Shadows of the Past

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chapter three

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Aya felt warmth flooding into him, dragging him from the darkness. For a moment he fought against it, content to remain where he was and rest a little longer. But then he heard Yohji calling his name and couldn’t fight any longer.

"Aya? Wake up, love. Are you all right?"

He opened his eyes and saw Yohji’s anxious face hovering over his. He tried to give him a reassuring smile but it was so difficult to do even that small thing, causing him to close his eyes and try to gather up his strength.

"Come on, Aya. Wake up, please." His lover was now sounding as anxious as he’d looked.

More warmth flooded into him, making his body tingle as he finally managed to open his eyes once again. "Yotan." With great effort, he reached out with his hand and tangled his fingers in long, honey-blond hair. "Morning?" He felt as if he’d just fallen asleep.

"Yeah, it’s morning already." Yohji smiled, the expression a little worried as he helped him sit up. "We don’t have a lot of time before we have to leave, and I want to get some breakfast into you before we do." He paused for a second and brushed back Aya’s bangs. "How are you feeling?"

"Hmmm, tired." Resting against his mate, Aya took a deep breath and held it for a few seconds. He still felt exhausted, as if he hadn’t slept much at all that night, but Yohji said it was morning…. He shivered as more warmth trickled into him, Yohji’s hand hot on the back of his neck. Where was all this energy coming from? "What happened?" Something wasn’t right here.

There was a nervous chuckle as his lover stroked his hair. "Not much since we went to bed last night. I just woke up a few minutes ago myself."

They’d packed for the journey last night, and he’d sat in the window, watching the sunset and enjoying the breeze from the garden. Then Yohji and he…. He couldn’t help but purr and tilt his head to the side, toward Yohji’s caressing fingers. The sex last night had been wonderful, helping to reassure him that the nightmare about Hirofumi wouldn’t taint their relationship. But he couldn’t remember anything past the pleasure, nothing but darkness….

He suddenly snapped at Yohji’s hand but the bastard pulled it away just in time. "What did you do?" he asked while glaring furiously at his mate. If his suspicions of where Yohji had gotten the energy he pouring into him proved true, his mate would be lucky to get off with just one bite.

Sighing, Yohji ran his almost bitten hand through his hair. "I made sure you got some sleep last night, that’s what I did." When all Aya did was continue to glare, Yohji shook his head. "Come on, don’t tell me you’re upset about that. Didn’t you get some rest? You didn’t have a single nightmare all night long."

"Maybe because I was unconscious!" That explained why he still felt so tired, even after several hours of sleep. Yohji must have drained him completely dry.

"Aya, don’t do this. I’m sorry for not telling you what I was going to do, but I couldn’t take you having nightmares anymore." Yohji reached out a hand as if to touch him, but a dirty look and bared teeth had him pulling it back. "What was supposed I to do? Let you spend another night continuously waking up from one bad dream after another, so messed up you don’t even recognize me?"

"So, you just took matters into your own hands?" Bending his knees, Aya hunched over them, his hands curled up in his lap. He felt a strong urge to lash out somehow, fueled by anger and a little hurt. Once again, Yohji had done something that affected him, something that he’d had no say in, and was upset because he wasn’t thanking him for doing so. Aya hated feeling like he was some sort of doll or other fragile thing, for Yohji to coddle and keep from harm. He’d had a hard time accepting that months ago, and now that he was free of the Takatoris and living his own life, he hated it even more.

"I was doing what I thought was best for you," was all Yohji said, leaving them to stare at each other in silence for several minutes. Not knowing what he could say that would make his mate see reason, Aya sighed and forced his body to move. Any argument he came up with would run right smack into Yohji’s ‘I must protect my mate’ logic. He could understand the urge; there was no way he’d sit back and allow anything to hurt Yohji, but the man needed to learn to give him some time to try to work things out on his own before rushing to ‘rescue’ him.

He stumbled past his mate, over to the washstand. He had to brace his legs to remain upright, still weak from the feeding last night. Yes, he had an uninterrupted night’s sleep, but had been drained so low it didn’t make much difference. He muttered a curse and forced himself not to look over his shoulder at Yohji and glare.

As he washed, Yohji approached him and cautiously slid his arms around Aya’s waist. "I’m sorry. I just couldn’t take feeling you suffer any more."

Yohji’s voice sounded so apologetic and lost, the emotions burning through their link, that he felt some of his anger fade against his will. "Maybe they wouldn’t have been so bad last night," he said, not sure even he believed himself.

"Maybe. Or maybe you’d dream about the bastards all night long and be too afraid to even let me near you again like yesterday." Yohji placed a kiss on the nape of his neck, making him shiver. "I had to do something, Aya. I feel like I’m being driven insane when you hurt that much."

"I know." Tossing the damp cloth aside, he turned in his mate’s arms. "But you can’t keep doing that to me night after night." The way Yohji suddenly looked away had him growling. "You idiot, that’s what you were planning, wasn’t it?"

Before he could struggle free or lash out, Yohji’s arms wrapped around him tightly, holding him in place. "Okay, I’m an idiot, I realize that now. I was just planning on doing it if you suffered any nightmares during the mission." Aya tried sinking his teeth into his mate’s shoulder but Yohji held him pressed tightly against his chest.

"I’m sorry. Cat… I can’t think when you’re suffering," Yohji said, his voice quiet but heartfelt. "You were so tired yesterday, and I could feel how much the dreams still haunted you."

He managed a nip to Yohji’s ear before he stopped fighting to get free. Resting his chin on Yohji’s shoulder, he took a deep breath and shuddered as he let it go. "So you think fucking me dry will make things better? I feel just as tired today as I did yesterday."

"I can feel that." Yohji’s hand caressed the side of his face as more energy trickled back into him. "At least you don’t feel worse."

He snorted at that nonsense and then growled when his eartail was tugged. "Yotan, you can’t keep trying to save me. Give me some space to take care of things myself." This conversation was making him even more tired. When would his mate listen to him?

Urging him over to the window seat, Yohji sat down and pulled Aya onto his lap. "I truly am sorry. I guess… I feel you hurting and the demon part of me takes over."

And Yohji was part succubae. Aya lifted his hand to cup his lover’s face and stared deep into beautiful green eyes. "Yohji Kudoh, listen to me for once. If you ever do anything like last night to me again without my consent, I will kick your ass. I don’t care how much it hurts the both of us, I’ll still do it. Then I’ll let Jo have at you." He then leaned down for a kiss. Despite his hurt feelings, he had to admit he would probably have done something similar if his and Yohji’s positions were reversed. That was the only reason he wasn’t kicking Yohji’s ass right now. That, and he was too tired.

Yohji moaned softly as he kissed back, and feelings of relief and contentment washed into him, along with a tinge of remorse. "I promise that I’ll never drain you dry like that without your permission again," Yohji said, a little out of breath, "- unless I think you’re in danger otherwise."

He should have known that Yohji wouldn’t give him a straight promise on the matter. Pushing aside his irritation, he reminded himself that their behavior was often dictated by their true natures. "Do your best, Yohji. I’m serious. I told you before that I won’t allow you to treat me like some breakable doll." He felt tired and just wanted to go back to bed, and it was so hard to remain upset with his mate for very long. There were drawbacks to being mated to another bound.

The emotions pouring into him, however, gave him some hope that Yohji had listened to him this time. "Cat… I’ll try to think some more next time." Yohji shook his head and leaned against him. "This damned mission has both of us just reacting and not thinking, and it hasn’t even started yet."

Aya felt cold at the thought that they’d be leaving for Timbergrey shortly. Suddenly his anger melted away entirely, replaced by apprehension and dread. "We better get ready," he said, voice perfectly flat as he fought to keep it from shaking. He refused to give in to the fear. If he wanted Yohji to stop treating him as if he was a child, he needed to stop acting like one.

Yohji could sense his emotions, though, and hugged him tightly. "I want to lock you up in our room and keep you here, safe and happy. I want to go out there and slice Birman and the king into tiny pieces so they can’t order you to leave. If I could, I’d tear that damned castle to the ground with my bare hands so you’d never have to think about it again." He spoke the words roughly, his eyes shining with a fierce, protective love. "I’m learning, Aya, even if you don’t think so. I’ll force myself not to do any of those things because I gave you my word and… and I have a feeling that you need to lay some ghosts to rest to be able to move on."

He hadn’t thought about the mission that way. What if he could go to Timbergrey with Yohji at his side, walk around the place, do as the king asked, and then leave? He’d have a memory of the damned castle that didn’t involve pain and death and degradation, something that would help him fight the nightmares the next time they came. He could walk in its halls and prove to himself that Hirofumi was dead and buried, never to be seen again.

He rested his head against Yohji’s. "Just be there for me, Yotan, that’s what I need the most from you. Not you trying to make everything better with sex, be it amazing or not."

He could feel his mate’s amusement, the bright emotion helping to center him against his own turbulent ones. "You know, it seemed like such a good idea at the time, letting my ‘awesome dick’ save the day."

"You’ve definitely had better ideas," he answered, and couldn’t help biting Yohji’s shoulder, just enough to bruise the skin. "Why did you have to be a succubae-bound?" he asked no one in particular.

Yohji snorted and helped him to stand up. "Because if I were a flesh-gaki bound, you’d never be able to get out of bed. I’d see all this biting as foreplay." They shared another kiss, holding each other close and letting their emotions burn through their link. So much love and concern and nervousness, and beneath it all a determination to get through the mission.

A loud knock on the door had them jumping apart. "Hey you two, time to get out of bed! Jo said to haul your butts downstairs for some breakfast pronto, or else." Teddy sounded rather amused as he delivered the message.

Growling at the door, Yohji gave Aya one more hug and then headed for the closet. "I’m not going to miss him at all, you know."

Aya snorted and finished washing up. As he dried off, he turned to see Yohji buttoning up the long, navy blue coat of the Guards. He could only stare at his lover for a moment, taking in how serious Yohji looked in that outfit, how tall and handsome.

Yohji looked up from his buttons and smiled. "I take it you like the uniform?" He tugged the jacket straight. "I feel funny wearing it after so long, you know. I ended up burning mine after…. Well, I just thought I’d never be dressed up like this again."

"You look very handsome," Aya said as he went to his mate. The cut flattered Yohji’s lanky body, the color making his golden skin and hair stand out even more. As much as he once hated that uniform, he had to admit that Yohji belonged in it. He adjusted the short collar and rested his hand on Yohji’s chest.

"Cat, please get dressed." There was a note of strain in Yohji’s voice. "You’re making it hard to resist tossing you onto the bed and keeping you there all day long." Hands skimmed along his arms and, trembling, fell away.

Remembering that he was still naked, Aya felt a hint of heat in his cheeks and stepped back. "One minute." He was flustered and tried to regain his composure as he went to the dresser for his outfit. Black pants and shirt, a dark grey, hooded jerkin and matching gloves. He soon joined Yohji on the window seat as they pulled on their boots, Yohji’s the short, shin length ones of the Guards’ uniform, Aya’s soft, knee length leather ones that would be more practical for riding.

Fetching his cloak, which he would certainly need over the next couple of days, he turned to see Yohji standing by the door, their saddlebags draped over his shoulder. Aya felt another stab of pain with each step he took toward his mate, knowing that he was leaving their sanctuary for quite some time. Looking behind him, he savored the sight of their bed, sheets left rumpled and unmade, his books and Yohji’s clothes scattered all about, the padded window seat overlooking the garden.

"We’ll be back soon, love, and then we’re spending the whole damned day in here," Yohji said, his hand resting on Aya’s shoulder.

Giving his mate’s hand a squeeze, he turned away and walked out the door.

*******

Reiichi tugged on his uniform’s coat before sitting down, highly conscious of his outfit. He hadn’t thought he’d ever wear it again, save for the occasional ceremony, and then he’d be wearing a light blue band on each arm signifying his retirement. Even if the Shadow Guard knew he really wasn’t retired from duty, he missed wearing his uniform.

Yuushi knocked an elbow into his side. "Are you able to eat while wearing that thing? We wouldn’t want you to pop any buttons or lacings." Humor was evident in his friend’s voice and twinkling eyes.

Wishing he could stick out his tongue like Naru always did and still retain some dignity, he chose to look down his nose in reproof. "There is absolutely no danger of that happening. I told you, *I* haven’t gained any weight since we moved here."

"Only because you’re always busy playing chess with Aya instead of joining us for dinner." Yuushi snorted and reached for some sweetened butter. "Listen, I didn’t get much of a chance to talk to you last night so I’m letting you know this now, before everyone shows up for breakfast. You’re in charge during the mission." Yuushi’s cheerful face was replaced by a look of determination and thoughtfulness. "I don’t care if Birman’s there or not, I told the others to listen to you."

He wasn’t sure what to say for a minute, and they both were quiet as Yuushi buttered a muffin. "I thank you for that trust, but do you really think it’s wise, going over Birman’s head like that?" Yuushi might not be the Shadow Guard’s Captain for much longer if he did things such as this.

Grunting, Yuushi took a bite out of the muffin. As soon as he swallowed, he shook his head and wiped the crumbs from his lips. "The others will look to you to see if they should follow her orders, and I’m sure you can keep her from realizing that – at least until you have them ignore her. The truth is that a lot of the new Guards are upset with the way things have been going around here lately." He pointedly looked upstairs and then over at Yohji and Aya’s empty spots at the table. Reiichi understood what his friend was trying to say and nodded.

"They’re worried about being overworked like them." He’d heard some complaints from the bounds who had joined the Guards, who wondered if they were being exploited for their talents. And it wasn’t just them; many of their human partners had to do double duty, working for both Kikyou and Yuushi.

"This will be a true test for our group, Reiichi. Since they’ll be away from the capital and prying eyes, Ken and Eri will be able to use their talents with very little restraint." Yuushi looked him in the eye. "I’m expecting you to make certain that they’re not taken advantage of during this mission. If they are…," Yuushi shook his head, a frown on his face, "I doubt we’ll have much of a Shadow Guard when you come back."

He knew Yuushi’s concern grew out of worry for the new group he was in charge of, the people he considered his responsibility. "So why aren’t you going? You didn’t put up much of a fight yesterday when I offered to go instead."

Yuushi smiled, the expression partly sly and partly embarrassed, of all things. He even ducked his head a little. "Because once you volunteered, I knew I wouldn’t have to worry about things. Also… with Birman gone, I’m hoping to get a few new changes underway."

"Yuushi… oh, my little boy is finally growing up." Reiichi sniffed dramatically and made a gesture as if to wipe away tears. "You’re finally learning how to play the Game at Court." Truthfully, he was quite surprised, and not certain if Yuushi suddenly becoming a bit, well, sneaky, was a good thing.

"Oh, please." Yuushi cuffed him on the shoulder. "I’m far from becoming the expert you are, but I picked up a few things from you over the years. I have every intention of using Birman’s absence and Manx’s preoccupation to my advantage," his friend said gruffly. "You know Kikyou’s going to be busy with his own agenda, leaving me the perfect opportunity to better things for our people. I want a lot of those doubts to be gone within the next moon." There was such a determined look on Yuushi’s face that he had little doubt the man could pull things off.

"Don’t worry about things on my end," Reiichi promised. "I’ll look out for Ken and Eri, along with everyone else." Between the two of them, they should prove to the bounds in their group that the Shadow Guard was sincerely working at in its goal of having both them and humans working side by side as equals.

"Thanks. I knew I could depend on you." Yuushi smiled and picked up his fork. "Oh, and try not to kill Naru during the mission, all right?"

Thinking about spending several days on horseback with their friend, listening to Naru complain and putting up with what was guaranteed to be some very… ‘interesting’ pranks when he grew bored, Reiichi couldn’t help but chuckle. "Now I know the real reason you were happy to let me go in your place. Sorry, Yuushi, but no promises other than I’ll be certain to make it look like an accident should such an unfortunate incident occur."

Yuushi laughed with him, and they continued to chuckle and snort as they ate their breakfast, occasionally sharing ideas of various ‘accidents’ that could befall Naru, which made them laugh even more. Of course, when the man in question finally showed up for his breakfast and instantly demanded to know what was so funny, neither of them could do anything but laugh for several minutes.

*******

Birman sighed as she watched Omi literally bounce into the Koneko. Beside her, Botan chuckled and patted her on the back. "You have a couple of weeks to put up with that enthusiasm, you know."

"You mean *you* do," she pointed out. "Technically, he’s your apprentice and hence your headache." Gods, she’d never seen anyone so cheerful about a mission before. "And since you’re sharing a room with him, you’ll have to deal with him each and every morning." The ride from the palace had aged her ten years from the feel of it, both because of Omi’s exuberance and the fact that if something happened to the boy, she better not even bother to come back.

Botan groaned and shoved her into the Koneko. "Thanks for that reminder."

She smiled at her friend and walked over to the kitchen’s table where everyone was gathered for the mission. She almost did a double take upon seeing Yohji dressed up as a Guard, looking splendid but a little upset. "You look good, Kudoh."

He glared at her over the rim of his coffee mug. "*No*, Birman. I already work enough hours for you, I’m not about to become a Guard full-time again."

Well, someone was certainly paranoid this morning. "You’d be wasted as just a Guard, so have no fear." She sat down at the table, between Omi and Botan. "Is everybody ready to leave?"

"Not before they finish eating," Jo said, a menacing look in her eyes as she slid more

bacon onto Aya’s plate. The kage appeared tired, as if he hadn’t slept much last night.

Naru and Ken were busy eating everything they could get their hands on while Eri and Miko ate at a much more… subdued pace – which still wasn’t saying much. Reichi appeared to be finished with his meal, but she was chagrined to see that Omi and Botan had just filled plates for themselves.

"I guess we can wait a few more minutes," she grumbled as she reached for a mug and the pot of coffee. The damned gluttons were already throwing her off schedule.

Jo hmphed and went over to the stove, only to come back with a basket of warm muffins, which she set down by Birman. "The more they eat now, the less they’ll need later," she said before urging Aya and Yohji to have a muffin.

"True." Which meant they could make up the time by only stopping for a short lunch.

Yohji’s glare intensified, making her feel as if he’d just read her thoughts. "We’ll still be stopping to give Aya a chance to rest every so often."

"Yohji, I’ll be fine. I rode to the capital in less than two days with almost no breaks," Aya snarled as he set his muffin aside.

"Well, you’ll be taking some breaks this time, even if I have to drag you off your damned horse and sit on you!"

"Do that and you’ll lose some fingers," Aya hissed as he bared his teeth. Everyone at the table sat stunned, unable to look away from the sudden fight. The mated bounds didn’t usually snap at each other with such venom, at least not in public. Birman frowned and tried to figure out if this sudden development was going to affect her mission.

Yohji, his teeth now bared as well, waved aside the threat. "Use your brain for once, Aya. This isn’t about me coddling you, it’s simply common sense. Your kind- OW!" Both he and Aya rubbed their heads while Jo stood behind them, a thunderous scowl on her face and both hands upraised, as if to smack them again.

"You’ll *both* use your heads." She fixed a steely gaze on both of them. "Don’t be idiots and let your stupid prides get in the way. And stop growling at each other in my kitchen!"

The two men stared at their plates, their hands, the table, anywhere but at each other or Jo, until the cook cleared her throat. Then they looked up, Yohji offering an apologetic smile, which Aya slowly echoed. The entire room seemed to breath a sigh of relief as the air of tension vanished.

So it was just a spat between the mates, although Birman had to wonder what had really been the cause of the fight. That reminded her of something she wanted to talk to the men about. "Yohji, Aya." When she had both of their attentions, she set her coffee aside and folded her hands on top of the table. "I need you two to watch yourselves around each other during this mission."

"What the hell are you talking about?" Yohji asked as he draped his arm over Aya’s shoulder and started toying with a long eartail.

"I’m talking about that." She motioned at Yohji’s arm. "You two are always touching each other, and people will notice that. I want as little attention drawn to us as possible, which won’t happen if everyone’s talking about a Guard and Wizard fooling around with each other. I want everyone to look like a professional and for you two to not be very noticeable."

Aya gave her a cold look as he wove his fingers between Yohji’s. "I can make certain that people don’t see us."

"Yes, and then they’d wonder about the odd number of Guards, which would once again attract attention," she pointed out. "So don’t even think about it. Just keep your hands off each other in public. You can do whatever you like once you’re in your rooms at night."

A low growl slowly built, spilling free as Yohji pulled back his lips, exposing his sharp teeth. "Don’t tell us how to act around each other, Birman. We’ll steal whatever you want, or assassinate or spy, but that’s it."

Aya and Yohji weren’t the only ones giving her dirty looks; everyone else in the room was as well but she didn’t let that stop her. This was her mission, wanted or not, and she’d make sure it was done properly. She couldn’t risk people finding out about Aya or something happening to Omi. "You’ve promised to-"

"Spymaster, *shut up*." Eri, usually so quiet that half the time others forgot about her, snarled the words, sounding even more vicious than Yohji. "You’re human; you don’t understand what the hell you’re talking about. Asking a mated pair not to touch each other is impossible. Accept that fact and *back off*." She looked a little startled by the time she finished and glanced over at her Captain out the corner of her eye.

Yuushi nodded before glaring at Birman. "I’d listen to her, Spymaster. This isn’t as simple as two Guards fooling around with each other while they’re on duty. While I understand your point, I think you need to take into account what Yohji and Aya are."

"They’re both right," Botan said quietly as her teeth ground together in frustration. "I thought we talked about this the other day."

"Talked about what?" Damn Yohji and his kind’s sharp hearing. He looked furious as hell, and Aya’s visage was perfectly impassive – except for his eyes, which were burning pools of silver. "You have meetings about us? What do you do, talk about new ways to make us jump through hoops or something? How to fuck up our lives even more?" Yohji’s voice was dripping with venom. "You don’t know how often I wish I’d just killed you that day and left Kritiker with Aya after the wedding."

This was not at all how she’d imagined the start of this mission. Yohji and Aya were almost mutinous; Ken and Eri were growling softly while there was a hurt and disappointed look on Omi’s face and glares on Botan, Yuushi and Reiichi’s.

"For your information," she said, trying to salvage the situation, "we were talking about your well-being and how best to safeguard it." Yohji and Aya didn’t exactly appear touched by the concern. "As for your regrets, it’s too late to do anything about it now. I’ve held up my end of our bargain, dammit, and fully expect you to do the same, which is to behave in a manner befitting the Guards during this mission!"

A resounding slap against the table caused plates and cups to wobble and people to jump, and cut off Yohji and Botan’s replies. Eri rose to her feet, her whole body trembling. "I will say this once more. Spymaster, you are *completely* wrong about this matter. If you don’t back down from this ridiculous order, I refuse to go on this mission and will leave the Guards. I won’t watch you torture mated bounds in this manner. And I’ll say this as well, even if you don’t care about my leaving and you still force this matter, you won’t like the results at all." She glanced at Yohji and Aya and quickly looked away. "If you think they attract attention now, just wait and see how they act after a day or two of being in each other’s company and not allowed physical contact."

Birman stared at the tall woman, her face not showing any of her inner turmoil. If Eri left, the mission would lose a very important person, one who could not be easily replaced. That wasn’t her biggest concern, however. If Eri quit, she’d be willing to bet anything that a lot of other bounds would leave the Shadow Guards as well, and there went Kritiker’s best hope in the approaching war with Esset.

What was the big deal about Yohji and Aya not touching each other for a few hours during the day? They could screw around all they wanted at night, it wasn’t as if she was forbidding all contact. Refusing to sigh, she realized that she had a lot to learn about bounds – and she needed to correct that as soon as possible. The problem was, their kind weren’t exactly very talkative about their true natures.

"All right, I’m clearly missing something here," she forced herself to admit. "I don’t see what the big deal is, but then again I’m not a bound or mated with one. If you say that my… request is impossible, then I rescind it." She turned to look at Aya and Yohji, who still appeared furious. "I do ask, however, that you try to restrain yourselves around each other while in public."

Yohji’s glare went up a notch as his arm tightened around Aya’s shoulder, but he eventually nodded. "We’ll do our best not to attract any attention. You just make sure we stop for enough breaks for Aya to recover from the sunlight and to give us some time together."

Trying not to think about how much that would throw off schedule, Birman reluctantly agreed. "All right. Now, if everyone’s done, I think we should get on the road." No doubt about it, the next few days were going to be very long.

As everyone hurried to finish their breakfasts, Aya called out her name. When she looked at the kage, she noticed that his eyes were still silver. "I won’t be anyone’s slave again, and I refuse to allow Yohji to suffer that fate," he said, his voice cold and sibilant. "No matter what the consequences, if I feel either of us is being treated as such I’ll break my oath without any hesitation."

Despite her resolve not to react to the threat, she couldn’t help but shiver. Everyone knew that, for whatever reason, bounds were loath to break any promises they made. Yet here was Aya saying that he’d do just that.

She chose her words with care. "I’ve never thought of you or Yohji as slaves. As men sworn to the king, yes, but I’ve never treated you as anything other than two Guards with special abilities. I promise you that." She continued to hold Aya’s gaze and felt sweat break out on her forehead from the force of the cold look he returned.

After a few painful seconds, his eyelids dropped, and moments later his eyes were violet once more. "The moment you break your oath, so do I." That said, he rose from the table, Yohji hard on his heels.

Birman let out a shaky breath and rubbed her hands over her eyes. She wondered if it was too early in the day to have a stiff shot or four of whiskey.

"Well, I’d say this mission is off to a highly auspicious start," Botan murmured. She had to resist the urge to knock her elbow into his ribs.

*******

Omi sighed as he shifted in the saddle. They’d just cleared the outskirts of the capital and already his bottom was a little sore from all the riding. He didn’t want to think about how he’d feel when they reached the inn that evening.

The fight in the kitchen was still affecting everybody’s mood. Birman rode at the front of the group, dressed as a minor noble. The scowl on her face befitted her role as someone forced to leave the Court to escort a bunch of pampered wizards to the countryside, but he didn’t think she was acting at the moment.

Behind her were Eri and Naru, talking quietly to each other. Then he and Botan, who was lost in thought and hadn’t said much. Shifting in the saddle, Omi looked over his shoulder and saw Aya and Reiichi, who were rather quiet though he’d heard them exchange an odd word or two during the journey. Miko, Yohji and Ken brought up the rear, the three of them almost acting normal. At least, until one noted how Yohji stared at Aya, and realized that much of the Guards’ talk was for the benefit of distracting Yohji.

 

Slowing his horse down, he butted in between Aya and Reiichi. "What are you two talking about?" he asked, desperate for some company to save him from boredom.

Reiichi smiled as he adjusted his glasses. "We’re playing a game of chess. Would you like to take on the winner when we’re finished?"

About to ask how they could play the game while on horseback, Omi suddenly realized that they were just visualizing it in their minds, which explained the odd comments he’d heard. "Who’s winning now?"

"Reiichi." Not a bit of Aya’s skin or even his hair was visible. Completely encased in fabric and leather, Omi couldn’t understand how his friend could bear the hot summer heat.

Reiichi chuckled as he dipped his head in acknowledgement. "I can’t let you beat me three times in a row, you know. My poor reputation will be in tatters." He glanced worriedly at Aya. "Although I think we shouldn’t count any games played while traveling. You’re obviously at a disadvantage."

Aya’s shoulders stiffened beneath his cloak. "I’m *fine*." He made an abortive movement, almost as if to look behind him, and then slumped in the saddle. "Not that it really matters; you’re still in the lead."

"At least until I play against Omi." Reiichi said. "You know, we can take a break whenever you want."

A soft spitting sound emanated from under Aya’s hood. "I told you, I prefer to wait until we get a little further from the capital. There’ll be less traffic then."

He had a point, Omi thought. There’d been a steady stream of people walking and riding past them all morning long. Everyone seemed determined to travel as much as possible before the heat of the day set in.

"We could probably stop at noon," he pointed out, wondering how Aya would fare with the sun directly above them. "We should be far enough from the capital by then and be able to find a private spot to rest."

"…Yes." Aya finally looked over his shoulder. Omi did the same, and found Yohji staring intently at his lover, green eyes burning with emotion over the rim of his shaded glasses. He had to smile - it was a miracle that neither man managed to ride their horses into someone else’s or even off the road with the way they seemed oblivious to anything but each other.

They finally looked away when Ken’s horse bumped into Yohji’s. Poor Ken got a snarl for his trouble, but that was preferable to another fight breaking out between Yohji, Aya and Birman.

Aya stared straight ahead, his hand reaching up to tug his hood down even further.

"How can you see out of that thing?" Omi asked the question that had been bothering him all morning long.

"Hmmm?" Aya’s hand stilled. "I see enough to know where I’m going." He sounded tired, making Omi recall how exhausted he’d looked at breakfast today. "Besides, it’s not as if I’m missing much."

"No, just trees, trees and more trees." Reiichi grimaced as he waved at the greenery lining the road. "I’m very glad we’re not traveling during spring or I’d be sneezing every other meter."

"Oh really?" Omi perked up at that bit of news. "I’ve been reading about spells that should prevent that! Maybe I can try one or two out on you if you have an attack."

"The gods forbid," Reiichi mumbled as he stared down at the reins in his hands.

"What was that?"

The Guard flashed him a rueful grin. "Omi, I’ve heard wonderful things about your progress, but pardon me if I don’t sign myself up to be your test subject just yet." A wicked gleam entered his dark eyes. "You know, Naru’s allergies are much worse than mine. I think your spells would be much more effective on him."

A choked sound from Aya had them both looking at him with concern. "Aya, are you all right?" Omi asked, worried that all the sunlight had finally gotten to his friend.

Aya repeated the sound, although this time… this time it almost sounded like a laugh. "I’m all right," he said a moment later, voice trembling. "Your concern for Naru is truly touching, Reiichi."

"I know he wouldn’t hesitate to do the same for me, so I make sure to beat him to it," Reiichi said lightly. "Don’t let his appearance fool you. He may appear young and harmless, but he’s really as bad as Teddy when it comes to his friends."

"And you do nothing to provoke him, I’m certain. Why do I have the feeling that Naru’s not the only one who’s nothing what he looks like?" Aya asked, sounding less weary than before.

"Ah, is anyone truly as they appear?" Reiichi retorted, a smile on his lips.

"Considering who you’re talking to, I doubt you’ll find much of an argument here."

"Well, you probably know Shien Ri’s thoughts on…."

Omi left the two of them to their debate, happy that Reiichi had managed to draw Aya into a discussion, which wasn’t a very easy thing to do. Judging from the wink and brief nod Reiichi gave him as he fell back, the Guard would keep a close eye on Aya and call a halt to their procession the moment he felt that their friend needed a break.

As soon as he was even with Yohji, his worried friend reached out and tugged on his sleeve. "How’s Aya doing?"

He tried to smile reassuringly. "He seems fine, if a little tired. Don’t you know what he’s feeling?"

Yohji sighed and pushed the tinted glasses up the bridge of his nose. "He’s sort of… blocking our link," he admitted with obvious reluctance.

Omi felt confused. "Why would he do a thing like that? Can he do something like that?" He didn’t know much about the link between Aya and Yohji, other than they could usually feel each other’s emotions.

"Yeah, he can," Yohji admitted sheepishly. "Normally we don’t do that unless one of us is suffering, or Aya’s pissed off at me."

"Why do I get the impression that it’s the latter right now?" Omi asked.

Yohji smiled, the expression more than a little grim. "Maybe because he’s afraid that if I sense him feeling tired, I’ll do something stupid." At Omi’s inquisitive look, Yohji sighed and shook his head. "I’m a possessive idiot who doesn’t think when I try to solve all our problems with sex."

"Oh dear." They rode in silence for a few meters. "I’ve heard all about how possessive your kind are, but do you think that’s the reason for you being such an idiot?" When Yohji looked at him, he couldn’t help but tease his friend. "Well, other than the fact that you’re usually an idiot."

"Thanks, kiddo." Yohji smacked his leg with his reins. "Very funny. From what I can tell, me taking after my father is largely to blame. Count on Masato to help make a mess of my relationship," Yohji muttered darkly.

Omi felt a pang of longing when he thought about Masato and who was with him. Please, let Nagi be fine, he prayed silently. Then he remembered his promise to his lover, which was to look after Aya. "Why do you think that sex will cure everything?" He felt his cheeks grow warm. "I mean, it feels very good, but…." What was the point he was trying to make again?

Yohji laughed, a warm, deep sound. "Hell yes, it feels good." He scratched the tip of his nose and glanced at Aya, still busy talking with Reiichi. Omi thought he saw something dark and frankly terrifying cross Yohji’s face for a moment, and then his friend’s amused grin returned. "I’m part succubae, and all my powers stem from sex and attraction. Maybe if I was like Cass or Neely I’d be able to figure out another way to protect Aya but I can only work with what I’ve got. I drained him enough last night to make sure he got some rest, but didn’t stop to think that I wouldn’t be able to return all that energy, or that Aya might not be happy with being knocked out like that."

Omi thought about that for a minute. "Yep, you’re an idiot."

He got a nasty look for his opinion. "Thanks so much. Gods, Nagi’s corrupted you through and through, you know."

"I did promise to watch over Aya and protect him from you if need be," he pointed out. "If Nagi was here now, you know you’d have ended up thrown halfway across the capital for what you did last night."

Yohji sighed and shifted in his saddle. "Yeah, and that’s only if Nagi was feeling merciful." He stared after Aya. "Are you always so rational when it comes to the little demon?"

"No." Omi couldn’t lie about that. If he’d had his way he’d have followed Nagi to Esset, never mind that he’d be a danger to his lover and friends, and that he’d be handing over to the Elders the one person they most wanted to kill. He’d probably start the war early with his death, but he’d leave in a heartbeat for the country if he thought he could get there in one piece to see Nagi – or if his lover ever needed him. "I guess we’re both idiots."

"And so is Reiichi if he thinks I’m going to stand for this much longer," Yohji snarled, the dark, vicious look back on his face. "He’s too fucking close to Aya. What is he thinking?"

Omi shivered at the bloodthirsty tone in Yohji’s voice. "They’re just friends, Yotan. He’s only talking to Aya about philosophy and making sure he’s not too tired from the sun." As he spoke, he readied a spell. His magic might be useless against Yohji but he could make Yohji’s horse stumble, slowing his friend down long enough for Aya to do something to protect Reiichi.

As he thought about his quiet friend, Aya glanced over his shoulder, in Yohji’s direction. Yohji’s snarl faded slightly, and Aya’s horse soon hurried ahead, moving between Reiichi and Botan’s until he was riding alone. Reiichi looked over his shoulder as well, and what he saw on Yohji’s face made his own pale.

"I think I’ll go see if Reiichi won the chess match after all and find out how many moves it takes him to beat me at a new game," Omi said quietly. "We’ll be stopping around noon, just so you know." When he looked at his friend, he was relieved to see an expression of longing instead of the scary one from before.

"Noon." Yohji glanced up at the sky. "Just about another hour or two then." He hunched over in the saddle. "This sucks."

"I’m sorry, Yotan." Not knowing what else he could say, Omi left his friend behind and rejoined Reiichi, a buffer between Aya and Yohji. He kept his spell ready, however, not certain if the danger had completely passed.

*******

Spying a thinning of the trees lining the road, Birman directed her horse between the beech trees. "This looks like as good a spot as any to rest." She thought she heard several sighs of relief from behind her.

There was a nice sized clearing back here, with several trees scattered about to offer shade. Over to the side was a small creek, which explained why there was a break in the trees along the road. People must have found out about the water and decided to make this an informal rest stop. "Botan, can you do something to discourage anyone from joining us?" she asked as she dismounted.

"Of course. Omi, come here." The two wizards rode over to the break in the foliage and talked quietly about casting illusions and barriers. Everyone else was dismounting, some people groaning in pain as they swung out of their saddles.

Two people who didn’t seem too bad off after several hours in the saddle were Aya and Yohji. Aya tugged his hood down low before dismounting, and it seemed that he’d barely touched the ground when Yohji was at his side. The two bounds stared at each other for several seconds, and then Aya leaned forward the slightest bit, his hand resting on Yohji’s chest.

The dark scowl that Yohji had been wearing for the last hour faded away as he bent his head until it touched Aya’s. His lips moved but she couldn’t hear what he said, only saw that Aya nodded slightly.

"Ken, can you look after our horses?" Yohji asked as he grabbed one of Aya’s saddlebags.

"Sure thing, Yotan." Ken cautiously approached the couple and smiled as he accepted the reins from Aya. "I’ll bring some fresh water over to you two in a minute."

"We’d appreciate that," Aya said, his voice slightly muffled from the cloak. Then, his hand in Yohji’s, he wandered over to one of the trees and settled down beneath its shade. Yohji curled up beside him, their backs resting against the tree’s trunk, and pulled out something to eat from the saddlebag. Aya let his hood slide down onto his shoulders, his face appearing tired but bearing a slight smile.

"I guess he’s not upset with Yohji any more," Eri said, right in Birman’s ear. She couldn’t help but jump before turning to glare at the woman, who had snuck up behind her.

"What are you talking about?" As far as she knew, Yohji and Aya were pissed off with her, not each other.

Eri held up a just filled water bag. "Aya being angry enough with Yohji at breakfast to snap at him. I’m not surprised to see that he’s forgotten all about the fight already, pairs like them can’t remain mad at each other for long."

Accepting the water, Birman tilted her head in the direction away from their group. "Thank you. If you don’t mind, I’d like to have a word with you. I’d like to know what the other fight this morning was about."

Eri’s eyes narrowed as she took a sip of water, but then the woman’s face smoothed out. She even smiled when Birman returned the bag. "I guess it would be a good idea to explain things to you, so you don’t make an even bigger mistake next time."

Bristling a little over that implied rebuke, Birman nonetheless followed Eri over to a tall pine tree several meters away. "I have a lot of questions about bounds I’d like to ask, but I’ll limit them right now to asking about mates. What would have happened if I’d forced Yohji and Aya not to touch each other all day long, and why?"

Eri squatted down, her hands resting on her thighs as she made herself comfortable. Taking into account the damp, dirty ground beneath the tree, Birman did the same.

"There are various degrees of links between mates, ranging from weak to very strong." Eri looked over at Aya and Yohji, the kage now curled up between Yohji’s legs and resting against his chest. "Weaker bonds usually occur between human and bound, and between flesh gaki-bounds. Can you guess what type of bounds form the strongest ones?"

Birman looked away from Aya and Yohji. "Succubae-bounds and kage?"

"Well, as far as anyone can tell, Aya’s the first kage who’s taken a mate, but his kind do tend to bond strongly with the people they love. As for succubae-bounds, you guessed correctly." Eri ran a hand through her short, sweat-dampened hair and then started unbuttoning her Guard’s jacket. "Yohji’s nature is wired to protect his mate, more so than the rest of our kind. If I had a mate, there would be the bond between us and I’d feed a little off his emotions, but I could still do that with anyone else. When a succubae-bound like Yohji mates, he can only feed from his lover, at least enough to stay alive. So not only do you have the whole emotional aspect of it, you’re also putting his life at risk when you keep him away from Aya."

Birman thought about that. "But I wasn’t telling them to remain apart the entire mission, just while we’re traveling during the day." A look in the pair’s direction revealed them to be doing nothing more than cuddling. "Yohji’s not feeding from Aya right now."

"Any time he touches Aya, he’s basically feeding." Eri paused to take a sip of water. "True, he gets most of the energy he needs from sex, but if you’d paid any attention to him while at the Koneko you’d have seen that when he and Aya are together, they’re always right beside each other and almost always in contact. Bounds like tactile reassurance, especially from our own kind. It’s much more than that with Yohji. Whenever he’s away from Aya, which is never more than a few hours, he always has to touch him whenever they’re reunited. Then, both he and his hunger are reassured."

She sighed and tapped her fingers against the bag’s tanned hide. "I wish I could explain this better, I really do. You’re completely oblivious to things that my kind take for granted as common knowledge."

"I’m hoping to correct that situation," Birman said. "I’d be greatly helped if you continued to explain things to me."

Eri snorted, a bitter grin on her face. "We’re not used to talking about ourselves to humans, Spymaster. I know several bounds who would be furious over me telling you even this much. We’ve learned the hard way that you humans will take any knowledge about bounds and turn it against us."

That was unfortunately very true. "I promise you, on the life of my king, that I won’t use the knowledge you entrust with me to hurt your kind." Birman felt very tired just then. If only humans had any clue about how much they’d betrayed bounds, and how much they were paying for that now. "Eri, I don’t want a repeat of this morning ever again. I don’t want your kind to feel that I’m using you when I’m just ignorant about what’s going on. I don’t want to put Aya and Yohji, or any of you who joined the Shadow Guard, in danger because I don’t know I’m doing something harmful to your kind."

Eri was quiet for several seconds. "I know you don’t feel about bounds the way most people do, and I do trust you. I’d never have joined if I didn’t. I want the Shadow Guards to work just as much as you do." She tapped her fingers again as her expression grew sad. "All of us who joined are hoping for something better, and most don’t really believe that we’re being taken advantage of, other than a little bit for our talents. But your kind and mine are fighting centuries of prejudice."

"Yes." Birman decided to give her aching thighs a break and sat down cross-legged on the ground, even if it was a little damp.

"Any way, back to Yohji and Aya." She looked up at Eri, surprised to have the conversation resume so easily, especially after the dark turn it had taken. The woman smiled shyly and ducked her head. "If you’d completely separated those two, they’d fare better than riding together like they are now, at least for the first day or two. But they can see and smell the other, and they’re fighting the urge to go to each other. Add to that the fact that other people are around, people Yohji can see talking to Aya, maybe even touching him, and you’re going to have some major jealousy kick in." Eri grimaced and rubbed her collarbone through the unbuttoned jacket, which Birman just now noticed bore an impressive scar, even as faded with age as it was. "Do I have to tell you about how poorly his kind deal with jealousy?"

"Not at all." Birman laughed softly. "I’ve seen enough to imagine how that would go, although I didn’t realize so little could set it off."

"Oh yes, very little can set it off indeed. And when you have a succubae-bound get jealous for a very good reason…." A flash of pain crossed the bound’s face as her hand pressed against her chest.

Birman remembered something she’d always been curious about. "I’ve noticed that you’re always very quiet around Yohji and Aya and almost never talk to them. Why is that?"

"Hmph." Eri tugged the collar of her jacket together, hiding her scar. "I guess it has something to do with why I have first hand knowledge about how jealous Yohji’s kind gets." She took a deep breath, her eyes growing distant, as if recalling something from the past. "I was an idiot when I was younger. I didn’t get along very well with humans even before I found out what I was, and I was a smug bitch once my powers kicked in. Suddenly, I could have almost anything I wanted, just by twisting people’s thoughts." Eri’s face flushed a bright red. "What can I say? I didn’t know any better and I grew up dirt poor. Too much temptation, I guess. Figuring out that I’d have a better life outside the mining town where I was born, and that it would be best to go before someone there discovered that I wasn’t normal, I hit the road."

She laughed, the sound dry and bitter. "Just my luck that they were the first other bounds I came across. She was a lovely thing, but very quiet and she tended to fade into the background. What I didn’t know was that she was a powerful enough succubae-bound to control her glamour, and she could even manage a sort of reverse affect with her power. She didn’t like drawing attention to herself for the safety of her mate."

"Now he was absolutely gorgeous, and a water elemental." A shadow crossed Eri’s face. "I’m not getting into his kind just yet, but let me just tell you there’s something… special about them. I fell head over heels in lust upon first sight, drawn by his nature and the fact that he was the most handsome man I’d ever met. Kind too, and smart. I didn’t see any reason why not to take him."

Her arms wrapped around her chest and hugged tight. "Long story short, I thought to use my power to make him want me. Big mistake." She shivered in horror. "I’m lucky beyond belief that his mate didn’t kill me. As it is, I’ll bear the scars until I die to always remind me how stupid I was." She pressed a hand against the base of her throat, and Birman couldn’t help but flinch as she realized what had caused that scar.

"I came to in more pain than I could possibly imagine, but in the presence of other bounds. They helped me heal, and then they beat some sense into me." Eri didn’t sound very upset about that fact. "They made me realize that what I was doing was wrong, twisting humans’ minds like that, and that it was the worst possible betrayal to do it against my own kind. I grew a bit smarter, basically, and I resolved to stay away from any mated succubae-bounds." A wry smile twisted her lips. "As they say, ‘once bitten, twice shy’."

Birman had to laugh at the joke. "Yes, but somehow Yohji never seems to learn, does he?" They shared a grin. "Please don’t take this the wrong way, but why is it so wrong to twist humans’ minds?"

Eri groaned as she straightened up. "Sorry, I need to move a little to keep from cramping. The reason it’s wrong is because that would be doing exactly what humans use as an excuse to capture and kill us. We’d be justifying our abuse if we did that, never mind the benefits. Besides, using our powers too much attracts attention, and there are far many more of your kind than mine." Eri stared over at Botan and Omi, who were sitting by Aya and Yohji. "Not to mention the wizards who would be hot on our trail to capture us."

And use their blood for spells. Birman sighed heavily as she realized that it didn’t seem possible to discuss anything to do with bounds without touching on the huge injustice done to them. She had no clue why Eri and the other bounds who had joined the Shadow Guard had taken the risk that they weren’t just going to be abused some more, but she was very grateful to them. Now if she could just learn enough in time to prevent any more mistakes like this morning's.

Hearing Omi’s bright laughter, she looked over to where the boy was sitting and had to smile. Somehow, Ken had ended up soaking wet, a stunned expression on his face as water dripped down his face. Catching sight of the empty water bag in Naru’s hands, it didn’t take much to figure out exactly what had happened. Birman laughed quietly, soon joined by Eri, as the soaked Guard started to chase after Naru, hollering all the while about how Naru was going to end up as lunch.

Busy watching Naru run for his life, she almost missed it when a smiling Aya leaned his head back, resting it on Yohji’s shoulder. His mate stopped laughing and yelling comments to return the smile, and even from all the way over here she swore that she could see Yohji’s eyes glowing brightly. Then they kissed, with enough intensity that she felt embarrassed to be watching and had to turn away.

She found Eri staring at her intently and cleared her throat. "I think once everybody’s had something to eat, we need to get back on the road. That way we should be able to stop for the night before sunset. Do you think Yohji can hold out until then?"

Eri glanced over at the kissing couple. "I think he’ll manage if he knows there’ll be a nice, comfy bed at the end of the day." She laughed at something, her eyes crinkled and shining with mirth. "I guess we know who he’s bunking with tonight."

"I think you better tell your partner to not even think about joking that it’s him," Birman said dryly. Ken had finally caught up to Naru and was holding him upside down by his heels. "Somehow, I can see him doing that and I don’t want to have to go back to the capital for his replacement just now."

Eri snorted and bent down to fetch the water bag she’d left on the ground. "No doubt about it, wizards are *weird*. And considering the people I hang out with, that’s saying something." She tossed the sloshing bag back and forth between her hands. "I’m going to see if throwing Naru in the creek will appease Ken’s need for revenge."

"Just make sure you fill up all the water bags before you do that," Birman called out to her.

*******

"Let me help you with your horse, sir."

Yohji didn’t even wait for the stable boy to grab ahold of Chiri’s reins before he jumped off the horse’s back. "Yeah," he called out over his shoulder as an afterthought, and smiled when he caught a glimpse of the boy’s startled face.

He hurried over to Aya as his mate dismounted, worried about the exhaustion and discomfort he’d felt through their link over the last hour or so. He wanted so much to hug Aya, to hold him close and drag him into the inn, but barely remembered Birman’s orders. Just a few more seconds and they’d be out of the sun, he told himself as his hands clenched at his side.

Aya sighed as he shook the road dust from his cloak, looking up from under his hood to give Yohji a tired smile. "Stop worrying so much."

"Like I have a choice. Come on, let’s get you inside." He beat Aya to the saddlebags, draping them over his shoulder as his hand hovered near Aya’s elbow. He wanted so much to touch his lover but wasn’t sure if people would consider it odd. While he debated, Aya stumbled over something, causing Yohji to grab his mate’s arm. "Be careful."

Aya glanced at him, a sly smile on his face that soon smoothed out. "I’m sorry," he said loud enough to be heard by the people around them: their friends, the stable hands busy tending to the horses, various travelers arriving at the inn. "I guess I’m not used to riding so much."

Now that was a blatant lie, considering what they’d been doing this past week, but Yohji had to hide a smile of his own as his fingers tightened around his mate’s arm. "Soon enough you’ll be able to sit down and rest." He felt a wave of lust and hunger wash through him at the thought of the two of them retiring to their room for the night, free to touch as much as they wanted. There was an answering echo of emotions from Aya, strong enough to make him bite his lip to hold back on a moan of anticipation and longing.

Aya sighed again, this time in relief, as they entered the inn. Yohji felt some of the tension leave their bodies now that Aya was out of the sun for the day. Forcing his hand to fall from his mate’s arm, he shuffled close enough to Aya to feel his body heat, for the occasional brush against each other. Birman was speaking to someone who appeared to be the innkeeper, a smiling, middle-aged woman. Looking about while the two discussed rooms, he found the place to be spacious and clean. It wasn’t as nice as the Koneko but it was great for a place situated outside of a major city and along the roadway. No wonder there seemed to be so many people wandering in and out of the place.

He still felt a bit… disgruntled, even though Aya was leaning ever so slightly against him, a comforting presence that he’d longed for all day. He didn’t like there being so many strangers about, didn’t like not being able to take his mate in his arms and kiss the breath out of him, didn’t like not knowing if this place was safe enough for them. Dark instincts flared inside him as a growl slowly formed deep in his throat.

"Not here, Kudoh."

He turned to look at Eri, who was standing beside him, a frown on her face. "We’ll be all right here; I’m not sensing any danger." She quickly looked away and reached out to tap Ken on the shoulder. "Same goes for you, Hidaka," she hissed, voice pitched low enough that anyone with normal senses couldn’t hear the words. "If you start growling, I’ll pull a Jo and smack you good."

Ken, his lips sliding away from his teeth, glared at her over his shoulder, but soon his gaze faltered and he grinned sheepishly. "Sorry. That sorta snuck up on me."

"We’re all tired and it’s a strange place," Eri explained. She glanced back at Yohji. "You two all right?"

There wasn’t any challenge in her voice or her eyes, nothing like that which had subdued Ken, the weakest of them, demon-wise. That helped to keep him from snarling at her to prove that he wasn’t about to be cowed by someone weaker than himself. Instead, he took a deep breath and shook his head. "I agree with Ken."

"Like I said, we’re tired and the place isn’t familiar. You’ll get used to acting like that in time." She shifted about, as if talking to him made her uncomfortable.

Not sure what the woman’s problem was but not about to get into it right now, he nodded and nudged his mate in the ribs. "Is that true?"

Aya gave him a faint glare as he rubbed his ribs. "Yes." He seemed to consider something and smiled, ever so slightly. "I should have known that the Koneko was someplace special when I didn’t feel on guard upon entering it."

"Of course not, the love of your life was there waiting for you," Yohji joked, his fingers brushing surreptitiously against the back of Aya’s hand.

He got an amused snort in response, and then Aya’s fingers tightened around his. "I’ll ward the room once we enter it," he said, voice scarcely more than a whisper.

"Good." Just the thought of Aya’s shadow wards helped him to relax a little. Once they were in place, they’d be safe for the night and could truly rest.

Having finally settled on the rooms for the night, Birman turned to face them and motioned toward a side room. "We’re going to have something to eat while they prepare the rooms, including hot baths for all of us."

Several people moaned at the comment as they slowly made their way to the dining room. "If I hurt this bad now, I don’t want to think about how I’ll feel in the morning," Omi whimpered.

Catching up to his shuffling friend, Yohji reached out and patted Omi’s sore ass. "What’s the matter, feeling a little tender?"

Omi looked over his shoulder and stuck out his tongue. "I don’t want to hear anything from you right now. You’re not even walking funny!"

"That’s because my ass is a lot tougher than yours." He patted Omi’s butt again and wished there was something he could do to make the kid feel better. Amusing or not, saddle sores hurt.

Omi knocked his hand aside. "Stop groping me, you pervert. Isn’t it bad enough I’m in pain that you now feel the need to molest me?"

"Now, now, kiddo, that isn’t molesting." Feeling the need to be a little silly in hopes of relieving some of the tension, he grabbed Omi and pulled him close. "This is!" He nuzzled Omi’s throat while hugging him close, one hand on the small of Omi’s back.

"You’re supposed to be watching over me, not harassing me!" Omi laughed as he tried to wriggle free. "Help! Guards!"

"You’re on your own, Omi," Naru muttered. "Right now I couldn’t fight a day old puppy and hope to win."

Laughing himself now, Yohji squeezed his friend. "I’m just trying to make you forget all about your…." Suddenly he felt his hand start to tingle, and moments later Omi gasped.

"Yotan! What are you doing?"

"No fucking clue," he said, and just as suddenly as it started, the tingling stopped. He quickly released Omi and shook his hand, feeling a little weaker than he had a minute ago.

Omi pressed a hand against the small of his back and took a step forward. His face lit into a bright smile. "It doesn’t-" He quickly cut himself off and looked around.

Birman cleared her throat, breaking the sudden silence. "May I remind you that you’re supposed to be professionals?" she asked, voice icy. "Can we now sit down for dinner? Some of us are tired and hungry."

"We’re sorry," Omi said quickly before following her over to the long table in the corner. Yohji noticed that Omi was walking much more easily now.

He started when he was pinched on the arm. "What did you do?" Aya asked, voice too quiet to carry far.

"I think I gave him a little energy and helped him heal a bit. Masato said I’d probably be able to do that some day. I guess the asshole was right." He didn’t particularly like having to admit that.

Aya didn’t seem very happy, either. He felt a wave of something dark from his mate, something angry yet cold. "Did he mean that you could only give energy to others or take it as well?"

"He just mentioned being able to give it to others," he answered as he rubbed his sore arm. Gods, that pinch hurt almost as much as a bite. "I can only take from you now."

He got a cool look in return. Under the impression that he’d just missed something important but too tired and grumpy to figure out what, he followed his friends over to their table. Birman had picked one near the corner, away from any open windows that were letting in the last of the day’s sun and the developing crowd.

He and Aya settled in the farthest seats and angled their chairs so they could watch most of the room. Omi and Reiichi sat down on either side of them, and Ken and Eri were across the table. Safely tucked away in the corner, Yohji snuck his arm around Aya’s waist, a low moan of pleasure slipping past his lips when Aya leaned slightly against him and rested a hand on his thigh. All damned day long… it had been torture to see Aya constantly out of reach and not be able to do anything until Birman allowed them a break. He didn’t trust himself while they were riding to approach his mate or else he’d do something to draw attention to them – not to mention the fact that Aya was covered up by his cloak, and he wouldn’t be able to touch that lovely pale flesh while they were riding beneath the sun.

Conscious of the servers bringing them pitchers of water and beer, baskets of bread and plates of cheese and fruit to tide them over until the rest of their dinner was ready, Yohji contented himself with the small amount of contact he had with his mate. He could feel Aya slowly recover from the long day out in the sun, feel the sense of discomfort and exhaustion that had slowly built after lunch ease away.

"All right, I rented five rooms." Birman set four keys down on the table and glanced at Reiichi. "Would you mind sharing one with me?"

If he were Yohji, he’d make some silly, lecherous comment – and promptly be smacked by the Spymaster. Being a hell of a lot smarter than him, Reiichi just bowed his head. "That sounds fine. Or, if you’d prefer, I can share a room with Botan and Omi." Yohji smiled when he realized that Reiichi wasn’t offering to share a room with Ken and Naru. Make that much, much smarter than him.

"I managed to snag one of the few double rooms that they have, so I don’t have a problem sharing with you. Also, I think it would be best if we’re all paired up at night." Birman tapped her fingers against one of the keys. "There’s only one other double room available."

Before anyone else could move, Botan snatched the key from the tabletop. "I think I’ll pull rank and take the other double, thank you very much." He smiled at everybody. "I’m not about to let any rumors start about an old, perverted wizard sleeping in the same bed as his very young apprentice."

Omi pouted at the news, making Yohji laugh. "Don’t feel too bad, kiddo. He’s not so much turning you down as trying to keep Cass from killing him if she ever hears such a rumor."

"You have that right," Botan joked as he poured himself some beer.

"Thanks, but I still feel lousy over the fact that an old pervert isn’t tempted by me at all," Omi sniffed, managing to appear totally dejected for a moment. Then he smiled and reached for the bread. "Besides, you’d have more to worry about than Cass if that rumor started."

"I’m very well aware of that fact." Botan and he shared a smile, the wizard leaning across the table to tousle Omi’s hair. "Plus, you tend to hog all the bed, if I’ve heard correctly." Omi stuck out his tongue.

"Well, I guess we know who gets one of these keys then," Naru said as he tossed one to Yohji. "Now the only mystery remaining is who wants to share a room with me; Miko or Eri." He looked expectantly at the two women.

Miko chuckled as she took one of the remaining keys. "Sorry, but Eri and I already agreed to bunk together. We have to put up with you guys while we’re working, but that doesn’t mean we have to do the same while we’re trying to sleep!"

"Great, I get to spend the night with Ken now," Naru muttered as he took the remaining key.

Ken shoved a whole slice of bread in his mouth and, busy chewing, started to squeeze Naru’s arm. "Hmmm, you could be a bit plumper but you’ll still make a decent late night snack," he said once he swallowed. Then he smiled, lips pulling back way too much to reveal a mouth filled with razor sharp fangs.

Naru let out a yelp of surprise but was prevented from saying anything as the servers returned with some cold soup for them to enjoy. As they set the bowls down, Ken resumed eating the bread and cheese, beneath the glaring eye of Birman.

"Might I remind you, *yet again*, that we’re in public?" she said, her voice even colder than before. Ken had the grace to blush the slightest bit but one could tell he had still enjoyed tormenting Naru like that.

They all made idle conversation until the plates of beef, pork and vegetables were set on the table, the servers leaving them in peace to enjoy their meal. Yohji felt a tingle of magic when Botan whispered the spell that would keep people from overhearing their conversation. Next came a light covering of Aya’s shadows, helping them to blend in with the dark corner.

While Naru, Ken and Eri practically attacked the platters of meat, Birman sipped her beer and looked over at Yohji and Aya. "How are the two of you doing?"

Still a little upset with her for this morning, Yohji pulled Aya closer to him and frowned. "We’re tired, to be perfectly honest, and we’ll head upstairs as soon as we have something to eat." He’d leave now but they both needed the energy from the food.

Birman didn’t seem to take offense at their imminent departure. "That’s fine. I’d like to be on the road a little after sunrise tomorrow morning, so as soon as the day breaks, please be down here for breakfast." She had another sip of beer. "Do you need someone to wake you up?"

"We should be fine," Aya said as he helped himself to some food.

"Good. If anyone asks, we’ll just say that you’re worn out from traveling and that Yohji’s looking after you." Birman appeared happy about something and set her mug down. "Even with all the short stops we’re still making good time. I imagine we’ll be a little slower tomorrow, since several people will be a… bit sore." No, Birman wasn’t the type of woman to find amusement in the fact that a few of the people sitting at the table had to keep shifting around on rather sore bottoms.

Omi, in the process of handing a basket of bread to Aya, had a thoughtful look on his face. "I really don’t feel as bad as I did when we first got here, Yohji. What exactly did you do?"

"I think I gave you a little energy, kiddo." Yohji poured himself some more beer, and once he set the pitcher down, rubbed his right hand against his pant leg. "That’s what it felt like, at least, and would explain why you’re not in much pain anymore."

"So you healed me a little." Omi glanced at Aya. "I thought you couldn’t do that to anyone but your mate."

"Nah, my dad told me that some of our kind can give energy to others – at least a little. So don’t go breaking your neck or getting stabbed and think I’ll make it all better." He winked at Omi. "I don’t even know how I did what I did today, let alone deliberately repeat it any time soon."

"Given your nature," Aya said in his quiet, deep voice, "you probably need some sort of emotional connection between whomever you give energy to and yourself." His hand tightened on Yohji’s leg, and there was another wash of that dark emotion through their link.

"Well, come over here and give me a hug, you handsome man, you," Naru drawled. "I’m more than willing if it’ll make sitting down a little less painful." He batted his eyes at Yohji. "You know you wan-"

"No." Just the one word from Aya, spoken in a sibilant voice utterly lacking any humanity to it. His eyes burned a brilliant silver in the darkness, the shadows thickening around the table.

All the blood drained from Naru’s face. "I’m sorry. I was just kidding, Aya," he said in a small voice.

Aya stared at him for a few seconds longer and then resumed his meal, his leg pressed tightly against Yohji’s. Feeling that sudden burst of fury slowly die down, Yohji hugged his mate close.

Eri smacked the back of Naru’s head. "Idiot. Ken, please do me a favor and eat this moron. I can’t believe I’m stuck with him as a partner."

Ken shook his head. "Nah, someone that lacking in intelligence woulf be sure to give me a bad case of indigestion. How about I just gnaw on his empty head for a bit?"

"You know, I’d say something in my defense but even I have to agree that I’m an idiot." Naru, incredibly enough, seemed rather… deflated at the moment.

"I’m going to savor this moment until the day I die," Reiichi said, an impossibly wide smile on his face and a radiant look in his eyes. "Naru, calling himself an idiot *and* being rendered silent."

"Oh, shut up, Reiichi," Naru snapped, but he seemed a bit more like himself. "And don’t even think of telling Yuushi about this."

"Hmmm, we’ll see. I think my silence will have to be dearly paid for."

"Reiichi! Stop being so mean to me!"

As everyone joined in to tease Naru, Yohji slapped a few slices of beef and cheese between some bread and nudged Aya in the side. "You just about finished there?" They were both too on edge to remain here much longer. Yes, Naru had pushed things but he felt that they were both ready to snap at pretty much anything just now.

Aya did the same thing that he had just done, and once his sandwich was complete, rose from the table. The shadows retreated as everyone turned to look at him.

"We’re going now. See you in the morning." He pulled up the hood of his jerkin, draped his cloak over one arm, and started munching on his sandwich as he walked away.

"If you want, I’ll bring up some tea and snacks later," Omi offered as he waved goodbye.

"Thanks, that would be appreciated." Yohji tapped him on the head with his knuckles before grabbing their saddlebags and following Aya to their room. They attracted a few stares but, for the most part, everyone was too busy eating to pay them much mind. They were just a Guard escorting his wizard charge to a room.

Looking at the key, he soon figured out where they were supposed to be going and took the lead. The room was nice, if a bit small. A large bed took up most of the room and there was a small table beside an almost as small wardrobe that he placed their saddlebags on. On the other side of the room was a fireplace, empty except for some aromatic wood shavings since it was hot outside, a large copper bath half filled with steaming water, several buckets of hot water and a smaller copper basin for them to rinse off in.

"A bath sounds good right now, ne?" he asked as he finished off the last bite of his sandwich before unbuttoning his long coat. Aya, not stuck with a ridiculous uniform, was way ahead of him in stripping off his clothes. Stepping out of his pants, Aya set the dirty clothes aside and walked over to the basin.

He groaned in pleasure as he poured some of the hot water over himself. Smiling at the sound, Yohji finished taking off his clothes, set his coat aside to air out by the window and hurried over to the bathtub. He scrubbed his mate’s back and helped rinse him off, and Aya returned the favor. Then they both eyed the tub for a moment.

"It’ll be a bit of a tight fit," Aya said as he stepped into the copper bath.

"Yeah, it’s certainly not the Koneko’s hot spring," he replied as he joined his mate. "Good thing we don’t mind being a bit cramped together." They had to shift about a bit to get comfortable, and eventually ended up with him sitting with his knees bent, Aya tucked between his legs. Pure heaven, being this close to each other, feeling all that naked skin against skin. The hot water was pretty nice, too.

He groaned in appreciation as he felt his body completely relax. Aya’s head lolled back onto his shoulder, his lover’s eyes closed and a lovely smile on his lips. Yohji couldn’t resist nibbling on an ear for a minute, until Aya sleepily batted him away.

"That tickles."

"Sorry." His arms settled around Aya’s waist, fingers stroking up and down a toned belly, enjoying the feel of that silky skin shivering beneath his touch. "You feel like you’re going to fall asleep any minute now."

"Hmmm." Aya hugged his arms tight around him. "Maybe not right this minute but I’m looking forward to some sleep tonight."

Yohji just hoped there weren’t any nightmares to disturb his mate’s rest. He felt a little hungry but he wasn’t going to ask, not when part of Aya’s exhaustion was a result of his actions. So he just rested in the tub with Aya in his arms and enjoyed the silence.

After a while, Aya yawned and pulled away. "This thing really isn’t meant for two people." He climbed out of the tub and reached for one of the folded towels. Yohji quickly followed, giving his mate a kiss in thanks for being handed a towel. They helped each other dry off, his hunger quickening at the slow strokes of soft material along his body.

"Cat," he moaned as he dropped the towel and pulled Aya close for a kiss. "Just how tired are you?"

Aya wrapped his arms around Yohji’s neck and rocked his hips forward. "Willing to be a little more tired before I go to sleep." There was a flash of apprehension and sadness tainting Aya’s smile as he looked at Yohji, but first and foremost of the emotions flowing through their link was need. "Are you going to behave tonight?" He snapped his teeth, as if warning what would happen if Yohji wasn’t going to be good.

"Let me think about that." Leaning in for another kiss, Yohji started walking them over to the bed. "I guess I better be, unless I want to look like I spent the night with a starving Ken." He laughed at Aya’s growl, spun around and fell backwards onto the bed with his mate clutched tight against him. "I promise that me and my awesome dick will behave."

"You know, you’re not the only one with an awesome dick," Aya murmured against his ear before deciding to start nibbling. Nibbling was good, was wonderful, Yohji thought, for once not minding Aya’s teeth on his flesh.

"Mmmm," he purred, tilting his head to the side so Aya had better access. "I don’t know, I think I might need some convincing. You ready to put it to the test?"

Aya stopped nibbling to look at him, eyes heavy lidded with desire and a wicked grin tugging at his lips. "Is that a challenge?"

"I believe so, love." Yohji grabbed his mate’s hips and pulled them down until their erections ground together. Both of them moaned at the sensation, love and lust and want flowing so strongly through their link that they both became lost in the emotions.

Aya didn’t say anything, just kissed him again, so passionately that Yohji felt his body melt, filled with bliss and sunlight. He fought with his hunger for a few seconds, forcing it to not drain Aya’s energy like last night, but soon had it under control. Aya, meanwhile, proved intent on backing his claim, something that made Yohji very, very happy. His world became one of pleasure, love and desire, of Aya’s eager hands on his flesh, hungry mouth on his neck and hard cock inside him. All their fears and doubts fell away as the only thing that truly mattered was being together like this, enjoying each other as much as possible.

*******

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