Shadows

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Chapter 3

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Hunger

*******

"Indeed. Hello, Father."

Crawford could only stare at his son, whom he had never seen before. Even the visions heíd had of the man had been indistinct, due to the kageís involvement. But he had never thought that he could produce a ragamuffin such as this.

Schuldig - and what the hell had possessed the crazy girl to give the child such a name? Ė leaned against the doorframe, insolence poured into human form. Besides the manís height, Crawford could see no trace of himself in the young man. He turned to face Cassandra.

"What the hell were you thinking, to cheat on me like that? The boy is useless, if he doesnít have both our bloodlines."

Cassandra sputtered and hissed. "Cheated? Me? Are you accusing me of cheating, you oafish bastard? You are the only man I have ever slept with, in all my forty-eight years! The only one! And after that experience, Iíve had no desire to sleep with another one!"

His pride stung by that comment, the precog pointed at the young man standing in the doorway. "Well, how the hell do you explain _him_ then? Look at that preposterous hair! And those eyes! Neither of us have green eyes, and we both have black hair. He looks nothing like me! Nothing at all." The boy should have gotten some of his looks, at the very least. The girl must have played him false.

"Oh, you, ohhhhh!" Cassandra stamped her foot several times, as her hands clenched into fists. When she spoke again, it was to her son. "You see why I did it, hiding you from him all these years? How would you have felt, to be raised by such an ass?"

"I donít think I can thank you enough, Mom." Oh, wonderful, now the brat was ungrateful, on top of everything else.

"He canít be mine." Crawford didnít think it possible to say that enough. "Iím going now. I hope you will be pleased, Cass, when your sluttish ways result in the Elders bringing back their-" The last word was lost, when the bespectacled man found himself slammed against the wall by Schuldig. Hmm, the man was stronger than he looked. Maybe there was some hope for the boy; either that, or Cass had cheated on him with a flesh gaki-bound.

<Take that back, you bastard. I wonít let you insult her like that. She told you the truth; she never slept with anyone else. Gods, I canít begin to imagine the sacrifice she made, sleeping with a cold prick like you.>

Dangling a couple of inches off the floor, Crawford crossed his arms and calmly looked at the boy who was holding him up. A smile on her face, Cassandra stepped to Schuldigís side.

"Well, I see that he is indeed a soul gaki-bound, and quite a powerful one at that. My apologies, Cass."

The woman waved aside the half-hearted apology. "Hmph, you are still an ass. He resembles my father, which was why I gave him that name, when he was born." The younger precog sniffed, then patted her son on the shoulder. "Let him go, heís not worth the effort. And the two of you must learn to get along; so much rests on that."

Schuldig listened to his mother, and dropped Crawford immediately. Barely managing to land on his feet, the dark-haired man spared his offspring a dirty look. "I know you, Cass. You most likely raised him in a way guaranteed to drive me mad." The woman snorted, but otherwise ignored him as she fussed over her tea. The boy, Schuldig, flashed him a sly grin, and sat on the couch. "How much have you trained your talent?"

<More than enough to get the job done.> Crawford felt a tingling sensation in his skull, as the boyís talent slipped past his impressive shields. <I know that you hate broccoli, and that you lost your virginity toÖ Mom? Geez, no wonder you were so lousy in the sack. You want me to tweak your sex drive while Iím in here? I sure as hell donít take after you in that departmentÖ oh, whatís this? Youíre afraid of snakes? Very interesting, Iíve never seen a grown man squeal like that before.>

Gritting his teeth, Crawford tried to strengthen his mental shields, but found he couldnít force the other bound out of his head. One thing was certain, Schuldig definitely had enough power to face the Elders, if the boy could so easily bypass his shields. Not that heíd ever tell the brat that. More than likely, the boy would take after his mother, and be insufferably arrogant in his power. "Youíve proved your point. Now, are you with me or not? I have other matters to attend to, and want an answer." He had come here only to find his son, and make sure that the bound would join in his cause, as the boy had been born for it.

The longhaired man pouted as he accepted some tea from Cass. "What, no tearful family reunion?" Then Schuldigís face became serious, showing the first hint that he possessed some of his fatherís personality. "Iím in. What choice do I have, really? Though Iím not doing it for you."

It didnít really matter why the boy was doing it, as long as he could count on him. "Very well, I will be leaving then. I take it you know where I am staying; I expect to see you again shortly. We will be leaving for Esset right after the kingís wedding, so you have a while to say your final goodbyes." Having achieved what he had come for in the first place, Crawford nodded his head at the two other bounds, then took his leave.

As the dark-haired man stepped out on the street, he thought of how well things were proceeding. The boy would leave with him when he returned to his masters, and Crawford was confident that Nagi would be coming with him as well. All that really remained in doubt was the kageís status; it was still unclear whether the man would still be alive after the wedding or not. They needed Ran, and his powers if they hoped to stop the Elders from carrying out their plan, but kage were notoriously difficult to control. They just werenít human, and so it was very hard to predict their actions. But Crawford felt that he was taking the proper steps to ensure that Ran would join his cause in the end. And if not, then he could always use the succubae-bound against the redhead; kage were so incredibly vulnerable where their hearts were involved.

*******

Schuldig listened to the back door close, and turned to face his mother. "You know, Mom, I sorta wish the prick was right, and that you had cheated on him." As soon as the words were out, Cassandra gave her son a solid whap to the side of his head. "Ow! Dammit, but you can be so mean!"

"You try my patience so, trouble." Cassandra huffed and poured herself more tea. "I am sorry to say it, but I was faithful to the insufferable oaf, though thankfully it only took a couple of tries to conceive you." The tiny woman shivered in horror, and Schuldig caught a flash of her memories of the event. Gah, now that was disturbing as all hell, seeing your parents go at it. It was even worse to feel what one of them had experienced at the time.

Rising to his feet, the telepathic bound stretched his arms above his head, then tugged his black outfit straight. "Itís going to be fun, getting under that manís skin." He moved over to his motherís side, and gave her a kiss on the cheek. "Iím off to work; Iíll stop back by in a couple dayís time." At the womanís doubtful roll of her eyes, Schuldig smiled and patted her on her head. He just loved how tiny his mother was, just like a little doll. Not that she was in any way as delicate as one, as he had learned over the years. His head was still ringing from the blow.

About to leave, Schuldig remembered where he had been earlier that evening. "Oh, I stopped by the Koneko tonight, to see the kage in person."

Cassandra looked over at him, and when he didnít say anything else, hissed in anger. "Well? What was he like? And how was Yotan? Is he still following my advice?"

Unable to help it, the longhaired man broke out in a laugh. "Iíd certainly say that he is! Yohji actually snarled at me, and all I was doing was being nice to Aya."

A loud snort interrupted his narrative. A quick probe of his motherís mind revealed that she thought that he was a shameless flirt, and could very well imagine just how Ďniceí Schuldig had been. Growling a little over being regarded as a slut by his own mother, Schuldig continued. "As I was saying," he paused once more to glare at the precog, "it was quite the impressive display of possessiveness. Yohji snatched Aya away and practically dragged him up to his room. I think someone took the Ďmake him yoursí part of the advice you gave him a little too much to heart."

"Hmph. Well, what do you expect, considering his nature?" Cassandra shared a knowing glance with her son, then sighed. "What about this Aya? He seemed so shy when he was in the shop today, that I got very little of an impression from him."

"I donít know, I couldnít read his mind." And that had been frustrating as all hell for the bound. He was so used to being able to read anyoneís thoughts, even his own motherís, and it galled him to be thwarted by someone. "But he let Yohji drag him off after being very annoyed at my Ďattentioní, so hopefully, Yohjiís feelings will be reciprocated." He sincerely hoped, for his friendís sake, that they were. Yohji deserved a bit of happiness, after what had happened last year.

Cassandra shifted her teacup around in her hand, as if checking it for cracks. "I canít be sureÖ but I believe they will be. The kage will either make our Yotan very happy, or very sad. Knowing what I do about their nature, I think it will be the first. Not being of this world, kage need something to anchor them to it, something for them toÖ bond to. Yohjiís nature will pick up on that fact, and make him do everything in his power to ensure that Aya is his. I almost feel sorry for the kage; he hasnít got a chance."

"Well, it should make for some interesting entertainment, at least. _His_ presence aside, maybe Iíll be spending some more time at the Koneko." Shaking his head, Schuldig waved goodbye to his mother. "Now I have to get back to work. Take care of yourself, Mom."

As Cassandra reassured him that she would, and wished him the same, the young man took his leave. Setting off for an inn that he knew catered to rich travelers, Schuldig sighed over the slight pain in his chest. So Yohji had finally found his special someone, and would shortly have his peaceful life thoroughly disrupted. He sincerely hoped that his dear friend wouldnít hate Schuldig for the changes that were about to occur, and the thiefís part in them. It was bad enough knowing that from now on, someone else would come first with the blond, even worse to contemplate Yohji hating him. But as his mother would say, the threads of fate had long since been spun and woven into their pattern; that trying to change or fight destiny was hopeless. And Schuldig didnít believe in wasting his time on hopeless endeavors. Which the kage better be damn grateful for.

*******

With a loud burp, Jei wiped the blood from his mouth and let the remains of his meal fall to the ground. Heíd been hungrier than heíd thought; it had taken four men to assuage his appetite. And the flesh gaki-bound had practically devoured the first one whole. With this last one, all Jei had done was nibble on a few choice bits, and drain the man of his blood. Now that he was finally full, it was time to clean up his mess.

Making sure to tuck a few bricks into the manís clothes, Jei first checked that no one else was in the immediate vicinity, and then carried the body to the end of the dock. Using his unnatural strength, he tossed the corpse a good ten meters or so out over the water, and watched as it sank. There was now one less criminal to roam the streets of the capital; really, Jei thought amusedly, he had done its citizens a big favor. They should hire a few flesh gaki-bounds to patrol the streets, instead of human guards, and crime would be certain to go down. Who wanted to risk murder and rape, when there was always a chance of being eaten for the activities?

Jei tore open the bundle he had brought with him from the inn, and in a matter of minutes, had rid himself of his bloody garments and traded them for clean ones. Opening a small flask, he washed off the last traces of blood from his hands and face. The clothes joined the corpse out in the ocean, and the pale man made his way off the wharf. Now that he was full, Jei wanted nothing more to do but sleep for a dozen hours or so. Gorging himself always made him sleepy.

As he walked down the busy streets, Jei caught a whiff of perfume, and thought that he still had an appetite or two to assuage. But he could hit the whorehouses tomorrow night; it wasnít a good idea to have sex right after a night on the prowl. The women might not like being bitten into. So he quietly made his way back to the Koneko.

When he arrived there, the bound poked his head into the common room to survey the crowd. Crawford must still be out on his business, since the precog wasnít down here. Jei hoped that Cass had given him hell for appearing out of nowhere and expecting the woman to just hand over her son. Heh, it should be fun, seeing the two precogs together again. What a strong case of hate/hate; Jei was shocked that they had managed to put aside their differences long enough to create a babe.

The kage was also nowhere to be found, nor the blond innkeeper. Guess it hadnít taken long for that Kudoh fellow to get the skittish creature alone after all. Which was good, as Jei had the impression that Nagi would kill him if he got Ran drunk and left him in Kudohís bed. Oracle had told him that their freedom rested on the blond making the kage his lover, and Jei was going to do his damnedest to ensure that it happened.

As for Nagi, the boy was sitting over in the corner, andÖ Jei blinked his eye, making sure he was seeing correctly. The elemental-bound was actually being both civil and social to someone other than Ran. Amazing. The young bound was talking with another boy; this one a little older than Nagi, from the looks of it. And more than a little enamored of his companion as well. Hopefully, the strange youth would prove to be a distraction of sorts for Nagi, and give Kudoh some free time to spend with the kage.

Stifling a yawn, Jei withdrew his head from the doorway and made for the steps. He had a large meal to sleep off, and wanted to be unconscious by the time his partner returned to the inn. He wasnít a precog, but judging from past experiences, the man would be ranting about Cass when he came back, as the woman lived to bedevil Crawford. And no doubt the precog would have half a dozen things that needed to be done, if they hoped to be successful with their mission. Biting back on a growl, Jei longingly thought of the time when he would be free to do whatever the hell he wanted, and not have to follow the orders of others. That would be something for him to dream of: sweet freedom. Freedom, and blood.

*******

Several candles sputtered in the grey light, little more than wax stubs after a nightís burning. Yoru grunted at the inconvenience of the dim light, but couldnít be bothered with lighting any more, especially when the sun would be up soon. Why waste precious candles, when a simple muttered spell enhanced his vision enough to see in the semi-darkness? Besides, there wasnít much to observe at the moment, anyway.

The damn stones had decided not to cooperate with him, blast it. Not that he had placed much hope in them; divination had never been one of his strong suits. If it had, he might not have found himself in such undesirable straits this past century, where he had to worry about the price of candles. But the letter resting on the table next to the cast runes offered the wizard the possibility of improving his situation.

If only the damn stones would give him a clear picture of whether or not he could trust the current Lord Eto. Yoru snorted to himself, and clarified that thought. Of course he couldnít completely trust the highborn, but he needed to know if he would profit from the proposed alliance. It seemed the ambitious lord was planning an attempt on the throne, and needed a wizard to bring his plans into fruition. The bastard knew something; something that the runes were not showing Yoru. All he could decipher was darkness and change, and that an old evil would return.

Giving up on the auguries, Yoru sat back in his chair and stared out the window of the small apartment he lived in, which was cluttered with books and filled with dust and dirty clothes. The sky was beginning to lighten, but his thoughts werenít on the lovely sunrise. Yoru was trying to figure out what would make Lord Eto risk such a dangerous action, and if he should assist the man.

There was no doubt that soon there would be a royal wedding; more and more people were streaming into the capital each day, eager for the official announcement and the weeks of festivities that would precede the event. The actual wedding would attract dignitaries from around the continent, and there would hopefully be another celebration within a year or so, at the birth of a potential heir to the throne. Or, from what Yoru knew about the situation surrounding Mamoruís conception, it would most likely be better to say the birth of the official heir.

Thoughts of the young prince immediately led to Prince Reiji, who had been in exile these past sixteen years or so. Pardons were often granted at royal events, and the king would not want to offend the gods by holding on to Ďpettyí grudges. Grinning with excitement, Yoru leaned onto the table before him, ignoring the carved stones that dug into his forearms. There was little doubt that the prince and his sons would be returning to the capital, if only for the wedding. And where Reiji Takatori went, intrigue followed. The man hungered for the throne that should have been his, and most likely wouldnít meekly accept the thought of his brotherís child inheriting it, in his place.

Now Lord Etoís letter made sense. Rumor had it that the manís family was in possession of a soul gaki-bound that could predict the future; most likely, the damn lord was privy to information that the wizard couldnít divine from some stupid stones. And Yoru was willing to bet everything that it centered on Prince Reiji taking another shot at the throne. Lord Eto was most likely planning on letting the man do the dirty work for him, and then stepping in when the king was dead and turning the situation in his favor. While Reiji was only a minor wizard, his firstborn son, Masafumi, was a rather powerful one, and any plan the lord set into motion would require another wizard to offset the Takatorisí powers.

There werenít very many high level wizards roaming about the country; and other than the current court mage, none could come close to Yoruís power. How convenient for Eto that Yoru had remained in the capital, eking out a living and harboring a grudge against the Takatoris. He must have hoped the old wizard would be senile and still hell-bent on revenge enough to jump at his offer. However, close to three hundred years or not, Yoru hadnít lived this long by being foolish.

Heíd been born to a family of farmers; a sullen, sallow-faced, unattractive child. Only his prodigious talent had enabled him to enter a school that would properly train him, and there the boy had found himself shunned by his other classmates. But that hadnít bothered Yoru, as he had spent his time roaming forgotten corridors, and had unearthed many long abandoned tomes. His most fortunate discovery had been several books devoted to the kage.

Yoru had taken those books with him when he had left the school, unable to attract a patron to sponsor him. While the young wizard had roamed the country, scraping out a living by selling various charms and working small magicks, he had been blessed to stumble over a particular child when he had enchanted her familyís vineyards to ensure that bugs and animals left the grapes alone. From the precious booksí descriptions, he had recognized the significance of her incredibly pale skin, in stark contrast to her auburn hair and dark blue eyes, and her aversion to the bright sun. Yoru had wasted no time in bespelling her family to allow him to take the child with him to the capital; they had thought the girl had the potential to become a wizard, and hadnít needed much coercion.

Once at the capital, Yoru had finagled his way into the palace and gained a private audience with the kingís heir of the time, the Princess Satomi. The bright young woman had recognized what he had in his possession, and Yoru found himself as the new court mage. The child, Aidan, had been hidden away until her power properly developed, and the newly crowned Queen Satomi quickly put her skills to good use. The Takatoris had nothing to fear, since they had a kage in their possession. And Yoru had been able to use the girlís blood to invent new spells, and prove to the world that he deserved his exalted position.

If only that horny bastard Toshi had been able to keep his cock in his pants, Yoru would still be the court mage. However, the young king hadnít been able to resist fucking a kage, and Aidan had killed herself over that, the fool. Yoru had unwisely voiced his displeasure to the king, having been highly upset at losing such a rare creature, not to mention his precious supply of blood. He had promptly found himself tossed out onto the streets, stripped of his rank and all possessions, including his library. The past hundred years had been spent trying to regain his former glory.

And now the possibility was finally within his reach, when he was an old man. Wizards could extend their lives for a couple of centuries, but werenít as long lived as the damned bounds. Yoru had been conducting experiments on Aidanís blood to see if there was a way to gain the apparent immortality that the kage possessed. While all bounds could live for centuries (millennia even, if the rumors about Essetís secret government were true), and they aged very slowly over the years, kage never aged any further, once they attained adulthood. Though there were no kage who had lived longer than four hundred years without either being killed or killing themselves.

The galling part of it was that Yoru had been so damn close to figuring out a way to use Aidanís blood to at least extend his life, before she had killed herself and he had lost access to the fluid he had drained from her and stored away. And now he didnít have very long left at all. Even if Lord Eto took the throne and kept his promise, Yoru wouldnít be court mage for more than a few decades, before he passed away.

That was, unless his suspicions of how Prince Reiji had come so close to successfully killing the king last year were correct. No assassin should have been able to get so near to King Shuuichi, especially not with all the protective spells littered about the castle. But the young woman had somehow managed to slip past those, not to mention fool the vaunted Guard. Yoru guessed that Prince Reiji had found his library, and had discovered several spells that had made the assassination attempt possible. But the prince and his son would only have been able to cast those spells if they had one thing in their possession: a kage. Or more correctly, a kageís blood.

Rubbing his hands together in excitement, Yoru knew he would agree to the alliance proposed by the young lord. He would give the man his aid, in return for the position of court mage, and the life of the younger Takatori mage. Once he had Masafumi in his clutches, Yoru could make the man tell him how he and his father had come across kage blood, and track the creature down, if it was still alive. If not, he knew that the Takatoris had to have more of its blood hidden away, and there should hopefully be enough to finish his experiments. Yoru tried to prevent himself from thinking that there was actually a live kage once more, in case the foolish Prince had killed it. But it was more likely that someone as ambitious as Reiji would recognize the creatureís value, and have it hidden away somewhere. After all, kage were notoriously easy to control; all one had to do was hold hostage their loved ones, and they were easily broken.

The wizard sat there grinning while the sun crept up into the sky, and he thought of how there was another kage available for his experiments, and the long life that awaited him once the studies were resumed. All his hopes and dreams, resting on the blood of the legendary creature. But first, he would have to make sure that King Shuuichi didnít live to enjoy his wedding night. Pulling a pen and a clean sheet of paper towards him, Yoru wrote back to Lord Eto, indicating his assent.

*******

Ran felt an uncomfortable burn along his skin, and tried to burrow his way underneath the blankets, eager to avoid the sunlight. Something warm stirred beside him, and a pair of arms pulled him close. Since the object was blocking the light, the redhead let himself be held tight, grateful for the shade that Yohjiís body provided him. Snuggling closer, Ran sighed softly as he let himself drift back to sleep, before jolting fully awake when he realized what was happening.

Yohji muttered as Ran tried to pull away, and only held on tighter to the kage. Unsure of what to do next, the smaller man just lay there in the blondís arms. Inhaling the scent of tobacco and musk, Ran caught a hint of lavender, and buried his nose in the crook of Yohjiís shoulder as he took a deep breath. He had always loved that scent; his mother would stuff a sachet or two of it between his bed sheets, and in his closet and drawers. Smiling sadly at the memory, Ran closed his eyes to see if he could fall back to sleep since he wasnít able to leave without disturbing the other man. For some reason he was still tired even after his best night of sleep in weeks.

Ran didnít know what to think of the fact that he had slept so well while in a strangerís bed. Which was almost as shocking as the fact that he had willingly chosen to spend his night with Yohji, especially with the way the man had all but attacked him last night. Feeling a slight blush on his cheeks, the redhead reminded himself that he hadnít minded Yohjiís ministrations all that much, just the last bit towards the end. The burning sensation of a finger pushing its way inside of his body had made Ran very aware of what he was doing, and just how fast the older man was taking things. While determined to have sex on his own terms, Ran didnít want to be treated so roughly his first time. More than likely that would be a regular occurrence in the future; it was not what he wanted when he had a choice in the matter.

But Yohji had calmed down, and had kept his promise throughout the night. Nothing had disturbed Ran while he slept, not even the usual nightmares. And now he felt himself drifting off to sleep once more, never mind the fact that Yohji would, in all probability, kick him out of bed when the man awoke. Ran hoped that the innkeeper would still be interested in him even if they hadnít had sex last night, or he would have to find another lover. Unhappy with that thought, the kage snuggled closer to Yohji.

*******

Feeling a bit overheated, what with being curled up under a blanket with the sun at his back and a warm body molded against his front, Yohji drifted awake. He became aware of the scent of roses and an ache in his middle, from hunger. Opening his eyes, the blond looked down at the redhead snuggled against him. Ah, he hadnít been dreaming, then. Aya really had spent the night with him, despite his atrocious behavior. Yohji would have bet that the pale man would have fled at the first opportunity that presented itself, and not been there when he woke up.

Yohji bent his head to kiss the top of the one tucked underneath his chin. He started to shift the blankets downward so he could cool off, when Aya mumbled in his sleep and squirmed closer to him. Wondering for a moment if the man was that cold or something, Yohji caught the red flush spreading across a white shoulder. Murmuring an apology, he quickly yanked the blanket back up. Heíd still be hot, but at least Ayaís skin would be spared, and the man would remain in his arms. The last thing that Yohji wanted was to get out of bed and risk waking him up as he closed the curtains.

Still, the situation posed a bit of a problem. With summer approaching, it wouldnít do to leave the curtains closed during the night, as the windows would be left open to catch any cooling breeze available. But Yohji had every intention of having Aya in his bed on a permanent basis, and knew heíd have to think of some way to spare the pale man. No wonder Brad had been so amused when heíd shown them to the Konekoís darkest rooms; the brunet must have been thinking of his pale friend.

Lifting a hand, Yohji combed it through the crimson hair, and then down Ayaís back. The man made a soft, mewling sound, and trembled slightly in his arms. With a curse, Yohji stopped the caress, and returned his hand to stroke through the silky hair. Heíd forgotten about the scars all down the redheadís back; it was likely that Aya didnít care to have them touched at all. But he seemed to like having his hair played with, as the smaller man tried, impossibly enough, to snuggle closer.

What a series of contrasts the man was. Yohji smiled as a pair of thin arms snuck about his waist and hugged him tight. Aya came across as so sad and distant, with dark flashes of temper when he dished out those potent glares of his. Heíd never have thought that the man would be a snuggler, or that Yohjiíd have him tucked in his bed this soon. Not that the blond was complaining in the slightest. In fact, everything was damn near perfect; he didnít even mind feeling hot any more, though the feel of the slender body pressing against his made Yohji all the hungrier.

His one hand still combing through Ayaís hair, Yohji shifted the other one downward to stroke a pale thigh. Aya stirred at the touch, sighing out loud as his leg was moved to rest on top of Yohjiís. The green-eyed man rocked his hips forward gently as he felt himself grow hard at the slight friction of rubbing against his shy lover. There was an answering hardness from the other man, and he let out a growl as he used his grip in the crimson strands to tilt Ayaís face upwards.

Gently kissing the pale manís lips, Yohji pulled back when he felt the flutter of lashes against his cheek. He caught sight of Aya opening his eyes, the violet orbs clouded with sleep and confusion. As they slowly cleared, the lovely eyes revealed the hint of something tender, then hardened as their owner pulled back slightly. "Yohji, what are yo- mph."

Yohji took advantage of the open mouth, thrusting his tongue in deep. Mindful of how moving too fast had scared Aya last night, he made sure to keep his actions languid, and his hold not too tight. The redhead went stiff for a moment then slowly relaxed into his embrace. Growling once more, Yohji carefully rolled over until Aya was underneath him, mindful of the covering blankets the whole time. It wouldnít do for the man to pull away, afraid of sunburn. A possible solution entered the lanky manís mind, but he pushed it aside, being more interested in what was currently happening.

Distracting Aya with a deep kiss, Yohji slowly started to shimmy out of his pants. The smaller man didnít seem to mind his movements, as it caused their erections to rub against each other. Moving his mouth downward, the blond smiled when his lover produced a sound just like a cat mewling. Fastening his lips on Ayaís neck, Yohji started to work on getting the man out of his pants as well. It was almost painful shifting off of the slender frame long enough to pull down the black breeches. Aya stiffened for a moment, going still as Yohji slid them down past his knees, and the violet eyes closed. Watching the pale face, the playboy was curious to see the other man nod slightly, as if talking to himself, and then force his body to relax.

Not sure why Aya was acting like he was, but too hungry and sex-crazed to care, Yohji settled back on top of the pale man, urging him to wrap the long white legs around his waist. Resuming the kiss, Yohji buried his hands in Ayaís hair and tilted his head backwards, ravishing his mouth. His hips still rocking slowly against the smaller man, Yohji put all of his considerable skill to work to make Aya just as needy from desire as he was. It seemed to be working, as the man tightened his legs about the blondís middle, urging his hips forward.

Oh gods, this time he would have him, and make Aya his. Yohjiís mouth trailed kisses down the redheadís neck, then latched on to mark the fair skin. That earned him another mewl, and one of his hands started to tweak a pink nipple, causing Aya to arch into the touch. His other hand felt along the seam between his mattresses, searching out the small jar of lubricant that heíd tucked there. Just as Yohjiís nimble fingers found the container, he heard a deep voice speak, and it sure as hell wasnít Ayaís.

"Morning, Yohji. Sorry about this, but get out of bed, now."

"What the fuck?" Yohji shifted on top of Aya, until he could glare at the suicidal asshole who had dared to enter his room. Draping himself protectively over his lover, he looked up at a grimfaced Mickey. Snarling savagely at the bigger man, Yohji debated whether or not to get out of bed. He wanted to tear his friend limb from limb for the interruption, but didnít want to move away from his Aya. "Get the hell out of here, _now_."

Mickeyís face blanched, and he actually took a step or two backwards, but then he stopped and shook his head. "Iím sorry, Yohji, but we need you downstairs. The new kegs are arriving, and we need your help unloading them"

Bullshit. The man had never entered his room to wake him up before, especially when it was likely that he had someone with him. Mickey had done this deliberately, and was going to pay for it. His fingers reaching for his bracelet, Yohji realized that Aya was trembling beneath him. Sparing his lover a look, he found the man lying there, a slight flush on his face and his eyes tightly closed. Yohji sucked in a breath and forced himself to calm down; he didnít want to scare his lover away. Heíd make Mickey pay later.

"Give me five minutes, and Iíll be downstairs." Yohjiís voice was harsh, possessing a hint of a growl, and his friend wisely didnít say anything else, but merely nodded his head before walking out of the room backwards. As soon as the door closed, Aya bolted upright and tried to jump off the bed. Only Yohjiís quick reflexes prevented the smaller man from doing so, and he hauled the struggling figure onto his lap. "Hey, calm down, little cat, calm down."

When Aya turned his face to glare at him, Yohji trapped it between his hands and kissed him soundly. His hunger clamored for him to push the pale man back down on the bed and resume where he had left off, but he knew that Mickey would be back if he wasnít downstairs when he said heíd be. Yohji had to settle for burning away the embarrassing memory of being walked in on, and reminding Aya of why he shouldnít run away. After a minute, the redhead relaxed in his arms and kissed him back.

"Hmm, you taste delicious. Wanna devour you whole." Aya stared back at him as Yohji brushed crimson strands out of the manís eyes, then raised a hand to rub at his bare shoulder. "Shit, you really do burn in the sunlight, donít you?" Reluctantly letting go of his lover, Yohji got off the bed and strode over to the window and yanked the curtains closed. He turned in time to catch Aya glancing at his nude body, a faint blush on the pale cheeks, before the man turned his gaze on the floor and treated Yohjiís favorite rug to a rather harsh glare.

Chuckling softly, Yohji gathered up Ayaís clothes, which were scattered about the room. He held them out to the scowling man, who directed the look at him for a moment before flinching away. "Hey, Iím not going to hurt you, you know. Feel free to glare at me all you want." Yohjiís fingers latched on to a long eartail and gave it a gentle tug, then wound it around the clever digits. He didnít want to let go of any part of the redhead once he had him in his grasp. "Though I think Mickey is the one who deserves all the dirty looks at the moment. The manís dead for just barging in on us like that. Next time, I am locking the door."

Aya remained as he was for a moment, then looked back at him as he reached for his clothes. "Next time?"

"You better damn well believe there will be a next time." Dammit, he couldnít get the snarl out of his voice today. Not sure why he was acting like this, Yohji forced his lips into a smile, which was rather hard, considering that Aya had just slid his long shirt over his head and covered all that lovely white flesh. "At least, I want there to be one. You know what they say; third timeís the charm." If Aya said that there wasnít going to be a next time, Yohji didnít know what he would do, besides dismembering Mickey and a few other people.

Fortunately, the redhead nodded slightly and rose to his feet. Yohji could only watch as the man gracefully stepped into his breeches, feeling a pain in his chest as the man walked away from him and picked up his boots. Surging to his feet, the blond captured Aya for one more kiss, this one demanding and almost harsh. He just had to make the pale man understand that he was Yohjiís now. Shocked at how jealous and protective he felt, Yohji broke away, his breath ragged as he gazed longingly at Aya.

Who had a hand raised to his swollen lips, pressing against them softly. Violet eyes met his, and Yohji almost let out a groan when he saw an answering passion and need in them. Then Aya ducked his head and swiftly left the room. Yohji actually took a few steps after him, before realizing he was about to go out into the hallway completely nude. Letting out a growl, he slammed the door shut and stomped over to his washstand, for once actually grateful that the water was cold. It was time to get the spell on the washstand renewed; then again, maybe he should wait until Aya was his lover in every definition of the word before ensuring that the water didnít turn cold anymore. He was damn sure going to try his best and make sure that happened by tonight.

Combing his hands through his hair, Yohji grabbed a scrap of leather to tie the long strands back. Next he pulled on the first clean clothes he could find, and then stomped his way downstairs as soon as his feet were in his boots. Two customers coming up the steps actually flattened along the wall to give him more room. Snarling under his breath, he went to find Mickey.

The Konekoís manager was in the process of rolling a keg into the building. Yohji spared him a snarl in passing, and then went out the back door, where another man was standing on the back of a wagon. He helped lower several kegs onto the ground, and when that was done, started to roll them into the inn. Mickey passed by him several times, and each time he snarled at the man. Ichiyo, leaving behind his precious stables to assist with getting the liquor out of the sun before the heat affected it, gazed at the blond worriedly. At least, the crippled man did so until he was snarled at in return; as soon as the last keg was in the storeroom, he limped back to his sanctuary.

Waiting for Mickey to finish putting up the last oak barrel, Yohji decked his friend the moment he was done and had turned around. "You fucking bastard!" He knocked Mickey to the ground, and tugging a few golden strands free, stepped closer to him. About to lift his arm to cast the strands, Yohji found it grabbed by Jo.

"Are you going insane or something? Yohji Kudoh, stop this nonsense this minute!"

Whirling about to face the woman, the blond growled at her as well. "He fucking deserves it. The bastard walked in on me and Aya this morning!" Seeing the look that crossed the older womanís face, Yohji stepped closer to her. "You knew about it, didnít you? What the hell did you do, Jo? Put him up to it? Why?"

Jo slapped him hard across the face, and actually knocked some sense into him. The blow startled Yohji, breaking up the anger and jealousy that consumed him. "Oh, fuck, I think I need a drink." Letting go of his weapon, Yohji dragged his fingers through his hair, and then smiled sheepishly at his wounded friend. "Ah, shit Mickey, I didnít mean to hit you that hard."

"You always were a hell of a lot stronger than you looked, Yotan." Mickey grasped the offered hand, and let Yohji pull him to his feet. "I think I need a drink as well, if only to get the taste of blood out of my mouth." The blue-eyed man grimaced after he swallowed, and dabbed at his bleeding lip with the cuff of his sleeve.

The two men smiled at each other to show no more hard feelings, and then made to leave the storeroom. At least until Jo stood in their way. "Glad as I am that you two are friends again, thereís still a matter to discuss. I was the one who sent Mickey up to your room, Yohji, so if you are still mad at anyone, it should be me." The woman stood with her arms crossed, braced for a blow.

As if Yohji could ever hit a woman, especially one who had been abused as Jo had been. The only woman he had ever hurt had been AsukaÖ shaking his head, Yohji refused to think about her this morning. And most definitely not when he was feeling angry at another female. "Why, Jo? Youíve never bothered by my lovers before, why now?"

His worst fears were confirmed when the middle-aged woman spoke. "Because this one is a stray, Yotan. You should have known not to get involved with him in the first place. What if he thinks he has to sleep with you to get any help? Thatís not acceptable, and I want you to leave him the hell alone."

"I. Will. Not." Yohjiís throat should be sore from all the growling by now, but he just couldnít stop. Jo flinched at his tone, and Mickey stood besides her protectively. "I know he is a stray, and Iím not taking advantage of him. Fuck, the last thing I want him to feel is that heís being used. Iím going to take care of him, and if you get in my way, you can go work somewhere else." Never mind that Jo had been here since he was a babe, and that Mickey was like a brother to him, and had practically grown up at the Koneko.

For a moment, neither of his friends believed him, then they got a good look at his face. "YohjiÖ youíre serious," Jo whispered.

"Damn right I am. Iím not letting go of Aya, Jo, itís as simple as that. If anyone tries to hurt him, theyíll have to go through me. But as long as he wants me back, the man is going to be my lover. I wonít let him go. Either accept that fact, or leave."

Mickey exchanged a glance with the cook, and then stared at Yohji. "Heís been hurt, Yohji, him and the boy he came here with. You sure itís a good idea, falling for him like this? Youíre acting as if youíre in love with him or something." When Yohji didnít refute that statement, the big man sighed, and exchanged another glance with Jo. "You are, arenít you? In love with him, I mean."

"Yes." Yohji rubbed his eyes, wanting this discussion to be over with. He loved Jo and Mickey like family, but he wasnít giving up Aya. Never. Something inside of him raged at that very thought. When the hell had he fallen so in love with the redhead? "I know heís a stray, and Naoe as well. Iíve seen the scars he has. And I wonít let him leave the Koneko, not if there is a chance heíll be hurt again. But I love him, and I canít leave him alone. Do you understand?" Staring beseechingly at his friends, Yohji waited for one of them to mention that he had loved Asuka as well, and look at the grief she had caused him.

But neither person spoke for several minutes. Then Jo nodded her head. "Okay, Yohji, weíll take your word on this, and leave Aya to you. But if you hurt him in the smallest way, or I believe that you are taking advantage of him at any point, then I will have your hide, do you understand _me_?"

"Yeah, Jo, but you wonít have any worry there. I promise." Yohji stepped close to the woman and kissed her on the cheek. Jo hmphed, but the gleam in her eye said that she had forgiven him. "Any chance of getting something to eat, after all that hard work?"

"Oh, you and your stomach, Yotan. Go sit in the dining room, and Iíll bring something out. You too, Mickey."

"Thanks, Jo." Yohji strolled out of the room, eager to get some coffee into him. Though he didnít feel as hungry as he normally did in the morning, which was odd. Deciding that he couldnít figure out what the hell was going on anymore, the blond shrugged his shoulders and quickly forgot the matter as he spied Aya sitting at a table with the little demon and Brad.

*******

Jo stared after the blond as he walked away, lost in thought. As soon as she judged it safe, she turned to face Mickey. "What are we going to do, Mick? I donít want to see him get hurt again, not after he changed so much because of that bitch."

Mickey patted her arm. "I doubt this Aya is another wizardís construct, Jo. He stands out too much. And I donít think there is much we can do, if Yohji is as serious about the man as he seems. I doubt heíll do anything to harm him, and if we push the issue, weíll probably just drive Yohji away. Nothing left to do but trust him."

She pondered the thought for a moment. Yohji never would harm a stray; he had been raised better than that, and knew the family duty. But sheíd never seen the man act like he had this morning, not even over the lying bitch. "Youíre right, though I hate to say it." Jo didnít like the situation, but couldnít think of a solution. At least, not until she glanced at Mickey again. "I know what weíll do. Teddy will be here in another day or two; weíll have him keep an eye on Yotan and this Aya. That way, if things get out of hand, weíll find out in time to put a stop to things, before they get out of control, as with that- Asuka."

The young man gazed at her worriedly. "Do you really think itís worth siccing my brother on the two of them? That seems a bit harsh."

"Mickey, that will be nothing, compared to what will happen if I find out that either man is playing the other false. Take my word on that."

*******

Omi hurried about his rooms, trying to find something suitable to wear for the day. Searching through one of his trunks, the youth found a pair of blue shorts and a cream tunic. Pulling the clothes on, he quickly laced a pair of sandals onto his feet, and stepped towards the door. Then he remembered his pendant, and raced back to his nightstand for the object. It wouldnít do to leave the castle without it; at the very least, Naoe would be wondering why he didnít appear the same as last night.

Just as he was about to make his escape, Omi heard a knock on his door. Deciding it would be best to ignore it, the blond started to edge towards his balcony. He could always climb down the trees outside and make his way across the palace grounds. But before he could take more than two steps, there was a rattle of metal, and the door opened.

"Omi, stop right there."

With a sigh, the teenager halted in his tracks. "Morning, Ken." Why couldnít the Guard have stopped by to pay him a visit a few minutes later?

The brunet, dressed in the long, dark blue coat with white crosses emblazoned on the sleeves that was the Guardsí uniform, looked at Omi with slight smile on his face. "Iím surprised that disguise works so well. Where were you running off to now?"

"It works because no one suspects poor, shy Prince Mamoru to be wandering around outside of the palace. Iím supposed to meet someone in a little bit; I promised to show them around the capital." Hopefully, the older man would get the hint, and let him go.

"Hmm, not off to see Yohji, are you?" When Omi shook his head, Ken sighed and sat down in one of the several chairs scattered about the elegantly furnished suite. "Omi, you know itís not a very good idea for the crown prince to be running around by himself, even if he is wearing a glamour. I canít allow you to go back out, especially since you vanished last night. Donít you think you should stay home, in case your father needs you for anything? Heís awfully busy at the moment, and most likely could use your help."

Only someone like Ken could come up with an excuse like that to keep him trapped here. Omi knew the man, only a few years older than himself, meant well, but the brunet refused to accept the way things really were. He curled up on his bed as he thought of what he should say to convince the Guard to let him go. "KenÖ we both know that one of the reasons my father is getting remarried, is so he can have an heir to the throne. Someone other than me." Ken flinched at the words and frowned, but Omi continued. "I know he loves me, in his own way, at least for my motherís sake, but heís never been able to get past the fact that I may not be his son. The last thing he needs at a time like this is a reminder of what happened the last time he planned a wedding. There have been no pages arriving requesting my help at all, and I highly doubt there ever will be. So why should I spend my time hiding in my room, when I could be out with a new friend?"

"Omi, I donít think you give the king enough credit, but I wonít argue with you." Toying with his leather gloves, Ken smiled wanly at the young prince as he thought up a new tactic. "You could always hang out with Botan; he seems to like having you spend time with him."

Most likely because he reminded the wizard of happier times, before Botanís wife had been killed and his daughter abducted. "Heís busy at the moment too, making sure that the wards are up to a bunch of visitors coming to the castle."

"What about your studies?"

"Ken, argh!" Omi tossed a pillow at the Guard, only to have the object be batted away by the manís quick reflexes. "Come on, the last tutor I had left in a huff when he figured out I knew more than he did. Please, Kenken, just tell everyone I am in bed with a headache, or some other royal malady, and let me go."

The Guard stared at him for a moment, stretching out his legs as he propped his chin on one of his hands. "Whoís this friend, Omi?"

Oh, he just knew that he was blushing, which was confirmed when Kenís eyes narrowed and a slight smile graced the tan face. "Heís someone I met last night at the Koneko. His name is Naoe, and heís the servant of Yohjiís latest boyfriend. Or at least, I think heís Yohjiís boyfriend."

"Omi, there are precious few men in this city that _havenít_ been Yohjiís boyfriend, at one point or another." At Omiís raised eyebrow, Ken flushed and stuttered. "Ex-except me, of course. I was just his partner; no way in hell was I sleeping with the man I was trusting to watch my back. He would have just worried about keeping my ass safe, and nothing else." Ken flushed even redder. "Oh, shit, Omi, you didnít hear me say that."

It warmed the boy that his friend could forget, every now and then, that he was a prince. Omi would have gladly traded that title in for a normal life, with a mother who was still alive and a father who actually cared about him. Pushing aside the gloomy thoughts, Omi decided to tease Ken a little. "Aw, I think you were just afraid of Yuriko ever finding out that you cheated on her." The Guard had a very jealous girlfriend.

"Yeah, well, Iím not stupid." Ken smiled, most likely as he thought of his lover, and then looked at Omi in a speculative manner. "So, whatís this Naoe like? Where is he from?"

Omi smiled himself as he thought of his new friend. "HeísÖ quiet. Reserved. From some country estate; I couldnít get him to tell me which one. Naoeís in town with his master and a few other people, probably for the wedding. Heís a year younger than me, and itís his first time in a big city. I want to show him around, and make sure he doesnít get taken advantage of." He didnít want to think of Naoe wandering around the capital alone, and maybe finding his way to one of the dangerous parts. There were a lot of people out there that would just love to take advantage of a teenage boy as pretty and new to the capital as Naoe was. "Please, Kenken, let me go. You know Yohji wouldnít let me hang out with the boy if he thought there would be trouble."

From the look on the Guardís face, Omi knew he had made a very good point. Making sure to break out the big, pleading eyes, the young prince stared beseechingly at his friend.

"Grrr, okay, you win." Ken buried his face in his hands. "I am such a pushover. I should turn in my uniform, you know. Manx will have my head if she finds out that I let you sneak off all the time." Brown eyes gazed piercingly at Omi. "So make damn sure that she never does, understand?"

Jumping up from the bed, Omi threw his arms around Ken. "Thank you, thank you. I promise to be back before midnight." That said, he dashed for his balcony, and in mere seconds was descending a tree.

*******

The teenagerís words finally registering on the brunet, Ken jumped to his feet as well. "Omi, you better damn well be back here- fuck, heís gone already. Oh, itíll be a toss-up over who kills me first, Manx or Birman. Fuck."

Ken went to the door, and locked it behind him as he left the princeís suite. His partner, Liss, was standing in the hallway, waiting for him. "Come on, I think itís best that we were never in this section of the palace today." He tugged his dark blue jacket straight as he purposefully strode away from the scene of the crime.

"You let him sneak out again, didnít you, Ken?" He grinned sheepishly at the young woman, who sighed in response. "Iíll never get a promotion while Iím partnered with you, will I?"

"Ah, come on, Liss. You know that you would have let him go too. Damned brat pulled out the big eyes on me, and I couldnít resist." Liss smiled at Ken in sympathy and nodded her head. "Besides, if youíd been promoted in the past year or two, youíd be duking it out with Yuushi and Kikyou, fighting to be the new Captain. Do you want that?"

The brown-haired girl shook her head furiously. "No, no, no, no. No fucking way. Iíd rather be a little peon like you, than be caught in that fight. Gods, as it is, this is threatening to tear the Guards apart."

"I knowÖ if only Yohji were still here; he would be in contention for the position, and things wouldnít be so ugly. Both Manx and Birman would have supported him, and forced Shuuichi to choose him." But the damn moron had felt so ashamed to have been duped by a woman who had fooled even him and the rest of the Guards, not to mention Botan and Birman, and had retired. No one had blamed Yohji for what happened, especially when he had been the one to save the king by killing his own lover.

Apparently, Liss had been thinking the same thing. "The fool. As if he was the only one who ever snuck a lover or a friend into the palace. Hell, Iíve snuck my little brothers in here dozens of times. No one blames him for that."

"I know; Iíve brought Yuriko here a few times as well. But Yohji took his job seriously, and wouldnít listen to reason, no matter who talked to him. Birman, of all people, pleaded with him not to resign, but I think he was too torn up over the matter. He really loved the woman, for all that heíd only known her for a few months." His friend had changed so much after that day, when heíd lost the two things he had cared most for: his career, and Asuka.

"And she wasnít even real."

That was the worst part; that Yohji had fallen for a personality that a wizard had created. Ever since the assassin, Yohji had thrown himself into an endless string of one-night stands, until Ken couldnít bear to see the man anymore. It hurt too much, to see a friend who once had a promising future drown himself in drink and sex. "Omi said he has a new boyfriend."

Liss snorted loudly. "He always has a new boyfriend, and a girlfriend too. I was at the Koneko a few nights ago, with Miko and Tori, and watched him head upstairs with the two most gorgeous men there that night. It was damn depressing, let me tell you."

Ken spared his partner a wry look. "Be thankful you were never paired with him. I donít know how many people I had come up to me, complaining that Yohji broke their hearts, and that they wanted me to give him a letter explaining their Ďlove and undying devotioní." He made a gagging sound, causing the girl to laugh out loud. "I donít know how he does it, making so many people fall in love with him. Hereís hoping that he lets this latest one down easy."

"Hm, I doubt it. You know, weíre going back down there tomorrow night, if you want to tag along."

"No."

"Ke~n, why not? The two of you used to be such good friends. You said you donít blame him, so why not go sponge a few free drinks off of the man? Bring Yuriko, if you are afraid for your virtue."

The brunet glared at his friend for that comment. "I said no." He didnít want to see what new depths the man had sunk to. "Besides, youíll just spend the night getting drunk and complaining about Kikyou being picked over Yuushi for Manxís position."

"Donít start, Hidaka. You know how I feel about the matter. Yuushi should be the next Captain."

Privately, Ken agreed, but didnít want to get caught up in Guardsí politics. "You know heís too young; Manx wonít back him for that reason. She knows what she went through when she was chosen as the new Captain, and she was a few years older than he is now."

Nodding to a fellow Guard who was stationed in front of the royal library, Liss glanced over her shoulder to grimace at her partner. "Yuushi is the same age as Yohji, and you all but said that Yohji would have been picked, if he was still here. Kikyouís going to get the position because heís Manxís friend, and a highborn. The lords have been dying for an opportunity to get one of their own in that position."

"Liss, I donít want to talk about this, especially here. Can we change the topic?"

Liss grudgingly agreed to Kenís request, then an impish grin spread on her face. "So, why did Omi run off this time?"

Letting out a groan, Ken chuckled weakly. "Get this, I think heís found himself a boyfriend. You should have seen his face when he talked about this Ďnew friendí that he just had to escort around the city."

The young woman laughed out loud. "Ah, the poor thing!"

"Yeah. And the worst part is, this boy is the servant of Yohjiís latest fling. Somehow, I doubt the boy will want anything to do with a friend of Yohjiís, when that playboy is done breaking his masterís heart. Poor Omi, indeed."

*******

Ran hurried from Yohjiís room, silently cursing the manís coworker. Why had that Mickey interrupted them? He had been so close to his goal; he _knew_ that Yohji had been about to have sex with him. This whole matter could have been finished by now, if only the strange man hadnít walked in on them.

He refused to blush at that memory. Ran had been torn between dying of mortification at someone finding him naked in the bed of a man he barely knew, with said man lying on top of him, or calling shadows down to cover him. It had taken some concentration to keep himself from revealing his power to Yohji and Mickey. Not desiring to be beheaded any time soon, at least before Aya-chan was freed, Ran was grateful that he had been able to control the impulse. Years of being unable to use the shadows against the Takatoris had taught the redhead some restraint.

Sliding into his room, Ran found Nagi sitting on his bed, waiting for him. "So, how was it?"

The kage refused to let himself blush at the question; he had been doing that too much the past couple of days. "We didnít." Curt answer given, Ran pulled off his wrinkled jerkin, determined to wash himself here, instead of one of the bathing rooms. The redhead didnít think he could take anyone staring at his back or his wrists in the communal baths. He poured a pitcher of water into the basin, and gave the spell that would warm the fluid a moment to work while he finished stripping. When it was ready, Ran cleaned himself, and Nagi handed him a towel to dry himself with. Giving the boy a nod in thanks, the kage dried off and then wrapped it around his waist, as he searched for something to wear. He couldnít find anything other than the new clothes that had been bought yesterday. "Where are my clothes?"

"Crawford stopped by yesterday, while you were out shopping, and took them. He said that they were rags, and he didnít want you to wear them anymore." Ran glared at his new clothes, several of which werenít his preferred black colour. He hated to stand out any more than he already did, and it would be hard to blend into the shadows if he was wearing a bright blue shirt.

"So why didnít youÖ have sex? You spent the night with him, didnít you? I thought you wanted to do this."

The glare was transferred to the inquisitive youth, as Ran reluctantly pulled on the blue shirt. He paired the garment with dark grey breeches and jerkin. "We were interrupted."

"Oh, come on, Ran, donít go all quiet on me now. What happened?"

It took some reminding that Nagi was his friend, and wouldnít drop the matter until he satisfied him with an answer. So no matter how much Ran wished he could send the boy out on some errand, heíd still have to answer him at some point. "Yohji had to go help with something downstairs."

Nagi sighed in that particular way which meant he wasnít happy with the short answers. Ran decided to change the topic, finding that talking about his sex life, or lack of it, was not something that he wished to do. "I told you not to interfere with Yohji and me. Why were you antagonizing him last night?"

The younger bound suddenly found the frayed edges of his shirt very interesting to look at. "I wasnít interfering, I was just making sure he treated you right. Do you know that you have bruises all down your neck and chest? And that your lips are swollen?"

"Ö." He wasnít going to blush. "Letís get something to eat." His friend was always easily distracted by his appetite.

Getting off the bed, Nagi crossed over to Ran, and lightly touched him on the arm. "Ran, are you sure that this is what you want?"

"Yes." It more than a little surprised him, but after the pleasure he had felt last night and again this morning, Ran did indeed want to carry on with the endeavor. And considering how quickly things were proceeding, it should be over with relatively soon. Yohji really was a slut. The redhead immediately cut off that train of thought, as a little voice inside whispered the question of what that made him.

Nagi accepted the answer and walked over to the door, making sure that Ran was following him. The two bounds made their way downstairs, and sat at what had become their table. Crawford was already there, nursing a cup of coffee.

"Good morning."

Ran and Nagi only nodded at the precog, who must have been expecting them, as the table was covered with food. Reaching for the pot of tea, the kage didnít eat anything until he had a cup first. A tiny smile hovered about his lips as he watched his younger friend devour everything in the immediate vicinity. That reminded him of their missing member. "Where isÖ Farfie?"

"Heís still in bed."

The Esset agent wouldnít be so calm if anyone had noticed the fact that there had been a flesh gaki-bound prowling the streets last night for prey. If anyone had, the city would probably be in an uproar, as people either hid from the bound, or formed parties, led by the Guards, to hunt it down. Ran decided not to worry about it, and ate his breakfast. He was rather hungry this morning, and ate more than his usual share of the food. Nagi nodded his head approvingly at the kageís increased appetite.

As Ran poured himself some more tea, Crawford spoke up. "Naoe, you are to get some new clothes today. Do you want to wait for Farf to wake up, or would you rather that I escort you around?"

The elemental-bound shifted in his seat uncomfortably. Ran didnít blame him; neither one was a cheerful prospect. About to offer to take his friend to Cassandraís for the new clothes, Ran blinked in surprise when Nagi spoke up. "Someone offered to show me the city today, if you donít mind."

What was even more surprising was when the older man only nodded his head in agreement. "Very well, here is some money." Crawford handed over a small purse to the teenager. "There should be more than enough to buy some decent clothes, and a few treats as well. Please be back by dinner."

Nagi glanced over at Ran, clearly waiting for his permission. While he wanted to refuse the boy, guessing that the someone he had mentioned was ĎOmií, the kage knew that Crawford wouldnít have agreed to the situation if it wouldnít benefit them and their mission in some way. Exchanging a glance with the precog, Ran sighed when the man minutely nodded his head, and told Nagi that he could go off with his Ďfriendí.

Staring into his mug of tea, Ran was startled when Yohji slid onto the bench beside him. "Mmm, done eating, cat? You mind if I get something for myself?" The blond slid an arm about his waist and inched closer. Hot air hit his ear, making the redhead shiver. "All I really want is you, but not here," Yohji whispered in a husky voice. "Thatíll wait Ďtil I get you all alone, and this time, I really am locking the damn door."

Amazed at the amount of pleasure a low voice and a hand stroking his hip could provoke, Ran wondered for a moment if he really should pursue this course of action taking a lover. Then Yohjiís mouth brushing along the side of his neck convinced him. He wanted more of this feeling, wanted it to be so strong that when someone he didnít choose kissed or touched him, he could drown it out with memories of this.

Yohji nibbled on his neck for a moment, then shifted back onto his seat, making sure to leave an arm around Ranís waist. "Could someone pass me the coffee?" the blond inquired, and Crawford handed it to him. "So, what are your agendas for the day? Need to do any more shopping, Aya?"

"No."

"Thank you, Kudoh, for taking Aya and Farfarello to your friend, yesterday."

"Youíre welcome, Brad. It was an interesting endeavor, and Iím always happy to steer business Cassís way." Yohji whispered in Ranís ear once more, telling him how nice he looked in his new outfit. "But I think youíll look even better once I get you out of it."

Refusing to let himself blush again, Ran became very interested in his mug of tea. A part of him wanted to hit the man for the comment, but another remembered how things had felt up in Yohjiís bedroom this morning, and wanted to take him up on the offer. Violet eyes narrowing, the redhead tried to make sense of the emotions assailing him. Heíd never felt anything like them, and wondered at how Yohji was making him feel, after knowing him for so short a time. Ran didnít feel the pleasurable tingle that heíd felt at other times, so this must be his natural reaction to the man. But was it normal to be filled with this potent, achingÖ want? How could he tell?

As if sensing that he was disquieting the pale man, Yohji backed away a little, and turned his attention to Nagi. "So, when is it Naoeís turn to get a new wardrobe? Any moment now, and Jo or Rina is going to snatch the shirt heís wearing and use it as a rag."

Nagi didnít appear happy with that thought, and glared at the blond. "Iím going shopping today," he replied, in a distant voice. "Omi is taking me."

"Omi? Then you will be in safe hands. Thanks, doll," Yohji commented to the girl who had brought him out a plate of eggs and sausage. The innkeeper was quiet over the next few minutes as he ate his breakfast, and the bounds fell silent as well, lost in thought.

Just as Yohji was wiping his plate clean, Omi appeared at the table, out of breath and a bit sweaty. "Naoe, you are still here! Iím sorry about being late, but I, uh, ran into a friend on the way over. You ready to do some shopping?"

Ranís eyes narrowed on the strange youth who was once more wearing his glamour. He didnít like to think of Nagi going off with a Takatori, especially when he hadnít been able to warn the boy, but Crawford caught his expression and shook his head back and forth.

"Oh, I see how you are now, Omi. No words of welcome for the man whoís known you for the past six years or so, now that youíve made a new friend. What a little ingrate you are." Ran could only stare as Yohji picked up a crust of bread and started to toss crumbs onto the prince. Did the man know that he was harassing the kingís heir? If Yohji had known ĎOmií for so many years, surely he knew who the boy was. Then again, there was the glamourÖ Confused, the kage returned his gaze back to his mug of tea.

"Maa, Yohji-kun, maybe Iím finally listening to the advice of others, and giving up on you before you lead me down a road of debauchery and ruin." Omi laughed as he combed the crumbs out of his hair. Before he could say anything else, Yohji let out a loud yelp, his hands moving underneath the table to massage his shin, and green eyes glared at Nagi. Ran sighed as the elemental-boundís protective nature had evidently been extended to include a new friend. Nagi may not care about many people, but when he didÖ Yohji should invest in a suit of body armor, if he insisted on teasing Omi.

Who must have recognized the fact that Yohji growling at the slight youth was a bad sign, and tugged on Nagiís arm. "Come on, Naoe, letís get the shopping out of the way so we can do some sightseeing. And thereís a bakery I want to stop at on the way; they always have some tarts, fresh from the oven, available this time of the morning." Nagi waved goodbye to Ran, and after sparing Yohji a dirty look, allowed himself to be dragged off.

"Damn little demon; let Omi put up with him for the day." Rubbing his shin for another minute, Yohji glanced at Ran and immediately stopped frowning. With a smile tugging at his lips, the taller man yanked the kage onto his lap, holding on tight as Ran squirmed a little and glared at him. Yohji dipped his head, until his lips were brushing against his captiveís. "Hmm, so what are you doing today, if not shopping?"

Catching the hushed whispers from the innís patrons still in the dining room, over how Yohji had found himself yet another new lover, Ran increased the intensity of his glare, and very quietly muttered Ďshi-neí. He pushed away from Yohji, or at least tried to, and was surprised to find out that he couldnít break the manís hold. All he seemed to be doing was amusing the blond, as he felt a pair of smiling lips press against his neck. There were a couple of puffs of warm, moist air against his skin, as Yohji laughed softly.

"Iím glad to see that you feel comfortable enough around me to give me dirty looks, or at least I think I am. But if I die, think of all the pleasure youíll be missing out on." Ran stopped struggling, as he realized that he had been scowling at the older man, and had even cursed him out. Did he really trust Yohji that much, not to be afraid of abuse anymore?

Trying to puzzle that thought out, Ranís eyes went wide as he was kissed on the lips, then drifted shut as he gave up on thinking in favor of just feeling for once. The tingling sensation was back, but it was so slight, almost insidious with the way it mingled with the pleasure. All too soon, Yohji pulled away from him, and stared at Ran with heavy lidded green eyes. "So, what are your plans for the day?"

"Hn." It was sunny outside, so Ran knew heíd have to wait for a cloudy day, or until the sun went down, before he could spend some time in the garden out back. "Reading." Heíd like another soak in the spring downstairs as well, but didnít want to sit in a pool with a bunch of strangers. "Is thereÖ is there a good time to use the hot spring?" Ran wasnít sure that he had phrased that properly, but didnít know how to go about requesting something, nor did he want to explain the reason why he wanted to be alone. Though Yohji had seen his scars, and could probably guess.

The blond stared at him in puzzlement for a moment, then the arms about his waist tightened almost painfully. "You want to have a soak by yourself, donít you?" Yohjiís voice had dropped into a growl, and there was an intense emotion shining in the emerald orbs, one that Ran couldnít place as he nodded his head. "I think I can arrange that; you donít need some stranger staring at you or bothering you while you take a bath. Stop by the kitchen around two oíclock, and Iíll have Jo give you the key. Not many people use it at that time, but Iíll have it locked for you beforehand, so you can have your privacy." Another kiss was placed on his lips, this one savage in its passion, and lasting until Ran had to gasp for air.

"So, no plans for tonight?" How the hell could Yohji kiss someone like that, and be able to speak perfectly normal afterwards? Still short of breath, Ran shook his head, and could only stare at the other man as the handsome face lit up. "Good." His voice husky once more, Yohji whispered in Ranís ear, "Spend it with me? Please?"

Knowing that this was what heíd waited for, the kage could only nod his head. This would be it; Yohji would want to have sex tonight. Apprehensive at the thought, Ran let his head fall downward, his hair covering his face and the faint blush that stained his cheeks. "Thank you. You wonít regret this, cat, I promise you." A gentle kiss was placed on his forehead, and then Yohji shifted him back to the bench. "I have a bunch of things to tend to today, so Iíll see you down here for dinner, around seven, okay?" When Ran nodded again, he found his head tilted up, and was given another gentle kiss, this time on his lips. "Itíll be okay, I promise." Yohji appeared about to say something else, but merely stroked his cheek as he smiled, and then took his leave.

Ran stared after the man, until he heard Crawford clear his throat. Determined that he wasnít going to blush anymore, at least until tonight, the redhead gazed icily at the precog, lifting his left eyebrow in inquiry.

"I see that things are going well between you and the innkeeper. You are doing a very good job of distracting him, and I see no potential trouble for ourÖ task because of this relationship."

"Huhn." Ran reached for the teapot, and frowned slightly when he found it empty. Why was Crawford pushing this matter? "You will be sure to notify me if that changes."

"Of course." Was that a trace of amusement on the dark haired manís face? Wishing he was better at interpreting the emotions of others, something which had always perplexed him for some reason, Ran nibbled on some sliced apples. When he was done, he slanted a glance at his companion, and carefully pitched his voice so a human couldnít hear it.

"Why are you allowing Nagi to be friends with this Omi? You do realize that he is Prince Mamoru, donít you?"

Picking at the remains of the cheese platter, Crawford answered him back in the barely audible tone. "I know who the boy is, and I foresee no trouble because of this. Indeed, just as with your affair with Kudoh, I see this relationship being beneficial to us. How did you recognize the boy?"

"I saw through his glamour, and remembered a portrait in Prince Reijiís private study."

"Ah." Pausing to take a sip of coffee, Crawford then wiped his lips with a napkin. "Iím not surprised that the man has a picture of the boy."

"Because heís his son," Ran hissed. "One can not trust a Takatori."

"While I agree in general with that statement, I feel that this ĎOmií is an exception. And heís not Reijiís son, no matter what the man thinks."

Confused, the kage played with one of his eartails. "ButÖ he said that he cast a spell that would prevent anyone from finding out who the boyís father really was."

There was an amused chuckle from the precog. "You need to spend more time with your own kind, and not humans. He could only block another wizard from finding out Mamoruís real parentage, not a bound. A water elemental-bound was sent to the palace years ago, to confirm the boyís parentage. Heís Shuuichiís son; there is no doubt."

"Hn. Heís still a Takatori." Still part of the clan that felt it was their right to abuse kage as they saw fit, and had ordered the execution of any discovered bounds. To say that Ran hated anyone of that lineage was to put it mildly.

"We need him to be friends with Nagi, Ran, so let the matter rest." There was an edge to Crawfordís voice, causing the redhead to stare at him. "We need him and Kudoh both, if we are to be successful."

His voice dry, Ran forced out the next few words. "Iím to kill him. If I doÖ theyíll leave me alone, for a little bit." Not that he trusted the word of a Takatori, but it was useless to not wish that heíd be spared a few weeks of torture, after this mission was completed. Ran knew that once it was done, and if he survived, that he would never set foot out of his prison inside of the palace again, unless it was to kill someone. Not until his death, however far off in the distant future that might be. He didnít look at the other bound, afraid to see the doubt in the blue eyes over that last statement.

"RanÖ I donít know what to say. Only that we need Omi and Nagi to be friends at this point."

Reminded of his friend, Ran tore his gaze from the table to stare at Crawford. It was time to take a desperate gamble, and ensure that at least the youth had a chance at life. Crawford and Jei hadnít betrayed them so far; maybe they could be trusted. "Promise me two things."

The other bound was instantly wary of his request. "What do I get in return, if I do?"

"I will obey your every order, as long as it does not conflict with those that the Takatoris have given me." He was handing over the little bit of freedom he had left, but didnít see any other choice.

Crawford was silent for a moment, then crossed his arms over his chest and gazed back levelly at the kage. "What do you want?"

"Promise me that no harm will come to Nagi and Yohji because of the mission, andÖ" It was so hard to tear away the last thing Ran had that kept him sane and grounded. "And promise me that you will take Nagi with you when this is over. I canít keep him at the palace with me; someone will discover what he really is if he remains near me for much longer. Take him with you, and find someplace safe for him to live." Somewhere other than the side of the man who would have to kill his friend, and who put him at risk because of their friendship.

"I swear by all the stars that my word be true, may nothing but darkness reign if I break my troth." Ran looked up at the words, amazed that someone remembered the ancient oath, which he had only found in books. For a moment, he wondered how old Crawford was.

He spoke the second part of the oath. "I pledge to hold back the darkness as well, and will keep my troth through death and life."

"Good. I will do everything in my power, and then some, to keep those promises to you. Now, I expect you to remain by Kudohís side, as long as he wants you as a lover. Do you understand me?"

Nodding his head, Ran very faintly replied yes. He didnít think that the promise would bind him for long; it was likely Yohji would grow bored with him after this night. But the man would not pay for supplying the kage with a few good memories to hold back the bad, and that was what was important. Ran didnít want anyone else to ever suffer because of him again.

*******

Birman sighed as she spied Botan hunched over his table, his nose practically buried in the book in front of him. "I donít see how you arenít blind and hunchbacked yet, with the way you read."

"Because pests like you keep dragging me away from my studies, thatís why." The wizard looked up to smile at the kingís spymaster, taking the sting out of his words. "Why the hell are you plaguing me now?"

"I wanted to see what youíve been up to, oh illustrious grouch." She hadnít seen her friend since the other night, when they had drunk themselves silly, and worried that Botan had been neglecting himself lately. Birman was the only one who bothered to check up on the wizard anymore, besides Omi and Manx. And the former had taken to escaping the palace as much as possible the past week or so, and the latter was too busy planning her wedding and finding a replacement for her position. Privately, Birman wished Manx would concentrate more on her soon to be former job, as her retirement was tearing the Guards apart.

"Well, obviously you need some glasses, missy, if you canít tell what the hell Iíve been up to."

Brown eyes blinked in surprise at the manís exasperated tone. "Botan, are you okay? Donít tell me you are still hungover." She noted that her friend was wearing a stained, wrinkled robe, and didnít look like he had shaved in the past day or two.

Sighing, Botan rubbed his eyes. "Iím sorry, Birman, I donít mean to snap at you. Itís just that Iíve been so damn busy lately. Itís very hard, trying to make sure that thousands of wards are still working properly, and have enough energy to power them. Everything has to be ready by the wedding, and my assistants and I will be completely worn out by then. Add to that the fact that Iím spending every spare moment trying to research the kage and other bounds, and Iím completely frazzled."

Brushing a piece of lint off of her clingy, crimson jacket, Birman edged toward the table. "You know, it would make your job much easier if you would just use bound blood in the ward spells." She wasnít surprised when Botan glared at her viciously.

"If you ever suggest that again, I will bar you from my quarters, do you understand me? Iím only forgiving you this time because I know you are concerned about everything being perfect for the wedding."

She had thought the man would reply like this, but Birman had to bring up the topic. "Iím sorry, Botan, but I spoke the truth. I know why you wonít, though, and wonít ever breach the topic again." It had been almost eight years, and the man still hadnít forgotten about his daughter. The dark-haired woman decided to change the topic. "So, what are you reading?"

"A copy of one of Banís private journals." Birman arched an eyebrow at the mention of the very first kage. "I canít be certain how much of it is true, since it has been copied several times, but the little Iíve translated tells me just how much weíve cloaked the creatures in lies, in an attempt to make people fear them."

"I thought that was true for all bounds." Biting off the last word, the woman wasnít sure if she had set off her friend yet again.

Botan frowned for a moment, then fingered the scar along his cheek. "My fellow wizards have done too good a job, ever since they found out the benefits of bound blood. So much dissemblance, and it is coming back to haunt us, when we rely on their race so very much. I canít make out the truth from the myths, no matter how much I try to read. I searched for Aidanís journals, hoping that they would give me some answers since she lived not that long ago, but they are gone."

Just as many things had been taken when Reiji had been sent into exile. Birman knew better than to send to the disgraced royal and ask him for the tomes. Maybe, though, she could send one of her spies instead, and find out if the man really did possess the books. She could probably have Shuuichi request them, if that was the case.

The wizardís voice shook her from her thoughts. "You know, itís actually better to cast a spell the harder way, then cheat by using the blood of a bound. Iíve found that out, these past few years."

"How so?"

"I donít know. Maybe because there is no taint of hate and despair to the spell that way; all I know is that a spell prepared the proper way will last against a spell fueled with blood. Thatís how, in part at least, the assassin slipped past our defenses last year. All of the old wards were set with bound blood. By reinforcing them the old fashioned way, I am making it harder for anyone to break them again."

"Unless this time the assassin is a kage, and then it wonít matter how strong the spells are." Botan nodded his head grimly. "Ah, now I know why I donít visit you too much; these discussions always make me want to drink."

Smiling as he put away his book, Botan rubbed his stubbled chin. "Well, I owe you for the last few rounds; what do you say to my treat at the Koneko tomorrow night? I know that there are a few spells there that need renewing; thatíll take care of our tab."

Birman laughed out loud. "It must be nice to be a wizard, what with all the perks. A few minutes of labor, and you get to eat and drink for free. Count me in." That way, she could take another stab at convincing Yohji that he had been a fool to quit the Guards, and try one more time to enlist him in her service. The man would make a natural spy and assassin; he was too charming for words, and very deadly with his chosen weapon. "We might even run into Omi while weíre there."

"Oh really, is that where heís hidden himself lately? Iíve wondered where the boy went off to." Neither of them spoke of the reason why the prince hadnít been at the palace lately. This wedding was stirring up a lot of bad memories, for several people. Botanís eyes grew distant, as he thought back on the past. "I remember when he was barely more than a babe, when I would tell him stories to make him sleep."

"I heard you are the one responsible for his name."

The wizard chuckled. "Yes. I told him various legends, including those of the oni. He loved those ones, though he got the name wrong. Kept roaming the palace halls, shouting out "Iím an omi, Iím an omi," until everyone took to calling him that." A smile warmed the manís face, an all too rare event. Botan hadnít had much to be happy about, these past few years. He rested his head on the table, lost in thought, and didnít notice when his friend took her leave of him.

Walking down the hall, Birman felt as if one thing had gone right today. Now it was time for her to return to her office, and go through the stack of reports awaiting her. The invitation to Reiji and his sons would be sent out in a couple daysí time, recalling him to the capital for the wedding. Although she thought the action was preposterous, she could understand why her king had done it. Besides, it would be best to have the raping bastard and his offspring here under careful watch, rather than let them plot from their castle in the countryside. The spymaster just hoped that Botan made sure that all the wards were strengthened, and that the Guard was unified once more, before the kingís family arrived in the capital.

*******

Feeling a wide yawn crack his jaw, Jei tugged his blankets down, until he could peer about his room. His senses had told him that Crawford was with him, writing away in his journal over on his bed. Great. Nothing like starting off the day with an itinerary, if he knew his partner. Which, after almost thirty years together, heíd better know him. Already the flesh gaki-bound had lasted longer than any of the precogís other partners. "Morning, Oracle."

"Morning, Berserker. I take it you had a successful hunt last night?"

"You could say that." He shouldnít need another one for at least a week or two, as long as he didnít call on his power or pick too many fights. Jei sat up on his bed, and looked over at the dark haired man, who was staring back at him, with a smile on his face. Oh shit.

"Crawford, I still have room for one more person, let me warn you of that now."

Blue eyes regarded Jei with amusement. "What makes you say that?"

"Because you are happy, and that never happens unless someone is suffering or about to die. Who is it, me or Cass?"

"Hmph, if it was either of you, Iíd be on the rooftop, shouting in joy." Jei snarled at the other man, making sure to show his fangs as he did so. Their morning ritual of threatening each other taken care of, he rose to his feet to search out the jug of water over on the table by their window.

"Seriously, Crawford, what has you so happy?"

The precog scratched away in his journal for a moment, then set it aside. "The kage is ours now."

"I thought you were using Kudoh to make him ours." He hated having to think first thing in the morning, even if it was technically the afternoon, judging from the clock on the roomís dresser. "What happened now?"

"Ran has sworn an oath to obey me in anything that doesnít conflict with his orders from the Takatoris, in exchange for Kudoh and Nagiís safety. He asked that we take the boy with us, when the mission is over."

Swallowing some water, Jei thought about that statement. "We were planning on taking Nagi with us anyway. Thought he was part of the grand vision, along with your son. Speaking of which, how did that go?"

Oh, someone was not happy. There went Crawfordís smile. "He is more than talented enough for our needs, and will be joining us as well. Nagi will come with us, if only to honor Ranís wishes. With the kage sworn to me, Kudoh will be ours as well, and we can use the man against Ran, to try and keep him alive." The smile returned to the older boundís face. "Weíve done it, Jei. We now have the power to kill them. And with a kage tied to us, think of all the chaos we can bring about."

Someone needed to get a life, Jei thought to himself. He was getting tired of all this Ďchaosí nonsense, and didnít like the way Crawford was talking about possessing Ran. They all were slaves, in one way or another; the last thing they should be thinking of was enslaving someone else. Bind Ran, Nagi and Kudoh to their cause, yes, but not take the place of the masters they wished to do away with.

"All I want is to be free, and kill as many wizards as I can, Oracle. I wonít become like the Elders, and I caution you not to do so either." Jei bared his teeth again, but this time it wasnít in jest.

"I want our freedom as well, Jei, and will do whatever I have to in order to make that happen. That means gathering the necessary elements to us, and ensuring that they will survive long enough to fight. With Ranís promise, that makes things so much easier," Crawford huffed.

Deciding to let the matter slide, Jei sat back down on his bed. "Okay, just as long as we are clear on a few points. Now, I need a soak, and a few gallons of coffee, so let me know what you want me to do for the day, while you have a chance of outrunning me." He let out a moan as he was handed a long list. "Crawford, if you keep this shit up, you will be the only black haired, blue eyed man left in the city, as Iíll have eaten the rest of them all in an attempt to work off my frustrations."

"And I expect you to get all of those things, and be back for dinner. Have a nice day, Berserker."

Jei wondered just how much trouble heíd get into for eating yet another partner. Maybe plunging the world into darkness would be a good thing.

*******

"Two ice melts, please. Blueberry." Omi handed a coin to the vendor, and waited impatiently for the treats. Once the man handed them over, he gave one to his new friend. "Here, try this."

Naoe accepted the ice treat warily, but after a small bite, smiled slightly and started to shovel it in his mouth. "Ow, it hurts my head, but tastes so good."

"You arenít supposed to eat it that quickly," Omi replied, and was rewarded with another slight smile. It was the sixth one heíd received this day, not that he was counting. Each time the younger boy smiled, something ached inside of his chest, and the prince felt lightheaded. Omi kept buying new treats, and pointing out new sights, in an attempt to wring one of the rare expressions from Naoe. He got the impression that his friend didnít smile enough.

The boy was quiet and withdrawn around most people, barely speaking to even Yohjiís friend Cass, who had tried her best to put Naoe at ease. While that worried Omi, he was heartened that he seemed to be the exception to the rule. Him, and the boyís master, Aya. Well, it was quite convenient that Yohji had taken a liking to the pale redhead, since it ensured Naoe lots of free time to spend with Omi. Heíd just have to make sure that Yohji understood if he broke Ayaís heart any time soon, heíd be dealing with a very upset prince. Sometimes, being royal had its advantages. But mostly, not.

"Well, we need to start returning to the Koneko soon, if you have to be back for dinner."

"Yes." There was a scowl on Naoeís delicate face, one that Omi didnít like.

"Whatís wrong? Donít you want to go back?"

Licking the last of the ice off of his wooden spoon, Naoe dropped the paper wrapping the treat had come in to the ground, after crumpling it into a tiny ball. "Iíll just have to sit and watch Yohji treatÖAya as if he was a whore. He doesnít deserve that."

Omi frowned himself. "Yohji? Treating someone like a whore? Iíll be the first to admit that the man has no morals whatsoever, but heís never treated his lovers like that. I think you are just jealous." Which made him jealous as well.

"What?" Naoe seemed to think about that statement for a few steps. "I just donít want to see Aya get hurt. Heís so rarely around people; I donít think he knows how to respond to them properly, and I think that Yohji takes advantage of that. The moment that Aya isnít interested in him anymore, he better leave my friend alone."

"So you are just looking out for a friend?"

Naoe nodded his head. "Heís looked after me the past few years, when there was no one else. Aya- I know he would do just about anything, to make sure that I am safe. I want to do the same for him." The youth glanced at Omi, and a faint blush spread across his cheeks. "Iím sorry; maybe I shouldnít say things like this."

The prince got the impression that Aya wasnít the only one not used to being around people. At least now he knew that Naoe didnít love the man, other than as a friend and protector. Aya had risen in his opinion, for having made Naoe into such a staunch defender. "No, I want you to feel like you can say anything to me."

There was definitely a blush on Naoeís cheeks this time. "I already do," the boy whispered, and then started to hurry back to the inn.

A smile on his face, Omi tossed his cup aside and caught up to his friend. Feeling very daring, he grabbed one of Naoeís hands, and entwined their fingers together. Maybe he was moving a bit fast, but the boy wouldnít be here in the capital forever, unless he figured out a way to arrange that. So Omi was determined to enjoy this bit of happiness as much as possible.

*******

Ran set aside his book when the door to his room opened. He was grateful for the fact that heíd lit a candle, since Nagi was followed by Omi. "Evening, Aya, weíre just dropping off my new clothes. Are you ready for dinner?"

The redhead nodded as he rose to his feet. He hadnít been able to tear himself away from Aidanís last journal all day, as if to convince himself of the wisdom of his course of action. Not that he had any choice in the matter anymore, since he had made that promise to Crawford. He was Yohjiís now, for as long as the man wanted him. Which most likely wouldnít be past sunrise tomorrow. But the memories would be worth it.

The three of them made their way downstairs, and Ran wasnít surprised in the least to see Crawford and Jei down there already, and in close conversation with each other. The two bounds broke apart as they approached the table, and the kage sat down next to Jei. Nagi and Omi took their seats on Crawfordís side of the table.

A hint of roses was the only warning that Ran had of Yohjiís presence. "These are for you." The blond held out a half dozen roses the exact shade of the redheadís eyes. Telling himself that he wasnít allowed to blush, Ran accepted the flowers. ĎThank you."

After setting them on the table, he glanced over at the other man. Yohjiís hair was loose about his shoulders, and he was wearing a green linen shirt the color of his eyes with brown leather pants and boots. The clothes made the manís eyes and golden skin tone stand out, and Ran couldnít imagine anyone more different than himself. Yohji was sunlight and spring, while he was blood and ice. Did he deserve someone like that? Probably not, but he had to take what he could get, and somehow, Ran could no longer imagine just picking out a random person from the crowd and taking them as a lover.

Finally aware that he was staring at the innkeeper, Ran glanced away from him and back to the roses on the table. A hand combed through his bangs and caressed his cheek. "You look beautiful." The kage had changed his shirt to a cream coloured one, and had left off his hooded jerkin. He figured it didnít make sense to try and hide himself, since Yohji would just be stripping him of the garments later.

Dinner was a blur to him; all Ran was aware of was Yohjiís arm about his waist, and the fact that he hadnít turned down any wine that had been offered to him. He refused to look in Omiís direction all through the meal, not needing to be reminded of the dark reason he was doing this. And after catching the pleased looks on Crawford and Jeiís faces, he hadnít glanced their way either. That left him his plate, the flowers, Nagiís anxious face and Yohjiís lustful one to look at, and he chose the plate.

"Hey, Aya, are you alright?" A hand was touching his hair once more, sweeping back his long bangs. Ran glanced over at Yohji, and nodded his head. "Do you want anything more to eat?"

He started to shake his head, when it occurred to Ran what that question meant. Deciding it would be best to get things over with as quickly as possible, he continued to shake his head. Yohji flashed him a quick grin, then gathered up one of his hands. "Letís go, then." Ran grabbed the flowers before he was pulled away from the table.

The Konekoís dining room was full of people eating and drinking, especially the latter. It took the two men a few moments to weave through the crowd, and they had to stop a few times as various patrons asked Yohji to talk to them. One tried to proposition the blond, and Ran was willing to bet that a couple were former lovers. Each time they were stopped, Yohji pulled him close, and after the barest of courtesies, would start walking towards the stairs.

"Ah, you sure as hell picked a pretty one, Kudoh! Youíll have to let me know when you are done with him, so someone else can enjoyÖ" Ranís eyes went wide as he watched the inebriated man fall to the floor from Yohjiís punch. Looking at the green eyed man, he found himself jerked forward once more, and a hand latched on to his waist, keeping him next to Yohjiís side. No one stopped the innkeeper after that.

Once they made it to Yohjiís door, the lanky man released Ran as he took a shuddering breath. "Listen, Aya, you donít have to do this, you know. I wonít be angry with you if you want to go to your room, by yourself. Iíll still help you, and promise to keep you safe. So please, donít come in here if you donít want to spend the night. I donít think I can take letting you go, if you change your mind after weíre inside." A pair of emerald hued eyes stared at the redhead earnestly.

His choice already made, Ran opened the door. He took a few steps inside, and came to an abrupt halt. The room was filled with burning candles, all scented with lavender. And instead of the wide, plain bed that had been there this morning, there was a smaller four-poster, draped with gold curtains that were pulled back on the side facing the door. Ran felt Yohji step behind him, and turned to look at the blond.

"Ah, so you noticed the bed." The man had to be making an attempt at humor. "It was my grandparentsí; my gram hated to be cold in the mornings. I thought it would be good for you, since it would block out the sun, but still let some cool air in, if we leave the one side open."

Unsure what to say, Ran just nodded his head. The man had changed his bed, just for him? Did Yohji usually go to such lengths for his flings? He was then distracted by Yohji taking the bouquet of roses out of his hand. The older man sniffed them for a moment, then placed them on the nightstand. Ran found himself encircled by the manís arms, and Yohji bent his head down to sniff the crook of his neck. "Hmm, I think you smell better. Did you enjoy your bath?"

"Yes." Ran was proud that his voice showed no traces of his apprehension. The bath had been very nice, just him soaking for almost a half hour in the quiet, empty room. Though Jo had given him an odd look when he had asked for and returned the key; it might even have been sympathetic. He suddenly remembered his manners, which he didnít have many opportunities to exercise. "Thank you."

"Youíre welcome." Yohji kissed him on the mouth, tenderly at first, but soon growing more impassioned by the moment. Ran was so intent on the kiss, it took him a moment to realize that the older man was unlacing his top, before it was pushed down his shoulders and fell to the floor. Feeling the hated blush creep back on his face, Ran lifted his hands to unravel the strings at the neck of Yohjiís shirt. As he untied them, the blond groaned out loud and pulled away.

Yohji yanked his top over his head, and then stepped back to Ran, wrapping his arms about the kageís waist, picking him up to set him on the bed. Ran fell backwards on the soft feather bed, causing the blond to chuckle softly. Pushing himself up on his elbows, he glared as Yohji yanked off first Ranís boots and then his own. Then the manís hands were about his waist, tugging down his pants.

Closing his eyes, Ran lifted his hips, assisting Yohji in his efforts. A few seconds later, and he was lying on the bed, completely nude. He heard the other man take a deep breath and shift about on the floor, and then the mattress sank with an added weight. A warm body pressed against his left side, the tingling sensation back and crawling along his skin, as a pair of hands tugged him about until he was facing Yohji. "Aya, open your eyes."

He did so, and found the blondís face centimeters from his own. "Relax, I wonít hurt you. Just remember how good it felt earlier." Taking a deep breath of his own, Ran reached out to brush a lock of golden hair off of Yohjiís shoulder. That seemed to be what the man was waiting for, and once more the redhead found himself being kissed breathless.

From there, everything whirled into pleasurable bliss, as the kage lost himself in the sensations that Yohji was wringing from his body. A talented tongue delving into his mouth, until all he could taste was his lover, then moving along his neck, making him squirm from the attention lavished there. Clever hands roamed all over his body, stroking him softly, until his skin thrummed from the touches. Just when he couldnít take anymore, the hands were replaced by the mouth, causing Ran to moan out loud. He was pushed onto his back, and his nipples were sucked on and nipped at, then laved with that wonderful tongue, again and again. Yohjiís mouth traveled down his stomach, making him suck in his breath, as the kage squirmed from the wet touch. About to shift away, Ranís breath caught as a hand stroked along his length, which had been aching with desire.

Jolts of pleasure shot through him, as Yohjiís hand pumped him slowly, then moved away to feather light caresses along the inside of his thighs. Moaning at the lost contact, Ran wasnít prepared when a wet tongue replaced the appendage, making him jerk his hips up in the air. There was another chuckle from Yohji, one that made him bite his lips at the sensation of warm, moist air hitting his sensitive cock. Hands held his hips still, as the tongue traveled up and down the length of him, swirling around the top before tracing downwards and back up. "YohjiÖ" He didnít know what he wanted, other than for the teasing to stop. It was almost as bad as the tingle of magic, trying to crawl its way under his skin.

"Hmm, you taste as good as you smell, Aya." More warm air on that most sensitive of parts, and Ran tasted blood as something oh so warm and wet engulfed him. Yohji started to suck on him gently, and the kage tossed his head back, his eyes firmly closed. His hips were urged upward, which he instantly responded to, and a hand slid between his legs. There was a touch of slickness, noticed even through the haze of bliss that Yohjiís mouth was making him feel, and then something pushed its way inside his body.

Ran tensed at the sensation, and let out another moan when Yohji took his mouth away from his shaft. "Shhh, itís okay. Relax, Aya." It didnít burn as it had the last time Yohji had put a finger inside of him, so Ran tried to unclench his muscles. The blond had taken to nibbling on his neck again, and he let his head fall back on the pillows, trying to ignore the stretching sensation below.

Something else pushed inside of him, and Ran forced himself not to shy away from the touch. "Itíll be okay. Iím just making you ready, Aya. I donít want to hurt you." He wanted to laugh at that comment; he was no stranger to pain. With that thought in mind, he ignored the discomfort that he felt, and tugged Yohjiís head back down for a kiss. The fingers shifted about inside of him, pushing in deeper, and a hard length rubbed against one of his thighs. Ran concentrated on every sensation other than what those fingers were doing.

Suddenly there was a burst of intense pleasure, making the kage mewl out loud. Looking at Yohji, Ran could only stare at the man as the feeling repeated, mesmerized by the smug look on the manís face. "Itíll get even better, Aya, I swear." He couldnít respond to this statement as Yohji started to suck on his neck, twisting those fingers again and again until Ranís vision darkened and his ears were filled with the rushing of his own blood. Entwining his fingers in the blondís hair, the pale man pressed the mouth more firmly against his skin, as he rocked his hips backwards, wanting to feel more.

"Gods, Aya, I hope you are ready." Yohji pulled away from him, losing a few strands of hair in the process, and Ran mewled at the loss of the heat and mouth and fingers. He couldnít tear his eyes off the man, and watched as Yohji grabbed a small jar and scooped out some sort of gel. The manís face tightened as he rubbed the stuff along his own erection, and Ran realized that was the slickness he had felt against his skin minutes before. It suddenly occurred to him what Yohji had meant about making him ready, and what was about to replace those fingers. Something much more substantial, as he stared at the manís cock. Maybe this wasnít such a good idea after all; maybe he should have found himself a woman who didnít mind showing an inexperienced lover what to do.

As if sensing his doubts, Yohji finished stroking himself and lowered himself on top of Ran, trapping him on the bed. "Itíll be okay, Aya, I promise you. Gods, please donít leave now." The manís voice was throaty and low, and Ran felt the tingle return, almost overpoweringly so. It distracted and dazed him, as it never had in the past, and he merely lay there as Yohji rained down kisses on his face and nestled between his thighs. A tongue pushing past his lips demanded the kageís attention, and he never noticed when his legs were shifted onto Yohjiís shoulders. The tingle reminded him of the pleasure heíd already experienced and hummed with such eagerness to sink into his flesh and bones until Ran couldnít think of anything other than feeling good. He embraced the magic, drew it in deep inside of him, letting it fill him completely.

"Oh gods," Yohji moaned, and something thick started to push its way into Ran. At first he panicked at the feel of being stretched past his limits, but the tingle was there, soothing him while it made him burn at the same time. Made him burn for Yohji, to feel the man inside of him, a solid, hot presence that grounded him as nothing ever had before. The man kept pressing into him, filling him more and more, even though Ran didnít understand how there could be more to come, yet Yohji continued to push inside of him. Finally the man stopped, and the kage just tried to breathe, lost in being filled completely and the need for Yohji to do _something_, anything other than just rest on top of him, murmuring words of endearment in his ear.

"-so tight, oh gods, lovely, youíre just lovely, my little cat, wanna move, please say I can move-"

"Yohji, _do something_," Ran rasped out, feeling as if something inside of him was pulled too taut, and he needed to relieve that pressure, somehow. Yohji pulled his hips backward, taking that wonderful, invasive presence with him, and the redhead gasped at its loss, only to mewl when it thrust back inside of him, even deeper than before. He felt his hips shifted upward, and the next thrust brought back the explosive pleasure from before, taking his breath away. It was all pleasure; every tiny bit of him was filled with that emotion, that tingle, and Ran felt awash in the feeling. It only intensified as Yohjiís mouth devoured his neck, as a hand took to stroking him in time with the deep thrusts that filled his vision with blackness and colour, that gave so much and took so little from him, just a slight drain that made the world seem so far away, except for Yohji inside of him and the ecstasy the man was making him feel.

Heat spread out through his body, and the taut wire inside of him coiled tighter and tighter, until it suddenly snapped, shattering him with bliss. Ran choked out Yohjiís name, feeling his body pulse in time with the warm spurts covering his stomach, and trembled from the experience. He felt Yohji thrust inside him frantically, the blondís hands tightening on his hips as warmth filled him, Yohjiís voice filling his ears as he cried out loud. "AYA!"

The tingle was still there, but receding with the pleasure, settling into his very marrow. It was as if some essence of Yohji was a part of him now. The man pressed a kiss against his temple, and Ran felt an ache of emptiness as the older man pulled out of him, then gathered him in his arms. "Oh gods, Aya, thank you."

Ran felt so tired as the last of the tingle faded away. It didnít feel like it was his body being stroked and held close, but someone elseís. Unwilling to think of anything but the ecstasy that had filled him moments before, Ran let his eyes drift closed, to shut out the world that all too often hurt him. Later there would be pain, and Yohji would stop holding him so tenderly, but for now, he could fall asleep thinking of pleasure and how safe it felt to be held like this.

*******

Yohji brushed Ayaís bangs off of the pale face, and smiled softly to see that his lover was falling asleep. Using a corner of the sheets to wipe off the manís stomach, he shifted Aya about until he was pressed against him comfortably: crimson head tucked under the taller manís chin, their legs entangled together and arms about each otherís waist. Aya grumbled a little, probably at being moved about like a doll, but the breath against Yohjiís chest evened out.

Now if only his own would. That had beenÖ Yohji couldnít put it into words. Aya had been inexperienced and uncertain, barely touching him at all during their lovemaking, but that had been the best sex Yohji had ever had. Something about the pale man drove him crazy, made him need to possess all of Aya, made every little brush of skin against skin fill him with ecstasy. Deep down inside, a part of the lanky man growled in satisfaction, making him feel sated and buzzed at the same time. There wasnít an inch of Yohjiís skin that didnít tingle with pleasure, and all he could think of was how long before he could do this again.

He wasnít going to let Aya go, not after this. It wasnít just the sex, which had satisfied him as none other had. It was so much more than that; like the way Ayaís body fit so well against his, the way that Yohji felt that he had a purpose once more when the man was near him, the way that the rest of the world faded away. Heíd never loved anyone like this, and while it should terrify him, all he could think of was that the redhead was his, now and forever. Yohji had marked Aya, and now neither could do without the other. That thought didnít make any sense to the blond, but a part of him knew that it was true.

Lying there with his lover in his arms, Yohji pondered Cassandraís words to him. He had made Aya his, and the man had sure as hell made him happy. But she had mentioned sadness as well, and a darkness that threatened everything. If she had been partially correct so far, it was smart to assume that the rest would prove true as well. Holding onto Aya tighter, Yohji wondered about the sadness and darkness, and pondered over how he would protect his love from it.

*******

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