Shadows

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by nekojita

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Chapter one: kage

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Disclaimer: No, so sorry, the boys arenít mine. Oh how I wish. But Cassandra, Mickey, Teddy and Koyu are.

Tons of thanks to Barbara, Whiskers and Kato-chan for the beta reads, and Jacque Koh for plot assistance.

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A slender man, dressed in plain but finely made clothes, walked into a small room where two children were playing a game of chess in front of the fire. The girl, little more than six years old, had the same blue-black hair that the man did, while the boy appeared to be some more exotic creature, with blood red hair and pale skin. Both looked up at the manís approach and called out, "Father."

"Ah, I see the two of you have forgotten all about the time. Thereís a certain little rainbow who should be in bed already."

"But, Papa, I just won the game! Shouldnít I receive a prize for that?"

The man, exchanging a look with his son, knew that the boy had let his little sister win. And he could guess what the clever girl would request as her Ďprizeí. "Oh, and what would you like, little one?"

"A story, Papa, a story! About the Captain!"

Watching as the pale boy, only a couple of years older than his sister, put away the chess board and figures, the man sat down on a couple of the cushions littering the wooden floor. "Are you sure you want that story? You always ask for it. Maybe your brother would like to hear something else."

"But he lost!" The girl stamped her foot, and then turned to face her sibling. "Donít you want to hear the story too?" Their father hid a smile, knowing that the boy could deny his sister nothing.

Violet eyes stared back at him earnestly. "Tell the story, please, Father."

"All right, then." The two children settled down before him, the girl in the boyís lap. Clearing his throat, the dark haired man recited his daughterís favorite tale. "Once, almost a thousand years ago, there were two powerful wizards, the greatest in all the lands. They were in the employ of the two greatest kingdoms of this continent. When Esset, one of those kingdoms, decided to wage war on its rival, Kritiker, the two wizards engaged in ferocious battle, seeking ways to ensure their kingís victory."

"But the two men, much like their respective countries, were too evenly matched. The war raged on for decades, soaking the land with spilt blood." The boy tightened his arms around the shivering form of his sister. The story always made her upset, even if it was her favorite. "So many lives were lost, so much land laid to waste, that people started to despair that the war would only end when there was nothing left on the continent but a pile of rotting bodies and two stalemated wizards. Pushed to find a way to end the war, one of the wizards discovered how to create the ultimate of weapons."

"I bet it was Essetís wizard that did so," muttered the girl, cutting into her fatherís narrative. A pair of dark blue eyes regarded her sternly for a moment, causing her to sink back into her brotherís embrace. There was an apologetic look on the cute face at the silent rebuke, at least until the boy leaned down and whispered in her ear that he thought she was right. Refusing to smile at his childrenís antics, the man continued.

"As I was saying, one of them came up with a nefarious plan. And I told you last week what nefarious means, so hush, child. Listen to the story you wanted to hear. Now then, the wizard had come up with the idea of binding the souls of demons and elementals to humans, creating a weapon never seen before. By binding first gaki, and then powerful elementals to human souls, he soon had an army of magical beings of incredibly destructive potential. Once his rival started down that path, the other wizard had no choice but to create bounds of his own."

"Whole armies could be laid waste by the gaki-bound, either ripped to pieces and eaten, or drained of all hope and morale until they just laid down their weapons and waited for their deaths." The girl was shivering once more. It amazed him how fervently she longed to hear such a gruesome tale, even going so far as to request it almost every night. "The elemental-bound could hurl rocks, fire or water at an invading army with just a thought, destroying villages and cities with ease. The wizards also merged together the souls of succubae with humans, creating the perfect spies, people who could gain the trust of the enemy and learn their secrets."

"But how did they do that, Papa? You never tell us what their power was."

There was a hint of amusement in the manís voice as he answered his curious daughter. "And I wonít, little one, until you are a few years older, at least." Ah, why couldnít she be more like her brother, he thought without any heat, quiet and well behaved, and intent on finding the answers to everything on his own. At least with the boy, all he had to do was make sure that certain books were locked away, and didnít worry about being plagued with the same questions time and time again.

"Anyway, so the bound were created, and as bad as the war was before, the destruction and death only increased tenfold after the magical creatures were unleashed upon the land. Afraid that the peoplesí fears would come to pass, Kritikerís wizard thought of a daring solution." The young girl was twitching with excitement now that the tale was reaching her favorite part.

"He recruited his kingís Captain of the Guard, a brave and honorable woman who had been one of the best fighters in her time, but had laid down the sword in favor of employment of a more tactical nature. She had sought to start a family, seeking a refuge of hope and love in such trying times. The redheaded woman was the perfect choice for what he had in mind; strong-willed and skilled in fighting, and utterly despondent over the death of her husband and two children during a gaki-bound attack on the capital. She willingly sacrificed her soul so a shinigami could be bound to her empty body, since they were so much stronger than the other spirits merged with human souls. They would have to be completely bound to a human form, death encased in flesh, in order to be tied to the wizardís will. That could only happen if there wasnít already a soul present."

Now both children were shivering. "She was so brave," moaned the girl, her eyes feverish as she thought of her favorite heroine. "I can just see her, waving her black sword about, chopping off the heads of all the bad soldiers and their wizard. I want to be just like her when I grow up."

He sincerely hoped that his younger child outgrew her bloodthirsty stage sometime soon, or his wife would have his hide for filling the girlís head with these gory tales. One day soon, she would be old enough to understand that the human part of the Captain had died the day she gave up her soul, and it was the shinigami that had carried out the daunting task. "Well, little rainbow, I like you just the way you are, which is most definitely not a shinigami-bound. Besides, itís your brother who best fits the part, what with his red hair and all. It was said that the Captainís was just that particular shade; you should know that, what with sneaking glances at my history books." Both children squirmed a little for being found out, and after quietly muttering about how unfair it was that her brother, a Ďboo-wormí, got to look like her favorite hero and not her, the girl waited for the story to resume.

"Please, Papa, tell us more"

Pausing to throw some more wood on the fire, the man did just that. "Having spent almost all of his magicks crafting such a powerful weapon, Kritikerís wizard unleashed it upon his enemy. The Captain had become a creature of death and darkness, a shinigami in human form. An unexpected side effect of the binding was that she was completely immune to any and all magicks. Now an unstoppable warrior, the Captain breached Essetís defenses with ease, gliding through the capital as if a ghost, and killed the countryís wizard." And much of Essetís army as well, and any civilians that crossed her path. But a six year old did not need to know that.

"With his death, Kritiker was assured victory. They threw out the invading army with ease, and the kingdom was greatly increased, since its king claimed much of Essetís lands which surrounded his country. The enemy bounds were sought out and killed, and everyone was happy once more. The only event to mar the joyous times was the death of Kritikerís wizard, who was too worn out from decades of fighting, and from creating the shinigami-bound."

Breaking free of her brotherís embrace, the little girl jumped up and down on one of the carpets. "All because of the Captain! She saved everyone!"

"Yes, yes, indeed she did. Without her sacrifice, a certain little rainbow wouldnít be free to beat her brother unmercifully at chess, or to drive her mother to distraction by bringing home baby rabbits and mice to be nursed back to health." The man smiled at his daughter, and then stretched out his arms and dragged her into his lap. "She would most likely be in the belly of a gaki-bound at this very moment, giving him a stomachache." He tickled the child until she was gasping for breath, tears streaming down her pretty face. "Now itís time for you to go to bed." He kissed his daughter on the forehead.

"Iíll take Aya-chan upstairs, Father." The boy reached out and took his sisterís hand, tugging her towards the door as she still giggled softly and waved good-bye.

"Thank you, Ran-kun. I imagine that you will turn in yourself, after a little reading. No more than two chapters tonight, do you hear me?" he admonished the boy gently, smiling at the expression on the pale face that clearly said if the warning hadnít been issued, his son would have been up all night reading. The boy was such a night owl. "Now off with you two little demons."

"Night, Papa."

"Good night, Father."

Watching his children heading off for bed, the elder Fujimiya felt his smile shift into a more bitter expression. He wondered just how long childhood innocence would prevent the rest of the grim tale of the Binding War from being uttered. Of what had happened to Kritikerís bound. How much longer would it be before Aya thought to ask what happened to the Captain, after she had killed Essetís wizard? Or inquire about the fact that the womanís name was no longer uttered, much like that of the two wizards. How could he tell her it was because of the child the woman had borne eight months after sacrificing her soul, the very first kage.

One day soon he would have to tell them about the boundsí offspring, and the ensuing generations that had been affected by the magical changes wrought on their parents. Of the brutal purges that continued to this day. He could keep them innocent only for so long. There would come the day when he would tell the children of the terrible legacy of the war.

But isolated as they were, since he had accepted a position, at the former kingís request, as Prince Reijiís seneschal, he still had time. Maybe in a couple more years he would tell them the truth; surely it could wait til then. The kage were no more, and there hadnít been any bound executed in the area for at least a generation. There was no reason to concern Ran and Aya with the truth for the time being.

*******

Ran accepted the urn containing the ashes of his parents from the silver robed priestess, refusing to let himself cry. Beside him stood Aya-chan, a tear or two slipping down her face, but otherwise more impassive than a seven year old should ever be. Bowing before the altar filled with candles, tiny mirrors and lilies, he clutched the urn tight to his chest and grasped his sisterís hand. The two of them silently left the temple.

Stepping out into the bright daylight, Ran refused to let himself flinch as the light hit his skin, feeling as if rough burlap was being rubbed against his flesh. Violet eyes tearing from the brightness, he bowed his head and stepped toward the waiting crowd of people.

Reiji Takatori, a prince of the realm, even if in exile, as the whispers said, waved aside his two sons and bowed before the orphaned children. "Let me once again express my condolences. Your father was an intelligent and loyal man; it shames me greatly that he and your mother were killed by bandits on my very own land. I will not rest until their murderers are justly punished."

"Thank you," Ran whispered, and after he squeezed his sisterís hand, Aya-chan echoed his sentiments.

"I know, it will do nothing to bring your parents back. But it will salve my conscience the slightest bit. As will this. I want you and your sister to move in with me; there is more than enough room for the two of you in my castle. I understand that you have no other relatives to look after you, nor is there anyone here able to be your guardian. It would be an honor for my sons and I to look after you."

Ran felt his sister lean against him, trembling slightly in either fear or shock. He didnít particularly like his fatherís employer; there was something about the grey-haired, heavy-set man and his two sons that made him want to hide away, and he had done just that upon meeting the Takatoris a month ago, when his father had brought him to the castle. But there was no way a nine year old could look after a younger sibling and himself. No one else had stepped forward and made such an offer; the Fujimiyas were too new to the area, only having resided here for a couple of years, and were still looked upon with distrust. The only other choice was to be placed in a temple that took in orphans, and hope that he and Aya-chan remained together for the next nine years, when he would be old enough to leave and take her with him.

"We can not thank you enough for your charity. We accept."

At those words, Prince Reiji smiled in such a way that Ran immediately regretted accepting the offer, even if he had no choice. "Ah, you have made me very happy. It will be nice to have children about once more. I will send men to box up your house; you and your sister will come home with me today." The man placed a hand on the slender boyís shoulder, and did not let go the whole entire time Ran stood there, accepting the offerings from the other mourners.

*******

Nagi muttered as he looked first at the closed door before him, then down at his hands, full of a heavy tray of food and books, and finally about him in the cobwebbed stairwell. Which was silly of him, really, as no one ever came up this particular tower besides him and his friend. With that thought in his head, the teenager concentrated on the door knob, mentally forcing it to turn and the heavy wooden door to open. "Ran, dinnerís here. Hirofumi caught a brace of pheasants today, and I managed to snag one for you."

Walking into the dark room, Nagi once again muttered and put his talent to use, yanking open the thick blue velvet curtains that covered the glass windows. As light from the fading sun flooded the sparsely furnished room, he caught sight of a beautiful young man curled up in the only chair, violet eyes blinking in a pale face as Ran looked up from the book he was reading.

"Iím not hungry, just give me some tea and you can have the rest."

"Ra~an, you _have_ to eat. As it is, Iíve gained weight the past few weeks from eating all your meals; someone is going to notice soon." Nagi set the tray down on the table next to his master and moved about the room, lighting the various candles scattered about. Maybe Ran could see perfectly well in the dark, but he needed a little light or heíd crash into the stacks of books piled about the room. And would make Ran very upset, something happening to his precious tomes. "Now eat, or Iíll sit on you and shove the food down your throat."

Once more a pair of violet eyes blinked at him, this time from above the cup of tea that the redhead was drinking. There was a spark of anger in the glowing orbs, but Nagi did not back down from the stare. Ran was the only person he had in this world; he refused to let the man starve himself to death. If the pale man lost any more weight, Reiji or Masafumi Takatori would work their spells until he gave in to their will and ate, which meant that Ran would be even more despondent than normal. "Eat."

"Ö only half of it. You brought much too much up, and if youíve gained any weight lately, Iím the kingís son." With that said, Ran picked at the cooked pheasant, alternating bites between that and some barley and mushroom soup. Nagi tended to the room while the older boy ate, trying to organize the many books and feeding wood to the neglected fire. He would have to press Ran to request some more bookshelves to be built; luckily the eastern wall still had room for a few more. The boy swore that there were more books up here than down in the library. After a few minutes, the deep voice spoke once more. "Iím done, the rest is yours."

Salivating at the thought of the delicious food, Nagi hurried over to Ranís side. He could not get enough food to eat these days, and using his power only tended to make him even hungrier. If his meals had consisted only of the gruel and mealy bread given to the lower status servants, he had no doubt that heíd have starved to death by now. Gaki- and elemental-bounds were notorious for their appetites; it was fortunate that his master did not need to eat as much as mortals did. And that the young man was kind and shared his food, not to mention kept his talent a secret. "You didnít touch the dessert."

"You are the one who likes blueberries, so enjoy." With that, Ran refilled his mug and settled back in his chair, staring over at the fire while the slight teenager ate. Nagi resolved to put a pot of water on the fire when he finished his meal; the pale man would drink tea all night, at least. Savoring the berry tart, Nagi let out a satisfied groan, belly content once more. Then he set about his task; when that was done, he sat at Ranís feet. "There will be another pot of tea in a minute. Iíll have to go back down later and fetch some more firewood. Couldnít you have picked a room on a lower level and made my job a little easier?"

"Sorry, but dark and terrible secrets are to be locked away in the highest towers or deepest dungeons. I didnít have much choice of rooms." Nagi cursed himself as the joke backfired; he hadnít meant to provoke that note of sadness in Ranís voice. The two of them sat in silence for a good while, the only movement being when Nagi refilled the tea pot. About to fall asleep, belly full for the time being and tired from his many chores that day, Nagi jerked back to reality when Ran spoke once more. "Iím to go to the capital in a few days time; Prince Takatori will finally be making a move against his brother."

"Wah? Youíre leaving? Does that have anything to do with the two guests we are to receive tomorrow?" He had spent the whole day cleaning two spare bedrooms, scrubbing the floors and walls. Nagi detested scrubbing.

There was silence for a few more minutes. The trick to carrying on a conversation with Ran was to remain quiet during these lulls; sooner or later the reticent man would answer the question, once done admiring the shadows cast by the dancing flames or whatever else had caught his fancy. At least, that seemed to be what had distracted the redhead; Nagi knew what really caused the moment of silence was a painfully learned lesson of always guarding oneís tongue when speaking to a Takatori. Ran had more than a few scars from the times he had snapped back at the prince or one of his sons, kept from fighting the abuse by a potent threat. It seemed that Reiji and his sons took great delight in the fact that they could mistreat such a legendary creature as much as they wished, and were eager to take advantage of any excuse to teach the man a lesson.

"Yes. They are the help from Esset that Prince Reiji requested."

So the king, and most likely his son as well, would not live out the year. Nagi didnít spare them a momentís pity, as his life was about to become a living nightmare once more. Not only was he losing his only friend, but his protector as well. Only the fact that Ran had adopted him as a servant kept him from being abused by any more than a few blows aimed at him from the older servants, and it had ensured that he had enough food to eat. "IíllÖ miss you." It felt as if his heart was breaking.

Ran sat up on his chair, reaching out a white hand to yank on a lock of brown hair. "Hn. Didnít I tell you? You are coming with me, unless youíd rather stay here." At Nagiís incredulous stare, the pale manís lips lifted in an extremely rare smile. "Is that a yes or a no? I am unsure how to interpret you looking like a carp."

For a second the boy contemplated smacking the redhead, but decided that might be pushing his luck. "YouÖ I canít think of a dirty enough word for you. What do you mean, Ďunless youíd rather stay hereí? Arenít you supposed to be smart? Of course Iím coming." His glare faded with his anger, and once more he settled down on the floor. "How did you manage that?"

"No other servants will willingly attend to me, and I commented that while you are too dim-witted to be scared of my monstrous presence, Iíd managed to train you rather well and could use your presence while in the capital." This time Nagi did punch Ran, ever so lightly on the thigh. "Youíll have to watch that; it wonít be just the two of us for this mission."

"I know." Nagi leaned against the slender manís legs. It would take a conscious effort to watch his behavior around Ran in the future. His friend so rarely left his apartments unless he was practicing with his weapons or summoned by one of the Takatoris for a mission, that the boy was used to it just being the two of them. He would have to remind himself to keep up his emotionless shield and be the aloof child he was when on the lower floors.

Ran was indeed a dark secret hidden away, and the other servants would run and hide the rare times when he walked about the castle. Nagi had been given to him on the assumption that a sullen brat of a child wouldnít be much of a loss if the dreaded monster slaughtered him one day. No one in the castle except the Takatoris was sure what exactly Ran was, but had surmised that if the Takatoris guarded him as much as they did, then the pale man must indeed be something terrible. They properly guessed that he was a bound, and assumed that he was descended from one of the mad gaki-bounds.

So Nagi, newly arrived at the castle, had been ordered up to the tower one day. He had been a quiet, withdrawn orphan suffering from the abuse that the other servants heaped on a defenseless child, expecting the worst. And had been promptly surprised to be ushered into a dark and cluttered room by a beautiful youth only a few years older than him. Ran had wanted Nagi to organize all of his books and fetch him new ones, along with the usual tasks of cleaning his rooms and clothes, and bringing up firewood and his meals. It was clear that the redhead couldnít be counted on to take care of himself after the last servant who had tended him had died of old age; he too eagerly lost himself in his weapons practice or reading as a way to escape his fate. A new servant had seemed to be the best solution anyone could think of, and Ran had very carefully accepted the offer of one that Reiji had extended to him one day.

They had been cautious of each other at first; Nagi waiting for the abuse to start, and Ran, thinking this was another trap set by the Takatoris, but a friendship had soon developed regardless of their doubts. They were both too alone in the world not to seek a little human companionship, however dubious on their two parts. The relationship had been cemented when Ran noticed that Nagi could not read or write and promptly taught him how, and when the boy did not recoil in horror when he had finally figured out that his new master was a legendary kage.

Ran was quick to put a stop to the boyís abuse, coldly informing the servants on one of his infrequent ventures downstairs that if his new servant was unable to work for him due to his injuries, then the pale youth would expect one of them to take the boyís place. Nagi was left alone after that, and he cleverly maintained the image of a slow witted, withdrawn child, one too stupid to be afraid of his new master. In private, he blossomed from the attention, forsaking his cold demeanor to bully the older youth, forcing Ran to take care of himself.

For his part, Ran showed no signs of affection to his servant outside of his rooms, knowing that if his masters learned that they were friends, Nagi would be used against him much like his sister was. When Nagiís talent had emerged a couple years back, it was yet another link in the chain binding them together; another secret for the two of them to keep. Ran helped to train Nagi, and willingly handed over most of his meals. Nagi was filled with joy that he wasnít going to be left behind while his friend went to Tokyo.

"Youíll have to start taking care of yourself a little better, if I canít chide you to eat and sleep in front of the others."

"Hn."

Nagi rolled his eyes at the noncommittal answer. "What will the two guests be like? Did Reiji tell you anything?"

He could feel Ran shifting about uncomfortably in the overstuffed chair. "They will be bounds as well, that is all I know. We four are to go to the capital, and await an opportunity to kill the king. It mustnít look as if Prince Reiji or his sons have anything to do with the assassination. We might be there a while, waiting for the perfect opportunity to present itself."

Which translated into time away from this hellish estate; Nagi couldnít believe his luck. Even if it meant that he had to live with a couple of strangers from Esset of all places, it would be worth it to leave the Takatoris behind for a few weeks or months, and their twisted servants as well. Masafumiís women gave him the creeps. "Guess theyíre being more careful this time around."

There was no answer from Ran, not that he expected one. The man was most likely contemplating his future; the murder he had to commit and the long centuries ahead of him as a royal assassin for a line of insane kings. It wasnít a pretty one. Nor, when Nagi thought of it, would it be when the time came for him to run away in another decade or two, in order to hide his bound nature and his resulting failure to grow old. Ran had already made him promise to do so, as soon as his true heritage had become obvious. Nagi was not to remain at his side and be used against the kage, or as another weapon for the Takatoris to take advantage of. But a lot could happen in the next decade, the youth thought to himself, especially once they left for the capital. Who knew what opportunity would present itself to them?

Busy thinking of ways to slip the Takatorisí leash, Nagi was startled when Ran suddenly stood to his feet. "I want a bath."

"Alright." One benefit of Ranís apartments was the fact that the roof above their heads held a cistern full of rainwater; it would take no effort to fill up the tub for his master. All he would have to do is run downstairs for more firewood to heat it. "Iíll be back in a few minutes. I could always pass on to the kitchen while Iím down there that you want some cheese and bread, maybe a little mulled wine as well?" Nagi carefully kept his face as innocent as possible while the older boy stared at him, a crimson eyebrow arched above a violet eye.

"That sounds fine. Tell them to include some of the summer sausage that ĎIí am so fond of, as well. Weíll need our strength later tonight, while we figure out what to pack for the mission." With that, Ran turned around and went into his dark bedchamber, most likely to change into a robe. Nagi smiled at his departing back, happy at the prospect of a treat to end the night on, not to mention the thought that in a few days, they would be leaving this horrid keep behind them.

*******

Crawford handed his reins over to an elderly stable hand, and quickly prevented a stable boy from collecting the bag tied behind his saddle. "Iíll take this, you look after the baggage on the pack mule." Behind him he heard Jei chuckle, clearly amused at how scared the boy appeared upon receiving the mild rebuke. "I know Prince Takatori is awaiting us; we will be on our way."

"But, sirs, let me show you the way." A liveried servant bounced on the gravel path before them, eager to please. At least he was, until Jei fixed him with a cold look from his remaining eye.

"I know the way, now leave us in peace." Crawford brushed past the terrified man, and once more heard his partner chuckle. "This place is filled with imbeciles," he commented, his voice quiet.

Jei, possessing the enhanced senses of a bound, was the only one who could possibly hear the words, pitched as low as they had been. "Heh, well, what do you expect? Look at who their liege is. Prince Reiji is as stupid as they come, if he thinks that Esset has forgiven him for his failure to kill the heir last year. Imagine, the nerve of the prick, to ask for assistance at this time, after the way his sonís whores bumbled that mission. The Elders never should have entrusted that assignment to the man; what did they expect would happen when it was left in the hands of a wizard," Jei spat out the word as if it was the ultimate of curses. Crawford idly commented to himself that in the gaki-boundís twisted worldview, it actually was. "A wizard and his whores." He reached over and snatched the bag from the precog, settling it over his leather-clad shoulder.

Using one of his visions to show him which hallway to take, Crawford nodded his head. "No wonder his father chose Shuuichi as heir over him. The man is clearly desperate, now that it appears his younger brother is about to crown a new queen, and beget even more heirs. Reiji will be pushed farther and farther from the throne, if that comes to pass." To someone as power hungry as this particular Takatori, that would be unacceptable. "This will be a rather easy mission after all. It will only be a couple of months before the man and his sons are dead, and the kage in our possession." Since they were dealing with a descendent of the shinigami-bound, the bespectacled foreignerís visions were not as inclusive as they normally were; the kageís nature deflected his talent to some extent.

"Donít understand why Takatori didnít use the bound on the first attempt, _he_ wouldnít have failed like that whore did." Jei paused to examine a suit of armor that stood in the hall, a smile teasing at his scarred lips as he felt the dull halberd clutched by a gloved hand. "What a waste of fine metal."

Crawford shook his head but decided to let his friend check out the weapon a little longer. Reiji could wait for them. "One canít let a sharp blade hang about when one is as beloved as the prince is. Might be too much temptation for a would be assassin. As for the kage, I believe that our new employer did not want to risk him at the time. Now he has no choice, and two able sitters to keep an eye on the bound. Are you done drooling yet?"

"Yes." Jei reluctantly stepped back from the armor and bowed to the dark haired man, gesturing for him to proceed down the hall. "I am once more eager to serve our fair lords on this endeavor. Lead on." Crawford refused to answer that sarcastic comment, and proceeded down the hallway, stopping a few doors down.

"Now behave, and no fits during our introductions." That said, he pushed open the door and stepped into the room.

Reiji and his sons were clearly startled to have their guests arrive unattended. "What are you doing here? How did you arrive on your own? Where is my steward? I told him to guide you here the moment you arrived."

Waving aside the older manís bluster, Crawford removed his grey travel cloak and slung it over one arm. "I told the man it wasnít necessary, I already knew the way. I am Crawford, and this is Jei." Reaching into the garmentís inner pocket, he pulled a letter of introduction out of the cloak. "Our masters send their regards." Blue eyes glanced about the room, noting the table full of snacks and bottles of wine. They also took in the two young men who stood behind the prince as he read the letter, and the three young woman over by the wall. Masafumi was dressed much like his father, in a red velvet robe embroidered with the family crest in gold threads, and Hirofumi looked as if he had just been interrupted in the middle of a hunt, garbed in leather jodhpurs and a quilted surcoat. "We are tired from the long ride, and would like to retire to our quarters, after meeting with the kage."

Reiji looked up from the letter, surprise evident on his face. Beside him, Masafumi gestured with a hand, and a beautiful blonde woman, attired in a flimsy dress that did little to cover her assets, stepped away from the wall, a tray of food in her hands. Another woman, this one with short dark hair and just as skimpily dressed, carried over a selection of drinks. "But, you just arrived. Please, have some refreshments, and we will discuss what it is that I want you to do. I have spec-"

"I am very well aware of what it is you wish to accomplish; the Elders would not have agreed to your request if the future wasnít clear to them. We do not intend to waste any time, and will leave tomorrow morning. Jei and I would like to bathe and rest before dinner, and we want to see the kage _now_." The only way to deal with such a pompous ass was to overwhelm him with indifference and arrogance, something that Crawford was very good at. Takatori was a fool to think that either of them could be enticed by the lure of strong alcohol and a couple of sluts. It was best to remind the prince that Jei and he only obeyed their masters, and of Essetís price for their aid. The Elders wanted the chance to possess a kage, and had agreed to the assassination on the condition that they could borrow the shinigami-bound in the future. Little did Reiji Takatori expect that the ancient bounds planned on betraying him and keeping the kage all for themselves. Really, the man and his sons were idiots for not suspecting a thing.

Clearly flustered by his refusal to cooperate or be awed by the middle-aged manís presence, Reiji glared at Crawford. He motioned to the remaining woman by the wall, a teenaged girl with blue hair. "Get the kageís servant, he can tend to our guests." As the girl left the room, the prince strived to regain his composure. "I am heartened to see that the Elders have sent two diligent servants at my request. It will not be long before my brother and his betrothed are dead. I had thought to have a small feast in your honor tonight, but maybe you would prefer a much quieter affair."

"I think that would be wise." Crawford caught Jeiís almost silent chuckle, and wasnít surprised when no one else seemed to hear it. "We are very eager to complete our mission, and would be uncomfortable dining in a princeís august presence. A small meal in our rooms will be fine."

Masafumi took a drink from the brunetteís tray and sauntered over to the two bounds. "Forgive me if this question sounds rude, but I understand that one of you is a precog. I assume that is you, Crawford."

Amazing deductive ability the wizard possessed, considering what his partner looked like. "Yes." Jei shifted his position, ready for anything foolish the young man might try. Which, considering Masafumi and his father, might be anything. Crawford hoped the man did not unleash his true nature in the next few minutes; Jei lived for killing wizards, the slower the better.

"Ah, you are the first Iíve ever seen before. Perhaps, after you complete the assassination and return our property to us, we could sit down and talk about your talent one night. Iíd be honored to learn about something as rare as you are."

Pushing down his anger, the dark haired bound smiled slightly. "Anything is possible, sir. We will discuss the matter further when the time comes." Like most wizards, the bastard was probably jealous; Masafumi and his ilk had to rely on vague auguries when they wished to divine the future, unlike the extremely rare precogs. "Iím sure there is much we could learn from each other." Years of serving the Elders, Essetís secret rulers, had taught Crawford to lie perfectly.

Masafumi wrapped an arm around the brunette servantís waist, and was about to say something else when the young girl returned, a small, teenaged boy in her wake. "Here he is, Papa."

"Thank you, Tot. Now boy, take these gentlemen to your master, and then to their rooms for the night." Dismissing the bounds and the servant, the young lord walked over to where his father and brother were drinking, completely ignoring their presence. Crawford motioned to Jei to back off, seeing the manís anger reaching a dangerous level, and then gestured for him to remain silent as well. He had recognized the boy from one of his visions, and knew him to be a bound as well. They wouldnít be able to say anything without the servant hearing them.

"Take us to the kage." Light brown eyes stared at him for a second; there was a hint of emotion across the blank face, then the boy turned around and did as he was bide. Jei and he followed in silence, growing more and more exasperated as they walked the length of the castle and up what had to be every damn step in the large complex. "Are you playing a joke on us, boy?"

"No, sirs." Jei stepped closer to the youth, growling softly in a manner that had sent many a grown man running, but the boy just ignored him. Crawford exchanged an amused look with his partner; either the young bound was very dumb or very brave. Hopefully the second, if they would be relying on him at some point in the future. "Weíre almost there."

Grimacing at the cobwebs that dirtied his white clothes, the precog sighed and kept any more comments to himself. He knew Jei had to be finding this hilarious, a child leading him around, sullying his immaculate appearance, and refused to look back at the silver haired man. Coming to a small landing, which boasted a heavy wood door framed with black iron, he resolved that if the kage wasnít behind it, he was tossing the servant down the stairs.

The boy pushed the door open, quite a feat considering how heavy it had to be. That answered the one detail his vision had left out, Crawford thought to himself. The boy was an elemental-bound, earth at that. "Master, you have guests."

Stepping into a dark room, Crawford had a hard time seeing a single thing, even with his enhanced vision. Then a candle flared to life, illuminating the darkness. The man holding the candlestick was breathtakingly lovely, so much so that the dark haired man found himself stunned silent. Behind him, Jei sucked in a deep breath. As the youth quickly lit other candles, Crawford continued to stare at the kage.

He possessed the pale skin that marked the shinigami-bound, a pure alabaster tone with a hint of blue from the underlying veins. Blood red hair contrasted vividly with the whiteness, and a pair of amethyst orbs that reflected the dim light like a pair of catís eyes gazed back at him from a face beautiful enough to belong to a woman, yet was not overly feminine. The kageís build was exceedingly slender, clothed in worn black cotton pants and tunic. "I am Ran. Nagi, did you see if our guests wanted any refreshments?"

Cutting off the boy, Crawford found his voice. "We were offered some by your prince," oh, there was no mistaking the flash of hate in those lovely eyes, "but refused. I am Crawford, this is my partner Jei. We wanted to meet you before resting from our journey, and to inform you that we leave in the morning. Will that be a problem for you?"

"No." The deep voice went silent for a moment, as Ran exchanged a look with the servant boy. "We will be ready. Is there anything else you wanted?"

Crawford looked about the small room, filled with books and little else. He imagined that the kage would relish the little bit of freedom this mission would provide. "No. We leave at sunrise. It will be a hard ride, and we wonít reach the capital Ďtil the next afternoon. I suggest you get what rest you can tonight. Now, if you donít mind, Nagi is to show us to our rooms."

Ran nodded his head and waved the boy towards the door. Looking back for a moment, the precog caught sight of the redhead standing forlornly in the middle of the tower room, eyes fixed on the floor. So that was a legendary kage. Lost in his thoughts of the young man, Crawford barely noticed when Nagi delivered him and Jei to their rooms, then quickly departed.

"Hey, Oracle, you gonna stand there in the middle of the hall all day or what?"

Startled back to the real world, Crawford glared at the silver haired man, then stepped into the room where Jei waited. "I was busy thinking, Berserker. No wonder you had no clue what I was doing."

The scarred man snorted and ignored the implied insult. "So that was a kage. Interesting."

"My thoughts exactly. Iím not sure what I expected, but I donít think it was that." Crawford glanced about the room, then sat down on the bed and started to remove his boots.

"I know what you mean. Heís too pretty for words. And that coloring; how are we going to hide him in the capital?"

"As a kage, heíll be cloaked most of the time, needing to avoid the sun. If anyone sees him uncovered, they will assume his pale skin is due to his red hair. No one believes that there are any more shinigami-bound around nowadays, so that will work in our favor. Besides, as long as there is a hint of shadow about, Iím sure no one will notice him."

Jei stretched his lanky frame and headed for the door. "Good. Iím assuming this is your room, so Iím going next door to crash for a few hours. Just tell me this before I go; do you really think heíll be able to pull it off?"

"Iím betting both our lives on it. The moment I laid eyes on him, I knew that he would fulfill every one of our expectations. Itís only a matter of time now." That said, Crawford reclined back on his bed, determined to catch a few hours of rest himself. Spending several days on horseback did not agree with him. "Now get the hell out of here."

"Yes, boss." He didnít need to look at the other man to know that there was a smirk on Jeiís face; it was very clear in those two words. Grumbling about sarcastic subordinates, Crawford let himself fall asleep. Before his thoughts faded away, he caught a faint whisper as Jei closed the door. "The wizards are mine, I long to hurt them so. Gonna make them scream in pain." Ah, at least the man had something to look forward to. That should keep him from being too much of a pest. Crawford slept, and dreamed of blood. There was a smile on his face when he woke up.

*******

Groaning about the beam of sunlight that was hitting him right in the face, Yohji bad temperedly crawled out of bed. He was hung-over and tired; it did not bode well for anyone who tried to talk to him in the next few hours. Crossing over to the washstand, the blond washed his face and chest with the cold water, determined to take a long soak in the bath later on, once he had a cup of willow bark tea in him. Make that more than one; he never should have mixed wines like he had last night. That always gave him the worst headache the following day.

Pulling on a green tunic that matched his eyes and a pair of black leather pants, he decided to just go downstairs barefoot. It wasnít as if heíd be kicked out of the inn for doing so. Mickey would most likely lecture him for a bit, but Yohji would rather put up with that than try and find his boots at the moment. It was just easier this way.

Carefully walking down the steps, he found two of the local girls cleaning up the main room, eager to earn a few coins for the chore. Nodding his sore head at them, Yohji walked over to the table that held a steaming pot of tea. Someone had anticipated his need this morning; whoever it was had earned his undying love. Taking a sip of the hot beverage before he even sat down, Yohji spent the next ten minutes nursing the tea, waiting for it to take effect and smiling lazily at the blushing girls.

"Nice to see that your head is still attached. How does it feel?"

"Like shit, if you want to know the truth. How was business last night, Mickey?"

As the tall, burly man sat down on the bench across from him, Yohji gestured to the pot. When Mickey nodded his head, he knew that the innís manager had left the brew out for him. That was it, Mickey was officially some sort of divine being in disguise. "I love you."

"No you donít, you go for the more delicate type. But I appreciate the sentiment anyway." Grey eyes twinkled at him for a moment. "We did rather well last night, considering the owner was bound and determined to drink the wine cellar empty. Fortunately, someone else was paying for all your drinks. How the hell do you manage that feat? However, a few men and women went home a bit unhappily when you passed out before picking one of them to head upstairs with."

"Hm." Refilling his mug, Yohji thought about the night before. Heíd been in a terrible mood, having seen a woman who had reminded him ofÖ Stop that, he told himself firmly, or you will start drinking again. It wouldnít do, thinking of the woman who had betrayed him, costing him his beloved profession as one of the kingís Guard. It had happened over a year ago; Yohji knew he had to put it behind him or heíd drink himself to death in a few more years. Time for a distraction. "Well, when you are as sexy as me, itís no problem finding someone to pay for the alcohol, even if I own it in the first place. Does it really matter, as long as we make a profit in the end?" It was funny, how easily his playboy mask slipped over his true feelings these days.

"Not if it means I have to watch a friend kill himself, bit by bit each night. Forget her, Yohji. Youíve more than paid the price for whatever stupid mistake you made." Mickey looked at him pleadingly, and at the stubborn expression on the blondís face, just sighed and tried a different tactic. "Weíre going to need your help in the upcoming weeks; people will be pouring into the capital to hear the kingís wedding announcement, and then to stay for the nuptials. That means a lot more business, if youíre too hung-over to figure that out this morning." Mickey gestured to Ani, who worked in the kitchen. The young woman brought out a plate of soft cheese, ham and brown bread. "Have a bite to eat, take a soak, and get your head on straight, and weíll talk about this some more later. Iím off to the market."

Yohji sighed as his friend left, wondering what the hell heíd do without the man. Mickey had taken over running the Koneko after his mother had passed away a few years ago, and he had been beginning his career in the Guards. Ever since his Ďretirementí from that elite squad, Mickey had made sure that he didnít kill himself in a fit of guilt and depression one night. It helped having the inn to fall back on, but it hurt so much, having to sacrifice his childhood dream. All because-

"Of some traitorous bitch. Geez, Kudoh, can you stop angsting about the past for two minutes here?" A young man with long, reddish orange hair and black clothes sat down in the spot that Mickey had just vacated.

"Schuldig, I am hung-over and grumpy. Do you value your life this morning? Then leave me alone." Yohji grumbled as his longtime friend filched a prime piece of ham from his plate. "Sneaky bastard of a thief."

Schuldig smiled around his mouthful of food at the comment. <Every word of that was true.> Shaking his head, Yohji frowned at the bound. "Donít do that, someone might notice," he hissed.

"Ah, youíre always paranoid when youíre hung-over. No one ever notices." Schuldig reached for more food, barely avoiding having his hand smacked as he grabbed a piece of cheese this time. "I make sure of it. Now donít avoid the issue; you have to get past her at some point, Yohji. She fucked with your head and your heart, it wasnít your fault. Hell, not even I could tell that she was a fake; whoever the wizard was who set up her false personality was a master. You prevented her from killing the king and his son, and killed her in return. There never was an Asuka, just a cleverly disguised assassin, now get on with your life."

If there was one thing that Yohji detested, it was being lectured about _that_ woman first thing in the morning. Or afternoon, or whatever time of the day it was. Hell, Yohji couldnít stand hearing about her at any point during the day. He knew that he had to put her behind him, but hadnít managed to find the right distraction with which to do it yet. Yohji thought that he was managing rather well for the time being, though, drinking himself into oblivion each night and waking up to a different stranger in his bed each morning. It sure as hell was great for business; that was sure.

<Listen, Kudoh, you are the only real friend I have, so do me a favor and stop with the self destructive behavior. Think of your friends for once. Omi is going to need you if his father really does remarry; thereís already talk that heíll be passed over for the throne in favor of a younger sibling, if there are any, just like Reiji was. Mickey is pulling out his hair, trying to take care of both you and your inn, and I detest funerals. So snap out of it.> Waving over one of the cleaning girls and asking her for a pint of cider, Schuldig continued out loud, ignoring the scowl Yohji was directing his way. "Besides, Teddy should be back soon; I canít see Koyu missing out on the wedding festivities, so start behaving before the terror takes to lecturing you to death."

Groaning at the vision that comment brought to mind, of Mickeyís insane little brother mother henning him until he was just as crazy, Yohji started to bang his head on the wooden table. "I hate my life, I really do."

"Now, now, donít say that or the gods will really make your existence a living hell. Look at it this way, with all the strangers coming into town, maybe youíll meet someone new. Well, knowing you, make that lots of someones new. Please try to remain remotely sober the next few weeks, or youíll miss out on all the fun. I know better than to try and put a stop to your whoring."

Yohji commenced glaring again as his friend sucked down a pint of cider and he was stuck with a pot of bitter tea. "Letís make this worth my while, then. If I manage to not pass out each night until the wedding, which, letís face it, is pretty much a done deal at this pointÖ I remember the way the king and the captain looked at each other whenever their paths crossed, Iím just amazed it took this long for them to get it on. Anyway, if I manage this impossible feat, what do I get in return?"

Schuldig tugged on his bangs. "A break from all the lecturing? Lots and lots of wild sex?"

"It better not be with you. No, I want something more substantial than that."

Jade green eyes stared into emerald ones. <What do you want, Kudoh?>

Yohji thought of a suitable prize. <Are you fucking nuts? Mister Law and Order wants me to steal something? Youíre tarnishing my image of you, Iíll have you know.>

"Thatís the deal, I keep from passing out drunk from now Ďtil the wedding, and you have to ígetí whatever it is that I want. Iíll make up my mind after the wedding gifts come in."

"I canít believe a Guard is asking me to steal something."

"_Former_ Guard, Iíll thank you to remember." Schuldig smiled in apology at the biting tone his friend used to spit those words out. "Is it a deal?"

"Yes. What the hell, it will be a fun challenge. Iíll be back later tonight, making sure you donít cheat or anything." With that said, the bound stood to his feet, snatching the last piece of bread as he walked away. Smiling in spite of himself, Yohji resolved to check with the kitchen when Mickey came back from the market, and see if maybe they couldnít make that potato stew that he knew Schuldig loved so. The man deserved something, putting up with him like that while Yohji had a headache. Feeling an ache in his belly that thankfully was from hunger and not the hangover, he decided to raid the kitchen now anyway. Then he would have that much needed soak, and try to contemplate how he was going to get through the next several weeks without seeking peaceful oblivion at the bottom of a bottle.

*******

"Dammit, the sun will go down soon; where is the thing?" Hirofumi paced about the drawing room, eying the sun that was slowly falling in the sky.

"It should be here any moment. It always takes a while for it to travel from its rooms," Masafumi commented, as he poured his father and himself some more wine. By the time he set the decanter back on the wooden table, there was a soft knock at the door, and the kage slid into the room.

Three sets of eyes watched as the graceful figure walked to the center of the room and bowed low, then stood silent, hands crossed behind its back. Only the lowered eyes, barely open, hinted at the kageís discomfort at being in a room filled with light. Which was the whole reason they had called the bound down to them at this particular time.

Reiji stood to his feet and crossed over to where the redhead stood. A hand swung out and smacked the pale face, raising a red welt on a delicate cheekbone. "Never forget, for even an instant, that you are mine."

"No, sir."

The prince hit the kage again, relishing the way the creature stood there and took the blows, the meek way it had replied to him. He and his sons were the only people in the whole world who would dare to strike a shinigami-bound. A shame that the creature had to leave in the morning, or they could spend the night flaying its back to the bone, always a favorite pastime. It was so nice to possess a toy that healed so amazingly quickly, but that amount of damage wouldnít be repaired in enough time to leave for the capital at sunrise, and the Eldersí beasts would most likely bitch if they were delayed.

"Never forget this is just a fragment of the pain that your sister can be made to feel." Reiji nodded to his younger son, and Hirofumi hurried over to the kage as he drew a small knife. The younger man sliced down the boundís chest, smiling as blood soaked the black shirt. "Never forget."

"No, sir."

Hirofumi sliced the pale flesh again, trying to earn a groan of pain from the kage. About to make a third cut, he paused when his brotherís voice rung out. "I think thatís enough, it couldnít care less about its own pain. Letís try this." A glowing orb was pulled out from the sleeve of the robe the wizard was wearing. Masafumi held it between his hands, brows furrowed in concentration, and a small moan was uttered by the bound. "Oh, yes, you can feel that, canít you. Such a strong bond, between two siblings who love each other so. Who would sacrifice anything for the other, and have done so. Remember, while you are in the capital, what we hold trapped here. Any failure on your part, and you will feel her torment, even across half the kingdom."

"Yes, sir."

Reiji slapped the kage again, knocking it to the ground. His toy lay there, not even curling up as he kicked the pale form several times. "You wonít fail us, will you? We trained you too well. Kill the king and the sword bitch who seeks the throne, and weíll leave you alone in your tower for a few months." He would be too busy assuming control of the country, after all, to have any fun with the beast. "Take care of the son as well, and it will be even longer before we Ďplayí some more. If the two bounds that are accompanying you on the mission interfere with the plans in any way, you are to kill them. Now get out of here."

"Yes, sir." The kage stood to its feet, bruised face once more downcast, hands holding its tattered shirt close to its body, rapidly being covered with blood. It knew by now that if it bled on the fine carpets, it would be made to pay for the mess. Not another word was uttered until the creature left.

Hirofumi carefully cleaned his blade before returning it to its sheath. "Well, that was fun, as always, but was there ever any chance that it would betray us in the first place?"

"No, but it never hurts to reinforce a point," Reiji said, as he settled back into his chair. "And it is ever so very amusing to do so, as well."

*******

Crawford stood in the courtyard, Jei beside him, holding their horses still as they waited for the kage and his servant to arrive. The sun would rise at any moment, and he was eager to get on the road. If they rode hard today, not pausing to rest Ďtil evening, and repeated the same grueling pace tomorrow, they would reach the capital by afternoon. He wanted them to be there several days before the wedding announcement was made, well situated in the city before it was inundated with visitors.

Just as the sun peeked over the hills behind the castle, a black clad shape flowed down the steps, a slight boy in its wake. Ran came to a halt before the Esset agents and lowered his hood. Sunlight touched his slightly bruised face, causing the two strangers to curse out loud in surprise, expecting to see the man be set on fire. "Kage donít burst into flames when exposed to sunlight, like the legends say," Ran commented, in a flat voice.

Jei was the first one to overcome his shock. "Thatís good to know; I didnít particularly care for the idea of riding with a human bonfire. Let me see those bags, weíll put them on the packhorse since yours will be bearing double." Nagi handed him the two saddlebags. "What the hell did you pack in here?"

The scarred man knelt down and opened the bags, which were stuffed with books wrapped in a few articles of clothes, some toiletries and lots of dried meat and fruits. "Why the hell are you bringing the library, and where are your clothes?"

"Those are all of them," Ran said quietly. He looked up to stare at Crawford. "The books are so I have something to do once we reach the capital, and the food is emergency rations."

Knowing that the Ďemergency rationsí were most likely a snack for the elemental-bound, Crawford let that pass for the moment. Along with the books, though if the kage thought heíd spend the next several weeks locked in a dark room, he was mistaken. "Surely those arenít all of your clothes."

"Öyes."

Reiji and his spawn should be drawn and quartered for the way they treated the kage. Vision darkening in anger, the precog forced himself to calm down. He had noticed the bruised pale face when Ran had lowered his hood to identify himself, and could well guess what had happened to the youth. Add to that the barren, except for all the books, tower room, and the shabby clothes that Jei was packing back into the bags, and he had a fair idea how the other bound must have been treated these past few years. Not even the Elders mistreated their bounds so. "We will have to buy you new ones when we reach the capital, the both of you. It will draw attention, if you run about in rags."

Ran looked as if to protest, but merely pulled the hood of his threadbare cloak back over his face. "We have no money." He then walked over to a pale grey horse and let it sniff his hand. The animal nuzzled him in the chest, and Crawford swore he saw the slender form stiffen for a moment. "Letís go." Ran gathered up the reins and in one smooth motion was up in the saddle. He held out a gloved hand for Nagi to take, and the youth, in a much less graceful manner than his master, scrambled up to sit behind the kage.

Exchanging a glance with Jei, Crawford was soon seated on his horse, a tall, sleek creature, entirely black. Jeiís horse was blood red, and the pack animal a dull brown, looking out of place with the flashier horses. At least Reiji didnít skimp on supplying his servant with decent transportation; the grey horse appeared fast and strong.

He returned his attention to the previous topic when they were all mounted and on their way past the castle gates. "Then I will be sure to give both of you some money when we reach the capital, and will pay for the clothes out of the funds our lords supplied us with. Which, I can assure you right now," he added, when the cloaked head turned in his direction, "was extremely generous. Clothing the two of you will barely dip into the stash." That said, he kicked his horse, sending the creature flying. Looking over his shoulder, he once again saw the kage go stiff as Nagi clutched him around the chest, trying not to fall off a suddenly galloping horse. He would have to make sure and find out what had befallen the man after their meeting with him yesterday afternoon.

Jei rode up beside him, and spoke in a quiet voice. "I smell blood on him, ointment and fresh linens." The scarred face was grim, echoing Crawfordís sentiments. Sparing one more glance back at the kage, he glanced over at his friend.

"Keep an eye on him, and let me know if we need to slow our pace. If that is the case, I will kill Reiji myself for delaying us."

"Why all this hurry, huh? It have something to do with your visions?" Crawford remained silent. "Just promise me that the one son is mine," Jei hissed, his voice sibilant and low. Dammit, the last thing they needed was the manís gaki nature kicking in, with the smell of blood in the air.

"Control yourself, and the younger wizard is all yours." Crawford then urged more speed out of his mount, determined to make as much distance as possible while the kage could hold out.

*******

Hearing the chimes above the front door, Yohji cursed and set the linens he was carrying down onto the steps. "Welcome to the- Cassandra, what brings you here?" He jumped down the last few steps and swung the grey haired woman in his arms. "Itís so good to see you, beautiful." Yohji kissed a wrinkled cheek and set the tiny woman down. "And if you are here about something that brat of yours has done, it wasnít my fault."

"For once." Grey eyes sparkled with amusement for a moment, as a small hand patted a golden cheek. "For once he did something right; you appear clear eyed this morning, and Mickey was not at my door, begging me for some willow bark tea." Then the woman grew serious, and gestured at the basket hanging from one arm. "Come with me, while I gather some herbs."

Feeling as if he had no real choice, Yohji followed Schuldigís mother. This was not good; most likely he was about to receive a lecture. About what, he had no clue, considering the fact that he was not drunk for once, nor hung-over. And the girl he had taken to bed last night had been at least nineteen years old.

As soon as they were out in the huge garden hidden behind the stone inn, an amazing sight in the heart of the city, the wrinkled woman changed into a young one, long grey hair turning black and the sagging skin smooth and golden. "Cass, is that wise?" The bound very rarely dropped the illusion which covered the fact that, in the twenty some years she had resided in the capital, she hadnít aged a day. She would have been executed by now, if she hadnít possessed that particular talent, along with her clairvoyance. It was fortunate that she did, and her son as well, or else Yohji would have been deprived of his second mother, and would soon be faced with the prospect of losing his best friend.

"No one is paying any attention to us, Yotan." Cassandra fixed him with a stern gaze for a moment, before moving about the plants, snipping this and digging up that. "I hear that there will be no need for my willow bark tea for the next moon or so, a very wise choice on your part. Help me by picking some rue and goldenrod." The next ten minutes passed in silence, save for the occasional plant name being called out. As Yohji deposited some cherry bark in the almost overflowing basket, a tiny hand reached out and grasped his wrist.

"I dropped my illusion to remind you of my power. Soul gaki-bound am I, among the rarest of all, except for the kage. Able to see the future, that is my main gift. I know of only one other like me, and he cannot cast illusions. Now listen to me. Listen to me as you did not before."

Yohji knew what she was referring to. "You told me she would die, not that she would betray me and forfeit her life at my hands for that fact. All I wanted to do was spend what time she had left, making her happy."

Sorrow crossed Cassandraís face. "I saw the death of Asuka, not her real personality. The moment she stood before the king and his son, your love died. It would have been best if you had heeded my warning, and not loved her at all. But you did, and your pain tears at my heart." She stroked Yohjiís face, grey eyes filled with tears. "How I wish I had seen more clearly, but something blocked my vision. Now I have had another one concerning you, this one blocked as well."

At the blondís startled jerk, she set the basket down and clutched his face between her hands. "Listen to me, as you did not before. Another chance at love will present itself to you-"

"And Iím to ignore this one as well? Will all my lovers betray me, Cass?" Yohjiís voice was heavy with bitterness.

A small hand smacked his cheek, making him yelp at the sting. "Stupid, stubborn fool. You and my brat are as much alike as if I bore you both. _Listen_. You will have another chance at your heart, and like before, this one is cloaked in mystery and death. But if you truly love him, if you give him your all, then you will not be betrayed. I cannot see much more than that, but I know if you do not make him yours, then dark times will befall our land. Dark times may fall even if you do, but at least that wonít be your or his fault. Love him, Yotan. Heíll bring you pain, but nothing compared to the happiness that you will have from him." Cassandra released the young man and picked up her basket. "Now I have to go; there is cloth that needs to be dyed and clothes to be made." Reaching into a pocket of her skirt, she pulled out a square package. "Some soap for you, so your lover will want to touch such soft skin."

"I hate to break it to you, beautiful, but theyíve had no complaints so far, whatsoever." But he took the gift anyway, tucking it into the suede vest he wore over a linen shirt. "You said Ďheí. Have you seen who it is that I will fall in love with?"

The precog paused in settling her shawl back over her head. "So much was hidden. Blood, moonlight and amethysts, the scent of roses. That is all I could Ďseeí. He was cloaked in darkness."

"Probably because he has the face of a dog, even more wrinkly than the one you normally sport. Ow, dammit." Green eyes glared back at the woman who had hit him yet again, growing wide as she aged before his eyes.

"Donít tempt fate, you fool. No matter what he looks like, he is your heart. Fail to love him, and you, and many others, wonít grow old and Ďwrinklyí at all. Now get the place ready; he will arrive soon, and donít forget your promise to my ingrate of a child. When you next see him, remind him of the fact that he has a mother, who for some strange reason feels a minuscule speck of joy when he crosses her threshold. Good day."

Yohji couldnít help but smile as he kissed Cassandra on the cheek and wished her a good day. "Oh, and there are several plants that need to be weeded. Your motherís shade will come back to haunt you if you let her garden fall into shambles."

"Hell, you were yanking out plants left and right, couldnít you have pulled up some of them?" Cassandra, with that particularly female ability to ignore anything someone said, as if it was the stupidest thought ever uttered, only hmphed and walked away. "Ah well, better go change the sheets, if my one true love is going to make an appearance. Maybe even shave as well." Muttering under his breath a list of things he had to get done, Yohji set about taking care of some of the weeds Cassandra had mentioned.

*******

"Okay, weíll stop here for the night." Crawford swung down from the saddle, eyes drifting over to where the grey horse stood. Ran lowered Nagi to the ground; it was rather evident that the boy was in pain and wouldnít be able to walk much tonight, nor the next few days for that matter. Then the kage slid to the ground, a hand about his ribs as he set about clearing the tack from his horse.

"Iíll get that, you help the kid over to that log," Jei said, gently pushing the pale man out of the way. Ran stood still for a moment, then nodded his head, and with an arm about Nagiís waist, helped the boy to limp over to the log the silver haired man had motioned to.

Crawford searched about, and after a few minutes deposited an armful of wood by the two young men. Nagi was sitting on Ranís cloak, as the pale man massaged his legs. "We have some ointment that will help; I take it the boy never really rode anywhere before."

"Most servants donít. This is the first time heís ever been on a horse."

"Ah." A moment of silence passed, as the boyís legs stopped twitching, and Nagi made short work of a bag of nuts that must have been hidden in the cloak. The boy had been snacking all day; no wonder they had packed the extra food. He ate more than Jei did, which was saying something. "You, I take it, have ridden before."

The pale face tilted up and looked at him. The precog noted that most of the bruises from this morning were gone, though there were shadows under the lovely eyes, which had taken to reflecting back the fading light. "Yes. I ride out every now and then, when the TakatorisÖ have something for me to do."

"You mean someone to kill, donít you."

Crawford wanted to punch his partner for that comment, as the man dropped all the horsesí gear beside him. "Who did you kill?" Jei did not know when to keep his mouth shut, of that he was certain.

Ran looked away for a moment, down at the stack of branches and twigs, and set about building a fire. When he looked up for a fire starter, the deep voice replied in a weary tone. "A few wizards, two minor lords, and a dozen merchants, among others. What is it to you? Are you worried that I will fail to carry out my mission? The king and his bride will die."

"A few wizards?" The man had Jeiís undying respect for those three words. "Not bad for a scrawny little thing like you. Now tell us, why do you smell like blood?" This time the dark haired man gave into the urge and punched the berserker.

For his part, Ran looked back down at the ground and settled onto the log beside Nagi. It was the boy, who had remained quiet all day, who spoke out. "Reiji and his sons cut him up last night."

"Nagi, shut up."

"No, Ran, I wonít." Light brown eyes stared at Jei and him. "One of them, Hirofumi most likely, sliced him down to the bone, two times." Nagi ignored the hissed order to be quiet. "Usually they go for his back; this was nothing compared to what they normally do." Fury blazed in those orbs, and the boy stared back at them, as if daring them to comment about the abuse. He most likely had told the secret in order to gauge their reactions, Crawford mused.

"Do they need tending to? The wounds?"

"No, they will be healed by tomorrow." Ran wrapped his arms around him and stared off into the distance, clearly pretending that no one else was near him after confessing so much. Jei had started the fire, and was reaching for their provisions, when Crawford decided to take a chance and maybe provoke some sort of reaction from the kage and his ward. It was so difficult, not having his visions to rely on, due to Ranís presence. The kageís presence blocked much of his talent; he wanted to try and find out as much about the two young men before they reached the capital.

"I am sorry to hear about what they did to you. You are much too precious to be abused like that." No response from the redhead, but Nagi nodded ever so slightly in agreement. Ah, so there was something there between the two young men, just as he suspected. "There are some people out there, however, who feel that bounds are nothing more than animals to be mistreated and slaughtered. I see the Takatoris are among them. I assume youíve kept the fact that young Nagi is a bound from your masters for the past few years, or else he would have been-"

He never got to finish the sentence, as Ran suddenly flew into motion. He kicked Jei, who was about to prepare them a meal, making the man roll to the ground. When the berserker jumped to his feet, golden eye filled with madness and hunger, he found himself slammed back into a tree with a flurry of kicks. Jei never even landed a hit on the kage. "Nagi," the pale man called out.

Ran then turned to face him, as Jei was slammed back into the tree he had started to move away from and was held there with an invisible force. Not that Crawford could spare much concern for his friend, as he suddenly found himself parrying a blade crafted out of darkness, yet proving to be much sharper and stronger than his own sword. Bleeding from several cuts, the precog found his talent to be of no use against the kage, nor was he able to match the pale manís amazing speed. In a matter of moments he was lying on the ground, his blade across the clearing, and the black katana pressing against his throat. He felt a trickle of blood run down his neck, and he heard in the background Jeiís insane ramblings about death and vivisection and hunger. "GuessÖ the legends about you kage werenít exaggerations after all." Dammit.

Cold violet eyes stared down at him, turning silver as the dancing flames were reflected in them. "How long have you known he was a bound?"

Ah, it seemed that he was dealing with an overprotective master at the moment. "Since before we arrived in this damn country. I had a vision back in Esset, about the boy and his talent. If I had meant any harm to him, I would have mentioned it to the prince last night. But I donít betray my own." Neither, it appeared, did the kage.

After several minutes of silence, except for Berserkerís mutterings, the blade was lifted from his throat. "If anyone suspects what the boy is, either back at the estate or in the capital, you will be dead within moments of my finding out. Do you understand me? The only reason you live now, is that we need your help to complete the mission. "

"Yes, can I get up now?" Ran nodded his head and stepped back. "Donít release Jei though, not until I calm him down." Body sore, Oracle crossed over to his partner, who was literally foaming at the mouth. He smacked the scarred face a few times. "Jei, itís Crawford. Listen to me, Jei. Snap out of it. No death, no blood. Not this time, Jei. Come back, itís not the time for this shit. Jei." He kept repeating the manís name until the curses stopped and the golden eye returned to normal.

"Fuck, heís a quick one."

"Indeed he is, Jei. And quite skilled with the sword. Maybe, if you ask very nicely, youíll have found a new sparring partner." Crawford looked over his shoulder at Nagi. "You are quite impressive as well, to be able to restrain a berserker in full madness. You can let go now, though." It was only when Ran nodded that the elemental-bound released Jei. Blue eyes blinked when the black katana melted into the shadows. "I see that wasnít a myth, either. Can you create any weapon at all from the darkness?"

Ran didnít answer for a moment, as he searched out his bags and handed them to Nagi, who promptly ripped them open, starving for some food. "Any that Iíve thought of, at least. Also, before you ask, I can open any door or locked object, and cloak myself in shadows. I donít know what other things you may have heard about my kind."

"Those are the most common abilities attributed to kage. You canít blame a person for wondering, since there hasnít been a known shinigami-bound born in the past two hundred years. Jei, are you up to hunting something? I donít think our stores will be able to feed both you and the boy, since both of you used your powers this evening."

"Sure thing, I could use a little blood right now. You smell too good at the moment; Iím about to start nibbling on you." At Crawfordís snort, Jei smiled wickedly. "Ah, come on, Iíll make it feel good before I take a bite. If anyone needs to be nibbled on a little, it sure as hell is you."

"No. As in never, not going to happen, forget about it, and when I am too dead to gut you for even attempting such a thing." Crawford was not amused at the joke, and let his displeasure be known. The problem with dealing with a partially insane man who felt no pain, was that very few threats ever worked. All Jei did was leer at him and take off into the woods.

Nagi stared at him for a moment, amusement plain on his face, before settling his mask back in place. Ran was acting as if nothing had even happened, and read a book while leaning against the log. The kage did not strike him as the most social of creatures. With a sigh, Crawford reached into his packs, pulling out a jar of ointment and a collapsible pot that he would fill with water from the nearby stream. He tossed the jar to Nagi. "Here. Iíll be back in a few minutes. Better hope that Jei finds something, heís in a frisky mood tonight." Crawford felt his good humor return as the boy inched closer to his master, a wary look on his face as he searched the trees in the direction the bound had taken off in. "And I have to put up with several more weeks of this shit," he grumbled as he walked off.

*******

"Yohji, how many times do I have to tell you, put all the incoming bills in the basket on my desk! I almost couldnít get any sweet rolls today, since I didnít know that the Koneko had an outstanding bill with Lynn." Mickey glared at his friend, and let out a sigh as the man just smiled at him and fussed with his hair.

"You think I should cut it a little? Sorta let it go the past couple of months, though the lovers seem to like it." As Mickey sighed again, this time with a whimper added at the end, Yohji patted the manager on the back. "Hey, I swear I had nothing to do with the bill. Iíve heard your damn lecture enough times that I automatically toss anything on paper in your basket, so blame Ani or Jo. Are things really that busy already? You seem more stressed than normal."

"Maybe you havenít noticed it yet, what with playing in the garden the past day or two, but we are almost at full capacity. There are only two rooms left, and those are the back ones facing the west, which never get any sun. People are flooding into the city already, waiting for the wedding announcement."

Yohji did a quick tally of the money the rooms earned, and then thought about the crowd that had packed the place last night. It had been hard as all hell not to drink too much then, with all the people trying to buy him shots. As it was, heíd also had some difficulty picking a date out of such a large number of attractive and willing people, and had taken two cousins to bed last night. Gods, those boys had been talented. Calculations finished, he tried to figure out if he was drooling over his lovers or the money the Koneko had to be raking in. "Hey, wait a minute, did you rent Teddyís room out as well?"

"No, I got a letter from him yesterday saying that he and Koyu would arrive by the end of the week. I made sure to save it for them, and the place will only get crazier when we have a harper back in residence."

"I know; quite frankly Iím torn between being excited about the cash and upset that we still have a place for your brother to stay." Yohji deftly avoided the rather large hand that swung at him. "Hey, now, admit it. Koyu is a doll, but your brother is just plain crazy. You sure he isnít a gaki-bound or something?"

Mickey managed to connect the next hit. "Bite your tongue, before someone tries to drag him off and behead him. If he was a bound, think of how much more destruction and mayhem he could cause. The world would have been reduced to rubble by now."

The man had a point. "Okay, you are right, sorry. If you donít have anything else to yell at me about, Iím gonna run a couple of errands. Be back by this evening." Mickey nodded his head and wished him good-bye. "Oh, you never said if you thought I needed to cut my hair or not."

Taking a good look at the wavy, dark gold locks that fell past the playboyís shoulders, Mickey shook his head. "No, it looks fine."

"Why Mickey, you passionate beast you, I always knew you wanted me as much as I lust after you. What say we lock the door and have sex on your desk? You know you want to." Yohji batted his eyes at the burly man, and barely managed to avoid being hit in the head by a lead paperweight.

"Kudoh, get the hell out of here, before I bury your body in that damn garden out back. Pervert."

Laughing out loud at the disgusted and petrified look on his friendís face, Yohji skipped out into the hall, and barely avoided colliding with a group of people waiting there. "Oh, hello. Iím Yohji. You guys here for something to eat, or what?"

A tall man, with black hair and glasses, removed a grey cloak to reveal a white outfit underneath. How the hell did the man manage to stay so clean? "We would like to rent some rooms from you, for the foreseeable future."

Yohji glanced at the strangers, doing a quick head count. Besides tall, dark and immaculate, there was a weird looking guy all covered with scars, dressed in worn leathers and sporting a patch over one eye. Behind him was a small kid, who looked as if he hadnít smiled a day in his life, and a slender figure completely covered in a worn, black cloak. "Uh, four of you, right? I hate to say this, but we only have two rooms left. But they can fit two people each, if you donít mind sharing."

"That will be fine."

"Okay, one minute." Yohji reached underneath the stand set up in the hallway, and pulled out a lead pencil. "Rooms fourteen and fifteen. Your names? I need something for tax purposes here."

"Brad," the tall man gestured to himself, " and Farfarello. Farfie will do, it is a bit of a mouthfulÖ" The manís voice drifted off for a moment.

It was the walking heap of fabric that spoke next. "Naoe andÖ Aya." Judging from the deep voice, it was a guy underneath the cloak, despite the feminine name. Guess he was bashful or something.

"Thanks. Have to have a record of everyone who rents a room, those auditors are a right set of bastards. I take it that your horses are tied out front?"

Brad nodded his head. "Good." Yohji leaned towards the kitchen and shouted. "Kira, get your ass in gear and take care of some horses out front." He heard Mickey yell something about his manners from behind the office door, and then a young woman with long hair streaked past him and shot out the front door. "Ah, that was Kira, your horses will be taken care of now. Need any help with the bags? I can show you to your rooms now." Yohji grabbed the last two sets of keys when he returned the ledger to its place.

The scarred fellow and the kid were the ones who shouldered all that baggage, and the four men followed him up the stairs. He kept going until reaching the third floor, then walked back into a dim section of the hall. "Sorry about the rooms; they tend to be a bit dark, what with them not receiving any direct sunlight. Let any of the staff know if you need more candles. There is a washroom on each floor, but in the basement is a hot springs bath. Sheer heaven, Iím telling you; most of our guests stay here for that reason alone. Feel free to wander about the garden out back, Iíll just ask you not to pick anything. Well, at least not too much of anything. Meals are served downstairs, any time that the kitchen is open. Drinks are extra, and there will be an additional fee for the horses. Speaking of which, we never did discuss how much the rooms cost, did we?"

"No, you didnít, but I assume that this will be fine. Let me know when the money is used up, and I can withdraw more to pay for our lodgings." The tall man, Brad, handed him a fairly heavy purse. Mickey was going to be ecstatic; the last two rooms rented out for Ďthe foreseeable futureí, and the guests were paying up front for once.

"From the feel of it, you guys can stay here the rest of the year. But weíll let you know when the purse runs a little light. Weíll be having a harper arrive in a few days, you guys timed it just right."

There was a slight smile on Bradís face, as if he knew a secret that no one else did. "Weíll take fifteen. Thank you very much for your help, Yohji." The man held out his hand, and Yohji gave him the key. He swore that the other man, Farfie, winked at him before joining his companion in the room.

"Guess you guys are stuck with fourteen. Itís the darkest, though you get a lovely breeze from the garden, if you leave the window open. Here, let me give you a hand, I bet these bags weigh more than you do." The kid, instead of appearing grateful, shot Yohji a glare and gathered up the remaining bag. He assumed that the boy was a servant, like the scarred man was, but that didnít make any sense, since the two of them werenít sharing a room. Maybe their bosses liked having someone around to fetch for them. Though they could have picked a classier place to stay. The Koneko no Sumu Ie was a great place, but it didnít get much beyond the working class and artisans.

"Gods, itís dark in here. Ouch. Uh, the bed is here, by the by." Trust him to find out where the furniture was by crashing into it. "Be careful-" The curtains were pulled open, and the shutters pushed aside, letting a weak stream of light into the room. Moving away from the window, the cloaked figure unerringly found the candles and matches that were left on a nightstand, and lit a couple. Not even his night vision was that good, Yohji thought. The youth limped over to the manís side, and started to distribute the light around the room. "Good, you found them." Yohji set the bag down on the floor. What the hell was in the thing? Bricks? "You guys need anything else?" These people were weird.

"No thank you." The boy fidgeted about, and the deep voice rang out once more. "I assume the dining room is off of the main hall downstairs? WeÖ are a bit hungry."

Yohji opened his mouth to answer the man, only to have it snap closed in shock. The hood was pushed back and the cloak removed, revealing a slender man dressed in, big surprise, yet more black. The stark color made him appear so incredibly pale, as if carved from marble. A pair of violet eyes gazed back at him, framed by the thickest, blackest lashes heíd ever seen. Crimson hair hung down on the most beautiful face ever, the long bangs almost obscuring the manís eyes. Two long strands hung down to his chest, while the rest looked to have been hacked off when it reached his collar. Yohji thought he had to be imagining the vision before him. He had to get out of here before he embarrassed himself, that was for sure. His pants had already started to feel a wee bit tight. "I- what did you ask me?" Aya, the manís name was Aya. That was all Yohji could think of at the moment.

"Is the dining room off of the main hallway?" The redhead seemed to grow disturbed with his unabashed stare, and stepped backwards, cloaking himself with shadows this time. Yohji let out a low moan when the man disappeared from his sight, then found himself shoved backwards by the boy. He looked down to glare at the brat, who gazed venomously back at him.

"We want to unpack now. Thank you for your help, but you can _leave_ ."

Taking the subtle hint, Yohji reluctantly walked towards the door. Looking back into the dark corner that Aya was hiding in, he huskily repeated his name. "Yohji, Iím Yohji. If you need anything, I will be glad to assist you." Then he dazedly left the room, the door barely avoiding hitting him in the ass as he stepped into the hallway. How the hell had the boy managed to close it so quickly? He had been on the opposite side of the room last heíd seen.

But Yohji soon let that question fade from his mind, much preferring to think of the boyís master. Aya. All pale skin and blood red hair, and the most amazing pair of eyes heíd ever seen. It hit the blond as he was walking down the stairs, causing him to miss a step and to desperately clutch at the railing in an attempt to keep from tumbling down them head first. Moonlight and blood and amethysts. If that didnít sum up Aya, he sure as hell wanted to see who else that description could fit. Too bad he hadnít gotten close enough to the man to tell if he smelled like roses. A smile spread across Yohjiís face, as he contemplated how to go about getting a good sniff of the redhead. What the hell had Cass been worried about, if the man he was supposed to fall in love with looked like his latest guest. Heíd fallen for the man the moment heíd seen him without the cloak on.

"Well, Cass, if averting disaster calls for me making him mine, consider Yohji Kudoh on the job." This was going to be so utterly fucking delightful.

*******

"Be careful, Nagi, you shouldnít have slammed the door like that," Ran chided, as he stepped out of the shadows. Crossing over to the window, he almost closed it, but decided he enjoyed the scent of flowers, and left it open. The gardens at Takatoriís castle only contained the herbs that Masafumi needed for his spells, and almost none of them smelled this pleasant.

"I am careful, Ran. I wanted to toss the bastard out the window, but I let him walk out of here unaided."

Surprised by the anger in his friendís voice, Ran turned to look at the boy. His eyesight was perfect, even in absolute darkness, so it was no problem for him to see the fury etched onto Nagiís face. "Whatís wrong?"

"Bastard shouldnít have been staring at you like that. As if you were a piece of meat."

"I think you are just hungry, and imagining things. Letís wash up and grab a bite to eat." Ran reached behind him and pulled up the hood attached to his linen shirt, covering his hair and much of his face. He needed something to eat as well; the healing his wounds had required had drained him. Opening the door, Ran glanced back at Nagi, who still appeared upset. "Nagi, forget about it."

"No, Ran. Iím not going to let him treat you like that. He tries anything, and Iím sending him out onto the street, courtesy of the closest wall."

"NagiÖ" Ran tried to figure out how to reach his overprotective friend. The few things that Nagi could deal with, to act as a buffer between him and the rest of the world, the boy tended to become a bit zealous over. "Youíll do nothing. That would put your life in danger, and risk the mission. I canít allow that to happen, and you know why. Besides, he wasnít staring at me like I was a freak or a monster; that was a refreshing change. Iíll handle the man."

He then stepped into the hallway, knocking on ĎBradí and ĎFarfieís door to let them know they were going to eat. Crawford called out that they would join them in a little bit. After washing off, Nagi and he went downstairs, and found an empty table in the corner. The place was starting to fill up; people were arriving to eat dinner and drink the night away, so Ran pulled the shadows around the table, protecting Nagi and him from any curious stares. It was unnerving, eating in a room full of strangers. Heíd so very rarely left his tower apartment the past twelve years, and the only strangers heíd dealt with had been the people heíd killed.

Ran relaxed the shadows enough to allow a waitress to spy the two of them, and let Nagi order their meal. The look on the womanís face at the amount of food requested made him smile, ever so slightly. Looking about the room as she walked away, he caught the blond man, Yohji, staring at him once again.

This time the gaze didnít upset him as much as the one in his room had; this one didnít make Ran want to blush. Instead it set something inside of him tingling, and with a bit of regret and confusion, he draped the shadows about him as soon as the waitress returned with a plate of meat, cheese and bread, and some hot cider to drink. So it caused Ranís confusion to only increase when he glanced back at the handsome man, only to find those green eyes staring at him once more. Yohji shouldnít be able to see him anymore, yet somehow the man did. It wasnít long after that when Crawford and Jei joined them, and he had to push back the shadows once more. When the woman returned with more food, and left with another rather large order, Ran set about eating, feeling Yohjiís eyes on him the whole time.

*******

Birman stalked down the deserted hallway, pausing before one door in particular before opening it slowly. The well-oiled hinges didnít let out a sound, and she slid into the aromatic room as quietly as a cat.

A man some years older than her was bent over a table, busy studying a set of carved stones. Black hair fell onto his face, almost obscuring a scar on his cheek. After a few minutes he spoke out loud. "Thank you for being so quiet, Birman, but Iím afraid this reading wasnít any better than the last dozen or so. I still canít get a better read of the future. What I wouldnít give to be a precog at the moment."

"Then I would be required to kill you, Botan. Would it really be worth that, for a clear view of the future?"

The wizard regarded the woman in charge of the kingdomís intelligence network for a moment. "If I could learn what the threat to our king was, I would gladly pay that price. All I know is that a danger to him and Manx will, or already has, arrived in the capital, and that there will be an assassination attempt made on the wedding day. Yet these stones here," he swiped up a couple of the runes and held them in his hand. "They tell me that the danger will save us all, a small bit of darkness to stand before a greater one. And the red stone bespeaks of love, and is tied to the small darkness. Iím ready to bang my head against the wall in frustration. So yes, what I wouldnít give to be a bound at the moment. I canít fail him again, I just canít." Frustration vented for the time being, Botan collapsed in a chair shoved away from the table.

Birman studied the stones for a moment, wishing that she too had the fabled power to see the future. One just had to love a millennium old policy that mandated that any and all bounds be executed as soon as they were discovered; if by some chance there was a precog in the kingdom, nothing on this earth short of a death wish could entice it to step forward and share its vision. "Is there nothing else that you see?"

"Only that a bound, or most likely several of them, will play some part in Kritikerís future, or lack of it. But they are all tied to the smaller darkness, and have no signs of being evil. I need a drink."

The woman sighed and reached into the pouch tied to her sword belt, and pulled out a small flask. "Just leave some for me. What the hell am I to tell the king? Heís waiting on your auguries before deciding to announce the wedding. If I report back what you just told me, heíll most likely cancel it, and Manx will have both of our heads mounted on pikes by the end of the day."

Botan took a hefty swing and reluctantly handed the flask back. "Tell Shuuichi to make the announcement in a week. All the signs point to next Monday being the best day to do so. We will just have to figure out what the hell is going to happen before the wedding takes place, two months from now."

"Thanks, Botan, I just love a decisive plan." Birman finished off her flask and stared at it regretfully. "Damn thing is always too small." She placed it back in her pouch. "So the future rests on the backs of bounds, of all people. You know your history as well as I do, Botan. Do you really think a bunch of persecuted magical beings will give a damn about saving a king, no matter how good and just he is? If I were one, Iíd laugh as the palace and whole damn country burned to ashes around me."

"I know, Birman, and I feel the same. At least Shuuichi has been less than diligent on rounding the people up and executing them. But as far as I can tell, our lives are in their hands." Botan stood up and crossed over to his bookshelves, selecting a tome from the vast collection. "Once again, the fate of Kritiker, and the continent as well, is left to a bound." He flipped to a picture of a woman with blood red hair and pale white skin, a black sword clutched in a slender hand. "All this talk of darkness and bounds, and my difficulty with the readings, brings one thing to mind." He fixed his compatriot with a stern glance. "Promise me not to breathe a word of this outside of this room."

"Botan, stop being so damn melodramatic and spill it already."

"Promise me, Birman. Swear on Shuuichiís life and your own soul." The earnest man stared at the dark haired woman until she did just that. "I thinkÖ this will sound crazy, but I think that there might have been a kage born these past few years, Birman. I think that is the smaller darkness the stones are telling me about. And he or she will be the one who decides if the king lives or dies."

All the blood drained from Birmanís face. "A kage? But, the last one to be born was Aidan, over two hundred years ago. And she killed herself more than a century past. I thoughtÖ that they had died out."

"Like the rest of the bound did, even after centuries of purges? No, somehow I doubt it. Though if you had asked me as much as a week ago, I would have shared your opinion. It makes it much easier to sleep at night if you think those beings are no more. And now we all depend on it, for our lives."

"Now you canít tell anyone about this; if the wrong person hears that a kage might be alive, it will set off a purge the likes of which hasnít existed since the Binding War. Keep quiet, and either pray that I am wrong, or that the kage doesnít feel like you just said you would, if you were a bound.

Birman remained quiet for a few seconds, then nodded her head. "I gave my word, and I will keep it Ďtil my death. Now if you will excuse me, I need to go tell the king about your decision, and then get very, very drunk."

"I think I am going to be joining you, if you donít mind."

"Of course not. Though after making that announcement, I think it only fair that you buy the first dozen rounds or so."

********

Jei watched in amusement as Ran kept pushing food onto Nagiís plate, only to have the food be pushed back onto his. Both young men would then hiss that the other needed it more than they did. Judging from the whole chicken, two loaves of bread, an entire wheel of cheese, and a good pound of cold meat that the younger boy had eaten, Jei was siding with Nagi. And that wasnít including the plate of berry tarts that had literally been inhaled the second it had touched the tableís surface. Nagi was almost putting his appetite to shame, and Jei was a flesh gaki-bound. The whole dinner reminded him of his teenage years, with trying to feed both a growing body and a magical hunger that never went away, even when he was covered with and full of the blood of other humans. "Eat something, ĎAyaí. No wonder you are so damn pale."

The kage glared at him, enough so that Jei shut his mouth and didnít make any more comments about the manís appearance. He may be cursed with insanity, but he wasnít stupid. Nowhere in the history books was there a tale about someone pissing off a kage and living to reach a ripe old age. A smile twisted the scarred manís lips when he thought about how the Takatoris would personally find that out one day soon.

Leaving the pale man in peace, he let his eye roam about the room, filled to the walls with people intent on having a good time. Jei chuckled when he noticed that a certain blond was staring at their table once more, and wasnít surprised when the man cut through the crowd effortlessly and gestured at the empty spot opposite Ran. "I come bearing gifts; do you mind if I join you? Not much room elsewhere."

It was a bit of a shock when Crawford told the man to sit down, ignoring the dirty look Nagi sent his way. Yohji did so eagerly, and quickly filled Ranís cup with the bottle of wine heíd been carrying. It took him a moment to realize that Jei and Crawford were holding out their cups as well, the man was so fixated on the redhead. Jei felt his eyebrows lift in wonder when he took a sip; that was some damn good wine. He motioned to a waitress and yelled out for her to bring another platter of cheese and bread.

Yohji soon forgot that there was anyone at the table besides ĎAyaí and ĎNaoeí, who kept interrupting the blond as he tried to ask Ran questions about himself. The kage looked dazed, clearly wondering what the hell was going on and why Yohji wouldnít leave him alone. Jei kicked Nagi in the shins when the boy started to become too rude, and received one of the potent scowls that were being directed Yohjiís way. "Be nice, or youíll get us kicked out of here, and Iíll have you for dinner." The boy just sniffed and resumed glaring at the blond, but he stopped being quite so nasty.

Once more checking out the room, an ingrained habit of searching out any signs of danger, Jei noticed that their table was receiving quite a few dirty looks, mainly from a bunch of young and attractive men and women who didnít seem very happy that a certain blond playboy wasnít paying attention to them. Jei chuckled and nudged Crawford in the ribs. "Tell me, why the hell are we staying here? The price isnít bad, and the food is great, but does ĎAyaí really need to have some guy lusting after him like this?"

"This is where my vision showed us staying. You want a particular future to come to pass, make sure that ĎNaoeí doesnít kill Yohji. We need the man, alive." Crawford paused, as if considering something, and then spoke in a very quiet voice. "We need to tie him to us, and ĎAyaí will be the means to do so."

Oh, now that was very interesting. Guess Ran was on his own then; it was about time the kage had a social life of sorts. It was also a very good thing he couldnít feel any pain; Jei had the distinct impression that anyone who got in the way of Nagi protecting his master was in for a world of hurt. The next time Crawford needed his ass to be saved, Jei was going to let him get carved up a little bit by way of appreciation.

*******

Scratching his head, Yohji wearily made his way downstairs to the hot spring. This was the first night in how many months that he hadnít used sex or alcohol to make him pass out, and sleep was proving rather elusive at the moment. It didnít help that each time he closed his eyes, a certain redhead came to mind. A redhead who had proved amazingly hard to charm, no thanks to the monster in human form that had sat beside him all night long. He swore that Naoe had gotten it into his thick head that he was Ayaís chaperone or something. Yohji had to come up with a plan to separate the boy from his master, if he wanted to get anywhere with Aya. And he wanted to do that very, very desperately.

About to unlock the wooden door of the bathing room, Yohji was surprised to find out it wasnít locked. Someone must have forgotten to lock it before retiring for the night; it wasnít a good idea to let a possibly drunk guest near a deep pool of water late at night. He was also surprised to find a candle still burning inside the room. The last guest to use the room must have left it down here. Using his to light a few more scattered about the dark room, Yohji put the one heíd brought into a candleholder and shrugged out of his robe. Maybe a good scrub and a nice long soak would help him relax enough to sleep.

Tossing aside his robe, the blond picked up one of the lavender bars of soap that Cass had given him, and grabbed a washcloth as well. Just as he was turning around, it registered on Yohjiís quite acute senses that there was another fragrance in the humid room. It smelled like roses. It must have been a woman, the last one to be down here. Preparing to pick up a bucket to aid him in scrubbing himself off, Yohji let out a startled yelp.

Sitting in the sunken tub, pale face flushed from either the hot water or embarrassment, possibly both, was the man who had been tormenting him all night long. Long eartails floating in the water, Aya stared back at him with wide, violet eyes. For a second, in the flickering light, Yohji swore that they reflected back the light, just like a catís. Then he heard the deep voice speak. "I thoughtÖ I thought that no one else would be using the room this late at night."

Ah, that explained why Aya was down here in the dark, when most people were asleep in bed. What were the chances that the little cat was shy? Very much so, considering how quiet the man had been all night, and the way he had fled from the dining room the second Yohji had been distracted by another patron. "Well, normally they donít." Yohji quickly scooped up a bucket of water and dumped it over his body, then scrubbed his skin the fastest heíd done in his while entire life. As soon as he rinsed off, a few suds still clinging to his body, he smiled and entered the hot tub. "But donít worry, thereís definitely room for two." Yohji thanked all the gods above and below for this opportunity, while Aya continued to stare at him as he settled across from the redhead.

*******

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