Storm Warnings

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chapter eight

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longing

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Grateful that his shift in the common room was finished for the night and that he could retreat to the kitchen, Omi sank down on the bench and rested his elbows on the table for support. The inn was still mostly full of customers, but Touya and the others would be kept busy supplying drinks and snacks, not meals, until closing time.

He shared a pot of tea and a plate of fruit slices with Reiichi while he waited for Nagi to return from running some food up to Yohji and Aya. At the other end of the table sat Jo, Eri and Yuushi with their heads leaning together as they talked. Teddy was busy finishing up the dishes and helping Touya, Marta and Kira as they went in and out of the kitchen fulfilling customer requests. From down the hallway came the sound of lovely music; Koyu seemed in the mood for traditional ballads tonight, and Teddy smiled and paused in whatever he was doing each time a new song began.

All in all, it was a nice evening, the type that made him so happy with the direction his life had taken in the past year. He did miss having Yohji here with him, but then he remembered how irritable his friend had been the last few days and decided that it was not such a bad thing. Soon enough Yuda would leave and take the cousins with him, so Yohji would go back to normal. Omi just wished that it happened before his sister’s Naming Ceremony.

That thought and overhearing Eri and Jo’s discussion made him wince then shake his head in guilt. "I’m sorry," he said, cutting into the discussion in a manner that would have had several tutors smack him for bad manners if they were around. "It’s going to be really busy here soon and I won’t be able to help." They had been talking about hiring more staff, and he knew part of it was because of him and Nagi.

Jo turned in his direction and huffed, the sound short and displeased. "Today seems to be my day of threatening to beat some sense into people," she snapped, brown eyes narrowed in annoyance and her face flushed. "If you apologize once more for having to take part in the ceremonies for your sister, I *will* fetch my rolling pin." She did not sound tired despite the fact that she had been working for most of the day, and only the way her lips curved the slightest bit upward kept him from fleeing the room for safety.

"I’m-" He stopped what he was about to say and flushed as well, though that was more from embarrassment than heat or anger. "Uhm…."

To his and probably several other people’s surprise, Eri laughed. She was dressed in a plain, cream colored shirt and brown skirt, her hair pinned back from her face and her manner relaxed. It was still odd to see her without her Guard’s uniform, but something about the way she leaned against a smiling and casually dressed Yuushi made her fit into the kitchen’s surroundings. Perhaps her living in the Koneko gave her a sense of entitlement to the inn, or it was just that this was the most open that he had ever seen her.

"Sooner or later you’ll realize that we’re seizing an opportunity here," she explained, her smile strengthening as Yuushi’s left arm slid around her waist. She shared a quick look with Jo, who nodded once and smiled as well. "Mickey can no longer argue about hiring new staff since the inn will be desperately short while you attend to your family duties, and I’m sure business will keep up enough that there will be an excuse to not let them go afterwards."

Giving up on the dishes, Teddy chuckled as he dried his hands and joined everyone at the table. "Especially since that damn Master Harper keeps running poor Koyu ragged." He appeared murderous for a moment and almost had a bound’s growling voice down pat. "Since things are only going to get more… interesting from here on out, I’m gonna take some time off so I can help him." To his credit, he seemed to feel guilty about that fact, although Omi knew that Teddy adored Koyu too much to not move past the feeling soon enough. If his boyfriend needed help then he would drop everything to provide it, end of story. Omi knew how he felt – especially since Nagi had sworn to remain by his side while he resumed his ‘Mamoru’ duties. Knowing that his boyfriend would be there made the prospect of living in the palace for a few weeks bearable.

Jo nodded and reached for the bottle of wine that she was sharing with Eri and Yuushi. "As Eri said, it’s been a long time coming and we’d have to do it even if some of the staff didn’t need the time off." She poured the last of the wine into her glass, which prompted Teddy to get up from the table so he could fetch two more bottles and a glass for himself. "I know he’s doing his best to save up one hell of a dowry for Kira, but it’s a bit ridiculous how tight he’s getting with the money."

Teddy paused in opening one of the bottles and made a face. "Tell me about it. But really, it’s all Mom’s fault." He smiled in the face of Jo’s suspicious look and motioned to the ceiling above him. "It’s clear that she raised three extremely monogamous sons, so Mickey’s just making sure he has enough money to support Kira for the rest of her life."

"A life that she can live in lavish style with the amount of profit the Koneko is raking in." Reiichi adjusted his glasses as everyone looked at him in astonishment. "I spend most of my time with Aya, remember? That includes when he does the books."

Omi would not be surprised if the Guard helped Aya calculate the numbers and wondered if there was anything that Reiichi could not do. "It’s such a good thing that you’re on our side," he whispered, just loud enough for no other humans but Reiichi to hear. Despite the cryptic nature to the words, Reiichi smiled and bowed his head slightly.

"Still, determined to give Kira a dowry fit for a princess or not, Mickey’s going to have to part with enough coins to pay a few more salaries." Jo sniffed in annoyance and tapped the fingers of her left hand against the top of the table. "He’ll have to hold back on another addition to the inn if he’s so worried about the expense."

"Not that he’ll need to do that, since Reiichi is right about the Koneko raking it in lately." Teddy sipped his wine and gave the ceiling a contemplative glance. "Guess there goes the theory that Yohji’s nature was what brought in a lot of customers." He yelped soon after saying that, and judging from Jo’s angry expression he had probably been kicked by the cook. "I didn’t mean it like that!"

"Considering how powerful he is, even if he didn’t know about his true nature back then, I imagine that he did draw a lot of people toward him." Eri’s voice shook the tiniest bit, as it often did when she mentioned Yohji’s demon nature. "However, I think it’s a mixture of the Koneko’s reputation and how many things are happening that’s behind how busy it’s been lately."

"Possibly." Jo’s voice was distant, as if she were thinking about something else, but she was no longer scowling so Omi guessed that the explanation appeased her sense of anger. "Either way, we’re going to need more people soon, and taking into account how many bounds either live here or stop by all the time it would be best if we could hire more of them. I trust Anna, Stephen and the others, but unless they show up as a stray and end up staying, I’m not going to trust too many other humans who want the job." All of the staff knew that Jo took her responsibilities at the inn very seriously, so Omi was not taken aback to hear her say something like that.

Eri cleared her throat before she spoke, hesitant at first then growing louder and more certain after a few seconds. "Not to sound too down on humans, but there are more than enough bounds out there who could use the job and don’t have many opportunities to work someplace safe."

"I can think of at least five people we had to turn away from the Shadow Guard because they couldn’t pass all of the exams," Yuushi added. "All they need is some time to get used to working with humans and to hone their talents, which shouldn’t be a problem here."

"There’s also the fact that not every bound wants to be in the Shadow Guard," Eri pointed out, frowning a little as she looked at Yuushi.

He shrugged and gave her a pleasant smile in return. "There is that, too. I guess I just think too much about work." That brought out a smile in return on Eri’s part, and Omi had the impression that she said something telepathically because Yuushi chuckled a moment later.

While Teddy told Jo he did not care who she hired as long as they were willing to do the damn dishes, the door opened to admit Nagi, who did not appear upset or angry. Omi took that to mean that for once, his lover and best friend did not get into a fight over Aya. Well, too much of a fight… or at least had not come to physical blows over the kage. There were times when he wondered if he should be jealous about his quiet friend, then he reminded himself that he could never put up with the way Yohji and Nagi fussed over Aya if it were directed his way.

"How are they?" he asked as Nagi sat beside him, a warm, bubbly feeling infusing his chest at having someone he loved so much near.

Nagi grimaced and shrugged at the same time. "Kudoh hasn’t drained him dry today as far as I can tell, but Aya was very grateful for the cake." He frowned and appeared lost in memory for a moment. "Why did those bounds have to come here?" There was an angry note to his voice, echoed by the tension in his slender body, and Omi would bet the crown that his boyfriend wanted little more than to evict the cousins and their friends from the inn as soon as possible. After all, as long as they were here it was a threat of sorts to Aya and the rest of them.

Yuushi sighed as he poured more wine into his and Eri’s glasses. "Take it up with Crawford. I can think of half a dozen safe-houses where they could hole up in for however long is needed, but he insists that they stay here." He glanced at Eri, his brow furrowed as if he were plagued by unpleasant thoughts, then shook his head. "I just hope his visions and string of good luck hold out."

"I doubt he would do anything that he believes would put the future he wants at risk. That said-" Eri did not finish what she had been saying and raised her hand in a sign that everyone should be quiet. No one else said a word; Omi noticed the way his lover’s eyes narrowed in a manner that usually meant that Nagi was readying his power.

The door opened again, this time much slower than it had when Nagi had returned from upstairs. The head that poked in with caution was familiar, made distinct by the long fall of brown-tipped blond hair. "Uhm, will I get smacked again if I come in?" Gai asked, appearing still chastened even though Jo had whapped him with a spoon and ordered him and Naru out of the kitchen a couple of hours earlier.

Jo gave him a cool look but nodded. "As long as you can control yourself, you can."

To his credit, Gai did not try to blame the resulting mayhem from his bet with Naru on the young Guard. "Thank you!" He smiled in happiness, the expression wavering a bit when he looked in Nagi’s direction. Omi could not help but notice that the bound sat as far away from his boyfriend as possible.

While he was amused at how bounds always had to establish a pecking order of sorts amongst themselves, he did not like how Gai eyed Nagi with caution and some hostility, appearing unwilling to back down if it came to a fight. The problem with there being so many powerful bounds in the Koneko at the moment seemed to be that too many of them were used to having everyone else cower before them. Omi was glad that he was not here for Yohji and Yuda’s fight, as he would have had some difficulty remaining neutral during it.

Gai was the first to look away, a sour twist to his lips that meant he most likely was unhappy about that fact. Omi did not care as long as Nagi relaxed beside him and did not seem ready to start a fight of his own.

"Thanks for letting me in here," Gai repeated as he glanced around the room, probably looking for any signs of the mess that Naru’s impromptu bombs had left. For a moment, Omi wondered where the Guard had hidden himself.

<I think it’s safe to say that Naru is going to spend the next night or two at his girlfriend’s.> Eri sounded very happy about that fact.

<Thanks.> Omi shared a smile with the woman then concentrated on what Gai was saying.

"-just too uncomfortable up there right now." Gai’s shoulders were slumped forward, his demeanor turning a lot happier when Jo sighed and pushed a plate filled with various cookies and pastries in his direction. "Shin barely woke up long enough for something to eat, which means that there’s no one who can really control Rei right now. Gou’s sworn half a dozen times that he’s about to sit on him to make him calm down, so Rei gets even angrier." He glanced at the kitchen window, and Omi noticed that the wind outside had picked up from earlier in the evening. "I wish Ruka would just go see him."

Eri sat up straighter and frowned at Gai. "I can understand why he won’t. Would you rather have your friend be in pain or upset?" There was a bite to her words that made Gai appear chastised once again.

"I know." He stared at the tabletop for almost a minute, looking for all the world like a puppy that just had its nose smacked for bad behavior. He did not remain downtrodden for long, however. "Anyway, at least Ruka and Yuda are here!" He almost bounced in his seat as he mentioned his friends. "Things will get better soon."

"Yes, although I understand that their arrival was not without incident." Reiichi adjusted his glasses and leaned forward so he could look at the strange bound better. Omi recognized the expression on his friend’s face and wondered if Gai would ever realize that he was about to be interrogated by a professional. "We’re not used to that much excitement here," the Guard lied with impressive ease.

Other than Teddy almost choking on his glass of wine, no one else reacted to the absurd statement besides Gai, who once again appeared guilt stricken. "That’s not like Yuda, I promise," he rushed to explain, his eyes bright and expression now eager. If Omi was any judge of things, he would guess that Gai felt a bit of hero-worship for the succubae bound. "I mean, he’s always been good at fighting, but he never does it without any reason." His eyes narrowed a little when he glanced at Nagi, but his friendly nature returned when he looked back at Reiichi. "It’s… just a bound thing." Even though he still seemed a little uncertain to speak of such things in front of humans, there was no shame or embarrassment to his tone.

"I’ve become very familiar with bounds in the past year," Reiichi pointed out, either to appease Gai or knock him off balance. Knowing Reiichi, it possibly was a mix of both. "After all, one of my best friends is a bound, and I’ve dear hopes to have a bound sister-in-law in the near future." This time, it was Eri and Yuushi who choked on their wine, and Teddy chuckled in an appreciative manner.

Gai appeared confused over the ‘sister-in-law’ comment, then his entire disposition changed; it took on a sharp edge as his eyes once more became bright and his attention seemed strongly focused. "You mean Aya is your friend, right? I saw the two of you in the library the other day." There was a faint note of incredulity to his voice, as if he still had trouble getting used to the idea of bounds and humans being such good friends. Omi wondered how long before it would dawn on him that Naru was fast on the way to becoming a good friend of his and he hoped to be there for that revelation. He also hoped that there were not too many more instances like today’s coffee contest, at least not while Jo’s temper was so short because of Yohji.

Around the room, people stopped fidgeting and looked directly at Gai; there was something about the Koneko that made its staff very protective of each other, and Gai had better be careful if he knew what was good for him. That thought made Omi grimace since he did not have much faith in the energetic bound.

Reiichi appeared perfectly nonchalant as he smiled and sipped his tea. "Yes, I mean Aya." Despite the fact that Jo was a known terror with kitchen utensils, Yuushi and Eri were trained Guards and Nagi could crush anything with a thought, Reiichi stood out as the most dangerous person in the room just then to Omi. The man’s main duty was to ensure Aya and Yohji’s safety, and he was known to always carry out his assignments with precision and dedication. Omi thought he saw a flicker of Reiichi’s gauntlets for a moment and rubbed his right hand over the magicked band on his left wrist.

Oblivious to the danger around him, Gai clapped his hands together and crowed in triumph. "I thought so!" Then he leaned toward Reiichi. "So, what is he? We keep trying to figure out what he is and don’t have much luck."

Most people would take Reiichi’s answering smile as civil and miss the darkness it contained. "I’m sorry, but if Aya wants you to know what he is, he’ll tell you." While he spoke, Omi did his best to keep Nagi from jumping up from the bench so he could most likely throttle Gai with his own hands. "He’s a very private person and I respect that."

"Oh." Gai appeared crestfallen to be shot down like that, but did not linger over the rejection for very long. "It’s just that he’s so-"

Thankfully – though Omi doubted it was by accident – Teddy cut off whatever Gai was about to say since it probably would have gotten the bound killed. "Dammit, I’m going to make Koyu sleep on the floor tonight!" He jumped up from the table and stomped over to the door that led to the rest of the inn, opened it for a moment then slammed it shut. "He knows that’s one of my favorite songs! Couldn’t he have waited until I was done to play it?" he grumbled as he made his way back to the table.

Jo grinned at her foster son and patted him on the shoulder. "I will bet you a month free of all shifts that he’ll give you a private performance later. And you know you’d never be able to carry out that threat."

"Oh, sure, rub it in that I fell head over heels in love with a Harper who can play me as well as he does that damn harp of his." For sounding so disgruntled, Teddy was also smiling wide enough that his face had to hurt. "As Yohji would say, I’m so abused."

"If you want to know true abuse, have Reiichi as your best friend," Yuushi muttered into his glass of wine. Meanwhile, the person in question smiled with evident pride.

"He’s a Harper?" Gai blinked in surprise and focused his attention on Teddy. "The guy playing, I mean."

Teddy’s chest puffed out in pride. "Hell yes, he’s a Harper, and a damn good one at that. His songs are some of the most popular ones around." He toyed with the small ruby that hung around his neck on a golden chain, which Omi knew was Koyu’s Winter Solstice present to him this past year.

"Oh! Wait until I tell Shin that!" Gai’s good mood suffered a sudden crash. "We never heard one before, and I thought the music here was really good. Shin’s always wanted to listen to one play and now that he can, he’s spending most of his time asleep."

Not missing a chance to steer the conversation onto safer ground, Omi gave the bound an encouraging smile. "Your friend loves music?"

Gai nodded with enough enthusiasm that his long hair flopped about. "Oh yes! He’s really skilled at playing the harp himself, although he doesn’t sing very often. A few people told him he’s good enough to be a Harper, but since none of us have ever heard one…." His green eyes darkened as if with remembered pain. "They’re not welcome in Esset."

"Yeah, Koyu can tell you the names of all the Harpers who were killed for entering the country," Teddy snapped. Then he shook himself as if to dispel the anger. "I’m sure Koyu would love to talk to your friend and play for him. He usually has some of his friends come here to play, too."

"You mean come here to help eat my pantry bare," Jo grumbled. Omi did his best to hide a smile, since he knew how well-stocked that pantry was and how much Jo loved feeding people. "They’re almost as bad as the Guard."

Yuushi laughed at that comment. "I think I’m offended on behalf of all Guards. Once I tell them that, they’ll redouble their efforts so as to not be beaten by a bunch of fops with a fondness for the color red and gossip." He winked at Teddy as he spoke.

"Says an uncouth Bluecoat who wouldn’t know culture if it smacked him in the face," Teddy shot back, and both men smiled over the traditional insults.

Gai glanced back and forth between them for a minute before realizing that they were just teasing each other. "Huh, there’s so much I have to learn that it makes my head hurt," he whined while rubbing his forehead. "Shin and Yuda are the ones who are good at keeping track of things." He frowned, the expression one of sadness. "I hope Shin gets better soon. There’s so much he’s missing out on." There was something very solemn about the way he looked around the kitchen. "I guess… we never realized how much was kept from us since we had each other."

Despite the fact that the bound was asking dangerous questions about Aya, put many of his friends at risk with his presence alone and seriously got on Nagi’s nerves, Omi felt sorry for Gai just then. The little he knew about the cousins was not good, and each day brought about a revelation over something that was so common to him and everyone else, but not to Gai and Gou. In a way, he was reminded about how Nagi and Aya had acted when they first arrived in the city, of how Nagi was still overjoyed at something simple like a blueberry ice and being able to eat until he was full. He hugged his boyfriend close in appreciation over what the gods had given him and resolved to think a bit more charitably about Gai and the others.

Ever one to seize the opportunity while it presented itself, Reiichi poured some tea into a spare mug and handed it to Gai. "So, tell me what it was like to live in Berin." He spoke in such an open and friendly manner that Gai smiled and did what was asked.

*******

Something was not right. Shin struggled against the enveloping darkness, bodiless and tired. He sensed… something. Sensed one… no, two presences, but not with his talent. They were an invading pressure inside his mind.

<Relax, if you can.>

That ‘voice’ belonged to Schuldig and lacked its customary edge of sarcasm and impatience. Despite the fact that two telepaths were ‘in his head’, Shin managed to do what he had been told as memory rushed forward.

The other presence would be Lord Shinra, who was usually quiet while Schuldig instructed Shin to think about or do various things. They were here… they were here because of Yuda.

More memories returned in an emotion-filled torrent; Yuda had arrived. Shin thrashed about on the bed, his hands and talent reaching for the succubae bound in a fervent hope that his lover was nearby. The hands that grasped his and pushed them back to the bed did not belong to Yuda, and he was too weak to search very far.

<Didn’t I say to relax?> Now there was an edge of anger to Schuldig’s thoughts that cut through his fatigue. <Ah well, at least you’re thinking about *him* now.>

Shin did not need to ask who that ‘him’ was. The last few days had been filled with agony and exhaustion as the soul gaki bounds worked to tear apart the coercions inside of his mind, but it was worth it for the fact that he could once again think about Yuda without too much pain. They had actually been able to touch for a short while before the agony had returned, and that memory was something that Shin cherished despite the fact that he was once more alone and about to suffer.

<Yuda… where is he?> He wanted his lover here no matter the pain, and tried to open his eyes so he could get up and search him out. However, something kept them closed and his body lying on the bed. Furious at being kept from Yuda, he attempted to focus his power… but could not find any targets. Through some sort of magic, Schuldig and Lord Shinra could ‘fade’ away until he did not sense them with his power or his mind.

Too weak to sustain the hold on his talent for very long, he stopped focusing it and soon felt the two men once again.

<Look, it’s not like we’re doing this for our own sick kicks, you know.> Schuldig was even angrier than before, enough that Shin had a mental image of the soul gaki bound glaring at him. <The sooner we can break through these damn coercions, the sooner you and Yuda can fuck like rabbits for all I care.> Schuldig went quiet for a moment; the next time he spoke was preceded by a wave of annoyance. <Ah, just don’t fuck in any of the inn’s common rooms, if you know what’s good for you.>

<Schuldig, stop being crass and get on with it.> Whereas Schuldig’s anger had a warm, simmering ‘feel’ to it, Lord Shinra’s was pure ice. Shin did not hear anything from Schuldig in response, but as it was very ‘quiet’ in his head for what felt to be several minutes he assumed that he was merely not privy to the ensuing discussion.

Just as he was about to remind both bounds of what they were supposed to be doing, Schuldig spoke again. <Okay, I need you to concentrate really hard on Yuda. That should be easy after yesterday.> He sounded almost sympathetic.

Shin wondered if that sympathy was because of the pain he would soon suffer and almost wasted the time to explain that he did not mind at all as long as the coercions were broken. However, he didn’t; all that mattered now was destroying them, so he summoned the dear memory and lost himself into it.

He could so easily recall how *good* it felt to touch Yuda again; his lover’s lean, muscled body, broad shoulders, comforting warmth and the strength that always made him feel so safe when he was by Yuda’s side. His lover’s scent had been so strong, had carried notes of the sun and wind, of horses and dust. Shin’s demon soul had wanted Yuda to claim him then, to bite his neck and push into his body, to bind them together for as long as they lived. Judging from the passion in their kiss, Yuda had wanted the same.

The emotions stirred by the memory were a crashing wave of love, need, relief and lust. For so long he had felt as half a person, had been tormented by something too far out of his reach. Just that kiss, Yuda holding him close as if to never release him, had made him feel complete once again. Despite his exhaustion and concern, he had been so happy. He reveled in the recalled moment, began to fantasize about what could have happened if pain had not forced them apart.

At first, he thought that it was the remembered agony that he now felt, a horrendous pain that had been both emotional and physical. Yet it continued to build even after the memory came to an end. He realized that it was because of the coercions that the Elders had forced upon him and redoubled his efforts to focus on his lover.

The cursed things would never be broken if he shied away from the pain, so in a way he began to welcome it. All he had to do was endure and Yuda would be his. They were no longer separated by distance and threat, had no fear of being forced apart again now that they were somewhere safe and surrounded by allies. The only thing remaining between them was what had been inflicted upon him by people he refused to obey any longer, and he would see the blocks broken even if the current agony he felt increased a thousand fold.

Pain ripped through his mind like a furious beast with numerous ragged claws, but he did not let it bother him. Nothing could be worse than knowing that one’s mate was out in the world, too far away for them to be together. *Nothing*. He had suffered that for so long that what he felt now was a temporary abuse. All he wanted was Yuda, so he centered his thoughts on the other bound.

How many times had Yuda used his greater strength and status to shelter him? He had always considered himself a capable person and had not looked to others to take care of him, yet something about the succubae bound made him content to just be by Yuda’s side. His cousins would gladly watch over and take care of him, but it was not the same.

There was something about Yuda, something more than just his succubae nature. His calming presence, the sense of restrained strength, the willingness to protect whatever he loved, his quiet smiles and the smoldering look in his purple-colored eyes that always made Shin want to lift his chin and expose his neck.

He knew that Yuda fed from others, that his lover was desired by many and not always because of his demon soul. Yuda could have almost anyone he wanted, in any manner he wanted, yet he was always so gentle with him, as if determined to prove it was about more than a meal and mutual pleasure. If anything, Shin had cause to curse his lover’s chivalrous nature as perhaps they would be mates now if Yuda had given in and claimed him.

More than anything, he wanted that to happen. How many times had he dreamed about that moment? There had been no lovers before Yuda, yet he knew what would happen when the time came. So many nights he had spent in his bed, hands moving over his body as he pretended that they belonged to Yuda, that they…. That Yuda….

How it would feel, to have….

The pleasure of being taken, of…. Being filled, being claimed, Yu….

Yuda’s….

Pleasure….

Agony….

Claws…. Ripping, tearing…. Black and red, blood and agony and… Yuda….

<That’s enough! Stop it, Schuldig!> More pain, though distant, as if it were not his.

<I’m not making him go on like this! You think I’m that much of a fucking sadist?>

Icy anger and pain. That iciness helped Shin to refocus once more on his lover.

<Go to each and every fucking hell, you bastard! I know a ‘yes’ even when I don’t hear it! You’re just a bastard too weak to put up with a bit of pain.>

Now there was a flash of guilt along with the agony. Part of Shin realized that the pain he suffered through was not all his, yet he could not make himself care enough to stop. Sooner or later the pain would end, and then he could… Yuda and he… Yuda….

<Dammit, Schuldig!>

<Look, I want the damn things gone just as much as you do, Shin, but Lord Bastard is right.> Shin did not think it was his pain that shaded the thought so bitter. <We’re close… but so is your mind’s breaking point. We’re done for today.>

<No!> If he could grab hold of the two bounds, he would and keep them in his mind until the coercions were shattered. <Just… little more….>

<I’m sure Yuda would not appreciate us handing him a mate driven mad by agony.> This time Lord Shinra spoke directly to him, the iciness he associated with the soul gaki bound no longer from anger but something else. <Rest and we’ll continue tomorrow. It’s for the good of both of you.>

<And your own, you weak pansy,> Schuldig snapped, even as his thoughts were tinged with relief.

Shin tried once more to convince the men to continue; as he rallied his fragmented thoughts, the darkness returned, an all-encompassing cloak that settled over him, seeming to push him further into the soft mattress and muffle his mind until it was empty of everything. His last thought was of Yuda, full of heartbreaking yearning.

*******

Yuda paced along the hallway, eight steps away from the door, a sharp turn on his right heel, another eight paces and turn again. His actions settled into a rhythm that was almost soothing – if it were not for the intense anxiety and longing that had plagued him for so long. What he wanted to do was to break down that damn door and claim his mate. That he had to stay out here while two strange - *male* - bounds tampered with Shin’s already messed-up mind….

"May I remind you yet again that the last thing anyone needs right now is for you to take out that anger and concern on the two men working the hardest to free your mate from those insidious compulsions?" As always, Crawford’s voice was dry and slightly biting; it was as if he were filled with so much sarcasm that some of it could not help but escape any time he opened his mouth.

Sparing a thought that it was unfair that the soul gaki bound could sense his emotions so easily and do a very good job of masking his own, Yuda allowed himself the briefest and barest show of teeth before he stopped pacing. "Was that a threat?" He had never been one to purposely seek out a fight, but right now it would feel so *good* to tear into someone, to purge the hated emotions that wearied him with their relentlessness.

Unfortunately, Crawford did not oblige him just then. "Let me remind you yet again that they are helping you and Shin of their own free will, expending a great deal of energy and bearing with an even greater amount of pain for your sakes. If that’s not enough to convince you of their goodwill, then there’s the fact that both men have mates who are anything but happy with how they’re suffering for their actions. They also would not rest until you were destroyed if you dared to harm either Schuldig or Shinra – and believe me when I say that they have enough power to do just that." Crawford adjusted his glasses as he stared at Yuda – or at least in his direction, as the morning sunlight that filled the hallway reflected off the lenses until they shone.

Welcoming any sort of distraction, Yuda contemplated what he had just been told. He knew of Masato, Schuldig’s mate; he had listened to the Elders’ hounds as they reported on their failed attempts to locate and capture the powerful succubae bound, and he had done his best to not cross paths with the man. If the rumors were true, they were about equal in strength, so any meeting between them would most likely end in a fight – much like the one that had happened yesterday, upon his arrival at the inn. He winced a little at the memory, still a little ashamed that he had been beaten so easily and thoroughly, before his thoughts shifted onto Shin and their too-brief reunion.

The wave of lust and frustration he felt made his knees tremble, so he quickly forced his mind onto another topic before he lost control of his demon nature. While Masato was a known quantity – even if they had yet to meet face to face – Lord Shinra’s mate was not. He had never heard of this ‘Reno’ before today, and had been told little more than that the bound was the lord’s lover. Crawford had left his question about the bound’s demon soul unanswered, other than to assure him that Reno was not a succubae bound.

All in all, there was too little being said. Yuda almost regretted spending the night in the room he shared with Ruka and relying only upon his dear friend’s telepathic ability to find out some much needed answers. As far as that went, Ruka had not been able to uncover very much, which was disturbing as well as frustrating. Too many minds here were either tightly shielded or cloaked by some magic that rendered them ‘invisible’. Ruka had not even been able to discover who it was who had taught many of the humans how to shield their thoughts – not unless he risked them noticing his presence, which he wanted to avoid since they were supposed to be allies.

If Yuda had any hope it would work, he would focus his talent on Crawford until the precog’s infamous will broke. Unfortunately, he did not have enough faith that it would be effective enough to risk making an enemy out of the unfathomable bound, and suspected that such a heavy-handed use of his talent would provoke Yohji to another fight. For a moment he actually considered it….

The door opened before he could completely smother his common sense, snapping him to attention as he prayed with a frightening sense of desperation that it would be Shin walking out into the hallway. The gods were not so kind in that it was only Schuldig and Shinra.

Considering the fact that both men were very powerful bounds and young ones as well, they never should appear so worn and listless. Their eyes were shadowed with exhaustion, their shoulders hunched forward and demeanors drained. Yet appearances were all that Yuda had to go on as he could not sense any emotion from them. Once again, something thwarted his power – and a quick glance only revealed that Schuldig was wearing a ring with a black stone that was similar to the one that Jared had always fussed over when nervous or upset.

Shinra did not seem to possess any jewelry other than his signet ring, and there was something about him that reminded Yuda of Yohji, of all people. He was blond, like the other succubae bound, but possessed a paler tone and blue eyes, not green. Their builds were dissimilar as well: Yohji’s body was lanky while Shinra’s was more muscular. No, it was not their physical appearance that made him connect the two bounds in his mind but their ‘feel’. They were like shadows to his talent, something that he could see and knew existed yet could not touch.

Schuldig and Crawford stared at each other for a few seconds, then Crawford nodded and motioned down the hallway. "Thank you." The telepaths continued on their way, moving slowly as if their joints ached from old age. Yuda took that as a sign that they had exhausted themselves while attempting to break the mental coercions placed on Shin, and had to remind himself that Crawford had sworn that it would take a little longer for that to happen.

"Come with me," he ordered the precog as he stepped into Shin’s room, seeking both answers and something to distract him enough so he did not give in to his demon soul’s frantic demands. To his surprise, Crawford obeyed without any sarcastic comments.

If he had thought that Shin had appeared bad yesterday, what he saw today made him moan in despair. His lover’s face was damp with tears, as if so filled with pain that it needed some sort of outlet. Stumbling over to the bed, he wiped away the dampness with a reverence that left his hand shaking.

"Be careful not to touch him too much. I’m sure the last thing Shin needs is to lose any more energy."

For once there was no sarcasm to Crawford’s tone, nor any condescension. If anything, Yuda thought he sensed sorrow, but his own emotions were too turbulent for him to be a good judge of anyone else’s.

Mindful of the warning, he finished drying Shin’s face and leaned down for a kiss, his lips lingering against his lover’s for only a few seconds before the exhaustion he sensed forced him to move away. Shin was even more tired than yesterday, his presence very weak to Yuda’s empathic senses.

His demon soul railed at him to go track down the soul gaki bounds who had just left the room and make them suffer for driving his mate to tears, while his human side realized that Shin had probably pushed too far for his sake. Anyone who met the water elemental would mistake him for a quiet, passive sort, but Shin possessed an iron will that not even Yuda could break. No one other than the Elders could make Shin do something that he did not want to do – or stop him from doing what he wanted – which was something that Yuda had learned to regret over the last few years.

He had only ever stood up to Shin on one thing, and his decision to not become mates until they both were free had caused them so much pain… pain that never seemed to end. Stroking his fingers through sweat-dampened hair, Yuda vowed to himself that he would make all of this suffering up to Shin somehow.

Lifting the sheet that covered Shin, he draped it over his shoulder then reached for his unconscious lover. The fabric kept their skin from touching while he undid the ribbon in Shin’s hair so he could once again comb through it with his fingers. It was only a fragment of what he wanted, yet the slight contact was soothing none the less.

"Now would be a very good time to tell me what’s going on."

Crawford did not react to the words, remaining still for several seconds as he sat on the room’s spare bed. Then he removed his glasses and began to clean them with a white cloth he had pulled from somewhere. Without the glasses, he looked years younger than he normally appeared, reminding Yuda that Crawford was not that much older than himself; as bounds counted things, they both were little more than children.

"What would you like to know?" There was something about Crawford, either a defect of some sorts or just too much self-assurance, that never made him sound doubtful or rushed, at least in Yuda’s experience.

Hugging Shin close to his chest, he inhaled his lover’s scent to help center his thoughts. "I assume that you have some use for me and the cousins and would like to know what it is." He lifted his head to stare at the other bound as his demon nature rushed to the fore. "I swear on the risk of eternal darkness that I will *not* allow Shin to be used anymore."

Despite the fury to the words, Crawford shrugged in a nonchalant manner and replaced his glasses. "I fear that we’re at an impasse, then, because I do have a use for Shin and his cousins." When Yuda growled and started to lay Shin back down on the bed, the precog shook his head and held up his hands in a conciliatory manner. "Please, listen to me before you try to tear out my throat."

Since Yuda had in effect sworn himself to the bastard years ago for the promise of Shin’s eventual safe passage from Esset, he arrested his movements before he raced across the room to do just what Crawford had said. Tucking Shin’s face into the crook of his neck, he hugged his unconscious lover close and reminded himself that whatever affected him would affect Shin as well, now that they were back together. "Explain."

For someone who had just been threatened with death and who sat in a stranger’s room, Crawford displayed no unease. There were times when Yuda swore the precog had ice in his veins because of how little anything seemed to ruffle him. "What I plan to ‘use’ them for is to put back what they’ve shifted out of place because of the Elders’ orders. It will be too damaging for the entire continent and beyond if the weather patterns are not restored to their natural patterns." Eyes once more cloaked by reflective glass, Crawford appeared to stare at the back of Shin’s head. "I don’t expect them to alter things in a matter of months, as the Elders have pushed them to do, but to take years doing so at their own pace. Once things are back to normal, they can be counted on to ensure that the weather is never so negatively affected again."

Yuda did not think the man was lying to him, and even saw the sense to Crawford’s ‘request’. If he knew Shin and the cousins half as well as he thought he did, he was certain that they would soon begin to work on undoing the damage they had been forced to inflict upon the weather patterns anyway, no matter what anyone wished. Traveling about as he did, he had seen the damage to the countryside all the rain had done, and knew that it would be much, much worse if not for the many elemental bounds who used their talent to prevent full-scale floods. All the bounds he had talked to who had come from Esset recently had gone on about the drought the country now suffered, which affected parts of Thracia just as a mix of either too much or too little rain was now threatening Xan’s crops.

If given time to recoup their strength and not forced to push past their endurance, the cousins would indeed be able to moderate the weather soon enough, and eventually restore the natural wind and water currents. As far as Yuda was aware, the only elemental bounds stronger than Shin and the others had never possessed the ability to… ‘merge’ their talents well enough to be half as effective at controlling the weather. It took more than strength to balance the elements properly, which is what made Shin, Rei, Gou and even Gai so valuable to anyone who knew what they could do. The ability to shift wind currents about so a country was inundated with rain could easily produce tornados, hurricanes and other natural disasters to be used as weapons during battle.

His arms tightening around the now frail body of the man he loved, Yuda tried not to think about how people would use Shin until his power burned out and he died. "I… understand your plans in regards to the cousins, and have no issue with them a long as you do not expect them to push past the limits of their power." Crawford was quick to assure him that was not the case, and he sensed no falsehood to the promise.

"What exactly do you intend to do with them?" he asked, well aware that Crawford never planned anything except in great detail. "Will we remain here while they fix the weather?" That was something he doubted, as merely knowing about Yohji being under the same roof grated on his nerves.

Standing up, Crawford began to move around the room as if he were tired of sitting still; his motions were fluid yet conservative, an outward sign of how he did not let anything of use be wasted, be it a person or an object or even a thought. "No, I have plans that should keep you safely away from any prying eyes." He came to a stop in front of the room’s window and pushed aside the curtains so he could look outside. "How do you feel about the mountains?"

The question startled Yuda enough that he paused in braiding Shin’s long hair. "I beg your pardon? Which mountains do you mean?" The country was riddled with them, after all.

It was difficult to tell since the man was not facing him directly, but he believed that Crawford smiled just then. "The Takai Mountains, of course." His right hand reached outside of the window and pointed to the north.

If the question had startled him, the answer left Yuda almost shocked. The Takai Mountains? They were just outside of the city, and were largely uninhabited because of all the highborn estates and religious sites that were scattered across the precious land. There was a saying that one knew how highly ranked a highborn was depending on not so much how many estates they had, but where. Only those who were tied by blood to the Takatori line could claim homes both right outside the city limits and then a day or two ride away, up in the mountains that were still considered largely sacred.

Shin would probably love it there, as would the rest of the cousins, but Yuda was tired of living out of camps and inns. "What, did you find a cabin squirreled away in one of the valleys?" Crawford had never revealed who his mother was, but Yuda doubted she was in any way related to Kritiker royalty since the highborns did everything within their power to keep bound blood from destroying their ‘good’ names.

Crawford turned around to face him before answering, and *definitely* had a smile on his face – a very smug and mysterious one at that. More than anything, Yuda wished that Ruka was here now instead of waiting anxiously for Rei to awaken, even if he doubted that his friend would have any luck this time in slipping past the precog’s mental shields.

"No, not a cabin. What I have in mind for the six of you is something much grander than that. You’re to remain on a plot of land large enough that there will be no risk of someone we can’t trust finding out that you’re there."

Yuda began to speak so he could point out how that was impossible before Crawford cut him off with the wave of his hand. "I know that the land is all accounted for, and while I’m sure there are some temples that would be willing to offer sanctuary to a handful of bounds, there would be too many visitors to make that possible. No, you will take up residence in a lord’s country estate." For the first time that morning, Crawford let slip a touch of hesitancy. "Well, you will once I gain permission from the lord." His confidence was quickly restored, leaving no doubt that he expected to gain that permission with ease.

That was something that Yuda was not so certain about, considering what he knew about Kritiker highborns. "What the hell can you have on a human lord that would let him risk his family name for the sake of ‘filthy’ bounds?" He did not care if there were bounds in the Guard, there was only so much change humans could accept and highborns had never been known to be a very flexible lot.

Now Crawford was amused enough that Yuda could sense the emotion from the man. "Oh, I won’t have to resort to blackmail in this case." His amusement grew for a few seconds. "He’s… a very unconventional lord, all in all." That amusement was instantly snuffed out, like a flame doused with water; Yuda’s eyes narrowed and his arms stilled in tying the ribbon around Shin’s hair as he pondered the sudden change in mood. "No, he’ll allow you to stay there because he has no use for the estate. It’s been left alone for over a decade and is isolated enough that no one will notice half a dozen people now living there, let alone several dozen."

Yuda almost pointed out that it sounded too good to be true; after years of living on the run or on sufferance, he, Ruka and the cousins would be given a rich lord’s estate? For it to be so ‘isolated’ meant that it had to be someone very high ranked, and such estates would never be left idle like that. "How is that possible?"

Crawford was silent for a good minute or two, so still that Yuda wondered if this were a prelude to an attack. When the precog spoke, it was with a distant, chill note to his deep voice. "Let’s just say that he has never been one to care about the privileges that come with his family title and leave it at that. There are people who look after the estate to keep it from falling into ruin, and as far as anyone will know, you and the others are taking their place. There will be no raised suspicions or alarms, no surprise visits or danger of discovery of any kind as long as you keep to the estate and neighboring village. You will have the occasional visitor, but only people I trust to either stop by to see if you require anything or who will have been sent there for temporary sanctuary."

Assuming that those visitors would probably be bounds sworn to fight Esset, Yuda saw no reason to argue about their presence. By that point, Shin should be his mate and his demon nature once again tolerant of those he now saw as potential threats.

Almost three years ago, he had stood by Kritiker’s border and sworn an oath to Crawford: he would do whatever he could to bring Esset down, but from a distance as long as Shin was a captive of the Elders. In return for that and for being reunited with his mate in the ‘near’ future, he pledged his strength and talent to Crawford to be used as the soul gaki bound saw fit. The time since then had been almost insufferable, but mostly because he could not be with the man he loved. Now he had Shin in his arms, would soon have him as a mate, and in return for his oath, had been given… this. He would not believe his good fortune until he was actually on the estate.

He also would not believe that Crawford was in a truly revelatory mood, but decided to push his luck anyway. "Thank you." He bowed his head as much as he could while holding Shin flush against the front of his body. "Would you care to tell me what else has been kept from me?" Such as who and what Aya was, how come such a powerful bound like Yohji was still a secret, and how so many people were hiding their thoughts and emotions.

Of course the gods decided not to honor his wish for more information. Crawford’s smile told him that much even before the precog spoke.

"I’m afraid it’s quite a lot, and that you’ll have to wait to find out much of it." At Yuda’s dark look, he gestured to Shin. "May I remind you that until the two of you are mates, you’re… too unstable to be trusted with more than I’ve already told you. As it is, I probably shouldn’t have mentioned the estate, and only did so to put your immediate fears at rest. Once you’ve bonded with your mate and are not in danger of rushing off to Esset to take on the whole army by yourself, then we can have another discussion."

As people went, Crawford could not be considered physically ‘impressive’. Oh, he had the attractiveness that almost all bounds possessed, his face handsome and body toned, broad shoulders and long limbs indicating that he was not to be dismissed during a fight. If anything, he appeared to be a possible highborn with his aloof nature, impeccable attire and handsomeness. Yet Yuda knew from looking at him that he would be a very formidable enemy, someone to be taken on only at high risk. When he considered the bound’s demon nature, the danger of provoking Crawford only increased


All of that was why he had sworn himself to the man; if anyone had a good chance of taking down the Elders, it was Crawford. Unfortunately, it also meant that he would have to bide his time and not push for the answers he wanted with a desperation that left a sour taste in his mouth. When he considered that trying to force anything out of the precog meant that Shin would suffer from any retaliation, he could do nothing other than sigh in exasperation and nod his head.

Despite the solemn air from the minute before, Crawford smiled and bowed just a little. "If I may, I would suggest that you keep an open mind about things." That was not something that Yuda wanted to hear, as ‘open mind’ usually translated into ‘be prepared to be shocked senseless’ in his experience, but the lack of any menace from the precog helped to calm his suspicions. "It is not just Shin who is valuable to me, but you as well for your skills as a fighter and a strategist. For you to bring the full amount of your talents to the fore during the upcoming war, you will have to know our side’s strengths and weaknesses. Allow me a bit more time, and you will eventually have the answers you want." Again, there was that odd lack of sarcasm on Crawford’s part, which did the most in convincing Yuda that he could trust what he was hearing.

"I understand." Yuda buried his face in Shin’s hair for a moment after he spoke, unwilling to show his exhaustion and frustration. The truth was that he did understand why Crawford could not entirely trust him just yet, even if that knowledge did nothing in placating his need for information. After all, it was not just his life anymore, but Shin’s as well, and Ruka and the cousins as they were still tied together at this point in time. He could only focus on making Shin strong enough so they could become mates, and hope that the time of revelations was not too far off.

"Thank you." Crawford moved across the room, footsteps quiet as if he did not want to disturb Shin. "As long as you keep in mind that Shin needs all the energy that he can muster for the near future, I would suggest that you remain here for a while longer." The hint of sarcasm was back in his voice, which told Yuda that their discussion was now over. "I don’t think the inn is going to be a very quiet place for the next hour or so."

Getting the impression that Crawford was talking in some way about Yohji, Yuda did his best not to growl and nodded instead. He would not turn down the chance to be with Shin, even if he could barely touch his lover. "He’ll need to wake up at some point to drink something that will help rebuild his energy levels. I’ll remain with him until then."

"I’ll see if Marta can help with that. She’s an earth elemental with a talent for healing," Crawford said before closing the door behind him.

Left alone with Shin, Yuda made himself comfortable on the bed and allowed his thoughts to drift on how much his lover would enjoy spending their days together up in the mountains.

*******

Aya watched Reno pace about the library, torn by the emotions he felt toward his friend; he was not used to being so worried for anyone who was not Yohji or his sister without possible death being involved. Yet Reno’s obvious unhappiness and pain disturbed him, made him want to do something to ease the emotions and make things better. That he had no clue on how to go about doing just that only made him feel worse, which was something he wanted to avoid since he did not want to cause Yohji any concern. The last thing anyone needed was for the man to charge into the Koneko looking for a fight when he was supposed to be out running some errands for Jo.

Reno muttered something under his breath and jerked his fingers through his hair, making the shorter crimson strands around his face stand up at various angles. Shinigami spun about the room, dancing in shadows as they urged Reno to give in to his desire for ‘death’ and join them forever. To Aya’s despair, his friend stopped and appeared to listen to the demons.

As much as the shinigami could be a comfort in times when Aya felt overwhelmed by humans and their actions and emotions, there was no way he would ever leave Yohji to join them. While he had some doubts over how Rufus treated Reno upon occasion, he knew his friend well enough by now to know that Reno did not truly want to leave the soul gaki bound. No, Reno’s conflicting natures had seemed to get along very well the last month or so, now that he had a mate.

Reiichi cleared his throat and drew Aya’s attention to him; the Shadow Guard glanced around the room as if he could catch glimpses of the shinigami. Aya mulled over that for a moment and thought that it might be true, as Reiichi was unusually observant and had been exposed to ‘shadows’ on a daily basis since accepting the gauntlets. There was more of Aya’s power in the weapons than in the black tear rings and even the bracelets of shadows he had given to a select few, which might affect how he reacted to anything of a shinigami nature. And, well… it was Reiichi, whom both Yohji and Rufus had felt was safe and capable enough to watch over their mates.

"He’s become more agitated in the past half an hour." Reiichi pitched his voice low, as if there were a chance that Reno could hear it despite his distraction.

That would be a sufficient amount of time for the lack of a link with his own mate to bother Aya, unless he and Yohji had agreed to the blocks beforehand. Throughout the day it was normal for them to ‘block’ each other for a few minutes at a time, or to stifle the link enough to weaken the emotions that flowed across it. They did it to keep what they were feeling from overwhelming the other, and they knew that there were situations where emotions could grow powerful from surprise or confusion, not because there was trouble. When the link remained blocked for no reason that they knew of, then they became desperate to find the other.

Reno knew why the link was blocked, but Aya doubted it did his friend much good. As it had happened during the blizzard when they had first met, the lack of the link was affecting the balance between Reno’s two souls. Rufus might not be blocking the link all of the time, but he was doing it regularly enough for his mate to suffer. At times like these, Reno would be distracted, would appear almost crazed, his emotions gradually becoming out of control.

That… seemed very human to Aya. He knew he had difficulties when swamped with human emotions, left floundering as he tried to figure out what he was supposed to do. Taking a gamble on which soul was causing Reno so much grief, he spared a quick warning to Reiichi to not react to what was about to happen next.

Stepping toward his friend, Aya hesitated only for a moment before he grabbed Reno’s right arm and pulled him close enough that their bodies touched. At the same time, shadows wrapped around them, not cutting them off completely from the room but enough to make the ‘world’ fade away a little. The shinigami rushed into the darkness, hissing voices crooning encouragement and cool touches as soft as caresses.

"Aya?"

Stepping to the side, Aya led the dubhach to the nearest piece of furniture, which was one of the room’s tables. Not bothering with the chairs, he lifted his right hip enough so he could sit on top of the table, grateful that it was clear of books and notes for once.

"Does… does this help?" he asked as Reno settled beside him, the confusion in his voice from a moment before not echoed in his actions as he pressed against Aya’s side.

"Yeah." Reno sighed out the word as if he were exhausted and just now presented with the possibility to rest.

"Good." Aya knew that when the world got too overbearing, the pain too potent, it helped for him to retreat into the shadows like this. Reno did not have much control over them other than to hide himself and sometimes others, but Aya had noticed him seeking out the dim corners of the room when bothered by something. Now the shadows were around them both, a cool veil that always seemed to make things better through peace and quiet.

<Yes, give in to the lovely darkness. It can always be like this, young ones,> a shinigami urged as it twirled around in Reno’s long, unbound hair.

<Not just the two of you, but the whole pack. Together forever.>

Aya ignored that comment, which was picked up and repeated by several of the shinigami. Part of him yearned for moments like this – just never enough for him to want to leave Yohji. He had his mate, the other half of him, and he had Reno, who was like a brother, and dear friends like Nagi, Ed and Reiichi. *That* was his pack, as far as he was concerned.

Beside him, Reno was quiet for a good while, enough that Aya wondered if he were unconscious and so was loath to disturb him. However, the dubhach shifted about with a fluidness that did not contain a hint of sleepiness, so he assumed that Reno had just been trying to calm both of his souls. "Eh, thanks for the help, fellas, but I think I’ll stick with a world that has whiskey, sex and sweets for a bit longer." He nudged Aya in the side. "Right?"

"…. You’re just hoping that I’ll let you have more of the cake that Jo made for me," Aya sniffed, seeing through his friend’s pathetic attempt at getting another slice of the wonderful dessert.

For the first time that day, Reno laughed and rested his head against Aya’s shoulder. "I won’t say ‘no’ if you offer, but I also wouldn’t mind some of that fudge that Mickey bought." He hummed in happiness, and Aya had to admit that the pieces he had tried earlier had been very good, especially the ones with walnuts. However, he knew that Mickey had bought it mostly as a treat for the cousins, who had never had any before, and swallowed a hiss when he realized that he would indeed have to share his precious cake. It was a good thing that Jo had promised to make more today.

Judging Reno recovered enough and not willing to either cause Reiichi undue panic – which would probably lead to most of the staff rushing to the room and panicking as well – nor to listen to the shinigami keep harping about Yohji being bad for him, Aya dispelled the shadows. The shinigami retreated with some reluctance; he knew that he would have to have another discussion with them on how he would not willingly abandon his mate, as they had stepped up their efforts to come between them lately. He assumed some of that was because of how Reno suffered, since the shinigami were affected whenever they were upset and in pain. They probably had the best intentions at ‘heart’, but they would never make him change his mind.

"Ah, welcome back." Reiichi stood with his left hip braced against another table, a book of poetry in his hands that was set aside with care. "I must admit, I did not enjoy wracking my brain to think up how I would explain the two of you vanishing to Yohji or Rufus." There was a wry twist to his lips that indicated that he was not serious with his complaint.

Now used to the man’s teasing sense of humor, Aya shook his head slightly. "Hmph. They would know enough if they saw us, so it would be Yuushi you’d have to explain things to," he pointed out, a bit interested in seeing how Reiichi would twist that about.

His friend did not disappoint. "I said ‘not enjoy’ in regards to explaining things to Yohji and Rufus. Now for Yuushi, I spent quite some amusing minutes thinking up what I could tell him and how long I would let him suffer before saving him from the resulting panic attack." His smile just then was too pleased to be of much comfort to anyone, even someone who was not usually a target of his odd humor.

"Hey! Why don’t you do that again?" Reno poked Aya in the side as he spoke, sounding more lively than he had in days. "Then we can have Yuushi and some other blue suits show up and watch ‘em freak out!"

Distracted by Reno and Reiichi’s laughter, Aya did not sense Yohji’s approach until his mate was just outside of the library. Uncertain over what he should do, he remained seated on the table with his arm around Reno’s back and his friend’s head resting on his right shoulder while the door opened. Right then he decided that if the idiot thought that there were anything remotely resembling lust shared between him and Reno, then Yohji deserved a few more bites to his shoulder. He just hoped that destruction to the room and possibly the rest of the inn did not happen before those bites took place.

Yohji stared at him and Reno for a few seconds as Aya tried to figure out if he should feel guilty or not, then smiled and shook his head. "Ah well, at least you’re not leaping out of windows," he said, the cryptic words not making sense to Aya for almost a minute. By the time he worked up a glare for his mate, Yohji had joined them at the table, sitting on Aya’s left.

"Hey, you okay?" Yohji asked as he reached over to tug on a lock of Reno’s hair. The dubhach wrinkled his nose and gave a disgruntled growl.

"I was, until someone blond and annoying had to come here," Reno snapped, although the words lacked the usual heat they contained when he truly was upset. He closed his eyes and relaxed further against Aya as weak sparks flew at Yohji’s hand.

"I’d think you’d be used to it by now." Yohji stared at Reno with a sense of concern that echoed Aya’s. Then a devilish grin formed on his face as he turned around on the table and let himself fall backward until he was sprawled over Aya and Reno’s laps.

"Yohji!"

"Yotan!"

Aya and Reno’s surprised voices filled the room, and out of the corner of his left eye, Aya noticed that a black and silver knife appeared in Reiichi’s hand as he reacted to the noise. When Reiichi realized what had happened, he chuckled and willed the knife away, his now empty hand raising to adjust his glasses while Aya looked between him and Yohji.

"While I am certain that some people would have… ‘interesting’ thoughts on three handsome, young men in such a position as that, why am I reminded of a litter of puppies right now?" Reiichi asked, his rich, deep voice warmed by barely suppressed laughter.

Yohji made himself comfortable, his head on Reno’s lap and his left hand reaching for one of Aya’s eartails. "Please, that should be a ‘litter of kittens’ considering two of the people involved." Both Aya and Reno hissed in response to the jab, then glanced at each other, faces slightly red as they realized that they had just proven the idiot correct. Aya hissed again when his poor hair was given a gentle tug. "When are you going to let me buy you a collar with a bell like Reno’s?"

"When you let me take Jo’s rolling pin to your head!" Aya shot back as he struggled to free his eartail. "What are you doing?" Of all the possible reactions, this was the last that he would expect from his mate, even if he was happy that Yohji was not angry or jealous and that Reno seemed to enjoy the added presence of another person.

Yohji shrugged and released the hair, his fingers instead trailing along Aya’s neck in such a soft touch that it made him shiver. "Uhm, I couldn’t resist it when I saw two sexy redheads sitting together like that?" He tried for an innocent expression, which Aya was *not* believing for a moment.

About to ask the idiot what could possess him to be so informal with another bound’s mate, the words died in Aya’s throat when Reno chuckled and began to comb his fingers through Yohji’s wavy, dark blond hair.

"I’m gonna hold it over your head for centuries that you called me ‘sexy’, you know," Reno teased, his smile fading into something a little sad as he continued to play with Yohji’s hair. "It’s been so long…," he whispered, his eyes a mixture of green and silver and his expression serious. "Almost forgot what it’s like to touch another person." His left hand slid from Yohji’s hair and traced along his forehead. The physical contact was nothing at all like a caress and more like an experimental touch, so Aya did not feel any jealousy over Reno doing such a thing with his mate. "Well, except for Aya."

"Which is not something I need to hear right now." Yohji growled as he stared at Reno, yet there was no malice or warning in the sound and his eyes were bright with amusement. Reno’s hand paused for a moment and then tugged on Yohji’s hair as he smiled. "I think this is where I’m supposed to go ‘mine, mine, mine’."

"Go ahead and do it so I can watch Aya smack you!" Reno laughed, his hand falling back to his side. He turned to look at Aya, appearing the most at ease that he had all morning. "Although, I did offer once for us to trade mates…."

"*No*." Aya did not mind Reno touching Yohji like that, as it was similar to Jo fussing with his mate’s hair or Cassandra caressing his face, but he would not even joke about trading Yohji for anyone – let alone Rufus.

His quick and decisive answer prompted laughter from the three other men in the room. Reiichi had approached the table and now leaned against the back of the couch, his arms folded over his chest and his glasses slid slightly down his nose. "I think Aya’s the one going ‘mine, mine, mine’."

The expression on Yohji’s face just then was much too pleased. "I’d play this up and get him all hot and bothered, but I *know* he’s not kidding about using Jo’s rolling pin on me." Yohji whimpered and pretended to hide his face against Reno’s abdomen. "Save me!"

"Maybe I should just give him to you, Reno," Aya mumbled, feeling very put out as everyone laughed again. Still, Yohji was not full of possessive anger, Reno seemed at peace and Reiichi at ease, so he suffered being the target of everyone’s teasing. The shinigami twirled around him, cool, insubstantial fingers sliding through his hair in comfort, faint voices urging him to carry out his threat. He ignored them with ease, too aware of how he could never give up the man he loved, not even to a fellow shinigami bound.

As Yohji whined that he was so abused, Reno tugged on another wavy blond lock of hair and shrugged. "I don’t know, there are times when having one mate is bad enough, let alone two of them! Not sure I could put up with someone who likes to drink as much as me, either."

Rolling over so he could look at Reno and Aya, Yohji grimaced as he tucked back his hair. "Well, I’m not sure I could live with Rufus without always having a drink in hand, so you’ll have to deal with it." He waggled his eyebrows as he stared at Aya. "Besides, my cat would miss me too much to go through with the threat." When Reiichi began to laugh at that statement, he waved his hand at the man in a dismissive gesture. "Oh, hush."

"I wonder why *I* don’t drink more," Aya grumbled, but the lovely smile Yohji gave him in response made him shake his head and smile in return. "I guess I’m stuck with you."

Yohji had just started to answer that when the library door opened again, this time to admit a pale-looking Rufus who literally clung to Tseng for support. Reno yelled out his mate’s name and moved so fast that Yohji was taken by surprise, his head smacking onto the table’s hard surface since its support was now gone. Complaining under his breath at the pain, he sat up and swung his legs off of Aya’s lap, his left arm sliding around Aya’s shoulder as they watched their friend fuss over Rufus.

"What the hell happened this time?" Reno stood still long enough to grasp Rufus’ sweaty face between his hands, staring into his mate’s unfocused eyes as if he could find an answer there. Something about the contact seemed to revive Rufus, who straightened up a little more and pulled the dubhach closer.

"Why do you reek of Yohji?" Rufus asked instead of answering his mate’s question, his blue eyes sharpening into focus and his lips pulling back in a snarl.

"Don’t even start!" Reno snapped as he slid his shoulder under Rufus’ right arm, helping to support the soul gaki bound as he and Tseng made their way to the couch. Reiichi, all amusement gone from his demeanor, took a careful step back as if he did not want to be anywhere near a weakened bound who had a bodyguard on duty as well as a worried mate. Yohji, his head aching enough for Aya to feel it over their link, patted the space on the table that Reno had just vacated, and the Guard joined them with evident relief.

"I need a kiss to make me feel better," Yohji whispered as he twisted about enough to face Aya. Mindful of his mate’s sore head, Aya sighed and leaned in closer, his fingers gently stroking the thick hair that covered a forming bump. Energy flowed out of him, a weak trickle, but enough for the pain to dull and to make Yohji purr quietly in happiness. "Thank you."

"Hmph." Aya nuzzled Yohji’s jaw before looking in the direction of the couch. He felt a stab of annoyance over the fact that the good mood he had worked so hard on was no longer evident in his friend, even as part of him understood that it would not be possible as long as Rufus was hurting. "Is he all right?" It was not so much that he cared for Rufus, just that he wanted to know if Reno needed any help.

"I’m fine." Rufus sounded a bit more restored, most likely from Reno’s close proximity. He tried to capture his mate’s hands as Reno fussed over him, a weak glare on his face when he was hissed at for his troubles. "There’s no need for such concern."

"Right, that’s why Tseng’s not moving away and you’re still blocking the link," Reno pointed out with a good bit of venom in his tone. "Drop it." He glared back at Rufus while the shinigami reminded him about all the pain he would suffer as long as he chose to remain with his mate.

At the table, Aya, Yohji and Reiichi became still, all of them aware of how on the edge Reno was at the moment and how stubborn Rufus could be. That did not make for a good combination when it came to a fight between bounds – especially when they were mates – and Aya readied his shadow wards just in case there was a need for them.

Rufus shook his head, the movement quickly arrested as if it caused or increased his pain. "No, not until I recover more from this latest session."

Hissing softly, Aya frowned even though he understood some of the soul gaki bound’s reasoning. He hated to make Yohji feel his pain, even when he knew that it was best to not block their link at all. Too many misunderstandings happened when they tried to protect each other, and neither of them suffered from Reno’s mental instability because of his conflicting natures.

Focusing his thoughts in the manner he had learned from Schuldig, Aya made it so that Rufus could mentally ‘hear’ him. <I would do as he says.>

Rufus did not look away from his mate as his attention shifted somewhat toward Aya. <So the pain can unbalance him? I don’t think so.> The emotions that accompanied his thoughts made it clear that he did not appreciate Aya’s meddling.

Aya wished that he had the ability to give the headstrong fool an even worse headache, and barely restrained from having the shadows do something that would only make Reno upset. Instead, he took a calming breath and scowled at Rufus. <Do you truly think that what you’re doing now is for his good? Pain is nothing new to him, while your bond is still a recent development. He’s only become ‘unstable’ because of you blocking the link!>

Finally looking away from Reno, Rufus glared at Aya, blue eyes bright despite his headache. For a moment Aya thought he would lash out and do something that would earn his death, then Reno made a whining sound and nipped at his mate’s chin as if to force Rufus’ attention back to him.

<Having a mate is what keeps us *here*,> Aya continued, his right hand seeking out Yohji’s left so he could entwine their fingers together. <Physical pain is nothing compared to being trapped in flesh and all alone. That’s why Reno tries to kill himself when he gets… so bad.> This was something that Rufus should know, that had been told to him before… but Aya begrudgingly admitted to himself that it could be a difficult concept for a non-shinigami to accept. After all the things the Takatori had done to him, the torture and the bloodletting, what had ‘hurt’ the most was being separated from his sister and then the thought of losing Yohji.

Rufus closed his eyes and hugged Reno close, oddly silent and still for a minute. Aya could tell when the link was no longer blocked because of the faint hiss that escaped Reno and the way his shoulders tensed, as if from an unexpected blow. Then Reno settled against Rufus, purring even though his now closed eyes were crinkled with pain.

Now that he had gotten some sense through to another blond idiot, Aya noticed that his mate, Tseng and Reiichi were involved in some sort of pantomime; they looked back and forth at each other while moving their hands about. Yohji caught his confusion and broke off the silent communication to give him a kiss and then urge him to jump off the table.

"I’ll stand duty outside the door, milord," Tseng said, his voice pitched low as if to not aggravate Rufus’ and now Reno’s headaches. "Food and drink will be available soon." He waited for Aya, Yohji and Reiichi to precede him out of the room and then honored his promise by standing in front of the closed door.

Reiichi waited to speak until he was a few feet away from the door, as if worried about disturbing the couple left alone inside the library. Aya did not have the heart to tell him that he doubted that Rufus or Reno had even heard Tseng speak a minute ago. "I’ll go to the kitchen and ask Jo to put together a pot of tea and some food." Reiichi stared pointedly at Aya and Yohji as he adjusted his glasses. "Do either of you have plans for the rest of the day?"

A well-placed elbow to Yohji’s ribs spared everyone a lewd comment, which Aya felt was worth the whining he would soon have to put up with. "I’m supposed to look over a few things for Ed, so I’ll go back to our bedroom." Now that Reno was no longer in any danger of giving in to the shinigami’s urgings, he felt it was safe enough to leave.

As he had hoped, Yohji chose to spend the day with him, which should spare the inn a bout of nasty temper and a possible outbreak of fighting if he ran into Yuda. "Don’t worry, I’ll keep him out of trouble!" Yohji laughed when Reiichi gave him a dubious look in response and Aya sighed in exasperation. "Okay, he’ll keep me out of trouble." He captured Aya’s right hand, resuming the hold from before, and tugged on it to lead him down the hallway. "Ah, and you may want to wait on the food for a bit. I don’t think they’ll appreciate anyone bothering them for the next… oh, twenty minutes or so." Yohji winked at Reiichi and Tseng before turning around enough to see where he was going.

They did not speak until they reached the bedroom, Yohji tense despite his deliberate show of a good mood. Grateful that they had not run into Yuda along the way, Aya closed the door behind them and approached his mate, his arms encircling Yohji as he pressed against the man’s back. "Thank you," he whispered.

Yohji being Yohji, there was no need for an explanation. Aya’s wrists were grasped with care and his arms urged to wrap tighter around Yohji’s upper chest. "You’re welcome, Cat. I could tell he was hurting and that’s what had you so bothered as soon as I saw him." His wrists were given a quick squeeze. "Though to be honest, if it weren’t for the fact that *I* have a hard enough time trying something with you in the library, let alone while Reiichi’s there, I might have done something worth being smacked over." He laughed as Aya snorted in amusement and shifted about so they could face each other.

"Idiot," Aya murmured as he rocked up onto his toes for a kiss. He decided that the stack of notes that Ed wanted him to read could wait a little longer.

*******

The first thing that Teddy did upon entering the room he shared with his lover was to toss the apron he had worn for the morning shift into the basket of laundry that was by the door. Dammit, he had forgotten to take it downstairs before starting work; at least there was nothing important enough in it that was needed by tomorrow. He waited for Koyu to tease him about his lapse in chores with an excuse at the ready, before he realized that his lover was too occupied at the moment to do any chiding.

There were not many times when Koyu dressed in something other than his red Harper’s uniform, since the occupation was more of a life-long calling and duty than job. So the sight of him in blue pants and a white tunic was to be enjoyed, especially with the way said clothes showed off a damn fine body. No longer being on the road had not led to any weight gain on Koyu’s part… then again, that bastard of a Master Harper tended to run him ragged even if he mainly stayed within the city’s boundaries.

"Heya, sexy, looking for one hell of a handsome and adventurous lover or something?" Teddy asked as he leaned against the bed’s footboard. He gave his lover his most lecherous grin, which he had learned from his dear ‘big brother’ Yohji. It had the intended effect of making Koyu stop searching for whatever it was, although he had not meant for that look of panic to be directed at him in response. "What? Did we run out of lubricant or something?"

Koyu stared for a few more seconds and then laughed as he approached, the sound one of Teddy’s favorite things in the world. Koyu had an incredible tenor voice that was so expressive, yet Teddy would rather hear that laughter than any song. While his lover could be a little aloof thanks to the sense of detachment a lot of Harpers developed so they reported the truth without the influence of their own emotions, laughter was nothing that Koyu ever stifled when around him. That was a good thing, because there was no way in hell that he could put up with a lover like Aya, so prickly and distant and damn near frightening with how he seemed to lose all emotion at times. He did not know how Yohji managed to live with the kage, but figured the empathic link between the two was the probable answer.

"Sad to say, but I’m not looking for anything that ‘interesting’ from your viewpoint." As Teddy pouted over the bad news, he was given a sweet kiss on the lips which left him unable to carry on with the act any longer. Groaning in contentment, he slid his arms around his lover’s neck and held Koyu close, so happy to enjoy a quiet moment with the man he loved.

Koyu shifted around and moved backward so they could sit on the bed, arms still wrapped around each other as they made themselves comfortable. Due to the several years that they had spent together, they were soon able to fit against each other with ease. The damn Harper was the only person Teddy had ever loved, the few ‘boyfriends’ he had before meeting Koyu more along the lines of willing participants in experimentation than lovers. He had seen, fallen in love and then laid claim – almost as quickly and ruthlessly as Yohji had done with Aya, but with a lot less biting – and had a difficult time recalling what it was like to live without him. That time last year when Koyu had been so upset with him that he spent a few nights with a friend had been sheer hell, and he had done his best not to torment Yohji since then. This was the man he had left his home for, had traveled all around Kritiker and a bit in Thracia, Xan and even Cretia as well. Only for Koyu would he put up with sleeping in barns, listening to a bunch of drunken musicians discuss the merits of *strings* and have to constantly be asked ‘what rhymes with *x*’. In return, Koyu loved him wholeheartedly, treated him as if he were the most precious thing in the world and put up with him.

"So what were you looking for, hmmm?" He rested his head against Koyu’s right shoulder and hummed in happiness as his lover began to massage his back, working on the spots that ached the most after his shift. Oh, the gods had indeed been kind to him to send him a boyfriend with such skilled hands and a wonderful memory.

Koyu laughed again then spoke, his lovely voice light with amusement. "I half expect you to start purring like Yohji at any minute." That prompted Teddy to do his best to growl, which only left his throat sore and Koyu more amused. "I was searching for one of my spare harps."

"Eh?" Teddy looked up at his lover, his brows drawn together in concern. "Did something happen to yours?" There had been times when they had both risked injury to protect the instrument; Miyuki, after realizing that Teddy had decided that Koyu was ‘the one’, had set aside money and arranged for a commission from one of the city’s most skilled craftsmen for when Koyu would need one. She had not lived to see him reach Journeyman status, which made the gift all the more special. As harps went, it was more plain than fancy, but its sound was incredibly sweet and its construction perfect.

Knowing how important the harp was to them both, Koyu gave him a quick hug to put his fears to rest. "No, it’s not that! Nothing happened to it." Koyu sighed before leaning away a little, his attention shifting about the room as he continued to search. "I just thought about what you said last night about Shin having to leave his harp behind."

Oh, it figured the fuss was all about one mad musician helping out another. Teddy snorted in amusement and fell backwards until he lay on the bed. When Koyu stretched out beside him, he tugged on a lock of his lover’s black hair, which led to one of his braids being yanked on in retaliation. "Hey, you really willing to give up one of your old harps to a stranger?" While they lacked the quality of Koyu’s Journeyman harp, they had been the instruments that he had either practiced on while an Apprentice or had helped to make.

"Why not? I know they’re not the best instruments, but they should do until Shin can either buy or make a new one." Koyu’s brown eyes grew unfocused for a moment. "Besides, if he’s half the musician that Gai claims him to be, he can lose himself in playing, no matter what the quality of the harp."

Now *that* was a fact that Teddy was all too familiar with, much to his annoyance. How many nights had been spent with his obsessive lover fretting over a new song? Far too many in his personal opinion, even though he was resigned to the situation repeating itself over the years. "I guess that makes sense," he mulled aloud, then shivered at the thought of how more than a few people around the Koneko needed to ‘lose’ themselves a bit.

The atmosphere around the inn had been so tense lately, almost as bad as it had been back before Aya had arrived. Yohji struggled to control his demon nature on a daily basis and was not always so successful, Jo worried over her adopted son while Reiichi and the other Shadow Guards acted as if they expected an attack on the inn at any moment. Teddy half-expected to see Mickey walking down the halls with a broadsword strapped to his back, and poor Ani had decided that it was best for her to take a vacation with her girlfriend until things settled down.

He could barely remember his father, and his mother not at all, so most of his memories dwelt on his life at the Koneko and his adopted family. From an early age, he understood that people came to the inn who needed help and were to be protected at all costs; he still could recall with such clarity the night when his mother and Jo had faced down someone who had come to the Koneko in search of his runaway son. That night he had learned that size and strength did not always matter when one was faced with merciless determination, a sword and an iron skillet. Miyuki had instilled in all her sons to never turn their back on someone who needed sanctuary, whether they were aware of that fact or not, so he did not side with Yuushi in wanting the cousins gone from the inn. No, he just hoped that Shin and Rei got better so they could fuck their boyfriends, regain some strength and go on their way.

"To think that Mom always told me that sex rarely solved one’s problems."

Koyu laughed, either at the words or his introspective tone, and shifted forward to give his cheek a kiss. "I’m not sure she ever imagined such a situation as this, and I think that saying was aimed more at Yohji." He hummed for a moment, a snippet of the tune he had written for a love song. "Yet it does seem to fit what we’re going through now."

Laughing himself, Teddy rolled over and straddled his lover’s hips. "Imagine the song you’ll write about this mess!" He waggled his eyebrows and leered again, all the while trying to keep enough laughter out of his voice so he could be understood. "You’ll have to wait until the kiddies go to bed to sing it!"

Being the underhand sneak that he and most Harpers were, Koyu retaliated by tickling him until he rolled back onto the bed. "Hmm, even if it’s true, it’s not a good idea to tell you that you’re right because then you’ll suffer the delusion that you usually are." Damn all those years of training since he managed to keep a perfectly straight face and even tone while spouting such nonsense.

"Bastard," Teddy muttered, annoyed at himself because it would be so much more effective if he were not smiling at the same time.

"I love you, too." The words were softly spoken, more from reverence than reluctance, and followed by a tender kiss. Teddy tucked back the hair falling onto his face and stroked his fingers along Koyu’s cheekbones.

"You better." His grumbling got him a sweet smile; maybe they did not have a telepathic or empathic link like some of the bounds who hung out around here, but they always knew where they stood with each other. They had never had any cause to doubt the love they shared, even during a bad fight. At the least, they both liked hearing the sound of their own voices and could talk to death any real problems that sprung up.

Then the idiot Harper had to go and ruin the moment. "Do you know that you reek of cabbage?" Koyu’s elegant nose wrinkled as he pulled away. "I think we both need to change clothes now."

"Oh, sure, spend years learning how to write love songs and propaganda and all that stuff, and you can’t think of a better way to tell me that I stink?" Teddy sat up enough so he could pull off his shirt and throw it at his boyfriend. "Like it’s my fault that a customer spilled a bowl of soup on me?"

"Well, it’s your fault for not changing once you got up here." Koyu grinned and got off the bed to put the dirty shirt in the basket. "And before you even offer, I have to run an errand for Master Daithi, which was why I was trying to find the harps now. I’m sure he can always lend me one if they’re not in the room."

Teddy took to pouting again, his suggestion of them taking off their clothes and getting a bit ‘sweaty’ shot down before he could even make it. "I bet Yohji wouldn’t be put off by a bit of cabbage soup and work," he grumbled as he flopped back onto the bed.

"Yohji at least has an excuse for being insatiable, although I believe that Aya would disagree with your point," Koyu remarked, his tone light and distracted as he resumed the search. "Unless you’ve suddenly become part demon, I’m afraid you’ll just have to wait until this evening, when hopefully you’re clean and not so tired from working half the day."

"… damn you for being such a reasonable bastard." As always, there was no heat behind the insult, and he got a wink and a pleased smile for his troubles. Ah well, he was tired and in need of a nice, long soak, and there was no point in rushing things now when they could better enjoy themselves later.

"And ‘damn’ us both for not getting all our stuff out of storage like we were supposed to." Koyu closed the closet door and stepped back, arms folded over his chest as he surveyed the room once more. "It’ll be easier to borrow a harp at this point," he sighed, although Teddy could not figure out why he seemed upset about that. Then it dawned on him that the Master Harper would most likely spend an hour interrogating his lover about why a harp was needed, ravenous as always about information about bounds and the going-ons at the Koneko.

Dammit, they should have fetched the things they had stored away because of them being on the road so much when Koyu got the permanent appointment at the Koneko, but things had been a bit busy this past year. Considering how everything had been shoved into one end of the attic, it would take them days of looking through the crammed trunks and boxes to find the harps. "Well, you’ll only need to borrow it for a short while," he offered to his stripping lover, distracted for a moment by the sight of Koyu’s bare back. Hmm, how he loved those shoulders…..

"Why is that?" Once garbed in his white cotton shirt and red jacket, Koyu turned to face him, hands busy with the many buttons and laces to his uniform. As always, he sounded curious and happy.

Teddy decided that he might as well get up so he could exchange his clothes for a robe. "Because if that Yuda is half in love with Shin as Yohji is with Aya, all we need to do is point him at Lathe Street in the Wood quarter and he’ll buy all the harps he can find." Poor Yohji, having to spend most of his money on books and almond cookies… not that Teddy felt too sorry for his brother when it was clear how happy Yohji was to please Aya. If Aya did not go out of his way to please Yohji as well, there would be words said, but so far Teddy kept quiet and managed to stay alive.

Shaking his head, Koyu finished pulling on his pants and sat down so he could put on his boots. "You have a point there." He sounded almost rueful to admit that.

"Aha!" Teddy jumped up and down twice and clapped his hands. "See, I’ve been right *twice* today! And you say that I’m delusional." He stuck his tongue out at his grinning lover.

"But you are!" Now fully dressed in his uniform, Koyu dared to approach enough to give him a quick kiss. "And I see you’ve forgotten about the laundry for the third day in the row."

Teddy shoved his lover toward the door. "Go play with a bunch of carved wood and metal string, you ingrate," he muttered, his lips twitching into a smile at the end and ruining his attempt at appearing angered. "You and your lousy perfect memory."

Koyu blew him a kiss before opening the door. "I think you’re just looking for an excuse to walk around naked. Be good and I’ll see you in a couple of hours."

He watched his lover leave and then allowed himself to smile. That was not a bad plan… until he thought about Jo chasing him around the inn with a skillet while Jei and Ken drooled over the prospect of munching on his soon to be battered body. Life certainly was a lot less complicated before so many bounds took up residence in the Koneko, yet it was also a hell of a lot more interesting now. All that he really wanted was for the cousins and their lovers to go away so it would be safe to tease Yohji again.

*******

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