Storm Warnings

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chapter twelve

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new bonds and homes

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Telling himself that he was not apprehensive in the least, Crawford approached the attic library with what he considered a leisurely pace – by no means a cautious one. After all, he was only here to confirm final details with Aya and Yohji on a matter that had already been settled. Also, as far as he was aware – and that was quite a considerable amount – there was no reason for either bound to be upset with him at this point in time. Well, other than for insisting on Yuda’s presence at the Koneko.

While the cousins and their lovers had been given free rein of the inn, no one had informed them of the attic library’s existence. All that they knew was that several Shadow Guards lived on this floor, which seemed to be enough to contain their natural curiosity. Gai had only been up here a couple of times to see Naru and did not seem to notice the library’s door at all. Crawford was willing to bet being stuck with a new partner that Aya’s shadows was the reason for that.

He had no problem seeing or opening the door, a fact that helped to relax the tightness in his shoulders and chest as it was a sign that Aya was not upset with him. It was not a sign of weakness to be slightly worried about what regard a kage held for a person, dammit. Even if said kage did not exactly look terrifying or even dignified just then.

The padded chair that Yohji had dragged up to the library was very large, and he and his lover on the slender side, but still, Crawford did not think the furniture was meant to hold two grown men like that. Which might be the point to the seating arrangement, he thought a moment later when he took in Yohji’s very pleased smile and the way Aya was practically plastered to his chest in order for them both to fit. Crawford had the sneaky suspicion that if given the proper training and amount of time, Yohji could become as great a strategist as Wufei. That was something to remember for the future.

"You know, we’d be happier to see you if you didn’t look as if you were plotting something all the time," Yohji remarked as he looked away from Aya to Crawford. As for his mate, Aya barely managed a curt nod while he continued to read the book in his hands.

Crawford made himself comfortable on one of the room’s smaller wooden chairs. "I believe that would be something rather difficult to ask of a precog." He allowed himself a slight smile when Yohji laughed at the joke.

"Too true. So, what are you plotting now?" Yohji’s tone was friendly, yet there was a hint of silver in his bright green eyes that Crawford took careful note of and factored into his upcoming actions.

"How to best proceed with the… sleepover at the Fujimiya residence," he said after a moment’s consideration. Mention of his family’s name apparently was reason enough for Aya to finally set the book aside; thankfully, his expression remained focused and his eyes violet.

"I thought between you, Birman and Yuushi, that things were all worked out," Yohji commented, his tone less friendly than a minute before.

Not wanting to mislead the two bounds, Crawford shook his head and held up his hands. "Yes, that is correct. The only thing that remains to be settled is when to go there." He folded his arms over his chest and stared evenly at the young men. "Cassandra and I agree that tomorrow night would be best." That was as long as they figured the mating bond could be put off to allow Shin to regain a little more strength.

Aya tilted his head back to look at his mate, who shrugged in return and gave him a quick kiss on the right temple. "Tomorrow night is fine with us," was all Aya said.

Thank the gods, Yohji was a bit more loquacious than the kage. "As long as Birman and Yuushi feel that things are ready, we’ll be there." He hugged Aya a little closer as he stared back at Crawford. "So how are we going to explain the shadow wards to those two? I know Eri won’t want to be anywhere near the mansion to mess with their thoughts."

As powerful as the Shadow Guard was, Crawford did not feel that she would be able to manage such a feat while affected by Yuda finally claiming Shin; not even Schuldig or Shinra would have much luck in that regard. No, the time had finally come to let Yuda and the others in on what would be their greatest weapon against the Elders. Well… one of those weapons, as there was no reason to mention Reno’s nature just yet. He trusted Yuda and could not foresee a time when the succubae bound and his friends would betray him, but it always was best to hedge one’s bets.

"You’re right." Crawford fell silent as he marshaled his thoughts. "They should the truth be told before you leave tomorrow. It may help settle any conflict between you and Yuda long enough for him and Shin to become mates." Despite the strain of being on the run from the Elders’ hounds and away from Shin, Yuda was an intelligent man. Only the fact that Shin was so close yet still not his mate had caused Yuda to think more with his demon nature than his human. Finding out what Aya was should be enough of a shock to allow him to think clearly once again.

Yohji’s expression turned grim. "You mean he’ll be too terrified of Aya to cause me any grief. Quite honestly, I’d rather put up with his attitude."

While Aya hissed in annoyance, Crawford did his best to not call the blond a blithering idiot. He could more than understand about the fear directed toward a person because of a kage’s true nature, but really, what did Yohji expect? Ever since the Captain, it had been made clear that those who possessed shinigami souls had enough power to challenge the gods. "I don’t believe that Yuda will be ‘terrified’, only intelligent enough to realize that if a kage has chosen you for his mate then there is no sense at all in fighting you." He did his best not to grit his teeth together as he explained things. "With that said, when do you want to tell them the truth?"

Yohji opened his mouth to say something, only to let out a faint yelp when Aya knocked his right elbow into the impudent man’s chest. "I agree that they need to be told beforehand about what I am, but I don’t think it would be a good idea at all for me to be present for it." He sounded calm and uninterested, as if he was discussing the day’s menu in the kitchen with the rest of the Koneko’s ‘staff’.

His mate was willing to explain things a little better, leaving Crawford once more to ponder just how much involvement the gods had in the two men getting together. "Ah, yeah, it probably would be a bad idea to have Aya around when they find out the truth." Yohji caressed the back of the fingers on his left hand along the side of Aya’s neck. "Yuda’s already on edge because of Shin; the last thing he needs is finding out a bound powerful enough to take all six of them down is sitting across the table, and I bet there’ll be another fight." His voice grew rougher as he spoke until he was almost growling. "I promise you, he won’t survive another fight with me."

The risk of manipulating the future was that sometimes, the finer details got lost amidst all the important moments that had to be forced to come about. Crawford sighed and removed his glasses, which he cleaned with a white cloth he kept tucked up the left sleeve of his shirt. "You have a very valid point, there." He had only thought that, for once, Aya would be able to reveal what he was with no sense of antagonism or desperation. That even someone who was calm and expecting an important revelation would not handle the news well was something that had not occurred to him, who had known what Aya was before meeting the quiet redhead.

While he thought about things, Yohji laughed and nuzzled Aya’s left temple. "There goes you trying the ‘hi, I’m a kage’ approach that Ed suggested. Maybe one day, Cat."

Aya sighed in annoyance and snapped his teeth together in warning. "You’re an-"

"Idiot," Yohji finished for him in a sing-song tone of voice. "But even idiots can be right from time to time."

"True words, if not exactly very inspiring," Crawford remarked in a dry tone as he replaced his glasses. "If you’ve no objections, I will inform Yuda and the others after dinner." That should find the bounds happy from being stuffed full of good food and what would certainly be several bottles of wine, once he spoke with Jo. "Perhaps you can eat elsewhere for once?" he suggested, figuring that it would be best if Yohji was not present at all during the meal, which should ensure that Yuda was in a less defensive mood.

Yohji appeared ready to complain, probably that if something went wrong, Aya would not be there to put an immediate and thorough stop to things. Crawford stared at him as evenly as possible until Yohji let out a slow breath and nodded once. There was the slightest of chances that he had misjudged Yuda, Ruka and the cousins, and if that was the case…. The Koneko had slowly gathered to it an impressive set of defenders in the last several months. Nagi, Eri and Marta were all powerful bounds, Omi held the promise to be a wizard of legend if given enough time to learn what was necessary, and Yuushi and Naru were among the Shadow Guard’s best. Even the more ‘human’ staff were not to be taken lightly; Aya’s deadly skills would not be necessary tonight if the worst should happen. Quite honestly, Crawford would bet being stuck with Schuldig for the rest of his life that if Yuda and the others thought for one moment to betray Aya, that they would all be dead within two minutes.

That was not taking into account the odd sense of… of ‘presence’ he felt while at the Koneko from time to time. The almost feel of a mind brushing against his, an intellect so vast and powerful that he was left stunned each time it happened. This was the place that the gods had chosen to protect Aya, to keep him hidden until the war. This was the place where Yohji, so powerful and yet so human, had grown up. This was a place that drew bounds and people of talent to it with an ease that Crawford envied, well aware that it would have taken him years if not decades to do the same on his own. *That* was why he had insisted on bringing Yuda, Shin and the rest here. Despite the conflict of having two, sometimes three mostly-demon succubae bounds in the same place, it had been necessary to ensure that Shin and Rei were given the chance to recover.

He almost felt bad that the Koneko was not someplace where they could remain for more than a few days beyond tomorrow night. Jei may call him a cold-hearted bastard, but he understood the intense lure of a haven where one was safe to rest and be themselves. He had hopes that the Fujimiya mountain retreat would provide much the same, even without some outside force to lend it special protection. No, the fates of those six would often run parallel to those who had made the Koneko their home, not to cross each other often in the future. It was for the best, really; Shin, Rei, Gou and to some extent Gai would restore the weather after years of hard work, their talent so entwined with it after that point that it would be best to keep them out of sight and definitely out of mind. That was one weapon which was best left alone, as the Elders were slowly learning.

Crawford realized that Yohji had said something and shook his head as he smiled in apology. "Yes?"

"Please tell me that you had a vision of Teddy suddenly deciding that he just *has* to move to Thracia right away," Yohji pleaded, such a consummate actor with his hopefulness that Crawford smiled. When he was given a negative shake of the head as an answer, Yohji sighed in a truly piteous manner. "Damn, it was worth a shot. Anyway, I was telling you that Aya and I will see if we can mooch dinner off of Cassandra or something."

"Thank you." Crawford bowed his head before rising from the chair. "I can’t imagine her objecting to your presence." Or Reiichi’s, since the Guard would most likely tag along to keep an eye on Aya and Yohji.

"Not if we bring a few bottles of wine." Yohji chuckled a few times before nuzzling Aya’s temple once again while his hand resumed caressing his mate’s bruised neck. Not needing his talent to reveal what was most likely to happen in the near future – odds were even that things would get very intimate or Yohji whapped for his troubles – Crawford left the room since it would be unwise to stay around for either incident. He headed downstairs to have a talk with Jo and to see if Jei had managed to eat all of the ham from lunch yet.

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Shin sighed in pleasure and leaned against Yuda’s left shoulder, pleasantly stuffed from dinner and head buzzing from all the wine. He could negate the effects of the alcohol with ease, yet enjoyed the sensation, grateful for anything that dulled his emotions the tiniest bit. Now that his strength was mostly recovered, he was filled with constant longing and frustration since Yuda was so close and still not his mate.

The only thing holding them back at this point was the promise they had made to Crawford the other day to wait until the time was ‘right’, a promise that was perilously close to being broken. Just Yuda stroking the top of his right thigh was enough to make him want to drag his lover upstairs to their bedroom, yet all he did was shiver in pleasure and remain seated. The last thing that he wanted was to upset or disappoint Yuda if his strength failed during….

Feeling his cheeks grow hot with embarrassment, he ducked his head and reached for his wine glass. Yuda must have picked up on his emotions and chuckled, his large hand caressing the right side of Shin’s face. A shame that the touch did not quiet the recent doubts on if he should saddle the man he loved with his weakness for the rest of their lives.

As if their actions were some sort of cue, Crawford pushed aside his empty plate and cleared his throat. Shin looked up and at the precog, who had the attention of everyone at the table. He noticed in his periphery vision that all of the inn’s staff other than Jo and Mickey were leaving the room, and wondered if that was what Crawford was waiting for before he spoke.

Besides Jo and Mickey, the only other humans in the room were Omi and Yuushi, seated next to their lovers and wearing identical grim expressions. Eri’s face was carefully blank, as was Nagi’s – which was normal for the teenager, Shin had recently discovered. Jei got up from the table, a full bottle of wine in his hand, and stood near Jo and Mickey in an almost protective stance. Perhaps their actions should warn Shin to be on guard, yet he had a feeling of expectation rather than danger. One thing he had learned in the last few days was that the inn was home to bounds and humans powerful enough to deal with any threat that might arise with terrifying ease, so the lack of an outright attack meant that he and his cousins were still safe.

"Is there something you would like to say?" Yuda asked, his deep voice serious, but not marred by any growls or snarls.

"Indeed there is." Crawford paused to refill his wine glass and kept it in hand. "Tomorrow evening, you and Shin will leave for someplace more… secluded. Aya and Yohji will accompany you to ensure that nothing goes wrong."

That was not much of an explanation, yet the words made Shin gasp in pleasure and surprise at the same time that Yuda hugged him closer. "Is… is that wise?" Yuda asked, his voice now possessing a rough edge that had nothing to do with anger. "I mean…." Shin thought he understood what his lover meant to say; for so long they had been told they could not be with each other that this ‘permission’ seemed sudden and dubious.

"As far as I can ‘see’, things will be fine." There was an odd note of doubt in Crawford’s tone, although his expression contained no sign of concern or worry. "The place where you’re going is far enough away from other residences, that if for some reason Aya can’t ward your… ‘outburst’ they should not be overwhelmingly affected."

Yuda tensed beside Shin, the sudden focusing of attention occurring with Ruka and Gou as well. "Just how is he going to be able to do such a thing?" Yuda demanded to know; Shin’s heartbeat quickened as he realized that Crawford might actually be about to give out some much sought-after answers.

For once, the precog did not disappoint, though he did pause to take a large sip of wine. "Because he’s a kage."

At first, Shin thought that he must have imagined what had been said. Two things convinced him that the words were real; that he could not begin to imagine what would make him think a kage was alive let alone residing in an inn of all places, and the reactions of everyone other than his cousins, Yuda and Shin.

Jo did not look incredulous or frightened, rather she appeared a bit exasperated. Beside her, Mickey was clearing trying to refrain from laughing, as was Omi. Yuushi and Eri shared Jo’s exasperated expression, Nagi’s eyes were narrowed in annoyance and Jei groaned as if in pain.

"’Because he’s a kage’," the flesh gaki bound muttered, echoing Crawford’s calm tone from a moment before. "Sweet gods, man, couldn’t you have thought of a better way to break the news to them? You, the great conversationalist? Aya could have done better, dammit!"

It was Jei’s amused chuckle and manner in approaching the topic that convinced Shin that he had heard the truth. "A… kage?" he asked, stuttering slightly over a word he had never spoken aloud before. Kage were creatures of legend and the past, were nothing that anyone expected to find in their time.

"I want to say you’re kidding, but it all fits, somehow." Yuda hugged Shin even closer, his arm almost painfully tight around his waist. "It-"

"Oh, come *on*," Gai snarled as he rose to his feet, trapped between the table and the bench. "A kage?" His voice became louder and sharper with each word until it cracked. "Stop teasing us like that!"

"Like Yuda, I don’t believe he is." Gou tugged on Gai’s left arm in an effort to make him sit back down. "And I don’t think it’s a good idea to shout that word… like that."

"Why not?" Gai shrieked loudly enough to make Shin and several others wince. "It’s just one big joke! Next he’ll tell us that- oomph!" Gai was suddenly forced back onto the bench by no visible means, although Nagi seemed smug for a moment.

"Thank you, Nagi," Crawford said, which confirmed Shin’s suspicions. "First, I would like to remind you that while this room is enspelled to prevent eavesdropping, such behavior and loud volume is not appreciated. Second, I am very rarely accused of playing any sort of practical joke."

"Make that ‘never’," Jei mumbled from the other side of the large room.

Jo sighed in annoyance and picked up a large marble rolling pin, which had been on the counter beside her. "Gentlemen, now is not the time to go off-topic." She smacked the rolling pin once against the palm of her right hand.

While Jei eyed her with nervous consideration, Eri leaned back and looked directly at Gai. "I can understand both your disbelief and confusion, but he’s telling the truth. Aya… is a kage. That’s what we’ve been keeping from you for the last few weeks, and in part why you have trouble thinking about him."

Ruka sat up straighter, his left arm curled around a stunned Rei’s shoulders and expression a mixture of thoughtfulness and anger. "You’ve been tampering with our thoughts of him, haven’t you?" he accused, sounding more chagrined than upset.

"In part," Eri echoed, her demeanor tired as her shoulders became hunched and her expression guarded. "We kept you from putting two and two together, but Aya has some sort of natural… mental slipperiness, for lack of a better term. I guess it’s because of his nature."

"That makes sense." Shin whispered the words, the conversation finally sinking in past the initial astonishment. Aya was a kage. A kage was alive and well in the world, sleeping just a floor down from his own room. If a kage was alive and at this particular inn, surrounded by this particular group of bounds, then it meant one thing. "He’s fighting against the Elders, isn’t he?" He prayed that Crawford did not disagree with him; one of the few things that made Aya’s existence bearable right now was that he would be on their side. If he was not on their side… it would be a good time to break down into hysterics, for starters.

Jei snorted in amusement while Crawford actually smiled. "Yes." He stared intently at Yuda and Ruka. "I told you that the chances of us winning the war were very good, and in large part that is because of Aya. I hope you can understand why I kept that from you for so long."

Ruka’s answering laugh had a brittle edge to it, as if he was close to being pushed too far. "Yes, I imagine that it would be a bad thing if the Elders knew about his existence."

Yuda reached over to his friend and patted him on the back. Out of all of them, he seemed to be taking the news the best. "I should be terrified right now, but… it’s a huge relief." He actually smiled, his arm around Shin’s waist loosening enough to be comfortable once again. "No wonder Yohji is more powerful than me, and why you’re so certain that the Elders can be defeated." Then, despite his rational outlook and tone, he shivered.

For Shin’s part, he realized that he was still suffering from a bit of shock over the revelation, and in a way was grateful for that fact as it prevented him from becoming hysterical. In a way, though, it should not be that much of a surprise. So much had changed in the past few months, so many things were possible that never had been before, that the existence of a kage was yet one more reminder about how… unusual times now were.

"Why are you telling us this now? Just because of tomorrow night?"

Crawford considered his questions for a moment. "Aya will create shadow wards tomorrow to prevent Yuda’s magic from affecting the surrounding neighbors, so it is best to let you know beforehand. However, the main reason none of you knew the truth before tonight is that it wasn’t safe to tell you. You’re free of the Elders and sworn to our cause, as well able to handle the truth." Shin was very grateful for that last bit of assurance, even if he was a bit dubious on how accurate it was.

Rei still appeared to be in shock while Gai looked ready to start yelling again at any minute. Gou’s expression was hopeful one moment and worried the next, and Ruka and Yuda had taken to having a mental conversation. Meanwhile, everyone else in the room was a bit wary and entirely too calm for him to accept just then. Could they really be used to living with a kage? To sharing their lives with a mythological figure who could tear this huge inn down around their heads with a mere thought?

As Shin tried to compose his disjointed and almost panicked mental ramblings, he focused on what he knew about Aya. The redhead was quiet to the point of being taciturn, loved books and sweets, was almost never found very far away from Yohji and obviously had endeared numerous people to him. Reiichi spoke of his shopping trips and chess games with Aya as if they were highlights of his day, Jo was always fussing over making something that Aya loved to eat, Nagi clearly adored the redhead while Ed and Reno were also close friends. Shin supposed that he understood why Eri was always a bit leery around the man now, and all the emphasis on not making Aya upset. At first, he had assumed it was in regards to Yohji, but if there was one thing that history taught people it was to never antagonize a kage.

Yet the fearsome bound was on their side. The prospect of facing the Elders was that much less daunting now, Shin had to admit. All that terrible power and destruction, all that possibility of death, and it would be directed at their enemies. Following that was the conclusion that with all the oaths that the Elders had broken, all the mating bonds they had shattered or manipulated to their advantage, the gods had wrought a very suitable justice. He could not see the elderly bounds escape the fate that was in store for them. No, he could only hope that enough of the world was left undamaged after the war to offer safe haven to the survivors.

He had to wonder where Aya was right now and understood why he, Yohji and Reiichi were not present this evening. As difficult as it was to face the truth, it would be even more so with Aya sitting across the table and staring at everyone with those odd eyes of his. No doubt their reactions would enrage his mate, too.

"So Aya is a kage," Shin said, breaking the apprehensive silence of the room. "Is there any other grand secret that we should know?" He was proud at how even his voice sounded.

Crawford shared a telling look with Jei that made Shin’s heart sink. "That’s it for this point in time. I believe the other revelation will have to wait until I clear it with a certain annoying, possessive bastard."

Yuda sighed before leaning over to kiss Shin on the top of his head. "Crawford, you are about as reassuring as an unsheathed sword," he complained, the unexpected humor seeming to shake everyone from their thoughts and doubts.

"I don’t have to be reassuring," Crawford huffed as he adjusted his glasses. "Just right."

Jei chuckled and resumed sitting at the table, where he drank directly from the bottle in his right hand. "For once, I’ll agree with you." He raised the bottle as if in a toast before guzzling down what had to be half of its contents.

Jo returned to the table as well, her hands full with two pies. "Mickey, I believe they’re going to need more wine. You can tell the others that they can return, too." It was her demeanor just then, the assurance that she was not bothered by anything, that convinced Shin that things were all right. If a human could accept and even love a kage, if he were any judge of emotions and behavior, then there was indeed hope for the future. They had to be fighting on the right side, with people they could trust despite them being human. He rested against Yuda’s side once again, able to move past the shock and look forward with some apprehension to tomorrow’s events.

Though he had to admit to himself, the prospect of more wine would do him and his cousins much good right now.

*******

Aya stroked Keiun’s nose while he waited in the Koneko’s courtyard for Shin and Yuda to arrive. Yohji stood beside him, busy sneaking carrot bits to his horse while Jason pretended to not see anything. The young earth elemental was rechecking the saddle on one of the horses kept in the stable for the Shadow Guard, a large roan that should have no trouble bearing both Yuda and Shin across the city.

"Aya-"

"Bring it up one more time and we’ll see how long I can put up with your hunger," Aya snapped, not in a mood to have Yohji question him yet *again* about if he was all right with spending the night in his parents’ old home. He knew his mate had the best of intentions, but he was tired of repeating the same answer; if he felt any pain or remorse over his offer, he would have rescinded it by now. After all, there were a few homes that had been confiscated from various highborns who had taken part of the Lord Eto’s failed coup against the king for Birman to manage some sort of alternative.

Yohji actually glared at him for several heartbeats before laughing. "All right, you found a better threat than tossing me into the damn rose bushes." He wiped his hand clean of horse drool before reaching out to tuck a strand of Aya’s hair behind his right ear. "You know I don’t like it when you’re upset."

"Yes," Aya sighed, his anger melting away in face of his mate’s concern. "So do both of us a favor and pay attention to my emotions. They’ll tell you that I’m fine." Even if there were times when he barely understood what he felt, that certainly was not the case now. If anything, he was filled with anticipation – for what would happen once Yuda and Shin became mates and at the prospect of getting the men out of the Koneko for good. What truly bothered him was how negatively Yohji was affected by the other succubae bound’s presence.

"Such a smart, albeit grumpy cat." Yohji risked having his bottom lip nipped for a quick kiss, and was back to sneaking treats to his horse by the time that Yuda, Shin and Birman finally showed up. "We were wondering if you’d changed your minds," Yohji teased, just barely keeping his tone civil.

For once, Yuda appeared amused by something that Yohji had said. "That was almost funny." He stopped a few feet from his mount for the night, his attention focusing on Aya for a couple of seconds before he forced himself to look away.

Aya reached out to stroke his left hand down Yohji’s arm and sent a wave of reassuring calm over their link. This was the first time that Yuda and Shin had seen him since finding out the truth about his nature, so a few stares were to be expected. There was nothing at all challenging in either bounds’ demeanors… but he knew that Yohji was affected just as much by the unease they radiated as he would any hint of a threat. Why that was so was yet another confusing thing to Aya, who did not care what people felt about him as long as he was not betrayed or attacked. There were times that his bond with Yohji only highlighted the many differences between him and everyone else all the more.

Since neither he nor Yohji had any issues with Shin’s demon nature, there was no reaction to the way that the water elemental continued to stare at him as if convincing himself that Aya was real. When Aya looked at him directly and glared the slightest bit, mindful of the time they were wasting by standing here, Shin smiled and bowed his head as if in apology.

"Crawford cut this pretty close to the Naming Ceremony," Birman fretted as she motioned for Yuda and Shin to mount the large-boned roan. "Another few days and the streets will be packed with revelers enjoying the festivities leading up to the ceremony."

"We should have no problem tonight, though," Yohji commented as he settled himself into the saddle. His eyes narrowed when he looked at Yuda, the only outward sign of his dislike. "Stay close, since Aya will be using his shadows to keep us hidden." He was not happy with that prospect, yet it would be taking too large of a risk to have them spread out and cloaked by Aya’s shadows.

Yuda reached back to make sure that his soon-to-be-mate’s cloak was properly draped over Shin’s still too-thin body and nodded once. "Please, just get us there." His deep voice was rough with need and hope, the emotions so bare that Yohji sighed and stopped feeling so annoyed.

"Everything’s ready," Birman reminded them as she stepped out of the way, her right hand around Jason’s left arm to pull him along with her since the boy did not have much experience with succubae bounds. Aya barely had the time to wave in acknowledgement before Yohji and Yuda urged their horses out onto the street, a rare curse slipping past his lips as he actually had to hurry to catch up.

He knew that Yuda only wanted to consummate his bond with Shin and Yohji to be rid of the succubae bound, but really, both men deserved to be smacked for their stupidity. Aya glared in earnest at them as he caught up, a thin veil of shadows cast to keep anyone from noticing their passage. The last thing they wanted was for people wondering why he was spending the night at a Fujimiya residence, especially if he failed to keep Yuda’s… hunger from affecting the neighborhood. In theory, his power would block Yuda’s, but the fact that he was mated to a succubae bound and had henceforth lost some of his ‘immunity’ to that type of magic provided just enough doubt that he might not be successful in the attempt.

At least the ride was without any incident; he would much prefer to run across the rooftops as he had months ago with Reno, until he thought about how badly his mate would react to that under the current circumstances. Sighing in annoyance, he dearly hoped that Yuda, Shin and the others would be gone before the Naming Ceremony. Other than for Yuda posing some sort of challenge to Yohji’s status, he did not harbor any ill will against the bounds. That did not mean he would not be very happy to see them leave and no longer have to put up with such a grouchy and touchy mate.

The streets were a little more crowded than normal despite the fact that the sun had set for the day. People walked about with lanterns as they finished their shopping or made their way home after work, some of them intent on the many inns, taverns and restaurants that made the city famous. The Koneko would be busy right about now, everyone wanting something to eat and drink before Koyu and his friends began to play, and for a moment Aya wished that he was back at the inn. It was not, as Yohji feared, that he was upset about returning to an aspect of his past, just that he wanted this night over with.

Yohji was in the lead since Yuda did not know where they were going, at least not exactly. He was too on edge for Crawford not to offer up the location of where they would spend the night, but it was an area of the city he was unfamiliar with because of its… exclusive nature. As Aya rode past the increasingly ornate and fancy ‘homes’ that would easily house the entire Koneko staff with room to spare, he did not feel any pull to reclaim his family’s fortune.

Kikyou was too busy with the princess’ birth and resulting celebrations to bother him lately, yet Aya knew there would be a return to their ‘dates’ unless Yohji did manage a way to use his glamour against the human without raising any suspicions. There would be more fancy dinners, more excuses to ride down this very street and perhaps a return visit to the Fujimiya palace located outside of the city limits. If only the gods would clue the stubborn man into the fact that all this finery with the many obligations and trappings that went with it failed to entice Aya at all; it was the ridiculous rules that highborns held themselves up to that had resulted in his parents being in a position where they had fallen prey to Reiji Takatori. He would never willingly bind himself with them or allow them to restrain Yohji in any manner.

How Rufus managed to put up with all the highborn customs and obligations was a mystery to Aya, a talent he almost envied and could not comprehend. His greatest concern was that those obligations and rules might one day touch Reno, who had even less patience with them than he did. If there was anything that might lead to Reno revealing his true nature, it was pressure of being around the Court on a regular basis. Even if Rufus was a powerful lord and Reno supposedly a mere ‘gokenin’, chances were good that some meddlesome highborn would consider the dubhach as ‘interesting fun’ and-

Aya shook his head to clear it of such worrisome thoughts and reminded himself that Crawford and Rufus would do all they could to prevent such a thing from happening. Perhaps he was just projecting his dislike and distrust of highborns onto his friend’s situation; he could not change things for Reno since there was a mating bond with Rufus. Still, he would feel much better when the war was over and the need for such foolish charades – on his and Reno’s parts – were no longer necessary.

They reached the gate which bore the sword and orchid heraldry of his family, prompting Aya to use his talent to spring open the locked gate. Shin once more gave him a questioning look, even though he and Yuda had been told the truth about who owned this property. Once they were through the gate, the shadows closed it and reset the lock.

Yohji brought his horse to a halt, making Aya and Yuda do the same. "Okay, Aya and I will spend the night in the main house, which should be enough distance between us to prevent any problems." The snarl was back in his voice, although Yuda did not seem to care for once. Aya assumed he was too focused on the fact that very soon he would be alone with Shin. "Birman’s people have set things up for you in the carriage house, which you’ll stay in until we fetch you in the morning." Yohji paused as if considering something. "Look, I’m not trying to start a fight, but don’t drain him too much." He glanced at Aya, his expression softening into a rueful smile. "You can get caught up in claiming your mate and how *good* it tastes."

To his credit, Yuda did not appear upset or angry at Yohji’s advice. "Thank you. Crawford… warned me of much the same." The roan danced about as if affected by its riders’ moods while Shin pressed closer to Yuda’s back. "I’ll do my best."

Aya wondered if he should say anything to Shin, offer up some words of wisdom as someone mated to a succubae bound. During the past couple of weeks, his interaction with the water elemental had basically been limited to asking each other to pass some various dish or drink, and when Shin had asked for permission to borrow books from the main library. He did not feel comfortable saying anything just then, even if he probably could think of something important.

What it came down to was Shin loved and wanted Yuda; Aya did not need to be telepathic or emphatic to know that much. He highly doubted that there would be any chance of Shin refusing his lover or fighting the need to give in this first time. The two bounds also knew what would happen once they were alone, which could not be said for Aya and Yohji’s first time. No, anything he mentioned right now would just be a waste of time and effort.

When it was clear that he was not going to speak, Yuda tugged on the horse’s reins and gently kicked it back into motion. Aya and Yohji watched them ride to the carriage house before dismounting from their horses. There was a small overhang where they could tie the animals up for the night; halters, buckets of fresh water and bales of hay had already been prepared for the horses’ needs since the stables were near the carriage house and so ‘off-limits’ now. "I hope they think of doing the same for their horse," Yohji grumbled as they finally headed into the main house.

Aya did, too, but was not about to approach the carriage house to find out and risk Yuda’s possessive nature. "It’s just for one night." Mostly likely, Ichiro had looked after the horse on the off-chance it did end up neglected, and at least the evening was pleasantly warm with no chance of rain.

"One night." Yohji sighed and did not speak until they were inside, then pulled Aya into his arms with obvious care. "Funny how so much can change over the course of one night, na?"

Tension left Aya’s body now that they were alone together. "Hmm, I guess so."

Yohji scoffed at that statement and gave him a kiss passionate enough to make him wonder if Yuda’s magic was already affecting them. That reminded Aya to reinforce the wards around the house and its grounds before all sense left him. "You ‘guess so’. Next you’ll tell me that night didn’t mean a thing to you."

Taking pity on his mate, Aya combed his fingers through Yohji’s wavy, golden hair until they came to rest on the nape of Yohji’s neck. "Maybe I could have said something like that back when it first happened… but you know better than that." Over a year ago, he had offered his body to this man in hopes of having some pleasant memories to stave off the bad and *everything* had changed. "But I doubt it’ll have so much meaning to them."

Yohji seemed to guess what it was that he was not saying. "Such a smart cat," he murmured while walking backwards, leading them toward the bedroom that had been prepared for their visit. There were no candles or lanterns lit inside the house; it was due to their enhanced night vision that they managed to avoid all the sheet-covered furniture. "You turned my world upside down and inside out, and it’s never been better."

"And I’m stuck with an idiot for the rest of my life for my troubles," Aya teased as he yanked gently on Yohji’s hair. "It’s gotten to the point where I’ve trouble remembering what it was like without you always beside me." That was the truth; he could recall the loneliness and sorrow, yet when he thought about going about his day and the future, Yohji was always foremost in his thoughts and presence.

They navigated the stairs with surprising ease, especially after they resumed kissing. Yohji had started by playing with the laces of Aya’s dark blue jerkin, and soon enough there was a trail of clothes in their wake, leaving Aya extremely grateful of the fact that no one else was around to take them to task for the mess and their impatience. As they neared the bedroom, he could sense a hunger and need that did not quite ‘feel’ right, the emotions jarring with his own and what he knew to be Yohji’s. Thankfully, the foreign set of emotions did not become overwhelming… but Yohji’s warm, large hands stroking down his bare back might have something to do with that.

Yohji chuckled, one of Aya’s favorite sounds with the way it always made him want to shiver in pleasure and smile. "I believe they’re getting down to business." His green eyes darkened with passion and lips curved in a naughty smile, Yohji sank down on the bed and tugged Aya onto his lap. "Think we can out-do them?"

Aya gave his mate a warning ‘whap’ on his scarred left shoulder. "There’s no need for it."

The words seemed to sober Yohji up a little. "True. Very true." He ran a light caress of fingers along Aya’s spine until his hand curved around the back of Aya’s neck. "Nothing can make my love for you any less, or to doubt what you feel for me." His smug grin made a quick comeback. "Not that I mind being a ‘stupid succubae bound’ and giving it a try, though."

Aya snapped his teeth in warning, which his laughing mate ignored while stretching out on the bed. "Don’t think I’ve forgotten what happened when Schu and Masato became mates! You’ll behave yourself this time."

"Who, me?" Yohji chuckled when he was glared at in return and pulled Aya down to rest against his chest. "Aya, I’m just happy with any excuse to have you all to myself for a while, especially if we get to ‘play’ during that time." He waggled his eyebrows in a teasing manner. "But you do bring up a very interesting topic. If I recall, I may have started things that night but you finished them." He splayed his legs open until Aya was nestled between them. "How about we switch things around, mm?"

Having an idea of what his mate was suggesting, Aya leaned in for a leisurely kiss. He did not care in the slightest how he and Yohji had sex… well, other than for one or two quickly fading limitations that he refused to think about now. "Just keep in mind that you can’t drain me too much tonight, or the wards might falter," he reminded the over-sexed idiot.

"I think I can manage something. You’ll just have to keep a sharp eye on me… or something. Uhm, forget I said anything about ‘sharp, okay, Cat?" Yohji squirmed a little beneath Aya, his expression one of fear and concern yet his emotions amused and trusting.

"Hmm, perhaps it’s my turn to do a bit of marking," Aya commented as he leaned in to leave a few bruises in retaliation for the many he was stuck wearing the last few weeks.

*******

Shin did his best not to stare once more at Aya as he and Yuda rode toward the carriage house. All of this belonged to the kage, yet he did not want it? The beautiful three-story home of grey bricks, the green yard and gardens that appeared lush even in the faint light of the waning moons, the cobblestone path that led to a small, two-story building set close to the stables? This was something that he and his cousins could only have dreamed of while living in Berin. It was not so much that the house and its surroundings were lavish – they were used to seeing such things in the palace they had grown up in – that all of this belonged to one person. Aya could have so much privacy if he wanted, could shut away a good bit of the outside world….

Perhaps Yohji did not wish for that, Shin thought to himself as a means of distraction while Yuda brought the horse to a halt. He felt so lightheaded, so uncertain, torn between wanting to run into the carriage house and away from it. More than anything, he desired Yuda, but could he go through something that would ‘weaken’ the man he loved for as long as he lived? Yuda would only ever be as strong as him from here on out, and he feared that he could never match his lover’s strength.

Despite that concern, he could barely unwind his arms from Yuda’s waist so his lover could dismount the horse and help him do the same. Maybe he would feel guilty about this for the rest of his life, maybe he would provide the flaw in Yuda’s defenses that would leave him open to harm and control… all the reasons he could think of for not doing this did not stop him from holding onto his mate’s left hand and following him into the small house once Yuda had loosened the horse’s saddle and replaced its bridle with a provided halter.

"Shin… you’re like a whirlwind of emotion," Yuda whispered once they were inside, his arms wrapping around Shin’s back to hold him close. There were candles scattered about which neither of them bothered to light, the scent of fresh bread and fruit, a scattering of furniture covered in sheets to protect from light and dust. Shin took this all in during his last attempt to remain rational, to distance himself from the need and desire that was about to radically change his life… and that resolve evaporated as soon as Yuda kissed him.

He had to tilt his head back and rise up on his toes to deepen the kiss, his hands resting on Yuda’s broad shoulders for support as his lips parted open. Ever since they had met, it had been natural to give himself to his love like this, to offer up whatever Yuda wanted from him. Everything he had done from that point of time had been for Yuda’s benefit, even enduring the pain and loneliness as long as he knew that his ‘heart’ was safe. Not for one moment had he ever believed that Yuda would only take from him, would not seek to keep him safe and happy in return. That made the submitting all the more important; he knew that he had every right to trust in and give himself up to… to his mate.

Since childhood, he had known about mates, about what the bond between two people meant, what would happen and what could not be changed. Initially, the lessons had been so he and his cousins could warn their keepers if they suspected that another bound was their mate, and then curiosity had set in. He had sought out the few mated pairs in Berin and asked them as many questions as he could without offense. Perhaps his actions had warned the Elders that he might have a mate of his own, perhaps not, but at least he was well-schooled in what would happen next.

A faint moan escaped him when Yuda pulled free the ribbon holding back his hair and then began to undo the laces of the faded, dark brown tunic that he wore. He wanted to do the same to Yuda, to remove the clothes that were a barrier to skin touching skin, and was unable to move his shaking hands from his lover’s shoulders. It felt as if he would fall to the floor without some means of support; his knees were weak and the dizziness back in full force.

"Shh, love, it’ll be all right." Yuda left the tunic alone long enough to wrap his arms around Shin’s hips and back so he could pick him up and carry him to what most likely was a bedroom of sorts. Shin could not open his eyes to ascertain if that was true or not, or move his head from the crook of Yuda’s neck. His mate’s scent was so intoxicating, was probably part of the reason why he felt so lightheaded.

He was lowered onto something soft, which finally made him lean back and open his eyes. Yuda was always a beautiful sight to behold, and right now was no exception; his auburn hair was tousled from the ride, his skin flushed and eyes darkened with passion. Shin could not resist reaching out to caress his fingers along the golden skin of his lover’s face, to feel a hint of sweat and stubble, warmth and hardness.

"Oh, Shin," Yuda groaned, his eyes fluttering shut and hands again busy with the laces of Shin’s tunic, although this time they broke the leather straps rather than untied them. "We waited too long…."

That or not long enough; Shin felt himself growing weaker from the kisses and the physical contact, and could not care about that fact at all. "Now, Yuda." He knew what he was asking, knew that one of them had to give in to the other and had never doubted that it would be him. What he wanted just then was to put the doubts and fears behind him forever, to link his future to this man for however long they lived while he still had the strength and the resolve. The latter was only because it was so obvious how much Yuda desired him in return, and this was not one of the rare times when he could deny his lover.

Yuda’s eyes flew open, their color darkened by passion and narrowed as if he was uncertain that he had heard Shin correctly. "You don’t know what you’re-"

"I do." Shin cut him off without any care for manners, his frustration and doubts growing with each frantic heartbeat. "Do it now, or… it’s…." He did not know what it was he meant to say, not when he was still divided over what was best for Yuda. However, if his lover wanted him….

That was almost painfully clear in the way that Yuda ripped his tunic from him while leaning forward to renew the kiss. Before, his lover had always been gentle, mindful of not taking things too far. Now it was if all restraints holding him back had been removed, unleashing the full force of Yuda’s passion. It was a smashing wave of hunger and mindless lust, an unquenchable need for pleasure and passion, the most potent emotions that Shin had ever felt in his life.

This time he could move his hands, although he did not manage to tear off Yuda’s tunic in return. No, he could only pull until the laces broke then slide his hands beneath the soft fabric, a moan building in his throat as he touched smooth, hot skin. Yuda arched into his touch, lips pulling dangerously far enough away to end the kiss until Shin whimpered and it deepened once again.

He could feel Yuda all along his body; against his lips and inside his mouth, over his skin as it was hastily exposed, through his hair as it was pulled out of the way. Yuda was a comforting, almost maddening weight on top of him, settling more firmly as the last of his clothes were tossed aside and his knees spread apart. There was the random thought of what had happened to their boots and if he should do the same to Yuda’s clothes, before the need and pleasure caused any details other than Yuda to blacken out again. He did not know how long they had been on this bed, did not care that Yuda’s clothes were loosened and pushed aside yet still on, did not mind that he was naked and almost keening in need. That some of the unconcern could be blamed on his growing weakness as his mate ‘fed’ only increased the urgency of Yuda taking him *now*.

When he tried to say just that, he was prevented by a kiss that left him panting in pleasure and short of breath. Yuda, always aware of him and what he felt, must have sensed his fading strength as slick fingers slid down along his left hip and back, prompting him to raise his hips as much as he could with his lover’s weight still resting partially against him.

Rei had explained this to him, blushing all the while he struggled to get out the haltingly-spoken words, and there were books one could read as well. Shin knew it would come to this ever since he had first felt desire for Yuda, knew he would give up all of himself and never regret it. There was supposed to be some discomfort as he was prepared; he was so lightheaded and overwhelmed by Yuda’s ‘hunger’ that he could barely notice the slight pain. After living so long with the agony that the Elders had inflicted upon him, this was nothing of consequence.

Yohji’s words from earlier about Yuda draining him too much flitted through his mind, causing his hands to hold tight to his mate’s back as if in fear that Yuda would pull away. They had indeed waited too long, had suffered too much for him to give in to the exhaustion that threatened to deaden his limbs even as all of his nerves seemed to explode at his lover’s touch and attention.

Yuda broke off the kiss, letting him breathe in deeply for the first time in… however long. They could not have been here even half an hour yet, and the air around them was heavy with Yuda’s musky scent, rushing into his lungs with every inhalation until he felt saturated by it. Every bit of him was being marked by Yuda in some way, invisibly yet indelibly.

Those marks of possession took on a physical turn when Yuda murmured his name before kissing him on the neck, the thin skin sensitized beyond all reason. Shin cried out and grabbed at his lover’s shaggy hair, fingers entwining with the thick strands to prevent Yuda’s mouth from leaving his neck. This felt more intimate than the fingers moving inside of him, stretching him. A rush of pleasure provoked by a deliberate twist of them was nothing like the feel of Yuda’s teeth pressing into his neck, so close to the blood racing from his heart to his brain. He could not lay still despite his weakness, body writhing on the bed and legs wrapping around Yuda’s hips in a vain attempt to pull his lover closer. When his actions only caused Yuda to release his throat, Yuda’s fingers to slide out of his body and Yuda to pull away and leave him cold on the bed, he gasped out his mate’s name in anguish.

"Shhh."

His heartfelt plea must have struck some chord in Yuda because he was soon pressing against Shin once again, left hand forcing his knees wider apart. Yuda’s shirt was now gone, his unlaced pants rough against Shin’s thighs as he once more wrapped his legs around his mate. Something pressed against him, into him, a stronger discomfort than his mate’s fingers that was completely ignored when he felt Yuda’s lips brush against his bruised throat.

"You’re mine."

He had never heard Yuda speak in such a possessive manner before, the words almost inarticulate with the way the savage growl twisted them. The hunger and need that had pressed against his senses ever since they had left for this place grew overbearing, muffled the last remaining bit of rational thought that he had left to him. He had believed that he had already given everything he could to his mate, only to be proven wrong when he breathed out the response that Yuda was waiting for.

"Yes."

With that admission, that offering, Yuda claimed all of him, thrust inside the same time that his teeth once more pressed against Shin’s neck, the final steps in bonding them to each other until they died. There was pain, a bright spark of it almost lost in immense pleasure, an off-note that made everything that much more real and potent. Energy flowed out of him as ecstasy raced in, ecstasy and hunger that burned through him, robbed him of everything but *feeling* until the world was nothing but beating hearts, fierce motion, friction and sensation. He felt enveloped in it all, cocooned against the world by Yuda, and gave all he could until the darkness engulfed him.

*******

Yuda lay with his head against Shin’s chest, content to hear his mate’s heart beat in a slow, measured pace. He had been like this for what had to be several minutes now, body slowly recovering from the orgasm that had blindsided him with bliss.

Nothing had ever been that… that *intense* in his life. Nothing. Over the decades, he had lost count of the lovers he had fed from until only a chosen few, such as Ruka and Alexis, had remained in his memory. The vast majority of them had been nothing more than ‘food’, a way to feed his hunger and some companionship during the night. He had known from the start that Shin would be so much more, but not even acknowledging that they were mates had prepared him for what had just happened.

Moving with great reluctance, he pried himself away from his unconscious lover. Shin had passed out during his orgasm, body pushed too far and drained too much despite Yuda’s best intentions. Yuda had not lasted much longer after that, not when that blazing rush of energy had poured into him after too long a period of abstinence. He almost regretted not taking any lovers since approaching Eto; it would have been useless, anyway, as his hunger had not responded to anyone else.

Some of that hunger still lingered; even after waiting so long for Shin to recover from everything, his lover’s strength had still been inadequate. Still, consummating their bond had blunted it enough that he no longer felt driven almost to madness by need and he had even been able to return some energy to Shin.

Yuda removed his soiled pants with a grimace, grateful that they had thought to bring a change of clothes with them. He would have to fetch the bag from outside in a little while, right now he headed for the basin of water and stack of towels that someone had thoughtfully left for them. Whoever had prepared the room on the first floor with clean sheets and a means for washing deserved his gratitude, even if the water was cool to the touch. Whatever spells that had been placed on the basin to heat its contents had probably faded years ago.

The small house had a sense of age to it, and a scent of dust and wood that bespoke a long time being left uninhabited. He could not sense Yohji at all, only Shin and the horses outside. Aya… well, he had never been able to sense the kage and did not expect that to change just because he knew what the man was. No, things were calm and felt ‘secure’ enough that after cleaning the both of them up, he should be able to rest the night next to his mate.

He could not help but smile as he wiped the sweat, semen and oil from Shin’s body, well aware of each bruise and bite-mark he had left on it. Nothing could ever separate them now, not even death if he had to fight the gods to ensure that they would be reborn together. Shin had wavered over what he should do in the past day or so, as a fond wish suddenly became a reality that they could not undo from this day onward. He knew that Shin had only been thinking of him, and was relieved that the stubborn man had given in.

Once Shin was clean and tucked into the bed, the white ribbon that had held back his long hair retrieved and wrapped around the blue locks, he tended to himself. The scratches Shin had left along the back of his neck had already healed, and only the fact that he would soon be curling up in bed next to his lover gave him the strength to wash Shin’s scent off of his skin.

Almost forgetting about the clean clothes, he went outside naked, confident that Yohji would be occupied with his own mate. The saddle was removed from the horse and the bag retrieved, then Yuda returned to the bedroom with haste. Considering that they were protected by a kage’s wards, the last thing he should worry about was anyone hurting his mate, but he had been denied Shin for too long. Now he could spend each and every day with him, could hold him like this each night. Since he had fed from Shin during sex, the amount of energy that bled into him from simple contact had lessened enough that it should not negatively affect his mate.

However, it did mean that he would have to wait a while for a second ‘feeding’, until Shin had rested and eaten enough food to replenish his strength. More than anything, he looked forward to being able to properly make love to his mate, to not be driven almost without care by his hunger. No, he could savor Shin’s lovely body and coax him past the virginal inexperience that had made his need and possessiveness even stronger. He would be the only person to touch this body, to see Shin left so open. After all that had been taken from him over the years, this was something he would be able to hold on to until his death.

Shifting about on the bed, he made himself more comfortable and ensured that Shin was covered by the thick cotton sheets. He almost undid the white ribbon so he could play with his mate’s beautiful hair, before reminding himself that it would be a bad thing should he fall asleep with the long strands unbound. Ah well, that could wait until tomorrow night when they were back in their room at the Koneko, when they would have the time and he the control. He wanted nothing more than to spend at least an hour exploring every inch of his lover’s body until it was burned into his memory.

A weight that had worn him down for so long was gone. Shin was his, finally, and all ties to Esset and the Elders had been severed. While he may still have a few dear friends in that country, he had faith that they could look after themselves during the approaching war. Shin was all that mattered, was what he had given up so much of himself for, and all promises in the water elemental’s regard had been fulfilled. Now came what he owed Crawford in return, which was not an obligation at all, really. Not when Shin would be with him while the debt was paid off, the best reason of all to fight against the Elders and ensure that they were free for the rest of their lives. He would wait until Crawford gave him the word, and then bring forth as much destruction and death as he could against those ancient, evil bastards. If it meant keeping Shin and the rest of his loved ones safe, he would declare a war against the gods themselves.

Such dark thoughts did not last for long, not when Shin was held in his arms and purring softly. Willing to wait until the time was right, Yuda forsook vengeance just then for the comfort of his mate.

*******

Birman checked the small watch she kept tucked into the pouch on her belt and strode into the Koneko; David, Gerd and Thomas would be here soon to take the cousins to their new home. She wanted to make sure that everything was ready, then return to the palace to help Trowa go over the guest lists for the various parties about to be held in Princess Ouka’s name. At least Omi was there to assist in her place while she tended to this matter, with Nagi almost attached to his hip while ‘Prince Mamoru’ visited his parents and met his baby sister. It was a bit odd how she did not think of the boy as Mamoru at all anymore, and knew she would have some trouble keeping his names straight during any formal meetings.

Reiichi was off with Aya and Yohji today, both keeping Yohji out of Yuda’s way and helping Aya track down some books at the Royal Library. The Koneko lacked a sense of warmth when he was not here teasing Naru or some other hapless soul, tossing out witty remarks and putting people at ease with his self-effacing manner. Still, she found herself smiling when Jo greeted her with a friendly ‘hello’. She forestalled any offer of food or drink by asking where Crawford was, and was told that he was waiting for her in the downstairs library.

"I expected you to be with Yuda and the others," she admitted upon entering the library and finding Crawford leaning against one of its tables, a black rook held in his right hand.

He turned the chess piece around a couple of times before placing it back in the wooden box that housed the rest of the game. "They are still packing." At her curious look, he shrugged and stood up straight. "It seems that Yuda had to make a very important purchase this morning, and all of them felt the need to accompany him on the errand. Shin is the proud owner of a new harp, amongst other things, as they did a fair bit of last minute shopping."

"Ah." She could not blame the men when they would be spending most of their time for the next couple of years in the middle of nowhere. Despite the fact that they would be living just a two day ride from the city, the Takatori family had used its authority to keep the Takai Mountains from being little more than barely developed. The few villages that did exist on the beautiful and almost sacred land were only there to support the privileged highborn estates and the temples scattered about. "So did Botan manage to talk to them about their charms?" He had left the palace this morning with that intent, and she had been so busy that she had not heard from her friend since then.

Crawford nodded, the expression on his handsome face one of relief. "He just caught them before they left to go shopping, which allowed them to try out the new illusion charms. I inspected them myself, and am confident that only someone who possesses one of our rings or bears a similar charm can see through the magic." He held up his right hand as he spoke, the black ring made from Aya’s blood and tears glimmering faintly in the light.

"Good." She had helped test the illusion charms with Botan last night, but knew her friend had wanted a bound to try to break through the spells since the Elders would have their people searching for the cousins. No doubt that Botan was greatly relieved right now, as well as tired. Between getting things ready for the princess’ Naming ceremony, Omi’s training and making charms for the Guard, he barely had any time to rest. If she were a gambler, she would bet that he was currently at Cassandra’s for a bit of pampering and a fortifying meal or two. "Not to appear as if I don’t trust your talent, but will everything be fine?" she asked after a minute’s silence, wanting one last reassurance before she allowed several people who might lead the Elders to realize that Aya was still alive to leave the city.

For once, Crawford did not give her a patronizing or annoyed look for her question. "I swear to you that they’ll be fine on the Fujimiya estate." He stared off in the distance for a moment as if searching for something, which most likely was the case. "If I had the slightest suspicion that the Elders would find them there, I never would have suggested this plan. However, all of my visions point to them being safe and out of the way until the war starts."

Then Yuda and Ruka would be called upon to fight in Kritiker’s army, while Shin and the others used their talents to prevent the weather from being turned against their lovers during the war. "I thought you couldn’t be certain of things because of Aya’s influence."

Again, her question did not seem to offend the precog, if anything Crawford smiled and bowed his head slightly in a gesture of respect. "Correct, which is in part why I insisted that they come to the Koneko. That should have made them ‘vanish’ from the talents of any bound or wizards tracking them. However, I have ‘seen’ them in visions dating after their departure from here, and none of those visions have indicated any cause for alarm. Yuda is more than intelligent enough to ensure that his friends don’t do anything that will draw attention to them."

"Good. While I will be very careful about whom I send to the estate, it’s too valuable of a safe house to not put to use." It would be best to keep some of her agents out of the city and away from the attention of spies from various countries – especially the agents who were not fully human. Also, it presented the opportunity to set up an important information network; Eri and Trowa had revealed to her that many bounds had found sanctuary of sorts in various temples and shrines, taken in by religious caretakers whose gods did not care that they possessed demon souls. She had hopes of sending a couple of her people into the mountains to talk to the priests, nuns and monks who resided there to set up a network of support as well as information.

"And people accuse me of being a scheming bastard," Crawford said in an off-hand manner, making her stare at him in surprise for several seconds before laughing.

"Thank you." She echoed his bow of respect from before.

He smiled again, in that instance shedding the cold aura that made him seem inhumanely aloof most of the time. "You are one of the few people who doesn’t see that as an insult."

She toyed with the collar of her dark red shirt and shrugged, feeling that he was probably one of a handful of people who understood what her world consisted of as Kritiker’s Spymaster. "There are times when I’m half-tempted to just vanish for a week or two. Imagine what they would do without either of us, even if our efforts are not always appreciated." Botan might rail at her for being so ruthless, Manx look down at her for her ‘slinking about’ and Yohji curse her out from time to time, but what she did was necessary for all of their freedom. Crawford clearly understood that, as did Trowa and Reiichi; as the approaching war drove her to more ruthless acts, she was grateful for their support as well as the fact that there would be someone to rein her in if she went too far.

Chuckling at the words, Crawford resumed slouching against the table. "Yes, I’ve been tempted to do the same, but think of the huge mess that would await us when we came back." He took to staring at nothing again, only to shake his head a few seconds later. "At least everything I’ve ‘seen’ for the upcoming weeks indicates that there will be a short reprieve for us all. Times like that will get rarer as the war approaches."

Of that she had no doubt. "I will be very grateful to get through the next two of them," she muttered, then remembered something that she wanted to ask Crawford. With the craziness at the palace, the rush of getting things ready for the cousins’ departure and new residence and a half of dozen other things, it had been pushed down her mental ‘to do’ list. "You haven’t happened to have any visions in regards to Xan lately, have you?"

His back straightened at the question, a frown forming on his face that thankfully turned into a slight smile a few seconds later. "I do believe that explains a confusing vision to me." His blue eyes seemed to brighten behind the lens of his glasses and his lips pulled apart enough to expose a gleam of sharp teeth. "Does your question have anything to do with an emissary from Xan?"

"Perhaps," she answered, well aware that he took that as a ‘yes’. "Although to be perfectly honest, I have my suspicions that this ‘emissary’ is in fact in the employ of my counterpart from that country. He dances around coming out and saying exactly what he’s after with enough skill to make me want to make him work for me instead," she admitted. The few times they had met, both of them posing as minor highborns at inconsequential functions, he had indicated that he would like to speak to her about something important. That he had not followed through with things yet indicated that he was unsure of her reception or was very wary about revealing too much.

For once, Crawford did not seem to be smugly holding back any information. "What my visions have revealed has been limited, but I believe this is an important turning point. When you feel the time is right, listen to what he has to say in all seriousness. It may be… it may mean either an ally or an enemy at our back."

Manx would be furious at her for handling something as diplomatic as this on her own, yet there had to be a reason the emissary wished to talk to her and not the king or queen, as well as for Crawford to urge her down this path. There was no way he would suggest something that would cause Kritiker any harm, not when he needed the country’s army to fight his war and its king to offer protection to his kind. "I will do just that, and speak to you, Botan and Reiichi once he makes an overture." The king might have his counselors, and while the ones such as Lady Meara could be trusted to look at an important issue from all sides, many could not. Since they were fighting a war that involved bounds, there were things that she no longer trusted to that council or even her sworn king, not until she was assured that her people would not have their faith in her betrayed. Shuichi was still her king… but some things were beyond the realm of his power now. She was saddened by that realization; her conviction that bounds would decide this war for them kept her from feeling as if she was disloyal to her oath.

"Thank you." Crawford bowed his head again, leaving her to hope that the offer of cooperation would be reciprocated in the future. "What time will the coaches arrive?"

She checked her watch again and frowned. "In about five minutes, so I suggest that we check on the cousins and see if they’re done packing." That did not leave much time for talking, but she had already gone over everything important with them at least three times already. They were probably happy to get away from her as much as they were to not have to deal with Yohji’s foul moods any more.

’Then I suggest we continue this conversation another time, preferably over some mulled wine and dinner." Crawford bowed in a courtly manner and motioned for her to precede him out of the room. "Jei will be out hunting tonight."

"I just might be able to get out of a very boring party, then." She laughed in joy at the idea of spending a pleasant evening here instead of at the palace and hoped that Botan could join her. "I believe Jo and Maddox were preparing roast duck when I came through the kitchen." That was one of her favorite meals, and had left her to wonder if she could beg a favor from Trowa and have him fetch her some for dinner before Crawford’s tempting offer. That Jei would not be here meant that there might actually be some leftovers for her to take home and share with the two new kittens.

"It should be an enjoyable dinner," Crawford remarked in that manner of his which made one wonder if had seen the night’s outcome. Deciding to take his words to heart, she nodded in agreement and began to tap a message to Trowa to warn him about her change of plans and to invite him to join her.

*******

Yuda smiled down at his sleeping mate and pressed a kiss to Shin’s forehead. According to what David, their driver, had affirmed, they should reach their new home at any moment now. The long carriage ride from the city had worn on Shin more than expected, in addition to Yuda’s feedings the past few days. He had hopes that once they were settled in, he would no longer be draining so much of Shin’s precious energy.

Unfortunately, they were too newly mated and not far enough past the damage that the Elders had done to Shin with their demands and compulsions to truly enjoy their new bond. The solitude of their new home should help in that regards, someplace where just the six of them could rest and recover, could feel safe and rebuild their lives. Crawford and Birman had warned them that they would not have the place to themselves forever, but had promised them a couple of months at least. He had the suspicion that when their solitude was broken would be a sign of when the cousins were expected to start correcting the damage they had partially inflicted upon the weather.

At least he was here now to ensure that Shin did not push himself too far, to look after him when he was exhausted and offer up what support and energy that he could. For the first time in his life he felt complete, and nothing was going to destroy that. They would have a short reprieve until the war, and once it was done….

He cut off that thought for two reasons; in fear of jinxing things and not wanting to dwell on a time when he would make Shin leave his beloved cousins. From the little Crawford had told him about the future, his plans were for the best, but he did not look forward to hurting his beloved. No, for now they would live in the present, would recover their strength and develop this new bond between them, would be able to enjoy being together after too long apart. Their responsibilities could wait for a few more weeks.

The rest of the carriage ride was spent in enjoying the landscape; he had never been to this mountain before and was amazed at its beauty. To think that such a retreat filled with ancient trees and beautiful vistas was only a two day ride from Eto was amazing, and helped to strengthen the belief that here lay a sanctuary of sorts. The dirt road turned to gravel, signaling that they had reached their destination. Yuda watched as a grand mansion came into view, a four-story building made of silver-grey bricks with violet-hued roofing tiles, shutters and accents. Here and there was the Fujimiya heraldry, the swords gleaming in the sunlight and the orchids painted so realistically that he half-expected to smell the flowers.

"Here you go," called out their driver, just as Shin began to awake. Yuda gave his mate another quick kiss before opening the door. Shin followed him out of the carriage, groggy and a little off-balance, but the sight of the mansion quickly brought about the return of his senses.

"Oh, it’s lovely." Shin stepped forward with his right hand held in Yuda’s left, then stopped. "There’s a lake nearby, and underground reservoirs beneath the house," he remarked, his golden eyes shining with excitement.

The others left their carriages, the drivers tending to the many bags and boxes of supplies that they had brought with them. "We’ll get this stuff inside and then leave," David informed them, his weathered face warmed by a genuine smile. "I wish I was lucky enough to live in a place like this!"

Yuda smiled at the comment and nodded in agreement before approaching the house. "Thank you," he offered to the human, grateful for the assistance in reaching their new home. While he knew it would be polite to help with the supplies, he could not resist tugging Shin toward the front doors, the others trailing behind them in a rush of eagerness. The doors were unlocked and opened with an ease that spoke of freshly oiled hinges.

"We’ll need to create our own wards around the estate," Gou commented sotto voice as they entered the large building’s threshold. "It wouldn’t be wise to rely solely upon the charms that Botan sent with us."

"It’s common sense, too, since we’ll be warding for heat and water," Gai pointed out just as quietly as he literally bounced into the spacious foyer. "Can we really pick any room that we want?" He looked ready to race up the stairs to the second level and lay claim to the first bedroom which would be all his own in his life.

Yuda smiled at his friend and motioned to the stairs. "Just leave any room that overlooks the lake to Shin and me," he asked, and laughed when Gai burst into motion and took the stairs two at a time.

Gou shook his head with amusement and headed toward the eastern wing. "I’ll take a quick look around and then help them with the supplies." He sounded happy and at ease, his emotions excited about the new home. Yuda knew that once everything was brought in from the carriages that Gou would be busy setting up wards throughout the house, a thought that filled him with peace.

He pulled Shin closer so he could whisper in his mate’s ear. "I think it would be best if you only put up a perimeter ward today. Save the pipes and everything else until tomorrow." He was worried about Shin pushing too far today, and was willing to trust Birman’s assurance that the mansion was in perfect working order.

Shin sighed and nodded after a moment, his emotions that of reluctant agreement. "As long as I can enjoy a nice soak, that should be fine." Happiness overtook the reluctance and he was soon striding toward the staircase. "Do you think there are any rooms overlooking the lake?" he asked.

Yuda smiled and let himself be led forward. "We’ll soon find out." He cast a glance over his shoulder at Ruka, who was being led about as well by a very determined Rei.

<It seems that we’re going in search of the kitchen and will supervise the unloading of the food and cooking supplies.> Ruka’s ‘voice’ practically bubbled inside of Yuda’s head from the happiness his dear friend felt. <Go find yourself a bedroom and try to get Shin to sleep some more. Just save us a room far away from Gai’s, if you can.>

Grateful that his friend understood his concern, Yuda sent a rush of appreciative affection over the mental link before turning his attention to the stairs. Whoever Birman had chosen to make certain that the large house was suitable for habitation had done a wonderful job of it; there was no dust anywhere, the air smelled of cedar and pine, and all the shutters were open to let in the sunlight. It would take all of the cousins’ talents to ensure that the place was kept clean and in good condition.

They passed several open bedroom doors along the way, as well as a closet stocked with fresh-smelling bed linens. He halted Shin’s search long enough to retrieve some bedding and towels on the off-chance that their chosen bedroom would need the supplies, then resumed their quest. From the sounds of it, Gai had found himself a suitable room on the side of the house facing the front courtyard and was busy investigating every inch of it. Certain that they would be dragged into the room later as he showed it off, Yuda chuckled over his friend’s endless enthusiasm and let Shin lead the way. His mate seemed to have a definite destination in mind; he did not much care where they ended up spending their nights, as long as it was suitably secluded and comfortable. All that really mattered was that he would be sharing it with Shin.

"I think… this feels closest to the lake," Shin remarked as he entered a bedroom toward the end of the west-facing wing. The room was large enough that the huge bed along the southern wall was almost dwarfed by its size, one wall dominated by windows that did indeed look out onto a lake filled with clear water which reflected the few clouds that graced the sky above. "Ah!"

"Looks as if you got your wish, love." Yuda chuckled as Shin let go of his hand so he could rush toward the windows and followed at a much more sedate pace once he set the linens down on the bed. There was a clean sheet over what felt to be a soft mattress, most likely to keep off any dust, and he would have to make it up before insisting that his mate get some more rest.

The windows were framed by dark grey curtains, the scenery beyond them almost breathtaking. He allowed himself a minute or two to think about the times they would spend down at the lake, of the afternoons where they could sit beneath the huge cedar trees while Shin played his new harp, the nights that would pass as they stared up at the stars and moons. For a moment, everything seemed like a ridiculous dream, one he would wake from at any second now and find himself still trapped in Berin, and then Shin leaned against him. Breathing in his mate’s scent, feeling Shin’s warmth and sensing his delighted emotions, Yuda knew that *this* was real.

For the last few years, he had cursed the gods on a daily basis. First there had been his forced servitude to the Elders, then being blessed with a mate who he dared not bond with for fear of Shin being used against him or harmed. Even escaping Esset had brought him no joy since Shin had been left behind, and their reunion bitter-sweet as they waited for the compulsions to be destroyed and their bond finally consummated. Now… now he wondered if the gods had not done their best to make things up to him, to restore his faith in them and give him hope for the future.

"We’ll go there tomorrow," he told Shin, a little sad at waiting that long to explore the lake, but unwilling to venture far from the mansion until his love had recovered from the last two days. He felt Shin’s displeasure, the emotion quickly followed by acceptance and exhaustion. "For tonight, you’re to rest." To take the sting out of the words, he turned his mate around for a gentle kiss.

Shin rested against him, a soft purr rumbling in his throat and his eyes closed as if he was ready to fall asleep right now. "It’s for the best." He opened his eyes, molten gold almost shimmering behind the thin glass lenses, and smiled in such a manner that Yuda felt his heart skip several beats in happiness. "You *will* be resting with me, correct?"

Grinning in pleasure, Yuda brushed back his mate’s bangs and held Shin’s face cradled between his palms. "Of course." They shared a lingering kiss, one that stirred his hunger and made him think of the bed, before Shin broke it off with a tired sigh. "Go have your soak while I make up the bed." Considering all the rooms they had passed on their way here, he did not think that Ruka and Rei would have any trouble finding one to their liking, especially since they had not even seen the upper floors yet.

He followed Shin long enough to determine that the bathing room was as proportionally large as the bedroom, and allowed himself a few fantasies about the size of the soaking tub. The necessity chamber was to the right of the room, and several large closets on the left that they had no hope of filling with clothes and belongings any time soon. Turning his back on his now naked lover, he went to make the bed before returning to the first floor. From what he sensed over their link, Shin would enjoy his bath for as long as possible, which gave him plenty of time to fetch their few bags of belongings so his love would have clean clothes to change into. David and the others were almost done bringing in everything, clearly eager to return to the city as soon as possible. Rei was already busy in the kitchen cooking up their first meal in their new home, while Gou and Gai wandered about in an unobtrusive manner setting up the wards that would keep them safe. Yuda felt a bit guilty that he could not manage a similar feat due to his demon nature, and comforted himself with the fact that it would be very easy to sense the emotions of any approaching visitors since they had to be the only people around for several kilometers.

Did Aya even know how beautiful this home was? Yuda felt a new debt to the kage over the lavish generosity shown to him and his. The quiet, wooded surroundings would be perfect for all of them, would help center them and offer protection and privacy. The worry he felt over Shin and the others having to work so intensely with the weather was mostly put to rest after seeing their new home. If Shin pushed himself too far, there was the lake only a few minute’s walk away where he could refresh himself, much like he had in the Koneko’s hot spring.

<If it were not for everything we have endured, I would be suspicious about our luck.> Ruka’s emotions helped to soothe away his remaining doubts. <However, I can honestly say that we deserve this after so long.>

Yuda shouldered his and Shin’s bags and headed back up to their room. <I’ll remind you of how ‘lucky’ we are when Rei sends you off for various spices on a weekly basis. That’s a fair bit of riding you’ll be doing in the future.> The nearest village was at least three hours a ride away, which was fine with him as it promised them more solitude.

Ruka’s ‘laughter’ was infectious and caused a wave of happiness from Rei. <At least I’ll have a great meal to look forward to for my troubles.>

Grinning at the thought of those future meals, Yuda returned to his bedroom. Once the bags were deposited in one of the closets and a fresh change of clothes in hand for him and Shin, he headed to the bathing room to test in person just how big that tub really was. The sight of his lover sprawled out in the large basin, a smile on his face and his eyes closed, blue hair fanned out in the water and pale skin flushed from heat, prompted a prayer of heartfelt thanks to the gods. There was no doubt in his mind that the future would contain many more years of hardship, yet this brief respite would go a long way to making such a prospect bearable. All that he asked for was a bit of time to enjoy this gracious sanctuary and to work towards earning back the years stolen from him and Shin.

*******

Alexis was almost dressed for Quatre’s party when there was a knock on the door, the unexpected sound raising her suspicions and rendering her cautious. She approached it with care, the faint scent she picked up through the door familiar yet not overly so. Deciding that if this was attack of sorts that at least she could enjoy a meal before the party, she opened the door to find Gai Xi on the other side.

The soul gaki bound bowed low while holding out a small box wrapped in blue and white paper. "Good evening. I’ve been sent with a present for you."

Staring at the woman for a few seconds, Alexis pushed aside the surprise she felt and nodded once. "Thank you." She accepted the present from Gai Xi with her right hand, then gestured to the wine red dress she wore. "I’m sorry, give me a moment to fetch you something for your troubles."

Gai Xi shook her head, her long black hair sliding against her blue silk tunic and clinging to the thin material as if a mesh of spiderwebs. "It’s been taken care of already. Enjoy your evening." Not waiting for a reply, she spun on her heel and moved down the hallway with a grace that belied her hurried pace.

Alexis watched her go for a moment, perplexed yet not sensing any danger. She shrugged to herself and stepped back into her room, making sure to lock the door behind her before she examined the package. The color of the pretty wrapping paper and ribbons indicated that it was from Quatre, who was not in the habit of sending her gifts. Ah well, the only way to find out if it was from him was to open it, so she extended the claw of her right forefinger and carefully unwrapped the gift.

The box was opened to reveal a beautiful bracelet made of fine platinum wires and smoky grey pearls. She gasped in delight at the gift as she tried it on, the bracelet a perfect fit on her left wrist; she had been given bracelets before from various lovers, but they usually were too big for her small hands and bone structure. That this not only fit but was a piece of jewelry that she would purchase for herself revealed that the sender knew her rather well. A tiny note-card in the box claimed to be from Quatre, but she was willing to bet that her true thanks should be directed toward Wufei, who had been asking her rather innocuous-seeming questions about jewelry last week. Oh… if she did not consider Quatre a good friend, she would try her luck in tempting the notoriously faithful general away from his lover.

She almost set the box aside before she noticed that there was another note tucked into the bottom. Curious as to what either friend felt the need to write to her about when they would be able to speak to each other later, she removed it from the box and unfolded it. Skimming its contents quickly, she gasped again, this time in shock, when she noticed the name signed at the bottom.

The handwriting was *not* Yuda’s… but the explanation behind that lay in the first two lines of the letter.

‘My dear Alexis,

Please forgive me the means of sending this letter via Crawford’s associates, but I’ve been assured that it will find its way to you without risk of discovery. A proper letter will soon be sent to you, one much longer in length and gratitude, while this at least allows me to share my good news in a faster manner.

Shin and I are mates. I cannot begin to express my happiness over this finally occurring after so much time and despair, nor can I thank you enough for your part in making it happen. The one thing that gave me the strength to leave him behind all those years ago was knowing that you would look after him, and you repaid my faith in you a thousand-fold. That you helped to send him on his way to me… I will never be able to thank you properly for that, although I will try until my dying day. The words are not enough, but truly, thank you. Thank you for everything, for being a dear friend, for being so brave, so beautiful, for making me very proud to be your friend.

I received your letter – one thing, dear one, please never again entrust any message to Gai as I only received it when he found it while packing to leave for our new home. My next, proper letter to you will answer all your questions and more. We will be leaving shortly for our new home so I’m not certain how often I will be able to send anything, but have been assured that it will be possible to communicate with you once again.

Until then, be safe. I am proud to hear of your new friends and know that once again, we are working toward a common goal. Having achieved a dream that has tormented me for so long, I have a new one now – the day when we will be reunited. I look forward to hugging you tight, to being able to sit down and share drinks and stories. While not a precog, I foresee you and Shin bedeviling me during those long, happy nights as you are much alike. Perhaps that is in part why you have always been so dear to me, along with your beauty, bravery and devotion.

Love,
Yuda’

She found herself teary-eyed by the end of the short note, a little sad that someone she loved was irrevocably beyond her reach now yet ecstatic that Yuda finally was mates with Shin. If anything, she only wished that she could have sent Shin to him sooner than this.

It hurt to do so, but she took the note over to a candle to burn it after she re-read it several times. Yuda had promised her that more would follow, and if they survived the war then she could be with her dear friend once more. It was best to destroy any evidence that might damn her and the friends she had here; what mattered was that she knew he still thought of and cared for her.

She needed a few minutes to compose herself after that, especially since Tan Xi and others would be at the party tonight. Oh, how difficult it would be to hold back her joy while faced with them; she could only hope they believed her happiness to be related to Quatre and the new gift, and not Yuda.

While she had a thousand reasons already to help bring the Elders down and win the war for Kritiker, there was one more added to the list. More than anything, she longed for those nights that Yuda had written about, to talk and laugh and debate with him until the morning hours. She looked forward to knowing Shin better as well, and hoped that the gods would favor her enough to have her own lover by her side to share in the happiness.

*******

Yohji whistled one of Koyu’s new tunes as he wandered down the hallway toward the library, so filled with joy that he felt as if he would float up into the air and away at any moment. For the first time in what seemed forever, the Koneko was ‘home’ once again; there was no more sense of a rival lurking around the corner, a potential threat to his mate and loved ones.

Speaking of his mate… he found Aya frowning at the chessboard while Reiichi was busy putting the carved ivory pieces away. "If that’s your victory ‘face’, Cat, then I don’t want to be around when you lose," he teased as he sat beside his mate.

Aya turned the dark scowl from the chessboard to him. "Idiot," he said with a disapproving sniff, followed by an exasperated sigh when he got a kiss to the tip of his nose in response. "I almost won this time," he grumbled as he rubbed his right hand over his nose.

Reiichi smiled in pride as he finished putting away the pieces. "Yes, you did. I always appreciate such a challenging game."

"Says the winner. Go ahead and gloat, you know you want to." Yohji laughed at the suddenly innocent expression the Guard managed to wear. "And people think that Schuldig is trouble."

"Well, I am older than him so I would hope I’m better at it," Reiichi remarked, his hands now folded on the table-top and his blue eyes twinkling in amusement. "Since I know where Aya’s been for the last two hours, may I ask what has you in such a happy mood?"

Yohji laughed as his mate sighed again. "Just… it feels like home again, you know?" That was not a question he would ask of most humans, but Reiichi had a way of thinking that was very similar to a bound’s most of the time. "I can’t even smell him any more, and it’s only been a few days."

"I think the sudden bout of cleaning that Jo put the staff through might be part of the reason for that." Reiichi adjusted his glasses and then propped his chin up on the palm of his left hand. "I must admit, everything seems more… relaxed now."

"Yeah." Yohji smiled when Aya leaned against him, emotions no longer disappointed or exasperated. "I think Jo even put away her rolling pin this morning." She was just as happy as he was that things had returned to ‘normal’ – or whatever passed for that at the Koneko. "The next time you talk to Birman, let her know that her people can come back." He could not resist a sly grin as the mention of the Spymaster, nor how aloof Reiichi appeared upon hearing her name.

"I’m sure that will put Johanna, Molly and the others at ease, and will pass on the same to the succubae bounds in the Shadow Guard." He arched an eyebrow to show that he was giving Yohji a tit for tat in regards to the teasing, well aware that Yohji still felt a bit bad for chasing Li out of the inn a few weeks ago. Ah well, he would have to buy her a few rounds of beer or something as way of an apology, if she ever worked up the nerve to come back here.

"Trowa and Duo didn’t wait very long to return," Aya pointed out as he poured what looked to be the last of the tea into his and Reiichi’s mugs.

"That’s to be expected when Duo’s such a glutton for good beer." Now that the fire elemental treated Aya with proper respect, Yohji did not have a problem with him hanging out at the Koneko. "I’ve noticed that Schu and Masato have been scarce lately, though." He did not have a sense of his dear friend and father being in any trouble and had to wonder if they had been stuck with a new job. Crawford had mentioned something along those lines to Birman the other night, about Schu and Masato being busy in the upcoming weeks. Since Cassandra had been there at the time and had not taken Crawford to task, Yohji assumed that the future assignment should not bode ill for the two men. To be quite honest, despite missing his friend he was a bit relieved to not have to share his ‘territory’ with another powerful succubae bound any time soon.

While Reiichi and Aya sipped their tea, he combed his fingers through his mate’s hair and enjoyed the peaceful moment. More than likely, Birman would have a new assignment for them soon since his temper was no longer so chancy and Aya a bit hungry. Despite the almost warm weather outside, summer was fast approaching an end, which meant that the caravans would be returning along with an influx of visitors to the city. There was no doubt in his mind that the Elders and other countries as well would be sending spies then, in addition to the ones that had already arrived for Ouka’s Naming ceremony. He and Aya had been invited to that event but had declined the invitation, much to Aya’s and most likely the King and Manx’s relief.

"Jo should have an early dinner ready for us," he informed his mate and friend after a few quiet minutes. "As soon as we’re done, we’ll head to the western Temple district." That should be a little less crowded than the rest of the city, as everyone celebrated as close to the palace as possible.

Reiichi set his empty cup aside and nodded once. "I’ll go change, then, and meet you in the kitchen."

Aya began to gather up the empty cups and plates onto the tray so it could be returned to the kitchen. "Is anyone else coming with us?"

Yohji went to get the door for his lover, his attention on Aya’s outfit for a moment to make sure he was wearing a hooded jerkin to protect him from the afternoon sun. "Jo and Ichiro said they’d like to tag along if it’s not a problem, but everyone else who has the evening free will head toward the central district." He had put in a shift in the main room that morning so Ani, Touya, Jason and Maddox could do a little bit of early celebration before keeping an eye on the part-time staff tonight, and Aya had woken up before sunrise to do the day’s baking. Yohji thought he could still smell a hint of cinnamon whenever Aya was close, even though his mate had showered and changed his clothes afterwards.

"It’ll be nice to have them join us." Aya actually smiled at the prospect, and this was before Yohji let him know about all the sweet dough, flavored ice and cake booths that would be set up around the temples. Oh yes, he foresaw a very good night ahead of them despite the crowd, and knew it would only get better once they returned to the Koneko.

He checked his pouch to make sure he had the extra coins that they would give to the various temples to ensure Ouka and themselves a blessed future. Aya never thought of things like that, which should earn Yohji a few smiles and possibly kisses in appreciation when he pulled out the coins. After the stress and worry of the past month, simple things like that were enough to make Yohji smile in pleasure.

"You’re up to something." Aya paused near the kitchen door to give him a suspicious look.

"Always and ever when you’re involved, Cat." Yohji leaned in for a quick kiss and took the tray from Aya’s hands. "But really, when have you ever complained once things are said and done?"

He waited for some sort of scathing retort and was almost shocked enough to drop the tray when Aya chuckled and gave him a lingering kiss in return. "If you say so, Yotan." Aya turned to push open the door, leaving Yohji to follow him while grinning like the very pleased ‘idiot’ that he was.

To hell with all the worries of the future, tonight he would enjoy a playful lover, the company of dear friends and lots of tasty snacks. Of course, the best meal would await him when he and Aya finally returned home, he thought with a pleased grin and a quick sidestep away from a certain cat’s pointy left elbow in response to his too obvious emotions.

*******

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