*******

Feeling uneasy and cold, Yohji knew that something wasn’t right the moment he woke up. Moving his arms about on the bed, he didn’t encounter Aya. Damn. He scrambled to sit up in bed, even though he sensed that his mate wasn’t in the room, to see if Aya was sitting in the windowsill and trying to shake off the effects of a bad dream. But just as he sat up, he let out a groan as he finally remembered what morning it was and crumpled forward, his fingers sliding through his hair as his elbows rested on his knees. Aya was downstairs in the kitchen, making bread. That meant there wouldn’t be any leisurely sex to start the day. Damn, damn, damn.

Of course, now that he was awake and thinking about his mate, his body decided to… come ‘alive’ as well. For a few highly enjoyable seconds, he entertained the thought of going downstairs, dragging Aya onto the big wooden table and ravishing him silly. Maybe Aya would be in the middle of making the cinnamon rolls and be covered with the sweet sugary filling. Or there would be a bowl of icing nearby…. Then the image of Jo chasing him around the room with an iron skillet in one hand and a butcher knife in the other made him shudder and fall back down onto the mattress.

"It so ain’t happening," he muttered as he tugged the blankets up. Perhaps daunted by the image of Jo, his body decided that living was preferable to dying right now, even if he managed to get a little wonderful sex in before his untimely death. He wasn’t as dumb as he looked, after all. But even as the flesh subsided, the hunger and yearning grew, leaving him with dreams of Aya and their soft bed and a big bowl of icing….

*******

Yohji paused before the door to the kitchen and looked down the sunlit hallway toward the front door and the indignant people arguing with Teddy. The Koneko had declared itself booked three days ago, so why were they still trying to find open rooms? Ah well, it was Teddy’s problem, not his. All he had to do was bust his ass serving all the patrons here to celebrate Kajiya’s Ascension this week and all the guild functions going on because of that event. Blacksmiths, forgers and iron-wrights from all over had nothing better to do during the festivities than talk shop, drink, eat and be merry – most of that at the Koneko, it seemed. Ah well, he should make enough money out of his share of the inn’s earnings to treat Aya to a very nice week away at an onsen. A whole week of just soaking in hot water, lounging around in bed and making love for hours on end….

He shook his head and pushed open the kitchen door. Damnit, his hunger was more distracting than usual today, all because of him and Aya working so damned much they almost never had any time to enjoy each other the last few days. What he wouldn’t give for an hour alone with his mate – but the festival still had another two days to go.

Some of his aggravation faded at the sight of Aya with his sleeves rolled up since he was wrist deep in dough, a slight frown on his face as he kneaded. Two steps into the room and he looked up at Yohji, the frown turning into a weary smile. Yohji echoed it as he went to his mate and wrapped his arms around Aya’s waist.

"Having fun?" he asked as he started to nibble on his lover’s left ear.

"Ever so much," Aya murmured as he tilted his head to the side. "Can’t you tell?"

"As enjoyable playing with flour may be, I think we could come up with something much more fun. What do you think?" Yohji’s lips moved down his mate’s neck, drawn to the smooth, pale curve right above the grey collar. His hunger flared to life, making him feel so dizzy with need that he draped himself over Aya, pressing him against the table. The nice, sturdy table, he thought as his hands slid beneath his mate’s apron, seeking warm flesh to stroke and make shiver oh so- "Ow!"

"Get your hands off him, there’ll be no fooling around until the bread’s in the oven!" Jo told him sternly as she tapped the rolling pin she’d just used as a weapon against her palm.

"Dammit, Jo, you nearly broke my fucking skull!" he snarled as he gingerly touched his scalp. It didn’t seem to be bleeding, but he had one hell of a headache right now. All thanks to Jo, who was being even more of a vicious taskmaster than usual.

She hefted the rolling pin in warning. "What have I told you about snarling in my kitchen! And trying to molest Aya to boot!"

Hell, Aya certainly hadn’t minded the so-called ‘molesting’; he could feel his mate’s desire and need almost as strongly as his own. "You hit me with a fucking rolling pin, you better believe I’m gonna snarl!," he warned, his teeth pulling back from his lips. His temper, which hadn’t been the best these past few days, was seriously frayed and he felt the very strong urge to take all of his frustration out on Jo.

She seemed up to the challenge as she waved the rolling pin in the air and stepped forward. However, she didn’t get very far before shadows snatched the weapon from her hand and threw it into the sink. "Jo, he’s starving," Aya said quietly, with just a hint of sibilance to his voice. "Leave him alone." He seemed to think about something as he tilted his head to the side. "Please."

Jo’s face went pale at the use of shadows but now it became a bit flushed. She actually looked at Yohji with something akin to sympathy. "I’m sorry, Yotan. We’re all overworked and tired."

He snorted softly as he once more wrapped his arms around Aya’s waist. "I’m sorry, too." It had just occurred to him that he’d almost taken Jo on. Even with Aya’s help, that would be damn near suicidal. "Can’t you give us ten minutes alone?" he pleaded, and then let out a yelp when a bony elbow knocked into his ribs. "Okay, a half hour?" He tried the big, teary-eyed look that got Omi whatever he wanted, and was surprised to see Jo frown sadly.

"I’m sorry, but Emmie and Maddox are still too new to be much help, and half of the part-time staff have taken off today because of the fireworks tonight." She sighed as she tucked back the frizzy strands of hair escaping the cloth she’d tied it back with. "I tell you what, I can give you two tomorrow morning off. We should be slow enough because of the parade and won’t need you until after lunch."

That meant an entire day without touching Aya, other than stolen caresses here and there. He’d worked hard these last few months to control his hunger for his mate, but right now he felt drawn to the breaking point. "Give us an hour for-"

"Yotan! Get out here now!" Mickey bellowed as he stuck his head through the kitchen door. "The alcohol’s arrived, at least two wagons worth!" He quickly retreated, and could be heard calling for Maddox’s assistance as well.

Yohji actually whimpered as he crushed Aya to his chest. It would take a few hours at least to unload and restock everything, and then it would be the lunch crowd, and then getting ready for dinner since everybody would want to eat early or take something with them because of the fireworks, and once the display was over, the Koneko would be mobbed with people eager to drink the place dry…. He buried his face against Aya’s neck and took a deep breath. Aya’s disappointment rivaled his own, but his mate gently tugged on his hair until he looked up.

"We’ll take you up on that offer," Aya told Jo. "Just make sure that no one bothers us until early mid-day."

"That’s fine. I’ll even send up a late breakfast to you." She gave Aya a smile and tapped Yohji on the head. "Now go help Mickey."

"Yes ma’am," he sighed, and bent his head down for one more nuzzle of Aya’s tempting neck. They just had to get through today, and then they’d spend tomorrow morning in bed. Just one more day.

"Yohji! Move your ass *now*!" Mickey bellowed, this time from out in the courtyard.

"All right, you damn killjoy!" He snarled again, but all Jo did was shake her head and go back to tending the oven. Forcing himself away from his mate, he stalked outside, promising himself that if Mickey yelled at him just one more time, he’d find out if an entire keg could be shoved down his brother’s throat.

*******

Done with unloading and storing the liquor, Yohji wiped his damp face with the sleeve of his shirt and stormed into the kitchen. He only had a few minutes before he had to go wash off so he’d be clean enough to help serve lunch, but he desperately needed to see Aya. He’d damned near dropped a keg of ale on his foot earlier while daydreaming about his mate, his hunger building to a fever pitch that wouldn’t fade until he breathed in deep Aya’s scent, until he tasted Aya’s pale skin and held him in his arms just long enough to feel reassured and take the edge off his ravenous need. Besides, considering what he was feeling over their link, the both of them could use a cuddle.

He came to a dead stop when he didn’t see Aya in the kitchen. "Where’d he go?" Aya was supposed to help Kira prepare the plates for the customers since he didn’t like working out in the main room when it was so crowded.

Omi looked up from the just baked bread he and Emmie were busy slicing and smiled. "Yohji! Aya’s out with Reiichi buying groceries. They should be back soon."

He thought dark thoughts about how sunny the day was and how crowded the markets would be right about now and had to force himself not to growl. Now he knew why his mate was feeling so tired and stressed the last hour or so. He’d curse Jo for sending Aya out to do the shopping, but most likely his beloved idiot had insisted on the task. Aya’s sharp senses and his cold demeanor helped him to get the best prices for the best goods, and he knew his mate was getting fed up with being cooped inside the inn the last two days.

Still, Aya was out on the sun and surrounded by strangers, and here he was on his own. The day just kept getting worse and worse. Growling softly, he stomped his way up to his room, where he washed off and pulled on some clean clothes. Gods, it so didn’t help to be surrounded by Aya’s scent when the man wasn’t there. It just made him miss and crave him even more.

Once clean, he helped get things ready for the lunch crowd. Some old friends, well aware of how busy the Koneko got during festivals, stopped by a little early for a bite to eat, and he tried his best to be civil with them. Honestly. He hadn’t meant to snap at Hiro like that when the man asked for a pint of beer, and he was pretty much left alone after that. Which left him even more time to consider how many hours he had to wait until he and Aya could call it a day and go curl up in bed.

A feeling of relief that wasn’t his had him walking off in the middle of a guest’s order, and he was running by the time he reached the hallway. Someone called out his name as he raced to the garden but he didn’t stop to see what they wanted. No, all he focused on was feeling Aya draw nearer and nearer, and he hollered his mate’s name once he was outside.

He spotted Aya and Reiichi, their arms full of bags overflowing with vegetables, fruits and cheese, talking to Ichiro. Weaving his way through the growing crowd of guests who were planning on spending the nice autumn day in the garden so they had prime spots for the fireworks later, he came to a halt beside his mate, snatched up the bags in his arms and shoved them toward Ichiro. "You guys can take these inside for us." He didn’t wait for a reply as he tugged an amused Aya toward their lavender patch.

As soon as they were surrounded by familiar shadows, he sank to the ground, pulling Aya with him. Aya quickly bridged the distance between them and pressed against his chest. He lunged forward eagerly, and sighed happily to be kissing his mate for the first time that day. Part of his hunger calmed down now that Aya was in his arms, but part of it burned even brighter, urging him to tear off their clothes so they could feel each other’s skin. He struggled against the urge until Aya moaned – such a deep, needy sound that his restraint completely melted away.

Just as his hands fastened on the lacings of Aya’s jerkin, there was a burst of high-pitched giggling that made both of them pull away in surprise. Aya slid his arm around his shoulders as he turned around, and doing the same, Yohji saw two laughing young children approach the lavender patch.

"See, it’s nice and shady here. Eriko will never find us," the smaller of the children, a girl about seven years old, said. Her companion, a boy maybe a year or so older, stifled another giggle by placing his hand over his mouth, and they continued to creep forward.

Oh hell. As much as Yohji’s succubae nature demanded that he have sex with his mate *right now*, not even he could do that while two children were standing about two meters away, hiding behind the elm tree that shaded the lavender patch. Hearing Aya’s sigh, he knew that the mood had been ruined for his mate too. Warm lips pressed against his cheek as regret and frustration washed through him, and Aya then slinked away, toward the Koneko. The children never even noticed him.

Feeling even more ravenous and frustrated than before, Yohji found himself growling softly as he tugged his clothes back into order. The shadows still clung to him as he slowly crept behind the hiding children, determined to share a little misery. Standing behind them, he let the growl rumble louder and louder, until he was practically snarling.

The girl let out a cry and hunched over while the boy, after whirling around and not seeing anything, burst into tears and dragged her back into the sunlight. Both of them ran toward their families, screaming and crying the entire while.

Maybe he should feel terrible for doing that, but at least he wasn’t the only person whose fun had been spoiled.

*******

As if the gods were determined to punish him for the incident in the garden, the day went downhill from there. Lunch kept him and Aya so busy they never saw each other for longer than a minute, and were never close enough to touch. Then it was cleaning up the mess while Aya helped with dinner. They did manage to meet up in the pantry when Jo sent Aya after some spices, but Teddy, the bastard, had decided to check up on him after two minutes. They’d just got their shirts off, Aya pressing him against the shelves as jars rattled and threatened to fall, when Teddy threw open the door and asked if they had any problems finding things. Only the fact that Yohji’s pants were half undone and falling down his hips kept him from grabbing ahold of the pest and throttling him. Aya helped him stand up when he about tripped and fell onto his face before grabbing the spices and leaving the room.

"Hey!" Yohji yelled after him as he tried to tie his laces – not an easy feat when he was as hard as he was just then. "Come back here."

Aya shook his head. "Yotan, I’m sorry, but it’s not going to work," he said as he headed back to the kitchen.

Grabbing his mate’s arm, Yohji made him stop and turn around. His hand raised to cup Aya’s cheek, a thrill running through him at the way Aya tilted his head into the caress, in the love and yearning he felt over their link. "We have to get a break sooner or later," he said, his voice hoarse with need. The gods couldn’t keep being this cruel.

However, as Aya closed his eyes and leaned forward, the gods proved just how cruel they could be. "Aya! How the hell am I to make the pies if I don’t have any cinnamon?" Jo sounded decidedly peeved.

Aya sighed as he rested his head against Yohji’s shoulder. "You know if I don’t go now, we’ll be stuck working nonstop for at least another week."

"Yeah, I know." Yohji’s hand shook as he tugged gently on an eartail. As much as he wanted Aya to wrap them in shadows and hide them from the world, they had obligations to meet. The staff was more than understanding about all the time off they needed because of Birman and their demon natures, not to mention giving them off the major holidays so Aya could celebrate them for the first time in years, but if they deserted them now….

"Aya!"

"Yes, Jo," Aya growled as he pulled away. He gazed longingly at Yohji for a few seconds. "We’ve tomorrow morning off."

"And we’re not getting out of bed until they drag us out to work," Yohji said succinctly. After the day he was having, Jo and Mickey would have to break down the damn door to get to them in the first place.

Nodding in agreement, Aya quickly returned to the kitchen, leaving him standing there aching with so much need he felt as if his bones were filled with molten lead. He hurt so incredibly much, especially as he moved in the opposite direction his mate had taken. Just a few more hours, he told himself. Just a few more hours and then he could curl up with his lover, spend the night and the morning with him in pleasure until he was sated and content.

Now not to kill anyone until that happened. Teddy better stay the hell away from him if he wanted to continue living, because if he got his hands on the pest, there’d be massive bloodshed.

*******

Yohji prowled around the main room, replacing pitchers of beer, cider and wine as they emptied, serving plates of bread and cheese to those who wanted something besides alcohol. He mentally counted down the minutes until midnight, when the Koneko’s kitchen would shut down and he’d be done for the day. Kira and Ani could help the part-time staff refill drinks after that, until their guests went to bed or passed out.

Aya had already turned in for the night, and was a sleepy but eager presence in the back of his mind. Oh, his mate was upstairs waiting for him, and in another forty-seven minutes he’d be racing up those steps to join him. He felt a purr rumble in his throat at the thought.

The purr turned into a snarl as the table of off-duty Shadow Guards shouted out for another pitcher of cider. Ever since they’d finished their shifts that evening, Ken, Naru, Miko and Eri, along with a handful of new recruits and several seasoned veterans had been here drinking. Even Reiichi had joined them after helping the Koneko staff prepare dinner. Now he, Ken and Eri were pretty much the only sober people left at the table.

Gritting his teeth at the thought that everyone was having a good time but him – even Teddy, who would be on the morning shift tomorrow, was sitting beside Koyu and enjoying a few drinks during the Harper’s break – he went to fetch his friends two more pitchers. A few customers made an effort to get out of his way as he carried the beverages to the table, having learned already that he was not in the mood to suffer fools this evening. Hell, he’d even snapped at Emmie earlier when she’d tried to cheer him up. Nothing was going to do that, nothing but having Aya near him, kissing him and touching him all over, thrusting into him and taking him deep inside- Shuddering with need, he forced himself to stop thinking like that, and to ignore the flare of desire and love that emanated from his mate. He forced one foot after another toward the Guards and not the stairs leading to Aya, and felt pain with each step.

"Don’t tell me you guys have to work tomorrow," he said as a distraction, his words gruff and voice hoarse. "Yuushi will kill you if you show up with hangovers."

Ken gave him a wink. "Not my problem, eh?" He poured himself more cider and tossed half of the drink back in one swallow. "Besides, we have to break in the new recruits and show them just how much they’ve yet to learn!" As he laughed, Eri shrank back into the corner and hunched over, as if trying to disappear. Considering the fact that she hadn’t acted like that around him lately, Yohji wondered about her odd behavior for a moment, until someone patted him on the arm.

He barely stopped himself from snarling at the young man, only a little older than Omi, with a long, narrow face covered with freckles and pale brown hair that flopped into his eyes much like Aya’s. "You’re Yohji, right?"

"Yes," he answered, more than a little curt as he wasn’t in the mood to be asked many questions right now.

The boy smiled, brown eyes rather unfocused as he stood up and swayed. Miko, Ken and Naru started chuckling, and Reiichi pushed himself away from table. "I’m Donas," he slurred as he held out his hand.

"Nice to know that. Why don’t you sit down before you fall down?" Thirty-nine more minutes of putting up with drunken idiots like this. Thirty-nine.

Donas frowned and patted his arm again. "Ah… oh, yeah. Wanna see your cat."

Not certain he’d heard that correctly, Yohji folded his arms over his chest and gave the boy a good ‘Aya glare’. "What did you just say?"

"Your cat." Donas made a meowing sound as he swayed back and forth. "You know, the one that you love so much. I’ve heard he’s a real beauty and purrs if you pet him." A smile spread across his freckled face. "They say he won’t purr for just anyone, but I’m real good with his kind."

"Course you are, Donnie," slurred another of the new recruits, who looked as if he was having difficulty sitting upright. "Wanna see the kitty, too."

"Yeah, especially since he’s so pretty," Donas continued, a silly grin on his face. "I bet Aldan I’d make him purr. Just have to roll him onto his back and pet his pretty red-"

That was it. Whatever control Yohji had was utterly gone. No sex for two days, barely any Aya at all today, driven half mad with hunger and overworked all week, and this bastard thought he’d actually be allowed to touch his mate. *His* mate. With a vicious snarl, he leapt at the bastard.

*******

Aya was indeed purring, Yohji was pleased to notice as he rested his head on his mate’s chest. Aya took to playing with his hair, tangling his fingers in the sweaty strands as their heartbeats gradually slowed down.

"Mmmm." Aya yawned and flicked a strand of hair against Yohji’s nose. "Wonderful."

"Of course. Do you expect any less from me?" he asked as he lifted his head and gave his lover a leer and a wink.

Aya tapped him on the nose. "I meant the fact that we weren’t interrupted for once."

Growling slightly, Yohji forced himself onto his hands and knees and crawled forward until they were nose to nose. "That’s not the only thing that was wonderful, *right*?"

His mate stared at him blankly for a second, and then smiled, such a beautiful sight that he stopped growling and purred himself. "I guess not," Aya said, and then yawned again.

He remembered that Aya had been up since before daybreak making bread, and that was just the start of a very busy day. Not to mention that his hunger had been more demanding than usual, and it was amazing that Aya was still awake, even if fading fast.

"I’ll wait until tomorrow to deal with that ‘guess not’," he warned his lover as he rolled onto his side. "I don’t think my pride can handle you falling asleep in the middle of my awesomeness."

Aya, still purring, curled up beside him, a warm, near boneless presence that calmed him down just by being there. His mate draped an arm over his waist and tucked his head beneath his chin, clearly settling in for the night. "No offense to you and the awesome dick, but I don’t think I can take another draining tonight."

"Then go to sleep, Cat," he said quietly as he slid his fingers through Aya’s hair and gently combed out any knots. He was mostly sated now but utterly content, and they had the morning to look forward to, he thought with a smile. "You’re no fun when you’re tired and grumpy, you know." He let out a small yelp and had to laugh when he ended up nipped for that comment. "See, I rest my case."

His mate shifted closer and nipped him again, though a bit gentler this time. "Then why do you make me feel tired and grumpy all the time?"

"Because you’re too damn irresistible. Now go to sleep so I can ravish you again in the morning."

"Hmmm, my turn then," Aya mumbled, sounding on the verge of falling asleep. Then he twitched awake in Yohji’s arms. "Will there be a funeral in the morning?"

"What’s that, love?" he asked, feeling more than a little tired himself.

"A funeral. Will there be one in the morning?" Aya shifted back enough to look at him. "Didn’t you kill Teddy before coming up here? I felt you become furious and heard some yelling, I just assumed that Teddy played one prank too many tonight."

It was funny how he’d forgotten all about what had sent him charging up here earlier, after being pulled off the Shadow Guard… Dan or something. He felt a spark of anger and possessiveness upon remembering what had set him off, but his hunger was appeased enough that the emotions soon faded away. "Oh, that. Wasn’t Teddy, I’m sad to say. I just had to teach one of the new recruits some manners." And make it very, *very* clear that his ‘cat’ was off-limits. Hell, the only thing that had saved the stupid bastard was Mickey pulling him off the man before he choked the breath out of the idiot and sending him upstairs.

Aya gave him a look that clearly said he wanted to know more – and then promptly yawned again. "Wanna hear everything tomorrow," he mumbled before curling up against Yohji again.

Perfectly happy now that he was snuggled in bed with his lover and they had all morning to enjoy themselves, Yohji started purring again as he closed his eyes. In his opinion, tomorrow couldn’t come fast enough. He chuckled at the thought and soon followed Aya into unconsciousness.

*******

Yuushi glared at Naru, who was holding a towel filled with ice against his swollen jaw. When his friend refused to look him in the eye, as did Ken, who was busy staring at the floor, he glared at Reiichi instead. Of course, the man had the gall to meet his gaze and actually smile at him.

"What in the *hell* possessed you to get Donas that drunk tonight and have him piss off Yohji? Hmmm?" He hadn’t expected to come home tonight to several battered Guards and a furious Jo, and he better damn well get an explanation before he flayed someone alive. From his understanding, only Mickey’s quick thinking had prevented the fight from becoming an all out brawl.

Reiichi removed his glasses and cleaned them with a cloth he pulled out of his pocket. "I don’t know why you’re so upset with me. *I* didn’t get the man drunk and feed him stories about Yohji’s ‘cat’."

His friend had a point. Turning to face Naru and Ken again, he cleared his throat loud enough to make both men jump. "So whose idea was it exactly?"

Ken and Naru exchanged guilty looks. "Well, we were talking about initiation ceremonies the other day, because of the festival," Ken said quietly, his head down as he refused to look at Yuushi. "We thought we needed one for the Shadow Guards and…." He shrugged and fell quiet.

Naru winced as he shifted the ice along his jaw. "We figured it would funny to have one of the recruits ask Yohji about his ‘cat’, not knowing that said cat really was Aya. We thought he’d snarl at him a little, maybe show some teeth, and it would be a good lesson about how possessive mates can be." Naru looked at him, his eyes brimming with tears. "I’m sorry, Yuushi, I didn’t think Yohji would go for his throat like that. Yohji’s usually pretty easygoing."

Except when Aya was involved. The bloody idiots. He took a deep breath and forced himself to calm down. "Neither of you managed to notice how on edge he’s been the last couple of days? Didn’t you think about that at all?" When all he got was silence, he felt like growling. "I take it Miko was involved, and I want to know who else."

"Not Eri. She called us suicidal idiots," Naru mumbled.

Somehow he didn’t think Eri would take part in tweaking Yohji’s jealous nature like that. "I want to know who all you ‘idiots’ were. You’re going to be stuck with double shifts for the next couple of weeks."

Ken and Naru both twitched at that, and Ken slowly told him the names of everybody involved in the ‘initiation’. He memorized the names so he could rearrange their shifts in the morning. Dammit, they were lucky he was going this easy on them.

Looking at Reiichi again, he cocked an eyebrow at his old friend. "Well, I can’t technically give you any double shifts, but I’d like to know why you didn’t put a stop to things." He was most disappointed in Reiichi, whom he trusted to do better than this.

Reiichi smiled calmly at him. "Because I thought it was an excellent way to teach the new recruits not to mess with Yohji and Aya, or any other bounds. You must admit, this story will be repeated with each new person we take on, and they’ll be more cautious of their bound partners in the future."

"I think there would have been a better way to go about that," he said after a minute. Reiichi did have a bit of a point – but dammit, there’d almost been a brawl in public, and Donas would need a day or two to recover from Yohji trying to strangle him to death. At least the man hadn’t used his wires tonight. "Donas could have been killed, you know," he said heatedly. "Did you ever think of that?"

Reiichi’s smile took on a chilling edge. "Well, we’re supposed to only recruit the best, aren’t we? I figured anyone, drunk or not, stupid enough to goad a bound and then stand there and let them beat the shit of them might not be the best candidate for the Shadow Guards and hence wouldn’t be much of a loss."

The absolutely worst part of it was, Yuushi couldn’t tell if he was joking or not.

*******

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