Shadows

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chapter five

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Ties

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Schuldig led his father to a quiet inn he knew in a less reputable part of town. There was no way in hell he was taking the man to his home, and his mother would kill him if he showed up on her doorstep with the prick; so, the Grey Goose it was. The place was not as nice as the Koneko, but the patrons there knew to mind their own business, and the liquor was cheap. And something told the telepath heíd want a lot of alcohol in his system if he had to have a long chat with Crawford.

Finding an out of the way table in a drafty corner of the sparsely furnished inn, Schuldig sat down and beckoned a ragged looking server over. Crawford made a big show of cleaning off his seat before sitting down at the scarred table and sniffed at the two pints of house ale that were set down upon it. "Your tastes are deplorable. Yet another thing you didnít inherit from me."

Snorting over his drink, Schuldig drained most of it before he answered the other bound. "Well, Iíd normally be at the Koneko right now, but youíre the one who dragged my ass out of it. All because Yohjiís getting some. Why couldnít I have stayed and joined in on the fun?"

Crawford pinched the bridge of his nose as if suffering a headache. "The fate of the world is partially in the hands of a moron. Why do I even bother?" He then reached for his pint and drained it in a matter of seconds. Schuldig stared at him in awe for a moment before waving the woman over with more. When the fresh pints were on the table, he waited for his father to continue.

"Listen to me, if that is at all possible for you." Crawfordís voice was pitched low, to ensure that no one beyond their table would hear him. "You have a very powerful succubae-bound claiming his mate, which means that anyone in Yohjiís immediate vicinity is not going to be able to think about anything other than sex until he makes Aya give in to him. If you had stayed there, that wouldíve included you. Which means that all youíd be thinking about was getting into someoneís pants, by whatever means necessary." Schuldig snorted again and earned a glare in response. "And since youíre a soul gaki-bound, hence rather susceptible to peopleís emotions, it wouldíve hit you particularly hard to the point that the last thing you wouldíve been thinking of was keeping the fact that youíre a bound secret. Now granted, you probably wouldíve had a night of intensely pleasurable sex, but when your lovers regained their senses they would be after your head or blood. Since Fate has decided to be particularly cruel and insist that you have some part to play in the coming future, it would be bad if you were captured or killed."

Pouting over missing the Ďnight of intensely pleasurable sexí part, the longhaired man sipped his beer. "This Ďsaving the worldí shit sucks, Iíll let you know that right now." He hated having his fun spoiled. Schuldig was willing to bet that he wouldíve finally managed to get Mickey into bed tonight and he knew that the man wouldnít have betrayed him in the morning if his power slipped its leash. Now heíd probably never have another chance of some fun with the too straight man. "If Yohjiís power is going to go supernova, wonít someone notice that? It canít be good for people to figure out what he is."

"The manís slutty reputation protects him, and not many people will think amiss about an inn full of inebriated people starting an orgy. Theyíll just put it down to something in the beer or the atmosphere. I really donít want to know what is in this stuff here." Crawford squinted into the contents of his mug and shuddered.

Doing some glaring of his own, Schuldig set down his mug and stared at the precog. "Still, heís a bound too; you should show some concern for his safety. Especially since heís tied to your precious Aya."

"Ah, I sense a little bitterness there." A brow arched over an inquisitive blue eye. "Donít tell me you feel something for this Kudoh fellow, because after tonight, he wonít be interested in anyone else ever again."

Suddenly finding something requiring his attention floating in his beer, the telepath quietly muttered that Yohji was just a friend, albeit a good one. "Why canít you leave him the hell alone?"

"Listen, I donít care if the man is your friend, we need him if thereís to be any hope of us succeeding."

"Why is it so important that Yohjiís involved?" Schuldig stared at his father as he used his talent to probe the manís mind. Crawford was prepared for him this time and managed to raise some shields that gave him a bit of difficulty. Deciding that it wasnít worth the effort at the moment, Schuldig stopped and waved for more drinks. "You have the kage and me, what else do you need?"

It looked as if Crawfordís headache had returned. "I swearÖ you have to be some sort of penance the gods are inflicting on me or something. And miss, it would be best if you just brought a damn tray-full of the stuff over, and a bottle of the most potent liquor you have." He handed the server a silver coin. The woman hurried to comply, and soon there were several pints and a bottle of whiskey on the table. "Pay attention, brat, Iím only going to explain this once."

Schuldig immediately reached for the bottle of whiskey as he had always hated listening to lectures.

"Aya is a kage," the dark-haired man carefully enunciated. "Kage are not human. Not human means completely unpredictable. We need to have some sort of leverage over the kage whose actions _can_ be predicted. That is your friend Yohji. Understand, or do I need to draw you pictures?" Schuldig snarled at him for that comment.

"Judging from the look on your face, no, you donít." Briefly cradling his head in his hands, Crawford then straightened up and snatched the whiskey bottle out of his sonís hands as he muttered about being cursed. "Letís skip the abridged version then."

Having had it with being talked down to, Schuldig waited until the man was gulping the whiskey to snarl at him. "Shut up, you prick. I know that kage are unpredictable; anyone whoís studied their past can tell you that, but I still donít understand why Yohji? Couldnít any lover be used to control a kage? Thatís how Ban was brought down."

The empty bottle slammed down onto the table. "Because Ban wasnít really a kage. He fathered the breed, but he himself wasnít one, powers notwithstanding. Ban had been an unborn child when his mother sacrificed her soul and let a shinigami take over her body. The child was affected by the magics, but not completely. He still retained a portion of his humanity.

"All of us bounds are descended from the men and women who allowed part of their souls to be replaced by those of spirits and demons. We are a mix of the two: the stronger our powers, the less human we are. You, myself and, judging from Kudohís reactions tonight, him as well are almost completely demon encased in a mostly human form." Crawford held up his hand and a quick flex of his fingers revealed the claws that all gaki-bound were born with, regardless of whether soul or flesh. Schuldig could still clearly remember the first time his claws had unsheathed right at the start of puberty. "There is no Ďalmostí where a kage is concerned. There is nothing human in them, other than what theyíre taught while growing up."

"I know all about what makes us bounds, Pops. Mom taught me that." When Crawford snorted in derision at the mention of his mother, Schuldig shot him a warning glance. "She made me study all about bounds, and I probably know more about kage than almost anyone else alive. Though," he admitted reluctantly, "I donít know how they can be born so different from the rest of us."

Leaning back in his chair, Crawford let a small smile form on his lips. "Nothing against your mother, at least in this one instance, but sheís still rather young for one of us and thereís much she never had a chance to learn. If she had remained in Esset a bit longer than she did, she wouldíve learned that itís been theorized that a real kage is born when an unborn babe Ďdiesí. Itís probably more proper to say the human part of it dies, leaving the bound part of its soul alone in the body. This will only happen if the child is of the kage bloodline, since the shinigami demon inside of it can easily overcome death thanks to its nature. It reanimates the body becoming tied to the form irrevocably. Instead of a stillborn child, a kage is born. If a child of that bloodline is born without problem, the shinigami part of it remains buried, and the person ends up killing themselves before puberty as the spirit longs to escape its mortal bonds. There is always an extensive history of suicide in the kage bloodlines. Death and humanity canít exist in the same body for long.

"Itís a suspected fact that because kage are all demon is why their true nature begins to manifest before puberty, unlike other bounds. They might not be able to truly wield their power until later, usually puberty or just before, but if one is knowledgeable, one can identify them before that point: the pale skin, the dislike for sunlight, withdrawn with anyone other than one or two individuals that the kage is extremely possessive and protective about, usually a family member."

Pausing to drink one of the beers, Crawford shrugged his shoulders at Schuldigís disbelieving stare. "Of course, this is all speculation on our part. A way of explaining why the kage are so different from us. Why they arenít limited in the same ways as other bounds, and why some things affect them that donít affect us."

"Gee, thanks for the lesson, Pops," Schuldig responded in a sarcastic voice. All the revealed knowledge did was confirm just how much of a freak this Aya was. And Yohji was now permanently bonded to the man, in part thanks to Crawford. "I donít see how having Yohji make the man his mate is going to help us any, since Aya is so completely different from him or anyone else."

Crawford moaned as he reached for more alcohol. "I never thought Iíd meet anyone more stubborn than Jei, but Iíve now been proved wrong." The precog paused to think about something for a moment. "No, you canít be his; he derived too much amusement from my suffering when I was trying to impregnate your mother to risk putting an end to it prematurely. And heís too smart to be your father." Schuldig snarled a little while he gave the waitress a mental poke to make her bring over another bottle of whiskey. He needed to be drunker if he had to sit here and take this shit, and hadnít imbibed enough yet to affect his bound physiology. "Now try to learn something. Because a kage is not human, just a shinigami encased in flesh that is raised as one, theyíre almost impossible to control. But shinigami tend to congregate together, you almost never find a lone one. Itís their nature to bond to those of their kind. This is where Yohji comes in. Since Aya is the only kage alive, and most likely will remain so for several centuries at least, the closest thing to another kage would be a bound."

Thankfully the bottle arrived at that point, since Schuldig was having trouble trying to control the urge to kill in face of the patronizing tone he was being dealt. "As I said, judging from the innkeeperís reactions tonight, I think heís the strongest succubae-bound Iíve ever come across, despite his extreme youth." The precog closed his eyes for a moment. "Yes, most definitely the strongest. He is ideally suited for Aya. It almost makes me wonderÖ such a strong succubae-bound being born during the time of a kage. Those two seem drawn together; itís almost as if Fate is trying to arrange for this kage to find its companion, to be firmly bound to this plane and its events. I think that Aya has a long and strange destiny in front of him."

"Which means that Yohji has one now as well, thanks to your meddling. I hate to break this to you, Crawford, but the man might not be as easy to control as you think." Shoving aside the empty pint mugs, Schuldig leaned over the table. "Yohji can be real damn stubborn when he puts his mind to it, and something happened last year that will make him rather suspicious of being used, especially by a lover he cares for very much."

About to explain what had happened to his friend last year, Schuldig found himself cut off as Crawford waved a hand in the air. "I know all about what happened last summer. Youíre referring to how Yohjiís lover turned out to be an assassin sent to kill the king, right?"

When Schuldig nodded his head, the older bound continued. "The Elders were behind the assassination attempt; they wanted Prince Mamoru killed. Reiji Takatori assured them that he could take care of the boy, and it was assumed that he would use the kage to do so. But the manís greed and possessive nature got in the way, and he chose one of Masafumiís whores for the job. He also ordered the woman, Neu, to kill the king while she was at it, which was against the Eldersí wishes. Reiji imagined that he would be able to claim Kritikerís throne once his brother was out of the way, and be able to deflect any repercussions from disobeying the Elders with his newly gained power. The fool."

The two men fell silent for a moment, thinking of how very different the world would be if Reiji Takatori had gained the throne. A power-mad king with a kage at his disposal would be a very bad thing. Crawford was the first one to break the silence. "Heh, itís funny the way Fate ties people together over and over again, intent on forcing a particular pattern onto their lives. Yohji never really stood a chance, not where the kageís concerned. He was fated to be with Aya even before he met the man." At Schuldigís inquiring look, the older bound elaborated. "You see, Reijiís son infused the assassin with kageís blood. That granted the woman some of the kageís characteristics: the ability to negate magical wards and to be cloaked from most foresight. He gave the woman a different personality as well, and Neu became Asuka, who because of the kage blood, took on some of his character as well.

 

"Itís no wonder that Yohji has completely fallen for Aya. In a sense, he already was in love with the man even before they met. Asuka was but a dim echo of the kage, both power and personality-wise, but enough like him to attract the succubae-boundís attention. If he truly did have feelings for the woman as you said, his bound nature would recognize Aya instantly and force him to claim the kage. Add the fact that they are ideally suited as mates, and we now have the means to control Aya. Heíll be bound to Yohji, and we can use that to break the hold the Takatoris have on him."

There was nothing that Schuldig could do about the matter, especially not if his friend was fated to love the kage. Hell, it certainly explained why the blond had been crazy about Aya from the moment he saw him. Not that the redhead was hard on the eyes, if a bit pale for Schuldigís tastes. Still, it hurt to know that he was losing his friend this way, and that he never had a chance with the man in the first place. The telepath resolved that he would do his best to watch out for Yohji, and make sure that his prick of a father didnít take too much advantage of his friend.

*******

Yohji drifted awake, feeling content and energized. Which was quite different from how he usually felt, especially this past year or so. He normally awoke with a hangover and an empty feeling in his soul, as if something vital was missing. That last feeling had always been with him and had intensified after the Asuka affairÖ. Shaking his head, the blond resolved not to think about the woman this early in the day.

Especially not when he opened his eyes and found Aya sprawled on top of him like a blanket. The manís pale body appeared completely boneless, and there were dark bruises under the closed eyes. Not to mention the various marks scattered all over Ayaís skin. It really did look as if the man had been attacked.

Stroking his hand through the ragged crimson hair, Yohji smiled as he thought about last night. The experience had been so fucking intense, he still couldnít make sense out of many of his memories of the event. Just that heíd never felt such bliss, and that Aya had finally broken down and given in to him. The last was very important for some reason, and something inside of Yohji growled in pleasure as he recalled his lover telling him that the man was his.

Gods, but Yohji wanted Aya, wanted to hear the man say those words to him again. He tilted the redheadís face up to kiss him on the lips, but Aya remained stubbornly asleep. Hell, he couldnít have worn the man out that much, could he? Yohji ran his hands all over the pale skin, but still didnít get much in the way of a response. Starting to worry, the blond heaved a sigh of relief when the other man mumbled a little and snuggled closer to him.

"You sure are a stubborn one, cat. But I guess Iíll let you sleep, seeing as weíve all day in bed to look forward to." Yohji tugged on an eartail as he spoke, and smiled when his actions were met with a low rumble.

Damn but he felt good. It was as if everything was right in his world, as if heíd just been given the best present possible. Yohjiís whole body thrummed with energy and pleasure and for once, he didnít feel even remotely hungry. Nope, horny as hell, but not hungry. He lifted up a pale hand and pressed it against his cheek and found his attention snared by the scars on Ayaís wrist.

The marks were very faint, apparently years old. But there were so many of them, crossing over each other again and again. Yohji didnít see how it was possible for there to be so many scars, especially considering how young Aya was. His lover had told him that they werenít from suicide attempts. What the hell had caused the cuts, then?

Growling protectively, Yohji held Aya closer to him. If Aya hadnít tried to kill himself, then someone else had inflicted the wounds. Most likely the same someone who had whipped the smaller man until his back was one big scar and was responsible for the faint marks heíd found elsewhere on Ayaís body as he made love to the man. If only the stubborn fool would tell him who was responsible, Yohji could ensure that the bastard never laid a hand on Aya ever again. It was kind of hard to dish out new abuse when one was dead and cremated.

Yohjiís whole being was suffused with the need to protect Aya. The man was his, completely and utterly, and no one else would ever touch him. Not his loverís secret abuser, nor Kikyou, or anyone else who was interested in him. Aya was _Yohjiís_. Now if only the tired bastard would wake up for a little fun, things would be perfect.

An hour passed by with Yohji playing with Ayaís hair and touching the man, just enjoying the feel of the silky strands sliding through his fingers and how soft the smaller manís skin was. He reluctantly got up to see to a few basic needs, but hurried back to bed as soon as he was done. Aya hadnít moved at all, just laid sprawled out as Yohji had left him, and the blond growled softly as he sat back down on the mattress after piling the pillows against the headboard then pulled Aya onto his lap. "Come on, wake up love." This wasnít any fun.

A tingling sensation ran through the hand that was stroking through Ayaís hair, and Yohji swore he felt something draining from him. But his lover groggily waking up immediately distracted him. Violet eyes blinked at him for several seconds before their owner hníed and hid his face against Yohjiís neck. "Do I look that bad, love?"

Aya hníed again as he curled up more comfortably on Yohjiís lap. Loving the feel of the man shifting against him, the blond smiled as he wrapped his arms around the pale body, hugging Aya until he squeaked. When the younger man pushed back to glare at him, Yohji captured his mouth for a kiss. Gods, Aya tasted so damn good, even first thing in the morning. Or afternoon, or whatever time it was; Yohji had noticed that the day seemed particularly bright as his eyes had ached from the light when heíd seen to his needs.

A knock on the door had the two men breaking off the kiss. Scowling at the plank of wood, Yohji prepared himself for some serious carnage if it was Jo or Mickey trying to drag him out of bed. "Who is it?"

"Itís Kira, Yotan. I thought you might be a little hungry and brought you some food."

Though he hadnít felt hungry until the mention of food, Yohji thought as his stomach rumbled. "Stay here," he told his lover as he crawled out of bed, unabashedly naked. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw Aya curl up under the blankets until only his hair and a pair of amethyst eyes showed over the duvet. Smiling at the image, Yohji unlocked the bedroom door.

Kira breezed into the room, two serving trays on her arm. "Here, I brought enough for the both of you." She looked about for space to put the trays down as he returned to the bed, pulling a sheet over his lap. Yohji obliged her by cleaning off the emptied bottles of wine that littered his nightstand. As soon as it was empty, the young woman set down the food, pausing a minute to peek inside the curtained bed. Growling softly, the lanky man shifted between his employee and his lover, blocking the other man from Kiraís sight.

The girl blinked at him for a moment and then blushed. "Ah, I brought some eggs, rice and soup, plus a little leftover sausage. And pots of both coffee and tea, since Aya seems to favor the latter. Sorry to say there wasnít any bread left over, not after the crazy breakfast we had."

Yohji felt the mattress shift behind him. He poured a cup of tea and placed it in the pale hand that was waiting for it. Aya sat up and pressed against his back, causing a thrill of pleasure to run through the blond at the contact. Settling more of the sheet over his lap, Yohji helped himself to some coffee. "Why was breakfast so crazy?"

"Actually, things have been crazy since last night." Kira blushed again and started to fiddle with the pot of coffee. Yohji noticed the unusual behavior; Kira, raised as one of a wealthy merchantís many daughters, had learned not to fidget. The girl had shown up on the Konekoís doorstep a few years back after sheíd fled to the capital to escape an arranged marriage with a man almost four times her own age. Although sheíd shed some of her refined nature, she never wasted any movement unless embarrassed or agitated. Trying to figure out which it was, he spotted the hickeys on her neck and smiled.

"Oh, and how wasÖ last night?"

Kira blushed at the innuendo, then laughed out loud. "It was insane, to put it mildly. Happened right after you left. It was as if someone slipped an aphrodisiac into the wine or something. People were leaving for their rooms in pairs, at the least, and it wasnít safe to investigate any dark nooks or corners. Then everyone who ended up staying last night suddenly showed up for breakfast about two hours ago."

"So, whom did you end up with?" As if Yohji couldnít guess. "A certain manager, perhaps?" Ah, bingo. Kira turned redder than Ayaís hair. Great, Mickey had finally managed to get the woman into bed, after courting her for over two years. Though why the hell no one seemed to mind the large man going after a former stray, but he was given hell in regards to Aya was beyond him. At least Yohji now had some ammunition to use against his friend.

"I have to get going; thereís a lot of beds that need to be changed. Iíll be back with some lunch, in case you need some more energy by then." Kira winked at her employer before sauntering out the door. Taking a sip of his coffee, Yohji shifted about until he was once more resting against the pillows.

Aya settled at his side and held out his empty teacup. Yohji filled it for the man, then handed over a plate of eggs. "Here, eat something." His stray still looked exhausted with the shadows under his eyes and the languid movements.

Nodding his head in thanks, Aya made quick work of his share of the food while Yohji did the same. As soon as the plates were empty, Yohji stacked them to the side and pounced on his lover pushing him down onto the bed and ensuring he landed on top. It was extremely gratifying when Aya didnít flinch at the sudden assault, but instead wrapped his legs around Yohjiís waist. Bending his head down for a kiss, the older man ran his hands along his loveís sides. He adored feeling Aya writhe under him at the touch, and once more sunlight started to pour into him.

He moved his mouth to Ayaís right ear, tugging on the lobe with his teeth. "Who do you belong to, love?" Yohji had to hear those words again, had to know that the stubborn man had acknowledged his claim. When he didnít get a response he fastened his lips to the skin right below the ear, causing Aya to suck in his breath.

"You."

Ah, that one word had Yohji purring in pleasure. "Thatís right, mine forever." Aya wasnít getting away this time, wasnít leaving him alone ever again. Yohji found a patch of unmarked skin on the pale neck and set about bruising it, making sure that everyone would know that the redhead was taken with just a glance at him. One of his hands started to pump the smaller manís hardening shaft, causing the fingers clenched in his hair to tighten, and the other hand searched about futilely for a moment.

Sliding his fingers between Ayaís parted lips, Yohji moved his hand from the manís cock so he could grind his own against it, making his lover buck his hips for more of the wonderful friction. Every touch was pure bliss as more sunlight poured into him. When the way Aya was sucking and licking his fingers had him moaning out loud, Yohji tore them out of the manís mouth, eager to have them somewhere else instead. Judging from the way the pale man rocked his hips back onto them when he started to push first one and then another inside of him, Yohji had to say that Aya wanted them somewhere else as well. Somewhere that was oh-so tight and warm, and would make him feel so damn good in another minute.

"Let me know if it hurts, okay?" The last thing Yohji would ever want to do was cause Aya any pain, but he needed the man too much to search out the missing container of lube at the moment. When his lover nodded his head in understanding, the blond shifted the long pale limbs wrapped around his waist onto his shoulders. Aya mewled in anticipation as his hips were tilted upward, the sound driving Yohji mad with passion. About to just shove his way in, he controlled himself just in time and slowly pushed inside of the smaller man.

Heat, bliss, friction, gods, sweet friction as velvet walls clenched around him grasping him tight along every inch of his length as he very slowly thrust it inside Aya. Yohji groaned with pleasure, feeling the sunlight set every single one of his nerves ablaze with ecstasy. Ayaís fingers were digging into his ass, urging him forward as the man tossed his head about, eyes firmly closed. "Please, Yohji."

"Anything, love, anything. Gods, youíre so fucking perfect. Mine, I want ah-all of you." It occurred to the older man that he could be doing something better with his mouth than babbling nonsense, and he grabbed Ayaís chin with one of his hands, holding the manís head still so he could ravish the sweet lips. As much as he adored hearing the man mewl, Yohji _had_ to taste him.

Forcing himself to keep his thrusts steady, Yohji rocked his hips forward again and again, causing Aya to gasp from the pleasure. Sunlight seemed to radiate from the pale man, burning him wherever their bodies touched. He couldnít get enough of it, even when it filled him to the bursting. Yohji felt utterly fulfilled at the moment, felt that he was whole for the first time in his life.

A mouth latched on to his neck sucking on his skin until he stroked Ayaís neglected erection, causing the man to release him as another mewl burst forth. The sight of Aya spread beneath him with his eyes unfocused from pleasure and the pale face flushed and lips panting made him moan, as Yohji felt the bliss overwhelm him forcing him to come in pulsing waves that shattered him, his essence pouring deep inside of the smaller man. Aya came as well, his body clenching even tighter around Yohji as he strangled out the blondís name.

When Yohjiís breathing eventually evened out he started to hum contentedly and buried his face in Ayaís hair. He couldnít ever recall feeling this perfectly happy before.

"I love you."

As soon as he said the words Yohji blanched and braced himself for Aya to try and scurry out of the bed and as far away from him as possible. The man wouldnít believe that a stranger could fall in love with him so quickly, and would think he was being toyed with. But when the smaller man remained still beneath him, the innkeeper chanced pulling away far enough so he could look down.

Aya was asleep once more, his eyes closed and a slight pout on the swollen lips. Yohji reached over for a napkin to clean off the two of them off, then tossed it aside when he was done and kissed the sleeping man. Aya came awake at the touch and glared weakly at him. "How do I taste?"

"Like sunlight. Like raspberries soaked in liquor, sweet and potent enough to make my tongue tingle. Perfect, you taste perfect." Yohji smiled at his lover, which only made the glare grow stronger. "My, someoneís grouchy." He brushed Ayaís bangs out of his eyes, and the redhead only sighed as he closed the violet orbs.

Shifting about until he rested against the headboard, Yohji tucked Aya against his chest and snagged an empty cup and the pot of coffee. Thankfully Kira had brought him a big container of the beverage, most likely because of how irritable and tired he usually was in the mornings, but not today. No wonder, since he was spending the night with his love. Yohji poured some of the beverage and pressed the cup into Ayaís shaking hands. With his assistance the pale man was able to raise it to his lips and drink without spilling more than a few drops. When it was empty, Yohji refilled the cup again. "I think itís a good idea to spend the day in bed, considering how tired you are."

"I wouldnít be if youíd stop being so damn voracious," Aya muttered, softly enough that Yohji wasnít sure if heíd heard the words right. When the coffee was all gone, he set the cup aside and tugged on an eartail.

"Are you saying this is all my fault?"

"Hmph." Aya rested his head on Yohjiís shoulder and closed his eyes once more. Pressing his lips to the manís forehead, Yohji let his lover fall back asleep. He decided to catch a nap himself, his body more than relaxed enough to do so.

*******

Ran awoke to the sensation of a hand ghosting along his cheek. He tilted his face into the caress, the contact making him shiver with pleasure. He opened his eyes to find Yohji smiling at him as the hand brushed back his bangs. One day soon he needed to get them cut, but he didnít have the energy at the moment to figure out exactly when.

The cause of his exhaustion kissed him softly on the lips. Ran didnít protest the touch; in fact, he tried to force his tired body to shift forward so he could press against the blond. His whole being cried out for more of Yohji, to be nearer to the man, to not be alone anymore. Ran had let his lover mark him somehow, had given into him, and now he found that his soul craved Yohji. It disconcerted him how much he wanted the older man.

Ran wasnít used to needing anyone. The only one heíd felt this way about before had been his sister, and never to this extent. Something had changed last night, had made him shift from feeling affection and some trust for Yohji to this intense want and need. With a sinking feeling, the kage acknowledged that it probably had something to do with his bound nature that he normally tried to suppress as much as possible. He couldnít give in to his true self while tied to the Takatoris; it would just mean more pain for Aya-chan if he protested the abuse.

Yohji gathered him close as the man rolled onto his back pulling Ran onto his chest. A part of the redhead purred at all the delicious contact of skin against skin, and as his craving abated, Ran resolved to have another talk with Cassandra very soon. He had to find out what was going on here, and if there was a way to reverse what had happened. It wasnít good for him to be tied to Yohji like this, considering that he was a murderous freak, here to kill the king and his family. He couldnít let his lover become embroiled in that.

Yet as he thought of ways to break things off with the man, two things happened. Ran heard Crawfordís voice in his head reminding him of his vow, and agony tore through his chest at the thought of leaving Yohji, of never touching him again. He gasped in pain.

"Are you alright, cat? Whatís wrong?"

Another caress to his face helped soothe the pain. Pushing aside the thought of leaving Yohji, Ran concentrated on the manís touch as a means of ignoring his sudden worry. Oh, this was bad, this was very bad. And somehow he got the impression that this situation was all his fault. Why had he given in to the man last night, and again this morning? He never should have told Yohji that he was the blondís, yet something inside of him had cried out to belong to someone and he hadnít been able to resist. Especially not with that maddening tingle which tormented him even now, flowing through him and short-circuiting his logic. Besides, it was just empty words, wasnít it? Yohji didnít really mean for Ran to be his, and most certainly not forever, and it had probably just been the heat of the moment talking.

"I need to get up." The arms about him slowly loosened, and Ran squirmed his way off the taller man. As soon as he stepped out of the shadowed sanctuary of the bed, he flinched again in pain. Sunlight burned his skin and blinded his eyes, causing him to stumble his way to a small chamber. At least the private closet was sheltered from the light giving Ran a reprieve as he relieved himself. Yohji must really have drained him for the light to affect him this badly. He needed to restore some of his energy before he could venture outside or anywhere bright.

As soon as he was done, the kage raced across the room to the sanctuary of the bed. Yohji smiled wolfishly when he all but jumped onto the mattress, probably thinking that Ran had missed his presence. Not in the slightest, though now that he was back beside the other bound, Ran found himself relaxing as he never had around anyone else other than his sister. A pair of arms pulled him against the blond, and it was with a bit of a struggle that Ran wiggled free enough to see if there was any food left over, desperate for the energy it would provide him. Of course there was none.

"You hungry again, Aya?" He nodded his head at the question, wondering if he could wait the remaining hour or so until Kira returned with lunch. If Ran got something to eat and spent a couple more hours in the shadows, he should be able to stand the sunlight uncloaked at some point that afternoon. Hopefully.

Yohji glanced at the door for a moment, a frown on his face. Then the man let out a short bark of laughter and set Ran aside so he could get out of bed. Wondering what was going on, the kage crawled under the blankets once more breathing deeply of Yohjiís scent. He felt like he could stay here forever alone with Yohji and hidden from the rest of the world. When the bound returned, a box in one hand while the other rubbed his eyes, Ran held the blankets up for him to slide under.

"Thanks. Is it just me today, or is it really bright out?" Yohji then thrust the box at Ran. "Here, I got these for you yesterday. Shit, wait a sec and Iíll be back." The man vanished once more, leaving Ran staring at the box wondering what he was supposed to do with it.

A hiss of velvet heralded the room plunging into twilight, and the kage sighed in relief as he was enveloped by the welcoming darkness. Reappearing with an open bottle in his hand, Yohji once more slid under the covers and pulled Ran onto his lap. "Havenít you opened it yet? I could never wait to tear open my presents."

"Oh." Hesitantly peeling away the festive paper that wrapped the box, Ran slowly revealed a selection of cookies, shaped into flowers. Having never seen anything like them before, he cautiously nibbled on one and was delighted at the almond taste. He twisted back to look at Yohji.

"I take it you like them. Good. Hereís some wine to wash them down." Yohji kissed him briefly before handing over the bottle. Ran took a swallow and gave it back to the blond, and after chewing on his lip for a moment, kissed the man in thanks. That caused Yohji to smile when he pulled away and Ran immediately found himself yanked back and the kiss resumed. They remained like that until Yohji tried to pry the box out of the kageís hands causing him to snarl and clutch it close.

Yohjiís laughter rang throughout the room. "I take it you _really_ like them, then. Damn, I never thought Iíd be jealous of food before." He ran his thumb over the smaller manís lips, brushing aside a few crumbs. Ran settled back against Yohjiís chest as he consumed half of the cookies and most of the wine shivering occasionally as the older man continuously stroked his skin, golden hands running up and down his shoulder, neck, arms and chest. When he felt his strength returning Ran reluctantly set aside the delicacies, forcing himself to save the rest for another time.

"So, what do you want to do today?"

The question surprised Ran, since it wasnít one he was normally asked. Before this mission, his choices were usually limited to reading or spending some time practicing his weapons skills on the days the Takatoris didnít have some use for him. The only thing he could think of was visiting Cassandra, but he didnít want to tell Yohji that.

"Hmm, you really need to speak some more, Aya. Iíd ask you if a cat had your tongue, but that would be redundant. Or are you trying to think up some ideas?"

It took the kage a moment to realize that Yohji was referring to the nickname that the man had given him: cat. Not sure why the man had chosen that, but used to being called much worse, Ran hadnít objected much upon being saddled with it. The only way he had survived the past dozen years was by not allowing himself to pay much attention to things like that. "I- no. No ideas." He had to get away from Yohji at some point, to try and figure out what was going on with him, but Ran was tied to the blondís side by his promise to Crawford.

A hand stroked through his hair making the pale man purr in pleasure. "Letís seeÖ I think a nice long soak at some point would be perfect, maybe right around lunch when the bathing room should be emptyÖ I need to stop by the kitchen and see what itíll cost me to get Jo to make us a nice meal for dinnerÖ any other suggestions?"

"No." Damn, Yohji really was planning on sticking by him all day long, wasnít he?

"AyaÖ" Ran found himself being twisted about until he sat facing Yohji and hissed the entire time he was manhandled. Glaring at the other man, the kageís narrowed eyes conveyed how unhappy he was at being treated like an object. The foul mood lasted until Yohji tugged on one of his eartails and kissed him making Ran shiver as the tingle flowed through his body once more. Reduced to blinking his eyes as he tried to figure out what the hell had just happened, the redhead allowed Yohji to snuggle him close.

"Donít tell me you donít want to go out and see the city at all. Isnít this your first time in the capital? Arenít there any sights you want to see, such as the palace or some temples?"

There was the royal library, and Ran had heard about the many bookstores scattered about the city, had even seen one while on his way to Cassandraís the other day. "No."

"Youíre a strange one." Ran flinched at the comment, wondering if his lack of humanity was that obvious. Yohji stared at him oddly for a moment and skimmed his fingers over the kageís right cheek in a caress. "Are you afraid? I promise I wonít let anyone hurt you. The two of us can go wherever you want, and Iíll keep you safe." The fingers trailed down his arm until they reached his scarred wrist.

Suddenly wanting to get off the topic before Yohji started to pry into his personal life again, Ran leaned forward and pressed his lips against the blondís. The succubae-bound took the bait, and Ran soon found himself on his back once more as Yohji kissed a trail down his neck. The drain on his energy was much less this time, almost negligible, so the redhead was left with the hope that he would still be able to see the precog sometime that afternoon.

Yohji pulled back and stared down on him, long blond strands brushing against Ranís face as a finger gently traced a cheekbone and his lips. "I promise you Iíll keep you safe." It seemed the older bound hadnít been as distracted as heíd hoped.

"You canít keep me safe from everything, Yohji." There were some fates that were unavoidable, and Ranís promised to be one that would hold no protection for himself. It would be best if Yohji would just leave him alone and go find someone else who tasted like sunshine or something better. A pain tore at Ranís heart when he thought of being alone once more, surrounded by humans who would only abuse him, and his arms reflexively tightened around his lover. A part of his soul didnít want him to ever let go of the man, the part that raged against the ties that had been forced on him against his will by Reiji Takatori and his sons. "And I can protect myself."

The statement was met by a harsh bark of laughter. "No you canít, Aya, or else you wouldnít be covered in scars and flinching away from almost anyone who tries to touch you." Yohjiís voice slid into a growl, and the green eyes glowed with a feral light. "Youíre mine, and I wonít let anyone ever hurt you again."

Something inside Ran stirred at the sight of Yohjiís revealed bound nature, the part that had been craving the man ever since it had made the kage give in to him last night. For the first time in his life Ran didnít feel terribly alone, and he started to purr as he threaded his fingers through dark gold strands, yanking Yohjiís face downwards. Heíd have to convince the man at a later time that he was anything but helpless, but for nowÖ

A slick tongue speared into his mouth making him moan in pleasure. Long fingers trailed over his skin, his nerves hypersensitive due to the tingle that thrummed through his body. If he tasted like sunlight, Yohji was life: warm, heady and addictive, a spice that flooded Ranís senses until the taste overwhelmed him. His hand stroked down his loverís back and along a lean thigh until it found the center of the manís heat and his touch on the hard cock made Yohji growl savagely. The grip in his hair jerked Ranís head back until his throat was arched and exposed. He mewled softly as a set of teeth bit into his neck, his hands pressing the boundís head closer to his flesh, his legs wrapping around the manís waist as he shivered in pleasure. Yohjiís jaw tightened for a moment, and then soft lips brushed against the new bruise, followed by a hot tongue that lapped at the teeth marks.

So lost in the pleasure of the act of domination, neither bound noticed when the bedroom door was unlocked and a slender figure slipped inside the room.

*******

Kikyou brushed his hair out of his eyes as he walked down the hall, intent on his meeting with Manx. He was still in a foul mood from the night before and just wanted to get the next few minutes over with. Chances were the redheaded woman would once more dance around officially naming him as her successor, something that the nobleman was getting tired of. Damn the little slut for holding on to her power as long as she could.

But the outcome was inevitable. He was the only suitable choice for the new Captain of the Guards. Honjyou, his lone competition, was too young and too much of a hothead to be picked over him. Besides, the nobility needed to be placated in the face of a commoner being elevated to the status of Queen, and the best way would be if one of their own held a position that was normally denied them. The Captain had always been a commoner, but the Guards couldnít be prejudiced in the choosing of a new one, not when they were backing a woman who had been raised by farmers for the throne.

The only other worthy candidate for the position had taken himself off the field over a year ago. Kikyouís jaw clenched as he thought of his rival. While Honjyouís name was quite respected by the Guards, it didnít come close to Kudohís. The bastardís family had been tied to the organization ever since the Guards formed and was spoken of by members of the fraternity in much the same tone that his family name had once been spoken of in court.

But the man had retired in shame to waste his days in alcohol and sex. Or at least that was what Kikyou had been led to believe until one of his spies had reported that Botan and Birman, along with Honjyou, were spending the evening at the Koneko. Heíd hurried to the inn to investigate the matter, curious to see if the wizard and spymaster were indeed meeting with the Guard. Kikyou hadnít been happy to see them sitting with Kudoh and instantly wondered if maybe the two were trying to entice Kudoh to rejoin his old organization.

It hadnít helped that the blond didnít seem drunk or dissolute, but appeared to be in glowing health and mentally focused. Then Kikyou had noticed the manís lover and had stopped worrying about his promotion for some time to follow. He had always had a soft spot for pale, gorgeous things, and this Aya was definitely that. The redhead would put any of the beauties in court to shame once cleaned up and decently attired.

So the nobleman had been immediately attracted to Aya and found some amusement in the thought of stealing Kudohís lover right from underneath his nose. It would serve the bastard right considering the way he had people eating out of his hand so easily. Kikyou had always hated how Kudoh had attracted people to him so effortlessly, people who still defended the man to this day. So he would snatch Aya away in revenge. At first he seemed to be succeeding in his plan, as the pale man hadnít been able to tear his eyes off Kikyou. At least at first. But the more the Guard had pushed, the more Aya had moved away, and Kudoh had stormed off with his lover when he realized what was happening.

Dammit, the redhead should never have been able to resist him! Not when Kikyou was wearing the family heirloom. Unable to believe that someone had been able to resist him, the only other exceptions being Kudoh, Botan and the crown prince, Kikyou had stared incredulously as Aya had gone off with Kudoh. When he realized that the man was indeed walking away from him, the noble had been so infuriated that he had immediately left the Koneko. He hadnít gotten more than a couple meters outside the door when Honjyou came running after him, wanting to discuss how the fights between their supporters were tarnishing the Guardsí name. Kikyou had to put up with that bullshit all the way back to the palace.

Cursing in memory of his lousy night, the elegant man fell silent as he approached Manxís office. Carefully schooling his face, he pushed open the door after two knocks. Manx looked up at him from the mounds of paperwork on her desk. "Morning, Captain."

"Ah, Kikyou, I wasnít expecting you so early." The woman gestured to a chair by her desk.

"Early? Itís almost noon." He bowed to her slightly before sitting down. "Are you alright? You seem worried about something." Manxís face was drawn with stress, her mouth pulled down in a frown.

Green eyes gazed wearily at Kikyou. "Sorry, Iíve lost track of time, among other things. But Iím happy to report that thereís been no news about any fights amongst the Guards last night; it seems the talks you and Yuushi had with the troops are taking effect. Thank you."

"My pleasure, Captain. You know I wouldnít do anything to bring dishonor to the Guards."

"Yes, I do. Which brings us to why I asked you here." Rising to her feet, the redheaded woman handed Kikyou a letter. "This arrived yesterday."

One look at the expensive paper and Kikyou knew whom it was from. Without saying a word he pulled out his dagger and cut the letter into confetti. Manx raised an eyebrow at his actions and quietly inquired if it wouldnít have been better if heíd read the missive first before destroying it.

"Thereís no need, I know who itís from. Iíve no doubts my brother found out about my candidacy for your position and sought to see if I could use my new station to his benefit. I refuse to even consider such a matter." Not after the man had stripped him of his family name when Kikyou, bereft after his sisterís murder and with no future prospects as a second son, joined the Guards in hopes of finding the girlís murderer and a place for himself. Now that the asshole had spent the familyís minute fortune and was desperate for money, he dared to think that Kikyou would supply him with aid. "The Guards are my family, notÖ that gentleman."

Manxís expression softened as she smiled at him. "I know what you gave up when you joined the Guards, Kikyou, and Iím relieved to see that youíve severed any and all ties with your brother." Ah, so this had been a test of some sort, to see if heíd be willing to compromise his job in the name of family. Kikyou bit back on a snort and smiled sadly back at his superior.

"As I said, heís not my family any longer. Iíll send him a letter asking him not to try to contact me through this office anymore, and I apologize for his behavior." The stupid prick. As if Kikyou could have done anything even if heíd been so inclined, after the letter had arrived in such a public matter. But his brother had never been on the intelligent side. If he had, he might have wondered why all his younger sibling had wanted from their fatherís estate had been the manís ring. Not that there had been much else for him to want at that point, but still, to just ask for a simple ruby ring?

But the ring was fueled with the blood from a bound and lent its wearer the ability to charm almost anybody. Kikyou had overheard his father talk about it one day and had found the bottle of succubae-bound blood the man used to recharge the jewelry. Heíd made sure to gain possession of both ring and bottle while his fatherís body had still been warm.

Maybe the problem with Aya was that the ring needed to be recharged. Kikyou would take care of that shortly and pay the Koneko another visit. He wanted Aya; something about the man attracted him: the pale skin, the astonishing hair and eyes, the withdrawn, quiet air that surrounded him. Oh yes, he could have fun with that one and judging from Kudohís reaction to his flirting with the man, the blond had finally found a lover he cared for. That only made the whole matter even more delicious.

"Kikyou?"

Ah, he had been lost in his thoughts and obviously missed something. The nobleman smiled at Manx guiltily. "Iím sorry, Captain, I was a bitÖ distracted. What did you ask me?"

"Itís alright, Kikyou. I was asking you if youíd mind dealing with-" A knock on the door prompted a frown from the woman as she broke off what she had been saying. "Enter."

Ken Hidaka nervously walked into the office. "Iím sorry to interrupt, Captain, but Prince Mamoru hasnít returned home yet."

Manx immediately rose to her feet. "My understanding was that your partner, Liss, was to have escorted the prince home last night. Has she reported in?"

"No maíam," Ken replied quietly. Kikyou hid a smile behind his hand at the distress of the other Guard, plainly not happy to be turning in his own partner. He decided to step in and impress Manx with his level headedness.

"Captain, I was at the Koneko last night, and the prince was a bitÖ under the table, shall we say." Green eyes flashed at that comment, and Kikyou was willing to bet that Mamoru was going to hear a lecture about drinking too much in public. "Perhaps Liss decided to let him remain at the inn for the night."

"That sounds like something she would do," Ken hurriedly commented.

Manx glared at the ring on her left hand for a moment, twisting it about in anger as she made up her mind. "Hidaka, go to the Koneko and find out if and when the prince left. If heís missing, I want every Guard out there to start searching for him, _quietly_. The last thing we need at this time is rumors that heís been kidnapped, especially if heís just nursing a hangover."

Ken bowed and started to back towards the door. "Yes maíam." He turned on his heel and fled the room.

Kikyou bit back on a smile again wondering when it would occur to the Guard that he was heading to his former partnerís inn. Hidaka had assiduously avoided anything connected to Kudoh this past year. "Iím sure the boy is fine, Captain, if a bit queasy at the moment." With any luck, Kudoh would be held responsible for the youthís condition, and the prince banned from returning to the Koneko. "Now what was it you wanted to ask of me?"

*******

The world quaked and shifted, causing Omi to moan as he opened his eyes. He stared dumbly for a moment before the bright sunlight caused his lids to snap shut in response to pain, but after he thought about what he had seen they immediately flew back open. Omi gazed at Naoe, whose head was resting on the same pillow his was, and who was looking back at him.

Other things were starting to sink into the teenís befuddled mind. Such as the fact that he wasnít wearing any clothes, and from the feel of flesh against his, neither was Naoe. He also had his arms around the smaller youth. Not to mention the fact that Omi felt as if he was about to be very ill at any moment.

Naoe shifted about on the bed, which caused it once more to shake. "Ah, Omi, could you Ė never mind." The last was said in an almost humorous tone as the prince scrambled out of bed after releasing the brunet and dashed over to the necessities chamber. Throwing open the door, Omi fell onto his knees and commenced to toss up everything heíd eaten in the past year. At least, that was what it felt like as the heaves seemed to wrack his body forever.

When they finally stopped, Omi rocked back onto his heels and started when a cool damp cloth brushed his shoulder. "Here." Shifting around, he saw Naoe, dressed in a red silk robe that was too big for him holding out a damp towel. He gratefully accepted the towel and used it to wipe his face and mouth before realizing that he was still naked. His hand stopped in the middle of wiping off something dried to his stomach when that fact sank in to his aching head. Blushing profusely, Omi tried to scramble to his feet and find his clothes.

Of course he only ended up falling on his ass, which began to throb in pain in time with his head. His stomach made it clear in no uncertain terms that empty or not, it wasnít happy about any sudden movements. Moaning in discomfort, Omi just sat on the floor.

Naoe walked over and picked something up off the floor near one of the beds, which turned out to be the blondís clothes. Omi accepted them gratefully and pulled them on as his face still continued to blush. What the hell had happened last night?

"Ah, you got drunk, I brought you up here to rest, andÖ" It was Naoeís turn to blush, and that made Omi feel awful about blurting the question out loud.

"Did weÖ?" They couldnít have, could they? Omi wasnít too terribly clear on the mechanics of sex with another boy, outside of a few garbled lessons Schuldig and Yohji had given him when they had been completely smashed. And shouldnít he remember something as special as his first time? Gods, had he hurt Naoe? "Are you alright?"

A pair of big brown eyes stared at him a moment, then the younger boy shook his head. "We didnít do _that_. We justÖ."

Omi recalled his itchy stomach and paused in pulling on his rumpled shirt to investigate. There was semen dried on his skin, and with a slight grimace he searched for the dropped towel and wiped himself clean. So, apparently they hadnít gone all the way at least. "Are you alright?"

Naoe smiled slightly. "Iím fine. How are you?"

"I feel like Iím about to be sick again any moment." Unfortunately, Omi only realized what the words sounded like _after_ he spoke them. "I mean, Naoe, IÖ that didnít come out as I meant it to."

"Youíre hungover, itís to be expected." Naoeís mask was back on his face, but a smile seemed to be hiding behind it judging from the way the boyís eyes sparkled. Straightening out his clothes as much as possible, Omi rose to his feet and crossed over to where the brunet was standing.

He then tapped the younger teen on the nose. "Naoe, Iím so incredibly sorry that I donít remember anything. IÖ I hope that I didnít get out of hand, andÖ damn, I canít believe I could forget something as special as that. Was I any good?" Yes, it was official; Omiís brain was useless. Maybe he should sew his lips shut to prevent any more stupidity from pouring out of it.

So it came as a surprise when Naoe lightly kissed him on the mouth. "It was very nice, what happened. YouÖ were very nice." The boyís blush intensified. "I enjoyed it." Omi was treated to a warm smile, one that took his breath away then something flashed on his paramourís face, something dark and sad that caused the mask to return and Naoe to step away from him.

Unsure of what had just happened, the young blond tugged at his clothes again and reached out a hand to bink Naoe on the nose. "Iím glad to hear that, and maybe next time Iíll be able to remember what happened afterwards." Please, gods, let there be a next time. Naoeís eyes went wide at his comment, and the younger boy ducked his head shyly. Omi kissed him on the cheek and hugged him. "I have to get going now, but when can I see you again?"

Naoe seemed torn over something, and after flashing Omi a quick glance out of the corner of his eye mumbled that his days were mostly free. "Good, Iíd like to see you again tomorrow, if you think Aya wonít mind. I havenít shown you the shipyards yet, and itís always fun to go there and see whatís come in." He didnít think heíd be able to get away from the palace today, not after spending the night at the Koneko. Omi briefly wondered how much trouble he was going to be in and cursed the gods for giving him a night with Naoe and taking the memory of it away from him.

"ÖOkay."

Smiling, Omi kissed Naoe one more time and then hurried for the door. "See you tomorrow, after breakfast." The mention of food turned his stomach somewhat, causing him to gag, but the shy smile the other boy gave him made the prince feel better.

Hurrying down the steps, Omi nearly collided with Liss who was on her way up them. "Omi, thank the gods youíre awake. We need to haul ass back to the palace, right now." The young Guard was a bit rumpled in appearance as well and sported a few love bites on her neck.

"Morning, Liss. Did you spend the night as well?"

In the process of dragging Omi down the steps, Liss turned around and smacked him lightly on the ear. "Spoiled brat, what do you think? Fuck, last night was great and I can barely walk, but it wasnít worth losing my job."

His stomach rumbling as they approached the dining room, Omi pressed a hand to his mouth. "Uh, Liss, I still donít feel too good."

The Guard stared at him for a moment with a look of worry on her face then smiled in relief. "Wait here, I know just the thing you need for a hangover. And we can always use you being sick the reason for never making it back home last night."

"Whatever, Liss, just get the stuff right now." Omi felt as if he was going to throw up again. He was glad to provide the woman with an excuse that would save both of their hides, but just wished it didnít make him feel so awful. Omi swore to himself that heíd never drink again.

As his friend hurried off, Omi made his way to the door hoping the fresh air would make him feel better. Taking in shallow breaths once he stepped outside, the boy let out a squawk when his arm was grabbed. Flailing about, he caught sight of his attacker, and suddenly stilled when he realized it was Ken. But the damage was already done, and his stomach, protesting the sudden movement, rebelled.

A hand rubbed his back while the young prince was once more wracked with heaves. "Gods, Omi, what the hell did you drink?"

"Too much, Ken-kun," was the whispered reply.

Ken was brushing back his bangs when Liss appeared, a steaming mug in hand and Mickey in her wake. "What are you Ė oh, hi Ken."

"Liss, for fuckís sake, what the hell are you still doing here? Manx is about to unleash the Guards on the city, and youíre here having breakfast?"

"Dammit, Ken, Omiís not feeling well. We were on our way back, right after I got something in him to make him feel better." Liss shoved the mug into Omiís hands and crossed her arms over her rather ample chest as she glared at her partner.

Who glared right back at her. Omi was relieved over the stalemate, as it saved his poor head from all the screaming, and sipped his drink. It was hot and tasted awful, but he drank it anyway when the first few sips seemed to settle his stomach.

"Hello, Ken, long time no see."

Ken glanced away from Liss and blushed when he saw Mickey. "Hello, MickÖ uhm, you look good."

"Nice of you to notice. You know, I didnít think you remembered this place anymore, or your friends who live here." Mickeyís voice was thick with reproach.

The Guard blushed some more and turned Omi towards the street, who clutched his half full mug close to him and waved goodbye. "Ah, well, Iíve been busy. Really busy. And right now I need to get Omi home. See you around, Mick."

"Hidaka, I expect _you_ to return the mug to the Koneko. If notÖ my brother should be arriving shortly, and Iíll send him to retrieve it. Or find out why you let someone else return it. Now have a nice day."

Carefully sipping his drink as he walked, Omi caught the dumbstruck look on Kenís face as the threat sunk in. Great, the man probably wasnít going to let him sneak off again any time soon, not after this morning. Why did he have to get so drunk last night? First not remembering what heíd done with Naoe and now this. Nope, Omi wasnít even going to look at wine again for as long as he lived. Which, between an angry Ken and a furious Manx, wasnít exactly something he felt assured of doing for much longer.

*******

"Ah, it feels great to be home! Great! Clean beds, people to fuss over us, good food, people to fuss over us, Yohji to torment, and oh yeah, did I mention the fussing part?"

Koyu laughed at his loverís antics. "I get the point, Teddy. Now are you going to just stand on the doorstep or actually enter the place sometime today?" The Harper was exhausted and dirty, his long red coat and leggings travel-stained and sweaty, wanting nothing more than to go inside where it was nice and shady and, as Teddy pointed out, be fussed over a little. He and his lover had spent the past three days traveling almost non-stop to reach the capital before the wedding announcement was made and had gotten up very early that morning to continue their journey. And now they were home.

Teddy, dressed in a short robe the colour of his eyes, flashed Koyu a smile as he tossed his braids over his shoulders and opened the door. "Weíre back! Where are our adoring masses? Come and cater to our every whim!"

There was stunned silence for a minute, and then the hall was swamped with people. Mickey, Jo, Ani, Kira and Touya all crowded around the couple, and Koyu was surprised to see even Ichiyo inside the inn, instead of hiding in the stables. The Konekoís staff repeatedly hugged and kissed the two men.

"Teddy! Koyu! You two had me worried. I expected you home yesterday," Mickey said as he swung his brother in the air.

"Yeah, well we hit a spot of bad weather and spent the day stuck in a barn outside of Royopa." Teddy smiled at his lover over his brotherís shoulder, and Koyu smiled back, remembering the fun he and his inventive boyfriend had had that day. He was still pulling straw out of his hair, but it had been worth it.

Jo patted him on the cheek and kissed Teddyís once more. "Weíve been saving your room and airing it out every day. You two look tired; why donít you go take a nap and Iíll fix you something special for lunch. Unless youíd rather have a bite to eat now."

"Thank you, Jo. I think a nap and a bath would be more appreciated than food; we did manage to eat a good breakfast before hitting the road. Not to mention that Teddy here insisted on stopping at Chow Yunís stand for a bite to eat when we came through the west gate into the city."

The younger man stuck his tongue out at Koyu for being ratted on. "Hey, whereís Yohji? Donít tell me heís still in bed."

"Afraid so," Mickey rumbled, and Koyu arched an eyebrow when he noticed that the large man had an arm around Kiraís waist, and that the young woman didnít seem to mind. Now that was a new development. Glancing over at Teddy to see if his boyfriend had noticed his brother, he found a frown on the manís face.

"Is he that hungover?"

Mickey shook his head. "No, heís one of the few who arenít, after last night. You just missed Omi, who got drunk for the first time. Yohji is all tucked up in bed with his latest boyfriend."

Well, one out of two wasnít bad. Koyu hoped that Yohji got over the Bitch sometime soon to move on and stop trying to kill himself with liquor and meaningless affairs.

Teddy, who had been pouting at that bit of news, suddenly smiled in a manner that instantly made the Harper very nervous. It was never good when Teddy smiled like that, especially when Yohji was involved. He had the feeling they were about to be kicked out of the inn by an enraged blond very shortly. "Well, Iíll go tell him the good news about Koyu and me being back." The longhaired man instantly charged up the steps, his robe and braids flapping about him.

Koyu groaned and made to go after him, only to be stopped by Jo. Immediately the staff started to leave calling out that theyíd talk more later, until just Koyu, Mickey and Jo remained in the hall. "Jo, what are you doing? Let me go after Teddy before Yohji kills him."

The middle-aged woman shook her head. "No, leave Teddy alone. Itís about time Yohji got out of bed anyway."

Something wasnít right, as the cook had always played referee between Yohji and Teddy before. Koyu glanced worriedly up the stairs, awaiting a very loud yell. "I take it somethingís going on here?" A look at his two friends confirmed that suspicion. "Care to tell me what?"

Mickey nodded his head, but before he could speak, a loud yell of pure fury blasted through the inn.

*******

Teddy snuck up the stairs, pulling a set of keys out of his pocket as he did so. So Yohji was planning on lying in bed and missing out on his homecoming, was he? All for a piece of ass that the man wouldnít remember in another dayís time? Well, he wasnít going to put up with that. Teddy had decided on his way back home that it was time to straighten the blond out, and that his adopted brother had wallowed in misery long enough. He and Koyu would be staying for the wedding, as it was rumored to be about two months away, and that should be plenty of time for him to beat some sense into Yohjiís head.

Keying open the door, Teddy snuck into the dark room, his eyes taking a moment to adjust. An unfamiliar bed welcomed him, draped in curtains and the source of several soft moans and gasps. Aha, he got to catch Yohji in the act. Wishing he had a bucket of cold water, Teddy smiled as he crept closer to the bed. He placed his foot down on something that rolled under it, sending him flying forward.

Right onto the bed. He landed face first on the mattress surprising the hell out of Yohji and the pale man he was busy kissing. Teddy caught the sight of violet eyes glowing in the darkness like a catís then was distracted by a very loud, very enraged yell from Yohji. "What the fuck? Youíre dead!"

The blond rolled off of his lover, tucking the man behind him as he turned to face Teddy, snarling the whole while. Teddy found himself scurrying back off the bed from the sheer force of hostility his friend radiated and fell onto the floor, landing on whatever it was heíd tripped on. Yohji leaned over the bed, his right hand containing several gold threads about to be tossed and suddenly blinked his eyes. "Teddy?"

"Heh, yeah bro."

"Teddy? What the hell are you doing? Youíre dead, you nosy little bastard!" Yohji dropped the strands, thankfully in Teddyís opinion, and reached for the smaller manís neck with his bare hands. Luckily, the enraged manís lover jerked him back just before Teddy found himself strangled. Sheesh, someone was being a real grouch for some strange reason. What was with all the growling?

Scrambling to his feet, Teddy picked up the small container that had been giving him so much grief and hurried over to the window, wanting a little light in the room and a bit of distance between him and Yohji. For a moment there he actually thought his friend was about to kill him. Which was ridiculous, but the young man couldnít shake the feeling that heíd been a bit closer to death than he usually liked just then. Once the curtains were open he looked at the container and laughed out loud.

Teddy walked back to the bed and jerked the curtains on the side facing the window open. There was a set of two hisses as its occupants flinched from the sudden light. Tossing the jar at Yohji, Teddy perched on the edge of the bed and rubbed his sore bottom. "I think thatís yours. Hope I didnít crack it."

"Teddy, Iím going to fucking kill you, I swear," Yohji growled as he tossed the container of lubricant onto the nightstand. The blond, oblivious of his nudity, settled on the bed right between Teddy and his lover blocking the pestís view of the other man. All heíd gotten a glimpse of was white skin and red hair before the man had scurried to a dark corner of the bed dragging the blankets with him. Guess he was a bit shy, something that was somewhat unusual with Yohjiís lovers. They usually were as easy with their affections as Yohji was.

"So, whoís the latest fuckbuddy, bro?" Smiling at Yohji, the last thing Teddy expected was a slap to the face, one that knocked him back off the bed and onto his sore ass. His eyes wide in shock, the longhaired man stared up at his brother and held a hand to his throbbing cheek.

"Heís not a fuckbuddy," Yohji snarled, and then seemed to snap out of his temper as a deep voice murmured his name. "Teddy? Ah hell, Iím sorry. Why the hell are you bothering me already?" He held a hand out to the man.

Teddy stared at it for a moment, trying to digest the fact that Yohji had actually hit him. Nothing heíd ever done to the blond had made him hit Teddy in the past, not even the one time when heíd given the manís then girlfriend a key to his room while Yohji had been screwing her brother. Only the apologetic look on the older manís face made Teddy accept his help off the floor. "What the hell is going on, Yotan? I come home and you deck me. I donít feel very loved at the moment," he pouted.

Yohji jerked a hand through his hair. "Shit, Iím sorry. Listen, Teddy, do me a favor and no smart remarks for a few minutes, okay?"

"Sure thing, bro."

"Yohji, is this yourÖ brother?" The other manís voice was deep and quiet, and held a raspy quality to it, as if it wasnít used very much.

"Yes."

"No." Teddy and Yohji glared at each other for a moment, and then the blond sighed as he pulled his lover onto his lap. Teddy stared at the man in amazement at how pale and beautiful he was. No wonder Yohji hadnít been happy to be interrupted. The redhead yanked a blanket over him until only his face was exposed and regarded Teddy with wary violet eyes.

"Aya, meet Teddy, who is technically my _foster_ brother, and is poor Mickeyís real brother. Pest, meet Aya. Treat him anything like the way you treat me, and Iíll fucking kill you for real." The growl was back in Yohjiís voice and green eyes glared threateningly at Teddy, who, being a bright boy, quickly memorized the fact that this Aya was off-limits.

He held out his hand. "Nice to meet you. Donít listen to a word Yohji says about me, heís just jealous that Iím smarter and better looking than him." Aha, he got the wisp of a smile there, he swore. Aya stared at his hand for a moment, and then cautiously extended his own. Catching a glimpse of a scarred wrist, Teddy barely had a chance to pump the pale hand before it was snatched back and hidden under the blanket. Studying the man closely, Teddy came to the conclusion that his brother had bedded a stray. The man was dead. Why the hell had Jo and Mick allowed this? Well, he was here, and heíd straighten Yohji out on the matter in no time.

About to open his mouth and give Yohji a piece of his mind, Teddy snapped it shut when he saw him cradle Aya in his arms, tucking back wisps of crimson hair as he held the pale man close and nuzzled him on a spectacularly bruised neck. For his part, Aya closed his eyes and relaxed in the embrace. That sure as hell didnít look like the actions of a couple who had only gotten together for a little fun. Teddy cleared his throat.

He noticed the potent scowl Yohji gave him, and the wary look that crossed Ayaís face. "Go away, pest. And if you come into our room uninvited again, Koyuís gonna be single real quick."

"Aw, youíre no fun, Yohji."

"Teddy, get the hell Ė"

A knock on the door cut the blondís tirade short, and Koyu poked his head into the room, black hair falling into chocolate brown eyes. "Did you kill him yet?"

Yohji growled as he buried his face in Ayaís hair. Teddy smiled at his boyfriend and called out, "Over here, sweetie."

The Harper entered the room and joined Teddy on the bed, staring incredulously at Aya when he caught sight of the redhead. "Koyu, this is Aya; Aya, Koyu." Both men noticed when the pale man started to inch backwards against Yohji as he shifted away from them. Yohji noticed as well and started to growl as he scowled at his two guests.

"Koyu, take your boyfriend and get the fuck out of my room. Iím glad youíre home, now _leave_."

Having the greater amount of survival instinct of the two, Koyu grabbed his loverís hand and yanked him off the bed. "Joís making us a real nice lunch and told me to pass on that she expects the two of you downstairs for it. She also said to tell Aya that the bathing room is empty now. Weíll see you later. Nice to meet you, Aya."

Waving goodbye, Teddy let himself be dragged out the door and down the hall to his own room, which was bright and airy, filled with the scent of flowers from the open window that overlooked the garden. His and Koyuís bags rested beside the bed. Teddy flopped down on it and closed his eyes, and Koyu joined him shortly after making sure his harp was safely tucked away.

Turning to face his lover for a kiss, Teddyís eyes flew open when his chin was grabbed. "What happened to your face?"

"Ah, Yohji slapped me when I called Aya a fuckbuddy. Talk about being a bit sensitive."

Dark brown eyes were filled with fury for a moment before the emotion faded. "He shouldnít have hit you, but you shouldnít have said that, either. When are you going to learn not to push Yohji so much?"

"Hey, how was I to know heís serious about this guy? He hasnít been about anyone since that cun-"

"Teddy." The longhaired man fell silent as his lover gave him a reproachful look. "Iím surprised he hasnít killed you for half the stunts youíve pulled on him, but itís surprising that he took such offense at that." Koyu gently stroked the bruise and then pressed his lips against it. "There, all better now?"

Rolling on top of the taller man, Teddy smiled down at his love and kissed him on the mouth. "You always make me feel better, honey." He let out a moan as skillful hands rubbed his stiff shoulders. "Hmm, you have a few hours to stop that."

"So, what do you think of this Aya?"

"Ah, ow, yeah, right there, Koyu. Ahh, Aya? Heís pretty quiet, and definitely a stray. I want to know what the hell possessed Yohji to bed him; he better damn well be crazy about this guy or Iím gonna gut him."

Teddy moaned again as a particularly sore knot was kneaded until the tense muscle relaxed. It was a bitch walking around for several days with all of his belongings slung on his back. But he enjoyed being with Koyu and could never remain at the Koneko while the man spent the spring and summer traveling about, spreading music and news. Though he did long for the time when the Harper would be able to remain at the Koneko permanently. Unfortunately, that wouldnít be for several years.

"YouÖ donít think this will be a repeat of the Asuka incident, do you?"

At the mention of that bitchís name, Teddyís body became tense once more. "What, you mean Aya? Do I think heís another Asuka?" The smaller man stared at his lover for a moment then rested his head back on Koyuís chest as he thought about the matter. "Well, itís shocking to see Yohji actually caring about one of his fucks for once; the man never managed to hold on to a lover for longer than a couple of weeks before _she_ showed up. ButÖ" Teddy thought about the woman who had shattered Yohjiís heart and compared her to the wary redhead heíd just met. "I donít know, he doesnít remind me of her, and I donít have the uncontrollable urge to see him drawn and quartered." Unlike a certain unfortunately dead bitch he could name.

"WellÖ I had a little chat with Mickey and Jo while you were interrupting Yohjiís fun, and theyíre a bit worried about him. Apparently heís only known this Aya for a few days and claims to be already in love with him. He even threatened to kick out anyone who objected to him taking a stray as a lover." Teddy sat up at that bit of news and stared at Koyu in wonder. "Yeah, he did. So they want us to keep an eye on them and make sure that history doesnít repeat itself."

Yohji had to really be crazy about this guy if he threatened to kick out employees who were more along the lines of family. Hell, he and Mickey had been adopted by the blondís mother, and technically were Kudohs as well. But try as he might, Teddy couldnít feel worried over the matter. He had always been a good judge of character, and Koyu often relied on his advice when deciding whether or not to take up an offer for a place to rest or a ride when on the road. Nothing set off Teddyís internal alarm when he thought about this Aya. If anything, he just pictured the pale man held tight in Yohjiís arm and thought of how right the couple looked together.

"No one hurts Yotan, no one. Heís mine alone to abuse. Weíll keep an eye on the two of them, but Iím not too worried," Teddy claimed. Besides, this was a new side to his adopted brother: in love and extremely protective. That meant he had a whole new arena in which to torment the blond.

*******

Yohji sighed as he let his arms slide down Ayaís chest and rest around the manís waist. Aya hníed softly and leaned his head back on the blondís shoulder, half asleep. Smiling, Yohji pressed his lips against a pale forehead and settled down lower in the hot water. As much as heíd hated to leave his bed, he had to admit that the soak felt good. The fact that he once more had Aya all to himself was pretty nice as well.

Dammit, why did Teddy have to interrupt them earlier? Aya had been tense after the incident, and Yohji recognized a veiled threat when he heard one and knew that his attendance at lunch was mandatory. A little voice nagged him that things wouldnít end with just the meal, either. Teddy and Koyu would want to fill everyone in on what theyíd discovered during their travels and want to hear about what was happening in the capital and the approaching wedding. Then Yohji would have to take care of business while Mickey spent some time with his brother, andÖ no time with Aya. The whole day was shot.

A crimson eartail floated in the water looking like a ribbon of blood. One of Yohjiís hands captured the strand and twined it around his fingers. Aya shifted about in his arms, setting the older manís blood on fire as the ass that was nestled between his legs pressed back against him, and made him grow hard from the friction. Using his hold on the hair to pull Ayaís head forward, Yohji fastened his lips on the back of his loverís neck licking at the mineral heavy drops of water that coated the pale skin.

"Yohji, not here."

Yes here. He wanted the man again, wanted to finish what they had started before Teddy had burst in on them. Letting the hand that rested on Ayaís hip fall downward, Yohji set about changing the manís mind. Something about the redhead drove him wild with passion and need; maybe it was the taste of sunlight or the happiness and completion that he felt whenever Aya was in his arms. It didnít really matter. It seemed as if Yohji had spent most of his life looking for someone who made him feel whole, and now that he found that special someone he didnít want to let go.

Yohji didnít know what it was that had driven him to sleep with person after person, other than a hunger that filled his very being and made the world pale to grey if it was denied. He knew heíd caused his mother and the rest of his family at the Koneko a bit of grief with his actions of bedding guest after guest, refusing to settle down with anyone. Heíd tried to do so a few times, tried so very hard, but no matter how suitable that person had been, after a week or two the hunger had driven Yohji to find someone new.

It had come as such a shock when Asuka had entered the Koneko one day, and Yohji had been instantly drawn to her. Something in her calmed the hunger down, had sated it enough so he could ignore it. But the thought that, according to Cassís prophecy, she wouldnít be by his side for long had driven Yohji to spend as much time as he could with the woman, desperate for any peace that he could get. When she betrayed himÖ Yohji sucked Ayaís left earlobe into his mouth, using the sunlight that poured into him as the smaller man mewled as a distraction from his thoughts. Why was he wasting his time thinking about the assassin whoíd played him false when he had his love to focus on?

"Yohji, neh-not here." Aya strained against the arms holding him in place, and in an impressive show of strength pulled himself free and swam to the other side of the hot tub. He turned to face Yohji, one hand rising to push back his wet bangs as the other was hugged tight around his chest, a glare on the beautiful face. "This isnít a private bath."

"Dammit, Aya, itís private enough!" Yohji splashed a hand through the water in frustration, sending a wave of it flying at the redhead. When Aya turned his head to avoid being splashed in the eyes, the older man surged forward and pinned him to the side of the tub. Bending his head to kiss his lover, Yohji stilled when he saw the hurt look on Ayaís face, the fleeting emotion quickly replaced with an impassive mask. He pulled back, and with a gentle hold on the manís wrist, tugged Aya over to the other side of the tub and onto his lap. "Iím sorry, Iím being a lecherous jackass. You drive me wild though, cat."

Aya stared at him solemnly for a moment, and Yohji caught a gleam of need and passion in the manís unusual eyes. Reassured that his lover felt the same for him, the blond smiled as he flicked a wet eartail along Ayaís lips. That earned him another glare and a low snarl. Ah, that was much better than the previous look by far. Yohji smiled at the fact that Aya felt comfortable enough to snap at him again. "I-"

The bathing room door opened, and Yohji broke off his sentence to mentally berate himself for not barricading the door before soaking in the tub. At this moment, he was incredibly tempted to hand the Koneko over to Mickey and find a small apartment somewhere secret where he could ravish Aya in peace. For his part, the redhead shot him a smug, vindicated glance and turned around in his arms.

The second urge the blond felt was to finish the other thing heíd tried to start earlier and strangle Teddy. The pest and his boyfriend walked into the stone room, stripping off their garments as they approached the bath. "Oh great, Yotan, you just cost me two gold coins Iíll have you know. I bet Koyu that Iíd catch you in the act again down here."

"Teddy, why the hell couldnít you have stayed on the damn road?" Dammit, now he actually had to be thankful for Aya putting a halt to things. Yohji glared at his foster brother as he wrapped his arms tightly about his lover, a growl rumbling in his throat. The sound had Koyu staring at him oddly, and for a few seconds Yohji wondered what the hell was going on with him. Heíd never acted this possessive of a lover before, but then again, heíd never felt this way about anyone either. His mind shifted off the topic as he felt Aya draw into a small bundle on his lap tucking his limbs in close and his tense body hunching over slightly. The man wasnít happy to be sharing a bath again.

Remembering how the last bath theyíd shared with other people had ended, Yohji nudged the smaller man on the shoulder with his chin. "I think Iím about done for the day, what about you? Hungry for lunch yet?" Aya nodded his head and the both of them rose out of the tub.

Teddy looked about to say something, but when he caught sight of Ayaís back his mouth tightened into a grim line. Koyu remained quiet as well, his eyes soft with sympathy. "The two of you enjoy your bath," Yohji growled sarcastically as he handed Aya a towel. When Teddy looked at him mournfully, he tugged on a strand of his hair and tried to get his temper under control. Gods, he really was going fucking crazy, what with how nasty heíd been to Teddy ever since he had returned home, pest or not. "Weíll save you some lunch."

Koyu nodded his head thankfully. "Sorry for interrupting you once again, but we feel as if weíre wearing several miles of dirt. We really didnít mean to chase you from the bath."

"Itís okay, Aya was getting all pruney anyway." Yohji smiled at his lover, expecting another glare for the joke, but only got a raised eyebrow instead. The pale man hníed as he pulled on his wrinkled clothes from last night, which he had worn down to the bath.

"Donít worry, Yotan, we wonít be long. I donít trust you near any food." Teddy rinsed himself off and glanced over his shoulder at Aya as he stepped into the tub. "Can you imagine what it was like growing up with him and Mickey? Itís no wonder Iím such a runt, I had to fight the two of them for scraps to eat. Your boyfriendís a bottomless pit, Iíll have you know, always hungry."

Aya paused in tugging on his slippers and shot Yohji a sideways look. "Oh, I know that," he remarked quietly before opening the door and leaving. Wondering what the hell his cat had meant by that, Yohji forgot all about worrying about his sudden change in temperament and followed him upstairs.

*******

Nagi wandered through the Konekoís garden, collecting various flowers to take back to his and Ranís room. Not that the kage had been spending much time there lately; heíd practically been living in Kudohís room the past couple of days. Even though he should feel happy that his friend wasnít hiding in his quarters anymore, Nagi couldnít stop feeling jealous. He wasnít used to Ran being in anyoneís company other than his.

Spying some wisteria he wanted to cut, Nagi tried in vain to reach a particularly blossom laden branch and failed. A quick check about him revealed the bound to be the only one in the garden, and he used his power to bend the branch down until he could reach it. Snipping off a length, he released it and tucked the branch into the basket heíd borrowed from Ani.

A low chuckle had him spinning about. "I never figured you for the gardening type." Jei stepped out of the shadows and smiled at him revealing a gleam of long white fangs.

"What are you doing out here?"

"Getting some fresh air and trying to avoid Crawford. That man doesnít take a break unless heís unconscious." The silver-haired man stretched his arms above his head and let them fall back down to his sides as he leaned against the tree. His pale skin stood out due to the dark blue sleeveless tunic he was wearing, and his scabbard scraped against the mapleís bark. Even reclining, Jei appeared deadly. "So, did you have fun last night?"

Nagi put his shears away as he stood in front of the other bound wondering if he should dignify the question with an answer, when the man continued. "I know I sure as hell did. That Guard was a wildcat in bed, so much that I didnít get any sleep at all. But then again, I wasnít about to waste the opportunity presented. Itís not often a succubae-boundís power slips its leash like that, so best seize the moment when it happens."

Brown eyes went wide at that bit of news. "Succubae-bound? What does Yohji have to do with last night, or was there another of his kind here?"

"Oh, it was Yohji last night, no doubt about that. He sure is a powerful one." Jei paused for a moment, and then chuckled again. "Didnít you wonder why everyone went wild last night? Oh wait, youíd left at that point. But donít tell me you didnít feel it, even up in your room. Or was Omi too drunk to put out?"

The shears flew from the basket and embedded themselves in the tree right next to Jeiís ear. "Ah, did I touch a nerve?"

Last night couldnít have been due to Yohji, could it? Nagi had been stunned when, in the process of stripping Omi of his shirt, the boy had pulled him down on the bed and started to kiss him. At first heíd tried to pull away, but then everything had started to feel so good and heíd wanted those kisses so terribly much. Heíd let Omi strip off his clothes and had removed the other boyís as well then had returned the touches that had made him ache. It had been a flurry of strokes and kisses, growing more heated by the moment until they had come in each otherís hands at the same time. His cheeks burned as Nagi recalled the previous night. Had that all been because of magic?

Jei pushed away from the tree, and crossing over to the elemental-bound, lifted his chin. "You feel something for him, donít you?"

Staring into a golden eye, Nagi nodded his head. He found himself caring for a human, and that thought had given him trouble all morning long. "Itís stupid, isnít it? HeísÖ"

"Not one of us." Jei released his chin and scrubbed a hand through his hair. "I thought you were a little quiet when you came down for breakfast, and you didnít insult Yohji the whole time." Nagi snorted as he played with a purple dahlia. "You know, if I was Crawford, Iíd give you a whole spiel about how itís never a very good idea to get involved with humans. Theyíre narrow-minded and too delicate andÖwell, there are a lot of reasons."

"But you spent the night with that Guard, didnít you?"

There was another flash of long white teeth. "Oh, that was pure sex, Nagi, nothing more. We both wanted a bit of fun, though I wonít tell her no if she comes back." As the boyís face fell Jei grinned as he pulled a knife from his boot and flipped it in the air. "But I wonít tell you that youíre making a mistake here. We may be able to live for centuries, but not every bound is guaranteed that long a lifespan. Not to mention itís not worth it to live that long if you donít have any fun now and then. Just be careful."

"Do you really think itís a good idea that I continue to see him?" Nagi had been torn for the past few hours by that thought. He thought he could really care for Omi, but heíd just be leaving the boy when the mission was over. Why chance being hurt by something he could avoid?

The gaki-bound balanced the knife on the tip of his finger. "I trust you to keep your mouth shut and not reveal what you are or why youíre here. Nagi, listen to me when I tell you to enjoy your fun while you can." A shadow crossed the scarred face. "It wonít last long, I promise you that. Seize happiness whenever possible, unless you want to become like Crawford."

Scrunching his face at that thought, Nagi violently shook his head. Jei chuckled and tugged on his ear. "Smart boy. Now I better get going before the man tracks me down and gives me another fucking list. See you at dinner." Nagi stared after the man as he made his way back to the Koneko, curious why Jei had been so open with him. The man was definitely friendlier than his partner, but it was still a bit odd. But heíd take the advice anyway since it meant he could keep seeing Omi. Recalling the way the older boy had touched him this morning, Nagi didnít believe what happened last night had been all Yohjiís doing. Pushing his doubts aside, he set about cutting some roses with a lighter heart.

*******

Jei walked back to the Koneko cursing his partner. Why had he been chosen for the heart to heart talk with the boy? Gods, he felt like he needed a bath from doing Oracleís dirty work. He understood that they needed Nagi to be all cozy with the prince, but he didnít relish the idea of being slammed into a stone wall when the boy found out he was falling for a Takatori. Nor did he like the idea of seeing how hurt Nagi would be at that revelation.

Damn he was getting soft. But the boy reminded him a bit of himself when heíd been that young, struggling to survive with his family. Jei hissed at the memories, and sincerely hoped that Nagi didnít share his fate. A hand stole to the eye patch for a moment, stroking the leather before falling back down. No, he sincerely hoped that didnít come to pass.

He was in a bad mood, and it was all Oracleís fault. Jeiís appetite had been sated from the meal the other night and last eveningís fun with the Guard. Normally he would be content with life until the hunger returned, driving him mad with its voraciousness, but his partner had to keep giving him the shitty jobs. Ah well, if he played his cards right in a few more years heíd be free of both his masters and the uptight prick. Heh, Crawford hadnít even stuck around for the fun last night; the man was such a prude.

Now, to see if he could track down a few bounds that he knew lived in the capitol to find out some information and be back in time for dinner. Glancing up at the sky, Jei decided it was too bright to try and see if the kage felt in the mood for a little weapons practice while his appetite was mostly dormant. Also, it meant heíd have to pry Ran away from Yohji, which didnít seem likely, especially now. Recalling how enjoyable his night had been brought a smile to Jeiís face. He did have to be thankful for the blond after all. Yep, he most likely wouldnít experience something like that for another couple of centuries. Whistling a cheerful tune, the bound carried on with his tasks.

*******

Ran stared out the window of his room and gathered his cloak about his body. Three stories wasnít much of a drop at all. He was mostly worried about the cloudless sky above him, but the kage didnít know when heíd have a better chance of seeking the female precog out. Yohji was downstairs working and believed Ran to be lying down for a nap. If he wanted answers, he had to go now.

Gathering shadows about him, Ran climbed into the windowsill and pushed off. He fell through the air and landed on his feet, his knees bending slightly upon impact. Yohji had definitely drained him if it took him a moment to recover from that jump; he could usually manage several more stories without any effort. Shaking his legs for a moment, the redhead wrapped his cloak about him pulling the hood further down on his face in an effort to block out the sun. Shadows scurried across the garden to weave about him, and as he left the fragrant sanctuary for the street, no one seemed to notice the bundle of darkness that walked past them.

*******

Botan looked up from Banís journals when he heard a knock on his door. "Enter."

A pallid looking Omi peeked around the door. "Is this a lecture free environment?"

Having heard of how the prince had been chewed out by both Manx and the Guard Hidaka, Botan chuckled. "Yes, it is indeed. Besides, I doubt I can add anything that the others missed."

"Oh, good." Omi entered the room and sat down at the table strewn with books. He started to flip through one while the wizard rose to his feet and fussed with some herbs tossing them into a pot. Reaching for a flagon of water, a quick incantation brought it to the boiling point and he added it to the pot. "I have something that will make you feel better; itíll be ready in a couple of minutes." He set the pot and a mug in front of the boy.

The smile that Omi graced him with made Botanís heart ache. Kaede had smiled just like that. Gods, how he missed the girl. It was hard to believe that sheíd been gone these past six years. He wished he knew how she fared and reflexively pushed aside the thought that she might be dead. No, he would have found her body by now if that were true.

"So, was it worth the agony youíre suffering?"

Blue eyes blinked at the question, and Omiís smile grew rueful as he poured himself some tea. "No, it wasnít. I think I learned my lesson even before Manx and Ken started to yell at me."

"Good. I donít need to point out how wise it would be for you to keep your wits about you at all times, now do I?"

"No, Botan." The prince pouted as he blew into his mug of steaming tea. Omi looked a perfect picture of abject misery as his hair laid flat on his head, with bags under his eyes and wearing a once navy tunic and shorts that had clearly seen too many washings and were more a grayish-blue now. He was a far cry from his normally exuberant self.

"Whatís wrong, Omi?"

Taking a cautious sip of his tea, the boy made a face. "Manx says she doesnít want me to go back to the Koneko until after the wedding. She says that there will be a lot of strangers coming to the capital, and if I canít take care of myself, Iím inviting trouble on myself. I told her that I wouldnít drink again, but she wouldnít listen." Omi gazed at Botan with his heart in his eyes. "I have to go back before then."

"This wouldnít have anything to do with a certain young man, would it?" The wizard smiled when his young friend blushed. It was about time Omi fell in love and experienced a bit of life.

"I have to see him again, Botan. Heíll probably be gone after the wedding, and if I donít show up tomorrow like I promised after last nig-". Omi fell silent and refused to look up from his mug.

Ah, so something had happened between the teenagers already. The older man could vaguely recall the passion of youth, if he tried hard enough. Laughing at himself, Botan closed Banís journal and set it aside. "Letís see here. Itís not wise to ignore the Captain of the Guard, but I know for a fact that your father hasnít issued any order that would confine you to the palace." Omiís head dropped down at the mention of the king. "So, youíll just have to be careful for the next few days and prove to Manx that you wonít be so foolish again, and she wonít be able to enforce her order. Or was it more along the lines of a request?"

Omi perked up a bit at that. "She didnít expressly tell me not to go there, just said that it would be best if I didnít." He began to look hopeful and lost some of the gloom that clung to him. "But she still wonít be happy if I go back there."

"Well, I promised Kudoh that I would renew some spells for him and I was planning on doing it soon. I could probably manage it tomorrow morning and escort you there. That way Manx canít be too upset, if youíre suitably chaperoned. While youíre out with your friend, I can have a chat with Kudoh and ensure that you never see another glass of wine for some years to come."

"Oh Botan, youíre the best!" The young prince launched himself from the chair and into the manís arms. Botan "oofed" at the impact but hugged him back. "Just do me a favor and let me check your amulet tomorrow. It should need to be renewed as well, and I donít want to chance it failing you." He was amazed it had worked as well as it did last night.

"You can poke at it tomorrow." Omi stood to his feet and gave the wizard a blinding smile. "I feel better now, I was so worried about having to stand Naoe up."

"Well, drink your tea so you donít scare him with how awful you look, and then go take a bath. I need to finish a few things here and go home for some rest." Renewing wards nonstop and poring through ancient texts that made almost no sense was wearing on Botan, and he needed a night to recharge.

Omi smiled again and picked up his mug, the expression becoming a grimace as he drank down the brew. "Yuck. This tastes as bad as what Liss gave me earlier, though it does make me feel better. I bet you make it taste lousy on purpose."

Botan looked up in interest. "Liss knows about herbs?" That remedy was not a common one, and only a knowledgeable herbalist could manage to make it properly.

"Nah, I think she just got what the Koneko keeps on hand for Yohjiís hangovers. Schu told me his mother prepares it especially for him." Draining the mug, Omi set it down and practically skipped towards the door. "Iíll see you around eight oíclock."

"Hm, thatís fine." Botan waved at the boy absentmindedly as he wondered how the mother of a thief would know so much about herbs. Distracted by his thoughts as he started to put away his books, the wizard failed to notice a depiction of the kage Edan, a splash of brilliant color due to the flame coloured hair and lavender eyes that glowed, on the white page.

*******

Putting on a pot of water, Cassandra turned from her stove and gasped in shock. Sitting at her table was the kage, acting as if she had invited him in for a cup of tea. "How did youÖ"

Violet eyes stared at her for a moment before lowering to look at the kitchen table. "Itís what I do, sneaking about. Your lock and wards didnít give me any problems." No, of course they wouldnít, considering the young manís true nature. But not even Cassandraís own son could sneak up on her so. She had never heard the door open or close.

"Well, it is a good thing I put on plenty of water, then. The tea will be ready soon. What do you want to talk about?" When Aya looked up at her, she offered the bound a smile. "I assume you came to talk or else why would you be here?"

The kage just stared at her for a few minutes as he shrugged off his cloak and the precog took the opportunity to study him in return. There was something different about the man, something that brought Yohji to mind. It was as if the scent of the other man clung to Aya. It must be from the two becoming mates, she decided. Yohji had clearly marked the kage as his own. The slim neck was covered with bruises that were slow to fade, especially a rather dark one right over Ayaís jugular. And the redhead seemed paler and thinner than heíd been yesterday. "Ah, youíll need more than my usual blend of tea. Let me put together something that will help restore you, and Iíll give you some to take with you as well."

She stood to her feet and began to collect various herbs scattered about the room, then took out her pestle and ground them together. When the water was hot enough she put half a handful in the pot and added the water to it. Setting it on the table before her guest, Cassandra then bundled up the rest of the mixture and handed it to him. "There, that should help you in the future. Use as much as you just saw me put in the pot and drink at least two cups for it to be effective. The tea should help replace the energy that Yohji is draining from you."

Aya accepted the bundle and tucked it in a pocket inside his cloak. "I came here to talk to you about him. Somethingís wrong between us or at least with me. HeísÖ affecting me."

Not liking the way the kage uttered that last statement, considering the slight tone of panic in his voice, Cassandra nodded her head as she checked the tea. It still needed another moment. Rising to her feet, she crossed over to a cupboard and pulled out a tin of cookies. When she set them in front of Aya he picked up and nibbled on one absentmindedly. Judging the tea to be ready, she poured him a cup and urged him to drink it. "I know itís hot, but sip it."

"Youíre not saying anything," Aya replied suspiciously.

"Well, I hardly have enough information, do I? What am I to say? Why do you think there is something wrong? Bah, young man, you have nothing to complain about."

"His magic is affecting me, Cassandra, _me_. I canítÖ" Aya pushed his mug to the side and jerked on his bangs as he rested his elbows on the table. "Heís not supposed to be affecting me."

Braving herself to touch the distraught man, Cassandra ran a hand through his hair. "Of course heís affecting you, itís what a succubae-bound does."

Flinching from her touch, Aya shook his head. "Not me. The power of other bounds canít touch me. ButÖ I let a little of his inside me, and now I canít get rid of it, I canít Ė make it go away, Cassandra. You seem to know so much, how can I make the tingle go away? I canítÖ I canít need him."

"Itís too late, heís claimed you as his mate, and there is no changing that," she replied calmly as she reached for a cookie. Cassandra had hardly raised it to her lips before the snack was knocked from her hands.

"What did you say?" Aya asked, a sibilant hiss within his voice.

Feeling a chill creep under her skin, Cassandra shivered as the kitchen became darker. "I said, heís claimed you as his mate. I can tell just from seeing you what has occurred. He claimed you, did he not? And you gave in, no? Mates that makes you, now and forever. Belong together, the two of you. I knew that when I saw you in the garden, Yotan and you."

All Aya did was look at her as he remained inhumanly still. Her apprehension growing, Cassandra tried to smile and reassure the young man that things would be fine. Surely he realized that he wasnít alone now, that he had someone who would protect him. She had stretched out her hand to pat Aya on the arm when the kage burst into motion.

One moment she was sitting in her chair, the next found her knocked out of it and pinned against the wall, a shadow blade pressing against her neck. Aya stared coldly at her, his eyes shining like amethysts set in a face that completely lacked any emotion. For the first time in years, she was filled with fear and her throat gone dry as her body trembled.

"You knew? You knew what was going to happen, and you allowed it? Do you know what this means?"

Licking her lips, Cassandra tried to still her trembling when she felt blood trickle down her neck. "IÖ you two are mates. His strength is now yours, and yours his. Youíll never be alone, and Yohji will keep you safe. His nature will insist upon that. Surely youíre tired of being alone, are you not? Shinigamis are not solitary creatures. Are you not happy? No, no you are not or else why the fury and the blood?"

The kage only stared at her, his veneer of humanity completely stripped away. "Iím a murderer, Cassandra. Do you know why Iím here, what has brought me to the capital?" When the precog remained silent the blade pressed against her skin. "Do you?"

"Yes, to kill the king."

"And others as well. Iím an assassin, Cassandra, an obedient puppet who obeys his mastersí every whim, and you thought that I would be happy to find myself tied to yet another person? I wanted a lover, someone to teach me that sex could be something other than pain and degradation. I didnít want a mate! Iím death, Cassandra, everyone around me dies, and you thought to bind Yohji to me? Break it, woman, break it now or Iíll kill you too."

"I canít." Tears traveled down Cassandraís face, blending with the blood that streaked her neck and stained her light blue blouse. When the blade bit into her flesh again, she moaned in pain. "I canít break it, only your death or his will do that, and the other will feel the loss as a physical blow at best. Whatís done canít be reversed. You accepted his claim, his essence, and magic that has been willingly accepted cannot be nullified away. Iím sorry."

Aya hissed for a moment sounding like an enraged panther as the knife continued to press against her throat. Then as suddenly as heíd attacked, the kage vanished the weapon and stepped back letting Cassandra fall to the floor. She sat like a crumpled doll, her skirts and limbs askew, her back resting against the wall as she pressed a hand to her bleeding throat. Grey eyes watched as Aya seized his mug of tea and threw it at the wall above her, sending shards of ceramic and liquid flying about.

"Youíve bound a man you should care about to a monster, you stupid bitch. And heíll be the one who suffers when I complete my task and am locked away forever. Or did you hope that I would die during the assassination?"

Unable to bear the inhuman eyes that rested on her, Cassandra ducked her head letting her hair fall across her face. "It wasnít allowed in order to hurt you or Yotan. Fated the two of you were, fated to be together, or else it would never have happened so fast. You balance each other out, death and life, shadow and fire. Do you know how rare it is for a bound to find their mate? The one they can share their life with? So rare it is, so very rare. But I could feel Fate pushing you two together when I saw you yesterday. It would not do so unless it had some plan in mind. Told you I did, that I saw something other than darkness for you. Hope and happiness, I said if you but trust your heart. Yotan is your heart."

There was no sound of footsteps to warn her of the kageís approach, just the hand under her chin that forced her head up to look him in the eyes. "I donít love him."

"You will," the longhaired woman choked out, fearful of the explosion the words would cause. When nothing happened, she dared to continue. "You already do, just the tiniest bit, if you let him claim you."

Ayaís face was so beautiful, like that of a godís carven likeness, and just as human and lifelike. There was no question that a shinigami was encased in the lovely body, not with the way the violet eyes regarded her coldly. "He will pay for what I am. Do you want the son of your best friend to suffer so?"

"There will only be suffering if you insist on meeting your destiny alone. ThatÖ that was why I said nothing. It is only with him that you have a chance of a happy life."

"How can I, when the Takatoris now have someone else to use against me? Your meddling has involved Yohji in treason against the king and will draw the attention of Prince Reiji and his sons to the man."

Why would the fool not see the goodness of the situation? Had the prince broken Aya of any and all hope? Cassandra wished she had the man before her, so she could gut him for what he had done to this kage. Her fear faded away as it was replaced by sorrow and determination. She would make the young man understand. "You now have someone who will help you regardless of the cost, someone who will keep you safe from danger. The prince seeks one future, the death of his brother. That is not the future that must be. There is a chance of another, one where the king stands before the grave of his sibling. Iíve seen it, and I know that it will only come about if you are not alone."

The amethyst eyes closed in pain, the first hint of emotion Aya had shown for several minutes other than cold, inhuman fury. "The Takatoris hold my sisterís soul ransom. How can I disobey them?"

"That I do not know, only that your freedom lies in being tied to Yohji. The rest will spring from that beginning."

Aya opened his eyes and helped Cassandra to her feet. "Youíve tied me to a man who doesnít even know heís a bound. How is he going to take the fact that his lover is a kage, and that he is a succubae-bound? It wonít be long before he finds out, not with his nature rising to the fore so often now." A pale hand stroked a bruised neck, lingering over the bite mark.

Blushing a little, Cassandra crossed to her sink where she wet a towel and wiped the dried blood from her throat. Her wound was half healed; despite the blood and pain the kage had barely scratched her. "He loves you, I do not fear what he will do when he finds out the truth. If anything, he will be angry at my son and me, not you." When Aya remained quiet she sighed and rested her back against the counter. At least the man was beginning to see reason, but he had a ways more to go. "Donít run from him, Aya, it will only make him hold on to you the tighter. Succubae are extremely jealous of their mates, and the bounds descended from them even more so. You have a protector now."

"I donít need a protector," the kage spat out. Stroking his throat once more, he glared at Cassandra. "You shouldíve warned me yesterday. I couldíve stopped it from happening and wouldnít be in this mess. He drained me, Cassandra, he drained me to the point I can barely stand any light, and the bruises arenít fading away. If anything, I need to be protected from him."

Snorting at the comment, Cassandra searched about in a drawer for a moment then approached Aya with a small container. "He should not drain you so for much longer, now that heís claimed you. And his control will get better once he realizes what he is. As for the bruises, here." She placed the tin in the manís left hand. "They do not fade because magic was involved, magic that you acknowledged and accepted. That gave it, and Yohji, power over you. The marks will fade normally, as if you were human. They show that you were claimed."

"I didnít want to be claimed, dammit."

Shaking her head, Cassandra refused to comment that yes he had, if Aya was bearing Yohjiís marks. On some level, the kage had acknowledged Yohjiís worthiness as a mate and eagerly accepted the tie. But men were stubborn creatures and could ignore logic even when it beat them over the head repeatedly. "Iím sorry, but as I said, you were fated to be Yohjiís mate. I truly believe that if I had given you a warning, you would only have delayed the inevitable and caused yourself and him unnecessary pain. Now, now at least you have hope for a future free of pain and slavery."

"But Iím tied to him now, until one of us dies."

"And he to you; itís not so much a binding as a dependency, and you will each be the otherís support. IÖ I envy you such a thing." She knew that the future held no such binding for her, at least not on the level of the kageís.

Aya fell silent once more, and after taking the bloodstained towel from her hands, he used it to pick up the shattered mug and wipe up the spilled tea. Once the mess was cleaned he faced her with a solemn look on his pale visage. "Whatís Crawfordís role in this? WeÖ struck a deal, and he told me to remain by Yohjiís side until the man tired of me. Did he know what would happen?"

"Most likely, yes. I will not speak of his motivations, the secret is his to tell, but I swear to you he means you no harm. I suspect he did just as I did and remained silent so as to ensure the future with the best chance of your happiness and survival. Yotan will make you happy, Aya, please just give him a chance."

The kage didnít say another word. He merely reached for his cloak and draped it over his shoulders leaving her house without making a single sound with his passage. Cassandra stared at the closed door Aya had left through and shivered once more. She then lit all the candles in her kitchen, hoping to dispel the darkness that seemed to linger in his wake before going to change her blouse.

*******

Crawford looked up from the journal he was writing when he noticed that his bedroom had grown darker. Glancing about, he found Ran sitting on his bed with a cold look on his face. Ah, what were the chances that someone had found out about last night, hmm? The precog wondered how much pain he was in for. "Is something wrong?"

"You knew, didnít you? You knew what was going to happen last night, am I right?"

"Yes, I knew that Yohji was about to claim you, but in my defense I wasnít certain of when that would happen until just before it did. What is your problem with the matter?"

In the blink of an eye Ran moved from the bed to the desk, pinning Crawford in place as he leaned over the older bound, blocking his escape by placing his arms against the wall. "Iíve been tied to yet another person, one I barely know, and now find out that such a thing couldíve been prevented, and you want to know what my problem is? You fucking bastard."

"If you barely know the man, why take him as your lover?" Ran snarled at the question, and Crawford felt the shadows press against him making it difficult to breathe. Drawing in a ragged breath, he wheezed out an explanation. "You were attracted to the man from the moment you met him. Iíve seen you with him, I know. How many people have you trusted, Ran? Iím willing to bet not many, yet you took an unknown bound to your bed within days of meeting him, however you explained it to yourself. Youíre meant for each other, and I did nothing to prevent your joining."

A hand grabbed the bespectacled man by his shirt and jerked him forward. "Donít try to tell me that you did this out of the goodness of your heart, Crawford. I donít believe that, not after you set the price of Nagiís safety as me remaining by Yohjiís side. You wanted us to become mates."

No sense hiding the truth any longer, not if the kage was smart enough to catch a glimmer of his plans. "Yes, I wanted you two to be mates. If my plans are to succeed, I needed that to happen."

"What plans, Crawford? I warn you, I find myself growing tired of being used."

The threat to his life notwithstanding, Crawford found this situation perfect. Ran was finally breaking free of the docile, subservient shell the Takatoris had forced him into with their constant abuse. "Freedom for all of us, Ran. You, me, Nagi and Jei, not to mention countless others. No more dark, drafty rooms for you to be hidden away in, no more slavery. Iím offering you a future by Kudohís side, free to do what you will. I donít expect an answer from you now; I know you feel betrayed at the moment. There is time to prove to you that I mean what I say, and that my plan will work. Just give me that time."

"Thereís a reason I obey the Takatoris, Crawford. As long as they have that advantage over me, I could care less about being free. Get in my way, and Iíll just kill you and then the king, am I understood?"

"Yes, yes you are. Could you release me now?" Ran stared at him for a minute, his true nature evident from the glowing eyes and impassive face. The precog remembered telling his son just how unpredictable kage could be and wondered if he had made a miscalculation that would spell his death. Which would doom the world, if that came to pass. Not that he was by any means that important, but one couldnít circumvent destiny if one didnít know what needed to be changed.

But it wasnít the time to reveal the truth to Ran, not in its entirety. Let the redhead calm down from this latest development and let Crawford earn back the broken trust. Then they could have a nice long talk. If he managed to get out of his room alive.

Ran released the older bound and hníed, his face returning to normal as he stepped back. "Iím sick of secrets, Crawford. Meddle in my, Yohji or Nagiís life again, and youíre dead."

"I understand. Now, can we go down to dinner before someone comes looking for us? I donít particularly favor the idea of Yohji finding you in my room like this, the man would rip me into pieces."

The kage glared at him, making it evident with that one look that he wouldnít mind in the slightest if that event came to pass. It seemed that someone hadnít learned from last night that a jealous Yohji was not a person to be around, not if one didnít want to be fucked silly and drained dry. But the boy would learn.

Motioning to the door, Crawford waited until Ran left before tucking his journal away and following the man. As he stepped out into the hall, busy straightening his rumpled shirt, he caught the gaze of a bearded man he recognized from the past several nights spent in the common room drinking. The stranger gazed at him curiously then looked down the steps, which Crawford assumed Ran had just taken. Not liking the smile that spread across the manís face, the soul gaki-bound promised himself to keep an eye on the stranger. There was an ache in his head as a few scenes flashed through his mind, too dark and quick for him to make any sense of them. That meant something was going to happen to the kage tonight, something that he had to be prepared for.

*******

An arm wound its way around the kageís waist making him shiver at the tingling pleasure that filled him. Ran glanced up at Yohji who was smiling tenderly at him. "What did you think about dinner? Was it worth me having to do inventory for three hours?"

Jo had cooked a splendid meal for them, and Ran nodded his head as he poked a fork at a scraped clean plate. "It was very good." So much so he had actually managed to stuff himself, even with all the troubling thoughts that usually made his appetite fade away. He tried to work up the rage heíd felt when Cassandra had revealed that he was tied to Yohji until one of their deaths, but here in the manís presence Ran found he didnít care. The part of him that had slipped free in both precogsí presence was purring in pleasure at the feel of Yohji pressed against him, happy to be near the bound. How did he fight his own traitorous self?

Yohji blew in his ear. "Well, now youíll find out why I let Koyu live, even if he did interrupt our bath. The manís the best Harper Iíve ever come across, even if heís a friend and Iím prejudiced. Heíll start singing in a moment." The warm mouth settled below his ear, licking the sensitive skin until Ran was all but squirming. He dared an elbow into Yohjiís ribs, and all the man did was pull back laughing. It seemed as if he truly didnít have anything to fear from the man, except what Yohji was doing to his emotions.

Emotions that confused Ran terribly. He hadnít felt anything like them before, and Cassandraís words haunted him. That he was already in love with Yohji, just the littlest bit. Ran had loved his sister and look what had happened to her. The thought of the same fate befalling Yohji stirred something dark in the kage, something that ached for death and destruction.

Shivering from the thoughts that consumed him, the redhead let Yohji wrap his arms about him and leaned back against the taller bound. Heíd worry about things tomorrow or the next day, sometime when he could better reflect over the matter. Right now a lovely tenor rang out, filling the inn with music as it distracted Ran from his worries.

The kage had no way of knowing if the Harper was as good as Yohji had said, never having heard one before. But the dark-eyed man painted a picture with his voice, whisking his listeners to another world with each song. Ran barely noticed when Schuldig joined him and the other bounds at the table, choosing the empty seat beside Yohji.

Koyu sang several old favorites, songs that had people pushing aside their plates and leaning on the tabletops as they smiled and sang along. Ran heard ones that heíd only read in books, experiencing the melodies for the first time in his life. Nagi appeared enraptured by the music. Crawford was pensive and Jei kept nodding his head in time with the beat. As for Yohji, the blond would murmur the words in his husky tenor, his breath brushing against Ranís ear and making him shiver in pleasure.

It seemed much too short a time when Koyu stilled his harp and calmly announced that he was taking a short break. Free from the spell that the Harper had woven, Ran realized that he was snuggled against Yohji and pulled himself upright trying to put some distance between the two of them. Just because Cassandra and Crawford told him that he was fated to Yohji, it didnít mean he would just give in to the situation.

"I told you he was good, didnít I?" Yohji smiled and tucked back the long bangs that were falling in Ranís eyes.

"Yes." Why did the man touching him have to feel so good?

"Koyuís worth his weight in gold," Schuldig commented. "One of these days Iím gonna snatch him and sell him to the highest bidder."

Yohji chuckled at that statement. "Then youíd have to put up with Teddy, and he can be a mean bastard when it comes to something he cares about."

"Yeah, I remember that one time we snatched his stuffed rabbit and hid it from him. The damn pest tried taking us both on when he found out we were behind it, and you got one hell of a shiner." Was it his imagination, or was Schuldig sending him dark looks? Ran frowned at the other redhead, trying to figure out if he was seeing things or not. The telepath ignored him as he continued to reminisce with Yohji.

The two bounds recounted tale after tale all centering on how Teddy had plagued them, wringing laughter from Jei and even several smiles from Nagi and Crawford. Ran dropped his gaze to his hands wondering what it had been like to grow up so normal. He envied Yohji and Schuldig with an intensity that was almost hate. While they had been dealing with a tormenting Teddy, he had been tortured and forced to kill on command. Nagi had been slowly starving to death, alone in the world, and somehow the kage didnít think that Jei and Crawford had had any better lives. The few years he could remember with his family seemed like some sort of far off dream that heíd imagined.

But it was senseless to hate them for their good luck. No, Ran had better candidates for his abhorrence and he was thankful that Omi wasnít present this evening. He couldnít escape the reality of his life for long, but he was determined to enjoy this respite as long as possible. Even if it had landed him with one hell of a problem, thanks to a certain blond he should have stayed as far away from as possible.

Ran realized that he was leaning against Yohji once more and became angry with himself. He wouldnít just accept this whole mating thing as a fait accompli and give in to the voice that clamored for him to press close to the man, craving his presence and warmth. The whole thing had been one big mistake and would likely end up costing Yohji his life. Why didnít the damn voice and those precogs seem to care about that? And why did the thought of his lover being hurt fill Ranís chest with pain, as if Hirofumi had pierced it repeatedly with one of his knives? It didnít make any sense.

Pulling away from Yohji, he pushed the blond back down onto the bench when he would have followed the kage. "I need some fresh air." Ran wanted a few minutes to try and marshal his traitorous thoughts somewhere away from the succubae-boundís presence and that maddening, delicious tingle.

"Okay, cat, but come right back; Koyuís almost done with his break, and I want to get you out there for at least one dance."

That bit of news didnít ease Ranís sense of panic any as heíd never danced before in his life. Hurrying away before the musician returned and Yohji dragged him away as threatened, the pale man glided down the hall and out into the garden. He wandered around until he found a patch of night blooming jasmine and leaned against a trellis festooned with it, breathing deep the flowersí scent as he tried to calm himself.

Knowing that he was mated to Yohji wasnít helping things. No matter how much he tried to put his guard up against the man, he kept hearing Cassandraís voice telling him that the blond was meant for him and would keep him safe. Ran was so tired of being alone and longed to be able to trust someone, to let them hold him close and keep the real world with all its pain far away from him. No wonder heíd given in to Yohji last night, desperate for that wish to come true. If he could trust Cassandra and Crawford, then his lover was indeed the person heíd waited for all these years.

But it didnít change the fact that if the prince and his sons found out, Yohji would be used against him. He would be damned for disobeying his master because of Aya-chan, and damned for following his orders by what would surely be his loverís reaction to his assassination of the king and Omi. Not to mention that Reiji would protect him because of his value, but not Yohji unless it was to use the man against him as another hostage. Either way, the future remained bleak.

Lost in his thoughts, Ran didnít notice the man creeping up behind him until it was too late. A pair of hands grabbed him by the shoulders and slammed him against the trellis, then one of them smashed into his temple, disorienting the kage. Dazed by the blow, Ran didnít fight the hands tearing at his clothes. He was used to abuse and conditioned to accept it by his years as the Takatorisí slave.

"Such a pretty whore you are. I thought maybe you wouldnít be putting out for anyone but Kudoh, but now I know differently. Well, I donít want to wait anymore. Letís see what it is about you thatís driven Kudoh mad with jealousy. You that good, pretty?"

When Ran twisted his face away from the fetid breath washing over it, he was smacked again. "None of that, you put out for four-eyes, you can put out for me as well. Or Iíll tell your golden lover-boy about the other man."

There was a tearing sound that was his jerkin being ripped open, a disparity to Ranís senses that shook him out of his daze. Hirofumi always cut his clothes off of him so they could be mended later and re-worn. No sense in wasting new clothes on a filthy kage. It then occurred to the pale man that if this wasnít a Takatori who was doing this to him, he didnít have to take this abuse. He had stood up to Yohji; he could do it again with someone else. This man had no hold over him, couldnít make someone he loved suffer for his defiance if he fought back.

The would be rapist, busy stroking Ranís neck, didnít notice when the eveningís twilight was replaced by darkness. Shadows crept across his face, stifling his mouth as a katana appeared out of nowhere and pierced his abdomen. As the man fell to his knees in pain, Ran stepped away from the trellis, his eyes filled with violet fire and his form covered in shadows.

Shadows scurried across the garden, gathering about and tightening around the wounded man. A wheeze of pain escaped him as the bands of darkness constricted against him, crushing his bones without even breaking his skin. Ran drank in the pain, waiting in anticipation for the moment when his assailantís heart would burst from the pressure. He could taste the approaching death and it was as sweet as it always was. Vague shadows darted about, as the suffering and untimely end of a mortal attracted the shinigamis. They were torn between the dying man and him, and several flitted around him, stroking what little skin the shadow armor left exposed before returning to the writhing man. With a thought Ran had the shadows under his control constrict once more, ending his assailantís life.

Ran could feel when the manís soul passed over, a smile on his face from the wash of energy created by that event. The other shinigamis drank in that energy as well before vanishing. He stepped forward to nudge the sack of shattered bones with his toe, and then looked across the garden into Crawfordís wide eyes.

*******

A sense of foreboding filled Crawford as he suddenly put down his glass of wine and glanced around the huge common room. Ran was nowhere to be found, and neither was the stranger he had seen earlier that evening outside his room. The man had chosen a seat near the kage and had spent dinner staring at the redhead. A flash of his power warned the precog that something was about to happen, and he nudged his partner in the ribs as he stood.

Jei tossed the bone heíd been gnawing onto his plate and glared at Crawford, but upon seeing the serious expression on the older boundís face immediately rose to his feet. "Did you see where Aya went off to?"

"Yeah, back towards the garden," Jei replied in an equally hushed voice. Crawford glanced over at Yohji, who was busy talking to Schuldig. Catching his sonís eye, the dark-haired man mentally sent a request for him to keep Yohji occupied. With that taken care of, Crawford sauntered out of the room with Jei on his heels and abandoned the calm demeanor as soon as they were out of sight. Once in the hallway, they sped towards the garden.

"Somethingís happening to the kage, we need to find him and make sure heís safe," the precog explained when they reached the garden. "Find him quickly."

Jei stood still for a moment, his nose raised in the air as he took a few deep breaths. Then the flesh gaki-bound hissed, his fangs exposed and his eye glowed like liquid gold. "I smell blood. The kageísÖ ah, and now someone elseís. This way." The bound flowed through the garden, and Crawford was hard pressed to keep up with him.

<Whatís going on, Pops? Yohjiís getting agitated and heís about ready to start looking for Aya.>

<Keep him there, dammit. Weíve just about Ė fuck.> Crawford came to a sudden halt as he finally saw the kage. It was a bit hard with all the shadows about, but the gleam of crimson and violet caught his attention. Ran stood amidst darkness, almost completely encased in it. A hard, shiny black armor covered most of him, leaving little bare except for his eyes and the long strands of hair that fell onto the glowing orbs and down his chest. At the kageís feet was another patch of darkness, and as he watched, the shadows faded away to reveal a broken body hardly recognizable as human.

Jei prowled around the dead body and snarled at the scent of blood. When he came too close to Ran, the kage raised a hand and leveled a black katana at the bound. The two faced off, Berserkerís insanity drawn forth by the blood and death, and Ran clearly not willing to let anyone approach him.

<"Fuck"? What the hell does that mean? Whatís happening, Crawford? Iím pretty much having to sit on Yohji to keep him here.>

<Whatís happening is that the kageís just killed someone and is about to do the same to my idiot of a partner.> "Berserker, back off. Iím ordering you, Berserker, back away from Aya now." Ah, Ran had twitched just the slightest at the name. <Keep Kudoh there as long as you can while I try to defuse the situation.>

<Well do it quick, because heís acting really weird. Bastard just snarled at me.>

Ignoring his son, Crawford stepped closer to Ran, forcing the man to shift his gaze from Jei to him. "Berserker, feed." That caught the flesh gaki-boundís attention, and Jei slowly backed away from the kage then attacked the corpse. The sound of clothes and flesh tearing filled the garden as Crawford stared Ran in the eyes.

"Put down the sword, Aya. Please," he gritted out. "It will endanger the mission if you donít. Are you hearing me, Aya?" Of all the damn times for the manís bound nature to slip its bonds, it had to be after heíd mated with Yohji. But at least it was soon after that event, before they could truly start picking up each otherís emotions or else Yohji would have been in the garden as soon as the trouble started. "Aya, do it now."

Violet eyes stared at him, and the precog shivered at the lack of humanity they contained. The katana lifted in the air as if to strike and as Crawford prepared himself for a blow he couldnít avoid, it vanished into the air along with the shadow armor. Ran stood before him, impassive and distant, bruises on his face and his shirt and jerkin torn and hanging on his slender frame.

"Berserker?"

Jei snarled at him as he crouched over the corpse, licking his face clean of blood. "What? Iím busy here."

"You can finish your meal somewhere else. I want the body disposed of right this moment." Crawfordís partner grunted and lifted the body in his arms before running off into the darkness. Dammit, Jei was going to spend the whole day tomorrow in bed sleeping off the meal and wouldnít be able to run errands for him. Clicking his tongue in frustration, Crawford reached into the small pouch on his belt and pulled out a small red pebble. He tossed it onto the blood-drenched grass, and as it touched the viscous fluid the stone flared up, bursting into flames that only burned the blood. In a matter of moments all the evidence of the dead body was gone, thanks to Kaedeís spell stone. The things were perfect for cleaning up after a slaughter, especially ones that were usually precipitated by Berserker.

<Hey, Yohjiís heading for the garden, royally pissed off about something.>

<Thatís fine.> Turning to face the kage, Crawford frowned at Ran. The redhead was still too impassive and still; he needed to regain his human mask immediately. "Let me do the talking." Violet eyes gazed back at him without emotion.

The sound of swearing heralded Yohjiís approach. Upon seeing Crawford standing by a battered Ran, the blond growled savagely and swung his fist at the precog. Crawford, aided by his power, stepped aside just in time. Catching himself as he stumbled, Yohji growled again and pulled several strands from his bracelet. About to cast them, the man was prevented from doing so by Ranís hand on his arm.

The change was instantaneous. Yohji went from an enraged lover to a concerned one, letting the weapons drops as he cupped Ranís cheek tenderly. He seemed to take the kageís true nature for shock as he rubbed a hand along Ranís arm and asked in a hushed whisper what was wrong. His mateís presence seemed to affect the smaller man, and Ran returned to normal as he closed his eyes and let Yohji enfold him in a hug.

"He was attacked by one of your guests." The sound of Crawfordís voice caused Yohji to growl again and hold Ran to him more tightly. Forcing his voice to remain steady, the older bound spun his tale. "Farfarello and I came out here for a breath of fresh air and we heard the sounds of a struggle. We found one of the innís guests assaulting Aya, who managed to fight him off. When he saw us coming, the man immediately fled towards the street. Farfarello took off after him."

"Is that true, Aya?" Ran nodded his head and whispered something about being able to take care of himself. Yohji smiled softly and kissed his mate on the forehead, then stroked the bruise that darkened a pale temple. "I guess you can, cat. Got a set of claws on you after all." The smaller man hissed at the comment.

His arms full of a struggling and infuriated redhead, Yohji gazed over Ranís head at Crawford. "What did this guy look like?" The sibilant tone of voice the succubae-bound used caused Ran to stop struggling. Green eyes stared at Crawford, filled with venom and the promise of violence.

"He was taller than you and about twice as wide, had a black beard and a brown cloak that was much mended."

"Ah, thatís Timon. Heís caused a few problems with some of the other guests this past week. Heís dead." The last two words were said with evident relish, and Yohjiís eyes glowed in the darkness, luminous with an inner fire.

"If he comes back." Which he wouldnít, other than in Jeiís stomach. Crawford was spared saying anything else by the arrival of Mickey, Nagi and Schuldig. The elemental-bound rushed over to his friend when he caught sight of his appearance, forcibly prying Ran out of Yohjiís arms as he glared at the tall blond, oblivious to the growls coming from the man.

Mickey took in the kageís bruised and bleeding face and started to usher the injured man back towards the Koneko. But when he touched Ran, Yohji snarled viciously and knocked the burly manís hands aside. He yanked his lover close and earned an elbow in his side for his efforts. Ran immediately set off for the inn, barely keeping his speed to a human pace and was followed by Yohji, Nagi and Mickey.

"Heh, guess you guys had all the fun out here. Why do I always miss out on the good stuff?" Without pausing to think, Crawford stretched out an arm and whapped his son on the back of his head.

"Idiot," he muttered as he walked towards the Koneko, ignoring the younger boundís curses and threats as he went. It seemed that the gods were trying to tell him that tonight would be a very good night to be completely trashed, what with a murderous kage, insanely jealous and protective bounds and a moron of an offspring for him to deal with. The worse part was, Crawford knew he had centuries of this to look forward to. He was most definitely cursed.

*******

"Damn, we shouldíve been home hours ago. Why did we get picked to spend the night renewing wards?" A young man with cropped black hair rubbed his stomach and glared at the list in his hand that contained all the wards that he and his associate were to renew that evening.

"Maybe because Botan found out about those spelled cards you were using to earn a little extra cash?" Another young man with shoulder length auburn hair, dressed in a plain robe like his friend, waggled his eyebrows at the grumpy wizard. "I warned you, Chen."

"Yeah, yeah, I know. But right now Iím starving and sick and tired of muttering spells and want to go home." Chen kicked the wall in the small room he and the other wizard were standing in, whose wards had just been renewed. "One down, two hundred more to go."

The longhaired wizard smirked. "Well, maybe not two hundred, not tonight," Chen groaned aloud, "Öbut close. HoweverÖ" He pulled a leather pouch out of his robe.

"Whatís that? Wine? I could use a drink right now."

"Nah, this is something much better. With this, weíll be sitting in the Full Moon and tossing back drinks in just a couple of hours."

Chen gazed suspiciously at the pouch. "GregorÖ donít tell me thatís what I think it is." At his friendís grin, the wizardís brown eyes widened. "Bound blood? How the hell did you come across that?"

"Got it from an old wizard who was down on his luck and donít say anything, I tested it and itís genuine. With this, weíll cut the time the wards take into a fraction of the usual amount."

"But Botan will kill us if he ever finds out! He refuses to use the stuff!"

Gregor made a big production of glancing about him. "Do you see him anywhere? No? And whyís that? Because heís at home, enjoying his dinner and a good nightís sleep, and weíre stuck here all night. At least, we will be if we do things his way." He swung the pouch in front of Chenís face.

With a sigh, the shorter wizard snatched the pouch and headed for the door. "Alright, letís get started. I want to be drinking within the next two hours."

*******

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