Tangled Threads

*******

chapter five

*******

new players and old debts

*******

Yohji leaned over the edge of the roof and stared onto the crowded street below. Throngs of people lined either side of the pale brown brick road, eager to catch a glimpse of Esset’s princess and her retinue – after all, it had been about eighteen years since Esset had last sent any emissaries to Eto, for then Prince Shuuichi’s wedding. That party had only contained a few dignitaries, not anyone of royal birth such as Princess Helena Rosenkreuz. Yet now the young woman, just a year younger than Omi, rode on what looked to be the most placid horse Yohji had ever seen, a true smile on her face and enough excitement flowing off of her that he could sense it even amongst the crowd.

He could also sense the true natures of the bounds surrounding her, and probably a wizard as well, which was why he was up on a roof and Aya was safe at home waiting for him to finish an ‘errand’. Oh, there was enough suspicion over their link that warned Yohji to pick up an extra special box of almond cookies on his way home, and it probably wouldn’t hurt to see if Masuda had any new orders in as well. It was just… Yohji wanted to see what new sort of trouble had wandered into town now and couldn’t wait until Crawford, Birman and the others reported back to the Koneko. He also couldn’t allow Aya anywhere near bounds sent by the Elders themselves, and was grateful for that sense of overprotective caution when he spotted what had to be a wizard. While he wasn’t as talented as Aya at sensing magic, he’d picked up enough sensitivity to tell the difference between a normal human and one with the ability to cast spells, especially if they’d been doing it for a while. And the man in Princess Helena’s party had been doing it for several decades at least, he was willing to bet a quiet week alone with Aya.

No, even if his mate refused to speak to him for a few days, there was no way in hell he was letting Aya anywhere near these people. As well as the wizard, he’d sensed a flesh gaki bound, hopefully the one Crawford had told them about, a fire elemental, two earth elementals, a soul gaki and a succubae bound. He was certain that he was more powerful than the other succubae bound, but wasn’t close enough to the others to gage their strengths very well. Knowing the Elders, he doubted that they would send weaklings to carry out their mission, which was another reason why to keep Aya safely hidden at the Koneko. Something dark twisted inside of Yohji, made him want to leap to the ground and chase after the strange bounds, to put his wire to use and slice them to ribbons. He had to grab onto the roof’s ledge and force himself to remain still.

He thought he heard a hissing sound around him for a moment, as if to urge him on, and he growled as he fought with his bound nature. Giving into it right now would only draw unwanted attention to him *and* Aya, which was the last thing he wanted. He could call enough shadows to him to hide a climb up onto a roof if no one was looking, but the damn things still much preferred his lover to him. There was no way he could take out a full diplomatic party in front of a crowd, dammit. Not to mention that Birman and probably the king would have a few choice things to say about him doing so, and not good things at that. Well, maybe not so much Birman, other than to complain about the sudden impulsiveness of the whole mess….

Shaking his head to clear it of the tempting images, he forced himself to stand back from the edge and to tug the hood of his borrowed cloak further over his head. Then he focused his thoughts as he had agreed to do, knowing that Rufus was waiting for his message. <You there?>

<Yes.> Surprise, surprise, Rufus didn’t seem in a very good mood. Yohji grimaced as he headed to the other, less crowded side of the building. <What did you find out?>

If he didn’t know that the imperious bastard was worried about his mate as well, Yohji would sever the connection instead of respond to the barked out command, but he pushed aside the anger and answered. <It’s not good. I’m pretty certain they brought a wizard even though the man was dressed more like a servant. As for bounds, there’s two earth and a fire elemental, and a soul, gaki and succubae bound each.>

<A wizard… can complicate things.> Anger and worry flowed over the link from Rufus, and Yohji was left with the impression that Reno wasn’t going to be too happy in the upcoming future. The dubhach had been allowed some freedom in the last few months, but if he was Yohji’s mate…. Hell, Yohji would risk a mauled shoulder and more to keep Aya from an Esset wizard, that was certain. <I’m not surprised that there aren’t any water elementals in the party, considering the weather situation, but the earth elementals are a bit of a surprise. Either they’re more of a tactical nature or the team is in danger of being wounded,> Rufus surmised.

<Ask Crawford, I’m not good enough to tell what they can do with their talents.> Yohji put enough of a warning in his thoughts to prevent Rufus from suggesting to have Aya check out the bounds, not that it was needed.

<I know,> Rufus snapped. <What also worries me is that there are no air elementals. That might indicate that they plan to rely on Heero, then, if they need one.>

Yohji grimaced again at that remark, busy climbing down the wall to the street. <Not the happiest of news, you know.>

<Says the man who just told me there’s an Esset wizard about to be set loose in Court,> Rufus shot back. <I thought I’d gotten rid of the creatures when we left Berin.>

<Just so long as he stays *in* Court,> Yohji warned. Once on the ground, he readjusted his cloak and hurried along the alley to blend in with the crowd, eager to return home. <If I find him anywhere near the western Green district, he’ll be dead.> He didn’t care if it upset Crawford’s plans or pissed off the king, he would do it. There was no way in any of the hells he’d let something like that come within ten blocks of Aya.

A slight sense of amusement crossed over the link. <Now you know how I feel. Thank you for the information, it’ll allow me to make some necessary plans before I’m called to Court.> Rufus sent a rare wave of gratitude before closing the link, leaving Yohji to wonder if the Koneko was going to get a case or two of expensive wine within the next day. He’d have sent along the information anyway since Reno was a friend and bounds needed to look after each other – especially when mated to shinigami-bounds – but it didn’t hurt when that other bound was a wealthy lord who had a thing for repaying debts. And at least *Rufus* was willing to be reciprocal about information, not to mention that maybe some of that wine would help appease a grouchy cat who definitely knew something was going on based on Yohji’s emotions the last fifteen minutes or so.

Yohji shook his head as he felt a sympathetic twinge in his left shoulder. Ah well, it wasn’t like Aya would have wanted to put up with the sunny weather and the crowded streets, even if anyone would have let him out of the inn. After all, it wasn’t just Yohji who wanted to keep the stubborn fool as far away from the Elders’ agents as possible; Reiichi would have found some clever way to keep him occupied in one of the libraries, but there was no chance of the Shadow Guard letting Aya out of his sight today. And Jo wasn’t baking all those spice cakes for the sheer hell of it, either, though each and every one would be eaten and with pleasure. No, everyone wanted to keep Aya as far away from danger as possible. At least this time around, Aya was willing to keep to himself and not feel as if he was being ‘locked up’ as much.

Yohji might not be too happy with the way Aya was shutting himself off from part of the world because of his shinigami nature, but he could fight with it some more *after* the birthday celebration. Right now, if it helped to keep Aya safe then he would deal with it. All that mattered was making it through the next couple of weeks without anyone finding out what Aya really was and trying to harm him or take him away. The last thing they needed was Aya being around so much death.

Trying to keep such dark thoughts to a minimum, Yohji completed a couple of errands for Jo, along with the two that would hopefully keep him and his scarred shoulder in one piece. He was very pleased to find out that Masuda had gotten in one of the books that Aya had been looking for, some heavy tome about post-Binding War essays on wildlife that Aya and Ed suspected was written in code about bounds. Oh yes, Yohji’s chances of survival had increased greatly.

He headed home, the streets leading to the Koneko much less crowded as everyone was gathered closer to the palace; things should be quieter in the western Green district for the next few weeks as the parties celebrating Princess Ouka’s birthday centered around the central districts and the temple areas. The Koneko would have its usual patrons in the Guards and those guests who came to the capitol to celebrate, but shouldn’t be too crowded except in the morning and later at night. They would probably host one or two parties in the princess’ honor, and be happy to let everyone stuff themselves silly at the booths set up throughout the city.

As he crossed the Koneko’s grounds, he could sense the wards that had been built up over the past two years. No doubt Aya could tell each one individually, could identify Omi and Botan’s magic, Nagi, Jason and Sebastian’s earth and Natsuko’s air elemental talents. All he could pick up was the shiver he felt as he crossed over them and a faint ‘hint’ of the two elements and a ‘wrongness’ from the spells that Omi and Botan had cast. Oh, and Aya’s. He could always tell when Aya warded something now, a coolness that was soothing, that put him at peace since he knew his mate was protecting what was theirs. Well, was sort of theirs. The Koneko would always be their home, even if Yohji had signed most of it over to Mickey and still held no regrets for doing so.

All he really cared about was if those Esset bastards tried to set one foot on the Koneko’s grounds to harm what was his, those wards would stop them long enough until he could slice them into bloody bits.

"What in all the gods’ names have you been up to," Jo demanded of him as soon as he stepped into the kitchen and shrugged off the cloak.

"And good day to you, too," Yohji said as he handed over the bags containing the bottles of vanilla, almond and orange oil extracts.

Jo snorted as she accepted the oils. "I’m not sure it’s a good day, judging from the evil grin that was just on your face."

"Oh, that." Yohji shrugged again and grimaced. "Just thinking about some potentially unwelcome visitors." He set the wrapped book and box of cookies on the table. "Where’s Aya?" he asked as he sniffed the air. "Smells like the cakes are done, so I would have thought he’d be here."

"I needed the vanilla for the icing, remember?" Jo gave him a scathing look before shaking her head. "Go check your room." Her tone made it clear that he’d be no help to her down here so he might as well get out of her way.

Yohji was about to sigh and complain about the abuse, until he realized that he wasn’t being quizzed over how long it took him to get the vanilla. He decided that it would probably be best to just do as he’d been told, especially before someone else came along and started asking questions. "Yes, ma’am."

That got him a raised eyebrow and a bemused smile in return as he snatched up his goodies and fled the kitchen, laughing along the way. He almost collided with Ani as she returned to the kitchen with a tray full of dirty dishes. "Careful, sweetie!"

"At least you almost broke the dirty dishes!" Ani called out as he hurried past her.

He was still smiling as he reached his bedroom, feeling just a little nervous as he opened the door. "You here, Cat?" he called out as he entered, paying close attention for the sound of hissing.

"Over here," Aya answered from the window seat, where he was curled up with a book, of all things. Yohji smiled to see him, dressed in a loose grey shirt with his bangs falling onto his face, eyes blinking as if he was having trouble adjusting to looking in the distance. "You were gone for a while."

"Yeah, well, the city’s a bit crowded with everyone arriving for the festivities," Yohji said, which was mostly the truth. He sat down on the end of the window seat and leaned against his mate’s knees.

"Hmm, I wouldn’t have thought that they would be in the shopping district." Aya placed a bookmark between the pages he had been reading and set the book on a shelf behind him, then leaned forward to rest his arms on his knees. He reached out to run a finger through Yohji’s hair, causing Yohji to purr slightly at the touch. "Care to explain why you smell like Reiichi?"

Oh hell, it was the Shadow Guard’s cloak that he’d borrowed, wasn’t it? "Uhm…."

"Or what had you so angry while you were out ‘shopping’?" Aya tilted his head to the side as he stared at Yohji, a hint of silver in his eyes.

Yohji decided to go straight into bribery. "I picked up that book by Takano you’ve been waiting for, love," he offered as he held it up. "And some almond cookies."

Aya continued to stare at him for several more seconds, his emotions calm and a touch curious. Yohji began to worry that his lover was about to go all ‘shinigami’ on him when Aya finally sighed and shook his head. "What were you really doing?" he asked as he reached for the book.

Figuring that he best tell the truth while Aya was distracted by the present, Yohji shifted forward to drape his arms over Aya’s knees. "I wanted to go see who the Elders had sent to Court."

There was a rush of concern, along with a little fear and anger, over their link as Aya’s head snapped up so he could look at him, his eyes silver and wide open. Then they narrowed as he shook his head again. "Couldn’t you wait until tonight?"

"No." Some of the frustration that Yohji felt slipped into his voice as he spoke. "Not when there’s a chance that we won’t hear from Birman or Crawford for a day or two, and not when they’re in our city. I’m hoping to never see them again at all, but I wanted to know what we might be up against in case everything goes wrong." He tightened his arms around Aya’s legs as he spoke, a growl roughening his voice. "Granted, I didn’t get very close to them as I was up on a roof, but I saw enough that there’s no way in any of the hells that they’re gonna sneak in here."

He was surprised when he caught a ghost of a smile curving Aya’s lips, along with a trace of amusement over their link. Aya reached out to play with his hair again. "On a roof? Willingly? Am I going to have to worry about you jumping out of windows next?"

Yohji smiled himself, pleased at the teasing as well as the fingers curling through his hair. "What can I say, you’re a very corrupting influence on me, Cat," he purred, grateful that his lover was handling the news with such good grace. While he could sense that Aya wasn’t entirely happy at the moment, he figured that Aya realized that if their situations were reversed, it would be the rooftop loving sneak who would have been out there catching a look.

"Hmm, I keep telling you that it’s a lot more convenient to travel up there, especially when the streets are crowded," Aya explained as he set the new book aside and shifted forward. "You can have Eri show all of us what they look like later."

Oh yes, later was fine, Yohji thought as he slid his hands around his mate’s hips and tugged him forward. Much, much later, after his hunger was satisfied and Aya bore his marks, was wrapped in his scent so everyone could tell by a quick glance and sniff that he was *Yohji’s*, that he was adored and protected and off limits. Even if Aya was the most lethal thing around and more than capable of taking care of himself, Yohji needed to do something to placate his demon soul since he couldn’t follow those strange bounds into the palace to tear out their throats.

And judging from the way Aya settled so quickly on his lap and slid his hands beneath Yohji’s worn brown shirt, sharp nails pressing hard enough against his back to leave marks on his skin, he wasn’t the only one giving in to that nature. He chuckled as he wrapped his arms tighter around his lover and stood up from the window seat. "Try to leave me a little skin, okay?"

He got an annoyed hiss for the teasing comment, which he laughed at along the way to the bed. Really, all the scratches were only fair considering the bruises he left on Aya’s neck, and they healed faster so he got the better end of the bargain. He laid Aya down on the bed and straddled him as he removed the shirt, careful since it was an old favorite, then hurried with the rest of his clothes.

Aya did the same, managing to shed his clothes with a lot more grace and what Yohji suspected was the aid of a few shadows since he didn’t see his mate undo those laces. Still, a naked Aya was such a beautiful thing to enjoy so who was he to complain, especially when he was pulled down on top of all that white flesh to touch and savor it, feeling Aya arch beneath him and sunlight trickle into him.

"Ah, now how-"

"Not *one* word about the awesome dick," Aya warned with a deeper than usual scratch down Yohji’s left side. His ragged bangs fell onto his face, but enough of the silver glow of his narrowed eyes made it through to indicate a ferocious glare.

Yohji pouted at having his fun snatched away. "But I had a whole speech ready and everything." He rocked his hips forward and smiled at the rush of sunlight and pleasure it provoked from his mate. "It was pretty damn boring up on that rooftop, you know."

Aya lifted up enough to nip at his chin, his mouth then sliding along Yohji’s neck for a few seconds as his sharp nails drew a ticklish path down his spine. "Actions speak louder than words," he murmured against the pulse point beating on the left side of Yohji’s neck.

"Says the cat who spends half his day reading, sometimes," Yohji managed to choke out after a few seconds. It was a struggle to rein in his hunger just then, when all he wanted to do was feast on his mate, to be bursting with sunlight and ecstasy. He leaned forward to capture Aya’s mouth, savoring the give of soft lips and the familiar taste of tea and sweets. He drank in all of him, the playfulness that quickly led to passion, the energy that bled into him through touch of lips and tongue, the way they sought more of each other as if to take the other in through breath alone.

All the while they touched each other, hands stroking and fondling, seeking the other out as if learning them for the first time. Even though Yohji knew Aya’s body as well as his own by now, he still craved to feel it, still felt as if discovering it anew each time, a thrill running through him with each contact, each reaction. Through their link, he knew it was the same for his mate, knew that Aya felt that addictive rush with each touch.

If it wasn’t for his hunger, he could spend hours like this, going over Aya’s body with his hands and mouth, covering every inch of it again and again until it was seared into his very being. Yet each kiss, each slide of skin against skin only fueled the need inside of him to a fever pitch. He had come a long way in controlling his hunger… but there was only so much he could do when he felt Aya’s need as well, the sharp desire for him that burned just as hot. Time and experience had taught him when to give in to keep over all control over his demon soul.

So he rested his head against Aya’s right shoulder as he fumbled for the jar of lubricant, eventually finding the damn thing with a growled curse. He closed his eyes as cool fingers combed back the hair clinging to his sweat-covered forehead, used the moment to regain some much needed composure as he coated his fingers and groaned in gratitude as Aya shifted his legs wider apart. "So fucking love you," he muttered as he settled between his lover’s thighs.

"Succubae bounds," Aya said with an aggrieved tone that was belied by his emotions just then: love, passion and a hint of amusement.

"Now, now, if I can’t talk about the…," Yohji waggled his eyebrows as he pressed a slick finger inside, causing Aya to inhale suddenly, "then no disparaging my kind when I’m about to do what we do best."

Aya looked as if he wanted to argue just then, but Yohji curled his finger at just the right spot and smirked at the rush of sunlight that flooded into him. He leaned forward for a kiss as he added another finger, chuckling a little as his bottom lip was nipped and his hair tugged on for a couple of seconds.

"Idiot," Aya murmured against his lips, but he kept Yohji’s mouth too occupied as he was prepared for any attempt at defense to be made. Not that Yohji cared at the moment, and he had learned long ago that the word held a different meaning. Well, usually….

Aya finally let him go so he could move back and slick up his cock, so hard by then and he was lightheaded from hunger that his hands were shaking as he pulled Aya up onto his lap. He let out a slow, shuddering breath as he rocked his hips forward, sinking into his mate’s body, feeling the tight heat wrap around him and pull him in at the same time as delicious, invigorating energy rushed into him. It was almost like a circle was created inside of him, flowing through him and urging him onward.

"Oh… hell," he groaned when buried as far as he could go, his thighs beneath Aya’s ass. He heard his name breathed against his right ear, felt Aya’s arms wrap around his shoulders but as if from a distance; there was so much emotion just then, so much pleasure and need and love, so warm and bright and exquisite, wrapped around the sunlight that poured into his entire body.

He needed all of Aya, needed his taste and scent, needed his skin and sweat and heat. He held onto him tightly as he thrust into him, pulled him down time and time again so he could revel in that clenching friction along his cock, could feel the slide of their bodies against each other. There was so much ecstasy, inside and out, his and Aya’s, burning brighter with each touch, each emotion, each spark of pain. He hissed as nails dragged along his back, smiled as his teeth bore down on white skin until it bruised. They belonged to each other, gave and took in equal turns and still wanted more.

So much pleasure, so much love and desire that he felt about to burst, yet still the hunger drove him on. It was insatiable, seemed to want more each taste it had of Aya. Yohji pushed it back, struggled to hold on long enough until he felt an explosion of sunlight and finally let the pleasure burn through him, so hot and potent that it threatened to consume, to take over and overwhelm them both.

Shaking from his release, he collapsed backwards onto the bed with Aya clutched loosely against his chest, his breathing ragged and his vision blurry. He closed his eyes for a few seconds, content just to hold his lover and breathe in the scents from their love-making. Aya squirmed against him for a moment, as if finding a more comfortable spot… or something to wipe himself clean. Yohji hoped it wasn’t his shirt for once, and winced as he shifted his healing back a little.

Once the scratches were healed, he cupped Aya’s nape and returned some of the energy he’d taken to his mate, smiling at the sleepy sound the gesture garnered. Aya settled a little more comfortably against him and rubbed his cheek against Yohji’s scarred shoulder. "Thank you."

"Hmm, you’re welcome. There’s some almond cookies if you’re hungry, though Jo’s probably iced the cakes by now." Yohji played with damp strands of Aya’s hair at the back of his neck, idly noticing how long they were; someone hadn’t gotten a haircut in weeks.

That got a bit of a reaction; Aya raised his head and gave him a bleary frown. "Cake?"

"Yes, lots and lots of cake." He managed a put upon sigh. "It’s clear who she truly loves. I just know one of these days I’ll come home from running errands for cake ingredients to find that I’m rooming with Ichiro since you left me for her."

Aya snapped toward his shoulder. "Not funny."

"Hmph, I should know better than to tease you about your precious cake." Yohji grinned as he held Aya closer against him. "But seriously, Jo does treat you better."

"That’s because she knows that you have me to look after you," Aya pointed out in a rather grumpy tone.

"I guess so." Then the implications of what Aya said finally sunk in, causing Yohji to poke his mate in the side. "Hey! Does that mean she thinks that I do a lousy job of looking after you?"

When all Aya did was give him an enigmatic smile, Yohji growled and reversed their positions in one quick flip. "I do a *damn* good job of looking after you and you know it," he snarled.

Aya reached up and dragged his nails along the back of Yohji’s neck. "Well…." He continued to smile when Yohji growled again. "Maybe I know it."

"There’s no *maybe* to it. Who else brings you books and sweets, hmm?"

Aya merely continued to smile, but love, assent and pride flowed over their link. Yohji figured that would have to do for now. He narrowed his eyes as he leaned in closer. "Just in case, I think I’ll remind you of exactly how well I do look after you."

"If you must," Aya drawled as he draped his arms over Yohji’s shoulders. "And then I can go get some cake."

"Oh, I think I can make you forget all about that damn cake," Yohji promised before he silenced his lover with a kiss.

*******

Helena did her best to control her growing excitement as she entered the rooms that a highborn elderly lady named Meara and a young page dressed in blue and gold had led them to, amazed at the lavish decorations and size. "There will always be at least one page stationed outside," Lady Meara explained, "so if you need anything, just ask them to fetch it for you."

"Thank you very much." Lord Anthony took over, as Alexis had warned her he would, and smiled at the highborn. "We could use some refreshments and baths after all that traveling, before resting. Princess Helena isn’t used to so much riding." He laughed a little while bowing his head. "Actually, most of us aren’t used to traveling so much."

She nodded in acknowledgement. "Yes, I understand. These rooms have adequate bathing facilities, and I’ll send for something to hold you over until the welcoming reception tonight." She managed what seemed to be a genuine smile to Helena as she left. "Good day."

"Good day." Lord Anthony kept his smile until the two women were gone from their quarters, then let out a frustrated hiss. "The old bitch has some impressive mental shields."

Helena remained still in an attempt to make the man forget that she was in the room. She noticed that Alexis shifted closer to her, either to shield her or to block her from view and felt comforted by the flesh gaki bound’s presence.

Zelda picked at a travel stain on her grey divided skirt. "Think it’s a charm or something?" She looked up from her skirt over at Hans-Achim, who was no longer making any pretense of being a servant.

The tall, lean man frowned as he stared at the closed door leading to the rest of the palace. "She was wearing two rings and a necklace, so it’s possible one of those stones were charmed. How were her emotions in regards to dealing with you?"

"Hmm, a bit of distrust toward most of us, and more friendliness toward the princess but not outright hatred, fear or disgust." Zelda glanced in Helena’s direction with a disapproving look. "She’s not as bad as I would expect for a human."

"Perhaps because she’s the Minister of Diplomacy," Lord Anthony remarked as he walked around the room picking up various knickknacks. "She’s dealt with various emissaries from Esset before, and all of them have remarked about her restraint and willingness to appear open to negotiation while not betraying any weakness. If only she wouldn’t be such an obvious target."

Hans-Achim appeared ready to say something, but before he could, Alexis wrapped her right hand around Helena’s left arm and gave it a gentle tug. "The princess is tired so we’re going to find a suitable room. Be sure to save us some food when it finally arrives." She let a hint of a growl enter her voice. "Lukas, bring our bags along."

The young earth elemental opened his mouth as if to complain, until Hans-Achim motioned toward the stack of luggage. "That would be very wise. I’m sure the girl is very tired right now." Though his tone was full of concern, none of it reached his pale green eyes and Lukas hurried to pick out Helena and Alexis’ bags.

Helena bowed her head slightly and allowed herself to be led along while Alexis searched out an adequate room. After discarding the first two, the bound decided that the large room in pale blue and cream colors with the huge four-poster bed, a divan and two wardrobes would do. Helena sighed as she sat down on the divan and removed her boots, her stocking feet sinking into the thickest, softest plush carpet she had ever felt. "Oh! It’s so lovely!"

"Hmm, Kritiker does seem to like impressing its guests," was all Alexis said while she continued inspecting the room; Helena had the impression it was more because of Lukas arriving with their luggage than any slight to their hosts. The earth elemental was quiet as he set the bags down, his brown eyes wide as he took in the finery but lips pressed together as he all but ignored her. She was used to it by now, as everyone besides Alexis and Anthony had ignored her on the trip.

Alexis returned from what appeared to be the bathing room with a pleased smile on her face. "Lady Meara wasn’t exaggerating about the baths. I’ll help you out of that outfit so you can have a nice soak." She grimaced as she smoothed down the front of her own wrinkled outfit. "Then it’ll be my turn."

"Oh, I’d love to take a nap before the party tonight," Helena sighed as she dug her toes in the carpet a little more.

"I think that can be arranged." Alexis smiled and shook her head. "You did very well with all that riding, considering that you lack the ability to heal overnight."

"Thank you." Helena smiled as she forced her sore body off of the divan. "Will you be sleeping here?" She didn’t want to presume, but it certainly seemed that was the case.

"I think… it will be best." Alexis motioned to the bed. "It’s big enough for four of us, and there’s always the couch."

Knowing that the flesh gaki bound would be nearby made Helena feel safer. She realized that Martha, Zelda and Isaac didn’t care for her very much, and Hans-Achim bothered her with his cold looks. Anthony would at least talk to her, but usually in a very patronizing manner, while Lukas usually pretended that she didn’t exist. "Let me fetch a robe for the bath."

Alexis came over to help her with that, along with a few other things she would need to wash off the day’s sweat and grime from traveling and to prepare for later tonight. They picked out one of the gowns that had been made for the trip, the one of pale copper with a few jet beads here and there for embellishment.

"I’ll have Martha steam out the wrinkles later," Alexis said with a pleased grin. "And my dress as well. How nice that she’ll be proving her worth this early in the trip."

Helena was about to make a comment when her tutor shook her head. Once Alexis hung out her dress for the evening as well, a more daring style in dark red that made Helena a little envious, she motioned for them to enter the bathing room.

When the door was closed and the water faucets were turned on to fill the huge soaking tub, Alexis stepped behind Helena to help her with the laces of her dark brown riding outfit. "Remember to be careful where we talk." Alexis’ voice was pitched low, barely audible over the splashing of the water.

Helena felt her face flush with heat in embarrassment. "I’m sorry, I wasn’t thinking."

There was a gentle prick of claws against her left temple for a moment. "You’re tired, which is to be expected after all that riding, but we’re here now so be on your guard. Remember what I told you about only *seeming* like an innocent little fool."

"Yes, ma’am." She hung her head forward for a moment as she swore to herself that she wouldn’t shame Alexis, Lord Quatre or Wufei while in Kritiker.

"Good girl." Alexis patted her on the shoulders then continued with the laces. "Now, don’t appear too eager to listen to what those fools out there are up to. It’ll be easier to figure out what’s going on in bits and pieces over the next couple of days if we don’t overplay our hand."

She nodded to show that she understood. "Will you be able to get what we’ve found out to someone we can trust?" She didn’t care what Anthony had told her, she knew that whatever they were up to that it was *not* for the good of Esset. Anything that led to death and more hatred between her country and Kritiker was bad in the long run; she knew her history now, knew what would happen when the two countries faced off against each other.

"Yes. Just keep in mind that not everything is what it appears here. Kritiker… is not what the Elders would have us believe it to be. Not entirely."

Helena turned to face the soul gaki bound as she stripped off her clothes. "Do you truly believe that?"

Alexis nodded, her gaze fixed on Helena’s face. "I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t."

That admission hurt a little, as Helena would have liked to think that her tutor would be here for her regardless, but she supposed it would be much to ask a bound to go into ‘enemy’ territory. Something on her face must have showed, because Alexis smiled and reached out to rub something on her right cheek.

"It’s not just being here with you. It’s everything, to bring you here and back, to do something that might end up helping our country move past so much hatred and senseless fighting for once. I wouldn’t have put myself in a position to be sent along if it was just a useless babysitting mission."

That meant that Alexis believed in her as more than just someone who needed to be ‘babysat’, just as she believed that Kritiker, or some of its people, was more than what the Elders had portrayed it as for all these centuries. Something warm and precious grew inside of Helena, making her smile and duck her head in shyness. "Thank you." She would do everything in her power to live up to that faith.

"Just don’t make all of that hard work and me being stuck with Martha for several weeks without being able to tear out her throat be for nothing," Alexis chided her as she pushed her toward the low stool while handing her a bar of soap. "And hurry up with your bath, because I desperately want a soak myself."

"Yes, ma’am." Helena laughed as she began to clean herself, suddenly not as nervous about the prospect of her first formal party and dealing with Hans-Achim when she had Alexis’ faith in her.

*******

Birman looked out at the crowded room, at all of the highborns and courtiers dressed in their finery to impress the royal family and dignitaries, and felt weary. If her mother hadn’t been some ‘lowly’ page, she would be out there smiling and chatting instead of standing on the fringe, either at her husband’s side or doing her best to impress some unmarried highborn.

As it was, she hid behind the illusion spell of a minor highborn and stayed to the outskirts of the ballroom while everyone crowded around Shuuichi, Manx and the delegates from Esset. Several of that party were here tonight in a protective circle around Princess Helena, in what would probably be one of her rare ‘public’ outings. The ambassadors from Cretia, Xan and Thracia were in attendance as well, so Birman did her best to avoid the notice of Shen, who seemed to have an annoying talent of identifying her despite the illusion spells.

The alcove where she stood allowed the perfect view of the event; she could watch all of the interactions and gage the personalities of the Esset agents. Thanks to Yohji and Crawford’s information, she knew that the petite, dark haired woman who hovered nearest the princess was Alexis, the flesh gaki bound who was assigned to look after the young woman and who could be counted on as an ally. The other woman with similar stature and coloring, her dark brown hair longer and curlier, was Martha the fire elemental, her nature much more provocative as she flirted with one of the aides from Thracia. Beside her was a tall man with blond hair and a thin face, supposedly the soul gaki bound. One could tell that he belonged to Esset’s highborn bound community with his patronizing attitude, which seemed to earn him respect from the people gathered around him. In his shadow was one of the earth elemental bounds, a seeming young man of stocky build and light brown hair who blushed whenever paid too much attention. He was in stark contrast to the willowy tall woman with long black hair a few feet away who laughed as Lord Yuasa fawned over her. The cut and tightness of her dark gold gown might account for part of the attraction, but Birman recognized her as a succubae bound. Of course there was no sign of the wizard, since this was a party for those of high social status only.

She watched over the unfamiliar bounds for a few more minutes before retreating from the room, just one more unremarkable person in a room filled with such noteworthy highborns and dignitaries, and found Trowa waiting for her in the warded alcove. She smiled in relief and picked up one of the glasses of white wine that was set out on a small table. "You look dashing tonight," she told him, which was only the truth; he was dressed in a formal tunic of gold and pale cream, the colors accenting his eyes and skin tone.

"Please don’t let Duo hear you," he murmured as he brushed his right hand along the expensive fabric. "He already swore Yonekuni and John to oath to escort me home." A growl roughened his quiet voice, no doubt at the thought of having to be ‘walked’ home as if a defenseless child.

Birman shook her head before she sipped more wine. "He may have a point, it’s better to be over-cautious than to have to explain you killing some over-eager fool." She smiled in the face of his disproving frown. "Now, now, I know you have impressive control over your talent, but you do look rather fetching tonight. The would-be molester might not take ‘no’ for an answer."

"Thank you for that cheerful thought."

"Would you rather it be one of our esteemed guests out there?" she shot back as she set the empty glass aside. She was grateful that he felt comfortable enough around her to not overreact to the slight warning, considering his past, yet she did think it worth mentioning that he would attract unwanted attention if he left the palace alone while dressed like that – if he even made it safely off the palace grounds.

Trowa sighed as he picked up a glass of wine for himself. "Fine, I’d rather be a target for some low-born pervert." He waited to finish half the glass before continuing. "You certainly know how to start a lovely conversation topic." Yet his tone was mild and his demeanor calm, and a slight smile played at the corner of his lips.

She felt herself relax for the first time in hours, despite the tight lacing of her pale green dress. About to reach for another glass of wine, she stopped herself for the time being. "All rather insensitive teasing aside, we really should discuss our latest guests." No more distractions.

Trowa nodded and set aside the empty wine glass. "Yes. I’m grateful for Yohji’s assistance, as I haven’t had much experience with some of them before. I would have expected them to send Kimbei as one of the earth elementals, not this Lukas. He may be one of the newer additions in the past year."

That was a bit disturbing, if the Elders were keeping secrets from Trowa, one of their supposed trusted spies. "Perhaps they sent him here because he’s expendable."

"I thought that as well," he admitted. "Kimbei is powerful and could prove useful in the upcoming war. Martha is only a mid-level fire elemental, nowhere near Duo’s strength, and Anthony is a strong enough soul gaki bound to prove some usefulness but again, is nowhere near Quatre or Eri’s league."

He moved from the small table to cross over to the narrow window that looked out over one of the palace’s many gardens outside. "As for Zelda, she’s another unknown. Because of Yuda and Tan Xi, most succubae bounds avoid Berin and only report in from time to time for new orders, including her. Obviously she’s not as strong as Tan Xi or she would have fought for dominance, but I doubt they would have sent someone with a weak demon soul on this mission when seduction and glamour can yield rather impressive results."

"Yes, all you have to do is ask Mariela and Katashi and they’ll agree," Birman answered with a wry grin. Then she shook her head and sighed. "From what Aya and Crawford have told me, not to mention what I’ve seen with my own eyes, succubae bounds are very effective spies and can wreck havoc in a short amount of time. We’ll have to keep a careful watch over her."

"It probably helps that the Court is somewhat used to Yohji and the others," Trowa pointed out as he turned enough to face her. "Just having been in Yohji’s presence for a few years has led to some built in resistance, according to Mariela."

That improved Birman’s mood. "Very true." Years of highborns lusting over the former Guard was finally paying off, and she would never complain again about having to listen to her spies bitch about the extra work they sometimes had to put into their meals if they were sent after one of Yohji’s former ‘paramours’. For a moment Birman toyed with the idea of having Yohji back at Court as a distraction… and then decided that she much enjoyed the prospect of living to see the war, thank the gods. Judging from the amused smile on her assistant’s face, she surmised that Trowa had figured out her line of thinking.

"You bounds and your mating bonds," she grumbled.

"If we have to ‘suffer’ for them, so should you humans," he shot back with much too much humor.

"I think you just like to make my life difficult while enjoying great sex."

An astonishingly impish smile came over the usually impassive man’s face, a sight she would savor for weeks to come both for its loveliness and rarity. "Very true," Trowa acknowledged with a slight bow.

"Back to business," she insisted with a crackling voice, a little flustered by the enticing sight; she would say that Trowa should smile like that more often, but then she would have to beat back a horde of admirers. "I noticed that Isaac wasn’t at the party tonight, and of course not the wizard."

The smile gave way to a frown as Trowa leaned against the small windowsill. "I’ve already told you that I never paid much attention to the wizards, and that they kept to themselves. As for Isaac…" He seemed uncomfortable, and she doubted it was because of the wizard. "All I know about him is that he’s a healer. His mother was from Xan, so perhaps he’s trying to avoid Shen." His head tilted forward, until his bangs covered half of his face. "It… was one of the arranged unions by the Elders." The words were spoken very quietly.

It took Birman a minute to understand what he meant by them, and she felt a fresh wave of anger once she did; there was no way in whatever hell the gods favored that she would allow Trowa or Duo to return to Esset ever again. No way she would allow the Elders to continue to reign past the upcoming war, to force bounds to have children together just to produce more bounds with ‘strong’ demon souls. "Is there any chance of him rebelling against them?"

Trowa shook his head, his long bangs feathering out at the motion. "Crawford would know for certain, but I don’t think it’s a worthy risk without more information. His mother died on a mission while he was still young so his father had more influence over him and raised him loyal to the Elders. From what I’ve learned, he’s more ashamed about his Xanian heritage than anything as he believes his demon soul would be stronger if he was pure Esset. He may prove a danger to Shen if the Elders decide to target Xan in any way."

For a moment, she was tempted to joke about letting the earth elemental have his fun, and then her common sense kicked in. "If I have to save that bastard’s hide, I will *never* let him live it down, do you hear me?"

That earned her another smile, this one more in character of Trowa’s quiet nature and less likely to have a very jealous fire elemental after her skin. "I believe you will have earned that right." It was a shame how lovely his voice could be when laced with amusement, because he rarely let it show like this.

"Damn right I will," she muttered. "I will lord it over him day and night." She would, too. Then she forced herself to be serious. "Speaking of day and night, you do have the ring on your possession, correct?"

Trowa’s demeanor made an abrupt change, becoming completely serious as he straightened up and fished for something inside of his formal tunic. Hung off of a silver chain was a silver ring with a black stone, encased in what appeared to be glass. Birman approached her assistant to get a better look at the ring, her eyes narrowing as she tried to figure out how he had managed such a feat. "Did Omi or Botan help you with that?"

He shook his head as he held the necklace out a little further from his neck. "It’s water. I remembered something that Shin used to do and made it solid." He let her touch it with her finger; it wasn’t cold like ice, yet it was solid and hard all the same. "It took me a few tries to get it right and I’m not sure I could do anything too large, but it keeps the stone from coming in contact with my skin."

"Amazing." She stepped back and nodded at him so he could replace the ring and necklace back beneath his tunic. "And you can vanish it at once?"

"Yes. I’d show you, but it does take a lot of effort to make the water solid like that." Trowa shrugged, showing just a little discomfort at admitting a shortcoming with his talent. Considering that he could kill or incapacitate over a dozen men with a mere thought, somehow she didn’t think any less of him for it.

"I know you bounds have your own specialties," she said in an effort to soothe, even if she felt it was mostly uncalled for since Trowa showed little possession of an ego. "The main thing is that you can shield your thoughts with the ring should Anthony try to force his way in."

Trowa made a sound that was a half snarl, half chuckle as he fetched himself another glass of wine. "He wouldn’t be able to do so without Duo or me noticing it, but we agree that it’s best that one of us have additional protection. Should they have orders to ‘test’ our allegiance, there’s no way they can take one of us down without the other noticing. That we’re mates now means that we have stronger mental shields, and we’ll be ready for them with the ring." He patted his chest.

She wished that she had enough to give each of them one, but Duo was rarely alone considering that he worked with Toshi and usually was around other Shadow Guards when not at home. Trowa worked alone when not with her, and would be more of a target to his ‘allies’ if they decided to test his loyalty to the Elders. "Let’s just hope that you don’t need to put it to use."

He nodded. "Let’s also hope that Crawford figures out why they’re here soon. We may have some idea of what they can do and what they’ve done in the past, but it’s still not an adequate predictor of what they’ll do in the future when there’s so many variables at the Court right now."

"’Variables’ is just a nice way to say ‘targets’," she grumbled in frustration, even if it was the truth. There was the royal family and all of the ambassadors, not to mention the highborn and officials at Court. "We might as well start painting circles on everyone and deciding on a point system for hits."

That earned her another half smile, partially hidden behind a wine glass. "That could be rather fun."

"You’ve spent too much time in Jei’s company," she pointed out as she snatched up a glass for herself. "And don’t tell me that I’ve done the same, I’m well aware of it."

"Perish the thought. Though I am waiting for you to start growling at Shen any day now." Part of the reason she knew that Trowa would be the worthy successor was how he managed a completely blank expression as he said that last bit.

"You need to get your hearing checked out, then," was her arch reply. "I’ve growled plenty of times."

"I would consider that more along the lines of a snarl or a whine." Trowa tilted his head to the side as if considering something. "Perhaps you need to try stealing Jei’s meals more often to get the sound right."

"I think I’ll save the suicide missions for when the war fully starts, thank you very much," she snapped as she reconsidered Shen’s latest request to ‘loan’ him her assistant for a few days. Then she thought about dealing with a furious Duo as a result and looked about for more wine, which she realized was now all gone. "Come on, let’s go show everyone at the Koneko how fancy we look and see if we can’t charm some answers and alcohol out of them."

"Hmm, and some food would be nice." Trowa frowned as he tugged on the hem of his tunic. "We just need to let Yonekuni know where we’re going."

"Tell him and John to come with us." She had a feeling that it wouldn’t take long for Duo to show up as well, and then she could *really* have some lessons on growling as the over-protective fire elemental dealt with everyone drooling over his gorgeous mate.

*******

Crawford was pleased to notice that the overcast sky and darkening twilight had driven the guests from the Koneko’s garden; Ichiro and Jason were inside the stable, busy tending to the horses and probably content to remain there where it was quiet, judging from their emotions. He nodded to Jei as they made their way to the shrine, where Cassandra, Schuldig and Masato were waiting for them.

"It’s about time you two showed up," Schuldig grumbled as they entered the small building, having to leave the door open so there was enough space for everyone. "We’re hoping to eat sometime tonight."

"Nice to see where your concerns lie." Crawford frowned at his son, then shook his head. "Does anyone know that you’re out here?"

Cassandra nodded as she fussed with a couple of incense sticks. "I left Haru inside with Jo and Emmie, supposedly while I go fetch a certain ungrateful son for dinner." She sniffed as if holding back tears. "I have been sorely neglected as of late."

Schuldig rolled his eyes even as he reached over to give her a hug. "We’ve been careful because of those bastards coming to town. Don’t want to take the chance of anyone paying too close of an attention to what Masato and I are up to and causing trouble for you and the kid."

She waved off the excuse even as she brushed her fingers along his face. "We should be fine, Trouble. Worry about yourself."

"Actually, there’s a lot more to worry about," Crawford broke in, not about to let the conversation drag on along this topic for much longer. "Jei and I received summons from Anthony, which is why I wanted to speak to the three of you tonight."

That earned him everyone’s attention, save for Jei who had taken to leaning against a wall and picking at his claws with a knife. "Eh?" Masato stepped closer, his hazel eyes narrowed in a manner that was reminiscent of Yohji’s when the young man was about to become overprotective of Aya. "Why didn’t you say anything about that last night?"

"Because the note just arrived an hour ago," Crawford replied, forcing himself to keep his voice even and his words civil. "As an added bonus, we’ve identified another agent as the messenger."

"Yeah, I’ve got a lock on the bastard’s scent," Jei muttered as he continued to clean his claws. "Crawford’s already had Birman sic one of her people on him to track him back to his home, but I shouldn’t have too much of a problem tracking him down as well." He raised his head to flash his sharp teeth in the shrine’s dim light, causing Crawford to sigh in annoyance.

"No snacking until the man proves to be worthless or too much trouble," he reminded his partner for the fourth time.

"Spoilsport," Jei complained under his breath.

Knowing that he had to let the insult slide or else they’d spend the evening squabbling, Crawford settled for a glare sent his partner’s way and let out a slow breath. "As I was saying," he continued with his left hand raised to forestall any more bitching from Masato and Schuldig, "the note only arrived a short while ago. Anthony wants to meet with me, supposedly to ‘catch up’ on things like the good friends we are." He let heavy sarcasm color his voice with the last few words.

"Oh yes, being spies is such a bonding experience," Schuldig remarked in a similar tone. "What, does the asshole expect a status report or something? I thought you managed to send some bullshit to the Elders now and then."

He shrugged a little as he leaned against the wall near the altar, the incense a mild irritant to his sensitive sense of smell. "Perhaps they didn’t inform him of a few details, perhaps he wants a more personal… opinion of the situation here in Eto, perhaps he just wants to lord it over me that he was sent here on this mission." He sighed again as he pushed up his glasses to rub the bridge of his nose. "The problem is that there’s so many possible futures intersecting within the next several days that it’s difficult to predict just *what* will happen."

For once, he felt sympathy and agreement from Cassandra. "Yes, it’s much the same with my visions. I do not see any immediate threat to you or Masato, Trouble, but that doesn’t mean you can act without thinking." She took a few small steps to go over and give the brat’s forearms a careful squeeze. "The little I can tell, it would be best for you to avoid these agents all together."

"Great, Mom, tell us something we don’t know." Despite his words, Schuldig gave Cassandra a tender smile as he captured her smaller hands in his own. "Not even all those highborn pockets to be picked at the palace are an enticement enough to head over there with those assholes about."

"Not when he’s busy taking advantage of all the out-of-towners walking around on the streets," Masato grumbled, and then laughed when he was glared at by his mate.

"Trouble!"

"Now, now, Mom, I’m just working on some savings for our future!"

Crawford felt the beginnings of a headache and wished that they were inside with all of the alcohol just then. "Could we please *focus* on the fact that there are several bounds about who would love to kill us as traitors and leave the petty thievery and reprimands for another day? Before I start *tearing* *out* *your* *throats*." By all the gods, he would, too.

"I thought you needed us," Schuldig taunted with a cocky grin.

"I am perfectly willing to work around that fact if you don’t shut up and listen *right now*," Crawford warned with his teeth bared. Something in his tone or in his expression must have conveyed just how true those words were, because for once the damn brat backed down and was quiet. Even Cassandra was quiet in the face of her precious spawn being threatened, and all Jei did was chuckle for a few seconds.

"Thank you," Crawford said, the words spoken a bit more nastily than he had intended but it had been a long day and there were few solutions to their many problems in sight. "As Cassandra said, it would be best for you and Masato to avoid the agents as much as possible. Jei and I are planning on reporting that the two of you and Nagi are busy on an assignment at the moment, something that Trowa will back us up on if asked."

Feeling a bit calmer since it appeared that everyone was listening, he adjusted his glasses and clasped his hands in front of him. "Schuldig, it would also be wise if you can cast illusions over you and Masato while you’re out so it doesn’t seem that you’re in the city so much."

Schuldig frowned a little at the news but didn’t put up a fight just for the hell of it, as was his normal reaction. "What about while we’re here? Or when at home?"

"If Anthony and the others find you here, I highly doubt they’ll make it out alive." There was a bark of laughter and a mumbled comment about a good meal from Jei at that statement, which Crawford ignored. "Also, I haven’t seen anything to indicate that they’ll go through the trouble of tracking the two of you down at your residence." He turned to Cassandra to confirm this fact, and managed a grim smile when she nodded. "Obviously we’ll let you know should anything change, but I mainly want to prevent the two of you running across them or any of their people while you’re out. Just use a bit of caution when you’re outside your home or the Koneko."

Masato nodded as he slid his right arm around Schuldig’s neck. "That makes sense to me." Then he sighed. "I’m going to be an old woman again, aren’t I?"

Schuldig suddenly seemed in a better mood. "Beats being a cheap whore, right?"

All it took was Crawford clearing his throat to put an end to that particular conversational tangent. "As long as the illusion spell on Nagi holds, then he’ll be fine at the palace."

That prompted more laughter from Jei. "Somehow, I doubt that Omi’s gonna let that spell fade or fail. Nah, he’ll probably be checking it every night just to be sure the kid’s fine." He flexed the claws on his left hand and smiled, his teeth gleaming in the shrine’s dim light. "And even if it did, Anthony and the others would have to go through Omi to get at Nagi."

It wasn’t just Crawford staring at the man over the fact that Jei was talking in a positive manner about a wizard, but then again, that wizard was Omi. Somehow, the young prince had asserted his personal nature first and foremost in the flesh gaki’s mind. "As much as having them killed would seem to solve all of our problems, having half the palace destroyed in the process *and* the Elders sending more agents to discover why would lead to a whole new set of headaches," he felt necessary to point out.

"Yeah, well, it would spoil our fun and mean no food for me," Jei remarked with a casual shrug.

"I wouldn’t be terribly pleased about Omi and Nagi being in danger or more of the Elders’ people in the city."

Part of Crawford was pleased to note that he wasn’t the only one to react to Aya’s unannounced arrival at the shrine; Cassandra let out a high-pitched shriek, Schuldig cursed just as loudly, Jei and Masato snarled while he palmed a knife from his right wrist sheath. All that Aya did was stand in the shrine’s doorway and stare at them, his expression blank and his eyes pure silver, dressed in black pants and a dark blue shirt with shadows clinging to his shoulders and arms.

"Aya." Crawford’s voice was tight with shock, so he cleared his throat a couple of times. "Ahem, what brings you here this evening?" Somehow, he doubted that the kage was here to pay respects to his family.

"You." Aya tilted his head to the left, a hint of curiosity to his voice and his eyes reflecting the bit of light that was available in the growing darkness. "I felt it when you crossed the outer wards but then you didn’t enter the Koneko."

Dammit, that was something that Crawford hadn’t considered; he knew that Aya and some of the other bounds had wards around the inn, but he had forgotten how sensitive to them that Aya, as a kage, was – especially lately. "Sorry, I just wanted to talk to Schuldig and Masato about something privately and not disturb everyone inside," he said with a reassuring smile, hoping that it was good enough of an explanation.

"Then you do plan to tell Yohji and the others about the letter from the soul gaki bound?" Aya asked, making it clear that he had been listening from the beginning.

Crawford fought to hold on to his smile, especially when Jei took to chuckling and Schuldig to swearing at the gods in a low voice. "Yes, I will mention it." He had been planning on meeting with Anthony first before saying anything, dammit, most certainly to Yohji.

"Good, because you didn’t tell him about the vision with Yuda." A hint of sibilance crept into Aya’s deep voice as he referenced Crawford and Cassandra’s conversation from the night before. "Or am I foolish to think you would be mentioning that as well?"

Feeling a chill along his back, Crawford forced a swallow down his dry throat and realized that he was still holding a knife in his hand. He resheathed the blade as a means of buying a few seconds, and then decided to ask the question anyway. "How long have you been eavesdropping on our conversations?"

"For some time now, when I noticed that at least you and Cassandra were leaving the inn but staying on the grounds afterwards, or coming here first. There wasn’t a reason for you to be at the shrine so much."

Knowing Aya’s poor lack of telling time, it probably was a lost cause to pin down an exact date, Crawford told himself. It also was probably hopeless to think that Aya had kept such information to himself, considering his close bond with Yohji. "We were hoping to meet someplace that was protected yet quiet to discuss things," he tried to explain.

"Then ask to use one of the libraries," Aya told him, the sibilance stronger in his voice. "You are quick to make demands out of all of us, don’t do things like this that lead us to think you’re pulling strings or keeping us in the dark as well." As if he had said his piece, Aya drew the shadows around him and vanished, most likely to return back to Yohji’s side and report in what had just happened.

Wishing more than anything that he was inside the inn right now and in possession of a full bottle of whiskey, Crawford took to rubbing his temples while Schuldig let loose a torrent of swear words. He allowed his son the outlet for a minute before sighing. "Enough."

Schuldig whirled to face him, his right hand held in his direction with claws fully extended. "Tell me, do you fucking think that you have any sort of control over him now? Do you?"

"Schuldig!" Cassandra sounded both shocked and furious, her emotions so strong that they only made Crawford’s headache worse. "How dare you speak of him like that?"

"Because someone has to, dammit! He’s getting fucking scarier by the day, and I don’t see Yohji doing shit to stop him! All Aya has to do is bat his fucking eyes and Yohji doesn’t give a shit if he takes out the whole city, I bet! And this asshole," he jerked his hand in Crawford’s direction in case anyone had a doubt who he was referring to, "thinks he can control a fucking kage? *I* think we’re gonna be damn lucky if anyone’s still alive come the end- OW!"

"Thank you," Crawford told his partner, who was holding up his hand to administer another smack to Schuldig’s head, if necessary. Masato bared his teeth in warning, but seemed to realize that his mate had deserved the abuse. "I think you underestimate your friend, which is something I don’t do." But to be fair, it seems that he had failed to take into account all of Aya’s abilities lately, and the fact that Aya’s primarily allegiance was to his mate.

"Just hope that said friend is in a good mood when he sees you tonight, considering that the cat’s out of the bag on one or two things," Jei seemed rather pleased to remind him of as he backed away from Schuldig.

"And thank you for that as well." He gave his partner another glare and was about to say something else when a thought occurred to him. "I believe we should all remember that there’s no way to tell when Aya’s about and so should act accordingly."

"Fuck!" Schuldig scowled in Jei’s direction as if daring to be hit again, then glanced at Cassandra before looking at the ground; Crawford was willing to bet the precog said something to the brat to make him be quiet.

"Yes, exactly."

<So much for meeting here,> Cassandra sent to him with a tinge of regret as she fussed with the skirts of her pale yellow dress.

<I think we’re going to have to consider Aya’s ‘suggestion,> he sent back with some exasperation. <At least there will be alcohol on hand.>

<Hmm, and snacks,> Cassandra agreed.

"Well, let’s get this over with," he said while motioning for them to head to the inn.

*******

Yuda set the last of the bags on the floor. "That should be everything, save for the illusion charms," he informed Ruka.

His dear friend frowned at the assembled baggage. "Are you certain that’s enough?"

The confusion in his tone made Yuda chuckle as he brushed back the hair falling onto his face. "You have to remember that Shin doesn’t pack as many things as Rei does," he assured his friend as he motioned to the saddle bags, "and that we only plan to be gone a couple of weeks. I’m sure we’ll be bringing back much more than this."

"You certainly will, since the list that Rei gave Shin is about three pages long." Ruka sent a wave of apologetic emotions as he patted him on the left shoulder. "The only way I could talk him into letting Shin go ‘alone’ was to bribe him with the promise of herbs and spices from the city."

Yuda knew there had to be a catch since the air elemental had seemed to ‘give in’ relatively quickly and shook his head. "Why would Crawford send along the information that Alexis would be in the city if he didn’t expect me to act upon it somehow? He knows that she’s a very good friend and that I owe her a debt for looking after Shin and helping him to leave Berin." It was the same argument that he had used against the cousins for the past two weeks, ever since deciding to risk going into the city to see his dear friend to thank her in person for all that she had done.

He wasn’t a fool, he knew the danger inherent in what he was doing and that it also placed Shin at risk as well. Yet Crawford had sent the information along, and had made no move to stop him since he had decided on this course of action. Also, they could use some supplies from the capitol and who would expect any of them to be near it with Esset agents around?

<We’ve argued about this enough already. You’ve made some worthy points and I believe they outweigh the danger. Just go in, see her, get what we need and get out,> Ruka sent to him, along with encouragement. <And don’t forget that you’re leaving me here alone to deal with Shin’s cousins the entire time.>

"Which is why I promise to do my best to get you that entire three page shopping list," Yuda swore to his friend. "Even if it means buying another horse to haul it back up this mountain."

"Just keep in mind that you’ll benefit from the effort eventually as Rei cooks for all of us," Ruka shot back with an unusual amount of fervor.

"Yes, but you’ll definitely benefit in an immediate sense," Yuda countered with a suggestive smile, safe in the fact that they both once again had their lovers with them and so could be teased like this after so many years apart.

All Ruka did was give him a very pleased grin in response and lean down to pick up a set of the saddle bags, leaving the other to him. They went out to the main room where the cousins were waiting for them, a jumbled mixture of anxiety, anger, love and resignation. It didn’t surprise Yuda to find that Quinn and Mana were staying to their rooms, considering the turbulent emotions just now.

Shin was waiting for him, dressed in a pair of loose black pants and long, dark blue tunic. For once his light blue hair was worn down, with only the strands around his face pulled back in the gold clasp that Yuda had give him years ago. Beside him was Rei and Gou, both of the men frowning and shaking their heads.

"-certain it’s a good idea to go?" Gou was arguing yet again. "Even if you’re disguised, they’re still looking for water elementals."

"I’ll remain at the Koneko," Shin assured him, his voice taking on a sharp tone that warned that his patience on this topic was coming to an end. "The last thing we’re going to do is run around the city making targets out of ourselves."

Gou appeared as if he wanted to say something just then, but he snapped his mouth shut and shot a look in Yuda’s direction instead. Judging from the fire elemental’s emotions, those thoughts were probably along the lines of ‘you better keep him safe’, to which all Yuda did was give him a cool look and a brief nod. There was no way before all of the gods that he would allow *anything* to harm Shin; he would never leave the estate if he thought that he was placing Shin in any true danger. Ever since hearing that Alexis would be in the city, he had weighed all of the options until he was certain that it would be all right to leave and see his dear friend. He wasn’t just going because he felt a debt was owed to her; there was a chance that something might happen while the Elders’ agents were in the city and he wanted to be there in case he or Shin could do anything to assist Crawford – or if the worst happened, to race back here to warn everyone.

The other reason he and Shin were leaving was that the war was fast approaching, and once it was fought and, the gods willing, won…. The day would come when he and Shin would have to leave this beautiful home *and* everyone here. They might only be going away for a couple of weeks this time, but he wanted Shin to get used to the idea of being away from Rei and the others, to not relying so much upon his ‘cousins’. He was mated to Yuda, and while their bond was finally fulfilled and as close as Yuda could ever have hoped it would be, Yuda had to admit he longed for a time when he didn’t have to share his mate with so many others.

"We’ll be fine," he told not only Gou but Rei and Gai as well. "I’ve already sent word to Crawford to expect us at the Koneko and to arrange a meeting with Alexis. I would think that if something were to go wrong, it would have triggered a vision in him by now since he feels the four of you at least to be so ‘necessary’ to his plans and he’d have sent a message through Eri or another soul gaki bound to stop us." He’d already explained it five times already, but contained his annoyance yet again in hopes that the words made sense *this* time.

"Maybe he’s busy right now," Rei snapped, his emotions fraught with concern for Shin which was the only reason why Yuda allowed the air elemental to fuss with Shin’s long hair just then. Rei slid his arms around Shin and gave him a tight hug. "Be careful. Come home at the first sign of trouble, even if you don’t get to do any shopping, all right?"

Shin patted Rei’s arms and laughed. "It won’t come to that. Now we need to get going while it’s still daylight out," he teased, pausing to press a kiss to Rei’s forehead before pulling away with obvious reluctance. When Rei nodded and forced himself away from Shin, Gou and Gai stepped forward to take his place.

Yuda told himself that there was no reason at all for him to be jealous of the other bounds and had to bite back on a snarl when Ruka tapped his arm. "Here are the illusion charms," his friend informed him with a knowing smile at his resentful emotions.

"Thank you." He forced himself to let out a slow breath as he reached for the charms, mindful of which one was meant for Shin. He slipped proper charm over his head and held out the other one for his mate, smiling when Shin finally came over to his side. "Here you go."

Shin frowned a little as he accepted the charm, then shook his head before he slipped it on as well. "How does it look?" he asked as he turned toward Rei.

Since Yuda was wearing a matching charm, he could faintly see an outline of the effect the spell cast on Shin, blurring his coloring and features enough to make them appear more ‘natural’ and effeminate. They had decided that the best way to throw off any of the Elders hounds would be to make Shin appear as a woman, something that was easier for him with his more slender build, long hair and water elemental talent; he could alter his scent just enough to be convincing as long as a bound didn’t get too close, and then Yuda should be able to serve as a distraction if that happened. Shin wasn’t entirely pleased with the deception, but it made sense since anyone from Esset would be looking for two men if searching for them.

Rei clapped his hands together while Gai swore. "Oh, very good! You’re even prettier now!"

"Uhm, thank you, I think," Shin mumbled as he pushed up his glasses, a becoming blush spreading across his face. Yuda smiled as he leaned down to nuzzle his mate’s temple.

"I think Rei meant to say it’s very convincing," Gou explained in an attempt to salvage the moment. "If I didn’t know that you were a man, I would swear that you were a woman."

"Yeah, though you could do with more in the che- ow!" Gai glared at Gou as he rubbed stomach, where he had been hit. "What?"

"I think we’ve come across an area where you could do with some lessons," Gou informed the younger bound with a weary sigh. As Gai grumbled beneath his breath, Gou stepped forward to give Shin a quick hug. "Be safe." To Yuda’s surprise, he did the same to him.

"We’ll be back soon," he promised the fire elemental as he returned the hug.

"I know." To his surprise, he didn’t sense any doubt or antagonism. Then again, Gou was the only one who knew that eventually, the six of them would have to go their separate ways and so probably understood part of the reasons why Yuda was doing this.

He said his goodbyes to Rei and Gai as well, then gathered the bags and made their way to the stables. Ruka had already prepared the horses for them, a black mare they both would ride and a grey gelding to serve as pack horse. Yuda secured the saddle bags to the grey and checked that the bags that Rei had packed for food were fastened securely, then mounted the mare. Once up, he reached down for Shin’s hand and pulled his mate up behind him. While it would make more sense for them to ride separately, it would be easier to cloak Shin’s nature this way, to ‘mask’ it with his own succubae scent and glamour as well as put his demon soul at rest to know his mate was so close.

Shin settled against his back, a warm presence that made him feel so much more alive and powerful just by simple touch alone. He had fed that morning, the two of them spending the time down by the lake behind the mansion, Shin in his element so Yuda had barely ‘drained’ him at all. Just the memory of Shin surrounded by the warm water, his hair fanned out around him, the drops glistening on his pale skin…. Yuda shook his head and motioned for the horse to leave the barn.

Shin’s arms around him tightened, either from the horse breaking into a trot or the emotions flowing over their link. As they rode out into the sunlight, he concentrated on what his mate was feeling, alert for any signs of concern or anxiety. Yet all he sensed was love, happiness and excitement and a little sorrow, probably at leaving Rei and the others behind.

He squeezed Shin’s hands while sending some reassurance. "We’ll stop around midday, but I’d like to get as far as possible before stopping this evening," he warned his lover. The horses were in good shape and the journey mostly downhill, so it shouldn’t take them that long to reach the city. If the weather held and they didn’t waste too much time, they could reach the Koneko by tomorrow evening.

"That’s fine." Shin pressed his face against Yuda’s neck for a moment and sighed. "You’ll be all right with Yohji this time, yes?" A trace of anxiety crept over their link.

Despite the fact that they were going to the city to see Alexis, an old lover of Yuda’s, while other Esset agents were there, that was the one thing that worried Shin the most. Yuda was grateful that his mate trusted in his strength to look after him and wasn’t jealous of his past relationships when he had to feed his hunger. However, his pride still stung a little over the fights he had gotten into with Yohji at the Koneko and at how soundly he had been beaten by the other succubae bound; part of the reason was the fact that Yohji was stronger, and that Yuda had been so weak at the time from the lack of ‘feeding’. Even if he told himself that there was no way he could stand up to another bound who was mated to a kage, he wasn’t used to having someone be stronger than himself.

Still he forced himself to push past the sense of rivalry and antagonism he felt for another of his kind, especially since he counted on the Koneko to provide safety for his mate. "I think most of the problem between us was that I was so hungry and worried about you at the time, love. We got along mostly well once you and I became mates." He tilted his head back and smiled at his mate, a thrill running through him as always when he saw Shin smile back at him; despite the past year of them being together, it was still a surprise to have Shin here with him, to have the bond between them fulfilled at last.

"Good. I don’t want to have to worry about any fights." Shin hugged him close and sighed, the sound pleased. "There’ll be enough of that pretty soon."

"Hmm, so why bother going looking for it, is that you’re thinking?" Yuda laughed as he felt assent over their link. "Such a wise one, love."

He had Shin with him, happy, healthy and bound to him. They were headed together to see a dear friend, to repay part of a debt owed and perhaps get a better idea of what part he and Ruka would play in the upcoming war. Then they would return home, to something that neither of them had truly had before, to a place filled with happiness and friends. Perhaps it wouldn’t be there for them for too much longer, but it was there for now. Despite the risks they were taking to leave it, Yuda felt they were justified; they couldn’t remain hiding forever, or they would fool themselves into thinking that they were safe from the approaching war. No, it was best to go in search of some answers now, when they would be lost in the crowd.

*******

Return to Archive

Next Chapter