Family Bonds

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chapter three

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Reminders of the past and future hopes

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Curled up on a soft, thick blanket in front of a blazing fire, Yohji smiled and leaned forward as Aya set aside the mug of mulled wine from which he’d just sipped. Aya gave him a startled look as he closed in, his fingers tangling in Aya's ragged, soft hair and his tongue darting out to lap at the drop of wine sliding down Aya's chin.

Just as he was about to pull away and make a comment about saving Aya's dark blue tunic from a terrible wine stain, his lover grabbed him by his shirt and pulled him closer. Only too happy to oblige, Yohji moaned in contentment and settled against his mate. After spending most of the day apart, the close contact felt wonderful. Thinking about where they'd set their drinks, he held his lover tight as he tipped them over to the left until they lay on their sides on top of the blanket - never once breaking their kiss. One had to appreciate true talent such as that.

Aya picked up on his amusement and echoed the emotion as they stretched out on the thick blanket, legs tangled together and lips pressed tight to each other's. A slow but burning hunger built as he kissed his mate, as he savored the feel of Aya's tongue against his, the shiver of pleasure when his bottom lip was gently nipped and then sucked. "Gods... you have all night to stop that," he mumbled against Aya's mouth as he finally let go of silken crimson hair in favor of smooth, warm skin. They resumed the kiss as his fingers fumbled over the laces of Aya's tunic, determined to remove it.

"You taste like the wine," Aya panted when he finally pulled away to help remove his shirt. He dragged it over his head and tossed it aside as he stared at Yohji, his eyes covered with a gleam of silver in the dancing firelight, skin cast with a soft, golden glow and hair tousled. Yohji's ragged breath caught at the sight of his lover, so damn sexy and wanton that his hunger and desire flared hotter than the fire and sent tingling tremors of pleasure and need throughout his body. His hands instinctively reached for his mate and pulled him closer, the contact made him shiver again as the emotions turned even more potent. Amazing, how so little could make him a slave to his demon nature but he wasn't one to complain, not when the only way to calm that side of him down was to press against Aya, to hold his lover even tighter and stroke that lovely, fire-gilded skin.

"Mmmm, and you're sunlight, as always," he replied, more than a little passion-dazed and unable to express what he really meant. Aya was, ironically enough, pure sunlight to him - warm and intoxicating, the heady flavor of ripe raspberries and tart grapes, a brightness that could sear through him. He wanted to bask in the energy and pleasure that flowed into him when he touched his lover like this, was utterly loath to break away and lose this marvelous sensation. The need for it made his arms wrap even tighter around Aya as he moved his hips forward and his mouth down to the middle of Aya's unmarked neck. Lips pressing against warm, trembling flesh, he growled deep in his throat from the need that drove him on and began to suck in time to his hips’ rocking motion.

The taste of Aya - a faint hint of salt, lavender soap and something unique to his lover - along with the sweet burn of more sunlight pouring into him made the growl deepen as his shaking right hand fumbled with the laces to Aya's pants. His lover mewled softly as equally trembling hands pawed at his shirt. The thought of how incredible it would feel to have naked skin against skin made Yohji reluctantly leave off marking his mate in favor of ridding them of their garments. Once focused on the task, he made short work of his shirt and both of their pants, hindered a little by the feel of Aya's hands stroking along his body as he shifted and wiggled until he was naked. "You drive me crazy, you know," he said as the last of the clothes were tossed aside, his voice husky as he grabbed one of Aya's hands and pressed his lips against the wrist.

"I never thought you were very sane to begin with," Aya teased as he pulled his wrist - along with Yohji - toward himself.

Falling onto his lover, Yohji laughed as he settled between Aya's legs. "What can I say, it all left me the moment I met you, Cat. I was stunned senseless by your radiant beauty." He laughed some more as Aya rolled his eyes at that bit of nonsense and couldn't resist playing up the joke. "Honestly, I was instantly besotted."

"You're an idiot," Aya growled as he thread his fingers through Yohji's hair and then tugged. Yohji was spared any more insults and lost the chance to defend himself as he was yanked forward and kissed breathless. When Aya's tongue snaked past his lips and brushed against his teeth, he let out a deep, lust-filled moan. His lover naked beneath him, the feelings of love, need and desire that flowed into him with the sparkling sunlight... sometimes he wondered if this was all one huge fever dream and he'd wake up alone in his old bed. That thought made his arms clench tightly around Aya in an instant and his lover crushed against him as he refused to let go - despite Aya's grunt of surprise and loss of oxygen.

"And you're *mine*." All the humor was gone now as the fingers of his left hand tangled in the hair at the back of Aya's neck and pulled gently. He stared possessively as his lover arched his neck, silvered eyes half hidden behind suddenly heavy lids, lips parted slightly as air puffed out steadily faster than before. Just like that, Yohji's demon nature took over, utterly unwilling to contemplate ever losing his mate. "*Always*," he swore. The words rumbled past suddenly dry lips as he leaned closer, drawn by Aya's heat and scent, by the pale neck exposed for him and by the promise of more sunlight.

"Idiot," Aya repeated, but there was a purr to his voice this time and his hand pressed against Yohji's shoulder to urge him across the small amount of space separating them. Love and desire scintillating in its intensity poured into Yohji and took the sting out of the one word. His growl faded into a rumbling purr when he fastened his lips to Aya's neck to brand his lover.

The pleasure that burst forth from the both of them at that contact made their entire bodies tremble as they clung to each other, emotions and bodies tangled together. Yohji's hands stroked down his lover's body, along smooth, sweat-slick skin and shivering muscles. Aya's fingers were buried deep in his hair and held his head still, prevented him from pulling away. Not that he wanted to with his lover beneath him like this, neck bared for him and legs spread, a blatant invitation that he couldn't possibly resist. He wanted so

much to bury himself in Aya's willing body and set off an inferno of energy and ecstasy but resisted - barely. He wanted this to last, wanted to be able to savor a delightfully compliant Aya.

He lost a few hairs but managed to shift away from his lover's neck, the motion wrung groans of disappointment from them both. For a few breathless moments they shared a kiss, mouths dueling to possess as much of the other as possible before he forced his body lower with Aya's strong fingers still buried in his hair. His hips rocked down a few times, his hard cock sliding against Aya's a little longer before losing that wonderful friction and warmth. There was a plaintive moan and a not-so-gentle tug to his hair that he ignored as he kissed his way down his lover's chin and neck - and paused for a moment to flick his tongue along the spectacular mark that formed on the pale skin. Smiling possessively at the bruise, he continued his way down and laved attention on Aya's collarbones, faint kisses and licks on the sensitive area until Aya let out a shuddering breath and squirmed beneath him.

His hips moving back and forth as he rubbed his cock against his lover's thigh - with Aya echoing the motion and rubbing against Yohji’s belly - he then spent several enjoyable minutes playing with his lover's nipples. First to suck and nip on one while he rolled the other between his fingers, then to switch, and to tug on the pert nubs of flesh with teeth and fingertips until Aya's fingers tightened in his hair only to repeat the process... it was almost like a game, one that rewarded him with enchanting sounds from his lover and more wonderful sunlight.

But that too came to an end as he moved on, hands stroking along Aya's trembling thighs as he kissed his way lower. He loved the smooth texture of Aya's skin, how it was so warm and salty beneath his mouth, how it twitched as his tongue dragged along it. His lover squirmed some more as his name came out in a long, frustrated whine but his hands only touched the inner thighs of the legs spread before him. He pushed up on his elbows and denied Aya any wonderful friction, his own cock an aching presence pressed against the soft blanket.

As he went lower along Aya's trembling body, the salty tang and tremors increased, along with a sense of panic that flowed through their link and tainted the pleasure and love. Worried about that emotion but unwilling to stop, Yohji softly murmured words of reassurance as his face pressed against the juncture of Aya's left thigh and groin. He took a deep breath and ignored the fingers that tightened painfully in his hair.


"Aya... it's all right, Cat. It's all right. Look at me." He nuzzled warm, soft skin as his hands stroked their way up Aya's legs, all the while conscious of how the panic grew. If it threatened to drown out the pleasure he'd stop but right now... he didn't want to push but he so desperately wanted all of his lover, didn’t want to be constrained any longer by the painful past. While he knew there would be no resolution tonight he was determined to at least try to put some of that fear and disgust to rest. As his right hand gently wrapped around Aya's cock, his left continued to caress his lover's sweaty chest in an attempt to soothe. All the while he remained where he was, cheek pressed against Aya's groin. His tongue swept out, along the base of Aya's cock as his right hand slowly pumped up.

He felt as if he'd lose handfuls of hair if he moved the slightest bit, and the fear grew sharper until it almost as strong as the love he felt. But there was trust as well as Aya's hips slowly rocked forward, cock sliding deeper into his grasp. Aya didn't try to force him back up or further down, didn't try to push him away but lay there, body covered with sweat, eyes clouded with shards of silver and ragged pants of breath escaped past his parted lips.

Heartened by the small bit of acceptance, Yohji gave the cock in his grasp another lick, for one moment longing so desperately to taste all of Aya, to feel his lover hot and thick in his mouth.... But he only allowed himself to wrap his mouth around the side of it as his forefinger flicked along the cock's top, slid the foreskin back and forth. He alternated between licking and sucking along the cock’s length for a couple of minutes until a little of the tension left his lover, until Aya moaned softly and spread his legs wider.

However, the death grip on Yohji's hair didn't lessen. He gave his lover's cock one last lick and tried to move away. "Cat, let go a little," he said, voice husky with longing and a hint of sadness as his left hand moved from Aya's hips to the hands clenched in his hair. He patted his lover's wrists and repeated the request one more time before he felt the hold on his hair lessen enough that he could move without fear of being made bald.

Moving slowly, he traced his way back up Aya's body with soft kisses and caresses, before settling once more on top of his lover. Aya's arms wrapped around his shoulders when he playfully nipped the tip of his lover's chin. "Heya." He smiled at Aya and brushed back the sweat-dampened hair that practically hid Aya's beautiful eyes.

"Yotan." Aya's voice sounded dry and there was still a hint of fear, but he quickly found himself kissed with a passion that eased some of the guilt he felt at pushing things just now. Yes, there was fear but the love and need was still so bright, the sense of trust even stronger now than before. Yohji's hunger, largely ignored these last few minutes, flared back even more ravenous than before

"Want you, Cat," he growled as he pushed up on one elbow and hunched over his lover, their groins pressed together. He ground his hips forward against Aya's, and hissed at the wonderful feel of friction, of slick, taut skin rubbed against skin. His right hand crept forward to brush the long strands of hair that trailed across Aya's face and then skimmed across his lover's lips. "Want to be buried so damn far inside you that you’ll scream – until *I* scream. Please, oh, please." The last was said with a hint of a needful whine as he wasn’t quite convinced just yet that Aya wouldn’t pull away, wouldn’t want to put an end to things after what he'd just done. If that happened... he let out a shuddering breath when his lover's lips parted for his fingers.

Heaving a grateful sigh, he slid two fingers into Aya's mouth and groaned loudly as they were sucked and licked. His hand wrapped around their cocks, the strokes almost rough as he imagined thrusting into his lover, surrounded by heat and filled with so much sunlight and pleasure.... He shuddered again as he stared into Aya's passion-dark eyes and tried to regain some control of himself, something that was almost impossible to do with Aya sprawled naked before him, sucking on his fingers like that and hips rocking against his.

"Oh gods...," he groaned before leaning forward as he pulled his fingers free and replaced them with his mouth. His tongue pushed past Aya's parted lips to flick deeply in his lover's mouth, to rub against Aya's tongue and teeth before retreating - only then to suck on Aya's tongue forcefully for a moment and then pull away. He sat up and looked hungrily upon his lover as he took Aya’s cock in his left hand and pumped up and down.

Aya, attention still focused on Yohji, moaned out his name, back arching slightly and right hand joining Yohji’s left one as his other twisted in the soft blanket. Yohji enjoyed the feel of Aya’s cock on his hand and the sight of his lover shivering with pleasure before him for a few seconds before pulling away slightly and urging Aya's hips to tilt upward. His hand still stroking Aya's cock, he rubbed his slick fingers against his lover's entrance, felt the muscles spasm slightly beneath his touch. After a few uneven breaths, Aya closed his eyes and breathed deeply, his flesh slowly opening beneath Yohji's seeking fingers.

Yohji pushed the desire and pleasure he felt over their link as he pushed his fingers deeper inside his lover. All the while he continued to stroke Aya's cock, his hand moving faster to provide more friction while his fingers searched deeper inside of Aya for that special spot. He had to smile with a great deal of satisfaction and smugness over how his lover writhed on the blanket, eyes tightly closed and mouth open for the various moans and quiet, mostly incoherent pleas to slip out. He had to tread a careful line with his power, had to put his emotions and hunger on a long enough leash to push Aya closer to the edge but not himself as well. Stretching out beside his lover, he continued to sweetly torment him with both hands while his mouth latched on to the side of Aya's neck, right on the very sensitive spot below his ear. Just as Yohji's teeth grazed the smooth skin, his fingers found what they were looking for and pressed forcefully against the small nub.

The effect was immediate - Aya cried out Yohji's name in a harsh voice as his upper body jerked up off the floor. Yohji pulled back just in time to avoid his face being hit by Aya's head and struggled not to follow his lover's release as sunlight rushed through him with a startling intensity. Once he calmed down a little, he slowly removed his fingers from Aya's body but continued to stroke Aya's cock with his right hand while his left quickly gathered up the warm semen. He leaned forward to place a kiss above his mate's

heart and smiled at the way the warm chest heaved beneath his lips and a gentle yet shaky touch brushed back the hair falling onto his face.

Trembling from his hunger - barely sated even after Aya's orgasm - Yohji groaned incoherently as he stroked his cock a few times until it was slick with both of their fluids. Right then he *needed* his mate so very much, needed his own release as well along with more of the addicting sunlight. He almost toppled onto his lover in his eagerness but caught himself with one arm as he hunched over, his right hand on Aya's hip as he positioned his knees beneath Aya's ass. Holding on tightly to his lover's hips, he first rubbed the slick tip of his aching cock against Aya's tight hole before slowly pushing inside.

He tossed his head back, hair matted with sweat to his forehead as he fought against his demon nature's demand to thrust *now*, as fast and as deeply as possible. Each millimeter further inside his lover was almost torture, a slowly creeping grasp of tight, velvet heat that felt so *good*, that soothed his hunger with brilliant sunlight while it left him desperate for more of that clenching warmth. He had to close his eyes and concentrate on maintaining his control, his hands ruthlessly gripping Aya's hips as he buried himself a little bit more.

There was a tiny hint of almost-pain and a bit of discomfort from his lover, but over it all was the incandescent warmth of love, desire, need and trust. The discomfort quickly faded once his cock was completely buried inside his lover, balls pressed tightly against Aya's ass. Yohji couldn't do anything but try to pant for air as he fell forward, catching himself on bent arms at the last minute. Hovering above Aya, he opened his eyes as he bridged the distance between them.

Aya looked so incredibly gorgeous - his face flushed with passion, lips parted and eyes tightly closed, damp hair clinging to his forehead and neck slightly arched. Yohji kissed him just short of being savage as his arms wrapped around his lover, desperate as he was for all of Aya. Strong arms wrapped around his shoulders as he slowly straightened back up, Aya rising with him and sinking down on his cock even further.

"Aya... oh hell, you feel so good," he murmured against his lover's hair as his hips pulled back and then jerked upward. A soft purr was all he got in return, Aya was quiet in his arms but not still. Yohji continued to hold onto him tightly as they moved together, arms wrapped around each other and fingers buried in each other's hair. Their kisses were punctuated by gasps and moans, only to resume until the next spike of pleasure left them breathless.

Burning with sunlight, Yohji stuttered his lover's name as his thrusts took on a frantic tempo, his body driving him onward as the ecstasy continued to build. He could feel it as he pushed Aya back to the edge with his body and his emotions, feel it with each powerful snap of hips that drove his cock deeper inside. Could feel it with each rub of Aya's hardening cock against their stomachs. And this time he followed his lover as the pleasure slowly yet thoroughly engulfed them, energy and emotions pouring inside him with each movement, each caress. He felt his lips move but couldn't hear what he was saying, couldn’t tell if Aya answered him because of the pounding of both their hearts and the harsh rasp of their breaths.

Then the sunlight turned into an inferno, scorching him raw as he felt Aya shudder against him, felt the arms, the body wrapped around him clench tightly in climax. Swallowed whole by the pleasure, he couldn't fight it, couldn't do anything but let it carry him along. His own orgasm shot through his body like lightning, sparking all his nerves until he only felt the intense pleasure.

Gradually it faded and was replaced by the feeling of Aya's arms around him, of Aya resting against him. They clung to each for support as they both fought to breathe, his face pressed against Aya's shoulder and Aya's face against his hair. Little tremors still shook their bodies from time to time as they slowly moved, arms loosening but not falling away.

He found himself wearing a broad smile as he leaned back enough so he could see his mate's face. Aya looked half-asleep - eyes heavy lidded, body languid, the tiniest of smiles on his lips. Yohji forced his shaking hand to lift up and tuck back the long bangs that hid some of his lover's face. "Ready for another go?" he teased as he cupped Aya's flushed cheek with his hand and sent back some energy.

"Idiot," Aya grumbled as his hand covered Yohji's and gave it a squeeze.

"You've called me that three times tonight so it must be true." Yohji nuzzled his lover and laughed when he heard the snap of sharp teeth. "Poor Aya, stuck with someone like me forever."

Aya hissed slightly as he slowly lifted himself from Yohji's lap. "Hmph." He managed a weak glare as he stretched out on the blanket beside Yohji, but his emotions were bright with love, satiation and contentment.

"Eloquent as ever, Cat," Yohji teased. He joined his lover on the blanket, and reached out to stop Aya's hand when it went to pick up his shirt. "Let me," he said, suddenly serious and determined to make a point. He stared into Aya's eyes as he leaned over his lover, as his fingers skimmed down Aya's taut abdomen.

"Yotan... don't-"

"You taste good, Cat," Yohji interrupted Aya's protest. His hands on his lover's hips, he leaned down to lick at the cooling semen, never once breaking eye contact. The taste of Aya on his tongue made him want to purr, and he made sure his enjoyment and love was sent over their link to help quell the sense of distaste and pain he felt from his mate. While he hated to push Aya like this, he felt it was necessary to take this step. Aya didn't have to give him a blowjob for the rest of their lives, didn't have to do anything he'd once been forced to do, but Yohji wanted to break this damn hold of Hirofumi's on his lover. He didn't want Aya to be pained by something that was supposed to feel good but had been horribly twisted by that sick bastard, by anything that Aya been forced to accept for fear that his refusal would harm a loved one. Because of Aya's plans to spend tomorrow with Kikyou, Yohji wanted to drive that point home as much as possible.

As his tongue stroked along Aya's body, Yohji felt his lover slowly start to relax beneath his ministrations. His hands caressed Aya's sides and chest as he continued to share his delight in being allowed to do this. Continuing long past the time that Aya was licked clean, he finally placed a kiss right below Aya's navel and then rose to his feet.

"Let me get us some more wine," he told his lover as he snatched up their mugs. Aya remained sprawled on the blanket but he watched Yohji as he carried their mugs over to the fireplace and set them on the mantel. Then Yohji went over to the washbasin to clean himself off and quickly brush his teeth, then picked up a damp cloth and went back to the fireplace to pour them some more of the hot, mulled wine. With the cloth draped over his left forearm and drinks in hand, he returned to the blanket.

Aya slowly sat up and reached for the cloth. When he was done wiping himself clean, he accepted the drink from Yohji and leaned against him. A little worried over how quiet his mate had become, Yohji slid an arm around Aya's waist and hugged him close.

"I... forgot how... good that could feel," Aya finally spoke, his voice quiet but calm.

Yohji sipped his wine and rolled it around in his mouth before he answered, setting the mug down on the wooden floor and combing his fingers through his lover's tousled hair. "Yeah."

There was another moment of silence and then Aya pulled away the slightest bit. "I guess you want... well, it does feel good."

First taking Aya's mug from his hand and setting it safely off to the side as well, Yohji then turned to face his lover. "Aya, if you think I... well, pushed you tonight so I could ask for a blowjob sometime, then *you're* the idiot." He caressed his lover's face gently, fingers lightly stroking along the fine skin. "I missed how all of you tasted, I guess. I...." He shook his head as he tried to think of how best to say this. "I hate the thought that there's something I can't do with you because of what that bastard put you through. I'm not asking for anything in return, I just want to enjoy you. All of you." At Aya's continued silence he smiled nervously and gently tugged on an eartail. "Does that make any sense?"

For a moment all that was heard was their hushed breathing and the crackling of the fire, and then Aya sighed and once more leaned against Yohji. "I think so." His head lolled against Yohji's shoulder. "I'd... like to enjoy all of you one day, too."

"Not before you're ready, Cat." Yohji felt the tension leave his body and stroked his fingers through his lover’s tousled, silky hair. "And if I'm pushing you too fast on anything, feel free to kick my ass or bite me bloody. Tonight... I guess I just figured that I needed to start somewhere. I'm sorry if I pushed too hard." But he still felt it was important enough to have done something. Then he felt a flare of pain from his upper left arm and cursed beneath his breath.

Aya pulled away a little and glared, teeth safely hidden behind lips pressed tightly together.

"Dammit, Cat, can't you just stick to calling me an idiot whenever I piss you off?" Yohji grumbled as he did some glaring of his own. Checking his arm, he was thankful to see that at least it wasn't bleeding, but he could clearly see the outline of Aya's sharp teeth. As he rubbed his thumb over the markings, he suddenly found himself knocked onto his back as a weight settled across his stomach. "What the-"

Aya pushed him against the floor when he tried to sit up and remained seated on top of him. His mate growled deep in his throat as he leaned forward, face inches from Yohji's and hands on both sides of Yohji's head. "Never doubt that I'll let you know when you take things too far," Aya replied in a cold voice. He continued to growl as he snapped his teeth, his eyes narrowed in anger and almost pure silver. "I refuse to allow you to walk all over me just because of my feelings for you, Yohji. Should you ever try to do so against my will, you'll end up missing body parts." He snapped his teeth again. "I'll leave it to your imagination just *what* you'll end up losing." They remained like that

a moment longer - Yohji stunned motionless with Aya straddling him - before Aya snorted in anger and then stood up. Once on his feet, he headed for the bed and curled up under the blankets.

A little shocked at how their nice romantic evening had come to a screeching halt - a guilty little voice made sure to point out that it was all his fault - Yohji blinked and tried to figure out what to do now. Despite the soft blanket and the blazing fire, he didn't feel very happy or cozy at the moment. Sighing, he rubbed his eyes and wondered how he'd screwed up so badly in such a short amount of time. From Aya he sensed anger, exhaustion and a hint of disappointment. So much for the feelings of bliss and love from a few minutes ago, Yohji thought with regret.

He eventually got up from the blanket and tossed some more wood onto the fire, enough to keep it burning for a few more hours. After folding the blanket, he tidied up their room a little and then cautiously approached the bed. Aya was still awake, lying on his side, his back to Yohji. He didn't move at all when Yohji slid beneath the blanket and then slowly spooned against him.

"So we've established the fact that I'm an idiot beyond all doubt. I'm sorry," Yohji said as he slowly slid his right arm around Aya's waist. When his lover just grunted in agreement and didn't knock an elbow into his ribs, he gingerly hugged him close. "Look, I don't think I said what I really-"

"Yotan... just shut up for the rest of the night, all right?" Aya growled as he turned around, clearly still annoyed but no longer furious. That was heartening to sense, even if Yohji was once more receiving what he came to think of as the 'shi-ne' glare from his lover. As long as he wasn't threatened with losing any beloved body parts, he could handle the glaring. Proving that he wasn't quite a complete idiot, he just nodded in agreement and resisted the urge to tug on the long strand of hair that lay curled on Aya's chest.

Aya glared a moment longer and then, hissing and grumbling the entire time, curled up against Yohji - who didn't object to a mouthful of crimson hair as Aya tucked his face against Yohji's shoulder.

"I want... so many things," Aya said in a subdued voice a few minutes later, just as Yohji began to stroke his hand along his lover's shoulders. "Each day something seems to be added to the list as it sinks in more and more that I'm... that the past is gone. And one of the things I want the most is to never think about the Takatori again, to feel as if they no longer control any aspect of my life." Aya fell quiet again, and Yohji wasn't sure if he was supposed to say anything or not so he just continued to caress his lover and project love and concern.

"That's why I didn't pull away earlier. I don't want my... memories of Hirofumi to dictate what I can and can't do with you." The hate that Aya still felt for the man was evident in his voice. "So stop thinking that you're pushing me too far or that I can't handle it." Sharp teeth nipped Yohji's shoulder but Aya's annoyance slowly started to fade.

Yohji cleared his throat and dared to say two words; "I'm sorry." He wasn't bitten again for speaking, but decided not to push things any further and insert his foot even deeper into his mouth, so to speak. He just kissed his lover's forehead and smiled when he got a grumpy sounding 'hmph' in return. But Aya cuddled a little closer, a wonderfully warm presence in his arms, and gave in to the need for sleep. Yohji felt that he got off rather easily, all things considered.

He should have realized that if Aya had truly been traumatized by his actions, the shadows would have reacted. Really, he should know better by now than to give so much of his attention to Aya's emotions instead of his lover’s actions - especially considering how Aya so often didn't understand what it was he felt. Yohji guessed that he was more upset at the thought of Aya spending all day with Kikyou tomorrow than he'd realized and that it had affected his judgment. He truly hated the idea that his mate would be far away from him and in the company of a man who was not above blackmail to get what he wanted. Not when Aya had a history of allowing himself to be abused for the sake of a loved one.

Lying in bed with his lover asleep in his arms, Yohji tried to reassure himself that things would be fine and that it wasn't a good idea to go find Kikyou to remove the bastard's head from his neck. As gratifying as that action would be, it would also bring a world of grief down on him and those he loved. So he tried to push the dark thoughts aside and join his lover in sleep where he could at least dream of killing the highborn bastard of a Captain several times, each in an increasingly bloodier fashion than the one before over the course of the night.

*******

As the first rays of the sun became noticeable through the kitchen window, Jo sighed with longing and thought about sleeping in the next morning. She would so very much enjoy being able to relax in bed until she wanted to get up, and she'd persuaded Ichiro to let Mickey watch over the stables for the first part of the day. With as crazy as things had become at the Koneko this last year, she was very grateful for the mornings when Aya and Ani took over making the bread for her.

Now just to finish kneading the latest batch of dough and then let it rise while she started on the cinnamon rolls. At least the Koneko was doing more than well enough to afford to order most of the dinner rolls and some of the desserts from a couple of different bakeries, but the guests here always expected the Koneko's very own loaves of bread, cinnamon rolls and tarts. At least, until they ran out of the pastry for the day, she thought with a wry grin. And, with several Guards living here and bounds eating her kitchen bare each day, the regular customers learned to come a little early if they wanted their treats.

The last of the loaves were shaped and left to rise when the kitchen's back door opened to admit two weary-looking Guards. Jo frowned when she noticed Naru's outfit - what little there was to it - and the dark circles under Eri's eyes. "Don't tell me you just finished your shift," she snapped, furious that they'd been worked that hard.

"I'm afraid so," Naru replied, between yawns. "And since we have to be back out there again tonight, I'm off to bed. See you later, Jo." He waved to her as he walked through the kitchen and out the door that led to the back staircase - never once making any comment about being hungry or trying to sneak any food.

She immediately turned her attention to Eri and found the Guard leaning against the counter as if she'd collapse at any moment. "Sit. Down. Now," Jo sternly told her as she pulled a bench away from one of the tables. "If Naru's exhausted enough that he’s not hungry, then you're not getting out of here without drinking something to make sure that you get yourself safely home." If Eri left at all - Jo was determined that the woman would spend the day here rather than see her walk out the door in her condition.

Eri managed a weak smile as she did what she was told. "Thank you. I won't object if you offer me a room today," she said as she all but collapsed onto the bench.

Unfazed by having her thoughts read so clearly - she didn't mind soul-gaki bounds very much because it was almost refreshing to be able to cut to the quick of things so easily - Jo left the cinnamon rolls in favor of brewing some fresh coffee. "You don't have to drink any coffee if you're staying here. Maybe you should just head upstairs now." The newly built rooms up in the attic were held in reserve for any bounds who stayed at the Koneko.

"No, some coffee would be appreciated. I’m so tired right now that it won’t keep me awake for long."

Hearing the tiredness in Eri's voice, Jo poured the woman some coffee and set the mug, along with some cream and sugar, on the table. Then she cut several thick slices of the sweet brown nut bread that was delivered a short while ago and put them on a plate along with some butter. She imagined that Eri was probably very hungry and added a couple of the apple danishes. "Here. Would you like any eggs or bacon? They won't take me very long to make," she asked as she set the food down on the table.

Smiling in gratitude, Eri shook her head as she picked up one of the danishes. "No, thank you. This will be fine. I'll eat more after I wake up."

Jo grunted softly in answer as she returned to making the cinnamon rolls. "There will be mutton and pork for dinner, and I think I'll take advantage of the cold weather and make some shepherd's pie as well. As much as I hate trudging through snow and ice, I must admit I enjoy being able to bake more often than I can during the summer." She carefully measured out the ingredients for the dough while she prattled on - it wasn't often that she had company during the morning baking, other than Ichiro sitting by the hearths as he

enjoyed some coffee on a cold day.

Eri slathered butter thickly onto the brown bread. "I love mutton. Hopefully I'll be up before Ken returns home for dinner."

"I think you'll have a chance at the food before he does," Jo said as she started mixing the ingredients together. "He's been putting in long hours as well."

"Some of the palace Guards have been reassigned because of the recent killings." Eri set aside a piece of bread and picked up her mug to hold it cradled in her hands. "Since only a few of the missing children have been found, all Guards skilled at investigation have been pulled from regular duty to try and find them before the caravans leave town in case their captors intend to sell them elsewhere. That leaves important gaps that need to be filled, and both the Spymaster and the Captain agree that the palace doesn't need to be fully staffed at a time like this - at least, not by the Guard. Most of the Army personnel aren’t very happy about being stuck on palace duty but they’ll live."

The dark thoughts Jo had about Birman and Kikyou lessened slightly upon hearing that, but she was still angry with both of them - especially Kikyou. What she wouldn't give to be able to take a sharp knife to him and ensure that he'd never be interested in Aya again.

Over at the table, Eri chuckled and resumed eating the bread. The dough now mixed, Jo covered it with a cloth and set it close to the nearest hearth for it to rise. Then she sliced a few more pieces of bread and fetched herself some coffee before she joined Eri. "Speaking of children, we had two strays show up yesterday. What do you know about them?"

Eri glanced nervously at her for a moment then tapped the fingers on her right hand against her mug. "I only know what most of the bound Guards do, that they ran away from home because of the girl's mother." She drew in a slow breath. "I'm glad to hear that they made it here after all."

"I don't think Declan and Cerise gave them much of a choice as to where they would stay." Jo had to smile at that. "They were both worn out and the girl, Emmie, has a bit of a cold, but they're fine. Yohji made sure that they ate well yesterday before they collapsed in bed, and the boy, Maddox, pestered him about a job here the whole time. He's afraid of running out of cash before his uncle arrives, it seems." She frowned, not very happy with the thought of the two children leaving then. While there was a chance of the uncle accepting Emmie's heritage, she would still be in a lot of danger.

A low growl drifted over from the other end of the table. "Exactly. Even if she isn't a bound, people out there will either want her dead or try to breed her for bound offspring." When Jo looked at Eri, the woman glared back for a moment and then, her growl drifting off, she suddenly blushed. "I'm sorry, you didn't say that out loud, did you?" She rubbed her eyes as she looked away from Jo. "I'm really tired - I don't mean to read your thoughts like this."


The proper response to that was to laugh, which was exactly what Jo did, much to Eri's apparent confusion. "Oh, don't worry, I'm not offended. Any problems I might possibly have with your kind were gone years ago." As her guest's confusion grew, Jo smiled and brushed at a bit of dough stuck to her knuckles. "You never met him, but I know you've heard of Schuldig, Yohji's friend and Cassandra's son. Need I explain anything more than that he spent an awful lot of time here while he grew up?" She arched an eyebrow and waited for an answer.

Eri laughed in return and helped herself to more of the brown bread. "No, you don't. Did you have any private thoughts while he learned to handle his power?"

Jo's smile took on a hard edge for a moment. "He certainly learned to immediately block any thoughts associated with Ichiro."

Eri laughed again. "I don't think I want to know how you taught him that, considering he was a boy going through puberty, but you have my respect and my fear." They shared a genuine smile. "Any chance of you working similar magic on Naru? He may not read inappropriate thoughts, but he could stand to learn a few manners and a lot of common sense." Eri's smile slipped just then. "Though he's been rather well-behaved lately. He doesn't have much time to think up pranks when he's working as bait."

"I hope you catch whoever's responsible very soon." Jo knew how it felt to lose a child, knew how the pain of something so precious being taken away could tear a person apart. She wouldn’t wish that pain on anyone.

"So do I." Eri's plain, lovely face suddenly took on a veneer of old age. "The Spymaster... well, she's talking about asking for Aya's help if there's another murder. She doesn't want to," she quickly added with a nervous glance, "but he might be able to... 'see' something that the rest of us can't."

While Jo knew that Yohji and Aya needed the time off, she couldn't hold it against Birman for cutting their vacation short yet again in this case. "Yohji already said something to that effect last night. I don't think he or Aya will really mind."

"No, I don't think they will, either." Eri finished the last bite of bread and slowly stood up. "Thank you for the meal." She bowed slightly, her dark hair falling onto her face. "If you don't mind, please make sure I'm up no later than three o'clock."

"I will, and there’ll be some mutton and potatoes waiting for you."

Eri bowed again and quietly left the kitchen. Jo stared at the door as it swung shut, her thoughts centered on the past instead of the present. A quick shake of her head and she returned to the now, her thoughts focused on the Koneko. She couldn't control things outside of the inn, but she could do everything in her power and more to make sure that her loved ones here were safe, as well as anyone else in need.

*******

"I'm glad the weather decided to cooperate today and isn’t as wet as yesterday," Kikyou commented to Aya as they rode side by side. He smiled at his companion, the expression threatened to turn into a frown when Aya did little more than nod his hooded head.

Maybe the sunny weather wasn't a good thing after all, as he knew that Aya's skin had the tendency to burn when exposed to sunlight. But still, he thought the man went a little too far by wearing gloves and pulling his hood forward as much as possible - even though he couldn't fault the fact that Aya seemed to prefer to keep his skin undarkened by the sun. He must have picked up a few highborn traits from his father after all.

The road was a mess from the recent rain, their progress hampered by mud and ruts left from earlier traffic. Kikyou's horse stumbled slightly and bumped into Aya's which caused his and Aya's knees to rub together. "I'm sorry." Aya nodded at the apology and directed his horse closer to the edge of the road.

Kikyou felt hard-pressed not to sigh at the reaction. While he hadn't expected Aya to be friendly with him right from the start during these blackmailed outings, he had hoped for some show of emotion other than discomfort and annoyance by now. He cursed himself for his rash behavior when they'd first met which had led to their current relationship. Over the last couple of months, things that should have been obvious back then had become apparent now.

At first there was the fact that Aya was obviously Kudoh's lover. When he discovered Aya's true identity, he didn’t think about anything beyond the fact that Reiji Takatori purposely kept Aya's existence a secret for some unknown reason - most likely something to do with his inheritance and Ranmura Fujimiya's relationship with Shuuichi. So Kikyou hadn't thought about anything other than pressing his suit in the most forward manner possible. And while Aya had rejected his overtures, he hadn't done it in such a forceful way that Kikyou would stop to think about what had prompted such a reaction. No, he just believed that Aya was trying not to draw attention to himself or to cheat on Kudoh, a man who for some odd reason he considered his savior.

But now that he'd decided to slow things down to win Aya's trust and affection, he saw more and more evidence that his earlier behavior had been a huge miscalculation on his part. That he also forced Aya into these meetings with him didn't help either, but he refused to let such an opportunity pass by untaken. Sooner or later he'd get through to the stubborn man, would make Aya see that he had no reason to fear Kikyou or deny himself his true heritage.

Kikyou just wished that he'd realized a few things sooner. Then again, Reiji had been so vocal against homosexuality so he'd never considered that the man would keep a lovely boy to sexually abuse or allow his sons to do so either. But the way Aya avoided touching any man but Kudoh, the way he shied from basically any contact at all and his frozen reaction to any overture.... Kikyou had definitely hurt his cause with his rash actions. But something about Aya drew him, made him want to make the man his.

"How much longer will we be riding?"

Aya's quiet question distracted him from his thoughts. Once again he smiled at his companion as he waved at the road in front of them. "Not much longer, I'm happy to say. In fact, we should be turning left at the next crossroads and then it's only a dozen or so kilometers from there." He was eager to see how his surprise affected Aya, to see if it might make the stubborn man rethink wasting his life at an inn when he could be a lord.

There was a hint of crimson hair as Aya looked in his direction, his face tilted up slightly. Then he bowed his head once more and stared down at his hands. "We've passed a few castles on the way here. Are we going to visit someone?" His voice expressed little interest but contained a shadow of fatigue.

Kikyou frowned as he thought about Aya exhausting himself by working at the Koneko. The thought of the current Fujimiya lord making beds and serving food... once again his promise to keep Aya's secret chafed him dearly. If the high court found out Aya's real identity, he would be all but forced to leave behind such drudgery and take his proper place at Court. But Kikyou was hampered by his promise and couldn’t openly declare the truth.

"Not exactly. There's are some gardens out here that I thought might interest you." Out of the corner of his eye he caught Aya's arrested movement and smiled at the reaction. One thing he could pride himself on was his knowledge of Aya's interests, his likes and dislikes. Aya might not be too thrilled with his company yet, but he knew that he'd pleased the man with some of their outings.

Aya fell quiet again as they approached the crossroads, his head bent once more so he didn't seem to notice the faded sign partially covered by the long grass that grew along the edge of the road. The sign needed a fresh coat of silver, black and purple, but one could still make out the outline of a blooming orchid.

The scenery around them was lovely, with brilliant red creeping among the leaves of the massive oak trees that lined the roads. The noisy, bustling city seemed so far away from the peaceful quietness out here - which was surprising, considering the fact that they were less than an hour's ride from the capital. But this was highborn land, territory deliberately left unspoiled so that those powerful enough could enjoy the beauty surrounding their castles. Kikyou's family could only dream about owning some of this property since they'd never been that high-ranked. All of this was originally Eto territory that the family had bequeathed the crown when the Takatori clan had searched for the best site to make their country's capital. The land left over from the city had been given to the lords the crown had favored the most so they could establish a household close enough to respond to any call for aid.

Kikyou's family wasn't the only one who would give anything to own some of this land. That the Fujimiya castle sat uninhabited all these years was a source of constant speculation and hope among the highborns that maybe one day the king would raise another family in status and give them the land. Aya seemed to have learned something about his people from either his father or from the Takatori, so he should realize what it meant to see that empty castle and its lands barely tended by the handful of people the king had ordered to keep the property from falling into ruin.

He slowed his horse down as they approached an ornate gate covered with wrought iron orchids. Aya did the same, then he heard a sharp breath as his companion seemed to recognize the heraldry on the gate. A young man dressed in blue and gold nodded to Kikyou and gave Aya an odd look before he opened the gates so they could enter.

Aya was silent as they rode onto the Fujimiya property. The gate closed behind them, soundless except for the metallic ‘thunk’ when the latch was closed. Ahead of them loomed the Fujimiya castle, a large building made out of light grey stone that, despite its very impressive size, managed to avoid seeming massive or ostentatious. The path beneath them was finely crushed marble and, on either side, there were trimmed rose hedges. Most of the land in front of the castle was covered by green grass, not as immaculately trimmed as with most estates but bright in color. A few trees were planted about the lawn for shade, their size a testament to how many years they’d been allowed to grow.

"Why are we here?" Aya finally asked, his voice rough yet quiet.

"I wanted you to see your heritage. You would’ve been too young to remember this estate the last time you were here," Kikyou explained as they slowly rode toward the castle. "Before your family moved into the city, your mother spent most of her time renovating and expanding the gardens. I thought you might want to see her work while you had a chance. There are rumors that the king might bequeath the property to his son as he’s soon to be considered an adult."

There was more silence and then Aya shifted in his saddle so he could look at Kikyou, his hood pushed back just a little. "You shouldn’t have brought me here," he said, his voice even rougher than before, and his hands twitched as if to jerk on the reins to force his horse to turn around.

"We are here, Aya, and we’ll go see the gardens," Kikyou replied, his voice stern. "I’ve arranged for a nice picnic and *then* we’ll leave." He hated to force the issue like this and upset Aya, but he wasn’t going to let the man flee now. There was a point to be made and they would remain here for the afternoon to make sure it was driven home. *This* was where Aya belonged, not as a worker in some middle class inn. "With how cold it’s been lately, there won’t be a better chance to see the gardens until next spring. Don’t you want to see your mother’s work?"

"Don’t say such things," Aya snarled, his eyes flashing with anger. "I’m no longer Ran Fujimiya and I won’t have anything to do with what… what used to be his. You said that you would respect that choice and ensure that I’m left alone, or else there’s no reason for me to be here!"

Kikyou refused to become upset by Aya’s temper and did his best to smile innocently in the face of it. "All we are here for is a nice picnic while I ensure that the estate is being properly cared for in the absence of its owners. Considering Aya Kudoh’s love of gardens, it seems only natural for you to join me on such an excursion. If it bothers you so much to be here, we can always leave after I check a few things."

He was glared at for a few more seconds, but Aya’s anger seemed to deflate and he was soon once again hidden behind his hood. Kikyou let out a slow breath as they continued on their way, certain that Aya wouldn’t force him to leave the estate right away. No matter how much Aya protested about how he didn’t want to be a Fujimiya, he had to feel some attraction to this place, especially the gardens his mother had labored over for several years.

And while Aya walked around surrounded by her hard work and they sat down for lunch, Kikyou would do his best to subtly remind his stubborn companion of what he’d refused to accept as his true heritage. Aya had decided to turn his back on it after years of being Reiji’s hostage, years spent away from the Court and the property that rightfully belonged to him, which had made his choice that much easier. But now faced with what he’d given up, to possibly be forced to watch as it was handed over to someone else, hopefully Aya would rethink his choice. There was a very good chance that the Fujimiya name would fade into obscurity if Aya didn’t resume possession of it, and no matter how much he claimed that he much preferred Aya Kudoh’s simple life, there had to be some sense of honor inside him that would rebel at that possibility. Aya had proved himself to be a man of honor by keeping his word to Kikyou, so all that was left to do was to reawaken more of that sense until Aya felt compelled to take his rightful place.

They came to a halt right in front of the castle, where another blue and gold liveried servant awaited them. Turning their horses over to the man, Kikyou began to stroll down the paved marble path that would lead to the gardens. Aya sighed softly but followed as he pushed his hood back a little so he could see better, which left part of his face exposed, along with the thick fall of his bangs and the two long strands of red hair down the front of his cloak.

He paused as they came to the edge of the building and saw their first glimpse of one of the castle’s numerous gardens, this one ablaze with chrysanthemums and the changing leaves of the many small trees and shrubs placed in a formal setting. Even Kikyou was amazed at the beauty before them.

"It’s lovely." There was a reverent tone to Aya’s voice as he stared at the brilliant foliage and blooms.

"Yes. Arashi Fujimiya definitely had talent when it came to horticulture," was Kikyou’s reply. "Why don’t you have a look around while I tend to a few things, all right?" There was a distracted nod from Aya before the man wandered over to the dogwood trees and stood in their shade.

Kikyou stared after him for a moment before he turned and headed for the castle. Along the way he nodded in greeting at the elderly man who held a rake in his hands, one of the few servants dressed in silver and purple on the property. The gardener didn’t notice his greeting, however, as he was much too busy staring at Aya, a puzzled expression on his face.

Kikyou couldn’t help but smile as he walked along the stone path. He had promised Aya that he wouldn’t reveal the truth about the man’s family heritage, and he intended to keep his word as long as Aya honored his promise. However, sometimes one didn’t need to say anything to reveal a secret. There were still plenty of people who remembered Ranmura and Arashi Fujimiya, people he intended to make sure crossed paths with Aya. Sooner or later someone would comment on the young man who resembled Ranmura’s wife, would remark on how Aya Kudoh shared the same striking coloring as the presumed dead Fujimiya heir. When that finally happened, Aya would have no choice but to claim his birthright, if he hadn’t already by then, and he would need Kikyou’s support and knowledge of the Court when this happened. One way or another, the truth would come out.

*******

Emmie lazily stretched beneath soft sheets and a thick quilt scented with lavender. Her eyes still closed, she enjoyed just lying there in a comfy, warm bed that wasn't lumpy or smelled of some strong laundry detergent. This was, without *any* doubt, the best bed she'd slept in since leaving home. There was a flash of pain at the thought, one that made her huddle beneath the sheets and sigh in unhappiness. Losing Dad still hurt so very much, and then to leave home right after that.... She hoped that the Guards were right and Uncle Glenn wouldn't arrive for another week or two. Right now she was tired of traveling, and the Koneko seemed like such a nice place. The food was good and the beds were wonderful, there were Guards here and Yohji....

She felt heat flood her cheeks as she thought about the handsome man who had served her lunch yesterday, had smiled and talked to her as she ate, had seemed to know a lot about the Guards and answered everything she'd asked him about the city and the inn... he'd even fussed over her when he caught her sniffling and insisted that she take some medicine. Despite her insistence that she never really suffered any bad colds, he stood there and frowned at her until she swallowed the yucky-tasting tea he'd brought her. Between that and the warm soak in the hot spring, she hadn't been able to do anything after the meal but sleep. She frowned when she thought about how that meant she'd wasted all this time in bed when she could have talked to Yohji or wheedled Maddox into a walk about the city.

Opening her eyes, she found the room flooded with light and Maddox curled up asleep in the other bed. Oh no, was it that late already? How much more had she missed? She sat up in a hurry, her vision blurring slightly from the sudden movement. Her head hurt a little and her nose still seemed a little stuffy, but she felt much better than yesterday - other than being very hungry and needing to pee. A quick search revealed a clock set on a small table between the two beds, and she was surprised to find out that it was after ten in the morning. But she'd gone to bed yesterday afternoon! She really had wasted too much time.

Quietly leaving the bed, she hurried to the facilities chamber and cautiously closed the door behind her. Maddox still looked exhausted so she didn't want to wake him. Once her bladder was relieved, she crept back into the room and just as quietly poured some water into the washbasin. Her face quickly cleaned and teeth brushed, she looked about for the pile of clothes that Kira had lent her. Reverently touching the pale pink tunic folded neatly on top, she was once again amazed at the pretty girl's generosity. Even if customers had left them behind, it still was very nice of Kira to lend clean clothes to her and Maddox while theirs were washed. Considering the fact that she'd only been able to pack clothes that could withstand the traveling and made her look like a boy, she hadn't worn anything this fine or colorful in weeks.

She shivered as she remembered how chilly it was yesterday. The rain had stopped and the sun was out, but she felt a cold draft whenever she walked past the window, so she decided to dress in something warm today. She picked a pretty off-white colored shirt with yellow and pink flowers embroidered along its collar and cuffs to wear beneath the pink tunic and a pair of soft, light grey pants. With the clothes in hand, she hurried behind the room's screen to dress. A thick pair of socks and slippers completed the outfit, and she was ready to go downstairs. Sparing an anxious glance at a still sleeping Maddox, she resolved not to feel guilty about leaving the room without him. The fact that he was still sleeping this late meant that he was really tired, and besides, what could happen to her here? Everybody they'd met so far at the Koneko had been so nice, and Yohji said that several Guards lived here. She'd be perfectly safe on her own. Besides, she wasn't going to spend any more time in this room, not when there was so much more to explore.

Still, she felt a little self-conscious as she made her way down the stairs and passed several people along the way. Most of them smiled at her and wished her a good day, although one man brushed past her as he mumbled something about long lines and no products. While she felt a little overdressed in their room, she was happy to see that the other people at the Koneko wore a mix of bright colors themselves, some of them looking as if they were about to attend a festival or celebration of some sort.

Upon reaching the first floor, she noticed that Teddy was once again stationed at the door wearing the bluest robe she'd ever seen. He was talking to a woman in a dark brown cloak who had a deep frown on her face, but he stopped to smile at Emmie and motion her closer.

"That's all I can tell you right now, Rachel, but if you still don't believe me, just ask him yourself when you see him, all right? But I swear I'm not joking." The woman didn't seem very happy with whoever Teddy was talking about. "And how are you this morning, Emmie?" he asked as the woman walked off to the main room. "Your cousin told us you were fast asleep when he came down for dinner. Are you feeling a little better today?"

"Yes, thank you." She nodded while her mouth flooded with saliva - something smelled really delicious and mention of the dinner she missed made her stomach rumble. "I don't often get colds, but when I do, I always bounce back fast."

"Good for you. I don't often get colds, either, but when I do, I'm sick for at least a week." He made a funny face, his nose wrinkled and forehead all scrunched up. "At least I usually have someone to look after me until I'm better, though." He seemed a little sad for a moment before he smiled again. "Let me guess, now that you feel better you'd like some breakfast, right?"

"Yes, please!" she instantly replied as she wrapped her arms around her still-rumbling stomach. "I can't believe I slept that long!"

"Well, you weren't feeling well and you looked tired." Teddy reached over to tousle her hair as he stepped from behind the tall desk. "How about we go see what Jo has in the kitchen? The common room is still a bit crowded." After a glance toward the front door, he motioned for her to walk with him down the hall. "After you have something to eat, we can see about you having another private soak down in the hot spring."

Excited to see more of the Koneko, she practically skipped down the hallway. "Oh, that would be really nice! The water felt so nice and hot - I haven't been able to soak like that since...." Some of her good mood faded away as she remembered that her last soak with her aunts and cousins had been a few days before her father's death. After that, no one had wanted to share the huge tub with her.

"There's nothing like the Koneko's hot spring, let me tell you," Teddy said as if he hadn't noticed her sudden pause. "The water's renowned for its healing properties. See, it even made you feel better!"

She managed a smile as they came to a stop before a thick oak door partitioned with darkly stained panels. "That's what Yohji told me." The thought of Yohji, of his bright smile and beautiful green eyes made her sadness fade away. "Is Yohji working in the common room today?" she asked. If he was, maybe she could talk Teddy into letting her eat there and she could see the kitchen some other time.

Teddy shook his head as he pushed open the door. "I'm sorry, but he's out running errands right now." He frowned a little as he held the door open for her. "He'll probably be gone until evening - which might be a good thing. He wasn't in the best of moods this morning."

"Oh." Her hopes only slightly crushed - she should be able to see him tonight, then - she stepped into the kitchen. At first she was amazed by its size – it was twice that of Aunt Merry's, where the family usually did most of the preparation for holiday and festival meals. There were several fire hearths and a *huge* stove with big tables scattered all about and cabinets on all the walls. Sunlight filtered into the room through white and blue curtains on the windows and the back door. Then the wonderful scents that filled the room seemed to hit her all at once and made her stomach practically cramp from hunger.

"Hello, there," said a tall, thin woman with thick streaks of grey in her brown hair. She was busy mixing something in a huge clay bowl, her face and pale yellow apron smeared with what appeared to be flour. "You must be Emmie."

Over by the sink, Kira rinsed her hands off before she waved 'hello'. "That's her, Jo." She dried her hands on her apron, which matched Jo's, and approached Emmie. "I'm happy to see that the clothes fit you rather well." She reached out and pinched the left shoulder of Emmie's shirt. "Hmmm, maybe they could do with some slight altering, though." The words made Emmie draw in a quick breath as it seemed that she might be allowed to keep the clothes rather than having to return them after her dirty ones were cleaned.

"You could take them in an inch or two if you want to waste your time," Jo said as she stopped stirring the bowl's contents, her voice deep and a little sharp. "Look at her, Kira, and think for a moment. How much do you want to bet she'll outgrow that shirt in a few more months *without* you altering them, hmmm?" She stood there with a scowl on her face and her arms folded over her chest. Emmie took a step back, suddenly uncertain if she should be here with someone who seemed as... stern as this Jo. "You fuss too much when you could be spending your time on more useful things."

But Kira just laughed and smoothed her hand down Emmie's arm before she went over to the stove. "Okay, you may have a point about the clothes not being too big for long, but you're the last person to talk about fussing, Jo." Smiling, Kira removed the lid from one of the many pots on the stove and the wonderful aroma of cinnamon and raisins filled the air. "That's exactly what you'll be doing the moment Aya returns home and the reason why you gave Yuushi so much grief this morning when the poor man stopped in for a quick bite before work."

Jo's scowl only became stronger as she joined Kira at the stove. "Hush. You didn't see Naru and Eri this morning so don't give me any more 'poor Yuushi' grief. Naru didn't even *try* to beg for something to eat before going to bed." She tapped the pretty girl on the shoulder and grabbed a bowl. "Why don't you warm up a roll or two while I get this?"

"Oh, all right." As Kira fetched a small, round baking pan, Jo ladled some porridge into a bowl. She glanced over her shoulder at Emmie. "Go on and have a seat. Do you want some tea or juice?"

"Juice, please," Emmie said as she quickly sat down at the closest of the big tables, suddenly in mind to use her best manners. There was an air to Jo that reminded her of her Uncle Sean, the head of the family. Jo clearly expected to be obeyed, and although Kira did so with a smile, she hurried to follow the older woman's instructions.

"We've apple, cranberry and orange juice," Jo told her as she set the bowl of porridge down in front of Emmie. Then before she could answer, Jo turned to face Teddy. "Aren't you supposed to be watching the front door?" Teddy quickly waved goodbye to Emmie and hurried out of the kitchen. A frown on her face, Jo watched him go and then looked back at Emmie. "Apple, cranberry or orange?"

"Oh, uhm, orange juice, please," Emmie answered, her hands halfway to the bowl of porridge. She felt better when Jo stopped frowning and nodded once before walking away. Unsure why the woman seemed to be unhappy with Teddy, she pulled the bowl closer and picked up the spoon.

Wonderfully scented steam rose from the thick cinnamon and raisin porridge. Her mouth watered as she lifted a spoonful and she could only pause long enough to blow on it twice before she practically shoved it in her mouth. Hot - it was still very hot but tasted so very good. She didn't mind the sting the heat left on her tongue and quickly scooped up another spoonful.

"Here, give it a moment to cool," Jo told her as she set down a tall glass of orange juice and a plate covered with two cinnamon rolls and some brown bread. As she looked up, Jo reached over and brushed her bangs back to feel her forehead. Jo's hand was bony and felt a little cold, but the touch was surprisingly gentle, as was the smile on the woman's face. "The medicine did its job, I see. I don't feel any of the fever Yohji said you had yesterday."

She felt her blush return at the mention of Yohji. "Uhm, no ma'am, I feel much better. Uhm... thank you for it and the great food." She stuttered a little over the words as she assumed that Jo was the one behind both the medicine and the wonderful meals.

Jo snorted softly as she strode away from the table. "You're welcome for the food, but the medicine is a dear friend's blend. I'll let Cassandra know that it worked its usual magic the next time I see her." She returned to the table with a small crock of butter and a jar of honey. "There's plenty of porridge on the stove so let me know if you want some more. I assume that your cousin is still sleeping?" she asked, one eyebrow arched and her hands on her hips.

"Yes, ma'am. Maddox looked really tired so I let him sleep." Emmie spread some of the butter and then drizzled a little honey onto the brown bread. It was just as good as the porridge and not as likely to burn her tongue, so she took another bite. The next thing she knew, the bread was all gone and her fingers were busy unrolling one of the cinnamon buns. They were even better than the bread and she couldn’t help but lick her fingers for more of the delicious icing and cinnamon filling that covered them.

"I guess we don’t have to ask you if you like the rolls, now do we?" Kira asked, her voice shaking with laughter.

Jo, who had returned to the stove, glanced over her shoulder and smiled. "Finish the porridge and you can have another roll." Then she continued to fuss with the several pots that bubbled and steamed over the hot surface.

"Thank you, they’re delicious," Emmie said once her mouth was empty. They really were the best sweets she’d ever eaten, even better than the blackberry tarts that Maddox bought for her a few days ago. Yohji and Kira were very lucky to be able to eat such wonderful things every day, she thought with a touch of envy. Back home, she was lucky to get any sweets unless it was an important holiday.

She sniffed a little as she thought about how her father would have loved the rolls and took a cautious bite of the porridge, now that her hunger was somewhat blunted. The porridge was cool enough that her poor tongue wouldn’t suffer another burn, so after adding a little honey to the hot breakfast, she quickly dug in. As she made fast work of the delicious porridge, she watched Kira and Jo move about the kitchen. The two women stirred various pots, placed things in the sink, checked the ovens and basted the huge roasts of mutton and pork set up in the hearths.

Running a large inn like this must take a lot of work, but Jo and Kira seemed at ease and in no particular hurry. As soon as Emmie scraped the last of the porridge from her bowl, Jo breezed past and picked it up. Staring in wonder at her bowl being refilled, Emmie blinked when another cinnamon bun was set down on the empty plate in front of her. "Uhm, thank you."

Kira gave Emmie a wink as she smoothed her right hand along her hip. "You really look as if you could use a nice big breakfast right about now. You’ll find that the Koneko staff loves nothing better than to feed our guests."

"Well, everyone but Touya who complains he’s always hungry," Jo snorted as she returned with the now full bowl. "But he’s a growing boy so I’ve hopes that he’ll stop being a bottomless pit someday – unlike some other people I can name."

"You must admit, the butcher shops and all the bakeries around here are always ecstatic to see one of us walk into their stores!" Kira laughed, her bright blue eyes twinkling with amusement. "We get an even better discount now since we’re buying so much!"

"And the next time I see Birman, I’m going to have a serious discussion with her about the Koneko receiving a weekly stipend to help pay for those huge grocery bills." Jo’s voice was rough but there was a smile on her face, and Kira just laughed some more before she returned to the hearths to finish basting the racks of mutton.

Jo stood in the middle of the kitchen for a moment before she turned to face Emmie and motioned to the bowl of porridge. "Go on, don’t let a couple of fools like us keep you from eating."


Unaware that she’d stop doing that to stare at the women, Emmie blushed and had another mouthful of porridge. "It’s so good," she tried to say just then, uncertain if Jo was upset or not.

"It’s an old recipe," Jo explained as she joined Emmie at the table. "Some day I’ll tell you the story about what happened when I decided to try something new one morning."

"Oh, that’s a good one, Jo!" Kira exclaimed, one hand busy holding her hair back while she fussed over the cooking meat. "Mickey can never tell it without laughing himself silly. Especially the part where you hid in the pantry for over an hour."

"Hmph." Jo, now appearing to be a bit cross, folded her arms over her chest as she glared at the younger woman. "I’m so glad that I can provide some amusement around here."

Stepping back from the hearth, Kira gave Emmie a big grin before schooling her features into a more serious expression. "Now Jo, you know I didn’t mean it like that." When Jo just sat there, an unforgiving look on her face, Kira shook her head, a slight smile on her lips. "You know what? I just realized that I should be helping Ani with the beds. I’ll see you later, Emmie." A quick wave of her hand and Kira was gone, her long blonde hair and dark brown skirt flashing through the air behind her as she fled the room.

Suddenly nervous about being left alone with Jo, Emmie tried not to gulp as she had another spoonful of porridge. But Jo just chuckled softly and rested her hands on top of the table. "She would have made a wonderful merchant with that charm."

"Kira?" Emmie dared to ask, unable to keep silent against her curiosity. "Did she want to be one?"

"Not really." Jo shook her head and rose from the table. "She says she’s perfectly happy here and, even though she’s had a few offers for jobs elsewhere she always turns them down. The Koneko will be in good hands when it’s her and Mickey’s turn to take over."

She’d noticed how friendly Kira and Mickey had been with each other last night as the two had helped find clothes for her and Maddox. "Are they married?"

Jo stopped slicing more bread to stare up in what appeared to be shock. "Mickey and Kira? Sweet gods, not yet. I’ve no doubt that the day will come, but they’re both still so young. Besides, Kira’s just begun working on her wedding chest and Mickey won’t propose until he’s saved up a small fortune for her dowry." There was a short bark of laughter as Jo resumed her task. "As if Kira cares if she gets one copper from him or not – she knows she’ll always have the Koneko for support."

"Oh." They didn’t seem that young to Emmie, but then so many things were different from the way they were back home. Something suddenly occurred to her, a thought that made her throat seem to grow tight and her hands damp with sweat. "Uhm, Yohji doesn’t have a wife, does he?" He was so handsome, she really shouldn’t be surprised if some woman had nabbed him for a husband by now.

There was another bark of laughter from Jo and she once again paused in slicing the bread so she could rub her eyes. "No, he’s not married," she said once the laughter faded. "Quite a few women have tried but none managed that feat." Jo suddenly grew somber as she tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. "No, he doesn’t have a wife, but-"

A sudden knocking at the back door cut the cook off and brought her frown back as she hurried across the kitchen. She pulled the curtain back and then groaned loudly as she opened the door. "Oh gods, not more of your kind. Where the hell does it say ‘Guards’ Commissary’ around here, huh?"

The young woman dressed in a Guard’s uniform stepped into the kitchen, blinked and chuckled nervously as she removed her heavy coat. "Uhm, good morning to you?" she said in a squeaky voice.

Jo sighed deeply and waved the woman over to the table. "Sit the hell down, Roswitha. Coffee or tea? And where’s Li?"

Roswitha chuckled again, even more nervous this time, and ran gloved fingers through her short brown hair. "Ah, Li’s talking to Ichiro right now." She suddenly blushed as she stared at a frowning Jo. "I mean – she’s not – ah, well… you know… she didn’t want to come in since Aya’s with-"

There was another heavy sigh from Jo as she waved her right hand through the air. "I’m not worried. Now, coffee or tea?"

"Coffee, please." Roswitha settled on the bench not too far from Emmie and stopped looking so scared. "Ichiro asked me to tell you that he’d really appreciate some coffee in a short while, if you don’t mind."

Emmie stared in fascination as Jo smiled brightly and smoothed her hands down the front of her apron. "I think I can take something out to him in a little bit." She turned to go to the stove. "And you can fetch Li; Yohji’s out doing some shopping for me and shouldn’t be back til this afternoon."

"That’s all right, she won’t set foot in here until Aya’s back – not after what happened before. I had a hard enough time just getting her onto the property today." Roswitha winced at something and then smiled when she glanced at Emmie. "Hello, I’m Roswitha."

"I’m Emmie." She managed to smile at the friendly Guard, her mind buzzing with questions about why the woman’s partner didn’t seem to want to see Yohji. But before she could ask anything, Jo returned to the table with a full cup of coffee and a basket filled with sliced brown bread and a few fruit and cheese danishes.

"She arrived here yesterday with her cousin," Jo explained as she set the mug and basket down then joined them at the table.

"Ah, you’re the two drenched kids who Declan rescued." Roswitha gave her another smile and reached for a cheese danish. "The word has spread through the Guards to notify your uncle that you and your cousin are here as soon as he shows up at any of the Gates."

"Thank you." A warm feeling grew inside her chest as she thought about how the Guards were looking out for her and Maddox. Everyone they’d met since arriving here had been so nice to them, she didn’t see why Maddox was so worried. "Do you work at the Gates?"

"Ah, no." Roswitha chuckled around the rim of her mug, and once she swallowed some coffee set it down and made a face as if disappointed by something. "Li and I are more like messengers. We go all over the place rather than stay put all day." She brushed some crumbs off her hands and reached into the leather pouch on her belt. "In fact, this is why I’m here." Pulling out a small envelope, she handed it to Jo. "Could you please see to it that Reiichi gets this? It’s nothing important or we’d have tracked him down ourselves," she hurriedly explained when Jo frowned at the note.

"He’s with Yohji and Mickey, so he won’t be back until later. I’ll give this to him as soon as he arrives." Jo accepted the note and left the table to place it above one of the hearths’ mantles.

"That’s fine." Roswitha took a bite of the danish and groaned in pleasure. "This sure beats stale toast for breakfast," she said to no one in particular, and was silent until the pastry was all gone. As she reached for another one, she glanced at Jo. "That came from Botan so I doubt it’s anything to be worried about."

Jo glared briefly as she shook out her apron’s skirt. "I’m not worried at all – Reiichi’s a grown man and that note is his own private business." She stalked over to the stove and vigorously stirred something in one of the pots.

Roswitha gave Emmie a wink as she took a bite of another cheese danish. "If I’d been aware that he was out with Yohji, I would have saved the note until this evening. Toshi announced this morning that Lilla’s expecting a baby so everyone’s planning to be here later to celebrate."

Jo stopped terrorizing the pots and went over to one of the tables covered with cut bread and pastries. "So they finally broke the news to everybody, did they?" Her good mood seemed to be restored as she gathered various treats onto a large napkin. "As soon as Yohji gets back I’ll have him bring up a few more kegs." She stopped to stare at the hearths for a few seconds. "I guess I better plan on some more food, as well." Hands busy folding the napkin’s edges over the pastries, she gave Roswitha a stern look. "You’d think that you Guards never ate a meal outside of the Koneko with the way you empty my pantries whenever you’re here!"

Roswitha acted as if the complaint was a familiar one and just grinned after she gulped down the last of her coffee. "We just can’t resist good food and beer, Jo. Thanks so much for the coffee and danishes."

Grumbling under her breath, Jo tied the napkin’s edges into a loose knot. "You tell Birman I want to have a nice, long talk with her sometime soon, you hear?" There was a scowl on her face as she handed the pastry-filled cloth to the Guard. "Here’s something for Li, and tell her it should be fine for her to stop by later tonight. I appreciate her using common sense even if there really wasn’t any cause for it today."

"More like it’s her sense of self-preservation, but I’ll pass both things on to her." Roswitha accepted the treats with a short bow. "We’ll see you later." She turned and smiled once more at Emmie. "It was a pleasure to meet you."

"Goodbye." Emmie waved to the Guard as she left and then reached for a cherry danish. She felt pretty full from the rolls and the porridge, but the pastry looked so light and flaky, and she’d always loved cherries. One bite and she groaned in a manner similar to Roswitha a few minutes ago. "Everything’s so good here!"

"So you’ve said," Jo replied with a warm chuckle. "All done with the porridge?"

"Yes, ma’am." She felt a little embarrassed at how much she’d eaten this morning, but the food really was so good and it seemed like ages since she’d really been this full. After brushing some crumbs off her hands, she rubbed her very happy and full stomach before finishing her juice. "You’re going to have to roll us out the door when we leave!"

Jo made a non-committal sound as she washed the dirty dishes. "I guess we’ll just have to work you two hard enough that you remain thin," she said, voice light with humor.

Busy debating whether or not she should risk making herself sick by having another danish, Emmie stopped in mid-reach and stared at the cook. "Work? You’re letting us both work?" She knew that Yohji had promised Maddox a job but she hadn’t gotten him to promise her one before she’d gone to bed.

Rinsing off the dishes, Jo nodded. "I imagine you’d be bored senseless after a few days if you didn’t have something to do, and I don’t want you to wander too far from the inn." She gave Emmie a very uncompromising look. "Now is not a good time for a young woman like yourself to be out there on your own. If I let you help me here in the kitchen, you must promise me that you won’t go out unless one of the staff tags along." She held up a hand when Emmie was about to say something about that condition. "That goes for Maddox as well; he may be a little older but he doesn’t know the city at all, and I refuse to have to explain to your uncle that something happened to either of you, do you understand?"

Very happy to be told she could work, even if it meant having to stay close to the inn most of the time, Emmie frantically nodded. "I understand. Thank you!" She beamed in gratitude at Jo, her smile growing brighter when Jo smiled back. "When can I start?"

"Well, you can come over here and help me with these dishes," Jo told her. "Let me get you an apron."

Not needing any more encouragement, Emmie moved from the table as quickly as her very full belly allowed.

*******

"And here's to the gods - may they bless the child and make sure the poor kid doesn't take after his father!"

As the rest of the Guards, gathered around the three tables pushed together, lifted their drinks to the latest toast, Yohji just shook his head and wondered how many of them would show up to work tomorrow morning with hangovers. Judging by Reiichi's amused smile and Yuushi's disapproving frown, his friends were wondering the same thing. "My, but they're a cheerful bunch this evening," he remarked, and nearly laughed at how Yuushi's mouth twisted in disgust. Really, the man had to learn to relax and not take his job so seriously.

Reiichi, at least, found the humor in the situation - then again, he wouldn't have to deal with the idiots who drank too much come morning. "Yes, but then again, it's not every day they hear such good news." A hint of an evil smile on his face, Reiichi glanced at Yuushi. "Doesn't Toshi's good fortune make you wish to continue the Honjyou line?"

This time, Yohji couldn't hold back the laughter as Yuushi's expression became distinctly panicked.

"Have you drank too much tonight, Reiichi? Don't you dare repeat something like that or the gods might hear you. Meddling bastard," Yuushi cursed as his hands wrapped around his mug of beer as if it was a lifeline. "I'm in no hurry for kids; what about *you*?"

The tables turned on him, Reiichi did nothing but remove his glasses and clean them with a small cloth, his expression carefully bland. "Is that an offer, Yuushi-dear? If so, we can always go petition Hiyoku tomorrow morning at her temple and pray for a miracle." He batted his eyes a couple of times at a thunderstruck Yuushi. "There's no documented proof but I've heard of stories about men similarly blessed. If we're sincere enough, maybe we'll have a child with your eyes and my dimples." His tone throughout the teasing was light and even, his smile slightly hopeful with just the tiniest hint of wickedness.

Yohji laughed rather loudly as Yuushi, his skin now almost as pale as Aya's, merely shook his head slowly and lifted his mostly full mug of beer to be drained in three large gulps. With his lover out with that prick, Kikyou, Yohji hoped that some time spent in Reiichi and Yuushi's company would distract him until Aya's turn. He hadn't been let down yet, but he thought that Yuushi was paying for his relief from worrying. Not that he felt bad about that in the least. "I don't know, Reiichi," he said when he could more or less control his laughter. "I think your eyes are nicer."

"Hmmm, I agree but sadly, they are a bit defective." Reiichi tapped the right lens of his glasses. "Besides, I’d be quite pleased with a child who possessed Yuushi's looks and my intelligence. Tell me, Yohji, what type of offering do you think will best please Hiyoku?" he asked, a beseeching look on his face.

Slamming his drink down onto the tabletop, Yuushi stood shakily to his feet. "I have to do some paperwork," he loudly proclaimed as he hurried from the table. As he fled the room, Yohji and Reiichi shared a laugh.

"You're pure evil, you do know that, don't you?" Yohji informed his friend. "It's true what they say, about always watching out for the quiet ones."

Reiichi smiled at the compliment and bowed his head. "Thank you, but there was a reason for my teasing. Now he'll hide upstairs and get some work done while the Guards can enjoy their celebration without having to put up with his glares all night."

"And you'll be treated to free drinks for however long you stay down here. Evil indeed." Yohji smiled in appreciation for his friend's cleverness. "But what about Yuushi? Won't he be pissed off at you for teasing him like that?"

"Oh, he'll get over it." Reiichi sipped his beer. "First off, he's much happier working than sitting down here and watching people get drunk, and secondly, he'll spend many a happy moment trying to think up a way to get back at me for flustering him like that." The wicked smile made a quick comeback. "Not that he ever manages to do so, mind you, but he has fun trying."

"And meanwhile, I'm suddenly left here with the image of a very pregnant Yuushi in my head," Yohji complained as he drank his beer. He immediately noticed that his sense of 'Aya' was steadily growing stronger, which meant that his mate would soon be back home.

"What makes you think he'd be the one chosen to carry the baby?" Reiichi asked with a very wicked gleam in his eyes. "I'm retired, after all, it would only be fair for me to assume the mother's role."

Yohji made a face as he rose from the bench. "Thanks for another terrible image. Well, two, to be exact - one of you pregnant and one of you and Yuushi involved in the 'act' that would leave you in such a state." Aya was home now, thankfully, which meant that he needed to go fetch a few things before he could see his lover.

Reiichi frowned as he pushed his glasses up. "Hmmm, you're right, I didn't think about that part. In the future, I'll be sure to make it clear that Yuushi will be the proud mother." He ran his long fingers along the rim of his mug. "That should get quite a delightful rise from the man."

"Do me a favor, Reiichi, and don't teach Aya any of your rather twisted type of humor, all right?" Yohji pleaded as he stepped from the table. "He would drive me grey-haired and insane within a year."

"Don't worry, I'd much rather that Aya develop his own sense of humor, that way you can't blame me for those grey hairs." Reiichi waved goodbye to him as he walked away. Detouring around the crowded tables, Yohji made his way to Lilla's side and gave her yet another hug and 'congratulations'. His dear friend, a glass of unfermented cider in her hand, smiled in thanks and kissed him on the cheek. He could feel her happiness through the contact, and some concern for the child. While he had never imagined Lilla as a mother, he was pleased that being pregnant made her this content. Giving her one more hug, he turned down the offer of a free drink and made his departure.

He took his time going up to their room, grateful that Aya no longer stifled their link. Sensing how tired and disquieted his lover felt, he made sure to tamp down the flare of hate and anger he felt toward Kikyou. The bastard had spent the day with Aya and wouldn't get another chance for at least a week, so there was no sense in thinking about him and allowing that to ruin his time with Aya.

Once in their room, he checked all the candles and replaced a few with the last of the lavender scented ones. Then he lit two of them to permeate the air with their soothing aroma and started a small fire. The room should be a warm haven by the time they returned later, either to curl up in bed or to stretch out in front of the fire like last night. He chuckled ruefully as he hoped that this evening ended on a better note than the night before.

Gathering some comfortable clothes for his lover to wear, Yohji headed to the hot spring. The feeling of growing relaxation he sensed from Aya meant that his lover was down there to wash off Kikyou's scent and spend some time relaxing in the hot water. Aya's behavior after a day spent with the Captain had become almost a ritual, one that helped to put them both at ease upon his return to the Koneko.

With the aid of the shadows, Yohji unlocked the bathing room's door and once he was in the room, locked it behind him. Spying Aya soaking in the tub, he set the clean clothes on one of the benches and picked up a towel from the pile stacked there. Then he approached the hot spring and squatted down near the rim, right next to Aya whose head was tilted back to rest along the edge. "Heya, Cat."

Aya slowly opened his eyes and managed a smile. "Yotan." He looked and sounded as tired as he felt, in Yohji's opinion, as if he could fall asleep at any moment.

Yohji's right hand buried itself in Aya's wet hair and gently massaged his scalp. "You look ready to fall asleep in the bath. Are you all right?" He debated whether he should try to get his lover out of the water and up into their bed or if he should join him for a soak.

Aya's wet hand lifted from the water and stroked along Yohji's forearm. "I'm a little tired." His eyes closed for a moment as a wave of sadness echoed between them. The emotion quieted when Aya looked at him once more. "Don't start yelling at me, but I'm worn out from too much time in the sun."

He had to remind himself that Aya most likely hadn't had any say in today's events and that it was Kikyou's fault his lover was exhausted. "What did the bastard make you do today?" he asked, the words forced past clenched teeth.

For a few seconds, the only sound heard was their breathing and the soft lap of water against stone and wood. "He decided that I should see the Fujimiya castle. I guess... he was trying to guilt me into accepting my father's inheritance." Aya's eyes narrowed with harsh emotion, their unusual color obscured by a hint of silver. "It didn't work," he said, his voice wintry cold.

"For a supposedly intelligent man, he's a real moron," Yohji commented as he shifted onto his knees, drops of water soaking into the cotton weave of his pants. He combed his fingers through Aya's hair and kissed his lover gently on the lips, a brief taste more for comfort's sake than hunger's. "In the end it's your decision, but I much prefer you as Aya Kudoh and not Ran Fujimiya."

"You're a moron, too." Aya nipped at Yohji's lips but managed a smile as he sunk back into the water. "There's no decision to make."

"Good." Yohji played with the hair on the back of his lover's neck, combed through the wet strands and smoothed them against tense muscles. "I think you could use a massage tonight."

"Hmmm." Aya stared at the hot water for a moment. "That sounds like a wonderful idea. But first I have to stop at the kitchen - Jo found out that I didn't eat much today and is making me something." He turned around, placed his hands on the spring's rim and pushed himself out of the water. Yohji had the towel ready and wrapped him in it, rubbed his hands up and down Aya's back for a moment before he let Aya take over.

Yohji went back to the bench to fetch another towel to dry his lover's hair. "Something to eat right now sounds great." He’d been too busy toasting Lilla and Toshi, not to mention being anxious about Aya, to eat much tonight.

Aya, with his head covered, merely grunted as he stood still for a moment. Then he grabbed the towel and pushed it away, his hair sticking up in all directions. "I think she wants to talk about the children," he said as he handed Yohji the wet towel and combed his fingers through his hair.

Taking both of the used towels over to the basket meant for them, Yohji didn't need any help to figure out what 'children' Aya meant. "I know she was hoping Cassandra would stop by today, but I don’t think she did." Most likely, his dear friend had spent some rare time alone with Botan, as the wizard hadn’t appeared today either. "Have you met them yet? Emmie seems like a real sweetheart, and Maddox is so funny to watch. He tries so hard to be protective of her while at the same time he’s gawking in awe at everything around him." He smiled at the thought. As strays went, these two were among the most cheerful to ever arrive at the Koneko. Most of them barely made it here alive or were in such dire straits they did little more but collapse in a bed and remain there for a day or three.

"I didn’t get a chance to see them this morning." Aya’s fingers combed once more through his hair and then he leaned against Yohji, arms loose around Yohji’s waist and his face tucked against the crook of Yohji’s neck. "What does… Jo said Emmie appears to be around eleven years old."

Yohji’s fingers couldn’t help but try to straighten out the mess of Aya’s still tousled hair, the strands cool and wet to the touch. "That sounds about right. She’s a small thing, even tinier than Ani was when she arrived, though not as thin. Obviously, she’d been taken care of before her family found out about her mother." He fell quiet as he played with Aya’s hair and enjoyed the feel of his mate this close, and had to wonder why Aya was asking these questions now. Aya didn’t seem to want to talk about Emmie and Maddox very much last night once he heard about the cousins. "I think they’re up in their room now since the Guards are here in force to celebrate Toshi and Lilla’s good news, but you should be able to meet them tomorrow."

Pressed against him as he was, there was no mistaking the sudden tensing of Aya’s body, nor the flash of pain and sorrow he felt. Yohji frowned as he caressed Aya’s cheek and urged his lover to look up at him. "What’s wrong, Cat?"

For a moment it appeared that Aya wouldn’t answer, but then Aya shook his head slightly and stepped back. As he picked up the clothes Yohji had brought for him, he spoke in a quiet, troubled voice. "I was just thinking that Maddox managed to save Emmie. He got her out and somewhere safe."

Worried as he was about his mate and a little befuddled by alcohol, it took Yohji a few seconds to figure out what Aya wasn’t saying. *Maddox* had managed to get his loved one to safety, something that *Aya* hadn’t managed to do. Aya-chan had died while Emmie was out of danger, and that had to be the reason why Aya felt filled with stark pain and remorse.

Gingerly wrapping his arms around his lover, Yohji nuzzled Aya’s bare left shoulder. "He had help, love. The boy doesn’t know it, but he had people looking after him most of the way here. He didn’t have to face what you did, all alone at that." He hugged Aya as close as possible and wished more than anything that he could go back into the past to save Aya-chan, could go back to free her and his lover, and to save them both from experiencing so much agony and loss. "Don’t compare yourself to him, Aya, please. The situations are nothing alike." Other than the fact that both involved a young man willing to do whatever he had to in order to protect a young girl.

Aya was stiff in his arms for a moment, and then slowly relaxed against him, letting his head loll onto Yohji’s shoulder. "I guess… seeing the castle today, the gardens my mother loved so much… I can’t help but think about my family."

There was a fresh wave of hate for Kikyou as Yohji did his best to soothe his mate. The bastard had to take Aya to the Fujimiya castle, didn’t he? One day Yohji and Aya would have to leave the Koneko, would have to take up new identities and new lives to hide what they were, and if Kikyou was still living, Yohji had every intention of having a nice little ‘chat’ with the prick before they left.

"I know, love," he murmured into Aya’s ear, then rubbed his hands up and down Aya’s arms. "Come on, get dressed so we can satisfy Jo’s maternal instincts and then go curl up in bed." He’d give Aya such a spectacular massage that his mate would have no choice but to relax and get some rest.

"Hmmm." He released Aya so his lover could finish getting dressed, and once that was done, slowly pulled him into another embrace so he could kiss him gently but thoroughly. Not until Aya was purring softly in pleasure did he pull away, with a smile and a quick swipe to brush Aya’s bangs off his face.

The smile Aya gave him in return, just slightly tinged with sadness but still warming to see, made him want to go straight to their bedroom but the thought of Jo chasing them up there made him head to the kitchen instead. She didn’t want to annoy them, she was just concerned, he realized, and once she saw how tired and sad Aya was, she’d most likely send them upstairs with a full tray of food and maybe a pot of hot chocolate. Even if she was a little heavy-handed at times with that damned rolling pin, she still looked after her family with the best of intentions.

"Yep, you’re definitely getting one hell of a massage tonight, Cat," he told his lover as they went up the stairs. He waggled his eyebrows until Aya gave him an amused smile. "Just you, me, lots of warm oil and naked skin – I can hardly wait."

Aya sighed as he tugged Yohji to hurry up. "You’ll never change, will you?"

"Nope. You’re stuck with me like this forever and ever. Aren’t you the lucky guy?" He winked at Aya, his lips curving into a big grin as he felt love and affection and a fair bit of amusement overcome the sorrow and pain his mate had suffered these last few minutes.

"We’ll discuss how lucky I am after the massage."

Yohji recognized a challenge when he heard one, and resolved to give Aya the best massage of his life. By the time he was done, Aya wouldn’t be able to do anything but agree that he was the luckiest man in the world.

*******

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