Tangled Threads

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chapter three

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opportunities and dark omens

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Yohji entered the library and walked over to his mate, who was frowning at the chess board. "Ah yes, I see someone is his usual happy self!" he declared as he draped his arms over Aya’s shoulders. He could tell from the wave of annoyance that Aya wanted to hiss at him, but his mate settled for a mild glare instead.

Reiichi laughed and began to put away the chess pieces. "He lost this game, but not the one before."

"I almost won this one, too," Aya grumbled, his glare continuing for a few more seconds before he shook his head and offered Reiichi a tremulous smile. "I didn’t expect Asook’s Queen Five move."

"I was inspired by the book you so graciously gave me," Reiichi admitted with a smile of his own.

Yohji told himself that there was no reason at all to feel jealous just then, that Reiichi was only a good friend to his mate and Aya was happy – well, when he wasn’t losing – to play chess. He felt better when Aya hugged the arms wrapped around him and tilted his head back to nuzzle Yohji’s shoulder, love and curiosity flowing over their link. "What were you up to?"

"Hmm, I helped Marta with Neely’s government lesson." He grimaced a little and stepped back so Aya could stand. "One good thing about my time in the Guard is that I know the Court and the government rather well!" Reiichi joined in his laughter over the statement as the three of them made to leave the room.

Over in the corner, he could feel ‘Naomi’s’ curiosity and knew that the woman was paying more attention to their conversation than the book she held in her hands. She didn’t look their way as they headed toward the door, and he had the feeling that she would probably return to her room now that people she knew to be ‘staff’ were leaving the library. There was a shyness and reserve to her that made it clear that she was interested in protecting more than just her reputation.

Yohji grasped Aya’s right hand and led his lover toward the kitchen, where he knew Jo and Cassandra were waiting for them. Of course Reiichi tagged along as well, which was fine as the man was a sharp observer and would probably have something to contribute to the conversation.

They entered the kitchen to find the room filled with its usual pre-dinner mayhem; Maddox was busy over by the fireplace rotating the stuffed chickens that were on the spits while Ani assisted with watching the stove and Omi and Nagi did the prep work. Sitting at one of the tables was Jo, sharing a pot of coffee and a tray of cookies with Cassandra and Haru. Yohji headed straight for the three ladies and paused to give Cassandra a kiss on the cheek before sitting down. "Ah, such a lovely sight to see," he moaned in delight before snatching up a sugar cookie.

Cassandra giggled while Jo motioned to Ani to bring over a pot of tea for Aya. "Always the gentleman, Yotan," Cassandra replied.

"Well, you’re a whole lot easier on the eyes than a bunch of blue coats," he teased, which earned a chuckle from Reiichi. "How’s things been, Gorgeous?"

"Very cold." Cassandra frowned for a moment and hugged the pale blue shawl she was wearing over her cream colored dress tighter around her shoulders. Then she sniffed as if annoyed. "And I’ve been neglected by a certain wizard as well."

"We have made some progress on the charms," Omi called out from the prep table. "But I don’t think he’s happy with the new assistant the queen foisted on him." He took to frowning as well as he whacked the knife he was holding down onto the table with a little more force than was necessary to chop up parsley. Beside him, Nagi was as outwardly inscrutable as always but Yohji could sense some growing animosity.

"Feh," Cassandra sneered. "Some fools will never learn," she said in a tone of blatant disdain, but Yohji had a feeling it wasn’t directed at her lover. Then she shook her head and pushed the tray of cookies his and Aya’s direction before reaching over to give Haru a brief hug. The young soul gaki bound was still a bit shy around everyone other than Cassandra, Neely and Emi, but her emotions at the sign of affection were so warm and happy that Yohji felt as if he had tossed back a shot of whiskey; she certainly idolized Cassandra.

"It’s what makes life so interesting, na?" He smiled while most of the people at the table laughed and his lover sighed in exasperation. "In all seriousness, have you had any visions lately that we should know about?"

Cassandra pouted as she picked up her cup of coffee. "For shame, Yotan, you used to be much less direct about such things." She gave a pointed look at Aya, who was too busy nibbling on a cookie to take any offense for being a corrupting influence.

Yohji smiled as he slid an arm around his lover’s waist. "What can I say, there’s something adorable about hissing out demands." He laughed when Aya tried to hit him in the ribs with a pointy elbow and gave him a kiss on the temple before placating him with the offer of another cookie. "But I think I’m just asking something we all want to know."

"Yes, Jo was telling me about this latest stray." Cassandra stared off into nothing for a moment before shaking her head. "So many different names and human as well, but I haven’t seen anything to indicate that she will find a home here."

Jo made a soft grunting sound as she refilled her and Reiichi’s mugs with more coffee. "Then it seems we’ll just offer her a place to rest and see if she needs help finding a job and a new home."

"*If* she asks for it," Reiichi pointed out, and Yohji’s respect for the man went up a notch when he met Jo’s glare and didn’t back down. Aya stilled beside him and even Haru picked up on Jo’s emotions and pressed against Cassandra as the two humans had a silent battle of the wills. "I understand that the Koneko will offer aid to those who need it, but how do you go about telling ‘Naomi’ that you know she’s here running away from an abusive husband without risking exposing bounds?" He put enough censure in his tone to make it clear that he wouldn’t allow anything that might harm Aya, Yohji and the others.

Jo continued to glare for a few more seconds before glancing aside; her emotions were a turbulent mix just then of conflicting impulses. Yohji knew that she would do almost anything to help a woman in a similar situation to what she had gone through years ago yet wouldn’t risk endangering him and Aya. "You’ve made her point. We’ll do our best to help her but we won’t force it upon her." She sounded bitter about making that choice, but she also knew that it wouldn’t do ‘Naomi’ any good in the long run.

"Yeah, it’s only special people we plan to chain to the bed and force them to stay here until they learn it’s where they belong," Yohji joked as he hugged Aya close. His mate blinked in surprise and looked up at him for a few seconds before looking away with a slight blush to his cheeks.

"Idiot," Aya murmured before sipping his tea.

"Yours forever and ever, you lucky cat," Yohji answered as he nuzzled his mate’s hair. Then he yelped as he felt something hit the back of his head.

"As if I’d let you do something like that to him," Nagi muttered from across the room.

Yohji grabbed a cookie and made a show of snapping it in half with his sharp teeth since he couldn’t throttle a certain little demon while everyone but Aya and Haru laughed. Once the amusement died down, he turned back to Cassandra. "Anything else?"

She shook her head. "You know there’s not much I can see in regards to you and Aya." She sighed a little, appearing worn out as if that fact was affecting her more than she had let on in the past. "Of this woman, nothing. Of the Court… more than I would like, and those visions I have passed on to Birman and Botan. Things are beginning to happen and I fear they will not always be good."

"You mean there will be deaths," Aya said, his voice containing a hint of sibilance. The words shocked Yohji and he looked over at his lover to find Aya staring down into his cup of tea, his face half hidden behind his ragged bangs yet his eyes glowing silver.

Yohji wasn’t the only one shaken by the declaration; it seemed Cassandra was the least affected in the room and even she stared at Aya with something kin to fear. "How do you know?"

"Everyone dies," Aya answered, the sibilance increasing with each word. "But feast we will soon." Darkness gathered in the corners of the room.

Yohji shivered from the terror he felt in the room, from the coldness that flowed over his link. "Cat, *no*" He jumped from the bench and yanked Aya along with him, pulled him against his chest. "*No!*"

Aya’s smile just then was one of infinite sadness, as if he knew how futile Yohji’s denial was but didn’t have the heart to argue. Yohji wiped it away with a savage kiss, determined to have his mate back, to deny the shinigami their hold on him. He pushed his emotions, the love and passion he felt for Aya over their link until the coldness vanished and Aya clutched at him, trembling as if dazed.

He let the kiss end, Aya held close in his arms, the only thing that mattered in his world. Aya held on to him tightly and buried his face against Yohji’s neck. "You can’t hold back death," he murmured, but at least he sounded normal.

Yohji cradled his mate close as he stared over at Cassandra. She appeared ready to cry yet she nodded. "No war can be won without sacrifice," she confirmed in a voice heavy with sadness. "That we have come so far without paying much of a price…" She fell silent as she once more hugged Haru to her side.

But why in *all* the hells did the man he loved seemed tied to the price?

Something about that emotion must have shown on his face because Cassandra lowered her head as she pressed against his mental shields. <Because the kage wield a terrible power, and that can’t be bestowed by the gods without some cost,> she answered without looking at Yohji. <They do not seem to age once they reach adulthood, their talent is without any limits as long as there is enough death around them and they are safe from all magic. They might be gods themselves if not for one thing.>

That thing was love, and Yohji was determined that Aya would never regret the emotion they shared between them. He was also determined that it would tie Aya to him and to keep the tiny spark of humanity within his mate from dying, from being consumed by the shinigami nature that grew stronger day by day. The gods had made kage born *human* for a reason, after all.

Jo rose from the table and dared to approach them, her demeanor hesitant and her emotions still a little fearful. Yet she stroked a hand through Aya’s silky hair and offered up a shaky smile. "Your tea’s getting cold," she told Aya with a voice that betrayed none of her doubts, "and I’ve some spice cake left."

That managed to pry Aya from Yohji’s neck as he looked up. "Dessert?"

"Hmm, perhaps you won’t mind sharing a slice with Haru." She flashed Yohji a knowing smile as she led his mate back to the table, leaving him feeling a bit jealous and rather out-classed. "She likes it almost as much as you and I’ve not much left."

Aya made a noise that indicated that he was willing to share his precious cake and sat back down while Jo went to fetch the dessert, and Yohji was mollified by the smile he received when he sat beside his lover. There was still a taint of fear in the room, but it slowly vanished as things seemed to return to normal. Maddox, Nagi and Omi resumed preparing dinner while Ani chided Jo about how she needed to make more desserts since it was clear that everyone preferred them to the main dishes. Yohji sensed emotions build in some of his friends that warned him that Jo, Reiichi, Omi and Nagi would be seeking him out about the changes in his lover and what, if anything, could be done about them.

The problem was that he feared there wasn’t much to be done. Aya had told him of his fears and it was plain that he tried to center himself in day to day things, to not give in to his shinigami nature, yet it happened none-the-less. Yohji could just be there for him, to pull him back and keep him *Aya* as best he could.

Now to hope that the gods and future didn’t fight him too hard with that.

*******

Duo’s hands clutched at the duvet beneath him as pleasure coursed through his body, his hips jerking forward the slightest bit. He did his best to keep from moving, to restrain himself while enjoying the sensation of Trowa’s mouth around his cock, so warm and wet and oh sweet gods his tongue…. He wanted to move, really he did but he couldn’t, and he didn’t want to focus on why, not when there was already a little too much concentration over their link.

He was trying so much to just lose himself in the moment while holding back a part of himself that he merely snarled at the annoying ‘buzz’ against his left wrist. When the feeling continued for several seconds he went to brush his wrist against the bed, only to yell out his mate’s name when Trowa suddenly pulled away from him and ran for the bathroom. "Trowa! Dammit, come back here!" Half-mad with desire and fully aroused, it took him a few tries to get his body to work well enough leave the bed in an attempt to go after his mate. By that point, his brain finally woke up enough to realize what the ‘buzzing’ of his copper bracelet meant. "Dammit!" he cursed again, although this time with rage.

Trowa burst out of the bathroom and grabbed hold of his right arm before he got two steps from the bed, the touch doing something to his muscles to turn them into jelly as he tumbled toward the floor. Trowa knelt beside him and stroked back the loose strands of hair falling onto Duo’s face, his emotions a mix of panic, regret, concern and love. "Please, let me go see what he wants," he whispered.

Whatever Trowa had done was only temporary, meant to keep Duo from rushing outside to burn Heero to ash. Growling a little, Duo brushed his fingers along his mate’s left cheekbone before nodding with great reluctance. "I don’t know what’s worse, him coming here to declare us traitors or just to chat."

That earned him a smile and a very quick kiss. "Let’s hope it’s the latter, even if his timing is terrible." Then Trowa pulled away and hurried to get dressed before leaving the room; the bracelets warned them whenever Heero crossed the wards at the front of the apartment building, which didn’t give them too much time to make themselves ‘presentable’.

Really, they should be grateful that Omi had managed that much of a solution after listening to Duo complain one night about having Heero show up at their home. Things could be very bad if he came knocking on their door and found them doing… well, pretty much what they had just been doing a couple of minutes ago even if Schu was helping with the mental tampering and all. It was just…. Duo struggled to keep from burning anything as he washed the scent of Trowa and sex from his body. *Dammit*, it wasn’t often that his lover was in the mood to give him a blowjob like that so of course Heero had to show up tonight.

He continued to grumble under his breath about the unfairness of it all and just how badly he wanted to burn Heero to ash as he dried himself, braided his hair and dressed in some clean clothes. Then he left the bedroom, mindful to close the door behind him and was immediately pounced upon by Gin.

"Trowa! I’m going to make your cat into a pair of fuzzy slippers!" He bared his teeth at the furball as he knocked Gin onto his side and rubbed his soft belly with the thankfully thick-clad toes of his left foot.

"I’m not sure he’s big enough to fit both of your feet," was all Trowa said as he entered the living area from the kitchen, Heero trailing after him. The air elemental had taken the time and effort to change into a black sweater and blue pants, so either he was here ‘incognito’ or was trying to make the effort to be ‘social. Both thoughts were a little frightening.

"Ha, ha, ha-ow!" Duo turned his glare onto the cat, which he bent down to pick up and carry over to its rightful owner. "Here, let the ungrateful beast chew on you for a bit." Then he looked at Heero since he figured any glaring on his part could be safely contributed to a bad mood brought on by the cat and not interrupted sex. "So what brings you over here on such a lousy night? Can’t be for Trowa’s stew, even if it’s pretty damn good."

Heero actually appeared at a loss for a few seconds before seeming to note that Duo was wearing a red and yellow sweater with green pants (that belonged to Trowa and were a little too tight and long but they had been clean and the first thing he’d grabbed). "Is your latest assignment at a temple for the blind or something?"

Duo made a show of clutching at his chest while he did his best not to react too much to the sight of Trowa smiling at the joke. "Are my ears deceiving me? Did the almighty Heero, the man of few emotions and even fewer thoughts of anything besides how to finish a mission just make a *joke*?" He pretended to slump against the wall as if faint. "I think I hear Kisei calling me to her bosom right now."

"Very funny." Heero sent a blast of air his way to make him stand up again.

"And I don’t want to hear any complaints about my clothes from a man who basically wore the same outfit until it fell apart on him," Duo reminded his ex-partner while sending a few flames his way in retaliation and caused Heero to get that peculiar gleam in his dark blue eyes as he was singed.

Trowa’s quiet voice cut through the burgeoning fight. "May I remind you two that any destruction to *my* home will be met with kind, taken out in flesh?" He stood there holding a purring Gin in his arms for a few seconds until he was certain his point was made before retreating to the kitchen.

"Just so you know, I probably could kick your ass but I’m not about to spend the next year sleeping on a soaking wet couch," Duo complained as he held up his flame-free hands.

Heero gave him a cold stare for a moment or two before looking away as if in disgust. "I keep telling you that you can’t burn anything if there’s no oxygen, so I would win. *However*, I have too much respect for Trowa as a host to continue this under his roof."

"Right, breathing won’t do *you* any good when he makes your lungs and everything else explode." Heero appeared ready to dispute that fact, but Duo had seen both men take out targets with their talents and knew his mate was faster; once Trowa attacked key parts of the body that was it.

"Why are we even having this discussion?" Heero complained as he stalked off in Trowa’s direction. Duo took that as a sign that he had won and followed with a grin on his face.

He found his boyfriend stirring the pot of leftover stew on the stove and sighed as he urged him out of the way. "Here, let me." The slight brush of hips helped placate his demon soul and he could feel a lingering warmth from the contact, something to savor until he could get their damn friend out the door and continue what they had been doing before being so rudely interrupted. There was no way in hell he’d get another blowjob tonight, but he could make Trowa feel good before they both enjoyed themselves before falling asleep.

The bit of frustration he felt was channeled into heating up the stew with his talent in a much faster time than it would have taken the ‘normal’ way. "Okay, grab some bowls," he told the others as he set the hot pot on the towel that Trowa had placed on the table. "You know, you could bring a bottle of wine or something if you’re going to show up for dinner, or a loaf of bread," he chided Heero.

To his surprise, his friend seemed to take the words to heart. "I… will have to remember that." He tilted his head to the side as if consigning the words to memory. "That is what humans do, isn’t it?"

"It’s what *friends* do," Trowa said with pointed emphasis in that quiet, even tone of his. "It appears to be a social norm regardless of status, culture or humanity."

"Then I am sorry." Heero frowned as he stared into his bowl of stew, and after exchanging a look with his mate Duo decided to break out the wine after all. He was willing to bet that all three of them were confused just then, and he could only sense two of their emotions.

"It’s just… nothing is the same here. I understood when I accepted the mission that there would be differences since we’d be amongst humans and in another country, but it’s more than just that." Heero lifted his head and watched as Duo poured him a glass of wine. "I’ve been to Kritiker before and dealt with some humans so it shouldn’t be such a surprise. I should be able to calculate their reactions and anticipate what will happen next but…." Once again, he was at a loss for words and after a few seconds began to eat.

For himself, Duo kept his mouth occupied with food and wine, unwilling to risk saying something flippant that might endanger him and Trowa. Judging from the side glances he was getting from his lover and the emotions over their link, Trowa was waiting for him to say *something*, but what? Trowa was the one Heero usually came over to talk to, so why him? Why now? He almost jumped when his foot was given a nudge and had to gulp down half of his wine to gather his courage.

"Uhm, Heero…." He waited until the man was looking at him. "Did it ever occur to you that maybe… perhaps you’re looking at things with the wrong mindset?" The best way to go about this was to keep pretending that this was a mission, to talk to Heero in a manner that he could easily grasp.

"What do you mean?" Already Heero looked a little better, a little sharper – if that was a good thing.

Thankfully, Trowa jumped in to help. "I think what Duo is referring to is that we’re approaching this mission with the information that we’ve received from Esset." He kept his voice even and without any hint of reproach for their former masters. "Yet I think we may be faced with the possibility that, because of the source of that information, it may have some… inherent flaws."

Heero’s eyes narrowed as he lowered his spoon into his half-empty dish. "Are you saying the Elders are wrong?" There was a hint of a threat to his voice, but considering that Duo had seen him flay the skin off of someone who had dared criticize the old bastards before, this was quite the show of restraint.

Trowa appeared calm as he shook his head. "All I’m saying is that they’re in Berin and have been for centuries. The world has changed around them, and information relayed by others can sometimes be distorted." He paused to sip his wine, his hands and gaze steady. "Distorted by the bearer’s own perception, by their own agenda, even by their own ignorance. It may or may not be a deliberate act."

The room was quiet for at least a minute or two after that statement, and then Heero nodded. "As always, you make some excellent points. In a war, intelligence is always of great importance and I’ve seen firsthand this past year just how much our country has been hurt by its isolation." He resumed eating the stew and nodded again. "This is very good."

"I’m happy that you approve," Trowa remarked as he poured all of them some more wine, and only Duo knew how relieved he felt just then. He inched his foot across the floor to rub it against his lover’s right calf and focused on the love he felt for the man for a few seconds.

"Yes, well, in light of the new information and the possibility of inaccurate suppositions back home, I’m left wondering about the success of this mission." Heero glared at his spoonful of dinner as if it was the stew’s fault.

Duo smiled as he lifted his wineglass and tried not to bare too much of his teeth. "Oh, I don’t know about that." When he had Heero’s attention, he waved his glass in his friend’s direction. "They sent people here who they trust, right?" When Heero nodded, he smiled a little more. "Then have faith in them and yourself. We’re bright and good at thinking on our feet so we’ll adapt to the situation and do what’s best for our country. Of that I’ve *no* doubt."

Either his conviction or the reminder that they – well, Trowa and Heero – really were among the best that the Elders had if not exactly the most loyal seemed to put Heero’s fears to rest. "Yes, you’re right for once, Duo."

Duo sputtered a little on his wine and glared at the bastard. "Oi! Do you really have to add the ‘for once’?" he complained as he wiped his mouth.

Trowa gave him a soothing smile as he handed over a napkin. "He may have a slight point in that one doesn’t always expect such seamless logic from you." The smile strengthened as Trowa ducked his head and Duo growled at the implied insult.

"Just for that, you’re stuck doing the dishes tonight," he lied.

"Are you sure you’re all right with him as a partner?" Heero asked, which prompted another growl from Duo.

"Enough with the Duo-bashing!" he yelled as he snatched up the last of the wine. "If that’s all you came here for then *you* can leave," he told Heero, who gave him a knowing smile before finishing his bowl of stew. "Huh, never thought I’d be appreciative for a cat who can’t speak up and insult me," he grumbled.

"I’ll remind you of that fact when you find out he’s scratched up your boots again," Trowa remarked as he got up to fetch another bottle of wine. As he walked past, his fingers trailed along Duo’s back and his emotions promised something very enjoyable once they managed to get rid of their unwanted dinner guest. Duo had to shift about on the chair and think about Jei to prevent Heero from picking up on any sudden arousal.

At least Heero seemed to be in a better mood now, his eyes bright and his demeanor once more focused. Whatever tonight had been about, he didn’t seem so confused and off-center anymore, which hopefully was a good thing. Maybe tomorrow Duo and Trowa would head down to the Koneko to see if Cassandra or Crawford could tell them if tonight’s conversation had a positive impact on the future. Duo wasn’t a precog, but anything that got Heero to think a bit more for himself had to be good. He just tried not to reflect upon how all of that intelligence and resolve could be a bad thing if it remained in the Elders’ hands.

*******

Aya flipped through one of Aidan’s journals, even though he knew the action was hopeless. During his years with the Takatori, he had read through the books again and again, to the point that their contents were memorized. His probable close ancestor had rarely mentioned the shinigami in her writings, and nothing about developing any unusual talents before her death.

"Didn’t you talk to her?" he asked the shinigami who lurked around the attic library’s shadowed corners.

<Who, young one?> A shinigami came closer to him, curled around his upper body and made him shiver at the comfort he felt at its cool caresses.

"Aidan."

<Ah, the weak one,> it crooned with much sadness, stilling for a moment as the other shinigami echoed its words. <A wizard there was always about that one, stealing her power. Gave in to him she did, much like you until you broke free and claimed your true self.> It combed cool tendrils through Aya’s hair and stroked his right cheek.

"She was trying to protect her family, much like I was my sister," he did his best to explain.

The shinigami hissed their disapproval. <Flesh dies. Why delay the inevitable?>

For a moment Aya remembered standing in front of the shrine and being given the urns containing his parents’ ashes, the immense pain he felt that day in knowing that they were truly gone. Next flashed through his mind the day his sister had tried to kill herself for his sake and had only tied them even more to the Takatori. It hurt so much just then that his chest was too tight to breathe. "Because they are as dear to us as fellow shinigami," he said when he could speak once more.

There was more hissing over that remark for several seconds. <But they are *not* shinigami.>

"No, but our families are the closest thing we have," he admitted as he ran his fingers along the shinigami coiled around him. "That and our golden ones." He had to smile at the second round of hissing that declaration prompted.

<At least your golden ones have demon souls,> one of the shinigami grumbled, a surprising compliment considering how often they insulted Yohji and Rufus.

"Yes, that they do." Aya reflected on how well Yohji suited him and sighed. "But Aidan didn’t have a mate, or even a chance to talk to any other bounds except a few she had to capture." That had been one of the cruelest things Yoru had done to her, to use her to catch her own kind so their blood could be used for spells.

<Weak she was. No shinigami, even that tied to the flesh, should ever bow to a wizard.> Several of the shinigami joined in to voice that opinion.

Aya wondered if that was why the shinigami had mostly ignored him during his years at Timbergrey, when he had ‘bowed to a wizard’. Perhaps they had considered him another Aidan, someone ‘weak’ who would never truly use their power and then one day give up their body. Then something occurred to him. "Is she here? What happened after she gave up her flesh?"

Once again the shinigami hissed for several seconds, and another came to coil around Aya. <Not with us she is. Not our pack. Our pack is strong.> There was evident pride in its words.

Did that mean that a part of Aidan was still out there? That she had managed to escape Yoru and King Toshi after all? That all of the kage lived on in some manner after ‘dying’? He should have thought of this before, considering how often the shinigami urged him and Reno to abandon their physical forms but… did he really want to talk to a discorporate kage? Would it even remember what it was like to be ‘human’? Aidan had died over a century ago, and her life had been one of torment. Would it be fair to ask her to relive any of it? To ask any of the kage to remember when their deaths had involved such loss?

If they had wanted to help, wouldn’t they have sought him out by now? Perhaps in giving up the physical self, something was lost that tied them to their human memories. "Why do I always end up with more questions than answers when I deal with you?" he murmured as he stroked his hand along the shinigami wrapped around his upper chest.

It chuckled in amusement and didn’t respond.

He had just begun to wonder if there might not be anything in Aiwei’s biography on Ban, either, when the door opened to reveal a disgruntled Yohji carrying a tray heavy with a pot of tea and sweets. Judging from the look his mate was giving him, someone wasn’t too happy and had an idea that the shinigami were around.

Aya belatedly realized that Yohji must have sensed the pain from before and offered him an apologetic smile. "I was just recalling something from the past."

"I thought it might be something like that, considering you said you’d be up here reading through those damn journals." Anger colored Yohji’s voice and emotions; he always hated it when Aya read Aidan’s diaries since her life had been one of misery and abuse. "And I’m sure those hissing bastards haven’t helped any, either." He set the tray on the table and made a shooing motion. "Go *away* before I light enough candles up here to summon Kagayaki," he threatened.

The shinigami hissed loud enough to make Aya wince at the noise but did as they were told, the two around him leaving after some lingering caresses and muttered insults to the ‘overbearing golden one’.

"They’re not happy with you right now," Aya remarked as he reached for the pot of tea.

"Good, because I’m not very pleased with them now, either," Yohji growled as he glared at the darkened corner where they had congregated. Then he directed the look at Aya. "I thought you weren’t going to seek them out."

Aya sighed at the hurt/confusion/upset he felt over their link. "I didn’t, but if I’m alone then they’re around me." He stared at Yohji as if waiting for his mate to declare that he wasn’t to be left alone anymore, which was *not* an acceptable solution. After a few seconds, Yohji looked away.

"Besides, I had a question about Aidan’s journal," he admitted. "I’d hoped that maybe they had spent time with her as well, but I guess basically being a captive meant that she was shunned."

"Well that was nice of them, to abandon a fellow shinigami-bound who probably needed them the most," Yohji pointed out with heavy sarcasm as he resumed glaring at the shinigami. In return, they hissed at him while Aya munched on a cookie; he suspected that he had centuries of such animosity to live through and that it would be best to learn to just ignore it.

"By no means am I condoning their actions, but I think their rationale is… why help someone who can destroy the people enslaving her." He stared at the arm stretched out before him, at the scars peeking out past the cuff of his grey shirt. "They don’t understand why the lives of mortals would hold us in check," he whispered with a hint of sibilance to his voice.

"Aya…" Yohji grasped his outstretched hand and gave it a squeeze. "Don’t start that again, okay?" Concern pulsed over their link and made Aya look up, to stare into his mate’s emerald green eyes. "Don’t call them ‘mortals’ or talk as if they’re going to die any minute now."

Aya tilted his head to the side and regarded his mate for several seconds before nodding. Suddenly, he felt very tired and wished that they were somewhere quiet, somewhere secluded where it was just the two of them. He didn’t want to leave the attic and have to face his friends who would look at him with concern and a touch of fear after his… ‘lapse’ in the kitchen yesterday. "Okay."

"Good." Yohji lifted his hand to kiss the back of his fingers. "Now drink some tea and eat the cookies I brought up for you, or else Jo will smack me around for neglecting you." He smiled as if looking forward to the abuse.

"Strange man," Aya murmured before doing as he’d been told. Yohji enjoyed a few cookies as well and watched him until half the tea and most of the cookies were gone. "What’s happening downstairs?"

"Hmm?" Yohji frowned for a moment and brushed back a lock of hair that was falling onto his face. "Reiichi’s been trying to get a little bit more information out of Naomi, other than the fact that she’s looking for a job and somewhere cheap to rent." He shrugged and reached over to wipe away some crumbs from Aya’s lips, his fingers lingering for a couple of seconds. "She’s almost as difficult to get to open up as you were, Cat," he teased.

That statement made Aya arch an eyebrow as he poured himself some more tea. "Let’s hope that no one’s trying to sleep with *her*."

Yohji laughed as he leaned across the table for a kiss, lingering for several seconds before sinking back into his seat. "Well, she’s not bad looking but no one’s as gorgeous as you. Who can blame me for pouncing on you the moment we met?"

"Idiot," Aya murmured as he raised his teacup to his lips.

"Hmm, I think in this case it’s more like ‘pervert’, but I’ll accept that endearment anyway." Yohji flashed him a grin as he leaned back in his chair. Then his demeanor turned serious. "She really is afraid of someone."

Aya stared into his cup of tea for several seconds. "I’m sure between you, Jo and Mickey you’ll figure out how to help her." They certainly had worn him down.

"Yeah, and it helps to be able to sense her emotions and thoughts." Yohji heaved a loud sigh and tapped his fingers against the table. "I’m amazed at how much my mom managed without being a bound."

From all accounts, the woman was very talented and a force to be reckoned with, so much so that Aya wondered how she would handle this current situation with the shinigami. He glanced over his shoulder at the shadows and smiled as he shook his head, not so certain that his ‘pack’ would be the winners in that battle.

Then he hissed as one of his eartails was pulled. "What’s so funny?"

He batted Yohji’s hand aside and scowled at the idiot. "That I actually bother sticking up for you at all," he growled.

"Aw, don’t be such a grumpy cat." Yohji got up so he could come around to the other side of the table, which he leaned against as he stood near Aya. He reached out to cup the left side of Aya’s face. "After I brought you some cookies, too."

"Hmm, but you ate some of them," Aya was eager to point out.

Yohji blinked as if surprised. "You’re right." He leaned in, his fingers now beneath Aya’s chin. "I guess I owe you something now." He bridged the space between them for another kiss, this one more passionate and lasting longer. Aya felt a slight drain as it lingered on, Yohji’s tongue sliding against his and fingers threading through his hair. Desire built up in him, pushing aside any doubts and annoyance he had until his world focused on his lover. From far away he heard the faint hissing of the shinigami but didn’t care. Right now it felt so nice to have Yohji near him like this, for the pleasure to course through a body he was only too happy to keep.

He had just slid his arms around his mate’s neck when the door opened again, proceeded by a coughing sound. "Ah, I guess the research is finished for the day?"

Yohji growled as he pulled away from Aya. "Reiichi, you have an *awful* sense of timing."

"I don’t know, I could have waited another ten minutes and then come up," the man argued with an amused grin.

Yohji looked about as if wanting to throw something at the Guard, but the only thing around were old books, a plate and a tea set. He had to settle for a glare while leaning against Aya’s chair. "Maybe it’s time for you to turn in those gauntlets."

Reiichi laughed as he stroked his right hand over his left wrist. "Hmm, no, I think they’re much too useful for me to do that." He smiled at Aya before nodding at the journals. "Any luck?"

"I’m afraid not." Aya sighed and leaned a little to the left, against Yohji’s warmth; after the shinigami’s cool caresses, it was a comforting contrast to feel his mate’s warm body against his own. "Then again, I hadn’t really thought to come across anything."

"Sometimes looking at things with a new perspective can lead to a revelation, but it probably was a long-shot." Reiichi looked over Aya’s right shoulder at the darkened corner and then glanced aside. "I suppose if Aidan had been stronger, she would have been awarded more respect."

"That or put to death." Aya touched one of the journals with care. He knew that she would have much preferred the death sentence to the decades of captivity and blood letting.

Pain and anguish flowed over their link as he was hugged to Yohji’s side. "Cat… don’t say such things."

But that was what happened to kage – they were hunted down and killed. Aya closed his eyes and let his lover hold him close, feeling tired from dealing with so many human expectations. Why did they deny what was in front of them? Aya’s safety came from his usefulness to the king, the only kage since the Captain – the only true kage in a way since ‘she’ had been created by Kritiker’s Wizard – to willingly work for the throne. Without the oaths sworn and the friendship the king felt toward his father, Aya would be in similar danger. For all he knew, there might come a time when such things wouldn’t protect him and Yohji.

Yohji pressed a kiss against his right temple. "You’re thinking depressing thoughts, aren’t you?"

"I’m just reflecting on the past and the future," he admitted as he tucked back a lock of wavy blond hair behind his mate’s left ear.

That earned him a disdainful snort. "See, that’s why it’s so much better to be an idiot – you don’t have to think such depressing things."

That earned a brief laugh from Aya before he gave Yohji a quick kiss. For all the declarations of idiocy, the truth of it was that Yohji was much too smart for both of their good at times. "You have a rather frightening sense of logic."

He wasn’t the only one laughing as he was pulled out of the chair to stand between Yohji’s legs. "Hush now, or you’re going to spoil my sexy blond image," Yohji murmured as he nuzzled Aya’s neck. He wrapped his arms around Aya’s waist. "We all know that blonds are supposed to look gorgeous and leave the thinking to their better halves, right Reiichi?"

"Hmm, that’s what I keep telling Yuushi when I show him up yet again at something to placate his poor ego," Reiichi remarked from his corner of the library. "I’ve been trying to teach it to Eri but I think she’s a bit of a softy when it comes to him."

"Yeah, she seems to take it all out on Naru instead." While there was still a strong sense of love and a bit of concern, Yohji’s amusement settled into concentration instead. "Speaking of the woman, what has she picked up from our latest stray?"

"Just enough to confirm that she’s done her best to run away from an abusive husband and that she wants to start over a new life here in the city." Reiichi folded his arms over his chest and frowned a little. "She has no experience with bounds and would probably run screaming from one if introduced, so it’s definitely best to keep that part of the Koneko hidden from her."

Yohji grimaced and hugged Aya closer to him. "So it’s best to get her out of here as quickly as possible, which Jo probably doesn’t want to hear. I’ll talk to Mick later and see if we can’t find her a job amongst some of the shopkeepers we know." He seemed to think something over for a minute. "I know Eleanor mentioned how busy she’s been lately, especially since Omi and Takashi’s been taking some of her goods to the palace and sharing them about."

"The Koneko is one of the biggest patrons in this district, I’m sure it won’t be too hard to line up employment for her somewhere."

Yohji nodded at Reiichi’s statement. "We’ve done it before, though lately it’s just been to supply references for a couple of bounds who’ve been looking for work outside of the Guard or spying. The last few strays have ended up staying here so we haven’t passed on any directly." His arms tightened around Aya as he spoke, as if afraid that he would leave.

"Then here’s hoping that we can find her a new home quickly," Reiichi repeated as he rubbed his left wrist. "If she’s running from something, there’s a chance of it following her, not to mention I’d rather not have to explain too many things to her. Sooner or later we’re going to come across someone who’s not so understanding."

Aya hated to hear the bitterness tainting his lover’s usually warm laughter. "Yeah, we’ve been too lucky in having a string of open-minded people come here, can’t have that go on forever." Yohji sighed as he nuzzled Aya’s right temple. "Sometimes I wish I could go back in time to beat the shit out of those wizards who made everyone hate and fear our kind so much."

"I think the war had a little part to play in that as well," Aya argued in a soft voice as he glanced at the shinigami. The wizards had definitely did their best to keep humans from sympathizing with bounds after the war, but there had probably been some lingering fear and hatred after seeing their kind fight as weapons for so long.

"Wherever the blame may fall, there’s a chance to set things right now," Reiichi pointed out as he came to stand near them. "And the less we have people running around the district shrieking about bloodthirsty bounds before then, the better."

Aya rested back against Yohji and rolled his eyes. "Is that your way of saying that it’s about time to head downstairs for lunch?" He had spent most of last night and today either in the bedroom or up here, and supposed that it was time that he faced his friends after what had happened yesterday.

Reiichi smiled, the expression much too innocent to be trusted. "Well, it is getting rather close to lunchtime and Ken and Miko should be here by now. Imagine the fun you’ll miss, especially since Jo made roast lamb, which Miko adores."

Yohji laughed, this time the expression free of bitterness and unhappiness, and patted Aya on the hip as he let him go. "I think we need to make sure we get good seats for that fight, Cat."

A bit sad to be leaving the quiet library, Aya spared a glance at the shinigami. They seethed a little but remained silent as he walked away, and he reminded himself that he would soon be surrounded by friends – friends who were fine and healthy. There was nothing that he had ‘seen’ around them that indicated that the shinigami would be feeding from them anytime soon, which was encouraging. He would be all right downstairs and would do his best to keep his thoughts as ‘human’ as possible today.

*******

Botan fought the urge to grind his teeth together as he sat behind his desk and consulted with his calendar. For the most part, he usually relied upon Birman to remind him of any important Court events that he needed to attend and did his best to ignore the rest, but it seemed that wasn’t good enough anymore. Oh no, not since Manx had decided that he, as the Royal Wizard, needed to become more ‘involved’ at Court and had stepped in with the decision of his second new assistant.

"The luncheon for Ambassador Nadav is tomorrow at eleven o’clock," Haruto reminded him in what sounded to be a helpful tone.

"Thank you," Botan answered in as pleasant a manner as he could manage.

"Then there’s the dinner that Lord Konno is having later that evening, starting at six o’clock," Haruto added. He sat in the chair in front of Botan’s desk with his posture perfectly straight, his shoulder-length dark brown hair combed back from his handsome face and his expensive clothes hinting at his Kaneko bloodline with the dull gold and brown coloring.

"Yes, I’m aware of that, too." Botan tapped his fingers against the calendar. "I’m also aware that we need to finish creating the charms for the Army before spring. I have Edgar, Shigeo and Newlyn restoring wards around the palace and the city, as befits their status as my senior assistants, but had counted on you, Takashi and Omi to spend more of your time on the charms than socializing." Some of his anger crept into the words despite his intentions; he still wasn’t certain that Haruto was only here because Manx and his family had maneuvered the poor boy into this position.

Haruto flinched a little and held up his hands in a placating gesture. "I thought that Takashi and Omi were working hard on the charms as we speak." There was a slight pause as he spoke Omi’s name – he still didn’t understand how ‘Omi’ could be an ‘unofficial’ assistant and be trusted with so much work. Fortunately, no matter how the boy had been foisted on Botan, he was a talented wizard and it had only taken one sparring session with Omi for him to recognize the other’s talent. If the highborn ever realized that he was being a bit condescending to the crown prince….

Things were becoming too complicated, and it was all Manx’s fault. The Royal Wizard was better left *out* of Court politics and here she was dragging him back into things when he was doing his damned best to prepare for a war! At least the gods – or Birman – had seen to it that Haruto was talented and had a sharp mind, so when the boy wasn’t tagging along with Botan to the damn annoying functions he at least was of use with the charms. And he was even helpful at the various teas, luncheons and dinners that Botan found himself stuck with attending these last few days. Botan could only hope to get the Court familiar with Haruto as his assistant soon and let the young man take over in his stead… once he was certain that he could be trusted.

"They are, but there’s only so much even two talented young men can do." Botan considered his calendar for a minute. "We’ll attend the luncheon tomorrow but only put in a brief appearance at Lord Konno’s dinner." He would much rather spend the evening at the Koneko and then the night at Cassandra’s, and might learn something more of value from his lover. "The day after tomorrow is to be spent working on charms, as some time must be spent on your education, whether the Queen likes it or not." If she didn’t, then he would have some words with Manx and ask her if she wanted to take over Haruto’s education. "Then we can finish out the week at the Queen’s tea, and I’ll invite Takashi as well." It wasn’t fair to just let the Court see Haruto, and Takashi might benefit from having to think up charms on the spot as the highborns made their requests.

If Haruto was upset about his decisions at all, the boy refused to show it. "Very well, sir." Haruto bowed his head slightly as he pulled out a small notebook and wrote everything down. "I look forward to our lessons."

And he looked forward to having Eri around the youth a bit more to double-check his thoughts. Dammit, just when he was about to tell Takashi about bounds, and then this had to happen. Botan sighed as he poured himself some coffee. Maybe he should have gone into the family business after all.

*******

Masami sat in the quiet library, reading a book of translated Xanian poetry while enjoying the warmth of the fire. Her father had always been interested in Xanian culture and would be fascinated with the book, and for a moment she felt a pang of betrayal at the memory. Did he ever think about the little girl he had read to all those years ago, or only care about the status the family had gained when he had traded her off to Shun? She’d had little contact from her family in the past year….

She did her best to push the dark thoughts away and focus on the present. The Koneko had proven to be a safe haven, the staff friendly enough that she felt bad about lying to them. Tomorrow, she had an interview with a local shopkeeper about a job, and hopefully soon she would be earning enough money to rent a small apartment nearby. She could start her life anew as ‘Naomi Goto’, a common-born woman who was free to do whatever she wanted and feared nothing. Even if she had to live simply for the rest of her life, it would be fine.

The middle-aged merchant finished checking something in a Thracian book and returned it to the shelf, nodding to her as he left, and after a while one of the inn’s staff, the young woman with the long dark hair that was always pulled back with a colorful ribbon, came in and added some more wood to the fireplace. She smiled at Masami before she left and mentioned that dinner would be ready in about another hour.

Feeling a little hungry, Masami decided that she would finish the book and then head to her room to prepare for the meal. There were just a few poems left when someone else entered the room; she didn’t pay them much attention until they approached her chair. She looked up from the book to see an unfamiliar man grab her left arm and yank her onto her feet, and behind him stood Shun, wrapped in a thick cloak.

"Shu-" She couldn’t even cry out her husband’s name before the other man slapped her across the face.

"You’ll be quiet," Shun hissed as she was jerked forward, the hold on her wrists so tight that it hurt. "You do *anything* to make a scene and you won’t be able to sit down for a week once we’re back home, do you understand?" He stepped forward to grab hold of her jaw, his fingers digging in to the bone. "Scream or talk back and you won’t be able to eat."

Stunned that he had been able to find her, it took the pain to snap her out of her thoughts and to focus on what he was saying. She tried to cringe away from his touch but between his hold on her face and the other man’s grip on her wrists, there was no where to go. Shun had found her, any chance of being free was now gone. "Yesh," she replied, the word distorted by her jaw being held in place. As much as it hurt now, she knew that it was only a taste of what awaited her once Shun got her back home. But what could she do?

"Good. Now, we’re going to your room to fetch your things and whatever money’s left that you stole from me, and then we’re going home." Shun’s fingers tightened on her face at the mention of the money, his dark brown eyes narrowing in anger as well.

He stepped away when she made no sign of resisting, all signs of anger vanishing and his demeanor once more that of a handsome young man, a little worse for wear from the traveling with his black hair disheveled and his clothes stained. Yet Masami knew that if she tried to call out for help, to label him an abuser that he would pull off such a convincing act of innocence, one backed by the man holding on to her and anyone else he’d brought along that she’d be considered a liar or worse. There was no escape.

She was tugged toward the door when it opened, to admit Jo. The cook looked calmly at the three of them, her right hand held down at her side as she closed the door behind her. "Ah, Naomi, I thought you might be interested in knowing that dinner will be ready soon."

Shun glared at the woman. "We weren’t supposed to be interrupted." He then turned the look at the door as if it had failed him in some manner.

Jo shrugged off the dirty look as if it was of no consequence and stepped forward. "This isn’t a private library. We’ll be having fish chowder, roast pork and sandwiches tonight," she continued.

Masami winced as her left wrist was twisted about. "Ah, I’m not very hungry, Jo. In fact, I’ll be leaving soon. My… ah, friends, have arrived."

"I see." Jo paused for a moment and looked at Shun. "They don’t look very trustworthy to me."

Shun flushed at the implied insult and moved in front of Jo. "It’s none of your concern. Get out of our way and mind your own business."

"Anything that harms a customer *is* my own business."

"Jo, please," Masami whispered, unwilling to see the kind woman be hurt for her sake.

Jo continued to face Shun without any sign of fear. "Do you want to leave, Naomi?"

The question startled her, as used as she was to everyone ignoring the ‘scenes’ she had with Shun. She knew she should say ‘yes’, that it would be best for everyone if she just let Shun drag her back home and face what would happen there without any more resistance. Yet for some reason, she felt a spark of courage, felt something that urged her to say the truth. "No," she answered, little more than a sigh.

Somehow, Jo heard it. She nodded once and shifted to better block Shun’s path. "You and your friend can leave, but you won’t be taking her." She spoke in a tone that made it clear that she expected to be obeyed.

Shun sneered at the order. "Get out of my way, bitch." He raised his hand, either to strike her or to push her aside, and before Masami could yell out a warning, Jo lashed out with her right hand.

Only her hand wasn’t empty – somehow, she had hidden the rolling pin from sight as she entered the room, and there was a loud, sickening ‘crack’ as it came crashing down on Shun’s right arm. Everyone stared at Jo for a moment before Shun cried out in pain, and as he fell toward the floor, Jo smacked him again, this time on the shoulder.

The man holding onto Masami finally let her go so he could either help Shun or attack Jo, but at some point during Jo’s assault on Shun, others had entered the library. Something dark blue launched itself at the man and tackled him to the ground, something that turned out to the friendly young Guard whom Masami had often seen hanging around the last few days. He smiled at her as he sat on the stunned man’s chest, his lips closed over his teeth, and his partner, a pretty young woman with shoulder-length brown hair, stood over by a crying Shun.

"Hmm, Yuushi should see about having you teach a class on unconventional weapons," the woman was saying to Jo as they watched Shun writhe about.

"That’s the nice thing about a kitchen, there’s always something on hand," Jo replied as she waved the marble rolling pin about.

"-fucking bitch, I’ll-"

The Guard rather unkindly nudged Shin in what looked to be his broken arm to get him to stop swearing, making him cry out again in pain instead. "Watch your tongue, or the healer will get lost on his way here."

Shaking a little in shock of what had just happened, Masami forced herself to approach the two women. "I… thank you," she told Jo as she bowed.

Jo frowned as she rested the rolling pin against her right shoulder. "Are you all right? I think you should get something warm in you."

"I…" Masami shivered and wrapped her arms around her waist, cold despite the fire and the thick sweater she wore. "I’m better now."

The Guard gave her a kind, encouraging smile. "Do you know these men?"

She nodded. "Yes. I mean, he’s my husband." She pointed to Shun. "I don’t know the other one." She’d never seen him before, but the dark hair and skin, the broad face and sturdy build made her think that he might be one of the men who worked on her husband’s land.

"She probably doesn’t know the one Mickey’s sitting on, either," the other Guard said as he pulled the stranger onto his feet.

"I’m… I’m allowed to… to see my… wife." Shun spoke the words with obvious effort as he struggled to sit up, his right arm cradled against his chest.

"See her, yes. Abuse her and chase her down as if she’s property? No." Jo spat out the words with an amount of vehemence that surprised Masami, as the woman had always appeared in control of herself before. "Don’t think you can come here and do whatever you want."

Masami stared at her in wonder, and then at the Guards as they dragged Shun and the strange man out of the library. She remained standing there until Jo touched her on the arm, almost jumping at the contact. "Come on, let’s get you something to drink." Jo led her to the kitchen.

The room was large and full of warmth, the air laden with the scents of the prepared food and various spices. Several young men were busy with the preparations for dinner, and another young woman, this one with dark brown hair was over by the sink. Jo motioned for Masami to sit down at one of the tables with the rolling pin before heading over to set the ‘weapon’ aside and fussed with stove.

"Bethwynn, please bring me the bottle of rum."

"Yes, Jo." The young woman wiped her hands clean and hurried to obey, while Jo combined several ingredients in a small copper pot. She might be dressed in a simple white and grey dress, but she had the air of a highborn to her, with the way her commands were instantly obeyed and the other people looked to her for orders.

After a few minutes, she walked over to Masami with a large mug in her hands. "Here, drink this."

She accepted the hot toddy with a murmured ‘thanks’ and was careful to only take a tiny sip. Jo had definitely added the rum with a very heavy hand.

Masami supposed that it was the time to tell the truth. "My name-"

"Is whatever you want it to be," Jo answered in a curt tone. "You’re not the first person we’ve had come here looking to start a new life," she added after a moment, perhaps in response to Masami’s stunned expression.

"Oh." Had they known all along that she was running from something? She took another sip of the drink, now grateful for all of the alcohol. "What’s going to happen now?" Perhaps that was the better question to ask while she decided on what needed to be said.

Jo stared out the window over the kitchen sink for a moment. "Ken and Miko will take your husband to the nearest Guard’s station, where he’ll get enough healing to be able to be sent home. Before then, it’ll be made abundantly clear to him that abusing another person and then attempting to abduct them is sufficiently against the law to land him jail for quite a few years." She looked back at Masami. "You’ll need to see him one more time to formally file charges for your protection and to ask a Judge to dissolve your marriage, if that’s what you want."

Masami’s hand around the mug began to tremble; for so long, no one seemed able to or willing to help her with Shun, and now here was someone who believed her, who not only had protected her from him but was helping her to escape him forever. "They can do that? They can – no marriage?"

"If it’s what you want." Jo’s lips pressed together into a thin line for several seconds. "Several of us here can swear as witnesses that you arrived bearing bruises, and it’s clear he was trying to take you away by force. Any Judge will declare a marriage invalid on those grounds."

She blushed at the thought of them recognizing her injuries for what they were, but the shame faded when she told herself it would be a means to get rid of Shun forever. "I just want to be free. I don’t care about his name or how rich we’re supposed to be when things work out or…." She sipped more of the hot toddy to keep from crying. It wouldn’t even matter if her parents never spoke to her again, not after the way they had all but given her to Shun.

Jo reached over to pat her on the arm. "We’ll help you figure it out. We’ve done it a time or two before." There was a wry grin on her face as she spoke the words, that was quickly replaced by a frown as she looked at the still mostly full mug. "Now finish your drink."

"Yes, ma’am." Masami did as she was told.

*******

Alexis watched as Helena poured them both a cup of tea and as the girl handed one of them to her. Helena’s hands were steady, her back straight and her expression one of slight concentration. There was no mistake in the tea ceremony this time, although it was a much simpler one than that from Wufei’s native country.

"Thank you," she murmured as she accepted the cup, and took a careful sip of the hot beverage before setting it down. Only then did Helena pick up her own cup and have a drink, the cup quickly set aside as she reached for a scone.

"Oh! Should I have let you have one first?" Helena asked as she snatched her hand back from the pastry.

"No, you served me first which gave me time to help myself if I wanted one," Alexis explained. "If there were more guests, you would tend to each of us in turn, according to our status, and so would be last and then would be free to eat. Just make sure if you do host a tea to have enough food on hand for all of your guests, and if there’s not enough left to refrain until either your guests leave or more is obtained."

Helena nodded to show that she understood. "I think I’ll be fine."

Alexis smiled as she picked up a cinnamon scone. "I’m sure you will be, as these are the types of tea parties you’ll be expected to host." She could understand Wufei teaching all of the different types of gatherings to the girl as she would be expected to attend them, but Helena would only be allowed to hold small gatherings of her own. As a young highborn, she would be limited by her unmarried status, her youth, her nobility… and the fact that the Elders wouldn’t want her mingling with too many people. No, tea parties would be the perfect opportunity for her to interact with a carefully chosen few from the other countries’ Courts and give her a taste of what she needed to know for when she became the queen.

"There’s so much to learn." The words were spoken with a hint of defiance, as if Helena refused to bow down before the weight of responsibility and knowledge that Wufei, Quatre and Alexis were placing on her. Alexis had seen many students during her childhood, had witnessed her mother struggle with those who had resented having to learn and Helena was definitely *not* one of them. After so many years of neglect, she seemed to thrive on each challenge given to her and not even Wufei’s harsh teaching style and faint praise discouraged her. Alexis could see why Quatre was so certain that the girl would make a good queen.

"The thing about knowledge is that it’s like the sky, always there and stretching on forever," Alexis remarked as she picked up her tea cup. "There’s always something new to learn." She smiled as Lisa arrived with a plate of tea sandwiches. "And thankfully always something delicious to eat when you’re having tea."

Helena smiled at her companion. "Thank you, Lisa, they look wonderful." She waited until Alexis picked some of the watercress and cream cheese sandwiches to help herself to the food.

Seeing the affection between the bound and the girl, Alexis felt confident that Esset wouldn’t have any concern over a human truly ruling the country once Helena assumed the throne; the child had been raised lovingly by bounds and thought of Lisa and Charles as her family, as adoptive parents. Perhaps a human husband might be found from one of the highborn families that had bound blood in them to appease the bound population, if he met with Helena’s approval, but it could wait until after the war. Alexis snapped her teeth into the sandwich and reminded herself that they still had the war to *win*, after all.

Still, each day gave her new hope that they would. And each day brought it closer to happening, to fruition. The Elders had approved her going with Helena to Eto, a fact that filled her both with excitement and dread. She knew that she was there to watch over Helena, and was certain that the others with them would have plans of their own. All that mattered was ensuring that Helena remained safe.

She dabbed at her mouth with the napkin and sipped a little more tea. "Now, let’s focus on what’s considered suitable topics to discuss during tea." Five months wasn’t much time, considering what faced them in Eto, and they still had a lot of ground to cover.

A slight flush overcame Helena as she set aside her teacup. "Yes, ma’am."

One thing to say about Wufei, he certainly instilled a proper amount of respectful fear in one’s students, Alexis thought as she bared the slightest hint of fangs.

*******

Yohji glanced in the direction of the kitchen. "Well, I think things have calmed down now, or at least Jo has. We should be getting some food soon."

"Good, because I’m hungry enough to start nibbling on someone real soon," Jei said with a disturbing croon as he looked around the table, his gaze lingering on everyone for a couple of seconds before moving on – and then he settled on Duo.

Duo shifted in his seat several times before he glared at Jei. "I didn’t come here for this shit," he muttered as sparks filled the air around him.

"Ooh, nice, I’d like you to be medium rare, thanks."

"Jei," Trowa said, the word quiet but shaded with obvious warning. Across from him, Aya’s eyes became filled with an ominous silver gleam.

"Some people are no fun," Jei complained, but he covered his fangs and settled back against the wall. Thankfully, Aya’s shadows and the wizards’ wards kept unwanted attention away from them, but Crawford felt the beginning of a headache none the less as he reached for more wine.

"I have never found myself more eager for the start of a war," he murmured as he poured the alcohol into his cup.

Of course everyone at the table heard him, even Birman. "If you promise me that it includes the death of a certain ambassador, I’ll even help you kick it off early." She snatched the bottle from his hand the moment he tilted it upright.

"I’m afraid that your dear friend Shen has an important role to play for a while to come," he told his friend, and had to smile at her evident frustration. "But I do foresee some enjoyment in your future." That appeared to brighten her mood somewhat."

"You, sir, are one big tease." Yet she didn’t seem to mind too much, which is why he enjoyed her company almost as much as Jei did. Birman set the wine bottle down and looked around the table. "Will Reiichi be joining us?"

Yohji shrugged, as much as he was able with his left arm firmly around Aya’s shoulders. "No, he’s off with Ken and Miko taking care of our little excitement earlier." It was clear he wasn’t happy about the event and was even more protective over Aya than usual. "I don’t expect him back for a few more hours, at least."

The Guard was probably doing his best to ensure that the human didn’t try to stir up any more trouble at the inn, or do anything that might risk exposing the bounds here and possibly Aya. Crawford didn’t foresee any threat, but knew that the kage’s involvement might be blocking his talent. He would have to trust the Shadow Guard and the inn’s powerful protections in the matter, and felt little danger. "Then it’s best we proceed without him."

He tapped his fingers against his wine glass. "I’ve heard word from my associates in Esset, and things are going as planned. The princess will arrive in Eto for Princess Ouka’s birthday with one or two people we can trust… and what I’m certain will be a party that will have their own agenda to cause whatever damage they can." He paused to wet his throat with the wine. "The trick will be finding out those agendas and stopping what we can without overplaying our own hand."

Birman laughed, the sound a little bitter. "Oh yes, it’s always the easy tasks that’s left up to us." She sighed as she played with a strand of her dark hair. "From the conversations I’ve had with the king and queen, we’re going to be in reactionary mode during the festivities. They’re very well aware that Esset is planning a war, but they refuse to let it be said that *we* were the instigators and so we’re not to do anything that might be construed as antagonistic." She made a grimace that did a very good job of expressing her frustrated emotions just then. "So it’s being on guard and hoping we can limit the damage as much as possible."

"We could just kill them all," Duo mumbled around the rim of his wine glass.

"Here, here," Jei agreed, which had the entire table staring at the two men for thinking of the same thing.

"Sadly, not unless they make an open attempt against the throne first," Birman complained. "There’s something to be said for wartime powers, but we’re not at that point yet."

Trowa frowned at his employer for a moment before shaking his head. "The last thing we need is to play into the Elders’ hands."

"Oh, I’m sure they’re going to do their best to antagonize us and hope we make the first obvious move." She looked over at Crawford to confirm her suspicions, and he had the grace to smile. "We won’t give them the satisfaction."

Trowa shifted about on the bench as if uncomfortable and shared a glance with his mate. "Let’s hope that they don’t move on to orders, then, to instigate an offense."

Duo wrapped a protective arm around Trowa’s shoulders and seemed to do his best to swallow a growl. "You better have some damn good illusion spells ready in case we need to go into hiding, but that’ll just cover Trowa and me. What about Heero? He’s starting to think for himself, but we’re not seeing anything to indicate that he’s ready to break free right now."

"No, I fear your understanding of the matter to be correct," Crawford admitted as he considered the various futures that he had ‘seen’. "These upcoming months should play a very important role in helping him choose Kritiker over Esset, but he still needs to learn more before he can free himself from the conditioning that’s encaged him his entire life." The Elders had done such a thorough job of convincing Heero that their way of thinking was the only true way for Esset to survive.

"Great, couldn’t you just spring a mate on the poor guy as well and save us the worry?" Duo grumbled, but he leaned in to nuzzle Trowa’s right temple as if to take out any sting from his words.

"I figured that I’d save myself yet another lecture," Crawford couldn’t help but retort, and smiled a little when he noticed the way that Yohji’s lips twitched in response.

"Yeah, well, I’d forego the bitching for once if it saved us a bit of work and worrying," Yohji announced as he reluctantly slid his arms away from his own lover. "And I think it’s time to see where the food is if everyone’s more focused on said bitching than actual plotting." He gave Aya a quick kiss as he rose from the table. "Don’t plan any assassinations without me."

"We won’t let you miss out on any of the fun," Birman assured him as he walked away. Then her smile faded as if something occurred to her, and she turned to better face Crawford. "Are we going to have to plan any? I mean, beside the occasional spy and traitor."

"I’m hoping to keep the deaths of any major players to a minimum, at least until closer to the war," he admitted. "Removing them from the game at this point would only increase the confusion and leave open too many opportunities for others."

"What he’s saying is, that it makes things messy and gives him too many headaches," Jei added with his usually breezy candor and toothy grin.

Birman laughed as she bowed her head. "Ah, so much for me thinking that you’d recently become an acolyte for the goddess Kannon."

That caused a round of laughter from everyone at the table, save for Crawford and Aya. For himself, Crawford smiled a little at the joke, able to see the humor in it, while Aya merely stared silently at him with those unsettling eyes of his, the various sources of light in the room reflecting silver on their surface. He had heard about the kage’s ‘odd’ behavior the other day, which was in part why he was here tonight, letting Birman and Trowa pick his brain for visions.

"And what is your take of the future?" he posed to Aya, interested in hearing what a shinigami-bound would say.

Aya remained quiet for several seconds, the tilt of his head to the left the only indication that he had heard the question. When he spoke, there was a hint of sibilance to his voice, almost like a rasp of neglect. "I can’t see the future."

"No, but you’re an intelligent young man who’s spent a lot of his time reading about the wars of the past, which should give you some indication of what might happen with this upcoming one." Crawford could sense the growing interest and a hint of fear from the others at the table, and knew he wasn’t the only one to have heard about Aya’s ‘peculiar’ tendencies these last few days; he just hoped that Yohji didn’t return with the food within the next minute or two. "Also… you have some interesting friends." He did his best not to glance at the dark shadows that appeared to cling to Aya’s back.

There was more silence for another minute, and then Aya nodded once as he looked straight at Crawford. "What do you do when you see a person’s death?"

It was a question that he had been asked before – was one he had asked both his mother and his father. From his father, all he had gotten was a chilling laugh and disapproving look, but his mother had provided something that he could live with while balancing so many futures and outcomes. "I weigh what can and can’t be done, what it costs to save the life and all the harm it may bring, and accept that sometimes nothing can be changed."

"And you let them die?"

That was a bit more direct than he liked. "If there’s no other way, or it’s clear that their death is for a reason," he admitted. "Sometimes, a person is meant to die and nothing I do will change that."

"The gods decide," Aya remarked in a quiet voice, almost as if he was quoting someone. He looked away from Crawford, out across the room. "Esset will give us a cause for war," was what he finally said, in that sibilant tone.

Duo appeared as if he was about to start swearing at any moment, but Trowa and Jei each had a hold of his arms and looked ready to gag him if necessary, their jaws clenched and eyes a bit wide as if they struggled a little themselves with being so close to a shinigami-bound. Birman had turned pale and her expression haunted, yet she swallowed and reached for her wine glass with a hand that only shook a little as she focused on Aya. "Do you care to elaborate?" she asked, her tone harsh but quiet.

The kage shook his head. "No." Then he pulled the hood of his black jerkin over his head and vanished from their sight, most likely to go look for his mate. Duo finally cursed, and let out a yelp when Jei smacked him for it.

"Well, I’m guessing that we’ll have to fetch our own dinner at this point," Jei complained while Duo muttered under his breath and glared at him.

"Yes, unless Yohji thinks to have someone bring it to us." Crawford shared a look with his partner and sighed. "Let’s give the kitchen a few minutes to calm down and then wave Marta over."

Birman finished her glass of wine and sighed. "Be sure to ask for more wine." She tapped one of the empty bottles. "I think we need a hell of a lot more now." She stared at it for a moment then looked at him. "Do you have any idea what that was about, and do *I* want to know about it?" There was a bleak tone to her voice.

He did some sighing of his own as he scavenged the table for any remaining wine, and nodded in thanks when Trowa passed over the last full bottle. "Aya’s clearly coming into some very interesting shinigami talents, which I’m assuming are along the lines of knowing those who will be marked for death." Duo cursed again, but was spared a smack this time since Jei had joined him. "Yes, exactly."

"That’s… going to make it a bit uncomfortable to be around him, considering what’s about to happen," Trowa commented as he shifted closer to his mate.

Crawford managed a grim smile at the understatement. Before he could say anything, Birman spoke. "It might be uncomfortable, but it could be useful as well if we can have some foreknowledge of Esset’s targets." She turned toward Crawford. "You and Cassandra aren’t exactly infallible."

"No, and we don’t see everything. If my guess is correct, Aya as a shinigami-bound should have some ability to foresee a death because of how he ‘feeds’ from it; his kind must know beforehand to be there for their ‘meals’."

Birman nodded as she twisted on the bench. "He was looking over there, wasn’t he?" She tried to see what Aya had been looking at earlier, and Crawford guessed when something caught her attention by the way her complexion paled again. "Oh no…." She quickly twirled around to face him. "Have you seen anything?" she demanded.

"No." He held up his hands as if in defense. "I’ve had few visions in regards to the upcoming visit as of yet, and anything of importance has been passed on to you. I don’t know what Aya saw… and I’m not about to force it out of him. Are you?"

For a moment, he could sense that Birman wanted nothing more to do than just that. She had the courage to go into the kitchen or upstairs and ask Aya what it was that he had seen… and then something, either common sense or self-preservation kicked in. It wasn’t exactly fear, not quite, but it made her look aside and grab at the last bottle of wine. He let her have it, knowing that she needed the alcohol just then. There was a sense of confusion from the others at the table, replaced by fear, concern and anger as they turned as well to see what Birman had noticed.

Aya had been staring in the direction of the long table occupied by Guards and Shadow Guards when he had made his ominous declaration.

*******

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