Tangled Threads

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chapter six

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machinations and fears

*******

Crawford sat in the small teahouse, making careful note of everyone who came and went while he waited for Anthony to show up. No doubt the soul gaki bound suspected that he would be followed and so would not risk a place that would be used again by any Esset agents, but this location would have to be secure enough for today’s meeting. That meant that probably at least one of the people here was another agent from the Elders and so would need to be hunted down in the future. Jei was outside, and would be sure to mentally store away the scents of all the people here today. Sometimes it was useful to have a flesh gaki bound as a partner.

He had just poured himself a second cup of tea when the door opened to let in Lord Anthony and another bound, Isaac by the looks of him. The earth elemental settled himself at the table by the door, his dark, slanted eyes narrowing slightly as he took in Crawford’s presence before glancing aside. Ah, there was someone who probably didn’t care for precogs and the automatic high status they received because of their rare nature. From what Crawford had been able to gather about Isaac, the man had an inferiority complex because of his weak demon nature. That would make him very savage with the use of his talent, with what should be the ability to heal people. The gods had quite the grim sense of humor when it took more talent and energy to heal wounds than to cause them.

Anthony came straight to Crawford’s table and sat down without any polite introduction or query. "And good day to you, too," Crawford remarked with a sarcastic tone before sipping his tea.

<I don’t have much time as I’m using my talent to keep those damn fleas the Kritiker’s Spymaster sent after me from noticing that I came in here, but by all means, good day to you,> Anthony snapped.

<Then say what you need to say and leave. I’m not too terribly pleased to have you lead those ‘fleas’ straight to me,> Crawford pointed out, letting his annoyance flow over the telepathic link as he bared his teeth.

<I should think that your talent would warn you if this was a trap,> Anthony shot back, but some of his arrogance faded at the show of power. As much as the man loved to flaunt his highborn status and the favor the Elders had granted him, he was nowhere near Crawford’s strength and there were many other soul gaki bounds like him to take his place. As far as the Elders were aware, there was only one other precog alive near Crawford’s level and she had slipped their grasp over two decades ago.

<My talent isn’t infallible, so say what you came to say and then take those fleas with you.> Crawford felt it safe to assume that Anthony was preventing the people in the room who weren’t agents from noticing the fact that they weren’t speaking aloud. <Why are you here?>

Anthony seemed to regain some of his habitual arrogance at the reminder of his mission, his back straightening and his blue eyes gleaming with pride as he tugged at the sleeves of his elaborately decorated dark red tunic. <Why, to discredit Kritiker and show them for the bloodthirsty savages that they are. Once we’re done, they won’t have any allies standing beside them and will be seen as the aggressors with blood on their hands.>

That was basically what the hints of Crawford’s visions had shown him. <And how am I to assist you with this?> he asked as he sipped his tea.

<By providing me with all the information you have on the Guards, as well as the visiting ambassadors. I have the reports from the Elders’ favorites, but I would prefer your insights as well.> A hint of animosity tinged his thoughts at mention of Trowa and the others.

Crawford prevented any emotion from showing on his face as he set his teacup aside. <Give me a day to compile my notes and have one of your companions meet me at the Victory park in the Central district. It shouldn’t be that difficult for one of you to get out for a walk.>

Anthony nodded as he studied his cream colored suede gloves. <I’ll send Lukas.> An image of the earth elemental appeared in Crawford’s head. <Obviously, any visions you have that would aid in the planning of missions or warn us of danger would be appreciated.>

<I’ll be certain to pass them along….> He allowed his uncertainty to flow across the link.

<Contact Lord Shinra.> Anthony rose from the chair, his actions rushed as if he was aware of how much time had been spent at the teahouse. <I’ve plans to meet with him shortly, and his talent is strong enough that he’ll be able to pass along any messages.> Despite the brevity of his speech, another hint of jealousy along with some pettiness came through; Anthony would relish reducing Rufus to a messenger role as the man was a much stronger soul gaki bound than him.

Crawford nodded in goodbye as Anthony and Isaac left the teahouse, taking the time to finish off his pot of tea as he gathered his thoughts. It would have been nice if Anthony had arranged for Alexis to meet with him tomorrow, but it was beneficial to be able to cross paths with Lukas at this point in time as well.

He just wished that Anthony had been more forthcoming with what the Elders were planning to do. His visions had identified one clear target, but that of the Guards was obscured, leaving him to wonder if Aya or Yohji was involved in any way. Also, if all he was doing was providing information, it was becoming more and more probable that Anthony was going to rely upon Heero and possibly Duo and Trowa for assistance. Nothing he had seen would cause either of the three men to leave Eto in the near future, and if anything, he had a feeling that the time was coming when Heero would be forced to choose sides. But things could change, and the Elders were skilled in tilting the odds in their favor.

There were many things that he needed to do, and it was becoming clear that another discussion with Aya would be one of them. Crawford swallowed half the contents of the teacup in one gulp, the hot tea doing little to warm the chill in his chest. Despite his admonitions to his idiot of a son the other day, he had some doubts on being able to manipulate Aya as much as he needed to in order to bring about the future he wanted. The kage… had been more malleable as Ran, and there was very little of that personality left in Aya anymore. In some ways, being with Yohji had stripped the kage of his humanity, had removed the thin ‘human’ veneer that he had worn to hide his true nature and appease his masters. Aya might have a better understanding of some human emotions and customs now, but his demon nature had come into its own and was growing stronger each day.

Which made dealing with the man a bit discomforting anymore. Add to that telling Yuushi that most likely one of his own was a target, and Crawford felt the urge to seek out the nearest bar. He sighed as he set the cup aside and rose to his feet. There was a lot of work to do and little time to finish it. At least he could gain some satisfaction in paying Shinra a visit and warning him that he would soon become Anthony’s message boy.

*******

Omi did his best not to fiddle with the collar of his dark blue tunic as he waited in one of the palace’s smaller formal sitting rooms. This was his third ‘appointment’ of the day, with an afternoon tea and a dinner party to still look forward to, and all he wanted to do was go hide in Botan’s office. At least this was one of the more private meetings that was on his schedule.

"Stop that," Nagi chided him from across the room, where he was leaning against a windowsill to look outside.

Omi sighed as he forced his hand to drop down to his side. "I’ll gladly trade you clothes," he complained as he eyed his lover’s less gaudy light green and white tunic.

"Now, now, how would it look for your lowly servant to be better dressed than your highness?" Sarcasm all but literally dripped from Nagi’s voice, but amusement twinkled in his brown eyes. If it weren’t for that fact that company would be joining them at any moment, Omi would go over and give his boyfriend a kiss for the teasing; instead he forced himself to remain still other than shaking his head.

"I could live with the shame if it meant not being jabbed quite so much," he muttered. One of the things he had been quite happy to leave behind here was the uncomfortable clothes with all of their stiff embroidery and unnecessary ties and embellishments. Ah well, at least Nagi, masquerading as ‘Mikado’, could get away with much simpler outfits. Most people barely paid Nagi any attention at all, which was exactly how Omi wanted it to be even if he realized how insulting that lack of interest really was.

He was about to mention to his lover that perhaps they could stop by Botan’s office after dinner when the door to the small room finally opened, admitting the company they’d been waiting for. Much like himself, Helena was dressed in a formal manner, her lovely gown reflecting the red and black colors of Esset. Behind her was the flesh gaki bound, Alexis, in a lilac colored dress that made her pale skin seem to glow. A servant dressed in Kritiker colors set a tray filled with a tea set down on the low table in the center of the room, while another one followed with some suitable snacks before both bowed and then left them alone. Last to enter the room was Lady Meara, as an ‘appropriate’ chaperone for the meeting.

Lady Meara waited for all of the greetings to be out of the way before motioning for everyone to sit down, which she did herself as she commandeered the tea set. "Good day, Princess. I hope you enjoyed your breakfast with the Queen."

Helena nodded, her long brown hair sliding over her shoulder with the motion. "Yes, Lady Meara, it was quite nice." As she talked, she sat down on the settee, her hands smoothing out her black skirt in what Omi realized was a nervous gesture. He took a seat in a chair perpendicular to her and smiled in encouragement. As he did so, he noticed that Nagi remained over by the window, a quiet presence playing the role of respectful servant, while Alexis situated herself a little bit back from Helena. Nagi’s distance didn’t bother him, as it would only require a thought for his lover to protect him should Crawford prove wrong about the flesh gaki bound; she might not look anywhere near as frightening as Jei, but Omi had learned to never let a bound’s appearance fool him.

"I’m happy to hear that your visit is going well." Lady Meara glanced at Omi as she poured the tea. "The Court isn’t always an enjoyable place for one so young, but I admit that we’re doing our best to put on a good face."

The frankness of her statement seemed to surprise both Helena and Alexis. A hint of teeth appeared between Alexis’ lips, and Helena’s brow furrowed a little, as if she was trying to puzzle out the meaning of the words. "I… would think that the Court would always put on a good face," Helena said as she accepted a cup of tea. This probably wasn’t the conversation that she had expected for this meeting, in what was arranged as a chance to have a more private discussion with ‘Mamoru’ in hopes of seeing if the two heirs were suitable to a royal marriage. At least, that was the excuse that Crawford and Meara had used to set up this appointment with only the five of them.

Lady Meara scoffed a little as she poured another cup. "Come now, Princess, the purpose of a Court is to manhandle power. There is nothing pretty or civil about it, so it must put on an act when manners are required." She handed a cup to Omi with a smile that would do Crawford proud. "Don’t you agree?"

"I think that there’s something very admirable about open declarations of where you stand in regards to others in strength and power, as well as threats, but can understand how some people would enjoy the game," Omi admitted, alluding as much as he could to how bounds handled things. Judging from the way Alexis’ dark eyes narrowed, he would say that his point had gotten across. "Then again, I’m considered something of a failure in the Court’s eyes."

"Only because they don’t know the true you," Lady Meara admitted with a hint of heat.

Helena’s hands trembled a little, but there was a firmness to her lips that indicated that she was managing the confusing situation with admirable aplomb. This was the first real chance that Omi had to observe her closely, and despite the fact that she might one day be an enemy, he found himself liking the young woman. She sat there with her back straight, quietly taking everything in with the teacup held lightly in one hand as she looked straight at him. Then she nodded as if she had come to the end of some internal debate.

"I am, too," she said in a quiet voice. "Considered a failure."

"I would repeat what the Lady Meara said." Alexis’ voice was just as quiet, but Omi detected a slight growl to it.

He smiled at Helena, the expression warm and touched with a little sadness. "Even though it hurts a bit, trust me, it can be a good thing. They’re too busy playing games to realize what’s at stake."

She smiled back at him, the shyness all gone. "Yes, it…." She shook her head, perhaps remembering in time that it was best to be careful how they phrased things even though Omi had at least ensured that there were no listening spells in the room. "Some things are too important for games."

"I’m very touched to see the two of you finding common ground so quickly," Lady Meara commented as she finished with the tea. "It’s something as simple as that which gives us hope that you will find other things as well to bond over, and that there will be a strong future for our countries. Here, have some of the pâté sandwiches, they’re my favorite." She gave them all a significant look as she held up the plate of hors d’oeuvres.

Alexis bared her teeth in what Omi recognized as a pleased grin for her kind as she helped herself to several of the sandwiches. "Yes, I think the two of them are going to get along very well together."

"Alexis!" Helena blushed a little, which she hid by taking a sip of tea.

For his part, Omi nibbled on a sandwich, very mindful of Nagi behind him. His boyfriend knew the pretext of this meeting, and that more than likely there would be talk of ‘Mamoru’ and Princess Helena possibly being betrothed to each other. Depending on what happened in the next couple of weeks would determine how serious those rumors became, but all that mattered to him was that Nagi realized that they would never come true. There was no way his father could force him into marrying anybody; he would give up any claim to the throne he had before that would happen. Now that Ouka was born, no one would probably care if he disinherited himself at all.

Still, there was a part that he had to play, and would continue to do so until the time came when he could do away with ‘Mamoru’ entirely. "I’m sure she meant that it’s a great thing that we can be friends," he remarked as he once more smiled at Helena. "I truly would like for that to happen." He let the sincerity he felt show forth in his tone and in his expression.

Helena looked up from her teacup and stared at him for several seconds. "I… would like that as well." He was left with the impression that she didn’t have very many friends and felt a bit sorry for her. At least he had Botan and Birman while growing up, and then Yohji and Ken later on, followed by the gang at the Koneko.

A slight tap to the left side of his head made him remember something. "Oh!" He set aside his plate of sandwiches and stood to his feet. "I’m sorry, my manners are usually much better," he explained as he slowly approached Helena, with Nagi leaving the window to fall in step behind him. "I brought you something."

Helena looked at him in surprise for a moment before putting her teacup aside. "Really? I mean, that’s very kind of you," she replied with a hint of a blush on her cheeks. While she might not be as pretty as some of the ladies at Court, like Relena Peacecroft or Yumi Kanno, she was very charming when she smiled or blushed.

Nagi handed him the gift-wrapped book, which he presented to her with a slight bow. "I… well, someone told me that you enjoy studying history, and I’ve a dear friend who enjoys the same thing." He grinned as he thought about Aya. "I asked him for a suggestion and he recommended this." It was very amusing, the way that Helena’s light brown eyes lit up as she accepted the book. "It’s about Kritiker’s history, but by a Thracian scholar. I asked- well, my friend said that this author is very unbiased and honest. I thought that perhaps you would like to know more about this country from a reliable source."

Helena cradled the very thick tome against her chest as she nodded. "Oh yes, I look forward to studying it with my tutor. I fear… it’ll greatly enhance my library," she admitted in a slightly chagrined tone.

"Yes, I’ve learned a lot of very interesting things about Esset while studying with my friend." Omi shared a rueful grin with Helena for a moment before returning to his seat.

"It’s so heartening to see such understanding form already between the two of you," Lady Meara remarked as she leaned back in her chair, a smile softening the harsh lines of her face. "If only diplomacy was always as easy as this."

"I’m beginning to suspect that there’s something in these sandwiches," Alexis commented as she helped herself to a few more, but there was a teasing smile on her face as she did so.

Lady Meara snorted as she held up her teacup. "If it were that simple, I would have done so years ago and earned myself a well-deserved rest by now."

"But then you’d be so bored!" Omi teased as he snatched up the remaining pâté sandwiches before they were all gone.

"I think I could manage to find *something* worthy of my time rather than dealing with a bunch of needless intrigue and polite ways of telling people they’re being blithering idiots," Lady Meara shot back as she poured more tea for Helena and Alexis.

"Oh, but isn’t that rather fun?" Helena asked as she fetched her cup.

Lady Meara had the grace to look slightly chastened. "Sometimes, I must admit."

Back by his window, Nagi made a clicking sound that was very reminiscent of Aya’s warning to Yohji of pushing things too far. "Aya was right, highborns *do* talk too much," he grumbled under his breath. Omi smiled as he hoped that no one else had caught that particular insult, but judging from Alexis’ sudden grin, he knew a lost cause when confronted with one.

Ah well, at least this particular contingent of Kritiker and Esset was getting along.

*******

Heero stood beneath the wisteria arbor in the eastern full moon garden as he waited for his companions to arrive. There wasn’t much time on his break, and while he had gotten a rather ‘amused’ reputation for ‘sneaking off to see his girlfriend’ among his squadron, he didn’t want to push his luck by returning to his post late. At least there seemed to be some sort of distraction in one of the gardens on the southern side of the palace that should hopefully draw everyone’s attention, and Relena was occupied with the Queen today.

He shook his head to dispel an image of the young woman. Now was not the time to think of her and the confusing emotions she brought out in him. The sound of footsteps made him straighten his back and ready his talent, not relaxing even after he saw that it was just Martha and the succubae bound, Kendra. He checked to ensure that no one had followed the women and then used his talent to prevent the sound of their voices from carrying very far.

"You’re seven minutes late."

Martha glared at him for the chastisement as she flipped her wavy brown hair back over her left shoulder. "The halls were very crowded and we were putting on a show of being confused in case anyone asks why we wandered into this garden."

"The Spymaster has two of her people following us, but I’ve glamoured them so they won’t report back anything I don’t want them to," Kendra remarked with a pleased smile. "One of them provided a lovely… snack earlier." She smoothed her right hand along her hip, drawing attention to the tightness of her dark red skirt.

Heero felt a pull of attraction and ruthlessly smothered it. "From what Trowa has reported, the woman isn’t a fool. Don’t glamour them too strongly or she’ll suspect something." Anyone who had Trowa’s respect was someone to be careful with, and the Elders didn’t want the human dead just yet; a known enemy was one who could be dealt with and possibly controlled, and it would hurt Kritiker more to kill her closer to the war.

Kendra’s sultry smile turned into a pout as her hands fisted onto her hips. "I know what I’m doing," she snarled, but there was a hint of uncertainty to her voice that let him know she had taken the warning to heart. He wished that Tan Xi was here with her power and her experience, but she was too valuable to risk on such a mission; she would be able to wield her power with enough subtlety that such warnings would be unnecessary.

"Be certain that you do." He turned his attention back to Martha, who had a little more experience in these missions. "What are our orders?" he asked, certain that they weren’t here just to sleep with junior spies.

She frowned as she played with a falling vine. "I’m going to need your help in eliminating at least one Guard. We’re to make it as gory as possible for impact, and if we can imply that the murderer was someone associated with the Army, even better."

He thought about the request and nodded. "I can supply you with enough evidence that the Guard will suspect that the ‘suspect’ is either in the Army or has ties to it." As a plan, it would go far in fracturing the tremulous bonds that Queen Manx was trying to forge between the Army and the Guard before the war.

"We’ll also need you to help carry out the mission." Martha’s voice was tight with tension as she tugged on the vine until it snapped. "Since we can’t use our powers."

Heero frowned but nodded after several seconds. He had killed while serving on missions before, but usually to defend himself or when forced to during the mission. While he had been given orders to eliminate targets in the past, they weren’t his preferred assignments. "Understood."

"Good. Kendra or I will contact you when we need you." Martha ran her fingers over the length of plant, her actions betraying her nervousness. "I haven’t seen Trowa anywhere."

"He’s busy with his own assignment." Heero’s eyes narrowed as he stared at the fire elemental bound. "Do you need to contact him for a new task?" Even with most of his attention focused on Martha, he noticed the way Kendra shifted away, an amused smirk on her face half-hidden by her dark hair.

"…no," Martha whispered. "I just thought to see him." She dropped the vine to lift her hand to her right ear, as if to touch an earring.

"Unless you have a message or a mission for him, I would advise you to leave him alone," Heero ordered her with a hint of a growl to his voice. Both women stared at him, their scents sharp with shock and fear as he let his demon nature rise to the fore. "He’s in a very dangerous position, and one slip could lead to the Spymaster realizing that he works for Esset." He refused to allow a rare friend be endangered by this foolish woman’s game. "The Elders would *not* be pleased at you for risking his current mission, and neither will I."

"Ye-yes," Martha stuttered out. She appeared cowed for a moment, and then squared her shoulders. "Do you really think they’ll do anything to harm a bound with all the ambassadors around?"

"I believe that the current Spymaster, despite her relatively young age, is utterly ruthless in protecting this country." Heero didn’t feel that he was being disloyal to Esset in having some admiration for the woman after reading Trowa’s reports. "She’ll do whatever is necessary, and I’m certain finding a bound spy in Court would lead her to taking him into custody and probably executing him as well, despite the ongoing present attempt at peace."

Martha was quiet for several seconds before nodding. "I understand. I had thought that the Elders might be pleased if I managed to bring home a water elemental’s child, but I’ll heed your warning."

Kendra laughed at that statement. "It takes more than a charm to get *that* man to pay you attention." She smirked in the face of Martha’s glare. "Despite the danger, I would love to meet that Masato to see just how powerful he really is, but I doubt you *or* I have what it takes to get into the infamous Trowa’s pants." She grimaced as she tucked back her hair. "And I’ve enough men on the agenda to fuck that I don’t need my brains liquefied trying, thank you very much."

It was encouraging to see that the Elders had sent at least one intelligent agent. "This is a conversation you can continue on your own time," Heero informed the women. "I have to report back to work. Contact me only if it’s necessary," he warned them as he left the arbor, intent on being gone from the garden long before them. If anyone asked, he could always say that the women had disturbed his break and he had left once he discovered who they were.

The fact that he would soon be busy doing something for the Elders warred with the disapproval over Martha’s ambitions. She had been sent here for a reason, to complete a mission, so why was she endangering things by risking Trowa’s cover? The unprofessionalism was disturbing and dangerous; it was one thing if the Elders had ordered her to do so, which was highly doubtful since she was barely a mid-level fire elemental. If they wanted a child from Trowa, it would be with a much stronger elemental bound, and until recently there was no proof that Trowa could ‘perform’ his duty without harming his partner.

Not for the first time, Heero wondered what was going on with Trowa and Duo. He had heard the gossip around the palace about them being lovers and Duo being very protective about their relationship. Such a thing made sense to ensure that Trowa didn’t have to assault anyone to discourage unwelcome attention. Yet the uncomfortable tension that had always been around them ever since Heero had known the two men was now gone, and their act as lovers was flawless.

If it was true…. All that mattered was the mission. If they had come to an understanding between them that allowed them to successfully perform the mission, then all the better. He found nothing at fault about their work, in fact they had been perfectly assimilated in their environments and were doing better than he was at the moment. There was also a strange emotion in his chest whenever he was around them that made him think of Relena, that pushed him to seek her out. It was confusing and strange, how it could be painful to be around them and yet at the same time comforting to see them together. Everything about this mission was confusing and not what he had expected.

However, he could do this latest assignment. He could prove to the Elders that it wasn’t a mistake to send him here, that he was successful in infiltrating the Army. No matter if he felt that using the tactics similar to those of the past war were dishonorable and a potential mistake, he would do so. What else was he if not a loyal subject?

*******

Duo did his best to keep his stride casual and his hands relaxed as he walked through the palace’s hallways. Dammit, why did Quatre have to warn him all those months ago about Martha making a play for Shin? His friend had phrased it as ‘politely’ and ‘innocently’ as possible in case the Elders had one of their pets read the letter all but smuggled out of Berin, masqueraded as a note from an ‘old friend’ near the border within Kritiker, but Duo damn well knew how to pick up on what was *not* being said. He also knew enough to ask Jei to find out more information for him, after putting up with threats and a few not so playful scratches for almost half an hour, which had been worth it in the end. The gods take those old bastards and their plans to breed powerful bounds, preferably Kisei at that.

If he saw that weak bitch anywhere near his mate-

A shoulder bumped into him, causing him to bare his teeth at his partner.

"You’re growling," Toshi warned him, voice pitched quiet and dark eyes narrowed in warning. "And it’s getting a bit hot around here, too."

"Dammit," Duo muttered as he fought with his demon nature. He let out a slow breath a couple of times and reminded himself that Trowa would internally lobotomize the other fire elemental if she so much as pressed up against him.

"Copper for your thoughts?"

"Murder and mayhem, basically," he told his partner, prompting Toshi to laugh and lose that disapproving look.

Toshi nudged him in the arm again as he shook his head. "That better not be directed my way."

"I don’t know, you’ve cheaped out of buying rounds the last few nights at the Koneko," Duo complained as they headed down the corridor toward the Judges’ offices.

Toshi scoffed as he tugged at a button on his jacket. "Oh please, as if you care as long as Trowa’s there in the library or waiting for you at home. Half the time you pay for your round and are rushing off to see him."

"Yeah, but I still buy a round." Duo knocked his elbow into the cheap bastard’s side as he made his point. "Don’t tell me the kid’s already eating you out of house and home."

"Maybe if she had half the appetite that you did." Toshi was smiling as he said that, and suddenly stopped walking as if something occurred to him. "Wait – how soon until I know if she’s… well, one of…."

This time, Duo did more than knock his elbow into his partner’s side; he gave the moron a pretty good whap to the ribs. "Idiot. First off, it’ll be another ten years or more before *that’ll* happen, and secondly, I’m pretty sure it’s normal for growing brats to need to eat a lot." It was pretty bad when *he* was the rational voice to childrearing.

"Whatever you say, oh great sage." Toshi laughed as he just barely dodged another hit. Around them, various highborns looked on with disapproval while other Guards smiled and waved as they walked past. "Lilla and I are trying to save up to buy our own place, so that means less money to spend on alcohol."

"Hmph, seems to me that the candle-making business should be pretty good, so doesn’t she have the money already?"

"Not when she has to pay for the shop and everything." Toshi grimaced as he resumed playing with his uniform, this time the cuffs. "Besides, I want to contribute as well. And don’t think I’ve forgotten what had you all upset a few minutes ago."

"Oh, but I’d much rather go on about the many reasons why you’re such a cheap bastard," Duo replied in a much too sweet of a tone while he made a show of rubbing his right hand over his left wrist. While doing that, he tapped out a quick message to assuage his partner’s curiosity over his lack of restraint.

Toshi didn’t show any response to the message, other than to let loose an adorable little growl of his own. "Let’s see how ‘cheap’ you are when Trowa finally loses whatever sense he has and asks you to buy an apartment together!"

"Hmph, it’s more like *come* to his senses and realizes what a wonderful part of his life I am," Duo shot back with a cocky grin, well aware that the bastard was just trying to get a rise out of him. He didn’t mind the ‘reputation’ he had in the Guard and around the palace of being more than a little ‘besotted’ with his lover since everyone knew by now that Trowa was definitely off-limits.

"Why the man would want you when he could have half a dozen highborns or Court officials…." Toshi shook his head and clicked his tongue as if in disgust. "You probably had a wizard cast one hell of a love spell on the poor guy."

Duo’s eyes narrowed as he struggled to keep his sharp teeth covered, well aware that Toshi was just teasing him and doing his best to rein in his demon nature. "You know, if you failed to show up in the near future for your shift, the only thing that would really annoy Yuushi would be having to pay out your pension and rearranging the schedule," he announced with a rough voice.

The half-serious threat earned him a laugh and a quick hug around his shoulders. "Ah! I think I’m on to something there! So, how much did you pay for that spell, eh?"

Fortunately, they reached an empty office which they could duck into, Toshi quick to pull out one of the mother of pearl charms that Botan had given them to ensure that no one would overhear their conversation and hang it from the small hook near the doorknob. "Seriously, you are pretty lucky to nab someone like Trowa," he continued to tease as he settled into one of the padded leather chairs.

Finally baring his teeth, Duo leaned against the table as he held up his right hand, around which flames danced in additional warning. "I’ll have you know that I’m considered quite the catch as well. And I don’t hear the man in question complaining!"

"Then why are you the one in a homicidal rage, hmm?" Toshi stared at him, the joking demeanor completely gone from his voice and face, until Duo had to look away.

He rubbed his now flame-free hands over his face and through his hair, tugging at the strands pulled back in the pewter clip. "Dammit, it’s because he’s a water elemental and his kind have always been more sought after than fire elementals. Not only can they control water and the weather, but you got that attraction thing going on that makes most humans run after them like dogs in heat. It’s pretty… useful." He spat out the word as if it were vile, knowing full well how the Elders had put that nature to use – well aware of how much his mate had suffered for being an unprotected water elemental and having no control over that ‘attraction’ because of his youth.

Toshi continued to stare at him for a few seconds before sighing. "I highly doubt that Birman is going to let anything happen to him, even if by some chance you fail to protect him. Try to keep that in mind, okay?" He offered Duo a grim smile. "Not to mention those bastards out there will have to go through the entire Shadow Guard to get at him. We like him a lot better than we do you, since he knows what manners are after all."

"Oh *fuck* you," Duo cursed as he lobbed a couple of small sparks at the bastard. "Just for that, I’m gonna tell Lilla to hold out strong the next time I see her."

Toshi was in the middle of a rant about what an asshole of a partner he was stuck with when Eri slipped into the room. She probably had some idea what was going on because of her talent, but she got a full blast of the insults when she closed the door behind her. A slight smile curved her lips and her dark eyes sparkled as she shook her head.

"Nice to see that the spell is working," she yelled out, cutting across Toshi’s impassioned voice.

Toshi stopped to take several deep breaths, his face flushed and set in a glare, but he didn’t smell pissed off so Duo knew it was just a front. He figured that his partner needed to vent, just like he had, and couldn’t do it with growls and fireballs.

"Yeah, looks like Botan being lazy and foisting all his work on the kids hasn’t been that much of a mistake yet," Duo joked as he folded his arms over his chest. "So, what brings you here and without Naru at that?" Usually the only times the partners were separate while on the clock was when Eri was trying to get a little time alone with Yuushi – which didn’t happen very often while the couple was working.

"He got in trouble for blowing up that hideous statue of General Tekken in the Lavender garden and is in Kikyou’s office." At Duo and Toshi’s surprised looks, she shook her head and motioned toward the charm hanging on the door. "It was cleared with the king and Birman beforehand, so while Kikyou will no doubt chew him out, they’ll step in to keep him from getting into too much trouble. It was felt that there had to be some sort of ‘show’ of his talent to convince our guests that he has enough skill to have caught the spies from last year, after all."

"And I’ve heard the king complain about that statue often enough to know he won’t miss it," Toshi added as he leaned back farther in his seat.

"Exactly." Eri sighed as she combed her fingers through her shoulder-length hair. "I feel bad that he may be suspended from duty for a few days, but it means I should be able to remain here at the palace to help keep an eye on our ‘guests’." A predatory look came over her pretty features. "I don’t trust them at all."

"You and me both," Duo growled. "I hope they approach me soon about something just so we know what they want." And that they stayed the hell away from Trowa. He didn’t want them anywhere near his mate, even if Trowa had one of those awful black rings and was able to look after himself. The Elders had managed to take away what Duo had loved in the past, and that had only been a dear friend. There was no way he was going to let them harm his mate.

*******

Rufus made his way through the crowded palace hallways, his expression aloof even though his emotions were furious and concerned. If he believed for one moment that he could ignore Anthony’s ‘summons’ then he would, especially when he had been all but ordered to bring Reno along on the visit. He recognized Tan Xi’s hand behind that in the letter that had been delivered at his house yesterday, a chance for the succubae bound to pry a little deeper into his ‘relationship’ with his gokenin. She probably wanted to know if there was anything meaningful between them, to see if the dubhach was any sort of weakness that could be exploited and report so back to her masters. He refused to allow her to learn any differently than what he had shown back in Berin.

He knew how *he* was prepared to handle the situation, what left him filled with dread was over how Reno would behave today. He had done his best to convince his mate of the seriousness of the situation, but as always with Reno, he was uncertain of how much of an impression he had made. For all he knew, Reno’s shinigami nature could be delighting in the danger they now found themselves in. All he could do was hope that Tseng provided a stable enough of a presence to help ground the suicidal bastard.

<Why the hell do these bitches have to wear so much perfume?> Reno complained as they made their way to the parlor where they were supposed to meet Anthony. <Hell, half the guys are drenched with the stuff as well.>

<Don’t even think about throwing pitchers of water on any of them,> Rufus warned as he continued on his way, refusing to give in to the impulse to turn around and glare at the troublesome idiot.

<You know, it’ll be a lot quicker if you just told me what I *can* do,> Reno grumbled, but he kept his hands at his side and his expression schooled more or less into an acceptable mask of boredom tinged with a touch of sullenness. Judging from the images that Rufus picked up from the people he passed in the hallway, Reno didn’t appear either as impressive or professional as Tseng, which was to be expected – especially under the given circumstances. In a way, it benefited them to have Reno come off as a less than stellar gokenin when compared to the others when one took into consideration the rumors that had been spread back in Esset. Rufus would much rather have the Elders believe that he continued to have the man in his presence because he was a skilled and convenient lover who wouldn’t produce any bastards to contest the family property, not to mention it was much easier to engage in a ‘relationship’ with the ‘help’ than risk endangering his mission by revealing his true nature to a human woman.

Simple convenience. That was all he wanted Reno’s role in his life to appear to be, which wouldn’t happen if the damn redhead acted as too much of a liability. There was the thinnest of veneers hiding the truth of their relationship, and the sharp minds that were behind much the machinations at Court could so easily pierce the veil of illusions cloaking their mating bond. Rufus would curse the gods if he thought it would do any good, yet it would probably only be a waste of effort on his part and lead to even more complications in his life.

He nodded to several people along the way, and stopped to talk to Lord Li about a possible commission before finally reaching the agreed upon room. There was a servant fussing over a tray of tea and snacks, but no Lord Anthony as of yet. Rufus gave the elderly woman a curt nod as he settled in the chair farthest from the window, which allowed Reno and Tseng to stand behind in the shadows. He could feel Reno’s relief over their link and had to resist the impulse of pointing out that *this* was in part why he insisted on having his lover remain at home. The stubborn bastard should be grateful that Anthony hadn’t picked a garden location for the meeting.

Rufus had just accepted a cup of tea from the servant when Anthony finally arrived, with Martha trailing in his wake. Thank the gods that the wizard whom Yohji had mentioned wasn’t in attendance; Tan Xi’s crony only confirmed his suspicion that the succubae-bound had indeed requested more information about his mate, but if anyone seriously suspected that Reno was… more than a normal bound they most likely would have sent a wizard sniffing after him. There was some hope that the Elders’ creature wasn’t here for Rufus’- for him. Rufus tamped down on his thoughts, even though Anthony was much weaker than him. There was no sense in betraying everything with a lack of caution.

"Good afternoon, Anthony," he bade the man, nodding in greeting. It was a slight jab that he didn’t rise from his seat, as he possessed both a greater demon soul and a higher rank than the other bound. The servant, one of the regulars at the palace, was shocked at how they referred to each other without title or family names, which was the norm for Esset bound highborns of some familiarity.

"Good afternoon, Rufus," Anthony replied with a slight narrowing of his eyes, no doubt displeased at being reminded of both the lack of strength and rank after the last couple of days of people fawning over him. "I believe you know Martha, yes?" He motioned to the fire elemental as they sat down in the chairs positioned across from the small table in front of Rufus.

"Yes, our paths crossed a few times during my last visit to Berin." Rufus gave her a slight nod, his demeanor cool but not impolite; Martha was barely a mid-level fire elemental of ‘common’ blood, so it wasn’t expected that he would have much ‘respect’ for her. He waited for the servant to supply the two bounds with tea of their own and then bade the woman to leave.

She did so quietly and with a slight bow at the door, her thoughts grateful at being able to leave such strange people and the slightly tense atmosphere of the room. With his enhanced abilities, Rufus could pick up Anthony’s annoyance at having to acknowledge his greater status and smugness at being able to relay orders, Martha’s curiosity about Reno and slight attraction to himself, Tseng’s distrust of the two bounds and concern for getting through the meeting without incident and… and from Reno an almost physical sense of sullenness and boredom, even stronger than it had been out in the hallway. He didn’t need the images from Martha and Anthony to picture Reno standing slouched against the sitting room’s pale blue wall with his shoulders hunched and arms crossed over his chest, an unbecoming pout on his face and his bangs falling onto his eyes as he scowled at everything and nothing. It was enough to make Rufus concerned that the idiot would do something incredibly imbecilic at some point… until he picked up on a hint of amusement lurking beneath all the ‘negative’ emotions.

Reminding himself about his guests, he forced himself away from the link and focused on why he was here. "I’m surprised that you asked for me to meet you," he admitted as he lifted his cup of tea. "I had thought… I wasn’t quite welcome anymore because of certain past actions." <As far as they are aware here, I’m still in ‘disgrace’ back home.>

Anthony nodded in approval as he nibbled on a small vanilla cake and waited until it was finished to reply. "It pains me to see an old friend… in such straits. While I understand that some time to realize the error of your ways is best and that you do have ties in this country, I just want to remind you that you still have friends who think well of you." <From what some of our people say, it hasn’t been the easiest for you to be accepted here at Court.>

"Oh yes, there’s so much you’re missing out on," Martha exclaimed, her expression tinged with pity as she leaned forward in her seat, which just so happened to show off the low cut of her black dress. She began to prattle on, which allowed for Rufus and Anthony to continue in a more ‘private’ manner.

<I would be worried if they accepted me with open arms. Kritiker’s Court isn’t blind nor stupid, they’re aware that something’s going on in Esset and so would be suspicious of anyone from there showing up at their Court all of a sudden,> Rufus pointed out with a hint of heat. <The Elders knew this wouldn’t be an easy assignment when they gave it to me, and the fact that I’m still here is a positive sign.> He allowed more than a trace of indignation to carry through with the message, as if stung by Anthony’s ‘implication’.

Anthony gave him a curt nod before sipping his tea. <My apologies, I meant no slander for what you’ve managed. The Elders *are* very pleased with what you and the others have managed in such a short period of time.>

Rufus wondered if Anthony meant to let slip about ‘the others’ and was grateful that his talent allowed him a peek at who those people were – not that the man was important enough to be kept up to date on all of the spies that the Elders sent out. <That is encouraging to hear, but I have the impression that you’re not here to pass out accolades.>

<No.> Ah yes, there was that smugness once again, and Rufus braced himself for something potentially nasty. <How are you at creating coercions in humans’ minds?>

Rufus bought some time by pouring himself more tea, his thoughts under very tight control. <I’ve some slight experience with them and should be able to manage simple compulsions.> Most soul gaki bounds of adequate strength could do it, but it took years and experience to manage anything with true finesse.

<That is what is expected of you,> Anthony responded, his eyes narrowed and his thoughts shaded with a spark of jealousy. <There are certain people who are needed to act in a necessary manner. You will ensure that they do so.>

<I understand.> He gave a slight dip of his head in agreement, then smiled at Martha, who had just finished her summary of what had to be the biggest embellishment ever of what went on at Esset’s Court. "Ah, why is it that all the best things happen after I leave?" he asked with a regretful smile.

"I’m sure everyone is striving to make up for the lack of your presence," Martha remarked in a flirtatious manner that made Anthony snap his teeth into the cookie with more force than was necessary and Reno’s faint amusement to vanish.

Rufus shrugged as he set his teacup aside. "I highly doubt I’m missed that much, as I spent most of my time at my family estate because of business. Still, I hope that you find your own visit here at Court to be just as much enthralling, and let me know if there’s anything I can do for you or the princess." <I assume that I’ll be contacted with more information about this latest assignment?> He let some of his annoyance leak through, knowing that Anthony would interpret it from being put to work, not at having to deal with Martha.

<Yes, you’ll have a request for a commission very shortly from one of our agents.> Anthony bowed his head as he folded his hands on his lap. "I greatly appreciate the offer. I fear we’ve been very busy since our arrival, our hosts have been most… fervent in seeing to our needs."

"I’m sure they’re doing their best to leave a good impression upon you," Rufus answered in a bland tone, well aware that their conversation was probably being listened in on, as was Anthony. "I’m grateful for the few minutes that you’ve taken to spend time with me."

"It would be rude to not visit with an old associate. I just wish we had more time to chat." With that, Anthony rose from his seat, as did Martha. "At least I’ll be able to inform a few friends in common upon my return that you’re doing well," he commented in an off manner.

"I would greatly appreciate that." Rufus deigned to stand as well as the bounds left the room, mainly because he planned to leave as well. "As I’m uncertain that I’ll be able to see them again."

Anthony paused as he made his way to the door, seeming to straighten the fall of his light grey jacket. <It shouldn’t be too much longer until you can return home. The Elders want you back right before the war starts. Until then, they expect you to continue sending along whatever information that you can.>

Rufus allowed no sign of emotion to cross his face at that bit of news as they vocally said their goodbyes. He gave Anthony and Martha a minute before he exited the small room with Tseng and Reno in step behind him. Mindful of the watching eyes on them, he warned the gokenin to remain quiet and kept his thoughts to himself until they were safe in his carriage.

"Ah!" Reno complained as he settled down next to Rufus, his hands rubbing at his face. "Can’t anyone meet at night?"

Rufus reached over to rub his right thumb over one of his mate’s facial tattoos, his hand cupping Reno’s cheek for a moment before continuing on to undo the clasp holding back the unruly red hair. "You behaved remarkably well today."

"Huhn, you mean I was a good little ‘toy’, acting all spoiled and prissy." He sneered as he leaned in for a kiss, the passion behind it doing much to soothe Rufus’ agitated nerves just then. "Tol’ you I can do shit like this," he murmured as he pulled away.

"Except for the being out in sunlight part, wanting to douse most of the humans you come across and that thought of homicide I caught toward the end," Rufus pointed out with some delight. Even Tseng smiled when Reno took to growling.

"Know it all bastard," Reno grumbled, and was silenced with another kiss.

Sensing Tseng’s impatience, Rufus forced himself away from his mate after several seconds with a sigh and settled back against the padded bench. "It’s not good," he told the flesh gaki bound, answering the unspoken question.

"I gathered that," Tseng remarked in that rather dry way of his.

"We’ll have to go to the Koneko sooner than I had hoped." Rufus frowned at the thought, hoping that the inn’s odd luck held out and that none of the Elders’ spies was trailing him. "Birman needs to know that I’m to plant coercions in the minds of what I assume to be important people at Court."

Tseng joined him in frowning, while Reno played with a knife and curled up against Rufus. "Is there any way to misinterpret the order?" While not a soul gaki bound, Tseng had worked with him long enough to know very well just how damaging a mental compulsion could be.

Rufus grimaced as he picked at a strand of his lover’s hair and twined it around his fingers. "I’m young enough that they won’t expect me to have much experience with the things, so anything I do for them will be relatively simple." He shared a smile with Tseng over the fact that he had learned quite a lot about coercions last year while removing them from Shin’s mind, something that the Elders didn’t know. "And that’s *all* I’m to do, is create the things. Who’s to say that Kritiker’s Spymaster and Royal Wizard won’t come up with a way to discover any mental tampering, hmm?" he added with a very pleased grin.

The smile he received from Tseng was all sharp teeth and wickedness. "They should expect their enemies to learn from history and improve upon their weaknesses."

"Yes, and this is just such a weakness that Birman, Botan, Crawford and I have discussed being exploited." Rufus sighed as Reno settled closer to him and closed his eyes for a moment. "Eri will be able undo any damage I create on the Elders’ orders. It’s not perfect, and we may have to let one or two people ‘slip’ through so as not to arouse too much suspicion, but we’ll limit the harm as much as possible." He slid his left arm around Reno and took a deep breath. "What truly worries me is that Anthony made a passing comment about the Elders wanting me back before the war starts."

Tseng’s smile vanished at the news. "It’s… not unexpected, Sir. You’re a valuable commodity in their eyes because of your father’s estate and business. They probably want to ensure that you can produce weapons for them should the war drag out longer than planned."

"Or if Xan, Thracia or Cretia decide to take up arms," Rufus added, a growl deepening his voice. He could see the logic behind the summons, he just refused to submit to putting himself and Reno into danger again if it could at all be avoided.

"At least we know for certain now," Tseng commented, as always the voice of reason.

Rufus made a non-committal noise as he closed his eyes again. Knowledge was always a valuable tool, so why did he have such a feeling of hopelessness? Perhaps Crawford would have some sort of plan to keep Reno out of the Elders’ hands. As much as the egotistical bastard could grate on Rufus’ nerves, he would rely upon him if it kept his mate and people safe. The thing about war is it certainly made for strange bedfellows, he reflected upon as he headed home, his mate held in his arms.

*******

Yuda stared at the familiar red brick wall, anxiety and relief warring inside of him. He held tight on the reins, the horse beneath him fidgeting with the impulse to move, until Shin sighed and poked him in the right side. "I’m tired and I really want to soak in the hot spring."

"All right, love," he told his mate as he let the horse move forward, toward the small courtyard beyond the wall. As soon as they were beyond the open gate, Jason, the earth elemental, ran out of the stable to greet them and the horses. The youth gaped in surprise when he recognized them once the illusion charms were removed.

"Hello Jason," Yuda called out as he reined in the horses to a stop. He slid from the saddle to the ground, then wrapped his hands around Shin’s waist to lower his mate down even though Shin could manage on his own; it was a territorial show his demon soul needed just then, and thankfully Shin allowed it without any complaint.

"Hello Yuda, Shin. Will you be staying very long?" Jason asked, his voice pitched low and his eyes downcast as if to not antagonize them. He looked to have grown a couple of inches since they were here last year, his shoulders broader beneath the dark blue tunic he wore and his black hair a little longer.

"Maybe a couple of weeks, if there’s no objection," Yuda remarked with a rueful grin as he grabbed their saddle bags. That won him a similar smile from Jason as the earth elemental led the horses into the stable, where Ichiro stood waiting for them. The older human waved in greeting, which Yuda and Shin returned before heading to the Koneko.

Hopefully no one would mind if they entered through the kitchen, and he was polite enough to knock on the door. To his surprise, Bethwynn opened it, and she smiled in joy to see him. "Yuda!" She laughed as she reached out to hug him.

"It’s a delight to see you!" he told the young woman as he hugged her back, and did his best not to growl when she gave Shin a quick hug as well. Then they were ushered into the kitchen, and he found himself relaxing at the familiar sights and smells. Over the last year he had made himself at home in the much bigger and grander kitchen in the mansion, which Rei presided over with an iron fist, but there was something special about this place. Beside him, Shin relaxed as well, a pleased smile on his beautiful face as he sighed and stepped closer to Yuda.

"Well, you’re certainly not two people I’d have expected to see, which isn’t to say you’re not welcome." Jo stood in the middle of the room, her hands resting on her hips and her expression unreadable for a moment. Then she smiled and shook her head. "Did you have a nice time coming here?"

"Yes, thank you," Shin said as he nodded. "Uhm, Rei sent along some rose hips from our garden, he thought you might like them."

"That sounds lovely, you’ll have to thank him for me." Jo motioned for them to sit down at one of the tables, and Yuda noticed that she wasn’t wearing an apron over her dark green and white dress. Around the kitchen, Maddox, Emmie and Kira appeared to have paused in the middle of preparing for dinner, and they resumed after a quick look from Jo.

After setting the bags aside, Yuda sat down where she had indicated, quick to pull Shin down beside him. Ever since they had entered the city, he needed to have his mate as close by as possible, to know that he was safe. His temper wasn’t anywhere near as bad as it had been the last time they were here, thanks to regular feedings and the bond between them being consummated, it was more the fact that he knew there was a present danger and being unwilling to risk anything happening to Shin.

"Is Crawford around?" Yuda asked as Jo went about putting together what looked to be a tray of food for them.

"Oddly enough, he did say something about stopping by today. I guess now I know why." For a moment, anger flashed across Jo’s face and flared over her emotions, before being replaced by bemusement. "I assume you’re not here for anything pressing or to warn us about trouble, right?" Something about the snap to her words warned him that they *better* not be here for those reasons, her earlier words of welcome aside.

"No, we came hoping to see an old friend of mine, and perhaps find out a little more information," he admitted as he hugged Shin to his side.

"Also, Rei’s taking advantage of the opportunity to stock up his kitchen," Shin added with a shy smile. "I wouldn’t mind the chance for some new sheet music myself."

Jo chuckled as she approached their table with a very full tray of food. "I think both of those things can be arranged," she said, her emotions warm with the affection she felt for Shin and Rei. "Let me know if you need help with anything." Her smile slipped for a moment as she glanced at Yuda. "I can always send Emmie and Teddy out for anything you want."

"That… might be wise, if you or Crawford feel it’s best for us to remain out of sight," Yuda admitted after a few seconds’ pause. As much as he knew that Shin was looking forward to doing a bit of shopping, if the others felt it was safer for them to remain hidden, he would gladly rely upon the help of others while they were within the city. From the emotions he sensed over their link, acceptance and a pulse of regret, Shin felt the same and follow along with whatever was decided was in their best interest.

Their decision seemed to put Jo at ease and in a better mood. She smiled once more as she handed over their food. "Good. I think it’ll be best to put you two in a room up on the seventh floor, where there’s one overlooking the garden." That would place the most distance between Yuda and Yohji, which was wise planning on her part. "And I’m sure you’ll want to soak in the hot spring after you eat," she said to Shin with a knowing look. When he nodded, she turned around to instruct Emmie to lock up the hot spring and have Teddy prepare the room for them. The young girl hurried to obey.

They had just finished one helping of the delicious food, the lamb stew, fresh bread and apple tarts a wonderful treat after the stale chicken pasties they had bought from a roadside stand a few hours ago, when the inner door slammed open to admit Yohji and Aya. Yuda felt a rush of revulsion and anger upon seeing the other succubae bound, which he struggled against for several seconds while reminding himself that they had parted on amicable terms. From the expression on the blond’s face, he would say that Yohji felt the same way.

Yet Yohji only grimaced for a few seconds and then let out a shaky breath as he came to a halt a couple of feet away from the table, his long arms reaching out to pull Aya against his chest. The kage was quiet, as always, his expression blank and his eyes a mix of silver and violet, appearing even more pale than usual since he was dressed in all black save for a dark grey jerkin. Yohji was a stark contrast behind to him, all golden and expressive, dressed in dark green and gold that brought out the color of his skin, hair and eyes.

"See, *this* is what happens when you insist on coddling guests, Jo. They keep coming back," Yohji complained as he unfurled his right arm from Aya’s upper chest long enough to motion in Yuda’s direction.

"I hate to break it to you, Yotan, but that’s the point of running an inn. It’s called ‘repeat business’. Maybe if you tried working for once you’d know that," Jo answered in a voice laden with thick sarcasm. Around the kitchen, the rest of the staff did their best to stifle their laughter. Even Yuda attempted not to smile just then, which was difficult when he could sense the love and affection between Jo and Yohji.

"But I already show up all of you mere mortals with my awesome intellect, stunning beauty and endless grace. Throw in some sort of work ethic there and it’ll be a rash of suicides as you realize there’s no sense in continuing your drab little existences," Yohji pointed out with much too much pomposity, his own lips twitching from the urge to curl as he spoke.

Of course Jo’s rather succinct reply to that nonsense was a very articulate snort of derision. From the sounds of it, the staff had definitely given up on stifling their laughter, and for the first time since entering the room, an emotion flashed across Aya’s face – long sufferance. The kage tilted his head to glance up at his mate before shaking it as if in disbelief.

"It’s the jealousy that makes you all pick on me so," Yohji said in a tone of perfect certainty.

"Perhaps I should stop hitting you on the head so much," Jo muttered as she propped her chin up on her left hand. "Are you going to behave now?"

"Where’s the fun in that?" Yohji blinked his bright green eyes a few times until he seemed to bite back a yelp of pain and then shook his head. "Seriously, I’m doing my best here," he admitted with a slight growl as he finally looked directly at Yuda. "Speaking of behaving…."

Yuda forced his left hand away from Shin and held it up in the air. "I swear to the gods to do my best if you will. We only came here to try to wring some answers out of Crawford, see a dear friend and maybe do some shopping if it won’t cause any trouble." He struggled to keep his voice as even as possible.

Yohji sighed after a few seconds, his eyes drifting closed as he nuzzled the side of Aya’s head. "I know. Crawford’s been expecting you and finally dropped a word about it to us." Jo started at that bit of news, and Yuda had the impression that a certain few gentlemen would hear about keeping her in the dark about their arrival after Yuda and Shin left the kitchen, judging from the way her brown eyes narrowed and the flash of temper he sensed. Yohji must have picked up on that as well since his eyes opened wide.

"Ah… yeah, guess I forgot to pass that on?" He gave her a weak smile. "Uhm… I sorta got… distracted." He hugged Aya tighter to his chest and for some reason that seemed to placate the cook. "Sorry."

"At the least, *Crawford* should have said something," she spat out.

"Now’s your chance," Aya said, and Yuda felt some relief in knowing he wasn’t the only one startled upon hearing the man’s deep voice. Beside him, Shin shivered slightly and wrapped his hands around a mug of tea, a trill of fear running through him as he looked away from the kage. Yuda hugged his lover closer to his side, slightly discomforted by the kage’s presence as well but reminded that Aya was their ally.

Aya’s sparse words made sense when Crawford entered the kitchen from the garden entrance. The precog appeared in a hurry, his black hair slightly disheveled and the first two buttons of his white shirt undone. There was a frown on his face that lessened when he noticed that Yuda was sitting down and Yohji was a few feet away, probably because they weren’t fighting for once. "Good afternoon."

Jo’s eyes narrowed once more as she glared at the bound. "*You*," she accused as she pointed her right forefinger at him, "have been meddling again!"

 

Crawford sighed as he joined them at the table. "I’m always meddling. I assume that Yohji forgot to pass on the news about our latest arrivals?" he asked in a weary voice.

"Don’t try to blame him!" Jo smacked her right hand on the table, making Shin jump at the sound and Yuda hard-pressed not to growl. "You know he’s… been occupied." There was something that made Jo uneasy and Crawford’s emotions go cold, as well as the staff to lose their sense of amusement. Unfortunately, Yuda still couldn’t sense anything from Yohji and Aya, and he was doing his best to not pay the couple too much attention in fear of setting off Yohji’s protective nature. While he was very curious as to what exactly was keeping the other succubae bound so ‘occupied’, he didn’t need Shin’s warning look to know that it was best to leave the matter alone.

Crawford sighed again and rubbed his eyes before reaching for the carafe of coffee that was on the table. "He’s not the only one who’s busy right now." When Jo didn’t say anything to that, he set the carafe aside and bowed his head. "I’m sorry, I should have said something before leaving the other night."

Jo made a grumpy sound but left the table to head over to the stove. As she did so, Crawford looked at Yuda and Shin as he once more attempted to fill a mug with coffee. "I see you two have done well."

"Yes." Yuda smiled as he brushed aside a strand of hair falling onto Shin’s face. "The mountain seems to agree with us."

"Not to mention the company that comes along," Shin added as he sipped his tea.

Crawford smiled before he tasted his coffee. "Hmm, yes, you’ve done an admiral job in that regard." He focused his attention on Yuda. "You have a knack for making friends."

"Such as Alexis?" Yuda asked as he leaned over the table. "You do know why we’re here, correct?" He figured he could wait for dragging forth answers from the enigmatic man for another time.

The smug smile he received did little to soothe the temper he was doing his best to control. "I know you consider her to be a very good friend and am certain you look forward to seeing her. It shouldn’t be too difficult to arrange for a short visit between the three of you." Crawford’s blue eyes grew cold behind the thin lenses of his glasses. "As long as you are certain to follow my directions and not rush off to see her on your own," he warned with a just as frosty tone.

"I won’t jeopardize things by doing something so hasty," Yuda growled, and refused to pay attention to what Yohji was whispering to Aya just then since he was pretty certain it was something about his ‘impulsive’ decision to come to Eto.

"Good. As it is, there’s another friend I’d appreciate you seeing while you’re in town." Yuda stared at Crawford as he tried to figure out who the man was referring to, his left hand rubbing up and down Shin’s side as his mate looked at him in confusion. "Do you remember an earth elemental named Lukas?"

It took a few seconds for the name to stir a memory from him. "Ah! He’s a young bound who Ruka and I helped about two years ago." Yuda smiled at Shin, his expression tinged with regret. "Ruka and I were running from the Elders’ hounds that winter and came across this young kid with a wizard on his trail. We helped him out and he tagged along for a couple of weeks before parting company. We thought it was safer for him that way." His smile faded as he stroked his fingers along Shin’s left cheek.

"It seems that the boy ended up in Esset somehow – he’s here in the party with Alexis and the princess," Crawford explained, causing a pain to shoot through Yuda as he wondered if the damned hounds had found Lukas through him. The boy had reminded him a bit of Gai, which was why he and Ruka had allowed Lukas to remain with them for so long.

"Don’t blame yourself," Shin whispered as he caught Yuda’s hand and entwined their fingers together. "If the wizard had caught him, he’d be dead."

Was servitude to the Elders that much better? At least it meant a chance of freedom later, a chance for survival so he knew the answer to that. Yuda gave Shin a brief kiss before turning back to Crawford. "So what is it you want me to do?" he asked, realizing that this must be the reason why the precog had let him know that Alexis was in the city and hadn’t stopped him from coming. If the man needed him for something, then that meant that he and Shin should be safe. They *better* be safe, especially since Crawford still wanted Shin to fix the weather.

"This may take a while."

As if Crawford’s words were a signal, Yohji sighed and pushed Aya toward the table, so they could sit down. "Better fix enough food for all of us," he warned Jo, who was on her way back to the table with a plate for Crawford. The woman started to complain about bound metabolisms and how unfair the gods were, but she also ordered Maddox to start slicing into one of the baked apple pies and helping her with feeding the ‘horde of gluttons’, so Yuda assumed that things were all right. He found himself smiling at the warmth of emotions that filled the room, even if he was stuck in another of Crawford’s damn machinations.

*******

Yohji stalked around the bedroom, nostrils flaring and lips parted as he inhaled in his own scent and that of his mate, the musk of their lovemaking from earlier in the day, the sharp tang of lemon oil from the many books and the more faded aroma of old leather, paper and ink. There was even notes of cedar, pine and oak from the furniture and linen, wool, cotton and soap from their clothes, but all that he really cared about was being able to breathe in the scent of Aya, to know that his lover was nearby and unmarked by anyone but *him*. Dammit, why did Yuda have to come back?

"The gods take that bastard," he growled as he tugged at strands of his own here. "Couldn’t he have just stayed up in the fucking mountains?"

Aya glanced over from his spot on the window seat, the moonlight trickling in from the glass panes behind him casting him in shadow except for the silver sparking on his hair. His eyes glowed silver as well, and his emotions were a disturbing void just then, only a hint of love and concern that faintly echoed over their link. "Do you want him gone?" he asked with a voice more sibilant than deep.

Both the lack of emotions and the sibilance forced Yohji to stop and stare at his mate, as the two things made him realize that there was no way to tell if Aya’s offer meant that he would drive Yuda from the city or kill the bastard. Just then, he had a sudden fear that it was probably the latter, and Aya would calmly leave the room to go slit Yuda’s throat if Yohji in any way indicated ‘yes’. What was even more disturbing was that he stood there for a few seconds and wondered if they could possibly get away with it without Jo and Crawford finding out…. "No!" Yohji took a step forward and shook his head. "No," he said in a calmer manner as he approached his mate. "He might be a pain in the ass right now, but we’ll deal with him, okay, Cat?" He offered Aya a shaky smile and felt something inside of him twist in relief when one even more tremulous was offered in return.

"Okay," Aya answered, his voice a little more normal and a touch of violet back in his eyes. Yohji knelt in front of his lover and reached up to caress his face, his right hand feeling hot against the cool, pale skin.

"Besides, we already know that I can totally kick his ass if the need arises," Yohji reminded Aya with a much more confidant smile. "Not that I think I’ll have to, since he seems to be more in control of himself this time around."

"Hmm." Aya tilted his face into the caress, the silver fading from his eyes with each heartbeat but not leaving them entirely. "It probably helps that he’s finally mated to Shin and appears to be well-fed." His right hand lifted and he threaded his fingers through Yohji’s loose hair. "Besides, Crawford has a use for him, so he should be kept busy."

Yohji growled a little, even as pleasure coursed through him at the feel of his mate’s fingers combing through his hair. "Yeah, that meddling bastard was expecting him, after all." Unfortunately, they needed Yuda alive, especially since he was mated now to Shin. "He certainly didn’t say much the other night." Crawford had tried to pass it off as Yuda coming here to see Alexis, but Yohji had bet his remaining share in the Koneko that there was more to that than behind the visit; the damn precog was playing several cards close to the vest lately and of course had been proven true to form yet again. Was he that pissy over Aya finding out about them holding the private meetings out in the shrine? Or was he hoping to keep things in reserve in order to barter with Aya?

Aya’s eyes became unfocused as he stared at something past Yohji’s left shoulder. "Perhaps I shouldn’t have revealed myself."

"Nah, it was about time to bitch them out over being so secretive," Yohji said as he rose to his feet to sit beside his mate. "They needed to know that they can’t keep stuff like that from us." He was a bit pissed off to know that Schuldig and Cassandra had been involved in the whole ‘cabal’ as well, especially after what had happened two years ago when they had tried to keep him in the dark. His arms tightened around Aya when he recalled how hurt his lover had been, and he refused to allow a bunch of soul gaki bounds to plot without his knowledge ever again – especially when so much of their plans revolved around Aya.

Aya felt stiff in his arms for a few seconds before relaxing against him. "So you’ll have to put up with Yuda for the next few days." His voice was quiet and his emotions were still a bit subdued, something that was beginning to worry Yohji.

"Eh, I doubt he’ll be that much of a bother, now that I think about it." Yohji shifted about until he held Aya cradled against his chest. "If he’s smart, which he seems to be, he’ll probably spend most of his time in his room with Shin or nearby in the market. Crawford said he doesn’t want any of the Esset people anywhere near the western Green district so I’ll remind him of that fact to make sure he doesn’t arrange for that Alexis to come here for their meeting." A hint of a growl crept into his voice as he spoke; there was no way in any of the hells that he would allow someone connected to the Elders to come near Aya or the Koneko. "So I shouldn’t see Yuda too much while he’s here."

"That would be wise." Aya let out a slow breath and rested his head against Yohji’s right shoulder. "Though it might do you some good to be around him a little as practice for the war."

"Eh?" Yohji shifted to look at his mate’s face. "What do you mean by that?"

Aya tilted his head back to look up at him. "You’ll probably be around him some during the fighting, along with other succubae bounds. Best to learn how to tolerate him now."

He wanted to say that he would worry about it when the time came, that he would have other things – namely *Aya* - to worry about, but the truth was that the future was coming upon them awfully damn fast. "I hate it when you’re the voice of reason, Cat," Yohji grumbled as he hugged his lover closer, smiling despite himself at the spark of smugness he felt over their link.

"Crawford isn’t the only one planning for the future."

"Yeah, well just keep in mind that there’s more to the future than that shitty war," Yohji chided, his good mood fading when he felt the link grow ‘cold’ at his words. "Cat… what’s wrong?" He would have to be an oblivious fool to not realize that there was something ‘off’ about his lover tonight, especially when there weren’t as many shinigami around. Aya had been even quieter and withdrawn than usual ever since they had left the main room to come up here for the night.

Aya sighed as he closed his eyes and once more rested his head against Yohji’s shoulder, his hands grasping Yohji’s forearms and tugging them tighter around his chest. He was quiet for a minute, to the point that Yohji was about to ask him again what was wrong, before he began to speak. "The Guard… they know what is at risk when they join, correct?"

Yohji started at the question, in part because of the sibilance that had returned to Aya’s voice as well as the new bleakness. "Yeah. We… I mean, they might joke about the pensions and all, but it’s spelled out from the beginning that you don’t join if you’re planning on growing old or hoping to retire without scars and in one piece. Even in times of peace, there’s still a good chance of coming across a rogue wizard like the one who crippled my mom or some criminal who won’t give up easily." He felt a stab of pain as he thought about how even an early retirement hadn’t allowed his mother a normal lifetime.

Aya was quiet again for a couple of minutes before resuming. "Their families?"

The odd question made Yohji frown. "Eh? I guess the families of the Guard realize they can lose their loved ones at any time."

That didn’t seem to be what Aya wanted to hear, as he shook his head. "The Captain lost hers…."

Even though the words were spoken quietly, something akin to panic began to build in Yohji. "Yeah, but that was during a war. She was targeted because she was the Captain of the Guard." Dawning horror made Yohji reach for Aya’s shoulder to pull him back to face him. "Cat - *Aya*, what did you see down there tonight?"

Aya shook his head, his expression full of sorrow even though it was still that cold void over their link.

"You need to say something to Cass or Crawford, dammit!"

Moving as quickly as one of his shadows, Aya twisted about until he straddled Yohji’s lap. "No, I can’t." His expression was still sad, the emotion a faint pulse over their link. "First, I’m not entirely certain. But I think that something might have changed and now it’s too late." When Yohji opened his mouth to argue, Aya shook his head. "It is, Yotan."

"Dammit, Aya, how can you be so sure about that part?" He wanted to shake his mate, to ask him if he gave a damn about whomever it was that was going to die, but that sorrowful smile prevented him.

"Because it is." Aya stroked his cold fingers along Yohji’s lips, and Yohji was surprised to see the shadows entwined around them. His mate stared at him, his eyes growing unfocused once more. "Unless…." He went utterly still, unmoving, unbreathing, a perfect statue of crimson, white, silver and black, and Yohji was afraid of disturbing him despite the display of kage behavior. "I need to talk to the shinigami," he breathed out after a minute of nerve-wracking silence.

"Gah!" Yohji cried out as he pulled Aya against him. "You! You drive me crazy!" he accused his mate as he hauled Aya further onto his lap for a kiss.

Aya blinked at him for a moment, violet mixing with silver, before closing his eyes and allowing himself to be manhandled. As the kiss was deepened, emotions began to seep over their link, surprise and confusion followed by love, desire and need. The demon side of Yohji urged him to hold onto his mate and not let go now that Aya seemed back to ‘normal’. That was the best idea that he’d come across all damn night.

The kiss was broken as he picked up Aya to carry him over to the bed. "Yotan… but… did you hear me?" Aya sputtered as he was dumped onto the bed.

"Is anyone going to die tonight?" Yohji asked as he yanked at the laces of Aya’s dark jerkin.

"No…."

"Tomorrow?"

Aya’s brows drew together as he batted Yohji’s hands aside and undid the laces himself. "Not that I’m aware of, no."

Yohji paused to tug his own shirt over his head and then crawled onto the bed. "Okay then, talk to the annoying bastards tomorrow." It looked as if Aya was going to ask what was wrong with tonight, but either he got a blast of Yohji’s lust and hunger or he recalled what had happened the last time Yuda was in town and he decided to focus on removing his clothes before they got torn off. Such a smart cat.

Yohji didn’t want to think of any of his friends dying, but he also didn’t want to think about losing any part of his mate, either. Maybe they had to push their abilities to their limits in order to survive the upcoming war, maybe Aya was just becoming what he was always meant to be, which was a *shinigami*-bound. That didn’t mean that Yohji would allow the man he loved to lose everything else he had fought to gain all these years, especially the last two that they had shared. In the end, all that really mattered to him was Aya. He would fight with everything he had to keep him by his side.

*******

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