Tangled Threads

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chapter ten

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departures and diplomacy

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Trowa stifled a yawn as he made his way through the crowd at the Koneko, doing his best to keep his emotions and power in check with as many people crammed into the main room at the present time.  He could feel Duo’s concern over their link and sent reassurance as he mentally promised to rejoin his mate as soon as possible.

Reaching his destination, he sat down next to Crawford and accepted the glass of wine that the precog handed to him.  He noticed the shadows beneath the man’s usually vibrant blue eyes and the fey air to Jei, two signs that Crawford’s talent had been unusually demanding lately.  That wasn’t much of a surprise, considering all that had happened in the past day.

“Where’s Yohji and Aya,” he asked as he noted that the mated pair were absent from the table, even as Jo, Cassandra, Haru and Reiichi were in attendance.

Reiichi frowned as he pushed his empty glass of wine closer to Jei, who snarled briefly before refilling it.  “They’re up in their room.  Yohji mentioned something about plans this evening, but he was a bit evasive.”  He twisted in his seat to send Jo an inquisitive look.

She scoffed as she picked at a plate of apple pie.  “Oh please, all I know is that Yohji wheedled some mulled wine, a couple of chicken pot pies and a whole spice cake out of me about an hour ago, so I don’t expect to see them until noon tomorrow.”  Her expression remained stern for all about thirty seconds.  “He hasn’t tried to kill Yuda today, so I take that as a positive sign.”

“I think there’s been enough bloodshed lately,” Trowa remarked, and felt like a fool at how the good mood vanished from the table, tenuous as it had been.  “My apologies,” he offered as he bowed his head.

Reiichi reached over to give him a tentative pat on the hand.  “No, it’s all right, we were just discussing the matter.”  He picked up his wine glass and took a generous sip.  “It’s only for the fact that people are still celebrating the princess’ birthday and that the king hasn’t made any official announcement about the deaths that the Guards aren’t making more of a show of it,” he explained as he motioned toward the room, which was heavily filled with dark blue uniforms.

Jo’s eyes narrowed as she pushed her mostly untouched plate aside.  “Touya and Natsuko have been informing the guests that it’s a private party tonight so the Guards can have some chance to mourn together.”  She didn’t seem upset in the slightest at what must be a loss of revenue, though Trowa had to admit that the Guards present were drinking very heavily.  A lot of Duo’s comrades were working for the party at the palace, but those who were off duty were here at the Koneko, and he had been told that as soon as word had gotten out, that Guards from the neighboring cities and towns had arrived as well.  Also, Birman, Kikyou and Manx had asked the Army to step in somewhat to assist with the palace duties to give the Guards some time to recover from their recent losses.

As if reading his thoughts, Jo motioned toward all of the people gathered about drinking and talking.  “We’re going to be busy for the next week, as everybody comes in to drink for the dead.  As much as I hate it when a Guard dies, the Koneko’s the best place for where they can all gather together to remember.”  She sounded a bit proud at that last bit.

Cassandra nodded as she hugged her adopted daughter to her side.  “Miyuki claimed that the Koneko was the Guards’ home as much as hers.”

Haru whimpered a little as she pressed her face against Cassandra’s shoulder.  “There’s so much sadness and anger.”

“Yes, little one.  We must work more on your shields.”  The precog bent her head to whisper something to Haru, and after a minute Haru’s shoulders seemed to relax and she could lean away from Cassandra.

Even though being a water elemental had brought much pain and sadness to Trowa, he was grateful to not be a soul gaki bound… or worse.  Sipping his wine, he looked aside at Crawford.  “Perhaps it’s a good thing that Aya’s not here,” he murmured, purposely keeping his voice pitched low.

That statement earned him a frown for a few seconds, and then Crawford nodded.  “I’m afraid that those who know about Aya and his… new talents may be uncomfortable around him after this recent turn of events.”  He adjusted his glasses as he looked around the table.  “Present company excluded.”

Trowa thought about that last part and then shrugged.  While he wasn’t exactly comfortable with a person who could predict death and kill so easily, he had to admit that he trusted Aya.  He wouldn’t shun him just because he was a kage, and he would make certain that Duo didn’t hold the recent Guard deaths against him – that or keep Duo away from him and Yohji.

“How are you doing?” he asked his friend, a little concerned at how tired Crawford looked.

He received a rare warm smile in return for that concern.  “Better.  Please thank Birman for arranging such a wonderful… ‘inconvenience’ to the agent for me.”

The thanks drew forth a smile from Trowa as well.  “I will.  I must admit that it was a bit of fun, ensuring that the agent fell into a bit of misfortune on the way to Rufus’ estate from your house.”  He had enjoyed plotting that out with Birman, using the chaotic mess of the birthday celebration to waylay the messenger that Crawford had sent out to ostentatiously ‘warn’ Anthony against any missions last night.  When the flesh gaki recovered, she would report to the Elders about Crawford’s message and her attempt to deliver it.

“Good.”  Crawford’s smile faded as he stared out at the crowd.  “I understand that some respected Guards were lost.”

“Yes.”  Trowa hadn’t really known Eaton or Vernon very well, but he had been familiar with Roswitha and Renaldo after spending nights here drinking with Duo.  And Toshi’s death was particular painful, especially when considering the man’s lover and child left behind.  “The good news is that Li should recover within the next few days, and Cormac within a month.”  From what he understood, Li was taking it very hard, losing her partner.  He wished that they had been quicker in taking down Martha, but Lukas had needed time in figuring out the gauntlets to send a warning message and Crawford’s vision hadn’t been very exact, leaving him, Reiichi and the Shadow Guard guessing where the agents would strike.  By the time that he and Reiichi had found the fire elemental, she had already caused too much damage.

There was a distant look to Crawford’s eyes for several seconds.  “The possibility of death was much worse.”  Then he shook his head.  “I regret that I wasn’t able to judge things better.”  For once, it sounded as if he spoke the unembellished truth.

“Lives were saved,” was all that Trowa said in response.  Lilla and Mari were still alive, although haunted by Toshi’s death, when he knew very well that Heero’s orders would have been to kill them all.  And five Guards dead and two badly injured wasn’t much, considering two bloodthirsty bounds and a wizard set loose in the palace.  It just hurt because for once he knew the people killed, the people left behind.

Jei snorted, the noise loud and almost amused as he poured everyone some more wine.  “You sound like some old priest, I’ll have you know.”

“And what’s wrong with that?  Don’t go offending the gods,” Jo snapped as she held out her glass.  “Or you won’t get any more dessert!  Ever!”

The threat of being cut off of from sweets made Jei whimper in fear, which then made Haru and Cassandra laugh in turn.  Even Trowa managed a small smile in the face of his friend’s obvious torment and the way Jei made a lavish show of apologizing to Jo.

She sniffed once he was finished.  “Really, the lot of you should have more sense.  Don’t tempt the gods and don’t act like idiots, and I bet things won’t be quite so crazy around here.”

“Hmm, now *that’s* an interesting theory,” Reiichi commented as he played with the rim of his wine glass.  “I think the first might be easy to do, but really, the second?”  He gave Jo such an innocent look for several seconds, until even she had to laugh.

“Okay, so I may have high hopes on that last bit.”  She chuckled a few times until she looked out at the room.  “Sometimes I think the whole world is going mad,” she commented in a tired voice.

Cassandra ran a gentle hand over Jo’s hair.  “At least they have a safe haven to come to while the gods rage and take away what they hold dear.”

“What bothers me the most is it’ll only be the first of many,” Jo pointed out.  “If Esset continues to push for war, there will be more deaths.”

“Yes, and we’ll continue to do what we must to keep those deaths to a minimum,” Crawford added with a bit of heat.  “But death is a natural cost of war.”

For a moment, it looked as if Jo was about to throw her glass of wine in the man’s face, as something dark flashed through her emotions.  Then she bowed her head.  “Just see to it that death leaves the Koneko alone,” she mumbled.

Crawford smiled, but the expression was not one of comfort.  “I don’t think that I’m the person for you to talk to about that.”  He continued to smile when Jo’s head snapped up and she glared at him for his audacity, and Cassandra hissed under her breath about fools.

For his part, Trowa was about to flood the man’s brain with blood to teach him some manners.  Before he could, he felt Reiichi touch his hand again, distracting him from his talent.

“Yes?”

Reiichi slowly moved his hand aside.  “I know it’s barely been a day, but Yuushi and I were talking earlier about Duo.” 

Trowa flinched at the mention of his mate.  “What about him?”  He suddenly wanted to be away from here and back at Duo’s side, to offer him comfort.  Toshi had been human and the two men friends for only a year or so, but he knew that Duo missed the man.

Reiichi appeared to be weighing the value of his words.  “Duo is a very important member of the Shadow Guard.  While we understand that Toshi can’t be replaced….”

“Duo can’t be left without a partner for very long,” he finished for him.

“Exactly.”  Reiichi smiled, displaying a bit of discomfort.  “While Li is now without a partner, we feel that it might not be best to set the two of them together.”  His smile strengthened when Trowa was quick to shake his head, displeased with the idea of his mate partnered with a succubae bound.  “No, I didn’t think so.  Out of the new Shadow Guard candidates, we think that Annan would be the best personality fit.”

He remembered the young man as a soul gaki bound whom Birman was a bit upset over not being able to finagle into her own organization.  Annan was supposed to be intelligent and eager to please, and would probably be delighted at having an experienced bound like Duo for a partner.  “If you think it’s best, I’m sure Duo won’t have any objections.”

“Hmm, Yuushi will probably pair them together in a temporary basis to see if they work well or not.” 

“I’ll let Duo know so he’ll be prepared.”  Feeling that he had spent enough time and exchanged enough information, Trowa finished his wine.  “Oh, before I leave, how is Lukas settling in?”  Yonekuni would want to know so he could pass it on to the flesh gaki bound.

Jei chuckled as he snagged Jo’s unfinished apple pie.  “Last I saw, Yuda and Shin were using a spare illusion spell to sneak him off to do some celebrating in the quarter.  They’re gonna pick up some goods for him tomorrow before they head back home.”

“They want to leave before the king sends Anthony and the others on their way, which is a wise idea,” Crawford explained.  “It’s been decided that Lukas will spend at least a few months with Yuda before seeing if there’s something else that he wants to do.”

Trowa was happy that the earth elemental had managed to escape from the Elders, especially since he had tried to stop Martha and save the princess.  “Thank you.  I’ll be sure that his one friend finds out that he isn’t really dead,” he said as he stood up to leave.

“I’m sure it’s going to be real interesting in the palace tomorrow.  Be careful,” Jei warned him.

“Yes.  I don’t think that everything’s over just yet,” Crawford added.  Trowa waited to see if his friend had anything else to add, but when all the man did was resume drinking his wine, waved goodbye to everyone and went back to his mate.

He found Duo in the midst of several Guard friends, Reiko and Declan sitting nearest him and exchanging stories about Toshi.  Duo was quick to pull him down beside him and nuzzled his temple, his arms tight around Trowa’s shoulders.  “Hey you,” Duo breathed against his cheek.

“Hey you, too,” Trowa replied back as he stroked his hand along Duo’s forearm.  He leaned against Duo’s warm body and let all the other voices but his mate’s be drowned out, willing away the thought of anybody else near him other than Duo.  He was safe here, surrounded by friends and in Duo’s arms, and they were alive and healthy.  Whatever the future might bring, they were together and would face it that way. 

*******

Bored with the party, Omi faked a smile for Lord Yuji, the Minister of Commerce and made an excuse to get away from the man.  Ten minutes of hearing about taxes on perishable goods was enough to make his head hurt, and if he got drunk then Manx, Birman and Botan would harangue him for *days*.  As it was, Nagi was doing too good of a job of keeping track of how many glasses of wine he was drinking at these parties, taking the part of a diligent valet much too much to heart.

“What I wouldn’t give to be a soul gaki bound,” he murmured to his boyfriend as they mingled through the crowd, doing their best to avoid attracting any attention.  If he had the power to influence minds, then he could easily avoid or get out of so many boring conversations.

Nagi snorted at the comment and shook his head.  “Just come up with a charm to repel stupidity,” he replied sotto voice, his lips barely moving as he followed two steps behind.

Omi frowned as he considered the merits of the advice.  Was it possible?  Just how did one define ‘stupidity’?  Would Botan smack him for bringing up such a charm?  He shook his head as he pondered just how to go about creating something that would save him from future parties like this; maybe something that would repel people when invoked?  There were possibilities….

He noticed that he drew attention as he walked about the open grounds that were elaborately decorated for Ouka’s birthday party.  All day long there had been celebrations, and even though his sister was now in bed, the revelries were still ongoing.  His parents were holding court in the white Moon garden, with the rest of Court sprawled out all over the palace’s grounds.  Between all of the visiting highborn and out of town guests, the place was packed with people.

If any of them noticed that the Esset contingency was down to basically Princess Helena and one attendant, no one made any comments.  Birman and Kikyou had done an excellent job of suppressing any gossip about what had happened last night, and that there weren’t any ‘noteworthy’ deaths meant that there was little impact on the Court.  Sadly, the deaths of Guards and palace staff wouldn’t be noticed by many, at least not here at Court, and few would realize how Esset’s actions had pushed the countries that much closer to war until the king made any announcement.  No, Omi’s father would keep the truth from all but a few chosen advisors and suitably ranked officials until after the celebration was over – and Princess Helena was safely from Kritiker.

Since they were on the outskirts of the rose garden and away from most of the crowd, Nagi dared to approach Omi and nudge his left shoulder.  “Are you all right?” he asked, his voice quiet but heavy with concern.

Omi summoned a smile and nodded.  “I’m fine, especially since Ouka wasn’t hurt last night.”

That answer earned him another derisive snort, which strengthened his smile.  “Okay, maybe I’m a bit worried about what’s going to happen in a few days, when Helena leaves for home.  The truth is going to come out about last night and the Court is going to call for war.”

Nagi stared at him, his expression impassive as he plucked several leaves from the nearby hedge.  “How does that change anything?  We knew the war was going to happen.”

He opened his mouth to say… what exactly?  Nagi was right, they knew that the war was coming and had been preparing for it for a while now.  The only thing that would change was that the Court would finally realize just how serious that Esset was, too, and focus more of its effort in preparing the country for the inevitable. 

“You don’t need to be so smart,” he grumbled as he fussed with the sleeves of his fancy tunic, longing for the upcoming day when he could return to the Koneko and his ‘normal’ clothes.  Nagi flashed him a quick grin before display his usual dispassionate ‘servant’ visage.

They wandered around the edge of the garden for a while, pleased to be left alone save for a few brief introductions by various highborn.  Omi played the role of part-time prince very well, feigning exhaustion and interest in various titles when all he wanted was to head back to the Koneko as soon as possible.  Despite his best wishes, Lady Meara and Birman had taught him how to react in these situations, and the fact that he *was* mostly left alone proved that people weren’t really interested in ‘Prince Mamoru’.  They only paid him enough respect so as not to offend his father, but it was clear that they counted on his sister being the true heir to the throne.

He no longer felt any pain at that thought; all that mattered to him was that his sister grew up happy and that he was allowed the life he wanted with Nagi.  In a way, spending this bit of time back at the palace had helped to put some of the old fears to rest, and would allow him to walk away from his life as ‘Mamoru’ without any regrets.  He certainly wouldn’t miss the lavish lifestyle or the silly demands of time that being royalty required of him, he would just miss his father.  Yet even though he had been here these past several days, he had barely been able to spend any time with him, as both of their schedules had been filled with various meetings, parties and events.  He was lucky if he got to see his father for more than an hour or two a day, and often in the presence of others.

Having decided that he had been ‘social’ enough for the evening, Omi motioned to Nagi that they could now head back to his quarters for the night.  According to Birman, tomorrow his father would hold a private court, and Helena should make some excuse to return to Esset in another two days.  Once the princess was gone, he should be able to return to the Koneko, as Prince Mamoru wouldn’t be needed in Eto any longer.  Just a few more days, and his life could return to normal.  Well, except for the fact that Takashi now knew that he was a prince and not just ‘Omi’.  Hopefully his friend would get over the shock sometime soon.

Halfway across the garden, and Omi found his path blocked by a young lord dressed in pale green and cream colored silk and leather, appearing very handsome and sure of himself.  Suppressing a put-upon sigh, Omi smiled instead.  “Lord Satori, how pleasant to see you this evening.”

“Prince Mamoru.”  Satori bowed the proper amount and stood up straight, a friendly smile on his face as he stepped a little too close to Omi.  “How are you on this fortuitous day?”

“My sister has celebrated her first birthday and seems blessed with good health and happiness, so I am very pleased,” he answered as he wondered what the man wanted.  Satori had always avoided ‘Mamoru’ in the past, spending his time with highborns who had much more influence at Court.  From what Birman had told Omi, the man couldn’t be trusted.

“Yes, we’re all very happy that the little princess is doing so well.  I would be honored if you would have a drink with me to celebrate her health.”  Satori motioned for Omi to follow him, leaving no time for a polite refusal as he turned on his heel and walked away.

Gritting his teeth at the lord’s presumptuousness and unable to see a way to turn down a toast to his own sister’s health without seeming churlish, especially when the hour wasn’t too late and he clearly wasn’t already inebriated, Omi followed and swore to himself that he was going to ignore everyone else after this.  He allowed himself to be led to a private garden alcove, one of many set up for the night’s festivities, where people could hold small gatherings.  Satori must have made prior arrangements, as one of his servants was waiting for them, near a table set up with various appetizers and a bottle of wine chilling in a bucket of ice.

At a wave of Satori’s hand, the servant began to pour two glasses of wine.  “I hope you like this vintage, as it’s from one of my family’s vineyards and is an especially good year.”

Omi nodded as he accepted one of the glasses.  “Yes, I’ve heard some very nice things about your family’s wines.  Thank you.”

Satori smiled as he held up his glass.  “I forget how young you are, and that you’re not often at Court. This might be your first time tasting one of our wines.  That makes this a very special honor.”  He cleared his throat as he clinked their glasses together. “May the gods grant Princess Ouka a very long and happy life.”

“Yes,” Omi agreed, and he lifted the glass to his lips.  He could smell the wine, the sweet scent of fruit with the hint of something almost candy-like, and then something very cold wrapped around him and held him into place.

As he stood there, he saw bands of shadows race out and wrap around Satori and the man’s servant, completely encasing them both.  While he stared in surprise, Aya and Yohji stepped out of the shadows, both dressed as if for a night at the Koneko, and approached him and Nagi.

“Aya?” Nagi called out as he hurried to his friend’s side, his hands grasping the sleeve of the kage’s dark blue shirt.  A flicker of emotion crossed over Aya’s face and he touched Nagi’s hand.

Yohji approached Omi, and as he reached for him, the frigid shadows disappeared.  He pulled the hand holding the glass of wine away from Omi’s mouth.  “You don’t want to drink that, kiddo,” he told him, a hint of silver in his green eyes.

“Yotan?” Omi asked, his voice shaking from the suddenness of his friends’ appearance as well as the cold.  “What’s happening?”  Why were they here at the palace, where it was so dangerous for Aya?

Yohji took the glass from his hand and set it on the table.  “Because you were about to be poisoned,” he explained, his usually expression voice flat from its serious tone. 

“That’s not funny, Kudoh!” Nagi snapped, his growl dying when Yohji calmly stared at him.  “Poison?” he continued in a weak voice a moment later.

“Yes.”  Aya’s voice was sibilant and his eyes pure silver as he sidled up to his mate.  “You’re supposed to die,” he informed Omi, as plainly as if he was telling him that the night sky was black.

Omi felt his knees tremble and give out, and only Nagi’s power kept him standing, quickly followed by his boyfriend’s comforting arm around his shoulders.  “But….”  He stared at Aya, at those unnatural eyes and remembered his friend’s growing abilities.  “Why aren’t I?” he dared to ask after a moment spent gathering the courage to do so.

Yohji grinned, the unnatural sparks of silver still in his eyes but the expression pure ‘Yotan’.  “Because we like you too much, even if you do have lousy tastes in boyfriends,” he teased, and laughed when Nagi snarled.  His grin faltered a little when he looked at his lover, who only continued to stare impassively at Omi, and then sighed.  “Because we’re here now.”

Shaking his head at the situation he found himself in, Omi looked past his friends at the bound highborn.  “But why would he want to kill me?”  What had he ever done to Satori?

Yohji looked at Aya, who lifted his left shoulder the slightest bit.  “Uhm, we don’t know, but I bet I can find out.”  He turned to face the highborn, and after a quick tug to one of Aya’s eartails, the shadows wrapped around Satori pulled back enough to reveal the highborn’s face. 

Satori was still for a moment, and then appeared ready to scream. However, before he could, Yohji did something, somehow ensnared the man’s attention, and then Satori’s expression turned into one of intense longing as he stared at the succubae bound.  Omi had seen Yohji use his talent before, but it was always amazing to see it so effectively ‘enrapture’ another person like that.

“You were trying to kill Om- ah, the prince, weren’t you,” Yohji asked, his voice sounding smoother, richer than usual.

Satori whimpered a little and leaned in Yohji’s direction.  “Yes, yes, kill the prince.”

Yohji grimaced and rubbed a hand over his face.  “Gah, I’m gonna need a good, long bath after this.  This guy’s been fucked over way too much.”  He let out a yelp as Aya, still appearing impassive, drove his right elbow into Yohji’s side.  “It’s the truth!  He’s been messed up by a succubae bound, and I don’t think it’s Mariela’s fault.  It’s too heavy-handed for her.”

“Did the Esset agent order him to kill Omi,” Nagi growled, his arm tightening around Omi’s shoulder.  Omi didn’t need any prescience to know that if Satori was acting on orders, there would be bloodshed in the palace very soon.  Maybe some shattered walls as well.  Make that definitely some shattered walls.  Oh boy, Manx was going to be *pissed*.

Yohji waved at Nagi as if brushing him off and refocused his attention on Satori.  “Were you given orders to kill the prince?”

“So lovely, such golden skin,” Satori crooned.  Yohji had to ask the question again, this time with a hint of sibilance in his voice, before the man answered it.  “I just wanted to please her,” he cried, tears running down his face.  “Please Esset, she said.  Be loyal to Esset.  I thought it would be good to strike at Kritiker’s heart, no?  Kill the prince and make her come back to me.  Make *him* die, as they’ve always wanted.  Then I get what I wa-”

“Be quiet,” Yohji told the man, and Satori stopped talking, the tears still running down his face as he stared at Yohji as if he was all that mattered in the world.  Yohji rubbed his face again, disgust plain in his expression, before turning back to Omi.  “Looks like you’re the victim of someone trying to be clever.”

Omi managed a weak smile. “Thanks, Yotan, I feel so much better now.  I’m sure Birman will figure out what to do with him.”  His smile vanished when he noticed that his friends didn’t agree with him and that Aya left Yohji’s side to approach the crying lord. “Yohji?”  He went to stop Aya, but Nagi held on to him.

“Kiddo….”  Yohji shook his head.  “We saved you, okay?  Let Aya do what he needs to do.”  He sounded tired and turned away.

“But-“  Omi tried to pull away from Nagi, and when that didn’t work, faced his boyfriend.  “What about Birman?” he asked, unnerved by the fact that everyone was standing here while Aya was about to take a life in cold blood.

“She’d rather he be dead than you,” Nagi told him matter-of-factly.  There was a sound of something falling, and Omi turned to see Satori’s bloody and deformed body hitting the ground, free of shadows.  Beside him stood Aya, his eyes closed and arms wrapped around his chest.  He remained still until Yohji went over and touched his cheek, his eyes opening to reveal silver that slowly turned violet as Yohji combed fingers through his hair.

“Feel better now, Cat?” Yohji asked his mate, his voice tender and quiet as if he was afraid of spooking Aya.

“Hmm.”  Aya stepped closer and slid his arms around Yohji’s waist.  “You need to glamour the servant.”  His voice was still sibilant, but it was comforting to see that his eyes had returned to normal.

“In a moment, you slave-driver,” Yohji whined.  “Forcing me to work hard like this, I deserve a nice backrub when we get home.”

Omi thought he heard a muttered ‘idiot’, and had to tug on Nagi’s arm before his boyfriend did something with his talent to interrupt the couple; he knew that look by now.  Nagi frowned at him but left Yohji unbothered, and after a minute the couple broke apart as Yohji went to do something about the servant’s memories.

While Yohji was ‘working hard’, Omi and Nagi went over to Aya.  “Uhm, thank you,” he told his quiet friend.  He didn’t understand how Aya had known or why he had to kill Satori like that, but he was grateful for still being alive.

There was a slight curve to Aya’s lips, which was quite a smile when he was all ‘shinigami’ like this.  “You’re welcome.”  He seemed to be searching for the right words to say.  “You… are worth it.  Come home soon.”  As if embarrassed, he called the shadows around him and vanished from sight.  Since Yohji was still glamouring the servant, Omi knew that his friend couldn’t have gone very far just yet.

Once he was done, Yohji looked around and noticed that his mate had ‘disappeared’.  “Dammit, we’re gonna have a talk about that trick of his,” he muttered as he walked over to Omi.  “Okay, that guy is gonna head to bed and wake up tomorrow with no clue about what just happened.  I’d really appreciate it if you could tell Birman that you were almost killed but you figured out the dead guy’s plan, being the brilliant kid we all know and love.  Then Nagi, being the little demon we all know and barely tolerate, crushed him and that’s that.”  He was speaking in a rush, so he was probably anxious to get Aya back home.

“But why not just tell the truth?”

Yohji cursed under his breath as he jerked his hand through his hair.  “Because I really don’t want to explain to people that Aya just so happened to know that you were gonna die and managed to save you by killing your would-be murderer instead.”  He hesitated for a moment and then continued in a quieter voice.  “He… it’s not something he can do often, okay?  I don’t think that’s a fact that certain people would grasp.”  He stared intently at Omi as if willing him to understand the importance of what he was saying.

Aya had told Omi that ‘he was worth it’, implying that there had been a cost to saving him tonight.  There was also a risk of Aya and Yohji even being here now, with so many Army personnel about and the remaining Esset agents still in town.  For those facts alone….  “All right.  You just better hope your glamour holds up,” he told Yohji with a stern frown.

“Hey!  I do the best damn glamours around,” Yohji grumbled as he pulled Omi in for a quick hug.  “I’m glad you’re safe, even if you’ve turned into such a brat.”  He yelped in Omi’s ear, which let him know that Nagi had finally gotten in a good ‘hit’.  “Little demon.”

“Take Aya home,” Nagi ordered as he resumed his place at Omi’s side.  “We’ll take care of the body.”

Yohji looked as if he wanted to argue, but his desire to protect Aya won out.  “See you soon,” he called out in parting before slipping out of the alcove, shadows engulfing him when he was no more than a few steps away.

Omi felt a twinge of envy at the thought of how easy it was for his friends to disappear like that, and reminded himself that it was just a few more days before he could leave.  Then he forced himself to go look at Satori’s body.  Part of him cringed, thinking that just a few minutes ago this man had been talking to him, while the rest of him focused on how he would be dead if not for his friends.  He was fine with the fact that one had to kill to protect lives, it just took some getting used to over seeing it done so coldly, outside the heat of battle or in defending oneself.  Unfortunately, it was something he would have to get used to with the approaching war.

Nagi grasped his left hand and gave it a squeeze.  “It’s a good thing that Aya used the shadows to crush him like that.  It looks just like my talent.”

“Yes, but it means that Birman’s going to have some fun coming up with an official death,” he pointed out.  Hmm, unless they used an illusion spell on the corpse.  It would be a bit tricky, requiring several stones to mimic decay while the body was laid out in state before cremation, but it was doable.  He and Takashi should be able to work something out, and the method could probably come in handy in the future.

Giving Nagi’s hand a squeeze in return, he let it go so he could send Birman a message that he had a bit of work for her.

*******

The atmosphere in the receiving room was tense, making one want to shiver despite the warmth of the summer day.  Birman felt like fidgeting in her formal attire, the black coat and dark blue pants that she rarely wore except when called upon for – usually dire – occasions like this.  She stood to Shuuichi’s left as he sat in the gilded chair, Manx beside him and Kikyou to his right, Botan standing by Manx as they presented a united front.  Not too far off, wearing an illusion spell and pretending to be a lower Court official was Trowa, with Natsumi by his side, and their presence was a comfort to Birman as she considered what was to come.

The doors opened to admit Lord Anthony, impeccably dressed as always yet his eyes shadowed and lips pressed in a thin line.  Birman was certain that the man had spent a sleepless night as his companions failed to return from their missions and various alarms failed to sound throughout the palace, and then been confined to his quarters for the following day.  He was escorted by Eri, Ken and Miko, with the soul gaki bound bringing up the rear.  Eri spared a quick glance in Birman’s direction.

<He knows that something has gone very wrong, especially since he has only been attended by servants who are ‘lacking’ in information about the past day or so.  That only Helena and Alexis were allowed out for the celebrations yesterday means that you suspect him of being involved,> Eri explained as the group came to a stop before the king.

Lord Anthony made a show of bowing before the king, bending just low enough to be polite as if to say that he had nothing to be concerned about.  “Good day, your Highness.  It’s a pleasure to see you.”  He sounded unconcerned and polite, as if this was a normal event.

Shuuichi stared at the man for several seconds, his expression cold.  “Good day, Lord Anthony.  Am I to presume that you have no idea why you are here today?”

The bound had the audacity to smile and nod.  “I assume that it has something to do about why I was confined to my room yesterday, and probably in regards to my missing companions.”  He put on a show of innocence as he motioned with his gloved hands.  “Will they be joining us?”

<He suspects that they’re dead as he can’t reach their minds, but realizes that they may also be behind wards,> Eri provided, picking up his thoughts with the aid of the black ring she wore.  <Personally, he hopes they’re dead so they can’t be tied back to him, or escaped out of the city.>

<The gods don’t always give us what we want,> Birman sent back, and then told Natsumi to have Shen be ready.

Shuuichi let the silence build for a moment, until Lord Anthony began to fidget, and then shook his head.  Everyone else in the small room remained quiet and still, taking their cues from the king.  “I’m afraid that your companions will be unable to join you.  Three of them are dead, and one of them is currently being held behind wards.”  His voice when announcing the news held no pity.

One thing she had to say for the man was that Lord Anthony was quite the actor.  His face instantly became flushed and he put on a good show of anger.  “Dead?  Imprisoned!  How dare you treat ambassadors from Esset in this manner!”  He made to step forward, but Ken and Miko moved in tandem, their steps smooth as they blocked him before he barely lifted a foot.

Motioning with his hand for the bound to be still, Shuuichi narrowed his eyes to show his displeasure.  “I agree that it is unworthy of us to treat visiting dignitaries in such a way.  However, what choice do my people have when your companions have spilled Kritiker blood?”  He spoke the words with clear precision, and Lord Anthony stilled once they were said.

He pulled back from the Guards and took the time to straighten his outfit, probably deliberately chosen in the colors of Esset.  “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he declared, and Birman didn’t need Eri to tell her that he was lying.

Shuuichi leaned back in his chair, which was Botan’s cue to step forward, his movements still a little stiff from the other night.  The idiot, she would make sure he kept the damn ring on hand at all times from now on.  “I swear before all the gods, may eternal darkness swallow the earth and madness destroy my soul that the man claiming to be your servant attacked me and my assistants two nights ago with magic.”  Botan paused to let the importance of his words sink into the room at large.  “One of my assistants is still healing, and we had to take… appropriate measures to defend ourselves.”

Lord Anthony’s expression didn’t change at the news, but his color paled.  “One can hardly condone the actions of a servant,” he said as a poor attempt to deflect some of the damage of Botan’s testimony.

<The wizard’s failure has greatly bothered him,> Eri sent.  <He had hoped that the man had escaped and would meet up with them on the way home.  I don’t think that Esset can afford to lose many wizards.>

Good, Birman hoped that the Elders made the bastard pay for the wizard’s approaching death, because he had cost them dearly.  Eri agreed, her thoughts taking on a feral tone.

It was Kikyou’s turn to step forward.  “I swear by all the stars that my word be true, may nothing but darkness reign if I lie before the gods.”  He took a deep breath as if steeling himself for what was about to be said.  “Six Guards were killed the night before last and several others were injured, two seriously so, with four of their bracelets found in the possession of the Esset agents we encountered.”  He paused again, his eyes bright with anger even as he managed to control his expression and tone.  “One of the agents was captured alive near Princess Ouka’s quarters and overpowered.  She is currently being held warded in a cell and has admitted that the wizard and another of her companions, the one called Isaac, killed the Guards for the gauntlets to gain access to restricted quarters.  She is responsible for another death and the injuries while attempting to kill the princess.”

There was finally a response from the gathered crowd, a low murmuring at the news that Guards were killed and Princess Ouka was targeted.  Also, several people must have figured out that for the prisoner to be behind wards, it meant that she had talents that needed magical encasement – in other words, she was a bound.  That would explain why so many Guards had died the other night.

His expression finally betraying his uneasiness, Lord Anthony stared straight at Shuuichi and not Kikyou.  “What of my other two companions?” he asked, his voice trembling.

“The man, Lukas, was killed in the attempt to assassinate the princess,” Kikyou informed him in a cold manner.

“Whereas I must claim some of the blame for your other wayward compatriot,” Shen announced as he stepped forward from behind Trowa and Natsumi, a very broad smile on his face.  He executed a proper bow to Shuuichi, the sleeves of his long white tunic fluttering to the floor, and then turned toward Lord Anthony.  “Oh, excuse me,” he added as if an afterthought.  “May the gods curse my blood and torment my ancestors for all eternity if I speak a lie, but the man that came in your party attempted to kill me the other night.”  He held out his arms as if to put himself on display.  “I fear that I am not quite so easy a target.”

The clever bastard, to phrase things like that, Birman thought, but she would allow him his moment of glory and let people think twice about trying to kill the pest while in her territory.  It would be just one more thing that Shen owed her, after all.

Sweat formed on Lord Anthony’s forehead and ran down his face as the damning testimony was declared before the room.  He attempted a smile, the expression little more than a nervous tick, and bowed his head.  “Well, your Highness, I know not what to say at this moment.  My companions disappeared and left me to wonder what happened to them. I could not imagine that they would do such things.”

The king regarded him with such coldness that Birman felt the urge to shiver.  “I notice that you do not swear, as the other have,” he remarked with perfect sangfroid, well aware of how bounds could not break any oaths without risking the gods’ extreme wrath.  Lord Anthony drew an audible breath at that catch and shook his head.

“This is what I think,” Shuuichi continued.  “You were invited to my Court and came with ill intentions, determined to harm my family and my country’s ties to our respected neighbors,” he paused to nod in acknowledgement to Shen, who nodded back.  “You hoped to sow discord and death, and to cast blame on innocents.  I’m certain in the end, that Kritiker would have looked the aggressor and Esset would take advantage of that fact, no?”

Lord Anthony swallowed several times before answering.  “I… don’t know what you’re talking about, your Highness.”  His voice was weak and he looked as if he was about to faint.

<Do I even need to tell you that every word was a lie?> Eri asked.

Shuuichi waved aside his poor attempt at innocence.  “We will give you time to prepare to leave and then escort your party, what remains of it, to the border.  While we have found Princess Helena to be a promising young woman, we have serious doubts about the current government of your country.”  He leaned forward, and Manx reached out to rest her hand on his arm, to show her support of what he was about to say.  “There has always been tension between our two countries, and I have done my best to avoid anything that would aggravate the stresses between us.  But know this – what has happened here, the blood that has been spilled and the lines that have been crossed, can not be ignored.  If your rulers continue down the path they’re headed, then we will stop them to protect our people.”

That was basically an open declaration of war, made before some of the most important members of Kritiker’s Court and Council, with Shen and the two other ambassadors present.  Birman spared a significant look with Botan before staring straight ahead, back at Lord Anthony.  What Shuuichi had done was not lost on the man.

Even though he had been sent here to instigate a war, Shuuichi’s words had an impact on him, probably because now there were important witnesses to the fact that should a war happen, it would be at Esset’s prompting, not Kritiker’s.  Lord Anthony managed a shaky bow before speaking. “Understood, your Highness.” He seemed to collect his thoughts before speaking again.  “May… the bodies of my fellow countrymen return with me?”

Shuuichi gave Manx’ hand a squeeze before motioning aside the request. “No, they will be held as evidence of your country’s crimes before being properly disposed of.”  His tone allowed no argument of his judgment.

Lord Anthony flinched but soon nodded.  “Yes, your Highness.”  He flinched again when Shuuichi indicated that the discussion was over and that the bound was to be taken away.  Eri was quick to fall in step behind him.

<He’s shaken and desperately wants to see Crawford, to know why the missions failed.  Also, he’s upset that he couldn’t influence any minds here today and hoping that Rufus will have better luck in the future,> she sent before leaving the room.

<Notify me if he’s about to cause any trouble before leaving,> Birman instructed, and then waited for everyone to leave except her, Botan and Manx before approaching Shuuichi.  “My lord,” she offered, well aware that he was upset and letting him dictate the conversation.

He pushed out of the elaborate chair and stalked in front of it, full of what seemed to be nervous energy.  “Dammit, I *hate* being maneuvered into action like that!”

Manx attempted to soothe her husband.  “There was little choice, dear.  At least this way, you’ve showed the other countries that you won’t allow Esset to continue on this path and that you will take a stance.”

“And it’s not as if there is another path to take,” Botan pointed out.  “We know a war is coming and that Esset is hell-bent on it.  Now we’ve proven them to be the aggressors.”  Despite his almost cheerful words, he appeared upset and weary, probably from the pain of his injuries.  The fool should have let a healer deal with them, or Marta.

Birman patted her friend gently on the shoulder and added her opinion to the mix.  “The only other response would lead to outright war.  We’ve let Esset know that we’re on to them, but showed the other countries that we’re not out for blood.  That will be remembered as they consider whose side to take.”

Shuuichi stopped pacing to stare at her, his eyes narrowed and his lips thin behind his beard.  “But I *do* want blood.  First they try to kill my daughter, and then one of their pawns, another traitor of our own Court, nearly kills my son!”  He took a shuddering breath and ran his fingers through his hair, disturbing the gold circlet that he wore.  “I want to send all of their bodies back to Esset right now.”

She dared to reach out to touch Shuuichi’s right arm.  “But not all of them are guilty,” she reminded him.

“I know.”  He opened his eyes and gave her a wan smile.  “That is the only reason I’ll let the four of them go, even though from your reports, it should just be the two of them.”  Then he laughed, the sound dour and not at all like him.  “I believe that what we could think up to do to Lord Anthony will be nothing compared to what the Elders will do to the man, and that he’ll regret leaving Eto.”

“I suspect much the same,” Birman admitted with a shudder.

Manx went to her husband’s side and gave him a comforting hug.  “The children are safe,” she assured him.  “And we will be prepared for Esset.”

“Yes.”  Shuuichi was quiet for a moment, then turned toward Birman.  “I know that Kikyou is handling the situation, but please ensure that the murdered and injured Guards are fully compensated, especially since… well, I know that several were part of your Shadow Guard.”

“Not mine, but *yours*,” Birman reminded the king, her tone sharp.

He seemed taken aback by it, and there was a gleam to Manx’ eyes that meant she wanted to argue with Birman over her tone, but Shuuichi patted the queen’s hand and shook his head.  “Yes, my Shadow Guard.”  His smile was a little rueful.  “They have served me very well, and I know they will mean the war for Kritiker when it starts.  Please be certain to pass that on to them.”  His demeanor was genuine, which heartened Birman, especially after what Esset had just done.

“Thank you, my lord.”

Shuuichi reached out to touch her shoulder, and then turned to Botan.  “And how is your assistant?”

Botan started at the question, as if he had been lost in thought.  “The boy will be fine in a few more days.  I’m afraid we’ll have to spend some time working on his warding once he’s recovered.”  It was clear he was trying to make a joke out of things, but failing at it.  His smile faltered and his expression turned serious as he looked at the king.  “Sir… your son saved our lives, him and Nagi.”

One could tell that Shuuichi was proud to hear that, even as he tried for a stern expression.  “Mamoru shouldn’t have to save lives.”  Despite the harsh words, his lips twitched into a smile.  “He’s so very clever, I wish I could say he gets that from me.”

“Perhaps, perhaps not,” Birman argued, earning a truly virulent glare from Manx but a bemused smile from Shuuichi, “but he gets his loyalty and bravery from you.”  She didn’t feel that fell under being a ‘fawning’ subject at all.

Shuuichi laughed and gave her a slight bow.  “I think he gets that from both parents, but thank you.”  His smile slipped a little.  “At least he’s chosen a lover who watches over him well.”

“Shuuichi!” Manx hissed in clear displeasure.  “The boy’s a bound, and, well, a boy!”

The king frowned at his wife, a rare public display of disagreement between them.  “We’ve discussed this and you know my feelings.  As long as Mamoru remains discreet and the- and Nagi honorable, then I will trust in my son’s choice.”  There was steel behind the king’s smooth tone, making it evident that he would not be argued with on the matter.  Manx’s green eyes flashed with annoyance, but she fell silent on the topic.

Birman felt like smiling, but schooled her expression.  “If there’s nothing else, my lord, I need to tend to our captives.”  Kikyou had spoken the truth when he had said that only one survived, in that he was only aware of Martha’s continued existence.  She had the fire elemental, earth elemental and the wizard stashed away behind shadow enhanced wards to continue to interrogate, and Shen to deal with as well. 

“No, hopefully there shouldn’t be anything pressing until I have to face the full Court and make a formal announcement.”  Shuuichi’s expression became grim.  “I’m afraid once word is spread about what has happened here, my Court will be as hungry for war as Esset.”

Sadly, Birman suspected that her king was correct in judging his Court, not to mention what would happen when the rest of the country found out….  She had been busy enough dealing with Shen, and now she would have to deal with ambitious highborn angling to improve their status by earning ‘glory’ in battle.  Feeling a headache coming on, Birman bid her king and queen farewell when Shuuichi gave her leave.

She left the room with Botan limping by her side.  “Don’t think I’m through with you,” she whispered to the man.  “I’m just trying to figure out who I should leave you to, Cassandra, Jo, or both of them.”

Botan’s face blanched at the prospect. “Not even you could be so cruel,” he murmured, and then grimaced when he noticed her smug expression.  “Harridan,” he grumbled as he shoved his hands into the sleeves of his robe.  “The… item in question affects certain spells, which is why I don’t always wear it.”

“Yet Omi doesn’t seem to be bothered by that limitation,” she pointed out to the fool.  “So talk to him, once your head stops ringing from the no doubt scathing lectures about to be inflicted upon you, and find out what he’s doing,” she all but spat, forced to keep her voice low as they walked through the palace hallways.  It was almost amusing to see the dawning realization on her friend’s face, except that his stupidity might have cost him his life the other day.

“No wonder Aya likes using the word ‘idiot’ so much,” she complained before she went off in search of Trowa and an intelligent conversation.

*******

Alexis was in the middle of helping Helena pack their things when she noticed a familiar scent wafting in from the open balcony door.  Looking out the door, she frowned until she felt a familiar mental ‘pressure’ and then smiled.  “I’ll be right back,” she told Helena, who gave her a curious look as she crossed the room.

“Ah, is that wise?” the girl asked her as she strode out to the balcony.

Alexis paused to give her a mischievous grin.  “Well, I’m certain that I won’t get into any trouble with the Guard.”  That remark prompted a conspiratorial smile from Helena, who must have figured out why she was leaving.  “Please run a bath for me, and if anyone asks, tell them I’m in there. I won’t be long.”  The girl nodded as she hurried to do as she’d been asked.

Alexis glanced around to ensure that no one was paying their part of the palace any attention before gathering up the skirts of her light blue dress and leapt over the balcony’s stone railing.  As they were only on the second floor, it was a slight drop and shouldn’t prove any challenge to climb back up, and there were a suitable amount of hedges and ornamental trees on the ground to shield her from any would be watchers once she landed.  It came as no surprise when she found Yonekuni waiting for her there, with John standing a polite distance away.

“Hello,” he bid her with a slight bow, a pleased smile on his face and a lock of his black hair falling onto his dark eyes.  She couldn’t resist the urge to reach out and tuck it back out the way, earning a slight purr from him.

“And hello to you, too.  Is it normal Guard practice to lurk under a lady’s balcony?” she teased.

“Only if they want to give them a gift before they leave,” he answered, bestowing upon her another bow as he handed over a small wrapped package.

A little surprised at this turn of events – she was happy to see him before she left for Berin but hadn’t thought to exchange gifts like this, hoping more for a more personal moment in the remaining time they had – she accepted the present with a confused frown.  “Well… if I’d known about this I would have gotten something for you.”

Yonekuni laughed at her apparent disgruntlement.  “Don’t be too upset, it’s not really from me though I’m happy to give it to you.”  He flashed her a bit of fang and urged her to open it.  Once the fancy gold paper was carefully peeled away, she was left holding what appeared to be a clear crystal ball wrapped in swirls of silver wire.  “If anyone asks, it’s a rather pretty paperweight, no?”  Yet there was too much excitement to his voice and scent for it to be just that.

She eyed the crystal ball for a moment before looking back at him.  “All right, I am at a total loss for what it might actually be.  Please don’t tell me that it explodes or I’m giving it right back to you,” she said, only half kidding.

His smile grew wider.  “Whatever you do, don’t break the thing as it’s extremely precious.  What you’re holding is a hikyaku.”  At her aggrieved sigh to indicate that she had no clue what he was talking about, he chuckled and reached out to tap the ball.  “With this and the matching sphere that Botan gave me this morning, you and I will be able to communicate without detection, no matter how much distance or wards are between us.”

Her eyes went wide at the shocking revelation.  “But… I’d heard that the humans used such things before bounds were created.”  She cradled the sphere to her chest, suddenly terrified of dropping the thing.  “I thought they were all lost after the war.”

Yonekuni nodded as he bent to pick up the discarded wrapping paper.  “Everyone did, but Botan found some over a year ago, and he and one of his assistants have managed to reproduce the magic.  What you’re holding is a new type of hikyaku, so with a bit of tarting up and the fact that everyone believes them to be destroyed, you should be able to sneak that into Berin.”  He stared at her intently.  “If you’re worried about getting in trouble for having it, you can just leave it here.”

She bared her teeth as she clutched the precious sphere even closer to her chest.  “No way in any of the hells,” she growled.  All she had thought about was how she had to return to Berin and leave behind what might be a very promising relationship, and now she had been given a chance to continue some sort of contact with the man.  Whoever tried to take the sphere from her would lose their hand, at the least.

<Well, they didn’t just give the hikyaku to us because they think we’ll make a cute couple,> Yonekuni pointed out with a chuckle as he stepped closer to Alexis and reached out to stroke the back of his fingers along her cheek.  <Birman’s very excited about the prospect of hearing firsthand what’s going on in Berin without waiting for Crawford to report to her, and the king would like to be reassured that the princess is in safe hands.>

She tilted her face into the caress.  “And you?” she asked, hoping that he hadn’t given her the sphere just for the sake of his job.

He leaned in even closer.  <Because the thought of not being able to talk to you, to know how you’re doing did seem rather unbearable,> he admitted, letting her sense his emotions as well as his thoughts, the concern he had for her as well as the desire and affection.  He believed her to be strong and capable, but worried about her being in Esset.

She reached up to touch his face.  “We each have our parts to play, and I’ll tear anyone to pieces who thinks to try to take me down.”  She allowed her demon nature to come to the fore for a moment, bared her teeth and let the hunger wash through her and over the link to assure him of her strength.

“I know,” he whispered.  “As much as I want you to be safe, it will be quite the sight to see you when the time does come for fighting,” he admitted right before he kissed her.

Oh, the war couldn’t come soon enough in her opinion, she thought as she kissed Yonekuni, their desire flaring over the link as their lips touched.  She wanted to spend more than stolen moments with this man, who could make her laugh and accept all of her.  She savored his taste and scent, the feel of him pressing against her and stroking his fingers through her hair, along her back, until her hunger threatened her control and then stepped back.

Taking a deep breath in effort to regain control, she forced a shaky smile and held up the sphere.  “So, tell me how to use this thing,” she asked while she sent along the thought that time was precious and if she couldn’t have much with him now, she would look forward to the future.

He smiled again, the expression already so dear to her, and reached out to tap the sphere.  “It’s rather simple, really….”

*******

Finished with his shift for the day, Heero watched out for familiar faces as he hurried through the palace.  He hadn’t seen Trowa for days, even before the disastrous mission, and only a note left in their usual meeting place assured him that his friends were all right; Trowa was being kept very busy working for the Spymaster cleaning up the mess that Anthony and the others had left in their wake.

As for Duo….  The Guard was occupied with mourning for their fallen members and implementing changes in procedures to ensure that future agents couldn’t take advantage of them so easily in an attempt to infiltrate the palace.  It was a good thing that the Elders had sent Duo to sneak into the Guard, though Heero wondered if even that would aid them in the future, after what Hans-Achim and Isaac had done.  There was only so much information could do if the Royal Wizard got truly inventive….

As if summoned by his thoughts, he caught sight of the fire elemental down the hallway, and judging from the way that Duo’s shoulders stiffened, his friend had noticed him.  Heero felt an unusual tension in his body and ache inside his chest as Duo approached, and couldn’t form any protest when the fire elemental grabbed hold of his left arm and all but dragged him into one of the private rooms.

Once inside, Duo released his arm as if it was burning to the touch.  “Well, nice to see that you managed to escape in one piece, unlike most of the others,” he commented, a smile on his face but a nasty bite to his voice.

Heero was still for a moment, and then attempted to pull his usual cold dignity around him, the same time he used his talent to ensure that no one overheard their conversation.  “I don’t know what you’re-“

Duo cut him off with a quick wave of his hand, the air around them growing heated and Duo’s indigo eyes glowing as his demon nature slipped to the fore.  “Don’t lie to me, dammit!  I know you killed Toshi!” he snarled.

The brutal declaration about the mission sapped whatever bit of indignation that Heero was able to muster, and part of him railed at himself about why he was giving in without more of a fight, why he felt any… any….  “How did you know?” he asked, unwilling to face the confusing emotions inside of him.

Duo snorted at the question, the sound loud and derisive.  “Please, I know they wouldn’t have trusted just anyone to do it, and I read the reports.  Only an air elemental could have pulled off the stunts you did to evade capture.”  For a moment he sounded normal, sounded like the usual fun, carefree Duo, and then the bitterness was back in his voice.  “Did you care at all that he was my partner?”

That question helped Heero regain a bit of control over himself.  “He was a *human*.  That was all that mattered,” he snapped.  “It shouldn’t concern you.”

The temperature went up a few more notches in the room.  “Yeah, well, he had a *family*,” Duo shot back.  “Were your orders to take them out, too?”  He stared at Heero for a few seconds before recoiling in shock.  “Holy hells, you were gonna take them out too, weren’t you.  Are you that much of an unfeeling bastard?” he asked, disgust plain in his expressive voice and face.

Unable to handle his friend judging him like that, Heero shook his head.  “I… the girl… I… she was so young,” he tried to explain, confused as to why he was unable to clarify the situation.  After trying to form a coherent sentence, he gave up and asked the question that had haunted him for the last couple of days.  “How is she?”

The query was met with a disdainful scoff.  “How do you think she is?” Duo asked as he stepped back, as if even being near Heero was distasteful.  “She saw someone slice up her father before her eyes, of course she’s fucked up!”  His voice grew louder the longer he spoke.  “She hasn’t made a fucking sound since they found her by Toshi’s body, you dumb fuck!”  He reached for Heero, either to touch him or to use his power, only for his fingers to curl into fists and him to spin around with a muttered curse.

Heero closed his eyes as he thought about the small child, little more than a baby, her huge eyes wide with shock and her hair like Relena’s.  “I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I… tried to make it quick,” he offered as some consolation.  “He was dead before the… the rest of it.”

Duo snarled, the sound low and savage.  “Just what the fuck did you hope to accomplish?”

The question startled Heero.  “To complete the mission,” he answered, confused as to why the fire elemental would even ask such a thing.  “We’re here to complete our missions and to ensure that Esset wins the war.”

Whatever he said had Duo spinning around so fast it startled him, sparks flying out to fill the room with bits of light and heat.  “To win the fucking war.  To win a war against humans, who hate us, right?”  Duo waited until he nodded in agreement.   “Yet here there was a little girl who didn’t hate bounds at all, and you go and kill her father.  Now she has every reason in the world to hate our kind, to believe every *lie* the humans tell about us.”  He spat out each word as if they were a weapon, and Heero found himself flinching from them and the strange pain they caused.  “All the times they call us monsters, that they claim we should be destroyed because all we do is kill and you’ve basically proven them true.”

Silence reigned in the room after that declaration, and Heero struggled to find something to say.  He opened his mouth several times, his throat dry, and struggled for some type of argument.  Finally he said, “we need to save our kind.”

The look he received from Duo was the most scathing of all yet.  “By killing every single human?  If we continue on like you and those idiots have done in the past week, then that’s what we’re going to have to do.”  He made a curt motion with his right hand.  “Because all you’re doing is giving them even more reasons to hate us, and there’s an awful lot of them.  It’ll get to the point that genocide is the only answer, and I fail to see how *that* makes us any better than them.  In my opinion, it makes us worse because we should know better after all this time.  To think that I had thought that maybe *you* would.”  With his eyes flashing red and sparks dancing around him, he left the room without saying anything further.

Heero watched him leave, the room reeking of anger and heat.  The pain in his chest throbbed even stronger, making him clutch at the wool of his uniform as if pressure could ease the hurt.  Everything that Duo had said made sense, was right.  It shouldn’t, not when it went in the face of what the Elders had told him, but it did.  He couldn’t deny those words, not when each time he closed his eyes, all he could see was the face of that young girl.

Fleeing the room, he went in search of the one person who seemed to make sense anymore, who might ease the pain.  He sought out a certain garden, ignoring the few people who called out to him along the way.  By the time he reached it, he was almost frantic in need, terrified of finding it abandoned.  Yet as soon as he entered the small cove, he breathed in her scent and felt a sense of peace for the first time in days.

Relena set aside the book she had been reading and smiled at him.  “Heero!  I wasn’t certain if you were coming today or not.”  She was the picture of innocence in her pale pink and ivory dress, her light brown hair pulled back in an elaborate braid and a welcoming smile on her face.  

He could only stare at her, part of him relieved to find her here, alive and well and still happy to see him. The rest of him was so confused at why a *human* made him feel this way, and… and he didn’t really care about that anymore.

She frowned after a minute and stood from the bench where she had been sitting.  “Is everything all right?  You’re not saying anything.”  She began to approach him, her steps hesitant and her scent clean of any fear or hatred.  “Did you have a bad day?”  Her right hand reached out to gently touch his face.  “You look as if you’re stressed.”

All he meant to do was grasp her hand and hold it, to reassure himself that she was real and that here was someone who meant him no harm, who did not see him as a monster or a threat.  Yet that gentle touch, the smell of her, the lack of fear, made him reach for her instead and hold her close.  What was it about this one person that made his emotions so confusing yet peaceful, that eased the ache inside of him?

Relena stiffened for a moment, making him afraid that she would push him away, and then she wrapped her arms around him as well.  “It’s okay,” she crooned to him as she tucked her face against his neck.  “I’m here for you.”

The only person who had ever promised him that was a human, and for once in his life, Heero realized that he could accept that, that he was happy.

*******

Hearing the soft scuff of approaching footsteps, Birman picked up the porcelain teapot and poured two cups of green tea.  She smiled at Trowa, part of her delighting in the sight of his answering smile and how handsome he appeared in the fine dark blue tunic, then schooled her expression into something more serious as Shen sat in the chair opposite from her.  “Good day, Ambassador.”

He gave her a reproachful look for a few seconds before lifting his teacup. “Hmph, at least *you* know how to serve a decent cup of tea,” he grumbled.  The cup paused halfway to his mouth.  “There isn’t something… distasteful in it, is there?” he asked, his dark eyes narrowed in suspicion.

Birman smiled as she enjoyed a sip of her own tea and waited until Trowa had left the small garden, well aware that her assistant would be standing guard nearby, as was Natsumi.  “Now, would I do something like that?” she asked as she lowered the cup.

Shen’s demeanor became even more suspicious.  “Yes,” he replied, in a very succinct manner.

For the first time in what felt to be too long, Birman laughed.  “Oh, but you see, why would I bother with spiking the tea when with a simple order, one of my wonderful assistants can erase your memory or knock you unconscious?”  She smiled at him while she helped herself to a petit four. “And that’s if I’m being *polite*.”  Oh yes, she most definitely enjoyed having the upper hand with the pest.

Shen stared at her for several seconds before hissing in displeasure, reminding her of Aya for a moment.  “This is no way to treat a dignitary,” he replied with a show of offended dignity.

“Hmm, but it *is* a way to handle a fellow spy, no?”  She motioned toward the plate of cakes.  “Try the yellow and white ones, I remember that you like lemon.”

He continued to appear affronted for all of about thirty seconds before his shoulders hunched forward and he reached for a petit four. “Evil, I say.”  Then he smiled as he ate a cake.  “But you serve wonderful treats as well as tea, so I shall suffer through your appalling lack of manners.”

 

“That and you want some answers, so I imagine that you’ll ‘suffer’ through a great deal.”  She smiled again before drinking some tea.  “Isn’t that why you’re here?”

 

Shen made a show of wiping his mouth clean with his napkin before speaking.  “I shall inform my superiors that they have obviously underestimated you.  Also, it seems that bounds aren’t the only types of demons encased in human flesh.”  His eyes narrowed as he flung out that insult, but his lips twitched in an effort not to smile.  After a few seconds, he sighed and became serious.  “How do you manage it?  Kritiker is supposed to be at war with bounds.”

 

Birman set aside her cup and clasped her hands together on top of the table.  “If it were just a few years ago, that would be the truth.”  She thought about her discussion with Reiichi and Crawford, and what had been decided that it was safe to tell Shen – to tell *Xan*.  “I suppose you can say we saw how illogical our stance was when several very brave bounds decided to risk their lives to help save the king on his wedding day.”

That certainly took the spy by surprise.  “You have been working with them for that long?” Shen asked, a frown marring his face as he probably thought of how his people had missed the changes going on in Kritiker for the past two years.  That was good – if Xan hadn’t noticed them, then neither had Esset.

 

“Yes.  To be honest, King Shuuichi has been ‘lax’ in carrying out any persecution against bounds for some time now, which is probably what encouraged them to come to his aid,” Birman lied with ease.  Oh, it was probably somewhat true – if he was anything like his grandmother, he most likely would have been left for dead and Crawford would plot against Esset with Omi on the throne.  “In order to reward those bounds and in recognition of the aid they had done him when his own human Guard and Army had been so limited….”  Birman spread out her hands.  “Well, some changes have been made.”

Shen’s dark eyes narrowed at that statement.  “Yes, such as Kritiker’s Spymaster employing bounds who can read minds.”  He tilted his head to the side as he poured them both more tea.  “Your assistant, Trowa, he’s one of them, isn’t he?”

 

“Hmm, he can’t read minds,” she said while treating herself to another petit four.  While they weren’t as good as Jo’s cakes, she had been too busy to spend much time at the Koneko or even eating lately, so they more than hit the spot.

 

She was hissed at for her deliberate obtuseness.  “I did not say *that*,” Shen argued.  “But there is something about him that draws the attention, and he is much too talented for his young age.”

 

Ah, she would have to be cautious about this one’s observational skills in the future.  “You understand that I would be *very* upset if any of those amusing letters you send home include personal details about my employees, yes?”  She let a hint of coldness creep into her voice. 

 

For a second time during their discussion, all of the usual coyness left Shen’s demeanor, to be replaced by a rare seriousness.  “You are doing me the honor of telling the truth, something that I have the suspicion that few people hear from you to such a degree and that would greatly impact the security of your country.”  He stood up from his chair to give her a low bow.  “Trust me to respect that honor and the faith you have in me.”

“That and Natsumi will wipe all memory of this conversation from your mind if she has the slightest inkling that you’ll abuse the information,” Birman pointed out in a lilting tone.

 

Once more Shen hissed at her while waving about the full sleeve of his left arm.  “Oh!  You are enjoying this too much!”

 

“Just a little,” she admitted with a smile.  “Consider it payback for everything I’ve suffered in the past year.”  And she hadn’t even brought up the debt he owed her for saving his life the other night.  Yet.

 

Shen pouted as he picked up his cup of tea.  “Demon.  To think that we fear bounds when there *you* sit,” he mumbled.

 

She bared her teeth in the smile that Jei had taught her.  “Thank you.  I’ve some friends who will consider that quite the compliment.”

 

“You would.”  Shen pouted a few more seconds before he summoned a cheerful smile.  “But this is a tea meant for answers, no?  And I had asked about Trowa, your *polite* assistant whom everyone watches over so carefully.”  He paused to sip his tea.  “What is he?”


That he sounded genuinely curious and not at all afraid about bounds helped to decide the matter for Birman – that and she was anxious if she didn’t answer, the fool would try to figure it out on his own and then she’d have to deal with a furious Duo and a raging fire in the palace.  “He’s a water elemental.”  At the man’s befuddled look, she sighed and ran a finger around the rim of her cup.  “They’re… it’s something about them, about their nature, apparently.  They have a… calming, *attracting* facet to them that draws people to them despite the fact that they can make your heart explode with a thought.”  She put a little more emphasis on the last part than she had intended, trying to make it clear that Trowa was not to be messed with or else.

“Hmm.”  Shen’s eyes grew unfocused for a moment.  “I can see why his lover would want his fellow Guards to watch over him, then, considering that a Court is not a place where people are used to denying their attractions.”  He gave Birman an appraising look.  “Trowa must respect you greatly to want to work for you in such a place.”

“He’s very suitable for the job, and I will exert a great deal of my authority to ensure that I don’t lose the best assistant I’ve ever had,” she warned with a charming smile.

Shen nodded in acknowledge of what was – and wasn’t – said.  “So there are bounds at Kritiker’s Court.”  When she continued to smile, he returned the expression.  “And if I asked if they are elsewhere…?”

“I would say that bounds are everywhere, of course,” she replied in an airy manner, deliberately misinterpreting his question.

“I see.”  He eyed her intently for several seconds.  “I’ve sent a letter to my superiors, informing them of the attempt on my esteemed life and Esset’s regrettable actions.”  He let out a heavy sigh as he reached for several of the lemon cakes.  “While I was originally sent because of the princess’ birth and then to enjoy the charity of your lovely Court during such a joyous time, I will probably be receiving new orders.”

Birman sipped more of the tea, for a moment wishing for a mug of Jo’s mulled wine and to be back at the Koneko, enjoying an engaging conversation with Reiichi, Jei and Yohji.  “Perhaps they’ll decide to send you on to Cretia?  I hear the islands are lovely this time of year,” she teased.

The glare that Shen sent her way was amusing, especially after two years of close company with Aya, Nagi and Jo.  “Not quite,” Shen said, biting off each word in clear annoyance.  “I fear that you will have to put up with me for a while longer, Spymaster.”  He smiled as he bit into a petit four.  “We can have many more wonderful conversations, and talk a bit more about bounds,” he said after the cake was finished.

“Mmm, *if* I let you remember a thing about our ‘conversations’,” she teased.

“*Evil*!”

*******

Yohji felt a growl build in his throat as he entered his room to find Aya surrounded by ‘shadows’.  He knew that the damn shinigami were curled up around his mate, as they had taken to doing whenever he left Aya alone anymore.  What bothered him even more was that Aya didn’t seem to notice anything wrong with that fact; right now he stared out over the garden with a distant expression on his face, his hands idly stroking along the bit of darkness wrapped around his chest and shoulders the way one would a pet.

“See anything interesting out there, Cat?” Yohji called out as he went over to the window seat, noticing the way that Aya started at the sound of his voice.  Yet even though there was the sound of hissing as the ‘shadows’ withdrew with evident reluctance, the lovely smile that Aya bestowed on him made the breath catch inside of his chest.  He reached out to caress his mate’s face, his fingers slipping through silky strands of hair until he couldn’t resist tugging on the dangling eartail.

“Yotan!” Aya hissed in annoyance, even as love and happiness continued to flow over their link.

“What?” Yohji asked in a mock show of innocence as he curled up behind his lover, determined to take the damn shinigami’s place and wrap his arms around Aya.  Hmm, this is how it should be, just the two of them.  “If you hated it so much, why don’t you cut your hair?”

Aya grumbled beneath his breath while he settled comfortably against Yohji, resting his head against Yohji’s left shoulder.  “Don’t see why *I* have to change just because you’re an idiot,” he complained.

“That’s right, we all want you to remain the grumpy little cat that we love so much.”  Yohji was laughing by the end of that statement and doing his best to avoid being nailed by one of his mate’s too-damn bony elbows, but it was worth it to feel the rush of amusement/annoyance/love that flowed over their link.  Eventually he loosened his hold around his mate enough for Aya to twist about on his lap and face him, and he managed a suitably cowed look in face of the glare he was receiving.  “Please, love, don’t hit the face.  You don’t want to make everyone cry at the loss of such radiant beauty.”

Aya snapped his sharp teeth in warning and gave him a mild hit to the stomach.  “I don’t know how your ego fits into this room at times.”

“Because you’re always around to cut it into a more manageable size,” Yohji pointed out with a laugh, purring a little when he got a smile in response.  He slid a hand behind Aya’s neck and pulled his mate in for a kiss, savoring the taste of him, the trickle of sunlight that flowed into him along with the emotions that assured him that Aya was happy and just as crazy about him as he was about the quiet redhead. 

He moaned when Aya rocked his hips forward, teeth busy nipping at his bottom lip, and couldn’t resist sliding his hand down the front of his mate’s pants.  The sunlight pouring into him was so addictive, so potent, spiked both with Aya’s emotions and the energy he had… ‘absorbed’ earlier in the week.  Knowing that he didn’t have to worry so much about draining his lover made it more difficult to rein in his hunger, and now that Yuda was gone, the Koneko felt safer, felt once again like a true home.  All he wanted was to give in to the need he felt and enjoy this moment with Aya.  With that in mind, he pawed at Aya’s pants, desperate to undo the lacings.

When Aya moaned out his name and tilted back his head, Yohji whined with that need and fumbled with the lacings to his own pants, desperate to feel both their cocks in his hand, to let their emotions swirl together until it was impossible to tell who was feeling what.  He leaned forward to lick a path up Aya’s exposed neck, growling as Aya tugged on his hair, pulling him even closer.  The sunlight was burning through him, making him feel as if his nerves were set on fire, such a sweet almost-pain that made every sensation even more heightened, made his senses that much sharper.

Aya gasped as Yohji began to stroke his hand along their cocks, his fingers tangled in Yohji’s hair.  Yohji continued to lick and nip at Aya’s neck, leaving several bruises as both his hands took to stroking them, moving faster as he could feel the ecstasy coursing through them, the shivering of Aya’s body against his own.  He was sucking hard on the spot beneath Aya’s right ear as the pleasure took on a sharp burn, the sunlight scouring into him as if to sear him to ash.  He bit down as Aya came in his hands, his own orgasm quick to follow, the two of them shuddering against the other.

He just wanted to sit there, holding Aya in his arms, their scents mixed together and emotions still entwined, for as long as possible.  Aya indulged him for a while, his face pressed against Yohji’s shoulder, until he pushed a weak hand to Yohji’s chest and grimaced.

“I know, we made a mess,” Yohji joked, his voice croaking on the words as he allowed his mate to slip free of his arms.

Aya wrinkled his nose in distaste, looking too damn cute for words, and went over to the wash basin, shedding clothes along the way.  “That seems to be hazard associated to life with a succubae bound.”  He spoke the words so lightly that it took Yohji a moment to realize that he was being teased.

Smiling at the jab, Yohji went over to his mate, ridding himself of his soiled clothes as well.  “Oh yes, it’s such a *hard* life you lead, Cat.”  He laughed as he snatched up the wet washcloth and gently rubbed it along Aya’s chest.  “Hmm, how do you stand the abuse I put you through?”  This time, he wasn’t quite so successful at dodging elbows.

Smirking a little, no doubt at landing a successful hit, the sadistic bastard, Aya leaned his head back on Yohji’s left shoulder.  “Somehow I manage.”

“Oh, you ‘manage’, all right.”  Yohji nibbled on his mate’s bruised neck for a moment before pushing him aside for his turn to clean up.  “By tormenting the hell out of me,” he whined.

As he rinsed the washcloth, Aya trailed his hand along Yohji’s chest and rocked up on his toes for a quick kiss.  “Hmm, are you really complaining?” he asked before walking away to get dressed.

His lips tingling from the brief kiss, Yohji could only shake his head.  No, he couldn’t really complain at all, especially when Aya was in a good mood for once.  Yohji would put up with all the ‘tormenting’ in the world to have his mate happy like this, teasing him back and not so distant.  It was such a shame that he knew what he was about to say next would probably spoil the good mood.

He waited until they were both dressed, almost sighing to see that Aya was garbed head to toe in black, to speak.  “So, Jo and Maddox should be busy right now making a nice big dinner to welcome Omi and Nagi back home.”  Even if it wasn’t for the link between them, he could *see* the tension fill his lover’s body at the words.  “I’d think that you’d be glad to have Nagi come home,” he remarked as he went over to hug Aya.

“Hmm.”  Aya remained tense for a few seconds before finally sighing and relaxing into the embrace.  “It’ll be noisy and everyone will be there,” he complained.

Yohji forced a smile as he held his mate against his chest, his lips brushing against Aya’s cheek.  “Yeah, but there’ll be lots of food and wine, and I’m sure Jo will make lots and lots of cake.”  When even the prospect of dessert didn’t seem to cheer up his mate, he sighed and gave Aya a gentle squeeze.  “Nagi and Reiichi will be there, and you know that everyone will be focused on talking to Omi.  It’ll be all right, love.”  He hated how withdrawn Aya was becoming from everyone, especially in the last few days.  Aya had barely left their room at all with the way the Koneko was filled with Guards.

His mate remained still in his arms as if debating the truth of what had been said and then nodded.  “All right.”  Nudging at Yohji’s arms until he loosened them a bit, Aya turned to face him, his arms sliding around Yohji’s neck.  “Just as long as we stay in the kitchen.”

“Love… you know we have to go out in the main room sometime,” Yohji pointed out, sending as much love and reassurance over their link as he could while he tucked back the crimson bangs falling onto his lover’s face.

“I know.”  Aya tilted his face into the caress but kept his eyes open.  “I just don’t want them to see me while they’re still mourning.”

He meant to see him while they were still thinking so much about Toshi and the others, Yohji suspected, and could see the sense of that.  But he didn’t think the Shadow Guard were going to forget about their lost comrades so easily, or that Aya was a kage.  He also didn’t think they were going to blame anyone but the Esset agents who were responsible for the deaths… but if someone got shitty with his mate, then they were leaving the Koneko the fastest way possible, be it thrown out or not.  So he wouldn’t complain too much of Aya being a bit cautious as long as he didn’t continue to hide out in their room all the time.

About to give the man a kiss, he was startled over what Aya said next.  “With the princess headed back to Esset, that means that Birman will want me at the palace soon to take care of the agents.”  It took Yohji a minute to understand what he was implying, and his arms tightened around Aya in response.

“Hell no,” he snarled, unhappy with the thought of Aya killing any more people just then, not when he was already being so distant and developing unusual talents.  “She can do the damn job herself!”

Aya’s eyes narrowed in anger, sparks of silver coming to life amidst the violet.  “Yohji,” he said, his voice deep and betraying a hint of sibilance.  “I have to feed.”

“But you just fed!  Let Reno have a meal!”  Yohji gave an eartail a sharp tug to reinforce his words.  “You’ve done enough lately!”

“It’s what I’m supposed to do!” Aya snapped, and the shadows in the room began to writhe and hiss.  “You can’t pick and choose which parts of me get to be ignored!”

“Dammit, that’s not what I’m doing here!”  Yohji forced himself to take a deep breath before the argument escalated.  “Aya… I worry about you when you feed too much.”  He brushed the back of his fingers along his mate’s left cheek.  “Your talents have begun to change as a result, and I know it’s bothering you.”

This time Aya closed his eyes, and the emotions that flowed into Yohji were a mix of love, confusion and trust.  “I don’t like what’s happened any more than you do, but I can’t stop it.”  When he opened his eyes, they were pure silver.  “This is what I am, Yotan.  Kisei… what I do is kill people, and I can’t change that.  I think… I think it will be very bad if I ever *try* to change that.”  He shivered as he admitted that fact, prompting Yohji to hug him closer.  “So at least let me feed from those who deserve to die.”

Wishing that there was a way to berate the gods for their fucked up sense of humor, Yohji held his mate close and kissed him on the forehead.  “Okay, Cat.”  He felt some of the anxiety over their link fade at his acceptance, and wondered if part of what had made Aya so distant lately was the fear of his nature driving a wedge between them.  Silly cat… Yohji had blood on his hands from his days as a Guard and knew that he could kill to protect what he considered ‘his’.  He wouldn’t shun Aya for being what the gods had made him. 

They stood there for several minutes, just holding each other and breathing in each other’s scents.  As always, Yohji was amazed at how comforting such a simple action could be, and figured it had something to do with his demon nature.  He was happy to indulge it until his stomach rumbled in hunger. 

The amused look on Aya’s face as his mate pulled away made him chuckle.  “How you can still be hungry after draining me so much is a miracle,” he grumbled.

“Well, what can I say?  I guess succubae bounds can’t live on scrumptious kitties alone.”  He laughed some more at the glare directed his way and motioned toward the door.  “What say we go and check out if Jo has finished any of those cakes a bit early, hmm?”

As he had counted on, the promise of sweets sparked a bit of interest in his mate.  “That and some tea sounds good.”  Aya grabbed his hand and tugged Yohji toward the door.  “Just as long as you stay away from any bowls of frosting.”

“Aw, what fun is that?” Yohji complained, and laughed as he caught Aya’s arm in mid-swing.

*******

“Ken!  How could you eat the last of the lamb like that?  This is supposed to be my party!” Omi complained as he swatted at the Guard’s head.

Ken laughed as he bared his impressive set of teeth.  “Hey, just be happy that I didn’t touch any of the sheppard’s pie!”  The burgeoning fight was stopped when Maddox hurried over with another plate of roast lamb.

Jo nodded in thanks to the young man and went back to sipping her wine, watching how Miko promised to keep Ken occupied while Omi threatened to use some spells against his friend until he got his fill of the meat.  Ken was baring his teeth at his partner, who blindly ignored the ‘threat’, and Jo noticed that Miko hovered rather close during the teasing and that Ken didn’t mind in the least.  She swallowed the urge to yell at the idiots about acknowledging their feelings for each other and had another sip of wine instead.

Omi had some more of his lamb and seemed happy, while Nagi was a quiet yet pleased presence by his side, steadily eating his way through an entire large dish of sheppard’s pie.  At least, Nagi seemed pleased until he looked over at Takashi, who still seemed to have some trouble adjusting to the fact that Omi was the crown prince.  The young man was only a slightly bit nervous around bounds, his cheerful nature reasserting itself more and more as he grew used to them and seemed to get over their ‘special’ nature, but he stared at Omi with brown eyes gone wide and had been caught out bowing his head several times already.  Jo suspected that having Omi back at the Koneko and waiting tables part time would probably help the poor boy adjust to Omi’s ‘status’ and realize that all Omi wanted was to be treated the same as everyone else.  If not… well, being slammed up against a wall a few times did wonders for the memory, she thought with a wince.

Still, even with the prospect of a few broken dishes and dents in the plaster in the future, she was happy to have her ‘family’ reunited once again.  She glanced over at Yohji and Aya, who were down at one of the ends of the table, sitting quietly with Reiichi and Birman.  She frowned a little at seeing them be a bit more standoffish than normal, but at least Yohji had managed to get Aya down here for the first time in two days.  If the pair hadn’t come to dinner, she was prepared to haul them out of their room by their hair, if necessary.

“Ah, now that isn’t a look one should be wearing on such a happy night,” Cassandra commented.

Jo looked away from the couple and over at her friend.  Cassandra was smiling, the expression a touch sad.  “I was just thinking that Yohji and Aya were lucky that they came down tonight.”

“Oh, yes, those two.”  Cassandra nodded as she reached for more of the rice casserole.  “It’s good to see Aya talking and Yotan so relaxed.”  Her smile strengthened as she regarded the men in question.  “Happy, they look.”

“They should be, at least Yohji, considering how much time they’ve spent up in their room,” Jo grumbled.

Cassandra giggled at what was implied and shook her head.  “No, I doubt that Yotan has done little more than just feed, lately.”  She looked down at her plate and shook her head again.  “He worries about Aya too much.”

That was true, and if there was one thing the man had learned in the past year or two it was that he couldn’t solve everything through his talent.  As much as Jo chided him for not thinking, Yohji had matured into a very intelligent man.  “I just wish he didn’t have so much to worry about.”  It hurt, to see two people she cared about burdened with problems she couldn’t do anything about, except to rail at the gods for their cruelty.

She started at the gentle touch from Cassandra’s small hand.  “They know you care for them and that you’ll always be a source of comfort and strength.  Do not doubt how much that means to them,” she whispered.

“Thank you,” Jo whispered back after a moment, when her voice was clear enough to speak.  She gave Cassandra’s hand a squeeze and then picked up her glass of wine.  “So, please tell me that you don’t foresee too much trouble in the future.”

There was a sigh from her friend at the request.  “From what Crawford and I can tell, there will be a time for regrouping.”  She frowned, her attention focused down the table where Schuldig and Masato were seated, her son busy teasing Haru and Emmie about something.  “I think it would be best to enjoy the quiet while it lasts.”

Oh, that was never a good thing to hear from a precog.  Jo closed her eyes for a moment, to savor the sounds of her family around her, Mickey’s deep laughter and Teddy’s higher voice complaining about something, Koyu attempting to soothe his lover while Ani and Kira called out to ask if anyone needed more wine and coffee.  There were the quieter rumblings of Maddox and Touya, Bethwynn, Sebastian and Natsuko, Ken’s growl and Miko’s giggles, Omi teasing Takashi while Emmie cried out about whatever mischief Schuldig was getting into.  The others were too far away, but she knew that Crawford, Jei, Marta, and Neely were nearby, as well the rest of the Guards.  She opened her eyes and looked down at Yohji and Aya, busy talking to Birman and worried for a moment at what had them looking so serious before shaking her head.  Soon enough she would find out, and tonight was supposed to be a night for celebration.  As Cassandra had said, ‘enjoy the quiet while it lasts’.

“I think we need another bottle of wine, and then it’ll be time to break out the cakes,” she told her friend.

Cassandra’s grey eyes lighted up in pleasure.  “Oh, I’ll be glad to help.  I haven’t seen Yotan be smacked for playing with the icing for much too long!”  She sounded rather cheerful about the prospect.

“He was a bit upset that I had finished icing them all earlier today,” Jo confided in her.  “So you just may get your wish.” 

As Cassandra asked about which cake had the most icing, so as to be certain to serve that to the couple, Jo smiled and enjoyed her wine.  She wasn’t foolish enough to deny the reality of the future, but as long as she could wield any power here, she would ensure those she loved would have a safe shelter to come to, a place to set aside their concerns and be among loved ones.  This would be a safe haven from the war, that she promised.

When she got up to fetch the cakes, she thought she felt a faint wave of assent.

*******

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