Shadows

*******

chapter 7

*******

answers

*******

"What the hell are you?"

Yohji stared at his lover as he asked the question, unable to look away from the sight of Aya surrounded by shadows that were moving both over him and the walls as if they were alive. He’d woken up with a headache, and upon rolling out of bed to search for his lover had found his door blocked by darkness, which not even lighting all the candles in the room could dispel. Having decided to wait things out, in case Botan or some other wizard was playing tricks on him or had figured out what he was, Yohji had returned to his bed and noticed when the room had suddenly become darker. Hearing a sound coming from his window, he’d jerked open the bed curtains only to find Aya crawling into the room.

Surrounded by shadows. Shadows that shifted about, whirling over the white walls and pale skin and surrounding the redhead as he watched. Violet eyes stared back at him, wide with shock and reflecting the flickering candlelight as if they belonged to a cat. At the moment Aya appeared inhuman, the beautiful face completely impassive and the slender form impossibly still. Then he finished stepping into the room, coming to a stop in front of Yohji.

"What the hell are you? Are you even human?" Oh gods please don’t let Aya be some wizard’s creation; he couldn’t take that happening to him again without going stark raving mad. At his words the shadows skittered around Aya, covering most of his form with darkness. The strange eyes closed, as if in pain, and the man became impossibly paler. "You’re not, are you?"

"Yohji-"

"No, I want the truth, Aya." He pushed himself off the bed and started to circle the redhead, his hands clenched in fists. Yohji’s chest felt as if it was on fire, full of pain and grief. Why did his lovers do this to him? Why did they betray him like this? He fucking loved Aya, had given his heart over without question, only to have it stomped on a second time. "What the fuck are you? A wizard’s toy?" The pale man remained silent, refusing to open his eyes. "Answer me, damn you!" He wanted to shake a response out of Aya, but was so afraid of touching the man. He was afraid the feel of his lover would wash away his anger and hurt, and he’d willingly let himself be used again. And this time, it would be knowingly.

When the answer finally came, it was in a voice so soft he almost didn’t hear it over the sound of his own steps. "A bound."

"A bound?" Yohji grabbed hold of a long eartail and yanked harshly, forcing Aya to open his eyes and look at him. "A bound couldn’t do this, couldn’t make shadows move about as if alive, unless…" He suddenly stopped talking, his tongue shocked still, as was the rest of him. Aya gazed at him, eyes filled with sadness and pain, so much more than he’d ever imagined a person could feel. "Unless he was a kage."

"Yes." That was it, just the one word.

This was impossible; he had to be dreaming this encounter. "You can’t be. Kage are just myths and legends, stories that Cassandra told Schuldig and me late at night. They vanished years ago, when Aidan died."

"She didn’t just die, she killed herself." Lowering his head, Aya hugged his arms tight around him. "Her family was put to death for her actions, but one or two must have survived, and passed the bloodline on. Or I’m descended from another kage, Edan or Katsumi or… I don’t know." Yohji watched as his lover started to shake, ever so slightly, and had to resist the urge to hug the man. Dammit, he couldn’t do that until he got some answers out of Aya, until he was assured that some sick fuck of a wizard wasn’t messing with him again. That another lover wasn’t about to rip out his heart. "I’m a kage."

A creature who could inspire nightmares in some by the mere mention of its name. A creature of myth, impossibly powerful and completely inhuman. Aya was a kage? A pale man covered with scars, too shy and afraid to venture out into the city, even with an escort? Yohji wanted to snort in disbelief, but he couldn’t ignore the shadows scurrying about his room, the shiny blackness that covered Aya like armor. The redhead didn’t appear to be a monster of destruction and death, but he couldn’t say he was human, either.

But neither exactly was he, a little voice reminded Yohji. He still hadn’t been able to talk to Schuldig about him possibly being a bound; in fact, he had feared that someone had discovered his secret and that was why he’d been warded inside his own room. Yohji had almost been afraid to call out and seek help, wondering if his friends would turn on him because of what he was. Just like he was turning on Aya.

Dammit, it wasn’t the same thing. Bounds were a part of everyday life, more or less. But kage… it was like waking up and finding himself living in a fairy tale or something. That Aya was one of those creatures, that he’d felt the need to hide himself from Yohji… gods, his thoughts were so incredibly fucked up, Yohji wasn’t sure what he was thinking anymore. "You’re a kage?"

"… yes."

The forlorn tone of voice Aya used tore at Yohji’s heart, which only made him angrier. He wasn’t the bad guy here; he was just trying to get some answers after having been lied to. Gods, please let it not be that a lover was using him again. "And what, you just so happened to decide that spring would be a lovely time to visit the capital, and while you were here, you’d fuck an ex-Guard or two?" Aya flinched at the words, his head falling further down his chest. Dammit, why wouldn’t the man look at him? "Why are you here? Answer me dammit, why the fuck are you here?"

There was no answer. Snarling, he reached out a hand and grabbed Aya’s chin forcing the redhead to look him in the eye. "What the hell would bring a kage to the capital, Aya? Surely you know there’s a chance that someone here would recognize you for what you are, and they’d want you dead. Why the hell are you here at the Koneko?" Why was he crawling in the window at night? Why had he taken Yohji for a lover? For a moment, the smaller man looked like Asuka. Rage filled Yohji, every part of him crying out in pain at the thought that he might again be betrayed by someone he loved. His hand clenched tightly on Aya’s jaw, bruising the white skin. Yohji could feel shadows crawling over him and waited for Aya to turn on him, just like she had. "Answer me, you monster."

He regretted those words the moment he said them, then regretted them even more when he saw the effect they had on Aya. His lover trembled savagely and fell to his knees before him. The bruised face was tilted up at him, and Aya’s eyes…. Yohji had never seen such a look of total hopelessness before, as if the soul behind them had been broken of every last thing.

The sight broke his heart, snapping him out of his madness. "Oh fuck, Aya, I’m sorry." Falling to his knees, Yohji held onto the shaking form, pressing his lips against Aya’s temple as he repeated the words again and again.

"Aya, gods, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it. Please don’t look at me like that, I didn’t mean it." The fury left him, driven away by the fact that he’d hurt his love. "I’m so sorry."

When Aya remained silent, he picked the man up and carried him to the bed, setting him down gently then curling up beside him. "Gods, Aya, say something. Swear at me or something. I’m so sorry." He could feel a pair of arms hesitantly creep around his waist, holding him tighter when he stroked a hand through crimson strands. "I’m sorry."

"Yohji, I can’t."

Tilting up Aya’s face, Yohji softly kissed him on the mouth. "You can’t what?" Relief washed through him as Aya gazed up at him, eyes still filled with pain and hopelessness, but not as much as before.

"I can’t… I can’t tell you everything. I can’t tell you why I’m here, and I didn’t choose the Koneko. I…." Aya pressed his face against Yohji’s chest. "I didn’t mean to come here and take a lover, be they a Guard or not. I didn’t count on you."

He wasn’t being used again. That one thought repeated itself in Yohji’s mind causing his pain and fear to fade away. He didn’t like the fact that Aya was keeping something secret from him, but this wasn’t going to turn out to be a repeat of Asuka. Gods, he’d shatter if that was the case. Yohji had loved the woman, but nowhere near as much as he did Aya. To find out that he cared nothing for him, that he was just using him for some reason, would be the end of him.

But there were still some questions he wanted answers to. "Aya, you’re a kage. Surely you know how dangerous it is for you to be here. And what are you doing with so many scars?" A kage was supposed to be able to lay whole countries to waste, yet Aya had let someone abuse him that badly?

Aya became tense in his arms, and when Yohji fell silent, waiting for an answer, tried to pull away. Huhn, he wasn’t going to let that happen. Holding onto his lover tightly, Yohji stared deeply into a pair of violet eyes, resisting the urge to drown in them. After a few futile minutes Aya realized who was the physically stronger of the two and quit struggling. He closed his eyes, resting his head on the bed so red hair fell onto his face, covering it from Yohji’s view. "Please, no questions. Just… just call the Guards, or whatever."

Without thinking, Yohji hauled Aya against his chest and kissed him breathless, growling at the thought of his former co-workers coming to take his lover away to imprison or kill him. No way. No way in hell. That would only happen when he was dead and ashes in the wind.

Reluctantly letting Aya pull away several minutes later, eyes wide and gasping for breath, Yohji glared at the stubborn fool. "I’m not calling the Guards, or anyone else. I won’t let anyone hurt you. How many times do I have to tell you that?" The doubt he saw on Aya’s face hurt him worse than a physical blow. "Listen to me for a moment and don’t look at me like that. How the hell would you like it if you found out some great big secret about me? Something that you’d never possibly imagine in a million years? Wouldn’t you be angry and hurt and wanting a few fucking answers? Gods, Aya, I’m sorry for acting like I did, but to say you shocked the hell out of me is a huge understatement."

For a moment Aya remained still and then he sighed. "You won’t tell anyone?" He was clearly doubtful about Yohji’s statement.

"Hell no! Gods, they’d be after your head if...." Uh, maybe it wasn’t such a smart thing to mention how much kage were hated and feared. Great job there, Kudoh.

"I know what will happen to me if anyone finds out the truth." Lifting his head, Aya stared at him intently with a frown on his lips. "Promise me you won’t say anything. The others could get hurt."

"Aya, I promise. The thought never even occurred to me." Yohji tried to convey with his eyes and his voice the sincerity of his word as he wrapped an eartail around his fingers. "I won’t let anyone hurt you or take you away. But… you have to answer me one question. Please."

There was a flash of pain across Aya’s face, but he nodded his head after a couple minutes of silence. "Why me, Aya? Why’d you risk so much to take me as a lover? The possibility of the truth coming out had to have crossed your mind at some point." If it was because he’d been a Guard, because he knew Omi and Botan and the others…. Taking a deep breath, Yohji told himself not to get carried away again. All he’d do then was hurt Aya.

"I didn’t want any regrets. I wanted… I wanted memories of pleasure. You were interested, so I let things progress as they would."

The answer only begged for more questions, such as what regrets and why only memories, but Yohji limited himself to only one more, trying to ensure that Aya didn’t withdraw from him any further. "Why me? You can’t tell me that I was the only person who’s ever been interested in you. Please, Aya, this is very important to me."

Aya tried to pull away once more. "Yohji, don’t ask me to answer that. You don’t want to know."

"Yes I do! Why me, Aya?" he growled out, afraid and hurt once more. This wasn’t helping his suspicions any.

He started to think that the smaller man wouldn’t tell him, but Aya went limp in his arms, letting his hair fall onto his face again. "Because… you’re a bound."

Yohji waited for himself to react to that statement. Somehow, the words didn’t hurt him, didn’t even shock him in the slightest. That was odd, since he’d basically had his suspicions confirmed that he wasn’t human. But all Yohji felt was relief over the fact that Aya wouldn’t hate him because of that. No, he’d given the man better reasons to hate and fear him, what with his recent actions.

"You… you knew?"

Aya’s question drew Yohji from his thoughts, and he gazed at his stunned lover. "I… sorta have been suspecting that lately." Then he fully caught the import of those words. "But how the hell did you know what I was, and why shouldn’t I know?"

"Kage can sense magic, so I felt it when you used yours. At first I was confused, because you didn’t act like a bound, but…"

A stern look from him made Aya sigh again and carry on, a slight scowl on his beautiful features. Yohji wanted to kiss the redhead at that sight, but refused to give in to the impulse. If Aya was mad at him, he had to be getting over the rough treatment from before.

"Cassandra told me you didn’t know what you were. I didn’t want to say anything until you knew the truth."

_Now_ he could kiss the man silly. Rolling onto his back, Yohji dragged Aya along with him, ignoring first the yelp of surprise then the ensuing snarl the man made over his actions. Latching his mouth onto Aya’s put an end to the noise, anyway, at least until he moaned from the pleasure of feeling his love start to kiss him back. Once again sunlight flooded into him.

While he had thought to try and get a few more answers, Yohji immediately gave in to the need that filled him, that cried out for him to make Aya’s pain and worry fade away through bliss, and for him to claim the man once more. Trailing his mouth down to Aya’s neck, he was shocked when his lover growled and pulled away, a scowl on the lovely face. When he tried to soothe the pale man’s temper by stroking his hair, Yohji had his hand batted away for his trouble.

Oh, this was _not_ going to happen. Aya was _his_. Snarling himself, Yohji moved with blinding speed, reversing their positions until the smaller man was underneath him. Aya bared his teeth and glared at him challengingly in response, causing him to hiss in fury. He jerked the kage’s chin to the side, forcing it to move when Aya fought him and clamped his teeth on the pale throat.

For a moment Aya tried to toss Yohji off him, but as he started to taste blood the redhead stilled, and then tilted his head back to allow Yohji better access. He remained as he was for a few more seconds, growling softly, but let go once Aya started to purr. With a quick lick at the bite mark, Yohji lifted his head and stared into his lover’s eyes. They were half hidden by heavy lids and dark with pleasure, a hint of a smile hovering on Aya’s lips. His dominance proven once more, Yohji leaned down to kiss those upturned lips. He should be appalled at his actions, but they felt so right, so natural that he couldn’t worry about them. Not when they left him with a suddenly very willing little cat to stroke and pet.

Sunlight poured into him as he delved into a sweet mouth, his hands tearing frantically at the damn clothes separating the two of them. The sound of cloth ripping filled the room along with purrs and growls of frustration. Soon enough they were naked, hands roaming over each other desperate for any and all touches. With his tongue deep in Aya’s mouth, Yohji skimmed one hand down a long pale leg urging it to wrap around his waist as he ground himself against the slender body beneath him. Hands clenched in his hair, forcibly jerking his head upright and causing him to moan at the loss of Aya’s mouth until a throat was offered to him in its place.

Sucking and licking the salty skin, Yohji groaned as Aya rocked up against him rubbing their erections together. Fumbling about for the container of lube, Yohji snaked a hand between his and Aya’s bodies and grasped both of their cocks together stroking up and down the dripping shafts. He drank in his love’s mewls as he closed his eyes, lost in the feeling of bliss that permeated his whole being. Yohji thought he’d burst into flames at the light pouring into him when he pushed a greased finger inside of Aya.

The pale man writhed beneath him, whining and mewling as he tried to get that finger deeper inside him. With gasping breaths, he happily obliged Aya by twisting it and adding another, desperate to be inside the man as soon as possible. Yohji moaned when moments later he started to thrust into the tight entrance, at the feel of being completely encased by a clenching, velvet warmth that felt like heaven, making him sigh in contentment. Fingers dug into his ass as Aya tilted his hips up, taking him in even further as his name was gasped out again and again.

Fastening his mouth onto a puckered nipple, Yohji rocked his hips forward causing the sunlight and pleasure to increase with each thrust. Aya met each one, nails digging into his flesh, as Yohji was urged to go deeper and faster until he was so lost in the ecstasy and overwhelmed by his emotions. It felt as if a thousand tiny hands were stroking his body, a thousand tingling touches that set his nerves aflame, burning him inside and out. Thrusting himself as fast and deep inside Aya as he could, he let out a strangled yell when the walls surrounding his cock constricted almost painfully tight, nails raking down his back. He came in a shuddering rush, offering his essence in return for the sunlight that scorched him, reducing him to a bundle of thrumming nerves.

Yohji collapsed on top of Aya feeling as if his body was made entirely of flames, filled with light and warmth. When he heard a low rumbling purr, he smiled and pried his eyes open, only to blink when the room remained completely dark. "Ah… Aya? I think I’ve gone blind." He couldn’t even see his lover.

"Hn." The darkness began to fade away as the shadows scurried back to the corners of the room after a final few caresses to his and Aya’s flesh. Chuckling nervously as he realized what those tiny ‘hands’ had been, he glanced down at the redhead.

Aya was lying with his eyes closed and a small smile hovering on his lips. He looked so fucking beautiful, even with a throat that appeared to have been mauled by a dog or something. Stroking a finger along the new bite mark, he mumbled an apology against the smiling lips before kissing them.

"Huhn, it’ll be your throat one day, Yotan," Aya purred.

Something in him shivered at the idea of him baring his throat to the kage, and Yohji nuzzled a pale ear as he grinned. "Just promise me you won’t bite as deep as you did last time." The comment caused first one and then the other violet eye to open. He swore he saw a faint blush spread over Aya’s face. Enjoying being a tease, he rubbed at the healed bite mark on his shoulder. "It’s what made me think I might be a bound, you know, the way it healed so quickly. Good thing you aren’t a flesh gaki-bound. Though from the looks of your neck, I think I might be." He bent his head to lap up a stray smear of blood on the bruised skin, then frowned as a thought occurred to him. "Hey, it’s not healing as quickly as mine did."

Stretching his body beneath Yohji’s, which caused him to moan in return before shifting off the smaller man, Aya grabbed a scrap of a tunic and wiped himself clean. "It’s because you’re not a gaki-bound, but a succubae. I’ve been told the wounds won’t heal as quickly as normal since it’s a sign…" Aya suddenly became very interested in scrubbing a spot on his stomach.

"A sign of what? Here, let me see that." He started to wipe himself clean with the scrap, and then tossed it aside. The whole entire time, there wasn’t a single word from Aya. Yohji gazed sternly at his lover.

"A sign that I… let you claim me."

Aya was hiding something from him, Yohji could tell. He knew the man was nervous about something, though how he knew he wasn’t exactly sure. "Ay~aaa. What the hell do you mean by you letting me claim you?"

He was glared at for a moment then Aya nervously nibbled on his lip. "We’re mates."

That word caused Yohji to blink his eyes. "Mates? What, you mean along the lines of best buddies, or wolves and geese?"

His lover’s eyes grew sad once more, and he could almost feel Aya pulling away from him even though the man remained at his side. "The latter. It means… we’re bonded to each other. For life. Which is a very long time for bounds." Aya stared at him, his face expressionless. If Yohji couldn’t hear the man’s heart pounding in his chest, he’d think that Aya was rather unhappy with the situation. Instead, he sensed the man was more fearful than anything.

Leaning over his lover, Yohji stared deep into the glowing eyes. "Am I supposed to be angry about this? Is that what has you so afraid, cat?"

"You’re tied to a kage, Yohji. To a monster."

Yohji knew it had been a huge mistake to call Aya that and now realized he’d be paying for it for some time to come. "Aya, love, I was angry and confused and didn’t mean a damn word I said. You’re not a monster, not at all. Kage or not, I couldn’t be happier that you’re mine. A very long time won’t be nearly enough to spend with you -- infuriating, sexy, temperamental cat that you are. You’re mine." He sealed his words with a kiss, not breaking it off until Aya relaxed and kissed him back.

"Mates, huh?" he mused as he stroked a hand along Aya’s hip. The new knowledge emboldened Yohji to make a confession and try to pry another answer out from the reticent man. "Does that mean you love me? Because I’ve loved you since the moment I saw you, you know."

"How can you love a …"

"_Don’t_ say it, Aya," Yohji growled out, jerking the smaller man close. "I love you. Don’t piss me off by arguing with me or you’re gonna be sporting another damn bite. Which means Jo really will kill me when she sees you tomorrow morning. Fuck, I wonder if Cass made you anything with a really high collar."

Aya trailed a finger over his throat, wincing as he touched the latest bite. "You didn’t know what I… Yohji, stop it," he snapped when Yohji started to growl, his head bent and baring his teeth. "I… I think I love you too." The words sounded as if they were painful for him to say, and the fear and uncertainty was back in the amethyst eyes.

Feeling that it wouldn’t be wise to push any more at the moment, Yohji sighed and tugged Aya onto his side and facing him. "So, what does it mean, me being a succubae-bound? Other than me growling and snarling a lot and biting your throat all the time. I don’t think I’ve heard much about them."

A hand stroked through his hair, gently untangling the knotted strands. He let out a purr of his own as he gazed at his… mate, enchanted by the vision the man made with his heavy lidded eyes, tousled hair and kiss swollen lips. So fucking beautiful, and he was all his. Hell, they were mates. Yohji smiled at the thought.

"It means… you feed off people, off their emotions and energy, to a much greater extent than a soul gaki-bound does. You mainly do this through sex." Yohji felt his cheeks burn at the statement and issued a weak chuckle. It was nice to know there was a reason for him having been such a slut. "Do you realize that you’ve been feeding off me the past few days?" Aya was sporting a slight blush as well.

"What?" About to ask another question, Yohji stumbled upon the answer on his own. The sunlight. That’s what Aya must be talking about: the mysterious, delicious sunlight that filled him whenever he pleasured Aya. Now all the comments about taste and his appetite made sense. No wonder he hadn’t been eating as much food as usual, and that his lover was so tired and pale. He was feeding off of the redhead.

Yohji stared at the man, finally noticing how Aya looked ready to fall asleep at any moment. "Does it hurt, the feeding part?" Ah, that was definitely a blush spreading across the pale cheeks.

"No." Aya ducked his head as he snuggled closer to Yohji, who wrapped his arms tighter around the man without any conscious thought. "I just wish you’d leave me with a little more energy."

"Hmm, any suggestions on how I go about that?" At Aya’s mumbled ‘no’, Yohji sighed and combed his fingers through his lover’s hair adoring how soft and silky the strands felt. "What do you know about succubae-bounds?"

Aya purred, causing Yohji to shiver as he felt the vibration against his chest. He was so sensitive, filled as he was by the sunlight. "Only that you feed off your lovers and exude a… glamour of sorts that attracts people to you."

Huhn. "Hey, is that why you decided to let me pounce on you? Because of my power?" It wasn’t exactly a pleasant thought that his lover and friends cared for him only because he was a bound.

There was a quiet hissing sound, and Aya shifted about to pull up the bedcovers, all but burying himself underneath them. Yohji swatted away the material when it settled against his face. When Aya continued to hiss and grumble instead of answering the question, he prodded the redhead with a finger. "Well?"

"Kage aren’t affected by magic, so that’s not why I… chose you." Aya looked up at him, his eyes narrowed in anger. "I wouldn’t make such an important decision based merely on an attraction spell."

He’d forgotten completely about kage being immune to magic. "Then how am I draining you, if my magic doesn’t affect you?"

Yohji did a little hissing of his own when Aya ducked his head down yet another time and mumbled about being tired. "Ay~a. I’m not letting you sleep until you tell me. I feel like I could stay up all night pestering you, what about you?" He flinched at the ferocious glare that was immediately directed his way. Maybe Aya feeling secure enough in his presence to give him dirty looks wasn’t a good thing after all.

"… I let your magic inside me, which means now you can feed off me. Good night, Yohji."

About to ask how and why Aya had done something like that, the sight of his lover yawning with his face drawn and eyes shadowed stopped Yohji. He suddenly remembered that him feeling so energized meant that Aya would be equally exhausted. Brushing aside the man’s ragged bangs, he kissed the white forehead and held him close. He could feel a sigh against his neck and hummed quietly as Aya fell asleep in his arms.

As the faint sounds of Koyu’s harp filled his ears, Yohji tried to sort through the muddle of thoughts and questions that whirled about in his head. If Aya hadn’t been so tired, largely due to him, he’d have interrogated the man all night long. Although he had the suspicion it would have gotten him nowhere, as the stubborn fool would either refuse to answer him or not know the information he wanted. But he found it very interesting that Cass had known he was a bound, and even had told Aya of the fact. And what Cass knew, her son usually did as well. Which meant that two of his closest friends had lied to him most of his life. Not a happy thought.

At the very least, the two bounds should be able to supply him with the answers he needed, about what he truly was and how he’d keep Aya safe. The thought of anyone else discovering the kage’s secret made Yohji tremble with fear. Then he wondered about Aya’s friends. Did the three men know the truth about him? Was that why Naoe was so protective of the redhead? And Jei had commented about protecting Aya and not letting anyone harm him. Perhaps they did know the truth, giving Yohji other alternatives for answers now.

A sudden outburst of noise startled him, and had Aya flinching in his arms as shadows crawled onto the bed covering the both of them. It sounded as if the crowd downstairs was cheering about something. He was a bit curious as to what, but Yohji didn’t want to leave Aya’s side to go investigate. Guess that was another answer that he’d have to wait for.

*******

Nagi glanced over at Omi, who had been tense ever since a Guard appeared in full regalia: a long midnight blue coat festooned with gold clasps and white ribbons, a lacquered matching helmet, and black boots that shined as if wet. The crowd had fallen silent when the woman cleared her throat and proclaimed she had an announcement to make. The silence lasted long enough for her to inform them that King Shuuichi was formally announcing his plans to marry the current Captain of the Guard. Pandemonium broke out, everyone cheering the happy couple and shouting out questions about the wedding festivities.

Omi appeared sad about the news. Nagi touched his… friend on the arm with a questioning look in his eyes. The older teen glanced over at him and smiled reassuringly. "I think I’m going to be very busy at the palace from now on." When Nagi frowned, Omi’s smile became a bit surer and a hand stroked along his cheek. "Don’t worry, I’ll still find time to see you, but I doubt it will be tomorrow. Now I better get back home, but… can I see you again the day after tomorrow?"

"Yes." The word slipped out before he could give it any thought. Today had been so nice: weaving their way in-between the crowd at the docks and watching unusual cargo being unloaded as they snacked on exotic foods. The best part had been having Omi at his side; the boy insisted on buying him new things and trying all day long to make him smile. He had been rather successful, and Nagi’s face was sore from using the seldom exercised muscles. If Ran felt even the slightest bit like this when he was in Yohji’s presence, no wonder he had become mates with the pervert.

He suddenly noticed that Omi had shifted forward. "Good. I’ll see you then." Nagi didn’t move as a pair of soft lips pressed against his, and he closed his eyes when Omi deepened the kiss. He could taste the minted honey that had been drizzled all over the fruit they’d had for dessert on Omi’s tongue, and Nagi shifted in his seat to get closer to the boy.

Fingers teased through his hair, combing back the strands and settling on his neck. Nagi’s hands clutched at Omi’s jerkin, holding the blond close as the kiss continued for several minutes. It wasn’t until someone roughly nudged his shoulder that they broke apart.

Feeling a bit of heat on his face, Nagi turned to glare at Schuldig who shoved a goblet of wine at him. "Here, drink this. We’re toasting the happy couple. Omi, I’d offer you one, but Botan would turn me to stone if I got you drunk."

"That’s okay, Schu. I better get going." Omi kissed Nagi briefly on the cheek. His voice quiet, he asked if the other night had been as good as that. Nagi nodded his head, struck mute by the look in the blue eyes staring into his. They were full of heat and promise, and now he couldn’t stop thinking of that night up in Aya’s bed, the two of them stroking and kissing each other. Omi smiled slyly and gave him one more kiss before leaving.

"Hmm, wonder what’s in the air around here. Everyone’s pairing up all of a sudden. But I must say, Naoe, you’ve made quite an impressive catch." There was something in Schuldig’s voice that hinted that the soul gaki-bound knew something he didn’t, but Nagi didn’t play to the man and just glared at him as he drank the wine. Schuldig pouted over the lack of a response and drained his drink as well.

Free to talk openly now, as long as they pitched their voices low enough so no humans could hear them, Nagi turned to Crawford. "Aya should be back by now."

"Hm, yes, almost an hour ago. Schuldig, I think you can let Yohji wake up now."

The longhaired man shifted in his seat, and Nagi caught a whiff of nervousness with his sharp nose. Wondering if he had imagined the scent, he looked around the table and found Crawford and Jei staring at Schuldig intently. "Is something wrong?"

"That’s what I’m wondering," Crawford quietly replied. "Let’s take this discussion elsewhere, why don’t we?" When Schuldig appeared ready to argue, Jei grabbed the younger bound by the arm and actually hauled him to his feet and into the hall. Nagi followed the men out to the garden.

As soon as they were out of sight of the Koneko, Crawford turned to face the telepath. "What’s going on? Is Yohji waking up or not? Don’t tell me you put the man into a coma or something."

"For fuck’s sake, I wouldn’t make a stupid mistake like that. He’s fine," Schuldig retorted as he started to edge away from them. "In fact, he’s awake right now."

About to return to the inn and go upstairs to make sure that Ran was alright, Nagi stopped when he heard a growling sound. He turned to find Jei and Crawford cornering Schuldig in front of a bramble of roses.

"That was rather quick," the precog replied in a deceptively calm voice. "It should take longer than that to wake someone up from an enforced sleep."

"He’s still nervous about something, Oracle. I can smell it pouring off of him. What did you do, you brat?" Jei bared his fangs, emphasizing his question.

Schuldig swallowed nervously and flashed the two men a shaky smile. "No worries, Yohji’s been up for over an hour now."

The next sound was that of a hand slapping against flesh. Schuldig looked up from the ground where he’d been knocked down by Jei’s hit. "What the hell was that for?"

"You were supposed to keep him out until after Aya came back from his mission," Crawford replied. "Why did you let him wake up early?"

The answer came from Jei. "Because he’s a jealous prick, that’s why. I can smell it on him whenever Aya is around. And his lust for Yohji. You little shit, what have you done?"

In a blink of an eye Schuldig was back on his feet, glaring at the older bounds. He moved almost as fast as Ran causing Nagi to look on in surprise. "All I did was make sure that Yohji learned the truth about what he’d mated himself to. He deserved the truth and he found it out tonight." When the Esset agents snarled in anger, Schuldig took a cautious step backwards. "Oh, relax, almost nothing happened. Yohji was all pissed off when he discovered the truth, but they quickly made up." The telepath’s voice was heavy with bitterness.

"You son of a …" Both Jei and Crawford reached out for the longhaired man, who promptly turned around and dashed off. But he didn’t get very far. Filled with anger, Nagi reached out with his power and snared the man, lifting him into the air and then slamming him into the ground. While Schuldig lay there dazed, Jei dashed over to him and crouched on his chest, fangs inches from the other’s face.

"What. Happened?" Schuldig shook his head for a moment, a frown of concentration on his face. Pale green eyes first narrowed and then went wide, turning to look in Crawford’s direction.

The precog stalked over to where the two men were, and Nagi followed on his heels. "What’s the matter, son?" Nagi’s eyebrows arched at that last word. "Finding it a bit hard to control an enraged flesh gaki-bound? Now answer Berserker before he rips your throat out."

"It’s like I said, Yohji was pissed when he saw Aya climb into the room and demanded the truth from him. He was afraid that he was being used again and took it out on Aya. The kage only admitted to what he is, and the fact that they are mates. Yohji yelled a bit, then the two of them fucked like bunnies. That’s all I know." Schuldig pouted for a moment. "Now get this animal off me."

"Let me get this straight. Because of you, Yohji now knows what Aya is. Something that I didn’t intend for him to know until I was able to convince Aya that he can indeed break free of the Takatoris’ control and choose another destiny. But because of your petty jealousy, that plan is now completely fucked up," Crawford growled. The normally composed man was actually snarling, and Nagi caught sight of claws extended and reaching towards Schuldig. "Do you have any idea of the damage you could’ve done? What if Yohji wasn’t ready to face what Aya is? He doesn’t even know he’s a bound too."

"He was well on his way to figuring it out, thanks to your precious kage," Schuldig spat out. "And he sure as hell knows now. I don’t know what the hell you’re so upset about, it’s not like Yohji has any choice but to keep Aya safe, since they’re mated to each other. Hell, he barely laid a hand on Aya during the fight."

The moment the words were said Nagi was filled with a murderous rage. With but a thought both Jei and Crawford were sent flying away from Schuldig, who found himself lifted into the air and slammed into a nearby oak. Then ignoring the bounds, Nagi turned and raced into the Koneko determined to make sure that Ran was alright. He didn’t care about the stunned people he brushed past in the hallway and on the stairs, not pausing in his unnatural speed until he stood in front of Yohji’s bedroom. Using his power, he unlocked the door and swung it open, retaining enough clarity of thought to know that if he shattered the door like he wanted to, Ran might be hurt by the flying debris.

He was met by a wall of darkness. "R-Aya, it’s me. Let me in." Nagi mentally pushed against the darkness, but it refused to budge. "Let me in now or I’m coming through the wall." Ran would have warded the door and possibly the window but that would be it. The darkness slowly melted away, and he rushed into the room.

Only to be halted before a finely woven net of gold and shadows. When Nagi tried to sweep the threads aside, he found that they resisted his power. He extended a finger and brushed it against the glittering strands and hissed when it was cut. Looking beyond the web, he found Yohji glaring at him from the bed, a half awake Ran held tight in his arms.

"What the fuck do you want?"

"Shut up, Yohji. Aya, are you all right?" Judging from Ran’s grogginess, he’d been drained again. Nagi stared searchingly at his friend and growled when he saw the bruises along the pale jaw. Grinding his teeth together, he reached with his talent and shook the bed. He might not be able to touch the strands, but he could break the bed apart until they fell down and gave him a clear shot at Yohji. Who, for some unfathomable reason, he couldn’t grasp directly with his power. "I won’t let him hurt you again."

The bed creaked with an ominous sound. Immediately afterward, Nagi found himself covered with shadows and paused in using his power as he was filled with an aching cold from their touch. "Aya?"

Violet eyes stared back at him, finally clear. "Naoe, stop it. Now." Ran was actually glaring at him, making him shiver with more than cold. Nagi did as he was told.

"Yohji, retract your weapon."

"But Aya…"

"Now."

Yohji did as he was bidden, not that Nagi could blame him. He’d never heard that quiet authority in his friend’s voice before or the way the words carried a hint of threat. As he watched, the threads broke apart and reformed on Yohji’s wrist. The blond glared at him as he lowered his arm and adjusted the blankets around the couple.

Running to the bed, Nagi reached out a shaking hand and lightly touched the bruises on Ran’s face. "Are you alright? Schuldig just told us what he did, about letting…" He remembered about the perverted bastard just in time and shifted his gaze to scowl back at the man.

Ran sighed and grasped his fingers, squeezing them lightly. "I’m fine."

Breaking off his glare, Yohji lowered his head and kissed Ran on his left shoulder. "I’m really sorry about that. I didn’t mean to hurt you."

"Well, you still did, asshole."

"Naoe." The one word from Ran was enough to make him fall silent. The kage sighed and leaned back into Yohji’s arms. "It was a misunderstanding."

"Yeah, and I won’t let it happen again," Yohji promised, his face serious. "Or you can snap me like you almost did the bed, kiddo. Take it you’re a bound too? My, it’s a popular club lately."

Nagi flushed, realizing that he had revealed at least one secret tonight. Great. Crawford would probably kill him. At least Ran didn’t look too upset about the slip. If anything, the redhead appeared ready to fall asleep at any moment. Nagi sat down on the bed and leaned against his friend, prompting a growl from Yohji. But Ran merely snarled back and rested an arm over Nagi’s shoulders. Glad that his friend was allowing him to be close, Nagi settled against Ran.

Crawford, Jei and Schuldig entered the room a couple minutes later and stared at them. The precog was the first one to speak. "Well, it’s heartening not to see any dead bodies. I take it all is well?"

The three of them grunted, and Nagi slid down the bed and rested his head in Ran’s lap. He glared at Schuldig, gathering his power to shove the man out of the room and possibly break a few bones while doing so. Ran tapped him on the head, a silent warning to behave. With a sigh of regret, he did just that. He could always torment Schuldig later.

"Good night, then." The two older bounds left quickly. Jei paused to flash a leer at Ran before walking out the door, probably chuckling at the vicious snarls coming from Yohji. Schuldig lingered behind, casting unhappy looks at the bed.

"Schu, I’d like to have a chat with you." Yohji’s voice was quiet, but carried a hint of anger and force.

"I imagine you do, Yohji. You want to get this out of the way now or what?"

There was a pause, and Nagi lifted his head to see Ran stifling a yawn. Yohji was gazing down at his lover who was more than half asleep and fading fast. "No, it can wait til tomorrow."

Schuldig remained where he was for several moments, a drawn look upon his face. When he did speak, it was in a rather somber tone. "Yotan… know that I, we, well, Cass and I never meant you any harm. We were just looking out for you. But the rest of the explanations can wait until morning. Night." With that, the telepath quietly departed.

Nagi couldn’t resist slamming the door behind him making Schuldig yelp in pain when it smacked him in the ass. A smug smile spread across his face, lasting until his own rear end was hit. "Hey!" He sat up in bed and glared at Yohji.

"I think I just figured something out, you shitty little demon. You’re the reason why I’ve been black and blue the past week! Gremlins my ass, I outta toss you out on the street!"

Yohji’s tirade was cut short when Ran hissed out his name. It was almost funny to see the blond go from enraged to concerned to sheepish in a matter of seconds. Holding Ran close to him, Yohji settled for just glaring at Nagi as he jerked his head in the direction of the door.

"Fine, I guess I’ll let the past go, but you need to get your ass into your own bed, right _now_. Aya needs to get some sleep."

"He wouldn’t be so tired if it wasn’t for you," Nagi retorted, but he did as he was told after sparing Ran a quick look. The kage seemed to have already fallen asleep; his eyes were closed and he was limp in Yohji’s arms. "Let me tell you something right now, though. If I ever see another bruise on him, you’re dead."

Yohji sighed as he shifted down onto the bed, Ran still in his arms. "Like I said, you can snap me in half if that ever happens again. I…."

"Shut up and sleep." One violet eye opened up to glare for a moment, and when not another word was said, drooped shut. Taking a hint from the furious tone of voice that order had been issued in, Nagi quietly headed for the door. He didn’t get more than a few steps from the bed when his friend called out to him.

"Naoe, take the box of cookies that’s on the nightstand." He found the decorated tin, and salivated at the thought of food. Trust Ran to remember how hungry using his power made him.

Nagi glanced back at the bed to see the two older bounds snuggled together, mostly covered by a blanket, and felt a pang of jealousy in his chest. What was it like to know that from now on, you would always have someone to be there for you? That was something he longed to feel for himself.

Silently closing the door behind him, Nagi made his way to his room where he laid on his bed for most of the night thinking about Ran, Yohji and Omi.

*******

Birman tracked Botan to his office and handed the wizard a glass of wine. "To Manx and Shuuichi."

"May they have nothing but happiness and health," Botan replied before finishing the wine in one long swallow. "A nice fantasy at that."

"You’re getting bitter in your old age, you grouch," she chided her friend and laughed softly when a paper flyer was tossed her way. Easily catching the object in her right hand, Birman straightened out a wing and tossed it back. "How are the wards coming along?"

Botan sighed and rubbed his eyes. "They’re coming. If I keep being a slave driver, they’ll be finished a day or two before the wedding. Right now I have my assistants scrambling around the palace trying to get the more public areas done before the horde of well-wishers descend upon us. I’ll take care of the ballroom and chapel, myself, in a few weeks time."

The man sounded exhausted, and after giving him a thorough once over, Birman concluded that she hadn’t seen him this tired since his wife had been murdered and his daughter kidnapped. "Botan, get some rest. You look ready to fall asleep at any moment. Take a day or two off and make those lazy assistants of yours do a bit of work for once."

"Hmph, you know what they say, no rest for the wicked. I have too much to do to take a day off."

Birman picked up her empty wineglass and twirled it between her fingers. "Botan… you’ll do the king no good if you’re powerless from overwork at his wedding. He’ll need you to be focused and energized on that day."

All of a sudden Botan’s complete attention was focused on her. "Birman, what have you heard? Is something going to happen?"

"You said it yourself, grouch, that something will happen on the wedding day." For a moment the wizard stared at her as he rubbed the scar on his cheek."

"I know that. I was just wondering if you found out something more concrete. You got my hopes up for a moment."

Debating how much she should tell her friend, Birman exhaled slowly and shook her head. "There are rumors of a lord recruiting mercenaries, but I haven’t been able to substantiate them at all yet. I have my best people working on it, but they’re getting nowhere. It’s almost as if magic is involved."

"Which is entirely possible. Let’s face it, if a kage really is going to play a part in the future, there will be tons of magic involved. The thing seems to attract it. I’ve already noticed that there are a lot more spirits concentrating in the capital than usual; my spells aren’t taking quite as long to cast as they normally do. Hell, I finished renewing all the wards in the Koneko today in less than two hours, and that was while talking to Mickey and the Harper Koyu most of the time. The Koneko was practically overflowing with spirits." Botan fell silent, a frown on his face.

Not willing to spend the night standing here while he was lost in his thoughts, Birman cleared her throat. "Have you divined anything else lately? Anything that will help us?"

Jerked from his thoughts, Botan glared at her for a moment. "No, I haven’t. I think I might try a few potions I know of, but will need to stock up on some herbs first. Yohji has a friend who is quite knowledgeable in their use, so I’m going to pay her a visit soon and see if she has any that I need."

"Ah ha! A woman!" It was about damn time Botan talked to another female besides her and Manx. He’d been mourning for Midori way too long in her estimation. "If she’s a ‘friend’ of Kudoh’s, she has to be pretty."

"No, she looks to be my age, my true age. Somehow I don’t think Yohji and she were ever lovers," Botan sniffed as he leaned back in his chair and stretched his arms and legs before him. "So quit being such a pervert."

"Drat, another fantasy squashed." Pouting in Botan’s direction, Birman waved goodbye. "Well, I just came to share a toast with you and I’ll be off." She had a lover of her own waiting for her, and it wasn’t often that he could slip away from his entourage. Birman wanted to take advantage of this brief reprieve as much as possible. "But think of what I’ve said. We’ll need you come the wedding day, so take what rest you can." For the closer that day approached, the less chance there would be of them doing just that.

*******

Teddy looked about the kitchen for a moment, idly noting how the spacious room never seemed to change over the years. It was still full of hanging herbs and copper kettles and pots, the three ovens along one of the brick walls blazing merrily. The Koneko had been his home for so long that he could no longer recall the one he’d lived in when his father had still been alive.

His thoughts were interrupted when Jo placed cups of sweetened tea in front of him and Koyu. "So, there’s going to be a wedding on Summer’s Solstice. Things should be crazy here until then."

Mickey sighed mournfully, but ruined the gesture by smiling. "They certainly will be. We’ll be raking in money hand over fist and we should be able to afford that new wing we’ve been talking about when it’s all said and done."

It would be Mickey who did most of the work, Teddy reflected, and momentarily spared a dark thought Yohji’s way. His brother and he had been adopted by Miyuki and were technically Kudohs, but it was Yohji who owned the inn and would pass it on, never mind the fact that it was Mickey who did most of the work. He’d taken over running the inn at first because Yohji’s career in the Guards hadn’t left him any time to do so, and then continued because the blond had been wallowing in misery because of that cunt. Now it seemed Yohji was going to be distracted by Aya. Ah well, at least Yohji wasn’t trying to kill his liver anymore. But he still wished his brother had something more to look forward to than being a manager all his life, even if that was what made Mickey happy.

"I can only imagine all the dignitaries who will be showing up for the event. Not to mention my fellow Harpers, intent on catching a glimpse of the proceedings and composing tons of awful songs about a king who dared to take a commoner for a wife. I’m glad I’ll be back on the road when this is over," Koyu commented dryly, "…and hopefully can stay ahead of the new songs as long as possible."

"Foreign dignitaries won’t be the only ones arriving; rumor is already going around about whether or not Prince Reiji and his sons will be allowed to attend the wedding." Teddy paused to take a sip of his tea before continuing. "That’s all I’ve heard people talking about, and bets are already being placed. Odds are in favor of the king forgiving his brother, so as not to offend the gods."

Jo snorted over the rim of her mug. "Allow him back for the wedding, maybe, but forgive? Never. The man was responsible for Princess Kikuno’s death, whatever lies and denials he spouts. The poor thing, to be raped on her honeymoon by her own brother-in-law, then have the man slander her by saying she asked for it. And on top of that, to bear a child that no one knows who the father is, either Shuuichi or Reiji."

"Poor Omi," Koyu sighed. "He never talks about his uncle, and I know he knows the complete details behind his birth. I can only imagine how he must feel to have that man back in the palace, if only for a few weeks."

"Yeah, poor Omi. How much you want to bet he’ll be spending all his free time here, or off with Naoe." Pushing his empty mug away from him, Teddy stifled a yawn. The Koneko was closed for the night, and most of the staff was already in bed. He, Koyu, Mickey and Jo had decided to remain awake a little longer and have a bit of a powwow. "Speaking of which, what does everyone think of that couple? All I hear you guys talk about is Yohji and Aya, and here we have a servant running around with the crown prince."

"A servant who is polite to everyone but Yohji and seems rather intelligent for the little he talks. I don’t think he’ll do Omi any harm." Jo reached for the teapot and poured herself some more to drink. She looked exhausted, having been up all day long. While Teddy was glad she got to sleep in tomorrow, he wasn’t looking forward to Ani cooking breakfast. Maybe he and Koyu would eat out tomorrow. "Besides, you see how protective he is towards Aya. I can’t imagine him being any different with Omi."

"Yeah, but he’s nowhere near as protective as Yohji is. I don’t understand how his throat isn’t worn raw by all those growls of his. But," Teddy drawled out until he had everyone’s attention, "Aya’s a bit protective of him as well. You should have seen the look he gave me when I was teasing Yotan, dredging up bits of his scandalous past. I nearly soiled myself."

"Huhn, that’s heartening to hear. Perhaps this won’t be a repeat of that bitch after all."

Mickey bit back on a chuckle as he rested his head on his hands. "Come on, Jo, we saw you around him last night. Don’t tell me you were still skeptical of Aya’s sincerity until just now."

The cook flushed a little then flashed a guilty grin. "What can I say, my maternal instincts took over when I saw him all bruised and battered. Besides… the more I see him with Yohji, the more the two of them make sense. I still have a few suspicions though: we know next to nothing about the man and his companions, even after several days of trying to find things out. I think we should still keep an eye on them."

"I’ll see if I can’t talk a little with this Aya. I haven’t managed to piss him off, unlike a certain person I won’t mention." Teddy stuck his tongue out at his lover. "But the next question that begs attention is, what if he really is legit? What are we going to do when he leaves? I can’t see Yohji just letting the man go, not if he’s this serious this quickly. And if we think he’s acting oddly now…"

The four of them groaned in unison. Teddy smacked his head against the wooden table they were gathered around, mentally reminding himself to whap his lover later for bringing up that point this late in the night. Now he’d be too worried to sleep. A grin spreading across his face, Teddy resolved to make sure that Koyu wore him out until he could sleep by means of compensation.

"That ought to be interesting as all hell," Mickey said. Now that was the understatement of the year. "Now for another cheerful thought. Do you think he knows what he is yet? He certainly has been acting oddly enough."

"No, I don’t think so. But this Aya…." Jo shook her head. "I have my suspicions about him. He has to be something special to attract Yotan’s attention like this and to keep it for more than a few days. Question is, is it special good or special bad?" When no one had an answer for her, the middle-aged woman rose to her feet. "Well, I’m off to bed then. Get some rest, boys."

The three of them wished Jo pleasant dreams and got up to wash the mugs and teapot before heading to bed. Waving at his brother, Teddy walked into his room yanking Koyu behind him. As the older man opened his mouth to complain, he shoved Koyu against the wall and silenced him with a kiss. It wasn’t until they were both breathing heavily and fully erect before he pulled away. "Why is it you always bring up things I don’t want to think about right before bedtime?"

"Huh?" Brown eyes stared at him in wonder then Koyu chuckled evilly. "I don’t usually mean to, but you have to admit, you have to love the reaction it evokes. I take it I’m to help distract you from those nasty thoughts?"

"Damn right you better." Teddy nibbled on the Harper’s ear, which he knew Koyu was exceptionally sensitive about. "And you better believe I’m gonna keep taking advantage of having a nice comfy bed available these next few weeks."

"Hmm, honey, and I thought you adored fooling around in the hay." Koyu bucked his hips against Teddy’s as a pair of hands slid around to cup his ass. "But there’s something to be said for clean sheets and feather ticking. What about us refreshing our memory on those points a little more?"

Grinding his groin against Koyu’s, Teddy heartily agreed.

*******

Ran awoke to the sound of a husky alto singing the words to the song he’d heard last night out in the garden and the sensation of light prickling against his skin. He was resting against Yohji’s chest, and the man’s arms were wrapped around him. Unwilling to move, even with the danger the sunlight provided, he just lay there as a feeling perilously close to contentment suffusing his whole being.

He didn’t want to move and shatter the peace. Memories of last night flashed through his mind, of an enraged Yohji yelling at him, demanding the truth. Which Ran couldn’t give him, not with his sister’s soul at stake. A part of him had been relieved that Yohji had discovered the truth about him and had hoped that there would be an ending of sorts before he was forced to choose between the two people that were the most important to him. He’d waited for the Guards to be called or for Yohji to strike him down himself.

What he hadn’t been expecting was the pain that had ripped through him when the blond had called him a monster. The word had caused more agony than he’d ever felt at the hands of a Takatori, all because it was Yohji saying it. Because he believed it. Aya-chan had accepted what Ran was and had never held it against him the whole time she was imprisoned or had come up with her doomed plan to free him. But for Yohji to think no better of him than his masters… Ran tucked his head against his lover’s chest, his eyes pricking with tears he refused to shed. He hated to cry, and hadn’t done so at all since Aya-chan’s death.

The song came to an abrupt end. "You all right, cat?" Ran’s chin was lifted until he could look Yohji in the eye. Bracing himself for hate and fear, so sure he was that Yohji had come to his senses and reverted back to being angry and disgusted with him, he was stunned to see the man smile at him and tenderly brush back his bangs. "Get a good night’s sleep?" He could only nod dumbly at the question.

"Good." Yohji bent his head down as he dragged Ran’s up and proceeded to kiss him breathless. If the man had any doubts about the bond between them, he certainly wasn’t showing it, especially considering the erection pressing against Ran’s stomach. The tingle of magic was back, easing his fears as he was hauled upwards, straddling Yohji’s stomach.

"Gods, I want you. I’m always wanting you." Yohji moaned as he shifted about on the bed until he was sitting upright with Ran on his lap. "I’ve never needed anyone like this before. Is it because we’re mates, or what I am?"

Ran wasn’t able to answer for several minutes as he found a hot tongue thrust down his throat. When fingers teased at his crack, he squirmed in Yohji’s lap, causing both of them to moan. "I don’t know," he breathed out.

"Hmm." Yohji’s lips against his neck had Ran mewling. "Do you want me just as badly?"

"Yes." He burned with desire and want at the moment, overwhelmed by Yohji’s magic and sheer presence, knowing of the bliss that awaited him. All Ran’s worries and fears fell aside, a precious gift in and of itself.

"Then it’s not because of what I am. Good."

The fingers were back, this time greased and more demanding than before. Ran lifted himself slightly when one pressed against him then sank back down, taking it in as far as it would go. One of his hands wrapped itself around Yohji’s shaft and pumped it, spreading the slick moisture that dribbled from it over the large cock. He wanted it inside him, wanted to feel Yohji inside of him, filling him with pleasure and heat. When had this one act become so important to him? It must be the succubae-bound’s influence.

Mewling softly, Ran tossed his head back as another finger pushed inside him. "Aya." He ignored the name for a moment, too lost in the explosion from those fingers brushing against that special spot inside him, making him moan and writhe. "Aya, look at me." Doing as he was told, Ran stared deep into a pair of emerald green eyes.

The emotions he found there frightened him. There was a need that rivaled his own, and something so extraordinary and powerful that he couldn’t believe it possible. No one had ever looked at him like that, not even his sister. But Yohji did, and something in his own eyes had the man smiling in joy.

Yohji grabbed Ran’s hand that was gripping his hip and poured a thick liquid into it. "Here." It took Ran a moment to recognize what it was, and then he traded hands around Yohji’s cock, lubricating the shaft as he licked his other hand clean of bitter fluid. That caused Yohji to groan in a low voice, and Ran was tugged forward by an eartail and kissed savagely. Hands guided his hips, and he eagerly shoved downward, not even flinching at the initial pain as he quickly rose and fell again. He was used to the sensation, and knew that it would fade away in moments.

"Gods, love, ohhh, so fast." Yohji panted the words, his eyes screwed shut as he held Ran’s hips still. "So tight, oh gods." The green eyes opened and resumed staring deep into his as Yohji thrust upwards. Ran curled his arms over Yohji’s shoulders, fingers toying with long honey gold strands and mewled out the blond’s name when his hips were tilted into just the right position.

A wicked grin spread across his lover’s face. "Right there, ne?" Ran wanted to smack the imbecile, but another thrust had him gasping as sparks of light scattered across his vision. "You feel so hot and tight, do you know that? If this feels half as good for you as it does for me, no wonder you’re so impatient." Talk about a stupid question.

"Yohji, shut up." The words were punctuated by mewls and hitched breath, and Ran gave up on trying to glare.

His words were greeted by a deep chuckle, Yohji rocking his hips upward to meet Ran’s frantic pace, spurring it on even faster. The now familiar drain was back, but he didn’t care in the slightest. It didn’t matter, not with the pleasure that was filling him, coiling in his insides with heat and bliss, and the love that shown in Yohji’s eyes. All that mattered was what he felt at this moment, the ecstasy and sense of being cherished that had him believing this must be a dream.

A hand was wrapped around his shaft, pumping it in time with the thrusts hitting that certain spot inside him with unerring accuracy. With lips fastened to the crook of his neck, a tongue rasped along his skin until Ran was almost sobbing from all the sensations. It suddenly became too much, and as he moaned Yohji’s name, his body was wracked with pleasure. His seed pulsed out of him in waves as his head tossed back and his breath hitching. Ran was dimly aware of Yohji calling out his name as the man thrust into him deeply and mewled as he was filled with warmth.

"Aya… oh gods, that…." Ran felt an annoyingly familiar tug on an eartail as his head was jerked forward and his mouth claimed for a kiss. Grumbling a bit, he nipped at Yohji’s bottom lip before parting his. He drank in the man’s taste until the sunlight on his skin became unbearable, causing him to shift away and weakly call the shadows to him.

Yohji stared at him, first with annoyance and then curiosity, and Ran could tell the exact moment when the older bound realized what was happening.

"Fuck, we left the curtains open last night! Aya, I’m so sorry." He was gently deposited to the side as Yohji scurried to edge of the bed and yanked the velvet draperies closed. As soon as that was done, Ran found himself cuddled against Yohji’s chest.

"Shit, your skin is all red." Large golden hands soothed the sunburnt flesh, stroking it gently. It felt almost as nice as the shadows caressing him. Ran rested his head on Yohji’s shoulder as the blond continued to apologize to him.

Yohji mumbled against his temple. "I’m gonna sew the curtains on that side of the bed shut, just you wait and see. Sorry, cat, but you look a little like a cooked lobster at the moment." Ran hit Yohji in the ribs for that comment and growled softly. "Well, it’s true. Gods, I’m sorry about this." The hands continued to touch him, and suddenly Ran felt a tingle along his flesh, sinking through his skin and filling him with warmth and energy. The pain faded away.

"Yohji, what are you doing?" He glanced up to see a puzzled expression on the older man’s face. Looking at his shoulder, Ran was stunned to see his skin returning to its normal white.

"I don’t have a fucking clue. It feels like something’s draining from me, and my palm is tingling. What does it feel like to you?"

"Energy. Warmth." Ran took a deep breath as the last of the pain vanished. He felt almost as rested as he’d been when he woke up. The flow trickled to a halt, and Yohji’s hand shifted to his hair, long fingers pressing against his scalp until he bent his head back for a kiss.

He let Yohji pull him back onto his lap, eventually tucking his head underneath the blond’s chin when they broke apart to breathe. They remained like that for several comfortable minutes.

" I really need to talk to Cass and Schu today, see if they can’t teach me to control this a little better. Did you know that succubae-bound could… I don’t know what the hell to call it, feed others?"

"No." There was a tug on his eartails. "Yohji, touch the hair again and you die. Painfully." He was getting sick and tired of having the long strands yanked on.

"You won’t kill me, you love me." Ran stared incredulously at the smug man. Yohji smiled at him and brushed back his bangs. "You might not be able to say it very convincingly, but I can see it in your eyes. That’s good enough for me, at the moment. But don’t you think you can spare the love of your life a better answer than ‘no’?"

"No."

Yohji heaved a deep sigh. "Yep, we’re definitely going to see Cass then. _She_ at least speaks more than monosyllables and threats."

"Why am I going?" He wasn’t the one who was clueless about his true nature.

"Because I want to do a little shopping while we’re out, maybe show you some sights. It’ll be fun." Ran narrowed his eyes in anger, not at all convinced by that argument. "You know, the place I got the cookies from has a ton of other things. Chocolates and almond wafers and truffles, and that’s just the beginning. Plus, there’s a bookstore not far from there."

Torn between the dual promise of books and treats, Ran felt his glare waver. Yohji just smiled at him, now stroking his cheek until he sighed in defeat. To add insult to injury, he couldn’t claim to be too tired for the excursion, not after Yohji had returned some of his stolen energy. Of course Yohji had to look all smug about his defeat.

His temper wasn’t helped any when he crawled out of bed in search of his clothes and only found rags. Suddenly remembering what had happened to the garments, Ran treated Yohji to a particularly evil look. This was the second of his new outfits that had been ruined, and the blond had the gall to call him impatient? Growling softly, he stalked over to the closet and grabbed Yohji’s blue robe. Yanking it on as he crossed the room, he ignored the man’s cries.

"What the hell am I supposed to wear down to the bath?"

"Shi-ne, Kudoh." The door slammed behind him with a satisfying thud.

*******

Yoru gazed down at the floor, shocked into silence. It wasn’t until Hajime shifted closer to him that he finally looked up. The young lord painted an incongruous picture in the dank cell, providing a brilliant splash of color with his royal blue leggings and jerkin and gold silk shirt.

"Well?"

"Well what? He’s dead, there’s no doubt about that."

Hajime pressed his lips together for a moment. "How did he die?" Each word was spoken clearly and slowly, as if he was talking to an idiot. Yoru bit back on a curse and counted to ten.

"I am not a shinigami, I don’t know how he died. All I can say is that there are no noticeable wounds or traces of poison. If pressed to provide an answer, I’d say he faded." Damn creature, succumbing to old age like this. He was filled with fury over having his plans thwarted yet again by a bound’s death. What was it with him and the things? They enjoyed plaguing him with their deaths.

Hajime echoed his thoughts. "Dammit. Why couldn’t it have lasted another two months? I swear it did this on purpose. The family finally has a pressing use for it, and it dies." The young man grew pensive for a moment then looked at Yoru. "How will this affect our plans?"

"I now have less blood to use, which isn’t a good thing. I’ll have to modify several of the spells I intended to use, but at least we’ve got enough to finish the wards. That’s the most important thing"

"Very well. Do you have any use for this thing?" A booted toe nudged the corpse.

"No."

Turning to a servant, Hajime instructed the man to burn the body and left. Yoru remained behind in the dingy cell for a moment looking about for any sign of foul play. All he could see beside the body was the littered remains of the bound’s breakfast, which a servant had dropped when they had failed to provoke a response in the creature. A close examination of the door revealed no sign of tampering. Left without any other possibilities, Yoru had to conclude it was Fate toying with him once more.

*******

Cassandra set a bowl of rice in front of her son. When he bent over it to start eating, she whacked him on the back of his head.

"OW! What was that for?"

"For taking after your father." She glared at the brat she’d spawned, too furious for words at the moment. When her temper was back under control she walked over to the stove and poured a cup of coffee. "No offspring of mine could be so stupid and petty. Told you I have, that he wasn’t for you. Why did you do such a thing?" Cassandra didn’t know what hurt more; that she hadn’t predicted her son doing what he’d done and put a stop to it, or that Yohji was probably very upset with her at the moment.

Schuldig frowned at his breakfast. "I couldn’t stand to see him so happy when he had no clue what he’d bound himself to. I wanted him to know the truth, and if that hurt Aya… I didn’t really care. He doesn’t deserve Yohji."

"Deserve or not, they’re meant for each other. It’s foolish to fight against Fate. All you did was hurt them and yourself as well." She stroked her hand through reddish strands of hair trying to soothe her child. Never having been pained with unrequited love, she couldn’t sympathize with what he was suffering, so all she could do was offer support. Now, she’d hopefully smacked some sense into his thick skull. He was lucky she hadn’t cracked his skull open when he’d confessed the truth to her.

"Yeah, well, as a grand scheme it failed miserably," Schuldig scoffed. "I nearly get my throat ripped out and slammed against various forms of vegetation, and Yohji’s more in love than ever. He’s ecstatic that they’re mates. You should have seen them in bed together."

Cassandra could very well imagine. She’d seen a mated pair of bounds before: her own parents. The amount of love and devotion possible between two people amazed her. Sorrow avert, that Yotan and Aya never suffered a fate similar to her parents’.

"What did you expect? They’re mates, and nothing can sever that bond other than death. Even then, it’s argued that the two souls will continue on together in their next life." She finally set the coffee in front of her son. "It was a foolish endeavor."

Her son pushed his food away and gulped down the hot drink. "I know, I know. Now, anyway. Please, no more lectures. Crawford gave me an earful before I could manage to escape the Koneko last night, while Jei kept threatening to eat me. The only reason I spent the night here was because I wasn’t sure when Yotan would show up for our little chat and got the impression he’d try to talk to you first."

Now that was odd. Cassandra poured herself some coffee and sat opposite Schuldig. "Do you not know for sure?"

Green eyes met hers, clearly disturbed over the matter. "No. After Yotan and Aya… made up," Schuldig’s lips twisted as he said the words, "I couldn’t pick up his thoughts anymore. It was weird."

Something stirred in the back of Cassandra’s mind, a discussion her father had held about succubae-bounds when she’d been a child. Before she could give the matter in-depth thought, there was a knock at her kitchen door.

Considering she’d had no vision of this visit, it could only be one person. Judging from the way her son frowned in anger and frustration, she had to have guessed correctly. So it came as some surprise to her when she opened the door and found Yohji beside a cloaked Aya. "Yotan, Aya, please come in. I wasn’t expecting you so early." She tilted her head, presenting the blond with her cheek, and felt a pang in her chest when Yohji merely walked into the room without kissing her.

"You know why I’m here, Cass. I want some answers. Oh, it’s a good thing you’re here too, Schu, now I don’t have to wait for you to show." Yohji poured himself a cup of coffee before filling up the teakettle and setting it on the stove. Once done, he yanked on Aya’s hand, who was standing quietly by the door, and sat down at the kitchen table together.

Everyone remained silent until Yohji hissed in annoyance. "For two people who love to talk, you’re sure not saying much. Well, let’s get this started. I want to know why you kept from me the fact that I’m a bound. That simple enough?"

Watching as Aya shed his black cloak, revealing a grey tunic that appeared drab next to Yohji’s emerald green one, Cassandra idly noted the new bruises on the kage’s neck. It seemed that Yohji had to work a bit at the relationship. Aya continued to snare her attention, he seemed to practically glow, and it was hard to look away from him. In fact, it was hard to look anywhere but at the couple. Shaking her head at her lack of focus, Cassandra resolved to get the matter over with.

"It’s simple enough. Your mother knew that her lover was a succubae-bound, and that her child might be one as well. When she confided this fact to me, I confirmed her suspicions. In turn, she asked me not to tell you the truth; she wanted your father to do so. He had promised her to return one day, to check on her and you. I kept that vow, only telling Aya what you were so he didn’t reveal the secret by accident."

Yohji stared at her coldly for a moment. "Aya told me that already. Don’t you have anything else to add? What about you, Schuldig?" The telepath only shifted in his chair, raising an empty mug to his lips.

Rising to her feet, Cassandra bought a few moments by getting things ready for tea. When she turned around, she found Yohji staring angrily at her. "What exactly do you mean by that question?"

"Don’t play dumb with me, Cass. For twenty-three years, I’ve never had one single clue that I might be a bound, not until I met Aya. Looking back, I know there were several signs I should’ve recognized, especially since I grew up with Schu. But nothing registered, nothing at all. Why?"

It was Schuldig who answered. "Because we wanted you to enjoy your life, Yotan. We wanted you to pursue your dreams and to honor the promise to your mother. So we… tweaked a few things in your head, made you not notice that you were different from everyone else except us." He met Yohji’s scowl with an equally fierce one. "Hell, it really couldn’t even be called brainwashing, since you broke through it so easily. It was just a few mental suggestions and compulsions, which you reinforced with your unwavering belief that you couldn’t be anything but a nice normal human." The last words were said in a bitter tone.

Yohji seemed to think over that bit of news while Cassandra poured Aya some tea and set about making fresh coffee for the rest of them. While Aya sipped at the drink, Yohji sighed and offered the room a shaky smile.

"Okay, so you guys were trying to honor my mother’s request and keep me happy. Though what made you think I would give a damn about being a bound, when two of the people I cared about the most were? I don’t think I understand. Any other major secrets you’re hiding from me?"

"No more than anyone else," Schuldig commented snidely as he glanced over at Aya. Cassandra promised herself she could smack the idiot for that later. At first pale green eyes glared at the kage, but as she watched they slowly softened, now containing confusion and what looked to be a hint of lust.

Resuming her seat at the table, she shot Crawford’s child a warning look. "Yohji, there are a few more secrets, but nothing I can reveal to you at this time." For Aya’s benefit she said a little more. "But I promise you, we have nothing but your best interests at heart. All we want for you is to be happy and safe, and many of our secrets have been for this reason. Just trust us a little longer."

The succubae-bound frowned at her for a moment, and then directed the look in the kage’s direction. "Let me just say I’m getting awfully tired of everyone keeping secrets from me." Aya’s face grew first pensive and then impassive, and while Cassandra and Schuldig watched he set down his mug and grasped Yohji’s hair. Yanking his mate down for a kiss, he didn’t let go for several heartbeats. When Yohji came up for air, it was with a dazed expression on his face. She wasn’t exactly sure, but Cassandra would bet her house that there was a hint of a smug smile on Aya’s face.

"Tell him how to control his power."

Schuldig laughed out loud, his good nature seemingly restored. "I don’t know, Aya, maybe you don’t want him able to do that, judging from the last couple of minutes. Makes him a bit easier to lead around by the balls, doesn’t it?"

Yohji growled for a moment, and Cassandra put her enhanced speed to use to cross over to him and smack him on an ear. "First off," she said, ignoring Yohji’s howl of pain, "you have to stop with the growls and snarls. Humans don’t normally make those sounds. At least not as often as you have the past several days. And when you express your emotions that way, other bounds are compelled to answer in the same manner. It places more than just you in danger to do so."

Rubbing his sore ear, Yohji contented himself with mumbling under his breath as he glared her way. Aya was treating her to an evil look as well; his lips pulled back just enough to show a hint of teeth. The kage was a bit more cautious with his reactions than his lover was.

"Now, obviously Aya has told you that you are a succubae-bound, and I’m sure you’ve noticed that you’re feeding from him. It’s what your kind does. Your nature is the reason why you’ve moved from lover to lover, never remaining with one… for long." She wasn’t going to bring the changeling up at the moment, not with the way Yohji was frowning. "But now you have your mate at your side and won’t feel the pull of another ever again. Because Aya is a bound as well, and a very powerful one at that, you can safely feed from him all the time."

Cassandra waved a finger in front of Yohji’s nose as her son chortled in the background. "Not that you should, by any means. You won’t do him any permanent harm, but it’s not polite to drain him so much."

"Polite," Schuldig choked out, causing Yohji and Aya to glare his way. "Polite, she says. Mom, why don’t you just tell him to stop before Aya starts walking around with a permanent limp."

She didn’t need to glance the child’s way to hit him on the head. The skill had become automatic by the time ‘trouble’ had been five years old. "Idiot. You are your father’s child, and I wash my hands of you."

Sniffing, Cassandra continued. "As I was saying, it wouldn’t be polite to drain him so. But you are young and lacking in control." She paused to see if Schuldig would make another comment, but he remained silent and gave her a pouty look. "It will come in time, and your ‘appetite’ will lessen somewhat."

"How often do I need to feed?"

"I cannot say for sure, your hunger will be your best judge. Do not let it go unattended for long, or it will become uncontrollable. But do not cater to it at the very first pang, either."

Yohji sighed and rolled his eyes. "Great advice, Cass. Don’t drain Aya dry, but don’t go hungry either. You can’t possibly imagine what it feels like to either feed or starve."

"I’m a soul gaki-bound, Yotan, I have some clue. My kind need people around, need emotions or we fade to nothing, though any emotions will sate us. I was taught a cruel lesson once and was isolated for a time. I can understand about the hunger. But your mate needs energy for himself, too."

"Yeah, you’re right." Yohji hugged his arms around Aya, who had remained silent during the whole conversation, alternately sipping his tea and glaring at Schuldig. "So can I do anything else beside drain my lovers and attract people? Oh, and send energy back to them, I managed to do that to Aya somehow today."

Cassandra crossed over to a wooden hutch near a window. She opened the top cabinet and pulled out several old books. When she returned to the table, pausing to pick up the kettle of fresh coffee, she placed the books in front of Yohji. "I recommend that you read these. They should help you out. Now the last comment is an interesting one. I know that most succubae-bounds can’t manage that and suspect that it has something to do with Aya and you being mates. Perhaps when you learn to control your power better, you can send your energy to others.

"But the main aspects of a succubae-bound are the glamour and the need to feed. You are slightly empathic as well, and of course, possess the usual bound traits of enhanced healing, senses, speed and strength. Be careful for the next week or two, you’ll find yourself moving faster and being stronger than you remember, now that the restraints we placed on your power are completely gone."

Nodding his head, Yohji handed the books to Aya, who started to flip through them with interest, treating the old tomes carefully. Once again the kage snagged Cassandra’s eye, much the same way Yohji did when she wasn’t on guard against his power.

"You said something about glamour. You mean the way I attract people to me?"

Schuldig answered this question. "It’s not just the talent, Yotan, that draws people to you. Never forget that. It snares their attention and piques their ‘interest’, but if you were an asshole, you’d be all alone." Yohji smiled at his friend.

Continuing the explanation, Cassandra poured herself some more coffee. "He’s right, your power only does so much, unless you focus it deliberately. Which you wouldn’t have been able to do, handicapped as you were until recently. Now that you are aware of it… with time and practice, you can entice the truth out of anyone, make them tell you their deepest secrets and gain their trust in moments. You can also cast minor illusions, shifting your appearance slightly, seeming more like their ideal object of lust than you truly are. But that will take some time. Read the books, one of them contains mental exercises that will hone your power."

Peering over his lover’s shoulder, Yohji stared down at the page Aya was reading. For a moment, Cassandra recalled a scene from her childhood, of her father holding her mother just so while the woman had read. Filled with sadness, she glanced over at her son who resembled her dead father so, and found him looking as sad as she felt. The poor child, to have the first person he loved to be forever out of his reach. He didn’t know of the mate that the future held for him and couldn’t be blamed for falling hard for Yohji, who so resembled the absent man.

Green eyes lifted and locked on hers. "So I can attract people and charm them into bed. Anything more on the offensive side?" Yohji glanced down at Aya for a moment and tightened his hold on the slender man. Cassandra guessed that he was wondering if there was some way for him to protect Aya.

"Succubae-bounds were created to infiltrate the enemy lines, not as offensive weapons like the gaki and elemental-bounds. But you have your speed and strength, which should never be underestimated."

"Just wonderful. I look forward to explaining to an enemy that I want to fuck them dry instead of fight," Yohji snarled.

A short bark of laughter broke from Schuldig’s throat. "Yotan, you have the most lethal of all the bounds created in your arms there, somehow I doubt you need to worry about defending yourself. Aya can kill someone with but a thought, let him do the dirty work."

The room seemed to darken as the young men glared at each other. Feeling the tension as if it was a physical thing, Cassandra cleared her throat and clapped her hands together. It made the men look her way, which wasn’t a good thing at first considering the scowls on their faces.

"There will be no talk of death in this household, thank you very much."

"No, let’s talk of more joyous things, such as the king’s upcoming wedding. You looking forward to attending that, _Aya_?"

And Crawford was the one who doubted the brat’s parentage. At the moment, Cassandra was at a loss to see any of herself in the imbecile child. If she hadn’t been present at Schuldig’s birth….

Yohji picked up on the fact that Aya was upset about something and fussed over his lover, ignoring the wide grin on Schuldig’s face as he tugged on an eartail. Aya’s face went from melancholy to annoyed in mere moments, and Cassandra could faintly hear a hissed curse. Turning her attention to her son, she scooted down in her chair and kicked him as hard as possible on the shin. He had to bite back on his own curse.

<Why are you protecting him? Don’t you think Yohji deserves to find out why Aya’s really here?>

<Not at the moment. Despite what has brought Aya here, Fate has something else in mind for him, which won’t come about if Yohji is upset at him. Stop being so petty, trouble, and rejoice in Yotan’s happiness.>

Schuldig glanced at his friend for a moment, who was busy nibbling on Aya’s neck, and then glared at her. <He’s mated to a killer.>

Cassandra’s temper finally snapped. Focusing all of her power, she mentally laid into her son. <Listen to me Schuldig, and listen well for I won’t repeat this. You have no concept of what Aya has been through, what has shaped him.> When Schuldig dared to interrupt her, she sent him a mental smack that drained the blood from his face. <No, you’ll hear what I have to say. He’s not a murderer by choice, I can clearly see that. The only reason he’s here to kill the king is because he sees no other option for him and the loved one being used against him. Would you willingly sacrifice your whole entire life, centuries and centuries worth, to be someone’s slave, abused at whim? Just for the sake of one person?>

<I’ve done you one disservice by keeping you safe, child, I can see that now. You have no idea of what it feels like to be someone’s slave, to have no freedom or choices. You say he isn’t worthy of Yotan? I say not so. He would sacrifice anything for the man; his soul, pride and body, and do it without a thought. Could you? Somehow, I don’t think so.>

He attempted to stare her down, trying to deny her words, but it was Schuldig who looked away first, his face flushed with shame. Glancing back at her guests, she found the young men watching her intently. "Would you like something else to drink?"

"No thanks, Cass. I think we’re gonna get going. Thanks for the books and the talk." Aya rose to his feet and Yohji immediately followed, fussing over the kage and helping put on his cloak and pull the hood up. Cassandra heard a long-suffering sigh emerge from the fabric and had to smile. Yohji looked over at her and grinned sheepishly.

"Well, it’s really bright out there today, and I don’t want him to get sunburned again."

"No need to explain, Yotan. Take care, the both of you." Cassandra’s smile became brighter when she was kissed on the cheek. Yohji reached over to ruffle Schuldig’s hair and received a faint good-bye in return. Schuldig stared after the two men until they left.

Gathering up the mugs, Cassandra graced her son with a concerned gaze. It looked as if her words had had some impact on him, but she wasn’t sure if it was good or bad.

"Would you like something else to eat? Some soup, or I have-"

"Nah, I think I’m going home, Mom." Schuldig wearily rose to his feet and came over to kiss her on the top of her head. "I have a few things to think about. See you tomorrow."

"Be safe, trouble." The nickname brought the hint of a smile to her son’s face, and he waved at her as he left. Sighing down at the sink, Cassandra wished that a certain bound would get his butt in gear and show up. He was rather late to begin with, and Schuldig wouldn’t be whole until his mate was at his side. Despite how painful it would be to lose her child, Cassandra was ready to leave him in another’s hands. It was time for her to live her own life, and would it be nice to know that Schuldig was someone else’s responsibility and would him treat well. All children grew up, after all.

*******

Ran glanced at a shelf of books, pulling out one on the history of Cretia that looked promising. Yohji was in the back, talking to the store’s proprietor, from the sounds of it, he was setting up an account and asking questions about bookshelves. The blond seemed serious about the discussion from the other day: creating a library at the Koneko.

The door chimed signaling a new customer. Ran dismissed the sound, being much more interested in the books before him. Despite his earlier misgivings, the outing with Yohji had been enjoyable, other than Schuldig’s presence at Cassandra’s. He had no doubt that the man disliked him for some reason and was beginning to suspect that it was Yohji. The comment about the wedding had hurt, as had seeing all the people on the streets talking about the upcoming event.

He knew he couldn’t keep things secret from Yohji for much longer, but Ran didn’t want to lose this newfound happiness, which he was sure would happen once Yohji found out the truth. How could he kill the king and destroy this relationship? But how could he let Aya-chan suffer?

It was a hopeless situation, which only seemed all the more bleak the more thought he gave it. Shaking his head, Ran selected another book. He could lose himself in reading, delighting in having books that he’d never seen before. He’d gone through all of his father’s books, which the Takatoris had claimed as their own, and the castle’s meager library years before. The only books he hadn’t read had been Masafumi and Reiji’s private spell journals.

Hearing footsteps approach him, Ran identified them as not belonging to Yohji and therefore ignored them. It was only another customer. He pressed closer to the shelf so the person could walk past him and was stunned when a pair of arms came up on either side of him, trapping him against the shelf. The shadows in his vicinity writhed about, but he refused to call on them since he was out in public. Ran felt torn between defending himself and doing something that would put he and Yohji in danger.

"Good afternoon, Aya."

Refusing to lift his shoulder to block the hot air blowing against his ear, Ran identified the voice. It belonged to the Guard, Kikyou. He stilled at that realization, anxious about giving himself away. The man pressed closer to him, and he felt a tingle that made his skin crawl. Kikyou was once more using tainted bound magic on him, much stronger than it had been before.

"What’s the matter, cat got your tongue?"

Ran felt a flare of anger at hearing Yohji’s nickname on the human’s lips, intentional or not. He waited to feel the attraction from the other night, but found himself only wanting to get away from Kikyou and his spelled ring. The magic no longer held any allure for him. He wanted to tell the man to go away, but hesitated to do so. This wasn’t Yohji or another bound, or someone he could kill without fearing witnesses or repercussions. This was a Guard.

He felt Kikyou’s sigh on his skin. "Do you even remember who I am?"

"Yes."

"Ah, he speaks." Kikyou shifted back enough that Ran was able to turn around, careful to keep from coming in contact with the man. He frowned at Kikyou and clutched the books to his chest.

Blue eyes gazed down on him, and there was a smile on Kikyou’s face. When the longhaired man leaned in closer, Ran flinched, hitting his head on the bookshelf.

A hand combed through his hair and rubbed the sore spot. "There’s no need to be so skittish, you know. I saw you enter the bookstore and thought I’d come over and say hello. It seemed the perfect opportunity to talk to you, since it’s much quieter and less crowded than some inn."

"Hn." He brushed back his bangs, knocking Kikyou’s hand down in the process. There was a flash of anger in the Guard’s eyes, and Ran resumed clutching his books, refusing to let his anxiety call a blade into his hands. He kept reminding himself that revealing his true nature would mean his and Yohji’s deaths.

"You know, it would be nice if you actually said something. I’m usually regarded as a sought after companion, as I’m polite, well educated and considered a bit charming. I promise, I won’t bite."

No, but he might. "I don’t like to be trapped."

Kikyou flushed slightly and leaned back, but didn’t let his arms drop. "Ah, well, maybe I don’t want you to vanish again. We never got much of a chance to talk the other night."

"I need to get going." Pushing against one of Kikyou’s arms, Ran stilled when his wrist was grabbed. The Guard was definitely angry now, but trying to regain his composure. Looking about for a distraction, Ran noticed a set of books that hadn’t been put back properly. He caused the shadows around them to writhe, and in a matter of moments the books came crashing down.

When Kikyou turned to investigate the noise, he managed to free himself and step away, determined to make it out the door before he could be caught again. However, the noise also attracted Yohji, and Ran almost collided with his lover. Yohji’s arms immediately encircled him as he came to a sudden halt, and he felt it when the older man’s body tensed.

"What the hell are you doing here, Kikyou?"

"Shopping for books, Kudoh, isn’t that obvious? You’re the one who seems out of place here."

Ran had to bite back on a hiss as Yohji shoved him behind him. As it was, the rough treatment almost made him drop his books. He could smell the anger and hate emanating from the blond and looked up to see him glaring at Kikyou, who leaned against a shelf appearing nonchalant but giving off the same scents of aggression as Yohji.

"Yeah, well I have some news for you -- highborns aren’t the only ones who know how to read. I’ve probably read more books than you, considering how much time you spend brownnosing other people." There was a hint of a growl in Yohji’s voice, but it wasn’t as evident as it had been in the past.

Kikyou glanced Ran’s way for a moment then straightened out his dark blue coat. "It’s called being social, Kudoh. But I can understand your confusion. After all, you’re only nice to people to get them into your bed, and then you toss them aside. I heard you made your way through half the Guards before you retired. After that, it’s been half the capital."

His temper flaring, Ran stepped closer to the Guard, refusing to listen to Yohji be slandered like this. Only to have the blond shove him back and hiss at him to stay there. Truly furious now, Ran glared at his lover, who was too busy flinging insults at Kikyou to pay him any mind.

"What’s the matter, Kyou? Jealous? It must be hard, no longer having your family title to trade on and lure people into your bed. No one in Court cares about a penniless, disowned noble, and the Guards could care less who the hell your ancestors were. And guess what, Aya doesn’t care for that shit either, so fuck off."

Ran didn’t bother to stick around to hear Kikyou’s rebuttal. He needed to leave before he skewered both idiots. Stalking over to the proprietor, he thrust the books at the man. "I want these." He had a few coins on him, money that Crawford insisted he carry and hoped they would pay for everything.

The middle-aged man looked at the books’ spines and pulled out a notepad and pencil. He jotted down a few words and nodded his head. "Kudoh has opened up an account for you, so I’ll bill these to him. Please feel free to stop by anytime. If you’re interested in history books in particular, my brother-in-law has a shop on Charter’s Lane, by the red bridge, which specializes in them. It would be no problem to extend your credit there as well."

Nodding his head, Ran quietly thanked the man as the books were wrapped. A sinking feeling replaced his anger. Yohji had been doing this all day, informing various shopkeepers and artisans that the Koneko’s credit now extended to him, indefinitely. The man didn’t seem to recall the fact that ‘Aya’ was only to remain in the city until the wedding. He really wasn’t going to let go of Ran.

When the books were handed to him, Ran gave the shopkeeper a slight bow and left. Yohji and Kikyou were still at it in the back, dredging up various failures from the past. Deciding he could make it to the Koneko by himself, where he would lock himself in his room and spend the night reading, Ran didn’t get more than half a block before Yohji tracked him down and spun him around.

"What the hell are you doing?"

"Walking."

Yohji snarled and yanked him close, causing Ran to hiss in anger as he was dragged to the small alcove of an abandoned shop. He glared at his lover, his frustrations causing his temper to snap.

"Let go of me."

"No. I can’t believe you just walked off and left me there at the shop."

"I can get back to the Koneko by myself," he hissed, pushing against Yohji and cursing the man’s greater strength. It was still too public to use his powers.

A hand shoved him against a wall, and Ran found himself pinned for the second time that day. "I can’t let you out of my sight for a minute. I do, and you’re either fighting someone or attracting strange men. What the hell were you doing back there? I can smell him all over you."

"Trying to get away, much like now. Back off."

"No." Yohji pressed against him, jerking his chin up for a kiss. Feeling a mouth against his, Ran closed his eyes. Other than Nagi, no one listened to him, no one gave his wishes even the slightest respect, not even his own mate. He twisted his face to the side, breath coming in pants as for the second time that day tears threatened to spill forth. He hadn’t cried since Aya-chan’s death, yet Yohji had almost caused him to do so twice in one day. Three times, including last night. Ran hated crying, hated feeling so weak.

A hand stroked along his cheek. "Aya, love, are you alright? Look at me, please." When he refused to do so, Yohji tilted his face forward, causing Ran to open his eyes in a glare. One tear managed to slip free.

Yohji traced a finger down his face and then held it up, staring at the clear bead as it turned black in the light and glimmered before falling to the ground.

"Aya, what’s wrong?"

"I’m not your slave, Yohji." Ran’s voice was weak at first, but grew stronger as the anger returned. "I can walk around by myself. I can protect myself. I’m not some doll to be shoved around by your every whim."

The older bound was flustered by his words and jerked a hand through tousled blond locks. "I know that, Aya."

"Do you?"

"Aya…." Yohji sighed and cupped his face. "I keep failing miserably. I swear I won’t hurt you, and then I do just that. I’m sorry. But… back there, you _reeked_ of that bastard, and he smelled of you as well. I can’t… I can’t just do nothing. Something inside clamors for me to keep you safe, to keep anyone from even touching you. It’s an impulse as strong as the one to breathe. You’re mine, and I only want to keep you safe."

He wanted to say he could take care of himself, but doubted Yohji would believe him. Even knowing what he was, Yohji only saw the scars and the way he pulled back from people, not even wanting to touch them. Ran knew that he was too cautious, too used to accepting pain, but there were some things he couldn’t just take, and would not, unless it endangered Yohji. But he didn’t know what to say to make his lover accept that. He wanted to say he wasn’t a slave, but knew only too well that he was.

A hand caressed his cheek, causing him to tilt his face into the touch. This time when Yohji pressed close, he didn’t resist. The kiss was tender and brief, yet somehow took his breath away nonetheless. When he looked up, Yohji offered him a bittersweet smile.

"Guess I have a few things to work on. Just try to be patient with me, Aya. I’m a bit new to this. There are so many new instincts, new sensations, and you’re at the center of them all."

Ducking his head, Ran rested against Yohji, winding an arm about the blond’s waist and hugging him close. After a minute he straightened up and slipped back out onto the street, his hand seeking out Yohji’s and doing the tugging for once. The other man held on to it tightly, as if afraid to let go.

*******

Yohji glanced over at Aya, who was curled up on the bed munching on cookies while he flipped through one of the books he’d purchased that day. Wanting nothing more than to join his lover and start going through the books Cass had given him, Yohji sighed and finished putting away the few items he’d bought for himself.

There were several things that needed to be taken care of including informing Mickey that the Koneko’s spending accounts had been extended to Aya. That was bound to be an interesting conversation, since he’d never done that for any other lover before. Mickey was either going to go through the roof or finally realize that he was dead serious about keeping Aya around permanently, or as permanently as possible, considering their natures.

Yohji realized after his discussion with Schuldig and Cass that quite a few things that he’d taken for granted were no longer possible. Such as, what were he and Aya going to do when people noticed that they were no longer aging normally? From what he understood, most bounds continued to age until some time in their twenties then proceeded to do so at a much slower pace. Such as a couple years each century until they started to fade, and then the rate sped up. With neither of them able to cast major glamours such as Cass’, they would have to leave or fake their deaths at some point.

The thought of leaving the Koneko tore at Yohji’s heart. He’d long ago entrusted Jo with his will, which bequeathed the inn to Mickey upon his death if he failed to produce any children. But he’d counted on remaining here until that time, just as countless of previous generations of Kudohs had. This place was all he had to remind him of his mother, other than the image that looked back at him from the mirror.

"Yohji, is something wrong?"

Shaking away his thoughts, Yohji gazed over at Aya smiling at the sight of the redhead curled up in a nest of pillows with crumbs on his lips. Walking over to the bed, he leaned in and brushed the crumbs away and followed the gesture with a kiss. Aya tasted of almonds and sugar.

"Nothing’s wrong, just thinking of something."

It looked as if Aya was going to ask a question, but he simply averted his eyes and resumed reading. Snagging a cookie for himself, provoking a low growl from its owner, Yohji resisted the urge to sigh and tug on a dangling eartail. Aya had purposely avoided any serious discussions after the one near the bookstore. He knew the smaller man didn’t want to bring up anything that would eventually lead back to the questions that Yohji had tried to get answers for last night and had even changed the topic several times on the way back to the Koneko. It hurt that Aya didn’t trust him with the truth, but Yohji was about to do something about that.

"Well, I have a few things that need to be taken care of before dinner. I’ll stop back up here and get you when it’s time to eat."

Aya just nodded his head and continued reading. A pale hand lifted to stifle a yawn and then fell down to turn a page. It seemed as if he was lost in his own little world. It was yet another facet to the man that captivated Yohji and made him wonder all the more about Aya’s past.

Leaving the room, Yohji strode down the hall to the steps, but went up instead of down. When he came to the third floor landing, he was surprised to see Naoe walking towards him.

"You’re back. Where’s Aya?"

"In my room, reading a book and getting a little rest. He’s got something for you." Aya had insisted on buying some sweets for the boy when they’d visited the confectionary vendor. A hint of a smile flashed across the boy’s face, and he stepped toward the stairwell. Yohji reached out a hand to prevent him from leaving. "Wait a moment, I want to ask you a question."

Brown eyes regarded him warily then flicked about the hallway. They were alone, and his sharpened senses told Yohji that none of the rooms near them were occupied.

"What?"

"Aya’s master, just how bad is he? He’s the one who’s responsible for the scars, isn’t he?" And why Naoe was so protective of Aya.

Naoe regarded him intently for several minutes. Just when Yohji gave up hope of an answer, the teen nodded his head.

"Yes, he’s responsible. Him and the rest of his family. It makes them _happy_ to hurt Aya." Naoe spat out the words, and his face was transformed by a look of intense hatred. If Yohji thought that Naoe disliked him, it was nothing compared to the way the little demon felt about his masters.

"Why does he put up with it then? I mean, he’s…" a kage. But it wasn’t wise to say that word out loud, not unless one was absolutely certain no one else could overhear it.

"Because… they found a threat that binds him."

Yohji wanted to know what that threat was, but was pretty sure he could figure it out on his own. Cass had told him and Schu about the fates of all the other kage, and they contained one common thread. They had all sacrificed themselves for someone they loved. A part of him raged at the thought that there was someone else that Aya cared so deeply for, before his common sense thankfully took over. It clearly wasn’t another lover, or Aya wouldn’t have been a virgin, nor would he be his mate. Gods, he hoped he got this irrational jealousy under control soon, or there would be more incidents like earlier. At least Aya wasn’t here to witness this one.

"Who is it?" Ah, it seemed he’d surprised the kid. Guess he wasn’t supposed to know that much about kage. "He said his family is all dead."

Naoe hn’ed and bowed his head. "They are."

"Then who-"

"Yohji, it’s his secret to tell. I’m not going to say another word, other than the fact that the threat is a legitimate one. Now I have to go make sure he’s alright. I can’t believe you dragged him out on such a sunny day, the light usually gives him headaches." It was Yohji’s turn to be surprised, and he started to curse himself for insisting on shopping for so long. Naoe treated him to a disgusted look. "Remember that. I’ll also assume you drained him again today, considering how he looked at breakfast. Can’t you keep your hands to yourself for five minutes?"

"Listen, you little demon, he’s always perfectly willing, so don’t blame- ow!" Rubbing his left kneecap that had been hit by an invisible force, Yohji limped closer to Naoe, determined to spank the brat’s ass redder than Aya’s hair. Naoe used his talent again, knocking him down before running for the stairs. Now rubbing _his_ sore ass, Yohji debated for a moment over going back down to his room and beating some sense and manners into Naoe, but figured with his luck Aya would take the brat’s side. Life could be terribly unfair. Besides, he wanted to take advantage of the fact that both young men were currently occupied. If he couldn’t get any answers from them, there were two other men he could pry the truth out of.

Regaining his feet, Yohji walked over to a door and knocked on it, praying to the Koneko’s deity that Brad or Jei were present.

"Come in."

He pushed it open and found Brad sitting at the room’s desk, closing a journal before turning around. The room was a bit dark, and the man had been writing or reading without the benefit of any candles. Yohji narrowed his eyes suspiciously as he closed the door.

"You’re a bound, aren’t you?" It wasn’t the best way to start a conversation, but he needed to know.

"Do you always start off conversations with insults?" Brad stared back of him with a slight smile teasing at his lips. Yohji refused to answer the question and instead sat down on one of the beds. "Most people would be offended to hear that word, but not the two of us. Yes, I’m a bound, just like you are."

The man seemed too smug, setting Yohji’s nerves on edge. "Why do you think I’m a bound?"

"Yohji, let’s get this out of the way right now. We are both bounds, as are Aya, Naoe and your friends Schuldig and Cassandra. Farfie is one as well, though you probably didn’t suspect that."

What was this, some sort of convention? If word ever got out that the Koneko was hosting so many bounds, it would be burned to the ground in an instant. Then again, if mere rumor of what Aya was got out, that would happen just as quickly.

"How do you know about Cass and Schu?" It wasn’t wise to confirm Brad’s remark, but somehow Yohji didn’t think he’d convince the man of anything otherwise.

Brad flashed him a smile, which was most definitely on the smug side. "I have a long acquaintance with Cassandra, and Schuldig’s my son."

"You’re the Prick?" The words slipped out before he realized what he was saying, and Brad flushed for a moment, the smile slipping from his face. "Shit, that didn’t come out right."

"No, I’m perfectly aware of their feelings for me." Brad sighed as he pushed his glasses up his nose. "However, I doubt that’s why you’re here to talk to me. I only revealed the truth to you so as to put you at ease, and to clear a few things up. We’re all bounds and dependent on each other for our safety, so you have no reason to distrust me."

So this was Schuldig’s father. Funny, he didn’t look like an oni. Oh, how Yohji wished he’d been there to witness the family reunion. From the insults she’d heaped on her former lover, Cass didn’t feel anything for the man but contempt.

"Well, what has brought you to my door? I’m busy, so get on with it."

Tucking back his hair, Yohji grew serious once more. "What type of bound are you?"

"A soul gaki-bound. Precog, to be exact. Almost as rare as your mate, so you can imagine the danger I’d be in if that fact gets out."

Yes, everyone would be killed except Brad. They’d be the lucky ones. "I thought Cass was the only one of her kind."

Brad’s face stilled and became an impassive mask. "Usually, there are never more than a couple of precogs alive at any given time. It is my belief that… at this moment, Cass and I are indeed the only two of our kind. But you’re not here to talk about me, but about Aya."

It figured that Brad would know the reason for this visit, considering his power. Yohji straightened his back, determined to finally get a few answers. "Yes, I’m here about Aya. I want to know the truth, Brad, and he’s not in the mood to talk. Neither is Naoe. I want to know why Aya’s been so abused, what hold his masters have over him, and why he’s here. Make that why all of you are here."

"Ah, concise and to the point. I’ll do my best to answer you." Brad straightened out his white tunic and crossed his arms over his chest. "First off, Aya’s been abused because his masters are idiots. They get a rush from hurting a creature that could kill them in a heartbeat. Aya allows the abuse because they’re holding a loved one of his hostage."

"I know this already, Naoe just told me. Who is it?"

Blue eyes glared at Yohji from behind glass frames. He shivered at the look. "Do not interrupt me again. You want some answers, be prepared to hear what I have to say, and how I have to say it." Yohji snapped his mouth shut and glared back.

"Now then, let me continue. As I said, they’re holding a loved one hostage, a family member to be exact." Yohji groaned, not quite able to remain silent at those words. Aya had told him his family was dead. Brad glared at him for a second, but then continued. "They’re holding her soul. I only got this information through a second party, but apparently when Aya’s parents died, his master took him and his sister in under the guise of being their guardian. They found out too late that the man knew of Aya’s true nature, something they themselves were unaware of.

"His sister was used to obtain Aya’s obedience. He didn’t have enough control over his power at the time to fight their way free, and his master and his son are wizards. They cast spells over the girl, binding her to a suite in their castle. If ever she left her rooms, she’d die. No wards can hold Aya captive, but his sister was a different story. Years passed this way, with the two of them thus trapped.’

A hint of sorrow crept over the older man’s face, and he sighed deeply. "The girl decided one day to free her brother. If she was gone, he’d no longer be abused. So she leapt from her window, several stories up in the air. She preferred a quick death to the agony of the spells placed on her. But their captors had thought of her escaping through suicide and had placed bindings on her soul. Her mortal body perished, but her essence is trapped on this realm in a glass sphere. The wizards bound a soul gaki in the sphere with her and use the creature to torment the poor girl. If Aya doesn’t obey them, they torture her. If he tries to strike back or escape, they will release the gaki and it will devour her soul. He’ll be free, but his sister will never exist again."

Yohji shivered in horror. To have one’s soul devoured by a gaki… it was said that one lived on inside the creature, subjected to an eternity of agony. Which also meant that the victim could never be reborn. "That’s, that is…"

"Inhumanly cruel. And humans dare to call us monsters. I’m sure if you know anything about kage, you know of their devotion to those they love. Aya will gladly accept any fetters and torture, merely to save his sister pain. As much as I loathe the bastards, his masters came up with an ingenious way to bind him."

It was worse than he had thought. How did you rescue a soul? It was no wonder that Aya hadn’t say a word about his sister, aside from that one time. Nor was it strange that he was filled with such sadness and hopelessness.

Brad continued on, his voice soft. "Farfie and I have masters of our own, and are… out on ‘loan’. We’re to ensure Aya’s safety while he’s in the capital. I’ve never personally witnessed him being abused, but Naoe has spoken a little about it, and I’ve seen his scars."

"But, why are you here?" Yohji couldn’t help but ask that question. He no longer doubted Aya’s feelings for him, but why had a kage been escorted to the capital? Wouldn’t his masters want to keep him close by? Were they that certain that they’d broken him past any hope of escape?

The precog didn’t seem to mind the interruption. "We’re here… for the wedding. We’ve brought a gift for the king."

Something clicked inside Yohji’s head, and before he even realised it he was standing in front of Brad with strands of his bracelet around the man’s neck. "Don’t you dare tell me you’re handing Aya over to the king!" He’d wondered what gift the men had brought ever since they’d arrived and had seen no sign of any treasure. But then he hadn’t known they’d brought the rarest creature of all with them.

"His masters are giving him to the king, aren’t they?" It would be one way to curry favor with a king, to hand him a weapon of immense power, especially if they were the only ones who could control him. Shuuichi would either lock Aya away and use him when needed, or kill him outright. Yohji honestly didn’t know which way his ruler would decide and either choice was unacceptable. "How can you do that to another bound?"

"We weren’t given a choice." Brad’s eyes closed in pain as the strands tightened around his neck. "However…" he managed to gasp out.

Yohji loosened the strands. "However what?"

Brad raised a hand to his mistreated throat but didn’t touch the threads wrapped around it. "However, Farfie and I don’t wish to betray our own kind. I chose this inn on purpose, all because of you." He gasped as Yohji clenched his hands for a moment, but then loosened his weapon once more.

"Why?"

"Because you’re his mate. I can’t see the future very clearly due to Aya’s nature, but I knew that if I brought him here… there would be something here for him. Which is you, his mate. The hold the- his masters have on him is not as absolute as it seems. There’s a chance of breaking him free of them, but only if Aya decides to cooperate. To gain that cooperation, I need for him to care for someone else just as much as he does his sister, to give him a reason for risking her soul on the chance of both of them being free. You’re that reason."

The words made sense. Although, if Brad mentioned anything about him having been a Guard, Yohji would probably have removed his head. But one question begged to be asked. "Why are you doing this? Trying to free him?" He wasn’t going to help Aya break free of one master only to give him to another.

"Because, once he’s free, he can help liberate Farfie and I, along with several other bounds."

Yohji took a deep breath and withdrew his weapon from Brad’s neck. "What are the chances of him breaking free, and what can I do to help?"

This time the precog did rub his neck. "Just be there for him and do your best to convince him that there is another life waiting for him other than the one he’s suffered these past few years. Teach him to hope again. Do that, and… I can’t be a hundred percent certain, but I’m staking both my life and my partner’s on this. I wouldn’t do that unless the odds were in our favor."

Rubbing his bracelet, Yohji thought about the recent revelations. "I want him, Brad. I want him by my side and happy for the rest of our lives, however many centuries that may be. I’ll do anything to make that happen, including killing you and anyone else I think might get in the way of that dream. Am I clear on this?"

"Perfectly."

"Very well. Who is his master?"

There was silence for a moment, and then Brad shook his head. "No, I’m not telling you that." When Yohji growled threateningly, he was treated to a cold look. "You won’t scare the answer out of me, Yohji. I have a very clear vision of what would happen if I told you that information. You’d go rushing off and get yourself killed, and Aya would be the one to suffer. Or worse, you’d be captured, and he’d then have two loved ones who could be used against him. Three, for Naoe would most likely be equally rash. No, I’ll keep that secret for now. You’ve already learned more than enough, much more than Aya would like for you to know. Breathe any word of this conversation to him, and he’ll have both our heads."

As if Yohji needed that bit of advice. He grunted and jerked a hand through his hair, trying to assimilate everything he’d learned. Aya had been in some bastard’s hands since he was a child and had been tortured for fun. No wonder he didn’t seem to like people and was cautious around him. Hell, Yohji was amazed the redhead had let him get close at all.

"What do you know about bounds being mates?"

The question didn’t seem to surprise Brad, but then again, Yohji imagined very little did, and he’d managed that already with the assault.

"That you’re tied together until your deaths, and in your future lives as well. That, as the bond grows stronger, you’ll be able to sense each other’s emotions and always know where the other is and how they are." Brad’s eyes grew distant. "You’re meant for each other, and Fate has a way of ensuring that mates find their partners. It’s the only reason Aya ever let you get close to him in the first place, you know. Given a little time, it will be an even stronger bond than that which he has with his sister. She’s blood, but you’re a part of him now, and he you. Which means if you do something stupid, Aya will feel your pain on top of his own, and the one or two things that he’s resisted his masters over… he won’t anymore. Not with you at stake. Remember that before you do anything impulsive."

"The wedding’s not far away, will there be enough time?"

The distant look intensified. "Less than two months now… and the wedding will only be the culmination of a series of events. Damn, I wish I could see more clearly." Brad closed his eyes and shook his head. When he looked Yohji’s way, the blue eyes regarded him in a serious manner. "You have his heart due to the mere fact that you’re mates. That’s a very important thing. But you have less than two months to teach him to hope. To consider a future where he is free and happy. The heart is the first thing to die in caged animals, and his is almost gone. Make him live again, and the others and I will worry about everything else."

"I won’t let him be treated like some damn object to be passed around however someone else pleases. I won’t let him be hurt ever again and will do whatever I must to keep him safe. You have my cooperation, Brad, but if you play either of us false, it will be the last mistake you ever make." Yohji let a growl creep into his voice and stroked a finger along his bracelet. Marks from the weapon were still livid around Brad’s throat.

The dark-haired man nodded his head. "My future is at stake as well, Yohji, never forget that."

"Good." Not bothering to say anything else, Yohji left the room. He decided that now would be a very good time to inventory the wine, allowing him some time to collect his thoughts and calm down. The mere thought of Aya’s past treatment made him want to tear someone apart limb from limb, and he remembered Cass’s words to him. He couldn’t afford to snap or growl at anyone who crossed his path, not when his actions could endanger Aya. He’d check out the wine cellar and have that chat with Mickey and tend to a few other matters. Then a nice dinner, and back to his room to read those books Cass had given him. Yohji needed to learn about his power and figure out a way to protect his love.

*******

Ran rested on the bed, his head on Yohji’s arm as they read from the same book. It was hard keeping his eyes open, what with a belly full of wine and food, and a day spent mainly out in the sun.

"Is this making any sense to you?"

Shivering from the breath caressing his ear, Ran shook his head. "Your talent is different from mine. It’s more internal, unlike mine."

A kiss was pressed to the top of his head. "Well thanks a lot, cat. That made a lot of sense."

Sighing, Ran called the shadows to him, forming a katana in his hand and letting his body be covered with armor. "All I have to do is think, and it happens. Sometimes they respond to my instincts, and I’m hard pressed to stop the shadows from forming." But years as the Takatoris’ toy had taught him that control. He vanished the shadows. "Your talent… the feeding seems to happen without any thought on your part, but if you want to strengthen your glamour, you’ll have to learn to focus it. You have to train that part of yourself." Everything had come naturally to Ran, in small increments until he was about fifteen. He’d needed not so much training as just energy and endurance.

"Great, I have to do mental pushups every damn day now." It was Yohji’s turn to sigh, causing Ran to shiver again. Then lips brushed against the side of his neck, making him moan lowly. "Aya… gods, you distract me so. All I can think of is how much I want you."

Those words didn’t help his concentration any. Crawling across the bed, Ran stood shakily on his feet and gazed down on a pouting Yohji. "You need to read that. I’ll go get a few things for tomorrow, and check on Naoe."

He waited for an argument from his lover, but after chewing on his bottom lip for a moment, Yohji nodded his head. "Okay. Give me about a half hour to finish this, but for the gods’ sakes, don’t go out into the damn garden. I don’t want to think about what could happen this time. And don’t go crawling in or out of any windows, either. Speaking of which, what were you doing last night?"

"Getting some fresh air." Ran quickly turned around and headed for the door, not willing to continue the conversation. Yohji had been very good about not pestering him with questions all evening, and he didn’t want things to be ruined by his refusal to supply answers. Not when things were going so well.

Stopping at his room, which Crawford was paying good money for him not to use, Ran found it empty. When he took a moment to search about, he found a folded note on his pillow. Nagi had scrawled a few words about going out with Jei. A frown forming on his lips, Ran gathered the silk robe Yohji had given him and a change of clothes for the next day. Forming the garments into a bundle, he left the room and knocked on a nearby door.

Crawford called out for him to enter, and he did so. "Where did Jei take Nagi?"

The precog moved away from the window, where he’d been standing. He came to a stop in front of Ran. "He took the boy to see the city at night. Don’t worry, I made it abundantly clear that if anything happened to Nagi, that Jei better start preparing his bonfire and pray that you leave enough of his body to be burned."

"Hn." He didn’t like it that his concern was so obvious. About to leave, he stopped when Crawford called out his name.

"What?"

"How did the mission go last night? I haven’t had a chance to talk to you alone today."

Ran gazed levelly at Crawford. "He’s dead." As if he’d ever failed in a mission before, much to his eternal regret.

Crawford didn’t seem to notice the strained manner in which he’d been answered. "And how are things between you and Yohji? I’m sorry about last night, Schuldig was to keep him unconscious longer."

So, it had been the telepath’s fault. It wasn’t even worth being angry with the man, not now. Though Ran wished he had known that this morning, he could have thrown that in Schuldig’s face.

"Other than him knowing what I am, and about Nagi as well, they’re fine."

"He also knows now that he’s a bound."

Ran glared at Crawford. "I told you, don’t even consider including him in any of your schemes."

"But he is, simply due to the fact that he’s a bound, and your mate as well. Whatever happens to you will affect him."

He didn’t want to hear that, didn’t want to know he was dooming another loved one. Ran didn’t know how much more his heart could take, how much more guilt it would take to break him for all time. It had been gnawing at him all day, since people were talking about nothing but the wedding. The only hope he had was that he was killed during the assassination, and pray that Yohji and Aya-chan didn’t pay for his failure.

"Nothing is to happen to him."

Crawford flinched, most likely at the sibilant tone in his voice. "It’s too late, Ran. He became involved the moment you took him for a lover."

"Which you encouraged me to do!" He was torn between his hatred for the other bound and that for himself, for being so weak as to crave a bit of pleasure. Once again it was all his fault, and Yohji would be the one to pay.

Shadows raced over to cover him, their presence soothing Ran. He wanted to hide away and regain his composure, to convince himself that things would be all right. But they weren’t, they never had nor would they be, not for him. He would kill the king, his bride and Omi, and Yohji and Nagi would hate him forever for that. He would survive, and Yohji would most likely be used against him. That was his fate, and Crawford and Cassandra had played their parts in consigning him to it.

Then there was a moment of sudden clarity. Sending the shadows flying towards Crawford, he had them wrap around the precog and bound him still.

"You and Cassandra, the both of you talk about an alternative future. One where I’m happy and free. Cassandra has said as much to me, and you to Nagi. Is it true?"

"Yes. We’ve both seen a glimpse of that future, where King Shuuichi lives and Prince Reiji dies. Your presence is there as well, cloaked in shadows. Yohji’s too, which signifies that he’s tied to you. It’s not the strongest possible future, but neither is it the weakest." Despite his predicament, Crawford remained composed. "You cloud our talent, but we’ve seen enough to make that future come to pass. If you’ll but trust us and take a chance."

"My sister…"

"I know about her, Ran. Reiji told the Elders about how he bound you to him, was all but boasting. He’s clearly thought of how to prevent _you_ from freeing her, but not others. I have a plan that will work, if you cooperate. Her soul could finally pass on, and you’d be free to enjoy a life with Yohji, but you’ll have to trust me."

Ran didn’t know if that was possible. He trusted Yohji and Nagi, and no one else. He wasn’t sure if it was possible for him to trust Crawford and Cassandra, not after what had happened. But did he have a choice? Yohji and Aya-chan tore at him; he needed so desperately to keep the both of them safe, but didn’t see how. Was it possible that his death could solve things after all?

"Listen to me, Ran. I’m speaking the truth. You can be free, and once that occurs, Jei and I have a shot as well. I won’t lie about something that I’ve been dreaming of for a hundred years." Crawford strained against the bonds that held him still, a pleading look on his face. The expression shocked Ran; it seemed out of place on the confident, cold man.

He released the shadows, calling them back to him. Ran pressed his hands to his temples, torn between conflicting loyalties and desires. His bundle fell to the ground.

"You don’t have to decide now. There’s time, Ran. Not much, but enough…enough to earn your trust and show you the truth behind my words. Just… keep an open mind. Please. It’s your choice whether to live as Ran, the Takatoris’ slave… or as Aya."

Bending down, Ran picked up his bundle and turned to leave. Crawford’s voice echoed inside his head the whole way back to Yohji’s room. How could he tell if the man was lying to him? The worst of it was, his whole being cried out for the words to be true, for him to take that chance. But all he could think of was the pain he felt from Aya-chan when she paid for his mistakes or temper, and Aidan’s journal. There was no hope for kage, there never had been. His kind were born, suffered and foolishly loved, and paid for it with their lives. Who was he to hope to be any different?

*******

Crawford watched Ran leave and groaned as he sank to the floor. Dealing with Yohji earlier was bad enough, and he had worn a scarf all night to hide his bruised throat, which was slowly healing. To have to face down a distraught kage on top of that… He needed a drink. Make that several dozen. He had the impression he’d be spending another morning nursing a hangover and didn’t see any other recourse.

But as he made his way down to the common room, Crawford felt a smile form on his lips. Enraged succubae-bounds and unbalanced kage aside, he could feel the future he strived for click that much further into place. Yohji had been swayed to the cause, all thanks to a misunderstanding in his favor. And now Ran had been given an ultimatum, of sorts. He finally knew what exactly was on the line.

Now all that was left was for Yohji to convince Ran to take a chance, more or less. Several other things had to take place as well, and many more secrets be revealed. Botan and Omi had to become aware of their roles, and a certain Guard would be faced with a choice of betrayal or honor. Then Ran’s sister would have to be saved, and one hell of a battle fought. And that was just for the immediate future. He and Jei still had to track down as many bounds in the capital as possible and warn them of the upcoming war.

It galled Crawford that so much was out of his hands, but he’d keep manipulating things the best he could. As it was, he’d encouraged Jei to take Nagi out this night in hopes of catching Ran alone. He’d had a feeling that the kage would stop by; at the very least to inquire about what had gone wrong last night. Despite having his life flash before his eyes, it had been worth it.

Full of confidence, he came to a halt at the bottom of the steps, shook his head and returned to his room. Crawford knew that Jei had a bottle of whiskey stashed somewhere; he’d indulge in that and then get back to work. As pleasant as it would be to get inebriated, he wasn’t going to get overconfident and let things slip through his hands. Pride had been many a man’s downfall, and he had more than enough of that trait to risk becoming cocky. No, the hangover could wait until he was finally free.

*******

Return to Archive

Next Chapter