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ch9

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Endings and beginnings

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Maddox sat on his bed and waited for his cousin to wake up. Emmie had her arms curled around the stuffed animal that Yohji had won for her last night, a large blue dog with floppy ears. While Maddox felt that she was rather old for stuffed animals, he had to admit that she’d been so happy to receive it at the fair that she currently had a death grip on the toy.

Sometimes he forgot that she was just eleven years old. Emmie was a good kid, not prone to hysterics or childish behavior like one of his younger siblings or some of his cousins. Also, she’d been so well-behaved during their journey from home to the city and then here at the Koneko that he tended to think of her as more around his age than several years younger. But as he watched her sleep, he realized just how young she really was. Did he honestly expect her to make such an important decision about the rest of her life?

Glancing down at his hands folded in his lap, he had to admit that he did indeed expect that much from her. The truth was, he wanted her opinion; he wasn’t about to decide something for his benefit alone. If she didn’t wish to remain at the Koneko, they would leave.

Considering her love for Yohji and her affection for the rest of the inn’s staff, he sort of expected her to want to stay. However, he’d woken from his dreams a few times last night to her soft cries, which always faded before he could get out of bed and comfort her. That hadn’t happened much since they’d come to the Koneko. Maybe it was yesterday’s revelations catching up with her or maybe it was something else; he wanted her to wake up and tell him which. If she was now afraid of staying at an inn filled with bounds, then they needed to find a new home.

Pulling his knees up to his chest and wrapping his arms around them, he shivered a little when he thought about who was sleeping above and below them. They’d come home from the festival to find Ken chewing on a raw joint of meat, his impossibly large and sharp teeth shredding the meat with ease. And since Yohji had informed everyone in the kitchen last night that they weren’t supposed to work until noon and so had better be left alone, there was little doubt in Maddox’s mind that Yohji and Aya were still curled up in bed. His cheeks became hot as he thought about the two men together in *that* way. Aya, a kage….

Maddox had heard tales about the creatures all his life, had been scared by the stories of how they single-handedly destroyed entire cities… yet even after seeing Aya encased in black, moving with such inhuman grace and speed…. He just couldn’t find it in himself to hate or be terrified of Aya, not the man who rather gruffly taught him how to make raisin bread one morning or allowed him to tag along during grocery shopping. Now there was a human face associated with the word ‘kage’; one rather beautiful, yet often sad or wary. Kage were supposed to be monsters but he couldn’t think of Aya that way. No, Aya was a very quiet, reticent young man who liked sweets and jumped when Jo told him to, someone who loved to read and work in the garden.

And Yohji was a very handsome man with a teasing smile and sparkling eyes who seemed to take great pleasure in making the people around him feel at ease. Ken was a nice guy whom Maddox had always felt comfortable around, someone a few years older than himself and incredibly easy-going. What should he fear from them? He couldn’t think of all the evil things he’d heard about bounds and then imagine Yohji, Aya or Ken doing any of them. There hadn’t even been any bloodshed during the fight yesterday, though the fireballs had been frightening.

Maddox rested his head against the wall and wondered why he wasn’t more scared of the bounds. Several of his uncles and older cousins had delighted in trying to frighten him with tales of bounds killing and eating unsuspecting children – but both Connor and Glenn had always laughed at such stories and called them ludicrous.

After Connor’s deathbed confession, Maddox shouldn’t have been surprised that his beloved uncle had raised Emmie, and him, to not hate bounds, especially if what Eri and Yohji said was correct, that Connor and Emmie’s mother had really loved each other and had only broken up for Emmie’s sake. And considering how close Connor and Glenn were, Glenn probably knew about Emmie’s mother as well.

Sitting in his bed, Maddox tried to remember the woman. It took a couple of minutes before he could recall her name – Siobhan – and even longer to come up with a mental picture. His memory of Emmie’s mother was of a small blond woman with a shy smile. She sort of reminded him of Aya, in fact….

"Hmm, what time is it, Maddie?"

Emmie’s sleepy voice shook him from his memories. He glanced over at his cousin’s bed to find her rubbing her eyes as she sat up. "Ah, it’s about eight in the morning," he replied. "You can get some more sleep if you want; we don’t have to work for a few more hours."

Emmie blinked a few times and then yawned. "S’okay." She blinked again and hugged the stuffed animal to her chest. "Why are you awake?"

Deciding that his nerves couldn’t take the wait for much longer, he got up from his bed and made his way to his cousin’s. He nudged her legs to make them move over so he could sit down. "Ah, I’ve been thinking." He gave her a weak smile and lightly rapped his knuckles against his head. "Well, trying to, I guess."

The joke prompted a smile from Emmie as she leaned against the bed’s headboard. "Maybe if you did it more often you wouldn’t be in so much trouble now," she said. Then her smile slowly faded and she clutched the stuffed animal even closer. "What were you thinking about?"

There really was no good way to put this, Maddox realized, so he just brazened it out. "Do you want to stay at the Koneko? I mean, I know we always talked about living with Uncle Glenn but Jo said…." He shook his head as his voice trailed off. This was Emmie’s decision; he had no right to influence it one way or the other.

Emmie was quiet for a minute or two, her brow furrowed and her new toy held tightly in her arms. "What… what do you want?" she asked, her voice hesitant and quiet.

He shook his head again and frowned. "I asked you first."

That got earned him a weak glare, but Emmie straightened up on the bed and stopped trying to strangle the poor dog. "All right, then I’ll go first. I want to stay." Her voice was stronger than before but still held a hesitant note. "But… but if you-"

"No, that’s fine," he said in a rush as he reached out to squeeze her shoulders. "I… I want to stay, too." They shared a shaky smile. "Emmie, are you sure about this?" He hated to ask the question, more than a little afraid of its answer but he wanted to be certain that his cousin hadn’t agreed to remain at the Koneko just for his sake. "I’m sure we could be happy with Glenn."

She wrinkled her nose before she buried it against the stuffed animal. "We’d have to move around a lot then, wouldn’t we? And what would happen when he has to go home? I…" She once more clutched the toy close, her voice muffled by it and the expression in her eyes a little scared. "I don’t want to have to keep moving around. It wasn’t bad when we were on our way here because it was just for a short time…. I mean, I did want to live with Glenn but that was because… because…." Her voice drifted off and she closed her eyes.

Although Maddox couldn’t read minds like Eri, he thought he might know what his cousin was trying to say. "Because we didn’t have any other choice." As she nodded, he reflected on how that wasn’t the case any more. They did indeed have a choice now, had a place to stay that was safe and filled with friends. Perhaps they were a bit foolish to trust the Koneko’s staff so much – especially after learning that several of them were bounds – but even if he feared some of them a little, he did have faith in them. He hadn’t had a proper home in months, not since his parents had discovered that he liked boys just as much as girls. Upon arriving at the Koneko, as improbable as it seemed, he felt the acceptance and affection that had been missing for so long.

Inching forward, Emmie rested her head against his left shoulder. "Yeah. I’ve been thinking about it all night and… and… well, I want to stay. I want to help Kira with her dress, and go to all the fall and winter festivals that everyone’s been talking about. I like everyone here."

Draping his arm over her shoulders, he hugged her close. "Even Aya?"

She flinched a little at the question and let out a slow breath. "Even Aya. I mean, he’s always been grumpy and not the most talkative person but he’s never really been mean to me. And there are times when he seems so sad…. Are kage supposed to be like that?" The longer she talked, the stronger her voice became and she lifted her head, a puzzled frown on her face. Maddox had to smile at how his cousin was once more shaken from her concerns by a thousand questions that she wanted answered. "I thought they were supposed to be scary, not the ones who acted scared."

Maddox thought about the matter for a moment. "I wouldn’t know, Emmie. I get the impression that all the stories we’ve heard about bounds from people other than your dad aren’t true. But Aya’s not the only one here who acts afraid or sad at times." He’d seen Ani crying and shaking in fear in the office one day as Jo and Teddy tried to calm her down; that was the same day that Mickey and Yohji had kicked some drunken customers out of the inn. There were also times when Jo had the saddest expression on her face while she stared through the kitchen window out into the garden, in the direction of the inn’s family shrine.

Emmie nodded and shifted back a little. "Even when they’re sad, everyone here tries to cheer us up. That’s why I want to stay, Maddox. Yohji and Jo and everyone else really seem to like us and I like them as well. Besides, they know the truth about my mother. Now we won’t have to worry about someone finding out and making us run away again."

"That’s how I feel." He nodded in agreement and slowly withdrew his arm from his cousin’s shoulder so he could wrap it around his bent legs. "We don’t need to worry about any secrets here." Not with a soul gaki-bound around all the time, he thought with a quickly suppressed shiver. That would take some getting used to, but he could handle it. "The Guard won’t force us to go back to our family or try to take you away."

For the first time that morning, Emmie acted like her normal, cheerful self as she laughed, the sound bright and carefree. "I don’t think so! Not when several of them want us to stay." She nibbled on her bottom lip as she seemed to think about something, her expression suddenly shy. "And that’s another reason I don’t want to go with Uncle Glenn."

"The Guard, eh?" he asked, his voice soft and comforting as he guessed what she really meant. Emmie had never kept secret what she really wanted to be when she grew up. "Seems to me that the best way to join them is if you know a lot of them." There was more to it than that, he was sure, but it probably wouldn’t hurt if Emmie had developed a good relationship with several Guards before she applied for a position with the organization.

The smile he received was just as bright and warm as the previous laughter. "Yes. I really want to be a Guard. If Naru can be one, surely I can too, right?" she asked, her demeanor a bit indignant.

"Of course, Em," he laughed. Reaching out to tousle her hair, he smiled at the thought that the Guard probably had no idea what was in store for it in about five more years. "I’m sure they’ll love to have you as a member."

"Hmph. I think you’re making fun of me," she pouted as she knocked his hand aside. "But still, I’m sure I have a pretty good chance, and you seem happy to help out in the kitchen, so why wouldn’t we want to stay?" Then her anger melted into uncertainty. "Do you think Uncle Glenn will mind? Maybe… maybe we should ask the Guards not to tell him where we are."

That was something he’d also thought about, but after yesterday’s revelations he didn’t think it would be that much of a problem. "Emmie… I don’t think he’ll object to us living here. I know he would have taken us in if we had asked but he also likes being on his own. And I think he deserves to know where we are - someone should." He offered Emmie a nervous frown. "I mean, someone from the family."

She sniffed and glared, but he knew she wasn’t upset with him. "I guess so. I’m not afraid that he’ll tell them where we are, not when he finds out what they were about to do to me." Sniffing again, she crawled out from the covers and hopped off the bed. "I know Dad always said that Uncle Glenn was the only decent family he had." For once she didn’t sound sad or lonely when she mentioned her father.

"I know, I heard him say the same thing," Maddox pointed out while his cousin searched through her things for something to wear. "And I’m sure Uncle Glenn would be really upset if he found out that we’d run away and he didn’t know where we were." For a moment he spared a thought for his family and wondered if anyone really missed him. Maybe it was mean on his part but it hadn’t seemed that they had felt anything but shame and disappointment on his account those last several weeks at home.

Shaking out a pale blue tunic, Emmie stared at it for a few seconds before she nodded once. "We can always make him talk to Jo if he doesn’t want us to stay. I don’t think anyone argues with her for long."

Laughing once more, Maddox rose from the bed to go back to his own. "Nope, and she’s human. Even Yohji and Aya jump when she gives them an order." It was pretty funny to witness, especially since the two men were such powerful creatures. That fact helped to settle the last of the fear he still felt toward them. "You know what, I believe that I’m going to sleep a little longer," he informed his cousin as he curled up beneath the blankets. Yesterday had been a very exhausting day between work, finding out the truth about Yohji and Aya, and the festival. If he hadn’t been so worried about Emmie and possibly leaving the Koneko, he’d still be asleep.

That reminded him of another concern. "Emmie," he asked a little hesitantly. She looked up from gathering her soap and shampoo and gave him a smile. "Did… did you have problems sleeping last night?" He felt guilty about asking the question when her smile faded.

At first Emmie was quiet and he didn’t think she’d answer. Then, supplies and clean clothes gathered in her arms, she nodded. "I kept dreaming about my mom," she explained in a sad voice. "She was trying to tell me something but I couldn’t hear." She appeared about to say something else but didn’t, just shook her head and walked toward the door. "I think I’ll see if anyone is in the hot spring."

He watched her leave, a little sorry that he’d brought up the subject but relieved that the bad dreams hadn’t been about the Koneko. Most likely, it would take some time for her to accept the truth about her mother after being so angry with the woman all these years. It wasn’t something to be hurried and, knowing Emmie, she wouldn’t want to talk about it for a while. But when she was ready, he’d be there to listen to whatever she had to say. And he had the feeling that it wouldn’t just be him willing to give Emmie a shoulder to cry on, but also Yohji, Jo, Kira and others.

Perhaps they would have many adventures if they went off with their uncle. But Maddox was certain that they’d found something rather special at the Koneko and wasn’t willing to risk the chance that he’d never find something like it again. Now that he knew that Emmie wanted to stay as well, he wasn’t about to leave. If having bounds live with him didn’t scare him off, nothing would. Except maybe an angry Jo chasing him with that marble rolling pin of hers like she threatened to do to Yohji every other day.

*******

Ed whimpered slightly as he woke, the muffled sound stark in the quiet room. He lay still for a few seconds with Roy’s arms wrapped around him holding him tightly against his mate, and tried to get his befuddled brain to work.

Memories from the previous day slowly drifted through his mind and he couldn’t hold back another whimper. Now that he was awake he could feel the various aches that suffused his body, the dull pain left by his fight with… with the kage and then Roy’s *punishment* once they got home.

Unwilling just yet to think about the latter, he took a deep breath and focused on the first thought. So Aya Kudoh, infamous book thief, was a kage. Ed felt like an utter idiot for not recognizing that fact sooner during his fight with the man, but really, who could blame him? Kage seemed to be things from the past, and there hadn’t been any mention of one being born for over a century or two. He hadn’t expected to come across a legend like that, especially not in some inn’s garden in the middle of the city.

A kage… and one being carefully hidden from the Elders, he remembered with a wince as his ass throbbed in pain. How the hell was he supposed to know that the man he just wanted to buy a few books from was a kage, and that he risked exposing Aya to Esset? If a certain arrogant, conniving, close-lipped perverted bastard had told him the truth months ago, he wouldn’t have barged into the Koneko like he had yesterday. But no, Roy had decided he wasn’t responsible or mature enough to know about the kage – at least, not until he stumbled across the man by accident.

Part of Ed knew that he and Al were very lucky to still be alive after having fought against an enraged kage. Now that he wasn’t so upset, he could see how easily Aya could have killed them, how he’d purposely allowed them to live. Guess they had Aya’s boyfriend, Yohji, to thank for that, yet Ed still felt some anger and resentment towards the older bounds for daring to hurt Roy.

Ed couldn’t help but shiver at his reaction and sought to pull away from his mate, only to be unable to escape the hold that kept him tightly pressed against Roy’s chest. The truth was, he’d been too out of his mind with pain, fury and fear to realize what Aya really was. One moment he’d been a rational person, but as soon as Yohji had struck Roy, he’d felt his bound instincts take over completely. Nothing like that had ever happened outside of him having sex with Roy, and he was still stunned by the event.

"I should have let them kick your ass," he muttered quietly as he glared at the cause of so much trouble in his life. "I should have cheered them on, in fact."

"Are you that much of a masochist?" Roy asked, managing to startle Ed enough that he let out a high-pitched yelp. So caught up in his own emotions and thoughts, he failed to realize that the bastard was awake.

"Why do you have to be so damn sneaky?" he grumbled as he struggled to get free from Roy’s embrace.

Roy snorted in derision and rolled onto his back, which meant that Ed went along and ended up on his chest. "I think it’s highly ironic for you to say that to me after what you’ve been up to for the past week." Anger washed through Ed, anger, frustration and a hint of fear. "Do you have any idea of all the things that could have gone wrong with your stupid little scheme?" Roy demanded in a hoarse voice.

Caught up in his mate’s emotions, Ed decided it was time to strike back. Shaken by the fight, the truth about Aya and how enraged Roy had been, he hadn’t done much besides let himself get fucked all last night. Now, he’d had enough of Roy’s highhandedness. "Things were fine until you showed up!" he yelled, his hands balled into fists and eyes narrowed in anger. "I’m sick and tired of you bitching about what I did when *you* were the one who screwed everything up!"

The part of Ed that had meekly accepted the punishment from his mate after they got home instantly regretted screaming like that when Roy’s lips pulled back to expose his teeth. But he was more than willing to ignore that part this morning. He bared his own fangs in return – and bit back on another yelp when Roy’s right hand tangled in his hair and pulled until he had to arch his neck or lose the strands. "Fuck off!" he growled in warning as the small house began to tremble.

The next thing he knew, he was flat on his back with Roy straddling his hips, the hand still in his hair and Roy’s face inches from his own. "Stop it, Edward, or you will regret it for the rest of your life." The room was quickly filled with light and heat, Roy’s power manifesting all around the bed. "I’ll burn all your precious books," the bastard warned, his voice deepened by malice and fury.

For a moment, all Ed could do was hiss in rage at the threat, but the smell of paper burning made him let go of his talent. "I hate you," he spat, rendered helpless and furious at the thought that the knowledge he so desperately needed was about to be destroyed.

There was a hint of Roy’s usual mocking smile as the fire vanished. "I don’t particularly care for you right now, either, Edward." His eyes narrowed in a scowl, Roy tugged again on Ed’s hair, which made Ed arch his neck even more. "I can’t believe that of all the bounds out there, I had to mate with *you*." For some reason, the amount of contempt with which he spat out the last word made Ed shiver in pain. "You’re nothing but a spoiled brat who’s too self-centered to care about the harm he does the people around him, and I’m stuck with you until you get us killed." Roy let out a sharp breath and leaned even closer, until his nose touched Ed’s and his hair brushed against Ed’s forehead. "You have the audacity to lie there and feel as if *you’re* the only one being made to suffer. I should have spanked some sense into you the first day we met but it probably would have been a lost cause," he growled. For once he didn’t make any attempt to hide his emotions from Ed, and the mix of fury, contempt, hopelessness and frustration was punishing in its intensity.

His eyes filling with tears for some inexplicable reason, Ed did his best to hide his pain over what his mate had just said. "And you’re one hell of an arrogant, secretive, pervert of a bastard," he insulted in turn, robbed of anything more descriptive by his traitorous emotions. The human half of him was enraged at Roy treating him like this, the demon half hurt and confused. Torn in two directions, he did the only thing he could and lashed out at his mate.

Pain filled them both when Ed’s fist hit Roy’s left cheek, right on the bone. A copper tang filled the air as a few drops of blood dripped from the split cheek onto Ed’s face. They were both still for a moment, then Roy chuckled while he released his hold on Ed’s hair and sat up. Wiping at the wound with his right hand, Roy licked the blood from his fingers and smiled, the expression utterly lacking in humor.

"I wondered how long you were just going to take it," he said in a perfectly conversational tone of voice, one that belied the maelstrom of his emotions. "So have you had enough, Edward?" When Ed slowly nodded and wiped his face clean, he chuckled again. "Well, so have I. The problem is, we’re stuck with each other, so there’s nothing we can do despite our wishes."

"You could stop being such a controlling bastard," Ed muttered without thinking.

Roy’s eyes burned with anger but the false smile never slipped. "As soon as you prove to me that you’re more than a spoiled, conceited brat." When Ed opened his mouth to protest that remark, Roy growled in warning. "Oh no, I still have something to say," he continued, voice slightly roughened by his emotions. "You put several people in danger with your actions. You risked revealing their true natures and your own, all because you saw something you wanted and didn’t stop to think about anything but getting your hands on it."

When his mate was quiet for a few seconds, Ed realized that he was being *allowed* to speak, which did nothing for his temper. "Everything was fine until you showed up," he repeated with a growl. "It’s all *your* fault."

This time Roy’s smile slipped into an annoyed frown. "Bullshit. Even Alphonse will tell you that Kudoh was about to throw you out into the street when I arrived. And, knowing how much of a stubborn idiot you are, you would have struck out in response." Roy briefly touched his injured cheek. "I at least had the sense not to do more than singe him a little; would you have been able to hold back at all?" He waited for a response from Ed but after a few seconds of silence, he smiled once again and nodded. "No, you wouldn’t have, and the moment you truly hurt him, the kage would have torn you and Alphonse to shreds."

Unwilling to shoulder all the blame, Ed glared in pure fury while he scrambled to sit upright as much as he could, propped up by his arms. "Because you never told me there was a kage alive, let alone living at the Koneko," he spat. More than anything just then, he wanted to wipe that condescending smile off his mate’s face.

Before he could do anything, however, Roy leaned forward, his hands placed firmly on top of Ed’s wrists. "Because you, for all your intelligence, are one hell of an idiot," Roy responded in a very cheerful tone. "As you demonstrated so well yesterday, you can’t be trusted with anything, let alone a secret that important." Once again, Roy’s mood made a quicksilver change. "For someone who wants the Elders’ blood so badly, do you realize what your stupidity almost cost you and the rest of the world? Surely someone as bright as you," he sneered, "can imagine what they’d be able to do if they discovered that not only was a kage alive but that he had a mate as well."

The words were like cold water on Ed’s temper. Being mated to someone himself, he could very well imagine what the Elders could do to Aya, who actually seemed to care for Kudoh. With a kage at their command, there was no way he’d ever be able to kill the Elders.

"Ah, something finally sunk into that thick head of yours," Roy commented, his voice cheerful once again but his emotions still sharp with anger and disappointment. "Now tell me, why would I trust such an important secret to someone who refuses to listen to what I say, who constantly puts himself and other bounds in danger?"

Painfully aware that he was losing this fight, Ed glared at his mate and exposed his fangs as he refused to just give up. "Other than going to the Koneko, what have I done to put Alphonse or the others at risk?"

The expression on Roy’s face grew cold as his anger increased. "While Hughes was investigating your latest act of rash stupidity, he came across a few individuals who were trying to find out the identity of the person who had recently spent a huge sum of money on some rare books. It seems that several of the potential buyers have become upset over the fact that someone is able to regularly outbid them so extravagantly." He let go of Ed’s left wrist to once again entangle his hand in Ed’s hair. "If it hadn’t been for Hughes, they would have tracked Breda down, and from there it wouldn’t take them long to uncover the fact that his superior officer is currently stuck raising two young men who possess a very strong interest in rare books." His voice deepened into a growl and the air around them grew hot. "Once that was revealed, they would wonder how two orphans with nothing to their name could afford so much gold. Need I continue?" he asked, a trace of smugness now mixing with his other emotions.

Ed wanted to throw back into his mate’s face that Roy was lying, but the emotions he felt told a different story. He never thought that someone might try to track Breda down…. "I need those books," he tried to explain after a moment, shaken by the truth but still unrepentant. "Al and I can’t take down the Elders until we…. Dammit, we need to know everything about them," he snarled. "We need to know their strengths and weaknesses," he continued, and only grew angrier at Roy’s indifference

Roy merely shrugged as if he couldn’t care less. "And in trying to find their weaknesses, you reveal yours and those of the people who trust you," he calmly remarked. For a moment he was still, then he insistently tugged on Ed’s hair, making him arch his neck and hiss in annoyance. "You’re not the only one who wants to see them dead. They’ve hurt a lot of people over time, Edward, and I’d like nothing better than to see them burn. But *I* have the sense to not put myself and mine in danger while I seek vengeance. *You* don’t and, at the very least, that is going to get us both killed."

Leaning forward, Roy stared unwaveringly into Ed’s eyes. "I *swear* this to you now – if you ever do something so incredibly thoughtless again, I will take you as far away from Esset as I can and I will ensure that you never leave that place until the war is over." His entire demeanor was one of complete seriousness, his emotions left no doubt in Ed that Roy would keep his word. "Maybe our people will fall during the war without our help but I know they *definitely* will if you do anything that exposes them to either Esset or humans. I won’t have the people who trust me with their lives suffer because I’m mated to an idiot."

The words stung bitterly, especially since Ed could sense how strongly Roy meant them. He could no longer find any justification for his own actions. To his shame, he’d forgotten everything other than his self-appointed mission to take out the people who had ordered the slaughter of his mother and teacher. He had forgotten that he wasn’t placing just his own life on the line. But his wounded pride refused to let him show that pain, even if Roy could probably feel it. "Too bad there isn’t a way to undo the bond between us," he tried to joke.

For the first time since they’d begun arguing, there was the slightest softening of Roy’s emotions. "It seems we’re stuck with each other. And as long as that’s true, Edward, I’m not going to let you be the death of me. So use your brain for once or I’ll spank you each time you do something even remotely stupid."

He wanted to protest at that comment, to warn his mate that if Roy seriously thought that he was going to allow such a thing to occur again, then Roy was gravely mistaken. Instead, he let out startled whimper as Roy suddenly pushed him flat on the bed and kissed him.

Just like last night, all the anger and bitterness he felt melted away at the embrace. His human side didn’t even get a chance to continue the argument as his demon side took over. It didn’t care about right or wrong, all that mattered was that Roy wanted him. Roy, who was stronger and older than he was, and more powerful. Ed wasn’t yet a match for him and, as long as that was true, something inside him joyfully gave in whenever Roy wanted to prove his dominance even if the rest of him bitterly fought back. There was a slight spark of annoyance from Ed’s human nature but it was immediately swamped by desire and need.

And just like last night, it didn’t matter if Roy was a bit rough, if he insisted on taking charge. The demon side of Ed didn’t give a damn about pride and justifications, all that mattered was that his mate – chosen by his demon nature – held the upper hand for now, so Ed would surrender his body and whatever else Roy asked of him. Ever since the first time his demon nature had taken over and they’d had sex, this had always been the case. Ed could resist the truth and his own need for a short while, but it always came down to this… for now. No matter how good this always felt, no matter how much he needed moments like this, he promised himself that Roy wouldn’t always be the one doing the dominating.

All he could do right now was to reaffirm that promise… and to give in to the pleasure. As they kissed, they were both overwhelmed by desire and need, the anger they shared long gone. The feel of Roy stretched out on top of him made Ed whine in frustration as his nails dug into his mate’s shoulders. Roy chuckled in response, both his hands now buried in Ed’s hair.

"Didn’t you get enough last night?" Roy crowed with obvious pride as he nudged Ed’s legs farther apart. "You weren’t just sore from the spanking by the time I was done with you." He rocked his hips forward, which made his cock slide along the crack of Ed’s ass. "Tell me how much you want it," he purred as he placed teasing kisses along Ed’s neck. "Tell me how deep you want my cock buried in you."

The indignity of it all was that Ed really did want Roy, he wanted Roy’s cock completely buried inside his body. The feel of it against his ass and of Roy’s mouth on his neck just made the craving utterly unbearable. The emotion was so strong that he had the terrible suspicion that it wasn’t just his demon soul that wanted it so badly.

Ed’s hands shifted from Roy’s shoulders to the man’s thick, short hair. Doing a little tugging of his own, he forced his mate to look at him so he could glare at the bastard. "Shut the hell up and fuck me already," he growled as his body squirmed in anticipation beneath Roy’s. "Do something other than stupid talking for once."

He hadn’t meant to make his mate laugh, which only increased his annoyance and frustration. "Dammit, I want you to fuck me!" The words were supposed to be shouted but to his embarrassment, they came out more as a petulant whine. Why did these things have to happen to him? It was bad enough that Roy was laughing at him, and here he was practically begging to be molested by the old pervert. "I’m going to kill you," he gritted out and gave Roy’s hair a harsh tug.

That made the man shut up, finally, as Roy gave him an evil glare in return. "How can I resist such a polite request?" Roy said, the words practically dripping with sarcasm. "I live to obey."

Annoyed by Roy’s mocking attitude, Ed let go of his mate’s hair and dug his fingers into Roy’s ass. "Liar," he taunted, and was about to add to the insult when his mate’s mouth fastened on his neck, hot and insistent. That put an end to his attempt to take control, and he whimpered in surrender at the feel of teeth pressed against his jugular.

Need so intense and devastating washed through him, making him cling to his mate and tilt his head back at the same time. He needed Roy’s emotions and body so much, needed his strength, his entire presence. All he could feel now was an incredible hunger for his mate, to take him in, to give himself until they both drowned in bliss. Whimpering again, he closed his eyes and surrendered.

There were no more smart remarks from Roy after that, no sarcastic taunts or attempts to make Ed beg. There was no need for any of that when both of them realized what was being offered and what it meant for Roy to accept it.

Once there was a new mark on Ed’s arched neck, Roy moved to take what was his. Purring loudly, he reached for the lubricant left on the nightstand, then sprawled on his back alongside Ed. "Come here," was all he said as he slicked his cock, and Ed instantly stopped whining about losing his mate’s warmth and body and eagerly obeyed.

It was his turn to straddle Roy’s hips, his mate’s cock once more nestled between his ass cheeks. Shivering in anticipation, Ed couldn’t resist spending a few seconds running his hands over Roy’s muscular chest, delighting in the feel of smooth, hot skin beneath his fingers and the way it twitched at his touch. He might be Roy’s but Roy was his in return, and he smiled wickedly as he dragged his nails down his mate’s chest, leaving behind eight angry red marks in a line from sternum to belly.

Roy moaned Ed’s name, the sound so sweet that Ed moaned as well, the noise turning greedy as large hands grasped his hips. He rose up in wanton eagerness, one hand still on Roy’s marked belly and the other reaching for Roy’s hard cock. As its thick tip pressed against him, he couldn’t help but whimper in need and sink down to take it inside. He was still a little sore from all the sex last night but it felt so good to be filled by his mate, to hear Roy catch his breath and sense how much he shook the arrogant bastard by such a simple act.

"Now," he crooned in delight of his power over his mate. Sinking downward, he groaned at the sensation of his body being filled by heat and pleasure, Roy’s cock was so hot and big inside him, almost painfully so. He had to take shallow breaths as it pushed further inside until his thighs rested on top of Roy’s.

"Oh, yes," Roy purred as he quickly sat upright, the sudden motion making Ed gasp in pleasure as the thick cock inside him shifted. He closed his eyes in response at such intense emotion, clutching at Roy’s shoulders as he tried to remember how to breathe.

"Most of the time you’re fun to fight, Ed," Roy murmured in his ear as the hands on his hips urged him to move. "So determined and sharp, it can be as exhilarating as practicing with naked blades, but I also enjoy it when you’re like this." Roy moved his right hand so he could tease the sensitive skin that surrounded the base of his cock, the soft caress enough to make Ed sob in ecstasy. "You’re mine, to fight and to protect and definitely to fuck."

Maybe one day he’d get used to all that Roy could make him feel at times like these, but Ed could only respond with another ragged sob and move his hips. There was so much to feel, too much for him to handle but Roy kept adding to it with each passing second. Thankfully his body knew what to do and did it as his thoughts and control broke down from so much pleasure. All he wanted was to feel Roy’s cock move inside him, to feel it rub right *there* until his entire body tingled with ecstasy. Roy’s hand wrapping around his own cock made his motions frantic, his body writhing against his mate’s as he ground his hips downward, desperate for *more*. Broken words slipped past his dry lips, only to become truly inarticulate when Roy’s mouth once more pressed against his neck. Sobbing with desire and need, Ed gave in to his and Roy’s emotions, gave all that he was to his mate.

And Roy accepted it all, accepted him as the ecstasy continued to grow until they both burned from it. Ed felt on fire, scorched by the impossibly potent emotions until the only parts of his body that he could feel with any distinction were the parts that Roy touched or filled. Everything was burning, seared with bliss and then Roy pushed in a little deeper, squeezed a little harder and Ed was consumed.

They ended up with Roy stretched out on the bed, Ed a crumpled heap curled up on his chest. At first he was too content to do any more than pant and try to catch his breath, but as the pleasure faded, the sense of Roy’s smugness grew. Fighting his frazzled nerves for control of his body, Ed managed to shakily raise his head so he could mostly glare at his mate. "I really do hate you," he grumbled as he did his best to deny that he’d given in once again, after doing the exact same thing all night long. And now he *definitely* wasn’t going to be able to sit down at all today.

"I hate you, too," Roy soothed as he deliberately patted Ed’s sore ass. "And if you think it feels sore now, do anything even remotely along the line of your latest scheme and you’ll look back on now with true fondness."

Growling softly at how the threat was barely masqueraded as a warning, Ed licked his dry lips and pulled them back from his teeth. "One of these days, I’ll be able to spank back." Amongst other things… or so he hoped. If anyone deserved an uncomfortable day spent in a hard chair, it was Roy.

"Only if you live long enough to grow up," Roy blithely responded with a too pleased smirk on his face. "Which, considering the speed with which you’re currently growing, works out to be several more decades as the earliest. I know bounds mature slowly, Edward, but I must admit that your refusal to do so at all is almost ridiculous. At this rate, Alicia is going to grow up before you do. She’s almost as tall as you even now."

Ed’s growl became harsher with each added insult until the amusement he felt from his mate made him lose complete control of his temper. "Who are you calling so short that they’re smaller than a four year old?" he yelled as he tried to force his body to sit up. "What does that make you, huh, you old pervert? You’re the one fucking me!"

Roy’s smile took on a cruel edge. "Yes, I am." Moving swiftly, he toppled Ed backwards and settled on top. He stared at Ed, eyes dark with passion and anger, the emotions sharp in Ed’s mind. "*One* of us has to be an adult in this relationship."

"Yet you wonder why I act so childish if you’re the prime example of maturity," Ed sputtered, upset that even with his body sore from the last bout of sex, he still craved Roy and wanted more. "Why do I get the feeling that this is another ‘lesson’?" he demanded to know.

Busy nuzzling Ed’s neck, Roy chuckled. "Logic doesn’t seem to work with you, and I’m not quite sure spanking will, either. So I might as well give sex a try." He pulled back enough to look Ed in the eye, his expression serious. "You’re still used to thinking like a human, Edward. Maybe if I keep bringing your demon nature to the fore, you’ll better remember how being a bound, a mated bound at that, affects your life and the lives of the people around you."

Body already tingling in anticipation, Ed cursed his demon nature for being a traitor and tried to summon up enough anger to glare. "I think you’re just an old pervert," he muttered and fought to keep his hands at his sides and away from Roy’s tempting body.

There was a hint of a pleased curve to Roy’s lips. "Maybe, but I’m an old pervert you’re stuck with forever so get used to it." He gently stroked his hand along Ed’s body until Ed shivered and moaned. "Regardless, you’re not going anywhere just yet." The harsh intent behind his words and his emotions left Ed with no doubt that he wasn’t going to be let out of the bed until Roy felt that he had properly learned his lesson.

Knowing that he couldn’t just give in and promise to obey, Ed closed his eyes and groaned, the sound deep and quiet. He realized that Roy, being older, more powerful and experienced, would win out in the end, but he still had to fight as long as he could. Even if he was mostly right, Roy couldn’t just get whatever he wanted from Ed – not every time. There’d be no living with the bastard, then, Ed thought through a growing haze of need and desire as Roy continued to caress his body.

"You’re not always gonna win," he mumbled as his hands began to touch his mate in return.

"I don’t expect to," Roy answered, and the honesty behind the words startled Ed. "But I refuse to lose on anything truly important, Ed. Keeping you safe… that’s important." There was a sense of embarrassment from Roy after he said that, and he bent toward Ed’s neck as if to hide his face.

Left feeling confused yet oddly hopeful at the words – which only confused Ed even more – Ed decided that if he continued arguing he was going to spend the rest of his life in this bed so maybe it would be a good idea to be quiet for a while. Since it seemed that he’d have to concede to Roy on this battle, he might as well save some energy for the next fight.

*******

Emmie hummed while she peeled the potatoes that Jo needed for the rabbit stew. She couldn’t stop smiling, not since she and Maddox had told everyone that they’d be staying. The entire staff had been so happy at the news, and had made such a fuss over their decision that she felt a warm glow in her chest. To have left home feeling unwanted and hated and then to find someplace like the Koneko….

The kitchen door opened, and the two men who walked inside distracted Emmie from her thoughts and made her heart beat faster. Yohji was laughing about something as he and Aya carried in bags of groceries. But Aya wasn’t laughing; he was quiet as usual and seemed upset about something.

Setting the groceries on the table, Yohji quickly turned to help Aya do the same. As Aya hissed at him to be careful, Yohji continued to smile and, once everything was set down, slowly reached up and pushed back the hood of Aya’s silvery-grey jerkin. He then combed his hands through the thick, disheveled red hair. "They had to run out of cookies at some point, you know. We’ll go back tomorrow morning and buy two tins, okay?" When all Aya did was glare at him, Yohji laughed and tugged on an eartail.

As Aya hissed again and called Yohji an idiot, Emmie felt some of the warmth fade away. The way Yohji didn’t seem to mind that his… boyfriend was upset with him and leaned in for a kiss anyway hurt – but not as much as seeing Aya slowly wrap his arms around Yohji’s neck and return the kiss. When the two men pulled apart, Yohji had the happiest, most tender smile on his face.

While Yohji smiled at her all the time, Emmie knew that she’d never see anything like that just for her. She couldn’t quite understand how it was possible but she had to admit that Yohji did indeed love Aya, and that Aya must love Yohji back since he certainly didn’t smile at anyone else in such a contented manner. Now she knew why Yohji put up with Aya’s glares and name-calling.

No, now there was an ache in her chest, one that flared briefly when Yohji turned around to unpack the groceries and noticed her. "Hey, Sunshine. I see the slave labor has started now that you’re officially staff," he teased with a wink.

She couldn’t help but to giggle in response and duck her head to hide her blushing cheeks. "Does that mean I’ll be threatened with Jo’s rolling pin if I don’t finish the work fast enough?" Even with the pain, she couldn’t find it in herself to ignore Yohji.

Finishing with something on the stove, Jo sniffed loudly and joined them at the table. "I reserve the rolling pin just for Yohji." Her demeanor was gruff but there was a warm twinkle in her eyes. "In fact, he’ll be feeling it soon if he didn’t buy any salt."

Bowing slightly, Yohji began to search through the bags. "Would I ever deprive a fair maiden of something she specifically begged me to find, hmmm?" His expression now downcast, he pulled out something that looked like a well-wrapped brick and held it up as if it were an offering. "This lowly person hopes that his meager offering pleases you, milady," he spoke in a soft, frightened voice.

Snorting in amusement, Jo took the brick and lightly tapped it against his head. "If Aya bought it, I’m sure it’s good quality."

Yohji let out a slight yelp and rubbed the side of his head. "Yeah, yeah, I know I’m just the packhorse when it comes to shopping. He won’t let me even touch anything until it’s been paid for and wrapped," he sniffed with an offended air. "I mean, it’s not like I didn’t used to do a fair bit of the shopping for several years." As he spoke, he glanced aside at Aya, who was quietly sorting through the remaining bags of groceries.

"Yes, but he gets a better bargain than you do *and* brings me back better goods," Jo pointed out as she carefully unwrapped the brick of salt. "He knows that he’s supposed to be buying things for the Koneko, not socializing and flirting." At the last few words, she spared Yohji a dark look.

In response, he sighed and draped his left arm over Aya’s shoulders. "I buy one bad bag of flour and I’m blacklisted forever."

Jo seemed ready to say something else, but she looked at Aya and then at Emmie and merely shook her head. "Now I can finish a few dishes. We’re having a very nice dinner tonight so make sure you two show up with hearty appetites." She gave Yohji another dark look and then returned to the stove. "You better have bought enough pepper as well."

"We did, Jo." Aya sorted through a few tightly wrapped packages and then headed for the kitchen counter nearest the stove. "Farik had just received an order of cinnamon and cardamom so I bought some of those as well." He set the packages down on the counter and then dusted off his hands. "Oh, and some paprika."

"Great! I can make potato dumplings, then!" Jo replied with a pleased smile. As she finished stirring the contents of a pot, she turned to look at the bowl of peeled potatoes by Emmie. "Hmm, I think we’ll need to have some more peeled."

"I’ll go fetch another bag." Yohji tousled Emmie’s hair as he walked past, and her heart beat faster for a few seconds. She stared as he left the kitchen, and then almost jumped when Aya appeared at her side.

"I’ll help peel the potatoes," he said, his voice little more than a whisper. Not waiting for her to respond, he set a knife down on the table and pulled off his gloves.

"Thanks, Aya. I know you’re not supposed to work all afternoon but if you could help me with the dumplings and then the spice cakes, everything should be ready in time for dinner." Jo smiled as she placed another large bowl on the table. "I’ll even make extra icing for the cakes."

There was a slight smile in response from Aya as he rolled up the sleeves of his shirt. He began to peel the potatoes, his expression fading into a frown of concentration. Quietly, he helped prepare the vegetables but didn’t speak to anyone while he worked, not even Yohji when he brought in a bag of potatoes and tugged on one of Aya’s eartails before he left the kitchen.

Emmie remembered that not all of the staff had been happy that she and her cousin were staying. But although Aya hadn’t cheered and hugged her like everyone else, he had at least given her a half smile and wished her welcome. She didn’t think he was upset about her decision because he hadn’t glared, but it was so difficult to tell what he was really thinking. As she peeled and chopped up the potatoes, she kept sneaking glances his way. Aya seemed to pay her no attention at all while he worked, he didn’t even react when other members of the staff came and went through the kitchen. He certainly wasn’t behaving any differently than she’d seen him act while at work the last few weeks.

He set down a peeled potato and paused to push up his right sleeve a little more before he resumed the tedious chore. Maybe it was because she was paying him close attention for once but she noticed something odd about his wrist. His skin was very pale but there seemed to be thick white lines running from the base of his hand up beneath the rolled-up cuff of his shirt. She’d never seen scars right there on an arm before.

Without thinking, she set down her knife and motioned to his scars. "Ow, that must have hurt. Did you cut yourself on something sharp?" she asked, as curious as ever and hoping that some small talk might make Aya be a little friendlier. "My dad had a scar like that on his arm from getting nicked with a scythe when he was little." Her smile faded when she noticed Aya’s reaction.

At first he went still when she began to ask questions, and then he quickly set both knife and potato aside so he could unroll his sleeve. She swore the kitchen grew darker by the second, and his expression went from a slight frown to an impassive mask. Without a word, he turned and left the room, darkness gathering around him until he was engulfed by it.

Staring with her mouth open, Emmie tried to accept what she had just seen. She’d witnessed Aya using his power yesterday, but it was something else entirely to have it happen right next to her, for him to appear so human while he controlled the shadows. Her attention focused on the door Aya had just gone through, she only faintly realized that the door leading to the gardens slammed open and then shut.

"What the hell is going on?" Yohji snarled, the sound so harsh that it broke her from her reverie. She saw him glance around the kitchen then stalk toward an obviously perplexed Jo. "What happened to Aya?"

Jo shook her head and held up her hands. "I’ve no clue what happened, I just noticed myself that he’s gone." She met Yohji’s eyes and Emmie was shocked to see the strong woman actually flinch and duck her head. "Is he injured?" she asked, her voice thick with concern.

"It’s not that kind of pain or I wouldn’t be here talking." His face set in a ferocious scowl, Yohji growled again and jerked his hands through his hair. "But something hurt him then he quickly blocked the link. I want to know what it is before I go to him – when he’s like this he tries to deny anything’s wrong." A hint of exasperation crept into his voice and his scowl faded the slightest bit, but only for a second. "Was it a customer? I’ll-"

"It was me, Yohji," Emmie spoke up, her voice a little shaky since she’d never seen Yohji like this before. He was actually kind of scary with his voice like that and with such a nasty look on his face. When he stepped toward her with his face set in a truly ferocious scowl, she couldn’t help but let out a yelp and hide her face behind her arms. "I’m sorry!"

"Yohji!" Jo yelled, her voice very loud with anger.

The rumbling stopped and there was a long sigh. "I know, Jo. Put the damn pan down." As Emmie stood there trembling, warm hands gently wrapped around her wrists and tugged down her arms. "I’m sorry, Sunshine. I don’t know if you’re aware of this or not, but Aya and I feel each other’s emotions. When something happens to hurt one of us, we both tend to… overreact." Yohji’s voice was soft and contained just a hint of roughness, and he pulled her close for a hug when she finally dropped her arms.

Her fear settled by the tender hug and her mind now buzzing with questions, Emmie dared to look up. Yohji appeared normal once more, his eyes troubled and a sad smile on his face. "You each know what the other is thinking? Can all bounds do that?" She’d only heard stories of them being able to read people’s minds and make them do crazy things.

For a moment anger flashed over Yohji’s handsome face but he took a deep breath and slowly let it out. "Some bounds can sense emotions – bounds like my kind or Eri’s. But most mates can sense their… er, partner’s feelings even if they’re not soul-gaki or succubae bounds," he explained. "I’ll tell you more later, but please, I need to know what happened. Aya was really upset by something just now."

She felt tears well up and had to sniff. "I’m sorry, I was just trying to talk to him, Yohji." A tear slipped free, prompting Yohji to make a soothing noise and quickly search the small pouch on his waist for a handkerchief. Once found, he pressed it gently against her cheek then handed it over. "I’m really sorry."

"I know you are, Sunshine." He hugged her once more, picked her up to sit her on the table, and crouched down so they could look each other in the eye. "You probably didn’t even know you were saying something that might upset him, right?" His voice was so understanding, his expression kind, more than ever before, she felt that she could trust him, that Yohji would never do anything to cause her harm.

Emmie sniffed again and nodded, the handkerchief pressed against her nose. It smelled like lavender and helped to calm her almost as much as Yohji’s voice. "I was just trying to talk to him. He was helping me with the potatoes so I…." She paused to blow her nose and sighed when Yohji combed his fingers through her hair, just like her dad used to do when she was upset. "I just asked him about the scars on his wrist. I’ve never seen them before." While she realized she must have upset Aya greatly, she didn’t know why. Most of the adults she knew had some sort of scar or another after years spent farming or tending animals. They never seemed to mind when she asked about how they’d been injured, in fact some of them told her outrageously funny or interesting stories.

There was a flash of something dark over Yohji’s face but it vanished so quickly that Emmie thought she might have imagined it. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Emmie… Sunshine, do me a favor and never ask Aya about his scars, okay? He…." Yohji closed his eyes for a few seconds; when he resumed speaking, his voice was heavy with sadness. "He’s had a difficult life, and thinking about the past causes him a lot of pain. Now he’s happy here at the Koneko and he’s trying to create a new life, but being reminded about what he’s left behind still hurts." He stroked her hair once more. "Please promise me that you’ll be a little more tactful when you ask him questions, okay?"

He sounded so sad then that she instantly nodded, uncomfortable at making him and Aya feel so bad. "I promise, Yohji. I didn’t mean anything, honest."

Yohji seemed to understand what she was trying to say and gave her another hug. "I know, Emmie. There’s a lot you don’t know and it’s not fair to hold things against you when you don’t even realize that you’re causing any pain. We don’t blame you." He picked her up off the table and set her back on her feet. "I’m very happy that you’re here for good, Sunshine." Lightly squeezing the tip of her nose, he gave her a smile.

"Thanks, Yohji." She impulsively hugged him for that comment, as she’d been half afraid that he wouldn’t want her there anymore. "I’m sorry. I’ll go apologize to Aya right now." Hopefully he wouldn’t hate her too much. This was not a good way to begin her new life at the Koneko, just when Aya had seemed to start liking her the slightest bit.

Yohji grabbed Emmie’s shoulder and prevented her from pulling away. "That’s not a good idea, Emmie. Aya’s not in the mood to talk to anyone right now." He managed a smile and a weak laugh. "Probably not even me, but he knows I’ll check up on him anyway then leave him alone for a bit. I think it’s best if you just let the matter drop, okay?" When she reluctantly nodded, he gently caressed her cheek. "Good." Glancing over his shoulder, he told Jo that he’d be back down in a few minutes to finish the potatoes.

"That’s fine. Tell Aya I won’t need his help after all. If the both of you aren’t in the kitchen then perhaps I’ll have enough icing left for the cakes." There was a teasing tone to Jo’s voice but her eyes were very sad.

"Not as much as you think since I’ll be keeping some for Aya and myself." Yohji gave her an exaggerated wink and dashed out of the kitchen before Jo could say anything else.

"The icing is for cakes, not his personal fun," Jo huffed as she once more joined Emmie at the table. "He revels in his true nature just a little too much."

A little confused by that statement, Emmie nevertheless managed to refrain from asking exactly what Jo meant since she still felt terrible about what had happened the last time she became curious. She picked up a potato and began to peel it. "Jo… do you think Aya hates me now?" she asked.

Jo gave her a quick hug and started peeling potatoes as well. "He doesn’t hate you, sweetheart." She sighed softly and seemed to stare at nothing. "The Koneko has always taken in people who need help. It used to be a temple of supplication a long time ago, and Yohji’s ancestors chose to honor its god as best they could. The Koneko has benefited from being charitable, and many people were given the aid they needed that no one else would supply." Her voice drifting off, Jo closed her eyes and slowly breathed in and out for a moment. "All of the staff save Yohji were once strays." She opened her eyes and gave Emmie a kind smile. "We had nowhere else to go and through the grace of the gods we ended up here. All of us were just looking for someplace safe and warm to stay a few days and ended up not leaving."

"Like Maddox and me," Emmie replied as she thought about the conversation she had earlier with her cousin.

"Yes, like you and Maddox." Jo seemed to realize that she held a half-peeled vegetable in her hand and resumed work. "Of course, not everyone who comes here in need ends up staying, but the full-time staff has always been comprised of former strays." She wrinkled her nose slightly at the last word. "And most of the time, strays don’t need much more than a few days’ rest and some good food to help them regain their strength and figure out what they need to do."

Jo placed the finished potato in the bowl with slightly shaking hands and picked up another. "However, some of us needed more than that. What we were running from…." She shook her head, and from the way her lips were pressed together and her eyes looked a bit haunted, Emmie didn’t think that Jo was speaking of a general ‘we’. "It’s not that we don’t trust you and Maddox, Emmie, it’s just that you’re still a bit too young to understand what drove us here. And in all my years at the Koneko, Aya has one of the most tragic pasts I’ve ever known." Catching Emmie’s eye, Jo deliberately didn’t look away. "He’s had precious little joy in his life before he came here, and he has very good reasons for not being open with many people. Yohji is well aware of this and usually tries to protect Aya, as does the rest of the staff, but he can go… a little overboard at times." Jo managed a smile and reached out to tuck back a lock of Emmie’s hair. "So don’t take it personally if Yohji snaps at you over Aya or if Aya’s not very friendly for a while. He just needs to learn that he can trust you, that’s all."

Sniffing a little, Emmie nodded. "Okay. I really am sorry that I made him feel so bad." A part of her wondered about the scars and why just mentioning them hurt Aya so much. Maybe she could ask Maddox about them later.

"We realize that," Jo soothed, her expression kind for a few seconds before it turned into a frown. "Now, we have a lot of potatoes that need peeling and a few more dishes to make." Once again, Jo was the serious, in-charge cook. "Maddox and Touya should be finished with the rooms soon, they can help us here." Returning to the stove, Jo muttered under her breath what sounded like a list of ingredients. Emmie smiled, relieved that things seemed back to normal and resolved to finish the potatoes as quickly as she could.

"Oh, and you’ll have to pick rooms at some point," Jo announced out of the blue. "We’re pretty packed right now because of the caravans but there are always a few rooms set aside for strays. Or you can wait until the inn empties out a bit then move in to whichever room you like. Well, within reason," she continued as she scowled at a bubbling pot. "Some rooms are for customers only."

Emmie quickly forgot about potatoes and Aya as she thought about a room of her own. Someplace that was just hers, something she didn’t have to share with anyone, let alone a boy. She would have been happy to keep the room she had if it meant living here, but to be offered one that she could pick out….

For the first time since her father died, Emmie was truly happy and felt at home. She had Yohji and Jo and several other friends, a wonderful place to live and lots of Guards to talk to whenever she wanted. And now she’d have her very own room. She couldn’t hold back on a squeal of delight and ran to the stove to hug Jo in gratitude. Just wait until Maddox found out….

Jo laughed and patted her on the back. "No room until the potatoes are finished, you hear?"

"Yes, ma’am!" Standing on her toes to kiss Jo on the chin, Emmie dashed to the table and got back to work.

*******

Curled up on the bed as he read a book of Thracian poetry, Aya glanced up when he heard the room’s door open and close. It only took a few seconds for Yohji to make it to the bed, upon which he flopped down with a big grin on his face. "Have I ever mentioned how sexy you look like that?"

Aya blinked and lowered the book so he could stare at his mate. "Sexy? While reading a book?" he asked with some confusion.

Reaching for said book, Yohji pulled it from Aya’s hands and set it on the nightstand before he crawled closer. "No, you on the bed. Only way you could be any sexier is if you got rid of the clothes." Yohji leered as he waggled his eyebrows.

Sighing in mock exasperation, Aya pretended to reach for the book. "I don’t like reading in the nude. Someone has a habit of distracting me too much when that happens," he sniffed, and held back a smile when Yohji grabbed his wrist to pull him closer.

"I’d like to think I’m a lot more effective than a bit ‘distracting’," Yohji snorted before he nuzzled Aya’s neck. "In fact, I’m much more ‘overwhelming’ or ‘all-consuming’ in my vast sexiness," he said, so perfectly serious that Aya couldn’t do anything but laugh. He was worried that he might have offended his lover with that response but Yohji merely released his wrist and gave his face a gentle caress. Yohji’s lips were curved in a pleased smile, the expression in his eyes tender and happy.

Unsure why his mate acted like that, Aya frowned and pulled away a little. "Yohji?" he asked in growing confusion.

Sitting cross-legged on the bed, Yohji slowly but insistently pulled Aya onto his lap. "I like hearing you laugh, Cat. You don’t do it often enough." He caressed Aya’s face once more then wrapped his arms around Aya’s waist. "It’s so good to feel you being happy."

Frowning, Aya draped his arms over Yohji’s shoulders, the fingers of his right hand tangled in the hair on the back of his lover’s neck. "I usually am happy," he pointed out, still bewildered by what Yohji was trying to say.

"Hmmm. Yes, you are, but not always. And you don’t laugh nearly enough as far as I’m concerned." Leaning forward for a brief kiss, Yohji tightened his embrace. "Maybe I should give you some more alone time to read if it makes you feel like this."

Certain he was hearing things, Aya tugged on his lover’s hair. "Right. Then I’d be too worried about you to be able to read." At Yohji’s wounded expression, he smoothed his fingers through the long hair that fell down his lover’s back. "I’m always happy to read when you’re here, even though it means I won’t be doing so for long," he confessed with a hint of heat to his cheeks. He was never very sure on how to put some things into words, especially anything that had to do with his relationship with Yohji and his own emotions.

Still, it seemed like the man understood what he was trying to say. Yohji’s smile became more sure and a bit smug. "You just like being with me, Aya." There was no arguing with that so Aya merely grunted quietly and kissed his lover.

They spent several minutes enjoying each other with their mouth and hands, tongues eager to tease and fingers tracing sensuous patterns against bare skin. Aya moaned deep in his throat when Yohji’s hand slipped farther beneath his pants and firmly squeezed his ass. In return, his nails dug into Yohji’s back slightly. Breaking off the kiss but not pulling away, Aya breathed against his mate’s lips. "We told Jo that we’d go down for dinner," he reminded, even though a part of him welcomed a chance to miss the meal.

Groaning loudly, Yohji gave Aya’s ass another squeeze. "Wanna eat you instead. You’re much more delicious than her rabbit stew, Cat." To emphasize his point, he brushed his lips against Aya’s neck, prompting Aya to gasp in response and melt against his lover. Something inside him always gave in whenever Yohji did that, made his brain shut down and body burn with hunger.

Yohji continued to torment him for a while, his mouth ardent on Aya’s neck and his fingers a wonderful but tormenting presence on Aya’s ass as they never quite pushed inside to ease the ache that grew with each passing second. Squirming in his mate’s lap, Aya whined in frustration and dug his nails in a little deeper as a warning.

Chuckling with great satisfaction, Yohji removed his hands from inside Aya’s pants and pulled back a little. "Something wrong, Aya?" he asked, his expression much too innocent for the smug emotions that flowed over their link. "Didn’t you say something about going to dinner?"

His body still burning from Yohji’s touches, Aya glared and tried to crawl off of his lover’s lap, but Yohji would have none of that. "You’re actually being a tease for once, Yotan?" he asked, voice rough with desire and anger from being played with for what seemed to be amusement’s sake.

Yohji’s smile faded and he sighed. "Sorry. Guess I just don’t like to hear excuses sometimes, even if they are valid," he said in a quiet, slightly hurt voice. "I like to remind you that you want me just as much, Cat." His right hand grasped one of Aya’s hand and pressed it against his erection while his left hand reached out and cupped Aya’s cock. "Sometimes you seem more interested in work or other things than me."

Leaning forward to nip his lover’s chin, Aya gave Yohji’s cock a gentle squeeze. "Idiot, if I didn’t remind you of our obligations we’d never get out of bed." He concentrated on his own emotions to force Yohji to acknowledge them. "Besides, you always know how I really feel."

That seemed to bring back Yohji’s smile. "Okay, maybe I am being a bit of a fool. But I don’t really mind reminding you of how much you want my incredibly sexy and gorgeous body." He wiggled his hips a little and chuckled. "Not to mention the awesome dick," he joked, a hint of roughness to his voice as his desire grew.

Growling a little in exasperation, Aya shifted off of his lover’s lap. "I think I got enough of that this morning." Even so, he still felt a yearning for his mate, for the pleasure Yohji always made him feel. This time growling at himself, he stretched out on the bed and glared at nothing in particular. "And it’s not an excuse as we really do need to go down for dinner."

Despite his best efforts to be the sensible one, Aya could count on Yohji to know what he really felt. The idiot just laughed again and curled up beside him. "Are you sure about that?" Yohji asked, his voice husky with potent promise and his eyes voracious. "We probably have a little time before dinner." He reached out for Aya, his intent obvious from his emotions and wicked smile.

Aya batted his lover’s hands aside. "I’m not in the mood for a quick screw, Yotan." If he was about to be drained again, he wanted as much pleasure as Yohji could wring from his body to offset the exhaustion. "If that’s what you want, you should have come up here a little earlier," he snapped.

Unconcerned about his temper, Yohji merely smiled and stroked his hand through Aya’s hair. "Well, I knew you were reading so I figured I’d leave you in peace for a bit." His touch was very gentle yet it made Aya shiver with want. "That and I was having fun watching Emmie and Maddox choose their own rooms." Amusement and affection poured into Aya. "They were smiling so much that their faces had to hurt and Maddox kept asking everyone if it really was okay for him to have a room to himself."

"Hmmm." Closing his eyes, Aya enjoyed the feel of Yohji stroking his hair in an attempt to ignore a quick stab of pain and guilt. "I’m sure they’re very happy to have their own rooms, and that it’s a Koneko tradition to let new staff choose their quarters. Well, tradition for everyone but me. I don’t remember being given such an opportunity," he teased, willing to give Yohji a little payback for earlier. "Having a room of my own might be nice. That way I’d be able to read whenever I wanted."

The fingers in his hair continued to comb through the strands for a few more seconds, and then suddenly Aya found himself flat on his back and Yohji stretched out on top of him. His eyes flew open in surprise and he let out a startled yelp upon seeing Yohji’s face only a few centimeters from his.

"You already have a room. You chose to move in here with me, remember?" Yohji said, his voice uncharacteristically harsh and the slightest bit sibilant. "You finally acknowledged that you were mine, finally gave in. You damn well aren’t going to sleep anywhere else but here." Fierce possession burned into Aya and made him moan. He closed his eyes again and tilted his chin up rather than argue the matter any more.

If Yohji’s mouth on his neck had been passionate before, it was devastatingly demanding now. The hunger that had simmered inside of Aya the last few minutes burst into fiery need and lust, making him moan loudly and arch his neck. His fingers scrambled against Yohji’s back, sought to slide once more beneath the shirt and dig into warm flesh, to mark in return as his neck was branded.

Aya cried out when Yohji’s teeth broke through his skin, the sound almost a sob as his body trembled in anticipation. There was a potent sense of possessiveness and domination to Yohji’s actions that he hadn’t felt in a while and he surrendered wholly to it, thrilled at its return and savoring its intensity. His thoughts were flooded by his mate’s emotions until they were completely shattered, until all he could do was feel and react to the pleasure.

In response to Aya’s cry of surrender, Yohji growled ferociously and bit him again, mouth firmly attached to his neck as Aya cried out in pleasure once more. There were pleading noises and half formed words as Yohji continued his assault, and only when Aya gasped at the feel of Yohji’s hard cock grinding against his own did he realize that he was uttering them.

"No excuses this time, Cat," Yohji purred in satisfaction as he trailed kisses from Aya’s marked throat to his lips. "No teasing, either. I’m gonna fuck you hard and make you scream some more. I’m not gonna let you be quiet this time." Yohji’s hands shoved Aya’s shirt up until it bunched beneath his arms, then he grabbed the waist of Aya’s pants. "Gonna come so deep inside of you that you’ll never forget that you’re *mine* forever." A quick jerk ripped Aya’s pants open, the lacings broken by brute force that made Aya whimper in excitement as he slid his hands beneath Yohji’s shirt.

"Yotan," he moaned in reply, flexing his fingers against his mate’s back until they broke skin. He smiled at Yohji’s hissed breath and withdrew his nails a little. "Prove it to me," he challenged, unable to think any more logically than that. All he knew was that his demon nature reveled in this show of power from his mate, reveled in knowing that he’d picked the best, the most worthy. This was the man he had surrendered to, who he trusted and loved so deeply it terrified him at times. He wanted Yohji more than anything else, would kill and fight and die for his mate. Let Yohji prove that he felt the same in a way that they both could enjoy.

In sudden response to the challenge, Yohji snarled and pulled back enough to tug Aya’s pants off and rip apart the lacing of his own pants. Just as quickly he pressed forward and urged Aya’s legs apart as he rested his full weight on top of Aya and fervently kissed him until he had to gasp for air.

Moaning in delight, Aya clutched his mate close, wrapped his legs around Yohji’s waist and kissed him back just as ardently. Energy and potent emotion rushed out of him to feed Yohji’s hunger, only the emotion returned from his lover, an intoxicating mix of love/need/desire/hunger that left him just as breathless as the kiss.

Yohji’s hands gripped his hair at first, keeping his head still as Yohji savored his taste and plundered his mouth with an insistent tongue until all Aya could do was moan again. Then they released their hold and shifted downward, stroking the sides of his neck until his skin tingled, lightly scratching the sensitive area beneath his ears until he shivered violently. Yohji broke off the kiss then, uttered a warm, very satisfied chuckle and placed his mouth against the spot his left hand had just caressed. As he began to suckle demandingly, his hands continued downward.

Aya shivered again and cried out his mate’s name, his body alive with ecstasy and need. Yohji’s mouth moved from one side of his neck to the other, leaving marks in its wake that satisfied both of their demon natures while his hands rained down a different type of torment onto Aya’s body. His lover’s clever fingers pinched and tugged on his nipples, stroked along his ribs until he had no choice but to squirm. That at last wrung a moan from Yohji and made him grind his hips against Aya again until they were both left panting in need.

After one more passionate kiss, Yohji pulled away with a suddenness that made Aya whine in frustration. But before he could dredge up the ability to complain in words, he found his legs unwrapped from his mate’s waist and pushed against his chest. His lower body left exposed by the position, he was just able to apprehensively choke out Yohji’s name before his mate’s hot, moist tongue trailed across his ass.

Chuckling once more, Yohji grabbed a pillow and shoved it underneath Aya’s hips before he continued, delight and hunger radiating from him the entire time. Then he squeezed Aya’s ass and pushed the cheeks apart, exposing Aya even more. Aya’s arms wrapped around his legs to hold them up, leaving himself open to his lover; he was rewarded by a teasing caress to his ass before Yohji bent forward. His lover’s tongue licked along sensitive flesh, pushing at his opening only to move away and then repeat the motions again and again. The tormenting pleasure, not enough to fill the aching need inside of him but much too good to ignore made him do just what Yohji had wanted, made him scream out Yohji’s name.

Yohji’s hands kept him doubled over and exposed, clutching at him in sharp contrast to the teasing tongue that caressed and probed until Aya was ready to sob in frustration. He shifted his right hand to his cock in an effort to relieve the sharp tension building inside – only to have it knocked aside as annoyance broke through the ecstasy. His legs were pulled down and pushed apart as Yohji settled between them once more. "Don’t touch yourself," Yohji demanded in a raspy, forceful voice. "You’re only going to feel how good *I* make you feel, Cat. You’re gonna see just how much you need me." As he spoke, he rocked his hips forward, creating wonderful friction against Aya’s cock that made him moan deeply, toss back his head, and wrap his legs around Yohji’s waist once more.

He knew what was expected of him, knew what his mate needed to hear. "Please, Yotan. Do it." Shadows converged on the bed, dragged the tube of lubricant from the nightstand and pressed against Yohji’s back to urge him forward.

Adjusting the pillow beneath Aya’s hips, Yohji rubbed the tip of his cock against Aya’s opening but didn’t push inside. "Do what, Aya? Tell me what you want." He rocked his hips forward the slightest bit, slid his cock against Aya’s flesh and then pulled back. "Or I’ll never put an end to this. You’re so delicious, so hot that I can hold back as long as I need to, until you’re too drained to feel anything," he taunted, his words a sharp contrast to the hunger and need that flowed into Aya.

Whining in frustration, Aya reached for his mate, only to have his wrists captured and held tightly. Desperate to put his wants into words, he tossed his head from side to side and growled. Then Yohji rocked his hips again and pure need won out. "Fuck me. Hard and deep." Just a few words, spoken more in demand than entreaty but they had the desired effect.

Releasing Aya’s hands, Yohji grabbed the container and quickly twisted off the lid. As he stroked himself, he leaned forward to nuzzle Aya’s throat. "Such a good cat. How can I say no?" There was no warning before he thrust inside but Aya’s body readily accepted his thick cock, welcomed it and clenched around it as it pushed in until it was completely sheathed. "Gods, Aya…," Yohji moaned, his emotions surging into Aya just as insistently and deeply.

Aya’s breath caught in his throat at the intrusions, at the ecstasy he felt from both his mate’s emotions and body. The sense of submission came to an end as his nature spurred him on to mark Yohji as his, to take him in as much as he could. His nails raked down Yohji’s back and his legs clung tightly to his mate. His lips pressed against Yohji’s and he sucked Yohji’s tongue into his mouth just as eagerly as he took in his mate’s cock. While Yohji cried out his name, his hips moved frantically against each thrust.

"Sweet gods, Cat," Yohji gasped as his back was raked again. He let out a growl and shoved Aya’s arms away, pulling out of Aya’s body with a speed that was painful to them both. Then he pushed against Aya’s right side, using his strength to turn a befuddled Aya onto his stomach. "Leave some skin, dammit."

Eagerly going up on his knees, Aya braced himself for another forceful thrust and wasn’t disappointed. Yohji quickly pounded into him, pushed his hips onto the bed then pulled them back so he could take Yohji’s cock in as deeply as possible. Crying out in pleasure, Aya braced himself as best he could, hands scrambling against the bed’s headboard for support as Yohji fucked him hard. His forearms pressed against the wood as Yohji continued to thrust fast and deep into him with a forcefulness that made his body burn and his nerves sizzle with ecstasy. Yohji’s left arm wrapped around the top of Aya’s thighs to keep him from being pushed too far forward while his right hand wrapped around Aya’s cock and gave it an almost painful squeeze before it began to pump his neglected flesh.

Awash in both his and Yohji’s pleasure and need, Aya could only toss his head back and allow Yohji to do what he wanted, to fuck him as hard or as much as he liked. Each thrust set off sparks of ecstasy, making his entire body thrum with such delicious emotion that all he could do was beg for more. He opened himself utterly to his mate, held back nothing as Yohji overwhelmed him with pleasure and love.

Yohji uttered a choked cry and pressed firmly against him, jerked back his hips to thrust deep inside him; all Aya could do was mewl from the ecstasy and cling to the headboard. His head lolled forward as Yohji’s hand and cock set his nerves afire until he couldn’t stop trembling. He felt suspended in the pleasure, completely surrounded by it until it was his entire world. Then there was a startling pain, sharp teeth pressing into the back of his neck and that world exploded.

It took some time for Aya to recover from that potent shock of bliss, to catch his breath and feel his own body again. He rested against the headboard, shivering from the aftershock of feeling so much emotion. Yohji was pressed against his back, cock still buried in his body and arms loosely wrapped around his waist. When he shifted away from the hard wood, his mate groaned for a moment then pressed a kiss against the side of his neck.

"Gonna fucking kill me one day, Cat. *Nothing* should feel that good," Yohji mumbled against his skin. They remained still for a moment, and then groaned in unison when Yohji slowly pulled out of Aya.

He kept his arms wrapped around Aya’s waist and tipped them both onto the bed. Lying side by side, Aya grunted a little as he turned around to face his mate. "’least you have the energy to move," he grumbled even as he pressed closer. All he could smell was Yohji, his mate’s scent clung to both their skin and clothes.

Chuckling in satisfaction, Yohji cupped Aya’s face between his hands and bent his head for a kiss. At the soft brush of lips, some needed energy flowed back into Aya, enough to keep him awake for a little longer. He tugged his shirt down as he shivered with cold.

"What can I say, you taste so incredibly delicious, Cat," Yohji murmured before he placed a kiss on Aya’s marked neck. "And you wanted it as much as I did."

There was an uncomfortable truth in that, Aya thought as he tucked his head beneath Yohji’s chin. While he didn’t feel any shame in loving or desiring Yohji, he was beginning to acquire… a hunger in regards to his mate. He wasn’t sure if it was just their relationship strengthening as he found a balance in his new life or if it was an aftereffect of Yohji’s talent. Whatever the reason might be, lately there were times when he practically craved Yohji and the pleasure he felt during sex. Despite being a bit tired from using his power so much this past week and not feeding off of any deaths, he… longed for Yohji to feed from him. Yet oddly enough, he didn’t feel as drained as usual.

"You’re thinking about something," Yohji teased as his fingers dug gently into Aya’s shoulders and began to massage. "Is it about the amazing power of my awesome dick, hmmm? If so, share," he drawled, his voice warm with love and contentment.

Despite knowing it would encourage the fool, Aya laughed quietly at the joke. "Not quite, Yotan," he informed his pleased mate. "I’m just worried that you might be rubbing off on me."

"Nothing to worry about there, Cat, nothing at all." Yohji patted his ass and hugged him closer. "In fact, you could stand to be a lot more like me. I at least don’t scratch your back to shreds during sex." There was a slight ache of pain as Yohji’s wounds healed but overall, Aya could tell that his mate was more than content at the moment.

He tilted his head back to nip at Yohji’s chin. "No, you just leave my neck looking like it was mauled by a starving flesh gaki. Idiot," he snorted, then gave Yohji’s clothed shoulder a nip for good measure. His mate’s wounds were already healed by now – but *his* neck would be like this for at least a day, which meant he’d have to wear something with a high collar to dinner.

That thought prompted an unhappy moan. When he felt Yohji’s concern, he pulled away enough so he could face his lover. "I think we’re missing dinner right now." Yet despite telling Jo they would be there for the feast, he didn’t really want to go.

Yohji picked up on that and frowned. "Damn, I think you’re right. Jo is gonna kill us, and Mickey as well. We’re missing Emmie and Maddox’s first dinner as official staff."

At the reminder of how the two children would be permanent additions to the Koneko, Aya felt another spark of pain and guilt. This time Yohji seemed to pick up on the emotions as he slowly sat up on the bed. "Cat? What’s wrong. I’m getting the impression that you’re not happy about something." When Aya remained silent, Yohji gently tugged him upright so Aya’s back was pressed against his chest and embraced him tightly. "It’s something to do with the kids, right? You’re not still upset about Emmie, are you? She didn’t know what she was asking about down in the kitchen." He pressed a soft kiss against the left side of Aya’s neck.

Shivering at the kiss, Aya tried to decide if he could evade the question or not. However, feeling Yohji’s curiosity and growing worry, he realized that he couldn’t and that it would be best to tell the truth. "I… no, I’m not worried about that." He couldn’t blame the girl, not when he knew how innately curious she was. If he held anything against her, he still wasn’t pleased with how the girl fawned over Yohji but it wasn’t important. "I just… I just wish that my sister had had the same chance as Emmie," he said in an anguished whisper.

Yohji’s arms held him closer and he was kissed again. "Aya… I wish that too, maybe more than you’ll ever know. There’s a part of you that will always be sad that she’s dead and I hate feeling it. Neither of you deserved that much pain." Yohji was quiet for a moment and pressed his lips against Aya’s temple. "But please, don’t hold it against Emmie. She deserves the same happiness as Aya-chan."

"I know, Yotan." Aya spoke the truth but it didn’t help ease the pain or guilt. More than anything, he wished he hadn’t utterly failed his sister. All he’d been able to do in the end was release her soul. If the gods had been just and kind they would have made sure she had a long life filled with happiness to make up for the years of pain and enslavement she suffered – but they weren’t just and kind. Not to Aya-chan, at least.

However, he knew that his gentle and loving sister would not want him to hate an innocent child just because the girl reminded him of her. The fact that he could see so much of his beloved sibling in Emmie just made it worse, though.

Picking up on his unease, Yohji gently combed his fingers through Aya’s hair. "Aya, do you have a problem with them staying at the Koneko? If it hurts you so much to have them here, I’m sure we’ll be able to find them a good home. You’ve just as much a right to happiness as they do so it’s not a problem," Yohji soothed.

That was a blatant lie – Aya knew that Jo, Kira and the others cared deeply for the children and wouldn’t want to see them leave for his sake. And deep down, despite the pain they caused him, he wasn’t willing to drive them from the Koneko. They’d found a safe haven, just like he had – and unlike him, they had a chance to spend their lives here. He knew there would come a time when he and Yohji would have to go.

"Leave them be, Yohji," he answered, his voice weary and quiet. "The gods brought them here for a reason, and they deserve to remain where they want. I… I just need to get used to them, I guess." Hopefully, one day soon, he could see Emmie and Maddox for themselves and not think of his past.

"Thanks, Aya." Yohji tilted his chin up and kissed him, a soft, lingering brush of lips. "I believe that they were brought here for a reason, too. People always show up at the Koneko when they’re most needed. Look at you." His arms tightened almost painfully around Aya before he continued, his voice grave yet kind. "You did everything you could, Cat. Don’t feel guilty because of what a bunch of sick bastards did. They’re the ones at fault, not you. You gave your sister everything you could." Yohji’s entire demeanor was perfectly serious, the emotion as strong as Aya had ever felt from him. "In the end, all she really cared about was if you were happy. So be happy, Aya. I know I’ve told you this before and it’s easier said than done, but don’t let the past ruin what you have now. Please."

This time the familiar litany didn’t anger or annoy Aya, it just made him feel very tired and old. He knew Yohji was right and had thought that he’d taken those words to heart already. After Timbergrey, he had felt that he’d made progress in putting the past to rest. It seemed that he had to work a little harder. "I won’t take what happened at… in the past out on Emmie or Maddox anymore, I promise." It would be a difficult one to keep but the children deserved as much happiness as he and Aya-chan did. "Just… don’t expect too much at once, all right?"

"We don’t, Aya." Yohji gently tugged on an eartail and smiled at the glare he received. "Besides, the poor kids would probably die of shock if you suddenly became their best friend."

"Moron," Aya muttered as he rescued his poor, abused hair, and hissed in warning when Yohji looked ready to pull the other eartail.

"Your moron, forever and ever." Yohji smiled in happiness and patted Aya’s ass. "I’ll even let you blame being late for dinner on me."

"One look at my neck and they’ll know you’re the reason," Aya snapped, pulling away from his mate. That and he’d probably have a little difficulty sitting on a wooden chair. When Yohji was in a possessive mood, he didn’t hold back.

He let out a yelp of surprise when he was yanked against Yohji. "Well, if I’m gonna take the blame, I might as well do something that deserves having Jo pissed off at me," Yohji murmured, his lips right below Aya’s left ear. "We’ve got a little time left before dessert so…." He let his hands finish what he was about to say, as they wandered down Aya’s body and gently wrapped around Aya’s cock.

"Yotan… damn you," he managed before he let his head loll back onto his mate’s shoulder. More wonderful pleasure or an awkward dinner, it really wasn’t much of a choice. And by that point he should be drained enough that Jo wouldn’t even think to yell at him but just stuff him with cake. He could live with that, he thought as he moaned in delight and anticipation.

*******

Glenn hurried down unfamiliar streets and tried to remember the directions he’d been given. It wasn’t often that he visited this part of the city as it was a bit expensive for his tastes but this was where the Guard had told him to go. Anxious about Maddox and Emmie, he almost missed turning left at the seamstress’ shop like he’d been told.

He’d heard things about the Koneko over the years, and while they were mostly good, some of them were a bit odd. There’d been a man who confided in him once that if he ever needed food or a warm place to spend the night that the inn would provide both, even if he couldn’t pay. Charity like that was usually only found at temples so he hadn’t quite believed the story. Maybe the Koneko did help out those in need but they probably wanted something in return.

And Maddox and Emmie were there. A sharp pain speared his chest when he thought about the note that had been waiting for him back at the Laughing Carp. Connor was dead… he couldn’t believe that his dear cousin and friend had passed away. The note hadn’t said much more than that Connor had died from an illness. As tears once again welled in his eyes, Glenn could very well imagine that the stubborn fool had declined going to a healer and relied on home remedies instead. Connor had harbored a stupid grudge against magic ever since Siobhan left, and it had probably cost him his life.

Thoughts of Emmie’s mother made Glenn walk even faster. Maddox hadn’t said much about why they’d come to the city other than neither both he and Emmie were wanted at home. Based on their decision to runaway, Glenn had to wonder if the truth had come out at last. Maybe Emmie had burned down a house in her grief or something. The poor girl – it must be a terrible shock to Emmie to lose her father and her home in such a short amount of time. Still, Maddox was crazy to have brought her here. They were just kids and could have been killed during the journey – or worse.

Glenn tried not to think about the Setan caravan. Everyone was shaken up by the incident, and when the Guards pulled him aside upon entering the capital he thought maybe he’d been implicated in the crimes somehow. He had a few friends who worked for Setan… and had no clue if they were in custody or not. If they were in any way involved with the slavery ring and murders, they deserved whatever the Judges meted out and then some.

He was sincerely worried about Maddox and Emmie and wanted to shake some sense into them. To have come so far on their own and then expect him to take them in…. If he’d arrived here so much a week earlier then there would have been no question about it but there was no way his caravan master was going to let two kids join up, not after the Setan incident. He was going to have to quit his job and he had no idea what work he’d be able to find to support two kids, but he wasn’t about to send them home; they’d manage, somehow. He owed it to Connor to make sure that Emmie was safe and happy, and he cared for Maddox as if the boy was his own son.

Lost in his thoughts, he almost missed the Koneko even though it took up most of a rather long block. Staring at the part of the inn that rose up past the brick walls, he felt a little more at ease. The place looked respectable enough… then he began to worry about how Maddox and Emmie were managing to pay for such a place. They had probably accumulated a huge tab during their stay, and at a time when he had to save every silver to his name. Dammit.

Screwing up his courage, he stalked through the inn’s front gate and up the stairs. The heavy oak doors gave him pause for a moment, then he pushed them open and entered. The inn’s foyer was filled with gleaming and intricately carved wood, with lovely carpets on the floor and the most delicious aroma in the air.

A young man with long hair and dressed in a dark blue robe leaned against a small counter and smiled. "Hello, welcome to the Koneko. Are you here for a meal, a room or are you looking for someone?" He received a rather hopeful look from the man.

"Ah, I’m here for someone." He reached into his worn jacket and pulled out Maddox’s letter, all the while thinking that he probably should have changed out of his work clothes and freshened up before coming to the inn. "My young cousins are supposed to be staying here. They’re Maddox and Emily Cullen."

The smile faded from the young man’s face. "You must be Glenn. One moment." He hurried down the hall and entered a room. A minute or two later, he returned with a very tall, broad-shouldered man in tow. "I’m Teddy Kudoh, and this is my brother, Mickey," Teddy explained, while Mickey disappeared into another room for a moment. He returned with a young boy about Maddox’s age who took up post at the counter.

"Thanks, Touya. This shouldn’t take very long," Mickey said, his voice a deep rumble. Glenn stared at the man with growing apprehension. Despite the fine look of the man’s brown pants and cream-colored shirt, Mickey had the appearance of someone who was used to a fair bit of physical labor – and wouldn’t have any problem tossing Glenn out on the street if it came to a fight. Mickey eyed him up and down for a moment then motioned with his chin down the hallway. "Maddox and Emmie are busy in the kitchen."

"The kitchen?" Glenn asked, both reassured that they were here and alive and anxious over the fact that two guests were someplace they shouldn’t be, from what he knew about inns. "Are they working?" he asked, his mind filled with thoughts of indentured service.

Teddy chuckled softly as he followed Glenn down the hall. "You don’t need to sound so apprehensive – they were the ones who asked to work while they stayed here, and we agreed because we felt that it would keep them out of trouble."

Mickey nodded and placed his large right hand against an intricately carved door. "That way they wouldn’t have any time to wander the city and get into danger." He gave Glenn a penetrating look for a moment. "You’ll see, they’re perfectly fine," he rumbled in assurance as he pushed open the door.

The kitchen was very large and filled with light. Inside, several people laughed and talked as they worked. They looked toward the door as it opened, and Glenn only had a moment to glance around before two figures dashed over to him.

"Uncle Glenn!" Maddox hugged him tightly as he shouted in Glenn’s ear. "You’re here!"

Laughing in relief, Glenn patted the boy’s back a few times then pushed him away enough that he could give him a good once-over. "I think you’ve grown a little, Maddox!" To his delight, the boy appeared well-fed and happy, and had definitely grown a bit taller. "Now let me see Emmie," he told Maddox and gently pushed him aside.

Emmie hugged him as well though not as enthusiastically as her cousin. That was understandable as he’d always been closer to Maddox, especially in the last year or so when Maddox had discovered that he wasn’t interested in just girls. Glenn hugged her close and kissed the top of her head. "I’m so sorry, Sweetie." He didn’t know what else to say.

Sniffling a little, Emmie nodded and stepped back. Her hair was cut short, but he remembered Connor writing to him about the girl’s bout with fever back at the beginning of spring; other than that she appeared perfectly fine, had perhaps grown a little taller as well and even lost a bit of baby fat. She’d never be a gorgeous woman but the signs of a lovely one were beginning to show. All he could think about was how proud Connor would be that she so strongly resembled her mother.

"I’m okay, Uncle Glenn," Emmie sniffed and then managed a smile. "How are you?"

Other than finding out that he’d lost a dear friend and a good job at the same time that he’d gained two kids, not too bad. "I’m all right. Been a bit worried about you two, though." His smile slipped as he looked at Maddox. "You did a very gutsy thing, coming all the way here." He tried his best to keep any reproach from his voice but wasn’t quite successful.

Maddox wrapped his right arm around Emmie’s shoulders and gave Glenn a defiant look. "We didn’t have much of a choice, Uncle Glenn. Besides… we had friends who helped along the way."

Not wanting to get into any ugly truths while in a roomful of strangers, Glenn decided that it would be best to get the kids back to his room and then straighten things out. Glancing around, he realized that they’d attracted quite a crowd.

Teddy and Mickey hadn’t left, and a very pretty young woman stood beside Mickey, his arm wrapped around her waist. Beside them were two more young men, one a tall, handsome blond and another who wore the hood of his dark jerkin pulled forward enough that all Glenn could really see was a pale chin and two strands of long red hair. As he stared at the slightly smaller man, the blond shifted closer and gave him a warning glare.

Blushing slightly as he recognized the possessive action, he looked at the last person gathered in the room, a tall, thin woman with grey streaks in her brown hair. She appeared to be the oldest person present and wore a yellow apron over a nice blue skirt and top. He got the impression that she was more than just hired help, especially when everyone glanced back and forth between him and her.

"Ah, I’m Glenn Cullen, Maddox and Emmie’s uncle. Thank you for watching over them." He bowed low in gratitude. "I’m sorry for any impositions you suffered during their stay, and I would like to settle their bill now." As he spoke, he noticed that Emmie shifted away slightly and Maddox began to frown.

"Uncle Glenn," the boy stuttered, but the middle-aged woman stepped forward and he fell silent.

"Nice to meet you, my name is Jo." Her voice was the slightest bit sharp, as if she was used to barking out orders. "Are you hungry? Thirsty? You look as if you just arrived in the city." When he paused, torn between answering truthfully and adding to what he was sure was a very impressive bill, she snorted softly and motioned toward one of the room’s large tables. "Sit down, it’ll be on the house."

Before he could decide whether or not to accept the offer, Maddox grabbed his left hand and tugged him toward the table. "We’ve just made some delicious chicken pasties, you should try them." There was an anxious note to the boy’s voice which put Glenn on guard.

"I think I’m hungry enough to eat one or two," he remarked as he sat down, his attention focused on the strangers in the room. After exchanging a look with Jo, Teddy, Mickey and the pretty girl left the kitchen while the two other men sat down at the opposite end of the table. The blond’s arm was draped around his boyfriend’s shoulder, and the hooded man leaned into the embrace.

"I believe that Aya and I could stand a bite to eat, too," the blond remarked, then smiled at Glenn, the expression little more than a baring of teeth. "I’m Yohji Kudoh, owner of the Koneko."

Glenn stared at the man in awe for a moment. For someone so young to own such a large inn…. He’d love to be able to own a business one day, let alone something as profitable as this. "Nice to meet you," he managed to stutter as he bowed his head.

Coming to the table, Emmie set a tankard of what appeared to be cider in front of him and then went over to Yohji and sat beside the innkeeper. "Yohji’s family has owned the Koneko for *centuries*," she said, her eyes bright with affection when the man reached over to tousle her hair. Giggling, she stuck her tongue out at him. "Though Jo’s really the one in charge of things," she teased.

"Sure, Sunshine, ruin the good impression I’m trying to make," Yohji chided as he lightly tapped the tip of her nose. Glenn stared in wonder at how playfully Emmie was behaving – she had always been a shy child around strangers unless she had a question or two to ask, yet she was currently acting as if Yohji was a close cousin or something. Even Maddox was smiling as he joined them, his hands full with several mugs.

"Jo manages the kitchen and the staff," Maddox explained while Yohji attempted to tickle Emmie with just one hand. "She’s teaching me how to cook." There was evident pride in his voice and the boy looked happier than the last time Glenn had spent some time with him.

Placing a large tray filled with golden brown pasties on the table, Jo cleared her throat and sat down across from Glenn. "Do I have to remind everyone that dinner will be in a couple of hours and that they better not spoil their appetites, hmmm?" She spared a particularly dirty look at Yohji, who merely smiled rather charmingly and batted his eyelashes in return.

"I’m sure I’ll manage to work up quite the appetite by then," he answered. For some reason the response caused Jo to sigh and the hooded man, Aya, to bow his head. There was a slight blush to Maddox’s cheeks while Emmie appeared a bit confused.

Unsure how he was supposed to react in this situation, Glenn kept his mouth shut and reached for a pasty so he could quickly eat and then get the kids out of here. Jo handed him a clean napkin to wrap it in, and he cautiously took a bite. It was still rather warm from the oven and stuffed with a creamy cheese filling rather than the gravy he expected, but it tasted delicious. "Very good," he managed to mumble as he chewed. His stomach, which had been empty for most of the day, grumbled loudly and demanded more.

Jo smiled politely, the expression not quite reflected in her eyes. "Maddox helped to make them. He’s proven very talented with preparing food. With a few more years experience, he’ll do well running his own kitchen." There was an odd note to her voice, as if she was hinting quite strongly at something.

Taking another bite of the pasty, Glenn thought about what Jo said then turned to Maddox. "I didn’t know that you liked to cook," he said after he swallowed.

Maddox glanced down at the table for a few seconds then looked up. "Well, I didn’t get much of a chance to do it at home. I asked Jo if I could work off some of the cost of the room and she allowed me to help her in here. I… I want to learn more, Uncle Glenn." There was a plaintive tone to his voice, much like the time he’d asked Glenn not to tell his parents that he’d developed a crush on another boy.

Even more uncertain about what he was supposed to say now, all Glenn did was take a sip of the cider. This wasn’t at all how things were supposed to happen – he was supposed to show up at the Koneko, make sure Emmie and Maddox were fine, pay their bill then take them back to the Laughing Carp. Instead, he was sitting here feeling very uncomfortable as he ate delicious food and attempted to make small talk.

After another bite of the pasty, he sighed and scratched his head. "Well, I’m sure we can find you someplace nice that’ll take you on as an apprentice," he reassured the boy. And it would certainly be helpful if Maddox did most of the cooking as he could barely stand eating his own food.

Glancing at Jo for help, Maddox rested his hands on the table and leaned forward. "That’s just it, I have found a place willing to take me on," he said in a small voice.

Jo poured herself some cider and held the mug between her hands. "What Maddox is trying to say is that he’s been offered a job at the Koneko, along with Emmie. Room and board is included, and they’ll receive a small share of the inn’s profits." She stared intently at Glenn while she explained the situation, the tone of her voice suggesting that she didn’t expect any dispute. "As with all minors employed by the Koneko, they won’t be expected to work full shifts and will be allowed time off to pursue their studies."

So instead of Glenn rescuing the kids, it seemed that Maddox at least wanted to stay here. Completely confused by the sudden turn of events, Glenn felt the beginnings of a headache. "You’re telling me that you’re willing to hire on Maddox and Emmie. Pardon my rudeness, but why should I trust two family members to someone I don’t even know?" he asked, his voice a little sharper than intended. First he’d been panicking over the fact that the kids had been alone in the city for a couple of weeks, and then over the fact that he was now responsible for them. Then he came to this inn and found out that the kids had already found a new home. It was too much to take in all at once, and he didn’t know anything about this Jo or Yohji other than they ran a pretty respectable inn.

Emmie rose from her seat and hurried over to his side to give him a hug. "You can trust them, Uncle, I promise." As she spoke, Maddox frantically nodded in agreement. While Glenn knew both kids to be intelligent, he wasn’t sure if he could just take their word on the situation.

Jo cleared her throat again to get Glenn’s attention as he tried to figure out what the hell he was supposed to do now. "I’m glad to see that you’ve some concern for the children." When he glared at what was implied, she held up her hands in appeasement. "Just listen for a moment. We don’t make just anyone staff, and we’re not trying to exploit Maddox or Emmie." She glanced at the kids and gave them a slight smile. "We only allowed them to work during their stay to make them feel better and to keep a close eye on them, and then discovered that they had a lot to offer us – and we them."

The affection in her voice and expression faded when she looked at him once more. "The Koneko has a good reputation, and I can gather up a long line of people who will vouch for the children’s safety during their apprenticeships here. Can you say the same if they go with you?" Her voice grew harsh and her eyes narrowed. "A caravan’s not the best place to raise a child, especially after what happened recently."

There was no way he could argue with the comment about caravans and children. "I was planning on quitting the caravan," he replied in a shaky voice after a moment’s pause, uncertain why he felt that he had to answer Jo.

"Uncle Glenn!" Maddox exclaimed, his eyes wide with shock. "You love the caravan! Why would you do something like that?"

"Because as Jo said, it’s not a good idea to drag you two along all over the place. Working for a caravan not the safest occupation for grown adults, let alone children," he explained with some exasperation. "What did you think I was going to do when you showed up here?" The guilty looks on Maddox and Emmie’s faces made him wish he hadn’t been so curt. "Listen, I’m sorry for snapping at you but in the course of a couple of hours, I’ve found out that a dear friend is dead and that his daughter and favorite nephew ran away from home to come live with me. Then I find you two in some strange inn and you tell me that you’re planning on staying here." He sighed again and shook his head. "It’s been one hell of a long day," he muttered, and even that was quite the understatement.

"I’ll grant you that it’s been a very unsettling one on your part," Yohji said quietly, his attention focused on Glenn. "But please don’t take it out on the children." When Glenn opened his mouth to protest, Yohji’s steady gaze made him snap it shut. "From what Emmie and Maddox have told us about you, you’re a good guy. The fact that you’re willing to quit a job that they say you love just proves it. But we’re serious about taking responsibility for the two of them, and I think we can offer them just as much as you can."

"I wasn’t kidding about having people vouch for us," Jo said before Glenn could think up any response. "In fact, several of them are Guards. If you like, I could ask a few of them to join us right now and vow that the children will be safe at the Koneko." Her voice was slightly peevish, as if something was wasting her valuable time. "Three Guards even live here full-time. I’m sure any reasonable person would take that as a sign that the Koneko is respectable enough to help raise two children." What was left unsaid was that the Koneko would come off as more respectable than a jobless bachelor.

Feeling more than a little put-upon and threatened, he once more opened his mouth to say that he didn’t care if the Koneko had a hundred Guards staying here, that he was Maddox and Emmie’s family so he would decide where they lived. He began to glare at Jo when Yohji spoke again.

"Listen, we’re not trying to pick a fight," the blond man soothed, and something about his voice made Glenn stop staring at Jo and look his way instead. Yohji smiled, his green eyes sparkling with so much warm emotion that Glenn couldn’t do anything but return the expression. "Maddox and Emmie are more than old enough to decide where they want to live so why don’t you talk to them for a bit, okay?"

Glenn couldn’t help himself; he quickly nodded in agreement with the perfect logic. Yohji was right, it was up to Maddox and Emmie. What an intelligent, handsome man to point that out….

Someone tugged on his arm and, tearing his gaze away from Yohji, he discovered that it was Maddox. "Let’s go outside, all right?" the boy pleaded, his cheeks bright red.

Glenn didn’t want to leave Yohji’s presence, but Maddox begged again so he grunted in annoyance and agreed. "Okay." As Maddox led him away from the table, he stared at Yohji as long as he could. There was actually a sharp pain when a door cut off his sight of the man.

"Are you okay, Uncle Glenn?" Emmie asked, her expression anxious as she peered up at him. Shaking his head to help clear it, Glenn realized that he was standing outside in a very large garden, along with Maddox and Emmie.

"Yeah, I think so." His thoughts were a little befuddled but maybe that was because of exhaustion and too many surprises thrown his way today. "Okay, how the hell have you two really been?" he asked as he hugged them both, grateful to be able to talk to them without a bunch of strangers about.

"We’re good, Glenn, I promise," Maddox replied, so earnest that he sounded just like Connor. "They really have taken good care of us."

Emmie grabbed hold of Glenn’s left hand when he released them from the hug and gave it a squeeze. "Yohji and Jo are really nice. They’ve looked out for us and given us clothes. We even have our own rooms here," she said, practically bouncing on her toes in happiness. "The Koneko’s a wonderful place! Everyone wants us to stay." She fell quiet for a moment and nibbled on her bottom lip. "We want to stay, too."

"Glenn, I’m really sorry for making you so worried," Maddox spoke in a rush. He continued before Glenn could respond to the apology. "I didn’t think you’d have to quit your job because of us. But we couldn’t stay home anymore. Dad was busy looking for someone for me to marry, and he and Uncle Sean were going to send Emmie to live with Uncle Liam."

Mention of Liam made Glenn snap back to attention. "Why would they do such a thing?" he asked, even though he suspected that he already knew the answer.

"Because my mom’s a bound," Emmie replied, sounding much too serious for a child. "Dad talked about her when… during his fever." Her expression was so heartbroken that he wanted to embrace her in a warm hug, but Maddox beat him to it. "You knew about her, didn’t you?"

He was very surprised to hear her so calmly talk about something that her family had hidden from her for so long. "Yeah, Emmie, I knew about her. I was the only one your dad could talk to about Siobhan." He gave her the best smile he could manage and reached out to caress her cheek. "I had a feeling that’s why you two ran away." Glancing at Maddox, he offered the boy an understanding smile as well. "Not that you didn’t have good enough reason to leave, but I didn’t think you’d drag Emmie all the way down here just to escape an arranged marriage."

Maddox nodded. "It just seemed like the right thing to do at the time. I guess… I guess I thought you could find a little apartment for us somewhere and I’d look after Emmie while you were away with the caravan," the boy explained in an uncertain tone of voice, his gaze cast downward.

As if Glenn would leave the two of them alone for that long. "I’m sure we’ll figure something out." Frowning slightly, he motioned for the kids to gather a bit closer. "Now that you know the truth about your mother, Emmie, can’t you see that I can’t leave you here? What happens if… if they find out the truth?" Stories he’d heard about people attacking someone who possessed bound blood swamped his mind and made him shiver in fear.

Emmie and Maddox exchanged a significant look, one that made him instantly suspicious. "They won’t care," Maddox answered, his demeanor serious and a little closed off.

Shaking his head, Glenn wondered how he could make the kids see reason without terrifying them. Connor had done his best to make sure they were raised not to be scared of bounds because of Emmie’s mother, and now it was blinding them to some painful realities. "I don’t think you two understand. These people might be nice now, but they most likely won’t be later if they find out about Emmie’s mother."

There was another significant look. "Uncle Glenn…." Maddox sighed and shook his head. "They won’t care."

"They already know," Emmie explained as she gave Glenn’s hand another squeeze.

"What the hell?" he exclaimed in shock. He could just hear Connor berating him for swearing in front of the girl, which made him take a deep breath and struggle for some control. "How did they find out?" He had to get Emmie out of there before the Guard arrived, but when he stepped forward, Emmie and Maddox wouldn’t move out of his way.

Maddox shook his head again. "I don’t think we can tell you that." At Glenn’s angry scowl, Maddox straightened his shoulders and looked him straight in the eye. "We’re safe here, Glenn. There’s a lot we can’t say because everyone trusts us, and they’re serious about keeping us safe. We’re staying not just because they’re offering us jobs, but because we trust them in return."

Something was going on here, something that Glenn wasn’t very sure he wanted to find out about. But he’d known Maddox and Emmie all their lives, had helped to look after them whenever he went home, and while he knew they were a bit naïve about the real world, they weren’t stupid. Maddox had a very level head on his shoulders and he always took care of Emmie as if she was his sister. "You honestly think Emmie will be safe here?" he asked the boy. "You’re willing to risk her life and yours?"

There was no hesitation or doubt in Maddox’s answer. "Yes, I am. I believe… that it would be a big mistake if we left the Koneko." He paused to glance at Emmie. "I know it sounds silly, but I think we were meant to come here all along. Maybe that’s why…." He paused again to shake his head. "I want to learn how to cook and maybe one day take over the Koneko’s kitchen. And Jo wasn’t kidding when she said that there are a lot of Guards at the Koneko – they don’t care about Emmie’s mother, either. They all seem to like Emmie and you know that she’s always dreamed of being a Guard one day." Emmie frantically nodded in agreement.

"I know." Connor had always worried about his daughter’s ambitions because of her blood. What the man would do if he knew that she wanted to live with several of them… but Maddox swore she’d be safe here, and Glenn trusted Maddox’s judgment. Mostly.

"Okay, I’ve heard what Jo and Yohji have to say, and you two as well." While part of him was relieved that there was a solution available that meant he wouldn’t have to quit his job, he was still a bit leery about the situation. How was Maddox so certain that the Guard wouldn’t come for Emmie one day? But as he searched the boy’s expression, he didn’t see any doubt or fear.

"I don’t have to leave for another ten days," he said as he wondered if he’d suddenly gone insane or something. "During that time, I’ll spend as much of it as I can here. If I don’t see anything that makes me think you won’t be safe at the Koneko, you can stay." Maddox was old enough that he couldn’t really force the boy to come live with him, and as long as Maddox was willing to watch over Emmie, he’d give the arrangement a chance. Damn her, but Jo had made a point about the kids being safer here than with him – as long as Emmie’s blood really wasn’t a problem.

As the kids cried out in happiness and hugged him tight, he had to fight to remain serious. "But I expect letters every week, and I’ll be back at the start of spring! If I feel that you’re not being properly taken care of, you’ll have to come with me," he warned.

"We’ll be fine, Uncle Glenn, I promise!" Maddox hugged him even tighter, then let go.

"I expect you to keep your word." Glenn smiled and tried to figure out if Connor would be pleased or upset with him over his decision. His cousin and best friend had only wanted what was best for Emmie and Maddox so maybe he would approve. "Now let’s go back inside before they think I ran off with you. I want to see more of the Koneko." And maybe he’d sit down and have a drink or two with those Guards, find out if they really did approve of the inn taking in two children. He’d spend a lot of time over the next few days learning all he could about the Koneko, and if he heard anything remotely disturbing he would take the kids away.

"Oh! I can show you my room!" Emmie exclaimed as she led him back to the inn. "You can’t really see much of the garden from it but Yohji told me I’d be able to smell the flowers in the summer. And it’s bigger than my old room!

Amused despite his misgivings, Glenn followed without putting up much of a fight. He’d see both of their rooms and make sure that they were being treated properly, then return to the kitchen and ask Jo and Yohji a few more questions about the arrangement. Maybe he could help himself to another pasty or two during the discussion.

For some odd reason, there was a sense of relief for the first time since he’d entered the city. Still not a hundred percent sure that he was doing the right thing, he found himself willing to give the arrangement a chance. If Maddox and Emmie were this happy at the prospect of living at the inn, then things couldn’t be bad. All that really mattered was that they were safe and happy. He was convinced on the one matter, now to put a few more fears to rest.

And a small part of him couldn’t help but wonder how the rest of the family would react when he told them the kids had found lives away from Potswick. He wouldn’t be stupid enough to tell his brothers and cousins where the kids now lived, but he couldn’t wait to go back home and let everyone know that the family outcasts had found some hope for the future. That should help to put Connor’s spirit to rest and twist a few noses at the same time, he thought with a content smile.

*******

Emmie entered her room and closed the door behind her. She couldn’t help but smile when she looked around, much as she’d done for the last few days. Maybe the room wasn’t special enough to be among the Koneko’s more popular ones but she was more than happy with what she had picked. True, the two small windows didn’t let in much sunlight during the day but the cream colored walls and all the sunflower scented candles scattered about kept it from being too dark. Tucked into the corner of the inn, the room was a little odd-shaped but she liked that, and the most important thing was that she didn’t have to share it with anyone.

The furniture was old but good, and Kira was already at work on new curtains for the windows. They’d picked out the fabric just the other day, something bright and cheerful to make up for the lack of direct sunlight.

She’d just washed off and changed into some clean clothes when she heard a knock on the door. Expecting it to be Maddox, Emmie sighed in annoyance and finished tying the belt around her waist. "I thought you didn’t want to go out shopping!" she called out as she headed to the door. "Weren’t you going to-" Upon discovering that it was Aya and not Maddox who had knocked, her voice cut off as she stared in surprise.

"Hello." He merely stood there quietly after uttering the greeting, the hood of his dark blue tunic pulled over his hair and a pale bundle of cloth in his arms.

"Uhm, hello, Aya," she stuttered after she realized that she was staring. Then she suddenly remembered her manners and blushed. "Ah, would you like to come in?" she asked, incredibly curious as to why he was here. While Aya hadn’t been as cold to her and Maddox lately, he still kept his distance. As long as he didn’t glare at her all the time she didn’t mind if he didn’t seem to want to become good friends, but this was the first time he’d visited her room.

Aya nodded and stepped forward. "I’ll only be a minute." He glanced around the room for a moment and then stared at the floor. "Here," he said, his quiet voice gruff as he held out the bundle of fabric. "It’s for your bed," he added after a few seconds, as Emmie stared at him in confusion.

"Thank you," she replied just as quietly and accepted the… present. It was heavy and smelled of cedar, and Aya didn’t look at her as she sat down on the bed with the thick material in her lap. Emmie carefully unwrapped the cloth; she let out a startled breath when dozens of flowers were revealed. "Oh! It’s so pretty!" Jumping off the bed, she spread out what she realized was a thick quilt on top of the pale yellow duvet.

The quilt was beautiful. It was made of pastel-colored patches of velvet, and covered with silk ribbons skillfully folded and stitched into a dozen different flowers. There were roses and rosebuds of myriad colors, daisies and forget-me-nots and chrysanthemums and tulips and cherry blossoms and… she didn’t know the names for all of the flowers but they were so pretty, so realistic that she expected to be able to smell their fragrance. "It really is so beautiful!" she cried out, her right hand shaking as she traced a pale pink rosebud. She’d never seen anything like it in her life. The quilt looked like something that should grace a highborn girl’s bed, something that maybe the queen herself would own.

Confused over the present, she turned to face Aya. "But… oh, it’s so *pretty* but… surely it isn’t for me," she stuttered, already in love with the quilt but disbelieving that he would give her something so fine.

There was a fleeting expression of intense sadness on Aya’s face for a moment, just long enough to shock her - then it was gone, his expression impassive once more. "It is for you." He slowly moved toward the bed and with a gloved hand reached out to stroke one of the velvet patches. "It’s a bit faded but… well, I didn’t think it should be locked in a chest forever. My-" He bowed his head for a moment, eartail falling out of the hood and then he seemed to take a deep breath. "The quilt was made for a young woman to enjoy. I highly doubt the original owner would be happy if it was locked away somewhere dark when it could be used once more." Straightening up, he turned to look at her, an odd silver gleam in his eyes. "Please take good care of it," he said, then he left the room so quickly that she didn’t have any time to figure out what to say.

Staring at the open door for a few seconds, Emmie’s brain finally seemed to work once more and prompted her to thank him for the present. "Aya!" she called. But when she looked into the hallway, he was already gone. Left feeling even more confused than when he’d arrived, she slowly closed the door and returned to the bed.

As she closely examined the quilt, she did see that it wasn’t brand new, as she had first thought. If she pushed back the leaves of a daisy she noticed that the velvet beneath the ribbon was a shade darker than the rest of the patch. But even if the quilt was a little faded, it was still one of the most beautiful things she’d ever seen, something much too fine to be used for a blanket on her bed. As she tried to find the determination to fold up the present and return it to Aya, her hands wouldn’t obey. They just stroked over the incredibly soft fabric and played with the petals of a large, yellow rose.

Lost in touching the silky material, she practically jumped when there was another knock on the door. Her heart pounding in her chest, she went to see if it was Aya, to see if he had changed his mind and decided that he wanted the quilt back. With tears in her eyes, she slowly opened the door.

Ani smiled brightly and leaned against the doorframe. "If you want to go with me while I look for some new yarn, you’d better be ready!" Her smile faded when Emmie dumbly stared in response. "Is everything okay?" she asked in a worried voice.

Emmie nodded her head. "I’m not sure. Aya was just here…." She stepped back so Ani could enter the room. "He brought me a present," she said in a mix of confusion and fear. Once Ani saw the quilt she’d probably insist that it be given back to Aya.

"Did he now? I don’t understand why that would make you seem a bit sad, Sweetie," Ani said as she stepped forward. "What did he give you? Some book in a language you can’t read?" She laughed and reached up to tug on the ends of the bright gold bow that held Ani’s hair up in a ponytail. "He did that to Reiichi, you know. The poor man is actually learning another language in his spare time just so he can read it one day, and Aya has absolutely no clue." When Emmie didn’t laugh or say anything, Ani’s smile turned into a worried frown. "It wasn’t a book, was it?"

Shaking her head, Emmie pointed toward the bed then lit a candle. She could tell by Ani’s sudden inhale when her friend noticed the quilt. "I know I have to give it back," she said, utterly miserable about the prospect.

Ani was quiet for a moment then reached out to touch the quilt with a shaking hand. "I remember when he brought this back…. Jo and I aired it out for him since the thing was so dusty. One of the guests saw it out on the line and offered us a small fortune for it." She laughed again, but this time the sound was more of sorrow than joy. "I can understand why the woman did that, since it’s the most beautiful quilt I’ve ever seen."

Swallowing hard, Emmie didn’t allow herself to touch it, as Ani did. "I know. I don’t understand why he gave it to me. I’m sure it’s a mistake." Part of her wondered if Aya had deliberately given her the gift for some cruel reason, knowing that she would have to give it back. Why he would do something so mean, she didn’t know she thought, as more tears formed in her eyes.

"Oh, Sweetie, I’m sure it isn’t." Ani reached out and gave her a hug. "Why would you think something so silly? If you weren’t meant to have it then he wouldn’t have given it to you," she chided.

Wiping her nose with the back of her hand, Emmie sniffed and looked hopefully at her friend. "Do you really think so? I don’t know why he would but… well, you said that he wouldn’t sell it to that woman so why give it away?"

Ani hugged her again and urged her to sit down on the bed. She felt uncomfortable sitting on something so beautiful but she didn’t think she had much of a choice.

There was an expression of pain and sorrow on Ani’s face, a stark contrast to her normally sunny disposition. Yet somehow, she managed to summon a smile as she brushed back Emmie’s bangs. "I know Aya hasn’t been the friendliest person to you or Maddox, but he has his reasons. And he’d never give anything away if he didn’t want to, either." Her smile grew a little stronger, the pain a little less evident. "There’s not a lot I can tell you; we don’t talk about each other’s pasts without permission but I will say this." She stroked her hand over the quilt. "This used to belong to someone Aya loved very much. Even if it wasn’t so expensive, he wouldn’t sell it because it holds a lot of memories for him."

The explanation left Emmie even more confused. "Why would he give me something like that?" she asked, her voice plaintive as she tried to figure out what Aya was thinking.

"Oh, I’m not doing a good job of this, am I?" Ani said with a sigh. She once more hugged Emmie close. "I think he gave the quilt to you because you remind him a bit of the person who used to own it." She was quiet for a few seconds. "From what I’ve heard, she was about your age… the last time Aya saw her." The sadness and pain was back in her voice. At Emmie’s confused look, Ani tried to smile. "It probably doesn’t make much sense to you, I’m sure, but I think it does to him and that’s what matters. He probably just wants something that used to make someone he loved happy to be cherished again." The smile suddenly became more certain. "Besides, I don’t believe that Yohji likes the quilt too much. He puts up with flowers enough during the spring and summer to have them in their room all year long," she managed to tease.

Sniffing, Emmie dredged up a smile of her own. "So I can really keep it?" she asked, more hopeful now that the quilt really was hers.

"Yes, you can keep it." Ani brushed back her bangs then stood up. "I don’t need to tell you that it’s something very valuable, do I? Not just because it’s so beautiful but because of who owned it before." She fixed Emmie with a stern look and frowned. "So try to be more careful with it, okay?"

"Yes, Ani," Emmie sighed, a little annoyed that the older girl thought she had to be lectured like this. Like she’d really do anything to ruin something so pretty. "I won’t make Aya mad by ripping it or spilling anything on it."

"Just checking." Ani’s smile made a comeback. "You know, I just realized that the material you bought the other day might be a little too bright to match the quilt. Let’s tell Kira that we’re going to look for something new."

Emmie hugged her arms to her chest, torn between feeling guilty over Kira already doing some work on the material and wanting something to match the quilt. "Oh! But she already started."

Ani merely smiled and tugged her toward the door. "She’s only cut the fabric, and I’m sure she can make it into something else. A lot of windows can use some new curtains." She hummed a little as they made their way down the hall.

Smiling at the thought of how pretty her room would look with the quilt and new curtains, Emmie laughed and allowed herself to be pulled toward the stairs. And while they were out looking for new fabric and yarn, maybe she could find something nice for Aya to thank him for the quilt.

*******

Hitomi sat quietly beside Tomio with her arm around his waist and waited for him to finish ‘talking’ with the soul gaki-bound from Avonshire. When she felt her lover’s body begin to relax, she hugged him and rested her head against his right shoulder. "So?" she asked, wanting some answers to questions everyone shared.

Tomio sent her a wave of affection and pressed a kiss against the top of her head. "The children are safe," he explained, and all around the fire, their friends sighed and smiled and laughed. Even Isabelle seemed cheered by the news, though there was a hint of sadness in her eyes. Taku must have picked up on that because he embraced her for a kiss.

Tired of waiting for everyone to quiet again, Tomio cleared his throat and continued. "Alyssa told me that they’ve been accepted at the Koneko and will remain there." He was quiet for a moment and when he next spoke, it was in a more serious tone of voice. "She also told me that it’s official – if any of our kind are in need and can make it to Eto, that we’re to go to the Koneko and we’ll be safe."

Cleo, tucked between Jared and Luther, nodded and threw a few more branches on the fire. "I could have told you that. They didn’t accept any money from me when I spent a couple of nights there, and I still miss the inn’s hot spring." She sighed and rubbed her hands up and down her arms in brisk motion. "There’s nothing like a nice, hot soak that I can enjoy without any work on my part."

Jared laughed and gently tugged one of her long braids. "At least you can have a hot bath any time you want, even if it costs you a bit of effort."

She batted his hand aside and glared. "Yes, and if you don’t want to suffer cold baths this winter, you better damn well learn to wipe your boots clean before you enter the house!" she snapped, and everyone laughed in response. Poor Cleo, she was the group’s mother hen who always felt compelled to clean up any messes, Hitomi thought with affection as she leaned against Tomio.

<True, but she’s usually happiest when she’s cleaning or baking,> her lover reminded her. She smiled in agreement and nuzzled his shoulder.

"Jared’s camping out if he’s not taking any baths." Taku smiled brightly as he teased their young friend, and Isabelle played into the joke by pinching her nose and vehemently nodding. Between their antics and the pout on Jared’s face, not even reserved Janice could hold back on a smile.

"I think we’d all be punished in the end as he’d complain the entire winter about how mean we are to him," Janice said, and everyone fell quiet to hear her soft voice. She shifted on the low bench around the fire, her face hidden by both the long fall of her white hair and shadows. "But all joking aside, it is good news, Tomio. Thank you." As she spoke, she bowed her head slightly, her demeanor as formal as her tone of voice.

Remembering why they were all gathered here tonight, the group nodded and murmured their agreement. "A safe haven in the middle of the capital, who would have thought such a thing could be true?" Isabelle mused, her expression thoughtful as she stared into the fire.

"I did," Cleo complained, but then she let out a long breath and laughed for a few seconds. "It’s heartening to know that this isn’t the only haven for our kind. Maybe… maybe we can leave messages behind now for… for our loved ones to seek refuge there if the need arises."

"And then we’ll have some hope of being able to help them," Isabelle finished, her voice tight with pain. "Or at least know that someone will tell them the truth and maybe get word back to us." There was a bright glimmer to her eyes, and Hitomi knew she wasn’t the only one to glance aside to allow Isabelle and Taku a moment to compose themselves.

Nicole spoke next when things seemed to have calmed down. "So, since the children are safe and far away, I guess we can leave their family alone." Her voice was laden with disgust and her lovely face wrinkled by the emotion, the tips of her sharp teeth exposed.

Hitomi nodded and pulled away a little from Tomio. "As much as I feel that they deserve to be stuck in that valley forever, I suppose we should let them out." Although a part of her enjoyed using her talent to make all the roads and paths leading from the village inaccessible, it was a strain to maintain the conditions. "There are some innocents involved," she sniffed, and wished that there was a way to isolate only Emily’s family. Anyone who would cast aside a young girl because of her blood deserved no sympathy.

"It would be for the best." Isabelle sighed and tucked back the hair that fell onto her face. "The entire valley will suffer if they can’t stock up on some goods before winter." When soft growls were uttered around the fire, Isabelle held up her hands in a placating manner. "As Hitomi said, there are innocents involved."

"And sooner or later, people will realize that Potswick has been sealed off from the rest of the world and investigate," Taku added, his dark face furrowed by deep thought. "Are you willing to risk that a wizard or the Guard won’t become involved at some point?"

Nicole, always one to argue, snorted loudly and leaned forward. "But the Guard is on our side, isn’t it?" She glanced at Tomio. "Didn’t Alyssa pass on that the Guard is actually *recruiting* us? Isn’t that the other reason we’re supposed to go to the Koneko, hmmm?" Her voice was sharp with doubt, but her expression was oddly hopeful.

"Alyssa did repeat that the rumors about the Shadow Guard are true – but not to trust all Guards." Tomio hugged Hitomi back against his side as he tried to explain. "That’s why we’re to go to the Koneko unless we know someone from the Shadow Guard." He sounded a bit exasperated so Hitomi nuzzled him again in sympathy. Once again, things were degenerating back into the old discussion on whether or not they could trust the Guard’s offer. She was sick of hearing about it.

<As am I, love, but if it’s true….> Tomio stroked his fingers through her hair as his thoughts focused on the opportunity presented to their kind if they could work with humans, with *Guards* and still be safe.

There was precious little that could drive her from her beloved forest, not after all the pain she had suffered in the human world but she could see the yearning in some of the group’s eyes whenever the Shadow Guard was mentioned. At one point in her life, it would have held much attraction for her but not now. All she wanted was Tomio, the quiet life they led and some good friends to share in their happiness.

<Not everyone feels the same way,> Isabelle whispered in her mind when Taku and Nicole began yet another argument on whether or not they could trust the Guard. <Nicole wants to do something with her life, wants to spare other people pain if she can, and Jared is growing bored.>

Shying away from the unwelcome truth, Hitomi snuggled closer to Tomio. Maybe it wasn’t the most exciting life, the occasional runaways and poachers aside, but it was a good one they’d made here. She didn’t want to lose any of her friends to wanderlust.

<Neither do I,> Isabelle agreed.

"What do you think, Belle?" she asked, loudly enough to interrupt Nicole. "Do you think we can trust the Guard at their word?"

Her dear friend was quiet for a moment, and everyone waited anxiously for her answer since they all trusted her judgment and insight. "Yes, I do," Isabelle answered in a quiet voice. "Alyssa’s never spread false word before."

Hands wrapped around her black braids, Cleo nodded. "It’s been over a century, but I know when I was there, the Koneko was filled with Guards. I was shocked to find out that Daniel had been one before he retired to take over the Koneko, especially since I would bet my soul that he knew what I was."

"They say that the current owner is a succubae-bound." Once again, Janice joined in the discussion, her head tilted to the side as a gentle breeze stirred the air. "They also say that his mate is a kage."

The last word she spoke made everyone fall silent once more, jaws open and eyes wide in surprise. Janice’s lips curled in a rare smile, her red eyes sparkling with amusement. "Ah, I didn’t think that was common knowledge just yet."

Hitomi wanted to doubt the wind elemental bound but something about Janice, perhaps her advanced age or the fact that none of them had ever known her to speak less than the truth, that made her close her mouth and consider what was said. "A kage? I thought they were gone forever."

Janice snorted in amusement and pulled closer the cloak draped over her shoulders. "If bounds refuse to die out after all that is done to us, why shouldn’t the same be true for kage? Whenever one appears, humans do their best to wipe out their bloodline but there’s always another one a century or two later. Ban was very prolific, after all." The amount of certainty in her voice made Hitomi wonder if the woman had actually been alive long enough to have met the fabled man.

"How do you know this?" Nicole asked, her voice respectful and soft for once.

There was another smile from Janice as she leaned forward for the bottle of mulled wine propped next to the fire. She waited until she had poured some into a cup before she answered. "I’ve a friend who makes certain that I know of all that happens in the world. She tells me many things of interest, including the fact that Kritiker’s crown prince has given both heart and body to an earth elemental-bound, and that the Shadow Guard has been formed to stand against Esset’s army." The smile faded as she stared into the cup of wine. "She knows someone who is close to the kage and his mate, someone who bore a son to fight against the Elders. Word is carefully spreading about what is to come, and now that you seem to have a concern about what happens beyond Silverton, I decided to speak up." Taking a sip of the wine, she set the cup on the ground and shrugged. "I trust all of you, the only reason I didn’t tell you sooner was that I didn’t think you’d care."

Her arm tight around Tomio’s waist, Hitomi shivered and wondered if she’d next be told that the earth was flat or some other incredible story. The mention of kage and war… it was like some fairytale come true – and the worst part was that she began to suspect that the rumors that reached them even here were not just stories.

"Can you trust this friend?" Tomio asked, his voice tight with stress. "Is all of that really true?"

"Yes. I’m sure that if you wait a few more months, Alyssa will tell you the same." Wrapped tightly in her cloak, Janice sat back in the shadows once more, a clear sign that she was finished talking.

Everyone was quiet for several minutes, left reeling by what had just been revealed. It had been shocking enough to find out about the Shadow Guard, but to know that it had been formed to fight the Elders’ army and that there was a kage alive….

<I’m reminded of something my father told me, long ago,> Tomio said as he kissed her on the temple. <He only had a small bit of sight but the few times it showed him something, it was never wrong. He said that one vision dealt with a great darkness and lots of blood and death, but oddly enough, it filled him with hope.>

<How terribly reassuring,> she answered in annoyance, and nipped his neck for good measure. <You are the oddest man….>

"And yet you still want me," he murmured against the top of her head. She could only smile at the truth, thoughts momentarily distracted from all the shocking news tonight.

It wasn’t surprising that Nicole broke the silence first. "The Shadow Guard was formed because of Esset, eh?" She laughed for a few seconds, the sound dark and tinged with pain. "I didn’t think the Guards took in bounds just out of the goodness of their heart but it makes sense." She seemed to consider something for a moment and then nodded. "Well, there’s only one way to find out if it’s the truth or not, ne?"

That Nicole would leave after Janice’s revelation wasn’t that big a shock, not after she had lost her husband to the Elders’ hounds, but Hitomi still felt a deep pain that one of the group would soon be gone. "What if it’s a trap?" she asked, the words hushed by fear.

With a lopsided smile on her face, Nicole left her spot by the fire and crouched in front of Hitomi. "Maybe I could doubt Alyssa but not Janice as well. Then there’s Cleo, who claims that the Koneko’s safe." She grabbed Hitomi’s free hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. "Before there was little I could do, but now… I’m sorry, Hitomi, but I feel it’s worth a try."

<She’s serious, ‘tomi,> Tomio sadly informed her as he shared Nicole’s emotions.

Unable to hide from how much this chance meant to Nicole, she bowed her head and squeezed Nicole’s hand in return. "Please, be careful."

"I will," Nicole promised. "And as long as the gods are kind, I’ll be back. This I swear on my blood and soul." She leaned forward to press a kiss against Hitomi’s cheek.

For a few seconds the only sound heard was the crackling of fire, then Jared let out a deep breath. "I’m not certain yet if the Guard is the proper place for me, but I might as well go along and make sure that Nicki doesn’t burn down the capital during some silly snit," he said, voice warm with affection. "That way, if anyone tries to trap her, I should be able to enjoy a nice meal."

Rocking back onto her heels, Nicole glared at Jared but there was a hint of a smile on her lips. "More like I’ll trip you and run away. What would the Guard want with an oaf like you?"

<Oh gods, there they go again,> Tomio whined, his patience long gone. <I swear, they’re just like two children.>

Agreeing with her lover, Hitomi chuckled softly and shared a rare, mostly pain-free memory of how she and her brothers used to fight all the time just like Nicole and Jared. While the poor boy rattled off his better qualities in an increasingly louder voice in an attempt to drown out Nicole’s derisive comments, everyone else began to smile. From Tomio she knew that the others were pained by the fact that they’d lose two close friends, but resignation and even hope began to set in.

<We’ve lost friends before, but we’ll find new ones in the future,> Isabelle soothed. <Besides, this time… I think it might be worth it. I’m too afraid to leave myself but I want to know that there is indeed a safe haven for our kind, that there’s a chance we can work with humans. Is that so wrong?>

<No, Belle,> Hitomi assured her dear friend. <Part of me wishes that I had the courage to go as well.> She would dearly love to see a kage but not even that was enough to make her leave her home.

Still, as Tomio held her close and Cleo joined in Jared and Nicole’s argument, she felt the pain begin to lessen the slightest bit. There was a sense that the future would contain many more shocks, and that others would need the haven they’d found here. If there was indeed going to be a war, then some bounds would seek shelter from the fighting. Not everyone was powerful enough to be an effective soldier, and there were the children to think of, too young to face the horrors to come.

<Yes,> Isabelle agreed, and Tomio sent a wave of assent as well. <There’s the Koneko in the capital, but what about the bounds who can’t make it there? It would be a lot of work and mean losing some peace and quiet, but we could help out as much as we can.>

Hitomi smiled at her friend and thought about their home. There was more than enough space in these woods for a hundred bounds, and as long as they were careful, no human would have a clue that they were here. Some careful planning would be required, but maybe as Nicole and Jared made their way across Kritiker, they could spread the word about a safe place for bounds to send their children or to come to themselves.

<A lot of work indeed,> Tomio warned, but she could feel his growing enthusiasm. <I’ll miss the quiet but there are times when I don’t feel it’s fair that we’re safe here and others aren’t. We helped two human children, why not our own kind?>

"We’ll talk some more about this in the morning, Tom." Hitomi gave him a hug and moved to pour them some wine. "If the others agree, then we can make some solid plans and get to work." Glancing in turn at her friends, she didn’t think there would be much objection. Isabelle seemed to be discussing the matter already with Taku, judging from their expressions, and Cleo usually went with the group consensus. Besides, she should adore having many more people to fuss over. When Hitomi looked at Janice, she was surprised to see her quiet friend staring back, and received a quick smile and a nod. Then Janice gracefully rose from the bench and left the fire.

Hitomi had the feeling that word about their haven would spread even quicker than she expected. She blinked a few times in surprise then shook her head. If this was going to be one of the last few nights of the group gathering together, then she would enjoy it now and worry about the future later. There was no way to stop it, after all, but she felt a sense of peace in making plans to take part in it at last, to do more than just hide. At least now there would be sanctuary for her kind, the Koneko in the capital and Silverton in the east. She would not be surprised in the least if other havens were created or revealed themselves as the war approached. Maybe, just maybe, if the gods repaid even a bit of the luck long owed to her kind, they would survive the approaching war. If the Guard welcomed Nicole and Jared, perhaps her kind would finally do more than just survive for once.

<Now that’s something to toast, love,> Tomio said as he clinked his cup against hers.

*******

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