Tangled Threads

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chapter two

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of plans and strays

*******

Birman sighed when she caught sight of Shen headed toward her, a determined spring to his step and a demented – to her mind at least – grin on his face when he looked her way. Sweet gods, what *had* she been in a past life? A mass murderer? A major blasphemer? Both at the same time, perhaps? Had she gone on a homicidal rampage in a temple or something? Either that or she was going to be reborn as a head priest or ruler in her next, which she hoped was still quite a few years off. Although, after a couple of hours spent in Shen’s ‘cheerful’ presence, she was willing to speed things up. She still was trying to decide if he was secretly working for Esset or not….

"Birman! Much joy this day to you!" Shen cried out as he reached out for her right arm. She cringed as she avoided his grasp.

"And a good day to you, Ambassador."

"Please, no such formalities between friends," he said with a wave of his right hand as he managed to latch on to her arm after all and fell in step beside her. "It’s such a lovely day."

The man was insane. Outside, the weather was brutally cold and snowing once again, and he thought it was *lovely*? Then again, Xan was north of most of Kritiker and should be used to cold winters. "I’ll be much happier when spring decides to return," she told him with a slight shiver.

"Eh?" He tilted his head to look at her, surprise on his broad face for a moment before he smiled once more. "But each of the seasons are to be enjoyed! That is the Xanian belief, and we strive to embrace nature in all of her moods. Even if she is very cold and unforgiving during winter." He shivered as well for a moment. "But there is some beauty to be found in all the snow and ice."

"Yes, that is true." Birman just wished there was a little less of each this current winter, and knew that if it weren’t for some bounds, the city would be buried beneath both. Then again, some would argue that if it weren’t for certain bounds, especially three who were hiding up in the near mountains, the city wouldn’t be plagued by such foul weather the past two years.

Shen beamed at her agreement and patted her arm, which made her grit her teeth and resist removing his hand by force. "Your assistant agrees as well." He made a show of looking around him. "But I haven’t seen him lately, which saddens me. He has such insight for a young man, and wonderful manners. Where are you hiding him?"

"Him?" Surely the insane man couldn’t be talking about Trowa.

"Your assistant, Trowa." Shen made a quick motion with his right hand. "Long hair, tall, quiet." He flashed her a wide smile that made his eyes disappear into two thin lines. "At least, he looks that way *most* of the time."

He could indeed only be talking about the water elemental. She felt a headache coming on that usually happened when Shen was nearby. "Why do you want to know where Trowa is, Ambassador?"

"Shen," he reminded her with a slight pout as they continued their way down the crowded hallway, toward what destination she had no clue and earning quite a few interested stares with him dressed in Xanian finery and her as a low ranked official. "I just told you. Don’t you listen to me?"

Much to her regret, she wanted to say. Did the man have a crush on Trowa? If that was the case, then she all she had to do was let a certain Shadow Guard know and the bane of her existence would be gone from her life in a cloud of smoke and ash. Surely he wasn’t *that* important to the future, was he? She had thought that Shen had shown some interest in Mariela, but then again, who didn’t? Maybe she had misjudged his taste…. "You like his manners that much?" She kept her tone as flat as possible as she asked the question.

Shen made a tsk’ing sound with his tongue for a few seconds. "Manners are always important," he said with so much reproach that it was clear there was a jab in there aimed at her. "But it’s obvious that he’s learned them from someone from Xan, which *does* interest me, and he’s also very intelligent." For a moment, something like exhaustion and sadness crossed Shen’s face. "It’s not often that I find someone so… open-minded and polite to talk to here."

If there were two words that could sum up her assistant, those would be it. Trowa might not be very outgoing or trusting of those he didn’t know, but he made few presumptions about people and he was always unfailingly polite. That the politeness was a way to keep people at a distance was something that not many suspected, but it would be respected by those at Court.

She was willing to bet that Shen was drawn as much by Trowa’s water elemental bound nature as the chance to talk to someone who didn’t seem to treat him as an outsider – something that a bound would more than understand. Shen was awarded respect at Court as a dignitary from Xan, but he wasn’t a Kritiker highborn and the same ‘close-mindedness’ that had led to Aya’s father all but renouncing his status over his marriage was what kept Shen from being welcomed here. The Court didn’t care for people it didn’t know intimately well, could flaunt their secrets and family’s shame for all to see.

The Court didn’t care for people it had little chance of controlling, and Shen was definitely a wild card, one sent here with his own agenda and someone else pulling his strings. Most highborns would only care about how they could use him to their advantage and, failing that, ignore him. Birman and Trowa weren’t foolish enough to think that they could control him or unduly influence his thoughts – well, not without using a powerful soul gaki bound – but they could match him at his game and earn his respect. When dealing with a fellow spy, that was the best course to take.

"Unlike *some* people, he has work to do," she said, smiling as she aimed a jab of her own at the pest walking beside her. To his credit he smiled and laughed as it struck home and even bowed a little. "I’m afraid you’ll have to make do with me for the time being."

Shen grimaced as if he was faced with a terrible ordeal. "I suppose…," he drawled, as if there was no other choice. "At least your manners are *almost* up to par with his."

"They can suffer a sudden lack," she answered in a waspish tone as she attempted to brush his hand aside. "After all, I have something better to do than amuse a foreign ingrate."

"But you amuse me so *well*!" Shen exclaimed as he held on to her arm with damnable strength.

"Are you *certain* that you haven’t been sent here to practice torture techniques?" she asked under her breath as they continued down the palace’s hallways, which seemed to stretch on for much too long. At this point, she decided to head toward Botan’s office on the faint hope that maybe her friend could come up with a spell to knock out the Xanian bastard for a few hours.

All that she got for her troubles was an amused laugh. "I’ll admit to being sent here to test your meddle, my lady." Shen bowed again, this time leaning forward deeper than before and with a respectful look on his face, the sleeve of his dark blue tunic actually brushing the ground before he straightened back up. "And I’ve yet to find it lacking, which only makes me try that much harder." For a moment, his smile slipped from his face. "I doubt that I’d be having such an enjoyable time testing one’s defenses if I’d been… sent elsewhere."

This time, her frown was genuine as she glanced aside. "No, I don’t think you’d get away with half as much mischief as you do here in *that* place." From what Trowa, Jei and Crawford had told her of Esset and Berin, Shen would probably have been sent back to Xan as ash by now. "Not that I think that’s a *bad* thing," she added as she thought of how much of an annoyance he had been the last few months, with the way he did his best to poke his nose into everything and refused to return home.

He glanced up at her with his brown eyes as wide as she had ever seen them, a surprisingly good show of hurt on his face. "You act as if you’d be glad to see me gone. Here I thought we had become such good friends." He even had the audacity to sniff as if attempting to hold back tears.

"I must admit that the words ‘bane of my existence’ come to mind when I think of you," she told the man as she grabbed hold of his left pinky finger and pried it – along with the rest of his hand - from her arm. The way he winced in pain filled her with joy.

"Ah, then my supervisor will be very glad to hear that my skills are improving." Shen smiled through the pain as she forced away his hold, since they had reached their destination.

"Perhaps it’s about time for you to return home and give him a report on your skills in person," she said, hinting as strongly as she could while standing in front of the door of Botan’s office. "I’m sure he’d be very happy to learn of your progress."

Shen seemed to consider the suggestion for a moment, his head tilted to the side and the forefinger of his right hand pressed to his chin. "Perhaps. But there’s *so* much going on here right now, with the baby princess growing bigger every day and her mother spending so much time negotiating with adults than being with her. And there’s you, always so busy, and the Guard, keeping things safe and whole."

"I promise to send you very, *very* detailed letters so you wouldn’t miss out on a thing." She would even write the damn things if it got the pest out of her Court.

For a moment she thought her words had some effect, as his eyes went wide with shock and he seemed at a loss for words for once. Then he laughed as he gave her a respectful bow, his arms folded over his stomach as he bent in half. "Oh, perhaps I am overdoing it just a *little* if you’re so eager for me to go, and I think my supervisor would have much to say about your restraint so far, Spymaster." Despite the show of respect directed her way, Birman’s teeth grinded together at her title being spoken so openly. "But I fear there’s too much about to happen here for me to leave just yet," Shen admitted as he straightened up, a pleased smile on his face.

The worst part of the whole thing was that the annoying man spoke the truth, and with Princess Ouka’s birthday celebration a few months away, he could easily find several reasons to remain in the city until then, if not longer. "I warn you now, you’re coming perilously close to being sent back to Xan along with the next batch of diplomatic messages." She bared her teeth in a manner that she had picked up from working with bounds the past year. "*Among* the diplomatic messages."

He appeared a bit taken back for a moment and then recovered, his smile not as certain as it had been a few minutes before. "I shall ensure that I am up to the challenge!" He laughed nervously and bowed again, this time the motion shallower. "If you’ll excuse me, I believe I have a few other people I need to see today."

"By all means, spread your particular type of joy among them for a while," she bade him as she waved him off. Shen frowned a little as he turned to leave, but did so without any parting remark.

Sweet gods, if the man was this bad *before* she introduced him to Crawford…. Birman shook her head as she spun around to knock on Botan’s door. She still had to arrange for that ‘tea’ between the two men, whenever Crawford felt it best for them to meet. Sooner or later it would happen, and she still was uncertain if it was a good thing or not. She’d just make sure to have lots of whiskey on hand for herself to get through the ordeal.

*******

Masami pulled the hood of her cloak farther over her face as she hurried down the crowded street. The Guard at the Eastern Gate had given her such an odd look as she had stuttered out her name, a lie that she had rehearsed the entire trip toward the capital. Had he known? How could he know? Surely her nervousness could be that of any person entering the city for the first time, coming from some small village to do a little shopping and bartering. She had done her best to hide her accent and could only hope that she came across as a poor villager hoping to see the city for a day or two. Her hand resting on the small pouch tucked into her jerkin, she thought that the truth wasn’t that far from the lie.

She should have saved more coins before she ran away, but Shun kept such close watch on the expenses and allowed her so little access to any money. Whatever their status in reality, the last couple of years had been difficult as he took the money from her dowry and put it into rebuilding his family’s estate. While the vineyards had recovered, the wine was years away from being able to be sold, and she had yet to produce an heir to be bartered away as she had been. No, Shun was watching over every coin with care and had nothing to spare for her until she proved of value.

She would laugh over her circumstances if it wouldn’t hurt so much, even after several days. A stranger bumped into her, and his apology was lost in a wave of pain as her sore ribs complained bitterly from the jostling. She could barely keep her left hand hovering over the precious coin purse hidden away to ensure that a thief didn’t rob her of it instead of shifting it over to the wrappings that covered the worst of the bruises.

Pure stubbornness kept her moving forward, a need to put as much distance between her and her husband as she could. Shun was certain to follow or send out people to drag her back home, and she hoped to lose herself into the city before he could find her trail. Eto was large, was hopefully big enough that he would never find her here if she was smart enough. All she wanted was a small home and a job, to be safe and earn herself a place to heal. People came here to start a new life all the time, so why couldn’t she?

Unfamiliar with the city and hoping that it would work for her, she wandered the streets until she became thoroughly lost. Her feet ached almost as badly as her ribs and her head, and her stomach reminded her that it had been most of the day since she had last eaten. Soon enough she would have to find a place to sleep for the night, and hope that it wouldn’t cost her too many of her coins. She would also have to hope that it would be safe, although she had no clue how to go about making sure of such a thing. Who did she ask such a question? One of the Guards? Would they look upon her with such suspicion as well?

She found one of the public fountains at a crossroads and stopped there for a drink of water, cold and tired and grateful for a bit of magic that kept the fountain charmed so that water still flowed during such a frigid winter. Leaning forward, she cupped her bare right hand in the cool water and brought it to her mouth, the liquid wetting her dry mouth and throat. She drank until no longer thirsty and the worst of the hunger pangs were gone, then sat down on the outer stone wall to rest her sore feet. Around her were people doing much the same, with various vendors selling warm bread, pasties and skewers of meat.

The food smelled delicious, but she told herself it would be best to wait until she found lodging for the night; her money wouldn’t last forever and most places would include some sort of meal in with the price for a room. There was no sense in wasting money even if she was starving right now. Hunched over as she sat, she did her best to ignore her hunger as she rested, the sensation one more unpleasant ache just then.

A young man walked past as she sat, then seemed to change his mind and sat down at the fountain, next to the older woman who was sitting beside Masami. He ordered several pasties from one of the vendors and began to eat them. After a couple of minutes, the woman rose and walked away, leaving a space between them.

The man ate a pasty and then looked around. "Uhm, excuse me." He repeated the words until Masami looked at him. He offered her a nervous smile, and she was surprised by how young he appeared, barely an adult. His hair was shoulder length and tousled by the day’s windy weather, a light brown shade just a little darker than his almost golden eyes. Altogether, he was a very handsome young man, but there was something about him that came across as more shy than self-confident. That gave her the courage to answer him back; if she felt that he was trying to get her attention to flirt with her then she would have ignored him and walked away.

"Yes?"

He held out two pasties. "I seem to be less hungry than I thought. Would you like them?" When she didn’t say anything, he moved his hand up and down. "I’m supposed to meet up with someone for weapon’s practice, so I can’t exactly take them with me. They’ll get a bit squashed, not to mention they’re never as good cold as they are fresh and warm." He grimaced as he spoke, as if to convey his distaste over stale and smashed pasties.

She hesitated for a moment, until her stomach rumbled at the scent wafting from the pasties. Unable to say that she wasn’t hungry and doubtful that he could have tampered with the food in so short a time, like the stories she had heard of people doing to take advantages of travelers in big cities like Eto, she slowly reached out for them. "Thank you." She forced herself to not snatch the food away and to eat it slowly. The crust was flaky and buttery, the filling full of chicken and vegetables.

The pasties were the first thing she had eaten since some bread that morning, and she felt a bit dizzy at the first few bites. Her stomach ached a little at first and then settled, and the young man busied himself with drinking some water while she ate.

"Thank you again," she said once she was finished as she brushed the bits of pastry flakes from her hands.

"You’re welcome." He smiled, this time the expression more assured than before. "So, are you new to town?" When her face became blank, he motioned with his left hand. "Your cloak and boots are a bit more travel-stained than most people’s, which is why I asked."

She told herself that there was no malice behind the question, and that Shun couldn’t have sent anyone ahead of her. "I have just arrived in town." She tried to keep any inflection out of her voice, to make it a simple statement.

"Then you must be looking for a place to stay. I recommend the Koneko in the western Green district." He glanced aside, toward a vendor selling loaves of sweet bread, then back at her. "It would be the best place for you."

For a moment she was left wondering what he meant by that, and then she took offense. "I don’t know what you-"

He cut her off as he rose to his feet. "It’s not common knowledge, but they’re… very open to taking in people who need a place to stay when in trouble," he said in a low voice, pitched so no one else but her could hear as he leaned in close. "They’ll give you shelter, I *swear*." Something in the way he said the last few words were spoken with the solemnity of an oath. He caught her gaze for a few seconds, his golden eyes honest and warm. "Go to them." Then he straightened out. "And now I need to meet up with Jared or else I’ll never be good enough to join the Guard." He waved good-bye as he went on his way, a handsome young man with an excited skip in his step that sent his dark green cloak flaring around him as he hurried through the crowd.

She watched him vanish into the crowd for several minutes, until the chill of the cold day sank into her bones. Then she shivered and made herself move away from the fountain, to give up her spot to another weary traveler. As she left, she asked one of the vendors for directions to the western Green district, and was surprised to find that it wasn’t too far away. Perhaps that was a sign from the gods… or perhaps she was too tired to go much farther that day. He had been an odd stranger, if a very handsome one. She forced her suspicions aside with the fact that he had mentioned the Guard; even if she had gotten odd looks at the Gate, she had been raised to trust the organization and its members, so what were the chances that a young man who hoped to join it would lead her astray? She pushed aside the thought that he could be lying, disbelieving it with the way he had been so kind, the honesty behind his smile and his warm eyes.

Besides, what could be worse than the home she had left behind? Her own family wouldn’t take her back, not with the dowry given and the shame that would come with leaving her own husband. And Shun would be *furious* with her defying him like this, so there was no way she would willingly face him again. There was nothing at this Koneko that she hadn’t already dealt with before, and her options were limited. The city was filled with so many inns, she would see what this recommendation led to and hope for the best. Her luck had been so bad for the last few years, she could only pray that the gods had finally taken pity on her at last.

*******

Yohji searched through the wine cellar for several minutes before he found the stack of wine bottles with the purple wax seals bearing the yellow moons. Ah yes, he remembered when his mother had bought the lot of them, claiming that the cheap price would be off-set by the long wait for the Cretian wine to mature. He would have to save a bottle or two for Cassandra, but his main goal was to spoil a certain ‘cat’ with a rare treat. He selected six bottles from the dusty stack and headed back upstairs, sneezing a couple of times along the way.

"Make sure Jei and Teddy keeps their hands off of these, okay?" he told Maddox as he set the bottles off to the side on the counter once he was back up in the kitchen.

Maddox frowned at the dusty bottles and then helped to clean the dirt off of Yohji’s beige tunic. "I’ll tell them to stick with the cider that Mickey tapped this morning." He sneezed as well and shook his head. "Is it anything special?"

"Mom thought it might be, so I’m hoping so." Yohji smiled at the thought of his mother, the expression a little sad. "There’s still over twenty bottles down there, so if these turn out good, I’ll be sure to let you know." Jo would want a couple, and Mickey was entitled to a few as well. Then there was Cassandra, who would be delighted to have some Cretian wine, so these bottles and maybe a few others were probably all that he and Aya would get to enjoy considering how much the ‘family’ had grown in the last few years. Yohji couldn’t complain too much since the Koneko was filled with so much happiness anymore, and his ‘family’ did look after him and Aya. He just wished that it didn’t take so much to get intoxicated now that he had fully come into his bound powers.

"Oh! Well, I’m sure Emmie and Neely will be begging for a glass each." For a minute, Maddox appeared weary at the prospect of babysitting his cousin and her best friend, and then smiled and shook his head. "She’s growing up so fast."

Yohji reached over and patted him on the right shoulder. "I’d commiserate with you, but to be honest I was so happy to see Teddy grow old enough to leave the house with Koyu." He shared a laugh with Maddox over the familiar teasing of his adopted brother. "Is Aya still outside?"

"I haven’t seen him come back yet." Maddox gave him a smile that made it clear that the younger man was aware that he couldn’t always keep track of Aya’s comings and goings.

"Thanks." Yohji snagged a piece of raw turnip that Maddox had been slicing before assisting him with the bottles then headed toward the back door. From what he could tell, Aya wasn’t too far away and wasn’t in a bad mood, so he assumed that his mate was still outside. The day was cold and overcast, which was normal so far this winter. He made sure to pull on his winter coat, gloves and scarf before going outside.

Aya had mentioned wanting to visit Keiun and then pay some respects at the family shrine out back, which was a lot better than his usual ‘duck outside to avoid all the humans’ routine lately. Yohji shivered as he stepped outside, cursing the winter weather and wishing that it was spring already. Just a couple more months….

He waved to Jason, who was out exercising a customer’s horse, and made his way to the small shrine. As he walked toward the wooden building, he could sense his mate, their link growing stronger the closer he got to him. Thin tendrils of smoke rose into the grey sky, indicating that Aya was still paying his respects inside. Yohji opened the cedar planked door to find his lover standing in front of the altar.

"Heya, Cat." Yohji leaned against the doorway and smiled. "Still saying some prayers?"

Aya turned away from the altar and frowned. "When’s the last time you lit some incense for your mother?"

Yohji resisted the urge to roll his eyes and stepped into the small shrine. "I used to do it every week, you know." He reached out and gathered a few sticks and held them against the ones burning in the pile of white sand. "Then I realized that if her spirit was anywhere, it was in the Koneko itself. So I don’t think it really matters if I pay my respects out here or not, as long as I think of her from time to time. I still feel as if she’s watching over me and happy with what’s she’s seeing." He just wished that she was down here partaking in that happiness.

"Hmm." Aya held the fingers of his right hand out toward the incense sticks for a moment, his skin as pale as the smoke, before pulling his hand back. Then he turned toward Yohji. "I don’t feel my family anymore, and I think that’s a good thing. I hope they’ve moved on." There was a hint of sadness in his voice as he spoke.

Yohji reached out to comb his fingers through Aya’s hair, his hand curving toward his lover’s face as it fell. "Aya… love. I’m sure they’re happy for you now." He was free, after so many years of pain and abuse. Aya’s parents had been gone for years now, and Aya-chan had suffered so much that they could only hope that she had truly moved on. As for himself, Yohji had to admit that he wouldn’t begrudge having Aya all to himself.

Aya tilted his face into the caress. "I just hope their next lives are better. They’re owed it." His emotions were guilty, as if he felt that they suffered because of him.

Yohji pulled his mate into his arms. "Any pain they went through was because of the Takatori, never forget that, love. It was *never* your fault." He hated how Aya took too much blame upon himself.

His mate was quiet, but he felt the gratitude and love over their link and knew that Aya appreciated him, knew that if it wasn’t for him that Aya would wallow in the guilt until it became overwhelming. He stood there holding on to his mate until the incense burned down. As much as he appreciated the quiet moment and the fact that it seemed the hissing bastards were nowhere in sight, it was pretty cold out. "Come on, there’s some delicious wine and lots of food inside, where it’s a hell of a lot warmer." He shivered for added emphasis.

That earned him an amused snort as Aya stepped back. "You and your appetite," he chided as he caught hold of Yohji’s left hand and led him away from the shrine.

"What can I say, I’m a delicate creature who needs lots of energy to get through this awful winter." Yohji waggled his eyebrows as Aya glanced over his right shoulder at him and laughed at his lover’s exaggerated sigh of annoyance. "Just be grateful that the lavender patch is buried beneath a foot or two of snow right now or I’d be tempted to sneak a ‘snack’!"

"As if the freezing temperatures isn’t enough of a discouragement," Aya grumbled, seeming very put out by the idea even if his emotions were warm and amused.

Yohji hurried forward so he could press against his ‘cat’s’ side. "You wouldn’t be cold for long, na?" He managed a pained laugh as Aya’s elbow caught him in the ribs, thankfully padded by several layers of wool. "Yep, you definitely need some wine in you."

"And you need a bit less energy, I think." Aya followed up that declaration with a disgruntled snort, but his emotions were still affectionate and happy so Yohji doubted that he’d be deprived of any ‘meals’ anytime soon. He tightened his fingers around Aya’s and canted his mate a pleased smile, the expression strengthening when Aya ducked his head to hide a slight smile of his own. All of the pain and guilt from before was gone, so the risk to Yohji’s ribs and hunger was well worth it.

They made it back to the kitchen and hung up their outerwear on the pegs by the door, their boots kicked off and left to dry there rather than track melting snow all throughout the inn. Bethwynn had become rather insistent over that last bit, as the chore to clean the floors usually fell to her anymore and she refused to spend the day wiping up the staff’s wet footprints. Yohji shook his head as he thought about how the inn had worked its magic yet again, turning a quiet, shy stray into someone more than willing to stand up for themselves, even if the woman usually did keep to herself unless it was over dirty floors, the last of a pot of coffee or going shopping with Kira.

By now, Jo had joined Maddox, Kira and Bethwynn in preparing the evening meal, although she appeared to be there more to keep an eye on the proceedings than lending a hand. After two decades of working hard at the Koneko, everyone agreed that she deserved a break, and it was clear to them that she intended for Maddox to take over her position in the kitchen sometime in the future. The best way for him to learn was by handling as much of the work that he could, with Jo’s guidance and occasional assistance, and the young man was proving a willing and able apprentice. That Jo got to take a break while watching over him made the staff very happy, especially Yohji since it meant that she had more time to chat with him and Aya.

"So, how are you putting them through their paces tonight?" he asked as he and Aya joined her at the table.

Jo smiled as she poured him some coffee, and motioned for Kira to bring over a pot of tea. "A certain someone broke out the big pleading eyes and asked for shepherd’s pie, so there will be that, along with roast beef and fish stew."

Yohji almost grimaced at the news and then remembered about Aya’s elbows just in time. "We won’t need a Minister of Diplomacy once Omi’s on the throne, he’ll just go up to any ambassador or foreign ruler, bat those eyes of his and they’ll do whatever he wants!" He and Jo shared a laugh over that fact while Aya smiled, and Kira giggled as well when she brought over a tray with a pot of hot water and a tin of loose tea leaves. Aya murmured a quiet ‘thank you’ and prepared a pot of tea for himself while Yohji sipped his coffee. "Has it been so long since you made that dish?"

"Hmm, a couple of weeks. I think Omi wanted something special for Nagi since he’s been going to the palace with him so often." Jo watched Aya with care as he set the tin back on the tray, aware that Aya wasn’t the happiest about the new training arrangement; he trusted the Shadow Guard, Birman and Botan, but he still was anxious about Nagi being around the king and Kikyou.

"Botan should know soon enough how Takashi will take the news of bounds," Yohji said, more to assure Aya than Jo. He slid his left arm around Aya’s waist to offer comfort to his mate and wished that there was more that he could do just then.

"Even then, Omi will still have to practice somewhat at the palace if he’s to work with Takashi. They can’t do everything here or people will wonder what Botan’s hiding." For a moment, Aya called shadows to his right hand, making the empty mug he held in it vanish.

"He has a point, Yotan." Jo sighed as she went to go fetch a plate of cinnamon rolls. "I think that’s why Botan put off taking on a new assistant for as long as possible. But once Takashi knows the truth, I think he’ll be able to split up the training sessions a bit." She frowned as she looked up at the ceiling. "Then we can have two eager wizard apprentices trying to blow this place up."

To his surprise, he felt Aya’s amusement over the link. "I should hope I can do something about that," Aya murmured as he poured himself some tea.

"That’s *if* someone leaves you any strength," Jo remarked as she set the plate down on the table, her attention pointedly directed at Yohji. There was more amusement from Aya, and Kira and Maddox laughed in response.

"Oh, right, blame *me*," Yohji huffed with semi-indignation. "He’s partially to blame for being so damn irresistible, I’ll have you kn-OW!" He glared at his mate as he rubbed his sore ribs. "I’m gonna start wearing body armor around you, dammit."

Aya just sniffed as he picked up a cinnamon roll and began to unravel it to eat. Yohji managed his glare for a whole five seconds, until Aya licked at some icing, then sighed and leaned in to nuzzle his lover’s pale neck. "You live to torment me." His only answer to that statement was a wave of affection.

"I’d say that someday you’ll learn but I’ve my doubts." Jo sounded rather sad about that fact and shook her head. When Yohji merely grinned at her, she shook her head some more but was smiling as well. "So, I hear you brought up some wine?"

"Yeah, remember those cases that Mom got from the one Cretian seller with the lame horse?" That had been shortly before Ichiro had showed up at the inn, ‘passing through’ at the time.

Jo’s emotions just then were a mixture of sadness, most likely as she thought about Miyuki’s death, and happiness, from memories of the days when Miyuki was alive and everyone was younger. "Ah, yes, it was supposed to be quite a bargain, albeit rather under-aged wine at that. I’d forgotten all about it."

"So did I, until Miriam mentioned wine the other night when she and Sophia stopped by for dinner." Her accent had triggered the memory for Yohji, and he recalled that it was now a couple of years past the point that the wine could be opened. No doubt his mother had it written down somewhere, but they hadn’t found any reminders in her work journals and none of them wanted to pry into her personal ones. "I figured that Aya and I would give it a try."

"How generous of you," Jo drawled as she poured the two of them more coffee.

"Isn’t it?" Yohji beamed at her as he grabbed hold of Aya’s hand to lick some icing off of his mate’s slender fingers. "We’ll have some of that roast beef and fresh bread I smell baking for dinner, and I’m *sure* you must have something good planned for dessert. You know, just in case the wine turns bad and we need something in our stomachs to coat ‘em."

Aya muttered ‘idiot’ under his breath and attempted to pull his fingers free while Jo gave Yohji a look that made it clear that she saw through his attempt to finagle a private meal out of her, and he began to worry that more than his ribs were going to hurt in a moment. Then she laughed and set her mug down on the table. "Hmm, I was thinking of making some almond cakes for tonight, since Nagi likes them almost as much as Aya."

"And we all know how much we both love the butter-" Yohji stopped talking when Aya’s hand lifted to cover his mouth and his mate gave him a warning look. He licked Aya’s palm and chuckled when his foot got stomped on in response.

"You never know when to quit."

"That’s what you love best about me," Yohji told Aya with a wink. He laughed when he just managed to deflect another attack to his poor ribs. "Why don’t you finish your tea so you can abuse me in private."

Aya gave him a cold stare for his troubles but poured the last of his tea into the mug and finished nibbling on a roll as well, while Jo shook her head and chuckled. "I think he’s more enthused about the cakes for later."

"Maybe because I can’t have almond cake every day." Aya made a show of licking his own fingers as the slightest of smirks curved his lips.

"Whereas you can abuse me with impunity any time you want," Yohji said as he leaned in to nuzzle Aya’s neck again. "Such a clever cat."

"Like you really mind at all," Aya purred as he arched his neck into the caress.

"Now that you mention it…." Yohji purred as well, and hugged his lover to him before Jo got any ideas of whacking him for too much ‘affectionate display’. "Come on, I wanna make sure that *you* are the only one doing the abusing." He tugged Aya off of the bench just in time, judging from the vicious gleam in Jo’s eyes. "We’ll be upstairs until dinner."

Jo rolled her eyes as she gathered all of the mugs on the tray. "I’m sure we won’t see you before then." Amusement radiated off of her and the rest of the kitchen staff, along with a faint sense of embarrassment from Bethwynn. Sooner or later the girl would grow used to how open some of the relationships were around here, but Yohji didn’t have much attention to spare for her right now. Not when he had a happy and affectionate mate following him upstairs and a few hours to themselves.

*******

Aya moaned as he rocked back into Yohji’s thrusts, his senses alive to each brush of his mate’s body against his, each jolt of pleasure fanning inside of him, each rush of emotions over their link. Yohji’s left arm was tight around Aya’s waist, pulling him down into each thrust and holding him close, pressed against his chest as his mouth roamed along Aya’s nape. Aya tilted his head back, against his mate’s shoulder and shuddered at the feel of his lover’s hand stroking along his cock in time to their languid movements, another pleasurable sensation to drown in when he already felt engulfed in them.

Yohji chuckled, the sound a warm vibration against his sensitive neck, and scraped his teeth along the spot just below Aya’s left ear. "Feeling good, Cat?" He chuckled again when Aya could barely hiss out his name in response, his hips snapping forward a little faster. Aya moaned again, his left hand reaching back to tangle in his lover’s loose hair as his eyes drifted shut and he let his emotions wash over their bond. He was so warm just then, both from the fire a few feet away and from Yohji’s emotions, from the love and desire that poured into him with every touch and heartbeat.

He dug his fingers into the thigh moving beneath his own, urging it on faster, wanting to feel more of his mate, wanting more of those emotions until they truly did overwhelm him. There was a hint of Yohji’s hunger over their link, a sense of the man holding back, and he wanted that gone. "Yotan."

"Hmm, impatient?" Yohji held him closer as he thrust harder, his mouth pressed against the side of Aya’s neck. His hunger sharpened as the pleasure increased, the drain of energy growing as well but Aya didn’t care, not when the emotions intensified as well, the ecstasy spiking as Yohji shifted his hips and bent Aya forward a little, his hand moving faster along Aya’s cock.

Aya felt as if his lover was wrapped all around him, holding him close as he pushed deeper inside of him, filling him up as his emotions flowed into him so potent and searing. He struggled to breathe as the pleasure consumed him, obliterating all thought and other emotions until it was the only thing that existed for a brief, glorious moment. Then other emotions began to seep back in, love and concern, exhaustion and slight discomfort, happiness and satiation.

He sighed as he nudged his head against Yohji’s, which rested against his neck. "We should have brought some wine up with us."

"Hmm?" Yohji pressed a kiss against what felt to be a new bruise and lifted his head. "What, you need a nap before dinner?" He slid his left hand up Aya’s chest and rested it above his heart as he returned some of the energy he had just taken.

"Maybe." One of the benefits of having ‘fed’ so much in the last few months was that Aya could ‘feed’ Yohji much more easily in return, but a nap didn’t sound like a bad idea. He groaned a little as he lifted himself off of his mate’s lap, a grimace on his face as he found a clean spot on the blanket and used his discarded shirt to wipe himself off as he lay in front of the fire.

Yohji watched him, his expression a little bit sad, and used the shirt to clean himself up as well before laying beside him. "I could run downstairs to get you that wine or some tea if you like." He stroked back the hair falling onto Aya’s face, his fingers toying with an eartail for a moment before tucking it aside.

"I think it’s okay." Right now, Aya was happy just to have him here beside him, a pleasant ‘buzz’ of emotions in his head and a solid presence with his warmth and scent. The shinigami had been silent for most of the day, hesitant to approach him while he spent his time at the shrine and whenever Yohji was in an amorous mood. While he usually enjoyed their company, he was happy to enjoy the time alone with his mate – and knew that Yohji was more than pleased to not have the ‘hissing bastards’ around.

"Well, we can always go down a little early for dinner." Yohji smiled as he caressed the left side of Aya’s face. "And then come back up here and curl up in bed with some of that wine." His emotions were now pleased, and echoed in his smile as he stretched out on his back and urged Aya to rest beside him.

Aya poked his lover in the side. "You would live in that bed if you could."

Yohji laughed as he caught Aya’s hand and kissed it on the palm. "Guilty as charged. But only if I have such a delicious cat to snack on all the time." He waggled his brows until Aya sighed in exasperation and shook his head. "Ah yes, there’s that exclamation of adoration that I love so much."

"Idiot," Aya teased as he shifted closer and rested his chin on Yohji’s chest.

"Always and ever where you’re concerned, love." Yohji smiled some more and once more tucked back Aya’s bangs, love, affection and happiness flowing over their link. Some of the concern that had shadowed him the last couple of days seemed to have lessened, for which Aya was thankful. He hadn’t meant to worry his mate with his recent behavior, although he knew better than to think that Yohji wouldn’t be concerned or had forgotten about it. They would just have to figure things out and do their best with his true nature, as always.

"Hmm." He closed his eyes and stroked his right hand along Yohji’s chest. He felt tired, but not really enough to go to sleep. "Maybe I should be worried about how you don’t try to refute it anymore."

Yohji gently traced his fingers along Aya’s right cheekbone. "I think there’s much worse things to be considered, and I do tend to lose my head where you’re considered." Aya could sense his amusement and didn’t need to see just then to picture the cocky grin on his mate’s face. "Well, *one* of them."

Aya shifted a little and snapped his teeth in the general vicinity of Yohji’s scarred shoulder, and smiled when he heard his lover yelp in fear. "*Idiot*," he repeated, with a bit more heat than before.

"Come now, you know you adore the amazing dick," Yohji teased as he carefully moved Aya away from his shoulder. "It brings such joy into both of our lives."

"Yotan," Aya growled as he opened his eyes and lifted his head enough to glare at the idiot.

"Now, now, I think the lack of energy is making someone a little testy." Yohji held his hands up as if in surrender, his eyes twinkling with good humor and his emotions just a little wary. "Maybe we should go get that wine now."

Why the gods had decided to bind him to such an irrepressible fool… Aya shook his head as he pushed himself up from Yohji’s chest. "Perhaps. It would certainly help me put up with you while you’re in this mood," he teased back.

Yohji’s expression was one of extreme heartbreak, but his emotions spoke of pleasure and contentment. He leaned forward to give Aya a quick kiss before Aya left to go wash off. "Such a mean kitty."

"Yes, I definitely need that wine." Aya frowned at the wash basin as he wiped himself clean. Yohji chuckled and kissed him on the shoulder once he was done, before taking his place there as he went off to get dressed.

He was pulling on one of his black jerkins when Yohji paused in dressing and looked at the door. "Hmm, there seems to be something going on downstairs, I’m picking up on some strong emotions. I think it’s a good thing we’re heading down there now."

Not sure he was pleased to hear that, Aya tugged the hood of his jerkin over his head and waited for Yohji to finish pulling on his brown shirt before they left the room. He was certain that if those emotions were truly negative, that Yohji would have given more of a warning that that and wouldn’t allow him to leave the room unarmed.

Yohji did insist on being the first one down the stairs and leading through the hallway, and Aya was surprised to see that they weren’t headed toward the kitchen for once. Instead, Yohji grabbed hold of his hand as he walked into the main room, toward a table in the back of the room.

Since it was still a little before dinner, there weren’t many people in the room, just a few who were sitting around having some drinks as they talked in small groups. He spotted Jo and Kira sitting at the back table, along with an unfamiliar young woman.

"So, how are the roast beef and almond cakes coming along?" Yohji asked as they approached the table.

Jo looked up from the mug of coffee that she held in her hand and smiled, the expression a little strained. "Trust you to show up with an empty belly." Her gaze flickered to the young woman sitting across from her for a moment, and something made Yohji’s emotions grow serious and concerned.

Yohji sat next to Jo and pulled Aya onto the bench near him. "Well, we’d hate for all of your cooking to go to waste now, wouldn’t we?" He grinned as he reached out and stole a piece of cheese from the platter that was set on the table, most likely to feed the strange woman. From what Aya could tell she was human, so probably was in her early twenties if he was judging her age correctly and appeared very tired. Her dark brown hair was cut to shoulder length, the ends uneven as if she had done it herself.

"More like you’ll eat my pantry bare before the guests have a chance of taking a single bite!" Jo shot back as she smacked his hand as he tried to snag another piece. "Yohji, you’ll get your dinner in a short while, so leave the rest for Naomi here."

The woman, Naomi, flinched as Jo yelled at Yohji, but a moment later slowly relaxed. Aya could feel the familiar tingle of his mate’s magic and knew that Yohji was doing something to make her feel calm, and suspected that the woman was a stray when he noticed the slight, pleased smile on Jo’s face a moment later.

"Tha-that’s okay," Naomi stuttered, her voice quiet and uncertain. "I doubt I can eat any more of this." She made a slight motion toward the half-empty platter of food.

Kira giggled as she picked up the carafe of coffee and poured more into Naomi and Jo’s mugs. "One thing you’ll learn if you stay here for more than a day or two is that we don’t stint on meals. We don’t believe in our customers or our staff going hungry." She smiled as she reached out and gave the woman’s arm a reassuring pat. Naomi flinched again, the motion quickly arrested, and as she pulled her hand closer to her body, Aya caught a glimpse of bruises around her wrist that was hidden as she tugged the sleeve of her cream colored blouse down.

"I really am full now," Naomi said as she stared down at the table. While she was distracted, Jo and Kira exchanged a look.

"Well then, I think it’s time that I showed you to your room." Kira smiled at the woman as she got up from the table. "I think you’ll like it, it might be up a few flight of stairs but it’s out of the way. It’s right next to Bethwynn’s, who works here, and she picked her room because of how it overlooks the garden yet is far enough down the hallway to be quiet." Aya doubted that Kira was being so talkative just to hear her own voice, but to put the young woman at ease. All he had cared about when first staying here had been to find the room appropriately dark enough, but he supposed that if he was a woman all alone, it might be nice to know that another woman who could be trusted was nearby.

Naomi appeared relieved, either over that bit of news or to be going to her room, and hurried after Kira. Jo waited until she left the common room before letting out a slow breath and twisting on the bench to look at Yohji and him. "Well?"

Aya pulled the shadows around them just enough to ensure that their conversation would be private. "She’s human. I assume that she’s a stray?" he asked.

Jo nodded. "Eri contacted me right before she showed up." Jo rubbed her temples and smiled, the expression bemused. She was about to say something else when Reiichi joined them at the table. "We’re just talking about Naomi. Aya confirmed that she’s not a bound."

Reiichi nodded at Aya and held up his left wrist, exposing the charmed gauntlet he always wore. "I’ve been in contact with all of Guards stationed at the Gates today, and I don’t think our guest really is ‘Naomi’. A young woman fitting her description signed in at the Eastern Gate as ‘Midori Asano’ earlier today."

Yohji grimaced as he set his empty coffee mug on the table. "I’m beginning to wish that we had Eri here right now. So, what’s going on, other than a rather upset young woman has shown up on our doorstep?"

"All I know is that Annan, one of the latest Shadow Guard recruits, came across her earlier and read something in her thoughts that made him tell her to come here," Reiichi explained. "When he met up with Jared for weapons practice, he mentioned the incident, so Jared warned Eri and she did the same to Jo and me in return. Not long after that, ‘Naomi’ arrived here, and while Jo and Kira got some food in her, I set about trying to see when she entered the city." He spoke the words with a crisp tone, as if citing a report.

"Huh." Yohji twisted the mug between his hands. "I picked up fear and exhaustion from her, as well as some residual pain. She’s definitely nursing some wounds, and her wrist was bruised." Aya wasn’t surprised that his lover had caught sight of that as well, considering how talented of a Guard he had been. "I’m just surprised that Cass didn’t say anything when she was here the other night about us picking up another stray."

"I can recognize when someone’s been abused, and she has all the hallmarks." Jo’s hazel eyes were bright with emotions, her words bitten off as if they cost her to speak them. "She’s a stray, and Annan was right to send her here. Maybe she just needs someplace to stay for a few days until we can find her a new home."

Aya hoped that was the case; he shifted closer to Yohji and exchanged a quick, cautious look with Reiichi. All of the strays that had come to the Koneko in the last several months had been connected to bounds in some way, which had made it safe to keep them on. Yet this ‘Naomi’ appeared purely human and was clearly running from something, which wasn’t a good sign. Despite those risks, the Koneko’s policy was to give her a safe haven, and Jo wasn’t about to deny help to someone who needed it. He just hoped that the inn’s peculiar luck continued to hold out.

"Eri will be home soon, which means a lot of our questions should be answered." Reiichi caught Jo’s sudden glower and held up his hands. "She won’t invade the woman’s privacy too much, just enough to ensure that there’s no danger to everyone here from her presence. You must admit, it’s a bit suspicious with her using so many aliases."

"Unless she has a very good reason to not use her own name, such as an abusive husband or father trying to track her down," Jo argued, but she soon shook her head. "Just make sure Eri doesn’t dig too deep. I would think that Annan would have seen enough to know better."

"I trust Eri’s judgment, even if the young man is rather talented."

Jo didn’t say anything else, and Aya felt that Reiichi had summed up his concerns well enough that there was little need for him to add anything and risk antagonizing the woman. Yohji must have felt the same way because his lover kept quiet as well for a minute or two. Then Yohji made a pitiful sound that was half whimper and half moan.

"So, about that roast beef…"

Jo laughed and smacked him on the shoulder. "The cakes should be ready to be iced now, and I think you better go down to the cellar and bring up a couple more bottles of that special wine to share with us."

"Wine?" Reiichi asked, an eager smile on his face as he sat up straight. "Special wine? And cake? Surely there will be some to be shared with the person who was kind enough to run a few errands for a certain couple today," he remarked as he gave a pointed look Aya and Yohji’s way. "On such a cold, blustery day, too."

"Oh hush, you moocher," Yohji chided as he tossed a piece of cheese at Reiichi, who caught it with his right hand. "You can have some wine, but you’re on your own with the cake."

Reiichi grinned as he turned to look at Aya, who smiled back. "I’m sure I can spare a piece, since you returned those books for me." His smile strengthened when Yohji cried out his name in mock anguish and hugged him close.

"Traitor!" Yohji hissed as he tugged on an eartail. "I have to risk life and limb if I want a piece of your precious cake."

Aya batted his hand aside and tucked back his hair. "Maybe I just like biting you better," he purred, and smiled at the stunned expression on his mate’s face. He got up to leave the table, only to be pulled back down onto Yohji’s lap for a passionate kiss.

He could feel Yohji’s surprise at the teasing words, along with love, desire and happiness, and just then it felt so good, to be surrounded by friends and embraced by the man he loved, to be around so much *life*. The sense of distance that had engulfed him lately had been pushed back by Yohji efforts, and he clung to this return of normalcy, of *humanness* for however long it lasted. It was a good day, the brief periods of guilt and pain aside, as well as the uncertainty that had appeared, and he enjoyed it. That he hadn’t seen anything… ‘odd’ while around his friends was a comfort as well.

He slid his fingers into Yohji’s hair and deepened the kiss, pleasure deepening between them until there was a spark of pain over the link. Blinking his eyes as he pulled away, Aya caught sight of Jo standing behind Yohji as his mate rubbed the back of his head. "There’s this thing called ‘bedrooms’ you know," she complained as she shook her right hand, as if it was sore.

"Dammit, Jo!" Yohji started to growl but stopped at a glare from the woman. "I swear, you must have been an Army sergeant in your past life! That or some tyrant of a king. Maybe both," Yohji grumbled as he allowed Aya to climb off of his lap and then stood up as well. "Now *I* need some of that wine." He gave Aya a quick kiss and patted him on the ass. "Go on to the kitchen and I’ll meet you there."

Giving his lover a cool look for the public fondling, Aya nodded before leaving the room. Reiichi fell into step beside him, an amused grin on his face. "Ah, another quiet day at home, na?"

Aya merely shook his head at the statement and hoped that they didn’t run out of the wine too soon tonight.

*******

Alexis made her way to Quatre’s quarters, well aware of the voices that whispered around her. The human ones were easy to pick up on, the snide comments about her slim figure that were off-hand remarks about her failure to become pregnant. Bounds, who were well aware how difficult it could be for their kind to become pregnant, especially if neither partner was human, whispered back and forth about how she was still in favor with Lord Quatre. Even if the Elders had given their ‘union’ approval, Lord Quatre wasn’t known for taking any other lover than Wufei for so long a time.

Any negative comments about her loyalty to the Elders were non-existent… at least to be spoken out loud here. She was aware that Tan Xi still watched her, still made the occasional remark about her friendship with Yuda, the hated name hissed out as if a vile word from her and her followers’ lips. Alexis merely smiled at the woman and let her spew those doubts; acting as if she had any worries would only make people wonder *why* she was so concerned. If there was one thing she had learned in her decades here in Berin, everyone came under scrutiny and suspicion at some point. She would carry on as before until Crawford and Quatre told her that it was time for action. Besides, by committing to a certain future, she could no longer move as unnoticed in the shadows as she had before. That point was driven home as she continued walking, noticed in a manner that she never had been so much as a year ago. Even as Yuda’s lover, she had been just one of ‘many’.

She almost felt bad when she reached Quatre’s quarters so as to no longer hear the silly comments, especially about whether or not she’d be pregnant soon. She forced herself not to smile until Rasheed opened the door and allowed her inside, where she giggled a little as he motioned her toward the one sitting room that his lord favored.

"Is everything all right?" the large gokenin asked with some concern.

"Oh, it’s fine. I’m just contemplating how one can get pregnant from having their cheek kissed," she tried to explain, since that was about all of the affection that Quatre showed her way.

Rasheed blinked a few times before smiling. "If that is the extent of one’s intimacy, then I imagine that the gods would have to be involved."

"Somehow, I don’t quite think I’m that worthy of their notice." She nodded in thanks to him as she headed to the sitting room. There was something very comforting about Quatre’s gokenin; the men were all so large and intimidating physically, yet well mannered and quiet, eager to please their lord and his guests that one couldn’t help but feel secure in their presence.

She wasn’t surprised to find Wufei sitting near Quatre, half dressed in the red and black uniform that the Elders made him wear whenever he was in their presence. The stiff jacket was flung across the room in a crumpled heap and the white undershirt shirt half undone while Wufei drank from a large glass of wine. Nearby, Quatre watched him with an expression of affection for several seconds before turning to smile at Alexis.

"Good evening." He stood up and crossed the room to come over and give her a kiss on the cheek, and frowned in puzzlement when she laughed a few times. "Are you well?"

"Yes, thank you." She was touched that he didn’t try to pry into her mind to see why she was laughing. "I just had to walk the gauntlet of everyone wondering when I’ll become pregnant."

"Ah." Quatre blushed a little and glanced over his shoulder at his lover, who grimaced before having more wine. "Well, these things can… take time, no?"

She allowed herself a slight wicked smile as she patted his left cheek. "Don’t worry, I have only positive things to say about your skills as a lover. Right, Wufei?"

The earth elemental made a choking sound as he struggled not to spit out his mouthful of wine. "Please, don’t stoke his ego. I prefer him to remain challenged as it keeps things more interesting." He spoke so dryly that it took a few seconds for the words to sink in.

Alexis laughed again, especially when Quatre’s eyes narrowed and he turned to face his lover. "Well then, I can only hope to prove ‘interesting’ enough tonight," he replied in a waspish tone.

Wufei arched one of his eyebrows at that, but a hint of a smile hovered on his lips before he glowered at his empty wine glass. "Hmph, you can try your best," he said as he got up to refill the glass. "Would you like some wine?" he asked Alexis.

"I think it would be best, considering the direction this conversation has taken."

Quatre laughed at the consternation in her voice and motioned her toward one of the room’s comfortable chairs. "Not quite what you had in mind, no?" He gave her a wink as he went to Wufei’s side. Once there, he leaned in to kiss his lover, the gesture one of long affection and desire. She was touched to see that the emotions were shared between the two men, despite Wufei’s gruff exterior and the ongoing charade the three of them were forced to put on out in public. When the kiss was over, Quatre picked up the glass that had been poured for her and brought it over.

"So, how was your lesson with Helena today?"

She smiled as she accepted the wine. "She’s a fast learner. I believe all of the time spent with Wufei has sharpened her memorization skills." She raised her glass in the man’s direction and bit her bottom lip to hold back a laugh when he folded his arms over his chest and pretended to act grumpy.

"I would hope that she’s picked up *something* in all of these months," he said with a disapproving sniff.

There was something about the quiet, stoic type that she just felt drawn to, and that the gods loved to torture her by having them happily in love with someone else. First Yuda, and now Wufei… ah well, at least she had their friendship.

Quatre, in the process of sipping his wine, suddenly lifted his head. "Ah, Yuda!" He gave her a sheepish smile as he set his glass aside. "My apologies, but I got a quick glimpse of him just now from you, and that reminded of me of something. I received a letter for you in Crawford’s latest package." He gave Wufei’s right arm a squeeze before crossing the room to his desk, where he opened a drawer and rummaged through it for a moment. Then he returned to hand a sealed letter to Alexis. "I had to wait until you were here to give it to you."

"Thank you." Of course he wouldn’t have wanted to risk anyone else finding out about the note, considering that the Elders would still be looking for Yuda and the cousins. After an apologetic smile in his and Wufei’s direction, she set aside her wine glass and broke the seal, as it wouldn’t be wise to leave Quatre’s quarters with the letter.

For once the handwriting was Yuda’s, meaning the note had been smuggled into Berin, a rare risk that was touching despite the danger it had posed. Because of that fact, Yuda kept things short and made little reference to anything that might be used to track him and the others down, and didn’t even mention her name at all. But it was his handwriting, it made a brief reference to a long standing and very private joke between them, and he and Shin continued to do well, which was all that she wanted to know. He still looked forward to seeing her again in the near future, when it would be safe for all of them, and they continued to work toward the same goal. She picked up on a hint of frustration on his part, but he had his mate by his side and clearly had his hands full trying to restrain Shin from doing something about the bitter winters in Kritiker.

"I’m surprised this managed to get through, if the snow is as bad as he makes it sound in Kritiker," she remarked after reading the words three times. Her gaze lingered on them for a few more seconds before she forced herself to go over to the fireplace.

"Well, Crawford knows several fire and wind elementals who are willing to be couriers for him," Quatre explained, his voice quiet as he watched her burn the note. "That helps to deal with the foul weather, as is having places to rest from it."

"Such as a certain mansion in the mountains." That was all she would say, even with the wards around Quatre’s quarters. Oh, what she wouldn’t offer to the gods to see that mansion one day, to spend some time in Yuda, Ruka and Shin’s company. That she would be far away from Berin, the Elders and their fawning Court would only be an added bonus.

Wufei made a tsk’ing sound and went about refilling everyone’s wine glasses. "You make it sound as if you’d rather not be in our company," he complained, a disgruntled expression on his face but his eyes bright with amusement.

She laughed as she bowed her head in apology. "The gods forgive, and you as well for I never meant to imply that. Such finer company I couldn’t ever imagine." She raised her glass in toast to the two men.

Quatre exchanged a look with his lover, his demeanor serious despite her teasing. "Hmm, well, it might do you good to expand your social circles a bit. To leave here."

Something about the way he spoke the words made her worried. "Is there… do they suspect something?" she asked, the words quiet as if the Elders could hear them.

Wufei hissed as he jabbed his lover in the left shoulder. "And *you* the lord! *This* is why I handle Helena’s lessons!"

Quatre took the accusation to heart as he stared at the earth elemental with wounded pride. "But I didn’t mean it to sound like that!" He turned to Alexis and bowed a little, mindful of his glass of wine. "I’m sorry, that didn’t come out like the way I meant it to."

She drained her glass of its wine and held it cradled against her chest. "So what, pray tell, *did* you mean it to sound like?" For a moment, it had come across as a warning to flee.

He sighed as he leaned against his lover, as if for comfort. "We received word from Crawford that Kritiker’s Court is preparing to send out invites to Princess Ouka’s first birthday celebration."

When he paused after that declaration, she narrowed her eyes in annoyance. "Yes, I’m well aware of that fact as I’ve been helping you to prepare Helena for the occasion."

Wufei seemed to have picked up on the emotion as well, since he once more jabbed the soul gaki bound, this time in the right side. "Don’t drag this out," he muttered, a rare hint of heat in his words as he spoke to Quatre. That surprised her as he wasn’t often honestly angry with his lover.

However, Quatre didn’t seem angry in return, if anything, he appeared even more uncertain and in need of comfort… or trying to comfort Wufei. "What I’m trying to say is that, of course Helena will be going. We’re doing our best to ensure that she’ll be favorably received by all of the Courts and so have their favor once the war is over. However… Wufei and I *won’t* be able to go with her. Crawford’s latest vision made that clear, not that we had much hope of it happening." He slid his right arm around Wufei’s waist.

About to say something, Alexis closed her mouth and thought things through first. She had always assumed that Quatre would accompany the girl since he was a highborn, and manage some way for his lover to go as well. Yet everyone knew that the Elders kept a very close hold on Wufei because of his brilliant tactical mind, let alone his immense talent, and Quatre was equally powerful. Neither man had left Berin since being ‘summoned’ to the capital – in fact, neither of them had left the palace grounds. It was beyond foolish to believe that the Elders would allow them to go so far away as Eto, even if they could hold the rest of Quatre’s large family as hostage or threaten another raid into Xan.

"So… are you saying you want *me* to go?" That was the only thing she could think of just then, based on Quatre’s poorly worded comment earlier.

He nodded as he straightened away from Wufei. "The Elders have little reason to suspect you of disloyalty, and Helena trusts you. By that time, all they’ll see is someone who has been teaching the girl the last couple of months and who should be able to control her."

"And meanwhile, they’ll assume that you won’t want to be gone from Quatre for too long and so will have a leash of sorts on *you*," Wufei added, his eyes once more bright but now with an acrid emotion, one that curled the corners of his lips until his sharp teeth were exposed. "I don’t expect Tan Xi will complain at all to have you gone for several weeks, either."

Alexis bared some teeth of her own, the expression only partially a smile. "No, she’ll be glad to not deal with me and hope that I’ll do something to either expose myself as a traitor to the Elders or as a bound to Kritiker’s Guards, knowing her." Yet she doubted the woman would ‘out’ her to anyone in Kritiker, there were some lines another bound would not cross and Tan Xi would never do that even if they were enemies.

The thought of leaving Esset disturbed her; the Elders had twisted things these last few decades yet it still was a country where bounds were safe from being hunted by humans. Yet everything she had been doing the last few months involved putting her faith in Crawford and the belief that Kritiker would no longer harm bounds as well, had made steps to keep her people safe with the Shadow Guard and giving them positions at Court. She couldn’t continue fighting for such a cause if she didn’t dare step foot in the country, could she?

"I never did get a chance to properly speak with Crawford," she admitted after a few deep breaths. "The Elders kept him busy and there was Jei’s presence as well." She mostly got along with the other, more powerful flesh gaki bound but they took care to keep their distance from each other. "I must say, I look forward to meeting him." She shivered a little as she recalled the one time she had met the man’s father, when she had first arrived in Berin. She’d had nightmares for months afterwards about the man’s glowing red eyes and his knowing, evil smile. "As well as some of the Shadow Guard."

Quatre sighed as if he had been holding his breath and gave Wufei a quick kiss on the cheek before approaching her. "I’m sure you’ll be able to do both." He smiled at her, the expression tender and pleased as he gave her a quick, gentle hug. "You’ll do fine, as Crawford wouldn’t allow you or Helena to go into danger. He knows that we care about the both of you too much."

"I haven’t had enough wine for this to get sappy," Wufei grumbled from across the room, where there was the sound of more wine being poured. "And I only care about the girl’s continued wellbeing so we’re not stuck ruling this backwards country."

She and Quatre laughed at his remark as they stood side by side, their arms around each other’s waist. "You know, the grumpier he gets the more adorable I find him."

"Hmm, I feel the same way," Quatre admitted while Wufei stared at both of them with abject horror.

*******

Heero stood beside the door with his hands clasped behind his back, his feet beginning to grow sore as he remained on duty in case he was needed. Across the room, Major Marquis and Colonel Mustang continued to go over various documents and schedules. He did his best to be as unobtrusive as possible, pleased to be able to eavesdrop on such plans even if they were basically generic discussions. The Elders and their advisors might be able to find something of value in the information that he sent back to them.

Between this and the conversations he had with Relena, when she told him about her time spent with various highborn councils, he finally felt as if he was doing some good for the Elders, that he was justifying his time spent here and not out helping them find other bounds to fight for the upcoming war. He was still limited in the information that he could unearth because of his low status in the Army, but that might change the closer it got to the war. Also, the more Relena trusted him, the more she would confide in him. That was why he continued to seek her out, he told himself.

His attention was caught by her brother as the man leant over the documents he was reading, his long, white-blond hair brushing against the table’s top. The dark blue of his uniform accentuated his muscular shoulders and slender build that made him such a quick fighter. Beside him, Colonel Mustang was a dark counterpart with his short, grey-shot black hair, his voice a low rumble as he countered Marquis’ query about how many personnel to keep stationed at the Palace.

"I’ll want to have every soldier to brush up on their formation skills in the next few months," Colonel Mustang said as he tapped a sheet of paper that was too far away for Heero to read. "Even if they’re not stationed in Eto, there’s a chance that any Court emissaries may see them on the way to the city or that they might be recalled for additional reinforcements. As soon as the weather improves, I want the drills to start."

Major Marquis made an amused sounding snort as he jotted down some notes in a small book he always carried to these meetings. "You’ll certainly become popular if they realize the order comes from you."

"Better that they’re blaming me for some boring drills than being punished by General Marko for ‘being an embarrassment to king and country’. You know that he or another general will strip them of rank *if* they’re lucky for any imagined slights." The colonel sounded angry, and Heero had the impression it wasn’t over being cursed at by most of the Army’s lower ranks. There was little that he had been able to find out about this man so far, other than that he had been an infamous womanizer until shortly taking in two children who had been in his now dead brother’s care. Besides that ‘stain’ against his character, which many in the Army wouldn’t hold against him, he was considered an able officer with a promising career. Even Trowa hadn’t been able to uncover much on the man and he worked in the Spymaster’s office.

"That is true." Marquis sighed as he wrote down something else. "I’m sure that can be pointed out to them." He set his pen aside and rubbed his eyes as if they ached. "If there’s one thing that annoys them more than senseless drilling, it’s highborn officers who would rather be dabbling in politics than getting their hands dirty."

"Which must be why you keep offering to practice with me whenever I get a day free from the paperwork and endless meetings," the colonel complained with an amused snort. He leaned back in his chair and stretched his neck, as if the long time spent sitting was causing him some soreness.

Marquis laughed, the sound low and quiet despite its lack of affectation. "Yet you manage rather well for your years."

Colonel Mustang smiled, the expression a hint of teeth that made Heero straighten his back in wariness even if the man was a human. "What can I say, my assistants keep me on my toes." He flashed the smile in Heero’s direction, at the lieutenant who stood a couple of feet to his left on the other side of the door. The woman nodded briefly in acknowledgement before clearing her throat. As if the noise was a reminder, the colonel rose to his feet with a grace that made it clear that he must practice with his weapons on a regular basis. "Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve another meeting to attend so we’ll have to discuss troop placement around the border tomorrow morning."

"Yes, I’ll see you here at nine o’clock," the major agreed, leaving Heero to curse internally even as he stood to attention while Colonel Mustang and Lieutenant Hawkeye left the room. Tomorrow morning he would be busy with weapons practice himself and so wouldn’t be assigned to stand guard during the meeting. There was no way he’d be able to listen in on the information and send it to the Elders.

At least he could tell Trowa about the meeting, and hope that his friend could find out the details somehow. He resisted the urge to reach for the pouch on his belt, which contained another note for Relena. Since he was uncertain when they could see each other or pass a note through Trowa, he always carried one on him. She was proving to be very useful, able to explain Court politics to him, making him feel good that he was accomplishing something. A warm glow filled his chest as he thought about spending more time with her, listening to her explain things and ask about his day….

Across the room, Major Marquis continued to make notes in his small book, which Heero would give much to be able to read unnoticed one day. Forcing his thoughts away from the human girl, he studied Relena’s brother instead, curious as to how different they seemed. The major had done much to cut off his ties to his highborn heritage, moderating his speech and spending time out in the sun until he no longer looked and sounded like most of the men here at Court. There were few characteristics shared between the two siblings, especially with one sworn to the Army and one determined to prevent a war if possible. Yet for some reason, both of them fascinated him.

He forced himself to look away before the major noticed that he was staring and did his best to clear his mind. Now was not the time to be distracted by humans, even if they were necessary to the mission. What mattered was the information.

Major Marquis finished writing and began to gather up the remaining documents. "Well then, I think it’s time we got moving as well." He smiled a little as he rose from the table. "I’ve been in so many meetings today that I’m about ready to trade my sword in for a cane."

Heero wasn’t sure if he was supposed to say anything then or not. The major sighed and shook his head, his long hair fanning out behind him. "Surely I haven’t been around enough Generals that my sense of humor has deteriorated that much, Corporal."

"Ah, no sir," he hurried to say as he opened the door. So it had been a joke after all. "I just couldn’t understand how someone of your skill would ever give up his sword."

The officer shook his head again. "I think you need to do a bit more than just sword practice on your time off, Corporal Yuy. There is more to life than fighting." He gave Heero’s left arm a quick squeeze, and for a moment Heero felt… a mix of repulsion/attraction that confused him as much as the advice. Major Marquis frowned as he quickly stepped away. "Perhaps find yourself a girlfriend, if that’s your liking."

"Yes, sir." Still confused by the conversation, Heero followed in his commanding officer’s footsteps. Why did this human make him feel this way, was it something in the Peacecraft bloodline? And what else was there besides fighting? Relena also thought that way, which amazed him. Why did they put so much importance on it? He couldn’t understand these people, and yet instead of ignoring them as useless humans, he wanted to know more about them. Somehow, figuring them out had become as important as his mission. They were nothing like humans were supposed to be, like he had been raised to think of them as being, and if that was true….

Then what else was different?

*****

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