Shadows

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Many thanks to Barbara, Kato-chan (who is among a special few who let me carry on and on about the plot, so as to get it straight in my head, thanks sweetie), and Whiskers for the beta-read. One day I will learn proper grammar. Also, thanks to Jacque Koh for some plot help; think I neglected mentioning that last time. And no, I donít own any of the boys, well, besides Mickey, Teddy, Koyu and Cass (who isnít a boy), damn it all to hell.

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Chapter two

Regrets

*******

Lord Hajime, a young man resplendent in a silk robe decorated with cranes, stared at the twitching figure lying at his feet. The ancient bound, little more than ashen skin and brittle bones wrapped in soiled rags, moaned at first softly, then louder, as the lord kicked him. "Well, you woke me from my rest for what? To admire the creatureís stink?"

"Sir, I swear to you, he was ranting about darkness and blood before, the loudest Iíve ever heard him carry on. Thatís why I ran to find you." Washi bowed low to his lord, anxious to avoid the manís displeasure. The nobleman had been of a foul temper of late, as it became obvious that there was going to be a royal wedding soon.

"Well, evidently, I missed all the excitement. The smelly thing looks as if it will-"

The bound jerked about, foam falling from bitten lips. "Darkness. The Darkness is approaching, so many years held back. Blood will be spilled, heralding its arrival. Brother against brother, joy turned to sorrow and then to joy. A throne stained in blood, a white bed left untouched. Darkness, and shadows dripping blood. Why canít I see it? Itís so dark. Blood against flowers, a viper on the throne. Then Darkness, ever more. Darkness for all." Prophecy told, the soul gaki bound lay still on the ground. Thin lids fluttered for a moment, revealing empty sockets.

"There, my lord. Thatís what he said before. Do you want to wait and see if he adds anything to the tale?" Hovering near his lord, Washi held up a hand, and two servants approached the pathetic form lying on the floor.

Hajime appeared lost in thought for a moment, then a smile spread across his face. "Hm? Oh, get rid of the foul thing. Be sure to hose it down before you toss it back in its kennel. I think I have the gist of what it meant." Tossing a light brown strand of hair out of his eyes, the tall man headed back to his room.

Blood, throne and brothers. Who could that mean other than Shuuichi and his disgraced, but still ambitious older brother, Reiji? Flowers and a white bed hinted at a wedding; now wasnít it quite a coincidence that Shuuichi was getting married soon? A little bit more investigation would be needed, but Hajime was willing to bet his entire fortune that Reiji would make another attempt on his baby brotherís life on the kingís wedding night. Now there was a man with a lot of gumption, but little brains. Though the lord had to admit that Reiji had been almost successful with the attempt on the king last year.

Most likely, the exiled prince was once more covering his tracks very carefully; it would take some effort to try and figure out enough of the manís plans, so Hajime could put his own into motion. But thanks to tonightís prophecy, he should be able to come up with something. With a bit of luck, he could have Reiji do the deed, and then step in afterwards and claim the throne. A bit tricky, but highly doable. Nice to see it had been worth keeping that disgusting creature in the dungeon these past several generations. Five times great grandfather Yusukeís foresight was paying off, finally. In two monthsí time, it would be an Eto on the throne, and not a Takatori.

Busy thinking of what he would need to seize said throne, Hajime was too lost in thought to ponder the rest of the pre-cogís vision. Distracted by the idea of becoming Kritikerís next king, the young man paid no heed to the talk of darkness.

*******

Ran stared at Yohji as the taller man joined him in the pool of hot water, which definitely was big enough for two. In fact, it could easily hold another couple of people, but the manís presence made the bath feel much smaller than it really was.

For a moment, he thought about leaving the bath, and retreating back to his room. Then Crawfordís voice rang out in Ranís head as he recalled the discussion they had had before entering the capital. Actually, it had been the other bound who had done all the talking, Ran had mainly just hníed a couple of times.

[There will be no hiding in your room for the duration of this mission. I know it will be hard on you, as you are not used to being around people, or in sunlight, but it will draw suspicion towards us if you remain hidden. Which we most certainly do not want; not if we are to be successful. So I expect some social interaction from you. That means no hiding, no skulking around, no running away from people. We will fail if you do those things.]

Clenching his hands into fists, Ran forced his body to remain in the hot water. Why the hell had Yohji decided to take a bath at this hour of the night? The kage had purposely waited until the inn had finally quieted down before sneaking to the basement for a much-needed soak. His body was sore from the hard ride from Prince Reijiís estate, and from the healing it had needed. Ranís chest was mostly healed by now, and the two broken ribs heíd sustained had finally stopped hurting once heíd submerged himself in the pool. Which had only been a few minutes before Yohji had entered the room.

"Iím not going to bite, you know. Really, I wonít. Iím known to be a very friendly person."

Thoughts drawn back to the person seated across from him, Ran flicked his gaze over to the man. Yohji was sprawled out in the tub, a golden leg resting rather close to one of his. The shorter tendrils of the manís hair had tightened into a spiral of curls, while the longer locks hung almost straight to the water. Ran felt a flutter in his stomach as he stared at the man, at the way his skin glimmered in the candlelight, entranced by Yohji. At least until a familiar tingle crawled along his skin, causing him to frown and look away. It was then that Yohjiís words sank in.

He spoke without thinking. "I donít think that Ďvery friendlyí sums it up. ĎPromiscuousí might." At least, judging by all the strangers who had found an excuse to talk to the blond at some point during the evening; that and all their excuses to touch Yohji during their conversations. Ran might have spent the past twelve years isolated in a tower, but even he could pick up on such blatant flirting. Realizing that in his discomfort he had snapped back at the other man, Ran ducked his head down, letting his wet hair fall into his face. That was foolish, letting his temper get the better of him. When would he ever learn? It was always best to keep his mouth shut and say nothing.

"Hm, jealous are we? Donít worry, Aya, I wasnít interested in any of them tonight, not when I had you next to me. Or at least I did, before you ran off." Water lapped against him, indicating motion. A moment later, long fingers grasped Ranís chin, lifting his face up.

Conditioned to expect a blow and to put up no resistance, Ran kept his eyes lowered and braced himself. It had been his own fault, answering back like that. One day he would learn to control his tongue. But something about Yohji shook him up so. Waiting for the flash of pain, all he received was a soft touch, brushing back his bangs. "So lovely. I donít know why you hide all of this, what with those hoods and this hair. Though itís just as beautiful as the rest of you."

The touch continued, stroking along his face, soothing and gentle. It startled Ran, and confused him. A part of him wanted to pull away and run, while another wanted to tilt his head into the caress, to savor it while he could. When was the last time someone had touched him, evoking anything other than pain? Nagi would, every now and then, but was too mindful of his friendís fears to do so very often.

A horrible thought occurred to Ran. What if this was just a prelude to abuse? He couldnít do anything, couldnít fight back or run away, or risk endangering the mission. Aya-chan would suffer if that happened, and that could not be allowed. She had already suffered too much; he wouldnít be responsible for more torment befalling his sister. "Just do it already." Just get the pain over with.

The touch stilled, warning him of what was about to follow. "I guess youíre not such a shy one after all." The violet eyes still lowered, Ran didnít see Yohji lean closer to him, and was shocked by the feel of lips pressing against his. Opening his mouth to protest, he found Yohjiís tongue thrusting in deep, as the blond pressed against him, pushing him against the wall of the hot spring.

Hands threaded through his hair, tilting his face up. Two knees straddled his waist on the bench that ran along the wall of the tub. Yohji settled on top of him, and he could feel a silky hardness rubbing along his belly. The tingle was back, more of a soothing experience than it had ever been before, keeping Ran from being lost in the kiss. The first one he had ever received, outside of those given to him by family members. Those chaste caresses were nothing like the one Yohji treated him to, sucking the breath out of him while a tongue flicked about, tasting every inch of his mouth.

This wasnít what Ran had been expecting, to say the least. There was supposed to be pain, and not pleasure. His confusion kept him still for a couple of minutes, caught up in the experience, but as Yohjiís hands slid from his hair, massaging the back of his neck, then his shoulders and continuing down his chest, Ran found himself pushing the blond away. "No- I-" He didnít know what to do now. Maybe now the pain would come, and return him to familiar ground.

*******

Yohji, bobbing up in the mineral heavy water, drew in a ragged breath. "What type of game are you playing?" He was beyond pissed at the moment. First, Aya had pretty much begged him for the kiss, remaining motionless the entire time, and now heíd shoved Yohji away. Was the man a tease?

Glaring at the strange redhead, he found Aya once more staring down at the water, arms clasped about his chest, and shivering minutely. That didnít look like the posture of someone playing hard to get; more like someone shaken and trying hard not to show it.

Yohji had always been proud of his ability to read people, a skill that had never failed him, at least until Asuka. And what he was picking up from Aya wasnít cruelty or amusement. Not by a long shot. "Hey, you ok?" He reached out a hand, once more brushing back the crimson strands that the man hid behind.

Aya jerked under his touch and looked up at him. There was a spark of anger in the unusual eyes, which were definitely glowing like a catís. "Iím not the one playing." It was as if the man wanted to say something else, but he bit his lip and fell silent.

Well, at least heíd spoken more than he had during dinner, when Yohji had tried repeatedly to start a conversation with the pale man. Only to be met with silence and smart comments from the little demon. "Iím not playing, either. I thinkÖ we must be misunderstanding each other." The trembling increased, and Yohji gently grabbed Aya by the shoulders and pulled him close. "Letís try this again."

The slender man was tense in his arms, refusing to relax, but not pulling away. So he ran his hands up and down the pale arms, urging them to wrap around his waist. After a minute, Aya gingerly did so, and rested his chin on Yohjiís shoulder. "It feels like someone needs to eat a bit more; Jo will be offended if you donít gain any weight during your stay here." Aya tensed back up for a moment, but as Yohji rubbed his cheek against the silky red hair, the young man relaxed a little more. "I told you the bath was nice, didnít I? I could spend the whole night down here." Okay, it was obvious he couldnít move too quickly, especially when he was so perplexed by Ayaís reactions. The seduction sure as hell wasnít going as heíd thought it would; when was the last time a kiss had backfired so badly?

Maybe Aya wasnít as experienced as he had thought, what with that Ďjust do it alreadyí comment. That could explain the impression of fear he felt. What a shame, that someone so beautiful had been neglected so. Yohji grinned and pressed a kiss on a pale temple. It had been quite a while since heíd bedded a virgin, or one who acted like they still were. Heíd never really been serious about any of his flings, except for the one time, the memory of which he firmly shoved aside, and had thought it unfair to lead a chaste person on. But now he practically had orders to seduce Aya, the most skittish and unimpressed person heíd ever run across. This was just getting better and better.

Yohji decided to keep talking, just to put Aya at ease. "Itís been a while since I had a nice soak at night. I forgot how quiet and dark it gets down here. Normally, during the day, there is almost always someone here. We get a few customers who come for just a bath and a meal. What with everyone arriving to hear King Shuuichiís announcement, and Koyu coming back home next week, heís our harper, by the by, it will be hard to find a quiet moment down here. Youíre lucky that one of the staff forgot to lock the door; we usually donít let anyone down here after midnight." Aya remained silent the whole entire time, his body tensing again every now and then.

"So I guess you are here for the wedding as well; didnít your friend Brad say that you guys were bringing the king a gift during dinner tonight?" Aya stiffened and made to pull away, but Yohji hugged him close, refusing to let him go away. "Donít worry, I wonít ask what it is, or where youíve hidden it. Nothingís ever been stolen from the Koneko; we haveÖ a long history with the Guards, so no one messes with us." Dammit, that just made the man even more tense. What the hell was he saying that was upsetting him so? Time to change the subject.

"Now tell me, whatís the deal with the little demon youíre sharing a room with?" Maybe it was his imagination, but Yohji thought he felt something sharp press against the back of his neck. "Damn, must be a splinter down here. Anyway, whatís Naoeís problem? I donít think he said a civil word to me all night long. Youíd think I had called him a bound, or something. That boy needs to lighten up. Maybe find himself a girlfriend or boyfriend or something."

Aya remained stiff in his arms, but at least he wasnít struggling anymore. Yohji shifted about, trying to avoid the splinter that was biting into his neck. Of course, it didnít hurt that he was also pulling Aya further onto his lap with the movement. The scent of roses was almost overwhelming now, especially when he bent to nuzzle the crimson hair again. "Hmm, why do you smell like roses?"

There was a moment of silence, and the smaller man slowly relaxed. "Itís the only soap that Na-aoe could find for me to use."

"It suits you."

"IÖ goodbye." Aya tried to push off of Yohjiís lap, but the blond wasnít having any of that. He clutched the man closer.

"No need to go just yet, we never finished what you wanted me to start earlier." For fuckís sake, what had made Aya go stiff as a board this time? Refusing to let it daunt him, Yohji grabbed the pale chin and yanked it close to his mouth, bending his head down the last few centimeters to resume the kiss.

This time, he was a bit gentler, tracing Ayaís lips with his tongue, nipping on them softly until the slender man opened his mouth. Yohji resumed running his hands up and down Ayaís arms, trying to soothe the man as much as possible. When the redhead started to relax, he pulled him closer, and brushed back the wet strands that were falling onto their faces. Combing his fingers through the crimson hair seemed to calm Aya a bit, so he continued to do so as he trailed his mouth down a pale neck. It took a little coaxing to get Aya to tilt his head to the side, and when he did so, Yohji ran his hands down the manís back.

Only to find, instead of smooth, soft skin, rough patches and ridges everywhere he touched. Aya tensed, and when Yohji pulled away in shock, managed to scramble away and out of the tub. When the smaller man turned his back to grab a towel, Yohji let out a hiss of anger and jumped out of the tub as well. In two strides he was at Ayaís side, grabbing ahold of the manís arm and refusing to let him go when he struggled. The blond was filled with fury, as he lightly ran his fingers down the marred skin. "Who the hell did this to you? Who? Tell me so I can kill him."

Ayaís back was covered with scars that could only be from lashings. Repeated lashings, to mar so much skin. Yohji had seen a few whip scars before, mainly from his days as a Guard, and Jo had a few on the back of her legs and buttocks, but nothing compared to this. "Who did this, Aya?" He wanted to strangle the bastard this very minute. No one hurt Aya like this; Yohji wouldnít allow it. He could feel more scars underneath his fingers, all along the inside of Ayaís wrist.

All the pale man did was try to jerk his arm free, then one handedly wrapped his towel around his narrow hips when that failed. The room was getting darker; some of the candles must have burned out, so all Yohji saw was darkness and Aya, with an odd mixture of pain and defiance on his face. Taking in the slim form before him, Yohji could see a just healed scar on Ayaís chest, in the form of a cross. It made the fury all the more stronger, each new sign of abuse he found. "Tell me."

"None of your business."

That wasnít what Yohji wanted to hear. "Is it one of the men upstairs? Did Brad or the scarred one, Farf or whatever, did they do this to you?" Yohji started to drag Aya to the door, determined to confront the two sleeping guests. Heíd interrogate the bastards, and if theyíd done it, kill them. "Stop fighting me, dammit, and come on." Aya was digging in his heels, refusing to move.

"Yohji, stop. It wasnít them." At the quiet manís words, Yohji stopped and turned around. Aya met his eyes for a moment, a chilling glare on the beautiful face, before suddenly tilting his head downward. There had been a flash of fear in the violet eyes right before Aya had hid his face, and something clicked for the older man. Aya was used to hiding his anger, was used to taking the abuse dealt to him. Thatís why he hid his face and tensed up after a flash of temper; the poor fool was probably waiting to get hit for his audacity. "You thought that I was going to hurt you earlier, didnít you? Thatís what you wanted me to Ďjust doí."

His companion said nothing, just stood there silently. "Who beats you until your back is one big scar, Aya? Whoís trained you to swallow that anger and put up with whatever beating they give you? You said it wasnít your friends upstairs; who was it then?" Several minutes passed by, the only sounds those of flowing water and their own breathing. "Iím not dropping this until I get some answers. Iíll drag you before the Guards, if I have to."

"No." Aya glared at him once more, though his tone was more frightened than angry. "I canít tell you; thereís nothing you can do now anyway." For a moment the two of them just stared at each other, then the redhead looked back at the floor. "Please, just drop it." From the sound of that deep voice, that Ďpleaseí had cost Aya dearly. Faced with the fact that the stubborn idiot would most likely not tell him a thing, and not wanting to subject the shy man to questioning from the Guards, Yohji let out a sigh.

"All right, Iíll drop it for now. But I wonít forget about this." He wanted the abusive bastard dead for what heíd done. The intensity of his hate and anger shocked Yohji. While heíd never been one to turn away someone hurting, neither had he felt such a strong urge to maim and kill an abuser before. But the thought that somewhere, there was a person who had mistreated Aya so savagelyÖ It made his blood boil.

So all Yohji could do at the moment was lift Ayaís face and plant a gentle kiss on the manís lips. "I wonít let anyone hurt you again." Violet eyes stared at him in shock, and Yohji heard a quite distinct snort of derision. "I know, itís funny as all hell, some stranger telling you this, but itís true. The Koneko has a long-standing tradition of taking in strays that need a safe haven, and now youíve found it. Youíll be safe here, Iíll see to it."

All the smaller man did was close his eyes for a moment, then shake his head slowly. Aya pulled back on his arm until Yohji released it, then set about gathering up his belongings. Once the black cloak was around his shoulders, and his soap and washcloth in hand, Aya silently left the room. Yohji stood there in the dark for several minutes afterwards, just inhaling the scent of roses, mind busy trying to figure out what the hell was going on with his heart.

*******

Ran slid into his room, making certain not to wake Nagi up. The boy needed his rest, what with the last two days of hard riding theyíd done, and he didnít feel like answering any questions at the moment. Not when he was so shaken up and furious.

What the hell was Yohji thinking, to make such statements? That heíd keep Ran safe, and kill the person responsible for hurting him. For a moment, the redhead dreamed that such a thing was possible, but reality soon had him shaking his head once more as he discarded his cloak and pulled on a pair of worn breeches to wear to bed. Prince Reiji and his sons were too powerful for a mere tavern owner to confront. It would never happen, not in a thousand years.

In the middle of drying his hair, Ran thought bleakly about that amount of time. It was entirely possible that he really would have that long to wait for an ending of sorts. Heíd overheard Crawford and Jei talking last night about their masters, the Elders, and how they have lived since the time of the Binding War. A thousand yearsÖ A millennia of serving the Takatoris, of being the throneís assassin; that was what awaited Ran, as soon as he killed the present king. Heíd spend all those long centuries locked away, extorted into killing on command, a dark secret to be exploited. The pain and abuse that he had suffered these past twelve years paled before what lay ahead of him.

Carefully and quietly, he reached into the saddlebag resting on his bed. Inside was a thick book bound in cracked, black leather. Ran sat on the bed and flipped the tome open to a certain section, reading words that he had already memorized.

*/I canít take his touch anymore. All they leave me with is a basin of cold water for washing, and a jug for drinks, and I use it all to try and scrub the feeling away. It doesnít work, and all there is is more blood. One would think that Iíd be used to it by now, with all the Ďtraitorsí to the throne Iíve killed, yet I canít help but to stare at my own, vile, tainted fluid that it is. Yoru would be so mad, to see such a precious thing wasted, unable to use it for his spells. For once he doesnít scare me, now that _he_ has taught me true fear.

I canít take this anymore. Heís so young, and his grandmother lived so long; why did he have to be selected to be king? Every time, he reminds me that I am his, reminds me of my brothersí children, and their children, and each new generation. Iíve suffered enough for them, havenít I? All I have is a life of regrets, darkness and death; now he adds pain and humiliation and filth. He mocks me by telling me heís being so gentle with me, knowing that Iíll never know the truth of the matter. Yoru found me when I was so young, after all.

Oh, I donít know whether to wish that I had been older, and tasted a bit of life, or to be grateful that I never had the chance to experience much of it, beyond the love of my family. All I know is that Iím tired of the pain and regret. I have all the blades I need, only a thought away. Iím so sorry; I hope they donít make my family pay, but I canít, no more. Please, no more./*

Aidan had killed herself that night; he was reading her last journal entry. Ran had found the book in the Takatorisí library; apparently, Prince Reiji had found it somewhere in the palace, among a cache of books about kage, and brought it with him when he was exiled. The books were most likely why he had recognized Ran as a kage, before his power had even manifested. And that had led to his parentsí death at the hands of Ďbanditsí, and Aya-chanísÖ

Snapping the book closed, Ran reflected that he had more than his own share of pain and regret. Aidan had not been too badly abused, besides the wizard Yoruís constant bloodletting for his spells, until the end. When King Toshi had assumed the throne, and found his pleasure in raping the kage. That had been the final straw for Aidan, and she had slit her own throat.

It was yet another example of the depravity that the Takatori bloodline could fall prey to. Ran had suffered it for the past dozen years, and would do so for the remainder of his days, however long they were. If only he could be sure that Aya-chan wouldnít pay for his escape, he would seek Aidanís path. But her king had kept the threat that had held her captive for a century, and had killed every last member of her family that he could track down. Ran knew that the Takatoris would take their anger and frustration out on his sister, if he killed himself.

So far, the abuse had been only physical in nature: vicious beatings and floggings, and being drained of blood until he couldnít move for days afterwards. So far, rape hadnít entered the pictureÖ but there was a gleam in Hirofumiís eyes; occasionally, a stroking hand along his restrained body. Maybe it was only Ranís imagination, or maybeÖ Even if the Princeís son never touched him, what were the chances that, down the long centuries, no one else would? Ran shuddered when he thought about those odds.

Aidan had wondered which would be better; to know of pleasure and joy beforehand, and ever after be denied it, or to live in ignorance? It was Ran who now struggled with the dilemma. But when the pain got too bad, he escaped into his memories, no matter how hurtful they were to his soul, of his time with his parents and sister. It was all he had, the tiny bit of light in the darkness of his existence. He would rather have something good to hold on to through the abuse, than know nothing but pain and cruelty.

Which meant that the brief months here in the capital, awaiting King Shuuichiís wedding, would be the only chance he had to experience such a thing. And lo and behold, he already had one suitor. Why the man wanted him so, he did not know, but then again, it had become quite clear in the common room downstairs tonight, that Yohji didnít often turn down a lover. In a word, the man was a slut. Who better to have a fling with?

Someone who wouldnít want to form any attachments to him. Someone who was such a slut, that hopefully, the two Esset agents wouldnít think anything of Ran fooling around with the man, and report the affair to his masters. Someone who wouldnít give him a second thought when he left on the day of the wedding, never to return. To either die with the king, or to spend his unnatural life as a royal assassin. To Yohji, it wouldnít be anything other than a bit of fun with a guest, and for Ran, it would be one less regret in a life full of them. It was as simple as that. Ran made his decision, and would carry it out.

For a moment, as he slid underneath the soft blankets on his bed, Ran thought of how protective and gentle the blond had been, down in the bathing room. Most likely, the man was trying to fool him into thinking that Yohji cared for him as something more than a brief fling. Not very likely. Tomorrow, he would see if the man was still interested in him, and if so, let Yohji lead this to whatever outcome. He had time to find another lover if things between him and the tavern owner didnít work out. All Ran wanted was a bit of pleasure and some good memories to warm him through the centuries, and to be able to deny one part of himself to the Takatoris. It shouldnít be hard to do that. Yohji would be the safest choice, because of what he was, and because of his Ďfriendlyí nature. He would go back to seducing his other guests when Ran left, and never spare him another thought.

*******

Yohji sat down at a table in the common room, a mug of very bitter, very strong coffee between his hands. Having been one of the first ones up this morning, he knew that Aya hadnít snuck off anywhere so far that day. He wouldnít put it past the man to try and evade him, either by leaving the Koneko, or by hiding in his room. If the redhead failed to show himself by noon, then Yohji would go and take care of a little room service. It was so nice to have a key to each room here.

It had been an extremely long night. Yohji doubted that heíd gotten more than a couple hours of sleep, filled with frustrating dreams of Aya, just beyond his reach. This was bad, if the man was invading his dreams within a day of having met him. It had taken Asuka a whole week to worm her way into his subconscious; he guessed Aya was some sort of prodigy.

Maybe it was because of how beautiful the man was, and so incredibly fucking tragic, what with his scars and air of mystery and suffering. Maybe it was Yohjiís need to protect something, thwarted for the past year because of his retirement from the Guards. Or maybe, it was Cassís prophecy; that Aya was to be his one true love. Hell, he thought he was already in love with the quiet bastard. Now wasnít that a painful thought, considering the redhead would barely talk to him, and kept waiting for Yohji to hit him.

Just what was it with the Fates fucking with his life like this? Did he have to have a destiny that read like some badly written romance novel? Teddy could come up with a better plot than this, and that man was as scatterbrained as they come. A disgraced Hero, pining after the mysterious Beauty, made to jump through hoops to prove his love. And once Mickey, Jo, and the rest of the staff caught wind that Aya was a stray, heíd be forbidden to get within ten meters of the man.

Taking a large swallow of his coffee, Yohji grimaced at the taste and hoped the caffeine kicked in sometime soon. He was so tired this morning, and felt so drained. Must be due to the lack of sleep. Though he didnít usually get that much, since he always spent a good part of the night fooling around with one of his flings.

The blond head jerked up when he heard footsteps on the stairs, but was disappointed to see that it wasnít Aya, nor was it one of his traveling companions. Dammit. Yohji refilled his mug, resigned to waiting a while longer. At least with him waking up so early, he had been able to wheedle a shocked Jo into making him some pancakes, and had stuffed himself silly. But oddly enough, Yohji still felt hungry, even though he couldnít eat another thing without being sick.

Another half hour of waiting only resulted in Yohji having to run to the bathroom from all that coffee. When he came back, he found Schuldig sitting in his spot, a huge plate of pancakes before him. "What ill wind blew you in this morning?"

"What are you talking about? Iím here most mornings, grabbing a snack before bedtime. Youíre always upstairs sleeping off your night of debauchery." Schuldig smirked at his friend for a moment, then helped himself to a mouthful of pancakes. <What the hell has you out of bed before noon? Must be a lover. They kick you out for being lousy in the sack, or what?>

There was a tickle in the back of Yohjiís mind that informed him that the bound was peeking through his thoughts. Having grown up with this, he didnít think anything of it, just let his irritation over that last comment be known to the thief.

<What the hell? Aya? Youíre mooning after a person you havenít even slept with? I mean, damn, heís hot as hell, but are you sure heís worth all this? You actually slept by yourself last night, the world must be coming to an end.>

"Ha ha." Yohji reached out to smack the longhaired man on the side of the head, and then snagged his coffee mug. "Heís worth it, Iím sure of it." He then pitched his voice low. "Besides, your mom told me to make him mine, and I have every intention of doing just that. If heíll ever come out of his room." The last was said as an afterthought.

Schuldigís brow rose when Yohji mentioned Cassandra, and then the tickling sensation was back. <She told you that? Fuck, she should have mentioned that to me.>

"I get the impression that you havenít stopped by to see her lately. Sheís taken to calling you an ingrate; that only happens when you havenít been to her house in a week or more." The thief just sat there, actually ignoring his food for once, a worried expression on the usually smirking face. "Hey, you all right, Schu? Iím sure she wonít torture you too much for not seeing her."

"Huh?" Schuldig shook himself, as if returning from deep thoughts. "Oh, yeah, Iíll see her today. As soon as I finish breakfast, in fact. Have to talk to her about something. Sheís right, you know, you do have to make him yours."

Yohji stared at his friend, shocked by the manís forceful tone. Schuldig, busy shoveling food into his mouth once more, gazed sternly at the blond. <You canít let this opportunity pass you by. Momís told me a few thingsÖ Just work the damn Kudoh charm thatís bedded half the city by now, and get him in the sack.> At Yohjiís spark of curiosity over why the bound cared so much about his lovelife, Schuldig shrugged his shoulders. <I think you deserve a little happiness, and Momís visions are never wrong. If she told you heíd make you happy, then he will. Now I gotta go, but Iíll be back later tonight. I want to meet this Aya in person, make sure heís good enough for you. See ya later, tah.> Almost too fast to see, Schuldig leaned forward and kissed Yohji on the mouth. Then he snatched up the last few pancakes from the plate, and after rolling them up and shoving them in his mouth, dashed for the door.

Shaking his head, Yohji resolved to make himself some normal friends, hopefully very soon.

*******

Nagi groaned as he sat up in bed, his body still sore from the unaccustomed riding of the past two days. If he never saw one of the smelly, hairy, four legged beasts again, he would be quite content.

Looking about the dark room, he found Ran sitting on his bed, dressed in black pants and a faded grey tunic, reading from a book. No surprise there, nor the fact that the book was a familiar one, bound in plain, dark leather; that one appeared to be the kageís favorite. Though maybe that wasnít the right word, as the man never looked happy when he read it, or for any time afterwards. "Why do you keep reading the thing, if it always makes you so depressed?"

"Because I know how she feels. What do I have in common with anyone in all the other books?" There was a hint of bitterness in Ranís voice, and he carefully set the tome aside, violet eyes resting on Nagi.

Wishing to let a little light in the room, the boy rose from his bed, wincing in pain the whole short distance to the window and back again. Once the curtains were drawn, a feeble amount of sunlight entered the room, not enough to make Ran uncomfortable, but enough so one not gifted with kage vision could see better. "What time is it?"

"Almost eleven in the morning."

For a moment Nagi stared at the older bound, unbelieving of what he had heard. It couldnít be that late; heíd never slept past sunrise in his whole entire life. "What?"

"Eleven. As in before twelve." Ran graced him with a look that clearly bespoke Ďidiotí, and searched out another book.

"But, how could I have possibly slept that long?"

There wasnít anything resembling an answer, at least not until Nagi sorted through his few belongings, and found a pair of worn breeches and a homespun shirt to wear.

"Your body needed the sleep for healing. Besides, there is no reason for you to be up early; no chores for you to do."

If his body needed the sleep to repair what two days on horseback had done to him, Nagi was all for sleeping a bit more. But he wasnít about to let Ran go about unsupervised; the man would either remain in the room all day, neglecting to eat, or heíd step outside and be pounced on by that degenerate, Yohji. Both were unacceptable in the young boundís opinion. "Well, itís clear that someone needs to bring you something to eat, and I need to see about washing our clothes; we donít have that many changes left. Give me a minute, and Iíll get right to it."

Ran stopped reading to look at his roommate. "The inn has laundry services, let them handle the clothes. You need to soak in some hot water; spend the day in the hot spring downstairs. Iíll get our food."

Nagi snorted out loud. "You go downstairs, and that blond bastard will be all over you again. Iíll go soak after I get us something to eat." His stomach rumbled loudly, conscious of the discussion of food going on. "Donít worry, you can just spend the day in here, reading."

"NagiÖ" The kage flowed off the bed, crossing the room to stand in front of the window, looking out over the garden. "I canít hide in here, you heard Crawford yesterday. People will become suspicious if I do, just like the servants back at the estate."

"Then what are you supposed to do? Wander a strange city aimlessly? Let Yohji harass you all day long? Why should we listen to what Crawford has to say? We donít take orders from him." Glaring evilly at the wall that separated their room from the two Esset agents, Nagi flinched when a dent appeared in the plaster, and tried to rein in his temper. He had to calm down, before his talent slipped its control, and started destroying things. Hopefully Ran hadnít noticed the slip.

"NagiÖ" Damn, no such luck. The boy raised an expressionless face to his master, but instead of meeting a look of reproach or exasperation, Ran seemed to be contemplating something far away.

"Crawfordís a precog. That means we listen to what he says, since neither of us can predict the future. And if his decisions have any bearing on the mission, we obey. You know who will pay, if we fail."

Careful not to let his hate for the Takatoris unleash his talent again, Nagi offered an apologetic smile. "Iím sorry. Itís justÖ what are you supposed to do?"

"Iíll manage, somehow. We both will. Didnít you ever want to see a city? Nowís your chance." Ran grew silent for a moment, then spoke again, in a halting voice. "Nagi, I donít want you to interfere with Kudoh and me. Let the manÖ do whatever he wants. IÖ donít mind."

Quite sure that the faint sunlight was affecting his friendís reasoning ability, Nagi used his powers to jerk the curtains closed. "What? You want me to let that pervert paw at you? I wonít let that happen, Ran, I wonít."

"Yes you will." The halting tone was gone; this time there was steel in the kageís voice. "Itís my decision, Nagi, and you will support it. Donít do anything to scare the man away, or I will be upset."

"Why, Ran? Did Crawford tell you something, orÖ" Or maybe the redhead was eager for someoneís presence, other than his. Nagi felt his face falling into its familiar mask, indifferent and bored, in order to hide his hurt.

Which Ran immediately noticed, due to his enhanced vision. "NagiÖ" A pale hand lifted and stroked the boyís face, startling him with the very rare gesture of affection. "Iíve decided this on my own. I wantÖ one less regret. I want to give something away, before it is taken from me. Can you understand?"

Having stolen a look at the black bound book one day, Nagi could very well imagine what his friend was referring to. Ran didnít want to end up like Aidan. "I- yes, I do." The gods help the Takatoris, if he ever found out one of them had abused the man so. Heíd bring the damn castle down about their heads. "I donít like the bastard, but I wonít interfere. Though if he hurts you, Iím breaking every bone in his body."

The protective claim wrung a slight smile from Ranís lips. The kage just nodded his head and hníed, then pulled the curtains back open. Nagi knew he must long to go down to the garden; the few times Ran was allowed out on the castle grounds, he went to the herb garden by the kitchen, and when he came back from his assignments, it was usually with a couple of blooms or clippings, that would spend a day or three scenting the tower rooms with their fragrance.

"Iím going downstairs to soak, think Iíll grab a bite to eat afterwards. This way, you can be alone with the bastard-"

"Yohji, his name is Yohji."

"As I was saying, you can be alone with the bastard." Nagi wasnít budging on his opinion of the man. He exchanged a glare with the older bound for a moment, and then stomped over to his bag, to grab some soap.

"Iíll ask the kitchen if maybe they could make you some shepherdís pie." Quietly making that peace offering, Ran gathered up his cloak and left the room. Smiling at the closed door, Nagi limped his way out into the hall. Ran knew that the dish was his favorite, and since it took a while to cook, it wasnít something that he often got at home. Hopefully, by the time he was done with his soak, the dish would be ready.

On his way down the steps, he crossed paths with a grimfaced Jei, who eyed him warily. Not sure what the gaki-bound was up to, Nagi regarded him warily in return, and continued on his way. A brief pause at the door leading to the common room revealed that Yohji had already found out that Ran was downstairs, and the blond was sitting very close to the kage, whispering something in his ear. Unable to resist, Nagi let loose a tendril of his power, and ducked aside when Yohji let out a yelp, rubbing the back of his sore head and looking about for the cause of his injury.

Entering the bathing room, the elemental-bound found his other traveling companion soaking in the hot spring. "Good morning, Naoe."

"Hn." Nagi quickly stripped off his clothes and scrubbed his skin. When he was clean and rinsed off, he slid into the tub, opposite the precog. Crawford looked more relaxed than heíd ever seen the man; his glasses were gone, and his black hair slicked back, for once no unruly tendrils falling in his face.

"I see you learned your conversational skills from your master. Youíre much too young to be so cold; life will freeze your heart soon enough."

He ignored that jibe, and let out a quiet moan as the heat soaked into his sore muscles, easing the aches and pains that had plagued him the past couple of days.

The precog then continued on in a much quieter voice, which would ensure that no one could possibly overhear them. "I also see that your healing ability hasnít completely matured yet. Give it a couple more years, and you will most likely never suffer any more pain from spending a day on horseback. It only gets stronger, the older you become, until you start to fade. Thatís one of the signs that a bound is approaching Ďold ageí."

"What do you want, Crawford?" The man smiled bemusedly at Nagi, and nodded his head for a moment.

"Jei always said I donít know a thing about small talk; thankfully now we can move past that. I want to discuss a few things with you that are of paramount importance to the mission."

Nagi settled down further in the hot water, until it brushed against the bottom of his chin. "Such as?"

Blue eyes stared at him for a moment, then became unfocused. "I donít want to see any more behavior like last night. You are to leave Yohji Kudoh alone; it will be better for everyone involved if you do, especially Ran."

"Explain." That came out harsher than the boy had intended, but he couldnít help but be protective about the kage.

"Heíll need Kudoh, thatís all I know." The man appeared ready to say something else, then changed his mind. The blue orbs stared at Nagi intently, stern and unblinking. "Just how much do you care about the kage?"

Not saying a word, Nagi only stared back.

"Ah, a cautious one. I imagine you are used to hiding your feelings for the man. Heíd kill for you, you know, if that werenít evident after the other night. And die as well, if I am any judge of character. Iím willing to bet the same is true for you."

It wasnít good, that Essetís agent had picked up on those facts. Maybe Ran should have killed them the other night. "Why do you care?"

Crawford sighed, breaking eye contact. "Because Iím sure you are well aware of what will happen to him at the end of this mission. Heíll either die, or will become like the last known kage, the throneís very own assassin. But I imagineÖ that you donít wish for either of those to happen. What would you say if I told you I was working towards a future where both you and your master could be free?"

"That you are insane, or a liar." He didnít know what game the precog was playing, but Nagi was ready to crush him into a bleeding ball at any moment. How dare the man try to get a rise out of him with the hope of freedom?

As if aware of his thoughts, the dark haired man waved an admonishing finger at the teenager. "That would not be wise. Kill me, and at best, the mission will fail. I am being very honest here, and risking both my and Jeiís life. Do you think that you are the only one who dreams of being free? I have spent over a hundred years with the Eldersí collar around my neck, and would be free of it. Jei as well, since he will hardly see his first century, what with the way our masters use him so harshly. But only the kage can free us."

Now it made sense; the two bounds hoped to use Ran, somehow. "I wonít let him be used." Nagi gathered his power to him, prepared to kill the other bound.

"I donít plan on using him. I need him to freely offer his help, or everything will fail. Thatís in part why I want you not to interfere with him and Kudoh."

Not expecting that answer, Nagi let his talent go dormant. "Excuse me?"

"Ah, now I have your attention." Crawford smiled at the boy, then let his eyes become unfocused once more. "I canít see very much; the kageís involvement obscures things, but I know that weíll never be free, and much worse than that will come to pass if Yohji doesnít ensnare ĎAyaí."

"Why?" Even though Nagi had all but promised his friend that he wouldnít try to scare away Yohji, the boy wanted to know why Crawford was making this request of him.

"Heíll kill or die for you, the only living person he cares about, but he wonít live for you. From the little Iíve seen, he will, for Kudoh. Possibly. And once he wants to liveÖ" The soul gaki-bound arched an eye at his companion.

Once Ran decided he had something to live for after all, there would be hope that he would break free from the Takatoris. Nagi sucked in the humid air, and gazed at Crawford for a few moments. "If this is a trap of sorts, I will kill you."

"I know, and I donít expect your complete cooperation at this point. Only time will tell if you can trust Jei and I. But remember this, youíre not the only ones enslaved, and our best chance for freedom is if we work together." Then the older bound rose to his feet, and stepped out of the tub. "Iíve soaked long enough; I suggest you stay here for another half hour or so. Iíve told ĎFarfieí to take ĎAyaí out for clothes today, and imagine our host will be only too happy to assist with that task. You are to remain here and rest; you can go out tomorrow." Done drying himself off, the precog slipped into the clothes that had been folded neatly on the bench along the roomís wall, and took his leave.

Sinking down into the water until it was just below his nose, Nagi spent the next hour deep in thought, wondering just how much he could trust the strange bounds, and trying not to place too much hope on the thought of him and Ran being free.

*******

Schuldig sneaked into a light grey stone house, quiet as a shadow. No more than two meters inside a brightly lit kitchen, filled with hanging herbs, a feminine voice rang out. "I know you are here, you ungrateful brat, and I have tea in the sitting room." He let out a grin as he pushed open a door; try as he could, Schuldig had never been able to sneak up on his mother. Of course, her precognition was largely to blame.

"Hello, Mom." He kissed the petite woman on the cheek, and accepted the cup of tea she held out to him. Settling on the overstuffed couch that took up half of the small room, he patted the cushion beside him, gesturing for the woman to sit down.

"Hm, well, youíve been eating at least, from the looks of it. But, oh, when will you get your hair cut?" Cassandra fussed with the long, reddish orange locks for a moment.

"Donít you like my hair?" Schuldig asked, a hurt expression on his face.

"It looks so unkempt. Ach, never mind, even if it was short, it would still be sticking up all over the place." Cassandra tucked back a few of the unruly locks, then gathered up her own cup of tea. "Well, I see you got my message. Though I imagine it wasnít the desire to warm the heart of your poor, long-suffering mother that drove you here, but your curiosity."

Unable to resist, Schuldig leaned in and kissed his mother on the cheek. Thankfully, she had dropped her disguise when he had entered the room, so it wasnít as much of a chore as kissing an old, wrinkly one. The fun thing about Cassandra was that she was so obvious in her attempts to make one feel guilty, that one didnít mind being berated at all. You tended to feel amused and determined to redeem yourself in the womanís eyes. Right now wasnít an exception.

"MomÖ Iím sorry, but Iíve been busy lately. Thereís all those new people coming into the city, bearing such nice wedding gifts, that I can hardly resist temptation. I thought it would be best to stay away as much as I could, so as not to bring trouble to your door. I didnít realize it was time, thoughÖ" The young man finished his tea in one gulp, and set the delicate cup back down, before he broke it with his fidgeting.

"A poor excuse." Cassandra sniffed, but patted her sonís hand, and offered him a smile to take the bite out of the words. "You were out having too much fun, and didnít realize youíd been gone so long. As if a precog has to worry about Guards or hoodlums breaking down her door, and being caught unaware." She tsked, as Schuldig treated her to a guilty grin. "Iím sorry, trouble, but it is that time. On Monday, the king will announce the plans for his wedding, and on the next full moon from now, the first battle will be fought. _Heís_ here, bringing together all that is needed, and will soon search you out. You have your part to play, after all."

A part that he had been born for. Schuldig felt the urge to smash something for a moment, but it soon passed as his mother gazed at him with sorrow and concern. Whatever had spurred her to play her own part in this mess, he knew that Cassandra only wanted the best for him. "The kageÖ heís here already. With _him_, I take it. I spoke to Yohji today, heís how I found out. Does he really have to tie himself to the man? Itís so dangerous, and heíll find out the truth soon, if he becomes entangled in everything."

"I know; heís as dear to me as you, but I have no choice but to offer you both to Fate." Cassandra stroked her sonís cheek, as she had when he was a boy. "If I thought, for a single instant, that cutting the two of you free from the threads that bind us all to this destiny would grant you a happy and peaceful life, I would do it in an instant. But it would only buy you a couple years of peace. Iím so sorry." A tear slid down her face.

Schuldig returned the gesture, trying to cheer his mother up. He hated to see her cry, and if Yohji found out about it, heíd catch hell from his best friend. "Shh, I know itís not your decision. I just thought Iíd have more time. Are you perfectly sure? I thought no one could accurately predict any future that a kage is a part of; maybe you got something wrong."

The caress turned into a slap to the back of his head. "Wretch! Doubting my power." Cassandra pouted for a moment, then sighed and tried tucking more reddish strands behind Schuldigís ears. "Normally, one couldnít. But so much rests on this oneís fate, that when one steps back enough to survey the Ďbig pictureí, one can see the voids he leaves in the future. If one is clever enough - and considering that you have gotten that particular trait from me, Iíd say Iím more than clever enough - one can interpret theÖ shadows."

"Poor Yohji. I really hope this ĎAyaí makes him happy."

"Aya? His name is Aya? Show him to me." Schuldig used his talent to show his mother the image he took from Yohjiís mind. Well, at least the clothed version; it wouldnít do to have the woman smack him and call him a pervert if he showed a scene from the bathing room, when she was already a bit miffed about him being away for so long. No matter how tiny Cassandra was, she could still instill a good bit of fear in him. "Ah, I was right. Moonlight and blood and amethysts. Nice to know that I could see that much." His mother sounded very proud of herself at the moment.

Schuldig smiled at the woman, and then stifled a yawn. "Sorry, it was a long night, and I had thought to go straight home to bed after having breakfast at the Koneko."

"Yes, I imagine you were very busy. And will be for some time to come. Make sure you get some rest, and that you eat enough." Cassandra rose to her feet, and tugged her son onto his. "Iíve made up a bed for you upstairs. You might remember the room from your long ago childhood."

Letting himself be tugged along, the young man followed the longhaired woman up the steps. "You know, Iíve been meaning to ask this for ages, Mom. Why didnít you ever complain about my choice of professions? Most mothers would be horrified that their son took up stealing, but never once did you object. Have you seen something?"

The precog was quiet, until they reached Schuldigís old room. "When I was pregnant with you, I swore that I would raise you up as your destiny befitted, that you would learn to be a great warrior and tactician. Then I bore you, and all those grand plans left my head. You were a babe, not a soldier, or a weapon, no matter the reasons behind your conception. I found myself unable to do more than keep you safe, train you how to use your talent, and hope that you would be happy. Stealing makes you happy, so I donít complain, and I know the trade has honed your talent, as you rely so heavily on it. Which is good. Iíve had a vision or two, where your skills will be needed, and am content with your decision." She smoothed out the long grey skirt that she wore, and tugged on the collar of her pink shirt. An impish smile crossed Cassandraís face, and Schuldig felt a pain in his heart, that this lovely and young seeming woman was his mother. It was a shame that she hid her beauty behind such an unattractive mask, but she had her reasons.

<What is it, that has you smiling so?>

"Ah, I was thinking of the other reason I never complained of your choice of trade. It will gall _him_ so, when he finds out!" The both of them laughed at that statement.

"I take it I will be meeting him soon?"

"Tonight." Cassandra shoved her son over to the bed. "Now get some rest. I will have a customer shortly, and I need to get to work, now that Iíve finally seen the kage. Sleep, trouble, and dream of all the mischief you can inflict upon the world."

*******

Jei finished sharpening his sword, and coated the weapon with some oil. He stood to his feet and belted the sword around his waist, and adjusted the position of his other weapons. He was as ready as he would ever be; time to escort the kage around the capital. At least Crawford had promised him that the elemental-bound would remain here at the inn today, and that heíd talk to the boy, and make him understand that he couldnít keep everyone an armís length from his master. But just in case, Jei made sure his throwing knives were easily accessible. There had been no shaking of the innís foundation, so either Nagi had taken the news rather well, or his partner had chickened out.

Heading down to the dining room, Jei felt a rumble in his stomach that had nothing to do with the huge breakfast heíd consumed earlier. He needed to go hunting tonight. Crawford had checked the future, and informed him that as long as he stuck to the docks and other unsavory parts of the city, he should escape any attention. Normally, Jei would try to control his need for human flesh and blood for as long as possible, but this mission would drag out for too long, and he had used his power the other night, during the kageís attack. Now the hunger would not rest until it was satisfied. Ah well, should be pretty easy to find a few lowlifes to take a bite or two out of and suck dry, in a city as large as this.

Entering the large common room, a quick sweep revealed Ran sitting by the fire, Kudoh at his side. Jei crossed over and sat beside the two young men. "Morning. Though itís almost noon now. You finished with your meal, Aya?"

Violet eyes flicked over at him, and the pale man nodded his head. "Good. I have orders to take you shopping today." At the frown on Ranís face, Jei turned to Yohji. "You know how scholars can be. He forgot to pack anything decent, and used up all the space in his bags to bring books. I need to make sure he is properly clothed. You have any suggestions on where to go?"

Yohji smiled, the expression not quite reaching the green eyes, and extended a hand to pick at the worn, grey material covering Ranís arm. "I was wondering why he was dressed in little more than rags." For a moment, those green eyes met an amber one, and Jei smelled a hint of hostility and testosterone. He felt torn between ripping the blond into shreds and kissing the man breathless, which wasnít a normal reaction for him. At least, not the second one. Promising his hunger that it would be fed later on, Jei forced an equally false smile to his lips as well.

"I hope to rectify that situation. Where should I take him?"

"I have a friend who is quite a good seamstress and weaver. I can take the two of you there, if you donít mind." The last was directed at Ran, who had sat very quietly during the exchange. He nodded his head, and Yohji smiled in earnest this time, and brushed back a strand of crimson off of the kageís cheek. A hint of blush appeared on the white skin, and Jei smelled a strong wave of lust radiating off of the innkeeper, and a much fainter echo from the kage. Gods, he was grateful that the kid wasnít here to see this. Though his partner should be happy to find out that things were proceeding rather nicely on this front.

"My cloak." Ran excused himself and made for the stairs, while Jei started picking at the leftover fruit on the manís plate. He always did love tart apples. Feeling a certain pair of eyes on him, he turned to face Yohji.

"Yes?"

The man was silent for a moment, and seemed oblivious to the snarl that had accompanied that question. "What is your relationship with Aya? His protector, or his captor? Iíve seen his back, I know that someoneís hurt him in the past. If I find him being abused at all during his stay, I will make sure that whoever is responsible will never be able to touch him again. Am I clear?"

Well, Crawford would be very, very pleased. Yohji was definitely hooked on the kage. "Iím here to protect him. Donít know about his back, that had to have happened before I met him, but no one will be abusing him, not while Brad and I are around." The two of them stared at each other, until Ran returned, once more wearing his black cloak. The redhead seemed to pick up on the tension between him and Yohji, as the room darkened the slightest bit, especially around where the kage stood. "Well, letís get going."

Oh yes, Crawford was going to pay for this. Maybe Jei would see if there were any black haired, blue-eyed men about the docks tonight, and work out his frustrations by chewing on them.

*******

Yohji stepped out onto the street in front of the Koneko, and turned to look at Aya. The man hesitantly followed him, once more covered head to toe in black. With such pale skin, the redhead must burn like hell when out in the sun. "Here, traffic is usually pretty bad in this neighborhood." He reached out, feeling for a slender arm, and tugged it out from the cloak. Then he hooked it through his arm, and pulled Aya close. "We have to be careful that we donít get separated." And it was a great excuse to have the redhead close. Jei seemed to realize this, as the scarred man snorted, but didnít say anything.

Aya tensed at the closeness, but as Yohji had discovered this morning, the man would relax after a few seconds in his presence. Just as he was right now. Yohji used the opportunity to pull Aya even closer.

It had been a shock, when Aya had entered the common room this morning, that the redhead hadnít avoided him, but actually sat down at the same table heíd been at. Yohji hadnít been able to resist sitting next to the man, and had spent the past half hour or so trying to get the man to smile, chiding him to eat, and asking questions left and right. Aya had remained mostly quiet, but the mere fact that he hadnít run away when Yohji touched him or brushed back his hair gave the blond hope that he was getting to the man.

"What about our horses?"

"Hm? What was that? Oh, no, we donít need horses today; Cassís house is just a few blocks away, and weíre near the market, so itís not very practical to ride around, too much traffic."

"Oh."

Jei chuckled, walking forward until he flanked Ayaís other side. "Youíll have to forgive the bookworm, this is his first time in the capital. I donít think he is used to a crowd of anything other than books." Yohji swore he heard a muttered curse or two come from the cloaked figure; it sounded like Ďshi-neí. Now there was an old curse, not heard very much any more. Somehow, Jei must have picked up on it too; the man must have very good hearing, even better than Yohjiís, for he chuckled again. At least until they passed a butcherís shop, and the scarred manís attention was riveted on the blood flowing down the street.

"This way." Aya had to reach out and pull on Jeiís sleeve, to get him to make the turn down a narrow alley. "Cass lives here; sheís an old friend of my mother, and her son is my best friend as well. She makes her living by weaving and dyeing cloth, and making outfits for people. Does a bit of herbery on the side. Youíll most likely see her in the garden, if you stick around for a couple of weeks. Hereís her house."

Yohji pushed open the door, dragging Aya along with him. "Cass, Iíve got a customer for you."

"Hush, you rascal, there is no need for such yelling. My ears work just fine." Cassandra appeared from a back room, dressed in grey and pink, thankfully looking wrinkled and old. She crossed the front room, filled with bolts of fabric in various textures and shades, and stood in front of Yohji, presenting her cheek. Yohji bent down to kiss her, and gestured to Aya. "He needs a new wardrobe." Behind him, he heard Jei swear under his breath. Cass looked over his shoulder at the scarred man, smiled, and then waved at him.

"Hello, Iím Cassandra. A new wardrobe, hmm? Well, sir, we need to get you out of this raggedy scrap, to see what would best suit you. As for you, sir Jei, we will be a while; there is a weapons shop four doors down, on the left. Mayhap Yohji and your friend can meet you there, when I am done with them."

Jei didnít need to hear that twice, and only paused on his way to the door to hand over a purse heavy with coin to Yohji. "Make sure heís clothed decently, then meet me at the shop." Cassandra waved goodbye, appearing amused about something.

"Cass, this is Aya. Aya, this is Cass. Uhm, you have to take off the cloak now, you know." The redhead reluctantly unclasped the garment, and Yohji whisked it off of his shoulders. "Well, Cass, think you can find something to make him suitable to be out in public?" That earned him a glare from a pair of violet eyes.

The tiny woman pulled out a length of string, and soon had Aya standing with his arms out, measuring various parts of his body. "Hmm, I have a few things ready at this moment, nothing fancy mind you. I take it you will need an outfit for the wedding? Rumor has it there will be a masked ball afterwards, as many expect the king to be wed on midsummerís night. You will need something nice, for that." Aya nodded his head. "NowÖ what colors?"

"Black." That was the first thing Aya had spoken the whole entire time, and somehow Yohji wasnít surprised. He glanced at Cassandra from behind Aya, shaking his head and mouthing Ďcolour, pleaseí.

"You will have to make do with what I have at the moment, which is not all black, but I can make you some outfits in that shade, if you wish. I think, for the weddingÖ I have some lovely black silk and velvet that would work. Wait here." With that, Cassandra vanished into a back room.

Left alone with Aya, Yohji picked up a piece of violet linen, and draped it over the redheadís shoulder. "Now this would look good on you, and bring out the color of your eyes. Not that they arenít beautiful enough as they are." Aya just hníed and looked up at him. Unable to resist, Yohji cupped the manís cheek, and bent his head for a kiss.

Aya just stood there, trembling slightly, but not trying to pull away. Heartened by that reaction, Yohji stepped closer, dropping the cloth to the floor, threading his other hand through the crimson hair. He slid his tongue along Ayaís lips, and when the man opened his mouth, thrust it inside, savoring the delicious taste. After a minute, Aya began to move his tongue as well, a few tentative forays into Yohjiís mouth. Groaning in response, the blond tugged the smaller man into his arms, pressing him close. Aya tasted so damn good, and the hunger that had plagued him all day flared up inside of him.

Everything came down to drinking in as much of Aya as he could, making this moment last forever. Yohji slid a hand lightly down the pale manís back, mindful of the scars, and rested it on the swell of Ayaís ass. His other hand remained buried in the red hair, tilting the manís head to the side, so he could trail kisses down Ayaís neck. When a pair of hands rested on his shoulders, then slowly slid behind his neck, Yohji let out a moan and rocked his hips forward.

"I have some clothes for Aya to try on, if the two of you are done." Aya jerked away, as Yohji moaned again and opened his eyes. Cassandra stood in the doorway, a bundle of clothes in her arms. He loved the woman almost as much as his mother, but Yohji could more than happily strangle her at the moment. Just when he was getting somewhere with AyaÖ

"Here, try these on. There is a room in the back; look for the yellow curtain." The woman shoved the garments into Ayaís arms, then shooed him on his way. As soon as he left the room, she turned around to look at Yohji, a frown on her face. "Why are you fooling around with him?"

Taken aback by this statement, from the very person who had told him he was to chase after Aya in the first place, Yohji floundered for a moment. "ButÖ heÖ you saidÖ Wait, you told me to make Aya mine."

"I said to make your true love yours. Why do you assume it is this Aya?"

Now he was thoroughly confused. "He- you said moonlight, blood and amethysts. That fits Aya perfectly. Who else is as damn pale as him, and that hairÖ"

"He is not the only pale one who came into the shop today. And blood could mean many things." Cassandra stared at Yohji, her face becoming a blank mask.

"ButÖ" No way. No way in hell could she mean that he was supposed to fall in love with Farfie. No way in hell. Yohji was sticking with his first choice, Aya, and nothing on this earth would get him to change his mind. "But what about the ame-" he broke off, after catching the twitching of Cassís lips. Schu had clearly gotten his mischievous nature from his mother. "You wicked old witch. I really should strangle you, beautiful, for playing such a dirty trick on me."

Having been found out, Cassandra laughed for a few brief seconds. "Iím sorry, Yotan, but I couldnít resist. I am glad to see that you are taking my words to heart, and this Aya as well. Such a good boy." She reached up and patted him on the cheek. "Now you can stop acting like a whore."

Letting out a growl, Yohji was prevented from saying anything else by Ayaís return, dressed in one of the outfits that Cass had given him. The redhead was wearing a pair of dark, gunmetal grey breeches that fit him much better than what appeared to be the hand-me downs heíd been wearing before, and he wore a silvery grey shirt. Over the top was a black, hooded jerkin. Aya tugged on the long sleeves; for a moment, Yohji caught sight of a scarred wrist before the material covered it. Aya stopped in front of Cassandra and him. "They fit."

"Hmph." Cassandra walked around the slender man, fingers reaching out to smooth a wrinkle here, and straighten a seam there. "A bit loose; Yotan, you will have to fatten him up some. Heís as skinny as you are, if not more so. If they all fit, the clothes are yours, and I will make a few more outfits as well."

Fingers rubbing against the soft cotton of his top, Aya hung his head. "Canít they be black?"

"Iím sorry, but thatís all I have ready at the moment. Besides, this colour looks nice on you; canít have you appearing as a storm crow all the time." The precog clapped her hands together, and belying her apparent age, whirled about and ran out of the room. She returned a few seconds later, a long piece of black fabric in her arms. "But I have this; try it on. It should be light enough for spring and summer."

The material turned out to be a long, black cloak, made from fine wool and lined with crimson satin that matched Ayaís hair. It fit the man perfectly, and looked much better than the rag he had been wearing. All it was missing was a cloak brooch. "Wait." Cassandra walked over to a shelf, and returned with something silver. It was a finely crafted brooch, composed of two cats forming a circle with their long, slim bodies. "This will do just fine."

Yohji stared at the redhead for a moment, covered in black, except for the bit of crimson from the hoodís lining. There was an indescribable look on Ayaís face, as if he was carefully guarding his emotions. "You look great." He reached back to brush back the long bangs covering the pale face, and tugged a long eartail out from underneath the cloak. Aya lifted his eyes to gaze up at him for a minute, then resumed staring at his black boots. "Oh, forgot about those, weíll take you to a cobbler as well. Thereís a good one, down the street. We can stop and pick up Farfie on the way." Aya nodded his head, then pulled the hood up.

Turning to face Cassandra, Yohji held out the coin pouch. "Here, take out however much the clothes cost." He tried not to start when she opened the bag, and pulled out several gold coins. Damn, the whole bag was filled with them; Yohji had assumed it would be silver. Cassandra kept three.

"This will pay for everything, even the costume. Iíll have some more clothes ready in a weekís time, and will drop them off at the Koneko." She quickly took the pile of clothes that Aya had tried on, and after picking out the rags he had worn earlier, wrapped them in burlap and handed the bundle over to Yohji. "Now take care, the both of you."

Yohji bent down to kiss her, then grabbed one of Ayaís hands before leaving. The pale man didnít say anything, just let himself be led from the shop. When they were back on the street, Yohji tugged him close, pushing back the hood far enough that he could once more kiss Aya. This time it was little more than a quick press of lips, but he wasnít able to resist the impulse. "You really do look nice."

Aya merely returned his hood to its former position, and started walking in the direction of the weapon store. Yohji jumped after him, and didnít have much trouble reclaiming the hand heíd been holding before. Gazing at the pale skin, he resolved to stop by a glove makerís as well, seeing the faint tinge of red that was spreading across the white hand. It wasnít until they passed a bakery that Yohji noticed that his hunger from earlier had abated.

*******

Omi peeked around a corner, and ducked back when he saw a Guard, dressed in the dark blue and white uniform of the corps, walk past. He counted for ten seconds, and then dashed down the hall. He repeated the process for each corner, anxious to avoid running into anyone. After ten minutes, the young man managed to reach an unguarded side door that led from the castle to a small, private garden. Another couple of minutes after that, Omi put his impressive climbing skills to use, and scaled the wall encasing the garden.

Once free, the young blond clutched the pendant that hung around his neck, and then straightened out the plain outfit he was wearing. He set out down the road, careful to cling to the shadows, and made his way off the palace grounds, into the crowded city.

*******

Ran glanced down at the naked sword in his hands, then sheathed the katana and placed it beside his bed. The weapon was finely crafted, but he much preferred his own. Darkness gathered around his hand, and in the next instant, formed into a black katana. It was an extension of his arm, slicing through the air with ease. But unfortunately, it wasnít a weapon that he could walk about the town with, unless he wanted to be beheaded. Nagi watched him quietly, from his bed.

Jei had insisted that Ran not leave the weapon shop that day without purchasing some protection. So he was now the dubious owner of a sword and dagger. Well, at least he had something to carry around on him, and he now had something to practice with. Jei seemed rather eager to spar with him, the manís one eye glowing when he had mentioned them practicing together. Though to tell the truth, the boundís eye had been glowing the whole entire time he was in the shop, surrounded by sharpened metal. Jei appeared to have an unhealthy fascination with steel.

"Ran, come on, Iím starving."

"Hn." Checking to make sure his new dagger was still in his belt, being rather unaccustomed to finding himself in possession of so many new things, Ran pulled the hood on his jerkin up, and turned for the door. Nagi raced on ahead of him, no doubt eager for his dinner. Ran paused to knock on Crawford and Jeiís door.

"Come in, Aya."

Every time he heard that name, there was a tug on Ranís heart. At least heíd picked an alias that would snag his attention each time it was uttered. He opened the door, and walked into the candlelit room.

Crawford was sitting on his bed, dressed in a white shirt and black pants, and Jei was nowhere to be seen, though his bed was covered with the weapons heíd bought earlier that day. "We are heading down for dinner."

"Thank you, but Iíll pass on the offer. I have someone I need to meet with later, so Iíll grab a bite to eat while Iím out. Farfie wonít be joining you either; heís seeing to his own dinner tonight." The last was said in a very dry tone of voice.

Unsure if he should be worried about a flesh gaki-bound on the prowl in the city, Ran shrugged his shoulders and turned for the door. It was no concern of his, and he had no doubt that Crawford would have put a stop to the matter if it would cause them any trouble.

"Have fun with the innkeeper tonight; you made a wise choice."

Spinning back around, Ran glared at the older bound. "What was that?"

The dark haired man smiled at him as he pushed his glasses up his nose. "Iíve seen the future; you are going to take the man as a lover. Just informing you that you have nothing to fear from Jei and I; we wonít breathe a word to anyone. Especially not the Takatoris, if thatís what you are afraid of. Now go eat, you donít want to keep the man waiting."

Once more unsure of what he was supposed to say, Ran just nodded and left the room. While one of his concerns was put to rest, what with not having to fear the two other bounds reporting to his master what he had been up to during this mission, it still disturbed him, the interest that Crawford was taking in the matter. The man came across as someone who didnít care about anything that didnít benefit him, so Ran was left wondering what the Esset agent got out of him carrying on an affair with Yohji. If he wasnít so resolved over the matter, it might give him second thoughts.

As soon as he stepped into the crowded common room, such concerns fled his thoughts. Yohji had been waiting by the door for him, and as soon as he walked through it, the blond swept him into a hug. At first occupied with forcing his body not to lash out at the man, and in preventing a shadow blade from forming in his hand, Ran then found himself wondering if Yohji was ever going to let him breathe again. Which, judging from the kiss he was receiving, was highly doubtful.

Just when his knees started to feel weak, Yohji broke off the kiss with a loud yelp. He rubbed the back of his head and looked around the two of them. While there were several people cheering Yohji on, and a few pouting as well, no one was in armís reach of the innkeeper, besides Ran. "Dammit, the place is becoming infested with gremlins or something; thatís the second time today that Iíve been hit." Ran peeked over the blondís shoulder to glare at Nagi, but considering the way he was gasping air into his lungs, he wasnít about to scold the boy any further for his interference.

"Come on, letís eat." Yohji dragged him over to the table where Nagi was sitting, and after a sour glance at the youth, sat on the bench. He tugged on Ranís hand until he sat beside the man, and a long arm snaked around his waist. At first uncomfortable with the contact, Ran made himself relax, and reached for the bottle of wine. "Here, let me." Yohji picked up the bottle, and poured the both of them something to drink. He also let out another yelp, this time as Nagi held out his glass as well. "Listen, you little demon, you kick me one more time, and Iíll break your foot." Unhappy with the threat to his friend, Ran elbowed Yohji in the ribs.

"You wonít."

Green eyes blinked at him in surprise and hurt. Yohji then turned and begrudgingly apologized to Nagi, who looked too pleased for words. With a sigh, Ran lifted his glass and had a hefty swallow of the wine. When he set it back down, he was startled when Yohji leaned forward and licked at the corner of his mouth. "You missed a drop. Do I need to apologize to you as well?" Stunned, Ran just sat there as the handsome man smiled and pulled him onto his lap, then resumed the kiss from earlier. Not quite sure if it was normal to be making out with someone in an innís dining room, the kage soon stopped worrying about anything but the lack of oxygen. After another minute or two, he even forgot about that. So far, the mission was proceeding perfectly.

"Yohji, how can the customers eat, when your tongue is shoved down their throats?" Ran opened his eyes to find a middle-aged woman, with grey streaks in rich, brown hair, to be smiling at him. She was also holding several plates on her arms and in her hands, and the girl with big brown eyes and black hair who had served them last night, was behind the woman, with even more food. "Iím Jo, thought Iíd come out and meet the people eating us out of house and home." He squirmed off of Yohjiís lap.

"Jo, this is Aya and Naoe. Itís the little demon over there who acts as if he hasnít eaten in ten years."

Amazed at the amount of food being placed down on the table, Ran looked over at Nagi. Who wasted no time in kicking Yohji again. "Itís not all for me, I ordered for Farfie as well."

Ignoring Yohjiís mutterings on how he wanted to strangle the boy, Ran shook his head. "Farfie and Brad wonít be joining us tonight."

Face calm, Nagi nodded his head. "Weíll just have to eat it all, then."

Feeling a pair of eyes on him, Ran turned to look at Jo, who was scrutinizing him. Her hazel eyes were filled with suspicion and curiosity. "Neither of you look as if youíve been eating very regularly. Where are you from again?"

For some reason, Yohji grasped Ranís hands and held them out of sight, in his lap. "They came in from the western border, Jo. You know what a hard journey that is, no wonder they are both a bit skinny. Shouldnít you be in the kitchen?" The woman stared at her employer for a moment, then nodded her head.

"Yes I should. Someone has to make sure this place runs properly. Nice to meet you, Aya, Naoe. Let me know if there is anything else you boys want, Iíll gladly make it for you. Itís a good thing you found the Koneko; youíll be safe and well fed here. Yohji, weíll talk later." The blond didnít look too happy about that, and the two of them watched Jo cross the room to where a large man, Mickey, if Ran remembered correctly, was talking to a few guests. The two employees exchanged a few words, and glanced over in his direction. Then Jo returned to the kitchen.

"Whatís going on, Yohji?"

Yohji didnít answer him, just let go of his hands and started to serve some food onto their two plates. It wasnít long before he let out another yelp. Nagi glared at his nemesis, and growled out, "donít ignore him." Ran was wondering if he had to clearly spell out how the boy was to interact with Yohji; though technically not interfering with Yohjiís seduction attempts, Nagi was being a touch on the abusive side.

"Damn little brat." Yohji rubbed his sore shin, and glanced at Ran. "I told you the Koneko has a history of taking in people in need, or strays as we like to call them. Well, all the staff were strays at some time, and Iím willing to bet that Jo suspects that you and the demon over there are too. She wonít be happy with me, uhm, being interested in you, for fear that Iíll take advantage of the situation." Ran felt a hand stroke along his cheek. "Iím not, you know. Least I hope Iím not taking advantage of you."

Reluctantly ducking his head, not wanting to end the gentle caress, Ran mumbled that Yohji wasnít and focused his attention on his dinner. If anything, he was the one taking advantage of someone here, using Yohjiís lust to give him memories to keep him whole during the upcoming centuries. But the little taste of pleasure he had, what with that kiss in the shop, and all the gentle caresses, had Ran craving more, whatever the cost.

Nagi started eating as well, and seemed willing to consume most of the food before him. Almost grateful that he was a kage, and not a flesh gaki- or elemental-bound, Ran shook his head in wonder, then stilled when he felt the arm about his waist again. Deciding to do something, instead of just sitting there passively, he leaned against Yohji, and was rewarded with a kiss to his temple.

So far, Yohji showed every impression of trying to get him into the blondís bed. After realizing that he had no idea how to flirt or try to seduce another person, Ran was content with following the manís lead. It seemed that the only encouragement he had to give Yohji was not to draw away from him, and the innkeeper took it from there. Feeling bold, Ran gave in to his curiosity, and ran his fingers over the gold bracelet that rested on his hip. He could feel the magic in the object, an almost pleasant tingle on his fingertips, and realized that what appeared to be a solid wrist guard was actually made of thousands of thin strands. "What is this?"

"Hm, what did you say, cat?" Taken back at the name, Ran blinked a few times, before pointing out the bracelet. "Oh, that. Itís the only thing I have of my fatherís." There was a flicker of pain on Yohjiís face, which he was quick to suppress. "Never met the man. He left as soon as he found out my mom was pregnant." Yohji took a deep breath, and after a moment, smiled at Ran. "Remind me when we are alone, and Iíll show you what it can do. Not all of us have to carry around daggers or swords." Then the blond leaned in close, and nuzzled a pale ear. Ran shivered in pleasure. "But youíll have to remind me, since this old thing will be the last thing on my mind, when I finally get you alone." A tongue took to tracing the outline of his ear, and the kage let out a trembling breath as a mouth fastened on the sensitive skin just below it.

"Maa, Yohji, didnít anyone ever teach you that itís bad manners to molest someone at the dinner table?"

Letting out a small moan as Yohji pulled away, Ran looked at the young man who had interrupted them. At first glance, he appeared to be a little older and taller than Nagi, with dark blond hair and blue-ish grey eyes. Then he felt a familiar tingle once again, and recognized that the boy had a glamour cast over him, centering around the pendant that was hanging at his neck. The image shattered before his eyes, to be replaced by a boy with sky blue eyes, and lighter gold hair. Ranís kage nature could see through any illusion, just as he had today in Cassandraís shop, spying the young bound hidden behind the glamour of an old woman. Then something stirred in the kageís memory. Ran felt his body tense, as he recognized the teenager.

*******

Yohji jerked away from Aya, and glared at the smiling teenager who stood at his side. "Omi, you damn brat, what would you know about the matter?" Why the hell was everyone butting in tonight? Usually he could have a lover half stripped and begging down here, and all anyone did was yell at him to take the action upstairs. First there was Jo, who he really, really didnít want to talk to later, and now Omi. "Itís nice to see you, now go away."

"Really, Yohji. I go through all the trouble to visit you, and this is the greeting I get?" Hearing the tremble in the high voice, Yohji sighed and reached out a hand, mussing the golden brown hair.

"Quit it, brat, I know better than to fall for that routine. Omi, Iíd like you to meet Aya and Naoe. Now behave, or Iíll let Ken know where you are." That threat earned him a stuck out tongue, but the boy walked around the table, and settled next to Naoe, rather eagerly in Yohjiís opinion. Hmm, that gave him an idea... "Aya and Naoe, meet Omi. A word of warning; donít let him sucker you in with those big eyes of his, the boy is a terrific actor. If his father didnít expect him to follow the family tradition, heíd be a natural on the stage." Beside him, Aya had become tense once more, and Yohji ran a hand through his hair, combing through the strands in an effort to calm the man down. Hell, each time he finally had Aya responding to his touch, someone had to ruin things for them.

Omi smiled at Aya, then shifted in his seat to look at Naoe. "You mind if I help myself to some food? I missed dinner tonight." When the little demon nodded his head, Omi grabbed a chicken leg. "Thanks, so you guys visiting here, or what?" When Aya didnít open his mouth to say anything, Naoe haltingly began to answer the older boyís question. Omi then took the opportunity to ask more, until the withdrawn Naoe found himself in a conversation that for once didnít include him snarling at Yohji to behave and leave Aya alone. Ecstatic that the pestís attention was occupied, Yohji smiled at Aya and refilled their glasses with more wine. The redhead needed a little alcohol in him to make him relax. Too many things seemed to set him off, and Yohji couldnít figure out any pattern to the manís moods.

"Now, where were we? Something along the lines of what I want to do to you when weíre alone." About to lean forward and resume where he had left off, Yohji found himself checked this time by Ani, who brought out a platter of berry tarts.

The young woman set them down on the table, and whispered in Yohjiís ear. "Just to let you know, Jo is pissed at you for some reason. Better stay out of her way." Giving the girlís butt a friendly pat, Yohji let out another sigh. Great, just what he needed. He found Aya staring at him when Ani left, and came to a decision. Gulping down his wine, and then snagging a couple of tarts before Naoe and Omi could lay waste to them, the blond shoved one in Ayaís mouth and yanked him to his feet. "What say you to us finishing this conversation somewhere in private?" He had to get out of here before Mickey or Jo came back over.

Wiping a hand across his mouth, Aya appeared apprehensive at first, but his face quickly became impassive. "What about Naoe?"

"Omi will watch out for him, donít worry about the boy. Besides, nothing bad will happen here; a good fourth of our patrons are Guards, off duty of course." There was a brief flash of something on Ayaís face for a moment, too fast for Yohji to catch, but then he nodded his head in agreement.

"Great." Heíd take the redhead to his room; he had a couple bottles of wine up there, and of course his bed as well. Not sure how fast Aya would let him proceed tonight, Yohji nonetheless was looking forward to a fun time, once he convinced the redhead he wouldnít hurt him.

Just a few feet from the steps, Yohji felt a hand clap down on his shoulder. "And where are you dragging the gentleman off to this early, Kudoh? I told you, I wanted to meet him."

Dammit, this time it was Schuldig. Yohji let out a whimper, having been so close to escaping. "Aya, let me introduce you to Schuldig, Cassandraís son. Schu, meet Aya. There, now you can go back home."

The longhaired man just laughed and smiled at his beleaguered friend. Judging from the tickling in his head, Schu had discovered how his evening had gone, and knew about his desire to get Aya somewhere private. Then the man turned to look closely at the other redhead.

Jade green eyes examined Aya from head to toe, and Yohji felt something dark and ferocious build inside of him. Schuldig smiled at Aya, a look that was half leer, and held out his hand. "Itís nice to meet you." Aya reluctantly held his hand out as well, and Schuldig grabbed it, and after pumping it a few times, held on to it. Yohji felt a rumbling sensation in his throat.

"Youíre lovely; why are you wasting your time with this oaf?" Aya blushed slightly, which in return made him glare at the bound, and he tried to jerk his hand back. Schuldig didnít let go of it, and his green eyes narrowed. Knowing that his friend was trying to read Ayaís mind, the rumbling in Yohjiís throat became stronger, until he was growling out loud. Both redheads looked at him in surprise.

Taking advantage of the situation, Yohji snatched Ayaís hand out of Schuldigís, and started up the steps. "Youíve met him, now go the hell away," he snarled out. When they reached the landing, Yohji heard a voice in his head.

<Sorry about that, didnít think you would be so possessive. Guess Mom was right, once again. Have fun.>

He had every damn intention of it. Still growling under his breath, he tossed open his door, dragged Aya into his room, and locked the door behind them. After lighting the oil lamp, he stalked over to his dresser, where a couple bottles of wine and a corkscrew resided. It was one hell of a frustrating minute before he could open one, and then he took a good swig of alcohol. Turning around to offer the wine to Aya, he found a pair of violet eyes watching him warily.

It was then that his behavior of the last few minutes sunk into Yohjiís brain. Had he actually snarled and snapped at Schuldig, merely because the man was being a flirt? And then forcibly dragged Aya up here? "Shit, Iím sorry about that; donít know what got into me back there."

Aya regarded him for another minute, and finally reached out for the wine bottle. He drank several swallows from it, then returned it to Yohji, who set it back on the dresser, and then reached for the slender man. "Gods, I want you so much." He pressed Aya against him, and kissed him with a passion, tasting the sweet wine and that essence that made him feel drunk and sated at the same time. Heíd been craving it all day, after the kiss in Cassandraís shop. At first the redhead was stiff in his arms, but Aya soon relaxed and tried kissing him back.

That brought back the hunger, which growled in satisfaction the more sure Aya became of himself and his actions. Yohji let out a groan, and started to unlace the manís jerkin, determined to taste more of him. He yanked off Ayaís jerkin and shirt, and then removed his shirt as well, and tumbled the both of them onto the bed.

Feeling the tense body beneath his, Yohji combed through the disarrayed crimson strands, and lifted his weight off of Aya. Dammit, what the hell was getting into him tonight? He was acting like an animal or something. "Aya, we donít have to do everything tonight, or more than you want. Understand? Just say the word, and Iíll let you out of here. But please, stay a little while. Iíll make you feel so good."

Aya closed his eyes for a minute, as if having an internal debate within himself. Then he reached up and dragged Yohji back down on top of him, not saying a word. Not about to pass up such an opportunity, not when something inside of him clamored desperately for the man, Yohji kissed Aya once more. As he devoured the other manís mouth, his hands took to stroking the pale skin, over and over again, until he had the smaller man arching into his touch.

Moving his mouth downwards, he sucked and licked Ayaís neck, producing a moan from the man. Smiling, Yohji brought his hand up to Ayaís chest, rubbing the hardening nipples with first his palms, and then rolling them gently between his fingers. His mouth trailing downwards, he took one of the buds into his mouth, rasping his teeth along it, softly at first, and then with increasing pressure. Aya writhed beneath him, his fingers buried in Yohjiís blond hair.

Yohji just smiled and started to rock against the man, as he moved from one nipple to the other, and let his hands slip inside of Ayaís pants. He couldnít believe how far the redhead was letting him take things tonight, and a part of his brain tried to warn him to slow down. But he was so damn hungry, and he needed the man so badly. Yohji had never felt anything like this before; Aya was so fucking addictive. Shifting up to claim the pale manís mouth, he shoved his hands down the back of Ayaís pants, cupping the manís ass with them. He then started to grind his erection against Aya, his fingers searching for the tight opening he needed to be buried in so badly.

Just when he started to push a finger into Ayaís body, the redhead tensed, then tried to shove Yohji off of him. Sensing the manís panic, Yohji rolled off of him, but clasped his hands behind Ayaís back, not willing to let him go entirely. "Sorry, gods, Aya, Iím sorry for going too fast." Violet eyes stared at him, filled with shock and a hint of remaining pleasure, as their owner panted, arms hugged tight around his chest. Daring to inch closer to him, Yohji released one of his hands and brushed back the sweaty bangs obscuring Ayaís face. "You okay?"

"Iím fine," was the reply, growled out in a low voice. Trust Aya not to reveal how shaken up he had to be at the moment. Not that Yohji also wasnít affected. He couldnít remember being that frenzied with a lover, besides the first few times heíd had sex. If Aya hadnít panicked, he would have fucked the man. A part of him still cried out for that.

Deciding he needed a drink, Yohji cautiously let go of Aya, and once he had the wine bottle in his hands, was back on the bed beside him. He guzzled the wine down, leaving a little for Aya, who finished it off in one shot. When Yohji felt that he had calmed back down, he started stroking his hands through Ayaís hair, down the manís throat and chest, and back up his arms. The blond fell onto the bed, dragging the smaller man with him. Yohji settled on his side, facing Aya, and caressed his cheek. "Iím sorry."

The apology earned him a glare, and Aya struggled to sit back up. Yohji grabbed him, keeping him on the bed. "Hey, where are you going?"

"Out."

Sighing over the manís terse manner of speaking, Yohji wrapped his arms around Aya. "Stay here with me, please? I promise, I wonít attack you again." He was afraid that if he let Aya go, the man would never let him near again. Yohji had to prove that Aya could trust him. "Just spend the night with me." Everything was moving so quickly; here he had just met the man yesterday, and he was already in love, and desperate to make Aya love him back. It was ridiculous, really, but something whispered to him he didnít have much time, that he could so easily lose Aya forever. "Please?"

The redhead sighed and closed his eyes for a moment. "Show me the bracelet."

"Hm?" Not expecting that response, it took Yohji a moment to process it. "Oh, yeah. Watch this." He sat up on the bed, and Aya quickly did as well. Touching the gold band on his left wrist, Yohji pulled off of it several fine strands. Tossing them out, the strands entangled themselves around the empty wine bottle, and sliced it to tiny pieces of glass. Gathering the wires back to him, he tossed them out again, this time snaring a full bottle of wine, and instead of cutting it to shards, hauled it to the bed. Another toss brought back the corkscrew. When he was done with them, the strands reformed back on the bracelet.

"Itís a weapon, magical of course. Donít know who the wizard was who created it, but they certainly were a clever bastard. Like I said, itís the only thing my father left me. For some reason it only works for me; I had aÖ wizard check it out, and he said itís most likely keyed to my bloodline. I can make the strands slice into anything, or not, just by thinking of it." Show and tell over with, Yohji opened the other bottle of wine, and handed it to Aya.

The quiet man took another couple of swallows, and gave it back to Yohji. Aya appeared to be thinking about something, then he pulled off his boots and slid under the blankets on the bed. Yohji nearly choked on the wine when he saw this, then quickly replaced the cork, and after setting the bottle aside, removed his boots as well, and joined Aya under the covers. He sidled up to the man, and when the slim form relaxed after a couple of minutes, hugged him close. The hunger flared for a brief moment, but the thought of Aya fleeing the room and having nothing ever to do with him settled it down. Yohji nuzzled the red hair, which still smelled faintly of roses, and felt himself grow drowsy. Guess it was from the lack of sleep the night before. From the way Ayaís breathing was evening out, heíd guess that the man hadnít slept much either.

"I meant what I said, last night," Yohji whispered. "Iíll keep you safe, Iíll protect you. You donít have anything more to be afraid of, especially me."

At first he didnít think that Aya had heard him, his voice had been so soft. Then Aya hugged his arms tight against the manís body. "No promises, Yohji. No promises that we canít keep."

Yohji wanted to argue that there was no promise that he wasnít prepared to keep for the man, but found himself falling asleep before he could.

*******

Crawford followed the directions that Jei had given him, and instantly recognized the pale stone house from the boundís description. This was it. Going around back, he wasnít surprised to find the door left the slightest bit open. He opened it, and walked into a kitchen filled with glowing candles. "Cassandra, where are you?"

"In here."

Following the voice, Crawford left the kitchen, and entered a small, paneled room filled with an overstuffed couch. A slim figure stood before the fireplace. "Cassandra?"

The woman turned around, appearing in late middle age, with wrinkles on the gold skin, and her long hair all grey. "Drop the illusion."

There was a tinkle of laughter, and the old woman became a young one, little more than a girl. Crawford was reminded that Cassandra was only half as old as he was, and wasnít stirred by her beauty, instead seeing an old rival. "Donít tell me you actually look like that most of the time. Isnít it a bit of an overkill?"

"The Elders lost a young slave. It made sense to appear as an older woman, especially when I began to show. I threw many an agent off my trail with that disguise, Iíll have you know. Welcome, Crawford. How has your stay been, so far? Sit, sit, and have some tea."

Gritting his teeth, Crawford did as he was bid. The girl had all the power, at least in this matter, and he had to humor her. Once he got the information he needed, heíd be quite happy never seeing Cassandra ever again. "My stay hasnít been that bad. I had thought Iíd have to hunt down my old colleague, but low and behold, my partner returns today, to tell me that heís run across an old woman who smells exactly like our quarry, and even possesses the same name. Quite the lucky break, there." The damn fool girl was all but flaunting her presence; it was a miracle no one had discovered her or the child.

"Poor Jei, he clearly hadnít expected to find me. He knows me better than you. I knew you were coming days ago, and bringing the kage with you. Another poor soul, that one. The millennial anniversary is only a few years away, and already the Elders hope to twist the world into their desires. Oh yes, Iíve been expecting you."

"You could have made it easier on us, and let me catch a glimpse of what you have been up to, these past two decades. But that matters not; where is the boy, Cassandra?" Sitting on the edge of the couch, the dark haired man focused his most stern look on the younger precog, waiting for her to cave in to his authority.

Of course it didnít work, it never had in the past. The damn fool was too stubborn and powerful to heed him. Cassandra only laughed again. "What, mad because I managed to block the great Oracle? I couldnít let you see us, not while you remained in Esset. I couldnít take that chance, not with the boyís life at stake." She grew serious as she played with the hem of her pink shirt, dressed in soft pastels that contrasted with Crawfordís stark colours. "I couldnít risk him; if _they_ had found him, they would have broken him at worst, killed him at best. And I wasnít about to let you find him and raise him, or he would be a hollow shell of a person, just like you are. No, I hid the both of us from your sight and everyone elseís, until the time was right."

"Itís that time now, Cassandra. I need the boy. Iíve gathered the kage and the elemental-bound, and the succubae-bound will be mine as well, very soon. All I need is the boy." Standing to his feet, Crawford stepped over to the small woman, looming over her menacingly.

Cassandra refused to be intimidated by him, as she always had before. "He has a name, my son. He is Schuldig, and he will choose his own path, no matter what the cost. I raised him that way. You seek chaos, dear Oracle? Well, he is chaos personified. Trouble, Iíve dubbed him. And I refuse to listen to you talk about him, as if he was some pawn in a game of yours. Do you hear me?"

The threat fell on deaf ears, as Crawford stared at her in wonderment. "Schuldig? I told you to name him Christian. What type of name is Schuldig?"

Hissing, Cassandra glared at her guest. "It is from my fatherís line! It was what came to mind, when the boy was born. If you dislike it so, you should have been there at the birth! My child, my nine months of sickness, sore body, bloat and discomfort, my fourteen hours of labor, my eighteen years raising the boy, my choice of a name!" She stamped her foot. "Arrogant asshole! Feh, itís a good thing he takes after me."

Growing angry once more, Crawford refused to tug at his hair in aggravation. The damn woman was mad, that was it. If only the vision hadnít specified her as the mother of the man that would help to bring down the Elders; heíd give anything for that not to be so. "Cassandra, I will only ask one more time. Where the hell is the boy?"

The sound of cloth sliding against wood, and a slight creak, was all the warning Crawford had. He spun around to stare at a young man with outrageous, reddish orange hair that fell to the middle of his back, jade green eyes, and a masculine version of Cassandraís face, who was leaning against the door frame. The only thing he could think of, was that at least he had inherited some height. "Schuldig?"

"Indeed. Hello, Father."

*******

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