Storm Warnings

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chapter ten

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true natures and successful endeavors

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The sense of fear was an insidious thing, creeping its way into Yohji’s dream until the half-formed, pleasant images twisted into something dark and macabre. There was pain as well, and an anger born out of despair. The emotions curled up inside of him, their taint spreading into his being as he did his best to thrash his way back to consciousness. Breathing heavily and covered in sweat, he forced his eyes open and became aware of a soft moaning sound.

That was what snapped him fully back to reality; he reached for his mate, mindful to not touch Aya’s back, and cradled him against his chest. "Shh, Cat, it’s just a dream." Shadows swarmed over him as he tried to reassure Aya, their cool touch soothing and another means of anchoring himself in what was real. As he pressed a kiss against his mate’s forehead, Aya shuddered for a moment and then finally relaxed.

He sensed that his lover now awake and gave him a minute to transition from the nightmare to the current moment, of being safe in bed and held by someone he trusted and loved. The fear, pain and anger slowly faded as Aya’s arms wrapped around Yohji tightly enough to startle a wheeze out of him. He took that as a sign that he could hold his mate more firmly himself and began to sit upright in a slow, measured pace. Aya growled for a few seconds as he was moved, releasing Yohji once they were both sitting so he could turn around and settle between Yohji’s spread thighs.

Presented with the back of Aya’s head, Yohji managed a wan smile and bent down enough so he could kiss his mate’s damp nape. Strands of crimson tickled his lips since Aya had not bothered to do more than cut his bangs in the last several weeks, but it was Aya who shivered from the intimate caress. He relaxed even more against Yohji, a silent presence as his attention focused inward to quell the disturbing emotions that still flowed over their link.

Yohji allowed him that time, doing little more than holding him close and sending love and assurance in return. Dammit, it had been a few weeks since Aya’s last nightmare, giving him hope that they were moving past the awful things. Their year anniversary had seemed to help put so much of the past’s pain and abuse into perspective, had allowed a sense of time passing and healing having occurred. The last thing he had expected was to be woken up like this by a nightmare that felt as bad as what Aya had suffered back when they had gone to Timbergrey.

What surprised him the most about the bad dream was that there had been no ‘triggers’ that he had been aware of, and so forewarned that such a thing would happen. Aya’s mood had been pretty good the last several days, aside from his concern over their not quite so welcome guests and Yohji’s chancy temper. The thought that Yuda’s presence at the Koneko might have something to do with the nightmare made Yohji snarl, which prompted a weary sigh from his mate.

"Cat?"

"Hmm." Aya’s head lolled back against his shoulder, and Yohji’s heart clenched at the sight of those lovely violet eyes so shaded by exhaustion and pain. "Too tired for that," Aya mumbled, his eyes half-lidded as if he might fall back to sleep.

Yohji knew that was unlikely to happen, considering the intensity of the nightmare. At one point in the past, he would have done his best to drain his lover dry and force a return to sleep, but the stark truth was that Aya had less nightmares when he did not act like an over-protective idiot. "Sorry." This time he kissed his mate’s left temple. "Do you want to talk about it?" He spoke the words quietly, his emotions making it clear that the choice was up to Aya.

"No." The word was sighed more than spoken, a telling sign that it was best to drop the matter. Sometimes it helped for Aya to talk about the nightmare, sometimes not. Yohji imagined that his lover just wanted to put the whole thing out of mind as quickly as possible.

"Ah. Well, I can only hope it wasn’t about the awesome yet insatiable dick wearing you out with exhaustion." It was a bit of a gamble, joking like that, but well worth the risk when Aya managed a tired sounding snort of amusement. "I know it’s damn hard to resist."

Aya tilted his head back a little more so he could look at Yohji. "You really are the most delusional man I’ve ever met." There was the faintest of curves to his lips, and his eyes were a slight bit less shadowed now.

"Nah, that would be Naru or Teddy, not me." Yohji chuckled and shifted about a little, mindful of how he and Aya did not have much spare flesh between them. At least *his* mate was not a bag of skin and bones, like Rufus’. Well, not anymore. "Should I go down and fetch us something to eat?" If Aya did not seem inclined to sleep the last hour or two before dawn, then some sort of distraction was required to keep the redhead from regressing back into the bleak emotions from before.

"I’m not hungry," Aya said with a shake of his head, which was not much of a surprise. Instead, his next words were, albeit a pleasant one. "Tell me about your childhood, Yotan. What… what did your mother do on nights like these?"

It was not that Aya never inquired about Yohji’s past, it was just that him asking so plainly like this was rare. Usually, the stories came out via conversation with others or reminisces on Yohji’s part; Aya did not often have any similar tales to tell, and the good memories were tied to the family he had lost because of the Takatori.

If Aya wanted childhood tales, Yohji would be happy to supply them – at least up until the point that they disturbed those painful memories on his mate’s behalf. He wiggled about a bit more until the pillows were pushed up a few more inches and began to stroke his right hand along Aya’s collarbones.

"Well, you would think that Mom was the empath out of my parents as she always knew when I had bad dreams." There was a hint of sadness to Yohji’s voice and emotions as he thought about how his mother had died at too early an age. "She told me once that the inn always let her know when one of her boys needed her, though I’m not sure that I believe it." He knew that Mickey and Jo treated the place as if it was alive, just like his mother had, but he put down that ‘empathy’ to her knowing her sons so well.

"Maybe she had a touch of it herself." Aya’s voice was a little clearer, a little surer, and the pain over the link started to fade. "One doesn’t have to be a bound to have it, according to some scholars."

Yohji considered that and shrugged. "Perhaps. There’s very little I’d put past her, after all. Anyway, she would always come into my room and crawl into bed with me. Half the time I woke up to find her holding me close and whispering my name." At times like those he knew how much his mother had loved and protected him, had felt so safe and cherished that the nightmares had no choice but to vanish from his memory. "To be honest, it was Teddy who had the most nightmares when we were growing up." He smiled as he remembered an old joke. "We teased him when he first got together with Koyu that he was just looking for someone to hold him during the night since Mom declared him too old to have his nightmares soothed away anymore." Not that Teddy had suffered them much past puberty, but it had been a given for several years that if their mother was not found in her bed in the morning, to go check Teddy’s room for her first.

No, his childhood had been too safe and stable for him to really suffer the doubts and fears that inspired the worst nightmares, other than Schuldig and a few customers telling him tales about hungry demons and vengeful ghosts when he had been a little too young. He supposed that was another difference between him and Aya – but at least he had dealt with the damn things often enough to know how best to comfort his lover on nights like these.

The next couple of hours were passed with him voicing whatever memory about his childhood popped into his head. Other than short breaks to relieve their bladders and to fetch him a glass of water for his parched throat, they remained in bed wrapped around each other, content to feel skin against skin and breathe in the other’s scent. The sun eventually rose, as much as one could tell with it being yet another cool, rainy day. At this rate, there would be a bumper crop of mushrooms this summer.

Knowing that the worst of the breakfast rush should be over, he gently nudged Aya off the bed so they could get ready and go downstairs. The shadows were almost gone from around Aya’s beautiful eyes, but there was a sense of exhaustion and sadness that remained. Yohji knew his mate would be quieter than usual today, and was actually looking forward to Reno appearing with Rufus since he thought that might cheer Aya up a bit. At the least, he was certain he could count on Reno to come up with some amusing as hell - albeit ridiculous - distraction with very little prodding on his part.

For once, Aya did not say anything while Yohji hovered around him on their way to the kitchen and even after they got there, barely more than a step away at any moment. Perhaps Aya knew when was the best time to protest about him being over-protective, perhaps he just needed Yohji close by after such a disturbing night. The fact was that Yohji did feel very protective about his mate, not wanting anything else to upset him today.

Already on edge over the nightmare, Yohji was *not* happy to find that Yuda was in the kitchen and in a bad mood. Judging from the look on Jo’s face and the simmering emotions he sensed, she was about to whip out the dreaded rolling pin and beat some manners into him. Hell, even Crawford appeared annoyed at the idiot right now, and it was a rare occasion where he let any emotion other than disgust or amusement show on his face.

Crawford pushed his glasses farther up his nose then folded his arms over his chest, while not too far away Jei leaned against one of the tables. Yohji did not need his empathic talent to know that the flesh gaki bound was waiting for an excuse to jump in and defend his partner; he had the impression the little ‘disagreement’ had been going on for a while now.

"For the last time, I *will* not drag either Schuldig or Shinra out of bed to appease your sense of impatience." The frostiness to the precog’s voice was cold enough to chill the entire cold room for a few days, yet Yuda continued to glare in response. Meanwhile, Yohji had a better understanding of why so many bounds deferred to Crawford; he and Aya normally did not get this type of treatment because of how necessary they were… not to mention the fact that Aya could kill Crawford with a thought.

While Crawford spoke, Nagi and Omi snuck across the kitchen, as if afraid to draw attention to themselves, and stood near Yohji and Aya; Nagi situated himself between Omi and Aya as if to protect his friend and lover. For once too tired to correct the addle-brained little demon, Yohji merely rolled his eyes, gave his mate a quick hug and then stepped away enough so that he was equally between Aya and Jo. Even if she could probably stare down an army on her own, he was not happy with the thought of any human being in a room when two powerful bounds seemed ready to come to blows. The fact that Maddox, Mickey nor any of the rest of the human staff was not present led him to believe that she probably had already sent them to safety, being too stubborn to leave herself. As for Aya… well, he had proven many times that he could look after himself, and if anything, Yohji would need to save the asshole responsible for this mess’ life than his mate’s.

Said asshole - Yuda - growled deep in his throat and slashed his right hand through the air. "You promised me that they would break through Shin’s mental blocks, and I fail to see how they can do that if they’re not here!" The savage hunger and desperate need that radiated off of the man almost made Yohji feel sorry for him, if it was not for the fact that he was picking a fight in the Koneko’s kitchen. Yohji almost joined in on the argument, only to snap his mouth shut when Crawford gave him a quick look over Yuda’s shoulder and an abrupt shake of his head.

"They will. However, just as Shin is negatively affected by the removal of the coercions, so are they. Not only do they feel his pain, but it is agonizing and very draining for them to deal with traps that the Elders placed inside Shin’s mind to keep the coercions in place." Amazingly enough, Crawford’s tone grew even colder. "I will not force either of them out of bed before they have regained sufficient balance and energy. Rushing them will not only cause them mental damage, but to Shin and their mates as well."

Yohji blinked in surprise; he had never thought to hear Crawford defend Schu and Rufus with such vehemence, not when the precog could barely stand either of the soul gaki bounds. Being worried about their mates made more sense, but it was clear that his concern was not only for Reno and Masato. Huh, Schu and Rufus must play a bigger part in the war than Yohji had suspected.

As for his own mate, Aya was rather displeased over the possible danger to his friend and had taken to giving Yuda that particularly nasty glare of his. Yohji did not need to be a soul gaki bound to know that more than anything Aya wanted to hiss ‘shi-ne’ at the bastard succubae bound, which helped to cheer him up for a moment. That was, until Yuda growled again.

"Shin will continue to be in pain until the damn things are broken, and I-" He cut himself off with another growl. "You said he would be free of them shortly after Rei was, and I expect you to honor that promise!"

"Which I will do, but not at the risk to six bounds for the sake of just two!" Crawford snapped, sounding perilously close to losing his temper. Jei shifted away from the table, golden eye glowing like an ember of coal and teeth fully bared, while Nagi did something to push Omi back a step without any movement on his part. Torn between his lover and his foster mother, Yohji whined and forces himself to take another step toward Jo, wanting nothing more than to punch Yuda yet too aware of the fact that if he gave in to his temper now, he might kill the other bound.

"I only care about Shin!" To his credit, there was an edge of guilt and desperation to Yuda as he made the admission, his expression troubled and the hunger shading his voice. Yohji let the very selfish comment slide without saying anything, since he was all too aware of to what lengths he would go for Aya. He suspected that was why everyone in the room was quiet for a moment.

Crawford cleared his throat and seemed to be weighing his words before he spoke them. "I am aware of that. Schuldig and Shinra will be here soon enough, which not only gives them the chance to recover, but Shin as well. They will be more efficient in dealing with the mental coercions if they are not exhausted, meaning that the short delay will benefit you and Shin in the long run."

Yuda snarled, looking as if he wanted to argue against that point, yet unable to since it was clear that him continuing to push would put Shin at risk. Sounding like a guard dog about to attack, he spun around on his left heel and began to storm out of the room as if he had no other choice but do that or start a fight. Yohji watched him go with a sense of relief filling his chest – until in his haste to leave, Yuda brushed against a tired Aya.

Days of doing his best to not give in to his demon nature, a handful of lectures on Yuda’s importance to the future and knowledge of the fact that Aya could do a damn fine job of looking after himself was incinerated in a heartbeat by a searing rage that would *not* allow Yohji to let go of the thought that another succubae bound- one who he had already warned before to not do such a thing – had dared to touch his weakened mate.

The air in his lungs rushed past his lips in a deafening roar as he charged at Yuda, wanting nothing more than to rip the bastard’s head off with his own hands. Yuda turned at the sound, purple eyes widening in shock before he was hurtled toward the floor by Yohji’s weight and impetus.

Straddling the bound, Yohji wrapped his hands around the bastard’s throat and squeezed them tight, wishing that he possessed the sharp claws of other bounds. Dammit, even sharp nails like Aya’s would be useful right now, would enable him to slash through the veins beating against his fingers. Yuda attempted at first to force his hands apart, only stopping when Yohji lifted his head up a couple of inches and slammed it back against the wood floor. The body beneath his own began to writhe in order to dislodge him, which only made him tighten his hold all the more.

Around him there was panic and noise, emotions battering at his mind while he strove to end the life of his rival. The emotions he sensed from Yuda grew sharp for several seconds and then began to fade, fueling his demon-spawned madness; he leaned even closer so he could watch the bound die. His movement was arrested by someone’s hand on his right shoulder, a familiar scent enveloping him along with cool caresses.

"Yotan, don’t." The words were spoken in such a sibilant manner that it was difficult to understand them at first, but the emotions that accompanied them wove their way past Yohji’s befuddled thoughts. Yohji’s hands spasmed for a moment before they relaxed, his upper body leaning backwards to rest against Aya’s legs. "Thank you."

Moving in one smooth motion, Yohji left Yuda lying unconscious on the floor so he could gather his mate into his arms, reveling at the feel of shadows sliding along his body and the way that Aya melted against him. The kiss was savage at first, his demon nature proving to everyone that Aya was *his*, until the love and concern he had for his mate softened it before it provoked any negative memories. All he wanted was the man he loved more than anything to be well and safe.

"Hmph, he didn’t kill him."

Yohji broke off the kiss when Jei spoke to turn around and glare at the bound, who was crouched beside Yuda. "You say that as if it’s a good thing!" The snarl was back in his voice, and even if he did not possess an impressive set of fangs, he bared his teeth at the flesh gaki bound all the same.

Jei bared his fangs in response, although Yohji did not get any sense of being challenged. "As far as I’m concerned, I just got cheated out of a nice meal, but others have different opinions on the matter." He rose to his feet with a grace that many would consider unlikely because of his scruffy and scarred appearance. "And I’m willing to bet that I get stuck with carrying him back up to his room, too. You sure I can’t help myself to a few bites, Crawford?"

"No."

Jei made a displeased face at the bit of news and sighed. "Killjoy."

"Glutton," Crawford shot back, the peaceful smile on his face almost as rare as the sarcasm-free verbal sparring. "I would thank you for not killing him, Yohji, if it hadn’t been such a close call." The smile faded into disapproval as he gave Yohji a stern look. "I’ve met less temperamental starved flesh gaki bounds, I’ll have you know."

"Like I give a damn." Yohji growled in frustration, and for once Jo let the noise slip by without any warning. That alone helped to shock him back into completely rational thought. "Okay, okay, I wouldn’t have been happy with killing a man here just because of…." He fell quiet and shook his head. Because Yuda had touched Aya for all of two seconds? Because there was no way he would risk any of his loved ones being harmed? Because his demon soul could render him into a blithering, homicidal idiot at times? Oh hell, was he thankful that no one who could read minds was presently in the room to shoot that last thought back at him.

"You are partially responsible for this, Crawford." Everyone started at Aya’s voice, and Yohji did not think it was because of its sibilance. "You’re the only person who believes that it’s a good idea to have a starved succubae bound unable to feed from or even touch his mate stay at the Koneko." There was more interest than reproach to Aya’s emotions just then.

To his credit, Crawford shrugged as he went to fetch a pitcher of coffee. "I still have faith in the benefits outweighing the risks. Having Yuda and Shin stay somewhere else would lower the chances of Yuda being killed by a stronger succubae bound, but it increases the danger since no one at those other places would be able to stand up to the man when his demon nature takes over." He glanced over at Yuda’s unconscious form before sitting down at the table and filling various mugs with fresh coffee. "Give him another two days and he’ll be past this phase."

"I hope so," Nagi muttered as he stepped closer to Aya, making sure to direct Yohji’s way a warning glare that clearly translated into ‘you better not drain him dry anytime soon, you gluttonous bastard’. Only the fact that Omi was right behind the little demon, and so a reminder that Yohji trussing Nagi up like the solstice goose and tossing him into one of the fires would upset a dear friend kept Nagi unsinged. For now.

"So do I, as I helped clean the floors today and don’t want to see my hard work spoiled by spilled blood." Omi was no fool and never callous, but despite his insistence that he would not do well at Court, he did have a good sense of when to change the atmosphere in a room. His joke helped to put everyone at ease, and even Aya cracked a tiny smile in response.

Jo stared at Yuda for a few seconds before turning her attention on Jei. "Didn’t you say something about taking him up to his room? No matter what you idiots may think, it’s *not* a good idea to leave someone lying on the floor like that. The last thing I need is to have crockery broken and food wasted by someone tripping over him." She sniffed in anger as she spun around to join Crawford at the table, and Yohji got the impression from her emotions that she was only being so cavalier about Yuda almost being throttled because she felt that he had brought some of the abuse on himself. There were many very good reasons why none of the Koneko staffed deliberately picked a fight in the kitchen, and almost all of them led back to Jo.

"To think that I came here in hopes of a meal," Jei complained as he easily picked up and draped Yuda over his left shoulder. "Just one-"

"NO. We need him whole. If you’re that hungry, there’s a wizard in town who’s trying to locate water elemental bounds for their blood." Crawford was pure nonchalance as he voiced words that sparked the tempers of everyone in the room, as well as Jei’s hunger.

Jei paused in his task to stare at his partner, his golden eye glowing once more. "Where?" From the hint of madness in his tone, he was about to lose himself to his demon nature.

"Take Yuda up to his bed and then I’ll tell you." Crawford was very pleased with himself, smiling once again when Jei strode out of the room in a hurry, moving easily as if he did not have a grown man draped over his shoulder. Yohji had the impression that Yuda was about to be dumped onto the bed without any ceremony and did not feel the slightest bit sorry for the bound.

When the door closed, everyone looked in Crawford’s direction. "Does Botan know about that?" Omi asked, being the first one to break the silence.

"The Royal Wizard and I have reached an agreement. He wants the names of all the wizards I send Jei after, and I swore to him that they would be guilty of murdering bounds and humans." For someone who had just sealed a man’s death in the last couple of minutes, Crawford did not seem too bothered at the moment. "Oh, and that Jei wouldn’t leave much of a mess behind when he was done feeding."

Everyone in the room was very well aware of the importance of a bound giving their word on anything, as well as found the practice of using blood and organs in spells as thoroughly reprehensible, so there were no objections. There was no hesitation as they joined Crawford at the table; Yohji doubted that he was the only one thinking about losing someone he loved to such a wizard as the one Jei would soon kill. Aya’s blood alone was beyond price….

Yohji hugged his mate close and gave him a tender kiss on the cheek, prompting confusion from Aya and an uncertain smile. Knowing that Aya had too many painful memories about what the Takatori had done to him, Yohji decided to change the topic right away. "So, I’m thinking of paying Eleanor a visit today. As I doubt I’ll be able to carry all the fudge, candied apples and sweets I’m sure everyone’s going to want from her shop, who’s tagging along with me?" Aya was a given, which made Yohji grateful for the fact that it was a rainy, overcast day. The prospect of treats would help improve Aya’s mood, and it would probably be a very good thing for Yohji to be away from someplace that smelled so strongly of Yuda for a couple of hours.

"For someone who is constantly draining others of energy, you are a weak and lazy fool," Nagi sniffed. Yohji stuck his tongue out at the little demon in response, a habit he blamed on Reno, and chuckled when Nagi’s lips twitched as if he wanted to grin.

"I take that to mean that we’ll be tagging along," Omi replied after a quick glance at Jo. "And that Nagi’s just volunteered to do all the carrying." He laughed at his boyfriend’s chagrined expression, but Yohji doubted that anyone in the room believed Nagi to be upset with being stuck with the duty.

Jo left the table for the stove, where Yohji was willing to bet his very comfortable bed she was going to put together a huge plate of food for his mate. "Considering how quickly the fudge that Mickey bought the other day disappeared, you better bring back as much as you can carry. Oh, and something special for Emmie since she won’t want any of the apples."

Nodding in agreement, Yohji reached for a mug of coffee and had a sip before answering. "She likes candied oranges, so I’ll get her a small bag of them."

Considering the bad start to the day and the near-homicide, things were looking up. As long as the sun waited to make a comeback for the next few hours, it could turn out to be a good day after all. They would take their time enjoying breakfast, and if Reno and Rufus showed up before they left, invite the dubhach to come along. Yohji figured that Yuda probably could not survive another murder attempt today, and if the fool woke up in time to complain about Rufus’ late arrival, that was what would happen. Yohji was not so much worried about the other succubae bound as determined that if anyone was going to kill the man, it would be him. Reno could find someone else to throttle or zap to death.

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Yuda woke up to find Ruka sitting at the end of his bed, wearing such a worried expression that he half-expected his friend to warn him that they were about to be captured and dragged back to Esset. "What?" he demanded to know as he sat up in a rush, never mind how unhappy that made his aching head.

Ruka’s solemn frown relented and became a slight smile. <You have a very fanciful imagination. I am relieved to say that the situation isn’t anywhere near that dire.> He was quiet for a moment, the smile fading as he stared at the sheet now pooled in Yuda’s lap. <We’re under no threat… except for what you faced earlier. I’m sorry.>

Yuda had the impression that his friend was not apologizing so much about him being knocked unconscious by that bastard Yohji as he was something else. However, he was not in the best of shape to puzzle things out just then.

<Yes, I’m sorry that I wasn’t there to watch your back,> Ruka elaborated, raising his head so he could look him in the eyes. <I was with Rei while->

He was cut off by a sharp wave of Yuda’s right hand. "No, there’s nothing to apologize for. You have every right to be with Rei, especially since it’s been so long." Just as he had every right to be with Shin, even if the gods seemed determined to keep them apart.

"Shin’s… all right," Ruka said, a rough edge to his voice as if he was pained by something. "Rei’s with him now, watching over him as he sleeps." He paused again. "From what I can tell, the blocks are almost gone."

The words were meant to comfort, but to Yuda’s mind all that mattered was the ‘almost’. As long as any of the blocks remained, he could not touch his mate, could not hold him close, could not rest with his head lying against Shin’s thigh as lovely music was played for his benefit, could not feed off of emotions that were sweeter and richer than anyone else’s. That was what had driven him to confront Crawford this morning, his hunger an almost physical thing gnawing at him, driving him half-mad with its incessant need.

"I’ve been assured yet again that they will be gone soon," he spat, leaning forward so he could wrap his arms around his bent knees. The hunger was so bad that he barely realized that his throat ached almost as much as did his head. Normally, he would recover from a brief, nasty fight like that by now, but the lack of energy began to wear on him. Not even the bit of strength that Gai was able to give him helped anymore.

Ruka also leaned forward, so he could place his right hand on top of Yuda’s. "What happened? Your thoughts of the event are too muddled for me to make any sense of, and all that we were told was that you and Yohji had another fight." He was upset over that fact, his emotions protective and furious for Yuda’s sake.

Wishing he could feed from his friend and restore his energy levels, Yuda shrugged and did his best to not think about how Shin was only a short distance away. "I had words with Crawford, which as always led to nowhere." If anyone could get the best of that man in an argument, he wanted to be there to see it. "I think… I must have gotten too near to Yohji’s mate or something when I made to leave the room." Or so, that was all he could think of to explain why the other succubae bound had attacked him like that. For the past several days, they had put every effort into avoiding each other, and even though it galled his demon soul, he acknowledged that Yohji was stronger and did his best to not antagonize the man. That was in part why he had been leaving the kitchen, to get away before he did something that would lead to a fight between them, no matter how much he had wanted to throttle Crawford.

In his memories, he recalled storming past Yohji, the two humans, and Nagi. While he knew that Aya was in the room – it was very rare to run across Yohji without his silent mate nearby – he had difficulty placing where exactly the redhead had been. Then there had been the shock of finding himself shoved to the floor, Yohji on top of him and doing his best to choke the life out of him. No matter how much Yuda had tried to toss the bastard aside, Yohji had been too fast and too strong. The succubae bounds hands had been so cold, like ice….

There was a flash of something black and red in his memories, and then darkness. Why did he have the impression that Aya had been involved in the fight somehow?

Following his thoughts, Ruka made a spitting sound and sat back. <I don’t know, but I swear that he did something to Yohji during that first fight. Something… each time I try to remember it clearly, the thought slips away like quicksilver. As it is, there are times when I have trouble simply remembering the man, and none of us have figured out what he is yet.> From the thoughts that were shared with him, Yuda knew his friend was leaning towards Aya being a very powerful soul gaki bound, someone able to mess with their minds without any detection on their part.

That fact did not make him happy, as having Shin’s mind messed with caused him endless pain, even though part of him accepted that Crawford had found an incredibly powerful ally to fight the Elders. Yet… the flaw in that logic was why did Aya not help with the mental blocks in Shin’s mind? Crawford had sworn to him that he had the two most powerful soul gaki bounds in Eto doing their best to free Shin from the Elders’ influence.

<Yes, it does tend to cast doubt on the theory.> Ruka sighed and leaned back against the bed’s oak footboard. <Gai’s been trying to get an answer out of his wizard friend to no avail, and Gou noticed that people become very uncomfortable when he asks about Aya. Whatever he is, it’s clear that no one wants us to know.>

Yuda grunted in annoyance as he slowly got out of bed. "If he has something to do with fighting the Elders, then we *will* know what he is. I won’t go into a war blind over something that seems very important, and I refuse to fight alongside people who won’t trust me." He had sworn away his life and his soul should he betray Crawford; even though he was furious over how long it was taking in regard to Shin, he had no intention of breaking his word. Ruka had been reunited with Rei, and despite his frustration he knew it would not be long now before he and Shin truly were mates. Crawford had kept his word, and Yuda had reasons other than an oath to make sure that Esset did not win the approaching war. If he, Shin and the people he cared about were to ever have a hope of a peaceful future, the Elders and their minions had to die.

<On that we agree.> Though the words were ‘whispered’ in his mind, he knew that Ruka felt as strongly about the situation as he did.

He washed his face and removed his rumpled tunic, replacing it with a red one that Shin had always liked before belting on his sword. The color was faded and the material worn thin in a few spots, but he had refused to part with it because of the memories it invoked in him. Soon, he could take his mate shopping and buy them both something new to wear, something that would help create new memories, but until he truly had Shin once again, he needed things such as this.

"Let’s go," he told his friend as he headed to the door, certain that Ruka knew from his thoughts where they were headed. Nothing against Rei, but he could not rest comfortably unless he was the one watching over Shin. He had entrusted that duty to his closest friends other than Ruka, and even if it was not their fault, they had betrayed that trust by allowing Shin to fall into such a deplorable condition. Now that they were together, he would ensure that his love grew stronger and was never used to such an extent again, that he was protected and cherished.

Unease flowed into him, radiating from Ruka despite his friend’s effort to stifle the emotion. <He escaped from one cage, Yuda. Please….> The thought was not finished, probably because Ruka could sense Yuda’s building rage.

He spun around to glare at his closest friend, hands clutched into fists as he did his best not to reach for his sword. It took a minute’s effort, but he eventually calmed his temper. "You do Shin a disservice if you believe he’ll allow such a thing to happen." Despite his mate’s quiet nature, Shin could and had stood up to him. If that were not the case, then he would not be starving like this, and Shin would never have almost died trying to appease the Elders.

Ruka held his hands up as if to prove he meant no harm. "He loves you too much, just keep that in mind. I believe he’ll suffer through anything if it means making you happy."

The words both pleased and disturbed Yuda. He did not want a docile slave as a mate, yet after the way Shin had refused to leave Esset with him, he sometimes had his doubts that the water elemental felt the same for him. Ruka’s words soothed that foolish doubt, as did the thought that Shin had only stayed behind because he had believed that Yuda’s best chance at freedom demanded the sacrifice.

The past was the past, and nothing could change it. They had both paid a steep price for their freedom, and now that they were together, he would defy all the gods to keep from ever being separated again short of death. If he had to bear with Crawford’s infuriating ‘soon’s and not seek out Yohji for a fight, then so be it. All that mattered was leaving here with Shin.

*******

Heero hurried through the garden, mindful of the short amount of time he had before he was expected to return to Major Marquis’ office. The rain helped in that it tended to slow things down, and he judged that he would have ten minutes to talk to Trowa.

The water elemental did not seem bothered to be out in the rain, which was only natural in a way. What surprised Heero when he finally tracked down his friend was how Trowa used his talent to keep the rain from falling down on him in a place where there might be witnesses. No, not so much off of him, but the squirming puffs of fur on his lap. The sight of four tiny kittens rendered Heero incapable of issuing a greeting, although he did have the sense of mind to create a wall of air around them to keep away prying eyes and ears.

"Good afternoon," Trowa remarked in that calm, quiet way of his. He wore a cloak over a page’s uniform, both left untouched by the rain, and most of his auburn hair was pulled back into a tight braid. As for the kittens, they clung to the wool fabric of Trowa’s cloak and mewled, a riot of white, silvery grey and black. It was not so much a surprise of finding them with Trowa when one took into account the bound’s love for animals, but unusual that they were on the palace grounds.

"Kittens?" Heero managed to say after a moment’s pause.

"Yes, kittens." It was only the fact that Heero had known Trowa for so many years that he picked up on the note of amusement in his friend’s voice. "Apparently, a cat had a litter here in the garden, although the gardener says she has not seen the mother in a couple of days. The kittens are going to die if no one takes them in and gives them food." Judging from the protective manner in which Trowa was hunched over the animals, Heero would guess that the kittens had found their savior.

"I see." Heero rarely lied, much preferring silence to embellishing any type of story, but he could come up with nothing else to say. The truth was, Trowa’s love for animals aside, he saw no sense in this at all. They were merely animals, of which there were thousands more of to be found elsewhere in the city. They were also too young to look after themselves, which would require effort and time that could be directed to much more fruitful endeavors. And worst of all, they would only live a decade or two, which was such a short time to a bound. Why risk growing attached to such things? It was almost… almost as bad as becoming attached to a human.

That thought made Heero blush in response; that Trowa’s attention was still on the kittens was no relief since he knew the water elemental most likely could sense the sudden rush of blood in his veins. Made uncomfortable by the rare sense of embarrassment and longing, he opened his mouth to move things along in the proper direction.

It was a purpose to which Trowa beat him. "I’m sorry to say that I do not have much to report. The birth of the king’s daughter has brought things to a halt, even for the Spymaster. We’re currently busy looking into the backgrounds of the people who will be invited to the Naming ceremony next month."

Heero closed his mouth and nodded as he considered that bit of news. Things were little better in the Army, although he was grateful for the chance to do something other than stand at attention in one of the palace’s many hallways and wait to run errands back and forth. "What about Duo?"

He paid close attention as he asked that question, and as always, Trowa showed no visible reaction. "It’s much of the same for the Guard. He hasn’t been on patrol outside of the palace in almost a week."

Whenever Trowa spoke about the fire elemental, he was always calm and slightly detached. That was not unusual in the least, as ‘calm’ and ‘detached’ were two words commonly used in describing the quiet man, along with ‘intelligent’ and ‘deadly’. But for those two words to be tied in some manner to Duo, a person who had an undeniable talent in provoking exasperation and amazement from people who liked him….

Heero was the first to admit that he was not an expert at dealing with or identifying emotions, which was in part the reason he was in this current predicament with a *human*. But he had very few friends, so the people he did care about he paid very close attention to in hopes of knowing when they were troubled or might need his help. The impression he got from Trowa was that he was *happy* to be roommates with Duo, something that was the exact opposite of his reaction back when the mission had been handed out.

While Heero had not seen Duo since before arriving in Eto, he knew his friend had been excited at the chance to live with Trowa, someone who usually went out of his way to avoid the fire elemental. Putting two and two together… Heero could not help but wonder if the two bounds had finally realized that they were attracted to each other. That was the only logical explanation he could think of to explain their past and present behavior.

A simple way to find an answer would be to ask, yet he could not make himself do that even if the three of them were involved in a mission and he had to be up to date on all dynamics that could affect the mission’s outcome. Two agents sleeping together could cause several major issues, and he knew that it was something that the Elders would expect him to send in one of his reports. Yet….

He had never seen Trowa this much at peace before, especially when they were in enemy territory and risking their lives. Their friendship was not one of shared meals and nights spent drinking, of ridiculous attempts at one-upmanship and the other things he had witnessed between the men in his squad. No, they had respect and understanding between them, knowledge that the world was not a very kind place and the belief that no price was too high to pay to make it better. So if something helped to lessen the watchful, dangerous tension that had always filled Trowa before, that made it seem as if he had found some sort of happiness after suffering so much, Heero felt the reason for that change could be kept quiet for the time being. It was only speculation on his part, after all, and even if it was true, the relationship could be a temporary one. If Trowa and Duo were in fact together and remained that way once they were back in Esset, then he would consider it his duty to report them. That was, as long as it did not interfere with the mission.

Mindful of the time, he opened his mouth to speak again, the hated blush back on his cheek. And once again, Trowa seemed to anticipate his actions; the quiet bound stopped petting the grey kitten with his right hand and reached beneath the fold of his cloak to retrieve a slip of paper. "She responded sooner than I had anticipated. At least with all the activities in the palace right now, we have many opportunities to cross each other’s path." He held out the paper, protected from the rain, to Heero.

Part of him knew accepting the note was pure foolishness; the girl was not only human but was the enemy as well. However, there was something about her that lingered in his awareness, that made him think about her whenever he did his best to push her from his mind. In a way, she was like the Major, so unusual that he could do nothing but try to figure out why she drew his attention like that, to no avail despite his best efforts. He told himself that it would benefit the mission if he could gain the trust of a highborn and get her to reveal important information, that acting like a human would help perfect his assumed identity. One of the best things about Trowa was that the water elemental never asked him for his reasons and so risked them being exposed as the flimsy things that they were.

"Thank you." Heero bowed slightly as he accepted the note. "I imagine that I will be back within the next day or two."

"I’m sorry, but I won’t here for three more days." Trowa gathered the kittens up in his arms, the creatures purring as they did their best to burrow beneath his cloak. "Take care."

"And you as well," Heero wished his friend. He stared after Trowa’s back for a moment before remembering about the note, and was relieved to find that the rain had barely touched it. Tucking it into an inner pocket of his rain slicker, he hurried from the garden, both to return to his post as quickly as possible and because he felt uncomfortable lingering at the palace. There was a chance that he might run into Relena while here, the thought of which produced some very odd sensations in his chest. No, until he figured out what emotions she provoked in him, it would be best to carry on their correspondence by letter. At least he had plenty of opportunities to see Trowa to pass along the notes, with the latest development among Kritiker’s ruling family.

*******

Jo sat at one of the kitchen tables and sipped her mug of tea, grateful for the opportunity to rest after such a dramatic day so far. Everyone crept around as if walking on eggshells because of Yohji and Yuda, and today’s fight had only worsened the sense of tension in the inn. Well, it had not been much of a fight, to be honest, which was probably a good thing. She did not see any way that Yuda could have drawn out the battle even if he had not pretty much been sucker-punched by Yohji, not when one took into account Yohji’s speed and enchanted wires. He had been a very formidable fighter back in the Guard, and since becoming aware of his true nature and his bond with Aya, those skills had only increased. She had watched a few sparring sessions between Yohji and Jei or Yuushi to have a good idea of just how much better Yohji had gotten in the past year.

There was a beauty to be found in those sparring sessions, something that she did not think was because of his succubae nature. No, the sight of Yohji moving so quickly and effortlessly, the wires appearing as an extension of him as he danced out of the way of Jei’s fierce claws or Yuushi’s whip-sword was exciting to behold. As much as she disliked fighting, she would often wander outside during the sessions and spend a few minutes at least watching.

Today’s fight, however, had not been enjoyable in the least. It tore at her, seeing Yohji so out of sorts over something he could not change or control. From listening to Gai and Gou talk about their friend, she had the impression that Yuda was normally very level-headed and the perfect gentleman. There were glimmers of that other personality from time to time – when he was not so upset over Shin, which was very rare.

Still, considering the way Yohji fussed over Aya, she would not hold it against the man. Quite honestly, Yuda had not become as bad as Yohji back when Aya had- She shook her head to rid it of that painful memory.

"Jo?"

"Yes?" She stopped staring off in the distance to focus on Maddox, who was busy preparing things for dinner. She smiled in affection at him, proud of how much he was handling by himself and the evident joy he took in his work.

Pausing in putting together the rub for the pork shanks that would soon be placed on the spits in the fireplace, he frowned as if uncertain about something. Then he shrugged, proving how far he had come from being the quiet, anxious young man who had showed up on the Koneko’s doorstep last year. "Did I mention to you that Parshawn told me that he has an order of salted cod from Thracia arriving later this week? We talked about it for a little while, and I think I can get him down to a reasonable price."

She considered the news and nodded in approval. "With a cold and damp fall to look forward to, not to mention another nasty winter, I think it would be a great idea to get however much he’s willing to part with as long as the price isn’t outrageous." There were several recipes in the books that were passed down to the Koneko’s current cook that could use the fish, and it would be a good idea to have some food stored away for the times when it would be impossible to get out to the market. "We could try out a few new dishes."

Maddox beamed in excitement as he carefully measured out the black pepper that he had just ground up. "My family has a really good one for salted fish." His face became flushed right after he said that, and he glanced around the kitchen as if looking for someone. Jo knew that person was Emmie, who usually would be here doing her homework around now if it were not for the inn’s current guests.

There was obviously some pain over the way the children’s family had treated them, even though Emmie and Maddox had settled in at the Koneko. "I’m always willing to try something new," she said as placidly as possible, allowing him a chance to withdraw the offer if he changed his mind at a later date.

"Okay."

Maddox resumed measuring out everything, and she got up to help him prepare the shanks and then peel some vegetables. Ani and Nagi would report in another hour to help with dinner, but getting things ready like this actually went better with fewer hands. By now, Maddox was able to do the work by himself, with Jo only helping out to speed things along.

Yohji and Aya were upstairs, likely to remain in their room for a few more hours, and Reiichi had taken ‘advantage’ of that fact to run some errands. Teddy and Koyu were out with Gai and Naru, which made Jo pray every half an hour or so that she continued to not hear any sounds of explosions or mass riots. Ichiro and Jason were busy in the stables tending to the horses and gear, and she doubted she would see either her reticent lover or his shy apprentice until she took them their dinner. Yuushi and Eri had come into the kitchen less than an hour ago to put together a few snacks and fetch a bottle of wine before going outside despite the fact that it was still raining, but there were enough spots in the garden where they could remain dry that Jo did not find their actions too odd. Ken, Miko and Nagi were helping Omi practice his magic up in the attic. Mickey was in the office, Touya had the front door, Marta was going over schoolwork with the girls and Kira watched over the part-time staff in the dining room, which meant that all of her family was accounted for. Considering the chance of trouble occurring, it helped to settle her nerves to know where her loved ones were and how they were doing.

She and Maddox were almost finished when the kitchen door slowly pushed open to reveal two heads covered with unusually colored hair. Rei’s long, lavender-hued strands were in stark contrast to the gold-colored tunic that had been lent to him, while Ruka’s silver hair was mostly pulled back and wrapped with dark grey material.

"May we enter?" Rei asked in a quiet voice, his manner clearly hesitant even as he stared around the kitchen with red eyes gone wide. Jo almost told the bound to wear his illusion charm, much like Gai was doing right now, before she reminded herself that Rei was barely ever out of his room. Besides, Ruka could cast an illusion spell if they ran into any of the inn’s human guests.

"Of course," she told him as she stepped away from the prep table and wiped her hands clean with her pale yellow apron. From what Gai had mentioned, she knew that this bound had been the one responsible for feeding the cousins the last several years, and even if she was a bit miffed about the trouble they had inadvertently brought to her home, she held some respect toward a fellow cook.

Rei’s pale face was transformed by a radiant smile, he rushed into the kitchen with a burst of energy that surprised not only her but Ruka, too, from the looks of it. Considering that the young man had been mostly bed-bound his entire time at the Koneko, that surprise was understandable. She assumed that all the rest and having the mental compulsions gone from his mind must have helped restore his energy, along with being reunited with his lover. At least the poor thing was not mated to a succubae bound or else he would never find the strength to leave his bed… not that she was certain that he would object to such a development.

"Oh, this truly is just like my dreams!" Rei exclaimed as he spun around in the middle of the room, his hair and the hem of his loose tunic flaring out around him. "I’m ashamed to think of what I’ve had to make do with all this time!"

"Yet you did a very good job with so little." Ruka’s voice was deep and quiet, like Aya’s, with a rough edge as if he was unused to speaking out loud. He sat down at one of the tables and watched his lover, his tender expression belied by the tension in his lean body. Jo had the feeling that even though they were not mates, anyone who tried to take the air elemental bound from Ruka would not live very long.

Rei finally stopped spinning, and Jo unable to tell if the flush to his cheeks was from the dervish-like movements or the praise. He ducked his head for a moment before pushing back the lavender strands, a determined look on his face as he approached Jo and Maddox.

"Could I… if it’s not too much to ask, would you let me use your kitchen?" he asked, his nervousness so obvious that she felt a pang of pity for the young man.

Beside her, Maddox frowned and stiffened as if to defend his ‘territory’, a clear sign that he had spent too much time around bounds. Resisting the urge to smack her apprentice on the back of the head, Jo nodded instead. "As long as you don’t interfere with dinner or use anything that is expensive or in short supply, I don’t see why not." If he wanted to cook something to feed himself and his friends, then it would be less work for her in the long run.

Smiling as if she had just told him that he had been blessed by the gods for the rest of his life, Rei clapped his hands together in joy. "Thank you! I want to make something for Shin since-" His extreme happiness was short-lived, quickly replaced with something that she suspected was guilt. "I’m sure he’d enjoy one of his favorite meals right now," he continued in a much more subdued tone.

Jo recalled what she had heard about the two bounds, how they were related by blood and used to looking out for each other. "If one of his favorite meals is something filling, I would suggest that you make that. Poor souls stuck with succubae bounds for the rest of their lives need all the help they can get." She followed that statement with an amused snort, looking away from Rei to Ruka when she noticed the bound sit up straighter out of the corner of her eye. He stared back at her as if he wanted to challenge that statement, then smiled slightly and shook his head.

Something in what she said seemed to restore Rei’s good mood as he beamed at her while busy braiding his hair. "Yes, exactly! They might not be mates just yet, but it’ll happen very soon. We need to make sure that Shin’s ready for it!" Long hair safely tucked out of the way, he stepped first in one direction than another, as if uncertain of where he should go first. "Ah, do you have mussels or clams?" he asked, the hesitation clear in his high-pitched voice.

Well, that certainly explained Cassandra showing up that morning with a large basket of the shellfish, Jo thought as she grinned at the precog’s antics. "We’ve a little of both that are soaking now."

Maddox spoke for the first time in minutes, some of the hostility from earlier gone although it was plain that he was not happy with having to share the kitchen with someone he considered an outsider. "I thought we were going to use them in the stuffing."

"We were, but only so they didn’t go to waste. I think the sage and sausage recipe will work even better," she said as she shrugged to show that she was not bothered with the change to the menu.

"Ah! Yes, it will, especially if we use Anderson’s pork blend." Minor crisis averted, Maddox rushed to the cold room to fetch the new ingredients. Jo watched him leave with a smile on her face and a warm glow in her chest as she thought that for once she did not have any bad feelings related to her eventual retirement. No, the Koneko’s kitchen would be left in able hands – well, it would be once she taught the boy to stand up for himself a little more. That had been a good start, him wanting to defend the kitchen, but it was clear that the Koneko would always need someone ready and willing to wield a rolling pin in the future.

Then she went to fetch an apron for Rei, who accepted it with gratitude. "Once Maddox returns, we’ll gather whatever ingredients you need. I don’t know how much you planned on making, but we’ve a bucket each of mussels and clams."

He paused in tying on the pale blue apron and appeared to be mentally calculating something. "I think I can double the recipe, then. I’ll need a lot of potatoes, leeks and heavy cream as well as parsley and chives."

"That won’t be a problem." She would just wait until Maddox was done fetching what he needed, mindful of not leaving the kitchen unattended. "We’re only a few blocks from a very nice farmer’s market, so we’re well stocked on almost everything."

Judging from the almost-lustful glaze to the bound’s red eyes, she assumed that Gai would not be the only one of the newcomers out investigating the city soon – if there was still a city left standing by the end of the day. She promised herself that she would make a trip to the Western temple district in the morning to thank the gods for their benevolence if the day concluded without any major disaster.

*******

Duo entered his apartment, mindful of the other presence beside Trowa’s he sensed inside. While it was not unusual for Sandra to visit, usually she would have one or two of her sons with her, especially if their father was still away from home for work. A little nervous as to why she was here, he managed a smile while he kicked off his wet boots and hung up his rain slicker. "I knew you were cheating on me!" he accused his lover, yelling loud enough that Trowa and Sandra would hear him even in the kitchen.

Sandra laughed as she peered into the living room. "Ah, so we’ve been caught out, have we? Want to join in?" Her smile just then would have done Yohji and Schuldig proud, he thought, a little chagrined that he had not provoked more of a reaction than that.

"I don’t know, John’s about twice the size of me and very jealous!" He headed for the kitchen, more than a little curious as to why his lover had not come out to greet him. "Unless you can talk him into joining in, too!"

That provoked another laugh from Sandra. "Unfortunately, he’d be the first to tell you that he’s only interested in women." She actually sounded a little disappointed by that fact, which explained why she was always so happy whenever he was a bit affectionate with Trowa in front of her. Hmm… maybe he could work out some sort of trade – public molestations in return for free meals. That was, if Trowa let him live long-

His thoughts became a bit disorganized when he finally caught sight of his mate; while any chance he saw Trowa after time spent apart made his heart flutter inside of his chest, he did not think that was the cause for his confusion just then. No, it was the grey and white kitten curled up on Trowa’s lap that did that.

"Ah, did you bring a kitten over to show us?" he asked Sandra, hoping that was the reason behind the furball’s presence. He knew that his lover really liked animals, but to bring a pet home?

"Oh, not quite!" Sandra patted him on his left arm and pointed at what appeared to be an opened bag of fine sand and a box that was filled with said sand tucked into the corner of the kitchen. Nearby were two bowls, one of them filled with water. "I ran out to get a few things for the new addition!"

The entire time, Trowa just sat there petting the kitten, not saying a single word. While he could be one hell of a quiet guy without really trying, Duo knew that this was not his mate’s usual reticent behavior. No, if he were to be any judge of the situation, he guessed that Trowa was waiting to see his reaction to their ‘new addition’.

He opened his mouth to say… hell, that the kitten would be better off in Sandra’s apartment? That neither he nor Trowa had any experience raising a pet? That they were only supposed to play at having a home for the sake of the mission? Oh, and of course that there was this huge, nasty and possibly deadly – for them – war looming in the near future? Things were too chancy for them to bring back a damn goldfish from one of the summer festivals let alone a cat, and there one sat, on *Duo’s* mate’s lap. And the rotten furball looked pretty happy there.

If the kitten appeared happy, Trowa to the naked eye seemed ready to fall asleep, he was so dispassionate. Yet now there was a link between him and Duo, one that Duo was grateful for every day as it gradually strengthened and gave him a fucking clue what his lover truly felt. According to that link, Trowa most likely was not saying anything because he did not want to influence Duo’s decision, even though he desperately wanted to keep the kitten.

Not saying anything just yet, Duo went over to his lover. The kitten looked up at him and meeped, the sound so adorable that he wondered if it was some sort of trick to turn him into a cat-loving sap who would allow his best pair of boots to be scratched up on a daily basis. Its coat was a silvery grey, and up close he could see that the tips of its ears and tail were black, while its throat, belly and paws were white. He did not have much experience with the things except from a distance, but he thought it might just be a few weeks old.

"Did you name it yet?" he asked, mindful of the tension in Trowa’s shoulders. It vanished at the question, and he felt the beginning of hope over their mental bond.

Trowa stroked the kitten, which prompted a ridiculously loud purr from the tiny creature. "I was thinking ‘Gin’ because of his coloring."

Great, an old Kritiker word for a name, Duo thought to himself as he smothered a sigh before it fully formed. An odd choice for a supposedly Esset spy to choose, but he saw the sense in it. He also foresaw having to clean cat hair off of his uniform for years to come. Admitting defeat, he offered his mate an affectionate smile. "I’m not cleaning the litter box."

The smile he got in return was so breathtaking and beautiful that he nearly used his talent to force Sandra out of the apartment so he could be alone with the man he loved. "I’ll take care of it," Trowa promised, and picked up the kitten to hold it cradled against his chest. It – no, Gin, purred even more and clung to Trowa’s blue cotton tunic with tiny claws. "I found homes for his littermates, but…."

But Trowa’s love for animals had kicked in and something made him think that keeping the thing would be a good idea. This time Duo did sigh out loud, but any exasperation he felt over the situation dissipated as he reached out to pet the kitten. Ever since they had become mates, he had done his best to make a proper home with Trowa, to think past the war to a time when they would be free of all obligations except what they held toward each other. So he really should have expected something like this to happen eventually, since his lover had confided in him that his dream of the future included a couple of dogs and a few cats. He guessed that they were just starting on things a little earlier than expected.

The happiness he felt from his mate would be worth years of hairballs, dirty litter boxes, scratched possessions and being woken up in the morning to feed someone other than himself. Leaning forward, he gave Trowa a kiss, heart racing at the way it lingered on for more than the brief caress he had planned. Oh, he had the feeling that he would have a very grateful lover to enjoy tonight….

"I guess I have to break the news to the boys that they won’t be getting a kitten after all," Sandra remarked when they finally shifted apart. "But perhaps John and I will talk about getting them a pet this Winter Solstice." She waved to them in a manner that made it clear that she would see herself out of the apartment.

"Thank you," Trowa called out as she left, then bent down so he could set the kitten on the kitchen floor. Gin sat there for a moment as if confused, then began to attack Duo’s stocking feet.

"For fuck’s sake, his teeth are sharp!" Duo laughed as he tried to dislodge the little bugger from his left foot with his right. "And is this what I get for remembering to take off my boots?" He finally bent down to shoo Gin away, sending the kitten off to attack what looked to be a stuffed mouse that Sandra must have picked up on her shopping trip.

"We’ll have to train him to be careful with them and his claws." Trowa watched after the kitten for a moment before stepping toward Duo. "Thank you. I know I should have discussed this with you first, but…." It was unusual that when Trowa did decide to talk, he ended up at a loss for words.

Duo reached for his lover and pulled him in for a loose hug. "But he was cute and homeless, and you have this huge soft spot for adorable creatures. That’s why you fell for me, after all, and at least I don’t claw the furniture!"

Trowa laughed at the joke, green eyes sparkling and handsome face far from impassive for once. "I wouldn’t think that you’d settle for ‘adorable’ in regards to yourself," he murmured as he hugged Duo back.

"Eh, it’s just one of my many wonderful traits, such as ‘sexy as hell’, ‘brilliant’, ‘generous’ and ‘fantastic at sex’." Duo grinned as he gave his lover’s beautiful ass an affectionate pinch. "All in all, you never stood a chance!"

Chuckling some more, Trowa spared him a scathing, ego-crushing retort and settled for a kiss instead. Not about to complain, Duo tilted up his chin and held his mate closer, only half believing that this moment was actually happening. Even if they had become lovers and mates a couple of months ago, there were times when he was afraid that this was just a dream. To have Trowa pressed against him and kissing him with such evident fervor, large hands stroking down his back… as an incessant mewing sound caught his attention and pricks once again sank into his left foot.

He broke off the kiss with a growl and snatched up the kitten, holding its bottom cradled in his left hand while his right was wrapped around its upper back. "Look, let’s get one thing straight right now. Claw the furniture up all you want, but no interruptions during sex!" Priorities were very important, after all. He bared his teeth at Gin, which prompted a truly pathetic mew from the furball. Okay, he was beginning to fall under its evil power of cute.

Trowa retrieved the kitten and held it against his chest, where it then promptly scrambled up to lay draped over his shoulder. "I believe you can add ‘insane’ to that list of attributes," he remarked in a too bland tone.

Knowing that he was being teased, Duo stuck out his tongue. "Like that bothers me. Please tell me that Gin’s gonna fall asleep at any moment now." He made no attempt to mask the desire he felt.

Blushing a little, Trowa went over to the cold box to pull out what looked to be a bottle of milk. "Theresa gave me some formula for him, which should help to make him sleepy. He certainly fell asleep when he was fed earlier." It took a few motions toward one of the dishes for Duo to get that his lover wanted him to pick it up. "You can heat it up for Gin."

"Damn cat already has me working for him," he grumbled, not at all put out to feed the thing if it meant some quality time with his lover. "You said that there were others?" Once the milk mixture was in the bowl, he heated it to a little bit more than body temperature.

Trowa tested it with his finger before nodding in approval and setting it and Gin down on the floor. The kitten mewled frantically until it reached the dish and then lapped at the liquid as if he was starving. "Birman actually took the two females, claiming that it would be nice to come home to something living, and Theresa took the other male since it seemed very placid in temperament. She claims that having a cat around helps to soothe some of her patients."

Duo would have guessed that the Royal Healer could afford to buy a pet with a better pedigree, but then again, most of the people who devoted themselves to the gods believed in being both frugal and open to gifts from their ‘patrons’. "At least those patients who aren’t allergic to cats!"

"I’m sure she can do something about that." Trowa knelt on the floor so he could pet Gin as the kitten quickly went through its dinner. "Heero didn’t have much to say today."

The topic change took Duo by surprise for a moment, and he had to work at smothering his anger for a few seconds after that. Schuldig and Eri checked out his friend’s thoughts often enough to ensure that Heero was not planning on ratting them out to the Elders, so he had no reason to feel threatened. Hopefully, one day he could trust the air elemental again…. "Was he happy to get the note from Relena?" he asked once his emotions had calmed.

Trowa nodded, not looking up from Gin. "And trying to hide it. However, I don’t think he was happy when I told him I wouldn’t be at the palace for the next few days."

Praying to the gods that he could be there when Heero finally realized that he was infatuated with a human, Duo just shook his head and dropped the subject. Right now he did not want to hear about the air elemental, not when Gin appeared to be done with his meal and Trowa’s scent was damn near intoxicating to his lust-addled senses. "And I’m off for two days, which means that we get to spend more than a few hours with each other for the first time in over a week." He wanted to grab his mate’s hand and drag him to the bedroom, but reined in the impulse before he got smacked. As it was, Trowa picked up a purring Gin and headed in the right direction anyway.

He was relieved to see a small basket near the bed, into which a sleepy Gin was placed. When the kitten started to climb out of it, Duo used his talent to warm up the soft bedding, which prompted Gin to curl up in a small ball and purr. He quickly set a ward around the basket in hopes of enticing the kitten to stay in there as long as possible, then turned to face Trowa. "So, I noticed that you didn’t dispute the ‘sexy as hell’ and ‘fantastic at sex’ attributes." He grinned as he reached over Trowa’s left shoulder to undo the clasp that held back most of his lover’s auburn hair.

Trowa smiled as well and mirrored Duo’s movements, although he had to pull Duo’s braid over his shoulder to untie the binding around its end and unravel the strands. "I prefer to be refreshed on those two points before I make any judgments." Once again, he sounded so bland, in stark contrast to his emotions and racing heartbeat.

"With pleasure, Sir!" Duo laughed as he leaned in for a kiss, more than willing to meet the challenge before him.

*******

Rufus withdrew from Shin’s mind, filled with satisfaction despite the fact that his head ached and his body was tired. Judging from the huge grin on Schuldig’s face, the other bound felt much the same, and he was surprised by responding to the expression with a grin of his own. They might hate each other, but they could be very successful working together.

"Thank the gods and break out the whiskey, it’s done," Schuldig groaned as he rose from his chair, his hands moving to massage the small of his back. Rufus stood up as well and took the time to push his chair away from Shin’s bed. The water elemental was fast asleep, once again resting so his mind could recover. At least he should not be out for more than a couple of hours today, since most of the morning’s work had been making certain that there were no hidden compulsions left in his mind.

"It’s a little early for whiskey, but a glass of wine would be very nice right now." While he felt in a celebratory mood as well, the last thing Rufus wanted was to spend the rest of the day drunk. There was a long list of things that needed done, as well as the fact that Reno would without a doubt take advantage of his inebriated state to do something foolish. He had been too well-behaved lately, which meant that something immensely stupid was lurking in the near future….

Rufus ignored Schuldig’s muttered ‘stuck-up highborn’ comment and followed the other bound out of the room, grateful that he should not have to return here any time soon. Yuda’s scent had been almost overpowering lately, a constant reminder that a furious and powerful bound was waiting very impatiently for them to finish their task. Nodding to Tseng as he passed his head gokenin just outside of the room, he picked up the thought that Yuda had once more been lurking in the hallway while they had worked.

<I was worried there would be a fight,> Tseng explained as he took his place just behind Rufus and to his right. <Yuda’s patience… is almost worn through, I would say.>

<My part in this situation is finished, now he’s left with the consequences of being mates with a man foolish enough to nearly push himself to burn-out.> Rufus frowned when he considered his own bond with Reno and recalled how starved the dubhach had been back in Berin. At least *his* mate could replenish his energy rather quickly, even if there were risks involved. However, Yuda would have to wait a few more days as even the morning’s minor effort had left Shin utterly drained once again.

They made their way to the kitchen, where two mates were waiting for them. Schuldig barely got through the door before Masato grabbed him and gave him a kiss; the whole room was able to hear the soul gaki bound purr in response, even if they were human. Leaving the two to their very public display and hoping that Jo took affront to it soon, Rufus went in search of his more standoffish mate. He found Reno at one of the tables, and had to admit he was pleased when Reno quickly swallowed a mouthful of what turned out to be a bite of cinnamon roll and kissed him as well. Sensing Jo’s thoughts, Rufus did not allow himself to indulge too much and broke it off just in time.

"I can stop rolling out the pie crust and use the rolling pin to bash in heads instead if the two of you don’t stop right now," Jo warned Masato and Schuldig, who were in the process of undoing shirt lacings. They did stop kissing, Schuldig so he could glare at the cook and Masato to laugh.

"All right, I’ll admit that we got a bit carried away, but it was in celebration," the succubae bound explained as he and his mate joined everyone at the table, careful to not sit too close to Yohji. Meanwhile, Jo did pause in rolling out the dough, but only to go to the stove to fix up a couple of plates. That one of them was for him made Rufus almost as pleased as having a purring Reno nibble on his ear for a few seconds.

"Need I say anything?" he asked Crawford, who was sitting beside Yohji and holding a full mug of coffee in his right hand.

The precog smiled, the expression smug enough that Rufus almost considered setting Reno loose on the bastard, and paused to sip his coffee before answering. "The only reason that Yuda is not here to thank you in person is that he is taking care of one or two things before he spends the rest of the day with Shin." The smile slipped, replaced by a carefully blank expression. "He is very appreciative of your assistance in this matter, and I expect he will seek you out at some point to express that fact."

Once he truly was mated with Shin, Rufus was willing to bet. About to say something, he stopped when Jo placed a very full plate of eggs, bacon and homefries in front of him, and had a few bites before he responded. The food helped settle his headache almost as much as having Reno close by. "In other words, he feels he owes me a debt." The possibility of having two powerful bounds indebted to him had been one of the reasons why he had agreed to help Shin.

Crawford’s lips pressed together for several seconds, which was answer enough for Rufus. No doubt the meddling precog did not want anyone else owed favors beside himself, but he had to live with it since he had not been able to undo the mental coercions. "As I said, he’s very appreciative of your efforts."

"He better be, considering I’ve spent most of the last two weeks suffering one hell of a headache," Schuldig complained, barely halting the process of shoving food into his mouth as he did so. Rufus went back to ignoring him, which was the best way of dealing with being in the bastard’s immediate presence.

"All I care about is him calming down," Yohji grumbled, a mug of coffee and a plate covered with crumbs in front of him. His left arm was wrapped around Aya’s waist, while the kage unraveled a cinnamon roll and ate it. "He’s *not* going to survive another fight with me." There was a silver gleam to Yohji’s eyes that was disturbing, especially when Rufus considered that there might come a time when his eyes reacted the same way. While there would be benefits to such a thing, it would also be a telling sign that he would not care for with the way he always made an effort to mask his emotions. Beside him, and a buffer between him and Schuldig, Tseng was thinking much the same thing while he silently made his way through the food Jo had prepared.

"He should spend the next couple of days with Shin." Crawford sipped more of his coffee, his eyes distant as if he was using his talent to make sure his words were the truth.

"Eh, and then they’ll fuck, which should be fun from everything I’ve heard about succubae bound matings." Reno laughed, unconcerned how his crude words affected everyone in the room.

Jo swore under her breath as she fussed with something over at the stove, Yohji and Masato actually blushed while Schuldig leered. Tseng and Aya’s expressions remained blank, but Rufus knew his gokenin was busy planning something that would keep Reno as far away from the Koneko for when the event happened as possible. Rufus reminded himself to give the man a raise and stared pointedly at Crawford, who still appeared distracted.

Aya finished his roll and gave his fingers a quick lick, an action that provoked a disappointed growl from his mate. "Not how I would phrase things, but true." He glanced sideways at Yohji, a slight frown on his face and a hint of silver in his eyes. "Unfortunately, we learned about it the hard way."

Yohji shrugged and grinned as he captured Aya’s right hand and licked its fingers. "Not like it’ll be our fault ever again."

"Which is a good thing, or else I’d run out of rolling pins," Jo grumbled as she joined everyone at the table after setting down a fresh pot of coffee. She fixed Crawford with a very pointed stare, which actually made the precog shift about in his seat. "You *will* let Yuushi find someplace to stash those two when that happens, correct?" From her thoughts, Rufus picked up how she was not about to sit back and allow her staff and customers to be so strongly affected once again.

Crawford fiddled with his glasses for a moment before his right hand dropped back to the table and cupped his now empty mug of coffee. "As much as I would hate to attract attention to the Koneko in such a manner, I am unwilling to leave Yuda and Shin without adequate protection while they are both still weak. I am hoping that Aya might be able to ward them in such a way that the whole inn won’t be affected."

"And you were planning to tell Aya this when, exactly?" Yohji asked, a hint of a growl in his voice.

Reno growled as well, but less in indignation over his friend being asked to do something than the fact that he was about to be deprived of a night of fun. Rufus sighed and sent a mental image to the libertine to let him know that there would still be plenty of ‘fun’ to be had. After all, if it was pleasurable for them both, kept Reno out of trouble and would ensure Rufus that he would be stuffed full of potent energy, he would make such a sacrifice.

<Right, I’ll remind you of that after your second orgasm of the night,> Reno shot back, amused and already planning on everything they would do that evening.

<If you’ve the ability to think straight at that point in time,> Rufus retorted, and had to force himself to pay attention to the discussion going on around them.

He got the impression from the thoughts around them that Crawford had responded in a waspish manner with something about Yohji’s chancy temper preventing him from making such a request, which explained why the blond was growling loud enough for Jo to give him a warning look just then. Fortunately, Aya nuzzled his mate’s neck to defuse the situation.

"What if we move them to someplace safe?" Aya suggested, which prompted everyone but Schuldig and Masato to focus on him; once the issue of what to do with Shin and Yuda was settled, Rufus was certain that Jo would notice the men’s actions.

"That leaves us-"

Aya cut off Crawford with a quick hiss. "I wasn’t finished. The Fujimiya estate in the Central district has enough land around it that even if I can’t ward Shin and Yuda, few people should be affected." He shared a quick glance with Yohji, prompting Rufus to wonder if the two could somehow share thoughts and not just emotions. "Yohji and I could stay there, perhaps in the main house and leave the carriage house to them."

The room was quiet while Crawford considered the suggestion. "Your presence would cloak them from anyone trying to find them, and it would take little effort on either Botan or Omi’s part to recharge the wards around the estate. I know of few of the Elders’ agents who would be willing to tackle those wards."

If they were anything like the ones around the estate Rufus had inherited from his mother – and he was willing to bet that most likely they were stronger, since the Fujimiya clan was so close to the royal line – then Aya would barely have to bother with wards of his own, Rufus suspected. He was a little surprised to hear Aya mention his family’s estate like that, since normally the kage rarely talked about his ‘true’ identity. As it was, Rufus had only learned about it from Reno’s memories after the kage had confided in his mate.

"Yes, I believe it will work." Crawford’s smile then was pleased, and some of the tension that had filled the room evaporated since a solution had been found. Rufus knew that Yuushi would be relieved to find out about the plan. The only problem that he saw was that the Fujimiya estate was not that far from his own. He sent a message to Tseng that he would do everything within his power to ensure that Reno was ‘occupied’ at home that night, and save them all a lot of trouble.

"Good, then we’re all in agreement for once. Now to let Botan and Omi know that one of them has some work to do, as well as inform Birman so she can have her people stop watching the place that night." Yohji smiled at his mate and gave him a lingering kiss, during which Jo seemed to remember the other mated succubae bound in the room.

"How many times have I told you two that my kitchen is not a bedroom!" Jo yelled, sounding furious enough that Schuldig and Masato finally stopped kissing and undoing each other’s shirt laces. The mates shared a look and quickly scrambled from the table to wish everyone a good day, leaving the rest of their meals behind in their hurry to get back to their apartment.

<Which is what we should be doing soon,> Reno sent, risking Jo’s wrath to give Rufus’ ear another nibble. <And don’t even think to tell me you have a headache today.>

<No, for once it’s not bad enough to last long.> Rufus lifted his mate’s chin so they could share a proper kiss, pleased that this time, he would not have to drag Reno away from the Koneko.

While Crawford told Aya and Yohji that there was something he wished to discuss with them in private, Rufus focused on finishing his meal so they could leave, looking forward to spending some time with Reno before tackling all the work that had been pushed aside for Crawford’s ‘little’ favor. As far as he knew, the precog’s immediate plans no longer concerned him – which was not saying much. Despite the risk of Reno and Aya doing something hare-brained again, he would have to make regular visits to the Koneko to ensure that he was not left out of any important planning.

Oh well, at least his gokenin could eat here and spare the food budget a little.

*******

Shin was held cradled in Yuda’s arms as they lay in the little hideaway that Yuda had found in the Conservatory. The air was hot and moist, almost like a cloak with the way it rested heavy against his skin. He felt it as an extra layer of protection; it was as if the elements were doing their best to keep him and his lover hidden from prying eyes. That the heat was enough to make him languid with its oppressiveness did not bother him, not when it gave Yuda an excuse to strip off his tunic before lying down on the bed of moss and pulling Shin against his chest.

Yearning to feel smooth skin and firm flesh, the fingers of Shin’s left hand curled the same time that he moved his head to nuzzle the small indent of muscle above Yuda’s heart. When he felt cloth instead of skin, he frowned in disappointment and tried to recall when Yuda had put back on his tunic. As he struggled to puzzle that out, other things crept into his awareness, such as the fact that the humid air was cool and not hot, was scented with rain and flowers instead of moss and ivy, and that his head ached as if he had pushed too far with his talent.

As the dream was replaced with consciousness, the one thing that did not change was Yuda’s scent almost overpowering that of the flowers, Yuda’s heart beating beneath his right ear, and Yuda’s warmth beneath him, soaking into him until he wanted to purr. The pain remained, but as an echo that faintly throbbed with each heartbeat and not the destructive force it had been for too long.

He thought that he must still be dreaming when fingers combed through his hair, startling him to snap open his eyes and attempt to lift his head. The fingers clenched in his hair as he stared into his lover’s eyes, their pale purple color almost appearing blue in the flickering candlelight.

"This… this isn’t…" he began to stammer, heart pounding against his chest as he despaired over this moment being one of Thought’s mental manipulations. Similar moments had been used against him so many times before, as the Elders made sure their blocks worked properly.

"It’s real," Yuda soothed, his deep voice softened with a purr and a rare, pure smile on his handsome face. "The compulsions have been destroyed."

Shin thought he could recall something along that line being told to him before exhaustion and pain had chased him into unconsciousness, and hope slowly blossomed into life inside of him. "Real?" he whispered, not quite trusting in that being the truth, after so many times he had dreamed about this reunion and been left heartbroken as a result.

"Yes, very real." Yuda’s right hand slid beneath Shin’s chin and urged it upward the same time that he leaned in closer. Shin could not close his eyes during the kiss, too afraid to risk losing sight of his lover for even a moment, and moaned in delight at the feel of warm lips against his own. After so long, he could still recall Yuda’s taste, his mouth parting open as the kiss deepened. The fingers in his hair tightened, the touch at his chin shifted downward to first stroke his throat and then settle on the small of his back, the body beneath his own squirming as if in need of movement. Yuda’s eyes narrowed but did not close, either, although they grew blurry as Shin felt exhaustion and desire war inside of him.

The kiss was broken off; Yuda gasped as he held Shin even closer, his lips brushing against Shin’s forehead as the exhaustion threatened to drag him back asleep. Shin panicked at the possibility, fingers scrambling against his lover’s clothes as he fought to remain awake.

A soft touch on the back of his neck, a spot usually hidden by his hair, helped him to shake off the malaise before it took control. Shin stared at Yuda, confused over what was happening and why the kiss had been ended, and was gifted with another smile. While it contained an edge of sadness, the purr remained in Yuda’s voice when he spoke.

"I’m sorry. Any time our skin comes in contact, I’m feeding from you." As he explained, Yuda settled Shin more firmly on top of him, bringing to Shin’s attention that they both were clothed even though they were in bed; he was dressed in a white robe while Yuda had on pants and a black shirt made of a soft, thin material.

"Oh." It took a moment for the explanation to fully sink in, which prompted a shy blush from Shin. "Oh!" Yuda meant his demon nature was stealing Shin’s depleted energy, something that he had not thought possible unless they were being… intimate with each other. "Just from a touch?" he asked in astonishment, unaware of ever hearing about such a thing happening before. Were mates truly that tied together? Would his strength – or lack of it – affect Yuda that much in the future?

Yuda nodded, his right hand settled against the small of Shin’s back and his left combing through Shin’s unbound hair. "From what I understand and have been told, it’s because we’re supposed to be mates. I can’t… no one else has… you’re the only one I can feed from now, and a mating bond allows energy to transfer a lot easier." He frowned for a moment, his fingers brushing close to Shin’s ear, before he shook his head. "Once we’re proper mates, it shouldn’t be as bad as this, but I’m starving." A hint of desperation shaded his voice, reminding Shin of their last conversation together back in Esset.

There were a thousand questions inside his head just then, demanding to know what had happened to Yuda the last few years and wanting more information on the bond between them, but all Shin could do was force his tired body to shift forward so he feel his lover’s breath on his face. "I’ve always been yours." He saw no need for Yuda to starve any longer, not when they both needed each other so much.

Groaning as if in pain, Yuda’s hands were buried in Shin’s hair as their lips brushed together. Then Yuda shuddered and forced both of them to sit upright on the bed, Shin in his lap and their faces no longer so close to each other’s. "Please. *Please*. Don’t do that." The words were spoken in pain, Yuda’s face flushed and eyes narrowed.

Shin felt as if he had been punched upon hearing that, filled with doubt that Yuda did not want him. A moment later, Yuda groaned again and gave him a fleeting kiss before hugging him tightly enough to hurt. "No, no, no. Don’t feel that, it’s not what you think!" His right hand began to stroke through Shin’s long hair once more. "More than anything, love, I want you. But we both need you to be stronger before we…." He shuddered again, moving enough that Shin could feel his lover’s erection and have any doubts over if he was desired be vanquished.

Forcing his addled brain to think for once, he tucked his face into the crook of Yuda’s neck, the familiar position helping to calm him somewhat. The blocks were gone, they were together, and he was still wanted by the only person he had ever loved and desired. However, he barely had enough strength to remain sitting up like this, his body relaxing against Yuda’s in as much an attempt to conserve his limited energy as a need to be as close as possible to his mate. More than anything, he wanted Yuda to take him, to complete the bond between them… but if they were irrevocably tied together, then what affected him would affect Yuda as well. He had never realized before now just how much that was true and felt a sudden chill of fear.

The sensation of his hair being stroked dismissed the emotion and made him relax a little more, and Yuda slowly lowered them back onto the bed. "We need you to be stronger," Yuda continued, the pain gone from his voice, replaced by hope. "Now that the blocks are gone, you should be able to regain it quickly if you rest and eat enough." He nuzzled the side of Shin’s head as his left arm wrapped around Shin’s waist and squeezed. "Once you’re better, we’ve become proper mates and you can’t cause too much damage to me, you’d best be prepared for me to harangue you endlessly about pushing yourself too far."

That prompted a laugh from Shin and made him lean back enough so he could look at his lover. The answering joke about how it had not seemed such a bad fate since he had lost Yuda faltered in his lips when he saw the bleak concern on Yuda’s face. "I… I’m sorry," he said a moment later, now all too aware that he had not been the only suffering all this time.

"I’m never going to lose you again." Yuda’s voice was harsh with grief, his eyes bright and demeanor serious enough to make Shin feel uncomfortable. He raised his right hand and made to caress Shin’s cheek, the distance between flesh so miniscule that Shin could feel his lover’s warmth. "If I have to challenge the gods to keep you by my side for the rest of our lives, I will. Not another day will go by that we’re apart, this I swear upon all hope of life and light."

The oath shocked Shin, made the human part of him tremble in fear of angering the gods while his demon soul purred in delight over more proof of the bond between them. He knew he should say something then, to reaffirm his own feelings, yet all he could do was hold on tightly to his lover and press his face against Yuda’s chest, the feel of warm cotton soft against his left cheek. More than anything he wanted that moment when they no longer could be parted from each other to happen as soon as possible, now unable to be content with just being able to touch Yuda like this.

If he could not form the words, at least his emotions were strong enough for Yuda to sense them. "It’s all right, love," Yuda soothed as he continued to stroke Shin’s hair. "I know." He did not elaborate, leaving Shin with the impression that he knew that he felt the same, that he wanted him with a desperation that made everything else of importance in his life seem inconsequential.

"Just a few more days," he managed to whisper as he felt himself grow sleepy. "Just a little longer and I truly will be yours." And Yuda his, which still seemed like such an impossible dream. He ignored the niggling voice that whispered to him about how he would only weaken his lover if he remained like this.

"Yes." A kiss was pressed against the top of his head as strong arms wrapped around him, holding him close once more. Despite everything they had been through, Shin knew that he could fall asleep now and wake up still held by Yuda; now that his mate was here, nothing would keep them apart. Nothing.

*******

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