Shadows

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chapter 16

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beginnings

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Aya rested his head against the crook of Yohji’s neck and, despite his earlier protest, was relieved that his mate was carrying him. So far, all that was keeping the darkness inside him at bay was the feel of Yohji holding him tightly and breathing in Yohji’s scent. He inhaled deeply and wrapped his arms around Yohji’s neck, afraid to ever let go.

He could feel the shadows that cloaked them, and that a shinigami or two was still following him, urging him to fall back into the darkness and free himself from the mortal world. Aya buried his head even closer to Yohji, trying to use the man’s heartbeat to drown out the shinigami voices.

/So close, young one. Fallen just a bit more, and free you would have been./

/Foolish, foolish choice. Pain here, pain and sorrow. Emotions that are so heavy. Free yourself and join our pack. Never should you have been so cruelly caged./

The worst part of it was, deep inside, a tiny voice agreed with the shinigami. Aya knew a piece of his soul wished he hadn’t been brought back, that he’d broken his promise to Yohji. It longed to escape this cage of flesh and to join its own kind, to never feel alone again. To spend an eternity with its pack mates, reveling in each other between feeding and ushering souls beyond.

But the rest of him loved Yohji too much and felt that his mate was all he needed to feel loved and not alone anymore. That was why, when Yohji had called for him, his voice pleading and reaching him even when he’d been so deep within the darkness, Aya had returned. For anyone else he might have broken his promise, might have been trapped in the darkness forever, but not when Yohji wanted him back. He’d had to honor his oath to his mate, had to do what Yohji had asked of him. Aya could never hurt Yohji.

Now he clung to this reality with all his strength, forcing himself to remain solid and _here_, to not fall into the darkness until his body was as insubstantial as the shadows he commanded. Even though Aya’s body thrummed with power from the oni’s deaths, he felt utterly exhausted from concentrating so hard. He was afraid that if he relaxed, he’d join the shinigami forever.

/Foolish you are, young one./

/Hush, mated they are./

"Shh, Aya, we’re almost there. Stop fussing." Warm lips pressed against his left temple, and Aya eagerly lifted his head, needing the precious heat and affection. He could feel Yohji’s surprise, the emotion washing through the man’s worry and exhaustion for a moment, and then he felt Yohji’s hunger as his mate kissed him. Trust Yohji to be able to walk and carry him at the same time he was thrusting his tongue into Aya’s mouth and stealing his breath away. Aya shifted in the blond’s arms, trying to get better contact with that ravenous mouth. The kiss was helping to center him, to fill him with light and warmth that drove back the cold and darkness.

"Yohji, if you keep doing that you’re going to walk right smack into a wall. It seems rather silly to have survived a battle like that and be done in by architecture and hormones."

At Schuldig’s mocking voice Yohji broke off the kiss, wringing a whimper from Aya at the lost contact. He tightened his arms around Yohji’s neck, desperate to remain close to the man’s warmth and scent. Yohji held him tighter in return, shifting Aya in his arms to a more comfortable position.

"Says the man who finally came up for air a few seconds ago," Yohji snapped. He kissed Aya on the forehead. "So hush, Schu."

Tucking his head under Yohji’s chin, Aya looked about him and noticed that they were in a private section of the palace. The floors were richly upholstered in a cream coloured carpet, and the walls were done in various shades of blue, light on top and darker on the bottom. Fine paintings and sculptures were dispersed along the walls, and candles were everywhere resting in elaborate silver sconces.

Nagi was walking beside him, and as Aya looked about he shifted closer and tucked back a strand of hair that was falling onto Aya’s face. His friend looked drained, dark circles surrounded his eyes and his face had a pinched look to it. But he was alive, and Aya could only see a few slashes on his chest and arms. Nagi was holding onto Omi’s hand, and Aya could sense a taint of magic surrounding the young prince. That was something new, and for a moment he puzzled over the sensation. But it was too much to think about, so he rested his head back on Yohji’s chest.

"Aya, we’ll need you to pull back the shadows in a minute. The Guards stationed in this wing will need to see me, Omi and the other Guards to let us in. Can you manage that?" Birman was walking beside Aya now, so he nodded.

"Aya, can you…?"

"He said yes, Birman." Yohji was snarling, so Aya lifted his head again and looked up at his lover. Yohji’s face was just as shadowed and worn as Nagi’s, showing the exhaustion that Aya could feel from the man. It was making Yohji’s temper rather short, that and the worry he was feeling. Aya drank in the emotions, almost as if to remind himself what it was like to feel them for himself.

Seeing Omi reluctantly leave Nagi’s side and walk to the front of their group with Birman, Aya had the shadows fall back until they and the three Guards were exposed. That done, he resumed listening to Yohji’s heartbeat and soaking in the man’s body heat. Aya dimly heard the exchange between Birman and the Guards stationed outside of the Royal quarters, but the story she spun for the sentries didn’t interest him enough to pay attention.

/They are not your kind. Amongst the mortals you go, the humans and the half-breeds. Come with us. Alone again you’ll never be./

A couple minutes later and Yohji was walking again, and the heavy oak doors closed behind their group as they walked down the quiet hallway.

"Aya, please drop the shadows now."

Doing as he was bid, Aya let the shadows retreat, and he breathed a sigh of relief that the shinigami went with them as well, after one last entreaty and gentle caresses to his cheek. A part of Aya cried at their absence, and his hold on reality weakened the slightest bit. Once again he tucked his face against Yohji’s neck, breathing in the scent of musk and sweat, flicking out his tongue to lick golden skin.

"Hmph, that tickles, cat."

"All right, we’re here. There are several available suites in this area, and Honjyou, I want you to guard this hallway. The only ones allowed here are the king, Manx, Botan, my pages and me. I’ll send a few pages to look after everyone, since they’ll know to keep their mouths shut about what they see. If anyone asks what you’re doing here, just tell them you’re supplying protection to a few shaken up dignitaries."

"Yes, ma’am."

"Birman, I’m heading back to my room, and Nagi’s coming with me." There was a hint of defiance in Omi’s voice, as if he was expecting the Spymaster to challenge his decision. Yet the woman quietly agreed with him, her voice amused.

"That’s fine, Omi. I’ll have a page attend to you two there. If I remember correctly, I’ll need to make sure she arrives with a lot of food for Nagi to eat. Bounds need to replace the energy that they use for their magicks, don’t they? I imagine you all must be hungry then." There was a touch of awe in Birman’s voice, awe and wonder. Unlike the Guards, she didn’t smell of fear, not afraid of being so close to such legendary creatures.

"Nagi will most certainly need food, and Schuldig too. Some food for myself would be appreciated, but I’d prefer a bath more," Crawford dryly commented. "Jei, I want you to stay with Hidaka and help him when he wakes up. Are you up to that, Berserker?" He stressed Jei’s codename.

"….yeah, I should be able to handle him best. Just make sure to supply us a couple gallons of blood, animal or human." The reek of fear from the Guards increased. "A bath would be almost as appreciated, I can’t take smelling all this blood much longer."

"All the rooms are equipped with bathing chambers, I’ll send the pages to warm the water for you. They’ll bring food and medical supplies, and anything else you’ll need. All I ask is that you remain in the rooms until Botan, Omi or I tell you otherwise." Birman paused for a second, and after clearing her throat, continued in a quiet voice.

"I just… thank you, for what you did back there. If it hadn’t been for you, King Shuuichi would be dead, and many others. Rest assured that Botan and I will make sure that the king appreciates all you have done for him." Then the woman briskly left.

"Well, I guess Aya and I will take this room. Do I need to tell you what will happen if anyone wakes up us before noon tomorrow?"

"Don’t worry, Yotan, it sure as hell won’t be me disturbing you. After I eat and clean up, I think I’m gonna do my best to sleep for a couple days." Then Schuldig chuckled. "Gods, you know I’m tired when I make no mention of sex."

Feeling a rumble in Yohji’s chest, Aya knew that his mate was amused by that fact. But while Masato bemoaned that he obviously hadn’t left the best impression on his lover, and would have to remedy that when the both of them had some energy, Yohji only opened the door and entered the room. It was dark in there, the fading sun providing the only light, but it was more than enough for them to make their way to the bed. Yohji was about to set Aya down when he grimaced.

"Even with the armor protecting us for most of the fight, we’re still a bit grimy. Can you stand for a few minutes, Aya?"

"I told you I could, Yohji." Aya was gently set onto his feet, and he felt a pang when Yohji reluctantly pulled his hands away. He leaned towards his lover, wishing to prolong the contact, but Yohji gave one of his eartails a quick tug and walked away. He quickly lit a few candles, and after setting the matches aside, started to open the two other doors in the room. One was a closet, in which hung several robes, and the other proved to be the mentioned bathing room. While Yohji investigated the other room, Aya had the shadows search for any signs of traps or spells then warded the room. Swaying from having to focus his will to control the shadows, Aya braced himself against the wall with his right hand.

Yohji came back in another minute, pulling two robes out of the closet and hurrying over to Aya. "Here, put this on and then you can rest for a bit. There’s a huge barrel in there with enough water for the both of us, but it needs someone to recite the spellword that will heat it all."

While he talked, Yohji gently stripped Aya of his clothes, pulling off the torn black costume and tossing it to the floor. When he was done he wrapped Aya in the robe, which was soft and warm. That done, he led Aya to the bed, where Aya gratefully sank down onto the soft mattress.

Aya reached out and undid the laces of Yohji’s shirt, noticing the healing wounds on his lover’s body. There were claw marks along the bottom of his throat, down his chest and on his left arm.

"Those need to be cleaned."

"They will be, when we take our baths." Yohji pulled the shirt over his head while Aya worked on his pants. "There isn’t a mark on you though, just dried blood." He kicked off his boots and then his pants, and after pulling on the robe sat by Aya.

Curling up against his love, Aya freed Yohji’s hair from its ponytail. "No, they healed when I killed the oni." The energy from the demons’ death was still inside him, but Aya only felt more and more tired with each passing moment. He wanted to lie down and sleep, but was afraid of even that bit of darkness.

"I felt some of it when you killed them, at least at the beginning." Yohji stroked his hand through Aya’s hair and then tilted his chin up. "After a while, I couldn’t feel you anymore, Aya. Do you have any idea how much you frightened me there? Especially when you passed out, and I could barely touch you? Crawford said…." Yohji gulped in some air and bent his head to nuzzle Aya’s neck for a moment. When he looked back up his face was sad and a touch angry. "He said you might decide to become a real shinigami and that you might not want to live as a human anymore. You scared the _hell_ out of me."

Grasping Yohji’s face between his hands, Aya brushed their lips together. "Yohji, I had to do something to fight the oni. But I never thought it would take me so far from you. I was scared too, until you called me back."

"Damn right I called you back. You’re mine, cat. I’m never letting you go." Yohji’s mouth fastened on his, passionate and ravenous, and Aya moaned in pleasure at the feel of it. The world snapped into crystal clarity at the embrace, and he shifted desperately to be closer to his mate. He needed this, needed Yohji to make him real, and Aya knew that as long as the man was by him, he’d never regret coming back. Yohji made being ‘human’ worthwhile.

He slid his hand inside Yohji’s robe, wanted to feel the warm, smooth skin it hid from him. It was Yohji’s turn to moan as he tenderly laid Aya down on the bed, his body resting on top of him. Some of the energy inside Aya was devoured by the other bound, and as he was drained Aya felt the darkness retreat further from him. He deepened the kiss and wrapped his legs around Yohji’s waist.

Their robes had come half undone when Aya felt a presence nearing his wards. The knock on the door, which seemed too loud in the quiet room, had Yohji jerking away from him, one of his hands on his bracelet. Sighing, Aya sat upright and banished the shadows.

"What?"

The answering voice was hesitant, either because the young man knew whom he was attending to or the bite of irritation in Yohji’s question.

"Uhm, I’m sorry to bother you, but Birman sent me."

Growling, Yohji kissed Aya on an exposed shoulder and stood to his feet, jerking his robe back into place as he stomped to the door. Tidying himself as well, Aya was happy to note that Yohji didn’t feel as tired as he’d been a few minutes ago. It seemed that oni energy was very potent.

When the door was opened a very nervous teenager, who appeared a little younger than Nagi, tentatively stepped into the room. In his arms were bundles of clothes and a tray laden with food, and a small wicker basket dangled from one of his elbows. He was dressed in a blue and black uniform, and his black, shaggy hair fell unto his pale face.

"Sirs, Birman sent me to you. I have some food for you, and medical supplies." The page set the food down on the table by the bed. "I see you found the robes, would you like me to warm the bath for you?"

All it took was a slight nod from Yohji and the page rushed towards the bathing chamber. He smelled nervous, but at least there wasn’t any fear in him. Aya stared after the boy for a moment, until Yohji pressed a cup of tea into his hand.

"Drink, Aya. You feel pretty tired."

"The same could be said for you too." But Aya lifted the cup and took a sip, grimacing at how hot the beverage was. "It’s not as good as Cass’."

"No, it isn’t." Yohji gulped down the tea, making Aya wince at the sight. The blond had to have lead lining in his mouth to endure that. Then Yohji started on the food, which was several types of meats, some casseroles, and a plate of petit fours.

"I think this is from the reception dinner. Guess the food won’t go to waste after all." Yohji tried to hold a fork of quail meat to Aya’s lips, but he wouldn’t open his mouth. "Aya, you should eat."

"No, the tea will be fine." Aya tried another sip. "Don’t glare at me like that, Yohji. I’m… I feel too full already." It was the truth. His body felt bloated from all the energy he’d absorbed during the fighting, with all those deaths around him. All Aya wanted to do was give Yohji some of that energy and sleep for a week.

Yohji eyed him critically for a moment, and then started to devour the food as if he hadn’t eaten for several days. The tray was soon empty, although Aya hadn’t eaten anything other than a couple of the small cakes, which had looked too good to ignore. Yohji needed the energy more than he did at the moment, needed it to heal, and there wouldn’t have been enough food for the both of them. Whoever was attending to Nagi and Omi was going to be in for a bit of a surprise.

Just as Yohji finished wiping his mouth, the page re-entered the bedroom. "Sirs, the bath is ready."

"Great. I need to wash this stink off me in the worst way." Yohji rose to his feet and tugged Aya after him. The page’s eyes went wide when the both of them entered the bathing room at the same time, and he flushed a little.

"What’s your name, kid?"

"Uhm, it’s Shin, sir."

Pulling Aya towards the bath, Yohji smiled at the boy. "Do me a favor, Shin, and bring us some mulled wine and more of those desserts. Then make sure no one disturbs us until at least morning. Okay?"

The boy nodded his head. "Yes sir. I set the clean clothes on the stand in the bedroom, and here are some towels." He patted a wire stand that Aya could sense was charmed in some manner. Probably to keep the towels warm for them. "I’ll be back shortly."

Watching the boy leave, Aya let his robe fall to the floor. "How did he manage to put things together for us so quickly?"

"The page? Birman has the same system with her kids that the Guards have. You know, the copper bracelets that send messages tapped onto them? She probably had them scrambling about as soon as we left the ballroom."

Aya knew he was tired if he’d missed that bit of magic. But to be fair, the evening had been filled with an overabundance of spells and wards, and he could do without any magic for a while. Well, any magic other than that which provided them with a pool full of hot water.

Yohji picked up the bucket of warm water that had been set aside for their use and gestured for Aya to stand over a wooden grate. Doing as the man wanted, Aya shivered as the water was poured over him, and again when Yohji very gently washed him clean. His mate didn’t miss a spot, completely washing his body and hair until Aya didn’t smell any more blood or death on him. When he was done he returned the favor, washing Yohji clean and being very careful about the man’s cuts. They were almost completely healed now, probably from the energy Yohji had fed from him.

Then Yohji was stepping into the shallow bath, holding out his hand for Aya to join him. They had to sit down in order to be mostly submerged. Yohji sat with his back resting against the wall of the bath, his legs stretched out before him, and Aya knelt over his lap, facing the blond. The hot water felt delightful, helping to soothe exhausted and overworked muscles.

Trailing his fingers along the faint red lines on Yohji’s throat, Aya leaned forward to quickly kiss the fading cuts. He could feel Yohji’s throat vibrate against his lips when his mate started to purr. Long fingers tangled in his hair, and Aya’s head was tilted back so Yohji could ardently kiss him. Their tongues twisted about in each other’s mouth, flicking about until they were both moaning in need. Aya felt so close to shaking completely free of the darkness that he pressed closer to his mate, rubbing against Yohji’s chest as the two of them quickly grew hard.

Using his hold on Aya’s hair, Yohji held him still as he pulled back. "Gods, Aya…." Then the handsome man grinned wickedly. "You know, this isn’t a public bath." He rocked his arousal forward, rubbing it against Aya’s.

"When has that stopped you lately?" Aya arched his throat and tilted his chin up, and he could all but see Yohji’s eyes glaze over with lust at his offering.

"Aya, love, I need you too much right now. I’m so fucking hungry, and you taste too good to resist. May I?" Yohji bent his head to gently suck on Aya’s neck.

Starting to purr, Aya slid his right hand down Yohji’s chest, scraping a nail along a light brown nipple along the way, and then wrapped it around his lover’s cock. He just adored hearing Yohji suck in his breath like that, and the lips on his neck became rougher. Yohji started to suck on his skin in earnest, bringing his teeth into play as they slowly clamped over Aya’s jugular. Whimpering, Aya tilted his head back as far as he could, his eyes closing at the sensation of teeth sinking into his throat. He gave himself completely to the man who had brought him back, who made all the pain and heartache of this world bearable. Who made him feel more pleasure than he could ever imagine. Aya went limp against Yohji and whispered his mate’s name.

For a moment the pressure on his throat increased, becoming almost enough to break through his skin, and the next it vanished. Aya found himself being kissed with a passionate intensity, his mouth being ravaged as hands stroked along his body, nails scraping his skin to form more red marks of ownership. All he could do was cling to Yohji and give himself over to the sensations, offering everything he was and the stolen energy that filled him.

Yohji growled, low and savage, and steadily pushed a finger inside of Aya, making him gasp. It didn’t stop until it was completely buried in him, then a moment later it pulled out, only to return doubled. The digits pushed into him and twisted about, flicking against that spot inside of him that had Aya writhing on Yohji’s lap, whimpering and pleading for more. The darkness returned to his vision, but this time it was shot through with sparks of light at each burst of pleasure, and Aya felt so much emotion, almost too much. Ecstasy and desire and need and love, and a possessiveness that took away his breath filled him almost as much as the pleasure did.

"You’re mine, Aya. I won’t let you go, I’ll never let you go so far from me again. I thought I’d lost you, and I never want to think that again." Yohji growled the words as he nuzzled Aya’s throat, and suddenly once again his teeth were on Aya, a painful flash that only accentuated the pleasure even more. This time there was a hint of copper in the air, and Aya sighed as he trembled. He was completely in this world, Yohji’s world, and their link was tight around him, entwining him so deeply with Yohji that for a moment he felt fused to the man. Everything that had prevented him from giving all of his being to his mate was gone, or soon would be, and Aya surrendered completely.

"Yours, love, forever." The words hung in the air, and Aya felt a slight tingle of magic. He knew that there would be no breaking this vow, ever, and that he’d honor it until the day he died.

Pulling back the slightest bit, Yohji lapped at the new mark on his throat as he handed Aya a bar of soap. Trembling so much that his hands shook, Aya almost lost the bar a couple of times as he tried to lather up his hands, and eventually it did get away from him. But by then he had enough lather to coat Yohji’s cock, and he wanted it inside him so desperately that he didn’t care if it was slick enough or not.

"I need you too much, cat, to ever let you go. You’re a fire in my blood, a need so great…." Yohji pulled Aya closer to him, lifting him up as he prepared to thrust inside him. Aya braced himself on his knees and started to lower himself, whining in need as the tip of Yohji’s cock pressed against him. Groaning, Yohji slowly pushed in as he licked Aya’s neck when he tossed back his head as he was penetrated.

"Never, Aya. Never leave me again. I’ll shatter if you do," Yohji growled possessively. The tip of his arousal buried inside Aya, Yohji suddenly snapped his hips upward the same time he pressed Aya down. Aya let out a small cry as his mate’s cock was entirely sheathed inside him, Yohji’s balls pressing tightly against his ass.

"Gods, you’re so fucking tight and hot. All mine, Aya, every last bit of you. Your heart, body and soul. How can I mark you so you never forget that?"

Aya lifted his head when Yohji began to thrust inside him and stared back at his lover. "I never can, Yohji. You’ve already done that." All of him should have been clamoring for the darkness, not just that one small part. But Aya knew he was Yohji’s, and that the man had wanted him back. That had kept Aya from doing as the shinigami had wished.

Thrusting forcefully, Yohji gripped Aya’s hips tightly with both hands. "I’ll do it again then, and again, so you never forget. You’re mine, love."

"Ye~s." Aya moaned as he tilted his head back again, the same time he lowered his body to meet Yohji’s hips. Shadows writhed around them, darting closer to stroke their flesh, to join them. The shadows were Aya’s, but they were Yohji’s now too, as everything of Aya’s was - like the energy that was pouring out of Aya, burning hot and potent, leaving him weaker by the moment. But it was a human weakness, that, and Aya willingly gave up his strength so Yohji could be whole.

He chanted his mate’s name softly, crying and gasping each time Yohji drove against that spot inside him, until his vision was an equal mix of light and dark. Aya couldn’t tell if his eyes were open or not, couldn’t form a coherent thought as Yohji slowly shattered him with bliss and love. As sweet as the oni’s energy had been, it was nothing like what he was feeling from Yohji, was pouring off his lover stronger and stronger with each thrust that had Yohji buried in him to the hilt. Yet Aya kept pistoning his hips, meeting Yohji with a desperate attempt to take him in even more.

"Oh gods, you’re so fucking good, Aya. So lovely and warm. I love you. I love you. So beautiful, and mine." The fingers on his hips dug into Aya’s flesh as Yohji screamed his name, and the feel of heat spurting inside him, another mark of ownership from Yohji, had Aya crying in ecstasy. The sound caught in his throat, tight as it was from the intense emotions buffering him, and he shook as he came.

Slumping forward, Aya tucked his face against Yohji’s neck, resting against his lover’s chest as he tried to remember how to breathe. Aftershocks of pleasure had him trembling in spasms, and it took several tries to make his arms lift high enough to wrap them around Yohji’s shoulders. The older man mumbled in his ear for a moment, the words making no sense but the emotions behind them crystal clear, and Aya ignored them to listen to Yohji’s heartbeat slowly return to normal.

Feeling utterly content, Aya rubbed his cheek along Yohji’s shoulder, and then pulled back enough so he could bite the man, almost breaking skin as he did.

"OW! Aya, what the fuck was that about?" Yohji glared down at him as he rubbed his sore shoulder.

"Idiot, you should know better by now. I’m yours and you’re mine." Aya glared back at his mate.

Cursing about bad tempered cats that had more teeth than brains, Yohji jostled Aya about on his lap, pausing to hiss when he slid out of Aya’s body. When he was done rubbing his shoulder and bitching, he reached out his hand and tucked back Aya’s bangs.

"Well, you almost faded away on me, so keep that in mind before you bite me again."

Aya could sense Yohji’s fear at that memory, and he shivered as he recalled how deep in the darkness he’d been. Only Yohji could have called him back. His exhaustion suddenly smashing down on him in a powerful wave, Aya once again rested against Yohji.

Soft lips pressed against his forehead. "Well, I’m feeling nice and energized, which means you must be tired as hell. One of these days we’ll synch up, but for now, let’s go to bed." Yohji gathered Aya in his arms and slowly stepped out of the bath. Aya leaned against him when he was set on his feet, and each of them slowly patted the other dry. Yohji used one of his eartails as a leash, leading Aya to the bedroom as he snarled softly. They found the bed turned down for them.

"Food being delivered to us; not having to worry about cleaning up in the bath when we’re done playing, and a soft, huge bed…." Yohji groaned as he sank down in the feather filled mattress, pulling Aya with him. "I could get used to this."

Aya curled up against the taller man, still finding himself craving the warmth Yohji radiated. He couldn’t get enough of Yohji’s scent, even though the man’s musk was all over him, sunken deep into his skin.

"I want to go home."

Yohji tsked gently and brushed back Aya’s bangs. "We will, love, in the morning. It is best if we stay here and hash things out, or we won’t be able to remain at the Koneko for long. For now, we’ll rest and see what the morning brings. Cass or Crawford would warn us if we would be safer back home." Yohji kissed him gently. "I just hope Teddy and Koyu made it out safely."

"Hn." Aya shifted closer to Yohji, relishing the feel of their skin touching. He’d just rested his head on Yohji’s chest when there was a knock on their door.

This time the page entered without waiting for a response and almost dropped the tray he was carrying when he saw Yohji and Aya curled up in bed together, without their robes. At least the sheets were pulled up enough to save the young boy from suffering a nosebleed at the sight of their nakedness.

"I- I brought you the wine, sir." The page set it down on the nightstand by the bed, careful not to look directly at Yohji as he did. "Is there anything else you need?" He actually squeaked out the last few words.

"No, I’m pretty damn content at the moment," Yohji drawled as he hugged Aya. "Oh, we’re all done with the bath."

"Yes, sir." The page fled to the bathroom, and Yohji chuckled as he poured them some wine.

"Here, Aya, have some. You need the energy now, and it should help you sleep."

Aya accepted the cup as he blinked his eyes. It took him a moment to realize that Yohji was probably talking about the wine helping to soothe him after all the fighting and killing. Aya hadn’t given much thought to all the humans he’d killed just a short while ago, not since he’d faced the oni. While nightmares usually would torment him after his missions, Aya didn’t think that would be a problem tonight. All the people he’d killed during the battle had deserved their fate.

"Yohji… in all the confusion I couldn’t see, but… you did, didn’t you?" He sipped the wine nervously as he waited for an answer to his vague question.

Yohji pushed a petit four past Aya’s lips and ran his thumb over them while Aya chewed. "Did I kill Hirofumi and Reiji?" Yohji smiled at Aya, the expression predatory and sated. "Yeah, I did. It was nice and painful, too. Last I saw them, most of those two were scattered all over the ballroom floor." The smile turned dark for a moment. "That reminds me, I need to retrieve my nets before we leave tomorrow."

Reiji and Hirofumi were dead, Yohji wouldn’t lie to him about that. And Aya knew that Jei had taken out Masafumi, since he hadn’t felt any magic from the wizard past a certain point that night. His masters were dead, their hold on him broken forever. Once Aya-chan was freed, Aya would be beholden to no one but Yohji. He shivered at the thought.

"Shh, Aya. I don’t like how you’re feeling right now." Yohji bent down to kiss him, and then fed him another dessert. "It’s all over, you’ve nothing to fear. You’re safe."

Swallowing the cake, Aya drained his mug of the spiced wine and lay down on the bed. He curled up tightly around Yohji as he closed his eyes. It had actually happened, and Aya was now free. A coldness settled in his heart at the thought that after they returned to the Koneko and freed his sister, Aya would have no tie to his past other than Nagi. There would be no more Ran, just Aya. That thought seemed incomprehensible to him at the moment, so he gave in to his exhaustion and slept.

*******

Omi watched with some amusement as Nagi finally fell back onto the bed and rubbed his distended stomach. Several trays filled with empty plates were scattered about the room, and he could only account for one of them. The rest were from his ravenous boyfriend, who looked so full he’d burst if he tried to eat anything else.

"Please tell me you’re finished!"

Nagi softly burped and nodded. "I think so."

Chuckling, Omi tiredly rose from the bed and stacked all the trays on a table. That done, he returned to Nagi’s side and cuddled next to his boyfriend. "So, what now?"

"We sleep for however long we can. Now that I’m not starved, I feel tired enough to not wake up for a week."

"Well, you certainly ate enough to keep you full for that long." Omi gently poked Nagi in the side. "I think the poor page would have broken into tears if we’d asked her to fetch any more food for you."

Nagi yawned and draped an arm over Omi, holding him close. "Well, I used a lot of energy tonight. More than I’ve ever used at one time before."

"I know. I’m glad that you were able to remain safe." Omi stroked Nagi’s left arm, careful not to put much weight on the healing wounds. The first thing he’d done once they’d cleaned themselves off had been to treat Nagi’s injuries. Even though he knew his lover was a bound and had seen how quickly Aya could heal, it still amazed him how quickly the cuts had scabbed over, not even needing any stitches.

"You used some energy yourself." At those words Omi looked from Nagi’s arm to his face, his throat suddenly dry. Nagi stared back at him solemnly. "Are you going to talk about you being a wizard?"

Omi forced himself to swallow the panic he felt. He’d hoped to avoid this discussion for as long as he possibly could, yet here was Nagi bringing it up. "I’m tired, we should sleep."

"Omi…." Nagi’s hand on his shoulder prevented Omi from rolling over and pretending to be asleep. "Did you know about being a wizard?"

Grabbing Nagi’s hand, Omi held onto it tightly. "I… I knew there was magic in my family, and the possibility that I had some. Botan even tried to test me a couple times, but I wouldn’t let him."

"Why not?"

How could Omi explain his fears growing up? "Because… that’s all I really knew about my uncle and cousin at first, that they were wizards. When I found out the truth…." Omi shivered. "If I had magic, I really would be Reiji’s son."

Nagi leaned forward and brushed his nose against Omi’s. "You hid from yourself because of them? Omi, Aya told me that Crawford said you were Shuuichi’s son, not Reiji’s. I think that’s the only reason why Aya allowed me to see you at first. You’re not related to _them_. Well, not directly."

Omi could only stare at his lover in wonder. "I’m not?" Somehow he couldn’t see Crawford lying about something like that. He doubted the precog would waste an untruth on him of all people. "I… oh, I wish I’d known that before."

Smiling at him, Nagi stroked Omi’s face with his free hand. "Will you train your power?"

"I don’t know." Omi sighed and closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them to look closely at Nagi. "Don’t you mind that I’m a wizard? I thought bounds hated them."

"We don’t have much love for ones who use our blood for spells, but that’s about it. Are you planning on doing that?"

Omi shook his head back and forth. "No, never. I couldn’t do something like that, not now. Do you want me to train my talent?"

"Yeah." Nagi smiled sadly at Omi. "One of the things Jei warned me about you was that you’d die in a few decades and leave me alone. He warned me about my heart breaking when that happened. But wizards live longer than humans, so… we’d have longer to be together." The last was said in a quiet voice, but Omi was close enough to hear the words.

This day had been a very long one, filled with nervousness and apprehension, fear and sorrow. Omi had killed his own blood, and many people. He’d stood up to his father and discovered that he did indeed have a magical talent. As worn and confused as he was, this day had been made worthwhile just to hear Nagi say that he wanted to spend as much time as possible with him, even a couple centuries worth. Omi felt so happy at that moment.

"Well then, I’ll have to have Botan train me now. I want to be here with you for as long as I can." He leaned forward and kissed Nagi. Their lips remained in contact for a few minutes, the kiss on the chaste side because of their exhaustion, but they relished the intimate contact too much to just break it off. When they did pull apart, Nagi pressed closer to Omi, and holding each other tightly, they fell asleep.

*******

Koyu winced in sympathy and held onto his lover’s hand even tighter. Teddy’s face was being poked and prodded by a ragged-looking Healer, one who disturbingly smelled of alcohol. He imagined that all the healers in the capitol had been rounded up to deal with the casualties of the wedding reception, many of them having been dragged away from celebrations, and hoped that Teddy had gotten a good one.

The Healer, a grey haired woman who oddly didn’t look more than thirty, stopped her muttering and patted Teddy’s uncut cheek tenderly. "Okay, the good news is I believe I can save your eye. Hell, you probably won’t even have much of a scar by the time I’m done. But eye wounds are tricky. You might permanently regain your full sight back, or it might start to fade over time."

"Whatever." Teddy’s voice was tight with pain, despite the opium he’d been dosed with while waiting for medical attention. Koyu held the man’s hand between his own and hummed a soothing melody. He looked at the Healer, wishing she cut a more impressive figure than a stocky, leather dressed woman whom he imagined had been out partying until just a short time ago.

"Can you really heal him?" Koyu knew that eyes were rather difficult to heal, especially when it had been all but destroyed by the sword cut, and was shocked that she’d given Teddy that good a diagnosis.

The woman smiled at him, showing Koyu a strong set of white teeth. "I’ll do my best. Now give me a minute." She bent her head in concentration, one hand over Teddy’s wounds and the other pressed against the floor. Koyu stared in wonder at her, since she wasn’t chanting as most Healers, or giving Teddy a potion of some sort.

All of a sudden Teddy jerked, his body becoming stiff and a moan of pain escaping his lips. Koyu watched in horror as more blood coursed down his face, and when he moved to prevent the Healer from harming his lover any more, he found he couldn’t touch the woman. His hand stopped several centimeters from her shoulder.

Staring wide eyed at the Healer, Koyu was summoning the breath to scream when she suddenly sat back on her heels, her hand falling from Teddy’s face as she flashed a tired smile. She then pulled out a clean handkerchief from the wicker basket by her feet and a vial of water; and in moments was washing Teddy’s face clean of the blood and gore.

Koyu sucked in his breath as he noticed that Teddy’s face was healed of the sword cut with just a faint red line going across his nose and left temple. His left eye appeared out of focus, the pupil dilated, but it was whole. Never in his life had Koyu seen a healing take so quickly or effectively.

Turning to stare back at the Healer, he found her with a finger pressed to her lips. "But, how…?"

"Shhh, Harper, we don’t need to let the others know about this."

"You’re not a Healer, are you?" Koyu asked in a quiet voice, still trying to accept the fact that Teddy was healed, and not in any way he was familiar with.

The woman nodded her head and grinned. "Oh, I’m a healer all right, I’m just not one of those pompous asses in robes who make you drink foul shit and complain about how a healing drains them so." She pressed the back of her hand to her forehead and breathed a heavy sigh. "’Oh, I love serving Kannon and Eisei, but the sacrifices I make for the poor souls in my care.’" She pretended to swoon then made a face as she straightened up.

"Bunch of stuck up idiots, they are, believing that only they can heal."

"But, what are you then?" Koyu could honestly say he’d never met a person quite like this woman. "And what is your name?"

The woman frowned slightly. "It’s best you don’t know it, sweetie. All you need to know is that you should take your lover home and make sure he gets plenty of rest and food for the next couple of days so he regains his strength and heals properly. Also, put this over his eye." She reached into her basket and pulled out some bandages. "It’s not a good idea, exposing the eye to light for the next couple days, or for people to see how quickly it healed. Now take care." She then rose to her feet and cradled her basket in the crook of one arm.

Koyu held on to the bandage in one hand, and Teddy’s hand in the other. "But, but you’re leaving? Where are you going?"

The stranger laughed and patted him on the cheek. "You Harpers, always wanting to ask a million questions and have them answered to boot. I’m going home, sweetie, is where I’m going. Now be a good boy and do the same." She took a step backwards. "And do me a favor, and tell Cass that my girl needs a new cloak and has this damn obsession with the color sky blue at the moment. I’d appreciate it if she could help me out with that."

"You know Cass?" Koyu was so confused at the moment, and he didn’t think it was the after affects of the fighting. Maybe if he smacked his head against the wall a couple times he’d snap back to normal.

"See, another question. Yeah, I know Cass, have known her for years, and her parents before that." A look of sorrow crossed the woman’s features. "A shame, what happened to them. But now is not the time." She did another shift in temperament and winked at Koyu. "I know the Koneko too, and stayed there a time or two when I needed to. Hell, maybe now that Yohji is mated and not on the prowl anymore, me and the girl can stop by for dinner one night. Maybe I’ll give you my name then." She waved goodbye and briskly walked away from Koyu and Teddy, and in moments was lost in the crowd. Koyu could only stare befuddledly after her.

"Koyu, my eye doesn’t hurt anymore." Koyu looked down to see Teddy dazedly poking a finger against his face. He quickly batted his boyfriend’s hand aside.

"It must be because of the drugs, love." He quickly did as the stranger had bid him and wrapped Teddy’s eye. Koyu had a suspicion of why the woman didn’t want any attention drawn to her and decided it would be best if he didn’t stand here thinking and that Teddy and he returned to the Koneko with post haste. Once Teddy was taken care of, Koyu slipped an arm around the smaller man’s waist and hoisted him upright.

"We going home, honey?"

"Yeah, Teddy, we are. You think you can stay awake long enough to make it back there?" Koyu didn’t want to have to drag an unconscious Teddy through the capitol and wasn’t sure if he could manage finding a cab to take them back to the Koneko. It was pure bedlam in the palace; no doubt the city would reflect that as well.

Teddy somehow managed to straighten himself and take a couple steady steps forward. "Yeah, now that the pain’s gone, I don’t feel so bad." He glanced aside at Koyu. "Beside, I need to keep an eye on you." He grinned rather silly at Koyu, who could only look back at him in confusion. "’Sweetie’ my ass, you’re taken, you know." Teddy hmphed and immediately stumbled, causing Koyu to catch the man and help him back to his feet.

Deciding that he should check up on his Guildmaster before leaving, Koyu dragged his lover over to the older Harper. "Master Daithi, I’ll be leaving if it’s all right with you."

The older man quickly waved at the two Ministers, one Guard and two other Harpers around him. "If you’ll excuse me, I’ll be right back." He stepped forward and clasped a hand around Koyu’s left elbow.

"The two of you look as exhausted as I feel, and I bet you were planning on walking back home. I’ll escort you outside and order my driver to deliver you to the Koneko." When Koyu opened his mouth to protest the Guildmaster shook his head. "No, no, it’s the least the two of you deserve. After all, you did help me make it out of that room alive and were injured in the process." He then squinted at Teddy and asked how he was.

"He’s in some pain, but a Healer looked at him and recommended that we go home and rest." Koyu prayed to the gods that his lover would just keep his mouth shut and not ruin his story for him. Luckily, it looked like the drugs were rendering the longhaired man oblivious to everything around him.

"If he needs anything, or you as well, Koyu, do not hesitate to let me know. I can’t possibly thank you enough." The man fell silent, and not a word was said for several minutes. Once they were in a relatively empty hallway, the Guildmaster suddenly cleared his throat.

"I imagine that you haven’t been paying much attention to what is going on, due to your concern for your lover, but there are some interesting stories going about."

Koyu, highly conscious of the fact that many of those rumors had to deal with friends of his, looked at his Master, hoping that the worry he felt didn’t show on his face.

"What rumors would those be?"

Guildmaster Daithi smiled at him. "Oh, that several wizards fought on the side of the Guards, and that they had charmed some Guards with magical gifts and weapons to help them fight the traitors. Interestingly enough, not one word is being said about bounds. Not even the Guards who were present for the fight are saying anything, or the Royal Wizard or Spymaster, who were there also. It’s as if they don’t want anyone to know what really happened inside that room. And of course everyone who was there is too shaken up to argue against them. I spoke to a few witnesses, and even they are buying the story. A story I’ve been asked to spread." The older man’s face twisted in bitterness, and he wiped his free hand against his soiled gold and red robe.

Not knowing what he should say, Koyu grunted softly and turned his head to look at Teddy. "Maybe they were Guards."

"Oh, one of them was, and I don’t think enchanted weapons made him rip out several soldiers’ throats with his teeth. Don’t lie to me, Koyu, you know they were bounds. I’m willing to bet that you also know what one of them was, the one in black with the young boy by his side. Do I need to say the word?"

"I…." Koyu wanted to deny what his Master was insinuating, but the look in the man’s blue eyes stilled his tongue. But he couldn’t let someone with so much power and influence know about Aya. "I’m not sure I know what you’re saying."

"He’s talking about Aya," Teddy slurred, and Koyu wanted to kill the Healer apprentice who had so thoroughly dosed his lover. And smack Teddy for that slip. At those words the Guildmaster’s eyes narrowed in victory.

"I thought you might know who I was talking about, considering how that black band around your wrist came to life and attacked the mercenary." Daithi nodded his head, and Koyu cursed the fact that the older Harper had been so observant, even during a pitched battle.

He didn’t say another word, and soon they were standing outside the palace waiting for the Guildmaster’s carriage to arrive. Teddy was leaning heavily against Koyu at the moment, and he wondered if it was more than drugs that made the man utter that slip back there and appear so out of it. The woman had warned him that Teddy needed rest. He hugged his boyfriend close and glanced back at the Guildmaster. Koyu had no clue whether Aya, Yohji, or the others had managed to escape from the battle, or if they had survived the oni. But if they had, they didn’t need another danger poised to strike at them.

"What are you thinking, sir?"

"Hmm, me?" The Guildmaster guilessly blinked his eyes. "I think a song about bounds and… your friend saving the king would be much more stirring than a story about a bunch of magicked Guards. But I must do as I’m bid and spout drivel." Then the man became serious. "I’m also thinking that your time on the road is to come to an end. Call it sentimentality, or thanks for saving my life, but you are now free to remain at your lover’s inn and tend to him. I hope he isn’t left blind from that wound."

Koyu could only stare at the older Harper. He was not even three years into his mandatory seven years on the road, and even then hadn’t much hope of being assigned to the Koneko when he was done traveling. Yet here the one thing he wanted the most was being handed to him.

"Why?"

"It’s like I said, a bit of gratitude for your help, and guilt over your lover being wounded defending me." Daithi looked him straight in the eye. "That’s the official story, at least, and we all know how necessary the things are. But if there happened to be someone at the Koneko that… was a bit special, I can think of nothing better than a Harper being there to record the true events as well. I feel that the truth will be a long time in coming to light, but that doesn’t mean it should be ignored. Do your job, Harper Koyu, that is the price of this gift. And you’ll probably be stuck with some training duties and so forth, so people don’t think I’m being too nice." He winked at Koyu. "I’ll probably run you so ragged with errands for me that no one will envy you, and you’ll probably wish to be back on the road."

"Sir… I don’t know what to say."

"Hmph, not a good thing, Harper. We should always be quick with a snappy comeback, it’s expected of us." Guildmaster Daithi winked again as the carriage pulled up beside them. "Now go home and get some rest. I wish it was me, so do a little sleeping for the both of us."

Still at a loss for words, Koyu could only bow deeply to his Master and helped Teddy into the carriage. He’d have to think carefully of what happened tonight, and warn Aya and Yohji that someone knew the redhead’s secret, but Koyu was too tired to worry about the situation at the moment. Guildmaster Daithi was a good man, and Koyu couldn’t see him holding the truth against Aya or anyone at the Koneko. It was even possible that they had gained an ally of sorts tonight. As a Harper, Koyu could understand the Guildmaster’s decision. They were the chroniclers of legend, and kage were creatures of legend. Of course the man would want someone to be there to witness history first hand, especially after Aya had so ably proved tonight that he would live up to form.

*******

Botan rubbed his eyes for a moment then picked up the mug that Birman had set beside him. He gratefully swallowed the stimulant while Kikyou rattled off his list to the king.

"I’ve got Guards stationed at every exit, and they aren’t to allow anyone to leave without a thorough search and questioning, and are recording the names of those allowed to depart. Over a dozen more healers should be arriving within the hour, and we’re slowly clearing the wounded from the grand foyer. Eimin’s priests should be here soon to take care of the dead."

The longhaired man’s speech came to a halt, and Botan knew that Kikyou had to be tired from all the running around he’d done the past few hours. But he didn’t feel any sympathy for the new Captain and his baptism by fire. Not when he felt completely exhausted and drained from the fighting and the horror he’d seen that evening.

"Thank you, Kikyou."

Kikyou bowed low to the king. "If you’ll excuse me, Sire, there are matters I must attend to." As soon as he received permission from the king, Kikyou quickly left the room.

King Shuuichi watched him go and sighed as he settled himself against the back of his chair. Manx, who was seated beside him, her wedding finery exchanged for a plain blue robe, tenderly squeezed her new husband’s hand. Botan sipped the last of his beverage and waited for what came next.

"So, it looks as if I still retain the throne."

"For now," Birman quietly commented. Manx looked over at her associate and glared, but Shuuichi sighed again and nodded his head in understanding.

"You said you recognized private guards from several highborn families among the mercenaries, Birman. Are you sure?"

The Spymaster inclined her head a few centimeters then quickly raised it up to stare into the king’s eyes. "Yes, I am. I can give you their names, if you so like. I’m sure many of the Guards will recognize them as they help the priests move the bodies." Botan grimaced at the thought of all the dead left in the ballroom, and the gruesome task the priests and Guards had in store for them.

Shuuichi didn’t ask for the family names, probably to save him from hearing which nobles had sought to betray him. With his brother and brother-in-law both conspiring to kill him, the king probably had all the betrayal he could stand for a moment. Botan’s thoughts proved accurate when Shuuichi spoke in a tired voice.

"I know Reiji bore me no love, not after I ascended the throne instead of him, but never would I have thought that Hajime would turn on me like that. What was he hoping to gain, other than the throne?"

Manx leaned forward and hugged him. "Shuuichi, don’t do this to yourself. Don’t try to rationalize why he chose to betray you."

Not one to allow an opportunity to pass him by, nor willing to watch Manx comfort Shuuichi over a situation that she should have been aware of if she’d been doing her job properly and not planning a wedding, Botan set his mug down on the table by his chair with a solid thud.

"But he did betray the king, Manx, and Reiji and his sons as well. There was a conspiracy of grand proportion being planned the last two months, and if not for the bounds that fought here tonight, it would have been successful. Shuuichi would be dead, and you too, and Kritiker torn apart while Reiji and Hajime battled for the throne."

Ignoring Manx’s hiss of anger, Botan gazed steadily at his king. "You owe them a great debt, sire. They risked their lives for you and yours, and they didn’t have to. Hidaka is now a bound, and several of his friends are exposed for what they are, when the safest thing is for them is anonymity. Are you going to honor the promise you made back in the ballroom and let them safely go?"

Shuuichi appeared insulted that Botan doubted his word, but he didn’t care in the slightest. He was dealing with a human here, not a bound who would have no choice but honor his or her promise. There was no way Botan was going to let a simple thing such as offending his king get in the way of making sure that Schuldig, Yohji and Aya were indeed safe.

Glaring at him for a moment, the king wearily nodded his head. "I won’t go back on my word, though the thought of a kage unsupervised in my city will give me nightmares for some time to come." He bent his head and rubbed at the spots on his temples that his formal crown usually rested on. "I can’t believe that bounds came to my rescue when my own family turned on me. This feels like some type of bad dream."

Furious at that comment, Botan was beaten to saying something by Birman. "They did come to your rescue, Sire, and that can’t be forgotten. I’d much rather have Aya running around on the loose than a good many of your Ministers and nobles in your Court. One thing I hope you’ve learned from tonight is not to take things at face value so much."

It was a slight reprimand, but still, a daring one when given to a king. But Birman didn’t look apologetic in the least. Botan knew she had to be enjoying this; her chance to ever so slightly rub in the king’s and Manx’s faces what their ignorance had failed to realize. She dealt with the two and Shuuichi’s Court much more than Botan did and had been handicapped by Shuuichi’s refusal to see what exactly was happening around him and Manx’s utter loyalty to the king for the past couple years.

"Maybe things wouldn’t have happened tonight if you’d done your job and informed us of the conspiracies against the throne," Manx spat out at the Spymaster.

"Maybe you should have had a clue yourself of what was going on, Manx dear." Birman deliberately left out the redhead’s new title. "I’ve had my suspicions of something being wrong for months, but you didn’t want to hear about it unless I had solid proof. When I did finally receive the proof I needed, it came from bounds. I didn’t want to jeopardize them by bringing them before the throne, or risk you doubting what they had to say because of what they are, and in return alerting the conspirators. And while I may be the Spymaster, you were the Captain, and it was just as much your job to protect the king as mine!"

Manx looked ready to snipe back at Birman, but Shuuichi patted her on the hand and prevented that. He leaned forward in his chair, and for a moment looked every inch the king he was. His face was stern and his demeanor focused.

"The past few hours have been spent trying to get things under control, and now that we finally manage that, we start fighting amongst ourselves. I won’t have this right now, not in a time of crisis." Both women stopped glaring at each other and looked at their king. "Now, I’m sick of hearing only part of the story. Botan and Birman, I want to hear the tale in its entirety while I have the time to do so. I want answers."

Taking a deep breath, Botan exchanged a quick glance with Birman and decided to be the one to start recounting the events that led up to this evening. As he opened his mouth he spared a brief thought to Cassandra and his daughter. For both of their sakes, and for their kind as well, he had to make the king understand just how much was owed to the bounds, and how important that magical race would be to Kritiker’s future.

*******

Yuushi shuffled over to his bed as he pulled off his torn and stained uniform. He didn’t think it would be worth the effort to try and mend and clean it, so he crumpled it into a ball and tossed it into the trash. He’d helped save the king tonight, the least he should get out of that was a new uniform. A brief stop at the washbasin helped to clean him off enough so he’d be decent enough to sleep and sank down on the bed. Just as he was in the process of pulling up his sheets there was a knock on his bedroom door.

Jumping out of bed, Yuushi hurried over to the door. He’d locked the apartment door behind him, so no one should be able to get into his quarters like this, other than Naru and Reiichi. The latter was in the infirmary, and the former would never bother with knocking.

"Who is it?"

"Birman. I’m coming in." As the knob turned, Yuushi cursed and darted over to his closet, where his robe was hanging up. He was barely decent before the Spymaster entered his bedroom. Birman was dressed in plain, clean black pants and a blue shirt, and she held a steaming mug in her hand.

"Here, drink this."

Yuushi responded to the order automatically, and before he knew it he was drinking down a very hot, very bitter beverage. Just barely avoiding scalding his tongue, he quickly gulped down the drink.

"What was that, poison?"

Birman smiled at him as she sat down in the room’s only chair. "No, a stimulant. I wanted to talk to you while your wits were about you, and thought that might help. You won’t be able to sleep for the next twelve or sixteen hours, and then you’ll fall down where you’re standing when it wears off."

He’d heard about a stimulant that potent and knew that it wasn’t casually handed out. While Yuushi would have appreciated knowing that he’d now be unable to sleep until tomorrow afternoon, he knew he’d be able to occupy himself during that time and had many things to take care of. Besides, he deserved it for being stupid enough to just drink what was given to him.

Judging from how bright-eyed the woman was, Yuushi would guess that Birman had had a mug or two herself. "Why are you here?"

"Ah, I see it’s working already." Birman smiled at him. "I’ve come to hear your side of the story, of why you and the Guards knew about the battle and said nothing, and to help you decide your future."

Ah, now was the time he and the others would pay for their decision to handle the matter themselves. Yuushi just wished that he’d be able to have the blame rest mainly on his shoulders.

"Firstly, tell me how Reiichi is doing, if you know."

Frowning, Birman started to pick at the frayed fabric on the chair’s arm. "I do know, and I don’t take orders from you." She glared at him for a moment. "But I understand that you are worried about your friend. He’s recovering… but the Healers doubt he’ll be able to return to the Guards. He was hamstrung by an oni, and lost a chunk of his leg as well, and will limp for the rest of his life. There is no way he can resume active duty, unless the leg heals better than they think it will."

Which wasn’t very likely. Yuushi closed his eyes as he thought of how hard Reiichi would take the news. He was in his mid thirties and should have been able to look forward to at least another decade of service before becoming inactive.

"Thank you." Yuushi looked at Birman. "One more thing: why are you here and not Kikyou? He’s my Captain."

Clapping her hands quietly, the dark-haired woman was smiling once again. "Good. You are a quick one. There is a very good reason why I’m talking to you and not him, but I’ll tell my story after you tell yours."

Sighing, Yuushi knew he’d have to do as he was bid if he wanted any answers. So he sat down on his bed and told about how Yoru had contacted him, and the conclusion he and his roommates had come to.

"When we found out that Lord Eto was involved and kept him under surveillance for a few days, we were afraid that if we stepped forward with our story we would actually be talking to one of his sympathizers. So we decided it would be best if we, the Guards, handled the matter. We only involved the people we trusted. Once we had the numbers we needed for the fight, we worked hard on keeping everything a secret. It was easy getting access to the weapons, and since I helped Kikyou put together the duty roster for today, I made sure that only the Guards that I could trust were assigned to the ballroom."

"I see." Birman fell quiet for a moment. "I’d like a list of everyone you saw Eto talking to. We know he had his supporters and have found personal guards from the Cheung, Lee and Tory families among the mercenaries, and we have placed Minister Esperenza under arrest as he tried to flee the palace with some incriminating documents. But I’m sure we won’t find everyone involved without your help."

Nodding his head, Yuushi promised to supply that list. "Reiichi has it written down, I’ll fetch it in a few minutes." He resisted the urge to let his hands play with the belt on his robe. "Are we going to be punished?"

An elegant eyebrow was raised at that question. "Do you think you should be?"

"We did go behind the king’s back and failed to notify our Captain. Maybe more lives would have been spared if I had stepped forth."

"Or more might have been lost, as you said." Birman fell quiet for a moment. "I have it on rather good authority that the battle played out in the way best guaranteed to ensure that the king survived. If it had gone any differently…." She shook her head. "Maybe the oni would have been released too soon, if Yoru’s plan had been discovered. Maybe they would have fallen back onto an assassination in the dark. As bad as today was, over all it went surprisingly well. The traitors were killed, and the oni destroyed before they could escape."

Yuushi shivered at the mention of demons. He knew he’d have nightmares for weeks to come about the bloodshed that had ensued when they’d been released.

"So we won’t be punished?"

"No. We’ll have to put our spin on things and make sure that people don’t find out that you were acting on your own, but you helped save the king and his family, and you won’t be punished for that." Birman looked at him steadily for several heartbeats, as if she was waiting for more from him.

"We wouldn’t have been successful if it hadn’t been for the bounds. They were the ones that had swung the odds in our favor, especially against the demons. What’s to happen with them?"

Birman tapped her fingers on the arms of the chair. "For right now, they’re sleeping, and tomorrow they will be allowed to return home. Several of them will be leaving the capitol, but a few will remain here. One of them will be Hidaka."

Yuushi shivered as he recalled the sight of Ken Hidaka running around the ballroom, ripping out soldiers’ throats with his teeth, and slicing into them with the ferocious claws that he’d suddenly sported.

"Was he always a bound?"

"No." Birman shook her head. "I won’t go into the details now, but… he helped Botan out with a spell that enabled the kage to fight on our side, and paid a bitter price for that help. He was made into a bound this evening." Brown eyes stared intently at him. "He made a great sacrifice for the king. Will you and the other Guards who know what he’s become, turn him aside?"

He thought hard about that matter for a few minutes. "I… I, personally, won’t. Same with many of the others, once I explain what happened. Hidaka is thought well of. But I can’t promise that they’ll be comfortable around him." He’d need a new partner, now that Liss was dead. Yuushi felt a stab of pain as he thought of the dead woman, and many other of his friends who fell.

"It’s hard to believe that Kudoh is a bound, too. Don’t tell me he just became one tonight."

There was another shake, and a smile tugged at Birman’s lips. "No, he’s been one all his life, although it seems he just found that out a short while ago. He’s what I want to talk to you about." Her gaze became serious. "Kudoh and Aya, the kage, are sworn to me. They will work for the Crown in whatever capacity I need them to. I can think of a lot of uses for a succubae-bound and a kage.

"The thing is, after witnessing the battle tonight, I don’t want them to be the only bounds working for the Crown. You yourself admitted that they were what won the battle for us."

Yuushi nodded, trying to adjust to the fact that there was a kage in the palace, and one sworn to protect the king at that. "Yeah, they did. What are you going after, Spymaster?"

Rising to her feet, Birman tugged at her blue tunic. "This is my proposition, Honjyou. I know that you were cheated out of the Captain’s position, yet you still honored your vow to the Guards. I need a man who is a good leader and, above all, honest, to head a division that will fall under my jurisdiction and not Kikyou’s. He’s not to know about this, as is anyone not involved with this new division. The only other people who will know will be the king, his queen and son, and the Royal Wizard."

"What is this division to do," Yuushi asked suspiciously.

"It will be the Shadow Guard. A unit within the Guards created to work with bounds and to handle important matters of the Crown." Birman ran a hand through her hair, for a moment looking incredibly tired and young. Then her normally proficient façade covered her features. "I can’t say much more than this to you, unless you decide to join, but there will be a war coming soon, within the next few years - a war that will involve bounds."

"Esset."

Birman nodded at the word. "Yes, Esset. While we persecute and kill bounds, they round them up and form them into an army. If Kritiker is to survive, we need to build an army of our own. The Shadow Guard will help in that, will deal with any and all bounds, and will be required to work alongside them, starting with Yohji and Aya. The division will need to be made of trustworthy, tolerant Guards, and must remain a secret. Are you interested?"

Yuushi knew he should seriously think about the matter, especially since a kage was involved, but he found himself nodding his head and replying ‘yes’ in an instant. He’d be risking his life and wouldn’t receive much in the way of glory because of the secrecy involved, but he’d be doing what he’d joined the Guards to do. He’d be making a difference and saving more lives than he could as a normal Guard.

"One thing though, I don’t want to be involved with politics. I won’t have anything I’m in charge of become tainted with them."

Birman seemed taken back at his tone for a second, and then she gazed at him appraisingly. "First off, I’ll be in charge, not you. But you’ll only have to answer to the king and me. Secondly… I think I can safely promise that politics will have nothing to do with the Shadow Guards." She made a bitter face for a moment. "You will be protected from them by the fact that the Court will never know you exist. You will pretend to work for Kikyou, and so will anyone who is involved with the new division, but I’ll see to it that you are given some room to move and won’t fall under scrutiny."

"Fine." Yuushi then smiled. "I’ll want Naru and Reiichi with me. They’re the Guards I trust the most. Besides them, I’ll pick the most tolerant of the ones who stood by me today."

"A good idea, but Reiichi can’t return to active duty."

Yuushi’s excitement dimmed upon being reminded of that fact. He scratched at his head, trying to figure out how to include his best friend in his new assignment. After a few seconds, Birman cleared her throat.

"If I may suggest?" When Yuushi nodded, she continued. "The king is not entirely happy with the idea of a kage remaining outside his supervision. It’s not that he doesn’t trust Aya, but that if anyone finds out that a kage is alive, there will be panic and conspiracy to make the kage a tool to be used. So, Aya will return to the Koneko, and I wouldn’t want to be the person to step in his way."

Yuushi shivered as he remembered the kage tearing the oni apart. "So?"

"Reiichi will be retired from the Guards, but welcome to help train recruits if he wants to." Birman looked around Yuushi’s bedroom. "It would be understandable that, after having his career cut short, he wouldn’t want to remain here at the palace. It would be equally understandable that as his best friends, Naru and you would want to remain by his side and help him through the difficult adjustment of being crippled."

"Ah, and where would we live?" Yuushi thought he knew where the Spymaster was going with this; he just wanted to see if she’d come out and say it. One thing was for sure; he imagined that a certain blond, former Guard was in for a rude surprise the next time he spoke with Birman.

"Why, the Koneko of course." She laughed for a moment. "Kudoh will have a fit when he finds out, but he won’t have a choice in the matter. He’ll have his orders, and the main thing is to make sure that Aya is protected at all times." Birman’s mirth faded away. "I don’t want to think what will happen if Esset finds out about him. You’re to protect Kudoh also, but he won’t know that. He’ll agree with the living arrangements if he thinks Aya will be kept safe. And the best way to do that is to make sure that Aya’s mate is not used against him by Kritiker’s enemies."

"We will do our best to protect both of them." Never in all his days has Yuushi ever thought to be babysitting a kage, or Kudoh for that matter. This had to be the weirdest day in his life, and he had the sinking feeling that that record wouldn’t last for long.

"Good." Birman walked over to the bed and grabbed Yuushi’s hand, pumping it up and down for a moment. "Welcome to the Shadow Guard, Honjyou. Monday morning I want you in my office so we can lay the groundwork for your new unit, and I want a list of names of the candidates. You’re to move into the Koneko by no later than Tuesday. Now I want that list of names of conspirators, and you need to make sure that all of your Guards know not to say a word about the battle tonight that hasn’t been approved by Manx or me, and to make no mention of there being bounds or a kage here in the palace tonight."

Rising to his feet, Yuushi nodded his head. Thinking of all he had to do before Monday morning, he wondered if he’d possibly get it done before the stimulant wore off.

*******

<Schuldig, wake up.>

Mumbling, Schuldig pressed against Masato, snaking his arm around his mate’s waist as he snuggled closer. Masato purred softly and hugged him tightly.

<Schuldig, I need you to wake up now. Get up.>

"Stop bothering me, you asshole."

"Who are you talking to, love?" Masato lifted his head from the pillow, his eyes bleary and his voice thick. Schuldig groaned as he was shifted about and forced to wake up.

"I’m talking to an asshole who’s going to regret waking me up." <I’ll get you for this, Crawford. What the hell do you want?>

<There are things that need to be done, Schuldig. In another couple hours the king will be here to talk to us, and we need to be prepared. Also, Ken will be waking up soon, and he’ll be eager to hear about his girlfriend. Check out her condition and report it to Jei. Let me know if he’s still affected by last night. And in another two hours, make sure that Yohji and Aya are up. I want everyone to be coherent for the discussion.> There was an annoying sense that Crawford was wide awake and eager to start the day, despite all the fighting yesterday. Schuldig wanted to strangle his father. He could easily hide the body among the ones from the ballroom.

<Crawford, get this through your head right now. I may have to go off to Esset with you, but I’m not your lackey. Never for a single moment think that. I’ll do what I have to do to get the job done, but if you think you can order me around, you’ll be sorely mistaken. I’ll make your life a living hell.>

<Whatever, Schuldig. Just do what I told you, which truly needs to be done. Gods, you really do take after your mother.> With that, Crawford severed the mental link and went back to whatever it was he’d been doing before bothering Schuldig. Which was probably shining his shoes or something anal like that.

Schuldig groaned as he forced himself to sit upright, and Masato immediately wrapped his arms around him and had him rest against his chest. His mate was so nice and warm, and the air still carried a faint hint of the sex they’d had last night. Schuldig felt Masato’s morning erection brush against his behind, and he sent an image to the older man of Schuldig deepthroating the large cock.

"Gods, Schu, don’t do that," Masato growled as he tilted Schuldig’s head backwards, exposing his neck. "I’m having a difficult time right now not tossing you down on the bed and fucking you silly."

He could feel his mate’s hunger and knew that the feeding from last night hadn’t been enough for either of them, due to their exhaustion. If anything, the sex had little to do with their appetites and more with assuring themselves that they were alive and still together. But both of their natures were clamoring to be sated, Masato needing Schuldig’s energy and he, the older man’s emotions. For a second Schuldig spared a thought over how well the two of them matched up.

Then he was turning around in Masato’s arms and gracing his lover with a lascivious grin. "What a wonderful idea. I just got my instructions for the day, and I need a little energy to get the job done. How about you?"

Masato grinned back and cupped Schuldig’s ass with his hands, spreading open his cheeks and teasing his fingers along the exposed crack. "Oh, I definitely think a little meal is in order." He leaned down and thoroughly kissed Schuldig for a long minute or two.

"Yeah, definitely a good idea, brat."

Smarting a little over the nickname he’d been saddled with, and starting to squirm from the attention from Masato’s fingers, Schuldig growled low in his throat as he resolved to have Masato squirming under him. It was time to teach the old man a lesson in manners.

*******

Looking down at the sleeping Guard, Jei scrubbed a hand over his short hair and took a deep breath. Hidaka’s scent was altered now, due to his new nature. The man was definitely a bound. But he didn’t ‘feel’ that strongly to Jei’s senses. The gaki part of his soul whispered to him to roll Hidaka onto his back and to take the man’s throat between his teeth until Hidaka acknowledged him as the stronger bound. Jei even found himself leaning down before he could stop himself.

Having traveled so much with Crawford and spent the past couple months with Nagi, Schuldig, Aya and Yohji, who were very powerful bounds, Jei had forgotten what it was like to be with a weaker bound, especially a weaker flesh-gaki bound. Though Hidaka wasn’t all that weak, he just wasn’t almost all demon like the rest of their group were. Add to that to how new the man was to his demon nature, and Jei just wanted to smack him around some until Hidaka knew his place.

Thankfully, it was easy to control the urge due to the amount of feeding he’d done yesterday. By all means he should be sleeping for the next few days as he digested the meal, but Jei knew he was in a bit of a dangerous situation here, and that his survival required him to be awake and aware. So he’d pushed past the lethargy when Schuldig had contacted him a short while ago, and now that he had showered and changed into the outfit the page had left him, Jei was ready to get this ordeal over with. He reached out a hand and roughly shook Hidaka awake.

The Guard instantly reacted to the stimulus, rising up from the bed as he snarled and bared his teeth. Using his greater strength to his advantage, Jei easily lifted Hidaka from the bed and slammed him against the wall with enough force to crack the plaster. As Hidaka dazedly growled at him, Jei exposed his fangs and snarled viciously.

The sound had the desired effect on the man, and Hidaka stopped growling and even whined for a second. His lips quickly covered his teeth, and his claws became sheathed.

"Hidaka, snap out of it and wake up."

"Jei?"

Nodding his head, Jei warily released the new bound. Hidaka slid down to his bed, his body shivering and his eyes focusing on his hands. His claws slid out a couple inches, and Jei did nothing. He knew the man needed a moment to collect his thoughts, and the claws hadn’t been unsheathed to be used as weapons.

"It wasn’t a dream, you really are a bound now." He spoke the words with a gentleness that was usually beyond him, but this was a new bound he was dealing with, a youngster unsure of himself and in pain. Jei’s bound instincts now told him to proceed gently.

Hidaka stared at him, his eyes wide, and for a moment it looked as if the Guard was going to argue with him. He then looked down at his hands, flexing his fingers until his claws completely unsheathed.

"What the hell am I?"

"A flesh gaki-bound. It seems the demon’s soul fused with yours due to the wizards’ interference." For a second Jei almost growled, but he stopped in time. Hidaka might think he was growling at him, not at the thought of the foul magic users.

Staring down at his hands for another moment, Hidaka then looked up at Jei, disgust plain on his face. "I was eating people last night and drinking their blood. I ripped out their throats with my own teeth."

"Whose else would you use?" Okay, the man wasn’t able to respond well to humor. Jei sighed and scratched his head. What the hell did Crawford think he could do in this situation? Jei had always been a bound, had always suffered an unnatural, for a human, appetite and didn’t have a problem with what he was. Unlike Hidaka.

"Right, listen to me for a moment. You’re a flesh gaki-bound now, and that means you’re gonna have to forget a lot of stupid human taboos. You’re not human anymore, and you’d best deal with that fact real quick." When Hidaka looked about to speak, Jei bared his fangs and made the man remain quiet. "You’re going to crave blood and flesh, preferably human blood and flesh. But animals’ will do. Mainly you can live on the blood, which will probably be a bit easier for you to handle.

"You’re stronger now, much, much stronger than before. Be careful about that until you realize your new strength. Your senses are much sharper, and it’ll take some time until you’re used to them and what they’re telling you. Learn to trust them, they’ll never lead you wrong. Be careful about exposing your new teeth, they don’t retract like the claws do. And be careful with the claws as well, they’re sharper than metal knives even if they are natural." Jei shrugged his shoulders. "Or as natural as we can be." That was it, all the advice that he could think of at the moment. The main thing was to keep Hidaka calm, to not treat him like a freak, and if it looked as if the man’s appetite was getting out of control, to shove the cow’s blood that was in a leather flask on the table down his throat.

"There should be some food arriving soon, I sent a page to fetch it before I woke you up. You’re gonna need to eat a lot more now, and if you keep yourself full with normal food, the hunger pangs for blood and flesh are easier to manage. But you will need to eat as a gaki a couple times a moon."

Hidaka remained quiet, distressingly so, so Jei cleared his throat. "Anything you want to ask me? I’m not going to be around much longer, so now’s your chance."

"How is Yuriko? Have you heard anything about her?"

Gods, the man had it bad for his lover. Not happy about causing another bound pain, Jei tried to smile as sympathetically as he could with a mouth full of sharp teeth.

"Yeah, Schu checked up on her for you." He paused for a moment, and Hidaka noticed that, his face going pale.

"Is she dead?"

"Nah, she’s alive." Jei sighed and played with one of his knives. "She wasn’t that badly wounded, and the Healers have been taking good care of her. But… I’m sorry to say this, but she doesn’t want to see you. She asked that you stay away from her. It’s probably the shock talking." The shock of seeing the man she loved turning into a demon before her eyes.

Jei wanted to tell the grief-stricken man that maybe it would be for the best of he broke things off with his human lover, that it wasn’t wise to try and keep a relationship going with someone who was afraid of his true nature. Not every bound could be as lucky as Nagi had been in finding Omi, even if his lover had turned out to be a filthy wizard. And then there was the fact that humans tended to die so quickly. A few decades and poof, they were gone. But he didn’t think that Hidaka would appreciate the advice at the moment. No matter how little credit Crawford gave him, he wasn’t totally inept at thinking of other’s feelings.

Hidaka moaned and buried his face in his hands. "She hates me, I know she does. Why wouldn’t she, I’m a fucking freak now. A monster."

Jei snarled and jerked Hidaka’s head up by his hair. "Listen to me, we may not be human, but we’re not monsters or freaks. We didn’t ask to be bounds, some damn wizards decided to fuck with things and we’re stuck paying the price. Yeah, humans might be afraid of us and think that way about us, but they’re ignorant fools. Keep up that attitude, and bounds will want nothing to do with you. It’s hard enough for our kind to survive without someone throwing themselves a perpetual pity party."

"What the hell am I supposed to do, Jei? My lover is afraid of me now, and there had to be Guards who noticed what the hell happened to me. What am I, if everyone I know and care about turns away from me?"

Jei reminded himself to swallow his anger and be patient with the idiot. It wasn’t Hidaka’s fault what happened, and he owed it to Liss to look after her partner. For a moment he felt a stab of pain as he thought of the dead Guard. She might have only been a good fuckbuddy, but he missed her attitude and lovely body. Too bad she wasn’t here at the moment. Liss would have no problem smacking some sense into Hidaka’s head.

"You have friends, Hidaka. They might be monsters like you, but you have Yohji and Aya. You also have Omi; if he can handle having a lover who’s a bound, a friend should be no problem for him. Then there’s Botan and Birman, too, not to mention the staff at the Koneko. You have more supporters than many other bounds do."

Hidaka slowly nodded his head. He rubbed his nose with the back of his hand then looked up at Jei. "I guess. So, what do I need to know about my new nature? I’m assuming that it can’t be reversed."

"No, you’ll die if you try to separate your two souls. You’re a bound now, until the day you die." Jei stared at the younger man, making sure that Hidaka lost any silly hope that he had that his condition might be reversed. It surprised him when he felt a pang of hurt as the faint hope died in Hidaka’s eyes. Then he sat down on his bed, deciding to resume the lesson before the page arrived with food. He didn’t have much time to spend with Hidaka before he had to return to Esset.

*******

Yohji groaned when he heard the knock on the door. Curled up at his side, Aya mewled softly and sat up, rubbing his eyes as he did. For a moment Yohji could only watch as the sheet slid down Aya’s upper body, slowly revealing his lover to him. His hunger started to faintly stir to life.

"It’s the page again," Aya mumbled.

Leaning forward, Yohji kissed the redhead, savoring Aya’s taste. But since the knocking on the door didn’t stop, he sighed and pulled back within a minute.

"You mean Shin?"

Aya nodded and pulled the sheet back up while he stacked the pillows behind him. Yohji quickly tugged on an eartail as he rose from the bed, taking a moment to smile at Aya’s indignant hiss while he fetched a robe to wear. Now suitably attired, he went to the door.

Shin was standing there in an impeccably pressed uniform, about to kick the door again since his hands were full with a tray filled with food and pot of coffee. Yohji smiled down at the boy as he waved him inside.

"Ah, it looks like you brought enough food for both of us. Thanks, Shin."

The boy blushed, his whole face going red as he stammered and hurried into the room. His rosy coloring became brighter when he caught sight of Aya, still naked, sitting up in the bed. Yohji had to resist chuckling as he slid around the boy and joined his mate.

"Ah, I brought some breakfast for you. Well, lunch, really, considering the time. I’m sorry to disturb you, but your friends asked that I wake you up. Is there anything you need? Another bath? Or more food?" Shin actually hovered beside the bed; his eyes fixed on Yohji as he rung his hands.

Picking up the pot of coffee, Yohji poured himself some. "A pot of tea would be nice, the same stuff you brought last night."

"Yes sir. I’ll be back shortly." The page bowed and then hurried out the door, and when it closed Yohji felt it safe to chuckle. Ah, to be that young again. Then he let out a yelp and almost spilled his coffee when Aya bit him on the shoulder.

"What the hell was that for?"

Aya bared his teeth at him but didn’t answer as he reached over Yohji for the plate of croissants. Yohji sipped his coffee and rubbed his maltreated shoulder, but he soon figured out the emotion pouring off his mate. He wisely set the mug down before he started to crow.

"You’re jealous! I can’t believe you’re actually jealous of a fourteen year old boy." When Aya started to growl Yohji snatched the pastry out of his mate’s hand and tossed it back on the tray, then swooped in and kissed Aya breathless. He got his tongue nipped for his troubles, but Aya was soon passionately kissing him back. Reminding himself that said fourteen year old would soon be returning and probably not knocking now that he knew they were awake, Yohji reluctantly pulled away.

"You know I love you. I think I can safely say that I’m not interested in the kid in the slightest when I’ve got you for my mate."

Aya hissed for a second then reached for his half eaten croissant. "You better not be, Kudoh, or you’ll be dead. And stop teasing the boy."

"How exactly am I teasing him, hmm?" Aya didn’t answer, no surprise there. So Yohji merely smiled and poured himself some more coffee, only to have his mate snatch the cup from him and take a sip, making a face as he handed it back to him. The younger man looked so adorable, naked and his hair all disheveled, and if they’d been back at the Koneko, Yohji would make sure that Aya didn’t get out of bed the whole damn day. But they weren’t, and he vaguely remembered the king and Crawford talking about a discussion after everyone got some rest, so he controlled his baser impulses. It could wait til later, and he was still full from the energy he’d taken from Aya last night.

<Hey, Schu, are you up?>

<Yes, and not in the fun way that question could be interpreted.> Yohji inwardly groaned at that remark, causing Schuldig to laugh. <What do you want, Yotan?>

<What’s going to happen today?> He grabbed another croissant and broke off a piece and held it out to Aya. His lover gratefully accepted the morsel, curling up against him as he chewed on something other than Yohji’s damn shoulder, for once.

<Some important talk with the king in about… another half hour. You need to be presentable for that. Sorry for siccing the kid on you, but Crawford wanted you awake and able for that talk. I’ll see you there.>

"Well, big discussion in another half hour. You up to it, cat?" Yohji handed over the rest of the croissant.

Aya accepted the food and closed his eyes as he quickly ate it. A minute later they opened, filled with sadness and apprehension. "Not really. I just want to go home, Yohji."

A thrill ran through him at the way Aya kept calling the Koneko ‘home’. All they had to do was get through this meeting with the king, and then they could go home and be left alone, other than for Birman’s jobs. Yohji didn’t want to leave his bed for a couple days once he and Aya got into it later. They deserved some sort of break after the past couple weeks.

"Soon, love. I promise you we’ll be home soon. Now eat."

They made quick work of the meal, and Aya pretty much finished off the pot of tea by himself when Shin, blushing once again as soon as Yohji smiled at him, brought it for him. After eating all the food, they washed off and got dressed in the clothes the page had brought for them last night. Yohji’s dark blue shirt was a little tight and the sleeves short, so he had to roll them up. Aya’s black pants had to be rolled as well, because they were way too long for the redhead. They looked slightly ridiculous, but at least they were clothed in something clean and blood free. Yohji imagined that their clothes from last night had probably been burned.

Once they were ready, Shin asked them to follow him. When Yohji and Aya stepped into the hallway, they found Honjyou and another Guard, who Yohji recognized as the blond’s roommate, Naru, waiting for them.

"We’re to escort you to the king." Yuushi then spun on his heel and led the way. Yohji barely noted Shin’s sad wave goodbye as he reached for Aya’s hand and held it firmly in his. Shadows skittered along the hall’s ceiling as they followed the Guards, affected by Yohji and Aya’s unease. The Guards were probably there as an honor guard, or to make sure they weren’t harmed on the way to meet the king, but there was the possibility that they were there for a more sinister purpose. If anyone thought to harm or imprison Aya, they wouldn’t live for long.

After a few minutes, they stopped at one of the small drawing rooms the royal family used for informal gatherings. Yohji nodded to Griffin and Anya, who were stationed at the door and made sure to walk into the room first. Not seeing any Guards waiting inside, he cautiously entered the door, Aya slowly following him.

Everyone was in the room waiting for them: Nagi, Omi, Schu, Masato, Jei, Ken, Crawford, Botan, Birman and the king. Yohji and Aya walked over to an empty couch, and Yohji blinked when Naru and Honjyou sat down in some chairs opposite them.

"What’s with them?" Yohji jerked his thumb in the Guards’ direction as he asked Birman the question.

The Spymaster looked a bit worn around the edges, but was neatly dressed in a pale green gown, her dark hair caught in a bun. "They’re just doing their job, Yohji. Get used to having them near you."

"What the hell is that supposed to mean?"

"That they have been assigned to guard you and Aya. And in two days time, they and Reiichi will be moving into the Koneko permanently to be near you, so find suitable quarters for them." Birman dropped that surprise with barely any expression on her face.

Furious for being told that he was going to be babysat, and that someone other than him was planning on guarding his mate, Yohji growled at the woman. "The hell they are."

"Kudoh." Birman’s voice was pure ice, and she went from looking like a demure young woman to a stern, authoritative one. "It’s an order. Need I remind you of your oath to me?"

Wanting to break something at that moment, Yohji could only nod his head and sit back on the couch. Dammit, he hadn’t thought putting up with Honjyou and his friends would be part of the deal. Maybe he should have killed Birman that day in the office.

"Kudoh, I support Birman’s decision in this matter. I would feel better if you and… Aya are kept safe." The king spoke in a quiet voice, but it was clear he expected to be obeyed. Reminding himself that it wouldn’t be good to antagonize the man, since they were all hoping to leave the palace alive and without the Guards on their tails, Yohji stopped growling. Aya squeezed his hand for a moment, clearly just as upset about the order as he was.

"Now then, I’ve heard from Botan and Birman, and I’d like to hear from the rest of you now that you’ve gotten some sleep." King Shuuichi’s eyes traveled around the room, and Yohji noticed that they rested on Aya for several seconds. A look of nostalgia crossed the man’s face, and what looked like sorrow. Yohji just hoped the king kept thinking of Ranmura Fujimiya when he looked at Aya, instead of a kage. Aya would be safer that way.

Crawford cleared his throat, and to Yohji’s amusement, all the assembled bounds seemed more than happy to let the precog do the talking. Considering the fact that Crawford was the brains behind this whole thing, it was only fair that he got stuck with the explanation.

"Sire, as I’m sure your Spymaster has told you, my partner Jei and I are agents from Esset. However, we never really have had a choice in that matter, and we… one could say we are not the most loyal of servants." Crawford adjusted his glasses. "To be quite honest, we are turncoats. We seek to free ourselves and others of our kind and to bring down Esset’s secret rulers, the Elders."

King Shuuichi shifted forward in his chair. "I’ve heard rumors about those three, but they could never be substantiated by my spies. They really exist? And they are bounds that served Esset’s wizard?"

Nodding his head, Crawford sat up straighter in his chair. "Indeed that’s true, on both accounts. One of the reasons your spies have never managed to return to you with proof is that the Elders have gathered around them, largely by force, an army of bounds -- bounds who can sniff out a spy and alter his thoughts.

"Jei and I are taking quite a risk in revealing this information to you, Sire, and in helping you. We were ordered here to make sure that neither your brother nor your son assumed Kritiker’s throne and to take Aya back to Esset with us."

"Why do they not want Mamoru to rule Kritiker?" the king asked, his eyes shifting from Aya to Omi.

"Because there is a prophecy that your son will be Kritiker’s greatest leader." Yohji started at the words, and he could plainly see the shock on Omi’s face as he found out that one day he would assume Kritiker’s throne, let alone be a great leader. Before the shock could die down, Crawford continued.

"The Elders wanted to make sure you lived and that your brother, who would be a ruthless leader and be able to call on the aid of his son, a powerful wizard, died. They are currently building an army consisting of humans and as many bounds as they can find, and plan on attacking Kritiker in a few more years. They’d rather have you on the throne, feeling you to be the weakest leader among your family."

Yohji winced at that. Nothing like telling the ruler of a country that he sucked at his job. Gods, Crawford had more balls than he’d given the precog credit for. He just hoped that Crawford didn’t get them killed by being so blunt. Though King Shuuichi, while appearing agitated by his words, didn’t look too upset to listen to reason. He nodded his head for Crawford to continue.

"I don’t know how much Botan or Birman have told you, but the Elders are intent on resurrecting their creator, Esset’s wizard, on the millennium anniversary of his death. They have Botan’s daughter, who is a direct descendent of their creator, and plan on using her body to bring him back. They then plan on attacking Kritiker to finish the job he started centuries ago and to use Aya to destroy your army."

"I see." King Shuuichi’s eyes became unfocused for a moment as if he was deep in thought, and then he looked at Crawford. "What are you planning on doing now?"

Crawford smiled slightly and bowed his head. "I plan on returning to my masters, like the good little servant that I am, and informing them that we were successful in our mission to keep you on the throne and eliminate your brother, but that Ran Fujimiya, the kage, died before we could capture him. I plan to continue fooling the Elders and striving to see that their plans fail. But there is only so much I can do on my own. The question is what do you plan to do, now that you know of the peril your country faces. Another Binding War looms on the horizon, and at the moment you do not have many bounds willing to serve you. Can you stop the senseless prejudice your family has towards my kind in time to save Kritiker?"

His face flushed, the king’s hands clenched into fists for several seconds, his breath coming in pants. With an obvious effort of will, he calmed himself. Taking a deep breath, King Shuuichi nodded his head.

"Thank you for your warning." He glanced around the room and at the people assembled around him. "In the past day I’ve been married, faced an assassination attempt, found out that a kage lives in this day and age, and have had several misconceptions of mine thrown back in my face. I’ve discovered a threat to my country, and a weakness and injustice that my family has fostered for centuries. Pardon me if I appear… slightly overwhelmed at the moment."

He smiled slightly, though the expression didn’t contain much in the way of happiness. "I thank you all for the warning and the support. I don’t know yet all I intend to do with this information, but I’m prepared to follow the lead of my Spymaster and my Wizard. They’ve already informed me of plans of theirs that would aid both bounds and Kritiker, and I’ve given them my approval." Shuuichi tapped his fingers against his temples for a moment and then rose to his feet, his eyes widening slightly when only the Guards, Botan, Birman and Omi stood up with him.

Shaking his head, the king continued. "Your kind… take some getting used to. But I can honestly say to you that I mean no harm to bounds, especially after last night. You have my gratitude and support. Both for saving all the lives you did last night, and for this warning. I thank you from the bottom of my heart, and whatever you need, you will receive.

"But I think that it’s best if you work with Birman, Botan and my son from this point on." King Shuuichi smiled, the expression a touch bitter. "I can’t reveal what I don’t know, and I’m sure it would be best that I didn’t draw any attention to your actions by my presence. As it stands, I can’t spare much more time now, not before people start to seek me out and wonder why I’m not in some meeting or another."

The king walked to the center of the room and inclined his head. "Thank you very much for your assistance yesterday." He glanced at Aya, and Yohji couldn’t help but hug the arm he had lying across his mate’s shoulder a bit tighter. "Aya, I would appreciate it if I could speak to you sometime in the future. There is much we need to discuss, but no hurry." Shuuichi closed his eyes for a few seconds, as if in pain. "You have no idea the joy it brings me to know that part of your father still lives on. Now excuse me, I must be going." He left without saying another word.

Yohji watched him leave, bitterly thinking that for a man who was reminded so much of his dead best friend whenever he looked at Aya, the king certainly hadn’t any qualms about ordering Aya’s capture and probable death last night. He felt some disappointment over that.

"Was it my imagination, or did the king just give us carte blanche to do whatever is necessary?" There was a hint of eagerness in Crawford’s voice.

Birman smoothed her skirt and gave the bespectacled man a slight scowl. "For the most part, yes. You are to have whatever you need, as long as it doesn’t attract too much attention, and is approved by Omi, Botan or me."

"I can manage that," Crawford evenly replied. "You already know what I’ll require from our past discussions. Is everything ready for our departure this afternoon?"

As Birman nodded her head, Yohji sat up on the couch and looked over at Schuldig. "Wait a moment, you’re leaving already? Schu, are you really going with him today?" He didn’t like the thought of losing his friend so abruptly. He’d counted on a couple days to recover from last night and a party or two to celebrate before he had to say goodbye to Schuldig.

Schuldig nodded his head. "Yeah, Crawford and Jei have to report back to Esset, pronto, and Masato and I are going with them. We’re to serve as a distraction for the fact that they’re not bringing Aya back like they were supposed to."

Yohji’s hold on his lover tightened again as he thought of Aya riding off with the Esset agents, a slave once more. He dipped his head and kissed Aya on the temple, and Aya grasped his thigh and gave it a slight squeeze.

"Be careful, Schu. I want you to come back one day." He meant what he said. As angry as he’d been with the telepath a few weeks ago, Yohji didn’t want to lose his best friend. "I also refuse to see Cass crying over you."

"Don’t worry, I’m too much trouble to let a silly thing like death stop me." Schuldig flashed him a smile. "Besides, the battle will be in a couple years, and once we get through that, I’ll be free to do whatever I want. And that’s to take you up on that offer on Thracia, Yotan."

Yohji laughed briefly at that. Since Schu was mated to Masato that meant the older succubae-bound would have to tag along on their little trip, but he’d put up with the man somehow. Besides, it would be worth it, just to be able to enjoy some relaxing times with the people he cared most for. And Masato.

Aya leaning forward and slipping away from his embrace made Yohji stop fantasizing and realize that there were dark emotions emanating from his mate. He frowned and tugged on an eartail, but was ignored.

"You said that Esset had planned on using me against Kritiker’s army, but they’re to think I’m dead. Will that remain so during the upcoming war?" Aya stared piercingly at Crawford, who surprised Yohji by shifting uncomfortably in his chair.

"Aya… no matter how much of a warning Kritiker has, or how many bounds Birman can win over to its cause, it won’t have much of a chance defeating Esset. They’ve been building this army for millennium. Only one thing will even the odds against the Elders." Crawford stared back at Aya.

"Wait a fucking minute! We fought yesterday, and that was supposed to be it. Aya was almost killed for saving the king. Now you want him to lead a fucking army? No way in hell!" Yohji snarled at the precog, his hand on Aya’s shoulder and pulling the younger man back onto the couch and against him. There was no way he was going to let Aya fight a damn army, not when defeating a bunch of oni had almost taken his mate from him.

From Aya he could sense anger, fear and resignation; the man was hanging his head, his crimson hair falling onto his face. Yohji tenderly tucked back a long strand and stroked Aya’s cheek.

"I won’t let them use you again, love."

"I’m not sure we have a choice, Yohji," Aya whispered back.

"No, you don’t." Yohji snarled again at Crawford, who had calmly said those three words. The man ignored him, his attention focused on Aya. "You made a promise to me, kage, to obey me on matters that didn’t interfere with your mission from the Takatoris or harm Yohji and Nagi. You also made an oath to Birman, you and Yohji both. Will you break them?"

"Aya, what is he talking about?" Nagi asked, while Yohji had to control the impulse to kill the smug bastard who was sitting a couple chairs away from him, his arms crossed over his light grey shirt. He’d forgotten about the oath to Birman and knew that the Spymaster would indeed order Aya and him to fight. But this was the first he’d heard of Aya making an oath to Crawford.

Tugging lightly on his eartails, Aya didn’t look up as he spoke. "I swore to obey Crawford, provided that he got you safely away from the Takatoris if Reiji had been successful, Nagi. I told you that weeks ago."

Jumping to his feet, Nagi ran over to Aya and crouched down in front of him. "You told me he agreed to take me with him, not that you made an oath for my sake. I can’t believe you did that, you idiot!"

Aya didn’t say anything, just continued to stare down at the floor. Yohji didn’t like the feeling of hopelessness and resignation he was feeling from Aya. It was worse knowing that he was partially responsible for the situation by allowing Aya to join him in his oath to Birman.

"Crawford, Birman, isn’t there another way? Why do you have to make Aya fight again?" Omi’s voice was sad and pleading, and he came over to stand by Nagi’s side. "Surely things aren’t as bleak as you’ve just painted them. You were telling us about the Shadow Guard, and how you planned on recruiting bounds. Won’t that be enough?"

"No, Omi." Birman shook her head as she folded her hands on her lap. "As Crawford said, we have no hope of catching up to Esset at this point. All of our actions will be to make the battle, even with Aya fighting for us, as even as possible. I’m sorry."

"Sacrifices have to be made, Omi. Several were made last night, and more have to be made today and in the future." Crawford removed his glasses for a moment and pinched the bridge of his nose. When he put back on his spectacles there was a look of pity on his face, and Yohji knew to brace himself for more bad news. Whatever Crawford was about to say, it had to be unpleasant if it moved the man to that emotion.

"Schuldig and Masato will be risking their lives and giving up some of their freedom… and they won’t be the only ones to do so. Nagi will be coming to Esset with us as well."

That got a reaction out of Aya. In an instant he was on his feet, and shadows were skittering about the room and whirling around Crawford. "There is no need to include him in this any further! You were only to take him if I remained the Takatoris’ slave."

Omi was right beside him, glaring venomously at Crawford as he clutched Nagi’s hand. "You have no right to order Nagi about, nor Aya either. You’re not their master."

"No, but Aya is oath bound to me. Plus, I’ve had visions concerning Nagi. He either comes with us, or we’ll fail. Only with Nagi, Jei and Schuldig by my side will we be able to fight the Elders. He comes, or Kritiker will fall. That means you’ll be killed by Esset, Omi, and Aya will become the Elders’ slave, if he survives the battle."

Yohji growled as he stood behind Aya, his right arm wrapped around the man’s waist. While he didn’t really mind Nagi leaving with Crawford, not nearly as much as he did Schuldig, Yohji knew that Aya truly cared for the little demon, along with Omi. He also knew that the best way to get Nagi to leave the two people he loved was to mention the danger to them if he stayed. Caring a hell of a lot for Aya and Omi himself, he wasn’t going to argue with the boy leaving. However, he didn’t like the fact that Aya and Omi were in pain over the loss of the elemental-bound.

"Are you telling the truth?" He asked Crawford that question in a quiet voice, his voice thick from the pain he was feeling from Aya.

Crawford looked him straight in the eye and nodded his head. "I swear to you that I am, on all that I hold sacred. From the very beginning, I knew that Nagi had to come with us. His presence is essential to all our plans."

"Yet you trapped Aya in that promise," Omi bitterly spat out. "You would have taken him anyway, and you tricked Aya into an oath that he couldn’t break."

"Indeed I did. There’s much of the future that I can’t see, thanks to Aya’s involvement, and I have to reinforce things as best I can, based on the limited knowledge I have. I would have done much worse than trick Aya to make sure that when the time comes, the Elders will die, their creator will not be reborn, and Esset will fall." There was a fervent gleam in Crawford’s eyes, and they seemed not to be looking at anything currently in the room. Yohji wondered what the vision was that the precog was seeing.

<I don’t know, Yotan. It has to do with freedom and vengeance, but the rest is too garbled for me to make out. But I do know that Mom supports what the Prick just said. It will be Jei, Crawford, Nagi and me who stand against the Elders. How Masato fits into the picture now, they have no clue, but even when he showed up, the vision didn’t change.> Schuldig gazed at Yohji sadly. "He’s telling the truth. Nagi has to come with us."

Nagi glared at Crawford for a moment then slumped his shoulders. "Will you really fail if I’m not there?" The black-haired man nodded his head. "What will happen to me if I go with you?" He ignored Omi’s cry and continued to gaze at Crawford.

"You do as we do and pretend to serve the Elders. It won’t be easy, and the work…." Crawford took a deep breath and slowly released it. "The work will wear on you and will not always be pleasant. But if you fully develop your talent and grow the strongest you can become, you will face them and you will survive. As Schuldig said, you will be free, one day. But you must sacrifice the present for the future."

Nagi nodded his head. "I’ll go, then." When Omi cried out in protest, he hugged his lover, kissing him gently and keeping an arm around his shoulders as he turned to look at Aya.

"You would have faced the Takatoris alone, just to spare me pain. You took an oath for me. All these years, Aya, and you took all the pain for me that you could. It’s my turn, now."

"Nagi, I don’t want you to go." Aya’s voice was so soft that even with his enhanced hearing, Yohji almost didn’t catch the words. But Nagi clearly had. The boy smiled and hugged Aya with his free arm.

"I don’t want to go, Aya. But I will." Then he leaned closer to the redhead. "Please, keep him safe for me, Aya. We may not be mates, but I can’t stand the thought of something happening to Omi. Watch out for him."

Aya nodded, and Yohji’s shoulders slumped at the pain that was washing through him. This was breaking Aya’s heart, having to watch his best friend walk away from him. On top of that, he could sense Omi’s pain too, and he almost felt like crying.

"You said you’re leaving this afternoon?"

At his question, Crawford nodded his head. "Yes, our orders were to return as soon as possible, and we have no reason to remain any longer in the capital, not if Aya is supposed to be dead. Birman was to have arranged for all the supplies we need, and the horses, and as soon as Aya’s sister is free, we will leave."

Birman’s assurance that things were prepared was lost in the wave of despair and anguish that filled Aya. All Yohji could do was hold the man close and try to soothe him while thinking dark thoughts about Crawford. Did the man have to take the two people Aya had cared for the longest away from him on the same day? Yohji knew that Aya was in pain from the encroaching loss of his sister’s soul, even if the girl would be free from her prison and able to be reborn once again. Now that pain was doubled.

"Shhh, Aya, it’ll be okay. He said Nagi would live, and your sister will be free. Don’t worry, I’ll be there for you, and I won’t leave you. It’ll be okay, love." He kissed Aya on the neck and held him close, noting how Aya clung to the arms wrapped around him.

For a moment Yohji thought about how this was supposed to be the time for the happy ending that all Koyu’s stories of heroes and battles contained. But all there seemed to be was more pain: pain from Omi and Nagi, who were being torn apart by Fate; pain from Schuldig, who was leaving behind his familiar city and his family; pain from Ken, for all he’d lost, his humanity and his lover; and pain for Aya, who had already suffered more than enough. Yohji wanted to strangle a Harper at that moment for fooling people so -- for lying about the happily ever after.

*******

Aya rested against Yohji as they were driven back to the Koneko, trying hard not to think about one of his last carriage rides. The one with Hirofumi, and what had happened during it. He kept his eyes closed and let the scent of Yohji wash over him, let his mate hold him close and whisper nonsense in his ear that was meant to soothe him. But Aya felt in too much turmoil for that to happen.

He knew that his sister would be set free after the battle, but had thought he’d have more time to become used to the idea, to recover. However, Crawford wanted the deed done before he left, so he could make sure that there weren’t any holds on Aya besides Yohji and the oaths he’d sworn. As long as the sphere contained Aya-chan’s soul, there was the possibility that it could be stolen, and Aya used once again.

But now, to add to his loss, Nagi would leave him immediately after his sister was freed. He’d lose the two people that had kept him human over the past twelve years. Even though he had Yohji now, Aya felt his heart breaking with grief.

So much had changed over the past few months, and even with him taking on the new name, part of Ran had existed inside him. Now everything that was connected to Ran would be taken from him. Aya didn’t know if he could survive that loss. He would have Yohji, two months experience as living as Aya… and a future that scared him, a future that he had no idea how to respond to: one that went from familiar pain to unknown territory with only Yohji there to ground him.

Aya snaked his arm around his mate’s waist and held on tightly to him. He rested his head on Yohji’s chest, listening to the sound of his heartbeat. It helped to drown out the whispers that were coming from across the carriage where Omi and Nagi were seated. The two boys wouldn’t have any time alone before Nagi had to leave, so they were making due with the little privacy they had to say their goodbyes.

"Aya, he’ll be okay. Don’t suffer like this, love." Yohji rubbed Aya’s back, his long arms enveloping Aya and warming him. As he held his mate, Aya had the sensation of something creeping upon him, something grey and cold. It wasn’t his familiar darkness, his shinigami sense, but something that stole the hope from him, and his will to experience the future. Aya didn’t know how to fight it, not when he was in so much pain, and when dark memories pressed against him, threatening him with the horrors of his past.

When the carriage came to a halt, Aya forced his eyes to open so he could leave the vehicle. Hopefully the bitter taste in his mouth would then go away. Yohji stepped outside first, and Aya flinched as he stepped into the sunlight, the thin cloak that had been provided for him not blocking out the light as well as the black one in his room did. Nagi and Omi appeared beside him, and as the other two carriages pulled up to drop off the rest of their group, Yohji tugged him toward the Koneko’s back door, hurrying through the garden to get out of the sun.

As soon as they stepped into the kitchen Jo let out a loud yell, and somehow managed to envelope both Aya and Yohji at the same time in a hug. Wet kisses were pressed against their cheeks, and after all the air had been squeezed from their bodies, Jo finally let them go. Only to have the rest of the staff clamor around them, asking if everyone was all right.

"Wait a minute, where’s Teddy?" Aya could feel Yohji’s concern that his younger foster brother wasn’t among the group.

Mickey patted him on the shoulder. "He’s upstairs sleeping. He was injured during the fighting, but nothing serious, it seems. He’s just sleeping off the effects of his healing. Now, how are you?"

Yohji shrugged his shoulders and shifted further into the kitchen, Aya remaining by his side so the rest of their group could join them. Schuldig ran over to his mother, who seemed to have been waiting here for him, and Nagi and Omi were being fussed over by the Koneko’s staff. Behind them were Botan, Birman, Masato, Ken, Crawford and Jei. The scarred man was hovering by the door, trying to put as much distance between himself and Omi and Botan as possible. Even through his pain, Aya had noticed that reaction and knew that Nagi had as well. As for the Guards, Yohji had ordered them to remain at the palace, at least for tonight. He didn’t want them intruding on such a private moment.

"We’re fine, just a little tattered around the edges."

"Good, it’s nice to know you had the sense not to do something so stupid, such as dying, to upset me." Only Jo could get away with saying something like that, and it be the truth. "Now, since most of the patrons are hung-over at the moment and are still in bed, we should be able to throw an impromptu little victory party."

It was Crawford who raised his voice loud enough to be heard over the staff’s cheers and burst the happy mood. "I’m sorry to say that many of us don’t have the time for celebration. Ichiro, I’m going to need Jei’s and my horses saddled, along with the three that Birman had delivered to the inn this morning."

The lame man nodded his head while the room fell silent. "It won’t take me very long, but can I ask where you’re going and why the rush?"

"I’m sorry to say that Jei, Nagi, Masato, Schuldig and I will be leaving within the hour. We’ll need supplies for the horses to last a journey that will take a couple weeks."

Crawford bowed to the Koneko’s staff. "Allow me to offer my thanks for the wonderful service you provided us during our stay here. I truly regret having to leave the Koneko."

Jo frowned as she stepped closer to the precog. "I can understand you and Jei having to leave, but why the others? I thought Nagi was supposed to stay here with us, and Schuldig and Masato didn’t arrive with you." She turned to look over her shoulder at Cassandra. "Did you know about this, Cass?"

Cassandra reluctantly nodded her head. "Yes, I’m afraid I did. I didn’t mention it because I didn’t want to bring up such a sorrowful departure during a stressful time, or to jinx them returning to us from the wedding. But the five of them have to go, and soon. Right after we free the girl’s spirit, in fact."

Aya closed his eyes and leaned against Yohji for a moment. The greyness crept over him, slowly overtaking him more and more at each thought of Nagi and Aya-chan leaving him. All the years of pain, and his sacrifices never ended. He kept having to give away the dearest parts of himself. Only Yohji beside him and his promise to remain kept Aya from fleeing into the darkness inside him to escape his sorrow.

The kitchen was silent for a minute, the only sounds were people breathing and shifting about. Wanting to get the pain over with, Aya opened his eyes and stepped towards the door leading to the servants’ staircase. Let his sister be free now, so her suffering at least would end.

"You’re really going to release the girl’s soul now and then leave? Why can’t you stay for the night and go in the morning? I won’t have the time to pack you anything proper." Jo took a step towards the stove and immediately turned towards Aya. She brushed back his bangs, her face sad and her touch tender. There was pain in her eyes that echoed what he was feeling at the moment, and Aya knew that she understood having things she loved being taken from her. Then the moment passed and she stalked over to the stove, muttering about how little she had on hand to pack for five ravenous men.

The Koneko’s staff quietly called out for everyone to stay, but Aya continued towards the stairs. Maybe the pain would fade when his sister was free. Yohji held onto his hand and followed him.

He sensed death when he approached their room, but his wards hadn’t been tampered with, and the Koneko staff was fine, so Aya would worry about that later. Ever since his last stay in the darkness, he noticed that his kage senses were sharper than before. Aya thought he could see an image of a thin man, dressed in nondescript tan and brown, with a knife protruding from his back. The image faded and was replaced by the thought that in the room down the hall, the shinigami would soon be paying its occupant a visit in the upcoming weeks. There was a smell of rot emanating from the room. As if attracted by his thoughts of them, shinigami suddenly appeared around Aya, lightly stroking his exposed skin as they swirled about in the air.

/Ah, our young one has grown stronger. See what the darkness holds for you?/

/Don’t you long to be free and whole?/

"Cat, you don’t have to do this right now. You should rest for a bit first."

"No, Yohji, it has to be done. She needs to be free." Aya dissolved his wards and stepped into the room. The space soon became crowded as everyone who had participated in the fighting chose to witness the event, along with Mickey and Koyu.

Ignoring the people whispering and shifting about behind him, Aya walked over to the desk. His hand trembled as he touched the drawer, but Yohji’s presence behind him gave Aya the strength to open it and take out the silk wrapped ball. He moaned when he felt his sister’s soul cupped between his palms, and the pain she was suffering. Aya’s resolve to free her strengthened.

Walking over to the window seat, Aya sat down with Yohji at his side. He stared at the sphere for a moment, and then looked up at Botan.

"What do I do now?"

"One moment." He could feel the wizard’s magic probing the glass ball, and the soul gaki within that raged in hunger and fury. It was a couple minutes before Botan completed his spells, and the shinigami remained near him the whole while.

"I don’t sense anything that would negatively affect us or your sister if you break the sphere. With Masafumi’s death, the spells are already starting to disintegrate, and the sphere would dissolve in a few more days’ time anyway, unless another wizard strengthened it. Just break the sphere and deal with the soul gaki inside." Botan looked at him with narrowed eyes. "You can handle the soul gaki, can’t you? If not, I can bind it to another object and take it with me."

"No, I can destroy it." The creature was too mad with having been starved for so long to allow it to go free. It would suck dry every living creature it came across until it could feed no more, then do the same over and over once its hunger returned, so the shinigami told him. Aya held the ball for another moment and, before his resolve could weaken, he threw it to the floor.

The glass shattered, and a shimmering cloud wafted from the shards. It was a mix of glowing white and shadows, the trapped soul gaki caged in Aya’s power and Aya-chan’s spirit. Before the gaki could break free of his shadows and try to feed, Aya had them tear the demon apart much like he’d done to the oni. The soul gaki was weak and didn’t require that much darkness from him before it died. Its energy washed through Aya, but he barely noticed that, as focused as his attention was on the white glow.

It swirled in the air, and for a few seconds it took on the shape of a young woman. In his mind Aya heard his dear sister’s laughter, and he could feel her joy at being free at last. There was no pain from her and the cloud swirled closer to him. Part of it touched him, and he felt Aya-chan’s joy and relief at her imprisonment ending, and her sorrow of finally moving on and leaving him behind. Aya knew she felt guilty about her death and how it failed to free him, and a part of his sister’s spirit urged him to follow her so they could be together once again. But he was Yohji’s now and would remain by his mate’s side.

There was more sorrow from Aya-chan then she slowly faded away. Aya wasn’t aware that he was crying until Yohji gently wiped away his tears. There was a hole inside him that Aya-chan used to occupy, the part that had felt her pain over the years. The greyness started to seep inside it, numbing him to everything but the pain.

Hands patted his face. "Aya, it’s okay, she’s free."

"Shhh, cat, it’s over. Please, stop crying."

/Oh, don’t hurt so, young one. Free she is. You can be too, just come to us./

"Nagi, we need to be going now. Say your goodbyes."

"Dammit, Crawford, give him a few more minutes, he still has to pack and everything!"

"If I give him a few minutes with Aya, he’ll want a few minutes with you next, and then the staff… and we’ll never leave today. Besides, Cassandra has already packed his bags. We’re to leave within the next few minutes. To remain any longer would raise suspicions, and that’s the last thing all of us, Aya especially, need at this time."

Arms held him tight, and Aya pulled away from the greyness to lift his head and nuzzled Yohji’s neck. The pain was awful, and he knew that it would soon double. The darkness that was his soul called at him to give in to his demon nature, and the shinigami, there to ferry Aya-chan’s soul, continued to plead with Aya to break free of his human feelings. But his bond with Yohji held, and he clung to it with desperate determination.

There were a couple more minutes of talking, of people going back and forth across the room, and then Aya felt a hand touch his cheek and the familiar magic associated with it. He opened his eyes to look at Nagi.

The younger bound’s eyes were red, as if he’d been crying or about to start, and his whole demeanor was sad. "Aya, I don’t want to leave you now, not like this. But you and Omi will be safer. Take care of each other for me, please."

Nodding his head, Aya touched the hand resting against his face. "I promise to watch over him for you, Nagi. Worry about yourself now, and be careful."

Nagi swore he would and looked up at Yohji, his dark brown eyes glittering with unshed tears and strong emotions. "You better take care of him, Kudoh. The moment I hear you aren’t looking after Aya properly, I’m coming back and breaking every single bone in your body."

"Yeah, yeah, just go the hell away already, you shitty little demon." Aya could feel Yohji’s annoyance at the threat, and a mix of relief and sadness. "Now you better take care of yourself, cause I won’t stand for you making Aya and Omi worry about you."

Nagi just grunted as Jei took his place. The scarred man smiled at Aya and Yohji. "I’ll look after him, I promise." Then he glared at Yohji. "Learn to control your appetite better, we need Aya in good shape for the coming war. Fat lot of good it will do us if he’s too drained to get out of bed and fight." Jei stepped aside, leaving Yohji sputtering in anger.

"Well, he pretty much said what I wanted to, so I’ll just add to make sure you keep practicing with your talent. And I’m sure the Koneko’s staff will keep you from feeding off Aya too much." Masato shook his head then gently touched Yohji on the shoulder. "She’d be damn proud of you, your mother. You probably know that already, but I felt it should be said." Masato stepped aside so his mate could say his goodbyes.

Schuldig looked uncomfortable for a moment then handed Yohji a large black pouch. Aya could hear the clink of stone and metal inside the velvet. "Here, this is for the bet we made a couple months ago. You kept your end of the bargain and didn’t get wasted even once, so I held up mine." Schuldig shrugged his shoulders, and Aya, who didn’t have any clue what the man was talking about, felt shock and dawning horror from Yohji.

"Schu, please tell me you didn’t…."

"Well, I had to guess what you’d like, and I went for value over taste. But what you have there is a nice little retirement package for you and Aya. It should help you out in the centuries to come, if you invest it wisely."

Yohji seemed ready to hand back the pouch, but then he looked down at Aya and sighed. "It’s a damn good thing the Guards aren’t here at the moment, or you’d be going to jail and not Esset." Then Yohji blushed and looked in Ken’s direction. "Ah, Kenken…."

The Guard, his whole body bent in misery, just shook his head. "I don’t know anything about what you have in your hand over there, Yohji, and I’d like it to stay that way."

"Thanks, Ken." Yohji sighed again and set the pouch down. "Be careful, Schu. I really do mean that." He leaned forward to hug the telepath, but kept an arm around Aya’s waist. All the sorrow and pain in the room only made Aya want to retreat even further into himself, and the knowledge that in a few moments Nagi would be walking out the door and not return for years made the greyness inside Aya spread throughout his soul. Soon there would be another gaping hole….

The two friends broke apart, and Schuldig smiled sadly at Aya. Then the expression took on a hint of mischief, and he looked at Yohji. "The two of you should be careful, too. Not much sense in us five going to Esset if something happens to you. So… make sure to take good care of Aya, Yotan."

Yohji started to again sputter. "Dammit, I know how to take care of my mate!!! I don’t need you assholes to remind me to do that, or a bunch of Guards to lurk about. And what about me? Who’s gonna look after me?"

"Jo." That answer came back from several different people.

Not even the constant requests for Yohji to take care of Aya, as if he wasn’t capable of doing that himself, bothered Aya. The irritation and anger were weaker than the grey that enveloped him, and all Aya could do was sit there as the crowd slowly left the room. Crawford looked at him and bowed his head, ever so slightly, and Cassandra walked out with her son, Botan and Masato following the two. Mickey and Koyu left, along with Ken and Jei. Nagi remained for a second, gazing sadly at Aya, and then he too slowly departed, holding Omi’s hand as he did. Their goodbyes had been said, and now it was time to go.

/Gone gone, all but one tie. Break that one now, young one, and never feel such pain again./

Yohji hugged Aya pressing kisses against his temple as he watched his best friend leave. As he’d expected, Nagi’s departure gouged a hole in Aya’s heart, and the grey cold inside him became that much stronger. Too filled with pain and heartbreak, he fled to the only darkness that was safe for him, and passed out.

*******

Ken walked into his apartment, breathing in deep the familiar scent of home. He wanted to take a nice long bath, get some sleep for the night, and then try to visit Yuriko in the morning. Maybe she’d be willing to speak to him now that a little time had passed since the battle, and she was healing.

Stepping towards the stairs, Ken caught a whiff of a scent that didn’t belong there, and growling, he charged up the steps. His claws unsheathed without his conscious thought, and as he ran into his bedroom, his lips pulled back from his new fangs.

Miko let out a shriek as she dropped the bag of clothes she’d been holding and was shoved against the wall. Ken snapped at her throat, barely able to keep his new bound nature in check and not sink his teeth into it.

"Ken! Don’t!"

"What the hell are you doing here?" Ken snarled as he pulled away from the woman. Miko remained against the wall, running her hands through her short dark hair as she took several deep breaths. While she tried to calm down, Ken noticed that it had been Yuriko’s clothes she’d been gathering, and that all of his lover’s belongings were missing from their room.

"What’s going on, Miko?"

"Ken, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry." Miko stepped close to him and clumsily patted him on the shoulder before she picked up the dropped bag and finished packing all of Yuriko’s clothes that were hanging in the closet.

"Yuriko asked me to come here and gave me her key. She… she wants her things, since she’s moving to her grandmother’s." Miko paused to spare Ken a sympathetic look. "She gave me a note to leave for you." Reaching into her uniform jacket, Miko pulled out a folded piece of paper.

He knew what it was going to say just from the look on Miko’s face, and Ken wasn’t surprised as he slowly read the letter. Yuriko wrote that she didn’t want to see him anymore, at least for the time being, and asked that Ken not come after her. That was it. He’d spent ten years of his life loving the woman, and the past three being her lover, and she didn’t want to see him ever again. Because he was a bound, a monster.

Ken slowly crumpled the letter in his hand as Miko finished gathering Yuriko’s belongings. He could smell the other Guard’s fear and pity, the stench making his stomach curdle. So he was surprised when Miko hugged him tightly after setting the bags she’d packed onto the bed.

"Ken, I’m so sorry, really. Maybe she’ll come around once she has some time to think things through. It’s not your fault, what happened." Miko squeezed him one last time and quietly picked up the bags and left the room. A room that no longer smelled so strongly of Yuriko, now that many of the belongings bearing her scent were gone. Ken tossed aside the letter and let his head fall into his hands, his fingers tightening painfully in his hair.

Gone, the woman he loved was gone. Yuriko was terrified of him now and didn’t want anything to do with him. To add to the pain, Liss was dead, his partner murdered while he’d been bent over Yuriko’s wounded body, desperate to keep her safe. Ken felt hysterical laughter build in his throat when he thought about how much of a waste that had been. A vicious little thought scolded him for protecting the wrong woman.

Lost in his pain and sorrow, Ken never noticed the passing of time, and how dark the room had become. Not until a candle flared into life, and he found Yohji standing in his bedroom door, looked worn and sad.

"Hey, Kenken."

"Hi, Yohji." Ken straightened up and rubbed his aching eyes. "Aren’t you going to ask me how I am?"

"I think I know how you are." Yohji walked over to the bed and sat down beside him, placing a comradely arm around his shoulders. "I’m sorry, Ken."

"Yeah, that seems to be the response, so far. How did you know?"

Yohji sighed and looked down at the hand that was resting in his lap. "Miko stopped by the Koneko before returning to the castle. She asked me to check up on you. Sorry it took me so long, but Aya is having a hard time at the moment, and I couldn’t make myself leave him before now."

Ken laughed. "It’s okay, he’s your mate. He won’t leave you, won’t break your heart because you’re a fucking freak." To his horror his voice broke on the last few words, and Ken buried his face in his hands as he started to cry. Yohji hugged him as the tears streamed forth, and Ken was surprised to find out that he could still cry. He hadn’t been sure he could, now that he was part demon.

"Shh, Ken, it’ll be okay. Yuriko will realize the mistake she made one day, she just needs some time to herself to think. Come on." Yohji urged Ken to his feet. Rising with the blond, Ken wiped his face with his hand and gazed blearily at his friend.

"Where are we going?"

"You’re coming to the Koneko. I’m not leaving you here tonight." Yohji stepped away from him to gather up a few belongings, wrapping them in Ken’s spare uniform and a change of clothes. "You should be with friends at a time like this."

Nodding his head, Ken followed Yohji out of the small bedroom and down the steps that led to the first floor. The whole apartment smelled of Yuriko, reminding him of what he’d lost, and Ken started to growl. He couldn’t stop until they were outside and he was breathing air that didn’t reek of his fickle lover.

"You know, you really need to watch those growls, Kenken. People will figure out what you are if you keep doing that."

For a moment Ken wanted to snap back at Yohji that he didn’t care if people knew what he now was, but he couldn’t do that in the face of the stern look his friend was giving him. Yohji was staring back at him intently, a hint of his teeth showing in the faint moonlight, and a low growl coming from his throat. Something in Ken wanted to cringe from the look, and he found himself ducking his head and whining softly.

"Good boy." Yohji patted him on the head and smiled. "Now hurry up, I don’t like being away from Aya this long, even if he is sleeping like the dead. I don’t want to chance him waking up and finding me gone."

Hurrying to keep up with his lanky friend, Ken felt a stab of pain at Yohji’s concern for his lover. If only Yuriko had cared for him like Yohji felt for Aya. He never cared that Aya was a kage.

"Yohji, what am I going to do?"

Yohji looked over his shoulder at Ken. "You just keep moving forward, Ken. I know you’re in a lot of pain right now, and confused. But you have friends who will help you deal with everything, I promise." Yohji’s eyes hardened. "And if Yuriko can’t accept what happened to you when it wasn’t your fault, maybe you are better off without her. You’re not a monster, Kenken. None of us are."

Ken silently followed for several minutes, almost running to keep up with Yohji’s longer legs. "Yotan, can I stay at the Koneko for a while? I… I don’t want to go back to the apartment, not when it smells so much of her." He was having a hard time adjusting to his new senses and felt that constantly being reminded of Yuriko would drive him insane. And he didn’t feel very sane at the moment at it was.

"Ken, you can stay there as long as you want." Yohji laughed for a moment. "Hell, we’ll be putting up three Guards, why not one more? At least I like you."

"Thanks, Kudoh," Ken growled. Yohji didn’t reprimand him for the slip, but just smiled instead.

*******

Cassandra walked into the Koneko’s garden, wanting to harvest some lavender and feverfew. Her step was slowly regaining its former lightness, but she had many things weighing heavy on her heart at the moment and knew it would be some time before she returned to normal.

It hurt to wake up every day and know her son was off in Esset, facing the cruel masters she’d fled years ago. At least she had her dreams to console her, to show her Schuldig and the others would soon safely arrive in Esset. She knew from other visions that it would be a couple more weeks before he faced the Elders and hoped that her dreams continued to show her a safe and whole Schuldig. And the others as well, especially since Omi was at her door almost every day, asking about Nagi.

Walking toward the lavender patch, Cassandra caught sight of Aya sitting on a quilt, half covered in shadows and alone. He was sitting with his knees held tight to his chest by his arms, and his chin resting on his knees. Aya’s face looked so sad and lost, his eyes hidden by his long lashes and bangs.

She stopped walking and just stared at the kage, another reason her heart was so heavy. Two people she cared deeply for were in pain, and others were suffering as well. Cassandra set her basket on the ground and leaned against an elm tree.

It wasn’t until Yohji was right by her side that she heard his approach. Cassandra turned to look at her almost son and smiled sadly at him. Yohji’s eyes were shadowed, his face marred by lines of stress and pain.

"He’s no better, is he?"

Yohji shook his head. "No. It’s been almost a week, and he’s still locked inside himself." Jerking his hands through his disheveled hair, Yohji sighed and gazed at his mate. "He’s not losing himself in the darkness, not becoming a shinigami… but I can’t reach him all the same. What’s worse is knowing that if I wasn’t here, he’d be lost in the sadness and never return. I’ve called him back to me as far as he can come and keep him from fading away, but…." He sighed again and his face became suffused with sorrow.

"Yotan, don’t despair so." Cassandra patted the younger bound on his left arm. "The fact that he doesn’t retreat any further into himself gives us hope. It could be worse."

Yohji turned and looked at her with a mixture of anger and surprise. "How the hell can it be any worse than this, Cass? He’s in so much pain, and I can’t reach him."

Cassandra crossed her arms over her chest and pursed her lips. "Does he respond to you at all? To anyone else?"

"….Yeah," Yohji replied, his voice rough. "He won’t talk to anyone else, but I can get a few simple responses from him."

"And does he still allow you to feed from him?"

She was amused to see Yohji actually blush at the question. Yohji looked back to Aya, hunger evident in his eyes.

"He still does. Sometimes it seems as if he’s almost completely returned to me in those moments when we’re making love. I know I make him feel pleasure, and that he loves me." Yohji stretched out his hand in Aya’s direction for a moment, and Aya lifted his head to look at his mate. Even from here Cassandra could see the pain and sorrow in the kage’s eyes. But there was love there, too.

"Yotan, don’t worry so. Aya’s a kage." She paused for a moment to think of what she wanted to say. "For over twelve years he’s lived for his sister, the last of his blood. He’s killed for her and suffered such pain. Now she’s gone. You’re right to say that if you weren’t here that he probably would have faded away. But he hasn’t, because of you. You’re his anchor to this reality, what makes him human.

"Give him a little time to overcome his loss. You must keep in mind that in the past two months his life has changed greatly. He found his mate, a safe haven to live, and friends who want to protect him. He’s lost his sister and his best friend, and his name. It’s enough to give anyone pause, to take time to recover from. Give him time."

"How much, Cass? I can’t take much more of this. It hurts too much to know that he’s in pain, and that I can’t make it go away." Yohji’s voice trembled with sadness.

"As long as it takes, Yotan. You can’t rush this." She wished she could tell him something that would take the sorrow away, but Aya blocked her powers. All Cassandra knew was that the two of them would work through this, if given time.

She gazed after Yohji as he started to walk towards his mate. He sat down on the quilt beside Aya and wrapped his arms around him. Cassandra could only watch as Aya leaned back against Yohji, his head turning as he tried to kiss his lover. It heartened her to know that Aya wasn’t so lost in his depression that he didn’t want Yohji, but she hoped he returned to normal soon and spared everyone the pain they felt.

As shadows started to hide the couple from her view, Cassandra decided that the lavender could wait for another day. Right now the herb needed to work its soothing magic on a pair of souls who needed to heal.

*******

Reiichi groaned as he sank down onto the couch and started to massage his crippled leg. He and his roommates were assembled in the small common room that was part of their apartment in the Koneko’s attic, along with bedrooms for each of them. While the place was still being worked on, and the day was usually filled with the noises of the rest of the attic being converted into more rooms, he was quite happy at how their new home was turning out. It was nice to be able to cook in a huge, completely stocked kitchen, and to have such a short walk each night to his bed after spending several hours drinking, talking to friends and listening to a very good Harper play. While Reiichi missed being an ‘active’ Guard, he felt that his new life would be a good one. He still had his friends, and a career that didn’t involve keeping track of criminally inclined nobles.

Naru flopped down next to him and belched loudly, then blushed and quickly apologized. "I’m sorry. Gods, those tarts were good." He rubbed his belly for a moment. "But I definitely ate too many."

"Naru, you wolfed down half a platter all on your own," Yuushi chided him. But Reiichi caught the twinkle in his friend’s eye and knew that the man was enjoying teasing Naru. Ever since Yuushi had taken over the Shadow Guard, the blond had been in a cheerful mood. Reiichi didn’t doubt that Yuushi was taking his new position seriously, or that he was working very hard at setting things up, but he knew that Yuushi was beyond thrilled with the responsibility. The arrangement was the best of both worlds for Yuushi: he got to do a job that was very important and a chance to be the natural leader he was, and at the same time he was spared the politics that came with the Captain’s position.

Naru sniffed and tried to make his eyes as big as possible. "But I was having a contest with Omi and Ken, and couldn’t come in third without a proper battle."

"You idiot." Reiichi reached over and whapped the younger Guard on his head. "Ken can out eat three grown men thanks to his new condition, and Omi has a bottomless stomach when it comes to treats. You were completely outclassed."

While Naru sulked and rubbed his head, Reiichi looked over at Yuushi. "Speaking of Ken, have you found a new partner for him yet?"

Yuushi nodded his head. "Yes. Miko told me last night that she’d be willing to team with him. I told Hidaka today, which was why he was in such a good mood tonight."

"Good." Ken had been understandably depressed the past week, because of his new nature, losing his lover and many of the Guards who had fought in the ballroom that night giving him a wide berth. But he was slowly coming around and being his normal cheerful self. Reiichi suspected it was because the Koneko staff was going out of their way to make him feel at home, and now the news that not all of the Guard was shunning him. Reiichi felt a bit jealous of those two facts. Many of the Guards didn’t know how to act around him now, because of his injury, other than those of the Shadow Guard who knew he wasn’t as lame or as retired as he seemed. Also because while the Koneko staff was courteous to all three of them, Reiichi knew that he, Naru and Yuushi hadn’t been completely accepted just yet. He didn’t know if it was because of Birman forcing the new living arrangement on everyone or just the fact that the staff didn’t know them very well and were being cautious.

"It’s good to see one person cheer up," Reiichi continued. "Now if only Yohji and Aya would be happy again, things will be fine."

"Yeah, I know we’re supposed to guard the two of them, and should be happy that they’re remaining at home all the time, but it’s so sad to not see Aya anywhere outside his room other than in the kitchen or the garden." Naru chewed on his bottom lip as he talked about the couple.

Yuushi started to undo the laces of his shirt, a frown on his face. "Don’t forget he hides in the new library downstairs. He spends more time with books than with other people. Are all kage so anti-social?"

Knowing the question had been directed towards him, Reiichi gave it some thought. "They’re not the most outgoing people, that’s for sure, but not much is really known about them other than not to piss them off. Or to hurt the ones they love, which results in royally pissing them off. I think Aya is a special case. From the little I’ve heard from the staff, he had a very rough life in Reiji Takatori’s hands. And he lost his best friend after the wedding."

"I don’t want to think what Reiji and his sons did to the poor guy." Yuushi shivered for a moment. "I just wish he’d stop walking around like a ghost, with Kudoh trailing after him all the time. I feel like I’m interrupting something when I try to keep an eye on them."

Naru laughed at that comment. "I know all about that, I’ve had some interesting conversations with Touya. He warned me, among other things, to never take a bath in the spring downstairs right after Yohji and Aya have one. Or to walk unannounced into a room they’re cleaning. Apparently, when they’re not as sad as they’ve been lately, they can barely keep their hands to themselves."

Reiichi smiled at that statement and decided he’d not tell his friends about coming across the couple in the garden the other day. He was beginning to understand why none of the staff went near the lavender patch. His cheeks felt a little hot as he remembered seeing Yohji and Aya holding each other close, their bodies naked and covered with a sheen of sweat. He was ridiculously grateful that he hadn’t happened upon them a few minutes earlier.

"What a change, ne? From living at the palace and putting up with the Court all the time, to living here at the Koneko." Reiichi smiled. "I can’t count how many times one of the Guards has come up to me and told me how jealous they are that Kudoh ‘allowed’ us to permanently rent these rooms from him."

"I know, I hear that all the time." Yuushi yawned and pulled off his shirt. "I must admit, it’s nice not having some housekeeping staff keeping a close eye on us to make sure we don’t damage the palace, and not having to go far to have a few drinks with friends. Now it’s time for me to go to bed, Kikyou wants me to go over the roster for the next month with him first thing in the morning."

Wishing his friend goodnight, Reiichi decided it was past his bedtime too. He’d be on duty alone once Naru and Yuushi left for the palace, and he took this job just as seriously as his previous assignment. And as embarrassing as it was, it was much more fun to stumble across two gorgeous men having or just finishing up having sex than putting up with the Court any day.

*******

Aya silently followed Yohji into the common room, unwilling to let his mate out of his sight for very long. The greyness that filled him became oppressive when Yohji wasn’t near him, so Aya tried to stay by his side as much as he was able. Through the fog of his depression he could feel Yohji’s sadness, but he didn’t know how to put an end to that emotion, not when he felt so lost.

Yohji sat down at their table, and Aya was quick to sit by him. When Yohji was near the world was a little less grey, and when his mate touched him, Aya felt the depression almost lift from him. But it never relented for long, and he was soon reminded that Aya-chan and Nagi were gone. He had nothing from his former life with him, other than the few books of his father’s that he’d brought with him from the Takatoris’ estate. He felt completely adrift, save for his link with Yohji.

"What have you got there, Reiichi? A chess set?"

Hearing Yohji speak, Aya looked across the table to see what had piqued the man’s interest. He found Reiichi and Naru sitting at the end of the table and playing a game of chess. For a moment Aya remembered playing chess with his father and his sister in their cottage, and the greyness tightened its hold on him. Yohji must have sensed his deepening depression, since he kissed Aya on the temple and held him tight against his side.

"Yes, it is indeed a chess set. I’ve been trying to teach Naru how to play for months, and I’m not having much luck." Reiichi looked and sounded rather exasperated over this fact.

Naru, on the other hand, appeared frazzled. "There are too many rules to this silly game. How can I keep them straight?" He then started to jump his rook over Reiichi’s knight.

Aya suddenly found himself speaking. "You can’t play a rook like a knight. Only knights can jump over other pieces." He could feel Yohji’s surprise at him speaking to someone other than him.

Reiichi looked up from the board while Naru moaned and reset the pieces. "You know how to play?"

Aya nodded his head.

"Good! Naru, it’s time for you to watch how a game is properly played. Aya, would you please come here and show the idiot how it’s done?"

Before Aya could shake his head, Yohji picked him up and set him in Naru’s just vacated seat. He hissed slightly at being manhandled so, the anger burning through the greyness, and Yohji kissed him on the top of his head.

"Go on and play, cat," Yohji whispered to him. "I want to watch you." He sat down next to Aya and slid an arm around his waist. Relieved that Yohji was staying near him, Aya quietly began setting the black chess pieces before him.

"Ah, I guess I’m white then and have the first move." Reiichi quickly did the same with his pieces, and Aya realized that he’d acted automatically, giving his opponent the first chance to play. He’d always done that to give Aya-chan the slight advantage.

The greyness threatened to muffle him from the world once again, but as soon as Reiichi moved his pawn, Aya lost himself in the game. He forgot everything but playing against the Guard, except for Yohji’s arm about his waist. Aya would rest his left hand upon it occasionally as the game progressed. Reiichi was an extremely talented player and used several moves that Aya’s father had employed against him. He should have been able to defeat the other man, or at least put up a better fight, but Aya found himself lost in the memories of the quiet nights in front of the fire with his sister and father, of playing a game or two and then hearing a story before being sent off to bed.

"Checkmate. It was a good game, Aya. I hope we can play again soon."

Aya looked up from the board to see Reiichi smiling at him, and idly noted that Yuushi had joined them at the table. Yohji was hugging him and telling him better luck next time, and Aya felt this sudden shifting about him as he realized he was here, in the Koneko, and not lost in the past. The greyness lifted from him, broken apart by the contentment from his memories and the feeling of Yohji’s love for him, but it still remained around him, threatening to overwhelm him once again. He picked up his queen and clenched her tightly in his hand, desperate for an anchor of sorts to keep him here before the greyness dragged him back into the depression, away from Yohji. But he could do nothing but suffer the emotions buffeting his psyche, the pain, loss, sorrow, need and want. Aya could barely tell the past from the present anymore, and he held on to Yohji’s arm with desperation.

Unable to make sense out of anything, he clung to the one certain thing he had left.

*******

Yohji took the chess piece from Aya’s hand and gently tugged Aya out of the chair. His mate meekly obeyed him, his face impassive and belying the maelstrom of emotions that filled him.

Reiichi limped to his feet. "Yohji, is everything all right?"

"Yeah, it’s okay. We’re going to head upstairs now." Yohji kept his voice soft as he led Aya away from the table. His lover kept his eyes fastened to the floor, his hair falling onto his face and hiding it from view. Yohji’s hand itched to push back the silky strands, but he wanted to get Aya away from here and somewhere quiet quickly, so he resisted.

Yuushi and Naru rose to their feet too and stared after him as he and Aya left. Yohji could faintly sense their concern, and Ani’s too when he passed her in the hall, a finger to his lips to prevent any questions. Aya followed him up the stairs, never making a sound the entire way, and soon enough they were safely in their room.

He gave into the impulse then. "Aya… what’s wrong, love?" He brushed back the crimson bangs with one hand as the other lifted Aya’s chin. Yohji made a soothing sound as he felt the emotions tearing through Aya, and as worried as he was about how intense they were, the emotions were the first ones he’d felt so strongly from Aya, other than sadness and love for him, since the day after the wedding.

His mate stared up at him, a lone tear sliding down Aya’s face. "It’s all gone, Yohji, everything."

Wondering if Aya was finally putting voice to the pain he’d held inside him these past two weeks, Yohji gently wiped the precious tear away. "What’s gone?" He remembered what Cass had told him in the garden the other day. "Your past? Aya, I don’t know if it’s all gone, but the worst of it certainly is. Aren’t…?" Yohji swallowed roughly before continuing. "Aren’t you happy here, with me? Aren’t you happy with your new life?" He didn’t know what he’d do if Aya said no. Probably do whatever it took to make Aya happy, even if it meant leaving the Koneko.

"Yohji…." Aya suddenly wrapped his arms around Yohji. "It’s so confusing. I… it hurts so much, to know that she’s gone, and Nagi, and everything… everything that mattered to me. It scares me, how much things have changed. I don’t know what to do now. Help me. Don’t let me fall back into the grey."

Yohji pressed a kiss against Aya’s lips. "Aya, I’d give anything to make you happy. What can I do? I’d give anything to make you forget everything that hurt you."

"I love you, Yotan." Aya rocked up on his toes and kissed Yohji back. "My past… it will never completely go away, and that hurts. Even the good memories… all they do is remind me of what I’ve lost." He was still for a moment, and silent as he gazed into Yohji’s eyes. "Maybe some new ones would make the pain go away. Maybe that will make the present stronger." Aya leaned up again and deepened the kiss. His emotions, a whirling intensity of pain, loss, confusion and sorrow, slowly became overwhelmed by desire and need. Yohji moaned as he sensed them, and felt determined to do the best he could for Aya.

He walked backwards to the bed, and when his legs bumped into the furniture he fell, Aya clutched to his chest. He let out a short bark of laughter as he hit the mattress, and then reclaimed Aya’s mouth. For the first time in days Aya felt completely there, not hidden away behind sorrow and fear. No, his mate was entirely focused on him, and Yohji was going to give Aya his all.

He rolled on the bed, tucking Aya beneath him. Then Yohji yelped in surprise when Aya growled and shoved him over onto his back. Aya straddled his waist and pressed against him, pinning him to the bed.

Yohji was about to fight back and reverse their positions, half afraid that Aya was losing himself once again, only this time in darkness instead of the past. But he caught the slightest glint of amusement in Aya’s eyes, and the need that filled the smaller man. Relaxing back onto the bed, Yohji gazed at his lover with hooded eyes.

"Whatever you need, Aya, I’ll always give it to you."

Aya started to purr as he bent his head down. "You, Yotan. I’ll always need you. Just be here for me, forever."

"I promise." Yohji breathed the words as Aya started to nuzzle his neck, never having meant anything before as much as he meant what he’d just said. As long as Aya was there for him, he’d be there for Aya. And beyond that, as well. Hell, he was Aya’s, for all time. However long that was.

Aya sucked and nibbled on his throat, teasing Yohji until he growled and grabbed one of Aya’s eartails, yanking hard on it as he pressed Aya’s mouth against his throat. He got nipped for his impudence, but Aya started to mark him in earnest, sucking hard as his teeth sank into Yohji’s throat. He tilted his head back and surrendered to his mate.

His hands stroking along Yohji’s chest, Aya slowly undid the laces of his blue shirt. Yohji started to return the favor, and even as he moaned at the loss of Aya’s mouth on his neck he lifted up and tore his shirt off the moment Aya pulled away. Soon both their shirts were on the floor, and both of them were desperately fumbling with their pants. His hands were shaking so much he couldn’t untie the laces. Yohji started to laugh as he snapped the leather strings. Busy shoving his pants down his hips, he noticed that Aya was already out of his. He drank in the sight of his lover’s lithe body as Aya helped rid him of his pants. Once they were gone Aya was pushing him back onto the bed and settling between his thighs.

They kissed again, delving into each other’s mouths as deep as they could, until their tastes became intermingled. Aya continued to stroke his body, and cool touches skittered across Yohji’s skin, making him moan. The touches were everywhere, and Yohji could only toss back his head and arch his body against Aya’s, lost in how good it felt. He cried out when one of Aya’s hands started to stroke his aching arousal.

"Oh fuck, Aya, that feels…. Oh, this is so good. Yes." Aya’s hand on his cock, another brushing softly along his balls and then downward, and all the while the shadows stroked and caressed Yohji’s chest, throat and abdomen.

"Aya, don’t you leave me." He wanted his cat to be tormenting him this sweetly, not the kage. Yohji wanted Aya to be slowly undoing him with all these gentle touches and this wonderful attention.

Aya leaned down against him, brushing his lips along Yohji’s. "It’s me, Yotan. Open your eyes, I want to see them."

Not even aware that he’d closed them, Yohji opened his eyes and stared deep into Aya’s. even if he couldn’t feel the love and need Aya had for him, he would have seen the emotions so clearly inside the passion darkened eyes. Yohji flicked his tongue along Aya’s lips just as a finger pushed against him, and as his mouth opened in a gasp Aya plunged his finger deep inside.

Yohji clutched his lover tightly as he was stretched and readied. Aya flicked against his sweet spot a couple times, and when Yohji started to buck off the bed he pulled out his fingers.

"Dammit, Aya, you…. ahhh." Yohji arched his back again as Aya’s fingers tweaked and played with his nipples while at the same time tiny, cool fingers slid inside him, massaging him internally until he was gasping so hard he couldn’t breathe. One of Aya’s hands started to slowly pump him as Yohji moaned in ecstasy, the shadow fingers crawling deeper inside him and touching off wave after wave of pleasure. All he could do was chant Aya’s name reverently as he writhed on the bed.

Feeling things get so tense he was spinning out of control, Yohji thrashed his head back and forth. Just when he thought he was going to come, the fingers disappeared and Aya roughly grabbed the base of his cock. Yohji lay on the bed, panting, and shuddered as he was stopped just short of completion.

"Oh gods, Aya, are you trying to kill me?" Not that he was complaining in the slightest.

Aya brushed back his sweaty bangs and smiled sweetly at Yohji, a sight that he was going to cherish forever. It was the first time Aya had smiled since the wedding, and Yohji felt some pride in knowing he was partly responsible for the expression.

"No."

That was it, just the one word, and as Yohji tried to make his passion-fuddled brain come up with some witty comment, or to try and express how beautiful Aya looked, his face glowing with desire that was all for Yohji, the redhead bent down and kissed him again. Yohji sucked Aya’s tongue into his mouth as he spread his legs wider at his mate’s urging. One leg was pressed up against his chest, and in a smooth motion Aya was buried inside him.

"Ah!" Yohji arched his back, and immediately fell back onto the bed. "For the gods’ sake, Aya, don’t you dare move." He felt so close to coming again, his whole body tingling at the sensation of something so hard, so solid and warm taking the place of those cool, tiny fingers. The contrast alone was almost too much to take, without Aya hitting his sweet spot or even Yohji feeling Aya’s pleasure at being buried inside him.

Resting his head against Yohji’s chest, Aya breathed a few deep breaths. Then, despite Yohji’s cry, he started to slowly thrust forward, as deep as he could go before pulling back. Aya looked down at Yohji, his eyes a swirling mixture of silver and indigo.

"Mine." His hand wrapped around Yohji’s cock and squeezed gently. "You’re mine."

"Fuck yes, Aya. I’m yours." The shadows were back, and Yohji wondered if it was possible to go mad from too much pleasure. Aya was causing sparks of bliss to shoot through his body at each deliberate, forceful thrust, the shadows were skimming over his increasingly overheated skin, and all of his pleasure points were being manipulated with a finesse that made it almost impossible to breathe. Even Aya softly calling out his name as his pace started to quicken, was just one more sense overloaded. Yohji sobbed as he rocked his hips upward.

It was too intense to last for long; Aya was too emotionally worn, and Yohji was overcome by having his mate return to normal. Hell, better than normal, if this was Aya driving him wild with bliss. On top of it all was Aya’s emotions and energy pouring into him, no longer the weak light of the past week or two, but a raging torrent that set Yohji on fire. As his nerves sizzled and overloaded with pleasure he came in a shuddering rush, ejaculating wildly over his chest and Aya’s hand.

Aya’s breath hitched for a moment, and the pleasure pouring into Yohji increased. "So beautiful, Yohji." Then Aya tossed back his head and came too, and Yohji wrapped his legs tightly around his lover, trying to keep him inside so deep for a few more seconds. The pale man shakily pulled out of Yohji and fell to the side of the bed, and Yohji turned to curl up by his side. Aya closed his eyes and draped an arm over Yohji’s waist.

Waiting to catch his breath after the intense orgasm, Yohji pulled Aya closer to him and caught one of the man’s hands in his. About to lift it to his lips and lick it clean of his seed, Yohji realised that he wouldn’t be able to kiss Aya until he cleaned his mouth so he stopped. Sitting up as he groaned loudly, Yohji snagged his pants, which were still hanging on the bed, and used them to clean the two of them off.

Aya purred at his touch, and when Yohji was done he found himself pulled back down to the bed. The shadows returned, touching him lightly as they settled against each other. Yohji stared into his mate’s eyes and frowned when he saw a hint of sadness within them. He could feel the emotion still lingering inside Aya, even after what had just happened. Fear filled him at the thought that Aya would withdraw inside himself once again.

"Love, don’t go away again." He stroked Aya’s cheek, and his breath caught when Aya tilted his face into the caress.

"The pain won’t completely go away, Yohji. I’m sorry." Aya closed his eyes and snuggled against Yohji, tucking his head under his chin. "Downstairs, playing chess with Reiichi… I used to always play chess with my father and my sister. I’d let Aya-chan win, but I’d try my best to beat my father. Reiichi plays just like him."

So that was what had set Aya off. Yohji rubbed his chin against Aya’s head and wondered if he should say something, but Aya didn’t give him the chance.

"I guess I realised then that my past would always be with me, good and bad. Lately… all I’ve thought about was the bad -- about what I’ve lost. I’m sorry, Yotan."

"It’s okay, Aya. I know you’ve put up with a lot, and I shouldn’t have expected you to just accept everything that’s happened these past two months and not be affected. Just give me a chance to help you through things and stay with me." He hugged Aya close to him and tangled his fingers in an eartail.

Aya nipped him lightly on the shoulder and sighed. "The future frightens me, Yohji." Aya said the words slowly, as if each one caused him pain. "Before I knew exactly what it would bring, even if it would just be pain, but now…. Never leave me, that’s all I ask of you. I need you to be here, no matter what."

Breathing in deep the scent of roses, Yohji kissed Aya on the top of his head before giving the eartail a savage yank. When Aya snarled and pulled away, Yohji pushed his mate onto the bed and straddled his waist.

"Listen to me, Aya. I will never leave you. You will never leave me. For two bright men, why do we have such a problem with this? We’re mates, leaving isn’t an option for us. Unless you go all shadowy on me again, and then I’ll shake you until you stop and return to normal, and smack your ass raw for doing that to me again." Yohji glared at his mate for a moment, but the way Aya snarled and scowled back at him for that last part was just too cute. Mindful of being bit, he risked it anyway and kissed his cat.

Aya didn’t open his mouth right away, but gradually the anger faded and he parted his lips. The kiss was leisurely and sweet, causing Yohji to start to harden from the emotions that accompanied it. Love, passion and need, so powerful he was surprised the whole inn didn’t feel what he and Aya shared. He felt sorry for the other people about that. They’d never experience what the two of them shared, for centuries on end.

Nuzzling Aya’s neck, Yohji stroked his hand down Aya’s side, making him shiver. "Hmm, love, you said something about creating new memories? In the mood for another one right now?"

Aya yawned as he pressed closer to Yohji. "I don’t know, I seem to need lots and lots of positive reinforcement. Is this going to involve anything that’s going to last long enough to leave an impression?"

Lifting his head to glare with indignation at his mate, Yohji tugged on an eartail. "Oh, don’t you even go there, Aya. I’ve never left you wanting, or ended things after a couple thrusts. I’ve got the stamina to grind you into the mattress, and then do it again."

Amusement washed through Aya, for the first time in too long a while. "Is that a fact?"

"Hell, yes it is. Let me prove it to you right now." Aya stared up at him, his eyes heavy lidded and his lips just the slightest bit pouty, and Yohji couldn’t help but smile. Aya was back to normal, maybe even better than normal, considering the past half hour or so. And he had gotten a glimpse of a side of Aya that Yohji desperately wanted to coax into life and spend the next few centuries with. Life was good.

Setting out to prove to Aya that he hadn’t exaggerated, Yohji bent down and captured those pouty lips. He was probably going to catch hell for draining Aya so much in one night, but after the weak feedings he’d had lately, Aya owed it to him. Well, not really, but Yohji had to come up with some excuse to explain himself to the others come the morning….

*******

Kira smiled at Aya as she took the full basket from his hand. "So, how did you do today?"

Mickey laughed as he bent down to give his lover a kiss on the cheek. "He’s a natural born barterer. I almost feel sorry for the sellers after seeing him in action. Almost." Mickey winked at Aya. "But the thought of the deal he got us on sugar quickly stifles that urge. I’m torn over the great price and wondering how much Tollier has been ripping the Koneko off over the years."

Aya quietly grunted as he removed his cloak and gloves. It had been decided that he would try his hand at many of the Koneko’s everyday chores to see what he’d be best at, other than gardening, and it soon had become clear that the answer was shopping. Once he understood what the sellers should be charging for their wares, he’d quickly taken to arguing with them to get the best price. Not many people wanted to continue bargaining with him when he took to glaring, and his kage senses gave him an advantage over the human staff. Aya knew if the produce was as fresh or good quality as the seller was claiming it was and knew when they were desperate for a sale. It had surprised him to find out how much he enjoyed doing the shopping, in helping to supply the Koneko and saving the inn some money. He’d been allotted a portion of the income now that he was officially staff, and he was determined to make sure that he both earned that money and made as much as possible. Bounds lived for a very long time; Yohji and he would need some money tucked away to help them through the centuries. Schu’s present to them wouldn’t last forever.

Hanging his cloak on a peg, Aya went to the office to enter in the amount he’d spent and what goods would shortly be arriving. Another new talent he’d discovered was helping Mickey balance the Koneko’s books. It seemed he had a knack for numbers, and unlike other people, he never forgot to log a purchase. Aya privately thought that Mickey was extremely relieved that Yohji was no longer involved with the shopping, excluding buying the liquor. However, Aya had tagged along the other day with his mate as he’d purchased more alcohol for the inn and would again in the future, so he could keep track of Yohji’s purchases and make sure he didn’t pay too much for a keg of beer.

He spent the next few minutes working on the books and was pleased to note that the Koneko was ahead of its weekly budget. The construction on the new wing would start soon, immediately after the attic renovation was completed, so any extra cash was welcome. Not that the Koneko was hurting, not in the least. Between having a Harper in residence full time and Guards living here, the Koneko was very popular. So much so that Jo and Mickey had been talking about hiring a few more staff members, even with Teddy and Aya now being full time. It would be hard finding someone to fit in at the Koneko, especially when three of its residents were bounds.

The office door opening disturbed Aya’s thoughts. He looked up from the book in time to see Yohji lean against the desk, a smile on his face.

"So, how was shopping?"

"Good." Aya quickly finished jotting down his purchases and closed the book. Then he stood up and walked around the desk, nestling between Yohji’s long legs as he pressed against his mate. It was still a bit disconcerting to be out in the capital without Yohji by his side, a buffer between him and all the humans. He was grateful to be back home and near the older man.

Yohji brushed back Aya’s bangs and kissed him on the forehead. "Good." Aya could feel the smile on Yohji’s lips. "And here I was, stuck in the kitchen and helping Jo pluck a brace of chickens, wondering if you had run off with Mickey or something. There was something… distinctly predatory and happy to your emotions while you were gone."

Aya grunted and pushed away from Yohji’s chest, glaring up at the man as he quickly tossed back his eartails just in time. Of course Yohji then chose to kiss him on the nose instead.

"I wish you wouldn’t do that," Aya snarled as he rubbed his nose. "I got a great deal on sugar today. Almost half the price of what the Koneko had been paying for it." He felt proud of that achievement. It wasn’t often that Aya found out he was good at anything other than death. At that thought he frowned and shifted back into Yohji’s arms, eager to be distracted from his dark thoughts before the grey could creep back upon him. Aya still had problems with it some days.

Yohji tilted his chin and kissed Aya gently on the lips. "I guess that means Jo can bake twice as much sweets now. Imagine all the tarts and cinnamon rolls that will be." He waggled his eyebrows, and Aya couldn’t help but to smile the slightest bit at the look on Yohji’s face. "I adore you all covered in cinnamon and honey. Let’s go see if Jo will make us a batch of rolls right now."

Aya shook his head and tried to move away from his mate, only to be jerked back against Yohji’s chest. "Yohji, I refuse to allow you to cover me with any more batter. I hate being sticky."

"Hmm, then I think we have a problem here." Before Aya could ask what Yohji meant, the man captured his mouth and ardently kissed him. In a matter of seconds Aya was purring, his hands entangled in Yohji’s hair as he sucked on the man’s tongue.

"Or maybe not." Yohji shuddered as he broke off the kiss and all but pulled Aya onto his lap. "What say you to us skipping the batter, but taking the cinnamon and honey upstairs? I promise to wash you off when we’re done."

For a second the logistics of long hair, sticky honey, and just changed sheets flittered through Aya’s mind, but the desire that flowed from Yohji and the look in his mate’s eyes convinced him to ignore such thoughts.

"Okay."

Yohji grinned wickedly and kissed Aya again. As he sat back on the desk and Aya straddled his lap, there was a violent pounding on the office door. Just when they broke apart Teddy tossed open the door and stepped into the room, a smile on his face.

"Ah, there you are, Yotan." Teddy’s blue eyes twinkled merrily as he looked back and forth between Yohji and Aya. "Oh, pardon me, did I interrupt something?"

"Teddy, go the fuck away before I kill you. I mean it. This is the sixth time you’ve walked in on something in the past two days, and I’m long past the point where I believe you’re doing it accidentally," Yohji growled.

"Why would I do a thing like that?" Teddy managed a hurt expression, but his eyes still twinkled. "I just wanted to tell you that Ichiro needs someone to help him repair a few of the shingles on the stable’s roof, and I nominated you. He’s waiting for you."

There was silence for a moment, and then Aya found himself being quickly set aside with a pat on his bottom before Yohji charged after Teddy. The dark-haired man started laughing as he fled before Yohji.

"Come back here, you little pest! If I have to spend the damn day up on the roof in this heat, you’re gonna be up there with me!" Yohji’s voice could probably be heard throughout the inn. "And I’m leaving your ass up there when I come back down!"

Sighing as he tidied up the desk, Aya then walked out of the office. He found Koyu waiting in the hallway, looking in the direction he’d last seen Yohji running in.

"Teddy really is an idiot, isn’t he?" the Harper asked.

"It’s not wise to torment Yohji, that’s for sure." Aya nodded at the man and headed to the kitchen. Koyu fell in behind him.

"Well, in Teddy’s defense, I think he sees Yohji as his to torment." When Aya snorted at the remark, Koyu laughed quietly. "I know, he’s an idiot. So, what are your plans for the day?"

"I think I’ll see if Jo will make some cinnamon rolls while Yohji and Teddy are working on the roof." Aya felt the hint of a smile on his lips, and had to remind himself that it was okay to allow the expression to become more evident. No one here would wonder what he was smiling about and try to use that happiness against him. He was free, finally, of everything but the memories. Even if they were oppressive enough to engulf him in depression if he wasn’t careful.

"I see." Koyu started laughing louder as Aya’s smile grew. "So, let me see if I have this straight. Yohji is going to come in from spending a day in the sun, all because of Teddy, and find out that he missed covering you in batter. Not only is Teddy an idiot, but he’s going to be a dead one, too. And highly upset that you can torture Yohji ten times better than he can."

"Hn." Aya’s amusement faded somewhat as he walked into the kitchen and found Naru there, pestering Jo for a taste of the soup she was making. He’d managed to dodge being followed around on his excursion with Mickey, even if Aya had noted several of the new Shadow Guards keeping an eye on him the entire time he was at the market, but now that Naru had spotted him he knew he wouldn’t lose the young man until either Reiichi or Yuushi took over trailing him. He hated having the men ‘guard’ him, as it reminded him that he wasn’t quite as free as he’d like to believe.

Wishing Yohji and he had been a little quicker fleeing to their room, Aya bit back on a growl and walked over to Jo to ask her about the rolls.

*******

Kikyou looked down at the box that rested on his new desk. He picked up the small, velvet covered object and flicked open the lid. Nestled inside was an ornate ring made of platinum. It was set with a large, dark amethyst, a design of an orchid and a katana embossed on its surface. The craftsmanship was exquisite, and every detail of the family herald perfectly clear.

"Ran Fujimiya," he breathed, enjoying how the name sounded. Kikyou wondered how Aya would react to hearing his true name and seeing the ring his father had worn until his death. He was convinced that the man was indeed the Fujimiya heir, hidden away all these years by Reiji Takatori.

Aya had to believe himself free at the present, his captors dead and ash in the wind. So why didn’t he step forward and claim his inheritance? That was one of the many questions that Kikyou wanted to ask the redhead, but he hadn’t been able to yet. In the aftermath of the wedding, he’d been kept too busy cleaning up the mess and tracking down everyone involved in the attempted coup to see Aya.

He’d heard that Aya was back with Kudoh and living at the Koneko as an employee. The Fujimiya heir stuck doing menial labor in a tavern, it didn’t seem right. Aya belonged here at Court. Thanks to his new position and his past, Kikyou could see to it that the nobles accepted the man and keep him safe from their attention. All Aya had to do was give him a chance.

Watching the light from the window behind him reflect off the gem, Kikyou thought of how Aya would react to this latest present. There was a good chance that he would try to turn it down, would try to deny who he really was. Kikyou had to acknowledge that Kudoh had a very strong hold on Aya, and that he hadn’t done his best job in wooing the man. But now he had the leverage he needed to make sure that Aya gave him a chance. If Aya decided he would reclaim his heritage, he would need Kikyou’s help and guidance. And if he didn’t….

Kikyou set the ring back in its box and then placed it in a drawer of his desk. If Aya did want to remain anonymous, he’d have to strike some sort of deal with Kikyou. One that would give him the chance to know Aya better, and Aya to realize the world had more to offer than the Koneko and Kudoh.

*******

 

"Wow, this was where you lived when you were a kid?" Yohji twirled around the huge drawing room of the Fujimiya mansion, taking in the lushly carpeted floors and the pale grey walls. The room, though filled with many antiques, was large enough that there was still plenty of open space. He came to a halt and looked at his mate.

Aya was standing in the shadows, no surprise there, and was looking around the room. Yohji could feel how upset Aya was, and a little hurt as well, so he hurried over to the man’s side and hugged him.

"Aya?" Maybe it hadn’t been such a good idea to come here after all. He didn’t want Aya to slide back into his depression, which seemed very possible at the moment. But they’d both been curious about the house and what it might contain, and hadn’t been able to walk past it without going inside.

"According to Omi, I only spent a couple years here, before my family moved to Timbergrey." Aya rested his head against Yohji’s shoulder. "I remember it though, if only faintly. My father would play chess over in that corner."

Looking where Aya had gestured, Yohji hugged his lover tighter as he noticed an ornately carved chessboard, with a box that must contain the pieces resting on top. The sun was setting, causing the shadows to grow longer in the room, and he noticed that they were started to shift about, probably because of Aya’s distress.

"We should go."

Aya shook his head and pulled away from Yohji, but held onto his hand. "No, I want to look around."

Sighing, Yohji allowed himself to be led around the mansion as he cursed himself for suggesting that they come here this afternoon. They should have just gone straight to the small street fair that they’d been planning to visit, but Yohji had wanted to see something of Aya’s past. He hadn’t thought that this house could cause his lover any pain, but he’d been wrong.

The past couple weeks hadn’t been as difficult as those immediately after the wedding, but they hadn’t been the idyll that Yohji had imagined them to be when he’d thought about what he and Aya would do after his mate was freed. First off were the damn Guards always hanging around the inn, keeping an eye on Aya and even him. Then there was Birman, who had spent several nights quizzing Yohji and Aya in-depth on their talents, and had recently made some noises about jobs for them. The king was still trying to clean house after the failed coup, and Yohji had the suspicion that Aya and he had some spying to do. Possibly some assassinations, too. He didn’t want to think about how Aya would react to more orders to kill.

Aya had pretty much recovered from his depression and was working hard to find his place in the Koneko. He was happy and content most of the time. But he still had his days when he’d not say a word to anyone but Yohji, and even then just a few words to him, and be lost in his sorrow and memories. That seemed to happen at least once a week. And one day Aya had spent curled up in their room, surrounded by shadows, and hadn’t even spoken to Yohji. When he’d finally emerged later that night and returned to himself, all Aya had told him was that he’d spent the day talking to the shinigami and shadows. That had worried Yohji more than the depression. He knew that Aya needed some time to recover from everything and find his balance, and he could help his mate with that. But there wasn’t that much he could do when Aya went all kage on him, other than pray the man remembered his oath.

They made their way to a smaller room, where several paintings were scattered on the walls. Guessing that they were the Fujimiya ancestors, Yohji and Aya looked at them with interest. The one over the fireplace had Aya stiffening in shock, as his parents and a toddler version of himself were brought to life before them. His mother was sitting on a bench, a babe in her arms that had to be Aya-chan, and his father was standing behind her. Young Ran leaned against his mother, his eyes focused on his little sister.

"The king’s right, you do look just like her." Aya’s face wasn’t as soft as Arashi’s, his lips not as full, but there could be no mistaking mother and son. Yohji pulled Aya closer to him as he studied the portrait. The Fujimiyas appeared happy. It was such a shame they hadn’t remained that way for long. Then again, Yohji probably would never have met Aya.

He felt his own apprehension at that thought. It was one thing to know that Aya was a Fujimiya, but another to stand here in the man’s house and see exactly what that meant. Aya had been born into a completely different world than he had, one of privilege and rank.

"Do you ever wonder what your life would be like if you had stayed in the capital? Or if you would let the king tell everyone who you were?"

Aya turned in Yohji’s embrace and wrapped his arms around his neck. Yohji shifted his hands to Aya’s black clad hips and rested his head against his lover’s. They kissed briefly, and Aya nipped at his lip when he pulled back.

"No, I don’t. This… it seems like it’s another world entirely to me. The thought of being part of the Court…." Aya shook his head. "I know my mother hated it here, and that my father was happier in the country. I’ve heard a few tales about the backstabbing and the politics that are common in the Court. If I’d have stayed and been raised in the capital, I would have been miserable. Not highborn enough to be really accepted at Court, and unable to live my life as I pleased. I think that’s why my father left here in the first place, to give Aya-chan and me a chance to grow up away from all this.

"I don’t want to be Ran, Yohji. I’m much happier as Aya."

His cat had been content these past couple weeks, the situation with the dark days aside. Yohji sighed and kissed Aya on the lips, the contact only a brief taste. Aya was trying his hardest to fit into Yohji’s world, and if the depression, damn shinigami, and everything else that sought to destroy their happiness would just leave them the hell alone, Aya would be fine. He was even starting to get better about being around humans, including men. Though if Yohji was gone from his side for too long, Aya would become uncomfortable and start to retreat within. Yohji knew better than to assume he could make the damage Aya suffered at the Takatoris’ hands, especially Hirofumi’s, disappear in an instant. Or even a couple of years. But at least he had hope that one day Aya would be completely healed. Or as healed as he’d ever be.

"Good, because I’m keeping you. You’ll be Aya Kudoh til the day you die." Yohji felt a thrill when he said Aya’s new last name. Now the entire world would know, with just a few words, that Aya was his. Yohji bent his head to kiss his mate.

They stood there for several minutes, just enjoying the feel of the other’s mouth on theirs. Yohji kissed Aya until the smaller man’s anxiety and pain disappeared and he all but purred. He pulled back, a wicked little smile on his face.

"I must admit, it’s a bit of a rush knowing that you prefer to stay with me at the Koneko and not pick up your life here. And this isn’t even one of the castles your family owns. It’s nice to know I’m worth more than a fabulous fortune and a fancy title."

"Hn. I still have plenty of time to change my mind later on. I’m just not interested in it right now. But it’s comforting to know that I have this to fall back on if you can’t provide for me in the future."

Yohji stared at his lover, his mouth hanging open as Aya slid out of his arms. His mate walked across the room and paused by the doorway to look back at him.

"I think I still remember where the bedrooms are." Aya flashed him a brief, wicked grin of his own and sauntered away.

Slowly realizing that the man had been teasing him, or better damn well have been, Yohji snapped his mouth shut and took after the bastard. He damn well was going to show Aya just how much of a good ‘provider’ he was. Hell, Aya was about to be so incredibly blissed out he wouldn’t even be able to think about money or the future for the rest of the night.

*******

Crawford eyed his team critically. Jei was dressed in a sleeveless white tunic and pants, and looked halfway presentable for once. Nagi was wearing the grey tunic and black pants that Cass had made him, and Schuldig was wearing a green jacket over a pale grey shirt and pants. They all looked dressed for the occasion… except for Masato. What was it about the man that as soon as he put on a set of clothes, they instantly became wrinkled? His brown pants and cream coloured shirt looked to have spent the past month crammed into an overly packed saddlebag. Which just might be the case, but he had to have something in better shape to wear. Crawford sighed and tugged on the hem of his black shirt.

"All right, all they want to do is meet you. They’ll stare at you for a few minutes, and then make you stand before them for the next hour or so while they forget that you exist. Whatever you do, don’t draw any attention to yourselves. Is that understood, Schuldig and Masato?"

<Yes, Father.> Crawford glared at that thought. While they remained in Esset, he didn’t even want Schuldig to think that name at him. They were dead if the Elders found out Schuldig was Cassandra’s and his son. Well, they would be dead after the Elders broke them to find out where their missing precog was, and whatever else had been hidden from them. And it wouldn’t do to let those bastards know that a kage still lived.

<We know, Crawford. Sheesh, you told us this how many times on the way here, and while we’ve been stuck in our quarters waiting for the senile farts to acknowledge us. Nagi won’t do anything to endanger Aya, and I know not to mention our connection, or the fact that Masato and I are mates. Relax and let’s get this over with.>

He glared at his son for a moment. <Listen, Schuldig, you’ve never met the Elders before. Once we step in there, soul gaki-bounds will be trying to pick our thoughts, and watching for us to make the slightest slip. Luckily, the only water elemental present who’s strong enough to read blood is on our side, or we’d be found out with ease. Now step away from Masato and behave for once.> Crawford just wanted to get this over with.

"Open the door so we can enter, Oracle." Schuldig flashed him a cocky grin, but he did finally move away from his mate. It was just too risky to let people find out that either of the men could be harmed or controlled by threats against the other, so Schuldig and Masato were forced to remain distant from one another when they were in public. Everyone was getting tired of the scrutiny that was being directed their way, and it was hoped that this meeting would alleviate that somewhat. Once he and Jei faced whatever their punishment was for failing to bring back the kage, and Nagi, Schuldig and Masato were accepted as new agents.

Crawford pulled open the door and walked inside. The large reception room was filled with people, most of them bounds, and the air was charged by their presence. So much magic filled the enclosed space that one didn’t have to be a kage to sense it. Inured to the sensation by decades of experience, Crawford held his head up high and briskly stepped towards the small platform where three decrepit figures sat. His new team fell in behind him.

Reaching the Elders, he bowed low and remained in that position. Crawford could feel the eyes of the room upon him, but he didn’t let that bother him. All he had to do was remain focused and he and the others would be able to leave the room.

"Oracle, are we to understand that while your mission was a success, you failed to obtain what we sent you after?" The Elder who had been dubbed Thought, his original name long forgotten, was the one who had spoken. Crawford looked up to see that Sense and Strength were sitting behind the frail old man, Sense busy knitting something and Strength dwarfing the tiny woman.

"Sir, I’m afraid to say that the person you sent us after is no more. Ran Fujimiya is dead to the world. He chose not to continue living as a slave." Crawford very carefully told the truth… from one perspective. Ran Fujimiya was indeed dead; the Elders had asked nothing about Aya Kudoh.

The three bounds were silent for a moment then Sense softly spoke. "You said so in your report. Was there no hope of keeping him alive and bringing him back?"

"None whatsoever, ma’am. Berserker and I did our best, but Fujimiya did as he pleased." In the large room people shifted about, certainly taking note of the name ‘Fujimiya’ as they wondered why their masters had wanted the man. Crawford kept his thoughts tightly shielded as he gazed calmly at the Elders.

It was Strength’s turn to speak. "You failed to bring back the one person we asked you to and showed up with three strangers instead. Explain yourself."

Crawford bowed his head. "Sir, my partner and I were fortunate enough to stumble upon these talented bounds during our mission and convinced them that their destiny lay in Esset. Please, allow me to introduce you to them." Crawford slowly lifted his head, and when the Elders didn’t protest, he stepped backwards and smiled.

He waved towards Nagi. "Prodigy, a powerful earth elemental bound." Then Schuldig. "Mastermind, a talented soul gaki-bound." Next was Masato’s turn. "Rook, a succubae-bound." The three men bowed low.

Watching the looks of satisfaction that covered the faces of the elderly bounds, Crawford was careful to mask his own smug emotions. He hadn’t brought back a kage, but he’d made Esset stronger with those three. A shame that they were really here to tear Esset apart, and not fight for it and its rulers. The Elders had sent him to Kritiker to bring back a kage, but he’d brought back a different type of darkness entirely. One that would creep into Esset’s heart, and slowly kill it. Crawford almost smiled at the thought.

*******

owari... for now.

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