Tangled Threads

*******

chapter eight

*******

reunions and revelations

*******

Yohji stumbled through the ruins of the Koneko, his throat aching from the smoke that filled his lungs with each shuddering breath. He could smell the stench of death and blood in the air, the foul odor of painful death and despair. Shadows clung to the shattered remains of his home, cloaked the few remnants from his sight which a part of his brain realized he should be grateful for; he didn’t want to look too closely at the lumps and dark shapes scattered about in case they proved to be something other than broken bits of furniture or architecture, in case he was proven wrong about everyone getting out in time….

"Aya!" He coughed as he called out his mate’s name, desperate to find Aya in the wrecked shell of their home. Their link was partly stifled, was blocked by a familiar coldness that seeped into him with each heartbeat, but he could sense enough to know that *Aya* at least was alive and nearby if elusive as hell. Yohji stumbled over a bit of destroyed furniture and snarled in frustration, his eyes blurry from the smoke and temper fraying from fear and need.

"Yotan."

Hearing Aya’s faint voice made Yohji snap his head up and look around, made his body jerk forward as he stumbled in the direction of the sound. He finally caught sight of his mate standing a few feet away, blending in with the shadows due to his dark clothes. Yohji attempted to reach out to him, to gather him close yet something kept him back, something cold and hard wrapping around him. "Aya! Are you all right?" He fought against the restraints, desperate to get to his lover.

Aya shook his head, the long eartails flying out as flashes of crimson against the darkness. For a moment, sadness was evident on Aya’s beautiful face and then all expression left him. "No, Yohji. It’s time to pay the gods their due. Everything comes with a price, including our happiness." As he spoke, he grew fainter, the broken frame of the Koneko appearing through him as if he was insubstantial.

"No! Dammit, you *promised* me, Cat!" Yohji reminded his mate as he struggled to free himself. "You said you’d never leave me!" he cried out as he fought in vain to free himself. Despite his efforts, despite his words, Aya merely stared at him as he vanished into the shadows.

"The gods are owed their sacrifice."

The words echoed in Yohji’s head as he woke up, covered with sweat and his arms wrapped tight around Aya, who was held pressed against his chest. He struggled to breathe for several seconds, his throat still choked with half-remembered smoke and the thought of losing the man he loved, even as Aya mewled softly and shifted in his arms. Yohji forced out a slow breath and nuzzled his mate’s nape in comfort, doing his best to belatedly calm his emotions as his nightmare threatened to wake the both of them up early.

He could feel Aya’s confusion and concern over their link, the emotions a welcome balm after the distance he had suffered in the dream. He pressed a kiss to the side of Aya’s neck as he stroked his hands along his mate’s stomach, needing the reassurance of *feeling* Aya, of knowing the man he love was *here* with him, physically here and not going anywhere, wanting him back just as much. His hunger flared to life, latching on to the trickle of sunlight that flowed into Yohji with each touch, each place where their skin overlapped. He tangled their legs together as Aya’s desire grew stronger, fueling his own need.

"Yotan," Aya purred as he arched his neck, his right hand reaching back to comb through Yohji’s hair. Raising his head enough to notice the smile on his lover’s face, Yohji grinned in return and nipped at the offered white skin before him. That earned him a low moan as Aya’s fingers tightened in his hair.

"Such a sleepy-looking cat," Yohji teased as he settled back behind his mate, his hips rocking forward as he spoke. "Need something nice and ‘awesome’ to wake you up?" He chuckled when he felt a flash of annoyance over their link. "Don’t bother saying it," he whispered into Aya’s ear as he pressed his growing erection against his mate’s delectable ass.

Never the less, Aya managed a softly hissed ‘idiot’ while rocking back against him, the purr still rumbling in his throat. He released Yohji’s hair to trail his hand downward, latching it on to Yohji’s hip instead.

Taking that as a subtle hint, Yohji chuckled again as he unwrapped an arm from Aya’s waist and slid his left hand lower, until it could wrap around the hard warmth of his lover’s cock. He grinned at the sharp hiss the action earned him, his eyes drifting shut for a moment at the wave of blissful sunlight pouring into him.

As he began to stroke Aya’s cock, his other hand fumbled out across the bed in search of the damn jar of lube until finally coming across it. Knowing that he probably had the shadows to thank for it, he muttered a few words in appreciation while fumbling off the lid, his concentration still mostly focused on Aya. Even now, lying on his bed with Aya in his arms, breathing in his mate’s intoxicating scent and that wonderful ‘sunlight’ streaming into him, he was terrified of letting go of the man. There was a part of him that feared if he took his attention off of his mate for a mere second, that Aya truly would vanish.

Aya shifted against him, a note of concern breaking through the love and desire flooding into Yohji, turning his head to look at him, until Yohji pressed a kiss to the back of his neck, his teeth scraping gently against the sensitive skin the same time he gave Aya’s cock a firm squeeze. That seemed to distract his mate from his anxiety, and the rush of pleasure and energy helped to refocus Yohji as well. *This* was reality. Aya was with him and not fading away.

He nuzzled his lover’s neck again as he pressed his slick fingers between Aya’s ass, pressing one of them against him and sighing when it began to sink in past the initial resistance. Aya moaned as he writhed on the bed, his fingers digging into Yohji’s hip as his desire flared, the bed growing darker around them. For a moment Yohji was reminded of the nightmare, his need for his mate growing sharper as well, all of his attention focused on Aya for any signs of him fading away. Yet all Aya did was press back against him and call out his name, his lust evident from his actions and how quickly his body opened up to Yohji, still partially slick from the night before.

Feeling about to burn up from the energy already pouring into him, Yohji forced out a shaky breath as he slid his slick fingers up and down his own cock, desperate to be inside of his mate, to be that much more connected just then. He paused for a moment as he pressed his cock against Aya, centering himself on what was real, and found himself being growled at. "Dammit, Yohji!"

"Ah, such an impatient cat!" Yohji laughed as he slid his arm back around Aya’s chest the same time as he thrust his hips forward, slowly sinking in to the tight heat that made him want to close his eyes and purr. "So… hmm… grouchy…."

Aya didn’t bother to respond other than to growl, the sound turning into a groan when Yohji snapped his hips to sheathe himself all the way inside to his balls. The sunlight pouring into him was almost an inferno, was so potent that it burned away the remaining chill and fear from the nightmare. Sensing Aya’s eagerness, he held his lover close and set a demanding pace, hips thrusting fast and hard and his hand stroking in time along Aya’s cock. One of Aya’s hands wrapped around his, their fingers entwining as they slid along the hard flesh, Aya’s head thrown back onto Yohji’s shoulder as he gave himself into the pleasure.

Awash in that pleasure and the scintillating energy that coursed through his entire body like a maelstrom, Yohji licked the sweat from Aya’s neck and began to suck, determined to leave a mark for the entire world to see. Aya was his, was his precious mate and the one thing he would never allow to be taken from him, to be harmed in any way. He bit down, adding to the forming bruise, adding to his claim, causing the ecstasy pouring into him to spike even sharper. He took it all in, hungry for more, for everything that was Aya, and gave what he could, gave all the ecstasy and love that he could, body and soul, never stopping until Aya cried out and came in his arms. The resulting tidal wave of emotion and energy crashed through him and overwhelmed him until he was caught up in it as well.

He held on to Aya until they both returned to their senses, slowly stroking his right hand along Aya’s chest to return some of the energy he’d just fed upon. They both lay in the bed for a few minutes, content to be quiet and near each other, before Aya let out a quiet hiss and slowly pulled away to go wash off.

Yohji grimaced and used an edge of the sheets to clean himself, figuring that they’d have to change them later anyway, and watched as Aya wiped himself clean and then headed back to the bed, displaying a feline grace that would ensure that he’d never live down his ‘annoying’ nickname. Aya’s eyes narrowed as he crawled back onto the bed and he opened his mouth as if to say something.

"Let me guess, I’m grinning like an idiot, no?" Yohji asked, beating him to the punch, so to speak.

"Well, now that you mention it," Aya remarked in a very dry tone as he slipped beneath the sheets. "But I was going to ask you about what woke you up so early." A note of concern shaded his deep voice and his emotions.

No longer in a teasing mood, Yohji groaned as he rubbed his eyes and then tucked back the hair falling onto his face. He knew that if he said he’d rather not talk about it, that Aya would respect his wishes; one of the good things about having such a ‘quiet’ man as a mate was that Aya did understand the need for silence. However, they were trying their best to communicate what was bothering them, so…. "I had a nightmare," he admitted.

Aya sighed as he made himself comfortable, half draped on top of Yohji with his arms folded on Yohji’s chest. "Was it that bad?" he asked in a quiet voice, his emotions a little subdued as if he was leery of asking the question. Considering how awful his nightmares could be at times, Yohji suspected that he could all too easily imagine the nasty turn that Yohji’s had taken that morning.

Even if the expression was a little sad, Yohji managed a smile as he gave Aya’s left eartail a gentle tug. "It would have been bearable, except for the part about losing you." His smile slipped away as he considered something, his fingers threading their way into Aya’s silky hair. "Cat… please tell me that succubae-bounds aren’t known for their precognitive powers," he asked in a ragged voice.

Aya frowned as he tilted his head into the caress. "Your kind are spies and infiltrators, not precogs," he assured Yohji with a hint of exasperation, as if stating the most blatantly obvious of facts. "Unless you’re mated to a precog, which I’ve never heard of happening, I don’t see how it would be possible. Only soul gaki bounds can predict the future, and only a very rare percentage of them at that."

Yohji had to laugh at the disgruntled look he was receiving. "Okay, okay, enough with the history lessons." He leaned forward to give his poor cat a quick kiss. "I was just checking, all right?" The dream had seemed so real… but then again, so had many others. What had him so worried just then was any chance to lose Aya, and he shouldn’t be surprised to have such a nightmare when the damn shinigami were badmouthing him at any opportunity, the Elders had agents in the city and the gods were plotting war. Oh, yeah, and Yuda was back at the Koneko. Yohji did some sighing of his own as he rubbed his thumb along Aya’s cheekbone and wished - not for the first time or even the thousandth - that they could just go hide away somewhere far from the madness that was their life. "I’ve every damn reason to be paranoid," he muttered.

Aya, his eyes half-closed and a purr building in his throat, gave his head a slight shake and then relaxed even more on top of Yohji. "Idiot," he managed despite the purr, his eyes drifting shut as he gave himself into the caress much like his ‘namesake’.

"I could spend half the morning listing the many, *many* reasons why it’s not paranoia, but I’d much rather keep making you purr." Yohji chuckled as Aya managed to pry open one eye long enough to glare for a few seconds before closing it again, pleased to note that there had been no silver in sight, and wrapped his left arm around his mate’s waist to hug him closer. Hmm, time to let a grumpy kitty get some more rest, which sounded like a good idea for him as well, and then go see what Maddox had made for breakfast.

But until then, he would hold Aya close to dispel any lingering fears from the dream, and drive a point home to the gods that whatever they thought about any owed dues or sacrifices, Aya was his and *his* alone, and they could go beg for something else if they felt a debt was owed.

*******

Alexis twisted the strands of her hair behind her ears before spinning away from the mirror, anxiety churning in her stomach enough to make her feel nauseas before she took in a deep breath to tamp down the emotion. She smiled at Helena as she smoothed down the full skirt of her wine-colored dress. "I’m certain you’ll be fine with Prince Mamoru and Lady Meara." If there was anyone here at Court whom she trusted the girl with, it was those two, and the young bound who hovered around the prince like a shadow. She didn’t know *what* the young man was, but she sensed he was powerful and that the prince knew what his companion was, and that was enough for her to entrust Helena into their care. That and Quatre had said she could trust the prince, which seemed to be proven true with the handful of times she had met the youth, his demeanor so earnest and intelligent that there were moments when she wished that he could be betrothed to the girl; Helena could do much worse that Mamoru, although Alexis had a feeling that the bound servant whom was always within the prince’s proximity *might* have something to say about the match.

Helena bowed her head in a quick, shaky manner and smiled. "I just hope we can have a quiet tea together. I managed to read a couple of chapters of the book he gave me and hope to discuss them." Her smile strengthened as she spoke, and Alexis wasn’t fooled at the thought that the girl hoped for an hour or two alone with a handsome young prince. Oh no, Wufei had *ruined* her for mindless romance, she thought to herself as she struggled not to laugh. Whoever was lucky enough to be Helena’s consort would have to woo her with more than kindness and pretty words, but with intelligent conversation as well.

"I’m certain that Lady Meara will arrange that. Just be prepared for more talk of wedding bells between Esset and Kritiker," she warned, and allowed herself to laugh when Helena wrinkled her nose in disgust. No, the girl was most definitely not set on being married off any time soon, if she could help it, and Alexis had the suspicion that she had caught some of the glances between Mamoru and Mikado.

About to say something, Alexis snapped her mouth shut when she heard a knock on the door. She gave Helena a warning look as she approached, followed by a quick kiss to the girl’s forehead. "Be safe. I trust Zelda to see you to the tea and back again," she whispered, certain that the succubae bound had enough intelligence to protect the princess and keep any incidents to a minimum. As for Helena, she was more than bright enough to look out for herself, and there were enough Guards and spies around the palace to ensure that there would be few opportunities for trouble.

"I’ll be fine," Helena murmured as she gave Alexis’ hands a brief squeeze. "Look after yourself." Their eyes met for a brief moment and then Alexis was turning to answer the door. She opened it to find Lukas standing there, dressed in a plain tan and blue outfit as if he hoped to blend in with the people out on the street. He had a sullen expression on his face as he glared at her and motioned toward the hallway.

"The Guards are here to escort us," he growled, and the glare turned into a slightly panicked expression when she exposed a hint of her fangs. It was best that the young fool remembered who was the stronger of the two of them very quickly.

Waving goodbye to Helena, she slipped past Lukas and walked out of their quarters with the air of bored nonchalance. All she was doing was taking the opportunity to explore the city a little bit, restrained both by Lukas and the Guards’ presences. ‘Checked’ as she was by representatives from Esset and Kritiker, there was nothing that she could do but see a small part of the city and enjoy a little shopping and a bite of afternoon tea, right? She bit her lip to keep from smiling at the thought.

Helena and Zelda would be busy with their own tea, the wizard was off slinking around the palace, Anthony and Martha were plotting their conspiracies and Isaac… well, the earth elemental gave Alexis the creeps so she was happy to be rid of his presence for a few hours. As far as she knew, Isaac was busy watching the Xanian ambassador and so should be out of the way. Crawford had timed things well.

They entered the main hallway and found two Guards waiting for them, dressed in the formal version of their dark blue and white uniforms. Both men were tall and appeared young, the one on the left with what looked to be shoulder-length black hair tucked behind his ears and slanted dark brown eyes in a handsome, thin oval face. Alexis found herself staring at him for a moment before noticing his partner, a much more non-descript fellow with light brown hair and brown eyes.

As if he had noticed the attention, the dark-haired Guard smiled as he stepped forward and gave her a curt yet graceful bow. "Hello, I’m Yonekuni and my partner is John. We’ll be your escorts today. I understand that you’d like to see a little bit of the city?" His voice was nice and deep, and gave away no noticeable accent.

Alexis nodded in return. "Yes, please. A little window shopping would be pleasant and then something light to eat." The lack of family names wasn’t unusual, especially if the men were working and wanted to protect their loved ones. "We’ve a couple of hours to ourselves."

Yonekuni smiled and held out his left arm. "There are some nice shops in the Central district, along with several popular teahouses. I think we can manage to find one that’s not too crowded at this time of the day." Alexis smiled as she slipped her right hand into the crook of his elbow.

His partner, John, fell into step behind her, and after a minute so did Lukas. "I believe that the Celadon Leaf would be best," the other Guard offered with a thoughtful tone. "It’s considered too ‘informal’ by most of the Court but has the best green tea and pretty good sandwiches."

"How does that sound?" Yonekuni asked with a slight smile as he looked down at Alexis.

"Very good." The conversation hadn’t come across as rehearsed in the least bit, yet she doubted that they were going to that particular teahouse by any chance.

They walked through the palace halls, attracting only a little attention as people hurried about their way, busy with intrigue or work. Once they were outside, Alexis took a deep breath of fresh air, pleased to be free of so many people if only for a few minutes. Yonekuni gave her arm a slight squeeze.

<We’ve about an hour before we’re to meet with your friends,> he sent once they reached the shopping district.

If it weren’t for years of teaching herself not to react to unexpected mental conversations like this, Alexis would have let out an unladylike squeak at the sudden ‘intrusion’ into her thoughts. As it was, she felt a wave of apologetic emotions from the Guard and had to force herself not to turn to look at him.

<I’m sorry, I wasn’t sure if anyone was able to warn you about me,> Yonekuni sent.

Steering them over to a window display of fine chinaware, Alexis made a show of admiring a set of plates decorated with delicate pink roses. <I’ve been informed that there are bounds in the Guard, but not given much information about the specifics.> She managed a quick, slanted glance at the soul gaki bound. <Most likely to keep the information from falling into the wrong hands should the worse happen, which is understandable.> Some of the tension that had come from being in close contact with a ‘human’ left her back and shoulders at the comforting presence of her own kind.

The slight smile from before returned to Yonekuni’s face, making him appear even more handsome. <Well, considering what we’re currently doing, I suppose this is considered an ‘acceptable’ risk. Not to mention that Birman and my Captain decided that you could use a way to contact them should there be a need.>

She tucked her arm a little tighter around his in gratitude for the risk he was taking. While she was certain that Crawford was ‘looking’ after them as much as possible, it was a relief to know that should a danger suddenly appear to her and Helena, she would have a way to contact allies. <Thank you.> "Hmm, these are very beautiful, but I’m not sure how well they’ll handle a trip back home," she said as she stepped back from the window.

"Ah, so you’re practical as well as beautiful," Yonekuni replied in a teasing manner, his flash of a smile stronger than it had been before. Something in Alexis’ chest tightened at the sight, and she hoped to see more of that expression.

"Did you have your doubts, sir?" she asked in a similar tone.

"Let’s just say that I’ve been on duty at Court a little too much lately and leave it at that." Yonekuni laughed at his evasive answer, his partner joining in as well.

They spent the hour wandering around the district, letting Alexis dictate their direction as she went to this store and that. The Elders had given them a little bit of spending money, which she put to judicious use on a few small purchases that should make Helena very happy when she returned to the palace. If she had a chance to come here again, she would have to dip into the stash that Quatre had given her, since he had been much more generous than the old misers. During her shopping antics, Yonekuni was a delightful companion, and she noticed that John did a wonderful job of drawing a usually sullen Lukas out of his shell.

As if on cue, her stomach rumbled, which prompted a knowing laugh from the Guards. Since she was certain that they were well familiar with bound appetites, she managed a fake blush in response and allowed Yonekuni to insist that they stop for some tea, something that Lukas didn’t argue about. Proving how well that the Guards had planned things, they were only a block away from their intended destination, and Alexis felt her anxiety and excitement grow with each step. Meeting Yonekuni, one of the fabled Shadow Guard, had helped to distract her from the thought of seeing Yuda, but now she couldn’t think of anything but that.

The Celadon Leaf proved to be a small teahouse set back in a courtyard filled with green plants growing everywhere, ivy and clematis and moss on the walls with what smelled to be various mints in tubs along the walkways. Yonekuni gave her another short bow as he motioned her to enter the green-painted door before him, along with a quick mental assurance that things were fine. It was that promise that let her step inside, along with the need to see a dear friend after so long.

A young Xanian woman in a cream colored dress with a pale green apron over it smiled at her, the expression polite, and then gave one with more warmth when she recognized Yonekuni standing behind Alexis. "Yonekuni! I believe you’ve friends waiting for you in the back room. Father is busy preparing some tea for them."

Yonekuni approached the girl as he fished something out of the black leather pouch on his belt. "Hi Liu. John and I will keep watch out here, so we’d like some snacks if you don’t mind. But first, I promised Owen that I’d give this to you."

A very becoming blush spread across the pretty girl’s face as she accepted the letter, and Alexis noted with interested that a quick breeze blew around the room. She found hers claws unsheathing a little as she sent a message to the handsome Shadow Guard. <Owen?>

<I don’t know if you’ve had a chance yet to meet the young man who attends to Princess Ouka. Let’s just say that if you don’t want your tea spoiled, make no comment on how handsome you find him,> he sent with some amusement. Yet she was pleased to note that he regarded her with quite some interest as he ‘spoke’.

<I’ve heard my companions mention him, but I’ve no interest in anyone who is so obviously taken,> she sent back, curious as to what his answer would be.

<That’s good to know.> He flashed her another of his wide grins, leaving her with the impression that he had no such claims staked to him. Hmm, she had best to make sure, because it would be such a pain to hide any bodies while here in Eto.

Liu swore that she would return with enough food for the Guards, and the breeze died down along with her excitement. Alexis gave Yonekuni a pointed look, which he returned as he motioned toward a closed door with a flourished wave of his right hand. "Your friends are waiting for you in there. I get the impression that they’re growing a bit impatient, milady."

"Well, far be it for us to make them wait any longer," Alexis replied with a sniff as she strove to not show any of her anxiety.

Across the room, Lukas frowned and stepped toward her. "What’s going on?" She could smell the suspicion and growing anger on him. "Who’s behind the door?"

"A good friend to both of us," she replied as she pushed it open, deciding it would be best for him to find out quickly before he could panic and use his talent against anyone.

The next room was a little smaller than the main room, but brightly lit and painted a cool green color. Inside of it were two more Guards, a young woman and what looked to be a teenaged boy, and then Alexis noticed Yuda and Shin. She let out a cry of happiness as she launched herself at her dear friend, throwing her arms around his broad shoulders and burying her face against his chest. Oh, it felt so *good* to hold him again, to breathe in his scent. It was a little altered from the last time she had done so, mixed with what she remembered of Shin’s.

Yuda held her tightly for several seconds, murmuring her name against her hair and then he let her go, setting her on her feet. She sniffed back the tears as she looked up at him, taking in the content smile on his face, the golden cast to his skin that bespoke of time spent in the sun, the solidness to his build that had been lacking the last couple of months she had seen him in Berin. He appeared so much better than she recalled him being, her strongest memories of him tainted with the hunger, worry and fear that had driven him from Esset without his mate. Now that he had Shin, he was… he was even better than she recalled him being when they had first met, there being a sense of peace to him that had always been lacking. He stood there, dressed in a dark grey tunic and black pants, looking so handsome it almost broke her heart, yet she knew he had finally found that vital *piece* to his soul he had always needed – Shin.

Beside him, the water elemental stood, looking vastly improved from the last time she had seen him as well. He, too, had spent some time out in the sun, his skin still pale but no longer pallid from being trapped inside the palace all the time. More importantly, he had put on some necessary weight, no longer driven to the breaking point in using his talent. Shin gave her a friendly smile as he stepped closer to Yuda, the move a little on the possessive side, yet she couldn’t blame him at all; if Yuda was her mate, she would be growling at everyone in sight.

Yuda slid his arm around Shin’s waist and hugged his mate closer as he reached out to pull Alexis next to his left side. "Lukas, it’s good to see you," he told the earth elemental, his voice hesitant at first. Then he smiled and shook his head. "You should try breathing, you know."

Standing in obvious shock by the door, Lukas took an unsteady step forward, his right hand raised and pointed at Yuda. "You!" he managed to get out after a moment of moving his lips. "You’re dead!"

Everyone winced at the loud volume, and Yuda shook his head. "I’m afraid not." He stepped forward, still holding on to Shin but urging his mate to stay behind him. "See?" He reached out to touch Lukas to prove his reality.

For a moment, Alexis thought that Lukas would lash out with his talent, and the female Guard narrowed her eyes as if to do something. Then the young man broke into a sob as he hugged Yuda tightly. Alexis sheathed her claws as she caught snippets of ‘thought they killed you’ and ‘my fault’, as Yuda did his best to calm the earth elemental. Judging from how quickly Lukas composed himself, she guessed that her friend was putting his talent to use.

After a minute, Yuda released Lukas and urged him toward a group of chairs. "I think there needs to be a bit of an explanation." He motioned for Lukas to sit down, then went to the couch with Shin. When Alexis made to sit down in one of the chairs, Yuda caught hold of her left wrist and urged her to sit beside him. Something warm fluttered inside her chest at the invitation, and she happily sat beside her friend. Even if he belonged to someone else, even if there was a handsome man waiting outside who had piqued her interest, there would always be something about Yuda that made her content just to be near him; they knew each other so well, were true friends in every meaning of the words.

He leaned over to give her forehead a quick kiss before speaking. "There wasn’t a chance before now, but let me introduce Eri and Naru." He motioned to the Guards as he spoke. "So you can feel at ease in their presence, know that Eri’s a soul gaki bound and Naru’s a wizard, so they’re ensuring that no one will be able to overhear our conversation in any possible manner."

Since Alexis had been informed already about the Shadow Guard, she merely nodded in acknowledgement to Eri, another bound, and gave Naru a curious look. Lukas, on the other hand, nearly jumped out of his chair. "That’s impossible! Sh-she can’t be a Guard!"

<I’ve been a Guard for almost two years now,> Eri informed the young bound with a stern look on her face, putting enough ‘force’ behind the statement to make the amount of demon soul she possessed known. Since that was quite a considerable amount, Lukas whined softly and remained seated while Alexis did her best to keep herself from baring her fangs as the reprimand wasn’t directed at her. <Obviously, the fact that there *are* bounds in the Guard is a very important secret to be kept from the Elders and those loyal to them, so we’re taking a risk right now to trust you.>

"Lukas," Yuda said, his voice deep and warm. That drew the earth elemental’s attention back to him. "I was startled when I found out that you were here, working for the Elders." He left the question unspoken.

Lukas’ face became flushed and he ducked his head. "It happened shortly after you and Ruka left." He looked up suddenly. "Is Ruka-"

"He’s fine," Yuda answered quickly, putting the boy at ease. "We decided it would be too dangerous for both of us to come into the city at the same time." He smiled just then, his expression a little sad, and held Shin’s left hand cradled in his.

"I’m glad to hear that." Some of the tension left Lukas’ body, and Alexis was reminded of his young age again. Really, he couldn’t be much more than two decades old. "I know you told me to avoid the smaller towns, but… well, it felt odd, hanging out in the big cities by myself. I’d left Sakacho for this little farming village when…." He grinned, the expression one more of embarrassment than happiness. "That’s where they caught me. One of them was an earth elemental and had felt it when I’d used my talent to help rebuild some walls to earn a bit of money."

She could tell from the way that Yuda’s shoulders hunched forward that he wanted to berate the young fool, but what was done was done. "So they took you back to Berin?"

"Yes." Lukas nodded and stared down at his hands, which he had clasped together in his lap. "I remembered what you told me about the Elders, and I figured that maybe I could take what I learned from the others, figure out some more about my talent and wait a while to slip away. Except… well…." He looked over at Alexis, his expression guarded.

"Except that the Elders and their favorites are being much more watchful about anyone with half a demon soul or stronger ever since you left," she explained to Yuda, reaching out to touch his right arm. "And Shin’s escape has only made the situation worse." She spoke the words softly to try to lessen the impact of them. Never the less, the water elemental’s shoulders hunched forward as if in guilt, causing Yuda so wrap an arm around them and him to whisper something to his mate.

After a minute, Yuda looked back up at Lukas. "It’s not going to get any better. I’m sure you’ve figured out by now that they’re hell-bent on leading Esset into a war with Kritiker." He waited until Lukas nodded. "Part of the reason I left years ago was to help prevent that war, and Shin and his cousins escaped because the Elders were ready to kill them rather than listen to reason." His voice took on a dangerous growl at those last few words. "The Elders no longer care about the bounds they claim to protect – they’ll bleed each and every one of them dry as long as they win the war, destroy Esset in the process as long as they can claim some sort of victory."

Lukas stared at him for several seconds. "But… but how else can we be safe?"

Alexis didn’t need Yuda’s foot nudging hers to know that now was the perfect moment to join in. "Because you’re sitting in a room with two Guards and you’re in no danger from them," she pointed out in a tone that clearly said ‘idiot’. "And you were brought here by two other Guards, one of them also a bound, who will see you safely back to the palace." As with Yuda, a hint of a growl crept into her voice as well, but from exasperation in dealing with someone who had yet to grasp the big picture. "And did you ever stop to think of why *I’m* here?" She smiled at the young bound with only a hint of sharp teeth showing.

"Uhm…"

She took a slight bit of pity on the boy. "Let’s just say that Yuda and Ruka weren’t the only ones to realize that the Elders no longer have Esset’s interests at heart and *we* are working at providing our country with the best possible future. A vicious war with Kritiker will *not* provide it, especially when this country is finally willing to change its stance on our kind."

For the first time since they had entered the room, the wizard, Naru, spoke up. "I can’t promise you that everyone in my country believes that bounds deserve to be treated the same as humans, but many people *are* realizing that the way your kind has been treated is wrong." His expression was sad as he toyed with a button on his uniform coat. "That includes many people in authority. Steps have been taken to ensure that bounds will be protected. We can’t promise that you’ll be accepted with open arms by everyone, but we’re working hard to stop the outright persecution."

To have a wizard say that… Alexis hoped that Lukas could understand the importance of those words. She stared at the young bound as he sat there, weighing what had been said and what was expected of him. Finally, he slumped in the chair and shook his head.

"This is… I mean…." He paused for a moment and shook his head again. "I end up in Esset and I’m treated like a slave. I get sent to Kritiker, find out a ‘dead’ friend is alive and that some of the things I feared most about the country don’t seem to be true." He gave the door leading to the main room a forlorn look. "Do they serve anything stronger than tea here?"

"Sadly, no," Eri remarked, her tone light as she reached into her pouch to pull out a small flask. "But I did come prepared." She glanced at Yuda as she handed over the flask. "Think it’s safe to let Liu in with the tea?"

Yuda laughed as he relaxed back against the couch. "I think you better, as I’ve heard Alexis’ stomach rumble twice while we’ve been in here." He turned to smile at her. "You’re thinking of gnawing on Naru, aren’t you?"

She gave him a demure smile. "Now that you mentioned it, I always did have a thing for wizards…."

The young Guard let out a very appealing squawk while Lukas almost choked on his mouthful of what smelled to be whiskey. "Hey! I get enough threats like that from Jei and Ken!"

"I’m sure two such gentlemen wouldn’t mind allowing a lady a few nibbles," Alexis teased, even as she noted mention of Jei. So the man was around, hmm? It would be interesting to cross paths with him… when she was well-fed.

Yuda laughed and gave her a hug, and even Eri giggled a little while rubbing her partner on the back as he complained about being picked on. All the while, Lukas stared at them in amazement. "Bounds really do get along with wizards and humans, don’t they?"

Naru frowned a little while shaking off Eri’s hand. "Well, only a few wizards, to be honest, but there’s a good bit of humans who know about your kind and yeah, they get along mostly well." A bright smile lit up his face and made him look even younger. "Want to hear about my girlfriend, Elise? She’s an air elemental!"

That fact had Lukas quickly finishing off the contents of Eri’s flask. There was a grim expression on his face as he handed it back to the soul gaki bound, which caused Alexis some concern. "Okay. So there’s bounds in the Guard and a wizard is dating an air elemental." He sounded just as grim as he looked and he turned to stare directly at Yuda and Alexis. "I want to know about your friends and what you’re planning on doing to help Esset. I’m tired of being a slave." His voice cracked and his expression faltered, leaving him to appear an uncertain young man once again. "I just want to be able to live my life as I want, like I told you, Yuda. To have a farm one day, raise a family and not be so afraid."

Yuda left the couch to go over and grasp both of Lukas’ arms. "All any of us want is to be free, to see dreams like that one come true." For a moment, he looked over his shoulder at Shin before turning his attention back to Lukas. "I don’t want you in danger anymore, but we could use your help. Just… be certain." He waited for Lukas to nod before returning to the couch.

Once there, he draped an arm over Shin’s shoulders and held Alexis’ hand. "You know, I look forward to the day when I can enjoy a tea with friends and not plot revolutions and the such," Yuda grumbled.

Shin laughed, the sound soft and amused, and Alexis found herself smiling at the familiar tingle of water elemental ‘magic’. "You’re going to be bored to tears after the war," Shin prophesized.

"Hmm, I don’t know, I’ll find something to keep me busy," Yuda teased as he leaned over to give his mate a kiss. Alexis didn’t think she was the only one to be affected by the sight, and was torn between relief and disappointment when distracted by Liu arriving with a tray of tea and snacks.

As the young woman began to serve everyone, Yuda turned to Alexis and whispered in her ear. "This isn’t quite how I’d hoped our reunion would go. Please tell me you’re doing well."

She gave his hand a reassuring squeeze, touched by his concern. "I promise that I am. It’s… it’s good to have a cause to fight for again, and even better a hope to win." It was good to have hope at all, on several fronts, after so long without it. She thought that Yuda would understand what she left unsaid, especially since he could sense emotions.

He gave her a tender smile and nodded. "You look lovely." Even though he was now mated, and said mate sat only a few feet away, the words made her blush and feel warm all over. She thanked him for them before accepting a cup of tea from Liu, pleased to feel so attractive when there was finally someone of interest around. Her thoughts drifted to the Guard standing outside for a few seconds, until snapped back to the current room by the sound of Naru and Lukas squabbling over the sweet red bean buns.

Any plans for the future would have to wait, as right now she needed to focus on the present and getting through the next week or two, on ensuring that Helena and herself returned to Berin alive and well. *Then* she could start seeing about expending some energy on plans that didn’t include fighting, hunger and betrayal. She felt almost giddy at the thought.

*******

Takashi kept a smile on his face as he rushed through one of the Palace’s many corridors, doing his best to not bump into anyone as he wove his way through the throng of people. Really, did they *have* to just stand around like that? At least the Guards and the servants had the sense to move, no doubt busy on errands just like him, but the Army personnel refused to budge from their posts unless ordered and the Court officials just loved to show off their fancy clothes and ability to boss various servants and pages around. Takashi’s left eyebrow twitched as he had to step to the left very quickly to avoid the velvet garbed arm flung out in his path without any apparent care by its owner. He was barely given a glance by the highborn as he walked past.

Being the Royal Wizard’s assistance garnered him some respect, but not that much. He was basically left alone when it came to being ordered about by anyone not Botan or of similarly high rank to the wizard, which meant that he was also largely ignored unless some highborn felt they could wheedle a request for a simple charm out of him. The palace’s staff and the Guard were always polite to him, those who had gotten to know him over the last couple of months greeting him warmly whenever their paths crossed, and he believed that he had made a few genuine friends. He could include more people in that number if he wished, but he always had valued *true* friends over people who just cared to be associated with someone who could cast spells.

He wished that Omi was back from whatever emergency was going on with the boy’s family, as he counted his fellow student among those ‘true’ friends. It wasn’t the same having the lessons with just Haruto around, as the other assistant was still aloof with him – not that Takashi really cared about that. If status was so important to the other boy, then they probably would never really be good friends. All Takashi wanted was to learn as much magic as he could, to be as good a wizard as possible while holding to the values that his mother and great-aunt had taught him. From what he could tell, Omi shared those values and wanted much the same that he did, which was in part why they got along so well.

About to make a right turn down the hallway that would lead him back to Botan’s office, Takashi had to come to a halt when he noticed the small group of people heading towards him. Lady Meara led the group, along with several older people in Judges robes. Takashi almost waved when he recognized two of the Guards in the formal train, Ken and Miko, until he realized who they were escorting – the Crown Prince. He quickly dropped his right hand back to his side as he stared at the young man, whom rumor said was so sickly and ill-suited for the throne that he had been shuffled off to Lady Meara’s home estate in the Takai Mountains last year. Prince Mamoru didn’t *look* too sickly, even if he did lack his father’s height and broad shoulders, as well as the Takatori dark coloring. If anything, he reminded Takashi a bit of Omi with his build and blond coloring-

A hand clapping him on the left shoulder made Takashi jump. He spun around to find Eri smiling at him. "Oh! Uhm, hello!" He blushed a little as he smiled back at the pretty woman, as well as at her partner, Naru, who stood beside her. "Are- are you on your way to see Botan?"

Naru nodded as he scratched the back of his neck. "Yeah, as punishment for what I did to the statue, I’m supposed to help him sort through a bunch of old documents he’s been meaning to get to for about a year or so now." He grimaced as he waved his hand about. "Guess they figured I stand less of a chance of getting blown up by any odd wards or the such."

"Or if you do, it’s only fitting," his partner remarked in a very dry tone, which made Naru glare at her. Eri gave him a sweet smile in return. "Come now, you know Botan wouldn’t do that to you. It would make too much of a mess."

"You know, one of these days I’ll ask Yuushi to assign me a*nice* partner," Naru grumbled as he continued to glare at Eri.

All she did was continue to smile for a few seconds before looking back at Takashi. "I assume you’re on your way to his office as well?"

"Yes." Takashi held up an empty leather pouch. "I finished handing out the requested charms to some visiting dignitaries and now need to head back and make some more!" he said with a laugh.

Eri glanced down the hallway and motioned for him to start walking. "Well, as one of the people who has received some of your work, I must say ‘thank you’. They’ve been working out very well."

He found himself blushing a little as he nodded in acknowledgement of his efforts. "You’re welcome. I find it a little humbling that people are using my charms!" He laughed, the sound a bit nervous, and fought the urge to ask what charms she had used; being a Guard, Eri might not be able to talk in too much detail about her job. "Though to be honest, Omi created a lot of those, too."

Eri waved aside his attempt to give some credit to his friend. "We know that both of you have been working hard on them, and I’ll be sure to thank him as well. Botan’s proud of you both, and I know that the charms will really help us out in the upcoming months."

"Yeah, just don’t complain to me if I find something in the next few days that has you making something really complicated and involving anything that really smells!" Naru was eager to point out. That earned a genuine laugh from Takashi, and he noticed that his annoyance from earlier was all gone by the time that he reached Botan’s office. Even the prospect of spending the afternoon in Haruto’s sullen presence didn’t bother him now, not when Naru asked him if he would be stopping by the Koneko later for dinner. Promising the Guard that he would, he went over to his desk and allowed Naru and Eri to talk to Botan privately for a while as he readied a few things for the tasks that Botan had given him for the afternoon.

As Eri waved to him before leaving the office, he wished her a good day and tried to recall if there was something about Omi that he was forgetting…. Ah well, it probably had to do about a charm or lesson, and he was certain he would remember it soon enough.

*******

Jo sat down at the table with a relieved sigh, pleased to be off of her feet. Then she frowned when she noticed that it was only Cassandra and Haru at the table. "Where are the others?" She had left the kitchen to sit out in the main room because she had thought that the others would be out here tonight, listening to Koyu and his friends playing.

Cassandra frowned as she poured some wine into Jo’s and then her own glass. "It seems everyone is busy tonight." Then her expression lightened a little. "But my ingrate of a son and his mate will be here soon." Just as quickly, it darkened. "Most likely, my Trouble is out there robbing poor souls blind." Beside her, Haru paused in eating to giggle, which earned her a glare from her foster mother. "Bah! What did I do to the gods to deserve raising two thieves?" the precog complained, but she gave the young girl an affectionate hug all the same.

Jo shook her head as she picked up her glass of wine. "Just look at it this way, you’ll never go wanting in your old age! It’s definitely one profession that’ll weather the tough times," she remarked with a dry tone before having a sip.

Cassandra sniffed and acted as if offended. "It is the principal of the matter. I strive to set a good example, and off they go, picking pockets. Bah." She pouted for a moment longer before shaking her head and resuming her dinner.

Well, to be fair, Haru had to do something to feed herself while out on the streets, and Schuldig…. Jo wasn’t certain what had happened with Schuldig, but if you were raising your child from a young age to fight in a war, she supposed you had to expect ‘odd’ personality quirks to form. "I assume that Botan’s busy at the palace?" she asked to change the topic.

"Hmph, as if it’s not enough to make him work so hard on spells and the such, they *insist* he attend those silly parties." Cassandra took to glaring once more, and judging from the way Haru rolled her eyes and gave Jo a crooked grin, this was a particularly sore topic and familiar rant. Jo offered the girl an apologetic smile and mentally promised to make some of the walnut tea cookies that she adored.

"I believe that it comes with him being the Royal Wizard and all." When Cassandra’s grey eyes flashed with ill temper, Jo held her hands up in a placating manner. "I think you’d best be served saving your arguments for the king and not me, no?"

Cassandra stared at her for a moment and then laughed. "My apologies." She ducked her head in a shy manner. "It’s just… there’s so little time left and it’s wasted on such silly things." For a moment her demeanor took on a sad turn, and then she was once more smiling and hugging Haru. "Hmm, I think we’ll be here tomorrow for a very nice tea!"

"Oh! Then I can show Emmie and Neely my new dress!" Haru proclaimed while Cassandra shared a knowing smile with Jo. Ah, the dangers of being friends with a soul gaki bound, Jo thought to herself while enjoying more wine. She’d definitely have to make those cookies now, but that was hardly an inconvenience. Especially since there were others of the staff who enjoyed them….

"Where are Yohji and Aya," Cassandra asked, most likely having picked up on her thoughts just then.

Jo sighed again, this time with a bit of frustration – not with the two men in question, but from the feeling of there being a problem and the inability of her solving it. "Up in their room." For once, Cassandra didn’t give her a knowing smirk at that answer. "I sent them up there with some food a little while ago."

"Is it… Yuda being here probably does not help, yes?" Cassandra guessed, the worried expression back on her face.

Shaking her head, Jo poured herself some more wine. "I don’t think it was that." She wouldn’t have minded it for once, even if the other succubae bound could have picked a much better time to come for a visit. "Yuda and Shin spent most of the day away from the Koneko, seeing their friend and doing a bit of shopping, then went right back to their room. Something else seems to have set off Yotan; he barely let Aya out of reach all day long." It had gotten to the point that she had felt that it was best for everyone that the two men were left alone for a while and sent them up to their room with enough food to tide them over for the rest of the night.

She shared a concerned look with Cassandra; they both worried over the recent changes in Aya’s talent and behavior, and how that was affecting Yohji. What was even worse was the fact that there was so little they could do other than be supportive of the two men. "Has… Aya said anything else?" she finally asked, afraid that might have been what had set off Yohji’s overprotective mood today.

Cassandra frowned into her wineglass for a minute and then shook her head. "No. At least, not to me. I’d hoped to see *him* tonight." The way she all but spat out the one word made it clear that she referred to Crawford. Beside her, Haru cringed a little, making Cassandra shiver a little and turn to the girl. "Why don’t you go to the kitchen and see what Emmie and Neely are doing?" she suggested while tucking back a strand of the girl’s dark hair. For a moment, it looked as if Haru would protest being sent away, and then she nodded before rising from the table. She gave Cassandra a quick hug then began winding her way through the crowd; Jo turned to watch her leave, and noted that several of the Guard in the room also kept an eye on her until she made it out into the main hallway.

<She’ll be happier with her friends and we won’t have to worry about what we say,> Cassandra explained as Jo turned back to face her. <She knows much of what will happen, but she’s still a child.> From the stony expression on the precog’s face, it was clear that Cassandra intended to protect what remained of Haru’s innocence for as long as possible.

"Emmie and Neely will be pleased to spend some time with her." Jo smiled before she had some more wine. Poor Maddox would have to put up with the antics of three young women now, yet she had faith in him that he would manage such a feat and it would be good practice for the future. "Now, what about Crawford?"

Cassandra’s expression morphed into one that could not pass for human, that of sharp teeth and a red spark glowing in her narrowed eyes. "Feh. Up to something, that man is. Suddenly everyone is gone." She motioned to the empty table around them. "No Guards, no Jei, no Spymaster."

About to point out that everyone was busy with Ouka’s birthday celebrations and the Elders’ agents in town, Jo decided to have another sip of wine instead. It was odd that everyone was gone, including Reiichi and Jei. Eri, Naru, Ken, and Miko were busy working at the palace because of all the parties and Omi’s ‘return’, and Yuushi was expected to be there as both Kikyou’s adjunct and the Captain of the Shadow Guard. Much the same could be said for Birman as the Spymaster, and from what she knew, even Army personnel were dragged into festivities which meant that Mustang was stuck at the parties and Ed at home because of there being so many Esset agents in town. Even Reno was keeping a low profile in case of being followed, but that didn’t explain why Reiichi wasn’t here when he was supposed to be retired from the Guard and protecting Aya and Yohji.

So Jo had some dark thoughts for Crawford as she drank more wine, then began putting together a plate of food. "Any ideas on what they could be doing?"

"Only that Aya had foreseen some deaths to those in the Guard and felt that they could not be avoided." Cassandra’s voice was subdued and difficult to overhear with the noise of the other diners and the music being played. Jo paused in dishing out some lamb stew to wonder what it would be like, to see someone and know that they were marked for death.

"He’s said it himself, that there’s a lot he doesn’t know about his own power. I don’t see how he can be so certain about that fact." She twisted a little on the table so she was seated enough to look out over the crowded room.

Her friend made a humming sound and poured them both more wine, which made Jo idly reflect on the fact that she was going to be drunk soon enough if that kept up… and if Cassandra wanted her drunk for a reason. "He does not think like the rest of us. Sometimes I wonder how he sees the world, lacking a human soul as he does."

Jo grimaced as she reached for her wineglass. "Now *that’s* a cheerful thought." Surrounded by a room full of mostly happy people, some of them good friends and most of them busy chatting away, enjoying their evening, and suddenly she felt cold and alone. She loved Yohji and Aya as if they were her sons, but there were times when the realization sunk in that they weren’t really human, that she would grow old while they stayed young, that what they fed on could be fatal to her, that there were aspects of them that she could never understand…..

A hesitant touch to her left hand shook her from her morbid thoughts and made her look up at Cassandra, who offered her a sad smile. "They are still the two young men whom you love."

"I know," she answered, tone just as soft and solemn. "Perhaps love them all the more because of how frightening they can be at times." She knew that they needed someone to remind them of what it meant to be human, to keep them centered. As long as they remained part of the Koneko, she would do her best to provide that for them.

<And they know that,> Cassandra assured her. <Which is why they treasure you and their home here.>

Yes, but for how long? There was no answer for that, and Jo wondered if that was in part why Cassandra had been so free with the wine tonight.

Feeling a bit maudlin, she looked out at the crowd and wondered what it was like to be so happy and carefree, to not have to worry about any approaching war and losing your loved ones. Though to be fair, some of the people here did have an idea of what were at stake and still seemed determined to enjoy themselves. Many at the Guards table were laughing and talking, engaged with each other and their companions as they ate and drank. Pendra was busy flirting with a young man who appeared besotted with the fire elemental, while Moritaki had three lovely young women hanging on his every word. Elise was hanging out with Takumi, who appeared as if she had either just finished working a shift for Birman or would soon be leaving to start one, judging by her fine silk dress. The two bounds were currently fussing over Mari, whose proud parents looked on with smiling faces.

Despite the worry that had worked its way into Jo’s own home, there were people who were still enjoying life, who could partake in the happy atmosphere that had enveloped most of the city. She wished them all the joy that they could find and tried not to be a bit envious of their lives.

"The gods give and they take, when it comes to blessings," Cassandra said, her voice stronger than before yet even more solemn. Jo turned to look at her friend, the woman’s face back to ‘normal’ yet her eyes inhumanly bright. "Us bounds know that very well. We have been given bodies with few flaws, that heal quickly and resist the years, and granted powers that can rival that of the strongest wizards. What it costs us is often our families, our sense of security and even our lives." She stroked a hand over her chest, where her heart beat. "So much pain and loss for such power and youth, and not everyone would say that it balances out in the end. Only now do we seem to have a chance to regain some of the blood and sorrow we’ve paid."

Now it was Jo’s turn to offer a comforting squeeze as she reached for her friend’s left hand. "It’ll work out." She refused to think that the sacrifices that her loved ones were prepared to make would be for nothing. It *had* to work out.

Cassandra gave her another sad smile before looking out across the room. "I have faith that it will. Only… this time, I fear it won’t just be my kind that will be paying the price to the gods." She stared at all the humans gathered about, laughing and drinking. "No, for too long, there has been a debt left unpaid, and the gods have never been negligent about such a tally."

Jo shivered at the words, and even though there was a slight buzz of inebriation in her body from too much wine and too little food this evening, reached again for her wineglass. Maybe if she drank a bit more, she would find the courage to ask if that ‘debt’ was to be paid by humans in general or by any ones in specific – or if there was a reason that Cassandra appeared so mournful as she stared out across the room.

*******

Shen sipped his wine as he glanced around the full ballroom. Ah, there was *so* much to observe tonight, so many wonderful little details to write about that he would be sending letters home for weeks. To think that he had initially believed that this assignment would last only a month or two…. He felt his shoulders droop for a moment and forced his spine to straighten as he pushed the loneliness aside. Mei Fen understood when he had left that there had always been a chance that this assignment might lead to better opportunities for him, and she had encouraged him to seize whatever chance at advancement that came his way. Once he obtained a high enough rank, then there would be no objection to their marriage, something that they had been waiting for over four years already. Another year or two, even if they were spent apart, would be a hardship they would bear since it meant their happiness would soon be in reach. He just had to continue to do this job to the satisfaction of his superiors or risk his fiancée’s wrath. No wonder he was willing to twist a certain Spymaster’s tail so much, as the two women were certainly a lot alike in temperament. Ah, how he missed his fiery little flower….

At least he had more than enough distractions here to keep him from dwelling on his loneliness. A smile spread across his face as he noticed Emir, the Thracian ambassador, chatting with the lovely young woman from Esset, Zelda. Ah, how that dark haired beauty had been cutting quite the swath through the Court in this past week. Even Shen, with his heart firmly claimed by Mei Fen’s delicate beauty and sharp fierceness, found himself drawn to her when she was near. It seemed that Emir was no different, as were the other men in the ambassador’s party. Shen was interested in noting how one of the Kritiker highborns, a Lord Satori if he remembered correctly, was glaring at Emir from several feet away, and how the Esset lady returned to his side once she was done all but flirting with Emir. Hmm….

Had she decided to settle her ‘favors’ on that particular lord? Satori was rather well off, relatively speaking, but there were higher-ranking lords at Court. Shen tilted his head to the side as he wondered why she had picked him. He would have expected her to go after Emir, Khryses or himself as ambassadors would hold some sway as dignitaries from their respective governments, or perhaps Botan or one of the Ministers. There was the younger Lord Kano as well, still unmarried, and his cousin, Satoru. Thinking of the Kritiker highborn and their intermarried relationships always gave him a headache…. Though to be fair, the blood ties back home were just as complex.

Oh, too bad that Birman was female and not so… inclined to the lovely Zelda’s charms, Shen thought with an amused smirk that he hid behind his wineglass. It would be interesting to see the two women face off. Speaking of the indomitable Spymaster…. Ah yes, there she was, or at least there he assumed her to be, the attractive dark haired woman who all but blended into the crowd except for the fact that she moved with much too much grace and poise through the throng of people, the same which could be said for her companion. No, he was willing to bet that there went Birman and Trowa, hidden behind illusion charms, especially since he noticed the way that the Guards stationed around the ballroom paid very close attention to the ‘blond’ young man at the woman’s side. Hmm, maybe one day he would inform Birman of these casual tells… and maybe not. It would ruin his fun, after all.

How *did* Trowa rate such close care from the Guards? That was another mystery to ponder, one that amused Shen as he thought about the young spy’s very ardent lover. He supposed that if Mei Fen were here and working, he would use whatever power he possessed to ensure that she was protected from the Court’s insidious ‘influence’ and had to commend the young Guard who had managed to snatch up Trowa. There was a man who understood the value of an intelligent, beautiful lover and the responsibility one owed to them, of protecting them from harm while still allowing them their freedom. Shen tipped his half-empty glass in the direction of the nearest Guard and smiled when the young woman gave him a confused look in return. Ah, if he had to be trapped so far away from home, at least it was in a country that seemed to understand the important things in life. He could have been sent to Cretia, he thought with a shiver of disgust.

While searching about for a tray of appetizers and purposely ignoring the attempt of the Minister of Finance to attract his attention, Shen noticed that the one Esset dignitary that appeared to have Xanian blood was staring at him from across the room. He smiled at the man, and as always, received a cold stare in return before the young man turned away. Hmm, someone was being a bit unfriendly. He would go attempt a conversation with the grump except that each time he had tried, the man would refuse to speak to him and walk away. Someone seemed to have issues.

Picking at a tray of small savory tarts that a smiling servant presented to him, Shen nodded in appreciation as he thought some more on the man’s, Isaac, if he remembered correctly, behavior. As far as he knew, the man had stayed on the outskirt of any socializing that his companions partook in, barely speaking to anyone. Even their servant had been heard to speak more often, if only to request directions or relay various requests.

As Shen enjoyed his snack, he searched the room for the man, only to find Isaac had once more vanished. Zelda was snuggled up to Lord Satori’s side with a small group of admirers gathered around, and Anthony was in another group with the young woman, Martha, standing next to him. She seemed displeased with something, which, after Shen followed her line of sight, seemed to be the rather quiet woman in their small group, the one who was never very far from the princess’ side. For all of her reserved nature and demure – when compared to Martha and Zelda’s – appearance, there was something to that Alexis which put Shen on guard, that warned him against thinking of her as someone to be easily dismissed. In a way, she reminded him of Birman with her feline grace and ability to blend into a room.

That left the other young man, Lukas, and their servant missing from this gathering, which wasn’t too unusual as it was rare for all of them to be together at the same time. Shen couldn’t help but think that arrangement made it very easy to plan things and carry them out, and how trusting Kritiker was in allowing agents of their enemy into the heart of their country. From what Birman and Trowa had insinuated, they weren’t complete fools, yet they were still taking quite the chance here. Was it worth it to give Esset enough rope to figuratively hang themselves? He knew that his superiors were waiting for enough information to be gathered to decide which country to support in what was clearly an approaching war, and from what Emir and Khryses had alluded to, so were they.

Clearly Kritiker was aware of that fact. Considering his conversations with Birman, she knew the importance of his stay here. She also knew that these Esset dignitaries couldn’t be trusted. If Birman could see through the flimsy excuses for Shen to extend his visit here, then surely Esset, which was rumored to possess powerful bounds who could read minds and even foresee the future, could as well. So what were the chances that Zelda, Isaac and the others were just here to flirt with and glare at people?

Shen felt the need for another glass of wine. Things were so much simpler when he could spend his days merely annoying Birman and waiting to see what new threats she could invent for him. What bothered him the most was that if Esset had agents who could read minds, control fire and bleed a person to death in minutes if not seconds… what did Kritiker possess to leave them so unafraid to allow such agents into the home of their king?

*******

Aya looked down upon a sleeping Yohji and had to resist the impulse to reach out and caress his cheek, to tuck back the blond curl that lay across his forehead. Moving slowly, he left the bed, fearful of any motion that would disturb his mate.

Perhaps it was the lack of sleep from the morning’s nightmare or from being sated by the evening’s lovemaking, but Yohji thankfully remained asleep. Mindful of stifling the emotions over their link just enough to prevent anything from waking his lover, Aya moved quietly across the room and pulled on the clothes that he had discarded earlier, uncaring about the wrinkles or the light grey of his shirt; once he pulled on a cloak of shadows, no one would see him.

Fortunately, it had been a cool night and they had left the window open for a breeze to enter the room, so he merely had to slip out the window and drop to the ground below. Once outside, he paused in the garden to collect a couple of flowers and then raced across the Koneko’s grounds and over the red brick wall, intent on reaching his destination as quickly as possible – Kisei’s temple. The shinigami joined him as he ran, gathering around him and wrapping along his upper body as he ran through the cool night air, climbing up buildings and jumping over roofs in a city that had mostly fallen asleep beneath the stars and three moons. It was a clear, cool night, perfect for a run, yet all he cared about was reaching his destination as quickly as possible.

<Feel how free you can be, young one!> a shinigami crooned in his left ear.

<Shed the flesh and you can be even faster!> another urged. He merely shook his head and leapt, his heart beating at the thrill of flying through the air before landing on another rooftop. As he finally approached the western Temple district, he jumped to the street level and sought out the appropriate temple, unsurprised to find the doors unlocked even this late at night. While some of the other temples still had priests and people attending to them, Kisei’s temple was dark and abandoned.

"At least there’s no cats here this time," he remarked as he entered the building, a faint scent of marigolds in the air.

<Hmph, foolish humans and their worthless sacrifices. At least you and the other young one assured Her of a worthy death that time!>

Aya felt it best to keep it to himself that the ‘death’ hadn’t been intentional, but at least ‘Aya Junior’, as everyone *still* called the poor cat, was very happy with his new life keeping the mice out of the stables and being adored by Ichiro and Jason. "Do you think she’ll hear me if I speak to her here?" he asked as he approached the altar.

There was a rustling among the shinigami, and the one wrapped around Aya’s shoulders tightened in agitation. <She listens best with a sacrifice,> it hissed.

"I refuse to harm a bunch of cats, and Yohji would have a heart attack if I killed anyone while those agents from Esset are in town," Aya pointed out in a fit of pique. "Why can’t she hear me while I’m here?" He placed the fresh clippings of roses, rosemary and marigolds on the altar, along with three gold coins.

/Because death is so much sweeter than flowers or offerings, but I suppose you’ve sent a suitable amount of souls to me, young one./

The shinigami stilled, except for the one around Aya’s shoulders, which tightened even more against him. He stilled himself, and then forced himself to turn in the direction of the reverberating voice, so quiet and deep. It came from behind the altar, yet when he looked in that direction, all he could see was an encompassing darkness, one thicker than the shadows that enveloped the nave which housed it.

He forced himself to swallow so he could force the word past his suddenly dry throat. "Kisei?"

Amusement flooded into him, made him shiver and wrap his arms around the shinigami for support. /Yes, young one. Did you not wish to speak to me?/

It took him a moment to remember that this was why he had come here, why he had left Yohji alone in their bed. Thoughts of his mate gave him strength and helped him to recall what he had wanted to ask the goddess. He was a kage, everyone told him how different he was, so he could do this. He could find out what he needed and keep the man he loved from being hurt. "They… the shinigami said that you expect a price to be paid when someone is marked for death."

More amusement washed through him. /That is true. The cost of all human life is eventually to be paid to me./ The center of the absolute darkness throbbed.

Aya felt as if his hold on the world around him was fading, leaving only the shinigami and the darkness in its wake. Something told him that he shouldn’t stay here in the temple with the goddess for much longer, not if he wanted to return to Yohji. "So…." It was becoming more difficult to think, and thankfully the shinigami tightened its hold on him. "Does the price have to be paid by the one marked?" he asked, forcing out the question that had bothered him for the last couple of days.

Silence reigned in the temple for several heartbeats, during which he was careful not to breathe or move. Then Kisei laughed outright, the sound unlike anything he had ever heard before, only to be identified as it by the amusement that poured into him and made some of the shinigami purr. /Clever boy to figure that out. I can’t always accept a substitution, but some rules can be… bent. A price must be paid. Who is to say if it is *this* life or *that* now and then? But only now and then./

He nodded his understand, reminded of the saying about gods and their games. "The shinigami have warned me about meddling too much," he whispered, doing his best to focus on the little bit of Yohji’s emotions he could sense over the partially blocked link.

/You would do well to listen to your pack,/ Kisei warned, the darkness overcoming what faint bit of light remained in the temple. /Do what you were made to do, young one./ The darkness pressed against him, as if attempting to sink inside of him. /Send me deaths, thousands upon thousands of souls, and I won’t quibble over a few that are out of time and place. DO WHAT YOU WERE MADE TO DO./

As suddenly as the darkness overwhelmed Aya, it vanished, leaving him huddled on the floor near the altar, arms wrapped around the shinigami and body shivering from the cold. He still felt out of touch with the world, insubstantial, and then he remembered to breathe. Pain rushed through him as the world took on color again, little more than greys and subdued blues of shadows and darkness, but everything was *solid* once more.

Kisei was gone, as were the offerings he had brought for her. The shinigami rushed back around him, giving glancing caresses as if to comfort either him or themselves. He allowed the affectionate touches and stroked the one who had remained with him all the while during Kisei’s ‘conversation’, grateful for its presence. It unwound enough to brush against his cheek.

Aya supposed that he had received the answers he had wanted, although he was reminded about the saying about fools seeking wisdom from the gods; he had certainly gotten more than he had bargained for, and Kisei’s final words would haunt him for some time to come. The tingling power that her presence had left in him would as well, an even more disconnect with the world that left him aching for Yohji, to climb into bed with his mate and have proven to himself that he was *here*, that he was real and of flesh and blood. He shivered as he took a hesitant step from the altar, his actions growing hurried as a desire to be back at the Koneko grew in him with each heartbeat.

He wanted nothing more than to curl up at Yohji’s side and not move from it until forced to do so – something that he feared would be all too soon. There was the reason he had sought out Kisei in the first place, after all, the ‘blessing’, as it was, that he had received from her. While she had made it clear that she wouldn’t allow too much ‘meddling’ on his part, he had the leeway of those ‘few’ lives that he could save. The cost would be other deaths, but what were a few out of thousands, he thought. A laugh burst forth as he ran back to the Koneko, the sound harsh and broken. ‘Thousands and thousands’, Kisei had told him, and he was what, already a hundred or so into that number. No, a ‘few’ more would be easy pay if it kept Yohji and Nagi happy. All Aya really was in the end was death wrapped up in flesh, so a few more souls sent on to Kisei shouldn’t bother him at all.

For once, the shinigami were quiet as he returned home, but they remained with him, around him and curled up near him, their presences a comfort almost as welcome as Yohji. They were his pack, his fellow spirits of death, and if tonight had taught him anything, it was that he couldn’t deny what he was.

*******

Return to Archive

Next Chapter