Tangled Threads

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chapter 7

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crossing threads

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Aya stood amongst the shadows of the main room, in one of the corners farthest from the small stage where Koyu and two of his Harper friends were seated as they played.  The music was soft and slow tempo’ed, more for background enjoyment while people ate and carried on their conversations; everyone was clearly enjoying their meals and drinks at the moment, and would soon be in the mood to dance once they finished with supper.  Then the music would become more lively and loud, and Aya would flee to the quiet of his room.  Yet for now, he was hiding in the darkness and hoping to find some answers before the room became too crowded and rowdy.

He could feel Yohji’s curiosity and anxiousness over their link and did his best to send what reassurance that he could while he grew more and more frustrated with the crowd of humans.  While he could always cloak himself in shadows and walk amongst them in search of information, sometimes his presence could cause an unease amongst people and he didn’t want to disturb the guests or create any unwelcome rumors here at the Koneko.  No, it was best to remain on the fringes of the room and hope to catch a glimpse of what he had been seeing for the past few weeks, to determine if the signs were growing worse or not.

Marta finished chatting with a customer two tables away and left to head to the kitchen, most likely to fetch the table’s order, and Aya was finally able to catch a clear sight of the tables where many of the Shadow Guards were congregated for the evening.  As he had noticed lately, several of them bore the dark auras around them that he had come to associate with approaching death, the shimmering cauls almost black around their heads and shoulders by now.  He stared at them, at the way several of the Guards laughed at each other as they chatted and gestured about, enjoying their evening out in the company of friends and coworkers.  How would they react to knowing that Kisei had marked them for death?

Next to one of the Guards was a faint shimmer of darkness, the beginning of a death ‘mark’ that Aya had thought he might have imagined the previous time he had seen the woman.  He frowned when he realized that it wasn’t a mistake, that the aura was more pronounced this time, though still what he hoped was in the realms of a ‘possibility’ and not the death sentence the shinigami had warned him to never challenge.  Feeling a knot of coldness settle in his chest, he fled the main room with the shadows wrapped tight around him and sought out the library.

Fortunately for any guests who might have thought to find some solace in a good book and a quiet room, the library was uninhabited this evening in favor of the more social dining room. Once he was inside, he warded the door with shadows and called out to the shinigami, his sibilant voice echoing throughout the room.  

The shinigami were quick to respond, flowing through the darkened spaces and racing towards him, coiling around his chest and shoulders until they caressed his face and neck.  <Yes, young one?>

<Lonely, were you?  Pack is best, yes?>

<Pack is better than the golden one.>

Aya sighed even as he stroked his hands along the shinigami coiled around him.  "You both have your qualities," he replied in a diplomatic manner, unwilling to get into an argument about Yohji *yet again* with the shinigami.  "I was hoping to ask you some questions," he admitted in a more quiet manner."

There was a little hissing in regards to that statement, but the shinigami didn’t pull away.  He took that for assent and continued.  "You told me that I couldn’t change fate - that Kisei wasn’t to be denied once someone was clearly marked for death.  But what if the aura is only faintly there? Does that mean there’s only a possibility of death since it can grow stronger?"  Why else have the mark change at all?  There had to be a meaning to it - while he was still trying to get used to this new aspect of his talent, he hadn’t seen such pale auras before.

The shinigami shifted about and hissed softly for a minute before answering him.  <Sometimes one death can... spill over, can affect others.  Or sometimes a death needs opportunities to grow.  Kisei demands Her price, which must be paid, and sometimes She sees if the price will be paid sooner rather than later.>

That was one of the longest answers that Aya had ever received from the shinigami, and he remained quiet for several minutes as he pondered what he had been told.  He had begun to realize over the months that it was very important *how* the shinigami phrased things and not just what they had said.  The two main things that he took from this latest discussion was that there was hope in circumventing ‘death’ in some situations, and that they had spoken of Kisei’s ‘price’ and not the person’s death itself.  He would have to think some more of that latter part some other time.

"So there’s a chance of changing things for those only faintly marked?" he asked in a more direct fashion, trying to pin the sometimes obscure creatures down.

Again, there was faint hissing until one of them responded.  <Sometimes.>

One of the shinigami wrapped around his shoulders tightened in what he sensed to be a concerned manner.  <Do not interfere too much, young one.  Kisei does not care for those who meddle.>

"No, I imagine the gods would be annoyed by that," he said, voice thick with sarcasm considering how much they seemed to adore meddling with his and his friends’ lives.  "I know I can’t save everyone, but I would like to save this life if I can."  To be honest, he wouldn’t know how to go about saving everyone, even if he had the inclination to do so. This was a life he knew, and he understood how such a death would impact not only his life but that of those he cared about, something that was rare in and of itself.  Something that he suspected would grow rarer over the years.

<Be careful,> the shinigami chided him, although they left it at that.  He stroked his hands along their cool, smooth forms in appreciation for the information and their concern and stood there in the semi-dark, quiet room for a few more minutes, just enjoying their company.  Then he gave in to the worry he felt over his link with Yohji and wished them a good evening before seeking out his mate.

He found Yohji in the kitchen, helping Maddox and Kira put together some of the plates of food for the rest of the working staff to run out to the waiting customers.  "Heya, Cat, having fun skulking in the shadows?" Yohji teased when Aya sidled up to him.

"Hmm."  Aya lifted his face for a kiss, one that was a little more passionate than he would have expected when Emmie and Neely were seated not too far away at one of the tables, busy eating their dinner.  He frowned when it broke off, a bit out of breath and deprived of some energy as well, and was given a pleased smile in return.  "I wasn’t ‘skulking’."

"And you call me the delusional one," Yohji sighed as he pulled Aya to his side, shaking his head all the while.  "What do you prefer?  Slinking?  Skittering about?  Cre- ow!"  He glared at Aya while rubbing a hand along his sore ribs.  "Such a mean cat."

"Has he been into the whiskey already?" Aya asked Emmie as he looked about for empty bottles.

She giggled as she shook her head.  "No, he’s just been whining about how you’ve been shamefully ignoring him."

"I’m surrounded by traitors," Yohji grumbled as he steered Aya over towards the table.  "I remember when you used to be such a nice little kid," he told Emmie, prompting another giggle from her.

As if the child wouldn’t do whatever Yohji asked, Aya thought with a touch of annoyance.  Even now she stared at his mate with open adoration in her brown eyes, a loving smile on her youthful face.  "I don’t know who would have ruined me," she teased back.

"I think it’s all Teddy’s fault," was Yohji’s quick reply, which prompted laughter from everyone in the room but Aya.  He merely shook his head and leaned against his mate as they sat down, grateful for Yohji’s warm presence and the comfort he could provide.

Maddox finished with a tray and as soon as Marta left the kitchen, went over to one of the stoves to put together what turned out to be two plates for Aya and Yohji.  Aya nodded in thanks for the chicken legs and thighs, mashed potatoes and glazed carrots heaped onto his plate.  "There’s still some spice cake left over for dessert," Maddox mentioned before returning to the stove.

Yohji made a sniffing sound as he rose from the table to go fetch a bottle of wine.  "I can’t remember the last time Jo made any desserts for me."

"That’s because you just wait for some frosting and try to put it all over poor Aya," Kira was ever so helpful to point out.

Laughing at being caught out, Yohji returned to the table and poured them some wine.  "One day I’ll get a bit of respect and die of shock."  He smiled at Aya and seemed to catch on his less than exuberant mood.  "Everything okay, love?" he asked in a quiet voice.

"I need to talk to Crawford," was all Aya felt willing to say just then, considering the humans around them.  He knew he could trust the Koneko’s staff, but Yohji had asked him to not mention his newest talent to anyone other than Crawford or Cassandra.  "The sooner, the better."  He tried to let his emotions convey what he was unable to say out loud.

Yohji’s eyes widened after a moment, then he rested his chin on his left hand and sipped some wine.  "Well, the bastard’s supposed to come back to chat some more with Yuda any time now, so I guess you can talk to him then."  Concern flowed over their link as green eyes stared at him intently.  "You know, I’d be worried if I thought that the bastard could in any way bake a decent cake."

That managed to win a slight smile from Aya as he snapped his teeth in his lover’s direction.  "If you’re so worried about my fidelity being tied to my affection for baked goods, why don’t I see you down here in the kitchen more often helping out to make the desserts?"

Yohji set the glass of wine aside and stretched his arms over his head, showing off his lean physique.  "Because that would simply be too much for you to take, Aya dear.  All this amazing sexiness, gorgeous perfection, intellectual stimulation *and* a baking god on top of that?"  He batted his eyes as he reached out to caress the left side of Aya’s face.  "Oh yes, much too much for you."

Aya made a spitting sound before helping himself to some chicken.

"Now, now, I know it’s difficult to put into words just how blessed you already are."  Yohji smirked as he picked up his glass, then turned to look at a giggling pair of girls.  "You should be saying your prayers nightly to land a lover as gifted as me."

"And you should be saying your prayers for Jo being off with Ichiro tonight and not here to listen to you," Kira remarked, doing a little giggling of her own.

"So says a woman who had to settle for a mere handsome, incredibly reliable and kind mortal like Mickey," Yohji sniffed.

Kira tried to stifle another giggle before managing a semi-serious expression.  "Oh yes, Yotan, I’ll be regretting having to ‘settle’ until my dying day.  Damn you for being taken."  She even shook her right fist in his direction in mock anger.

"I always knew she was jealous as hell of you for snatching me up, Cat," Yohji murmured into Aya’s ear.

Barely resisting the urge to sigh, Aya continued to chew his chicken and did his best to ignore the nonsense going on around him.  He knew from experience that the staff would act this way regardless of his participation, and all he wanted just then was something to eat.  He realized that Yohji was striving to lessen the mood, to take what was a serious situation and defuse it since there was little else that could be done at the moment.  What Aya didn’t understand was the ability of how to do just that, or the need to always do it when sometimes it just seemed easier to leave things be.

Feeling tired, he took another bite of his food and leaned some more against his mate, wishing that they were upstairs in their room and not surrounded by other people who wanted to talk and ask questions and bombard them with emotions and even more complications.  To him, things were already complex enough with trying to figure out their own lives and obligations without even more being added onto their shoulders.  Right now, it would be so much simpler if he could walk away without having to worry about the damage that would occur in the future to others beside him and Yohji....

"It’ll be all right, love," Yohji assured him in a soft voice, the encouraging words followed by a kiss to his right temple.  

Aya could only hope so, as it would undoubtedly come down more and more often in the future to what would hurt his friends and what would offend the gods.  He had heard many times that kage were special in that they... were less influenced by the machinations of the gods, but he was certain that there was only so much he could go against them without some sort of retribution against himself and those he loved.  He would have to choose his battles wisely - the only problem was, in a potentially very long-lived life, how was one to do so? And when so many others were determined to include themselves in his life?

*******

Crawford entered the Koneko with a trace of annoyance flaring through his mind; part of him was still angry with Aya over the loss of privacy that he had enjoyed in meeting back out in the family shrine.  He forced the emotion aside with a deep exhale and nodded in greeting to Touya, who was standing on duty by the door.  He figured he would pay his respects to whoever was in the kitchen and check to see where Yuda and Shin were, then have a hopefully private conversation with the two bounds about Yuda’s upcoming meeting with Lukas and Alexis.  

However, his plans were set off-kilter when he approached the library and Aya appeared as if out of thin air in front of him.  Only strong self-restraint kept him from lashing out in violence or yelling in surprise from the kage’s sudden manifestation, though it took him a few seconds to manage the ability to speak.  "Ah-Aya!  I strongly disapprove of this new habit of yours," he told the man, as if there was any hope of Aya listening to him.  Still, it wasn’t very wise for a kage to start appearing out of the shadows like that in such a public place.

Aya merely gave him a cold look and motioned to the library.  "I need to talk to you," he said, with a hint of sibilance to his voice.

Crawford weighed the value of pointing out the politeness of saying ‘please’ but figured it to be a waste of his time and breath - not to mention it never was considered a part of conventional wisdom to piss off a kage.  Instead, he bowed his head in acceptance and went where directed, into a thankfully decently lit library where he found Yohji waiting for them.

Yohji gave him a brief wave in greeting and then directed his attention toward his mate, frowning until Aya settled at his side.  The two bounds rested against one of the room’s tables, Aya dressed in all black and Yohji striving for normality in light brown and blues with his hair pulled back from his face.  For a moment, Crawford was struck with the absurdity of having so much of the future rest on the shoulders of two young men who barely looked prepared to handle living on their own.  He had to remind himself that appearances could be very deceiving.

"I assume you ‘requested’ my presence here for a reason," he commented in a rather dry tone as he adjusted his glasses.  After a quick look around the room, he decided to settle into one of the padded leather chairs.

If Aya had noticed the slight barb in that comment, he decided to take no offense at it and get straight to the point.  "What do you know about the agents’ plans to attack any of the Guards?"

"What makes you believe that I know anything about such plans?" Crawford asked, slightly disturbed at how much Aya knew and curious despite himself at how the kage had obtained the information.

Yohji snorted as he draped his left arm over Aya’s shoulders.  "Because the bastards insisted on meeting with you, one of the Elders’ most trusted ‘lackeys’."  He grimaced as he spoke the last word, making his disgust of it clear.  Crawford didn’t take any offense since he knew that his allies trusted him and his double-agent status.  "One of your roles here is to provide information, right?  So don’t tell me they’re not hitting you up for help."

The problem with succubae bounds is that so often, one tended to take them at ‘face’ value - as objects of beauty and sex, and forget that they usually tended to have a very high level functioning brains in their heads.  Yohji was no exception to his kind, if anything he was very exemplary of what Esset’s Wizard had been trying to create in a perfect spy: one that was irresistible and highly intelligent, capable of handling any mission with ease.

"I must admit that you’re correct with your assumptions," Crawford said with some reluctance.  "Anthony did approach me for some information on the Guard but nothing specific."  It was his turn to frown.  "I must admit, I’ve expected him to follow up for more in-depth information by now."  He directed his attention to Aya.  "How does this concern you?  Have you seen something with your ability?"

"Several Guards will die in the upcoming week or two," Aya informed him, the sibilance strong in his voice and his eyes a pure silver.  Something about the kage made Crawford want to sink back into his chair, away from the bound, yet Yohji remained at his side.

"What are their names?" Crawford demanded to know.

It only infuriated him when Aya shook his head.  "You can’t change anything."

"So you say, but forewarned is forearmed and there might be-"

The kage cut across his tirade with a short hiss.  "There’s *nothing* you can do about *them*."  He held Crawford’s attention with those eerie eyes of his, the light from the candles and fireplace reflecting in them.  "However, there is a death you *can* prevent."

That stilled his arguments for the moment.  "Who, and how do they relate to our previous discussion?" he asked as he folded his arms over his chest.

Aya cast a quick glance aside to Yohji before explaining.  "One of the Guards who will die is Toshi."  His eyes narrowed, the expression silencing Crawford before he could draw breath.  "I told you, there is no changing his fate.  Kisei has marked him.  However, lately I’ve seen a... casting, if you will, on Lilla as well."

When there was nothing else said for a minute, Crawford took it to mean it was allowed for him to speak.  "So Kisei hasn’t marked her as well?" he asked, using Aya’s disturbing phrase.

The kage shook his head.  "Look, we don’t know what’s going on, but clearly those assholes are up to something," Yohji growled.  "I can understand Toshi... well, Guards die in the line of duty, but for her life to be in danger all of a sudden?"  He glared at Crawford, and there was a disturbing hint of silver in his eyes.

Despite his last few interactions with the two bounds, Crawford found himself grateful for them coming to him this evening; things were starting to fall into place at last.  "Anthony has approached me about a few things, but as I said, I had the feeling that he was not being as thorough in taking advantage of a resource as he should be if our positions were reversed.  However, I must admit that I’m not the only ‘resource’ available to him."  He once again adjusted his glasses as a growing sense of excitement built in his chest.  "Trowa or Duo would report to me at once if they were approached for information, and Trowa is a known strategist while Duo is heavily involved in infiltrating the Guard.  That leaves one other option available to Anthony."

"Heero," Yohji spat, having immediately made the connection.

"Yes, Heero.  He has been involved in numerous successful missions for the Elders and so would be trusted to complete another.  Also, he has always been noted for his... fervor to do whatever was necessary to complete said missions."  Crawford allowed a hint of disdain to shade his voice.  "Anthony would probably consider him a perfect choice to take out a Guard, and if said Guard had a family, what better way to demoralize the organization?  Taking into consideration his association with Duo, Heero probably has enough information to help select an ‘appropriate’ target, hence why Aya’s talent has picked up the change in Lilla’s... status."  It all made perfect sense.

Yohji growled, the low sound filling the library over the crackling of the fireplace.  "I thought you said that the guy would be on our side!"

Crawford fought the urge to sigh.  "I said I had visions where he *could* be on our side."  He rubbed his temples for a moment and used the time to carefully choose his next words.  "There are a few elements that can potentially sever his ties to the Elders, if the right events happen."

"If he kills Lilla or Mari, then he’s dead."  Yohji didn’t swear an oath with the words, but it wasn’t necessary.  The expression on his face just then was more than enough to convey his intentions. "I’m not too sure he’ll survive killing Toshi, to be honest."

"This is a war, Kudoh," Crawford reminded the man.  "Toshi knows that as well. I understand that the death of innocents is a line that should not be crossed, but known combatants are another matter.  Heero can be a great aid to our side if he can overcome the conditioning forced upon him by the Elders."  He stared at Yohji, wishing him to see reason.  Even Aya had killed on the Takatori’s orders while still ‘Ran’, until he had been convinced that he had hope in a life at Yohji’s side.  It would be a risk to bring that up right now, but Crawford would if Yohji wouldn’t concede him this. "Even if I step in to stop him, it only means that Anthony will send out someone else. As he’s not consulting me on this matter, it means another death, and most likely more innocents at risk." He willed Yohji to see that sometimes, hard choices had to be made and trust him to use Aya’s information to limit the damage as much as he could.

They stared at each other for over a minute until Yohji snarled and looked aside.  "He can’t run around killing people forever.  I won’t turn my back on him."  He looked at Aya.  "We can’t save Toshi, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be others we can help.  You better hope he wakes up soon and he realizes he’s being used."  Obvious menace dripped from his words, leaving it clear that Heero wouldn’t have too many opportunities to decide which side he would be fighting for before either a golden wire or a bit of shadow ended his life.

As if Crawford didn’t have enough complications right now.  He stared at Aya to see if the kage had anything to add to the conversation and wasn’t much surprised when he was met with silence. At least Aya had come to him with this revelation and would give him the ability to put the information to use and to check Anthony’s plans in some manner.

"If there’s nothing else for me, then I have some other matters to attend to this evening," he told the two as he rose from his chair.  There was still the matter of Yuda and Shin to deal with, and no doubt he would have to meet with Birman over this latest bit of news.  They would have to discuss how much, if any, of the information should be shared with Yuushi, and then he would need to talk to Jei to see how they would arrange protecting Toshi’s family without endangering their own positions here in Eto.

Yes, it was going to be a very long night, so it was best to head to the kitchen to see if Jo was around and willing to put together a nice dinner for him.  A pot of her ‘special’ coffee wouldn’t be remiss right about now as well.

*******

Shin sat in the attic library and stared at the book in front of him, one dating back over six centuries that had been written by an Esset-born water elemental.  He flipped back a page with great care, still disbelieving that Aya had allowed him and Yuda up here and given them free rein to read these precious volumes.

"Am I going to have to fight for any attention from you during our stay here, between the hot spring and these books?" Yuda asked from his spot in one of the window sills, amusement and love flowing over their link.  Shin looked up, a smile curving his lips as he took in how handsome his mate appeared with the afternoon sun burnishing his dark red hair and slightly tanned skin.  Even after the past year together, there were times when he was afraid that it was all a dream, that he was still trapped back in Berin and alone.

Yuda left the window to come over to the small table, his right hand reaching out to thread through Shin’s hair.  "Don’t feel like that, love," he murmured before leaning in for a kiss, one that made Shin shiver in pleasure and need.  His breath had caught in his throat by the time that Yuda had pulled away.

"I... I don’t think there’s any competition for you," he managed to say after a few seconds.

Yuda smiled as he leaned against the table.  "That’s reassuring to hear."  Then he shook his head.  "Though I must admit, I’m relieved that there’s so much for you to do here."  A hint of possessiveness and fear spiked across their link.  "I know we’ll have to get Rei’s spices and such, and you probably want a few things as well, but...."

Shin reached out to trail the fingers of his left hand over his mate’s.  "Only if it’s safe." After so many years of being given the scraps that the Elders had deemed them ‘worthy’ of, he didn’t care if they went home with only a few goods for Rei.  Not if it meant that they saw Alexis and did whatever else Crawford wanted of them without incident. "When do you think it’ll be all right to see Alexis?"

"Hopefully soon." Yuda played with a strand of Shin’s hair, the gentle tug making Shin smile and want to purr in pleasure. "I don’t know if he’ll manage for us to see her and Lukas together, so it might mean two trips away from the Koneko." For a moment, the emotions over their link darkened, became pensive and guilt-ridden.

"Don’t," Shin chided, feeling it was his turn to remind his mate that there was no sense in dwelling on the past. "If your path had never crossed his, then Lukas would most likely be dead."

Yuda stared at him for several seconds before slowly blinking his eyes, as if to clear them of some vision. "Probably. I guess Ruka and I never suspected that we might lead the Elders’ trackers to any of our companions." He sighed and cupped Shin’s cheek, his hand warm against his skin. "As much as I cursed Gou and Gai for holding you back in Berin, they were wise to do so. I never realized the danger we were in until it was too late, and it would have killed me if you were harmed by their hounds or forced to pay for our decision to be free." Regret and anger burned over their link.

Shin molded his hand over the one caressing his cheek and smiled. "We can’t change the past. I did what I had to in order to ensure that you escaped and I don’t regret it. All that matters it that it worked out in the end." They had gone over this countless times before, and he suspected that they would continue to do so for years to come; they both felt guilt for the years that they had spent apart, yet in the end it had probably been the wisest course of action that they could have taken. In the end, all that mattered was that they were together now and nothing would tear them apart short of death.

Yuda leaned forward to kiss him, love and possession flaring over their link until he was dizzy from the emotions. He knew that nothing would ever separate them, that Yuda would destroy anything that would even attempt to come between them, be it friend or foe. A small part of him realized he should be worried about that mentality, but he had suffered so much being away from his mate that he couldn’t care about it, that all that mattered to him was being by Yuda’s side. It hurt being away from Rei and the others for the first time in his life, yet that pain was assuaged by his mate’s presence, was soothed by Yuda’s warmth and love. It was startling to realize that he could overcome anything as long as Yuda was there beside him, loving him.

He had just risen from the chair to nestle between Yuda’s thighs, his hands tangled in Yuda’s hair as his mate undid the tassels to his dark blue tunic when the door opened to admit Crawford to the small library. Shin broke off the kiss with a startled gasp, his cheeks warm at the thought of being caught in such a compromising position by someone other than Ruka or a cousin.

As for his mate, Yuda growled as he held Shin close against his chest. "What do you want?" he demanded as his hands rubbed up and down Shin’s back.

Crawford cleared his throat, the sound coming across as rather amused. "I had thought that perhaps you would care for an update about your meeting with Alexis and Lukas, but I can leave if you prefer." His tone was perfectly dry and he remained still, a few feet away from the table.

Yuda snapped his teeth together as if he longed to tear something apart and relaxed his hold around Shin, enough so Shin could put to rights his tunic before turning around. "You know that we’ve been awaiting news from you. When can we see them?" Anxiety and hopefulness rushed into Shin, letting him know that his lover was eager to see Alexis and still torn about what had happened to Lukas. He finished with his tunic and leaned against Yuda’s chest, sending what reassurance he could over their link and sighed when a kiss was pressed against his right temple.

Crawford, dressed in an impeccable black tunic and pants, sighed as well as he adjusted his glasses. "I’ve arranged for you two to be escorted to a teahouse not too far from the palace tomorrow afternoon." He frowned as his right hand dropped to his side. "You are to wear your illusion charms and guard your thoughts at all times while outside. Anthony and Hans-Achim should be occupied at the time, so it should be fine for you to be near the palace as long as you do *not* deviate from the plan." He spoke the words in such a crisp manner, biting off each one with a finality that made it clear that he expected to be obeyed.

Yuda tightened his arms around Shin as his anxiety flowed over their link. "Are you certain it’s all right for us to go to the Central district?"

"Yes." Crawford’s blue eyes glowed behind the thin panes of his glasses. "Firstly, there’s no chance of arranging a meeting anywhere near the western Green district considering Aya’s… nature. Eri and Naru will escort you to the meeting place and ensure that you aren’t followed in any manner, be it mundane, bound or magical. Secondly, as I said, the two main concerns of you being detected will be occupied tomorrow, both Cassandra and I agree upon that. Thirdly, with so much going on at the palace right now, with a bit of care we can arrange that no one will be able to track you back to the Koneko."

Shin hugged Yuda’s arms tighter around his chest for assurance as he nodded. "Thank you for your concern. Is there anything we are supposed to do, other than sway Lukas to Kritiker’s side?" That was what the precog had told them the other day, but much could change considering the uncertain times that they lived in.

Crawford tilted his head to the side as he stared at Shin for several seconds, until Yuda growled in warning. "Thank you for asking. At the moment, your mission remains the same; convince Lukas that it is in his benefit to work for Kritiker and not Esset. I have every faith in the two of you that it won’t be a difficult endeavor." A slight smile curved the precog’s lips, changing his appearance into that of an extremely handsome young man.

Yuda pressed Shin tighter against his chest. "Considering that Lukas was forced into Esset’s employ, I don’t think it’ll be that much of a problem, but we’ll give it our utmost effort to see that he changes allegiances." His emotions took on a turbulent air as he sighed against Shin’s hair. "You still haven’t told us anything about what to expect when the war starts."

Crawford took on a distant demeanor as he stared off into the distant. "I’ve already warned you that Shin and his ‘cousins’ would be expected to use their talents with the weather and that you and Ruka to put your skills as strategists to use. I don’t know what else to tell you when there’s so many elements that are still so uncertain at this time." He sounded annoyed at being pressed for a direct answer.

Still, Yuda pressed on. "Will we be expected to fight? To leave our home?"

There was an annoyed hiss in response as Crawford paced across the room. "Bounds will be drawn together, and you will not be an exception." For a moment, something that resembled pity flashed across his face as he glanced at Shin. "Do not let your fighting skills grow rusty, that is all I can tell you or Ruka. Do not leave anything precious behind when the war starts."

Shin sucked in a sharp breath at the news, his hand clenching around Yuda’s arm. He had his suspicions for a while now, something in Yuda’s emotions and evasions about the future, in this recent trip. He knew that his mate loved him and would never do anything to hurt him… and he knew that his future was irrevocably tied to Yuda from now on, no matter how much of his past was caught up with Rei, Gou and Gai. There seemed to be something more to this trip than just paying an overdue debt to a friend.

He clutched at Yuda’s arm, closing his eyes as he breathed in his mate’s scent. This was his life now, what he had tied himself to when he had given in to Yuda. Even if he lost everything else, he had no regrets.

"Love?"

He opened his eyes at the questioning voice and soft touch to his face to see Yuda staring at him with concern. Managing a small smile, he tilted his face into the caress. "I’m fine." Tearing his gaze away from his mate, he looked at Crawford. "Is there anything that I or my cousins should know?" he asked, his voice betraying only the slightest of quivers.

Crawford bowed his head as if in some sort of acknowledgement. "The Elders will rally some of their subjects to try to control the weather, but as far as Cassandra and I can tell, they will be no match for you or your cousins. The battle will not be an easy one, yet as long as you don’t squander your energy before the war then you should win." There was a warning note in his voice.

There were many ways to ‘squander’ one’s talent, but if there was anything the last few years of living in Berin had taught Shin, it was how to avoid doing just that. "I understand." Crawford hadn’t mentioned him burning out his talent during the actual fighting, which was a thought that he stifled quickly before Yuda could pick up any negative emotion from him. What it came down to was while Yuda and Ruka fought on what would probably be the front lines of the war, Shin, Rei, Gou and Gai would exhaust themselves ensuring that the elements didn’t turn traitor on their loved ones and friends. *Then* they could burn themselves out.

Yuda must have picked up something from his emotions since he snarled and hugged Shin even tighter. "What time will we be leaving tomorrow?" he demanded to know from Crawford?

"Around 11am," the precog informed them as he headed toward the door, his demeanor once again unaffected and bored. "As I said, Eri and Naru will escort you to and from the teahouse. Be sure to follow their orders and everything should be fine." He motioned with his left hand as if to wave goodbye before exiting the library, as unconcerned with social niceties as always.

Shin let out a slow breath as he patted Yuda’s arms in an attempt to make his mate loosen the hold around him. "Well, at least we won’t be sitting around here doing nothing for much longer," he said in an effort to break the silence.

Yuda half snarled and half sighed. "I don’t know, I think I like it better when we’re oblivious to everything." He turned Shin around until they faced each other. "The thought of you anywhere near the palace, in an area surrounded by so many humans and Army personnel…."

Shin cupped the calloused hand that enfolded his left cheek. "It’ll be fine. I doubt Crawford will chance any danger to us and you’ll be there beside me." He didn’t mention that he would flood the lungs of or bleed dry anyone who would dare to harm Yuda, killing hundreds of humans if need be until his power ran out.

"That’s the only reason I’m going along with his plan." Yuda glared at nothing for a moment before hauling Shin into his lap. "He needs us for the future."

"Yes, he does. Which means we get to enjoy the now," Shin pointed out as he tilted his face up for a kiss.

His mate was quick to pick up on the hint, wrapping him in an almost crushing embrace as their lips met. For a moment, he spared a thought about anyone else wandering into the private library before he allowed himself to be lost in the passion and love that Yuda always drew forth from him, uncaring about the consequences.

*******

Hans-Achim stood off to the side while Anthony and Kendra drew all of the attention, preening and chatting away like fools in front of the Kritiker highborn. It was yet another one of the senseless gatherings where people fawned over each other in appearance while plotting how to tear each other down in private, all in some pretext of celebrating the infant princess’ ongoing health and hope of peace between Kritiker and Esset. How reassuring to see that people were just as delusion here as back in Berin.

Still, there was one benefit of being here instead of in Esset, and that was that the humans assumed that no one possessed any power worth mentioning unless they were already associated with the Royal Wizard. It was incomprehensible to them to hide anything that would elevate their status somehow, to make them stand out and ‘special’ in some way. No, if one was a bound, then one was detestable and deserved to slink away to avoid a death sentence, and if one was a wizard then one would proclaim one’s magic to the world and be fawned all over. That he didn’t do the latter meant that he must just be a simple servant and worth their scorn and neglect, which allowed him to pass by unseen and to carry out his mission.

As for his companions, he was certain that in some part of the highborn minds, they recognized the possibility that Anthony and the others were bound, but for them to come here and behave so civilly, to not slink around and be ashamed, well… that wasn’t very ‘bound-like’, was it? So of course they couldn’t be demon-souled. Just like a mere ‘servant’ couldn’t be a powerful wizard. The fools. They were so content to ignore what was in front of them, to lash out at their betters and so would damn themselves. He didn’t have any problems leading such idiots to the slaughter.

He hung around the ballroom only long enough to ensure that he was being properly ignored and then slipped away through one of the servants’ doors, his demeanor one of concentration as if he had an errand to run. In a way it was true; he had been given his own set of instructions and it would be the height of folly to return to Berin without following them. While he knew his value to the Elders as a talented and obedient wizard, there were others who would be pleased to take his place in their regard. If he had any hopes of obtaining a position of power once they won the upcoming war, then he had better produce some positive results while in Eto.

The palace’s layout was easy to memorize, and it seemed that possessing a calm air and an idea of where he was going was all that he needed to allow him to wander through most of the halls. He recognized one or two hallways to be warded against random visitors, and guessed that the highborn, servants and Army personnel who did pass down them freely must be wearing a charm to allow them past the entrances. As for the Guards… he strolled past two young women in the dark blue uniforms and cast a surreptitious look at the copper gauntlets that they wore on their left wrists; most likely the bands were charmed to allow them passage through the entire palace.

According to the intel that Duo, the fire elemental had passed on, the bands should not be keyed to a Guard’s own life-force. The gauntlets were handed out as the new Guards were initiated into the organization after having passed the arduous training period and mainly served as a communications device. Hans-Achim didn’t expect the Royal Wizard or the Captain to share all of the secrets of the magical devices with the organization’s new members, so it was very likely that the bands served more than one magical purpose. However, he doubted that so much magic could be wasted to ‘attune’ the metal to each and every Guard, especially when the humans were involved in such a risky occupation. No, he would chance disfavor from the Elders that they were mostly communications devices and ward charms of a kind.

That meant all he needed for his assignment was to get his hands on a Guard’s gauntlet and he would be able to breach the Royal Wizard’s quarters. He ensured that his wanderings were random as he began to formulate his plan. It would be best to not request Duo’s gauntlet on the off-chance the bands were traceable; that just meant he would have to acquire one from a Guard who couldn’t report the missing band. Fortunately, there should be an abundance of resources shortly.

He would just have to choose when would be the best time to put his plan into motion. Common sense dictated that it would be most expedient to wipe out the whole pack of them at once, but the gods would probably deny him such an easy victory over his enemies. Already it seemed that they had allowed one of his targets to slip away, although he remained doubtful just how much of a problem an informal student could become if Botan didn’t see the boy worthy enough of a wizard to bring him in front of the Court to officially declare him as an assistant. Still, it was best to follow a ‘salt the earth’ policy in these types of things when it came to war. If only the great Wizard had done that almost ten centuries ago when ordered to assassinate a certain Guard’s family….

Yes, it was best to be thorough. Hans-Achim would do what he could for now and follow up any loose threads with the resources available to him, even if he had to beg the Elders for the use of a flesh gaki or two. Perhaps they would allow him to set the one in the city after the boy, since the bound was renowned for his appetite and hatred for all wizards. That would be an adequate solution to the problem if the boy didn’t return to the palace in time to die by his mentor’s side.

Esset had learned its lesson very well – there would be no chance for Kritiker to develop any new and innovative magic *this* time around. Not if Hans-Achim and the Elders could help it, and they would wield quite an impressive arsenal to ensure that the current war went in their favor. The thing about the past was that one could learn from it and prevent the same mistakes from happening.

There would be blood and death, and he would do everything in his power to see that it was first spilled here, in Kritiker, and that the majority of it continued to be spilled here. The gods were bloodthirsty creatures, but they could be appeased with the proper offerings. Eto would make the perfect altar.

*******

Kendra smiled, a mere curve of her lips and her eyes cast downward as she accepted the glass of sweet wine from Lord Satori. "Thank you," she murmured, her fingers sliding along his for a moment before her hand pulled back to raise the glass of delicate crystal to her lip. "I probably shouldn’t, but it’s such a delicious vintage."

The human grinned as he shifted closer, the light from the chandelier above glinting in his dark blond hair. "This particular wine comes from a vineyard not far from my family’s ancestral land. The weather is beautiful there, perfect for the grapes." There was a hungry warmth to his hazel eyes and deep voice which insinuated that she could easily see that beauty for herself if she indicated any interest for an invite.

She forced aside any frustration as she sipped the wine; after spending an hour or two a day in the man’s presence for the last several days, he should be *begging* her to go with him on a visit to his family’s estate, not dropping such roundabout hints. There was a sense of strong lust there, oh yes, one that made her want to purr and drag him off to the nearest private room to feed, but something was still holding him back. What was it with these damn Kritiker highborn? He wasn’t the first one like this she had come across, stubbornly resistant to her power as if he’d bedded with a more powerful succubae-bound already. For a moment, she toyed with the thought of Yuda having spent time here at Court and then forced the image of the handsome bound from her mind before Anthony could catch a glimpse of it.

"Hmm, your estate must be a vision," she all but purred as she lowered the glass from her lips, "because this wine is truly lovely." Her smile was genuine when the lord sidled closer to her. Whatever resistance he may have to her talent, he finally appeared to be succumbing at last; it made something inside of her glow with satisfaction as she claimed new prey, as she idly ran the fingers of her left hand along his right arm and almost shivered at the emotions she sensed. Oh yes, all that desire and lust was just for her and it would be *delicious* when she fed later.

This one might be one of their ‘plants’ and not quite so important to the cause, but it was still critical to ensure that the man was fully under Esset’s power while they had the chance. Besides, who was she to turn down the opportunity to have such a handsome human pay her this much undivided attention, to notice her beauty and give her a chance to talk and be clever for once, instead of just flaunt her body? Sometimes it got a bit boring, smiting any target she’d been ordered to with her talent and feeding from them on the Elders’ say so. She could enjoy herself for once.

Satori returned the touch, his fingers lingering on the bare skin left exposed by her dark blue gown. "I believe the true vision is you," he murmured as he leaned in close.

For a moment she thought she caught a whiff of something that made her want to growl, to want to haul him close in a possessive manner, and then he clinked the glass of wine in his left hand against hers and it distracted her from… what had to have been a mistake. She was merely reacting to having a decent meal for the first time in weeks. "You flatter me, my lord," she replied, once again casting her gaze aside and adding a hint of a blush.

She caught sight of Anthony in conversation with the Xanian and Thracian ambassadors, for a moment their eyes meeting and a wave of approval sent her way before the soul gaki bound continued his discussion with the two men. Kendra allowed herself a moment of annoyance when she noticed that Martha still wasn’t at the party and wondered where the fire elemental was, before looking back at Satori. The fool better not be trying to get into Trowa or Duo’s pants; Kendra should have destroyed that damn charm when she had discovered it on their way here. No matter the hope of a better status in Berin from bearing a powerful bound child, it wasn’t worth it to have an even more powerful bound despise you for forcing the child from them.

A large hand touched her chin, its skin soft and warm. "You seem sad all of a sudden," Satori said to her, a slight frown on his handsome face.

She managed a half-smile as she gripped his hand and gave it a squeeze in thanks. "I was just thinking about family. I’m very far away from mine, I’m afraid." Somewhere out there was her mother, doing much what she was at the moment.

"They must be anxious for you to return home." The human lord’s frown deepened at that comment, as if he was upset over it. Ah, yet another sign that her power truly was affecting him, which made Kendra happy.

She dared to brush her lips over his palm before urging it to fall from her face, mindful of all the people around them. "They know I’m capable of looking after myself and wish me the best. I’ve always been a bit of a wandering soul." She had never known her human father, and the Elders had separated her from her mother once she had come into her demon nature; it wasn’t possible for two succubae bounds of similar strength to be together without coming to blows so it was best for them to be apart.

That seemed to appease Satori as he gave her a slight bow. "Well then, perhaps you’ll be interested in seeing some more of Kritiker before you return home."

Kendra managed a sultry smile before she enjoyed more of her wine. "Perhaps," she drawled after swallowing the sweet liquor. It would be a nice fantasy, pretending that she had the freedom to linger wherever she wanted and that there wouldn’t be a horde of Guards or Army soldiers after her by the next full moons. A nice fantasy indeed.

What she was left with was reality, and that wasn’t too bad. She had the promise of a very fulfilling meal awaiting her once she could leave this dull party, and more on the agenda as she followed her orders. As long as she obeyed those orders and didn’t do anything too suspicious, she should be able to safely return home and be rewarded for all of her efforts here. What else could she hope for and expect from the gods?

 

No, she would enjoy the meal before her, doing her best to ensure that the Elders had another eager servant in this lord and push aside any thoughts of her own fate.

*******

Yohji stifled a sigh as he sat in the kitchen, his left arm wrapped around Aya’s waist. It had taken some sweet-talking, but he had gotten his grumpy lover to stay downstairs after talking to Crawford and go into the lively room for dinner rather than sulking up in their bedroom for the evening – though to be honest, he had to fight his demon nature a bit to do so. It had been appealing, to spend some time alone, away from other people and another succubae bound, but it seemed as if Yuda had decided to stay up in his room with Shin so for right now, all was well in Yohji’s world. He had his mate by his side and his friends around him, and an empty plate that had been filled with delicious food in front of him.

Aya was a softly purring presence resting against him, eyes half-closed and head on his shoulder, crimson hair trailing down his left shoulder and arm. Yohji could inhale Aya’s intoxicating scent with every breath, could smell the way his own musk was mixed with Aya’s from the sex they’d had earlier, a clear sign to any bound that *his* cat was taken. If there was still any doubt, there were one or two spectacular bruises on that pale neck for all the world to see. Yohji bit back on a growl as he hugged Aya closer to his side.

He felt a hint of annoyance along with a little sleepiness and a stronger wave of love, right before Aya reached for his mug of tea. Smiling a little, he leaned over to press a kiss against the top of Aya’s head before looking back at Jo, daring her to say anything. All she did was shake her head before enjoying her own cup of coffee. Around them, Bethwynn and Ani worked to help keep up with the dinner dishes while Maddox prepared plates of desserts and late evening snacks.

"You’re certainly a lot calmer this time," Jo remarked as she set her coffee aside.

"Hmm?" Yohji began to toy with one of Aya’s eartails, smiling a little when it earned him a slight hiss. "Well, I thought I did the whole ‘smash Yuda against a wall’ thing to death last summer." The man being mated to Shin really did make a difference, as he was much more calm and settled this visit and more willing to stay the hell out of Yohji’s way.

Jo chuckled a few times and once more shook her head. "If it wouldn’t tempt the gods, I’d be willing to say you’ve grown up a little more." At Yohji’s incredulous stare, she laughed again. "*Almost* willing," she clarified.

"So mean to me," Yohji whined as he hugged Aya against him. It earned him a glare from his mate, but Aya merely settled against him once more after the dirty look.

"You love the abuse."

Jo’s statement earned an amused snort from him and a spark of pleasure from Aya, who couldn’t resist nuzzling Yohji’s abused shoulder. Tugging on an eartail in retaliation, Yohji grinned as he felt sharp teeth nip at his left shoulder. "I believe it’s in my best interest to not respond to that comment."

"Idiot," Aya whispered, love and affection flowing like molten sunshine over their link, so warm and fluid it made Yohji want to shiver in delight.

Before Yohji could respond with his usual retort, the door from the garden opened to admit Eri and Naru, both dressed in their Guards’ uniforms. The two headed straight for the table, prompting Jo to sigh as she rose up to go over to one of the stoves in order to prepare some food for the obviously ‘starving’ Guards.

"And a good evening to you, too," Yohji teased as they all but fell down onto the table’s benches. "Rough night at the palace? Highborns battling it out in the ballrooms?"

Eri made a face, the expression almost charming on her delicate features if not for her sharp bound teeth. "You’ve been at Court often enough to know how true that is, if you count their backstabbing and manipulations. It might not be physical fighting, but it’s vicious all the same." She sounded exhausted, which probably was the cause from keeping up mental shields while on guard all day long.

At her side, Naru nodded in almost a frantic manner. "It’s even worse since there’s so many diplomats around. Everyone has these fake smiles on," he tried to imitate the highborn, his lips pulled back in an almost grotesque manner, "and you just *know* they’d stab you in the back in a heartbeat. It’s quite depressing." He appeared rather downtrodden for a moment, at least until Jo placed a plate full of roast pork, sour cabbage and baked potato in front of him. "Thank you!"

"I doubt that I need to tell you to save room for dessert," she muttered, even though Yohji could tell how pleased she was as she fussed with her apron while she prepared a similar plate for Eri.

Meanwhile, the soul gaki bound made a point to catch his attention. "I have a message for the two of you from Omi." The words made him and Aya sit up straight, their good mood dampened as they waited for her to explain; if there was any trouble, she would have relayed the message immediately. As if picking up on their anxiety, Eri shook her head while waving her right hand about. "Sorry, I could have phrased that better. It’s a request, really."

Yohji ran his left hand along Aya’s back in a soothing manner. "What the hell is it?" he asked, his voice roughened with a growl.

Eri forced herself to swallow some coffee before answering. "I think he’s a bit bored at Court and so asked that you fetch a book with a grey and black binding from his room, along with a small box carved from white ash that should be near the book." At Yohji’s puzzled look, she shrugged and ran her hand through her hair. "He said they’re both warded very heavily, maybe enough to give even someone with a black ring a bit of trouble."

Ah, that meant that the kiddo must have been playing with his ‘special’ wards, Yohji thought as he cast a glance at Aya. "We can get them for-"

Aya’s voice cut him off. "Tell Omi that we’ll meet him at the alley behind the Two Stars Bakery." Resolve and a bit of excitement leaked over their link, and Aya tilted his head to look up at Yohji. "That should be far enough away from the palace, yes?"

That particular bakery was still within the Central district, yet not a place frequented by anyone of the Court. "Cat…." Why was Aya pushing this?

"If we go tonight, cloaked in shadows, it’ll be a nice run," Aya explained, his voice deepened by a purr. "Just there and back." He stared at Yohji, a hopeful expression on his face and eagerness pulsing over their link.

For the last few days, Aya had stayed within the Koneko, keeping out of sight in case any of the Elders’ agents were around. Now was a chance for him to slip the leash, as it were, with Yohji at his side. For once he wasn’t running about recklessly, with *Reno*, without thinking, and he wasn’t getting too close to the palace. He was giving Yohji the option of turning down the idea, just as he was the choice of being by his side.

What choice was it, really?

"Tell Omi to meet us there in about twenty minutes," Yohji informed Eri as he reached out to caress Aya’s face, smiling at the feel of smooth skin beneath his right palm. "Go get the stuff, okay?" he told his lover in a husky whisper.

Aya didn’t respond, instead he sent a wave of appreciation, love and happiness in lieu of words before vanishing from sight. Yohji sighed and shook his head, wondering if it was worth a discussion on the appropriate use of shadows in front of humans and decided that he could live without the new scars on his poor shoulder.

Jo gave him an inscrutable look as she finally set Eri’s dinner in front of the soul gaki bound. When he returned it with an arched eyebrow, she frowned and set her fists on her hips. "Is that a wise idea?"

"Well, if Omi’s asking us to grab the stuff, it is probably warded to the multiple hells and back, so it’s best that we hand it off to the brat," Yohji argued as he went to fetch a light cloak for himself. "And I think Aya could use a chance to get out before he goes stir crazy." He looked back at Jo as he settled the blue cloak around his shoulders. "He *asked*," he tried to explain. "No one will see us, I swear that, and I think he needs out for a bit." It wouldn’t hurt for him to stretch his legs as well.

The room was quiet for a moment, and then Jo made a hmph’ing sound as she went back to the stove. "I’ll start a pot of mulled wine, which should go well with the apple pie for dessert."

Yohji grinned as he hurried to the stove to give her a hug. "You’re the greatest. If Aya wasn’t such a jealous bastard, I’d do my best to steal you away from Ichiro," he teased as he gave her a big, wet kiss on the cheek and then had to dance out of the way as she attempted to swat him with a ladle.

"Dessert?" Aya materialized out of thin air, now with a grey jerkin over his purple shirt and a black bag slug across his chest.

Yohji sighed as he grabbed his mate’s right hand and tugged him toward the door. "Why am I not surprised *that’s* what you heard?" he asked as they headed outside.

Aya flashed him a set of very white, sharp teeth. "Because there wouldn’t be very many people left if I fed from everyone you flirted with, would there?" Then he pulled a stunned Yohji outside, into the evening’s darkness.

Wondering if he had heard his lover correctly, Yohji eyed him warily for a moment before deciding to just enjoy the flash of ‘humor’ for what it was. The trouble with Aya was one could rarely tell when he was being serious or showing off the human skills he had learned. Or had hopefully learned. Ow, it could hurt his head trying to figure it out – that or make him very worried, so best to just think that Aya loved him. Yohji smiled as he rushed forward to be by his mate’s side as they ran through the garden, the shadows a cool dark cloak cast around them.

They raced down the mostly abandoned streets until they reached enough buildings grouped together that they could climb up the walls of one of them and then run over the rooftops. Yohji glared at little as Aya took the lead, his mate being a bit more skilled at climbing without the aid of a ladder than him, but at least Aya waited for him on the roof before taking off again. Hand in hand, they ran across the city, the night sky clear and full of waxing moons and glittering stars. Below them were still some people going about their business, the sound of voices drifting up to them as they made their way to the palace. Along the rooftops, there was the occasional flash of wings from startled birds and the glow of cats’ eyes as the felines watched their swift progress.

Yohji had to admit that it was much more fun to run like this with Aya by his side, full of excitement, love and happiness. It felt good to stretch his legs, to feel the slight burn of muscles put to the test by running and jumping, to slip the human limitations of everyday life. That he did this with Aya, that his mate was with him, made it even better and he found himself a bit disappointed when they finally reached their destination. Before they could jump down to the street level, Aya tugged him close for a kiss, his face cool from the night air and hair scented with smoke. Yohji groaned as invigorating sunlight poured into him, so much love and happiness that his entire body tingled, and for a moment he cursed that they had left the Koneko for someplace much too much out in the open….

Then Aya pulled away, his cheeks flushed and eyes bright with emotion for once and not sparks of silver, a slight, teasing smile on his face as he took two steps back and over the ledge of the building. Yohji growled a little yet just shook his head as he followed his foolish mate, having gotten used to jumping from heights such as these even if he preferred climbing down instead. Ah well, it was faster and earned him a pleased smile when he landed next to Aya, his knees bent and his cloak flaring out around him.

"Looks like we’re the first ones here," he commented after glancing around the dark alley behind the bakery. "I hope that Eri managed to get the message to Omi."

"Hmm." Aya looked around as well, a slight frown on his face as noise from out on the street drifted toward them. Judging from his emotions, Yohji had the impression that while he had enjoyed the chance for a bit of ‘exercise’, he wasn’t pleased to be surrounded by so many strangers just a few meters away. He could feel a tingle of cool magic and knew that Aya had cast shadow wards around the entrance to the alley in order to ensure that they weren’t bothered by any random revelers or curious people.

Pushing back the right side of his cloak, Yohji draped his arm around Aya’s waist and hugged his lover against his side, feeling better to have Aya so near. "Have the hissing bastards said much of anything lately?" he asked, wondering if there had been any new information in regards to the fates of some of their friends. Despite whatever Aya had been convinced of by the shinigami, there had to be some way to save Toshi and the others.

Unfortunately, Aya shook his head. "I don’t think that-" He fell quiet and stared at the narrow entrance of the alley, and after a few seconds two dark shapes could be seen to approach. Yohji tensed, his right arm slipping from Aya’s waist, until he recognized them to be Omi and Nagi; of course the kid couldn’t go anywhere without his little demon tagging along.

"What took you so long?"

Omi glared as he pushed back the hood of his dark brown cloak, his expression partially distorted by an illusion spell that made him appear to be a non-descript middle-aged man. "You certainly didn’t give us much time to get here! It was a good thing that ‘Mamoru’ didn’t have anything on his agenda tonight," he grumbled as he approached.

Yohji grinned as he folded his arms over his chest. "Do you always talk about yourself in the third person like that? I think you’ve got some problems, kiddo." He laughed when Nagi made a soft, snarling sound and Omi’s glare went up a notch in ferociousness.

"As Aya would say, ‘shi-ne’," Omi spat, but his blue eyes were twinkling with amusement and his emotions warm and bubbling.

"Actually, he’d say I’m an idiot. He reserves that for people he doesn’t love," Yohji pointed out as he leaned over to nuzzle his mate’s crimson hair, and laughed when he was chased off by an annoyed swatting motion. "He’s crazy about me, honest."

"The gods are warped," Nagi muttered as he took his habitual place at Omi’s side. His scowl lessened as he looked at Aya. "How are you?" he asked, and Yohji had to swallow a growl at the note of concern in his soft voice.

Aya tilted his head to the side as if he had to consider the question for a moment. "Well," was all he said, and he stepped closer to Yohji as he spoke. Although his tone was normal, there was something slightly off about his emotions, enough to make Yohji stare at his mate for a few seconds to try to puzzle out what was wrong.

His face an impassive mask, Aya kept his attention on Omi as he handed over the wrapped book and box. Omi smiled as he accepted his belongings and bowed a little. "Thank you so much! It’s a lot more boring than I thought it would be, and I guess I did too good of a job pretending to be ‘sickly’ the last time I was at the palace so they’re not scheduling poor ‘Mamoru’ for too many parties or gatherings," he explained with a self-depreciating laugh. "Since I have some spare time, I figured I could work on some charms for the Shadow Guard."

Yohji once more hugged Aya to his side and attempted a smile to hide his unease. "How are things going, being bored aside?" He figured if there was any trouble, Reiichi, Eri or Birman would have told them something but it never hurt to check from the source.

Omi shrugged and glanced at Nagi, as if to double-check something. "We’re doing all right. It’s pretty much as I suspected in that ‘Mam-‘, uhm, that I’m being ignored now that Ouka’s here, which is fine with me." He gave Nagi a sweet smile, and to Yohji’s surprise it was returned. "I’ve had a couple of teas with Princess Helena and she’s actually really nice." Omi turned to look at Aya. "She liked the book that you suggested for her."

Aya nodded in acknowledgement, and Omi didn’t seem to take it personally that he didn’t say anything. "Other than that, it just reminds me of all the reasons why I’m so happy to *not* be at Court." He sighed and reached out to grasp Nagi’s right hand. "I’ll be very happy when we can return to the Koneko." Then he made a face and looked over his right shoulder. "But for now, we need to get back to the palace. Thanks so much for bringing my stuff to me!"

"No problem." Yohji reached out to tousle Omi’s hair and laughed when he got a tongue stuck out at him. "Be safe heading back."

"You too!" Omi waved while Nagi exchanged a silent look with Aya, and then the two teenagers left the way they had come, the hoods of their cloaks pulled up once more and seeming like nothing more than a pair of palace servants out on an errand.

Waving goodbye, Yohji waited for them to leave before turning to face his mate, his hand reaching out to cup Aya’s left cheek. "Is everything all right, Cat?" he asked, a note of concern shading his voice.

Aya tilted his face into the caress and sighed, his eyes closing for a few seconds. "There’re so many things happening anymore," he answered, the cryptic words doing little to dispel Yohji’s worries.

"Care to elaborate a bit, hmm?" Yohji wasn’t too surprised when all Aya did was shake his head and lean in for a hug. He sighed in frustration and held his lover close, wondering if this was one of those times when Aya was unable to put what he felt into words or if he was just unwilling to do so. "You’ll let me know if it’s something I can help you with, right?" he asked as he buried his face in his mate’s silky hair.

"Yes, Yotan." The words were softly spoken, but the answer had been prompt, assuring him that Aya was sincere about it.

Aya’s arms clenched tight around him. "If… if it came down to giving in to your demon soul forever to keep your friends safe, would you?"

The question had been asked so quietly, for a moment Yohji had been uncertain that he’d actually heard it. He pressed a kiss against the top of Aya’s head, his mate’s face tucked into the crook of his neck, as he pondered his response. If it was for Aya, he would abandon his human nature in a heartbeat. If it was for his friends, for Jo, Omi, Mickey and the others…. Well, what it came down to was the fact that, despite growing up thinking that he was a human, he really wasn’t, was he? Being Aya’s mate drove home the reality that he was only the tiniest bit human, and each day since meeting his lover he realized just how much ‘demon’ he truly was. He knew that if he lost what made him ‘human’ that he would still have Aya’s love, that maybe it would even help their relationship a little since a lot of their fights arose from Aya’s confusion on what it was to act ‘normal’. So really, it wouldn’t be that much of a sacrifice to give up something like that when it wouldn’t cost too much in the long run, not when people he loved would be safe and he’d still have Aya.

"Yes, I would." He slid his fingers through Aya’s raggedly grown hair and tugged gently until his mate looked at him, those lovely eyes a mixture of violet and silver. "Are things that bad?" he dared to ask in a hushed voice.

A sense of relief washed through him when Aya shook his head, although it was short-lived. "I don’t think so," Aya explained a moment later. "At least, not yet. It’s just… there’s so much I don’t know, and what I do always points to a sacrifice of some kind."

A sharp stab of pain went through Yohji, making his arms tighten around Aya. "I’m not going to lose you!"

Aya winced but didn’t pull away. "I know." A soothing wave of love and assurance washed through Yohji. "There must be a point to our bond. I don’t think the gods will require *that*, but…." He shook his head as he fell quiet.

Perhaps the gods had given a kage a mate, one full of emotions to balance his lack thereof – and so could strip them away with impunity. Yohji wanted to snarl at the thought. Instead, he forced his arms to relax and laced his fingers with those of Aya’s right hand and smiled. "Well, what do you say to us going home, hmm? I understand that there’s some mulled wine and apple pie waiting for us."

That earned him one of those slight smiles he adored so much. "Sounds good."

"Tell you what, whoever’s the last one there has to give the winner a massage, okay?" He waggled his eyebrows as he took a step back, reluctantly letting go of Aya’s hand. "I’ll try not to beat you too badly, Cat," he teased as he felt cool shadows wrap around him.

The smile strengthened as Aya looked up to the clear night sky. "You wish."

"Who’s got the longer legs, eh? At least I’ll be nice enough to let you eat your precious pie first, lo- hey!" Yohji cursed as Aya sprang at the building housing the bakery’s wall, climbing it with ease as if he was part monkey- or cat. "Dammit, that’s cheating," he grumbled, but he was smiling as he did so. He scrambled up the wall as well, cursing a little since he was still getting the hang of this stuff. Of course that only increased Aya’s lead. And to think he had thought to ‘let’ his mate win. He was so going to get his ass kicked in this race.

Ah well, a lover stuffed on apple pie and purring from a back rub meant that Yohji would be so full from ‘sunlight’ that not even Yuda could piss him off for the next day or two. It wasn’t a solution to all of their troubles, but it was a nice way to forget about them until they figured out some damn way to fix things.

*******

Crawford stared at the empty glass of whiskey in front of him, the alcohol still a faint burn in his chest and throat. He debated pouring himself another glass, as well as if he should go join Jei at the Koneko for a bite to eat and to see if Birman was there to talk to for a while. Of course, he would have to deal with Yuda’s questions and possible Yohji and Aya, if the couple wasn’t holed up in their room. His eyes narrowed as he thought about the kage; Aya’s insistence on certain matters of the future was a little worrisome.

As a precog, Crawford had been raised to know that some things that he foresaw were fluid and some were not. Visions *could* change, that much was clear as what was done in the present always impacted the future. Yet there were certain events, certain… milestones, for the lack of a better word, that were anchors of a sort, actions that *had* to happen. It was as if the gods had decided that they *were* to be and would twist things to ensure they happened, regardless of consequences. The upcoming war was one of those milestones, and Crawford suspected that Aya’s birth was another. Probably, the births of several of his acquaintances were smaller anchors that led to the upcoming bloodshed and cataclysm that would change their world, either for the better or for the worse.

All he could do was manipulate the events that *were* malleable to affect the final outcome. It may be inevitable that there would be a war, but the ending was still undecided. He would do whatever he could to ensure that Kritiker won the war, to put an end to the open persecution of bounds, to see the Elders finally die. And to do that, he had to have a kage as his willing ally, had to have some idea of what might possibly happen as the war approached, and the cooperation of some of the most powerful bounds and humans alive. No wonder he needed another drink.

Sighing as he rubbed his aching temples, he tried to focus his talent to coach it to provide him with some helpful visions. He needed to know when would be the best time for Yuda and Alexis to have their talk, and any insight into what Anthony was up to would be a very good thing. The soul gaki bound most definitely was plotting, but that Crawford could get out of him were requests for information, not any solid answers. Even though he was the more powerful bound, there was no way to force the information without raising too many suspicions.

Unfortunately, there was no way for Eri to get close enough to the bastard to try picking through his thoughts since Anthony would recognize her for what she was, her demon nature giving her away, and Rufus hadn’t another chance to be alone with Anthony to have a crack at his mental shields. Though to be honest, the lord wasn’t trying all that much, and Crawford couldn’t really blame him; if Anthony or Hans-Achim figured out that Rufus could slip past another bound’s mental shields like that, they might find out about Reno. That was the last thing any of them wanted, and so it was a matter of last resort to have Rufus attempt such a thing.

He was about to get up to make a pot of tea when he felt a tingle of power and closed his eyes instead, resting his head on his forearms as he focused on his talent. There was a confused jumble of images, things flashing by too fast and covered with a cast of darkness that concerned him; did that signify Aya’s direct involvement or just some indirect tie to the events? Crawford could just make out enough to know that there would be bloodshed, possibly deaths, and saw enough to recognize some of the Esset agents involved.

There was a quick image of Yuda, and he recognized one of the Shadow Guard in that vision, suggestions on changes to make to tomorrow’s meeting so as not to set off Anthony or Hans-Achim’s suspicions. It should also strengthen Alexis’ allegiance to Kritiker, something that was confirmed with another series of visions that went by so quickly that Crawford was left with a building headache. Dammit, they were definitely at a crossroads of sort, a moment of time when certain actions could set of a chain reaction of events that would greatly impact the future. So of course his talent was impeded by something – or *someone*.

As if that thought was a catalyst, another vision pounded through his mind, one that was more scent and sound and impression than sight. He was certain that it was based at the palace and that there was a death involved, yet that was all that he could clearly ascertain from what his talent tried to ‘show’ him. Everything else was an overwhelming sense of power, so much so that his body was drenched in sweat and his mind recoiled from the vision even as it occurred, and cool darkness. As soon as the vision ended, his talent shut down, leaving him hunched over the kitchen table and desperate not to heave up the bit of whiskey that he had just drunk.

He forced himself to take deep, slow breaths as he struggled for control of his body, his head thumping in agony and his vision blurry. It was several minutes before he could force himself to move, the motion of his hands and legs shaky as he went to put on a kettle of water so he could brew some tea to help with the pain. There was no chance that he could go to the Koneko tonight, all he could help for was to remain upright enough to get some of Cassandra’s special blend for overusing one’s talent down his throat and to crawl into bed after leaving a hasty note for Jei.

A vision shouldn’t leave him so drained and in so much pain like this, but there had been *nothing* normal about that one. He needed to talk to Cassandra in the morning if he could manage to get out of bed, and send Jei out to make the necessary arrangements as he tried to figure out just what the *hell* he had ‘seen’. Darkness implied Aya or Reno, yet that overwhelming power was nothing that had ever been associated with the shinigami-bound before.

Why was it that whenever he felt that things were the slightest bit under control, the gods just adored to prove to him just how wrong he could be? Crawford clung to the counter with his remaining bit of strength while he waited for the water to boil and debated if it was worth the effort to curse. And people thought that *he* was a manipulative bastard. He was *nothing* compared to those sadistic bastards who loved to make them all dance to some unknown tune. A thousand years ago, gods had allowed bounds to be created, and about a century later they did nothing as bounds were persecuted for merely existing. Now, they were driving bounds and humans towards war. Crawford would give much to know *why*, and for the reason why he had to be caught up in all this nonsense.

However, for right now there wouldn’t be much in the way of answers, and he hurt too much to listen to them anyway. Pouring a cup of tea with a shaking hand, he picked up the mug and shuffled his way to his bedroom after writing down a few barely legible words. With any luck, Jei would spend most if not all of the night at the Koneko. If the noisy bastard came home and decided to bother him, then he was going to be stabbed in his remaining eye; Crawford needed him mostly for his appetite and sense of smell, so it was an acceptable loss. Besides, he needed to vent a bit of frustration out on *something* at the moment.

Barely managing to set the mug down on his nightstand and then collapse in his bed, Crawford tried not to think just then about what might send either Aya or Reno to the palace, especially when there were several Esset agents there for the time being. The vision had ended so abruptly that there was no way to tell what would happen next, but bloodshed and a shinigami-bound at Court would *not* be a good thing. For the sake of the war not starting early, he could only hope that whatever was obscured in the vision that it failed to attract much attention.

As he sipped his tea, he did his best to not reflect upon how the last time the Elders had sent agents to Court and there had been a shinigami-bound there as well, just how much attention that event had attracted. And how much blood had been spilled as well.

*******

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