Tangled Threads

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chapter one

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by nekojita

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opening gambit

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Birman looked up from the report she was reading when she heard her office door open, and set it aside when she saw Trowa enter. Mariela’s report could wait for later; she always flagged any truly important intelligence with a silver wax seal and that had been missing from this missive, so it was more along the lines of a general debriefing of the past week. "I thought you were working with Natsumi at Court today," she said to the water elemental, by no means reproaching him for being here but curious as to what had made him change his plans.

He bowed his head slightly the same time he held up a sealed document that bore the mark of Shuuichi’s signet ring in the blue and gold wax. "I asked Takumi to cover for me once I was ‘given’ this." The document was held out to her as he approached the desk. "One of the king’s clerks approached me with it and asked that I give it to you." As he was pretending to be a page today to keep watch over who was exchanging messages with each other, there had been no way for him to turn down the request – not that Shuuichi had chosen him at random, she was willing to bet.

She accepted the heavy envelope and gestured for him to sit down. "Have you eaten?" she asked as she examined the seal, an ingrained habit from years of spy work. It looked authentic, and the ring on her left pinky would warn her if it had been tampered with in any way.

"Yes, I made sure to before going to Court," Trowa remarked in a quiet, distracted manner as he removed the silver earring that provided his ‘page’ illusion and undid the top two buttons of his uniform’s blue and black jacket.

No doubt he hadn’t wanted to attract any attention to himself by spending most of the afternoon eating or drinking, but she fetched a clean mug from a drawer in her desk and poured him some coffee from the carafe as she refilled her mug. He smiled in gratitude as he accepted it, then watched with care as she broke the seal on the envelope.

The letter was of the same heavy, expensive paper as the envelope, watermarked with the royal crest and illegal for anyone not of the royal family to own. The ink was faintly scented with roses and would shimmer with magic if she had any talent to speak of – Botan had been very happy to leave the task of enchanting the ‘royal ink’ to Omi and now Takashi – as yet another sign of its royal origin, the handwriting ornate enough to give her a headache if she stared at it for too long. The few attempts at forgeries that she had seen had all failed in capturing the necessary elements that went into an official royal announcement because of how complex they were for safety’s sake. Well, that and she was convinced that the Takatori couldn’t do anything simple to save their lives, with the possible exception of Omi.

"So, it seems they’ve finally settled on the announcement for Princess Ouka’s first birthday," she told Trowa as she handed him the letter. From what she could tell, there were just a few minor wording changes from the last version she had seen, and as she was a spymaster and not a diplomat, she had no qualms about them. That was Lady Meara’s department, after all, and there was no way *that* lady would allow any missive to be sent out to the foreign Courts without going over it with a fine tooth comb.

He accepted the letter with care, as if worried that he would damage it in some manner. Holding it gingerly by the corners, he read through it and then nodded as he set it on the desk. "It’s a little early to send it out, isn’t it?" He didn’t sound too concerned, more curious than anything, and he regarded her evenly as he sipped his coffee.

She gave the question some thought before she answered. "Well, the princess is just a few months old, which might raise a few eyebrows, but they’ve waited until after winter’s Solstice so it’s a new year. Some might say that they’re very confident that she’ll reach her first birthday in the summer and take it as a good sign."

"Rather than tempt the gods to see something bad happen to her," Trowa pointed out, as always willing to be a sounding board for her.

"Hmm, yes, well there’s always people who like nothing better than to be negative." She smiled as she leaned back in her chair. "Too bad they don’t have two powerful precogs and even more healers on their side." They shared a pleased grin between them – well, a grin on her side and a slight smile on his. "That will work in Kritiker’s favor, this show of confidence from Shuiichi and Manx over their daughter. It’ll be a boost of morale for the people, and for Ouka to do so well it’ll make them think that if she’s blessed, maybe the country is, too."

"Which means more work for the Shadow Guard to ensure that she stays that way." Trowa’s eyebrows drew together as he stared into his mug. "I know Crawford hasn’t seen any harm to the child, and from the little he is willing to say about her future it’s a long and mostly happy one, but even he’ll admit that the future can change. We’ll have to make sure that she’s adequately protected in case the Elders decide that she’s a suitable target after all."

Those were much the same thoughts that she had on the matter. "I’ve already spoken with Marta and Cassandra to see about placing a very talented healer and soul gaki bound around the child." She smiled sweetly when Trowa regarded her with suspicion. "Well, it *does* pay to be the one who handles the background checks on all of the servants for the royal family, and if there just so happens to be an opening or two in Ouka’s retinue in the near future…." She laughed as his look became even more suspicious. "Now, now, that’s what you get for causing Lord Higa to keep getting those dizzy spells over the winter."

"It was either that or have Duo emasculate him by fire for refusing to take ‘no’ for an answer," the water elemental muttered as he crossed his arms over his chest. "Can’t you have Keary give the poor bastard some migraine attacks?"

"I may have you both working on this, depending on how many people I decide to replace," she answered in all seriousness. "If it can’t be done by gentle ‘persuasion’, then we’ll have to go with the more insidious approach, but I’ll want several people we can trust and who can protect the princess with more than just a sword or a charm around her at all times."

She motioned at the letter with her left hand. "These will be sent to all of the Courts within the next few weeks, including Esset. Xan is making overtures to indicate that they may side with us in the future, or at least not use the upcoming war as an opportunity to attack while we’re distracted with Esset, but there’s still Thracia and Cretia. Currently we’re all at peace, but there’s a chance of that changing once war is officially declared. I’ll do whatever’s necessary to ensure that the royal family is protected." Even if that meant lying to the king and queen and placing bounds around their infant daughter. Perhaps they would be furious with her when they found out, but the truth of the matter was that Esset wouldn’t have any qualms about sending bounds to harm the child so it was best to fight fire with fire, so to speak. The frightening part was that it could actually happen, which was something she wasn’t certain that Manx was ready to accept just yet.

The Captain’s family had died from a similar attack a thousand years ago, and right now Birman was willing to bet that the creation of the Shadow Guard and that the war was still at least a year or two off in the distance was why there had been no outright attacks on the royal family or highborns by Esset bounds. But Esset had already sent some of their strongest bounds to Eto, and not all of them were traitors. There was only so long that Crawford’s manipulations and their luck would hold out, and she wasn’t the only one to think that way.

As she stared across the desk, she realized that, his objections earlier aside, that Trowa was willing to do whatever was necessary to protect Ouka and ensure that Kritiker won the upcoming war. Resolve such as his and hers would see them through the upcoming fighting and hopefully to victory. "Whoever thought that a child’s birthday party could be an opening salvo to a war, ne?" she asked as she reached into her drawer for one of the bottles of whiskey that she kept stashed away for occasions such as this.

He smiled a little as he held out his now empty mug, the expression touched with bitterness. "Someone who studied politics."

*******

Duo groaned as he patted his partner on the back. "Look, you’re a good man, but if you think I’m gonna give up a chance to spend the night enjoying a few beers while hanging out with my boyfriend to babysit your daughter, you’re also an *insane* man."

Toshi laughed as he shrugged off Duo’s hand. "Okay, so I didn’t really think you’d say ‘yes’, but I figured it was worth a try. Silly me, I thought maybe you’d enjoy a quiet night at home for once."

Duo stopped in his tracks and stared at the idiot human. "So you figured that two guys who have no clue whatsoever what to do with a kid who’d probably be screaming her head off for her mother within ten minutes of you leaving her with us would be a ‘quiet night at home’?" he asked, his voice growing louder the longer he spoke. "Okay, that’s *it*, now I know you’re insane!" he declared for the entire hallway to hear, causing a good bit of sniggering from fellow Guards and even some of the highborn and Army personnel. "We’re lucky that the damn cat’s still alive," he continued in a quieter tone of voice as he smacked his right hand into Toshi’s ribs.

And what did the bastard do? He laughed some more. "Ah well, like you’re so upset over that." He grinned at Duo’s glare and shook his head. "I’ve seen you sneak buying cat toys whenever there’s a market in our patrol area, unless you’re gonna tell me about Trowa’s interesting new kink that I *really* don’t want to know about."

"Hmph. I’m just trying to keep the damn thing from scratching up my boots," Duo grumbled as they continued on their way to Yuushi’s office. Dammit, he thought the purchases had gone unnoticed, too. Now he’d be teased about them… and it was still worth the pleased smiles and even better kisses he’d gotten from his mate when he’d taken the toys home, not to mention the amusement from watching Gin play with the stuffed toy mice and birds.

"Yes, yes, and I just wanted to have a night out with Lilla without the ‘in-laws’ watching Mari." Toshi’s good humor faded for a few seconds as he stared off at the distance. "Ah well, they adore her and it’s not like they give us any grief about the babysitting. It’s just that they’re starting to get a bit heavy-handed over hinting about marriage plans."

Duo felt a headache coming on over this all-too familiar topic. "I would think that you’d be happy to have them bring it up," he remarked in a quiet voice, and kept to himself how grateful he was that he and Trowa didn’t have any families to butt into their relationship. Oh, there were the Elders, who caused him more than enough stress and grief, but all he had to do was stay far away from them and let Mustang and that kid Elric kill them and his worries would be over. He stifled any and all thoughts about surviving the war as well.

Toshi shrugged, the motion careless yet in contrast to the tightness of his face. "Sometimes I think the more they push, the more Lilla’s going to be stubborn about the whole damn thing. At this point, I’ll gladly marry her because if we’re still together after having a baby and raising her for almost a year, then I think we’re meant to be. But it’s… I don’t know, she’s still trying to prove something to her family."

There were times when Duo really didn’t understand humans. He knew that Toshi worried about the upcoming war and providing for the woman he loved and their daughter, and wanted some sort of recognition that saying words in front of people and the gods could offer. The oath part of it all was something that Duo could understand, was something that every bound could relate to as they took all promises seriously, but you didn’t need a fancy ceremony for the gods to recognize a bond. Toshi had his daughter, a girl with his eyes and laugh, and had signed paperwork to give his pension to Lilla and Mari should anything happen to him – surely that was enough?

Duo and Trowa would never have a child of their own flesh, and some people would never recognize their relationship the way they would Toshi and Lilla’s, but they would always be together because of their bond. The gods had tied their souls together, and that was enough for them, even if they had to hide the true extent of their emotions from most people. They would never have some silly little ceremony, and Duo couldn’t care less. He was pretty certain that Trowa felt the same, especially if it spared him being the center of attention. All that mattered to them was what they felt for each other.

The rest of the walk was made without any conversation, as Toshi seemed to reflect on the state of his relationship and Duo on how humans complicated things that were so much simpler for bounds – especially mated bounds. When they finally reached Yuushi’s office, he was about to offer his partner a round or two of beer on him on their way home when he noticed the Army personnel standing by the door. For a moment, his talent thrummed along his body and fought to break free, to rush through the air and burn Heero to ash before he came to his senses and fought it under control. Damn it, he had no reason to be so suspicious and paranoid at the sight of the air elemental; if Heero thought of him as a traitor, he wouldn’t be standing around like that but tearing the palace apart to get at him. Funny, how something like that could be so reassuring.

This time it was Toshi’s turn to hand out the pats on the back. "I’ll give our report to Yuushi while you see what Trowa’s friend wants." Among the pats was a quick code for Duo to be on watch – not on guard or to be careful, but on watch. That meant that Toshi recognized Heero as an Esset spy who was also supposedly Trowa’s ‘friend’ and was leaving it to Duo to handle him, as Trowa’s ‘partner’.

Reminding himself about that ‘would be tearing the palace apart if he suspected anything’ part, Duo smiled and stepped away from Toshi. "Wow, the great Heero Yuy paying a visit to humble little ol’ me. To what do I owe such an honor?" he asked as he bent over in a deep bow.

He looked up in time to see a hint of a blush on Heero’s handsome face. "I… that is… do you ever take anything serious?" Heero answered, his tone a slight bit cross towards the end.

"Not if I can help it," Duo admitted as he leaned against the wall a couple of feet away from the other bound. "So, what brings you here? Decide that the Guard has much sexier uniforms after all and that you want to join?" He stroked his left hand along the front of his dark blue coat and smiled.

Heero pinched the bridge of his nose as if he had a headache, for some reason. "You truly don’t take anything serious." He sighed as if he couldn’t think of any greater crime – which, knowing the obsessive-compulsive and ever so eager to please bastard, was probably true.

"Only if there’s a sexy person and some alcohol involved." Duo pushed away from the wall and motioned for Heero to follow. "Since I don’t see any bottles on you and you told me you’d castrate me if I ever hit on you again, there’s no hope I’ll be serious now." Really, all he’d done was tell Heero that he looked so cute when he woke up in the morning, with his hair all tousled and blue eyes blurry. Not that Duo had planned to do anything other than enjoy the sight before him; while the man was indeed very good looking, he was way too devoted to the Elders to ever be considered a true object of lust.

Heero grimaced, either at being reminded of that incident or at Duo’s ‘lack of professionalism’, or maybe even both, knowing him. Then he made a little motion with his left hand that indicated that he was using his talent to muffle the sound of their voices to keep people from overhearing them. "Has something happened to Trowa?" he asked, seeming to have tired of the small talk.

The question cut through Duo’s sense of reminiscing and budding good mood. He struggled to keep his face impassive as he felt for the link he shared with his mate, panicking for the moment that something bad had happened to Trowa. His knees trembled when he sensed concentration, faint amusement and an almost cruel resolve; wherever Trowa was, he was definitely working, and it had to be somewhere in the palace since he didn’t ‘feel’ too far away. "Why, what’s going on," Duo asked, grateful that the words came out sounding normal.

"He was supposed to be in the Silver banquet room today, but I didn’t see him there." Heero frowned as he touched his right hand to the black leather pouch on his belt.

"You know, he doesn’t always look like himself while he’s working," Duo pointed out with a good bit of sarcasm, feeling it was justified with the way that Heero had terrified him back there. He motioned for the air elemental to join him in an office that the Guard sometime used for meetings or just to get out from under the feet of the highborn and palace staff. Fortunately, it was empty right now.

Heero glared at him as he settled on one of the room’s padded chairs. "I *know* that. Even if he’s using an illusion charm, he always wears a small token so I can recognize him, and then there’s his scent. The male page today neither smelled like Trowa nor wore the brass belt buckle shaped like a fox’s head."

Okay, so Heero had just reminded him that he had a brain inside that thick skull of his. Duo sighed as he rubbed his right hand over his hair. "He does work for the Spymaster. Maybe something came up that made her want him to do something other than stand around collecting notes." He caught the flash of anger in Heero’s blue eyes and felt a sudden pang of interest. "Even if you think that should be his most important job," he took the chance of adding. Oh ho, was the relationship between mister ice man and the virginal lady heating up a little?

"I wouldn’t think of such a stupid thing," Heero snapped with a bit too much force and a little too quickly for it to be an adequate denial. "If the Spymaster is trusting him enough to include him on an important mission than it’s for the best."

"Uh-huh." Duo sat down in a chair across from his ‘friend’ and rested his elbows on his knees. The thing is, part of him really did like Heero. There was something about the man, something… pure. He focused so intently on whatever he was doing, did his best to carry through on his goals and wasn’t mean-spirited. He was just fucked up in the head from being raised by the Elders and so needed to learn to think for himself. Once he actually could have a few thoughts of his own and carry through with them… then Duo felt that they would probably get along just fine. Right now, Heero was still a threat to him and Trowa and that tempered any good feelings he had toward the air elemental.

"So, why did you want to see him?" he decided to ask, before Heero started ranting and raving about the glory that was to be found serving the Elders and bringing about the grand vision they had in store for Esset and the rest of the poor world, blah blah blah. He definitely wasn’t in the mood to put up with that shit while sober.

His mouth open as if to carry through with said rant, Heero snapped his jaw shut and appeared damn near *flummoxed* for a few seconds. He blinked his eyes and bobbed his head back and forth a few times as if trying to figure out what to do and say next. "Ah, well, uhm." Falling quiet once more, he shook his head as if to clear it of confusing thoughts. "I had hoped that he would carry a message for me to Lady Relena," he finally admitted in a hushed tone.

Okay, so maybe the man was a threat to Duo and Trowa, but it was amusing and a slightly bit endearing to see Heero of all people so confused and off-balance by his feelings for a *human*. Well aware of how pissed off Trowa would be with him if he teased the air elemental too much, all Duo did was smile a little as he rested his chin on his right hand. "Haven’t had a chance to see her too much lately, have you?"

The slight blush from before returned to Heero’s cheeks. "Things have been very busy with the holidays." He looked over Duo’s left shoulder as if refusing to meet his gaze.

"I’m sure they have been, what with all of the parties and so forth. Plus, I heard that she went home to the family estate for a few weeks." It paid to be living with a gorgeous, intelligent lover who worked for the Spymaster. He decided to take it easy on Heero and maybe help move along this… could it be called a relationship when it moved slower than Toshi did without his morning carafe of coffee? "Look, why don’t you give me the letter and I’ll pass it on to Trowa tonight. He can give it to Relena the next time he’s dressed up as a page."

Heero’s gaze snapped onto him as soon as he made the offer, his right hand hovering over the leather pouch. "You won’t try to read it, will you?" he asked, eyes narrowed in suspicion and a sharp frown on his face.

Duo rolled his eyes as he threw his hands up in the air. "Really? This is how you react when someone does a favor for you?" He hissed in annoyance and shook his head. "*No* I won’t read it, Trowa would drain the blood from my upper body or something for being so rude." The prickly bastard would do it, too, even if he apologized for doing so later; Trowa was a big believer in privacy unless he was snooping on the job, and *then* he was utterly ruthless. Unfortunately, Heero’s love letters wouldn’t fall under state secrets or matters of war, dammit. Duo pouted over that fact until something occurred to him. "Unless you didn’t seal it, then there’s no way for anyone to know."

"I’m not foolish enough to leave the note unsealed," Heero spat, his anger fading after a few seconds as he retrieved the letter. "But you’re correct, Trowa would be upset about any correspondence he’s responsible for being mistreated." He stared at the letter for a moment before handing it over. "Thank you."

"Oh, sure, trust me *after* I mention a threat to my life," Duo teased as he accepted the note. "I’ll give it to him as soon as I see him. It may still take a few days to reach her, though."

"That’s fine, as long as it does." Heero was quiet for a few seconds. "And that Trowa’s all right," he added as an after-thought. Duo gritted his teeth and reminded himself that at least Heero had thought to be concerned for his mate; any show of concern for anything not mission-related was rather amazing for the air-elemental and a sign that he seemed to be thinking of others for once.

"He should be, if it’s anything other than a job for the Spymaster I would have heard something by now, either as his boyfriend, as a Guard or being in trouble myself," Duo pointed out, not about to reveal the link between him and the water elemental.

"That is true." Heero nodded as he rose to his feet. "Sometimes I worry that we were accepted into our roles here a bit too easy, despite all of the hard work Crawford put into preparing things for us."

"There’s also the fact that we’re busting our asses to fit in," Duo remarked as he stood up as well. "And that we’re the best at what we do." They were taking a chance, talking so openly about things like this, Heero’s ability to muffle sound aside.

The air elemental seemed to realize that as he nodded. "Yes, we are. We work hard and have earned our positions. I’m sure you’ll see Trowa later, then." He turned as if to leave.

"Heero…." Duo waited for his ex-partner to pause before continuing. "I’ll make sure that Relena gets the note. For some reason, I think the two of you have an… well, an understanding of each other. Don’t be afraid of seeing where that can lead to, okay?" He couldn’t come out and tell the idiot that he thought the two of them falling in love was both the funniest thing ever and the best thing that could happen to Heero, not when Relena was a human and Heero was an agent from Esset sent to help defeat her country. But he could try to phrase it in a way that was both encouraging and sounded as if it fit some sort of warped mission parameter.

Heero was quiet for about a minute before nodding. "Thank you." Then he left the room without looking back.

Duo gave him a few minutes to head off to wherever he was going, then decided to try to track down his mate. Judging from the emotions he sensed over their link, he had his suspicions that Birman’s office would be the best place to start.

*******

Wufei sat in his chair with his back straight, as if it was some sort of offense for his spine to touch the furniture, his eyes narrowed in intense scrutiny and his lips pressed together in an obvious attempt to hold back the words of disappoint that waited to spring forth. Quatre glanced back and forth between his lover and a faintly trembling Helena as the girl poured the fragrant green tea into the waiting porcelain teacups, a tension headache building as he did his best to sit through this practice session. In no way did Alexis’ faint sense of amusement off to his left help the situation.

Helena managed to pour the tea without spilling a drop and set the fragile, priceless teapot down without mishap, then hand out the cups with a surprising amount of grace. Wufei accepted his and sipped the hot liquid with that indestructible mouth of his, while Quatre winced and blew on his tea to cool it a little before having a cautious sip.

"Hmm." Setting aside his cup, Wufei unleashed his judgment on the anxious child. "You should have allowed the tea to steep another minute, and a proper Xan tea ceremony is always done from the *left*," he said with emphasis, his dark eyes flashing as they always did when he felt some affront to his culture. "This is not some Esset tea… brunch, where you stuff your faces with silly sandwiches and water down what should be treasured for its own essence with sugar and milk, of all things." He actually shuddered as he mentioned Quatre’s preferred method of enjoying a nice, strong cup of Thracian tea.

"Yes, sir." Helena bobbed her head and twisted her hands in the silk material of her dark gold dress as she accepted the criticism, as always doing her best to improve herself like the quiet, obedient child that she was. Quatre did his best to give her a reassuring smile and wished that it wasn’t so crowded under the table so he had a clearer shot of giving one of his lover’s legs a kick.

<Really, would it hurt you to tell her something that she did right?>

<We have precious little time left to coddle the child, if Crawford’s warnings about the invites being sent out soon is correct,> Wufei shot back as he had another sip of his tea. <Who would you prefer to tell her what’s wrong, me or some highborn in Kritiker?>

Dammit, if there was one thing that Quatre really hated, it was when his lover was right while he was trying to prove a point to the stubborn man. He gritted his teeth together in frustration for a moment before shoving his negative emotions aside and gave Helena a proud smile. "I thought you did remarkably well."

Of course Wufei couldn’t leave things there. "She’ll have to do better than ‘remarkably well’ if there’s a delegate from the Xan Court in Eto. I will not have the child embarrass us!"

Helena hunched her shoulders a little at her tutor’s impassioned tone and nodded. "I won’t let you down. I’ll keep practicing with Lisa until I have it right." Her emotions were pure determination and excitement, as always when she thought about anything that had to do with the upcoming trip to Kritiker. Only the fact that Wufei’s demanding criticism failed to wear her down kept Quatre from flinging a teacup in his lover’s direction.

At least her dedication impressed the hard to please bastard. Wufei sniffed in approval before turning to the latest addition to their lessons. "Well, what is your opinion?"

Alexis smiled as she set aside her teacup, her demeanor almost shy, and for a moment Quatre had the hope that she would take it easy on the poor girl. Then she showed a hint of sharp teeth before she spoke. "I leave to you any criticism on the actual tea ceremony, as I am much more familiar on those for Kritiker and Esset. Once you feel she is adept enough at Xan’s, I’ll tutor her on those, even if they aren’t anywhere near as exacting, and can teach her the bare bones for Thracia and Cretia. However, I must admit that I’m a bit taken back at her posture and appearance." At her words, Helena blushed and attempted to straighten her shoulders, which had slouched a bit during the lesson. "She’s definitely in need of some polish if she’s to survive in any Court."

Quatre stared at his friend as Wufei nodded in agreement. <I thought you felt sorry for her!> he accused Alexis, who had listened to him rant about Wufei’s treatment of Helena for the last few months.

<Oh, I do, but that’s not going to stop me from saying what I think and let you send her off to a Court ill-prepared. Wufei really is looking out for her best interests.> Alexis gave him a slight, apologetic smile before glancing aside. <This is the first time any highborns outside of Esset will have seen her, and she’s mostly been locked away even here. Everyone will be paying close attention to her, especially since they’ll be looking for some diplomatic way to prevent the war and that usually means marriage.>

"Yes, that’s much of what I thought, although I don’t have your experience with…." Wufei waved his right hand in Helena’s general direction as he referred to Alexis’ knowledge of schooling highborn girls, courtesy of her governess mother. "She is somewhat pleasing to the eye and cleans up well, so I’m certain she will be presentable in that manner once given enough work."

Quatre felt his headache go up a notch. <Helena, please ignore the imbecilic man. You’re a lovely young woman,> he assured her.

<That’s… it’s okay, Lord Quatre, I know I’m not his type,> Helena responded back with surprising candor, her cheeks suddenly bright red as she took a great interest in her empty teacup. Quatre blinked a few times as it never occurred to him that Wufei’s comment could have been meant that way, and he once again vowed to meet the women from his lover’s past. Then he winced a little as he reminded himself that not many were still alive after the raid that had brought Wufei to Berin. As for Alexis’ rather on the spot remarks, he did his best to not think of them just now.

"I believe she’s more than pleasing enough, but she’ll need some lessons to stand up to Court scrutiny." Alexis’ thoughtful observation cut through Quatre’s musings, as they once more had Wufei plotting to put poor Helena through more rigorous training sessions. "She knows enough now to hold her own in a conversation, but there’s posture, manners, dining etiquette…."

<Oh, now you are just *encouraging* him,> Quatre sent to his friend, his thoughts tinged with desperation as he noticed the obsessive gleam in his lover’s eyes. The very things that Wufei would rant about having to suffer through while trapped here at the Elders’ bidding, he would cram down poor Helena’s throat for the next few months just because he couldn’t leave any task done imperfectly.

Yes, that was most definitely a satisfied flash of teeth just then. <Who, me? I am only doing what was asked of me.> To think that Alexis appeared the picture of innocence while sitting there, a petite ‘young’ woman in a modest, full skirted dark red dress. She was just as much a tyrannical monster as Wufei.

Suddenly wishing that there was a good dose of alcohol mixed in with the tea, Quatre had the impression that he would be suffering headaches for the foreseeable future. He contacted Rasheed to have several bottles of wine ready for his return while Wufei began plotting out an etiquette lesson plan with Alexis for poor Helena.

*******

Aya stood out in the garden, moonlight casting various leaves silver and darkness making welcoming shadows in the greenery. He had slipped outside after dinner, while Yohji had gone into the main room to speak to Lilla and a couple of other friends. For some reason the kitchen had become stifling, filled with too many humans even though they had been friends, and he had needed to step outside, to get away from the press of humanity and emotions and voices.

Out here, it was quiet and dark and the air was cold against his skin, his head clear for the first time in hours. Lately, he had noticed the need to be alone, to be away from the noise and the light, but he found it difficult to do so when Yohji was by his side. Now that he was left alone, he was able to give in to the urge and enjoy the quiet, to stand out here and breathe in the scent of pine needles and winter air laden with notes of burning wood and snow.

<Too many humans inside, loud and mortal. Why stay with them if you won’t feed?> one of the shinigami asked as it curled around him.

"Not all humans are food," he told it as he stroked his fingers along it as it flowed around his shoulders.

<All humans die, mortals they be. Feed you will from them as they pass on,> another shinigami chided him. <So short they live, like flames that burn out. Look for the grey ones.>

Aya sighed as he leaned against the maple tree, the bark cold against his face. "I wouldn’t really know, I haven’t lived that long myself," he admitted with a weariness that belied his youthfulness.

The soft, almost insubstantial touch was back, stroking along the exposed side of his face. <For now. Young you are, but only for now.>

For now. Aya didn’t often think of the future past the next few years, but at the moment, the prospect of facing centuries made the weariness increase until he felt pressed against the tree, weighted down by years that hadn’t even happened yet. If it weren’t for Yohji… he thought of his mate and took a deep breath. "There’s much that can happen between now and then."

<Nothing can touch you unless you let it, young one. And though he may trap you here, the golden one looks after you, yes? Keeps you safe, yes? Long should you live.>

"Sometimes, that’s what I’m afraid of." He wanted all of the time that he could have with Yohji, but lately, the changes he was undergoing began to worry him. There was the increased sensitivity to daylight and now the heightened aversion to people. How many other changes would happen as he continued to feed so regularly from the deaths he claimed while serving Birman? Those weren’t the worst aspects of his talent to be uncovered….

<What does a shinigami have to fear?>

He ignored the question as he pushed away from the tree to stand out beneath the moonlight, which reflected on the glittering snow. "At least I don’t have to worry about the cold." Somehow, being outside in the winter wasn’t as chilling as it used to be, he mused as he pushed his cloak’s hood back to his shoulders.

Inside the inn, Yohji was amused by something, his emotions warm and happy. Aya smiled as he thought about his mate, certain that if he went inside he would be welcomed with a hug and encouraged to sit next to Yohji for a while until they went upstairs for the night. Yet he still wasn’t in the mood to deal with the crowded room, with all the other people, their questioning looks and confusing emotions. He didn’t want to sit among them and look out over them just now. As much as he enjoyed the Koneko and was happy with the sanctuary he had found here, he wished that it wasn’t such a busy inn.

He was contemplating the moons above him when he heard his name be called out, the sound quiet and uncertain. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw Sebastian standing by the koi pond, wrapped in a thick wool cloak and scarf.

"Yes?" Normally the earth elemental kept to himself, stopping by the kitchen to fetch his meals and to see what tasks Jo and Mickey required of him and otherwise spending his time out in the garden or elsewhere.

"Ah, I thought that was you. Is everything all right?" Sebastian took a cautious step forward. "I didn’t think anyone would be out here tonight."

"Just… getting some fresh air." Aya let out a quiet sigh when he noticed the way the bound flinched and realized that his voice was still sibilant from speaking to the shinigami. "The inn’s rather crowded," he explained, this time sounding more ‘human’.

Sebastian chuckled, still appearing a little nervous as he rubbed his gloved hands together. "Yeah, I came out here for a bit of peace and quiet, figured I’d check to make sure the walkways were clear as well." He offered up a shaky smile as he motioned around him. "So far, everything looks good."

Aya made an affirmative sound as he wondered if he was supposed to engage in small talk. Was it expected of him to comment on how well the garden looked when it was currently blanketed in over a dozen inches of snow? Around him, he could hear the shinigami as they whispered amongst themselves, upset to have someone possessing a human soul nearby.

Several feet away, Sebastian started as if he had caught a glimpse of the shinigami. Sometimes, other bounds could sense them if they were particularly active around Aya, enough to feel uneasy around him. The man shuffled his feet and hugged his cloak tighter against his body. "Ah, think I’ll see if Jason needs anything," he said in a rush as he took several steps backwards, before turning and hurrying towards the barn.

Aya watched him leave and wondered if he would be avoided for the next few days, not so much bothered by the fact for himself but by the questions it would raise among the staff if they noticed. No doubt Yohji would take offense over the behavior, which might lead to a lot of noise and fuss that Aya could do without.

"Human emotions can be so bothersome," he muttered as he leaned forward to scoop up a handful of snow.

<Yes, young one, best to be rid of them and all human ties,> one of the shinigami urged as he let the snow drift back to the ground and watched the flakes sparkle in the moonlight. He was about to say something when he felt a flash of annoyance and heard someone else approach.

"Cat… what in all of the hells are you doing out here in the cold?" Yohji was still pulling on the blue coat that had been a solstice present over a year ago as he trudged through the snow, an annoyed expression on his face as he looked past Aya. "Don’t tell me that those hissing bastards drew you out here."

Well, there went the peace and quiet, Aya thought to himself with a sigh as the shinigami hissed in displeasure and pulled away. Still, he found himself smiling as his mate drew close and tucked back the hair falling onto his face with a bare hand still warm. "It was too noisy inside."

"So you came out here to freeze? And yet *I’m* the idiot?" Yohji winced when he was hit in the ribs yet continued to caress Aya’s left cheek. "You only look as if you’re made of snow, you know."

"It’s not that cold," Aya mumbled as he swatted Yohji’s hand aside.

"Aya…." Yohji left off whatever he was going to say and pulled him close instead, his emotions a mix of love, frustration, worry and a faint hint of desire/hunger. Since his mate was warm and smelled nice, of clean wool, lingering aromas from the kitchen, traces of the spicy soap Yohji had used to wash with earlier and the wonderful scent of Yohji himself, Aya allowed himself to be held. He slid his arms around his mate as well, content to stand there in the quiet darkness as if it were just the two of them, to ignore the sounds that came from the inn and farther down the street, the rustlings of the shinigami as they withdrew for the time being. If there was anything that Aya wished for more of in his world, it was for times when it truly was just the two of them.

He was fine like this, yet after a few minutes Yohji shifted away and urged him to take a step toward the Koneko. "Come on, Jo has some mulled wine warming up for us." He smiled at Aya, the expression a little sad as if he knew that Aya didn’t really want to leave the garden. "There’s even some freshly baked apple dumplings, too, and then we can head upstairs."

Knowing that he was being enticed with sweets and wine, Aya gave in with good grace for once. "As long as you’re done socializing for the evening." He didn’t think he could take much more than the staff in the kitchen right now. Why things were so bad tonight, he didn’t know, but he really wasn’t in the mood to be around too many people.

He managed two steps before realizing that Yohji was no longer walking beside him, and let out a surprised gasp when he was yanked back against his mate’s chest for a kiss passionate enough to engulf him in Yohji’s hunger and make his head dizzy with the desire he felt. They remained standing like that for several minutes, mouths fervent on each other, hands sliding beneath thick layers of wool to seek warm flesh, until Yohji once more shifted away with a nervous laugh.

"I think Jo’s about a minute away from sending someone out to look from us," he explained as he tugged Aya’s cloak back in place. He leaned forward for a quick kiss before spinning Aya around toward the kitchen door. "And we’re only going to stay in the kitchen long enough to appease her and maybe get some of that wine to take upstairs with us." His voice took on a husky, low tone as his right hand took a firm hold over Aya’s hip.

Smiling a little at his lover’s obvious enthusiasm over their time alone, Aya sent a wave of agreement over their link as he stepped into the kitchen, Yohji by his side and his doubts vanquished for the moment.

*******

Takashi frowned as he concentrated his magic on the large garnet that rested upon the desk in front of him, softly chanting the focus words that would tie the spell of protection to the stone. It required a lot of effort, and it felt as if he had been forcing his will onto the magic for hours when everything coalesced and the stone began to glow. Changing the chant to seal the spell, he slumped back in his chair when it was finally complete.

"Good work."

He almost slid out of the chair when he heard Botan’s quiet voice in his left ear, and managed a startled chuckle in response when the wizard reached down to pick up the stone to examine it. "You didn’t damage the gem, and it has a good charge to it. This should last for several years unused, and at least a couple of months of regular use for a Guard or Army soldier." There was little emotion to Botan’s voice, as always during their lesson, but he followed his critique with an encouraging smile.

"Thank you, sir." Takashi righted himself in his chair and took a deep, slow breath to calm his breathing. It still took some getting used to, working with semi-precious and precious stones like this, and knowing that the charms he was creating would be used to protect people’s lives. All the charms he had created before had been for exams or gifts for friends, impractical things to show off his talent and do a bit of magic.

The good mood he had over Botan’s approval slipped as he glanced across the room to see that Omi was in the middle of creating a charm… and had three completed ones set aside. No matter how hard Takashi worked to learn everything and do his best, he still had yet to catch up with Omi. He reminded himself that Omi had been creating charms for several months already, but still, it stung a little. Over in the corner of the room, Omi’s boyfriend looked up from the book he was reading and gave Takashi a very cold stare over its top.

Takashi smiled nervously in response and ran his fingers through his hair. Had he been caught looking too long or something? Nagi was very protective of his boyfriend, going so far as to accompany him to the palace as if afraid that something would happen to him here. Which was odd, because Omi acted as if Nagi was the one who should be worried about being here, always pulling him close and being very protective if anyone paid him too much attention when they were out in the hallway. They were one of the weirdest couples that Takashi had met so far, which was saying something as he had come across several of them since arriving at the capital.

Shaking his head to clear it of the distracting thoughts, he reached for another stone and began to cast a new spell, hoping to work a little faster now that he had completed one charm already. It seemed a little easier now, despite him being a bit tired, and he knew that he could do a good job of it. Concentrating on his magic and ‘feel’ of his stone, he did his best and soon had another charm completed. This time, he was prepared for Botan’s inspection and smiled when he was told that he’d been successful.

"All right, I think it’s time for a break. For some reason they frown upon it when I work you into complete exhaustion," Botan said with a slight smile on his face.

"Oh, sure, I bet you just don’t want to have to carry me home tonight," Omi teased as he leaned forward to rest his arms and chin on the table, a pile of five completed charms near his left elbow.

"That’s why I allow Nagi to sit in on these sessions," Botan replied as he motioned toward the quiet boy, and laughed when Omi stuck his tongue out at the older wizard. "You really did pick up some bad habits from Schuldig."

"Hmm, such as knowing when to threaten you with Cassandra." Omi smiled in the face of Botan’s sudden glare. "But I’ll be good as long as you have them bring us something really nice for lunch."

Botan continued to glare for a few more seconds before giving in and shaking his head. "Please tell me that I at least have one student who isn’t a manipulative blackmailer." He gave Takashi a plaintive look.

Takashi held up his hands as he reclined back in his chair. "Uhm, I’m still picking up points from him, Sir. I mean, I know *who* to blackmail you with, just figuring out when’s the best time to do so and using what."

Omi laughed at his jest while Botan muttered beneath his breath about ungrateful students, and Takashi smiled in pleasure at being able to join in on the fun. Sometimes he felt as if he was being kept out of things, so moments like these mattered. Botan still met up with Omi at the Koneko once or twice a week for private lessons while he continued his studies to try to catch up to the other teen, and there were times when it felt as if he was only hearing part of a conversation. Maybe it was because the wizard and Omi had known each other for so many years that there were topics they didn’t feel were needed to be mentioned anymore, or maybe there really was something that was being kept from him.

It didn’t help with the way Nagi seemed to be keeping an eye on him, as if the younger boy didn’t trust him at all. Ah well, all he could do was continue learning magic, be himself and hope that whatever it was that they were hiding, it wasn’t anything bad. His great-aunt trusted Botan so the wizard couldn’t be involved in anything too nasty, right? And he *was* the Royal Wizard. So whatever it was, it would work out in the end. Maybe Omi was some lord’s bastard son or they were working on a secret project for the king. What else could they get up to here in the palace, right? He’d probably be disappointed with the truth when he finally found it out, he was making too much out of it with his imagination.

*******

Yohji entered the kitchen and smiled when he saw Cassandra seated at one of the tables, a pretty yellow and white shawl embroidered with magnolia blossoms wrapped around her shoulders to ward off the faint winter chill. Jo was busy pouring some tea for her to enjoy, and he noticed that a spare mug of coffee was already set out on the table. "Hmm, am I so predictable," he called out as he approached his dear friend.

"Well, you haven’t raided the kitchen in a couple of hours so I thought it was long overdue," Jo complained as she set the teapot aside, a knowing grin on her face when she motioned to the platter of cinnamon rolls, sweet breads and scones that were set out to be enjoyed.

"I think it’s more of a case that I wanted to see some gorgeous women," was his instant retort as he bent down to give Cassandra a kiss on the cheek. "Speaking of which, it’s been a few days since you’ve stopped by. How have you been?" When Aya had mentioned that he’d felt her cross the wards that he’d set up around the Koneko, Yohji had thought it best to leave his mate to his research project up in the attic to see what the precog wanted; if it was just a friendly visit, he was fine with that, but if she had any visions that she wanted to tell them about, then he wanted to know right away.

Cassandra laughed with delight and reached up to caress his jaw. "Such a gentleman, as always." She glanced at the kitchen door. "Where’s Aya?"

"He’s upstairs playing with his books." He meant to make the statement come out as a complaint – a familiar one at that – but some of his concern must have leaked through. There was also the fact that Jo and Cassandra had known him since he was very young, and that Cassandra could sense emotions. The two women shared a look between them and then Jo sat down at the table while motioning for Yohji to do the same. He took the spot in front of the spare mug and reached for a cinnamon roll.

Across the room, Maddox was busy preparing things for lunch and dinner, while Ani helped with the prep work and Bethwynn washed up the dishes from breakfast. The familiar sounds of water splashing, knives chopping and fire crackling were soothing, as were the concern, love and affection he felt from almost everyone in the room. Even Bethwynn had grown to have some care for him and everyone else during her stay at the inn, though she was still nervous around Aya. Yohji soaked in the emotions and the comfort of the home he had grown up in and tried his best to let it wash away his worries.

"Is he… retreating again?" Cassandra asked after a careful sip of her tea, her tone quiet and hesitant as if afraid of voicing those words.

He shook his head as he began to tear the roll apart. "No, not quite." It was a little difficult to explain. "There’s no distance between us at least, it’s just… I have to work harder to get him to come downstairs or to deal with…." He paused as he glanced over his shoulder, at the main room. "The only humans he wants to be around most days are staff or Shadow Guards."

Forcing himself to eat a piece of the pastry and to drink some coffee, he grimaced a little as he better explained the situation. "I guess it started after the whole Garcia mess. We spent so much time helping Botan and Birman to interrogate everyone involved and then execute them." Over by the sink, Bethwynn dropped a dish, water splashing as it sunk into the sink and her emotions spiking with surprise and a little fear, the same as always when Aya’s kage nature was referred to like that. Cassandra reached out to pat Yohji’s left hand, a silent reminder that the girl could be trusted to keep Aya’s secret and to urge him on.

He frowned a little in Bethwynn’s direction, then shook his head and had another sip of coffee before continuing. "Anyway, then there was helping Birman and Crawford identify the bounds that Esset sent, thanks to Lord Satori, along with the couple of times that Yuushi asked for a little assistance. It’s been pretty busy lately." And each time they were called upon for that help, Aya seemed to grow a bit more cut off from the world to everyone but his closest friends. That people were still a little standoffish around him after the whole Garcia affair wasn’t helping matters, either.

Cassandra took to frowning as well as she stared into her cup of tea. "I worry about Aya. His kind… because of what they are, they hide their true selves. When they reveal the full extent of their talent, it’s usually to protect their loved ones." There was no need for her elaborate upon *that* any further, or to explain why she felt so worried just then; in almost all cases, when a kage was protecting a loved one, it was because said loved one was being used against them as a means to force the kage to obey or do something against their wishes, and the end result was almost always mass destruction and death. In most cases, the kage committed suicide as well, preferring to die rather than allow the people they loved to be placed in any more danger because of them. The survivors didn’t seem to care about that fact, just that their homes/village/city had been destroyed and most of the people they knew killed in the process and so blamed the kage, rather than the power-hungry idiots who had provoked the poor bounds.

Well, Yohji *did* care, not just because he was Aya’s loved one but for the fact that he absolutely refused to allow anyone to attempt to control Aya like that. "We all know what his weakness is," he spat, angry not at his friend but over how something as precious as love could be used as a weapon. "Tell me something I *don’t* know, dammit." He sighed with regret when he saw Cassandra flinch at the furiously spoken words and reached out to touch the back of her hand in apology. For once, Jo let the ill-temper on his part slide.

He was forgiven with a tremulous smile and a quick squeeze of fingers before he pulled his hand back. "I did mean to say more than that," Cassandra commented with that uncertain smile. "The kage of the past, for the most part, used their talent so rarely. Yet Aya… so young he is, yet he calls upon it all the time."

This was the first that Yohji had ever heard of anything negative toward Aya using his talent. He exchanged a worried look with Jo, who even if she wasn’t a bound, had spent the last couple of decades around plenty of them. "But, isn’t that all right? I use my talent all of the time, and so do most bounds. It’s how we learn to use it and get better with it." Hell, he had practically been ordered to get his nature under control, and he had only been able to do that by learning the full extent of his powers and through practicing them.

"I would think that someone by now would have told the young man to not use it if there would be a problem," Jo remarked as she held her coffee mug between her hands, her brown eyes bright with anger. Oh no, she wouldn’t be happy at the thought of Aya endangering himself or others through any withheld information.

Cassandra shook her head. "It’s just a thought. So little we know about his kind. Aya has most of the books on kage that we’re aware of, but not all. And I know of none raised like him, as a weapon from childhood." Her expression turned sorrowful as she lowered her head, her dark hair falling onto her face. "Even Aidan was kept mostly for her blood and the threat she possessed, her powers used only sparingly. Aya has used his talent since it became active, in some way almost every day even if only a small amount."

Yohji thought he understood where she was going with this. "Especially in the last couple of months," he finished with a feeling of dread. On most days, Aya used his talent to create and maintain shadow wards, to maybe cast a couple of shadows to hide objects or himself for brief periods of time and on few occasions, to use the shadows as a shield or to obtain something. It was on missions that he put his power to more intensive use, to use it for armor and weapons, to cast bigger wards and hide more objects, to kill people and various other means. "You think the more he uses his talent, the more distant he becomes?"

"Perhaps not distant, but we are all demon and human." Cassandra looked up to stare directly at Yohji. "Except for him."

Aya didn’t possess a human soul to balance his shinigami one, that was what made the kage so powerful and so unstable. "So what, have him stop using his talent or else he’ll become like those damn shinigami? How the hell do we do that with a war approaching?" Yohji did his best not to yell at his dear friend, but he was struggling to rein in his temper when faced with such a difficult situation. As it was, Aya sensed his turbulent emotions and was growing worried. He sent a wave of reassurance and did his best to calm down.

Jo reached over to tuck back a lock of his hair, the touch soothing and familiar. He sighed and reminded himself that Cassandra was trying to help. "Seriously, Cass, what do I do?"

She looked as if she was about to cry, something that her emotions echoed. "I just wanted to tell you what I thought might be the reason for his recent behavior." She sniffled a little before continuing. "I’m afraid that I don’t have an answer for you, but there *must* be a reason why the gods decided to have him be mated to you. He might not have a human soul, but you do, even if just a little. Don’t let him lose the emotions that he’s gained by loving his family and you while you can still feel them yourself and share them with him."

"I won’t." He forced himself to smile in gratitude; at least he had some idea now for his lover’s recent behavior and couldn’t blame it all on the shinigami as he had been. "He’s pretty damn stubborn, but I think we’re evenly matched on that front."

There was a snort of amusement from Jo and a true smile from Cassandra over that declaration. "For once I won’t argue with you," Jo said as she got up from the table to fetch the bottle of whiskey that she kept and the pot of coffee. "At least he’s not shutting everyone out," she offered as she returned to refill their mugs with the fragrant beverage, and topped them off with the whiskey.

"No, which is an improvement over the past." Then he thought about it some as he had more coffee, the whiskey a sweet burn down his throat. "Eh, I wouldn’t mind so much if he lost some of his friendliness towards Reno, considering the amount of trouble those two get into." He winced as he recalled how things still weren’t the same at Kisei’s temple. "Seriously, things are only going to get busier as the war gets nearer, and then…." If Aya was like this now, what would happen during the war? Part of the reason that Aya was pushing so hard with his talent was because of how much he would need to use it during the fighting then.

"Perhaps he’ll reach a point where it’ll balance out," Cassandra offered as Jo poured her more tea. She sounded hopeful, and not for the first time Yohji wished she could see the future when Aya was concerned.

"Yeah, perhaps." Usually Aya was okay once he got away from too many people or had spent some time mostly alone; he would retreat to their room, one of the libraries or even the garden if it wasn’t too sunny outside. After a short while he seemed to be all right, and he always welcomed Yohji’s presence during those ‘spells’. "So, don’t tell me that you’re here just to check up on us, Gorgeous," he said after a quiet minute or two spent drinking, willing to change the subject to something a little less depressing.

Judging from the slight blush on Cassandra’s cheeks, he had the feeling that either Schuldig or Omi was to thanks for her visit today and wondered if his friends were being too nosy or over-concerned. Surely Aya’s behavior hadn’t attracted that much attention… and then again, this was the Koneko, he reminded himself as he picked up a piece of the cinnamon roll, where everyone butted into everyone else’s business out of love and affection even if it was annoying as hell.

Jo gave him a light whap to the back of the head while Cassandra continued to blush and resumed staring into her tea. "With such a lack of brains, is it any wonder everyone worries about you?"

"I don’t see you smacking Aya like this!" Yohji complained as he rubbed his aching head while glaring at the damn harpy. "And if I’m lacking brains, it’s because the poor things were beaten into dust years ago!" Across the kitchen, he caught the sound of stifled laughter, either from Maddox or Ani, the traitors.

"Hmph, you have to have ‘em in the first place," was Jo’s succinct reply as she rose from the table. "Speaking of Aya, he could probably use something to snack on as well."

Yohji would say something about blatant favoritism, but he could pick up a faint sense of hunger and thirst over his link with his mate, along with curiosity. "Yeah, you’re right as always, damn it." Over by the prep table, Jo smirked with righteous delight as she assembled a tray for her precious darling.

Cassandra reached over to give Yohji’s hand another comforting squeeze. "I did hope to see you, but thought it would be a good day for some tea and company, and a nice meal wouldn’t be amiss as well." Her good humor seemed restored when he smiled at her. "Go see your lover, and maybe bring him down later to join us? Haru will be coming later once she finishes the errands I gave her, and the company of such handsome men would make the meal all the more enjoyable."

"You got yourself a date." He brought her hand to his lips for a brief kiss before going to see what Jo had put together for Aya. "Reiichi should be back by then, to fill us in on the palace gossip." Even with the Shadow Guard and Omi and Nagi spending some of their time at the palace, the wily bastard managed to find out all of the good tidbits that no one else knew besides Birman or Trowa. There were times when Yohji wished that he could read thoughts, just to figure out what went on in the man’s head and to make sure he really was human.

He was shooed away while Cassandra giggled in delight. Detouring to go tug on Ani’s pink hair ribbon, which earned him a soft whap to his ribs and a smile as he handed it back to her, he made a show of groaning as he looked at the tray. "Is he supposed to be able to eat dinner?"

"Oh, hush," Jo ordered as she motioned for him to pick up the almost over-filled tray. "As if you won’t be snacking on some of this *or* him."

Smiling at the truth of that statement, he laughed as he hefted the tray, mindful of the full pot of tea and the various plates of desserts and savory pasties. "Guilty as charged." He waggled his eyebrows and just managed to dodge the swipe at his head without spilling anything. "See you later!" he called out to Cassandra while heading for the staff stairwell.

He passed Marta and Neely on the way upstairs, who were very excited to hear that their friend was paying the inn a visit and hurried to drop off their armfuls of clean towels. As he climbed the rest of the stairs, he used his talent to sense what he could of the inn and its patrons, content with the sense of peace and happiness that pervaded most of the establishment. There were a few negative and unsettled ‘spots’, but if there was one thing he’d learned long ago, even before joining the Guard, it was that not everyone could be happy all of the time. Just so long as he didn’t sense anything violent, things should be fine. Then he let his talent focus on the one person it was really meant for, the one set of emotions that were all that mattered now that he had found his mate.

Aya must be reading, his emotions a mix of curiosity, concentration, hope and frustration. The hunger and thirst from earlier was still there as well, a little stronger now but not enough to force him to leave the library. If there was one thing that Yohji had learned over their time together, it was that those emotions had to be very strong before Aya would give in to them without an urging from an outside source if he was suitably distracted, most likely a holdover from his years as the Takatori’s prisoner. He reflected on how thin Aya and Nagi had been when they’d first arrived at the Koneko and growled at the thought of how mistreated they’d been.

Reaching the attic level, Yohji forced himself to be quiet as Ken was still sleeping since he’d been switched to a night shift and crossed the floor to the library. He had a little trouble balancing the tray while opening the door, and was thankful when it drifted open with a slight touch to the doorknob. Sometimes those damn shadows could be a bit too clever, but they were handy on occasions.

Aya looked up from the book he was reading as Yohji entered the room, his eartails trailing onto the table and a slight frown on his face that faded away when Yohji smiled in welcome. "Heya, Cat. Hungry?"

"Hmm." Aya leaned back in his chair and ran his right hand through his hair, tousling his too long bangs. "Is all of that really for me?"

"Well, I get the feeling that if I eat the cake Jo put on here that I’ll be sleeping with Teddy and Koyu, but I should be allowed a couple of pasties, right?" He said the last few words with a hopeful whine to his voice.

"Idiot," was Aya’s all too familiar response, but there was a hint of a smile on his lips and affectionate warmth in his deep voice. Even better was the love and appreciation that flowed over their link. "Let me move some of these books." He was careful to bookmark the page he had been reading and closed the book, then set it and several others aside. Yohji’s eyes narrowed as shadows assisted his lover, and he noticed the writhing darkness in a far off corner of the room, along with a faint hiss or two.

Lately, he almost always found the shinigami around Aya whenever his lover was alone, and he knew from talking to Rufus that the same could be said of Reno as well. They were both disturbed by that fact, all too aware of how little the shinigami thought of them and their roles in Aya and Reno’s lives. That was why he had suspected them to be behind Aya’s change of behavior, and now had to wonder if it was in relation to how much Aya used his talent instead. Did the more he fed off of death mean the more they wanted to be around him? How did that relate to Reno, then?

Yohji shook his head as he set the heavy tray down, determined to not think about the shadowy, hissing nuisances right now. If he brought them up to his mate, there was a chance they would argue about the things, which was *not* want he wanted. "Cassandra asked us to join her for dinner later. I think she’s hoping to spend some time here chatting," he said as he poured Aya some tea. "Botan’s probably been too busy with training Omi and Takashi to visit lately."

"He has to do some of the training at the palace now," Aya pointed out as he picked up a pasty and nibbled on one of its corners. "They can’t always come to the Koneko." Noting the way that Yohji stared at his mouth as he ate, he lowered the pasty. "Was that the only reason she came?"

Buying a moment to settle his thoughts in order by sliding first Aya’s tea and then the huge slice of cake in front of his mate, which diverted Aya’s attention for a few seconds, Yohji shrugged as he snagged a couple of the pasties for himself. "Well, she did want to check up on us. We haven’t been stopping by to see her lately." Because the few times that Aya had felt like leaving the Koneko, it was either to see Reno, to get books or to run over the city’s rooftops.

At least his lover had the grace to feel a little guilty over that, his eyes downcast as he ate his snack. Once his hands were clean, Aya sighed and picked up the teacup. "It’s… difficult, to sit in her house that smells and feels so strongly of humans and talk about the war," he admitted in a quiet voice.

The answer surprised Yohji. He hadn’t thought about how Cassandra dealt with humans all day long as a seamstress. "But we have humans here all the time, too."

"Yes, but not everywhere, and not ones…." Aya closed his eyes and shook his head. "I don’t mind some of them. At least they’re mostly young and safe." He started, toward the corner where the shinigami were as if he heard something. "Sometimes *they* go on about how the humans are going to die so soon, about how to tell who to feed from." There was a sense of uneasiness and even a little fear over their link. "Some days… I worry that I’ll be able to look around me and see that. There were things I saw right after the wedding that I think I’m catching glimpse of now."

"Aya." Yohji got up so he could go around the table and wrap his arms around his mate. "Love… you’re-" What? Not a shinigami? He couldn’t say that, couldn’t lie like that when Aya would know it for a falsehood in an instant. "Did any of the others see stuff like that?" he asked, afraid of the answer.

"Not that I know of." Aya laughed just then, the sound bitter as he hugged Yotan close. "But then, that’s not exactly a lot, is it?"

Yohji sat on the edge of the table with Aya held against him, tucked between his legs. "Someone’s got to know." They had two powerful precogs, wizards and supposedly some of the greatest minds of at least three nations on their side, dammit someone *better* know. He leaned down to press a kiss against Aya’s right temple. "So is that why you’ve been spending most of your time up here?"

Aya leaned against him, his eyes closed as he rested his head against Yohji’s chest. "Hmm, part of it. Just… feels more comfortable up here, and it’s quiet. Plus there’s helping Ed and Reiichi with finding out all we can about the Elders and their past strategies." He began to purr ever so softly as Yohji rubbed the nape of his neck.

Yohji glanced at the notes scattered about the table, able to read Aya and Reiichi’s handwriting but not Ed’s. "Looks like you found a little more today." He didn’t want to cheapen or casually dismiss Aya’s fears, but if there wasn’t anything he could do about it right now, then he refused to let them continue to build and become another wall that kept Aya from the rest of the world. Instead, he would do what he could to distract his lover and keep things normal for as long as he could.

"Goh Haur’s theories on battle practices during the Binding War are very valid. Either he was very familiar with bounds or managed to come across some eye witness accounts." Aya opened his eyes to look up at Yohji, his emotions calmer now as he focused on the history texts. "I was able to cross reference one of the battles he mentioned with a chapter in Deninghaus’ ‘History of Bound Warfare’."

"Okay, if you’re going to start throwing a bunch of names and titles at me, I’m gonna eat something to keep myself awake." He grinned at the adorable way his mate growled just then and leaned in for a kiss. "And speaking of eating, there’s a slice of cake with your name on it."

He got a nipped lip for his concern, but Aya let him go back to the other side of the table and finished his cup of tea before describing various gruesome ways for elemental bounds to kill Army soldiers – all the while licking icing from a fork and his lips. Yohji squirmed in his seat while doing his best to ignore a different sort of hunger growing inside of him, one that could perfectly wait to be sated until they got to their bedroom later, dammit. Oh, hell, if his mate was tormenting him like that, deliberate or not, then he had to be feeling better, and Yohji knew that he’d be killed by Aya, Reiichi and Ed if he grabbed Aya and threw him onto the table for sex, messing up all those notes and books. Maybe if he managed to entice his cat over to the padded chair?

As if picking up on that thought, Aya frowned and tapped his right forefinger on one of the notebooks. "You can help out by looking for the rest of Reiichi’s notes on Deninghaus." His tone made it absolutely clear that there would be no ‘feeding’ until the research was finished.

Yohji sighed as he did as he was told. As he carefully sorted through the stacks of paper on the table, he swore he heard some hissing sniggers from over in the shadowed corner.

*******

Crawford stared up at the night’s sky, the coldness of the air making the darkness seem all that much deeper, the sparkle of the stars and the bluish grey of the moons gleam all that much more crisper. At least there wasn’t any snow this evening, a brief respite in a season that had so far been plagued by the flakes falling almost every day. There might not have been as bad a blizzard this winter as last year, but the accumulated snowfall was just as bad, a sure sign that the Elders’ efforts to undo the damage they had inflicted upon the weather fronts couldn’t be managed so easily.

Shin, Rei and Gou were still regaining their strength and were doing their best to spread out the damage in as wide an area as possible and as subtle a manner as they could, both to minimize the effects to Kritiker and to throw some confusion on where they were currently hiding. They were still in reserve, for the most part, something that Crawford had to remind himself about each time he felt snow creep into his knee high leather boots and a chill of frigid air sneak beneath the collar of his wool cloak.

"Foolish man, to insist we meet outside."

For a moment, Cassandra’s voice echoed his thoughts closely enough that he thought he imagined it, and then he heard the crunch of her boots on the snow as she stepped closer. "Well, I suppose we could go inside and be warm, but then we’d have to put up with a thousand questions," he shot back.

She frowned as she approached the small shrine in the Koneko’s garden, bundled up in a dark blue cloak festooned with golden ribbons. Her dark curls were wrapped with a gold scarf against the chill, matching gloves on her hands as she reached out to light a few sticks of incense. He allowed her a minute of silence to pray, most likely to the former owner of the inn.

When she stepped back, Crawford approached the altar as well, not to pray but for the comfort that the shelter provided from the wind. "Did you have a nice meal?"

"Yes. I’m sure Jo will be pleased to feed even you, so let’s make this short. Even if Jei is walking her home, I don’t want to leave Haru alone for too long." Cassandra frowned as she tucked her hands beneath her cloak. "Only *you* would plot war outside in the middle of winter."

He heaved a sigh and felt a headache come on. "I *told* you, if we go inside, where it is undoubtedly much warmer, we’ll never be left in peace. And as things get closer to the war, I find myself unwilling to discuss certain matters without adequate protection." They had argued about this before, and the foolish woman had agreed. It was much safer to speak openly about their visions and plans here, on hallowed ground – even if they still couldn’t figure out *who* the ground was hallowed to – that was warded by some of the most powerful bounds alive, was warded by a *kage*. There was also the fact that Aya’s presence mere yards away would ensure that if by some chance the Elders were hiding another precog or a soul gaki bound talented enough to spy on others from them, no one would be able to see anything because of the kage. So they would meet here anytime they had anything important to discuss, sneaking around if they must, even in the frigid cold. That said, he could *not* wait until spring.

Cassandra made a sniffling sound. "Next time, I insist on including Duo and Trowa in on our conversation. It does no good if the main conspirators die of frost bite before the war!" she complained with the stamping of her right foot. When he didn’t take her to task for her grumbling, she smiled a little and nodded. "All right, let us finish this before we turn to ice."

He allowed her the small victory, certain that if they did include the elemental bounds that he could trust Trowa to keep Duo in check during their conversation while Duo kept everyone warm. Also, Trowa could probably provide some necessary information in Birman’s stead, so it made sense. "All futures indicate that there will be quite the party come this summer."

"Hmph, it was almost certain before now, but right you are." Cassandra shivered a little and hugged her cloak tighter. "Observing the spies, are you?" she asked as she turned to watch the tendrils of smoke twist their way into the air.

Crawford smiled as he did the same. "It reminds me of spider webs, in a way." He reached out with his right hand and flicked his fingers through the air, which sent the tendrils curling and bending in response. "No official announcement as of yet, but Esset, Xan and Thracia’s futures have already begun to shift."

She sniffled again. "Cretia always preferred isolation to politics." There was a hint of defense in her voice and a stiffness to her posture, even though she had spent precious little time in her mother’s native country thanks to the Elders.

"They could better enjoy that isolation if they improved their spy networks." One didn’t go about defending themselves by putting their head in the sand, but Crawford wasn’t going to argue that point with the woman here and now. "Birman will be busy following those traces, most of which she already suspects, and some of them will converge at the palace for the Princess’ birthday celebration." He stared at the tendrils, watched them slid through his fingers when he held his hand above the incense sticks.

"And again, for the war." Cassandra’s voice held the same distant quality that his had held a moment before. "A dance, it is. Weaving in and out, touch once and part, twirl around and touch again." She raised a hand to the woven scarf around her neck. "What they don’t see, being so human and blind, is that each touch, each dance, leaves a trace. Everything is connected, if one has the right eyes." Hers right then were wide and glowing, a spark of red in the black pupils.

He was certain that if someone looked at his eyes during a vision, that was what they would see, not the normal blue of his irises just as the grey of Cassandra’s seemed to fade away beneath the absolute black and burning red of her demon nature rushing to the fore. For all their human flesh, it took so little of the demon to overwhelm it, to make it seem insignificant.

"No, it’s all tying together now, and those threads are tightening with each season, each passing day," Cassandra continued. She was more the poet than he was, more willing to try to express what she saw in artistic terms whereas all he was concerned about was doing whatever was necessary to bring about the future that they all wanted. She could focus on the pretty imageries while he spoke the misdirections, half-truths and cloaked promises that the future required. In the end, they were often the only ones who understood each other because the future was rarely as simple and clear as everyone wished it to be, with so many alternatives still possible despite their best efforts. At least, that was the way it was most times, but now it seemed as if fate was pushing all those possibilities, all those threads, to one tangled knot.

"I really wish the gods would stay out of this, it’s going to be enough of a mess as it is," he complained as he tucked his hands beneath his black cloak.

The red glow faded from Cassandra’s eyes. "We can only hope they mean to finish what was started with the last war," she said with a tired sigh. "Too many threads left untied from that one to plague us all these years later."

"Such as the Elders." Well, he was doing his best to ensure that they didn’t live until the end of the war. Any cooperation the gods wanted to give on their part to see that it happened would be appreciated, but he wasn’t going to sit back and trust in it.

"Yes, among others." Cassandra looked away from the incense sticks to reach out to the one of the wooden plaques standing behind the bar of sand; the one painted with the emblem of a sword entwined with an orchid.

There was an unmistakable symbolism of sending a kage to finish what the Captain had started. He knew that he wasn’t the first one to think of that, and wouldn’t be the last. He just hoped that Aya’s loved ones fared better than the Captain’s did; his family had already paid a very high price.

"That’s still in the future, right now we have to focus on what’s more immediate. If the king is going on with the celebration, then Birman should be putting into motion some of her plans. Will your friend be able to reach the capital soon despite the bad weather?" He refused to allow almost two dozen inches of snow from keeping future generations of Kritiker rulers being raised in part by bounds.

Cassandra sniffed as if offended by the question, the hint of red on her cheeks having little to do from the cold air. "Would you doubt so much if you asked that question of your brother?" she snapped.

"Yes, probably even more so," replied with a weariness that had nothing to do with a very long day and the fact that he had several hours to go before being able to rest.

"Hmph." His answer seemed to mollify her the slightest amount. "Just be sure to have your candidate ready as well."

He smiled as he spoke. "She’s already here." Cassandra’s good mood worsened at the news and she grumbled under her breath something about him being too controlling to be bearable, which he decided to let pass because of how cold it was. After all, he wanted to be inside where it was warm *sometime* tonight and that would never happen if they started arguing. "Have your friends in the Umeko Mountains be prepared, I had a vision that there will be a steady stream of bounds requesting sanctuary arriving come spring. Many on the border will be seeking safe quarter, from both sides."

She halted her insults and nodded, her gaze growing distant for a few seconds. "Yes, that echoes some visions that I’ve had myself. I shall warn them." Then she shivered, her tiny body shuddering beneath her thick cloak. "Is there anything else?" The plaintive note in her voice made her sound like a child.

There was always something else to discuss when a war loomed in the not too far off future, but it could wait for a warmer night. "That’s the most important topics for now." The Elders, whatever their intentions, had earned their deaths a thousand times over, but for right now Crawford would gladly see them dead for what they had done to the weather. "Go home to your wizard and foster child, while I see about some of Jo’s mulled wine." If Yohji had absconded with all of it already for the night, then he would have to rethink just how important the succubae bound was to the future.

Cassandra laughed as if she had just read his thought. "I’m sure you’ll find a nice mugful waiting for you, as Jo was brewing a whole new pot as I was leaving." She shivered again as she shook her head. "It is a good night for it. Perhaps I’ll make some of my own once I’m home." She nodded by way of goodbye as she left, a slight curse escaping her as she stepped away from the shelter of the small shrine. Crawford made sure to pull his cloak tightly around him as he did the same, and wished for one of the charms that Omi had made for the Shadow Guard to help keep them warm during missions. They weren’t as effective as fire elemental wards, but they could at least keep the worst of the chill away during nights like these. He would have to talk to the young wizard sometime soon and see what could be arranged.

The war was indeed getting closer, though it was probably only to a bound’s sense of time that one could consider it ‘soon’. Still, its proximity meant that there would be more conversations like tonight’s, held in the dark and the cold, with little concern for the surroundings other than that they were secure. He would definitely need some charms from Omi in the near future, and if they could be enhanced by Aya, so much the better. Now *that* would be an interesting discussion, Crawford thought to himself as he opened the door that led to the Koneko’s kitchen, the warmth inside a welcome relief after so much coldness.

******* 

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