Shadows of the Past

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by nekojita

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Disclaimer: The Shadow AU premise is all my own, but sadly, I had to ‘borrow’ Yohji, Aya and the gang. *sniff*

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Many thanks to Tritorella, Tameiki and Byakko for the beta. Any remaining mistakes are my own.

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prologue

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Yohji wiped the sweat off his forehead and cursed, softly so the sound didn’t travel very far. Where the hell were their targets? If Birman had given them the wrong information about this murdering gang of bandits and made them prowl around in the dark, *alone*, these last three nights, he was going to have Botan cast a spell on her to make all her hair fall out. *If* he could get her to remove the ring made from Aya’s blood that she’d taken to wearing all the time now. Oh well, he could probably ask Marta or Cass to cook up some herbal concoction that would have the same effect.

He was jerked out of his mental wanderings and back to reality when something very hard and heavy nicked the side of his left foot. He glared at his horse and stepped away from the stupid beast, which was shifting about on its feet, almost stomping his. "Break anything and I’ll make sure Ichiro doesn’t feed you any apples for the rest of the year," he warned the gelding. The horse just rolled its eyes and snorted before lowering its head to nibble on some grass.

It was hot and it was late and he was stuck in the middle of nowhere with a smelly horse instead of his mate. As Teddy would say, ‘life sucked’. The only good thing was that the damned mosquitoes that kept buzzing around didn’t try to feed off of him, although the sound gave him a headache. Guess they didn’t have a taste for bound blood and were settling for horse instead.

Sighing in irritation, he stepped to the side so he had room to mount. Once on his horse, he gently kicked it into motion. He’d head east a kilometer or two and take up watch there for an hour. If nothing happened by then, he’d find Aya and they’d call it a night.

He just wished the damned bandits would show themselves so he didn’t have to come back here for another night spent alone. The stakeout wouldn’t be so bad if Aya were with him, but considering the amount of road they had to cover, even with shadow wards helping to notify them of any movement, it just wasn’t practical to stay together. So far they had nothing to show for the last three nights other than frustration and weariness.

Focusing his thoughts on the link with his mate, Yohji smiled slightly when he caught Aya’s feelings of boredom and annoyance. He’d make a guess and say that Aya wasn’t happy with the prospect of spending yet another night out on the road. It was getting too late for much traffic and they had nothing to show for this evening’s effort. It really was beginning to look like they’d be out here again tomorrow.

He picked a spot on the side of the road, sheltered from sight by a small grove of elm trees. Wishing he’d brought a book or two so he could pass the time reading like Aya did, he settled himself as comfortably as possible in the saddle and slumped forward. He hadn’t missed stakeouts like this when he’d left the Guards, nope, not at all. They were almost as bad as being on sentry duty. To think that if he wasn’t sworn to Birman, he could be home right now, sipping some nice, chilled white wine with his lover curled up at his side, listening to Koyu sing.

Birman better damn well give them a bonus for this. If the damned thieves weren’t using magic to mask themselves, the regular Guards could handle this mission instead of Aya and him, having to stay out all night, no cuddling, no fun and with saddle sores to boot. "Not that you’re a shabby excuse of a horse, but you’re no Aya," he said as he patted the gelding’s neck. He got another snort by way of reply.

His attention had just started to drift again when he suddenly felt a flurry of emotions over his link with Aya. Surprise, excitement, anger and anticipation tinged with hunger and then…. He cursed as the link seemed to fade out, the emotions becoming weak. That meant that Aya was going shinigami on him - and that someone was dying.

He spurred the horse out onto the road and in the direction he’d just come from. Aya was covering the road between the fortieth and forty-fifth kilometer markers, while he’d been waiting by the thirty-eighth marker. That left him with possibly up to seven kilometers to cover while Aya dealt with a gang of murderers. Suddenly the idea of splitting up didn’t seem so smart. If anything happened to his mate, he was going to gut the people responsible and Birman to boot. As he raced down the road, he tapped frantically on the copper bracelet on his right wrist to let the Shadow Guard know something was happening.

It turned out that Aya was close to the forty km marker. He could smell the blood from about seventy meters away, which caused him to spur the horse on even faster, never mind that it wanted to stop after it caught whiff of the same. Grateful as hell for his enhanced night vision, he was able to spot his lover off to the side of the road, Aya’s white skin and the hide of the pale grey horse he was seated on glowing in the moonlight. When Yohji’s mount slowed down and refused to go any farther, he jumped off the stupid beast and ran the rest of the way.

Within a few meters of his mate, he began to notice some more details. The road was saturated with blood, large puddles scattered about, reflecting the crescent sliver of moon in the cloudless sky. Red and white lumps lay everywhere - his stomach clenched when he recognized one of them as a human head. Down the road a bit was a large mass of shadows and he heard the nervous snorts and soft whinnies of horses.

Aya’s eyes were pools of pure and shining silver and regarded Yohji impassively as he approached. The grey horse, used to its kage rider, didn’t appear bothered by the blood and gore and nuzzled Yohji in the chest, looking for a treat. He fished one of the sugar cubes he’d been bribing his gelding with over the past few nights out of the pouch around his waist and held out his hand. The horse immediately inhaled the treat and bobbed its head in pleasure.

"Aya?" He frowned when he didn’t get any response and reached out to touch his mate’s left thigh, the muscles relaxed and warm beneath his hand. "Cat? Are you okay?"

Aya blinked and shook his head, the silver fading slightly from his eyes. He let out a deep breath and leaned down, his lips parted and his eyes heavy lidded. Yohji’s hand cupped his mate’s chin and he stood on his toes so he could kiss the man, relief washing through him. Through the physical contact he could feel the energy filling Aya, some of it flowing into him and making his senses tingle. Someone had fed very well tonight.

As uncomfortable as their positions were, they remained locked in the kiss until they heard the sound of several horses charging toward them. Pulling away reluctantly, he grabbed Aya’s hand and tugged. "Come down here."

His mate didn’t say a word, which was beginning to worry him, as were with the shards of silver among Aya’s violet irises, but Aya climbed off the horse and allowed Yohji to hold him close. Yohji was happy to note that Aya appeared untouched; no wounds to speak of and not a drop of blood to be found. He wrapped his arms around Aya and held him tight as the Shadow Guards approached.

Naru was the first one to reach them, forcing his horse on despite its reluctance to approach the scene of so much death. "Are you two all right?" he asked anxiously as he leapt to the ground. He slipped a little on grass slick with blood but saved himself from a fall just in time. When he realized what he had slipped on, he made a face of disgust. "Yuck."

"We’re fine," Yohji said, "but I don’t think the bad guys fared so well." He watched cautiously as the rest of the Guards approached, grateful that Ken wasn’t on duty tonight. This much blood would drive his friend’s gaki nature wild with hunger. As it was, *he* felt on edge from the others’ presences and didn’t like it when they came too close to him and Aya. His lips kept trying to pull back to expose his sharp teeth.

Eri, Naru’s partner, blanched as she stepped around a hunk of flesh. Beside the thin woman was Yuushi, his face drawn into a frown as he surveyed the carnage, and Botan, who appeared worried. Yohji motioned for them to stop their approach before he bent his head to sniff Aya’s hair, breathing in the familiar, soothing scent of his lover to help calm himself down.

"What happened?" Yuushi asked, a cautious arm’s reach from them. He gestured a hand around the scene of carnage. "Don’t tell me you killed everyone. How do we know they’re the right people?"

"They were the killers," Aya said, his voice sibilant and cold. Yohji sighed in worry and held his lover even tighter, not happy that Aya was still acting like a shinigami despite the kiss from earlier. "They tried to attack a carriage and one of them was a wizard." Aya gestured to the large shadow down the road and then at a smaller one not too far away, which retreated to reveal an unconscious man dressed in black and grey, a hood over most of his face. "I left one alive." He didn’t sound very happy about that.

While Naru wandered about, Eri took a step closer to the large shadow, her brows furrowed in concentration. "I can sense three minds over there, all of them scared out of their wits." She glanced at Botan. "Can you spell them to sleep when he drops the cloak? Nothing too deep since I need to be able to alter their memories."

"One moment." Botan closed his eyes for a few seconds, his lips moving but no sound coming forth. When he was done preparing the spell he looked at Aya. "You can drop the shadow cloak now."

Aya did as he was told, the shadows melting into the night’s darkness to reveal a small but well-made carriage. The two matching black horses that pulled it whinnied and shifted in their harnesses but Botan quickly muttered something that calmed them down. After casting a look at Yuushi, he and Eri went to tend the driver and the two passengers who were inside the carriage.

"Couldn’t you capture them all?" Yuushi didn’t sound very pleased and he kept looking about at the bloody mess that surrounded them.

"Dammit, Honjyou, who are you to complain about us getting the job done?" Yohji snapped, starting to grow tired of the whole thing and just wanting to go home with his mate. "You and Birman drag us in on the investigation and tell us to stop these killers, which Aya did. If you don’t like our work, then fuck off."

"What if they weren’t the men we’re after?" Yuushi asked, his blue eyes flashing with anger. "I’ve got what, one man alive out of a possible dozen? How’s that going to look?"

"It was them," Aya said, cutting Yohji off before he could yell at Yuushi some more for being such an idiot. "They reeked of death and," he continued, gesturing to the head lying in the middle of the road, "the wizard cast a spell that spooked the horses. They were going to rape the woman inside and kill all three of them. They’re worse than hungry gaki." His voice was thick with scorn and still held the inhuman edge that sent shivers up and down Yohji’s spine.

Yuushi looked as if he wanted to dispute Aya’s statement but if there was anyone who’d know a murderer by sight alone, it was a kage. Over the past several weeks that they’d worked with the Shadow Guard, Aya’s growing talent for foreseeing death and picking a killer out of a crowd had proved infallible.

"You know we’ve been staking out this damned road because we could sense the wizard using magic to pick out and trap the victims, not to mention make sure we didn’t blow our cover over a couple of thieves deciding to hold up a carriage to make some quick money," Yohji pointed out, his patience wearing thin and the urge to strangle Yuushi growing stronger by the second. "If Aya said they’re the guys you’re after, it’s them. He left you one of them, at least." He couldn’t work up much sympathy for a pack of killers who’d slaughtered and raped over three dozen innocent people, moving along Kritiker’s network of roads to avoid capture.

"Aya’s right," Eri called out from over by the unconscious bandit. She flinched when everyone turned to look at her but straightened her shoulders and stood up, her attention focused on Yuushi. For some damn reason she had an annoying habit of ignoring Yohji and Aya whenever possible, but he’d overlook the quirk if she backed his lover and speeded up their return home. "I did a quick scan of this guy’s mind." She toed the man at her feet in the ribs and grimaced in distaste.

"I thought you were fixing the witnesses’ memories." Yuushi folded his arms over his chest and frowned at the soul gaki-bound.

Eri flushed but didn’t look away from her Captain. "Botan’s put them to sleep, I have the time to fix things in a few minutes. I wanted to check and see how long this creep was going to be out." She toed the bandit again, this time hitting him with more force. "He’s part of the gang, all right. When Aya interrupted them, they turned on him for a bit of fun to whet their appetites," she glanced nervously at Yohji when he growled in anger, "if you know what I mean." Her voice was thick with scorn. "Filthy scum. Anyway, they would have done to him exactly what he did to them and then some, especially after the wizard noticed his spells didn’t work." She glanced at Aya and flushed, red spreading across her plain face.

Yuushi seemed a bit mollified to hear that, which only made Yohji’s blood boil even more. Oh sure, he’d believe a woman he’d known for less than two months but not Aya. Prick. He growled slightly and wrapped his arm about Aya’s waist tighter, pulling his mate against him. When Aya was lost in his shinigami nature, touch was one of the best ways to break him free. Once Yuushi was satisfied and didn’t need them here any longer, they could go home and soak in the tub, the hot water and naked skin against skin serving as a touchstone for Aya to remember his human emotions. There’d been so many moments like this these past few weeks that he was becoming rather good at helping to push back Aya’s true nature.

The snap of a branch made all but Aya whirl about in the direction of the sound. Naru walked toward them, leading two horses by the reins. He grinned in delight at catching them unaware. "They belong to the bandits, I believe. I checked their saddlebags and found some of the stolen items."

"Then that’s all the proof we need." Yuushi groaned and rubbed the back of his neck. "I’ll let Birman interrogate the suspect and report to the king." He turned to Yohji and Aya and smiled, the expression weary and a bit apologetic. "Thank you. I’m sorry for being such an asshole but I want things done right. It would be better if we had more of the gang alive."

Then he shouldn’t have sicced Aya on them, Yohji thought with growing irritation. However, knowing that a fight would keep them here that much longer, he just nodded. "Aya was outnumbered and there were innocents about. Besides, these guys were monsters; no one’s going to care when they hear that most of the gang was killed while being subdued by the Guard, especially not the wizard."

"Yeah." Yuushi stared at Aya, a frown on his face. Yohji growled again, this time in warning, upset at someone staring at his lover like that. "I’m sorry for leaving you out here alone, Aya. If there’d been a way to give you some backup that the damned wizard wouldn’t sense, I would have done so." When Aya didn’t say anything, his frown deepened.

Yohji cut off what he was about to say with a curt slash of his hand. "I need to get him home. We’re both tired." He felt as if he would snap if they didn’t get some time alone soon.

Yuushi immediately nodded in agreement. "I’m sure you are." He seemed to debate something for a moment before continuing to speak. "I know the past several weeks have been hard on you, but the work needed to be done. I can’t speak for Birman, but the Shadow Guard’s grown enough now that we shouldn’t have to rely on you as much anymore."

"I’m happy to hear that we can get some rest and that the group’s doing so well." This didn’t mean that Birman would give them a break from the assassinations, though. "Did you see my horse while you were wandering around?" he asked Naru, done with the mission for the night.

"Yeah, I left him tied to a tree right beyond the bend." Naru pointed in the direction of the city. "You guys going to be all right heading home by yourselves?"

"No, you go with them," Yuushi ordered before Yohji could say otherwise.

Growing truly pissed off with being bossed around and treated like he didn’t even know his way home, Yohji, with a great deal of effort, swallowed his anger and forced a smile to his lips as he looked at Botan. "Sorry for leaving you with such a mess."

"It’s all right; a few spells and no one will know what happened here." Botan glanced at Aya. "Get him home. I’ll talk to Birman in the morning about…things."

So his friend had noticed how Aya had changed the last few weeks. Well, Botan would have a better chance of changing Birman’s mind than he would so he could have the fun. "Come on, Cat, I see a bath in our immediate future." Aya rested his head against his shoulder for a moment and then pulled away to mount his horse. Yohji couldn’t help but give his lover’s delectable bottom a pat to help him into the saddle. "Night, all," he said as he walked beside the pale horse, his hand lightly gripping Aya’s calf. He didn’t want to let go until his lover was back to normal, too afraid of losing Aya to depression or to his true nature again.

Naru scrambled after his horse and called out that he’d join up with them in a minute. Anxious to get home, Yohji started jogging toward his mount, just wanting to reach the Koneko and leave all this death behind them. There was too much of it lately and it wore on them. He thought longingly of going away somewhere, just Aya and him, no missions or court intrigues to bother them. It was a nice fantasy. The trouble was, it was *just* a fantasy.

He reluctantly let go of his mate’s leg and ran over to the gelding, which was still a little spooked over the blood but it settled down after a few strokes along its nose. Once mounted, he hurried back to Aya’s side, riding so close that their legs brushed against each other’s. "You all right, Cat?"

He didn’t really expect an answer so he almost dropped the reins when Aya turned to stare at him, still too much silver in his eyes for comfort. "Yes. I told you, I can look after myself."

Thinking back to the eleven men scattered in pieces along the roadway, one of them who was a wizard, he had to agree. "Yeah, you certainly can. Why don’t you stick close to me then so I don’t get afraid of riding around in the dark, hmmm?"

Maybe it was his imagination but he thought he saw a sliver of a smile on Aya’s face. His mate resumed his silence but rode next to Yohji the entire way home.

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chapter one

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Birman sipped her coffee as she waited for Botan to join her and thought with some longing about how things had been last summer. She hadn’t been anywhere near as busy or tired then, and could even enjoy her coffee out in one of the palace’s many gardens before the heat of the day drove everyone inside the building’s cool stone walls. She was lucky to even see the sun any more – now she spent most of her time on her duties as Spymaster and helping to form the Shadow Guard into an organization she could be proud of. At least she shouldn’t have to worry about that much longer as the group was coming along splendidly and Honjyou was proving himself to be a capable leader.

Setting her empty cup down so she could rub her tired eyes, she sighed and poured herself more coffee. But lately, just when she thought things were under control, something new would pop up that required her attention. She should stop expecting to be able to turn over most of the responsibility to Honjyou in the next few weeks, in case things played true to form and were mucked up enough that she’d be stuck dealing with it for the rest of the year.

She felt a spark of relief when one of her pages opened her office door for Botan and welcomed the distraction of being able to talk to a good friend for a few minutes. Taking in Botan’s new, dark brown robe with gold and cream embroidery around its hem, his neatly trimmed hair and face bereft of hollows from skipping too many meals, she smiled to see him looking so well. The expression faded, though, when he didn’t smile back. "Morning, Botan."

"Good morning, Birman." He sat down in the chair opposite her and shook his head at her silent offer of coffee. "I’m fine, thanks. Cass brews the stuff so strong that one cup gets me through the entire day."

"You need to start bringing in a flask of it for me then," she told him with a smile, which faded just as quickly as the last one when she didn’t get anything but a frown from the man. "All right, what have I done to piss you off now?"

Botan leaned forward in his chair, his eyes intent on hers. "Have you heard about last night?"

"Do you mean the mission?" She set her cup of coffee down, suddenly not in the mood to drink anything. "I read Honjyou’s report. How long did it take you to clean up the mess?"

"Not very long." Botan grimaced at some thought. "I spent more time warding the area to keep any gaki from being drawn to the spot because of all that blood and flesh scattered about." He tapped his thick fingers against a stack of paper left on her desk. "Aya lost control last night."

"Not completely. He didn’t harm the victims and he left one of the men alive for me to talk to after our meeting." She wasn’t looking forward to that - interrogations were never very pleasant.

Botan’s fingers stilled and then he slammed his hand on the desk, making her jump at the sound. "He lost his hold on his human side last night, *completely and utterly*," he stressed. "I saw him afterwards; not even a few minutes alone with Yohji brought him back to normal. He reacted to the thieves like a shinigami, Birman."

"I thought that’s what he was," she pointed out and earned another slap to her desk. "Botan, if you feel the need to hit something, I’ve some thickheaded recruits you can have fun bashing about, but stop abusing my paperwork!"

A tired smile flickered across his face. "From the looks of it, the damned papers could stand being beaten into submission." He surveyed the cluttered mess that was her desktop. Then his expression became serious once more. "I’m trying to make a point here, Birman. You’re working Aya and Yohji much too hard - they’re exhausted and letting their true natures show. If Reiichi and Ken hadn’t been there, Yohji would have beaten some poor customer who took a liking to Aya into a bloody pulp the other day, and Aya’s taking longer and longer to return to normal after these missions." His look grew a bit accusing. "You’d know that for yourself if you stopped by the Koneko at any other time rather than to give them a new assignment."

She sighed in weariness as she picked up her cup and refilled it, grateful that the coffee hadn’t spilled onto any important documents. "I’ve been a bit busy myself, Botan. In case you don’t remember, a couple of months ago there was an attempted coup against the king." Botan’s lips pressed together, a sign that he was annoyed but he didn’t say anything. "I gave them as much time as I could to recover from that fight, and for Aya to… settle in. I *need* their skills."

"You can’t tell me that you don’t have other assassins," he said, disapproval heavy in his voice.

"No, but I don’t have any other assassins who can talk a man into jumping off a building in front of a crowd of witnesses, or someone who can break into a house, kill a person in such a manner that it looks completely natural, walk back out and reset the locks so no one ever knows that they were breached." The coffee, which had been delicious before, was now bitter in her mouth. She set the cup aside for good and leaned back in her chair. "Also, you know we’ve yet to uncover a few of the participants and I don’t want them scared off by seeing several suspicious murders." There were times she truly hated her job and talking about the deaths she’d ordered, obeying her king’s command, was one of them.

Botan also leaned back into his chair, the anger and disapproval gone. "I know you’ve been working hard to flush out all the guilty parties, Birman, and I know you have got your reasons for putting Yohji and Aya to work. I just want you to know that they’re not constructs, able to keep running and running until the magic wears out. They need time to recuperate and you’re pushing them to their limits. Their bodies might be able to work much harder than a human’s but their psyches…." He shook his head. "Cass asked me to tell you that they’re still young and adjusting to many changes. If you push them too hard, we’ll lose them to their demon natures."

The last thing she wanted was a very powerful but unrestrained succubae or a shinigami - *especially* not a shinigami - trapped in flesh roaming around the capital. She shuddered and wrapped her arms around her for warmth. "I hear you. I’m sorry. I didn’t know it was getting that bad."

"I don’t think any of us did, really, not until last night. Reiichi stopped by Cass’ this morning to convey to me how worried the Koneko’s staff has become. Yohji and Aya haven’t been themselves lately."

She was ashamed to realize that she’d forgotten about how human those two were, as focused as she’d been on their bound abilities. "All right, I’m properly chastened." She tucked back her bangs and slumped in her chair. "You probably don’t want to hear why I asked to see you this morning then."

Her friend eyed her critically for a moment and sighed. "That bad, is it? Another mission for Yohji and Aya?"

Forcing herself to sit up in her chair so she could hand over a scroll, she rested with her elbows on the desk. "Not only Yohji and Aya. I was hoping you’d come along as well, and possibly Omi. How are his studies progressing?"

"Very well. He’s finally found a subject that he doesn’t already know all of the answers to and is completely enthralled." Botan smiled fondly before unrolling the scroll. "Two wizards, a succubae-bound and a kage. It doesn’t sound good."

"Not to mention four Guards, one of them a flesh gaki-bound, the other a soul gaki, and the third a minor wizard in his own right." She picked up the emerald green glass paperweight and rolled it between her palm and the top of her desk. "I did hear what you said about Yohji and Aya, but I truly need Aya’s help with this mission, and they strike me as a matched set."

Botan looked at her over the top of the scroll, an amused expression on his face. "Just you try to separate them and you’ll have Yohji snapping and growling after you the entire time." The smile faded. "That’s if you’re lucky."

"I’ve heard enough horror stories about coming between a mated pair of bounds to know better," she said. "In a way, this mission might be the break they need. It would get them out of the city at the least. We’ll be gone for a minimum of two weeks since there’s more to be done than just investigate the murders." She truly hoped that Botan didn’t fight her on this one. "I promise to give them a true vacation after we return."

Botan merely grunted, too busy reading the scroll to reply. Sitting on tenterhooks, she waited for him to reach the most crucial part of the document. She knew exactly when that was, as her friend took to scowling at her. "I don’t know whether you’re sadistic or an idiot," he snapped, his temper clearly rising.

"I’d like to think I’m neither. Before you bite my head off," she stalled, rather uncomfortable about having an enraged wizard in her office, "…let me just state that I’m merely following the king’s orders. This mission came from Shuuichi, not me. I’ll be tagging along as well."

Botan appeared only mildly soothed by that admission. "Then it’s the king who’s either a sadist or an idiot, and neither bodes well for the leader of this country. What the hell is he thinking?"

"That it’s a serious matter that needs to be attended to *now*. It’s been put off for too long, to be honest, and those deaths are most likely a result." She stopped playing with the paperweight. "Are you in?"

"Yes." Her friend tossed the scroll onto her desk. "On one condition. I want to know when exactly you’re going to break the news to Yohji and Aya so I can make certain to be as far away from the Koneko as possible." She knew he wasn’t joking in the slightest.

"If only I could be right there with you," she muttered.

*******

Yohji slowly drifted awake, hunger satisfied, but he was still somewhat tired. The bed felt so soft that all he wanted to do was snuggle into the mattress and sleep for a few more hours - but something was wrong. Something was missing…. He opened his eyes, forced himself to sit up and frowned as he realized what had really woken him. Aya wasn’t in the bed.

"Aya? Love?" He could smell his mate and sense he was nearby. After a moment he could hear Aya’s heartbeat and the faint sound of him breathing. The room was almost pitch black, however, a condition that wasn’t relieved upon opening the bed’s gauze curtains. It even took his enhanced vision a moment to acclimatize to the darkness well enough to see Aya huddled on the window seat.

Getting out of bed, he crossed over to his mate, his hand reaching automatically to cup Aya’s face. "Cat?"

"Hmmm, Yotan." Strong hands gripped his arms and pulled him down onto the window seat for Aya to curl against. He settled and wrapped his arms around his lover, a smile on his face that disappeared upon hearing a faint hissing sound.

Aya replied in the same manner, sounding like a leaking water pipe, and once he stopped hissing, Yohji pulled him close for a kiss, one as hot and as passionate as he could manage. Aya resisted at first but soon melted against him, brilliant sunlight flowing into him even though he’d fed so well last night. It was hard to break off the kiss, but he eventually did so with much regret. "Why’d you get out of bed?" he asked, trying to keep his jealousy at Aya’s shinigami under control. It was harder than normal to temper that emotion lately. "And can we let in a little light? I can’t tell if it’s day or night here."

His mate, sprawled on top of his chest, looked at him for a moment before resting his head on Yohji’s shoulder. The room slowly lightened to the brightness of a very cloudy day and he heard several angry hisses, none of them from Aya.

"It’s late morning," Aya said, his voice quiet with a hint of sibilance. "I couldn’t sleep any more but you still seemed tired so I let you rest."

"I woke up missing you." He slid a finger under Aya’s chin and lifted it until his lover looked at him. "It’s just not the same unless you’re lying half on top of me and stealing the covers."

"I don’t steal the covers, it’s too hot for them now," Aya snarled as mild irritation washed through Yohji. Relieved to feel emotion through their link, Yohji smiled and tugged on a dangling eartail - and just managed to yank his hand back before it was bitten. Aya snapped his teeth in warning and sat back, against the wall.

"You do too steal them, just take a look at the bed and you’ll find all the covers on your side. I’m going to freeze come winter, I just know it," Yohji teased. Aya just snorted and stared off in the distance. "Are you hungry?" he asked as a distraction. "Maybe we should go get something to eat." He suddenly remembered coming home last night to find Kira and Mickey in the kitchen, waiting for them with a pot of hot chocolate and some snacks. He felt a flush of embarrassment as he recalled the way he’d growled at his friends and practically dragged Aya down to the hot spring.

Aya shook his head and curled against him, a warm, wonderful smelling presence that helped him to relax. Yohji wrapped his arms around his mate and hugged him close. "I’m still full from last night," Aya said, purring loudly.

"Oh, yeah." He was ‘full’ from feeding off that energy too but it would still feel good to eat something solid and warm, not to mention have a cup of coffee. However, he just sat there for a while and enjoyed having an Aya in his arms who was mostly returned to normal. "We should probably have something to eat though, just to make Jo happy. Then what do you say to a little shopping?" He foresaw a box of almond cookies in someone’s future, and wouldn’t mind picking up a nice bottle or two of plum wine they could enjoy later that night.

Aya tensed in his arms and pulled away, a sad expression on his face. "I can’t, Yohji. I… it’s my day to spend with Kikyou."

Yohji couldn’t help but snarl at the mention of that bastard, filled with hate and jealousy. "I should have just killed him," he said, his voice rumbling with anger, and was nipped on the chin for his troubles.

"You know that’s not an option. If something happens to him, what do you want to bet that one of the Guards he trusts will make certain that everyone knows about my family?" Aya pointed out. He looked angry but Yohji sensed that he was really just worried.

Yohji pulled his lover close to rest against him, Aya’s scent and warmth helping to calm him down enough to think properly. "I know that, love." He didn’t want to think about Aya being trapped at Court, forced to assume his father’s position and at the mercy of those cutthroat bastards who called themselves ‘lords’. "I still think we should just kill him and let Birman and the king sort out the mess, though."

Aya’s fingers slid through his hair and tugged on a tangle. "What if they can’t handle it? You know all it would take is one rumor that was convincing enough and the Court would descend on the Koneko in hopes of finding a Fujimiya heir they could marry to their second or third daughter. ‘Tainted’ as my bloodline is," Aya said with a frown, "it’s still tied to quite a fortune and royal favor."

And all the highborn pricks had to do was get one good look at Aya and then go spend some time in the Royal Portrait gallery. Once they saw how much he resembled Ranmaru’s wife, that would be it. "We should still rat on Kikyou’s ass for him blackmailing you into spending time with him," Yohji said.

"I won’t take that risk." Aya tensed and curled up against Yohji’s side. "I don’t want the Court to know about me, Yotan. Even if they don’t find out about what I am, they’d try to take you away from me. I’d much rather just put up with Kikyou every week."

Yohji swallowed a vicious snarl at the thought of anyone taking his cat away from him. "If he ever touches you, consequences or no, I’ll kill him. We can go live in Thracia or Elba for a few decades if we have to." He wouldn’t allow anyone to force themselves on Aya again, no matter what price he paid for ripping the bastard into shreds.

He got another nip on his chin and felt a wave of anger through their link. "I won’t let that happen," Aya said, his voice shaking with fury. "Idiot." He tried to pull away but Yohji wouldn’t let him.

"I know you won’t," he soothed as he stroked back the soft, crimson hair falling into his mate’s face. That was a small lie as he wasn’t too sure that Aya wouldn’t make some sort of sacrifice if Kikyou ever pushed things, just like he had for his sister over the years, but he knew that Aya would never willingly submit to Kikyou. He felt frustrated as hell that he wasn’t able to protect his love from the bastard, never mind that Aya proved each and every day that he could indeed take care of himself. "I’m sorry, I just loathe the idea of you spending any time with him."

That mollified Aya somewhat. Most of his anger faded and he tilted his face into Yohji’s caress. "I don’t like it either, but all he’s done so far is try to make me desire the type of life I’d have if I was at Court."

Aya couldn’t be bought with nice dinners out or music recitals, especially not when it was clear that Kikyou was more interested in Aya’s looks than his mind. No, all Yohji’s cat wanted was for someone to truly love him, someone willing to put up with a room overflowing with books and who bought a never ending supply of almond cookies. Good thing Yohji was such a sucker for all that.

Aya seemed to pick up on his amusement as he raised an elegant eyebrow in inquiry. "Do I want to know what you’re thinking? Is it some new way to torture Kikyou?"

"No, nothing like that," Yohji said as he leaned down for a brief, but sweet, kiss. "I’m just grateful that I didn’t try to sweep you off your feet that way."

"You merely chased after me until I gave in," Aya pointed out. He didn’t seem very upset about that fact.

Yohji took to nibbling on his mate’s neck. "If I recall properly, you didn’t put up that much of a fight." At least not at the bedding part, and by then it was too late for either of them to change their minds, even if they’d wanted to. Which they didn’t, now or ever. Gods, but Aya tasted so sweet….

He sighed with pure pleasure when Aya straddled his legs and gracefully leaned backward, exposing a lovely arc of pale neck. Unable to resist, he decided to forget all about meddlesome Captains and going downstairs for food in favor of a much more enjoyable pastime.

*******

Omi sighed into his mug of cider. He was bored out of his mind and it didn’t look as if there was any relief in sight tonight. Aya was out with Kikyou, which meant that he’d come home later and immediately retreat to his bedroom, and Yohji wouldn’t be fit for company until he joined his mate upstairs. Because of Yohji’s foul mood, worse even than it had been the past few days, no one but him wanted to brave sitting down at their table. Well, Lilla might, but she tended to stay away from Yohji when Aya wasn’t around to prevent any new rumors from starting. Teddy was across the room with Koyu and wasn’t stupid enough to try to pick a fight with Yohji while he was like this and the rest of the staff were too busy working to spare them any company. Botan was at Cassandra’s, the both of them refusing to come near the Koneko tonight for some reason, and Schuldig….

It still caught him unawares, the fact that Schuldig wouldn’t be walking through that door any time soon. Omi never, not for a single moment, forgot that Nagi was in Esset, but he tended to slip with Schuldig, just out of habit. Nights at the Koneko just didn’t seem right without the thief sitting by Yohji, teasing him about something and eating and drinking as much as he could.

As much as he missed his longtime friend, it was nothing compared to how he wished Nagi was here. He could hardly believe that he’d only known his boyfriend for two months before Nagi had to leave with the others, it hurt so much to sit here without Nagi by his side and wonder how his lover fared. Cassandra reassured him with the occasional vision, and there’d been a bound who stopped by the Koneko the past month with a precious letter from Nagi in her possession but, for the most part, he was left in the dark to worry. It would be at least a year, by Cass’s prediction, before he’d be able to see Nagi again - and that hurt. He and Nagi might not be mates like Yohji and Aya but he loved the elemental bound with his whole heart and knew that would never change.

"Here, drink this." He jumped when Yohji shoved a small glass of something that smelled potent against his hand. Yohji frowned at him and motioned at the glass. "Go on."

"What is it?" he asked, highly suspicious of anything that the man had been drinking all evening long. He didn’t have a bound’s tolerance for alcohol and he knew that Yohji wasn’t sticking to wine and cider tonight, even though he had to help the staff later. "I don’t want to get drunk again."

"Well, I don’t want to be sitting here feeling you get all depressed because the little demon’s not around," Yohji snapped, his tone unusually cruel. "Gods, it’s irritating as hell so drink up or go away."

Omi stared at him in shock for a moment before pushing the glass aside. "Fine, I’ll go." He didn’t even manage to stand up before his arm was grabbed and he found himself pulled toward Yohji.

"I’m sorry," Yohji apologized. He smiled weakly and patted Omi’s hand. "I’m being a bastard and that’s the last thing I should be to you. I’m sorry, kiddo." He tousled Omi’s hair and then leaned against the wall, his expression now sad.

"It’s okay, Yotan. I know you’re unhappy about Aya not being here."

Yohji shook his head. "Nah, that’s still not a good enough reason to snap at you like that." He sighed and leaned against the table. "It’s hard, sometimes, when someone’s feeling much the same way I am. It’s like my emotions get… amplified, and it’s difficult for me to think straight."

Omi found his pain at Yohji’s rude comment fade beneath an eagerness to learn more about his friend. "How are you coping with being able to feel people’s emotions?" Yohji didn’t often talk about his succubae nature, and considering that it often had him dragging Aya off to their bedroom or the garden, Omi was mostly too embarrassed to ask any questions.

"For the most part it’s okay, since I don’t tend to feel them as strongly as a soul gaki-bound would, unless it’s someone I’m close to." Yohji smiled, part of his good nature returning, and tousled Omi’s hair again. "Guess I’ve grown attached to you over the years."

"That’s good to know," he teased back as he batted Yohji’s hand away. He regretted the gesture - so much like Aya’s when Yohji played with his eartails - when Yohji looked at his hand and grew sad again. "He should be back in a couple of hours."

"Yeah, I know." Yohji rubbed his palms together and picked up his own shot glass, downing it in one quick swallow. "You’d think I wouldn’t be this upset about being away from the man for an evening. It’s borderline obsessive," he said as he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

That seemed to sum up Yohji and Aya’s relationship rather well, Omi thought with a slight smile. They were so wrapped up in each other that obsessive put it rather mildly. "You must love him very, very much." And hate Kikyou just as passionately, which made the fact that Aya was with the man even harder to bear. He didn’t understand why Aya had befriended the Captain, especially when it bothered Yohji so much and Aya appeared so… drained… after his evenings out with Kikyou, but so far he hadn’t gotten a very good explanation from his two friends.

Yohji snorted and pushed the shot glass in front of him closer. "That’s an understatement, kiddo. Now be good and drink your medicine. I at least have a reason to be feeling so lonely," Yohji said with a teasing smile on his face, " but considering the fact that you fell for a foul tempered demon, you really shouldn’t be moping like this."

He stuck his tongue out at his friend. "Very funny, Yotan. He was never a ‘little demon’ to me."

"I know." The teasing smile softened to one of sympathy. "As much as the bastard loved to torment me, I wish he was here right now, just so you’d be happy again." Yohji closed his eyes and shook his head. "All right, it’s time to stop drinking. I’m sounding like a weepy idiot."

Omi laughed at the joke and patted his friend’s arm. "I won’t hold it against you." He picked up the shot glass and tried not to wheeze when he inhaled a whiff of the strong alcohol. "It means a lot to me that you’d be willing to put up with Nagi just to keep me happy." Trying not to think about what the glass contained, he quickly tossed back the shot… and immediately sputtered as liquid fire raced down his throat to pool in his stomach. "Are… you… trying to… kill me?" he managed to sputter.

Yohji pounded him on the back a few times. "Perish the thought. Now, don’t you feel too miserable to worry about Nagi?"

The man had a point, albeit a rather twisted one. It was such a shame that Yohji was immune to magic or he’d try out an interesting spell or two on his ‘friend’ in thanks. "You’re evil," he wheezed, his throat still raw from the drink.

"It’s all part of my charm. Don’t worry, in a few minutes you should be feeling better, though if I were you, I wouldn’t drink anything else for a bit or you’ll get sick again." Yohji handed him a glass of water.

He really did wish Nagi was here right now, just so his boyfriend could use his power to whack Yohji in the shins.

*******

Aya stifled a yawn with the back of his hand. He’d allowed Yohji to take more energy from him than usual that day, all in an effort to help calm down his mate, and now he felt exhausted. And all the wine at dinner, drunk in an effort to soothe his own nerves, plus the stress from being out with Kikyou didn’t help matters either. All he wanted was to curl up in his bed at home, deeply breathe in Yohji’s scent clinging to the linens and go to sleep. Then, when Yohji was finished working for the night, his mate would join him in bed….

"Would you like some tea, Aya?" Kikyou asked, shaking him from his thoughts. "You look rather tired."

"I didn’t get much sleep last night," he mumbled as a waiter hurried over, beckoned by Kikyou. The man didn’t even wait for his answer to place an order, leaving him smoldering with anger and not a little apprehensive. It still unnerved him, slightly, to be near a human male, especially one who shared so many traits with the Takatoris. Kikyou was a highborn, just like his former masters, and had a similar nature from growing up expecting the world to jump when he ordered it to. Part of Aya waited to see when Kikyou would turn to him and give him an order he didn’t want to obey.

"Lately you’ve been exhausted on our… dates," Kikyou pointed out as he picked up his glass of wine. He stared intently at Aya as he swirled the last of the red wine in the glass around and around. "You’re clearly working too hard."

If only Kikyou knew the truth, Aya thought with tired amusement. "The work needs to be done," was all he said as he leaned back in his chair. The food at dinner, while exquisite in taste, had been too rich for him and the little he’d eaten settled uneasily in his stomach. He thought with longing of Yohji and the Koneko.

"They can hire anyone to serve drinks and make beds," Kikyou snapped, his calm demeanor ruffled. He took a deep breath, no doubt aware that Aya hated his sharp tone. After a moment he smiled and set the wine glass down. "You’re wasting yourself there, Aya. How many times do I have to tell you that? It’s not where you belong."

"It is definitely where I belong." Aya gave Kikyou a warning glare as the waiter returned with a pot of tea, a cup on a saucer and small containers of cream and sugar. They waited for the man to leave before resuming the conversation.

"I wish you’d accept that and leave the matter be," Aya continued. He wished that he’d be left alone as well but knew better than to hold foolish hopes. Kikyou wouldn’t give up that easily, not when he’d gone so far as to actually blackmail him so they spent some time together.

Kikyou watched as he poured himself a cup of tea. "The last place you belong is in some inn, working yourself to exhaustion day after day." He waved a hand around the lavish room where they were dining. "This is what you were born for."

"Only half of me," Aya pointed out after a sip of tea. "Because of that simple fact, I’d never be fully accepted at Court," he said, his voice soft so no one could hear the conversation.

"You’re the last of your bloodline, the son of the king’s beloved best friend. You’d be accepted." Kikyou pushed his wineglass aside and stretched out his hands over the table, resting them perilously close to Aya’s. He had to resist the temptation to flinch, the shadows around them seething for a few seconds until he was able to control his emotions. So far, Kikyou never attempted to touch him or force any attentions on him, but the moment the man did, he would be torn to pieces. Aya was never going to suffer that again.

Kikyou’s lips pressed into a thin line when he noticed Aya slowly pull his hand away. "You must know I’d be willing to help you reclaim your family title, Aya. You’d never have to worry about working ever again."

Yes, he would help, but for a price. Aya fought back a shudder when he imagined very well what that price would be. Maybe Kikyou had figured out that he’d never win him over if he pressed forward his suit as… ardently… as he had before, and was keeping a careful distance between them at all times, but he could still smell the lust radiating from the Captain. It was so hard to control his true nature and keep it from lashing out in self-defense, and, at the same time, to prevent Yohji from picking up on his anger and unease through their link.

"No, but I’d be at the Court’s sufferance, putting up with all the backstabbing and lies." He sipped his tea, grateful for its warmth and the small bit of energy it provided. "I’d be in the middle of endless scheming as all the other lords seek to gain my family lands and funds." He wondered if Kikyou realized that the lords would try their best to marry him off to their younger daughters – who would have the express order to not produce any children so the family could claim the Fujimiya lands upon his death but keep the taint of his mother’s blood from spreading into their family tree. It wearied and sickened him, the thought of how he’d be used and controlled. Not to mention his fear of losing Yohji.

Kikyou sat back in his chair, a frown on his face. "I’d protect you from all that, I promise."

He’d probably try but Aya had learned about the Court from his father, who had happily fled the capital, and from the Takatoris. He knew just how much power the Captain would hold before the combined wishes of the highborns and knew it wasn’t very much. If that had been the case, Manx would never have appeased the Court over her engagement to the king by choosing Kikyou as her replacement rather than Honjyou or another worthy, common born candidate. He sensed that Kikyou wasn’t so much as lying as choosing to see reality in the way that best supported his endeavors. Too bad Aya would be the one paying the price when reality failed to match those dreams.

He finished his tea and set the cup down on its saucer to pour some more. It wasn’t as good as one of Cassandra’s blends but it helped to soothe his stomach and clear his head. "I’m happy where I am. I love Yohji and see no reason to leave the Koneko." How he wished that Kikyou would accept that he spoke the truth and leave him the hell alone, but he’d said the same thing for the last several weeks to no avail.

Kikyou was quiet as he drank the last of the tea. When he set his cup down again, the older man tugged at the hem of his crimson jacket, pulling it straight. "I know you’re thankful to Yohji for helping you out this spring but you don’t owe him the rest of your life, Aya," Kikyou said, choosing to ignore Aya’s declaration of love. "One day you’ll want to be where you truly belong, and that’s at Court." He smiled, the expression a little sad. "You still look tired, so I think it would be best to skip dessert and the recital. I’ll take you back to the Koneko instead."

Aya swallowed a sigh of relief as Kikyou waved the waiter back over to take care of the bill. He was grateful for the reprieve - his nerves were strung too tight to have to spend the night sitting next to Kikyou and hearing about where his proper place really was. Maybe if he’d been born human he’d feel a pull toward the Court but it had been his mother’s blood that was responsible for his true nature. All he wanted was to be left alone with Yohji.

Kikyou paid their bill and escorted Aya to the door, careful to keep his hands to himself. As they walked, Aya was only too aware of the man’s close presence, of the eyes looking at them and the hushed whispers. He knew that many of the people here considered him to be Kikyou’s lover, unaware of his life at the Koneko, but no matter how much Kikyou might wish for that to be true, it was never going to happen. Hopefully, the man would realize that before he did something stupid and wound up dead.

*******

Yohji felt his smile falter as he recognized the slender figure walking toward him. Dammit, he only had another hour, *one* fucking hour, for Mickey and Ani to finish with their evening breaks and then he’d be free to join Aya up in their bed for a cuddle and some sleep. He should have taken Mickey’s offer to let him out of work early tonight when Aya came home that evening, obviously exhausted and stressed, but he and his mate had missed so much work lately because of Birman’s assignments that he felt bad about leaving the staff to cover for them yet again.

Now Birman walked over to where he was keeping an eye on the room, and he didn’t think she was here for a drink. Dammit, dammit, dammit.

"You here for a drink or a bite to eat?" he asked hopefully.

Birman shook her head. "I’m sorry, Yohji, but I’m here on business. Where’s Aya? I need to talk to both of you."

He instantly pushed away from the wall and growled, the sound low and vicious. "He’s resting right now. You’re *not* going to bother him." Birman hadn’t been able to provide them with any help when Kikyou had come to Aya with his little ‘deal’ - the last thing he was going to allow her to do was disturb his mate while he was wrung out from too much work and spending a night with the bastard on top of that.

Birman blinked at the growl but didn’t back away. Instead, she crossed her arms over her chest and gazed levelly up at him. "Fine, I’ll leave him alone then. However, I have work for you both, which I can tell you all about." She suddenly looked nervous. "Ah, is there someplace private we can talk?"

Forcing his temper to remain under control, certain that Jo would give him hell if he ripped off the Spymaster’s head here in the Koneko’s main room, Yohji nodded in the direction of the kitchen. "We’ll go out to the garden." He didn’t wait for her approval before he stomped off, but she quickly fell in step behind him.

Jo looked up from the dessert platter she and Kira were assembling, her eyes narrowing when she saw Birman following him. "We’re going outside to talk about a new job," he told her, and was very grateful that the venomous look she shot in his direction was aimed more at Birman than him. "You’ll have to let Mickey and Ani know that I can’t cover for them right now."

"Don’t worry about it," Jo assured him as she glared at Birman. "You really should be resting, not working," she said, loud and clear.

Birman had the grace to look a bit guilty at the comment as she hurried across the room. She all but pushed him out the door when he stood there, enjoying the sight of an obviously furious Jo glaring daggers at the king’s Spymaster. Birman had better hope that Jo cooled down before she came here for dinner or a drink any time soon.

He reluctantly led her to the patch of lavender that was warded by Aya’s shadows. There, they wouldn’t have to worry about being overheard as they talked about the new assignment.

Once there, he breathed in deep the scent of the fragrant herb and smiled at the lingering trace of his and Aya’s lovemaking that remained. It had been a few days since they’d had the time to relax out here but it hadn’t rained since then. Part of him purred at the faint scent and another urged him to go upstairs and curl up beside his mate, to hold him close so he could feel Aya’s body all along his. Only the thought of his oath kept him here. "What the hell do you want us to do now, Birman? Some new noble who needs to be killed? A rapist who needs to be tracked down? Or are you here to bitch about last night?" His temper, which had been short all day long, all but snapped right then. Couldn’t she leave him and Aya alone for a few fucking days?

"I don’t have a problem with last night’s mission," Birman said, her voice a little higher than usual. He could smell her unease just as clearly as he felt it with his empathic sense, the unusual occurrence helping to center him and push through the anger. If there was one thing the Spymaster was, other than a slave driver, it was a very courageous woman who wasn’t easily frightened. She’d put up with his growls for months now and, other than that one time when she’d confronted him about Aya’s true nature, they hadn’t disturbed her in the least. Until tonight.

He took a deep breath and forced himself to stop growling. "What’s wrong, Birman?" he asked quietly. Maybe if he let her talk without any snarling or threats, he could get upstairs sometime soon.

She started to play with the end of her long, black braid, her eyes reluctantly lifting to look into his. "Let me first say that I’m sorry about working you and Aya so hard lately. I have been trying to spare you the work but I need your special talents too much."

"We know," he sighed, slightly touched by the fact that she’d actually apologized. "We’re aware of the position Shuuichi’s in." They had some small part in it, after all. "Sooner or later he’ll have to run out of traitors."

"One hopes," Birman replied fervently. "For a while there it seemed that for each one you removed or questioned, another three were found." She abandoned her braid to pluck a leaf from the maple tree looming above her and spun it between her palms. "The good news is, I believe that they are finally growing smaller in number."

That was reassuring to hear. "So, are we dealing with more of them or something else?" he asked, prodding her to get on to the assignment. He could tell that Aya, weighed down with exhaustion, had just fallen asleep and he knew the nightmares would begin soon if he wasn’t there.

He almost missed it; if it wasn’t for his enhanced sight he probably would have never noticed but Birman flinched, the slightest bit. The leaf wavered in her trembling hands and the sense of unease increased. "Not… exactly."

"What the hell does that mean?"

Birman sighed and tossed the leaf aside. She straightened up and folded her arms over her chest. "It’s a bit of both. I need Aya’s help, and yours, with a situation left behind by some traitors." She lost some of her composure then, her hands clenching around her arms. "The mission involves the two of you, myself and a few others leaving the capital for at least two weeks." She tried to smile. "Think of it as a little vacation."

If it was a real break for them, she wouldn’t be this nervous. "Where the hell are we going?" he asked, his anger slowly growing as Birman verbally danced around.

She met his eyes, he gave her credit for that, even if it took her a moment to answer. "Timbergrey Castle."

He knew he’d heard that name before, knew it as… as the castle where Reiji and his sons had been exiled. Where Aya and his sister had been held as prisoners and tortured. A vicious snarl bubbled in his throat and quickly burst out past his bared teeth. "You better tell me you’re joking, Spymaster."

"I’m afraid I’m not." Though trembling, Birman stood her ground. "Yohji, I’m sorry about this but I have my orders. I’m to escort you, Aya, Omi, Botan and several Guards to the castle to investigate some murders in the surrounding area and to find out what Reiji and Masafumi left behind."

"You want to take Aya back to the place where he was tortured for twelve years? That’s fucking sadistic." His rage flowed through him, burning brighter with each thought about Birman’s audacity. Distantly, he felt Aya awaken and his mate’s worry and curiosity travel across their link. The bond with his mate and the remembered oath were the only things that kept him here, struggling with the terrible emotion and the impulse to use his wires to slice Birman into tiny slivers of flesh. "You bitch."

She didn’t appear upset at the insult, just tired. "I’m sorry, Yohji, I truly am, but Aya’s presence is vital to this mission. A kage is needed to search out any spells Reiji and Masafumi may have left behind and Aya knows what they were up to there, knows the place much better than anyone else in the king’s service. It’s also felt that the murders in that area are related to Masafumi’s experiments, the results of which seemed to have escaped, and I’ll need several bounds to track them down and destroy them."

A memory came to him of sitting in one of the palace’s many drawing rooms, listening to Aya calmly tell Birman and Botan about how Masafumi used his blood to aid the wizard’s endeavor to create a magical hybrid of animal and man. Masafumi sought to make an army of unstoppable creatures more readily controlled than bounds and managed to produce several, mostly failed, hybrids. While Aya’s voice and demeanor might have appeared calm, he’d felt his mate’s turmoil at having to recall any of his time spent at Timbergrey Castle. And now Birman and the king wanted Aya to go back.

"You know we don’t have a damned choice in the matter," he spat, utterly furious at how Aya was being used, all because of a promise that he made. A promise Birman had insisted on. For a moment, he wondered just how bad the consequences would be if he broke his oath before remembering that whatever he suffered, so would Aya. "You know, I really wish I’d just killed you that day."

She seemed to know what he was referring to. "I don’t doubt it." She unfolded her arms and rubbed her hands against her thighs. "Listen, I know you’re upset and I know it’s a very shitty thing to do, asking Aya to return to Timbergrey but I have as little choice in the matter as you do." She paused for a moment to run her hands through her bangs. "I’m sorry, but I really do need Aya for this mission. You’ll be there, along with Omi, Botan and Ken, for support. Do this without fighting me and I swear to you that I’ll force the king to give you a true vacation afterwards."

They didn’t have a choice, really. As much as he wanted to try and hurt Birman as much as he knew Aya would be hurting when he found out about the mission, he knew it would be best to just give in. "I want at least one day for each one we spend on this mission," he said. "It’s not just this mission we’ll need a rest from, you know."

She managed to look guilty at the statement. "I’m aware of that now. I promise you that you’ll have a break equal, if not more, to the length of this mission." Her mouth quirked the slightest bit. "Although you’ll probably be worked just as hard as you have been once your vacation is over."

He imagined that Aya and he would have to make up for the time but at least they’d have a week or two alone together. Well, just them and whoever Yuushi chose to send after them as bodyguards. That man was seriously getting on his nerves. "If we’re going to be dealing with a mess the Takatoris left behind, I think we’ll need a vacation in the end."

He felt a flare of anger from Birman but she wisely didn’t point out the fact that their king was a Takatori as well, as was Omi. The kiddo didn’t count - somehow he’d avoided turning out like either side of his family. Maybe Omi was a foundling.

"We leave the day after tomorrow. I’ll have Ken drop off uniforms for you and Aya. I’d like for the two of you to at least pretend to be Guards while we travel, that’ll attract less attention than two civilians riding with the Spymaster and several Guards," Birman said. "We’ll leave at first light and it’ll be at least a two day trip so pack accordingly." She nodded at him and turned to leave.

"Birman," he called out, halting her before she stepped beyond the veil of shadows. She looked over her shoulder at him, her hand resting on the trunk of the maple tree. "Did the king even care about how Aya would react to this order?"

Her face didn’t reveal anything but her emotions did. Yohji swallowed a growl as he felt them, her disappointment and anger. "I’m sorry to say I couldn’t tell if he did," she replied after a few seconds.

"Yeah, a nice way of saying he didn’t." He knew that Shuuichi was better for Kritiker than Reiji but in a way he wished he hadn’t saved the king’s life a couple of months ago. "Just remember that Aya and I are sworn to you and not the king."

Birman turned to fully face him. "What is that supposed to mean?"

"It means what I just said. As long as you’re the Spymaster, we’ll honor our vow." At least he’d had the sense not to swear to the king that day. He trusted Birman… mostly. She was a pain in the ass and too dedicated to her job but she’d also stood up to the king for him and the others after the wedding.

"One could argue that you have to honor it as long as I’m alive," she said, her tone lighter than it had been moments before. "I think I know what you mean, though. However, as long as I’m sworn to the king, you still have to obey him. I’ll see you in two days." She waved and quickly walked away.

Yes, he was still stuck with obeying this latest order but should the time come, he had some small faith that Birman could break her oath for his and Aya’s sake. She’d almost done it once already, after all, and she’d have Botan and Omi’s support if she did. As a human, she could safely rescind her word and suffer nothing more than a pang of conscience and some disapproval.

He stood amidst the lavender for a few minutes, enjoying its soothing scent as he steeled himself to first tell Jo and then Aya about the news. Jo was going to be furious, along with the rest of the staff, when she found out that he and Aya were being sent out on a long mission. He just hoped the inn was still standing after she found out where they were going. No, make that the palace. He had a vision of Jo, meat cleaver in one hand and a rolling pin in the other, marching down to the king for a little ‘chat’. The royal bastard wouldn’t stand a chance against her, Army and Guards not withstanding.

The amusement faded when he thought about Aya’s reaction. He slowly headed for the Koneko, his heart heavy with the thought of causing his mate pain, whether it was his own fault or not.

*******

Aya sat cross-legged on the bed, awaiting his mate. Something had happened earlier that night, something that woke him up with a wave of murderous rage that was barely restrained moments later. Yohji was upset about something and that wasn’t good. If he hadn’t been so tired and not in the mood to deal with any more humans tonight, he’d have searched for Yohji to find out what was wrong.

Yohji’s temper was largely under control right now, the smoldering emotion banked and occasionally overshadowed by tired amusement and regret. If it had been serious trouble that wouldn’t be the case, so he relaxed a little, comforted by his mate’s scent emanating from the shirt he wore and the bed’s linens.

He tracked Yohji’s progress through the inn with the shadows and knew when his mate left the kitchen and started up the stairs. He shifted to face the door and pulled the bed’s curtains open a little more so he had a good view.

Yohji smiled at him as he entered the room, the expression tired and a little sad. If Yohji’s scent had helped soothe him ever since he’d returned that evening, the sight of his lover helped even more. He watched, enraptured, as Yohji stripped off his clothes, undid the tie holding back his lovely golden hair and approached the bed.

"Come here," Yohji said as he sank down on the bed and pulled Aya close. He blinked when his mate’s hands stroked down his sides, grabbed the hem of the brown shirt he was wearing and pulled it over his head. Before he knew it, he was draped over Yohji’s naked body, the man’s warmth soaking into his flesh and a purr building in his throat at the glorious contact.

"Yotan." He made himself more comfortable, straddling his mate’s thighs and wrapping his arms around broad shoulders so he could tangle his fingers in silky, wavy hair. "What’s wrong?"

"Hmmm." Yohji’s hands stroked down his body, not in a sexual way but in a manner both soothing and proprietary. "You still look tired. I thought you came up here for some rest."

Aya shivered in pleasure as those wonderful, skilled hands skimmed along the small of his back and settled on his hips. "I did." At least, as much as he could when haunted by events of the past and without Yohji around to ground him in the present. "I’d just fallen asleep when I felt something disturb you." He scowled slightly at his evasive mate. "Tell me what happened."

There was a flash of sadness across Yohji’s expressive face, the emotion thrumming through their link as he sighed and hugged Aya closer. "So much for hoping I’d be able to tell you in the morning. Birman stopped by with another mission."

That didn’t explain why Yohji had been so furious. He would understand if Yohji’d been irritated, yes, or a touch angry but not driven to the edge of a murderous rage. "What’s the assignment?" He hoped it wasn’t another assassination. He still felt… partially ‘not there’ after last night and had been hoping to spend a day or two with Yohji - and no Kikyou, no murders - so he could return to normal. Another death would only bring his shinigami nature to the fore again when he was trying to push it back.

The sadness from Yohji increased. "Hell, I can’t think of any good way to break this to you." His arms hugged Aya tightly. "It’s going to be a long mission. We’re to accompany Birman and others to… Timbergrey Castle to investigate a few things there."

The part about a long mission didn’t really faze him, but then he heard ‘Timbergrey Castle’ and the world faded away. The candlelit shadows of their room turned into the dim light of his tower abode, warmth faded into an ever present cool dampness, the smell of mildew and damp stones overpowering the scent of lavender and cedar.

"Aya!" A sharp tug to his eartails, a small burst of pain, brought him back to reality. He found himself sitting stiffly in Yohji’s lap, his hands clenched into fists and his mate’s panic filling his senses. "Don’t do that!" Yohji pleaded as he pulled Aya against his chest.

"I’m sorry." Aya buried his face in the crook of Yohji’s shoulder and breathed in deep, conscious of how his body kept trying to hyperventilate. He forced his breathing to remain even as he drank in Yohji’s scent and used it to push the terror and pain that filled him aside. Timbergrey was just a place, it didn’t hold any power over him. He tried to convince himself of that as he nuzzled Yohji’s neck and flicked out his tongue along golden, salty skin. He needed his mate, needed him so much. Yohji wasn’t tied in any manner to the old nightmares.

Shaking hands combed through his hair, smoothed down his shoulders and arms then wrapped around his waist. "Gods. I’m sorry, Cat, for that damned oath of mine. I wanted to kill Birman when she told me where we were going but it wouldn’t do any good. The orders came from the king." Yohji kissed the top of Aya’s head and pulled up his knees until Aya was cradled in his lap. "I’m sorry."

"It’s not your fault," Aya whispered. He closed his eyes for a moment to try to gather himself, to stop the emotions that he knew Yohji was feeling and reacting to. Timbergrey was just a place. It was land and buildings, nothing that could hurt him. The things that had caused him pain there were gone, Yohji had killed two of the Takatoris himself. He couldn’t be hurt by Timbergrey Castle.

Yet the memories of what had happened there, all the agony and the near destruction of his spirit, his sister’s broken body lying on the courtyard cobblestones and the room in the lower level…. He felt a crushing wave of panic and pain and it took a moment to realize they were his own emotions.

Then he felt lips against his own, Yohji’s soothing scent and the wonderful feeling of warmth and love flowing into him was a sweet balm that calmed him before he could even think to fear the touch. He clung to his mate, lost himself in the emotions of love, worry and protectiveness that he felt through their link. He wasn’t alone anymore. Yohji was there, golden and beautiful and dependable. If his strength failed, Yohji’s would be there to shore him up, to protect him.

"Fuck the mission," Yohji snarled as he pulled away, his arms still tight around Aya, a comforting presence. "I’ll tell Birman and the king to go to the hell of their choice in the morning."

True to form, Yohji was protecting him, was trying to keep the pain at bay, and, as much as Aya wanted to just curl up beside his mate and allow that to happen, he knew it would be a bad idea. "No, you won’t."

There was a gentle tug on his left eartail. "Come on, Aya, don’t tell me you want to accept this mission. Not if… the mere thought of that place has you freaking out." Yohji’s eyes were full of understanding, his emotions making it plain that he didn’t feel that Aya was weak or foolish for his fears. That was all that kept him from biting the scarred shoulder before him as his bound nature sought to prove to his mate that they were equals, that he wasn’t the weak one in their bond.

"No, I don’t want to go but we have our orders. Do you really think they’ll back down?" he pointed out as he leaned back into the circle of Yohji’s arms.

"No, I don’t think they’ll back down but I’m not about to sit back and let you go someplace that has you this upset when you’re hundreds of kilometers away from it," Yohji snapped. Then he sighed and bent his neck so his forehead rested against Aya’s. "I never want you to feel like that again, love."

Aya closed his eyes, this time refusing to let the memories overwhelm him as he marshaled his strength. "Yotan, I won’t lie and say that I want to go to… the castle." He felt angry with himself for not being able to call it by its name but pushed on. "I don’t want to go. I’d hoped to never set foot in there again but we don’t have a choice." He opened his eyes and gazed beseechingly into his mate’s. "Fighting the king on this will do us no good and may make him rethink his decision to leave us alone. As much as I despise… T-Timbergrey, I’ll go there if it means I can return to the Koneko with you."

It was the simple truth. To turn down a direct order would imperil his new life, one that he loved more with each day now that his apprehension over it was slowly fading. The time would come when he and Yohji would have to leave the Koneko but it wasn’t now. He counted on them having years to spend in this bed, this room, putting up with Jo’s gruff affection, Teddy’s teasing, Mickey’s brotherly concern and the rest of the staff. This was Yohji’s home and he wasn’t going to drive his mate from it any sooner than he had to.

He lowered his head to nuzzle at Yohji’s neck, pushing back all his fears so his mate would only feel his resolve. After a couple of minutes, Yohji sighed and, keeping Aya on his lap, stretched out on the bed.

"Dammit, you’re making me into the irrational one." Yohji tapped Aya lightly on the tip of his nose. "I’m just trying to keep you safe, you know."

"I do, but did I say anything that wasn’t true?" The nightmare of Timbergrey Castle receded a little more with each second, chased away by Yohji’s warmth and scent, by the love he could feel through their link but it didn’t completely vanish. He reminded himself that Yohji would be there with him, would lead him home when it was all done. He had the utmost faith in that and refused to allow the panic to return.

Yohji frowned, the dour expression looking an awful lot like one of Jo’s. "No, you didn’t. I think that’s what has me pissed off the most, just how little say we have in this." He ran his fingers through Aya’s hair, his large hand cupping the back of Aya’s head tenderly. "Can you do it? Can you go back there? Because if you can’t, orders or not, I’m not letting you go."

He couldn’t lie to his mate, they were too tightly bound together for him to ever hope to pull that off. He thought long and hard about his answer, his fears causing him to tremble but Yohji’s touch soothed them away. "As long as you’re there, I’ll… manage." His hands clutched Yohji’s shoulders tightly as if he expected his mate to just vanish.

"You know I’ll never let you go anywhere without me," Yohji said, his voice soft and caressing. "I’m hopeless without you, you know."

"Mmmm." They shared a kiss, one full of love and promise, until Aya felt dizzy from the potent emotions. He panted against Yohji’s soft lips, utterly adoring the man and wishing that the world outside their door would stay away forever. Then he forced himself to do what was necessary. "When are we leaving? What exactly is Birman expecting from us this time?"

Yohji rolled them onto their sides, their legs tangled together and their bodies touching almost entirely down their fronts. Aya’s skin tingled from the glorious contact, and he felt himself harden slightly, an answer to the semi-hard erection pressing against his hip but, regrettably, now wasn’t the time for passion. Yohji seemed to realize this as well as the sharp spark of lust from him slowly faded.

"I didn’t get too many details from her tonight but she said something about you seeing what spells Reiji and Masafumi left behind at the castle." Yohji’s hand ran lightly down Aya’s scarred back to settle affectionately on his ass, fingers splayed as if to touch as much of it as possible. "She also mentioned us investigating some murders. It’s believed that some of Masafumi’s creations escaped and are killing people."

Aya hid his face against Yohji’s chest, not wanting to think about the terrible creatures Masafumi created from melding humans with animals. Most of them had to be put down after the merging as failed experiments, but the ones that had survived and been judged successful…. "I thought she sent some Guards to take care of them after the wedding."

"Who the hell knows what happened?" Yohji said gruffly. "I love how all of a sudden she, well, the king really, decided that we have to handle this mess." He moaned in pleasure when Aya’s hands lightly scratched up and down his back. "You’ve got all night to stop that, Cat." He winked at Aya and pulled him even closer. "We leave the morning after tomorrow. Omi and Botan are tagging along, I guess to deal with the spells you uncover, and she mentioned Ken as well so I imagine Miko will be along for the ride, too."

"Honjyou will probably come as well, or he’ll send Naru. I can’t see him letting us out of his sight for that long." Aya hoped it was Naru who came with them. Honjyou was a very intelligent, very honorable man… but he got on both of their nerves. They hated to be babysat and didn’t see the sense in being watched all the time. If something came along that could take one or both of them out, a couple of humans wouldn’t be much help. He suspected that Honjyou and the others were really there to appease the king. "Too bad Reiichi can’t come."

"Do I need to start being jealous?" Yohji teased, his fingers flexing against Aya’s skin until he shivered in pleasure.

"I like talking to him," was all Aya said, but it seemed to appease his mate. "I take it you already told the staff?"

"Yeah, and they’re pissed as hell that we’re being worked so hard." Yohji kissed him on the temple, leaving a lingering warmth behind. "I get the feeling they’ve been worried about us lately."

"Huh." He remembered how Jo had ushered him down to the hot spring the moment he returned from his evening out with Kikyou, chasing out the customer soaking down there so he could have some privacy. He’d returned to his room to find a cup of soothing chamomile and ginger tea waiting for him, and a warm cinnamon roll. "We’ll be leaving them to manage without us," he said, feeling guilty. The Koneko was his home now, and he hated feeling as if he wasn’t pulling his own weight here.

"I think they’ll manage somehow. I wasn’t exactly a lot of help the last year or so," Yohji said, a shade of remorse in his voice. "Teddy’s back, at least, to help with all the new business, and Koyu helps out where he can. Jo and Mickey agreed to hire some part-time help while we’re gone. A few of the Guards have mentioned family members who wouldn’t mind earning some extra silver working at a reputable inn." Yohji stifled a yawn and lifted his head so he could call out the spell that put out all the candles, leaving the room illuminated only by the weak moonlight that filtered through the partially shuttered window. "We’ll need them anyway since the construction of the new wing will start in another week. Hopefully, we’ll find some more strays to adopt soon to give us some full-time help."

As exhaustion crept over him, Aya grunted softly and made himself more comfortable in Yohji’s arms. The Koneko had to be very careful who they hired because of Yohji, Ken and him. Once again he felt guilty for all the trouble he put the Koneko’s staff through. "I hope they find someone soon."

"Hmmm? Maybe it’s part of the inn’s magic but strays usually show up just when they’re needed the most." Yohji shifted onto his back and Aya curled up beside him, using his mate’s broad, if still a bit bony, chest for a pillow. "Jo said we’re to take it easy tomorrow. If she sees us doing any work or out of bed before noon, she’ll smack us on the head with a skillet until we’re unconscious and finally getting some rest."

The thought of spending the morning in bed with Yohji was a very delicious one, an order he didn’t think he’d have much of a problem obeying. "We better listen to her, then."

"Yeah." Yohji yawned again. "I’ll be hungry in the morning so get some sleep, Cat." He poked Aya in the ribs. "I might have to keep you in bed until the afternoon, just so she doesn’t chase us around while waving a knife."

Aya snorted but didn’t say anything. He forced his body to relax as Yohji drifted off to sleep, but try as he might, a small knot of tension remained that kept him awake. As Yohji’s soft snores filled his ears he thought again of his tower apartment, of the long walk from it through the castle, past servants who always averted their eyes when he walked past, down into the lower level. He remembered the smell of earth all around him, the faint odor of blood and musk and waste wafting through the large, iron bound door that led to the pens. He shivered as an image formed in his mind of moss-covered stone walls, of iron shackles hanging from the ceiling at just the right height to keep him on his toes for hours, of a large oak table covered with sharp blades and silver bowls, the vicious hooks that kept his wounds open so his ‘precious’ blood would keep flowing.

Yohji’s arms tightened around him so he tried to calm his emotions before he woke his mate, and was somewhat successful. The images wouldn’t leave his mind, however, and as he finally gave in to his exhaustion, he felt the manacles clasp around his wrists, felt his body strain as he was stretched and knew that he’d remain trapped like this for hours to come. Shadowed figures approached him, his blood turning cold as he recognized a leering Hirofumi and a giggling Tot, knives in their hands.

The nightmare swallowed him whole.

*******

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