Shadows

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chapter 12

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mates

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Jei walked outside the Koneko, wandering through the garden until he found the trellis festooned with jasmine. Crawford was standing beside it, staring down at the fragile blooms he held in his hand.

"What is it about flowers that make people waste so much time and effort on them? This whole garden serves no purpose other than being ornamental."

Chuckling, Jei picked one of the small white flowers. "Well, I think Yohji and Aya would argue with you there. It serves as an additional bedroom for them, or at least the lavender patch does. I’ll never be able to smell a closet sachet and keep a straight face from now on."

His partner stared at him for a second, the moonlight reflecting from his glasses. For a moment Jei wondered what tragedy, or more likely tragedies, had befallen Crawford to make him so… cold and unfeeling weren’t right, but close to the mark. Contained. Focused on only one or two goals to the exclusion of everything else, even happiness and pleasure, might be better. Jei had his own awful past, filled with unbearable pain and losses, but he still knew how to laugh and have fun. Then again, it could be argued that he wasn’t quite sane. Hell, it was a proven fact, but he didn’t let that bother him.

"I’m relieved to see you back on your feet again."

"Thank you." Jei raised the jasmine blossom to his nose, took a deep breath then tossed it aside. "Before you start barking out orders, I need to go feed. Being awake for three days straight has left me hungry." He needed human blood if he wanted to keep most of the madness at bay.

Crawford nodded his head. "It’s as I expected. Go eat something, and then come back to the Koneko. I want you to stick close to the inn and keep an eye on Aya and Nagi."

The order surprised Jei, considering how much he’d been running around the past several weeks. "What about all the other jobs you had lined up for me?"

Removing his glasses, Crawford absently rubbed them against his light grey tunic as he raised his head and stared at the moon for a moment. He put them back on and resumed gazing at Jei.

"Keeping the kage safe is the most important thing. Yohji can’t be with him all the time, and when he’s not I want you there. Nagi is also susceptible to the Takatoris and should be guarded too. Especially since the crown prince seems reluctant to leave his side."

For a moment Jei thought about Omi and the way the boy had stood up to him the other day. He was happy for Nagi that the younger bound had found a human who returned his love and wasn’t frightened by his true nature. Jei had had someone like that once, several someones in fact. Raising a hand to stroke his eye patch, Jei hoped that Omi wouldn’t meet the same fate as they had. No, he wouldn’t mind his orders this time, nor the chance to thumb his nose at fate and make sure another bound kept a bit of happiness.

"What about contacting all the bounds in the capital?"

Shifting about, Crawford folded his arms over his chest. "It seems Schuldig has developed a sudden work ethic, and he’s doing the work of two people. It will be no problem for him to contact the ones you haven’t, and it will keep him out of trouble."

"Someone’s fighting being mated, isn’t he? That boy really is your son."

"Funny, I was thinking about how much he reminded me of you," Crawford retorted dryly, an almost smile on his lips. Jei growled in warning and bared his teeth. "Just concentrate on keeping those two safe and leave the worrying to me."

Reminding himself yet again of why it would be a bad thing to eat his partner, Jei leaned against the trellis, breathing in deep the scent of jasmine. He’d always loved the flower. For a moment, he remembered hugging his mother and being enveloped by her jasmine perfume. He forced the memory away, not needing to think about such things when he was so hungry. It was a good way to unleash the madness he constantly struggled to hold at bay.

Then something else occurred to him, as he diverted his thoughts from memories of his loved one suffering. Jei glared at his partner. It just wasn’t right, Crawford giving him a break like this, and that made Jei highly suspicious of everything concerning the precog. "You know Crawford, I’ve wondered about you not seeing the Takatoris coming for Aya the other night. Especially after you predicted blood and pain for the kage a couple weeks ago. I thought you meant the wedding, but now…."

Crawford sighed as he pushed his glasses up his nose. "I didn’t see the exact date, nor how badly Aya would be hurt, but I knew his masters would contact him at least once before the wedding. I also knew that there was no way to prevent him from making a sacrifice for the safety of his sister and his mate. Not that I’d have stood by and done nothing had I been here that night. I would have had Schuldig influence the Takatori’s mind to make him treat Aya more gently. But the damage is already done, and the future is still secure."

Jei changed his mind. He didn’t want to know what had shaped Crawford into being such an utterly uncaring bastard. Granted, the man was working hard for a future free of slavery and death for more than just himself, but that didn’t mean he had to sacrifice anyone he saw fit. What Aya had suffered shouldn’t be written off with an ‘oh well, no major damage done’.

"I’m gonna go eat, but I’ll be back by morning." Before Crawford could say anything Jei glared him silent. "Don’t worry, Oracle, I won’t gorge myself so I have to sleep again, it’ll be just enough to take the edge off the hunger. I don’t want to be too full, not with the meal awaiting me soon."

"Just be careful, Jei. With the wedding fast approaching this isn’t the time for mistakes. Remember what is at stake here."

Waving goodbye to the precog, Jei started to jog towards the garden’s gate. He did remember what was at stake. Part of that was saving bounds from undergoing the ordeals that Crawford and he had suffered, as well as Aya. Not to sacrifice one of their own. Jei didn’t want any part of a future bought with so much blood. It made for a weak foundation, and one day their grand dreams would come crashing down upon them. For a powerful precog, one would think that Crawford could see that.

*******

Yohji lay on his bed with Aya resting beside him, his head on Yohji’s chest. The smaller man was asleep but mumbling every now and then. Each time he did so, Yohji would stroke his hands along Aya’s arms and face, murmuring quiet assurances to his mate until the man calmed down again.

It had been a long night so far, and he’d gotten little sleep during it. Especially not after being woken up by the wave of fear, revulsion and hate that had emanated from Aya. His love had been in the grip of a terrible nightmare, tossing about in the bed enough so that Yohji had been afraid he’d hurt himself. But grabbing Aya to hold him still had been a bad idea, only causing the man to fight him while he slept on.

It wasn’t until he’d let go of Aya, all but for a sweat soaked eartail, and had repeatedly called out his name that Yohji had gotten the man to wake up. Aya had stared at him for a weary moment, his eyes filled with pain and sadness, and only then had he allowed Yohji to touch him. He’d tried to resist the kiss Yohji had given him, cluing him in on what was causing Aya’s nightmares, but Yohji had gently but insistently pressed his lips to the redhead’s until Aya had parted them. After a quick kiss, just to show Aya that he didn’t find him tainted or repulsive, Yohji had cuddled his cat against him and hummed a tune until Aya had fallen back to sleep. The man needed his rest, and there wasn’t anything that Yohji could think to say to him that would erase the awful memories.

He’d remained awake after that, and less than an hour later, the nightmare had returned. This time Yohji had lightly tugged on an eartail while stroking Aya’s face, talking softly all the while. It seemed that once Aya realized that it was Yohji near him the nightmare would stop, only then to repeat itself every hour or so.

Yohji hoped that the sex from earlier wasn’t the cause of Aya’s distress, but he felt guilty all the same. He hadn’t forced himself on his mate, had only gone through with it then because Aya had wanted him back. If that hadn’t been the case, Yohji would have reined in his hunger, no matter how painful or hard. But Aya wanting him had made it impossible not to give in to his hunger and their need. It hadn’t been worth his mate suffering like this, though.

A part of him told Yohji that this was the first night that Aya hadn’t been drugged or passed out from exhaustion. Even with the draining from earlier, Aya was the best he’d been since he’d been kidnapped and abused. This was probably the first chance his mind had had to torment him with what had happened to him and for Aya to be aware of it. That didn’t make the pain of seeing the man Yohji loved be in distress any less. Exhausted with worry, Yohji would drift off to sleep for a few minutes at a time, waking up the moment Aya moved or felt any distress.

Morning found him bleary-eyed and tired. When his body didn’t leave him any choice, Yohji hurried from the bed to relieve himself. He returned to find Aya shifting about, his violet eyes open and surrounded by dark circles. It looked that even with spending most of the night asleep that Aya hadn’t gotten any more rest than he had.

"Yohji?"

"I’m here, cat." He slid into bed and pulled Aya against him. His mate’s tense body relaxed in his arms, Aya sighing softly as he tucked his head under Yohji’s chin. The feel of Aya in his arms made Yohji’s hunger flare to life, but to calm it all Yohji had to do was think of Aya tossing about, his face drawn with pain and anguish, and the awful emotions he’d felt during the nightmares.

"You shouldn’t have left." Aya’s voice sounded angry and a touch petulant, something he’d never heard from the man before. Yohji tilted up Aya’s chin until he could stare into his eyes and smiled despite the pout he was receiving. That only seemed to make Aya even angrier, the emotion burning away the last of his pain and anguish.

"Sorry. I didn’t think you wanted to wake up in a wet bed." It took Aya a moment to understand what he was implying then his pale flesh blushed the slightest bit. As Yohji chuckled the man started to squirm about and he suddenly punched Yohji in the ribs.

"Ow! What the hell was that for?"

Aya treated him to a weak version of his glare. "I didn’t have to go until you said something."

Grumbling about temperamental redheads, Yohji picked up a struggling Aya in his arms and carried him to the necessity chamber. Aya clearly wasn’t happy about still being treated as an invalid, but he looked too weak to walk all that way there on his own. So he glared at Yohji the whole while for this latest indignity, until he was tucked back in bed. Then all his anger seemed to deflate, leaving Aya looking so very young.

Stroking a hand through his mate’s hair, Yohji frowned in worry. "Are you okay?"

"…I’m so tired, but I don’t want to sleep anymore." Aya hugged Yohji around the chest and shifted closer to him. "I… I keep seeing him. While, while he’s… hurting me you, Aya-chan and Nagi are waiting there, chained beside me, and I know when he’s finished with me it will be your turns." Shivering, Aya pulled the blankets closer to him as he pressed against Yohji.

"It’ll be okay, love. Soon he won’t be able to hurt any of us. If he so much as comes near you I’m gonna slice him into bits." Yohji’s voice came out in a growl as his bound nature urged him to get out of bed and bring Hirofumi’s severed head back to Aya as a present. But all that would accomplish was leaving Aya alone and putting all of them in danger. He had to remain calm until the wedding, less than two weeks away. It was so damn hard, but he had to keep his wits about him and not give in to the rage.

Growling, Aya pushed himself up onto his arms. "Promise me you won’t let him hurt you. I don’t want you to go looking for revenge and be harmed."

"Aya…"

"Promise me, Yohji. Just stay away from him until the wedding."

He’d told himself the same thing, and finally became convinced that it was the only logical choice for him to make. However, Yohji didn’t like being told to stay away from the bastard, by Aya of all people. The man should be clamoring for his assailant’s blood, not worrying about Yohji being hurt by a pathetic human who hid behind blackmail and threats to an innocent soul.

So Yohji spoke without thinking, not a totally unusual occurrence for him. "Aya, I’m not the one who let the man beat me and practically rape me on a daily basis. _I_ can handle the sick fuck and won’t let him so much as touch me."

Aya’s eyes went wide at the words, and the man’s pain and anger filled Yohji. Just when he realized what he said, and what those words had sounded like, Aya started to scramble off the bed. Before Yohji could stop him, he made it off the bed and started to shakily walk away, wearing nothing but an old shirt of Yohji’s. Aya’s hand rested on the doorknob just before he crumpled to the floor, his energy spent. Shadows skittered about the room, curling up around Aya as he hit his fist against the door.

Running to the man’s side, Yohji tried to pick Aya up but his hands were knocked aside. Aya growled at him and scooted away from Yohji until his back hit the door. Then he let out a small cry of pain. Taking advantage of Aya’s distraction, Yohji grabbed the man and carried him back to the bed.

As soon as Aya was deposited on it he swung his arm at Yohji, his face livid with anger. "You bastard. You think I liked what he did to me? That I’m some helpless creature that just lets people hurt him for the hell of it? They have my sister, Kudoh. I can’t do a damn thing without causing her harm. I couldn’t do a damn thing that night without Hirofumi hurting Nagi or someone else here at the Koneko. If I had fought back like I’d wanted to, he’d have harmed them until I gave in."

"I know that, cat…" Yohji tried to soothe his lover.

"NO you fucking don’t." Aya pushed away the hands that tried to hold him still. "If I had resisted he might have left, but then he’d have investigated the Koneko further, or have hurt Aya-chan. The only way to keep you, Nagi and her safe was to give in. To let him…." Aya closed his eyes, his voice now betraying a hint of pain. "To let him do those things to me. Even when I wanted to kill him I had to swallow the anger and hate and just let…." Once again the anger just left Aya, and he curled into a ball on the bed. "Sometimes it would be so much easier to give into those emotions, but I wouldn’t be the one to pay for doing that. What good is being free and unharmed when you lose the ones you love? Physical pain is so much easier to take."

Yohji reached out a shaky hand and brushed back the bangs covering Aya’s face. "Love, I’m a fucking ass." His eyes burned with unshed tears as Yohji thought of what Aya had just told him. Nothing like having the fact rubbed in his face that his mate had just been trying to keep him safe, especially after what he’d said. But a part of Yohji had been so mad at the kage, something that he hadn’t realized until just now. Aya had willingly left with the bastard, hadn’t even considered that Yohji could save him. It hurt him so badly that Aya hadn’t thought that Yohji could help him, or keep him from harm. Part of that pain had twisted into anger, fueled by the way Aya had unhesitatingly sacrificed himself. Yohji also realized he was furious with himself for failing to protect his love, even if he had been unconscious at the time.

"I never meant what I said. I know you didn’t ask to be hurt. I didn’t mean to imply that you were weak. Hell, Aya, I think you’re the stronger of the two of us. I’d have gone mad from the pain and hopelessness long ago, if I was in your place."

Aya remained silent, so Yohji slunk down on the bed until he was lying beside the man, and very gently and slowly pulled Aya into his arms. His mate was stiff for a moment, but eventually allowed himself to relax against Yohji. He figured he was all forgiven until sharp teeth bit deep into his right shoulder.

"Fuck! That hurt." Yohji bolted upright and rubbed the bleeding wound.

Aya glared at him through the strands of his hair. "I’m not weak and helpless. Get that thought out of your head right now."

"Hell no, not with those teeth of yours. You’re a fucking gaki is what you are." Damn, that had hurt, and now he had a matching set of bite marks on his shoulder. Yohji stalked off the bed to wash the wound, cursing the whole time. Once it was clean and he’d rubbed some salve on it, he returned to bed. Warily eyeing his mate, Yohji lay back down beside Aya. "Are you done biting me for the time being?"

"Hmph." Once again Aya melted against him, and after an assault free minute Yohji relaxed too. "Don’t think such stupid things."

"Aya… I get so worked up where you’re concerned that sometimes I just feel instead of think. I do want to kill Hirofumi and his family, but I’ll wait. You have a point about someone being hurt if I tried to kill them now. I don’t think it would be me, but others would suffer, including you and your sister. I’ll wait." Yohji started to rub his hands along Aya’s back, but the man flinched at his touch, from equal parts pain and fear.

Sighing, Yohji rolled onto his back and pulled Aya onto his chest. While Aya’s body was still healing at a phenomenal rate, the redhead had the more damaging emotional trauma to recover from. Yohji could be patient and help him with that, when he wasn’t being an idiot like just now.

"You’re still exhausted, love. Get some sleep."

"Stay with me, Yohji. In some of the dreams… I can’t find you." Aya rubbed his cheek along Yohji’s chest and held him tightly.

There were a million things that needed to be taken care of, and Yohji knew he had to go downstairs at some point that day so people didn’t wonder why he was absent, but not even Hirofumi Takatori parading in front of the Koneko with a big red ‘kill me’ sign painted on his chest could get Yohji to leave the bed at that moment.

"I’ll stay as long as you’re asleep. I promise you that, Aya."

His mate sighed again and started to purr very quietly. It only took Aya a couple minutes to fall asleep. Lulled by the man’s presence and his own weariness, Yohji soon followed.

*******

Tugging nervously at her indigo blouse, Cassandra shifted the bundle of clothes held in her arms and knocked on the door. When she heard Yohji call out ‘enter,’ she pushed open the door and walked inside.

"Cassandra, what the hell are you doing here?" Yohji snarled the words and was in the process of rising from their bed when Aya grabbed him by the arm and yanked him back down. The kage peered over his mate’s shoulder, his violet eyes bleary with sleep.

"Why are you here, Cassandra?"

At least Aya’s voice hadn’t contained any rancor towards her, had almost been polite even. But the feel of Yohji’s anger and contempt for her made Cassandra’s knees tremble.

"I… I brought you some more clothes. And your costumes for the wedding." The mention of that event caused both young men to go still for a second. Aya then sat up farther in the bed, wearing a brown shirt that Cassandra had made for Yohji. As for the blond, he was dressed in a pair of old tan pants.

Yohji wrapped an arm around Aya’s waist and held him close to his side. "Put them down and then leave. Have Mickey pay you what we owe."

Cassandra felt like crying. She knew now that she had erred that night, but Aya was healing. Could Yotan not forgive her? As she started to do what she’d been bid, Yohji let out a yelp of pain.

"Dammit, Aya, if you bite me one more fucking time I’m gonna file your teeth down the next time you sleep." Yohji was rubbing his left arm as he glared at the redhead. Aya glared right back at him.

"There’s no need to treat her like that." He turned to gaze at Cassandra. "What do the costumes look like?"

Muttering, Yohji pulled on one of Aya’s eartails. "There’s every fucking need to toss her ass out of here. She let you be hurt that night and kept me from rescuing…" Yohji’s voice drifted off, growing quieter as Aya glared at him. He tried to return the dirty look but failed. "Well, it’s true."

Aya scowled a moment longer then closed his eyes. "I told you, Yohji, there was nothing she could have done anyway. The Takatoris needed my blood and wouldn’t have rested until they got it. All she did was spare you and Aya-chan unnecessary pain."

"She spared me pain? Do you have any fucking idea what it felt like to be stopped when I knew you were in danger? To wake up and find you like that?" Yohji tugged again on the long strand of hair, making Aya hiss. "You damned stubborn little fool. Try to remember that when you hurt, I do too."

Having the feeling she’d been forgotten, Cassandra debated quietly leaving the outfits on the desk and retreating from the room, but the second she moved two pairs of eyes fixed on her. Giggling nervously, she stepped closer to the bed to show the young men their costumes. Yohji frowned at her, but he wasn’t as angry with her as he had been a few minutes ago. Cassandra was extremely happy about that fact, along with the one that Aya had been defending her. He at least knew why she’d done what she had. But the sight of his white skin marred with bruises and cuts filled her with pain.

"I thought it would be best if you dressed alike. That way there will be confusion among the humans over who is who. I also designed them so you would be almost completely covered." Cassandra took one of the garments out of its protective bag and held it up.

It was made of thick black silk, sewn all over with black glass beads in patterns reminiscent of feathers. She’d put much time and effort into the costumes the past couple days, too torn up with guilt and anxiety to get much sleep. The end result was stunning. Aya and Yohji would be covered head to toe with the rich fabric. The shirts had a high collar, an attached hood and full sleeves. The pants cut close to the body, but not too tight. Black gloves and knee high boots were being made and should be done in a few days. Aya’s boots would have an added heel to make up for the difference of height between the two men.

When neither man said anything she nervously continued. "Here are the masks." They were made of black feathers and beads, shaped to look like birds of prey. Not much of the face would be seen other than eyes and chin.

Still neither commented on them, so Cassandra crossed to the closet and hung the outfits up, tears in her eyes. She had tried so hard to make something they’d like, had spent so much time on the clothes.

"They’re… they are very nice, Cass." Yohji said the words as if they cost him. "We’ll be among the better dressed people at the reception, and no one should be able to identify us. Thank you."

The last was said with a touch of bitterness, but Cassandra accepted the praise with a hopeful smile on her face. "They are sturdy enough to fight in, I made sure of that." She then held up the other clothes she’d brought, which were several shirts and pants in shades of dark purple, blue and grey. "Here are more clothes for Aya. After the wedding I’ll start on his winter wardrobe."

Aya nodded his thanks at her. "How much do I owe you? I still have the money Crawford gave me."

"There is no cost."

"Trying to ease your conscience, Cass?" Aya immediately hit Yohji in the stomach, causing him to yelp again. Cassandra was in pain herself, wounded by the comment. Just when she had hope that Yohji would forgive her, he reminded Cassandra of how unlikely that event would be.

"Yotan, I am so sorry. Honestly, I never meant Aya any pain. If I could have, I would have gone in his place, been hurt instead of him. What can I do to make this up to you?" She wrung her hands together and looked pleadingly at the young man who was like a son to her.

Aya hit Yohji again and started hissing. "I’m the one who was hurt, you know. I was beaten. If I can forgive Cassandra, why can’t you?"

Yohji blinked his eyes and rubbed his sore stomach. "Cat…" When words failed him he jerked a hand through his hair and cursed under his breath. "I can’t forget that she let you be hurt. I don’t care if it was to spare others, my only concern is _you_. How would you feel if she’d had you knocked out while I was being tortured?" Aya didn’t have an answer for that and could only look down at the bed.

With a sigh Yohji tilted Aya’s head up and kissed him softly on the lips. "Okay, let’s call this a draw and say we both have good points before I end up as bruised as you are." When Aya gave him a tentative smile Yohji glanced over at Cassandra. "I can’t just forgive you, Cass. Not at this moment, anyway. I’m sorry about that. But I can honestly say that I don’t hate you. It’s more hurt than anything, what I’m feeling. You may have had the best intentions, but you let me down. It will take some time for me to get over that."

"I know, Yotan, and I’ll do anything to make that up to you. I swear."

"Then never do something like that again. I don’t care what the consequences are, never again hide the future of one of us from the other. Not when it involves so much pain." Yohji gazed at her sadly for a moment before returning his attention to Aya. "Thank you for tending to his wounds."

Stepping closer to the bed, Cassandra smiled at the young man. "It was nothing, Yotan. But if you don’t mind, I’d like to check them to make sure they’re healing properly. That’s partly why I came." She just hadn’t been sure that Yohji would let her anywhere near Aya after what had happened.

He didn’t look terribly pleased, but Yohji did nod his head after Aya did. Cassandra hurried over to fill the washbasin as the kage slid the shirt over his head. Yohji lit several candles for her before returning to his mate’s side.

She tended to Aya’s face and side first. Glad to see that his lip wouldn’t be scarred, Cassandra cleaned and rubbed some salve on his bruised right cheek. He’d taken several hits there, and she’d been afraid that the bone had been cracked. It was healing slowly, but it shouldn’t cause Aya any problems once it mended.

The cuts on his chest had scabbed over and would be gone in another few days. His broken ribs were whole, if a bit tender, and his lung seemed to have recovered. Cassandra rubbed her special salve over all the injuries, hoping the blend of herbs would help them heal more quickly.

When she was done with his front, Cassandra nodded at Aya, gesturing at him to show her his back. He paused, his face growing paler, but Yohji held his hand. Aya slowly lay down on the bed exposing his back.

Cassandra gave the healing flesh a critical examination. "It looks very good. If anything, there will be less scarring this time." Cassandra kept her touch light, feeling how Aya flinched whenever their skin came into contact. As horrible as the whipping had been, the chance for the wounds to be properly tended to and the aid of Yohji’s energy was lessening the usual damage. Aya’s back would always be scarred, but now it wouldn’t be so bad. She rubbed the ointment over the thick scabs that covered the worst of the cuts and was careful of the newly formed skin.

"I thought it looked better," Yohji said as he soothed Aya, stroking his hand through his mate’s hair. He leaned down and pressed a kiss to the tip of Aya’s nose, making the man scowl at him. "How much longer until he’s completely healed? Aya’s still in some pain."

Cassandra patted Aya on the shoulder to let him know she was done. He instantly sat up, pulling the sheet up his chest as he did. Yohji kissed him on the temple as he shifted closer to Aya.

"Just another couple of days, I’d say. Aya would already be healed if it wasn’t for the bloodletting. Thankfully you’re here to lend him strength." Cassandra noticed that Yohji blushed slightly and confirmed her suspicions. She’d suspected that he had fed from Aya when she realized the succubae-bound not being overwhelmed by his hunger like he should’ve been. But since Aya was in rather good shape, she decided to let it pass without much comment.

"Have you talked to Masato lately, Yotan?" The question had Yohji glaring at her with the same amount of venom as when she’d walked into the room. Cassandra very carefully rose from the bed and put some space between them.

"No, I haven’t. Why should I? All the asshole cares about is fucking Schu or anything else that moves."

Clicking her tongue, Cassandra shook her head at Yohji’s bitter tone. "I won’t try to justify what they did that night, other than preventing you from leaving this room. But you haven’t finished training your talent, and that is something you must do soon, for both your sake and Aya’s. It would be best if you had that training before the wedding."

Yohji grew thoughtful as he twined one of Aya’s eartails around his fingers. "…I know, but I’m still so angry at those two. It’s one thing to try and keep me safe, but to not give a damn about Aya like they did… that can’t be forgiven so easily. They, at least, should have known something was going on by the way I reacted to the threat."

Then he dropped the strand of hair and looked at her directly. "I have a question to ask you, since we’re on the topic of powers. Strange things have been happening lately, and the shadows have been responding to me. I asked Aya last night, and he said he’s not behind it."

Aya nodded his head before pulling on the brown shirt. "They sometimes react to the way I’m feeling, but they’ve never done that for another person, not even Nagi or my sister. Since I was unconscious most of the past couple days, they shouldn’t have done anything but converge around me."

Cassandra pulled the chair away from the desk and sat down, giving the matter some thought. She remembered something that her father, who had studied bounds extensively, had told her about succubae-bounds.

"I have a theory. It was something that my father… that he was working on when he died." When someone had discovered what she was and had decided to take Cassandra by force and sell her to a wizard. Yohji had no idea that Cassandra knew what it felt like to be helpless while the people she loved suffered for her.

"Succubae-bounds take in energy from others. Usually it comes from humans, but sometimes they feed off other bounds. If that happens enough, my father believed that they took on the traits of those bounds. He knew of one mated to a fire elemental-bound who had nominal control of fire, and another whose partner was a soul gaki-bound. Her empathy grew stronger the longer she was with her lover. You’re draining Aya on a regular basis, so you must be picking up some of his abilities."

Yohji stared at her for a moment. "I’m becoming a kage?"

"No." Cassandra shook her head emphatically. "You are and will always be a succubae-bound, but you will be able to do some things that Aya can. It makes sense now, why Botan couldn’t cast a spell against you the other night, and why Schuldig’s powers don’t work well on you anymore. You seem to have picked up Aya’s immunity to magic."

"And the ability to open any locks," Aya added. He tucked back a lock of hair that had fallen into Yohji’s face. "That’s why you thought the bathing room door was unlocked the other day. It probably means you can cross wards too."

"We’ll have to test to what extent you’ve picked up those abilities, Yotan. They could be very useful to you in the future."

Yohji made a face at Cassandra. "Why do I get the impression that means Botan will be lobbing spells at me left and right? That sounds like so much fun. But at least I have the ability to do more than fuck a person dry. It’s kind of hard to take care of enemies that way when there’s more than one of them. Though a threesome would be nice."

Aya growled and bared his teeth at his mate. "Don’t even joke about that."

Smiling seductively at the smaller man, his eyes heavy-lidded and glowing with desire, Yohji stroked Aya’s neck. "You’re the only one I want, love. No one tastes as good as you." Aya hissed and grabbed Yohji by his hair, pulling the man’s head down for a kiss.

Cassandra watched the two bounds for a moment, drinking in the sight of two lovely men deeply enamored with each other. If only her brat would stop fighting against Fate and realize what was waiting for him. She sighed in frustration.

The noise reminded Yohji and Aya that they weren’t alone. They reluctantly broke apart, Aya sliding down the bed so he could rest his head in Yohji’s lap. The blond looked at her inquiringly.

"Anything else, Cass?"

"No, I must be going. Remember to rub the salve on Aya’s injuries until they fade, preferably several times a day. I’ll be back tomorrow to pick some herbs if you have any more questions for me."

"Okay. Goodbye, Cass." There wasn’t the usual kiss that accompanied her past departures from the Koneko, and Yohji had turned his attention back to his mate, playing with an eartail as Aya hissed quietly and swatted at his hand, but there wasn’t the animosity that had been in Yohji’s greeting, either. Cassandra reminded herself that it would take time before Yohji forgave her for what had happened. At least she had some hope now that the day would come.

*******

Aya sighed and rubbed his cheek against the blue and grey quilt he was lying on. The garden’s varied scents tingled his senses, helping him to relax even though Yohji wasn’t by his side. But Nagi was curled up on an edge of the quilt, sitting cross-legged as he listened to Koyu, who sat several feet away, play for them.

When Yohji had left their bedroom to take care of things for the Koneko and to be seen by its patrons, Aya hadn’t wanted to remain inside any longer. Luckily, it was a cloudy afternoon and the sun had past its zenith, so it hadn’t been that hard to talk his mate and Nagi into allowing him some time in the garden. Aya had spent too many years recovering from his wounds and all the bloodlettings hidden in his tower rooms to want to continue the pattern here at the Koneko. Not when he could lie in the shade amid blooming flowers and full leaved trees swaying lightly in the breeze.

Nagi glanced at him for a moment, and after looking around, he used his power to pull up the comforter that had been slipping down Aya’s shoulder. He grunted in thanks, too tired to fix the covering himself, even if he had been a touch cold. It had taken the last of Aya’s energy to walk down the stairs and out to the garden, even if Nagi had been there for support. Unfortunately there was no way that he was going to be able to make it back up those steps on his own; Aya testily resigned himself to the indignity of needing Jei to carry him up to his bedroom later.

Mickey had offered to do that, and had almost picked Aya up when he’d barely made it down the stairs, trembling from exhaustion and out of breath. But Aya had flinched from the human’s proximity. He didn’t want a human male to touch him, not… He rubbed his cheek against the quilt again, forcing his mind to think of the beautiful star pattern that had been sewed by Yohji’s mother right before her death, instead of less pleasant things -- things that made Omi the only human whose presence Aya felt comfortable within touching distance of anymore, and that was largely because Nagi’s scent clung to the boy.

"Any requests for a song?" Koyu asked quietly as the tune he’d been playing came to an end. Aya shook his head, but Nagi shyly asked for something amusing. Nodding, the Harper immediately complied, his lovely tenor carrying through the garden. Several of the Koneko’s patrons were outside today, enjoying the warm day and the wonderful music, but they kept their distance from Aya.

He knew it was in part because they believed him to be ill, and partly because they enjoyed gossiping too much about his ‘breakup’ with Yohji to come near him and have to remain quiet on the topic. During lulls in the music, Aya could hear them talking about him. The people wondered why Yohji and he had broken up, while a few others debated whether to wait until he was a bit better to start pressing their suit.

The thought of a human wanting him, touching him with lust and desire had Aya shivering in anger and disgust. Nagi noticed his body trembling and pulled the comforter up even more, until it was right below Aya’s chin.

"Aya, are you all right? Maybe we should go back inside and get you some tea."

"Nagi, I’m… okay. I want to stay out here, but tea sounds good." It would help him to warm up and restore his energy. Hopefully it would only be another day or two before he returned to normal, if still a touch sore from his injuries, and Aya wouldn’t have to keep being coddled like this. It was bad enough when just Nagi treated him this way, but for Yohji and the Koneko’s staff to do the same…

"I don’t know. There’s no one to fetch it for us…" Nagi sighed and looked around the garden. Teddy had stayed out here with them for a short while, pretending to pick flowers while his lover had played, but it was getting near dinner time and he had to go help with its preparation. Jo would check on them every once in a while, but she was probably busy with dinner as well. Only Nagi and Koyu remained out in the garden with Aya.

As Koyu’s song came to an end, several people instantly requested for more. He nodded his head then looked over at Aya and Nagi. When he saw the boy glancing at the door leading to the inn’s kitchen, the Harper smiled slightly and patted the knife that he was now sporting on his red leather belt. He then cleared his throat until he had Nagi’s attention, making sure the boy saw the gesture.

Nagi reluctantly got to his feet. "I’ll be right back. All I’m going to do is ask the kitchen for some tea, and see if Farfie’s returned so he can join us out here. That shouldn’t take more than ten minutes or so. Koyu will watch you while I’m gone. No one’s stupid enough to mess with a Harper, so you’ll be safe."

"I’ll be here waiting," Aya commented dryly, as if he had a choice in the matter. Nagi spared him a dour look and started to walk briskly towards the Koneko. Closing his eyes, Aya just listened to the music as he tried to pick out the individual scents that the wind was blowing in his direction. There was lavender, of course, and roses, daylilies, lilacs…

The sound of someone approaching made Aya stop identifying the flowers and open his eyes. It took a moment for him to recognize the man who was walking towards him, dressed in his Guard’s uniform. For a moment, a jolt panic stabbed inside Aya. Kikyou walked straight towards him, not even bothering to ask if he could join him before sitting down on the quilt.

Koyu’s harping faltered for a moment, and there was a look of worry and fear on the man’s face. Aya slowly sat up, shaking his head slightly to try and reassure the Harper before he turned his attention to his uninvited guest.

"What do you want?" It was a point of pride for Aya that his voice was calm and even. If this wasn’t about him or the others being bounds, he’d discourage the man and send him on his way. If it was… Aya had enough energy to command the shadows to tear Kikyou and a few others apart.

Kikyou raised an eyebrow at the bluntness of the question. "I was in the area and wished to talk to you. I’ve been waiting for over ten minutes to get you alone so we could talk privately." He settled close to Aya, causing his skin to crawl.

Trying to calm his disturbed emotions, especially before Yohji appeared wanting to know what was going on, Aya pulled the cover around himself even tighter. Kikyou noticed his motion and stroked the red comforter.

"I’ve heard that you haven’t been well lately. Are you all right? You seem paler than usual, and your cheek…" He lifted a hand to touch the fading bruise, the last one remaining on Aya’s face. At the contact Aya felt panic start to build inside him, and he had to calm the shadows about him before they reached the Guard.

He jerked the comforter up even more, knocking aside Kikyou’s hand as he did so. "It’s a stubborn cold. You should go away before you catch it." The feel of the man’s stolen magic wasn’t helping Aya’s nerves any; all it did was make him long for Yohji’s presence.

"I’m not afraid of a cold, not when I enjoy being near you." Kikyou shifted even closer to him. "But maybe this will cheer you up." He reached inside his jacket and pulled out a wrapped package. Aya’s eyes went wide when he recognized the familiar silver and purple wrapping.

"You… you’ve been sending the presents?"

Kikyou smiled at him as he tucked back the long strands of his black hair. Aya distantly became aware that the two of them were attracting attention from the people gathered in the garden and heard their names being whispered. His hands, hidden inside the comforter, clenched into fists.

"I wanted to make up for my rudeness in the bookstore that one day and to put a smile on your face. Go on, take it."

Aya ignored the present. "I have all the others upstairs. When… my friend returns, I’ll ask him to fetch them for you. I don’t want them, any of them."

The pair of eyes that up to now had been sparkling at him so charmingly narrowed in anger. Aya had to stop the shadows from crawling over Kikyou at the sight of anger being directed at him by a human. Then the man’s face smoothed out, his smile returning to his lips.

Leaning forward, Kikyou set the present down on Aya’s lap and spoke near his ear, so no one could overhear them. "I know about you and Kudoh. How you have the Guards lying for the two of you. I also know you don’t have a cold. Not with a bruise like that. I imagine you got that from the man you left the Koneko with the other night. Why you let someone hurt you, or why you feel you have to lie about your relationship with Kudoh, I don’t know. But I think you need protection, and that your lover," Kikyou sneered the word, as he did every time he said Yohji’s name, "…can’t provide it for you.

"I can protect you, you know. I have the power to keep you safe. Once people hear of my interest in you, they won’t harm you. Maybe one day soon, you’ll realize that. When you get sick of being kept by Kudoh, yet still be in danger from whatever it is you’re hiding from, I’ll be waiting. For some time at least. Until then, let’s start a new rumor, shall we?"

Aya was so furious at the Guard’s insults to Yohji and the insinuation that he’d been spying on him that he didn’t notice Kikyou shifting closer to him. He was trying too hard to prevent the shadows from ripping the bastard apart. Aya was so lost in keeping control of his own temper that he barely noticed when Kikyou’s mouth brushed against his, until a tongue pressed against his lips seeking entrance. Then his anger flared even hotter.

Only to turn into shock and fear when the man’s hand slid into his hair, gripping the strands and preventing him from jerking back from the kiss. For a moment all Aya could think of was Hirofumi holding him like this and kissing him, forcing his way inside Aya’s mouth with first his tongue and then….

Then there was someone screaming in his ear.

"Gods curse it!"

Aya blinked his eyes, breaking the hold his fears and painful memories had on him to see Kikyou jumping to his feet as he flapped his long coat, trying to undo the many tiny buttons. Behind the man stood Nagi, his face carefully blank, and Jei, who was clearly trying to hold back a smile.

"Oops, sorry about that." Nagi’s tone wasn’t quite apologetic, and Jei made a choking sound that was half cough and half laugh.

As Kikyou jumped around, Aya heard a cracking sound and looked down to see the man stepping on the shards of what appeared to be a teapot. An image was slowly beginning to form in Aya’s mind of what must have happened. He felt a smile tug at the corners of his mouth, making him forget about wanting to gag and hide in the shadows.

Jei slowly approached Aya and picked him up after tossing aside the wet comforter, which had protected Aya from the spilled tea. "Are you gonna keep dancing like that or what?" he called out to Kikyou.

The Guard slowly realized that there was a crowd of people standing around and staring at him, so he folded his wet coat over his arm and tugged the tight black shirt he’d been wearing under the garment away from his abused skin. He turned to face Nagi, a glare on his face for a few seconds, before looking at Aya. Kikyou’s mouth tightened at the sight of Jei holding him in his arms, and for once Aya was grateful for being too weak to walk very far.

Kikyou bent down to pick up the forgotten package. He stepped closer to Aya, holding the tiny box out to him. A growl rumbled in Jei’s throat, too low to be heard by human ears, but the sound comforted Aya. He might not be able to tear Kikyou apart with his bare hands if the man touched him again, but Jei could do it for him, if Nagi didn’t beat the scarred man to the task.

"Don’t forget about this. I’ll stop by another time to see if you like it. Get some rest, sweetheart. I look forward to you feeling better soon." Kikyou’s hand swept back Aya’s bangs, making him both flinch from the touch and bite back on a hiss. The man finally walked out of the garden, nodding politely to the people gathered to watch the spectacle as he passed them.

As soon as he was far enough away, Nagi rushed over to Aya’s side. "Are you alright? I wanted to slam the asshole into a tree when I saw him touching you, but I knew you’d be mad at me for revealing my powers like that."

"Nagi, you have my undying gratitude for spilling the tea on him. But could you pick up the quilt?" He hoped it was just the comforter that had been soiled. Nagi treated him to an odd look but complied, tucking the dry quilt around Aya so Jei could carry him out of the shadows and back to the inn.

"Can we go now, before a certain blond charges out here intent on blood?" Jei’s voice was light, but his eye was busy searching the garden for signs of Yohji. Aya remembered his link with his mate, and could sense a feeling of rage and worry from the man. Yohji had gone out to run a few errands for Jo, and hopefully wouldn’t be back for a few more minutes. He nodded his head in agreement.

"Well, I’m done playing for the moment. I think I’ll go get something to eat, and see if Touya can clean up all this broken pottery." Koyu cradled his harp in his arms and stepped closer to the three of them, causing Aya to flinch. Pitching his voice low, he also thanked Nagi for his quick thinking. "I’ll warn the others about Yohji showing up in a temper and try to divert him upstairs as soon as he steps inside the door. But at least now we know who’s been sending the presents."

Aya didn’t want to think about how his mate was going to react to that bit of news, considering how much he hated Kikyou. Pulling the quilt almost over his head, he whined very softly and wished he could be elsewhere for the next hour or two. One good thing about being locked in the tower room was he hadn’t had to worry about situations like this. Aya felt a part of himself long for those simpler times.

Then he was hissing and flinching from the feel of sunlight striking his skin. Even though it was cloudy and early evening, the light still hurt. He’d be extremely susceptible for another day or two until his energy was back. Jei hurried through the garden to get him inside, and as they passed by the people, Aya heard his name and Kikyou’s mentioned several times. There was even a comment about him replacing Yohji quicker than someone had thought, especially with the way he’d been pining for the innkeeper.

Wishing that he had the damn, interfering Guard somewhere alone where he could hurt the bastard for the scene back there, Aya gritted his teeth and longed for the sanctuary of his room. He clutched the present in his hand, squeezing it tightly as he imagined it was its giver’s neck.

"Here we are, all safe and sound. Nagi, fetch the basin of water and soap for me, and a new tunic for Aya. Preferably one of Yohji’s." Jei set Aya on the bed and tugged on the black shirt he was wearing. When Aya glared at him, the man sighed.

"Aya, you smell like that Guard at the moment. Not that strongly, since he barely touched you, but… if Yohji smells him on you, along with your fear, it’ll be hell to calm him back down again." Jei stepped back and stood before Aya with his hands on his hips. Sighing, Aya knew the man had a point and slowly stripped off his shirt. He crossed his arms over his chest, self-conscious of the bruise that still discolored his right side and the red line along the inside of his left arm.

Jei grunted and grabbed the basin of water that had floated over to him. He set it on the nightstand and soaped the washcloth it contained, then held the wet fabric out to Aya. Taking the washcloth Aya cleaned his face and chest, thankful that Jei hadn’t insisted on bathing him at least. When he was done, Jei rinsed the cloth and returned it to him, and handed him a dry towel when he finished rinsing off. That taken care of, Nagi gave Aya one of Yohji’s shirts, a green one. Aya hesitated a moment before pulling it on, inhaling the scent of his lover that clung to the shirt. Yohji had worn it yesterday.

He had just curled under the covers and Nagi had left for another pot of tea when Yohji burst into the room. Luckily Jei was over by the window seat, so Yohji didn’t see him as a potential threat or rival. He dashed over to the bed, yanking aside the curtains and the blankets until Aya was revealed to him.

"What the hell happened?" He pulled Aya upright, his hands not clenching too tightly around his arms. Aya didn’t resist the action and when his arms were released, he snaked them around Yohji’s neck. His fears from earlier rushed back to him, and he was so thankful that his lover was here beside him now. He’d tried to be strong, but the memories were too fresh and horrifying.

Yohji’s anger melted away, instantly replaced with concern and love. He sat down on the bed and pulled Aya onto his lap. Needing to be near his mate Aya straddled Yohji’s thighs and tilted his face upwards. Yohji’s hand stroked his cheek, causing him to purr, at least for a few seconds. When all Yohji did was stare at him, Aya began to feel apprehensive. Why wouldn’t the blond kiss him? What was wrong with him? Did Yohji not want him?

As if sensing his thoughts, Yohji tangled the fingers of his left hand in Aya’s eartail and leaned forward to kiss him, deeply and passionately. Purring once again Aya pressed against Yohji, needing to be as close to him as possible. He didn’t mind the arm clenching tightly around his sore ribs and back, not in the least.

When Yohji pulled away from him, Aya whined in frustration and loss. Yohji stroked his face again, making a shushing sound as he stared into Aya’s eyes. He leaned in again, not for a kiss but to sniff Aya’s neck.

"You smell like soap, and you weren’t wearing this shirt when I left. What happened, Aya? Don’t try to tell me nothing, because I felt your fear and anger while I was out shopping. Who threatened you?"

Aya didn’t answer, so Yohji looked over at Jei. "Why are you here?"

"To watch him while Nagi’s downstairs fetching some more tea. But since you’re here, I think I’ll be leaving." Jei hurried from the room, carefully skirting the bed as he left.

Yohji snarled under his breath and spared a glare for Aya even as he held him close. Then he jerked a hand through his disheveled blond locks and glanced around the room. Aya could feel his mate’s body becoming tense when he spotted the silver and purple package on the nightstand and cursed himself for not tossing the damn thing away.

Growling, Yohji snatched the present up. "Another fucking gift. Is this what set you off? Who brought it this time?"

Knowing he couldn’t keep what had happened in the garden a secret, even if he wished to, not when so many people had been there to watch, Aya sighed. "Kikyou did."

It took Yohji a moment to digest that fact. "Kikyou? The Guard? Why the hell did he bring it?" Then the older man became still, his eyes falling shut. He sniffed the present, then Aya’s hair.

"Care to tell me why I can smell him on you?" Yohji’s voice was very quiet, in stark contrast to the rage burning in his eyes. "Call me paranoid, but I’m willing to bet that you reeked of him before you washed and changed your shirt."

"Yohji… he came while I was in the garden. He sat down next to me and tried to have a conversation, and he gave me the present. Kikyou acknowledged that he’d sent the others, and refused to take them back." Twisting the collar of Yohji’s pale yellow shirt with his fingers, Aya lowered his eyes and continued in a quieter voice. "I wanted to hit him, to make him go away, but I couldn’t. There were all those people around. Then he… he said something about starting a new rumor and kissed me." The last was said in a whisper. Aya remembered the revulsion and fear he’d felt, having a human male that close to him again and couldn’t help but shiver. He hated the fear, hated feeling so weak and fragile, but he couldn’t get the awful memories out of his head.

"Shh, cat. It’s okay." Yohji kissed him on the top of the head then on the mouth. "Don’t be afraid anymore, I won’t let you be hurt. None of us will." He kissed Aya again, slowly and thoroughly, making Aya forget about Hirofumi’s bitter taste in his mouth. Then Yohji leaned back against the pillows, his eyes glittering with anger. "Where was the little demon and everyone else while this was happening?"

Aya frowned at hearing Nagi still be called that, especially after everything the boy had done for them lately. "Nagi went to fetch some tea and get Jei so I could be carried back up the steps. Koyu was watching over me, but it wasn’t like he could do anything. Kikyou’s a respected Guard. He can’t just be tossed out of the Koneko for talking to someone."

"I can damn well toss him out for stalking a patron," Yohji snarled. "You shouldn’t have been left alone. Nagi should have…"

"Nagi spilled the pot of tea on him, making Kikyou leave me alone. He at least knows how to control himself," Aya snarled back.

Yohji’s eyes went wide at that piece of information, and after a moment’s silence he burst out in laughter. "Nagi dumped tea on him? Gods, I wish I’d seen that. What a clever, fucking little demon. Nice to know I’m not the only one he abuses." Still chuckling, Yohji reclaimed Aya’s mouth for another kiss.

This time he didn’t pull away after a minute or so. Needing his mate so very much, to feel cherished and wanted by the man, Aya squirmed on Yohji’s lap. He wanted to be as close to Yohji as possible and not stop, driven on by both their hunger. The older bound groaned and wrapped an arm around Aya’s waist, pulling him close so their groins pressed against each other’s. Yohji’s mouth fastened to his neck, and Aya purred in pleasure. There was a familiar drain on his energy, but it felt so natural.

"Do I need to drench him too? Kudoh, get your damn hands off Aya. How can he recover when you keep sucking him dry like this?"

Moaning, Aya pulled away from his lover to see Nagi standing by the bed, a tray with tea and some plates of food in his hands. The teenager’s face was dark and scowling, and behind him stood Omi, who must have just returned from the palace. The prince smiled at Aya and set the tray he was carrying on the crowded nightstand.

Yohji’s good humor vanished as suddenly as it came. "Don’t you fucking threaten me, you little demon! Why did you leave Aya alone today? He attracts trouble like nobody else and shouldn’t be left alone for a damn second! What if…"

"Yohji, shut up," Omi said in a stern voice.

Surprisingly, Yohji fell silent at the command, appearing startled by it. Omi nodded his head and removed the basin of water from the cluttered furniture so Nagi could rest his tray there as well. Then he poured a cup of tea and handed it to Aya.

"I won’t listen to you insult or yell at Nagi like that. He doesn’t want Aya to be hurt anymore than you do, and from what I’ve heard, you’ve got him to thank for getting rid of Kikyou. You know that if anyone had touched him, he’d have made them and the Koneko pay for it, and we can’t afford that at the moment." Omi picked up the gift and looked at it inquiringly for a moment. "Besides, all I heard downstairs was people talking about how he and Aya are lovers now. That should help convince Aya’s masters that the two of you aren’t in love with each other."

He then tossed the present at Yohji, who was growling at the news of Aya having a new lover, a falsehood or not. "Why don’t you open it and see what he sent this time?"

His anger somewhat defused by the distraction, Yohji huffed a few times and tore off the pretty wrapping around the small box. Aya curled up at his mate’s side and rested his chin on Yohji’s shoulder, mildly curious himself to see what it was. The box was opened to reveal an enamel ring of dark blue with a white cross on it.

Yohji stared at the ring in distaste. "The bastard. Why would he send you something bearing the Guards’ emblem?"

Aya rubbed his cheek along Yohji’s shoulder, not happy with having to repeat what the man had said to him. "Kikyou said… he knew that I was hiding from someone, and that he could protect me better than you could. I guess the ring is to remind me of his new position in the Guards."

"He can’t fucking keep you safe. Hell, if he knew that it was Reiji Takatori who wanted you he’d hand you over all dressed in bows just to have someone that highborn in debt to him." Yohji tossed the box, contents and all, across the room. Then he pulled Aya forward until he was sitting across Yohji’s lap. "I’m your mate. It’s my job to keep you safe. As soon as the bastards are all dead I’m never letting you out of my sight for even a second." He nuzzled Aya’s neck before kissing him, distracting Aya from the anger that was building inside him at the ridiculous statement.

"Yohji Kudoh, let the man drink his tea! And he’s to eat the food we’ve brought him." Omi stamped his foot and hissed in anger. "I’m serious, don’t make me fetch Jo so she can drag you off poor Ayan." There was a moment of silence before Aya heard footsteps heading towards the door. With a thought he had the shadows block the exit, but that didn’t prevent Yohji from pulling away from him.

Hissing under his breath, Aya glanced from the apologetic look on Yohji’s face over to Omi, who was standing before the shadow-covered door. "Aya," the older man admonished him quietly.

He vanished the shadows, and Omi breathed a sigh of relief before turning to face the bed again. Aya glared at the teenager briefly while settling beside Yohji. Accepting the tray that Nagi was holding for him, Aya decided that the quicker he ate the sooner he could get the younger men to leave him alone.

"Be sure to eat all of it, Aya. You need your energy with that pervert always attacking you," Nagi said as he sat down on the bed. Yohji made to throw the roll from his tray at the youth, but Omi sat down next to his boyfriend and gave Yohji a warning glance. While the older blond mumbled about annoying little demons and people who hadn’t the sense not to fall in love with them, Aya made a quick meal of the fish, soup and vegetables that Jo had sent him. His body was thankful for the food as it was trying to finish healing so he had a bigger appetite than normal. The tea helped fill him with strength.

Yohji wolfed down his food and actually frowned when the tray was empty. Aya knew his mate was hungrier than usual because of the energy that Yohji had given him, and the lack of sex. He could feel Yohji’s hunger, making his body tingle with the need to appease the craving.

"Wow, the two of you must have been starving. Jo will be happy to know that you ate everything. More tea, Aya?" Omi stacked the empty plates as he asked the question.

Aya shook his head. "Maybe later."

"Okay. Nagi and I will fetch you a nice snack in a bit. Now what are we going to do tonight? Since you’re awake," Omi paused to glare at Yohji for a second, "…maybe we could play cards."

"No, I just want to read. You and Nagi should get some dinner." He glanced down at his friend and saw the conflicting emotions on the boy’s face. Aya knew that Nagi wanted to spend some time alone with Omi, which he hadn’t been able to do much of lately, but he also knew that the younger bound didn’t want to leave him alone, especially after what had happened in the garden.

Yohji stretched his arms above his head and settled more comfortably on the bed, pressing Aya closer to his side as he did so. "Go away, children." Two pairs of eyes glared at him for that comment. "I’m gonna stay up here with Aya tonight. I stopped by Lilla’s today and told her not to come to the Koneko, and I was seen around town enough today to prevent any rumors circulating about me other than who I might be fucking now. If anyone asks, just tell them I’m up in my room with a gorgeous lover and won’t be leaving it til morning." Yohji bent his head to kiss Aya on the cheek and began to play with an eartail.

"Yohji…" Omi looked back and forth between the two of them, and then at Nagi. "… fine then. We’ll grab a bite to eat and spend the time in the dining room complaining about how much of a slut you are, and then go out." Omi’s blue eyes started to sparkle with excitement. "There’s this carnival that set up near the East gate the other day, and everyone at the palace was talking about how fun it is. We’ll go check it out."

Nagi rose to his feet and walked over to his boyfriend’s side then looked searchingly at Aya. "Are you sure you don’t want me to stay?"

"Go, Nagi. I’ll be fine. But take Jei with you." Aya didn’t like the idea of Nagi being out in the city after dark. There was no telling if Masafumi’s women would decide to track the elemental-bound down for either answers or ‘amusement’. Nagi nodded his head and then followed Omi out of the room.

As soon as the boys left, Aya warded the room with shadows. He didn’t want to worry about anyone disturbing them this evening, which probably would happen the second Jo found out that Yohji was going to spend the night up here with Aya.

Rising from the bed, Yohji crossed the room to his dresser where he picked up a bottle of wine and a corkscrew. Opening the bottle as he returned to Aya, he sank down on the soft mattress and lifted it to his lips, swallowing several times.

"Here, this might do you as much good as the tea." Aya accepted the wine and drank some of the sweet liquid. The next several minutes passed in silence with the two of them sharing the wine until it was gone. Still weak from the bloodletting, that small amount was enough to make Aya slightly tipsy, his body filling with warmth and the tension ebbing from him. He glanced over at Yohji and caught his mate staring at him with hunger in his eyes. A smile teasing at his lips, Aya quickly straddled Yohji’s lap and kissed him.

He could feel Yohji startle at his actions, then pleasure as they kissed each other. Yohji tasted like the wine, sweet and heady, causing Aya to moan in pleasure and slide his hands under his lover’s shirt. The man was wearing too many clothes; Aya wanted Yohji’s warmth and needed to feel all that golden skin against his.

Moaning himself, Yohji rested his hands on Aya’s shoulders and gently pushed him away. "Aya… gods, love, we can’t do this."

"Why not?"

Yohji stared at Aya with a mixture of lust and pain in his eyes. "Because you spent the night suffering bad dreams. Because you’re still so weak and me draining you will make you weaker. Aya, you need time to heal from everything that bastard did to you." Yohji stroked Aya’s hair, tucking his bangs behind his ears and ran a finger along Aya’s cheek. "I want you, but you need to heal. I can wait."

Growling, Aya threaded his fingers through Yohji’s hair and tugged gently. "I want you, Yotan."

"Gods…" Yohji closed his eyes, as if in pain. When he spoke again it was in a husky voice that made Aya shiver in pleasure. "Aya, I want you too damn much. Stop saying things like that or you’ll get hurt."

Leaning down until his lips brushed against Yohji’s, Aya repeated the words. "I want you." He shifted his mouth to Yohji’s right ear, nipping at the golden earring the man wore. "I want you." His lips traveled down to Yohji’s throat, and he paused to taste the salty, delicious skin. "I want you." It was said that saying a thing three times in a row made it come true. Aya wanted Yohji, and he was going to have him.

"Cat, you’re making me crazy." Yohji grabbed an eartail and yanked on it, forcing Aya to move away from his throat and look at him. "We shouldn’t have made love yesterday. You’re not ready for it."

His eyes narrowing in anger, Aya tugged again on Yohji’s hair, this time not so delicately. "You’re not him, Yohji. Don’t you think I know that?"

"Then tell me that Kikyou didn’t scare you today, Aya." Yohji gazed at him piercingly, his lips drawn in a taut line. "I could feel what you were feeling. You were upset, afraid and repulsed, Aya. Just from him being near you, from him kissing you. I won’t cause you any more nightmares or make you feel the same way."

Aya hissed, a low, furious sound that startled Yohji. "You stupid idiot, you’re my mate! Kikyou and… and Hirofumi," Aya repressed his fear and disgust at the mention of the Takatori, not about to let Yohji be proven true. "They’re humans. I don’t want them, I’ve never wanted a human in my entire life. But I want you. You’re different from them, you smell different, taste different. You feel different from them, from anyone else, and I know that you’ll never hurt me."

His left hand released its hold on Yohji’s hair and slid down the man’s chest and arm until Aya was holding his hand. "I know you’ll never hurt me, that you’ll never do that to me. The only thing I fear from you is you leaving me, or not wanting me anymore."

Yohji sucked in his breath and kissed Aya with ardent intensity, bruising his lips and stealing his breath away. Aya’s body melted against Yohji’s as he purred in pleasure.

Then once again Yohji pulled away, making Aya want to snarl in frustration and hit the idiot.

"What now?"

"Aya, I’m still draining you. You need the energy."

What was it about Yohji that made him want to cry so often? Aya hadn’t shed a tear in years, not until he met Yohji Kudoh. Now he felt like crying every other damn day. Sometimes from happiness, others from sadness and frustration.

Taking a deep breath, Aya barely suppressed the urge to smack his mate. "You need the energy also."

"I’m not the one who was whipped and drained of most of his blood, cat. Somehow, I’ll survive without it." Yohji carefully detached Aya’s hand from his hair.

"Yohji, you’re hungry," Aya tried to explain. "You’re also my mate. Which means I can feel your hunger, and it affects me too. It makes me want you, makes me crave you." For a moment Aya wondered if this was what he got from Yohji, like the man gaining some of his abilities. "Please, Yohji. I need you." He needed to feel Yohji wanting him, to know that nothing had changed between them. Aya stared into his mate’s eyes, trying to make sure the man felt every nuance of emotion that he did.

Yohji lifted his right hand and cupped Aya’s cheek. He could feel the blond’s hand tremble. Then Yohji was kissing him again. Closing his eyes, Aya surrendered to his emotions, letting the pleasure and hunger take control. For this short time, just like yesterday, he could forget his pain and the abuse he’d suffered, and Yohji’s love would fill him and make him warm.

They slowly stripped off each other’s clothes, Yohji treating Aya as if he’d break any moment. The love and concern that he felt from his mate amazed Aya, made him feel clean once again. He offered his neck to Yohji and the man accepted, pulling him down against Yohji’s chest.

Golden hands skimmed along his skin, so careful and light. Aya wasn’t as restrained, not when he was caught up by both his and Yohji’s hunger. His hands stroked Yohji’s body, pressing against the warm flesh, as he teased and pinched until his mate groaned out his name.

"Damnit, Aya. You don’t know what you do to me." Yohji’s green eyes glowed with love and desire as he teased a finger along Aya’s inner thigh. The touch caused him to gasp in pleasure, and Yohji chuckled. "I guess I’ll have to do the same to you."

Yohji drove Aya crazy with his touches, stroking along his arousal, ever so lightly, until he tingled from head to toe, then gripping him tightly and pumping several times. Lost in what the man was making him feel, Aya didn’t have the strength to do more than rest his hands on Yohji’s chest and try to keep himself upright. When a slick finger slowly pushed inside him, Aya crumpled forward.

"Shh, love. Relax." Yohji’s breath tickled Aya’s ear, and a warm tongue briefly traced along the ridged flesh. Energy trickled into Aya, not much but enough for him to straighten his arms and press back against Yohji’s hand. He could feel his mate’s anticipation, and the emotion merged with what he was feeling until Aya cried out in need. His hips rocked backwards, his body eagerly accepting a second finger pressing deep inside him.

Next came a spark of bliss, and Aya found himself falling against Yohji’s chest again. He was gently rolled onto his side, Yohji’s fingers remaining inside him, scissoring about and flicking against the spot that made Aya tremble in pleasure.

Yohji kissed him again, and Aya cupped his lover’s face, wanting to taste him for as long as possible. Yohji then moved his mouth down Aya’s neck, sucking intently for several seconds. He could feel Yohji’s nature, the magic in his veins, and knew his mate was marking him. Aya longed to do the same to Yohji. His nails dragged down Yohji’s sides, scoring the golden flesh red and making Yohji arch his body.

"Oh fuck, that… yes. My little cat." Yohji kissed Aya on the nose and pulled away from him. When Aya tried to clutch his lover to prevent that, Yohji caught his hands and kissed his palms. "Calm down, love. I’m not leaving you." He knelt by Aya, his hand resting on Aya’s hip. "You look so damn beautiful." Yohji scooped out some gel from the jar resting on the bed and started to stroke himself, spreading the slick lotion over his cock. Aya purred at the sight.

Grinning, Yohji bent down and quickly kissed Aya on the nose before resuming his kneeling position and straddling Aya’s left leg. "I love hearing you purr like that, knowing that I’m making you so happy." He grasped Aya’s right ankle and lifted his leg, exposing him. Hooking the leg over his arm, Yohji tilted up Aya’s hips and began to press inside.

The feel of something so hard and warm thrusting inside him had Aya mewling, wanting more. Yohji kept his pace slow, giving Aya a chance to adjust to his girth, but buried himself completely. Utterly filled, Aya sobbed out his lover’s name.

Yohji caressed his chest and side, careful to stop short of Aya’s back. Then he took Aya’s cock in his slick hand and started to pump in time with the slow thrusts. Lost in their pleasure, Aya tossed back his head and closed his eyes.

Like yesterday, Yohji kept the pace almost torturously slow. He would push inside Aya until buried completely, then slowly pull back out most of the way. Only to push back in, and just as Yohji’s cock brushed against Aya’s prostate, the older man would flick his thumb over the top of Aya’s arousal.

"Sweet gods. You feel so tight, so warm and soft. I can feel your pleasure, too. It’s pouring inside me. Part of you is in me, just like I’m in you." Yohji snapped his hips, the suddenness of that thrust making Aya’s breath choke in his throat. Feeling himself grow weaker as Yohji’s hunger abated, Aya tried to beg for his release.

"Please, Yotan… I… ah!" Another sharp thrust, followed by several more, then Yohji slowed down again. "Yo~tan."

"I know, Aya. I can feel you fading." Yohji started to push slightly harder and faster, still mindful of Aya’s sore body but also of his waning strength. As more ecstasy filled Aya he felt his lower body clench tightly around Yohji, his orgasm tearing through him until everything faded into darkness and bliss.

When Aya opened his eyes again, he saw Yohji staring at him with amusement and concern, his hand cupping Aya’s cheek as energy flowed back into him. Sighing, Aya forced his tired body to move closer to Yohji’s and he tucked his head under the man’s chin.

"When you’re tired and sore tomorrow, just remember this was your idea. I don’t want any more bites, or for you to spend the day glaring at me. It’s bad enough Nagi and Jo are going to call me a pervert and a leech." Yohji’s voice was tinged with laughter and he radiated happiness. As Aya just grunted in response, he tugged on an eartail and combed his fingers through Aya’s hair.

"Like you’re really complaining," Aya mumbled, breathing in air that was scented by the both of them. Yohji’s hunger was gone, and while he felt weaker than before, Aya also felt safe and cherished. He’d gladly spend an extra day in bed to feel like this.

There was another tug on his poor abused eartails. "Get some sleep, love. I’m gonna wake you in another hour or so and force a couple pots of Cass’ tea and some food down your throat. You’re no fun to play with when you don’t have the strength to fight back." Yohji kissed the top of his head.

Aya nuzzled Yohji’s chest and smiled wickedly for a second. Before Yohji could guess his intentions he tilted his head and bit the man on the shoulder, not hard enough to break the skin but enough to leave a mark. Yohji yelped in pain as he rolled onto his back, dragging Aya onto his chest as he did so. Then he proceeded to kiss Aya, keeping his mouth safely occupied until he fell asleep.

*******

Masato glared into his beer. The bar, like every other one in the capital, was packed with people, and it shouldn’t be a problem at all for a succubae-bound like him to attract a meal. But the past couple evenings he’d spent his night feeding off strangers, and his hunger didn’t seem to fade in the least. None of them ‘tasted’ right. All the sex did was leave him frustrated and aching.

Why the hell couldn’t he get Schuldig off his mind? The man was a spoiled brat, undisciplined and used to getting his way. That wasn’t the type of person who usually attracted Masato, and he shouldn’t have spent any more time with the bound after the first night. But Schuldig was addictive, kept him amused and horny and tasted so great that Masato hadn’t been able to keep his appetite under control. Hell, it demanded Schuldig even now.

For a moment he thought of Miyuki, of the way he’d hungered for the woman, the way she’d made him so happy just by being beside him. His mate, the only remembrances of whom he had left were the token and their son. Then he had to go mess things up with the boy: first, by hitting on Aya then holding Yohji back from saving his mate.

Mates. Why couldn’t Masato get his mind off that topic? It hurt so much to think about it, and what he’d lost. His one shot of happiness, forever gone. Masato had taken to spending as much time away from the Koneko as possible to avoid being near Yohji and Aya, feeling too much pain when he saw them together. It only reminded him of what he’d lost.

But he had to finish training Yohji, had to make sure his son survived the wedding and whatever troubles awaited him after that. Masato wasn’t stupid, and his survival instincts were very good. He knew there was something looming on the horizon, something that would involve Yohji and Aya, and a certain redheaded idiot, too. A redhead who was shutting him out.

Damn. So his thoughts were back on Schuldig already, weren’t they? Masato drained his beer. Mates and Schuldig, make that two topics he couldn’t escape. Staring off into the distance, Masato thought of how Schu tasted as good as Miyuki had. Gods, how he missed the woman. The only time the hurt faded away was when he was with the soul gaki-bound.

Shaking his head to rid it of a crazy thought that was only half formed, Masato resolved to forget about his pain and troubles and focus on a meal. He needed to eat tonight if he was going to approach Yohji tomorrow about resuming the boy’s training. There was no telling how Yohji would react, and Masato needed to be in top condition in case it was a repeat of how they’d met.

Picking out a woman with long, dyed red hair, Masato brushed back his shaggy hair and walked over to his prey.

*******

Ken stood by himself near the empty fireplace in the Koneko’s main room, watching his partner in close discussion with Miko and another Guard named Serge. The three of them were whispering to each other, glancing about every now and then. After about ten minutes they broke apart, and when Serge and Miko left Ken walked over to his partner.

"Here, you look like you could use a drink." He handed the woman a pint of cider.

Liss accepted the drink with a nod of her head. "Where is everyone tonight? No Yohji or Lilla, no Schuldig, Masato or Crawford either."

"What you really mean is, no Jei." When Liss blushed Ken smiled at her. "He left with Omi and Naoe to go check out that carnival that arrived the other night."

Not appearing very happy with the news, Liss pouted before sipping her drink. "Why is he out with them?"

It seemed that someone was a little jealous. Ken couldn’t tell his partner that Jei had most likely gone with the teens to keep them safe, not without having to explain what he was protecting them from. As it was, Ken was very grateful that a flesh gaki-bound was keeping watch over Omi. From what he’d heard about the creatures, Jei would eat anyone who appeared to be threatening the prince or Naoe. Ken was all for that.

"So, what were you talking about just then? You, Miko and Serge."

As soon as he asked the question, Ken saw a familiar look cross Liss’ face. It was an expression he’d seen a lot of this past day from his fellow Guards: a look of wariness and then distance.

"Oh, not much. We were talking about various costumes for the ball. Too bad we all have to wear our uniforms"

Ken recognized an excuse when he heard one. What was going on with his coworkers? He knew a lot of them were still upset about Kikyou being picked to be the new Captain, and it seemed that they were the ones holding private conversations whose topic changed the instant he walked over to them. Or was he just being paranoid and seeing plots all over now that he knew what his friends here were up to?

"So, if Jei has decided to play with a bunch of boys tonight, I’ll have to find my fun elsewhere. Up for a little excitement, Kenken?"

Not liking the gleam in Liss’ eyes, Ken decided that now would be a very good time to go home. The last time she’d been ‘up for a little excitement’, he’d barely sobered up in time to prevent himself from being tattooed. With Liss’ name, not Yuriko’s. His partner had been behind that one, bribing the tattoo artist to make the switch. If he’d gone home with another woman’s name inked on his ass….

"I think I should go see if Yuriko needs any help with her gown. Have fun on your own, Liss."

The woman pouted again. "Spoil sport."

"Hell, yes."

*******

 

Cassandra had just set a pot of coffee on the stove when her son entered her house. She looked at Schuldig, noticed the dark circles under his eyes and shooed him towards the kitchen table.

"Sit, sit. I have breakfast ready for you. Eggs, bacon and the cranberry scones you’re so fond of." She set a plate overflowing with food in front of the young man. After flashing her a tired grin, Schuldig decimated his meal, using a slice of bread to wipe the plate clean a couple minutes later. Cassandra chided him for eating so quickly and set another one before him, along with a cup of fresh coffee.

She then joined her child at the table, carrying a plate of food and coffee for herself. The two of them ate in companionable silence for several minutes.

"So, I see your father has been keeping you busy. Are there really that many bounds in the capital that need to be warned of what’s to come?"

Schuldig shrugged his shoulders. "Not many now. I managed to go through most of the list the Prick gave me, and hope to be able to take a day or two off for some rest. Shouldn’t Botan’s spell be ready soon? I need to start getting prepared for that."

Toying with a piece of bacon, Cassandra made a face down at her plate. "He’s to approach Yotan today about needing Aya’s blood for the spell. I promised him I’d be there for that, even though it might make Yohji even more upset at me."

His face suddenly grim, Schuldig pushed his empty plate away from him. "I thought you said yesterday that he wasn’t as mad at you as he was that day. Why are you going to put that in jeopardy?"

"I refuse to let Botan face him alone. Besides, I imagine that Aya will willingly donate the blood if it will lead to his sister being freed. Yohji will have no choice but to concede to his mate’s wishes." But how Cassandra hoped that Yohji wouldn’t hold her support of Botan against her as yet another betrayal.

Schuldig leaned back in his chair. "Well then, I’m gonna grab a couple hours of sleep and then I’m going with you. If Yohji dares treat you like shit over this, I’m gonna give him a piece of my mind. This is ridiculous, him holding a grudge against us for keeping him safe. Aya’s healed and not upset, so why should Yohji be?" Then he ruined his angry persona by playing nervously with his napkin, a sad look on his face.

Cassandra wanted to go over and hug her child, but remained seated. She knew the boy was still feeling guilty over what had happened the other night, and that he was hurt by Yohji’s refusal to talk to him. The situation between the two couldn’t go on much longer, since Yohji and Schuldig would need to rely on each other at the wedding reception.

"Just give him a little time, Trouble. Aya won’t let him remain upset for much longer." Her words of reassurance earned Cassandra a weak smile.

"I hope so, Mom." He rose from the table and tossed the napkin aside. "Now for a little sleep."

"Don’t forget to wash, and to change into the clean clothes I left on your bed. You’ll want to look your best later on."

Schuldig stared in puzzlement at Cassandra. "What for? Yohji won’t care about how I’m dressed."

"No, but your lover might." Cassandra started to gather up the plates, looking at her son when he snorted.

"I don’t have a lover at the moment. Masato and I…" Schuldig paused, his eyes closing briefly, as if he was in pain. "We’re through. From what I’ve heard, he’s been out each night finding a replacement for me, the bastard."

Torn by her son’s pain, Cassandra reconsidered her decision to keep the truth about his mate from Schuldig. But her common sense wouldn’t let her give in to her maternal urges. Her child’s suffering now would be offset by his joy later.

"Remember, Trouble, that you were the one who decided the two of you needed some space. He’s a succubae-bound, he has no choice but to feed."

The boy made a sound of disgust. "Yeah, he’s so obviously torn up about what happened to Aya and between us that his appetite’s been affected. He’s old enough that he shouldn’t have to feed each night, but he’s out at other bars trolling for dinner just the same." Schuldig turned around and stormed up the stairs.

Ah, someone was a touch jealous. Smiling worriedly, Cassandra set the dirty dishes in the sink. Too bad Schuldig hadn’t revealed that emotion when he came across Masato at the Koneko, or maybe the two stubborn fools would be mated by now. She so wished she could tell him that Masato was suffering from the lack of Schuldig’s presence, hence the constant search for new food, but Cassandra kept her mouth shut.

Maybe it had been a mistake to raise Schuldig aware of his destiny. She’d thought to prepare the boy for what Fate had in store for him, but the truth had affected Schuldig. Cassandra thought of how her son ran from all other ties, except to her and Yotan, and how the boy could be so contrary at times. It was as if Schuldig, having no choice over several years of his life, struck back at Fate by doing exactly what he wanted in regards to everything else, consequences be damned. Other than allowing Yohji to remain only a friend, knowing the man would have a mate one day, Schuldig was a creature of impulse and desire.

If he found out that he had a mate… Schuldig would have run from the Koneko the moment he met Masato, determined to avoid another life-altering decision being forced upon him. Cassandra didn’t need to be psychic to know that. She could even understand, just the slightest bit, why he would react in that manner. But, she still wanted to smack the idiot.

*******

Masato sighed as he pushed open the door leading to the Koneko’s gardens. Yohji hadn’t been inside the inn; maybe he’d find the boy out here. He strode onto the green grass, inhaling the scent of flowers as his eyes searched among the foliage for a certain blond.

When he spied Aya sitting by the patch of lavender, resting in the shade while Jei lounged against a tree and Naoe sat a foot away from him, Masato knew he wasn’t going to find his son out here. Dammit. He approached the kage, hoping the man knew where his mate was, so Masato could track him down and get the discussion over Yohji’s training out of the way.

"Hello there, Aya. You’re looking well today." He nodded to Jei, who nodded back, and smiled at Naoe, who didn’t.

"Hn." Aya set the book he’d been reading aside and pulled his black cloak around him tightly. For a moment Masato drank in the sight of the lovely young man. The bruise on Aya’s face had finally faded away, and his skin glowed in the darkness. However, it was an aesthetic appreciation only, as Masato’s hunger wasn’t piqued by the kage’s presence at all.

"What do you want?" Naoe hissed at him.

Breaking free from his thoughts, Masato gestured to the grass around Aya. When the pale man nodded, he sat down. Aya gazed at him levelly, clearly wondering why Masato was risking a painful death by being near him. At the least he looked puzzled and nervously scanned the garden before relaxing and tilting his head to the side.

"What do you want?"

"I’m wondering where Yohji is," Masato said in a low voice. He debated explaining his reason to Aya, and decided to see how the redhead responded to him resuming the training sessions. "I’m not done teaching him about his talent yet, and hoped to continue with the lessons sometime tonight."

Aya nodded his head. "A good idea."

"Yeah, maybe he’ll finally be able to restrain himself from draining you silly then," Naoe muttered.

Over by the tree, Jei chuckled evilly. "Right. That’s not so much a special nature than youthful hormones, Nags. Seems to me that Yohji’s not the only one suffering from them either. Wanna explain that hickey on your neck to us?"

Naoe flushed and glared at the scarred man, but Masato caught a fleeting glimpse of a smile on Aya’s face. Suddenly, Jei let out a yelp as his feet were jerked out from under him, making him fall on his ass while smacking his head against the tree. As soon as he could he jumped to his feet and snarled at Naoe, who growled back.

"Stop it."

Once the words were uttered the two bounds stopped snapping at each other, guilty expressions on their faces at the slip in their behavior. Jei reached out a hand to ruffle Naoe’s hair; he made a face at the indignity before sliding over to sit by Aya. The kage watched the two of them for a moment before returning his attention to Masato.

"Yohji should be back in another hour. He needed to go to the market with Mickey."

"I’ll talk to him the moment he comes back." Masato gazed at Aya, surprised that the man was talking to him, and civilly at that. "Listen, about the other night… I’m sorry. I didn’t know you’d be hurt that badly or I would have let Yohji go. There’s no way I’d keep a person from his mate like that if I knew there was real danger involved."

Closing his eyes, Aya nodded his head slightly. Then his eyes snapped open and he looked behind Masato. Turning around, Masato saw Cassandra and Schuldig enter the garden through the gate on the far wall. The woman waved her hand at the group, a smile spreading across her face when Aya nodded his head and the others waved back and went over to a patch of chamomile.

Schuldig remained by the gate, staring at Masato. Feeling his hunger rise, Masato couldn’t look away from the slim redhead and found himself rising to his feet without any thought on his part. The motion must have startled Schuldig, as he shook his head quickly and stalked over to the Koneko’s back door. Masato took a step after him and moaned in pain when the man vanished from his sight.

"Well that answers that question. I see the two of you still aren’t talking to each other," Jei commented quietly.

Looking at Jei, Masato snarled. "It’s none of your fucking business." He took a step closer to the other bound, who was starting to snarl back at him, when shadows entangled around Masato and stopped him in his tracks. He shivered in cold.

"Might I remind you that we’re in a public garden?" Aya’s voice was soft and sibilant, producing a new kind of shivers to run along Masato’s spine. Mumbling an apology, he sank back down in the grass. Feeling the weight of regard on him, Masato turned to stare into a pair of curious violet eyes.

"Do all… succubae-bounds act like that around the people they sleep with?"

"Huhn?" Masato scratched at his chin, mentally reminding himself to find the time to shave someday soon. "What are you talking about?"

The question caused Naoe to snort and roll his eyes. "What he means is you act like Yohji does with Aya when you’re near Schu. I thought the moron was like that because Aya’s his mate, but I guess not."

"He’s correct. I haven’t seen Yohji react in that manner with any of his past lovers, just me. Is it because they’re humans and Schuldig isn’t?" Aya folded his hands on his lap and waited for an answer.

Masato tried to make sense of what was being asked of him. Was his behavior in regards to Schuldig that… out of control? It had to be if Aya was speaking to him about it, considering the fact that kage had barely spoken to him at all in the past.

While Masato was thinking over his reactions, Jei chuckled as he pulled out a knife to trim his claws with. "Well, I don’t know about him in particular, but I’ve been around some succubae-bounds before, and they don’t usually act like that with a lover unless they’re either very hungry or feel that someone is threatening to take away their dinner. What’s the matter, Masato, been skipping a few meals lately?" Jei flashed his fangs at him.

Refusing to be baited, especially with the way that Aya was now glaring at the two of them, Masato jerked a hand through his hair. "Jei’s right, we don’t usually react this way with a casual lover. Only with our mates or someone we’ve developed an attachment to." Not some brat whom he’d just fucked for the hell of it, enjoying the way Schuldig tasted and the fact that he was a bound.

"So which is it then? Do you actually care for Schuldig, or are you mates?"

Aya’s question took Masato by surprise. "Why the hell do you want to know?" he snapped, earning growls from Jei and Naoe.

The kage didn’t seem fazed in the slightest by his burst of temper. "Because once Yohji stops being an idiot, he’s going to be concerned about his friend. If he decides that you’re playing with Schuldig’s emotions, he’ll try to kill you again. It’s one thing if you care for the man, or are mates, but if not, I’d suggest you find someone else to fixate on right away." Aya’s voice had become sibilant again.

"I… I barely know the man. All I know is we can’t be mates." This conversation was making Masato very, very confused.

"Why not?" This time it was Jei asking the question.

"Because… I’ve already had one."

Jei shook his head. "I’ve heard of people having two mates before, what about you, Aya?"

"There was a wind elemental-bound that associated with Katsumi, who lost her mate when they both were young, and found another one a few decades later," Aya said in a quiet voice. "They died together."

"Well, that’s not the case here. I had Miyuki, and I don’t ever want to go through the grief of another mate ever again." Masato pushed himself onto his feet. "It’s not worth the pain."

Aya regarded him with sadness. "Yohji… he irritates me and treats me like a child sometimes, but I wouldn’t say he brings me grief. If anything, he’s one of the only two good things in my life, and I wouldn’t change us being mates for anything."

For a moment Masato remembered the happy times he’d had in this very garden with Miyuki, and up in her bedroom…. That had been the happiest few months of his life, and he ached for those lost days with his whole being. But he couldn’t believe that he had another opportunity like that before him, especially not after the way his happiness had been taken from him before.

"We’ll just have to disagree on that. Please tell Yohji that I need to talk to him." That said Masato turned on his heel and left. He quickly walked back to his room, determined to get some rest. Obviously the lack of sleep was making him delusional if for one second he considered that the others might be right. Schuldig couldn’t be his mate -- it just wasn’t possible.

Yet for such an impossible thing, Masato couldn’t tear his mind off the topic for the rest of the day. When he tried to escape them by taking a nap, his dreams were haunted by memories of Miyuki and images of a redheaded brat.

*******

Yohji helped Mickey carry the groceries they had bought back from the market rather than await their delivery to the kitchen. While he handed a few of the cloth bags to Jo, he craned his head to look out the window.

"That bastard Kikyou didn’t stop by again, did he?" Too busy searching for Aya and anyone dressed in dark blue, Yohji didn’t pay any attention to where he was about to put the rest of his bags.

"No, Yohji, he hasn’t. And if he does, Jei and Naoe are both out there to make sure the man can’t get within ten feet of Aya." Jo smacked him lightly on the side of the head and hissed a warning. Yohji looked down to see he was just about to set a bag of sugar down on some rising dough. Smiling sheepishly, he set the bags down on a clear space and walked over to the window for a better look. He could just barely make Aya out, sitting in shadows but not cloaked by them, talking to Jei and the little demon.

His mate looked good today, no longer as deathly pale and covered with bruises. Aya’s back still caused him some pain, and his strength was still returning, but he seemed well enough to toss a sprig of lavender at something Jei had said that made Nagi frown. Good, someone else was teasing the damn brat for once. Yohji glanced away from the scene when a hand rested on his shoulder.

"I’ll let him know you’re here, and see about him coming back inside." Mickey waited for Yohji to reluctantly nod before heading outside. Remaining at the window, Yohji watched his foster brother approach his lover.

Even from this distance he could see Aya tense when the large man came near him and he sensed his mate’s discomfort and touch of fear at Mickey’s presence. Yohji’s mouth tightened in a grim line. Aya now reacted like that to any human male that came near him, even Teddy and Koyu. While Aya knew that he didn’t have anything to fear from the Koneko’s staff, he could only tolerate the women around him these last few days. Well, them and Omi.

"Yohji, stop it." He turned around to look at Jo, a frown on his face. She scowled at him and shook her head. "You’re growling."

"Oh. Sorry, I wasn’t aware of it." Yohji looked back out the window, just in time to see Aya rise to his feet. The redhead nodded at Mickey, and with Jei and Nagi flanking either side of him, he slowly made his way towards the Koneko.

"Dammit, he’s still pretty tired, and yet he insists on walking. Jei could carry him upstairs with no problem if Aya would just let him."

"Or Mickey could."

Yohji shook his head. When he glanced at Jo, he saw her looking out the window with a sad smile on her face. "What’s wrong, Jo?"

"Yotan… I don’t want to know what else those pricks did to him, other than the obvious. If I thought he was hurt before he came here…" Jo shook her head. "I’ve seen him around the boys lately, and I was hoping things would go back to normal quickly. But I guess not, so I’ll have a word with them. They need to know to give the poor cat a little space and some time to heal. And, to know it’s not them that he’s afraid of."

Yohji waited until Aya was out of his sight before turning his attention to the woman. "I didn’t think anyone else had noticed."

Jo smiled sadly. "Well, Ani and I did. He’s the way we were when we first came here -- too afraid of letting any man near us in case they got it in their head to beat or…" Jo smacked her fist into her hand. "I’ll talk to them. Teddy will probably be hurt since he tends to take things personally, but I’ll make sure that it’s only us girls who tend to Aya for the next few weeks. Hopefully once you kill the monster who did that to him, he’ll feel safer. Just…."

"Yeah, Jo?" The cook wasn’t usually this hesitant about anything.

"Make sure he pays for what he did. Make him suffer." There was a light in Jo’s eyes that was only ever there when some fool followed the person, usually a woman or child, who sought sanctuary from them at the Koneko. Or when she thought of her ex-husband.

"He will. My word on it." They exchanged chilling smiles before Yohji left the kitchen for his bedroom. Along the way he briefly chatted with various guests, even flirted with a young woman. He wanted to give Aya enough time to make it up the steps, because if he found him resting along the way Yohji would have to pick up the stubborn fool and carry him to their room. Which would probably earn him another bite or two.

Yohji entered his bedroom to find Aya curled up in the window seat, Nagi fussing around him. The teen was trying to make sure that there wasn’t any light escaping through the curtains to bother Aya. For a moment Yohji smiled at the scene, and his imagination spun an image of the three of them through the centuries. Nagi continuously mother-henning Aya and tormenting Yohji while Aya tried not to strangle the two of them. Yohji felt a good mood lighten his heart as he watched the two.

Nagi finally noticed him standing there and stomped his foot, something he must have learned from Omi. "Kudoh, do something. He shouldn’t be sitting here, not when it’s so sunny out. He’s too tired as it is from walking up those steps."

Aya glared at the boy and went back to reading his book. A wicked smile on his face, Yohji strode across the room and suddenly swept Aya up into his arms, spinning the hissing man about several times until they were both dizzy, and somehow managed to collapse onto the bed and not the floor. Yohji made sure he was on the bottom, and immediately lifted his head to kiss Aya. His love nipped his bottom lip but kissed him back.

A few minutes later Aya pushed himself off Yohji, a bit short of breath. "I was fine over there."

"Sure you were, cat. That’s why your cheek’s a little red." Yohji stroked Aya’s face, loving the feel of the pale skin against his hand. Aya was so smooth: silken hair and satin skin over compact muscles and delicate bones. The man looked smaller than he was due to his thinness, and Yohji couldn’t help but think that he was holding a porcelain doll at times, Aya’s denials aside. A magnificently crafted work of art brought to life just for him.

The look in Aya’s eyes had Yohji’s hunger stirring, but Nagi plopping down on the end of the bed made him sigh wistfully and rein it in. He’d had Aya last night, and with a bit of luck, would again tonight, but until Aya regained his full strength that would have to be it. Yohji had centuries ahead of him to ravish his mate. He could more than make up for showing some restraint for the next couple days.

"Anything happen while I was gone?"

Aya and Nagi exchanged looks for a second. "We had a talk with your father today," Aya remarked quietly.

Anger filled Yohji, causing Aya to rest a hand on his shoulder. "He was polite and didn’t touch me even once. What he wanted to talk about was you resuming your training."

That shocked Yohji, making the anger fade the tiniest bit. "The bastard actually thinks I’m going to let him teach me anything, after what he did the other night? No way in hell."

"So you’ll cut off your nose to spite your face?" Nagi’s voice was cold, almost as cold as the look he was giving Yohji. "You admitted before that you don’t know much about your powers, and Aya’s paid the price for that in the past. Now you’ll refuse to learn anything about them, for either his benefit or your own? Maybe Masato could teach you something useful for at the wedding reception."

Aya decided to add his two cents worth. "I thought you agreed with Cassandra yesterday morning about needing to resume the lessons. The man is offering, why don’t you take him up on it?"

"Because he knocked me out and damn near fucked right on top of me while you were being beaten and almost raped!" Yohji tugged at his own hair. "Am I the only one who thinks him and Schu are a couple of assholes for doing that?"

"Kudoh, I wanted to kill them too when I found them like that, but I didn’t. We need them alive, and I think they honestly regret what they did." Nagi fell silent for a moment, lost in thought. "Now that I think about it, they did act an awful lot like you do when you’re interrupted with Aya. Maybe they are mates."

Yohji was getting tired of going back and forth between fury and shock. "Would you care to explain that a little better, you interfering demon? Schu and my father are mates?" Now that was a revolting thought.

He let out a yell when Aya hit him on the thigh for calling Nagi a name. "We think they might be, though Masato denies it. They do act a lot like us."

In pain, Yohji closed his eyes. Oh that so wasn’t a thought he wanted in his head, Schu and his father going at it like he did with Aya. Or at least used to, until he started getting his power under control. Then Yohji guiltily remembered being unable to control his appetite in the bathing room the other night. Damn, he knew he needed more training, but to have to sit in a room with Masato and not strangle him… that was going to be tough.

"You better appreciate the sacrifices I make for you, cat. It must be love." He kissed an uncomprehending Aya on the nose and lay back down on the bed, dragging Aya with him. The feel of his mate curling up at his side made Yohji start to purr.

"So does this mean you’ll resume the lessons?"

"Yes, you little… brat." Yohji caught Aya’s fist just in time. "What? It’s clear you spoil him rotten. I’m the only one you should be doing that to." Aya hmphed and rested his head on Yohji’s chest. "I’ll resume the lessons, and I promise not to kill Masato until he’s taught me everything I need to know."

Nagi rose from the bed and started walking around the room, picking up a few things and putting them in their places. Aya hadn’t been able to do much cleaning the past few days, and Yohji hadn’t been in the mood to tidy up.

"If he is Schuldig’s mate, you won’t be able to kill him. At least, not without harming Schuldig."

"I could care less about harming that prick." Feeling Aya’s anger, Yohji lifted his head to look at the smaller man. "What did I say now?"

His eyes glowing with fury, Aya curled his fists on Yohji’s chest and rested his chin on them. "Yohji, why am I fighting against the Takatoris?"

Yohji decided to humor his mate and answer, despite the sudden change in topic. "Because they killed your family and kept you as a slave for over a decade, not to mention the way they treated you."

"Why are you going to fight?"

"To kill the bastards and make sure you’re never hurt again," Yohji growled. "What’s your damn point, Aya?"

"One moment. Why is Nagi fighting? Ken? Crawford and Jei?" Aya appeared calm, but Yohji could still feel his anger and disappointment.

"Nagi’s fighting for you, and to be free. Jei and Crawford want to be free too, and think they will be once you are. Ken’s fighting to keep his king safe." Yohji scratched his head. "What does this have to do with anything?"

Aya frowned. "Why is Schuldig fighting?"

Yohji opened his mouth to say something and realized he didn’t quite have an answer. To keep fellow bounds safe? That didn’t seem Schu’s style. Neither did being told to do so by his parents. For Yohji, then? Was Schu really fighting for him?

Aya seemed to be following his thoughts. "He could walk away from this battle and live a free life, but he isn’t. He’s risking his life, not just at the wedding reception but also to get back my sister’s soul. Schuldig is certainly not doing it for me. I’m also pretty certain that no one asked him if he wanted to fight or not. It just seems to have been taken for granted.

"You want to know why I’m not mad at him, Masato and Cassandra? Well that’s partially why. Those three have found themselves involved in something they could have easily avoided yet they’re helping us at great cost to themselves. I don’t like depending on other people, Yohji, especially ones I don’t know very well, but you told me I could trust them and I do. Their actions have proven you correct."

Yohji tried to say something but Aya glared him silent. "I could care less what they did that night, they kept everyone here at the Koneko safe from harm. I would have been hurt regardless, but what I suffered wouldn’t have been half as bad as seeing you or Nagi in my place. Even having the staff here be abused for my sake would be too much. So think, for once, before you ruin your friendship with Schuldig and Cassandra."

Nagi jumped right in when Aya finished. "One thing you need to learn is that as bounds, we stick together. You’ve never experienced living in fear of people finding out what you are and killing you for it, and not being able to trust anyone but another bound. We have, and we stand by our own."

"Okay, I get the fucking point." Yohji sighed and pulled Aya closer to him. "Not that I’m at all happy with those three, but I’ll stop being nasty to them. As long as they never do something like that again, I’ll forgive them." He tugged on one of Aya’s ear tails. "But if they ever let you get hurt again, I’ll never speak to them as long as I live."

Aya stretched out and kissed him. "Hn." He made himself comfortable on Yohji’s chest, and Yohji wrapped his arms around his lover, mindful of his back. They just lay there like that, and after a few minutes Nagi left the room.

"You know, for two quiet young men, you and Nagi sure can bitch a fellow out."

"Hn."

*******

Holding onto Cassandra’s hand, Botan knocked on the door. Yohji’s voice called out a welcome, so he proceeded to open it and stepped inside with Cassandra and Schuldig following him. It took Botan’s eyes a moment to adjust to the dark room, and he heard Yohji light a couple of candles.

The blond man was sitting up on the four-poster bed, Aya lying beside him with his head resting in Yohji’s lap. But something on Botan’s face must have alerted the kage since he immediately sat up.

"Is something wrong?"

"No, Aya, nothing’s wrong. I just wanted to talk to you about something." Botan nervously paced the room while Schuldig and Cassandra retreated to the window seat. "It’s about the spell for the soul sphere."

"What about it? I thought you had the thing figured out and were just a couple days away from creating it." Yohji’s voice was tinged with anger. "Don’t tell me you hit a snag. We don’t have much fucking time left!"

"I know that!" Botan snapped back then cleared his throat. Oh, this was going just great. Yohji was already upset and he hadn’t even made his request to Aya yet.

He tried again. "I came here because I need one more ingredient for the spell. And for some other spells that will be needed to enable Schuldig to steal the sphere containing Aya’s sister." He gazed at the kage.

It wasn’t surprising that Aya’s face paled and became blank. The man was very familiar with wizard spells, having supplied blood for them over the past decade.

"You need my blood, don’t you?"

Botan nodded his head.

"Wait a second, what do you mean he needs your blood?!" Yohji asked as he tugged on an eartail. When Aya didn’t respond he glared at Botan. "What the hell are you talking about?"

Time to get this over with. "If my suspicions are correct, the Takatoris used Aya’s blood in the spell for the sphere that contains his sister’s soul. It would help anchor her soul, and it would make such a difficult spell much easier if kage blood was involved. Plus it would tie them together, enabling Aya to feel his sister’s suffering. In order for me to make a convincing substitute, I need his blood for my spell."

Yohji didn’t look too happy, but after a minute he nodded his head. "Okay, I can see your point. How much do you need? A few drops?"

"Two cups, at the very least." Yohji frowned at the amount, and Botan knew he was going to be even unhappier in moment. "But that’s not all I need Aya’s blood for."

"He’ll need it for Schu, so he won’t have to worry about any of the Takatoris’ magic or wards. Plus it will render him mostly invisible. They… Masafumi uses it for his women all the time." Aya spoke with a monotone voice, betraying no emotion at all. Over on the window seat Cassandra and Schuldig shifted about uncomfortably. Botan shared their feelings.

"So how much more blood is that?" Yohji’s voice was quiet, but still managed to convey his anger. His green eyes were dark with suppressed rage and his arms were wrapped tightly around Aya.

Botan swallowed nervously. "A considerable amount."

"How. Much. More?"

"Several liters," Botan whispered.

Yohji remained silent for a moment, dropping his head to nuzzle Aya’s hair. "No way in hell. Get the hell out of here."

Several things happened simultaneously. Botan cursed, Cassandra and Schuldig leapt from their seats, and Yohji let out a yelp in pain. Everyone stared at the blond as he shook a hand bearing a red set of teeth prints.

"Why the hell did you do that, Aya? Dammit that hurts!"

Aya glared at his mate and spoke in a hissing voice. "You don’t have any say in this decision, Yohji! Botan is here asking for my blood, not yours. And I damn well will give it to him!"

"Hello, do you remember the past few days? You lying in bed filled with pain and unable to move? There’s no way I’m letting that happen to you again!" Yohji stopped glaring at Aya long enough to turn the look on Botan. "I said to get the hell out of here!"

Botan stepped back, and Schuldig took his place in front of the bed. "Yohji, listen to him please! He needs the blood for the spell. At least agree to that much. I’ll get the sphere without any magic but my own."

Yohji’s angry looked faltered. "That might work…"

The room was suddenly plunged into darkness for a moment, then the candles sputtered back to life to reveal an Aya surrounded by shadows and standing by the bed. His eyes, reflecting the dim light, glowed silver and his face was perfectly smooth.

"No, it won’t. I refuse to risk my sister’s soul and all of our lives because of your stupidity, Yohji. Botan will have my blood, or else Schuldig’s mission will fail. I know the Takatoris have charms against soul gaki-bounds, and that they’ve warded the sphere. Only my blood will circumvent those things." As everyone watched a black knife appeared in Aya’s left hand, and he raised it to his right wrist, the point moving towards his flesh.

"Stop it!" Yohji jumped up and caught Aya’s hand, stilling it before the kage could cut himself. "Aya, you’ll be weak again, and be in pain. There must be another solution. Maybe Botan can bleed you over a few days."

"We have only a week to go, Yohji. How much time should we waste to spare me pain?" Emotion slowly crept back onto Aya’s face, and his voice became less sibilant. "I need her to be free, Yotan, so I can believe we have a chance. Let Botan bleed me now and get it over with. I’d gladly face a thousand bloodlettings if she’s free at the end of them." The two mates stared at each other, neither one moving for several minutes.

Cassandra pressed against Botan’s side, and he patted her hand as he cleared his throat. "I need to render the blood for some of the spells, and that will take a day. I was hoping to cast the sphere tomorrow night, and the following night would be the best time for Schuldig to steal the sphere. There will be a big party at the palace, the last major one before the wedding."

Yohji looked away from Aya, rubbing his eyes with one hand while the other tugged his mate close. "As long as Aya agrees, I don’t see what say I have in the matter," he said bitterly.

Aya hissed and wrapped his arms around Yohji’s neck, making the taller man look at him. "It’s my decision, Yohji. You know damn well you’d offer your blood if this was for me."

"I know, love. And this is for your sister." Yohji stroked his lover’s hair, a sad smile on his face.

"It’s for you too. Once they lose their hold on me, I can truly be yours, Yohji. We’ll never again have to go through what we did this past week." Aya stared at Yohji until the man’s smile lost its sadness and he bent his head down to kiss him. After a minute Yohji picked up the redhead, and ignoring his hisses set him down on the bed.

"If you’re going to be drained again I want you to rest as much as possible before tomorrow night. You’ll need your strength." Aya grumbled under his breath but gradually stopped trying to climb off the bed. Yohji smiled gloatingly and turned to look at his guests. "Is that all? Cass, Schu, why are you here?"

"We ah…" Cassandra blushed and looked at the floor, while Schuldig didn’t even try to speak.

"You wanted to keep me from killing Botan, didn’t you?"

Schuldig found his voice. "Can you blame us, Yotan? We do need him alive, and we all know how protective you are of Aya." The young man shifted about nervously as Yohji stared at him, and Botan felt sorry for Schuldig. He knew how the man was suffering from Yohji’s refusal to have anything to do with him anymore and knew Schuldig was risking more of Yohji’s wrath by being here.

Yohji sank down on the bed beside Aya. "I have very good cause to worry about him," Yohji said bitterly as he stared at the three of them. Cassandra and Schuldig flinched while Aya hissed. Furious with his friend, Botan opened his mouth to tell Yohji off but didn’t get the chance.

"Okay, that was low of me." Yohji rubbed the back of his neck as if trying to ease tense muscles. "Schu, do you really think you can pull it off without Aya’s blood?

Schuldig barely nodded his head.

"You idiot. It won’t do us any good if you get killed." Yohji glared at his friend. "Keep that in mind. You’ll use his blood. And if you bring back Aya-chan’s soul… I’ll never speak of the other night again." The two men stared at each other for a moment then Yohji added a comment. "That is unless you mistake my bed for yours again, and not only will I make you burn the damn sheets and buy me a new mattress, you’ll hear about it every damn day of your life."

"You’re just jealous because you know I’m a better lover than you are," Schuldig sneered. Then his expression became serious. "I won’t let you down, Yohji. I promise you that will never happen again. I’ll bring back Aya-chan’s soul to you and Aya."

"Just make sure you come back too." Yohji gathered Aya’s left hand in his and entwined their fingers. "Tomorrow night, eh? Do we need to make any preparations?"

Botan shook his head. "Mickey and I have already arranged everything. We’ll use the attic upstairs since we won’t be bothered there. Ken and Omi need to be here for the spell, but it shouldn’t take very long. I’ve already got the flesh gaki captured. The longest part will be…" He wasn’t sure if he should mention that part.

"I want Yohji there for that part," Aya quietly asked. He sat up and leaned against his mate’s shoulder.

"That’s fine, Aya. He can be there for the whole thing." Botan had almost said ‘ordeal’ but caught his slip in time. "We’ll start after sundown. Do you have any more questions?"

The two young men shook their heads. Nodding his, Botan grasped Cassandra’s hand. "We’ll be leaving, then. I need to talk to Mickey and the others about a few things tonight, so I’ll be back later. Will you be down for dinner, Yohji?"

"Yeah. I might be a little late, since I need to talk to Masato about my lessons, but I’ll be down for a little bit." Yohji lay down on the bed and Aya immediately curled up beside him.

Taking that as a sign that the couple wanted to be alone, Botan and Cassandra walked towards the door. Schuldig followed after saying goodbye to his friends and closed the door behind him. He waited till they were on the steps before saying anything.

"I have a couple errands I need to run, but they shouldn’t take me more than two hours. I’ll see you guys at dinner." With more spring in his step than Botan had seen over the last few days, Schuldig bounced down the steps and out of the Koneko.

He chuckled at the sight and was taking a step down when he noticed that Cassandra had stopped walking. Botan looked at his lover and found her staring sightlessly in the air before her. As he watched her cheeks pinked until bright red.

"Something wrong, Cass? Was it a vision?"

The petite woman nodded her head and started walking, a hand pressed against her flushed cheek. "We need to come here a little earlier if we want to eat and talk to Mickey. Tonight won’t be the best night to spend hours talking."

"What do you mean, love?"

Cassandra glanced at the door her son had bounded through and then back at Botan. "If I’m interpreting things correctly, my son will finally meet his match tonight. We won’t be able to stay at the Koneko once that happens."

Botan tried to figure out what she was talking about and gave up. Cassandra could be too cryptic for words at times, but he’d found out if he just waited patiently and quietly, things would make sense in a short while.

"Very well then, let’s go to the one store that I was talking about and come back here. I guess an early night is a good thing, since it will give me a chance to finish a few things that I’ve been neglecting lately."

Patting his arm, Cassandra gave Botan a wicked grin that stole his breath away. "I think those things will remain neglected a while longer. But you won’t mind."

Sometimes Botan wished he was a soul gaki-bound himself. He’d love to get inside Cassandra’s mind and save himself from the very real possibility of being driven insane by her lack of sense. He hated waiting for revelations.

*******

Masato forced himself to swallow the growl that was building in his throat. "You’re not trying hard enough, Yohji. You should have a handle on compelling by now."

His son, seated on his bed, glared at Masato. "Why the hell do I need to learn this anyway? I have a mate, and he wants me without any coercion. Well, most of the time."

Sighing, Masato rubbed his aching forehead. Were all children this difficult, or was it just his son? "Because even if you don’t plan on having sex with the person, compelling can come in very handy. It’s a way to charm them, to gain their trust and friendship. Once you hone the ability enough, you can convince someone to jump off the top of a building if you want to, or to tell you their deepest secret."

"Really? I never knew that." Yohji suddenly became interested. "I didn’t think it could do anything other than make someone want me."

"It’s a way of charming them so thoroughly that they’ll do any damn thing you ask of them. Once you learn that, I can teach you a way to… cloud their senses and let their lust create new memories for them. It’s not as simple or easy as wiping their minds clean, but you can make them think that they spent the night with the person of their dreams when instead, they were talking to you or doing whatever it was you’d asked of them. A very good way of covering your tracks."

Yohji cocked his head to the side, a habit he’d picked up from his mother, and lines of concentration formed on his face.

"I’m not feeling anything. Think of your hunger and try to will me to appease it." When his son scowled Masato let a small growl slip past his lips. "I know, it doesn’t make sense, but do it anyway, dammit."

"First you train me to rein in the hunger, and now, to focus on it. Make up your mind," Yohji muttered. But he tried again.

It took a few minutes, but just when Masato was about to curse in frustration he felt his hunger rise to the fore. For a moment Yohji looked so much like Miyuki that he almost rose from the chair he’d been sitting on and walked over to the bed. Then Masato remembered that Miyuki was dead and that was his son he was thinking of feeding from. His cock, which had just started to respond to his lust, immediately became flaccid.

"Very good. Now do me a favor and never try that on me again." It was gross thinking of his son as an object of lust, even if he’d been compelled to do so. Masato felt as if he needed a bath. He was also reminded just how powerful Yohji was. It had taken the boy less than a half hour to get the knack of compelling, and it had taken him three days. His son was a very fast learner. Then again, Masato had never felt the compulsion to quickly learn everything he could so he’d be able to protect his mate.

He began to talk Yohji through the various uses he could put the newly acquired skill to, and began to work on the powers that were based on that one. Almost an hour had passed, his throat was sore and his hunger gnawed at him, demanding to be fed. Yohji had to be hungry too, considering the energy he’d just expended.

It was short while later that Masato was taking a break and a sip of water when Aya entered the room, carrying a book in his hands. He set it down on the nightstand. The kage had retreated to the garden for the duration of the lesson.

"Are the two of you done yet? It’s dinner time."

"Huhn, the time must have gotten away from me," Masato acknowledged. "Guess we should go downstairs then."

Aya nodded his head. "Yes, you should. Lilla is waiting." He pushed Yohji’s shoulder, trying to get the man to leave the room.

"Aya, I haven’t seen you for hours, and you immediately kick me out of my own room? How cruel," Yohji pouted.

"Omi and Nagi are going to join me here for dinner, and I don’t want you to pick a fight with Nagi when they arrive. Go."

"You just want the room to yourself so you can read a damn book." Yohji started to get off the bed, but his eyes suddenly narrowed and a smile blossomed on his face. Intrigued by what he assumed was about to happen, Masato remained sitting by the desk.

Hissing a little, Aya started to rise from the bed. Then he suddenly seemed to change his mind. In a quick, graceful move he straddled Yohji’s lap and started to rock his hips against the blond, his mouth latching on to Yohji’s. Masato could hear Aya purring from across the room, and the couple didn’t break apart for air for several minutes. Even then, it seemed that Aya had only pulled away so he could yank first his then Yohji’s shirts off.

As the redhead fastened his mouth to Yohji’s neck, Masato cleared his throat. "Ah, Yohji? I think you need to work on your control a little more. Obviously you’re using too much power. Stop it now, please." His pants were becoming painfully tight, but Masato couldn’t find the will to get up and leave the room. Not when Aya leaned back, offering his neck to his mate.

Yohji licked his lips and with obvious difficulty tore his eyes away from the sight of Aya offering himself to him. "If I do that," the younger man said in a hoarse voice, "he’s gonna figure out what I did and then kill me for it." Aya hissed in frustration and slid his hand down the front of Yohji’s pants, completely oblivious to Masato still being in the room and the discussion he was having with Yohji. The blond tossed his head back and moaned.

"Oh gods, he’s really gonna kill me now. I might as well enjoy this." Yohji bent his head and kissed Aya’s neck, sliding his hands down the back of the smaller man’s pants as he did so. Aya mewled and tugged frantically at the laces of Yohji’s pants.

Feeling as if his own pants were about to split open, Masato shakily stood to his feet after Yohji fell back onto the bed, Aya in his arms. The young men were sliding out of the last of their clothes, and the sight of naked flesh became too much for Masato to take. He could remember the frenzied rush of having his mate in his arms, the way the world faded away because it just didn’t matter. Not when the person you loved and who completed you was begging you to take them, to thrust inside them and become one….

His mind came to a sudden decision. Consequences and his fears be damned, he wanted to feel that way again. If there was the slightest chance that Aya and the others were correct… Masato hurried from the room, closing the door behind him and cutting off the sound of Yohji’s moans. He made his way downstairs, stalking into the dining room.

His quarry was seated at the table in the corner, deep in discussion with Brad, Mickey, Botan and Cassandra. Masato walked up to the table and tapped Schuldig on the shoulder.

"What do you want?"

"You." Schuldig’s eyes went wide at the stark tone of voice that Masato spoke in. "We need to talk."

Licking his lips nervously, Schuldig looked away for a moment. He struggled for composure, then turned a haughty look in Masato’s direction. "I’m busy at the moment. Go find another meal."

It was funny, but Masato didn’t feel angry about the brush-off. Instead he felt his resolve harden. Schuldig hadn’t had any problem in the past with using his power against Masato, and he decided it was time to return the favor. Concentrating with all his might, Masato focused his compulsion on Schuldig.

The younger bound suddenly straightened in his seat and stared at Masato, clearly shocked. Then his eyes narrowed in anger and he started to fight the compulsion. Determined to win this battle, Masato reinforced the magic. For a few seconds Schuldig managed to resist him, but then his will crumpled.

Masato leaned down and kissed Schuldig savagely, needing to taste the younger man. Schuldig kissed him back, wrapping his arms around Masato’s shoulders as he did. The feeling of happiness filled him and confirmed his decision had been a good one; Masato gathered his lover in his arms and then tossed Schuldig onto his shoulder.

He stepped away from the table, smacking a protesting Schuldig on the ass as he did so. He came to a stop when Cassandra stepped into his path. Masato eyed the woman warily, highly conscious of his plans for her son.

"Treat him well. Cause him any grief, and I will make you regret it for the rest of your life." She revealed a dainty set of fangs for a second, and then returned to her boyfriend’s side and tugged on his arm.

More frightened by Cassandra’s threat than he thought he should be, Masato shook his head and gave Schuldig’s ass another smack as the man continued to yell at him to be put down. He briskly walked out of the room, amid catcalls and shouted suggestions of what he should do with his lover. Masato ran into Teddy out in the hall, but all the man did was smile wickedly and wave him on. Then he swore he heard the man say something about finding Koyu before Teddy broke off in a run.

It didn’t take him long to reach his bedroom, and as soon as he did, Masato tossed Schuldig down onto the bed and relaxed the compulsion. As the man scrambled to sit up, cursing all the while, Masato straddled his hips.

"Fucking asshole, I can’t believe you did that! What the hell were you thinking? Get off me!"

Masato leaned down and grabbed Schuldig by his hair, tilting the man’s head back but maintaining eye contact the whole while. "No."

Schuldig’s eyes narrowed in anger. <You’ve gone nuts. Get off me, I’m not going to be your dinner any longer.>

"No, you’re not. You’re going to be my mate." Ah, there was a spark of fear and hunger then, and Schuldig suddenly looked more intimidated than angry. But then his damn contrary personality had to try to resist Masato, even when he could feel Schuldig wanting him. The damn brat.

<The hell I am. You’re talking nonsense. I’m not anyone’s mate.>

"You will be mine."

Schuldig tried to use his power against Masato, making him smile and increase the compulsion. The brat didn’t stand a chance against him. In a matter of seconds, Schuldig was moaning and fighting the hold Masato had on his hair in an attempt to kiss him.

Chuckling, Masato nuzzled the smaller man’s neck for a moment before he started to suck on it, tasting the salty skin. Schuldig moaned out his name and started to purr. His hands stroked Masato’s back, sliding along to his front and working on the buttons of his shirt.

Once Masato left a mark on his mate’s throat he sat up, pulling his shirt off. Then he took care of Schuldig’s, chuckling when the younger man eagerly lifted his upper body from the bed so Masato could pull it off. He stroked his hands along the muscled chest, making Schuldig squeak in pleasure when he tweaked his nipples. His composure slowly leaving him, Masato started to breathe heavily and his hands began to shake as he tried to untie the laces of Schuldig’s pants.

Then it left him completely. He snapped the laces, pulling at the pants until they ripped. When Schuldig’s erection sprung free, Masato bent down and took the cock into his mouth, sucking and licking his treat. Schu tasted so good, his flesh salty and bitter and utterly delicious, as much so as the pleasure and energy that was pouring into him. Schuldig bucked under him, clutching his hair and pushing Masato’s head closer to his groin.

Determined to overwhelm Schuldig with pleasure and not give the man’s perverse nature a chance to mess things up this time, Masato deep throated him, humming and sucking with all the skill accumulated over a century. One of his hands slid underneath Schuldig into the narrow cleft and circling the puckered ring hidden there. Snapping his hips back and forth, Schuldig started to moan and stutter Masato’s name.

Masato pushed his finger inside his lover very slowly, conscious of the lack of lube. Schuldig didn’t seem to mind, though, and rocked his hips backward until the finger was buried inside him completely. He came in a wave of pleasure so intense that Masato trembled with bliss as he swallowed the bitter come. He’d forgotten how damn good it was to feed from his mate.

That rush of energy was his undoing as he decided he was never going to live without it ever again. While Schuldig panted underneath him, Masato pulled back and ripped off his own pants, desperate to free his erection. Then he grasped Schuldig’s chin and looked deep into the man’s eyes.

"Mine."

"Masato… no. We can’t be mates." Schuldig’s voice was weak, the man clearly dazed from his orgasm, but all Masato heard was the denial.

"You’re mine. I’m taking you now, Schu. You’re my mate." When Schuldig shook his head Masato snarled and kissed his lover, one hand searching for the jar of lube he’d placed on the nightstand. He ravaged Schuldig’s mouth while he did that and thrust his tongue deep inside the man’s mouth as he ground his hips against him. Schuldig moaned, his legs wrapping around Masato’s hips and his fingers tangling in his hair, slowly losing himself in the pleasure.

Pulling away from his lover, Masato stared down at the man. "Say it, Schu. You’re mine."

"I’m nobody’s," the man snapped back, but his body told a different story. Schuldig’s hands tugged on Masato’s hair, trying to make him bend down for another kiss, and his legs tightened around Masato’s waist.

Using the compulsion again, Masato concentrated until Schuldig was writhing beneath him. Then he stilled his power, using more willpower than he thought he ever possessed.

"I could force this, Schu. I could make you beg for it, but you have to choose. Be my mate, or make us both suffer. You have to be my mate."

Schuldig stared at him for a moment, and then a smile spread across his lips. "Make me, Masato," he purred.

The challenge was instantly accepted. Masato let loose the full force of his magic as he grabbed Schuldig’s head and jerked it back to a painful angle. For a moment Schuldig tried to strike back with his own power, but Masato was too lost in his hunger and need for the mental command to take effect. When his teeth sank into Schuldig’s neck, the younger bound moaned and suddenly ceased trying.

He raked his nails down the man’s sides, making Schuldig yowl in pleasure. Masato squeezed the finally located jar of lube until the lid cracked, then he tossed it aside and scooped out a glob of the slick gel. Pressing his finger back inside Schuldig, Masato growled and trailed his mouth downward, latching on to one of the man’s hardened nipples.

Schuldig tossed his head back on the bed, the long strands of his hair clinging to his sweaty chest and face. "Fuck me already."

"I’m trying," Masato growled as he flicked his long finger deep inside of his mate, causing the man to gasp in pleasure. One of Schuldig’s hands fumbled about until it found the lube, and after slickening his fingers, he grasped Masato’s cock. His turn to gasp, Masato trembled and stared down at the evil grin on Schuldig’s lips.

<You’re not moving fast enough. Let’s see if this helps to speed things up.>

"I’ll move as fast as I want to, you damn brat." Masato pulled his finger out of Schuldig, causing the man to mewl and curse. He pushed two back in and smiled at the look of ecstasy that appeared on Schuldig’s face. The hand around his cock started to pump faster, and Schuldig lifted his head to fervently kiss Masato.

Every touch, every taste of Schuldig made Masato’s hunger flare stronger and stronger. He scissored his fingers about, drinking in the burst of pleasure that overwhelmed the younger man each time they brushed against his sweet spot. Schuldig dropped his head back onto the bed for a moment, then lifted it and attached his mouth to Masato’s neck.

The feel of teeth biting around his jugular, the little pricks breaking his skin caused Masato to shudder in bliss. Unable to control himself any longer he slid his arm under one of Schuldig’s legs, shoving it up onto his shoulder. Then in one smooth thrust, Masato sheathed himself inside his lover.

Schuldig’s claws dug into his shoulders, the man shouting out his name at the top of his lungs. Masato was instantly lost in the pleasure of being buried inside his mate, at the feel of warm velvet walls clenching around him. He stilled his body, just enjoying the sensation for a moment.

"Dammit, you bastard. I said, ‘fuck me!’" Schuldig bit Masato’s chin hard enough to leave a bruise and he rocked his hips back and forth.

Snarling, Masato pulled almost completely out of the brat and pistoned back in, burying himself to his balls. Schuldig yelled again and yanked on his hair.

"Oh gods, do it hard. Fuck me, Masato. I’m supposed to be yours. Make me feel it."

"You damned little brat." Masato pulled back and thrust forward with all his strength, hard enough to shake the bed. He smiled when Schuldig choked out his name. "You’re mine, and you’ll never forget that." He thrust forcefully a few more times, then pulled all the way out.

Schuldig cursed him; his hands clutched at Masato and tried to pull him back down. Masato grasped the man’s wrists in one of his hands and jerked Schuldig upright, turning him around until he rested on his hands and knees.

"Gods, yes. Do it." Unable to resist the need to be buried inside him again, Masato shoved back inside Schuldig’s tight ass, wringing another shout from his mate. "MASATO!"

"Mine!" He pistoned inside his lover, his thrusts deep and frantic, sheathing himself completely inside the willing flesh to pull almost completely out and then back in again. The bed pounded against the wall, Schuldig screaming his name again and again. Masato couldn’t stop growling, and his hands tightened on Schuldig’s sweat slick hips tightly enough to leave bruises.

It was pure pleasure; Schuldig’s essence flowing into Masato and filling the aching void that had numbed him since Miyuki’s death. Masato could feel the ecstasy that overwhelmed his mate and became determined to add to it. The sensation was so fucking addicting. Each spark of bliss from his mate had him increasing his pace, had Masato more needy even as his hunger was becoming sated. His flesh smacked against Schuldig’s again and again, his cock sliding deep in the clenching heat that felt like heaven.

With an inhuman shriek, Schuldig came; his body clamped so forcefully around Masato’s cock that it was half pleasure and half pain. Pistoning his hips as he felt his own body tighten, Masato bent down and sunk his teeth into the back of Schuldig’s neck. A trickle of blood flowed into his mouth as his seed shot into Schuldig’s body, Masato’s marks of ownership.

He collapsed forward, spent, sated and energized all at the same time. Schuldig purred underneath him, sweaty and hot and utterly limp. Masato licked at the wound he created, spitting out a strand of reddish-orange hair after a moment. He pulled out of Schuldig and collapsed beside the man, stroking the long hair off his mate’s face.

Schuldig opened his eyes and glared at Masato. "Just because they’re called love-bites doesn’t mean you have to draw blood."

He chuckled at the man’s hoarse voice and rubbed his own marked throat. "Who bit who first?"

"Well, I needed to make sure that you wouldn’t forget that I can bite back." Schuldig revealed his elongated canines for a few heartbeats. "You better damn well accept the fact that I won’t let you walk all over me right now and save yourself some grief."

"Hmm, who begged who to be fucked?" Masato laughed at the angry expression on his brat’s face. "I hope that was hard enough for you. I do aim to please."

That comment earned him a glare, and in a temper, Schuldig struggled to get off the bed. Not about to allow his mate to leave, not when he finally had made the man give in to him, Masato yanked him back down and kissed him.

Schuldig’s hands twisted in his hair. <Don’t you dare get cocky on me. I didn’t ‘give in’, I just decided to go along with you.>

‘Whatever, brat. You’re mine now.’

<And you’re mine. I’ll never let you forget that.> Schuldig pulled away, panting for breath. "Oh shit, I just thought of something. You weren’t holding back any there, were you?"

"No. You were being a stubborn ass, as usual." Masato cursed and sat up suddenly when what Schuldig was implying dawned on him. "Don’t tell me…."

"The whole inn is fucking like a warren of rabbits," Schuldig snickered. "It figures that I finally get to experience a succubae-bound claiming his mate and I end up being that mate. Now, I’ll never have Mickey."

Growling, Masato draped his body over Schuldig’s. "You’ll never have anyone other than me. Try it and I’ll smack your ass raw."

<There are other things I’d rather you do to my ass. And me to yours.>

"Now that thought has possibilities," Masato purred as he nuzzled Schuldig’s neck. One of his hands slid down his mate’s slick body and grabbed both of their cocks. His was hardening already, and after a few strokes Schuldig’s did as well.

<Oh gods… aren’t you ever satisfied?> Belying Schuldig’s complaint the man’s body arched into his strokes. Masato started to nibble on his lover’s neck.

"I’m going to make you pay for denying me this past week and a half…for the last several days of misery and hunger. I’m not letting you out of bed until then. And I’m warning you now, you’ll be even more tired than that first night."

Moaning, Schuldig tilted back his head, exposing his neck. Masato sucked on it as his hands started to pump faster. The brat was indeed going to pay for causing him so much frustration. But he’d enjoy every moment of it.

<I’ll just get you back for this, you do realize that?>

‘I look forward to it, love.’ It was going to be a very interesting several centuries with Schuldig as his mate. Masato smiled as he rolled Schuldig onto his back.

*******

Jo, busy putting together a plate of assorted cheeses, felt a familiar if unexpected tingling in her loins. The kitchen suddenly became too hot, and she felt as if the air had become stale. She hurried out of the sweltering room, seeking relief in the cooler hallway, but the physical reactions only grew stronger.

She remembered the last time she’d felt like this. Her lips pressing in a thin line, Jo stalked into the common room. She wasn’t half as surprised as she should’ve been to see a roomful of people kissing and stroking each other, couples scooting past her through the door and heading to the rooms upstairs, out the front door or back to the garden.

"Damn succubae-bounds," she muttered, sparing Mickey and Kira a glare as they ran past her, intent on reaching the office. "The Koneko isn’t a fertility temple!"

Then she stomped back to the kitchen, banking the fires underneath various pots and pans. No one sure as hell was going to be interested in food any time soon. That taken care of, she went in search of Ichiro.

*******

"Nagi, are you done yet? I’m hungry." Omi shifted his weight from foot to foot, impatient for dinner. Things were bad when he was the one complaining of hunger and not his bound boyfriend. But he hadn’t had time to catch lunch, not when he’d had to attend some stupid rehearsal for the wedding, and then flee the palace. Omi wanted to go collect his dinner, spend some time with Aya then come back here to the bedroom with Nagi.

The younger boy grunted and finished selecting a new tunic to wear for dinner. "Relax, Omi. Jo will feed us."

Crossing over to help Nagi straighten his shirt, Omi binked his boyfriend on the nose when he reached him. "I know that, but I really am hungry. I think I know how you feel now." He smiled at the grin Nagi gave him and unable to resist, Omi kissed the boy on the lips.

This felt so nice, holding Nagi close and kissing him, their bodies pressed together so tightly that it felt as if they were one being. Omi couldn’t get enough of his boyfriend, needing to spend more and more time with him the closer the wedding came. It was barely a week away, and tomorrow night Botan would bleed Aya and him and create the soul sphere. Once that was done, the showdown at the reception with his uncles and cousins would be inevitable.

Intending to just briefly kiss Nagi, Omi was surprised to find himself stumbling to the bed several minutes later, dragging his very willing boyfriend along with him. They tumbled onto the furniture, rolling around on it until they hit the wall. The sound of Nagi’s laughter filled the air, causing Omi’s heart to swell with joy. They ended their rolling with the younger teen lying on his chest, and Omi had to kiss him again.

The next thing he knew they were both missing their shirts, and he was halfway out of his pants. Stunned at how overcome he was with lust, Omi pulled back from Nagi, making the boy whimper. Why were they acting like this? As pleasurable as the situation was, Omi didn’t like how he was blanking out on everything but his lust and how impossibly good it felt to touch Nagi and be touched by him.

"Nagi, what’s happening to us?"

Nagi was silent for a minute and frowned. "It feels… it feels like our first night together." He closed his eyes, as if trying to remember something. Suddenly, they flew open and he stared at Omi. "When Aya and Yohji became mates."

The night everyone in the Koneko had been overcome by that event. Omi wondered why it was happening again and suddenly remembered about the other succubae-bound staying at the inn. "Oh no, Schuldig and Masato." Omi smacked his head. Why, oh why, did those two finally have to decide to mate tonight? Couldn’t they have waited for some evening when he wasn’t able to come to the Koneko? With much regret and all the willpower he possessed he started to pull his pants back up and climbed off the bed.

"What are you doing? Why are you leaving?" Nagi’s voice was confused and hurt as he reached out for Omi with his hand, only to let the limb fall just short of its goal.

Omi gazed sadly at his boyfriend. "We can’t think straight like this. I don’t want us to do something we’ll regret, so I’ll leave." It hurt so much to pull away from Nagi, but if he stayed Omi wasn’t going to be content with just kisses and strokes. He wanted Nagi too much for that, but he wanted Nagi to feel the same about him.

An invisible force pushed him back down onto the bed. "I don’t want you to go."

"Nagi, I can’t stay near you and do… what we usually do." Omi was scared and crazy with desire. He wanted Nagi so much, and even though he felt ready for that next step, a part of Omi was terrified of it too.

Nagi’s hand stroked his face for a long moment. Omi stared into the teen’s brown eyes, watching various emotions flicker through them. Then Nagi spoke. "We don’t have much time left, Omi. I… I want more too. And this might be our only chance."

Thinking about how both of them could be killed in a short time, Omi bent down and kissed Nagi, stroking his thin chest and doing his best to make his boyfriend squirm in pleasure. Pulling back after a few minutes, he cradled Nagi’s face between his hands. He’d try one more time before giving into this frightening compulsion and need.

"Are you sure? I want you Nagi, and not just tonight. But this is a big step we’re taking, too big to let some rutting bounds influence us."

Nagi growled and used his power to pull Omi back down against him. "We’re old enough to kill and to die, why not this? Aya told me, when he first decided to sleep with Yohji, it was because he didn’t want any regrets. I know how he feels now. Should something happen…" Nagi swallowed but continued. "If it was anyone else, I wouldn’t be ready. But it’s you, Omi."

Well then, that was good enough for him. Omi knew he’d never regret this, and Nagi seemed to feel the same. He knew he wanted the other young man, that he truly loved him even though they were both so young. And his teenaged body wasn’t able to hold back anymore, morals or no morals. He bent his head and kissed Nagi.

Nagi kissed him back, his hands sliding along Omi’s back and starting to push his pants back down. Omi gave one last thought to the hope that he’d managed to pick up a few things from Schuldig and Yohji’s conversations as he helped Nagi remove the last of their clothes.

*******

Yohji cradled Aya against his chest, humming contently. He could feel Aya slowly shift about, fitting his body against his perfectly. Everything about the man was perfect, was more proof that he was meant to be Yohji’s alone. It shouldn’t feel this comfortable and nice to be cuddled with a naked, sweaty and sticky person who was little more than skin and bones, especially when you were little better. But their bodies just seemed to melt against each other’s.

Then Aya’s stomach rumbled rather loudly, and Yohji’s answered back. Aya lifted his head to rest his chin on Yohji’s chest, a frown on his kiss-swollen lips. "I just remembered that we never ate any dinner."

"Ah, no." Yohji suddenly had a very bad feeling, but before he could change the topic Aya’s eyes narrowed in suspicion.

"I came here so you could go downstairs to eat, and Omi and Nagi were to join me here for dinner. But you didn’t want to leave, and…." Yohji was suddenly flooded with Aya’s anger. "Yohji, you bastard! You did something to me!"

He barely managed to prevent a painful blow to his ribs from landing. "Aya, love, I’m sorry! But you walked in on me practicing something, and, ow!" Aya sneaked a punch past his defenses. Yohji shoved his lover off his chest and put a safe foot or two of distance between them by sliding across the bed.

"Why the hell do you have to be so mean?" Yohji whined as he rubbed his sore ribs. "You’re always hitting and biting me lately. I know you enjoyed what just happened, so why are you so pissed off at me?"

"Because you seem to take advantage of me whenever you can," Aya hissed back. His stomach rumbled again, and the angry look on the man’s face slowly melted into puzzlement. "Nagi and Omi should have been here by now. Something’s… something’s wrong." Aya tilted his head to the side and closed his eyes, seeming to concentrate on something.

Yohji sat up straight, finally noticing that there wasn’t any music and noise from downstairs as there should have been. In fact, the inn was distressingly quiet. Except for the faint sound of moans, barely heard even with his heightened senses, coming from either side of his room, and above, and below… "Fuck, when did the Koneko become a whorehouse?"

"I feel magic. It’s a lot like yours, like what you used on me this evening." One of Aya’s eyes opened, revealing a flash of violet and a lot of hostility. "It’s Masato’s."

Yohji tried to ‘feel’ what Aya was talking about and sensed an echo of… something that reminded him of Masato. "Wait a second, I think I’m feeling this too. Sorta." It was so faint that if he wasn’t aware of Masato’s magic, he would have missed it. "What’s happening? What are you sensing?"

Aya smiled, his expression smug. "It feels like when you claimed me as your mate, but it’s definitely coming from Masato. I was right after all."

That meant… Yohji stuck out his tongue, his stomach suddenly feeling more queasy than empty. "Oh please, I don’t want to think about Schu and Masato going at it for the next few centuries. Why couldn’t they just be fuck buddies?" Well, to be honest that image was just as disturbing to him. "Great, so this means the whole inn is fucking like bunnies then. Guess that means we’ll have to get our own food. Unless… you feeling frisky, love?" It was worth a shot to see if the magic was affecting Aya any.

It seemed that Yohji should have kept his mouth shut. Aya resumed glaring at him, and with blinding speed yanked on Yohji’s hair. "I can’t believe you did that to me. And in front of Masato, too. I’m not some meal you have to charm into bed, Kudoh."

Uh oh, Aya was beyond pissed; Yohji could feel the anger and hurt emanating from his mate. "Cat, I’m sorry. I just wanted to try a new talent on someone other than my father."

Spitting and hissing, Aya tried climbing off the bed, but Yohji yanked him back down, holding him against his chest. He apologized a couple more times, trying to figure out why Aya was so upset. It had just been a little coercion, leading to some great sex. When he said this out loud Aya twisted in his hold and bit Yohji on his arm hard enough to break the skin.

"Dammit, Aya, I’m getting sick of you biting me!"

"What the hell else am I to do, Yohji?" Aya hissed back. "Hit you? Stab you with a shadow knife until you get the hint? You keep doing things like this, just taking control no matter what I think or feel, and getting what _you_ want. You either use your greater strength or your magic to your advantage against me. I didn’t let your magic inside me so you could dominate me!"

Yohji growled and sat up in bed, a hand holding onto his bitten arm. "What the hell are you talking about? Is this more of me treating you like a damn doll?"

Aya sat up too, pushing his bangs off his face so he could glare unimpeded at Yohji. "The other day you said we’d face things equally, then today you tell Botan ‘no’ about using my blood. It’s my blood, Yohji, my life. Have I said one word about you fighting at the wedding? Have I forbidden you to be involved in my affairs lately?"

"…No, you haven’t." Yohji swallowed the sudden anger and rubbed his eyes with a shaky hand. "Okay, I shouldn’t try to boss you around. I shouldn’t take advantage of you. You win, all right?"

Aya’s anger seemed to vanish too. "This isn’t about winning, Yohji. It’s about being equals. I can’t…" Sadness and pain radiated off Aya. "I know what it feels like to not have any control and to be utterly dependent on the whims of those who are. We can’t be like that, Yotan. You make me feel safe, and I just want to lean on you, to let you keep all the bad things away. So, in a way, I’m guilty too. But how can I keep you safe when we both look to you to keep me protected? Does that make any sense?"

Stroking his hand through Aya’s hair, Yohji sighed and nodded his head. "It does. You’re the one who’s been hurt the most, Aya. The one who needs to heal. I just want to keep you from harm until you do."

"What then, Yohji? What if I keep leaning on you? You said it before, what hurts me hurts you. If we want to have any chance of surviving what comes, we both need to be strong." Belying his stark words, Aya tilted his face into the caress, purring softly. He looked so beautiful that even in this serious moment Yohji wanted him so badly.

"Aya."

His mate opened his eyes, which had drifted shut in pleasure at Yohji’s touch. Aya stared at him curiously.

Continuing in his husky voice, Yohji pulled Aya onto his chest as he fell back on the bed. "Maybe there is something we need to do to remind me that we’re equals. I made you my mate by marking you. Maybe you need to do the same to me?" He held his breath as he waited for Aya’s response.

The quiet man frowned for a second, then smiled slightly, a sight that made Yohji suck in his breath. "You’ll do anything for sex, won’t you, Yotan?"

Taking his cue from how amused Aya sounded, Yohji smiled back lasciviously. "Well, if everyone else is doing it, why not us?" He lifted his head to kiss Aya. It became more impassioned by the second, until Aya lay completely on top of Yohji, their hips rocking together.

"Yotan… I’ve never done this before," Aya moaned softly as he trailed his hands down Yohji’s sides.

"You know the basics, love. Just do to me whatever I do to you that feels good." Yohji arched his back when Aya’s right hand started to stroke his arousal. "Oh yeah, just like that."

Aya’s touch was hesitant at first, reminding Yohji of that first morning they’d been together after having sex. But it grew more confident as pale hands carefully stroked his body, returning again and again to the spots that made Yohji moan and shiver in pleasure until he felt dizzy. Yohji ached to roll Aya onto his back and return the favor, to make his mate weak with bliss then plunge inside his luscious body, but was prevented from doing that when Aya growled and pressed him against the mattress.

Aya’s eyes were glowing silver in the darkness of the bed as Aya growled again, a low sound that sent shivers through Yohji’s body. Shadows skittered along the bed and joined Aya in stroking and touching Yohji until his whole body thrummed in bliss from the caresses. When he tried to touch Aya in return the shadows wrapped themselves around Yohji’s hands and trapped them at his sides.

"Aya… love, you’re driving me mad. I wanna touch you too."

Yohji’s eyes went wide with surprise when Aya grabbed his chin and jerked his head around until it was bent backwards at an almost painful angle. His lover bent down until strands of crimson hair fell around Yohji’s face.

"Mine." The word came out as a hiss, and Aya’s face was a perfect mask. Only the pleasure, desire and sense of possession that Yohji could sense from the smaller man convinced him that Aya was indeed feeling any emotions.

The slim fingers grasping Yohji’s chin tightened as Aya hissed the word again. A feeling of euphoria and need coursed through him when he heard it. Swallowing, Yohji whispered back that he was Aya’s.

Aya regarded him for a moment then tilted Yohji’s head back further. Thousands of caresses ran along Yohji’s skin as the redhead grasped his throat with his teeth, causing Yohji to arch his back in ecstasy. Sharp teeth pressed against his skin, Aya’s tongue stroking him gently before the man started to suck. Unable to help himself, Yohji writhed underneath his lover.

There was the scorching sunlight from Aya burning through his veins, so hot and powerful that Yohji was lightheaded from the energy. His own pleasure washed through him, from the feel of Aya’s teeth on his throat to the shadows’ touches to Aya’s hand stroking his aching arousal. Yohji fought the bindings that prevented him from touching his lover. He wanted to feel the smooth skin that slid over his body with his hands, to drive Aya as wild as he was being driven.

He actually cried out in pain and loss when Aya released his throat and slid off Yohji, settling on his knees in between Yohji’s legs. Lifting his head, he watched as Aya greased his finger, and Yohji hurriedly spread his legs. Oh gods, he couldn’t remember a time when he wanted a lover inside him more than right now. Aya grunted quietly as shadows wrapped themselves around Yohji’s legs, spreading them wider. He tucked a pillow under Yohji’s back, exposing all of him to the silver gaze.

The first finger inside him was like the first touches, hesitant and unsure. Yohji rocked his hips back, trying to take it further inside as he moaned with need. Words spilled from his lips, Aya’s name again and again and pleas for the man to fuck him. The more control Yohji lost the more sunlight poured into him from Aya, even though all the man did was add another finger and stroke them inside Yohji, twisting all about.

"Aya!" Yohji cried out when that special spot inside him was brushed against, his knees splaying as he rocked his hips back and forth. Aya’s hand was back on his cock, sliding up and down until Yohji started to thrust into it. Shadows crawled all over him, covering his eyes and teasing through his hair.

Lost in the feelings of Aya jerking him off and the shadows all over him, Yohji wasn’t aware of Aya pulling away his fingers, not until something thicker started to press inside him. He called out Aya’s name again, groaning as Aya’s cock slowly slid inside. The stretching, burning sensation made him grunt and still his body until Aya was completely inside of him, but the first thrust had Yohji moving his hips.

His mate kept the pace slow but forceful, pushing all the way inside of Yohji before pulling back out, and the hand around his cock pumped in time with the thrusts. Aya’s breath sped up. That was the only indication, other than the bliss that scorched through Yohji, of what he was feeling right then. The man’s pleasure only made Yohji’s all the more intense, leaving him a shuddering, needy heap of flesh.

"Please, oh please, Aya let me see you. Wanna see you, cat. So lovely, so hard. Oh gods, right _there_." Aya’s cock was hitting that spot inside Yohji, making him yowl and writhe in pleasure. Everything was too much: Aya’s cock buried inside him, his hand around Yohji’s, the shadows tormenting him as they stroked and tickled and pinched. On top of it all was that lovely sunlight, burning inside of every inch of Yohji’s body. He cried out Aya’s name as he came.

There was a flash of pain that helped ground him from the rush of ecstasy, something sharp on his throat. Yohji tilted his head back farther, submitting to his mate as the man growled softly, pumping in and out of him a few more times before heat flooded inside him. Aya fell against Yohji, a solid weight on his chest and warm lips against his throat. They remained motionless for a few minutes, bodies still aside from twitches and shivers of pleasure.

"Oh gods, Aya… we _have_ to do this more often!" Yohji managed to rasp out. When Aya didn’t move or say anything he frowned and tugged his hands, trying to get them to move. The damn shadows were still holding him bound and blindfolded.

"Aya, please tell them to let go. Please. You’re starting to worry me."

The shadows slowly retreated, stroking Yohji’s body a few more times as they did. Once they were free he immediately moved his arms and encircled them around Aya. He looked down at his mate, who was curled up on his chest.

"Cat?" He tilted Aya’s chin up and found the impassive visage from before staring back at him. A little bit nervous, Yohji brushed back Aya’s sweaty bangs and patted his cheek. All the smaller man did was reach out with his hand and touch it to Yohji’s sore throat.

"Mine."

"Yeah, I’m yours alright. And you’re mine, so do me a favor and come back to me, Aya." The man was acting like that time in the office, when Masato had first appeared. Yohji didn’t like this Aya and wanted his lover back, bad temper and all.

Aya didn’t say or do anything else, so Yohji forced his body, which wanted nothing more than to lie there for a few more minutes, to sit up. He kept Aya close the whole time, cuddling his lover against his chest while he stroked his hair. When that didn’t seem to work Yohji started to nibble on Aya’s ear, eventually moving his way down the man’s pale throat. When he started to suck on a particularly sensitive spot, Aya shuddered and drew in a deep breath.

"Yotan?"

Almost sighing in relief, Yohji tugged on an ear tail. "Who else would it be?"

Hissing under his breath, Aya squirmed on Yohji’s lap and yanked his eartail free. "You’re an idiot."

"And why is that?" Yohji grabbed the other eartail. "Maybe I am, but I’m your idiot. Got the marks to prove it."

Aya hmphed and brushed his finger against the marks on Yohji’s throat. "I… It happened again, when that part just takes me over and I’m so lost in all these new sensations that I can’t fight back, and I don’t want to." He looked apologetic for a moment. "Did I hurt you?"

"Hell no. I told you, I want to do it again." Yohji kissed Aya on the nose. He felt fucking great, so full of energy and zoned out on bliss, and now his mate was back to normal. Then his stomach decided to rumble noisily at the same time Aya yawned and blinked his eyes. Yohji kissed his mate on the lips and lightly ran his hand down Aya’s back, returning some of the stolen energy. Even when he had done he could still feel Aya’s exhaustion from having been drained twice that night.

Sparing one more kiss for the adorable man, Yohji untangled himself from Aya and stood to his feet. He crossed over to the washbasin to quickly wash himself off, tossing the damp cloth to Aya when he was done. He then pulled on his blue robe.

"I’m gonna stage a raid on the kitchen and get you some tea and us something to eat. Here’s hoping that no one’s going at it in there."

Aya snorted and tossed the cloth back at him. "Judging from _personal experience_, they’ll never know you’re there." As if the venom dripping from the words weren’t enough, Aya added a glare for good measure.

Getting the impression that his love wasn’t one to let grudges go, at least when he had some hope of being vindictive and not having someone else pay for his temper, Yohji sighed and tucked back his hair. He gave the bed a wide berth as he wondered if Jo had a stash of almond cookies anywhere downstairs.

It took Yohji over fifteen minutes to put together a meal for them, and during that time he saw a few things that even made him blush. One thing was for sure, there would most likely be a crop of babies come spring. And maybe a few divorces come the morning, since he recognized at least two patrons who had spouses waiting for them at home.

Bearing his bounty to his mate, Yohji entered their room and found Aya clad in his robe and sitting in the middle of their bed. He didn’t look as angry as before, so Yohji decided to keep any comments about what he’d seen downstairs to himself and set the tray down on the nightstand. They were both hungry enough that little was said until the food and tea were all gone. Yohji uncorked the bottle of wine he’d brought with him and offered it to Aya.

The pale man swallowed some of the alcohol and handed it back. Then he tugged on Yohji’s arm until he lifted it and curled against Yohji’s side. A bit shocked at the sudden change in attitude, Yohji wound his arm about Aya’s waist and pulled him closer.

"It just occurred to me that we should be drinking to something," he said. "How about to being mates, and equals?"

Aya took back the bottle, one of his eyebrows arched over his eye. As he lifted the wine bottle to his lips, he paused for a second, his tongue flicking out to lick up a stray drop. The sight made Yohji want to moan.

"To successful endeavors, regaining what is lost and repaying for what is owed." He then swallowed some wine.

Taking the bottle, Yohji nodded his head and repeated the toast. After a large gulp he rested back against the headboard and thought about what they had in store in their future. First would be Botan bleeding Aya and creating the soul sphere tomorrow night. After that Schuldig would steal back Aya’s sister, and he didn’t want to think of all that could go wrong. Aya would have barely a week to recuperate from the bloodletting, and then it would be time for the wedding.

Where they would have to face the king’s traitorous family, several wizards and a small army -- the nine of them. Possibly ten, now that Masato had managed to worm his way back into Yohji’s life and take his best friend as a mate. Yohji knew that some of the staff wanted to attend the wedding, but he’d try his best to keep them away from the event. He’d probably be losing a few people he cared for and wanted to keep that number to a minimum.

This night felt like the last one of peace and happiness they’d be allowed to have for some time, maybe ever: a night of fantastic sex, resolutions and now, hopefully, just cuddling next to each other and enjoying the other’s presence. Yohji fervently wished there was a way to make this night last forever.

He set the bottle aside and pulled Aya onto his lap facing him. When his mate gazed at him in puzzlement, he stroked Aya’s hair away from his face. "I love you. Whatever time we have together, it won’t be long enough."

Aya lowered his gaze, staring at Yohji’s throat as he gently stroked his fingers over it. "I love you, with all my heart. Yotan…" Aya raised his eyes. "All I want is for this to be over with, so I can spend my life with you without fear for my sister, or having to look over my shoulder for the Takatoris. I have to let Botan take my blood tomorrow, and I have to fight. But… but I’m not doing it just for Aya-chan. I feel like I can finally let her go now, because I have you."

Both of them moved forward for a kiss, one sweet and filled with all the love they felt for each other. Maybe they couldn’t make this night last forever, but they could enjoy every last second of it, Yohji thought as he threaded his fingers through Aya’s hair. They could at least try. Tomorrow would come soon enough, so they would fight for this moment of happiness.

*******

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