Shadows

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chapter 13

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faith

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Birman walked into Botan’s study, two cups of coffee in her hands. She set one down in front of the wizard and made herself comfortable in his spare chair, sipping from the mug she’d brought for herself.

"Can I say that I’m surprised to find you here and not at Cassandra’s? Don’t tell me the spark is gone from the relationship already."

Looking up from his books, Botan spared a scowl for Birman before picking up his mug and gulping down half its contents. Birman winced in sympathy for what had to be his burned tongue, but the wizard didn’t even flinch as he swallowed and then started to wave his mug around in the air.

"The spark is fine and dandy, thank you for asking. I’m here instead of there because I have a lot of work to do and little time to do it in. Besides making sure the wards are fine, I have to figure out a few new spells, be prepared to refine bound blood to use it in some of those spells, and half a dozen other things too. Add to that Omi’s request for a weapon, and if I sleep more than a couple hours in the next several days, I’ll be lucky." He finished off his coffee and slammed the mug back down on his desk.

Birman didn’t take getting snapped at personally. She knew her friend was just venting off steam, and she allowed herself to be a target for that. Besides, she had reamed Botan the other day for not telling her about Aya and Yohji, and if Botan was willing to bark at her like this it meant he’d forgiven her for that chewing out. If he was still mad at her, she wouldn’t have been able to cross his wards and get ranted at.

"Well then, I’ll make sure to come with a pot of coffee the next time I stop by," she calmly remarked, earning a snort and a half smile from Botan. Leaning back in her chair, Birman raised an eyebrow and tapped her cup of coffee.

"A weapon for Omi? That’s new. What is it going to be?"

Botan closed the book he’d been reading and rested his elbows on top of it. "I was hoping you could help me with that. Manx, Yohji and you were responsible for his weapons training. What is he good at?"

Thinking for a moment, Birman recalled her lessons with the crown prince. "He’s very good at archery, extremely so. The Bowmaster even commented on it, saying that if he kept it up, Omi would be good enough to replace her when she retired. He can shoot anything with an arrow or dart, and has very good aim for throwing things. He’s absolutely horrible with a sword or staff, though. His lessons with Manx often left the both of them in tears."

"Then a weapon like Masato’s is out. That narrows things somewhat," Botan cryptically remarked as he jotted down a few notes on a piece of paper.

"Masato? Who is he?"

Blinking his eyes in puzzlement for a moment, Botan grimaced and sat back in his chair. "That’s right, you were only asking about Aya, Yohji and Nagi the other day. Masato is a bound, Yohji’s father to be exact, and Schuldig’s mate now." The wizard smiled in contentment for a moment, making Birman narrow her eyes in suspicion. Her spies had reported that Botan hadn’t returned home until rather late last night. He must have spent some time with his lover the night before rather than this morning.

"Another bound, eh? Gods, the capital is crawling with them, and I never suspected a damn thing." She fell silent for a moment, wondering just how many people she knew were really human. Bounds were much better at blending in than she’d have ever suspected. Maybe she should consider hiring more of them as spies.

"And Yohji’s father to boot. What’s this about his weapon?"

Botan let out a breath and smiled as he rubbed his chin. "It’s a bracelet similar to Yohji’s, which evidently is part of a set that Masato broke up to leave for his son. The metal turns into a staff or spear with but a thought, and will return to him on mental command. According to Masato, one of his ancestors received it from Kritiker’s wizard during the Binding Wars."

"So Kudoh has ancestors in service to the royal family on both sides. Very interesting. Add to that the fact that Aya is a Fujimiya, and it’s no wonder they’re fighting for Shuuichi at the wedding."

"Yes. Though, not to burst your bubble, Birman, but I think the last thing they care about is the king. They have personal reasons for fighting. One of which I have to get back to working on, if you don’t mind. I’m just about done writing the spell for tonight."

Taking the hint, Birman rose to her feet and crossed over to Botan’s desk. She poured her half-cup of coffee into his empty one. "Then I better leave you in peace. I have one of my pages stationed outside your door; so if you need something, send her to me. I have a few matters to attend to, including a meeting with the king and Manx, but I’ll try to make it for the spell casting tonight, if you don’t mind."

"I don’t mind, though Yohji might. Cass said he’s still really pissed at you for what you did to him." Botan glared at her over his cup of coffee. "Didn’t your mother ever teach you that blackmail is bad?"

"Botan… I refuse to let his skill and talent go to waste, and I can use someone like him. If Eto can plan a coup right here in the palace and my spies not discover a thing about it, I seriously need all the help I can get." Birman pursed her lips for a few seconds, pushing aside the feelings of inadequacy and frustration that had filled her ever since her discussion with Brad. "Besides, it’s more than likely the king and Manx will discover Yohji and Aya’s secret during the coming battle. It will be easier to protect them if I can honestly say that they work for me, and hence the Crown."

The man glared at her for a little longer then reluctantly nodded his head. "You have a point there. Just do our friendship and me a favor and stick with bribes instead of blackmail when you want me to do something for you. I’m a cheap whore for a bottle of decent whiskey."

"I know, and that’s what I’ve always liked best about you, Botan." Birman winked at her friend and glided out the door. She could hear him chuckling as she closed it behind her and had to wipe the smile off her face as she turned to face the teenaged girl stationed in the hallway.

"I want you or another page to remain here at all times today. Report to me when the Royal Wizard leaves his quarters, but make sure that someone covers this station even while he’s gone. You’re authorized to fetch anything that he asks for immediately."

The girl bowed low to her and then straightened her back as if a board of wood was strapped to it. "Yes ma’am."

Nodding her head, Birman went on her way. She wasn’t looking forward to the upcoming meetings, especially with Manx and Shuuichi. She wanted to warn those two of what would happen at the wedding, but the precog, Brad, had told her it would be a mistake if she did so. Birman sighed and shook her head. She’d just have to make plans on her own, consulting only with Botan and Brad, and pray that things went right. Immediately adding a stop at one of the many shrines located around the palace to her to-do list, Birman’s lips curved into a wry smile. Nothing like an impending fight to restore one’s faith and piety.

*******

Yohji brushed aside the hair on the back of Aya’s neck and kissed the exposed skin, making his mate shiver and moan softly. Aya, lying on his stomach, lifted his head and opened his eyes to gaze blearily at Yohji.

"I’m going downstairs for some breakfast. I’ll bring yours up to you."

Aya grunted, and after a brief kiss let his head fall back onto his pillow. Yohji tucked back the long strand of hair that was falling across Aya’s face as he smiled and rose from the bed. He stretched for a moment before walking away from the bed to wash off and pull something on so he was decent enough to wander around the Koneko.

Damn but he felt good. Usually when he was on the receiving end of sex he was a little sore the next day, especially if it had been a while for that. One good thing about being a bound was that there had been very little pain involved last night, and none today. Yohji could get used to this.

He looked back at his mate after he picked up his blue robe. Aya was still tired from the sex last night, but Yohji wasn’t sensing any pain from the man. There had only been one nightmare during the night, either because of Aya’s exhaustion or the fact that Aya’s subconscious had decided to give him a break from the hell he’d suffered. Considering what was on the agenda for tonight, Yohji didn’t bother hoping that that had been the last of them -- not when Aya had to let Botan bleed him so soon after the last time it happened to him.

But with a bit of luck and some kindness from the gods, there would never be another worry about the Takatoris hurting Aya after tomorrow night. Once Aya-chan was free, there wouldn’t be anything holding Aya, or Yohji, back from killing the bastards if they ever tried to hurt the redhead again. Yohji smiled as he thought of the approaching wedding and what he planned to do to Hirofumi and his immediate family.

Pulling his long hair back in a loose ponytail, Yohji quietly left the room. He hoped to fetch some breakfast for themselves before Aya suffered any bad dreams in his absence. Then it would be a quiet day spent in bed, enjoying each other’s presence while they could. Aya wouldn’t be much company for the next day or two, and once he healed they would have to start preparing for the upcoming battle.

Yohji was grateful to find the hallways and steps free of writhing couples today. He passed a few confused people on his way downstairs, and several more who were smiling with contentment. There were a few stares directed at his neck, which was sporting a couple dark bruises that he wore with pride. Whistling happily, Yohji wished the people good morning and made his way to the kitchen.

The moment he stepped inside the warm room, Jo set down the loaf of bread she’d just picked up and pointed an accusing finger in Yohji’s direction. "You!"

"Me. How are you today, Jo?"

The middle-aged woman stormed up to Yohji and waved her finger in his face. "What the hell were you doing last night?"

Yohji smiled as he batted the finger away. "That wasn’t me. Next time you see Masato, bitch _him_ out. He made Schu his mate last night, and considering how much a stubborn fool that man is, Schu made him work for that right. It’s all their fault."

Jo hmphed and stalked over to the stove. "We’re going to have to come up with some new policy for succubae-bounds if this keeps up. I won’t have the guests going at it like sex addicts just because your kind get it in their heads to claim a life mate. Teela Myers was banging on the door this morning, demanding to know where her husband was. It wasn’t a pretty sight when she caught him with the guest in room eight." Jo looked over her shoulder to glare at Yohji. "This is a respectable inn."

"I know, Jo. Hopefully there won’t be any more matings going on here, at least not for a while. Now, is there any chance there’s some food for Aya and me?"

"How is he feeling?" All traces of Jo’s anger faded as she put on a kettle for hot water. Then she wiped her hands on her apron and approached Yohji. Jo smiled when she caught a glimpse of Yohji’s neck and chuckled.

Running his fingers over the lovebites, Yohji smiled back at her. "Obviously, he’s doing better, at least for now. I take it you heard about what’s going to happen tonight?"

Nodding her head, Jo gave Yohji a sad look. "Mickey told me. Once Touya wakes up he’ll go upstairs and clear some space in the attic." She reached out a hand to push back the collar of Yohji’s robe, giving the bruises a better look. "I’ll take a chance and say that you were obviously distracting Aya from his worries last night. It’s nice to see you looking like you’d been the one mauled by a wild beast for once. Did you let him get any rest?"

Yohji rolled his eyes and snagged a muffin from the cooling rack near the stove. "You know, I’ve gotten much better about wearing him out all the time."

"I bet." Snorting in disbelief, Jo went back to the stove and picked up a few plates and bowls that were stacked beside it. In a few minutes she had a large tray filled with soup, rice, eggs and toast, along with some tea and coffee, ready for Yohji to take upstairs. Jo handed it to him and stepped back, her arms across her chest.

"Just remember, Yotan, that we’re here for the two of you. Whatever Aya and you need, we’ll do our best to make sure you have it. Including spreading the rumor of you being locked in your room with a set of twins so the two of you can have some quiet time today. Just please," Jo begged, her voice exasperated, "try to limit the nights like this past one for the next few months. The staff’s gonna be spending the whole damn day cleaning the Koneko and changing sheets. I don’t need this right now, not with all the people stopping by to eat and drink."

Yohji nodded his head and couldn’t resist a teasing smile. "My word on it, Jo. I’ll do my best to keep things as quiet as possible around here. But didn’t you enjoy last night the least little bit?"

Jo returned his smile and winked. "You better believe I did, and so did Ichiro. However, our sex life is pretty damn alright on its own and doesn’t need all this added excitement. Now get that food upstairs before it gets cold."

Laughing, Yohji did as he was bid. He was halfway down the hallway when he came across a familiar figure. Omi looked exhausted and was wearing the silliest grin on his face. Suddenly making the connection that the boy must have spent the night last evening, and considering what had happened to all the other patrons… Yohji shifted the tray to one hand and wrapped the free one around Omi’s upper arm.

"Morning, Yotan."

"Yeah, whatever. Come here, chibi." He dragged Omi to a table and sat down, motioning for the younger blond to do the same. Omi sank down onto the bench and dazedly looked about the room.

"Have you seen Liss? I was supposed to return to the palace with her."

"She’s probably upstairs with Jei still. What the hell happened last night, Omi? Please, oh please, tell me you were drunk again."

Omi smiled in a manner that completely dashed Yohji’s hopes. "Oh fuck, you spent the night with Nagi, didn’t you? Please tell me all that was involved was a mutual jerk-off session and a little necking. _Please_." Omi didn’t just lose his virginity at the Koneko. Yohji would catch hell from Botan, Birman and Manx if that was the case, and he wasn’t in the mood for that.

"I, we…" Omi blushed and stared down at the table.

Damn. Guess he better resign himself to being bitched out when those three found out about last night. Remembering that he’d never had that discussion with Omi, Yohji muttered under his breath and tugged on a lock of his hair. Dammit.

"Okay, the damage has been done, the only thing to do now is make sure nothing bad happened. Since I’m assuming you slept with Nagi, at least we don’t have to worry about any royal bastards running about. Your family already has too many of them."

"Yohji!" Omi looked up from the table and glared at Yohji. "I did spend the night with Nagi, and everything went… fine." The boy’s face grew that silly smile again, causing Yohji to roll his eyes.

"Okay, I know that you’re not completely ignorant about sex, especially after last night." Yohji pressed his palms together and tried for a sage look, his mind desperate to recall what his mother had said to him when she’d discovered him having sex. Then he thought of a few things that he’d learned over the years and decided to share them too. Yohji cleared his throat.

"Here it is, the accumulated wisdom of Yohji Kudoh on matters related to sex: get your ass down to Botan’s office and get a charm to prevent pregnancy, pronto." Omi started to glare again, but Yohji barreled on. "Always have lube on hand, especially if you’re planning on screwing a guy. Unlike the stories I’m sure you’ve heard, you just can’t substitute anything for that. Try to avoid sleeping with siblings or parents and their children, unless it’s at the same time and they’re both willing and the ones who suggested the idea."

He paused for a moment. "On second thought, just make that never. That can still backfire on you. Never lie to a person and say you love them just to get them into bed. Never believe a stranger when they tell you, ‘don’t worry, this won’t hurt a bit’. Always make sure you have a spare key if you’re going to be chained up. Make the other person sleep in the wet spot, unless it’s true love. Not everything is meant to be inserted in the human body, so use common sense. And finally, it’s supposed to be fun, so stop if it isn’t."

Omi sat there for a few seconds, obviously trying to digest those pearls of wisdom. Yohji knew he’d remember a few more later on, but that was a good start. He sipped his coffee and waited to be thanked.

"First off, I don’t plan on sleeping with anyone other than Nagi, so while the lube comment is appreciated, the pregnancy one isn’t." Omi swept his bangs to the side and glared at Yohji. "Despite those crazy stories Heero always tells about men getting pregnant, it’s impossible. Secondly, I’m not as depraved or stupid as you, so I could have lived without some of that advice. I’ve suddenly lost any and all interest in knowing any details of your sexlife, Yohji. Ick." Omi shivered in either horror or disgust, Yohji wasn’t sure which and didn’t think he wanted to know.

Picking up his tray and standing up, Yohji sniffed and did some glaring of his own. "Fine then, I should have known better than to try to enlighten such a sybarite like yourself. I’ll keep any and all advice about toys and techniques to myself. Your loss, chibi, and Nagi’s too." Then Yohji just thought about what he’d just said and did some shivering himself, definitely in horror and disgust. Gah, thinking of Omi and Nagi having sex was even worse than imagining Schu and Masato going at it. There was no way in hell he was going to describe rimming to the young prince.

Ignoring Omi as the teen blew a raspberry at him, Yohji made his way back to his room. So much for the food being hot, but at least he had one less thing on his ‘to-do’ list. Now, for a nice day spent in the company of the man he loved.

Yohji entered his room and found Aya sitting on the bed, wrapped in his scarlet robe and rubbing his eyes. The man looked so damn adorable. Yohji set the tray down on the nightstand and curled up on the bed. He reached for his lover, pulling him close and kissing him on the nose.

"You’re so adorable. You do know that, don’t you?"

Aya snarled and bared his sharp teeth. "No, I’m not."

Mindful of all the times he’d been bitten lately, Yohji wisely decided not to pursue the matter. Aya was indeed adorable, at least when he wasn’t in a bad mood, but from now on he’d keep that opinion to himself.

"So, I see someone woke up on the wrong side of the bed. Maybe some food will make you a little less grouchy." He held out a cup of tea to Aya, who immediately accepted it and settled back against the bed’s headboard. Aya sipped the tea until it was gone then turned his attention to the food. Glad that he didn’t need to urge Aya to eat, Yohji curled up next to him and started to eat too. There were one or two snarls over the toast, the only sounds they made during breakfast, and soon the food and drink were all gone.

Wiping his mouth with a napkin, Aya purred softly and snuggled closer to Yohji, resting his head against his shoulder. Yohji smiled and rested his head atop Aya’s. Gods, he couldn’t get over how his lover’s moods could shift so suddenly, from grouchy to loving to furious and back again. It felt sometimes that Aya himself was confused about the mood swings, that he was trying to ‘feel’ his way through a situation and was floundering about confusedly.

"So, what do you want to do today? It’s just the two of us, all alone since Jo and the others are going to cover for us. Want to have some fun?" Yohji waggled his brows at Aya, who started to frown and then hit him with a pillow.

"What happened to you learning to control your appetite?"

Batting away the pillow, Yohji pulled Aya against his chest and held him there, despite the smaller man’s struggles. "I have learned to control it. Why does everyone think that all I want to do is pounce on you?"

"Maybe because that’s all you do," Aya retorted.

Yohji smiled and tilted his head to the side, exposing his bruised neck. "Not always. Remember, you did the pouncing last night."

Aya stared at him, his burgeoning temper crumbling apart under a flash of lust. He leaned forward to kiss Yohji’s neck, sharp teeth scraping against his bruised skin then soft lips pressing against and soothing the area. Yohji sighed in contentment and shifted down on the bed until he was half lying with Aya on his chest.

His mate pulled away and looked at him with heavy lidded eyes. Yohji stared back at him, happy and determined to forget about what would happen later tonight. At the moment he had Aya in his arms and that was enough.

"You don’t look adorable now, you look so damned sexy."

"Hmph." Aya rubbed his cheek along Yohji’s chest and closed his eyes. He draped his body more comfortably over Yohji’s and started to purr again.

"You going back to sleep?"

"Why? Is there something else you wanted to do?" Aya opened his eyes and looked up at Yohji, his face inscrutable. Yohji had the sudden insight that if he didn’t feel Aya’s emotions and know that the man loved him, and that Aya was filled with curiosity and not annoyance at the moment, he would have no clue of figuring Aya out, which would drive him mad. Yohji liked knowing what made people tick, while Aya seemed to want to hide all his thoughts and emotions inside. Talk about opposites attracting. Yohji hoped that his mate moved beyond that once he was free of his masters.

Deciding to try and open his mate up a little, Yohji smiled at him and asked a question he’d been wondering about for the past couple weeks. "So, Aya, what can you do?"

Aya blinked at Yohji in confusion. "What?"

"What can you do?" Yohji yanked on an eartail, earning himself a scowl. "If Schu is successful tomorrow night, and believe me when I say that man can steal anything that he sets his mind on, you’ll be spending the next few years here at the Koneko. We need to find a job for you. So, what are you good at?"

Snatching back his eartail, Aya sat up, straddling Yohji’s waist. He appeared to think for a moment then mumbled a word.

"What was that, love?"

"I… can take care of the garden. Like I’ve been doing."

Yohji smiled and ran his hands up and down Aya’s thighs, pushing up the red silk more and more with each pass. He might not intend to do any feeding at the moment, but he did so love the feel of Aya’s skin. Later on he’d need some energy to help sustain him for the next couple days, but right now he was just enjoying having Aya close to him and being able to touch him.

"There’s that, but I think we need to find you something else to do or as soon as you’re done weeding and pruning I’ll be constantly dragging you over to our lavender patch to be ravished."

Grunting, Aya glared at Yohji and trapped his hands before they reached too high. "What do you suggest?"

Oh, having Aya keep his bed nice and warm all the time came to mind, but Yohji had the sneaking suspicion he’d be hit for mentioning that. One thing was for sure now; Aya was definitely comfortable enough around him to hit him back… or bite him.

"Well, I think you working the door is out, unless we can convince you somehow that ‘order something or leave’ isn’t a proper greeting." Aya’s eyes narrowed in anger and he growled slightly, but Yohji ignored the display of temper and forced himself to not smile. "We need to work on your manners."

"I have manners," Aya huffed. "My father…." The man fell silent, and Yohji could feel the pain that filled Aya. A part of him wanted to just cuddle Aya close and soothe away the hurt, but this happened almost all the time he brought up something connected to Aya’s past. Besides the little Aya had told him the one day when he’d confessed about why he was here in the capital, he’d said almost nothing about his family. Yohji could understand why the man would want to avoid talking about his past with the Takatoris, but Aya needed to get over this. He couldn’t just pretend that his life had started when he’d walked into the Koneko.

"Your father taught you manners? Really? So a former lord thought it was entirely appropriate to scowl at strangers and tell them to leave? I’ll have to pass that on to Omi."

Aya’s glare went up a notch, causing Yohji to chuckle nervously and carefully remove his arms from Aya’s immediate biting range, especially when the redhead bared his teeth.

"He was a good teacher, and I do have manners. I use them all the time."

Someone was a bit delusional. "Aya, I hate to break it to you, but not speaking to people is not a way of being polite. Sure you say ‘thank you’ and ‘please’ to the staff and a few friends, but that’s about all you say to them. We need to work on making you a bit more civil."

"This, from a man whose idea of being ‘civil’ is to ask a person if they want to have sex instead of forcing them with compulsion," Aya hissed. "Being polite doesn’t mean screwing everyone who walks into the Koneko!"

Reminding himself that Aya was under a bit of stress, and that he should be ecstatic that the former stray wasn’t afraid to show his temper around him, Yohji swallowed a growl and counted to ten. Hadn’t he been thinking last night that Aya was showing the beginnings of a vindictive streak, at least in regards to him? Well, he had definite confirmation now. Lucky him.

"Listen you little idiot, I ‘compelled’ you to sleep with me one time. One fucking time! And that really wasn’t intentional." When Aya opened his mouth and started hissing, Yohji yanked on an eartail. He’d have preferred putting his hand over Aya’s mouth to keep him quiet, but didn’t think he’d keep all his fingers if he did that.

"Masato was trying to teach me how to use my talent, and you came in all pissy. Hell, it was obvious that you were still upset about our fight earlier in the day, so I decided to try the new trick out on you and maybe put you in a better mood. I didn’t think it would work quite that well!" Yohji forced himself not to think about the bout of sex that had followed. Gods… if he was human he’d still be sore from Aya riding him like that, so demanding and needy.

Shaking his head, Yohji continued. "Once I did it, I figured you’d kill me when I stopped, so I just… dammit, didn’t we settle this fight already?"

"If you ever do that to me again, I’ll toss you out the window, Kudoh." Aya liberated his eartail and climbed off Yohji before storming over to the window seat, detouring to grab a book along the way. "Buck naked and bleeding."

"That would just make more work for you then, Aya sweetie. Think of the poor, crushed rosebushes," Yohji retorted.

Violet eyes that had darkened to indigo scowled at him. Yohji had to admit that Aya was perfecting the disturbing looks to a frightening intensity. "I plan on making sure you land on those damn rosebushes. It would be worth the sacrifice to see you picking thorns out of your ass for a whole month."

Yohji snarled, well and truly warmed up for the fight now. "Keep being such a stubborn idiot and those thorns will be the only thing in my ass." Then he thought about what he’d just said and couldn’t help but laugh out loud. His sudden change in temperament caught Aya off guard, and the man just stared at him while Yohji laughed uncontrollably for several minutes.

When the fit came to an end, Yohji wiped his wet eyes and smiled at his mate. "Aya… gods you frustrate and confuse the hell out of me. Did you just hear what I said? You’ve driven me so crazy that I’m denying myself sex. Me, the pervert extraordinaire."

Aya cocked his head to the side, and slowly his eyes lightened as a smile spread across his lips. "That is unthinkable for you." They smiled at each other for a moment then Aya sat back against some pillows and opened his book.

Content to let the matter rest for the time being, Yohji laid back down on the bed. Something told him there would be a lot of fights in their future, but the idea didn’t faze him any. At least he could manage to pry Aya out of his shell long enough to be yelled at. Hopefully later he could work on the make up sex. But rubbing his hand over a bite mark from yesterday, Yohji figured he’d proceed a bit cautiously on that front. Aya’s teeth were damn sharp and the man wasn’t afraid to use them. Maybe after he taught his lover some manners Yohji could convince him that it wasn’t very nice to bite, unless one’s lover asked him to do so.

*******

Teddy gingerly sat down at the bench in the kitchen, trying to smile through a yawn as Koyu handed him a cup of coffee and a scone. His lover looked as tired as he felt, but Teddy wasn’t really complaining about his exhaustion. Considering how much fun the two of them had had last night, he didn’t think Koyu was complaining either. Nibbling for a minute on the pastry, he leaned an elbow against the table and wearily surveyed his family.

"So, is anyone going to tell me what was in the wine last night?"

"It wasn’t the wine. It was a damn succubae-bound," Jo barked as she set down a platter of scrambled eggs with sausage and cheese.

Mickey, his cup of coffee halfway to his mouth, stopped in amazement. "That was those two again? I thought Yohji and Aya had already mated. Don’t tell me they can keep doing things like that again and again."

"Mick, are you possibly complaining about last night? About all that wonderful, passionate sex? You’re no brother of mine," Teddy commented. The older man just sighed, picked up a scone, and tossed it at him. Koyu caught it and started to break it apart, sending Teddy a wink as he popped the pieces of scone into his mouth.

"What I’m complaining about is the fact that the Koneko is going to be declared a fertility temple if this keeps up! I might have enjoyed myself last night along with the rest of you," Mickey paused to look at Kira, who was half asleep at the table and smiling dreamily, "…but I don’t want to have to start charging for the rooms by the hour. I’ll have to explain that to Yohji later today."

Jo snorted from her end of the table. "It wasn’t Yohji’s fault last night, at least not according to him. This time it was Masato and Schu. Seems they are mates as well, so that means all succubae-bounds that we are aware of who are staying here are accounted for. Considering the fact that Yohji hasn’t tried to kill any strangers lately, I’ll assume him and his father are the only ones present in the inn and heave a sigh of relief. But we _have_ to come up with some sort of policy regarding their kind. There is no way in hell I’m going to let last night occur on a monthly basis."

"You’re no fun, Jo," Teddy pouted. When the woman glared at him, he smiled in the way that always made Jo huff and smile back at him, her anger forgotten. "Ah well, at least Koyu and I got to experience something like that once in our lives. I’m jealous that you guys had the honors twice."

"Teddy, you spent too much time with Yotan while growing up; I’m more convinced of that with each passing year." Kira smiled at the tongue he stuck out at her. "And I’ll wait to see if you want history to repeat itself after you spend the day helping me to change all the Koneko’s beds. Gods, the laundry service is going to love us for another huge order."

Mickey’s face paled, and Teddy swallowed a laugh as he surmised what his brother was thinking about. Most likely how much the sheets were going to cost him. He shook his head and entwined his fingers with Koyu’s, giving his lover’s hand a squeeze.

"I take it you spoke to Yohji today, Jo. What are his plans until this evening?"

Jo pushed her plate of food away from her and frowned. "He’s going to spend the time with Aya, which I don’t blame him for in the slightest. We’re to spread the rumor that he’s busy ‘sleeping’ with a few fellow hedonists."

Koyu smiled and glanced at Teddy for a moment. "After last night, I don’t think anyone will doubt that story. First off, Lilla ended up with the Guard Toshi, and no one will doubt that Yohji didn’t get a wink of sleep all night long. Not with so many willing lovers here pining for him. They’ll figure he’s resting after one hell of an orgy."

"Instead of curled up in bed with Aya. Speaking of whom, there’s no stopping the rumor about him and Kikyou being lovers. I think the damn Guard is behind them."

Making a face at Mickey’s news, Teddy picked up his mug and turned it around in his hands. "I’ve heard a few of them. This one merchant was going on and on about all the gifts Kikyou sent Aya, and that Aya has obviously dumped Yohji for the man since he’s going to be the next Captain. Made me sick to hear it. As if Aya would ever do something like that, especially after…" Especially after what had happened to the redhead last week, which had him still flinching in Teddy, Koyu and Mickey’s presences.

"The rumors do present a problem," Koyu quietly commented after a painful silence. When Teddy and everyone else at the table turned to look at him questioningly, the Harper shrugged his shoulders. "First we helped spread the rumors that Yohji broke up with Aya for Lilla. Now, after last night, there will be rumors that Yohji broke up with her as well and people will wait to see who he sleeps with next. Add to that the belief that Aya and Kikyou are lovers… And what’s going to happen after the royal wedding? I don’t believe that Yohji and Aya will pretend to be apart after that, not when Yohji’s clearly suffering from the lies and separation. People are going to experience a bad case of whiplash from trying to keep who’s going out with who straight in their minds."

"I never thought about that… just about keeping Aya safe. Huhn." Jo sipped her coffee, her eyes distant as she considered the latest problem. Teddy gripped his mug tightly, telling himself he could smack Koyu for adding to their worries later on.

Kira spoke as she poured everyone more coffee. "At least the presents have stopped coming here. Maybe the rumors about Aya and Kikyou will die down because of that."

"I doubt it," Koyu muttered. "You didn’t see the Guard in the garden the other day. If you want my humble opinion, I’d say the man is obsessed with Aya. The only reason the presents have probably stopped is because Aya was clearly upset about them and with Kikyou. No, I don’t think we’ve seen the last of him."

Growling in a manner that would have made Yohji proud, Teddy gave in to his impulse. The trouble with Harpers was they had to pick and pick at things, worrying them to death. Koyu was going to cause him to go grey before he turned thirty, Teddy just knew it.

As his lover yelped in pain, Teddy scowled at no one in particular. "I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Yohji is mine to torment. I’m not going to let a disowned nobleman irritate him more than me."

*******

Munching on an apple as he walked into the garden, Nagi inhaled the fragrant air. It seemed to have rained at some point last night, and he’d been unaware of the fact. A blush crept up his cheeks as he thought about what had distracted him. Taking a last bite of the apple, Nagi tossed the core into a bush and walked around.

He came across Jei as he walked towards the west wall, the older bound tossing knives at an old pear tree. The blades unerringly struck a small knot over and over again, making Nagi wonder how Jei could be on target with only one eye. Shouldn’t he have lousy depth perception?

"I lost the eye over thirty years ago. You could say that I’ve had more than enough time to adjust to the loss, and that my other senses help to make up for the lack."

"I thought you were a flesh gaki-bound and not a soul one," Nagi commented coldly as he leaned against an elm tree. Jei just smiled at him and flipped one of his blades in the air, catching it with ease. Using his talent, Nagi recalled the blades stuck in the tree and buried them at the scarred man’s feet.

"Thanks. Useful talent that you have." He bent down to retrieve the knives, making them disappear in an instant. Even though Nagi had been watching him he couldn’t say with much confidence where the blades had been hidden.

Jei chuckled again. "As for me guessing what you were thinking, I’ve seen that look a lot over the past few decades whenever someone spies me practicing. If I were human I’d probably not be able to manage the aim, but as a bound…" The older man shrugged his shoulders.

As bounds, they weren’t limited to the same things that humans were. For a moment Nagi wondered what it felt like to be so weak and fragile. Even before his powers developed he’d always healed pretty quickly and had been able to bear up under all the beatings better than the other children his age. If he’d been born human he’d probably have died years before he’d met Aya.

"So, two succubae-bound matings in two moons. That’s something for the history books."

Jei’s voice shook Nagi from his thoughts, and as he glanced at his compatriot he couldn’t help but blush again. Which, of course, caused the man to chuckle some more.

"Something tells me the young prince wasn’t drunk this time, even though he didn’t leave until about an hour ago with Liss. Tell me, did you bleed your first time?"

Idly using his power to pick Jei up and turn him upside down, dangling a few feet off the ground, Nagi frowned at the older man. "Don’t be crude."

"Not to you, at least. Nice to see that Aya isn’t the only one growing a spine." Jei smiled at him and then batted his eye. "I’ve learned my lesson. Could you put me down now, pretty please?"

Doing just that, Nagi warily eyed Jei for a moment, wondering if the man was going to retaliate against him. Instead, Jei sat down on the ground and patted the grass beside him, gesturing for Nagi to join him. He did so, warily.

Jei made a knife appear out of nowhere, encased in a sheath, and handed it to him. "Here, keep this on you at all times. Later on I’ll teach you how to throw it, but right now I’m too tired for a proper lesson. That Guard is a regular wildcat." He smiled in bliss.

"So you’ve said," Nagi drolly remarked as he accepted the gift. "Why do I need this? I have my power to protect me."

A sad look crossed Jei’s face, instantly replaced with disapproval. "Because you can’t always use your power, not without causing more trouble than it’s worth. Haven’t you learned that yet from Aya? He prevents himself from calling on the shadows when it’s clear he wants to, like with that Guard the other day. There are times when it’s not wise to reveal what you are.

"Keep the knife on you at all times. Believe it or not, it’s a hell of a lot easier to explain why you sliced some guy’s throat with it instead of explaining how he got smashed into a ball the size of a human head."

Nagi had the impression that Jei was speaking from personal experience and resolved that he had to make some new friends. An over-sexed succubae-bound, an icy precog and a blood-thirsty lunatic left a lot to be desired in the way of companionship. Things were bad enough that his best friend was a kage, someone most people would run screaming in terror from. Too bad they would never know that Aya was the sane one of the bunch.

"I’ll try to keep that in mind. Thank you for your offer, but Aya can teach me how to fight."

Jei suddenly looked away, and Nagi narrowed his eyes in suspicion. "Is there something wrong with that idea, Jei?"

"Nah, just that he won’t exactly be able to teach you much for the next few days, and I want you to learn a few things before the upcoming battle. Afterwards… I don’t think Yohji is going to let Aya out of his bed for a week or two. Let me start teaching you and he can always take over later."

That made sense, so Nagi lowered his hackles and turned his attention to the knife. The metal was finished so as not to gleam in the light, and Nagi’s powers revealed that it was a solid piece of steel with no flaws. It was a very good weapon.

"Maybe Omi could teach me something. He always carries a couple knives on him."

"Smart kid. He could probably teach you some good tricks, considering you’re both on the small side." When Nagi glared at him Jei smiled, his lips covering his fangs. "That wasn’t an insult. I’ve seen a girl half your size take down a man like Mickey with just a few knives. She taught me a few nasty tricks that have saved my skin a time or two."

Nagi nodded his head and pulled the knife from the sheath, testing its edge. It took him a moment to realize that he’d just sliced open his thumb, and figured that meant it was sharp enough.

"It will be weird, relying on something like this. I didn’t have my powers until four years ago, but I can’t remember what my life felt like without them. Do you feel the same way?"

"I guess it’s a little different for my kind, Nags. I have my claws, fangs, enhanced speed and strength to rely on, not mere thoughts. I could slice someone open so easily without the aid of a weapon," Jei flexed his claws, the long nails sliding several inches from their sheaths, "but… I don’t know, it’s easier sometimes to use weapons. It makes it less personal, gives me a touch of control over the madness. Sometimes that’s all that saves me from losing myself to my demon side forever."

"Aya’s like that when he creates his shadow weapons. He focuses more on how he was trained to fight than on the fact that he’s wielding his power. I’ve never seen him lose himself to his shinigami side, though Yohji said that happened the other day." Nagi felt a bit of guilt that his supernatural soul seemed much more integrated with his human one than the bounds around him. He wondered if that was because his nature came from a human merging with an elemental spirit and not a demon of some sort.

Jei sheathed his claws and started to chew on his bottom lip. "Yeah, I heard about that too, from Koyu and Teddy. He’s not like the rest of us, Nags. He’s all demon, held at bay by the human emotions he’s been taught to feel. I doubt Aya has ever really given himself over to his true nature, or the Takatoris would most likely be dead and there’d be another legend of a kage self destructing over a loved one. This upcoming fight should be interesting, because if it’s as bad as Crawford and Cass are predicting, Aya won’t be able to hold back."

Shivering with fear and apprehension, Nagi pressed the sheathed blade against his chest. "Jei… could you do something for me?" He didn’t like asking the man for a favor, but Jei had seemed to go out of his way to look after and adopt Nagi. Only two other people had done that for him before, and Nagi was swallowing his pride for one of their sakes.

"Sure, Nags."

Grimacing slightly at the annoying nickname, Nagi stared down at the grass between his crossed legs. "Watch out for Omi during the fight. I’ll be at Aya’s back, so I won’t be able to keep a close eye on him. I… I don’t want anything to happen to Omi."

Silent for a few heartbeats, Jei eventually nodded his head. "Yeah, I’ll keep an eye on him." He smiled without humor at the joke. "Don’t worry about the prince, I’ll do my best to see that he survives. Just focus on Aya. All this will be for nothing if he dies."

"Thank you." Feeling a bit better all of a sudden, Nagi rose to his feet. He was still hungry and wanted to take a nice long soak before talking to Aya.

Jei grabbed his hand before he could start walking away. "Listen, Nagi, and don’t get mad at me. I know I told you to have your fun with the human, but I get the impression it’s gone farther than that. Be careful, okay? Omi seems like a great person, but never forget that he’s not one of us. He’ll grow old and die before you know it, or waste away from some disease."

He glared at the man, but Jei ignored the dirty look. "All I’m trying to say is, before you take this any farther, make sure you’re willing to accept the pain with the pleasure. Humans can break our hearts into thousands of pieces. Make sure he’s worth it."

"And if he is?" Nagi’s voice was cold, his eyes narrowed in anger.

"Then accept the fact that he’ll break your heart and enjoy what time you have with him." At his stunned expression, Jei smiled. "Not what you were suspecting, were you? You should know better by now. I won’t tell you who to love or how stupid it is to do so if you really feel that strongly about someone, but I can offer a little advice. Might not be what the others would tell you, but…" Jei shrugged his shoulders. "You two look happy together. If you think he’s worth the pain, I’ll keep him safe so you can build all the good memories you’ll need to keep you sane when he’s gone. My word on it." Then the bound let him go and fell back onto the grass, gazing up at the cloudy sky.

Whispering his thanks, Nagi headed back to the Koneko.

*******

Schuldig groaned and slowly opened his eyes. The reason why he felt so damn tired and sore was resting half on top of him, pinning him to the damp mattress. A brief mental scan revealed that Masato was dead to the world, dreaming pleasant dreams of the two of them doing pretty much what they’d done all night long.

"Bastard. I’m the one who was drained dry, not you," Schuldig muttered. He lay still for a moment, startled at how good it felt to have his mate draped over his back, Masato’s breath hitting the back of his neck. It made him forget his pains and irritation.

Fuck, Masato was his mate. Schuldig groaned and pressed his face against his pillow. He had a fucking mate, one he’d given into last night. Dammit, why had he issued that challenge? ‘Make me’. What an idiot he was. Apparently twenty-three years of living with Yohji hadn’t taught him a damn thing. Obviously the blond had gotten his love of challenges from his father.

Still, as grumpy as he was over the fact that Fate was dictating his life once again, Schuldig felt a smile curve his lips. The past couple weeks had been filled with envy towards Yohji and Aya, of feeling left out. Well, somehow he doubted he’d ever feel that way again. Not with a stubborn, persistent idiot as his mate. The mere memory of how demanding he’d been last night had Schuldig purring. Well, if he had to have a mate, why not make the man work hard for it? And that was exactly Masato had done, with such delicious results….

"Hmm, you’re purring. Thinking good thoughts?" Masato nuzzled the back of Schuldig’s neck, making him shiver in pleasure.

<I was just thinking about how you had to be all bossy last night.> He rolled over to face Masato. <Don’t get the idea that you can do things like that again whenever you feel like it. I won’t go so easy on you the next time.> He ran his unsheathed claws along Masato’s neck, gently scratching the golden skin. His mate had to understand that while last night had been about bound nature responding to challenges, Schuldig wasn’t going to just let Masato swamp him with his power whenever he felt like it. Next time Masato tried the compulsion on him, Schuldig wasn’t going to give in or just scratch him lightly.

Masato bent his head down until their noses touched and Schuldig almost went cross-eyed staring into the man’s hazel eyes. "All I wanted last night was for you to be my mate. Now that I have you…." He bent his head down and kissed Schuldig rather thoroughly, leaving him gasping after a few minutes. "I look forward to many, many fights, and I’ll make you this promise. Don’t use your power on me, and I won’t use the compulsion on you ever again."

Not crazy with the idea of not being able to use his power to get his way, Schuldig pouted for a moment. But Masato’s thought of how sexy he looked when he did that restored Schuldig’s faith that he wouldn’t need his telepathy to get whatever he wanted from the man. Oh, he was going to have some serious fun wrapping the older bound around his finger.

"I don’t think I like the look on your face at the moment," Masato said, an anxious frown marring his handsome face.

Schuldig smiled wickedly, the grin growing bigger when he caught the other man’s thought that the current smile was even worse than the previous look. "I accept your conditions. Now let’s seal it with a kiss."

Grunting, Masato reluctantly did just that, all the while wondering what the hell he’d just gotten himself into. Schuldig laughed inside his head as he thought of all the fun that lay in store for him. Poor Masato, he didn’t stand a chance.

*******

Aya sighed in contentment as he tossed a leg over Yohji’s and rested his head on the man’s chest. He felt a bit tired and extremely relaxed at the moment, and would give anything to remain like this for a long time to come.

"Well, that should help keep me fed for a couple days," Yohji purred as he combed his fingers through Aya’s hair. "I might even need to take a nap to recover."

Flicking his finger across one of Yohji’s nipples, Aya inwardly smiled when his lover sucked in a lungful of air at the light caress. "Then take one." He hoped that he’d been able to keep his voice smooth and neutral. Aya guessed not when Yohji tugged on one of his eartails and lifted his head to look down at him, a slight frown on his face.

"You going to join me?"

"No, I’m going to be sleeping enough the next few days." That time there had definitely been some emotion in his voice, bitterness at that, and Yohji frowned some more. Aya reminded himself that no matter how blank he kept his face or voice, Yohji could feel his emotions. There were a few disadvantages to this whole mate concept. If he tried blocking Yohji from his emotions now, the man would definitely know something was wrong.

"Aya… you really don’t have to do this. Maybe Schuldig could mess with Masafumi and Reiji’s minds on the day of the wedding and make them forget all about using the sphere against you."

"But their deaths would still free the soul gaki inside, and Aya-chan would be dead forever. I’m doing it, Yohji." Aya waited for his lover to continue, to press the issue and insist that Aya needed to be kept safe, but Yohji fell silent. It seemed someone had learned something from their fights yesterday.

Too bad Yohji hadn’t learned anything from the one earlier. They had spent some peaceful time together, Aya reading his book and Yohji lost in his thoughts, and suddenly out of the blue the older man had started to ask him about his family. Yohji had told a few stories about his mother when Aya didn’t say a word, and then had really started to pester Aya.

He’d finally told Yohji about a few incidents just to get the man to leave him alone, but Yohji had kept pressing him. The blond had this ridiculous idea that Aya needed to talk about the past. He didn’t. There was no way Aya would ever forget anything about his family or the years spent in the Takatoris’ hands, and he didn’t see the sense in talking about what had happened to him.

So he’d started to snap at Yohji and had returned his attention back to his book, only to be told that while it was very childish, Yohji thought Aya was so adorable when he sulked. Sulked. Aya did not sulk. It wasn’t in his nature to do something like that. Brood, possibly yes, but he didn’t sulk or pout. And his teeth gritted together every time Yohji called him adorable.

Which had led to the beginning of another fight, and before he knew it Aya was on the bed kissing Yohji silent. He didn’t think there was any compulsion involved this time, though Yohji had felt rather happy and smug about something, but Aya hadn’t been about to argue over the results, not when his lover had been too preoccupied to pester him with questions, and the sex…

"You didn’t hear a word I said, did you, Aya?"

Aya lifted his head and gazed at Yohji trying to figure out what the man was talking about. Yohji smiled and grabbed him by both eartails this time, hauling Aya up for a deep kiss. Their tongues battled for a few minutes before Aya pulled away, out of breath and reminding himself that as much as he wanted to return the recent favor and have Yohji under him, driven just as wild with pleasure as he’d been a short while ago, that he couldn’t spare the energy at the moment.

Yohji smiled, the expression full of lust and smugness, and traced his finger along Aya’s bottom lip. "You’re thinking about fucking me right now, aren’t you? Wasn’t that enough for you just now? I’ve never heard you yell like that and thought I’d done a pretty good job. But maybe I’m slipping in my old age."

"Hn. You’re the inexhaustible pervert, Yohji," Aya snapped as he batted his mate’s finger aside. "Stop confusing the two of us."

"Maybe I’m wearing off on you, love." Aya shuddered at the idea. The last thing he needed was to turn out like Yohji. The two of them would never be able to leave the bed to attend the wedding, or anything else.

"I don’t believe I want to know what you were just thinking, the emotions were bad enough. And I’ve the idea that I was insulted in some way." Yohji flicked an eartail along Aya’s cheek. "So why don’t you make it up to me and tell me what your favorite color is, and what you wanted to be when you were a kid. Hmm?"

Aya sighed and didn’t waste the energy to free his eartail. Yohji would just snatch it back or grab the other one. Why the man had to play with the damn things was beyond Aya’s ken. Maybe he should just grow out all of his hair and drive Yohji wild with having all that hair to play with.

"Why are you asking all these silly questions today? Can’t we just relax until this evening?"

Yohji shook his head, his eyes echoing the sudden sadness that had overwhelmed him. "Love, we don’t have that much more time to ask these ‘silly questions’. After tonight… there won’t be any time."

"They can wait until after the wedding," Aya whispered, his right hand rubbing Yohji’s chest in a soothing manner.

"No, I want to ask them now. I don’t know much about you, Aya, besides the hell you’ve been through. Once the fighting is over and you’re free, we have a long life ahead of us. I want to know more about you when we start it other than you like to read and eat sweet things, and that if I nibble on the spot right under your ears you purr and arch your back. Most long-term relationships are based on something more than sex, Aya." Yohji exhaled sharply and entwined the eartail around his fingers.

"I know I love you and need you, there’s no doubt about that in my heart or mind. I know you feel the same about me. But I want to know all I can about you and share everything about me with you. We’re mates, Aya, and just because we’re bound together doesn’t mean we don’t have to work at making each other happy. If you don’t speak up about things, like me not treating you as an equal, I’ll never know why I’m making you miserable."

Aya closed his eyes. For the past twelve years the only one he’d had to talk to had been Nagi, and that had been just for the last few of them. Even then, Nagi and he didn’t need to talk about these things; it had been enough just to be there for each other. What Yohji was proposing was an intimacy that scared him. He was a kage, he was supposed to be alone and not depend on anyone. Why couldn’t Yohji see that?

"You’re not listening to a word I said again, are you? Gods, Aya, all I want is for you to be happy. We’ve got centuries ahead of us to live, can’t you forget the pain for once?"

"Then what the hell am I, Yohji? What has there been for me besides pain?" Aya snarled, his hands clenching into fists. Yohji couldn’t understand, and never would be able to. He’d lived a life free of pain for the most part, and had been protected from harm. Yohji was blessed with having tons of good memories that he wanted to share, with knowing what was his favorite holiday and color because he’d had a normal life. Aya didn’t have a fucking clue what ‘normal’ even was.

It was clear that Yohji was angry, Aya could feel the man’s emotions. But all the older bound did was close his eyes for a few seconds and sigh. "Aya, you have to move beyond your past. I don’t expect you to do that right away, but you have to at least fucking try! You say you trust me, and I believe you do. So let me in, dammit. Stop being some cold mythological creature and _live_. Within a week you’ll be free, can’t you be the least bit excited and hopeful about that?"

"I’ll be free if we’re lucky, Yohji." Aya knew that he wasn’t an optimist, but he didn’t think he was being overly cynical by being cautious. "You act like we’ll definitely win. There’s no guarantee that we will. Even Cass and Crawford say that it’s just the most _likely_ future. That doesn’t sound very definite to me."

Yohji growled for a moment. "You… gods, you’re a stubborn ass. It’s called ‘faith’ Aya. You believe in something, and by doing so you help it to come about. How can you fight to win when you think you’re going to lose?"

Aya swallowed, his throat suddenly seeming very tight. "I’m fighting, Yohji. Isn’t that enough?" It was hard enough for him to do that much, when his reasons for fighting were based on fragile promises and dreams.

"Stubborn. Miserable, angsty, stubborn damn cat." Yohji bent his head to kiss Aya on the nose. "You’re such a handful, I’ll have you know. I see I have my job cut out for me. But I’ll teach you how to have faith yet." He snorted and let his head fall back against the pillows.

Wondering if they’d been fighting again or not, and if the matter had been settled, Aya observed Yohji warily for a few minutes before relaxing against his mate again. He was a touch tired, and despite his earlier words he was seriously debating a quick nap before dinner. It felt so nice to lie beside Yohji and feel safe for a while. It was pleasant enough to make Aya hope that the blond was right about what lay ahead of them after the wedding.

"So, what is your favorite color? And don’t you dare say black. You’re too damn morbid for words, Aya."

Baring his teeth, Aya looked about for a bit of Yohji’s flesh he could sink them into. Could the man not shut up for five minutes? At least ‘morbid’ was better than ‘adorable,’ he thought, as he spied Yohji’s shoulder.

*******

Yuushi bit back on a curse when he caught sight of Liss. The woman actually had teeth marks on her throat and was walking with a pronounced limp.

"Were you attacked or something? Who did this to you? They’re dead."

The woman graced him with a saucy smile and shook her head. "Gods, you better not touch the man responsible or I’ll kill you. What happened to me was the best night of sex in my life." She stretched her arms over her head, wincing slightly before she let them fall back down and straightened her long blue coat. "Someone spiked the beer at the Koneko again. If the first time hadn’t happened before he showed up, I’d blame Teddy Kudoh for it. Well, make that thank him and find out what the hell he’s using for an aphrodisiac."

Wondering how they’d drifted onto this topic, Yuushi sighed and started walking towards the armory. Toshi was on duty there, and Liss and he were to go ‘liberate’ a few things. If they slowly took the weapons and armor they’d need for the wedding a few at a time, it was more likely no one would notice they were missing until too late.

"Maybe the Guards should investigate who really is behind this. It’s not safe to use spells like that just for a practical joke."

"Well, considering about a whole cadre of the Guards was at the Koneko last night and enjoyed the benefits of the spell, I don’t think they see it as a great crime being committed. Though we do have our suspicions about who’s behind it."

Yuushi looked back at Liss, waiting for her answer. He knew he wasn’t going to like it by the way she was grinning.

"Well, you’ve heard the rumors about how Kikyou’s been sniffing around Yohji’s lover, Aya, haven’t you?" When he nodded his head Liss continued. "We think Kikyou’s behind the aphrodisiacs. He was at the Koneko when it first happened, and then it happens again right after he makes a public move on Aya. He’s probably trying to get Aya all hot and bothered for him."

"Some of the greatest investigative minds in the whole country, and that’s what you’ve come up with?" Yuushi reminded himself why he was putting his neck on the line with these people. He had to be crazy. "I’m so proud."

Liss gave him the finger then dropped her hand as they came across a group of nobles. They remained quiet until they were once again alone.

"Yuushi, have you given any more thought about including Ken Hidaka in… whatever the hell we’re doing? He’s a good man, and a great fighter."

Yuushi shook his head. "He’s also very likely to confess the whole affair to Manx or Birman. I agree that he’s a good Guard, but he’s always played by the rules. I can remember several fights he got into with Kudoh over his insistence on seeing things as either black or white. We’re too much in the grey area to take that risk."

"Damn. I hate lying to my partner, especially when he asked me last night if something was going on. He’s a good guy, and we could use him on our side. But, you do have a point."

"He was asking questions?" Yuushi glanced at Liss, his brows furrowed with worry. They couldn’t risk anyone finding out what they were planning, or it would all be for nothing.

Liss held her hands up and furiously shook her head back and forth. "No, no, it’s not like that. He was just asking what a couple others and me were talking about. Ken may not look like it, but he’s pretty smart. We’ll have to be more careful around him if we can’t include him in what we’re doing."

"Then be more careful. I don’t need to remind you that if anyone finds out about our plans, we could all be killed." More than likely the majority of them would die the day of the wedding anyway, but Yuushi wouldn’t dwell on that or he’d be too guilt ridden to function. Everyone knew what they were getting into, and knew their duty.

"I will be. Don’t worry, he’s been really distracted by something today, I doubt he’ll give the conversation another thought."

Yuushi grunted as he hurried down the hall. Maybe he should have Reiichi keep an eye on Hidaka. At this point in the game, they couldn’t be too careful.

*******

Yohji rubbed Aya’s shoulders as they stared out the bedroom window at the garden. Aya allowed the touch, not even flinching as he’d taken to doing the past couple days when Yohji touched him there. Humming quietly, Yohji let one of his hands drop down to Aya’s waist and slid his other one around the front of his lover’s chest, holding him closely against his body.

"Hmm, the fireflies are out. It’s a little early for them, don’t you think?"

"I guess so." Aya paused for a moment, and after swallowing resumed speaking. "Aya-chan and I used to chase them until they went away for the night. My father had bought us these glass cages for them, but we had to let them go before we went to bed." Aya’s voice held a distant quality to it and was heavy with sadness.

"Schu and I would try to catch them, but Teddy would chase after us to prevent it and made Mickey help him. We never managed to catch more than a few a night, and I can’t tell you how many times we got grounded for getting fed up with the damn brat and tossing him into the pond. Huhn, one time he even swallowed a carp. Mom was furious at us for that one; she’d paid a lot of money for it since it was a tri-color. It would have been real pretty if it had lived long enough to grow up."

Smiling a bit at the happy memories, Yohji buried his face in Aya’s hair and breathed in the scent of roses. In a few minutes someone would let them know that Botan was ready upstairs. Then they’d go to the attic and Aya would give the damn wizard his blood.

Dammit, why was it when he’d spent most of the day trying to get Aya to forget about his pain and suffering that it had to end with more of the same? Yohji knew Aya would be in agony in a short while, and he had no hope of preventing that from happening. But the sacrifice had to be made in hopes of putting things like this behind them forever. That was all that kept Yohji from treating Aya like a ‘doll’ and tying the man to the bed to keep him here. Not that his chances for survival would be very good once Aya got free. No, the man wouldn’t appreciate being treated that way, Yohji understood that now. Also, Aya wouldn’t appreciate anything that kept him from saving his precious sister. Yohji wanted the girl freed too, just so he could have Aya to himself.

Only he could be jealous of a dead girl, but he was. As long as Aya-chan’s soul was trapped, Aya would think of her welfare before his own. Yohji couldn’t handle much more of that, not without being reduced to trying to shake some sense into the idiot. Which would lead to Aya siccing the shadows on him and Nagi tossing him through a wall. Those weren’t very pleasant prospects.

"When this is over, I want for us to go down there and spend the whole night chasing the silly things. We’ll bribe Nagi and Jei to sit on Mickey and Teddy while we catch every damn firefly we see. Then we’ll let them loose in Teddy’s room. How does that sound?"

Aya leaned back against him and sighed. "…A part of me cringes each time you make plans for the future. I can’t help but think that we’re testing Fate by doing that."

"It’s not testing Fate, Aya. It’s having faith that Fate won’t play us false. We deserve a break, a chance for happiness, and all we’re doing is asking for our fair share. Testing Fate would be to expect Reiji and his sons to come down with food poisoning and die the day before the wedding. It’s utterly ridiculous to plan on something like that and begging for disappointment."

"You’re crazy, Yohji. I think I’m just realizing that." But Aya gave him the ghost of a smile and rested his head on Yohji’s rather sore shoulder. The one his damn cat kept mistaking for a chew toy.

"They say the gods smile on the insane, because it’s no sense being nasty to poor buggers who can’t appreciate their sick sense of humor." He kissed Aya gently on the side of his neck, provoking a purr from the man. They resumed staring at the garden, quietly counting the fireflies.

When they’d reached forty-seven there was a knock on the door. Nagi slid inside as they turned around, a solemn look on his face. That was nothing new, really. It seemed whenever Yohji saw the boy he was either solemn or pissed at him over something.

"He’s ready. Are you sure you want to do this, Aya?"

As much as the little demon could irritate him, Yohji had to admit he actually liked Nagi, just for that comment alone. It was nice to know that someone else annoyed Aya just as much as he did by being so overprotective, though Aya didn’t bite Nagi. Probably because the boy tasted lousy. Guess it was his own damn fault he was so scrumptious. Though Yohji was giving more and more thought to filing down Aya’s teeth with each bite.

"I’m. Sure." Aya’s voice was pure ice there, and Yohji was hard pressed not to shiver in response. The smaller man walked over to the door and paused before a stunned Nagi. Aya shook his head and pushed on the boy’s shoulder, indicating that he should lead the way. Nagi grasped Aya’s hand and squeezed it for a second before complying.

Yohji decided the little demon had a good idea and clasped one of Aya’s hands in his when he caught up with his lover. Aya squeezed it almost painfully, and Yohji could sense the man’s apprehension. He sent a little strength to Aya, trying to bolster him and remind him that he wasn’t in this alone. Yohji would be by his side the whole time, sharing his pain.

*******

"You really don’t have to do this, you know," Yohji commented as he brushed back Aya’s bangs.

Leaning forward to rest against his love for a moment, Aya closed his eyes and breathed in Yohji’s scent. This time he didn’t become angry at hearing those words yet again. He knew agony awaited him on the other side of the attic door, but he had to go through with this. Aya-chan had to be rescued if he wanted any chance at a future of happiness and freedom. Yohji knew that too, but was just trying to spare him more pain.

"Yes, I do." Once Aya-chan was free the pain would disappear. Aya stepped away from Yohji, but continued to hold one of the man’s hands in his, and pushed open the door. Everyone was in the large room waiting for them, and the spell couldn’t be cast without his blood. Aya wanted to get this over with as soon as possible.

Omi called out a greeting to them as soon as the three of them entered the attic, but only Yohji and Nagi responded. All of Aya’s attention was on the sight before him.

Aya looked across the candlelit attic, noting first the vast space and then the numerous stacks of books piled near the eastern wall. The area smelled like oiled wood, paper and leather, with a hint of cedar and herbs. The north side of the attic was clear of clutter and had been swept clean. Various pillows were scattered about the floor. In the middle of the open space was a circle of white and blue, with arcane markings and obscure kanji scattered about its circumference. Blue, white, green and red candles were at the cardinal points, and in the center of the circle a glass sphere rested on a blue pillow. Aya could sense the circle’s magic, its power making his skin crawl.

Botan stepped away from the circle and nodded his head at Aya. "Everything’s all ready for the spell. Aya, I’m sorry but I need to gather your blood now."

Aya closed his eyes and dipped his head minutely. Yohji’s arms around him tightened and his mate nuzzled his neck, a reassuring presence that helped to still the painful flood of memories that swamped Aya: memories of him standing in Masafumi’s studio, Tot and Schoen holding his arms steady for the wizard to cut them. He shivered in remembered pain. Aya forced himself to step closer to the circle.

Yohji slowly lowered him to the floor, supporting Aya’s body and holding him close. When they were seated on some pillows Aya began to roll up his sleeves, proud of how his hands weren’t shaking. Nagi and Omi settled at his side, both boys quiet and solemn.

"I thought to just bleed the one arm," Botan commented quietly.

"Do both, it will make it quicker," Aya tersely replied. When his sleeves were up he looked at the wizard, who held a knife in his trembling hand, and sighed. Aya looked around until he saw Jei standing in the shadows a few feet away. He made eye contact with the scarred man.

"Can you…"

Jei nodded his head and pushed away from the wall he’d been leaning against. "I’ll make the cuts. Probably have more experience than… Botan at that and won’t botch it up. Just try not to look too delicious or I might mistake you for a steak."

Unable to smile, Aya appreciated the joke none-the-less. Botan gratefully stepped out of the way to allow the scowling bound to take his place, and as he approached, Jei seemed to pull a knife out of thin air. After glaring at the wizard for a moment, he knelt in front of Aya and reached for his left arm first. Aya flinched at his touch.

"I’m here, cat," Yohji breathed in Aya’s ear, and then he started to nibble on Aya’s neck. The caress was a welcome distraction from the sudden line of fire and pain that spread across Aya’s left arm. Yohji held him tighter as the right arm was cut, and both limbs were next stationed over silver bowls provided by Botan.

Everyone was quiet, and the sound of dripping blood seemed abnormally loud to Aya’s ears. Cursing softly, Yohji began to hum a song, breaking apart the hated sound. He held Aya with an arm around his waist and another around his upper chest.

Feeling the blood flowing from his veins, Aya closed his eyes and had the shadows form hooks to keep the wounds open. He didn’t want them to keep closing and needing to be recut, even though Jei had done a very good job in the first place. If Masafumi let one of his women make the cuts, Aya’s arms usually ended up butchered from their attention. Tot in particular liked to cut him to the bone.

He was shivering again, from both mental and physical pain. The shivering didn’t stop as the minutes ticked by and Aya grew colder and colder. He kept waiting for the abuse to start, for someone to strike or cut at him, but all that happened was Yohji holding him close and continuing to hum. No one else spoke or moved.

The world was becoming a distant blur when Aya heard Yohji speak. "How much more, dammit? You must have enough by now. Aya’s so damn cold." Hands started to rub along his body, causing Aya to moan and try to jerk away. He remembered the feel of Hirofumi’s hands on his skin the last time he’d been bled.

"Shh, cat, it’s me. I won’t hurt you." Energy started to trickle into Aya, helping him to push back the greyness that was clouding his senses, but not enough to stop the pain that spread through his body. Aya groaned at the sensation of his bound physiology forcing oxygen and nutrient deprived organs to keep working. It felt like thousands of fiery needles burrowing deep inside him.

"Dammit, Botan. How much more?"

"Just another minute, Yohji. I’d rather take a little more than I need than to not have enough for my spells. I only want to bleed Aya once." Someone’s hand other than Yohji’s touched Aya’s skin, making him snarl weakly. Botan immediately apologized and shifted away from Aya.

The agony continued as Aya’s heartbeat slowed, having less and less blood to pump through his veins. He slumped in Yohji’s arms, no longer able to stay upright.

"There, that’s enough. Aya, let go of the hooks. You can let the wounds close now."

Yohji patted his face, pouring energy into Aya with each touch. Breathing in deeply, Aya willed the shadows away. Nagi immediately seized his wrists and gently wiped them clean before rubbing ointment on them and bandaging them. Aya’s head lolled against Yohji’s shoulder, his eyes half-closed as he tried with difficulty to stay conscious. Part of him wanted to retreat away from the pain, but Aya willed himself to remain awake for the spell. He needed to do one more thing tonight. Yohji’s energy helped him remain aware.

"Never again, Aya. I’m never going to watch or feel this happen to you again." Yohji’s voice was hoarse as he cradled Aya in his arms, keeping his touches light to spare Aya pain. He could feel Yohji’s emotions and knew that his mate was suffering along with him. Unable to speak, Aya just closed his eyes for a few seconds. A kiss was pressed against his forehead.

"I’m going to start now. Aya, I’ll need you to focus on your sister at one point during the spell, so please try to remain awake."

Aya forced his eyes open so he could watch Botan perform the spell that would help free his sister. The faint hope stirred inside him that maybe this would have to be one of the last sacrifices he made for the girl, that soon they both could be free. All this pain had to have been for something.

*******

Watching Nagi tend to Aya, Botan gingerly picked up one of the bowls of blood and carried it over to the table by Cassandra. She held out a silver flask for him to pour some of the blood into, and Omi carried over the other bowl. Botan left the extra blood with Cassandra and took the flask in one hand and Omi’s arm in the other and led the boy over to the circle. Stopping before the circle, he looked back in Aya’s direction. The kage was a limp form in Yohji’s arms, and the blond was whispering something to his lover. Unsure if Aya was conscious or not, Botan cleared his throat.

"I’m going to start now. Aya, I’ll need you to focus on your sister at one point during the spell, so please try to remain awake."

Aya slowly opened his eyes and stared back at Botan, and Nagi shifted to face the circle. Feeling everyone’s attention focus on him, Botan closed his eyes and said a silent prayer to the gods. Please let this work. He then stepped into the circle and muttered a chant to allow Omi to pass through the wards and motioned for him to sit on one of the yellow cushions within it.

"Ken, I need you in here with us."

The Guard started at the sound of Botan’s voice and slowly crossed the room. Botan noticed that Ken’s face was pale and his skin sweaty and tried to smile reassuringly at the young man. Ken didn’t even seem to notice the gesture as his eyes were focused on the floor. His athletic body was tense with emotion, and Ken jumped when Botan grabbed his hand and pulled him towards a cushion.

"Please sit here." It only took a moment for the three of them to become situated in the circle. When they all were seated Botan magically closed the circle and reached for the glass sphere. He could feel the flesh gaki trapped inside of it, swirling around and trying to break free. The demon radiated anger, hate and hunger. Pressing his lips together, Botan cradled the sphere in his hands.

"No noise while I cast the spell. We can’t afford any distractions." He looked at the people gathered around the circle, making sure that they understood him. Yohji glanced up from Aya, nodding his head, then returned his attention to his mate. Nagi kept looking back and forth between Aya and Omi, and Jei was stationed over the three of them, acting as a sentinel.

Cassandra was busy pouring the blood into silver flasks, Schuldig and Masato helping her with her task. Crawford and Jo stood off to the side, their faces guarded and their bodies tense. Everyone accounted for, Botan nodded his head and began the spell. He began by calling spirits to aid him.

Thanks to the flask of Aya’s blood the spirits rushed to him, eager to do his bidding and twist the possibilities and elements however Botan wished in exchange for a taste of the fluid. Chanting under his breath the formulas that would tell them his wishes, Botan lifted the sphere from its pillow and set it on the silver tray underneath. He carefully placed the spare cushion in his lap, mindful of the glowing lines and characters that comprised the magic circle. It wouldn’t do to smudge them, especially if he screwed up and the gaki became free.

Botan continued to chant for several minutes, setting up the basis of the spell, then grabbed Ken’s right hand, making the Guard moan at his touch. Ignoring the young man’s reaction, Botan recited the spell that would claim a portion of Ken’s soul and, with his silver knife, nicked the Guard’s middle finger.

His voice boomed through the attic, the magic making an oath of the words and binding them to reality. "A courageous soul’s portion, freely given, held from harm by faith and sacrifice."

Ken jerked and gasped as his blood hit the sphere, and Botan saw something white and glowing exit the wound and swirl around the glass ball before sinking in. He heard the flesh gaki inside scream its hate and frustration at having blood so near it, and then it tried to swallow the fragment of human soul that was now included in its prison. But it couldn’t consume the immaterial substance.

Releasing Ken’s hand, Botan reached for Omi’s. The prince held it out to him, a wan smile on his lips. Botan didn’t have the time to return it, as his attention and energy needed to be focused solely on the task at hand. He gripped Omi’s wrist and with a sudden slash cut the boy’s palm open. He needed more blood than Ken’s few drops this time.

As the crimson liquid dripped onto the sphere and into the bowl, Botan continued with the spell. "Royal blood, freely given, to cloak and fool." He chanted for several minutes, letting the blood continue to flow. Then he let go of Omi’s wrist.

Feeling the possibilities he wanted begin to correlate around the sphere, Botan forced his mind to remain focused on what he was hoping to achieve, an illusion so perfect that the Takatoris would never suspect that the glass ball didn’t hold a soul gaki and Aya’s sister. He continued to weave the spells that would make his wish come true then poured the final ingredient into the bowl.

"Kage blood, freely given, a sacrifice for freedom’s sake." The blood smoked and sizzled around the sphere, turning black.

Looking away from the glass object for the first time since he had started the spell, Botan gazed at Aya for a few seconds. "Aya, focus your thoughts on your sister’s cage. Picture it in your mind." Botan waited for the kage to nod his head then returned his attention to the spell.

"Blood and soul, sacrificed willingly to replace that taken by force. Spirits, cloud the eyes and fool the minds, so that wrongs may be corrected. Sacrifices have been made and must be honored. So mote it be."

The blood continued to smoke, but instead of dissipating into the air, the clouds of darkness collected inside the sphere until it was completely black. As Botan finished his spell the sphere began to glow, the darkness slowly being replaced by white.

Taking a deep breath, Botan bowed his head in appreciation to the spirits and released the wards. The magic circle faded away, and Nagi rushed over to Omi’s side, bandages in his hands. Seeing that his young friend was being tended to, Botan helped Ken to his feet. The Guard appeared dazed and kept rubbing his right hand over his chest.

"Ken, are you all right?"

"… It aches. I feel cold." Ken’s voice was weary, his words sounding blunted. His face was pale and expressionless. Botan patted him on the shoulder and gently pushed him into motion. As Ken wandered away Botan picked up the sphere from the silver bowl and studied it carefully.

It seemed utterly perfect to him, even fooling him for a few seconds into thinking a soul gaki resided inside. But he only had seen the real thing through the eyes of others and wanted a better opinion of it. Botan carried it over to Aya.

Yohji was standing with the kage in his arms, handling the other man’s weight with ease. Botan approached the couple warily, mindful of how irrational Yohji could be when Aya was hurt. He then held out the sphere.

Aya gazed at it for a moment and slowly lifted both his hands to cup the sphere. Botan’s hands hovered under Aya’s, fearful that the weak man would drop the glass ball. But all that happened was Aya’s eyes closed and his face twisted with pain for a few heartbeats and he returned the sphere.

Then the kage nodded his head before resting it against Yohji’s chest. The blond held his lover tighter against him and stepped away from Botan.

"So, we’re done here? Aya needs to be put to bed, and someone should make sure that Ken gets home safely." Yohji glanced worriedly at his friend. "You really okay, Kenken?"

"I’m fine, Yohji, just cold." Ken’s voice was still lacking in emotion, but at least his skin wasn’t so pale anymore.

Crawford walked over to the Guard and tapped him on the shoulder. "We’ll stop downstairs to see if a shot or two of whiskey won’t help, and then I’ll take you home. I have business on that side of town this evening." The two men headed for the door leading downstairs, and Yohji, once again, glanced at Botan, an eyebrow arched over his right eye.

Botan nodded his head. "We’re finished. I’m going to take the blood back to my study and spend the night rendering it." He looked over at Schuldig. "Meet me there tomorrow afternoon, just before sundown. I’ll have it ready by then." He wearily thought that there would be little rest for him until the spheres had been switched. The worst was his skin was already beginning to itch, as if covered with a thin coat of slime. Botan absolutely hated casting spells that involved blood; they always made him feel filthy afterwards. It just didn’t seem like proper magic unless he was completely exhausted afterwards from spending his own energy, but the use of blood had saved him vital strength, which he would now put to use refining Aya’s blood. A dark mood began to settle over him.

Cassandra gathered up some of the flasks and smiled at Botan. "It will be fine. Felt it I did, as soon as you finished your magicks. Schuldig will be successful tomorrow’s eve, and they will be none the wiser. Everything will be as it should be, all awaiting Summer’s Solstice."

He wished he could share his lover’s enthusiasm. But all Botan could think about were the sacrifices made tonight, and he had a sinking feeling that they would be just the beginning.

*******

Yohji carried Aya down the steps, Omi and Nagi at his heels. Shadows formed around him the moment he stepped through the attic door, not as thick as the day Aya and he had gone to the bathing room, but Yohji thought they’d be thick enough to hide him from anyone’s sight. Fortunately everyone was downstairs in the common room listening to Koyu play, and they made it safely to his room.

Only to find Birman sitting by the desk with a bored look on her face. Yohji knew the woman was there the moment he stepped into the room and smelled her, and he snarled at the Spymaster as he set Aya on their bed.

"What the fuck do you want?"

Birman blinked at him and sat up straight in the chair. "I wanted to know how Botan’s spell went. Is Aya all right? And you too, Omi?"

"I’m fine, Birman, a cut palm aside. And we believe that the spell was a success." Omi cradled his injured hand against his chest and sat down on the window seat. Nagi remained by the bed to help Yohji pull down the bed sheets and to remove Aya’s boots and pants. When that was done he went to join his lover.

Struggling with his temper, Yohji gently tucked the sheets around Aya and bent to kiss his mate on the lips. Aya’s eyes were closed, but he knew the man wasn’t asleep yet, even though he was filled with exhaustion. His stubborn little idiot, Yohji thought. Combing his fingers through one of Aya’s eartails, Yohji settled on the bed next to the redhead and glared at Birman. The sooner the woman left the sooner Aya would allow himself to sleep.

"He just lost most of his blood, how the hell do you think he feels? And why don’t you go bother Botan if you want to know how the spell went?" He wasn’t in the mood to put up with any of Birman’s tricks tonight, not by a long shot. If she thought she could come here and blackmail him again, the woman was going to be tossed out the window, and regardless of the damage to Aya’s precious rose bushes. All Yohji wanted to do was curl up beside Aya and sleep, which he couldn’t do until Birman was gone. He was giving her two minutes before he went with the window option, after all.

Birman’s lips pressed into a thin line, and then she sighed and shook her head. "Alright, it might not be the best time to bother you, but I wanted to make sure that everything went well. The reason why I’m pestering you is that I’ve learned from past incidents to never bother Botan after he casts a blood spell, since they leave him in a totally foul mood. Believe it or not, you seem to be the safer person to approach.

"Also, I’m afraid that Omi needs to come home tonight." She flashed a sympathetic look at the teenager. "Sorry, but Manx’s orders, backed by your father. The closer the wedding approaches, the less freedom you’re going to be allowed. I had to fight as it was for your daily visits to the Koneko, and you’ve got to attend the party tomorrow night."

Omi groaned quietly and rested his head on Nagi’s shoulder. "Could you give me another hour please, Birman? You know I won’t be able to leave the damn party at all tomorrow night, which means I won’t see Nagi and Aya until Wednesday."

A bit non-plussed that he’d been omitted from the list, Yohji growled as he curled up around Aya. The damn brat Nagi had definitely corrupted poor Omi.

"All right, one hour. I’ll be downstairs having a drink until then, but we really do have to return tonight." Birman rose from her chair and looked at Yohji. "Will Aya be alright? He looks so pale."

"He’ll be fine in a day or two." Aya better be fine that quickly, or Yohji would fall apart from the stress. He couldn’t take his mate suffering like this for much longer and wanted to get the damn wedding over with already. Once that was done, Aya would be free and Yohji would make sure he was never hurt again.

Birman paused by the bed, shifting back a little when Yohji bared his teeth at her proximity. She seemed unsure about something, her eyes hooded and her hands clasping each other. After a few seconds she spoke in a soft voice.

"Let me know if you need any assistance from me. I thought you might like to be informed of the fact that I have spies watching Reiji and his sons at all times. If any of them or their servants come anywhere near the Koneko, I’ll make sure that you receive warning."

Yohji just glared at her for the ‘kind’ offer. "What will I owe you if that happens?"

"Yotan! You shouldn’t say things like that," Omi remarked from the window. All Yohji did was grunt and continue to glare at his new employer.

Who had the decency to blush, just slightly. "No, Omi, I understand why he said that. Consider it free of charge, Kudoh. I have to keep my employees in good condition if I hope to get any use out of them. Your orders for now are to protect Aya. Good night."

Yohji watched Birman leave the room, wishing all the while he had Nagi’s powers. He would have dearly loved to have slammed the door on Birman’s ass, even if it would just be petty revenge. The nerve of the woman, to give him orders like that. Then he buried his face in Aya’s hair, breathing in the scent of roses and a hint of blood. Yohji sat up on the bed to remove his clothes so he could slide under the covers.

"Yohji, please remember that Birman means well. I’m not happy with the offer she made you the other day, but once her word is given, Birman will honor it to her death." Yohji grunted and glared in Omi’s direction. The boy just shook his head at the dirty look.

"I know, you’re still upset with her. Oh well, we’re going to be going then. Let me know if you and Aya need anything from me before I leave. If not, I’ll see you on Wednesday, Yohji." Omi jumped off the window seat and headed for the door.

Nagi followed him, but paused by the bed and frowned at Yohji, telekinetically picking up the clothes that had been tossed onto the floor and setting them on the recently vacated chair. "Do you want me to spend the night here?"

"No, I’m fine," Yohji said as he slid under the sheets next to Aya. "Besides, most likely Jei or someone else will take guard at the door. If you want to do anything for us, bring us a huge breakfast in the morning." He’d need to seriously eat to have enough energy to spare some for Aya. Yohji doubted he’d be able to feed in his preferred method for the next day or two.

"Now go enjoy your time together. You better believe that Birman will be at your bedroom door with a bucket of water in about fifty minutes, so hurry." He smiled at the teenagers and waved goodbye to them. Nagi remained by the bed for a moment, until Omi took him by the hand and tugged him out the door.

Lying in bed, Yohji muttered the charm that would put out all the lit candles in the room. When it was dark he kissed Aya on the nose and stared at his mate. "Don’t worry, I’ll watch over you tonight."

Aya opened an eye, hmphed very quietly and sighed, finally allowing himself to fall asleep. The feeling of pain that filled Yohji slowly started to fade, allowing his body to relax. He settled Aya’s head underneath his chin, fussing with the blankets as shadows converged on the bed, their touch cool yet comforting. They’d keep watch over Aya, also, and Yohji was comforted by their presence. Between them, Aya would be safe.

*******

Bored with the reports that covered his desk, Kikyou leaned back in his chair and sighed. He’d dealt with the most important ones, Tsubaki could handle the rest. Kikyou had every intention of delegating some matters to his trusted friend, and had faith that the man would take care of the lesser matters perfectly and punctually. He refused to spend his tenure as the Captain of the Guards trapped behind a desk doing paperwork.

But even with managing to evade that much work, Kikyou still had a rather full schedule ahead of him. He’d be spending a good portion of the afternoon going through the list of potential Guard candidates, and he’d then be stuck at the party tonight. One thing he hadn’t missed when he’d left his title behind him had been the practically mandatory attendance at all Court functions. Now he was stuck with that again and was representing something much more important than his family name.

It was worth the hard work and aggravation, though. Pretty soon he’d finally be able to bring his sister’s murderers to justice, and he’d stand by and watch as his brother and their precious family title faded into obscurity. The idiot’s debts must be getting really bad considering how desperate the letters sent to him had become. His brother was all but pleading with Kikyou to grant him an audience. That was never going to happen.

Kikyou was in the middle of gathering the documents he planned to give Tsubaki when a page knocked on his door and entered the room. The young boy appeared nervous as he came to a sudden halt before Kikyou’s desk, and in a rush spewed forth what appeared to be a piece of rote memorization.

"The king is requesting your presence at a small dinner tonight before the party. He and his fiancée would like to discuss a few security matters with you, but understand that this might not be the best time." The boy’s speech came to an abrupt halt.

Reaching into the velvet bag attached to his belt, Kikyou laughed and fished out a piece of toffee. "Here, catch." He threw it at the page, who smiled and quickly unwrapped the treat. "Tell the King and the Captain I will gladly meet with them before the party. What time?"

The young page blushed and almost choked on his candy. "Uhm, I forget to include that. Seven o’clock. Oh, and I’m to tell you that the matter isn’t that pressing or confidential, so you can include your date in the dinner plans if you would like."

"That’s alright, I wasn’t planning on bringing a date tonight," Kikyou commented as he resisted the urge to tug on his hair. From the sounds of it this would be a waste of time, going over some stupid matter such as if the Guards should wear a blue ribbon around their sleeves to show their support for the wedding or not, but he wouldn’t turn the summons down.

"Oh. I thought you had a boyfriend. That’s what my…" The page seemed to suddenly remember his manners and blushed again. Kikyou predicted that he’d be sent back to his family soon, as he was clearly not cut out to be a page. Discretion and intelligence were a must for that post.

But he smiled at the boy and tossed him another toffee. "No, he’s not feeling well at the moment, so I’ll be there by myself, at seven sharp."

The boy nodded his head and sped away, intent on delivering Kikyou’s confirmation of the invite. Watching him leave, Kikyou allowed a smile to spread across his face. It seemed the rumors were indeed spreading if a youth like the page had heard them.

There was a world of difference between Aya being his lover in rumors and in real life, he reminded himself sharply. Kikyou wanted the man to be his and hated all the distractions that were hampering his pursuit. Remembering his last visit to the Koneko, Kikyou had to admit that the time away might be to his advantage, as he’d clearly miscalculated with the presents. Aya didn’t seem to care for them at all, or for him for that matter. How the hell was the man resisting him?

Aya might have attracted his attention with his beauty and resemblance to Kikyou’s sister, not to mention the added bonus of stealing the man away from Kudoh. But the more Aya resisted Kikyou, the more he was determined to have the redhead. One way or the other, he would get what he wanted.

Maybe the key to that would be finding out whom it was that Aya was hiding from. Though, his spies hadn’t reported the strange man returning to the Koneko since that one night, when Aya had obviously been hurt rather badly, and his spies had failed to notice when Aya had returned.

Should he try to pursue the matter before the wedding or wait until after he was formally pronounced as Captain and had more time to spare on the chase? The latter would be the logical choice, but Kikyou wasn’t sure he could wait that long. Aya had tasted so sweet when he’d kissed him, and Kikyou was craving him. Maybe he’d have a little time in his hectic schedule to try and repair the damage he’d done to his cause. Perhaps an invitation to the wedding would help sweeten Aya to him.

*******

Masato walked around the Koneko’s gardens searching for some daylilies. He eventually found a blooming cluster of the flowers, their petals a creamy yellow and very fragrant. Cutting several of the flowers with a knife, he gathered them in his hands and sought out a reclusive corner of the garden.

It was here that the Kudoh family shrine resided: a small, cedar structure holding a few offerings, ceramic statues of the gods the family worshipped, and an incense holder. Masato fumbled with one hand, the flowers still held in the other, and lit a fresh stick. As the pungent smoke wafted in the air he laid the flowers on the altar, telling himself the tears in his eyes were from the incense.

Like most people, Miyuki and the rest of her family had been cremated upon their deaths. This alter was the only memorial of them, though, since their ashes were scattered to the four winds here in the garden. Masato remembered his former mate telling him that one day as he’d followed her here and watched her tend to the small shrine. Her family considered it a waste of precious ground to have any formal markers other than this one. Land inside the capital was at a premium, and the Kudohs much preferred their garden to any post-death splendor for themselves.

Still, this was the closest he’d get to her spirit, standing before her family shrine and surrounded by the flowers she’d loved so much. He’d come here for a closure of sorts, and maybe out of guilt as well. Masato had once sworn to his love that no one would replace her, and now he was eating crow.

"Miyuki… gods, I stand here and expect to hear your voice, to see you slowly make your way through the garden and ask me to come inside and have tea with you. I miss you so damn much. It was bad enough leaving you here, but for you to die…" Masato shook his head and took a shuddering breath. "The world was much better when you were in it, and not just for my sake. It’s become a colder place without you." Gods, he missed her still.

"I kept my promise, if you can’t tell. Took a little longer than I planned, but after you died I… I could have sworn that happened just a few months ago. I’ve heard about how older bounds lose all track of time, that it stops having any meaning for them, but I thought I had a few more centuries before that happened to me. Guess I was wrong."

Masato barked out a laugh and ran his hand through his ragged hair. "But you don’t want to hear about me, most likely. Let me talk about Yohji, at least for now. You got your wish, princess, and had your babe. He looks so much like you it hurts to see him, though you’d probably go on and tell me how he takes after me. Maybe he got my hair and height, and in a few more decades or so will fill out a little more, but he’s got your eyes and your features. And your heart. Hate to say this, but he’s as stubborn as the both of us put together. But you know all of this already, you raised him.

"I’m keeping my promise to you, and I’m training him. Have a session with him in a short while, as a matter of fact. He’s as bright as you were, and he’s a quick learner, soaking up everything I teach him. I think… I think he’s going to be the most powerful succubae-bound that I know of, given some learning and time. It shocks me how powerful he is at times."

Falling silent for a few moments, Masato fingered the petals of one of the flowers. He recalled the time he’d collected enough lilies to fill Miyuki’s room with them, and the way the woman had laughed and laughed when she saw them, filling him with joy and contentment. She’d even burst into laughter when he laid her on her bed and made love to her, so happy that he had to join her. Before, memories like that one had filled him with a burning pain, but now… it still hurt, just a little, but what he felt was mostly regret.

"I loved you so much, and I’ll never be able to forget you. You were my mate and my first love," he said in a husky voice. "I still remember that time when you left one of your books out here in the garden, after a day of just the two of us sitting under the one oak tree talking and relaxing, and you ran out here at night when it started to rain to fetch it. I followed you and we ended up making love out here." Masato chuckled. "Amanda damn near bit our heads off when we came back inside, yelling that we could have been struck by lightning and you could catch a cold. I wonder what ever happened to her."

He shook his head, breaking free of the old memories. "Yohji has a lover now, a mate. Bet you would’ve been surprised as all hell by that fact if you had lived to see it, considering what I’ve heard of the boy’s past antics. Yohji had to go and attach himself to the biggest stray ever. But you wouldn’t care what Aya is, if I know you. You’d just smile and hug him close, too happy that your son had finally found someone to love. Knowing you, you’d be so happy that you’d hum for days, the way you used to always do when you’d found out a piece of good news. Like that you were pregnant." Miyuki had hummed for days then, until she found out the danger Masato had presented to the baby.

"I wonder… I just hope that you’re happy for me now," Masato remarked quietly, his voice rough with pain. "I found myself someone else to love, found him right here believe it or not. Schuldig. Did you have any idea all those years of watching the boy grow that he would be my mate?"

Masato felt the sudden urge to hit something and barely restrained himself from punching the shrine. He couldn’t risk harm to something so personal of Miyuki’s. "For the past twenty years I’ve felt so empty, so alone, and the worst part was knowing that my happiness was here at the Koneko, and I had to stay away. I’d held some hope that after Yohji was old enough that maybe we… maybe you could leave the Koneko and travel with me, but that dream was dashed with your death. As bad as it was to stay away from here, it was infinitely worse knowing that you were dead. And the whole time, Schuldig was here. I really, really hate fate sometimes."

"But… I guess I finally gathered the courage to come here and talk to you because of him. I wanted…" Masato closed his eyes and thought of his lost love. "I wanted you to know I’ll never forget you. Even if I’m with Schuldig for centuries to come, I’ll never forget you. You taught me how to love, to trust and to have faith in someone other than myself, and you gave me a son. I have to move on from you, princess, for Schuldig and I to have a chance together, but I’ll never forget you, or stop being thankful that I met you. Even with all the pain these past years, I never regretted loving you.

"I don’t know what the future has in store for me, or if I’ll ever be back here. From what Schu’s told me, I’ll be leaving here with him in less than a week, and he’s not sure if we’ll ever be able to return. So I’ll say my goodbyes now, and hope that you’ll watch over us and be happy for us."

He touched the flowers again. "I’ll watch out for Yohji, have no fear there. I won’t let your boy be harmed if I can help it, and I’ll do what I can so he and Aya can be safe and happy here. I know that if you could ask anything of me, it would be that. Just wish me well in return is all I ask."

Forcing himself to turn around and walk away, Masato smelled the lilies and once again thought of that night in his love’s bedroom: the scent of sex and flowers filling the room, the echoes of laughter and moans in his ears as he walked. For a moment he tasted Miyuki on his tongue and recalled how soft her skin was, and he reveled in the memories. Then he pushed them away.

Miyuki had always chided him about seizing whatever chance of happiness came his way, to put aside the darkness in his heart and enjoy life while he could. Masato had forgotten how to laugh before he’d found the Koneko. He’d been on the run from Yoru, who had discovered him selling his blood to survive. He’d then thought that those were his darkest days, right before meeting Miyuki, until her death.

Now he had to heed her advice once again if he wanted a chance at making Schuldig and himself happy. They might be mates now, a fact that still caught Masato by surprise, but he knew he would make their relationship miserable if he didn’t give up the ghost of his old mate. Miyuki would be the first one to tell him to do so. Masato had awoken these past two mornings to a purring Schu and known that more than anything, he wanted this second chance to work. He wanted all the happiness he’d had with Miyuki and all that he’d missed out on by leaving her.

He didn’t doubt that Schuldig would make him happy. Nor, considering the little he already knew about the brat, did he doubt that he’d be bedeviled and aggravated and just plain confused by him. They would butt heads more often than not, but that didn’t frighten Masato. They were mates, and the bad times would just be taken in stride. As long as they were together, even if that meant he had to go to Esset with Schuldig and the others and fight.

"Just watch over us, princess. No doubt us stubborn fools will have you laughing your ass off, wherever you are. Watch over us until a green-eyed girl is born one day, and if I ever find her, I’ll watch over her in return, and make sure her happiness isn’t taken away that time around. Hers or Yohji’s. My word on that." Masato resisted making promises whenever he could; he was a bound and hence a creature of magic, and magic didn’t take to broken oaths very well. But he made that one willingly.

Walking back to the Koneko, Masato wondered when Schuldig would return. He’d only been mated to the brat for little more than a day, but he hated being separated from him already. It had been so hard to let Schuldig leave the inn without him this morning; Masato didn’t want to lose another mate again and was afraid he’d never come back. He knew that the fear was irrational, and that Schuldig could more than take care of himself. The younger bound wasn’t as fragile as Miyuki had been. But it still had been hard. As would be watching Schuldig leave for the palace tonight, knowing that the man was risking capture and worse.

He had no choice, though. Masato knew that Schuldig wouldn’t accept being coddled or kept safe, wouldn’t accept being kept caged and limited because of his worry. When Schuldig had told him about his fate, to fight the Elders in Esset, Masato had understood a bit why the man had resisted him so much. Schuldig may have given in the other night, but he was serious about the threat he’d made yesterday morning. It would only hurt the both of them if Masato tried to keep Schuldig from making his own decisions and doing what he had to do.

Masato had forgotten about the irrational urge to protect one’s mate at all cost. It was a miracle that Yohji hadn’t killed him when they’d first met, or the other night. He’d now be able to keep better control over his temper when Yohji got snide with him during the lessons, still bitter about Aya being hurt.

Almost stumbling over a garden stone, Masato started to curse. Shit. He’d have to tell his son that he’d taken Schuldig as a mate. No no no. What were the chances that he could get away with not mentioning that fact before he left? Then Masato remembered about the mating the other night and the energy it had released, affecting the whole inn. Yohji had to already know, even if he hadn’t said anything last night, when Masato had only seen him for the spell casting, and his son had, admittedly, been distracted.

He remembered about how unhappy Yohji was that Schuldig and him were screwing around, let alone being tied to each other forever. "Great. He’s gonna have another reason to kill me. And they say that the third time’s the charm."

Maybe he’d be seeing Miyuki again a lot sooner than he’d been planning.

*******

Hajime Eto straightened his blue and gold formal robe as he stared in the mirror, checking his appearance, and then turned around to face his companion. Yoru kept his face perfectly blank as he thought about how much of a preening idiot the young lord was.

"Do you have the charm?"

Not saying a word, Yoru handed over the most powerful charm against telepathy that he had. Eto had asked for it for the party tonight, the man beginning to grow apprehensive and paranoid with the wedding fast approaching.

"Are you sure that this will work?"

"Yes, I’m sure. My head is at stake here just as much as yours, if you care to remember," Yoru told the lord. "That will prevent any soul gaki-bound or anyone using their blood from reading your thoughts. You’ll be safe as long as you wear it, and it’s been freshly charged." By more precious bound blood that fortunately, at least for him, Eto had paid for. But even a bag of gold hadn’t been able to buy that much. Yoru had heard a rumor that bounds were beginning to disappear from the capital and countryside, and that hunters were having difficulties finding them.

Eto eyed the charm for a moment, which had been worked to look like a simple one for good health and nodded his head. "Good. I don’t trust the Spymaster not to try something such as reading people’s thoughts tonight. My spies report that while she hasn’t found anything incriminating against us, she clearly suspects a plot at the wedding. This party tonight would be a good opportunity for her to attempt something like that."

"She’ll find out nothing," Yoru hissed. "We’ve covered our tracks well. All the necessary wards have been breached, and the charms for the mercenaries crafted. We won’t be stopped now."

The young man stared at him curiously for a moment. "Are you trying to convince me or yourself? I have faith in my plans and have been told repeatedly to have faith in your magic. If I am wrong to do so, now would be the time to find out." Eto continued to stare at Yoru, clearly waiting for a response.

He smiled at the young lord. "No, there is nothing to worry about. All is ready for after the wedding. The king will be made to pay, and you will have the throne."

"Good. I’ll be going then." Eto didn’t give Yoru another thought or glance as he left the room. Yoru watched him leave, wishing he could curse the arrogant bastard. But he couldn’t, not until he got the kage blood needed to break the spell binding them.

Muttering under his breath, he walked towards his new quarters in Eto’s castle. He planned on spending the night casting the bones again and again, waiting to see if their answer ever changed. All they’d revealed to him the past couple weeks had been ‘darkness’. Nothing more than that. Yoru tried to convince himself that they were talking about a kage, the one most likely kept by Reiji Takatori, the one that he needed to regain his youth and power, and to take over Kritiker.

But if they meant death instead… it wouldn’t just be his that they would foretell. If it was darkness for him, it would be darkness for every living soul inside the capital. Yoru would make sure of that. He wouldn’t die alone.

*******

Yohji set aside the book he was reading aloud to Aya and rubbed his eyes. He was hungry, his bound nature clamoring for energy, and it was beginning to make him cranky. He’d given almost all of his energy to Aya last night and today, trying to help his mate recover that much more quickly from the bleeding. While he’d eaten enough for five grown men all day long, that one hunger wasn’t being satisfied. It was only when he was by Aya that the hunger wasn’t driving him mad.

"Do you want me to continue, love?" He looked down at Aya, who was lying beside him, his eyes barely open. Aya blinked them twice.

"That means ‘no’." Nagi was perched at the bottom of the bed, his eyes rarely leaving Aya’s still form. The little demon had the audacity to tell Yohji that he was staying in the room to make sure that he didn’t feed from Aya while he was too weak to fight back. If Yohji’d had any strength at the time, he’d have used Aya’s threat about being tossed out the window on the damn brat. He didn’t care that his mate would be after his head for the damage to the flowers below or that Omi would probably have him thrown in jail.

"I know what that means, you idiot. Aya explained about your code to me yesterday." Feeling both angry and jealous, Yohji slumped down on the bed and curled around Aya. The redhead purred for a short breath and slowly moved his hand until it touched Yohji.

He couldn’t help but be jealous at times over the bond between Aya and Nagi. They’d been together through hell, and only had each other to rely upon. Of course they would be close. It didn’t help though that Nagi treated him like a pervert most of the time and Aya would smack him when he said anything bad about the brat. Life was rather unfair at times.

But Aya was his mate, and he had a bond of his own with the man. Yohji kissed Aya tenderly on the lips for a moment, gritting his teeth and pulling away when Nagi started to growl. He snarled at the boy, and almost missed the flash of annoyance and humor from Aya. Ignoring Nagi, Yohji combed his fingers through crimson hair and smiled.

"I know. I can’t kill him. When you get better you and I are going to have another discussion, cat, about how _you_ boss _me_ around. I’m not the only one being domineering." Yohji smiled some more to show that he didn’t mind in the least. Well, he wouldn’t mind if he got the chance to toss Nagi out the window just once. One time, that was all he was asking. The little demon would easily survive the drop, and live to be picking thorns out of his hide for weeks to come.

"You’re smiling rather nastily over something, Kudoh. It better not be about ways to ravish Aya while he’s like that."

Sighing, Yohji turned to look at Nagi. He knew the boy was worried about Aya and anxious about tonight, and the danger the two of them faced if Schuldig failed. Which he wouldn’t. But Yohji was getting tired of being Nagi’s outlet for his fears. Where the hell was Omi, whose job it now was to put up with this shit?

That gave him an idea. "I don’t see why you’re complaining, I’d be able to give you a few pointers. You know, something to use with Omi the next time he spends the night?" It was rather dark in the room because of Aya, but he could see enough to know that Nagi had started to blush. Refusing to laugh, Yohji jerked his head in the direction of one of the bookcases.

"Don’t worry though, I won’t touch Aya until he says it’s okay to, and maybe not even then since he can be a bit impatient." One of Aya’s eyes opened to glare at him, rather weakly but it was still obviously a dirty look. "So I’ll offer the next best thing. Get the book with the brown and red spine on the third shelf from the bottom. No, the one to the left." Yohji watched as Nagi used his power to float the book over to the bed.

It took a moment for the boy to realize what he was holding, and Yohji was extremely grateful for his enhanced sight. It was worth it to see all the skin from Nagi’s neck up turn bright red.

"Yohji… this… it’s pornography!" Nagi held the book up to show an illustration of two men performing fellatio on each other.

"What it is, is a learning guide. Consider it a solution to all the questions I’m sure you and Omi want to ask and are too bashful to do so." Yohji did chuckle, and he looked down to see that Aya was glaring at him with both eyes now. He’d go out on a limb and say that Aya wasn’t too happy with him corrupting the little demon like this.

Bending down, Yohji whispered in his lover’s ear. "It’s either give him the book or the two of us sitting down with the two of them and answering any questions they have about sex. Which do you prefer?" Judging from the panicked look in Aya’s eyes and the feeling that was pouring off the man, Aya much preferred the book.

Which Nagi couldn’t seem to put down, even though his skin remained a bright red. Yohji remembered the first time he’d come across the book, when he’d been a little younger than Nagi. It sure had answered a few questions he’d had at the time. Though he was sure that was a lot less than Omi and Nagi probably had, since he’d been… rather advanced for his age.

Nagi kept staring at the book, so Yohji cleared his throat. "Hey, why don’t you take that to your room and read it there." Nagi’s eyes flew up from the book; first looking at him then at Aya with a look of suspicion on his face.

Back to gritting his teeth, Yohji rolled his eyes and tried to keep a tight rein on his temper. "I’m not going to attack him while you’re gone. Gods, he’d kill me the moment he has the strength to do so. Now get."

"You might keep him too drained to do that," Nagi retorted, but he did get off the bed. "If I find a single bruise on him your bedroom is going to have a new window, courtesy of you."

"Yes, yes, I am suitably cowed now. Beat it." Yohji smiled at the pun as Nagi blushed even more and left the room, quietly telling Aya he’d check back on him later. Happy that the brat was gone, Yohji focused his attention on his mate. He combed Aya’s hair until the man managed another weak purr and fell asleep. Yohji happily remained beside him until there was a knock on the door.

Figuring it was Jo bringing more food, Yohji called out for the person to enter. But as soon as the door opened he smelled another succubae-bound and sat up, the sudden movement startling Aya awake. Yohji snarled at the intruder until his brain told him it was his father.

"What the hell do you want?"

Masato held his hands up as he inched into the room, making for the chair by the desk. "It’s time for your lesson. I figured we’d go over casting a glamour tonight. It should help you focus your power and kill some time."

The man smelled nervous for some reason, even when Yohji nodded his head. Carefully helping Aya rest his head on his lap, Yohji looked at his father with some puzzlement and noticed the older bound was fidgeting. Hmm, someone was edgy tonight. He wondered if he knew the reason why. Toying with one of Aya’s eartails, Yohji drew a scowl over his face.

"Any particular reason why you reek of Schuldig?"

Masato jumped at the sound of his voice, and to Yohji’s amazement an expression of guilt crossed the man’s face.

"I… well… don’t you know?" He sputtered out.

"About what?" When Masato’s eyebrows shot up Yohji scowled some more. "About you making him your mate the other night? Using enough compulsion to make the high priestess of Byakuren whore herself to the whole Royal Army to do so? Is that why the two of you avoided me all of yesterday, because you didn’t want me to know and rip your head off while I had the strength to do so?"

Masato growled and leaned forward in the chair. "Hey! I gave him a choice, and that was what he wanted. Schuldig gave in willingly or we never could have mated! I just had to do the compulsion until he could see sense and stop being so damn stubborn!"

Yohji continued to scowl even as he flicked an eartail along Aya’s cheek. He could recall a little about the night the two of them had become mates: the hunger that had driven him on to torment Aya with pleasure until he gave in. In a way, he’d used just as much force against his cat as he was blaming Masato for using against Schuldig.

"I’m only going to say this once. If you ever hurt him I will hunt you down and slice you into cubes to be served to Jei with a wasabi sauce. Hell, I’ll sprinkle the sauce on you before I slice you, after I’m done torturing the hell out of you. I can be real inventive when it comes to bastards who hurt my friends." Even ones he was still a bit upset with.

Nodding his head, Masato swallowed rather loudly and sank back in the chair. Yohji continued to give the man a dirty look just a little longer. He didn’t want Masato to think he was getting away with anything. If Yohji hadn’t been so distracted by Aya yesterday, he would have punched the man the first time he’d seen him.

"Just keep that in mind. Now let’s get on with the lesson." Yohji could feel Aya’s amusement and had to bite his lip to keep from smiling. He was going to enjoy making Masato suffer for the next half hour or so.

*******

Yuriko looked up from the panel of her skirt on which she was currently embroidering glass beads. She really should be paying more attention to what she was doing, as she wasn’t the greatest seamstress in the first place and she couldn’t afford the time it would cost to make any errors on the dress, but she was a bit worried about her boyfriend. Since coming home from work that day, he’d quietly eaten an early dinner and then sat down in his chair, staring at the same paper for the past hour. He’d even refused to do anything when the neighborhood kids had come begging for him to play ball with them, something that Ken normally loved to do.

He’d been acting strangely ever since coming home last night, dropped off by some stranger and smelling like whiskey. Ken had gone right to bed, pulling out some extra blankets to wrap himself in before falling asleep. Yuriko, who’d been waiting for him to come home and hoping for a little affection, had barely been acknowledged.

At least this morning he’d woken up and given her a peck on the cheek, and another one when he’d come home. But she wasn’t used to seeing Ken be so… subdued, and was worrying about him. Yuriko wondered if she should stop by Cassandra’s and see if the old woman had a tonic that might help her lover.

"Are you going to do anything tonight, Kenken?" Yuriko had to repeat the question twice before he acknowledged her.

"I’m going down to the Koneko in a bit." He sounded so tired that for a moment Yuriko wanted to ask him to just stay home. But maybe a night out with some friends was what he needed. Maybe Ken was just getting too stressed out about the approaching wedding and needed to release some steam.

"Well, please don’t be out too late, then. You look like you could use some rest."

"Huhn." Ken looked at her and graced her with a smile, for a moment his eyes alight with love and affection. Then the spark died and he started to rub his chest, something that he’d been doing off and on since last night. Threading another needle, Yuriko resolved to see Cassandra if he was still like this after the wedding.

*******

Schuldig knocked on Yohji’s bedroom door and, when the man bid him to enter, slid inside. He found his friend sitting on the bed, holding a cup of broth to Aya’s lips. The kage was perfectly white once again, but at least this time he wasn’t beaten and bruised on top of it.

"I’ll be heading to Botan’s in a few minutes. But first I need to talk to Aya about his powers, since I’ll be using them tonight." Schuldig nervously tugged on his black tunic as he spoke, unsure if he was going to upset Yohji with the request or not. It had occurred to him when Masato had mentioned his plans for Yohji’s training session today that he might need a little help himself with unfamiliar powers. They only had this one chance to steal Aya’s sister away from the Takatoris, and he wasn’t going to waste the opportunity, not when it would buy him Yohji’s forgiveness.

Yohji set the cup aside and brushed back Aya’s bangs, a frown on his face. "What do you think, love? You up to this?"

Aya tilted his head into the caress for a second before glancing over at Schu. "My thoughts." He said the words painfully, and Schuldig could almost feel the man’s exhaustion; it was that palpable.

It took him a moment to understand what Aya was proposing. "Are you sure?"

Aya nodded his head, and the next thing Schuldig knew was that he could sense the kage’s thoughts. Aya was letting Schuldig’s power affect him, and since he didn’t know how long the man could manage this feat, Schuldig quickly skimmed Aya’s thoughts.

A lot of things didn’t make sense to him, but Schuldig guessed that they would when he possessed Aya’s powers. Which seemed very different from his own. He quickly memorized everything that could help him, desperate to get out of Aya’s head. It was too painful in there at the moment, since on top of the agony of the bleeding, Aya was being torn apart by an intense mix of hope/despair/fear. He wanted desperately for Schuldig to be successful tonight, but was afraid that the attempt would fail and he and his sister would never be free.

<Have a little faith in me, Aya. I’ll free her, just you wait and see.>

Aya grunted and let his eyes fall shut. Yohji immediately touched his mate’s cheek, murmuring soft words to him and lending him strength. Schuldig watched the two of them for a moment, wondering if that’s what he and Masato looked like. Somehow he didn’t think he and his mate came across as that sickeningly sweet. Oddly enough, he was a bit jealous of that fact.

"Okay, I have what I need. I’m gonna go now."

"Schu, wait."

Schuldig turned around and saw Yohji walk towards him. The blond suddenly hugged him hard, squeezing the air out of him. "Be careful, you kleptomaniac. It’ll be no fun being pissed off at you if you get your head cut off."

He hugged Yohji back, smiling at the concern his friend held for him. "Hey, I’m the best there is; this will be easy. If not even you could manage to catch me in the act, how the hell is a Takatori going to manage it? Or Guards led by Kikyou?"

Yohji chuckled weakly and stepped back. "Why am I picturing Cass in my head, lecturing about ‘pride going before a fall’? Don’t tempt Fate, Schu. I don’t think Mickey and Jo will let me put the Koneko up as credit for your bail. Not after what you were responsible for the other night."

Rolling his eyes, Schuldig took a step backwards toward the door. "Blame that on Masato, I know I sure the hell am. I’ll be back in a couple hours, Yotan."

"Bye, Schu. I’ll be here waiting."

Schuldig turned around and walked out the door. Closing it behind him, he wasn’t surprised in the least to find Masato waiting for him out in the hallway.

"Good, you saved me having to find you."

Masato grunted and grabbed Schuldig’s hand, tugging him close for a brief kiss. Then the older man stepped back with a slightly amused look on his face.

"I smell Yohji all over you. Should I break down his door and punch him for touching my mate?"

Resisting the urge to roll his eyes, Schuldig smacked Masato on the shoulder. "Do you want Aya to kill you? I guarantee that if you lay one hand on Yotan, that’s what will happen. Besides, all he did was hug me. If you want to commit suicide, let me go back there and fuck Yotan’s brains out, and then you’ll die for something worthwhile."

Masato growled and pushed Schuldig against the wall, trapping him against it with his body. "Don’t even kid about that. I may not be young and out of control like my son is, but you’ll find out I can be every bit as jealous and irrational when it comes to my mate."

And even more so, Schuldig was picking up from Masato. After all, he’d lost one mate to Yohji before, and refused to lose another.

<You won’t lose me to Yohji. He had his chance and blew it.> It still hurt a bit, his unrequited love, but Masato was inside him at all times, filling him with the man’s emotions and thoughts, most of them focusing on him. Schuldig may have fought the mating initially, but now… He had someone who wanted him, would always be there for him, and the sex was fantastic.

"Is that all you can think about?" Masato chuckled. "I’m supposed to be the succubae-bound, not you."

"I always get horny when I’m on a job. So why don’t you be a real good boy and be waiting for me to come home and help relieve me of that condition?" Schuldig rocked his hips against Masato’s. If they hadn’t had sex that night on Yohji’s bed he’d drag his mate back to Kira’s room and fuck him silly for an hour or two, but Schuldig knew he had to leave in a couple minutes or he’d be late for his meeting with Botan. There was no way he was letting Yohji down again, or risk hearing about screwing things up again because of his hormones for the rest of life from his mother.

Sighing, Masato reluctantly stepped back. "I’ll be waiting, brat," he said in a husky voice. "So hurry on up and leave. The sooner you get the sphere the sooner I can have you again."

"Oh, what a lovely promise." Schuldig batted his eyes at the man and forced himself to walk towards the steps. "I’ll be back in a couple hours, that’s my promise in return." Masato stood there as Schuldig descended down the steps, his pace growing quicker the further he got from his mate. He wanted this over with, to be back in Yohji’s good graces, and in Masato’s bed. Though Yohji hadn’t felt very mad at him up in the room. Aya must have talked some sense into the stubborn ass, just like his mother had said he would.

In a few seconds he was out on the street, and Schuldig used his power to hail a carriage that would take him to the palace quicker than his own two feet. Well, at least if he walked at a human pace. Since it was late afternoon the city was too crowded for him to use his bound speed and endurance and run to the palace -- too many minds to influence. No, he’d let the taxi take him there then erase any memory of him from the woman’s mind.

Once there he used his power to sneak into the grand building. Cass had given him a ring this morning that came from Botan and it would enable him to pass the minor wards. It would be enough to reach the wizard’s study, and hopefully the man wouldn’t ask for it back. Schuldig could use something like it in the future.

The palace was packed full of people, but very few paid him any attention since they were so busy with the party. Schuldig pulled the hood of his jerkin further over his head, making sure to hide his distinctive hair. It was a nerve wracking several minutes of navigating the building’s labyrinth of halls, and he only used his power to cloud the minds of the Guards stationed about.

He didn’t bother to knock on Botan’s door and entered the room to find the older man seated behind his desk, a weary look on his face.

"Evening, Schuldig."

"Evening, Botan. May I say you look like shit? Have you slept at all since yesterday? I’m going to be very pissed off if you were so tired that you’ve botched up your spells today."

Botan glared at him as he rose from his chair. "Thanks for the concern, Schuldig. But the rendering went perfectly, and you should have no problems in that regard. Let’s just hope you live up to your reputation tonight." He held out a silver flask to Schuldig.

"Here, drink this."

"What is it?" Schuldig had learned the hard way to never just drink what someone gave him. He had Teddy to thank for that lesson.

"Aya’s blood, rendered to its most effective state. Drink it and you’ll have some of his powers for a few hours. Were you not paying attention when I went over this the other day?’’ Botan’s tone had become exasperated.

Schuldig warily eyed the flask that Botan was holding out to him. "I have to drink it? Aya’s blood? Ick, no thank you."

"Listen, I spent all damn night and most of the day refining his blood so you could do just that, and you will," Botan snapped. "How the hell did you think you’d gain a kage’s attributes other than drinking his blood?"

"Uhm, can’t you make an amulet or something?" Schuldig asked sheepishly. He wasn’t a flesh gaki-bound, he didn’t do blood. Nope, the mere thought of drinking the contents of the silver flask was seriously creeping him out.

Botan sighed, setting the flask down so he could rub at his eyes with both hands. When he was done he focused a stern look on Schuldig. "I can make minor amulets that would protect you from magic using Aya’s blood, but that won’t be enough for what you need to do tonight. So drink the damn stuff right now or go away. I can always have Birman steal the sphere if need be."

His pride stung, Schuldig bared his fangs at the wizard. "A _human_ can’t read the Takatoris’ minds and ascertain where the sphere is. You need me for this task, Botan." Glaring at the man, Schuldig snatched up the flask. But when it neared his mouth he caught a whiff of blood and started to gag.

Sighing again, as if he had the weight of the world on his shoulders, Botan snatched back the flask. He waved a hand at Schuldig when he made to protest, and then went over to one of his study’s many bookcases. On a shelf that contained various bird skulls, some candles and a small statue of the goddess of mercy, Botan removed a flask, this one made of copper. He unscrewed its top and added several drops of its contents to the silver flask.

"Here, try it now."

Schuldig sniffed the flask and immediately his eyebrows shot up. "What was that?"

"Unadulterated alcohol. I just added a few drops of it, but your nature should be able to handle that much. Could you please drink the stuff now?" There was a definite whine creeping into Botan’s voice.

Closing his eyes, Schuldig decided to get this over with. He tilted his head back and gulped the viscous liquid, trying not to think about how it tasted. Fortunately it smelled more like alcohol now than blood. In a matter of seconds he was finished. Wiping his mouth, Schuldig thought that the alcohol must be why his tongue was tingling, and after a minute his whole body started to tingle too. The light suddenly seemed too bright, making Schuldig’s eyes hurt.

"Is it working yet? It shouldn’t take very long for the blood to start affecting you."

"Yeah… I think it is." Concentrating on the thoughts he’d scanned from Aya earlier, Schuldig focused on creating a shadow blade. He cursed in surprise when a black knife slowly formed in his hand. A flick of his wrist and a simple thought turned the darkness into a gauntlet around his hand, causing Schuldig to smile. Around the room the shadows started to writhe, and all it took was a thought to call them towards him until he was covered with them. There was a sudden gasp from the wizard.

<Can you see me, Botan?>

"No, it’s as if you disappeared. I can’t believe this. One moment while I try a few spells against you." Botan’s voice sounded like a young man’s, filled with amazement and excitement.

Grunting his approval, Schuldig stood there and willed away the shadows while Botan muttered spells. He could actually feel the magic forming even before his ring warned him. All his senses seemed to be much sharper now, and darkness held a new texture and fascination for him. Schuldig could understand why people would be addicted to kage blood, especially if they were human. If this was a rush to him…

"Nothing, none of them are working on you." Botan smiled and hurried over to his desk for what looked like a charm. He quickly hung it around his neck.

"Okay, try to read my mind."

Schuldig concentrated on doing just that, and as soon as he focused his thoughts on the mage he could sense the charm’s magic. But even as he realized that it was a charm for shielding thoughts, he could read Botan’s mind. Schuldig didn’t have to try to break through the magic at all.

<If you’re thinking of buying Mom a diamond necklace, get her sapphires instead. Or pearls, she adores grey pearls.> He smiled at the stunned wizard.

Clapping his hands, Botan jerked the charm off his neck. "I can’t believe it’s working!"

"Hey, I just love the show of confidence, Botan. I’m the one whose neck is going to be on the line out there." Schuldig tried to have the shadows wrap around the older man, but all they did was gather around Botan. It seemed he couldn’t make them physical except in regards to himself. Shrugging his shoulders, Schuldig recalled the shadows and had them form around his body like armor. He was eager to retrieve the sphere.

"Anything else? I have a job to do."

"One last thing. I’m going to ward the door before you leave. If you can cross the threshold, you should be able to enter Reiji and his sons’ quarters." Botan walked over to his desk and sat down in his chair. "Also keep in mind that the effects of Aya’s blood should only last a couple of hours. It would be best if you don’t waste any time."

Sticking his tongue out at Botan, Schuldig walked over to the door. He stood in front of it as the man chanted and could feel when the wards were erected. Not bothering to wait for Botan’s okay, he stepped through the door. Schuldig’s body tingled uncomfortably as he crossed over the threshold, but there were no adverse effects for his actions, and Botan’s thoughts indicated that the wizard didn’t sense his wards being interfered with in the slightest.

Gods, no wonder Aya had been an unstoppable assassin and thief. And Yohji worried about keeping his lover safe? The blond idiot didn’t know the half of it, and he’d been picking up Aya’s powers for the last couple weeks. If this was just a fraction of Aya’s abilities… no wonder kage were so feared.

Schuldig hurried down the palace hallways, passing by scores of servants and guests. No one noticed him at all, and he didn’t have to use his telepathy to mask his presence. Oh, what he wouldn’t give to have these powers full-time. Nothing in the capital or anywhere else would be safe from his interest. He could steal whatever the hell he wanted.

Too bad that he couldn’t nick anything tonight, other than the sphere. No suspicions could be raised, so Schuldig was deprived of using this opportunity to its fullest. Maybe when the wedding and the convergence were over, he could interest Aya in a partnership. With the two of them working together as thieves, the world would be theirs.

Nearing the ballroom, Schuldig forced his thoughts to focus on his job. It was time to get serious. He walked into the formal room, past four Guards and a ward that made his whole body shiver with its intensity. Walking into the ballroom, he quickly looked about and found a nook where he could stand out of the way while scanning. Being unfamiliar with any of the royal family other than Omi, he would have to be close to them in order to read their thoughts.

Manx and King Shuuichi were standing near the stage where a few musicians played, chatting with the Lords Eto and Chang. Schuldig stared at Hajime Eto for a moment, reading the man’s thoughts with ease. Eto’s hatred for Shuuichi, the man who he held partially responsible for his beloved sister’s death, boiled in the young man’s mind. How he could keep up the pleasant façade when he longed for the king’s death so much….

Shaking his head, Schuldig decided to move on. He didn’t need to get lost in a human’s thoughts like that; especially ones that made him feel the need for a nice hot bath. The king was an idiot if he was that oblivious to Eto, and what made it worse was that Shuuichi trusted the viper. Someone was in for a shock this weekend.

Schuldig found Reiji and Hirofumi standing by the balcony, talking to a few Ministers and friends of the old king. It was hard, but Schuldig forced himself to stay out of the younger Takatori’s mind. He wouldn’t be able to resist tweaking a few things here or there, until the man ran around the ballroom stark naked and decided to see how many forks he could shove up his ass. No, Yohji wouldn’t appreciate him messing with his revenge, and Schuldig didn’t want to piss his friend off, not when Yohji was finally forgiving him.

Reiji Takatori’s mind was even worse than Eto’s. The man was convinced he’d been greatly wronged seventeen years ago, and that he deserved the throne. After all, he’d only lived up to the standards his father had shown him, which was to take what he wanted, what was owed to him because of his birthright. The bastard was obviously delusional on top of psychotic. Schuldig really would need a nice long bath after this mission, hopefully with Masato to scrub his back and keep him company in the hot water. If Yohji could get away with screwing around in the hot spring, he didn’t see why he couldn’t.

Reminding himself to focus, Schuldig pushed past Reiji’s surface thoughts and searched for any information on the sphere. He found all he needed to know about the object, and more about Aya’s past with his masters than he’d wanted to. Reiji didn’t handle the object very often, he much preferred using his own hands to hurt Aya. He derived more pleasure from physical abuse, seeing white skin littered with bruises he had made. Finding out what the man had done to Aya filled Schuldig with rage. What a sick fuck. Feeling his stomach grow ill, Schuldig broke off from the man’s thoughts.

He rested his head back against the wall for a moment, resisting the urge to call a shadow blade to his hand and plunge it into the former crown prince’s chest. Reiji was insane, utterly insane. He had no conscience whatsoever and had seen nothing wrong in teaching his children to value only that which benefited them. And Aya had been in the bastard’s hands for over a decade. Schuldig felt a new respect for the kage. Aya had shielded his past the few times Schuldig had been in the man’s head, but now he had all too good an idea of what the kage had suffered.

Pushing away from the wall, Schuldig stormed over to one of the tables laden with food and drink. As he crossed the ballroom, he felt… something odd. A touch of magic, blood and rage. He tried to analyze the feeling, but it remained elusive, even to his new senses. Schuldig forgot about it until he walked a few more steps and felt it again. Yet he couldn’t make any sense of it, and the feeling resisted his own bound powers. He resolved to talk to Aya and Botan about it later.

Once at the table he surrounded an open bottle of champagne with shadows and lifted it to his lips. The alcohol helped to calm his temper a little, and once the bottle was drained Schuldig resumed his search. Omi was standing by a nook similar to the one that he’d been hiding in, a blank mask on his face as an old woman, the Minister of Diplomacy, if Schuldig was reading the boy’s thoughts correctly, lectured him about his duties.

The only way one could tell that Omi was really a Takatori was by the iron will and determination that all the members of his family possessed. That was all that kept Omi from running away screaming from the diatribe. Fortunately for the boy, and for Kritiker, Omi had a brain and wasn’t insane. At the moment the crown prince was doing his best to keep his attention from focusing on his uncles and cousins, and wishing that he was with Nagi instead of here. Before the thoughts could become too graphic, Schuldig hurriedly moved on. He so didn’t want to know about Omi and Nagi’s nascent sex life.

It took a few minutes but he finally found Masafumi over by the table laden with wedding gifts. The handsome man was surrounded by a bevy of women, all of them clamoring for his attention. Schuldig gritted his teeth and walked towards the wizard. He wanted to get this scan out of the way before he really did lose his temper.

Masafumi possessed the strongest mental wards of his family, but never knew when his thoughts were breached. Schuldig smiled for a brief second before getting down to business. Cass and Yohji would be so proud of him; he didn’t even let himself be distracted by the man’s very interesting sex life with his ‘ladies’. Sorrow clung to those thoughts, a keen pang for the loss of one of his adopted family.

Brushing past those thoughts, Schuldig continued to dig. He found out several very interesting things about bounds and the magic that had created them, and a recipe for mulled wine that seemed promising. The little prick had a touch of mental discipline and had structured his thoughts in such a way that if a powerful bound managed to break through his charms and amulets, very little would be discovered before Masafumi tracked the perpetrator down and killed him. Too bad the wizard hadn’t anticipated someone like Schuldig.

It took a few minutes, but he finally found out where Masafumi had hidden the sphere. Schuldig almost let out a yelp of joy upon discovering that the sphere was right here in the palace. He had this nagging fear that it had been left behind at the Takatoris’ country castle, even if that didn’t make sense. Smiling from ear to ear, Schuldig hurried from the ballroom. He passed by Omi along the way, causing the Minister’s wine glass to spill all over her formal black gown. The chibi deserved a reprieve from his lecture, considering the family he had.

Schuldig flowed down various hallways, reveling in his invisibility and enhanced speed. He thought that one of the worst things done to Aya had been forcing the kage to rein in his true nature except when sent out on missions. How the man could stand being forced to be so… _human_ when this power resided inside him, Schuldig couldn’t understand. He just wished to complete this mission and for the effects of Aya’s blood to fade before he became addicted to this.

Reaching the quarters given to Reiji and his family, Schuldig scanned for a moment to make sure no one was on the other side of the door. Sensing a guard, he blurred the man‘s thoughts and slid inside, the door opening at his touch. Once again an impressive set of wards was bypassed, and he made his way to Masafumi’s rooms.

It was a little harder to enter the private quarters, since there were three women inside who were paying too much attention to the door. Picking up details of the suite from their thoughts, Schuldig went to another, thankfully empty room, and exited it by its balcony. He easily jumped the couple meters distance between that balcony and the one of Masafumi’s quarters and entered that way. The ward on the balcony made the hair on the back of his neck stand up.

Once inside Schuldig pressed against the curtains surrounding the open doors, looking on the domestic scene he’d found. Three young women were sprawled around the room, occasionally glancing at the opposite door.

"How much longer, Schoen? You said Papa wouldn’t be gone all night. I want to play." A teenaged girl not much older than Omi was sprawled on the huge bed, wearing what looked to be a man’s shirt and nothing else. Her light blue hair was in pigtails, and she played with a rag doll. Schuldig couldn’t read her thoughts very clearly, as the girl was… a touch mentally deficient. But what he did pick up filled him with revulsion. He didn’t know if she’d been born tainted or made that way by Masafumi, but he resolved that it would be best for the world if she died the day of the wedding.

A woman with long blonde hair, dressed in a skimpy negligee that made Schuldig leer, was seated on the bench at the end of the bed, busy combing her hair. "It all depends on when he can escape that dull party, sweetie. He doesn’t want to stay there very long. Now why don’t you come down here so I can do your hair and make you look extra pretty for Masafumi."

The younger woman let out a squeal of joy and scooted down to the end of the bed. Schuldig ignored them and focused on the other woman who was standing by a bookshelf and searching its shelves. Like the other women, he sensed from her a fanatical devotion for Masafumi Takatori, and a high intellect as well. This Hell was more than a pretty ornament, and Jei would have to go through her, and the other women, before he could even get near the wizard. Schuldig wished the berserker much joy in that.

He brazenly walked across the room, past a giggling Tot and Schoen and an oblivious Hell. By making the women think they heard the suite’s main door being opened he distracted them long enough to slide into the office connected to the room. This was where the sphere containing Aya-chan’s soul had been hidden.

Schuldig walked over to one of the bookcases lining the west wall and picked up a small box. Its latch sprang open at his touch, the magic wards that guarded the box remaining dormant. Inside the small chest was a glowing sphere nestled in black velvet. It looked identical to the one in Schuldig’s pouch.

Setting the box down on the desk, Schuldig opened his pouch and pulled out the substitute sphere. He quickly switched the two, and for a moment stared at the one that contained the soul of Aya’s sister. So much pain and abuse in such a fragile object. With this he could control the world’s only kage and have as much power as he wanted. Too bad all he was interested in was living his own life with those he loved and causing a little trouble now and then. Schuldig very carefully wrapped and put away the sphere.

As soon as things were just how they’d been before he’d entered the office, minus a minor substitution, Schuldig crossed over to one of the room’s windows. It was open, guarded by another potent ward that he had no trouble crossing. Climbing out the window, he took a deep breath and jumped.

The sensation of flying was wonderful and too brief. The four stories he’d jumped went by in a flash, and Schuldig landed as if he’d only jumped a couple of feet. Staring up at the window he’d just exited, Schuldig smiled and patted his pouch.

<Botan, I’ve done it. I’m out on the palace grounds, near the moon garden I believe, and I’m heading back to the Koneko.>

‘Wonderful. But remember, Aya can’t release his sister just yet. There’s no telling what wards are on the sphere, and it would be best to leave it alone until I can analyze the spells on it and hinder the one connected to the Takatoris’ deaths. Good job, Schuldig.’

As if there had been any doubt that he’d pull it off. Feeling cocky now that the worst was behind him, Schuldig raced through the streets back to the Koneko. The tingle in his body was beginning to fade, and he wanted to be safely there before his temporary powers were gone. There was still the slight chance of something going wrong, and he knew that Fate was enough of a bitch to screw things up now just to irritate him.

He managed to reach the inn in less than half the time it would have normally taken him, and he wasn’t even out of breath from the run. Schuldig sauntered inside the Koneko, knowing that no one could see him, and quickly made his way up the stairs. When he reached Yohji’s room he finally let the shadows fall from him.

As soon as he stepped inside the room Masato swept him into a bear hug, crushing him against the succubae-bound’s broad body and kissing him breathless. More than happy to be near his mate, Schuldig kissed back for a moment, until he felt a buzz of anger from Yohji and heard his mother make a tsking sound.

<Masato, I’m glad to be back, but put me down before Yohji hacks us into tiny pieces. Or even worse, you crush the sphere.>

Cursing, Masato did just that, but he kept an arm around Schuldig’s waist. Leaning against his lover, Schuldig smiled at Yohji and Aya. His friend was sitting on the bed with Aya cradled in his arms, and Nagi was sitting by them. With a flourish he pulled out the sphere and presented it to Aya.

"I did it, without attracting anyone’s attention. Thanks to my brilliance and your power." He held out the sphere, but Aya didn’t take it. Frowning Schuldig waved his hand up and down.

"It’s alright, my touch hasn’t affected it at all. And I didn’t screw up and confuse the two balls. This is the one with your sister in it."

Aya’s face remained passive, but he slowly held out his hands.

*******

Aya stared at the glass ball, feeling his sister’s presence. Schuldig’s words flew past him, mere gibberish, as he tried to grasp the fact that his sister’s soul was finally safe. It was only when Yohji hugged him tighter that Aya held out his hands for the object.

Luckily Yohji’s hand helped to support his, or the moment Aya touched the sphere he would have dropped it. He could feel his sister so clearly now.

Aya-chan was in pain, the constant agony that came from her soul being trapped unnaturally, and there was fear as well. Fear for Aya, and because of the soul gaki trapped with her whose hunger she could always sense. There was despair and utter sorrow, causing a stabbing pain in Aya’s chest. He could feel his sister’s emotions, but she couldn’t feel his. She had no way of knowing that she was one step closer to freedom, that Aya had managed to find some happiness, finally. They had a very real chance of being free, and soon.

So filled with pain and suffering, Aya didn’t notice he was crying until he felt Yohji’s hand brush his cheek. Tears were streaming down his face, the only outward sign of his true emotions.

"Shh, love, it’s okay. She’s safe now. The pain will end for both of you. You’re free." The tears wouldn’t stop, and he could feel Yohji’s growing panic.

"Someone take the thing and break it already. Aya-chan needs to be free."

"No, Yotan, that can’t happen yet. To do so will release the soul gaki, and it will alert Aya’s… former masters. It must wait until they are dead, and then the poor girl can be free." Cassandra settled on the bed by Aya, patting his hands tenderly for a moment. Then something cold and hard was pressed against his cheek. He looked up at Cassandra, and then down at the glass vial she held to his face.

"Cass, what the hell are you doing? Leave him alone!" Yohji tried to bat the glass vial away, but Cassandra caught his hand. She held the container to Aya’s face for a few more seconds, ignoring the curses Yohji hurled at her.

Stepping away from the bed, she held the glass vial up, and as Aya watched his tears turned black and opaque. "Kage tears, very potent in and of themselves. I don’t know why, but I’ve had a vision about them. They will come in handy." She carefully stoppered the vial and tucked it inside the pouch at her waist. Then grey eyes regarded Aya sadly, and she gently took the sphere from his hands.

"Dammit, Cass, I’m gonna kill the next person who decides that Aya’s bodily fluids are precious. He’s not a damn cow to be milked of tears and blood." Yohji hugged Aya tighter, tenderly wiping away the last of his tears. Aya rested against his mate, filled with so much exhaustion and pain that if he didn’t stop crying now he felt that he never would. Yohji soothed him, stroking his hair and cuddling him close. Nagi even patted his hands, which felt so empty now that the sphere had been taken away from him.

"The desk," Aya whispered. "Put her in the left drawer." The one that smelled of orange candy. He thought Aya-chan might like that.

Cassandra nodded her head and did as she was bid. She grabbed the indigo scarf that trailed out of the right drawer and wrapped the sphere with it before carefully putting the glass ball in the drawer. After she closed it Aya gathered up what little strength he had and made the shadows ward the drawer. Aya-chan should now be safe, hidden from magic and protected by his power. The shadows would kill anyone who touched the drawer, save Yohji, Nagi and him. Aya’s eyes drooped shut from exhaustion, thankfully cutting off any new tears.

Yohji kissed the top of his head and sent Aya more energy, but that wasn’t what he wanted at the moment. Aya whispered his thanks to Schuldig and pressed against Yohji, then let the darkness claim him. Aya-chan was safe and he was now free, but the future that loomed before Aya terrified him. What would it be like to live without pain? He had only a few more days to find out and longed for them to come so Aya-chan’s suffering would end.

*******

Yohji tugged gently on an eartail and sighed when Aya didn’t wake up. The man had fled into unconsciousness, and that worried him. Aya should be happy right now, but all he’d picked up from his mate had been pain and fear and a sense of resolution. That wasn’t what Yohji had counted on feeling, and he was unaccountably nervous.

He pulled the blankets up around Aya and glanced over at Schuldig, who was standing there with an uncertain look on his face. Yohji smiled at his friend in thanks.

"Thank you, Schu. Not that I doubted your skills for a minute, but… it’s so hard to believe that you did it. That Aya’s free now. It just seems too easy."

Schuldig nodded his head. "I know the feeling, Yotan."

"Fools, the both of you. It required pain and sacrifice, and there is nothing ever easy about that." Cassandra frowned at the two of them and patted her pouch. "Besides, there is much left to be done still. A battle is still before us, and that won’t be ‘too easy’," she chided. "No, there will be more blood and sacrifice for that, I fear."

"As long as it isn’t Aya’s, I don’t care." Yohji twined an eartail around his fingers, staring for a moment at how the crimson strands looked like blood on his gold skin. "He’s sacrificed enough already."

Cassandra shook her head sadly. "I’m afraid Fate sets no limit on how much it demands from a person. This time in three days we’ll find out who has to pay, and how much. Pray to the gods that they don’t ask for anything too dear. Now I must be going. Take care, all of you. I’ll be back tomorrow." Cassandra walked over to the bed, a wistful smile on her face as she kissed Yohji’s cheek in goodbye. He grabbed her chin and kissed her briefly on the mouth. She was right, there was no telling who would sacrifice what, and he’d lost one mother already. He refused to lose another, or to be angry with her any longer.

"Take care yourself, Cass. And pass on my gratitude to Botan."

"I will." Smiling so much she glowed, Cassandra spun around to kiss her son goodbye, and reminded him not to let Masato feed too much on his energy, as he needed some for the upcoming fight. Yohji felt himself grin at the way Schu, and even more surprisingly Masato, blushed at the lecture. Then the woman left the room.

Schuldig shook his head and shared a grin with Yohji. "Just think, I have _centuries_ of that to look forward to." Then the longhaired man turned serious. "Is all forgiven now, Yohji?"

"Yeah, it is." Yohji grimaced. "With the exception of you having lousy tastes in mates. You may think that you have it bad, but I have centuries of knowing that my dad is screwing my best friend to look forward to. Yuck."

Schuldig chuckled, patting a frowning Masato on the arm. Yohji ran his fingers along Aya’s cheekbone, still feeling some moisture from the man’s tears. "Schu, I’m sorry for blaming you like that. I know you meant well, but…."

"Yotan, don’t apologize for what happened." Schuldig stepped closer to Masato and wrapped an arm around his mate’s shoulders. "I think I know how you feel, now. You reacted in a perfectly understandable way because of how Aya had been hurt. It’s just too bad Masato and I didn’t resolve things between us before that night or it would never have occurred."

"I tried, but you’re such a stubborn brat, Schu." That comment earned Masato a glare that he kissed away. "Come on, I need to tell you how clever you are, and I know just the way to do that." Yohji closed his eyes but was still subjected to the sound of kissing, moans and purrs for a few seconds, and he didn’t look again until he heard the two men leave and close the door behind them.

Yohji peeked to the side at Nagi. "You’ve been awfully quiet tonight. You gonna stay here or head back to your room?"

Nagi picked at a lock of Aya’s hair, rubbing it between his fingers. "…he’s really free now. Both of us are. I guess I’ve been sitting here trying to get used to the fact that I don’t ever have to go back to that castle again and sit there and do nothing while Aya is hurt. I… I don’t know how to feel about that."

"I have no clue what to tell you, kiddo. Just try to live for once, and help Aya do the same." If they all survived Saturday night. Yohji quickly averted his thoughts. No sense in drawing bad luck to him by thinking about it. No, Aya, the little demon and he were going to make it through the fight, so he and his cat could spend centuries making love to each other while Nagi abused the shit out of him. Then they both could fuss over Aya and drive him mad. All in all, it was a pleasant fantasy.

Yohji stayed there on the bed with Aya in his arms and Nagi by his side, letting his mind jump from one fantasy to another. All of what the three of them, five if he counted Schu and Masato, could do to while away the long years. It was a glimpse of the future that he wanted to make come true in the worst way. A small part of Yohji’s mind wondered what it was he’d have to sacrifice to make it happen.

*******

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