Shadows

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chapter 11

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bargains

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Pain was the first thing that Yohji was aware of, the worst pain he’d ever felt in his life, scouring both his body and heart with agony. Then he noticed hunger gnawing at him, adding to the pain with each heartbeat. He felt completely empty, and the hunger called out to be fed.

Opening his eyes, Yohji only saw darkness. There wasn’t a scrap of light, even though he heard birds chirping and people moving about, signaling that day had started. He lay there confused for a moment, wondering what the hell was going on, and then the memories from last night had him fully awake in an instant. It wasn’t his pain he was suffering, it was Aya’s, and he was hungry because he’d given all his energy to his mate to help him heal.

The darkness fell away, and Yohji cautiously sat up in bed, gazing down on Aya the whole while. The smaller man was lying beside him, whimpering slightly but otherwise not moving at all. His white skin was littered with bruises, especially his right side and his face, and as Yohji sat up enough he caught sight of the raw mess that was Aya’s back. A black fury washed through him, demanding blood and retribution for his mate’s wounds.

"Don’t growl like that, you’ll wake him up."

Yohji snapped his head in the direction the voice had come from, his fingers tugging on the strands of his weapon as he did so. When he recognized an exhausted Naoe he relaxed the slightest bit. From the looks of it, the boy had kept his word and remained up all night watching over them. Naoe was slumped at the end of the bed, leaning against one of the posts. Dark circles surrounded his eyes, and Naoe’s face was pinched with hunger.

"You’re still here." Yohji remembered the boy promising to watch over him, but after the betrayals of the night before, he hadn’t taken anything for granted. But Naoe had kept his word.

"Yes. Not that I could have left even if I’d wanted to." Naoe gestured to the web of gold and black that surrounded the bed. Yohji jerked a hand through his hair and released the net, but Naoe didn’t move to leave. Ignoring him, Yohji turned his attention to the man beside him.

Bending over Aya, Yohji gently nuzzled his lover on the neck. Aya mewled weakly and tried to shift closer to him, the sound growing stronger as he moved. Pain that wasn’t his coursed through Yohji, warring with the fury he felt when he smelled a stranger’s scent clinging to his mate. Someone had hurt Aya, had beaten and bled him and…..

"Who was it?" He needed to know who to kill.

Naoe frowned and sat up straight. "Yohji, I don’t think-"

"Who was it?" Without warning Yohji tossed out his weapon, encasing Naoe around his hands and throat. He wanted an answer, needed it desperately so he could make the bastard who’d hurt Aya suffer an imaginably painful death. Shadows skittered about the bed, dashing back and forth between the two of them indecisively. "Tell me, or I’ll rip your head off."

Naoe didn’t seem fazed by the threat, and gazed back at him calmly. "Aya will be upset if you kill me."

"Aya’s fucking worse than upset at the moment!" Yohji shouted, his voice echoing throughout the room. "Who was it? I know it had to be a Takatori, now which one was it?" The bedroom door slammed open, admitting Schuldig, Masato and Farfarello, who raced over to the bed, only to be stopped by a lacy wall of shadow just short of it. "I’ll fucking kill them all, but I’ll make the bastard who touched him pay the most."

<Yotan, you have to calm down.>

"Fuck off Schu. Get in my way and I’ll kill you too." Yohji didn’t even look at his friend, instead tugged a little tighter on the wire around Naoe’s throat. He wanted Aya’s assailant dead, and the little demon had better tell him which man it had been. The Takatori had to pay, had to be torn limb from limb with exquisite slowness. As soon as he had an answer Yohji would ensure that came to be.

There was another moan from Aya, and Yohji shifted closer to his mate to comfort him. But the scent that surrounded the man only fueled his anger until Yohji burned with it. Snarling, Yohji glared at Naoe.

"Tell me!"

"You’re waking Aya up. You’re hurting him, Yohji, this time it’s you causing him pain." Yohji growled at Naoe’s words. He tried to pull the strings tight enough so the boy couldn’t talk, but the damn shadows were preventing him. Naoe swallowed and nodded his head at Aya. "He’s in pain, focus on that."

"I am fucking focusing on that! I can’t help but do that. Look at what they did to him. I want them dead." Spittle flew from Yohji’s mouth as he snarled the words. A part of him noticed that he was beginning to sound like a raving lunatic, but he couldn’t be made to care. All that mattered was killing whoever had hurt Aya so terribly.

Even in the face of his wrath, Naoe continued to respond calmly to Yohji. "I want them dead too, Yohji. Just as much as you do. But I’m here, watching over Aya instead." Naoe’s eyes filled with reproach. "Is revenge so important that you’ll hurt Aya even more, leave him unprotected to kill someone already marked for death? The man will die soon enough, worry about your mate at the present."

He wasn’t going to feel ashamed for his rage, not in the slightest. Yohji snarled and decided that he’d just kill all three of the Takatoris, and anyone who got in his way. He knew what the bastard who’d… he knew what the man smelled like, it suddenly occurred to him. Yohji didn’t need Naoe’s answer. He’d been wasting time with the brat.

Calling back the threads, Yohji shoved away from the bed, the shadows dissolving as he neared them. Aya gasped in pain as the mattress shifted, and for a moment that distracted him. It was all Masato, Schuldig and Farfarello needed to pile on him, knocking him to the ground. Yohji struck back at the men, but somehow Masato unclasped his weapon from his wrist and the shadows were indecisive again, choosing to gather around Aya instead of helping Yohji.

He was being betrayed yet again. Yohji lost the last bit of sanity that had been holding him back. Lashing out at the men, he tried his best to kill them, but was too outnumbered to do anything but land a few hits. Masato got his arm around Yohji’s neck and held him still. "Fucking bastards, I’m going to kill you! You’re dead! I-"

Farfarello slapped Yohji’s face, the force of the blow snapping his head to the side, and the last of the rage-fueled energy deserted him. Slumping in Masato and Schuldig’s arms, Yohji turned his head toward the bed, realizing that Aya was crying out in pain. Naoe was bent over the redhead, trying to reassuringly pat his friend’s face but each touch only caused Aya to mewl more.

Brown eyes turned in his direction, and after cautiously sliding off the bed, Naoe stood in front of Yohji and slapped him, just like Farfarello had. "You asshole! You call yourself his mate? Aya’s awake now and in even more pain!" Naoe slapped him again, this time even harder. Yohji’s ears rang from the blow. "You were actually going to leave him!" The boy then fell down onto the floor, tears trickling down his face. "I can’t… I don’t have enough energy left to watch him anymore, and you were just going to leave. Who was going to protect him if they came back? You don’t deserve him."

Pulling at the hands that held him still, Yohji growled softly. "Let me go."

<Where, Yotan?>

"Back to my fucking bed!" Snarling, Yohji tugged his arms free and stumbled over to Aya, barely able to stand on his feet. Now that his anger was mostly gone he could feel how drained he was. Aya moaned when he fell down beside him, his eyelids fluttering, and Yohji carefully stroked his cheek. Even that touch caused the man pain, which in turn tore through Yohji’s heart.

Someone patted him on the shoulder. "Come, Yotan, I need to dose Aya again. Let me near him." He turned his head to snarl at Cassandra, who had somehow snuck into the room, but the sound slowly faded in the face of her stern glare. "Yotan, behave."

Sighing, Yohji rubbed a hand across his face. "Cass… Fuck, I’m hurting him. Why am I doing this?" His emotions had never been this out of control before, wildly swinging between confusion, righteous fury to shame and back again.

"Because you’re feeling Aya’s pain, and are starving on top of that. It’s making you lose control. Let me dose him and some of the hurt will fade. We’ll talk, and then you need to sleep too." The small woman sat down next to him, two larges bottle in her hands. Yohji could smell the opiate, and knew that Cassandra was right about needing to make Aya sleep. Maybe then he could calm down, once he wasn’t feeling the other man’s agony.

As careful as he could he tried to lift Aya, his heart twisting at the pain he felt from the man. As soon as he was upright, Aya breathed out his name and tucked his head under Yohji’s chin, making it difficult for Yohji to hold him without touching his wounded back. Shadows skittered around him, helping to shield Aya somewhat from his touch, if not the pressure of the embrace. Yohji had to hold up Aya’s chin for Cassandra to pour the medicine down his throat, and the whole time his anger raged, fed by the scent of some stranger’s semen and sweat that still clung to Aya.

It took a few minutes, but Aya eventually drank all the medicine. Yohji held him while it took effect, tears building in his eyes as he thought of all the bruises and cuts that marred his lover’s skin. At least that helped to distract him from his main fear, but as Yohji laid an unconscious Aya down on the bed and pulled a sheet up enough to cover the redhead’s nakedness, he drew in a deep breath and looked bleakly at Cassandra.

"Was he raped?" It was so hard to force the words out without letting his self-control snap under the weight of his rage.

Cassandra closed her eyes in pain, and when she opened them they were dark with sorrow and regret. "… as far as I can tell, no. Not… not anally, at least. Jo and I tried to clean him last night, but he was in too much pain for us to do anything but tend his wounds." Tears spilled down Cassandra’s face. "I’m sorry, Yotan. If I could have prevented it, I would have. I’m sorry for his pain, and yours."

Yohji didn’t want to think about if Cassandra might have been able to prevent everything, and instead combed a shaky hand through Aya’s hair. It was knotted and filthy, and he couldn’t take the scent of the other man clinging to his love anymore. As he tried to pick free a stubborn knot, a basin of hot soapy water and several towels shakily floated over to the bed. Naoe groaned and slumped against the post as they settled on the nightstand, his face damp with perspiration.

"Thanks." Yohji moistened a towel and used it to wipe Aya’s hair, the scent of sweat, blood and semen fading to be replaced by that of roses. Yohji felt weaker with each passing moment, but just being in Aya’s presence seemed to calm his hunger the slightest bit, and he used the pain he felt to push it aside. There was no chance he’d be feeding anytime soon. Once Aya’s hair was as clean as he could get it, and his poor, bruised body wiped as well, Yohji looked up at Naoe.

"Who was it?"

The boy sighed and shifted closer to Aya. "Are you going to leave him?"

Gritting his teeth, Yohji shook his head. "No, I’m not. You’re probably right and I don’t deserve him, but I’ll never leave him." His hand settled on Aya’s wet hair, now combing through it with ease.

Naoe regarded him solemnly for a moment and sighed again. "It was Hirofumi."

Swearing an oath to the gods under his breath, Yohji promised that Hirofumi Takatori would die by his hands, even if Yohji had to return from the dead to carry out the man’s murder. His fingers tangled in an eartail as the fury returned, causing the world to become flat and grey, all but for Aya. He wanted so desperately to leave immediately and track the man down, but Yohji couldn’t force himself to leave Aya’s side.

"Yotan, contain the anger, please." Cassandra held out the other bottle of opiate, worry carving lines in her lovely face and making her look as if she were wearing her glamour. "Drink this now, before you do something we’ll all regret."

Yohji snarled at Cassandra and raised a hand to bat the bottle away, but paused when Naoe cleared his throat. Glancing at the boy who had more guts than common sense to keep harassing him like this, Yohji sighed and rubbed the strands of Aya’s wet hair between his fingers.

"If I drink that, I won’t be able to watch over Aya. You’re not strong enough to guard us any longer, from the looks of it," he hoarsely informed Naoe.

The boy appeared angry for a moment, then reluctantly nodded his head. "No, I’m not. I need to eat and get some rest before I can use my power anymore. But I’ll stay, if you want me too."

Schuldig cleared his throat and stepped towards the bed. "Yotan, Masato and I will-"

"No. You. Won’t." Glaring at a shocked Schuldig, Yohji growled savagely. Maybe Cassandra had been behind it and maybe not, but Schu and his father had kept him from reaching Aya in time to prevent all of this. If they hadn’t have interfered, Aya would be unhurt. "Get the hell out of my room." The mere sight of his friend sickened Yohji.

Schuldig blanched and tried again. <Yohji, we were just trying to keep you from doing something that would harm Aya even more. We didn’t know he’d be hurt like that.>

"Sure, Schu, you were so worried about us that you and Masato had to fuck on my bed while Aya was being tortured." Both men flinched and directed their eyes to the floor, Schuldig’s cheeks taking on a red tint. "I can smell you on the sheets, and I know that didn’t happen before you knocked me out, or after Aya came back. The thought of him being in pain really tore you up, I see. I won’t say this again, get the hell out of my sight."

"Yohji, please…"

"Schuldig, just go." Cassandra was crying in earnest now, tears streaming down her face as she sobbed. "I’m sorry, son, but just go."

Masato wrapped an arm around his distressed lover. "Who will watch Aya and Yohji then?"

"Sure as hell won’t be you," Yohji snarled, almost rising from the bed to toss his father out of the room himself.

Farfarello stepped between the two of them, blocking his view of the other succubae-bound and helping Yohji rein in his temper. "If Yohji doesn’t object, I’ll guard them." He turned to look at Yohji, a weary look in his eye. "I’ve been outside the door most of the night, but it won’t hurt for me to stay awake another day or two. Anyone I don’t know or trust will die before stepping inside this room. My word on that."

He barely knew the man, but Yohji sensed he could trust Farfarello’s word. Pain filled him as he thought that a stranger and a brat were more reliable than the friend he’d grown up with. A friend who’d been fooling around while Aya had been hurt.

"Stay until Naoe can take over guarding us again." The words came out as a snarl, and Yohji felt the fury threaten to overwhelm him as he thought about how he and his mate had been betrayed. At least he could trust the little demon to watch over Aya beyond a shadow of a doubt. "Cass, give me the damn stuff now. I can’t control the rage much longer. Then get the hell out of here too."

Cassandra silently handed over the large bottle. His stomach twisting at the smell of the powerful drug, Yohji drained it in several gulps. There had to be enough in the container to last an addict two whole weeks, but he only hoped it was enough to calm down his anger before he did something unthinkable like leave Aya’s side. He may not deserve him, but Yohji wasn’t going to lose the man.

One moment he was glaring at Cassandra and Schuldig, and the next the world started spinning. Farfarello jumped towards him and helped Yohji lie back on the bed right before he would have collapsed on it.

"Don’t worry, we’ll watch over you two. You have my word."

Mumbling his thanks, Yohji turned toward Aya, trying to get as close to his mate as possible. He dazedly noticed that the shadows had returned to cover them, and the last thought he had before passing out was that they were useful things, if not very well trained.

*******

Cassandra gazed down at the man who was as dear to her as her son and wiped at the tears streaming down her face. Yohji curled around Aya, one hand entangled in a crimson eartail and the other resting on a pale hip, a frown on the handsome face as he fell asleep. It hurt to know that she was partially responsible for that frown.

As she watched, Naoe stretched on the other side of Aya, careful not to get too close to his back, and glared up at her. "You heard him, get out of here."

Recoiling from the amount of venom in the boy’s voice, Cassandra nodded her head as fresh tears filled her eyes. "I’ll have Jo bring you some food. Then you should get some rest, Naoe." He didn’t say anything to her, just glared some more, and Cassandra sighed and turned around. Grabbing her son’s hand, she pulled Schuldig behind her, making sure he left the room without causing a scene. She knew Jei rather well, and was certain that he’d enforce Yohji’s order.

Stepping outside the room, she almost ran into Crawford. Her lips pressing into a thin line, she steeled herself as she followed the man to his room. Behind her she heard Masato whispering to Schuldig, asking who Crawford was, but her son didn’t answer back. The poor boy was too locked in misery after having the person he loved want nothing more to do with him.

Crawford waited until the four of them were inside his bedroom before he said anything. Cassandra had to give him points for restraint; especially with how angry she knew he was. She could feel the emotion pouring off the man in searing waves.

"Cassandra, may I inquire about whether or not you had a vision last night pertaining to Aya?" Oh yes, Crawford was very angry with her. He only ever got that polite when he was trying to keep his temper under control.

"Yes, I did."

Pushing his glasses up his nose, Crawford looked down on her, his eyes pale with rage. "What did that vision reveal to you?"

Cassandra sat down on Jei’s bed and twisted her hands in her lap. "It wasn’t very clear, as all visions relating to the kage are. I only knew that something would happen to him, and if Yohji weren’t restrained, it would lead to all our deaths. I… I swear I had no idea that Aya would be hurt so badly." She became furious with herself when she felt the tears start to pour from her eyes. "I would have come up with something other than only holding Yohji back if I had known that."

Schuldig sat down beside her and patted her hands, trying to reassure her. Masato hovered near the bed, clearly uncomfortable about the situation, and Crawford wouldn’t stop staring at her so coldly.

"Let me see if I understand things correctly. You had a vision pertaining to the kage, and informed your son of what actions to take, but you didn’t think to inform Jei and I? We could have done something to protect Aya that wouldn’t have involved Kudoh." The man’s smooth voice gradually grew harsher as he spoke. "But instead, you kept the information to yourself, and now we have an badly injured kage and an enraged succubae-bound on our hands. Not to mention that I discover this situation when I come home late last night, hours after it had happened.

"You probably felt that you had the situation under control, Cass, and didn’t need my help. Well, is it?"

She wiped away the tears and sniffed as she looked at Crawford. "We’ve managed to keep Yohji by Aya’s side, and Jei is guarding them."

Leaning forward, Crawford sniffed. "Would you care to tell me why you’re so upset then? I can smell and taste your distress."

Yes, he would be able to sense her emotions, being a soul gaki-bound. People tended to forget about Crawford’s other powers besides his precognition, as he so rarely spoke of them.

"Yohji wants nothing to do with the three of us now. He holds us responsible for what happened to Aya." Even saying the words caused her pain, and Cassandra could feel the hurt in Schuldig increase as well.

"You said that Jei is guarding Aya? Does Yohji know that?"

Cassandra nodded her head, and immediately began to worry when Crawford smiled. "What are you thinking?"

"That he only blames the three of you, not all of us. That means there’s still a chance that Yohji will listen to and trust me. I have Aya’s oath, but I’d rather not force things. It would be better if I have their willing cooperation." Crawford smiled slightly, and Cassandra worried when she saw the expression. The man was up to something, and she doubted she’d like it very much, whatever it was.

‘Trouble, what is he thinking?’

<That Yohji will now trust him over you. The Prick’s not so much planning anything evil but gloating that you’ve lost your influence over Yohji and Aya. That’s about it, his anger is blocking out mostly everything else.> Schuldig sulked, still upset about Yohji and not happy to have his power being blocked.

Masato cleared his throat, drawing everyone’s attention to him. "May I just ask what the hell you are planning on doing with my son? And who the hell are you?"

"Ah, I see that all the constant sex has prevented my son from explaining his family situation to you," Crawford commented dryly. "If you haven’t spent the past week in bed screwing each other’s brains out, we would have met by now. I’m Crawford, Schuldig’s father. As for my plans for Yohji, they don’t concern you."

The succubae-bound shifted closer to Crawford, a dangerous glint in his eye. "I believe they do, as he’s my son."

"Oh please, you’ve had as much input in raising the boy as I did with Schuldig, and there was a reason at least for why I’ve stayed away so many years. You’re only here to train him, so don’t go all paternal on me." Crawford crossed his arms over his chest and gazed levelly back at the man, his calm expression belying his taunting words.

Growling, Masato stepped even closer. "I stayed away for the boy’s sake, and that of his mother."

"So did I. However, please note that Cassandra hasn’t been dead for several years, and that Schuldig hasn’t grown up completely ignorant of what he was. Can you say the same about your lover and child?" When Masato swung at him, Crawford easily ducked under the punch and hit the man in the stomach. Schuldig instantly jumped to his feet and hurried over to his lover’s side.

"Will the three of you stop this? We don’t have the time for this!" Cassandra yelled at the men, rising from the bed and stamping her feet in anger. "Things aren’t bad enough that you try to kill each other?"

A smile still teasing at his lips, Crawford leaned against the wall by the door and nodded his head. "I never thought I’d say this, but you’re right, Cassandra." She had to prevent herself from snarling at the infuriating bastard. "Schuldig, if you can ever stop thinking with your dick, please explain the situation to Masato. He is involved now, and whatever help he can provide, however dubious, would be appreciated. The main thing will be for him to finish training Yohji as soon as possible. Now why don’t you go find a bed or something and do what the two of you do best." The anger had returned to Crawford’s voice, and his eyes had paled again. They looked almost white behind the glare on his glasses.

His jaw clenched, Schuldig headed for the door. <You know what, Mom, I’m not in the mood to put up with this asshole right now. I’ll stop by later so we can talk about Yotan.> Masato followed him, and Cassandra was left in the room alone with Crawford.

"You did that deliberately."

"What, pissing him off?" Crawford pushed away from the wall and sat in the chair in front of his desk. "Yes, I did. I wanted him gone while we talked, and him too angry to probe my mind again. Is it my imagination or have the two of them still not mated yet?"

"No, they haven’t the stubborn fools." Frowning, Cassandra shook her head. She’d think of that matter later, at the present there were other things to discuss. "Don’t tell me you’re upset about that."

"No, other than the fact that the longer it takes them to mate, the more volatile they’ll be with each other." Thinking of the incident she’d been too late to prevent last night, Cassandra flinched. Of course Crawford noticed her reaction.

He tilted his head to the side, his eyes narrowing in suspicion. "What happened between them? I want to know everything that went on last night. The both of you acted very upset when I mentioned Yohji not trusting you any longer."

"He doesn’t." Cassandra sniffed, refusing to cry again. As much as she hated it, she knew Crawford had to be told the whole truth. There was more at stake here than their age-old rivalry. "Schuldig and Masato barely managed to knock Yohji out, and afterwards… their nature got the better of them, and they…." She blushed slightly.

"Fucked each other." It was almost shocking, the blunt words spoken in such a cultivated voice. Crawford’s eyes were hidden behind the glare of his glasses, but Cassandra thought the man’s voice had sounded both amused and disgusted. "Please don’t tell me they did this in Yohji’s presence, unconscious or not."

She couldn’t help but blush again.

"Ah, I’ll take that as a yes. No wonder he’s so furious, Aya aside. What happened next?"

"Aya was returned, but in terrible shape. They whipped his back almost to the bone, and broke his ribs. His lung was punctured as well, and… he smelled of sex, unwilling at that."

Crawford jumped to his feet and stalked over to Cassandra, forcing her back down on the bed. "He was raped?" The man’s voice was molten with fury.

"No, not… not in the usual way, at least." Cassandra tried to force her thoughts in order, which was hard with Crawford crowding her. "I made sure of that. Jo and I cleaned him as best we could, but he was hurt too bad. I allowed Yohji to wake up, and barely managed to prevent him from leaving Aya to kill his mate’s attacker. He gave all his energy to Aya to help him heal, and then passed out."

Grunting softly, Crawford backed away from her. Cassandra could tell that he was still upset, but he was now in control of her temper. She decided to hurry on with her story. "Naoe remained to guard them, and Schuldig, Masato and later Jei as well took guard outside the room, as you know. This morning Yohji woke up, determined to kill the Takatori, but Naoe helped to calm him down. I dosed both of them, and now they sleep. But Yohji…" She closed her eyes and forced herself to carry on. "Yohji was furious at Schuldig and I, Masato as well, and wanted us gone. I fear we’ve broken his trust."

"You allowed something to happen to Aya, what the hell did you expect, Cass?"

Stung by the man’s tone of voice, Cassandra bristled as she tucked back her hair. "That it would have been Yotan’s death if he’d charged after Aya last night. They still have the kage’s sister as collateral, and Aya wouldn’t harm them even if he had to. I thought it was the best solution."

Pushing his glasses up his nose, Crawford treated her to a disapproving look. "You never thought to have Schuldig influence the Takatori’s mind to have him leave Aya be? Or at least to ascertain his reason for collecting the kage? The bloodletting was probably unavoidable, but you could have made sure that Aya was neither beaten or molested."

As Crawford’s words sunk in Cassandra started to cry. She had never thought of that. Why hadn’t she? Why had she been so sure that she could protect Yohji and Aya on all her own? Now Aya had been hurt so badly, and Yohji… Yohji didn’t trust her or Schu anymore.

"I never thought of that."

To his credit, Crawford didn’t take the obvious shot at her. "Cassandra, listen to me as I say this. You are still very young, no matter that you bore a child. Bounds mature very slowly, mentally. It can be a disadvantage for us at times. I know that you think you can make important choices correctly, and you have made good decisions in the past. But you don’t have the knowledge or the experience to handle things on your own, not when it comes to the kage. I’ve devoted the last eighty years of my life to bringing about the future we want, so do me a favor and tell me when you see something that will influence it!" The last contained a bit of steel in it, causing Cassandra to flinch slightly, but she could only nod her head.

"You have a point. May I go now?"

Crawford stared at her for a moment longer, and then nodded his head. "How long will they be asleep?"

Cassandra thought for a moment. "Yohji until the afternoon, at the least, and Aya possibly until tonight. I forgot to mention that Omi and Ken now know about Aya and Yohji." She waited to see if there would be an explosion from the other precog over that fact.

Crawford’s eyes became unfocused for a moment, and he hummed under his breath. Then he took a deep breath and removed his glasses to clean them. "That won’t be a problem." Waiting for him to say something else, Cassandra gave up after a few seconds, and a pointed look, then continued on her way. It wasn’t a very good time to ask Crawford to reveal his visions when she had been caught out hiding a major one of her own.

Remembering Naoe, she left the room and headed to the kitchen to arrange for his meal. Then she would go home, and if the gods were kind Botan would visit her and provide her with a shoulder to cry on. There would be Schuldig stopping by later to discuss Yohji, and then more plans would have to be considered. The wedding was only two weeks away, and there was much to be done before then. Cassandra only hoped she regained Yohji’s faith in her before the event occurred.

*******

Schuldig tore at his hair as he fell onto Kira’s bed, cursing himself and a certain stubborn blond. Why the hell was Yohji blaming him for what had happened to Aya? And why the hell did he have to fuck Masato in his friend’s room? The situation was so screwed up, and he didn’t have a clue how to convince Yohji that he wasn’t to blame for last night. He’d just been following orders.

"Do you enjoy yanking your hair out, or is this a normal reaction to spending time with your father? I can understand the later, considering how much a prick the man is." Masato sunk down on the bed beside him, reaching out a hand to touch his hair.

Jerking away from the contact, Schuldig glared at his lover. "Don’t touch me."

Masato blinked and sat up on the bed, a frown on his lips. "What the hell is your problem?"

"It might have escaped your attention, but we’ve got one fucked up situation on our hands. Aya’s hurt, and Yohji thinks we’re partially to blame." He could still see the hate in Yohji’s eyes, the pain of the memory making Schuldig hunch over.

"Aya will heal, he’s a bound after all. What we need to worry about is keeping Yohji from tracking down the people who hurt him and killing them and everyone near them," Masato grunted as he rested against the bed’s headboard. "He showed a bit of common sense this morning, hopefully he’ll keep that up until Aya’s better."

The older bound closed his eyes for a moment. "Schu, what’s the deal here? You didn’t say much to me last night other than explain the situation with Aya’s masters, but I get the feeling that more is going on besides the wedding."

Brushing aside the intent look Masato was giving him, Schuldig stretched out on the bed. He wasn’t going into the whole Esset situation, not with a man who’d be moving on in another month or so once Yohji was trained. There was a flash of pain at the thought, the emotion taking him by surprise and confusing him, and Schuldig started to nibble on a strand of his hair.

There should be no pain at the thought of his lover leaving. Masato was a fuck buddy, that was all. This relationship was providing the best sex he’d ever had, but that was the extent of things. While Masato had a dry sense of humor that never failed to make Schuldig smile, and the two of them got along smashingly, as if they’d known each other for years, all they did was have sex. Every conversation that they tried to start ended when they touched each other, and they did that a hell of a lot. Last night was a prime example of how often they lost control around each other.

"Schuldig, are you ignoring me?"

Turning his head, Schuldig found Masato staring at him. "Why would I be ignoring you?"

"Maybe because you didn’t answer my question?"

He yawned and rolled on his side to face the other man. <Maybe I’m just tired and didn’t see the sense in answering. I told you everything last night.>

Hazel eyes grew bright with anger. "Yeah, _last night_ you decide to tell me that my son is planning on taking on a member of the royal family and his sons, at the king’s wedding nonetheless. Why didn’t anyone tell me this sooner?"

"Because we weren’t even sure you’d still be here when the wedding happens," Schuldig spat out, exasperated and tired. This was the same argument from last night, and no Jei this time to act as referee. "You don’t go around announcing things like that to people who’ll be taking off at anytime and maybe spreading the word around."

"My son is involved, didn’t anyone think to ask me if I might want to stick around and make sure he doesn’t get hurt?" Masato leaned forward until he loomed over Schuldig. "Why didn’t anyone tell me what was happening? I’m finding things out piecemeal, and I have the impression that you’re still keeping something back from me. You should know by now that I won’t betray anyone here and trust me, dammit."

"Listen, Masato, you’ll only find out the things we feel you need to know. You leave the capital for twenty some years, and you come back with the express intent to train your kid and leave the moment that’s done, and you expect us to tell you everything?" Schuldig smacked his fist into the soft mattress. "It doesn’t work out that way!"

"Who said I was leaving?" Masato growled.

Right, as if there’d been a single thought of him staying in Masato’s head this past week. His anger goading him on, Schuldig reached out with his talent and froze the man in place, preventing Masato from moving. <I read it in your thoughts. You figure Yohji only has another week or two until he knows all the basics, and then you were planning on heading back to the southern coast.> He released his lover and sat up.

Growling lowly, Masato glared at him. "What gives you the right to read my mind like that?"

"It’s what I do. You fuck anything that moves, I read people’s thoughts." Everything was fucked up: Yohji hated him, his mother was pissed at him for what had happened with him and Masato last night, his father was happy and now Masato was grilling him on shit the man had no business knowing. Schuldig’s temper snapped from too much stress and worry. "Unless it’s about sex, I don’t see how anything concerns you, and that includes Yohji. I know how you really feel about him."

There was a moment of silence, and then too quick to see Masato grabbed Schuldig by the neck of his tunic and jerked him upward. "Listen you cocky little brat, don’t assume for a minute to know how I really feel about things. Don’t go rummaging in my mind again, either."

<Don’t tell me what to do, Masato.>

Masato’s eyes narrowed in anger. "I’ll damn well tell you what to do, and you’ll listen to me, Schu. You’ll leave my thoughts alone, and you’ll tell me what I want to know."

Just like last night, Schuldig couldn’t help but do the exact opposite that Masato wanted. Something inside wanted him to give in to the man so badly, and that terrified him. He didn’t give in to anybody, certainly not a succubae-bound who thought he tasted good and would leave him without a moment’s hesitation.

<I’ll do whatever I damn well want to.> Masato’s emotions poured through him, anger, frustration, want and need, all so intense they took his breath away. Then Schuldig was indeed gasping as his lover kissed him with a passion, finger buried deep in his hair so that even if Schuldig had wanted to pull away he wouldn’t be able to.

Lust and need coursed through the both of them, driving them wild with desire. His borrowed clothes were torn off him, quickly followed by Masato’s, and they rushed towards each other desperately. It only took a few minutes before Masato was buried inside Schuldig, making him arch his back in pleasure.

Stubble scraped along the back of his neck as Masato surged inside him, making Schuldig scream the man’s name as his sweet spot was continuously battered. Everything was so intense that he could scarcely breathe, and he fought to push backwards to take his lover deeper inside him.

"Mine, you’re mine. Say it." The damn bound slowed down the pace, making Schuldig whine in frustration

"Harder, Masato." Schuldig reached behind him to dig his fingers into the older man’s flanks, urging him forward.

"Say it."

It was on the tip of his tongue to do just that, but all Schuldig did was sob as he reached out with his talent, forcibly spurring Masato on when his lover would have pulled away. If he’d done that… Schuldig would have begged him for more, would have promised anything just to have Masato thrusting into him so forcefully, filling him completely and making him feel whole. He needed to feel this so badly that it scared him.

When Schuldig came he felt as if his body had been struck by lightning. Energy flowed through and out of him, leaving in its wake tingling nerves that had him shuddering in ecstasy. Schuldig fell face down on the bed, feeling drained and sated at the same time, a smile on his face when he heard Masato choke out his name and come as well.

At least no one had interrupted them this time, Schuldig thought to himself, and instantly became sober. As soon as Masato pulled out of him he scrambled to sit up, carelessly wiping himself with the comforter on Kira’s bed.

"What are you doing? Schu, come back here."

Not bothering to look at Masato, Schuldig searched for his clothes, and upon finding them ripped cursed and tried to salvage what he could. The pants would be fine, provided he held them up with a belt, but Koyu’s shirt was a lost cause. He stalked over to the closet to grab one of the shirts Cassandra had made Masato.

"I repeat, what the hell are you doing?" Anger had crept back into Masato’s voice, and Schuldig finally looked at him after he was dressed. The man was holding a hand out to him, and looked so damn sexy with his hair tousled and completely naked. Schuldig wanted nothing more than to curl up beside him on the bed.

"It should be obvious, I’m getting dressed and leaving. I’ll return the shirt when I stop back later tonight and check on Yohji." Schuldig sat down on the vanity’s chair to pull his boots on.

Rising to his feet, Masato walked across the room until he was standing in front of Schuldig. "Why are you leaving? Get back in bed and get some sleep. You’ve been up all night."

Tossing back his hair, Schuldig growled. "I’m going home to my own bed to sleep. You wanna get out of my way?"

"No."

Schuldig bit back on a sigh and used his powers to make Masato step aside. He could feel how furious his actions made the man, and he shook his head as he stood up. <I’m not getting into this with you right now, Masato. We’ll just fight again, and end up back in bed screwing. Don’t you think that’s gotten us in enough trouble already?>

"What happened last night wasn’t our fault," Masato said when he managed to rein in his temper. "Yohji will realize that and stop blaming up as soon as he calms down."

"I don’t think so, Masato. Yohji really did hate us upstairs, I could feel it." Schuldig rubbed at his eyes, which were burning for some reason. Everything was hurting at the moment. Thinking of Yohji’s new feelings for him, thinking of leaving Masato to go home and sleep. Both thoughts caused him pain, and it didn’t make any sense. Neither did Masato’s longing to have Schuldig remain by his side, to curl up in bed together. When the hell had things become so complicated, Schuldig wondered.

"I’m going home, and I think it would be a good idea for us not to see each other for a while." It hurt so much to say the words, but the next time Schuldig faced Yohji, he didn’t want to be reeking of Masato. That would only anger his friend even more. Besides, Schuldig needed to figure his weird mood swings and thoughts out, and put some space between him and Masato. He couldn’t afford to care for the man, not when both of them would be leaving after the wedding, and not with each other.

From Masato came feelings of anger, hurt and confusion, swamping him for a moment. Schuldig decided to take advantage of the moment and slid past him for the door. He was almost there when Masato called out after him.

"Schuldig… maybe you’re right. Take care of yourself."

Inexplicably, a pain settled in Schuldig’s chest at the words, much like what had happened when Yohji had thrown him out of the room earlier. Feeling even more confused and miserable, he fought the impulse to turn around and reclaim Masato and left the room. Wrapping his arms tight about his chest, Schuldig slowly walked out of the Koneko, as if hoping someone would stop him before he left. Not even he was sure if it was Yohji or Masato who he wanted that person to be.

*******

Botan set the hot mug of tea down in front of Omi. The boy looked as if he hadn’t gotten any sleep during the few hours they’d been back at the palace, and that he’d spent the whole time thinking hard. Botan was familiar with the habit.

"Do you want to talk about something?" When Omi lifted his head from breathing in the steam from the mug, Botan smiled reassuringly at him. "At least, I assume you’re here for more than a cup of tea."

Omi nodded his head. "I’ve spent the night thinking about things."

Ah, it was as he’d suspected. Though Botan would be an idiot if he thought that Omi had done anything other than that, not after what had happened at the Koneko last night, and all the questions the prince had asked him on their way back to the palace. Botan stifled a yawn as he tried to encourage Omi to continue, more than a little tired himself. He’d gone back out to try and cheer Cassandra right after he made sure that Omi was safe in his room.

"Excuse me. Do you want to talk about what you were thinking about?"

"Yes. Botan, do you think I’m evil?"

The question took him by surprise. "Omi… I don’t think I’ve ever thought of you and evil at the same time. You’re not, Omi, you’ve never been and I can’t see you ever being evil." He’d tried his best to make sure of that, and the boy had one of the purest souls he’d ever known.

Omi’s lips trembled. "I’m not like them, am I?"

Botan took a guess. "You mean your uncle and cousins, don’t you?" When Omi nodded his head, Botan grabbed him by the chin, forcing the boy to look at him. "You’re nothing like them. You’re good, kind and caring. If I thought for one moment that you were anything like Reiji and his brats, I would never have taught you. Hell, I’d never have spared a moment of my time for you, knowing it would be wasted. You’re not them, Omi, not by a long shot."

Omi jumped out of his chair and onto Botan’s lap, hugging him tightly. "Thank you. I was so afraid I was just like them. I didn’t want to hurt anyone."

Stroking the distraught teen’s hair, Botan tried to reassure him. "You’re not them, Omi. I love you like a son, and if I thought you were turning out like Masafumi or Hirofumi, I’d have spanked your bottom raw by now. You’re perfect the way you are: a kind, intelligent young man. So stop worrying yourself silly over nonsense."

Sniffing, Omi pulled back and nodded his head while wiping his nose with the sleeve of his dark brown shirt. "So you don’t think there’s any reason why Naoe wouldn’t want to see me again? Even after what my cousins did to Aya?"

"No, I don’t think there’s any reason why he wouldn’t want to see you, even after last night. Not if he truly loves you." If Naoe did reject Omi because of his family, Botan had a few spells that he wanted to try out. Naoe would regret his fickleness for the rest of his life. "Didn’t he say much the same to you last night?"

Omi nodded his head. "Yeah, but…."

"You stayed awake all night worrying about things, letting your doubts get the better of you." Botan lightly smacked Omi on the top of his head. "Idiot."

That earned him a slight smile. "Why don’t you go back and see him if you’re so worried." Cass hadn’t given him any indication that Omi would be rejected for his heritage, instead she’d even hinted that the boy would be needed for something on the day of the wedding.

"Can you come with me?" Ah, damn, the boy had broken out his big blue eyes, and Botan had to look away to keep his resolve.

"Omi, I’m sorry, but I can’t. I’ll be by later tonight, but I need to double check a spell today." Botan motioned to the book spread out before him. Omi, who had shown an aptitude for magic, if no ability, quickly scanned the open pages.

"It’s for freeing Aya’s sister, isn’t it?"

"Yes." Botan briefly explained all the elements that he needed to gather still, and even shooed Omi off his lap so he could show the boy the glass sphere he’d crafted. "All I need is part of a soul, a demon, and some blood, and it should work."

Omi looked on in curiosity. "How will you get those things?"

"The demon will be easy; I’ve decided to substitute a flesh gaki for a soul one, so the soul trapped with it will be safe from being devoured if something goes wrong. I’ll need a volunteer for the soul, and the blood will have to come from Aya and…." His voice drifted off as he thought of one way Omi could help them.

It seemed the prince thought of it too. "If the original sphere is geared to my uncle and cousin, that will have been done by blood. You’ll need some from a Takatori to convince them the sphere is the same." When Botan nodded, Omi smiled at him. "You can use mine, then. My soul too, if you want."

"No, just the blood will be fine!" Botan had never attempted a spell like this, and he wasn’t about to explain to Shuuichi why he’d used his son’s soul for it should something go wrong. "It would be best to find another person’s soul, since I’m not sure if using the same source for both will be a good idea." Omi pouted slightly, but seemed to accept his rational.

They fell silent as they sipped their tea, the whole while Omi searched through the books spread out on the table. When he finished his beverage, he spoke in a quiet voice.

"Botan, bounds have been hated for a very long time. You’re the only person who taught me not to hate or fear them, though most people don’t think of them at all. Why are Naoe and Aya, not to mention the others, going to fight for my father when they’ve been hurt so badly by humans? Why don’t they just go away to somewhere safe?"

"I don’t know, Omi. I’ve wondered that myself. Maybe because the alternative is not very good. If your uncle takes the throne, their kind will be hunted once again, just for their blood." Botan’s hands clenched into fists as he thought of someone tracking down and hurting his Kaede, just to bleed her for spells. He’d kill whoever tried. Then he reminded himself that he had to free her from Esset first.

Omi touched a picture depicting bounds fighting during the Binding War. "They’re in danger. If someone figures out what they are, they’ll be hurt." Botan didn’t say anything, as there was no way he could deny or sugar coat his answer. "I want to be able to protect Naoe, Aya and Yohji. Can you make me a weapon, something like Yohji’s?"

Stunned by the turn of events as well as the fierce look of determination the teen’s face, Botan stared at him for a moment. Then he thought about the request. There was no way to spare Omi from the upcoming fight, as he’d have to be at the wedding, and he knew the boy would want to defend his friends. A weapon might be a very good idea.

"Give me a few days to come up with something," he agreed. Then Botan yawned again and thought of all the things he still had to do that day. "I need to work on a few other things first, so why don’t you go back to bed?"

"No, I want to go to the Koneko." Omi had a stubborn gleam in his eyes that meant he would return to the Koneko that day, even if he had to carve a hole through the castle’s stone walls to escape. Botan sighed at the look. Then an idea occurred to him.

"If I know you, you’ll want to spend every spare second at the Koneko until Aya is feeling better. Why not ask Manx to let you stay there for a few days?" He knew that both the Captain and Birman were anxious about Omi running into his uncle or cousins unsupervised, and this would be a good excuse to get him out of harm’s way. There was no telling what Reiji would want with the young prince, seeing as there was a possibility that Omi was his son. If he went with Omi when the prince made his request, Birman would definitely support him, and Manx wouldn’t have any choice but to agree. Botan mentioned this last part out loud.

When he rose to his feet Omi laughed and hugged his arm. "You’ll come with me while I ask? Botan, that’s such a great idea, and you’re the best friend I have. Let’s go ask right now!" He started to drag a protesting but smiling Botan right out the door.

*******

Omi checked his room once more for anything he might have missed, and then gathered up his bag. If he needed anything else Botan should be able to pick it up for him, but he thought he had everything. Besides, the Koneko could supply him with whatever he’d forgotten. Pulling his glamour charm over his head, Omi headed for the door.

He wasn’t surprised to find Ken standing outside it, clearly waiting for him. Nodding to the Guard, Omi silently continued on his way. Ken walked beside him, not saying a word either, but his body stiff with displeasure. Once they reached a private sector of the palace, the older man unleashed that pent up emotion.

"Omi, are you nuts? You’re going to spend a couple nights at the Koneko?"

Ah, it was as he’d figured. "I’ve cleared it with Manx and Birman. There are a few parties and dinners that I’ll be missing, but nothing very important. Besides, they think it best if I’m away from my… uncle and cousins."

"Oh, and of course it’s so much safer for you to be rooming with a bunch of bounds! And a kage to boot! If you’re lucky they’ll wait a day or two before eating you."

Tossing his bag to the ground, Omi grabbed Ken’s arm and forced his friend to face him. "You are not to say that word anywhere that it might be overheard! Nor are you to slander Yohji, Naoe and the others because of what they are!"

"Omi, they’re fucking bounds!" Ken spat out. "I love Yohji like a brother, and Naoe and Aya aren’t that bad, but… they’re demons, Omi, not human at all. You actually think you’re safe around them?"

Biting back on his anger, Omi chose his words with care. "Let’s see, none of them have raped anyone or beaten them bloody. I can’t even say the same about my family! What harm has Yohji and the others done to us, Ken? For that matter, when was the last time you heard about a bound hurting a human, and it being the truth? Not some story or rumor, but an actual event? You’re a Guard, you should know."

Ken’s brows furrowed as he thought of Omi’s words. "I… well, I… dammit, Omi, you haven’t heard anything about bounds lately because they’ve been hunted extensively. None of them are going to do anything to draw attention to themselves because of that, or else they would be hurting humans with impunity."

"They’ve been hunted so much that six can manage to live in the heart of the capital, and deal with people everyday and not be noticed?" His friend was an idiot, and Omi decided to try a different path of logic. " Ken, Yohji’s saved your life countless times, and Cass always gives you and Yuriko whatever herbal remedies you need. If they’d wanted you dead, it would have happened years ago." Omi knew that something like this would happen once the shock of last night had worn off. Ken didn’t handle anything outside the norm very well. He just hoped the Guard didn’t do something stupid, such as toss aside his friendship with Yohji just because of a stupid prejudice.

"They’re monsters, Omi."

"They’re our friends. The people we’ve joked with, trusted for years, and love, Ken." Omi sighed and picked up his bag. "I know what people are told about bounds, and in a way I don’t blame you for distrusting them, except for the fact that you’ve known three of them for years and have trusted them up until last night. I guess I’m a little different, since Botan’s taught me over the years. He told me the truth about bounds, about how they very rarely attack us, unless we’ve hurt something they love or care for, and that us humans are the ones who hunt them down for their blood. I’m not as prejudiced as you are, and I’m very thankful for that, because I won’t let a thing like that ruin several good relationships. I’d rather just lose one."

He started to walk away, wondering when Ken would figure out what he’d meant. It was when he reached one of the palace’s many doors leading outside that Ken caught up to him.

"Are you saying that you don’t want to be friends with me anymore?"

The hurt in Ken’s voice made Omi’s chest ache, but he’d made up his mind last night and wasn’t about to change that decision. "I’m saying that if you make me chose between Yohji and Naoe and you, I’ll chose them. Ken, I refuse to hate people solely because of an accident of birth."

Ken hurried forward until he stood in Omi’s way, causing him to stop. "Omi, you might have forgotten this, but they were going to kill us last night!"

"No, Ken, Cass said they’d only harm us if we tried to hurt them. Then they let us go. Do you have any idea how much they must trust us to do that? We could have rounded up the Guard and burned the Koneko down around them if we’d wanted to! If people knew that there were several bounds in one building, that’s what they’d insist on doing. If they knew about Aya alone… they’d burn down the whole district just to kill him. But they let us go. They trust us, and I refuse to either betray that trust or to fail in returning it." He stepped around his friend and continued on his way.

Ken tried a different approach. "You’re just saying that because you’re in love with one of them. Tell me I’m wrong."

"Ken… I do love Naoe, with all my heart. You might have a point there; I’m probably more accepting of what he is because I do love him so much, and Yohji too. If they were some strangers I probably wouldn’t trust them as much. But Yohji had been my best friend since I was ten, and I’ve known Schuldig and Cassandra longer than I’ve known you. They don’t care about who I really am, so I’m returning the favor." They still trusted Omi, even knowing his true parentage. Takatoris had hunted down bounds for almost a millennia, yet several had chosen to be his friends, to love him.

Sighing, Ken grabbed Omi’s bag and slung it over his shoulder. "You make me feel ashamed, I’ll have you know. I… Yohji is a very good friend, and I care about Cassandra and Schuldig, but I can’t just overlook what they are the way you can. I won’t tell anyone about them, or Aya as well, but I can’t just accept them and carry on as if they’re the same people that I’ve always known like you can."

No, Omi imagined that Ken couldn’t. The Guard saw things too simple for that. If you were a bound you weren’t human and couldn’t be trusted, that was probably what Ken was thinking. Nevermind that it was Yohji and the others they were talking about. It was a minor miracle that Ken was letting him go the Koneko and not reporting to Manx about the bounds. Still, Omi lost a bit of respect for his friend, though he refused to show it. He knew his upbringing had been unique, and that Botan had tried so hard to make sure he wasn’t prejudiced in any way. Very few people could say the same, and almost everyone was taught to fear and hate bounds. Unfortunately, the majority of the people who weren’t taught that believed that bounds were good for nothing but providing blood for spells.

"Ken, if it makes you feel any better, there is no way Botan would have backed my request if he thought I’d be in danger. He doesn’t fear the others, so I refuse to do so either."

Ken’s hand tousled his hair. "I could argue that he’s sleeping with one of them, but I know he wouldn’t let anything harm you. That’s the only reason I’m letting you go back to the Koneko."

Omi wanted to smack the man. Here he was, a relatively intelligent, mature person, and Ken thought he knew what was best for him. Banking his temper, Omi distracted himself by looking for something to buy Naoe. Well, Nagi, really. He had to get used to calling his boyfriend by his real name. Or should he? Wouldn’t people wonder about the sudden change of name? Confused over the matter, Omi managed to let Ken have the last word.

He made them stop to buy some roasted almonds, and some sweet bean paste balls too. It was when they passed by a confection shop and Omi purchased some mints that he remember Aya. Filled with sadness, he bought a box of the cookies the redhead liked so much.

No wonder Aya had never really warmed to him. Being a kage, Aya had most likely seen through his glamour, as Omi had heard of his kind being able to do. Aya must have known who he was, or Yohji had told him. He was a Takatori, related to the people who had hurt him. The people who had last night drained him of blood and whipped his back until it was little more than tattered flesh. His own family.

Nagi had known about him too. Yet the teen didn’t seem angry with him for anything other than finding out about Aya. Nagi hadn’t looked at him in hatred, not even after discovering Aya in that horrible condition. Omi prayed to all the gods that when he arrived at the Koneko, Nagi would smile that shy smile of his and be glad to see him.

The rest of the walk passed by quietly, with a few more stops for treats along the way. Omi was spending a good bit of his allowance but he didn’t care in the slightest. The closer to the Koneko they got, the more his stomach became upset. Please, he pleaded to the gods, don’t let Nagi and the others hate him.

Walking into the inn, Omi found a solemn Mickey standing by the door. Mostly hidden behind the small register desk was a long, wooden club that Omi recognized from the few times he’s seen a fight break out at the Koneko.

"Is everything alright?"

Mickey flashed him a tired grin. "We’re just being careful, Omittchi. That… no one who might harm one of our own is going to get through the door again. You just missed him, but Botan cast a spell to negate any glamour charms other than ones he’s crafted that cross the Koneko’s threshold. We should have a few surprised patrons later." Then the man spied the bag in Ken’s arms and raised an eyebrow.

"I, ah, if you don’t mind, I was wondering if I could stay here for a night or two. I know it’s a bad time, but…." He didn’t know what he’d do if Mickey or the others turned him down. Probably tie himself to the stair’s mantel until Nagi ordered him to leave.

Luckily, it didn’t come down to that. "You’re always welcome here, Omi, you know that. You’re one of the family." The words warmed Omi’s heart, and he smiled. "Are you planning on eating all those sweets yourself?"

"No, they’re for… Naoe and Aya."

At mention of the kage’s name Mickey’s face went sad. "Naoe is up in Yohji and Aya’s room. We’ll see if Farfie will let you in, and if not you can wait in Naoe’s room. Now give me that bag, Ken, and I’ll take Omi upstairs. You going to have something to eat, or are you on duty?"

"I just came here to make sure Omi would be alright. He will be, won’t he?"

Omi wanted to smack Ken for that comment, and judging from Mickey’s expression, so did the burly manager. "He’s never been in any danger here before, and nothing’s changed since last night. If anything, he’s safer here than at home, considering his relatives. If you want to keep your welcome, Hidaka, you’ll never ask something as stupid as that again."

Ken flushed, realizing that he’d gone too far. "I’m sorry Mick, but I need some time to get used to the idea. I’ll be back later for that drink, if you don’t mind."

Mickey told him that would be fine, and Ken went on his way. Omi knew the Guard was coming back more to check on him than for a drink, but realized that he had to give Ken time to adjust to finding out the truth about Yohji and the others. The older man had a good heart, and Omi knew it was only a matter of time before Ken forgot all about Yohji, Aya and Nagi being bounds and treated them as friends.

Calling out his brother’s name, Mickey waited until Teddy took over watching the door before leading Omi upstairs.

"You know that Ken doesn’t mean Yohji and the others any harm, don’t you Mickey?" Omi asked in a quiet voice.

"I know, Omi. I didn’t expect Ken to just accept the idea, and to tell the truth he’s doing better than I expected. Most people hate bounds too much to ever accept them as anything but monsters."

They approached Yohji and Aya’s room, and when they reached the shadowed door Farfarello suddenly appeared out of the darkness. Omi blinked in shock at the scarred man, wondering how he’d been hidden like that.

"Oh, sweetened almonds. My favorite." Farfarello reached out and snatched the bag of nuts from Omi’s arms. That helped to shake him from his daze.

"Hey! Those are for Naoe, so give them back!"

Farfarello smiled at Omi, his lips pulled back to reveal an impressive set of fangs that would have done a rottweiler proud. For a moment Omi stared at the man in shock, and he told himself that anyone would be startled to see a mouthful of sharp teeth like that before he managed to control himself. Then he frowned at Farfarello.

"Give me back those nuts."

The smile grew impossibly bigger, and any semblance of humanity faded from Farfarello. Mickey took a step backwards and swore under his breath.

"Why don’t you make me, little human?"

Omi glared at the bound. "Either give them back to me, or I’ll tell Liss that you stood her up last night for one of Yohji’s old girlfriends. Then you’ll have her and every single woman in the Guards after your hide."

The hallway was silent for a moment, and then Farfarello started to laugh. It took him a few minutes to stop, and all the while Omi remained there glaring at him.

Shaking out a few of the nuts into his hand, Farfarello handed the majority of them back to Omi. "You’ve got balls, kid, no wonder Nagi likes you. I take it you want to see him?"

"Yes, please."

Farfarello pushed open the door as he munched on the nuts. "Yohji and Aya are still sleeping and likely won’t wake up, but be careful around them anyway. You don’t want Yohji to get it into his head that you’re a danger to Aya, which he’s going to think anyone is until it’s proven otherwise." At Omi’s sad face Farfarello shook his head. "It has nothing to do with you, and everything with bound nature. Aya’s his mate, you could be his mother and he still won’t trust you at first. Nagi’s sleeping too, but once he sees you and the food you’ll have no problems. Hell, he’ll probably love you forever, those almonds are damn good."

"Okay. How did you do the thing with the shadows? Was that a spell of Botan’s?" As scared as he was, Omi’s mind was still as curious as ever.

"No, somehow it’s Aya’s doing. Damn things have been acting as if they’re sentient lately. It’s something to do with his power looking out for him."

Omi pondered that as he stepped into the room. He’d heard it was almost impossible to take a kage down unawares, and wondered if this control over shadows was the reason behind it. Then he stepped into the room and forgot all about his curiosity.

The room was dark, so dark he had to stop for a moment and let his eyes adjust to the lack of light. He’d never been able to see a thing if it wasn’t for the afternoon sunlight leaking through the curtains. Farfarello took pity on him by lighting a candle before returning to guard the door.

As Omi approached the bed someone sat up. He recognized the dark shape as Nagi, and eyed the teen’s face with apprehension. The air about him thickened, making it hard to walk, and Omi stopped.

Nagi rubbed his eyes, and as Omi held his breath smiled that shy smile of his. "Omi?"

"Yes, Nagi. I told you’d come by today." The invisible hold around him vanished, and when Omi neared the bed he was yanked down towards the bottom of it.

"Don’t get too close to them." Nagi tugged until Omi sat down on the mattress. "I smell food."

"I brought you- ah, yes, those are yours." Omi giggled as the food was snatched from his arms with blinding speed. Then he was startled when Nagi quickly kissed him on the lips before shoving the food into his mouth. He’d never seen anyone eat so much food so fast, and in a matter of minutes all the snacks but the cookies were gone.

Blinking his eyes, Omi could only stare at Nagi. "Wow."

Nagi wiped his hand over his mouth. "I’m sorry, I’m really hungry."

"I can imagine. No wonder you guys fight over food at meals all the time. Is that normal for bounds?"

"We’re always hungrier than humans, but the more we use our power, the bigger our appetites." Nagi fell silent as he touched the box of cookies. "Are these for me?"

Omi looked at the box and then at the sleeping couple on the bed. "No, they’re for Aya." Now that his eyes had grown used to the dim light, he could make the two unconscious men out.

They were mostly covered with shadows, but he could see their faces and their forms. Aya’s head was tucked under Yohji’s chin, his skin still as pale as it had been last night. It made the bruises on his face even starker. Yohji had a frown on his face and cupped one of Aya’s cheeks with his hand.

"How is he?"

Nagi shifted closer to Omi, and he couldn’t help but to put an arm around the boy’s thin shoulders. "He woke up a little this morning, but that was mainly because of Yohji. He’s in too much pain to remain awake for long, and normally he can’t move much for a day or two after being blooded. I’m not sure what’s going to happen now, with the beating and Yohji giving him some energy." Nagi chewed on his bottom lip for a moment.

"Just stay away from Yohji if he wakes up. He’s not acting very rational at the moment."

Omi scooted more on the bed. "Farfie said the same thing, something about them being mates. What did he mean?"

"Some bounds, a very few, have what we call mates. It’s as if the person they fall in love with is a part of themselves that they’ve always searched for. They can feel each other’s emotions, and often when one dies so does the other. They can’t live without each other."

"So they feel each other’s emotions? Is that what Yohji meant when he was talking about Aya’s pain last night?" Omi felt Nagi nod his head. "Poor Yotan, no wonder he’s so upset." Nagi grunted and leaned against him.

Staring at the couple, Omi felt an odd mix of jealousy and sorrow. He could only imagine what it was like to feel the pain that Aya was experiencing, but to be able to feel what the person you loved did, both the good and the bad… he wanted something like that. It would mean that he’d never be alone again.

It felt so nice snuggling against Nagi, and Omi hadn’t gotten much sleep last night, being too worried about Aya and Nagi. Now that he was by his boyfriend and not being rejected, he felt the stress melt away, leaving him exhausted.

"Nagi, I don’t care if you and the others are bounds, I really don’t. Do you mind about me being a Takatori?"

The smaller teen was quiet for a moment, then he sighed. "I guess I just don’t think of you as a Takatori. You’re Omi to me. It doesn’t matter about your family, because you won’t hurt me."

A flare of anger burned in Omi’s chest at the words. "No, I’ll never hurt you, I promise you that. But they have, haven’t they? My uncle and my cousins?"

Nagi shifted about uncomfortably. "Yes, they have. Any servant in the castle is fair game to be made to suffer for their amusement, especially ones with no family to protest the abuse. But Aya protected me; he made sure the other servants didn’t bother me and that I had a safe place to hide. Masafumi’s women were the worst, but Aya put a stop to their ‘fun’ when I became his servant. As for your family… they much rather hurt him than me."

Omi could feel Nagi shivering and hugged the boy tighter to him. Then he slowly leaned back until he was lying on the bed with Nagi in his arms.

"I won’t let them hurt either of you again. Never, ever again."

Pushing himself up on his arms, Nagi looked down at him. Letting his feelings reflect on his face, Omi stared back. Then Nagi nodded his head and leaned down to kiss him. It was brief, but sweet. When it was over, Nagi curled up with his head on Omi’s chest.

Feeling the silly smile return to his face, Omi held his boyfriend close and let himself drift off to sleep. He was with friends and his love, and he’d do whatever necessary to keep them all safe.

*******

Yohji slowly became aware of the world once again, of the feel of his stiff and sore body, his hunger and the warmth of Aya being pressed against him. He smelled roses and Aya’s unique scent, and almost overwhelmed by that was a hint of food, Nagi and Omi. Snarling slightly at the human scent, Yohji blinked his eyes open and as carefully as he could lifted his head to look down the bed.

Omi and Nagi were curled up together at Aya and his feet, looking like a couple of puppies with the way they were sprawled all over each other. Yohji had trouble for a moment trying to figure out where one boy ended and the other began. A smile on his face, he laid back down by Aya.

Looking at his mate made his anger boil, but with more willpower than he’d ever imagined himself to possess Yohji pushed it back down. It wouldn’t do Aya any good to lose control. All he’d do was go charging out there after the Takatoris, and Aya and his sister would pay for his foolishness. No, Yohji would just have to wait until the wedding to kill the bastards. He’d have a fortnight to think of very inventive ways to do just that.

Gently stroking a hand along Aya’s cheek, Yohji purred at the feel of sunlight that trickled into him. Just the feel of Aya’s skin against his appeased his hunger. Then Yohji realized what he was doing and cursed himself as seven types a fool. He couldn’t feed off Aya, not when the man needed the energy to heal. But he couldn’t stop either, as drained as he was. Nothing that Masato had taught him was working.

Again the anger rose at the thought of Masato and Schu. The scent of their sex still clung to the bed, reminding Yohji of their transgression. Because of them stopping him Aya had suffered unimaginable pain, and all they’d cared about was screwing each other. His best friend in the world had hurt him in a way he’d never have thought possible. Yohji wasn’t stupid and knew that Schuldig had been jealous of Aya at the beginning of their relationship, and part of him wondered if that was why Schuldig had agreed to stop him last night. Maybe Schuldig had wanted Aya to be hurt, and if that was true, Yohji would never forgive the man.

Using his anger to strengthen his resolve, Yohji forced his hand to leave Aya’s cheek. As it pulled away Aya moaned softly and shifted closer to him. The feeling of pain returned as the redhead slowly woke up, and Yohji stopped moving as his love’s eyes fluttered open.

Aya stared at him, his eyes cloudy and dark, and then despair joined with the pain. Unable to take the hopelessness that filled his mate, Yohji dared to touch Aya again, stroking his cheek as lightly as he could. The pain slightly increased, but at least the despair faded away. Unable to resist, Yohji bent his head to kiss Aya on the lips, the gentlest of pressure that lingered only for a few seconds.

"Yotan." Aya’s voice was weak and raspy, but the one word made Yohji smile. He kissed Aya again, and then stroked his hand through the man’s hair. There was a soft mewl at the touch, but for once not in pain. Yohji combed through the silky strands, and under his attention Aya drifted back to sleep, the drugs overpowering him again. Despite the slight drain on Aya’s strength, Yohji continued to touch his mate, needing to reassure him of his presence and love.

The contact also helped to calm his temper down, especially with the way _his_ scent now clung to the pale skin. Yohji ached to fully claim his mate, to kiss Aya awake and fill him with so much pleasure that the smaller man forgot all about his pain, but that wouldn’t be possible for some time to come. That thought caused him pain, knowing that Aya was right beside him and he could do little more for the next few days other than stroke Aya’s cheek or comb his hair.

Snuggling down in the bed, Yohji tried to pull Aya even closer to him. He carefully wrapped an arm around the man’s hips and slowly pulled him forward, trapping Aya’s thighs between his. Most of Aya’s injuries were from the waist up, so he left his arm where it was and allowed himself to fall back asleep. His hunger and other physical discomforts could wait a while longer now that Aya was spooned against him. Yohji never wanted to let go of his lover.

There were a series of confused nightmares, all of them centering on him losing Aya, which prevented Yohji from sleeping very deeply or for very long. All the scents that lingered in the room bothered him too, reminding him of the two teens sleeping at the foot of the bed, of what Schu and Masato had done. During one of his forays in consciousness, Yohji had to prevent himself from gathering Aya in his arms and retreating down to the garden to sleep amongst the lavender.

He became aware when the evening crowd started to arrive at the Koneko, and his stomach had taken to rumbling rather loudly, but as his companions were still fast asleep, Yohji decided to ignore his body’s demands for a little longer. There was no sense of pain from Aya, the emotion dulled by exhaustion and the drugs, and Yohji wasn’t going to disturb his love for anything.

It wasn’t long after he thought that when there was a tentative knocking on the door. As Yohji lifted his head the door opened, and he snarled as Brad, Jo and Teddy entered the room.

"Get the hell out of here."

His furious snarl had Naoe awake in an instant, and the three intruders were instantly stopped in their steps. Carefully sitting up on the bed, Yohji tugged on his wire, ready to attack if need be. His brittle temper wasn’t helped by the fact that Aya was waking up, the pain returning to swamp both of their senses.

"Yotan, we don’t have time for this. Behave and let us go." Jo’s voice was full of bite, but also contained a hint of fear and worry. Narrowing his eyes, Yohji took in the concerned look on the woman’s face, and noticed that the emotion was echoed on the men’s as well, even Brad.

Swallowing his growls, Yohji motioned to Naoe, and the threesome was able to move again. Jo rushed to the bed, a large bottle in her hand, and Brad jerked her back when she got too close. Yohji growled a warning at her as he stroked through Aya’s hair, trying to soothe him and regain control of himself.

"What the hell do you want?"

Brad squeezed Jo’s arm and stepped towards the bed, his hands carefully held away from his body. "We need you to go downstairs right now."

Suddenly suspicious, Yohji stroked his bracelet. "Why?"

"Because one of the Takatoris’ women is downstairs. Schuldig scanned her mind, and she’s here to find out what happened to Aya." When Yohji surged from the bed Brad grabbed him, stopping before he got more than a foot away. "Listen to me, you idiot. If you harm her, Aya and others will pay. We need you to go downstairs and maintain the illusion that you’ve broken up with Aya."

Glaring at the other bound, Yohji snarled and prepared to strike back when he heard Aya breathe out his name. Instantly spinning around, he fell to his knees beside the bed and brushed back his mate’s bangs. Aya was filled with agony, but warring with the pain was concern for him.

"Why exactly is the bitch here?" His voice was harsh, belying the soft look in his eyes as he bent his head to gently kiss Aya on the nose.

"As I said, to check up on Aya. She was sent to see if anyone noticed what happened to him last night. So far everything’s as she suspected it would be, but people are commenting on your absence, and she’s picking up on that." Brad pushed his glasses up his nose and crossed his arms over his chest. Yohji felt as if he was receiving a lecture or something.

Teddy stepped from behind the glowering man to smile reassuringly at Yohji. "Lilla’s downstairs waiting for you. We’ll keep an eye on Aya while you go down for a little bit. But you better get going, before Mickey and the others find an excuse to substitute the bitch for the pig roasting on the kitchen’s spit. Koyu’s even got an apple all ready for her."

Yohji started to smile at the image, but then he realized that he would have to leave Aya. "Have Schu mess with her mind, I’m staying here." He got up to sit on the bed, and only Brad’s hand on his arm prevented him from lying back down.

"Two minutes ago you were more than willing to leave your mate’s side, so don’t give me that nonsense. Schuldig could influence her mind, but not everyone’s inside the inn. People will talk about what kept you from showing yourself two nights in a row, and then the Takatoris will wonder at there being to contrasting accounts of this evening and investigate further. The simplest solution is often the best, so get moving."

Wanting to tear the man’s throat out, Yohji snarled and looked down at Aya. The sight of his lacerated back and all the bruises didn’t help him calm down any, and he wanted to toss everyone out of the room and just hold his mate.

Naoe touched his hand. "I’m rested now, Omi and I will watch him. Go get something to eat."

Staring at the boy, Yohji shifted his gaze to Omi after a minute and found the same look of determination on his friend’s face. His stomach rumbled loudly, reminding him that he hadn’t had anything other than the drug since last night, and he knew he needed some source of energy other than his rage if he wanted to remain awake much longer.

"What about Aya? He needs to eat too."

Naoe shook his head. "He doesn’t usually eat for a day or two after a bleeding, it takes too much energy for him to try, and every movement hurts." Yohji was aware of that last fact, and he looked down at his lover, noting the lines of pain that were growing deeper on Aya’s face the longer he was awake. Cloudy violet eyes stared back at him, filled with concern and pain, and Yohji didn’t know how he’d willingly leave Aya alone up here.

"He’s in pain again." Yohji threaded his fingers through an eartail, enjoying how silky Aya’s hair felt.

"I’ve brought the last of the opiate. Yotan, let me dose him and you can go after he falls asleep. We’ll make sure he’s safe up here, don’t worry." Jo took a step towards the bed, and when Yohji didn’t snarl at her came closer and sat down on the edge. "Lift him up for this. When we’re done, I want to wash his wounds and spread some more salve on them."

Aya moaned as he was lifted, causing Yohji to growl under his breath as he supported the man, but in a few minutes the ordeal was over with and Aya tucked back in bed. "I’ll be right back, cat. I promise. Nothing’s gonna happen to you while I’m gone, not with the little demon here." Yohji kept uttering reassurances until Aya weakly glared at him and fell asleep. Then he had to force himself away from the redhead, cursing the whole while.

"Fuck. Let’s get this over with. I’m warning you know, though, if I see this woman take one step towards the stairs her head’s coming off her body." Yohji started to walk towards the door.

"It might help a bit, Yotan, if you cleaned up first," Teddy commented. Yohji frowned and looked down at his wrinkled clothes from yesterday, then felt the stubble on his chin. Sighing, he set about becoming presentable, even accepting Teddy’s help to speed things up.

As he washed and shaved Jo tended to Aya, gently washing him with Naoe and Omi’s assistance. Aya was a limp bundle in their hands, completely unconscious due to the opiate. For a moment Yohji’s bound nature snarled inside of him, insisting that no one should touch his injured mate, that he should hurt them for their audacity, but he shakily told it to go jump in a lake. He could trust Jo, Omi and Naoe, and their touch at least didn’t drain Aya. They were better suited for the task than he was, he firmly reminded himself.

Once dressed and ready he crossed over to the bed and bent down, stroking back Aya’s hair. Yohji kissed his love on his lips, idly noting that the bite marks from last night were well on their way to healing, not even leaving a scar as they did so. Then he glanced over at Omi and Naoe.

"Keep him safe."

Naoe nodded his head, and it was Omi who spoke out loud. "We will, Yotan. No one will hurt him again."

Yohji stood up and forced himself to move away from the bed. Each step away caused him pain, especially when the door closed behind him. He turned to find Farfarello still standing guard beside it.

"You still here?"

"Yeah, for a little bit longer. I figured I’d stay up here until you came back, or else I’d be too tempted to eat a certain guest." Farfarello flashed his teeth at Yohji.

Smiling weakly, Yohji shook his head. "I could care in the least who you eat, especially if it was her." He took a step away, then stopped and turned around. "Actually, I do care. I want Hirofumi Takatori." His voice became low and husky, containing a hint of a growl. "Kill whoever else you want to the day of the wedding, but leave him to me."

Farfarello revealed even more teeth, and his amber eye glowed in the shadows. "You’ll have him. I want the wizard, Masafumi, so that works out well. No one will touch the other brother but you."

Nodding his head in agreement, Yohji forced himself down the stairs.

*******

Ken sighed into his beer, wondering what the hell he was doing here, the only normal human sitting at the table besides Koyu. Cassandra and Botan were on his left, Masato on his right, and across from him sat a fidgeting Schuldig. Where the hell was Omi?

<He’s upstairs keeping an eye on Aya. Unlike you, he doesn’t care what his friends are, only about their well-being. You know, the worst part of is was just the other day I was thinking that you’d come a long way, and were proving what a great friend you were to Yohji by helping him with the situation with Aya. Too bad you wasted all that effort on a filthy bound.>

Glad that he hadn’t been drinking when Schuldig’s voice took to speaking inside his head, Ken glared at the bound. Who the hell was he to just ‘talk’ to him like that, and how dare Schuldig judge him! Besides, his thoughts were private.

Schuldig glared right back at him. <I’m making sure you don’t have any stupid plans to go running off to your Captain and get Yohji and Aya killed. As for the judging part, isn’t that what you’re doing to all us? Deciding to believe in some old wives’ tales you’ve heard while growing up and ignoring the fact that we’ve been your friends for the past four years?>

His face flushing with shame, Ken glanced down at the table. Dammit, but Schuldig was right. Ever since he’d left Omi here, with the boy having no qualm with spending the next couple days with a bunch of bounds, Ken had felt a bit of shame. Yohji was his friend, was the man who’d taken him under his wing when he’d first joined the Guards, had helped him and saved his life a couple times during hazardous duty, and here he was seeing him as some type of monster. But try as he might, Ken couldn’t forget all the stories his Gram had told him as a child of bounds eating and killing unsuspecting humans. The two images he had of Yohji, a trusted friend and a demon, warred in his head.

<Well decide which one he is, and real quick. Yohji’s coming down so the bitch over there doesn’t have anything to tell her masters, and what he needs is a friend right now, not an enemy. If you can’t be the former, get the hell out of the Koneko and never return or else.>

Yohji entered the common room immediately after that warning, and as Ken watched Lilla, who’d been standing by the door talking to her cousins, let out a loud squeal and tossed her arms around Yohji’s neck. The blond man appeared haggard, but somehow Yohji managed to plaster a smile on his face and swing Lilla around in the air. As soon as the woman was back on her feet she started to drag him over to their table.

Yohji frowned when he sat down, tugging Lilla to sit between him and Schuldig, which caused the redhead’s welcoming smile to falter. Ken started to wonder what was going on, as Yohji barely grunted a hello at his best friend and the man’s mother, then concentrated his attention on Lilla and Koyu.

"Ah, I see you’re looking better tonight, Yotan! I did warn you about buying pork buns from that vendor," Lilla chided. "Are you hungry?"

"I’m starving." Yohji swooped in and kissed her on the lips, and the moment they parted Lilla laughed out loud, turning whatever heads that weren’t staring at the table in their direction. For a moment Ken wondered why Lilla was being so exuberant, then he realized she was purposely drawing attention to her and Yohji. Surreptitiously glancing at a table along the west wall, Ken noticed that the dark-haired spy was staring in their direction. It seemed Lilla’s plan was working.

Ani and Kira delivered several plates of food to the table, both of them pausing to berate Yohji to make sure he ate enough. They needn’t have bothered to waste their breath, as Yohji immediately attacked the plates. Koyu and Schu took up the conversation while Yohji gorged himself. Still feeling a bit uncomfortable with the situation, and not wanting to slip up in front of the spy, Ken remained quiet.

Teddy appeared from wherever he’d vanished to, along with Brad, and the table became packed. It took a few minutes to notice that the jovial air about everyone served a purpose other than just convincing people that everything was fine at the Koneko, since there seemed to be a concentrated effort to snag Yohji’s attention whenever his eyes shifted in the spy’s direction. Each time that happened Ken swore he heard his friend growl. He wondered if there was going to be copious amounts of bloodshed that evening, but after seeing Aya last night, Ken wouldn’t feel the least bit sorry if the spy was killed.

Even with the all the raucous and amusing comments being tossed about, it wasn’t exactly a relaxed atmosphere at the table. Ken felt his muscles grow more taut with each passing minute. Yohji could barely prevent himself from glaring at the spy, kept in check by constant effort of those around him, and one time physically restrained by a hand on his shoulder, passed off as a comradely hug from _Brad_ of all people. Schuldig and Masato refused to look in each other’s direction, let alone speak to each other, and any attempts that Cass and Schuldig made to get Yohji talk to them failed miserably. There seemed to be more going on than Ken knew about. For a moment he was furious that his friends were keeping secrets from him, then he remembered Schuldig’s taunting words. It had never occurred to him that as he puzzled out if whether or not the bounds were still his friends, that maybe they were thinking the same about him.

One of the longest hours of his life slowly passed by, making Ken extremely grateful to the gods for the creation of beer. A slight buzz helped to numb him to the tension surrounding him, and help him suppress a frown each time he saw Yohji kiss or touch Lilla. Only the dull look to his friend’s eyes revealed how little pleasure Yohji was taking in acting the ardent lover with the woman.

Ken again remembered how Aya looked last night and gulped down his beer. What would he do if he came home one night and found Yuriko in that shape? He’d kill whoever it was who’d harmed his lover, would rip them apart with his bare hands. How the hell Yohji could just sit there while a person partially responsible for Aya’s pain was right across the room… for being such a monster, Yohji wasn’t putting his lover or his friends in harm’s way, just for the sake of revenge. Ken didn’t think he’d have that much reserve or care in him, and was shamed by his friend.

Oh hell, he was stuck in this mess now. Ken realized that no matter his prejudice and shock, that Yohji was indeed still his friend. He couldn’t hate the man for what he’d been born as, nor any of the others at the table. Well, he could dislike Brad for being such a cold prick most of the time, but that was about it.

<Congratulations, Hidaka. You do have a brain after all.>

Gritting his teeth, Ken glared at Schuldig. "Do you have to keep doing that," he asked under his breath.

<It’s called ‘telepathy’, Kenken. Which means if you have a question, just think it. Attracts a lot less attention that way.> Schuldig rested an elbow on the table and propped his head on his upheld hand. <Nice to see you’re not going to let a bunch of nasty propaganda ruin one of the best friendships that you have.>

‘I figure if I can forgive him for hitting on Yuriko, him being part demon is nothing.’ Ken smiled when he saw Schuldig’s eyes widen and his lips curl up into a grin. It was nice being able to surprise the man on occasion. ‘What’s going on, Schuldig?’

<Well, the spy is thinking that she’ll hurry home in a few more minutes, once Koyu starts to play. Odds are even that at any moment Yohji will either charge across the room and strangle her or go upstairs to check on Aya, and the staff is wondering if they’ll get in trouble for spiking the bitch’s drink with a major dose of laxative. You know, the normal things.>

‘Don’t give me that. I want to know what’s going on with Aya’s masters, and you, Yohji and Cass. He seems to really be pissed off at you two. What’s up with Masato, also? This is the longest I’ve seen you two apart since he’s arrived here.’ Ken stared at the redhead, wanting a few answers.

Schuldig sighed and poured himself some more beer. <Ask me some other time, Ken. I want to make sure you don’t have a sudden change of heart before I spill some secrets.>

The man had a point, so Ken went back to observing things around him as he slowly sipped his drink. When Koyu rose from the table and crossed to the front of the room, he prepared himself for one of Schuldig’s predictions to come true. Yohji tensed when the woman soon stood up, his eyes focused on her and his body coiled for action, but thankfully remained seated as she left.

Surprisingly, it was Lilla who was the next to leave. The woman rose to her feet, a slight frown on her face. "Yotan, I’m so sorry, but I just remembered about an order I have to finish tonight. I’ll see you tomorrow." She leaned down to kiss Yohji goodbye, and as the gesture dragged on for several minutes, Ken glanced over at Schuldig. The longhaired man smiled and tapped his forehead in silent acknowledgement.

As Lilla walked away Yohji made to leave the table, but Brad’s arm on his shoulder prevented that. "What the fuck are you doing? I’m heading back upstairs." There was a feral look to Yohji’s face that had Ken shivering, reminiscent of the way he’d stared at the spy, but it didn’t seem to faze the dark-haired man in the least.

Brad sighed and leaned on Yohji some more. "We have a few things to talk about first." As Yohji grumbled Brad glanced at Botan. "How goes the spell?"

The wizard glanced aside at Ken, a frown on his face. Cassandra patted his arm. "It’s alright, he can be trusted." When she smiled beamingly at Ken he wanted to sink under the table in shame, recalling his earlier doubts about her and the others.

Botan hmphed and brushed back his bangs. "I’ve come up with the spell to recreate the soul sphere, but… it’s as I said, I’ll need a human soul and lots of blood, both bound and human. Omi has already volunteered his blood so I can make it appear that the spell is still keyed to his uncle and cousin, but…."

"You’ll have all the bound blood you’ll need," Brad reassured him. Botan swallowed nervously and glanced first upstairs and then at Yohji, who was busy gulping down a goblet of wine. When he gazed back at Brad, the bound nodded his head slightly.

‘Schu, what’s going on here? Why are you talking about this in such a public place?’

<Here’s the abridged version: the Takatoris’ have the soul of Aya’s dead sister trapped in a sphere with a soul gaki. That’s their hold on him, what makes him listen to them in fear of having his sister’s soul devoured.> Ken blanched in horror at the thought of some poor woman’s soul being destroyed in such a way. Schuldig’s mouth tightened in anger. <Yes, do you now see why I get so pissed off when you humans call _us_ monsters? Anyway, Botan is cooking up a spell so we can switch the spheres, thus depriving Aya’s masters of their single means of controlling him. Also, he’s cast a spell that prevents anyone from eavesdropping on us.>

"You’ll have to wait a few more days for the blood, Botan." Brad’s quiet voice snapped Ken back to the discussion at hand. "As for the soul… hopefully a volunteer will step forward in time."

"You need a soul?" Ken stared in wonder at Botan, his shock and curiosity giving voice to the question. "Can you really remove a person’s soul, just for a spell?"

The wizard frowned slightly. "For this spell I don’t need a whole soul, just a portion of one. It’s relatively easy to ‘borrow’ a small bit; it’s taking the entire soul and not killing the person that’s tricky. But the spell I have to do just that requires a willing participant, or it won’t work. I’m sure there are spells out there that would take one by force, but I refuse to use them."

Teddy leaned forward and stared earnestly at Botan. "Does it hurt? What happens to the person when they give up part of their soul?"

"They feel emotions less strongly. If the portion is not returned to them within several moons, sometimes they die, or become completely emotionless."

Nodding his head, Teddy tapped his chest. "Well, as long as you promise to return it, I’ll give you part of mine. It’ll be a big relief to everyone if I’m not as emotional-"

"Over my dead body, Teddy," Yohji growled, his eyes luminous with burning emotion. "I’m not letting any of my family do such a risky thing. I need you here in case something goes wrong, and the others will kill me if you’re harmed in any way."

"But Yohji, it’s not like I’m needed-"

"_NO_. No one else here gets hurt." The two men stared at each other as Yohji growled softly. Everyone else at the table held their breath in fear of setting Yohji off while he was so obviously upset.

When the crowd started to clap at the end of one of Koyu’s songs, Ken leaned forward and cleared his throat. "What about me, then?" He was insane for doing this, especially for people he wasn’t quite a hundred percent sure weren’t monsters, but Yohji was his friend, and his duty was to protect the king in any manner possible. It didn’t hurt that by making the offer Ken felt some of his guilt and shame fade.

Green eyes stared at him incredulously. "You’ve lost it, Kenken. Do you have any idea what you’re offering?"

"Yeah, I do. Yohji, it’s my job to keep the king and his family safe. If by doing this I can prevent Aya from having to follow his orders… I have to do it." When his friend looked ready to argue Ken stopped him with a stern glare. "It’s my job, Yohji. I’m still a Guard."

Yohji glared back at him, then sighed and leaned against the wall. "Your job is to turn in any bounds too, Ken. Why one and the other?"

"Because you are my friend." Ken put as much conviction as possible into his words and expression. "Yohji, I won’t kid you and tell you that I’m perfectly at ease with what you and Aya are, but I’ve at least realized that I do still trust you. Just as I trust Botan to return my soul to me. And I agree with you not to drag any innocents into this matter more than necessary. Let me agree to do this, on the condition that you guys tell me _everything_ that’s going on, and that you swear that no harm at all will come to the king and Omi. Is that a deal?" He gazed around the table, and saw the people gathered there nod their heads in agreement.

"It’s dangerous as all hell," Yohji reminded him. "There’s no telling what could happen to you."

"I don’t care, Yohji, it’s my decision to make, and I feel compelled to do this."

With a sigh Yohji gave in. "Okay."

Ken almost smiled at winning something over his friend. "Then I give my word that I’ll hold to my end of the bargain." They stared at each other for a moment, and then Yohji gave Ken a thankful smile as he swore to do the same.

"Why the hell is it okay for him to do it and not me," Teddy pouted.

"Because as he said, it’s his duty. His job requires him to make certain sacrifices. Besides," Yohji said with a trace of his humor returning. "How the hell will Botan be able to tell any difference between your soul and the demon?" Teddy let out a shriek and tossed his napkin at the blond. Brad held out his arms to separate the two men, a very unhappy look on his face at being stuck between them.

Yohji tossed a wine cork back, and then looked at Schuldig for the first time that night. "Anything else I need to be privy to? If not, I need to go check on Aya."

"Go, Yotan. We’ll fill you on if there’s anything else of importance that’s decided."

Brad looked as if he wanted to argue against that statement, but Cassandra slumped down in her chair and a grimace of pain crossed his face just as Yohji stood and left the table. When the blond was out of hearing she hissed at Brad to leave him in peace for the evening.

The discussion carried on, Masato asking various questions about what would happen the night of the wedding, and the others answering in various degrees, everyone but Schuldig. Ken listened with half an ear as he started to get anxious, wondering if it really had been a wise choice to volunteer as he had. While he was sure of wanting to do his duty, the thought of the magic involved, and the loss of such an important part of himself was making him nervous.

<You made the offer, Ken, and we accepted it. One thing you need to know about bounds is that when we give our word, we always keep it. Cold feet is perfectly acceptable, considering what we’re facing, but dishonoring your sworn word… well, it’s up to you, but decide quickly so we can find another volunteer.>

‘I gave my word, and I’ll stick to it, Schuldig.’ Ken glowered at the annoying, invasive man and thumped his mug down on the table. Then he pushed his concerns aside and focused on the plans being made, plans he now had an intrinsic part in.

 

*******

Yohji ran up the stairs, wanting nothing more than to see Aya and make sure his mate was safe. As he neared the door, Farfarello flashed him a tired grin and stepped aside as he pushed the door open. Nodding his head in thanks, Yohji charged into the room.

And came to a halt a few feet in. The room smelled of lavender, the scent of blood and sex almost completely gone. Branches of the herb were scattered about the bedroom, amidst low candles that filled the room with dancing shadows. Aya was tucked into the bed, which appeared to be sporting new sheets, and Omi and Naoe were cuddled together on the window seat, just holding each other.

"What did you do?"

"We decided to air out the place, Yotan. I snuck down to cut some lavender while you were out, and we cleaned the place a bit." Omi climbed off the window seat to stand before him. "Do you mind? Nagi and Farfie kept watch over Aya the entire time."

Who the hell was Nagi? Then Yohji’s fuddled brain made the connection between Naoe and what he assumed the boy’s real name to be. "…no." Yohji took a deep breath as he settled on the bed beside Aya. "You even changed the sheets. How did you manage that?"

"Very carefully," Naoe commented. "Aya never woke the whole time."

It might have been Yohji’s imagination, but his mate’s bruises looked paler than before. He stroked a hand along Aya’s cheekbone, wishing more than anything that the man would open his lovely eyes and purr at his touch.

"He looks a little better."

"We think so too, Yotan." Omi smiled at him, then stifled a yawn. "Oh my, I can’t believe how tired I am, and I slept all day."

Yohji glanced at him as he stood up to pull off his clothes. "Why don’t you go to bed, then, Omi. Thanks for watching over him."

Omi smiled and shook his head. "You don’t have to thank us, Yohji. We don’t want anything to happen to Aya either." Then he grabbed a blanket off the bed and returned to the window seat, which Yohji just now noted contained several pillows.

"What are you doing?"

"We’re sleeping here, Yohji. Nagi promised to keep an eye on Aya," Omi told him patiently, as if he was an idiot. Yohji grunted as he slid under the clean bed sheets, carefully curling up around Aya. He then looked back at the window.

Naoe was staring at him while Omi arranged the makeshift bed to his liking. "I’m not going to leave him while he needs me." The boy fell silent for a moment, then quietly added, "someone needs to keep an eye on him."

For once the old argument didn’t piss Yohji off. Not when Naoe had been doing a better job of keeping Aya in mind than he had, thanks to the rage that still simmered under his skin. "Whatever, you little demon. If you want to sleep on an uncomfortable bench and watch me keep Aya safe through the night, go ahead and do just that. But for the gods’ sakes don’t roll out of the window in your sleep. Aya will kill me if you crush the rose hedges by the building."

Proving that he’d spent too much time in Aya’s presence, Naoe just grunted and curled up next to what looked like a very happy Omi. Yohji reminded himself to have a talk with his young friend sometime soon and make sure he’d learned enough from overhearing his and Schu’s morning after conversations. If those boys weren’t having sex yet, it wouldn’t be long now. Not when Omi had that sappy look on his face. Yohji recognized the look of blissful happiness when he saw it, having seen it reflected in his mirror a lot lately. He hoped to see it again very soon.

Tucking Aya’s head under his chin, Yohji breathed in deep the scent of lavender and thought of all the future opportunities he’d have to pounce on his cat in the garden. Nothing was going to keep his dreams from coming true. A step had been taken in that direction tonight, and hopefully it wouldn’t be much longer before Botan cast his spell and Aya-chan’s soul was safe. Then he wouldn’t have to worry about Aya being defenseless when around his masters ever again. And at the wedding… Yohji dreamed of blood as he fell asleep.

*******

Aya forced his eyes to open, forcing the drug lethargy to release its hold of him. He couldn’t take sleeping anymore; he needed to be awake, aware of his surroundings and knowing that he was safe. Something was wrong, and he didn’t feel safe at the moment. But as he woke up the pain returned, no longer held at bay by the opiate. He couldn’t hold back a whimper as he tried to take deep breath.

Someone immediately sat down beside him, making the mattress shift and Aya’s body to move. That hurt, every little motion hurt, not as bad as the last time he’d been awake but bad enough. A gentle hand brushed back Aya’s bangs, helping him to see a bit better.

"Aya, are you alright? Would you like something to drink?" It was Nagi’s anxious voice, his scent registering to Aya’s dulled senses. All he’d smelled upon awakening had been lavender and Yohji, but now he could make out his friend and Omi.

Blinking his eyes, Aya let Nagi know that he did indeed want something to drink. Aya’s throat was so dry that even if he did have the strength to speak it would have hurt too much to do so. Nagi asked Omi to bring him some water, and then tried to lift Aya enough so he could safely drink the beverage. But each touch hurt so much.

Then Aya felt a flare of concern that was from Yohji, and in a few seconds his mate was there, making Aya blink his eyes in confusion of where the blond had come from, and he found himself being slowly lifted up. It still hurt, but Yohji’s touch and scent reassured him. Biting back on a mewl, he let the man hold him against his chest as Nagi handed over a glass of water, complete with straw.

Yohji held the cool water, pulling it away every few seconds so Aya didn’t drink it all at once. He wanted to snarl at the bastard but didn’t have the energy. Once the glass was empty Aya whispered Yohji’s name and let himself fall back to sleep. Now that his mate was here, he felt safe and secure once again.

When Aya next awoke he felt the slightest bit better, the pain and lethargy having lost a bit of their hold on him. His back was still one throbbing hurt, and it wasn’t a good idea to take any deep breaths, but he could weakly move his limbs without that causing him too much pain.

He was cushioned by Yohji’s chest, and as he shifted about the older man jerked awake. Hands skimmed along Aya’s arms and up to his face, brushing back his hair as his head was lifted enough so Yohji could look at his face. Yohji looked tired, his golden skin appearing dull and there were shadows around his eyes.

"Aya?"

"Hn."

The small grunt brought a smile to Yohji’s face, and he bent down to kiss Aya softly on the lips. At first the touch reassured Aya, then he remembered Hirofumi kissing him after….

Aya started to gag, tasting the man in his mouth, recalling his shame and disgust at being forced to do such a thing, helpless to fight back. His ribs protested the sudden movement, his stomach burned as acid flooded into it, and it felt as if something split open along his back.

"Aya, are you all right? Stop it!"

Anger flooded into Aya, making him aggravated at the stupid orders Yohji was barking at him. What did the man think he was trying to do? That he enjoyed causing himself more pain? The emotion helped Aya get his panic under control, and after a few minutes he lay against Yohji’s chest, exhausted and his body throbbing with pain.

A hand stroked through his hair, causing Aya to tense as he waited for the strands to be grabbed by a fist, used to pull him forward, to keep him in place….

"Aya, please love, your scaring me."

This time it was Yohji’s emotions that helped to center him: the man’s panic, fear and worry, but most of all love. Aya forced himself to relax once more, told himself that Yohji wouldn’t hurt him like that. The hand stroking his hair remained gentle and soothing, combing through his hair and then toying with an eartail. The familiar aggravation helped Aya’s body to become limp once more, reminding him that this was his mate touching him, not some cruel human.

They remained still for a few minutes, and just when Aya debated falling asleep again Yohji gently lifted his upper body until they both were sitting up. His back didn’t like the motion, but there was no more splitting sensations, and Yohji’s arm around his shoulders felt nice.

Then a cup of tea was pressed against his lips, and Aya eagerly sipped it, needing the fluid to ease his parched throat. As he drank the door opened, admitting Nagi and Omi. The smaller boy immediately ran to his side, and Aya spared him a very slight smile before sipping more tea. Yohji asked Omi to fetch a fresh pot of tea, pulling the now empty cup away from Aya. He mewled at its lose, unable to voice a growl, but Yohji refilled it and that made him happy. Aya felt safe with Yohji holding him and Nagi sitting by his side.

"How long?"

"This is the second day, Aya. It’s been about forty hours since you came back. We kept you drugged the first day or so, don’t know if you remember any of that." Yohji’s voice was tired and a touch hoarse. Aya shook his head and when the cup was empty rested against his lover. All he could recall was pain and the fear that Yohji would leave him.

"Do you need anything, Aya? Is it too bright in here?" Nagi hesitantly touched Aya’s hand, and when he didn’t flinch from the touch gingerly held on to it.

"No. Not too bright." It took precious energy to say each word, but the tea helped somewhat. He recognized Cassandra’s special brew, and about half of the tea had been honey. Aya’s body slowly started to come out of the dormant state, now that he had some fuel and enough blood to support it. Yohji was a warm presence beside him, helping to dispel the chill that filled Aya. He was always so cold after being bled.

Yohji murmured softly as he pulled a blanket around Aya, being careful with his back. His fingers tangled in Aya’s eartail, coaxing him to rest his head on the blond’s shoulder. Gladly giving in, Aya did just that, soaking in Yohji’s body heat.

Omi returned with the tea, giving Aya a nervous smile as he handed over a steaming cup of tea. When he accepted the cup, needing Yohji’s support to hold it, the boy’s smile became brighter and he sat down beside Nagi.

"Why don’t the two of you go see if Jo can make a nice broth for Aya," Yohji quietly asked.

"Jo’s already doing that, now that she knows Aya’s awake," Omi commented.

"Then go and get some more flowers." Yohji’s voice was harsh once more, causing Aya to stop sipping and look up at the man. Yohji offered him a tender smile and pressed the cup against his lips.

"Come on, Omi. The room could use some more lavender." Nagi got off the bed and tugged on Omi’s arm. The blond boy looked confused, especially since the room was already full of the fragrant flower, but a look from Nagi had him nodding his head and telling Aya to let him know if there was anything Omi could do for him.

Nagi paused at the door, shared a significant look with Yohji and then closed it behind him. Figuring he’d worry about it later, Aya concentrated on finishing the tea. The more energy he got in him, the quicker he could heal. The faster that the pain would fade away, and he’d stop being so weak.

When the tea was all gone Yohji settled against the headboard, very carefully adjusting Aya until he rested against the man’s chest. Aya purred slightly as he tucked his head under Yohji’s chin, just enjoying how nice it was to have someone hold him and keep him warm. Usually after he’d been blooded he’d spend a few days shivering in bed, Nagi’s anxious touches his only contact with another person.

"Aya, what happened."

Deciding he didn’t like that question, or the pain that came from Yohji when he asked it, Aya ignored it. He didn’t want to think of what had happened in the carriage, of what had almost happened before he’d been whipped.

Yohji’s hand tilted his head up. "Aya, please, tell me what happened."

"They bled me and whipped me, Yohji." Aya pushed the memories aside, wanting to hide from them forever. Why was Yohji doing this to him? He didn’t even realize he’d spoken out loud until Yohji stroked his cheek and answered him.

"Because you’ve never acted like that when I tried to kiss you before, as if my touch disgusts you. You’ve never flinched from me stroking your hair. Ever since we’ve become mates, you’ve never flinched from any of my touches." Yohji gently ran a hand down Aya’s side, toward his hip, and Aya had a hard time keeping his body still, to not tremble in fear at the touch.

"See, you’re doing it now." Yohji pressed a kiss to Aya’s temple. "Cat, I need to know what he did to you. I… could smell him on you."

Aya moaned, having forgotten about the way he’d smelled from Hirofumi’s sweat and seed. He’d hoped so desperately that since Yohji hadn’t been awake during the assault that the man would never know about t it. He hadn’t thought of a bound’s sense of smell giving him away.

Trembling, Aya tried to push away from Yohji, but the man held on to his arms, trapping him. "He kissed me… touched me." Aya shivered in revulsion as he recalled the feel of Hirofumi’s hands on his body, trying to get a reaction from him. "He… my mouth… I couldn’t fight him, Yohji." Despair washed through Aya at the memory of how filthy he’d felt, how dirty he must seem to Yohji. "I couldn’t do anything but let him…."

A sob tore through him, and for a moment Aya hated himself passionately. He was unclean and weak, a sorry excuse for a man. Yohji and Nagi were right, he couldn’t even protect himself, and now Yohji would be so disgusted with him for what had happened. A tear slid down Aya’s face.

"Aya… gods, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you." Yohji held him close, his hands stroking Aya’s body, trying to calm his trembling. "I know you couldn’t fight him, I know that. I’m not mad at you. Stop feeling like that, I’m not mad at you. I want to rip the bastard into tiny chunks and feed him to Farfie in a stew, but I don’t blame you one bit."

Yohji stroked his face, forcing Aya to lift his head and look at him. The love in the green eyes shocked Aya, and he didn’t move when Yohji kissed him. It was nothing like the way Hirofumi had, it was gentle and reassuring, so full of love. Then Aya thought of how he must taste, his mouth flooding with saliva as he remembered Hirofumi’s bitter seed burning in his throat, and he started to gag again.

"Shh, it’s okay. Aya, it’s me." Yohji tried to kiss him again.

"Don’t, the taste, I don’t want you to taste him."

Yohji’s finger traced Aya’s bottom lip. "You taste sugary, from the tea and the opiate. So sweet. Not as good as you normally taste, but not bad." Leaning forward, Yohji kissed him again. "You don’t taste like him."

Reassured, Aya opened his lips and kissed Yohji back. Even with his fears and doubts he needed this, needed to feel Yohji wanting him, to know that the person he loved wasn’t repulsed by him. Yohji’s hands continued to caress his body, reminding Aya that he was naked under the blanket. But instead of making him think of sex, like Hirofumi’s touch had, the hands relaxed him, warmed his thin skin and washed away the bad memories.

After a few minutes Aya pulled away, purring yet too tired to continue kissing. Yohji tucked his head back under the blond’s chin, his hands still lightly touching Aya and warming him.

"I’m going to kill him, Aya. He’s dead for hurting you like that. They all are. I’m never going to let anyone hurt you, ever again. Hell, I’m not letting you out of this room unless the little demon or I are right beside you. Please, just stay here until the wedding. Botan thinks he’ll have the sphere completed within the week, then Schuldig will switch them and you’ll be free." Yohji’s voice had roughened when he’d spoken of Hirofumi and Schuldig, making Aya wonder about why he was angry with his friend.

"Yohji, what happened that night? Why were you unconscious?" Not that Aya wasn’t grateful for that occurrence, as it had kept Yohji from trying to rescue him.

"Hmph." Yohji played with one of his eartails. "Schu and Masato knocked me out. It seems that Cass had a vision of something happening to you, she claims she had no clue what, and had them keep me from trying to help you." Yohji caressed Aya’s cheek. "Love, I’m so sorry that I didn’t stop him from taking you."

"You’re mad at them, aren’t you?"

"Hell yes. They let you get hurt."

Aya wasn’t happy about what had happened, but he didn’t blame Schuldig and Cassandra. "Yohji, it would have happened no matter what. Masafumi wanted the blood, and would have used my sister against me if I didn’t go to him. They kept you from harm, and that’s all that matters to me."

Irritation and anger poured off Yohji, and the man grumbled. "Don’t defend them, Aya. Not when you’re all beaten up and flinching from me. But if it makes you feel better, I won’t torture them so much once you’re feeling better." A kiss was placed on the top of his head. "But they still went too far. I’d like to see how they’d handle things if their mate had been hurt like you were." Then Yohji chuckled softly. "One good thing, though, Schu’s been staying away from Masato lately. Though it’s annoying as all hell to see the two of them staring at each other from across the room, ignoring whoever’s trying to talk to him because they’re too wrapped up in each other. I even think that Schu’s lost weight."

"Hn." Aya dredged up the energy to slide his hands inside the tan shirt Yohji was wearing, spreading the material open so he could feel Yohji’s skin against his.

"Damn, but you’re cold. I think you need some more tea in you." Yohji kissed him again, then rubbed his cheek against Aya’s hair. He started humming a melody as Aya lazed against him, trying decide if he should sleep or not. His body ached from the pain, but this felt so nice, and there was no guarantee that Yohji would still be there when he woke up. He remembered him being gone the last time.

The door opened again. "Yohji, if you’re trying something with Aya, I will geld you, mark my words!"

Yohji growled, the noise rumbling in his chest for Aya to feel. "Dammit, Jo, he’s lost most of the skin on his back, had a punctured lung and a dozen other injuries, and you actually think I’m trying to fool around with him? Does everyone here think I’m a slut who can’t control himself?"

Jo sat down on the bed, and the smell of a broth had Aya opening his eyes and looking in her direction. She smiled and held the mug to Yohji, who held it for Aya to sip through a straw.

"You look better today, Aya. As for you, Yotan, I’ve yet to see you keep your hands to yourself when Aya’s concerned." Jo sniffed and set something on the nightstand. "You might as well put those hands to use and reapply that to all his wounds. I also brought some coffee for you, and there will be some real food coming up in a little bit. Maybe having something to eat and Aya awake will get you out of the foul mood you’ve been in lately. I know you’ve been worried, but you’ve been damn near unlivable lately." She smiled at Aya again and left the room.

"I swear, they delight in abusing me. All I did was make a customer cry earlier and they won’t let me live it down. He was getting on my nerves." Yohji wiped at a drop of broth that was sliding down Aya’s chin. "And I damn well did have something to be worried about." Continuing to huff and growl, Yohji made sure that Aya finished all of the broth, then wiped Aya’s face clean.

When Omi and Nagi returned he used their assistance to help tend to Aya’s wounds. By the end of their ministrations Aya was mewling in pain and so tired he wanted to cry, or at the very least to let his body go dormant for a few days and spend that time unconscious. Yohji soothed him the best he could during the painful procedure, and then laid down on the bed, Aya once more resting on his chest. Nagi and Omi curled up at the foot of the bed, holding each other close as they settled in.

"Go to sleep, Aya. We’ll keep an eye on you."

Aya grabbed the hand stroking his arm and entwined his and Yohji’s fingers together. "Yotan…."

"I’ll stay, Aya. I’m not leaving you alone. The little demon wouldn’t let me, anyway." Yohji kissed him on the lips, purring softly as he did so. Lulled by the sound and the scents of his lover and friends, Aya drifted off to sleep.

*******

Birman glanced up from her desk at the knock on her door. As she didn’t often get visitors, she cautiously called out for the person to enter while her fingers touched the knife on her belt. She was surprised when an exhausted looking Jonsten entered her office.

"Jonsten, where the hell have you been?"

The Guard sank down in the chair and handed over a thick journal. "In hell, from the feel of it. You would not believe what I’ve put up with the past week. I tried to follow Prince Reiji and his sons back to the capital, as ordered, but…" Jonsten shook his head in disgust. "They must have cast a spell on me. Each and every godsdamned horse I got near ended up crippled somehow. I had to walk all the way back."

Birman nodded in sympathy as she leafed through the journal. She wasn’t surprised about the spell, Masafumi had done a very good job of thwarting her agents in just that manner in the past, and she hadn’t been sure what the hell Manx had been thinking would be different this time when she sent the man to investigate her future in-laws.

"Give me a summary; there’s a function I need to be at shortly, and you look like you could use some sleep. We’ll save the thorough debriefing for tomorrow."

"Thank you," Jonsten said with heartfelt relief. "Sadly, there’s next to nothing to report. The same as usual: no one wants to speak about anything remotely bad concerning Reiji, and the few people who might have are now dead. The princes didn’t do a damn thing the whole time I was there, barely even stirring from the castle."

The same as usual indeed. Birman wondered why she bothered with a debriefing at all. "Did you manage to talk to the servants? Pick up any gossip that might be remotely of interest?"

"Reiji and his sons don’t expect to be coming back, that’s for sure. I did manage to confirm that there was a death amongst the family’s private servants, a young woman with short hair and a birthmark on her cheek that used to attend Masafumi." The two of them exchanged a grim look. The rumor confirmed that Reiji had indeed been behind the assassination attempt last year, but all they had to support their theory was the words of cowed servants who would never speak before any officials.

She was going to need some willow tea before she could attend the afternoon gathering, Birman thought to herself. "One of these day’s I’ll catch the bastard out on something."

Jonsten sat forward in his seat. "Oh, there was another rumor about some other servants, ones I’ve never heard of before. Something about a young man that the princes kept hidden away as a sex toy or something." He made a face before continuing. "Each story I heard was more ridiculous than the last, including the man’s description. The only thing everyone agreed on was he’s lovely, pale and a redhead, and hasn’t been seen around the castle in over a month. Supposedly he ran off with another servant, a quiet boy about the crown prince’s age. People were glad that he was gone, as they thought he attracted bad luck."

Pale, lovely and a redhead. Birman thought back on any other rumors she’d heard about Reiji and his sons having a redheaded sex slave, and couldn’t recall any. There had been a rumor about them keeping a monster locked away in a tower, and the last sex slave she’d heard about had been a young girl, most likely the blue-haired teenager who had come with Masafumi, but nothing about a redhead.

"Did you get a name?"

"No. They were genuinely afraid to talk about the man, as if he was cursed or something. I think the only reason they did is because he’s now gone. I really did try to get a better description, but pale, redheaded and beautiful was it. He was the real quiet type, apparently, and didn’t venture from the castle at all. At least, not until six weeks ago." Jonsten patted his hands on the arm of the chair, as if about to push himself upright. "Anything else?"

Birman shook her head and wished the Guard a decent rest. Then she pondered his words for a few minutes. The whole sex slave story was ridiculous, especially considering Reiji’s known prejudices and the latest one’s sex, but it was also unlikely that the princes would just let one of their servants disappear like that. Either the boys had been killed, or had left with permission. But why had the redhead been hidden in the first place?

Redheads weren’t very common, at least not natural ones, so maybe she should send some Guards to better investigate the story. Pale and lovely would narrow the search down even more. Though she’d had Guards trying to find one pale, lovely redhead’s past the last month and they’d come up with nothing. Maybe it was harder than she thought. Her spies were turning up nothing on Aya and Naoe, that was for…

Cursing, Birman pushed her chair away and jumped to her feet. Six weeks ago two young men matching the description of Reiji’s missing servants had indeed entered the capital, and in a very short time had managed to befriend several Guards, the Royal Wizard, and the crown prince himself. Two young men she’d found nothing about, since she’d sent her spies to the west and not the north. Could it possibly be…?

But why them? Why would Reiji send two more assassins, and such young ones at that? There had to be something special about Naoe and Aya, something that would convince that old bastard that he would indeed not be resuming his exile after the wedding. Birman pondered the situation some more as she paced about her office, brain furiously working. It was when her eyes rested on a sculpture that Botan had given her for her birthday two years ago that she remembered what was also supposed to have arrived in the capital the same time Aya had. According to her friend, that was supposed to be a kage.

At first she refused to think that such a quiet young man could be a monster, then she remembered the books that had been scattered around Botan’s office lately. All depicting kage as pale, lovely redheads. Jonsten’s description had been more correct that he’d thought.

So that would mean a kage who worked for Reiji was staying at the Koneko. A kage that was supposed to save the king and not kill him, if Botan was right. Which he usually was, dammit. A kage who had taken a former Guard for a lover who had been instrumental in preventing the last royal assassination. Was Yohji somehow to be involved in this one too? Birman had so many questions they were hurting her head. Only one thing to do, then.

She pulled on her cloak and a few charms and weapons then headed for the Koneko.

*******

Crawford gritted his teeth, wondering if he could shove a whole damn pillow down Jei’s mouth without waking the man. Usually his partner didn’t snore, but after being awake nonstop the past three days, Jei was utterly exhausted and sounding like a pack of wild hogs with all the snorts and rumbles. As this was the first time that Crawford had gotten any rest in a couple days himself, he wasn’t taking the noise very well.

About to go crash in Nagi’s room, since the boy was spending all his time with Aya, Crawford felt a familiar tension in his head and gritted his teeth, riding out the pain as a vision descended upon him.

It involved Yohji and the Spymaster. Very interesting. So the woman was finally being tied to the rest of them. It was about time. With only about a week and a half left to the wedding, Crawford wanted all the players in their proper positions as soon as possible. Now he felt as if that was finally occurring.

But he’d have to go prevent Yohji from killing the woman. They’d need her after the wedding if they had any hope of leaving the palace alive. Everyone was so focused on the fight that was to occur at the reception that they didn’t think of what would happen afterwards. But Crawford was.

As he climbed out of bed and pulled on his white shirt, Crawford thought of how well things were progressing. Botan was just about ready to cast the spell for the soul sphere, and only needed Aya to be well enough to donate more blood. He didn’t relish being there when Yohji found out about that, but it couldn’t be helped.

It was a bit of a bother, Jei having guarded the kage the past few days, making Crawford and Schuldig work all the harder to contact all the people they needed to, and to find out about the mercenaries that Eto was gathering, but they needed Aya alive for things to work out properly. At least Schuldig had been too distracted by his duties to moon over Yohji still being upset at him or his mate all that much.

Each time Schuldig and Masato came in contact with each other, it seemed they forgot all about the world around them. They would just stare at each other, yet refuse to give in to the need to be with each other. The stubborn fools. Crawford had changed his mind and wished they would mate before the wedding. They were too distracted around each other to be any help to him. If they kept this up they’d be killed during the battle, and that wouldn’t be very good. Crawford needed his son alive at the very least for the upcoming battle with the Elders.

Walking out the door, Crawford let a smile tease at his lips. Schuldig and Masato might be pains in his ass, but the rest were coming along fine. Omi was firmly attached to Nagi and would do anything to keep his boyfriend and friends safe, Botan was just as committed, thanks to both his daughter and Cass, and the Guard had offered his soul. There was actually a tinge of regret when he thought about the young man, but Crawford knew that sacrifices had to be made. Other people would be paying a far higher price by the time this was over than Hidaka.

Now to hurry before a certain Spymaster was included in the latter group. Yohji’s temper was ferocious in regards to his mate, with due understanding. Thinking of the latest development with the succubae-bound, Crawford wondered why he’d never suspected Aya’s powers would bleed over to Yohji until the kage had been wounded. Succubae-bounds who’d been mated with other bounds in the past often took on characteristics of their mates, due to the constant draining of energy. Aya’s life-force seemed to be endowing Yohji with immunity to magic and some rudimentary control over shadows when the blond suffered from strong emotions, among other things. It was almost like having two kage to rely upon.

Yes, things were progressing wonderfully, Masato’s surprise appearance aside. A little voice inside warned Crawford to be extra diligent, as Fate loved so much to turn things on their ends when they were going too smoothly.

*******

"Aya, if you step one foot out of that bed, I’m gonna spank you so hard you won’t be able to sit for a month." Yohji set the tray of tea he’d brought from the kitchen on the nightstand and glared at his lover. Of course the stubborn idiot, sitting up on the bed with his legs dangling over the side, glared right back at him.

"Yohji, I want to-"

"No."

Aya tried again. "Just to-"

"No. En. Oh. No." Yohji walked over and straddled Aya’s lap, pinning him to the bed. The smaller man hissed at him, trying to push him off but just didn’t have the strength. Grinning, Yohji captured Aya’s chin in his hand and tilted up the pale face to kiss him. The hisses slowly died down as Aya sighed and kissed him back, causing Yohji to shiver at the weak trickle of sunlight that flowed into him.

Keeping Aya’s slowly returning strength in mind, Yohji reluctantly ended the kiss. "Listen to me, you little idiot. I’m not going to let you get out of bed and fall down. Not when your ribs finally healed and your back’s grown some skin. If something happened to you Naoe, Jo and Omi would beat me to a bloody pulp. So stay in bed, dammit."

Sighing, Aya rested his head on Yohji’s shoulder. "I just wanted to get some books. It got boring with you gone. I’m tired of sleeping."

Yohji stroked a hand through Aya’s hair. He’d had to go downstairs to help with the weekly arrival of kegs, and to be seen about the inn so any spies wouldn’t get suspicious about his absence. While it was a bit easier leaving Aya’s side now that the man had regained some of his strength, Yohji still hated being away from his mate. Except for the shadows, Aya was unable to defend himself, and likely would be for another day or two.

"Why don’t we sneak you down for a soak, later? I think your back can handle that now." Aya glanced up at him and nodded his head. Smiling, Yohji kissed him again, savoring how the man tasted and the soft purrs he uttered. His hunger flared at the feel of sunlight sinking into him, but Yohji kept the kiss light, barely. Now wasn’t the time to tumble Aya back onto the bed and ravish him silly. Hopefully, it would just be another day or two for that. Yohji didn’t know how much longer he could go without feeding. The only person he wasn’t short with anymore was his cat.

Groaning, he reluctantly climbed off Aya’s lap. "What books do you want?"

"The one with the gold and black spine, and the one on the left side of my desk." Yohji hurried to find the books, giving him something to do other than think about how good Aya tasted and smelled. He so missed kissing and holding his mate.

The gold book was found on the top of the second bookcase, and while he searched for the other one Yohji caught sight of the latest present that arrived last night. The silver pen glowed in the bedroom’s dim light, almost as if taunting him. Yohji wanted to throw it out the damn window, but it had been argued by the others for keeping all the presents until they figured out who was sending them. Then he could shove them all down the bastard’s throat.

Returning to the bed, Yohji found Aya curled up against the pillows, resting on his good side. Clad only in a old pair of Yohji’s pants, Aya’s skin too glowed in the semi-darkness, but instead of taunting him it called to him to touch and stroke it. Yohji set the books on the nightstand and sank down on the bed, running a light hand over Aya’s left arm.

His mate sighed and shifted forward, tilting his head until the pale neck was exposed to Yohji. Unable to resist, he leaned down and nipped the unmark skin gently before kissing it. Pressing against Aya, Yohji sucked on his neck, his nature clamoring for him to leave a few marks that proclaimed the redhead as his.

Aya mewled softly, his fingers tangling in Yohji’s hair. Without thinking Yohji tried rolling his lover onto his back so he could settle on top of the man. When Aya winced in pain it jerked him back to his senses, and Yohji sat upright, moaning as he pulled away. The look on Aya’s face didn’t help at all, nor his eyes, filled with desire, need and doubt. The last worried Yohji, knowing as he did what had happened to Aya the other night.

"Aya… gods, I want you so incredibly much. If I thought for one second it wouldn’t hurt you I’d tear off those pants and fuck you silly." Yohji grabbed one of Aya’s hands and pressed it against his arousal, his eyes closing at the feel of his lover touching him. "I want you, I want you so much it hurts, but I’m not going to cause you any pain." He opened his eyes and stare down at the smaller man, desperate to prove that he wasn’t pulling away because he thought Aya was filthy or tainted because of what Hirofumi had done to him. "I have to go away, or I will hurt you. That’s not something I could bear."

Aya didn’t say anything, just slowly clenched his fingers around Yohji, moving his hand up and down. Yohji tossed back his head and moaned again, wanting nothing more than to feel Aya touching him. Then he forced himself off the bed, holding Aya’s hand in his as long as he could, even lifting it to his mouth to kiss the tapered fingers.

"As soon as you’re healed, you’re not getting out of the bed for at least a whole other day. Gods, Aya… you drive me crazy, and I love every minute of it. Drink your tea, and I’ll be back after I soak in some cold water for an hour or two." He smiled at his love, feeling a spark of joy when Aya’s lips curved the slightest bit in response. Yohji didn’t sense the despair anymore, but wasn’t helped by the love and want that filled Aya. No, he wasn’t helped in the least to know that Aya needed him just as desperately. "Drink the tea so you get stronger quicker."

Then Yohji fled the room, needing to be somewhere that didn’t smell of Aya, where he wouldn’t see his gorgeous mate looking at him with violet eyes filled with desire. Maybe a dunking in the pond would be a good thing. He sure as hell needed to cool off somehow.

As Yohji was walking down the steps he met Koyu coming up them. "Ah, Yotan, I was just coming for you. You have a guest."

"Who?"

"Birman. She asked to speak to you, and is waiting in the office."

Frowning, Yohji tugged his untucked shirt down a bit farther, but had to admit that the prospect of having Birman try to talk him into rejoining the Guards was managing to cool his ardor quite effectively. He followed Koyu to the office, making small talk with the Harper the whole while. When Yohji placed a hand on the office’s door, he asked his friend to take a plate of sweets up to Aya.

"Sure thing, Yohji. Jo will be more than happy to put a plate together for him. Something that will give him a lot of energy." Koyu winked before heading to the kitchen.

Shaking his head at his true intentions being so conspicuous, Yohji entered the room and found Birman sitting behind the desk, dressed in dark pants and shirt. Her hair was pulled back into a tight bun, and a sword hung from her hips. It had been a while since he’d seen the Spymaster armed, as Birman didn’t usually like to broadcast her weapons expertise.

"How are you, Birman?"

The older woman regarded him coolly for a moment. "Where’s Aya, Yohji?"

Confused, Yohji walked over to the desk and sat down on the edge. "He’s upstairs, resting. He suffered a relapse of his cold." That was the story that they were telling people to explain the man’s absence, though many of the people who thought that he and Aya had really broken up claimed the redhead was hiding from Yohji.

Birman stared at him for a moment. "A cold?" She stroked a silver bracelet that Yohji had never seen before, a pretty thing decorated with blue stones. "I thought kage couldn’t get sick."

As soon as the word ‘kage’ sunk into Yohji’s head, he growled savagely and tossed his weapon at the woman, barely preventing her from drawing her sword as he did so. Birman glared at him, the look growing more worried as Yohji yanked her onto the desk and her struggles to free herself just made the wire around her grow even tighter.

"What, how the hell? Why isn’t it working?"

Yohji slammed Birman onto the top of the desk, sending papers and pens flying. "How long have you known? Who have you told?" He wanted to kill Birman then and there, but he needed to know if there was anyone else who knew about Aya before he did that.

Birman’s brown eyes went wide as she continued to struggle. "I… I’m the only one who knows. I didn’t tell anyone." When Yohji growled and pulled the wires tighter, determined to make sure she was speaking the truth before he killed her, she started to shake her head violently.

"You can’t kill me! If you do, they’ll know I’ve gone missing, and that I came here. Do that and they’ll find out about Aya."

The damn Spymaster had always been a quick thinker. Yohji knew that she spoke the truth, and that too many people would have seen her here at the Koneko. Even if he had Farfie eat her corpse, there would be an investigation at the Koneko, and someone might find out about Aya and the others.

Recalling his wires, he slammed Birman down one more time. "How the hell do you know? And if you think for one moment to harm him, you _will_ die."

"Yohji, I swear, I didn’t come here to harm Aya. I need him if I’m to keep the king safe. But how do you know about him?"

Forcing his temper to remain under control, Yohji shoved away from the woman and stalked about the office, a hand always on his weapon. "He told me. What do you mean, you need Aya? If you think for one moment I’m going to let you use him, your fucking nuts."

Birman tracked Yohji’s movements as she sat up on the desk, a hand rubbing her bracelet. "You’re a bound too, aren’t you?"

His response was a snarl.

"Botan said that a kage and other bounds would help to push back the darkness, and prevent King Shuuichi from being murdered on his wedding day. He’s been researching kage and bounds for the past month and a half, and I’ve assisted him at times. Then I got a report about a servant of Prince Reiji, one who matches Aya. I put two and two together…" Birman paused for a second as she eyes Yohji nervously. "Did he tell you why he’s here?"

"Yes. To kill the king, on Reiji’s orders. But he’s not going to." Yohji was going to kill Botan the next time he saw him. The damn wizard, not telling him that he’d informed Birman about Aya and the others. Dead, the man was dead. "When did Botan tell you about Aya?"

He got a wary response to his question. "He didn’t tell me about Aya per say, but about a prediction he’d had a month and a half ago. Are you telling me he knows about Aya?"

Well, at least he wasn’t the only one pissed off at the wizard now. "He’s known about Aya and me for a couple weeks now." Yohji stopped pacing and glared at Birman. "I won’t let you use him. The only thing keeping you alive at this moment is the fact that your death would cause us problems, but try to get anywhere near Aya and I will snap your neck without any remorse." His voice had taken on a sibilant quality, and shadows stirred around the room, crossing to the desk and skittering over Birman, making her shiver in fear and cold.

"How…" She was clutching her bracelet as if it was a talisman of sorts. "Magic shouldn’t be affecting me, _they_ shouldn’t be able to touch me." Birman turned shocked eyes onto Yohji. "What the hell are you?"

"A succubae-bound, mated to a kage," he hissed. "Someone who can kill you with a thought." At least, he thought he could make the shadows obey him to protect Aya. The shadows crawled up to Birman’s neck. Seeing the terror in her eyes made Yohji relent, and the shadows dissipated. They were getting better at following his wishes.

"Sweet gods," Birman moaned. She closed her eyes for a moment, clearly gathering her wits and courage about her, and then she resumed studying Yohji. "What happened to Aya? Why are you really hiding him?"

Yohji bared his teeth at her. If Birman wanted the truth he’d give it to her, and wait to see the woman’s reaction. "Because Reiji and his bastard sons bled Aya dry and tortured him three days ago."

When it came, Birman’s reaction wasn’t what Yohji had expected. She cocked her head to the side and looked at him with curiosity and disapproval. "Why are they still alive then?"

"Because…." Yohji growled. Damn Birman, searching for information at a time like this. He was a hair’s breadth from killing her, and she was asking questions. How like the woman. "That’s none of your business."

Straightening her disheveled attire, Birman scowled at Yohji. "There’s a kage here in the capital, sent to kill the king, and that makes it my business." Then she sighed and carried on in a more conciliatory tone of voice. "Yohji, I promise not to harm him, but I need to know everything. I want to stop Reiji, to finally pin something on the bastard."

"By using Aya? How are you going to charge the bastard with anything without exposing Aya?" Yohji pulled at the wires on his bracelet. "I won’t let that happen."

They glared at each other, then Birman broke eye contact, seeming to be concentrating on something as she chewed on her bottom lip. "Botan’s auguries said something about a battle at the wedding. You’re waiting until then to fight him, aren’t you?"

He grunted.

"You’re not going to say a word, are you?" Birman tapped her bracelet. "Okay, let’s try this tactic. Do you have any idea how difficult I can make your life?" When Yohji growled and stepped closer to her she held her hands in the air. "Listen to me, Yohji, and use that brain of yours. I can help or hinder you, your decision."

Yohji let go of his weapon as he stalked away from the desk, trying to do just what Birman told him. He needed to think, but his head was cluttered with rage and protectiveness towards Aya. Birman could indeed make his life hell, throwing all their plans into disarray. Maybe Schuldig could do something about her memory, but most likely not. He knew she had to have some sort of charm on her to prevent just that. Though once again the magic seemed to be failing against him. One of these days Yohji knew he’d have to break down and ask Cass what that meant.

"What do you want?" Not that it really was a question, as he knew she’d want information.

"I want to know what you’re planning, the full extent of Reiji and his sons’ involvement in the plot to kill Shuuichi, and… I want you." Birman didn’t bat an eye at the last.

Yohji stared at her in wonder for a moment, then shouted. "What?"

Birman didn’t even twitch at the noise. "I want you."

The woman had never shown the remotest amount of sexual interest in him before; did knowing he was a bound turn her on? "I’m taken, Birman. I couldn’t get it up for you even if I tried. I’ve mated with Aya."

She wrinkled her nose in distaste. "I don’t want to have sex with you, Kudoh, I want you to work for me." Then she tilted her head to the side. "Though you are rather cute. Are you sure about not being able to get it up? I’ve never heard that about you before."

He gritted his teeth together. It figured Birman would use this opportunity to drag him back to the Guards. "I’m not rejoining the Guards, Birman. It’s not possible for me to do that now. Before, I didn’t know what I was. Now I do, and I couldn’t possibly hide what I am from the others. And I’m not spending so much time away from Aya."

Birman considered what he said. "I don’t want you to rejoin the Guards, I want you to work for me as a spy and infiltrator. I’d rather no one know about that at all." She stroked her chin. "I could think of a lot of missions I could give a succubae-bound who seems to be immune to magic. You seem part kage. That could be very useful. You’ll do well, with a bit of training. After all, that’s what your kind were bred for."

Yohji’s anger returned, making him bare his teeth at the woman. "I’m not a dog for you to train, Birman."

"No, you’re a bound, which means you simply breathing is illegal." She glared back at him, her eyes cold and ruthless. "That’s my price, Yohji; my cooperation in keeping your and Aya’s secret and helping you against Reiji and his sons for your assistance on any matters that I require in the future. I could use both you and Aya for-"

In a blink of an eye Yohji was back at the desk, a hand wrapped around Birman’s neck. "You won’t use him." There was no way he’d allow that to happen.

"He’s an assassin, Yohji. Knowing Reiji, he’s probably better trained than you are," Birman choked out.

"No. No deal with Aya. He stays out of this." He squeezed his hand. "I won’t let anyone use him." Not after the Takatoris had done that for the past twelve years. Yohji wouldn’t free Aya just to hand him over to a new master.

As Birman sputtered for breath, the office door opened and Brad entered the room. Yohji snarled as the other bound calmly walked over to the desk and tapped him on his shoulder. Why the hell couldn’t he kill anyone in peace?

At his questioning look and warning growl Brad nodded his head in Birman’s direction. "That’s not a very good idea. I just had a vision of you killing this woman, dooming us all. Would you like to know how many hours after her death before the Koneko would be burned to the ground?"

Yohji jerked his hand away, using it instead to grab ahold of Brad’s white tunic and yank him close. "What the hell have you seen, and why didn’t you warn me about this?" Birman gasped for air behind him.

"I just had a vision of your encounter with the Spymaster, but I’ve known about her for some weeks now. We need her, Yohji, so let her live." Blue eyes stared back at him evenly, and Yohji wanted to punch the man, to shatter his glasses and his composure. He was getting sick and tired of precogs and their visions, which didn’t seem to be doing him and Aya any favors at all.

"She wants me to be her slave, Brad. How do you justify that?"

"Not my slave, just an employee, Yohji," Birman broke in. "I’ll even pay you for your assistance."

Yes, and he’d have no choice but accept the jobs she offered him. He looked back at her, and then at Brad. The bound nodded his head. "We need her, Yohji. We need as many people in our corner as possible if we hope to survive _after_ the wedding. Trust me on this. I didn’t warn you about her because you’d have wanted to kill her before she found out, and that would have been a mistake. Accept her bargain, and she’ll do everything in her power to keep Aya safe and hidden. I promise you that. Should she fail, I’ll help you kill her." Brad gazed at him solemnly, and Yohji’s shoulders slumped in defeat.

"Okay, Birman, you have a deal. Keep Aya safe, and I’ll do whatever the hell you want, within my abilities." It wasn’t like working for the Spymaster would be a bad thing; it was just that Yohji hadn’t liked how he’d had no choice in the matter.

Birman nodded her head and slide off the desk to shakily stand on her feet. "I’ll keep my end of the bargain, Yohji, don’t worry. I’ll also try and limit your missions to only tasks I feel your nature would be beneficial for." She ran a finger over her bruised throat then crossed her arms over her chest. "Now I believe you gentlemen have some idea of what’s going to happen at the king’s wedding, at least more than I do, and I want that information. I’m not leaving until I get it."

She probably wouldn’t budge from the office, short of Mickey picking her up, until she found out everything that she wanted, Yohji thought. Not in the mood for an interrogation, he glanced over at Brad, who was staring at Birman with a good bit of consternation. The older bound didn’t seem to like her demanding personality.

"Well then, I think you should talk to Brad here, as he’s the one organizing everything." As Brad glared at him, Yohji beat a hasty retreat for the door. "I’m going to make sure that Aya is alright." If Yohji was to answer to the damn woman for the foreseeable future, Brad could give her a few answers. No reason why he should be the only one suffering.

Stepping out of the room, Yohji found Jo waiting outside it with a worried look on her face. "Something wrong, Jo?"

"That’s what I wanted to ask you, Yotan. I heard you yelling."

Yohji patted Jo on the arm. "Just discussing a few things with Birman." He’d wait until after the Spymaster left to inform the Koneko’s staff that another person knew about Aya. Else he’d be hard pressed to prevent Birman’s murder. "Brad’s in there now, and most likely they’ll be talking for a while."

Jo’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. "What are they talking about?"

"Trust me, you don’t want to know. But it’s nothing that will harm us," Yohji hastily added as the woman stepped towards the door. "In fact, it will probably help us, in the long run. Just leave them be." While it would be beneficial to have another powerful ally, Yohji just wished that Birman had given her aid without any strings attached. He was going to have one hell of a time explaining his new job to Aya and the others.

"Jo, do me a favor and clear out the bathing room. I think I’m going to take Aya downstairs for a soak."

He received an assessing look for the request, but Jo nodded her head and left without saying a word. After heaving a sigh Yohji ran up the steps, taking the treads three at a time. He needed so desperately be alone with Aya for a little bit, and no one would hear his mate yelling at him if they were in the bathing room. While Yohji planned on waiting before he told the staff about the bargain he’d struck with Birman, Aya had to know now. The man had felt his emotions all through the discussion.

Yohji found Koyu in his bedroom, sitting on the window seat and playing his harp. Aya was curled up in a nest of pillows, nibbling on a small tart as he listened. The moment he stepped inside the room Aya’s eyes latched on to him, and Yohji noted the shadows of worry and fear that clouded them.

"Did you have a nice talk with Birman, Yohji?"

"I had an interesting chat with her, you might say. Normally I’d love to sit and hear you play all day, Koyu, but Aya and I are going to take a soak right now." Yohji walked over to the closet and pulled out two robes. As Koyu murmured that he’d gladly play for Aya another time and packed his harp, Yohji quickly stripped and pulled on his blue robe. He waited for the Harper to leave before hurrying to the bed and handing the scarlet one to Aya.

"You up for a bath?"

Aya sat up and slide the robe over his shoulders before pulling his pants down. The quick flash of his lover’s naked body made Yohji’s throat go dry.

"Yes. What happened, Yohji?"

Stroking a hand through Aya’s bangs, Yohji smiled humorlessly. "Ask me when we get downstairs." He then bent over to pick Aya up, ignoring the man’s protests about being able to walk. Aya could walk alright, for about two feet. The bathing room was a considerable more amount of distance away than that. Upon pointing this out to the redhead, Yohji was smacked for his observation.

Two steps towards the door and Yohji realized that he wasn’t exactly going to avoid notice, not with walking around the Koneko in the middle of the day with Aya in his arms. First off, he wasn’t supposed to be anywhere near the man, secondly people would wonder about Aya’s bruises.

"Uh, love, how are we going to do this?"

Aya sighed and rested his head in Yohji’s shoulder. "Idiot."

Opening his mouth to ask why he’d deserved the insult, Yohji was startled when shadows started to form around the two of them. He then belatedly recalled the kage’s ability to walk around unnoticed, and assumed it was because of the shadows. Hmphing as he settled Aya more securely in his arms, Yohji headed for the bathing room. Each time he passed a patron he twitched, but no one truly noticed them.

It only took them a few minutes to reach the room, the door springing open at Yohji’s touch. This time he did hear the lock click open, and wondered if Aya had used his powers to do that. Then he entered the humid room, noting the stack of clean towels and fresh bars of rose and lavender scented soap, and knew that Jo had left the things for them.

Aya was set down on a stool and reverently washed clean, Yohji’s actions gentle and thorough. He moaned when Aya tilted his head back for him to wash his hair, and couldn’t resist kissing the pale throat, even if he got a mouthful of soap bubbles for his troubles. As soon as his mate was clean Yohji scrubbed himself, and then the both of them soaked in the tub.

Yohji leaned back against the spring’s rim, enjoying the feel of heat sinking into his body almost as much as having Aya curled up on his lap, facing him. He’d missed the sensation of being filled with sunlight, and a good soak in hot water was almost as nice. For the first time since Aya had been hurt he felt warm.

Aya leaned away from him, causing Yohji to wrap his arms around the man’s waist to help support him. "What happened, Yohji? Koyu said that Birman came to see you."

Not knowing what to say, Yohji decided to get the ordeal over with. "She came here to talk about you." Aya instantly became tense in his arms, but Yohji plowed on. "She figured out what you were, thanks to something Botan said a month or so ago, and she came here to strike a bargain."

"What bargain?" He could feel the anger, fear and worry that filled Aya, causing Yohji to pull his mate close and kiss him on the forehead.

"That she’ll help us fight Reiji and his sons, and keep you safe after the wedding, in exchange for… me working for her in the future. She sorta figured out I was a bound too, and thinks she can use someone like me." Yohji prepared himself for Aya’s reaction, expecting something along the lines of an explosion.

All Aya did was stare back at him, his emotions in turmoil, and then nod his head. "We’ll both work for her."

It was Yohji who ended up yelling. "The hell we will! I’m the one who’ll do the damn missions for her, not you!"

Violet eyes narrowed, sparking with fury. "We both will."

"No!" Yohji grabbed Aya by the shoulders and jerked him back and forth a couple times, trying to shake some sense into the man’s head. "I made the deal, I’m the only one who will be working for the sneaky witch. You have nothing to do with this!"

"I’m the reason why you agreed to work for her," Aya hissed. "I felt your emotions, Yohji, I know you’re upset about this. Why should you suffer alone?"

Yohji gritted his teeth together and wondered how he had to go about making Aya see reason. "Because I’m not the one who if found out will have someone trying to remove his head from his shoulders in the quickest manner possible. It’s too dangerous for you to go on any missions."

Aya didn’t immediately reply to that, instead Yohji felt his love grow colder and emotionless as shadows skittered over to surround the hot tub. In a sibilant tone of voice the kage spoke, his eyes never wavering in staring at Yohji.

"I’ve killed over a hundred people, Yohji, have had dozens of missions. To kill or steal or observe, whatever Reiji and his sons told me to do. I’ve killed all ages and types, men and woman, even wizards and other bounds." Aya gazed at him, no trace of humanity on his face. Yohji could only stare back, mesmerized by his mate’s alien nature. "What makes you think you can do a better job than I can? I’ve been a killer and a thief for twelve years, can you say the same?"

His throat dry, Yohji licked his lips before hoarsely replying. "You’ve been a slave for twelve years, Aya. I refuse for you to be one any longer. I told Birman I’d work for her to spare you having to kill on orders ever again, to be reduced yet again to being some weapon and not a person. I’m not going to let you do that, not after I break you free."

Aya continued to stare at him, but ever so slowly emotion showed on his face, flowed through their link. Aya suddenly looked like a scared and uncertain young man little older than Nagi. The change shocked Yohji, especially when Aya became angry once more.

"I’m not a doll, Yohji, I won’t break." Aya grabbed a handful of Yohji’s hair and tugged harshly, startling him with the pain. "I’ve done little but train and kill for the past decade. I know how to take care of myself, I’ve defended myself in the past. There’s very little I’m not able to do. But all you do is treat me like I’m a child or something."

When Yohji tried to talk Aya yanked again. "Listen to me, _please_. The whole time…" Aya swallowed, his eyes clouding over with pain. "The whole time I was in Hirofumi’s hands the other night all I thought of was how grateful I was that you were safe, that you couldn’t feel what I was going through. You want to protect me, Yohji, well I want to do the same for you. I want you to be safe, to not suffer any harm. But you won’t give me that chance."

Trembling slightly, Yohji hugged Aya close, mindful of his back. "Aya… all I can think of is keeping you safe. I want you to be happy, to have a chance at living, something I don’t think you’ve done for quite some time. I just can’t agree to something that might hurt you, that could cause you pain. You shouldn’t have to suffer anymore." He pushed up Aya’s chin until he could kiss his mate, needing to make him feel something other than anger and pain.

Aya kissed him back, his tongue flicking against Yohji’s after he gently sucked it into his mouth. Yohji moaned and pulled Aya’s hips against his, grinding his growing erection against the smaller man. With a soft mewl Aya broke off the kiss and leaned back in Yohji’s arms.

"Together, Yotan."

"Hmm, what?" Yohji tore his eyes from Aya’s neck, gazing into his love’s eyes with confusion.

"We’ll do it together. I can’t let you work for her on your own, or remain safe when you’re in danger." Steel entered Aya’s voice, contrasting with the love and need shining in his eyes. "I can’t be your doll any longer. That’s a different type of slavery."

Wanting nothing more than to argue with the decision, to point out that Yohji just wanted Aya to be safe, to never have to relive the hell of the past few days, he found his resolution weakening in the face of Aya’s determination. Dammit but the man had a point. The bond between them went both ways, and Yohji knew he’d never be able to bear remaining safely at the Koneko while Aya constantly put himself in danger, all for him.

"Together, cat. But if you ever get hurt, I’ll never let you live it down, and I’ll damn well tie you to the bed the next time we have a mission." He sealed the agreement with a kiss, grabbing ahold of an eartail and using it to yank Aya forward. His mate responded with equal fervor, wrapping his arms around Yohji’s neck.

Moving his mouth down to Aya’s throat, Yohji nipped the sensitive skin, making Aya moan out his name. He could feel the pale man’s erection rubbing against his, could feel how their need and desire were the same, overwhelming the both of them.

"Aya… I can’t wait any longer." His hunger, barely held in check the past couple of days, demanded to be sated. Yohji knew there was no way he’d be able to push it aside this time, the mere thought of doing that had him growling and holding onto Aya all the tighter.

His mate tilted his hips and ground them against Yohji. "Don’t, then." Aya was filled with desire and need, but deep down was still a trace of fear and despair. Suspecting it was because of what Hirofumi had done to him, Yohji cupped Aya’s face between his palms and kissed him, leisurely and thoroughly.

When the man was left gasping for breath Yohji trailed his mouth to Aya’s neck, licking and sucking on the white flesh, grazing it with his teeth. Aya chanted his name, rendered weak with desire and pleasure, and Yohji searched the side of the tub for something he could use as his mouth continued southward.

As he licked and nipped at Aya’s pert nipples he found a bar of soap and slickened his hand. Spreading Aya’s bottom open with one hand, he rubbed a soapy finger around the tight pucker hidden there. That earned him a drawn out mewl, and Yohji couldn’t resist pushing a finger inside, desperate for the clenching heat that awaited there.

Aya mewled again and thrust his hips down, and sunlight flowed into Yohji, stoking the hunger that had plagued him the past few days. He almost shoved inside of Aya right then, but stopped himself when his hand traveled up Aya’s back, feeling the ridged and still scabbed in some places skin. Quickly returning his hand to Aya’s thigh, Yohji started to stroke his mate in time to his plunging fingers.

"Yotan…" Aya’s eyes were closed, his head lolling on his neck as he panted. Each flick of his fingers, each stroke on the man’s cock caused Yohji to shiver in ecstasy as the much missed sunlight poured into him, calming down his hunger and making him feel whole. When Aya sobbed his name again Yohji soaped his hand and quickly slickened his own cock, no longer able to keep from seeking out the heaven that awaited him.

He pushed inside Aya as slowly as he could, making the both of them groan in frustration. Yohji knew he shouldn’t be doing this now, that Aya was still bruised and sore in too many places, but while he could, just barely, resist his own need, he couldn’t fight Aya’s too. After an agonizing minute he was completely buried inside his mate, breath coming in heaves as he fought for control, being driven wild by the feel of Aya clenching around him, of the man pressing kisses against his neck and rocking his hips.

"Aya… cat, gods you feel so fucking good. I’ve missed this." It felt so incredibly good to be inside Aya, to feel complete once again. Using more willpower than Yohji ever imagined he possessed, he kept his thrusts slow and languid, making sure to hit that spot inside Aya as often as he could. Aya trembled in his arms, mewling and sobbing in pleasure. Yohji’s tongue skimmed all over his mate’s flesh, needing to taste the man as much as possible. He dragged out the bliss as much long as he could, needing this too much to hurry to its ending.

"You’re so beautiful, so lovely. Gods, Aya, I love you so much. You’re perfect and mine, always. I’m never letting you go." The words poured from his mouth, assurances that Aya was still beautiful in his eyes, was still wanted so incredibly much by him. Aya’s arms around his neck tightened with each one, holding Yohji closer. Then Aya tossed back his head, his body clenching around Yohji’s cock, his eyes wide and staring as he shook in Yohji’s arms. He remained like that for a few seconds, then melted against him.

Breathing harshly, Yohji held his lover close, thrusting his hips frantically as he felt the pleasure coil inside him, the sunlight so warm it burned. Then he cried out Aya’s name and came as well, feeling as if every last drop was being shot inside the man. The waves kept coming, more bliss with each one, until Yohji shuddered and slumped down on the bench.

Aya’s breath panted against his ear, the water lapped at his chin as Yohji just sat there, trying to make sense of how his body worked. It didn’t seem to want to move, but instead just melt in the hot water. It took several tries to sit up on the bench, and both of them moaned when he slipped out of his mate, losing that intimate contact.

Yohji tilted back Aya’s face, taking in his closed eyes and swollen lips. Satiation, pleasure and exhaustion radiated from the smaller man, along with a hint of pain because of the activity. Returning some of the energy he’d stolen, Yohji stroked Aya’s sore ribs and wounded back. He couldn’t give back all of it, his hunger demanded some in order to be appeased, but the little he could helped to soothe the ache of Aya’s more serious wounds.

"You still awake, cat?"

Mumbling, Aya opened his eyes and weakly glared at Yohji. Unable to hold back a smile at how adorably grumpy his love looked, Yohji kissed him on the nose and flicked an eartail against his lips. That earned him a hiss, but the sound soon turned into a purr when Yohji kissed him gently.

"Let’s get you out of the water. I don’t think your skin can take much more." He lifted Aya and climbed out of the tub, and after a few minutes and several caresses the both of them were dry and in their robes. This time Aya didn’t even make any complaint about being carried, though Yohji doubted he could manage even two steps at this point in time, and as soon as the shadows returned to cloak them they were on their way.

Omi and Naoe were waiting for them in their room, causing Yohji to growl slightly upon being surprised by their presence. Naoe took one look at Aya, glared at Yohji and used his power to grab a towel from the washstand. As soon as the kage was placed on the bed Naoe started to dry Aya’s damp hair.

"Are you trying to give him another cold? What about his back, you didn’t let him soak too long, did you?"

Resisting the urge to strangle the little demon, Yohji snarled and pulled on some pants and a shirt, then set about drying his own hair. He noticed that no one volunteered to do that for him. But at least Naoe wasn’t commenting about the new bruises on Aya’s neck, or how weak the man was. Aya just rested amongst his pillows, his eyes closed and purring slightly as Naoe tenderly dried his hair.

Tossing the towel aside, Yohji brushed back his hair and crossed over to the bed, sitting down by Aya. He grabbed the towel from Naoe’s hand and shooed the boy away. "I’ll take over from here. What were the two of you up to today?" Omi had finally managed to drag Naoe away from Aya’s side that morning, citing that his boyfriend needed a break.

While Naoe glared at him, but still floated a brush over to Yohji so he could patiently work out the tangles in Aya’s hair, Omi gestured to a stack of bags and boxes on the desk. "We did some shopping. There are a few presents for Aya, and you as well, Yotan."

"So nice that someone remembers I exist," Yohji drawled, but he couldn’t help smiling and craning his head for a better look. "Get anything for yourself?"

Omi grinned. "Of course we did. It’s a good thing I had a few allowances saved up, or I’d have been trading in the crown jewels, but we did manage a few bargains. Want to see them, Aya?"

Glancing down, Yohji found his love fast asleep. Aya was curled up beside him, his hair in disarray and falling on his face, but the slight smile on his lips was still evident. It was the first genuine smile he’d seen from Aya since he’d been injured, and the sight made his heart feel light.

Omi noticed that Aya was asleep and stifled and giggle. "I won’t say anything about nice, relaxing baths, Yohji. But you better hope that Jo doesn’t hear about this." He smiled when Yohji growled at him. "Do you want us to go?"

Looking back and forth between him and Naoe, who was watching Aya sleep with a slight smile on his face too, Yohji shook his head. "Nah, why don’t you show me what you bought. I doubt Aya’s going to wake for the next couple hours, so I might as well be able to tell him what he missed."

Laughing softly, Omi ran over to the stack of presents.

*******

Reiichi watched as Lord Eto talked to a few of his compatriots, taking note of their family colors. Most of them were younger sons and daughter, obviously eager to take a gamble on gaining some prestige. There was even one of Shuuichi’s ministers in the group, a disturbing sight. But what distressed him was the man standing in the corner, dressed in a grey cloak he recognized from Yuushi’s description.

The earring in his right ear warned Reiichi that he’d better leave, as he was getting near enough for the cloaked man to notice him. Sticking to the shadows, he returned to the quarters he shared with his friends to find them waiting for him.

"Well," Naru asked, all but bouncing up and down.

"It’s as we suspected. They have established allies deep in Court and Shuuichi’s Ministry." He gazed at Yuushi. "It seems your ‘friend’ does indeed have very powerful allies. Powerful enough to actually be able to overthrow the throne, in my humble opinion. They’ve selected various ministers and lords who seek to change the way things are."

Yuushi gazed back at him quietly for a moment, and Reiichi saw the worry, nervousness and excitement that crossed his friend’s elegant features. The final emotion was that of resolve.

"Well then, I guess we know where we stand then. It’s time we had some allies of our own. I doubt my ‘friend’ expects aid only from me. Start talking to the Guards we can trust."

Naru did commence bouncing on the balls of his feet, a bundle of nervous energy. "Uhm, can I just say we could lose our heads for this? I mean…." The young man shrugged his shoulders. "Nevermind, forget I said a thing. This is gonna be fun!"

Reiichi sighed and shared a smile with Yuushi. They were committed now, but Naru was right. This was going to be fun. And tricky, and dangerous, and could see them and a lot of people paying for their decision. But they could always succeed, no matter the odds, and he felt that it was a chance worth taking.

"I’ll start talking to some of your more loyal supporters. A lot of people are dissatisfied with Kikyou becoming the new Captain, I suggest we look for recruits there." Yuushi and Naru nodded their heads, clearly counting on him for guidance. Sighing again, Reiichi rattled off a list of names, struggling hard to keep a smile off his lips. For fifteen years he’d played games of intrigue with the Court, trying to keep the more corrupt members of it in line. Now he had a much more interesting game to play, with much higher stakes. He looked forward to the challenge.

*******

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