Storm Warnings

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chapter five

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of machinations, compulsions and spring rolls….

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Nagi paid careful attention to his lover while Omi slowly got dressed for the day; the hesitation to his movements might have been due to the fact that they had stayed up late last night awaiting news of Manx’s delivery, yet he did not think that was the case. He believed that Omi’s silence was not from exhaustion, only that he was lost in thoughts about his newly born sister.

Already dressed in a dark green shirt and black pants, he crossed the room and wrapped his arms around his boyfriend, his chest pressed to Omi’s back. "There are times when I wish I could read thoughts."

Omi laughed, the sound faint yet amused, and hugged Nagi’s arms tighter around his chest. "Well, *I* don’t wish for such a thing, especially if it means you’ll start acting like Schu."

Laughing a bit himself, Nagi buried his face against golden hair and warm skin, happy to breathe in the scent he most adored in all the world. "That does make it sound like a really dumb wish."

Gentle fingers combed through his hair, the touch light and teasing. "I’m not sure the world could take another Schu. That must be why Crawford and Cassandra can’t stand each other – so there’s no risk of them having another child together." It seemed as if Omi’s good mood faded after that comment, his fingers going still.

Pulling away, Nagi captured Omi’s left wrist and led him back to the bed. A faint blush crept over his boyfriend’s cheeks as they sat down, and Omi hurried to dress in the pale blue shirt he held in his hand. "Are you really unhappy about things?" Nagi did some blushing of his own when he realized that the words had not quite come out as he had meant them.

Omi’s fingers once more stroked through his hair, followed by a soft kiss. "I guess it’s finally sinking in that I have a sister." Omi smiled just then, the sight almost breath-taking. "I want her to be happy."

For a moment, Nagi wondered what it must be like to have a sibling; Aya had grown up with his sister and had some happy times together before the Takatori kidnapped them. Despite the almost constant fighting between Teddy and Yohji, Nagi knew the two men cared for each other, and they clearly loved Mickey and he them. Even Crawford and Roy had their moments together, and Nagi had never seen a closer bond between two brothers than with Ed and Al. Would he be so different if he had a brother or sister? Would they have looked after him, or he them? What was it like to be tied by blood to someone like that? He could barely remember his own parents, and certainly no other family beyond that. No, over the years he had made Aya his family and been content, not needing anyone else until he met Omi.

"You’ll do a good job of seeing that she is," he assured his boyfriend, ducking his head as he spoke the words, feeling shy all of a sudden. Omi always went out of his way to make others happy, and this would be someone with whom he had a very strong tie. Nagi felt a quick stab of jealousy at the idea before reminding himself that Omi was *here*.

"Thank you." Omi’s reply was just as faint and hesitant in return, the touch to Nagi’s left cheek gentle enough to almost be imagined. "I think everyone will make sure she’s happy." He let out a long sigh and settled closer to Nagi. "Half of the city is in love with her already, and only a few people have even seen her!"

Ah, perhaps this was part of what was bothering him, Nagi wondered. He had noticed how Omi’s mood had changed last night, when everyone had been busy toasting the newborn princess’ health. "You… are you jealous?"

Omi pulled away a little, a frown on his face as he stared back, not seeming angry, yet still displeased. "I… I guess I am, just a bit. I haven’t heard anyone toast ‘Mamoru’ in quite a while." His frown continued for a few more seconds and then he laughed. "I sound crazy, don’t I? Going on about ‘Mamoru’ as if he’s not me."

"No." Nagi smiled and pulled Omi closer. "He’s not you, not really." He shook his head and leaned back against the wall, Omi moving with him. "*This* is the real you, and I don’t think you ever got to show this side of yourself while at the palace." His right hand hovered over his boyfriend’s heart; ask anyone about Prince Mamoru and they would not talk about a young man who was fun, caring, intelligent and brave. Well, they would probably mention the intelligent part, but being a prince meant that Omi could not indulge in any facet of himself that was anything but perfectly proper.

Part of that was because of what had happened to his mother, and part of it was that the king had kept the Court as far away from his son as possible. From the little that Birman had told Nagi, the latter was a very good thing as the king was determined that Omi would not be surrounded by the negative influences that had helped shape Reiji into the monster he had become. That was not something he wanted to bring up right now, though, since anything related to Omi’s mother and uncle tended to upset him.

"I believe that they’re just a bunch of alcoholic humans looking for an excuse to have a party." Nagi sniffed in disapproval, inwardly smiling at the grin that spread across his lover’s face.

"That might be it." Omi fell quiet for a few seconds and appeared to be thinking about something. "That and everyone really wants this marriage to work out for my father. Manx having a baby is a good omen, and that’s needed at a time when people are thinking about war."

"So there’s no reason to feel that they don’t care for Mamoru," Nagi pointed out, glad that he had helped out a little bit. While he was not as bad as Aya, emotions that most people took for granted were still beyond him from time to time. Add to that the fact that he was not always sure about the best way to express his own and he usually preferred to remain quiet about most things. But Omi, like Aya, was worth the effort.

He hissed in surprise when his boyfriend jumped from the bed as if it had just bitten him, dragging Nagi along until they stood in the middle of the room. "Come on, let’s go see her! I know ‘Mamoru’ is still at Lady Meara’s mountain estate, but it’s not right, me not paying Ouka a visit. We can sneak into the palace with Ken and no one will know!" Omi’s face was almost split in half by a huge grin, his blue eyes bright with happiness and mischief.

Nagi only hesitated for a moment, and that was to spare a thought about Aya. "All right." There was no way he would allow Omi to go to the palace alone, not with the chance that someone might see through his illusion and insist that he remain at that cold place. No, if he went along, then Omi would return to the Koneko even if Nagi had to tear down a few walls in the process. "Let me talk to Aya first, okay?"

Omi’s happiness vanished as if he had just been told he would never be able to cast another spell in his life. "Oh, you had plans today, didn’t you?" He patted Nagi on the shoulder and stepped back. "We can go another time."

"No." Using his power, Nagi made Omi stumble forward then grabbed him by the upper arms. "We need to go see your sister; it’s only proper." He saw Aya almost every day, even if it was not often that they could make plans to spend some time alone with each other.

Omi clearly knew that and wanted to object, yet something in Nagi’s expression made him shake his head and chuckle. "I’m supposed to be the commanding prince, you know." His smile was back in place as he brushed his lips quickly against Nagi’s.

"Hmph. Don’t be as foolish as Kudoh." Nagi snapped out the words, yet he had trouble not smiling as well – especially when Omi managed such a convincing look of terror.

"Don’t say that I’m becoming as bad as him!" The expression changed into amusement as Omi laughed and stepped away, making sure to pull Nagi with him as he headed to the door. "You’ll have to call me ‘stupid’ or a ‘moron’ just so people don’t get Yohji and me mixed up!"

Nagi sniffed again. "Aya doesn’t call him an idiot enough, in my opinion." At least not often enough when he really meant the word, but Yohji usually did a good job of looking after his best friend.

There was a tenderness to Omi’s smile just then that hinted at him knowing the true depth of Nagi’s protective feelings for Aya. "I doubt he ever will, even if Yohji hasn’t been himself lately." Closing the door behind them, Omi led him down the hallway and toward the stairs.

He touched Omi’s arm and motioned for the boy to continue downstairs when they both paused on the floor that housed Aya and Yohji’s room. "I’ll be down in a few minutes."

"Okay." Omi leaned forward to give him a quick kiss. "Maybe Jo made pancakes since it’s a special occasion, so I’ll use all of my power to save some for us!" He was trying so hard to be cheerful that Nagi felt a lot better about changing his plans for the day.

Going to his best friend’s room, Nagi knocked on the door and was not surprised when Yohji opened it. "What, aren’t you going to eat breakfast first?" he snarled, giving the impression that he had been ‘interrupted’. Considering that he was still clothed and that he soon yelped in pain when Nagi had not even focused his talent yet, Nagi assumed that guess was incorrect.

"I want to talk to Aya." He glared at the idiot until Yohji sighed and opened the door wider.

"I’ll go fend off the starving demons that are most likely eating the kitchen bare," Yohji called over his shoulder, appearing all of a sudden in a better mood. When Aya murmured ‘thank you’, the blond smiled and stepped through the doorway. "Sorry about that." Yohji let out a rueful huff of breath and ran his right hand through his hair. "If Jo wouldn’t beat my head in for it, I’d start off the day with a few pints of beer to try to dull this temper."

Although he really hated to feel any sympathy towards the man, Nagi nodded in understanding. "We’ll be down in a few minutes," he repeated. He was a bit on edge himself, with the presence of the powerful earth elemental sleeping just a floor below; Gai got on his nerves in a way that Rude did not, which was odd, since the two bounds were about the same strength. Maybe it was because while Rude radiated control, Gai seemed even more scatterbrained than Naru.

"Thanks." Yohji hurried down the hallway, moving almost too fast for a human. Not about to chide the idiot and be snarled at again – Aya would be very upset if they got into a fight – he only shook his head and went into the room.

"Nagi." Aya was dressed as well, in black pants and shirt with a dark grey, hooded jerkin. Considering the warm weather outside, Nagi knew that the layers were to shield him from the sun rather than to block out a chill. "Are you that eager to go shopping today?"

Feeling a stab of guilt, Nagi shook his head. "I’m… I’m sorry, Aya. I know we were supposed to do something today, but Omi wants to go see his sister." He sounded as apologetic as he felt, truly regretful that he had to cancel the plans today, despite his assurances to Omi.

Aya went utterly still for a few seconds before taking a deep breath and folding his arms over his chest. Despite his actions, his expression remained kind. "You don’t have to apologize. I think it’s a good idea for Omi to go see her, and he should have someone by his side while he does." There was a faint note of hurt to his voice, something that only a couple of people would be able to detect, but Nagi did not think it was because of him. No, most likely Aya was thinking about his own sister, which made him feel even guiltier.

"Aya-"

"No." Moving so fast as to be a blur, Aya crossed the room and stopped right in front of him, hesitating just a moment before patting Nagi on the left shoulder. "Please, go with Omi. We’ll just make plans for another day."

Nagi caught his friend’s hand and gave it a squeeze, relieved that Aya did not pull away from the contact. "I really did want to do something with you today. If it weren’t for this… I mean, I spend most of my time with Omi."

"Because he’s your lover." Aya shook his head, his eartails flashing through the air with the sudden motion. "Just like I’m usually with Yohji. I never feel that you don’t want to spend time with me."

That was a relief to know, and Aya did not lie to his friends on matters like this. "I’m so happy to be back here and with you again, it’s just…." Nagi was not quite sure what he wanted to say now. Getting back to Omi *and* Aya had been so important while he had been in Esset, but there were days when he did not see Aya at all. And when he did have the time to be with his friend, there were Ed and Reno hanging about as well, making him feel that maybe he was not needed so much.

"Yohji is constantly pointing out to me that I’m terrible about keeping straight the days and months." Aya tilted his head to the side, a faint smile on his face that warmed Nagi through. "Just because we don’t spend as much time together as we used to doesn’t mean you’re not still my best friend. It’s just… there’s Yohji and Omi now." He appeared puzzled, as if he had as much difficulty expressing himself as Nagi did. "There will be more opportunities later."

"Yes." Nagi spoke the word with the reverence reserved for oaths. There *would* be time later, he would not allow the gods to take his dear friend from him. Maybe when they were not all so busy honing their talents in preparations for a war, or working, or researching, or… or just *living* after so many years of pain and fear, they would have the free days where they could just wander around doing whatever they wanted. However, he and Aya were not very good at putting thoughts like that into words.

Aya’s smile grew stronger even as his eyes took on a silver tint. "Besides, it’s probably not the best day for me to go outside, considering the crowds." He glanced toward one of the room’s windows.

"I… didn’t think about that." Most likely, as soon as they went out onto the crowded streets he would have insisted that they return to the Koneko. He was relieved again, and grateful that Aya would be spared that, because his friend probably would have pushed on just to make him happy. Then something occurred to him. "Ah, is that why Kudoh was even more of a jerk than usual this morning?"

The silver faded and Aya actually laughed for a couple of seconds. "I’m afraid so. He’s worried about me being around so many people, although he didn’t try to make me stay inside." He gave Nagi a thoughtful look that probably was meant to be interpreted as ‘See? He isn’t as bad as you think’. Nagi ignored it with ease, as he felt no reason to be charitable to Yohji unless pressed to do so.

"Yes, so he should be happy to know I’ll stay home. I can always work in the library." Aya seemed pleased with the prospect, until he once more grew serious. "We’ll do something together in a few days. I… look forward to being out with you." A faint blush tinted his pale cheeks.

"I know." The words were thick in Nagi’s throat, unused to expressing himself like this. "We’ll have a lot of fun."

Aya nodded and motioned toward the door. "There’s a difference between lovers and friends, but that’s good, isn’t it? No one is being replaced." He sounded anxious, as if worried about how Nagi would take what he said. "Which doesn’t mean that all friends are the same, either. Each one is… is unique."

Despite Aya’s halting speech and clear unease, Nagi felt that he understood what his friend was trying to say. "I know that." Yohji had not replaced him, and neither had Ed and Reno, although he was a bit jealous over the other earth elemental becoming such good friends with Aya. As envious as the others could make him feel at times though, he was the one who knew Aya the best – with the exception of Yohji, who had the benefit of the irrevocable bond between mates and could sense emotions as well. Ed shared Aya’s love for books, Reno had things in common with Aya that no one else - not even Yohji - ever would, which meant they were special, but in a different way than him. *He* was the one who knew about Ran, had been there when they had no one else but each other to rely upon. That was a unique bond in and of itself.

"Good." Aya appeared much more at ease and even gave him a quick hug. "Now, let’s get downstairs, because I don’t trust Yohji to go without picking a fight for much longer. I doubt Jo has the patience to put up with his bad mood if she’s dealing with an increase in guests."

"Hmph, maybe she could beat some sense into his thick skull," Nagi said, with a disapproving sniff. "*Maybe*."

"The day that the two of you become best friends, I’ll know that something is gravely wrong," Aya sighed, an aggrieved look on his face as he hastened down the stairs. Since Nagi could only agree with his friend, he decided that it would be wise not to give an answer just then.

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Aya’s spine stiffened when he smelled a familiar scent, barely managing to not growl as footsteps approached and his name was called out. "Aya, good afternoon."

The shadows started to writhe in the corners of the room the same time that he stifled the empathic link between him and Yohji. "Kikyou." He turned around to face the Guard’s ‘official’ Captain, dizzy for a moment from the rush of anxiety, dislike and anger that made him want to hiss and call the shadows to him.

Kikyou’s lips twisted in annoyance for a couple of seconds, then smoothed out into a pleasant smile. "You look tired." He reached out as if to touch Aya’s face, pulling the caress just short and making Aya shiver at the feel of air brushing against his skin. Oh, he had to give the bastard some credit; Kikyou had figured out that he did not like to be touched, it was just a shame that the revelation had come too late. Aya still remembered the forced kiss between them, the wave of fear and indignation, the smell of a human man clinging to him and making him feel nauseous.

"I’m tired," he snapped, wanting to step back even as he refused to show how this man’s attention disturbed him so much. He was not Ran anymore, subject to the whims of others and unable to do anything but bear with the degradation and pain. Kikyou could not do anything to him that he did not want – well, other than force the occasional ‘date’ out of him. "Tell me why you’re here so I can finish things and go rest." If they were not so precious, he would throw one of the books tucked into the crook of his left arm at the human.

Perhaps he had revealed more of his true emotions than he had thought, since Kikyou stepped back a little and bowed. "I’m sorry, it’s not my intention to deprive you of any rest." For a moment he did appear apologetic, and then his demeanor turned serious. "However, it’s not as if I’ve had much of a chance to spend any time with you. I was hoping that you could spare me an hour today."

Aya took a deep breath and refused to send a wave of panic over the link to Yohji. If he did, his mate would show up in seconds and most likely kill Kikyou; Yohji was too much on edge right now to be able to calmly use his talent to convince the man to go away for a few more weeks. Besides, they could not rely on that ‘trick’ all the time when it would make people wonder why Kikyou had suddenly dropped his ardent pursuit of Aya.

Taking a deep breath, Aya nodded once. "May I have a minute or two to replace these books?" He motioned at his left arm, and Kikyou actually appeared flustered as he bowed and took another step back.

"By all means." Kikyou waited in the middle of the library while Aya finished replacing the books. Usually, being in the library helped to calm him down, yet the Guard’s presence put his nerves on edge. If Yohji was not busy helping Mickey with the shipment of wine, he had no doubt that his mate would be checking out what had him so unsettled. As it was, he felt Yohji’s curiosity over the link and sent what reassurance he could. His mate would be furious to learn that Aya had left with Kikyou, but it was best to get whatever the man wanted out of the way now and hopefully have some sort of reprieve while Yuda was here.

The books returned to their rightful place, Aya sighed in annoyance and pulled the hood of his dark grey jerkin over his head. "Where are we going?" He assumed that Kikyou did not want to remain here for their ‘hour’, and the waspish tone to his voice made it clear that he was not very happy.

He hated to admit it, but it was not easy at all to ruffle the man’s calm demeanor. Kikyou smiled and held out his left arm in invitation, which Aya felt he had no choice but to accept; if he went along with gestures such as this, Kikyou would not try to touch him in any other manner. "I thought we’d just walk around the neighborhood today. It’s not too sunny out, so you shouldn’t suffer any of your headaches." Kikyou bent his arm as if to trap Aya’s hand in the crook of his elbow and seemed too pleased with himself just then.

Left wondering what the man was up to now, Aya refused to allow the shadows to gather around him and form a weapon. "That is very kind of you." He did not think he did as good a job of expressing sarcasm as Schuldig or Reno did, as all Kikyou did was smile some more and give him a wink.

"I’ll be back in an hour," he told Teddy, who stood clutching the tall, narrow stand near the front door as if ready to pick it up and bash it over Kikyou’s head.

The look Teddy gave him made it clear that all Aya had to do was nod and there would be massive violence, but he knew why Aya went along with Kikyou’s odd demands in the first place and did not cause a scene. Well, he did not cause one now, but Aya knew that his friend would track Yohji down as soon as the door was covered by someone else and bitch about how Yohji could continue to allow this to happen. Knowing that he would be spending the rest of the day in his room, soothing both his mate and his own sense of discomfort, Aya once again barely resisted the urge to hiss.

A faint noise escaped him as he stepped outside, the sunlight a bit stronger than he had expected. His fingers tightened around the thin, crimson-dyed wool that covered Kikyou’s left elbow, and he started when his fingers were patted in sympathy. "It’s all right."

"Why are we out here?" he demanded to know, in part to distract himself from the fact that he had forgotten to tuck a pair of gloves into his belt’s pouch today. Once Nagi had cancelled their plans to go shopping, he had expected to spend the day inside, not walking about with a man he wished more and more that he could maim enough to permanently drive away.

"I wanted to see you for a little while." Kikyou sounded annoyed, as if tired of having to repeat himself. "The entire city is celebrating the princess’ birth, and I thought we could enjoy it ourselves." He urged Aya closer, his good mood seemingly restored when Aya grudgingly complied so as to avoid the crowd of people on the street.

"I would think that you’d be busy because of it." Uncomfortable with both the situation and being stuck in a crowd, Aya felt his emotions weaken and grow faint, leaving him cold and distant. He wanted so much to pull the shadows around him, to find someplace safe and dark where it was just him and the shinigami, yet was forced to stay out in the open while surrounded by humans. He wanted to be curled up on his bed with his mate beside him, and it was because of Yohji that he kept walking. Kikyou was too much of a threat to their future to be brushed off or even killed, so he would endure this hour as best he could. Really, all he was doing was going out with a man he did not like, it was not as if he was being forced against-

Kikyou’s touch to his right hand thankfully shook him from that desperate line of thought. "I’m guilty of taking a break when I could, I guess." Kikyou laughed, his eyes closed and his head tilted back, black hair fanning over his shoulders in stark contrast to the crimson uniform he wore with evident pride. He was a handsome man, part of Aya noticed, and in a way they complimented each other. Kikyou’s skin was pale enough to declare his highborn status, he was only a couple of inches taller and a sort of mirror opposite, with his red clothes and dark hair.

Aya brushed his left hand down the front of his dark grey jerkin, before tucking it into one of the pockets of his black pants. He knew that people were looking at them, initially drawn by Kikyou’s uniform and then probably wondering who was with the Captain of the Guard. When they passed a few people who did recognize him, he noticed their confused expressions and knew that there would be talk about why he was out with another man besides Yohji.

"Would you like something to drink? Or perhaps something sweet to eat?" Kikyou gestured to one of the carts that lined the street, the hand-painted sign on its side proclaiming the city’s best honey-roasted almonds. Normally, Aya would be interested, but his stomach was too tied up in knots at the moment. When he shook his head, Kikyou patted his hand as if in sympathy and continued to lead him on.

It was clear that the man did not really care if he was in a talkative mood or not, though he was conscientious enough to stick to the shadier side of the street and to maneuver Aya close to the walls of the various shops they passed. Acting as a buffer of sorts between Aya and the crowd, Kikyou appeared very happy just to be out with him, which left him even more confused over what this was about. Surrounded as they were by people, it would not be one of the times when Kikyou could harangue him about reclaiming the Fujimiya name – at least, if he did say that word out loud, Aya would punch him and storm back to the Koneko. Was it really about the Guard getting away from the palace for an hour or two and spending what was a mostly nice day in the company of someone he claimed to care about?

Aya wished that Yohji was here, not just for his mate’s comforting presence, but for Yohji’s insight into human nature. Hell, right now he would accept Rufus’ help, both in reading Kikyou’s mind and for the bound’s considerable skill in figuring out plots and motives; even Schuldig’s often disruptive presence would be welcome if it meant figuring out what Kikyou’s agenda was. Aya was not a fool, merely inexperienced when it came to dealing with humans, but the human was definitely up to something. He remembered the ring with succubae blood and Kikyou’s rank and knew that a solution to the problem would not be so easily found. Aya’s blood would be required to read his thoughts, something that Yohji would not allow as he felt that Aya was already in danger of setting a very bad precedent with his previous donations, and there was still a risk involved. One did not become the Captain of the Guard without a fair bit of discipline and skill, after all, and they could only assume that Aya or Reno’s influence rendered a telepath’s ability completely undetectable. From the little that Schuldig had been able to ‘scan’, he had said that Kikyou did a very good job masking everything but the most surface of thoughts.

They ran into a few of Kikyou’s friends and acquaintances who seemed more interested in talking about the newborn princess than anything else. Aya caught a glimpse of the world he had turned his back on, where what happened in the palace was of paramount importance, each new event something to be studied to find out how best it could benefit a person. Life was not perfect at the Koneko, and it would be nice to have enough money so he and Yohji never had to worry about the future, but he would never accept that wealth if it meant giving up the relative peace he had found at the inn. Even Omi preferred serving food and cleaning rooms to living as the crown prince, so why would Aya try to change anything?

Kikyou at least kept his word of only taking Aya out for an hour or so, and eventually led him back to the Koneko. Bowing low, Kikyou dared a brush of his lips against the back of Aya’s hand. Focused on the presumption behind that gesture, Aya was startled out of his anger by the human’s words.

"There’s a rumor going around the palace that Mamoru will soon be named the inheritor of the Fujimiya estates."

Aya quickly checked to make sure there was no one standing around to hear this discussion. "You’ve mentioned something about that before." The words came out rushed, made curt by his anger and unease.

"So I have." Kikyou smiled as if he either did not care about or did not notice Aya’s sudden unease. "However, this time it’s several Ministers who are spreading it about. Now that there’s a new contender for the crown, people are thinking about appeasing a rather questionable heir and getting him out of the way." He bowed again, his motions as smooth as his voice just then, and stepped back. "I’ll see you soon, *Aya*." He put an odd emphasis on the name, as if it were an obvious falsehood.

Aya watched him go, more tempted to set loose the shadows on the bastard than he had been in a very long time. He *was* Aya, and nothing in this world could make him go back to being Ran. The mere thought of being what he had been over a year ago made his chest hurt and his hands clench into fists. That life and all its entanglements were gone, and the only thing owed to it was the proper respect for his family. The promise of money and lands was not the least bit enticing, not when he thought of everything that went along with them. No, he would much rather continue working for Birman to earn his way and help out with the occasional shift here.

Disturbed by today’s outing and wanting to rid himself of Kikyou’s scent, he headed up to his room, not even pausing to give Teddy any sort of answer about what Kikyou wanted other than a shake of his head. When he felt the bond between him and Yohji grow sharper and thrum with suppressed rage, he let out a long sigh and wondered if it was too early in the day to attempt to get drunk.

*******

Yohji told himself for what had to be the twentieth time that he would not start a fight with his lover as soon as Aya returned. That in mind, he swallowed a snarl when Aya entered the room, appearing pensive and tired. Watching him cross the room while pulling off the shirt and jerkin he had been wearing, Yohji was surprised when Aya grabbed a bottle of wine as soon as he had stripped off his clothes and pulled on a robe.

Aya hissed at the bottle and a moment later, the cork flew across the room. Not bothering with a glass, he had several swallows before he settled on the bed next to Yohji, his head lolling against Yohji’s shoulder as he drank some more.

Feeling some of his anger fade away, Yohji chuckled and hugged his mate closer. Okay, so he had been pissed off at Aya going out with the fucking bastard, but Aya did not deserve his foul temper. From what he could feel over their link, Aya was confused, tired and very grateful to be home.

"You could have called for me, you know," was Yohji’s only concession to his anger.

Finally putting the now half-empty bottle aside, Aya snorted and shifted a little closer. "You would have killed him."

About to argue with that statement, Yohji shook his head and grabbed the wine instead. Considering how bad a mood he had been in the last few days, he had to agree with his lover. He drank the rest of the wine before letting the bottle drop to the floor, ignoring the way Aya hissed at the ‘mess’ with ease. "And that’s a bad thing?" He laughed in the face of Aya’s glare and pulled his mate into his arms. "I know." The last came out faint, the words weakened by a sudden rush of weariness. Here they were, the two most powerful bounds alive as far as they knew, and they had to appease a bunch of manipulative assholes. "As soon as the cousins are gone, I’ll have another ‘talk’ with him."

Aya was quiet for a few seconds, enough to make Yohji think that he hated the plan, and then sighed and tucked his face into the crook of Yohji’s neck. "Okay." Warm arms wrapped around his waist and hugged him tight while gratitude and exhaustion flowed over their link.

Surprised at how easy that had been and for a moment thinking that the wine must be more potent than he thought, Yohji laughed again and laid back on the bed, Aya in his arms and resting half on top of him. "So, you gonna tell me what he wanted?" Well, other than the obvious, which was Aya.

"He said he wanted to spend some time with me while he could, and brought up Omi being given my family’s properties." Aya looked up as he spoke, his eyes turning silver and his voice a touch sibilant. One day Kikyou would learn that bringing up Aya’s family was a bad thing, not that Yohji was ever going to warn the asshole about that.

"Same old, same old, in other words." Yohji brushed aside the hair falling onto his lover’s face, his hand lingering as it cupped Aya’s left cheek. "Maybe I can use my special trick to get him to reveal why he keeps bringing that up." It was a risk, that offer, since Aya hated it whenever he used his talent like that, but his mate was thoughtful rather than angry.

"I’d prefer that you wait a few more months and continue practicing your talent before you did that." Aya said the words in a slow manner as if he considered each one with care before speaking.

"It’s a deal." One that was sealed with a very pleasant kiss that made Yohji’s lips tingle and his hunger stir awake. That was to be expected when he had been in such a furious, protective mood this afternoon, even if he was not already on edge from strange bounds staying at the inn and a potential rival on the way. No, he wanted to assure himself that Aya was his and get rid of that awful human stink that clung to pale skin and red hair, to replace it with his own scent. Aya seemed to be of the same mind and did not object to the passionate turn their emotions and actions took, even beginning to purr as Yohji undid the belt to the scarlet robe. Yohji had just slid his hand inside to touch warm, smooth skin when there was a loud knock on the door.

"I know you’re in there, so stop what you’re doing and come out or I’ll join you."

Yohji snarled as he sat up in bed with Aya still held close against him. But as angry as he was over Reno’s presence, it slowly sunk in that the dubhach did not sound like his normal self just then. Aya must have noticed that, too, because he was frowning as he tied his belt closed before slipping from Yohji’s arms. Realizing that their ‘fun’ had been cut short, he adjusted himself in his pants before following his mate.

Aya opened the door to reveal a barely recognizable Reno. The dubhach’s hair was pulled back, even most of his long, uneven bangs, and hidden behind a hood that was similar to the ones that Aya usually wore. For once he was not dressed in black and white, either, but pale grey and green, and his demeanor was shockingly subdued.

"Don’t tell me that Rufus did something to you," Yohji snarled, beating Aya to the punch.

Reno appeared surprised for a moment, a distinct change from his previously impassive expression, and then smiled. He looked more like his usual self as he motioned for permission to enter the room. "Yes and no."

Aya hissed as he stepped out of the way, his hands on Yohji’s arms tugging him along as well. "Explain."

"Well, I’m not in trouble or anything, it’s just that he’s unhappy about me being here right now." Reno pushed back the jerkin’s hood and went to sit on the edge of the desk, his eyes their normal aquamarine color and his voice lacking a hiss. If he was not upset about the situation, then Yohji was not going to be, either. Aya seemed to realize the same a moment later and went over to the dresser for some clothes.

"He got called here by Crawford and Schu to help out with your guests." Reno leered when Aya dropped the robe, but as Yohji did not sense or smell any lust, he merely made a show of growling in warning. Reno stuck his tongue out at the display of possessiveness, making them both laugh and Aya sigh in exasperation.

"So why did he bring you if he’s not happy about it?" Aya asked after he pulled on a new shirt, one that was deep purple in color. Yohji hurried over to his lover to show his appreciation of the change from near constant black and grey as well as to helpfully tug his favorite toys free. He got his hand swatted at and a brief smile in return.

Reno picked up a pen from the desk and began to play with it. "Because he knows that it’s a hell of a lot of grief for him to come here and leave me at home, and he’d rather know where I am right now." His smile took on an evil edge, and Yohji knew that if Rufus had left his fancy mansion without the dubhach today, Reno would not have been there when he got back.

"So in other words, there’s a very pissy Rufus downstairs dealing with Schu and Crawford." Yohji laughed and sat back down on the bed. "I think it would be a good idea to avoid them."

Aya finished dressing and joined Yohji on the bed. "I doubt they’ll be in the kitchen, since Jo won’t put up with their fighting." He leaned against Yohji’s left side, a warm, affectionate presence that made Yohji’s hunger flare for several seconds. Oh hell, he would have to wait a while longer for that ‘feeding’, but it was not as if he was starving or anything. He really needed to get a hold on his demon nature before Yuda arrived, or Aya was drained to the point of falling sick again.

"Food sounds good." Reno’s expression took on a plaintive air. "We were supposed to have a nice dinner tonight before Crawford’s message arrived."

Figuring that stuffing Reno full of food and whiskey should keep the playful bastard out of too much trouble, Yohji grasped Aya’s right hand and urged his mate to his feet. "Come on, then, let’s go see what Jo’s making." He figured that the prospect of being beaten by a marble rolling pin should help to keep his libido in check.

Aya and Reno readily agreed to his suggestion, the latter rushing toward the door, and it hit Yohji then that his good mood from earlier had been restored. A large part of that was having Aya by his side, but he was also growing fond of Reno. Besides, if the sometimes pest was here, that meant that things were moving forward a bit – that Shin and Rei would have their heads fixed so they could handle the impending arrival of their lovers and get out of the Koneko all the quicker. Yohji did not have anything against the cousins as they seemed like nice guys, but he wanted them gone and his home safe as soon as possible. He had never really thought of himself as the territorial type until he had met Aya, but as time went on, he only became even more so. The mental image of him growling at anyone who approached his mate or home made him laugh, even if there was a risk of it coming true in the next century or two.

*******

Rufus eyed the whiskey bottle that Marta had set down and immediately asked her to bring several more. Four soul gaki bounds at a table, all of them very powerful, and one bottle of potent alcohol was *not* going to be enough. As it was, Schuldig had an arrogant sneer on his face that Rufus wanted little more than to smack off, while Eri’s usually calm composure was showing obvious signs of strain. He suspected that it was Yuushi’s presence at the table that kept her somewhat calm. Crawford was his usual enigmatic self – at least from the neck up. The fingers of his right hand kept tapping against the table in obvious impatience.

Sparing a thought to make sure that his mate was staying out of trouble, Rufus let out a slow breath and decided to get this over with as quickly as possible. He detested the idea of letting Reno roam around the inn when Gou and his cousins were about, not entirely convinced that they were willing to betray the Elders despite Crawford’s assurances. However, he would rather have Reno here under his watch than risk his mate sneaking a visit to Aya and putting himself into danger. No, Reno was content in the kitchen with his friend, which was exactly what Rufus had hoped for when he had agreed to the outing.

"Explain to me in detail why you require my help," he said, mindful to keep any antagonism out of his voice. Schuldig had the edge of strength over him, which should mostly be nullified by his bond with Reno, but there was no sense in taking unwarranted risks at that moment.

Schuldig bared his teeth and appeared ready to say something snide until Crawford smacked him on the shoulder. "Bastard," he muttered under his breath, before returning his attention to Rufus. "Because it’s clear that Thought *and* Sense were involved with the coercions. That’s probably the only way they could keep two mates apart." There was a hint of a snarl in his voice, a sign that he did not have a great amount of impulse control. Rufus was pleased to have found out another weakness of a rival and prevented himself from smiling just in time.

"I thought you were stronger than either of them." He held up his hands, struggling all the while to keep his claws sheathed, when Schuldig snarled in response. "I didn’t mean it as a jab at your abilities, just wondering why you can’t undo the coercions by yourself."

"It’s a valid question," Eri said, and Rufus was certain that she got some satisfaction from pointing that out. Schuldig snarled at her, too, and this time it was Masato who smacked the idiot. Really, one would think that he would have learnt by now to not be so obvious about his emotions and impulses. Even *Reno* had more control than that, when he could be bothered to exert it.

Crawford picked up the bottle of whiskey and poured drinks for all of them, even Yuushi and Gou, although their glasses were only half full. "I suggest this useless posturing be saved for another night." His gaze was slightly reproachful when he looked at Schuldig. "No one is questioning your talent."

"This is about fixing Shin and Rei." Gou spoke up for the first time since he had sat down at the table, his deep voice annoyed and his posture hunched over. "Shin’s getting headaches just from thinking of Yuda and Rei can’t contact Ruka to find out how far away they are."

"They’ll be here very soon, which is why we need to have at least begun to work on the mental blocks by then." Crawford adjusted his glasses and turned toward Eri. "Let’s start with Rei – how long do you think it’ll take to rid him of the coercions?" He made it sound like an every day type of question, not a matter of undoing severe tampering to another bound’s mind.

Eri frowned as she considered the question, her thoughts a slight ‘hum’ in Rufus’ mind, since he did not push with his talent to go beyond her impressive shields. "It won’t be easy, and I’ve been waiting for him to regain a bit more strength before I attempt to break the blocks. However, from what I can tell, there are only a couple of them and they mainly affect his ability to exchange thoughts with Ruka. There’s a slight emotional entanglement, but the blocks are more keyed to a certain type of concentration on his part."

Judging from the thoughts and emotions that Rufus sensed, Yuushi was confused by what she said and Gou only followed part of the explanation, while Masato had a better grasp of a soul gaki’s domain than Rufus would expect. Then again, he had the empathic ability of succubae bounds and was mated to a soul gaki bound as well – did that mean that Reno would pick up a similar understanding over time despite not being a succubae bound? Rufus filed that thought away for another evening, already seeing both advantages and disadvantages to it.

"Yeah, well, to answer a certain *lord’s* question, it’s all fucked up in Shin’s head." Schuldig paused to gulp down his glass of whiskey and grabbed one of the extra bottles that Marta had just brought out to refill it. "They connected it to his emotions as well as memories, and I bet any time someone tries to manipulate his emotions it’ll cause a world of pain on both parts." He stared into his glass for several seconds before draining it again, shivering slightly as he swallowed the strong alcohol. "Fuckers didn’t leave anything to chance."

Rufus thought about all the ‘blocks’ and ‘connections’ that were involved and grimaced. "So let me guess, one of us is going to deal with the effects of the coercions, while the other dismantles them?" He had a very bad feeling about this, even more so when Schuldig gave him a very nasty smile in response. "Do I even need to ask who is doing what?"

"A big, powerful lord like you can handle taking on the coercions while I break them." Schuldig’s eyes flickered toward Gou for a moment. <And before you ask ‘why’, it’s because they shouldn’t affect you as badly, since you’re mated to Reno. I have Aya’s ring, but that type of magical invulnerability isn’t as effective as what you have. Just make sure to block your link before we start.> That last comment had the snap of a command to it, Schuldig’s thoughts layered with his concern for his drinking buddy and fellow troublemaker.

<I had every intention of doing just that.> He would not share the pain with his mate, not when Reno had found some sort of balance between his souls in the last few months. Too much pain would ruin that balance and possibly kick off one of his destructive moods. <However, that means we’ll have a limited time to work on the coercions, since if I block the link for too long, it has… adverse effects on Reno.> He included Crawford in the ‘discussion’, not about to explain himself twice.

Neither Crawford nor Schuldig looked happy to be given a time limit, but Schuldig had a mate of his own and Crawford a vested interest in keeping Reno alive and reasonably sane.

"We’re gonna need to break up the sessions with Shin, since he’s still very weak and it’s gonna hurt, taking down those blocks," Schuldig said out loud, begrudgingly giving in to the condition Rufus had set. He rolled his eyes when Gou growled and smacked his empty glass onto the table. "Oh, quit it! We’ll shield him from the pain as much as possible, and it’s not our damn fault his head’s all fucked up!"

"Schu," Masato murmured, and once his temperamental mate became calm he shot a warning glare at Gou. "We know you’ll do your best to spare him all unnecessary pain." His handsome face twisted as he considered something. "But it would be best to do whatever you have to do as quickly as possible. Speaking as a succubae bound, I doubt Yuda’s going to be happy with the thought of *anyone* being inside his mate’s head after the Elders’ tampering, let alone hurting Shin at the same time." His voice grew rougher as he spoke, until he almost growled out the words. Rufus barely stopped himself from making a comment about territorial succubae bounds and reminded himself of everyone gathered at the table. He could not really throw stones at another type of bound when it would take only the flimsiest of excuses for him and Schuldig to start a fight.

"There’s also the fact that Yuda hasn’t seen Shin in over two years. Do you expect him to just wave ‘hi’ and keep his distance when he arrives?" Gou asked, a surprising voice of reason. Rufus was not used to the bound speaking up like that and promised himself he would give the fire elemental more careful consideration in the future.

Crawford refilled his glass as well, not stopping until the whiskey threatened to spill over its rim. "No, which is why I think it’s best that any bound who doesn’t have to be here avoid the Koneko for the next week or two." He paused to drink half the glass in one go. "At least they’re not both elemental bounds." He said the words almost absentmindedly, eyes distant, as if imagining something unpleasant.

Yuushi spoke up as well, which made Rufus pay attention, because this human did not interrupt bounds unless he felt he had something important to say. "Should they even be meeting here in the first place?" He looked over at Gou and nodded once, his expression thoughtful rather than upset. "No offense to you or your cousins, but I know of several places in the city where we can both hide you and offer protection. I’m still not sure that putting… the staff at risk is the wisest of ideas." There was no mention of putting *Aya* at risk, or Yohji by default, and judging from Gou’s thoughts, neither he nor his cousins had figured out what Aya was yet. Considering how Reno felt about the kage, Rufus was not very happy about several bounds on the run from the Elders hiding out here, either.

"I’ve already had this discussion with you and things haven’t changed." Crawford sounded a little annoyed, his lips pressed together for a few seconds in a rare show of that emotion. "While I appreciate your and Birman’s concerns, this is the best place for them at this point in time. The danger of Yuda and Yohji fighting each other pales in comparison to the Elders’ hounds finding Gou and his cousins."

"We’re not going to allow ourselves to be taken back to Esset," Gou said, which did not help the situation at all.

"It shouldn’t come down to that." Schuldig was unusually serious for once, the sharp tips of his teeth bared as he looked around the table. "The Koneko’s special – it seems to protect the people in need who come here for sanctuary. If it can handle… well, considering all that’s happened in the past year, I think everything will be fine." His habitual grin returned as he poked his mate in the side. "Just try to stay at home the next few days, okay?"

"While you’re too involved in another bound’s head to know what’s going on around you? I think not." Masato snorted in derision, and around the table everyone relaxed. Rufus knew it had more to do with Schuldig not mentioning Aya than the two bounds’ bantering, and had been prepared to start a fight to keep the idiot from talking about the kage. Gou was very curious about the inn now, and suspicious that more was going on than he and his cousins were being told. Great, the guy had to have a working brain. Rufus sent a warning to Crawford, who did not reply back verbally. Instead, he shared a vision of the cousins and their lovers leaving the city unharmed, which had to mean that the Koneko wound not suffer any trouble.

Almost two years to go until the war by the best estimate, and Rufus was already on edge with everything that could go wrong. Meanwhile, a certain redheaded idiot was in the kitchen gorging himself on chicken pasties and beer. He rubbed his temples as he felt a headache start to come on and wondered how much grief he would put up with from Tseng if he got thoroughly inebriated tonight.

<What’s going on? You’re not happy about something. Get stuck with a shitty job?> Reno was curious and a little concerned, the latter emotion helping to soothe Rufus’ annoyance.

<’Shitty’ doesn’t begin to cover it.> He sipped his whiskey and decided that it was best to get this out of the way now. <In a little while, I’ll need to block our link as it would *not* be a good idea for you to distract me while I attempt to heal Shin’s mind.> Not mentioning the pain that would be involved was a deliberate choice on his part; he was certain that Reno would object if he knew the whole truth.

If he was beside his mate at the moment, his ears would be aching from the furious spitting sound that he could sense Reno producing. <Fuck that! You need someone to watch your back while you’re fooling around in la-la land!> He took his job as Rufus’ gokenin very seriously – it was one of the few things that mattered to him - but there was something more to his concern just then. Rufus basked in his lover’s emotions, pleased that he meant so much to the dubhach.

<That’s why I brought Tseng with us tonight.> He waited out his mate’s infantile cursing, then focused his talent as much as he dared, treading a fine line between being too ‘heavy-handed’ and wanting to be obeyed. <You will *not* go anywhere near the cousins, do you understand? Remain in the kitchen with Aya and be prepared to help me home if need be.>

Reno did not like the order, and he was bright enough to sense that something was being kept from him. The sad thing was, he would know the truth as soon as Rufus unblocked their link, but the command should be enough to prevent disaster from striking tonight and to sway Reno to keep himself hidden in the future. Perhaps the cousins would not ever willingly go back to the Elders, but if they were captured, he did not want any memories of Reno in their minds.

<Like hell I->

He cut through his mate’s flustered thoughts as ruthlessly as he dared. <No, you *will* stay away!> Yohji and a few others would certainly call him a bastard over this, but he directed his thoughts and emotions toward Reno’s shinigami soul. Whereas the idiot’s human nature would object to being ‘coddled’, his demon nature could understand the need to protect one’s mate. There was a moment of resistance before Reno gave in, very unhappy, yet ready to be obedient for once.

Knowing that he would have to come up with some sort of ‘reward’ for Reno’s acquiescence, Rufus sent a wave of soothing emotions. <Humor me on this and I’ll stay home with you tomorrow.> Most likely, he would not be a fit state to do anything other than rest, which Reno would not mind too much as long as it meant no visits to the palace, or lunch dates with human women.

<You better, since you owe me a meal now.> Reno’s thoughts were full of grumbling over the various injustices done to him, but deep down he was still concerned. <Don’t push yourself too far, all right?>

<I won’t. Not only do I refuse to do myself in like that, but I don’t think Shin’s mind can handle that right now. Stay in the kitchen and enjoy an evening with your… friend.> Even if Rufus had his doubts about the odd friendship, he knew that Aya would look after Reno while he was occupied. And that Yohji would look after both of the shinigami-souled men, determined to keep them from acting like a pair of idiotic children again.

<You better not.> Reno felt uncomfortable for being so worried, so Rufus ended their conversation before that discomfort pushed his mate to do something ridiculous. All that mattered was that he would be safe while Rufus was distracted; he had been unwilling to bring Rude along to look after the dubhach in case that caught the cousins’ attention. From the thoughts he had picked up earlier only Gou and Gai were able to wander about the, but Trowa had warned him that the Elders had developed a little interest in Reno, so no unnecessary chances were to be taken.

"I suggest that if we’re going to accomplish anything tonight, we get to work before we enjoy any more whiskey." Rufus kept his pleased smile to himself at the way Schuldig’s cheeks flushed at the slight reproach. He doubted any of them had drunk enough to dampen their bound senses or affect their mental abilities, but if he had to mess around inside the head of a dangerously frustrated succubae bound’s mate then he did not want to be accused of being drunk while doing so. No, there was enough risk involved in this situation already; he had ‘volunteered’ his help only because of the fact that if Shin and Yuda were mated, the likelihood of the cousins siding with the Elders became almost nil. Well, there was the fact that he would be owed a favor by several powerful bounds when this was done, but that was not the most important reason for him to deal with forthcoming pain and hard work. What it came down to was that it was in everyone’s best interests to remove these powerful weapons from the Elders’ arsenal before the war started.

*******

Shin was still drowsy when there was a knock on the bedroom door, startling him and Rei fully awake. While Gou and Gai insisted that they spend their nights in separate rooms for safety’s sake, they enjoyed some time together while their cousins had been off… doing something. Shin blinked his eyes several times and tried to link together the scattered thoughts in his head, still plagued by a high fever despite long soaks downstairs and endless pots of tea. Just sitting up required most of his strength, and was a feat that he managed only with Rei’s assistance. Leaning against his cousin, he sighed and waited to see if whoever was at the door would enter. There was no fear on his part; he doubted very much that anyone sent to harm him would bother to knock on a door and wait for a response.

"Yes?" Rei called out, his voice a little scratchy from a mild cold. Shin noticed the way his cousin’s body tensed and knew that Rei was trying to use his talent but gave up after a few seconds with a startled gasp. Even after a bit of rest, they were still too drained to do anything with their powers.

"I’m bringing in some guests," Gou warned, and waited several more seconds before opening the door. He entered first, followed by four other people: the telepaths Schuldig and Eri, Gai and… Shin blinked a few more times before he recognized the handsome blond man dressed in white and black as Lord Shinra. He had seen him before a few times at the palace, but always from a distance. There was something to the soul gaki bound that reminded him of Yuda, a sense of-

He hissed and clutched at his head as pain skittered about in it, breaking up his thoughts and chasing away all traces of happiness. Rei held him close, soft voice murmuring in his ear words that did not make sense just then, distracted as he was by the now familiar agony. It took several deep breaths and a determined shift of thoughts for that agony to reach a bearable level.

When he looked up again, Gou was sitting on the bed beside him, face creased with worry and mismatched eyes hooded. "Shin… they’re here to help you." Gou did not waste any time or words with more explanation, just cut to the heart of the matter as if desperate for some sort of resolution. Aware of how much these attacks bothered his cousin, Shin knew that Gou would do almost anything if it led to a solution… a ‘cure’. He felt much the same way, willing to give up anything other than Yuda and his cousins.

Just thinking about his love caused another twinge of pain that he pressed on past and sat up a little straighter on the bed. "Thank you," he whispered, looking away from Gou to give Schuldig and Lord Shinra the best smile that he could muster. The sight of the Esset lord surprised Shin enough to enable him to forget about Yu– to focus on the fact that Crawford could constantly amaze one with the people who considered him an ally. Shin never would have guessed such an esteemed lord would be part of a conspiracy against the Elders, and felt more certain about his decision to leave Esset with each new revelation. Even if it had taken Crawford several minutes last night to convince them that Lord Shinra was to be trusted and would help with the cursed blocks inside of Shin’s head.

There was a faint sense of someone else right outside the door, but he was too tired to see if he could figure out who that person was. As it was, he had enough trouble just focusing his eyes – and then he realized that he was not wearing his glasses. His eyes were usually not that weak, but he had pushed himself too far in the last few months.

Schuldig stalked around the room like a cat caught in a cage, glaring at nothing in particular and poking about. After a minute, he whirled around, a cocky smile on his face as he pointed his finger at Shin. "Look, we’re not gonna fix everything today and it’s gonna hurt, but at least we’ll get started, na? If Lord Shinra and I do things a little at a time, it should only take a few days." The way he said the other soul gaki bound’s name was the way Rei would talk about a shoddily prepared meal.

The news did not surprise Shin, not after Schuldig’s mental examination… the other day? How long ago had it been? He shook his head, both to clear it and to show that he was unconcerned about the pain. "Whatever you have to do to break the compulsions will be acceptable." Beside him, Rei nodded in agreement, his arms wrapped around Shin’s shoulders as if to lend strength.

Schuldig and Lord Shinra exchanged looks and most likely thoughts for a moment before Schuldig turned toward Eri. "Why don’t you take Rei to the other room to work on him?"

Eri bristled a little at the suggestion, a rare display of negative emotion from her, but nodded a few seconds later. "Rei, if you don’t mind, I’ll be able to concentrate better if we’re not around other people." She smiled at Rei with an expression of encouragement and motioned toward the door.

Rei was still for several heartbeats, and just when Shin was about to chide him to leave, finally got up from the bed after a last hug. "I feel the same as Shin – whatever needs to be done is fine." He looked over his shoulder to smile, appearing sad and hopeful at the same time. Not even Eri warning him that breaking through the mental wall that kept Ruka out of his head would be almost as long and as painful as what lay ahead for Shin discouraged him, and it was easy to understand why; he just wanted to be able to share thoughts with the man he loved once more.

As tiring as it had been to flee from Berin, what had worn on both of them the most had been the thought that soon, Yuda and Ruka would rejoin them. For Rei, the impulse to reach out for his lover’s mind had been overwhelming, leading to only pain and frustration on his part. For Shin, it was impossible to escape the pain entirely anymore, not when his thoughts refused to shy away from Yuda for very long. So many years… he had never thought he could say that about only three of them, but they had seemed an agonizing eternity when he was denied what he wanted most in the world.

Once Eri, Rei and Gai had left the room, Gou settled on the windowsill with his arms crossed over his chest and his brown hair falling into his eyes as he went ‘on guard’. Shin was relieved to know his cousin was looking after him, even if he trusted Schuldig inside of his mind. He lay back down on the bed, remaining still when Lord Shinra and Schuldig sat on either side of him.

The two men had another mental discussion, both of them frowning as they stared at each other, then Lord Shinra took a deep breath and looked aside, eyes distant as he focused his attention inward. His expression was tinged with sadness as if it was an unpleasant task.

Schuldig stared down at Shin and smiled, reaching out to remove his glasses. "I know it’ll be a bitch to ‘relax’ while we’re poking around in your head, but give it a try. If I thought it wouldn’t screw things up, I’d say have a few shots of whiskey, but that can wait until we’re done for the day." He fell quiet after that, the confidence he had displayed moments before slowly leeching away. <We’re going to be pretty deep in your head, so we might not be able to tell just how much things hurt. Keep in mind that we’re only able to do so much at a time and that it won’t go on for too long.> There was a sense of mild sympathy along with the words.

If matters were less serious, Shin might tease Schuldig about his lack of an encouraging ‘bedside manner’; right now he appreciated the honesty given to him and did not see how more pain was really a negative thing. What mattered was breaking the coercions that had plagued him for too long.

Both men must have picked up his assent from his thoughts because they closed their eyes, identical expressions of concentration on their faces making them appear similar, despite their vast physical differences. Shin closed his eyes as well, and was surprised when he only sensed one source of ‘pressure’ pushing into his mind. However, before he could concentrate to see if he could sense the other soul gaki bound, Schuldig distracted him.

<We need you to think about Yuda now.> The ‘words’ were fainter than before, as if some sort of muffler was now in place between his and the telepath’s thoughts. All it really took for Shin to think about his lover was mention of his name, and the pain rushed back with the image of Yuda that formed in his mind. Fortunately, the pain was quickly muffled as well – not entirely stifled, but at least blocked enough to be bearable. Since Schuldig had explained things to him the last time they had met, he knew that he had to keep focusing on Yuda while the blocks were deconstructed.

Even if the pain was muffled, it was still there, and time soon lost all meaning; all there was in his mind was Yuda and the slowly building agony that did its best to make him think of something else. Bu there was nothing else that mattered to him just then, and despite the discouraging pain, he gave himself to the beloved memories that were his only solace. The one of Yuda’s fingers combing through his hair and pulling back the long strands to be bound by the white ribbon for the first time was very precious to him, as was the memory of when they had first met beside the lake one autumn evening. There were so many recollections for the short time they had known each other, so many stolen touches. More than anything, he wished that he could go back in time and change things, to make them become mates soon after they had met – before the Elders had begun tampering with his mind.

For a moment, the pain was overwhelmed by hatred, the emotion so virulent that it shook him from his thoughts, and he opened his eyes to find that his face was wet with tears that he was unaware of was shedding. Schuldig was now leaning against the headboard, mouth wide open as he gasped for air. Lord Shinra was currently stumbling toward the door, his golden skin dulled to an ashen tone as he fumbled with the door knob. Someone opened it from the outside, but Shin did not see who that was because the pain took on a savage turn.

There was the faint pressure in his mind again, and the pain slowly began to recede – pushed aside by exhaustion that grew stronger with each breath. <We’ll be back tomorrow. Just… rest until then.> Schuldig ‘sounded’ as exhausted as he was, and Shin did not need any encouragement to give in to the darkness that dragged him away from the agony and loneliness that filled his waking moments.

*******

Schuldig took a deep breath as he watched Shin fall asleep, wishing that he could do the same just then. How the hell Rufus had managed to get *up* from the bed a minute ago amazed and annoyed him to no end as he barely even had the energy to remain sitting upright. Then again, all the bastard had to do was get to the door, behind which was waiting one of his gokenin. Schuldig would bet a good bit of the money he had stashed away over the years that Reno would be bitching up a storm once the block on his link with Rufus came down.

Speaking of blocks… damn, he had known going in that it would be difficult as hell, but even with Rufus’ help, things had been nastier than he had expected. He finally took down the blocks he had put up to spare Masato any pain and was not surprised when the door opened again a moment later.

"You’re an idiot, Brat," Masato whispered as he wrapped his arms around Schuldig and helped him away from the bed.

<And you’re masochistic. I thought you didn’t want your scent anywhere near Shin,> Schuldig shot back, so grateful that talking to his mate this way felt as natural as breathing, since he did not have the energy to speak out loud at the moment. They barely got away from the bed before Gou took his spot, hands busy stroking along the unconscious water elemental’s face.

"Did he pass out?" Gou’s voice was rough with worry and his thoughts boded massive bodily trauma for anyone he felt had hurt his ‘cousin’ without any concern for the damage, but Schuldig was too tired to let his annoyance over such behavior spur him to anything rash.

<Yes and no.> Masato’s growl stopped Gou from rising more than a couple of inches from the bed. <He still felt a lot of pain and whenever there’s that much tampering with a person’s head they’ll need a lot of rest afterwards, but I made him go to sleep because it’s better than him suffering awake.> They would have ruined all their hard work to break down the compulsions if they left any new blocks up in the old ones’ places, and so were unable to shield Shin from the worst of the pain once they were finished for the night. Knocking him out was the best thing for the poor bastard, really. Shin would need that rest, too, since tomorrow promised to be even worse than today.

Gou stared at his cousin, hands stroking back pale blue strands. "Will he wake up at all tonight?" Despite looking like someone who used their brawn more than their brains, he was not an idiot and had lots of experience with the effects of a soul gaki bound’s tampering. Too bad he and his cousins had learned it from what had been done to Shin and Rei.

Trying to shrug in response almost made Masato drop him, so Schuldig gave up after a few seconds and answered verbally instead. <I doubt it. Whenever he does wake up, send to the kitchen for the tea, that’ll help with the nasty headache he’ll have.> Cassandra had given him a large bag of the herbs to bring today, and he would not leave the inn until he had had a pot of it himself.

<Damn right you won’t, but for now, you’ll follow your own advice and get some rest.> From Masato’s thoughts he picked up that he was being taken to a spare room for a nap, and he did not see any reason to object to that plan since Masato intended to lay down with him. A bit pissed off that sleep was all he could manage in the near future, Schuldig still summoned the energy for a leer and rested his head on his mate’s shoulder.

<You’ll do anything to get me into bed.>

"You’ve found me out." Masato chuckled, the sound amused even if his thoughts were worried, and sent a trickle of energy to Schuldig to help him block off his emotions so as to not feel overwhelmed by the building headache. He knew his mate would give him more later, after he got some rest and felt better.

It was oddly amusing, how much better he felt from such a simple thing as a lover lying down next to him, an arm draped over his side and warm breath against the back of his neck. Such a position would have bothered him over a year ago, but being here like this with Masato made him relax and not worry about being in danger while so weakened. No, he had the utmost faith that his mate would look after him, that he would wake up well and still embraced like he was now.

<Because I have to keep a close watch over you to make sure you don’t live up to the nickname your mother gave you.> Masato’s lips pressed against his neck, a tender counterpart to the teasing. <Now stop being so contrary for once and get some rest.>

He would have to do something about the man thinking he could be bossed around like that… but that could wait until later, when he felt stronger. Then he would ‘live up to his nickname’ and then some. He smiled when he sensed Masato’s thoughts and realized that his mate looked forward to him doing just that.

*******

Yuda stared off to the west, mind busy calculating the distance between him and Shin. His body ached from the long days spent riding, his hunger growing stronger with each passing night that he had not fed. The hunger curled up inside of him, more voracious and demanding with each heartbeat, yet he could not force himself to find a ‘meal’. The last time he had tried to do that, he had not been able to find anyone in the small village who had looked remotely like his love.

Sensing someone approach him from behind, he barely managed not to snarl when Ruka gave his left shoulder a comforting squeeze. "The horses need to rest," his best friend reminded him, Ruka’s quiet, deep voice marred by frustration.

There was some small comfort in knowing that Ruka wanted to be in Eto almost as much as he did. Not much, but enough to help him bear another bound’s presence when that person was not Shin. "Have you had any luck yet?" he asked, voice pitched low even though the flesh gaki bound was not near them at the moment. More than likely, Jared was guarding the horses to make sure they did not try to leave him behind during the night.

"No." Just the one word, filled with enough bitterness and frustration to make Yuda turn around to give his friend a quick hug. Ruka accepted the embrace with a tired smile and stepped closer; they took comfort in each other’s presence, as they had for so many years. While neither was the man the other wanted with sharp desperation, they had been friends all their lives and never apart. "I can almost reach him, but the blocks are still in place. I thought…." Ruka growled, a look of pure hatred crossing his face for several seconds before he regained control of himself. "I thought I’d reached him once, but something interfered."

That would be the Elders’ thrice-cursed mental barriers. More than almost anything, Yuda wished that he had managed to kill the meddling bastards before he had run away from Berin. While it would not have fixed the situation that caused him, Shin, Ruka and Rei so much pain, it would have provided some gratification that the people responsible for their suffering could no longer gloat over their separation.

A separation that would not go on for much longer. By all rights, they should wait until Ruka could reach Rei’s mind, a sure sign that Crawford had kept his promise to restore their lovers to them without any coercions remaining, but they could not stay away any longer. Just knowing that Shin and Rei were free of the Elders and a mere day’s ride away….

<You need to eat before we reach Eto.> Ruka’s thoughts were soothing and full of understanding, yet contained a hint of compulsion.

<I don’t want to eat,> Yuda snapped back, knowing that his friend was not referring to him having some of the stew left over from their dinner. <I don’t want anyone other than Shin.>

Ruka made a spitting sound for a few seconds and bumped his left shoulder against Yuda’s chest. <Chances are too likely for any comfort that the coercions will still be in effect when we reach wherever Crawford has hidden them, so you won’t be able to touch Shin just yet. Take the edge off of your hunger however you can, before you risk driving both of you mad!> He usually was the calm one, only willing to intervene when there was a pressing need, but right now he was actually furious with Yuda.

Stunned by his friend’s emotions, Yuda turned more to face him, emotions torn between worry and anger. "I *do* *not* want anyone else!"

Over by the horses, Jared almost dropped the flask he was sipping from at the furious and loud words, his expression one of alarm. Whatever the hell prevented Yuda and Ruka from sensing his emotions or reading his thoughts was still in effect, even though both were rather obvious at the moment. Yuda was sure that if he took a step toward the horses, Jared would remind him of the promise he made back in the inn. If it were not for the fact that the bound was the only one present who knew where Shin was hidden, he would….

Snarling at his lack of control, he jerked his hands through his hair and struggled to control his temper and hunger. Dammit, Ruka was giving him good advice, and he knew that if he approached his friend for a ‘meal’ that Ruka would allow it. They had taken such nourishment and comfort from each other in the past, even though they only thought of each other as best friends. Ruka’s hair was pale like Shin’s, but his eyes were red and not gold, his build more muscular and his fingers not calloused from years of playing a harp. Yuda had learned over three years ago that he could not seek solace in his friend if what he really wanted was Shin, those differences too great to fool his hunger and mind for any length of time.

"We’ll stop outside of the capital tomorrow and I’ll see if I can find anyone…suitable." His voice was rough from the effort it took to say those words, to consign himself to another night without Shin. Yet he was doing it for his lover, to give Crawford a little longer to break the coercions and to do his best to make sure that his hunger did not tear into Shin as soon as they were back together.

Ruka did not have any problems following his thoughts and gave his shoulder another squeeze. <Soon enough, I promise. I know how hard it is to wait even that much longer, but it’s best for *them*.> Ruka was worried about what would happen to Rei if they got together before the coercions were broken, and the two men were not even meant to be mates. What would it do to Shin, then?

Yuda cursed under his breath and resumed staring in the direction of Eto, wishing that he could be there right now and afraid of what would happen if that wish came true. The thought of hurting Shin caused a sharp stab of pain in his chest, yet his hunger… his hunger was so desperate for the water elemental, to finally claim what had been denied him for so long that he was not sure how much he could hold back. Tomorrow he would do his best to at least curb that hunger a little, but he knew it would not let him hold back any longer than that. He had to be reunited with Shin by the day after tomorrow, even if he had to beat the location of where Shin and the others were hidden out of Jared and risk causing the man he loved more pain.

 

Ruka remained beside him, anxious yet not saying anything and leaving him to his turbulent thoughts. In the end, there was only so much he could deny his succubae nature, and the last several days spent hunting down and killing the Elders’ hounds had worn that control too thin. Even if it caused him pain, even if Shin had to remain just out of reach, they would at least be together. And once the coercions were broken, he would destroy anyone and anything that got between him and his mate.

*******

Wufei stood to the side of Strength’s chair, his posture rigid and face impassive, as he suffered through his ‘guard’ duty. Whoever the hell it had been who thought that having a powerful bound acting the part of a statue was a great way to show off one’s status deserved to be beaten to within an inch of their lives for the next three hundred years or so. And *then* the real torture could begin….

Just a few more years, he promised himself. Not even that much, considering how the plans for war were moving forward at such a quick and relentless pace. However, that was all he allowed his thoughts to dwell on that particular topic, not willing to chance that his mental shields were indeed among the best in this room. There had been too many surprises as of late, and too many people were on edge.

That was why, instead of dealing with Helena’s tearful yet hopeful expressions as she recited – always containing at least one error – the previous day’s lessons to him, he was stuck here. To be truthful, the child was bright and eager to learn, just very shy and nervous around him for some odd reason. He could only imagine the barrage of tears if she had to suffer his old philosophy teacher, who had a penchant for throwing books at the head of whichever student had incorrectly answered a question and then berating the poor soul for damaging the book….

He allowed himself to be distracted by the old memories, not minding the spark of pain they produced as he thought about all that had been snatched from him. That pain faded when he caught sight of his lover mingling through the crowd, and not even the worry he felt could taint the pure emotion that made his chest ache and his head feel light.

Thank the very perverse gods, however, that what he felt and what he showed to the world were two very different things, and that his mental shields should mask that emotion. After all, everyone gathered here – with the exception of the Elders – kept glancing back and forth between him and Quatre, clearly expecting some sort of fight between them.

Quatre was as handsome as ever, if a bit more boyish in appearance than usual because of the sappy grin on his face and the ridiculous amount of expensive lace that flowed from the cuffs and neck of his blue velvet coat. Beside him was Alexis, her simply cut dark purple dress almost drab in comparison. The decades difference of years between them seemed hardly worth noting, Alexis appearing barely older than Quatre and most of that due to the carefully guarded expression on her face. Her black hair was pulled back into a small chignon at the nape of her neck, her lovely face bereft of make-up. If Wufei had to hear one more person ask another if they thought she had a ‘glow’ about her, he would be hard-pressed not to bite the idiot.

Still, they made an interesting couple, even if he was one of the few people who knew that they only thought of each other as friends. From what he had inquired about in the past month or two, Quatre was not even remotely Alexis’ type, which should have occurred to most of the people here. He guessed though that all anyone truly cared about was the possibility of a very powerful flesh gaki bound bearing the child of an even more powerful soul gaki bound. According to the rumors, the Elders had thought to pair her with Jei, but someone, most likely Crawford, had dissuaded them of that idea. This ‘pairing’ would work out almost as well.

Too bad the most intimate contact between the two bounds only involved telepathic communication and Quatre kissing Alexis’ hand as a show of respect and affection from time to time. If anything, Wufei had caught a whiff of lust more for his own presence than his lover’s from the woman, and even that was not saying much.

Mindful of where he was staring, he allowed a touch of anger to creep into his impassive expression, annoyed at having to play the role of a jealous lover, yet preferring it to the alternative. Buried deep inside of his mind was the thought that Quatre would be *very* eager to make up for this farce later tonight when they were alone together, which threatened to change that frown into a pleased smile. No, he had best think of something else.

Looking away from the ‘couple’, he noticed the wary tension in the bodies of the bounds standing closest to them. Someone had to be blamed for the cousins’ escape, and while there had been no repercussions as of yet, Alexis had received some of it because of her recent visits with the elementals. That had not surprised Wufei or Quatre; they had been careful to not provide too perfect an alibi for their friend, well aware that *someone* would make the connection between her friendship with Yuda and part of the reason why the cousins would want out of Berin. What mattered was ensuring that no one would have enough *proof* that she had been involved, which so far they had managed. To be honest, not many people were digging very deeply into her actions the last few days before the cousins’ disappearance, not when it was an unpleasant thought to dwell on of several powerful bounds working against the Elders.

And it was not a smart thing to reflect upon such matters when standing a couple of feet away from Sense and Thought, impressive mental shields or not. Wufei searched about for something else to focus upon and noticed the look of distaste Tan Xi gave Alexis.

No one had been surprised when Tan Xi had brought up Alexis’ past relationship with Yuda after the escape had been found out, but no one had given her allegations the proper consideration, either. It was widely known that the two women disliked each other; Alexis had been the close friend and the occasional lover of the succubae bound, who was stronger than Tan Xi and a traitor to boot. However, even Tan Xi had admitted that there was no proof to back her accusations and had dropped the matter after a couple of days. At least, she had stopped discussing the matter in public, but from the looks of things she still harbored those suspicions.

As much as Wufei detested the way she used her power to put as many people as possible under her sexual ‘thrall’ and the fact that she would turn anyone over to the Elders if she thought them disloyal… he had to admire the devout nature of her feelings towards the ancient bounds. From what he and Quatre had uncovered, he knew the Elders had raised her much as they had Heero, allowing her little opportunity to think of them as anything other than the saviors of their kind, and she had never questioned that. Yet he suspected that was not due to a lack of intelligence on her part, but a fervent belief that the Elders presented the best possible future for bounds. Everything she did was in a way tied back to them, was a way to strengthen their hold over the bounds in Esset and provide more loyal followers. Oh yes, her methods were despicable in his mind and her loyalties misguided, but she had some measure of respect from him. If he believed for a moment that there was a chance that she might see the truth and-

No, that would never happen. Tan Xi was as she was, and the truth might break her. As long as she stayed away from Quatre, Wufei would leave her to her fate, which led to an ending that did not involve him if a certain gentleman was to be believed. She might be filled with an admirable sense of loyalty, but so was he, and he was just as much if not more determined to ensure that their race had the best possible future. To better the chances of that future coming about, he would do anything, even stand here while his lover made a public fool out of himself by fawning over a woman, would make a fool out of *himself* as he posed in this ridiculous uniform for some senseless duty.

He just wished that it did not mean standing around while a very itchy wool collar dug into the back of his neck, having to remain perfectly still while the bastard of a man he loved sipped what looked to be a delicious glass of wine and ate *spring rolls*, damn him. Oh yes, Quatre would have to work *very* hard to make up for this tonight. Come tomorrow, people would be asking Alexis about the very impressive bite marks that still remained on Quatre’s neck and ears. It was a good thing that she was a flesh gaki bound, all in all.

His beloved spring rolls, dammit, just out of reach. He could be barricaded in his library with a few bottles of wine and a huge platter of the rolls if it were not for his annoying sense of responsibility. The war could not get here fast enough, in his opinion.

*******

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