Storm Warnings

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chapter six

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reunions and rivalries

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Yuda did his best to appear unsuspicious as they made their way through one of Eto’s entrance Gates, but it was not an easy task. For so long he had been accustomed to worrying as he entered the city, which was a difficult habit to break since he was an Esset-born bound. Even though he had Ruka by his side and Jared’s oath that there would be no problem this time, he could not help but wonder if the gods had more pain in store for him by way of keeping him apart from Shin when they seemed on the verge of a long-overdue reunion. All he wanted was to find his mate, and if he had to fight his way through Kritiker’s capital to do that, then he would.

<Please, relax. I sense nothing that will mean trouble for us,> Ruka sent, along with a comforting pulse of emotions.

<Can you pick up anything from Jared?> Yuda asked, more than annoyed by whatever it was that protected the weaker bound from his compulsion and Ruka’s mind-reading abilities.

<No, nothing.> A growl accompanied that thought; Ruka appeared embarrassed at the slip and quickly regained his composure. <However, I can read the thoughts of the Guards at the Gate and they recognize our mysterious guide. It seems that he works for them on occasion, though they do not know that he’s a bound.>

Yuda stood up a bit in the stirrups so he could better see the Guards through the mass of people trying to enter the city. Despite the flesh gaki bound’s repeated oaths, he still had some difficulty grasping the fact that there were bounds in the Guard. Even if these men were human, that they trusted Jared and saw him as a comrade of sorts… perhaps there was hope of humans and bounds living together after the war.

<I will reserve final judgment on that when we come across some of these ‘Shadow Guards’.> While Yuda knew that his friend wanted to believe in that story just as much as he did, Ruka was very curious about the new division in the Guard and how it had come to be named. ‘Shadows’ did not have the best connotation in either Esset or Kritiker because of the kage, which made it seem like an ominous choice.

They were quiet as Jared talked to the Guards at the Gate’s entrance, other than Ruka telling him telepathically that the men were pretending to not know the flesh gaki bound so as to not make his ‘job’ public. Even with Ruka reading the minds around them, they were tense until they had cleared the portal, well aware of the magical defenses that could be activated to hold them prisoners while more Guards were called to deal with them.

Soon enough, they were riding along Eto’s very crowded streets. All around them were signs of celebration because of the king’s new daughter. Yuda’s feet twitched in the stirrups from the desire to press against his horse’s sides and race forward, to get away from all these humans and find Shin. The problem was that he had no idea where they were headed, other than the western part of Eto, judging from past times in the capital. Considering the size of the city and his limited knowledge of it, that left much too large of an area for him to go racing off in search of Shin.

<Have you found out anything yet?> he sent to Ruka, desperate for a destination. Despite feeding a little last night, his hunger gnawed away at him and his mind was constantly distracted by memories of Shin, of the way the water elemental tasted and smelled….

<No.> Even after being asked similar questions for the last few days, Ruka betrayed no annoyance or impatience upon giving him the same basic answer. Whatever the hell was shielding Jared’s mind was very powerful; if Crawford had more such charms or spells at his disposal, then there was a good chance of defeating the Elders. However, Yuda did not care very much about the approaching war just then, not when he had been away from his lover for so long.

<Just a little more time,> Ruka soothed, and only the fact that he was missing his own lover kept Yuda from snarling at his dear friend. If he had known how long it would be for this reunion to come about when he had left Esset several years ago… dammit, he should have brought Shin with him, regardless of the compulsions and the fact that he would have had to fight Gou.

For a moment he indulged himself in memories of the past, when the six of them had been inseparable. The coercions had not been bad enough that he was unable to spend time in Shin’s presence, and having the rest of the ‘cousins’ and Ruka around had helped to lessen the damn things’ impact. He and Shin had been able to touch then, to kiss and hold each other close, even to spend the night sleeping in the same bed at one point. If only he had followed his instincts upon first meeting Shin and had claimed him then and there.

<Then you would have given the Elders an even stronger leash to use against you.>

Ruka was doing his best to halt the wave of destructive ‘should have’s, yet it did not offer much comfort. The only thing that would make him feel better was to hold Shin close again, to confirm the bond between them so no one could ever separate them again.

His demon nature rushed to the fore with that thought, causing the people around them to stop and stare. Struggling to control himself, Yuda urged his horse to approach Jared, who was doing his best to ride in front of them as if to prevent any sort of eye contact.

"Please understand that I am not one who relies upon threats," he warned the weaker bound, his voice as civil as he could make it when he *hurt* so damn much. "But if you do not tell us where we are going, I will tear out your throat."

If Jared had been a stronger flesh gaki bound, those words would have prompted a fight then and there. If he had been as strong as Jei or Alexis, then Yuda would be in danger of losing that fight. However, he was nowhere near that strong, and somewhere along the line, he had come to fear a succubae bound if his reactions to Yuda were any true indication. Since it was almost impossible for that other succubae bound to be as powerful as Yuda, he had grown very angry over the fact that he could not ‘force’ an answer from the man before this point. Now, however… Jared had to sense how thin his control was.

The dark-haired bound swallowed as if he had a lump in his throat. "Ah, have you ever heard of the Koneko?" he asked, his voice trembling and his eyes wide with fear.

Almost shouting with relief at receiving an answer, Yuda shook his head the same time he asked his friend if he knew of the place.

<I think… there’s been rumor of an inn called the old word for ‘cat’ or something like that.> Ruka frowned as he did his best to dredge up the related memory. <Something about sanctuary being found there, but I can’t remember who told me that or if I overheard it. I’m sure I’ll be able to find out more from the minds around us, though.> He included Jared in that last bit, prompting the bound to swallow loudly again.

"I, ah, think it would be best if you don’t go there without me." Jared was clearly terrified at that thought, but they could not tell why without reading his mind. "It’s a bad idea for strange… well, for our kind to barge into the place, especially since your friends are there."

So there was a chance they would be attacked upon arrival? Yuda and Ruka exchanged thoughts and glances over that fact, not too worried since they were very powerful. Still, there was no sense in causing trouble that might impact Shin and Rei, and there was the fact that a large number of weaker bounds could cause them problems in a fight.

"I hope you aren’t implying that our… friends would be used against us," Ruka said, and Jared seemed caught by surprise to hear him speak.

Shaking his head back and forth in frantic jerks, Jared immediately disputed what had been said. "No! Anyone who needs help and finds the Koneko is taken in, no questions asked and no payment required. Yohji and the others would, well, kill anyone who tried to hurt your friends, I swear that to you in front of all the gods."

There was something odd about the way he said the one name, ‘Yohji’. Whoever the man was, he had put some sort of fear into Jared, enough to make the bound stink of that emotion and to turn pale. <A formidable warrior, perhaps? He might even be a bound if he’ll protect Shin and the others, and if Crawford feels the place is safe. Jared did say something about a succubae bound being near Shin.> Yuda growled at the possibility of someone trying to feed from *his* mate.

Ruka considered the questions and sought out some answers. <I’ve picked up a few thoughts on the inn, enough to know that we’re headed in the right direction and will be there within an hour. As for this Yohji….> He was silent for a couple of minutes, his brow furrowed in concentration and his red eyes hooded. After a while, images flooded Yuda’s mind of a very attractive young man with golden skin and wavy, golden hair. Large, emerald green-colored eyes that sparkled with mischief, and the man’s lanky body was alternately covered with a Guard’s uniform and more normal clothes. <He seems well-known and respected. I’m picking up a fair amount of lust associated with him as well, although a few of the minds I’ve come across refer to him having settled down now.> Ruka concentrated some more. <I can’t… for some reason, I can’t find out more than that, though. Just that he owns the inn, used to be a Guard and is considered trustworthy.>

Yuda was very displeased at the thought of such a handsome, lustful man – possibly a succubae bound - being anywhere near Shin, even if this ‘Yohji’ had a lover of his own. It only increased his desire to get to the inn as quickly as possible – an impulse which he reined in before Ruka and Jared could warn him to ignore it. Racing to the inn would only attract unwanted attention and put Shin at risk. If there were any Esset agents around, which was a given, then it was too probable that word would reach them of three men tearing through the capital as if chased by demons, and possibly their destination as well. No, even if he felt as if he was being torn apart each second he was away from his mate, he could not put Shin at risk. He would have to suffer the slow ride to the Koneko, and once there….

<Once there, no one will keep us from Rei and Shin,> Ruka promised.

<No one,> Yuda agreed. Even if he had to destroy the inn by himself, he would be reunited with Shin in just another hour. The gods should grant their mercy on any poor, suicidal fool who stood in their way.

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Yohji was unable to sit still on the kitchen bench, shifting this way and that as if plagued by splinters or itchy pants. Considering that the wood beneath him had been worn smooth generations ago by former residents and that this pair of pants had never bothered him before, he did not even try to blame the growing case of impatient nerves on anything else. No, the reason for his constant movements rested solely on the emotions churning inside of his chest, a mix of unease, anger, possessiveness and…. Hell, he had trouble explaining that odd feeling, and sincerely hoped that it was not one he would experience often in the future. Right now, he hoped it would just *go away*.

Sitting beside him, Aya was a quiet, comforting presence. He put up with Yohji’s fussing without any anger or annoyance, instead growing more concerned as the morning progressed. So did Jo – she was never away from their side of the table for more than a few minutes, soon to return with more food or drink or even just for idle chit-chat at a time when she normally was busy with preparing meals. It was a good thing that Maddox was here today to help her out, and of course the kid did not complain even once that he was doing the majority of the work.

Yohji took a deep breath and hugged his left arm tighter around Aya’s waist. His mate responded by stroking pale fingers along the gauntlet that covered his wrist; Yohji smiled and willed the gold to ‘break apart’ into thousands of fine strands, the gauntlet’s surface no longer smooth and whole.

Aya snorted once in amusement, those long fingers of his plucking at a golden strand and pulling it several inches away from the rest before letting it go, his head bowed as he watched the strands reform into a solid band once more. Yohji wished that he could ‘will’ some of the strands to Aya as a protection of sorts, but the magic was keyed to his blood and would only respond to his thoughts. Whatever it was that made Aya’s ‘shadows’ almost sentient – or at least able to decide when it was a good time to attack – was sadly lacking from his heirloom weapon.

And there he went again, thoughts reflecting on danger and fighting. He did his best not to squirm some more and finished off the now cold coffee in his mug. "Where’s the whiskey?"

Across the table, Crawford did not quite frown in disapproval, but the emotion was clear in the way his lips pressed together. More than likely, his eyes had narrowed as well, but it was impossible to tell with the way the sunlight trickling through the windows was reflected on the flat surface of his glasses. "I believe the last thing we need right now is for you to be inebriated." He pushed his glasses farther up his nose, appearing prickly and dignified enough to be a highborn or some sort of government official – not for the first time, Yohji wondered about the man’s parentage. Jei and Mustang had made some comments about Crawford’s father being a proper bastard, which did not give too many cues at all about lineage.

Caught up in his thoughts, Yohji was shaken from them when he felt a flash of anger from Aya followed by a very annoyed sounding hiss. "Eh, what was that?" he asked once he figured out that it had been Crawford who had pissed Aya off.

"You did properly feed today, didn’t you?" Crawford repeated, his blue eyes focused on Aya – well, Aya’s neck. Yohji found himself growling in response to both the question and that look before he managed to get his emotions under control.

Taking a deep breath, he let out a warning hiss of his own before responding. "Yeah, I made sure to feed enough to placate the hunger." Some of Aya’s anger was turned on him for answering the rather personal question, but he knew why the infuriating precog had asked it. He stood a much better chance of controlling his demon nature if he was ‘full’, not to mention that Aya smelled very strongly of him right now. If he had won the fight over his mate’s choice in shirts this morning, there would be a spectacular set of bruises on display as well. That they were hidden by the high collar of Aya’s light grey tunic might be a good thing, since it meant that Jo could not see the possessive marks.

"Good." Crawford nodded as well, and only the fact that he came off more relieved than smug kept Yohji from trying to throttle the man. Okay, so what if he could see the future? It still did not give him the right to order people around like he did, always expecting whatever he said to be instantly obeyed. Well… unless he suggested that Yohji have lots and lots of sex with Aya, that was….

He laughed at that thought, which provoked a rather dark scowl from his mate. Fortunately for him, a sweet, lingering kiss placated Aya enough to keep him alive for a little longer. As much as Aya may hate discussing their sex life with other people, he certainly was a very active participant in it. Love and lust flowed into Yohji, the emotions so warm and soothing that he wanted little more than to pull Aya onto his lap and continue the kiss. However, he was smart enough to know that such an action would just lead to him being hit on the head with a rolling pin and so restrained himself.

It came to him in a rush that his mood had lightened considerably, and he clung to it as much as he could, just wanting to enjoy sitting here with people he cared a lot about. Some of the tension was gone from Aya’s shoulders, and Jo gave them both a pleased smile when she returned to the table with a pot of fresh tea and a plate of warm cinnamon rolls. Then she untied her apron and set it on the bench before turning around to face Maddox. "Why don’t you take a break?"

Maddox did not appear upset at the not-so-subtle hint to leave the kitchen; Yohji was willing to bet no sex for a day that the kid was too pleased over being in charge of breakfast and allowed to stay at the Koneko while Emi and Neely were spending the next day or two at Cassandra’s. Hell, even Ani was off until tomorrow night since she did not handle violence very well, but Mickey and Jo had both decided that Maddox was mature enough to remain here despite the risk of two succubae bound trying to….

"Huh, what does my kind do when they run into each other?" he asked, earning an odd look from Jo as she joined them at the table and an aggrieved sigh from Aya. "Oh, hush," he chided as he poked his lover in the ribs. "Other than Masato, I haven’t come across any other succubae bounds as powerful as me." Since Masato was his father, he was not sure how much of their initial antagonism and subsequent ‘cease-fire’ was because of their demon natures or their relationship.

"Thankfully, it’s not as bloody as two flesh gaki bounds fighting each other, but it can get extremely violent." Crawford waited until Aya was finished pouring himself and Yohji some tea before reaching for the pot. "I hope there aren’t any precious and breakable heirlooms out right now," he added as he looked around the kitchen.

Jo snorted at that remark, her long, thin fingers busy tearing a cinnamon roll into crumbs. "If either of them want to try to break the iron kettle with their heads, they’re welcome to it." Considering that the kettle in mention was almost big enough for Yohji to bathe in and so heavy that the spells that kept it from snapping the steel rods which held it suspended in the one fireplace had to be renewed on an almost monthly basis, he sincerely hoped it was not his head that tried to do the breaking. Though now he had the idea of possibly boiling Yuda alive if the bastard tried anything with Aya….

A very bony elbow to his left side snapped him out of that particularly gruesome fantasy. "You’re growling," Aya whispered, the frown back on his face and his emotions worried once again.

Yohji sighed and did his best to resist the temptation to bang his head against the table’s surface. "Do you think that Cass has any of that opium left?" he asked, only half joking. While the demon part of him was furious at the thought of being incapacitated when a strange succubae bound entered his home, it might be a good idea to tamp down the homicidal rage if he could.

Thanks to how disturbed he was by the prospect of Yuda’s imminent arrival, the full impact of his words did not hit him until Aya shuddered in pain, eyes vacant as if he was lost in the memories of when he had been kept drugged so he could heal. "Oh, *hell*." Yohji wished he could kick himself in the ass for what he had just said, his arms wrapping around his lover to offer what comfort he could.

Aya shook off the embrace, eyes still clouded with pain but lips pressed together in an angry, thin line. "Not funny," was all he said, the words spoken in a rare growl, and Yohji nodded in agreement. He was about to apologize when Aya shook his head, clearly not in the mood to speak about the matter any longer.

Judging from the look on Jo’s face, she *would* discuss his verbal slip, but at another time, most likely whenever Aya was not around. Yohji whined for a few seconds, upset at hurting Aya and unhappy to have incurred Jo’s wrath after all, and stopped when he felt a sharp tug on his hair. "What?"

"I hope you stop being so stupid once Yuda arrives," Aya grumbled, and for once Yohji did not try to argue with his mate. He was very grateful for his restraint when Aya gave him a quick kiss to take the sting out of the words, making it clear that Aya knew that he was not acting like this on purpose.

"I don’t know, who’s the one who’s always called a fool, hmmm?" Yohji’s happy mood returned when Aya smiled at that remark, the pain now gone and replaced with amusement. "It’s all your fault, you know. You’ve called me it so many times that it came true." He waggled his eyebrows for added effect, and laughed when Aya sighed.

Sitting on the other side of his mate, Jo made a loud scoffing sound. "Hate to break it to you, Yotan, but you were always like that." Her anger seemed to have vanished, thankfully, making him wonder if she realized that he really could not help himself for the time being.

"Gee, I can feel the love right now." Yohji gave Crawford a pointed look as means of non-verbally asking the older man if he was going to join in on the ‘Yotan’ abuse as well, and was not very mollified when all Crawford did was shake his head and smile. Most likely, the precog was saving any comments until later, when Yohji was unable to strangle him for any insults, teasing or not.

"Says the man who thinks he’s being mistreated if people aren’t fawning over him all of the time." Aya’s tone was very dry, which along with the finger covered with sugary icing that was extended toward Yohji’s mouth let him know that he was being teased right now. Smiling in delight, Yohji accepted the offering, holding Aya’s finger to his lips so he could lick it clean of the sweet treat. His hunger stirred at the contact and the way Aya held his breath for several seconds, but now was not the time or place to try for anything more than this.

As if to prove him correct, the gods decided that *then* was the best moment to inflict Yuda upon the Koneko.

*******

Crawford watched as Yohji licked Aya’s right forefinger clean of icing, inwardly applauding the kage’s method of defusing a potentially dangerous situation. Yohji’s mood right now was a very chancy thing, and if Aya had continued to be upset at his off-balanced mate, then Yohji might have responded in a highly irrational manner. That the succubae bound had so thoughtlessly uttered something that had hurt his mate was very troubling, but at least Yohji was quick to realize his mistake.

Crawford exchanged a significant look with Jo; it was clear they both were disturbed by Yohji’s behavior today, but there was little they could do about it. At least Aya managed to rein Yohji in when he went too far in one direction or another.

About to remind the succubae bound that he was in a kitchen where Crawford quite enjoyed eating meals unspoiled by unthinkable succubae-bound actions, he felt a stabbing pain in the front of his forehead – the type usually associated with a thwarted vision. He felt the pain shoot through the rest of his head and caught a blurry flash of a vision, which was just enough of a warning to prepare himself before there was a series of hard knocks on the kitchen door.

"They’re here." He had no sooner said the words when the door opened, causing him to curse Yuda as a damn impatient fool. Where the hell was the man’s sense? The last thing they needed was a strange succubae bound barging into the Koneko, so of course that was exactly what they got.

Yuda shoved the door open and stalked through it, the air around him almost crackling with tension. He had changed since the last time that Crawford had seen him – his auburn hair was longer now, worn past his shoulders, and he had lost weight as well, his expression hardened as if he had dealt with a very painful loss for too long. Right behind him was Ruka, appearing little better, and a very apologetic Jared.

"Where is he?" Yuda demanded as he flung aside his grey cloak to reveal clothes stained from travel and loose on his tall, broad shouldered body. Not giving anyone a chance to answer, he immediately called out Shin’s name, his deep voice pitched loud enough that most of the inn would have heard it if not for the spells that Omi had cast in the kitchen to keep anyone outside of it from overhearing the conversations inside.

"He’s resting, so shut the hell up," Yohji snarled, having jumped to his feet as soon as Yuda entered the kitchen. He stood in front of Aya in a protective manner, the kage quietly sitting behind him with a blank expression on his pale face. "And learn the proper way to enter a fucking house while you’re at it!"

Oh, just wonderful, Crawford thought to himself as he slowly reached across the table for Jo’s right hand and urged her to stand beside him. Yuda had not even been here for a minute and the fighting was about to start. He knew it was a waste of breath to say anything at that moment and only hoped that the two succubae bounds did not kill each other – or that Aya killed Yuda and Ruka. Oddly enough, Aya seemed prepared to ‘sit’ the burgeoning fight out, proving once again his high intelligence. Jo did not disappoint, either, moving as unobtrusively as possible to join him on the ‘safe’ side of the table, her emotions worried but not unduly agitated. She had the utmost faith in Yohji, and most likely the concern was more for innocents being hurt than her own safety.

Yuda turned the full brunt of his glare upon Yohji, who just smiled unpleasantly. "Where is he? Tell me now or I’ll search this entire place until I find him." The threat in Yuda’s voice could not be clearer if he had added a promise of destruction and pain if Shin was not presented to him immediately.

Crawford muttered a rare curse, upset both at Yuda’s behavior and the fact that Yohji and Aya’s presences blocked his talent. There were many benefits to having a kage and his mate on their side, but there were dangers as well and Crawford not certain at all that Yuda’s death in the next few minutes was one of them.

Yohji took a step forward, most likely in response to Yuda’s antagonistic tone, and continued to bare his teeth in a challenging manner. "I’ll tell you again to shut the fuck up. He can’t hear you, and even if he could, he’s getting some rest. Now get the *hell* out of my kitchen and my face before I tear your fucking throat out."

This was Yohji, the Koneko’s beloved Yotan, the Shadow Guard’s irrepressible member who garnered much respect and good will from almost everyone he met. Part of that was his succubae nature, but by and large it was his attitude toward life, his charming personality and way of treating people that endeared him to them. Even when Aya was anti-social enough for ten people and everyone else was losing their temper, Yohji usually maintained some sort of humor about things, albeit a bit on the warped side. There were the times when Aya was injured that this antagonistic side came out, but never as strongly as it did now when Aya sat behind him, safe and whole. It was so easy to forget Yohji’s true power since it was not as ‘showy’ as other bounds, and now everyone in the room was being reminded that Yohji was demon enough to be a kage’s mate. Crawford shivered a little in response and hoped that Yuda lived through the next few minutes.

The man seemed to pick up on the fact that Yohji was another succubae bound, his purple-colored eyes darkening and narrowing in response as his lips pulled back from his teeth. However, be it from the too-long suppressed need to see Shin or the fact that he was used to being the strongest succubae bound, Yuda did not take Yohji’s threat seriously. Behind him, Ruka *did* realize that his best friend was facing a challenge too powerful for him, possibly by reading Jo’s thoughts, and put a restraining hand on Yuda’s left shoulder. His hand was immediately shrugged off. "Go to hell and get out of my way," Yuda snarled, perhaps figuring out that if Shin was ‘resting’ that he must be in one of the rooms upstairs. There was a red glint in his eyes, his handsome face transformed by rage and need until Crawford swore he saw the demon inside of him press to the fore, the usual glamour that always clung to Yuda turned into a horrible compulsion.

Yuda stepped forward, his right hand resting against the hilt of his sword. "Get out of my way," he continued, the anger in his voice growing with each step until it was a terrible sound to hear. "Or I’ll kill all of you."

Crawford knew it was the madness brought on by being so near to Shin after such a long separation that uttered the threat, but it was absolutely the worst thing that Yuda could have said just then. Had he continued to focus on Yohji, there might have been some hope of ending the confrontation without bloodshed, but that chance that was destroyed the moment Yuda included Aya in his threats. Too much time and distance apart from his mate, too many years of him being the most powerful, and Yuda’s response was to use his power and strength against anyone who stood between him and Shin.

Unfortunately, he was no longer the most powerful succubae bound alive, a fact that Yohji seemed determined as hell to prove to the other bound. Moving so fast that he was a blur, he had Yuda pinned against one of the kitchen walls with so much force that several shelves shook and various dishes and utensils fell to the floor. Golden wires were wrapped around Yuda’s body, a deadly spider-web that kept the man from lashing out in return. Held at least a foot off of the floor, he stared down at Yohji, who glared at him with teeth bared and a silver gleam to his green eyes.

To Crawford’s surprise and relief, Aya did not enter the fray other than to have the shadows hover around Jo and himself as if worried that they, technically the weakest people in the room now that Jared had fled and Crawford’s power did not allow him to strike out at anyone mentally, might be placed in danger from the fight. Aya did not even attack Ruka, who had taken a step toward his enchained friend before coming to an abrupt halt. Ruka stared at Aya, his red eyes wide and his expression shocked, and Crawford was certain that the other soul gaki bound was on the cusp of realizing what exactly Aya was. Hopefully, that would keep the younger bound from doing something as stupid as his best friend.

Ruka appeared too stunned to attempt to save Yuda now, who was in dire need of his help. Crawford swore again when he noticed the thin wire beginning to cut into the succubae bound’s flesh, biting through clothes and skin until blood slowly seeped out. The smile on Yohji’s face was too disturbing to look at for very long; he was clearly enjoying this show of power and the opportunity to take a rival down.

"Aya… rein him in," Crawford whispered, not wanting to set Yohji off and aware that Aya’s hearing was more than good enough to catch the faint words. The kage remained still for several seconds, while Yuda did his best to strike back at Yohji and only ended up slammed back against the wall and cut deeper for his troubles, the wires moving to settle firmly around his neck and draw more blood. "Aya!"

The kage hissed in response as he moved forward, his movements so slinky that he lived up to Yohji’s nickname with the graceful motion. He did not stop until he stood at Yohji’s back, the long fingers of his right hand stroking through his mate’s wavy hair. "Yotan, don’t kill him."

As if doused with freezing water, Yohji appeared to be snapped out of his murderous rage. He stepped back from Yuda, letting the other bound fall to the ground and remain trapped by the golden wire, which at least did not seem to be drawing any fresh blood. Whirling around, Yohji grasped Aya by his shoulders and pulled him into a kiss that was violent in its intensity, yet Aya merely relaxed his body and leaned against his mate.

Clearly, that was a sign of Yohji proving his ‘claim’ on Aya, and the only thing that took Crawford by surprise was that Aya did not try to hit his ‘idiot’ mate for the public manhandling. Again, Aya was showing a deft grasp of handling a lover acting almost pure demon – which made sense when one considered how Aya was full demon himself. Being around humans confused him and his actions showed that, but he could more than handle demonic behavior.

Ruka approached his friend and tried to free him from the wire, but the strands only bit into his fingers while Yuda struggled to breathe deeply. About to say something to the mated pair kissing in the middle of the kitchen, Crawford felt a faint twinge and kept quiet, letting Jo clear her throat in a loud manner instead. While his pride was a bit rattled at how quickly Aya and Yohji stepped apart from each other over a mere sound from a *human*, he had to admit that Jo had earned even his utmost respect months ago….

"Yohji, I don’t want to have to clean blood off of my kitchen floor," she pointed out in a tone that most people would mistake as civil, though it usually provoked a whine of fear from any nearby bounds and a whimper from humans who knew her well. "Release him."

For a moment it looked as if Yohji was going to fight her over that; a few seconds later he sighed and hugged Aya tightly to his side. "If he tries anything again, I hope you’re ready to beat him over the head with your damn rolling pin." Yohji’s voice still contained a hint of a growl, but there was humor in it as well.

Jo smiled, her expression a touch grim and her emotions relieved. "No, I’ll use the cast iron skillet, since that rolling pin is reserved just for you."

A bit of jest, of nonsense, yet it helped to restore calm to the room. Well, except for Yuda and Ruka, the first still lying on the floor gasping for air, the second hunched beside him and appearing as if he had to face a horde of oni by himself. When Yohji stepped toward them with Aya carefully tucked behind him, Ruka tensed and his eyes narrowed as if concentrating on something. His eyes immediately opened wide, most likely when he realized that he could not use his power against Yohji.

"Oh, relax. As long as he doesn’t act like an asshole again, I’ll let him live," Yohji grumbled as he waved his left hand toward the fallen succubae bound. The gold wires rose into the air as if able to move on their own and wound their way around Yohji’s wrist, quickly reforming into a solid gauntlet. Crawford swore he saw a hint of shadows among the gold, his lips curving slightly as he took in yet another sign of how tied to each other Yohji and Aya were.

While Ruka assisted a still gasping yet no longer bleeding Yuda into a sitting position, Yohji squatted down in front of the men, barely an arm’s length out of reach. As quiet as a shadow, Aya stood behind him, protected by Yohji’s body even if he could more than take care of himself.

"Look, get it through your thick skull that you’re not top dog here, okay? Behave, stay the fuck away from any and all redheads, don’t you dare use your talent on any of the inn’s guests or staff, and *maybe* I won’t kill you." Yohji’s tone was incredibly civil, which did not detract from the threat at all. Crawford was torn between being impressed at the control the idiot *now* possessed and wanting to punch him for phrasing things that way.

Yuda appeared as if he wanted to argue, but considering that he had been beaten once already and that Ruka leaned against his left shoulder as if to keep him from his feet, his brow furrowed in concentration as he no doubt tried to ‘talk’ sense into his friend, made him remain thankfully silent. In the several years that Crawford had known the succubae bound, he had never considered him to be dim-witted and knew it was the still unconsummated mating bond that made Yuda act so foolishly.

"Who are you?" The words came out in a harsh gasp, Yuda’s right hand pressed against his blood-smeared throat. His gaze, however, he kept steady on Yohji’s face, never once flickering it in Aya’s direction as if he had been expressly warned to ignore the kage.

Yohji opened his mouth, the look on his face one that usually accompanied a smart remark, and closed it when shadows skittered along his back and wove through his shoulder-length hair. He shivered a little, which Crawford doubted was from the intense cold the shadows always made other people feel, and took a deep breath as if to center himself.

"I’m Yohji Kudoh, the-" He stopped what he was saying and laughed a little, as if caught out in an old habit. "I live here, at the Koneko, and make sure its inhabitants are safe." Not looking away from Yuda at all, he nodded in Aya’s direction. "This is Aya Kudoh, my mate." The words possessed a bite to them, a dangerous amount of force that was one of the clearest warnings that Crawford had ever heard. "We’re the two bounds who help to keep your precious Shin and Rei safe. Others, too, if you care about them at all." Really, Yohji had no right to toss in a barb like that, considering how often his world narrowed down to just Aya.

Mention of the two bounds had a revitalizing effect on Yuda and Ruka. Both of them gained their feet, Yuda struggling a little and slightly bent forward as if in pain, and stared at Yohji. It had been a gamble, Yohji mentioning them like that, but at least he had the sense to phrase it in a way to indicate that he was the bounds’ protector, not captor. The man had the most damnable luck at times, which annoyed Crawford to no end since he could rarely predict it.

"They’re upstairs, aren’t they? How are they?" Ruka spoke out loud for the first time since entering the kitchen, his deep voice raspy and edged with concern. There was a tension to his body that indicated he was only marginally more in control of his emotions than Yuda; he and Rei might not be mates, but they truly loved each other and their separation had to be painful.

Since Yohji was backing away from the two bounds, his arms held out at his sides a little as if to either shoo Aya back as well or to protect him – possibly both – Crawford decided that it would be best if he answered the questions. "Yes, they’re upstairs."

The second question gave him a slight pause, which made Ruka frown and Yuda step forward. He put all of the reassurance that he could muster into what he said next, the emotion not being one that came to him naturally. "Before you ask, the compulsions haven’t been entirely broken yet. In Shin’s case, they can’t be removed too quickly or they’ll cause him massive pain and damage." Upon hearing that, Yuda made a sound that was a cross between a moan and a growl. "As for Rei, he should be free of them in another day or so." He gave the two bounds a challenging look – if they had just listened to Jared and not rushed to Eto, the compulsions should have been broken before their arrival. If only his talent had not pushed him to send Jared so ‘early’ to them; the risk of them hearing about the cousins’ escape from Berin had been too great, sadly, forcing his hand on several matters.

At least Yohji seemed to have calmed down enough that Jo left Crawford’s side to stand beside her foster son. He continued to stare at Yuda as if ready for an attack, but at least he was not trying to provoke one.

"The compulsions…." Yuda shook his head as if to clear it of an unwanted thought. "They were so bad before…." His voice trailed off as he left the question he most wanted answered unspoken, and Crawford did not need to read minds to know what it was.

He shook his head as well. "I’m afraid they’re even worse now. Between time and constant reinforcement, they are stronger than I’d feared they’d be." Yet the time to rescue them from Esset had not occurred until just recently.

As if picking up on that thought, Ruka stepped even with his friend and gave Yuda a comforting hug. "Why did you bring them out of Esset now?" He may be quieter than Yuda and willing to let the succubae bound lead, but that did not mean he lacked the brains to think for himself.

"Because they would have died if they’d remained in Berin any longer." Crawford pushed his glasses farther up his nose and gazed levelly at the two young men. "The Elders were pushing them and their talents too far in an attempt to undo the damage they’d inflicted upon the weather and Esset."

Yuda growled and Ruka hissed, both clearly affected at the thought of losing their loved ones. Crawford pressed on before they made any demands. "Rei and Shin were almost pushed to burn-out before they were rescued, which has hampered the removal of the compulsions. You need to be very careful when dealing with either of them, as they still haven’t recovered." He folded his arms over his chest and expected both of them to argue over that last fact.

Instead, he was pleasantly surprised when they exchanged a long look between them and did not try to head upstairs. "The last thing we want is to cause them any more pain," Ruka admitted, his voice even more hoarse than usual as he struggled with his emotions. While Yuda nodded in agreement, Crawford knew that it was not going to be that simple, keeping him from Shin.

As if that thought were a catalyst, another pain stabbed at his forehead, a quick forewarning of what was to come. "Yohji, try not to kill him," he managed to warn before the door leading to the rest of the Koneko opened to reveal a rather disheveled Shin and an upset Gou.

"See, there’s no reason at all for you-" It must have taken a few seconds for the sight before them to sink into the cousins’ minds, because Shin stared wordlessly at Yuda as Gou talked, appearing to do his best to get the water elemental back to bed.

The room was quiet for several frantic heartbeats, and then Shin exhibited the most energy that he had possessed since arriving at the Koneko at the same time that Yuda rushed forward, uncaring as he passed Yohji and Aya.

"Shin!" That cry from Yuda was full of so much longing and happiness that Crawford actually felt a little bad about what would happen next, but he knew that things would be even worse if it were prevented.

Shin stumbled into his lover’s arms, tears sliding down his face and his limbs shaking as if that rush of energy had completely died out. "I thought… something made me-" He did not get a chance to finish what he was saying, as Yuda had him wrapped tightly in his arms to be thoroughly kissed.

The look on Jo’s face as she watched the two men embrace each other was happy, and there was hope in Ruka and Gou’s expressions. Yohji appeared very bemused, while Aya was as implacable as always. He had the grace of mind to look in Crawford’s direction, his eyes flashing silver when he was given a grim smile in silent answer. Of course things could not go so easily for the long-separated lovers.

The kiss went on for a good minute or two, Yuda seeming intent on making up for all the years he had been kept from Shin, and then the smaller bound began to tremble. Most people might mistake it for passion and happiness, but Crawford knew it for what it truly was. Gou was the next to realize what was happening and approached his cousin.

Shin’s hands, which had been buried in Yuda’s thick, reddish hair, spasmed once and then let go, his arms falling to his sides as he gasped in agony, his eyes tightly shut and face bereft of any color. Across the room, Ruka hissed in pain as well, no doubt feeling the emotions that battered at Crawford’s mental shields. Yohji growled, the sound weak and tinged with pain, prompting Aya to wrap his arm around his mate.

At first there was a low, moaning sound, quickly growing louder until Shin screamed in agony. That was what prompted Yohji and Gou to move in unison – Yohji to pull Yuda away from the water elemental and Gou to gather up Shin in his arms. Jo burst into motion as well, hurrying over to help Gou.

Yuda’s reaction at being pried away from his mate was sadly predictable; he pulled his sword from its sheathe and tried to use it against Yohji. He barely got the blade within a foot of the blond succubae bound before shadows leapt from Yohji’s left wrist and stabbed into Yuda’s right hand, forcing him to drop the blade. Once again, he was slammed against the wall hard enough to crack plaster and cause more dishes and pots to fall to the floor.

"Don’t!" Yuda could not manage anything else with the choke hold that Yohji had on his throat, his eyes a blazing mix of silver and emerald and lips pulled back from his teeth in a snarl that would have done Jei proud. Just like before, Aya did not participate in the fight, although this time emotion was evident on his face, a hardness of anger which warned that he would not hold back for many more attacks against his mate.

"Crawford, do something!" Ruka demanded, obviously wanting to step in and end the fight between the succubae bounds, but nowhere near suicidal or stupid enough to actually do so.

Crawford arched his left eyebrow in response, wondering if *he* looked stupid or suicidal. However, he decided to take it as a compliment, since Ruka felt he was the only one in the room who had a chance of separating the men. "Yohji, it would be a *very* bad thing of you killed Yuda just now. Please let him go."

Once again, it was Aya who was the one to manage the feat of cooling Yohji’s temper by resting his right hand on his mate’s shoulder. "Yotan."

Yohji growled, the sound savage and frustrated, but slowly did as he was bid. "Fucking bastard needs to learn not to push me!" The animosity in his voice was shocking, making Jo look away from an unconscious Shin and toward him with concern plain on her face. Even Gou stopped fussing over his cousin, and the pure venom behind Yohji’s words helped to snap Yuda out of his mindless rage. Finally, the man’s demon nature seemed to recognize Yohji as the stronger of the two of them.

Yohji continued to throttle Yuda for a few more seconds, until Aya gave his shoulder a squeeze. Cursing under his breath, Yohji once more let the other succubae bound fall to the floor, his fingers clenching and unclenching as if he wanted nothing more than to sink them into Yuda’s flesh.

Ruka rushed forward to assist his friend, this time not only helping him up but holding him back from Shin. "Yuda, *don’t*. The coercions almost tore his mind apart when you two touched!" He had to repeat the words again before Yuda calmed down and did not attempt to go to the water elemental.

Deeming it safe enough to move, Crawford went over to the two bounds and crouched down so he could look Yuda in the eyes. "Until the compulsions are entirely broken, you must leave Shin alone." He allowed himself a rare show of emotion, feeling true pity for the man before him. "I’m sorry, I didn’t want you to arrive so early, but that can’t be changed now. You’ll have to take comfort in being near him and knowing that he’s safe." Even as he spoke the words, he knew just how hollow that comfort was.

Yuda glared at him, which was understandable, and he at least did not try to run him through with the sword. "How the hell am I supposed to manage that?" His furious demeanor crumbled when he looked in Shin’s direction; Crawford sensed that the water elemental was still unconscious and did not doubt he would remain that way for a few hours. "How long?" This time there was no anger in Yuda’s voice, only desperation and fear.

"Two of the strongest soul gaki bounds alive are working on the compulsions." Crawford gave Ruka a thin smile at the man’s surprise upon hearing that, and sent along a thought saying that he hoped Ruka could control himself better around them than Yuda did Yohji. "Keeping in mind Shin’s exhausted condition… it should not be more than a few more days."

That admission prompted a moan of pain from Yuda, his expression one of the utmost longing as he stared at his mate. Beside him, Ruka frowned and shook his head. <You are aware that it will tear them both apart, correct?>

<Yes, and if I’d had any guarantee that you and Yuda wouldn’t hear of Shin and Rei’s escape from Berin before I sent someone to find you, I would have waited at least another week before setting Jared on your trail,> Crawford admitted, refusing to be blamed for *this* situation. He had played no role in either getting this particular mated pair together or in keeping them apart, other than to ensure that they both were not killed by the Elders.

<Rei….> There was another wave of longing, this time from Ruka. <Truly, how is he?>

Crawford guessed that he was worried over Rei’s lack of appearance, which only made sense since Rei did not share a mating bond, no matter if it was unconsummated, with Ruka as Shin did with Yuda. <He should be asleep. Eri, another powerful soul gaki bound, spent almost two hours with him this morning. She feels that the compulsions will be broken sometime tomorrow, so I suggest that you refrain from contacting him mentally until that happens or else risk undoing her hard work.>

Ruka bristled for a moment at the not so subtle ‘suggestion’, then let out a slow breath and nodded in agreement. At least he should be able to physically touch Rei, since the compulsion had only been put into place to keep the two men from communicating telepathically.

Beside him, Yuda stirred. "Please, let me go to him." No more explanation was needed to narrow down whom he meant, not with the way Yuda stared so intently in Shin’s direction. Gou tightened his arms around his cousin, for a moment appearing ready to deny the request, before nodding once. They had been very close friends at one point, before Shin had suffered for the mating bond between him and Yuda, and Crawford knew from his visions that they would be close friends once again. What stood in the way of that happening right now was the torture Shin underwent because of his lover.

Rising to his feet with an unsteadiness that betrayed just how much abuse he had taken from Yohji, Yuda wavered back and forth a few times before he could step forward. In stark contrast, Yohji moved with a fluid grace that rivaled Aya’s to stand in front of the other succubae bound. "Make sure you don’t drain too much energy from him." For once, he did not let Yuda’s answering snarls bother him, or at least not did not display any such emotion.

Yuda glared at him for several seconds before growing quiet; as a succubae bound, he would know the truth behind Yohji’s words. That was one of the reasons why Crawford had wanted to keep the two men apart – not just because of the pain Yuda would cause Shin, but the strength he would steal from him as well.

Still, other than Yohji’s mostly polite warning, no one attempted to stop Yuda from gathering his unconscious mate into his arms and holding him close with a tenderness that left Jo sniffling in a suspicious manner and Yohji’s carefully blank expression softening into something much more sympathetic. When Gou made no objections, Yuda picked up Shin, his lips brushing against the water elemental’s brow as he rose up from the floor. "Show me his bedroom."

From the little that Crawford could foresee, Yuda would put his mate to bed and then stay beside him as much as possible before Shin woke up. That got the succubae bound out of Yohji’s hair for a few hours, but there were enough ‘blank spots’ in the near future which meant that Yuda and Yohji’s paths would cross again. Unfortunately, there was also the fact that Yuda and Ruka would want more answers, such as how the fight against Esset progressed and what their role in the upcoming battle would be. Sooner or later, they and the cousins would find out that Aya was a kage, which would *not* help Yohji’s temper at all.

Ruka shook himself as if breaking free from unwelcome thoughts and hurried to his friend’s side. "Yes, I want to see Rei." The hope in his voice seemed to put Gou at ease, and for a few seconds, the three men looked as they had years ago, closely tied together by friendship and mutual love for each other. Crawford knew that there would be a disagreement or two before things truly did return to that, but as he did not foresee any possible death or damage related to them, he was content to let the three battle it out on their own. His main concern was to keep Yohji from proving his dominance in a lethal manner.

With that thought in mind, he returned to the table and his cold mug of tea. Jo watched as Yuda and the others left the kitchen before going to the stove, where she put on a fresh pot of water and then began to brew coffee. Ah, if only the woman had been born a bound – Crawford smirked at the thought and wondered if he would have any chance of controlling things if that were true. He did not think that Jo would merely stand by and let her family be used in any manner if she had the power to prevent that from happening.

Yohji stared at the closed door for several seconds as if he wanted to follow the men through it and continue the fight, until Aya grasped his left hand and tugged him toward the table where Crawford sat. "Not now," the kage whispered, his deep voice thickened with exhaustion.

That caught Yohji and Crawford’s attention; Yohji fussed over his mate as they sat down, snatching at the remaining cinnamon rolls so he could hand them to Aya. For his part, Crawford observed his ally with a sense of concern that he made no attempt to mask.

Aya being Aya, he frowned at the fussing and caught the look sent his way. Remaining quiet long enough to eat one of the rolls and make Yohji stop hovering around him, he then faced Crawford, his head tilted to the side a little as if he were considering something. "Go ahead and ask it."

Chuckling at the directness behind that answer, Crawford pushed his mug aside and rested his elbows and forearms on top of the table. "I will admit to being very surprised that you did not reveal your true nature today." Judging from Yohji and Jo’s reactions just then, he was not the only one.

"Yeah, why didn’t you go all shinigami like you usually do?" Yohji asked, even if he appeared relieved that Aya had not done so. Over by the stove, Jo stopped fussing with various kettles and turned around so she could watch their discussion take place.

Aya shrugged, and for a moment Crawford thought that was going to be all the answer that he would get. Then the kage surprised him by actually talking.

"It was Yohji’s fight, not mine." He reached for another cinnamon roll and began to tear it into bite-sized pieces. "In order for him to settle with Yuda," a snarl of dislike accompanied mention of the other succubae bound’s name, "he had to fight him one on one. If I had interfered, then they wouldn’t have considered it settled between them."

"Huh, you make it sound as if it’s not really expected for me to win a fight on my own, you two," Yohji grumbled, but he smiled as he spoke. "Why can’t you just say, ‘I knew that my utterly amazing lover, Yotan, could beat the shit out of that asshole while still half asleep’, hmm?" He laughed when Aya hissed and threw a piece of pastry at him, having no difficulty at all catching the food and popping it into his mouth. "That’s my adoring cat."

"I would *hope* that you could beat that guy," Aya sniffed after having a couple of pieces of roll himself. "After all, you’re more powerful than he is." As with so many bounds, it all came down to how much of a demon soul one possessed when determining strength.

"And here I thought you loved me for my amazing dick." Yohji’s laughter in the face of Aya’s glare was cut short when Jo smacked him on the back of the head. "OW!"

"Even if the girls aren’t here, there’s no excuse to be so crude." Jo glared at the blond for several seconds before turning toward Crawford. "Speaking of them, when will it be safe for them to return?"

Crawford had already given her an answer to that question yesterday, but knew that she was aware of just how much things could change in a short amount of time. "I still feel it’s best for them to remain at Cassandra’s as much as possible until Yuda and Shin are mates. If they do return, I would keep them in the kitchen when not in their rooms, and ask Yuda not to come in here." While he did not see the attraction of children, even ones on the cusp of adulthood as Neely and Emmie were, he did not wish the girls to be harmed in any manner. Neely would grow into a powerful bound who could help set right all of the damage that the Elders had caused, while Emmie’s bloodline would prove valuable in the future.

Jo huffed in annoyance and shook her head. "We’re going to get busy when people start arriving because of the princess’ birth, and I know those two won’t want to be away when they could be helping out." She seemed to think about something for a few seconds. "Although it would be a good excuse to hire on some more bounds, as it’ll be festival time in a couple of weeks as well, and that will lead into the fall and winter holidays."

Now serious, Yohji nodded as he draped his left arm over Aya’s shoulders. "I don’t think we can tell Yuda to stay away from the kitchen, not when I don’t trust him to control himself when around humans." Despite his evident dislike for the other succubae bound, his tone remained mostly civil. "But we could have the girls stick to cleaning and restocking the upper rooms, or even help organize the last bit of storage space up in the attic. Everything got shoved into it when we had the rooms built for Ken and the others."

At first nodding in agreement, Jo then resumed giving Crawford a fixed stare. "You said he wouldn’t be a threat to our customers."

Sending a quick prayer of patience to whatever god was willing to hear him, Crawford did his best to give the woman a reassuring smile, well aware that Jo could see through most bluffs. "I’ve seen nothing that would indicate that he’s a danger to anyone other than Shin’s health for the time being. Despite what happened here today, he is usually in control of himself and very civil." He did not think he needed to explain more than that, as Jo should be very familiar with the demands of a mating bond.

To her credit, she appeared to accept that explanation with good grace before returning to the stove. Knowing that as long as he had Jo’s support that the rest of the staff would brook little dissent, Crawford began to relax. That was, until he noticed the way that Aya was staring at him. "Yes?"

"If Yuda does not accept Yohji as his better and continues to attack, I *will* become involved," Aya warned, his voice sibilant and eyes pure silver. He did not say anything more than that, but Crawford understood that by ‘involved’, Aya meant ‘effectively and ruthlessly remove any and all threats to Yohji’s safety’. That made his head begin to ache at the same time he was very relieved that he had not come across his own mate as of yet. Yes, the bond could bring a mated pair much joy in their life… but it also led to much irrationality and limitations as well.

"As I said, Yuda normally possesses an abundance of intelligence and manners. Once he has truly become Shin’s mate, I’m sure he’ll return to his senses." He could not help but sigh as he spoke and wondered how many more times he would be saying something along those lines in the next few days.

"Yeah, well, he better. I bet there’s no need for me to say what will happen if he tries anything with Aya or the rest of the staff." Yohji’s arm curled in a protective manner around his lover’s shoulders and the hint of silver was back in his eyes.
No, there was no detailed explanation needed – Crawford knew that any attack or attempt at seduction against Aya would lead to Yuda and Ruka’s immediate deaths, while harm against the Koneko’s staff would lead to massive pain and a more lingering death. "I can only reiterate how important it is that both men continue to live," he reminded everyone in the room.

Jo grunted as if she was not entirely convinced of that fact while she poured the boiling water into a fresh pot of tea, and Yohji outright scoffed while Aya continued to exhibit his shinigami nature for the next few minutes. Crawford looked back and forth between them during that time, all the while wondering where the hell it was that Jei had stashed those bottles of whiskey he had bought the other day.

*******

Considering the amount of pain he was in, Rufus did *not* appreciate the way the bed rocked about just then, all thanks to a certain inconsiderate dubhach. Despite his still-pounding headache, he forced his eyes open to give Reno as much of a glare as he could muster at the moment.

To his astonishment, Reno did not appear smug or about to embark on some insane bit of mischief that would end in them running from the city for their lives, but was actually *worried*. Reno, the man who had the biggest death-wish that Rufus had ever known, whose life motto seemed to be something along the lines of ‘eh, who cares if we die as long as I have some fun’. *Worried*.

The very rare display of that particular emotion almost made him want to unblock the link between them, but he had blocked it for a very good reason just a few hours ago. Also, if Reno was this upset about something, having a powerful surge of pain added to the mix might be enough to create a dangerous imbalance between his two souls. That was the last thing Rufus wanted as he was in no shape to ensure that his mate did not kill himself in reaction.

"What’s wrong?" he asked instead, voice cracking over the words because of pain and the dryness of his throat. To his continuing astonishment, Reno handed over a cup of coffee with evident care not to spill any of its contents. All right, Rufus was left contemplating if he had died or was hallucinating.

"Here." Reno did not say anything else until the coffee – thankfully not too hot – was consumed. The warm liquid was strong enough that Rufus should enjoy a nice rush of caffeine at any moment, which would help somewhat with his headache and flagging energy levels. Once the pain weakened enough, he could resume the link between them and properly ‘feed’ on his mate’s emotions – emotions he felt a strong yearning to sense just then.

He set the empty cup aside and sat up in bed, all the while aware of how closely Reno watched over him. "Don’t tell me that you think I’m going to drop dead at any second now," he teased, suddenly a lot better than he had been a short while ago because of the attention.

Reno started at the words, his eyebrows drawing together as if he could not make sense of what had been said. Then he grimaced and shook his head, the loose strands of his crimson hair flying around his pale face. "Nah, you’re too stubborn for that." Despite what he said, he was still upset about something.

Missing the link between them, Rufus reached out to tuck aside some of those loose strands and smiled at the feel of warm, smooth skin beneath his fingertips as he stroked them along Reno’s tattooed cheek. "I’m glad to know you have some common sense." His fingers curled around the back of his mate’s head to gently urge Reno forward. "Now if you would only use it more often."

He got a hiss in response to the verbal jab, which was soon silenced by a kiss. For a moment, he deeply regretted the blocked link as it was much more enjoyable to do this when he could sense Reno’s emotions, but his own just then were pleasurable enough. Add to that the way Reno leaned against him, body yielding and temper placid, and he would give much to have the energy to do the moment proper justice. As it was, he was still too tired from working on the mental coercions in Shin’s mind.

Ending the kiss, he sighed and leaned back against the bed’s padded headboard, pleased with the way that Reno curled up against him like an obedient puppy. He resumed stroking his mate’s pretty face, savoring this quiet moment and still left wondering what had brought it about. As he debated if he had the energy to initiate another kiss, he felt ‘pressure’ against his mental shields.

<Yes?>

<Ah, you are awake.> If he were to be asked just then, he would say that Crawford ‘sounded’ uncertain and not too happy about that fact. Ah, the joys of having a dubhach as a mate, and the bonus ability to be hidden from a precog’s visions. The only reason that Crawford could even contact him this way was because of an already ‘established’ mental link of sorts between them, which Rufus planned on severing once the damn war was over.

<Yes, I am, and curious as to what you want.> Even if they were on the same side now, Rufus still did not care much for Crawford. However, he did mask his own emotions during their conversation, in part as to not let the true extent of his pain and exhaustion be known.

Crawford was ‘silent’ for a moment, the feel of his odd mind almost abrasive, and then he continued. <Yuda and Ruka have arrived at the Koneko. Needless to say, things did not go as well as they could have, though both men are alive and relatively unharmed.>

Rufus almost laughed out loud at the last comment. So Yohji had not been very hospitable to another succubae bound, had he? That was not too surprising, considering Yuda’s strength and what must be his desperation to mate with Shin. Add to that how protective Yohji could be about Aya and the inn, and Rufus still was unsure why Crawford had insisted upon hiding the cousins at the Koneko. <I assume that you broke the news to Yuda about Shin’s mental blocks, then?> As he ‘talked’ to Crawford, he continued to caress his lover, aware that Reno wanted to know what was going on but certain that he would not be interrupted until finished.

<There was little need to do so since it became obvious after Shin and Yuda reunited.> It was not often when Crawford let slip his emotions from behind the very carefully crafted shields he had built around his mind, so the rush of frustration and pity made Rufus hiss in surprise. <I need you and Schuldig to be back here tomorrow morning. If the compulsions aren’t broken within the next week… we will have lost our best chance at regaining control of the weather.>

When it was put that way, Rufus saw no way he could argue about being left in so much pain and exhaustion. A week… it would take almost all the strength he had to break those damn coercions in that amount of time, yet what choice was there? He did not need to be able to see the future to know that if the weather was not checked soon, the war would be the least of their problems. <I’ll be there.> At least he took some comfort in the fact that Schuldig was in as bad a shape as he was, and would *not* be happy upon hearing Crawford’s message.

He cut off the mental link between them and let out a slow breath. "It seems we’ll be back at the Koneko tomorrow," he told Reno, voice no longer cracking but sounding weaker than it should.

"Fuck it," Reno snarled, his narrowed eyes taking on a silver gleam as he straddled Rufus’ lap. "You can barely get out of bed today, and you want to go back? Let the water elemental deal with the damn blocks for a bit."

Rufus was accustomed to Reno’s lack of concern for anyone he did not consider a friend or lover, but the venom behind those words took him back for several seconds. Reno did not usually condemn someone to suffering unless they had hurt him or a friend in the first place, which was something Shin had never done. Granted, the elemental bound could barely harm a fly at this point in time, but still….

Rufus was about to try something as ridiculous as argue sense with his mate when it occurred to him that this was not a case of Reno’s anti-social nature. Recalling the worried look before adding to that the protective manner in which Reno was huddled over him, and he realized that the dubhach was *worried* for *him*. Reno clearly did not want him to be hurt or weakened at all, and certainly not for a ‘stranger’s sake. It was about damn time that the addle-brained bastard showed some concern for anything other than his next meal or possible suicide attempt.

Rufus promised himself that he could gloat over this another time – right now, he needed to calm Reno before the idiot either decided that the best way to keep him safe was to do away with Shin or took out his new emotions on their household. Daring to open the link the slightest bit, he rubbed his hands down Reno’s back and slipped them beneath the black shirt his lover wore.

<I thought I was the lord, here,> he admonished, and smiled when Reno responded in typical fashion by hissing at him. <This is something I have to do. Just a few more days and it will be done, and several powerful bounds will be in debt to me over that fact.>

Appearing ready to argue, Reno snapped his mouth shut and considered what had just been said. If such a thing would ever have bothered him in the first place, Rufus would have been offended at how possessing an ulterior motive made things ‘all right’ to Reno. <So that’s why you’re doing this?> Reno asked, a bit confused but happier already over the situation. He still did not grasp the concept of selfless sacrifice – especially not from Rufus – and had been bothered as much by Rufus seemingly being forced to do something that caused him pain as the pain itself.

<Of course.> Rufus scoffed out loud and gave his mate’s ass a pinch. "I would never leave both of us so vulnerable just because Crawford ordered me about."

That made Reno happy… for a few seconds at least. "But you’re still in pain." He actually caressed Rufus’ face, long, cool fingers lingering on Rufus’ temples once he sensed that the touch was soothing. "I don’t like it."

Regarding his mate with a touch of coldness, Rufus slid his hands from beneath the shirt so he could grasp his mate’s long hair instead. "Just as *I* don’t like it when you cause yourself any pain. Remember that." He reinforced the words with a harsh yank on Reno’s hair. "At least there’s a reason for my actions."

Reno growled in displeasure over the jab, his nails pressing against Rufus’ temples for a second. "Bastard!"

<So you always say.> Hands still buried in thick hair, Rufus pulled his mate forward for another kiss. <Just because you don’t like the point I made doesn’t mean it’s any less valid.> He got the tip of his tongue nipped for his trouble, but Reno’s temper began to cool.

<If you’re going back tomorrow, I’m going with you.>

The thought of Reno being by an unstable succubae bound made Rufus’ headache worse and filled him with a rush of possessiveness, which he struggled to dampen before it re-ignited their argument. He did not want Reno anywhere *near* the Koneko… and knew if their situations were reversed, there was no way Reno would go anywhere in such a condition without him by his side. Leaving the dubhach here would just invite more trouble than it was worth, and possibly lead to the destruction of this section of the city.

<Only if you remain by Aya’s side. I think it would be a good day for the two of you to count books or something.> Hopefully, that would keep both shinigami bounds out of too much trouble.

Reno wanted to disagree with that, but Rufus did not give him the opportunity. Deciding that his headache would get much, much better if he fed now, Rufus hugged him closer and let his desire flow over their link. Even if it made him want to throttle Reno and Aya at times, that need to belong to someone, to be part of a pack of sorts made Reno rather easy to manipulate at moments like this. Having a little trouble with smiling while he was being kissed so passionately, Rufus spared a moment’s thought to warn Tseng that he should not be bothered for the next hour or so before he turned his full attention to his mate.

******

On a mission for Birman, Trowa kept his head ducked and his body in motion as he navigated the crowded hallways of the palace. The page’s uniform that he wore created some space around him, as the people he came across either realized that he may be in the middle of a very important assignment or felt he was too ‘lowly’ born to dare having him brush up against them. Considering that he was headed to the section where the Ministers and Judges had their offices, it was more of the former than the latter, thank the gods. He had to admit with a great deal of ruefulness that being one of the Elders’ ‘favorites’ and a very powerful water elemental had accustomed him to being treated with a bit more respect than he received from most humans. It was not so much the polite bows and reverent attitudes that he missed as the wary distance he was always given by other bounds.

At least he was under the watchful eye of the Guard as he continued on his way. Now that Duo was a respected member of the organization, he had made sure to spread the word that he *did not* appreciate anyone ‘harassing’ his lover. Trowa was not quite sure how he felt about such a display of possessiveness and protection – well, his demon nature thought it was owed to him by his mate – but he had to admit that he appreciated the friendly smiles the Guards gave him, as well as the quick manner in which they granted him access to various parts of the palace so he did not have to stand among everyone else as they produced whatever papers or badge they had been given to prove that they had business with various important people.

Many of the highborns and workers in the palace had noticed the Guards’ deferential treatment of him and found out the reason why, which meant that there were many fewer instances of people trying to strike up any type of relationship that was not professional or merely friendly in nature. He should not be bothered by such things, but he had to admit that it made his job much easier, being so effectively and publicly ‘claimed’ as a Guard’s lover. Even Heero was aware of that ‘claim’, and accepted that Duo had done it to help prevent Trowa from causing some unwelcome suitor’s heart to burst.

The sight of all the people in dark blue uniforms turned Trowa’s thoughts to his mate, and as many of the Guards he came across were Shadow Guards, they tended to ask him about or to pass on a message to Duo. Yuushi had ordered as many of the Guards who were bounds as possible to work the palace until after the princess’ Naming ceremony, aware of how so many visitors posed a risk to the royal family’s safety. The Shadow Captain figured that there would be less of a chance of a successful assassination or kidnapping attempt if bounds were present, and Trowa had to agree. Meanwhile, the human Guards did not mind the change in assignments since it meant that they were away from the formal air of the palace, while the bound Guards were relieved to be away from so many humans out in the city. The only ones who were a little upset were the human partners to bounds – not that Trowa knew of too many complaints. From what his mate had told him, they realized that the benefits of having partners who could control the elements, read minds or fight a dozen people at the same time meant they had to deal with the occasional ‘downside’ as well, such as being stuck here for the next several weeks.

Two turns away from Minister Asami’s office, Trowa realized that part of the reason why Duo was on his mind so much was because his mate was nearby. In fact, Duo was very, *very* close, as was proven by the hand grasping the upper part of his left arm and pulling him to the side for a kiss.

Duo kept it as a mere pressing together of lips until Trowa’s surprise vanished, then deepened the kiss until they both were ready to purr. Mindful of the other presences that he sensed around him, Trowa broke it off with some reluctance and managed to give his foolish lover a disapproving look. "I do not believe that is proper behavior for a Guard on duty," he said, his voice quiet and severe while his emotions were pleased.

As if a small reproach like that would bother Duo at all. The fire elemental grinned in happiness and shrugged. "You can put me on report if you like, but I don’t think my Captain will have much of a stomach for listening to me explain that I just *had* to kiss such a sexy man." He followed that bit of nonsense with a wink, while behind him, Toshi laughed

"Perhaps he’ll surprise you by asking for details." Toshi laughed some more at the dirty look Duo gave him and then waved. "Since it seems you two are headed in the same direction, I’m treating myself to a short break. Meet me at Blair’s office when you’re done."

"One day I’ll see you go more than two hours without a cup of coffee!" Duo smiled at his departing partner, who shuddered in horror at the mention of being deprived of caffeine for so long. "So, whose office are you off to?" he asked as he turned to face Trowa.

"Minister Asami," Trowa answered as he held up the letter that Birman had given him to deliver, the fine paper stamped with the Spymaster’s mark. "What about you?"

"I have to pick up some documents from Judge Okihara." Duo executed a near perfect bow in Trowa’s direction and then held out his left arm in a clear invitation. "Would you care for an escort? There’s no telling what danger lurks in these hallways." He even managed a serious expression and tone as he spoke.

Smiling at how Duo always sought to amuse him, Trowa shook his head even as he slid his right arm into the crook of his mate’s elbow. "Oh yes, I feel so unsafe when half the Guard and a third of the Army is on duty here."

"Please, it’s the Army that I’m worried about." Duo’s emotions took on an angry taint just then, illustrating how much he had embraced his role in the Shadow Guard by partaking in a rivalry that really should not concern him. "They’re a bunch of perverts."

It was a very good thing that no one from that organization was on duty in this section of the palace. Trowa shook his head again and used his power to make Duo dizzy for a moment, a slight reprimand that made his mate look at him with a wounded expression in return. Not believing for a second that the troublesome man had been hurt by such a thing, Trowa gave him a blank look in return, which earned him a warm laugh.

"I know, I know, I’m the last person who should say such a thing." Duo squeezed his arm in affection and sent a wave of lust and love over their link. The fact that they could sense each other’s emotions more and more clearly with each passing day was a constant source of wonder to Trowa as well as relief; he knew that he was not very good at expressing his emotions and Duo seemed much more at ease as the link strengthened.

"I think the Army would be hard-pressed to find someone who could rival you in that regard." Even the act of teasing another person was largely foreign to him, but Duo gave him so many opportunities to do just that, and was happy when he did. After so many years of holding himself aloof from almost everyone.… Trowa was fascinated by the many changes that had happened in the last few months.

"What can I say? I excel at everything I do!" Duo laughed as they went on their way, earning quite a few admiring looks from the people they passed by. Between his happy expression, handsome appearance and the formal version of the Guard uniform he was wearing, Duo did indeed deserve those looks… which left Trowa feeling a little unsettled. Jealousy was not something he was used to experiencing and he was not sure how he should respond to it, but at least he knew that his mate had no romantic interest at all in anyone else. As wonderful as the bond between them could be, there were still a lot of things to get used to.

After the final turn toward the hallway that housed the offices they were headed to, Trowa felt his mate’s body tense moments before he recognized one of the people walking towards them. Dressed in a lovely gown of cream and pink, her light brown hair pulled back in a complex braid that showed off both her quiet beauty and youthfulness, Relena Peacecraft appeared out of place amid the more seasoned officials and highborns around her. She should be out enjoying herself at the many parties and dinners being held in Princess Ouka’s honor, but Trowa knew that she took her responsibilities very seriously, even more so since she was the ‘only’ Peacecraft left to do so with the recent death of her parents. He had become an acquaintance of sorts with the young woman in the last few weeks, largely because of someone else.

He knew from the way her body tensed ever so slightly before she smiled at him that she had a message that she wanted him to pass along to Heero. Slipping his arm free of Duo’s hold, he bowed to the girl in a manner proper of the vast social differences between them. Duo, as a Guard, was exempt from it, and it took another jolt of power to make him stop viewing the girl with open wariness.
"Good afternoon, Lady Peacecraft."

"Good afternoon." Relena’s voice was reserved and pitched not to carry very far. "If you don’t mind, Page, I would appreciate it if you would carry a note for me." She made a show of glancing around the hallway, which thankfully was bereft of any other pages at the moment.

"Of course." Considering the polite way that she had asked for the favor, it would strike no one odd that Trowa did as she asked, even if he was not one of the more ‘general’ pages on duty. If anything, the people walking past them would assume that he was just currying favor from a lady who might one day be able to promote him to a higher position.

"Thank you." When she smiled like that, Relena looked even younger than her real age, the expression containing so much joy and innocence that he could see what it was that drew Heero to her. Innocence was something that was very rare in Berin, and there was no doubt that she was one of the kindest, most open souls that a person could come across in their lifetime – even if that lifetime could be counted in centuries instead of decades. Heero had probably never known someone like her in all his travels and years, and had certainly not expected to meet her in the heart of ‘enemy territory’.

Having passed along the note, Relena acknowledged his second bow and then went on her way, a brief encounter that should not stand out in the memories of any of the witnesses around them. Trowa tucked the note into the pouch on his belt and stepped forward, his face betraying nothing even as he was barraged by Duo’s emotions. A few steps put him near a curtained alcove that he thanked the gods was empty, into which he tugged his unhappy mate.

Not giving Duo time to say anything, he kissed him silent with an intensity that dwarfed the passion of their previous kiss. Even now, it made his breath catch in his throat to do something like this, to act in desire for another person. Only the fact that it was with Duo, the man he loved and was bound to, made it possible, and that did not lessen its special-ness in any way.

Since they had to eventually breathe, he broke off the kiss but did not pull away, so they could whisper to each other and not risk anyone overhearing them. "Don’t feel that way just because I have to meet with Heero now," he warned, unhappy with how Duo felt about the other bound even if he knew the reasons for the anger and fear.

Duo let out a slow breath and shook his head the slightest bit. "I… gah." He shook his head again and wrapped his arms around Trowa’s waist. "I… I really worry, you know."

"I do." Trowa closed his eyes and leaned against his mate, unable to say that he never worried as well. "But we’ve done nothing to make him suspect the bond between us, and Schuldig regularly scans his mind to make sure that he never does." Normally he would be upset over the invasion of privacy and will committed against a friend… yet in this case, he was not about to risk the Elders finding out that he and Duo were mates.

The arms around him tightened, as if Duo were afraid that he would slip away forever. "I won’t lose you, or let you be used anymore." The words were spoken so faintly that only a bound would hear them, which did not lessen their intensity at all. There was no doubt in Trowa’s mind that Duo would do whatever was necessary to keep him safe, something that he would do in return if the fire elemental were threatened. So many years of being used by the Elders, of having little hope in the future, and then they had ‘found’ each other. He could still remember so clearly the years of confused longing and loneliness he had suffered before they had become mates, and could no longer envision a time when they would be apart.

"Then don’t be a reckless fool," he warned, even as he smiled to soften the impact of his words. He opened his eyes to find Duo smiling back. "I know you have a brain and even use it from time to time, so do so in this case."

"Who needs brains when they’re stunningly handsome and amazingly clever, hmm?" Duo gave him a wink while rapping the knuckles of his right hand against the side of his head. Trowa almost made a comment about the lack of a hollow sound, but knew that they had work that needed to be done.

"I’ll save any response to that until later, when we’ve the time." Forcing his body to move away from Duo’s comforting heat, he stepped back and tugged on his blue tunic to smooth out any wrinkles. "We’re both still on duty," he reminded his lover.

Duo shrugged to show he was not very bothered by that fact. "You’re not working late tonight, right?" The tone of his voice just then indicated that he would have something to say to Birman if Trowa was.

"No, not today." The closer it came to the Naming ceremony, the more hours they both would have to work, so Yuushi and Birman did their best to give their people as much time off as possible now. "What do you want to do for dinner?" As he asked the question, Trowa stepped out of the alcove. A few knowing looks were sent their way, but as their relationship was a rather well-known one and they had only indulged in some ‘personal time’ for a couple of minutes, no one appeared upset or offended.

"I hear that Jared’s back, so the Koneko’s out." Duo sighed in annoyance as a hint of hunger crossed over their link. "What about Dillon’s place?" While not as favored by the Guard as the Koneko was, it was a respectable restaurant owned by a former Guard that was small, quiet and had good food. Trowa nodded and tried not to think about the last few hours of their shifts.

"Send me a message when you’re done for the day." Reaching Minister Asami’s office, Trowa waved goodbye to his mate. Duo did not look happy to have their time together come to an end, but waved goodbye after promising to send the message.

It did not take long to drop off the letter, so Trowa was soon on his way back to Birman’s office. Most likely, there would be more letters to drop off today as various invites and information came Birman’s way, and she wanted to go over a few things with him to get a ‘bound’s perspective’. At least the rest of his shift should go by quickly, and he would not have to send Heero a message for a couple of days since the air elemental was off training in the field this week. Now that he did not have Duo to occupy his thoughts, he spent the time returning to the office contemplating just what was going on between Heero and Relena. Perhaps he would brave the Koneko in the next few days after all, just to get Crawford’s take on the situation.

******* 

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