves set into motion." Not to mention that the Elders would be robbed of four very powerful bounds who could turn weather into a destructive weapon during the war, four bounds who were unmatched in their skills.

Trowa had the knack of seeming to know what a person was thinking from time to time, as was the case now. His brilliant green eyes grew unfocused for almost a minute, his body perfectly still as if to prevent causing his mind any distractions. Then the cloud was gone from his eyes and he shivered slightly, Duo murmuring his name against his right ear. "As far as I can ‘reach’ with my talent, the wind streams have been affected by everyone’s tampering. Even if I concentrated on nothing else and had Duo and Heero’s assistance, I could not set things to right."

"Your talent hasn’t been honed to control the weather to such an extent." Crawford glanced aside as the first signs of pain that flickered over his companions’ faces; Trowa and Duo had the edge in power over the cousins, but Shin and the others had been… ‘bred’ was the only word that truly suited the situation, as distasteful as it was, to control the weather. As soon as their talents had developed, they had been taught how to bend wind, water, air and to some extent, earth to cause nature to lash out in all its destructive fury. Trowa, on the other hand, could cause a battalion of soldiers’ hearts to explode with a focused thought, and Duo to burn those soldiers to ash. There were a myriad of ways for a bound to use their talents, and few of them had the true knack to bend the weather to their will. Even with all the elemental bounds under their control, it would be a crushing blow to the Elders’ plans to lose the cousins.

Duo murmured something else into Trowa’s ear, the words followed by a lingering kiss. "Once they’re here, we can stop trying to fix things, right?" There was a trace of exhaustion in his voice as well, since he must have been doing his best to help Trowa without the benefit of an air elemental to make things easier.

Crawford nodded. "It won’t be as easy as setting them up somewhere and putting them to work, but that is the general idea. First, Schuldig and Eri will have to undo the compulsions that the Elders set in Shin and Rei, and then they’ll need to recover their strength before they can reverse all their previous work." None of the visions he had had on the matter had shown a quick resolution, but that did not bother him. Bounds could live for a very long time, and he knew that once he gave Shin and the others a chance to redeem themselves, they would not stop until the weather was back to normal.

"Why is it so important that you send someone after Ruka and Yuda," Trowa asked, ever the one to do his best to see the entire picture and be completely informed of the situation. "Four bounds are easier to hide than six." He leaned forward, his chin propped up by his right hand while his left one remained placed over Duo’s.

"Because of a promise I made almost three years ago." His wine glass empty once more, Crawford refilled it while making a mental note to ask Marta for a few more bottles of it the next time she returned to the table. "Yuda and Ruka swore to remain away from Berin as long as their loved ones would eventually come to them. Once they learn that Shin and Rei are out of Berin, they’ll tear both countries apart in their effort to find them." Not to mention the danger both men presented in the vision that Crawford and Cassandra had shared.

Usually, Duo presented a face full of cheerfulness and good humor to the world; it was not often when his demon nature showed so clearly, his indigo eyes gleaming with malice and the lips of his wide mouth pulled back in a savage snarl. "Can you fuckin’ blame ‘em?" Hatred and rage dripped from the crude words, the air around him and Trowa shivering as if a protective sheet between them and the rest of the world.

Trowa murmured his mate’s name with slight reproach in his quiet voice, and Duo shook his head as if to clear it of the virulent emotions. He smiled in apology before brushing his lips against his lover’s, and the air around Crawford quickly cooled off. "Sorry."

All right, Jei might have a point for once, but Crawford could not keep quiet just then. "Perhaps now you understand why I did not reveal the truth about the bond between you two until I could arrange for you to be safely away from Berin." He alluded to what the Elders had done to Yuda and Shin and sat there calmly as Duo’s fury returned.


However, it vanished just as quickly as it had appeared, leaving Duo to shake his head once more. "Yeah, you’re right." He let out a slow breath and rested his head against Trowa’s. "They would have done the same thing to us, I bet, at least until they could force us to father a few brats and then use the bond as a leash." Sparks filled the air the same time that Trowa became perfectly still, which was often a prelude to massive amounts of blood spurting.

This time, there was none of that, only Trowa looking straight at Crawford. "Thank you." Just the two words, but spoken with a wealth of emotion that the water elemental kept hidden.

"I won’t deny that it benefits the future I want for you to be together, but even I have my limits," Crawford admitted. True friends were never to be used like that, nor was it worth risking the wrath of gods and mated bounds to mistreat such an important bond. For as much hard work and sacrifice as he put into the future, part of what would bring it about was the Elders’ own actions. They had lived too long, had watched their creator do whatever he wanted, to realize that they were damning themselves so many times over. The death of Esset’s wizard was blamed on the Captain, yet so very few people ever stopped to wonder just how the foremother of the kage had come about. Crawford had learned all he could about the woman and the bounds who were descended from her, and he truly did not think that the kage would have ever been created if Kritiker’s wizard had not had ‘outside help’. After all, neither that man nor Esset’s wizard had ever been able to create another shinigami bound, no matter how much they – and other wizards – had tried. No, the gods had meted out the punishment they felt the most suitable, and the Captain’s however many times great grandson would serve as their weapon this time.

No other words were spoken for several minutes; Crawford held up the empty wine bottled and gestured for more whenever Marta approached the table, and he hoped that she brought food as well. He was debating going to the kitchen himself when Duo began to laugh.

"Do I want to know what it is that you find so amusing?" he asked the fire elemental, always cautious when Duo was in this mood.

"I just realized two things. One," Duo held up his right hand, forefinger extended. "You’re gonna need whatever influence Trowa can supply to convince poor Jared to be the one to tell Yuda that Shin’s on his way here. Not even someone stupid enough to be good friends with that bitch Nicole would want to get between two mates who haven’t seen each other in a few years." His expressive face twisted into an exaggerated wince, which did not negate the fact that what he said was pretty much true. *That* was why Crawford wanted Trowa here, to help soothe the flesh gaki bound.

He waited until Marta brought two more bottles of wine and a basket filled with flaky pastries to the table before he spoke again. "What’s the second thing?"

This time, it was true fear in Duo’s expression. "You’re bringing Shin here, right?" He waited until Crawford nodded. "And you said that he needs some time to recover his strength as well as get his head fixed?" Again, another pause while Crawford nodded. "So you’re going to have two very powerful succubae bounds living in the same space for how long?" Duo did not bother to explain things any more than that. "Once Yuda gets here, you better be willing to come to our apartment if you want to talk to Trowa or me."

Crawford nodded once more, extremely grateful that he had not taken Yohji up on the offer for him and Jei to live here. As much as he had tried, he had not seen any way around Shin and Yuda remaining at the inn while the water elemental healed; Aya’s presence would mask any attempts to trace the cousins with magic, as well as Yohji would be the only one powerful enough to control Yuda. Crawford figured that he had better enjoy as many meals as possible at the Koneko before Yuda got here, as he would be staying as far away as possible himself once the succubae bound arrived.

Trowa let out a slow, aggrieved breath as he grabbed one of the bottles of wine. "I’m reminded of Wufei’s curse of ‘may you live in interesting times’." He frowned at the bottle as he used his talent to easily pull the cork free. "I believe there’s such a thing as too interesting, and hope to still be alive when things finally quiet down."

"I think that’s a very good thought to drink to tonight," Crawford remarked with excessive dryness as he held up his glass.

*******

Eri glanced at Naru, who for once was perfectly serious. That alone would be enough to sober up anyone who knew him well, let alone someone stuck in this situation. In a few minutes, one of Lord Raberba-Winner’s gokenin would arrive to escort them back to the palace, where the bounds who Crawford wanted rescued were waiting.

She stroked the nose of one of the horses that pulled the wagon, more to comfort herself than the unconcerned animal. The horses that Aya and Yohji had loaned them waited just outside of the city, where another gokenin kept watch over them and the wagon that would be used in their escape from Esset. They had planned things so as to best confuse whoever was sent to capture them, even down to changing illusions once they were safely from the palace.

The sound of a horse approaching made Eri step away from the wagon, and she caught a glimmer of white in Naru’s right hand. When the bound identified himself as Lord Raberba-Winner’s man – and a quick check of his thoughts verified that – both she and her partner relaxed the slightest bit.

"You’re to follow me now," the large man said, his face and accented voice impassive. He knew what they were here to do and did not care, only concerned about following his lord’s orders. Eri could tell that if something went wrong, he would protect Lord Raberba-Winner before he would them, but that was fine. The man reminded her a bit of Lord Shinra’s gokenin, Rude, both from his build and demeanor, and she preferred to deal with someone who firmly believed in the concept of loyalty. That it was not directed at her was fine, as the bound, Rasheed, would do whatever was necessary to protect his lord. As Raberba-Winner was as deeply involved in this mad scheme as they were, then Rasheed would not betray them.

She got back up in the wagon and directed the horses to follow Rasheed while Naru climbed into the back and kept an eye on the kegs of wine. They would not be the only ones making deliveries today – they had specifically waited for a day when a lot of goods would be headed to the palace, which meant that the closer they got to the place, the slower their pace became. The wait began to grate on her nerves; she wanted to go in, get the cousins and race back to Kritiker as if she had a pissed-off kage on her trail. The fact that such a thing could actually happen made her snort in amusement and shake her head. Well, she should not make Aya angry with her as long as she did not hit on Yohji, something she was not stupid or suicidal enough to do.

Thinking of her friends helped to center her and drive away the nervousness. Crawford wanted the cousins alive and back in Kritiker, so the plan would work. And once they crossed the border, then there would be others to watch her back and take care of any agents that they did not shake during their escape. Just going over all the support she and Naru had on this mission put her fears to rest. Things would work, and with luck she would not have to use the black band that chilled her right wrist. She would be able to return that bit of shadow to Aya, let Jo pamper her with great food and drink until she was stuffed, and then drag Yuushi off to somewhere private to… talk. Well, at least at first….

Just thinking of Yuushi distracted her from the fact that she was getting closer and closer to the Elders, which worked until they finally arrived at the palace. Rasheed directed them a section of the huge building where several men dressed in blue and white outfits bearing the Raberba-Winner crest stood waiting.

"You’re to stay out of the way – we’ll manage the unloading," Rasheed said, voice stern as he physically blocked the door that led into the palace. His thoughts made it clear that this was part of the ruse, a way to make it appear that this delivery had nothing to do with the cousins’ imminent disappearance. His dark eyes flickered to a spot on the ground just a few feet from the wagon, then back to Eri.

Knowing her role from the debriefing she had with the other gokenin whom Lord Raberba-Winner had sent to talk to her at the market, Eri made a show of nodding and stepping away from the wagon. Naru moved to hold the horses still, a cheerful smile on his face as he bantered with the servants, managing a very good Xanian accent that matched the illusion he wore. As he distracted them, Eri put her talent to use, first to make sure that no one from the palace was paying them any attention. There was one bound who watched from a window to the left, but she was easily able to control his thoughts enough that he would not notice anything that she did not want him to. Then she did the same with the servants, despite their loyalty to their lord; if they were questioned, which it was suspected that they would be, then they would tell the ‘truth’. Rasheed had powerful enough mental shields that Eri knew he would be able to hide his part in the escape with ease, especially since their ‘watcher’ would never suspect that his mind had been tampered with thanks to the black ring that Eri wore.

Once the wagon was unloaded of the wine casks, Rasheed called out to the servants to wait for him inside and then the ground a couple of feet from Eri trembled and split apart with little mess, revealing a cave that had hidden four young men. The one with the long blond hair that appeared as if the ends had been dipped in brown henna jumped out first and remained crouched by the crater. "It’s safe, right?" He constantly searched around, looking like a nervous cat.

"As safe as it can be," Eri muttered, too busy mentally scanning to bother with talking just then. "Get in the wagon." No one seemed to have noticed the slight tremors, and Rasheed was now occupied with counting out coins to Naru.

The earth elemental, Gai, nodded and motioned to his cousins. The tallest of the four, Gou, quickly handed up the one with the long, lavender colored hair, who looked ready to pass out at any moment. From Rei’s thoughts, Eri knew that he had used his weakened talent to supply the air that had kept the four of them alive as they had hidden underground. He managed a faint smile before Gai hustled him into the wagon.

Next came the other bound she had been ordered not to return to Kritiker without, Shin. Like the others, he wore a dark cloak over dark clothes, his smile just as faint as Rei’s and his eyes unfocused as he slowly stood on his feet. Gou jumped up to join him, picking him up to carry him to the wagon. From the fire elemental’s thoughts, Shin had been forced to use his talent again the night before, which left him utterly drained. Not good for the fact that it meant they could not rely upon him for any help, but she learned that it provided a great excuse for the cousins to remain in their rooms for the next day or two. No one would expect to see them at all today as they cared for water elemental, and it would not be odd if they kept to themselves for a couple of days.

"Let me fix this and we can get out of here," Gai hissed, once more crouching by the hole in the ground as he quickly used his talent to fill in the crater. Eri did not know where he was pulling the earth from, and she was surprised to see grass regrow over the spot, proving just how powerful the bound was. No wonder Crawford wanted him and the others out of Esset….

"Okay, that’s done." Gai wavered on his feet a little when he stood up straight, but the grin on his face was pure cockiness. Eri had a bad feeling that perhaps him being around Naru for the next couple of weeks would not be a good thing, that grin was so familiar. But first things first, they had to get away from here if her fears of the earth elemental being just like her partner were to be proven true.


She sent a quick message to Rasheed, more a burst of emotion than words, and he shook his head as he handed over the rest of the coins. "Get back in your wagon so I can escort you from the palace," he growled, appearing put out with such a boring duty.

Still scanning the thoughts around her and satisfied that the watcher in the window had not noticed the cousins’ escape, Eri climbed back into the wagon. She was careful not to look behind her at the four bounds, her talent letting her know that they were already hidden beneath the blankets that had been stashed back there. Once they were safely off the palace grounds, Naru could hand out the illusion charms that would mask their true identities.

She picked up from Rasheed that there soon would be an event on the other side of the palace, closer to where the cousins’ now former quarters resided. By the time anyone thought to check up on them, it should be that wagon that they remembered, not hers, and the Elders’ agents would be sent off on a wild goose chase. With luck, she reminded herself, so it was best that she focused on doing her job right. Pushing her talent to its limit, she concentrated on the large building they were slowly riding away from, desperately hoping to not pick up any sense of suspicion or alarm.

Beside her, Naru projected his usual cheerfulness while he mentally concentrated just as much as she did, checking the spells that should discourage anyone from paying close attention to the wagon. Behind them, she sensed Gou and Gai’s fear of discovery while Rei and Shin were actually asleep, too worn out from using their talents for fear or worry to keep them awake. That was for the best, really, because anyone who might think to scan the cousin’s emotions should not sense anything abnormal with the situation. Hopefully no one powerful enough to break through the cousins’ shields would pay them any attention, and if that were the case, Gou and Gai could warn her.

The wagon continued on its way, leaving the palace farther and farther behind. Eri shivered as if cold, disturbed by the emotions she picked up from the building; such a mix of despair and hope, of determination and blind loyalty. She never wanted to get closer than this to the Elders, whose auras she could faintly sense. So old…. No wonder many of her kind felt that their best future rested with those three. As for herself, she could pick up the instability that went with all the centuries of experience, and would rather put her trust in Crawford and Yuushi.

Right now, that was exactly what she was doing – trusting Crawford’s associates to see her safely to the border and then Yuushi’s word that Mustang’s people would be waiting for them there. Despite the dangers ahead of her, that trust did not waver.

*******

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