Storm warnings

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chapter nine

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consequences

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Yuda groaned when he felt a powerful wave of desire and lust batter against his mental shields. As the potent emotions continued to peak, he reminded himself that he was very happy for his dear friend and that Rei’s coercions being broken was a good sign that Shin’s would soon be destroyed, too. The thoughts did little good, however, considering his growing hunger and how desperate he was to finally be able to take Shin as his mate.

He lay on his bed in the small room, holding the pillow to his ears, as if in hope that he might be able to block out the tormenting emotions by a physical means. Attempting to distract himself by losing himself in thought did not work any better, as he soon imagined provoking similar emotions from Shin and ended up on his feet before he realized it. About to go to the water elemental and complete their bond, he cursed himself for an impatient fool and yanked his hand away from the doorknob, while he struggled to control his demon nature.

Shin was not Rei, newly recovered from what the thrice-damned Elders had inflicted upon his mind. Even if Crawford’s telepathic friends had managed to break through the blocks this morning instead of stopping just short of their goal, Shin would still need a few days to recover enough that Yuda did not drain him dry by touch alone. Yuda forced himself to take a deep, calming breath before reaching for the doorknob once more and heading to Shin’s room, though not just to see his mate.

One of the Koneko’s staff was in the hallway of the second floor as he approached Shin’s room, the young man with the long black hair divided into two braids. Yuda was startled at the even look directed his way by a human who knew what he was, as well as by the pleasant smile and nod as they passed each other. There was no sense of fear or anxiety from the man, only amusement and friendliness. That was unexpected, considering what had happened upon his arrival at the inn the other day.

He had not run across Yohji since then, although he had smelt traces of the other succubae bound once or twice as he investigated the inn with care. Of the bound’s mate there was no trace at all, which confused Yuda more than a little. That fact, combined with how little Crawford had told him earlier, made him want to know more about the redhead, despite the need to avoid antagonizing Yohji as much as possible while he stayed here.

Reaching Shin’s room, he smiled in relief when he sensed others inside and knocked twice before entering. Gai and Gou were on their feet in an instant, jumping off the bed where they had been sitting. The two bounds moved to stand in front of Shin’s bed before they realized who their guest was and relaxed the slightest bit.

"Yuda!" Gai appeared happy to see him, at least, a wide smile on his face and his green eyes bright. Beside him, Gou was a more reserved presence, but that was the fire elemental’s nature and his emotions belied his almost grim expression. "You’re here to see Shin." Gai practically bounced as he moved away from his sleeping cousin.

"Yes and no." Yuda noticed that it took Gou several seconds to move away from Shin, and that he was watched with care as he sat down on the bed. For a few moments, the rest of the world faded away as he stared at his sleeping lover, whose face no longer bore the signs of pain from this morning. He stroked the tips of two fingers, with the slightest amount of pressure, along Shin’s left cheekbone, a small sigh escaping as he felt the trickle of energy flow into him. He was so hungry… and would have to remain so for a while longer. At least he could play with Shin’s hair and carefully shifted his mate about, so that Shin’s head lay in his lap.

While he placated his demon soul as much as was possible without causing Shin further harm, Gai returned to sit on the other bed and Gou went over to the room’s small desk. The fire elemental pulled out the chair and sat on it backwards, his arms crossed over its top and his posture… mostly relaxed. There was a hint of tension in his broad shoulders and the steady gaze of his mismatched eyes was a little disconcerting.

Settling himself and Shin more comfortably on the bed, Yuda inhaled deeply so his love’s scent could help center his emotions. Letting out the breath, he regarded Gou without any sign of antagonism or challenge, mindful of the other reason he had come to the room. "You look… well." That was not entirely true, unless one compared all four of the cousins together. Gou had lost weight and his eyes were shadowed with worry, but he did not appear to have been driven to the brink of burnout as Shin and Rei had.

Gou flinched a little before chuckling, the sound bereft of amusement. "I was just thinking that I couldn’t say the same about you." He frowned as he stared at Yuda, shoulders hunching forward another inch or so.

Yuda knew that he had lost some weight and was more bedraggled in appearance than was usual for him – at least, back when he had lived in Esset. The cause and the ‘cure’ of his decline in health slept on as he played with pale blue hair, the strands flowing through his fingers like water. "I wouldn’t recommend ever leaving one’s mate, even if the bond isn’t consummated." His voice grew raspy as he spoke and it was difficult to swallow for a moment. If he had known back then just how painful it would be, he may have never found the strength to leave.

Gou scoffed at the statement, his eyes narrowing so much in anger that it was impossible to tell which one was red and which one blue. "Tell me something that I don’t know! The Elders are only *partially* responsible for Shin’s condition," he spat, the fury behind the words tempered by the guilt he felt.

Believing Gou well deserved to feel guilty over his role in keeping Yuda and Shin apart, Yuda began to growl as he glared at his friend. "Who is also-"

"Stop it!" Gai leapt from the bed to stand between them; not the smartest thing he could have done, but brave and suicidal enough to shock Yuda and Gou out of their tempers. They stared at him for several seconds, until his earnest expression turned into a rueful grin. "Ah, yeah, moving out of the line of fire now," he mumbled as he did just that, though he remained an even distance between the two of them, as if to make a show of not picking sides, nor trusting them to stop arguing.

Now was not the time to get back into a fight that had begun years ago. Yuda had come here to see Shin and to find some answers, neither of which would be accomplished if he fought with Gou over ‘what should have beens’. He took another deep breath and hugged Shin closer. "What do you know about our hosts?" he asked, breaking the tense silence that had filled the room.

Gai started at the question, while Gou relaxed, as if he had dreaded hearing something else. "Hosts? Do you mean Yohji and Aya?" Gou waited for Yuda to nod before continuing. "I’m afraid to say very little, other than Yohji’s a succubae bound." His questioning look made Yuda growl again, but only for a moment and not in anger.

"He’s more demon than I am," he admitted with a reluctance not out of pride, but from being forced to acknowledge a weakness when Shin needed him to be strong for them both. However, his pride *was* ruffled by the fact that Gou and Gai did not appear surprised by that revelation.

"Yeah, I thought so, since Eri’s so wary whenever he’s around, from what Naru said." Gai leaned against the other bed’s footboard and folded his arms over his chest, his right hand playing with a lock of his long hair.

"Almost all of the bounds here are ridiculously powerful," Gou pointed out, his posture more relaxed now and demeanor almost sleepy. He stared at Yuda for a moment, as if trying to decide what to say. "Two of the Elders’ favorites are in the city and on Crawford’s side, did you know that?"

Yuda’s breath caught in his throat at that revelation. "Which ones?" What mattered now was figuring out just how powerful Crawford’s allies were since he was sworn to the precog. "Wufei? Trowa?" he asked with evident hope. Those two bounds might not have the flashiest of talents, but they were brilliant strategists and among the bounds he most wanted to fight at his side.

Gou shook his head while Gai chortled. "You’re half right." Animosity crept into his voice when he next spoke. "Trowa and Duo."

Ah, it did not require much thought to figure out why Gou sounded like that, as Duo had the edge of strength on him. Yuda was surprised once again, as he had never sensed any type of connection between the fire elemental and Crawford. Trowa was Crawford and Jei’s friend, which was in part why he had assumed the quiet man would be one of the two who ‘switched’ sides. The news helped to settle his lingering concern over Shin and the cousins being pushed too far in an attempt to control the weather; while Trowa and Duo did not have the talent and experience in weather manipulation that the cousins did, they could use their slightly greater powers less effectively for much the same results. They would burn themselves out a lot quicker and really were trained to fight, but it meant that some of the pressure was off of Shin, Gou and Rei.

He thought about the two elemental bounds a little more and it stirred up a memory that had been buried long ago. Trowa and Duo had powerful enough mental shields to mask most of their emotions, but he had caught a glimpse past their surface feelings a time or two, enough to wonder if they were meant to be together. "Are they lovers?" he asked, in an attempt to figure out why Crawford had pulled those two over to his side, other than as potential ‘back-ups’ for fixing the weather.

Gou frowned and shrugged, while Gai nodded. "Yeah, Naru said something about them living together." He tugged on his hair. "We haven’t seen them around here yet, though it’s not like we hang out in the main room at all."

"We’re lucky to still be able to get into the kitchen," Gou muttered, while giving his cousin a reproachful look. Gai tugged on his hair again and managed to appear guilty for all of five seconds.

If Trowa and Duo were lovers, they had probably wanted to leave Berin for much the same reason that Yuda had never slept with Shin. He risked stealing a little more energy to brush the ball of his right thumb along Shin’s bottom lip; the way that Shin turned his head into the caress made something inside of his chest squeeze in an almost painful manner.

"Who are the other bounds?" Yuda would not allow himself to become distracted until he had some answers, answers that he desperately needed if he wanted to plot the safest future for Shin. "I can’t imagine that Jei hasn’t sided with Crawford, and there are the soul gaki bounds who are working on Shin’s mental blocks." His lips pulled back from his teeth for a moment when he thought about the telepath’s mate, Masato, though he was quick to push past the animosity before he put Gai and Gou back on edge.

"You’re right about Jei." Gou rested his chin on top of his folded arms and closed his eyes as if to concentrate on remembering everyone. "You probably don’t know this, but the Elders assigned a succubae bound and an earth elemental to work with him and Crawford, and both are very strong." From across the room, Gai growled as if annoyed, which prompted Gou to open his eyes and give his cousin a glare in warning. "There’s another soul gaki bound named Cassandra, who’s stopped by once or twice and is making us clothes, and all of Lord Shinra’s gokenin are mostly demon." Gou cut himself off and frowned, his brow furrowed more in thought than anger. "In fact, one of them is like Yohji’s mate in that we can’t figure out what he is."

Gai nodded with enough enthusiasm that his hair flopped back behind his shoulders. "Oh yeah, him! He always hangs out with Aya while they’re working on Shin, so we don’t see him too much." He shoved himself away from the bed and began to stalk around the room, hands clasped behind his back and head pushed forward. "They even look a bit alike."

All traces of fatigue were gone from Gou’s demeanor. "Lord Shinra always comes with at least two gokenin. Reno, the one whose talent we can’t figure out, rarely stays near him while the others always do. There was some talk about the two men back in Berin." A faint blush covered his cheeks. "Apparently, they’re lovers."

"That’s not the expression I heard used for them," Gai mumbled, which earned him another glare. "What, I’m just mentioning what I heard! It’s not common for a lord like Shinra to pass off a… well, to sleep with the ‘hired help’ like that!"

Used to the cousins’ antics, Yuda waved his left hand to cut off any retort on Gou’s part, causing both elemental bounds to become quiet. What were the odds of two powerful bounds with no identifiable nature gathering at the same inn? Whoever Aya and Reno were, it appeared that people were making the effort to keep them as secret as possible. That made him suspect that they must play an important part in Crawford’s machinations, and as such… there would be little chance of any answers until Crawford was in a generous mood. Yuda’s jaw clenched when he thought of how unlikely that was to happen any time soon.

"Has Crawford told you his plans for you?"

The question immediately set Gai and Gou on edge and made them stop looking at each other and stare at Yuda instead. "We know we owe him a debt for helping us to escape." Bitterness crept into Gou’s voice, and the mix of guilt and animosity once more flavored his emotions.

There was no sense in keeping those plans hidden, since all of the cousins were involved in them. "As soon as Shin recovers and we’re mates, Crawford wants us out of the city." Gai whined in complaint over that bit of news, but otherwise both cousins remained quiet. "The price for your freedom is to undo as much as possible what you’ve done to the weather under the Elders’ orders." Yuda once more hugged Shin closer, his heartbeat stuttering for a moment when his lover moaned and seemed about to wake up. But, whoever had put the compulsion on the water elemental to sleep was clearly very talented, since Shin remained unconscious.

Yuda had to clear his throat before he could continue. "He doesn’t expect you to burn yourselves out doing so." The statement caused a rush of relief from the elemental bounds.

"I didn’t think so, not after all the trouble to get us out when-" Gai snapped his jaw shut and blushed, his face bright red and emotions overcome by embarrassment.

Gou rose from the chair and pushed it aside so he could stand with his arms by his sides, his fingers curled into fists. "That’s what I figured he wanted. After all, if what he’s after was merely to rob the Elders of our talent, then he just needed to leave us alone. Shin most likely would be dead by now, and Rei little better." The way he forced out the words as if they were deliberate weapons left no doubt in Yuda’s mind that they were meant to cause him hurt.

"Are you implying that I’m in some way responsible for that?" His voice was made harsh by the thought of how close he had come to losing Shin – how close it was that he still *might* - when all he had ever tried to do was protect the man he loved. "I wasn’t the one who argued that it would be better for *my* sake if he stayed behind!" That was at the heart of his bitterness toward Gou; he knew that his friend had been trying to protect Shin, but so much heartache had been caused in *his* name, since Gou had used the one argument that would work the best against Shin. In order to ensure that Yuda could escape, Shin had been convinced that he had to remain behind.

Perhaps something in his tone had hit home, since Gou flinched as if slapped and felt such a strong pang of guilt that Yuda sucked in his breath in response. "What else could we have done?" Gou was never the strongest when it came to verbal arguments; he was intelligent, but better suited to using physical strength instead of words to win his fights. He relied upon his emotions and convictions to see him through any difficulties, and while he could be persuasive at times, was too straight-forward for verbal duels.

"There was no way that the Elders would accept losing six of the strongest bounds under their control all at once, and what they had done to Shin had already weakened him." Gou’s anger deflated as he spoke, overcome with guilt and heartache. "Do you think I was happy keeping you two apart, or jealous?" He stared at Yuda as if he was the only other person around, his expression so earnest that Yuda felt his own anger begin to evaporate. "If we stayed behind then there was hope that some day, we could escape as well. If we left with you… the odds were against us."

Yuda had no doubt that Gou strongly believed in what he had just said, and knew that Ruka felt the same; his friend had been devastated over leaving Rei behind, but had been unwilling to risk his lover’s possible death, when they were not sure that just the two of them could even escape. Crawford had told Yuda that if he went back for Shin at any point in time, it would mean their deaths – or worse – and had ‘offered’ to help Shin escape at a later date. Those were the only two things that had kept him from returning to Esset, the Elders and their mental tampering be-damned.

Still, he had suffered during the years apart, as had Shin. "Yet Shin almost died anyway," he said, and was surprised to feel guilty at the way that Gai and Gou reacted to the verbal jab as if they had been struck by his fist instead. This was not like him, hurting close friends, but the last few years had worn on him so much, suffering the never-ending pain of being separated from his mate. "I’m sorry," he murmured, no longer in the mood to fight. Besides, Shin would be upset with him for speaking like that to the two bounds.

Gou let out a slow breath and shook his head. "Why? You spoke the truth." He dared to approach the bed, pausing only for a moment when Yuda pulled Shin closer to his body in a protective manner. "You know my reasons for not letting him go with you, and I still believe I was right. However…." Gou raised his right hand as if to touch Shin, but stopped after only a couple of inches. "We paid such a steep price anyway. The Elders suspected us and kept us under close watch, leaving us no choice but to follow their orders. We kept hoping that they would trust us once again and relax their guard, only to keep dealing with new challenges where we had to prove our ‘loyalty’." He looked up from Shin’s face to Yuda’s, his expression and emotions unshielded. "Despite the risk, Shin told them that they were hurting Esset, as well as with Kritiker by changing the air streams. Their response was to order him to push his talent to the breaking point."

Yuda did not need to hear any more to know that was when Gou had decided to chance running away, even if it meant death for all the cousins. After all, Gou had always considered himself the protector and leader of the four young men; Yuda and Ruka knew that they had to gain his approval in order to pursue Shin and Rei as lovers, and what had begun as a relationship out of respect had deepened into a cherished friendship. Just as Gou had been driven to keep Shin safe by not letting him go with Yuda, he would do anything to prevent Shin from killing himself by pushing his talent too far.

Combing his fingers through Shin’s hair, Yuda smiled at his unconscious mate. "He would do something like that." Many people mistook Shin’s quiet nature to mean that he was not much of a fighter and were proven wrong. He might have never used his position as the second most powerful water elemental in Berin to his advantage, but Shin would stand up for himself when necessary and if he thought his cousins were in danger. Yuda had always loved that about him, how he could smile so sweetly one moment, then be focused on eliminating any threat the next. "How… did you escape?"

Gai must have felt that the conversation had turned to a safer topic, since he answered and not Gou. "Well, we’ve you to thank for that, in a way!" He smiled at Yuda before jumping off the bed. "Your friend Alexis showed up, eventually telling us that Crawford sent her to lend us a hand. She asked us to pass a letter on to you… it’s here somewhere…." The earth elemental searched through a drawer of the dresser, muttering to himself all the while.

Gou picked up the tale, smiling once more at Yuda. "We had already decided to escape by then, and Shin swore that we could trust her." His mismatched eyes shifted toward his cousin, the smile weakening as he stared at the sleeping water elemental. "You’re going to take him away from us," he whispered, sounding sad, yet resolved to the loss.

Forcing his right hand to unclench from Shin’s hair before he tugged on any of the smooth strands, Yuda nodded once. "Eventually." He looked directly at Gou when his friend raised his head to meet his eyes, letting his conviction show in his expression. "Whenever it’s best for Shin." He spoke just as softly, with a touch of compassion. There was no doubt in his mind that Shin would be upset to leave the three young men he had spent almost his entire life with, but it would have to be done one day. If there had been an increased risk in six of them escaping from Esset, then it was still there in trying to keep humans from realizing that they were bounds. Six men living together would attract too much attention, and if anyone knew to look for the cousins, it would be a dead giveaway.

Gou sighed, his emotions in turmoil; Yuda was thankful there was no anger in the roiling mix. When he spoke next, Gou’s voice was hushed and the words spoken quickly, as if he did not want Gai to overhear them. "To be honest, I knew it would happen eventually." Once more he looked at Shin, his expression so tender and protective that Yuda almost snarled. "At least he’s free now, and if the Elders are gone…." For the first time in the last couple of minutes, he spoke at a normal volume. "We’ll help with the weather, that I swear, and we’ll help fight the Elders as well." *Now* there was anger and a deep hatred, the emotions obviously nursed for a very long time.

Gai stopped searching for the letter and turned to face them, his demeanor uncommonly grave. "I swear that, too." He hissed like an angry cat for a moment. "I can’t help that much with manipulating the weather, but I can fight. If you think to keep me from doing that, I’ll… I’ll…." His usually fertile imagination seemed to desert him just then, prompting another hiss.

"He’ll inflict himself upon you for all of eternity," Gou teased, sounding much like he had years ago, before the Elders had messed with Shin’s mind.

"That’s so mean!" Gai gave up entirely on the letter so he could approach the bed and try to punch Gou, who was wise enough to move away before the fight affected Shin. Yuda held on to his lover and grinned as he watched the half-hearted brawl, Gou able to use his much longer reach to keep Gai from getting close enough to land a blow or kick.

He let the two squabble, willing to wait to see what Alexis’ note contained. He missed his old friend and her helpful advice, and knew that she wished him and Shin a happy life together. Now that he had an idea of what the future held and had restored some dear friendships, all that was missing was being able to complete the mating bond with Shin. Chancing a quick kiss, he promised himself that it would not be much longer.

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Aya had just turned to a new page in his book, when Yohji’s right arm slid around his bare waist and his mate pressed against his back. He did not think anything of it at first; Yohji was a very strong believer in ‘cuddling’, both for the physical contact and the chance to ‘snack’. However, when he felt a hand creep beneath the pants he wore, he took a wild guess that his mate was not merely looking for a bit of energy and reassurance.

Then he felt kisses pressed against the back of his neck and gave up any attempt at reading. Oh well, he already had a fair idea about the history of the Kenshin Plains, even if the book had been written from an interesting perspective. He took care in setting the history text aside and relaxed back against Yohji. "You’re an *insatiable* idiot," he murmured, a slight smile curving his lips and his eyes fluttering closed in pleasure.

He felt more than heard his lover’s answering chuckle, his skin tingling as warm air hit it. "Okay, for once I won’t argue about your endearing nicknames, *Cat*." Yohji chuckled some more as his hand cupped Aya’s hardening erection. "Wanna have some fun?"

Pushing backwards to rub against Yohji’s own, very evident erection, Aya began to purr. "And if I said ‘no’?" Not that that was at all likely, not when he was now rocking forward into Yohji’s loose grip, the pleasure slowly growing even as he felt himself gradually weaken.

"Then I’ll have to finish off all the almond cookies as a way to contain my extreme disappointment." Yohji laughed again, knowing from experience to pull his hand free, so Aya could turn around and snap at his exposed left shoulder. "Just joking. I’ll go soak in a tub of cold water or something." The backs of his fingers caressed the left side of Aya’s face, and his expression was so tender and loving that Aya had to duck his head before he blushed.

"Hmph." He tangled his legs with his mate’s, his body shifting forward until he could barely fit a hand between them. Fortunately, the shadows helped him undo the laces of Yohji’s pants, the material already stretched by an impressive erection. There was a moment of jealousy over how Yohji did not seem to have any problems undoing *his* lacings, then he pushed aside the thought of ‘lots of practice’ and focused on how good they both could feel.

Yohji’s left hand tilted up his chin for a kiss, while Yohji’s other hand once more molded itself around his cock. Both the kiss and the stroking of their hands started out slowly, almost leisurely, a matter of tasting and teasing and enjoying the moment. As much as he loved to watch Yohji’s expressions at moments like this, his eyes drifted shut so he could better ‘feel’ the emotions that filled his body and surged over their shared link. It was such an incredible thing to twist his hand this way, to wrap his fingers a little tighter, and to know just how much pleasure the slight movements could make his mate feel.

He was sure that Yohji felt the same way, judging from the wicked chuckle that followed his gasp for air at the spike of ecstasy caused by Yohji’s thumb rubbing across the top of his cock. Somehow, Yohji snaked his left hand between Aya’s neck and the bed so he could play with Aya’s hair, fingers tightening in it slightly to pull him in closer for a more impassioned kiss. That sparked an increase in the passion for them both, their movements now less languid. Aya mewled when the kiss was broken off, his mate relinquishing his mouth to suck on his neck.

His hips jerking back and forth and his neck arching, Aya lost himself to the wondrous sensations: Yohji’s cock so hard and hot in his hand, Yohji’s mouth so ardent on his neck, Yohji’s hand so possessive and skilled on his body. The growing weakness he experienced was just one more sensation, was in a way a happy reassurance that he was looking after his mate. This man was *his*, and he would willingly give up whatever he had to in order to keep the ‘idiot’ strong.

Feeling the need to do some marking of his own, Aya wiggled his right hand around until he could touch his mate’s back, the tips of his fingers sinking into sweat-slick flesh and taut muscle when he felt teeth bite into his neck. Arching his back and moaning in response, he let the ecstasy take over, let it fog his mind until all that filled it was how much he *needed* Yohji. He gave himself fully to his mate – body, heart, energy, soul – his left hand almost stopping as his emotions grew so potent. Only the fact that he wanted Yohji to feel as great as he did made him focus on something other than the pleasure long enough to make his hand move again.

His lover’s hand cradled the back of his head, a gentle touch that was at odds with to the sharp pressure against his neck and the fervent, almost violent strokes along his cock. He knew that he could not last much longer now, did not even want to prolong things when *that* moment was so perfect, and then Yohji bit down even harder. A scream tore its way past Aya’s lips as he came, a blaze of energy rushing forth and exchanged for such exquisite ecstasy that he regretted holding out as long as he had.

Perhaps for other people, orgasms were not so all-encompassing; he suspected being drained of energy and mated to an empath had more to do with the disconnect from reality he always ‘suffered’ after he came than Yohji’s skills in bed, impressive though they were. Not that he would ever say such a thing out loud and suffer endless posturing and arguments over just how ‘amazing’ Yohji’s cock really was. That thought made him smile as the world slowly intruded past their shared euphoria.

"I take it I won’t be killed now for interrupting you while you were reading?"

Aya opened his eyes to find Yohji sitting beside him on the bed, a wet cloth in hand and that tender smile back on his face. Wrinkling his nose at his mate’s teasing tone, he slowly rolled onto his back and hissed for a second or two. "Maybe later."

Yohji laughed, the warm sound filling the room and making it feel that much more like home, then leaned over to wipe Aya clean. "I shall do my best during my gracious reprieve to remind you of the many, *many* reasons you should allow me to live." Once he was finished, he gave Aya a sweet and brief kiss. "Such as who would go out to buy you almond cookies if I’m not here?"

Aya could mention that he was more than capable of buying the cookies himself, but what made them so special was that Yohji always got them for him. While there were even better tasting sweets out in Eto’s many markets, his fondness for almonds aside, those cookies were among the first gifts that Yohji had ever given him. Receiving each tin was like an affirmation that his mate cared for him and would always be there to cheer him up.

"I guess you have your uses," Aya sniffed, doing his best not to smile in the face of Yohji’s exaggerated pout. After a moment, his lover gave up, tossed the cloth aside and leaned down for a proper kiss. For once energy trickled into Aya during it, making him feel a little less light-headed.

After Yohji stretched out beside him and pulled him closer, he dared to ask the question that had flitted through his mind ever since he had put aside his book. "So, was there a reason for that?" He doubted it was to appease his mate’s hunger, as they had already had sex earlier in the day.

Shrugging a little, Yohji proceeded to tug and pull on Aya until he was resting half across his mate’s chest. "I guess I decided that Ruka and Rei shouldn’t be the only ones having fun."

It took Aya a minute to fully decipher that remark, and when he did, he frowned as he rested his chin against Yohji’s chest. "They’re not mates." He assumed Yohji meant that he had felt their passion earlier and did not see why that would be any different from all of the other couples currently staying at the inn.

"No, they’re not." There was a note of pride in Yohji’s voice as he spoke, his touch gentle as he combed his fingers through Aya’s hair. "However, one of them is a soul gaki bound who has something much better to do now than block his emotions, and they’ve been apart for a long time." Possessiveness flared over their link, along with a chilly thread of fear; Aya could not imagine being away from Yohji for three days, let alone almost three years, and was certain that his mate was thinking the same thing.

"So…." Aya drawled, sure that he was going to hear about it anyway and deciding to get it over with.

"So?" Yohji waggled his eyebrows as his right arm settled around Aya’s waist. "So I’m sure anyone with a touch of empathy caught a bit of what they were feeling, it was so strong." He cocked his head to the side as if listening for something. "Still is so strong. Huh, guess that guy has a hell of a lot of stamina." He sounded impressed despite himself. "Rei’s probably going to be limping tomorrow."

Aya poked his mate in the side and snapped his teeth. "I’m sure he’ll now have some sympathy for anyone mated to a succubae-bound," he muttered, not happy about Yohji sensing what should be a private moment between two people. After all, he would not be pleased to know that other bounds could sense his emotions during sex, and only managed to not growl when he reminded himself that other bounds should not be able to sense him, period.

"Hey!" Yohji did his best to capture Aya’s hand, only to give up after a few seconds and yank on an eartail instead. "You don’t limp!"

"Only because you return enough energy to me to help me heal," Aya pointed out with as much iciness as he could muster. Oh, there were times when he should be limping – when he should be unable to walk, really – but… they were usually during situations like this, when either of them needed extra reassurance. Yohji’s ‘appetite’ had been more demanding lately, and Aya was surprised to find out that he really did not mind it. What it came down to in the end was that he got to spend more time alone with the man he loved, to make the bonds between them that much stronger.

"Give me more credit than that," Yohji grumbled, his fingers releasing Aya’s hair so he could stroke them down Aya’s back instead. The light touch along still-scarred skin made Aya tremble, but not out of fear, or remembered pain. Yohji *never* hurt him deliberately and almost never by accident, so it no longer bothered him when his mate touched him there. It was almost like a promise, an unspoken vow to help him heal from the past and turn what had once been a sign of despair into something that was pleasurable.

Deciding to change the topic before they started arguing, Aya sighed and shook his head. "So, you could feel Ruka and Rei, even though they’re not mates."

Yohji patted his ass before speaking. "Yeah. I’m willing to bet no one will see them until morning." His mocking grin slowly became more genuine. "They’re so happy right now, not to mention horny as hell."

"Imagine that." Aya snapped again, in the direction of Yohji’s scarred shoulder, which made his mate pay attention to him once more. "You do realize that if they’re like that, just because of being apart for so long, that… that Shin and Yuda’s emotions will be even more powerful." He hated having to mention the other succubae bound, and was grateful that Yohji’s appetite was sated and his mood good just then.

Grimacing upon hearing Yuda’s name, Yohji held on to that expression for several seconds before it grew thoughtful. "Jo’s not going to be happy. Right now, everyone’s focused on Shin getting better, not what’s going to happen after that."

Aya nodded in agreement. "She won’t like it if they mate here, when the inn’s already so full." He could not blame her, either, having been here for Schu and Masato becoming mates. There were a lot more people staying at the inn now, not to mention the younger staff.

"I guess Yuushi will get his wish after all of moving them to a safe house." Yohji’s voice took on a distant edge as he considered the problem. "Even if Crawford wants them here and the Koneko can offer some sort of protection, it could draw some unwelcome attention if people start talking about someone ‘spiking’ the wine again. We’re lucky that no one’s put two and two together as it is." That distance was soon replaced by a faint, sibilant hiss as Yohji’s emotions grew turbulent. Aya did not need to be able to read minds to know that his mate was thinking about what would happen if a wizard realized what such ‘passionate’ nights could mean and decided to investigate the Koneko.

He rubbed Yohji’s chest in a soothing manner, his emotions as calm as he could manage as he thought about how his mate would never allow such a threat to become a reality. "So we just move them somewhere else for the one night." There was more that he wanted to say, such as how his presence should be enough to prevent others from sensing Yuda and Shin’s natures, but decided that could wait for another time. As much as he understood what it was like to deal with demon thoughts and impulses all the time, Yohji’s violent reaction to Yuda could grow wearying upon occasion.

In fact, there were several thoughts buzzing through his head just then, possible solutions to the problem before them, which he wanted to discuss with someone less likely to react in an aggressively possessive and protective manner before approaching Yohji. While he had the impression that Crawford was making himself scarce to prevent the cousins and their lovers from asking too many questions, the precog had to come back to the inn at some point. Crawford had even indicated to Aya that morning during his very brief visit that he would like to speak to him in the near future.

A little tired despite Yohji having returned most of the drained energy to him, Aya decided it could wait another day. The last thing he wanted now was to ruin his lover’s good mood by continuing to discuss Yuda. No, he just wanted to relax with Yohji before going down to dinner. With that in mind, he once more changed the topic. "What do you think of Jo’s suggestion of hiring more bounds to work at the inn?"

"Hmm." Yohji’s emotions went from simmering hatred to peaceful contemplation, and his hand resumed stroking along Aya’s back. "It’s got its merits." As Yohji proceeded to expound upon them, Aya began to purr in contentment.

*******

Ken groaned as he settled onto the bench, the sound soon arrested as he inhaled deeply to savor the wonderful aromas that always filled Jo’s kitchen. He had been a fan of her cooking long before he became a flesh gaki bound, and if there was one good thing about his new ‘nature’, it was that he now got to eat a hell of a lot more food than before. Jei had not been able to explain it back when he had given Ken a crash course in being a bound, but somehow he was able to eat and digest enough food to fill at least four people’s stomachs now.

With that a known fact, one would expect one’s bossy as hell partner to respect one’s right to lay first claim on the basket of rolls… but it never seemed to work out that way, did it? Ken sighed as he thought that, and even when he caught Miko’s eye and bared his teeth in warning over her taking her time in selecting the biggest rolls, she merely smiled. Never mind that he could eat her in one sitting, never mind that he could slash her hand off at the wrist, she told him to wait his turn with obvious relish and took *even longer* at picking out one last roll. Gods, how he adored her.

That thought no longer filled him with fear. Oh, he worried about if she liked him as anything other than a partner and what would happen once Yuushi found out, but at least he had accepted his own feelings. First, there had been the intense hurt he had suffered over Yuriko running from him like she had, and then the fact that he was no longer human. However, his emotions had a will of their own and he began to… trust his feelings for Miko. It was reassuring to know that he could feel *something* for someone after everything that had happened in the past year, and that it was a familiar emotion such as affection.

Still, even if he thought of her as more than a partner and friend that did not stop him from finishing off the last of the bottle of wine being passed around the table, which prompted her to shove the basket of rolls into his hands and pout. "Bastard," she muttered, but she was smiling a moment later.

"I’m pretty sure my parents were married," he said with a huge grin, and the sight of all his sharp teeth did not scare Miko at all.

At the end of the table farthest from the garden door, Yohji made a loud show of clearing his throat. "Is that a jab against those of us whose mothers had enough sense not to marry their fathers, hmm?" Sitting at the opposite end of the table, Masato jerked his attention away from a sleepy Schuldig and glared, at least until he caught Yohji’s teasing grin and smiled back.

"Miyuki always was too smart for my own good," Masato commented, his tone a little sad, though the smile still remained. "You better hope you got her brains and not mine!"

Yohji looked as if he wanted to say something, until Aya jabbed him in the ribs. He gave his lover a hurt glance before the teasing grin returned. "Considering how often I’m called an ‘idiot’, I think it’s rather obvious whose brains I got!" He laughed when Aya tried to jab him again, and Schuldig seemed to wake up enough to join in. Very shortly, both succubae bounds were kissing their mates, which put an end to that discussion.

Ken was glad that Yohji had not taken any offense to what he had said – not that he had expected him to do so. Yohji had never felt ashamed of having a father who ‘ran off’ on his pregnant mother; if anything, it had been a source of pride for him how his mother had raised him by herself. Well, mostly herself, Ken thought as he glanced at Jo, who was busy enjoying a glass of wine.

She noticed his attention and smiled back. "You’ll find quite a few meals waiting for you in the cold room." She appeared relaxed tonight, and he could smell Ichiro’s scent on her clothes so he imagined that she had had some time for once to spend with her lover during the day.

"Thanks. Things have been so busy it was just easier to crash at the palace." He was careful not to show too much of his teeth when he smiled in gratitude, no matter that she was not a bound, nor fearful of something like that.

He would check out the cold room once the dinner with his friends was over, and the thought of something raw and bloody made him happier than it should – at least, if he was still human. It struck him from time to time just how much he had adjusted to his demon soul, and that fact no longer worried him. He had great friends and coworkers who trusted him and relied upon his new talents, a new home, renewed friendships and so many possibilities in front of him if he survived the next few years. Losing Yuriko had hurt the most, but he was still a Guard and was still trusted by the people who mattered the most to him.

Yohji finished kissing Aya and shifted on the bench enough to face Ken. "So, you going to be back for a while, or are you returning to the palace in the morning?" Aya, once he caught his breath, picked up his glass of wine and stared at Ken as well, clearly waiting for his answer.

Ken shared a quick look with Reiichi, who shrugged in a ‘why not?’ manner, before speaking. "Yuushi wants me here, since Eri and Naru will be reporting back to the palace the day after tomorrow," he admitted, not sure how Aya would take another ‘babysitter’ at the inn. "Though Miko and I have a few errands to run during the day."

The redhead frowned a little but continued sipping his wine, while Yohji smiled, his expression a mix of happiness and relief. "Good. I can feed the bastard to you if I need to kill him." While he appeared his normal, cheerful self, there was a hiss in Yohji’s voice and a faint gleam of silver in his eyes that told Ken his friend was not teasing now.

When he opened his mouth to tell Yohji he did not have a problem with that, Miko smacked him on the shoulder and glared at the blond. "Hell. No! Ken’s not getting out of the ton of paperwork Yuushi gave us to keep us busy while we’re here to enjoy a leisurely meal!" She twisted enough on the bench to turn that glare his way. "Don’t even think about it!"

Ken ignored Schuldig’s mumbled ‘give him hell, Miko!’ and returned the glare her way. "Hey! It’s a matter of security, so I’ll eat whoever I have to!"

"Could we please not talk about eating people during dinner?" Jo asked, with an edge to her tone that made it clear her ‘request’ was anything but. Ken and Miko immediately moved to sit properly on the bench and resumed eating their meal. Around the table, everyone smiled over their reactions, even Aya.

Putting on a show of drinking his wine, which made Miko pout again until Masato got up from the table to fetch the three bottles that were sitting on the counter, Ken then glanced around the room. "Where is everyone?" He was used to there being more people in the kitchen, although it was a bit late. After the last few days spent checking the *entire* palace’s wards with Botan, he was grateful to be able to stay away from the place for a while and do something after work other than collapse in his bed.

Reiichi accepted one of the bottles from Masato and proceeded to uncork it and then the others while he answered Ken’s question. "Let’s see… Naru is staying over at Elise’s apartment." Judging from the angry gleam in Jo’s brown eyes and Reiichi’s pleased grin, Ken would say that his friend was still in trouble about the bet. Even stuck at the palace he had heard about it, as had the rest of the Shadow Guard, who had all been warned not to piss off Jo any time soon. "And Yuushi took dinner for himself and Eri upstairs." That pleased grin took on a wicked edge that made Ken think that Reiichi had spent way too much time watching over Yohji.

Yohji took over the explanations while Reiichi poured everyone, including Miko, more wine. "Teddy and Koyu went out to eat, but I imagine they’ll be back soon so Koyu can play a little tonight." For once there was only affection in Yohji’s tone as he talked about his younger foster brother, which led Ken to assume that the man was *actually* listening to reason and not trying to play any pranks on Yohji while his temper was so chancy. "Omi dragged Nagi out to do some shopping, Mickey’s keeping an eye on the main room, Marta and the girls are dining at Cass’ again, Kira said she wanted to get a head start on everyone’s Winter Solstice presents since we’ve had a few new additions this year, and Maddox went to bed early since he’ll be up doing the bread and breakfast tomorrow." Yohji’s expression turned sorrowful as he stared at Ken and sniffed in a melodramatic fashion. "What, aren’t we good enough company anymore?"

Ken debated throwing a roll at the idiot, before he remembered about Jo’s temper and settled for a quick baring of teeth instead. "Hey, I’m always happy when there’s less competition for food!" To back up his words, he helped himself to more of the fish chowder that Miko in particular really liked. As if on cue, she grumbled and stomped on his foot, not that it kept him from filling his bowl until the chowder almost overflowed. "What about Crawford and Jei?" He hoped he would not have to share his after-dinner meal with the other flesh gaki bound.

Yohji shrugged and looked pointedly at Masato, who was occupied stroking a once more sleepy Schuldig’s hair. "Eh?" Blinking his hazel eyes several times, Masato seemed to catch up on the conversation and grunted. "Oh, those two. I think Crawford’s avoiding answering questions once again and probably will be scarce for the next few days. As for Jei, he’s taking the opportunity to hang out at Trowa and Duo’s apartment."

Beside him, Schuldig chuckled and sat up a bit straighter, his right hand reaching for Masato’s full glass of wine. "He’s been looking forward to a chance to torment Duo for a while now. I wouldn’t be surprised if those two showed up here soon just to get away from him."

"Ed’s busy working on something, but he did send a note today that he wanted to stop by soon to ask me some questions." It was rare for Aya to volunteer information like that, but he appeared to be in a good mood. Ken assumed that the way his friends smelled so strongly of each other probably had something to do with their lack of foul tempers over Yuda’s continuing presence at the inn.

"Great, I’ll probably have to deal with Mustang then," Yohji muttered, and this time he managed to block Aya’s right elbow to his ribs. However, he did not prevent Aya’s subsequent nip to his chin, not that Ken thought his friend minded the reproach very much considering the way he was smiling.

Finishing his stew, Ken picked up his wine glass and decided to indulge his curiosity. "So, what about the latest guests, eh?" He had yet to meet Yuda and Ruka, and hoped not to do so when Yohji was around, since he was uncertain that he would not react to bounds his friend considered a ‘threat’.

Yohji’s easygoing demeanor vanished in an instant. "Well, Yuda’s staying the hell out of my way and Ruka’s been busy fucking Rei unconscious." From the growl in his voice, it was clear that just talking about the other succubae bound was enough to get him all riled up. Ken and Miko shared looks that pretty much said they were not going to forget that little fact, while Jo yelled out Yohji’s name.

"Relax, Jo, the girls aren’t here tonight," Yohji shot back, seeming to recover his good mood quickly as he smiled in the face of Jo’s wrath. When she did not smile back, his grin faltered and he hugged Aya close. "Okay, okay, I got it. Sheesh, not like it’s an exaggeration, you know," he mumbled.

"There’s no need to be so crude," she warned, her eyes narrowed and lips pressed together. Once she deemed that Yohji had learned his lesson, she picked up her glass of wine and sipped it. "Now, who wants dessert?"

Foreseeing a very eventful next few days, Ken decided he better enjoy the benefits of being back at the Koneko as much as he could, to offset putting up with a temperamental Yohji. At least Aya did not seem to be suffering the same foul mood, although his eyes went silver when Jo offered up the first large slice of apple pie, which made everyone else around the table fall silent and allow the redhead to claim the piece.

"To think that I’m actually missing the palace right now," Miko whispered in his ear a few moments later – and then tried to swipe a forkful of his pie. He bared his teeth again as he nodded in agreement, claws now extended to protect his dessert.

*******

Rei purred in happiness as he snuggled against Ruka, part of him still unable to believe that this was not a dream. Ever since he had awakened from the slumber that Eri had imposed upon him to help ensure that his mind recovered from the destruction of the mental blocks, Ruka had been beside him, touching him, kissing him, making love to him….

<If you need more proof that this is not a dream, I will find the strength somehow to convince you.> Ruka’s dry voice filled his head, something that he had missed almost as much as his lover’s touch.

Body aching in a delightful and decadent way, Rei smiled at his lover as they lay facing each other on the narrow bed. "Wait until you can do that proof justice," he shot back, pleased that the years apart had not dulled Ruka’s understated wit. Many people believed the soul gaki bound to be without a sense of humor when they were just oblivious to its subtleness.

<There hasn’t been much cause for good humor the last few years,> Ruka informed him, his handsome features softening with sorrow. <I wasn’t sure who would go mad first, Yuda from being away from Shin or me from being away from you *and* having to put up with him.>

While the bond between them was not one of mates, Rei understood what his lover was trying to say. Yuda of course would be that much more frantic and determined to reunite with Shin due to the nature of the mating bond and its demands, but he and Ruka had suffered over the fact that they were separated from the person they loved the most in the world – and that it was in part from their own decisions. If only he had had any certainty that going with Ruka would not have led to their deaths….

"What’s done is done, Phoenix," Ruka assured him, deep voice creaking slightly, as if it had been barely used in their years apart. The term of endearment made Rei smile despite the gravity of the topic; it had been so long since anyone had called him that, and no matter how much he loved Shin, it was not the same curling up next to his cousin as it was with his lover.

"Perhaps the gods had a reason to keep us apart. I think it made what we feel for each other even stronger," Ruka continued, as he played with Rei’s hair.

"Perhaps… but such a thing would do nothing for the bond between Shin and Yuda," Rei pointed out, burdened with a sense of guilt that he was here, with Ruka, never to willingly be apart again, while his beloved cousin could not experience the same thing with his own lover.

Ruka’s red eyes grew unfocused and he pushed deeper into Rei’s mind, the links between them still nowhere near as strong as they had been back in Esset. <I don’t know… Yuda will be even more diligent as Shin’s mate and protector now, and anyone who thinks to separate them again will pay a terrible price.> Even if he felt that they would deserve such a fate, Rei could tell, not needing the link when he knew his lover so well.

<Yes, they would definitely deserve it,> Ruka echoed, as he gathered Rei even closer. Only too happy to feel his lover pressed against him, Rei squirmed his way forward until there was no space left between them.

"While *we* deserve to make up for lost time," he insisted, the fingers of his right hand wrapping around Ruka’s left forearm. "Not to mention a bigger bed." They would have to request a different room in the morning… but it could wait until then. In any case, he enjoyed being forced to rest so close to Ruka after all that time apart.

Ruka’s deep, amused chuckle filled the room. "I don’t think you have the energy to live up to those grand plans of yours." He stopped playing with Rei’s hair long enough to tap the tips of his fingers against Rei’s head. The amusement vanished, replaced by concern and a seriousness which meant that Ruka expected his wishes to be obeyed. "Never push yourself that far again, Phoenix. Unlike your namesake, you won’t be reborn so quickly, even if your actions were not by your own choice." Ruka’s voice was made rough by the thought of how if it happened they would be kept apart again, this time for a much longer period and with no hope that they would ever find their way back to each other.

Rei hid his face against his lover’s chest. "Don’t think such things." Any anger he had felt toward the soul gaki bound for remaining apart from him until the blocks were gone vanished; it was such a silly thing to be upset about when he had risked death just a few weeks ago.

<Never again.> Ruka’s left hand tilted up his chin until a gentle, lingering kiss could be pressed against his forehead. <I won’t allow you to push yourself so far again.> He would not seek to control Rei, only make sure that Rei was never became so helpless in the future.

Comforted by those thoughts, Rei sighed and closed his eyes. <No, never again, now that you’re back.> He was not an invalid, or the weak fool that others often believed him to be, which did not lessen the value of Ruka’s protective nature in the least. While mostly demon and skilled in the use of his talent, he trusted his lover’s greater strength and ability to not be so easily swayed by emotions.

<Good. Now I can skip the lesson and save myself a headache from you arguing with me for the rest of the night.> That dry ‘tone’ was back in full force, causing Rei to laugh, when what he really wanted to do was glare at his presumptuous lover. No, the arguing could wait for another night; now was meant to regain back a fraction of what they had lost because of the Elders.

<Savor the moment as long as you can.> Ruka’s cryptic words made Rei look up once again, a frown on his face that not even his lover’s caress to his left cheek could erase. <No, that’s not a warning, or at least not an immediate one. Just keep in mind that we owe Crawford a very large favor for bringing us together and have a war to get through on top of that. ‘Interesting times’ does not begin to cover what lies ahead for everyone, and I intend to enjoy quiet and pleasant times like this as much as possible to stave off the dark days of fighting.>

Shivering at the certainty that shaded Ruka’s thoughts, Rei clung to his lover even more and silently swore to the gods that he would never allow himself to be parted from the soul gaki bound again.

*******

Shin woke to a still-dark room, the windows glowing faintly as the sun threatened to rise at any moment. He was hungry and surprised by the fact that his head did not hurt for what seemed to be the first time in ages. Yet what caught most of his attention was that he could smell Yuda so strongly on himself and the bed linens.

He turned his face toward the pillow and inhaled deeply, for a moment wishing with all his might that his lover was here right now. A weak twinge of pain reminded him that the mental compulsions were not completely broken, although even just a week ago, something like this would have caused him to black out in agony.

It was not all a dream. That was what he feared the most – that he would wake up in Berin, bereft of Yuda, trapped once more in endless loneliness and aching pain. The narrow but comfortable bed in which he lay, the hum of people around him, the scent of roses and geraniums, almost heavy in the moisture-laden air… all of this disproved that fear as much as did Yuda’s scent. The rain falling outside was another reminder that this was not Esset, as it had barely rained, without much effort on his part in the last several months he had lived in Berin.

Gou slumbered on in the bed on the other side of the room, and Shin was surprised when he sensed Gai sleeping here, too. He used the little bit of energy he had left searching for Rei, but did not sense him in the immediate vicinity. Missing his cousin, yet certain that Rei was fine since Gou and Gai were asleep, Shin closed his eyes and tried to get a little more rest.

Soon enough Schuldig and Lord Shinra would be back to work on the compulsions, and he could only pray to each and every god that they broke through the cursed things today. His hands balled into fists and smacked against the soft mattress, frustration made physical over how he finally was back together with Yuda and still could do nothing with the man he loved. It was clear that Yuda was here whenever he was unconscious, at least able to touch him and see him.

Were the compulsions weakened enough for him to see Yuda today? He knew that the soul gaki bounds did not want him to come in contact with Yuda again – at least while conscious – because it might undo some of their hard work, but it was so trying to know that if he got out of bed and searched about that he could see his lover again, could hold him close and kiss him. So many dreams could come true at that moment, which still was denied to him. It only made him hate the Elders more.

They had not noticed the compulsions at first and had just put Shin’s headaches down to him using his talent too much. There had been no connection to the Elders calling him into their presence to do what he thought of as parlor tricks and the growing pain, not until Yuda had finally decided that it was only hurting them both to keep from consummating the bond between then. Shin’s mouth twisted in a bitter smile when he recalled how that had turned out, how an evening that was supposed to be so special had been ruined by him fainting in agony. After that, he could barely stand to be near Yuda, let alone touch him.

Losing Yuda had hurt so much, but at least his lover had been free from the Elders and spared an attempt to force the awful coercions on him as well. After that… Shin had not cared about much of anything, really, other than his cousins. He would do what he was ordered to do, unconcerned if it made him burn out his talent as a result. He would throw the truth in the Elders’ faces even after they had ignored Trowa’s warning, clearly determined to not acknowledge the destruction they had caused. When he had been ordered to ‘fix’ things, all that mattered to him was that perhaps now he would be free from the pain and terrible longing, that he would fade into nothing and be at peace at last. Rei and the others had not said anything, but he knew he had come very close to just that a time or two. The only reason he had agreed to the escape attempt was that it meant he might see Yuda once again.

He wondered how much his love had changed over the years. From the little he could remember in the kitchen a few days ago, Yuda had seemed thinner and older. Was that from suffering the same pain and longing? Had he not fed as much as he should to keep up his strength? Yuda never had to ‘work’ very hard in the past to attract lovers; people flocked to him, to his inner strength, his beauty, the way that it was evident that he cared about his partners as more than just ‘meals’.

The first time Shin had seen him, he had been so shy about approaching. There was Yuda, Esset’s most powerful succubae bound, always surrounded by bounds and humans perfectly willing to be drained of their energy if it meant having sex with him. The Elders had not liked Shin or his cousins leaving their quarters often, so he had only seen the man he had fallen in love with upon first sight a few times before the night that Yuda had formally introduced himself.

Shin had snuck out of his quarters, tired of Gou and Gai’s seemingly endless and senseless arguments as well as Rei’s fussing. He had just wanted to find someplace quiet so he could play his harp, so he could play what *he* wanted to hear and not what his cousins begged and wheedled him to play. Their appreciation of his skill was gratifying and endearing, even if at times they seemed to forget that he was not their private musician. Being kept in isolation so much could make them all stir-crazy, no matter how much they loved each other.

He had been stunned to find he had an audience after all, thinking that he would be alone by the small lake on such a cool night. To find out that the person quietly asking him to play some more was none other than Yuda… he had consented, and to this day was still amazed that his fingers had been able to properly pluck the strings, he had been so nervous.

All he wanted was to recapture that moment, to be alone with Yuda once more, sitting next to each other as he played his harp. Sadly, the reality was that his harp had been left back in Berin and he still could not touch the man meant to be his mate. Yet. No mattered what happened, the pain he had to endure, or the sacrifices he had to make, he would recapture that quiet moment with Yuda once again.

His body wanted more sleep, but he fought against it, drifting in and out of unconsciousness while the sun rose in the sky. For the last few days, it seemed that all he did was sleep, other than a few minutes here and there when Gou or Gai helped him to eat. At that thought, his stomach rumbled loud enough to make his cheeks flush with embarrassment and for him to debate if he had the strength to get out of bed and go down to the kitchen. He just might be able to manage that, but it would mean that he would be weakened when it came time for Schuldig and Lord Shinra to work on the mental blocks. No, he would rather lay in bed while starving if it meant that he might be able to touch Yuda today.

Fortunately, it did not come to that, as Gou groaned and rustled about in his bed, the sounds subdued as if he realized that he was sharing a room. Most likely he did since he had always been so aware of the three of them, and not even being sleepy would make him forget his self-appointed duty as their protector. Shin smiled and opened his eyes, as always comforted by how Gou looked out for him and the others. As he reached for his glasses, his cousin rose from the other bed.

Barely making any sounds, Gou crossed the room and sat down on Shin’s bed. He reached out to touch Shin’s forehead, his tired expression lifting after a moment. "You don’t feel as warm today as yesterday. Perhaps all that tea is helping." His voice was pitched low, most likely for Gai’s sake.

"If things go well today, I would like a soak in the hot spring," Shin whispered back, his throat dry, as if he had not had any of the special tea in days. While he would hate to wash Yuda’s scent away, he knew the water should help restore a bit of much needed energy to him. He refused when he was finally able to touch Yuda once again to be too weak to even lift his hand.

Gou considered the request for a moment, his mismatched eyes appearing less shadowed than Shin could recall seeing in months. "As long as Schuldig thinks it’s okay, I don’t see why not." He touched Shin’s forehead once more then smoothed the hair fallen on it aside, much like Shin imagined a parent would do for their child. "I’m going to fetch you something to eat." When Shin nodded and smiled in appreciation, Gou’s expression lightened still further and he moved from the bed, pausing only to pull on a robe to hide his nakedness.

Shin was relieved to see that his cousin appeared to be regaining some of the weight he had lost in the past few months, and finally noticed that someone must have brought a cot of sorts to the room so Gai could sleep here. He puzzled over that for a moment, aware that Gou did not want him or Rei left alone while they recovered from pushing their talents too far and had the mental blocks removed, and ended up blushing.

He could recall Gai telling him that Rei’s blocks had been broken, during one of the times he had been awakened to eat yesterday. The news was meant to be encouraging, a sign that it would just be a little longer for his own to be gone, and he had truly been happy for his cousin. There had been an amusing if blurry memory from the night before, of Rei ranting about idiotic soul gaki bounds, while Shin had battled the pain from touching Yuda long enough to hold down his dinner, so he assumed that Ruka had been forgiven for avoiding Rei after arriving at the Koneko. Shin pitied the man, because he knew just how well his cousin could berate someone if he felt slighted or indignant.

There was a pang of jealousy as he thought about the reunited lovers, quickly smothered by happiness and longing. Rei had only let Ruka leave without him on the understanding that they would stay in touch by mental communication, able to arrange the cousins’ escape at a later date, and had been stunned when the Elders had ruthlessly blocked their link. Once so lively and cheerful, Rei had seemed to… to ‘wither’ over the years apart from Ruka. Shin understood what his cousin was suffering and the two of them had grown even closer, able to take comfort in each other, sharing the same pain.

Now that was no more, and Shin was certain that he would not see much of Rei over the next few days. He did not hold that against his dear friend as Rei had almost three years to make up for, and Ruka as well. He just hoped that he would have a similar reunion very soon.

Gou was not gone very long, and when he returned with a tray full of food, Gai finally woke up. "Eh, food?" the earth elemental mumbled, sounding more asleep than awake.

Gou closed the door behind him and headed straight for Shin’s bed. "Go get your own if you’re hungry. There’s no way I could bring enough up by myself to feed you." He did not sound angry, in fact his tone was light, as befitted someone who was familiar with Gai’s voracious appetite.

"Hmph." Gai sat up on the cot, his two-toned hair somehow sticking up in several directions, despite its length. He blinked his eyes several times and whined, reminding Shin that he was the youngest of the four of them. "I’m hungry."

"When aren’t you?" Gou shot back, and smiled at Shin as he set the tray on the nightstand near Shin’s bed. He picked up a cinnamon roll and went over to Gai, snapping the earth elemental back awake with a few sparks. "Here, this should hold you over until you reach the kitchen."

Gai appeared ready to hiss in anger over the sparks, only to smile a moment later in appreciation of his treat. "Thanks!" He hunched over as he shoved the whole roll into his mouth, purring in pleasure until it was all swallowed. Then he got out of bed and fetched his own robe before leaving the room, not even bothering with any slippers. "I’ll be back in a bit!" He sounded much too loud for the early morning hour, and Shin hoped that he had not woken up their neighbors.

Smiling over their cousin’s antics, Gou shook his head and focused once more on Shin. "You should eat everything. I didn’t see Schuldig or Lord Shinra downstairs, but I’m sure they’ll be here soon enough." From his eager tone, Shin knew that his cousin wanted him to be rid of the compulsions today as well.

"Thank you." He bowed his head in gratitude and sat up a little more on the bed, allowing Gou to fuss over the pillows until his back had adequate support. Oh, how he longed for the return of his strength, when he could look after himself once again. He detested feeling as if he was a burden to his cousins, even though he knew they did not see him as such and that Gou, and even Gai, would never begrudge the time spent tending to him. Soon, he promised himself. Once the compulsions were destroyed, he could concentrate on regaining that strength, and there should be no need to use his powers in the near future. Eri and Naru had promised that they would be safe here, that other bounds would see to their protection, and while he did not care to rely upon strangers he would not turn down this opportunity to recover.

If only he had some idea of what the future would hold for him back in Berin, he would have paced himself better. As it was, he feared that he would be able to do little more than sleep once the coercions were gone, despite his resolve to be with Yuda once again. The gods seemed to have a very odd sense of humor when it came to him, but as long as they allowed him to remain free of the Elders’ grasp and to have his lover by his side, he would bear with the current trials.

The tea was hot and almost too sweet, which he put up with, since he desperately needed all the energy he could muster in order to face what soon lay in store for him. Gou had outdone himself with all the food: a large bowl of porridge, several cinnamon rolls, a plate overflowing with scrambled eggs mixed with peppers and sausage, and a tall glass of orange juice. Shin’s stomach rumbled again, leading him to believe that all of the food would be consumed despite his doubts. That his appetite was returning to normal was a heartening sign that his body was gradually recovering from the strain he had put it through.

"What are your plans for today?" he asked between spoonfuls of porridge; like the tea, it had been rendered almost too sweet by an ample dollop of honey. "Please tell me they aren’t to watch over me all day."

Gou had returned to the other bed and he shrugged, his hands busy playing with the belt of his blue robe. Whoever had lent it to him must have been similar in size and build since it was only a little big in the shoulders. "I’m hoping to talk to Crawford if he shows up." He fell quiet for a moment, as if considering something. "Yuda spoke with him yesterday. He said… once you’ve recovered and the two of you are mates, we’re to leave the Koneko. Crawford plans to squirrel us away while we return the weather to normal." He said the words in a rush, as if uncertain of their effect on Shin.

Just hearing Yuda’s name made something warm burst into life inside Shin’s chest. His head ached a little, but he could think about his lover and imagine him sitting on his bed without any difficulty. "We…." The words became caught in his throat; he shook his head, then sipped more tea, so happy just then to hear an assurance that he and Yuda *would* become mates. "It will take a long time," he said instead of what he had first planned, deciding that it would be easier to talk if he did not concentrate on Yuda so much.

"Yeah, I know." Gou sighed in frustration and ran his fingers through his unruly black hair. "At least we’re not expected to fix it in a matter of months."

True, Shin thought to himself as he finished his cup of tea. Unfortunately, the more one ‘disturbed’ the weather patterns, the more difficult it became to manipulate, but at least they would be restoring the natural paths and air streams. He then realized that the Elders would probably have other elemental bounds do their best to keep that from happening and upped his estimate of how long it would take to fix things. They would have to pace themselves carefully, as it could take years before their task was finished. However, since they were partially responsible for the mess that the weather had become, Shin did not begrudge the time.

Doing his best to not reach out with his talent and judge how much work awaited him and his cousins, Shin focused on eating instead. The more he ate, the stronger he would become and the more he could help Schuldig and Lord Shinra tear down the mental blocks. He did not think he could bear it if it took much longer, not when Yuda’s scent enveloped him, not overpowered in the least by the aromas of the tea and food. Feeling as if he risked madness if he could not touch Yuda soon, he continued to eat, determined to send Gou down for another tray of food.

*******

Wufei did his best not to scowl at Helena as she stumbled through the passage on Thracian Court manners that he had assigned to her yesterday. To be fair, she was terrified of disappointing him, and when he managed a reassuring smile she beamed as if she had been given a priceless gift and finished without any more errors. Such a small thing… yet it was clear that the child had been deprived of many small things over the years. Despite his resolve to ‘beat’ her into a woman who was strong, knowledgeable and confident enough to assume Esset’s throne, he had discovered to his horror that he had a soft spot for the silly creature.

"Uhm, is there anything else today?" she asked, and at the return of his stern look straightened her back and cleared her throat. "Will there be anything else today, Sir?" Despite the fact that she was royalty and he an overeducated bound, she deferred to him with an amazing amount of respect. His tutors back in Xan would approve.

As time went on, he approved of the child, too. More care was now given to her appearance, and though her long brown hair had a defiant cowlick or two, and her fingers were usually stained with some sort of charcoal or chalk, she was beginning to look like what she was meant to be, instead of some refugee. "No, that will be all today."

He rose from the poorly padded chair and brushed the side of his right hand along his white-clad thigh, pleased to be free of the Elders’ cursed uniform for once. "You’ll have more than enough reading tonight to keep you occupied, and I expect you to be able to recite to me Tzao Zhin’s treatise on establishing secure borders next time."

Helena nodded several times, her head bobbing in an almost frantic manner as she strove to show her acceptance of the assignment. Quatre would have to work some more on teaching her a proper and dignified demeanor, but at least he knew that she took the assignments seriously.

Her hands clutched at the full, dark brown skirt of the dress she wore, then smoothed out as she straightened her back once more. "Sir… is it true, the rumors about me going to Eto?" she asked, managing to vanquish that detested nervous stutter.

About to turn around and leave the child’s quarters, Wufei stopped and considered if he should answer that, or not. She had shown courage and composure just then, deserving of a reward, but he did not want her lost in daydreams when she needed to concentrate on her studies. Cursing that ‘soft side’ that was probably all Quatre’s fault - as if senseless affection was a contagious disease - he sighed and decided to tell her the truth.

"There is talk about sending you there for the festivities connected to the new princess’ first birthday," he admitted with a touch of reluctance. While it would not be as grand an occasion as the infant’s third birthday, the event would require a suitably large party and draw ambassadors from around the continent. It would not appear too odd or suspect for Esset to send Helena and a small entourage, for a meeting of princesses and to strengthen the illusion that they would seek to unify the two hostile countries by a royal marriage. No matter that Esset and Kritiker were both clearly already gearing up for a war, it was all about the diplomatic pretenses and illusions, he thought to himself with ample disgust.

"That gives us a little less than a year to ensure that you do not embarrass yourself or me," he snapped, his demeanor as foreboding as he could make it. No matter what reluctant emotions she inspired in him, he would not let any abhorred softness deter him from his duty. The meeting, something that Quatre was oh so carefully and insidiously campaigning for, would be a test of sorts for Helena. If she could manage it without starting the war early, then there was hope that she would be at the least an adequate queen.

Despite his harsh words, she smiled in joy and bowed deeply, her long brown hair brushing against the carpeted floor. "I will strive to do you proud, Sir."

He stared at her for a moment before snorting, not out of derision, but in surprise. "There just may be hope for you yet. *Just*," he repeated, when she took to beaming again. Oh well, it was a hell of a lot better than her crying.

Bidding the child a good day, never mind that she was not truly that much younger than him, by the way bounds considered age, he left her quarters and pretended not to hear her squeal of delight when she told Lisa the news. By all the gods, he would age greatly in the upcoming year, he just knew it.

Still, that duty tended to for the day, he strode through the halls toward his and Quatre’s quarters, having long since learned that looking as if he was in both a hurry and a bad mood meant that he was usually left alone. That was proven true once again as people actually scurried to get out of his way. He supposed that some of their fear was the result of the rumors about his relationship with Quatre falling apart faster than a Thracian streetwalker’s clothes.

Not that the status of his love life was the only thing that caused people to step lightly around the palace lately. Ever since it had become clear that the cousins had not only crossed into Kritiker, but had also since vanished from the sight of the Elders’ spies, the old bastards were *not* happy. Wufei snorted again as he thought about how much of an understatement that was. From what *his* spies had told him, they had ranted and raged for the better part of a night, Strength destroying much of his quarters and Thought over-extending his talent in an attempt to find the cousins himself to the extent that he was bedridden for two days.

Strengthening his mental shields, Wufei waited until he reached the security of his home before thinking any more on the topic. As one of Quatre’s gokenin approached, bowed and offered to take his heavy, dark blue coat for him, he took a deep breath at the comfort of feeling his own wards envelop him. Here, he was safe, able to think whatever and act however he wanted, away from spying eyes and rumor mongers. Such a shame that there was only one place like that for him in what was supposed to be a sanctuary for bounds.

He handed Javier his coat and slowly let out the air that filled his lungs. "Anything of importance happen today?" he asked, still chagrined, despite their years together, over how different his own definition of ‘importance’ could be from Quatre’s.

Javier smiled, well aware of the many arguments that had resulted from that difference. "None, Sir." He bowed slightly before walking away, a figurative mountain of muscle, as were most of Quatre’s gokenin. Wufei swore his lover picked the largest men amongst all the employees loyal to his family, just so he could appear that much more ‘defenseless’. Anyone who was foolish enough to see Quatre’s pretty face and slight build and think that he was harmless though, deserved to be made a fool of on the few occasions that the soul gaki bound dropped his ridiculous mask.

Wufei knew from the wards that today was one of the rare times that Alexis was not present and found himself slightly disappointed by that fact. There went a chance to play chess tonight, as well as catch up on the latest news and gossip, that was rarely reported directly either to himself or Quatre because of their status. On the other hand, he was sure he could entice his lover to ‘retire’ early, a much more pleasurable way to spend an evening than by playing games or chatting.

He found Quatre in the library, sitting on top of one of the tables with a glass half-full of cognac beside him, as well as the rest of the bottle and an empty glass. Now that they were safely behind their wards, he could sense his lover’s disquiet over their mental link and rushed forward, only to stop and take his lover’s face between his hands before he spoke.

"What’s wrong?"

The question, and the touch, seemed to dispel some of the negative emotion and enable Quatre to shake off his somber mood. "Nothing bad enough that you need to draw your sword and go behead anyone," he said with a light tone, having picked up on Wufei’s thought. His smile strengthened when Wufei cursed in disappointment. "I guess it’s just sinking in, how great a risk we took," Quatre whispered a moment later, his right hand rising to lightly grip Wufei’s left wrist for a few seconds.

Wufei sat beside the soul gaki bound and poured himself a drink. "Are we in danger?" He did not think that was the case since Quatre’s gokenin were not visibly armed to the teeth or distressed, but it never hurt to ask and be certain.

Quatre shook his head. "No, and I made damn sure today, too." He listed to the side until he leaned against Wufei. "But the Elders are desperate to blame someone and will pin the cousins’ escape on some scapegoats soon enough."

The thing about Quatre, was that he had so much compassion in him, he would fret over whoever was falsely accused and be almost torn apart with guilt when they were punished – most likely to death, considering it would be the Elders meting out said punishment. However, that would not make Quatre give up his own life, or the lives his people, nor would it prevent him from doing something similar in the future. If he could lessen the scapegoats’ sentence, or find a way to help them flee Berin that would not make the situation even worse, he would. What it came down to in the end, was that Quatre did what had to be done, no matter the hurt it caused him, for the good of the future. That iron resolve, masked by his lovely appearance and cheerful attitude, made him one of the most dangerous opponents that the Elders could ever face. Wufei wondered if his lover had kage blood in him somewhere, considering his ability to freeze his emotions when the situation called for it.

What Wufei was certain about was that once the necessary task was accomplished, he would have to be there for Quatre, for the return of emotion and his lover’s resulting self-castigation that he could not have done more in the first place to prevent the need for such drastic action. Wufei would be there, too, even if he had to face the Elders alone to reach the man he loved. Even if said man had appalling taste in liquor, he thought to himself as he forced down a mouthful of cognac.

"All those casks of Xanian wine and you’re drinking this?" he asked, his tone indignant and emotions offended. "You are hopeless."

That did the trick, turning Quatre’s emotions into something more positive. "But that’s your wine," he pointed out, leaning more weight against Wufei’s left shoulder. "I didn’t want to end up dead as well as depressed when you came home and found me drinking it as if there was no tomorrow!"

"Hmph." Wufei tried to push his lover away, having to suppress a smile when Quatre clung to him with determination. "I will admit that there is some sense to your reasoning, *for once*." He sniffed in mock disdain and let his left arm creep upward until it encircled Quatre’s waist.

"We can always enjoy some with dinner tonight," Quatre murmured, and they both were quiet for a few minutes. "Tomorrow, orders go out to gather up any elemental bounds who are at least half demon-souled." He sounded so subdued just then, that Wufei did not need their mental link to know how much that order disturbed him.

He considered the news as objectively as he could, not surprised in the least by it, since it was something that they had expected. As it was, most of the suitably talented water elemental bounds were already in Berin, or on their way there.

When one took that fact and added to it that a great many of the more powerful bounds had already begun to escape into the surrounding countries, it painted a rather grim picture for Esset. "It won’t be enough. The cousins were valuable not only for their strengths, but for the fact that they had spent all of their lives since their power awakened learning to control the weather. Other elementals might be able to attract or repel a small amount of clouds and control the precipitation contained within for a short while, but nothing on the grand scale that they can manage." That required more than a suitable amount of power; bounds had to work together for the greatest effect when dealing with the weather, had to synch up their talents and trust their partners to an extent that rarely happened unless they had known each other for a long time.

Even if the three most powerful elemental bounds that he knew – Heero, Duo and Trowa – worked together, they would not be as effective as Gou, Rei and Shin were. Even Gai was able to help out his cousins by providing strength and a sense of security as they focused entirely on the weather, four bounds forged into an uncommonly skilled and powerful unit because of their love for each other, as well as the years spent in close contact.

No wonder the Elders were so upset. Their best means of controlling the weather was now gone; even if they gathered up every able-bodied bound who might have a chance of affecting it, all they could truly hope to do was stymie the cousins for a short while. Once it became clear that the cousins were working for Kritiker’s benefit….

<The raids into Kritiker and the surrounding countries for any bounds who have run away will increase.> Quatre had followed his thoughts with ease and reached the same conclusion.

<Not right away, but in a few months to a year, when it becomes clear that they cannot find the talent that they need,> Wufei responded, and willingly had another drink of the awful cognac to soothe his nerves. It was one thing to know on an intellectual level that a war was coming, and another thing entirely to see all the pieces fall into place that would make it a foregone conclusion. The drought and the messed-up weather, a new heir that would secure Kritiker’s throne for the Takatori line, Kritiker’s growing dominance in trade, while Esset, cut off for so long, floundered…. Bounds were an important factor in the upcoming war, yet not the only one. No, at times Wufei swore that the gods were throwing everything that they could at his fellow mortals to push them to the bloody brink.

<At this point, the Elders don’t even need to find out about the Shadow Guard and… Crawford’s two friends.> Even though they were safe behind their wards and those created by wizards they trusted, Quatre still would not mention directly the two men whom Crawford counted on the most to win the war for them. Taking into account how desperate the Elders would likely become in the upcoming months, Wufei did not blame him.

"Where’s the damn wine?" he snarled, needing something more palatable if he was going to get drunk as hell tonight.

Quatre gave him a hug and sent out a mental command to one of the servants to open up a cask and bring them a large carafe of the sweet wine. "So, have I lost all hopes of that ‘early’ evening?" Quatre asked, clearly having picked up on more than just Wufei’s current thoughts.

That earned the fool a deep and disdainful sniff. "That preposterous a question does not even deserve an answer!" No matter how much wine he drank or carefully cultivated plans they made, his only true solace would be found with his lover. The odds were not stacked too high against them yet, and better never be with the way Crawford dictated things, for him to lose hope in the future. The best way to push past the doubts and fears was to reaffirm their hopes and dreams for the future with each other, the basis of the happiness that awaited them.

Quatre laughed and hugged him close, the worry from before vanquished for the moment. Wufei was certain it would return many times over during the next few years, which was only natural. The day that they became too confident in their success, or dismissive of the price others had to pay for it, was the day they would be little better than the Elders. That was something he refused to let happen and was ever vigilant against. His tutors had drilled into him how quickly a savior could become a tyrant, and he figured that as long as they both guarded against it in each other, they would be all right.

<Of course. I would never lose you, be it in spirit or body,> Quatre soothed, just as resolute as he was that they would never become what they despised.

"As if I would allow such a thing to happen," Wufei sniffed as he urged his lover off of the table so they could make themselves more comfortable elsewhere.

*******

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