Family Bonds

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chapter six

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Resolution of darkness, part one

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Ken hunched over a slightly discolored spot on the floor and inhaled a slow, deep breath of air, desperate to smell something other than the faint hint of magic. When he leaned a little closer to the floor, a jolt of excitement rushed through him when he realized that there was now an elusive, sweet scent - human blood. If it weren’t for the odor of magic and the taint of fear, he’d enjoy the scent, would breathe deeper to inhale more of it. Magic, as elsewhere in the abandoned warehouse, had done a good job of masking almost everything, but the blood spilled here had been potent enough, was a scent he was familiar with that he could still pick it out. Obviously, the spell cast by whatever prick of a wizard who would be a part of something like this hadn’t been meant to work against bounds. Then again, who would suspect the Guard of harboring bounds, let alone using them like this? He almost chuckled at the thought but the sound came out more like an annoyed growl.

"Find something, Ken?" Miko asked, the same time she gave his shoulder a reassuring squeeze.

"Yeah… and no." He growled again as he shook her hand off and stood upright – and then let out a yelp when she smacked his arm. Rubbing the wounded spot, he scowled at his partner but managed to bite back on another growl – Miko was determined to teach him to curb the impulse to growl and snarl when they were working. At the least, she certainly seemed to enjoy any excuse to smack him. "I’m gonna bite your hand off some day if you keep that up."

She gave him a sweet smile for a comment that would make a lot of other humans run off in fear. "I’ll smack you even harder if you ever try," she said, her tone sing-song and almost as sweet as her smile. "Enough with the empty threats, what did you find?"

He had to swallow a sigh at his utter failure to cow the crazy woman, and Bae Young chuckling softly didn’t help, either. But he’d wait until later to try and teach Miko to treat him with a little respect, right now work came first. "I found a trace of the kid’s blood, but little else." His frustration focused on the wizard and the bastards who had taken the kids and increased until a strong desire to gut the people responsible for this made him flex his claws.

Cora, who had been approaching him, shied away a little with a soft whine when his claws slid out, but she didn’t back down. For a moment his demon nature wanted to force a face-off, to make her acknowledge that she wasn’t the dominant bound but another smack made him yelp again and jump back. "Dammit, Miko, I’m really gonna take that hand one day!!"

All his crazy partner did was bat her eyes at him. "Is that your idea of a proposal, Ken-ken? If so, I accept. Now I can quit my job while you support me and the ten kids we’ll have."

The absurdity of that comment made him blink his eyes and sheathe his claws, all the while a sheepish grin spread across his face as his human side took over again. "I don’t know whether to be terrified that there will be ten miniature versions of you running around or touched that you think I’ve that much stamina." He stepped a little more away from the spot where he’d scented blood so he’d be out of Cora’s way.

"Hey, they’d also be yours so you should be terrified." Miko came over to his side as Cora knelt on the floor and closed her eyes.

"I think just one kid from the two of you would be bad enough," Bae Young added as he joined them, but his attention was mostly focused on his partner as she used her power. So he didn’t see Miko’s hand when it swung at him and Ken was pleased to hear the Shadow Guard let out a yelp louder than his two earlier.

As Bae Young complained about being assaulted, Cora rocked onto her heels and pushed back her shoulder length, light brown hair. "It’s a good thing that I don’t need silence to concentrate, you know." Her light hazel eyes shined with warmth, but there was a sense of sad exhaustion to her expression. "You were right, Ken, there’s blood here. It’s down so deep that the spell didn’t reach it." She held her hand out over the wooden floor and, in a few seconds, several drops of blood gathered on its surface. Bae Young lurched forward and pulled a small glass vial out of his pouch so he could collect the blood.

"The spell did little more than clean the surface of everything inside," Cora explained. Once Bae Young collected the blood he helped his partner stand, his dark brown eyes worried. It took a lot of effort, but Ken just managed not to knock his elbow into Miko’s side and say that was how a bound’s partner was supposed to act - worried and polite, not homicidal.

"And they didn’t think to clean anything outside the warehouse." Ken fought the impulse to take another deep breath and breathed shallowly through parted lips. "These bastards are used to dealing with humans." The thought about how surprised they’d be when a bunch of bounds caught them made him smile.

"Which makes you wonder if they haven’t done this before. Once we find out which caravan they’re planning to use to smuggle the kids out of here, we’ll need to investigate their other stops." Miko stepped aside and turned around, as she once more looked over the empty warehouse. "They’re doing too good of a job covering their tracks for this to be a first time operation."

"Maybe." Once it seemed that Cora could stand on her own two feet again, Bae Young let go of her arm and jerked his right hand through his cropped black hair. "Someone has experience, that’s certain, but don’t assume it’s the kidnappers." He waved his hand around the warehouse. "I can’t help but wonder – whose idea was it to use a spell to cover traces? We might be wrong to believe that the kidnappers are behind that and managed to hire a wizard to help them in the last few days only."

Ken thought he understood where the man was going with this. "We’re assuming that the kidnappers sold the kid’s heart to the wizard but what if-"

"If the wizard asked for that in return of all he’s done for them already?" Miko finished. "Huh, that’s an interesting twist." She chewed on a nail as she stared at a smudged wall. "I’m getting damned tired of running into new twists on this case, though, interesting or not."

"I understand, but it would explain why we’ve been unable to find the suspects so far," Cora said, her voice a little weak. "Someone’s certainly been thinking of everything – a wizard would more likely have the intelligence and experience to do just that than a normal human." Weak or not, her voice took on a harsh rasp whenever she mentioned the word ‘wizard’.

"Suddenly, I’m not feeling so bad about missing clues," Ken replied as he headed back to the warehouse’s main door.

"No, not if a wizard’s been erasing them all this time," Miko agreed, but she didn’t follow him. Which was good, as he wanted another chance to smell all the scents that still remained right outside of the warehouse. Clever or not, the wizard had only thought to rid the inside of the building of all traces of its occupants. Once over the threshold, he could clearly smell fear and excitement, the scent of several children and the sharper tang of adults. One of the bastards had leaned against the door, most likely to hold it open and force the kids through it as they moved them somewhere else. Perhaps the kids had been taken toward the eastern part of the city, from the little he could tell before the scents were obliterated by traffic. But at least that narrowed things down a little better.

As did the fact that there was a pleasure district not too far from this warehouse, one that was well-known for the lowlifes who trawled there looking for someone to join them in their sick perversions. Ken sniffed the doorway again and fought not to sneeze when an acrid stench filled his nose. Not far from the Eastern Pleasure district were several factories that took the fat left over from slaughtered animals and rendered it into cheap soap. The smell clung to everything in the factories’ vicinity, and whoever had leaned against the doorway had obviously spent a lot of time in the area to reek so badly of it.

The sound of footsteps warned him of Miko’s approach. "Are you done communing with the architecture yet or should I step back?"

As he pushed himself away from the door toward his partner, he took a deep breath. He’d never tell Miko this, but she smelled *wonderful*. There was almost never the taint of fear to her scent and she used a soap scented with lily of the valley. The sweetness of the flowers was a welcome balm to blood, terror and death. "If you know of a nearby bathhouse, I could be talked into communing with a nice hot tub of water, but that’s about it." They shared a grin and fell into step as they walked back into the warehouse. "But I’ve an answer for you. The Eastern Pleasure district."

"Hmmm." They walked in silence for a few steps before she nudged his left arm with her shoulder. "You sure don’t take me anywhere nice, you know."

"Sorry." He wasn’t too crazy about staking out the place and wait until Naru and Elise found out where they needed to strut around half-naked, but he’d be willing to bet anything that was where they’d find the kidnappers.

"The Eastern Pleasure district?" Cora asked. She grimaced and rubbed her hands along her dark blue coat’s sleeves. "It makes sense… but they’re not going to be able to find any virgin kids there."

"No, all the kids there will have already sold themselves more than a dozen times over just this week alone, but it makes sense." Bae Young’s full lips twisted in disgust. "That’s a perfect area to snatch some kid – no one pays attention to anything remotely illegal going on, and everyone there is already so desperate, the thought of kidnappers being out and about isn’t going to stop them from selling themselves."

Ken nodded and gave the warehouse a good going over once more, just in case he missed something before. "That would explain how they’re able to move the kids around, too. There are few places in the city where someone won’t comment about something strange like a bunch of kids being herded about, but no one will say anything in that area. They wouldn’t need many cloaking spells."

Miko crouched down in the middle of the floor, her hands folded over the tops of her knees. "Yet no one would wonder about a caravan wagon or two going there, not with the butcher shops, tanning and soap factories in that area. Anyone would think they were either stocking up on supplies or maybe getting rid of a few useless animals." There was a hint of excitement to her voice, the emotion sparkling in her eyes. "And if they’re looking for ‘worthless’ kids to sacrifice for spells, they’ll find them just a few blocks over."

"Yeah." He could understand her excitement. For once it looked as if they had a nice, solid lead that made sense. Maybe the bastards hadn’t always kept the kids stashed away in this neighborhood, but with the caravans about to arrive, it was the best place to keep them until they could smuggle the kids out of town.

"How much you want to bet that they owe the wizard a few kids?" Bae Young asked, killing the hopeful mood a bit. "We’re doing a good job of blocking them from other Pleasure districts, but we’ve never had much luck controlling the eastern one. It’s among the few areas where they’ll be able to find any more victims, and why waste resources on a kid you’re just going to kill?" His wide face became shadowed with pain and his voice thick with disgust.

Miko echoed Ken’s thought from earlier. "Naru’s not going to be happy to hear he has to hang out there, that’s certain. But he and Elise look young and fresh enough that they’ll easily attract attention even without Li’s blood."

Cora started at the mention of blood but nodded in agreement. "They’ll definitely stand out. But getting enough Shadow Guards into the area for back-up will be difficult. We’ll have to proceed slowly, and I’ll suggest…." She blushed as she stammered slightly. "Ah, I’ll suggest to Captain Honjyou that he send mostly bounds into the area." At everyone’s curious look, she blushed some more. "Well, our kind are used to blending into crowds because our lives depend on it. I think we’d do a better job than you humans, no offense intended."

Ken hadn’t been a bound for long, but he knew what she meant. There was also the fact that their enhanced senses helped them to avoid attention, and to know when they’d attracted it. "Some of the human Guards are pretty good at working undercover but I agree with you. So it’ll be a night or two of us sneaking into the area, and then Naru and Elise can show up." There was a chance that they could catch the monsters responsible for hurting and killing the kids in just a few more days. His human soul hoped that they prevented another killing while his demon side purred in anticipation of the upcoming hunt.

Jumping to her feet, Miko stalked over to him and, before he could even get his hand up to block, punched his arm. "Don’t even think to leave me out of this. I might not be a bound, but I’m damn good at working undercover even if I’m just human."

"You’d be great going undercover in an insane asylum," he grumbled as he rubbed his sore arm, and managed to jump back just in time to prevent being hit again. "Dammit, *stop* that!"

"When you quit being an idiot," Miko snapped back, but she at least folded her arms over her chest and didn’t hit him again. "We’ll both be working the Eastern Pleasure district."

"Far be it for me to try and stop you," he mumbled as he waited for his bound nature to make the pain fade away. If he still had been human, his arms would be all black and blue by now. "Besides," he said as he slid back a little farther, right out of his crazy partner’s reach, "you’ll fit right in there."

It took a few seconds for the insult to sink in, and he was very grateful for that extra step backward. "Bastard," Miko muttered as she swatted ineffectively in his direction.

"See, you’re already sounding the part!" He laughed and dodged her next attempt to hit him, and decided it might be prudent to take shelter behind Bae Young and Cora.

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Yohji entered the kitchen and smiled warmly at the women who were busy working. "Ah, the gods must be pleased to grace me with such visions of beauty." Jo and Kira, both wearing matching blue aprons, were busy stuffing two dozen game hens while Ani helped them by preparing the iron spits. Over by the sink, the hem of her yellow apron almost touching the floor, Emmie was occupied with washing the dishes from lunch. "My own little harem," he continued, a wicked grin on his face and hands ready to bat aside any dead birds or iron rods that might be thrown his way.

Emmie’s face flushed a bright red at his comment while Jo snorted and rolled her eyes, and Ani and Kira just giggled and shook their heads. Ah, he knew they really did adore him.

"Let me guess, the lack of food has clearly made you delusional so you’re here to beg for something to eat," Jo said as she stopped violating some poor bird with a cranberry and bread stuffing mix and wiped her hands on her apron.

"Close enough." He had to laugh at how well Jo knew him, and was happy to see her in such a good mood. Things had been very stressful for her the last few months, between discovering what Aya really was, becoming determined that nothing was going to happen to him and Yohji as others found out about their true natures, and then the new addition to the Koneko. He felt guilty that she – and the rest of the staff – had been working themselves ragged lately, but things had finally quieted down, thanks to the new part-time staff and Emmie and Maddox. The two cousins worked so hard that he hoped they would remain at the Koneko instead of leaving with their uncle; he had the feeling that Jo felt the same. She’d certainly taken to the kids and was busy teaching Maddox an awful lot of the inn’s recipes.

Leaving the birds to Kira, Jo headed over to one of the stoves. "Is this just for you and Aya?"

"Botan will be sticking around after Omi’s lesson so he’ll be joining us." They shared a look, and he didn’t have to go into any more detail than that. With Emmie and Ani in the room, he didn’t want to mention that he, Aya and Botan would be discussing how to catch the people killing and abducting the city’s children. "So I’m sure Cassandra would appreciate you making certain he’s well-fed for once!"

"Hmph. I’ve yet to see a person come to the Koneko and leave starving – even if feeding some of your friends means I have to practically empty out all of my pantries." Jo shot him a dirty look over her shoulder while she ladled what smelled to be some lamb stew into three large bowls. "Speaking of which, will you be here for dinner?"

"Most likely not." He sidled up to Jo and very cautiously draped his left arm over her shoulders. "Mmmm, make sure there’s lot of potatoes in my bowl, okay?" He adored Jo’s lamb stew with all its vegetables and herbs, not to mention the juicy pieces of meat. "I’m a growing boy, don’t you know?"

Jo’s snort of derision just then was one of her best. "’Growing’, no. ‘Boy’, definitely… at least mentally." She tore a page out of Aya’s book and knocked her right elbow into his ribs. "You’re the type who’ll never completely grow up."

"I don’t know about that." For a moment his good mood wavered. So much had happened this past year alone which forced him to mature and face the prospect of a very long future that he took some offense to Jo’s teasing before he realized she didn’t mean to hurt him. "I finally learned to put my dirty clothes in the hamper and not leave them lying around on the floor, at least!" Good humor mostly restored, he winked at Jo and motioned to one of the bowls of stew that she just set down on a tray. "The one there on the left is mine – it has the most potatoes."

Jo looked up at the heavens as if beseeching the gods for something and then shook her head. "Right, Yotan, you’re a paragon of adulthood." She slapped his hand aside when he tried to ladle a bit more of the stew into his claimed bowl. "If you want more you can come back for seconds, not fill the bowl so it overflows!" Between glaring at him, she quickly assembled a basket filled with warm buns and put that on the tray along with a tiny crock of butter. Next, came a very large plate covered with cherry and cheese tarts, a pitcher of apple juice and some glasses, and a pot of tea. "If you’re not going to be here for dinner, you better come back for some more."

"Yes, ma’am." Happily accepting the tray of food, he bowed his head slightly in gratitude. "Trust me, I’ll be back for more of that stew."

Jo’s anger seemed to melt away into a warm smile. "I just hope there’ll be enough left for the customers! Now, get that food to Botan and Aya before it gets cold."

Before he could crack a joke about him being her obedient slave, the kitchen door swung open to admit Omi. "Hmmm, something smells really good," he said as he made a beeline to one of the room’s tables.

"There definitely won’t be enough stew left over for the customers at this rate," Jo sighed as she reached for another bowl. "Oh well, at least Ken and Miko aren’t here."

"No, they said they won’t be back until late tonight. If I want to go… home before then, I’m to leave with some other Guards," Omi explained after a cautious glance at Emmie. "I thought that – if you don’t mind – I’d hang out here and help out." There was a hint of desperate pleading to Omi’s voice and emotions that made it clear to Yohji that the kid didn’t want to go home. Apparently, Jo picked up on it as well as she merely smiled and nodded in agreement while putting together a tray of food for Omi.

"Great, you can give poor Emmie a break and wash some dishes for her." Holding the heavy tray with one hand, Yohji reached out and tousled Omi’s hair. "Be a gentleman for once, kiddo!"

He got a bright smile from Emmie and a stuck-out tongue from Omi. "Like you’re one to talk when you’re standing here with a tray of cooling food while Aya and Botan starve," Jo remarked as she set some food down in front of Omi. "Get going."

Wrinkling his nose at Omi’s smug grin, Yohji wisely did as he was told. "I’m going, I’m going, just make sure the little brat here doesn’t eat all of my stew!" That said, Yohji hurried back to the library, where he knew Aya and Botan were waiting. The stew and bread smelled so delicious that he was very eager to have some lunch. He ran into Maddox on the way, a very full basket in the boy’s hand as he left the spice pantry.

"Ah, we were worried you’d gotten lost," Botan commented when Yohji entered the dimly lit room. Closing the door behind him with his left foot, Yohji remained there for a moment until the lock ‘clicked’ into place and ensured that they wouldn’t be disturbed while they talked. Then he went over to his lover and friend so he could set the tray down between a stack of books and Aya’s chessboard.

"Nope, I was just enjoying the company of some very lovely women." He grabbed ‘his’ bowl of stew and set it in front of him to cool while he buttered one of the buns. "Omi’s gonna stick around today so eat quickly if you want seconds!"

"He’s a teenager so what’s your excuse?" Aya asked, in a tone of voice so dry that it took Yohji a moment to realize he’d just been insulted. Torn between pleasure at Aya teasing him like this and annoyance over the fact that his mate had just scored a direct hit on a sensitive topic, he settled for yanking on one of Aya’s eartails.

"Oh, hush and eat your lunch, Cat." The amusement he felt over their link made the annoyance fade. It was a good thing that Aya felt comfortable enough to tease him like this, especially when they were going to talk about a very dark subject.

He glared at Botan when the wizard dared to chuckle over the jab, and then everyone fell into a comfortable silence while they ate. All too soon the stew was gone, the bowls scraped clean with bread. The tarts didn’t last much longer, and then they stacked the empty dishes onto the tray while Aya poured them some tea.

"So, seconds now or later?" Yohji asked as his left arm snaked its way around Aya’s waist.

Botan accepted a cup of tea from Aya with a slight frown. "Later, I think. I don’t want to over-stuff myself and then have to concentrate, especially after a long lesson like today’s."

"That makes sense." Aya sipped his tea and tilted his head to the side for a moment as he made the shadows writhe about the room. "We shouldn’t be disturbed now."

"Then we might as well get this discussion started." Yohji hugged Aya a little closer and looked over at Botan. "Ken told us he didn’t find anything at the warehouse that you could use."

"No, and if this investigation was just left in the hands of humans and wizards, we’d have very little in the way of leads." Botan held his cup of tea between his hands and stared down into the steaming liquid. "As it is, the fact that the abductors are selling body parts to a wizard in exchange for magic only makes things more difficult. I’ve been going through my lists of all wizards in this area and I’ve found a few likely suspects." He stared at the tea a few seconds longer before he put it down with a sigh and reached for a sheet of paper tucked into one of the books. "Here they are."

Aya accepted the list and held it so Yohji could read it as well. Noting all the names, he couldn’t help but give his lover’s waist a squeeze and his temple a nuzzle. "I didn’t know there were so many wizards who practiced that type of magic." There was a sense of dread when he thought about what bastards like that would do if they knew a kage was in the city. Most likely, they’d destroy everything in their path for the chance to use Aya’s blood or organs for spells.

"Well, several of them are on that list for suspicion of using human sacrifices based on their research and associates," Botan explained, his voice sounding tired and disgusted. "I’m ashamed to say that my predecessor was rather… ‘liberal’ in what he allowed in the name of research. While I’ve made it abundantly clear that I won’t tolerate such magicks, there’s little I can do about already accumulated knowledge."

"Especially not when some of these wizards probably used human blood and such in their spells for several decades if not centuries." Aya set the list down on the table. "I’m amazed that you know about so many, to be honest."

"There are reasons why the Royal Wizard works very closely with the Spymaster, and it’s not just to offer the aid of spells every now and then." Botan tapped his finger at one of the names on the list. "I felt it would be best to include everyone that I knew of, but there are really only one or two whom I really suspect of helping the abductors. Jens Trautmann has a reputation of being a skilled wizard but he looks for shortcuts. I’ve reports of him buying bound blood from the city’s black market in the past year or two."

"What a nice fellow," Yohji growled as he scowled at the written name. "Who cares about another person’s suffering if he can get out of doing a bit of work?" He detested wizards like that, those who felt that all a bound could offer was blood to be used for casting spells. He’d been disgusted by them even before meeting Aya, and what had been done to his lover only honed his hatred. There was no cause whatsoever to drain a person of blood, to cause them immense pain and most likely death just to save yourself a little time and effort.

Beside him, Aya shivered minutely before he clamped down on his emotions. "What about other suspects?" Aya asked, his deep voice not betraying any of the pain he felt.

"That would be Sreedhar Razak." Botan pointed out the new name. "He’s not so much ‘lazy’, like Jens, but someone who believes in studying the full possibilities of magic. He believes blood sacrifices can take spells to entirely new levels, which would come in very handy in times of emergency or war." At that moment, Botan appeared to be aged even beyond his true span of years. "He’s received a lot of support for that belief, and wasn’t pleased at all when I forbad him to continue his studies. Since then, he’s been very careful not to draw any attention to himself. I can see him agreeing to help the abductors not so much for money as for the chance to obtain fresh blood and organs normally denied to him."

He sat back in his seat and folded his arms over his chest, his shoulders hunched forward as if in exhaustion. "However, the same could be said for most of the wizards on that list. They’re either willing to do anything for money, believe that sacrifices can greatly aid spellcasting or would be looking for something to make casting their own spells easier." Botan felt just as much disgust as Yohji at these wizards, and a great deal of shame. "I know you don’t hold most wizards in a very good light, Aya," he said, his voice quiet but earnest. "However, we’re not all like these people. Please remember that."

"I wouldn’t consider you a friend if I felt that way about all wizards," was Aya’s response, just as quiet and earnest as Botan’s. "However, that’s not to say that I look forward to meeting more of your kind."

"Understandable." Some of the tension left Botan, he unfolded his arms and sat up straight in his chair.

Yohji picked up the list in his right hand. "We can’t really rule out all of these wizards, not if you think they also have sufficient motive as Trautmann and Razak. So what do we do now?"

"I could start with these two and pay them a visit tonight." Aya reached for the paper so he could read the names and their addresses better. "I might be able to find some trace of the boy’s energy."

If there was one thing Yohji was certain about, it was that he wasn’t too happy with the idea of Aya sneaking around some wizard’s house, kage or no kage. There were people who would love nothing more than to drain his mate dry and chop him up into bits – keeping him alive all the while. "There’s got to be a better way to go about this. I don’t think you going anywhere near these guys is a good idea."

Aya’s emotions blazed over their link once more, but instead of pain and horror there was now anger and annoyance. "What is the purpose of this discussion if it’s not to inform us of some suspects who *we* can investigate?" His eyes bright with anger, Aya turned in his seat to face Yohji directly. "You may have some of my talent with locks and can’t be sensed by magical means, but you haven’t been spying on people for over ten years. *I* have. I’ve done this many times before, Yohji." There was a slight snarl to his voice.

Yohji felt his back stiffen and his eyes narrowed in the face of his mate’s temper. "Yeah, well how many of the bastards were fooling around with blood, Aya? All it takes is one of these guys getting so much as the slightest hint that a kage might be alive and they’ll stop at nothing short of tearing this city apart to find you." He could feel Aya’s anger increase, which strengthened his own. "Dammit, this is not about me coddling you!" he snapped.

"What did you think I was going to do with the information that Botan brought us, Yohji?" Aya asked, his voice quiet but rough.

"Uh…." Dammit, right now wasn’t the time for Aya to be logical. "I thought…." What *had* he been thinking? It was so difficult to fight past the impulse to grab Aya and sit on him, to make sure he was safe. Yohji struggled with his demon soul as he tried to push back the need to protect his mate. "Dammit, I thought maybe you could do something here, not go out and sneak around these guys’ homes," he replied after a few moments to gather his scattered wits. He really hadn’t thought things through, not after seeing that poor boy’s body. "Can’t you have the shadows or the damned shinigami track the wizard down, now that you have some ideas of where to look?"

Aya’s anger faded slightly as he shook his head. "No, I can’t. The shinigami won’t waste their time someplace where there won’t be an impending death, and I can’t use the shadows to track down the boy’s energy." He slumped back a little in the chair. "At least… I don’t think so. There’s still a lot that I’m trying to figure out but so far, I haven’t been able to do anything like that."

"You’re still very young, Aya," Botan said, speaking up for the first time in several minutes. "Everything I’ve learned about bound abilities indicates that it takes years if not decades for many talents to emerge."

Yohji shot him a grateful glance as he hugged Aya to his side. Being a smart man, Botan probably hadn’t wanted to get caught in the middle of a fight. From Aya he picked up a sense of familiar pain and regret and wondered if his lover was thinking about all those years spent at Timbergrey. Aya was very well experienced in the more physical aspects of his powers, of hiding himself and others, locking or unlocking doors, in turning shadows solid or using them as wards. All of those were things he would have used during missions that the Takatori sent him on. But, from what Aya had told him, his lover hadn’t been able to experiment with his power very much when he wasn’t training or on a mission. The Takatori hadn’t wanted him to grow too strong to be controlled, after all.

Continuing in the face of silence, Botan cleared his throat. "If I may make a suggestion?" He waited until both Yohji and Aya nodded. "I’ve already discussed this with Birman, and she has some of her spies watching the most likely suspects. They’ll keep track of the wizards and note who they meet with or sell any wares to." He picked up the pot of tea and poured himself some more while they listened. "That’s one angle covered." When he held up the pot to see if they wanted more to drink, Aya nodded and held out his cup. "The Guard feels they’re close to finding the kidnappers. If you were to help them with that, you’d more than likely find some charmed items as well. Between you and me, Aya, I’m sure we’ll figure out a way to track the wizard down before they hear about the arrests and try to destroy any evidence."

It was a pretty good suggestion, all in all, and one that would keep Aya away from any wizards until it was time to take them into custody. Yohji didn’t have too much of a problem with that. "What happens once we figure out who made the charms? I’ve no doubt that Aya will capture the wizard for us with relatively little trouble, but they’re gonna figure out what he is." That was the only thing that worried him.

Botan looked directly in his eyes. "Whoever we catch, they will be someone who broke the law and used the death of an innocent for magic and profit. I have no problem in handing out a death sentence over such a wizard."

And, as the Royal Wizard, Botan had that power. Better to put a wizard down with no scruples than allow them to possibly work more magic. "Just checking," Yohji said, his lips turned up into a bitter smile. "You won’t hear me arguing for the bastard’s life."

"No, I didn’t think I would." Botan sipped his tea, his gaze directed down to the table, his brows furrowed.

Tapping his cup, Aya gathered their attention. "Ah, I just thought of something I can do. If you say that Birman’s agents are watching these wizards, see if they can retrieve an item or two from each one. Any charms they made will contain an element of their own personal energy that I can read if I touch something they had near them for any length of time." He fidgeted in his seat and then picked up his cup to sip his tea.

"That’s a great idea, Cat." Yohji hugged his mate close and pressed a kiss against his left temple. "And once you have proof of who created the charms, we can go straight to them."

"A very good plan indeed." Botan set his cup aside and began to tap on his copper bracelet. While he sent the message, Yohji slid the fingers of his left hand into the hair on the back of Aya’s neck.

"I’m not coddling you," he whispered in his mate’s ear. "I swear I’m not. But the thought of you creeping around some wizard’s house almost gives me a heart attack. I know you can take them down in a battle, but if they suspect what you are before then…." He’d destroy anyone who tried to hurt Aya.

"Yotan…." Aya sighed and leaned against him, a warm bundle in his arms that helped to calm Yohji down in the face of such dark thoughts. "They can’t suspect what they can’t sense. You’re the only one who’s been able to do that when I’m cloaked by shadows, but Botan’s plan makes sense." He gently knocked his elbow into Yohji’s ribs. "It’s the abductors who are doing the killing, so I’d rather stop them than spy on some wizards."

"Such a smart cat," Yohji teased, and couldn’t help but to yank on an eartail. He was relieved that Aya wasn’t going to push the issue.

Just as his lover began to growl and snap at his hand that he hastily jerked back, Botan cleared his throat again. "Ah, not to interrupt, but Birman said that her agents shouldn’t have a problem collecting some items from the suspects. In fact, a few things should probably arrive tonight." He smiled in relief and leaned back in his chair. "She’s very happy with the idea and – I warn you now – sees a lot of potential in such a talent." Yohji groaned at the bit of news while Aya sighed wearily and Botan laughed. "I’m sorry, I should’ve expected her to latch onto it and figure out how to put Aya to use on other cases. That said, what about those seconds we talked about?" The wizard stared rather forlornly at the empty bowls. "I did mention that Omi’s lesson was rather intense today, didn’t I?"

"Maybe a time or three, you old leech," Yohji grumbled and forced himself to let go of his mate. "I guess I’ll go work the old charm on Jo and see if I can’t get her to feed us some more." He couldn’t help but smile brightly when Aya joined Botan in laughing at that bit of silliness. "I’ll be right back." He gave Aya a wink and picked up the tray of empty dishes.

*******

"Ready to go, Reiichi?"

"Of course, Yohji." Reiichi smoothed his hand down the front of his tunic and followed Yohji and Aya into the kitchen. "I’ve just been waiting here for the last ten minutes."

The very satisfied grin Yohji gave him as they entered the kitchen, his skin practically glowing, and the way Aya bowed his head forward so his hair hid his face made Reiichi chuckle. Oh, he’d be willing to bet quite a lot of money that he knew what had kept his friends just now. If it didn’t make sense for Yohji to feed before heading out to help with the investigation, and that Aya would end up even more embarrassed, he’d make some sort of sly comment about them being late. However, this time he decided to let it slide. There would be ample opportunities to tease the couple in the future.

As they made their way over to the coat rack and back door, Emmie, who had been sitting down by one of the fireplaces, suddenly hurried over to them. "Yohji! You’re not staying for dinner?" she asked, a crushed expression on her face.

"Sorry, Sunshine, but Reiichi wants us to hang out with a few of his friends." Yohji reached out to tousle the child’s hair while Aya walked right past them and picked his cloak from off the rack. Reiichi followed his friend, a little worried at the way that Aya ignored Emmie. He would barely look at her let alone say anything to her these last few days. While Reiichi knew that Aya was a quiet person, usually he was a bit friendlier than that to someone the Koneko had taken in as a stray.

Yohji seemed to notice this too as he glanced at Aya with a slightly peeved expression on his face, then turned to nod at Jo and Emmie. "We’ll be back late, so we’ll see everyone again tomorrow," he said as he grabbed his coat.

"Be careful," Mickey called out from his spot near the oven as he pulled out what looked to be a heavy roast and Jo echoed the sentiment.

"Oh." Emmie stood there for a moment, and then her crest-fallen expression changed into a bright smile. "One minute!" She dashed over to the table where she’d been sitting and grabbed a folded napkin. "I was saving these for you since you seem to really like them." She handed the napkin to Yohji, a slight blush on her cheeks.

Pulling his coat on, Yohji tugged it straight before he accepted the gift. Unfolding the napkin, he revealed several cherry and cheese tarts. "Thanks." He hugged her close, which made her cheeks turn a brighter shade of pink. "Good night, Sunshine."

Stuttering something that sounded like ‘good night’ in return, Emmie slowly stepped away from Yohji and wandered back to the table where her cousin Maddox was busy flipping through one of Jo’s cookbooks.

Once suitably garbed, the three of them stepped outside. Reiichi squinted when things seemed darker than they usually were this time of the evening, especially with the moon waxing to almost full. He shivered a little from the cold air and carefully wrapped his scarf closer around his face.

"Here, Cat, you’re the one who really likes these," Yohji said as he handed over the tarts.

Aya, encased completely in black from the hood of his cloak to his boots, just shrugged and headed for one of the garden’s gates as he ignored the tarts in Yohji’s hand. "She gave them to you."

"Only because I made a point to get a lot of them during lunch since you like them so much." Yohji held them out a moment longer before he growled and rewrapped the tarts and stuck them in one of his coat’s pockets. "Dammit, if you don’t want them I’m sure Ken will."

Aya shrugged again. "That’s fine." His voice sounded cold and distant, a tone he didn’t normally take with his lover. Yohji and Reiichi exchanged a confused look and followed him out onto the road.

"What the hell is your problem, Aya? I’ve never known you to turn down sweets before," Yohji growled as he hurried to catch up with his lover. Reiichi did the same, his left leg gave him some trouble when he tried to keep up with Aya’s fast pace. His friend usually did a much better job remembering to accommodate his crippled pace, but Aya was clearly upset about something. He wondered if it had anything to do with the case.

Appearing fed up with his lover’s attitude, Yohji grabbed Aya’s left shoulder and forced him to come to a halt. "Slow down, dammit, and tell me what’s wrong." He glared at Aya, who shot Reiichi an apologetic look before his expression turned carefully blank. "You were perfectly fine until we got to the kitchen. What’s wrong?"

They really didn’t have time for this, not with how stubborn Aya could be, but thankfully the man seemed to realize that. Aya sighed and gave Yohji’s hand on his shoulder a squeeze. "It’s nothing, Yotan. I’m sorry." The two men stared at each other for a moment, and then Aya nodded in the direction they’d been headed. "Ken and Miko are expecting us, we should get going."

"They can wait two more minutes. What’s wrong, Cat?" Yohji asked as his hand began to stroke Aya’s cheek. "Something really bothered you back there."

Normally, Reiichi didn’t try to involve himself with his friends’ lovelife, but aware that Yuushi would snap at him if they showed up late for tonight’s stakeout, he sighed and decided to try and hurry things up. All too often, Yohji and Aya forgot about things such as time and other people when they got wrapped up in each other. "Does this have something to do with Emmie, Aya? I noticed that you choose not to interact much with her."

That earned him a dirty look from his friend, but it also made Aya step away from Yohji and begin walking once again. "I don’t have much in common with a little girl," he replied after a few steps, his voice dripping with ice.

"That doesn’t mean you can’t be civil to her, you know," Yohji said as he fell along at Aya’s right side. Reiichi followed the two of them, grateful to be moving once again and worried that he’d set off another argument. And there was the fact that no one seemed to be paying any attention to them, which was a little odd considering how they’d been stopped in the middle of a busy sidewalk.

"I’m not rude," Aya snapped back, obviously stung by Yohji’s comment. "I just don’t happen to fuss over her like you and everyone else does. No wonder she follows you around like a little puppy," he snorted, brows furrowed over gleaming eyes that possessed a worrying hint of silver when he glared at Yohji. Reiichi began to regret he’d ever said anything.

"What the hell?" Yohji glared right back at his lover – and then suddenly smiled. "I don’t believe this, you’re jealous of a kid. I should’ve recognized this earlier but I thought you were still mad about-" He shut up with a sudden gulp.

If anything, Aya’s eyes turned even more silver. "I’m not jealous. She’s just a child. I… I just think it’s ridiculous how you let her fawn all over you, that’s all." That said, he jerked his hood forward until his face was hidden.

Yohji glanced back and shared a wry grin with Reiichi before he cautiously slid an arm around Aya’s shoulders. "I don’t let her ‘fawn all over’ me," he said in a soft tone of voice. "She reminds me a lot of Omi when he was that age so I guess I’m a bit friendlier with her than I’d normally be with some other kid. And I guess since I’m being so friendly, she’s just responding to that and being nice back. But that’s no reason to be so cold to her and all pissed off at me." He gave Aya a hug. "Okay?"

Everyone was quiet for about half a block, and then Reiichi decided to risk saying something else. He felt that there was a lot more going on here than was being said but knew this wasn’t the time to discuss it, so it would be best to change the topic. "Ah, Aya, are you using your talent, by any means?" he asked, a little disconcerted by the fact that he couldn’t seem to attract any of the passerby’s attention.

Pushing back his hood, Aya turned to look at him, his eyes a mix of violet and silver. "Yes. I didn’t want anyone to see us leave the Koneko to go meet Ken and the others." His tone wasn’t as cold as before and his shoulders relaxed beneath Yohji’s arm.

"That’s a very good idea." Reiichi wished that his friend would have mentioned it earlier, but then again, Aya had been distracted. He gave Yohji a meaningful look just then, one that Yohji frowned at and shook his head in confusion, which made Reiichi sigh. For someone who was supposed to be able to sense others’ emotions – especially his mate’s – he could be a bit dense at times. Clearly there was more upsetting Aya than some young girl with a crush on Yohji, but that was for the two bounds to work out, not him. Besides, there was no way he was going to meddle in the affairs of a jealous kage. Having studied history as a hobby, he knew that people who did just that tended to end up splattered about the scenery.

Yohji stared at him a little longer, then hugged Aya closer as he tugged his lover’s hood back. "Hey, do you want those tarts now, Cat?"

For such a supposedly smart man, Yohji could be a blithering idiot at times. Reiichi sighed again and slowed his pace a little to put more space between him and the couple.

There was a spitting sound from Aya, followed by a yelp of pain from Yohji. "I don’t want any tarts. Just… shi-ne," he muttered, his voice furious and eyes gleaming once more. He shook himself free of Yohji’s arm and stomped two paces ahead.

"What the hell is his problem tonight?" Yohji wondered aloud while he nursed what had to be a sore set of ribs. Reiichi wondered if Aya was pissed off enough right now to allow him to try and whap some sense into Yohji’s head, but decided the risk wasn’t worth it.

He tried giving his clueless friend some advice instead. "Yotan, I believe it would be a very good thing to not mention Emmie or the tarts right now." Aya had to be very upset to resort to swearing like that, and at his own mate, no less.

"I don’t see what he’s so ticked off about, she’s just a little girl." Yohji pitched his voice low, but Reiichi suspected that Aya still heard him from the way his shoulders hunched beneath his cloak.

He wasn’t going to try and explain right now how jealousy wasn’t known to be a very rational emotion, especially when the person feeling it seemed to have little experience with it. He also wasn’t going to mention how Yohji did nothing to soothe that emotion with the way he acted toward Emmie, with the pet name and affectionate displays. After all, his job was to just make sure that both men remained safe and free, not to try and fix their lovelife when they were both being idiots.

But he also didn’t like the fact that two people he’d become rather close to in the last few months were very troubled about something, so against his better judgment, he tried to help. "Well… I do think that Emmie has a bit of a crush on you, Yohji." He was very careful not to mention Aya at this point, to not imply in any way that the kage was jealous. "I think that’s why she gave you those tarts tonight."

Yohji blinked at the news, clearly stunned. Reiichi wondered if succubae-bounds really were good empaths with the way that his friend had clearly failed to pick up on something like that. Then again, Yohji was used to people falling head over heels for him, it seemed. "She’s just a kid."

"She’s not that young," Reiichi pointed out. All the while, he kept a careful watch on Aya, who seemed determined to ignore them as they made their way into a seedier part of the city’s eastern Pleasure district. "In fact, I think I was right about her age when I fell hopelessly in love with my best friend’s older sister." He smiled a little at that bit of reminiscence.

Clearly not convinced, Yohji shook his head. "She’s just a sweet kid."

Maybe he could get away with one or two smacks…. "In my honest opinion, she’s rather smitten with you," he tried to explain once more. "You’re a very attractive, friendly man, Yohji," not to mention a very powerful succubae-bound who could snare even Reiichi’s attention from time to time, "so it’s not that surprising that she likes you." From up ahead, a very loud snort of derision could be heard.

Glaring at his mate, Yohji waved Reiichi’s attempt to clarify things aside. "She might be a little sweet on me, but I doubt she’s infatuated. She’s just happy that *someone* is being nice to her." He glared a little harder at Aya’s back. "If anyone’s ‘smitten’, it’s her cousin. I’ve felt a wave of lust from him a time or two, and it’s not just directed at me." The glare grew even more potent, but this time it didn’t seem aimed at Aya. "But then again, he’s at that age," Yohji growled as he gave his lover a possessive look.

Reiichi did something he rarely did, and that was to admit defeat. He clearly wasn’t getting anywhere with this discussion right now. Maybe because of his true nature, Yohji couldn’t seem to differentiate between innocent infatuation and affection. Personally, Reiichi felt that Emmie had it bad for his friend, and clearly Aya felt the same. But things would have to work out on their own as he wasn’t about to meddle any more. He had a case to solve right now.

Changing the subject once more, he braved approaching Aya and nudged his elbow into his friend’s side. "Thank you for cloaking us like this. With my luck, one of my sister’s friends would somehow hear I was in the area and my entire family would feel ashamed." He smiled at his joke and was rather surprised and very pleased when Aya echoed the expression. "Though I could always claim that Yuushi led me astray should that happen."

"More like it would be the other way around," Yohji grumbled as he caught up to the two of them. "Where the hell are we supposed to meet Ken and Miko, again?"

"At an apartment above the Bucking Stallion," Reiichi answered, and was unable to hold back a sigh at the bar’s horrid name. One didn’t expect much class in this part of the city, not when people came here to pay cheaply for sexual acts that were normally frowned upon by most of society. The truth was, even if Aya hadn’t cloaked them in shadows – and Yohji wasn’t a succubae-bound – no one would probably pay them much attention. This was the type of neighborhood where you only focused on what you wanted, not the people around you unless they could provide you with that need. Which made it the perfect area for someone hoping to abduct a child or two.

He just hoped that the criminals took the bait Naru and Elise were providing soon, before another child died. All that really mattered right now was preventing another such tragedy from happening.

*******

"There, all done." Ani pushed the last of the dirty bed linens into the laundry shoot and turned to smile at Emmie. "No more dirty sheets to change… well, for today," she laughed.

Emmie joined in, happy that the tedious chore was finished. While she liked Ani and the stories the young woman would tell about the Koneko’s customers to help pass the time while they worked, changing sheets was almost as bad as being stuck washing dishes during dinner. "What now?"

"Hmmm, now we go see if Jo has anything else for you to do." Ani smoothed her hands down her hips and headed for the back staircase that only the Koneko’s staff and permanent residents used. "I get a bit of a break before the dinner shift."

There were a few seconds of silence while Emmie tried to decide if she should dare to ask a question or not. "Uhm, are you going to see your… girlfriend now?" She was still trying to get used to the idea that women could date women and men other men. For some reason, Maddox seemed to have adapted to the odd relationships they witnessed here in the city, but she still had a little bit of trouble. Maybe because she could easily hear the whispers of her cousins in her mind as they talked about what had happened to Miriam and Leah when the two girls had been caught together.

But the way Ani’s whole face brightened at the question, the way her dark eyes sparkled with happiness and she lifted a hand to her mouth as if to hold back a giggle made Emmie feel a little ashamed that she wondered why the kind girl didn’t want to date a boy instead. "No, not during my break," Ani explained. "Since I’ve over a dozen skeins of yarn I want to sort and roll, I’d do that before dinner. But we’ve plans for tonight, so I hope things aren’t too crazy here for once!" She laughed and shook her head as she took the first step down. "There are no festivals, celebrations or gatherings that I know about today, so maybe I’ll be able to get out of here early enough."

Emmie felt a twinge of envy at the thought that Ani could go wherever she wanted in the city, and without an escort at that. While Maddox didn’t seem to mind spending most of his time in the kitchen learning to cook, she got a bit bored once her chores were done and all she could do was hang out around the Koneko. Yohji wasn’t always here for her to talk to and the books in the library weren’t very exciting, in her opinion. They were mainly history texts intended for adults, and she couldn’t even figure out what language half of the books were written in.

But she didn’t complain to Ani as they made their way back down to the kitchen. After working all morning, she really didn’t think that Jo would give her some more chores to do. Since it was before the dinner rush, perhaps she could go sit in the main room, find someone like a Guard or Koyu to talk to, or even listen to the Harper warm up. The music that Koyu played was so beautiful, she wished that Jo and Yohji would let her stay after dinner to listen to it and watch everyone dance. Maybe Yohji could teach her a simple dance of two….

The next thing she knew, she was back on the first floor. "The beds are done, Jo. Is there anything else that you want us to do?" Ani asked once they pushed the doors open and entered the kitchen, where Jo and Maddox were busy basting what looked to be several stuffed geese and a humongous pig.

"You’re off until dinner, Ani," Jo said with a shake of her head. Then she turned her attention to Emmie. "Let’s see… Touya finished cleaning and restocking the bathing rooms about half an hour ago, Kira and Mickey are taking care of the main room, and the dishes are all done for once." Her usually stern expression softened into a warm smile. "I think all I need for you to do right now is go fetch Yohji for me. He should be in the library."

Happy about not needing to clean any more and a chance to see Yohji, she hurried from the kitchen, not even pausing to give Jo an affirmative answer. Stepping into the new wing of the inn, which still smelled of cut wood and varnish, she practically skipped into the library. "Yohji! Jo wants to see you," she called out as she entered the room.

For some odd reason, all of the shutters on the windows were closed and the room was lit by a couple of candles. Not exactly the best light to read in, but the four men gathered in the room didn’t seem to be interested in books. Yuushi was stretched out sound asleep on one of the room’s leather couches, his boots off and his uniform jacket mostly unbuttoned. He didn’t even twitch at the sound of her voice. Aya ignored her as well although he was awake, but she didn’t take it personally since his attention was obviously focused on the chessboard in front of him. Reiichi, his opponent, glanced up from the board and gave her a warm smile before he returned to studying Aya’s latest move.

"Jo, eh? She’s not in a bad mood, is she?" Yohji asked in an exaggerated whimper. When she shook her head, his face brightened with a smile. "Ah, in that case, I guess I better go see what she wants before she chases me around the inn with her rolling pin in hand." He was seated in a chair that was pulled right beside Aya’s, and once he finished talking, he turned to his quiet friend and tugged on one of Aya’s long eartails. "I’ll be back in a bit, Cat. Whip Reiichi’s ass while I’m gone, okay?"

Aya, his eyes never leaving the chess board, hissed just like a cat and batted Yohji’s hand aside. Emmie could easily understand why Yohji referred to his friend as ‘Cat’, as Aya definitely seemed like one. She was a bit envious of all the attention he got from Yohji, especially when he acted as if it bothered him half the time. Right now, he didn’t even turn to see the pout on Yohji’s face at being rebuffed. "I can’t win if you’re bothering me," he replied, his voice cold. "Go away."

Yohji pouted a little more for a few seconds, and then actually smiled at Aya’s coldness. "I’ll miss you, too." Aya’s response was a weary sigh which, for some reason made, Reiichi laugh out loud.

Yohji seemed to enjoy tormenting the quiet man, as he actually ran the fingers of his right hand through Aya’s hair and pulled once more on an eartail. There was more hissing and Yohji actually scrambled out of his chair to get out of Aya’s reach. Aya looked up from the chessboard long enough to glare at him and then returned his attention to the game.

Despite having ticked off his friend, Yohji appeared to be in good spirits. "Let’s get going, Sunshine, and leave the grumpy people to play their silly game." He winked at her while Reiichi snorted in derision and Aya could be heard uttering another weary, put-upon sigh.

"Do you always play with Aya like that?" she asked, once they were out in the hallway. Yohji did seem to delight in ruffling Aya’s feathers. She’d been meaning to ask that question the last few days, but it was pretty rare to find Yohji without Aya by his side.

Laughing at the question, Yohji shook his head. "Not always. He needs to lighten up a bit, so I do my best to try and make him have some fun." His expression turned rueful. "It’s just a shame that we seem to have completely different ideas of what’s fun."

She almost laughed upon hearing that. Yohji and Aya did seem like polar opposites of each other, so much so that she had a difficult time imagining why they were friends. Yohji was funny and friendly and talkative, while Aya barely talked about anything other than the garden or books or chess, if he said anything at all.

They quickly found themselves in the kitchen where Jo was clearly waiting for them. Yohji came to a stop in front of her and executed a low bow. "At your service, milady. What is it you need require of me? You merely have to name it and it’ll be yours even if I have to take on all of Esset and a dozen dragons as well to claim it for such a lovely maiden."

Jo’s lips twitched as if she wanted to smile, but all she really did was arch an eyebrow. "Right. I’ll believe that – and that the sun won’t fall from the sky tonight come nightfall."

"Ah, Jo, you wound me so." Yohji clutched his chest as if it pained him. "Why must you hurt me so cruelly? You know I adore you more than anyone else." He sniffed back imaginary tears.

This time, Jo did actually laugh. "You’re too much," she said as she shook her head. "Since you’ve more than enough energy to try and get yourself into some trouble, I doubt you’ll have any problem going to the market for me." She handed a folded slip of paper to him.

"Only for you, oh dearest one." Yohji blew a kiss to the older woman, which made her laugh again. He smiled and accepted the piece of paper with a flourish, then turned to look at Emmie, who had been watching the exchange in amazement. She couldn’t believe the way Yohji would tease people, nor how no one seemed to mind. Everyone liked Yohji, except maybe Aya, who just seemed to tolerate him most of the time.

"You feel like helping me do some shopping, Sunshine?"

It took Emmie a few seconds to realize that he was talking to her. She blinked in surprise, and then quickly and vigorously nodded. "Oh, can I? Really?" She turned to look at Jo and smiled widely when Jo nodded in agreement. "Great!" Very happy to be allowed out of the Koneko – and in Yohji’s company at that – she actually bounced a few times on her toes.

"I’ll take that as a ‘yes’!" Yohji winked again and then motioned toward the door. "Let’s get going. The market will be really crowded soon." He strolled over to the door and grabbed her cloak, which he helped slip onto her shoulders. "It’s pretty cold out there, so bundle up."

"Okay." She fastened her cloak and actually slipped a pair of gloves on that Kira had given her. Yohji shrugged into his coat but didn’t bother with gloves; instead, he tugged a pair of dark glasses out of his coat pocket to slip on. Once they were ready, they stepped outside.

The weather was indeed on the cold side, mostly from the strong wind that blew from the north but it was still sunny. She was very grateful for her cloak and gloves but Yohji didn’t seem bothered by the cold. "What do we need to get?" she asked as they left the walled garden.

Unfolding the note, Yohji frowned while he read it. "Uhm, five pounds of white sugar, some candied ginger, a bag of almonds and a couple of pounds of crimini mushrooms." He wrinkled his nose. "I hope this isn’t some new recipe she’s trying." Glancing at her, he waggled his eyebrows. "I think we better be very careful what we eat tonight!"

She couldn’t help but giggle. "I don’t think all of that’s meant for the same dish." At least, she hoped it wasn’t. Working in the kitchen these last few days, she’d seem some very odd recipes, but almost everything had tasted wonderful. She didn’t care how good Maddox told her it was, the apple cranberry pies they’d made the other day weren’t included in that group.

"Ah well, I’m sure the sugar, almonds and candied ginger are meant for some sort of dessert, which should make Aya very happy. The mushrooms are probably supposed to go into a stuffing or a stew." Yohji stared at the list for a minute while he easily headed down the crowded street without bumping into anyone. When they stepped onto the main street, which was even more crowded, he put the list into a coat pocket and then reached for her hand. "Here, stay close. At this time of day, everyone’s trying to get something to make dinner."

A warm glow filled her as he held his hand. "Where do we need to go to get everything?"

"Let’s see – the sugar, ginger and almonds should be easy to find. We can go to Eleanor’s shop since she always has the purest sugar and nearby is Tien Xu’s shop, which sells nuts." His eyes lit up with joy. "Barton’s stall isn’t that far away, either." At her curious look, he smiled widely. "Barton sells the best almond cookies around. I think it would be a good idea if I brought some back with me. As for the mushrooms, DeSalle usually has a nice selection in stock, and if not, he’ll be able to tell us who does."

"Oh, okay." She walked closely beside him, a little nervous to be stuck in such a large crowd. "You seem to know where everything is," she said with amazement.

Yohji smiled and made her step aside so a horse-drawn wagon could pass in front of them. "Well, I’ve been going to the market since I was about half your age. My mom showed me around for a few years and then sent me out on errands much like this one. You can’t own an inn without doing a lot of shopping." There was a wistful tone to Yohji’s voice and a faraway look in his eyes.

She’d heard Yohji and the others mention his mother, who seemed to have passed away a few years ago. The woman had obviously been much respected and loved from the always kind and reverent way they talked about her. As for Emmie’s own mother…. "We… we don’t really have a market at Potwick. A few people go down to Muragh or Stonewall several times a year for supplies but that’s about it."

Yohji motioned for them to turn down another crowded street, this one lined with bakeries and bread shops. "So you didn’t get sent on many errands, I imagine."

"No. Sometimes Dad would send me over to one of my aunts’ or uncles’ houses to ask for something, though." A wave of sadness poured through her at the memory of her father, of how absentminded he could be so they always seemed to run out of stuff like flour or tea.

The next thing she knew, Yohji’s arm was around her shoulders and he gave her a hug. "You really miss him, don’t you?" he asked in a soft voice.

Somehow, Yohji always seemed to know what she was feeling and was there to comfort her when she was sad. "Yeah." She sniffed the tears back and rubbed her right hand under her nose while she looked up at him. "Do you… do you miss your mom?"

"Every day, Sunshine." He brushed aside the hair that was falling into her eyes. "I keep thinking that she should be here to see how happy I am, at how well the Koneko is doing now." He offered her a wan smile. "You always miss someone you love when they’re not around anymore. But I’ve found that the best way to ease the pain a bit is to do something that you know they’d approve of, something that would make them happy."

"Oh." She wasn’t sure if her father would be happy that she ran away from Potwick, although she didn’t think he would have liked the way his family had treated her, either. But she thought he might understand, at least. "My dad…," she said, her voice halting from pain and uncertainty. "Well, he seemed a bit different from everyone at home and spent a few years wandering the country with my Uncle Glenn. So I don’t think he wanted me to be like the rest of my cousins, you know. He said I didn’t have to get married just because someone told me to or to spend my life farming." She glanced out of the corners of her eyes to see if Yohji was listening.

He seemed to be and even gave her an encouraging hug. "Mom let Mickey, Teddy and I know that we didn’t have to stay at the Koneko if we wanted to do something other than run an inn. But Mickey loves the Koneko, Teddy’s happy wherever Koyu is and Koyu likes the Koneko as well, and I…."

She blinked at the mention of Teddy and Koyu, and was just about to ask Yohji if they were really that good of friends when Yohji continued. "I had my reasons for staying home," his cheeks flushed the slightest bit pink just then, "before and after I joined the Guard. When I quit… well, the Koneko gave me something to do. Which was a good thing, as I’d have missed Aya if I hadn’t been there." Yohji smiled, the expression so happy and warm that she stumbled on the brick road. Thankfully, Yohji caught her before she could fall.

"Careful, Emmie. If I bring you back all scratched up and bruised, Jo will have my head." He made certain she was back on her feet before he let go of her shoulder.

Once again, she was very tempted to ask him about being a Guard, to find out why he’d left the organization but she didn’t want to do anything to ruin the happy expression on his face. The last time she’d mentioned his old job, he seemed sad throughout dinner. So she thought up another question instead. "So where did Aya live before the Koneko?" No one at the inn talked very much about the quiet man, but she’d heard people mention a couple of times about how Aya hadn’t lived there for very long.

Even though she hadn’t meant to disturb Yohji with her question, it seemed to do just that since he stopped smiling and fell quiet. His expression was distant, as if he was thinking very intently about something. "Aya’s from a little village in the west," he said finally, while they made their way down the crowded sidewalk. "Listen, Emmie, there’s something I want to ask from you." He pulled her into the covered doorway of one of the street’s many shops. "I know you’re always curious about things, so much that if ‘Cat’ wasn’t taken by Aya, I think that would be your new nickname." His serious demeanor was shed long enough for him to give the tip of her nose a squeeze and then it returned just as quickly. "But please, don’t ask too many questions about Aya. In fact, it’s a good idea not to ask too many questions about a lot of the Koneko’s staff, if you haven’t figured it out already. The people who tend to stay on at the inn didn’t have the happiest of lives before they arrived, and Aya’s certainly not an exception. It’s really painful for him to talk about his past. Do you understand?"

She nodded as she thought about how no one at the Koneko really talked about anything that had to do about their pasts other than working at the Koneko. She knew that Mickey and Teddy were Yohji’s adoptive brothers, and it seemed as if Jo, Kira, Ani and Touya had always been at the inn. But now that Yohji had said something, she remembered Jo or Kira changing the conversation the couple of times she asked them about what they’d done before working at the inn. Afraid that she’d somehow hurt such kind people who had taken her and Maddox in, she suddenly felt guilty. "I haven’t… did I ask too many questions?"

As if he knew just how worried she was, Yohji shook his head and gave her a gentle hug. "No, you certainly haven’t. My mom always told us kids that no one ever learned anything without asking them, so we don’t mind. The only reason I said anything at all is because you asked about Aya and I can’t say anything without breaking a confidence he has in me. The same goes for the rest of the staff. Everyone’s happy now, but that wasn’t always the case. The Koneko has a history of taking strays in and giving them a home." As he spoke, he nudged her back onto the sidewalk.

Strays. She’d heard that word before at the inn, and hadn’t quite understood what it meant. In fact, she thought that maybe Jo and others were referring to the cats that Ichiro allowed in the stable to keep the rats away and the horses company. "Yohji-"

"Ah, here we are! Now try your best to look a bit hungry, Sunshine, and maybe Eleanor will give us something sweet to sample. The last time I was here, she handed out these *wonderful* candied apples." Yohji stopped in front of a store that had yellow and green checkered awnings above the windows and doors and motioned for her to go inside. "Hmmm, come to think about it, Aya really liked those, so maybe I should pick up some if she still has them."

She didn’t have a chance to ask any more about strays or Aya or Teddy and Koyu since Yohji shooed her inside the shop in front of him. Once inside, the air was scented with something that smelled so *good* and a small, thin woman with graying brown hair pulled back into a bun smiled and greeted them both. Any and all questions fled before the sample tray covered with several slices of what looked to be delicious fudge was held in front of her.

"Yohji! I was thinking it’s been much too long since you’ve visited. Here I was afraid that you’d forgotten about me!" The woman smiled at Emmie and lifted the tray in her hand slightly. "And you’ve brought another friend. The both of you will have to try some of this fudge for me."

"With such a wonderful greeting like that, how could I possibly forget about you, Eleanor?" Yohji went over to the shopkeeper and, after handing the tray to Emmie, gave the woman a great big hug, his arms wrapped around her so tightly that he lifted her off the floor so he could give her a kiss on the cheek. "The only thing sweeter than your goods is you yourself, darling."

Eleanor laughed at the flattery but kept an arm around Yohji’s waist once he set her back down on the ground and let her go. Yohji didn’t seem to mind in the slightest, and even draped an arm over her shoulders. "You’re a shameless flatterer, Yohji," she chided.

"Only to those I truly adore." He gave her a wink and another kiss. Then he turned to Emmie and selected a piece of fudge from the tray she was still holding. "Especially those I adore who make such wonderful treats." The expression on his face as he chewed the fudge was one of true bliss. "Eleanor, when are you going to leave your husband and marry me?" he asked in a voice that was little more than a husky moan. Emmie felt her cheeks grow hot and even Eleanor’s took on a hint of pink.

"Keep asking me just like that, and maybe one day I’ll forget that you simply love me for my baking," the small woman said after a few seconds. With a coy expression on her face, she tilted her head to the side and gave Yohji an appraising look. "Then again, I think I could live with that."

Feeling jealous at the way Yohji smiled at the shopkeeper, Emmie picked up a piece of fudge and popped it into her mouth. The flavor of rich chocolate and roasted walnuts hit her all at once and she let slip a little moan of her own. That seemed to get Yohji and Eleanor’s attention and both of the adults smiled.

"Ah, I see that my recipe turned out very well." Eleanor nodded as she stepped away from Yohji. "Would you like to take a pound or two home?" She gave Yohji another coy look. "Someone at the Koneko certainly seems to like my sweets."

"So much so that he’d probably gut me if he knew I just tried to sweep you off your feet. Aya’s not going to let anyone get between him and your goods, darling." He winked and pointed at something behind the long counter’s glass front. "He utterly adored those candied apples I bought last time. How about wrapping up a few of them, some toffee for Jo and these as well." He handed over the shopping list. "Oh, and I’m thinking maybe five pounds of fudge." Turning to Emmie, he reached for another slice of the candy. "That way Emmie and I have something to munch on while we finish our shopping." He winked again, this time at her, and she felt her heart beat faster.

"Yohji, I’ve yet to understand how you manage to stay so thin with all the sweets you buy from me!" Eleanor laughed as she took the tray from Emmie and then retreated behind the counter. "One day you’re going to walk in here and weigh at least three hundred pounds!"

"Then there will just be more of me to love, na?" was Yohji’s quick retort, which made Eleanor laugh and Emmie smile. Somehow, Emmie couldn’t see someone as thin as Yohji ever being fat. Besides, he was perfect the way he was. Drawn to him, she went over to where he stood, right in front of the counter. He gave her a smile and draped an arm around her shoulder while they waited for Eleanor to assemble their purchases, and just then, she felt the happiest she had in months.

*******

<Maybe you should get rid of that charm, Naru. You don’t look nearly cold enough.>

Naru made a show of rubbing his hands up and down his bare arms before he replied. <I believe the proper phrase is ‘no way’, Eri. But I tell you what, if you come down here, strip down to basically your undies and stand around for a while, maybe I’ll think about it.> He glared peevishly in the direction he thought his partner was hiding, but stomped around a bit as if he was cold.

<I’m just pointing out that, for someone half naked out on a night like this, you seemed much too comfortable.> Eri’s voice in his head sounded a little annoyed, which made him sigh as he pretended to shiver. If she thought he should be uncomfortable because of the weather, *she* should try standing out in public wearing nothing but very short shorts and a tattered vest. Right now, the only thing keeping him from hypothermia was Omi’s charm, and he would throw a bomb in the direction of anyone who tried to take it from him.

<Which is why I’m telling you this telepathically,> was Eri’s wry comment to his thoughts. <Oh well, you’re doing a much better act now, so I’ll shut up.>

What was even more odd than having a partner who could read his thoughts was the fact that he’d gotten used to it over the last couple of months. Sighing again, he shook his head and hunched his shoulders as if he was cold and starved. Somehow, it didn’t bother him in the slightest any more when Eri picked up on what he was thinking like that. Maybe because she never commented on anything truly personal, or maybe because he’d never been someone who did very well on his own, and there was something reassuring about having a partner and friend who was never more than a thought away.

He mused on that possibility for a few seconds but, when someone covered in a cloak that reeked of something truly foul walked past, he snapped back to attention. There was a reason he was embarrassing himself like this, and the sooner they caught a suspect, the sooner he could put on a decent set of clothes. Each night, he thanked the gods that he had Eri as a partner, someone who didn’t leer at or make fun of him for his outfit.

<I don’t know, it took so much work to get you to start talking, don’t shut up now!> he sent along their link. Fortunately, the concentration he’d learned to cast spells helped him to communicate like this with his partner, even though he wasn’t a bound. <And please tell me that someone is noticing me out here tonight.>

<Oh, I’d say that you’re attracting some attention. If you hadn’t reminded the guy who walked past just now of his son, he was willing to pay for some fun.> Disgust tinged Eri’s thoughts. <In fact, you would’ve had a couple of offers already, but I haven’t found anything suspicious in their thoughts so I sent them on their way.>

He shivered again, this time for real, at the thought of what must have been inside some of those people’s heads. The shame was, it probably didn’t even come close to what was in the heads of the people they were hoping to find.

Mindful of his job, he walked down one of the district’s main streets, body shivering and eyes searching for any potential ‘dates’. There were several other people doing the same thing, some of them were adults but many of them were kids. Elise was down about a block, one hand tugging at the very short skirt of her threadbare yellow dress, the other wrapped around her waist as if she, too, were freezing. Around her were a few real kids but, for some odd reason, whenever Naru tried to look at them, he couldn’t make out too many details since they were partially obscured by shadows.

<That’s because Aya’s here,> Eri replied, her voice hushed and slightly fearful. <He’s trying to make sure that you and Elise receive all of the attention, so he’s partially cloaking those poor children.>

He stared a minute longer at one kid who looked small enough to not even be ten years old before he forced himself to glance away. It was rare that he got a chance to see Aya’s powers like this and, for once, no one was dying. There was another real shiver at that thought, and he understood his partner’s fear. Friend or not, to see proof that a kage was around and putting his talents to use…. <Thank the gods he’s on our side.>

<The gods and Birman.> Eri’s thoughts lost the bit of fear and took on an amused tone instead. <Yuushi’s damn near ecstatic right now – not only is Aya cloaking those poor kids but he’s completely hiding several of us as well. No one ever thought to have him do that before, even though it’s a little… uncomfortable to be hidden in shadows like this.> There was a sense of cold strong enough to make Naru shiver in sympathy.

<I guess this means that stakeouts just got a heck of a lot easier, ne?> Which was a shame because, tonight aside, he usually liked dressing up to fit into the background, to take on another role and pretend to be some lowlife hanging around the docks or a drunk out late on a bender. Although, he thought with a hint of bitterness, he usually just got to dress up as a kid. This was the first time he’d had to do this while in the Shadow Guard, however, and he didn’t begrudge Yuushi asking him to accept this assignment. At least he wasn’t alone since Elise was out here showing off her ass just like him. Sneaking a look at his fellow Guard, he felt his cheeks heat up and he made himself to look away. Fortunately, there were no snide comments from Eri, but he did pick up on a sense of amusement.

Forcing himself to focus on his work once again, he continued down the street. He passed another child prostitute, and for a few seconds he felt bad about the fact that even though they were trying to save these kids’ lives, they were preventing them from making any money. More than likely, a night of being ignored like this meant they wouldn’t have any food tomorrow.

Eri quickly put him at ease. <Don’t worry, Yohji and Reiichi have already pointed that out. In about another hour, a wagon full of meat buns is going to run into something. Yonekuni and I will make sure all the kids ‘hear’ about it and decide to take advantage of the accident, so at least they’ll get something warm and decent to eat tonight.>

Yeah, it would just be that, for the rest of their lives they’d have to worry about food. He had to remind himself that the Guard couldn’t do everything, that right now his job was to make sure that these kids had more nights to try and turn their lives around. But it was still heartbreaking to see some small figure huddled on the corner of a street, dressed in rags too thin for the cold weather and know that their survival lay in getting enough money from the perverts walking around to pay for something to eat and a place to stay.

The sound of heavy footsteps made him straighten up and stick out his chest, just as all the shadowed children around him did much the same. He smiled at a tall, heavy-set man who just grunted as he walked past, and felt a ridiculous sense of failure. Like he really wanted to attract the attention of some pervert but…. He gave the earring dangling from his right ear a flick and made it swing back and forth. Maybe Li’s blood wasn‘t as potent as she thought.

<That’s because you’re the wrong sex, Naru. He’s zeroed in on Elise and right now… gah.> More disgust washed over their link. <Not what we’re looking for. All he wants to do is make her wear his dead sister’s dress and… gah.>

For something to upset Eri, who had been around for more than a few decades, this badly…. There was no way he was going to ask for more details. Not then or when a stooped-shouldered old man with a disturbing smile approached him, only to turn away at the last second. Eri’s terse ‘not him’ was all he needed to know.

Another half an hour passed by and it seemed that all he had to show for it was a few ‘did you see that guy?’ stories that he could trade with Elise come morning. There was a sinking feeling that he’d be back out here again the next night, and he knew he’d spend the entire day wondering if another dead kid was going to be found before then. Dammit, why didn’t he look good enough to be nabbed by a bunch of murderous kidnappers?

One more time down the block, and he turned around to go the other way. Two blocks ahead was the corner of Tanners Street, so maybe he’d go down there for a bit and leave this section of the district to Elise. True, the main street was the best area to pick someone up, but maybe their quarry preferred a quieter area.

Eri had just agreed with him when he noticed someone approaching. Unsurprisingly, it was a guy although he’d seen a few women the last two nights. This one didn’t seem much different from any of the other perverts he’d run across, although the man was dressed in clean, if not plain, dark clothes. His cloak definitely appeared warm and he didn’t have a starved, desperate look to his face like a lot of the guys Naru had noticed. In fact, the man was smiling and there was something about him that made Naru smile in return. His lips were already curved before something seemed wrong to him, that he had the warning tingle he always felt when he came across a compulsion charm.

<Naru… go with this guy. He’s got some sort of charm that makes it a little difficult for me to figure out what he really wants, but I’m not getting any good impressions.> Eri then warned him to be careful.

A jolt of adrenalin rushed through him at his partner’s words. Making his smile hopeful, he glanced up through his lashes at the man. "Looking for something, mister?" His voice was pitched higher than normal, and he did his best to project small and young.

"I just may be," the man responded, his voice deep and confident. "It’s pretty cold tonight, how about we go talk someplace a bit warmer, okay?"

<Ken just confirmed that he’s smelled this guy before. He’s a suspect, Naru, so please be careful.>

He had to stop his lips from twitching into a triumphant smile at Eri’s confirmation, but managed to turn the expression into one that was hopeful and a bit pleased. There should be nothing wrong with that, not between the charm the guy was wearing and the fact that he was supposed to be a child prostitute about to make some money. "That sounds like a good idea," he replied softly and felt another jolt of energy when the man’s smile brightened.

There was a shiver of fear when the man turned around and walked toward a quieter block, a clear indication that he was to follow. Not very happy to be going wherever it was that the kidnapper wanted, he never the less tagged along. Thanks to his wizard training he recognized the charm and bet it was powerful enough that anyone would willingly follow the man blindly, just as he pretended to do right now.

They walked a little farther, turned left at the corner and then down a deserted alley. He did his best to keep smiling and not tense up, but only Eri’s mental whispers of assurance helped him to maintain the act. His clothes didn’t leave him any room for his bombs, but supposedly Ken and Miko were nearby.

The man came to a stop and turned to face him, a somewhat regretful expression on his bearded face. Naru merely smiled back, still playing the role of someone thoroughly charmed.

"You look like a sweet kid. If you weren’t a whore, I’m sure we could get a lot of money for you but…." The man shrugged and reached into his pocket.

He never got the chance to pull his hand back out. As if dropping from the sky, three dark figures suddenly landed around the man. "Step back, Naru!"

Obeying Ken’s growled order, Naru blinked in surprise when Ken easily knocked the guy backwards with one blow. Then golden wires wrapped around the suspect and actually hoisted him into the air. The man let out a cry of terror, but a band of shadows quickly covered his mouth and choked off the noise.

In fact, shadows covered most of the alley, Naru finally noticed. They were cut off from the rest of the district, just the suspect, Ken, Yohji, Aya and himself. Then he noticed the sound of boots on metal and someone grumbling under their breath, and as Ken approached the captured suspect, Miko jumped down the last few feet from the taller building’s fire escape.

"The gods curse you, not all of us can jump down three stories, you know! Not if we want to be in any decent shape to catch the bad guys. *Men*," Miko snarled, sounding very much like Ken or Yohji when they were upset. Yohji actually cringed away from the furious woman, and Aya, even though his eyes were pure silver, carefully stepped out of her way as well.

Ken, however, just waved a hand in her direction and took a deep sniff of the suspect’s scent. "Yeah, I’ve *definitely* smelled this guy before." He smiled widely, his teeth a gruesome sight, so sharp and white and long. "You were one of the bastards who took that Nadia girl, and you held the door open when your buddies moved the kids the other day." His voice was a gravelly growl, his claws fully extended and a very hungry expression was on his face. Naru was very glad he wasn’t the object of Ken’s attention just then, and the suspect looked about ready to wet himself.

Things were quiet for a moment, and then Naru heard more footsteps. Turning around, he noticed that Yuushi, Reiichi and Eri had just breached the wall of shadows blocking the alley from the street. The three of them had the same hopeful look on their faces, and their dark street clothes resembled the Guard’s uniform. Behind him, the suspect whimpered and struggled against Yohji’s wires.

"Get the charms off of him, Ken," Eri called out, her voice perfectly cold. "One of them is messing with my ability to read his mind."

"My pleasure, milady." Naru turned in time to see Ken slash out with his claws, which easily tore into the suspect’s clothes and left freely bleeding scratches behind. A few things fell to the ground and Miko quickly picked them up, right before the man really did wet himself.

"There’s a charm around his neck as well," Aya commented as he approached Miko, his voice sibilant and even colder than Eri’s. Yohji trailed after him, one of his hands curved around the nape of Aya’s neck. Aya, partially draped in shadows that blended in with his black cloak and clothes, held a gloved hand out while Ken did some more slashing. Miko placed the charms in his hand, as did Ken when he finally cut the necklace off.

Just then, Naru didn’t want to be anywhere near Aya, not when he was like this, but Reiichi went over to the kage and even dared to touch Aya’s arm. "Well?"

"Give him a moment, Reiichi," Yohji answered, a hint of a growl in his voice. He wrapped his arms around Aya’s chest and pressed close, as if he was afraid that Aya would vanish or something.

Silent for about a minute, Aya then began to hiss, which made Yohji hold on even tighter. Then he opened his eyes and leaned back against his lover as he turned to look at Reiichi. "Trautmann." Just the one word, but Reiichi seemed to understand and quickly tapped something on his bracelet.

Yuushi didn’t seem put off by Aya being all kage, either, and joined his friend, though Eri only came as close as Naru. "Do you think he got a chance to send any warning to the wizard when you captured him?"

Aya shook his head. "I didn’t sense any magic."

"Yeah, but we’re probably on a time table, here. His buddies have to be expecting him to come back soon with some poor kid," Yohji pointed out, his arms still tight around his lover. "What’s the verdict, Eri?"

Like Aya, it took her a moment to answer, and when she did, the expression on her face was so feral that Naru took a step away. He wasn’t used to his partner showing her non-human side like that, not when she didn’t growl like Yohji or Ken nor have huge, sharp fangs or odd-colored eyes, like Aya.

"He’s definitely one of them. His orders were to find and charm some prostitute and then bring the poor kid back to the building where they’re hiding to be killed." She actually hissed slightly. "Once they carve the poor kid up, he’s to take the heart and some blood to the wizard right away." She shook her head as if to clear it before she turned to face Yuushi. "They’re hiding in the old LeBeau family building on Red Stone Street . We probably have about half an hour before they start to wonder where he’s gone, and there are wards around the building. That’s what one of the charms is for, to allow its wearer to safely cross them."

Yuushi looked at Aya, who handed the charms over. "I think it’s the silver one," Aya offered.

Yuushi stared at him for a moment and then nodded his thanks. "Ken won’t have a problem with the wards and Birman lent me her ring." He tossed the silver charm to Miko, who easily caught it. "Three of us should be able to breach the wards now." Pausing to think about something, he closed his eyes for a moment, tapped a message on his bracelet and waited for a reply. Then he opened his eyes and looked at Yohji and Aya.

"You two need to get to the wizard before he figures out that something’s gone wrong. Botan’s going to help us with the kidnappers, but I’d like you to take Omi and Reiichi with you." The tone of his voice made it clear that he wasn’t really asking.

Aya’s expression was perfectly blank but Yohji appeared a little annoyed. "We can take care of a wizard on our own," he snapped.

"Yes, I’m sure you can, but I still want Reiichi and Omi there," Yuushi answered calmly yet insistently. "I don’t want a repeat of the highway gang, and they can then bring him back to the palace."

Yohji growled, but stopped when Aya knocked an elbow into his ribs. "Then we need to leave now. It would be best if we were at his house before you take the kidnappers into custody." Aya didn’t sound upset over Yuushi’s orders, but he didn’t sound back to normal, either. His eyes were still that eerie silver color, which made Naru shiver when he stared too long at them. He could get used to fangs and claws but there was something very disturbing about Aya’s eyes when he went kage like this.

<That’s because his human mask is all gone. What you’re seeing is what he really is, a demon encased in flesh.> Eri gave his shoulder a reassuring squeeze as she explained. <I wonder how we appear to him at times like this….> She shook herself and gave his shoulder a poke before she handed him a bag. "Here are some real clothes. I don’t think you want to remain dressed like that for much longer."

"No, especially not if we’re about to go on a raid." He smiled in appreciation and untied the bag. Folded inside was his wonderful, warm, *decent* uniform, and as he poked around, he felt a bag filled with his special stones. "Eri, you’re the *best* partner I’ve ever had," he said with true devotion.

"Thanks." She appeared to be deeply touched by that, and even offered up one of her true, rare smiles.

Around them, their friends were busy planning what to do next. Reiichi, Aya and Yohji were striding toward the end of the alley. "The shadows will remain for another twenty minutes," Aya called out as they approached the wall of shadows.

"That’s all the time we should need. Let us know when you’re at the wizard’s house and then we’ll start the raid," Yuushi called out, his right hand busy tapping furiously on his bracelet. "There are horses waiting for you at the stables on Tanners Street and Omi will meet you at the East Market bridge."

"Okay, we should get to Trautmann right before the half an hour mark, then." Yohji waved as the shadows engulfed them, but Naru was the only one who waved back. Yuushi was too busy sending orders out, Eri seemed to be concentrating on something while Ken and Miko used scraps of the suspect’s own cloak to tie him up, Yohji’s wires having vanished at some point. The suspect was rigidly still with tears streaming down his face.

<I’m holding him immobile until Ken and Miko have him sufficiently bound. Yohji took his wires – they can be put to better use against the wizard rather than here. This guy isn’t going anywhere.> The contempt in Eri’s mental voice was echoed in her expression.

"Right." He looked about and found a darkened doorway where he could change. Odd that he was concerned about modesty when he’d spent the last two weeks in this outfit, but he didn’t think he needed to show any more flesh now. "I take it that everyone’s hopping around like mad."

Eri nodded, her shoulder slouching slightly. "You’re correct." She turned around so her back was facing him. "Now that we know where they’re holding the children, all the available Shadow Guards are converging near the building." She actually chuckled. "You could say they’re a little eager to take part in this. Elise is a bit upset that you were the one this suspect went for, and everyone else wants a shot at these guys." She turned to face the weeping suspect, her lips pulled back into a sneer. "Once we find the kids, that’s all the evidence we’ll need, and this guy’s a wealth of information."

Which meant that the Guard probably wouldn’t have to hold back once they got the kids safely out of there, though Yuushi had the final say in that matter. Personally, while Naru wasn’t a very bloodthirsty individual, he wasn’t going to feel remorse over anything that happened to the kidnappers. Not when they were planning to sell the poor kids they’d snatched, and definitely not after they killed several for the sake of some spells and charms.

The Guard had to follow protocol… but there were exceptions. Judge Okihara would only need one or two suspects in custody and the children rescued, and she wouldn’t ask about the rest of the suspects – which was a good thing, considering that bounds were involved in this mission. As long as there was sufficient evidence, few people would ask what happened to the majority of the kidnappers. The Guard was trusted to bestow punishment in situations like this. They made it clear that the price of harming children was a very high one.

He quickly changed into his uniform so that once done, he could help Yuushi however possible. They’d need to leave soon to get to the building in time; a lot of things had to be worked out before they could go in to save the children. The adrenalin rush was back and showed no sign of fading away any time soon. More than likely he’d be utterly exhausted once things were done tonight, but he could be of some help now. And he’d actually get some decent rest for the first time in weeks once he got back home, secure in the knowledge that these people wouldn’t be kidnapping or killing any more kids.

*******

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