Shadows

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chapter six

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machinations, part 1

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Yohji chased after Aya, catching up to the pale man just before he entered the Koneko. He grabbed Aya’s hand and held it tightly, growling softly when his lover tried to pull away. Once they stepped inside the inn, he tugged Aya towards the kitchen. It wouldn’t do to take the bruised man back into the common room, and there were supplies in the kitchen that Yohji could use to patch up the bleeding lip and other injuries.

When they stepped inside the bright room, Jo immediately looked up from the cheese wheel she was cutting into and hurried over to Yohji’s side. He stepped in front of Aya, giving his friend a warning look when she got too close, and then started to usher Aya over to a bench.

"What the hell happened? Is he alright? What did you do, Yotan?"

Snarling as he stroked the back of his hand along Aya’s unbruised cheek, he turned to glare at the middle-aged woman. "I didn’t do a damn thing. Thanks a lot, Jo. Gods, you actually think I would hurt him like this?"

Hazel eyes stared back at him for a moment, and then their owner had the grace to blush. "I’m sorry, Yotan. I’m clearly not thinking straight. Let me get the medical supplies." She walked over to an oak cabinet just as Naoe, Mickey and Teddy burst into the room. The teenager hurried over to his master’s side, shoving Yohji out of the way as he sat on the bench next to Aya and grabbed a pale hand to hold onto. Naoe treated Yohji to a dirty look, ignoring the growls being directed his way.

"Are you okay, Aya? Why are you here? We need to get you upstairs right now." There was a note of panic in the boy’s voice, not quite hidden by his gruff manner of speaking, and he tried pulling Aya to his feet before Yohji shoved him back onto the bench.

"He’s not going anywhere, Naoe, not until I see to his wounds. Then _I’ll_ take him upstairs." Yohji glared right back at the little demon, not about to back down. Aya was his, not Naoe’s, and the boy needed to learn that right now or get his throat ripped-

The sound of someone else approaching broke Yohji’s train of thought as he looked over his shoulder to see the new threat. "Uhm, would someone tell me what the hell is going on here?" Teddy looked as if he was going to sit down on Aya’s other side, but a snarl had him blinking and quickly stepping back.

The vicious sound faded into a low rumble in the back of Yohji’s throat once he felt assured that no one was going to come near his lover again, and then became a yelp when Jo smacked him on the back of the head. "Will you stop that? You sound as if you were raised by a pack of dogs or something. Now move out of the way, you’re blocking my light." She tried to shove him aside, but Yohji refused to budge as he glowered at the cook and snatched the wicker basket out of her hands.

"I’ll take care of him, just give me a little room." He focused his attention on Aya as Mickey quietly told Jo and Teddy about what had happened in the garden. Jo hmphed and busied herself at the stove during the explanation. Dampening a clean cloth with some witch hazel extract, he lightly dabbed Aya’s split lip. Half of the man’s face was bruised, the purplish marks standing out in vivid contrast to the pale skin.

At his touch, Aya’s eyes flicked in his direction, and for the first time since he’d dragged the redhead into the kitchen, there was a flicker of emotion in them. They stared at Yohji for a moment before Aya sighed and let them drift shut. When Yohji stroked back the ragged bangs that covered most of the pale face, the smaller man tilted his head into the caress.

"Does this hurt?" he asked quietly.

"Hn." Aya wasn’t flinching from the astringent, so Yohji gently finished cleaning the cut and the bruises as well. When he was done, he reached into the basket and pulled out a ceramic jar. The scent of herbs filled the air when he unscrewed the lid, and Yohji lightly spread the ointment on Aya’s face, sighing as his finger rubbed along his lover’s lip.

Naoe peered closely at the quiet man, shifting about and blocking some of Yohji’s light. "What’s that for?"

"It’s something that Cass whips up to help wounds heal real quick. This stuff works wonders; all my scrapes and cuts are usually gone in a day. It should help with the bruises as well."

A slight chuckle from Teddy made Yohji tear his eyes away from Aya’s face and look over his shoulder. "What’s so funny?"

Teddy grinned at him and motioned to the jar he still held. "Then maybe you should put a little on Aya’s neck too, so he doesn’t look like he’s been mauled."

Returning his attention to the pale man, Yohji smiled as he stroked the bruised neck, still sporting the bite mark from this morning. "No, they’re there for a reason." So everyone could see them and know that Aya was taken. Violet eyes stared into his, dark with desire as he brushed his finger over the marred skin, and Yohji groaned when Aya licked his lips with a quick swipe of a pink tongue and softly purred. It seemed the man was finally getting over his shock from the assault, and Yohji was hard pressed not to yank Aya into his arms and carry him upstairs to their bed.

It was Jo who brought him back to his senses as she snatched the jar from his hand at the same time as she put a mug in one of Aya’s. "Here, drink this. Yohji, give him your tunic, his clothes have been ripped into rags. Poor thing. And if you growl at me any more, I’m going to hit you with one of my iron skillets. Behave like the well-raised young man you are before I beat some manners into you." She glared at him while she gathered up the medical supplies and tucked the basket against her right hip.

Why didn’t he get any respect, Yohji wondered, as he spared a dirty look for the other men in the room who were busy trying to hide their smiles at Jo taking him to task. The only one present who was neither smirking nor glaring was Aya. Jerking his tunic over his head, Yohji helped the smaller man to pull it on and remove the remnants of his new tunic. After tugging Aya’s eartails out from under the blue material, he sniffed at the mug Jo had given the redhead. It turned out to be a hot toddy, from the scent of it mostly rum with a little butter and some herbs mixed in. He stole a sip before returning it to Aya and urging him to drink. The man needed something warm in him to help with the shock; he was still too quiet and pale. Other than saying he’d taken care of himself against the bastard that had attacked him, Aya had remained silent the whole time.

"Come on, finish that off and then I can tuck you into bed."

"Great. The last thing he needs is to be attacked again," Naoe muttered under his breath. About to growl, Yohji caught sight of Jo stepping closer to him with a frown on her face and settled for cursing the damn brat instead. He didn’t get very far into his tirade when Aya rose to his feet.

Clutching his mug between his hands, Aya treated the whole room to a glare. "I can take care of myself," he said in a quiet voice before drinking the hot beverage and setting the empty mug down on a table. Jo immediately snatched it up and in a few steps was at the stove, ladling more of the drink into the mug and returning it to Aya. He hissed a little at the woman when she came near, but he held onto the ceramic cup when she placed it in his hands.

"I’ve had it with the snapping, snarling, cursing and hissing. This is a respectable inn, not a menagerie. I’ll let this slide since I know you’re a bit shaken up," Jo said to Aya as she waved a finger in front of his face, "… but the next time someone produces anything other than a civil comment, he’ll need patching up when I’m done with him. Am I being clear enough?" The five men mumbled under their breath as they glanced down at the floor, causing Jo to hmph as she returned to the stove. "I have an inn to run and can’t be bothered with babysitting." Yohji and Mickey shot her dirty looks for that comment, which she ignored as she filled several more mugs with the hot drink and passed them around.

"Drink this up and then get the hell out of my kitchen. Yohji, if Aya does _anything_ but sleep tonight, the Kudoh genes will never get another chance to be passed on, understood? I have plenty of nice, sharp knives available, and I won’t hesitate to use them." Yohji tugged Aya protectively in front of him and wrapped his free hand around the man’s waist, whining softly at the look his employee was giving him.

Jo was on a roll and her wrath soon moved on to a chortling Teddy and smiling Naoe. "As for you two, leave them the hell alone. You pick on Yohji again tonight, and _I’ll_ pick on you. There’s been enough excitement for the time being, the last thing anyone needs is a fight breaking out." That said, she glanced over at Mickey, who despite being a rather large man was doing his best to appear invisible. "I want you to go out and tell one of the Guards about this Timon. Let them know if he comes back to the Koneko, I’m going to cut his hands off, along with another choice body part. No one hurts our guests like that and gets away with it, not while I’m still breathing."

The cook took a deep breath, and to everyone’s amazement smiled gently as she tapped Aya’s mug. "Drink, you clearly need it. I’m sorry for what happened, but you can rest assured that it won’t happen again. Despite this incident, you really are safe here."

Lifting the mug to his lips, Aya once again repeated that he could protect himself.

"I’m not doubting you, all I’m saying is that while you’re here at the Koneko you shouldn’t and won’t have to protect yourself. Right, Yohji?"

"Most definitely, Jo. He’s not leaving my sight for even a second from now on." Yohji hugged Aya against him and nuzzled his lover’s hair. Anyone who got within a foot of the man was going to get hurt. Dammit, he should have listened to the little voice that had whispered in his head and told him to follow Aya outside instead of having another beer with Schuldig. If he had, that bastard Timon would be dead and Aya unharmed.

The young men quickly finished their drinks and made good their escape: Teddy and Mickey back to the common room, and Yohji, Naoe and Aya upstairs. It was while he was going up the steps that Yohji heard from Schuldig.

<I take it that right now is a really bad time to see if Jo will make pancakes in the morning?>

Yohji rolled his eyes and bit back on a laugh at the mournful tone that accompanied that thought. ‘I think that unless you’re Aya, it’d be worth your life to ask anything from her. She’s in quite the mood.’

<Hmm, any chance of your ‘cat’ asking her then? How is he?>

‘Still a bit shaken up, I think. And Schu, fuck off. I’m not letting Aya go back downstairs just so you can have a nice breakfast.’ Yohji stopped on the second floor and tugged his lover towards his room. ‘However, Naoe mentioned during dinner that Omi’s supposed to stop by tomorrow morning, so try passing that on to Jo. He’s the only other one she’ll make them for, no matter what her temper.’

<Thanks. I’ll see you tomorrow.>

Yohji had barely gotten a meter away from the stairwell when Naoe called out, noticing that Aya wasn’t right behind him any longer. "Hey, his room is up here!"

"Aya’s sleeping down here, you little demon. Now go away." He turned the knob on his door, but the damn thing seemed to be stuck and wouldn’t open, no matter how much he pushed against it.

Naoe stepped beside Aya and touched the redhead on the arm. "Aya, come on. You need some rest, and I’ll make sure you’re safe."

"Fuck off, you little brat!" How dare the kid even think he had to protect Aya when Yohji was right there. He’d make sure no one ever harmed his lover again, not some snot nosed brat. "Aya doesn’t need a child to take care of him, he has me."

"As a protector, you’re seriously lacking, Kudoh. You just care about getting him into your bed."

"You-"

The burgeoning fight was cut short as Aya cleared his throat and brushed off the hands clinging to his arms. His eyes glowing with fury, he glared at Yohji and Naoe as the hallway became darker. "The next person who suggests I need looking after won’t be able to speak for at least a month. The only protection I need is from a bunch of idiots." Aya’s voice was low and serious, and Yohji didn’t doubt for a moment that he’d be in a world of pain if he dared to refute the man’s claim.

When no one spoke for a minute, Aya nodded his head. "I’m going to bed." He pushed open Yohji’s door and walked into the dark room. Throwing Naoe a victorious look, Yohji followed him, pausing once inside the threshold to mutter a charm that caused a spelled candle to light. He found Aya removing his boots and leggings, but left the blond’s tunic on before crawling into bed. Hastily stripping off his remaining clothes, Yohji soon joined him.

Once under the covers, he spooned Aya against his chest, content to have the man next to him. Aya hn’ed softly in response as Yohji hugged him close and quickly fell asleep. Enjoying the feel of his love relaxing in his arms, Yohji smiled. The fear and anger that had filled him upon seeing Aya in the garden bruised and bleeding began to fade away. The stubborn fool was safe and next to him where he belonged. As the sound of Koyu’s harp drifted faintly through the floor, he gave some thought on how he could make sure that the redhead remained at the Koneko forever.

*******

Yoru watched as blood dripped into a silver bowl. He reached out a hand to adjust the hooks that held the cuts along the precog’s wrists open and sighed when the flow refused to increase. "I don’t think we’ll get any more out of it." Damn, he’d been hoping for a whole bowlful, in part to replace the bound blood he’d given to Botan’s assistant the other day. "It’s old and weak, and clearly starting to fade." The Etos would not have a precog to rely on for much longer; probably only for another generation or two, but it was their own fault for not taking care of the thing better. The fools had even removed the bound’s eyes, probably believing in the old wives tale that precogs could better predict the future if they were blind.

"All it has to do is serve its purpose for another month or two, and then I’ll order the Guards to search out a new one. There has to be another of its kind somewhere in this country." Hajime stared down at his slave with a look of disgust on his face, the sneer on his lips becoming more pronounced when the bound moaned in pain before passing out.

A fool. He’d allied himself with a fool, but it had been necessary, Yoru reminded himself. "Precogs are very rare creatures, almost as much so as kage and should be able to predict the Guards coming for them. I don’t know how your ancestors managed to catch this one off guard."

"It was one of my esteemed ancestor’s bastards and had thought that a claim on the family would save it. Stupid creature. As soon as its power was evident, it was blinded and caged away so as not to bring disgrace to the Eto name." The young lord stepped away from the bound and walked over to the window, looking out on hills touched with a hint of red that signaled the start of dawn. "Do you have enough blood for your spells?"

Judging the contents of the bowl once more, Yoru sighed and yanked the hooks off the bound’s arms, tearing the already lacerated skin. "No, but there’s enough here for the wards, and they take top priority. The wonderful thing about these monsters is that they heal so quickly. I’ll be back to blood it in another week or so, and I’ll continue to do so until the wedding. We have more than enough time to get all the blood I need." And after the wedding, he’d have kage blood at his disposal and not have to worry any longer. He’d have his lost youth once again, and enough power to knock this idiot off his newly claimed throne. Yoru hadn’t thought to take over Kritiker for himself, but seriously doubted that the country would be safe in Hajime’s hands. He’d kill the lord, and maybe once things settled down he’d look for a suitable puppet to take over for him, leaving him to his studies and the glory waiting to be discovered there.

Setting aside the bowl as he motioned for servants to return the unconscious bound to its prison, Yoru rubbed at a healing cut on his palm. He had to give Hajime credit for insisting on a blood vow that would make it all but impossible for him to back out of their agreement or to betray his partner in crime. But once he had his hands on kage blood, the oath could be broken with impunity.

He cautiously poured the blood into a leather flagon, making certain not to spill a drop. "As I said, this should be enough to replenish the wards in the palace, and enough to spare that I can use it to aid my auguries. There are still some deplorable holes in my and that creature’s visions of the future."

Lord Hajime turned away from the window to look at him. "That’s partly why you’re here, to counter any difficulties that arise. Do you suddenly not feel up to the challenge?"

"I am more than ready to meet whatever opposition we encounter," Yoru gritted out. "However, my lord, it’s best to be prepared or else your family would’ve never kept a precog as a slave these past few centuries. I’ve already started to circumvent the palace wards so your private army can gain entrance during the wedding, and in another week or two will enter the place myself and set up all the spells needed for the attack. No other wizard besides Botan could manage such a feat, and you’d never have met his price."

"Believe me, I did some research of my own, and you wouldn’t be here if I thought there was someone better out there. I’m just attempting to ascertain if you’re still capable," Hajime replied in a bored voice. "After all, you are rather old, and aren’t as strong as you once were."

No, but he would be soon, and when that day came Hajime would pay. "I’m more than strong enough for what you have in mind." After all these years, and still people looked down on him, belittled him. Once Yoru had the kage blood he needed to perfect his spells, he’d ensure that never happened again. People would speak of him with reverence, in the tone of voice they reserved for Kritiker’s legendary wizard, but no one would ever forget his name or think of him as the court mage who’d been disgraced. "I’ll give you the throne, have no fears."

The young lord studied him with calculating blue eyes. "Know this, old man, I’m not foolish enough to believe you’re doing this merely for a chance to repay the Takatoris for what they’ve done to you, which is why I insisted on the oath. I will be king, no matter the cost, and once I’m securely seated on the throne you can do whatever you want. But the Etos are owed the throne and I intend to see that my family receives its due. At the very least, Shuuichi and Reiji will pay for what happened to Kikuno.

"Now, I’ve been up all night watching you bleed the creature dry and listening to your ideas, I’m off for some rest. Contact me when you have some news to report. The king should be making his announcement soon, and my attention is going to be occupied with that and holding up my end of the bargain." That said, Hajime gathered up his elegant robes and left the room, leaving Yoru alone.

Eyes narrowed in anger, he finished gathering up his tools and wiped them clean before stowing them away in his bag. Three centuries were more than enough to have to grovel to a bunch of highborns and other wizards; he’d officially had his fill. The moment his youth and powers were restored, he’d make sure that no one ever forgot his name or failed to grant it proper respect. Not that the foolish Lord Eto would be alive to see that come about.

*******

Schuldig stood in the shadows watching as servants garbed in the Eto family colours dragged an unconscious bound behind them. Utilizing his power, he quietly followed them, thankful that it was still too early in the morning for many people to be up and about.

<Crawford, I’m following Eto’s men to where they keep the bound. Poor bastard, it looks as if they drained him dry.> It was hard to concentrate on cloaking his presence from the servants’ minds and project his thoughts while filled with so much rage. Schuldig wanted to unsheathe his claws and kill everyone who was wearing blue and gold in retribution for what they’d done to one of his own. He could very well imagine that the pitiable figure as his own mother, tortured and caged for years because of her talent.

<Good. Did you manage to ‘overhear’ Lord Eto’s conversation with the wizard?>

<The pricks were wearing charms to cloak their thoughts, but forgot about the servants in the room with them. They’re already working on the palace wards.>

<What, are you telling me that you couldn’t break through the charms?>

Some of his anger transferring to his father, Schuldig prevented himself from growling out loud just in time. <Of course I could break them, but didn’t see the need when I could just pick someone else’s mind. So shut the hell up you drunk bastard.> He really wanted to know why he’d been kicked out of the Koneko to spend most of the night prowling around a castle that he’d been ordered not to steal anything from, while the prick got to stay behind and drink himself silly.

Distracted by thinking of some choice insults to call his father, he barely noticed in time the feeling of heat coming from the ring on his right hand. <Ah, guess I’m done here for the night.>

<And why is that?>

<Because where they’re taking the poor bastard is warded. I’m gonna sneak out now before anyone notices me.> Sparing one last look at the retreating figures, Schuldig promised his temper that it could slip its leash as soon as he got back on the streets. Carefully retracing his steps so as to avoid any other wards, he was outside in a manner of minutes.

The first human he came across fell to the ground as he ripped through the man’s mind, making him spill the basket of fresh bread he was carrying, overwhelmed by agony. Reaching down to pick up a warm loaf, Schuldig snarled and continued on his way. Someone would find the man and assume he’d had a stroke. Fucking humans, thinking they were so perfect when they really were just a powerless waste of flesh driven by jealousy to torment their betters.

Biting into the bread, Schuldig’s temper slowly started to calm. <So what was the point of all of this, hmm? We know who the bad guys are, and what they’re planning on doing. And don’t tell me you’re just going to leave the poor bastard in their hands, now that I’ve confirmed that they do indeed have a precog at their disposal, or you’ll be suffering one hell of a migraine.>

<The kage’s presence has cast most of the future in shadows, no pun intended. It pays to be absolutely certain about as many matters as possible. As for the unfortunate bound… I’ll order Aya to take care of him.>

Schuldig stopped in the middle of the street, earning a curse from an old woman who was driving a cart of goods to the market. He spared her a glare and a headache before jumping out of the way. <Don’t even think to tell me you’re going to kill that man.>

<Schuldig….> A sense of irritation came through the mental link. <Think for a damn minute, will you? If he disappears, Eto and Yoru will know that someone is on to them. Aya can kill the man in such a manner that no one will be suspicious. Besides, it’s likely he’s warded so he can never leave the premises alive.>

<So the only solution is to kill him? One of our own?>

Crawford’s aggrieved sigh translated rather well over the mental link. <Show me what he looks like.> Obliging, he sent his father an image of the other bound. <Schuldig… the man’s fading, right now a quick death will be a mercy. Even if you managed to get him out of there alive, he’s been drained and abused too much. It’s not worth the risk involved to rescue him.> As if sensing his son’s anger, Crawford continued. <I won’t leave him in Eto’s hands, but the only option we have here is death. One life for millions. You know the stakes, Schuldig, and somehow… I doubt he’ll mind the sacrifice that much.>

No, the bound had been practically begging for death the whole time Schuldig could sense his thoughts, wanting the abuse to end. But it galled him to admit his father was right; not so much in the sense of agreeing with the man, as in letting Eto succeed in ruining a bound’s life. <I still don’t like this, but… I see your point. Just have it done quickly then.>

<I’ll ask Aya to do it tonight. We’ll need to distract Yohji and allow the kage a chance to leave the Koneko without his mate. It’s going to be a long day, so let me get some sleep while I can.>

<Grouchy bastard, at least you’re tucked into your bed at the moment, unlike others.> Before Crawford could respond, Schuldig severed the connection. Noting the time, he decided it would be best to see if Jo was cooking anything and then go to bed. He needed something to eat, what with using his power so extensively the past hour or two. Hastening his pace, Schuldig resolved to wring a promise from his father that he got to take Eto out when the time came. Jei would probably insist on taking the wizard and would make that bastard suffer. The least he could do was make sure that the bound was avenged since he couldn’t be saved. Growling softly, Schuldig wondered why he and the others were sacrificing so much to save a world largely composed of humans. They really were fools.

*******

Ran drifted awake to the sound of Yohji snoring, ever so lightly. For a moment he felt safe and warm, and even began to purr softly before memories of the night before returned, of the man assaulting him and paying for it with his life when he’d called the shadows to him. It had felt so right, using the part of him that he had to deny except when taking someone’s life. What would it be like not to have to hide what he was?

The Takatoris would make sure he never found out, not as long as they lived. Hissing under his breath, Ran slowly shifted about until he was free of Yohji’s arms. He gazed down at his sleeping lover, gently combing back a lock of honey blond hair while the man slept.

What would happen to Yohji? Ran had realized just how powerful the bond was between them when Yohji had brought him back from the darkness, had been his shield from the hurt and anger. Usually it took him days to return to his more human side after an assignment, yet all the older bound had done was touch him and he’d… not so much shoved his true nature back inside himself, but… it was like his human and kage mentalities had merged, both reveling in Yohji’s presence, both wanting to be near him so much.

Mates. Ran was beginning to understand what exactly that meant. He couldn’t stop himself from craving Yohji, and the other man… he could still see Yohji in the garden and the kitchen, intent on making sure no one came near him or hurt him. At the time, he’d been filled with anger that his lover thought him so helpless, but now he was seeing things in a different light. Yohji really wasn’t going to let go of him, just like he wasn’t able to counter this _want_ that filled him, all because of the blond.

He was, as Jei might say, so screwed. The both of them were. Yohji wouldn’t let him go, and neither would the Takatoris. For a moment loathing overwhelmed Ran, and the room became black with darkness. He’d give just about anything for the prince and his sons to die a slow, painful death. But the men held his sister’s soul and he knew of no way to break the spells that held it bound for them to torment at will. He couldn’t stomach the thought of Aya-chan suffering any pain or her soul being devoured, never to be reborn, because of him. He wouldn’t let that happen.

Neither would he allow Yohji to suffer because of him. Which the fool would if he tried to take on the Takatoris on Ran’s behalf. If Prince Reiji ever found out about the succubae-bound, then he’d have another captive to abuse and drain of blood for his spells. Stroking a hand along Yohji’s chest, Ran realized that the thought was as painful as the one of Aya-chan suffering. How had the innkeeper become so special to him? Was Cass right, did he love him some small little bit? All he knew for certain was his need for Yohji became stronger and stronger by the moment.

Rising from the bed in a fluid motion, Ran searched out his discarded clothes, only pausing when Yohji tossed about fitfully and murmured his name. Well, not his but his sister’s, yet somehow when the other man said it, it became his. Shaking his head, Ran finished dressing. He needed some time away from the bound, some space to think. If he stayed here, he’d only curl back beside Yohji and wait for the man to wake, and then… right he couldn’t afford to lose any more energy.

He quietly left the room, not making a single sound with his departure. Encountering no one on his way back to his room, Ran entered and then crossed over to his bed. He sat down on the mattress and pulled the shadows about him, taking comfort in their sanctuary. Their cool touch reassured him, helping him to ignore the part of him that cried out for Yohji and the man’s tingling magic.

Cassandra and Crawford both told him that they’d seen futures that didn’t have him tied forever to the Takatoris. Or was he just interpreting their words to mean what he so desperately longed to hear? Could he trust the precogs? They had clearly allowed something that could be quite detrimental to happen to Yohji and him, yet on the other hand claimed it had been necessary for there to be any hope of averting his abysmal future. Could he trust them?

The only people he’d ever really trusted in his life had been his sister, his father and Nagi. Now Yohji had been added to the mix, so much so that Ran had chosen to spend the night by his side instead of following Nagi to their room. He knew the elemental-bound had been worried about his welfare and keeping his nature a secret, yet he hadn’t been able to walk away from Yohji. His mate.

A man who puzzled him endlessly. One minute Yohji was so incredibly human, the next purely a bound. He teased, tormented and annoyed Ran, made him lose his precarious control on his temper until he snapped back at the blond. But Yohji had never hurt him and didn’t have a clue of what had happened between them the other night. How was the man going to react to the truth of what he and Ran were? And how was an ex-Guard going to handle the fact that he was here to kill the king?

Everything just seemed to get bleaker the more he thought about it. Ran didn’t see that many choices left to him. Since there seemed no way to break the bond, it was either trust the precogs or destroy Yohji’s life, and possibly the others here at the Koneko. He hated the fact that his life always seemed to be in the hands of others. What he wouldn’t give to be free.

"Ran, are you alright? Why are you hiding?"

Hearing Nagi’s voice, Ran let the shadows melt away from him. He realized that the sun had finished rising, and that the inn would be filled with activity shortly, if not already. "I was thinking."

"Huh, brooding, you mean." Nagi retorted as he rubbed the sleep from his eyes. "When did you get back? I thought you were spending the night with Yohji." There was a hint of reproach and hurt in the boy’s voice.

Tugging on one of his eartails, Ran thought about what he should tell his friend. Nagi’s life was at stake here as well; he deserved to know what was happening. "Nagi, what do you know about bounds taking mates?"

The teen blinked his eyes for several moments, his face becoming serious as he thought about the question. "All I know is from those books you had me read. Many demons and spirits take mates or form packs, so most bounds do as well. Though it’s rare that things turn out well since they often choose humans, who die so quickly. Plus, it’s hard for bounds to meet and associate with other bounds, since they are often on the run and hiding. When it does happen, the bond is supposed to be irrevocable. Why do you ask?"

"Because… Yohji’s my mate." The last three words were spoken in a hushed whisper.

"Ran, what did you just say?"

"Yohji’s my mate. It happened the other night, but I didn’t know it at the time. He doesn’t know it at all." He stared at his friend, waiting for a reaction.

Nagi rubbed his eyes again. "I must be having a nightmare."

"No, you’re not." It would be easier if it had all been an insane dream, though.

Nagi stood and crossed the room to sit down next to Ran. He studied the kage for a moment, then nodded his head. "That must be why the bruises on your neck haven’t healed, even though your face has." The boy looked him over for another minute, then grabbed a pillow and hit Ran over the head with it. "What the hell were you thinking? Gods, Ran, you said you wanted some sex, not a mate! That means you’re stuck with the bastard now forever, which means _I’m_ stuck with him as well!"

The pillow was immediately snatched and tossed across the room while Ran snarled at his young friend. "I didn’t do it on purpose! Do you have any idea of how many problems this will cause us?"

Nagi grew serious once more. "You can’t hide him from the Takatoris, and I can imagine them being only too happy to have another bound in their service. You can’t go back to them, Ran."

"I have to, they still… they still have Aya-chan."

"I know," Nagi breathed softly. They remained motionless and silent for several minutes. "Ran, Crawford said something to me the other day. He was telling me not to interfere with Yohji and you, and he mentioned a chance of freedom for all of us. Do you… do you think that might be possible?"

Getting up from the bed, Ran walked over to the dresser where a large vase filled with flowers was perched. As he stroked a finger along a rose petal, he closed his eyes and shivered. "I don’t know, and that frightens me. So much is in the hands of several bounds we know next to nothing about." Then there was the thought of a future free of the Takatoris. Ran had to admit that as much as he longed for freedom, he didn’t know what he’d do with himself if that actually came to pass. All he knew was how to kill and had only experienced life through books.

"They want to be free as well, Ran. I think we can trust Jei and Crawford that far."

Yes, there was that. Nagi and he weren’t the only ones who were slaves. He felt a bit more comfortable knowing that there was one bond at least between the Esset agents and himself. But he still didn’t trust Crawford, not after the man had said nothing about Yohji becoming his mate. The man definitely had his own agenda. Ran was not happy remembering the promise he’d made the precog. He might not have any choice but to put his faith in Crawford.

He heard Nagi get up and pour some water into the washbasin. "Are you hungry?"

"Yes. I promised Omi that I’d spend the day with him again, if you don’t mind. I didn’t think you would, not after the way you spent the past couple of days with Yohji."

Feeling a bit guilty at the way he’d been ignoring his friend, Ran looked through his belongings for a new outfit to wear, waiting for his turn to wash. "No, that’s fine." He didn’t like the thought of Nagi being out with a Takatori, but was bound by his oath.

Drying himself off, Nagi gave him a tiny smile. "Thank you. He’s shown me so many things I never even dreamed about before coming here. I love the capital."

"Have fun, Nagi, just… be careful."

"I will. I know this will sound odd, but I trust him, Ran. And he makes me happy. I hope that Yohji makes you feel that way too, or I really am tossing him through a wall, your mate or not."

His hand touching the tunic he was wearing, Ran ducked his head and softly replied back that Yohji did make him happy. He didn’t mention the frustrated, confused and aggravated part. Setting aside the borrowed garment, he cleaned himself before dressing in a lavender tunic and black leggings and jerkin. Pulling his hood up, Ran followed Nagi out the door and found Yohji waiting for him, leaning against the wall.

*******

Kikyou looked up from his breakfast as a large, heavily muscled man dressed in a Guard’s uniform walked into the room. "Morning, Tsubaki."

"Morning, my lord." The man, formerly a servant who had chosen to follow his master when Kikyou had joined the Guards, bowed low. Tsubaki only acted this way in private, for which Kikyou was grateful. The other Guards would be furious to see one of their own acting subservient to another, but try as he might, he couldn’t break the bigger man of the habit. "I have the information you asked for."

Setting aside his coffee, Kikyou motioned for Tsubaki to sit. He offered the man some coffee and sweet rolls, which were declined. "What have you found out about Aya?"

"He arrived at the Koneko several days ago in the company of three other men. It is believed that the group is here for the wedding, although two of his companions, a Brad and a Farfarello, have been seen about town, supposedly on business for their masters. It is believed they have a gift for the king and his new bride, but have been very quiet on the matter. No one knows who they serve or where they’re from, other than the western border. No family names were recorded either."

This was not good news. He needed more concrete information on the redhead if he hoped to steal him away from Kudoh. Kikyou had refreshed his ring yesterday, but found himself unwilling to rely on it. "Anything else?"

"Yes, there was another disturbance at the Koneko last night centering around this Aya. He was attacked by another guest, who fled when the man’s companions came to his rescue." His hand clenched into a fist at that news. What was something that lovely and rare doing at a low class inn like the Koneko in the first place? Something about Aya fascinated Kikyou, with his beauty and air of sadness. He hadn’t been this interested in another person in quite a while, not since his sister died.

"What did Kudoh do?"

His hands clasped on the table in front of him, Tsubaki continued with his report. "He came upon the situation too late to do much of anything; however he wasn’t seen again for the rest of the night, and neither was Aya. One of the staff, a Mickey Kudoh, the man’s foster brother, reported the incident to a Guard present, Miko Li."

"How badly was Aya hurt?"

"Unknown, though the staff reported he was just bruised and shaken up. Sentiment around the Koneko was the assailant, by the name of Timon, would be lucky if the Guards found him, and not anyone working at the Koneko. They take their patrons’ safety very seriously."

Yes, the inn’s reputation was at stake, after all. "Tsubaki, I want an eye on Aya at all times. Let me know the second he leaves the Koneko and where he goes." He had acquired a few spies over the years, some from his past as a lord’s son and others during his career in the Guards. He’d put them to use and have them ferret out the redhead’s past. If he was serious about taking the man as a lover, he had to know Aya’s background. It wouldn’t do for the new Captain of the Guards to be surprised by an enraged lord showing up looking for his concubine or some other such thing. Not that it would discourage him from having what he wanted, it just meant that a few things would have to be dealt with before he displayed his lover here in court.

"I’ll see to it, my lord."

"Good. I’ll be in Manx’s office much of the day, but feel free to interrupt if it’s important." The woman wanted his input on planning security for the wedding ceremony, something he took as a positive sign that he would be named her successor any day now. There had been hints of that nature yesterday.

Tsubaki rose to his feet and displayed an amazing amount of grace as he bowed and then left. Watching his servant leave, Kikyou finished his coffee and did up the collar of his uniform. Brushing his ring against his sleeve, he smiled as he thought of his future. Soon he’d have a rival’s lover as his own, and would be in a position powerful enough to gain revenge on his brother and the men involved in his sister’s death. His hard work was finally paying off.

*******

Yohji didn’t move as he watched Aya slowly exit his room and come to a halt in front of him. The pale man motioned to his friend to continue on his way downstairs, and quietly said he’d be down for a bite to eat in a minute. It was taking all of Yohji’s willpower to stand there and not pick Aya up and carry him to the nearest bed and fuck him until he couldn’t even think of getting out of it.

Glancing at his lover’s face, Yohji noticed that the bruises from last night were gone, thanks to Cass’s wonder cream. The ones on the white throat however, seemed to have barely faded at all. A part of him stirred at the sight, and he found his hand outstretched and caressing the bruises without any thought on his part. When Aya purred softly at the contact, he couldn’t control himself any longer and snatched the man into his arms. He had enough presence of mind to pull Aya against his chest and not pin him to the wall as he wanted.

"Why did you leave?" That question had been on his mind ever since Yohji had woken up and found his lover gone. At first panicking at the thought that something had happened to Aya, he’d only calmed down when he noticed the man’s clothes were gone. Aya had left of his own free will, dammit. The panic had soon become anger and hurt, and he’d been hard pressed not to break down the door of Aya and Nagi’s room once he made sure the man wasn’t anywhere else in the inn.

Aya gazed at him for a moment with those lovely, improbable eyes and then glanced downward. "I wanted some time to think."

Think? "About what?"

Shivering when the smaller man tucked his head in the crook of his neck, Yohji combed a hand through the crimson hair making Aya sigh. "About us."

Oh, this was not good. In his rather limited experience, consisting mainly of hearing other people’s relationship woes, when one person took the time to think about the relationship the other usually found themselves dumped. Tightening his arms around the slender figure in his embrace, Yohji growled harshly. "I’m not letting you break up with me."

That earned him another look from wide violet eyes. "Break up?"

"Yeah, you’re not leaving me." The mere thought of Aya walking away from him filled him with jealousy, rage and panic. Aya was his, end of story. He’d kill anyone who tried to touch his love. The intensity of his emotions shocked Yohji, though he didn’t try to deny them. He wasn’t letting his boyfriend go without mass slaughter.

"Leaving you?" Aya was clearly perplexed by the conversation’s turn. "I didn’t say anything like that."

Remembering that the man had clearly never been involved with someone else, Yohji heaved a sigh of relief. "Never mind, my mistake. So what were you thinking about, in regards to us?"

The question earned him a glare before Aya bent his head again. "We seem to be getting very serious, very fast. Maybe you don’t want this."

"Bullshit." Tilting up the pale chin, he kissed Aya on the lips. "Things aren’t moving fast enough, in my opinion." He wanted to tell the stubborn fool he loved him and find out who’d hurt Aya, but was resolved to wait a little longer. Resuming the kiss, he delved into the man’s sweet mouth, all but moaning at the feel of sunlight flooding his senses, a sensation he’d been craving since he woke up. One hand was buried in the red hair, the other cupped Aya’s ass and pulled his lover close, slowly rocking against him.

Aya’s hands tangled in his hair, and a leg wrapped itself around his hip. Groaning, he tore his mouth away and stared into the smaller man’s eyes when they fluttered open. "I want this, I want you. And so help you if I ever wake up again and find you gone, do you hear me? How many times do I have to tell you you’re mine?" His voice was low and all but growling, having never recalled being more serious in his life. "Mine." Yohji fastened his mouth on Aya’s neck, once more biting into the soft flesh until the man mewled and went limp in his arms. His body tingled, set aflame by sunlight and desire.

He kissed the new bruise and nuzzled smooth, rose scented skin. Yohji drank in each mewl he wrung from Aya as he nibbled his way to a pale ear. Everything was right once more; Aya was his.

"Ah, Yotan, I don’t think the hallway is the proper place for that. Also, Jo said if the pancakes get cold, she won’t make them again until winter." Growling under his breath, Yohji looked over Aya’s shoulder at Touya, who was blushing furiously and holding a pile of clean sheets in his arms.

"You hate me. All of you hate me, don’t try to deny it." If not, his employees would not purposely bedevil him like this. Screw countless generations of Kudohs, he had to get out of this business before he killed the whole staff. What did he have to do to have some uninterrupted time with Aya, for the gods’ sakes?

The redhead was tense in his arms, his hands falling from Yohji’s hair. Guess that was the end of the fun, considering how the mood had been ruined. "All right, we’re headed downstairs now. Just leave a spare set of sheets in my room, I’ll need them after breakfast." Aya, who had been in the process of pulling his hood up, glared at Yohji and stomped on his foot before storming away, muttering ‘shi-ne’ under his breath. Ha, as if the cat hadn’t been willing to do it right here in the damn hallway a moment ago. Yohji would have him that hot and bothered again shortly… maybe after Aya’s temper cooled down a little. Glaring at Touya in passing, Yohji went to get his pancakes. Damn Schuldig for asking for them, they better be extra good this morning, considering what he’d had to sacrifice for them.

*******

Omi peeked around the corner of a wall, and upon seeing a horde of courtiers walking his way, decided to take the long way to Botan’s chamber after all. Quickly dashing down the hall, he purposely ignored the sound of someone calling out his royal title. He wasn’t going to allow himself to be latched onto this early in the day, especially not when Naoe was waiting for him at the Koneko.

Still, all this activity meant that the king was probably going to make the wedding announcement soon. Things would be crazy in the palace once that took place; everyone would be busy cleaning, and strangers from all over the land would be coming to visit. He’d probably have to sit through countless formal dinners, but beyond that, he expected to be ignored. As he ducked into a little used, and hence, dusty corridor, Omi considered the fact that not too many people would be out to curry his favor once the king married Manx. Everyone knew that it would be one of the children from that union who would inherit the throne and not him. Soon he would have nothing but free time on his hands.

Seeing a man garbed in dark blue, Omi let out an eep and ran the last few meters to the stairwell, praying it wasn’t someone sent after him by Manx or Ken. Those two would probably be trying to make sure that he didn’t go anywhere today, especially the Koneko. There was no way he was going to remain here in the palace and do nothing but hide in his room all day when he could be out with… someone special having fun. Did it really matter if he, the crown prince, was putting himself in danger? He had the charm that prevented anyone but the select few who knew about his ‘Omi’ identity from recognizing him, and he wouldn’t be holding onto the title for much longer.

For a second he wondered what would happen if he told Naoe the truth. How would the boy take the news? He didn’t think it would be received very well. But if Naoe wasn’t going to remain here for very long, why ruin things when they were going so well? If by some chance Yohji did manage to convince Aya to stay, he’d deal with the situation then. Even though it meant possible trouble for him, Omi found himself wishing that his playboy friend would manage to talk Aya into remaining here in the capital. He didn’t want Naoe to leave.

Heaving a sigh of relief when he found Botan’s door unguarded, Omi quickly knocked on it then slipped inside. The wizard was studying the same old texts from last night. Slipping up behind the man, he peered over a grey clad shoulder and read a few lines.

"It’s not polite to read over someone’s shoulder, especially when they’re doing you a favor."

Resting his chin on Botan’s shoulder for a moment, Omi laughed softly and then stepped away, allowing the wizard to shift back his chair and stand to his feet. "Why are you reading about Ban?"

"I had the sudden urge to look up old and depressing history," Botan replied as he straightened his robes. "It’s interesting to compare actual events, or at least recorded notes about the events, and popular gossip. So many things about the kage have been lost or twisted beyond recognition. I’m trying to track down a bit of the truth, but feel as if I’m failing miserably. Now where is your amulet?"

Needing a moment to follow the sudden shift in topic, Omi reached into his pocket and handed the necklace over. "You know, one thing I never understood about the kage was if they’re so powerful, why they’re all dead. Couldn’t they have just leveled the continent or something and hidden away?"

Muttering a few spells under his breath as he poked at and twisted about the amulet, Botan spared a moment to look up at Omi. "Don’t say things like that, or the next one might very well just do it. Have you ever heard the names Toyoma, Nicea, Alegati or Komor before?"

Omi shook his head after wracking his brain for a moment.

"They once were cities scattered across the continent, except for Nicea, which was an island, and they were destroyed by various kage at different points in time. Wiped clean off the face of the earth or sunk into the sea. Edan obliterated Komor merely because a lord there had sought to try and take his lover hostage and made a failed attempt for the woman. So yes, they are very powerful, but they have their weaknesses. In all cases, it was someone they cared about, or in Aidan’s, her whole family.

"Kage don’t think rationally when their loved ones are endangered. They either destroy everything in their wake or sacrifice themselves. This fact has been used against almost all of them to end their lives. The only exceptions were Namie, who killed herself when her child died of old age, and Aidan…"

"I know about Aidan," Omi replied softly. It seemed the Takatoris were capable of both great good and evil and had practiced both throughout the centuries. He spent many nights awake in his bed wondering which side he would take after. Was it no wonder he preferred to be Omi Tsukiyono instead of Mamoru Takatori?

Botan spared him a pitying glance. "Yes, well, the way to defeat a kage is through their heart. They don’t love like we humans do, when they find that special person, they give them their all. Kage don’t wake up one day and decide that they made a mistake and aren’t in love anymore, or find someone else; they remain faithful to the end. Most often theirs. There’s an old and rarely used saying, dating back to Ban’s times. ‘May our love last as long as the shadows.’ It refers to a kage’s unwavering devotion. Not many people are willing to swear an oath that powerful."

Trust the wizard to turn a simple question into a history lecture. Not that Omi minded in the least, he had always adored the stories Botan told him. There were times when he thought of the sad man as his real father; certainly Botan had spent more time raising him than the king did. But then, Shuuichi had his reasons. It was more of the Takatori taint.

"How’s my amulet?"

Brown eyes blinked and then their owner frowned in puzzlement as he handed the necklace back to him. "It barely needed recharging at all, which is odd, considering that I haven’t touched it in months." Botan got the far away look in his eyes, which signaled that he was about to pull away from the world and puzzle out a new mystery.

Not willing to spend the better part of the day watching the wizard do an impressive impersonation of a statue, Omi tugged on a grey sleeve. "Come on, I promised Naoe I’d meet him after breakfast, but if we get there early enough, I know Jo will feed us." Besides, he was eager to see Naoe and make sure the other teen didn’t regret the other night. Which he still couldn’t remember, dammit.

"Hmm, breakfast sounds good, since I’ll be expending all that energy renewing the spells. Let me put these books away, and we’ll be on our way."

*******

Yohji glared evilly at a guest when she stared at Aya a little too long. It seemed that word of what happened to the redhead last night had gotten around. He didn’t like the curious looks directed their way, especially when Aya kept tugging his hood forward and pressing against his side. Well, he didn’t really mind the last, though it was reminding him of what they’d been interrupted at upstairs. Shoving a mouthful of pancakes in his mouth, Yohji mentally sighed as his hunger refused to abate no matter how much he ate. Snaking an arm around his lover’s waist, he pushed his plate aside and picked up his mug of coffee.

He sighed aloud as Koyu and Teddy walk over to the table. Damn, he was hoping the pest would spend the day in bed, recovering from the journey to the capital. No such luck. And the woman was staring this way again. What did he have to do, toss her out on the street or something? Yohji resumed glaring in her direction as he growled softly.

Upon reaching the table, Koyu heard the growl and frowned in confusion, then looked in the direction Yohji was scowling in. The Harper smiled as he sat in his line of sight. After glaring at the man for a moment, Yohji realized now that the bitch wouldn’t be able to gawk at Aya any longer. He nodded his thanks.

"I take it people are still curious about last night? Aya, would you mind passing me the pancakes, please?" Koyu reached for the plate and smiled at the pale man, causing Yohji to growl again. At least until he got a pointy elbow in his side. It was his turn to frown as he looked down at Aya, who gave him an angry look before returning his attention to his cup of tea. Well, how was that for gratitude? Here he was getting abused for making sure Koyu knew that Aya was off limits.

The hunger making his temper short, Yohji snorted as he tucked back the hair falling into his face. "Yeah, all the stares and whispers are starting to piss me off."

"Well, it certainly was the talk of the inn last night. It’s not often that someone’s assaulted here, and several Guards immediately searched the vicinity for the man, even though they were off duty. I know Mickey is hiding in the dumbass’s room, waiting to see if he comes back for his stuff." Teddy had decided to add his two cents to the discussion, in between shoveling pancakes into his mouth. He only paused to wave to Ani and point to the now empty platter. "The debate amongst the staff is whether we should skin him before we draw and quarter him, or just cut him up a bit and pour vinegar all over him."

"He’s not coming back."

Yohji glanced down again at Aya, who was cupping a mug of tea between his hands. "What did you say, cat?"

"He’s not coming back."

"Well, he’d be an idiot to do so. Then again, you can’t have too many brain cells if you try to rape someone when there’s a cadre of Guards a couple dozen meters away," Teddy commented.

Aya shivered at the word ‘rape’, and Yohji found himself biting down on a snarl. He hauled his lover into his lap, earning a curse as some tea splashed onto Aya’s hands. Pushing back the black hood slightly, he stroked a pale cheek before winding an eartail around his fingers. "I won’t let something like that happen to you, I promise. If he comes back here, he’s dead." As soon as Yohji saw the fucker, he’d strangle him.

There was a look to the violet eyes that stole his breath away, something so incredibly sad and hopeless that Yohji couldn’t say a word. "Some promises shouldn’t be made, Yotan. They can’t be kept without paying too high a price."

"I’m willing to pay it."

"I’m not willing for you to do so." Aya stared back at him, his face solemn and paler than usual.

"I’ve already made up my mind, love. Nothing harms you while I’m alive." The smaller man closed his eyes, as if in pain. Yohji bent his head to kiss him, wishing there was some way to convince Aya of his sincerity. His whole being was focused on that promise, making sure that nothing ever caused the stubborn little fool pain ever again.

Aya sighed against his lips and then opened his mouth, tasting sweet from the tea. Yohji groaned in satisfaction and flicked his tongue deeper into the warm cavern.

"You know, this reminds me of the time you were making out with the one girl a few years back, and her mother came down for dinner and found the two of you. My ears hurt from her screams for days. She was so hysterical she grabbed a carafe of wine and knocked out the poor person sitting behind the two of you when you ducked. Hadn’t you slept with her on a previous stay?"

Reminding himself of why he couldn’t kill the damn pest, Yohji bared his teeth and kept Aya on his lap by a firm grip around his slender waist. "Teddy, go away before I hurt you."

Accustomed to years of such threats, Teddy only smiled at him and started to chuckle when Naoe muttered ‘pervert’ under his breath. Great, the little demon had been halfway civil to him this morning, and now the bane of his existence had to go and ruin that. "Koyu, how about I pull a few strings and get you a room at the palace? You could have a first row seat at the wedding proceedings." That way Teddy would be gone.

"Sorry, Yohji, but I think I’ll stay here." The Harper graced him with an apologetic smile and yanked on one of his boyfriend’s braids. "Teddy, I don’t think you want to go telling stories, when I very well know there are a few involving you that you don’t want made public."

Grinning wickedly, Yohji tucked Aya’s head under his chin. "Yeah, like the time you thought it was me and someone else going at it in the stable and interrupted Jo and Ichiro. Want me to tell everyone just how red your ass was for how many days?"

A pair of angry blue eyes glared back at him. "Oh, do you really want to start something like that, Yohji? Talking about sore asses, what about that guy from Thracia last spring, the one you went off with when you were too drunk to say your own name, and he decided he wanted to be the one in charge? You could barely walk for two days after that and had to sit on a big fluffy pillow. Just how big was he again? He certainly had you screaming your heart out. But at least he left you a nice big bag of silver in recompense, thinking of you as a rather exceptional whore."

Damn Teddy for bringing up that point in his life, and how low he’d sunk. He hadn’t cared who he’d fucked, or had fucked him, those first few months after Asuka’s death. Yohji had practically drowned himself in one orgy after another trying to appease his pain and hunger. About to reply back with a scathing insult, Yohji was surprised to hear a growl that wasn’t coming from him.

Aya leaned forward as far as the arms around him would allow and hissed in the coldest voice Yohji had ever heard. "Shut the hell up, Teddy. Or else." He couldn’t see his lover’s face, but the way the pale man was looking at Teddy caused him and Koyu to turn white. Glancing to his side, he found Naoe glaring evilly at the longhaired man and shivered himself from the expression on the boy’s face.

Everyone at the table remained still and quiet until Omi’s voice rang through the inn, calling out Naoe’s name. Yohji shook himself as the tension broke and noted the considering look Teddy was now giving Aya. Heh, his cat really did have a set of claws, which he didn’t reserve just for himself and the little demon.

Omi practically ran over to Naoe and threw his arms around the younger boy. Aw, they were just so cute together. How a sweet kid like Omi could fall for such a grouch was beyond him, but Yohji wasn’t going to complain about having the only other claimant to Aya’s attention gone for the day. Teddy pouted until the boy left Naoe long enough to give him and Koyu a quick hug and kiss.

"Hey, kiddo, I heard you didn’t feel too good yesterday. Nice to see you’ve recovered."

Omi glared over Teddy’s shoulder at him. "You’re evil, Yohji, for letting me drink that much."

"I didn’t force you to, Omi. Like the majority of us, you found out your limit the hard way. Now sit down and have a bite to eat, Jo made pancakes just for you." That put the prince in a better mood, and he immediately sat down and reached for the platter of hotcakes with the hand that wasn’t entwined with Naoe’s.

Looking over at Botan, who was standing with a smile on his face as he regarded the boys, Yohji motioned to the table. "You too, you old grouse. There’s more than enough food, now that Naoe’s done stuffing himself." That comment earned him a snort from the boy in question and an elbow in his ribs from Aya.

"Well, as you can imagine, I’m here to hold up my end of the bargain and to ask you to ensure that Omi doesn’t turn into drunkard." Botan helped himself to a mug of coffee before starting on the food. "I’d rather he wait a few more years before becoming thoroughly debauched."

"As if, Botan," Omi sniffed. "Your idea of debauchery is to spend the evening doing something other than reading some ancient book or muttering spells. Besides, I’ve learned from Yohji and Schuldig’s mistakes, for the most part. They’ve certainly made enough, and rather spectacular ones at that. Too bad I’m not usually around in the mornings to see them recover from their hangovers or I’d have paid better attention the other night to what I was drinking."

"Omi, shut up and eat," Yohji said wearily. His own damn inn, and he didn’t get any respect at all. Ah well, at least he had his arms around a pretty little cat who he hoped to drag off to his room in a few minutes, once Botan renewed the spell on his washbasin. Let Teddy or Mickey escort the wizard around the Koneko and stand there all wide eyed as he spouted gobbledy gook and made things glow.

The two new arrivals ate while Koyu and Teddy told them about their travels, and Jo came out to make sure that her hard work was appreciated. She also brought Aya a new pot of tea and fussed over his face, rolling her eyes at Yohji when she saw the fresh bruise. It seemed the cook had thawed a bit in regards to his lover, which made Yohji feel much better. He wanted his family and friends to accept Aya, since he would be doing his best to make sure the man became a permanent resident at the Koneko.

About to set Aya aside so he could stand up, Yohji was surprised to hear his name called out. He looked up to see Cassandra, dressed in gold and white, walk over to the table, her arms full of material. "Hey, gorgeous, let me give you a hand with that." Aya slid onto the bench, and Yohji hurried over to the precog’s side. "What ya got there?"

"A trunk of gold and the sea king’s daughter. What does it look like, fool? You didn’t break your promise to my son this soon, did you?" Cass leaned forward to smell his breath.

Wondering why it was that the people he loved the most could annoy him better than anyone else, Yohji bit back on a curse. "I’m not drunk, you old witch. Are those Aya’s and Naoe’s clothes?"

"Aya’s, I’m not done with Naoe’s yet. Now come, come, I want to make sure they fit him." She turned around before Yohji could help her with the bundle and made for the stairs. Grabbing Aya’s hand, Yohji nodded his head at Botan. "When you’re done with that, could you come up to the second floor, to the bedroom all the way down on the left? There’s a basin spell that needs to be renewed. After that, perhaps Mickey could show you everything else that needs attention."

Teddy rose to his feet and stretched his arms over his head for a moment. "I’ll go get him, he needs to stop lurking anyway." With that the pest disappeared, much to Yohji’s pleasure. If only there was a way to convince Botan to turn the man into a frog or something.

*******

Crawford opened an eye, and upon seeing how bright the room was, closed it and gritted his teeth. Really, at his age he should have known better than to get drunk and waste valuable time sleeping off the alcohol, but he’d felt the need to cut loose just the littlest bit before he killed his offspring or his partner. The men had annoyed him immensely last night. Speaking of Jei, he heard the man’s gentle snores and ground his teeth together some more. There was so much that needed to be done, and the man had let his nature get the better of him and had gorged on the corpse last night. It was a wonder Crawford wasn’t an alcoholic, but he had a feeling that given another year or two, he would be well on his way.

It was then that the visions struck him. Due to the kage’s influence, they weren’t the most exact ones he’d ever experienced, but Crawford was able to interpret them somewhat. It seemed that things would be irrevocably set into motion very shortly, and he now had an idea of how to pry Yohji away from Ran long enough tonight so the kage could take care of the tortured precog. Not bad, but the headache that resulted from his talent did not mix well with his hangover. He needed a nice long soak to start the day. It was going to be another busy one.

*******

Ran pulled on yet another new tunic, glaring slightly at Yohji when the man tugged his long strands of hair out from the top’s collar. Shifting his gaze to rest on Cassandra, he frowned at the woman. "They’re all fine, can I stop trying them on now?"

"Fine then, but no complaints if something doesn’t fit. It will be another week or two for the costume, but there is no rush on that. Yotan, would you like for me to make one for you as well?"

Having just had his hand smacked for tugging on Ran’s hair, Yohji stuck his tongue out at him before answering the other bound. "That would be great, Cass. Have it match Aya’s, since we’ll be going to the wedding together."

Those words made Ran shiver as he thought of Yohji witnessing him kill the king and his family. The older man mistook it for a chill and wrapped his arms about Ran. Was there no way for him to escape this mission? He was starting to feel pulled in two different directions; between Aya-chan and Yohji and Nagi, and wasn’t sure how to keep the people he cared for safe. And Yohji’s promise this morning was not helping matters.

Warm breath tickled his ear, distracting him from his dark thoughts. "You cold, cat?" Yohji rubbed his hands along Ran’s arms and held him close.

"Hn."

"I noticed you changed your bed, Yotan. Your mother would be happy to see this out of the attic and put to use once more."

Yohji’s voice was husky and filled with laughter and innuendo. "Oh, I’m putting it to use all right. The bed’s in danger of falling apart." With his arms trapped to his sides, all Ran could do was mutter curses at the idiot, but Cassandra helped him out by smacking the blond head. When she stepped back, Ran stared at her with cold eyes, letting her know he wasn’t all too pleased with the abuse directed at his lover. Yohji was his to reprimand.

The woman paled for a moment, but then a smile spread across her face, lighting her lovely features. "You were raised to be a gentleman, Yohji, now behave like one. You shame your Aya so, to talk such filth."

"Sorry, love." Yohji nuzzled him on the neck, stopping only when there was a knock on the door. He left Ran to open it and usher Botan inside. Mickey followed on the wizard’s heels and upon seeing Ran walked over to his side.

"I’m glad to see you’ve healed from last night. Cass, your salve is a miracle worker. I don’t know what you put in it, I just wished it worked as well on me as it does on Yohji and Aya."

Cassandra hugged Mickey for a moment in greeting, and presented her cheek for a kiss, and the burly man immediately obliged her. "Everyone heals differently, Mickey. It but speeds things up."

Botan, when he was done muttering over the washbasin, bowed to the precog and introduced himself. "Excuse me, I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation. You’re Cass, am I right? Omi told me you have some skill with herbs and I heard mention of a salve."

The precog was silent for a moment, as Ran stared at her, noting the dazed look in her eyes as she gazed at the wizard. He felt a tingle of magic that wasn’t Yohji’s or Botan’s and assumed that Cassandra must be experiencing a vision. The look faded from her eyes and she bowed in return, her shakiness visible only to an observant bound’s eyes. "Yes, I have some small knowledge."

"Small… hell, Botan, she knows more about plants than anyone I’ve met." Yohji snagged a ‘grey’ lock of hair and tugged on it. "You’re selling yourself short, Cass."

Botan smiled at Cassandra and bowed again. "I’ve always had an interest in herbery and would like to discuss the matter some more with you, if I may."

Cassandra sniffed and tilted her head graciously. "I live at 37 Tillman Lane. Stop by for a pot of tea one day. Now I must be going. Yotan, make an old woman’s day and kiss her goodbye." She once again offered her cheek, but Yohji, with an evil smile on his face, swooped in and kissed her breathless on the lips. She smacked him lightly on the chin for his impudence once she was free, and after wishing everyone else goodbye, left the room.

Mickey and Botan followed her out the door, chuckling as they left. Ran turned to face his lover with a frown on his face. When he saw Yohji wiping his smiling lips, the look became a vicious glare.

"Hey, don’t look at me like that, I was just kidding around. Cass is a second mother to me, no matter what she loo-." Yohji stopped talking and flushed, then tried to cover his slip with a cocky grin. "You jealous, cat?"

"Hn." Who was he to be jealous of a slut? But his non-answer seemed to please Yohji, and the man snagged Ran by his arms and yanked him close.

"I’ll just have to prove to you that I’m not interested in anyone else. Seems to me I can do that best by resuming where we left off." He bent his head and nibbled on Ran’s neck, making his knees feel weak.

Threading his fingers through the blond locks, Ran started to push Yohji’s head away, but the feel of a tongue rasping along his bruised skin, along with the tingle of magic and pleasure that raced through his veins weakened his resolve. It was so hard to control the impulse to cloak the two of them in shadows and hide from the world, ensuring that no one interrupted them this time. Ran found he couldn’t fight both himself and Yohji. Sparing a curse for useless, meddling precogs, he gave in to their mutual desire.

*******

Making sure that no one was paying attention to her, Cassandra slipped down the Koneko’s stairs, intent on the bathing room. As she walked through the door, she shed her glamour and smiled at the man soaking in the tub.

It took Crawford a second to fumble on his glasses and to recognize her. "Cass, what the hell are you doing here?" He reached out for a washcloth and draped it over his groin.

Her smile grew wicked at the flash of modesty. "Tsk, it’s a bit late for that, I’ve already seen what you’ve got." She couldn’t resist laughing at the look she received for that comment. "So touchy, and I didn’t even make a remark about its size."

"Cassandra, get to the point of this visit and then leave me the hell alone."

"What, is that any way to talk to your beloved? Perhaps I’m here to relive a few old memories. We can always try again if you still feel Schuldig isn’t your son." When the uptight prick shivered in horror, she stamped her foot, and after looking about found a bar of soap to throw at him. "Bah, it wasn’t that bad, for you at least! Else there never would have been a child."

Crawford pushed his wet bangs off his face as he fished the bar of soap out of the water. "It wasn’t altogether enjoyable, a certain biological response aside. No, what had me so repulsed was the thought of another Schuldig roaming the world. He’s even worse than you, Cassandra, which I thought impossible."

Oh, what she wouldn’t give for a talent other than precognition and glamour. She’d fry the man to a crisp or squash him flat, if she but had the power. "It’s because he’s half yours. There was only so much my nature could do with that handicap."

The room fell quiet, save for the trickling of water, until the silence was broken by a sigh. "Are we going to insult each other all day or what? You have to tell Schuldig to come here this evening, Yohji needs to be incapacitated so Aya can carry out a mission for me."

"Why for?"

The flash of pity and sorrow in the other bound’s eyes shocked Cassandra. "Schuldig found out this morning that Eto has a precog at his disposal, and I… we need Aya to release the man from his suffering. If not, he might see something that will warn the lord of what we plan, and Yoru will continue to use his blood for spells."

For a moment, tears threatened to spill from her eyes at the news. There was only one type of ‘release’ that required a kage, and things must be bad if Crawford was willing to risk Aya. It must have something to do with why her son had shown up on her doorstep this morning and had hugged and kissed her before announcing he felt the urge to spend another day in his old bed. She had caught the relief on his face when he’d seen her and the odd note of seriousness in his voice when he wished her a safe day. "Is there no other way?"

"No, Cass." The poor bound, she could only imagine what he’d suffered. It must truly be bad, if Crawford wanted his death and not his rescue. He’d never betray his own kind for the sake of convenience.

"He’ll be here. How will you make Yohji let Aya go? It won’t be an easy task, after what happened last night. He barely took his eyes off the kage while in my presence."

A slight smile spread on Crawford’s lips as he massaged his neck. "Jei will have a little work to do today, not that he’ll mind. For once I have a task for him that he won’t complain about."

She’d always liked Jei and considered him a saint for dealing with his partner for so many years. No wonder the man was insane. "You’ve felt it, haven’t you? How the threads are weaving together. The announcement will be soon, and our destinies set. We’ve yet to win the kage’s trust, though."

"We still have some time. Besides, we have something to offer him that he’ll want more each day, now that Yohji’s his mate. We can break the hold the Takatoris have on him."

"Or so we hope." She still felt guilty about the manipulation and stroked a hand along her healed throat. Miyuki would be so upset at her for using her son so. "Yotan will have to find out the truth soon, about what he is at least."

Crawford nodded his head. "Yes, it won’t be long, now that his true nature has been awakened by Aya. I’ve never known a bound to remain dormant for so long."

Yes, due in large part to her and Schuldig’s efforts. Cassandra sorrowed at the loss of Yohji’s innocence, at least of the world he truly belonged in. There would be no future of him growing old in the Koneko, passing the inn on to his children as he’d once dreamed. Instead, it would be battle after battle, years of isolation and hiding. But he’d have Aya by his side.

"Well, I must be off. Make sure you don’t stay in there too long or else it might shrivel too much. You never know when you’ll be called on again to produce another hero." Her laughter filled the stone chamber, followed by a curse and the closing of a door.

*******

Yohji licked along a pale shoulder as he thrust into Aya, earning a strangled moan from his lover. He shifted his hand from a slender hip to stroke the man’s neglected shaft, but the feeling of sunlight didn’t increase, rather, just trickled into him. Something was wrong, causing Aya to fight the pleasure. He could feel the man’s discomfort and unease as if they were his own emotions. Running a hand down Aya’s scarred back, it occurred to Yohji what the problem might be when the redhead shuddered.

Pulling out of the smaller man, he turned Aya onto his back and noted the tightly closed eyes and lips on the pale face. Lifting a slim leg onto his shoulder, he pushed back into the luscious, clenching heat, earning a moan from the both of them. As Aya’s eyes flew open, his nerves were set afire by the warmth and light flooding into him. Ah, that was it; his love was sensitive about his back.

"I won’t hurt you, never ever hurt you," he whispered against Aya’s lips as he thrust in as deep as he could, hitting the spot that made Aya mewl and writhe beneath him. "But this way is fine, now I get to see your beautiful face. Look at me love, watch me fucking you." His lover stared back at him, and hands settled on Yohji’s hips, urging him deeper as his name was moaned aloud. Aya arched up to meet his thrusts, mewling softly as he stretched out his neck and gazed at Yohji through half lidded eyes that glowed silver in the shadowed darkness of the bed.

Unable to resist, Yohji trailed his tongue over the two bite marks as his hips pistoned back and forth, causing the sunlight to pour off Aya in waves, spiking to a blinding intensity whenever the man’s sweet spot was hit. Aya rasped out his name, shifting a hand to his hair and yanking Yohji’s head down for a searing kiss. Gods, he tasted so damn sweet, making Yohji drunk with the flavor alone. He was in heaven, filled with sunlight and clenched tight by a velvet heat that was pure bliss, Aya on his tongue and lips and against his skin….

He rocked back onto his heels, pulling his lover with him, settling Aya on his lap and letting the man ride him with a bruising passion. Yohji moaned as a hot mouth latched on to the crook of his neck, skimming his hands down Aya’s sides and clutching the slender hips thrusting against him, forcing them to slam back down so he could get that much deeper inside of his love – to have that much more of him. Ecstasy thrummed through every last centimeter of his being until he felt he was made entirely of pleasure and light, but it still wasn’t enough. He had a sinking feeling it never would be, that this all encompassing need for Aya would hound him til the end of time and beyond, but it felt so incredibly fucking good, and the man was _his_. So, who gave a fuck? This was all that mattered.

A wave of sunlight and bliss crashed through Yohji, making him gasp as Aya came. Sharp teeth bit deep into his shoulder as the man’s body shuddered again, but this time in pleasure. Tossing his head back, Yohji called out the redhead’s name, his hips thrusting upwards as his essence poured into Aya. He fell backward; Aya held against his chest and lay on the mattress gasping for breath. When he could finally move, Yohji looked down at himself, half-expecting to see himself glowing from the sunlight that raced through his veins, making him shiver in pleasure even after the sex was done.

A rough tongue rasped along his shoulder and neck licking up the trickle of blood he could feel along his skin. The bite mark throbbed with pain for a minute, but he was distracted from the wound by the sight of Aya staring at him, a trace of blood on swollen lips and heavy lids half concealing a pair of luminous eyes. The smaller man appeared as sated as he felt and was exhausted. He rumbled out a low purr when Yohji tucked back the ragged bangs falling onto the lovely face: so fucking beautiful and all his, forever. He’d spend that long trying to satisfy this yearning inside of him and do so with a smile, all because Aya was his. Yohji could smell his scent clinging to the pale skin and knew that it would never fade away. He’d poured himself deep inside that lovely body and had marked the smooth white skin. Aya was his.

He tugged on an eartail until Aya’s mouth crushed against his, tasting his blood with its copper tang in contrast with the man’s sweetness. Yohji shivered at the taste of himself mingled with Aya’s. When he let his head fall back onto the bed, he shot the pale man a sexy smile as he brushed his thumb along the pouting lips. Aya nipped at his finger and then tried to sit up, only to be jerked back down by an eartail. "Yohji, stop using my hair as a damn leash."

"Only when you stop trying to pull away. I’m all nice and comfy and don’t want to move." He wrapped his arms about his lover, nuzzling Aya’s right ear and smiling when the man sighed and melted against his chest. "Feels so good to hold you."

Aya didn’t say anything, just tucked his head underneath Yohji’s chin and purred. He took that for agreement. About to skim his fingers down the man’s spine, Yohji remembered the scars just in time and ran them down Aya’s arms instead, ending the caress by twining their fingers together. "You know, since you have all those new outfits now, it would be a shame not to show them off a little. I could escort you around the city if you want. There’s so much of it to see and you barely caught a glimpse the other day. We could stop and pick you up some more of those cookies while we’re out."

"Yohji… not today. I don’t feel like being around a bunch of people right now."

Ah, guess someone was still a little upset about last night. Growling for a moment, Yohji wondered if the Guard had found Timon yet. It was very rare for a criminal to escape them. He wanted the bastard to be found and made to pay for hurting his love

"Well, you feel like hanging out downstairs? Jo’s gonna make some cinnamon rolls today, since they’re Koyu’s favorites, and she could use some help. Her assistants get to try them fresh from the oven, to make sure they turn out all right. And let me tell you, the rolls taste even better than her pancakes."

The smaller man shifted about until he was facing Yohji, and stared down at him for a moment before nodding his head. "All right then, we better get down there." Before Jo hauled them out of bed, conscripting them for labor.

Reluctantly letting go of Aya’s hands, he let his lover rise from the bed and lay there watching as Aya found and pulled on his clothes. Once dressed, the redhead returned to the bed and shyly kissed him on the mouth before saying he had to go wash off and change, and would meet Yohji downstairs.

Not moving until Aya had left the room, Yohji stretched his long body and crawled out of bed, proud of himself for resisting the urge to keep he and Aya in it all day long. Walking over to his washbasin, he thought of the plan he’d come up with the night before. He wanted to get Aya involved in the Koneko, to prove to the quiet man that he had a home and a place here, to make him care about its staff and owner so much that Aya wouldn’t want to leave when the time came.

Watching as steam rose almost immediately after he poured water into the porcelain bowl, Yohji thought of what would happen if Aya still wanted leave after the wedding. Not that he’d let the man go, even if he had to knock him out and keep him chained to the bed. Once he made Aya a part of the Koneko, it wouldn’t just be him wanting the redhead to stay; it would be everyone. Once a stray was adopted, they were adopted for good. Just look at Jo; she’d sworn up and down she would only remain here long enough to let her wounds heal after escaping her husband and had never left. Nope, Aya didn’t stand a chance. Especially when he recognized the look on Omi’s face and knew that the boy would be working on Naoe as well, trying to keep the teen here by him. If worse comes to worst, Omi could always use his title to force the two stubborn fools to remain in the capital.

He wasn’t that worried about Aya’s mysterious lord, not when he had the crown prince’s support and knew he could count on the Guards, and Botan and Birman to back him up. If it was the unknown man who had abused his lover, all he’d have to do was show Aya’s scars, and the bastard would spend the rest of his life rotting in some cell, if he was lucky. Maybe he should find some way of letting Aya know who his friends were, to let him know that Yohji was powerful in his own right. Although Birman would probably demand he rejoin the Guards in return for any favor on her part. If he had to, he’d graciously pay whatever price the spymaster asked. Somehow, his disgrace didn’t weigh so heavily on his mind anymore. Not when he felt so energized and complete.

Soaking a washcloth, Yohji started to wipe himself clean. He glanced at the mirror, catching sight of some blood that Aya had missed, smeared along his shoulder. Gingerly wiping the bite, he was stunned to find a healed scar instead of torn flesh. Formed by Aya’s teeth, the light brown lines marring his skin appeared to be a month old injury. But he distinctly remembered being bitten just minutes ago, had felt the blood run down his chest. Something was wrong here; people didn’t heal like this, not unless magic was involved. Even then, a spelled wound took days and not moments to heal.

Unsure of what he was trying to prove to himself, Yohji grabbed his razor and uncovered the blade. He was imagining things, surely he was. Gritting his teeth, he ran the sharp blade along the ball of his thumb and sliced the skin open. Hissing a bit from the pain, he sucked on the cut finger, tasting blood on his tongue. It hurt for a few seconds then both the pain and blood stopped. Yohji pulled his finger out of his mouth and examined it, his vision going blurry as he looked at the mostly healed red line that crossed his finger.

Okay, it used to be said that he had a brain, back before he met Asuka. He knew that there had to be a reason for this; there always was for everything. Sometimes not a real logical one, but everything had a reason. So, he’d just healed incredibly quickly. That meant either he was healing himself with the aid of magic, after showing no wizarding skills in all his years, and that was something that every child was watched closely for, or…. A bound. It was the only other possibility. He’d been around Schuldig and Cassandra long enough to see them heal almost as quickly as this, but… he couldn’t be one, could he?

Hell, he remembered Schuldig’s puberty; the headaches his friend had suffered as his talent kicked in, the day his nails had fallen off to be replaced by a wicked set of claws. The increased appetite that had them stealing food left and right to feed the bound… and him. He remembered being almost as hungry as his friend, at least for the first year or two, until a serving girl who had been accompanying a well known artist had taken an interest in him, and then who had time to be filching food all day when there were people to entice into bed?

Yohji dropped his washcloth and spun around, smacking his fist into the wall. "Dammit, Kudoh, try and think for a moment. All of a sudden you’re a bound? Right. You’re imagining things, the blood hasn’t left your dick yet and your brain is making this shit up. Or maybe Botan’s playing a trick on you. You can’t be a bound." Nope, no way in hell. He didn’t read thoughts, he didn’t feel the urge to drink someone’s blood, and he couldn’t start fires or blow things up by thinking about it. Yohji Kudoh was completely human.

Jerking a hand through his hair, he tried to calm himself down. But what if he wasn’t, and somehow had overlooked what he was for so long? No, he was normal; well, mostly normal. So what if he was stronger than he looked, so much so it always surprised people? Or that he’d always had better senses than everyone but Schuldig and Cass? It didn’t mean a thing. And he’d always healed quickly in the past, thanks to Cass’s cream. Maybe there had still been some on Aya’s skin, and it had rubbed against his and….

Fuck, Aya. What if he really was a bound? What would Aya say to him? Would the man run in fear and disgust from him? The mere thought of his lover being repulsed by him had Yohji snarling out loud. No fucking way, that was no longer an option. Aya was his, forever. He wasn’t going to let the man go; would rip out the throat of anyone stupid enough to get in his way, would drain them until they were a lifeless husk for keeping him from the pale man.

"Oh gods, Yohji, listen to your fucking self. Rip out their throats? Drain them dry?" He was acting like some sort of wild beast, like a, like a… bound. Before he could panic again, Yohji yanked on his hair, trying to stop the snarls that were coming out of his mouth. He was getting carried away, acting like an idiot. Schuldig would know for sure and would probably laugh his ass off when Yohji told him what he was thinking. He’d never live this down.

Taking deep breaths, he finally managed to push the thoughts and panic from his mind. He wasn’t a bound; that simply wasn’t possible. He was just messed up from drinking enough alcohol over the past year to stock the Koneko for a whole quarter that was all. Yohji got dressed, refusing to let his mind drift back to his fears. He was going to meet Aya downstairs, eat a pound or two of batter, sprinkle cinnamon on his lover and nibble it off the pale skin, and pretty much drive Jo crazy the whole entire time they spent baking. Then, when Schuldig arrived to mooch some drinks off him, he’d talk to the man and embarrass himself silly. It was as simple as that.

He wasn’t a bound.

*******

Ken sighed as he looked about the empty apartment for the second time. Nope, Omi wasn’t hiding anywhere; the boy was gone. Three guesses where. Dammit, didn’t the kid hear a word of what Manx and he had said yesterday? About it not being safe to hang out in a place where he got drunk and fights broke out, even if it was Yohji’s inn? Especially, if it was Yohji’s inn. Omi couldn’t count on a drunkard to keep him safe. Tonight the announcement would finally be made, and that meant the capital would be flooded with strangers, many of whom would love to get their hands on the crown prince and use him for various reasons.

But he didn’t want to get his young friend in trouble and report to Manx that he was gone. With a sigh, Ken resolved to wait until his shift was over then go return the mug Omi had borrowed to the Koneko, collecting his erstwhile ward while he was at it. Hopefully Yohji would be too drunk or busy fucking a stranger to realize he was even there, and Teddy wouldn’t have arrived home yet. Maybe he’d be lucky for once.

Ken tried not to think of how lousy his luck was as he headed to the hallway to continue his rounds. Perhaps it would be in his best interest to stop at a temple on his way to the Koneko and make a small sacrifice and an appeal to the goddess of fortune.

*******

Jei opened his eyes and sat up in bed, looking in the direction that the sound of scratching was coming from. He found his partner sitting at the desk busy writing. From the look of the shadows filling the room, it was afternoon, which meant he’d slept for twelve hours or so. Great, nothing like being bitched at as a way of starting the day.

Might as well get it over with. "Morning, Crawford."

"Afternoon, technically, but thank you for the sentiment." The older bound glanced over a black clad shoulder and attempted to smile at him. Jei shivered at the mangled expression. "How are you feeling? Well, I hope."

"Crawford, what the hell do you want?"

The precog blinked in surprise, the blue eyes narrowing in anger after a moment. "What makes you think I want something?"

"You’re being nice. Stop it now -- you’re scaring me. Go back to being your evil, domineering, manipulative bastard self and just give me my fucking orders for the day. Afternoon, evening, whatever the hell time it is."

Crawford pinned him with a glare and then smiled, this time properly with a hint of malice to the expression. "I think you’ll like your orders for today. I want you to fight Aya."

Shaking his head, Jei asked the man to repeat what he’d said. Shit, it sounded the same this time too. "No fucking way, I’m not that insane."

"Oh, stop being such a wuss. I don’t want you to really fight him, I want you to ask him to spar with you."

"Huhn." Now that didn’t sound too bad; he’d been wanting to spar with the kage since that night in the woods… wait a second, Crawford wouldn’t give him a pleasant duty, no way in hell. "What’s the damn string this time?"

Putting down his pen, Crawford looked at him with a frown. "What are you talking about?"

"The string attached; I want to know why you want me to fight with Aya. Ran. Whatever his name is."

The precog rubbed the bridge of his nose. "Jei, please, I’m not in the mood for this. I’ve dealt with the brat and his mother today and will have to deal with him again later. All I want is for you to fight Aya, provoke Yohji into attacking you, and then you’ll knock the man out. It’s as simple as that."

As simple as that? And people called _him_ insane? "I repeat, ‘no fucking way’. You want me to provoke a mated succubae-bound, and then hurt a kage’s lover? I quit. I’m heading back to Esset and will gladly take whatever punishment the Elders dish out. Goodbye." He rose to his feet and looked about for his bags to start packing.

"Jei." He looked up to see Crawford move to his side and jerked his hand back when the man tried to grab it. "I’ll have Aya’s permission for all of this, I swear. Plus, I’ve had a vision. Everything will be fine. Don’t forget, I need you for the future or else I’d have let your ass die decades ago."

Jei stared at his partner for a moment and judged him to be sincere. Damn. "Let me guess, this needs to be done for the sake of our freedom."

"Indeed, it does."

"Fucking great." At least he was sated from the meal last night and wouldn’t have to worry about his bound nature breaking loose during the practice session. "Oracle, just so you know, one day you will die, and no matter what the cost, even if I have to sell my soul or something, I will live long enough to piss on your ashes. With intense relish. Laughing with glee all the while. Get the picture?"

The older bound just pushed up his glasses up his nose and sniffed. "I love you too, Berserker. Now get your ass in gear."

*******

Ran glared at Yohji when yet another finger laden with sugar icing was bopped against his nose, leaving the sticky food behind. That was the dozenth time this afternoon, at the very least, that Yohji had smeared or sprinkled something on him. "Shi-ne," he growled out, his voice deeper than usual from the amount of malice he felt. He was going to kill the bastard and stuff him in the oven. He was sticky, and one thing that Ran hated to be was sticky.

Oblivious to his fate, Yohji just smiled wickedly and leaned in to lick the icing away. Ran held still, trying not to shiver in pleasure at the other bound’s closeness, and when the blond shifted back he punched him in the stomach. When a hurt pair of green eyes looked his way, he scowled some more and rubbed his wet nose. "I warned you what would happen if you did that again."

"You didn’t have to hit me. Such a mean little cat." Yohji sniffed, affecting an injured air for a moment then suddenly yanked Ran onto his lap and kissed him breathless. Struggling against the embrace for several minutes, Ran finally managed to wiggle free, his glaring ability severely hampered by the fact that he was gasping for breath. How the hell did Yohji manage to do this to him? One moment he was ready to kill the blond, the next he was kissing him.

"Now that should put you in a better mood. You can’t blame me; you’re the one who looks good enough to eat. I just figured I’d have you with a little garnish for once." How the hell was he supposed to remain pissed off at the man when he was being smiled at like that? Muttering curses under his breath, Ran scooted away and returned his attention to icing the cinnamon buns fresh from the oven.

Yohji immediately scooted after him, but only got a few centimeters before Jo’s voice rang out. "Yohji Kudoh, stop right there. If I see you touching that man before all those buns are iced, I’m whacking your hands with a rolling pin."

"What a brilliant idea, Jo. I see a particular pair of buns I want to ic-OW!" Yohji glared back and forth between Ran and Jo, who had just smacked his hand with a spatula and snapped a wet towel at the back of his head, respectively. "You guys are just too cruel for words," the blond pouted.

"Yohji, you’re lucky you’re still alive. I’m ready to kill you myself, and I’m not the one who’s had more cinnamon and icing sprinkled and spread on him than on the damn food, or been endlessly groped the past couple of hours. Gods, Aya, you really must love this idiot to put up with him." With that, Jo stalked over to the wooden table she had been working at, making sure to lift her marble rolling pin and wave it threateningly in Yohji’s direction when she got there.

Not that Yohji was paying attention to her. No, instead he once more yanked a stunned Ran onto his lap and was rubbing noses. "Well, you can’t help but love me, I’m too sexy for words." Before Ran could try to refute that statement, he was kissed breathless again. And like a fool, he just sat there and let the succubae-bound do whatever he wanted. What the hell was wrong with him? He couldn’t really be in love, could he? Cassandra and Jo had to have it wrong. It was bad enough he was mated to the horny idiot.

Then, lack of oxygen shut off all higher brain functions, ending the internal debate. All that mattered to Ran was the delicious tingle that filled him making him not even mind the strength he felt slowly leaving him. Yohji was holding him, was making him dizzy and happy and…

He gasped air in huge gulps as Yohji snarled at Jo, rubbing the back of his head again. "What the fuck was that for? You almost cracked my skull."

"Well, considering where your hands were, I couldn’t hit them without hurting Aya." That made Ran aware that one of Yohji’s hands had crept under the back of his pants and the other hand was in his hair. Letting out a snarl, he jerked himself out of Yohji’s grasp and stood to his feet.

Yohji hissed softly as he rubbed the back of his abused head. "I can’t believe I nearly got done in by a damn rolling pin for just being a little affectionate with my boyfriend. How many times has Teddy pinned Koyu, and you haven’t done a damn thing?"

"Because it never looked as if Koyu and Teddy were about to start flinging off their clothes and having sex in my kitchen, ruining my batch of cinnamon rolls, might I add." Jo smacked the rolling pin into her palm and jerked her head towards the door. "I want you out of here, now." Yohji grumbled but stood up, reaching out a hand to snag one of Ran’s as he did so. Ran allowed the gesture, but glared in warning when the taller man tried to tug him close. They didn’t get more than a meter closer to the door when Jo’s voice rang out.

"Wait a second."

"Okay, Jo, you’ve been sniffing a little too much flour today. First you tell us to get out, and now to stop," Yohji huffed.

The cook only glared his way as she assembled a plate of fresh buns and put it on a tray that held a pot of tea and two mugs. "Don’t be so pissy, Yotan. You’re not exactly hurting for sex and can go without for a couple of hours." She handed the tray to him. "Now go into the main room and sit down and eat. Dinner will be in another hour or two, but Aya looks too pale to wait til then. He needs a little sugar in him, what with you wearing him out all the time." Jo winked at Ran and patted him on the cheek. He forced himself not to flinch from the affectionate gesture, much preferring a friendly Jo to a suspicious one.

Yohji spared the woman a mutter or two, something about being a busybody and a prude, and led Ran out of the kitchen. They did as they were told and went to the common room, finding a table in the corner. The room was mostly empty as the majority of the Koneko’s guests were out and about before dinner, and the nightly patrons wouldn’t be arriving for another hour, at least. Ran sat down and sighed when Yohji settled right next to him, practically in his lap. He got the impression that something was upsetting the man, but couldn’t figure out how exactly he knew that. One certainly couldn’t tell by Yohji’s actions. He’d been obnoxiously chipper all day long.

The older man grinned at him and handed him a cup of tea. "You do look a little paler than normal. Maybe it’s from all the flour that was flying about in there."

Or maybe it was because he’d unwisely allowed himself to be mated to a succubae-bound who wasn’t happy unless he was practically drained dry. Ran didn’t say a word as he just hn’ed into his cup of tea and reached for a cinnamon bun, only to have the treat snatched from his grasp as his fingers brushed against it, and waved in front of his face by a smirking Yohji.

"You want?"

"Yoh-mphn." Ran glared as he chewed on the bit of bun that had been shoved into his mouth. Yohji broke off another piece and pressed it against his lips.

"Come on, open up."

He had two options: sit here with his lips clamped shut and try to wait out Yohji’s weird mood, or open them and eat the pastry. Not feeling like sitting down here all night, Ran opened his mouth, earning a grin from Yohji. He let the blond feed him the cinnamon bun in pieces, even resisting the urge to bite into the fingers brushing against his lips, and wasn’t very surprised to find himself kissed again at the end of the treat. But this time it was short and sweet, not like the all encompassing and almost desperate kisses he’d received back in the kitchen.

Yohji stroked his cheek for a moment before grasping an eartail and twisting it around his finger. There was an almost pensive look on the blond’s face for a moment. "Yohji, what’s wrong?"

"Hmm? Nothing’s wrong, cat. Just thinking about how sweet you taste, and how I hope that Jo is right."

Ran stared at his lover in puzzlement. "What, that you’re a horny idiot?"

The green eyes he was staring into went wide for a moment, then crinkled in amusement. "No, I already knew that, but about… you loving me."

Unsure what to say, Ran sat there with his mouth open, wondering if he should lie and say no. Then he realized what he’d just thought, and felt the world around him waver. He didn’t just think that, did he? He couldn’t love Yohji, or his future would become that much more bleak. There was no way he could intentionally hurt someone he loved without that fact shattering him.

Yohji smiled at him again, a touch sadly, and cupped his cheek. "I know, it wasn’t fair of me to ask that. After all, we’ve barely known each other a week. But I’m desperately hoping that you do."

There was nothing he could say, nothing that wouldn’t tie him even tighter to Yohji, that wouldn’t damn the both of them. So Ran leaned forward and kissed his lover, trying to put his emotions in the caress even as he wanted so terribly to hide them away. But the part that had chosen Yohji for a mate and had him purring at the man’s touch wouldn’t let him do that.

At first the other bound just sat there, stunned, then he wrapped his arms around Ran and held him close, kissing him back with an equal fervor. This time there wasn’t as much of a drain on his energy; it seemed that Yohji was drinking in just his emotions. He clasped his arms around the man’s neck, clutching him tight and refusing to think of what yet another change in his relationship with the idiot was going to mean for him.

The sound of something shattering on the floor broke them from their trance. Instantly wary, Ran turned to see a young man dressed in a Guard’s uniform, brown hair tousled and eyes wide with surprise, staring at the two of them. He immediately became tense and was shocked to feel Yohji stiffen as well.

"Hidaka? What the fuck are you doing here? Did hell finally freeze over?"

*******

Unable to see anyone in the foyer of the Koneko, Ken hesitantly entered the inn. He’d go into the common room, find someone to take the damn mug, glance around for Omi, and then leave. Hopefully dragging a delinquent prince behind him.

Stepping into the large room, he found only a few people sitting around, and none of them were the Koneko staff. They all seemed to be staring back at a dark corner, instantly making Ken suspicious. Afraid he might find a drunken Omi tucked in the shadows, he strode over to the far corner.

It took his eyes a moment to adjust to the darkness, but when they did he was treated to a glimpse of Yohji with his tongue down the throat of another man: A rather striking man at that. Disconcerted to having stumbled across the one person he’d hoped most to avoid, the mug slipped from his grasp and crashed to the floor.

Yohji turned to look at Ken, lush lips curving into a snarl, and then seemed to be taken aback. "Hidaka? What the fuck are you doing here? Did hell finally freeze over?"

It took him a moment to realize that Yohji was referring to the last thing Ken had said to him almost a year ago. About the next time he’d willingly set foot inside the Koneko. Ken had shouted the words at his former partner, determined never to see the man again. Now he was eating crow.

"I ah, I came here to return something, and to find Omi. Where is he?"

"Not here. And thanks so much for bringing whatever that was back in one piece," Yohji snarled at him. Ken flushed at the words, momentarily distracted by a pair of violet eyes that peered at him suspiciously from over the blonde’s shoulder. Yohji had shoved his latest fuck buddy behind him when they’d been interrupted.

Ken tried to marshal his thoughts and think straight. Dammit, this was harder than he’d thought. He’d always admired the older man so incredibly much, had even tried to stand by him after the assassin incident. But Yohji had decided he’d rather have the company of alcohol and whores instead of true friends and had shut him out. "Bullshit, I know he came here, and I want to see him right now."

The former Guard glared at him evilly. "He’s not here. He came by earlier with Botan, and then left with a friend. If you want Omi, you can either comb the city for him or sit here and wait for him to return. He’s with a friend of Aya’s, so he’ll be back for dinner. You gonna stick around with a drunken degenerate or go looking for him?"

"Botan? He came here with Botan? And who’s Aya?"

Yohji sighed and tugged the man he was hiding out into view. "Get your damn hearing checked, Kenken. Omi came here with Botan, who asked me to make sure he doesn’t get drunk again. Which I will. As for Aya, here he is. Omi’s with his friend, Naoe. Whom Botan met and approves of."

All he could do was stare at the beautiful man while Yohji answered him facetiously. Aya didn’t seem to care for his attention as he jerked a hood over his face and shifted closer to Yohji. The blond glared at Ken and bent his head to whisper in the smaller man’s ear. They seemed to have a discussion of sorts, but he couldn’t hear a single word. After a moment, Aya rose to his feet and left, while Yohji stared at his lover until the man vanished from view.

"Botan came here?"

"Gods, can you pay attention, please? Botan came here with Omi, gave the kiddo and me a short but to the point lecture, and then willingly let him go off with Naoe. And I can’t think of a better guard for Omi than that little demon; I pity anyone who tries a thing in his presence. Omi is safer with him than a cadre of Guards."

Ken could only stare at Yohji, still trying to grasp the concept that Botan fully supported Omi being here. Not to mention the teen going off with a stranger, who must be the boy he’d been talking about the other day. It didn’t help that Yohji was sitting in front of him, completely sober and looking better than he’d ever seen him, glowing with health and vitality. Oh, it hadn’t been surprising to see him fooling around with someone, but he’d seemed very affectionate with this Aya. And not in a merely sexual way.

"Ah, do you happen to know which part of the city he was heading to? Maybe I can find him."

Yohji sighed before crossing his arms over his chest and glaring at Ken. "What’s the matter, Hidaka, you can’t even stand to be in my company for an hour or two? I have no fucking clue where Omi disappeared. Whatever you and Manx may think, he’s a smart young man who can take care of himself, so I don’t bother keeping tabs on him."

"A smart young man who got so trashed the other night he couldn’t even come home til morning," Ken retorted, carefully ignoring the first question.

"Gods, Ken, I know for a fact that you got trashed long before you reached his age, and he was in a fucking inn where almost everyone here would gladly slit a person’s throat for looking at him funny. Yeah, he got a bit too drunk; Omi was a normal teenager for once, but he was never in any danger. Schuldig, Naoe and I were right beside him and wouldn’t have let him leave anyway." Jerking a hand through his long hair, Yohji snorted and started to shred a pastry. "Omi’s almost all grown; back the hell off him and let him live a little."

Straightening his jacket, Ken scowled at the older man. "It’s my job to see that he remains safe, not that he experiences the joys of a hangover. You have any idea how hard it is for me to keep an eye on him, after all the years you spoiled him? He just takes off whenever the hell he wants to. He’s the heir- well, you know who he is, and he needs better supervision than an alcoholic who’s more interested in getting into someone’s pants than he is in keeping Omi safe." It had been bad enough when Yohji had retired, why did he have to sink this low? All because of some woman who’d played him false. Ken couldn’t understand how Yohji had let himself fall apart over another person like that.

"Listen to me, Hidaka, and then I want you to get the hell out of my inn," Yohji growled, his voice low and rough. There was an equal mixture of pain and fury in his green eyes, and it seemed to Ken as if the corner of the room had become even darker. "I’ve never, even for a single damn second, considered my duty to guard Omi to be finished. Why the hell do you think I let him spend his days here? So he isn’t out in the city, or letting some noble fuck with his head at court. Yes, I’ve crawled into more than my share of wine bottles the past year, but almost never until he was gone for the night. I’ve always kept an eye on him, along with the rest of the crew here, and he wouldn’t spend most of his free time in the Koneko if he didn’t feel safe and wanted.

"Omi is a bright, observant, savvy young man. He’s also stubborn as hell. The more you tell him to stay away from me and my inn, the more he’ll refuse to do so. Especially now that he’s found someone to care about. So trust the kid, or risk alienating him so much that he won’t consider you his friend any longer. Trust Omi’s judgment if you won’t trust mine. Botan doesn’t have a problem with him being here, and the wizard’s a lot smarter than you are. He also isn’t an officious prick who sees everything as black and white. Now get the hell out of here, and don’t come back as long as you still think of yourself as poor suffering Kenken, who always knows what’s right for others."

All he could do was stare at Yohji for a moment, and then Ken once more tugged his uniform straight. "Fine, Yohji, I’m going. Far be it from me to try and talk some sense into your thick head. You’ll just keep on sitting here, fucking and drinking your life away, while everyone else pays the cost for you sulking. Omi will keep running around until he gets hurt, and the Guards will keep fighting amongst ourselves over a position that should have been yours. If you hadn’t decided to wallow in your misery and self pity these past months, all because the great Yohji Kudoh screwed up. Because you found out you could make a mistake, just like the rest of us."

In a flash of motion Yohji rose to his feet, and Ken thought he’d be hit for his comments. But just as suddenly as the blond had moved, the anger seemed to drain from him. "You know Ken, I can imagine us having this argument until the day we die. How many times do I have to tell you that I didn’t quit the Guards because I screwed up? Well, not entirely." Yohji rubbed his eyes with his right hand for a moment, and when it dropped back to his side he appeared tired and sad. "You try having something in your life that you’ve always hungered for, that you’d given up the hope of ever finding, and then discover that it was all a great big lie and you were all alone once again. I quit because I didn’t have any heart left in me at all, and that’s one thing you need to be a Guard, or at least a good one. I didn’t care about a damn thing when she… after I killed the assassin. That’s all changed now…" for a moment there was a smile on Yohji’s face that took Ken’s breath away, "…and the funny thing is, I’d probably have missed this second chance if I had remained in the Guards."

Yohji stared at him solemnly. "I’ll keep Omi safe; that is one promise I’ve never forgotten, and I’m not the same as I was the last time you saw me."

"I hope so, Yohji, for his sake. Tell Omi to get his ass home at a decent hour tonight," Ken gruffly replied. He wished his old friend goodbye and turned to leave, no longer as sure about a few things as he’d been before he’d stepped into the Koneko.

*******

Yohji watched his former partner walk out of his inn, a pain in his chest. It still hurt a bit to see Ken and that uniform, being reminded of what he’d lost. What he’d thrown away, in Ken and Birman’s opinion. But he really hadn’t been able to remain in the Guards, not when each time he put on the blue jacket he’d been reminded of the awful night he’d strangled Asuka, having no other choice if he wanted to protect the king and Omi. He’d sacrificed his heart and happiness for the sake of the oath he’d made when he’d been sixteen, and he’d decided he’d given the Guards more than enough of himself.

Besides, if he had remained with the organization, he’d probably never have noticed Aya and would have missed out on his chance of real happiness with the redhead. Yohji felt a smile tug at his mouth and thought that now he really did feel complete and content. Aya was the one he’d waited his whole life for, not Asuka. Now to find out where his lover had gone off to.

He stepped into the hallway and looked around, but there was no sight of the beautiful man. Huhn, Aya said he’d wait for him here while he talked to Ken. Yohji hadn’t wanted Aya around for that discussion, since the last few conversations with the fool had led to them screaming at each other, Ken upset at his sudden change in lifestyle. The fights had gotten so bad at the end that they’d decided not to see or talk to each other ever again, or else they’d kill each other. Nice to know that things hadn’t gotten that bad, though Yohji was still pissed off about a few comments. Yes, he’d acted like a proper degenerate the past year, but he’d never endangered Omi’s welfare.

Deciding to see if Aya was in the kitchen, Yohji hurried to the back of the Koneko. He found Jo finishing the last of the cinnamon buns, and Touya, Ani and Kira starting to get things ready for dinner. "Hey, anyone happen to see that gorgeous redhead of mine lately? I lost track of him."

"He went out to the garden," Kira replied then let out a squeak as Yohji frowned furiously at her, wondering why the hell his employees had allowed Aya back out there alone after last night. "He wasn’t alone," she rushed out as if reading his mind, "Schuldig and his two friends were with him."

Schuldig. Shit, he’d actually been distracted for a short while from his suspicions. Suddenly wishing he could have a drink or ten, Yohji headed for the back door. He’d make sure Aya was safe, and then try and have a private talk with the telepath. Which would hopefully end with Schuldig making fun of him. Yohji didn’t want to think about what he’d do if he really was a bound. Or how Aya would take the news.

Yohji prayed to whatever gods could hear him that the man really did love him, and wouldn’t care if the worst came to pass. He knew that there was nothing Aya could tell him that would make him not care for the man, and all he wanted was for his lover to feel the same about him.

Stepping into the garden, he took a deep breath of the fragrant air. It was a cloudy afternoon, and the sun was starting to set. He tried to figure out where Aya and the others were when he heard the scrape of metal against metal. Yohji’s years in the Guards quickly identified the sound as swords clashing, and he immediately took off in the direction it came from.

At first his eyes registered Schuldig and Brad standing off to the side, and then he caught sight of Farfie. The man was grinning widely, his eye glowing with joy and excitement. He was dressed only in his boots and blue leggings, and held a sword in his hands. As Yohji watched, the silver haired man jumped back suddenly as he let out a burst of laughter. It was then he noticed whom the man was fighting.

Aya parried a blow with his sword, his face impassive and half covered by his hair. He’d shed his black jerkin, which laid in the grass in a pile with Farfie’s shirt and their sword belts. At first Yohji stood there, motionless, as he watched his lover swordfight, mesmerized by Aya’s grace and skill. Then a pair of violet eyes flicked in his direction. Farfarello took advantage of the distraction to leap forward with a yell, swinging his sword at the redhead, who barely managed to block the blow.

As Yohji watched, a spot of red formed on Aya’s wrist and fell to the ground. He could smell the other man’s blood from here, and something inside of him snapped. Letting out a scream of his own, Yohji tugged on his bracelet and sent a handful of wires at Farfie, determined to kill the man for hurting his mate. The half-blind man got his sword up just in time, preventing the strands from landing on him, but the weapon fell into fragments, sliced by the gold threads.

Moving forward, Yohji intended to slam into Farfie, knock him to the ground and then remove his head from the scarred body. As his shoulder slammed into the man’s stomach, something hard came crashing down on his skull. There was a wave of pain, and then nothing but darkness.

*******

Ran cradled an unconscious Yohji in his arms, snarling at anyone who dared to approach him. He knew that the blond had to be rendered unconscious, knew that Jei hadn’t meant any serious harm to the man and had just knocked him out, and that Yohji would soon heal from the wound, but he still had a hard time preventing himself from calling the shadows and ripping apart the other men. Trying to control himself, Ran buried his face in the crook of Yohji’s neck, breathing in the man’s scent and listening to his heartbeat.

"Aya, he’ll be alright, I promise you. Let’s get him inside, so you can go on your mission."

Snarling viciously, Ran wanted to tell the precog to fuck off, but was bound by his promise to the bastard. He’d been figuratively pounced upon when he’d stepped into the hall earlier and was informed of what Crawford expected of him this evening, as well as being reminded of his oath to obey the man. That was the only reason he’d agreed to Crawford’s plan, that and the thought of another bound suffering. But he couldn’t handle Yohji being hurt, and it was hard to control his instincts at the moment, which were telling him to annihilate anything that came near him and his mate.

"Aya, we need to get Yohji inside. He’ll be all right. Listen to me Aya and remember your promise," Crawford’s voice held a note of stress as shadows crawled along the grass and plants, weaving on the ground at the bounds’ feet. It would take but a thought on his part, and there would be three more deaths to savor, three more threats that would be gone.

It was Jei who spoke next. "Snap out of it, Aya, right now. He’ll be waking up from that little love tap soon, do you want Yohji to find you like this?" That thought was like a bucket of cold water to his face, a cruel shock that took his breath away. No, Ran didn’t want Yohji to wake up and find out the truth, not like this. Not until the blond knew that he was a bound as well and had grown accustomed to the fact.

Letting out a deep breath, Ran stopped snarling and rose to his feet with Yohji still cradled in his arms. Crawford stepped closer to him, cautiously at first, and then with more confidence when all Ran did was glare at him.

"You can’t carry him in like that, a human your size shouldn’t be that strong. Let me help you."

Barely restraining himself from snarling, Ran let the older bound approach and adjust Yohji until the two of them were supporting the lanky man, an arm over both of their shoulders. They entered the Koneko through the kitchen, deciding to inform the staff what had ‘happened’ to their boss. Otherwise, Jo and the others would be suspicious if Yohji failed to show for dinner.

As soon as they stepped into the kitchen, Jo and Kira rushed over to them. Ran forced himself not to strike at the women, though the shadows in the warm room seethed and shivered with his thwarted desire. Yohji would be upset with him if he killed his employees.

"What the hell happened now? Don’t tell me someone attacked you again!"

He glared at the woman while Crawford and Jei explained about the sword fight, and Yohji stumbling upon them unaware. "He must have thought it was real, since he dove right at Farfie."

"Yeah, I didn’t mean to hit him so hard, I was just trying to protect myself," Jei commented as he barely managed a guilty expression. "We’ll tuck him in his bed, and he should be fine, other than a sore head."

Jo pried open Yohji’s eyes and then felt along his skull. "Well, you didn’t break the skin, but there is one hell of a lump. Good thing Yotan has a thick skull. Maybe we should contact a healer."

Schuldig stepped forward and touched the cook on the elbow. "No need, my mom’s taught me some of her skills, and I’ll take a good look at him upstairs." Jo stared at him for a moment then nodded her head as she stepped out of the way.

"Let me know if you need anything. Someone should stay with him until he wakes up, and make sure he’s okay."

"I’ll do that," Ran said, his deep voice quiet. Nonetheless, Jo heard it and gazed at him searchingly, as if looking for something. He met her gaze, not breaking it off until the woman lowered her eyes. She turned around and resumed barking out orders to the rest of the staff.

As soon as they were out of the room and in the empty hallway, Ran picked Yohji up in his arms and called the shadows around the two of them, hiding them from everyone’s sight. He raced up the stairs to the blonde’s room, followed by the other three bounds who were cursing him. They caught up to him as he was laying his lover down on the poster bed.

"Gods, Aya, if anyone had seen you disappear like that, they’d be burning the Koneko down just to get at you," Schuldig snarled.

Sparing the man a glare, Ran continued to strip Yohji of his boots and tunic. "I wouldn’t put Yohji at risk."

"No, I don’t believe you would," Crawford smoothly interjected, sending the telepath a warning look. "Schuldig, make sure Yohji doesn’t wake up for the next few hours, and then show Aya where he needs to go this evening."

The longhaired bound didn’t appear to be happy taking orders from Crawford and turned an angry face in Ran’s direction. "You need to lower your damn shields so I can send you the information." He didn’t say anything, just stared at Schuldig impassively as he stroked a hand through Yohji’s hair. He felt pressure against his mind and reluctantly let Schuldig’s talent inside.

Ran’s mind was flooded with images of the city; of streets leading to a large castle, festooned with blue and gold banners and stained glass windows, then inside of it to a dark corridor.

<You’ll have to find the poor bastard on your own past that point.>

"It won’t be a problem." The shadows would help him. Schuldig remained in his mind for a moment longer, and he could feel the man’s hatred and jealousy towards him, and the revulsion the telepath felt at being inside his head. Ran knew he wasn’t human and wasn’t surprised that his thoughts were so different from everyone else’s. No longer seeing a need to let Schuldig behind his mental defenses Ran pushed him out, earning a wide-eyed stare from the man. "What about Yohji?"

Removing his glasses, Crawford cleaned them with a white cloth as he answered Ran. "As I told you earlier, Schuldig will keep him unconscious while you’re gone and prevent anyone from checking up on you."

"It would be best if you don’t take too much time, he’s trying to wake up already, and fighting the compulsion." Schuldig rubbed his temples for a moment then reached out to touch Yohji. Only to snatch his hand back as a wall of shadow formed between him and the succubae-bound. Pale green eyes stared at Ran, filled with jealousy and fear. "Well, are you going to sit there on your ass all night?"

"Everyone get out of the room; I’m going to ward the door." When Schuldig looked ready to argue with him, he repeated the order, this time dropping his human mask completely. The other bounds flinched upon hearing the sibilant tone in his voice. Ran didn’t care in the slightest if he was frightening or repulsing the three bounds. He simply didn’t trust them to be here with Yohji while his lover was unconscious and alone.

For a moment the other men were still, then Jei stepped forward and rested Ran’s sword, which he’d dropped when Yohji had been hit, against the wall by the bed. "Not that I think you’ll need this, but here. I’d like to continue the fight one day, if you don’t mind. You’re damn good with the thing." That said, he turned and left the room.

Crawford reached out a hand and grasped Schuldig’s wrist. "I’m sure you won’t have any problems. How long do you think you’ll be?"

He thought of the distance to the castle. "An hour, no more." Most of the time would be spent searching out the other bound.

"Good. Schuldig, keep Yohji unconscious for two then. Luck be with you, kage." Crawford departed as well, dragging Schuldig behind him. When the two men were gone, Ran stepped closer to the door, calling the shadows to him and weaving them around the entrance. Sparing one more caress to golden skin, he called more shadows to him, cloaking himself with them and then leapt out the window.

He was a blur of darkness down the capital streets, moving so fast it seemed as if the world had slowed down around him. In a matter of minutes Ran found himself in front of Eto’s castle and paused for a moment to stare at the foreboding structure. It reminded him of the Takatoris’ residence, and for a moment the hate and fury within him seethed, calling for him to tear the structure down until it was rubble. He could feel the shadows that dwelt in every nook and cranny of the building, amongst the mortar and bricks and beams, and Ran knew with but a twist of his mind he could make them shiver and writhe until hairline fractures became cracks that became holes that shook the castle apart. One thought on his part and down it would come.

But he reined in the urge, as he had every day he’d existed with the Takatoris, laying in his bed in the morning, wishing that he could do nothing more than pull the stones down around him and his masters. Only the thought of Nagi and Aya-chan paying for his moment of weakness stayed the impulse. Shaking away his dark thoughts, Ran reminded himself that it would not escape the king’s attention if one of his lords’ castles suddenly collapsed. Besides, he was sent here for only one death, no matter how much he longed differently.

Moving forward, he retraced Schuldig’s steps to the warded hallway passing several oblivious servants on his way. He felt the magical barrier as he approached it, and there was a tingle along his skin as he crossed over it. Ran stopped in a shadowed alcove, feeling for all the shadows in this section of the castle and searching to see if any fell across an old bound with fading magic. It took some time, but he could sense a faint tingle, one associated with bound magic and not wizard’s, and set out in its direction. He knew he was right when he crossed several more wards, none of them giving him the slightest pause.

Ran stopped in front of a locked door, wrinkling his nose in distaste at the stench emanating from behind it. With a touch of his hand the various locks clicked and opened, and he glided into the room. There wasn’t a single glimmer of light, but he could clearly see the wretched figure lying on the floor.

The bound was nothing but skin and bones clothed in rags, and the scent of blood still clung to him. Sharp eyes noticed the half healed wounds on an emaciated wrist, causing Ran to rub one of his own unconsciously. He could very well imagine how the other bound felt at the moment, having himself been drained of blood on innumerable occasions. Shivering, he recalled the terrible languor that would soak into his very being, a bone wearying exhaustion that made every little moment an agony and a trial, leaving him no choice but to lie still for days, tortured by the slightest beam of light.

A clawed hand stirred, its owner moaning as a skull-like face shifted in his direction. "Darkness, I smell darkness. Seen you I have, seen the end. My end. Please, tell me you’re real. I can’t take another dream of you."

Stepping forward, Ran crouched in front of the precog and noticed the empty eye sockets. "You couldn’t have seen me, no one can."

There was a weak chuckle, the sound of dried leaves being blown across a stone floor. "Darkness, I’ve seen darkness. It will come, and then I end. I’ve longed for you for so many, many years. So tired. So much pain. Please." Each word took precious seconds and strength, and the man’s voice grew more faint and pitiful with each one. Here was someone who wanted the one thing Ran could give, the one victim whose face would never haunt him, save as a possible future for himself.

Shadows caressed the dry, cracked skin, a soothing touch that made the old precog moan in pleasure. "No more. There will be no more," Ran whispered. For this soul at least.

"No pain?"

The pitiful, pleading mewl could barely be heard above the man’s breathing. "No pain, I promise." A pale hand stroked a red cut, teasing at the torn skin. Shadows flowed into the wound, working their way along desiccated veins, converging in the bound’s heart until they filled it entirely, preventing the organ from beating. As Ran watched, a smile blossomed on the worn face.

"No, no pain. An end. My darkness. Yes." It took a few minutes, the man’s vital organs slowly starving of oxygen enriched blood, but Ran felt it when he finally died, a joyous implosion of energy that had him sighing in delight. He could see the shinigami stroking the still form, feeding off the man’s death, and allowed them to caress him when they shifted away, only feeling a slight ache at their touch. Normally their presence filled him with painful loneliness, but now… he had Yohji waiting for him back at the Koneko. He wasn’t alone anymore.

Calling the shadows back to him, Ran stared down at the dead body for a moment, making sure there was no visible sign of any foul play. He’d done this in the past, ensuring an undetectable death for one of the Takatoris’ enemies, but he was extra cautious tonight. Once sure there was no evidence for anyone to find, he turned and left the filthy cell. The door locked behind him, showing no sign of tampering.

*******

Schuldig nursed his beer as he watched Crawford explain Yohji’s ‘accident’ to Omi and Naoe. Concern radiated off the prince, but Naoe… he guessed that there was more to the story than he was being told, since Jei was still alive and breathing. Smart little bastard. Checking his watch, he noted that Aya’s hour was almost up.

Thoughts of the kage made him clench his hands in anger. The smaller redhead’s mind had been so… alien, it had both revolted and attracted him. Schuldig couldn’t get the ‘taste’ of it out of his head. He’d only been able to deposit the information about the captured bound, had found himself unable to make any sense of Aya’s thoughts while he’d been in the man’s head, and that troubled him.

Yohji was now irrevocably tied to that _thing_. What galled him the worst was that his friend had no idea of Aya’s true nature, but thought the pale man to be some poor abused stray. He didn’t know that Aya could level the damn capital in half a night if he wanted to, leaving nothing behind but crushed bodies and dust. That was what Yohji had made his mate.

While forcing the blond’s mind to remain unconscious, Schuldig had come across Yohji’s feelings and thoughts. It hurt so much to feel just how strongly Yohji loved the kage already, and he knew the emotions would only become stronger with time. There was nothing he could do to prevent that from happening, now that the two bounds had mated.

There was another unexpected result of the bond between Aya and Yohji. The slight mental dampers Schuldig and Cassandra had placed on the succubae-bound’s talent and thoughts were disintegrating fast, so much so that Yohji had actually noticed his odd nature this morning. The man had never given a thought to his unusual characteristics before, or the speed with which he healed. Then again, Yohji had never been full of kage energy before, which had literally resulted in his wounds healing before his eyes. It wouldn’t be long now before Schuldig’s dearest friend discovered the truth; all that waited was his confirmation of the fact, and Yohji would know he was a bound.

Yet with this disturbing revelation before him, all Yohji cared about was how Aya would handle the news. Gulping down the last of his beer, Schuldig felt his stomach twist at how important the shinigami-bound had become to Yohji. It wasn’t fair, he’d shared his whole life with his friend, and _Aya_ was all that mattered.

Listening to Omi exclaim that he hoped Yotan would be feeling better soon, a thought occurred to the telepath. Maybe there was something he could do to affect Yohji’s feelings for the kage. The man was about to discover the truth about himself shortly, why should Aya keep his nature secret for any longer? After all, it was only fair, the kage knew what Yohji was. Oh, it wouldn’t break the bond between the two, but it would most likely cause Aya some pain, and at the moment Schuldig was all for spreading that emotion around some. He hated to suffer alone.

*******

"Love is an old root that creeps through the meadows of sleep

when the long shadows cast

thin as a vagrant young vine, it encircles and twines

and it holds the heart fast

catches dreamers in the wildwood with the stars in their eyes

and the moon in their tousled hair

but love is a light in the sky, and an unspoken lie

and a half-whispered prayer."

Ran could hear Koyu’s voice even here in the garden. He stood among the flowers for a moment, letting their fragrance wipe away the memory of the dead bound’s cell. For a precious few seconds everything was perfect: the lovely, multi-noted scents, the trickle of a fountain, Koyu’s beautiful music, and the waning moon. Calming down, Ran opened his eyes and flowed through the greenery until a brick wall loomed before him. Shadows danced along the stones, and he placed his hands on them, climbing up the wall towards Yohji’s window. He would check on his lover, go wash himself off and change, then return to the man’s side and wait for him to wake up. His body shivered in anticipation of the pleasure that lay ahead of him this night.

"Love is a garden of thorns, and a crow in the corn

and the brake growing wild

cold when the summer is spend in the jade heart’s lament

for the faith of a child

my body has a number and my face has a name

and each day looks the same to me

but love is a voice on the wind, and the wages of sin

and a tanglewood tree."

Hooking a leg over the windowsill, Ran swung his other one over and sat on the wood board for a moment as he pushed aside the curtains. Something was wrong. He hadn’t left so many candles burning before embarking on the mission. He scanned the room, sending shadows flying to each corner. Looking about desperately for his lover, Ran heard the scrape of metal and rustle of fabric as the bed’s curtains were jerked aside. Yohji, awake and handsome face grim, stared back at him as he shakily crawled out of the window. Attracted by his unease, the shadows raced back to Ran, flowing over and settling around him. Green eyes gazed at him unwaveringly.

"What the hell are you?"

*******

Lyrics by Dave Carter

 

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