Shadows

*******

by nekojita

*******

chapter 9

*******

Yohji lay in bed, Aya curled up at his side. He felt drowsy and sated, like a well-fed and spoiled cat sprawled out in front of the fire. Guess his lover must be rubbing off on him.

"Just so we’re clear on this, you’re the cat here, not me," he whispered huskily as he tugged on a crimson eartail. For once he wasn’t glared at or snarled at for his insolence since Aya was fast asleep. Yohji had tried his hardest to control how much energy he’d drained from the redhead as they made love last night, but it still had been a considerable amount, humming through his veins even now. He’d return some of it in a few minutes, but at the moment he enjoyed being able to watch his lover sleep.

There was the slightest smile on Aya’s lips, and one of his arms was flung over Yohji’s chest, holding him close. The pale skin practically glowed in the darkened confines of the curtained bed, though that might just be Yohji’s enhanced night vision. Ever since he’d found out the truth about himself, Yohji had noticed how his eyesight had improved, so much so that he’d resorted to wearing shades during the day. He’d become a bit sensitive to light, though luckily nowhere near as much as Aya was. At least he could go outside without fear of being burned, if not of being a bit uncomfortable in the sunlight.

Shadows crawled over the white skin, and Yohji didn’t think that was his imagination. Aya’s power still amazed him with the way he could shape the shadows into anything he wanted, the way the dark sustenance responded to him. Other than his ability to feed off Aya and the charisma he exuded, Yohji had to struggle to learn how to use his bound abilities. For Aya, it was a challenge to refrain from using his power to keep the shadows from responding to his thoughts and emotions.

What must it have been like for the kage, to have all that power and yet still be helpless to protect the one person he loved? Yohji couldn’t begin to imagine the pain Aya had felt: first, unable to do anything when his sister was locked away, and then even after her death. What type of person thought of snatching another person’s soul and blocking it from the cycle of reincarnation just to bind someone to them? And Aya thought that he was a monster.

Yohji tenderly brushed the back of his fingers along Aya’s right cheekbone. What he wouldn’t give to take back the harsh words he’d flung at his mate two weeks ago. The irony of it was, he’d treated Aya so terribly because he’d been afraid of Aya using him as Asuka had. He’d put those fears to rest only to later find out his paranoia had been entirely justified. Aya was indeed another assassin, but he believed the pale man when he said he hadn’t thought to include Yohji in his plans. He’d felt his love’s honesty and assurance through their link.

But here he was entangled in yet another plot to kill the king. Yohji didn’t want to think of what would happen if they failed to rescue Aya’s sister. The redhead had said he’d given up on his mission, unable to bear hurting Yohji, but he didn’t want to put Aya to the test. It couldn’t come down to him and… whatever the girl’s name was.

Brad had told him that he and others were working on freeing the girl’s soul. Yohji certainly hoped the precog had a plan in mind as he refused to allow Aya to be hurt anymore. Tracing his finger lightly over a scarred wrist, Yohji reflected on how Aya had already been hurt enough. Whoever the man’s masters were, they had slow and painful deaths awaiting them. Now if only he could get Aya to reveal who they were….

It still shocked Yohji the way Aya had haltingly revealed his secrets last night. After nearly two weeks of trying to pry them out of the stubborn fool, he’d gone ahead and told his story with no urging on Yohji’s part. All because Aya had decided to trust him and hadn’t wanted the secrets to come between them any longer.

He was never going to break that trust. Not in a million years. He’d figure out a way to keep Aya by his side, to break the man and his sister free from their tormentors and damn well wring one of Koyu’s happily ever-afters from Fate one way or another. He loved the fool too much to do anything else. For a moment Yohji wondered what love felt like for normal people. His only other experience with the emotion had been with Asuka, and that paled in comparison with what filled him now. It was this overwhelming need to keep Aya safe, to make him smile and be content. His instincts screamed at him to never let go of the man. The emotion was all consuming, shocking him with its intensity, and yet it felt so right. They were mates.

It was time for his mate to wake up. Judging from the sounds coming from downstairs, breakfast was underway. Yohji wanted to make sure Aya got something to eat after the night they’d had. With a leer on his face as he stroked a hand along the arm flung over his chest, he concentrated on returning some of the energy he’d stolen.

The response he received as the energy flowed from him was a rumbling purr and Aya snuggling even closer to him. A pair of violet eyes slowly drifted open as the smaller man shifted about until his chin rested on Yohji’s chest. He brushed a finger against the still smiling lips, and then slid his fingers through the crimson strands, smiling himself at the feel of cool silk.

"Morning."

"Hn." Aya closed his eyes after a second and immediately snapped them open when one of his eartails was toyed with. "Yohji, don’t even think about it."

"Too late." Feeling a bit impish, Yohji tugged on the long strands and earned a spitting sound from his lover. His arms suddenly full of a squirming kage, he laughed out loud as he held on tight and dragged Aya onto his chest. A few bruises, shi-nes and unkind names later, they ended up with him resting against the bed’s headboard with Aya seated in his lap. Reluctantly letting go of his toy, Yohji tilted up Aya’s chin and soundly kissed his mate. That seemed to take the fight out of the man, although his bottom lip was nipped a wee bit sharply when the kiss broke off.

"Well, that certainly woke you up. I’ll have to remember that in the years to come. Who needs alarm clocks or buckets of cold water when a simple yank or two will do?"

"I’m going to cut the damn things off," Aya muttered under his breath, and his lovely eyes went wide when Yohji grabbed his chin once again, though this time not for a kiss.

"Don’t you dare. I happen to adore the things. They’re part of what makes you you. If that makes any sense." He wrapped one of the long strands around his fingers, brushing the loose end along his lips. Aya stared at him incredulously for a moment and then settled against him, hissing a little as he snagged back his hair.

They remained like that for several minutes, just content with each other’s presence, and then Yohji combed his fingers through Aya’s hair. "What was she like? Your sister?"

Aya started at the question, pulling away for a second but then he sighed and rested his head on Yohji’s shoulder. "My father always called her a ‘right and proper terror’. She was happy and carefree, a bundle of energy and curiosity. It was like the whole world was created just for her to discover. She had a weak spot for anything injured or that she imagined was injured. You should have seen my mother’s face when she brought home a skunk one day. It’s a miracle that the creature didn’t spray her and the rest of us, but she had a way about her…."

The deep voice drifted off for a moment. "Yohji… her name was Aya. I… I took it when we arrived here to remind me of my purpose, and because it wouldn’t fail to catch my attention. None of us gave you our real names."

"I’m not surprised in the least, and I’m relieved to know your parents didn’t intentionally name you after a girl." He held his lover close and ran a soothing hand through the man’s hair. Feeling the anger inspired by his little joke, Yohji smiled gently and pressed their lips together briefly, mindful of teeth this time. "So what’s your real name?" Hopefully the question would distract Aya from any thoughts of revenge.

Appearing deep in thought, Aya didn’t say a word for several minutes. As he spoke he pulled away, but remained on Yohji’s lap. "It’s… Ran."

"Ran." In the old tongue it would translate into ‘orchid’. Looking into a pair of solemn violet eyes, Yohji could see the connection. It was a perfect image for such a lovely man. "It suits you. Ran…."

"Don’t call me that."

Surprised by the hint of anger in the words, which had been all but growled at him, Yohji could only stare at his lover and blink. Pushing back his bangs, Aya answered the unspoken question.

"I don’t… I don’t want to hear you call me that. Only Naoe and… they do. Besides…" Aya picked up one of Yohji’s hands and threaded their fingers together, his eyes cast downward. "Someone told me that I should choose a future, and decide who I was going to be. Ran, a slave, or Aya, your mate."

That decision had been made last night. Beginning to understand the longing and apprehension that had filled the smaller man the past couple of weeks, Yohji knew that Aya had wrestled long and hard over that decision. He’d won out in the end.

"Then I won’t call you that. It would be a bit difficult to change things at this point, anyway. You’re Aya to me." His agreement earned him that sliver of a smile once again, though this time it was touched with a hint of sadness. Aya leaned in and kissed him, and for several minutes Yohji only thought of how good his lover tasted and how right and perfect it felt to hold him in his arms.

A bit short of breath, he rested back against the pillows as his fingers, like always, sought out one of Aya’s eartails to play with. "Love, I hate to keep pushing, especially since you’re being so honest, but if we hope to save…." How did he keep the two siblings straight in his head?

"Aya-chan."

Ah, that worked. It made the girl feel a bit as if she was Yohji’s sister as well. "Okay, how can I help you save Aya-chan if I don’t know who has her? Who and where are your masters? All you’ve told me about them is that they’re wizards."

Aya didn’t say a word, just unwound his hair from Yohji’s fingers and rose from the bed. Yohji watched as the redhead slid outside the curtains and walked over to the window. Pushing open the shutters, Aya was careful to stand over to the left safely in the shadows, and looked outside. The scent of flowers filled the room.

Getting out of bed himself, Yohji went over to join Aya. He gently wrapped his arms around the man’s waist, waiting to see if Aya tensed or pushed him away. The past two weeks had taught him that it wasn’t good to let his mate go off by himself and brood, as it usually took a concentrated effort on both his and Naoe’s part to bring back Aya’s more ‘human’ side.

"Yohji, I don’t know what you hope to do to them. They’re too powerful."

It was simple; he was going to kill them in the most painful method he could devise and then leave their bodies to the scavengers. But, Yohji didn’t think Aya wanted to hear that at the moment. "Love… you’re the one who said no more secrets. I need to know, or I can’t see how much help I’ll be to you."

There was a low snarl that lasted only a few heartbeats, and Aya drew into himself, making Yohji feel cold and alone. Then he spoke two words, his voice dark and sibilant.

"Reiji Takatori."

Oh hell, no wonder Aya hadn’t wanted to tell him. This was bad. Really, really bad. "Uh, you don’t happen to mean the Reiji Takatori who’s the king’s brother, do you?"

"Yes."

Well, there went the faint hope that there were two Reiji Takatoris in the world. Jerking a hand through his hair, Yohji growled softly. Now he had a name to heap his curses on each time he looked at Aya and saw his scars. It didn’t matter that the man might have become the king at one point, he was still dead.

"Just checking. It doesn’t change my feelings on the matter, Aya. We’ll still get your sister back and make him – and his sons - pay for hurting the two of you."

The tense form in his arms suddenly relaxed, and Yohji caught a flash of relief, anxiety and love. He’d be willing to guess that Aya had thought he’d back down once his master’s name had been revealed, too afraid of taking on a Takatori to keep his promise. Hell, it could be Shuuichi himself and Yohji would still be out for the bastard’s blood.

Hugging Aya tightly, he rested his cheek against the man’s head, enjoying the feel of silky hair against his skin. "You said your master sent… Asuka here last year to kill the king. Guess the rumors were true about Reiji wanting his brother dead. And that he didn’t learn his lesson." A thought suddenly occurred to Yohji. "Wait a minute, he’s coming back for the wedding, both him and his sons. What happens to you when he’s here, Aya?"

"I don’t know. I was ordered to accompany Brad and Farfarello to the capital, and to lay low until the wedding. Then I was to kill the king, and his son if I could manage it."

"Omi. You mentioned that last night. How’d you know he’s the prince?"

Aya turned around in Yohji’s arms, a sad smile on his face. For a second the shadows formed a black armor around the pale man then faded away. "I’m a kage. Spells don’t affect me, including glamours. I saw through his and recognized him immediately. Why does the crown prince spend most of his time with you?"

Tugging his lover back to their bed, Yohji waited until they were curled up against the pillows once again before answering. "That was my job when I was in the Guards. Since I joined so young, when I was only sixteen, it was decided that I’d make a good babysitter. After all, there wasn’t that much difference between our ages, so Omi got stuck with me. For six years I’ve been his friend and confidant and taught him how to swear and play cards and sneak out of the palace. Even after I left, he refused to let our friendship end. He’s… not happy at the palace since everyone practically ignores him because he’s not in the king’s good graces, except for Botan, Manx and Birman. Everyone who works here knows who he is, but they treat him like part of the family. Omi’s always been welcome at the Koneko, and he likes to feel that."

"He’s a Takatori." Aya’s voice had grown cold, sounding much like it had earlier.

Never minding the glare he knew he was going to get, Yohji yanked harshly on an eartail. "He’s Omi. That boy has a heart of gold and wouldn’t harm a fly. He gets enough shit because no one’s sure who exactly his father is, Reiji or Shuuichi, and I refuse to let you be mean to him because of an accident of birth. I thought you were just jealous because of Naoe spending all his time with Omi."

A confused look spread across Aya’s face. "No, he’s not bad, and Naoe truly cares for him…. Yohji, for twelve years I’ve put up with whatever abuse the Takatoris decided to inflict upon me, and I’ve hated them with every part of my being. It’s hard to ignore his true identity when I’m dealing with Omi."

"You’re trusting me with your secrets, cat, so trust me on this as well. Omi will never betray or hurt you. At the very least, he won’t want to cause Naoe any pain, and he’s more than aware of how much the two of you care for each other. Why else has he tried so hard to gain your approval?" Yohji brushed the end of an eartail against Aya’s cheek. "Hell, he’d probably help me kill his relatives once he finds out they’re the ones who’ve hurt you and the little demon. No, Omi doesn’t have much love for his family, but he cares for me and Naoe."

For a moment they stared at each other, gauging the other’s sincerity, and it was Yohji who looked away first. "I know I can’t begin to understand what you’ve suffered, but please don’t take it out on Omi." He stroked a hand down a scarred wrist, anger building in him as he thought of how many times the white skin had been cut to bear so many thin lines of scar tissue.

"It’s from when they bleed me. Bound blood can be used in spells, you know. Makes working magic easier, something about attracting spirits. Kage blood is the most powerful. Masafumi drains me every few months for enough blood to use in his experiments and to transfer some of my powers to his women. He did that with Neu, giving her my blood so precogs or other wizards couldn’t foresee her mission, and so she could get through the palace wards with a weapon in her possession." Aya looked at his wrist, a sad, distant look on his face. "It hurts so much. It’s as if I’m dying, but it never ends. Afterwards I feel so cold and it’s painful to move, even the slightest bit. The night I came in your window, I was returning from killing another bound. He’d been a precog, and the lord who’d held him captive had been using his blood for spells. He begged for death, Yohji. He was happy I’d come for him. We were so alike." The pain and sadness in Aya’s voice tore at his heart.

"Hey, you’re not going to end up like that. I won’t let anyone harm you again." Yohji tilted Aya’s chin up and offered his mate a smile. "I’ll die before I let you get hurt ever again."

For this unselfish declaration he was snarled and glared at. "Don’t say such stupid things, you’ll be no help to me if you’re dead, Yohji."

"You’re such an ingrate, cat," Yohji huffed, but inwardly he was happy that Aya didn’t want him to die. "Here I offer to nobly sacrifice myself for you, and you tell me you want me to live. I guess I have no choice but to humor you, then. But you really should give me some sort of incentive for staying in the realm of the living." He licked his lips and leered suggestively.

Aya didn’t seem to find that amusing. "Stop being such an idiot," he snarled.

"What was that? You think I’m the smartest, most wonderful man on the face of the planet?" Yohji beamed at his irate lover. "Well, you’re not too bad yourself, Aya love."

"Yoh-mph." There wasn’t much more he could do to prevent being verbally and possibly even physically abused other than to kiss Aya breathless. As a solution it worked wonders, and within a few moments they were lying on the bed, Aya beneath Yohji with his legs around his waist. Belatedly recalling breakfast, Yohji decided that they could always sweet talk Jo into making something for them if they missed the meal.

*******

 

Hurrying up the steps, Nagi half ran the entire way back to his room. He’d soaked a bit longer in the tub than he’d meant to, and as a result he was running late for meeting Omi. For all he knew, the boy was already downstairs in the common room waiting for him.

Entering his room, he quickly shed his robe and started to search for something to wear. As he did so a slight frown marred his face. It seemed that Ran hadn’t managed to escape from Yohji’s bed yet, as there was no sign of the kage having been here for books or clothes. Nagi didn’t understand why Ran just didn’t move in with the idiot, considering he’d only spent one night in his own bed since he’d taken up with Yohji. As it was, Nagi was the only customer in the Koneko who had a room to himself, and he was pretty content with that fact, especially when Omi spent some time here with him.

Feeling his cheeks heat up, Nagi tugged his wheat colored shirt over his head and reached for the brown pair of pants on his bed. The same bed Omi and he would lie on as they kissed and stroked each other, enjoying making the other shiver in pleasure. It reminded him of the night they had first spent together, and what he and Omi had done. It had been much nicer to repeat that incident when the other teen wasn’t drunk and could actually remember what happened, but lately the touches and kisses left him feeling aching and empty.

He knew things were leading somewhere. After seeing Yohji pounce on Ran so often he had a good idea where exactly that was but wasn’t sure if he was ready for that. It was quite a big step to take, and would definitely change things.

Nagi hadn’t lied to Ran last night when he’d said he thought he was falling in love with Omi. And he seriously thought that the boy cared for him, possibly even returned his feelings. But there were still several important secrets between them, ones that kept him from taking that final step.

Omi didn’t know that he was a bound. From their discussions the past couple weeks, Nagi honestly believed that the young blond wouldn’t be disgusted or angry with him if he found out the truth. Omi didn’t seem to be prejudiced against his kind, which was rare in a human. He wanted to tell his boyfriend the truth, but if he did he ran the risk of Omi figuring out what Ran, Crawford and Jei were as well. He wouldn’t do anything to endanger Ran.

He wasn’t the only one who was keeping a secret, of that he was certain. Ran had hinted about something last night, about Omi being there when he killed the king. Of him having to kill Omi as well. Add that to the odd little slips the other teenager made, and Nagi had a feeling he knew what the two young men were hiding.

He’d asked some questions, and he found out that Prince Mamoru was the same age as Omi, and that he was rarely seen outside of his rooms. Also, on the occasions he did attend some state function or another, which had happened a couple times after the wedding had been announced, Omi hadn’t been able to visit him. Not to mention that Omi never once offered to show him the palace, or where he lived inside the grand structure. He also brushed aside what exactly it was he did in the palace, which wasn’t a very convincing cover, since lately the boy only seemed to return to his home to sleep and almost never ‘worked’.

There was a very good chance that Omi was Prince Mamoru. Teddy had mentioned one night that Yohji’s job as a Guard had been to watch over the crown prince, and Mickey had immediately hushed him up. Plus, Nagi had noticed how all the off duty Guards at the Koneko kept an eye on the teen, and how he always had an escort home. Nagi wasn’t stupid, even if the mask he usually displayed to the world was that of a young man totally uninterested in anything it had to offer him.

Nagi wasn’t sure how he should feel about falling in love with a Takatori. The clan as a whole could disappear from the face of the earth that day, and he’d shout for joy. But… he couldn’t think of ‘Takatori’ and ‘Omi’ at the same time. The two thoughts just didn’t go together. The Takatoris were cruel, power-hungry monsters, and Omi… was kind, funny, cheerful and wanted to give him everything.

Combing his hair, Nagi made sure he appeared presentable and left the room. Why couldn’t life be simple? He grew weary of all the intrigues and hopelessness that surrounded him. Crawford was plotting something, but he couldn’t harm the man because of the slight chance he really was working towards Ran’s freedom. Omi was more than he seemed, and Ran couldn’t move past his sister. Nagi wanted to scream in frustration, but instead schooled his face to its normal impassive countenance and started down the stairs.

He was a bit surprised to find Jei sitting at the table, since he hadn’t seen much of the man the past few days. There was no sign of Crawford, and apparently Omi hadn’t arrived yet after all.

"Morning, Naoe. Gonna spend another day with Omi?"

"Yes." He reached for the carafe of coffee and poured himself some, and then turned his attention toward all the food on the table. Ran and Omi better show up soon if they wanted something to eat, since there wasn’t much left. "Are you running errands all day again?"

Jei snorted and shoved several sausages into his mouth. Barely pausing a moment to chew them, he swallowed and answered Nagi. "Of fucking course, courtesy of a certain power-tripping bastard. That man loves to give orders way too much."

Curious, Nagi set the plate of eggs he’d pretty much emptied back on the table. "Why do you listen to him?"

There was a moment of silence as Jei poured himself some more coffee. When he spoke, his voice was pitched low enough that no humans could overhear them. "Because I need someone who I do listen to when the madness takes over. Someone who can pull me back from all the blood and death. Crawford’s done that when I woulda been lost in the madness and hunger, eating and killing everything that crossed my path until someone put me down. He’s arrogant, lacking in most basic human emotions and concerns, and too damn certain for his own good, thanks to his power, but I know he’ll never betray me. So, I jump when he says to, for the most part, and bitch about him all the time, but I know he won’t let the gaki part of my soul completely take over. And the man attracts wizards to him, which is a nice bonus." Nagi shuddered at the look that crossed his companion’s face at that last bit. It was pure hunger, so predatory and disturbing that it had him wanting to move away from Jei, and the other bound usually didn’t scare him.

The scarred man shook himself all over, and the look faded away. Instead of an insane demon, Jei was sitting across from him once more. "Oy, so you know, I had a word with the slave-driver this morning. It seems that Aya’s finally come to his senses. Crawford was actually smiling as he told me the news, which is a pretty disturbing way to start off the day. Yohji somehow managed to reach him."

The words filled Nagi with joy. Ran had given up on hopelessness, finally. He liked to think that the news of the man’s family was what had given Ran the courage to break away from their masters, even if it wasn’t very likely. Nagi had spent most of the time he should have been sleeping thinking about what he’d said to his friend last night and had to admit that Ran hadn’t been wrong when he said that who his father had been wouldn’t change a thing. But he’d been so desperate to make some sort of point that would sink into the man’s thick head. It was then that Nagi remembered what Crawford had told him, about how Ran would choose to live for Yohji. Most likely, it had been the threat to him and Yohji that had done the trick.

"Is he ever wrong, your partner?"

"Crawford? Unfortunately, no. Hence the smug bastard aspect of his personality. Which is why you should never bet against him. He says we have a chance now, a damn good one at that, though his failure to see the entire future has him royally pissed off." Jei picked up a loaf of bread and tore it in half. He kept one part and tossed the other to Nagi.

"You better eat. Things will probably remain a bit calm for the next week or two, but the closer we get to the wedding, the stronger my bad feelings become." For a moment Nagi could clearly see that Jei had lived for more decades than the barely two he looked to have. There was a weariness to the bound’s voice and appearance that spoke of bitterly attained experience. "No matter what Crawford says, things won’t be easy. If we win, it’ll be the old-fashioned price that’s paid: blood and sweat. Gather your strength now."

As it was some of the best advice he’d heard in a while, Nagi heeded it and started to chew on the sweet bread.

*******

Ran sighed as he brushed back his eartails just in time. Yohji, who had clearly been reaching for the strands to give them a tug or two, pouted at him before turning to leave the room. Smoothing his, well, actually Yohji’s brown shirt straight, he followed his mate downstairs, refusing to call the shadows to him whenever he passed someone. He knew he was quite a sight with mussed hair and the too large clothes that clearly belonged to someone else, but they’d decided that food took precedence over a nice long soak, and he needed something clean to wear down to the common room. As soon as breakfast was over with, Yohji and he would go to the basement and have a bath.

A young woman, walking up the steps with a toddler attached to her hand, smiled at him in a manner that clearly expressed more than just ‘good morning’. Uncomfortable with the attention, Ran glared at her and shifted closer to Yohji. He didn’t like the way that people had taken to looking at him recently, or even worse, the offers he’d received. They weren’t something he was used to or interested in. It was hard enough to let the humans who worked at the Koneko show him their affection with the occasional touches and hugs they gave him, let alone suffer the touch of a complete stranger. He still expected nothing but pain from them. They were humans, after all.

No, the only two people alive who touched him regularly without causing him pain were Nagi and Yohji. Well, excepting one incident on both the bounds’ part. Nagi had been trying to make him see sense with that slap last night and hadn’t even bruised his skin, and Yohji had been too shaken that one night to realize he’d been holding Ran’s chin too hard. But then, both young men were bounds and they wouldn’t betray him the way humans would and had.

As soon as they reached the first floor, Yohji spun him around and kissed him, wrapping his arms tight around Ran’s waist. They stood there for a couple of minutes, savoring the feel and taste of each other until a throat was cleared rather loudly.

"Yohji, how the hell are our guests supposed to get up the stairs if you’re blocking them like that?" Ran pulled away from his mate and looked at a very peeved Jo. The woman was covered with flour, most likely from the daily batch of bread, and strands of hair were escaping in every direction from the tight bun she’d pulled it into.

"Hey, I’m just making sure they realise that Aya here is taken. Some woman damn near assaulted him on the steps." A slight exaggeration, but Ran wasn’t going to contradict Yohji and risk drawing Jo’s wrath down on him. "Can’t we put up a sign that says ‘keep all hands, eyes, and any other body parts off of all redheads’ present?"

"Would that apply to you too?" The words had escaped his mouth before Ran even thought about them, and it was worth his consternation over the slip to see the flummoxed look on Yohji’s face and the amused one on Jo’s.

Yohji growled very softly and stroked Ran’s throat, which he was sure sported a bruise or two, considering last night and this morning. At least the marks were beginning to heal faster now and were usually gone by evening, only to be replaced with new ones as soon as he reached Yohji’s room to spend the night.

"I’m the exception to the rule because you’re mine. After all, you’re the kitten in my house. Maybe we’ll put a picture of you up as the inn’s mascot, cat." What made the indignity of the whole damn thing even worse was when Ran punched Yohji in the ribs all the bastard did was wince a little and then laugh.

As the two of them struggled, Yohji to snag one of his eartails, and Ran to prevent that, Jo actually laughed out loud, her earlier distemper long forgotten. "I think the first idea might be the more practical one, or you’ll have people lining up to ‘stroke’ your little kitty there," she said in a lascivious tone of voice. Ran stared at the woman in shock, and he could feel the same emotion radiating from Yohji. Jo leered suggestively at them and winked. "Somehow, maybe from the half dozen or so men that have gone to the healers the past fortnight, I get the impression you don’t want to share. But if you do post that warning, be prepared to hear some bitching from Schuldig. That’s one redhead who adores being pawed. Well, by other people than just you, at least."

Having the distinct impression that Jo had just aimed a jibe at him and confident that it was all Yohji’s fault, Ran hn’ed and pulled away from the blond determined to salvage some of his dignity and go eat his breakfast. As the sound of Jo laughing once again filled the hallway, Ran was pretty sure he preferred it when the woman had been suspicious of him and barely spoke to him at all. He wasn’t used to being teased, other than the little bit he suffered from Nagi.

Spotting his friend at their usual table, Ran hurried over to his side. As soon as he sat down Yohji joined him, sliding in beside him and pressing against him.

"Man, that was weird. I think Jo really has inhaled too much flour. Hey, didn’t the little demon save us any food? You little ingrate!"

Nagi stared back at the blond coldly. "Perhaps if you didn’t keep Aya in bed all morning, you’d be down here in time to eat something."

Ran had another distinct impression, this time that it wasn’t a very good idea to be between Yohji and Nagi as they were starting yet another of their fights. He wondered for a moment if he could slide underneath the table and take a seat next to Jei. It would be much safer to be near a hungry flesh-gaki bound than these two battling it out.

Yohji managed an indignant air as he grabbed a plate of sausages. "Why do you always assume that I’m the one keeping him there? Maybe it’s the other way around."

It was fortunate that Ran’s hands were occupied with pouring himself some tea, or else they’d have ended up wrapped around someone’s throat at the reaction to that comment. Nagi snorted and Jei flat out laughed at Yohji’s comment.

"Yeah, right, and I’m the king. Try another one, Yohji." Jei chuckled and wheezed for a moment, but a scathing look on his part set the bound straight. Huffing to himself, Ran decided to get through breakfast as quickly as possible before he did kill someone, and then let his temper cool down when he takes a nice long soak.

He wasn’t the only one scowling as Yohji was doing his fair share as well. "Listen, abuse me all you want _after_ I get some food and caffeine in me, or I’ll make sure your sheets are so starched it’ll be like sleeping on sandpaper." Threat issued, the blond returned his attention to eating. Ran caught Nagi glaring at his mate for a moment then the boy looked at him curiously, a smile hovering on his lips. A hand slid across the table and squeezed his briefly. Unsure of what his friend was trying to say, Ran smiled back slightly before looking down at his plate.

The peace lasted all of two minutes, till Nagi started to yell at Yohji for eating all the food, and then, in a quieter voice, commented that he should make sure his boyfriend had enough before being such a glutton, considering how often he was feeding off him. Before Ran could hit the both of them, Teddy and Koyu showed up bearing plates of food. Yohji and Nagi had no idea how lucky they were.

"Geez, it’s only morning and you guys are starting with each other already. Stop all the snarling, we come bearing gifts." Teddy set the plates down in front of Yohji and then sat across from him. Koyu actually willingly sat next to his boyfriend and smiled at the table as he did so.

"Thanks for the food. We were running out here, courtesy of some greedy pigs who almost ate it all before Aya and I arrived." Yohji glared evilly at Nagi, who whole-heartedly returned the look. Ran started to think that maybe he wouldn’t mind disposing of some witnesses after all.

Koyu laughed quietly and handed a plate of eggs to Yohji. "We’ve learned that when you guys are involved to bring lots and lots of food if we want to eat too. What did you do to Jo, Yohji? She’s back in the kitchen laughing at nothing."

Yohji sighed as he scraped some of the eggs onto Ran’s plate. "Apparently, I amuse the hell out of her. But it sure as hell beats being on her bad side, the suggestive comments aside. Here, cat, have some more food."

Refusing to be irritated at being babied, Ran glared for a moment before starting to eat all the food that had been piled on his plate. Yohji and Nagi wouldn’t leave him alone until he did, and he was spared from having to attempt to make small talk as long as he was busy eating.

"So, what are everyone’s plans for the day? You going out with Omi, Naoe?"

Nagi nodded his head at Teddy. "Yes. We’re supposed to check out the Royal Museum today. If Omi ever shows up." Ran caught the disappointed catch to Nagi’s voice and thought dark thoughts about ‘Omi’ for a minute. Should the boy fail to arrive, his life was about to become very unpleasant.

Teddy chuckled and tossed a piece of bread at his lover. "Well, a bit of advice: the geology section is great for making out in. No one comes in just to look at a bunch of rocks, and they have the loveliest nooks there to curl up in. I’ve been led astray a few times there, no idea by who."

Batting aside the missiles, Koyu shook his head with a smile on his lips. "How exactly is it being led astray when you feed me this line about wanting to see the crystal collection and then trip me in one of those aforementioned nooks and beat me to the ground? It’s very clear that you spent too many of your formative years in Yohji’s presence."

"Hey now! I had nothing at all to do with how that little pest turned out, I’ll have you know." Yohji had to practically yell to be heard above all the laughter. Pouting, he tugged Ran closer to him. "See why I want to spend all day in bed?"

Ran didn’t do more than hn as Yohji commenced to nibble on his ear, keeping any oversexed comments to himself. He was tired, emotionally and physically, and though the banter was amusing, all he really wanted to do was finish breakfast and have a long soak. All the teasing, even if it wasn’t directed at him, was making him nervous and uncomfortable. He had chosen Yohji’s world and was now becoming aware of just how unprepared he was to exist in it. Ran hadn’t done an awful lot of joking in the past decade, and all this interaction was wearisome. He much preferred spending time by himself reading than all this social nonsense.

Yohji must have picked up on his apprehension as he stopped nibbling and pulled Ran even closer. "You okay, love?" A hand started to stroke his hair, pressing his head against Yohji’s shoulder.

"Tired."

"I’m sorry. Get some food in you, and after our bath why don’t you take a nap? That will give me some time to help Mickey with some stuff, and then we can go out. It doesn’t look too sunny today, and there’s somewhere I want to take you after we get the errands out of the way."

Enjoying the soothing touch, Ran remained as he was, drinking in Yohji’s warmth and presence. Even if his exhaustion was largely the blond’s fault, it felt too good being near him for Ran to worry about eating. As if sensing his thoughts, Yohji broke apart a cranberry muffin and started feeding it to him. Enjoying the sweet treat, Ran obligingly opened his mouth for each piece, and didn’t bite his mate even once, despite serious temptation.

"So what are your plans, Yotan?"

"Run errands for Jo, spend some time with Aya, and take care of a few things around here. And before you sneak out of all the work, Teddy, I’m warning you now, I’m gonna need some help later bringing some furniture down from the attic."

There had been an odd note to Yohji’s voice as he said the words, and Ran could feel the happiness radiating off his mate. He lifted his head to stare curiously at the man as a hand stroked his cheek.

Teddy and Koyu were confused as well, but Ran noted the hints of smiles on Jei and Nagi’s faces.

"Uh, what are we moving? You manage to break your bed already?"

"Teddy." Koyu’s voice was thick with exasperation. "I know you’ve been taught some manners. Use them for once, please."

"We’re going to move some of my mom’s furniture into my room. There’s a chest, dresser and desk up in the attic that will fit now that I’ve gotten rid of my old bed, and a couple of bookshelves as well. Aya’s gonna need them for his things."

It took a moment for the two men to realize what that meant. "Yeah! You did it! He’s staying? Nice to see the Kudoh charm works for more than just getting them into your bed, bro."

Koyu buried his head in his hands after smacking Teddy on the back of his. "I’ve fallen in love with an uncouth idiot."

"Yeah, well better you than me, Koyu," Yohji laughed. "I finally managed it. Make another comment about my bed, Teddy, and your boyfriend will be single." He scowled menacingly at his foster brother and directed a barely more pleasant look in Nagi’s direction. "So, you gonna stick around too, Naoe? It won’t be the same without your sunny personality here."

Nagi glanced at Ran, and then he nodded his head. If they did manage to rescue Aya-chan and kill Reiji and his sons, then there would be no need for Nagi to leave with Crawford and Jei. For a moment hope fluttered in Ran’s heart, the unfamiliar sensation catching him by surprise. Then he recalled his sister’s broken body and reminded himself not to get too far ahead of himself. Things could always go wrong, horribly so. He refused to think beyond the wedding.

"I’m staying. Do you seriously think that I’ll leave Aya in your hands just like that? He needs to be looked after."

"Why you shitty little demon, I oughta-"

"Naoe, you’re still here! I’m sorry for being so late." Omi arrived with the Guard Ken at his heels, which prevented Ran from tying Yohji and Nagi in shadows and leaving them dangling from the ceiling until they understood that he _didn’t_ need someone to look after him.

The change in Nagi was instantaneous. From a sullen, quiet teen he turned into a shy, slightly smiling one. Omi kissed him on the cheek and urged everyone to shift over enough so he could sit next to the boy. Recalling Yohji’s words to him this morning, Ran tried to behave civilly to the prince. He actually acknowledged his presence for once.

Omi’s eyes went wide at the nod and slight smile directed his way, and then beamed with joy. "I’m so sorry I’m late. Ken wanted to come with me this morning, and, well, we got caught up in a few affairs and almost didn’t make it here at all. As it was, we had to sneak out of the palace."

"Or rather, he suckered me into creating a diversion for hi- uh, our escape. Oh gods, if Manx ever finds out I was the one who kicked the ball into the Blue Room’s stained glass window, she’ll have my head. Actually, she won’t just stop there." Ken appeared apprehensive for a minute.

"But it was such an awesome kick, Kenken! And from such a great distance, too. Surely she’ll think one of the Yueng brats was responsible, especially since it was their ball. You worry too much."

"I wonder why, between you and Yuriko," Ken muttered. Then he fixed Yohji with a stern look. "Who was a bit upset with you last night. We stopped by to see you, only to find out you were ’unavailable’." He glanced Ran’s way and blushed a little.

"Well, bring the lady back tonight, because we’re celebrating. The Koneko just grew by two more people." Ken and Omi stared at Teddy curiously, and then the teen turned to look at Nagi, hope plain on his face. "Aya and Naoe are becoming permanent residents."

Omi let out a whoop of joy and wrapped his arms around Nagi’s neck, nearly strangling the bound. As for Ken, he resumed giving Yohji a stern look.

"Are you serious about this?"

Yohji groaned, and the sound almost changed into a growl at the end. "Hidaka, I will kick your ass if you keep doubting me. Yes, I’m serious as all hell." Then it was the blond’s turn to grow apprehensive. "Did Yuriko really want to see me last night?"

"Yeah, she did. And she wanted to meet Aya, too. But we had fun even if you weren’t here since Mickey bought us our drinks. I don’t think it will be a problem to bring her back down… especially now. Yohji… I’m happy for you, I really am. And I’m sure you won’t mess things up." A look passed between the two ex-partners, and Ran felt Yohji’s body relax against his. He wondered about the history between this Yuriko and Yohji.

"Gee, thanks Ken. Now sit down and eat something before you have me gushing." The grin on Yohji’s face and the happiness that filled him belied his sarcastic tone.

Ran nudged his mate in the side. "Can we go now? I’m full."

"Hm, okay. Let me get our robes and I’ll meet you downstairs." Yohji kissed him lightly on the temple and then rose to his feet.

Doing the same, Ran started for the downstairs steps. Hearing footsteps behind him, he turned to see Jei following him. They made their way downstairs and then entered the stone room that held the hot springs. Someone was bathing, but between Jei’s and his glares, the poor woman immediately crawled out of the tub and pulled on her robe, not even bothering to dry off first before fleeing the room.

"Heh, Jo will probably scream at us later for that," Jei remarked as he sat down on one of the benches, his face now appearing perfectly normal, unlike the visage of evil from a moment ago. "So, you finally chose the succubae-bound."

"Yes. You weren’t surprised."

The scarred man smiled at him cheerfully and let his human mask slip aside, revealing his true nature. "No, I’m usually not. Some small recompense for having a precog as a partner. Crawford told me to pass on this little tidbit; he felt the future change when you made your choice. He said to tell you there is indeed hope, but it will require some sacrifice. You’re not out of the woods yet, and I can already smell the blood emanating from you."

It seemed Ran was always surrounded by blood, both his and his victims. "What’s going to happen?"

"Pain and blood and sacrifice, that’s all I know. He’s trying his best to see the future, but things are so damn uncertain, thanks to you. But almost all roads lead to the prince and his sons’ deaths. Did you tell _him_ about them yet?"

"Yes."

"Did he back down?"

"No." Ran wanted this conversation over with before Yohji appeared. Jei seemed to sense his unease and smiled widely, which was a very disconcerting expression with all his fangs and sharp teeth on display.

"I didn’t think he would. You have a good one there, kage, don’t keep pushing him away. And remember, your masters aren’t to suspect a thing. When and if they come, don’t let them know you’re not Ran anymore. Whatever they do to you, Yohji will make them pay for it later, I’m sure. I’ll make them pay as well. This I promise; the younger wizard’s death will be exquisitely painful." Lust and madness radiated off the bound causing Ran to shiver, even in the warm and humid room.

They stared at each other in silence, and a few seconds later Yohji entered the room. His whole body went stiff when he saw Jei there and he growled a low warning.

"Don’t worry, Kudoh, I wasn’t trying to get into his pants. I was just congratulating him on his wise decision. Wish you both centuries of happiness and all that shit." Jei flowed to his feet, his true nature mostly hidden once again.

Yohji stood in front of the door, blocking the exit. "I won’t let him go back to the bastards, and he’ll never be harmed again." The words were spoken in a challenging tone.

A sad smile spread across Jei’s face. "Be careful what you promise, especially to another bound. We have very long memories. And here’s another warning; you’ll have your hands full with this one. But my partner and I will back you." The two men’s eyes remained locked on each other’s for several heartbeats, and then Yohji stepped aside.

Relieved when Jei finally left and the door was locked behind him, Ran started to strip off his clothes. He wanted to be clean and immersed in the hot water as soon as possible and try to forget about the world for a short while. As soon as he was naked, he wet himself with a bucket of water and started to roughly scrub himself.

Only to have the cloth snatched from his hands. "Let me." Yohji was gentler to his skin than he’d been, and Ran shivered at the soft touch. Yohji slowly washed his chest, pressing against his scarred back and enveloped him in an embrace. "I won’t ever let you go, or allow you to be hurt. I promise you that, Aya."

"Yohji…." He couldn’t say it, couldn’t caution the man against unwise promises. Yohji wouldn’t heed him anyway. So he just nodded his head and stood there as his lover continued to clean him.

Once Yohji was done he tried to return the favor, but was instead held in a loose grip. "Go soak, you need it. I’ll just be a minute."

Ran nodded again and slid into the tub, luxuriating in the hot water. It helped to relax him, but the tension didn’t completely vanish until Yohji joined him in the tub and held him once more.

"You were upset about something earlier. What was it?"

How did he explain how much he hated to be around other people, especially to someone who craved attention and social interaction? "I… is there really going to be a party tonight? I don’t want to be around a bunch of people and noise." It was beginning to sink in with Ran that his life was going to profoundly change in a direction he’d never imagined. That scared him, even here with Yohji holding him close.

"We don’t have to stick around for very long. Just let the gang give us a few toasts, and then we’ll head to our room. We didn’t get much of a lesson in last night, and I want to be as well trained with my talent as possible." A lush mouth nibbled on his ear.

Ran sighed and melted into the embrace. "Who’s Yuriko?"

"Ah, knew you’d pick up on that. She’s Ken’s girl. He loves her silly, and the feeling’s reciprocated. One night about a year ago, I… got way too trashed and hit on her." Ran could feel how embarrassed Yohji was at recalling the event. "She punched me, and it pretty much killed my friendship with Ken. Well, you could say that event dealt it the final blow, to be truthful. We’d been screaming at each other for weeks before that, maybe that’s why I did it, to make him just go away."

"Hn."

A hand tugged on one of his eartails but Ran was too tired to do more than paw at Yohji’s wrist. "I love you Aya. Even more than Ken loves Yuriko, and they can be downright sappy together. Even worse than Omi and the little demon."

"I know, Yohji." Uncomfortable with saying the words, Ran let his emotions wash through their link. Yohji’s mouth kissed his neck, a smile on the lush lips, but the gesture was more one of affection than lust and the two of them lapsed into a peaceful silence.

Ran let his eyes drift shut. Terrified as he was, this was his life now: Yohji’s world. Or would be, if he could withstand the ‘blood, pain and sacrifice’ Jei had warned him about. But for Yohji he’d suffer through it. He’d do pretty much anything to be held like this by the man. Drifting off to sleep, Ran had one last thought. He’d have to get used to being Aya now.

*******

Yohji surveyed the cloth-covered shapes scattered about the huge attic, and thanks to his enhanced night vision easily found the objects he was searching for. "Hey, they’re over here."

"What? Give me a sec to light this thing." Mickey fumbled with a lantern, and moments later light flooded the dark room.

"You know, if we ever cleaned all this out, we could easily fit another seven rooms up here, at least. Maybe even ten," Teddy commented as he rolled up the sleeves of his light blue robe. Beside him was Koyu, who had changed out of his normal red attire for an outfit that wouldn’t show dust quite so badly.

Mickey half groaned and half chuckled. "Don’t tell me, I’m very aware of that fact. But we’d spend months on all the books up here alone, not to mention the boxes of clothes, furniture and so forth. Though all the antiques could probably pay the Koneko’s taxes for the next decade or two."

"Yeah, well I have every intention of siccing Aya on the books after the wedding. I figure we can easily convert a room or two into a library, especially if that new wing is added on like you want, Mick."

The burly man grunted and nodded his head. "A library would be good, but it would take Aya a good year or two to go through all the books Uncle Touya collected and organize them."

Which was perfect, in Yohji’s mind. It would give his lover something to do, and possibly grant him a bit of peace if Aya was too busy to get into any trouble. If the man was up here no patrons could try and steal him away from Yohji. As if that could ever happen, seeing as they were mates. It still amazed him how he’d transformed from such a slut into not even wanting to look at another person. His appetite was focused solely on Aya.

"Good thing he’s sticking around then." The thought of Aya remaining at his side forever still made Yohji smile, and he had a feeling he’d be doing it for some time to come.

"I’ll have you know, Yotan, that you’re becoming as much of a slave driver as Mickey. Hey, take a look at this." Teddy lifted the sheet he’d been peeking under and revealed an ornate mirror. The silver glass was surrounded by carved oak with patterns of leaves all over the frame and base. It was a lovely piece of art.

Koyu reverently touched the standing mirror. "It’s beautiful."

"Why don’t you put it in your room then?" Yohji glanced over at the couple and stopped lifting the sheet from his mother’s desk when he saw the stunned expression on their faces.

"You really think we should have it, Yohji?" Teddy’s voice was uncharacteristically quiet. "It’s lovely, and definitely one of the antiques Mickey was talking about. It should be kept safe up here."

He shook his head. "All it’s doing up here is collecting dust. I already have a mirror, and I’m not about to let that be put in one of the guest rooms. It’d vanish in a heartbeat. Besides, all the stuff up here is _ours_. Mom left it to all of us, so take it."

The three men continued to look stunned, causing Yohji to sigh. He guessed he’d never thought much of it before, but Teddy and Mickey were probably used to considering the Koneko as the place they grew up and where they’d always have a home and jobs, and that was it. The inn itself had been left to Yohji, though he knew his mom had wanted him to share. He’d planned on passing it on to any kids he spawned but that wasn’t going to happen now, and he doubted there’d be any surprises showing up in the future. Soon after he’d discovered the joys of sex his mom had marched him down to Botan’s study to purchase a charm that prevented any pregnancies on the part of his female lovers. No, so that meant the Koneko would pass through Mickey’s children, considering that Teddy had Koyu. Unless the couple adopted.

It hurt, seeing all this stuff and realizing he’d have to leave it behind one day. Maybe he could figure out a way to take his mom’s furniture with him, but there was no chance that he’d be able to keep all of this stuff. Yohji figured it might as well go to his family here at the Koneko.

"Take it, Teddy, and anything else that piques your interest. That seems to be the best way to clear this place out. It’s time these things saw the light of day again."

Tugging at the sheet once again, Yohji was surprised when Mickey hurried over and helped him to fold the dust-covered cloth. The older man stared at him intently for the minute it took to complete the task.

"Got something you want to say, Mick?"

"What’s with the sudden change of heart?"

"Don’t know what you’re talking about. There’s nothing sudden about this. I just never gave much thought to all the stuff up here before until I got my gram’s bed out of storage." Yohji bent down to inspect the desk and was relieved to see it was still in excellent shape. For a moment he saw his mother sitting behind it, the light from the office window dancing on the gold highlights in her brown hair. She’d always hidden candy in one of the drawers, and as he opened it the scent of sugar and oranges filled the air.

Teddy walked over and peered inside the drawer. "Oh, I thought there might be something in there from the way it still smells. I can remember sitting in her lap as she balanced the books, sucking on a piece of candy."

She’d done that with him too, and Yohji always thought of the woman when he saw the orange candy. The memories he had of his mother was one of the reasons he’d chosen to retrieve her furniture from the attic, considering that at the moment Aya didn’t have enough belongings to fill more than a drawer or two. If he couldn’t have his mother witness his newfound happiness, at least he’d have a part of her around, plus think of all the fun he’d have dragging Aya around shopping to buy things now that they had room for them.

"It seems to be in really good shape, just needs a little cleaning off first."

Koyu patted Yohji on the shoulder. "I know you have plans for the day, so why don’t you get Aya and go have some fun. Teddy and I’ll clean the stuff in thanks for the mirror. And I think we three can manage the furniture on our own."

Yohji wanted to argue, but between the three looks he was getting and the temptation of more time with Aya, he soon caved in. "You guys just want me out of the way while you scarf up all the good stuff. Remember, don’t touch the books."

"No, I have the impression that Aya would be after us if he found out we’d deprived him of something new to read. Get going, Yohji." Mickey shoved him towards the door.

Dusting off his hands, Yohji left. He straightened out his clothes as he descended from the Koneko’s top floor, grateful that he hadn’t gotten much dust on his blue pants and black shirt. It only took him a minute to reach his bedroom.

Creeping inside the dark room, Yohji made his way to the bed. The curtains were drawn back on the side facing the door, and he could clearly see Aya curled up inside. There was a frown on the pale face, and the man was sleeping tucked into a ball. Yohji gingerly sat down on the bed and reached out his hand.

Just before he touched the redhead’s hair, his hand was seized. Aya blinked his eyes for a moment, the frown becoming more pronounced, and then he used his hold to tug Yohji down beside him. Not about to complain, Yohji curled up beside his lover.

"You still tired?"

"Hn." Aya buried his nose in the crook of Yohji’s neck then sat up, sneezing ferociously. "Where were you?"

"In the attic. Sorry, cat, I thought I got all the dust off me." He rose from the bed, stripping off his shirt as he did so, and paused to fish a clean handkerchief out of one of his drawers and tossed it at Aya. "You allergic to dust or something?"

"No, I just didn’t expect to inhale a nose full of the stuff." Aya glared at him over the piece of cloth as his sneezes started to die down.

"Don’t look at me like that -- wait until you see your new furniture." Finding a white shirt that was clean, Yohji pulled it on and returned to the bed. "On second thought, you’re pretty darn cute when you pout."

"I don’t pout, Yohji," Aya snarled. Biting back on a laugh over just how adorable Aya looked at the moment, his nose slightly red and rubbing his eyes, all the while trying to glare, Yohji grabbed his mate by the shoulders and jerked him upwards for a kiss.

A pair of arms encircled his neck, and after a not too friendly nip to his top lip, Aya kissed him back. It took all of Yohji’s willpower not to end up back in bed, but Aya had just recovered from all the fun they’d had last night and this morning so he figured he’d better behave. Besides, the Royal Library closed to the public in a few hours, and if they started anything now, Yohji wasn’t too sure they’d make it to the building in time today. He really wanted to see Aya’s face when the man found out that was their destination for the day.

"Hmm, you taste so incredibly good." He was addicted to the sunlight that filled him just from holding Aya close. With a groan Yohji reluctantly pulled away from the pale man, rubbing his hands along his thighs to dispel the pain that crawled along his skin now that it wasn’t in contact with Aya anymore. Every day it took his breath away to discover just how tied he was to his mate, and that he literally couldn’t live without him.

Aya gazed at him for a moment, violet eyes filled with passion as he shivered and reached for the shirt he’d set aside before taking his nap. The dark purple material highlighted his eyes and pale skin, and black pants completed the outfit. It only took Aya a minute to pull on his boots and wrap a belt around his waist, a dagger added as an afterthought.

He couldn’t resist pulling the crimson eartails out from under the shirt, although Yohji only tugged lightly on one. Aya sighed and shook his head, glaring briefly before tugging his hood up. Waiting until the kage had pulled on his gloves, Yohji seized one of Aya’s hands and led him down the steps.

A nervous Touya greeted them when they reached the first floor. "Something wrong, Touya?" The young man didn’t usually twitch when he saw Yohji, unless he was up to some mischief. Teddy had definitely been a bad influence on the younger man.

"Uhm, well…" Touya fidgeted from foot to foot, and Yohji noticed he was hiding his hands behind his back; in fact, he had shoved them back there when he and Aya had come downstairs.

"What’s going on? Don’t tell me you’re playing another prank on Ani; her girlfriend promised to break your arm if you did that again." Zhing hadn’t appreciated finding the sweet girl crying upon discovering her doll collection had been tied to her ceiling, and only Jo being the one to decide Touya’s punishment for yet another practical joke had kept her from breaking one of his bones then and there. Touya didn’t mean any harm, but sometimes he went too far.

The young man blushed and lowered his head until his black hair covered his face. "No, I’m not playing a joke again. I promised not to, after making Ani cry. Are you going out? I’ll see you later." Touya tried to edge around the wall, never turning his back to Yohji for even an instant.

The nice thing about being tall and lanky was that he had a rather long reach. Snagging his friend by the shoulder, Yohji hauled Touya forward and snatched the object he’d been hiding. Which turned out to be a small-ish sized present wrapped in violet paper.

"What the hell is this? Does it explode or something?" It was then that Yohji noticed the silver tag with Aya’s name on it dangling from a ribbon.

"Ah, that just arrived a few minutes ago. A courier dropped it off."

Someone had sent Aya a present. While not averse to the idea in general, Yohji realized he was growling softly. Someone had sent Aya a present. _His_ Aya.

The man in question glanced over his shoulder at the package. "It looks like a book."

"Everything looks like a book to you. You’ve spent too damn much of your life reading," Yohji snapped. Aya stared at him in wonder for a moment, clearly surprised by the angry tone Yohji had used, and then stepped back, his face a blank mask. Cursing under his breath, Yohji jerked a hand through his hair and offered his lover a shaky smile. "Sorry, I’m not angry with you."

Aya didn’t say anything, which caused him to grind his teeth together. Touya had no idea how close he came to being hit when he reached out and tapped the package.

"I was going to give this to Jo or Mickey and leave it to them to decide what to do with it, but as long as you know… aren’t you gonna open it, Aya?"

Yohji scowled at the man and started to tear at the paper wrapping. "He’s not getting near it until I find out what it is." It might be a message from his masters, or something worse. Aya radiated anger and irritation, at least until the present was uncovered. Then, quicker than Yohji could imagine, he reached forward and snatched the book out of his hand.

Flipping through the pages for a moment, Aya reverently closed the book. "It’s very old, and from Esset. It’s a book of legends, some I’ve never even seen before." Trust his cat to get all excited about a bunch of dumb stories.

Snatching back the book, Yohji searched through it for any notes or messages, earning a hiss from Aya at his rough treatment. "There’s nothing in it, no note or anything. Which means we don’t know who sent it or what they want." His last words sunk in, causing Aya to pull away and appear emotionless once again. It seemed the man didn’t appreciate receiving a present and not knowing what, if any, strings were attached. Well, neither did Yohji, and he was going to find out who was behind it and what they wanted. And it better not be Aya.

He handed the present to Touya. "Put this in Mickey’s office. We’ll try to puzzle it out later, after we get back." Yohji refused to have his day ruined and wanted to put the mystery behind him and make Aya happy again. Touya did as he was bid, and Yohji seized Aya’s hand again and tugged him towards the door.

As soon as they were out on the street he turned around and whispered in his mate’s ear. "Did you sense anything from that book?"

"Nothing. There weren’t any spells attached to it." Aya was still a bit upset with him, but nervous about the present as well. Lifting a gloved hand to his lips, Yohji pressed a kiss against it and forced a smile.

"We’ll figure it out later, but most likely you have a secret admirer. Now Jo has told me that we have to come back with a pound of pure white sugar for her or she’ll have both our hides… well, mine at least. And Kira needs yellow thread to mend some duvets, and Koyu asked for more harp strings. We better hurry and get all those things so I can show you my surprise." He hurried down the street, tugging Aya after him.

*******

Yuushi stared down at the folded blue coat in his lap. He’d removed his uniform after finishing his shift that afternoon and had sunk down on his bed staring at it. Unsure of how long he’d been like this, he shook his head and shrugged his stiff shoulders.

The Guards had been his life, ever since he could remember. His father had been one, as Honjyous had been for the past couple of centuries, and it had always been expected that he would follow in the man’s footsteps. When his parents had died in an accident when he was fourteen, it was the Guards who had supported and looked out for him. As soon as he was old enough, two years later, he’d joined and had never regretted it. At least not until recently.

He enjoyed helping people, enjoyed being a force of justice and security. Some people joined because they sought out danger and excitement, some because it was a good, if risky job. But Yuushi had done it to help people. And that was what he’d done, until the past year, when Kudoh had retired. The man had been an assistant of sorts to Manx, and she’d needed someone to take his place. Yuushi had assumed some of the responsibility and Kikyou the rest, and from there it had been more and more politics and less assisting the unfortunate.

Finding out yesterday that he wasn’t suitable to be the Captain, and that Kikyou, an intelligent and hard working but hardly a compassionate man, had truly hurt. It had left Yuushi wondering if he should remain a Guard or not. Then to have that strange man show up…

He reminded Yuushi of Kikyou, oddly enough. As with the older Guard, he’d been torn between acceptance and revulsion the whole time the cloaked man had spoken. Oh, he’d woven an interesting tale, that was for certain, of a possible future for the Guards that would restore them to their former glory and save the organization from its slide into politics and compromises. Yuushi hadn’t been aware that things had been that bad, he thought ruefully for a moment. But some of the words spoken had had a ring of truth.

So, did he betray his oath and friends in hopes of a better future, or was it a betrayal as well to sit here and do nothing? That was what he had to decide, along with whether or not he’d involve his friends in the matter. It would be kind of hard to hide a conspiracy from those two, and he could always use their help.

*******

Yohji groaned as he set down the huge stack of books he’d carried halfway across the damn capital. It had been a huge mistake to take Aya to the Royal Library last week, since the man had dragged him back to the place almost every day. At least Mickey was happy not to have most of the Koneko’s budget going to bookstores anymore. But his poor back….

The man responsible for his pain sat down on their bed and started to flip through the pages of one of the books he’d carried back to the Koneko, causing Yohji to sigh at the sight. Once Aya started to read he’d be risking his life to touch the man. He’d better get started then.

Pulling off his shirt as he walked over to the bed, Yohji quickly grabbed the book and set it aside on the nightstand. When Aya glared at him he hauled the man up for a kiss. A pair of arms wrapped around him, and Yohji found himself being yanked onto the bed. After a moment of wrestling he ended up lying on his back with his hands trapped at his sides and Aya sitting on his stomach, not a very happy look on his face.

Damn, he’d forgotten about Aya’s weapons training. While he had the advantage in reach and strength, Aya was the quicker and better trained of the two of them. Though on the whole, he didn’t have much of a problem with the situation. Not when Aya was pressed against him and the two of them were in his bed.

"Ah, you’re reading my mind, love. In a mood to play too?"

"Yohji…" Aya released his hands and sat back on his heels. "I want to read."

"Aya, you’ll have centuries and centuries to read. Have some fun while you can." Moving with blinding speed, Yohji grabbed an eartail and used it to yank his mate back onto his chest. "Here, let me show you how it’s done." He reversed their positions and started to kiss Aya with a great deal of enthusiasm.

Just when he’d gotten the man to stop growling and kiss him back, there was a knock on the door. Growling some himself, Yohji sat up and cursed when the idiot banging on the door wouldn’t go away.

The idiot turned out to be Brad. Before he could tell the man to fuck off, Brad slid into the room and settled himself into a chair.

"Good afternoon. I see you’re still trying to control your hunger, Yohji." The precog’s face was impassive, but there was a sardonic hint in Brad’s voice that suggested he found a rumpled and furious Yohji very amusing. It didn’t help to cool his ardor as Aya was sitting on their bed, equally rumpled and with kiss-swollen lips. Yohji wanted to kick the bastard out of his room and return to what he’d been doing.

"Brad, get to whatever the hell it is you want and get the hell out of our room." Only the fact that they needed the man for his talent kept Yohji from strangling him. Gods, he hated to be interrupted in mid-pounce. He sank down on the bed beside Aya and pulled his mate into his arms. Aya leaned against him, their bodies fitting perfectly together in such a way it started Yohji’s heart racing again. With all the blood rushing through his veins he missed what Brad had said.

"What was that?"

The dark-haired man sighed and removed his glasses to clean them. "I said, there will be guests tonight for dinner. Cassandra and her… new boyfriend will be attending."

Noting the way that Brad had sneered the last few words, Yohji frowned at the man as he combed an eartail. "You mean Botan, don’t you? What the hell do you have against the man?"

"He’s a wizard. Ask your mate about the scars on his wrist, or even better, try talking to Farfie one day. You’d best be wearing a suit of armor if you bring up the topic of wizards in his presence, but he has every right to go berserk at the mere mention of the creatures. They cost him his eye and much more. I’ve sent him out on enough errands to keep him out of the Koneko until midnight at least, since it’s never a very good idea to have him in the general vicinity of any wizards you don’t want killed."

Finding that to be a little too much information, Yohji shook his head. "What happened to you getting to the point?"

Brad glared at him once his glasses were replaced. "You asked, I answered. Anyway, Cass and Botan will be coming here tonight. We need a wizard to help free Aya’s sister, so don’t be surprised if I pull the man aside at some point. Cass and my visions are indicating that now is the time to involve him in our affairs."

Yohji could feel Aya tense in his embrace, and he smoothed his hands down the man’s arms. "Just how much is he going to be involved? Will you tell him the truth?" He didn’t like the idea of anyone else finding out that Aya was a kage, even an old friend like Botan -- especially an old friend like Botan, who was a wizard and had influence and power. If the man wanted to snatch Aya away from him, it could lead to one hell of a fight.

"I’ll tell him as much as I need to. We must have his cooperation, as the one thing this group lacks is the ability to cast spells." Blue eyes clouded over for a moment, and then Brad nodded his head. "However, I foresee no problems arising from having him join us. I happen to have a few powerful incentives to keep him in line."

"Whatever. If he poses any problems, let me know. The nice thing about having such a big garden is all that ground to bury a body in." It should shock Yohji how he could be so ruthless toward an old friend, but new instincts drove him to protect Aya by any means necessary. If that meant Botan’s death, he’d raise a drink to the man after he disposed of the body. It was as simple as that.

Rising to his feet, the precog smiled evilly in Aya’s direction. "Oh, I don’t think you’ll need to go so far as to dig a hole. As long as there’s a flesh gaki-bound present, disposing of bodies is never a problem. Right, Aya?" Having uttered that cryptic question, Brad left the room.

Looking at his lover in puzzlement, Yohji asked what the man had meant. Aya pressed his lips together for a moment, and with a glare on his face informed Yohji of what had really happened to his assailant a couple weeks back.

"Huhn, Farfie really ate him? No wonder he wasn’t very hungry for a day or two after that." Yohji tugged gently on an eartail. "Guess you can take care of yourself, though I wish the bastard was alive so I could kill him. Now I’m deprived of my fun." Grinning wickedly, Yohji flipped Aya onto the bed and pinned him down once more. Judging from the heavy lidded gaze he was receiving, Aya had probably allowed him to do that.

"Well, if I can’t have my fun decapitating would be rapists, I guess I’ll have to find it elsewhere. You have any suggestions, love?"

Aya didn’t say anything but merely pulled his head down for an intense kiss. Yohji thanked all the gods above and below that his mate was a doer and not a talker.

 

*******

Jo sighed when a gaily-wrapped box was set before her on the table. "Not another one?"

"I’m afraid so," Mickey responded grimly. "So when do we let Yohji know about it? Feel like having him blow up before or after dinner?"

Not relishing the idea of Yohji ranting and snarling at anyone who got within two meters of Aya for the rest of the night, Jo shook her head. This was the third present for Aya that had arrived this week, delivered by a courier who had no clue who had sent it. Yohji had damn near pinned the second courier to the wall and hadn’t let him go until the man had pleaded for his life and claimed to know nothing about the gift’s sender. That hadn’t been a pretty scene.

It was clear that the sender had a thing for Aya and knew a few things about the man. The first present had been a book that the redhead even now all but drooled over whenever he caught a glimpse of it, and the second one had been a box of the cookies he loved. The latest present appeared to be another book, and there was a sprig of lavender tucked in the silver bow. That the presents didn’t seem to be random objects and were in fact things that Aya would enjoy worried Jo and the others to no end.

Whoever the person was sending the gifts, they knew too much about Aya. It was the man’s first time here in the capital, and he wasn’t exactly a friendly and talkative sort. So, how did the giver know that he loved history books and almond cookies? Most secret admirers would send flowers and chocolates, perhaps even a piece of jewelry. Not this one.

"We’ll tell him after dinner. That way, he’ll drag Aya up to their room and stay in there the rest of the night, though I pity anyone who goes near him tomorrow."

Mickey chuckled grimly. "That’s the understatement of the century. Damn. I’ll let Koyu and Ken know about the gift, and maybe this time they can find something out before all the couriers in the city are too terrified to deliver anything here. The customers won’t like that."

Jo picked at the fresh sprig of lavender, thinking of how often Yohji and Aya would come in from the garden smelling of the herb. "No, that wouldn’t be a good thing. Neither is Yohji losing it over the gifts. One of these days he might go too far, considering how short his temper is with anything that threatens Aya to begin with. He’s been getting better lately, at least until these damn gifts started showing up."

"Yeah, Cass had a talk with him apparently. She mentioned that when she stopped by for more herbs the other day." Rising to his feet, Mickey helped himself to some coffee from the ever-present pot on the stove. He added a liberal dollop of the whiskey Jo kept for cooking to the beverage and returned to his seat. "You notice how he hasn’t said a word about what he is?"

Grimacing, Jo snagged Mickey’s coffee and helped herself to a swallow. "Hm, nice and strong. I need to tell Yotan to pick me up another bottle of that stuff." She then rested her hands on the table and twisted her fingers together. "I noticed that, and I’ve told myself not to take it personally. I can only imagine how hard it was on Yohji to discover what he really is. One thing is for sure, you won’t convince me that Aya isn’t a bound now. Just try to tell me he doesn’t know what Yohji is, especially with the way he acts around the man. He has to be one as well."

"Guess we know why he’s been so abused then. Question is, is his current master responsible for his scars or are they from a previous one? If Aya’s lord does know what he is… it’ll make keeping him safe a touch difficult." Mickey finished his drink in one big gulp and got up to mix himself another one, and a mug for Jo as well.

"Considering how attached Yohji’s become to him, that isn’t an option any longer. Aya remains, or Yotan goes with him. I’m not ready to lose him just yet." The dumb blond was like her own child, all of the younger Koneko staff was. Having lost the only child she’d ever had to one of her husband’s thunderous rages, Jo had rebuilt her family here at the Koneko. Miyuki had been like her sister, Ichiyo had restored her faith in men, and Yohji, Mickey and Teddy had become her children, as had Kira, Ani and Touya. Now Aya and Naoe had been adopted as well, and she didn’t want to lose any of them. Losing one child had been more than enough.

Sipping her drink, Jo sighed as she pushed the present away from her. "Do you think it’s from his master?"

"Aya’s not panicked enough for that, I think. No, most likely the man’s snagged someone’s attention and they want his in return." Mickey picked up the package and frowned at it distastefully. "I hope the person reveals themself soon, so they can find out in no uncertain terms that Aya is already taken. You missed seeing him almost hit that friend of Lilla’s who tried to get him upstairs the other night. As it was, the look he gave her nearly had her crawling under a table in fear. It was a good thing that Ken and Schu managed to distract Yohji during that little episode."

"I’ve a feeling that there will be many more in the future. Mark my words, Aya is going to be trouble for Yohji." Jo glanced over at Mickey and shook her head, preventing him from leaping to the redhead’s defense. "Hear me out first before you start arguing with me. I’m not saying that I wish he’d never come here, and I’ll lock him in a room before I let him leave. But he’s going to be trouble, no doubt about it. However, he’s given us our Yotan back, more or less, so I’m eternally in Aya’s debt. I couldn’t take seeing Yohji drink himself to death anymore."

Mickey grinned at her. "Well, at least he’s stopped with the growls, for the most part, though Ani told me to be real careful when entering a room when Yohji and Aya are collecting the linens. I’d say that they’re determined to try out all the beds in the Koneko, but Ani said that wasn’t what she caught them bent over." A slight blush spread along the dark-haired man’s cheeks.

Jo chuckled softly. "We survived Koyu and Teddy doing that, so I’m sure we’ll survive Yohji and Aya too. Now go hide that thing before they come down here for a snack and we have to put up with a pissed off and jealous Yohji all night."

"Yes, ma’am."

*******

Botan watched as Yohji picked Cassandra up and swung her around, planting a loud, wet kiss on her cheek. "I swear, you get lovelier by the day, Cass. I should have you stay here at the Koneko, so everyone will hit on you and not Aya." The blond man then set Cassandra down on her feet.

But the tiny woman didn’t remain standing for long, as Schuldig was the next person to demand her attention. "Red really suits you, mom." He too picked her up and swung her around, and the sound of Cassandra’s laughter filled the inn. Botan couldn’t help but smile, and once the woman was on her feet again he tugged her over to the table.

Cassandra returned his smile and fussed with the skirt of her long crimson gown so it wouldn’t wrinkle as she sat. She’d dressed for an evening of dancing, and Botan was looking forward to being her partner all night long. He needed a break from all the spell casting and research he’d done lately. When he joined her on the bench, she hugged his arm tightly before returning her attention to the young men gathered around her.

"Shame on you, Trouble and Yotan, for mishandling an old woman so."

"You’ll never be old, beautiful," Yohji said with a charming smile. He was sitting with his arm around Aya’s shoulders, his fingers entwined in a crimson eartail. The green of his laced shirt made his eyes appear even more vivid than usual, framed as they were by strands of dark gold hair that fell onto the man’s handsome face. For a moment Botan stared at the former Guard as if in a trance then he shook his head as he glanced to the side. Yohji did that to him from time to time, even though he’d never felt attracted to the blond.

So it came as a bit of a surprise when he glanced at Yohji’s lover and felt his attention become ensnared in a similar fashion. Aya’s pale skin glowed in the candlelight, contrasting with his bright red hair and dark clothes. He was wearing a black shirt with a high neck and full sleeves, the clothing giving him an archaic and formal look. Violet eyes lifted from staring at the tabletop to gaze back at him, and it was Botan who looked away first, unable to figure out what it was that had made him gawk like that at the redhead. His preferences didn’t run towards men.

Sliding his arm around Cassandra’s waist, he held up his mug to be filled by Teddy, who was serving everyone mead. The strong, sweet drink almost made him cough, and for a moment Botan cautioned himself against drinking too much before being drawn in to the conversation between Schuldig and Brad.

"I still say that if bounds hadn’t been created, Esset would have won the war." Having stated his opinion, Brad leaned back from the table, crossing his arms over his chest. With his impassive features and white tunic, he reminded Botan of the priest who had taught him how to read. Both men had a similar air of conviction to them, though he realized that Pietr would most likely have died by now. Sometimes it shook him to remember that he was a bit older than he looked, and that not all people aged as slowly as he did.

Schuldig pushed his mug of mead to the side and rested his elbows on the table. "But Kritiker had the bigger of the two armies back then, and you can’t convince me that they were that badly trained."

"Kritiker only had the bigger army if you counted its navy along with its ground troops. Since Esset is landlocked, part of the reason it was invading Kritiker in the first place, all of its troops were ground forces." Brad adjusted his glasses, and no one said a word as they digested that little-known fact. "They had at least twenty more battalions than Kritiker did and were just as well trained."

Truly interested in the subject now, especially as he wondered at Brad’s phrasing, and his implication that it had been Esset who had instigated the conflict, Botan forgot about getting something to eat. Ever since the Binding War, scholars from various countries had debated who had attacked whom first, and still hadn’t come up with a conclusive answer. Yet, the dark-haired man clearly had his own opinion on the matter and some information to back it up. Botan sipped at his drink and pulled Cassandra closer to him.

It seemed that the answer stymied Schuldig for a moment, as he paused in the debate and appeared to be thinking furiously. Then he smiled and started to play with a strand of his hair. "Yes, but Kritiker had the better wizards. Esset’s wizard had hated any and all competition and had pretty much killed or driven away any real competitors. The lucky ones who managed to escape found sanctuary in Kritiker."

"That is true, but I’ll take one utterly ruthless, incredibly talented mage over a dozen or so less talented and softhearted ones any day. Morals can be quite a handicap when one decides what spells to use against an enemy. Isn’t that right, Botan?"

Surprised at being included in the debate, Botan blinked his eyes and set his wine cup down. Teddy again refilled it as he considered the question directed towards him. "I’m afraid I have to agree with you. Part of the reason the war became so bloody was because Esset’s wizard had no compunction about binding demons and using them to slaughter Kritiker’s troops. The amount of damage a cadre of gaki alone can do is horrifying, and they’re among the lesser demons. I read one account of the wizard loosing oni on a battalion, and in minutes there weren’t any survivors. No, one mage with the ability to bind and order demons can do ten times as much damage as one who refrains from such action."

Omi tentatively raised a hand and smiled at him. "Why would a wizard choose not to, Botan?"

Feeling the need for a little more alcohol if he was going to discuss such grisly matters, Botan sipped from his cup. "Because it’s never a wise thing to mess with demons. We know so little about them, even after all this time. It’s still a matter of debate what exactly shinigami do, though we know they are the most powerful of the demons we’ve discovered, and are always around the dying. But one thing that wizards have found out is that the creatures have a very long memory and resent being trapped and forced to obey commands. Make one mistake with their binding, or overestimate your strength and abilities, and they will take advantage of that weakness. Which usually ends with the death of the fool who summoned them and everyone else within a kilometer radius or two. Most wizards decide they’re not worth the hassle and let them be. But Esset’s wizard…."

Botan shook his head. "The theory is that it was Kritiker’s wizard who created bounds in an effort to counter his enemy’s demon summoning. He wanted a means of fighting back that wouldn’t be quite so destructive and hoped to limit the damage by binding demons to humans. Not that the end justified the means."

He lifted his cup and drained it. It was depressing as hell to talk about the Binding War and its repercussions. As soon as his glass was set back down, it was filled again.

Schuldig played with the cuffs of his black tunic and tossed his hair back over his shoulders. "Well, it’s pretty useless arguing over this, considering that almost everyone involved is now dead." For some reason that sounded odd, but the potent alcohol was starting to affect Botan, in part due to a day spent renewing wards and sacrificing his lunchtime to comb through more of his books, all for nothing. And now he was skipping dinner in favor of drink -- not very smart of him. Shouldn’t someone be ordering food by now? Botan then realized that the table was littered with empty plates, and if he wanted something to eat, he’d better order it himself.

Looking about for a server, he was distracted when the debate was continued. "You just don’t want to concede defeat, Schuldig." A slight smile tugged at Brad’s face, growing when Schuldig muttered and cursed under his breath. It seemed that there wasn’t much love lost between the two men.

"Hmph, as if you would ever admit that _you_ were wrong, Brad," Cassandra chided. "Besides, this is not a topic suited for a night of friendship and merriment. Leave the past behind, and let us talk of the future. Yotan, when will you bring your Aya back for more clothes? I have some new fabric in, and I’ve noticed a few of your tunics are worn as well."

Teddy chuckled and waved his hands in Yohji’s direction. "Yeah, they’re looking threadbare alright. It’s from the constant friction of being pulled on and off. You better take that into account when you make new outfits for the both of them."

The comment provoked laughter from Schuldig, Koyu and Omi, and a smile from Brad and Naoe. Botan swore he even heard Cassandra giggle softly and had to admit that the remark seemed to be dead on from the little he’d heard of Yohji’s relationship with his boyfriend. The lanky blond cursed and tossed a chicken bone at Teddy, while Aya settled for glaring at everyone seated at the table.

"As if you can talk, Teddy. Ani said that if she had to restock the sheets in your and Koyu’s room one more time this week, you’re gonna be stuck hauling the laundry to the washers. I think it was the strawberry stains that really had her pissed off." Yohji’s face took on a wicked expression. "I wonder if those are from the same strawberries that Jo had been saving for her pies."

The red tint to both Teddy and Koyu’s cheeks proved that Yohji’s guess had been correct. Schuldig just managed to snag the bottle of mead before it could be thrown and poured more for him, his mother and Botan. As Yohji and Teddy started to trade insults, egged on by Schuldig and Omi, Botan sipped his drink and wondered if it would be possible to order some food before he ended up with a hangover. Where were the damn servers? He glanced around the room futilely and then sighed as he returned his attention to observing his dinner companions.

Teddy and Yohji were still insulting each other, much to Schuldig and Omi’s amusement. The younger man was laughing and adding fuel to the fire by recalling incidents both men would much prefer to be forgotten. Omi had his arm wrapped around Naoe’s shoulders and was leaning against the smaller youth, appearing happier than Botan could recall the prince looking in a very long time. Schuldig and Koyu were laughing too much to talk, and Brad had an inscrutable smile on his face. Beside him, Cassandra covered her mouth with her hands, giggling all the while she protested about her poor virgin ears.

That left one other person at the table, who seemed to be doing his best not to attract any attention. His eyes rested on Aya, Botan drunkenly mused on how much the quiet man looked like the drawing of Aidan he’d unearthed the other day. The kage’s hair had been depicted as a lighter red with copper highlights, and her eyes more blue than violet, but they both had the same high cheekbones and thin eyebrows. No, Aya’s hair most resembled Ban’s, it being the color of blood. It was a particular shade that he’d never seen before, outside of pictures of the first kage and his mother… though Katsumi’s hair was only a little darker… and her eyes were the same shade of purple as Aya’s… wait, no, just now they appeared to be silver due to the light from the candles reflecting in them….

A feeling of cold seized Botan as he strung his thoughts together. The one thing all the kage had in common, besides their tragic fates, had been pale skin, reddish hair, and unusually colored eyes that ran the spectrum from pale violet to dark indigo. The three physically rare characteristics matched Aya perfectly. While there were at least four other people with red hair in the common room that Botan could see, none of their hair matched the deep intensity of Aya’s, nor had he ever seen anyone with that particular shade of eyes. He’d also never seen anyone with such pale skin, and he remembered hearing Omi mention that being in sunlight burned Aya and made him tired.

He had to be going crazy from overwork and too much alcohol, but… Aya had shown up in the capital just as his auguries had predicted darkness arriving. He resembled the kage of the past, enough that he could pass as close kin to Aidan, and he avoided the sun. Not to mention his eyes reflecting the light, just as he’d read of in the descriptions of the dead kage.

Suddenly something wet was spilled onto his arm and chest, and Botan dazedly looked to his side to see Schuldig frowning at him apologetically. "Oops, I must have drunk a little too much. Let’s go get you dried off." Before he could say a thing, the longhaired man yanked him to his feet and started to drag him out of the room.

Botan looked back over his shoulder to catch another glimpse of Aya, only to have his vision blocked by Brad, who was following him closely. The next thing he knew he was out in the hallway, and instead of being led to the kitchen or a wash room, he was shoved into an office. Pulling together his scattered thoughts, he tried to incant a spell that would force the two men to let go of him and step aside.

Only to find that he couldn’t speak. Brad smiled at him maliciously and shoved him into a chair, as Botan’s body collapsed. No matter how much he tried, he couldn’t force his body to obey his commands.

"Don’t bother trying, because it’s not going to work. You think we’re going to let a wizard cast any spells against us? No way in hell." Schuldig pulled a chair from the wall and set it right in front of his, sitting down in it backwards. Brad leaned against the desk, and both men regarded him with some amusement. Anger started to burn through his inebriation.

Brad pushed his glasses up his nose and smiled. "I must say I enjoy having a mage helpless before me. Just the thought of paying your kind back for all the pain and hardship you’ve caused my race is grounds enough for happiness. Understand this right now, if we didn’t need you, I’d hand you over to a certain one-eyed gentleman and let him have his fun. But we do, so unfortunately you won’t be harmed. As long as you choose wisely."

Why the hell were Cassandra’s son and his friend doing this to him? And how had they incapacitated him? Had there been something in the mead? Botan hadn’t noticed any spell cast or activated in his presence during the evening.

<No, it wasn’t a spell, nor was anything slipped in your drink; we need you able to think. As for how we’re doing it, there are other powerful creatures out there besides wizards.>

Botan’s eyes went wide as the realization sunk in. Schuldig was a soul gaki-bound, and considering the comment Brad had made about his race, the dark-haired man had to be one as well.

<Bravo, you’re on the mark again. Yes, we’re bounds, and while you haven’t gotten to it yet, I’ll tell you why we’re doing this to you. It involves a certain pale redhead.>

Aya…

"Yes, Aya. It’s about time you figured out what he is." Brad turned to look at Schuldig. "Release him enough so he can speak and move his arms. But if he tries to mutter a single spell, give him an aneurysm."

"You’re the boss."

Botan felt the pressure in his head, which he hadn’t even been aware of before, start to fade. Opening his mouth, he was surprised when a moan came out. And while he could lift his arms and move his head, the rest of his body remained paralyzed.

"What are you going to do with me? Do you seriously think that someone won’t notice it if the three of us don’t return soon?" Cassandra at least would grow worried, and possibly Omi and Yohji.

Schuldig snorted. "Yohji won’t come to your rescue; hell, if he knew that you’ve figured out what Aya is, you’d be dead right now. Omi’s being distracted by Naoe, and as for Mom…" the man grinned at him, an expression that was all teeth. "She knows what’s going on, and she won’t do a thing to prevent it"

"But… what have you done to her?" He couldn’t believe that Cassandra would sit back and let someone be hurt, especially someone who was… a friend.

Brad gave a low chuckle as he reached inside the pouch on his belt. "We haven’t done a thing to her. She foresaw what would happen tonight, and you have her to thank for bringing you here."

Cassandra had betrayed him? She’d foreseen…. "Wait, she’s a bound too? A precog?" That couldn’t be right; clairvoyants were incredibly rare, almost as rare as kage.

"And what is out there sitting next to my mother? Gods, for a supposedly bright man, you’re being rather thickheaded at the moment. Must be something about Mom’s taste in men." Schuldig spared a wry look at Brad and then returned his attention to Botan. "Let me spell this out to you. I’m a bound," he pointed at Brad, "and so is he. Like Mom, he’s a precog. Naoe’s an elemental-bound, Yohji’s a succubae-bound, and Aya is the grand prize, a kage. Here you’ve spent the past month or so trying to find out all about us and didn’t even know you were surrounded by our kind. Now then, can we get on with the matter at hand?"

All of this was too much. Here he’d spent almost every free moment he had trying to find out all he could about bounds and kage, and all he’d had to do was come down to the Koneko to get those answers. Hell, he’d known Yohji most of the younger man’s life, and he hadn’t suspected a thing.

"What do you want? You said there was a reason I’m sitting here, so you must want something." First he had to get out of this situation, somehow, then report to Birman and Shuuichi what he’d found.

<No, you won’t be telling a soul. Show him, Dad.>

Dad? Trying to figure out that revelation, Botan didn’t pay much attention when Brad held out his hand. Not until the light glittered on the silver object. Then he felt the breath leave his body, only to be replaced with pure fury. He was too angry to even try to incant a spell.

"You bastards, what have you done to her? I’ll fucking kill you! I’ll…" The words died in his throat as Schuldig sighed and shrugged his shoulders, his head turned in Brad’s direction.

"Let me clarify the situation a bit more. You will listen quietly or you won’t get any answers, and may even forfeit your life." Brad stared at him, his face inhumanly blank. "This is not the time to froth at the mouth and carry on. Hold out your hand."

Botan found himself obeying the order without any thought on his part, and the necklace, complete with the silver charm in shape of a paper flyer, was placed on his palm. The second it touched his flesh, the charm floated in the air. He felt his eyes tear at the sight. For the first time in years, he was assured that his daughter was in fact alive. The spell on the necklace was keyed to her life force. His other hand lifted to cup the spelled jewelry, and as he did so, images flooded his mind.

Some of the stored memories were from when Kaede had been a child, and a tear slipped free as he remembered the events recorded in the charm. His wife was there, and the three of them were smiling and laughing at Kaede’s seventh birthday… at the last Winter Solstice they’d spent together… a day in the park when he’d spelled a kite to fly in a windless sky… then there was a new image, of a pretty young woman with hair the same shade as his but with his wife’s hazel eyes, looking so much like the dead woman it hurt to see her. It gradually sunk in that he was seeing his daughter for the first time since she’d been abducted. A few more images flashed through his mind, of Kaede with Brad and a silver-haired, one-eyed man he remembered seeing here at the Koneko.

Then the images stopped, and he lifted a hand to wipe away his tears. The charm fell back onto his palm, the magic going dormant once again. "How… she’s alive, and safe…."

"I wouldn’t exactly say safe, but she is well and protected." Botan glanced up at Brad, a frown on his face. "Let me explain the situation. My real name is Crawford, and I’m an agent from Esset. My masters, the Elders, ordered me here. I’m to make sure that a certain prince’s plans fail, and return to my country with the kage.

"However, you might say… I’m not the most loyal of servants. Quite honestly, I want to be free, but that’s not going to happen until the Elders are dead, so I’m working towards that future with all my being. They deserve to die." For a moment, a look of pure hate replaced Brad’s impassive visage, and then his features became blank once again. "They are the ones who ordered your wife killed and your daughter taken. My partner and I had no part in that, but we have been responsible for looking after Kaede ever since she arrived in Esset."

"Why? Why did they take her? To strike at me?"

A snort answered his question. "It had very little to do with you, but with Kaede and the past. Your daughter is a very powerful elemental-bound."

The news didn’t surprise Botan since he’d had his suspicions about his child. He remembered the one time that she had fallen into a bonfire and only her clothes had been burned. There had been other such incidents during her childhood, and he’d mostly convinced himself that his daughter was taking after him and would be a wizard. But doubts had remained and they were part of the reason why Botan refused to use bound blood in his spells.

Kaede was a bound, and although he didn’t quite trust this Brad, or whatever his name was, Botan believed in the visions the charm had shown him. He’d created the jewelry and would know if it had been tampered with. The images truly had come from Kaede, and he’d sensed her affection and trust for the two men.

"I’ve heard that Esset gathers bounds, but why my daughter in particular? And what about the past?"

"As I said, your daughter is extremely powerful, and only the Elders can keep her captive. But it’s not really her power that they want, but her bloodline." Brad rose to his feet and walked over to Botan. "How far back have you had a background check done on your family?"

The question caught him by surprise. "I… both mine and my wife’s went back the standard ten generations. In that time there were no bounds born of our bloodlines."

"But several wizards," Brad commented quietly. "The search didn’t go back far enough, though to give the detectives credit, the custom of background checks had developed a couple of centuries too late to find out the truth. If you had traced your family tree back to the Binding War, you’d have discovered that you are descended from the child born of a bound impregnated by Esset’s wizard."

Botan was stunned silent by that revelation, his eyes wide and his mouth hanging open. His expression seemed to amuse Brad and Schuldig, but there was a bitter twist to their smiles.

"Yes, I can imagine how shocked you are to hear that. As bad as it is to find out that you’re descended from this country’s greatest enemy, it only gets worse. The millennium anniversary of that wizard’s death is fast approaching. That’s the real reason that Kaede was kidnapped. The Elders hope to bring back their creator’s spirit and encase it in a body of his bloodline. It’s an added bonus that your daughter is so powerful, and her bound body will age very slowly. That’s why they took her and not you."

Shock after shock made Botan’s head swim, and he sucked in a deep breath to help center him. There had been too many revelations in too few minutes, and even if he had been free he’d never have been able to focus his power to cast a spell. As he tried to prevent himself from hyperventilating, the two bounds remained as they were and stared at him.

Feeling calmer after a few minutes, he lifted his head and gazed back at them. "Why are you telling me this? You said something about having a use for me."

Schuldig smiled at him, and this time the bitterness was gone. "Nice to see you’re thinking again, Botan. Let me try and explain things as simply as possible, which is quite an undertaking.

"First off, Aya is here to kill the king. He’s been ordered to do so by his master, Prince Reiji." When Botan opened his mouth to comment the pressure returned, and Schuldig waved a finger in front of his face. "Ah ah, you’ll have your turn later. Now, I know all about your divinations, and that you’ve figured out Aya’s goal at least. I also know about the prediction that he’ll help save the king, and only the fact that you want him for that purpose and not to kill him or use him is why you’re still alive. He’s decided not to kill the king, but Reiji still has a hold over him, one that will have to be broken.

"We need your help in that regard. Reiji has his sister’s soul trapped in a sphere." Images and thoughts flooded Botan’s mind, filling it with information about the sphere. "We have to free his sister, and that will require a wizard’s help. So stop reading about bounds and get to work on that."

"At the moment, that is the main use we have for you," Brad commented coldly. "I know you’re aware that something will occur during the wedding celebration, and your presence will be ‘requested’ for that as well, though by no means will the outcome of that evening be dependent on your cooperation. Do not think for one moment that you’re not expendable. If needs be, we can even find another wizard for the problem related to Aya."

Able to speak once more, Botan smiled humorlessly at his captors. "If you really didn’t need me, I’d be dead already." Both men glared at him, growling softly all the while. "Don’t worry, we have the same goals. I’ll do whatever I can to protect the king, which my divinations predict will be best accomplished by aiding Aya and you. As for Kaede, I’ll do whatever I have to if it keeps her safe."

His words seemed to reassure the bounds as they stopped growling and backed away from him. Schuldig rose to his feet and returned his chair over to the side of the office. Botan felt the pressure in his head completely vanish, and he stood up.

"So what happens now?"

Schuldig glanced Botan’s way as he tossed his hair back over his shoulder. "I let the others know that you’ve agreed to help us, and you get to walk out of here alive."

"You know, it’s not very polite to continuously threaten an ally. I’m sure your mother taught you better manners than that."

His words had Schuldig pausing on his way to the door and staring at him in wonder. Then the longhaired man started to laugh. "You’re not that bad, for a wizard. And I’m not threatening you; I’m just making sure you know where you stand. If Yohji and Naoe suspected for one second that you’d harm or betray Aya, there’s no way Crawford, Mom or I could save your ass."

"He’s not exaggerating, either." Brad straightened up the desk he’d been leaning against and nodded at Botan. "Focus on how we’re to retrieve the sphere. I believe that replacing the object with a fake would be the best way to go about that objective. Schuldig can manage that part, but we need something that will convince Reiji and Masafumi that they still possess the girl’s soul."

Giving the matter some thought, Botan sighed and rubbed his forehead. "I have a few ideas how to go about that, but… it’ll require both blood and a soul. Also, I need more information. It seems to me that Aya would know best about the magic involved with the object." He waited to see how the bounds would react to that fact.

Schuldig chuckled lowly. "You have a good point, and I can sense how hard it is for you not to drool at the thought of talking to a kage. What do you think, Crawford, can we trust him not to snatch Aya and spend the next decade studying him?"

"I’ll inform Aya that he’s to talk to you, and find someone to sit on Yohji during the discussions." Botan wasn’t quite sure what the last comment was supposed to mean, but it had the two men smiling. "Try to limit your questions that do not pertain to the sphere. As for the blood and soul…." Brad, no Crawford’s eyes grew distant. "Those two elements will supply themselves at the proper time."

That was one less worry, but several new ones arose in Botan’s mind. "One other person knows about a kage being involved with the wedding, and knows I’m hunting for him."

"We’re aware of the Spymaster’s involvement. Say nothing to her at the moment; she has her own role to play and will find her place shortly."

Wondering what it must feel like to be able to see the future, Botan stared in amazement at the precog. What he wouldn’t give to question the man about his abilities, but something told him that… Crawford wouldn’t be very receptive to answering him. Shaking his head, Botan was startled when the office door opened.

Cassandra poked her head inside and looked about. Upon spotting him, she smiled widely and entered the room. "Ah, I see you’ve survived these two. Sorry for throwing you to the wolves like that."

Botan stared in wonder at the woman. His Cassandra had opened the door, middle-aged and grey haired, but now a young woman stood before him, in the prime of her youth and with long black hair.

She laughed and clapped her hands. "Ah, amazed you are! Do I really look that different?"

"What? How…?"

"Tis a glamour, you know. It would look odd if I appeared no older than my son, no?"

Botan made the connection between Cassandra looking old and her being a bound. "That’s right, you’ve been in the city for a couple of decades. Is this your true form?"

Cassandra graced him with a seductive smile, one that had her son groaning and scurrying from the room. "Why, is my other one not as appealing?"

Crawford came to his rescue before he had to answer that thorny question. "Cass, stop being such a teasing child. Is there a reason for your presence?"

"The music has begun, and I want a dance. I thought to come claim my partner." The young seeming woman pouted for a moment, and then tugged at Botan’s wrist. "Come come, I adore the fast dances."

They were at the door when Crawford called out. "Wizard."

"Yes?"

"Besides the necklace, I have some of your daughter’s diaries. I’ll give you one before the wedding, and the rest afterward."

"As a present, or a bribe?" Botan gazed back at the bound evenly, not surprised when his barbed question failed to provoke much of a response. "I told you, you have my help and I won’t betray you or Aya."

"I prefer to err on the side of caution. Don’t do anything that would harm or disappoint your daughter."

Refusing to answer that last comment, Botan allowed Cassandra to lead him from the room. As soon as she stepped outside, the woman appeared wrinkled and grey once more, and she gazed up at him worriedly.

"I’m sorry for not telling you the truth before now, but the future sometimes must play out a certain way."

"It’s alright, Cass." He patted her on the cheek. "I’ll gladly partner you for a dance or two, but I think after that I’m going home. I need some peace and quiet to think."

She nodded her head. "I can understand. Knowing those two, they beat you over the head with the truth. But… will you be back for coffee tomorrow?"

The hesitant tone of voice and the guarded look on Cassandra’s face had Botan coming to a halt and pulling her close. "I’d love to have some coffee tomorrow. I just wasn’t sure if you would still want my presence."

"Indeed I do."

"Good." Botan bent his head and kissed Cassandra lightly on the lips. He’d been worried that she had only befriended him to set tonight’s events into motion. "Though I warn you, I’ll likely be badgering you with questions for some time to come."

"Ah, then it’s a good thing that enlightening the ignorant is a favorite pastime of mine." As Botan’s lips twisted into a frown, Cassandra laughed and tugged him towards the dance floor.

*******

Aya gazed down at the scarf that hung from his hand. A pale finger traced one of the pale blue swirls painted onto the indigo scarf. He’d admired the fabric ever since he’d seen it a week ago at a vendor’s stall as he’d run an errand for the Koneko with Koyu. The Harper had pushed him into buy the scarf, which matched the color of Aya-chan’s eyes, but he hadn’t enough money of his own for the expensive object and had refused to buy it on the inn’s credit.

Instead, he’d received it as a gift. There weren’t any spells attached to the scarf; in fact, there had been nothing in the box besides the silk fabric, tissue paper and the scent of lavender. Staring at the scarf, Aya couldn’t help remembering evenings spent out in his mother’s garden, chasing fireflies with his sister as the scent of lavender filled the air.

Agony speared through his chest as he thought of the price his family had paid for his true nature. The memories of his childhood had kept him mostly sane during the Takatoris’ abuse, but they held their own pain for him. It was so hard to look back on that happy, sheltered Ran and see the boy as himself.

He was Aya now, but the past wouldn’t let him be. The Takatoris were a grim shadow over his happiness, and he knew it wouldn’t be long before they arrived at the capital. Aya wasn’t sure if they would risk searching him out… but he recalled the hunger in Hirofumi’s eyes his last night at the castle and didn’t think the man would miss any opportunity for some ‘fun’. Masafumi left him alone for the most part, other than to bleed him dry every so often, and Reiji mostly watched Hirofumi as the man tortured him, but rarely participated with anything other than some slaps and kicks. But he’d never been left alone for longer than a month before and knew the men had to be looking forward to one of their favorite sports, "abuse the kage."

Yohji worried that the gifts were from his masters, but Aya knew better. The Takatoris wouldn’t waste any money or time on him, not unless it was for their own pleasure. All his clothes had been cast off rags, his horse, one so broken by Hirofumi, that it wouldn’t let a human on its back ever again. Ichiyo, one of the gentlest men Aya had ever met, had a hard enough time just grooming and taking care of the creature. As for the books that had filled his drafty chambers, Reiji and his sons hadn’t cared at all about them and hadn’t said a word when he had started to collect them. No, reading had kept him occupied and out of sight, so it benefited the Takatoris to allow the seldom-used library to be moved from one room to another.

No, the gifts had to be from someone else, someone who had known about him seeing the scarf. That worried Aya, made him wonder about the implications of someone knowing his life so intimately that they’d purchased a scarf he’d spent five minutes gazing at one day, not to mention his tastes in books and cookies. Why was someone sending him the gifts, and what did they want? Aya had nothing to give them, as everything he had to offer was already claimed by the Takatoris and Yohji.

With a sigh Aya slid out of the curtained bed and crossed over to the lovely cherry wood desk that had been Yohji’s mother’s and was now his. He set the scarf atop the two books and the silver comb engraved with roses that were tucked in one of the desk’s drawers. For a moment he wondered when the next present would come and shivered. Yohji was likely to kill someone when that happened, his jealous nature and growing worry making his temper even shorter than usual. The situation wasn’t helped by Aya’s apprehension each time he saw the silver and purple packages, which just contributed to Yohji overreacting. Their emotions had become so entwined lately.

Looking about the room, Aya noted the changes that had been made the past two weeks. Two bookcases were already well on their way to being filled, much more so than the matching cherry dresser that held only the few garments that Cassandra had made him. The seamstress was hard at work on several new outfits for him, including the costume he’d wear to the king’s wedding. The thought of that event filled him with fear.

Less than three weeks to go, and Aya-chan’s soul was still held captive. Botan had spent several evenings talking with him, trying to puzzle out how to create a similar sphere. The wizard swore he was close to doing so and had even crafted a glass sphere that was a perfect match for the one that held his sister’s soul, but it was still empty. There wasn’t much time left, and each new day made Aya’s pain and fear grow. His sister couldn’t be the one to pay for his choice to be Yohji’s Aya and not the Takatoris’ slave.

Aya straightened out the bed and walked towards the door. Yohji was waiting for him downstairs, and he could feel the man’s concern over his dark mood and absence. It would be best to go meet him and get to work on their chores before his mate searched him out. Then they’d never leave the bedroom, as Aya would be perfectly content to hide away in bed with Yohji, made to forget all about his fears and worries. Of course the succubae-bound would be only too happy to help him out in that regard. Too bad there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, or they could spend the day in their lavender patch instead. Snorting as he left the room, Aya reflected that he was becoming as bad as a certain blond.

*******

Yohji groaned as he snapped his hips upward, wringing a mewl from Aya with the sudden movement. The legs wrapped around his waist tightened as the redhead used his bound physiology to his advantage and the wall behind him for leverage, lifting up a few centimeters and falling back down, taking Yohji even deeper inside of him. With one hand braced on the wall and the other helping to hold Aya up, all Yohji could do was purr as he rested his head on Aya’s shoulder. His world once again was pleasure and sunlight, drenching his senses until he wasn’t even sure if he was still standing upright. All that mattered was the feel of Aya clenched tight around him and the warmth that poured into him.

Aya’s lips ghosted along his neck, and a pair of sharp teeth nipped at his right ear. "Harder."

"Oh gods… heh, okay." Giving up on forming words, Yohji did as he was told and thrust harder inside Aya. Fingers dug into his shoulders at the intensified pace and Aya’s head rested back against the wall as he panted. Focusing all of his attention on slamming into his mate, Yohji let out a startled moan as the sunlight flooded inside him, signaling Aya’s climax. As he was clenched tightly, Yohji lost all control and after several more frenzied thrusts came as well.

The two of them slowly slid down the wall until they crumpled onto the floor in a tangle of limbs. Unfastening his mouth from Aya’s neck, Yohji kissed the developing bite mark and nuzzled the pale column. Fingers entwined in his hair and tugged his head back for a kiss. It was several minutes before they broke apart.

"Heh, eight more rooms to go," Yohji panted out. The comment earned him a weak glare from Aya, who then closed his eyes and rested against him. Combing his fingers through crimson strands, Yohji enjoyed the feel of his love in his arms and the blissful glow that filled him. As the wedding grew closer, he deliberately sought out ways to distract Aya from his growing anxieties. Hell, they had two precogs and a wizard helping them with their problems, and Yohji refused to worry himself into exhaustion. Things would work out, if only because he refused to allow anything but that to happen. He refused to dwell on the damn presents that kept showing up….

As it was, the whole ‘christen every room in the Koneko’ was one of his more brilliant ideas. Not that he needed an excuse to ravish Aya, but it did provide a change of scenery from the garden and their bedroom. Yohji had been hard pressed not to burst out in a huge grin when he’d sat at Mickey’s desk with the man the other day to go over the inn’s food costs. All he could think of was Aya bent over the huge piece of furniture, mewling out his name as he thrust into him. That was a memory to be cherished for years to come.

"Hmph. Need to finish changing the towels," Aya reminded him. Yohji made a face and reluctantly pulled away from the redhead. Taking advantage of the space, Aya wriggled free and shakily rose to his feet. He picked a clean towel off the bundle that had been placed on the freshly made bed and walked over to the washstand to clean off. Staring at his mate, Yohji enjoyed the sight of Aya’s naked body so much that he felt his hunger start to stir back to life. Closing his eyes to concentrate on placating his succubae nature, Yohji worked through a few mental exercises. He’d gotten better at controlling his hunger for the most part, but it was still a challenge considering how sexy his cat was.

Yohji’s concentration was broken when something heavy and wet landed on his head. He opened his eyes and discovered it was a towel, tossed on him by a disappointingly dressed Aya. Pouting, Yohji rose to his feet and started to wipe himself off. "You’re not really going to finish stocking the towels, are you? We’ve already had sex in the rest of the rooms on this floor, so why don’t you come curl up with me in our bed?" That sounded like a wonderful way to spend the rest of the afternoon, and he didn’t want Aya’s dark mood from earlier to return now that he’d managed to dispel it somewhat.

Apparently, Aya didn’t care for his suggestion. He frowned at Yohji as he shook his head and picked up the remaining clean towels. When the man made to walk past him and leave the room, Yohji reached out and pulled him close, sparing a moment to tug on a tangled eartail. Aya was just so cute when he snarled.

"Then what do you say to meeting me there before dinner?"

Aya sighed and leaned against him, and Yohji frowned when he felt how tense the slender body had become. Damn, all his hard work was being ruined already. He really did need to do something about that.

"You’re definitely over sexed."

"Of course, if I didn’t try to pounce on you you’d know to be worried." Tilting up Aya’s chin, Yohji lightly kissed the tip of a pale nose. "It can’t be helped, though. Not when I can smell myself on you and in you, when your scent clings to me even when you’re gone. It just reminds me that we’re meant to be together, so I figure why fight fate?" He kissed Aya on the lips this time, deeply and hungrily, only releasing him when his bound nature clamored to be free and ravish the man once more.

Stepping away from him with a dazed expression on his face, Aya clutched the towels against his chest and wandered out of the room. Yohji congratulated himself on successfully taking Aya’s mind off the approaching wedding and his masters’ return to the capital, even if it was only for a few minutes. With the nuptial event less than three weeks away, it was becoming more of a challenge each and every day. If he wasn’t careful, he’d start having a case of the nerves just as bad as those Aya was suffering. One of them had to remain calm and collected, which meant him. Yohji thought he was doing a pretty good job of that, at least when there wasn’t any damn presents showing up on their doorstep. The couriers refused to bring them inside anymore.

Yohji tossed the damp towel onto the pile near the door and pulled on his clothes. He’d gather up all the other dirty linens left in the rooms and get them ready to be taken to the laundry. After that he’d go bother Jo in the kitchen and see what she was planning for dinner, and then maybe try to get Aya alone again. Perhaps they could fit some quiet reading time in before dinner and their friends showing up. Once Omi and Ken had been gotten rid of, most of the evenings were now spent discussing various plans on how to snatch Aya-chan’s soul from the Takatoris’ grasp and the likely battle at the king’s wedding reception. What a wonderful end to a tense day. But at least Yohji was assured of having a certain redhead to snuggle up against at night. Taking a deep breath and catching his mate’s scent still clinging to him, Yohji smiled and carried on with his task.

*******

Masato stared at the red brick and cedar planked building, trying to force his feet into moving. It was hard to believe that he was back here at the Koneko after so much time and pain. But he had to return.

"Well, let’s get this over with." Tossing his cigarette aside, Masato entered the inn.

*******

"I’m sorry sir, but all of our rooms are booked. However, you’re more than welcome to spend time in our baths, or to enjoy a meal."

Aya placed the bundle of towels he had left over inside one of the hall’s closets and headed for the front of the inn. He’d heard Kira explain to the visitor about their lack of rooms and decided to make sure that the man wasn’t a repeat of the customer from the other day who had gotten violent with him and had been promptly tossed out of the Koneko. It was a very good thing that Yohji had been in the office with Mickey at the time, although Nagi had been present and was almost as bad as the blond. It was just a matter of time, however, before the incident repeated itself. People were starting to get nasty all over the capital with the wedding only a couple weeks away and no rooms to be found anywhere.

Pulling his hood further down his face, Aya quietly walked to Kira’s side. "Is there a problem?"

"Aya! I was just explaining to this man about how there aren’t any rooms available." There was something odd about the young woman; a look of guilt and confusion was on her face and the scent of lust hovered around her. She seemed desperately glad that he’d intervened, and Kira was usually adept at handling herself. Wondering what had happened, Aya glanced over at the potential customer and saw a tall, broad shouldered man with brown hair. Hazel eyes stared back at him from a handsome, if not terribly clean-shaven face. The smell of tobacco hung in the air around him.

"Hey, I’m Masato, and I’d like a room."

"We don’t have any. Drink something or go away." Crossing his arms over his chest, Aya glared at the stranger. Something about the man was familiar but he couldn’t place what, and that bothered him.

The man, Masato, reached into his pocket and pulled out a tarnished token. "Don’t think so. I didn’t want to wave this about, but here. I was given it some time ago, with the understanding that it would always be honored."

Reluctantly stretching out his hand, Aya plucked the token out of Masato’s palm. The slight contact, even with him wearing his gloves, caused his skin to tingle in a manner that he was familiar with. He narrowed his eyes, having finally recognized another bound, and studied the silver coin.

Beside him, Kira sucked in her breath. The battered and tarnished coin held the image of a kitten playing with a goldfish in a bowl, and on the back was the character for Yohji’s family name and an unfamiliar one beneath that. He recognized the token from a similar one Yohji had shown him. They were given out to ‘strays’ who couldn’t remain at the Koneko but might need aid in the future. The inn was to provide whatever the possessor of the token requested, within reason, if they returned.

Aya glanced over at Kira, who stared at the token with a frown on her face. When she noticed his regard she smiled shakily at him. "Well, Yohji needs to know about this. I’ll go get him and you, ah, can deal with our guest." She seemed eager to dump the problem in his lap and immediately fled the hallway

Scowling, Aya jerked his head in the direction of Mickey’s office. "We’ll wait in there." He stalked over to the door, and the amused chuckle he heard from this Masato didn’t do anything to soothe his temper. Aya held the door open for the man to enter before him then slammed it shut as soon as he was in the room.

Masato made himself comfortable, sitting on the edge of the desk and picking up a fountain pen that had been left on the wooden surface. "So, who’s this Yohji?"

"The owner." He could only assume that Masato had been given a token because he was a bound. The tall man certainly didn’t look cowed or beaten in the least, though he showed some signs of rough living. His clothes were rumpled, and he clearly hadn’t shaved in days. Also, Aya’s sharp eyes noticed the man’s hair, or more specifically, the lighter roots that were starting to grow out.

He leaned against the wall beside the door, determined to wait there until Yohji showed up and handled this mess. They couldn’t kick Masato out, but neither did they have any room for the man. Since it was his inn, the headache was Yohji’s.

"So what’s this Yohji like?"

"You’ll see." There was a flash of anger on Masato’s face for a moment, and then the man smiled as he stood on his feet, pushing away from the desk. He crossed the room to stand in front of Aya with barely a foot separating them. Aya forced himself not to call on the shadows to form a weapon. He’d get in trouble for killing the stranger if that token was real.

Then suddenly his anger drained away as a familiar scent and tingle assailed him. Drawing in a shocked breath, Aya’s vision wavered until he thought Yohji stood before him. His body started to respond to his mate’s presence, not minding at all the hand that was placed on the wall right beside his head. It seemed an eerie echo of what had happened in the guest room earlier that afternoon.

"You know, I wasn’t sure, what with the glares, attitude and this hood, but you’re quite pretty. Such a shame that you hide it." His hood was gently pushed back and a hand stroked his cheek.

The touch helped to partially snap Aya out of his confusion. That tingle… it was like Yohji’s… but yet it wasn’t. Not exactly. Neither was the scent. But they were so similar, enough so that he was torn between gutting the man and staying there, not moving.

"Yes, so pretty." Lips brushed against his, and Aya fully regained his senses. Standing there was one thing, being kissed was entirely another. He’d figure things out _after_ he killed the bastard.

*******

Masato walked into the office, noting how much it had changed over the years. There were no vases of flowers, no settee with green cushions in the corner, and most of the room was taken up by a huge desk and leather chair. It was another reminder of how things had changed, and it tore at his heart. Trying to regain his composure, he picked up a pen from the desk and fiddled with it for a moment. The other man, Aya if he’d heard correctly, leaned against the wall, his whole demeanor radiating suspicion.

"So, who’s this Yohji?" He might as well kill some time with small talk, Masato thought. Besides, he was very curious about the aforementioned man. Miyuki had suggested naming the child that if it was a boy, but it wasn’t an altogether unusual name.

However, Aya didn’t seem to want to cooperate. "The owner." That was all the answer he’d gotten and it was spoken in a deep, hostile voice. One got the impression that the man, his face mostly covered by a dark grey hood and dressed in grey and blue, complete with grey gloves and boots, wasn’t the most social person around. But Masato had charmed more than a few irritable people in his twelve decades.

He tried again, his voice light and friendly as if he hadn’t noticed the hostility directed towards him. "So what’s this Yohji like?"

"You’ll see."

The man really couldn’t talk to him civilly, it seemed. Biting down on his anger, Masato refused to let Aya’s attitude get to him. He’d had one hell of a time sneaking into the city, determined to make sure that Yoru didn’t find out that he was back. Hell, he’d even gone so far as dyeing his hair brown a couple of weeks ago, not wanting to take the chance of coming across any of the wizard’s spies when he’d returned to Kritiker. He was tired and needed a bath and a meal, and didn’t want to put up with this shit. He was also hungry, and it had been difficult to rein in his appetite after Aya had interrupted him and the girl who’d greeted him. There had been too many days spent hiding and nights sneaking around the countryside for him to feed very much.

Glancing back at the other man, Masato caught a flash of pale white skin and noticed a long strand of blood red hair that had fallen out of the hood. With Aya watching him like that, he could see some of the man’s face, and what he saw was truly lovely. The sight tugged at his hunger, and he was reminded how long it had been since he’d fed.

He decided to take a closer look. Aya stiffened as he approached, so Masato reached out with his power, enfolding the man within it. There was some resistance at first so he pushed more forcefully, refusing to let Aya slip out of his clutches. He wanted to see if he’d been imagining things, and maybe have a bit of a snack while he waited.

Coming to a halt before him, Masato placed a hand on the wall and leaned in close. It was then that he noticed Aya’s scent. It was intoxicating, making him take a deep sniff and lean in even closer, which gave him a better view of the man’s face and his unusual eyes. Why did he hide this beauty? Aya was the loveliest person he’d seen in ages, and his succubae-nature flared to the fore, wanting to taste him.

"You know, I wasn’t sure, what with the glares, attitude and this hood, but you’re quite pretty. Such a shame that you hide it." Pushing aside the hood, Masato barely resisted the impulse to comb his fingers through the crimson hair. His hunger flooded his senses, demanding this strange, ill-tempered man to appease it. He stroked Aya’s cheek.

"So pretty." The white skin was so soft, and Masato increased his glamour, deciding that Aya wasn’t going to escape as that girl Kira had. He’d make sure the man was well and truly under his spell, have something to whet his appetite, and as soon as he set this Yohji straight, he’d drag Aya off to whatever room they found for him. But he couldn’t resist taking a taste now.

He’d barely brushed his lips against Aya’s when he found himself violently shoved backwards. Shock filled him for a moment, unused to as Masato was to being repulsed when he’d chosen a meal. However, as he began to recover from the emotion, anger burning the surprise away, he was shocked anew. Aya took a step in his direction, a blade of darkness forming in his hand.

Masato instinctively reached for the gold band about his left wrist, and as soon as he tugged it off, it formed a long staff. Preparing to defend himself, he was surprised yet again.

The office door was thrown open, admitting a tall young man with dark gold hair and flashing green eyes. The stranger paused to look at Aya, and upon seeing the black knife the eyes hardened. Masato stood still for a moment, merely staring at the man who looked just like Miyuki, and could only blink as the blond savagely growled at him. The man reached for his left wrist with his right hand, and it was immediately filled with golden threads.

"You’re fucking dead." The threads were tossed at him, and Masato barely got his staff up in time to block them. As the threads were retracted and readied for a second toss, another person, this time a middle-aged woman with grey streaked brown hair, entered the office.

"Yohji, what the hell are you doing?"

Great, Masato thought as he once again blocked the threads but was unable to avoid being jerked forward as they wrapped around his weapon. A powerful blow to the stomach, one that caused a sharp pain inside him, halted his forward motion and knocked the wind out of him. Just fucking great. It seemed that he’d finally met this Yohji, and that the man was intent on killing him. And he couldn’t do a damn thing about it, unwilling as he was to hurt Miyuki’s child -- his own son.

******* 

Return to Archive

Next Chapter