Shadows

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chapter 14

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preparations

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Hungry and in the mood for a little company for breakfast, Shuuichi walked into one of the palace’s many formal dining rooms and quickly glanced around the large room. He knew that his fiancée and his son would be here this morning, and was hoping to find the two of them together. However, it didn’t seem that things were working out as he’d hoped. Manx was seated at a table, flanked by several of his Ministers and Kikyou as they were no doubt _still_ discussing security for the wedding, and at the next table over were Mamoru and Hajime. The other tables were filled with various guests who had come for the wedding, the majority of them lords and dignitaries. These were the guests that either hadn’t over-imbibed at the party the night before or were here with an agenda more important than sleeping in after a night of merriment. While Shuuichi wasn’t put out by their presence, he just wished that they’d leave him alone until after he finished his breakfast.

Walking over to his fiancée, Shuuichi paused to kiss the busy woman on the cheek before he settled beside Mamoru. The young man looked up at him, a bit surprised, before hurriedly turning his eyes back to the half-empty plate before him. Shuuichi felt like sighing at the look, aware that the boy had every reason to be shocked at finding his father sitting near him, but he had his reasons for being so distant all these years. Last night had only proven Shuuichi’s actions the past decade and so had been correct, as Mamoru had been left in relative peace during the party, other than having to endure a lecture from Lady Meara.

"Did you enjoy the party last night?" He asked as a servant placed a plate full of eggs and ham in front of him, along with a mug of fresh coffee. Mamoru nodded his head a little.

"It seems, Shuuichi, that the boy is a bit shy today. I’ve barely managed to pry four words out of him." Hajime leaned closer to him, a gentle smile on his face. "He’s every bit as quiet as Kikuno was."

Smiling sadly at the memory of his dead wife, Shuuichi glanced at his brother-in-law. It wasn’t often that Hajime brought up his older sister, and now wasn’t exactly the best time to be doing so. The young lord seemed to realize this as he blushed slightly and sat back in his chair.

"Yes, Mamoru seems to take after his mother," he lied, easily mouthing the statement. Kikuno had been such a quiet woman, prone to bouts of illness due to a blood condition. Mamoru’s absence at Court was often put down to him having the same spells, when in reality he was busy running off to the Koneko or wherever else he disappeared to. The young man did appear to inherit his mother’s intelligence and kindness, at the least, but little else. Both of those traits though had been allowed to flourish in the lack of attention the Court bestowed on him, Shuuichi thought.

Mamoru was bending his head further and further over his plate of eggs the more Shuuichi and Hajime spoke about his dead mother. Taking pity on his son, Shuuichi steered the conversation onto a less sensitive topic, though he was pretty sure to have caught a flash of something in his brother-in-law’s eyes when he spoke of something other than Kikuno. Shuuichi pushed the observation aside; it was a well-known fact that Hajime had idolized his older sister, and probably was unhappy about losing the opportunity to talk about her. But Hajime allowed the topic to shift to wedding preparations, at least for the few minutes before he rose to his feet and, citing pressing engagements, left the table.

Shuuichi watched the man leave, sighing lightly as he did. No doubt Hajime would be sulky with him for a day or so, and he didn’t have the time to put up with his brother-in-law at the moment. Catching the sight of a courtier waving to him, Shuuichi decided he didn’t want to start the barrage of questions, requests and fawning behavior just yet, and turned to look at his son. Mamoru was once again looking down at his plate, pushing his eggs around with his fork.

"You really should eat them, you know. You obviously need the energy. I swear you’ve grown at least two inches since last month." He smiled at the boy, who glanced up at him, his face carefully masked.

"I’m sorry, I’m just not in the mood for eggs this morning. Pancakes would have been nice."

Shuuichi dimly recalled Birman telling him that his son liked pancakes. If he’d remembered that he would have had the kitchen prepare them. But between his duties as a king and his desire that his only child grow up untainted by Court politics, there was much he couldn’t do where Mamoru was concerned. That fact filled him with some sadness.

"Well, be sure to eat some food later on today." If he would have to take a guess, Shuuichi was pretty sure the Koneko would be feeding his son later in the day, as the boy went there to spend some time with his friends and love interest. For a moment he was tempted to ask Mamoru about the boy, but it wouldn’t be wise to do so right now, when there was so many listeners about. The questions could wait until after the wedding, when things were less hectic. The most important thing he needed to know about the other boy was the fact that Birman had cleared him as an acceptable boyfriend for Mamoru.

Taking a bite of his own eggs, Shuuichi sighed when Mamoru didn’t say anything to him. He decided to try again. "I imagine I won’t see much of you the next couple days, outside of practice for the wedding."

"No sir," Mamoru quietly answered as he pushed his plate away. Then he turned to look at Shuuichi. "I don’t feel up to all the parties, but if you have a need for me…."

"No, there’s nothing I can think of that I need you to tend to. Everything’s being taken care of." There was a brief flash of pain on Mamoru’s face, one that tugged at Shuuichi’s heart, but as much as he would appreciate the young man’s help, he much preferred Mamoru safe and happy at the Koneko than here in the palace, where his brother of other favor-seeking lords would seek the young prince out and try to use him to their benefits. No, let Mamoru enjoy his free time as much as possible. In another year or two he would be old enough to start learning what would be required of him to take over Kritiker’s throne.

"In that case, I’m going back to my rooms. Good day, sir." Mamoru rose to his feet and bowed low to his father, and then hurried across the room. Shuuichi noted that the Guard Hidaka was standing by the door and immediately fell instep behind his son.

Looking over at the other table he found that Manx was still busy going over various details of the wedding, and he noticed that several people were edging their way to his table, now that his son was gone. Shuuichi decided he really didn’t need any breakfast at all and rose to his feet, nodding his head at the people who stood up and bowed to him but not giving any of them a chance to stop him. He quickly crossed the room, ignoring the few people calling out his name, and once in the hallway made a left.

Wandering about the palace for a few minutes, Shuuichi grew bored with having to avoid people and turned into a hallway that was little used. A couple turns and several hundred meters later found him standing in a long, well-lit hallway. Along the sides of the walls were hundreds of painting, capturing the Takatoris over the centuries they had ruled.

He walked amongst the old paintings, all of them charmed to withstand the wear of years and exposure. Shuuichi idly noted the change of style the paintings underwent, and stopped briefly by the ones he enjoyed. There was the scene of Prince Asato’s naming ceremony, complete with his mother’s beloved beagles running all around the painting, poking their noses into everything. Queen Caitlin’s coronation, held in one of the Royal gardens where the painter had lovingly rendered the flowers with amazing skill. King Shin riding into battle against a Thracian army that had thought to take by force the Kinsha Plains….

Shuuichi’s pace picked up when he reached the paintings of his grandmother and father, not wanting to linger of them any. But his attention was drawn to one of the last paintings hanging on the left wall, the one before his own coronation.

It was almost painful to look at. There he was, so much younger and innocent, smiling proudly for the whole world to see. His arm was around Kikuno’s waist, and her head was bent demurely, her hands tucked into the long sleeves of her kimono. Off to his left stood his father, smiling slightly, but that was the only other family member present in the painting. There was no sign of Reiji, as he’d already been exiled by the time the artist had started on the portrait.

Which was why the two other men in the picture, who should have faded into the background or not been present at all, were clearly visible. Ranmura Fujimiya stood towards the far left, appearing quite happy. His pose echoed Shuuichi’s, with his arm around the waist of his young wife, who as usual was half hidden by shadows. Arashi Fujimiya had always been a reserved individual, and his wedding had been the only Court function she’d ever attended.

Glancing back at his younger self, Shuuichi recalled how happy he had been that day, married to a woman he was quickly falling on love with and knew would make him happy. He had his father’s approval, a rare thing in and of itself, and his two best friends had been by his side. Since it was his day he’d been able to wrangle Ranmura back to Court, and no one had been able to snide the young lord about his choice of a wife and subsequent fall in social standing. Ranmura had happily returned from his self-imposed exile to share Shuuichi’s joy, and so the three of them could be together once more….

Behind the disgraced lord stood a tall man, several years older than Shuuichi and Ranmura, with long hair and an impassive expression. Shion was in sober contrast to Ranmura, his formal robes grey and light brown whereas Ranmura, his blue-black hair falling onto his face, was dressed in the Fujimiya colors of deep purple and silver. Just from the picture alone one could tell what opposites the two men had been, but they’d been his best friends, balancing out each other and Shuuichi. Ranmura had been his constant companion while growing up; a cheerful, supportive presence that he’d always been able to turn to. Shion… had been just as important, even though he hadn’t met the Swordmaster until he was in his teens. With Shion, he’d had his first….

"My apologies, Sire, but your fiancée wondered if you were all right. I believe she was curious as to why you left breakfast so suddenly."

Starting at the voice that had broken through his thoughts, Shuuichi turned to find Kikyou standing beside him, a worried expression on his face. For a moment the man reminded him of Ranmura, another disgraced lord, due to his slim build and handsome face. Then Shuuichi remembered that Ranmura was dead and shook his head.

"I’m fine. Is something wrong?"

"The Captain wanted me to mention that you have a meeting with Lord Yueng and the Thracian ambassador in another ten minutes. Should I ask the gentlemen to reschedule it?"

Wishing that he could curse out loud, Shuuichi again shook his head. "No, I’ll be right there." Sighing instead, he turned around and headed for the opposite end of the hall, where he knew the pair of Guards who constantly shadowed him were respectively waiting. So much for a brief respite for introspection, although if he’d thought any more of the past, Shuuichi’s whole day would have been colored in sadness and thoughts of what might have been.

Which wouldn’t do him any good at the moment. He had a wedding to plan, one that would end better than the last one, if he had anything to say about it. And once the event was over, Shuuichi had a couple weeks of peace and quiet to look forward to, alone with his new bride. There were times when thoughts of the honeymoon were all that kept him sane lately. But first, he had only a few more hectic, annoying days to get through first.

*******

Kikyou watched his king walk away from him, and then turned his attention towards the portrait that the man had been studying. All the Guards knew that King Shuuichi would often escape to this forgotten corridor of the palace when he needed some time alone, and it had been no surprise to find the king here. What did surprise Kikyou was the painting he’d found King Shuuichi standing before.

One would think that the man would want to forget about his previous wedding, considering what had happened later that evening. But as he examined the picture, he noticed the smiling figure of Lord Fujimiya and felt that the deceased lord’s image explained things. Kikyou had been a young boy when the lord had left the capitol, but over the years he’d heard about how close King Shuuichi and Lord Ranmura had been. It was easy to see why the king would remember him to this day as he gazed at the happy, handsome man. Ranmura had a quality about him that was clearly evident, emanating from a still image rendered in oil paints and canvas.

Leaning in close, Kikyou stared at the infamous woman by Ranmura’s side. She was a lovely thing, with long, auburn hair and pale skin, and one could see why the highborn had all but thrown away his title for her. For some reason she reminded Kikyou of someone else, but he couldn’t quite figure out who that was. Something about her stance, her straight, thin eyebrows and long lashed, slanted eyes.

Ah well, it would be something for his mind to puzzle out, trying to figure out who it was he’d met that resembled the woman so. But right now he had more important things to do than stare at an old portrait. There were hundreds of little security details that needed tended to, and a luncheon he had to attend.

Straightening out his long jacket as he walked down the quiet hallway, Kikyou’s thoughts suddenly lighted on Aya. He hadn’t seen the man for a couple days, having decided to let him… cool off a little. But that didn’t mean he hadn’t thought of Aya, of why Aya hadn’t liked the presents he’d given him and what kind of hold Kudoh had on the man. The redhead was all one big mystery to Kikyou, one he worried at more and more each day. He’d have to stop by soon and give Aya his latest present, and try to entice the stubborn man to attend the royal wedding with him. Surely that would get him a favorable response. If only he knew a little bit more about Aya, had the slightest clue of his background and a better feel of his true personality. That information would help Kikyou woo the quiet man away from Kudoh, which he wanted to do more and more each day. He’d have to redouble his efforts to find out about Aya after the wedding.

*******

Aya sat on his bed, his legs tucked against his body and his arms wrapped around them. The cuts on his arms had finally healed, and he’d regained some of his strength back, but he still felt tired and ached when he moved. Yohji and Nagi had left him alone so he could rest, but a nightmare had awoken him a short while ago and he couldn’t fall back to sleep. He’d decided to wait for Yohji to return before lying back down again.

There were several books on the nightstand, some of which Yohji hadn’t read to him yet, but Aya’s attention was focused on the desk across the room. He couldn’t prevent himself from staring at the furniture, at one drawer in particular. The one housing Aya-chan’s soul.

The soul-sphere had been left alone since Schuldig had obtained it, though Botan would be arriving later that evening to examine the sphere and try to figure out the spells associated with it. They would free his sister after the wedding, when the Takatoris were dead and couldn’t feel their magic being tampered with. Aya wanted the upcoming battle to be over with just so he could finally release his sister’s soul. He couldn’t take feeling her suffer much longer.

The sensation of someone crossing the shadow wards he’d set up outside the bedroom made Aya turn to stare at the door. It hadn’t been Yohji or another bound crossing them, and as the person knocked on his door Aya caught a familiar whiff of magic. For a second he allowed shadows to form around the door, ready to attack the Guard when he stepped into the room, but then Aya remembered that he’d be putting too many people he cared about at risk if he did so. Someone would be sure to notice if the new Captain of the Guards suddenly vanished. The shadows faded away just as Kikyou opened the door and entered uninvited.

The Guard was dressed in his uniform, carrying another damn silver and purple package. Aya felt a growl build in his throat, but he was too tired from ordering the shadows about to voice it. He settled for a weak glare as Kikyou smiled at him and crossed over to the bed.

"Most people wait to be invited before entering private rooms," Aya managed to snap, leaning back against the pillows in exhaustion. For a moment he wondered how the man had snuck into the Koneko, and then tried to calm his fears when Kikyou sat down on the end of the bed. A part of him panicked at being alone in a room with a human and in no condition to fight back, barring ordering the shadows to rip Kikyou to shreds. Which was a method that would all but shout ‘kage’ to anyone investigating the man’s disappearance.

"I would have, if I’d been certain that you would’ve invited me in," Kikyou smoothly replied. Aya had to wonder about why the man wouldn’t leave him alone. It couldn’t be because of his looks: he was too thin and pale to be attractive. Maybe the man was just trying to annoy Yohji or something. Suddenly thinking of his mate, Aya could feel the blond’s emotions, his fury and concern that something was making Aya upset and panicked. He knew that it wouldn’t be long before Yohji arrived back at the Koneko.

"Why would you want to be somewhere you aren’t wanted? Just go away," Aya said, feeling himself growing tired from both the discussion and the stress he was under. Kikyou kept shifting closer to him, making him press against the headboard in an attempt to keep some space between them.

Frowning, Kikyou seemed to realize that Aya was inching away from him. He tucked back his long strands of hair and held out the package to Aya. "Here. I know you said you didn’t want any presents from me, so this will be the last one, at least for now. Take it."

Just wanting to get the Guard out of his room before Yohji showed up, Aya chewed on his bottom lip as he gingerly accepted the present. Using a sharp nail he easily sliced through the paper and ribbon, and upon opening the box found an elaborate mask, done in gold silk with amethyst beads all over the expensive fabric. Aya stared at the mask for a moment, until his hands started to tremble from exhaustion, and then he set it aside.

"Why this?"

"Because I want you to attend the ball after the king’s wedding with me. I can have a costume that matches it made for you within a couple days, one that I’ll pay for. Please say you’ll come." Kikyou smiled at him, the expression charming and hopeful.

Aya shook his head as he handed the present back to Kikyou. "I can’t."

"Why not?" The Guard refused to accept the box, so Aya set it down on the bed before wrapping his arms around his chest. He was still cold from the loss of blood, and still upset at a human male’s presence being so close to him. Aya could feel Yohji’s emotions, and know his mate was even more upset now and hurrying here to deal with the perceived threat to him. He needed Kikyou gone before that happened.

Sighing, Aya shook his head. "I’m not feeling well." He fell silent after the statement, his only motion to wrap his arms around him even tighter.

Kikyou eyed him critically for a moment, and then leaned in closer. "You’re paler than usual, and too thin. I’ve heard rumors that you’ve been unwell again, but thought that maybe you were hiding from whoever it was who’d hurt you a week ago. Is everything all right? Do you require any help or medical attention?"

Aya shook his head, not wanting to say another word to the man. Why wouldn’t Kikyou leave him alone? He had to get the man to leave before Yohji arrived and a bloodbath ensued. Aya tugged on one of his eartails in irritation, thinking about how Yohji wasn’t going to let him live down Kikyou bothering him yet again while his mate wasn’t there to look after him. He’d never get Yohji to leave him some time in peace from now on.

"If you need anything, Aya, and I do mean anything, please contact me." Kikyou’s face was earnest and pleading, but Aya could smell the lust that radiated off the man, making him feel more nervous by the moment. The feel of stolen bound magic wasn’t helping the situation either, and he started to shiver from exhaustion and cold.

Kikyou immediately picked up one of the blankets lying on the bed and sat next to Aya, tucking the soft material around him. While grateful for the warmth, Aya had to bite back a snarl at the human’s close proximity. He tried to bat Kikyou’s hands away but all his traitorous limbs did was shake and pull the blanket tighter to him.

"Aya… I don’t know why you remain here, when you’re obviously sick and fearful of someone." Kikyou shifted closer and brushed back Aya’s bangs. The touch made him lift his head and try to snarl, but the sound came out more like a whimper. Painful memories surged through Aya’s mind, causing his body to still as it waited for the abuse to start, abuse he had to submit to….

"I don’t think Kudoh can help you, not if you’re reduced to hiding in his room. I can. Why you won’t let me, I don’t have any clue. But I’d give you anything that’s within my power, including my promise to keep you safe and well. Come to the wedding with me, and I’ll take care of you from now on."

Aya’s panic grew as Kikyou leaned towards him, intent on kissing him. He tried to jerk his head aside, but the man grabbed him by the chin and held him still. The fear flared as memories of the night in Hirofumi’s carriage overwhelmed him, and Aya let out a slight whimper as Kikyou pressed their lips together. But with the fear was the startling outrage that a human was touching him again, determined to hurt him. He suddenly realized that this wasn’t a Takatori, and even if it was, the man had no power over him. Not with his sister’s soul safe in the desk drawer and Yohji and Nagi nowhere around to be harmed in his place. The whimper turned into a growl, and Aya lifted his left hand, barely managing to land a blow with enough strength to force Kikyou away from him. He instantly scrambled to the other side of the bed, forcing the shadows to remain still and not attack his assailant as he crouched on the soft mattress.

"What the hell did you do that for?" Kikyou demanded, his eyes narrowed in anger. He held a hand up to the side of his head, his fingers probing through his thick black hair. "You act like I was…."

"Aya, I didn’t know you had any company. What are you doing up here, Kikyou?"

Aya glanced over at the door, which had unexpectedly opened to admit both Schuldig and Masato. The younger bound had a smile on his face, an expression that was little more than lips pulled taut against sharp teeth. Behind him Masato didn’t even bother with faking a pleasant look and was openly glaring at Kikyou. There was a tickle of magic in his mind, and Aya opened his thoughts to the soul gaki-bound.

<Yohji said something was happening to you. What the hell has this asshole done now? Want me to kill him for you?>

‘He tried to kiss me again, and his death will only cause us unneeded problems, so unfortunately, no.’

"I came here to see Aya, since he seemed to be hidden away lately. I wanted to make sure he was all right and to extend an invitation to him." Kikyou’s face was calm once more, belying the anger and frustration that Aya could smell emanating from him. He shifted farther back on the bed, letting the shadows fall around him and trail soothing touches along his skin.

"I’m fine, if tired. But I won’t be able to attend the reception," Aya lied smoothly. Kikyou glanced his way, a flash of anger in his eyes that quickly faded as the look turned into a puzzled stare. Uncomfortable with the attention, Aya lowered his head, letting his long bangs fall unto his face. He felt torn between calling the shadows to hide him and ordering them to rip Kikyou apart, and knew he could do neither. So he ignored the Guard, doing the same as he’d always done when he’d been forced to attend the Takatoris for hours on end. But across the room shadows gathered around the cherry wood desk.

<Oh boy, this guy has it bad for you, Aya. You remind him of someone… of a couple someones actually….> Schuldig broke off the thought when Masato growled very low in his throat. Only a bound with their enhanced senses could hear the noise, and it caused Schuldig and Aya to stare at the succubae-bound and wonder what was setting him off.

"Well, I think Aya has had enough visitors for the day. He needs all the rest he can get, the poor cat." Aya managed to work up a glare for the other redhead at that remark, causing Schuldig to smile for a brief instant. The expression faded when he turned to look at Kikyou. "As for you, don’t you have a few pressing matters to attend to, Kikyou?" Schuldig’s voice had taken on a mocking town.

"A few, but I felt that a visit with Aya was just as important." Kikyou turned to look at Aya, extending a hand as if to touch him. Aya couldn’t help flinching away from it, causing Kikyou to purse his lips and to look at him with wonder for a moment. Then he smiled sadly and bowed his head.

"These meeting never go as I’d planned, Aya. Ah well, I hope you get better soon, and if you change your mind about the ball, just send a message to me through any of the Guards. I’d gladly accompany you for the night. If not, I won’t be able to see you for another week or so; as your friend has pointed out, I have a few important matters to attend to. But I’d welcome a chance to see you, if you feel like extending an invitation." Kikyou bowed slightly and turned to face Schuldig. He leaned close to the man, and over the sound of Masato growling again Aya heard the human whisper to the redhead.

"I’ll be keeping an eye on him, to make sure that he ‘recovers’ adequately. I don’t like how often he’s been sick lately. It seems to me that perhaps Kudoh isn’t doing a very good job of watching out for his lover."

Schuldig looked furious, but as soon as he opened his mouth to issue a retort or insult Masato’s growls became loud enough to be heard by Kikyou. He immediately shoved his elbow into his mate’s side, making Masato sputter and cough. While this was going on Kikyou graced Aya with one more look and then walked out the door.

Once the door was closed Schuldig turned to face his lover. "What the hell got into you back there? I mean, yeah he’s an irritating and insulting prick, but you were about to rip his throat out! I sensed that from your thoughts."

Masato rubbed his sore ribs and glared at Schuldig for a moment, but the look soon turned into one of confusion. "I… I don’t know what the hell happened there. It felt like he was challenging you, challenging the both of us, and I had to do something."

"Masato, he’s human. You shouldn’t have reacted like that." Schuldig tugged on his hair as he frowned at the older bound.

"Yes, but he’s using bound magic. He has a ring charmed with succubae-bound blood." Aya allowed the shadows to settle around him finally, still finding it hard to control his true nature. He could smell Kikyou on the bed, fueling the anger and fear inside him until he wanted to snarl and tear something apart.

"A ring? Huh, wonder why I never picked up on that before," Schuldig mused as he leaned against Masato. The older man wrapped his arms around his mate, and the three of them fell silent for a few moments. Then Aya lifted his head to look at the door.

"Yohji’s coming."

Schuldig and Masato shared a worried glance and headed straight for the door. "Uhm, be sure to tell him how we helped you out, and I hope you don’t mind us not sticking around," Schuldig said as he peeked out the open door. "We better go make sure he doesn’t run into anyone on his way to the room." He waved at Aya before darting outside, Masato on his heels.

Aya didn’t have to wait more than a minute or two for his mate to arrive, spending that time and precious energy warding the room with shadows and calling enough to him that the bed and its surrounding area was blanketed in darkness. Soon enough Yohji barged into the room, the wards giving him no trouble, and immediately rushed over to the bed.

"What the hell happened now? Wait… I can sme-"

Grabbing hold of the lanky blond’s tunic, Aya pulled Yohji down on the bed with the last of his strength. He fastened his mouth to his mate’s, lying on top of him as Yohji’s shock washed through him. This is what he needed, to feel his mate, to know he was safe from pain and degradement because the man was here with him, giving him the strength to fight his fears. The contact helped to soothe his soul somewhat, but Aya still felt out of control over himself.

Yohji started to kiss him back, his hands sliding under Aya’s shirt and along his skin. Pulling away so he could breathe in a shuddering breath, Aya purred for a moment and then nuzzled Yohji’s neck until the man tilted his head back. Then he sucked on the golden, salty skin, hard enough to leave a bruise as he ground his hips downward. Yohji started to purr and rock his hips against Aya’s, his hands tracing down Aya’s chest to start to work on the laces of their pants.

For one brief moment Aya wondered what he was doing, wondered why he was filled with a desperate need to take Yohji, to be inside his mate until all he could smell and taste was Yohji. The intensity of that need scared him, filling his whole being until the wonder and fear faded away. The world took on grey tones, everything rendered into light and dark, except for Yohji. Fighting against exhaustion and pain, Aya focused all his attention on his mate, on the need that filled him and took over everything. He didn’t know why he was acting like this, but he was too tired to fight his desire and instincts. Falling into impulses and bursts of pleasure, Aya lost himself in the darkness.

*******

Rubbing a hand along the back of his neck, Yohji stared down at his sleeping lover. Actually, comatose better described Aya, who was lying utterly limp and still on the bed. It reminded Yohji of the other night, after Aya had just been bled and then laid down on their bed.

"Cat… what the hell was that about?" First he feels Aya’s panic and anger, the feeling fluctuating the whole entire time he’d hurried back to the Koneko, and then he’d been pounced on the second he’d stepped into the room. To say that it had been unexpected was an understatement, as Aya had barely enough energy to sit up earlier that morning. Even with all the strength Yohji had been sparing his lover since the spell had been cast, Aya had been too tired to do much more than sleep and sip some tea. Aya certainly hadn’t seemed up to completely ravishing Yohji when he’d reluctantly left his lover to run a few errands that afternoon.

But in a way it hadn’t been Aya who had made love to him, not really. Like the other night, Aya’s bound nature had totally taken over, had pushed the man on even when Yohji could feel how tired his mate had been. The sex had been extremely passionate but brief, and his throat still throbbed from the last bite Aya had given him.

What was he going to do? Aya was slipping more and more into his demon nature each day, probably because of the stress he was under. Would things return to how they’d been a couple weeks ago when Aya-chan was freed and Prince Reiji and his family dead? A shiver of fear ran up Yohji’s spine at the thought that maybe they wouldn’t.

Yohji knew he tended to lose himself in his succubae-bound nature from time to time, but he didn’t have anywhere near the amount of trouble returning to normal that Aya did. When the man woke up, would it be as Aya or kage? That’s what worried Yohji the most at the moment, and had him worrying about what he would do if it was the latter. He needed Aya to return to him. Stroking his fingers through Aya’s hair, Yohji continued to frown at his lover.

<Yohji?>

Snapping his head up, Yohji realized that he hadn’t heard his name being weakly called out loud, but in his thoughts. He concentrated on thinking of Schuldig, since he was the only one who bothered to talk to Yohji telepathically.

<Ah, thanks for the help. It gets harder and harder to talk to you this way each day. How is Aya?>

‘He’s passed out at the moment. Can you tell me how the hell Kikyou managed to get up into our room? I know it was him bothering Aya since the room reeks of the bastard.’ Not to mention he’d found the present after the sex was over and Aya had collapsed.

<From what I picked out of his thoughts, he’s had someone watching the Koneko the past month or so. The spy let him know when you left the inn, and he timed it just right to sneak in while no one was manning the door. Let me tell you, you’re really on his shit list at the present. The prick can’t figure out why Aya is still choosing you over him.>

‘Because we’re mates.’ Yohji bared his teeth and snarled, then lowered his head to nuzzle Aya’s hair. They were mates, and no one was going to come between them with that bond linking them together. He sank down on the bed, molding his body around Aya’s and stroking the man’s cool skin, sending him trickles of energy in hopes that it would make the stubborn idiot wake up.

<What’s wrong, Yotan? You’re upset about something, and it’s not just Kikyou.>

Sighing, Yohji allowed Schuldig deeper into his thoughts, showing him snippets of Aya’s reactions the past couple weeks. Surprisingly, the thief didn’t make any snide comments about the images related to sex.

<I… I’ll have to talk to Mom about this, if you don’t mind. I can understand Aya’s humanity slipping a bit because of all he’s suffered lately, but it shouldn’t be that hard for him to regain it. Only flesh gaki-bounds have a problem like that. It might have something to do with him being a kage.>

‘Go ahead and speak to her. As great as the sex has been, I can’t take much more of this. Each time it happens I have this stabbing fear that Aya won’t come back, and that I’ve lost him.’ Yohji kissed Aya on the nose, smiling sadly when his love didn’t wake up to glare at him and rub his face. He spent a few seconds wistfully thinking of what life would be like after the wedding, when there wouldn’t be any bloodlettings or abuse to sap Aya’s strength. Nor all this stress to take Aya’s human nature away from him.

<He’ll come back to you, Yohji. You’re his mate. As long as you’re there for him, he should come back to you. So enjoy the sex while you can. I know I sure the hell am.> Schuldig’s thoughts suddenly became coloured by pleasure.

Gritting his teeth, Yohji refused to think about what might be making his friend feel that way. ‘Schu, keep in mind that you have to be able to walk if you want to fight properly at the wedding reception.’

<Hmm, very good point there, Yotan. Guess that settles who’s on the bottom this time. Hee, poor Masato. It’ll be his turn to limp.>

Gagging softly, Yohji buried his face in Aya’s hair and purposely blocked Schuldig from his thoughts. The last part of the conversation was definitely more information than he needed or ever wanted to know. He inhaled the scent of roses and tried desperately to think of something else.

"You better come back to me, cat. If you leave me alone here with those two sluts I really will go crazy."

*******

Yoru sat in the quarters Eto had assigned him, ignoring the bustle of the servant there to clean his rooms. He stared at a piece of gold that until a few weeks ago had encased a stone made of a kage’s tear and blood. He’d kept the jewelry in anticipation of the day when he’d be able to replace the stone. But according to the runes spread before him on the table, that even was placed in doubt.

Snarling, he tossed the precious metal away from him, startling the young man busy changing the sheets on his bed. The servant hurriedly tugged the bedspread straight and fled the room, no doubt to rat to his lord on how he was going insane. Yoru bared his teeth at the closing door. The fool. All of them were fools, but he needed Eto and the small army he’d assembled. Yoru knew exactly how strong the man’s forces were, after forging stones for the mercenaries so they could cross the palace wards. Yet still the runes only showed him darkness and death.

Picking up a black stone he immediately sent it the way of the gold. Damn shadows. Everything pointed to the fact that there was indeed another kage alive and somehow tied into the current affairs, but Yoru couldn’t figure out exactly how. But he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that the creature had to be tied to Prince Reiji somehow. The man had seemed too smug the other night at the party, which Yoru had attended in disguise. No, Reiji was definitely up to something….

If he did have a kage hidden away, and was planning on using its blood for an attack, the prince and his allies were in for a rude surprise. The oni, enraged beyond description by their capture, would tear apart anyone using kage blood. So that threat was effectively neutralized. But the stones still mocked Yoru with failure….

Cursing the damn stones, Yoru shoved them off the table and onto the floor. He didn’t care what lies they told him, he would emerge victorious when all was said and done, and he’d have the necessary kage blood when he did. Then he’d be able to reverse his dreadful aging, and his name would be spoken in the same tones of awe and fear that Kritiker and Esset’s legendary wizards were. The one difference was that no one would forget _his_ name.

He wouldn’t let Fate get the better of him this time. Muttering under his breath, Yoru rose from his chair and fetched several of his priceless spell books. There were preparations to be made, and he’d wasted enough time consulting silly stones.

*******

Feeling his mate stir beside him, Yohji tossed aside the book he’d been reading and looked down at Aya. He held his breath as he waited for the man’s eyes to open and to focus on him, desperately trying to sense if it was Aya or a kage that was waking up. A pair of violet eyes blinked for a couple moments, then Aya moaned and tucked his head against Yohji’s chest.

Smiling in relief, Yohji started to purr and stroke Aya’s hair, sending him energy as he did. He could feel Aya’s utter exhaustion; both through their link and in the way the man’s body trembled. Sitting up on the bed, he pulled an unresisting redhead onto his lap, lifting Aya’s chin so he could kiss him.

The gesture of affection earned Yohji a soft purr and a half smile. Aya pulled away to look at him, the smile tugging at his lips, and then he curled up against Yohji. Reaching over for some tea in a spelled cup to keep it warm, Yohji handed his lover the cup and held him as Aya gulped it down.

"You feel even more tired than this morning, love."

"Huhn." Aya finished the last of the tea and held out the empty mug with shaky hands as he stared at the teapot. "More."

The curt answers were beginning to make Yohji wonder if his lover was completely back or not. He poured another cupful of Cass’ special blend, and watched carefully as Aya gulped that down too. When the cup was held out again, Yohji seized it and placed it on the nightstand, earning a whimper from Aya that soon turned into a snarl.

"Yohji…."

"Aya." Yohji grabbed the man’s chin, for once not caring if he got bit. While Aya glared at him he examined his mate’s face and eyes minutely, anxious until he felt Aya’s anger melt away into confusion and concern.

"It’s you cat, isn’t it?" Please let it be just Aya.

"It’s me, Yohji." Aya grasped the hand clutching his chin and tugged on it until it let go. Yohji immediately threaded their fingers together. "What’s wrong?"

"What’s the last thing you remember, Aya?"

Aya’s brows knit together. "I… Kikyou was here." There was a flash of fear and anger that made Yohji growl softly, but Aya ignored him and continued on. "Then Schu and Masato arrived, saying you sent them. Kikyou left after that, and Schu and Masato were right behind him, then you arrived…." Aya’s eyes went suddenly wide and the faintest of blushes stained his cheeks.

"What did I do to you, Yohji?" Aya’s voice was soft, and Yohji could feel the man’s panic and fear.

He smiled and tugged gently on an eartail. "Nothing I’m really complaining about, all in all. Just some fantastic sex that would have left me with a serious limp if I’d been human." Yohji leered at his lover, but when Aya didn’t seem amused he used the eartail to tug him forward and kissed him again until Aya relaxed against him.

Gradually pulling back, Yohji sighed and held Aya tightly. They remained silent for several minutes, Yohji playing with an eartail while Aya stroked a finger along his bruised neck. It was Aya who eventually broke the silence.

"You’re worried about me."

"Yeah, Aya, I am. You scare the hell out of me when you go all kage and show no sign of returning to normal. I know you can’t help it… I just fear that there will come the time that I won’t get you back." Yohji stared at his mate sadly while his fingers wrapped crimson strands around his index finger.

Gazing back at him, Aya nibbled on the bottom of his lip for a few seconds. Then he sighed and fixed Yohji with a serious look. "I don’t know why this is happening now, or how to stop it. It’s… as I said, it feels so natural to give in to the darkness inside me, almost as if I’m freeing myself."

Yohji’s mouth tightened into a grim line at those words. He knew from Cass and Schu that Aya was pure demon, whereas he and the others weren’t. If Aya gave in completely to the ‘darkness’ inside him, there was no humanity lurking amongst it to help his cat return to him. Aya seemed to guess his thoughts as he smiled sadly and resumed stroking Yohji’s throat.

"Did anyone ever tell you why it’s very important for a bound not to break a promise, and why we so rarely make any?"

The question surprised Yohji, and after racking his brains for a minute he couldn’t come up with an answer. All he could recall was Cass admonishing him to never make a promise he didn’t intend to honor, and Jei saying something similar about that not too long ago.

"It’s because we’re magical beings," Aya continued. "We’re tied to magic, filled with it, and magic… it doesn’t like broken promises." The redhead paused and chewed some more on his lip as he seemed to search for words. "All magic involves a… sacrifice of sorts, either blood or energy. It requires commitment, and if the caster breaks his or her part of the bargain, at best the magic will fail them, at worst it will turn on them. As magical beings, we’re sort of handicapped in the same manner. Our words are our oaths, a binding we’ve willingly taken on, and to break that with impudence…." Aya shook his head. "I’ve heard of bounds completely losing themselves to their demon natures by recklessly breaking oaths, or their powers turning on them or those they love. Before our kind were turned on and persecuted, we used to be respected for that aspect of our nature. It was considered an honor if a bound made a promise to someone.

"What I’m trying to say…." Aya sighed again and tucked back a strand of Yohji’s hair. When he spoke again it was in a sibilant tone of voice that made Yohji shiver, and his eyes glowed with intense emotion.

"I swear to you, Yohji, on my very soul, that I will always return to you. No matter what, I won’t leave you. If I ever go too far into the darkness, if I ever get lost in it, just call me back and I’ll return to you. As long as you want me, I’m yours."

Feeling a tightness in his chest, Yohji bent his head to brush his lips against Aya’s, never breaking eye contact with the man for a second. "I accept your promise, and intend to make sure you always honor it. If you ever go too far away I’ll call you back in an instant. I’ll want you forever, Aya, this I swear. I’ll never let you leave me, and I’ll never leave you."

They stared at each other for a moment, and then, purring softly, Yohji kissed his love. Aya kissed him back, tasting so sweet from the tea, and for a moment the both of them forgot all about their exhaustion and fears. When they broke apart Yohji poured the last of the tea and handed it to Aya, who rested against his chest as he drank. Pressing a kiss against a pale temple, Yohji concentrated on thinking about Schuldig until he felt an irritated presence in his mind.

<What?>

‘Sweet gods, don’t tell me the two of you are still going at it.’ Yohji snapped in exasperation, trying not to think about how long it had been since he’d last spoken to Schuldig.

<Need I remind you of how many hours you spent in your room, and the bath, and the damn garden of all places, right after Aya and you become lovers? It’s a miracle your ass isn’t as pale as his from the lack of sunlight.> Was Schuldig’s scathing reply, laced with enough indignation that Yohji had to actually smile.

‘Yeah, well, we didn’t know better, and we’re both young. You’re sleeping with Gramps there, shouldn’t you let him get some rest before you give him a heart attack?’

Schuldig’s mental snort came through loud and clear. <A heart attack isn’t the issue here, hemorrhoids are. As for Masato being old and easily worn out… hee, there’s truth to older men having more stamina.>

Yohji made a face even though his friend couldn’t see it. ‘I don’t want to know a single thing about your sexlife. All I want is for you to ask Jo or Ani to bring up some more tea and some food for us. Aya’s awake, and the damn little demon’s off with Omi most likely doing even more perverted things than you and Masato, so that leaves you as errand boy.’

Instead of the expected ‘get your own ass out of bed’ that Yohji was waiting for, he actually felt some concern from Schuldig. <How… he’s all right? I don’t think you’d be joking around if he wasn’t….>

‘It’s like you said, Schu, he came back to me, and he always will.’ Yohji smiled as Aya started to purr sleepily against his chest. ‘Now my main concern is getting some food in him.’

<Okay.> There was silence for a moment. <Jo’s gonna bring something up, so you better be decent. She was about to charge up the stairs and drag you out of bed by your hair when I explained to her that Aya needed some recharging, but she stopped when I said you were the one on the bottom this time.> Schuldig chuckled as Yohji gritted his teeth, not too happy that his friend was sharing details of his sex life with _Jo_ of all people, even if it did save him from getting his ass kicked. The woman was sure to tease him about it at some point in the future.

Then Schuldig suddenly became serious once again. <Yotan… can I ask you a question?>

‘Yeah, sure.’ Yohji tugged on an eartail, and winced when Aya managed to snatch his hand and lightly clamp his teeth on one of his fingers. "I am not a damn chew toy, you sneaky cat. Keep this up and I’m gonna have Jo save some bones for you to gnaw on instead of me."

Aya hmphed and glared at him, but the both of them knew that as bites went, that had been a love tap. So Yohji smiled and kissed the man on the nose to really give him something to glare about.

<It’s like I said, the two of you are so incredibly mushy it’s unbelievable.> Schuldig’s thoughts were humorous for a moment, and then went back to being serious. <Aya and you… I mean… gods, how do I ask this? Don’t you ever think that you’re too close, even if you are mates? I… you two should really see how you act around each other.>

‘We’re mates, Schu, how are we supposed to act? I love him so much, and I know he feels the same about me. We can _feel_ each other, and that….’ Yohji smiled again as Aya began to lightly nibble on his marked neck. ‘It feels so natural, the way we are together. And we’ll probably only get worse when this is all over, and Aya can give more of himself than he can now.’

<Give himself….> Schuldig’s thoughts took on an uneasy and almost fearful cast. <Okay, thanks for being so honest. Just so you know, though, the two of you are already pretty sickeningly sweet together. I’ll probably start gagging if you get any more than that.> But the humor this time seemed forced, causing Yohji to wonder what his friend was really thinking.

‘As if you’ll ever see us, what with being tucked away with Masato in a bedroom all the time, Schu. Now quit your bitching, you’re just jealous.’

<Maybe, and maybe not. But I’m glad that things worked out okay, Yotan. Now let me get back to my boyfriend before he pays you a visit. You should know by now how jealous you succubae-bounds can get.>

Wishing his friend goodbye, Yohji looked down at Aya, who was gazing at him in curiosity. "Apparently, we’re so cute together it’s sickening."

"Hn." Aya tucked his head under Yohji’s chin. "Food?"

"Nice to see you’re so concerned with yours and mine images, love. And food is on its way, oh monosyllabic one. Remind me to continue that discussion about manners sometime soon." Aya was still for a moment, and Yohji barely had the time to yank the blanket up enough to cushion his shoulder from a set of sharp teeth sinking into it. Letting out a yelp, he then started to growl as he flipped Aya onto the bed, straddling his mate’s waist as he tugged on the man’s bottom lip.

"Come on you little bastard and open up! I’m going to remove those damn fangs of yours if it’s the last thing I do! Let’s see you try and gum me from now on!"

Aya hissed back at him and weakly struggled beneath Yohji, managing to nip his fingers when they got too close to his teeth. Yohji could sense his mate’s amusement, and knew that Aya felt his, and he reveled in this moment of silliness after all the angst they’d been through lately. Still acting enraged, he growled at Aya while he pulled some wire from his bracelet.

"Come on, don’t be a scaredy-cat and open up! I’m gonna yank the damn things out by their roots!" Aya just hissed and squirmed some more, as much as his exhaustion would allow. Yohji was starting to feel all of his blood rush to a certain body part and began to wonder if he should put a stop to things before it got out of hand. Aya was too weak at the moment for another round of sex. He reluctantly let go of the wire and glared at the man, barely keeping a smile off his face.

"Fine, be stubborn. Maybe I should just settle for beating your ass whenever you bite me. What do you think of that?" Aya suddenly went still, a sense of uneasiness filling him and making Yohji think that maybe he’d taken the joke a little too far. He opened his mouth to apologize when he heard Jo speak.

"_I_ think that if you try to do that, you’ll be the one getting your ass kicked, Yohji Kudoh. Now get the hell off him."

Looking over his shoulder, Yohji found Jo standing in the doorway, a tray of food in her hands and a furious look on her face that would send any member of the Koneko scrambling for the nearest hiding place. Swallowing a very large lump in his throat, Yohji climbed off Aya and then used his mate as a shield.

"Ah, Jo, I can explain this, honest I can."

Aya, the bastard, radiated amusement while Yohji started to whimper.

*******

Botan knocked twice on the door to Yohji and Aya’s room, and when the blond called out for him to enter, he wearily opened the door and did as he’d been bid. After staring dumbly at the empty bed for a moment or two, he looked around and found the couple curled up on the window seat. Yohji’s arms were wrapped around Aya, who was cocooned in a lovely quilt and had rested his head on Yohji’s shoulder. The kage still looked paler than normal, but Botan was heartened to see that he wasn’t as white as he’d been the night of the spell.

"Botan, don’t take this personally, but you look like shit. Do you want a cup to tea? It’s Cass’ special blend." Yohji gestured to the tray set on the seat beside him, containing a huge pot of tea, some mugs and a plate heaped with cookies and tarts. The sleeve of his pale yellow shirt almost fell into an already poured mug that was cooling in the evening air.

Perking up at the idea of some tea, Botan hurried over to the couple. Yohji smiled as he poured a cup and held it out to him, and Aya even held up the plate of sweets once he managed to work an arm free of the quilt. Botan gulped down the beverage, his mouth hardened to guzzling hot fluids after his years of late night studying, and he then placated it with a tart filled with soft cheese and cherries. He groaned in pleasure.

"Have you been getting any sleep?"

Brushing away the crumbs around his mouth, Botan nodded his head. "At least three hours today alone." Yohji made a face at him, one that made him smile. "I know, I plan to sleep some more tonight, if the gods allow. But I’ve been very busy casting spells. If I could take a look at the sphere now, I’d be that much closer to being able to collapse in my bed."

Aya tensed as soon as he mentioned the sphere, his face becoming blank of all emotion. Yohji’s smile slipped, and he held his mate closer to him, bending his head to whisper something in Aya’s ear. The kage closed his eyes for a moment and then sank back against Yohji. Botan just stood there, uncomfortable and feeling like an ass for ruining what had been a pleasant moment.

Yohji looked up at him after a minute. "Okay, now you can examine it, Aya’s released the shadow wards around the damn thing." Aya hissed quietly and opened his eyes. He made a snapping sound with his teeth, one that made Yohji start and jerk his hands downwards before cursing softly.

"I’ve warded the room, which should help negate any minor spells on the sphere." Aya’s voice was subdued, hinting at pain and weakness that didn’t show on his face. His crimson hair fell over his eyes, hiding them from Botan’s sight.

"A good idea. If there are any spells on the sphere to alert its… former masters to the fact that someone is touching it, that ward should block the warning." Botan hadn’t thought of that possibility until just now, and he silently cursed himself for forgetting such an important fact. He must be even more tired than he’d thought.

Striding over to the desk, his hands paused for a moment before opening the drawer. If Aya had indeed warded it with shadows, and hadn’t lowered the wards… Since he didn’t die the moment he touched the wood he assumed that Aya had done as he’d said. Gingerly lifting the silk wrapped object out of the drawer, Botan sunk down in the chair by the desk and slowly unwrapped his prize.

There was an inhalation of breath when the sphere was revealed, and Yohji again murmured to his lover. His hands trembling slightly, Botan bent his head to gaze down on what had caused so many people so much pain. If it wasn’t for this sphere, Aya would be free, his sister’s soul would be awaiting reincarnation, and countless people wouldn’t be dead at Reiji Takatori’s orders. As it was, at least now King Shuuichi wouldn’t be killed on his wedding day, and there was hope of diverting a disaster that would shake Kritiker to its core.

Clearing his head of troubling thoughts, Botan began to examine the spells that comprised the magical object. He had to admit that whoever had created it, Masafumi most likely since it had required so much energy and skill, had been brilliant. Luckily there were no spells to alert the wizards when someone other than themselves touched the object, but Botan could sense the spells linking the sphere to them. Those connections had to be blocked, or stealing the thing would be for nothing when the soul gaki within was released with the Takatoris’ deaths.

"Aya, is there a way for you to ward this so it can’t tell when the Takatoris die?" He glanced over that the pale man, whose face was bent and completely hidden behind a curtain of hair. Yohji was massaging his shoulders.

Lifting his head, Aya nodded and then held out a hand. The quilt fell away, leaving the kage clad only in faded grey pants and a green shirt that Botan had seen Yohji wear on several occasions, causing Aya to shiver. The room, even with the benefit of a pleasant breeze, was warm from the summer temperatures, so Botan assumed that Aya was still suffering from blood loss and cautiously handed the sphere to him. Yohji’s hands cupped underneath Aya’s, helping to support the precious object.

Aya bent his head again, and several minutes passed in silence. As Botan watched, shadows converged around the sphere, eventually sinking into the glass. However, they didn’t cause the sphere to darken, which he noticed with interest. Then Aya was holding the sphere out to him, his eyes glittering with pain as he looked up.

"It’s done. I… also encased the soul gaki within my shadows, to keep it away from Aya-chan."

Botan retrieved the sphere and carefully wrapped it back in the silk. Not a word was said until he placed the glass ball back in the drawer, and the moment he was done shadows swarmed around the desk, deadly sentinels once more guarding something very precious to their master.

Clearing his throat, Yohji gazed at Botan. "So Aya’s shielding it right now. Why can’t we break it and let her go free?"

"Because, that would result in the shattering of innumerable spells, which he can’t hide from the Takatoris. It’s one thing to hide the sphere and to block a specific spell or two, but to destroy it… At the very least, Masafumi would feel the soul gaki being killed or released, causing him to investigate the false sphere, and he would soon divine that something was wrong. Three guesses who he’ll seek out after that." Botan pointedly looked at Aya.

Yohji sighed and muttered under his breath while Aya poured a cup of tea with shaking hands. Falling silent, Yohji helped to steady the pot and lift the mug for Aya, and after a few sips pressed a tart into his lover’s free hand and urged him to eat. Feeling tired himself, Botan edged near the bounds and held out his empty mug. Yohji instantly refilled it for him and tossed him a cookie.

"Okay, so we have the soul sphere, and Aya-chan is safe. As soon as we come back to the Koneko after the battle, we can free her and never have to worry about her being used against Aya again. What now? It’s Thursday night, and the wedding is Saturday. Is everything ready?"

Botan shrugged his shoulders. "Ask Crawford or Cass, not me. I have several weapons I need to make, offensive spells I need to prepare, and a half dozen other things. But I think all the two of you need to be worried about is showing up and fighting." He looked at Aya. "Will you be well enough to do so?"

"Yes. That was it, just the one word, but it was said in a sibilant tone of voice that made Botan tremble. Candlelight reflected in Aya’s eyes, turning them silver, and Botan suddenly remembered all the stories he’d learned about kage. Yes, Aya would be ready, even if he had to sacrifice himself. He sincerely hoped it wouldn’t come to that.

Finishing off his tea and snatching another cookie, Botan smiled wearily at his two friends. "Very well then, I’m heading back to the palace. I’ll spend a little time coming up with the best way to release Aya-chan’s soul before I get some rest. I advise the two of you to get the sleep I’ll be missing out on, and I most likely won’t see you until Saturday. Be well."

The couple wished him the same, and Botan headed for the door. Pausing to look over his shoulder before he left, he saw the two men kissing each other, Aya’s hands buried in Yohji’s hair while the older man cupped his face between his. For a moment Botan wished with all his heart that he had the time to spare for a quick stop by Cassandra’s, but knew if he visited his lover he wouldn’t want to leave and do the many tasks that required his attention. Sighing wistfully, he exited the room and closed the door behind him.

*******

Masafumi mentally sighed as he accepted a cup of tea from one of the many servants roaming around the Rose garden, where there was a small gathering of nobles and dignitaries whiling away the evening by having an outdoor tea. He was here representing his family, while his father was at the small get-together the ambassador from Thracia was throwing, and his brother Hiro was partaking in a gathering of nobles off by the Royal stables.

What he wouldn’t give to be back in his quarters, enjoying a lovely evening with his ladies. He hadn’t been able to spend much time with them lately, and he missed their presence. Soothing, brilliant Hell, sweet, eager to please Tot and seductive Schoen. For a moment Masafumi felt a pang as he thought of quiet, watchful Neu, forever lost to him because of his father and that damn Guard. Well, neither man would live for much longer. Once the kage had taken care of Shuuichi and his family, his father’s days were numbered. Masafumi planned on using the creature to quietly kill the man in his sleep a day or two after the coup. He was sure no one would mind Reiji’s death, not after he killed his own brother and possibly his own son, and Masafumi would see to it that those two did not die alone. No, it would be a very bloody takeover, and people would be relieved to see the man they’d associate with the event die soon afterwards.

Then Hirofumi would have the throne, and Masafumi his revenge for Neu and all the time with his ladies and his studies that he wanted. He longed for the future, but still had to get through the next couple day. Gods, how he wished someone would spike the damn tea, just to liven things up.

"You appear as if you’re not enjoying the party, Prince Masafumi."

Hearing a dry, gravelly voice speak from his left side, Masafumi turned and found Lady Meara standing by him, a dour look on her face. Not that there was anything unusual about that, the woman always looked upset about something. But she had a brilliant mind and was intensely loyal to the current king, so Masafumi smiled and bowed to her. He wouldn’t give the old battle-axe any cause to suspect anything of him.

"I’m afraid not. It’s a bit of a letdown after last night."

"Hmph. I look at this as the calm before the storm." Lady Meara shifted closer to Masafumi, her eyes locked on his. "Tomorrow night the revelries will start, in the city if not here at the palace, and after the wedding… there will most likely be parties for the next week or two. Consider me boring, but I’m very grateful for the lull in excitement."

"I could never consider you boring, milady." Masafumi turned a bit of his charm on the woman, but not enough to make her wonder what he was after. "I’ve heard of too many of your infamous debates with those unlucky enough to attempt to try your wit to think that." Lady Meara had the reputation of having a very sharp tongue, one she wasn’t afraid to use. It was rumored to be almost as sharp as her wits.

"Hmph." She crossed her arms over her chest and glared slightly at Masafumi. "I’m surprised you heard about it, all the way in Timbergrey Castle."

Reminded of his exile, Masafumi forced the smile to remain on his face. "My family has always been concerned with the goings on of the Court."

"You should be more concerned about the country as a whole, and not such a small population of it," the woman snapped. Masafumi was hard pressed to remember that she was the Minister of Diplomacy. Dear Meara was definitely not showing much tact at the moment.

"I’ve always been very concerned about Kritiker as a whole, I assure you."

Lady Meara stared at him for a moment before sniffing and holding out her right hand. Immediately a servant hurried over to her side to hand her a cup of tea. She sipped the hot beverage for a moment before gesturing to the roses blooming around her. The air was fragrant with their perfume, so strong an aroma that a deep breath could make one lightheaded, and the greenery of the garden was broken by a profusion of colour. Masafumi swore that there was every shade of red present and accounted for, from deep pink to a crimson so dark it appeared black, interspersed with blooms of white, peach and yellow. There were even a few bushes with purple roses the colour of the kage’s eyes.

"I remember this garden when I was a child. There used to be blooms here of the palest pink that smelled so sweet the Royal Gardner would limit how much it bloomed. The bush still exists, but it was moved to a garden on the east side of the palace. Princess, then Lady, Kikuno much preferred red roses, and for a betrothal present King, then Prince, Shuuichi had the Royal Gardner alter the Rose garden. She left just enough of the other coloured blooms to break apart and highlight the various reds."

Wondering what point the woman was trying to make, Masafumi nodded his head. "Eiko is a genius at designing gardens."

"Eiko did her best, even though it broke her heart to alter the Rose garden, because it was Prince Shuuichi’s request. She thought of the young prince as a good man, and wanted him and his bride to be happy. Princess Kikuno was thought of rather well, also. She so loved this present, and part of her ashes are buried here." The lady stared intently at Masafumi, and he felt his smile grow bitter. He wondered if she dared to lead this conversation where he thought she might.

Lady Meara paused for a moment, finishing off her tea and holding the cup out for another servant to take it, who received a curt nod of thanks from her. "Yes, Princess Kikuno was much loved, making what happened the night of her wedding that much harder to take. She is missed to this day, and is thought of often. Along with the tragedy that happened to her."

Yes, the Minister did dare to bring up the offense that had sent his father, and of course him and his brother as well, into exile. She was the first person to do that their entire stay here, at least to Masafumi’s face. He gritted his teeth together and made a show of turning to look at the rose bush nearest him, bending down to sniff a scarlet blossom as he regained his composure. Then he straightened up and looked at the old woman.

"I, of course, am very well aware of the tragedy that befell Princess Kikuno."

"I imagine you are," Lady Meara dryly replied.

Continuing on, Masafumi smiled at the old witch. "I won’t speak of the matter, which from my understanding is not as clear cut as you just alluded to." The lady snorted but didn’t speak. "I am here to wish my uncle good luck and happiness on this marriage, and I hope that he finds all the joy that escaped him with his first."

"Yes, do just that, and then return to Timbergrey Castle."

"That is up to the king to decide, Lady. I will do as he bids, but I hope to offer my services to him, as he seems to have no suitable heir at the moment. To be perfectly honest, he could use some family around him until he has an heir of age to take over his responsibilities."

Lady Meara snorted again, this time much louder than before. "Prince Mamoru is almost of age. The king has no need of you and your brother."

Resisting the urge to bear his teeth at the woman, Masafumi shook his head and smiled sadly. "I have no desire to slander my own cousin, but I know what the Court thinks of the boy. He spends all his days hiding in his room, too frail to attend Court. If I may be blunt, Lady, one of the things that cheer the populace the most about this wedding is the prospect of more heirs, one of which will be suitable to assume the throne at King Shuuichi’s death." He carefully made no mention of himself or Hirofumi.

"Don’t believe everything you hear, Prince. Prince Mamoru… he is his _father’s_ child, and like him will be a credit to the name Takatori. I look forward to the time he assumes the throne, for I feel that he will be a good king. I’m not alone with that presumption, either." Lady Meara tilted her head to the side and narrowed her gaze on Masafumi. "He doesn’t waste him time with hunting or… other pursuits of pleasure. He is intelligent, strong of mind and body, and caring. The only reason he doesn’t assume more responsibility at Court is because of the king’s wishes. Please keep that in mind when you make plans to remain here at Court. There is no reason for you and your brother, and certainly not your father, to remain here after the wedding."

"Here I thought you were the Minister of Diplomacy, Lady Meara. May I say that this conversation has been shockingly blunt for one of your position?" Masafumi dropped any pretext of charm and scowled at the older woman. Who smiled back at him brightly.

"To be a good diplomat is to know when to be subtle and when not to be. I’ve spent the past couple weeks watching your family try to insinuate its way back into Court, and felt it would be best to speak to one of you before your hopes get too high. You will be sent back to your estate once the wedding is over, several others and I will make sure of that. We have long memories, unlike the fawning fools that have kowtowed before you during your visit." The smile was dropped for a look of animosity.

"We have long memories indeed, and can clearly recall how the Princess never cared for your father, and how demure a child she was. We know the truth of what occurred that night, and this garden serves as a testimonial to that event." Lady Meara reached down and plucked a rose the colour of blood, brazenly breaking the rule that stated no one but the Royal Gardner could harvest any flowers. She inhaled the rose’s scent and tossed it at Masafumi. He barely managed to catch the bloom.

"Being the Minister of Diplomacy, it was felt that I would be best to deliver this message. The others wouldn’t be so kind, let me assure you."

"Hirofumi and I are being punished for our father’s… indiscretion. Have you ever thought of that?" Masafumi asked as he crushed the rose.

Lady Meara regarded him through slitted eyes. " Perhaps it was unfair that you were exiled along with him, but blame that on your father. He refused to allow anyone else to raise the two of you. But it’s too late now. I look at your cousin, and then at your brother and you, and I can tell the difference. The three of you take after your respective fathers, for good and ill. Need I say that in some cases, there is more ill than good?" That said, the woman bowed the slightest bit and moved on, walking away from Masafumi as if he was an insignificant irritant that she was leaving behind.

Snarling, Masafumi tossed the crushed rose aside and then forced himself to calm down. He had suspected that there would be some people who weren’t happy about him and his family returning to the capitol, no matter how long their exile had been. He just hadn’t expected so blatant a declaration as what had just been made. But in the end, nothing changed. There would just be a certain Minister and her friends that the kage would have to deal with when Hirofumi took the throne.

One thing was certain, if Lady Meara was so supportive of dear Mamoru, despite the general opinion of the Court that he would never be king, that meant others shared her opinion. There had been some thought to letting the boy live, since it was possible he was Reiji’s child, but not now. If he lived, there would be supporters for Mamoru to take the throne, not Hirofumi. Once his father heard of this, it would no longer be up to the kage’s discretion if the boy lived or not. Reiji would never tolerate a competitor for the throne, not at all.

Smiling evilly, Masafumi thought of how the bitch would live just long enough to see her precious Mamoru be killed before her eyes and to see Hirofumi made king. Then, maybe he wouldn’t send the kage after her. Maybe his ladies would much prefer handling the matter themselves.

*******

Kikyou found himself standing in front of the picture of King Shuuichi’s first wedding, even though he had a million important things that needed to be done. But he’d felt almost compelled to come here when he’d decided to take a short break. The corridor was so quiet and traffic-free that he could understand why the king usually retreated here when things got to be too much. Some of the portraits were fairly amusing on top of that, and all of them displayed the vast talent of their respective artists, but Kikyou didn’t bother to spare the others much more than a glance. Not when this one painting drew his attention so strongly.

Arashi Fujimiya was half cloaked in shadows, her light auburn hair falling down onto her face. But her beauty still shone through the attempts to hide it, and Kikyou was caught by the cool look of reserve in her slanted, grey eyes. Arashi appeared to be watching the world through a veil, completely separate from reality. If it weren’t for the pale fingers entwined with the hand that rested on her hip, one would almost think her without feeling. But he’d heard the stories about how much she’d loved Lord Fujimiya, and could see that in the way they held hands and leaned against each other.

Laughing at himself, Kikyou shook his head at his fancy. Here he was, obsessing over a woman who’d been dead for over a decade. And besides that, he didn’t need any new obsessions at this point, not when he already had two consuming all of his time. There was the quest to bring his beloved sister’s murderers to justice, and winning over Aya. No, he was quite busy enough with making those two things come true to pick up someone else to fixate on.

Kikyou thought about how his two obsessions stood. Once Manx was married and he was officially the new Captain, he’d be that much closer to getting the revenge he’d sought these last eight years. The men who had raped and murdered Hitomi would finally pay, along with his brother, who had stood by and done nothing after their sister’s death. The man hadn’t seen any point in wasting energy on a mere dead girl, one considered too odd to have much hope of making a advantageous marriage for their family. Especially when all evidence pointed at other highborns being her killer. Kikyou had been the only one to care, and had turned his back on his cold family, never once regretting what he’d tossed aside over the years. And now he finally had some hope that his sacrifices wouldn’t have been for nothing, and his sister’s soul could rest in peace.

Too bad things didn’t look quite so good on the Aya front. Shaking his head, Kikyou smiled ruefully for a moment. The wedding was tomorrow, and he hadn’t heard a word from Aya. He guessed that the man really wasn’t going to accept his invitation. Then again, Aya had looked so pale and worn when he’d stopped by with the present. He didn’t doubt for one moment that the redhead was unwell. Kikyou sternly told himself to keep that thought in mind and not give up hope. He’d win Aya over yet.

But maybe he should try a new tactic. Expensive presents were clearly not the way to Aya’s heart, judging from the lack of response he received for his troubles. Also, he didn’t seem very welcome at the Koneko anymore, which was understandable as he was trying to steal away the owner’s lover, but that left Kikyou in a bit of a bind. How should he go about wooing Aya now?

Sighing, he decided to concentrate on the problem after the wedding. He had more than enough things distracting him at the moment, and the last thing he needed was to worry about his romantic life. Kikyou glanced back at the picture hanging before him and smiled enviously at the two happy couples pictured there, even if he did know how unfortunate their fates would soon turn.

He looked at the Fujimiyas, his eyes drawn to Arashi yet again. She had been a lovely woman, not a great beauty but possessing an air about her that drew one’s attention. Ranmura Fujimiya had been a lucky man to find her, even if he had sacrificed even more then Kikyou. To go from being one of the highest ranked lords at Court to being an exiled prince’s seneschal….

And now there was no one at Court to represent the Fujimiya clan and titles, no one wearing purple and silver to sit close to the king at Court functions…. His brows furrowing, Kikyou leaned closer to the picture. Purple and silver…. For a moment the deep royal faded to a lilac color, much like the paper he’d selected to wrap Aya’s gifts….

Taking a deep breath, Kikyou’s eyes shifted over to Arashi’s portrait. He once again noticed her slim shape, making her appear shorter than she’d really been. As he stared her auburn hair darkened to a deep crimson, and her grey eyes turned the color of amethysts. Aya. It was Aya she’d reminded him of, the reason he’d been drawn back to this picture. Arashi was a feminine version of Aya.

Wracking his brains, Kikyou tried to recall all he knew about the woman. She’d been an orphan, left at a country temple when only a day or two old. There had been no trace of her real family, which was what had appalled the Court so much about Ranmura taking her as a wife. There was no way of telling what her bloodlines were like, if she had any bound blood in her or not.

She’d been a gardener of some note, and had spent her days in the gardens of whatever estate Ranmura lived on during their marriage. First the castle near the royal palace, and then the large house he’d bought after they’d been snubbed by court for almost a whole year. Arashi had kept to herself, never attending any Court functions other then King Shuuichi’s first marriage. She’d born her husband two children, first a son who….

"Who everyone had noted looked just like her, except with redder hair and unusual, purple eyes. I remember my parents talking about the gossip at Court when the child was brought forward for his naming ceremony." He and his sister had been around ten years old then, and he remembered Hitomi asking if she could play with the baby because he sounded so pretty.

"But she was strictly told no, and even cried for days because of that. Mother said the child was too odd looking, too pale and with such unusual coloring, and Father had commented about what a shame it was the boy took after his mother so strongly. If he’d taken after his father, there had been some hope of the boy being accepted, but not when he took after an unknown bloodline. Now what was the boy’s name?"

It hadn’t been Aya, that was certain. Turning away from the picture, Kikyou started down the hallway to his office, his pace brisk. Tsubaki would be able to find out the child’s name for him, and everything he could about the Fujimiyas. Perhaps the man would be able to uncover why there was a young man who looked so much like a woman who was now dead, along with her family.

Maybe the stress of his new position was getting to him, but the more Kikyou thought about things, the more he was willing to bet that the mysterious Aya was somehow connected to the deceased Fujimiyas. Perhaps he was part of Arashi’s long missing family, or even more improbably he was her son, assumed dead these past years. If he was….

Questions sprung up in Kikyou’s mind. If he was a Fujimiya, why was he hiding at the Koneko? Where had he been the past ten or so years? How had he escaped the fate that had befallen his family? What had happened to him?

He had no clue as to what the answers would be, but Kikyou hoped that when Tsubaki uncovered them, he would have a better understanding of who Aya was. On why he was so clearly hiding from someone, and why he had allowed himself to be abused. For a moment Kikyou remembered kissing Aya, the memory of how sweet he had tasted clashing with how the man had trembled at his touch, appearing almost fearful of him. Kikyou didn’t think that Tsubaki would uncover anything very pleasant, but he’d set the man on Aya’s trail anyway. He wanted the answers too much to be put off by some unpleasantness.

And when he had those answers, he’d be that much closer to having Aya as well.

*******

Omi looked down on the two gold bands that Botan held out to him. Then he glanced up at the exhausted wizard, a hopeful smile on his face.

"These are my new weapons? Are they anything like Yohji’s?"

Botan grunted and dropped the bracelets into Omi’s hands. "Yes, they are. I did a little investigation in the Armory the other day, and found several weapons left over from the Binding War. They’d been stored away as relics, and were rather difficult to find, but I managed, and then I modified their spells."

"So… what do they do?"

Grumbling, Botan sat down behind his desk and poured himself a fresh cup of coffee. "Put the one with the carvings on your left wrist, and the plain one on your right."

Doing as he was told, Omi slipped a band on his right wrist first, and then the second. Immediately after the bracelets were on his arms there were flashes of pain from his wrists, especially his left one.

"Ow! What’s going on, Botan?"

"Now you’re finding out part of the reason those things were collecting dust. The bracelets were designed for bounds and wizards." When Omi glared at the older man Botan held up his hand in a placating matter. "I know, you’re not a wizard, you told me so how many times when I tried to train you and see if you had any gift, but there’s magic in your bloodline. Your uncle and cousin are both wizards, so you should have enough magic in you to activate the weapons.

"Anyway, the weapons bind to their users, which is why you felt the initial pain. From now on you have two weapons that can never be taken from you, short of your death."

Omi looked at his adorned wrists, which still ached the slightest bit. "But what do they do?"

Botan looked at him in confusion for a moment, and then smacked his forehead. Omi told himself to stop by Cassandra’s on his way to the Koneko that evening and make sure the woman knew her lover needed to be forced to take a break before he collapsed.

"Sorry, it’s been a long couple of days and my brains are just short of turning into mush. Try to picture a knife or a throwing dart in you left hand." Botan made a face that Omi couldn’t help but smile at.

Doing as he was told, Omi thought of the throwing knives he had a talent for, of the small, sharp blades that he could make hit almost anything. There was another flash of pain; this time more of a dull ache, and then a reddish-gold blade was in the palm of his left hand. He let out a startled breathe.

"How…"

"Now throw it."

Swallowing his question, Omi tossed the blade across the room at a painting that he’d always hated. The knife perfectly hit its mark, with was a brown eye set in a wrinkled, scowling face.

"Now mentally will it to return to you."

Despite the oddness of the request, Omi wished for the blade to return to his hand, and as soon as he thought that it pulled out of the picture and returned to his right hand. Gasping as he caught the blade, he smiled when the knife jumped to his left wrist, becoming part of the bracelet once again.

"Botan! That’s amazing! How does it do that?"

"Magic, you idiot." Botan grinned at Omi over his coffee cup. "You can create several dozen knives or darts, depending on their size, or several large ones. But a word of warning, the spell is partially fueled by your blood, which is why no one’s been interested in using them for the last couple centuries. Be careful about creating too many weapons at a time, or you could weaken yourself. They really are intended for bounds, who can survive the blood loss better than a human."

Nodding his head to show that he understood, Omi gazed down at his right wrist. "What does this one do?"

"Think of a crossbow," Botan wearily replied as he propped an elbow up on his desk.

Picturing his favorite weapon in his mind, Omi gasped again when the gold flowed into the shape of a crossbow, with his forearm serving as a stock. There was no pain this time, and he waited to see if a bolt would be formed as well. A pain from his left wrist had him looking down at the bolt that suddenly appeared in his left hand. He placed it on the bow, sighted the painting again, and crowed as the bolt was buried in Maxwell’s, his grandfather’s Royal wizard, right eye.

"Yes, I see you weren’t a fan of the man either. Now I guess I finally have a decent excuse to take that portrait down," Botan commented dryly.

Omi stuck his tongue out at the portrait before mentally recalling the bolt. Then he willed the bow and arrow to fade back into bracelets, and after running his hands over the shining gold leapt over to Botan’s desk and hugged the man as he squealed in excitement.

"I’m glad you like them, but stop choking me!" Botan sputtered. Omi apologized as he loosened his hold, planting a wet kiss on Botan’s cheek before pulling away to sit on the desk.

"Thank you, thank you, thank you! They’re perfect! Now I’ll be able to make sure that Nagi, Aya and the others are safe. You’re wonderful, Botan."

Botan smiled, the exhaustion dropping from his face for a moment. "I’m glad you think so, and that you like the weapons. I wanted to give them to you now so you had a little time to practice with them. I also have a pair of bracelets for Schuldig and Crawford, much like the one on your left wrist, since they both have some skill at knife-throwing, or so they say."

About to ask about Jei, Omi suddenly remembered how the one-eyed man had acted in the attic the night of the spell, and the way he avoided Botan whenever the wizard visited the Koneko. Nagi had told him something about the man hating any and all wizards, and he was inclined to believe that. Jei probably wouldn’t appreciate any gift given to him by Botan. What a shame. But at least he had something, and Schu too, that would help them fight. Crawford… personally, Omi couldn’t care less about the cold man. He didn’t like the way the black-haired man would stare at him during meals, as if he was some object that Crawford was trying to gauge the value of. It gave him the creeps.

Then the realization of what Omi was going to use the weapons for finally sunk in. In two days time, he would be fighting for his life, and those of the people he cared for. People he loved might very well be killed, and he himself could die. Staring at the gold bands around his wrists, Omi felt some of his happiness fade. He was going to kill people with Botan’s gift, and some of them would be his own flesh and blood.

"Botan… if you don’t mind I’m going to go practice with these right now. Will I see you down at the Koneko later?" He looked away from the weapons to gaze at his friend.

Who, from the looks of it, had been watching him these past few moments. Botan smiled sadly at him and shook his head. "I don’t think so. Crawford has informed me of all I need to know, and I have preparations to make. The choice comes down to either stopping at the Koneko for a couple drinks or a little sleep, and I’m going with sleep."

Nodding his head to show that he understood, Omi hopped off the desk. Then he hugged his friend tightly once more, holding on for several moments when Botan started to pat him on the back.

"Get some rest, Botan. You really look like you could use it. I want you to be in top form for the wedding, since… I don’t want to lose you."

"I don’t want to lose you either, Omi." Botan hugged him back just as tight and then let him go. "Don’t worry, I’ll get some rest. Now that your weapons are completed and Aya’s sister is safe, all I have to do is work on some wards and prepare some spells for the battle."

"Good. I’ll stop by tomorrow to see if you need any help with those." Omi smiled at Botan and then left the room, occasionally gazing down at his new weapons. He’d go to the Koneko and pick up Nagi, then find a secluded place to practice his aim. It was suddenly very important that he spend as much time with his lover as possible.

*******

Ken sighed wearily as he walked into the kitchen, dressed for a night at the Koneko. Yuriko looked up from her dress at his entrance, the smile on her face fading as she noticed him wearing boots and the pouch at his belt.

"You’re going out tonight? I thought you’d be staying in and resting up for tomorrow."

"I’m sorry, sweetie, but I promised a few of the Guards that I’d stop by the Koneko tonight." Even to his own ears Ken’s voice sounded emotionless, the term of endearment coming out flat. He shivered minutely and hugged his arms around his chest, wishing the chill would just go away. A few shots of whiskey helped to warm him up, for a short while at least, but nothing else did. Not even the sight of the woman he loved.

Looking back down at her dress, which she was desperate to finish, Yuriko frowned. "All right, I guess. I could use some peace and quiet to finish the dress, but please, don’t be out too late tonight. It’s going to be a long day tomorrow."

Nodding his head, Ken stepped closer to his lover. He could still feel the emotions he felt for Yuriko, but… it was like they were just out of his reach. Bending down, he placed a kiss on Yuriko’s cheek. The gesture of affection startled the young woman, as it was the first kiss she’d received that day.

"Be careful, Ken-kun. You’ve been worrying me lately."

"I know, Yuriko." Ken closed his eyes for a moment and sniffed his girlfriend’s hair, drinking in the scent of chamomile that he adored. "It’ll get better soon, I’m… I’m just worried about tomorrow."

She reached up to squeeze his hand before pushing him away gently. "I know, love, and that’s why I haven’t said much." Yuriko looked relieved for a moment. "Though I was beginning to worry that you were getting sick or something."

No, he was just missing a portion of his soul, something he’d willingly sacrificed. And then he’d have to fight wizards and mercenaries tomorrow. Alongside his fellow Guards, some of whom were still acting suspicious, and if he wasn’t being a bit paranoid, were keeping an eye on him. The only good thing about missing a part of his soul was none of these facts really mattered to Ken at the moment. If he’d been whole, he’d most likely be a jittery bundle of nerves by now.

"I promise, I’ll be back to myself in another day or two. I’m going now, but I won’t be too late. As you said, it’s going to be a long day tomorrow."

*******

Schoen smiled at the man who was holding the door open for her, tossing back her gold hair over her shoulder as she stepped into the Koneko. The smile grew brighter as several appreciative looks and even a few whistles were sent her way. She knew she looked good in a pair of tight breeches and one of Masafumi’s shirts, left unlaced enough to show off some of her better assets. While the attention was always welcome, she had dressed provocatively tonight so that if anyone did remember her visit here, it wouldn’t be her face they’d be describing.

Walking into the crowded main room, she searched the corners as Hell had instructed her to do. It took a few minutes of meandering through the throng of people until she could manage a clear view, but she eventually found the kage’s servant sitting at a table tucked out of the way, along with a boy his age, both of the Esset agents and….

Her hands clenched into fists as her eyes lingered on Yohji Kudoh. For a moment she almost gave in to the impulse to pull off the leather whip that was wrapped around her waist like a belt and coil it around the bastard’s neck. Because of the Guard Neu was dead, was lost to them forever. Her family would always have a gaping hole in it, Neu’s place empty and causing them pain to this day.

But Masafumi and his father would hurt her, and possibly Hell and Tot as well to make her suffer even more. The order had come down that Kudoh was to be left alone until after the wedding, and then one of the first things Masafumi would do would be to order the murdering bastard’s arrest. When that happened Schoen and her sisters could make the man suffer as long as they wished, putting to use the skills they’d honed on the kage these past years. Only when the bastard was a completely broken, pitiful creature would they then kill him. His soul, however, would suffer similar torments that the kage’s sister did for as long as they lived.

Schoen leaned against the wall, staring at the table as she waved aside several offers for a free drink. It took a few minutes, but eventually the boy looked her way, at first his eyes drifting past her before snapping back. She swore she caught a flash of anger before his face became impassive. He leaned to whisper something in the ear of the boy who had been sitting next to him, who turned to look at her briefly before returning to the discussion he was having with Kudoh. Schoen noticed that another man at the table, who sported long, reddish hair, glanced her way too before leaning against the man sitting beside him.

Watching as Nagi stood up and cautiously approached her, Schoen jerked her head towards one of the exits. The two of them walked into a dark, quiet hall and then the boy spoke in a soft, but furious tone of voice.

"What do you want?"

Someone was forgetting his place. Schoen lashed out with her right hand, smacking the boy across the mouth. He rubbed his bruised lips and glared at her, but didn’t retaliate in any manner. Ah, he hadn’t forgotten that much, it seemed. Tot and she had done a good job of educating the brat on the topic of manners before the kage had stepped in and forbidden any damage to his servant.

"I need to talk to your master," she said, sneering at the last word. "Take me to him."

Nagi stared at her for a second before dropping his chin to his chest. "He’s in the bath right now, but I can fetch him for you. Go out to the garden and I’ll bring him along in a minute."

Studying the boy for a moment, Schoen didn’t find any suspicious emotions in his voice or on his face. She nodded her head and started for the garden. Stepping out in the fragrant yard, she took a deep breath and immediately wandered over to some rose bushes that climbed up the inn’s brick walls. Schoen started to pick some of the blossoms, intent on taking them back with her to the palace, and it gave her something to do while waiting for the kage.

A couple minutes later she heard the sound of a throat being cleared. Spinning around fast enough that she dropped a few roses, Schoen found the kage staring at her, dressed in a pair of black pants and a green shirt that was too big for him. He looked paler than usual and thinner than she’d last seen him, over a week ago. But he seemed healed from the bloodletting and the beating he’d taken, something that Hirofumi had been worried about these past few days. Schoen had never seen the kage hurt that badly before, but she didn’t feel any sympathy for the sneaky bastard.

"You know you’re not supposed to sneak up on us," she snapped. The kage stared impassively at her, his eyes reflecting the moonlight and rendering them unreadable. She’d always hated it when his eyes went silver like that, reminding her of how inhuman the man truly was. It was times like these that she recalled the legends of his kind, of their destructive powers and vindictive natures, and she hated the trill of fear that always accompanied those thoughts.

The kage bent his head in the direction of a large oak tree, some distance from the inn. "We’ll talk over there." Not bothering to wait for her reply, he walked over to the huge tree, the servant boy trailing in his wake. Deciding that the boy wasn’t the only one who was forgetting his place, Schoen gritted her teeth and followed. The kage certainly wouldn’t be acting like this if he was tied up and she her whip or a knife in hand. Maybe she should ask Masafumi to let her and her sisters play with the demon after the wedding. He needed to know his place, and she would feel better once the lesson was re-taught. Besides, he made her nervous when he acted like this, as if he had a will of his own and a spine to back it up.

Once they were by the tree she crossed her arms over her chest and glared at the young men. "The wedding is tomorrow night."

The kage didn’t say anything, just stared back at her with those odd eyes of his. Schoen swore he knew how much the sight of them unnerved her and did it on purpose. She wished she could whip him, make him fall down to the ground in pain and not look at her, but had been ordered not to damage the demon. They needed him whole for tomorrow night.

"Say something."

"I am aware of that fact. I will be there."

Gritting her teeth together, Schoen stepped closer to the kage and slapped his face, much like she had to the boy. For a moment it looked as if Nagi was going to step closer to her, and the kage’s eyes glowed bright enough to rival the moon, but the two young men remained still and merely stared back at her. Blowing her hair out of her eyes, Schoen slapped the redhead again.

"Don’t get smart with me, Ran. Masafumi or Hell might not be here right now, but you know you have to listen to me. I’ve been told to inform you that you are to strike after the toast Prince Reiji gives at the reception tomorrow. Kill the king, his bride and the crown prince. Your orders are to make sure none of them survive, and to take out as many of the Guards as you possibly can." Schoen rubbed her sore palm along her dark brown breeches.

The kage licked at the drop of blood that had formed on his split lip and gazed back at her. "I thought I was only to kill the king and his bride, and the boy if it was possible."

"You don’t think, Ran, you merely do as you’re told." Schoen almost smacked him again for the question, but her hand hurt too much from the previous blows, her rings having bitten into her fingers. "If you don’t, your sister will suffer for your disobedience."

He immediately bowed his head, nodding slightly. Now that the unnerving eyes were no longer staring at her, Schoen felt better, more in control. She sniffed and shifted the roses in her left hand to her right.

"That’s what I came to tell you. Remember, they die after the toast. After you do as much damage as you can to the Guards, you’re to hide yourself and remain by the central fireplace until someone gives you new orders." Her mission completed, Schoen glared at the young men and then looked about the garden. Spotting one of its gates, she left from the private exit and hurried down the street. She had a few other tasks to complete tonight, and then she wanted to spend as much time with Masafumi and the others that she could. Things would be very busy in the upcoming weeks, and Schoen wanted a bit of pleasure to tide her over until they calmed down.

*******

Reiichi smelled brimstone as soon as he walked into the apartment and immediately hurried to Naru’s room. The little idiot, he knew he wasn’t supposed to make bombs on his own. Someone needed to be there to put out all the fires….

He reached the younger man’s room and cautiously pushed open the door. The short Guard was sitting on an old and singed blanket that rested on the floor, and there were a few spots that were smoking. Buckets of water were scattered all around him.

Seeing the newly formed stone in the idiot’s hand, Reiichi took a deep breath and as calmly as he could screamed at Naru.

"Naru! What the hell are you thinking? The last thing we need right now is for you to burn down this wing of the palace!!"

Even though he rarely lost his temper, and even more rarely showed when that happened, Naru only smiled at Reiichi as he tossed the stone from hand to hand. Reiichi winced and felt the sudden urge to sit down on Naru’s bed. The boy was a suicidal idiot. Add homicidal to that as well, since the damage from one of his bombs could take out more than just him.

"Don’t worry Reiichi, I’m almost done. I’ve already created about two dozen, and I only have the energy left for a couple more." Naru smiled again, and this time Reiichi noticed the lines of exhaustion on his roommate’s face. Sighing, he reached down and snatched at the glassy, orange stone and then held it up in the light.

"It looks a little smaller than your usual ones."

Naru nodded his head, his chest puffing out in pride. "They are. I know you and Yuushi would give me hell if I damage too much of the ballroom, so I made them a little weaker than usual. That way I can make more of them. They should come in handy during the battle."

Then Naru fell silent and he picked up a plain quartz stone that rested in a depleted pile by his left side. Reiichi didn’t say anything as his friend first rubbed his cut finger over the stone, smearing it with a few drops of blood, and then stared at it for several minutes, sweat dripping down his face. Feeling the room grow hot, Reiichi started to slide closer to one of the buckets of water. Then there was a sudden swooshing of air and when he glanced back at Naru, the young man held an orange stone in his hand.

"I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. You’re wasted in the Guards, Naru."

That comment earned Reiichi another tired smile. "You know I never would have made it very far as a wizard. My family didn’t have enough money to pay for my education and I didn’t have enough talent to attract the attention of a sponsor. Besides, all I ever wanted to be was a Guard. I don’t regret the way things have turned out, not when I have the job I always wanted and a few perks that most people don’t have." Naru tossed the glowing stone into a pouch and picked up another white one.

"Oh, you enjoy being bait for all the pedophiles and sharks out there?" Reiichi couldn’t resist posing that question. He had to chuckle when Naru looked up from the stone to glare at him.

"Don’t be so stupid, Reiichi," the young man snapped. Then he grinned evilly. "Though I must admit, there is some satisfaction in dropping one of these," he tossed the stone in the air and caught it, "down the pants of some sick bastard who’s just hurt a child. But as important as it is to get those predators off the street, I… I just wish I could do something that a handful of other Guards couldn’t do too."

As Naru concentrated on making the last of his bombs, Reiichi sighed and leaned back onto the bed. Despite what he’d said, Naru had had the chance to spend more than a couple seasons in a wizarding school, though he was right about the lack of funds and sponsors. He would never have held that high of a position, but he’d have had an easier life than that of a Guard, and one who received little respect because of his youthful looks at that. Why couldn’t Manx see what she was wasting here? Sometimes Reiichi thought that she was fooled by Naru’s youthful appearance and immature air into thinking he was less mature than he really was. He thought that maybe she was trying to protect his friend, but that attitude hadn’t done Naru any favors. Instead it just left the young man frustrated as all hell, and he’d have to blow off some steam with some stupid stunt or another, usually involving the few spells he knew.

Now because of the woman’s negligence, sweet, funny Naru would be using those spells for something other than blowing up topiary hedges and pots of stew. He’d be using them to kill, and be risking his life as he did so. Many Guards would be doing the same, putting their lives on the line and expecting nothing in recompense for that sacrifice.

For a moment Reiichi fervently prayed to the gods that he would survive the upcoming battle, and so would Manx. Just so he could rub in her face the things she had missed or overlooked during her tenure as Captain. He had liked the woman when she had first taken over the position, and had thought her a good choice. But it became clear soon afterward that she hadn’t been able to make the sacrifices that she’d had to, or risk the Guards’ lives, as she should. She thought of them all as her wards, and they were not children. Too many people had forgotten that, above everything else, the Guards had been formed to serve and to protect, to be the best fighters the reigning sovereign had on hand. Well, tomorrow night everyone at the wedding would remember that.

"See, Reiichi, I’m all done, and there are no fires to put out to speak of," Naru crowed as he tried to unobtrusively pat a smoking portion of blanket to his left.

Smiling, Reiichi nodded his head. "So I see. Why don’t I make us some dinner to celebrate this momentous occasion, since I know you must be very tired after all that magic. How does baked chicken sound?"

"Oh! Wonderful, Reiichi! And can you make mashed sweet potatoes too?" Naru yelped in joy when he nodded his head. For a moment all Reiichi could see was a happy youth, appearing way too young to be a Guard, but there was a look of weariness and maturity to Naru’s eyes that was lacking from some people decades older than the young man. Naru was a Guard, after all. He’d made more than enough sacrifices for that position.

Reiichi stood to his feet and headed for the kitchen. He’d need to make a lot of food, because chances were good that Liss and Miko would attend dinner to go over a last few details before tomorrow. Other Guards might stop by as well, and all of them would need their strength for the upcoming battle. He was determined to see that they were well fed at the least, and that he and his comrades would enjoy one good, last meal together.

*******

Yohji watched as Nagi left the room, following the attractive blond he wanted to tear apart with his bare hands. Unfortunately, Aya had told him to remain seated, and Schuldig and Crawford were leaning rather heavily on him, trapping him in place to ensure he did as his lover had asked.

"Explain to me again why I can’t kill the bitch," he snarled at the table.

Crawford leaned away from him and adjusted his glasses. "Because I foresee no danger to Aya this time. As long as the woman doesn’t try to make him leave the Koneko, all should be well. In all probability, she’s here to issue some instructions for tomorrow and will soon leave. To harm her in any way will jeopardize things, which we don’t want at the moment. Even Aya agrees with that."

Yeah, well Aya was the one who willingly went to his own torture last time, Yohji thought darkly. For an instant he almost turned to Schuldig and demand to know if Aya had indeed issued the order for him to remain here, but thought better of it before he started speaking. He’d just hurt Schu, and he was positive that the man wouldn’t risk their friendship again in that way. No, he’d just have to sit here and wait, on pins and needles the whole time, while Aya spoke to the bitch.

Growling under his breath, he grabbed a pint of beer and drained it in one gulp. As he wiped his face a young girl, looking about Omi’s age, sidled up to the table. Yohji opened his mouth to tell her she had no business being in a crowded inn all by herself, but she solemnly looked him in the face before sliding a piece of paper into his hand, and then hurried out of the common room. Watching her long enough to make sure that she safely left the room, Yohji only then opened the note and read it.

‘One of Takatoris’ agents has been seen entering the Koneko. Look for a blonde woman in a white shirt and blue pants.’

Schuldig read the note over Yohji’s shoulder and snorted. "Well, at least Birman kept her promise, although a lot of good it does you to be alerted to the situation after the fact."

"I’m sure Birman’s doing the best she can at the moment," Omi snapped, making everyone seated at the table look at him in wonder. His voice had been tight, breaking on a syllable or two, and Yohji could smell the nervousness and fear that radiated from him. He then thought about Nagi, who had left to speak with the woman and would remain by Aya’s side to watch over him, and shook his head. Yohji offered the boy a sympathetic smile, and Omi shyly smiled back. Guess they had loving idiots who enjoyed placing themselves in danger as a common bond.

‘Take it easy, Schu, or you’ll have a royal order of execution leveled at you.’

<Right, as if I’m about to let my head be removed from my body.> Schuldig tossed his hair over his shoulder and quietly apologized to Omi. <Are you sensing anything from Aya?>

‘No, just nervousness.’

Crawford suddenly cleared his throat. "If you don’t mind, I’d like to finish the discussion." When he had everyone’s attention, or at least as much attention Yohji and Omi could spare him, he continued.

"Yohji, you have no doubt of your ability to take out Hirofumi and Reiji Takatori? The older man is a wizard, and will pose a difficult target, even if you are now immune to magic."

"I’ll handle them, Crawford." There was no way he was going to let anyone else kill the men, especially Hirofumi. Yohji bared his teeth as he thought of the bastard. Hirofumi was his to make suffer and eventually kill.

"Are you sure? What about Aya while you’re handling those two?"

Yohji frowned as he thought about that for a moment, torn between gaining revenge for his mate and making sure Aya was safe. Fortunately Jei came to his rescue.

"Nagi said he’d have Aya’s back tomorrow, and I wouldn’t want to be the one to tell him otherwise." Jei chuckled for a moment and then glanced at Omi. "He asked me to watch yours, and I told him I would." Omi’s blue eyes went wide at that bit of news.

"Very well." Crawford’s eyes became unfocused for a minute, and then he nodded his head. "I think… yes, it should work. Though I believe you watching Omi will not impact you taking care of the other two wizards, and the three women."

Jei suddenly smiled, pulling back his lips to reveal all of his fangs. In an instant he went from looking like a nice, if a bit tattered and scarred young man into a figure from the darkest of nightmares. Yohji nervously shifted away from the man, trying to put some more distance between them, and Schuldig did the same. Chuckling in a manner that made Yohji’s mouth suddenly go dry, Jei’s single eye started to glow maniacally in the candlelight. He nodded his head and thankfully covered his teeth after a minute, but had pulled a knife out from somewhere and started to stare at it, twisting it about as he mumbled under his breath.

Seriously creeped out, Yohji shuddered and ran his hands through his hair. Then he suddenly felt a stab of pain, and then another, and the next thing he knew he was being shoved back into his seat.

"Let go of me, you bastards. She’s hurting him!"

Schuldig immediately let go of Yohji’s shoulder, but before he could stand again Crawford punched him in his stomach, the man having used all of his bound strength in the blow. The wind abruptly left Yohji, and he slumped over the table as he weakly snarled death threats at the black-haired man.

"Kudoh, I told you not to interfere. I foresee no major injury to Aya, and the woman can’t harm him, not on the eve of the wedding. They need him to be in good shape for tomorrow." Crawford awkwardly patted him on the shoulder, and Yohji almost tore a page from Aya’s book and sank his teeth into the man’s hand. The fucking prick… but he didn’t feel any more pain from Aya, so he just snarled again and glared at the precog.

Who ignored him in favor of looking over at Schuldig, Crawford’s manner completely business-like once again after that spate of violence. "You’re to take out the Lord Eto, if possible, and to kill as many of his mercenaries as you can." He looked over at Masato for a moment. "Do either of you have a problem with that?"

"Nah, we should be able to manage that."

"What about me?" Ken’s voice was weary, but he was showing a bit more life than when he’d first entered the Koneko. Yohji gazed worriedly at his friend, unused to seeing the man so quiet and subdued. It seemed unnatural for Ken Hidaka to sit quietly in a chair and not break out in an attack of the fidgets after ten minutes.

"You’ll also be needed to fight the mercenaries, and to keep an eye on Omi if Jei is distracted by his targets. I’ll be helping with the mercenaries too." Crawford fell silent again, and after several seconds shook his whole body as if emerging through a body of cold water. "I… dammit, there’s still so much I can’t see, and neither can Cass. We know there will be some danger other than the mercs, maybe a spell of Yoru or Masafumi’s, so be on guard and save your strength. But there will also be some unexpected help, so don’t panic if things look bleak."

"No, why should we panic? Three mad wizards, some women hopped on Aya’s blood, and a hundred or so mercs out for our blood. Hell, I’m bored with this already. When does the real fun start?"

Everyone blinked at Ken, who had just uttered comments sarcastic enough to make Schuldig proud. What was even worse was the calm tone of voice that the Guard had spoken in. Yohji suddenly thought that if Ken couldn’t feel the full impact of his emotions, that he probably also wasn’t feeling as worried or panicked as he should be. That might be a disadvantage during the fight, if the man didn’t have the common sense to back away when he should. Ken tended to lose himself at the best of times, what would the loss of part of his soul do to him? Yohji swore to himself to keep an eye on his former partner. He didn’t want to have to tell Yuriko that Ken had died.

"Bravo, Kenken, I couldn’t have said it better myself," Schuldig commented once he found his voice. Omi leaned over and asked Ken if he was all right, and Jei smiled at the Guard in approval. Glancing aside at Crawford, Yohji found him looking at Ken with something that appeared suspiciously like sympathy. Then the precog’s face became impassive once again.

Unsure if he’d just imagined things or not, Yohji reached for some more beer, pouring himself another pint and draining the glass in a matter of seconds. When he put the glass back down on the table he looked up at the ceiling above him and frowned. Rising from his seat, this time not impeded by either of the men beside him, he quickly stepped away from the bench.

"Aya’s gone to our room." He didn’t know how he was sure about that, but Yohji knew he’d find Aya up in their bedroom, waiting for him. Looking back at his friends, he frowned as one hand played threateningly with his bracelet. If Crawford thought to sucker punch him again, the man would have to fight tomorrow without the benefit of hands.

"Anything else I need to know about tomorrow?"

"Nothing that can’t be discussed before we leave. Until tomorrow." Crawford nodded at Yohji and then turned towards Schuldig, quizzing him and Ken about what the ballroom looked like and what it would be like to fight there. Omi hurried to his feet too, and fell in step behind Yohji as he left the room. The teen got left behind when Yohji reached the steps and put his bound speed to use.

Entering his room a few seconds later, he found Aya sitting on the bed, a damp cloth pressed against his face. Beside him sat Nagi, also with a damp cloth against his cheek. The two of them sighed and then scowled at Yohji in unison.

"What the fuck did she do to you?" He stalked over to the bed, ripped away the cloth and stared at Aya’s split and swollen lip. Looking up into his mate’s eyes, he snarled and grabbed the man’s chin.

Aya glared at him for a second, the two of them silently fighting, before closing his eyes and arching his throat. "Schoen hit me twice and Nagi once. I think she believed we were… being uppity." Yohji grunted in anger, furious of the thought of someone laying a hand on his lover.

The sound of a squawk heralded Omi’s entrance to the room, and the door was slammed shut behind the teenager as he raced to Nagi’s side. While the little demon was being fussed over Yohji let out a breath and stroked Aya’s lip, sending a tingle of energy that caused the wound to heal and the swelling to go down. When that was done he bent his head and kissed Aya, purring when Aya rose up to meet him, wrapping his arms around Yohji’s neck and ardently kissing him back.

Someone tapping him on the arm eventually caused Yohji to growl and pull away from Aya, just when he was about to pick up the man and lay him back down on the bed. Hell, he’d even managed to undo a few of the buttons of the green shirt of his that Aya had taken a fancy to lately.

"What the fuck do you want?"

Omi brushed off being snapped at and pointed at Nagi. "Where is Cass’ cream? I can’t heal my boyfriend with a touch, so I need that to take care of him." Omi exchanged a glare with Yohji until he gave in and stalked over to his dresser, muttering all the while under his breath about little demons and their ungrateful, bratty, bossy lovers. Finding the jar, he tossed it with considerable strength and malice at Omi’s head. Of course the little shit caught it. Hmphing and snarling in anger that he’d been interrupted from his pleasure because of _Nagi_ of all people, Yohji returned to the bed, sinking down on the mattress as he pulled Aya onto his lap. He got his chin nipped lightly and his mate curled up against his chest for his troubles, but at least he had Aya purring in his arms. Watching Omi tend to Nagi, Yohji started toying with the buttons of the green shirt again, thinking back on how Aya had offered him his throat minutes before.

Fussing over Nagi, Omi wiped his bruised cheek and then gently rubbed the cream on the boy’s face. Yohji almost chuckled at Nagi’s expression, but didn’t want to piss off Omi or Aya any more than he already had. So he buried his face in Aya’s hair, breathing in deep the scent of his lover’s soap, loving the way his whole body shivered in pleasure just from the aroma of roses and the feel of silk against his skin. Yohji felt himself start to grow hard, unable to stop himself from responding to his mate, and unwilling to do so even if he could. Feeling Aya’s emotions echoing his, he bent his head to nuzzle Aya’s neck, just about to taste the pale skin when Omi spoke in a demanding tone.

"All right, what did that… woman want?"

Looking up, Yohji found a very peevish Omi staring back and forth between Aya and Nagi. His mate shifted against him and sat up straighter while Nagi sighed and tugged Omi down on the bed beside him.

"She came with my instructions for tomorrow," Aya answered in a quiet voice. "I’m to kill your father, Manx and you, and as many Guards as I can manage. Then I’m to hide out of the way until I receive more orders."

Omi blanched a little when he heard about his ‘death sentence’, causing Nagi to tightly hug him. Feeling the grief and pain that filled his lover, Yohji did the same with Aya, combing his fingers through the man’s red hair until Aya rested his head against Yohji’s shoulder.

"What’s wrong, cat?"

"Yohji…." Aya started to play with a strand of his hair. "I just don’t like the memories it brings back, of being given orders like that, of having to accept any and all abuse." Aya shivered and tucked his head in the crook of Yohji’s neck. Whispering endearments to his love, Yohji rubbed his jaw along the top of Aya’s head and glanced over at the two kiddies. What he saw had him growling and setting Aya aside.

"All right, how many times do I have to say that this bed is for Aya and me only, and for anyone else it’s completely off-limits?!"

Omi and Nagi finally broke apart for some air and to scowl at him. Yohji couldn’t give a shit about the dirty looks he was receiving, all he knew was that watching the two teenagers go at it creeped him out even more than the thought that Schu and his asshole of a father had fucked right next to him.

"Go screw around somewhere else!"

Sniffing, Omi stood up and tugged Nagi onto his feet. "Come on, koi, I think Yotan wants the bed all for himself."

Nagi’s glare became much more potent, rivaling the intensity of the ones that Aya gave Yohji when he was really, really pissed. "You better not drain him too much, Kudoh. If anything happens to him tomorrow because he’s too weak to fight, I will crush you into a ball even smaller than the size of your brain, despite how improbable that seems."

Stretching out on the vacated bed with Aya held tight in his arms, Yohji reminded himself of the various reasons that prevented him from killing Nagi. Such as Omi ordering his execution and Aya refusing to sleep with him ever again. If it weren’t for the latter punishment it would almost be worth it to slice the shitty little demon into tiny bits.

"He’ll be fine, Nagi, which is more than I can say for you if you don’t get your ass out of here right now!" Shadows writhed around the young brunet, making him jump back in startlement. Yohji barely managed to trap Aya’s elbows against the man’s sides before being hurt for using Aya’s power to scare off his best friend.

Glowering, Nagi huffed and growled under his breath while Omi tugged him out of the room. Yohji snarled in return until the two of them were gone, and then bent his head to nibble on one of Aya’s ears. The desire he felt before returned tenfold, making him ache with the need to take Aya, to lose himself in his mate. It was a primal drive that Yohji loved all too much to not give into, as it always ended in pleasure, him buried in his lover and so flooded with sunlight he felt he should glow for days to come.

Starting to purr, Aya twisted in Yohji’s arms and nipped at his bottom lip, the rumble from his throat turning into a hiss for the barest of moments. His eyes heavy-lidded with passion, Aya’s teeth continued to worry at Yohji’s lip, but now they were gently nibbling at his flesh until Yohji groaned and grasped handfuls of crimson silk, pulling back just enough on Aya’s head so he could ravish his mate’s mouth with ease.

Their tongues twisted about in each other’s mouths, flicking and stroking and pulling back to suck on the other, and all the while the taste of Aya made Yohji start to tingle from the energy pouring into him. He moaned in appreciation of the feeling, reluctantly forcing one hand away from Aya’s hair to shift downward and worry at the remaining buttons on the green shirt. More than anything he wanted his lover naked before him, revealed in all his glory for Yohji to adore and worship, to do his best to replace memories of despair and pain with ones of love and pleasure. He felt like his whole being was comprised of the need to fuck Aya, to be joined with him as deeply as they could be.

"I want you, Aya, so fucking much it hurts. Can I?"

Nipping at his lip again, Aya growled as he shrugged out of his shirt and then pulled Yohji close to him as he rolled on his back. His body eloquently answered Yohji’s request, his legs wrapping around Yohji’s waist and his groin rocking back and forth, but what really had Yohji’s attention was Aya tilting back his head until his neck was one graceful, enticing arch.

"You’re the only one who’s ever asked for my permission, Yotan. I… I love you so much for that fact alone. I’m yours, and you should know that by now," Aya purred, and at that moment Yohji couldn’t remember his love feeling more human, more centered here in the light with him than ever before.

Brushing his lips reverently along the offered throat, Yohji started purring himself as impatient hands tugged at the black shirt he was wearing. Unwilling to part with his prize just yet, Yohji let Aya unlace the shirt and push it as far down his shoulders as he could while he nuzzled Aya’s throat. Rasping his teeth along his mate’s Adam’s apple had Aya arching beneath him, a whimper slipping past his lips. Adoring that sound, Yohji repeated the action again and again, until Aya started to writhe beneath him, forgetting all about the shirt in an effort to pull Yohji’s hips as close to him as he could.

He started to suck on the white skin, even pressing his teeth against it hard enough to leave several imprints of them. Yohji wanted to brand Aya as his in every way possible; to irrevocably prove that the man was his, and that no one would ever hurt him again, not without facing Yohji first. And he’d kill any bastard who thought to cause Aya even an ounce of pain.

Snarling, Yohji pulled away enough to tear off first his shirt and then his pants, and as Aya lay in the bed spread before him, he pulled off the man’s pants as well. When their clothes were scattered about the room Yohji bent over the slim figure of his love, draping himself completely over Aya as he lay back down. The feel of all that skin coming in contact… he moaned in ecstasy as he stroke Aya’s face with his right hand, running his fingers along a high cheekbone and smiling when they brushed against impossibly long eyelashes.

"I know you’re mine, but I’ll never stop asking, cat. I never want to take you for granted." Yohji chuckled gently as he ran his fingers along Aya’s kiss swollen lips, flashing a smile as they were nipped. "Gods, we really are sappy together." He couldn’t resist kissing the pouty lips before him, and tasting how sweet Aya was.

"I want you, Aya, want all of you, every bit that you say is mine. There’s probably a dozen good reasons why I shouldn’t take you tonight, but I… I never can truly fight my hunger when it concerns you. I need you too much."

Aya threaded his fingers through Yohji’s hair and tugged very lightly on the strands. "I can come up with a dozen reasons why we should do this, Yotan." He lifted his head to thoroughly kiss Yohji the same time he resumed rocking his hips, causing their erections to grind against each other. The sunlight that was pouring into Yohji was so bright and strong he felt lighter than air, ready to float away at the slightest breeze if not for the legs around his waist and the hands in his hair.

"I told you, I’m yours. Yohji… you’re all I have anymore. I need you just as bad, maybe even more than you need me. Please, Yotan." Aya’s voice deepened into a husky purr, and his unusual eyes, indigo one moment, silver the next, stared deep into Yohji’s.

Forgetting all about how unwise it would be to take any of Aya’s strength the day before a nasty fight, Yohji let the need and desire overwhelm him. It had been a losing battle anyway, especially when Aya had offered his throat like that. Remembering how good it felt when Aya had marked him there the day before, Yohji couldn’t help but return to the slender neck, sucking and biting with abandon, causing sunlight to flow even stronger into him.

Eventually he tore himself away from bruised column and let his mouth wander all over Aya, needing to taste all of him. As his mate moaned and gasped beneath him, Yohji suckled and lapped at pert nipples, nibbled his way along collarbones and down prominent ribs, flicked his tongue along a quivering abdomen and speared it into Aya’s navel, smiling when the man mewled and bucked at the sensations. He sucked on his cat’s hipbones, teasing his lips along sensitive thighs all the way down to Aya’s feet, pausing to briefly suck on a big toe before working his way back up. The whole time his hands stroked Aya’s flesh, skittering over raised scars and massaging defined muscles, not leaving an inch of Aya’s exposed skin alone, save one very important area.

The feel and taste of Aya drove Yohji deeper into his need, served only to act as fuel thrown on a fire. He couldn’t ever get enough of his mate, and he counted on having centuries to learn just how foolish he was to think this hunger could ever be appeased. Not with the pleasure coursing into him, utterly filling him with warmth and love, along with Aya’s emotions, his answering need and desire.

Lost in the bliss, Yohji slid up along Aya’s body, a certain goal in mind. He smiled wickedly as he breathed on Aya’s weeping cock, causing the man to twitch and groan beneath him. Yohji nuzzled briefly at the dark red curls at the arousal’s base, breathing in deep the scent of musk that would cling to him for hours to come, and then licked at the heavy sacks before him. Aya started to writhe, pleading with Yohji but oddly enough the man was saying no and not yes. Wanting more of the sunlight, as much as Aya could give him, Yohji took the balls into his mouth, stroking them with his tongue as he lightly sucked. But for some reason the sunlight started to fade, not grow stronger.

Releasing Aya’s balls, Yohji licked along the prominent vein of Aya’s cock, and was startled to hear his mate whimper. Aya’s fear and revulsion finally cut through the desire and pleasure, causing Yohji to push up on his arms and lean forward, desperate to find out what was making Aya feel that way. He looked into a pair of glassy violet eyes, and then down at Aya’s tightly clamped lips.

"Aya… cat, it’s me. It’s Yohji. What’s wrong?" Yohji made his voice soothing and gentle, and scooted forward enough so he could reach with one hand to stroke Aya’s hair. His mate shuddered for a second and then captured Yohji’s hand, tugging on it until he could rub his cheek along the back of it. His eyes filled with pain, Aya shook his head.

"Yotan… not that. Not now. Please." Aya’s voice cracked on the entreaty, and with a groan Yohji thought of what he’d been about to do. There hadn’t been any oral sex between the two of them since Aya had been raped, and he hadn’t spared a thought to think that while Aya giving him a blow job was definitely out of question for the time being, that maybe Aya wouldn’t like to receive one himself.

Pulling Aya upright, Yohji sat on the bed and held his love tightly in his arms, soothing his hands along Aya’s shoulders and neck, as far down the man’s scarred back as he dared. It suddenly occurred to Yohji that even with Aya-chan free and Reiji and his sons dead, Aya would carry the scars of his abuse for a long time to come. His freedom and the death of the men who’d hurt him would be no instant cure-all. Only time and love bury Aya’s fears and painful memories.

"Don’t, Yohji. Don’t feel pity for me," Aya hissed, pulling back as far as Yohji’s hold would allow him. "That’s not what I want from you."

Tracing Aya’s lips, which had been bruised and bleeding such a short while ago, Yohji asked in a husky whisper what it was that the redhead wanted from him.

"You. I just want you." Aya sighed and caught Yohji’s finger between his sharp teeth, biting hard enough to just barely break the skin. When Yohji cursed and glared at his lover, he saw Aya smiling back at him. It occurred to him then that tomorrow there would be enough pain for them to bear, and that there were better things to feel tonight. Like how tight Aya was, clenching around him, and that wonderful sunlight filling him as he made Aya cry out in bliss.

Shaking his injured finger, Yohji pressed Aya against him. "Well then, I better give you what you want before you bite off something of importance." He smiled back at Aya, his heart fluttering as the younger man’s pain slowly faded beneath pleasure, knowing that he was the one causing that emotion. All Yohji truly wanted was for Aya to be happy and to love him back. It was funny how in so short a time his whole world could come to revolve around one person. But he was so tied to Aya, so intertwined with him that it felt as if they’d been lovers for centuries.

Wanting all of the pain to vanish, Yohji kissed Aya, occupying his cat’s vicious, sweet mouth as his hands once again stroked the man’s body. Using all his skill and knowledge, and guided by what Aya was feeling Yohji soon had his mate writhing on his lap, moaning his name as he tossed back his head. Sweaty bangs fell along Aya’s face as Yohji nibbled on his neck and collarbones, one hand coming to brush the strands back and to tangle in an eartail as the other, slickened from gel, started to circle the tiny pucker. Aya mewled at the teasing touch, rocking his hips backwards as he clung to Yohji. Once again sunlight was pouring into him in a burning torrent, causing Yohji to pant and tremble.

The teasing soon became too much for even him, and Yohji pushed the finger inside Aya, into the luscious heat awaiting him. Aya gasped and buried his face against Yohji’s shoulders as his hips gyrated, pushing back onto Yohji’s finger to shift forward and rub their erections together.

Pushing in another finger, Yohji bit his own lip at the wave of ecstasy that all but scorched him as they brushed against Aya’s prostate, filling the both of them with the intense emotion the touch provoked. Aya gasped as his body jerked at the touch, his teeth biting down on Yohji’s shoulder but this time not breaking the skin. His hands trembling so much that it took conscious thought to make them move, Yohji reluctantly pulled his fingers out of Aya after scissoring them several times. Ignoring Aya’s whine of disappointment, he lay back on the bed and quickly greased his twitching cock, moaning at the sensation of cool gel against his burning flesh.

His eyes heavy-lidded once more, Aya watched Yohji prepare himself, and with a loud purr pushed Yohji’s hand away, positioning himself above the thick penis. They both held their breath as Aya sank downward, slowly taking Yohji inside himself. There was a moment of resistance, of Yohji pressing against tight muscles, and then it was heat, delicious heat and a velvet grip that rippled around him, clenching him tight enough to make Yohji groan. Aya kept pressing downwards until Yohji was entirely sheathed inside his body, trembling slightly when Yohji shifted his hips. Shadows skittered over to the bed, touching and caressing Yohji as the pale man moaned out his name.

"Oh gods, Aya. Want this forever, it’s so fucking good. Ride me, cat. I want to be deep inside you, as deep as you can take me."

"Yo~tan." Just that one word, more a purr than actual speech, and Aya leaned forward, his head above Yohji’s and his hands resting beside his shoulder, and then he seared Yohji’s whole being with a single kiss that left them both panting heavily. Then Aya leaned back, his hands resting on Yohji’s stomach, Yohji’s hands tight around his hips, and he did as Yohji had asked.

He started out very slowly, making Yohji whimper to feel that velvet warmth slid away from him, withdrawing almost completely before encasing him once again. But when he started to pump Aya’s cock in time to the thrusts they sped up, keeping pace with his hand as it slid up and down the slick, hard organ, flicking back the foreskin before tightly sliding back down along its length.

The sunlight was so intense, even more so than the first time Aya had taken him, or when he’d made the man his mate. Aya was filling him with life, love and warmth, and when Yohji managed to tear his eyes away from the sight of Aya’s sweaty face, twisted with pleasure and need and so fucking beautiful, to look at where they were joined, he found his body actually glowing with a dim light, in contrast to the shifting shadows. He was overflowing with pleasure, both his and Aya’s, feeding off each other and causing the emotion to reach greater and greater heights.

Then it all tumbled down, crashing through Yohji as he yelled out Aya’s name, his body pouring his seed deep inside his mate, one more marking to be added to prove his claim. Aya’s body clamped around his jerking cock, milking it as Aya shuddered and cried out in bliss, shadows writhing around the two of them for several moments before slinking away. Aya let out a hitch of breath and then he fell forward, into Yohji’s waiting arms. They trembled together as waves of bliss, set off by the slightest touch, continued to wash through them, their hearts slowing in unison from a frantic pace.

Feeling a smile pull at his lips, Yohji chuckled and kissed the top of Aya’s head. His mate was limp against him and purring loudly, Aya’s fingers lightly flicking along his sides until he almost laughed at the ticklish sensation. Yohji ran a hand along his lover’s sweaty body, for once not proving a reaction as it skimmed along Aya’s back, and when it settled just above the curve of the smaller man’s ass he started to give back some of the energy that pulsed in his veins.

Aya immediately shifted about, catching Yohji’s hand and pulling it away. With a weary sigh he rolled off Yohji, the both of them feeling a pang as Yohji slid out of his lover.

"Cat, you need the energy. Come back here."

Shaking his head, Aya captured both of Yohji’s reaching hands and held them tight. He leaned forward to kiss Yohji lightly on the lips. "Keep it."

"Aya, we’ll be fighting tomorrow, take it back." Yohji tried to glare at the man, but thought that the effect might be ruined by the smile that refused to leave his lips.

"Yohji, you’ll be fighting too. Keep the energy, it should make you even more immune to any spells." When Yohji tried to argue some more Aya shook his head, a feeling of sadness creeping upon him.

"I’ll have all the energy I need tomorrow, once the killing starts." Aya’s eyes flashed silver in the candlelight, and for a moment Yohji felt the darkness that was Aya’s kage nature. "I… I don’t need to feed like you do, but I learned a long time ago that I always absorb some energy when there’s a death around me. It’s helped me at times, when the Takatoris…." Aya closed his eyes, and Yohji tugged at his hands, wanting them free so he could hug his mate and try to take away the pain filling them both. "When they’ve bled me in the past and then had a mission for me soon afterward, I could manage it knowing that there would be some relief for me. Once I took a life." Aya’s eyes opened, and they were filled with so much sadness that Yohji felt tears well up in his.

The hold around his hands finally loosening, Yohji snatched them free and combed his fingers through Aya’s hair. He’d wondered if Aya ever had to feed like he, Schuldig and Jei did, but thought that maybe his lover was like Nagi, who only needed food for energy. Now he knew differently.

"Aya, you don’t have to feed like that. Let me give some of your energy back, you gave more than enough this time."

There was another shake of a head. "Yohji, I won’t budge on this. I need you to live tomorrow, whatever the cost. I can feed during the fighting, you can’t say the same." Aya stared at Yohji, a hint of anger tainting his emotions. "Don’t make me throw you out the window after all. I don’t want to wait a whole month before having you again."

Smiling at memory of the joke, and at how passionate and pleasurable the two times he’d let Aya take him had been, Yohji shook his head. "Okay, you win. But I want you to get some rest now, and then we’re staging a midnight raid on the kitchen later. You’re going to be stuffed with so much food that Cass’ costume probably won’t fit you at all."

Aya wearily smiled back, and once again Yohji thought about how beautiful his mate was when he was happy. Well, Aya was gorgeous all the time, but now, smiling…. The sight made him very happy, and he resolved that as soon as the battle tomorrow was over and behind them, it would be his mission to make Aya smile at least once a day. There were too many years of pain and sadness to be made up for. Besides, maybe he wouldn’t get bit so often if Aya was in a good mood.

 

*******

Schuldig yawned as he kicked off his boots and sank down on the bed. He had a slight headache from preventing people from overhearing the discussion at the table tonight, and part of him wanted nothing more than to curl up in bed and sleep for the next week. That was the part that was in denial about the fact that tomorrow he’d be putting his life on the line for a king he barely knew and almost all the people he cared about in this world. And his father. For a moment Schuldig wondered if he should cast a small prayer asking the gods that if they took anyone’s life tomorrow, to make sure that it was Crawford’s. But he barely resisted the temptation. That was to invite the notoriously fickle beings to spare only Crawford, and the prick had an important role to play in the future. As did Schuldig, and after tomorrow he’d be firmly set on that destiny. So much for free will.

Masato sat beside him and started to massage his tense shoulders. Somehow just the touch of the man and his scent made Schuldig relax and start purring. There was a tiny voice inside him yelling about him giving in to his mate, demanding that he stop being such a pushover and do something other than melt under the touch, but Schuldig as usual ignored it. This felt too good to give in to his burgeoning insecurities.

"How the hell did you get so good at this?"

"Try giving massages for a hundred years or so and see how well they turn out." Masato chuckled and bent down to kiss Schuldig right below his ear. "I’m glad all that practice was worth it, if you enjoy it so."

"Hmm, continue to do that for a few more minutes and I’ll be a pile of sleeping mush." His headache slowly started to fade away, and he let out a groan when Masato kissed him again, this time on the neck. From his mate he picked up the thoughts of how tempting his throat looked to Masato, and anxieties about what they would face the next day, especially Schuldig

<Relax. Crawford has had numerous visions about me surviving tomorrow, so don’t you worry. I won’t die on you.>

"I’ll feel better when the fighting is all said and done and we’re both alive. But I guess that means I should survive, if you do too."

Schuldig felt his muscles tense at that thought. Because they were mates, it was safe of Masato to make that assumption. Schuldig wasn’t a human like Miyuki, which meant his bond with Masato would be stronger than the man’s first mating. It was very possible that when one of them died, the other would too, even if they had only been mated a short time. It was known to happen, among bound pairings.

While he wasn’t happy with the thought of Masato dying, Schuldig also didn’t like to be reminded that he was so irrevocably tied to another person now, all because Fate had deemed it so. Schuldig enjoyed having Masato as a lover, and most times he was heartened to know that he’d never be alone again, but….

Masato stopped the massage and tugged on Schuldig’s shoulder until he turned around. "Is something wrong? Are you the one worrying about tomorrow now?"

Shaking his head, Schuldig tried for his usual carefree smile. Dammit, he had to get used to someone being able to read his thoughts so easily. It was hard knowing that Masato could sense his emotions. He wasn’t used to sharing so much of himself with anyone other than Mom and Yohji.

"Nah, I’m wondering if Yohji is going to leave Aya any energy to fight with tomorrow. He never did come back down after checking up on the man, and I can’t get his attention to read his thoughts."

Frowning, Masato sat back on the bed, anger and disappointment flowing between their link. "Why do you care so much about him? I know he’s your best friend, but you’re always thinking of him. And let Aya worry about whether or not he’ll have enough strength for tomorrow. Somehow, I don’t see him allowing Yohji to drain him dry."

"Don’t tell me who to worry about and who not to, Masato." Schuldig snapped at his lover, stung by jealousy and a touch of bitterness. Aya did have Yohji wrapped around his little finger, that was a fact, but the way Masato had said it made it sound like he was defending the other redhead, was praising him.

"Schuldig, why do you have to be such a damn brat? I make one comment and you bite my head off."

"Maybe because you can’t seem to stop trying to boss me around. I’m sick of the attitude, Masato." All of Schuldig’s nervousness and ill feelings spilled forth as anger. "Yeah, you might be a fucking century older, but you don’t know shit, especially about me. I’m not some impressionable young thing you can take control of and tell what to do. I’ll worry about Yohji if I damn well want to. Consider that me making up for all the years when you obviously didn’t give a shit about him."

He knew what buttons to push; they had only been mated a couple of days and Schuldig already knew exactly how to provoke his lover. Pretty much rub anything to do with Miyuki Kudoh and him taking so long to honor his promise to the woman in the bound’s face and Masato’s temper would snap in an instant.

As he’d expected, Masato growled and grabbed Schuldig by his shoulders, shaking him back and forth a few times. "You’re such a fucking brat, you really are. I’ve never lost my patience with anyone as much as I have with you. I’m sick of you having to fight me all the time, and that you seem to care more for Yohji than you do for me."

<Why shouldn’t I care for him more? I’ve known him all my life, and I’ve known you less than a month. All that I’m sure about with you is that you’re my mate and that we have great sex. I’m supposed to care about anything else?>

It was like a fire in his blood, goading Masato on like this. The cruel words caused a flash of pain in Masato that Schuldig refused to think about, and then there was a crystal resolve forming moments before Masato kissed him savagely.

‘It’s about more than sex and you know it, Schuldig. What the hell has you so afraid? The fight tomorrow? Well that’s no excuse to take this out on me.’

Schuldig kissed his mate back for a moment, but the comment about Masato feeling his fear had him snarling and biting the man’s lip. Masato pulled away with a curse and Schuldig bared his teeth at the man, his challenge blatant. Like a bull reacting to a red flag, Masato lost control of his succubae nature and within seconds Schuldig was pinned on the bed, being kissed within an inch of his life. But Masato didn’t swamp him with compulsion this time; even enraged and provoked into proving the nature of their bound the older man was keeping his promise.

Schuldig felt his fear spike at that thought. It scared him, Masato giving in to him so completely on such a thing, honoring a silly promise like that. It went into territories that he didn’t want to think about. For a moment Yohji’s words from earlier flashed through Schuldig’s mind, about Aya being able to give more of himself when his sister was safe, and their bound being even tighter than.

He couldn’t just give in like that. It was almost funny, Schuldig reflected as Masato ripped off his shirt and attacked his throat with a demanding mouth. As he moaned in ecstasy Schuldig thought about how Yohji the infamous slut, the lover and leaver of many, and Aya, the abused, introverted kage were able to give themselves almost completely to each other. They knew it too; he’d picked that up from their thoughts. Aya and Yohji had moved past any fear they might have had over that and gave all they could to each other.

While he had to trick himself into giving anything at all to Masato, a man who he was coming to realize would gladly give him his entire being. He had to push and prod Masato into drastic action, such as when they’d mated and right now, so that little voice inside him would be appeased, would know that he wasn’t just kowtowing to Fate or weakness. Despite the pleasure, the contentment and feeling of completion, Schuldig couldn’t quite give so much of himself. Not now.

As if sensing his thoughts, Masato snarled and yanked on his hair, forcing Schuldig to arch his neck. Hazel eyes stared into his, darkened to a rich green from desire, and he could feel Masato’s need, desire and frustration.

"Stop it. Stop fighting me."

"I can’t." The admission tore itself free from Schuldig, startling him even more than Masato. He didn’t know what part of himself that answer had come from.

Masato bent his head down until their noses touched. "You are mine, Schu. That fact can never be changed now. You told me to make you mine, and I did. Forever." Then Masato kissed him, filling him with so much passion and need that Schuldig moaned and forced the dark thoughts from his head.

Before Masato had claimed him with power, with a driven need that had claimed them both and pushed them on in a frenzy. Now Masato claimed him again, by making Schuldig want him so incredibly much. Each caress and kiss from the man filled him with an aching need, had him writhing for more touches. Somehow Masato had rid Schuldig of his pants and stripped himself, but the caresses never once ceased, the pleasure continuing to build.

Masato’s mouth on his body had him crying out again and again, sucking and licking and nibbling all over Schuldig, provoking responses from places he’d never been sensitive before. Masato’s hands stroked every inch of his skin, feather light touches that had him arching his body for more contact. All the while he could sense his mate’s thoughts about how beautiful and desirable he was, how Masato wanted him so much and was never going to let him go. They only made the bliss that much more overwhelming.

The feel of Masato sliding a finger inside him made Schuldig cry out the man’s name and toss his head back and forth, his whole being craving his mate to be buried inside him, on the pleasure becoming that much more intense. While the finger and soon another one stretched and prepared him, ever so slightly brushing against his sweet spot to make Schuldig’s whole body tingle, Masato’s mouth returned to his neck, sucking with intent force. He was purring so much his teeth were chattering, and Schuldig was completely lost in the pleasure.

When Masato pulled his fingers out Schuldig whimpered and made to turn onto his stomach, but the firm hold his mate had on him prevented that from happening.

"No, I want to see you this time," Masato growled as he started to push inside of Schuldig, and he could only nod his head in agreement before moaning deeply. The feel of his lover entering him, so large and thick and hot…. Schuldig groaned as he rocked his hips towards Masato’s, needing that cock in him as deep as it could go. When it brushed against his teased sweet spot, Schuldig couldn’t help but shouting Masato’s name.

His mate paused a moment when he was completely sheathed inside of Schuldig, kissing his collarbones and neck during the wait, and after a kiss on the mouth started to thrust. The strokes were deep, powerful and steady, filling Schuldig completely and almost always hitting his prostate, making him mewl with each set of sparks that were sent coursing through his body. He writhed beneath Masato, needing more of those strokes, more caresses that slid along his over-sensitive skin, more of those kisses. He needed more of Masato, for once uncaring and unafraid of that need, especially when Masato was giving him exactly what he wanted.

"You’re mine." The words were breathed into Schuldig’s ear, filled his head as it was all Masato thought about, how Schuldig was his and he’d want him forever. With a sob Schuldig nodded his head, forcing himself to give that much to his mate, to acknowledge a bond that frightened him to no end yet still was one he wanted so much.

Schuldig’s world dissolved into pleasure, for once his mind and heart and body in complete unison. He felt the ecstasy coursing through Masato as the man fed off him, felt it rival his own, and sent it back to his mate. Body and mind they became entwined, linked by their need, until everything between them blurred. All that mattered was the pleasure they shared, that they made each other feel. Time seemed to still, until their bodies could take no more and they both came. The bliss caused Schuldig to pass out.

He awoke a few minutes later and found himself cleaned off and wrapped in Masato’s arms, his mate lying behind him and nuzzling the side of his neck. Schuldig felt weak from the energy loss and completely sated, his body refusing to move away from Masato’s.

From the older man he picked up the thought that he’d been claimed again, and it would happen again and again until Schuldig stopped being such a stubborn bastard. He sighed and then blew a strand of his sweat soaked hair off his face, trying to mumble but unable to do anything but purr in bliss.

<I didn’t just give in to you back then. I didn’t.>

Masato kissed him on a bite that he was just now beginning to feel, one on the side of his night right above his shoulder. ‘Schu… I’m not going to argue with you, not now. I don’t know what you’re afraid of, so I’ll let this matter drop tonight. But you’re mine now, for always and ever, and not even you can be stubborn enough to deny that for much longer.’

No, he couldn’t. But somehow, the sense of panic Schuldig felt at that thought was a little less than it had been before now.

 

*******

Sneaking down the back steps, Yohji listened for the sound of anyone being up and about, and decided that everyone had finally given up on partying and had gone to bed. After all, tomorrow was going to be a long day, and everyone was probably looking forward to the all day fetes that would mark the holiday.

Sure that the way was clear, Yohji grabbed Aya’s wrist and tugged the man after him, earning a sleepy growl from Aya when his haste made Aya stumble on a step. As soon as they were on the ground floor Yohji smiled in apology and wrapped an arm around Aya’s shoulders, steering the tired man towards the kitchen. He’d hated to wake Aya up from his nap, but his lover needed to get some food in him to replace the energy that now thrummed through Yohji.

Pushing open the kitchen door, the two of them came to a halt when they found the place illuminated by lit candles. The entire crew of the Koneko was seated around the large wooden table in the middle of the room, cups of hot chocolate in their hands.

"What are you guys doing up? Everyone went to bed a while ago." Yohji looked at his friends in perplexity while Aya, having smelled the hot chocolate, headed for the table and took a seat between Jo and Ani. Deserted by his mate, Yohji huffed a few breaths and then joined him at the table, making Ani scoot over as he claimed his place at Aya’s side.

"We’re just having an nice chat before we all go to bed. One might ask why you’re up when you disappeared hours ago." Jo set her cup down and poured some hot chocolate for Aya, glancing from his bruised neck to Yohji, a scowl on her face. Seeing Aya gulp down the sweet beverage, she wearily rose from the table and headed for the stove.

"Thanks, Jo. We’re a little hungry at the moment." Yohji poured Aya more hot chocolate and then a mug for himself, losing himself briefly in the memory of how he’d often spend nights at this table with Jo, Teddy, Mickey and his mother, all of them enjoying a treat together. He sipped his drink and smiled wistfully, consoling himself with the thought that while his mother might be gone, he could have many nights spent sitting here with Aya at his side, just like right now.

Everyone remained quiet while Jo whipped up an impromptu meal of omelets, bacon, toast and a couple leftover cherry tarts for Yohji and Aya. Having to nudge his mate to get the man to stop leaning against him, half-asleep, and to start eating, Yohji smiled his thanks as he attacked his food with considerable gusto. He’d skipped dinner that night, and while he wasn’t as hungry as Aya was, he did have a large appetite.

He thanked Jo again when the food was all gone, and again nudged Aya in the ribs when all he did was nod his head. The quiet man whispered his thanks and bared his teeth at Yohji, who was left wondering if Aya’s father really had been a lord. Granted, most of the highborns he’d met at Court had been proper bastards, conceited and power-hungry, but they did know the meaning of the word ‘manners’. Aya should have been able to pick up a few decent traits during the first ten years of his life.

Yohji then noticed that no one was budging from the table, even though the hot chocolate was long gone. He raised an eyebrow and glanced back at Jo.

"Am I missing something here?"

Jo shook her head and leaned back in her chair, and everyone else at the table became very still.

"We were just discussing our plans for tomorrow before you two joined us."

"Ah, well, I imagine your day will consist of working your asses off, maybe sneaking off to a temple or two if you have the time, and generally be too busy with carousing customers to even worry about Aya and me."

To Yohji’s dismay, Jo shook her head again. "No, we were talking about what costumes the staff planned to wear to the wedding reception tomorrow."

Yohji didn’t even realize that he had started snarling until he felt Aya’s concern at his behavior. Glaring at the Koneko’s staff, he slowly shook his head back and forth.

"None of you are going to the wedding tomorrow. No one. Are you fucking nuts? You know there’s going to be a nasty fight there, so you’re gonna keep your asses safely here and wait for us to return."

The younger staff burst into protest, from Teddy yelling that Yohji couldn’t boss him around to Touya complaining that he was never allowed to do anything to Ani very loudly proclaiming that she could take care of herself. The sound of Jo clearing her throat had everyone falling silent, while Ichiro limped over from the stove with a pot of coffee in hand and a wry smile on his face.

"Let me say it again, none of you are going to the reception tomorrow," Yohji said in a quiet, seething voice.

"I hate to break it to you, Yohji, but I will indeed be attending the reception tomorrow. All Harpers in the capitol are to be in attendance. You might be a dear friend, but you’re not my Guildmaster." Koyu’s voice was just as quiet as Yohji’s, his eyes contained a matching steel of resolution. The two of them stared at each other for several seconds before Teddy spoke up.

"If Koyu’s going, I am too. There is no way I’ll let him go off and face the fighting alone. Don’t you even think to stop me, Yohji. You’re going to fight because of Aya, after all." Teddy’s glare softened as it flickered to Aya briefly, but hardened when they returned back to him. Wanting to snarl again, Yohji bared his teeth instead, knowing there was no way to keep the two men here at the Koneko tomorrow, other than to lock them in a room. Which they would escape from the second he left, freed by the other staff.

Mickey was the next to speak. "I’ll be going too, to keep an eye on them." As soon as he said the words Ani, Kira and Touya jumped in, saying that they had every right to attend if Mickey and Teddy could.

"Has it escaped your attention that none of you, other than Koyu, has an invitation to the event," Yohji asked in exasperation. Maybe locking everyone in a room would be the best solution to keeping these idiots here, where it would be safe.

"Get off it, Yohji. You know that no Guard is going to turn any of us away. We never receive formal invitations to any of the royal events at the palace, but some of us always go."

Glaring at Teddy, Yohji barely managed to rein in his temper by clutching Aya’s hand and counting to ten. "Yes, but at none of those events were there the possibility that you could be killed! I don’t want to have to worry about any of you tomorrow. And don’t give me any shit about you guys knowing how to fight. You’ll be dealing with professionals." He glared at Touya and Ani, daring them to say anything. When they didn’t Yohji continued.

"There will be several wizards there, and some trained mercenaries. You guys won’t stand a fucking chance, and all you’ll do is distract Schu, the others and me. You stay here where it’s safe, and that’s final. Only Koyu and Teddy will be attending."

"But Yotan…."

"My sister." Touya fell silent when Aya spoke, and everyone turned their attention to the redhead. Yohji looked aside at his lover, wondering what point Aya was trying to make.

"My sister’s soul will remain here, I can’t risk the sphere being damaged during the fight tomorrow." Aya’s voice was deep and filled with pain, his emotions reflecting the same. Yohji clasped the man’s hand between both of his and rubbed it soothingly.

"Who will watch over her while Yohji and I are gone? I have wardings in place, but…. At some point during the battle, my masters will learn that they no longer possess the sphere, and they might send someone or something to find it to regain control over me. And they’ll know where to look, as soon as they see who I’m fighting beside." Aya looked at the people assembled around the table. Yohji could feel how hard it was for Aya to talk about his sister, and even worse, to try and ask a favor from people he barely knew and had only trusted for a few weeks.

Jo reached across the table and brushed back Aya’s bangs. "Ichiro and I will be staying here, we have enough sense to know we’d be no good in a battle. I promise you, nothing will harm your sister while you’re gone." She sat back in her chair and looked expectantly around the table. Silence reigned for several minutes.

Sighing, Mickey shared a glance with Kira and then nodded his head. "I guess I forgot that there was something important here at the Koneko to fight for. You go to the wedding, Aya, and I’ll stay behind and guard your sister. My word on that."

Reluctantly, Ani and Touya agreed, and Kira smiled in relief as she promised. At least one of them was showing sense, Yohji thought bitterly as he kissed Aya’s temple. As upset as he was to realize he’d forgotten all about Aya-chan, and the possibility that something might attack the Koneko because of the girl, he was relieved that his friends would avoid the worst of the battle. Yohji made a note, though, to talk to Botan tomorrow when the wizard came here before the wedding about setting up some protective wards. The Koneko possessed a few, but he’d feel better if they were beefed up somewhat.

Looking back at Teddy and Koyu, Yohji jerked a hand through his hair and let out a breath. "Are you sure you guys have to attend? It will be very dangerous there."

"Yohji, I truly do have to be there, or it will raise suspicions on why I didn’t attend. Though I won’t argue with Teddy if he decides to remain here."

Sparing his lover a dirty look, Teddy crossed his arms over his chest. "I’m going with you, and that’s final."

What a surprise, Teddy was being a stubborn twit. But at least Yohji had only had to worry about two of his friends now. And he pitied the merc or wizard that took Teddy on. Wrapping his arms around Aya, Yohji tried not to wonder how many of them wouldn’t be here at this table after tonight.

*******

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