Storm Warnings

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chapter three

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 in search of sanctuary

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Eri clutched the reins in her hands so hard that her fingers ached, the slight pain a welcome focus. The moons were obscured by clouds, leaving the road before her almost too dark to navigate. While her bound vision helped to ensure that they did not go off the narrow path, the horses did not have the same benefit and were understandably spooked. Putting her talent to use yet again, she did her best to soothe the creatures and push them on despite their exhaustion.

The truth was, they were *all* exhausted; a week of fleeing from and evading the Elders’ agents had worn them all down to the point that they were ready to jump at shadows. She was pushing her talent farther than she had in years, carefully scanning the area around them to avoid any traps, while handling the horses. Meanwhile, Naru was left to tend to the cousins, as well as cast whatever minor spells he could to confuse their pursuers. Rei and Shin barely had enough energy between them to use their talents for more than a few minutes at a time, while Gou kept on guard as well as warmed the tea and food they ate and supplied heat to help soothe the horses’ tired muscles. Thank the gods that they had Gai, an earth elemental, to erase any tracks the horses and wagon left behind them, as well as smooth out the road ahead to keep the horses from breaking their legs in a hidden rut or hole. Normally, all of that would be minor uses of their talents, but to do it constantly, other than a couple of hours here or there when they rested or swapped out horses, slowly yet surely drained them.

At least Crawford and Lord Raberba-Winner had come through for them, arranging for fresh horses at various stops where they were watched over long enough for them to rest a little. Once they got into Kritiker, the danger would not be so omnipresent – yet they still had at least half a night’s journey to go before they reached the border. Of course, that would be the most treacherous part of this escape; they may have avoided the Elders’ agents so far, but surely the bounds sent after them realized that they would make for the border and so would arrange for others to wait for them there.

The hand lightly touching her shoulder almost made her snarl, but thankfully she recognized Naru’s scent and thoughts. Twisting about on the seat enough to face her partner, she offered him a slight smile, and was offered a mug of tea in return. Because of Shin and Rei’s condition, they had been given a large bag of Cassandra’s special blend, and the two power-drained bounds were not the only ones drinking it lately.

"Gou said he’s sensing a small fire up ahead," Naru whispered, voice pitched to not carry more than a couple of feet.

She grimaced and handed him the reins in return for the mug. "Our last rest stop before the border." Despite her effort to sound calm, there was a slight waver to her voice that hopefully would be taken for exhaustion.

"Yeah." Naru sounded much the same, the open front of his dark blue vest revealing one of the pouches that held his special stones. He had them at the ready in case of an attack, yet his thoughts overall shaded toward optimism; Crawford had proven time and again how good he was at foretelling the future, and had yet to let them down.

Now that she knew what to look for, she cast her talent out a little farther, shutting out as much as she could the minds around her. Gou had to be damn strong to notice the fire from so far away – but then again, there were a distinct lack of hearths or fire pits in their vicinity. The road they followed was little more than a dirt path, chosen because of the absence of traffic.

The minds of the people huddled around the fire were carefully shielded, yet not hostile in the least; thanks to the black ring, she slipped into their thoughts with ease and determined that these were the people they were supposed to meet. One of the minds reminded her of Rasheed, Lord Raberba-Winner’s gokenin, with its owner’s almost slavish devotion to his lady.

A mental touch to everyone in the wagon put their fears to rest; Gou ordered Shin and Rei to resume sleeping, while Gai pushed his way to the front so he could look over Naru’s shoulder. Eri’s fear of the two getting along well had proven well-founded, although there was precious little time for pranks as they ran for their lives. No, the odd and burgeoning friendship revealed itself in the way that Gai rested his right arm on Naru’s left shoulder and leaned forward, Naru not minding the contact in the least.

"How many?" Gai asked, clearly eager to see someone other than the same five people he had been stuck with for the last several days.

"Two. They’re just here to swap out horses for us." Eri frowned as she stared ahead, aware from their thoughts that the two bounds waiting for them also planned to create a diversion that would fool anyone who was following them. So many strangers were willing to risk their lives for this mission… was it really any different than what she was doing now? Since she had joined the Guard, more lives than just her own and those of her fellow bounds had become important. Not to mention she was well on her way to falling in love with a human, something she had told herself would never happen. Oh, how the gods loved to prove foolish humans and bounds wrong; may they never feel the urge to do the same with Crawford, she thought, the fingers of her right hand twisting about to ward off bad luck.

"Huh." Gai pouted for a minute, then shook all over like a cat trying to regain its dignity and leaned back. "One of them must be an earth elemental, since things are a bit muddled when I search for them. If you say we can trust them, I won’t force my way past… her wards." He tilted his head to the side and closed his eyes for several seconds. "Yep, definitely a woman." His eyes, while not as pure a green as Yohji’s, were so bright and wide just then that Eri had a problem looking away. "Is she pretty?"

"Her gokenin thinks so." She smiled at the thoughts from the man, the expression fading after a moment. "Don’t come across as a threat to her."

Gai scoffed and shared a disgusted look with Naru. "As if I’d do something that rude!" His thoughts just then were on how Yuda would be upset with him for acting uncouth toward a lady. From the bits and pieces she picked up from these cousins, Eri was interested in meeting the succubae-bound - *after* he became mates with Shin, that was. The intense longing, frustration and pain she felt from the water elemental had to be echoed in Yuda as well, and there was no way she wanted to be around them while they were still kept apart by the compulsion. That was why she had offered her help to break the more minor one that blocked Ruka from Rei’s mind, taking what time she could to study the air elemental so she had have some idea of what to do once they were back at the Koneko. She knew from the light scans she had done of Shin’s mind that the compulsions within were too strong for her to handle, and to be honest she doubted that anyone other than Schuldig, and possibly Lord Shinra, would be able to break them. Add to that being subjected to Shin’s emotions at the same time and she was quite happy to only deal with Rei.

She did not bother with an answer to Gai’s snarled retort, and nobody else spoke while they slowly approached the waiting bounds. The gokenin was a fire elemental, which explained how he kept the fire small enough to not cast too much light. He rose to his feet when they were just a few yards away and stood in a protective manner in front of a young woman with long, blonde hair.

"Feyd, there’s no need for that," she said, her accent one that told as much about her bloodlines as did her thoughts. Why one of Lord Raberba-Winner’s sisters was out in the middle of nowhere just so she could put her life at risk to help strangers, Eri did not want to know; all that mattered was that she could be trusted.

Waiting for the wagon to stop and for Eri, Naru and Gou to jump down from it, the woman bowed, lower than was possibly fitting from someone of her rank. "May the gods bless you this night. I’m Aalia." She left off her family name, but judging from her wry smile just then, it was not because she wanted it kept a secret. "As you can tell, my companion’s name is Feyd. Please let him change the horses for you."

Gou nodded, his body tense as if he expected an attack at any moment, yet his expression was gentle and a bit friendly. "Thank you." The words were spoken in earnest – while he might still be wary after all this time, he did respect and appreciate the help he and his cousins were receiving. He was just doing his best to make sure that the help was authentic. Eri had no problems with that.

Feyd followed his lady’s orders, swapping out the exhausted horses with ones that looked fresh enough to take them to the border and beyond without any breaks. While he did that, Aalia walked toward the back of the wagon, where Aya and Yohji’s horses were tied. "Do I have to warn you that the border is being watched?" she asked, her hands held out and her steps slow as she did her best not to spook the tired horses.

"No, it’s expected." Eri held back on a sigh; she had just have to do her best to find a gap they could slip through and pray that Mustang’s people were there to stop anyone who noticed them.

"You’ve made good time, and the Elders haven’t been able to get as many of their people in place as they would like." Aalia stroked her hands down the neck of Aya’s horse, and Eri felt her focus her talent until energy flowed into the tired creature. While it had not pulled the wagon like the other horses, the gelding could not be swapped out during their breaks since Eri and Naru would need them if things turned bad and they had to flee with Shin and Rei.

Aalia used her talent on the bay gelding as well. "Some of my family’s people have volunteered to help, but we made sure they’re not located anywhere near here. I’m sorry." From her thoughts, Eri could tell that the woman would prefer for them to face bounds who would not hurt or betray them, but there was no way she or her family would put their trusted servants in danger of the Elders’ wrath for failing to capture them.

"We understand." Gou spoke up with Gai by his side and nodding in agreement. He stood still as Aalia approached, her hands held out. "And again, thank you for your help."

"I only wish I could do more than give you a bit of energy and some fresh horses." She touched first Gou and then Gai, a thoughtful expression on her pretty face as she turned to Eri. "At least this way you can make good time to the border; one of my sisters is hidden close to where you should cross over, and she tells me that the guards there are stretched too thin." As she spoke, her voice soft and apologetic, Eri scanned the information on the border that was being shared. She gasped in surprise when she recognized a familiar figure in dark blue whom paced about on the Kritiker side of the divide between the two countries.

She shared that information with Naru while Gai and Aalia went inside the wagon. "Armstrong’s at the border."

Her partner’s eyes went wide at that revelation. "Great, as if he doesn’t stick out like Schuldig in Byakuren’s temple!" He swore under his breath for a moment, mind racing as he considered various situations. "Will an earth elemental bound be able to help us?"

Gou caught that last bit and stepped closer, his handsome face marred by a worried frown. "Is this one of the people you’re counting on for help?" he asked, deep voice free of exhaustion for the first time in days.

Eri shrugged and combed her fingers through her hair, for a moment wishing that they had time for a bath; they had been unable to stop at any inns for weeks and she barely had time to bathe as it was. "He’s a Major in the Army, so he should be able to circumvent the wards along the border." Not that she and Naru would have a problem, but they kept the truth about their black rings from the cousins.

Naru grunted as something occurred to him. "Yeah, but he’s not exactly…." He hesitated for a moment, about to withhold a name from being spoken out loud, before he decided that Gou could and should be trusted. "He’s not really one of Mustang’s ‘men’ is he? So maybe he’s just there for the ward, and Havoc or Fury are there to help us out."

Despite the graveness of their situation, Eri reached out to knock the knuckles of her right hand against her partner’s forehead. "Maybe you do have a brain in there after all!"

He batted her hand aside and stuck out his tongue, for a moment looking little older than Emmie or Neely. "Very funny."

Gou was quiet during the exchange, his face impassive as he stared at the wagon. "If Aalia can give Shin and Rei enough energy, maybe they can help us get to the border without being seen." From his thoughts, she picked up how the cousins had used their talents before to cause a thick fog to hide people.

She sent that information to Naru and they both gave it serious consideration. "Won’t it raise suspicions if things suddenly turn foggy?" she asked, not wanting to turn down the suggestion, but worried that it might also give them away.

Gou shrugged, still looking at the wagon as if he could see through its canvas topping. "There is that, but if Shin and Rei can cover a large enough area, perhaps concentrate the worst of it away from us, it should work." He was not happy with his cousins having to use their talents when they would already been pushed to their limits, but they were all worried about how to cross the border without being seen. Eri’s talent could only do so much, and there were wards to worry about as well. Naru, with the aid of the charms that Botan had given him, should be able to circumvent the ones created by wizards, but that left wards created by bounds. By using their talent as Gou proposed, Shin and Rei could set off the ones created by air and water elementals and sow confusion over just where exactly they were.

From what she could pick up from Shin and Rei’s thoughts, they would willingly offer to use their talents in such a manner; they were already thinking along the same lines as their cousin now that they were awake and had regained some strength.

<Should we do it?> Naru asked, deferring to her as always when it came to matters tied to bounds and their powers.

She let out a slow breath and nodded to Gou. <I don’t think we have much of a choice, to be honest. While I’m sure it’ll take the last of their strength, it’s best to have Shin and Rei’s help on this side of the border, where we have fewer allies.> What it came down to was here, they could only rely on so many people, and to a certain degree at that. However, once they crossed the border, there were Mustang’s people in the Army, the Shadow Guard and to a point the Guard as well, and the various bounds who had banded together to fight against the Elders. No, best to use whatever they had that would increase their odds of crossing the border and worry about the rest later.

While Gou went to talk to his cousins, Eri stood out beneath the clouded sky, her arms hugged tight around her chest. This was why she followed orders, not issued them; she hated feeling as if the lives of others were in her hands. Dealing with partners and comrades in arms was one thing, but the cousins and even Naru looked to her to be the leader during this mission. A great weight would be lifted from her when they reached the Koneko and the cousins were no longer her responsibility.

However, until then, she had do all she could to make sure that she did not fail the trust that Yuushi and Crawford had placed in her. With that goal in mind, she waited for Aalia to finish with Shin and Rei to speak to the woman for a few minutes while she regained as much energy as possible. She needed a little more information so as to best plan where to approach the border, and to know who she could rely upon. And once they were across, a great deal of the responsibility weighing her down would be gone. She could not wait to be back among the Shadow Guard and the hope of a future she had found with them.

*******

Riza stared with as much coldness as she could muster at the idiot Roy had stuck her with for the past week. "You can put that out or you can eat it," she said, her voice deceptively mild.


There was an audible gulp from Jean as he made a deliberate show of removing the cigarette from his mouth, dropping it to the ground and grinding it out with the toe of his black leather boot. "Yes, ma’am."


Really, what had Roy been thinking to assign a succubae bound on a mission like this? Granted, Jean could come in handy should they need to distract anyone, but what was the probability of that out in the middle of nowhere like this? She had much rather have been assigned Fury or even Hughes; that man could charm just about anyone and keep his dick in his pants at the same time. Now if he could just shut up about his daughter, he would be a great partner.

Threat issued and noted, she turned to look out in the direction of Esset. It was almost funny, how so very little separated the two countries other than a ward and thinly spread armies; on the other hand, that was what had helped her grandfather to flee from Esset over three centuries ago and establish a life in Kritiker. As the war approached, more people would be stationed out here and making it difficult for bounds and even humans to escape, but for now, they could help out the men who would do their best to return the weather to normal. While she had little talent in controlling the weather other than to create sudden gales, she could tell how much the airstreams had been affected in the last year.

She sensed the approaching fog before she could see it, and was careful not to react at first. When Jean suddenly straightened up beside her and let out a curse, she began to tap something on the ring on her left middle finger. The fog was not in the slightest manner natural, so she took it as a sign that either the Shadow Guard were approaching with the elemental bounds or Esset was ready to make a move. Her fears of the latter were put to rest when she felt a ‘brush’ against her mind.

<Lieutenant Hawkeye?>

She immediately recognized the other bound as the Shadow Guard Eri. <Yes. How far away are you?> She warned Major Armstrong via the ring that he might have to drop the wards immediately.

<We just passed a creek… I’m told it’s less than a kilometer from the border.> The mental pressure increased, and Riza did not put up any resistance. She let whatever information she had on her location and the surrounding area be shared, and felt a wave of relief from the other bound. <Give us twenty minutes, but be warned that we’ve three bounds a couple of kilometers behind us. Two are flesh gaki bounds, the other a fire elemental.> Eri was worried about them, revealing that they were powerful and determined.


Riza had no problem with that. A flesh gaki bound could not tear out her throat if they were stopped by a tiny ball of solid air shot at their head, and a fire elemental needed oxygen to make anything burn. Oh no, now that she was prepared, she had not be easy prey. <That’s fine, we’re here to handle them. Once you get past the border, head northwest for another four kilometers. On the western side of the lake, you’ll find a camp where you can get some rest.> She was certain the bounds had to be exhausted, which was confirmed by the wave of relief she felt from Eri.

<Thank you.> Eri broke off the connection the same time that Armstrong sent that the wards were down. Jean fidgeted while they waited for the wagon to cross over, his hands smoothing down the front of his jacket as if in search of something.

"Don’t even think of it," she warned, not about to let him stand around and smoke while she did all the work. He immediately straightened up again from his usual slouch, shoulders shoved back and hands falling to his sides.

Hmm, maybe he was trainable after all. Giving him a cool smile, she resumed watching the border, not that she could see more than a few feet in front of her because of this fog as well as the darkness. Once the Shadow Guards were safely in the country and their immediate followers taken care of, she and Jean could report to Armstrong and finish with the ‘surprise inspection’ that had brought them out this way.

She did not even hear the wagon and its horses until it was barely twenty feet away, an obvious sign that the air elemental inside was muffling sound. Jean let out a curse as it thundered past, not even slowing down. She did not mind that, already focused on the bounds who should not be far behind.


"Let me know when you sense three bounds approaching. Two of them are flesh gaki and very hungry."

Jean flashed a smile and relaxed his posture, his arms lifting to fold behind his head. "Now that I can do. Give ‘em hell, Lieutenant." He winked as he spoke, perfectly at ease with her handling three hostile bounds.

Perhaps he was not that much help in situations like these, but at least he was smart enough to not think that being female meant she was helpless. A slight smile on her face, she stood at the ready, hands clasped in front of her with her forefingers pointed outward, waiting for the targets to get within range. Three short bursts of her talent and this would be over; soon enough they could go back home and she had make Roy whimper at the sight of a huge stack of paperwork requiring his signature. As things went, it was a pretty good life.

*******

Yohji set the pile of sheets on the bed and bowed low to Emmie and Neely. "There you go, my ladies. Is there anything else I can do for you? Any demons that need slaying or princesses who need wooing?" He batted his eyelashes as he spoke, lips twitching into a grin at the way the girls giggled at his foppish behavior.

"Would you really slay some demons for us?" Emmie asked, her pretty face practically beaming with the happiness that flowed out of her, a warm, tingling emotion that almost always put Yohji in a good mood when he felt it. Right now, he needed something like that, and he was always pleased to make the girl smile.

"For you, Sunshine, I’d slay a horde of them." He reached out to tap the tip of her upturned nose, for a moment bothered by a pang of remorse. What would he do when she was old, no longer a lovely young woman but weakened by the passage of time and experience? That thought had been occurring to him more and more lately, just how much he had lose over the years.

Emmie giggled again, and Neely joined in as well as she slowly separated the pile of sheets. At least he would not lose Neely so ‘soon’ – ah hell, what was he doing thinking this nonsense? For all he knew, a huge rock could come falling out of the sky ten minutes from now and kill him, making a moot point of his recent concern about outliving all the people he loved.

"I just hope you don’t leave all the hard work to poor Aya," Neely remarked with laughter in her voice, even though she did her best to keep a straight face.

He sniffed in response and clutched at his chest as if in pain. "That hurts. I would *never* be that lazy." Dropping the hurt act, he winked at Neely and did a quick check for Jo. "But I’d gladly sit back and watch if he’s wearing a pair of tight pants."

That prompted more giggles, but thankfully no warnings of telling Jo or Mickey about what he had just said. All right, he really was losing a sense of time, that became more and more clear as the days marched on, but even he knew that time was not standing still for either Emmie or Neely. It might still be a couple of years away, but they would definitely have the boys hanging around the Koneko in hopes of managing a date or two, and Neely already showed interest in that. Emmie… not so much, but from what he could sense, he was willing to bet that when she did become interested in the opposite sex, Jason would be right there in hopes of her finally noticing him.

Leaving the girls to make up the beds, Yohji went to his own bedroom, his good mood from moments before fading as a familiar restlessness returned. Ever since Crawford had warned them that Eri and Naru would be back soon with the cousins, it had been growing inside of him, surfacing now and then in an unintended snarl… or worse. Oh hell, poor Li was probably never going to come back to the inn, not with the way he had practically chased her out onto the street last night. From what Reiichi had told him this morning, Birman actually had ordered the succubae bounds working for her to avoid the Koneko for the time being.

At least that sense of restlessness was not so bad whenever he was in his bedroom, he thought with a wave of relief once he was inside the room. Spying Aya sitting at the desk, he closed the door behind him as quietly as possible before going to his mate. Not bothering to sneak up at all when he had felt a spark of happiness and desire over their link, he slouched down behind the chair and wrapped his arms around Aya’s upper chest.

It came as no surprise that his resourceful lover was busy calculating a bunch of numbers; Mickey had handed out the staff’s shares of the profits yesterday, after all. Between that and the money they earned by helping Birman winnow through some of the Esset spies residing in the city, Aya was pretty happy right now. Yohji watched him tally up a neat column of numbers, a faint purr rumbling in his chest all the while.

"So, how many mansions will we be able to own, hmm?" he asked, when Aya finally put aside the pen and closed the book.

In response, he got a derisive snort and a bony elbow in the ribs. "With the way you drink, we’ll be lucky to afford a one bedroom apartment in some backwater town," Aya grumbled, unlike Neely perfectly able to hide the amusement he felt while teasing back.

Yohji narrowed his eyes and waved at a bookcase almost about to break under the strain of all the books it held. "And just how much did you spend at Masuda’s this past week, hmm?"

That got him an adorable glare in return, and he could not resist leaning in for a kiss. His bottom lip was nipped as a result, but it did not take long before he was kissed back. Once again he thought that it was a wonderful thing, being able to sense his mate’s emotions; Aya had those glares down pat and was too damn good at hiding what he was truly feeling.

Yohji had just meant to kiss his lover, yet that plaguing restlessness drove him to pull Aya from the chair and lead him to the bed. Stretching out on top of his lover, Yohji deepened the kiss, his right hand busy stroking along Aya’s sides as if he could not live any longer without as much physical contact as possible. At first his mate went along with things, and then he found himself shoved onto his back.

Moving too damn fast to be stopped, Aya straddled his thighs, far enough back that Yohji could sit up. Long arms slid over his shoulders and cool fingers toyed with the hair along the nape of his neck. Shivering at the gentle touch, Yohji hugged Aya around the waist, not about to let his lover get away.

"You’re not hungry," Aya commented after a moment of silence, sounding more confused than annoyed at the situation. "Not after this morning." He frowned as he stared intently at Yohji, studying him as if he was one of those damn books.

Letting out a slow breath, Yohji shook his head. "No, not really." They had finally left the bed around noon, wrapped around each other even when they were not having sex. Something about holding Aya close helped to calm down that annoying restlessness, so he had indulged a lot more than he usually did in that wonderful ‘sunlight’.

"Hmph." Aya’s frown deepened before he shook his head and stroked his fingers along the very top of Yohji’s spine. "Unless Botan repeated his request for us to hunt down that wizard, I don’t see why you’re so upset." There was a slight hiss to his voice when he mentioned their friend, but the anger was not directed at Yohji.

"No, I doubt he’ll ask much of anything from us for at least another month." Yohji still felt a little sheepish over what he had done that day, but would do it all over again if Botan was ever foolish enough to ask Aya to hunt down a wizard who just might know what he was. More than likely, they would catch the bastard before any damage was done… but oh how the gods loved to take that slight chance of something messing up and making it happen. It was too big a risk to ever be considered, not unless the wizard already knew about Aya and needed to be killed.

Just thinking of someone trying to take his mate away from him made Yohji growl, his arms tightening around Aya and pulling him in for an ardent kiss. He wanted to shred the clothes that they were wearing and roll over until Aya was naked beneath him, neck exposed and body ready for him. He wanted to fuck until that addictive rush of sunlight faded to a trickle, until his mate reeked of his scent and bore so many marks that there was absolutely no doubt of who he belonged to. The possessiveness and protectiveness Yohji felt was so strong just then it robbed him of breath, making him break off the kiss as he gasped for air.

Still straddling his lap, Aya moaned, the sound soft and forlorn. He rested against Yohji, arms loose around his back and face tucked into the crook of his neck. "Why is it so bad?" Aya whispered, concerned enough that his voice cracked.

Hugging him once more, Yohji pressed a kiss against silky red hair. "It… it’s been like this since Crawford said that Eri will be here soon."

Aya pulled back enough that he could look at him, brows furrowed as he tried to make sense out of that statement. Of course he was unhappy with the way Yohji smiled over how adorable he appeared just then. "Why would that bother you? And stop that, you’re acting like Emmie does when she sees a puppy."

Laughing at the comparison, Yohji could not resist tugging on his mate’s left eartail. "Close, but you’re a kitty-cat, remember?" He laughed some more when his hand was batted aside and Aya hissed, reveling in the silliness for several heartbeats before turning serious. "I think it’s what happens after they get here that’s bothering me." When Aya’s frown deepened, he wrapped his arms tight around his lover. "From what Crawford said, Yuda won’t be far behind them."

"Ah." There was a sense of relief from Aya, followed by such a strong rush of curiosity that Yohji could not help but smile. "Why are you bothered by a succubae bound who’s not even here yet?" Aya asked, head tilted to the side in a manner that did nothing to dispel the hated ‘adorable’ label.

Distracting himself by combing his fingers through an eartail before he said something that would get him bit, Yohji chuckled for a moment and enjoyed the feel of cool silkiness sliding across sensitive skin. "I’m not sure, but just knowing that he’ll be here…." He shook his head, unsure if he could really explain his fears. According to Crawford and Jei, this Yuda was supposed to be very powerful and currently unmated. Even if that would soon be corrected once he got to see Shin, it still meant that an unattached rival would be in Yohji’s home, and he could not scare the guy away like he did Li or any other succubae bounds who got on his nerves. At least with Masato, there was a blood tie there, a commonality that made Yohji push aside the urge to constantly prove that he was the stronger of the two. Well, most of the time….

The way Aya rolled his eyes made him smack his mate on the ass. "Don’t even go on about succubae bounds and how grateful you are that you’re not one of us," he grumbled, while faking a bad mood. "I don’t really think it’s such a good thing, the way you and Reno hit it off so quickly." That was not really true, but there would be a bit less stress in his life if the two men had not become such good friends.

Aya hissed and ran his nails along the back of Yohji’s neck. "Would it really have been better if we’d started fighting when we met?" Judging from the smile on his face, Aya knew that he had Yohji there.

"Well, it might have been worth all the destruction to see Jo go after you with a rolling pin," Yohji teased, managing a chuckle when Aya’s skin went a shade paler. Then he thought about the look Jo had given him last night after the Li incident, a mix of pity and resignation, and some of his good mood vanished.

Concerned once more, Aya leaned in close, his breath warm against Yohji’s face as he stared deeply into his eyes. The moment lingered, broken only when Aya closed his eyes and brushed their lips together. The kiss was one of love and desire, languid yet forceful, hot enough to be impossible to ignore, yet reserved enough that the impulse from before to shred their clothes did not return. Instead, Yohji reveled in it, drinking in those wonderful emotions that made the world sharpen around him, made his nerves extra-sensitive and his head dizzy from pleasure.

There was the stray thought that Aya had done a damn good job of learning how to kiss in the past year, followed by a bit of smugness on his part for doing the teaching. Then all that mattered was enjoying that skill, the clever battle of tongues, lips and teeth, the way a quick scrape followed by a soft stroke could make him whimper in need.

He found himself slowly pushed back onto the bed, Aya following him down, a reassuring weight against his chest. His mate’s cool hands undid the laces of his green shirt while the kiss continued, Yohji’s own hands buried in Aya’s lovely hair. A quick image of his mate with hair as long as Reno’s made him moan in delight, the sound repeated when Aya broke off the kiss to scrape his teeth along Yohji’s jaw.

They pulled apart long enough to get rid of Yohji’s shirt, and then Aya resumed trailing his mouth along Yohji’s neck. For once it was Yohji whose skin was marked, his cock twitching almost painfully against his pants at the pressure and bite of teeth. Choking out his lover’s name, he tangled his fingers in Aya’s hair to keep him from pulling away too soon.


Yet whatever Aya wanted, Yohji gave him, so he reluctantly let go when his mate made it clear he wanted to move on. Since the kisses trailed onto his collarbones, Yohji did not really mind, a smile on his lips as the bruise on his throat throbbed with each beat of his heart.

At first he was not very sure what his lover had in mind, but when Aya continued downward, only pausing for a minute to nip at and suck on his nipples, Yohji had to bite his bottom lip to keep from saying anything. This was not something that had happened very often since his birthday, and usually only on some sort of special occasion at that. However, judging from the way Aya continued to move along his body, hands now busy undoing the laces on Yohji’s pants and pushing them down, he had one hell of a hope that his suspicions were correct.

When Aya paused after placing a kiss on Yohji’s left hipbone, breath hot and moist and so damn tormenting against Yohji’s hard cock, he whispered his mate’s name and let go of crimson hair. This was Aya’s choice, and however far he decided to take it without causing himself pain, Yohji would respect. The demon inside of him purred in delight, very happy to relinquish control at the moment and bask in the pleasure that sizzled along his nerves.

Aya hesitated a moment longer, then his tongue lapped along the top of Yohji’s cock, making his back arch off the bed. Struggling to not snap his hips forward, Yohji groaned at the wonderful torture of gentle licks and slender fingers moving slowly along his length. Oh hell, it had been years since he had come just a minute or two after a blowjob started, yet Aya was threatening to shatter whatever control he had right now.

Doing his best not to embarrass himself – and manage to breathe as well – he focused on Aya’s emotions rather than the sharp ecstasy of his own. The love was still there, the desire a little muted by a strong determination. There was no doubt in his mind that Aya was doing this for just him, yet he was heartened by the fact that it did not feel to be as… as traumatic for his mate anymore. That the pain and panic from a year ago were not sensed at all made him groan and close his eyes, determined to enjoy the rush of sensations that skittered along his nerves.

When Aya licked him from root to tip, followed by the lightest scrape of teeth, he almost lost the battle to not come right then. Hands trembling from pleasure as he forced them to move, Yohji grabbed his lover by the upper arms and dragged him forward; there was no way he would be able to hold back much longer if Aya continued like that, and he did not want to feel any disgust or hurt over their link. No, not when the man he loved was doing this for him and not sharing at all in the pleasure.

Moaning at the taste of himself on Aya’s tongue and lips, he shifted his mate about until Aya was draped over his left side, just enough space between their bodies for him to undo his mate’s pants so he could wrap his hand around their cocks. His own cock was still slick from saliva, while Aya’s was from pre-cum, his fingers sliding easily up and down. There sounded to be some sort of complaint from Aya, stifled by a passionate kiss, and soon Yohji’s lover settled against him.

Ah, as good as things had been before, now they were even better; Yohji could feel the ecstasy build inside of his mate as well as each shiver Aya made in response to the intense emotion. As wonderful as it would have been to be buried inside the body moving against his own, he adored being able to kiss Aya like this, to share breath as well as pleasure.

Aya’s hand wrapped around his own while nails scratched along his left shoulder. The sunlight was so hot and heady inside of him, making his blood boil and brain shut down until all he could do was feel. So damn good… his eyes drifted open to stare at the face next to his own, his heart constricting at the sight of pale skin flushed with pleasure, at the *openness* that no one else ever got to see. As if sensing the attention, Aya opened his eyes as well, revealing a mixture of silver and purple before he tossed his head back, the candlelight reflecting pure silver at the motion.

Moving his left hand from his mate’s firm ass, Yohji grasped a handful of crimson hair to make his mate look back at him. Struggling to free the air trapped in his chest, body burning with sunlight and so damn close to coming that it hurt, he stared back at his mate, emotions utterly bare. Something sizzled between them with that look, yet another connection that irrevocably tied them together, and he could not close his eyes even as the orgasm tore through him at last.

Aya’s eyelids fluttered together as he came as well, Yohji’s stupefied mind noticing the latticework of black against silver and violet. How anyone could be so beautiful… the sunlight seared into him for several blissful seconds, slowly fading away as Aya’s body went limp against his own.

Now there was no restlessness, no unfocused anger, just love and appreciation. Yohji brought his right hand to his mouth to lick it clean, tongue tingling at the way his and Aya’s tastes were mingled together. He was still staring at his mate, pausing in his licking for a moment when Aya shifted about a little and then reached for his hand.

All the while staring directly at Yohji, Aya leaned in and stuck out the tip of his tongue to lap at the back of Yohji’s thumb. While there was a sense of uncertainty over their link, there was no disgust, so Yohji used his clean hand to tilt up his lover’s chin for a kiss. Aya was hesitant for a moment, then kissed him back without any reservation.

"Oh hell, what you don’t do to me," Yohji groaned after a minute, wondering if there could be anything out there that tasted half as good as his mate. Flopping about his right hand a few times until he found his discarded shirt, he wiped off his hand then used both of them to cup Aya’s face. "Promise to keep doing it until we’re old and decrepit."

Aya managed a soft laugh, his expression more surprised than amused. "I’m not sure that I have a choice, Yotan." He removed his soiled shirt then settled a little more comfortably on top, his hands resting on either side of Yohji’s head. "I want you too much."


The admission had been whispered, but Yohji heard it loud and clear. Smiling with glee, he stroked his hands through his lover’s hair, lightly down scarred skin until he wrapped his arms around Aya’s waist for a forceful hug. "Never change."

He got first a squeak and then a deep scratch to his left shoulder in response, not that he really minded. Pushing up from the bed, he sat with Aya straddling his lap, his mouth seeking out pale flesh already bearing several of his marks. His mate did not protest – well, other than with a faint grumbling and the quick bite of nails – yet there was no dizzying rush of pleasure as Yohji sucked hard, rather a flow of love and understanding so strong it was almost viscous, a sweet syrup that pooled inside his chest until it felt as if there was no room for his lungs to expand, he had such trouble breathing. Then he shuddered and drew in a deep breath, moving back enough to admire the new bruise.

A sharp tug on his hair made him yelp. "I’m running out of shirts with high collars, I’ll have you know," Aya grumbled, sounding so much like a disgruntled cat that Yohji expected his mate to grow ears and a tail at any moment. "Why could this have happened during the winter instead, when I’d have an excuse to wear a scarf at least?"

Yohji stroked his fingers over the bruises, a pleased smile on his face that provoked a quick, spitting sound from Aya. "Because the point of these is for them to be seen." There would not be any doubt in this Yuda’s mind that Aya was taken – not once he got sight and scent of him, at least. Yohji would make sure that it was blaringly obvious that his cat had a mate who more than looked after him. No matter how delectable Aya might be, only an idiot would mistake him as ‘available’ by the time Yohji managed to appease that nagging sense of protectiveness.

Aya snapped his teeth in warning, violet eyes narrowed in annoyance, yet he did not pull away. Holding his mate close so he could nuzzle that bruised neck, Yohji purred in happiness. He suspected that Aya had given him the blowjob as a means of assurance, a reminder that there was only one person on the whole planet who was trusted and loved enough for that to happen to. While on a logical level they both knew that they would never want anyone else, it helped to remember that there was more than just the mating bond tying them together.

"I think we deserve a nice, long soak before dinner," he murmured, breath hitting the spot just below Aya’s left ear that never failed to make him shiver in response. "I’ll massage your shoulders while we’re down there, okay?"

"Mmmm." Judging from the rush of happiness that filled Aya, Yohji knew that his offer had been accepted. He would give his love a full massage once dinner was over, a simple way of thanking Aya for the blowjob.

"Such an easy cat to please." He got another virulent glare for the teasing, and dared a quick kiss to appease his mate. This time, Aya did not nip his lip, just grumbled ‘idiot’ beneath his breath before joining in on the kiss. Yohji enjoyed it for a couple of minutes then broke it off, wanting to get his mate cleaned off before Aya grew uncomfortable. "Come on, I’ll even wash your hair for you."

"You better, considering that as soon as Jo sees my neck, she’s not going to let me leave the kitchen until I’ve eaten enough for three people." Aya sounded very put out by that, but Yohji would bet the Koneko – if it was still his – that his prickly lover would turn into a helpless kitten if Jo put a slice of cake in front of him.

Chuckling at that mental image, Yohji helped Aya off the bed then joined him, pausing to stretch his back until his spine ‘popped’. "Yeah, but try to tell me that you don’t love the way she yells at me while she’s doing that."


He got a very disgruntled ‘hmph’ and another dirty look in answer, still smiling all the while, since he could sense Aya’s happiness. Then it occurred to him that he should probably use this time before Yuda appeared to search out where Jo hid all her marble rolling pins, because he was certain that once the other succubae bound got here, she would be waving them about with impunity. Ah well, maybe if he promised Aya a massage every night, his mate would intervene to keep his head from being cracked open on a daily basis.

*******

Jared stood in front of the inn he had been told to go to and tried to work up the courage to enter. His hands fidgeted about, first making sure that the token and letter he had been given were tucked into the pocket of his light grey shirt, then that the ring on his left hand was not in any danger of falling off. He could not help but grimace at the feel of the cold stone; the thought of wearing something made from a kage’s tears and blood was almost as disturbing as Birman’s threat of what would happen to him if he did not return the ring. While it was nice to know that he was immune from magic while he wore it… he would be more than happy to return the damn thing once he was back in Eto.

However, before that could happen he had to talk to two very powerful bounds who had spent the last couple of years on the run for their lives. Right, like that should be any sort of a challenge. Why had he been unable to turn down Crawford’s job ‘offer’? Jared sighed as the image of Nicole’s face flashed through his mind. Even if he had been unable to join the Shadow Guard this time around, he still believed in what they did and in the hope of having a future where he could be part of the organization. If Esset won the war….

He did not mind doing odd jobs for the Guard, but the sooner this one was done, the better. Gathering up his courage, he walked into the inn. The place was nothing special, was clean and the furniture plain, the customers sitting in small groups and talking amongst themselves. When the bartender nodded in his direction, he waved back and motioned that he would sit at one of the tables. A few people gave him an appraising stare as he looked around the room, none of them seeming nervous or suspicious. A lot of strangers probably came through here on a daily basis, considering how the inn was not very far from the main road to Kokoru.

Two people who did give him more than a cursory glance were seated at the far corner of the main room, at a table situated by one of the few windows. Jared rubbed his left thumb against the ring and drew in a steadying breath when he noticed the man on the right’s long silver hair. From what Crawford had told him, Ruka used his talent to hide his distinctive coloring – and that of his companion as well – so the ring was working. Great. The ring might also be to blame for why the men straightened up in their chairs as if preparing to move, their attention focused on him.

Wishing that he could stop by the bar and down a bottle or two of whiskey before dealing with the other bounds, he straightened his spine the same time he very slowly pulled the token out of his pocket. If the ancient coin was some sort of joke on Crawford’s part, then Jared would take whatever damage Jei wanted to dish out over him being the one to eat the precog. That was, if he survived a meeting with two very suspicious, powerful and dangerous bounds.

Jared held the coin up in plain sight as he approached, for a moment debating on a friendly smile before he decided it would be best to keep his fangs hidden. Neither of the men were flesh gaki bounds, but there was no sense in pushing things; even if they could not destroy his mind or drive him insane with lust, he doubted that the ring would keep them from kicking the shit out of him. "A friend of yours sent me to find you," he said, voice pitched low.

The bound with the dark auburn hair pushed his chair away from the table. "Stop." Even with the ring to negate the effect of magic, Jared felt compelled to do as he had been told. "Toss me the coin," Yuda said, his voice also pitched low yet still carrying a heavy tone of command.

He caught the coin that Jared threw his way with ease and examined it with care, while Jared stood just out of arm’s reach, barely daring to breathe. Looks were exchanged between Yuda and Ruka, most likely thoughts as well, and the only thing that kept Jared from running out of the inn was the fact that he did not smell any anger or violence from the two bounds. Shit, they had to be almost as powerful as Jei and Yohji, and those were two men whom he never deliberately pissed off.

After placing the coin on top of the table, Yuda motioned for Jared to sit down, which he did after a moment’s hesitation. Ruka poured some whiskey into a glass and pushed it in front of him, which Jared quickly swallowed without any reservation. The soul gaki bound waited until the glass was dry before speaking.

"Who gave you the coin?" When Jared said nothing, Ruka waved his hand at the people sitting around them. "Don’t worry, they won’t overhear anything." When Jared looked around, he noticed that no one seemed to be paying the corner in which they sat any attention.

He only paused for a few more seconds before revealing the name. "Crawford was the one who gave me the coin and told me where to find you."


If he thought the men had reacted to his presence upon him entering the inn, it was nothing compared to what they did just now. He did not have any time to react before he found himself picked up out of the chair and slammed against the nearest wall, his feet dangling in the air as Yuda held him off the ground. "Why did he send you? Is it about Shin? Why can’t Ruka read your mind?"

Jared snarled in response and tried to claw at the hands that held him tight against the wall, but was dropped to his feet before he could react. As he huddled against the wall to keep from falling onto his face, he realized that it was Ruka’s intervention behind his release; the silver-haired bound had his left hand on Yuda’s right shoulder and seemed to be carrying on a mental conversation. As the seconds dragged on, the look of utter rage left Yuda’s handsome face, replaced by an expression of pure longing and then careful blankness.

"Sit back down," Yuda ordered, and the smoothness of his voice was gone, shattered by whatever emotion he was so desperately was trying to keep in check. Considering what Jared knew about the man, he would be willing to bet it was longing for Shin, the reason behind this mission.

He did what he was told, not at all eager to get into a fight with the two bounds. With that in mind, he decided to put one fear to rest as soon and as thoroughly as he could. "You can’t read my mind because Crawford… well, he gave me something that would hide my thoughts in case I came across any agents who are looking for you." There was no way in any of the many hells he would tell these two about Aya – not when he heard Yohji’s voice reverberating in his head, the memory alone enough to make him whine in fear. He had sworn to the much more powerful bound that he would never tell anyone what Aya was, and even if Crawford said these two could be trusted, he would leave it to the precog to explain a few things. Besides, the mere thought of the kage made his mouth snap shut and his jaw clench as if to trap the dreaded word inside.

Yuda and Ruka exchanged another long look and again what had to be some unspoken words, then turned back to face him. "So, Crawford sent you to find us and went to great pains to make sure that no one uncovered your mission, correct?" Ruka’s voice was not as smooth or as deep as Yuda’s, but contained a quietness to it that reminded Jared of Trowa. "Please don’t take this as too much of a threat, but I believe it would be best if you got to the *why* of you finding us right away." Beside Ruka, Yuda fidgeted in his seat as if unable to keep still, his attention focused on Jared with a frightening intensity.

Oh hell, Jared could not help but wonder what gods he had pissed off lately. How did he go about telling these two Crawford’s message and have any kind of hope that they would not tear out of the inn and head straight for the Koneko? Yohji would be able to keep them under control with just a few words, Aya with those nasty glares of his and Reiichi with some clever ruse, but he did not have any of their power or cleverness. Dammit, maybe he should have borrowed one of Jo’s rolling pins or something. All that came to mind was the simplest way to get a bound to listen to him, and he hoped that it would work.

"I will… after you promise me something." His voice cracked in fear as he spoke, his demon soul chiding him for showing the emotion even as it worried about offending the two more powerful bounds. He definitely had their attention with that statement, and their eyes narrowed in anger as they waited for him to continue. "Look, I swear to you that it’s not anything bad, but I’m under very strict orders from Crawford, who wants you to follow me back to… where we’re going." That did not seem to make much of an impression on either of them, causing Jared to curse under his breath. "I swear upon both my souls that this isn’t a trap of any kind, that I need you to promise me something in return because it’s the only way you’re going to get something you really want." He did his best to look as earnest as possible and not whine, and he almost flinched when he smelled a strong scent of lust and anger waft towards him from Yuda.

The succubae bound appeared ready to beat the information out of him, but once again Ruka’s cooler head prevailed. He held back his friend while eyeing Jared as if he could read his true intentions through body language. "All right, you have a token that only one other person should know about, and I can’t imagine that there would be many other people able to find a charm powerful enough to block out my talent, so you have my trust and my oath." Ruka slapped Yuda on the arm when his friend began to protest. "I swear to you that I will follow your instructions, as long as it’s clear that they come from Crawford and that you’re not going to betray us." He had to slap Yuda again to get the man to echo the promise.

Feeling that he had gotten as good an oath out of them as possible, and not too concerned about the conditions that Ruka had thrown in since he was not there to betray them, Jared reached into his pocket again for Crawford’s letter. "All right. I’ll tell you why I’m here, but you *have* to follow my lead afterwards, understand?" He waited for both men to nod before he said anything else. "The last thing Crawford wants is you racing off to find him, and he said it would have disastrous results if we don’t take our time going back to- ah, to meet him."

"Disastrous for whom?" Ruka asked, while Yuda stared at the slip of paper as if it was the most important thing in the world.

Jared decided he might as well get this over with and hope for the best. "For all of us, really, but mostly Shin and Rei."

Mention of the two bounds’ names provoked instant reactions from Ruka and Yuda. The soul gaki bound lost his calm demeanor, his face twisted into a snarl and claws became exposed, while Yuda shoved his chair behind him so hard that it broke into several pieces when it hit the wall. Reacting as well, Jared jumped out of his chair, his teeth bared and his arms held in front of his face to protect it and his throat. "I’m going to kill Crawford for this!" he yelled, and hoped that there was enough left of him after Ruka and Yuda were done to be burned to ash.

"Yuda!" Ruka’s voice was loud and raw, twisted by the growl that rumbled out of his throat. There were sounds of a scuffle, and then a gentle touch to Jared’s right arm. He lashed out with all his might, but Ruka was able to dodge the blow.

"It’s… it’s not a good idea to threaten us with those two," the soul gaki bound explained, appearing to do his best to control his demon nature.


Struggling just as much to do the same, it took Jared a few tries to get his lips to cover his fangs. "I’m not threatening them, I promise you! I’m just saying what that bastard Crawford told me to say!" Remembering the slip of paper that was now crumpled in his right hand, he held it up.

Moving almost too fast to be seen, Yuda snatched it away. "If Shin is in any way hurt, I’ll break my oath without any hesitation." Unlike Ruka, he did not seem to be trying to control his demon side, his purple eyes blazing with fury. The emotion was so powerful that his hands shook as he unfolded the note, almost tearing the paper to shreds.

Taking a deep breath to help calm himself down a little more, Jared began to share the information he had been given, part of which was included in the note. "I swear on whatever hell you want me to that I’m not threatening those two. Crawford sent me here to keep them safe as well as honor the promise he made to you. What he wants is-"

A sharp inhale on Yuda’s part cut him off. "He’s getting them out of Esset," Yuda hissed, hands crumpling the note as he looked to Ruka. "They… by now they might even be in Kritiker." If Ruka’s voice had sounded raw just moments before, Yuda’s just then was downright painful to hear. Despite the fact that the man scared him and he did not like the idea of spending the next week or two with him, Jared felt a sudden rush of pity. What was it like to want something with all your heart and then be denied it? To have it be just out of reach and then be told to take things slowly if you wanted to claim that prize?

"Please, listen to Crawford," he urged the two bounds. "He knows what he’s doing and he said to give them time to get… well, to where we’re going."

Yuda handed the paper to Ruka, for a moment perfectly still before he whirled around to face Jared. "Where is he?" The growl was back in his voice, even if his expression was one of pleading. "I swear to you that I’ll do as Crawford says, but *tell me* where he is! What if something happens to you?"

Jared imagined that if he got separated – or worse – from Yuda that the succubae bound would tear through all of Kritiker until he found Shin. That and the pity he felt made him relent a little. "We’re to go to Eto." He pushed back his shoulders and tried to glare at the others. "That’s all I’ll tell you for now, and don’t even think of running off on me. Crawford said you’ll only make things harder on yourself if you get there too soon."

Maybe he should not have said that last bit, because Yuda and Ruka went from looking as if they understood things to being suspicious. "How so?" Ruka asked, and even though his voice was quiet and face impassive, there was an edge to the words and a gleam in his red eyes that warned Jared that he better answer.

Oh hell, he kept getting in deeper and deeper. Pushing past the two men, he sat down at the table and drank several swallows of whiskey straight from the bottle. During that time, Ruka and Yuda joined him, Yuda grabbing another chair to replace the one he had destroyed. All around them in the busy inn, people continued to act as if they were not there. No doubt about it, Ruka was a very powerful soul gaki bound.

"Keep in mind that I only know what Crawford told me, and it isn’t much," he explained after wiping his mouth dry with the back of his left hand. "He sent some people he trusts to Berin to get your… friends out of there. Something to do with the Elders," he stuttered a little as he spoke the word, filled with hatred and fear for the old bastards, "forcing them to use their talent too much."

Ruka and Yuda immediately looked to each other, their expressions a mix of concern and fear. "If they’re pushed too far, then they would be very weak," Ruka said, his voice little more than a whisper.

"Shin’s prone to fevers when he uses too much energy." Yuda groaned and buried his face in his hands, and Jared caught another potent whiff of lust. "That… might complicate things with the compulsion he’s under." The words were muffled by his hands, but still clear enough to be understood.


Ruka nodded and smoothed out the note on top of the table. "Crawford said that would be dealt with, if we give him some time. He promises to meet all the conditions we set upon him." He tapped his fingers against the still crinkled paper. "He didn’t have to send for us so soon, you know. All he had to do was get them out of Berin within five years, so he had enough time to make us wait if he wanted." Ruka’s voice was still calm and quiet, but his red eyes burned with virulent emotions, which made Jared think that it would be worth Crawford’s life if he had done just that.

Pushing back the reddish strands falling onto his face, Yuda let out a slow breath then nodded. "Unless… there’s a chance that some information would get to us that he did not want us to know." Unlike his friend’s, his voice was ragged, crackling with anger and lust.

"Such as them being pushed to their breaking point." The calm expression on Ruka’s face became murderous in the space of a heartbeat. "We’ve heard about the warnings to the bounds who can heal or control the weather to get out of Esset, and know how much *they* relied on the cousins’ talents. I think we should prepare ourselves for the worst."

"Yes." For a moment, Yuda’s voice sounded like Aya’s, deep and sibilant although it was full of emotion instead of bereft of it. He shared a long look with Ruka before facing Jared. "We’re going to the border."

"Whoa!" Where the hell had that come from? Jared once more was on his feet, his hands slapping against the table’s top. "Did you hear anything that I said? You’re not to see your… friends until Crawford feels the time is right!" Did he have to sit on these two to keep them here or something? Like that would go over very well….

Yuda bared his teeth while Ruka left the table without saying a word. "We’re very well aware of that fact, as you should be about how we’d *never* willingly cause Shin and Rei any harm. That said, what we’re going to do is head to the border and make sure that none of the Elders’ agents follow them back to Eto." He rose from his chair, the motion as fluid and entrancing as that of a snake’s, his pale eyes staring into Jared’s. "I’ve known Crawford for three decades, and he leaves nothing to chance. If you’re here now, then I’m willing to bet my life that Shin’s well past the border already." Anguish flashed across his face, replaced by longing so severe that Jared almost had to look away. "We won’t cross his or his cousins’ paths if we head straight there, and it’ll buy Crawford the time he needs while we make sure any danger is taken care of."

Jared’s mouth opened and closed a few times while he thought that over. Damn his souls, but Crawford had not really said much of anything, other than to keep the bounds occupied for the next two weeks. If they rode hard, they could be at the border in about a day, and searching for and taking care of any Esset agents would keep them busy. "All right." He stepped back from the table, his arms folded over his chest. "Any agents we find, I get to eat ‘em." At least he would get a good meal out of this, if he did not end up dead.

For the first time since he had met the man, Yuda smiled, his handsome face seeming to glow and his eyes become brighter. Sweet gods, ring or no ring, Jared felt a pull of attraction to the succubae bound, and he was straight! Then something occurred to him, making him moan and bury his face in his hands.

"Is something wrong?" The suspicion was back in Yuda’s voice, causing Jared to sigh and shake his head.

"Nothing that has to do with this mission or Shin, I promise." Jared once again looked at the handsome man, taking in his height and muscular build. As soon as he got Yuda and Ruka to the Koneko, he was heading in the opposite direction. Yohji was supposed to be the strongest succubae bound alive, and he had no doubts about it, but this Yuda seemed pretty powerful and was not related to the innkeeper. Nope, he did not want to be anywhere around two powerful bounds fighting it out over who was strongest, especially not when Yohji already scared the hell out of him at times *and* there was Aya to consider as well. "Look, I have to warn you that there’s a very powerful succubae bound living at where we’re headed."


He winced at the blatant hatred on Yuda’s face and in his scent. "How powerful?"

Not about to get dragged into this, Jared shook his head. "You’ll find out soon enough." Then something occurred to him while Yuda growled over his answer. "But don’t worry, he has a mate and there’s no way *he’ll* ever let… uhm, no, your friend is safe."

That did not seem to completely put Yuda at ease, but at least he stopped glaring. "If this other bound has a mate, then Shin should be fine." He regarded Jared for a long moment of silence. "You know he’s not my ‘friend’, don’t you?"

"Yeah." Feeling drained from this encounter, Jared almost sat down again, but leaned against the back of his chair instead. "Crawford told me you’re supposed to be mates." He thanked the gods every day that he did not seem to have one himself, or had at least not found her yet, considering the pain a bound could suffer because of that bond.

"As soon as we’re together again, we *will* be mates." There was so much conviction in Yuda’s voice that Jared found himself nodding in response. "So be warned, interfere with our reunion in any manner and it’ll be your death."

Jared had no doubt that would happen if he tried to keep the two men apart for very long and was about to protest his innocence when Ruka appeared, wearing a lightweight cloak that was a mix of green and grey in color. He had a pair of saddlebags draped over each shoulder and one in each hand. "The horses will be ready in a minute," he said, eagerness plain in his voice and a slight smile on his face. "I contacted Yvonne and she’ll have a new set ready for us when we get there."

Yuda was smiling as well, no longer the terrifying vision he had been a moment before. "Good. Let’s go." He did not wait for an answer, merely reached for the bags in Ruka’s hands before heading straight for the door. Ruka followed, then Jared, who was wondering just what he had gotten himself into. Somehow, he did not think he was really in charge anymore, and was acutely aware that there was only a certain amount of time the bounds would let him keep secret just where in Eto Shin and Rei were staying. Oh yes, he would show the two men to the Koneko and then leave; not even the thought of taking a few chunks out of Crawford was enticing enough to make him stick around for that little get-together.

*******

Gou sat with his back against the side of the wagon and hugging Shin close while his cousin slept, with Rei’s head resting against his left thigh. Gai was by the back gate of the wagon keeping a careful watch for anyone following them, while the two… Guards sat up front.

Even after all this time and everything they had done for him and his cousins, he had a bit of trouble accepting the fact that the soul gaki bound and wizard were part of the Guard, even if it was a secret division. The fact alone that a wizard, albeit a minor and barely trained one, and a bound could work together…. He watched as Naru leaned closer to Eri, a huge grin on his face as they slowly approached one of Eto’s Gates.

The two definitely shared a close bond between them, and appeared very relieved to have reached Kritiker’s capital. As for himself, he felt his body tense, aware that if there was a time for them to be betrayed, it would be now. Oddly enough, he did trust Eri and Naru, he just had heard so many bad things about this country and the people who policed its laws.

A quick glance at Gai confirmed that they were not being followed, so he shifted a little to better see out the front of the wagon. As if aware of his movement, Naru broke off talking to Eri to turn around to face him. "We’re almost there." His smile faltered a little as he took in Shin and Rei’s slumbering forms. "Once we get… uhm, once we’re at the Koneko, Jo will have them in bed so fast that your head will spin. And while you try to recover from the shock, she’ll be forcing more of Cassandra’s special blend down their throats to help them regain some strength."


That was the first time that either Naru or Eri had said where it was they were going, other than to Eto. Gou nodded in appreciation, his chin brushing against Shin’s silky hair. "They could really use that," he murmured, aware of just how thin his cousins had become in the last few months. Using their powers by the border had taken the very last of their reserves, and they had barely been conscious since then. What they needed the most right now was rest and a means to regain some energy.

/That will happen at the Koneko, I promise./ Eri’s mental voice sounded hesitant, as if she regretted speaking this way, yet Gou did not mind; Ruka had spoken to him like this so often, and very few soul gaki bounds since then, that it was almost comforting. /The inn possesses a hot spring renowned for its healing benefits. I’m sure Shin and Rei will benefit from a few soaks in it./

He nodded in agreement, sure that Shin at least would enjoy the hot spring. Hugging his cousin a little closer, he stared past Eri to the Gate now only a couple of dozen yards away, its height obscured by falling rain.

Eri must still be reading his mind because she continued talking to him as she urged the horses to slow down. /We have friends stationed at this Gate./ She paused for a moment, brow furrowed as if she was concentrating on something. /Cerise is a wind elemental and while Declan is human, his lover is a fire elemental. Please don’t take any offense if you smell her on him./

Naru chuckled and twisted about once more, obviously having been included in Eri’s explanation. "Reiko’s really protective of him, I have to warn you. She said in almost eight decades, this is the first guy who brings her flowers just to make her smile." He seemed to be doing his best to put Gou and Gai at ease that Gou gave him a slight smile in acknowledgement. "Did you pick up why they’re at the Gate?" Naru asked his partner.

Eri surprised Gou by laughing, something she had not done much since he had met her. "It seems that Reiko and Martin got assigned to the district right next to Cerise and Declan’s, so Yuushi temporarily moved them to the Gate. There’s been a few suspected arsons, so Reiko’s talent is of more importance in that area than Cerise’s." There was an odd note of longing in her voice as she mentioned the Shadow Guard’s Captain, a note that Gou had noticed each time this Yuushi was brought up.

"I’m sure Declan and Cerise don’t really mind." Naru actually sounded thoughtful then, his expression serious for once. He opened his mouth as if to say something else, but by that point, they were close to the Gate and surrounded by people waiting for admittance.


Gou felt his body become tense once more; he had never been around so many humans before, and it sunk in that soon enough he had be in a city surrounded by thousands of them. Reminding himself that he had allies who would make sure he and his cousins were safe, he forced himself to relax before he called any fire into being. This was not any worse than being surrounded by bounds who only wanted to use him and the others or to see them disgraced and powerless. No, he would gladly deal with humans if it meant that they were safe.

They proceeded at a slow pace to the Gates, the Guards obviously doing a thorough job of checking out whoever wanted to enter the city. Considering that the Elders routinely sent out spies, Gou did not blame them for being so diligent, even if they might not have much luck against bounds who could alter thoughts or had lived long enough to be very good liars. Then again, some of those bounds just might be one of the Guards now….

When it was their turn, Eri smiled politely at the young man with blond hair and pale blue eyes. Seeing Gai start at something, Gou turned toward the back of the wagon and spied a young woman with black hair and blue eyes peering inside.

"It’s all right," she whispered so quietly that he knew she had to be a bound – no one else would expect a human to hear the faint words from that far a distance. As she stared back, a breeze entered the wagon and whirled around, lifting Rei and Shin’s long hair. Rei stirred, almost waking up, but the breeze died down, causing a lock of hair to fall over his nose.


Gou nodded to the woman, Cerise, earning a relieved smile as she patted in turn the two horses tied to the back of the wagon. "All clear," she called out, no doubt to her partner, Declan.

"Okay, you can go now," the human told Eri, a slight smile on his face that was probably because of the way he was so standoffish to two friends. Naru wrinkled his nose as if trying his best not to laugh, while Eri nodded and urged the horses to move forward.

Even with the illusion charm around his neck, Gou remained in the covered part of the wagon and let Gai hang out of its back, laughing at the sights around him. No, it was best to keep the exact number of people in the wagon hidden, just in case the Elders’ spies were taking note of whoever came into the city. His back twitched as if exposed to an unsheathed sword, and more than anything he wished that he could call his power into being and be prepared for any threat about to strike. Instead, he bore with the painstakingly slow ride through the city, the sounds of people all around him since it seemed like a busy time of day despite the soft fall of rain.

"Oh, I can’t wait to walk around this place!" Gai was so excited that his sharp teeth were showing, thankfully hidden from anyone who did not wear a charm from the set that Eri had given them. "There’s so much stuff! Is that a yakitori cart? Oh! They’re selling flavored ice back there! Can we stop for some?"

"No!" Eri and Gou yelled out in answer at the same time, and shared a quick smile before she resumed driving the horses and he took to glaring at his gluttonous cousin.

"Eri said we’d be well-fed once we get to the inn," he reminded Gai, who of all things took to pouting. Unsure of how long they would be here, Gou did not make any promises of coming back, either. Thankfully, after a few minutes Gai appeared to remember why they were here in the first place and resumed quietly watching the city as they rode past. From the pleased purrs and occasional whines from his cousin, Gou knew that he was mentally marking down any stand or restaurant that seemed promising, with the intent of returning one day soon. He would have to keep a close eye on Gai and make sure the idiot did not run away from the inn.

The crowds around them slowly thinned and Eri urged the horses to go a little faster. The two geldings at the back began to bob their heads and make snuffling sounds, most likely recognizing their surroundings and eager to be home. More than a little curious about their destination, Gou shifted a bit more to the left so he could see what was ahead of them.

Naru’s pleased laughter suggested that the huge, red-bricked building in front of them was the Koneko. The horses at the back pulled at the leads attached to the wagon and neighed as they passed through another gate, this one much smaller than the one around the city. Immediately, two men left the large stable to come greet them, careful to avoid a few puddles.

"You should take off your charms now; there’s no need to hide how you look." Excitement warmed Eri’s soft voice as she struggled to bring the horses to come to a halt in front of the stable. Everyone but Shin and Rei did as she had suggested; Gou removed their illusion charms from them and was careful to tuck them inside one of his pockets.

Gai hissed as the younger of the two strangers approached, from the looks of it a boy not more than fifteen years old. The boy stopped at once, a low whine building in his throat clueing Gou into what was happening. He sent a small lick of fire to brush against the back of his cousin’s right ear. "Behave!"

Whining in pain, Gai bared his teeth at Gou, but stopped threatening the younger and obviously weaker earth elemental. After a moment’s pause, the boy resumed his approach to the wagon, quickly snatching free the leads so he could take the two geldings back to the stables. They nearly pulled him off his feet in their eagerness to get inside the building.

Meanwhile, the older of the two stable-hands was at the front of the wagon, busy rubbing the nearest horse’s neck while he chatted with Eri, not seeming to mind the light rain that dampened his clothes. "Everything’s ready inside." He was quiet for a moment, his deep-set eyes narrowed as if he was bothered by something. "Step lightly around Yohji, all right? He’s been on edge lately, which means that Aya’s temper is pretty frazzled as well."

Eri paled at that, while Naru laughed as he jumped from the wagon’s seat. "I take it that now’s not a good time to ask Aya what flesh gaki mauled his neck during the night?"

The man’s guarded expression smoothed out and his lips curved the tiniest bit. "Not unless you’ve written your will and are prepared to meet the gods, no. He even snapped at Reiichi the other night."

"Oh, hell." Naru’s amusement fled, replaced by a worried look that quickly was replaced in its turn by his usual cheeky grin. "Figures I wasn’t here for that!"

"Hmm, Aya actually apologized once he realized what he had done." The man held out his hand to assist Eri down from the wagon’s front seat. "Does anyone need some help?" He was looking inside the wagon as he spoke, the slight smile from before gone.

"No, so please tend to the horses." Eri’s tone was now subdued, a clear sign that she was bothered by whatever the man had told her. "I fear we pushed them rather hard."

The man grunted as he set about freeing the horses from the wagon. "I’ve no doubt, but they’ll get some rest now." The young earth elemental returned to the courtyard and assisted with the horses, appearing perfectly at ease to work with a human. That surprised Gou, considering that the only humans he was used to were servants who were always careful to not be too friendly to any bounds.

Thinking about how Kritiker was so far not living up to the horror stories he had heard all his life, he motioned for Gai to come for Rei and began to shake Shin awake. The water elemental’s eyelids slowly fluttered apart as a frown formed on his flushed face. "Gou?" Shin sounded groggy, his voice thick as if he suffered from a cold. He had been getting more and more congested the last few days, and Rei had developed a sniffle as well.

"We’re here." If by some chance his instincts were wrong and this was a trap, Gou wanted Shin and Rei awake. "I’ll carry you."

Shin nodded once and smiled, the expression so hopeful that Gou felt as if his heart was squeezed in a vise for several seconds. "Is Yuda here?"


"Eri said he would be here soon after us," he reminded, not quite ready to face the succubae bound right now – and certain that Shin was not ready, either. The debilitating effects of the compulsion were bad enough when he was at full strength, but weak as he was….

He heard Rei mumble something to Gai about not dropping him and then sniffle. Gou made sure to have a firm hold on his cousin before leaving the wagon, enjoying the chance to stand to his full height once on the ground. Now that he was outside, he noticed the huge garden off to the right, filled with blooming roses, snapdragons, dahlias and what had to be over a dozen other types of flowers. There was even a koi pond, the sound of flowing water soothing. He could smell lavender as well, though he did not see it anywhere. There were benches and small tables scattered about, no doubt the garden full of people whenever it was not raining.

Once they were all out of the wagon, Eri waved them toward a wooden door painted green. She almost jogged along the path that led to the door, Naru right on her heels as if just as eager to get inside. When they approached the entrance, she stopped to let him go in first, reaching out to put her hand on Gou’s arm as if in warning.

/Listen, whatever you do, please don’t provoke Yohji or Aya./ Images flashed through his mind at the two names, one a tall man with golden skin and hair, his eyes a deep shade of emerald and a knowing grin on his handsome face. The other man was only slightly shorter, with blood red hair and pale skin. /Yohji’s a very powerful succubae bound, and it seems he’s not happy with Yuda coming here. Aya’s his mate, so what bothers Yohji bothers him as well./

"Wow, a redhead." Gai’s surprised voice let Gou know that Eri had shared the information and warning with him as well. "What is he?"

Eri must not have heard the question since she did not answer it, instead she turned around and went through the now open door. Sharing a look with his cousin, Gou shifted Shin higher up in his arms and headed that way as well, wanting to be out of the rain.

He did not know what he had been expecting, but entering the warm, brightly lit kitchen had not been it. The sight of all the pots, pans, hearths, tables and cabinets confused him for a moment, used as he was to Rei’s make-shift little cooking area. This place was so well equipped that it could probably feed a small army, and the air was scented with the aromas of so many wonderful meals. Rei, clutching Gai’s shoulders as if afraid he would be dropped at any moment, struggled to look around, and even Shin seemed curious about the room.

"I’ve seen half-drowned cats look better than the two of you." The thin woman who first frowned at Shin and Rei then glared at Gou appeared human, her brown hair streaked with grey and her hands balled into fists while resting on her hips. She did not look like much of a fighter, yet something in her tone made Gou straighten his back. Fortunately, she quickly focused her attention on Eri and Naru. "It took you long enough!"

"Sorry, Jo." Eri bowed low to the woman before motioning to Gou and his cousins. "This is Gou, Gai, Shin and Rei."

When she turned back at them, the glare was gone from Jo’s face, replaced by a worried frown. "They need to be put to bed." She waved her right hand, and Gou was ashamed of the fact that he had failed to notice the two people standing by one of the hearths. "Mickey, are the rooms ready?"

The man who answered her was taller than Gou with very broad shoulders. He seemed to be human, too, and was just as deferential to Jo as Eri had been. "They’ve been airing out for the past hour." Beside him was another young man with black hair, though he was of a much smaller build than Mickey. "Yohji’s checking on them now."

Mention of the green-eyed bound made Gou wary, and he almost missed Shin whispering to him that he wanted to sit down. However, human or not, Jo did notice the request. "If you want some tea and a bite to eat before you go upstairs, that’s fine." She motioned toward one of the tables, where there was a platter of bread, cheese and fruit.

Figuring that it would do Shin and Rei some good to eat before going back to sleep, Gou set his cousin down, Gai hurrying to do the same with Rei. Moving with a grace that spoke of a long-time familiarity with the kitchen, Jo went to the huge stove and fetched a large black tea kettle. She set it on the nearest counter before taking a tin from one of the room’s many cupboards. While Shin and Rei settled on a bench worn smooth by years of use, Jo filled a tea pot with a blend of leaves that Gou recognized by smell, followed by boiling water.

"Eat something while the tea steeps," she ordered as she approached the table with the pot. "I’ve also some coffee, if you’d like."

"Fresh coffee?" Gai asked, stunned at the way the drink was offered so freely. They usually did not get it back in Berin, not when the supply was so limited and the Elders had their favorites. Gou was quick to nod in acceptance, for a moment distracted from the worry he felt at the way Shin slumped against his left shoulder.


"Would you prefer to go to bed" he asked, voice pitched low so as to not make the way that Shin was ignoring Jo’s offer of food and drink so obvious.

Golden eyes slightly unfocused, Shin managed two slow shakes of his head. "Something to eat right now would be best." He glanced over to where the two men were standing, now busy turning a whole pig on its spit, and managed a small smile. "We haven’t sat down to eat like this in…." His brow became furrowed, his expression one of complete confusion.

"I know." Gou pulled his cousin closer, highly concerned at how Shin was losing track of the days. Granted, even he was a little confused at first because of how the last several days had bled together, when they only stopped the wagon long enough for the horses to get some rest, avoiding as many towns and cities as possible. "From the sounds of it, the beds will be ready soon."

"Good." Shin closed his eyes and rested his head against Gou’s shoulder, leaving it to him to prepare two plates of food. When he nudged his cousin in the side, Shin sighed in exhaustion and sat up a little, right hand trembling as he reached for a piece of cheese.

Beside them, Rei asked Jo about the kitchen, his voice halting at first before slowly growing steadier, filled with whatever bit of enthusiasm he could summon. She answered the questions, a wry twist to her lips as she set mugs of coffee down in front of Gai and Gou, brown eyes intent on Shin and Rei as if to judge their physical condition. When she decided that the tea had steeped long enough, she poured it for them, even going so far as to put large dollops of honey into each mug. Although she seemed human, she obviously had some experience in dealing with bounds.

The hunger that had gnawed at Gou for the last few hours had just been blunted when the inner door of the kitchen opened to admit the two men that Eri had warned him about. The blond, Yohji, was in the lead, with Aya following as if his shadow.

"Eri, how many times have I told you that if you don’t do a good enough job of covering it, Naru will find your trail and follow you back home?" There was a teasing smile on Yohji’s handsome face as he talked to the Guards while skirting around the table.

Naru stuck his tongue out at the man, and it took Eri a few seconds to manage a shaky smile in return. "I keep trying to lose him, but haven’t had much luck of it," she said, her smile growing more genuine when she dodged the swat to her head from her partner.


"Of course you can’t lose me, the gods don’t like it when their blessings go astray," Naru said with an offended sniff.

"Just how much whiskey did you put in his coffee, Jo?" Yohji came to a halt by the sink and leaned his backside against the counter, his arms around Aya as the redhead stood in front of him. There was something very possessive about the gesture, something a little off in the smile that Yohji directed toward Gou.

If he had thought to doubt what Eri had told him about Yohji being so powerful, Gou’s feelings were set right now. Yuda had been the strongest succubae bound he had ever known, the pull of attraction around him enough to make Gou follow him almost anywhere. Yet whereas part of Yuda’s talent had been to make people feel trust and to respect him, Yohji’s seemed so much more sexual. Oh, the trust was there, but Gou was reminded just how long it had been since he had had sex as he stared at the blond.

Jo left the table where everyone was sitting to pick up a cloth-covered basket across the room. "And here you take Aya to task for his lack of manners." Her voice held a waspish tone, her eyes narrowed in anger as she held out the basket to Aya. "Yohji and Aya, I’d like you to meet Gou, Gai, Shin and Rei." She nodded to each of them in turn before staring at Aya. "You’ve lost a little weight."

"Oh, don’t even start threatening me again," Yohji snapped, surprising Gou and his cousins with the way he answered the woman. Meanwhile, Aya folded back the cloth and picked out what looked to be a pastry of sorts, appearing unbothered by his mate’s outburst. "It’s not like it’s deliberate!"

Jo’s response to that was a very eloquent snort, the loud sound jerking Shin from the half-doze he had fallen into while sipping his tea. Over his head, Gou and Gai shared a look, both clearly at a loss as to what was not being spoken out loud and wondering what they had gotten themselves into.

Yohji whined for a few seconds, managing to snare their attention again. "I can’t help it," he said, his expression so chagrined just then that Gou had no trouble believing him. Aya mumbled something, the words too faint to be heard from where they sat though Jo seemed to hear them and nodded in turn. The longer Gou looked at the redhead, trying to figure out if he was a gaki or elemental bound, the more it seemed as if the man… faded away. That was not quite right, but it was almost difficult to look at him for very long.

The brown-clad arms wrapped around the quiet bound tightened, and Gou felt as if he *had* to look at Yohji. How did the blond get away with hiding his bound nature from humans when it seemed so obvious that he had a succubae soul? He practically radiated desire, green eyes heavy-lidded and body possessing a languidness that was downright decadent. Shifting about uncomfortably in his seat, Gou was relieved to notice that Gai appeared similarly affected by Yohji.

It came as a surprise when Jo reached out and smacked Yohji on the left shoulder, an angry scowl on her face and no trace of fear to her scent. "Behave. Now, how are the bedrooms?"

Yohji whined again, and paused to kiss his mate’s left temple before speaking. "They’re ready. We even warmed the beds because of the damn rain." He looked at Eri and Naru, his smile genuine once more. "Reiichi’s getting *your* beds ready right now – he said to tell you that Yuushi’s stuck working late."

Eri’s cheeks flushed at the comment, and a chortling Naru suddenly clutched his head as if plagued by a headache. "Thank you. I must admit, all I really want to do is wash off and then crawl into bed." She frowned at the knowing looks that Yohji and Naru gave her, lips pulling back from her teeth in a clear warning.

Just then, Gou wished that Shin was feeling better; his cousin was the most observant of the four of them and very good at putting the pieces of a puzzle together. Unfortunately, Shin barely seemed able to stay awake long enough to finish his tea, and even if he had been well, most likely he would be too lost in thoughts of Yuda to pay attention. That left Gou to try to figure things out on his own, not something that made him very happy when he was in a strange country and relying on the charity of strangers.

Despite the very odd situation he found himself in, the tension he had felt before entering Eto did not return. He may not know these people, or their reasons for hiding him and his cousins, but he did not fear them. No, he felt surprisingly at ease while sitting in this kitchen, listening to Jo chide Yohji about something while one of the men by the hearth snickered at some unknown joke. Gai was eating as if he had been without food for a week, Rei appeared the most awake he had been in days, and even Shin’s eyes were a bit clearer as if the tea and food were working wonders for his exhaustion and cold.

Eri and Alexis had sworn that they would be safe here, and Gou trusted the women at their word. Whatever the future would bring, he at least had hope that they would be safe here until Shin and Rei were a bit stronger – he just prayed that happened before Yuda and Ruka appeared. There was no sign of Crawford, which meant that Gou had no idea how much longer his dear cousins would suffer from the compulsions forced upon them. Hopefully, it would not be much longer, and one more chain binding them to the Elders would be gone.


Until then, he would remain on guard and make sure that his family was safe. Over-use of his talent, worry and the hard ride from Berin had left him exhausted as well, but it was nothing that a good night’s rest would not cure. As much as he knew that Shin and Rei drew comfort from each other, he would split up the two so he and Gai were with them during the night. Perhaps tomorrow he would have more luck in figuring out what Aya was and talk to Crawford about several things. Right now he was too tired to do much of anything other than eat and then sleep, which never boded well for making plans or judgments. All he knew was that something about being here put him at ease, something he had never felt back in the palace.

*******

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