Storm Warnings

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chapter four

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mysteries and arrivals

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Masato eased himself from the bed he shared with Schu, his mate still fast asleep and taking up most of the space. For him to be unconscious like that he must still be tired, so Masato figured that it would be best to let him sleep a little longer. While Schu did feed off of his emotions, it did not seem to supply as much ‘energy’ as Masato got during sex. Considering how much he had indulged last night, the brat would probably remain in bed until dragged out of it.

That meant he would have to come up with another way to entice Schu into the land of the living. He smiled as he left the bedroom door open a crack and made his way to the kitchen. Cassandra had been by two days ago to clean the place, so all he had to do was pick up a few empty glasses and a plate covered with crumbs to restore the living room to a mostly pristine condition. There was no way that woman would have raised a slob and Masato was too pleased about having a home once more to make it a sty, but they did tend to forget about things such as dishes when their demon appetites took over.

He glanced around to make sure he had all the dirty plates and glasses, a sense of pride swelling in his chest as he observed his new home. The apartment was small, something that two seemingly young men would not have trouble explaining away as a purchase, and it was located on the top floor of a five story building. They had lots of windows to let in sunlight and air, the top of the walls sloped in slightly because of the roof, there were a few weird angles to the living room, and it was *theirs*. All Schu cared about was having a place close to his mother’s, and Masato that it would be secure and safe.

They had gotten it after a bit of searching around, and various friends had stopped by to provide them with wards against magic, air, water, earth and fire. Even Aya had supplied a bit of shadows for protection, with Yohji growling all the while, his arms wrapped so tightly around his mate that Aya had practically squeaked each time he inhaled. For Yohji to allow his mate into another succubae bound’s home and offer up a bit of magic….

Shaking his head, Masato could not help but feel a bit of fondness for his son. Now that they both had mates and recognized who was the stronger of the two, they… mostly got along. Yohji did not glare at him the entire time he was at the Koneko now, and he was growing to tolerate the obvious affection and friendship between Schu and Yohji. Perhaps they were too much alike to ever truly be friends, but there was more behind his willingness to do anything to save his son than the promise to Miyuki, and Yohji had actually sought out his advice on a few things. With a bit of good luck and a lot of time, their relationship could probably strengthen into something more resembling that between a father and son.

He realized that he really did want that to happen. All he had left of Miyuki at this point was Yohji, and now that he had a new love, the pain he felt over her loss was slowly fading. While he would never wish to change fate, he liked having reminders of his first mate around, was touched by the way Yohji would tilt his head to the side or certain looks he would give people. Masato could smile over those familiar characteristics now, content with his life once more.

After all, he had a new mate, a very rare second chance that he thanked the gods for every day no matter how much Schu threatened to drive him mad upon occasion. A mate who would live for a very long time, the gods willing, who could look out for himself and who would never be an easy target. Perhaps Miyuki had been given to Masato to make sure he knew what it was to love and trust someone, as well as to father Yohji, so he could best enjoy his new relationship with Schu. While he was certain that his hair would turn silver before the rest of his body aged, he had to admit that the brat made each day an adventure.

If said brat woke up at all, he reminded himself, and began to prepare a pot of coffee in the hopes of achieving that goal. That was one more thing to make him reflect upon his good fortune; having a kitchen stocked with his favorite foods and beverages, there for him whenever he felt the need. There had been so many years of running from various wizards and the Elders’ hounds, so many meals snatched on the go and nights spent sleeping outdoors. He never took the simple pleasures that filled his new home for granted, and things such as making scrambled eggs with sausage and peppers were almost a miracle.

Part of him thought that he would soon grow used to this and forget about the hard times, and then he remembered the approaching war. He had hope that they could return to the city afterwards, but there was a chance they might be on the run if the wrong people figured out what they were. Still, he would have Schu beside him for that, and friends he could turn to for help and shelter. Perhaps the gods were making up for all the pain and loss he suffered up until a year ago.

Whatever the reason for his reversal of fate, he was determined to enjoy it for however long it lasted. Putting the cooking skills he had accumulated over the decades to good use, he soon had a pot of brewed coffee on the table as well as enough food to feed two starving bounds. A faint tickle in the back of his mind informed him that his plan was working, and he had just sat down and began to butter a piece of toast when his erstwhile lover finally stumbled into the room.

No one would ever call Schu a morning person, not after seeing him so disheveled and oblivious to anything other than the pot of coffee. His hair stuck up in over a dozen directions and his dark green robe was wrinkled and barely tied shut. Masato got a quick brush of lips against half of his mouth and the side of his face when he held out a full mug of the beverage, and Schu did not say anything until it was empty. Holding it out to be refilled with an imperious attitude, the brat appeared to be slowly waking up.

<What, no pancakes? If I’m not gonna get sex first thing in the morning, I should at least get some damn pancakes.> Schu sulked as he held the now full mug against his lips, the perfect image of abject abuse.

"I figured that you had more than enough last night and could use a little more sleep." Masato resumed buttering his toast and spread some apple preserves on it, purring a little at the first bite and the way his physical hunger slowly settled. <You were the one who slept through me waking up and getting out of bed, after all,> he pointed out with plenty of smugness.

Schu wrinkled his nose in response, waiting until the mug was once more empty to say anything. He leaned across the table to snatch up the uneaten half of Masato’s toast, a wicked twinkle in his pale green eyes as he made a show of enjoying the treat. <What, don’t tell me that you ‘stuffed’ yourself silly last night.>

Reaching out with his right hand, Masato brushed aside a few crumbs clinging to his lover’s face. "No, I never get enough of you, Brat, and you damn well know it."

He got a very pleased smirk for that comment, Schu appearing as if all was right in his world. <And don’t you ever forget that.>

"You’ll never let me!" Masato laughed as he refilled both their mugs, happy with the way that Schuldig was helping himself to breakfast. "Besides, we promised your mother we’d stop by today for new clothes and to run a few errands. I’d prefer not to put up with her knowing looks over the way we strongly smell of each other." He liked Cassandra, he truly did, but Schu was not the only one who should be dubbed ‘Trouble’.

Schu paused in his eating long enough to shudder. <Like I want her to start handing out advice on how to ‘treat’ me right and keep me in line!> Schu had been scarred enough that one time when Cassandra had confided in Masato that he loved cherries, and she knew of a chemist who had managed to add the flavor to an oil suitable for lubricant. Hell, *Masato* had been a bit scarred by that as well, not knowing how to take the mother of his mate being involved so much in their sex life. She was younger than him, for the gods’ sakes, and much too interested in certain details he did not want to share.

"She’s always been that nosy." Schu’s tone and expression were very annoyed just then, but his emotions were affectionate and proud. "I guess too much of her life the past couple of decades has revolved around me." There was a flash of jealousy, probably prompted by him thinking of Botan, quickly stifled by happiness at his mother finding a worthy lover.

"You’re definitely her pride and joy." Masato smiled at his mate, grateful for the precog having raised her son to be so clever and independent. How different would things be if she had left him for someone else to raise?

<Don’t know and don’t care to know. Your problem is you think too much about ‘what-ifs’,> Schu grumbled, his expression serious for once as he stared across the table. <Yohji obviously got that from you, and both of you will drive me crazy about this obsessing over things you can’t change.>

Masato considered that for a moment and chuckled. "Such a wise brat."

"Of course." Refilling his plate, Schu paused before eating and waved his fork about. "It’s like how you were going on about this place while making breakfast – it’s just an apartment, Masato. We’ll be here for a couple of years, maybe longer, and one day we won’t even remember what the place looked like."

That was probably correct if they lived long enough, and Masato was once again reminded of both the differences in their ages and backgrounds. <Tell me that this place won’t have any special meaning to you after a couple of decades on the run. Tell me that you won’t look back on this place when we’re forced to move on and find a new home.> His thoughts took a somber turn, memories of all he had lost flickering through his mind.

Schu sighed and leaned back in his chair, appearing uncertain and much too young. "All right, so you’ve got a point there." Then, as was the norm for the brat, his emotions took a sudden turn and he was smiling. "In that case, I say we buy a fancy townhouse, then, and really live it up!" He had enough money stashed away from his years as a thief to afford it, although Crawford would have a fit over him attracting so much attention with the outrageous purchase. Judging from the evil curve to Schu’s smile, the brat had taken that into account as well.

<You like causing trouble too much,> Masato sent over their link, something he said much too often lately. "You know why that’s a bad idea," he added, all signs of good humor gone from his face and emotions.

"Yeah." Schu stabbed at his plateful of eggs and sausage a few times before he resumed eating. <Can’t stand out too much or else the old bastards will wonder what we’re up to. But I swear on whatever the hell you’d like that one day we will have that fancy townhouse, or maybe even a small mansion.> It would not take too much work on his part, considering his talent.

"Maybe a few years after the war." Pushing aside all fears of them not surviving it, Masato smiled at his troublesome mate. "We can find something really nice in Thracia." He would not in the slightest mind some villa by the sea, spending his days with a nearly naked lover as they enjoyed the sun and the surf.

"To think that Yohji calls you an old pervert." Schu chuckled and added a few images of his own to the fantasy, such as the huge bed they would spend most of their time in and some scandalous outfits that left little to the imagination.

"Nah, you’re the one who calls me that." A bit of heat crept into Masato’s voice before he recalled their appointment with Cassandra. Dammit, she insisted on making them outfits suitable for the approaching autumn and winter, already predicting another terribly cold end of the year. If they gave in to their hunger now, they would never make it to her shop in time and as it was they had to stop by the Koneko later. Things went a little better between him and Yohji if he did not smell so strongly of sex and Schu.

<Hmph, but he can reek of Aya as much as he wants?> Put out by not having a bit of fun before taking care of their responsibilities, Schu threw his fork onto the empty plate. <That’s not fair.>

Not about to remind his much younger lover that life rarely was, Masato sighed and finished the last of the toast. "He’s the one who has to share quarters with another succubae bound." That was another reason that their relationship had improved, and Masato felt genuine concern for his son having to share his home with a strange ‘rival’. "Besides, you’ll get to see Jo harangue him for draining Aya too much," he pointed out to cheer up his mate.

Schu’s wicked grin made a comeback. "That is true." He purred in happiness as he held up the pot of coffee, pleased that Masato was letting him drink the last of it. However, his good mood did not last for long. "Though that’s more fun if I’m not there having to work." The pout from before made a comeback, and Masato very wisely did not comment on it.

They had been informed last night that the bounds whom Crawford wanted rescued from Esset had arrived at the Koneko. Masato had trouble remembering these ‘cousins’ since they had been so reticent to appear at any functions in Berin’s Court, and he did not care for the plan of having Schu repair the mind of another succubae bound’s mate. While the compulsions that Shin suffered from were terrible and Masato would never wish for another bound to be kept from their mate, there could be dire consequences dealing with them.

Moving from his chair, Schu was a dark green and reddish-orange blur as he sauntered around the table to settle on Masato’s lap. This time, he got a proper kiss that left him breathless and whining in hunger. <Look, I’m not happy with Crawford handing out jobs like this or poking around in a stranger’s head. But….> For once he fell quiet, and over their link Masato knew that his recalcitrant mate had agreed to the job because he was aware of how much Shin was suffering over being separated from Yuda.

That revelation filled him with warmth, and he gave his lover a tender kiss on the side of his neck. <Promise me that if it looks too difficult you’ll accept help, all right?> He was well aware of the possessive nature of bounds, and there was nothing but animosity between Schu and Rufus Shinra. It was just not as important as the fact that the Elders had probably left a very dangerous mess inside the water elemental’s head, and he would *not* lose his precious mate to whatever traps were waiting to be sprung.

<I’m not about to be taken out by a half-senile and much weaker soul gaki bound, I’ll have you know.> Schu was very disgruntled at Masato for even thinking such a thing. <However, I have no problem leaving the tricky stuff to Rufus.> Despite his bravado, he was worried over what he would find inside, having never attempted anything quite like this before. He had done some compulsions of his own, mainly on Yohji, but this task was going to be rather daunting. Masato was certain his mate could handle it, he just did not want him hurt at all while doing so.

"See what you find when we stop by the Koneko today and then decide. I’d much rather Shinra suffer a nasty headache than you." He growled out the words, his arms tightening around Schu’s waist to hold him close.

"Are you sure we don’t have time for a little fun?" Schu asked, voice deepened with passion and too wicked for words. About to say that maybe they could be a little late, Masato’s jaws snapped shut when he felt a familiar presence in his mate’s head.

<If the beignets I made for a certain unappreciative and troublesome son of mine grow cold, I won’t make them again for at least a decade,> Cassandra warned, her emotions a bit cross and very put upon. Schu and Masato shared a regretful look before the brat got off his lap, a low whine building in the back of his throat.

<You never let me have any fun!> Schu complained, and Masato did his best to stifle the link between them so he would be left out of the mother/son squabble that was about to start. No, it would be best to get dressed and head out for the day, tend to their duties so they could come home and spend another lovely evening indulging in each other. He had learned over the years that letting his hunger grow a little sharp could be a good thing, as long as there was promise of a meal soon enough. Schu sure as hell never seemed to mind when that happened, either.

"Because I’ll never turn down fantastic sex," the brat told him with a wink and a salacious grin, waving him off to the bedroom while he tended to both his mother and the dirty dishes.

"And yet I’m the one called a pervert." Masato laughed as he went on his way, any fears he had about the future overcome by perfect happiness.

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Shin opened his eyes to the sight of a white ceiling above him, its starkness broken by a border of painted ivy around its edges. He stared at it for several seconds, confused by the bit of color and who could possibly have added it while he was not aware. It was something Rei might do, but where would he have gotten the paint? That was when he realized that he was laying in a bed by himself, a bed that was much softer than he was used to sleeping on.

He tried to sit up, his body reluctant to move and his mind clouded by exhaustion. The motion caused him to cough, then the bed dipped as weight settled beside him and helped him to sit.

"You’re warm," Gou said, voice low and anxious as he held Shin close and brushed his lips along his forehead. He pulled back enough to place Shin’s glasses on his nose.

About to ask where they were, Shin slowly remembered what had happened… the day before? His last memory was sitting in a large, brightly lit kitchen, followed by flashes of what appeared to be the room where he now was. His head ached, his throat was painfully dry and he had to urinate. "Where…" He blushed in embarrassment, voice cracking from the dryness.

"We’re at the Koneko." When his blush did not abate, Gou seemed to figure out what he had really asked about. "Oh." Strong arms picked him up, and Shin lacked the energy to say that he did not need to be carried around all the time. The sad thing was, it was not exactly the truth just now.

He could barely recall a time when he had felt energized, when it was not a trial to get up and cross a room by himself - when he could call upon his talent without any effort on his part. He hated how weak he had become, even if this latest spell had been by his own free will. All he could do was hope that such exhaustion would soon be behind him.

Gou carried him into the necessities room and left him there, then returned him to the bed once he was finished. If it had been anyone other than a dear cousin he would burrow beneath the bed in mortification, but all he could do was be grateful that Gou was here. "You said… Koneko?"

Moving from the bed, Gou poured water from a pitcher set out on the small desk and returned with the full glass. "The inn is called the Koneko," he explained as he handed over the glass, keeping a close eye on it as if afraid that Shin would drop it at any moment. "Bounds live and work here." His deep voice was quiet and awed.

Shin nodded to show that he was following what had been said, even if the motion caused his head to ache. That made sense, considering that Crawford had wanted them here; he could not imagine the man sending them somewhere unsafe. Yet they were in Kritiker, a land that actively hunted down bounds to drain them dry of blood and then kill them, who used the Guard for just that reason. At first, he thought he had been delusional with fever when Eri and Naru had admitted to being part of the Guard, especially since Eri was a bound. It had taken Gou and Rei to convince him it was the truth.

Since then, it had become obvious that they had been lied to about many things, but he did not think it was unreasonable to still have some doubts about how well bounds were accepted into Kritiker society. Despite that cynical thought, he had to admit that it was heartening how some humans could see his kind as friends and even lovers. That helped to make their defection from Esset a bit easier to bear. They had left behind a few friends in Berin, and the place where they had spent all their lives.

He felt Gou shift beside him, and blinked his eyes a few times when he realized that the glass was now empty and he did not even remember drinking all the water. The fever must be worse than he believed for him to be lost in thought so easily. "Is there… more tea?" Even though he had wet his throat, it still hurt to talk. His nose was so stuffed up that he had to breathe through his mouth.

"Yes, and breakfast as well. I can bring some up for you if you’d like." Gou took the glass from his hands and leaned in closer as if to examine his face. "We were told that there’s a hot water spring down in the basement, one that supposedly helps to heal whoever soaks in it." He brushed back the hair that clung to Shin’s face, making him realize that someone had pulled it back into a loose braid. "Do you want to soak for a little while?"

"Oh, yes," Shin sighed, his eyes drifting shut in pleasure. To be surrounded by water, buoyed by it when he felt barely able to move his limbs… that might be even better than any food or tea, right now. "Could… maybe before breakfast?" He suddenly felt filthy, left wondering how long had it been since he had enjoyed a bath.

Gou chuckled, a pleased rumble as he undid the belt to Shin’s robe then tucked the garment tighter around his body. "How about we go now? It’s late enough in the morning that most people must already be up and about, and perhaps Jo will make us something while we soak." A frown marred his handsome face, an expression that had been all too common the last few years. Shin wondered if it was from having to rely upon a human for something. While his memory of the day before was a bit fuzzy, he was pretty certain that Jo was not a bound.

"What about… Rei and Gai?" Shin frowned himself when it was clear that his cousin expected to carry him downstairs, and only slid his left arm around Gou’s shoulders. He would walk as much as he could, and hope that the spring revived some of his strength.

"Gai was up almost three hours ago and brought something to eat to Rei, who is sleeping once more." Gou’s right arm wrapped around his waist, a firm, strong presence that kept him from falling onto his face. "Gai and I ate downstairs, and Eri was there. She said that another bound would be by later to check….." His usually warm, deep voice roughened with anger the same time that his expression took on a sorrowful edge.

Shin did not need to read minds to guess what his cousin was not saying. "To study the coercions." Judging from the way that anger overtook sorrow, he was right. "Did she say who?" He could not imagine that someone would be powerful enough break the coercions that kept him from Yuda, yet Crawford had promised.

Gou let out a slow breath as if trying to rein in his temper. "Schuldig." He paused out in the hallway while Shin tried to remember why that name sounded familiar. "The soul gaki bound that Crawford and Jei brought with them last year. Reddish hair, liked to cause trouble."

Shin’s fingers tightened on the blue shirt his cousin wore, nails threatening to tear the thick material before he recalled that the outfit, much like his robe, had been borrowed. "We should’ve figured that out, considering that Crawford isn’t loyal to the Elders," he whispered, uncertain how wise it was to say that word while here in Kritiker.

"I’m thinking we should’ve figured out a lot of things," Gou growled. He took very seriously his self-appointed task of protecting the rest of them, even more so after Yuda had left, and Shin wondered if his dear cousin was allowing himself to be torn apart by what he could have done differently. Since they were at the steps and he needed a lot of help to get down them, he waited until they were done to say anything. Thankfully, they seemed to have been given rooms on the second floor.

"I believe that if we had figured some things out before now, it would mean the- that *they* could have, too, and then we wouldn’t have this chance." He gave Gou’s left shoulder a squeeze in sympathy, all the while hoping that the hot spring was very close as he could not walk – even aided as he was – much longer.

By the time they entered a room that looked familiar, Gou’s arm around his waist was the only thing keeping him upright. "Good morning," Gou said, attracting the attention of the woman, Jo, and two other people Shin did not recall meeting. One of them was a pretty young woman with long blond hair, the other was a teenaged boy with black hair and dark eyes who was busy chopping something up.

Jo left the stove to approach them, her eyes narrowed and lips pressed tightly together. Shin worried that she was upset about something, until she suddenly smiled. "There’s a bit of color in your cheeks today."

"Oh, yes, he doesn’t quite look as pale as Aya, like you said he did," the young woman remarked as she continued to put away dishes. The smile she gave Shin and Gou was so open and friendly that he was stunned it came from what he assumed was a human.

"Well, even now he barely misses out on that." Jo folded her arms over her chest and resumed looking Shin over. "Shin, I’d like you to meet Kira and Maddox." She jerked her chin in the direction of the respective workers, and Shin assumed since she did not introduce Gou that his cousin had already met them. "Are you here for something to eat?"

Gou shook his head. "We’d like to soak first, if you don’t mind."

This time it was the boy, Maddox, who spoke. "Yohji said that he would go to the market with me once he was done taking a bath, so I’d bet that he and Aya are still down there." There seemed to be a bit of a warning in his soft voice.

If she was meant to be bothered by that revelation, Jo did not let it show. "Reiichi should be down there with them, since he and Aya are heading to the library today." She glanced outside the window as if checking the overcast sky. Then she turned back to face them with a smile on her face. "The hot spring is down the hallway and the third door on the right. Just be careful of running into people too busy reading books to look where they’re going. I’ll have a nice meal and some tea ready for you when you come back, so take your time." She waved her hands at them as if to shoo them on.

Holding on to his dignity long enough to get out of the kitchen, Shin let Gou pick him up and carry him the rest of the way. "Ah, does she mean there’s a library here?" he asked, feeling hopeful for the first time in days.

Gou chuckled again while carrying him as if he did not weigh a thing. "Yes, there is.  Apparently, that Aya fellow really likes to read. You should be able to borrow a few books." His tone was sympathetic since he was well aware of the many books Shin had to leave behind in Berin, as well as how he sought refuge in reading. Quiet until they were going down the stairs to the basement, Gou pitched his voice low as if not wanting to be overhead. "I can’t figure out what Aya is. His mate is definitely a succubae bound, but…." He shook his head, lost in his own thoughts so he must not have noticed Shin’s sudden intake of breath.

Succubae bound… just hearing the words made him long for Yuda with every part of his being. More than anything, he wanted his lover *here*, even if it caused him intense pain. Funny, how he had somehow managed to bear the last couple of years, yet now that there was hope of Yuda being here soon he suffered more than ever. "Perhaps he’s a soul gaki bound and using his talent to hide his nature?"

"No, he doesn’t seem very human at all so I doubt he’s hiding things," Gou explained. Once in the dimly lit hallway, they continued only a few feet until they came to a halt in front of a large door decorated with the character for ‘water’. Shin could hear voices on the other side of the door and counted on them finishing this conversation some other time. "I’ll help you wash your hair and your back."

"Thank you." Shin was placed back on his feet and leaned against the stone wall while Gou opened the door. He was helped inside, his body already tingling from the presence of the hot spring. "Ooh," he sighed in delight, attention riveted to the pool of steaming water.

There was little doubt in his mind that it had some special qualities to it, not with the way he could sense it so strongly – so much so that it took him a moment to realize that there were three people soaking in the round pool. "Hello." Gou caught his left arm in time as he tried to bow in greeting and almost tumbled headfirst onto the stone floor.

"Hello." The blond man, who he barely recalled as being ‘Yohji’, waved his hand in his and Gou’s direction, water droplets flying through the air from the motion. "I see the lure of a hot bath has brought you down here!" He sounded very friendly, and even if he was not a succubae bound, Shin was certain that he would have his admirers. Yohji’s dark blond hair framed a handsome, almost puckish face, and despite in the faint candlelight here his green eyes shone brightly. He sat with his back against the pool’s wall, and the man who must be Aya was sitting between his legs, back resting against Yohji’s chest.

Shin thought he should have remembered someone with such red hair, but he had not been at his best last night. Aya nodded to him and Gou, eyelids downcast as if to hide his eyes. His skin was indeed very pale, the contrast stark against Yohji’s golden arm draped around his chest. Two long strands of hair floated in the water, and he looked ready to fall asleep at any moment.

"I’m hoping it might revive me a bit," Shin explained as he shed his glasses then his robe and sat down with more gratefulness than grace on the wooden stool Gou had moved closer to him. He thanked his cousin for that, and again when Gou poured some hot water over his head and body. He was shivering as it flowed over him, not from the cold but in delight.

"Ah, yes, Aya has told me about the dangers of a bound using his talent too much," the other man in the tub said, a smile on his handsome face and his black hair pushed back from his forehead. He appeared several years older than Yohji and Aya, his eyes slightly unfocused as if he had trouble seeing, something that Shin could understand since he had to remove his glasses to be washed.

Assuming that this was Reiichi and that he was human, Shin parted the wet hair clinging to his face and nodded. Behind him, he heard a faint growl from Gou, but if this human was sharing a bath with two bounds he did not think there was much of a threat. "Yes, it’s not… pleasant."

"No, it’s not," Yohji agreed, and yelped all of a sudden. "Dammit, Cat, I’m going to make you wear padding around those damn pointy elbows of yours!"

Aya did not seem impressed with the threat. "What would *you* know about being drained too much?" he muttered, his voice almost as deep as Gou’s.

Yohji laughed and hugged the redhead closer. "Okay, you got me there. But I still remember how you were that one time, so I have a good idea even though it never happened to me."

Aya grunted while Reiichi smiled in Yohji’s direction. "I don’t know if the city would ever recover if you pushed your talent too far. I believe that Jo would certainly never forgive you!" He seemed very blasé to be talking to a bound about his powers.

Yohji laughed again, the sound so decadent that Gou paused in washing Shin’s hair. He felt a tiny pull of attraction himself, but when he looked at Yohji he was instead drawn to the redness of Aya’s hair, a color more pure than his own love’s. What was Yuda doing right now…?

He was distracted from his pain-filled thoughts by another rush of water. "I’ll help you into the pool." Gou smiled and half-carried him over to the pool’s rim, carefully lowering him into the hot water between Yohji and Reiichi. "How is it?"

"What I assume heaven is like." Shin sighed in delight, properly clean for the first time in days and surrounded by this wonderful water. Tension he was not even aware of left his body, causing him to slide a little lower on the bench. He was tempted to reach out with his talent just then, but resisted the impulse since it would only make things worse. Even without his own magic, the water seemed to swirl around him. The steam rising from its surface began to help open up his nasal passages, allowing him to breathe through his nose for the first time that morning.

"We have people stay here just for this alone," Yohji explained, his voice warm with pride. "The bath is open until an hour after dinner ends, but we can make an exception if you want to come down here at night." He sounded very kind, and was obviously very affectionate with Aya. Had Gou said that they were mates?

Reiichi moved his right hand back and forth in the water, creating small waves. "You might run into a Shadow Guard or two down here then, as Ken, Naru and Eri sometimes have a soak after a difficult shift."

"Don’t forget Duo, but I think that has more to do with Trowa being a water elemental than anything." Yohji chuckled, the sound even more lascivious than before, and nuzzled Aya’s left ear. "And people complain about us."

"Just keep in mind that *you* can’t breathe underneath water," Aya muttered, and looked about to say something else before Gou entered the pool with a large ‘splash’.

"I assume that this Duo and Trowa are from Esset?" Gou inquired, shoulders tense and hands clutched into fists. Shin was about to reach for his cousin to put him at ease when Yohji shrugged and flicked some water in Reiichi’s direction.

"When did you say that bastard would be back?" Yohji asked the human before turning toward Gou and Shin. "Yeah, those would be the two. Crawford’s supposed to be here any time now and fill you in on a bunch of stuff that would be really helpful for you to know." Was it Shin’s imagination, or did his arm tighten around Aya’s chest and his smile slip the slightest bit to reveal a flash of white teeth.

It was Reiichi’s turn to chuckle, the sound a bit bland when compared to Yohji’s. "First, may I remind you that I’m not his secretary. Second, I just know that Birman was supposed to have a meeting with him and Jei this afternoon, and promised to buy them both a few rounds of drinks tonight as a clever bribe." He leaned his head back against a folded towel resting on the rim of the pool, and Shin noticed the glint of folded glasses off to the side.

"Oh, please, you’re helping to run the Shadow Guard *and* have been spending an awful lot of time with Birman lately. Gonna take over her job sometime soon?" Yohji grinned as he splashed more water toward the human.

Reiichi’s smile just then would have done a succubae bound proud. "No comment." The wryly spoken words made Yohji laugh and Aya smile.

Yohji shook his head a few times. "Anyway, to spare you the impulse to fry his ass the next time he stops by, Duo along with Trowa is on our side." He tilted his head as he stared at Gou and Shin, almost as if judging them. "They’re a little more powerful than you, after all." He yelped again for some reason, both arms wrapping around Aya as he cursed under his breath.

Shin did some staring of his own, squinting a little to correct his slightly weak vision. How did a succubae bound know that? Had Crawford said something? Or was Aya really a soul gaki bound and had read his and Gou’s thoughts? "We’re aware of that, thank you." He had crossed paths with Trowa several times in Berin, and had always been polite to the quiet man. There was not that much of a difference in their strengths, and they had never had a problem with each other. Gou and Duo, however, seemed to get on each other’s nerves and never were together for very long.

Still mumbling for a few seconds, Yohji yanked on one of Aya’s long locks of hair. "Crawford should be the one explaining this shit to you. Just know that any bound you come across at the Koneko is not a threat." His pleasant demeanor from before was gone, his expression now serious.

"I wish I could say the same to you about the Guard, at least in regard to any that you meet in the common room," Reiichi added, remorse evident in his tone. "Not all of them are aware of the Shadow Guard and have been kept from that knowledge for a reason. However, any Guard who is living here or allowed back in the kitchen is part of the Shadow Guard and can be trusted."

"Not that you’ll be hanging out in the common room too much, I imagine, until you recover some more." Yohji pressed a kiss against Aya’s left temple, which prompted a memory from last night. Shin frowned and wondered why it was he did not recall Aya very well and how the man could be so silent and still. It was almost as if Yohji held a doll in his arms, until Aya moved a little, usually in response to his lover.

"We’re not here to socialize," Gou said, a slight frown on his face that let Shin know his cousin was thinking intently about something. "And we don’t want to cause you any trouble."

Yohji waved his hand about as if to dispel the steam rising from the water. "Wear your illusion charms if you leave the Koneko, but you’ll be safe here. Do whatever Crawford suggests and things should be fine." It might have been Shin’s imagination, but he thought he heard a note of anger in the blond’s voice, though he did not feel it was directed toward him.

Speaking only for the second time, Aya pulled away from Yohji and stood up. "We need to leave for the library soon if we want to see Ed." There was a lack of emotion in his voice, almost a sense of boredom, which did not cause any sort of reaction from Yohji or Reiichi.

"Yes, that is true." Reiichi stood as well, nodding to Shin as he carefully climbed out of the water. Aya and Yohji soon did the same, and he heard a quickly inhaled breath from Gou as his cousin watched the two men. Yohji glanced over his shoulder at them, looking displeased about something, before hurrying over to help his lover dry off.

"I’m sure we’ll meet each other again very soon." Reiichi bowed after he pulled on a robe, then waited by the door for Yohji and Aya. "Enjoy your soak."

"Thank you." Gou offered the human a smile and waited until it was just him and Shin in the room to speak again. "Did you see it?"

Shin nodded as he stretched out more in the water, already feeling a little better just from soaking in it for a short while. "He is very unusual, and most likely a soul gaki bound."

"I meant his back, but that red hair isn’t very common. I remember Yuda receiving a lot of attention for his hair." Gou stared at the door for a few seconds before blushing. "Ah, I mean-"

"I’ll be seeing him soon enough, so there’s no reason to not mention him at all," Shin reminded, a faint blush to his own cheeks as he thought about Yuda enjoying a bath with him.

"I don’t believe Yohji is entirely pleased with us being here, but everyone else has been very nice." Gou frowned at the water for a minute, the steam making the damp strands of his black hair begin to curl. "To think that we’re welcomed here, when back home…." He shook his head, making droplets of water sparkle in the air. "We never should have stayed as long as we did."

Shin reached for his cousin and ran his fingers along Gou’s arm. "What choice did we have?" They had been kept from the outside world all their lives, with no idea of how to fend for themselves, other than the cooking skills Rei picked up through much trial and error. They had been watched that entire time and as much as it broke his heart to have Yuda leave without him, he had been that much more certain that if the six of them had tried to escape at the same time, they would have been caught. No, they had done well to not leave before now, and had gotten much farther than he would have ever suspected. "We’re free now."

Gou tucked back the hair falling onto Shin’s face. "Yes, but you and Rei can barely use your talents and Crawford’s friend still has to break the compulsion." He fell quiet again, his hand cupping Shin’s left cheek. "Yuda will be furious with me when he sees you, and Ruka when he sees Rei."

"You did the best you could do, I never doubted that." Shin offered his dear cousin a smile of assurance. "We’ll both heal, and if Crawford’s allies can get us out of Esset then they’ll be able to break the coercions." Then they would be free of Esset… and in debt to Crawford. None of them had said much about that, but he was certain it was on all of their minds. Considering that they always had used their talents to support themselves, he personally did not mind too much that they would be expected to help fix Kritiker’s weather. He just did not want to exchange one prison for another – not that Yuda would stand by and let happen.

"Hey, stop that." Gou’s hands cupping his face made him realize that he had begun to cry. Appalled at his lack of control, Shin tried to shake his head and wipe away the tears. "You’re exhausted. Let’s get some food into you and then you need to rest." Gou leaned forward until their foreheads met. "Give it a little more time. I know it’s been so long already, but he’ll be here soon. He loves you too much." There was a little sorrow there, but Shin knew that Gou wanted him to be happy with Yuda.

"Thank you." Giving his cousin’s wrists a gentle squeeze, he managed to get his emotions under control. Gou was right – he was too exhausted right now to be entirely sensible, and the hot spring had managed to make him forget just how drained he was. It had been so nice to just relax somewhere and talk to people, something he hadn’t been able to do with anyone other than his cousins in so long. He had even forgotten to ask about the library, but perhaps Jo could give him permission to borrow a few books before Gou tucked him back into bed.

He allowed himself to be picked up out of the water, the illusion of strength gone as he left its warmth. More than anything, he needed some tea and food to replace the energy he had over-spent the last few months, and then some rest. At least while he slept, Yuda would be getting closer to Eto.

He would give more thought to the mystery of Aya after he got some rest. Unless there was any danger, it was clear that he would be unable to leave the Koneko any time soon, which meant there was plenty of time for that particular puzzle.

*******

Yohji was waiting for Aya and Reiichi when they came through the back gate, thankfully not carrying more than half a dozen books. Of course not, when those were books that were borrowed, he told himself, unable to hold back a grin despite some of the huge bills Masuda had sent to the Koneko after one of Aya’s visits. It was not as if they lacked the money; the books were indeed providing some valuable information and he doubted they would ever be able to take all of them along when they left. That meant that a form of wealth would remain at the Koneko to aid anyone searching for knowledge and make Mickey’s greedy heart happy at the thought of valuables kept safe in the library.

"How’s Ed?" he asked once his lover and friend were close enough, right hand reaching out for the books that Aya carried. They were handed over with a bit of a struggle, but he managed to win them free and then shoved them toward Reiichi.

The man laughed as he accepted the books. "Busy complaining about a very boring shift when he and Al are very close to finishing the translation of Terabasso’s recount of the Battle of Schering." He nodded to Yohji, a devilish smile on his face as he headed for the inn without Aya.

Knowing that his mother would be proud over how he actually had a clue about what had just been said – the dangers of falling in love with a bookworm/history buff – Yohji shook his head as he grabbed hold of his mate’s hand and walked over to the lavender patch. "I’m surprised Ed even showed up for his shift, then."

"There was supposed to be a case of books arriving, but bad weather has delayed them in Chibata." Surprisingly docile for once, Aya allowed himself to be led without any fuss. "Normally, you get upset when I’m outside for any amount of time," he pointed out, amusement and anticipation flowing over their link.

Yohji wrinkled his nose at his mate’s fake aggrieved tone. "Even I have to admit that it’s too overcast today to give you any grief." Arriving at the lavender patch, he sank to his knees on the blanket he had spread out a few minutes ago and pulled Aya down with him. "I guess I should be happy that it isn’t raining yet." As summers went, this one was a pretty miserable one. Even with the summer solstice come and gone, normally heralding the hottest time of the year, the weather was on the cool side because of all the clouds and rain. If it were not for a bunch of determined earth elemental bounds, the crops would be in shambles from the lack of sunlight and over-watering, and the farmers who were finding that their plants grew better than they had expected were careful to keep quiet about such things.

"Cassandra said that even with Crawford’s guests working to set things right, it’ll be a few years before everything’s back to normal." Leaning against Yohji, Aya looked up to the sky where the sun should be if it were not hidden behind ominous grey clouds. "They’ll really only be able to moderate things until the war, and then it’ll get messed up again."

Unhappy to be talking about such a dark subject, Yohji held his mate close and breathed in deeply Aya’s intoxicating scent. Over the scent of lavender, he could smell the soap that the laundry service used to wash Aya’s pale grey tunic, a whiff of old paper and oiled leather, a lingering hint of Reiichi and Ed, and Aya of course. Such a familiar scent, one that made him purr softly in pleasure. "So, what do you think of them, eh?"" He had his own opinion of the cousins, but since they only shared emotions and not thoughts, wanted confirmation of what his lover had picked up on.

Aya shrugged and relaxed a little more, his body fitting even better against Yohji’s. "I think that once he recovers Shin may observe more than we want him to, and that Gou and Gai take their responsibilities of protecting him and Rei very seriously." He smiled, the sight enough to make Yohji’s heart race, before resting his head against Yohji’s shoulder. "Oh, and that Rei may be intruding on Maddox’s territory very soon."

"Yeah." Yohji laughed as he rubbed his hand up and down Aya’s right arm, relishing that simple contact and the way it made his mate purr. "I saw the way he was looking around the kitchen last night." Shin might be a problem… but then again, as soon as he did start getting better, it meant that Yuda would be here at any time, which would be more than enough of a distraction. Yohji growled at the thought, hands moving as if against his will to pull *his* mate onto his lap.

"Yotan." Aya frowned at the rude behavior, but he did not tense up in fear or anger. Instead, he made himself comfortable, knees on either side of Yohji’s thighs, and gave Yohji’s hair a gentle tug.

"Sorry, Cat." Yohji offered Aya a lingering, gentle kiss to make up for the manhandling. "I guess I thought of how this is *my* territory and how I don’t like Yuda being anywhere near it." He had yet to meet the man and already his demon nature was screaming at him to take care of a rival. Crawford better be serious about the cousins and their lovers not staying here for very long, because there was no way he could put up with Yuda like he did with Masato. No, not when just the thought of the other bound was enough to make him act like this. It had been bad enough before the cousins had arrived, but now that they were here, he *knew* that Yuda would not be far behind.

"You’re doing it again," Aya sighed, the annoyance in his voice now matching what was carried over their link. "Stop it." A hiss crept into his voice, the only outward sign of his concern over Yohji’s behavior.

"Sorry," Yohji repeated, his hands sliding up Aya’s back to tangle in the soft, short hair of his mate’s nape. "Guess I’m too much demon, after all."

"Hmph." Aya did not seem to think much of that, but thankfully spared Yohji his withering opinion and kissed him instead. Very pleased about that, Yohji held him closer and kissed him back with an intensity that was equal parts love and possession.

Here, in *their* spot of the garden, surrounded by lavender and sheltered from the non-existent sun, the sweet scent of the herb mingling with their own, was the second greatest refuge that Yohji had ever known - their four-poster bed being the first. Here, he had no fear of anyone crossing his mate’s wards, could indulge in whatever he wanted – barring Aya’s refusal, of course – and not worry about the rest of the world. Here, there was only pleasure and Aya and arousing scents, his senses almost overloaded by it all.

He could still feel faint scars as he ran his hands down Aya’s back and then up, this time beneath the grey shirt, but they slowly faded with the passage of time. What mattered was that his mate shivered in delight and not fear, that there was no part of Aya that he was denied anymore. Grass and lavender stalks rustled as they shifted on the blanket, Yohji tossing the shirt aside before he laid his lover out on his back.

"As much as I hate you being outside, you belong right here," he told Aya, smiling at the beautiful sight before him. The shadows cast by the looming maple trees made Aya’s pale skin glow, his red hair reminiscent of autumn and the scarlet leaves that would cover the ground around them. Yohji enjoyed the image for a few seconds before pulling off his own shirt and leaning forward, braced on his forearms so that only his lower body rested against his mate’s. "I really do love summer."

"I’ll remind you of that the next time you yell at me for being out in the sun." Aya chuckled just then, a very pleased, low chortle that made Yohji shiver as if the rare sound physically skittered across his skin. "Now shut up before you put your foot in your mouth." He yanked on Yohji’s left shoulder, pulling him down into a passionate kiss. Only too happy to obey, Yohji let the rest of his weight settle on top of his mate.

Oh gods, but he adored moments like this, the feel of cool skin against his own contrasting with the heated rush of sunlight that flowed into him, warming him from the inside out. Aya tasted of tea and almonds, sweet and slightly bitter, a heady mix that made him crave more, to flick his tongue back as far as possible. His hands stroked along Aya’s sides, the purr rumbling in his throat growing stronger each time his lover arched against him.

Moaning his name so softly that it was almost an auditory illusion of the wind, Aya tilted his head back, eyes darkened by desire and almost hidden by heavy eyelids. Yohji accepted the graceful invitation, dipping his head so he could run his tongue along smooth skin. No tea taste here, just pure Aya, more addictive than anything he had tried in that year when he had wallowed in regret.

That time seemed so distant right now, the memories dimmed because he was having difficulty recalling what it was like to not have Aya in his life. It felt as if he had always had this delectable body beneath his own, that the only moans of pleasure and need he ever heard came from this man’s throat. He sure as hell did not feel the slightest attraction for anyone else, not when only Aya could provide him with that exhilarating sunlight; when only Aya seemed to know that to brush fingertips right *there* would make his hips snap forward with the desperate urge for more, that the faint skritch of nails just *then* threatened to destroy whatever control he had left at this moment.

Growling at the delay, he pulled away enough to undo his pants, barely remembering to keep the small vial of oil he had put in his pocket earlier within reach. He was treated to another rare chuckle as Aya lay there, eyes still heavy-lidded, kiss-swollen lips curved in a slight smile and neck enticingly marred by a new bruise. Once his pants and boots were tossed aside, he worked on his mate’s remaining garments, pleased at the lack of resistance as he got rid of them as quickly as possible.

Aya’s knees bent and splayed as Yohji leaned forward again, upper body once more braced up by his left elbow so there was some room between their bodies. "Are you going to be like this until that other succubae bound is here and gone?" Aya asked, sounding more curious than anything.

Yohji trailed his mouth along his mate’s neck and left another bruise before answering. "Your neck is gonna be black and blue and your scent is gonna be so mixed with mine that any bound with half a brain and dimmed senses will realize that you’re taken." He knew that Aya was stronger now, that his love had worked through a lot of pain and bad memories, but he would not risk *anyone* thinking that Aya could be taken advantage of in any manner. Sure, Aya could more than look after himself, but not everyone realized that before doing something that shadows to crush their bones to splinters.

The look he got just then was one of long-suffering, yet Aya tilted his head again, parted lips letting slip a gasp of pleasure when Yohji’s slick fingers pressed against him. "Possessive idiot," he hissed when he could breathe once again, startling a laugh from Yohji.

"Damn right!" Yohji continued to laugh as he prepared his mate, caught up in a sensation of almost giddiness from the love and ecstasy he felt just then. Dammit, but he sort of felt sorry for Yuda, kept from the utter joy of having one’s mate desire you back. He had be so lost without Aya, not just from the lack of sunlight but from being deprived of the one person who knew him the best and accepted all of him.

For once mindful of the fact that they were outside, that it threatened to rain at any minute which meant that Jo would be out here after his hide, Yohji did not draw things out any more than he had to. It was not as if they unable to enjoy a leisurely bout of sex later tonight, he just had to have Aya right now. Judging from the bite of sharp nails against his ass and the emotions that poured into him, his mate was not in the mood for ‘slow’, either. Ah well, there was something about doing it in the garden that did not equate to slow and languid.

They both hissed as he pushed inside, Aya’s body taking him in the same time that long legs and lean arms wrapped around him to pull him closer. Aya arched up to meet him, eyes closed as if the sensations were already too much, breathing quickening and heartbeat racing as well. Yohji’s teeth bit into his bottom lip at that first dizzying wave of pure sunlight, his body automatically responding to his incessant craving for more by not stopping at all. No, it was the steady thrust forward until flesh met flesh, a quick withdraw and another eager thrust; it was like a dance between them, bodies sliding together to a silent tempo, trembling hands oddly graceful as they traced mysterious patterns against bare skin dampened by sweat.

His mouth brushed along Aya’s forehead, lips tickled by strands of hair before he rocked back, this time angling for the side of his mate’s face when he pushed forward yet again. The soft graze of teeth along an earlobe got him an answering scratch along his spine, and he could not hold back any longer. Almost bending his mate in half, he allowed himself a quick kiss before his mouth attached to Aya’s neck, needing that sign of absolute trust and willingness to give in from the man he loved more than *anything*.

A sharp flash of pain along his back, an almost painful squeeze of walls already tight around his cock, and he was sucking hard as if drawing the very essence of his mate into him that way. The sunlight grew even more potent, his motions more frantic, and all that really mattered was Aya giving himself to him and the pure love and desire that accompanied such a treasured gift.

His teeth pressed hard and broke through skin, saltiness spilling onto his tongue as sunlight crashed into him with enough force to obliterate his senses. All that was left was a maelstrom of ecstasy, his poor heart thundering to keep up with the emotion and his body giving in to it without any hesitation.

One of these days he would manage to draw a line between his orgasm ending and sense returning, but it was not today. No, it was a meandering, floating return to reality, not that he minded when he slowly realized that he was laying on his still sore back with Aya cradled against his side. The scent of their lovemaking was powerful enough to mask that of the lavender blooms, and a faint rain fell onto his over-sensitive skin. "I like being a possessive idiot," he mumbled as he tried to get his fingers to cooperate enough for him to comb them through one of his mate’s eartails.

That earned him one of Aya’s renowned snorts of derision, only mildly hampered by the fact that the man seemed to be doing his best to breathe normally and failing. "Only you."

Doubting that was true and certain that any succubae bound would back him up on it, Yohji none the less said nothing. Why ruin such a perfect moment with a fight, one he would be sure to lose. When it came to succubae mentality, Aya lacked patience….

"Yeah, well, I’m one of a kind." He had to laugh at himself just then, and could feel his lover’s amusement as well. "Don’t you dare say ‘thank the gods’ for that."

"Hmph." Aya hid his face against Yohji’s shoulder for a moment before pushing away with a regretful sigh. "We need to go inside." He grimaced just then, but Yohji thought it was more from his mate wiping his right hand clean along the blanket than in displeasure over the weather.

"I know." Yohji sat up and took a few seconds to comb his fingers through tousled, crimson strands. "We’re gonna have to build a boat soon if it keeps raining."

"Let’s hope you’re wrong about that." Aya was too graceful for words as he stood up, embodying his nickname yet again. Yohji could watch him walk around naked all day – okay, maybe not since his hunger would take over within five minutes, but he sure has hell enjoyed the sight just then. Indulging himself for a moment, he got up as well with a great deal of reluctance to look for their clothes. Fortunately, he had not thrown them too far away, and they had been mostly protected by the falling rain by the maple’s thick canopy of leaves above.

They got dressed in silence, both of them a bit sad that they had to leave their special place in the garden. Yohji draped his left arm over his mate’s shoulders as they headed to the kitchen door, the blanket tucked under his right arm and destined for the nearest laundry basket. "Honestly, I don’t mean to get out of control," he said, picking up the conversation from before.

"I know." Aya bumped their hips together as they walked. "The way I see it, he’ll get here, you’ll show him that you’re stronger, he’ll mate with Shin, and then hopefully the two of you will be able to put up with each other long enough for Crawford to set him and the others up somewhere else." From his emotions, Aya was not too pleased with their guests, but it was more from concern over Yohji and the Koneko than any dislike for the bounds.

"Yeah, I highly doubt they’ll be able to stay on as strays when one of them is a succubae bound." Yohji did not often wish he was something else, but he wondered if things would be a little easier if he had been born a soul gaki or elemental bound. Then again, Schu and Rufus hated each other with a passion that was almost suspicious while Duo and Nicole squabbled like a pair of bratty kids, so he did not think having another type of demon soul would spare him much of that particular aggravation. Trowa and Neely got along pretty well, but they were water elementals and he had yet to see much ruffle that type of bound. Even so, only Aya and Reno acted as if finding another bound with the same type of demon inside was a special occasion. Oh yes, the gods did love playing their little games on Yohji, he thought with a bit of bad attitude.

Jo’s eyes narrowed when she saw them enter the kitchen, while Teddy gave them a knowing look and snickered. Sticking his tongue out at his brother, Yohji motioned for Aya to sit down at one of the tables while he got rid of the blanket. "What, you act as if you’ve never seen two men who just had sex in the garden before." Something cold and hard smacked into his left shin, causing him to yelp a little before he limped over to his mate. "Like they don’t know what happened out there," he muttered.

"There’s a difference between them guessing and you confirming it," Aya snapped, and if he had not been mated to a succubae bound for over a year Yohji would think he was embarrassed and not annoyed. Oh, yeah, that would be his fault, he supposed, and smiled as he leaned in to have his lips nipped at.

"At least I let you spend some time out in the garden without my incessant bitching." That earned him a proper kiss, which lingered until Jo set two mugs down on the table with a bit more force than was necessary.

"It’s a good thing your kind doesn’t normally get any colds." She looked a bit bitter about that, as if the gods had deprived her of some source of retribution.

Yohji would have stuck his tongue out at her, too, but figured he would just get smacked for his audacity. Instead, he glared at the safest target in the room, Teddy. "Hey, why aren’t you off molesting your boyfriend right now?"

Teddy pouted for a moment, clearly put out over something. "Because he just *had* to go halfway across town for a certain pair of harp strings. I swear that in my next life, I’ll have the sense not to fall in love with a Harper." He sniffed for added emphasis, then smiled as if unable to hold such a displeased expression for long. "Unless Koyu’s born as a Harper again, that is."

"I think he will be, just to annoy the hell out of you." Yohji shared a smile with his brother, both of them united by the fact that the people they loved drove them to distraction without any effort on their parts. Ah well, it would be a very interesting way to spend several centuries, he supposed.

As Jo harangued both him and Teddy about being grateful for *anyone* being kind enough to love two such blithering idiots, he grinned in happiness and hugged Aya closer, the scent of lavender heavy in the air around them.

*******

Roy managed a tired grin when Hughes patted him on the left shoulder. "I’ll see you tomorrow, old friend."

He snorted at the comment as he waved good-bye. "Watch who you’re calling ‘old’ when you were the one complaining about finding a grey hair the other day!" he taunted, for a moment enjoying the familiar and cherished bantering that had always been an important part of his friendship with the human.

Hughes rolled his eyes and continued on the way back to his own home. "We’ll compare birth dates tomorrow, *old man*." Chuckling at being able to get the last word in, he waved in return and hurried his pace.

Figuring that it might not be a good idea to stand outside and shout out that he barely appeared older than twenty years old – when not wearing an illusion charm, that was - Roy shook his head and allowed the bastard to think he had won this round before stepping onto the porch of the small cottage he considered home. No, it would not be good for everyone to realize he was a couple of decades older than he looked and that the age he showed was not exactly correct as his appearance was unchanged these last few decades. As he thought about it, he figured it might be best to ask Botan or Omi to alter the illusion charm he wore to include a couple of grey hairs and maybe a faint wrinkle or two; with the new promotion and all the added responsibilities, it would be assumed that work was aging him a bit.

He spared a thought on how Hawkeye and Havoc should be back in a couple of days, which would help greatly with his workload, before he recalled the news he had just heard and growled in annoyance. Dammit, it had been long expected to happen, but now that it was….

Entering the cottage, he was happy to smell something delicious cooking in the kitchen and went in search of his mate. Noting the pairs of shoes lined up by the door, he was not too surprised that Al was here instead of with the Rockbells tonight, but he had not expected the boy to be in the room he shared with Ed. The brothers were stretched out on the bed with a dozen books scattered around them along with several sheets of paper.
"Good evening."

Al and Ed looked up at the same time, both of them blinking their eyes as if to focus their sight on something other than written words. Roy smiled in amusement at their appearances, noting the similarities and differences between the two: Ed’s face was no longer as round as Al’s and his hair had grown a few more inches. He also noticed how Ed’s more golden eyes were just as large as his younger brother’s. Anyone would always be able to tell that the boys were brothers – and take a good guess on who was their father with those eyes – but he doubted that many people would have trouble telling them apart from now on.

Ed returned the smile while Al blushed slightly and looked at the clock on the left nightstand. "Ah, dinner!" He jumped from the bed, hand brushing along Roy’s left arm as he passed in greeting, leaving Roy alone with his mate. Approaching the bed, he was very careful about moving the books aside so he could sit down.

"Al’s making some sort of chicken casserole," Ed explained as he leaned against Roy, looking adorable with a streak of black ink across his chin. "I think it’ll be ready soon."

"I don’t smell anything burning, so it should be fine." Roy held his mate close, pleased to have this quiet moment together since it was obvious that Al would be spending the night at home. Between that and the amount of books here, he was willing to bet that he would be mostly ignored this evening, but Ed was happy and for once not shutting Roy out. "I thought you were stuck on that dialect," he murmured against the top of Ed’s head as he looked over the notes scattered about.

"We were, but I found a book at work the other day that helped me to figure out the damn change in participles." Ed bristled in anger for a few seconds, most likely at the thought of someone bothering to take the time to record history but not to preserve it in an easier to understand language. "Which is really great since there’s a section in the book that mention’s Esset’s Wizard sending three of his most trusted bound servants to gather up some hostages." His anger was replaced by a just as fervent mix of happiness and hate. The emotions were a bit disturbing to sense, but Roy knew why his young lover was so determined to destroy the Elders.

Crawford revealing to them that he and Ed would be the ones to face the old bastards had helped calm Ed somewhat, even if it meant that he re-directed most of that energy into finding out as much as he could about them. Roy figured that he had no right to complain, really, since he did not care a bit about his father; and his mother, while a lovely woman, had isolated herself from the approaching war. He did not suffer from the same loss that Ed and Al did, and in his own way he was focusing much of his time and energy on something, as well. If they survived the war, Ed would be a couple of years more mature and they should finally have some time to devote to each other.

That made him reflect upon what was currently happening, and a small snarl built in his throat as he played with some of the strands of his mate’s ponytail. "Eh, don’t tell me you’re upset over us working on this." Ed was snarling a little, too, even if his emotions were more confused than angry.

Roy shook his head and pulled on Ed’s right arm to make his lover face him. "The queen went into labor a couple of hours ago," he explained, not surprised that Ed and Al had not heard about it yet.

Ed blinked a few times as if the words had been spoken in an unfamiliar language. "Labor?" Uhm… oh!" He blushed a little when it must have become clear to him. "The queen’s having her baby now?" There was a wave of curiosity and slight distaste, followed by more confusion. "What does that have to do with you?"

Roy chuckled as he wrapped the end of Ed’s long hair around his right hand. "Well, it means that the reprieve that Hughes and I received from all those dreadful meetings has become rather limited. Unless there are any complications with the birth, I know the queen is eager to resume talks between the Army and the Guard as soon as she recovers in hopes of making us work better together." Queen Manx had grown more and more frustrated as her pregnancy went past the assumed due date, while the palace seemed unable to focus on anything other than the impending birth. While she was a couple of weeks late, the best healers and physicians had assured her and the king that the baby was fine, just not in any hurry to be born. Birman had confided in Roy the other day that the king had even asked for an earth elemental bound skilled in healing to check on his wife and unborn child, and been assured that there were no problems. That Crawford had already predicted that the child would be a girl and play a role in the future had meant that Roy had not given much thought to the queen being overdue, and he planned to enjoy the break from all the meetings for as long as he could.

A thoughtful expression on his face, Ed began to rub the thumb of his right hand along his chin, which explained the ink stain. "They’ll probably close the Royal Library down for a day or two in celebration of the birth, which means that I can work more on the translation!" He smiled at Roy, practically beaming in happiness, and even gave him a quick kiss. "Wait ‘til I show Aya what Al and I found out tonight!"

About to order his mate to not go to the Koneko, Roy caught himself in time before he started a huge fight. He had to mentally wrestle with his demon soul for a minute or two, which earned him a concerned look from Ed. It did not want his mate anywhere near a strange set of bounds who were both powerful and formerly loyal to the Elders, but he knew that Ed would not respect its wishes. No, not when Ed was very powerful himself, and once he found out that the cousins had arrived at the Koneko, he would track them down to see what information they could provide about the Elders. Roy told himself that Aya would not allow anything happen to someone he considered a friend, nor would Kudoh allow people who could be a threat to his mate stay at the inn.

"Wait until the birth is officially announced before you make any plans," he warned, aware that things could drag out for another day. Then something else occurred to him – if the Royal Library and many other of the government-run organizations closed in celebration, his duties for the next few days would be on the light side. In fact, the reprieve might last until the Naming Ceremony, considering it would be the Guard’s responsibility for security. General Hakuro would probably make him be the Army liaison to the Guard for the event, but the plans had already been drawn up over a month ago in anticipation of the birth.

Ed snorted once and hit him on the shoulder. "What has you so happy all of a sudden?" he asked, ink-stained right hand resting lightly against Roy’s chest.

Uncaring about any possible stains, Roy pulled his lover closer for a lingering kiss. "I should have some free time myself for the next few weeks." That meant he could go with Ed to the Koneko, even if it led to him hanging out with Kudoh. Despite the fact that his brother had said that the elemental bounds were to be trusted, he wanted to make sure of that himself.

He realized that it would be best to let Ed know that they were here, which could wait until after dinner. Leaning forward, he had just resumed the kiss when he heard someone clearing their throat. "Ah, is dinner ready?" he asked as he pulled away with great reluctance to find a blushing Al standing in the room’s doorway.

"Just about." Al got over the embarrassment and smiled. "Ed, you promised that you’d set the table if I cooked."

"Okay." Ed gave Roy a light smack to the chest, more for show than any real annoyance. "Get out of my way and come help me." He grabbed hold of Roy’s left hand to drag him from the bed. "Guess what, Al? Roy said that the queen went into labor! I’ll bet you lunch tomorrow that I get the day off!"

"Oh! That is good news!" Al’s grin widened and he followed them to the kitchen. "Maybe we could celebrate a little? I’m sure that Pinako will close the shop down as well, so we can have a party tonight!"

Roy chuckled at the thought of two tipsy Elrics arguing over who was the greatest historian, something he had been very amused to witness this past solstice. "I think it calls for a couple of bottles of wine with dinner." Besides, it was not often anymore when all three of them could sit down to a meal together, not unless a holiday was involved. "Just don’t be surprised if Hughes shows up for a free drink!"

"Maybe Gracia will bring some dessert if they come over!" Ed practically bounced in excitement at the thought, reminding Roy once more of his lack of age. Even though he had despaired over his mate’s immaturity just last year, he was heartened to see some of it remain; as the war approached and both countries took strides to ensure victory, he was certain that Ed would lose much of his remaining innocence. That thought disturbed him enough to make his chest ache in pain, even as he told himself that there was nothing he could do to prevent it. He would keep the Elrics as safe as possible during the war, but there was no escaping his brother’s vision. In a way, it was what he and Ed had been born to do, and there would be no peace as long as the Elders lived.

"Oh, you don’t have to act as if I’ll eat all the dessert again!" Ed snapped as he tugged on Roy’s wrist, only to let go of it a moment later and point to the cupboard that held the plates. "Get some bowls out for us and then open the wine."

"Yes, sir." Roy executed a perfect bow in response to his lover’s demands, earning a laugh from Al and a dramatic roll of the eyes from Ed. "Maybe you should think about joining the Army one day."

"I like using my brain too much to do that," Ed grumbled, yet behind his disgruntled demeanor he was happy about the teasing.

Roy shared a look with Al, both of them speaking at the same time with the same response. "What brain?" They laughed at Ed’s resulting tantrum, which only stopped when Roy grabbed hold of his lover and gave him a very thorough kiss.

"Pervert." Ed glared about the kiss, and betrayed the nasty look by giving Roy a hug. "You’re even corrupting my poor baby brother."

"Just keep in mind who I spend more time with," Al pointed out, which made Roy laugh and bow to the boy. Ed might be the flashier of the two brothers, but anyone who mistook Al’s more reserved nature to mean he was not just as brilliant was gravely mistaken.

"Let’s have dinner before the kitchen gets destroyed in a fight." Roy went to the cupboard which held the alcohol and fetched two bottles of wine to start. After making sure that he had enough in case Hughes and his family did show up, he returned to the table where Al was busy serving what smelled to be a very delicious casserole. Maybe he would be stuck at the palace in a few weeks time, but for now, he could enjoy nights like this for as long as they lasted.

*******

Crawford found his partner out in the garden, back resting against the trunk of an elderly elm while he drank from a bottle of whiskey. Having brought his own supply of alcohol, he settled in next to Jei and enjoyed a potent swallow while they both stared off into the distance. The moist evening air was laden with the scent of lavender and roses, the faint splash of an occasional fish breaking through the surface of the pond almost hypnotic.

Jei finished his bottle of whiskey and reached for Crawford’s, which was given up without any fight. "I bet the humans are well on their way to being trashed by now," he said, voice pitched low even though there was no one else out in the garden. Everyone but Jason was inside the inn, celebrating the impending birth of the next in line for Kritiker’s throne.

"As I left, I believe that Mickey was rubbing his hands in glee over tonight’s profits," Crawford remarked, his lips twitching with the urge to smile. For the most part, he had few problems with humans who did not hate his kind, but he in particular approved of Mickey Kudoh; the man was very sensible and always thought of the future.

Jei laughed, and the hint of madness that was threaded through the humor warned him that his partner would have to go hunting very soon. "The wine cellar will be empty and the rooms all full by morning. Maybe Yohji will regret turning over ownership of the inn now."

"I doubt that." No, Yohji was thinking of the future as well, and Crawford knew the man would find an even better home than the Koneko eventually. Not that Yohji and Aya would ever be gone from the Koneko for very long, judging from the blank spots he came across during visions of the inn’s future. "Besides, Aya became bothered by the loud partying and went upstairs, and Yohji is only being a dutiful mate by keeping him company." This time the battle with the smile was lost, the expression almost foreign to him as it contained no smugness or malice.

"Well, considering that I’m smelling more than flowers out here, he’s going to be pretty well fed for all that devotion." Jei drank more whiskey while Crawford pondered the tone of almost regret in his friend’s voice. The longer they stayed away from Berin, the more Jei had to feel the pull to be by Kaede’s side.

He did not mention the fire elemental, certain that it would just earn him a half-empty bottle of whiskey tossed at his head, and changed the topic away from Yohji’s sex-life. "The child will be born just as the eldest moon begins to fade."

Jei grunted in response, his eye closed as if he was lost in the memory of something. "Boy or girl?"

"A girl, one who will grow up to become a beautiful and willful woman." Crawford did not mind sharing the future with Jei, not when his partner had never betrayed any of his confidences before. "The bloodline of Kritiker will flow through her."

"That an off-hand way of saying that Omi won’t produce any brats?" Jei turned slightly to better face Crawford, not seeming to care if his dark blue clothes were snagged or dirtied by the tree’s bark. His white hair and pale skin almost glowed in the weak moonlight, while his remaining eye blazed like a golden flame.

"Why do you care about a wizard?" There was no patronizing behind the words, just an honest question on Crawford’s part. He was surprised when Jei actually considered the answer before speaking.

"Because Nagi loves him." Jei shrugged as if surprised himself, the claws of his right hand extended as he picked at a piece of peeling bark. "Because he’s actually a decent kid and I trust him to never use his magic to harm a bound unless in defense." He chuckled just then, probably because of Crawford’s incredulous look. "What, am I supposed to be ranting about him being a wizard until I froth at the mouth?"

Crawford shook his head as his smile widened. "It is what’s normally expected of you, so I guess I’m a fool for thinking that way." Those who knew of Jei’s true nature and childhood would expect him to be a raving lunatic at the mere mention of the word ‘wizard’, but he sometimes had more control than that. Oh, if he could get away with dismembering a wizard, he would, and Omi and Botan must have realized by now that to betray Jei or any of his friends would mean their death. However, there was no way that Crawford would allow himself to be partnered with a madman who could easily ruin all his plans by giving in to bloodlust.

Jei shrugged again before giving up on the bark in favor of another swig of alcohol.  "I notice you’re not saying anything about Omi’s future." He stared at Crawford for several minutes before rolling his eye. "You see, this is in part how you annoy the hell out of people; you won’t stop talking about certain futures while being damn quiet about others."

"The future is in a very fluid state right now, and there’s Aya’s involvement to consider as well." He chuckled at the growling noise his partner made. "From what I’ve seen and taking into the account how much things can change, the reason that the Takatori bloodline isn’t carried on by Omi has more to do with Nagi than any horrid fate. Are you satisfied now?" he asked, putting as much sarcasm as he could into the question.

"Never." Jei flashed his sharp teeth in a smile. "But the lovers never complain about that."

"Oh, I’m sure," Crawford replied, not quite done with the sarcasm just yet, it seemed. "Just remember that for now, I need you more as a fighter than a lover."

Folding his arms over his chest with the bottle cradled between them, Jei grunted again. "Not too much to fight just yet."

He had a point, as things were relatively calm for now. "Wait until Yuda gets here." Crawford sighed as he stared off at the back entrance to the Koneko. "You’re one of the few who can resist him." Jei’s madness would come in very handy then, as long as the man did not tear out Yuda’s throat during a fight.

"Is that based on a vision?" Jei’s relaxed posed belied the eagerness in his voice; yes, he definitely had to hunt very soon, and it would be best if he did it before Yuda and Ruka’s arrival.

Going through the many visions he had experienced about the succubae bound, Crawford ground his teeth together in frustration and shook his head. "It’s… uncertain." Dammit, why did Aya’s presence have to obscure so much? And Yohji taking on more of his mate’s attributes with each passing day did not help, either. Once Yuda got here, he was not entirely sure what would happen, and the damn man was so focused on rejoining Shin that the future constantly changed; one minute he would stay away long enough for Shin to completely recover, the next he would be headed straight for the Koneko.

It had been a bit unfair, sending Jared to deal with Yuda and Ruka, but there were very few people who would be able to hold back the two bounds. As there was no way that Crawford and Jei could leave the city for so long - and certainly not to spend a few weeks in the company of the fugitives - he had little choice in the matter. Roy could not desert the Army to do it, Rufus would never have agreed, and Crawford would be lucky to fare half as well as Botan had against Yohji’s protective nature. That had left sending someone who had a bit of a backbone yet was ‘expendable’, and Jared had fit the bill, so to speak.

Crawford felt the urge to snatch back the bottle and drain the last few swallows it contained, but it was not worth the hassle when he could just go back inside and have several full ones. "Schuldig said the compulsion is more ingrained than he had thought," he finally admitted, sparing a thought for his son who was busy drinking himself silly in the main room.

For a moment, he mistook Jei’s growl for a rumble of thunder, even though the rain had stopped a couple of hours ago. "The fucking bastards."

"On that, we’ll always be in agreement."


The joke mostly worked in defusing Jei’s temper before the madness took over, but that worrying gleam still remained in his eye, as did a hint of white between his slightly parted lips. "They may be old, senile fucks, but they’ve been alive for nearly a millennium. I guess they picked up a few tricks along the way."

Nodding in agreement, Crawford gave in to the impulse to run his hands through his hair, scratching at his scalp as if to release the tension headache building inside. "I’m wondering if *he* said something to them; the coercions are so built up that they have to be more than a few years’ work." Which would explain why Shin and Yuda had not become mates as soon as they met, as was often the case when the bond was meant to be very strong. Even Aya, as repressed and scarred as he had been back when he was Ran, had given in to Yohji very quickly, and it had not taken as long as he had thought it might with Duo and Trowa once they had begun to live together.

Jei looked ready to claw the tree into kindling until he must have remembered Aya’s affection for all of the garden’s plant-life. "So, what’s gonna happen now?"

Feeling just as tired as Jei sounded, Crawford rested the back of his head against the tree’s trunk and wished he could pull some energy from it or the ground. "It means that I have to ask a favor of Lord Shinra." He grimaced while saying the words, detesting what fate was forcing him to do. "Schuldig will need help in breaking the compulsion, and they don’t have much time left to do it." The last vision he had had on the matter had revealed that they would not have enough time, which was why he had warned Jei about fighting Yuda. Despite the risk of bloodshed, it would be much better for Jei to handle things than for Yohji or Aya to do so.

In contrast, Jei grinned as if he had just been told that tomorrow was winter solstice. "Oh, I *have* to be there for that one!" Chuckling in the face of Crawford’s baleful glare, he handed over the last of the whiskey. "What’s that saying about reaping what you sow?"

Biting his lip to keep from mentioning the dreaded ‘K’ word, Crawford snatched up the bottle and drained it in seconds. "So much for you focusing on what’s truly important," he snarled.

"Hey, I have to take my amusements wherever I can." Jei’s grin faded as he looked in the direction of the street that ran behind the Koneko. "I guess you’ll want me to stick close to the inn, then."

Tapping the empty bottle against the tree, Crawford shook his head and felt a rare pang of pity. "Not for a few more days, so have your fill until then." It would be best if Jei stuffed himself now, rather than be hungry when Yuda arrived. "I believe that if you pay Birman another visit, she’ll have a list of suitable ‘dinners’ for you." Now there was a woman who was quite grateful to have a few troublesome targets taken care of, especially if there was not much of them left to ever be found.

There was another flash of sharp, white teeth. "Eh, won’t that be cutting into Aya’s meals a bit?" Jei glanced at the inn even as he stepped away from the tree.

"He’s been feeding rather well lately, and as the war approaches he won’t suffer from a lack of meals." Aya’s talent of killing without leaving any sign behind was of too much usefulness for him to starve for very long. Add to that the fact that the Elders would be sending more and more spies to Eto, as well as other countries as well, and Aya would probably not go hungry for some time after the war. Crawford was certain that the Elders’ hounds would reach the city eventually in their search for the cousins, and that the kage would not mind dealing with them.

Most people would be terrified to see so much of Jei’s fangs exposed, but he recognized it for the pleased grin it was. "Then I think it’s time I paid the lovely lady another visit." No longer hiding the hunger he felt, Jei’s voice was a rough growl that silenced all the other faint sounds of life within the garden. Even the fish in the pond became still as he radiated his demon nature, his eye glowing in the darkness and making the starless night seem even more desolate.

"May the gods favor you with a successful hunt," Crawford whispered as his partner vanished into the darkness, feeling some of the control he desperately needed be restored. After all, a well-fed Jei was mostly biddable – or at least a hell of a lot more biddable than when he was influenced by his appetite. Now, his main concern would be preventing Yohji from killing Yuda during a power struggle and keep Schuldig from throttling Rufus… well, he could turn a blind eye to that *after* the compulsions were broken.

However, Shin and Rei needed to regain enough strength to be able to endure the pain that would come with their free will being completely restored. Rei would be almost as much an effort for Eri was Shin would be for Schuldig and Rufus, but at least he did not have an over-protective mate speeding his way to the city. No, one of those would be trouble enough.

Feeling the urge to indulge in more alcohol, Crawford pushed away from the tree and headed back to the inn, willing to put up with the noise inside if it meant more whiskey. Jo would probably let him stay in the kitchen as long as he did not get in the way, and Yuushi would be pleased to pick his brain for a bit. There were worse ways to spend an evening.

******* 

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