Shadows of the Past

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chapter 2

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Panic. There was panic and pain and hate and a fear that froze the air in his lungs. Yohji choked, surrounded by darkness and filled with emotions that became even more severe with each passing second. He clawed at the darkness, fighting against it in desperation as the emotions overwhelmed him….

He woke up, gasping for air and covered with sweat. For a moment, his dimly lit bedroom turned into a round, stone room filled with books and little else. Musty, faded red velvet curtains blocked out the sun and a weak fire burned in a soot-darkened fireplace. Despair washed through him, overwhelming him until he realized that the feeling and images were not his own.

"Aya!" Looking about frantically for his mate, he found Aya curled up beside him in a tight ball, head buried beneath crossed arms. Yohji shook off the nightmare and reached down to brush back the damp, crimson hair clinging to Aya’s neck, hoping his touch would break the bad dream. As he hoped, it only took Aya a few seconds to react to the caress – but not in the manner he expected. Aya snarled as his silver eyes flew open and flinched from the caress.

"No! Don’t, Hi-" Aya panted as he shoved himself away from Yohji. He crouched on the bed, limbs hugged close to his body as he stared back. Yohji remained perfectly still, knowing that his mate needed some time to shake off the dream and remember where he was. After a few more seconds, Aya’s breathing evened out and he sagged onto the mattress.

Yohji reached out to offer comfort and help ground him, but Aya again flinched from his hand, a panicked whine escaping through tight-pressed lips. He huddled on top of the bed, pulling the comforter around him as if it was a shield against the world, his hair falling onto his face until he was almost completely hidden from sight. He became perfectly still, like a child trying to hide from an approaching monster.

"Cat?" Yohji tried again to reach his mate. "It’s me. You’re in the Koneko, you’re safe here." He stretched out as close to Aya as he dared, more than a little disturbed by his lover’s reaction. This was by far the worst nightmare of the whole damned night.

Aya remained still for a few more seconds, and then slowly uncurled. He inched toward Yohji, bit by tiny bit, until he pressed against him, slender body trembling. Yohji moved his arms just as slowly, not wanting his mate to think that he was being trapped and made even more skittish by old fears. Aya flinched again at the first touch, but as his arms wrapped loosely around his mate’s waist, Aya sighed and the trembling stopped.

They lay there quietly for several minutes, snuggling as close to each other as they could. Eventually, Yohji wound up flat on his back with Aya half sprawled over his chest, head tucked beneath his chin. He was very careful not to touch his lover’s back, not wanting Aya to start trembling again – or worse. He’d tried massaging Aya’s back after the first nightmare had woken them up, and almost lost a few fingers over his mate’s reaction.

"What was that one about?" he asked in a soft voice, not really wanting an answer but knowing they had to talk about it if the dream was bad enough to make Aya react like this.

Aya shifted against him, strong arms hugging him closer. "It was just a nightmare, Yotan," he said after a long pause.

No kidding. "I know that, one bad enough to make you flinch from my touch." Aya hadn’t done that since shortly after they became mates. Just now, he’d done it at least twice, not to mention the trembling. When no answer was forthcoming, Yohji let out a slow breath and sat up.

Aya hissed in displeasure but sat up with him, curled up in his lap. He held his lover close, unwilling to let go of him for a single second. The nightmares tonight hadn’t been all Aya’s, he’d had his own share of dark dreams of losing the man he loved. Needing reassurance that Aya was still with him, alive and well, he ran his hands over pale skin and up into bright red hair, fingers curling in the damp strands at the back of Aya’s head – and set off another bout of trembling.

He quickly slid his fingers down the back of Aya’s neck, along a tense shoulder and tugged harshly on a silky eartail. The trembling stopped as his mate’s body tensed and his name was hissed in fury. "Yotan!"

"That’s me." He let go of the hair to gently tilt Aya’s chin up, not wanting to spark off any other painful memories. "You dreamed about Hirofumi, didn’t you?" Aya’s reactions and that cut off word had clued him in on what must have made the nightmare a particularly bad one.

His mate stared at him, anger fading from his eyes to be replaced with sadness. "Yes." He leaned forward for a kiss, one Yohji made sure to keep as chaste as possible. Pulling away with a sigh, Aya rested his head on Yohji’s shoulder and held him tightly.

"I was back in my room at the castle when the door suddenly opened. Hirofumi walked in… he was all stitched together, like a rag doll. There was this awful smile on his face, and I couldn’t move as he approached. He said-" Aya stopped and just held him even tighter, the embrace became almost painful but he didn’t complain. He hugged his mate back, one hand massaging the nape of Aya’s neck as he pressed a kiss against Aya’s temple.

"He’s dead, love. There were so many pieces to him that they were never certain if they got them all. Hirofumi and his father both." For a moment rage bubbled inside him, rage at the men who had hurt his mate so badly, who could still inspire such nightmares months after their deaths. "I made sure he’d never hurt you again." However, the damage that Hirofumi had done while he was alive still haunted Aya to this day.

"I know." Aya leaned back far enough so he could look up at Yohji and rubbed his bloodshot eyes. Thankfully, the silver had faded back into the usual violet. "I thought he’d come back to life. Sometimes it feels as if I’ll never be free of him."

"You already are," Yohji snarled, unable to control his temper in the face of the pain Aya was feeling. "You’ll see, Cat. We’ll do this damned mission and you’ll see that Hirofumi and the others aren’t waiting for you to come back and be hurt again." As much as he detested the idea of taking Aya back to Timbergrey, he could only hope that going there would help Aya realize that he was free of the past and then the nightmares would stop.

This past night had only differed from any in the last two months in the frequency of nightmares. Not a week went by without Aya suffering a few, especially if he tried to sleep when Yohji wasn’t there. It figured that the damned things would take to plaguing his mate after Aya was free of the Takatoris. Everything had finally caught up to the poor man, all the heartache and abuse he’d suffered at those bastards’ hands.

Yohji leaned forward for a kiss, slow enough that Aya could pull away if he wanted to. Aya didn’t, and instead met him halfway. The kiss was slow and leisurely, more a sharing of breath and taste than of passion. He didn’t feel any desire or lust from his mate just then, which was understandable. Right now, he was just happy that Aya was in his arms, nestling closer as the fear and panic from earlier slowly vanished.

He rested back against the headboard and moaned when long fingers slid through his hair, making his scalp tingle in pleasure. Desire and hunger flared inside him, sparked by his mate’s presence and touch. Gods, he felt so damn hungry. He wanted Aya, the need ravenous and growing stronger with each passing second but he tried to control his emotions, knowing that now wasn’t the time to feed.

Unfortunately, before he could do that, Aya felt his hunger and broke off the kiss, breath harsh and body tense once again as he put some space between them. Yohji caught the hands sliding from his hair by the wrist and pulled them toward his lips. Pressing soft kisses on their palms, he smiled sadly and let go of his mate.

Aya stared at him for a few seconds, shook his head and then curled back beside him. "I’m sorry," he said, his voice so quiet as to be almost unheard.

"Nothing to apologize for, Cat." Yohji waited a few seconds before snaking his arm around Aya’s waist. "The last thing you need after a nightmare like that is me pouncing on you." He lifted one of his mate’s hands in his and kissed it again, just savoring the feel of Aya’s skin and pulse against his lips, Aya’s intoxicating scent. "I’m the one who should be apologizing. I just always want you so much." But not enough to worry about his hunger at a time like this.

His lover didn’t say anything, just settled against him until Aya’s head was again resting on his shoulder, arms wrapped around him as if he was a lifeline. Relieved that Aya wasn’t so upset that he didn’t want to cuddle, as even that innocent contact helped to soothe his hunger, he fumbled about for the comforter and pulled it over the both of them. It would be another hot, sunny day from the looks of it, but right now it felt good to have something around them, helping to block out the strengthening sun. Inside the curtained bed, surrounded by softness that gave off both their scents… it helped them both to relax.

Neither of them fell back to sleep, however. There seemed to be an unspoken agreement between them that, even feeling each other’s exhaustion as they did, they helped keep each other awake. Yohji knew he was tired of the nightmares and guessed that his mate felt the same. So they sat there in silence, save for a soft purr that rumbled from their chests as the sun rose in the sky, utterly content just to be near each other. Hearing the bustle downstairs grow louder as more people awoke and wandered about, Yohji hoped that Aya could start to bury the pain of his past and there wouldn’t be many more mornings like this.

*******

Cassandra sat in her kitchen, a mug of tea clasped between her hands. Her eyes were closed as she focused on her son, thinking of his teasing grin, the way he’d flip his hair back when proud or annoyed, the sound of his voice and the feel of him sliding through her thoughts. She remembered a child with reddish-orange hair that stuck up wildly in all directions, no matter how she combed and wet it, and a penchant for trouble that was truly astounding. Next came images of the handsome man he’d grown into, still attracting trouble but everything she could have hoped for her child. Bright and brave and strong, loyal to those he gave his trust to and one who always laughed at danger.

She sat there for several minutes and, when all she could sense was a faint tingle of pleasure, gave up on trying to contact the brat through their link. "Feh. As soon as he finds a mate he forgets all about his poor, lonely mother," she sniffed as she raised the mug for a sip.

There would be no contact today. The taste of mint and orange in her mouth, she smiled and sank down in the chair. She knew that Schuldig and Masato had to be careful of the time they spent with each other, as no one but their closest friends and Crawford could know about them being mates. As much as she wished to talk to her son, she couldn’t begrudge the couple their time together. There would be other mornings for her to talk to Schuldig.

Since she had no reason to remain here any longer, she finished her tea and rose from the table, stopping by the sink to rinse out the mug before heading out the door. She’d do some shopping before the market became too crowded, and maybe find something special for dinner tonight. Since Botan would be out of town for a week or two, she wanted them to have a nice night together before he left.

There was a small crowd of people at the open market, all of them intent on finding some bargains before the rest of the city came shopping. Using her enhanced senses, Cassandra easily found some fresh, quality cuts of beef and some juicy peaches and strawberries that she could bake into cobblers. After picking up a loaf of freshly-baked sweet bread, she returned home with her purchases, stored them away and left once more. This time, with her herb basket on her arm, she was going to the Koneko.

She entered the inn’s grounds through the back gate and paused to exchange pleasantries with Ichiro since he was outside in the sun, grooming Aya’s pale grey horse. She had to laugh when, in the middle of their talk about potential new workers at the inn, the horse nuzzled her in the chest, forcing her back a couple of steps.

"Stop it, Keiun," Ichiro admonished the horse as he tugged on its halter, and then turned to smile at Cassandra. "A few nights out with Yohji and he’s learned some awful manners. He’s as spoiled as Chiri now."

"Well, Yotan’s not the best horseman around," she laughed as she stroked the horse’s soft nose. "I’m sorry, but I’ve no treats for you. I promise to bring some the next time I come around." Wishing Ichiro a good day, she headed for the Koneko’s kitchen to have a chat with Jo before picking the herbs.

The kitchen was a bit more crowded than usual, filled with not only some of the staff but several handsome young men in Guard’s uniforms and two women. She sat down across from Ken and smiled. He returned the expression, in between shoveling more scrambled eggs into his mouth. "My, this is quite a gathering. Are you all here to help me pick some rosemary and parsley?" Cassandra teased.

Jo snorted loudly as she walked over from the stove, a plate of warm cinnamon rolls in her hand. "More like they’re being a nuisance and getting in my way." She set the plate down in front of Cassandra and smiled. "Would you like some tea? I’ve a fresh pot brewing."

"That would be wonderful." Picking up a warm bun, Cassandra looked at the people gathered around the table. "Is this about tomorrow’s mission?" she asked as she peeled off a small bit of pastry.

"Basically," Yuushi answered from his spot leaning against the counter. "It doesn’t help that the Shadow Guard is composed of a bunch of gluttons." He glared at the people busy eating at the table.

She hid a smile as she chewed on the pastry. She could understand why Eri and Ken were eating so much, but there wasn’t any reason for Naru and Miko to try their best to keep up with the bounds.

Smiling herself, Miko tucked back her short dark hair while she wiped her plate clean with a piece of bread. "We’ve gotten spoiled by Jo’s wonderful cooking and aren’t looking forward to eating elsewhere the next couple of weeks." Jo, in the middle of carrying a pot of tea and some mugs to the table, gave the young woman a dubious look. However, after setting the tea down, she went back to the stove for one of the pans of fresh rolls, and started to hand out the warm pastries.

"You’ll hardly be roughing it, you know," Yuushi said, his voice sour.

"Being deprived of Jo’s cinnamon buns is even worse than roughing it," Naru replied, his mouth full of said treat yet somehow still sounding rather mournful. "I wish I knew some preservation spells so I could take a batch or three with us."

"And who do you think is going to make that ‘batch or three’ for you?" Jo asked, voice raised in anger. However, as she swatted Naru gently on the back of the head, she winked at Cassandra. "I’m looking forward to the break from all the cooking I’ve had to do, now that you vultures will be gone for a while. Maybe I can actually get my pantry stocked once more."

"That hurt," Naru whined, and then a suspicious looking gleam entered his light brown eyes. "Maybe you should make it up to me by giving me another roll." He let out a yelp when Jo smacked him in earnest this time, but didn’t seem to mind since he got another roll for his troubles.

Over by the sink, Kira looked over her shoulder and chuckled as she washed the dishes. Touya gave Cassandra a kiss on the cheek as he breezed into the room for another basket of bread and then back out just as quickly. She could hear the sounds of conversation and laughter out in the main room, where the Koneko’s customers were enjoying their breakfast. The same feelings of contentment and good cheer could be felt here in the kitchen; everyone talking and joking, except for Eri who sat down at the end of the table near the hearth. The soul gaki-bound was still a bit shy around people, but she’d taken to hanging out at the Koneko more and more often the last couple of weeks.

"I see Ichiro’s getting Aya and Yohji’s horses ready for tomorrow," Cassandra said after a few minutes of drinking in the emotions of the people gathered around the kitchen.

Ken, still eating, shook his head and moaned, breadcrumbs falling from his lips. "Don’t remind me, please. I don’t want to think about riding a horse for three days straight." He shifted about uncomfortably on the worn bench. "I think I’m already having sympathy pains."

His partner cuffed him on the shoulder. "Well at least you heal a hell of a lot faster than most of us, you know. Yohji got over his saddle sores in record time and you should too." Miko easily avoided Ken’s return swing and laughed. "Maybe not just as fast as he did, since you don’t have a cute redhead to feed off of when you go to bed."

"It’s not fair, I tell you. I’m stuck with a craving for raw meat and he gets energy from having sex." Ken tossed his fork down onto his scraped clean plate and picked up his mug of coffee. "Why couldn’t I have been a succubae-bound like him?"

"Please, there’s enough snarling and testosterone around here already," Eri commented quietly from her corner. "I know I wouldn’t be hanging around the Koneko if there were two of his type living here."

"Can we talk about this another time?" Yuushi asked, his eyes glancing nervously at the door leading to the hallway.

"Oh, relax, Yuushi. You know Botan’s warded this room against eavesdropping." Naru picked up a crust of bread and tossed it at his friend. Not needing her talent to foresee a short food fight and a furious Jo, Cassandra eased away from the table and climbed off the bench.

However, just after Yuushi tossed the bread back at Naru, who was busy plucking grapes from the fruit basket for more ammunition, the kitchen door swung open. Yohji, appearing worn and unhappy, walked into the room, a hooded Aya right behind him. Reiichi followed them inside a moment later, a frown on his face as he headed straight for Yuushi.

Once done smacking Naru for tossing food, Jo turned toward the couple and settled her hands on her hips in a classic battle pose. "What the hell are you two doing out of bed? I told you to get some rest! You looked like death warmed over, Yotan!"

Yohji heaved a tired sigh as he brushed back his bangs, his other hand settling on Aya’s hip and pulling his silent mate in close. "Not now, Jo, okay? Trust me, we’d have preferred to stay in bed all day." His voice sounded exhausted and there were dark shadows around his eyes, his face haggard and skin dull. His appearance was shocking, considering how healthy and glowing he normally seemed.

Cassandra’s lips pressed together as she stared at her young friends in concern. Aya was wearing the hood of his black jerkin pulled far over his face, something he only did when he was out in the sun or when he was uncomfortable with being surrounded by a crowd of strangers. His face completely hidden, she still had the impression of exhaustion from the way his chin almost touched his chest and how rounded his shoulders were.

Before she could ask what was wrong, Jo muttered a curse under her breath and grabbed Yohji’s arm, startling a growl out of him. "Stop that or you’ll go on the mission with a cracked head." She dragged him and Aya over to the table and pushed Yohji onto the bench. "Sit down. If you’re not going to sleep, at the very least you’re going to eat. Once the guests are done using the bathing room downstairs, you’ll have a long soak there as well." Concern tinged her sharp voice and radiated off her as she fussed with her apron, smoothing it over her hips.

"What’s wrong?" Cassandra asked in the silence that followed as Jo fixed two plates of food. She didn’t like seeing Yohji so deprived of both his energy and his smile, or the way Aya was pressed against his side as if unnerved by Naru’s presence beside him. Aya hadn’t acted like this in months.

Yohji sighed again and leaned his head to the side so it rested against Aya’s. "We didn’t get much sleep last night," he answered quietly, the look of pain in his eyes saying more than his words.

She nodded in understanding as she sat back down. One of the worst things about being a bound, and also one of the best, was how time… seemed to stop for their kind. After they came into their power, time no longer had any real meaning to them, helping them face the many centuries. Unfortunately, it also kept emotions – both good and bad - burning strong long after they started to fade for humans. She had nightmares about her parents’ deaths well after Schuldig was born, eventually only able to move on past that pain as she settled into her new life with her son.

There was so much pain in Aya’s past and so little good. She could very well imagine how he would suffer until enough time passed in Yohji’s company that the happy memories outweighed the bad.

"Much sleep?" Ken snorted in disbelief. "It looks like you didn’t get any. What, were you too busy draining Aya dry last night or something? I bet he’s hiding one big bruise all over his neck." He leaned over Naru, his hand reaching for Aya’s hood, only to be smacked away by Yohji’s almost instantly.

Before anyone else could do anything, the room darkened as Aya hissed and forged a shadow blade, while Yohji snarled louder than a pack of dogs and Ken growled right back, his fangs bared and claws unsheathed. Naru let out a startled cry and hid his head against the tabletop, arms crossed over it for protection while he tried nervously to stutter out a minor spell of some sort.

"What the hell are you fools doing now?" Jo, once again appearing enraged, approached the table while waving a wooden spoon. Before she got close to the furious bounds though, Eri blurred into action and stopped her, using her inhuman strength to hold the larger woman still.

"Don’t! Let them settle this on their own or there’ll be bloodshed," Eri hissed, baring a hint of her own fangs. Cassandra struggled to control her bound nature as well, knowing that she had to stay out of the ongoing battle for dominance. As long as nothing further infuriated them, the men should be able to handle the struggle without any casualties.

As everyone sat very still, some even holding their breath, the snarls slowly faded. Ken just wasn’t a match for Yohji or Aya, especially not both at the same time. He soon hid his teeth and sheathed his claws while whimpering softly. "Sorry," he managed after a few seconds.

At hearing the words, Aya stopped hissing and vanished his blade, his gloved hands disappearing into his hood as he seemed to rub his eyes. Yohji snarled for a few more seconds, both his arms wrapped around his mate.

"Keep your damned hands to yourself," he said, voice rough and eyes gleaming with malevolence.

"I said I was sorry!" Ken’s loud voice caused Naru, who had finally straightened up, to jump out of his seat and go hide behind Yuushi.

"Hidaka, stop it. *Now*," Yuushi ordered, doing a pretty good impression of a growl himself. "You’re not helping things here."

Ken looked ready to say something, but quickly deflated under his Captain’s glare. His attention directed toward his empty cup of coffee, he tugged on his bangs and pouted. "I didn’t mean to do anything in the first place. Gods, I hate this. You think it’s fun to be overwhelmed by the impulse to rip out a friend’s throat?" That statement caused Yohji to start growling again and Aya’s shadow blade to reappear.

"Ken, shut the hell up!" Miko yelled in panic while Jo, a plate of food in her hand, smacked Yohji on the shoulder.

"You know the rules, no bloodshed in my kitchen!" Her angry tone had Yohji whining in seconds. "That means you too, Aya!" Setting the plate down in front of Yohji, she frowned and waved her fist in front of his nose. "I know you’re tired and unhappy but if you’re going to behave like this, go back to bed!"

Looking as if he’d been pole-axed, Yohji blinked his eyes a few times and hid his face against Aya’s shoulder. Jo stared at him for a few seconds before grunting in annoyance and stalked back to the stove, grabbed another plate and two mugs of coffee, and returned to the table. Despite appearing furious moments before, she smiled at Aya as she set the plate down.

"Eat something. There’s plenty more bacon if you want some, and you better have at least one roll." She patted him gently on the shoulder before giving Yohji’s head a not so gentle tap. "That means you too." Walking away, she started muttering about the insane people she had to put up with on a daily basis, looking back pointedly at Yohji and Ken.

Lifting his head, Yohji sniffed the air and reached for his coffee. "Why the hell doesn’t she abuse you, too?" he asked Aya. "I swear she takes it all out on just me. It’s not fair."

"Yotan…." Aya, speaking for the first time since entering the kitchen, shook his head and slowly pushed back his hood and peeled off his gloves. "A soak sounds nice."

"You’re not getting one until you eat something!" Jo chided from by the stove. "And don’t even think of telling me that you’re not hungry," she added when Aya opened his mouth. "You’ll feel better with a full stomach."

Aya appeared dubious at the advice but picked up a piece of bacon and started nibbling. Yohji watched him for a moment, a tender expression on his face, before setting his cup down and smiling wearily at Cassandra.

"So what brings you here, gorgeous?"

She couldn’t help but smile at the endearment. "I’d like to pick some herbs for dinner, if you don’t mind." She glanced at Aya, still nibbling on the same piece of bacon, and received a nod of approval. "I also wanted to wish you both a safe trip."

Yohji shifted in his seat to face her directly, his left arm firmly around his mate’s waist. "Have you seen anything about this mission?"

"I’m afraid not." She regretted the words when she saw him frown. "I know everyone will return home safely and there’s a feeling of… happiness in the future, at least on one person’s part, but I’m afraid your presences block most of my talent."

Yohji made a face while stabbing at the scrambled eggs on his plate with a fork. "Isn’t that how it always goes? Some people are almost more trouble than they’re worth." That got Aya’s attention; he stopped trying to eat the bacon to glare at his lover. Yohji smiled and leaned forward, until their faces were almost touching. "I said ‘almost’." He bridged the gap between them for a brief kiss. Both he and Aya appeared calmer after it was broken off - at least until Yohji tugged on an eartail and got snapped at for his audacity.

"Well, I take it the fighting’s all over now, though I’m not so sure about Jo’s rule remaining unbroken for long," Reiichi joked as he took Naru’s place at the table. Again, Aya shifted closer to Yohji but he managed a very slight smile in greeting toward his friend.

"It’s just not a normal day until he bites me," Yohji joked before eating.

"I’ll remember that the next time you start whining about how hurt you are," Ken cut in. His tone was teasing enough that it didn’t spark another fight, and he shared a wry grin with Yohji for a few seconds. "All right, we have to get to work but we’ll be back later with the uniforms."

"Huh? Oh, yeah, Birman mentioned something about that," Yohji said as he tried to butter some toast one-handed. "See you later."

Cradling his cup of coffee against his chest, Aya frowned. "What uniforms?"

"Sorry, Cat, I forgot to tell you about them. Birman wants us to dress as Guards so we don’t stand out while we’re traveling." Yohji reached across the table for the pot of tea and an empty mug, and, once it was filled, set the mug in front of Aya. His mate quickly exchanged the cup of coffee for it.

"But…." Aya paused to sip the tea, his frown becoming more pronounced. "How can anyone tell if I’m under a cloak?"

There was silence for a few seconds. "Excuse me?" Yuushi asked as he pushed away from the counter, a confused look on his face.

"Shit. I forgot all about that." Yohji smacked his forehead. "The only hoods we have for the Guards’ uniforms are on our rain slickers. You’ll definitely stand out if you’re wearing a cloak over a Guards’ uniform, especially if it’s a sunny, warm day."

Reiichi tapped on the rim of his coffee cup and nodded. "They’re talking about Aya’s… allergy to sunlight, Yuushi." He nodded again, the light reflecting off his glasses. "I think everyone forgot to take that into consideration with his wardrobe." He turned to look at Aya with concern. "I think it would be best if we pass you off as a wizard instead, maybe as another apprentice of Botan’s. No one will wonder about a wizard being cloaked during the summer since everyone thinks of them as being somewhat… odd."

"Hey! My kind resent that!" Naru yelled from over by the sink, where he was busy helping Kira with the dishes. Cassandra, as much as she wished to defend her absent lover, could only chuckle in agreement.

Reiichi smiled at his friend. "You know it’s true, Naru." Looking back at Aya, his expression faded. "Will you be all right? That’s almost three days of traveling in the sun, even with a cloak."

"It’s not as if we have much of a choice," Yohji mumbled.

"Yotan." Aya squeezed his mate’s arm and seemed to withdraw into himself, his head dropping down until the crimson hair hid most of his face. "I… it’ll be all right. I’ll feel weak while I’m out in sunlight but should be better by nightfall."

"Don’t push yourself, love." Yohji nuzzled Aya’s temple. "We’ll stop often to give you a chance to rest."

Aya didn’t seem to appreciate the concern. "I’ll be fine," he snapped. "Reiji once made me spend an entire day out in the sunlight, mostly naked at that." There was only the faintest of tremors in his voice, most likely unnoticed by human ears. "This will be nothing compared to that." He rubbed his arms and shivered slightly.

The expression on Yohji’s face at that bit of news clearly said he wished that Reiji and his sons were still alive so they could be killed all over again. Cassandra felt the urge to harm the dead man herself. To force a kage out into the sun unprotected… even with his kind’s amazing healing ability, Aya must have been covered with blisters within an hour.

 

Tense silence filled the room as no one appeared to know what to say to the latest revelation of Aya’s past abuse. Jo walked over to pick up his mostly untouched plate and left one with two cinnamon rolls in its place, pausing to lightly touch Aya’s cheek. He jerked at the caress, a wary look on his face that smoothed away when Jo smiled sadly.

Yuushi was the one to finally speak, a hint of pity on his handsome face. "Well, if Aya can’t pretend to be a Guard, what are we going to do with Yohji? People will notice that he doesn’t have a partner, as all escorts are supposed to." He ran his hand through his unruly hair and frowned. "I really don’t want to break up any partners but it’s either that or I go on the mission with you."

"I can pretend to be a wizard," Yohji quickly cut in. Seeing how he felt about Yuushi, he was eager to prevent the latter from happening. "Trust me, I can do weird." Several people laughed at the comment, the tense feeling from before morphing into humor and relief.

Smiling as if he had just thought of something very good, Reiichi turned to look at his friend. "Or I can go in your place. That many ‘wizards’ traveling together will attract just as much attention as a partner-less Guard, and the Shadow Guards really need you here in the capital. I also feel that it wouldn’t be a good idea to break up any new pairings when everyone is still trying to get used to their partners. Not to mention that it will raise some curiosity here."

"You’re off active duty, remember?" Yuushi pointed out as he folded his arms over his chest, but he didn’t seem too averse to the idea.

"No one outside of the city is going to be aware of that." Reiichi mirrored his friend’s pose, his glasses sliding down his nose. "Most of the time I’ll be on horseback so no one will notice my limp. When I’m not… you know it’s only those Guards on palace duty who are forced into inactive status when they become injured. No one out in the countryside will notice me but they’ll be sure to talk about a partner-less Guard."

The room grew quiet once again as the two men seemed to be engaged in a staring contest. "I’d prefer that Reiichi be Yohji’s partner," Aya said, his voice low but firm.

Yuushi broke off first to glance at him. He was well aware of Aya’s friendship with Reiichi, as was everyone at the Koneko, and Cassandra could sense concern, concentration and amusement from the blond Guard.

"All right, then, Reiichi will go with you. I’m sure the both of you will talk about books and chess strategies the whole way there and back." He smiled at the thought, as did several others in the kitchen. "Have you been sitting on your ass for so long that Ken needs to get a new uniform for you as well?" he asked his friend.

Reiichi chuckled as he pushed his glasses back into place. "My old one should still fit. Unlike someone else I won’t name, I haven’t put on any weight since moving here."

Naru stuck out his tongue, which was covered with icing from the spoon he was ‘helping to clean’. "I’ve finally had a growth spurt."

"I think your ‘spurt’ has more to do with cinnamon rolls and berry tarts than growing taller." Yuushi reached over to tousle Naru’s hair. He smiled for a moment longer before becoming serious again. "I’ll stop by Birman’s and let her know about the change. We’ll need an extra horse and more supplies." He glanced around the room, his expression becoming stern but Cassandra could still feel some amusement from him. "Shouldn’t several of you be on duty now?"

There was the loud rustle of feet moving and wood grating against stone floor as Naru, Ken, Miko and Eri suddenly stood up and headed out the door. Yuushi slowly followed them, pausing in the doorway to wave at Reiichi before leaving.

"Well, it seems that I have some packing to do," Reiichi said before finishing his coffee. "Cassandra, can I beg a jar of your wonderful muscle cream from you? I fear I haven’t been on horseback much the last two months."

She smiled at the courteous man. "Of course. I’ll bring some over this afternoon."

"Or I can stop by if you’re too busy. I think I’ll ask Ichiro to borrow one of the horses and try to get a little riding in this afternoon."

"That would be best." Then she would have plenty of time to concentrate on cooking. Standing up, she smiled in thanks at Jo who was hovering around Aya and Yohji. "Thank you for the tea and roll. I need to gather the herbs now." She glanced at Yohji. "Some help would be appreciated."

Aya picked up his gloves. "I’ll help-"

"No, *I* will." Yohji snatched the gloves and tossed them across the table. "You stay inside."

Aya didn’t appear very happy at being ordered around, his expression growing stormy. "You can barely tell the weeds from the herbs," he pointed out in anger. "I’ll-"

"Stay inside." Yohji wrapped an arm around his mate’s shoulder and prevented him from standing up. "Cat…. *Please*." Raw pain and worry colored his expressive voice and shone in his eyes.

Aya stared at him for a moment before closing his own eyes and nodding. He stroked Yohji’s cheek, then his hand was caught and a kiss pressed against its palm.

"Let’s go, Cass." Despite the tender smile he gave his lover, Yohji’s voice was still rough and it seemed to take some effort for him to release Aya’s hand and stand up. "I’ll be back shortly, just in time for that soak," he promised before heading outside.

They walked over to the garden, Yohji cursing softly and reaching inside his jerkin to pull out a pair of shaded glasses once they stepped out of the inn’s shadow. "Damn but it’s bright today."

"Yes." Cassandra didn’t want to mention that she’d heard from a friend that it should be sunny for another day or two before a series of storms moved across the country. No doubt that would only add to Yohji’s distress right now. "You do remember what parsley looks like, don’t you?"

"Ha, ha." He gave her a dirty look before stomping over to the herb garden. "I’ve a boyfriend who likes playing in the dirt, I know what a damned parsley plant looks like." He dropped down to his knees, ripped out some of the herb by its roots and tossed it aside before taking a deep breath. "How the hell could they do that to him, Cass? Each time I think I’ve uncovered the worst of it, he lets a comment like that drop and I know I’ve only scratched the surface. No wonder he can’t sleep at night." He stared sadly at the abused plant before picking it back up.

"He’s safe now, Yotan. He knows he doesn’t have to accept any abuse ever again, and you’re here to keep him from harm." She knelt beside her friend and stroked his soft hair.

Yohji grunted as he replanted the uprooted parsley. "Damn right I’ll never let anyone hurt him again. How can he even stand to come out here during the day? I’ve seen what happens to him when he’s out in the sun for just a few minutes without his cloak and gloves, and it’s not pretty. To spend all day…." He shuddered in horror. "Gods, I didn’t take nearly as long to kill those pricks as they deserved."

Aya probably had been ordered to go back outside as soon as he recovered from the abuse, but she didn’t say that out loud. "He’s strong, Yohji. Just be there for him and the nightmares should go away."

Yohji turned and smiled at her, the expression slightly bitter. "Is that a lucky guess or what?"

She sighed and brushed back his bangs, for a moment remembering how Miyuki’s would always fall onto her face in the exact same manner. Oh, how she missed her dear friend. "I’m not guessing. The dreams are common for those of us who’ve suffered, and once the pain goes away, so do they." She then shook her head, a bit rueful and forced herself to admit the truth. "Not right away, I’m rather sad to say, but they do fade over time. Just fill him with enough happy memories to silence the bad ones until they do."

"Tough orders, Cass." There was a hint of Yohji’s usual good humor back in his voice, his eyes filled with something other than exhaustion and worry. "I even have an idea how to make sure he doesn’t have any bad dreams tonight." The humor faded slightly as he started to pick some parsley. "If I can even touch him, that is. The nightmares weren’t all his, you know. I can’t stand the thought of losing him."

"You never will." She squeezed his arm before gathering up the plants. "My powers may be stymied where you two are concerned, but I know you’ll never be separated from each other."

"Good." He handed her some of the harvested plants. "So, since we’re sorta on the discussion of mates, how’s that brat of yours doing? Have you heard from him lately?"

"Feh." She placed the parsley in her basket and rose to her feet, brushing the dirt and grass clippings from her skirt before moving on to the rosemary patch. "Named him well, I did. He’s been nothing but trouble for me since the day he was born."

Yohji’s bright laugh filled the garden. "I’ll take that as a ‘no’."

She smiled in amusement as she settled near the pungent herb. "All I’ll say is that he was ‘occupied’ this morning." Her smile grew wicked enough to leave Yohji no doubt about how Schuldig was occupied, and he moaned in mock distress.

"Please. Considering who was keeping him busy, that’s something I don’t want to think about." Yohji joined her and tapped a sprig of rosemary against her nose. ‘You shouldn’t have let your son go off with an old pervert like Masato."

She couldn’t help but laugh as she batted the herb aside. "Oh, and here I imagine you’ll be just like your father in another century or so. Aya is certain to be ‘occupied’ all the time."

"Hey, I’m just being affectionate while he’s being perverted as hell." Yohji snorted as he rocked back onto his heels. "If you’re going to compare me to Masato, then I’m leaving." He rose to his feet in one fluid motion, lean body uncoiling in a highly attractive manner. Even if she thought of Yohji as her second son, she had to envy Aya for a moment.

"Tell Schu I hope he’s doing well, and will get a care package out to him the next time one of Crawford’s friends stop by the Koneko." He leaned down to kiss her on the cheek. "At least I won’t have to lie to Omi this time if he asks if I’ve heard from anyone in Esset."

"You’re not lying. You haven’t heard from anyone at all, you just hear the news second-hand from me." She felt a little guilty keeping the link with her son secret from Omi but thought it best that only she, Botan, Aya and Yohji knew about it here in the capital. "Take care, Yotan."

"You know I will, and Aya will be watching out for me as well." He smiled tenderly as he brushed the dirt from his hands. "You take care of yourself, gorgeous."

"I will," she promised, and paused in her gathering to watch Yohji return to the Koneko. Once she finished with the herbs, she’d stop by the small family shrine in the far off corner of the garden and tell Miyuki just how handsome and caring her son was today.

*******

Aya sighed in gratitude as Jo set a fresh pot of tea beside him. He even managed a slight smile, tired and anxious as he was. He wanted Yohji here. With his mate beside him, he wouldn’t worry about the nightmares, the dark memories that would creep up on him and make him think about things even worse than that awful midsummer day, trapped beneath a burning sun as his whole body felt as if it was on fire….

Taking a sip of too hot tea, he forced those thoughts out of his mind. Now wasn’t the time. Maybe he couldn’t do anything about them while he was asleep, but when he was awake and safe here at the Koneko, he didn’t have to think about them.

"So Reiichi will be going with you as well?" Koyu asked, and he latched onto the question as an escape from his dark thoughts.

"Yes, he’ll pretend to be Yohji’s partner so there are an even number of Guards."

"If you’d gotten out of bed a little earlier, you’d know this," Jo snorted as she set down plates for Koyu and a yawning Teddy. "You missed some excitement by just a few minutes."

"Whatever," mumbled a still sleepy Teddy as he buttered his toast. "It’s going to be odd, having so many people be gone for a couple of weeks. I just got used to them being here."

Koyu tousled his lover’s hair and grinned. "You’re just upset because you won’t be able to torment Yotan while he’s gone." While Teddy pouted and combed his fingers through his disheveled hair, Koyu winked at Aya. "Despite the heat, it’s a lovely time of year to be traveling."

If only he wasn’t going back to Timbergrey Castle, Aya thought as he sipped his tea. Koyu chopped his sausage up into tiny bits as he seemed to think about something, and then looked up, a somber expression on his face.

"I… I know you’ll be working, but there should be a chance for you to pay your respects to your family while you’re there, yes?"

Jo sat down beside Aya and leaned against the tabletop. "I forgot all about that. You’re free to bring their ashes back to the Koneko’s shrine if you’d like. You’re part of the family now, after all, which means they are too."

He set his mug down as he thought about the offer. Maybe, because of the dark shadow of Timbergrey looming over the mission, it had never occurred to him that he was going back to the place where his family had lived and were buried. "I’d like that," he said, voice quiet as he gave the matter some serious thought.

Everyone was quiet for a few minutes, enough so that his voice was easily heard when he spoke again. "I would like to bring them here." This city was his father’s home, after all, and his mother and sister would have loved the garden here. The shrine out back would be a much better place for them than the dark corner of Takatori land where they currently rested.

"There might be a few other things to bring back as well," he suddenly realized. Reiji had taken most of his family’s possessions, especially his father’s extensive library, and had warded the remaining things inside the Fujimiya’s old house. "I know the books are still there, at the least."

Teddy laughed, the sound gentle. "Why am I not surprised that you’d bring back books, of all things? I guess the workers will be starting on the new wing just in time."

"I can’t wait to read them," Koyu added, a dreamy smile on his face. "Then I can research some of the stories you’ve told me about bounds and such. Even if I don’t have to travel any more, I still have a Master’s work to complete and setting some of those tales into song would be perfect for that."

He didn’t want to mention that most of the books about bounds were Reiji’s, but he didn’t see why he couldn’t claim a few things of the Takatori’s after all they’d taken from him. Besides, he didn’t feel comfortable leaving the books at Timbergrey, where anything could happen to them, or for the Court to find. "I should be able to bring those back."

"Good. Just wait until I tell the Guildmaster about them." Koyu’s expression became even dreamier, as if he was already imagining the tales that no Harper had probably ever heard before. Aya hoped that he wouldn’t offend the bound who had written down the stories by letting the Harpers read them, but couldn’t see any harm in doing so. Perhaps one of Koyu’s songs would make someone rethink the senseless prejudice against his kind, and the stories deserved to be heard before they became lost forever.

"Great. Not only is Yohji going away but now my boyfriend’s going to do nothing but fantasize about a bunch of musty old books until he comes back, and then ignore me in favor of said books and writing songs." Teddy pushed his plate away and sighed melodramatically. "As much as I think you’re a little soft in the head for falling for my brother, Aya, at least you had the sense not to pick a Harper for a mate."

Jo let out a sharp bark of laughter, making Aya jump in his seat. "As if you didn’t run after the poor man until you wore him down, Theodore Kudoh. Poor Koyu never knew what hit him." She chuckled a little and shook her head. "There seems to be something about you Kudoh men, since the objects of your affection don’t stand a chance against you."

"Thanks, Jo. You make us sound like a vile plague or something." Teddy sniffed, as if holding back tears. "I think you owe me a couple of cinnamon rolls as an apology."

"You know where they are. I’m not your personal servant."

Thankfully, before Teddy could say something to turn Jo’s amusement into anger, Yohji walked into the kitchen. "I just sneezed for no reason so someone has to be talking about me," he said as he slid onto the bench beside Aya and wrapped his arms around him. "It better have been something good."

"Jo was just commenting on how irresistible the Kudoh men are," Koyu said while Teddy fetched some pastries.

"Damn right we are, even that runt over there," Yohji said, earning an indignant squawk of protest from Teddy. He nuzzled Aya’s ear, his breath warm and causing shivers to run up and down Aya’s spine. "Poor Aya and you were clearly outmatched."

"I think we’re finally resigned to our fates," Koyu deadpanned. "Teddy and I missed the ‘excitement’ earlier, whatever that was, in part because we took a nice soak in the hot spring before breakfast. There weren’t many people down there by the time we left." His air of innocence was spoiled by the hint of a wicked smile.

"I knew there was a reason I liked you," Yohji said as he urged Aya to his feet. "What do you say to a nice bath, Cat?"

"That sounds like a good idea," Aya said as he slid his arm around his mate’s waist. "One moment…." He closed his eyes and concentrated on the shadow wards in the bathing room. He couldn’t sense any customers down there. "I think the room’s empty."

"Good. Let’s hurry before someone gets the bright idea to have a bath right now."

Jo waved to them. "I better see you two back here later for some dinner. I refuse to send you off with empty stomachs."

"We’ll be here." Yohji waved back as they left the room. Their pace hastened as they walked down the hall, both of them eager to lock themselves in the small, warm room downstairs and soak for an hour or so.

The bathing room was still empty when they reached it, and Yohji quickly locked the door while Aya stripped off his clothes and washed. After setting dry towels and the robes provided by the inn on a nearby bench, Yohji did the same. Once they were clean, they stepped into the hot spring.

Aya moaned in pleasure as the hot water surrounded him, his arms floating in the mineral heavy liquid. When Yohji sat down on one of the spring’s benches, he straddled his mate’s lap and sank down into the water. He always enjoyed a nice soak in the warmth and the darkness of the small room, with Yohji’s naked flesh beneath his. Even with the painful memories awakened this morning lingering in his thoughts, just touching Yohji brought him a sense of relief.

"Relax, love." Yohji breathed into his ear as strong hands took to massaging his tense shoulders. Forcing his body to relax, he leaned against his mate, his chin on Yohji’s shoulder, and the only sound heard was the lapping of water against stone and his purrs. He felt almost calm enough to sleep; only the thought of more nightmares kept his eyes open during Yohji’s wonderful ministrations.

"You’re so tight." His lover chuckled and kissed him on the side of the neck, making his muscles melt. "Not quite in the way I usually mean, and definitely not in a good way. We’re not leaving here until you’re utterly limp."

He groaned at the sexual innuendo and shifted back into Yohji’s arms. "You’re starving, aren’t you?" He could feel his mate’s hunger and knew that Yohji hadn’t fed since yesterday afternoon. As much as he just wanted to be held right now, he couldn’t ignore Yohji’s need.

Yohji tenderly stroked back the hair falling onto his face and tugged on his shoulder until Aya once more rested against his mate’s chest. "If you think I’m going to feed from you right now, you’re as crazy as Teddy." Aya could feel the sigh building in Yohji’s chest seconds before it escaped, a low sound of sorrow and regret. "I want you, Aya, I always do, but I’m thinking now’s not the time." Fingers tangled in his left eartail and rubbed the long hair between them. "I just want to sit here and hold you."

He felt utterly grateful for Yohji’s understanding. "I feel the same," he whispered. As much as he craved the physical part of their link, sometimes it felt so nice to just be in his mate’s arms, to feel his mate’s heartbeat against his skin and smell him with each breath he took. No one had held him for years before he came to the Koneko. In Yohji’s arms he felt safe and the pain usually stayed at bay. There was nothing negative associated with being held like this.

"Doesn’t mean I won’t pounce on you later and make up for all the lost time," Yohji teased. "I like to wait until you’re begging me for it sometimes."

He snarled in mock anger and nipped the golden, scarred shoulder before him. "I never beg."

"Sure you don’t." Yohji settled lower in the water, submerging his abused shoulder. "’Oh, Yotan, I want you now. Please put that awesome dick of yours to use and make me your love slave’," he practically giggled, unable to say the words straight.

Pulling back, Aya glared at the laughing man. "I’ve never said that in my life." Not the latter part, at least. "Are you confusing me with another of your lovers?" he asked, voice low in warning. Submerged or not, Yohji’s shoulder was going to sport one hell of a new scar if he had made that mistake.

Yohji sat up and smiled, the expression so amused and loving that Aya’s anger had to fade away. "Well, I can always dream, can’t I?" He gently cupped Aya’s chin and pulled him close. "And how could I possibly confuse you with anyone else? No one bites as good as you do." There was another laugh before his lips pressed against Aya’s, the kiss tender and more of a promise of rather than a prelude to passion.

Aya couldn’t help but purr again when he finally pulled away, the last of the tension leaving his body as he once again settled on top of his mate. "I love you." He felt a little guilty over the fact that he didn’t say the words as often as Yohji did.

"I know. I can always feel it, but hearing you say it every now and then is nice." Yohji’s fingers stroked through his hair, a soothing touch that made his purr even louder. "Do I even have to say it back?"

"Hmmm, no. I’m happy just to feel the emotion," he said as he rubbed his cheek against his mate’s shoulder. Words too often turned out false, but what he felt from Yohji was a truth his doubts couldn’t deny.

Yohji hummed a happy tune as he played with an eartail. "If we weren’t mates you’d drive me crazy, you know. I’m very glad to be able to feel what you do since you never say anything." He laughed when his shoulder was nipped again. "Okay, I’ll stop with the teasing."

"What a smart man."

"Yeah, it’s what you love the most about me, other than my awesome dick." Yohji laughed as his shoulder was nipped yet again but finally got the hint and shut up. They enjoyed the silence for a short while, just holding each other.

"Cass said she hasn’t been able to talk to Schu lately since he’s always ‘preoccupied’ when she tries."

"Huh." He nuzzled Yohji’s ear, unwilling to think about what Schuldig and Masato must be going through. He knew he couldn’t pretend to not be Yohji’s lover for as long a period of time as those two had to look forward to, and in such a stressful environment. He’d had a hard enough time back when they first became mates, pretending to have broken up for a few weeks, and their link had only become stronger since then. Not to mention that there were so many of Yohji’s old lovers showing up now and hoping to have his mate for themselves. Just the thought of them made something sharp and furious flare inside his chest. "He’ll talk to Cassandra when he has anything truly important to say," he said as a distraction from the strange emotion.

"Well, she’s not really worried, from what I can tell. She even seems more than a bit amused. I don’t see why. If I had a son, I’d never let someone like Masato anywhere near him." Yohji sounded so indignant that it made Aya smile.

"I doubt you’ll ever have to worry about that now." He smiled again as he fought back the urge to point out that Yohji shared several traits in common with his father, and got an eartail tugged.

"I don’t think I like whatever it is that has you so amused," Yohji sulked. "In fact, I know I don’t."

He kissed his mate on the neck to make up for his ‘bad’ thoughts. "Sorry."

"And so you should be. Remember that or there’ll be no awesome dick later." The sulk was gone and there was a wicked gleam in his lover’s eyes.

He couldn’t help it so a small laugh escaped him, despite his best efforts. Trust Yohji to come up with a joke to help put him at ease and take away his guilt at still being haunted from the last nightmare. If it weren’t for his mate, he’d have been driven insane by the awful memories by now. If not for Yohji, he’d be up in bed curled into a tight ball, filled with dread at the thought of tomorrow’s mission.

Some of his good mood faded beneath the thought of what lay ahead of them but Yohji was holding him close so he didn’t worry. Tonight the nightmares would come back – but that was tonight. Yohji had taught him to enjoy the now, to not let his fears taint their pleasure. He had no intention of allowing that to happen.

"I’m sorry. Please don’t withhold the awesome dick later." He even managed to say it without laughing.

Yohji’s fingers trailed along the back of his neck, making him shiver and actually look forward to that ‘later’. "See, I knew I’d have you begging for it."

This time, it certainly wasn’t just a nip to the scarred shoulder. Yohji’s loud yelp of pain filled the small room and echoed off the damp, stone walls.

"Touchy bastard," Yohji muttered when the sound finally died down and he rubbed the new bite mark on his golden flesh.

"Yes, but I’m *your* touchy bastard," was all Aya said.

*******

"Time to wake up," a disgustingly cheerful voice said, just as Omi was about to fall asleep.

He opened his eyes and moaned when he saw Ken headed toward his bed. Couldn’t his friend let him sleep a little longer? He’d worked so hard today and deserved a nap. "Go away," he mumbled and pulled a pillow over his head.

Something was tossed onto his bed by his feet and the pillow was jerked away. "Sorry, but I’ve orders to help you pack. Now get out of bed so I can do that and then go home for something to eat. I’m hungry enough right now that you’re looking pretty damned tasty."

Hearing the snap of sharp teeth, Omi groaned and sat up with a pout on his face. "You’re so mean." He felt some of his exhaustion and temper melt away when he caught sight of the leather saddlebags on his bed. "You’re really here to help me pack?"

Ken laughed as he tossed the pillow onto the chair by his bed. "Yeah. Birman still remembers the last time she had to escort you on a vacation and says we don’t have ten pack horses for all your stuff this time."

He stuck out his tongue at his smirking friend. "Very funny. I didn’t take that much stuff with me to the chalet."

"Excuse me, it was really eight pack horses, not ten." Ken rolled his eyes and picked up one of the bags. "You’re limited to five outfits and one bag of books. Shall I pick out the things for you so you don’t pack your entire wardrobe again?"

Reluctantly moving away from the bed, Omi crossed the room to his bookshelves. "You can select the outfits and any supplies you think I might need." The truth was that he was absolutely terrible at packing. He never knew what to take so a little bit of everything ended up in his luggage. However, it wasn’t like over-packing had really mattered on his previous trips. Those had been about getting out of the capital for a bit, not something as serious as tomorrow’s mission. He couldn’t care less now if he had enough outfits to prevent other highborns from commenting about how shamefully neglected he was. Aya would be the only other highborn around for the next couple of weeks, and somehow he didn’t think the man would give a damn about how he dressed, especially since they’d be busy working.

He felt a tingle of pleasure at the thought that Birman wanted his help at Timbergrey. He was going to be able to put his new skills to work helping Botan take care of any spells his uncle and cousin had left behind. The past couple of months had been the first time in his life that he felt as if he had a true purpose and he was happy, even with Nagi gone and everyone talking about whether a new heir to the throne would be born. He loved learning magic.

Going through his new spellbooks, he tried to think of which ones would be the most useful to him during the mission. Botan probably knew all the spells inside them but he didn’t, and there wouldn’t be much for him to do on the three days or so it would take to reach Timbergrey other than to learn the books’ contents. Busy muttering under his breath about how few books a saddlebag could hold while he made his decisions, he suddenly had to cover a very wide yawn.

Ken looked over from the clothes cupboard. "You all right, Omi? You look pretty worn out."

Oh sure, *now* Ken noticed how tired he looked. "I’m fine," he lied cheerfully, not about to be teased over being lazy. "Botan and I spent the day creating spell plaques for the Koneko." He smiled proudly as he remembered how well things had gone today. "Mickey should be able to place them all around the new construction to keep the sound under control."

"Well, spells or no spells, I’m rather glad I’ll be away while they do the noisiest part. I’ve enough trouble adjusting to my new senses without having to hear pounding all day long for a couple of weeks. I already get enough noise from sharing a building with Yohji and Aya and Teddy and Koyu." Ken tossed a couple of shirts onto the floor. "Omi, when the hell is the last time you went through your clothes? Those shirts there are at least three years old!" He rummaged about some more, tossing clothes left and right. "These are even older. You’re such a damned packrat! No wonder you take everything with you, you can’t find what you need in all this mess."

Setting his books aside, Omi stalked over to his friend and the growing pile of old clothes collecting on the floor. "Hey! I don’t go over to your room and trash it, do I?" He grabbed Ken’s arm and tried to pull him away from the cupboard, and was rather surprised to be growled at savagely. The emotion didn’t last very long however, and despite Ken baring his teeth like that, he gave the man a good kick to the shin. "Leave my stuff alone!"

Ken appeared stunned for a moment, and then the snarl changed into a wide grin. "Nope." He quickly grabbed Omi around the waist and tossed him up onto his shoulder, knocking the wind out of Omi in the process. "Stay out of my way while I do some belated spring cleaning."

Dammit, Ken was using his bound strength unfairly. How was he supposed to fight back against someone who was several times stronger than him, not to mention while being dangled over the idiot’s shoulder? A thought occurred to him so he stopped squirming and started to concentrate on a spell that would have Ken jumping about with a hotfoot - but before he could do more than mutter the first two words of it, his butt was sharply smacked. "Hey!"

"You’re much too quiet so I know you’re up to something. Now play nice or not at all. I’m almost done." Ken smacked him again, further shattering his concentration. An old pair of shorts that were his favorite - never mind the fact that they were too worn and too small for him to wear anymore - was soon added to the pile on the floor.

"Put those back!"

"Nope." Ken laughed again as he slammed the cupboard’s doors shut. "There we go. I’ll save tackling the closets for another day."

Omi had visions of his room disappearing under the endless number of Court outfits that were currently crammed into those spaces. "Leave my things alone!"

"Ah, you forgot the magic word!" Ken smacked him on the butt again and laughed. "Hey, have you gained some weight lately? You feel heavier. I think it’s time that you watch what you eat or none of your clothes will fit anymore."

"Just so you know, I really, really hate you right now," was all Omi said as he wondered how well Ken would take to being bitten.

"Well, if you hate me already, I might as well have some fun." The next thing he knew, he was flying through the air and landed on his bed, the air being knocked out of him. Within an instant, Ken was on top of him, mercilessly tickling him.

"Omi the fat packrat. I should check you for a tail!" Ken continued to tickle him, leaving him too out of breath from laughing so hard to mutter a spell or even a swear word. "I should have someone go through your things while we’re away. You’ve probably the Crown jewels hidden away in here somewhere!"

"You! Oh… bas- No!" Ken was so dead for this. Once he could breathe again, that was.

Ken didn’t seem to notice his impending doom. "I know, I’ll tell Lady Meara about your room. She’ll have nothing left but a bed and your bookshelves in here by the time she’s done cleaning," he teased, busy laughing himself.

The man truly was mean. Not only would Omi come back to an empty room but Lady Meara would lecture him endlessly about the clutter. "Ken!" He finally found the concentration to form a small dart in his left hand and poked his friend on the shoulder. "Sto-p it."

"Ow." Rubbing his pricked shoulder, Ken wrinkled his noise and finally stopped trying to tickle him to death. "If you want to play with sharp objects, I can do that, too." He held up his left hand, the fingers now sported three-inch long claws. Only the huge smile on his face, teeth thankfully hidden behind curved lips, kept the sight from being frightening.

"Put those away before you hurt yourself," Omi managed between gasps for air. He was barely able to sit up as he glared at his friend, his arms clutched protectively around his waist. "You’re very, *very* mean."

Ken just laughed, a sound that was still all too rare these days. "Still feel so tired?"

"No, just like I’m going to pass out from lack of oxygen." He stuck out his tongue again and laughed when Ken almost snagged it with his claws. "Look at the mess you made," he moaned as he indicated the clothes scattered all about. "What happened to you helping me pack?"

Looking at the pile, Ken just shook his head. "You have too much junk, Omi. I’ll take the old clothes with me to the Koneko if I can find a bag big enough to hold all of them. I’m certain Jo will know someone who can use them." Sheathing his claws, Ken fell back onto the bed.

Wishing that his friend was ticklish so he could exact some well deserved revenge, Omi glared at him for a moment and then looked rather mournfully at all the clothes on the floor. There were people who needed them more than he did but most of those outfits had been his favorites while growing up. Several of the shirts had been made for him by Cassandra, given to him when Yohji snuck him out of the palace to spend the day at the Koneko or be out wandering about.

Ken poked him in the side. "Don’t look so sad, you’ll get some new clothes."

"I know." Then a sudden thought cheered him up. "I can order them from Cassandra." That would be a good excuse to spend a day or two at her shop. He could ask her all about any visions she might have had concerning Nagi. He was suspicious that she knew more than she let on and wasn’t happy about that. He missed Nagi so very much and just wanted to be sure that his lover was all right.

"There you go. We’ll head to her shop as soon as we come back from the mission." Forcing himself off the bed with a grunt, Ken went to take care of the mess and finish packing.

"Are there even five outfits left?" Omi teased as he stretched out on his bed. As much as he hated to acknowledge it, he didn’t feel as tired anymore but it was still nice to lie down and catch his breath.

"Ha, ha. You won’t be reduced to wandering around naked any time soon." Ken leered at him over his shoulder. "What a shame."

"Sorry, Kenken, but I’m taken." He regretted the words at the sad look in his friend’s eyes, the leer turning into a tightening of lips, as if against pain. Ken was adjusting to being a bound much better than to being single again. He sighed in regret and went over to his friend to give him a hug. "I’m an idiot."

"Yeah, but you’re Nagi’s problem now, not mine." Ken hugged him back. "It’s all right, Omi. You’re not the one who decided they couldn’t handle me being like this." Ken forced a weak smile onto his lips. "You don’t know how thankful I am that you’re not afraid of me."

"Not unless you decide to tickle me to death again." He smiled back as the joke seemed to drive some of the sadness from his friend’s face. "You’re even worse than Yohji."

"That’s because I can’t just bat my eyes at someone and have them falling at my feet so I need more underhanded tactics." Ken chuckled softly as he bent down to pick up the now neat pile of discards. "I don’t think he’s very happy about this mission, you know. He and Aya looked like shit this morning and they both were in lousy moods."

Allowing the change of subject, Omi lent a hand moving his old clothes onto a spare chair. "I feel sorry for Aya." He’d been furious when he found out that his father had ordered Aya back to Reiji’s old castle, and had received a lecture from Manx about trusting his father’s judgment when he’d tried to confront the man. Yes, Aya’s talents would help in uncovering any hidden spells, and he knew more about what Masafumi had created than anyone else here in the capital, but Omi and Botan could have worked around that.

"Well, I feel sorry for anyone who comes near Yohji during the next week or so." Ken shook his head, a rueful expression on his face. "I nearly got my throat torn out for just trying to make a joke at breakfast."

"Probably because you have a very twisted sense of humor." This time it was Ken sticking out his tongue. "I mean, you think it’s funny to tickle me until I’m ready to throw up so what do you expect?"

"You’re the only one who doesn’t think that’s funny." Ken tossed a pair of pants at his head. "Those you get to pack, along with these." Omi soon found himself covered with clothes. "Make sure to pack them properly so they don’t get all wrinkled."

"Oh sure, you say that after you throw them all around," he huffed, but was inwardly pleased that Ken felt comfortable enough to tease him again. "Aren’t you supposed to be helping me?"

"I can try harder if you want," Ken drawled as he took a step toward one of the room’s closets.

"Yohji’s not going to be the only person in a bad mood," Omi warned, readying a spell in case Ken got the bright idea to try and do some more cleaning.

"Are you kidding? Just you wait until after three days on horseback, when we’re all going to be in terrible moods and sore as hell." Ken gave up on the closet and retrieved a couple of the shirts hanging off Omi’s shoulders and started to fold them.

Dumping the rest of the clothes onto the bed, Omi gave some serious thought to how often he’d ridden in the past few months, the distance to Timbergrey and the fact that Birman was going to be in charge. "I think I’m going to keep a few of those old clothes after all. They’ll make great padding." At least he hoped so. He hated saddle sores and not being able to sit down for a few days.

"I wish I was a bound, too," he mumbled as he rubbed his butt, already imaging how sore he was going to be tomorrow. He knew Yohji hadn’t taken long to get over a night spent in a saddle, and Nagi had mentioned how quickly he’d healed after his trip to the capital.

"No doubt about it, you’re a weird one, Omittchi." Ken started packing the folded clothes into the saddlebag.

"I’ve been hanging out with you and Yohji too long." He was busy folding his pants when he was suddenly tackled face first onto the bed, unable to get any of his spells ready and his hands trapped beneath him.

"Obviously, I didn’t tickle you long enough," Ken said as he started with the abuse again.

As he started to laugh uncontrollably, Omi thought it was a very good thing that Ken was pretty nigh indestructible now. Because he was so going to need that enhanced strength and healing ability by the time he was done with him for this. Why couldn’t Nagi be here to toss Ken out of the window when he really needed him?

*******

Yohji pulled his shirt over his head and scratched his bare chest, grateful for the cool breeze that blew in through the open window, carrying the scent of flowers and herbs. He tossed his shirt aside and went over to where his mate was sitting, curled up in the window seat and looking down at the garden below.

Aya didn’t say anything when he stepped near, just snaked out an arm to tug him down onto the seat. More than willing to curl up with his lover, Yohji purred in contentment as he made himself comfortable, pressed against Aya’s back. Exhaustion from lack of sleep and all the wine at dinner conspired to make him feel languid and boneless, a state that Aya seemed to share.

"You’ll miss the garden the most, won’t you?" he asked quietly, the cool evening seeming to cast a peaceful spell over them that he didn’t want to break.

"Hmmm." Aya leaned his head back until it rested on Yohji’s shoulder, neck stretched in delicious invitation. "There’s nothing like it at Timbergrey." Distaste was plain in his voice as he mentioned their destination.

"Then it’s a good thing we won’t be staying there very long, no?" he asked as his fingers skimmed up Aya’s arm to his lovely, pale neck. "You’ll have to spend a good day or two in the garden when we get back." Hopefully cloudy days at that, or he’d have to be out there helping his mate to make sure he stayed out of the sun. Yohji still couldn’t shake the image stuck in his head of Aya’s lovely white skin turned an angry red and covered with blisters.

He drew in a sharp breath as he reminded himself that Aya was whole and healthy in his arms, and no one would ever treat his mate like that again. He’d kill them first. Then he pushed the dark thoughts aside, not willing to dwell on them and risk another night of bad dreams. He wasn’t going to lose Aya, ever. Cass had told him so and he trusted her word.

"Yotan." Aya shifted in his arms, resting against his chest, strong hands clutching his shoulders. "What’s wrong?"

Damn, he’d been too slow to prevent his mate from picking up the negative emotions. Smiling slightly, he cupped Aya’s face between his hands. "I promise you that I’ll keep you safe."

Aya was quiet for a few seconds before sighing and closing his eyes. "I know that." He rested his head on Yohji’s shoulder. "I’ll keep you safe too, I promise."

"Of course you will." They were equals, even though a deeply buried, animalistic part of him wanted to keep his mate locked up somewhere safe, hidden from the world and all the pain it contained. Good thing he was too smart to listen to that quiet voice or Aya would bite him bloody.

That thought helped to restore his good mood and he couldn’t help but laugh at the image of himself covered with bite marks and Aya gracing him with that devastating glare of his. At Aya’s arched eyebrow and feeling of curiosity, all he could do was shake his head and grin. "Sorry, I had a terribly silly thought and no, I’m not going to tell you what it is. I’ll just end up being bitten for it."

"Hmmm. Maybe I should bite you anyway," Aya said as he straddled Yohji’s lap, his hands stroking along Yohji’s chest and making him shiver in pleasure. "So many possibilities," he crooned softly as his fingers trailed over Yohji’s skin.

Not nearly as worried as he should be, considering how many bite marks he already sported, Yohji captured those teasing hands between his and brought them to his lips for a kiss. "If you do, I’ll be forced to hold back on the awesome dick."

He’d hoped that the joke from earlier would startle another all too precious laugh from his lover, but all he got in return was a slight smile. Still, that was good enough considering how withdrawn Aya had become as the evening progressed and they set about preparing for tomorrow.

Aya leaned forward until his mouth hovered scant millimeters from Yohji’s, the closeness causing his hunger to flare with painful need. He moaned as he cradled his mate in his arms, fingers sliding through ragged, silky locks of hair and skin tingling wherever Aya touched him.

"We wouldn’t want that, would we?"

Yohji needed a few seconds to understand the words, focused as he was on that seemingly endless space between their lips. "What?"

Aya licked his lips, his eyes heavy lidded with much-welcome desire. "No awesome dick."

"Oh." The words slowly made sense so he rocked his hips upward to dispel his mate’s worry. Just having Aya in his arms like this was making him as hard as as stone. "Are you ready to do some begging now?" He instantly regretted the words when Aya pulled back slightly. "Shit, Cat, I’m joking. We can just go to sleep if you want." He was so starved for his mate’s energy that he felt ready to cry if they just fell asleep but he wasn’t going to push. He didn’t want to be the one to blame for the nightmares tonight.

He nearly did cry, however, when Aya just gave him a sweet smile full of promise while he slowly pulled off his shirt. "No begging tonight," Aya said as he dropped the clothing to the floor and pressed back against Yohji, shivering slightly. "I… no, no begging."

"I understand, it’s all right." He didn’t want Aya to feel powerless. Threading his fingers through that wonderful hair again, he leaned forward for a kiss. His lover met him halfway, hesitant at first but growing more ardent as the kiss deepened. Yohji flicked his tongue against Aya’s, savoring his mate’s taste both physical and otherwise, his whole body screaming for the rush of sunlight that would flow as Aya’s pleasure increased. He needed that energy so desperately.

As for his mate…. Aya still felt a little reserved, a little distant, as he’d been ever since he woke up this morning. Yohji didn’t mind as long as the mild apprehension he felt didn’t bloom into fear. The second that happened, he was going out the window and into the garden’s pond in the hope of cooling off. So far it hadn’t, and hopefully he’d be able to do something to ensure that his love didn’t wake up in fear and pain from any nightmares tonight.

Continuing the kiss, he let Aya set the pace. They devoured each other’s mouth for endless minutes, naked skin sliding against skin as they shifted about. When Aya’s hands took to stroking down his chest he growled in bliss, body jerking at the light touch. He felt a spark of amusement and growing assurance through their link, making him chance scratching his nails gently down Aya’s neck, shoulders and arms.

Aya broke off the kiss, breath hitching as he moaned deep in his throat. His eyes dark with desire, he slowly arched his neck backward. "Yo~tan."

The sight of that exposed white flesh drove almost all thought out of Yohji’s head, his hunger snatching at his control and leaving him burning. "Gods, love, if you just want to sleep, I suggest you run like hell," was all the warning he could manage before he grabbed his mate in his arms and pushed off the window seat. Aya yelped in surprise and clutched at his shoulders as Yohji carried him over to the bed.

"Yotan!"

He laughed at his mate’s indignant hiss. "I know, you can walk by yourself but I like holding you." He adored the feel of Aya solid and squirming in his arms… almost as much as the feel of Aya solid and squirming beneath him…. "Aya, please tell me this is all right," he said as he gently settled his lover on the bed.

Taking a deep breath, Aya stretched out on the bed. "I’m fine, Yohji." His hands latched onto Yohji’s arms and tugged him down. "Now do something before you piss me off."

"Okay." Aya was all right with this. Aya, judging from the sense of frustration and impatience he was feeling through their link, wanted this. That was all Yohji needed to know.

He could no longer keep his hands from roaming all over the luscious body beneath his, could not stop himself from covering said body with his own. Uttering a happy sigh, Aya hugged him close and once again arched his neck, the invitation clear. If the sight had short-circuited Yohji’s brain before, his reaction was even stronger this time. He couldn’t have prevented himself from latching his mouth on to that smooth column if his life depended on it.

Oh gods… Aya beneath him, offering his neck and mewling in pleasure as sheer bliss coursed through him…. Mate. His mate. His to cherish and feed from and protect….

"Yotan!"

Aya’s throat vibrated in his mouth, Aya’s body arched against his as he sucked hard, pulling taut flesh into his mouth as his teeth pressed down. Aya was his. He’d mark his mate as proof to the world that anyone who dared try to harm Aya would face him and die. He sucked even harder, sparking more burning sunlight that poured into him as Aya called out his name again.

His hands were busy, frantically trying to pull off Aya’s pants while his mate was writhing beneath him, nails biting deep into his shoulders. There was a tang of blood in his mouth and in the air, both of theirs drawn by the other. Finally managing to break the damned laces, he relinquished his hold on Aya’s throat – only to latch on to an unmarked spot right below Aya’s chin.

There was another cry of satisfaction as Aya feebly tried to help Yohji with his own pants. Laces tore again as he needed *desperately* for the both of them to be completely naked, for there to be all that delicious skin touching skin. He needed more pleasure, more bliss until the sunlight poured from Aya bright enough to sear his nerves.

For the first time in months, he completely released all restraints from his hunger. Finally ridding them both of their pants, he settled between Aya’s legs and reluctantly let go of Aya’s throat. His mate whimpered for a second, long fingers tangling in his hair and trying to pull him back but he resisted long enough to reach for the jar of lubricant resting on the nightstand. Once it was in hand, he bent back down again, fervently seeking Aya’s mouth with his own, ravenous for a kiss. Gods, Aya tasted so sweet….

Putting to use all the knowledge gained over the last few months, he stroked and licked and sucked on Aya’s body and mouth until his mate was a mewling, writhing bundle of passion and need. Darkening marks littered the white skin, slick with both saliva and sweat, and his hands constantly roamed over it to caress and pinch and tease. Every touch increased the sunlight, made the feel of Aya inside his head stronger and stronger.

They both moaned in bliss when his slick finger slid inside Aya’s tight, burning flesh. Broken words were gasped and stuttered, stilted pleas for more touch, more pleasure. Yohji savored them for a brief second and no longer, totally unable to slow down what was happening. He needed Aya too much, needed to make him happy and demolish the pain and fear from earlier. Both he and his hunger were working in concert to make that happen, the sunlight burning through his veins a sweet reward.

"Aya… ready…?" he somehow managed to ask, fingers twisting inside and creating waves of ecstasy for both of them.

Busy gasping lungfuls of air, all Aya could do was nod, his hands eagerly seeking Yohji’s hips and pulling him closer. That precious consent was the last thing Yohji was aware of as the hunger and bliss took over. He thrust into his mate’s body and cried out in bliss as hot, clenching flesh encased his. His cock buried as deep inside Aya’s body as possible, he pulled back and set a hectic pace, needing so much to continuously thrust inside his lover, to drive both Aya and himself mad with ecstasy. The world faded away, lost in a pleasure so intense it almost bordered on pain, sunlight scorching his whole body but still being zealously sucked in with each sharp thrust of his hips. So strong… building impossibly high until a crashing wave tore into him and he felt immolated….

Yohji came back to himself on top of Aya, body still trembling with sparks of ecstasy that slowly faded away, his mouth fastened to Aya’s neck. His mate was perfectly still beneath him, breathing slow and deep, eyes shut and lips curved in a satisfied smile. Aya didn’t even stir as he reluctantly let go and slid off, body unwilling to do more than shift over to the side.

He felt about to burst from all the energy inside him, energy he’d deliberately stolen from his lover. Taking a few deep breaths to help center himself, he forced himself up and leaned over Aya, hand busy stroking along a pale cheek and down a spectacularly bruised neck. He let some of that stolen sunlight trickle back into his mate, just a little. Enough to bring a little color back to Aya’s skin but not enough to disturb Aya’s rest.

There should be no nightmares tonight. He’d released all restraints from his hunger for this purpose alone. Aya was so deeply unconscious that no dreams could reach him tonight. Yohji would return more of the energy in the morning, before they had to leave. If things went well and Aya didn’t kill him for doing this, then he’d repeat it each and every night during the mission, until they were safely back at the Koneko and Aya could forget about his painful past once again. Yohji couldn’t take another night filled with nightmares and his mate flinching from him upon waking up.

All he wanted to do was lie there curled up beside Aya, soaking in his warmth and scent, but he forced himself off the bed. Fetching a damp washcloth, he cleaned both of them and tugged down a corner of the bedding. Gathering Aya in his arms, he had little difficulty getting his mate tucked under the covers, and once done, crawled beside him. With a sigh of contentment, he spooned against Aya, hugging him close and assuring himself that his mate was safe and not going anywhere.

Even filled with all that sunlight, Yohji found his eyes drifting shut. He needed sleep and knew that tomorrow would be a long day so he didn’t fight the exhaustion. Besides, daylight would come soon, bringing the start of this hated mission. The sooner it began, the sooner it would end and he and Aya could return to the Koneko. That was all he really wanted, just some peace and quiet with Aya beside him. If the king and Birman knew what was good for them, they’d back off long enough for him and his mate to enjoy it.

*******

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