Storm Warnings

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chapter eleven

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calm and anticipation

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"These were just delivered, Sir." Elena came to a stop less than two feet from Tseng and held out several envelopes.

Reaching for the letters, Tseng brushed his fingers against her small hand and smiled. "Thank you. I’ll give them to Rufus." His lover smiled in response, a whiff of desire to her scent as she bowed her head, then turned on her heel to resume her duties. He watched her leave, indulging himself for a moment in the pride and warmth he felt. Few of his past lovers had understood that he had devoted himself to Rufus and so would put his lord first, but Elena had so far proven to be the exception. It helped that she had placed her trust in Rufus just as much as he had; others may look to the Elders or Crawford for a safe future, but Tseng was comforted by the belief that Rufus would destroy anything that threatened what he considered his. The steps that Rufus had taken in recent months had only reinforced Tseng’s belief in his lord.

Along the way to Rufus’ private quarters, he sorted through and read the letters with the intent of keeping things quiet and peaceful for as long as possible. Four of the missives were from various highborn ladies hoping to marry a lord who had ties to both Esset and Kritiker; Tseng wondered just how much their families were behind that interest, in the hopes of ‘hedging’ their bets on which country would win the war. He was certain the current tension between the two countries was the reason for the remaining letters also, various invites to dine with several highborns and even a couple of wealthy merchants.

The ones from the ladies were placed in a particular drawer of Rufus’ desk, where Tseng was hopeful that Reno would not pry. The dubhach might have a problem with the concept of boundaries, but at least Rufus had gotten it into Reno’s head that the desk and most of the office were off-limits to his insatiable curiosity. The rest of the letters appeared to be safe enough to deliver in person, so Tseng went next door to the bedroom shared by the two men. When his sharp senses informed him that the private living quarters was empty, he opened the door and stepped inside.

The scent of Rufus and Reno was almost overwhelming in the rooms where they spent most of their time in this house. Tseng took breaths which were as shallow as he could manage, partially aroused by the scent of sex that clung to the rooms’ many fabrics. From what he could tell, Rufus had ‘fed’ only a short while ago, which left him confused as to what the soul gaki bound was currently doing… until he found the open door leading to the balcony overlooking the garden.

A well-fed Rufus should be one in a good mood, and lately Reno would be calm after sex. Tseng kept repeating that thought to himself as he went outside and down the steps that led to the private garden. If the dubhach had run away again and Rufus had gone after him, he would have been alerted somehow to help in the hunt by now.

He could always project his thoughts to catch Rufus’ attention, if he truly needed to know where his lord was, but lately, Rufus’ mind had taken on a… disturbing coldness. Since it had happened after he had become mates with Reno, Tseng put the change down to Rufus absorbing some of the shinigami’s fabled properties, but it still was something that he needed to get used to a little more. Besides, there were times when it was not wise to disturb the man, so he would rather put his senses to use and deliver the messages in a more ‘human’ manner.

It came as no surprise when he found the two men at the koi pond; Rufus sat on the small cedar bridge with his legs dangling over its edge, while Reno lay with his head in his mate’s lap. What did make Tseng stop and stare was their unusual demeanor. Rufus had rolled up the legs of his white pants so his bare feet could splash about in the water, and wore only one shirt, which was half unbuttoned, with its sleeves rolled up. His golden hair was mussed and his expression peaceful, his right hand gently stroking through Reno’s unbound hair.

The dubhach appeared peaceful as well, his eyes a pure aquamarine color, with no hint of green or silver to indicate strong and potentially dangerous emotions. Like Rufus, he was dressed all in white – in fact, he was wearing Rufus’ robe. Curled up at his mate’s side, his left hand dangled down to the water where he flicked it about in a lazy manner.

Tseng had watched over Rufus since the soul gaki bound’s birth, and over Reno, too, after Reeve had finally revealed his existence. Ever since the two men had become lovers, Tseng was inured to walking in on them at intimate moments and during fights. Yet he hesitated to bother them right now as he had never done in the past, unwilling to intrude on the quiet moment between them. While they were fighting less and less the last few weeks, it was still rare for them to be so comfortable and at peace with each other. The last thing he wanted to do was ruin the mood.

However, Rufus was too powerful a soul gaki bound and Reno had the ability to cast ‘invisible’ wards around any territory he considered ‘his’, so both bounds had probably known he was here from the moment that he had stepped out onto the balcony – if not sooner. Rufus looked up from his mate the same time that Reno stopped playing with the water long enough to wave in Tseng’s direction.

"Yes?" Rufus still appeared calm, but his blue eyes took on a brightness which indicated that his attention was focused almost entirely on Tseng.

Grateful that he had dropped off the other letters, Tseng stepped forward with the remaining ones held in his extended right hand. "I’m sorry to disturb you, but there are some correspondences that I thought you should see." The closer he got to the bounds, the more he could smell the remaining traces of sex and desire. At least the scents from the pond and various plants diluted them enough that he was not made as uncomfortable as he had been back in the bedroom.

Rufus accepted the letters with a courteous nod. "Is there anything that needs to be answered immediately?" he asked as he set them down on the bridge, as always trusting Tseng’s judgment.

Tseng shook his head. "In my opinion, it might be best to wait a little before answering them." However, he did not know the Court as well as Rufus did and would rather not take any chances on being wrong. In a way, his enhanced senses revealed the true motives of the humans he came across, and he had honed his observation skills over the years. That was still no match for being able to read someone’s thoughts, which was something Rufus had no compunction about doing, as long as he was certain they would not know what was happening. There were some distinct advantages to being in Kritiker’s Court rather than Esset’s, as most of those in positions of power had no mental shields and were human.

<You also received four letters from various ladies looking for a husband or a dalliance they can use to their advantage, which are in your desk.>

Rufus displayed no sign of having heard that other than his fingers tightening in Reno’s hair for a moment. <Thank you. I’m going to have to do something about that soon.> "I’ll look them over before dinner, which I assume will be ready soon?" he said out loud.

"Yes, in about half an hour."

Reno spoke up for the first time since Tseng had intruded on their private time, sighing in pleasure as a few sparks rained down onto the water. "We’re having stuffed quail tonight." Judging from how pleased he sounded, Tseng hoped that the cooks had made extra servings.

Smiling with unguarded happiness for once, Rufus tugged on his mate’s crimson hair and laughed. "One day I’ll figure out how you can eat so much and still look like a famine victim."

Reno hissed softly as he turned so he could look up at his lord. "Maybe if I got a chance to ‘feed’ as often as you do, I’d be fatter." His eyes were narrowed as if he were displeased, which Tseng doubted was the case, since he was also smiling.

Despite Tseng’s fear, Rufus did not become upset over the dubhach’s complaint. "If I let you indulge as much as you wanted, this city would suffer a serious depletion in its population."

"You live to deny me any fun." Reno pouted and flicked a spark toward Rufus’ face, which dampened Rufus’ smile a little, but did not wipe it away.

"I keep telling you that mass homicide is not ‘fun’," Rufus shot back, with a slight edge to his tone.

There were no more words spoken aloud after that, which meant they had decided to make the argument a telepathic one. Tseng remained for a few more seconds until he was convinced that for once, *this* argument would not require any intervention on his part. If anything, his lord and fellow gokenin seemed to be enjoying it, remaining focused on each other with no attempts at bloodshed.

He left them in peace, hopeful that they would not be foolish enough to destroy the good mood they still shared. While it had been nerve-wracking to have to protect them both at the Koneko while Rufus had completed the favor Crawford had asked of him, there had been some benefit to the situation. Reno had become oddly protective of Rufus in the past couple of weeks, and Rufus was more lenient in dealing with the dubhach’s many… quirks. If anyone were to ask Tseng his opinion, it would be that his lord had been reassured by something, most likely Reno’s emotions toward him. Whatever the reason, Tseng, along with Elena and Rude, was extremely grateful for the reduction in the number and intensity of the fights between the mated pair. He only hoped that Rufus managed to make the Court ladies back off soon, before Reno’s jealousy drove him to do something rash.

*******

Yohji’s right hand twitched as he fought the urge to adjust the hood of Aya’s light grey jerkin; he somehow managed to control the protective impulse long enough for Aya to tend to the matter himself. The weather was slowly becoming warmer, as if it had realized that it was supposed to be summer right now and not spring. According to Cassandra, the warmth would be a brief respite before becoming cool for this time of year once again, but there was hope that the ‘cousins’ would be able to do something about the weather in time to prevent another nasty winter. Not that Yohji minded being snowed in and unable to do very much other than be tucked into bed with his mate for days at a time….

The sun was only partly obscured by clouds, which was better than it being perfectly clear. Ah well, it was not as if Aya would be spending much of the day outside in the sunlight, not when their destination was Matsuda’s bookstore. Since they had visited the Royal Library the day before, Yohji had some hope of Aya not using up all of the remaining credit from the books that had gone to auction last year. His lover was doing his best to stay within a budget… but there was so much that was still unknown about the Binding War and the Elders, that sometimes copious amounts of gold had to be spent in order to gain that vital information. At least that bastard Mustang had offered up some money, since his mate got to read and copy those expensive as hell books.

"Who is it: Mustang, Birman with a new assignment, or Teddy playing a new prank?"

Yohji frowned at his lover as he puzzled out the meaning of Aya’s words. "Okay, that didn’t make any sense," he admitted after half a block.

Aya sighed and moved closer to Yohji’s side, his left hand sliding between Yohji’s body and right arm so he could tuck it into the bend of Yohji’s elbow. "Your emotions just then were a mix of… well, what you feel when you think of either Mustang, Birman giving us another mission, or Teddy when he’s up to no good." His face was hidden by the hood, but his emotions and voice let Yohji know that he was amused and curious.

Laughing a little at being caught out like that, Yohji sent a wave of love over their link, pleased at how well Aya knew him. Sometimes, it was difficult to believe that they had only been mates for a year, though he guessed being able to sense each other’s emotions helped to foster a better and deeper understanding of between them than most lovers would ever experience. "It was Mustang."

"Ah."

Aya was quiet after that, his emotions placid even as he did his best to avoid physical contact with anyone on the busy sidewalk. They came across several people they knew, either patrons of the Koneko, or vendors they regularly visited. Yohji wondered if he should feel at all sad at the way those people would pat him on the shoulder, yet avoid getting too close to Aya; his demon soul was happy that his mate was given a deferential distance, while his human soul worried that Aya was still shutting himself off from most of the world. He was a kage though, after all, so in the end it could not be expected that Aya would feel much of a connection to humans. That he had formed surprisingly close friendships with Reiichi and Jo must mean that he did not view all humans as potential abusers anymore, which was a good thing. Yohji just wished… he did not really know what he wished. He wanted Aya to have friends and not be so alone, yet he still struggled with a powerful sense of possessiveness.

He sensed that Aya’s attention was on him and turned to look at his mate, smiling without conscious effort at the man’s beauty. "Yes?"

"You worry too much," Aya sighed, before looking ahead; Yohji caught a flash of silver amidst violet and took the warning to heart. There was no point in fretting over something he could not change – either in himself or Aya – and his lover had made such amazing progress in the past year. Most likely, Aya would always be a bit aloof from people he did not know and trust. For all of his seeming cheeriness, Reno was much the same; he could pretend to be friendly with strangers, but Yohji knew he never really let his guard down unless among friends. It was not really a shinigami thing though, as many of the older bounds Yohji came across acted the same way. Perhaps in a century or two, he would be just like them, separated from humanity by loss and the passage of time.

*Now* he picked up on Aya’s worried mood and laughed again, doing his best to center his thoughts on less depressing topics so as to not continue to affect them both. "I think you’re a bad influence on me, Cat."

His mate’s response was a rather elegant sniff of disdain and a tense shoulder, which relaxed when Yohji gave his hand an affectionate squeeze. "Am I being an idiot again?"

"No comment." Aya tilted his head back enough so Yohji could see his smile and had to tug his hood forward again when it threatened to slide down to his shoulders. "Leave the brooding to those who are good at it."

Chuckling at the joke, Yohji released Aya’s left hand so he could wrap his arm around his mate’s waist. "If you think I’m going to give you carte blanche to be a moody bastard whenever you feel like it, then *you’re* the idiot." He got another sniff for his troubles, even if he could sense Aya’s amusement. "Or better yet, let someone else do the brooding."

Aya waved his right hand as if to say he was done with this particular topic. "Do you want to stop for tea before we go to the bookstore?" His tone was hopeful, which was to be expected whenever there was the prospect of tea and sweets. If only the world knew that one of the surest ways to bring a terrible and mighty kage to his knees was to offer him a cake with lots of icing….

"I believe that I might be convinced to partake in some tea." Yohji affected a highborn accent and grinned when he just barely prevented his right side from being smacked with a bony elbow. "Let’s go."

They detoured from their previous destination to stop by Miriam’s little shop; one had to either stumble upon it by blind luck or know exactly where it was, to find the unassuming doorway framed by yellow and green ivy. Yohji knew the moment when Aya was out of the sun by the rush of relief over their link, and was left wondering if his lover had only mentioned tea as a change in conversation. The damn redhead could be so stubborn about going outside during the day and did his best to hide sunlight’s debilitating effects on him. If only it were worth the fight they would get into for Yohji to take him to task about it; the sad truth was that Aya could not remain inside all the time if he wanted to live any kind of normal or free life.

At least Miriam’s shop would be a respite from the sun. The doorway led to a small courtyard with stone pavings and a tiny fountain, surrounded by buildings that only allowed a trickle of sunlight to reach the almost secretive place; to the left was where Miriam served tea and on the right, where she lived with her ‘sister’. The two women were bounds, Miriam a fire elemental and Sophia earth. Miriam ran the shop, while Sophia grew the plants up on a rooftop garden that supplied many of the ingredients for tea and snacks.

Yohji marveled at how he never would have known a year ago that such a place existed. Once him being a bound was no longer a secret – to himself and trusted others – a new side of the city had opened up to him. As he and Aya entered the shop, a man dressed in Thracian fashion who appeared several years older than him paused in sipping his tea to nod in their direction. He did not need Aya to tell him that the customer was a soul gaki bound; while the shadows were still very selective in obeying his wishes, he had honed the ability to identify a fellow bound’s demon soul in the past few months.

Miriam, her brown hair escaping its braid in corkscrew curls that framed her heart-shaped face, smiled at him and Aya, her emotions a mixture of awe and pleasant surprise. While most of the city’s bounds knew that Yohji was a succubae bound, only those who could be absolutely trusted had any idea what Aya truly was. Miriam and Sophia were two of those select few, in part because of their association with Cassandra and Marta. Yohji found himself smiling at the mental image of the four women – most of them barely appearing to be in their early twenties – sitting around in rocking chairs, draped in shawls and busy knitting like a bunch of gossipy elderly ladies.

"Good day to you." Miriam’s voice still held a trace of a Cretian accent, which came as no surprise when one took in her golden skin tone and dark brown eyes. "What may I serve you?" She put aside the plate that she had been drying and did her best not to stare at Aya.

Reminding himself that she did not feel any desire for his mate, Yohji took a deep breath and waited for Aya to decide on their snack. "Do you have more of that blend of white tea and roses?" Aya asked, once he pushed back his hood.

"Yes! I’ve been hoping the two of you would visit soon, since it just arrived the other day. How about a plate of sandwiches and scones as well?" She did not really wait for Aya to nod in agreement, when she was a bound herself and knew how foolish it was to expect one of her kind to *not* be in the mood for a bite to eat.

Aya chose a table near the counter, which incidentally enough put them as far away from the Thracian customer as possible. Their proximity flustered Miriam a little, increasing the awe she felt to be in the presence of a kage.

Yohji studied his mate’s appearance for a moment, taking in the tousled red hair, the violet eyes bright with happiness, and the slight smile that was becoming less and less rare these days. Aya seemed even more beautiful lately because of that display of emotion as well as the hard-won confidence he had found in himself.

He looked every inch a highborn, even if the clothes that Cassandra had made for him were not quite up to Court standard. Yohji felt a pang of fear deep in his chest at the thought that someday, someone other than Kikyou might guess who he really was.

"What’s wrong?" Aya whispered, his right hand reaching across the table to stroke along the back of Yohji’s.

"Just… been thinking about something lately," Yohji replied, well aware that his lover would not let the matter drop since it had affected him so much. He was not about to ruin their day by bringing up the bastard, but he figured now was a good time to mention what had in part made his thoughts drift onto the depressing topic. "Are you sure it’s all right, letting the cousins stay at… your parents’ place?"

Aya tilted his head to the side and stared at Yohji for several seconds, as if trying to make sense of the question. "Why wouldn’t it be all right?" He sounded truly curious, his emotions a mix of that and confusion.

Yohji tried to put his thoughts into order while Miriam stopped by their table with a pot of steeping tea, two thankfully sturdy yet pretty cups on matching saucers and a promise to return with the snacks in a couple of minutes. "Well, it’s something of your parents’." He knew how much it had hurt Aya to give Emmie his sister’s quilt, even if it made him happy at the same time. Other than a small gift or two to Jo and Reiichi and the amethyst ring Yohji always wore, the rest of his family’s belongings were safely tucked away in what remained of the attic’s storage area.

Aya was quiet as he checked the tea and deemed it ready to be poured. After filling Yohji’s and then his own cup, he set the pot down and looked directly at Yohji, a hint of silver swirling in his eyes. "I have no memories whatsoever of the place. From what Omi has been able to find out, my parents only visited there a few times, as my mother much preferred remaining near the gardens she worked so long on at the two city residences. I see no reason at all why I shouldn’t allow the place to be of some use to others if there’s an actual need for it."

His emotions were calm as he spoke, containing no hint of pain, although he was still a little confused. It truly did seem as if the mountain retreat was nothing more than an ‘item’ to him, something listed on a sheet of paper as ‘his’, yet bearing no emotional attachment whatsoever. Yohji felt some confusion on his own part; Aya could be so possessive of some things, such as his books and the few people he trusted, yet uncaring about so much else. Just when Yohji thought his mate was becoming more ‘human’, there were reminders that Aya would always be limited in that regard.

There was also some relief, in that Aya did not seem to care in the slightest about his family’s wealth, lands and titles. Not that Aya had ever seemed one to be swayed by material things – unless they helped him to get more books. For his part, Yohji was not certain he could walk away from such things as easily as his lover, and he had not suffered in the past the way Aya had. Then again… he had given up the Koneko without too much pain on his part, so perhaps they were not so different after all.

"I’m thinking about this too much," he admitted, while shaking his head. His words and actions earned him a deep, warm chuckle, that made him feel as if sunlight soaked into his skin. He looked at his lover and experienced a rare sense of peace, yet again struck by the incredible luck that had led such a beautiful person to be tied to him until they died. There was a damned succubae bound living in his home, they were on their way to find information to help them win a huge war that got closer each day and there were a bunch of other unhappy facts he refused to acknowledge just then, yet he had never felt so blessed in his life. As trite as it sounded even in his own head, he had Aya, so everything was all right with the world.

He did not even mind when Miriam returned with their food, her cheeks flushed and her hands trembling as she held her pale yellow skirt and curtseyed in Aya’s direction once the overflowing plate was on the table. She stared at Aya as if he was some kind of savior, which was almost as bad as when people looked at him in fear. Kage nature aside, he was more than some mythological, all-powerful creature; he was Yohji’s lover. He was the man who would probably come close to breaking Yohji’s back by making him carry home a ridiculous stack of books, who would charm the last of the delicious cucumber sandwiches from Yohji with ease, who made him so happy, even if he was left tired and sore and hungry by the end of the afternoon.

Quiet as usual, Aya said nothing, merely arched his eyebrows and continued wearing that faint smile as he picked several scones and finger sandwiches from the pile before them.

"What, no comments about me being an idiot?" Yohji could not resist asking, laughing out loud when his mate gave him a look that clearly said such words were unnecessary. He took the remaining scones and all of the chicken salad sandwiches, leaving Aya’s beloved cucumber and cheese ones to help build up enough energy to face the no doubt daunting stack of books that awaited him in the near future.

*******

Jo swore under her breath as she scraped off all the dried dough that covered one of the kitchen’s large tables. Maddox and Kira were supposed to handle dinner today, so she wanted the kitchen clean and ready for them before enjoying the night off. Schuldig and Masato’s late breakfast had put her behind schedule, causing her to think dark thoughts about the two men. Schuldig might be dear enough to her to be another adopted son, but he was mischief incarnate. There were times when she wondered if he did not so much share his body with a demon soul as with some unknown god of trouble.

Ah well, behind on her cleaning or not, she had smiled the entire time during their visit. Masato was someone she could see Yohji turning into with enough time, possessing a streak of mischief to rival his lover, yet tempered by concern and good humor. As for that damn brat he was stuck with now, she could not really ever see Schuldig changing. Oh, he had his quiet, serious moments, but they were definitely the exception to the rule. He was much too happy stirring up trouble to behave differently for more than a few minutes at a time.

At least Emmie had been at school, and Maddox and Neely off with Marta and Mickey to do a bit of shopping. The pantries and cold rooms were fully stocked for once, which would not last for long, even if there were not over a dozen bounds living at the Koneko at the moment. These days, half of the inn’s patrons belonged to the Guard, who she swore were never fed when away from the Koneko, and the rest were crammed into the common room to hear Koyu and his friends play. She snorted in weary amusement as she thought about how the Harpers could almost rival the Guard when it came to appetites. At least with so many humans shoving all that food down their throats, the bounds did not stand out too much.

The Koneko seemed to be enjoying a blessing of good fortune. While the inn had weathered several centuries and had never truly fallen onto hard times, profits had never been better and the rooms almost always full. If this kept up, they would need at least two cooks per meal in the kitchen, along with some helpers. Maddox had shown up just in time….

While all the extra patrons meant more work for the increasing staff, Jo had to admit that she was pleased to go to the common room and see it so full, to notice all the dark blue coats. The Koneko was tied to the Guard, never more so than with the creation of the Shadow Guard. Even if not all of the Guards who came night after night belonged to the secret organization, they were here in large part because of Yohji. So many had stopped coming once Yohji had retired and sunk into drunken misery, only to return now that word was out about his change in demeanor. She knew that it was not the best-kept secret that he was working for Birman, but it was assumed that he was only putting the skills he had learned during his stint in the Guard to the best purpose that he could.

That he was so happy once more, his good mood infectious and handsome face always smiling… they might have lost some of his suitors as patrons, only to attract a crowd who could appreciate the joy that radiated from Yohji without the need of such intimate contact. She wondered just how much his bound nature was influencing things – it was almost unnatural how easily he could sway the mood of a crowded roomful of people. Whenever he had Aya by his side, his emotions rarely took a dark turn.

Well, the last couple of weeks aside. She smiled as she brushed aside the last of the dough crumbs and went to the sink to fetch a damp towel to wipe down the table. Yuda seemed much calmer now that he could spend time with Shin, which helped greatly to decrease the awful tension that had filled the Koneko since his arrival. That he spent most of the day upstairs with his lover helped, too, and Yohji had actually managed to get through the last two days without any snarling. She decided to not count the one time that Teddy had snuck some vinegar into Yohji’s first cup of coffee of the morning, since that had been a case of sheer provocation.

She had just finished wiping down the table when, as if summoned by her thoughts, Yohji sauntered into the kitchen, his dark golden hair tousled, but his brown pants and deep gold colored tunic neat and properly laced. Hmm, make that properly laced in regards to him, though she doubted anyone would object to seeing a bit of tanned skin left exposed on his neck and upper chest. "You look as if you’ve been behaving for once."

He flashed a pleased grin that always reminded her of Miyuki and combed his right hand through his loose, shoulder-length hair. She suspected that he was still becoming adjusted to its shorter length, similar to how he had worn it while in the Guard. "Despite what you believe to be true, I do know how."

"You just don’t choose to do it very often," she shot back, with a grin of her own. While Yohji laughed at the jab, she went to the stove to fetch the freshly brewed pot of coffee, then met him over at one of the tables. "And almost never when Aya’s around, so where did he go?" She had seen the couple at breakfast, and could not recall any mention of plans for the day.

Yohji shrugged, his grin slipping a little as he held up a mug to be filled. "He went to visit Ed." At her questioning look, he bared his upper row of teeth. "Omi and Nagi went with him, so he should be safe, even if he’s on Army ground."

She did not think he meant that about Aya being a kage, but rather the lover of a well-known former Guard. Still, she felt some relief that Aya was not alone. "I suppose it’s slightly better than him visiting Reno. At the least, there’s less chance of mass destruction." She liked Reno, she really did, but after having a hand in raising Yohji, Teddy and Schuldig, she could spot trouble a kilometer away and Reno put even Schuldig to shame. Why could more of the young men in her life not be like Mickey?

"Oh, please! I swear I feel shivers up and down my spine whenever the two of them are together!" Yohji laughed again, almost spilling his coffee. "At least Ed will keep him distracted with lots of books while the little demon hounds him about being out in the sun. Omi’s there to provide a bit of common sense, so it should be fine."

The fact that Yohji was sitting here smiling and laughing dampened the last of Jo’s fears. He would be pacing the floor and growling if he thought that Aya were in danger; it was heartening to see him allow his lover so much ‘freedom’. "So what are you up to while he’s off reading?"

"Uhm, I figured I’d mooch some food?" Yohji batted his lovely green eyes at her and smiled. "Or at least hang out down here for a bit. Sophia asked us while we were at the tea shop yesterday if she could clip some cuttings from the herb garden, so I thought I’d stay close by in case she came today."

Jo had met the quiet earth elemental bound a few times, when Sophia and Miriam had stopped by the inn for something to eat and to check out the garden. That Cassandra and Marta trusted them was enough for her to welcome them into her home, not to mention that they had pleasant personalities of their own. She had exchanged a few recipes with Miriam and felt a familiar sense of protectiveness toward the women that she associated with the inn’s strays. Little about their past had been said, yet she knew that they had not had an easy time finding a new home in Eto. "Isn’t one of the Guard interested in her?"

Yohji frowned as he considered the question. "There’s a couple of them, to be honest, but I know that Ogden always asks about her and Miriam. I get the impression that those two come as part of a set." He waggled his brows at that bit of innuendo, prompting her to sigh before she reached across the table to give the left side of his head a slight smack. "Hey, I’m not the kinky one here!"

"As if I’d believe that for a moment, after some of the stunts you’ve pulled," she grumbled, her right hand wrapping around the warm mug of coffee.

"Ya got me there!" Yohji laughed again, the sound so full of warmth and happiness that she had no choice but to smile in response. Oh, how she had *missed* moments like this after that… that *bitch* had entered Yohji’s life. If she had felt nothing at all for Aya in his own right, the fact alone that he had restored her Yotan to her would have endeared the redhead to her forever.

"I should put you to work, in hopes of it wearing you out enough so you can’t cause me any trouble, but you timed your visit too well." Yohji’s answering smile just then was too innocent to be believed.

Left wondering just how he managed the oddest sense of luck, she rose from the table to fetch them something to snack on while they chatted and enjoyed the coffee. It was one of those very rare quiet moments at the Koneko, just the two of them, save for the occasional member of staff breezing through the kitchen on one type of errand or another. While she was eternally grateful to Aya for showing up at the Koneko last year, she had missed the times when she could just sit with Yohji and talk about things that Aya either had no interest in or knowledge of. They managed to pass half an hour that way before there was a knock on the kitchen’s garden door.

"It’s not Sophia," Yohji said, as he went to let in their guests, the lack of tension in his body a sign that he was not worried about whoever it was. Jo sipped her coffee as he let Duo and Toshi into the kitchen, the men dressed in their uniforms and their hair as tousled as Yohji’s. She assumed the wind was to blame, especially when Yohji swore when he had to shove the door closed. "I didn’t think it was supposed to rain today."

"Nah, it’s just windy out. As far as Trowa can tell, there shouldn’t be any rain for the next two nights." Duo tucked back the bangs falling into his eyes, their indigo color darkened because of the coat he wore. "Uhm, speaking about the weather…." He left the sentence unfinished, but it was easy to tell what he meant with the way he looked about the kitchen in a cautious manner.

"Gou and Gai are out with Eri and Naru, and the rest of them are upstairs," Yohji informed him, prompting Duo to sigh in relief and hurry toward the table. Jo wisely assumed that she would need to fetch more snacks and coffee and got up to do so.

"I have *missed* your chicken pasties," Duo enthused, which prompted her to double the amount she was putting on a platter. "I hope they leave soon so Trowa and I can come back whenever we want."

"Gou and Gai are spending a lot of time exploring the city, so I’m sure you can stop by some evening." Jo set the platter on the table and was not surprised at Duo snatching up three pasties within a few seconds. Toshi was almost as quick, and ignored being growled at with an ease that made it clear he was getting along fine with his bound partner.

Duo grimaced around a mouthful of food and thankfully waited until he swallowed it to answer. "Yeah, but Shin’s here all the time." At her curious expression, he shook his head and set the half-finished pasty down. "Most water elementals don’t have a problem with each other, and Trowa and Shin are no exception. However, if Trowa were too weak to defend himself, there’s no way I’d want any bounds who match his strength, even another water elemental, around him. That they are the same type only makes it worse, since the rest of us are used to fighting over who’s more powerful." He glanced at Yohji for a moment before quickly looking away.

"Even if it’s Trowa and Shin, whom I highly doubt would start an unprovoked attack against each other?" she asked, fascinated as always by how bounds acted around each other.

"Yeah, even if it’s them. I *know* that Trowa would never hurt Shin willingly, but Yuda might not feel the same way." Again, he glanced at Yohji for a couple of seconds. "Ah… it’s complicated."

Yohji snorted in amusement and shook his head. "No, it’s not. Shin’s weak, his mate’s on edge, so whatever can be done to avoid a nasty fight is appreciated." His grin was a bit rueful as he poured everyone some coffee. "We’re grateful for you guys keeping away for the sake of peace. If this wasn’t my home, I’d do the same."

As it was, he spent as much time as he could away from the Koneko. For a moment, Jo wondered why he had not gone with Aya to visit Ed, until she remembered about the boy’s lover. No, the last thing they needed was Yohji getting into a fight with an Army colonel right smack in the middle of an Army base.

"I’ll send you home with something for Trowa," she told Duo, who was once more busy stuffing himself with the chicken pasties. "I assume that you’re done with your shift for the day?" This was not their usual area to patrol.

Toshi answered the question, since his partner’s mouth was otherwise occupied. "Yeah, we’re done for the day. Since we helped out on something not too far away, we figured we would stop by for a little bit." He smiled, his eyes closing to mere slits with the way his cheeks became so rounded from the expression. "You should see how big Mari is getting! As soon as things return to normal here, Lilla will bring her by to show her off." He looked every inch like a very proud father, even as his partner made a gagging noise.

"No offense, but I’m damn sick of hearing about babies," Duo explained, his tone grumpy and his expression disgruntled. "If one more person asks me if I’ve seen the princess, I’m gonna… gah." He waved his hands about, sparks flying for a couple of seconds, but extinguishing before they touched anything. "People are so *weird*. She’s this tiny, pink, *wrinkled* monkey. Poor kid doesn’t even have any hair." He grabbed hold of his long braid as if he could not think of anything worse to inflict upon someone.

Jo almost made a comment that he would change his opinion on babies once he had one, before remembering that would never happen now. Perhaps that was a good thing, considering his opinion of the newborn princess. "Toshi, please tell me you’ll never ask him to babysit," was all she said, which prompted laughter from Toshi and Yohji.

"Not unless Trowa’s there, I promise."

Duo shook his head. "Good luck with that. Unless your kid becomes covered with fur and grows a tail, he won’t be interested." He made a show of brushing the front of his coat with his right hand. "I swear the damn thing has already shed enough for four cats." For someone who was doing his best to seem annoyed at becoming a cat owner, he did not really sound upset.

Having an idea of what Yohji was about to say, Jo gave the idiot a withering glare as she cleared her throat. "A cat is usually easier to look after than a child. Say one thing about a certain someone, Yotan, and I will fetch my rolling pin," she warned when he grinned in a frightening manner and opened his mouth.

The grin turned into a pout. "You are no fun," he complained. Still, he kept all comments about his own ‘cat’ to himself.

"Even if I have one of the ‘ugly critters’ myself," Toshi paused to smile at his partner, who had the grace to blush, "I can understand why Duo’s sick of hearing about the princess. People are more excited about her than they were about the wedding."

The room became quiet after that; Jo knew that she was thinking about how everyone seemed so hopeful about a new heir to the throne being born and felt sad for Omi’s sake. They did not know that the crown prince was more than worthy of being Kritiker’s king, even at his relatively young age. However, he would probably trade any positive recognition for the chance to run around the city at Nagi’s side, appearing to be nothing more than Botan’s apprentice. While she might not always agree with the king’s policies, she respected him for the way he allowed Omi that precious freedom and time to find his true self.

Duo broke the silence after he finished the last of the pasties and wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. "I hope the cousins leave soon. Trowa’s a pretty good cook, but we don’t have much of a wine and beer cellar in the apartment." He grinned at his joke, which prompted chuckles from around the table.

"Somehow, I got the impression you were rather happy about the chance to spend all these evenings with Trowa." Toshi looked at Duo as if waiting to be told otherwise, and grinned when he got a very pleased expression instead. "I thought so."

"Even if he spends too much time playing with the damn kitten, he’s gorgeous – especially when he bends over." Duo’s smile did not last long, not when he was within arm’s reach of Jo.

"And somehow, I doubt he’d be happy to hear something like that," she snapped as Duo rubbed his sore head. Poor, quiet Trowa reminded her a lot of Aya and Masato, stuck with mates who did not have the sense of when it was a good time to keep their mouths shut. It was a good thing that they loved their respective boyfriends or else there might be bloodshed. Then she thought about the scars on Yohji’s left shoulder and amended that thought with ‘more bloodshed’.

"You’re right." Duo actually appeared subdued for all of ten seconds. "But it is the truth. And between being away from Esset, the new job and the kitten, he’s been so happy lately." The normally impish young man’s expression turned sappy. Now it was Toshi’s turn to make a gagging sound.

"I’m sure you have some small role in that, too," Jo said as she smacked Toshi, the motion damn near automatic after all the years of living at the Koneko. "Let me fix some food for him now." She was certain that both Guards wanted to get back to their loved ones, and it soon would be time to start on dinner.

"Thank you!"

In the middle of Duo’s exuberant shout of gratitude, the kitchen door opened to let Aya, Nagi, Omi, Ed and Al into the room. As the kitchen filled with handsome and evidently ravenous young men, Jo offered up a prayer to the gods, uncertain if she were blessed with their company or cursed. Maddox and Kira better show up soon and help her to feed the noisy horde.

*******

/We should be fine now,/ Ruka informed Yuda, prompting him to tighten his hold of his lover.

"Hold on," he warned Shin as he hurried down the hallway toward the steps. Even with Ruka on hand to cast an illusion so they would not be recognized as bounds, he felt anxious over allowing his still-weak mate out of the safety of their bedroom. If Shin did not want to go outside so much… and Ruka worried that he would be too dominating to the water elemental. All Shin had to do was express a desire for something and he would do his best to provide it.

Once down the stairs, he swept into the kitchen, pleased at the way that Shin clung to him even tighter. He carried his mate as one would a child, cradled in his arms, which alone was cause enough for Ruka to befuddle the minds of anyone who did not already know their true nature. Despite his lack of strength from going without a proper feeding for so long, there was no difficulty in bearing the weight of another grown man – albeit a very thin one – since it *was* Shin. Just holding his mate close like this energized him, as did sensing Shin’s growing happiness and excitement.

"The baskets are ready!" Rei exclaimed as he fell in step beside Ruka, both hands full with said baskets and his face flushed as if he had worked hard on preparing them. Behind him, Gou was a silent presence who held several wine bottles cradled in his arms.

Yuda nodded in gratitude toward Jo, who he knew had no reason to help Rei with the food or to give them the alcohol, especially after his past behavior. Still, despite the trouble he caused her, she smiled and even held the door open for him. "I’d advise you to stay away from the lavender patch," she warned as he went past, her emotions calm and a bit rueful.

Confused by the request, he never-the-less intended to keep it in mind and was relieved to see that Gai had unfurled a series of blankets away from the more shaded area of the garden. For the first time in several days, the sun was shining and the air warm, which made for the perfect afternoon to have a picnic in a beautiful garden. He sensed that they were not alone with the idea, but the few people enjoying the sunny weather had picked secluded spots in which to do so.

The blankets were not very far from a small koi pond and a large bramble of creamy white roses that were in bloom. Their scent was almost heady in its sweetness, and an image flickered through his mind of how Shin would look wearing a crown of them on his pale blue hair.

He set Shin down on the most padded blanket and quickly stretched out behind his mate so Shin could rest against his chest. Shin had chosen to wear an outfit that someone from Xan must have left behind, the thin silk of the loose white pants and long, almost ankle-length dark blue tunic effectively leaving very little skin exposed.

"Oh, it’s lovely," Shin sighed as he leaned even more against Yuda. "I didn’t really get a chance to see it when we arrived." His emotions turned pensive for a moment, until Yuda stroked his gloved right hand along Shin’s cheek.

Until his mate was a bit stronger, he had chosen to wear the gloves as the best way to avoid the temptation of stealing a little energy and the chance to feel Shin’s smooth skin. The only thing that gave him the will to pull them on in the first place had been the fact that Shin slowly was growing stronger each day, giving him hope that it would only be a few more before they truly became mates.

Sprawling out around them, Rei, Ruka, Gou and Gai made themselves comfortable. "I hear that Aya and Marta are the ones who look after the garden." Gai was proud just then, probably at being able to share some information with his friends. "And that we shouldn’t pick any of the roses unless we want to get into trouble." He paused to scratch at the left side of his face and frowned in puzzlement. "Oh, and the lavender patch, too."

Yuda looked intently at his best friend, who shrugged as he helped Rei unpack all the food. "I believe the answer to both somehow involves Aya, but there are conflicting emotions whenever the inn’s staff think about either. Their shields are very impressive, and I don’t get the impression that it’s just because of a soul gaki bound having trained them." He frowned as well and looked away from his lover long enough to stare at the inn, his brow furrowed and shoulders hunched forward. "There’s something very odd about this building."

"I noticed right away that it seems to impart a sense of peace," Gou contributed to the conversation while he uncorked the bottles of wine. "It feels safer here than it ever did back in Berin."

Shin nodded, which made the top of his head brush against Yuda’s chin. "I don’t remember much of that first night, but I remember feeling as if I had been welcomed here, if that makes any sense." His interest sharpened, presented by a mystery that Yuda was certain he would ponder until it was solved. Now that Shin was well on his way to recovering from what the Elders had done to him, they had some hope of figuring out what Aya was, among other things.

"I know we have to leave soon, but… I like it here." Rei’s voice was hushed as he handed out small plates covered with pieces of cheese and plucked grapes. Ruka was quick to set his appetizer aside so he could give his lover a hug.

"So do I! The city is amazing! They have all these booths and shops selling the most amazing food, and so many things I never imagined existed!" Gai waved his hands about so much while talking that the plate on his left thigh was in danger of sliding off. He caught it in time and shoved over half its contents into his mouth.

/Wait until they see what is all out there,/ Ruka sent as he shared a knowing smile with Yuda. /Eto is one of the finer cities around, but there still is so much that they’ve never experienced./

For a few seconds Yuda’s smile threatened to twist into a more bitter expression. Even he and Ruka had been shocked by the world beyond Esset, and they had been sent out on various missions during the decades they had served the Elders. The one thought that had kept him focused and even sane during so much change and the constant running from the Elders’ hounds had been that one day he would be able to reveal all the beauty and wonder he had seen to the man he loved. He would be able to stand back and watch as Shin drank it all in, ever the one who had craved to learn new things all the time. Only now, Shin would be experiencing life instead of only reading about it.

/One of the staff… said something similar about Aya the other day./ Ruka did his best to recall the memory and share it with Yuda, but they both were left only with the impression that the discussion had been about very large bills from bookstores and Yohji’s aching back.

Why was it that Aya seemed to slip from their thoughts so easily? The man was literally quicksilver, sliding from their vision and minds as if no force could grasp him. Yuda felt as if he *should* know what the redheaded bound was by now, that the answer was ridiculously simple, yet the harder he tried to find it the less luck he had in doing so.

He forced aside all troubling thoughts of Aya before they led to the redhead’s mate and even more disturbing emotions on his part. The day was beautiful, he had Shin in his arms and his dearest friends close by. Just a few weeks ago, something like this would have been impossible, had been a dream to torment him and make him long for the past. Even those couple of months preceding his departure from Berin had not been without pain as his decision to leave and take Shin with him had strained at the friendships he most relied upon. Now it was easy to look back and see how Gou and Gai had merely done their best to protect Shin and Rei, the acrimony between the six of them healed by the gift of freedom.

Shin finished the few bites of cheese and fruit and set his plate aside, mindful of how everyone watched over him to ensure that he ate enough to regain his depleted strength. Yuda kissed the top of his head as a reward and ate his own appetizer, his hunger heightened by the wonderful aroma of roasted chicken that rose from the basket to Rei’s left.

"I’d like to go see the Royal Library before we leave," Shin said, his voice a soft murmur above the faint splashes of the pond’s small waterfall. "Only Xan has something to rival it."

"Oh, I want to see some of the markets!" Rei paused in pouring everyone some white wine to give Ruka a hopeful look since his lover had no intention of allowing him out into the city until he could properly defend himself. "This quarter is supposed to have an amazing spice market! Jo showed me four different types of saffron that she bought at it, and I’ve never tried white pepper before."

/Now that’s a thought to make one long for a lover who can be placated with mere jewels, no?/ Yuda sent to his friend as Ruka’s red eyes went wide, no doubt at the thought of how much some spices cost. /You’ll be very poor, but well-fed./

/Says the man whose mate can’t even peel an apple without nearly slicing off his fingertips,/ Ruka shot back with an amused quirk to his left eyebrow and a knowing grin. /Yet he can play as good as this inn’s Harper, which makes no sense./

/Thank you for reminding me that there’s a particular market I need to visit before we leave./ The harp that Koyu had lent to Shin was up in their bedroom; Shin had wanted to play for them today but it would take a lot of Ruka’s talent to mask the sound from so many people. Music would attract too much attention when they were supposed to be hiding, so Shin could only play upstairs while Koyu did the same in the main room. Yuda appreciated the generosity in the second-hand harp, yet something about the gift annoyed his demon soul. He did not like the thought of anyone other than himself giving something to *his* mate that Shin enjoyed so much. No, he would buy a harp for Shin before they left, something that the water elemental could play until one could be made. If it was odd how Shin was otherwise so clever with his hands unless holding a paring knife, it was odder still how he could carve wood without causing himself too much damage.

Gai finished off his wine in a rush and smacked his lips together. "Yum, I can’t wait to see what dishes you create with spices like that."

"As if I’d allow a glutton like you to gulp down all my hard work! You should be a flesh gaki bound with the way you eat." Rei sniffed in disapproval and flipped back a long strand of his lavender-colored hair. The action reminded Yuda of the need to talk to Crawford about supplying them with an adequate number of illusion charms. They should not rely upon Ruka so much to mask their… unusual coloring now that they would be living among people who would see those features as signs of their demon natures. He stroked the back of his right forefinger along Shin’s pale blue strands and felt a touch of regret over how that crown of roses would have to wait a little longer, until he could ask for permission to cut several of the blooms.

"Hmph, it’s a sign of respect, you bird-brain! Like slurping noodles in Xan!"

"Oh, the little boy learned something new, didn’t he? Does that explain why you’ve been slurping *everything* you eat for the last two decades?"

Yuda chuckled as Rei and Gai continued to squabble, for a few heartbeats convinced that he had returned to some moment in the past. He just now realized how much he had missed this, in being part of a tightly-knit group of friends and invigorated just by their emotions and presence. Off to his right, Gou chuckled as well while Ruka did his best to distract Rei from the burgeoning fight by motioning to all the food that still needed served.

"It’s been so long," Shin sighed, his thoughts seeming to echo Yuda’s. "They haven’t fought like this since…." He sighed again and hugged Yuda’s left arm closer to his chest.

Since he and Ruka had left, Yuda was certain Shin meant to say. The thought of how oppressive their life must have been back in Berin made him grateful that he could only sense emotions and not thoughts. In a way, the Elders had abetted his freedom by mentally blocking him and Ruka from their lovers; if he had any proof of how much Shin had suffered those years they were apart, he would have gone back despite his promise to Crawford. At least he had been comforted by Alexis’ promise to watch over his mate, and Crawford’s that they would be reunited ‘soon’ enough. Oh, how he hated that word now.

"Is that an apple tart I see?"

Shin’s quietly spoken question was enough to bring the loud squabble to an immediate halt. Gai’s face became flushed as guilt washed through him, while Rei beamed with pride as he held up the dessert. "Yes! Made with green apples, which I know are your favorite!" He set the tart aside and resumed preparing plates for them, and the garden became peaceful once again.

Ruka shot Shin a relieved look before assisting his lover, while Gou took over teasing Gai in a thankfully quiet manner while the earth elemental pouted and complained about being picked on. Breathing in the aroma of delicious food, roses and Shin’s intoxicating scent, Yuda felt utterly calm in what had to be the first time since he had left Berin.

*******

Alexis smiled when she saw Karen and Yasuhisa standing together near an alcove, the earth elemental’s full attention seeming to be focused entirely upon the fire elemental’s exposed cleavage as he bobbed his head up and down in an absentminded manner. If she did not know the two so well, she would be insulted for Karen’s sake, and she had to smile at the twinkle in the woman’s eyes as she prattled on. No doubt the two bounds were taking careful note of everyone who walked along the busy hallway and managed to slip those observations into what to anyone else was a rather inane conversation.

She went over to join them, her hands holding up the full skirts of her wine red dress so she did not trip. The precious quartz necklace had been returned to its spot in her jewelry chest since enough people knew who had given it to her, while around her neck was a much more expensive confection of platinum and rubies the color of blood. The assumption was that Quatre had gifted her with the necklace as part of their agreement for her to bear him an heir, but in truth it had come from a long-dead lover. Her lips curved at the remembrance of how Wufei had berated his boyfriend for not thinking of such things even if their relationship was only a pretend one, which had left her with the impression that if she was to receive any jewelry for the charade, that it would come from the prickly General. Despite his fearful reputation, Wufei had unexpected depths that made her long to see what he would become once the war was over. No wonder Quatre was so determined to hold on to his lover.

"Ah, perhaps you can settle this argument!" Karen exclaimed as Alexis approached, her chest huffing in apparent indignation to the point that Alexis half-expected the seams of her very revealing and tight dress to split apart at any moment. Yasuhisa turned his attention from Karen’s ample assets to Alexis’, which again she would have found insulting if she did not know it was an act and that she had half as much to look at as did the fire elemental. And unlike Karen’s hair color, those were not enhanced at all….

"What could have two… close companions such as yourselves at odds?" she asked in a quiet voice, curious to see what Karen would come up with this time to include her into a private discussion.

"This… lecherous *oaf* claims that a water elemental is much more dangerous than a fire elemental!" Karen stamped her right foot as if to show how strongly she felt against that statement. "While I agree that they can be as destructive as my kind under the right circumstances, their temperament is not suited to fighting!"

Yasuhisa managed to lift his eyes from staring at Alexis’ chest long enough to give her a quick wink. "I keep telling her that the ability to go from calm into a full-blown snit in less than three seconds is not necessarily conducive to a battle," he explained, sounding as if he had indulged in a few bottles of wine prior to the argument. "And may I say that while lovely, that dress of yours is a bit disappointing."

Alexis bared her teeth in a mock show of anger. "Not all of us have the ability to look like strumpets even when we’re half-naked," she answered in a tone that was pure ice. Judging from the flash of a smile from Karen before the woman glared in her direction, the jab had been appreciated. "Can you think of nothing better to discuss?"

"Nope."

"Not really."

Both elemental bounds answered at the same time, and once again Alexis was hard pressed to not laugh. Neither of them could be considered her friends prior to a couple of months ago, which was an appearance she strove to keep up even though that fact had changed. It would not do for those involved in… ‘things’ to be known as associates, and some might think it odd if her ‘aloof’ nature were to suddenly become more outgoing.

"In that case, why don’t you go bother a suitably strong water elemental and find out the hard way?" she suggested. As inane topics went, they had picked a good one, even though anyone who overheard it would merely assume that it was a matter of rival elementals playing the ‘who makes for a better weapon’ game of one-upmanship that dated back to the Binding Wars. What few of those people would suspect, however, was that Karen and Yasuhisa were more than intelligent enough to know the truth.

Water elementals might come across as placid and friendly, but the saying that ‘still waters run deep’ applied to each and every one of them. Many of their kind had suffered some sort of harassment because of their attractive nature, and just because they did not lose their tempers often did not mean that they could not become possessed with a righteous fury if provoked. She doubted many people remembered what had happened to Trowa’s initial ‘suitors’, and even fewer knew the truth of what exactly he had done to his abusers once his power had surfaced. Also, despite coming across as one of the quietest of bounds in the palace, Shin had made it clear that he had the resolve to put the talent that was only second to Trowa’s to use to defend himself and his cousins. She had only to surreptitiously take care of one of the young man’s rivals after Yuda’s departure and had been a bit regretful that more meals had not come her way. Although she still had Martha to deal with, her plans for the presumptuous bound temporarily halted until the furor over the cousins’ escape died down.

Karen sniffed and pushed back her shoulders, and somehow Yasuhisa managed to appear as if he were ready to drool as her breasts strained even more against the thin, gold-colored silk that barely deserved to be called a dress. "I do not lower myself to meaningless ‘squabbles’," she spat. A moment later, her furious expression changed into one that was thoughtful. "But I do know two idiots who can be goaded into providing an answer for us." She spun around and stalked down the hallway in a manner that caused the slit skirt of her outfit to bare her legs to the upper thigh and most of the men as well as a few women to stare after her, all the while Yasuhisa trailing behind her as if a love-struck puppy. His plain, dark grey outfit made him stand out almost as much as Karen’s did, leaving Alexis to wonder how anyone fell for his act when he so obviously was still the monk he had been before forced to come here.

Quickly stifling that thought, she tried to continue on her way to Quatre’s quarters, only to find an unpleasant surprise in her path. Tan Xi was dressed as if she had just come from one of the Elders’ gatherings, her shoulder-length black and grey hair pulled back into a neat bun and the blue silk of her revealing tunic and skirt embroidered with gold thread. Alexis allowed herself a moment to gloat that even having passed her second century mark, she was powerful enough for her looks to not even hint at her true age. She knew that was part of the animosity that Tan Xi held against her, the strength of her demon soul.

"Is there something that I may do for you?" she asked in a soft murmur as she did her best to bury the hatred she felt for the other bound. Perhaps Quatre was generous enough to keep in mind the forces that had made Tan Xi into the Elders’ most fawning pet, but she had lost friends to the woman’s machinations.

Tan Xi’s dark brown eyes narrowed, a rare slip of her usually cheerful mask, and her scent bore the bitter tang of jealousy and hatred. Yet when she spoke, her voice contained nothing but polite interest. "You look lovely, as always. It seems that Lord Quatre’s interest has been beneficial to you."

Alexis inclined her head in acceptance; at least she and Tan Xi were about the same height and for once her neck did not ache from having to stare upward for so long – nor did it seem as if she were baring her throat to a rival while making polite eye contact. "He is one of the most pleasant gentlemen that I have had the good fortune to know," she replied in the same bland tone.

"Yes, and you have known some… interesting ‘gentlemen’ in your time." There was the faintest of hisses behind the words and Tan Xi’s eyes narrowed even more.

Tilting her head to the side, Alexis strove for an innocent expression. "Thank you for noticing, although I fear none of my acquaintances can match the prestige of yours." To anyone who overheard their conversation – of which there were many listeners at the moment – it would seem as if they were playing yet another game of one-upmanship that bounds seemed to love. If the gods were kind, only a few would see past that veneer to the truth, and those observant souls would be her allies.

For a moment, Tan Xi preened as if accepting the praise, which would be expected when one of her past lovers had been a bound who had terrified almost everyone and whom even the Elders had treated with caution. "One’s choice of companions can say much about a person." She smiled just then, the expression so cloying that Alexis knew it for a true threat. "Yours… speaks volumes."

She chose to appear oblivious to the innuendo behind the words. "I am very honored to know men such as Quatre." She deliberately spoke of him as if he were a lover and smiled almost as sweetly in return.

"If only they all were of his caliber," Tan Xi sniffed. "At least your taste has finally improved." With that parting insult, she left Alexis, slinking off to join a small group of her sycophantic ‘acolytes’ who barely possessed an entire brain amongst them.

Sadly, Alexis could not say the same about Tan Xi even if she despised the succubae bound. No, Tan Xi had not forgotten for one moment her relationship with Yuda and had been quick to blame her for the cousins’ escape. That Quatre had provided her with an airtight alibi, as well as helping her suppress any thoughts about the escape well enough that Thought had found no traces of them when he had searched her mind to settle the question of her involvement, did nothing to quell those suspicions. Tan Xi was currently checked by the lack of evidence, yet still determined to prove Alexis guilty.

She could blame Alexis all she wanted, as long as there continued to be no proof. Alexis was not foolish enough to dismiss her enemy’s suspicions, but knew that reacting to them in any manner other than befuddlement and a hint of lingering animosity would harm her in the long run. Everyone knew that they did not like each other and most believed Tan Xi to be reaching for a way to take down a rival. As long as the Elders considered her to be innocent, then Tan Xi could make no outward moves against her. She would just have to remain on her guard and not provide her enemy with anything damning that could be used against her.

Despite the risk to her life, she had to tamp down on the exhilaration she felt over the situation. She had learned at an early age that her best defense against those who would hunt her down or use her was to play up her seemingly benign appearance. Refining her petite stature and beautiful looks with the manners she had learned while observing her mother’s wealthy employers made most people consider her too ladylike to be any sort of threat. While she took pride in those manners and it was her personality to be reticent and polite, her demon nature was never entirely sublimated. Perhaps it was because of her personality that she was one of the very few flesh gaki bounds who did not risk being lost in madness and insatiable hunger when her demon soul took over. That had its benefits and drawbacks, the former she was quick to take advantage of and the latter she always remained aware of while surrounded by enemies. Many a person had ended their lives in utter astonishment as she quietly and efficiently tore out their throat.

Her demon soul stirred at such thoughts, which she quickly soothed back into almost complacency. Soon, she promised herself. Keep up the façade for a little longer, only a couple of years at the most, and she would be free to indulge in a feast that she would remember even if she lived as long as the Elders. Oh, so much blood would flow then, so sweet and thick and hot, and she would not stop feeding until either killed or her enemies were no more. That such a feast would herald a new future for her kind only made her long for it even more.

*******

Cassandra focused her thoughts on her son as she walked to the Koneko, smiling at the sleepy, affectionate mental greeting she got in return. Ah, someone was still in bed, it seemed. She would have to tease him about that, although not too much since she knew how much he had worn himself out with helping break through the mental barriers in Shin’s mind. Since he had a succubae bound mate to feed, it took him a little longer to recover from things now – and the brat took every advantage of that fact. Poor Masato, almost forced to wait on his lover as if Schuldig’s servant. Well, ‘poor Masato’ if he did not enjoy being able to pamper the conniving brat. Her smile grew wider as she thought about how even that pairing was, and how happy they were despite having the bond forced on them by the gods.

Her thoughts led to another mated pair, one seemingly not so blessed, at least not the last few years. The large basket she carried contained some new clothes for Shin, Yuda and the others, outfits she had been busy making the past several days. There were more back in her shop, but she wanted to see how these fit before doing the final alterations.

The wind blowing at her back was colder than it should be this time of year, containing a hint of the rain that would fall tonight. She shivered as she tucked her pale blue shawl tighter around her chest, grateful that she was only a couple of blocks from the inn. One did not need to be a precog to know that Jo would have a pot of something warm simmering on the stove, almost always coffee or hot water for tea, but lately some mulled wine or cider as well whenever the weather threatened to rain. So many elemental bounds were involved in moderating the rain as much as they could, to either direct it away from too-sodden ground or toward crops that needed the moisture, that the little bit of energy such a drink provided was always appreciated.

On the crowded street around her, people bustled about with obvious mindfulness of the approaching storm. Despite their worry about the weather, their emotions were overall happy. The continued health of the baby princess was taken as a good sign, as were the surrounding countries’ intent on sending emissaries and gifts to mark the child’s birth and naming ceremony. More and more people became aware of the possibility of war as the days passed, and an obvious show of respect toward Kritiker put many of their fears to rest.

She passed a recruitment poster for the Army about a block from the Koneko, hanging in the window of a shop whose owner had served for almost twenty years. A handsome man with black hair and dark eyes stared back at her for a moment, the image so blatantly based on Roy that she pressed the back of her right hand against her mouth to stifle giggles. Oh, he was certainly handsome and impressive enough to warrant being on the posters, and the Army had no idea of the breadth of that particular colonel’s talent. She just had to wonder how well Yohji took to walking past the poster most days since the two men still felt hostility toward each other. What utter foolishness that was, considering the woman they had been interested in had mostly faded from their memories – and that long before they had found their respective mates.

It must be a male thing, the need for such rivalry when the initial cause for it was no longer around. While Aya’s involvement obscured things from her talent, she had the impression that Yohji and Roy would find peace with each other at some point in time; she would just withhold from betting on that happening within the next century or two.

She reached the Koneko and entered through the back garden gate, smiling once more as Ichiro and Jason paused in grooming a couple of horses out in front of the barn to call out to her in greeting. She was welcomed again as she followed the cobblestone path to the inn’s kitchen door, this time by Sophia and Miriam. The women looked to be almost finished with their task, the baskets scattered about the garden full of various clippings. Since she planned to visit them early tomorrow morning for breakfast, she did not pause for any conversation other than to wish them a good day.

No matter the weather or mood outside, the Koneko’s kitchen was always so warm and bright. Some might say that was because of the stoves, ovens and hearths almost constantly in the process of cooking something, but she knew it was more because of the inn’s staff and the peculiar blessing that inhabited the red-bricked building. As always, she felt at peace as soon as she stepped inside, before Jo looked up from checking something that Maddox was stirring to smile in greeting.

"You look particularly lovely today, Cassandra." Jo left Maddox to his task, patting Kira on the shoulder as she walked past the young woman while she chopped several heads of cabbage.

"Thank you." Cassandra bowed her head in acknowledgement of the compliment and spun around so the full skirt of her dark blue and white dress flared out around her legs. Once she set the large basket on a table, she looked Jo up and down as she untied her shawl. "You look… less frazzled than usual!"

Jo chuckled in amusement, appearing perfectly at ease in her pale yellow apron covered with flour and spices, the sleeves of her white shirt rolled up past her elbows and her green skirt wrinkled. One could tell that she had been busy for most of the day, yet her hair was still neatly pulled back in a bun and her demeanor almost serene. "Aya helped me with the cinnamon rolls today, and I only had to smack Yohji once. It’s been a good day."

Cassandra clapped her hands together in amazement. "Truly? Only once? Is he falling ill, perhaps?"

Laughter filled the kitchen at her remark, Maddox and Kira taking a break in their work to join Jo as she responded to Cassandra’s incredulous questions. "I believe it’s more the fact that he knew they have the rest of today to spend in their bedroom and didn’t want to be unconscious for most of it." Jo snorted once and shook her head. "I sincerely hope that you’re not here to see them."

"No, I have some clothes for the cousins." Cassandra motioned to the basket and noticed how Jo’s eyes narrowed when she turned to look at it. "Yes… the time is drawing near," she said, answering her friend’s unspoken question.

As always, Jo was not bothered to have her surface thoughts read like that. "I am relieved to hear that, and hope that Yuushi and Birman have everything set up so there’s not another succubae mating occurring here." She truly was adamant about that not happening again, worried that the inn’s luck would not hold out if people took to gossiping about yet another incident of ‘spiked drinks’. There was no way she would stand back and allow something that could threaten her loved ones, not if she had to toss a bucket of frigid water onto Shin and Yuda then drag both men to the nearest inn by herself.

"The gods forbid that it’ll come to that," Cassandra whispered.

Her hearing was rather sharp for a human – Cassandra suspected it had to do with raising Yohji and Teddy and so always being on alert for whatever trouble they were stirring up – Jo nodded in agreement. "Exactly. Still, Birman’s holed up in the library with Yuushi, Crawford and Reiichi, so I will assume that they are putting the finishing touches on their plans." She untied and removed the apron as she spoke, then unrolled her sleeves once the apron was set aside. "The cousins should be up in their rooms." It was clear that she intended to accompany Cassandra. "Would you care for anything to eat or drink before we go up there?"

"Thank you." Always pleased to share in Jo’s company, Cassandra picked up the basket and stepped toward the door. "If you don’t mind, I would rather wait until the clothes have been tried on before sitting with you for awhile." No customers were supposed to come to the shop today, and Botan would be unable to stop by tonight because of work demands. She would much rather spend the afternoon chatting with Jo and perhaps Birman for a while, then return home to complete some work.

"That sounds fine. Perhaps Yohji and Aya can tear themselves away from their room long enough to join us for a bit." From the tone of Jo’s voice, she did not place much faith in that happening and yet was not upset. She much preferred the two men to be happy up in their room than Yohji on edge because of Yuda’s presence in his home.

"Perhaps." Cassandra had a bit more faith than her friend; although she could not sense them, she knew that Aya’s wards had noticed her arrival and that the couple would probably spare the time to make sure everything was all right with her.

The inn was clearly doing very good business, as they passed several people in the hallway and up the stairs. Thankfully, there were fewer on the floor where the cousins were staying, since it was the part of the inn where many of the strays were given rooms. She was soon able to sense the cousins’ emotions, relieved that they were at ease and happy.

Jo knocked on the door of the room that had been given to Shin and Yuda, then stepped back so as not to crowd the door while waiting for it to be opened. Gou stared at her for a moment before bowing in greeting and motioning for her to enter. "Good afternoon, Jo and Cassandra." His expression became hopeful as he took in the large basket. "Are those the new clothes?"

As often was the case for powerful bounds – especially ones who had grown up in Berin – his thoughts were mostly shielded yet he allowed some surface ones to be read. While he was extremely thankful for the clothes that had been given to him and his cousins upon their arrival at the Koneko, he was excited about the prospect of not wearing hand-me-downs.

They were all congregated in the room, which really did not come as any surprise to Cassandra or Jo. Now that whatever animosity they had felt for each other had been settled, it was plain that the six men cared very much for each other. Yuda and Shin were curled up on one of the beds, several pillows set against the headboard so Yuda could sit upright with Shin nestled against his chest and between his legs. The water elemental looked the best that Cassandra had ever seen him, his cheeks lightly flushed and his eyes bright and focused.

The other couple of the six bounds were on the second bed, not quite so intimately posed yet clearly together with the way that Rei was busy unraveling a pile of ribbons with Ruka seated at his side. Either Gou or Gai had brought a spare chair into the room as well as more pillows to make the furniture comfortable; Gai waved at Cassandra and Jo as he sat near the window, his chin resting on the back of the chair which was turned around.

"Our clothes?" Yuda asked as he hugged Shin closer to his chest, his emotions as hopeful as Gou’s. From his thoughts, Cassandra picked up that if the clothes were almost ready, then it would not be much longer before he and Shin were mates and allowed to leave the city.

"I have one outfit for each of you. Once I’m certain that they fit, I can finish up the remaining ones in the next few days." If her visions were correct, she would need to have them ready very soon; Shin’s strength was almost to the point where he could bear being drained by Yuda when they fully became mates, and he should only need a few days to recover from that before being able to travel.

Rei made a pleased, excited noise and set aside the tangle of ribbons. "Oh, thank you!" He jumped off the bed and approached Cassandra, a wide smile on his face as he motioned toward the basket. "So you want us to try them on?"

"Yes, please." She set the basket on the chair that must have been abandoned by Gou when he went to let them in the room; Jo and the fire elemental remained near the door as if mindful of not crowding the room too much. "If you would like to be first, I am very eager to see if I miscalculated at all!"

For the sake of time constraints and mindful that she was limited in how many outfits she could make them, she had picked a thick yet soft black material to be made into pants for all of them. Sorting through the basket, she pulled out the pair she had made for Rei as well as the red tunic that would match his eyes. No matter that they would be wearing illusion spells most of the time to mask their true appearance, they would be able to see each other as they truly were so she had chosen colors with that in mind.

The air elemental uttered another pleased cry as he all but snatched up the outfit. "Oh, it’s perfect!" He held up the tunic and turned toward his lover, radiating pure happiness as Ruka smiled in approval. Sparing Jo and Cassandra a bashful look, he went behind the folded screen near the wash basin to change.

"What about me?" Gai asked as he rushed to Cassandra, his green eyes bright and smile eager. His reaction was much like Rei’s when she handed over black pants and a white tunic with red edging. "Thanks!" He spun around and stalked toward the screen. "Hurry up, Rei!"

"Don’t be so impatient!" Rei snapped, and a moment later came around to show the room his outfit. "You did a wonderful job, Cassandra! Thank you!" He was almost knocked aside by Gai as his cousin rushed to take his place behind the screen.

She crossed the room to make sure that the clothes were the proper size, mindful to not get between him and Ruka. "They might be a little large at the moment, but I’m sure that won’t be the case for long, no?" She shared a grin with Rei before he ducked his head and fussed with the gold ties of the tunic. "All of your clothes will be this size." According to her visions, he would soon fill them out properly, once allowed a bit more rest and food.

Ruka waited for her at the desk, his expression tender as he stared at his lover. "I’ve always liked you in that color," he murmured, causing Rei to blush furiously. When Cassandra gave him his outfit, he stroked his right hand along the greenish-grey tunic and thanked her in a heartfelt manner.

Gai burst out from behind the screen, evidently very happy with his white and red tunic. "It’s so soft! I don’t think I’ve ever owned something like this!" Across the room, his proclamation was greeted with sad smiles and, on Jo’s part, narrowed eyes. Cassandra picked up from several of their thoughts how they had made do with whatever the Elders had given them.

Gou was the next to step forward for his outfit, his smile genuine as he accepted the pants and blue tunic. Cassandra felt herself blush slightly in response, not immune to a handsome man giving her attention. He waited for his turn behind the screen, quietly stepping behind it once Ruka was showing off his new clothes to Rei’s vocal delight.

So far she had done a wonderful job with the sizes, all of the hard work well worth it for the gratitude and happiness she felt in return. Yuda kissed Shin on the right temple before urging his mate off the bed; she could not help to note the way the succubae bound kept his body in front of Shin’s as they fetched their outfits, as protective as Yohji or Masato had ever been in regards to their mates. Some of his reserve vanished when he noticed how Shin’s tunic matched his pants; an image formed in his mind at how striking the water elemental would look with such a dark color in contrast to his golden eyes and blue hair.

"Thank you," he said as they stepped back, just as heartfelt as Gou had been. He followed Shin to the folded screen, his left hand resting against the small of his mate’s back for support.

"Of course you’re to take the clothes we’ve given you when you leave, and I’ve been assured that the nearest village to where you’ll be staying has a market every five days," Jo informed the young men as they fussed over their outfits. "Also, your new boots should be ready in two day’s time."

Cassandra tucked the cloth she had used to cover the clothes during her walk to the inn back into the basket. "Oh yes, I’m certain it will be no trouble for you to buy new clothes once you’ve settled in your new home." Across the room, each of the young men felt a sharp yearning at the mention of ‘home’. While the Koneko was a lovely place to stay, it would not be a permanent residence for these bounds, a fact that they never forgot. After leaving what was essentially a prison and traveling so far, they all longed for a place of safety and solitude where they could be together and themselves.

"We’ll be sure to pick up a few necessary items before we leave," Yuda said as he left the privacy of the folded screen, his left arm now wrapped around Shin’s shoulders while his mate wavered slightly from side to side. His lavender colored tunic fit him perfectly, showing off a physique that threatened to make Cassandra blush again and even caught Jo’s attention, while Shin’s clothes were a bit looser. Even when he gained back the necessary weight lost from pushing his talent too far, they would still be a little loose. Cassandra had deduced that he seemed to prefer less-restrictive garments and that Yuda would prefer them to anything more revealing. Ah, how she thanked the gods that she was not mated to a succubae bound. She did not think her temperament could take such jealousy and possessiveness, even if her brat of a son drank it up and Aya mostly put up with it for Yohji’s sake.

"I’ll have two more outfits for each of you within a week’s time," she promised the young men, mindful not to say more than that. As they thanked her yet again, the world around her was replaced by flashing images. Once more, Aya’s presence muddled things a bit, but she was left with no doubt that it would not be much longer now before Shin and Yuda became mates. The vision left her with a sense of relief; when there was nothing keeping Yuda from his lover, he should have less of a problem dealing with Yohji. How two such powerful succubae bounds had managed to live together these last few weeks without major bloodshed left her both grateful and convinced that the gods had to be meddling in the Koneko’s affairs.

"Dinner will be in a couple of hours. If you’re planning on staying in tonight, I’ll see if we can’t set something up for you in the library," Jo offered as she and Cassandra made ready to leave the room. Judging from Shin’s delight upon hearing that and the way Yuda, Gou and Rei smiled at him in an indulgent manner, it was no surprise when the offer was quickly accepted.

"Before the week is out," Cassandra whispered to Jo once they were out in the hallway. "I will prepare more of my special tea to help Shin afterwards, and Yohji won’t have to watch his temper so closely for much longer."

"That will be a relief," Jo mumbled, then followed the words with a weary sigh. "I wish them all well, and know they’re not meant to stay here. It’s for the best, really."

"Yes." Not just for Yohji’s sake, but for everyone’s. When the cousins were safe in the mountains and had regained all their strength, then they could set about undoing the damage the Elders had forced them to inflict upon the weather. The future was changing in that regard because of their escape from Esset, but Cassandra had seen enough visions before that had happened to know that not just Kritiker would suffer a terrible winter if something was not done soon. As it was, it would be a bad one, the weather not to be set aright for years to come… which was still better than a series of blizzards that would lead to the death of thousands.

"I think I would like some of that mulled wine I smelled simmering on the stove," she told Jo, and was not surprised when her friend offered to join her in enjoying a few drinks.

******* 

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