Shadows

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chapter 8

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trust

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Yohji rolled the last of the kegs into place and wiped his brow with the back of his wrist. Summer was definitely on the way, that was for sure. The warm weather was why he, Mickey, and Teddy had just unloaded and stored away the Koneko’s liquor in record time. It wouldn’t do to serve the customers bad beer, spoiled from too much time in the sun.

"Explain to me again why I’m doing this?" Teddy pouted as he surveyed his dirty hands, and then looked over his shoulder at the numerous kegs he’d just helped move.

"Because you stay here rent-free and eat almost as much as Naoe and Farfie do," Yohji retorted as he leaned against a stone wall, enjoying how cool it felt. The storeroom was enchanted to remain at a temperature that would keep the wine and beer from spoiling.

Teddy snorted and sat down on the floor, leaning against one of the newly arrived barrels. "As if, Yotan. Besides, what I eat in no way equals how much you drink. Though you’ve been pacing yourself ever since I’ve been back. What’s the matter, Aya have no use for you when you’re too trashed to ‘play’?" Blue eyes stared at him, filled with mischief.

Barely resisting the urge to growl, and not helped by the fact that Mickey was quietly chuckling as he stood by a shelf of kegs, making sure they were secure, Yohji flashed his teeth at the pest.

"If you must know, I have a bet going with Schuldig. I can’t get trashed until after the wedding." Not that it was any hardship, thanks to Aya. Who needed to pass out drunk when there was a gorgeous lover waiting for them in their bed? He had much better ways of spending his nights now. As it was, Yohji only remained in the Koneko’s common room long enough in the evenings to hear a few of Koyu’s songs and make sure everyone was having a good time, and then he dragged Aya off to their room for some fun of their own.

"Glad to see that Schu’s going to actually lose a bet for once," Mickey commented. "Though I must say, it’s nice not having you drinking the storeroom dry anymore, especially considering how much Aya’s friends consume, not to mention all the extra patrons who’ve been showing up lately and expecting drinks."

Teddy snorted again. "You almost sound as if you’re complaining, bro. We all know that Kira has to practically drag you from your office at night and away from all the money the Koneko’s raked in just to have you for herself." Both Teddy and Yohji laughed at the way the burly giant blushed at that comment. It seemed that Mickey’s relationship with the young woman was progressing rather well. That was a good thing, considering how everyone was busy lately with the flood of customers who filled the inn every day. The staff needed a little fun and pleasure to offset their hectic work schedules.

With the announcement of the king’s wedding almost a fortnight ago, the capital had been flooded with visitors eager to see the formal event and to take part in the partying that would accompany it. The Koneko was a popular stop for them. Good food and prices, great alcohol, a clean establishment and a talented Harper had people lining up at night to get in, and on a waiting list for rooms. Several guests had doubled up, as available room accommodations were becoming scarce all over the city, and all of that meant that they were making more money in a season than they did all year long.

The new customers were a blessing, as some of the Koneko’s usual patrons had decided to move on to… greener pastures. Yohji’s fan club had not been happy to find him firmly attached to one individual, and not inclined to flirt with them, let alone do anything else. He flushed a little, not liking how much of a whore he felt like when he thought of his past exploits, even though he’d only been acting according to his nature. He was a succubae-bound, and the one thing he’d found out the last week or two was that he was largely defined by his appetite. Which, in the past, had had him going through patrons regularly.

But, that was all over with now ever since Aya had become his mate. Yohji didn’t feel a spark of lust for anyone other than the pale man, and even if he had, he wasn’t going to mess things up by cheating on his lover. Aya was the missing piece he’d been searching for all his life, the one person who complemented him perfectly. He was never giving the man up and couldn’t be bothered with anyone else.

There’d been a few fights here over a week ago, when people began to realize that he was serious about Aya. Some people were jealous of the redhead, and some people were even jealous of Yohji for latching on to the beautiful man. And then, there’d been the slights against Aya because of those feelings -- slights and insults that had led to Yohji defending his mate in a spectacular fashion. If it wasn’t for the fact that he was a former Guard, he’d most likely have been arrested for assault several times over. It helped that he had friends in the organization, and that they often witnessed the events that had Yohji reacting so forcefully. All the Guards had done was caution Yohji to keep a tighter rein on his temper. But some vicious verbal lashings and pounding a few heads into the floor seemed to drive the fact home that no one was to treat Aya with anything but the utmost respect, or else. The rowdier, more disappointed elements had moved on to other inns.

Mickey chuckling once more distracted Yohji from his thoughts. "Well, I might need to be enticed away from work, but Yohji definitely doesn’t suffer from that ailment. Poor Aya’s grown paler during his stay here, and not even Jo’s cooking has managed to put any weight on him."

"Just so you know, Yotan, Koyu and I have a bet going on how soon you’ll need to replace your mattress. There can’t be that much stuffing left in it by now, considering the amount of use it’s seeing."

Gritting his teeth, Yohji just barely managed to overcome the urge to strangle Teddy. The longhaired man was taking great delight in teasing him about his relationship with Aya. Thanks to his newly discovered talents, he could sense the amusement radiating off the brothers. Only the fact that there was no malice involved in the teasing helped Yohji to suffer through it.

"The two of you are just jealous because I’ve got the prettiest lover," he replied matter-of-factly. "Speaking of which, I need to see where he’s gone off to." Yohji didn’t like leaving Aya by himself for very long, especially when Naoe was off with Omi and not around to keep an eye on his lover for him. There was no telling what trouble the kage would get himself into. He really was like a cat in that regard. The other day Yohji had spent a couple of hours in the office with Mickey going over the books and had entered the common room afterwards only to find some merchant offering to put Aya up in his household as a concubine. If Farfie hadn’t grabbed him, he would’ve ripped the slimy man’s head off. The worse part of it was, everyone else had laughed at his reaction. He’d been reduced to entertainment for the masses.

Pushing away from the wall, Yohji smiled as he remembered Aya giving the man a ferocious glare and telling him to die. Considering how much the kage had changed since he’d arrived here, Yohji felt a spark of pride over the fact that it was largely due to his influence. He helped Aya feel secure enough to dare giving strangers glares and curses, confident in that no one here would hurt him for it.

"He was with Jo the last I saw him," Teddy offered as he rose to his feet. "Let’s go see if he’s still in the kitchen. You coming, Mick?"

"No, I’m going to check on the champagne that’s stored in the back, and then enter the liquor order into the books."

"Okay." Brushing the dirt off his backside then tugging his green robe straight, Teddy sidled up to Yohji and linked their arms together. "I bet he’s gonna go track down Kira and ravish her in the office, what do you think?" The question was asked sotto voce, but loud enough for Mickey to hear. This, of course, had him blushing again and muttering about how he should have been an only child.

Unable to resist, Yohji smiled wickedly at his older foster brother. "Now I know why you insisted on having such a big desk. Paperwork, my ass."

"Get the hell out of here before I stuff the two of you in a barrel!" Unable to prevent a laugh from slipping past his lips, Yohji tugged a chortling Teddy behind him as they fled Mickey’s wrath. Good thing there wasn’t much in there for the big man to throw at them, other than very breakable bottles of wine. They safely made it to the kitchen where they found Jo stirring what looked to be a pot of stew.

"Hey, where’s Aya?"

Jo took one look at the two of them and immediately stepped away from the stove, her hands on her hips. "What mischief have the two of you been up to, and why aren’t you unloading the kegs?"

"Nothing more than usual." With the brash confidence of the spoiled, youngest member of a family, Teddy picked up a spoon and tried the stew. "Yum, fish chowder. As for the kegs, we’re all done."

"Already?" Jo didn’t give the young man more than a token slap on his wrist. Yohji grunted in annoyance, knowing he’d be sporting a bruise if it had been him.

"Yeah. You should’ve seen Yotan, he was doing the work of three men, I swear. For someone who’s supposed to be worn out from all the ‘activity’ he’s been doing at night, he’s got a lot of energy in him."

Yohji tucked back a strand of hair before replying. "Someone had to pick up your slack. And you’ve no room to talk, not when Koyu can barely stay awake through his breakfast. Aya and Kira aren’t the only ones being ravished silly." Teddy stuck his tongue out at him. "Now where’s Aya?"

Jo wiped her hands on her apron and reached out to tug on the ribbon Yohji had haphazardly used to tie his hair back. "He’s out in the garden, doing some weeding. Koyu’s out there to keep him company, and ensure he’s not bothered." She fussed with his hair until it was pulled back in a neat ponytail, and then gave it a harsh tug. "Aya doesn’t have to do all the work he’s been doing lately, you know. He should be enjoying himself, not weeding or changing beds or helping me make bread."

Stepping back, Yohji smoothed his hair and shook his head. "He wants to. It’s either that or he’ll curl up in his room and do nothing but read, and I’d rather have him be among people than hidden away. Besides, he needs to see that there’s a place for him here, that there’s another life waiting for him, other than returning to his master." And be abused once again. Or worse, be given to the king as a present, and be locked away or killed.

Tsking, Jo shook her head as well. "You’ve still not convinced him to remain here? Yohji, we can’t let him go off and be mistreated again."

"I know, Jo, and I’m working on it. I figured I’d try to get him to stay of his own free will first and resort to tying him to a bed if that fails. He’s not leaving." Yohji’s voice was harsh and uncompromising. There was no way Aya was leaving him, ever.

"Naoe’s not to go as well. Though I think Omi will make sure he doesn’t, judging by how inseparable they’ve become. The Koneko’s just adopted itself two more strays, whether they know it or not." Her decision final, Jo returned her attention back to her cooking.

Teddy exchanged a smile with Yohji. "Was that how Mickey and I were adopted?"

"I was a bit young at the time, but yeah, I think so. I just remember someone from the Guards coming to talk to my mom, and a few minutes later her telling me I was going to have two new friends." Reminiscing about his mother, Yohji’s smile grew bittersweet. If she was still alive, she’d probably have chained Aya to the furniture by now, or sat on him until he finally listened to her as she calmly informed him that he had a new home and wouldn’t be leaving. Miyuki Kudoh had a way about her: one of velvet covering steel, soft and beautiful on the outside, and pure will inside. No one had argued with her, as they knew it was a losing battle from the outset. He missed her still and wished she had lived long enough to see him finally settle down.

Shaking off his memories, he waved as he made his way to the door. "I’m going to find Aya. What about you, Teddy?"

"I’m going to go soak in the bath. Perhaps you could pass that on to Koyu for me, along with the fact that I’m in the mood to scrub someone’s back? I’d hate to have it be a random stranger’s." Teddy batted his eyes and somehow managed to plaster a ridiculously innocent look on his face. Knowing better, Yohji just chuckled and left the kitchen. He pulled a pair of sunglasses out of his pocket as he stepped into the sunshine, putting them on as he walked.

*******

Koyu lightly strummed the strings of his harp as he watched Aya tend to a neglected rosebush. The redhead was clothed in dark grey jerkin and pants, with a shirt the exact shade of his eyes. A hood was pulled over Aya’s head, hiding all of his hair except for two long eartails, and black gloves covered his hands. The precautions were understandable, considering how pale he was.

"You know, I think the last time I’ve seen the garden look this good was when Yohji’s mother was alive."

"Hn." Having become adept at interpreting Aya’s grunts, Koyu smiled when he translated that one into a query. It was amazing what Aya could express with a few syllables and a look, and he’d begun to figure them out after spending some time in the man’s company.

"Yes. Yohji and Teddy had tried to tend to it after her death, but Yohji was too busy with the Guards, and Teddy… well, he had the best intentions, but that man is a virtual shinigami to any and all plants. I swear he can kill them with just a look." Hmm, for some reason Aya had tensed at that comment, just a slight hitch of slender shoulders, but Koyu had been paying attention to any and all reactions.

He’d spent a good deal of his free time with Aya the past several days, determined to pry some answers out of the man. Koyu smiled bitterly as he thought that usually he’d know the details of a person’s entire life by now, but that wasn’t the case with Aya. All he knew about the quiet man was that he was a very good swordsman, a voracious reader, and had boundless knowledge stuffed inside his head. It seemed he tended to the library of his master. But oddly enough, Aya didn’t know anything of recent literature from the past twelve years or so. It was one of many puzzles about the man.

The only impression Koyu had about Aya and Naoe’s master was that he was rich, influential, and from all the things not said, a proper bastard. It was clear the two men were abused, and for the life of him he couldn’t figure out why they stayed with him. The man must have some sort of title or power.

"But it’s nice to see the garden regain its former glory. I can only imagine what you’ll have it looking like by the end of summer." Ah, there was another tensing of the slender frame; it looked as if Aya had frowned sadly at the rosebush for a moment. The man was still refusing to make any commitment to stay at the Koneko past King Shuuichi’s wedding. It amazed Koyu that Aya hadn’t realized and accepted the fact that Yohji wasn’t going to let him go. Why was he being so stubborn, and only to return to an abusive master? It was just another mystery for him to solve.

Aya finished the bush and sat back on his heels, turning to look at Koyu for the first time in almost an hour. "What was she like?" He quietly asked the question and then started to gather up all the branches and weeds resting on the ground.

"Huhn?" It took Koyu a moment to understand the question. "Who, Miyuki? I didn’t really know her very well, and only met her on a few occasions. My master loved the Koneko, and swore by its baths, and would bring me here with him as a reward for learning my lessons. That’s how I met Teddy." He smiled at the memory and started to play a love song on his harp.

"She looked a lot like Yohji, only more delicate, and she had dark brown hair, the color of mahogany. Her eyes were just like his, emerald green. Miyuki was small and slender, much like Cassandra, but you never mistook her for a child. She walked with a slight limp from the wound she’d received when someone tried to steal something from the palace, and she and her partner gave chase. The culprit was a minor wizard, and attacked the Guards with mage fire. Miyuki was burned, especially along her leg, and her partner killed. As you know, injuries caused by magic can never be properly healed, so she had to retire from the Guards. But I never heard her talk about the incident with any regret besides that over the death of her partner. I don’t think she minded leaving the Guards that much and believe she much preferred running the Koneko. She so enjoyed helping people." The tune he was playing became sad and wistful as he thought about what a waste it was for the lovely woman to die so young.

"Yohji was her world. Teddy told me he never felt the lack of any love or attention while growing up here, but it was clear that Miyuki’s life revolved around her son. It’s such a shame she didn’t live long enough to see him find you and be happy. I think that was the only thing she regretted, him not being able to settle down with anyone. It was clear from an early age that he wasn’t able to have a normal relationship, from what I understand. She would have been so happy to meet you."

Aya stopped his work to look down at his hands, his head bowed and shoulders slumped. For a moment Koyu felt guilty about the heavy-handed tactics he was employing, doing his best to make a good friend happy by convincing a stubborn idiot to stay. But he really didn’t think that Yohji would let Aya go without one hell of a fight and didn’t want it to come to that. Besides, Aya and Naoe’s silence about their master gave him a really bad feeling. It was a good thing that Yohji had the ear and affection of the crown prince, even if he didn’t have the strongest position at court.

Koyu decided to change the topic. "You know, I don’t think I’ve seen you out there dancing at all. You tend to disappear with Yohji before that starts." He was rewarded for that observation by a glare that had him shivering, but he still persevered. "I’ve seen you fight with Farfarello, and you’re most definitely not lacking in grace. Are you afraid you’ll be unable to find any partners? I know of at least five guests that would love to dance with you, if Yohji would ever step aside." The glare went up in intensity.

Suddenly finding his harp to be of paramount importance, Koyu hid his smile. No, Aya didn’t like the attention he was receiving any more than Yohji did. But there was something about the redhead, something that grew more and more each day, that drew one’s attention to him, no matter how much he hid behind hoods and in shadows. It was a quality that Yohji had himself.

As if summoned by his thoughts, Koyu caught Aya staring behind him, and turned to see Yohji walking towards them. The blond had an anxious look on his face, but it slowly faded the closer he got to them. Or more correctly, to Aya. Yohji sank down on the grass besides the redhead, wrapping an arm around Aya’s waist and resting his head on his lover’s shoulder.

"What have the two of you been up to?"

"Well, I’m ashamed to say I’ve pretty much been talking Aya’s ear off while he’s worked." Koyu gestured to the rose bush. Yohji glanced at it for a moment, and then looked back in his direction. The intensity of the gaze had him shivering, laden as it was with scrutiny and a hint of possessiveness. The point was crystal clear: there had better have been nothing but discussion going on between him and Aya. Having seen how the last person who had tried to hit on Aya had left the Koneko in tears, fortunate that she was a woman and thus spared a physical assault, Koyu was grateful he was receiving nothing more than a warning.

"Teddy asked me to tell you that he’s going to be soaking in the bath. He said something about scrubbing some stranger’s back as well, so you might want to go check up on him. Unless you’ve come to your senses and realize you’re better off without him."

Chuckling softly, Koyu rose to his feet. "Then I guess I better go save that poor unsuspecting person. I was telling Aya that I haven’t seen him dance yet, Yohji. You need to correct that situation."

"You have a good idea there, Koyu. Maybe I’ll do something about that tonight." Aya didn’t look pleased with the idea and scowled at Koyu while Yohji started to tug on an eartail. Deciding he’d worn out his welcome, Koyu beat a hasty retreat.

*******

Ran glared at the departing Harper, wishing the man had kept his mouth shut about dancing. There was a reason that he’d allowed Yohji to drag him off to bed so early every night, and it was largely to avoid having to dance. He didn’t know how and didn’t relish making a fool of himself one night.

Batting at the hand that was tugging on his hair, Ran directed his glare at Yohji, who only smiled at him and commenced to kiss him until he was dizzy. He threaded his hands through Yohji’s hair, pulling off the ribbon so the honey blond mass could cascade around his face and moaned when his lover pulled away.

"Come on."

Ran let himself be tugged onto his feet, having a feeling he knew where Yohji was leading him. As usual, desire filled his body merely from the other bound’s presence and the heated glances sent his way. The two of them made their way to a secluded part of the garden, where a shady patch of moss was surrounded by fragrant lavender. As he was lowered to the ground, Ran searched the garden for any sign of other people. There was a couple enjoying the sun over by the lilac tree, but that was it. He called the shadows around the two of them.

"Am I being a wee bit predictable?" Ran glanced up at Yohji and found a wicked smile on his lover’s face. Hands stroked through his hair, pulling his hood down.

"This is the fourth time you’ve dragged me over here in the past week."

Impossibly enough, Yohji’s smile became even more wicked, and he cupped Ran’s face between his palms and brushed their lips together ever so softly. Ran shivered, full of desire and need, and clutched the taller man’s shoulders, pulling him closer.

"Well then, seeing as this is the fourth time and I’m still alive, I guess you mustn’t be totally averse to me ravishing you in the garden. Gods, Aya, it gets harder each day to be away from you. You should have stuck around while I unloaded the kegs."

His breath caught in his throat as Yohji nestled between his thighs, grinding against him. Ran needed a moment to gather his suddenly scattered thoughts. It was so hard to think, to speak, with his body filled with tingling pleasure and his senses with the heady aroma of lavender.

"I- ah, had to help Jo with the bread. And the bush needed pruning."

Yohji nibbled on his chin for a moment then placed his mouth on Ran’s, making him shiver as each word was whispered. "You should have been at my side."

Yes, which was why he hadn’t been. Each day the feelings he held for the blond only intensified, especially since Yohji now knew what he was and of the bond between them. It was almost painful to walk away from him, and that scared Ran. He couldn’t do this, couldn’t let his world be defined by Yohji, because he would have to leave him one day. And all the hints his lover and everyone else gave him about there being a place for him at the Koneko only increased his panic. This wasn’t his place, wasn’t his future. That was to be death and pain and imprisonment.

But a traitorous part of himself wouldn’t let Ran forget about Crawford’s and Cassandra’s words, about there being a possible future for him with Yohji. He was torn between intense longing and fear, unsure how he could go about gaining it without damning his sister. His ties to her were far older, and it was an ingrained habit to put Aya-chan’s needs before his own. But Yohji had crawled inside his heart and was demanding equal attention, had become a fever in his blood. Ran burned for him, needed the feeling of life and love that Yohji gave him.

His thoughts did nothing but confuse him. Each morning brought the wedding closer, and he would do what the Takatoris had ordered him to. Conflicted by his emotions, Ran would cling to the one clear path given to him with stubborn determination. The unknown terrified him, considering all the consequences attached to it. But if he did that, then Yohji would suffer….

He yanked on Yohji’s shirt, desperate to pull it off the man. "Yotan, please." Ran needed to escape from his thoughts and confusion, needed the sanctuary he found in the succubae-bound’s arms.

"Shh, cat, I know." Ran didn’t want to think about Yohji sensing his emotions, just as he picked up the desire, love, and possessive determination from the man. That was just one more complication, and he’d had enough of them. It was time to simply _be_ and to only feel pleasure.

Yohji stripped off his own top, and then set about removing Ran’s clothes. The jerkin and shirt were soon tossed onto the lavender bushes, followed by his boots and pants. The moss felt cool against his skin, which was flushed with desire. Yohji’s hands skimmed along his flesh, setting it on fire, the dual sensations of heat and cold driving him wild. It actually hurt when the older man pulled away to remove the rest of his clothes, and the pain only faded when Yohji settled back on top of him, pushing his legs wider apart as a slick finger pressed against him.

Ran tossed back his head, breathing in deep lungfuls of lavender and musk scented air. A mouth roamed over his neck, leaving behind more marks of ownership, and fingers twisted inside of him, stretching him and setting off explosions of pleasure. He bit his bottom lip, trying to stifle any sound and preventing anyone from discovering the two of them, but it was so hard, due to Yohji’s attentions. Unable to remain quiet any longer, he mewled softly, his fingers digging into golden shoulders.

"Aya." That one word was all the warning he had before Yohji thrust into him in one forceful shove, seating himself completely inside Ran. There was some pain, but it was a welcome distraction from his thoughts. Yohji barely gave him a moment to adjust to the sensation of being stretched past his bounds, of being filled to his core and to breathe once more, then he started to ream into him. Deeply, savagely, a rapid pace that drove the air back out of him, that entwined the pain with pleasure as that one spot inside him was battered again and again, and all Ran did was pull Yohji against him tighter, wrap his legs around the man’s waist in a vice and rock up to meet each brutal thrust.

This was heaven, was the oblivion he wanted and craved. It was nothing but bliss and Yohji, both one and the same, and Ran surrendered to it. To Yohji.

*******

Breath still coming in uneven pants, Yohji brushed the sweat dampened bangs off Aya’s face. His love was fast asleep, not reacting to the caress at all. His heart racing inside of his chest, Yohji settled on the cool moss beside Aya and wrapped his arms around the pale man.

Once again, the sex had been… he really needed another word besides ‘incredible’. It just didn’t define the situation properly. But underneath all the pleasure had been a taint of desperation, emanating from the both of them.

Brad had told him to make Aya hope again, and that’s what he’d been trying to do ever since he’d found out about Aya’s past. But it seemed as if he was getting nowhere. Yes Aya had begun to open up to him, to let Yohji drag him off to this store and that, and was beginning to stand up for himself to others. But… Aya wouldn’t say anything when he tried to talk to him about remaining at the Koneko after the wedding, or when he tried to make any future plans. The situation was intolerable.

What made Yohji so desperate was the fact that each day he needed Aya more and more. The thought of the redhead leaving him fanned his hunger, made him ache to claim his lover. To be away from Aya, even for a short while, left him hollow and chilled, deprived of the sunlight he craved. It was as if he wasn’t feeding from just sex anymore, but from the man’s mere presence as well.

Feeling Aya’s emotions, even if only faintly, wasn’t helping either. As Yohji worked hard to train his power each night, the link between the two of them became stronger. He felt his lover’s growing confidence and love, but also his despair, fear and confusion. He knew Aya was torn and undecided, wavering over what choice to make, and was doing all he could to make sure Aya chose him. However, the more he pushed the more the stubborn fool dug in his heels and refused to contemplate a future with him. It was enough to drive him mad.

It hurt so much that Aya could give in to him in passion and need, but remain hidden behind his defenses on everything else. Yohji had tried battering his way through them moments ago, had needed to make Aya realize how foolish it was to try and keep them apart when they belonged to each other. He’d felt something during the sex, something that had given him hope, but was too afraid to put much faith behind it. It wouldn’t do to slack off, confident he’d made some ground, and risk losing the man he loved.

Yohji lay there beside Aya, cloaked in shadows and surrounded by the scent of lavender. What he wouldn’t give to spend endless afternoons like this. Each day he became more aware of what it meant to be a bound, of his powers and the prejudice his kind faced. But he also realized that, barring a disastrous fate, there would be centuries of such afternoons ahead of him. That thought had scared him at first, but now he felt himself reflecting on how they couldn’t possibly be enough. All he had to do was ensure that Aya would be there with him.

*******

Sipping his coffee, Botan sniffed the air, breathing deep the scent of freshly cut herbs.

"That’s rosemary. What type of tincture are you going to use that in?"

"The one I use to baste lamb. Not everything involves magic or formulas, I’ll have you know." Cassandra looked over her shoulder and shot him a disapproving look.

Hiding his smile behind his mug, Botan had another sip of coffee. He so enjoyed his morning sojourns here at the tiny woman’s house and was glad that he had taken her up on her offer of a visit. Ever since he’d first done so over a week ago, he’d come back each morning for coffee and a lesson. Cassandra’s knowledge of herbs far exceeded his own, though he hadn’t any luck with the divinations as of yet.

"So, lamb for dinner. Are you eating by yourself, or will your son be joining you?"

"Feh, that one." She sniffed loudly and attacked the rosemary with renewed vigor, slamming the pestle down again and again. "Trouble only darkens my door lately to raid my library and larder, and then disappears in a blink of an eye. I never imagined the day when I would raise such an ungrateful child."

A child that Cassandra normally lauded praise on, mentioning his looks and intelligence again and again. Botan wondered if she knew what her son did for a living, but couldn’t see how she didn’t. While denial could be a powerful thing, she was much too clever to be fooled. Not to mention she never discussed Schuldig’s occupation.

He had the impression that the boy didn’t care for him very much, especially since he’d arrived at the doorstep the other day to find Botan sitting at his mother’s table, sipping a mug of coffee much like he was doing right now. Green eyes had stared at him intently for a moment, and then had ignored him the entire time of Schuldig’s visit. Which had earned the young man a slap to the head and a diatribe about manners. Botan had almost spit out his coffee at that scene, and had been hard pressed not to laugh. He didn’t think it would endear him to Yohji’s friend.

"So you’re eating alone tonight?" Why did he care?

"No, a certain thickheaded wizard will be dining with me. I need to ensure that he doesn’t pass out from casting too many spells while skipping meals."

It took a moment for the words to sink in, and Botan looked up to see Cassandra gazing at him once more, her eyes sparkling. He smiled at the woman.

"What time should that thickheaded but grateful man be here then?"

"Seven o’clock."

There was a state function he should probably be attending this evening instead, but there was no way he was going to turn down the invite. No doubt as soon as he told Birman his plans the nosy woman would jump up and down with joy and provide a decent excuse for him. His friend had been ecstatic to hear that he was spending time with a woman.

However, Cassandra was probably not what she had in mind. One could tell the woman had been a great beauty in her youth, but years and hardship had taken their toll on her. Yet despite the premature wrinkles and grey hair, the slight woman acted as if she was still a young girl, both in temperament and actions. Cassandra moved about with endless grace and energy, and it made Botan’s heart light to spend time with her.

He’d missed this so much, spending a morning with a woman he respected and cared for, being bullied and fussed over in turns. Not since Kyoko’s death had anyone done that for him, not even Birman. Oh, she’d tried, but despite their friendship, or perhaps because of it, there remained a bit of distance between them. Their teasing went only so far, and that was that. Both of them were too occupied with their jobs, and Birman with her affair with a married lord. They looked after each other in their own way, but that was all.

Cassandra, in the short time he’d known her, had chided him about failing to eat or sleep properly, had mended several of his shabby robes and presented him with some new ones, and had even cut his hair for him the other day. It was a flurry of domesticity that Botan found that he had keenly missed. He really had let himself go after his wife’s death and Kaede’s abduction.

Pushing the dark memories aside, he rose to his feet to fetch some more coffee. Stepping next to Cassandra, Botan inhaled the scent of hyacinths, which had been masked by the more pungent rosemary. Pouring himself some more coffee, he found himself shifting closer to the woman, enjoying her presence and perfume. Grey eyes stared up at him, and without a thought on his part, Botan pushed aside a lock of silver hair that was falling onto the woman’s face.

The action had him blushing, and he immediately returned to his seat. Great, now he was acting like a schoolboy. The last thing he needed at the moment was to develop a crush on someone. He was much too busy with preparing things for the wedding and trying to track down any and all information on kage and other bounds. Now was not the time for a silly infatuation.

Never mind that Cassandra made him smile and had a bright mind that endlessly amused and astonished him. It wasn’t often either that one found a woman his age who wasn’t already married or occupied with a family. A small voice told him to seize the opportunity that was being presented to him, and try as he might, Botan couldn’t force himself to decline Cassandra’s offer of dinner.

The woman once again glanced over her shoulder at him, a mysterious smile hovering on her lips. Botan had the impression she knew something he didn’t, but it was a familiar feeling the past few days. It seemed as if Cassandra was privy to the secrets of the world at times, and she loved shocking him with some outlandish or obscure statement and hadn’t been wrong yet. It was all part of the intrigue that surrounded the woman.

"My father was a fisherman, I’ll have you know. Could charm the fish out of the sea, that man could. But he always told me that the more a fish struggled, the deeper the hook bit. Resist Fate too much, and it drags you about by the scruff of the neck. Not very dignified, that." Grey eyes were sparkling once more, filled with mischief and even a hint of sympathy. Not knowing what to say, Botan continued to sip his coffee.

*******

"I’m sorry."

Yuushi stared at his captain for a moment, letting the impact of her words sink in. His hands gripped the padded arms of his chair tightly, causing the wood inside to creak.

"It’s not that I think you’re unqualified. You’re a very bright, honorable young man. But you’re too young. Three years younger than I was when I assumed this position, to be exact, and the Guards suffered those first couple of years because of it. People here at Court, and elsewhere, would do their best to take advantage of you for that fact, and I don’t want this organization to go through a repeat of that. Kikyou is the better choice as Captain."

Manx continued to stare at him, her face showing a hint of sympathy. Releasing his hold on the chair, Yuushi nodded his head and tugged at his long blue coat. The room was silent for a moment, and it dawned on him that the redheaded woman was waiting for his response.

"I can understand your concern, but is it any better having a noble in one of the few Court positions that have always been held by a commoner? There are bound to be repercussions because of that." He hadn’t meant to ask that question, or at least not like that, but it was a bit difficult to contain his anger and shock, and Yuushi wasn’t known as a prudent man when either of those emotions affected him. That fact alone would probably be basis enough for him not becoming Captain of the Guards.

A look of anger and annoyance flashed over Manx’s face, and for a moment he felt smug. No doubt she’d heard that question many times while she had been mulling over her decision, and she had to realize it would continue to haunt her for some time to come.

"Kikyou is a _former_ nobleman. He’s given up all claims to his family title, even going so far as to drop his family name. I don’t see what that has to do with him being a suitable choice as Captain at all."

Then she was a fool. Biting on his tongue, Yuushi nodded his head and rose to his feet. Normally he’d have waited for the woman to dismiss him before preparing to leave, but he had to get out of the office right that moment. "Very well, then. Good day."

"Yuushi, please wait." He stopped in front of the door and turned around to gaze upon his Captain. "I’d appreciate it if you don’t make my decision public just yet. I plan on announcing it shortly, but I wanted you to know first, and to grow accustomed to the fact. There has been a lot of division within the Guards over my successor, and I hope that you’ll be able to help with the transition as much as possible. You’re one of the best Guards alive, and Kikyou will need your assistance, not to mention your support."

"I won’t go around announcing your decision, ma’am. As for my help… I would never do anything to endanger the Guards. If Kikyou wants my assistance, all he has to do is ask."

Manx’s face tightened again, and that caused the anger building inside him to flare. Even she realized that Kikyou wouldn’t stoop so low as to ask for his help, which is why she’d tried to gain it this way. Well, Yuushi Honjyou wasn’t anyone’s lackey. He’d do what he could to keep the Guards from fragmenting and continue doing his job to the best of his abilities, but that was it. Let _Captain_ Kikyou come to him if he needed any assistance with his new position. Better yet, let Manx be the one bailing him out. He’d never liked the prim bastard and wouldn’t go out of his way for the man at all.

"Good bye." Bowing slightly, Yuushi left the office. He’d finished his duties for the day, and the talk with Manx had been scheduled at the end of his shift. There was no reason for him not to go back to the rooms he shared with his friends. Where he’d more than likely spend the rest of the night. Yuushi didn’t feel like attending any parties at the moment and would beg out of the night’s plans.

Some concerned looks were sent his way as he stormed back to his apartment, refusing to talk to anyone along the way. He felt like hitting something and needed to get someplace safe where he could vent his anger. He’d always had a bit of a temper, and right now it was pretty foul. If Yuushi didn’t watch out, he’d be involving some poor unsuspecting person in a fight, using the physical activity to relieve pressure. Not a good idea, especially when that person could possibly be an ambassador or noble of some sort. The last thing he needed to do at the moment was convince Manx of how right her decision was.

Reaching the safety of his quarters, he opened the door and slammed it shut behind him, startling his two roommates. Reiichi and Naru glanced up from the chessboard they’d been bent over, frowning at him for the interruption. They soon forgot about the game, however, when they caught sight of Yuushi’s face.

"I take it that you’re not the new Captain of the Guards, then?" Reiichi asked, his tone civil and soothing, and the bespectacled man rose from his seat to pat Yuushi on his shoulder.

"Hell no." He suffered the touch, and then stalked over to the room’s couch and dropped onto the comfortable piece of furniture. "I mean, it wasn’t as if I was really expecting her to choose me, but…."

"Let me guess, she gave the position to Kikyou."

"Kikyou?" Naru blinked his eyes, looking back and forth between the two older men, and then frowned. As his shift didn’t start until later that night, he was dressed in an orange and brown striped tunic that clashed with his purple leggings. Just the sight of the young man, who looked several years younger than he really was, almost made Yuushi smile.

"She chose Kikyou over you after all? Is she nuts?"

Reiichi made a tsking sound and patted his young friend on the shoulder. "One shouldn’t talk about their supervisors in that manner, Naru. It’s very disrespectful."

The young man flinched at the lecturing tone, appearing regretful for a moment, but his indignation soon returned. "It’s also disrespectful for her to treat Yuushi like this! He’s the best Guard around. What excuse did she give you?"

Feeling his anger start to fade away, Yuushi sighed and rested his right forearm over his eyes. "That I was too young."

"Which is bullshit!!! Everyone knows that Kudoh was slated to take her position should anything happen to her, and he’s your age. She just picked Kikyou because she’s trying to get in good with the Court!"

"Naru, be quiet." It wasn’t often that Reiichi raised his voice in anger, but when he did, people shut up and listened. "That is exactly the type of talk that is dividing the Guards, and I won’t hear any more of it."

"Neither will I, kiddo." Sitting up, Yuushi treated his younger roommate to a stern look. "Technically I shouldn’t have told you her decision, but I know better than to try and keep a secret from you guys. But the news isn’t to go any further than this room. I don’t want any fights breaking out over this."

Nodding his head in approval, Reiichi offered him a sympathetic smile. "I’m glad to see you thinking rationally. Thank you. How are you feeling?"

"Like shit." Sighing, Yuushi started to unbutton his long coat and then removed it. "I didn’t really think I would be the Captain, and it’s not like I joined the Guards solely in the hopes of attaining that position, but…." He tossed the jacket aside. "I do the best job I can, as honorably as possible, and the chance of being something that I know generations of Honjyous have longed for over the years comes my way, and I fail to achieve it."

"You didn’t fail, Yuushi. It’s just that, in this instance, politics won out over better judgment. I can see why Manx would choose Kikyou; it will help with her becoming Queen if she has a nobleman in a high Court position obligated to her. Plus, it will placate many of the nobles who don’t want to see a commoner on the throne, now that one of their own has attained a position that was never open to them before. And technically, he’s not a noble any longer." Reiichi sighed and sat down next to him. "He’s not really that _bad_ of a choice, though you would be better."

Yuushi smiled weakly at his friend’s defense of him. "Reiichi, let’s face it. I’ve a short fuse, and I don’t cater to anyone solely on the basis of their birth. I wouldn’t have been the best person to be Captain, and to tell the truth, I’d probably be miserable in the position. I like helping people, like doing something that I feel makes a difference, and am not very sure I’d feel the same way about my job if I was just a bureaucrat."

"Which is why you would have been a good choice. You’ve never been blind to your own faults, Yuushi, and you treat people the way they should be treated, based on their merits and not titles. It’s just lousy timing on your part, to be a candidate when a commoner is about to become the queen."

"Yeah, look on the bright side. Maybe in another couple of years Kikyou will come down with a pox of some sort, or choke on his wine, and then you’d be sure to get his position. Hey, ow, stop it!" Naru tried to dodge the pillows being tossed his way.

"Don’t talk like that, kiddo, it’s disrespectful."

"Indeed, yes it is. It wouldn’t do for anyone else to hear that remark. There’s already enough dissension within the Guards for people to start thinking that an ‘accident’ would make things better." Treating Naru to a fierce look, Reiichi settled his glasses more firmly on his face.

"I’m sorry. I’m just upset for Yuushi."

"You know," he mulled in a quiet voice, "I wouldn’t mind it in the slightest if Kudoh were still in the Guards and had been chosen. Or even if you’d been picked, Reiichi. You’d be a lot better at administrative work than I’d be. I just don’t like that Kikyou won it."

Shaking his head, the blue-haired man smiled sadly. "There’s no chance of me ever being Captain, I’ve made too many enemies. One doesn’t spend their career investigating what illegal activities the nobles get up to and expect a position at Court. But you’ve never liked Kikyou. Why?"

"It’s hard to explain. Something about him just rubs me the wrong way. I get annoyed while in his presence. Part of me wants to smile at him and agree with everything he has to say, and another part wants to smack me for feeling that way and him to boot. He makes my skin itch."

"He does have a way about him, a certain magnetic personality. It could be to the Guards’ benefit if he’s our new Captain"

Yuushi considered that for a moment. "Possibly. I don’t know, I’ve always felt as if he has some secret agenda."

Reiichi gave that statement some thought. "He did join the Guards because of his sister, from what I understand. Insisted on being involved in her murder investigation. The man practically begged me to give him the case. But despite his fervor, he’s never found any suspects. I’ve always wondered about that. I know they had to be nobles, just from the circumstances surrounding the case, and never knew if he was hiding them out of misplaced loyalty, or if he considered them too unreachable. It’s the only case he’s failed to solve."

"The man’s just strange," Naru commented. "Yeah, he’s all nice and everything, but… his smile almost never reaches his eyes. And I’ve heard a rumor that he’s suddenly become very interested in some guy Yohji is dating. Those two never got along."

"No, they didn’t." Reiichi seemed to contemplate something for a moment, but then shook his head. "Ah well, no matter how much we might personally dislike the man, the fact remains he’ll soon be our new Captain. Not much we can do about it, unless we quit the Guards."

"I know," Yuushi said quietly. "I don’t think I’m going out with you guys tonight, I need some time to think and to calm down. I don’t want anyone else finding out about Manx’s choice before she announces it, and I need to figure out what I’m going to do. I’ve always held the Guards in the highest esteem, and it’s… a bit crushing to have how political we’ve become rubbed in my face."

Naru and Reiichi exchanged looks for a moment, and then the older man gently wrapped his arm around Yuushi’s neck. "Whatever you decide, just know that we’ll support you a hundred percent. It wouldn’t be the same without a Honjyou around here. Things have been bad enough with Kudoh gone; I don’t think I could take the Guards losing all of its traditions."

"Yeah, and it’s not like I have much to look forward to, other than to play some runaway kid for a pervert to feel up so my squad can make a bust. As long as I look like this, I’m never going to be taken seriously." Naru made a face. "Hell, they won’t even give me guard duty anywhere, since Manx insists that I look like some kid impersonating a Guard. That’s why I was hoping you’d be the new Captain, since you know what I’m capable of."

"Which is trouble," the two older men said in unison. Feeling a genuine smile on his face for the first time since his meeting with Manx, Yuushi let out a short bark of laughter as Naru started a pillow fight. Reiichi protested over the danger presented to his glasses, but Yuushi noticed that his friend was giving more blows than he received. Naru and he decided to take the formidable man on.

*******

Birman regarded her associate intently. "I take it things did not go well?"

Manx sighed and rolled her shoulders, as if trying to loosen tense muscles. "That’s quite the understatement. Honjyou didn’t take the news well."

"Can you blame him? He’s one of the best Guards you have and is highly regarded."

"Yes. He’s also too young and is short-tempered. I can just see him hitting some nobleman who dared to argue with him over a matter. The Guards can’t afford that at the moment."

No, _Manx_ couldn’t afford that. The woman was not even the queen yet, and she was playing politics. Birman shook her head, but kept her opinion to herself. It wouldn’t do to get into a fight at the moment. While she respected the other woman, and they worked well together, they couldn’t exactly be considered friends. Manx disapproved of her secrecy and relationship with a married man, and she disapproved of how much the redhead was sacrificing for her marriage. Shuuichi had his heir; it wasn’t like they had to be married. Birman didn’t see why the two didn’t just continue with their relationship as they always had. Too many things were being negatively affected by their insistence on making it legal.

"On the other hand, Kikyou is a touch arrogant and is very difficult to pin down in any regard. Yes, he’s charming, but one never knows what he’s thinking. Also, he’s a bit too ruthless for my taste, and others as well. It’s very easy to like him, but trust…?"

"He won’t be an easy target for the Court. Shuuichi needs a strong supporter and has to make amends for forcing his choice of a bride down their throats. Where’s the harm in no longer segregating positions on the basis of birth?" Manx looked at Birman beseechingly, and then turned her attention back to her paperwork.

Birman recognized an end to a discussion when she saw one. Any further protest or comment on her part would be countered by ‘it’s what’s best for the king’. Manx was fiercely protective of her lover, and would blindly do what she thought was best for him. This was not an argument she was going to win.

"It’s such a shame that Kudoh isn’t here."

That got Manx’s attention. "Yes, he would be a suitable choice. He’d ‘charmed’ many a noble, and they wouldn’t find him to be a questionable replacement. But that’s out of the question now. Even if he did rejoin, the past year has not been kind to his reputation."

"He seems to have undergone a change of heart. I have some hope of being able to recruit him yet into my service." Birman pulled a chair away from the wall and set it in front of Manx’s desk. She sat in it, taking care not to wrinkle her rose colored gown. She’s spent the day charming visiting dignitaries, none of whom were aware she was the king’s Spymaster.

Green eyes regarded her curiously. "You’re still interested in him? And what’s the cause of this sudden hope? Last I heard, he’d told you he wouldn’t return to the king’s service short of Esset declaring eternal peace with Kritiker, and truly meaning it."

Actually, the last statement that _she’d_ heard regarding that topic had contained a lot of swear words. "Yes, I’m still interested in him. Kudoh has a natural talent for reading a crowd and blending in, not to mention his remarkable ‘charm’. He should have been assigned to me in the first place; only the fact that Kudohs have always gone to the Guards is why he wasn’t. But I think there’s a matter that I can help him with, and it won’t come without a price." No, not if what Omi had told her was true. It seemed that Yohji had decided to rescue a stray who might have an angry lord showing up sometime soon, wondering why his servant hadn’t returned home, and might need a favor from someone very high up in Court. She already had spies investigating into Naoe’s background due to Omi’s interest in him and had included Aya in the background search as well.

"So, when will you make your announcement?"

"Oh, in another week or so. There haven’t been many fights amongst the Guards lately, and I want things to cool off a little more before I rile everyone up again." Manx’s mouth twisted in a bitter expression, and she tossed her pen aside. "As if I don’t have enough to worry about. Planning a wedding, making sure security is adequate, and facing the prospect of Reiji and his sons returning to the city is quite enough. I just hope that Jonsten finds something that will make the bastard and his spawn run right back to their home after the wedding."

That wasn’t likely. Birman had spent the last several years trying to dig up incriminating evidence against the prince and hadn’t found anything. She couldn’t see what one Guard was going to accomplish.

But once again, she refrained from commenting. "You don’t have much time, if you want to be ready for the dinner tonight."

"What, is it that late already?" Manx consulted her watch. "Great, at this rate I’ll never get this paperwork done." She sighed and looked up at Birman. "I take it you won’t be attending the dinner?"

"No. I’m trying to keep a low profile for the time being." Less chance that way of anyone recognizing her in any of her disguises.

"How about Botan?"

She bit back on a smile as she thought of her friend. "He’s occupied with pressing matters." Such as having a life for the first time in years. Birman was ecstatic for the wizard, even if he was refusing to admit to any attraction for this Cassandra. She hoped she didn’t have to smack some sense into him.

"Oh."

For a moment Birman felt a twinge of pity for the other woman, but it was soon squashed. Manx had brought this upon her self and had to realize sometime that she would soon not be able to count on her friends and coworkers as she once had. She would be the queen, and some distance would be required. After all, everything came with a price.

*******

"And over there is Lord Li’s house. The poor man, his grandfather insisted in painting it in the family’s colors, and that it remain that way as long as they hold their title. Orange and blue look nice together on a flag, but not on such a large structure as that." Omi glanced aside at his companion and caught a hint of a smile on Naoe’s lips as the younger boy shuddered in horror. To make matters worse, it was such a dark shade of blue, and a rather vivid orange. "I’ll have you know the house is used as a landmark. You can’t possibly overlook it."

"No, I imagine you can’t." Naoe spared the large house one more glance, and then resumed munching on the sugared nuts Omi had insisted on buying. It was a good thing he had a large allowance, since he spent so much of his money nowadays buying snacks for the two of them. Not that Naoe didn’t offer to pay, but he refused to accept the boy’s money. Omi found himself doing whatever he could for his boyfriend, even if it only was to fill the bottomless pit that was his stomach.

He felt his cheeks heat at the thought. Boyfriend. It was so hard to believe that he’d found someone to care for, and who cared for him back -- someone who wasn’t interested in him only because he was a royal, or was an assignment. Oh, he had his friends in the Guards and the household staff, not to mention Botan, but Naoe knew him only as Omi, and treated him as an equal. Omi found himself enjoying being liked purely for who he was, not his station in life.

They were spending their day roaming the city and had decided to escape the bright sun by walking down the shaded pathway in front of the residences of the realm’s lesser lords and officials. It was turning into a rather pleasant excursion, and so far, Omi had managed to steal three kisses. As soon as Naoe was done with his snack, he was planning on stealing a fourth. The nice thing about being surrounded by so many tall trees was the nice shade they provided. It made for excellent privacy. Smiling, Omi chided himself that if he didn’t watch out, he’d turn into as big a pervert as Yohji.

"What were Aya and Yohji’s plans for the day? Are they out doing any more shopping?" It seemed that Yohji couldn’t get enough of dragging his lover out and buying things for the quiet man. Omi was familiar with that sentiment. There was something about Aya and Naoe, something guarded and fragile, and when you presented them with a gift, you caught a glimpse of that side of them. And were rewarded in a touching fashion, either with a smile that stole your breath or even better, a kiss. He didn’t think that either young man had received many presents before, other than from each other. Omi didn’t like the impression he was forming about their lives back home. He especially didn’t like the thought of them returning there.

Naoe kicked at a stone that was in his path. "Yohji told me he’d keep Aya at the Koneko today, since it’s so sunny out. Though if I know Aya, he’ll be out in the sun anyway, working in the garden."

The possessive and protective tone Naoe used whenever he talked about the redhead made Omi feel wistful and jealous. The two young men looked out for each other to such an extent that it amazed him. Aya would always press money on Naoe, telling him it was for him to buy something to eat while out on his excursions, and when the boy failed to take it, gave it to Omi. That was about the only time the redhead would acknowledge his presence, unfortunately. Naoe would berate Yohji to watch out for his friend, and get on Aya about being out in the sun or working too hard. It was clear they were used to depending on each other, and only each other. Yohji and he commiserated sometimes when it was just the two of them about how hard it was to get behind the stubborn fools’ defenses. Why wouldn’t Naoe and Aya just trust them and ask for their help?

"Who owns that house over there? The one with all the camellia trees? Should they be blooming this time of year?"

Looking over at where Naoe was pointing, Omi reached out and grabbed the teenager’s free hand, intertwining their fingers together. "That’s Lord Konno’s residence. His clan symbol is the camellia, so he has wizards cast spells to ensure the flower is always blooming around his house. It’s very beautiful in the winter, seeing the red flowers on a backdrop of snow. If you manage to sneak in and pluck one of them, it blooms for weeks before dying. But you have to put up with a very grouchy pack of dogs, and an even meaner gardener who’s very good at tossing rocks at your head."

Naoe glanced at him, his lips twitching. "Did you get to keep the flower?"

"Yes, but then I had to hide it, since everyone was looking for the kid who scaled the wall and stole it. Although I’m sure they knew I was the culprit, as everything I owned smelled like camellias for a couple of months. But all that happened was I was given more studies for the season." To keep him out of trouble, which had failed miserably.

Seeing Naoe crumple up the paper bag the nuts had come in, Omi tugged on the hand in his, pulling the boy closer. Bending his head, he kissed Naoe on the lips, tasting cinnamon and sugar. His boyfriend tensed at the contact, but soon relaxed, shifting closer to Omi. They enjoyed the taste of each other for several minutes, tongues flicking about in each other’s mouth, but didn’t go any further than that. If they’d been in Naoe’s room at the Koneko, Omi would have dared to rock against the other boy and touch him, but everything was still so new to the two of them that they felt too self-conscious to truly enjoy each other in public.

With a sigh of regret, Omi pulled away, raising his hand to brush back Naoe’s bangs as he did so. "If you want a flower, I’ll get one for you."

"No, I can get my own." The curt tone hurt, and Omi stepped back, letting go of the boy’s hand as he did so.

Only to have his hand captured immediately and squeezed. "…Thank you, though, for the offer."

Reassured that things were fine between them, Omi smiled and tugged Naoe after him. They continued down the road, and he told his boyfriend something about each residence. Some of the lords he’d seen recently at the few social events ‘Mamoru’ hadn’t been able to escape. It amused him to know that if they had a clue that the crown prince was outside their home, they’d be rushing out to usher him in and try to win his favor. He much preferred to be out in the heat and sun with Naoe, who suddenly stopped in his tracks, his hand painfully clamping on Omi’s.

"Naoe, what is it?"

"That house over there, whose is it?" There was a look on the quiet boy’s face, as if he’d seen a ghost.

Omi looked around to see what had attracted Naoe’s attention. "Do you mean the house with the wrought iron gates? The ones covered with ivy?" When his friend nodded, Omi continued. "Ah, that’s the Fujimiya estate."

"Fujimiya?" Maybe it was his imagination, but Naoe seemed to pale considerably. "There’s a Lord Fujimiya?"

"Was a Lord Fujimiya. He and his family died a decade or so ago. They were friends with my- well, with the king." He hoped that Naoe hadn’t picked up on his almost slip, but the other teen merely kept staring at the house, or more accurately, the shield emblazoned on the gates, half covered with ivy. It was decorated with a sword and an orchid.

"It’s a sad tale, really. The last lord, Ranmura Fujimiya, was very well thought of and held a place of high standing in the court. The Fujimiyas were considered as important as the Etos or the Yuengs. But he fell in love with a beautiful woman who had no family background and was shunned by the court because of his choice."

Pulling at the ivy that covered the gate, Omi continued with his tale. "I don’t know how it is in the west, but in this part of the country, no one gets married unless there’s a background check done on your intended’s family. It’s a huge business in the capital, investigating people’s background like that. Yohji had several job offers when he quit the Guards from such firms, and one or two are still trying to recruit him. He always was very good at investigating things and winning people’s confidence, so they’d tell him anything he wanted.

"Anyway, Ranmura fell in love with a woman named Arashi. She didn’t even have a family or clan name, since she’d been abandoned at a temple in the country when just a babe. There was no way to trace where she came from, or more importantly, to find out if she had any… questionable blood in her veins."

"’Questionable blood’?" Naoe asked in a frigid tone of voice, one that made Omi shiver.

"Yeah, like if she had any bounds or other undesirables in the family tree." Seeing the other boy’s face hardened in a mask, Omi made a disgusted sound. "Tch, I know, it’s stupid. Imagine telling the love of your life you can’t marry them or have kids together because they have a five times great grandmother who might have had a brother who’d been a bound. But people actually place a lot of credence in the background checks. Not even the king could gain approval to marry his fiancée until it was decided that, while Manx comes from a ‘lowly’ clan, there was no trace of bounds in her family tree. People can be so stupid."

Naoe joined him in tearing down the ivy, completely uncovering the heraldic shield. "But Ranmura didn’t care, and married her anyway. He was slighted at court, and because his new wife felt so uncomfortable there, purchased this house. They lived here for a couple of years, and had a son who people say took after his mother. Then…" It seemed at times he could never escape his past. "Then the old king asked Ranmura to take a position in his exiled son’s household. In a way it was an insult, as the Fujimiyas had been ranked only below the Etos until their lord’s disastrous marriage, but the king had asked the favor out of desperation. He wanted someone he trusted to keep an eye on the exiled prince.

"So the Fujimiyas left, and several years later all died. I heard that they caught a disease, but some say their house caught on fire with them inside. The present king, who had been friends with the lord, decreed that the Fujimiya lands and accounts were to be frozen. The lord had been the last of that line, and other nobles clamored for the Fujimiya riches. But King Shuuichi prevented that from happening. I guess he didn’t want to just give the land away, since it had belonged to a friend who had died in service to him and his father. Maybe one day he’ll grant the title and all it entails to someone else. Rumor has it that if he names one of the children from his upcoming marriage as his heir, the current crown prince will take over the estate." It was a bit odd, to be standing in front of a house he just might own one day. It looked nice, much more comfortable than the palace.

It didn’t hurt so much that he’d be barred from the throne - Omi didn’t want to rule in the slightest - but he hated feeling as if he was kept on out of sufferance. It wasn’t his fault, what had happened to his mother, yet he seemed to be the one paying. Even Prince Reiji was being allowed back to the capital for the wedding, though from what Birman had told him, the exiled prince and his sons would be sent right back to their country estate as soon as the festivities were over. They’d not so much been granted a pardon as a brief reprieve. It should be interesting when they found that little fact out.

Tracing his fingers along the shield, Naoe stared intently at the house, as if trying to memorize its every feature. Omi stood beside him for a moment, but after glancing at the sun, realized that they needed to head back to the Koneko if they wanted to be in time for dinner. Manx, after realizing that he’d sneaked back to the inn, despite her wishes, had given him some rather strict rules to follow. He was always to be back at the inn for dinner, where he’d be under the watchful eye of Yohji and the Guards present as people started to celebrate the upcoming nuptials. And he always received an escort home, either from Liss or another Guard. By following those guidelines, he was able to limit his appearances as Mamoru to a minimum.

"Come on, we’re gonna miss dinner if we don’t leave now. Jo told me she was making fish chowder today, and that’s one of my favorite dishes." He tugged on Naoe’s hand.

The boy reluctantly followed him, glancing back over his shoulder several times. Omi tried starting a couple conversations on the way home, but Naoe remained lost in his thoughts. It was only the fact that they were holding hands that prevented him from worrying that something was wrong. As it was, Omi wondered if Naoe had some sort of connection to the Fujimiyas, and why he was so interested in their old home.

*******

Schuldig squared his shoulders and entered the Koneko. He hadn’t been at the inn very much the past several days, other than to stop in for a quick breakfast or two. He’d needed some time to put his thoughts in order, and it hurt too much to see Yohji falling deeper and deeper in love with Aya each day.

The past week had been spent scouring through every book his mother possessed related to succubae-bounds and kage. He couldn’t fight a thing if he didn’t know about it. But what he’d found…. Schuldig nodded to Ani as he sat at an unoccupied table. What he’d found had only proved his mother right.

Bounds didn’t often take mates, but when they did, it was irrevocable. If one of the pairing died, the other didn’t usually live much longer. And out of all bounds, succubae and shinigami forged the strongest ties with their mates. That was why there weren’t many succubae-bounds around in the first place; they often mated with mortals, and usually didn’t live long after their lover’s death. As for kage….

To be exact, only one kage had mated with another person, and that had been Katsumi. Following the man’s death, she had destroyed everything around her within a ten-kilometer radius, including herself. But the other kage, excepting Aidan, had taken lovers, and that had been their doom.

It was funny that a creature that was so powerful, only gaining in strength the longer it lived, had never survived more than three centuries. They had all been killed or committed suicide by then. The easiest way to kill a kage was to hold its loved one ransom. Even though they had awesome powers at their disposal, kage would rather face their own death than risk the slightest of harm to whomever they loved. Ban and Edan had fallen that way, sacrificing themselves willingly. Schuldig doubted that Aya would be any different. If his parents really wanted the quiet man to go along with their plans, all they had to do was point out how Yohji could be harmed if he continued to serve Takatori.

There had never been a pairing between a succubae-bound and a kage before. For two such possessive and protective people to have found each other and become mates… he had a feeling Harpers like Koyu would be writing songs about the two for centuries to come… if they lived that long.

What it all boiled down to was, there would be no breaking up the two men short of one of their deaths. That would mean the death of the other, hence that plan didn’t serve him any purpose. Schuldig had finally reached the conclusion that he had no hope in hell of winning Yohji’s love.

At first he’d been happy to hear that Yohji’s true love would be coming here, even if the man’s arrival meant that the time had come for him to leave the capital. Then Schuldig had seen his friend with Aya and had become jealous of the love and affection that had never been aimed his way. Yohji cared for him as a friend and brother, never as anything else. It was then that Schuldig had realised that he had secretly hoped for something different.

And everything he’d done to tear the two men apart had just bound Yohji and Aya closer together. One of the few thoughts he’d been able to pick up from the blond the past week or so had been his joy in finding a mate, knowing that Aya would be his forever. That had hurt like hell. But if he couldn’t have Yohji’s heart, he still wanted the man as his best friend. Schuldig just hoped that he hadn’t ruined things between them by antagonizing Aya and staying away the past several days.

"Here you go, Schuldig. We haven’t seen you lately." Ani set a pint of cider down in front of him.

Smiling charmingly, Schuldig leaned back in his seat. "I’ve been a bit busy. No rest for the wicked, as the saying goes." They shared a brief laugh. "Where’s Yotan?" It stung, that he couldn’t just reach out with his mind anymore and find his friend.

"He’s in the kitchen. I’ll go let him know you’re here, he’s been worried about you, more so than the rest of us."

That was reassuring to hear. Schuldig sipped his drink as the young woman left, and in a matter of seconds Yohji hurried into the common room with Aya on his heels. Schuldig sternly told his jealousy to go swim in the lake when he caught sight of the other redhead.

"Schu! You bastard! I was worried that you finally got caught!" Yohji dragged him out of his chair and hugged Schuldig, picking him up off the floor. He breathed in deep the man’s scent, enjoying the close contact while it lasted. He was relieved to notice that he could, just barely, pick up Yohji’s emotions, if not his thoughts. Someone was sure glad to see him.

"As if, Yotan. The only Guard who stood a chance of catching me is retired. I’m going to continue on with my pillaging until the day I die."

Yohji smiled at him and then took a seat. Aya was then caught around the waist and pulled down onto his mate’s lap, but not without a slight growl and muttered curse, which immediately was cut off as his neck was nuzzled. Smiling at the scene in spite of himself, Schuldig sent a mental thought to his friend.

<I see that you’ve managed to tame him a bit.>

‘Please don’t repeat that out loud, or I’ll be sleeping alone for the next week. But I’m finding ways to calm down my grouchy little cat. Though he’s even better at wrapping me around his finger. I just spent the past hour chopping vegetables, and I think I’m wearing several carrots.’ Yohji made a face and then rested his chin on top of Aya’s shoulder.

Both men looked a bit rumpled, and their clothes had a few grass and food stains on them. Aya appeared tired and perfectly content to remain on Yohji’s lap, though Schuldig caught a bit of a glare being directed his way as he stared at the kage. Nope, someone was still a bit miffed at him from the looks of it.

"So what did the two of you do today, besides assault harmless vegetables? Aya looks as if he’s going to fall asleep at any moment. I see you’re still working on controlling your appetite, Yotan."

Yohji actually blushed for a moment, and Aya’s glare became more potent. Schuldig reminded himself to be careful of how he teased his friend in front of the kage, as his kind weren’t well known for their sense of humor relating to things affecting their lovers.

"Well, you’ll be happy to know that we’re fully stocked on liquor for the time being, and that the garden has… been well tended to." Yohji smiled slyly and hugged Aya to him even tighter. Schuldig didn’t need any more to imagine what the two of them had been up to out there. But some pictures would have been nice.

"I thought Aya was a little tired from all that sunshine, so we spent the rest of the day in the kitchen helping Jo. A word of advice, avoid the apple tarts. I don’t want to think about how much of my fingers ended up in them, I suck at peeling apples." Yohji waggled said appendages, which of course were perfectly intact. Guess there was a benefit to being able to drain your lover for energy all the time.

Aya sniffed and crossed his arms in front of his chest. "You were the one who insisted on playing a game of tag before you’d return my boots to me, and the one who couldn’t keep his attention on what he was doing in the kitchen." Schuldig looked at the kage in amazement, as that was the most he’d heard from the man at one time since he’d met him.

A leer spread across Yohji’s face. "Well, what do you expect, when you kept bending over to check how the pear tarts were doing? It wasn’t my fault."

"Hn." Aya remained still for a moment then suddenly tossed his elbow back, catching Yohji in the ribs. As the succubae-bound tried to breathe, Aya wriggled his way free and quietly commented that he was going to his room to change.

After a minute, Schuldig asked Yohji if he was all right.

"Yeah, I’m just peachy. He’s got quite the temper, you know. Sign of a true redhead." Yohji winced as he prodded his abused ribs, but was soon smiling again.

"I’d have thought you’d have learned your lesson by now," Schuldig commented. "I can’t remember the last time you deliberately pissed me off."

Yohji laughed for a moment, but had to stop because of the pain. "Yeah, well, after you telepathically planted the fact in Jo’s mind of who was responsible for her best set of sheets being ruined on that picnic I had with Han’s daughter, I decided it wasn’t worth the effort to tease you any more. But Aya…." Yohji smiled tenderly. "As much as it hurts, I’m glad to see him show a bit of backbone. It means he’s healing."

Schuldig didn’t want to imagine what Aya was healing from, not after seeing the scars that covered his body, thanks to Yohji’s memories. "Listen, I came here to talk to you. You mind if we go somewhere private?"

Appearing a bit concerned, Yohji nodded his head and led him to Mickey’s office. Once inside, Schuldig leaned against the huge desk and regarded his friend sadly.

"There’s no easy way to say this, so I’m just going to blurt it out. I’m leaving the capital after the wedding."

He picked up the faint sense of shock and hurt. "But… Schu, why? You’re going to leave Cass and me?"

Schuldig tried not to smile at the pain his friend was feeling. Yohji did care for him after all. "I’m afraid so. It’s a bit complicated to explain, at least at the moment, but I have to go do something. I’ll be leaving with my father. That’s part of the reason he’s here, to pick me up." Yohji and Aya would find out the truth behind everything, if they survived the king’s wedding, along with the king.

"Your father? You’re really leaving with the Prick?"

Mention of Crawford’s nickname made him smile. "I’m afraid so. I don’t really want to, but it’s really important that I do."

Yohji was quiet for a few minutes, and Schuldig used that time to surreptitiously stare at his friend. The lanky man looked gorgeous, with his long hair escaping the red ribbon tying it back in wavy tendrils, the matching red sleeveless tunic he wore and the tight leather pants showing off his body. Why did he have to have such a weakness for blonds?

"You’re coming back, aren’t you? I mean," Yohji yanked his hand through his hair, mussing it even more. "I have all these questions about being a bound, and Aya’s not that much help. I don’t think kage are anything like other bounds; nothing he tells me makes any sense. I was planning on you helping me out. And then there’s the future. I thought when the time came when people realized we weren’t aging, the three of us could move on together."

The image of the three of them traveling the world together filled Schuldig with both pain and longing. He wanted that so much, but wasn’t sure if he could take seeing Yohji just out of reach, happy and carefree with his mate. His throat suddenly became dry, and it took a moment to clear it.

"Yotan, I’ll be back. I promise you." At some point he’d have to come back and claim Aya, for the kage had a role to play in the approaching war as well. "I’ll help you with your power until the wedding. I’m sorry for not being around much lately, but I had things to take care of. It’s a bit of a shock to suddenly have to think about the future."

That comment earned him a sad smile. "I think I know what you’re talking about. It’s hard, knowing that I’ll have to leave the Koneko one day, a hell of a lot sooner than I was planning. That I won’t be able to remain any place for very long. But I’ll have Aya at least, and I’m serious about wanting you to be there too." Yohji walked over to Schuldig and gave him a brief hug.

Forcing his arms to let go of Yohji a minute later, Schuldig yanked on a strand of long blond hair. "How can I resist such an offer? So, where are we going to go? Cretia? I’ve heard there are some pretty women there, and that the men aren’t bad either. Maybe I can make you regret the loss of your singleness while we’re there."

"Or we could go to Thracia instead." Yohji smiled and patted the black pouch attached to Schuldig’s belt. "Lots and lots of nobles and merchants to fleece there. We need to think about our retirement, after all. Have to save enough to last a few centuries, and the diamond mines there would certainly help with that."

"Sweet gods, I’ve corrupted you beyond redemption. So much for you being a noble Guard." They shared a laugh for a moment, and for the first time in Schuldig’s memory, Yohji didn’t experience any pain at the mention of his former profession. Enjoying the humor and camaraderie, he spun out another possible destination for them, only to have Yohji match it, and on and on they went.

*******

Hearing the door open, Ran looked up from the washbasin. He watched as Nagi walked into the room, and the boy hurried over to his side, brown eyes intent upon him.

"You don’t look sunburned today, so I guess he did manage to keep you out of the sun for once."

Not about to mention the time spent pruning and then running around the garden for fear of a lecture, Ran just grunted and continued to wash himself off. Once that was done, he dried himself and searched out a new tunic, finding a white one with full long sleeves. It would do, along with a pair of black pants. Dressing himself, Ran turned around to find Nagi still staring at him.

"Is something wrong? Where’s Omi?" The blond wasn’t often far from Nagi’s side.

"He’s waiting for me downstairs. I told him I wanted to change my shirt before dinner." Nagi walked over to his closet and pulled out the first thing he found. It was a blue tunic that Cassandra had made him. "Ran, do you know anything about your family background? Such as what your father had done at court before working for the prince?"

Frowning mildly, Ran sat down on his bed. "I know he was in some sort of disfavor, something to do with my mother, but they almost never spoke of it. Just said they were much happier in the country. My mother had hated the city, and I know she was raised in a country temple as a foundling. As for my father… I know he had to be independently wealthy, as we never seemed to want for money, and he was always sending away for books and presents for the three of us, which I know had to cost him a lot. But that’s it. Why do you ask?"

"Because I found a house today bearing the shield that you showed me one day, the one you carved on… Aya-chan’s grave marker… of an orchid wrapped around an unsheathed katana."

Ran flinched at the mention of his family heraldic device. The only time he saw it anymore was when he visited his sister’s grave, on his way back from the missions the Takatoris gave him.

"I’m sure there are families or clans out there with similar symbols."

Nagi shook his head. "No, I asked Omi about it. He said it was the emblem of the Fujimiya clan. He also said that your father was a very high ranked lord at one time, but he married your mother, a commoner with no past. Apparently, they have background checks here on anyone who wants to marry, to see if they have bound blood in their family." The boy spat out the last few words. "That’s how your family fell into disfavor."

He’d always known it had something to do with his mother, but had never been sure exactly how. It seemed he had the woman to thank for his kage nature as well. Ran pictured the quiet woman, who was always working in her garden, a wide brimmed hat on her auburn hair to prevent her pale skin from burning. All he’d known was that she’d been found at the temple after a ferocious storm, which resulted in her name. When she’d been old enough to leave the temple, she’d gone to the capital to study about plants and had met his father at the Royal library. His parents had obviously spared Aya-chan and him the tragic details behind their romance.

"Thank you, Nagi." Ran rose from the bed and walked over to stare out the window at the garden below him. It hurt to think about his past, about the things that had shaped him and led to him being a monster, but at least he knew a little more about his parents now. He’d never thought to learn anything about them ever again, since his family was gone.

"Wait, Ran, I’m not finished. Your father was the last Lord Fujimiya, and the king thinks you’re dead. But you’re not. So that makes you a lord, and a rich one at that, with lots of land and money, from what Omi said. You can use that to escape from the Takatoris. You can be free. Just tell the king who you are."

Ran almost laughed at the suggestion, but his chest hurt too much to force the air out. "What would I tell him, Nagi? That his brother murdered my parents and held my sister prisoner until she killed herself? That I’m a slave? He’ll want to know why and all Reiji or his sons would have to do was tell them why they’ve held me captive all these years, and I’ll be dead. It doesn’t matter who my father was, I’m a monster that the king will want to kill as soon as he discovers my true nature."

"You’re not a monster, Ran, no more than I am. But the king and your father were friends. Maybe he’ll keep you safe for the sake of that friendship."

"Nagi, I’m a kage. He’ll either kill me or enslave me. That’s the only possible fate for my kind. Our only freedom lies in death."

In two steps Nagi was standing in front of him, and a hand slapped Ran’s face. The blow stunned him, especially since it came from his dearest friend, and as with Yohji, he couldn’t find it within himself to protest or react to the abuse. He merely stood there as Nagi yanked on his hair, forcing him to look at the younger bound.

"That’s bullshit, Ran. Those aren’t your only choices. You can be free, but you have to _want_ that to happen in the first place. We have a chance here to escape from the Takatoris, to live as we want."

Shaking his head, Ran smiled sadly. "Not for me. But you have a chance, Nagi. I’ve talked to Crawford, and he’s going to take you with him after the wedding. He’ll find someplace safe for you to live. You don’t have to worry anymore." It hurt so badly, the thought of Nagi leaving him, but he had to let the boy go. Had to let Yohji go as well. It didn’t matter who or what his father had been, nothing could save Ran from his fate.

Nagi growled in anger. "I don’t want to go."

"You will."

"No."

Refusing to engage in a childish fight, Ran rubbed his face and stepped backwards. "He’ll take you with him, even if you refuse. You’re leaving, Nagi. It’s the least I can do for you."

Brown eyes regarded him with anger and hurt. "Listen to me, Ran, I’m not leaving you. Crawford will have to knock me out and tie me up to get me to go with him, and the second he lets me go, I’ll make my way back to your side. You’re not getting rid of me so easily."

Filled with a sense of dread, Ran grabbed the younger boy by the shoulders and shook him. "You have to go. You can’t stay here." He didn’t want to see the hate in Nagi’s eyes after he killed Omi, or to see him constantly blooded like the bound he’d killed for Crawford.

"Why, Ran? Tell me why."

Desperate to ensure his friend’s safety, Ran did just that, while honoring his vow to Crawford. "Because I don’t want you to see me kill the king and his bride. I don’t want you to see me kill at the wedding. I… Omi will be there too. I know that for a fact. What will you think of me when I slaughter him as well? Go, Nagi. Go and live a life free of death and blood."

Nagi gazed at him, a frown on his face. "You’re not telling me something. I can sense it. But whatever it is, whatever you do, I won’t leave you, Ran."

"Not even if I kill Omi?"

The bound closed his eyes for a moment, and when they opened they were filled with tears and pain. "No, not even then. I think… I think I love him, but I won’t leave you to suffer alone, Ran."

Unable to face the devotion that would damn his friend, Ran closed his eyes and sank on his bed, curling up as he lay down. Why did everything he touch have to die? His family… his sister… and now Nagi as well. The boy’s nature would be found out, and he’d be killed at best.

The mattress sunk as Nagi settled next to him, and a hand stroked through his hair. "Why, Ran? Why won’t you fight back? We have a chance here; two precogs have said so. We both have someone to love, who… cares for us too. You have Yohji. He’s your mate. What’s going to happen to him if you go through with the mission? He’ll be hurt, possibly killed.…"

"Shut up." Ran lifted his head and glared at Nagi. "Shut the fuck up."

Nagi seemed shocked by his language, but he carried on. "He’ll probably be killed, Ran. I don’t think he’ll let the Takatoris take you away, or hurt you anymore. They’ll kill him, or treat him just like they did Aya-chan. And they’ll do the same to me. Is that what you want? It’s not just you anymore. Can’t you fight for us, if not yourself?"

The plea reverberated in his head. Just the thought of Yohji suffering because of him filled Ran with a pain that he hadn’t felt since the day his sister had died. He hurriedly did his best to block it from Yohji before the man stormed into the room, and then worked to clear his thoughts. That wouldn’t come to pass, it wouldn’t. He wouldn’t allow that to happen, for anything to harm Yohji or Nagi. But, how to go about doing that?

Could he really trust Crawford and Cassandra? Ran had asked himself that question for the past two weeks. Who could he trust in all this confusion? Who wouldn’t hurt him, wouldn’t use him again? He couldn’t take much more pain, not after these past few weeks free from it. The Takatoris had been cruel beyond words to allow him a taste of freedom and joy.

"Ran, are you alright?"

It gradually dawned on him that Nagi was once more stroking his hair and was gazing at him worriedly. "Hn."

"I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you like that. But I can’t just let you give up, Ran, I can’t. I want you to be free and happy, the same things you want for me."

This conversation had to end before Yohji realized something was wrong. Pulling on his mask, he sat up on the bed and straightened his clothes. Nagi gazed at him worriedly.

"We need to get downstairs. Omi and Yohji will suspect something if we leave them waiting much longer."

Flushing, Nagi rose to his feet and finished changing his clothes. Ran checked his appearance in the mirror, making sure that his face and eyes weren’t red. The sadness in his eyes shocked him, and he pushed the emotion aside, much as he had done with pain over the years. Then he walked out of the room to go meet Yohji.

*******

Yohji sighed as he took in the packed dining room, having just hurried from his room after changing his clothes, and in a determined manner made his way to the corner where Aya and the others would be seated. He loved Schu like a brother, but if Naoe wasn’t there to keep people from bothering Aya, and he found some moron by his lover…. He’d have to convince the judge that the homicide was all Schuldig’s fault, somehow. The conversation had totally distracted him from the time, and Aya had to be upset about being made to wait for him. He’d felt… something from his mate earlier, but hadn’t been able to clearly determine what it had been. But the emotion hadn’t lasted long, so he hadn’t gone charging off in search of Aya.

Doing his best to ignore the people trying to attract his attention, Yohji steadfastly walked towards his table. He was almost there when a small hand touched his shoulder and he smelled a familiar perfume. Turning around, he smiled in joy and picked up the slender woman garbed in black pants and a loose blouse.

"Lilla! How are you? Feeling better finally?" He treated his friend to a bear hug and then set her back on her feet. Once that was done, Yohji raked an assessing eye over the blond woman. "You’ve lost some weight. I’ll tell Jo, so she can make sure you gain it back."

"Ah, Yotan, you always were a man who appreciated a few curves." A bluish green eye was winked at him and Lilla laughed, a low, melodic sound that had heads turning throughout the room. She tossed back a strand of curly hair and treated Yohji to a sultry smile.

Lilla was not the prettiest of his past lovers by far, but there was a quality to the woman that drew one’s attention and made her stand out among a more beautiful crowd. Maybe it was her wicked sense of humor, her sparkling eyes or quick wit, but she was one of the few people who Yohji had slept with repeatedly. The woman was a couple years older than him and had a thriving business making candles. She claimed that she earned enough to support herself and refused to tie herself to any one person, just for the sake of security and propriety. It had been Lilla who he’d taken to bed after the whole Asuka debacle, and she had helped coax him from his depression with patience and care. Yohji felt a bit ashamed that he hadn’t spared her much thought the past couple of weeks.

"Well, pneumonia is a wonderful diet, if you’re interested. Nothing like being too sick to eat. Then on top of all that, as soon as I got better, I was swamped with work. All these visitors in the city need candles to light their rooms, and so on and so forth. Not to mention all the people wanting scented candles for parties. I can barely keep up with the orders, and this is the first time I’ve been out for fun in weeks."

Yohji gave her a kiss on the cheek. "I’m very glad to hear you’re feeling better. Tell you what; drinks are on me this evening. You here by yourself?"

"No, with my cousins." Lilla wrapped her arms around Yohji’s neck and stood on her toes to nuzzle his cheek. "Hmm, I missed you, Yotan. I came down here to let you know that Min should be in town sometime next week, and I was hoping the three of us could have some ‘fun’ together."

Groaning inwardly, Yohji gently pried her arms off his neck. He adored Lilla, and normally the news of her and her friend paying him a visit would have him too excited for words, but all he felt now was affection for the woman.

"Listen, Lia, I hate to tell you this, but I’m going to pass on your delicious offer. I’m sorry."

Turquoise eyes stared at him incredulously for a moment, and Lilla frowned as she rocked back on her heels. "You know, Yotan, I’ve heard the funniest rumor lately. People are saying you’ve got yourself a boyfriend and haven’t so much as looked at another person since meeting him. I thought it was mere trash, but now I’m wondering."

Knowing his friend deserved the truth, he nodded his head. "It’s not a rumor. I’ve finally found him, Lilla, someone to love. I’m not sleeping around anymore."

"This is going to sound incredibly bitchy, Yohji, but I’ve heard those words before. Am I going to have to put you back together again when this one hurts you too?" Lilla stared back at him coldly.

"He’s not _her_," Yohji snarled. "You think the thought didn’t occur to me at the beginning?" Lilla seemed stunned by his serious tone. "Aya’s not going to betray me, not in a million years. We love each other, for real. If you don’t like that, you can go to hell."

Lilla stared at him for a moment, the frown back on her face. When she spoke, it was in a contrite voice. "You’re serious, aren’t you? Yohji, I’m sorry."

He shuddered for a moment then pulled her in for a hug. "Gods, Lia, tell me you understand, please. Besides the staff here, almost everyone thinks I’ve gone crazy, or that I’m just playing around and in a few more days will be back to screwing anything that moves. I need a friend to say that they believe me right now."

"Let me meet this man, Yotan. I want to see him for myself."

Pulling away, Yohji grabbed Lilla’s hand and led her to his table. Aya was sitting there, his face impassive but his eyes staring at Yohji, and Naoe was by his side, glaring enough for the two of them. It suddenly occurred to him what it must have looked like, his conversation with Lilla.

"Aya, love, I want you to meet an old friend of mine. I’ve known Lilla for years, and this is the first time I’ve seen her in about a month. Lilla, I’d like for you to meet Aya. The little demon by his side is Naoe, and you know Omi."

"Pleased to meet you, Aya." Lilla bowed to the redhead, who wasn’t saying a word. Yohji sighed and resolved to work on his lover’s manners at some point. "I’ve heard a little about you, but the rumors don’t do you justice. No wonder Yohji snatched you up."

Sliding onto the bench beside Aya, Yohji pinched the silent man on the hip.

"…Hn."

Yep, he definitely had to work on his cat’s social skills. Biting back on a sigh, Yohji gently tilted Aya’s chin up so he could kiss the man on the lips. Aya remained still for a moment, but he soon opened his mouth and kissed him back, threading his fingers through Yohji’s hair and making him shiver in pleasure. When they broke apart several minutes later, Aya rested his head on Yohji’s shoulder, and he grasped a pale hand, entwining their fingers together. A content smile on his lips, Yohji glanced over at his friend.

Lilla was staring at him, a wistful smile on her face. "I really am sorry, Yohji. I was talking complete trash, though I didn’t know it. I’ll take you up on the offer for drinks, and think I’ll rejoin my cousins. But perhaps we can sit down one night, the three of us, and talk a little. Aya, it was a pleasure to meet you." Waving her hand, the young woman disappeared into the crowd.

"What was that about?"

Stroking Aya’s hair, Yohji didn’t bother to look over at Naoe as he answered. "Like I said, she’s an old friend. She had some doubts about something, but not anymore." He kissed Aya on his forehead. "Sorry I’m late, the talk with Schu took a little longer than I thought. Now where’s the food?"

"It should be here soon, Yotan." Omi replied. "Why isn’t Schuldig joining us for dinner?"

"He has a few things he needs to take care of." For a moment Yohji felt sad, thinking of how much he’d miss the thief and hoped that Schuldig didn’t stay away for too long. Though, with his newly discovered nature, he wasn’t sure what exactly ‘long’ was anymore. Luckily, the food arrived, distracting Yohji from his thoughts. He gave Aya’s hand one more squeeze, and then turned his attention towards the meal.

Dinner passed by pleasantly, filled with good food and conversation. Yohji, Aya and Naoe divided several bottles of wine between them, and even Omi dared a glass, but no more than that. The discussion was mainly his and Omi’s effort, but Aya and Naoe weren’t as quiet as they usually were, and Yohji was perfectly content just sitting there with Aya by his side. He wanted to have many more nights like this and wondered desperately how he was to go about making that happen. Once Aya agreed to stay, he was pretty sure the little demon would too. Perhaps he should be enlisting Omi’s help in that regard.

Once they finished eating, Omi regaled them with tales of all the activity going on about the castle, and how frazzled all the servants were, considering the endless cleaning to do and the arrival of demanding dignitaries. Not long afterward, Koyu appeared, garbed in his usual red, and started to play his harp. The first few songs were soothing melodies, meant to help the patrons unwind from their busy day. This was around the time Aya and he would normally depart to his bedroom, where they would work on honing his powers and then enjoy each other before falling asleep. But Yohji remained at the table, even when he felt Aya shift beside him.

Sensing the man’s curiosity, he smiled at his lover. "I want a dance from you tonight."

Aya didn’t appear happy at those words and frowned. He practically radiated unease. "Yohji… I don’t know how."

"Hmm, to dance?" Somehow he wasn’t surprised. Aya really had spent too much of his life locked away and deserved to live a little. "I’ll pick a slow song, and I’ll teach you. It’s pretty simple, really."

Plainly doubtful about the whole endeavor, Aya didn’t say anything else, just reached for his glass of wine, sipping it as Koyu started to play more upbeat music that people could dance to. A section of the large room was immediately cleared; tables were pushed aside for room to dance. Koyu started off the session with a couple of lively songs.

As soon as the Harper slowed the tempo down, Yohji was on his feet and dragging a reluctant Aya after him. He found them some space off to the side, mindful of his love’s dislike for crowds.

"Okay, for starters you put your hands here and here." He placed one of Aya’s hands on his shoulder and held on to the other. Pulling the man close, Yohji graced a pale nose with a kiss, earning himself a glare. "Come on, it’s not so bad. All we’re gonna do is a simple waltz, and that’s just a few steps."

"I don’t know how, Yohji."

"Aya, trust me, and everything will be fine."

Violet eyes stared at him at those words, wide and shining with emotion. Yohji found himself drowning in them, and the sense of Aya he always had suddenly intensified. He sensed the kage’s dislike of all the people around him, moving about and laughing, of the attention they were attracting, and his nervousness. But underneath it all was apprehension and longing and fear, a roiling mixture that had Yohji lifting a hand to softly caress Aya’s cheek.

"Trust me, please. I won’t let anything hurt you. Just let me lead."

Aya continued to stare at him. "I don’t know how, Yohji." His voice was quiet and low, thrumming with intensity.

He suddenly got the impression that they weren’t talking about dancing anymore. Something more important was happening here, and all Yohji knew for certain was that Aya was afraid, but desperately longing for something with all his heart.

"I know you don’t, cat. Just… follow me. I promise you I won’t lead you wrong. Trust me, Aya. Believe in me."

The smaller man bowed his head, and Yohji gathered him in his arms, making soothing sounds as he stroked his hands down a trembling back. "Trust me, please." They remained like that for several heartbeats, and people were stopping their dancing and staring at them. Yohji glared at them over Aya’s head.

Aya held on to him tightly, and then released him and stepped back. He put his hands back in the proper positions and gazed up at Yohji, his face solemn. "I trust you."

"Good." This was definitely about more than just a dance. The apprehension was still there, but Aya’s fear and longing were gone, and the man seemed at peace. Yohji bent his head for a quick kiss and grasped his love’s hand tightly.

"Alright, it’s one, two, three, and turn." He spun Aya around, startling a gasp from him. "That’s all, just those few steps. Easy, ne?"

All he got was a brief nod of a crimson head and had to smile as Aya nibbled on his lip, staring down at his feet. Yohji could all but hear the man mentally count each step. They proceeded slowly for a few minutes, but when Aya no longer was looking downward all the time, Yohji spun him around faster.

He got a glare for his presumption, but Aya managed to keep pace with him and molded his body against Yohji’s. They moved in perfect synch, eyes locked on each other’s and somehow they avoided colliding with anyone else. Yohji wasn’t aware of anything other than the music and Aya, of the warm body in his arms and the lovely eyes gazing at him, shining with love. It was almost a physical blow when the music stopped, causing the two of them to come to a halt.

"I’ll resume playing after a short break." Koyu rose from his chair and flashed Yohji a grin. It was then he realized that Aya and he had danced for more than one song, if the Harper’s first set was completed. As the crowd returned to their tables, he tugged on Aya’s hand, heading to the bedroom.

Neither of them said a word the whole way. As soon as they were in their room, Yohji once again hugged Aya close and groaned as his head was jerked down for a searing kiss. His hunger, which had been sated from their garden tryst, flared to life, and Yohji found himself stripping off their clothes with frantic urgency. He needed Aya so much, needed to be inside the pale man and filled with sunlight, had to have him now.

Aya matched his mood, helping to toss aside their clothes and tugging him towards the bed. They fell down in a delicious tangle of limbs, the contact a balm to his senses. The feel of Aya’s skin against his and the scent of roses made Yohji’s world perfect. The two of them rolled about on the bed as they kissed, until he was dizzy and couldn’t tell who was on top and who wasn’t.

It was like it had been in the garden, a haze of desperation and desire, but something felt different. Now, Aya seemed desperate for reassurance, and Yohji was only too happy to try and soothe his love’s fears. Deep, breath stealing kisses, gentle caresses, whispered words of love… whatever Aya needed, he was going to give the man. So when Aya pulled him down on top of him, Yohji was perfectly delighted to twist and stroke his fingers inside him until Aya was mewling with pleasure, and he himself was trembling with want. Sitting back on his heels, he turned Aya around and pressed him onto his lap, thrusting himself deep inside the clenching warmth.

Sunlight poured into him once more, setting Yohji on fire. Needing to share the bliss filling him, his hands roamed over Aya’s body. He stroked the man’s cock, making Aya fling back his head and hoarsely call out his name. Latching on to the pale neck, Yohji continued his torment, tweaking puckered nipples, lightly skimming his fingers along over-sensitive skin, all the while burying himself as deep inside his mate as he could, hitting that spot that sent waves of pleasure through them both.

If only they could halt time and remain like this forever, filled with bliss and lost in each other. All too soon, Yohji felt his body shudder as the ecstasy became too much. His senses overloaded and his body flooded with sunlight, he cried out Aya’s name as he thrust in one more time, his seed flowing inside his lover. Aya came as well, his body clamping down on Yohji’s shaft, one more bit of bliss that threatened to make him black out.

Somehow they ended up on the bed, lying down on their sides, Aya spooned against his chest. Yohji just inhaled their scents, smiling at how intermingled they were, blended with each other’s. He rubbed his cheek against crimson strands, loving the feel of silk against his skin, and sighed in contentment.

After several minutes, he tugged on Aya’s shoulder, wanting to see his love. Grumbling, Aya turned around, pausing to grab a shirt as he did so. Yohji raised an eyebrow when he noticed it was his own that was being used as a towel.

"That’s my shirt, you know."

All he got was a hn and an arched eyebrow on Aya’s part. Then the redhead tossed it aside and snuggled against Yohji. Warm breath hit his chest, causing him to shiver and wrap his arms around Aya. This was heaven. He was beginning to think that Aya had fallen asleep when the man started to speak.

"My father was a disgraced noble who became a seneschal for a lord. He loved to read and spent all his spare time doing so. My mother would spend her days in the garden tending it. She was a bit distant, so my sister and I were always off by ourselves. Very few people associated with us, but we were happy. Then one day my parents didn’t come home and everything changed.

"We were told they were killed by bandits, but it was really the lord who had done it… all because of me. He had my parents killed so he could have a kage and pretended to be our friend long enough to get my sister and me in his custody. Once that happened, she was locked away in a room, warded with death against ever stepping foot outside it. My powers were still undeveloped at that time; all I could really do was break through wards and I was immune to spells. I could’ve escaped, but not without her."

Yohji went still as he realized that Aya was finally revealing his past, pouring out his secrets to him. He hugged his mate close, stroking his hand through Aya’s hair to soothe the distress and pain that filled the man.

"I was taught to fight, to handle a sword and any other weapon. I was also taught my place, which was to be a slave, a useful tool. Not to talk or strike back, not to feel anything, not to even think of disobeying an order. They would beat me to teach me this, and if I failed to learn quickly enough, they hurt my sister. I couldn’t stand her pain, knowing it was because of me. So, I did what they wanted.

"This went on for years. Until the day my sister decided that she couldn’t take anymore our pain, and that one of us deserved to be free. I was out practicing with my sword when it happened. I heard her call out my name and saw her leap from her window. For a precious few seconds, it looked as if she was flying." Aya trembled in his arms, and Yohji hugged him closer.

"I can still see her lying on the ground, broken and bleeding. It was the first time I’d seen her up close in over a year. I stood there, stunned, in too much pain to move. After a few minutes, I felt her pain as well, even though she was dead."

Aya leaned back to stare into Yohji’s eyes. "My masters… two of them are wizards. They trapped her soul in a glass cage with a soul gaki. They had planned that far ahead, determined not to let me escape by any means. Her sacrifice had been for nothing. I can’t strike back at them, or run away, because she’ll be the one to pay the price. Her soul will be devoured if I do those things. What hope do I have of being free?"

"Love…" Yohji kissed Aya tenderly and then stroked back his bangs. "We’ll figure something out, I swear it. There has to be something we can do to free her. They’ve thought of everything in regards to you, but you’re not alone now. You have friends, and you have me."

The look in his lover’s eyes was so incredibly sad and wistful. "I’m not done, Yohji. You want me to stay here with you, to trust you. You have to know it all. I’ve killed people, so many of them: young, old, male, and female. Whomever I was ordered to. In whatever way I was told to. I’m a murderer many times over.

"I’m here for the wedding, Yohji, but not as a gift. I will be the king’s kage, but only after I kill the present one, and his bride and son. I’m to be their deaths. Even Omi’s."

Yohji felt a bubble of laughter in his throat as he realized what exactly Aya was telling him. Unable to control himself, he started to laugh, hysteria taking him in its grip. Aya pulled away, clearly confused over his reaction. As for himself, he couldn’t believe the tricks Fate insisted on playing on him.

"To kill the king. You’re here to kill the king." What, couldn’t he fall in love with anyone not intent on regicide? "Oh, it all makes perfect sense now." History did indeed love to repeat itself, and his earlier fears upon discovering Aya’s true nature hadn’t been unfounded. Lucky him, he wasn’t unduly paranoid for nothing. Yohji continued to laugh until he felt Aya’s growing panic, the emotion making him suddenly sober. For a moment he wondered what was expected of him now, if he was supposed to kill another lover. It would be far easier for him to commit suicide than to harm Aya.

"Answer me this, Aya. Did you really choose me as a lover because I was a bound, or because I was a Guard?"

"Because you were a bound." There was no hesitation in his mate’s voice, though a bit of confusion. Yohji smiled at him sadly.

"Are you still going to do it? Kill the king I mean?"

Aya sighed and rubbed a hand over his eyes. When he opened them, he picked at a lock of Yohji’s hair, twisting it about his fingers as he nibbled on his lip.

"…no. I was going to, even up to today, but… I’d lose you if I did. I can’t… can’t let that happen." Aya gazed sadly at Yohji for a moment. "But maybe I already have."

The thought of losing the kage had Yohji clutching him to his chest and kissing him breathless. "No, no you haven’t. I’m never leaving you, Aya," he panted out, a growl in his voice. "You’re mine, even if I have to help you kill the king." It should appall him, how little he cared about the deaths of his king and former boss, but he’d gladly kill Manx and Shuuichi if it kept Aya safe and his.

Yohji decided he had a confession to make as well. "I told you about… Asuka, didn’t I?" If Aya was revealing his secrets, it was time he did so too.

"A little."

"I told you I cared for someone a year ago, but that she betrayed me and died. It’s a bit… more complicated than that." It should hurt, telling the grim details like this, but not when it was Aya who was doing the listening. "I fell head over heels for Asuka, gave up sleeping with other people for her, did whatever I could to make her happy, and at her request, one day sneaked her into the palace so she could see a court festival. It was then that I found out the truth. She was an assassin sent to kill the king, cloaked with a fake personality. As soon as she saw the king, "Asuka" died. In order to keep him and Omi safe, I had to kill her real personality."

He felt it when Aya went tense in his arms and immediately grew suspicious, especially when the redhead didn’t meet his eyes.

"Aya… what are you hiding now? I can feel your guilt."

Violet eyes avoided his for a moment, and then Aya sighed and relaxed in his arms. "… my masters were the ones who sent her to kill the king." Then panic started to grow within the pale man. "You’re the Guard, the one she used. They want you dead, Yohji. You killed Neu." Aya looked up at him, his face drawn with fear. "I’ve heard their plans for you."

"Not good, ne?" No, not judging by the fear and pain that filled Aya. "Don’t worry, cat, they won’t hurt me. Besides, I owe them for what they’ve done to you and your sister. They won’t harm either of us."

Aya didn’t seem to be convinced by his declaration, no matter how much Yohji caressed and tried to soothe him. Rolling onto his back, he pulled Aya onto his chest, his hand cupping a delicate cheekbone as his thumb brushed against his lover’s lips.

"Why are you telling me this now, Aya? Not that I’m complaining, I’m happy you’ve told me the truth. But, why now? Why not earlier, when I asked you?"

"Because… you wanted me to trust you. Because, I decided to do so. I’ve made my choice, but it…" Aya closed his eyes and rested his chin on Yohji’s chest. "You ask too many questions."

The hint of annoyance in the smaller man’s voice made Yohji smile, ever so slightly. He tugged on an eartail, making Aya glare at him. "’But it…’?"

"… it hurts so much. We have to save her, Yohji. The thought of her suffering any more pain tears at me, but I can’t face having both of you pay for what I am, for you both to suffer."

Yohji instantly tried to soothe the distress his mate was feeling. "I promise, we’ll free the both of you. Hell, I’ll even free the little demon, too. Schu and Cass will help, as will everyone here at the Koneko. And I think we can trust your friends Brad and Farfie also." A smile tugged at Yohji’s lips, and he wanted to suddenly shout with joy. He’d done it, he’d given Aya hope, more or less. He’d gained Aya’s trust, and he wasn’t going to do anything to break the precious gift he’d just been given. "I love you, you know."

"Why? I’m a monster, Yohji. A murderer. I don’t deserve your love."

The worst part of it was that Aya was perfectly serious; Yohji felt his emotions through their link. The other man was confused, sad and wistful, and those feelings shone in his eyes. Yohji sighed and tugged on an eartail. Now irritation joined the mix.

"Listen to me, you’re gorgeous, loyal, intelligent, drop dead sexy, have a great body and an amazing voice, and you make me happy. Of course I love you. Say another word about being a monster, and I’ll yank on your hair until you’re bald." He and his big mouth. Why had he picked that one word that night?

Aya glared at him and growled, ever so slightly. Ignoring the threat, Yohji used the eartail wrapped around his fingers to pull Aya close for a kiss. He didn’t stop until the stubborn fool melted against him and purred in pleasure.

"Okay, it’s your turn now."

All he got in return was a blank look. Yohji rolled his eyes in response.

"You have to tell me why you love me." He yanked on the strand of hair in his grasp. "And don’t even think to tell me you don’t love me, because I can feel it. Not to mention you wouldn’t have told me what you just did if you didn’t."

Aya’s glare became rather potent, enough to make Yohji shiver, but then he started to talk. "You’re oversexed-"

"That’s not my fault, you know. And what does that have to do with why you love me?"

The glare went up a notch. Yohji figured it would be best if he shut up for a minute. "You interrupt me, annoy me, yank on my hair when I tell you not to…." Aya paused to liberate his eartail, earning a ‘hmph’ from Yohji for doing so. "Hog the bed, bully me, and torment my friend."

He couldn’t resist asking the question once again. "Uhm, what does this have to do with why you love me?"

Yohji wasn’t expecting Aya to sigh and close his eyes, once more resting his head on his chest. Hit him maybe, and certainly glare at him some more, but not that. The room was silent for several minutes as he tried to puzzle out Aya’s mood.

"Because no matter what you do, I still love you. I can’t make myself stop, and each day… it just becomes stronger. Until my fear of you being hurt overwhelms all my others." Aya opened his eyes and regarded him sadly. "I can’t fight it any longer."

Yohji remembered the feeling of surrender that had emanated from Aya in the garden earlier, and then again during the dance this evening. Both times the man had completely given himself over to him. He wondered if that had anything to do with Aya’s decision and felt a resolve grow inside his heart. Aya was never going to regret trusting him.

Pulling Aya close, this time by cupping the back of his head and urging him forward, Yohji brushed their lips together. "I don’t care why you love me, just as long as you do. As long as you never leave me. Tomorrow we’ll sit down and start thinking about ways to save your sister, and free you and Naoe. We’ll manage it, cat, I promise you."

"Tomorrow?" Aya shivered in his arms, and he could feel his mate’s love, need and desire. It only made those emotions burn all the brighter in his own chest.

Yohji huskily replied to the question. "Yes, tomorrow. Tonight… it’ll just be us and bliss, again and again." His hunger rose to the fore, and Yohji knew it wasn’t going to be so easily sated. Each taste of sunlight only made him crave Aya all the more. "Just us."

Aya didn’t say a word, but merely tilted his head to the side, baring his throat. Yohji fastened his mouth to the pale skin, a purr building inside his chest as he did so, and set out to prove to Aya that his word could be trusted.

*******

Yuriko stood before the door, dressed in a gown of yellow, embroidered with green and blue flowers. Ken, who had just walked out of the kitchen, stared at his girlfriend in confusion.

"Why are you dressed up?"

"Because I’m going out." Yuriko stepped close to him and handed him the necklace he’d given her a year ago, the one with a blue crystal on a silver chain. "Do this for me, please."

Obliging, Ken fastened the jewelry as soon as she pulled her hair out of the way. "Where are you going?"

"To the Koneko."

It took a moment for the words to sink in, and when they did he started to frown, especially when he noticed the teasing grin on the young woman’s face.

"No."

"Yes. Listen, Ken, I’m not making you come with me. I talked to Liss earlier, and she and Miko will be there. They’ll keep an eye on me and bring me home. But I refuse to stay here all night and listen to you talk about work and sports and complain about Omi sneaking away from you yet again when I can be out having fun. But what I’d really like is for you to come with me. You said you’re not mad at Yohji anymore, and that he’s cleaned up his act. So please, let’s go."

He hated to deny Yuriko anything, and his girlfriend knew that. But Ken still felt uncomfortable facing Yohji again, after all their fights and the things they’d said to each other. Rumor did have it that the blond wasn’t drinking himself silly any longer and had indeed settled down with Aya, the redhead Ken had briefly met. The issue now was pride, and while Ken didn’t have much, he certainly had a hell of a lot of that. It was one thing he and Yohji had in common.

"Please, Ken-kun? I’ll be ever so happy if you come with me." Yuriko wound her arms around his neck and kissed him on the chin. Gods, why was he such a pushover? Omi could learn things from the woman.

"Alright, I’ll come. But if Yohji and I start to fight, or he makes another move on you, I’m killing him and then rubbing your nose in that fact for the rest of our lives. Agreed?"

"Agreed!" Laughing gleefully, Yuriko tugged at his wrist, pulling him after her. Glad that he’d changed out of his uniform into something decent for once, Ken sighed and let himself be led. He might regret this at the end of the night, but the truth was, he’d missed a certain drunken lout an awful lot this past year.

*******

Yoru smiled wolfishly as he entered the palace through a seldom-used side entrance. It seemed that Botan’s assistants were only too happy to use bound blood to lighten their workload. Thanks to the charm he wore around his left wrist, he could safely circumvent any wards that had been renewed with the blood. And when the time came, he could lower said wards and let Eto’s mercenaries enter the palace undetected.

The best part of it all was the fact that Botan wouldn’t be able to sense a thing. If he checked his assistants’ work, he would only be able to detect that the wards had indeed been renewed. It would take an intensive spell to divine how the young men had gone about doing that, and he knew the Royal wizard didn’t have time at the present to do just that.

Cautiously making his way through the palace, down hallways he hadn’t treaded in over a century, Yoru made his way to the ballroom. Eto’s informants were certain that Botan hadn’t renewed the wards there yet, and he didn’t know what he’d do if they were wrong. Fate was already conspiring against him in so many ways; it would be yet another crushing blow if it did so again.

Finally reaching his destination, Yoru sighed in relief. The wards hadn’t been renewed. Good. There was no way he could incorporate bound blood in the renewal, not with Botan’s prejudices, but he could do something about the wards before then. Yoru reached inside his robes for a silver flask. Inside the container was a very precious, very rare fluid.

He’d used up all of his saved kage blood within a year of Aidan’s death, but he’d managed to hold onto one relic over the decades. Yoru had cast a ring, the black stone a kage’s tear infused with the creature’s blood, and had used it to travel about undetected. Only the hope of finding another kage had given him the strength to crush the stone and mix it with the last of the blood from Eto’s bound. For a moment, gnarled hands clenched around the flask as Yoru thought of how inconvenienced he was by the creature’s death. He was reduced to sacrificing precious items, all on a gamble that Fate didn’t seem inclined to support.

Cursing softly under his breath, he set to work. A drop of the rare fluid was placed on each ward’s focal point, glowing briefly before being soaked up by the marble floor and paneled oak walls. Yoru incanted the proper spell, beseeching various spirits to heed his request. Attracted by the blood and tear, the immaterial beings flocked to the room and gave him the power to work magic. In a few minutes he was done and wiped the sweat from his brow, a grin on his face.

When Botan renewed the wards, he wouldn’t be able to detect the new spell woven into them, all thanks to the kage blood and tear. Yoru had successfully managed that hurdle and would be able to let himself and the soldiers into the ballroom during the wedding festivities. However, his task was not yet complete.

Using the last of the fluid, he began to cast a new spell. This one was much darker and stronger, and it drained away the last of his energy to bend the magic and demons to his will. It took almost an hour, but Yoru finally managed to summon a cadre of oni and bind them to this room, waiting his bidding. Exhausted, he leaned against the wall and smiled again, his dry lips pulling back to expose yellowed teeth.

So, Fate thought to mock him once again, ne? Offering him his dream, only to snatch it away. Yoru had already felt things start to unravel with the bound’s death. Well, he refused to allow that to happen, even if he had to slaughter everyone in the ballroom other than Lord Eto, Prince Masafumi and himself. If he had the slightest hint of things getting out of control, he would release the oni. And the spirit guardians, enraged at being drawn in by shinigami essence and trapped, would be indiscriminate creatures of destruction if and when he releases them. Very little could face oni and hope to defeat them, especially when they were enraged, and only shinigami were more powerful. Botan and any other wizards present might hope to stop a few of them, but he’d bound enough to ensure that some of them would manage to carry out his wishes.

One way or another, he would resume his former position of glory, if not Kritiker’s throne, and have the power to regain his lost youth. Once everyone else was dead, he could force the kage’s location out of young Masafumi, and then be able to break his oath to Eto. Nothing could deter his plans now, nothing. But if perchance Fate continued to play its tricks… there wouldn’t be anyone left alive in his immediate vicinity. One way or another, Yoru was never going to be forgotten again.

Taking a few minutes to recover himself, he pulled the hood of his black robe over his head and shuffled down the building’s labyrinth of hallways. Yoru had a specific destination in mind and had one more thread of intrigue to weave. He stroked the red ring on his hand, hoping it had enough power left to aid him in his final task of the night. Succubae-bounds were rare creatures, not as much so as kage or precogs, but never more than a handful seemed to be alive at the same time. They were extremely territorial creatures, and often destroyed their own kind in battles over a person or region. A shame that the last one he’d known about had managed to slip out of his grasp two decades ago before he could gain any blood to renew the charm. Yet another case of Fate being a fickle tease of a bitch.

Few people crossed his path, and none paid him any attention. If he’d gotten past the wards, he was meant to be there, and the palace was inundated with strangers. Who, along with many of the palace’s residents, were off celebrating at one party or another. But he had been informed that his quarry had remained in his own rooms this night.

Finding the appropriate wing of the Guards’ quarters to be quiet and dark, Yoru made his way to the proper door. He knocked twice and called upon the glamour of the ring.

A young man with gold hair and eyes, radiating strength and good health, opened the door. "Yes? Can I help you?

"Yuushi Honjyou?"

"Yes, who are you?"

His expression hidden behind the hood, Yoru smiled hungrily. "Someone who has a matter he’d like to discuss with you… concerning misplaced trust and new opportunities. May I come in?"

For a moment the young Guard wavered, clearly wanting to tell him to leave but the ring worked its magic. Nodding his head, Honjyou stepped aside to allow Yoru in.

*******

Kikyou looked at the report that Tsubaki had compiled for him. It seemed that there was no record of a redhead named Aya having lived along the Western border. Granted, it wasn’t the most in-depth search, but someone like the pale man would stand out, and have been noticed by other people. Most likely, Aya was lying about where he’d come from.

He’d had to leave the redhead alone these past two weeks, after the disastrous encounter in the bookstore. Kikyou couldn’t afford any rumors of him fighting with Kudoh over another man, in public of all places, to circulate. Not until he became the new Captain of the Guard. But Manx had finally given him the news today, and that meant he could once again begin his ‘courtship’.

Who was Aya, really? A runaway concubine? His agents had reported that the Koneko had adopted the man and his servant, as the inn often did for those in unfortunate straits. Their cook had been a battered wife, their servers a runaway, a former child prostitute, and an abused child, and their stable-master a former soldier fallen on hard times. Something bad had to have happened to Aya that he had been so readily accepted by that crowd.

Which must be why the man was so shy around him. Kudoh had gained his trust somehow, it was up to Kikyou to do the same. There hadn’t been many things that had attracted his attention to this extent, and with his revenge in reach and the position he’d coveted his, Aya was the only thing left for him to win. Kikyou wasn’t going to stop until the man was his. Something about the beautiful face, that slender and graceful body filled him with lust and want. With his beauty, grace and quiet nature, Aya also reminded him of his sister. He was worth this effort.

He’d been going about it all wrong, trying to entrap the man. Smiling to himself, Kikyou put aside the piece of paper and turned his attention to possible ways to win Aya’s affections. This was proving to be an interesting challenge. Good.

*******

Masafumi held his glass of sherry before his eyes, letting the flames of the fire reflect in the dark liquid. He contemplated the beauty before him for a moment then finished off the drink. As soon as he did so, Schoen hurried to his side and refilled the glass for him. Offering the lovely woman a heavy lidded smile, Masafumi tilted his head to the side and tapped his right forefinger against the glass three times. She nodded her head in understanding and quietly left the room. Only he, Hirofumi and Hel remained. Soon enough, he would join his ladies in his quarters, and pass the night rather pleasantly.

"Why are we just sitting here? We received the pardon days ago and are free to return to the capital at any time. Why does Father insist on waiting another couple of weeks? The wedding will be in little more than a month."

Ah, how he hated to repeat himself, even to his own blood -- especially to his own blood. Masafumi gritted his teeth for a moment, and Hel immediately took station behind his chair and started to massage his shoulders. Her hands soothed his tense muscles, and Masafumi wondered where would he be without his ladies.

"Because he doesn’t want us to appear overeager. Let the people think that we remained away for so long by our own desires and show that we much prefer our quaint little estate to the capital." He paused to sip the sherry, shivering lightly as the alcohol flowed down his throat. "Also, it will be in our favor later on, when we can point out that we were hardly in the capital long enough to arrange any plots against the king when Shuuichi and his bride die. You’re a skilled hunter, Hiro, you should see the logic in what we’re doing better than anyone."

His brother looked away from the window he’d been staring out of and flashed him a smile. Hirofumi was dressed in his hunting clothes, but the brown pants and olive green shirt were clean and unrumpled. Someone hadn’t had the opportunity to hunt this day.

"I’m sorry, Masafumi. I shouldn’t be whining to you, but I’m bored. I can’t go on any hunts, not while that infernal Guard dawdles in the next village over, ‘nursing’ his horse’s injured hoof. There was nothing wrong with that damn beast when he was sent on his way, I know that for a fact."

"You would know, brother." Hiro was the one interested in animals and other creatures, and he derived much pleasure in hunting and breaking them. Every single horse in the stable quivered in fear when he entered the barn. As for himself, Masafumi couldn’t care less about the things, other than to use them as experiments for his spells. He was hoping to merge together humans and animals, much like the ancient wizards had done with humans and spirits, and had made some small headway in that regard. One day he hoped to have an army of creatures as strong as bounds, but easier to control.

But both his spells and Hirofumi’s hunts had been put on hold due to the nearby presence of a Guard. The man was obviously remaining in the area, in hopes of uncovering something, but he’d have to go home in defeat soon. No one in this area would be foolish enough to speak out against Prince Reiji and his sons. Anyone who’d have the backbone had been killed already. The kage had been very busy, ridding the family of any and all irritants these past few years.

Thinking of the kage, Masafumi wondered if that was the solution to his brother’s most recent sulk. "You do know that you’ll have to curb your activities while we’re in the capital, don’t you? There will be no hunting or games there either."

"Yes, I’m aware of that. But we’ll be one step closer to our goal, and then I’ll be able to have all the fun I want." An expression of hunger and lust crossed over his brother’s face, and he felt the hands on his shoulders shudder slightly.

"Besides, there is one creature I’ll be able to play with when we arrive. We need to check up on our kage and make sure he remembers his place, with the time away from us. I look forward to reminding him."

The lust overpowered the hunger, and Masafumi had one of his suspicions confirmed. His brother did indeed desire the creature as something other than a vessel to just whip and cut. He himself did not care one way or another for his brother’s tastes, as the creature was lovely, and there was a family precedent of taking the things. Then again, he had his ladies and was more than content with them. But their father….

It occurred to him that he now had some leverage to use against his brother when he made his move on their father. Reiji wasn’t going to be the new king, he was. …Or perhaps he’d let Hiro have that position. Masafumi didn’t really care for the throne, but merely wanted the old man’s death in revenge. Yes, he’d let his brother have the throne, and no doubt Hiro would busy himself with raping the kage and hunting down his new subjects. He much preferred to focus his attentions on his magic and had all he needed with Hel, Schoen and Tot by his side. If only Neu was still there as well.

"I have no problem with you playing with the kage, just leave him enough blood for my spells. And I might need your hunting skills as well, but don’t mention it to Father, please."

Hirofumi walked over to his side and poured himself some sherry. His brother regarded him intently, his eyes flicking to the side to watch Hel for a moment, and then resumed staring at him, a knowing smile on his lips.

"Father won’t like it if you go off on a personal vendetta of your own and track down a certain Guard. At least, that’s what I’m assuming you’re planning."

Masafumi patted Hel’s hands, which had stilled. "Don’t worry, Hiro, I won’t jeopardize things before the wedding. I just want to find the man. It will be more enjoyable to make him pay after the event, when I’ll have more time on my hands."

"I understand."

Ah, he could always count on his brother. Reaching over to pour the both of them more sherry, Masafumi graced his sibling with his most charming smile.

"I think… that we both have certain objectives in mind, ones that perhaps Father wouldn’t approve of." The old man was adamantly against same sex relationships and ‘fouling’ oneself with any lowly creatures. Either because of or in spite of his attraction to the deceased sword master, he could never tell. Masafumi certainly received enough grief over his ladies, and they weren’t even bounds. No, magically enhanced a bit, but not actual bounds. He was Hiro’s only hope of claiming the prize he sought. "It would be best if we stuck together, don’t you think?"

"Yes, completely." Hirofumi clinked their glasses together and raised his in a salute before returning to stare out the window. Leaning back in his chair, Masafumi resumed contemplating the visions found within dancing flames.

A little more than a month, and he would look back on his exile as an old nightmare. No longer would he and his brother have to pay for their father’s folly. What had the man been thinking, to rape his own sibling’s wife like that? Reiji deserved his fate, but not Hirofumi and he. The man had plotted long to regain the throne he lost through his own foolishness, but he’d never have it.

No, Reiji owed him a life, and Masafumi was going to collect. Poor, quiet Neu had paid for yet another of his father’s poor decisions. He knew that his father had ordered one of his ladies to assassinate the king last year because he held them to be more… disposable than their kage. The fool. His ladies were special creatures, utterly devoted to him, and Masafumi would not let them be idly misused or destroyed. To add fuel to the fire, Reiji hadn’t cared one bit when Neu had been killed, other than being upset at his thwarted plans. He’d even made the comment that there was one less whore to roam about his castle. Masafumi knew his father hated his ladies for their abilities and the love they shared when he was occupied, but to have one of them pay for the man’s prejudices…

Yes. First his uncle and possibly his sibling would die, then his father soon afterward. The fool forgot that it was Masafumi who often held the sphere that contained the soul of the kage’s sister, and that he had been the one to make the object in the first place. He could very easily remove his father from the spell, thus enabling the kage to kill the man. The creature would probably relish that order. And once Hiro was on the throne, there was a certain Guard who was going to pay for killing Neu. He and the ladies were so looking forward to that event.

*******

Schuldig walked into his mother’s sitting room and let out a loud sigh as he fell down onto the couch. "Great, another family reunion, just what I needed."

Crawford, whose tea had spilled over his hand when the couch had been jostled, glared at him. "I swear you can’t be mine."

"For the final time, he is." Cassandra rose from her seat and in a blinding flash smacked both men on their heads. "You’re both idiots. Can we get this over with before I kill the two of you?"

Both men fidgeted under the stern look they were receiving, and in unison turned to glare at each other. Schuldig stuck his tongue out at his father, causing the older bound to sigh, and after setting his teacup aside, bury his face in his hands.

"So, what’s with the meeting? You guys have something new to report?"

Cassandra settled back in her chair and poured herself some more tea. "How did your discussion with Yotan go?" She poured another cup, and handed it to him.

For a moment Schuldig reflected on the pain he’d felt in Yohji when he’d announced his plans to leave the capital after the wedding. It warmed him to feel the man’s affection and concern for him, but even after he’d convinced himself that there would never be anything between them other than friendship, it still hurt that they’d never be lovers. His feelings would never be returned.

"Yotan was a little upset and made me promise I’d be back one day. I still can’t pick up anything from him now, other than faint impressions of his emotions. That can’t be good."

"It’s clearly the kage’s influence. Speaking of which, I take it you still can’t enter his mind, either?"

Waving a hand at his father, Schuldig frowned and sipped the hot beverage. Cass had made him green tea, his favorite. Guess she wasn’t that upset with him being jealous of her new boyfriend, then. "No, not at all. It seems that Yohji’s the only one who can use his power to influence Aya, and he hasn’t honed it strongly enough yet to force Aya to remain with him. Else he’d have done it already." Hmm, maybe his mother was feeling a bit guilty about finding a lover and was trying to make it up to him. That left open some interesting possibilities. Schuldig didn’t mind her having found someone, in fact he felt better about leaving her now, he just wished it wasn’t a wizard. But he’d use her guilt to his benefit none-the-less. It had been ages since he’d had any currant scones, and he needed a few new shirts….

"Damn. I was hoping that was how Yohji was going to win Aya’s ‘trust’, but it doesn’t appear so. The stubborn fool. We’re offering him a chance at happiness, and he’s blindly clinging to his life as the Takatoris’ slave." Crawford lifted his head and removed his glasses, furiously cleaning them with the napkin on his lap.

Frowning, Cassandra replaced her cup on its saucer and once more scowled at her former lover. "He’s been hurt, terribly so. You remember how Jei was when you were first made partners, and how I was when I arrived in Esset. It’s so very hard to believe that another person is sincere, when all one is used to is pain and torment. Give him time."

"We don’t have much of it left, Cass." Crawford’s eyes grew unfocused. "Yoru is descending into madness as we speak, and everything tied to him is drenched with blood. One of the Guards is being pulled into the web even now, and much rests on whether or not he honors his oath. The crown prince is ours, as is Yohji, but Aya still wavers, casting the future in doubt."

"Don’t forget about the other wizard," Schuldig added. He glanced over at his mother, and saw her blush. "How are things going on that front? Will I have a new papa soon?"

A teaspoon was tossed at his head, and only his quick reflexes enabled Schuldig to catch it centimeters from his face. It was Cass’s turn to stick out her tongue. "I’m surprised you haven’t scared him off yet, Trouble. I have no choice about you being my child, woe is me, and can’t imagine anyone willingly choosing you. But to answer your first question, he’s coming along fine. I sense no animosity in him towards bounds, and he is very powerful. One of the most powerful wizards I’ve ever come across. I feel we can count on him when the time comes."

This time it was a pair of grey eyes that grew unfocused. "Yes, the time comes. It will be soon now that he’s entangled in the strands that tie us all together. Asks about bounds he does, and kage as well." Cassandra laughed and clapped her hands together. "If only he knew what was in those books you brought back the other day, Trouble. He’d have given his right arm for a chance to read them. No one knows more about bounds than a bound. But he’ll be enlightened soon enough." She became serious once more and turned to look at Crawford. "How fares his child?"

"As far as I can tell, just fine. The Elders will keep her safe until the millennium anniversary." Schuldig and Cass looked on in amazement as a wicked smile curved the serious man’s lips. "For all his protests, Jei would never have left her behind if he thought she’d be in danger. He’s being even more stubborn than a certain kage in accepting what’s being offered to him, but she’ll win out in the end. The poor bastard." Crawford’s tone carried no trace of sympathy, but a good deal of amusement. "I have the token she gave us, and I’m certain that it will sway her father when the time comes."

"Soon now, soon. Little more than a moon."

"Yes, and the wedding is just a precursor of things to come. Jei’s been running himself ragged, trying to track down as many bounds as he can and warn them of what’s to come. Should we fail on Summer Solstice, they’ll flee the city before the new king can round them up. If we succeed…." Running a hand through his hair, Crawford appeared exhausted for a minute. "Most of them will go into hiding anyway, all to avoid the coming war. The Elders will soon start scouring the land, looking for as many bounds as they can find. But the word is being spread, to trust no one from Esset but a select few, and even though the land is a bit more accepting of bounds, to leave it now. It’s going to be an interesting next few years."

Unable to resist, Schuldig snidely commented. "If we survive the next moon. I can’t believe you’re my father either; you’re too depressing for words. Take my advice, and only worry about things as they come."

Blue eyes glowing with anger, Crawford turned to face his son. "Listen, you dimwit, if I took that approach to life, you’d never have been born. We see the future for a reason, boy, and have a responsibility to…." The lecture trailed off, and both Cass and Crawford closed their eyes and took a deep breath.

"What is it? What’s happening?"

Cass was the first one to recover, and Schuldig felt his apprehension fade as the woman smiled at him. She wouldn’t be so happy if it had been a bad vision.

"Yotan has done it, he’s won the kage’s trust. Aya has now chosen to tie his destiny with ours."

"Yes, and so much is now made clear. Granted," Crawford grumbled, "there is still much that remains hidden due to the kage’s influence, but now that the future we’re supporting has been chosen, it’s become that much more possible."

Sighing, Cassandra once again smacked the elder bound on the head. "Bite your tongue, before you jinx the thing. There is much that needs to be done, and even more that can go wrong."

Stifling a chuckle at seeing his mother abuse someone even more than she did him, and happy that it was a prick who deserved it, Schuldig leaned forward and set his cup down on the coffee table. "Yes. We just have to worry about a couple of possible traitors in the Guards, a wizard finding out that a kage exists, another one that’s going nuts and messing with things he shouldn’t, conniving lords and an approaching apocalypse. What family doesn’t have these problems?"

This time it was both precogs who smacked him.

*******

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