Shadows of the Past

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chapter four

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Ken twitched in the saddle, feeling as if almost every muscle his body possessed was taut in anticipation, waiting for something to happen that would require him to flee for his own safety. Even his horse was nervous, skittering at anything that got blown into its path. Which, considering how much the wind had picked up over the night, was quite a bit. The road was littered with small branches and leaves.

As if to add to the dreary mood, he looked up at the sky when a few drops of water splattered onto him and the horse. The promise of rain that had been evident ever since they’d woken up and found grey, dark clouded skies was now a reality. Just great. "Sure, why not? Rain’s all we’re missing right about now," he muttered as he searched through his saddlebags for his rain slicker.

"Gods, just what we need," he heard Miko say. He looked over at his partner and smiled as he pulled the oil-slicked cloak free from the bag. She returned the smile, wrinkling her nose as she did. "Good idea there, Ken." She started to look for her own slicker.

"I figure the last thing I need right now is to be soaked on top of miserable." He draped the oiled cloak around his shoulders, made sure it covered as much as him as possible, and pulled up the hood. "You know, I’d ask if this day could get any lousier but I’m afraid it will."

"Fate avert," Miko quickly mumbled as she spared him a dirty look. Pulling on her own slicker, she glanced nervously behind her. "I’m not about to ask if either of them have any rain gear."

"Yohji should, at least. I provided him with one." He looked over his shoulder to see Yohji glare at the sky before going for his rain slicker. Interestingly enough, Aya didn’t even move, already covered as he was by the black cloak, which seemed to be repelling the rain.

He couldn’t see anything of Aya other than that cloak and black gloves and boots. He had appeared all covered up when they’d gathered for breakfast that morning and hadn’t eaten a thing. He’d ignored any questions asked of him, not saying a word to anyone other than Yohji. Yohji wasn’t exactly in a conversational mood either and had actually snarled at Botan when the wizard had pressed for an answer from his mate.

Looking back at the road in front of him, Ken sighed and tugged his hood down a little more when the rain started to fall harder. "At least we won’t need to worry about Aya being out in the sun now."

"No, just about Yohji being in a foul enough mood to bite anyone who dares approach the two of them." Miko shifted on her horse as if trying to get comfortable in the saddle. "I just realized that Birman’s probably going to try and push on to Timbergrey Castle because of this weather." She actually whimpered a little.

He hated the hunger that always was present, even after he gorged himself, and his enhanced senses were a mixed blessing, but one thing Ken truly appreciated about his new nature was his healing ability. He’d ached for a couple of hours the last two nights but come morning, he’d been ready to spend another day in the saddle. Too bad Miko, Omi and Naru couldn’t say the same.

Then he thought about what his partner had said. "I’d love to get out of this rain and be done with traveling that much sooner, but…." He looked over his shoulder again to find that Yohji was riding a bit too close to Aya. However, he wasn’t about to risk getting his throat ripped out by reminding his friend to keep a proper distance. Nope. Not even Birman had said anything when the two mates had taken to riding together this morning.

He and Miko rode in silence for about a kilometer, everyone around them seeming lost in thought as they traveled down the grey road. Then Miko took a deep breath and slowly let it out, attracting his attention. When she spoke, her voice was pitched low enough that only his bound senses picked it up. "Are things going to get better or worse once we arrive there?"

He gave the question some serious thought. "I think the first day or two is going to be bad." Aya obviously – and with good reason - was not going to be happy to be back at Timbergrey Castle. And when Aya was unhappy, Yohji was to be avoided at all costs. "After that… I guess it depends on how difficult this mission turns out to be."

"Oh, I’m certain it’ll be all sunshine and roses," Miko snorted. "I mean, come on, a dreary castle, a mad wizard’s legacy, murder and magic. We’ll have everything sorted out by dinner."

He couldn’t help it - he had to laugh. Miko’s sarcastic nature took a little getting used to, especially after being partners with breezy Liss for over a year, but he was happy to be paired with her. She put up with his new… quirks and usually made him laugh at least once a day.

"I tell you what, if that actually happens I’ll give you a month’s salary." He smiled at her, rain falling onto his nose.

Miko smiled back and winked. "You know you can do better than that. Make it a year’s worth and maybe the gods will take pity on me." As he shook his head and muttered ‘no way in hell’, she seemed to think about something. "Then again, you’d be so starved by the end of that first month you’d probably eat me during a mission one night."

"Which, considering how scrawny you are, wouldn’t even tide me over until breakfast." One of the best things about Miko was that she was willing to tease him about his bound nature. Many of the Shadow Guards were too uncomfortable about what had happened to him to even mention it.

She gave him a hurt look. "I try to eat and gain some weight, honest, but it’s not easy when you and that brat Naru gobble up all the food before I can!" She even sniffed and wiped at a raindrop that was running down her face.

He smiled at the act. Miko could hold her own, even against him in a feeding frenzy. "You could always go home and cook your own dinner, you know, and then you wouldn’t have to share."

She made a face and leaned forward in her saddle. "Oh please, then I’d die of food poisoning. There’s a very good reason I’m always eating out, you know."

"Well, you need to do something. Men like women with a little meat on their bones – and I’m not talking about my kind, either."

"And here I thought you were about to propose." He got another wink as his partner tugged on the hood of her slicker. "I do well enough for a skinny chick, thank you very much."

"Yeah, you do." Thankfully, she didn’t count Yohji amongst those ‘conquests’, or she’d never be able to hang out with the Koneko’s staff. Lilla was the only one of Yohji’s exes who managed to get away with that. He waited in pained silence to see if Miko would ask him about his ‘conquests’, and let out a breath when she changed the topic. Funny how it was easier to talk about him being a bound than him being single.

"How long do you think it’s going to rain? I know we only have a couple more hours to go but I really don’t want to spend them out in the rain and on a muddy road." Misery started to tinge Miko’s voice now as she tugged the cloak around her, clearly still failing to find a comfortable riding position.

He gave the grey, ominous sky an assessing look. "I think you better get used to being wet and muddy." He wasn’t surprised at all that *now*, after a week of sunshine and heat, the weather decided to be cold and wet. "At least it held off until the last day of travel."

"I wish it had waited a few more hours." Miko sighed in annoyance. "I hate being soaked as much as I hate getting all muddy. Where the hell is that old Guard who recruited me so I can kick him in the ass? ‘Action and adventure’ is such utter bullshit. I could be back in Pré Vert working in the family store, happily married to someone who appreciates my scrawny ass-" she paused to wrinkle her nose at him, "surrounded by brats and be perfectly dry and clean."

"And you’d have long ago gone insane from the boredom of it all," he pointed out.

Miko slumped down in the saddle. "Probably. But I’d be a dry, clean insane person not suffering from saddle sores."

"You can always retire."

That comment earned him a stuck out tongue. "I come from a family of very devoted workers. I leave before earning a full pension and they’ll disown me."

He felt a pang of envy over the fact that he didn’t have a family of his own. Hell, he hadn’t even gone back to the orphanage where he’d grown up once he’d left the place for the Guards. He always thought he’d focus on the family he’d eventually have with Yuriko…. He pushed the pain aside with practiced ease and looked over his shoulder.

It should hurt like hell to see Yohji and Aya together, but somehow all he felt was a little jealous. They’d suffered more than enough to deserve happiness with each other. But now they had to suffer some more.

They were riding so close together that their legs brushed against each other’s. Yohji’s lips moved, and Ken was surprised to see him nod about something moments later. Maybe he’d finally managed to get Aya to talk again.

"Everything all right, Ken?"

He turned and smiled at his partner. "Yeah, I think so. As good as they can be right now, at least." He adjusted his slicker and reached into the right saddlebag for some jerky to munch on. "I don’t want to hear you complain about pensions. Your type got it easy."

Miko blinked for a couple of seconds before smiling. "Oh, quit your bitching. You bounds might not be able to collect money forever, but you can live easy for forty years for each thirty you put in. Considering how long you can live, that’s a pretty fair deal."

"I guess." The offer of a pension had attracted several bounds to the Shadow Guards, eager as they were for a permanent job and some financial security. Funny how in all the stories he’d heard about bounds while growing up never talked about how they needed to pay bills and provide for families just like everyone else.

"Oh for fuck’s sake!"

Startled out of his thoughts, he found Miko’s right hand clamped over her left shoulder. "Would you believe it? There’s a damn leak in my slicker!"

He started to laugh again. "Guess working in a store surrounded by kids isn’t such a bad idea now, is it?"

"Oh, bite-" Miko pressed her lips together and glared. "Never mind, you’d actually do it just out of spite."

"Not until you gain a few more pounds, Miko dear." He bared his teeth at his partner – and let out a yelp when the apple that was supposed to be her lunch was thrown at his head.

*******

Yohji looked at Ken and shook his head. Miko was giving his friend hell, shouting something about stupid men and Ken swapping slickers with her since he wouldn’t come down with pneumonia. Soon enough, Omi and Naru joined in, riding beside the partners and calling out suggestions. For the first time that day the group seemed relaxed, laughing and joking. A sad smile tugged at his lips as he returned his attention to Aya.

"You want to go pick on poor Kenken some too?"

He wasn’t surprised when his mate didn’t do anything besides shake his head. Not caring about anyone seeing him, Yohji slid his hand beneath Aya’s shadow covered cloak and squeezed his lover’s thigh. "Cat?"

"Yotan." Aya’s hands rested on his. "Stop fussing."

"That’s not going to happen." Not when he could feel Aya’s depression growing over their link. Not when Aya seemed to withdraw further into himself with each kilometer they rode.

He now felt irritation through the link, and love and affection. Aya squeezed his hand before pushing back his hood and looking at him. He smiled, appearing tired. "I just… I just want to get there at this point. Once I’m there maybe things won’t be so bad, but the wait until then…." He shook his head again and sighed. "Thanks for putting up with me like this. I know I haven’t been fun to be around the last couple of days."

"I’ll make sure you make it up to me after the mission," Yohji teased, somehow pulling off a light tone. "The awesome dick and I won’t leave you alone."

Aya’s smile strengthened, the first real one of the day. "I thought we were supposed to rest after the mission. Not that I’m complaining about your plans, but I think Birman will be furious if I need a week to recover from our vacation."

Yohji reached out to stroke his mate’s cheek. "I don’t give a damn what Birman thinks."

"Hmmm." Aya tilted his face into the caress. "And what about Jo?"

"Well, I do care about her, just because she’ll beat me senseless with an iron skillet if I don’t. However," he drawled as his fingers tangled in one of Aya’s eartails, "for you I’ll take that chance."

"The awesome dick must be satisfied," Aya said quietly.

He hadn’t planned on tugging on the crimson strands but he did so now, just enough to get his mate’s attention. "This isn’t about the awesome dick. I just want to spend a few days curled up in bed with you, watching as you read and trying to make you laugh while feeding you almond cookies."

Aya didn’t jump on the opportunity to tease him back, a sure sign that he was bothered by their approaching destination, but he did manage another real smile. "I like the sound of that. I’ll even let you give me a back massage."

"You’ve got yourself a deal." Yohji leaned over for a kiss, not an easy thing to do since both of them were on horseback, but he managed a quick taste of Aya and a slight purr. The depression lessened a bit, giving him hope that Aya wouldn’t succumb to it – at least not now. There was no telling what would happen once they reached Timbergrey, but he agreed with his mate that the worst was the waiting, the traveling. Once they arrived at the damn castle it would be something to be dealt with, not something to worry about.

Sinking back into the saddle, he noticed that Birman was staring at him over her shoulder. He gave her a level look in return, his lips twitching to pull away from his teeth as he waited for her to glare at him for being so close to Aya. However, all she did was resume watching the road in front of them. A road that was currently devoid of any other travelers. People with common sense had left it for shelter from the rain.

"Admit it, you enjoy twisting her tail." Aya actually sounded a little amused.

He flashed his lover a wicked grin. "I enjoy giving her grief after all that she’s caused us, but I only twist *your* tail." He snatched at the wet strand of hair dangling down the front of Aya’s cloak – and let out a yelp when Aya smacked his hand aside. "Meanie," he pouted.

Aya sighed as he tucked his hair back inside the hood of his cloak. "Yohji… thank you."

"Mmmm? What for? My awesome dick?" He leered as his thoughts drifted to last night, to making love for over an hour, just touching and stroking and kissing Aya until neither of them could hold back any longer. He could feel his hunger build at the memory.

Then he felt Aya give him another slap, this time on the leg. "For not letting me sulk all morning long," he snapped.

"Ow." Yohji rubbed his poor abused leg. "Well, I figured I’d allowed you to wallow in misery long enough today. You were so depressing you even made it rain." He prepared himself for another blow but all Aya did was shake his head.

"You’re incorrigible."

"No, I just can’t sit here and do nothing while you feel so bad, love." He rested his hand on top of Aya’s. "You’ll see, it’ll just be a pile of bricks and timber filled with bad memories. There won’t be anything there to hurt you any more." He wouldn’t let anything harm Aya.

His lover looked at him for a few seconds before tugging the hood back over his damp forehead. "I know, Yohji. I keep telling myself the same thing."

They both were quiet for a short while, but unlike earlier, it was a contemplative silence rather than one born of gloom. He could feel Aya’s anxiety build the closer they got to Timbergrey, but not the depression from earlier, so he let his lover be, save for the occasional comment and question. He had a feeling they’d both need to be composed by the time they reached Timbergrey Castle and so he gave Aya some time to prepare.

Nothing there would hurt Aya, nothing. The first thing that tried, he was ripping apart with his bare hands. They’d get there, find out what was causing the murders in the area, uncover all of Masafumi and Reiji’s old spells, and then go home. Aya could start putting his past to rest and they could take a break of sorts. Things would work out, if only because he refused to let them do otherwise.

They’d been through too much to let a building and its associated nightmares harm them. It was as simple as that.

*******

Yuushi gave the new schedule another check and set it aside on his desk as he leaned back in his chair. Two fucking days it had taken him, but it was done. Thanks to Kikyou being pissed off that Aya had left town before sending him a note about that fact, and so spending most of his time maneuvering in Court, Yuushi had been able to rearrange things enough that no more Shadow Guards would be stuck working double duty. It helped immensely that many of the new recruits were done with their training and that he’d managed to find enough Guards from other cities to transfer here to help with the workload.

Birman would probably have a fit when she found out, considering how she’d been pushing him to take everything slowly and putting her own agenda first. But hell, she wasn’t the one working all day or night and then pulling another shift when Yuushi needed someone to keep an eye on this, or help train the new bound recruits, or deal with a matter concerning bounds. He’d waited long enough, and he was willing to bet his family’s honor on the fact that no one would notice the change. After all, he’d pulled off something similar back during the royal wedding.

Now the Shadow Guards would have one less thing to be upset about. Oh, there would be some grumbling as a few people’s shifts had changed, but better to get used to a new schedule than to be overworked. Now to move on to his next task. He tapped a request on his copper wristband and sipped some coffee while waiting for his guests to arrive.

Toshi and Blair arrived in a few minutes, the former looking a bit pale for some reason. He hoped the man wasn’t having problems with his new partner.

"Afternoon, sir." Blair bowed his head before standing at attention beside the desk, his arms crossed behind his back and coppery hair pulled away from his face in a neat ponytail. Yuushi always felt tired whenever he dealt with the bound. Blair was so damned formal and always immaculate. Eri had mentioned something about Blair being one of the older bounds she knew, and that he’d always been so polite. Yuushi wished that he was dealing with Eri instead right now but knew that the woman was better off with Birman.

"Afternoon, Blair." He nodded briefly before glancing at Toshi. "Is everything all right?"

Toshi managed a weak smile and waved at one of the empty chairs in front of the desk. When Yuushi nodded, he sat down with a relieved groan. Blair, of course, remained standing. "Thank you. I’ve just had a bit of a shock this morning." At Yuushi’s inquisitive look, he waved his hand again. "Oh, nothing bad, and it’s a personal matter."

Relieved that it wasn’t something affecting the Shadow Guard, Yuushi leaned forward in his chair and offered the men coffee. Both declined. "All right, I’ve called you here because I could really use Blair’s opinion on something."

"Oh. Well, in that case, I’ll have some coffee and then you can ignore me," Toshi said with a smile. As soon as he had his drink, he slumped in the chair and sipped the coffee, his eyes closed.

"You need my help with something, sir?"

Yuushi sighed as he debated telling Blair for the umpteenth time that he didn’t have to address him so formally all the time. He had a feeling it wouldn’t work this time either. The man was just… so incredibly formal. However, between Blair’s handsome looks and his impeccable manners, he was proving to be quite popular at Court. Many nobles would request him for various gatherings, and while they fussed over him, Toshi faded into the background and managed to get some work done.

"Yes. I went over the pairing of partners with Eri before she left, but I had to make a couple of changes while redoing the schedule, and I’m wondering if you see any problems with what I’ve done." Yuushi knew the human Shadow Guards well enough to decide if they would do well with a bound partner, but he didn’t know if the opposite would be true. "You’re as familiar with the personnel as she is, after all." Many of the bounds had made it a point to become very familiar with the members of the Shadow Guard, even if they didn’t do much socializing. He didn’t know if it was more from suspicion or the desire to fit in as much as possible.

Blair relaxed a little as he approached the desk and looked over the list, his long hair falling over one shoulder and almost touching the desk. His finger traced down the list as he read. "I see you have Pedra partnered with Eaton. I suggest you find someone a little… less fiery to pair those two with, sir." There was actually a hint of a smile on his face.

Yuushi looked at the list and swore. Eri had warned him about placing fire elemental-bounds with similarly tempered humans, but he must have forgotten. He racked his brains for a minute. "How about I pair her with Kane, then?" Kane had a bit of a short temper himself, but he had rarely let it affect his work over the ten years he’d been a Guard.

"I think… that should be fine, sir. Then you can switch partners between them. Vernon shouldn’t have a problem dealing with Eaton."

"But will Eaton feel the same way?" he wondered out loud. Vernon was very quiet, and he wasn’t sure the talkative Eaton would feel comfortable with someone who didn’t seem inclined to carry on much of a conversation.

"They should be fine together, Yuushi," Toshi spoke up from his chair. "You were out with Yohji and Aya a few nights ago when Eaton found out that Vernon likes to breed pigeons too. They talked for hours that night about bloodlines and feathers and such, until Mickey had to kick them out."

That bit of news made him feel better. "All right then, I’ll switch them around. Any other problems?" he asked Blair.

The bound continued down the list. "So far, so good, sir. Ogden will be pleased to hear that he’s being paired with Moritaka."

"Eri mentioned that he’s a little nervous about working with humans just yet, so I thought I’d pair them together for the time being."

A frown formed on Blair’s face. "Ogden needs a few more years to learn how to control his hunger, but Mori will keep him in line. He’s had experience with flesh gaki-bounds."

Yuushi didn’t let himself become distracted even though he wanted to ask how come a flesh gaki-bound like Ken managed, mostly, to control his hunger by himself while Ogden didn’t, but figured he’d ask Eri when she came back. "I just hope neither of them minds being stuck on night duty down on the docks."

"They should be fine with that, sir. It’s not too crowded down there then." Blair resumed his reading. "Sir, perhaps you shouldn’t pair Li with Bettina."

"Why not?" He’d been assured that the succubae-bound wouldn’t feed from the Shadow Guard.

Toshi chuckled as he sat forward to refill his empty mug. "Because Betts has been chasing after her for the last week or so. She seems to want a Yohji of her own."

"I thought Bettina was dating a healer?" Since when was he required to keep track of the dating habits of the people working for him?

Blair made a coughing sound. "I’m not sure, but judging from what happened at the Koneko the last few nights, I don’t think Bettina is worried about her girlfriend." His cheeks actually turned a little red.

Yuushi raised an eyebrow and looked at Toshi, who appeared recovered from whatever had shaken him up earlier and he gave Yuushi a huge smile. "Apparently, it was so bad that Li hid in the kitchen from Betts. Have Declan tell you the story, especially about how poor Li ranted the next day about how she’s used to being the pursuer, and that Jo gave her an earful about how if she was going to mate with anyone, it better not be at the Koneko. She even offered Li some money to go to another inn ‘if she was going to turn the place into a damn fertility temple’."

"Oh sweet gods." He felt a headache coming on. No wonder none of the Koneko staff hadn’t passed on that story, for fear of ticking off Jo. "Do I want to know what else I’ve missed while out on assignment?"

"Just that Declan asked Reiko to move in with him, and she said yes."

"That’s a good match," Blair said while checking the last of the list. "I’m glad she’s found someone to make her happy."

"We’re not a bunch of marriage brokers," Yuushi couldn’t help but mumble as he massaged his temples.

"No, but such relationships will happen now that my kind have found people who don’t mind what we are, and so many of us are living together," Blair pointed out quietly. "Many of us are seizing this chance at… normalcy, sir."

"Oh, I’ve got nothing against that," he hurried to point out. "I’m just… I’m thinking that just when I get a schedule all worked out, soon enough I’m going to have to juggle people around because of partners falling in love and Guards having families-" for some reason Toshi choked on his coffee, "- and the like." He glared at his list, which he now envisioned having to redo again and again over the next year or so. "Do you have any idea how much work I’ve put into that thing over the last month?"

He looked up in surprise when he heard a soft chuckle. Gods, he had to mark this day down as one when Blair finally relaxed enough to laugh in his presence. "I’m terribly sorry for the inconvenience, sir."

"Just don’t tell me that you and Toshi have fallen madly in love with each other and that I now have to assign you new partners." Toshi sputtered again, while there was another rare chuckle from Blair.

"No, sir, I don’t believe that will happen."

"Damned right it won’t, he’s not my type," Toshi said as he patted at his wet jacket. "So I take it that if you’re playing around with the schedule, some relief is in sight?"

"Yes. There will still be the need for an occasional double-shift, but those should be picked up voluntarily now." Yuushi poured himself more coffee. "We’re not expanding outside the capital as much as the Spymaster hopes right now, but that problem will be solved as new recruits join." And Birman could have as much of a hissy fit as she wanted over that fact, but he wasn’t going to keep overworking his people just so she could increase her spy network. It was as simple as that. By the time she came back, any tinkering to his schedule *would* be noticeable and attract unwanted attention

"That won’t take too long, sir." Blair stepped away from the desk and tugged his jacket straight. "Word is carefully being spread, and I know of several inquiries about the group."

"Good." Which he felt to be true, even if that meant having to do more schedules and deciding on more partnerships. "Thank you for your advice, Blair."

The bound gave him a slight bow. "You’re welcome, sir. Please let me know if you need any more help while Eri is away."

"Blair, please stop being so damned nice! I keep telling you that you make me look bad," Toshi complained as he set his mug down on Yuushi’s desk and stood up.

"Yes, by all means, or I might expect manners from Toshi at some point," he couldn’t help but tease.

Toshi came to a halt and seemed to debate whether or not he could get away with glaring at Yuushi. "That was a low blow, *sir*," he settled on after a moment.

"But a truthful one. Don’t worry, I don’t expect you to change overnight," Yuushi replied.

Toshi ran a hand through his thick hair, making the strands stick straight up. "I guess I could always stand to learn some manners and set a good example." The anxious look from earlier returned.

"Is everything all right?" Yuushi asked, suddenly serious.

"Yeah, things are fine." Toshi practically beamed once he started to smile. "I can’t talk about it much now, don’t want to jinx anything. But it’s good news, Yuushi. Thank you for being concerned."

"All right, then."

"Good day, sir," Blair gave him another short bow before leaving with his partner. He watched them leave before sitting back in his chair. The two men made a very good pairing, giving him a sense of pride in seeing how well the Shadow Guards were working out – so far. And while he was a bit upset at missing some of the latest gossip, probably because he wasn’t just a Guard anymore but a Captain in his own right, he was pleased to hear that things were going well in that regard. Now he had to concentrate on keeping the momentum going.

Having one last sip of coffee, he set his mug aside and made the final changes to the duty roster. Now to hand the list of partners and the new schedules to Kikyou, and hope that the man was too busy sulking over Aya’s absence to care about the changes. Even though Yuushi knew that the kage really hadn’t wanted to go to Timbergrey, he had to admit that this was a golden opportunity for him to make some changes. He gave his watch a quick glance and decided he’d see if a meal could be sent to his office so he could continue working through the evening. Any time now, Kikyou might get over his foul mood and start paying attention to what was going on around here. He needed to get the few other necessary adjustments done before then. He wished that Reiichi was here to give him a hand, but knew his friend was needed on the mission. Oh well, a little lost rest wasn’t going to hurt him.

*******

Birman couldn’t help but urge her horse ahead a little faster when she noticed the road markers indicating that Timbergrey Castle was near. She was tired and hungry and thirsty, and somewhat sore from all the riding the last few days. Not to mention she had a terrible tension headache. She just wanted to get to the damned castle and properly start this mission.

Botan’s horse strode up beside hers and she heard the sound of the rest of the group’s horses pick up their pace. For a moment she imagined them all charging toward Timbergrey, eager to arrive. Well, eager to get this over with, more likely.

"Birman, stop."

Aya’s cold voice had her jerking on the reins and looking over her shoulder. "Why?" she asked, even as everyone came to a halt, except for Yohji and Aya’s horses. They continued until the two bounds were even with her.

Aya gestured down the road. "We’re approaching some wards in another hundred meters. I don’t know if there’s anyone at the castle who can sense them being disturbed or not, and thought you might not appreciate them knowing that company is about to arrive." His tone was cold and distant, much the same as his demeanor had been with anyone but Yohji all day long.

She looked down the road. "You and Yohji won’t set off the wards if you dismount, but what about everyone else? Can you cloak us?"

"Yes." Aya searched both ends of the roads. "As long as you don’t mind me using the shadows."

There wasn’t anyone else on the road but them so it should be all right. "That’s fine. Are there any other wards besides these?"

He nodded. "Closer to the castle gates, where if anyone’s on guard duty, they should be able to see us."

"Well, by then no one will be able to do much about us." She nudged her horse back into motion. "I have Guards stationed at the gates so we’ll be let in regardless of whoever thinks they are in charge."

Aya didn’t say anything, just fell back toward the rear of the group with Yohji by his side. She spared him a long look before sighing and focusing on the road. "Everyone, ride close together." It took them a moment, but they were soon gathered by the kage, close enough that he wouldn’t need many shadows to cloak them from the wards.

As soon as the shadows gathered around her, darkening the world but still allowing her to faintly see the road before her, she urged her horse down it at a fast clip. The presence of still active wards worried her and made her anxious to see Timbergrey for herself.

"Botan, exactly how long can wards last after their caster’s death?"

Her friend leaned over his horse’s neck as he gave the matter some thought. "Usually only a month or two, depending on the wizard’s strength. For them to last this long means that they were either renewed by someone else, which I doubt since I didn’t sense them at all, or Masafumi or Reiji anchored them with powerful bound blood." She didn’t think she needed to ask whose, especially not after Botan continued. "I didn’t sense a thing back there so they must have used Aya’s."

She remembered the scars she’d seen on Aya’s arms, the ones he always wore long-sleeved shirts to hide. "They certainly took enough of his blood to be able to use it on simple wards."

"I’m afraid so." Botan’s face was grim. "I’m willing to bet they used his blood in almost every-"

"We’re clear," Yohji called out as the shadows faded away, and Ken and Miko immediately galloped their horses past them to take point. She looked back to see Eri and Naru assume rear guard, and for Reiichi to ride up beside Omi. Which left Yohji to guard Aya. She didn’t know who would tear apart anyone who tried to attack the kage first, Yohji or Aya.

"As I was saying, they probably used his blood for almost every spell."

She looked over at her friend and was surprised to see such an angry expression on his face. "I thought that’s what you suspected."

Botan grunted and rubbed his eyes. "Suspected, yes. But to have it pretty much confirmed for me…." He shook his head. "You just don’t understand how much blood they had to use over the years to do that. Aya never did say just how often they’d drain him, and I don’t want to know. The figure I’m coming up with right now is bad enough."

She thought of the scars again, the numerous fine white lines that from more than a couple of feet away looked to be one very thick one. Then she thought of her talk the other day with Eri, about how bounds had learned to distrust humans over the years. She could better understand why bounds hid their powers, afraid of drawing attention to themselves. Sure, they could probably kill some of the people who would come after them, but should they fall, they’d become precious bloodbanks for humans and wizards if they weren’t killed outright. They probably hoped for the latter if they were ever captured.

"The king was right to send Aya on this mission. He’ll be the only one who can sense all the magic left behind."

"Yohji could probably do the same since he’s getting better at sensing magic the longer he’s mated to Aya," Botan pointed out. "But that would mean Aya would be here regardless," he sighed.

"Yes, even before Eri started to confide in me about bounds, I knew it would be a very bad idea to separate those two." She brushed damp bangs off of her forehead. "You know, the only thing I’m left to wonder about is why this whole mission was put off for so long. We should have been out here right after the wedding." Maybe then the murders wouldn’t have taken place.

Botan gave her a sympathetic look. "I know how busy you’ve been the last two months. There really were more important matters to handle first, and there was Aya." He glanced behind him. "If you’d sent him here while he was fighting his depression, I don’t think he’d be doing as well as he is now. No, you did the best you could at the time, considering the circumstances."

She smiled at her friend in thanks. "I think I remember now why I keep you around."

Botan snorted as he straightened in his saddle. "*I* don’t think I want to hear any more about that."

Noticing that they were almost at the castle, she spared him one more smile and then focused on the stone gates coming into view.

"We’re at the second set of wards," Aya said, his voice barely audible above the sound of hooves striking the muddy road. Feeling nervous all of a sudden, she twisted the silver and black ring on her right hand.

"Botan, I want you, Omi and Ken to wear your rings while here. If the wards are still active, I don’t want to think about what other surprises lay in store for us."

He nodded as he reached into his robe and pulled out his ring, tied around his neck on a silver chain. While he removed it and slid it on his finger, she tapped the command over the copper bracelet on her left wrist so Omi and Ken would do the same. She felt a little worried over the fact that Naru, Eri, Reiichi and Miko didn’t have rings, but they weren’t objects that one easily came by. Wouldn’t it be fun, telling Aya that she wanted some blood so Botan could create more of them? She wondered which would happen first, Aya renouncing his oath or Yohji killing her.

Some of her black mood lifted when she saw Jonsten and a man with close-cropped brown hair and beard standing by the castle gates. "Good day, Jonsten." She nodded to the other man, Nicholas, who’d been paired with Jonsten after losing his partner during the attempted coup. "And you, Nicholas."

"Spymaster." Jonsten bowed his head. "I’m certainly glad to see you!" He smiled and surveyed the rest of the group, his eyes going wide when he noticed Aya. "You’re not just passing through, are you?"

"No. We’re here to find out what’s behind the murders, among other things. How have things been lately?" She hated being away from her network the past few days of travel and was desperate for news.

"People are nervous, ma’am. Lots of rumors about this area being cursed, and it’s getting harder to keep all the staff here at the castle." He opened the gates and ushered her inside. "Nicholas? Take over my watch while I escort…." He paused in talking to his partner to give her a questioning look. Birman nodded. "While I escort the Spymaster inside."

Nicholas nodded and stepped out of the shadows of the gate. "Business as usual, Spymaster?"

"As much as possible. Don’t allow any of the staff to leave unless they have proper authorization, and I’d rather not let many people outside the castle know that I’m here."

"Understood." Nicholas bowed curtly and then smiled behind her. "Heya, Ken and Miko."

"Hey, Nick. We’ve some packages for you and the others," Ken said. "Stop by when you’re off duty."

"That I will do."

They rode into the courtyard, Jonsten walking beside her horse. "I’m really glad you’re here, ma’am. The recent murders have been terrible, and people are starting to say that the castle is cursed. There’s been talk about burning it down."

"This castle, regardless of its previous owners, is still Crown property." It bothered her that people would even think of setting aflame such property, a crime that would land them in jail for the rest of their life. "I’d like a word with you later, after I’ve settled in."

"Understood." Jonsten led them down a cobblestone path to an impressively sized stable. "Osamu, we have some guests!" he called out.

A young man and two teenaged boys left the dry haven of the stable to fetch their horses. "Ma’am," Osamu said with a slight bow and smile as he grasped her horse’s bridle. "We’ll have them inside in moments, and you on your way." He looked beyond her at the group… and his face suddenly flushed. "Keiun?"

Dismounting, she found him staring at Aya’s horse. As she watched, the stablemaster’s red face slowly paled as Aya also dismounted, a graceful black form. He slid back his hood to expose his face, which bore no trace of emotion. "He’ll be leaving with me," was all Aya said before untying his saddlebags. His voice was quiet, barely louder than the rain, and just like his face lacked any emotion.

The stablemaster appeared utterly stunned. "You’re back?" Unlike the kage’s, his voice was thick with emotion, first high with shock and then growing loud with anger. "We don’t-" He stopped what he was about to say with a wary glance at Birman and shook his head.

She gave him a cold look. "Is there a problem, stablemaster?"

"No, ma’am. The horses will be well tended to." He motioned for one of the boys to take the reins of Aya’s horse. The boy crept forward as if approaching his death, and wouldn’t take the reins until Aya released them and they swung downward. Then he practically ran into the stable, Keiun balking as they approached the building.

Aya didn’t seem bothered by Osamu and his helpers’ attitudes, but Yohji stood there with a furious look on his face, his lips pulling back from his teeth. Only Aya’s hand on his mate’s arm kept him from lunging forward. "He’s not a fucking monster," Yohji snarled, his voice deep and inhuman.

The stablemaster flinched and turned to face Birman. "Ma’am." He then hurried to the stable, her and Botan’s horses in tow. She had the feeling that he wouldn’t be back out until Aya left, even if there were still a few horses left in the rain.

Sighing, she hitched her saddlebags up on her shoulder and turned to face Aya. "Let’s head to the castle." After a few steps, she asked the kage a question. "Does he know what you are?"

"Like the others, he suspects that I’m a bound, but not… what exactly." Aya’s voice was still devoid of emotion. "I never had much to do with the stablemaster, other than to borrow Keiun for missions."

They’d have to make sure that no one would talk about Aya after they left. Perhaps Eri and Botan could come up with a solution to this problem. Even if people didn’t suspect him of being a kage, rumors of a bound in her employ would not be good. Nor would it be good to have wizards or people eager to get their hands on bound blood showing up at the Koneko after Aya. Oh, there’d be blood all right….

"I thought you said no one knew about you other than Reiji and his sons."

"They didn’t confide in anyone other than Masafumi’s women about what I was, I know that much, but I lived here for twelve years." Now a hint of exhaustion crept into Aya’s voice. "They saw me stop aging a couple of years ago, and they knew that Reiji and… Hirofumi would abuse me. They’d see me mostly healed the next day and they worked things out."

It was a very good thing that she’d convinced the king to sequester Reiji’s staff at Timbergrey. "Why didn’t you mention this to me?"

"Because you didn’t ask!" Yohji snapped, shoving between her and Aya. "You know where he’s been the last few months; you could have stopped by and asked a few questions rather than give us orders and leave!"

She opened her mouth to point out that she’d been rather busy herself… and shut it. Aya had been adjusting to life free of what had happened here at Timbergrey, of course he hadn’t felt like talking about that time. She really should have sat down and talked to him more than just on that day after the wedding, but he’d been depressed for a couple of weeks afterwards and by then she’d had so many balls up in the air all she’d thought about was taking care of a few of them.

She stopped and gave Aya as even a look as she could. "Is there anything else that I should be made aware of before we go inside?"

He put a hand on Yohji’s arm, preventing another outburst. "Not that I can think of. There will probably be the same reaction as with the stablemaster, maybe even worse since the house staff is more familiar with me."

Her headache from earlier returned in force. "Thank you." She noticed how Yohji hovered around Aya, hands lifting as if to offer comfort and then falling back down to his sides. "Oh, the order to remain as professional as possible during the mission only pertains to when we’re out on the road." She wasn’t going to expect these two to stay away from each other now, and hoped that having Aya nearby would help calm Yohji.

The surprised look on Yohji’s face almost made her smile. "Well then, let’s go inside and find the man in ‘charge’ here – Katsuya, isn’t it?" Aya nodded. "Yes, let’s get started."

 

*******

Botan murmured a spell under his breath as he walked into Timbergrey castle. Aya, doing as he’d asked him earlier that day, tapped on his copper bracelet each time he passed a spell, and Botan was trying to see if he could detect them with his magic. No such luck. Masafumi and Reiji really had tied all their magic to kage blood. He shuddered in anger as a servant in grey and blue livery led them down a long hallway.

They entered a large room done in gold and muted reds, the decoration lavish. For a moment he felt guilty about being muddy and wet, but Aya tapping on the bracelet quickly distracted him. There seemed to be wards set up for each doorway, but he felt that a lot of the spells Aya was sensing in the room probably were of a more domestic nature. That didn’t mean there wasn’t the chance that a few protective and even destructive spells were mixed in with the lot, but he felt better when he managed to ‘sense’ some of the magic. At least Reiji hadn’t wasted Aya’s blood on charmed candles.

"Good afternoon," a tall, husky man impeccably dressed in grey and blue said as he entered the room, face portraying nothing more than a little curiosity and a smile. The servant behind him, though, just like the one who had allowed them inside, was clearly harried over their arrival. Someone was relying heavily on the wards on the road to warn them about guests. "I am Katsuya, the chancellor of Timbergrey. I’m sorry for your poor welcome, but we were not expecting guests. In fact, I’m afraid we are not allowed to entertain guests at this time."

Birman removed her oiled cloak and handed it to the flustered servant. "I am very well aware of that order, having told the king to issue it myself. I’m his Spymaster; you may call me Birman." She gave the chancellor an even look, and Botan thought he saw a hint of a smile as the man lost some of his composure. "My companions and I will be staying for a few weeks. We’d like five rooms made ready now please, with hot baths so we can refresh ourselves before dinner."

Katsuya didn’t appear pleased that he had to put them up in the castle. "I’m sorry, Spymaster, I wasn’t aware that you were coming for a visit. We’re terribly unprepared to lodge you and your companions."

"I’ve studied the design of this castle, Katsuya, and I know you have more than enough rooms for us. It shouldn’t take you very long to prepare them for us, as you’ve had little else to do these past few months other than maintain Timbergrey. If you need more food to feed us, I’ll happily order some of the Guards to fetch more from the village and charge it to the king."

The chancellor struggled to regain his composure, and once done, tried a haughty look on Birman. The poor fool, he was doomed to fail. Birman had put up with those looks from a very young age and was thoroughly immune by now. Still, Botan felt his dislike of the man grow. There was undoubtedly a reason Reiji had picked him for this position.

"We will do our best to accommodate you. Please allow the staff a few minutes to put your rooms in order." He straightened his velvet coat as he looked them over, his gaze faltering all of a sudden. Botan thought he knew why, especially when the man paled. He looked over his shoulder to see Aya stare coldly at Katsuya, his hood down around his shoulders.

Katsuya cleared his throat. "Your room is waiting for you… Ran." The way he said Aya’s old name made his dislike for the kage clear.

As Yohji started to snarl, ever so quietly, Birman stepped closer to Katsuya. "No, that gentleman is Aya Kudoh and he is a guest here, to be treated with proper respect." The ‘or else’ that she left unsaid hung silently in the air.

Katsuya stared at her with disbelief plain on his face. "Spymaster, surely you are aware of what that… man is? I don’t know what story he told you, but he is a servant of Prince Reiji’s."

Only Aya’s arm around Yohji’s shoulder kept his mate from doing something, and even Ken and Eri were growling now. Botan felt a sense of dread creep up his spine as he wondered what would happen if four bounds managed to lose control of their good sense and attacked the rude idiot.

"Sir, I am very well aware of who and *what* Aya Kudoh is. He is a servant of the king and will be regarded as such. I suggest first that you forget whoever it is you’ve mistaken him for, and that you remember that Reiji Takatori and his sons are *dead*." Birman’s voice was positively frosty, her eyes hard and her hands clutched into fists. Meanwhile, Katsuya was clearly trying to figure out what to do next. Botan didn’t need to be a bound to read his thoughts. The man was wondering how much he dared to push things right now. Birman was not to be trifled with, nor was it wise to risk the king’s ire by maligning one of his servants. Also, if he said out loud that Aya was a bound, the question would be asked how he knew, and why he hadn’t done anything over the years.

Smoothing his hand down the grey velvet coat, Katsuya executed a jerky bow. "As you say, ma’am. All your guests will be given proper respect. If you excuse me, I need to order the servants to prepare your rooms."

"Please remember, chancellor, that all Timbergrey personnel are still remanded to the castle grounds. If you need any more supplies, notify me so I may send out the Guards. Any staff caught leaving the premises will be arrested and questioned." There was a sweet note to Birman’s voice, a sure sign that she enjoyed reminding the man that he was little more than a servant under suspicion of the king. Katsuya must have picked up on this as his frown deepened and one of his hands clenched around his jacket, crushing the expensive fabric.

"The staff and I are well aware of that order, ma’am. I’ll send someone here with refreshments while your rooms are prepared." With that, Katsuya offered her a bow so abrupt it bordered on rude and quickly left the room.

Birman sighed and turned to face them, her hands busy massaging the small of her back. "I have to put up with that for how long again?"

"Until we’ve completed the mission," he reminded her. "Now if that isn’t incentive to be quick about it, I don’t know what is."

She smiled at him before focusing her attention on Aya. "All right, now that I’ve met the man, what can you tell me about the chancellor?"

Aya unfastened his cloak, folded it and draped it over his arm. Then he pulled up the hood of his deep blue jerkin, but not enough to hide his face. "He’s been in that position for the last eight years, when the previous one, his father, retired. He has the grudging respect of the staff, and despite his airs is not that bad a man." Aya’s face was perfectly impassive but there was a hint of exhaustion in his voice, and he leaned back against his mate, who had wrapped both arms around his waist.

"You call that ‘not bad’?" Birman asked with an incredulous snort.

"Compared to his father? Yes, I do." Aya closed his eyes and rested his head against Yohji’s shoulder. "He’s proud of his position and watches out for himself at all times, but unlike his father, he realizes that servants work better when they’re not being mistreated. He even stood up to Reiji for them a time or two, though on the whole he idolized him. For the most part, Katsuya left me alone, and Nagi as well once he started working for me."

Yohji hugged Aya tightly and nuzzled his temple. "What about his father? Did he leave you alone?"

"His father thought it was amusing to ‘forget’ to order the servants to tend to me and my sister, or assign people who were utterly terrified of me and thus wouldn’t report to do their duties, knowing that Reiji would punish me when I left my room to fetch food and water for my sister and myself." For a second a look of vast sorrow settled on Aya’s face, but quickly smoothed out when Yohji growled in anger. He lifted his head and opened his eyes to look at Birman. "Many of the people here I would not pick to have as friends or associates, but they’re not all bad. You have to remember who their lord was for the last seventeen years. Katsuya could have gotten away with a lot of abuse here, as long as it didn’t cause any unpleasantness for Reiji and his sons, but he didn’t. He’s only a petty tyrant, really, and one proud of this castle."

Botan was familiar with the man’s kind, and understood what Aya was trying to say. "It would be best if you don’t patronize him too much, Birman. Things will go much more smoothly here if we have his cooperation."

He got a slight glare for his troubles, but Birman’s temper quickly faded. "You have a point." She glanced at Eri. "I’d like to talk to you after dinner about any ‘impressions’ you have of the staff here. Is that a problem?"

"Not at all, Spymaster. I’m feeling in a very inquisitive mood," Eri said as she walked about the room, lifting up various knickknacks to study. "For a remote country castle, there’s a lot of apprehension and tension here. A lot of people seem afraid of the murders."

"Yeah, you can smell the fear," Ken added as he paced back and forth by the windows. "Any chance of them poisoning our food to get rid of us?"

Aya seemed to consider the question. "I doubt that. It would cause too much trouble for Katsuya and the staff."

"The Court would be certain that the Judges made examples of them to keep any other servants from having the same idea," Omi said. He was sitting on the edge of the very padded sofa. "But if they don’t realize that, Botan and I should be able to detect any poison."

"As can we, just from how it smells," Eri said as she tapped her nose. "If it doesn’t smell right, don’t eat it, Ken. You have to learn to rely on your senses more."

"I’m still trying to get used to them," Ken mumbled as he gave up on pacing and leaned against a wall. Botan winced as he imagined that the cleaning staff would have some mud marks to deal with.

Miko joined her partner and sighed. "You know what, they can poison me all they like as long as I have a soft bed and a hot bath, and don’t have to worry about being on horseback for the next few days. I think my saddle sores have saddle sores at this point."

"I think we can all do with some rest." Yohji stared at Birman. "Tomorrow’s soon enough to start the mission, so why don’t you give us tonight off so we can settle in?"

"That’s a reasonable enough request. I’d much prefer everyone to be sharp and focused when we start the investigation." Birman had to stifle a yawn. "Truth be told, I think everyone is too tired to be at their best right now."

Which, of course, everyone agreed with as Botan removed his cloak and joined Omi on the sofa. It felt very good to sit down on something soft that wasn’t moving. While he’d fared better than others since he did a little horseback riding while working for the king, he still felt a little sore.

As Birman talked quietly with Ken, Miko and Eri, Naru appeared to be falling asleep in a chair that definitely would need a good cleaning. Aya and Yohji stood off to the side holding on to each other. Two very nervous servants walked into the room, one bearing a tray of what smelled to be coffee and the other some small sandwiches. He could hear glasses rattle as the young woman with the drinks looked at Aya.

Her companion set the snacks down on the low table in front of the sofa and quickly stepped back. "Let me collect your cloaks," the woman said in a quavering voice as she held out a shaking hand.

Botan handed over his and Omi’s cloaks, while Birman must have taken pity on the girl with the beverages – or just wanted to drink a mostly full cup of coffee, which was spilling everywhere – and started to hand out the drinks. "We’re going to need more food, and how much longer on the rooms?"

The girl seemed to regain some of her composure upon being asked a question. "Another twenty minutes or so, ma’am. Hot water is being fetched for your baths." She then executed a rather shaky curtsey. "I’ll be right back with the food," she said before fleeing the room.

Meanwhile, the other young woman seemed to be gathering everyone’s wet cloaks but Aya’s. Yohji, frowning fiercely enough that the servant’s face paled when she saw him, shoved his mate’s cloak into her arms. "He’ll want that returned as soon as it’s cleaned."

"Y-yes sir." She looked about to drop her armful of wet garments as she hurried from the room as fast as she could.

Yohji glared after her before taking two mugs from Birman. "I think it’s going to be a long couple of weeks."

Aya appeared at his side and reached for one of the mugs, his impassive mask slipping a little as he sipped the coffee and grimaced. "Just accept it, Yohji. The Takatori encouraged them to be afraid of me. Soon enough we’ll be home and can forget about this."

"They shouldn’t treat you as if you’re a monster." Yohji’s voice deepened into a growl

"Would you like me to ask for a pot of tea, Aya?" Omi asked, breaking up what might be a budding fight. He received a sliver of a smile from Aya as Yohji sighed and drank his coffee.

"I wish you could ask for a bottle of whiskey," he muttered as he drained his mug and then reached for Aya’s. When Birman cleared her throat, he rolled his eyes. "Come on, you know it won’t hurt some of us in the slightest to have a few shots. And I think the rest of you could use one too, after riding all day in the rain."

"We’ll have to make do with hot baths," Birman said, her voice waspish. "This is a mission, Kudoh, and I expect you to be on proper Guard behavior the entire time."

"As if I’d be here for any other reason," he snapped back. While the two glared at each other, Aya fetched a few sandwiches from the tray Ken and Naru were making short work of and walked over to the windows. He ate one of the snacks while staring out onto the rainy courtyard.

Yohji broke off the staring contest with Birman and wandered over to his mate. "Are you going to share any of those?"

"With the man who stole my coffee?"

"You know you hate the stuff," Yohji said as he wrapped his arms around Aya’s waist. Aya held a sandwich up for him to bite, and the two were quiet as they ate. Birman, after a minute of glaring at Yohji’s back, sighed and settled down on the chair near the couch.

"I definitely think we all need some rest tonight." She batted Ken’s hand aside and snatched the last beef sandwich. "I’m assuming these aren’t poisoned since everyone’s acting like this will be their last meal for an entire week."

"No, I checked," Omi said, pride evident in his voice at successfully managing the spell. Botan tousled his hair and sat back in the couch.

"Well, this is quite the welcome, isn’t it?" he asked as he shared a wry grin with Birman.

"They didn’t try to kill us outright, so I’ll accept it." She brushed crumbs off her hand and reached for the pitcher of coffee.

"I’ve said it before, Birman, and I’ll say it again. If you’re so worried about being killed on sight, we really need to work on your people skills a little more."

With Birman tossing a garnish at him for his joke, Aya and Yohji quietly talking to each other by the windows and everyone else just enjoying the food and coffee, the tension slowly drained from the room. They were finally at Timbergrey, now they could do nothing but complete their mission and go home. He just hoped it was as simple as that.

*******

Aya set his bags down on the dresser as he warded the room. Leaning against the furniture, he took in the pale blue walls, the lavish dark blue and gold velvet curtains and bedspread, the matching rugs on the floor. Everything about the room screamed ‘wealth’ and ‘status’ – and set his teeth on edge. This room was even more ostentatious than the one Yohji and he had spent the night in at the palace. It was a far cry from their comfortable room at the Koneko.

Yohji set his bags down as well and stood next to him, strong arms wrapping around his shoulders. "Hey, please stop that," Yohji asked, voice husky and quiet.

"Stop what?" He looked at his mate, trying to figure out what he was talking about.

Yohji smiled sadly and caressed his cheek. "Stop looking as if you’re a statue or something. I’m not expecting a smile or anything, but you feel like you’re about to go all shinigami on me."

He tilted his face into the caress for a moment, and then turned to face his mate. His arms slid around Yohji’s waist and pulled him close. "I’m sorry, I… I always wore this expression when I lived here. I couldn’t let them see how much they hurt me, or risk doing anything that would give them an excuse to-"

Yohji shut him up with a kiss, strong arms tight around him and pulling him closer, until he was pressed against his lover’s warm, strong body. He shivered and tried to get even closer, to feel nothing but Yohji. He didn’t want to think about this place, about what had happened here.

The kiss lasted for several minutes, leaving him out of breath and feeling tired, yet safe. He leaned against Yohji, his face pressed against his mate’s neck, surrounded by the wonderful scent that always made him relax, even if only slightly.

"You’re Aya now, not Ran. You don’t have to do what… what he did to survive here, love. You just need to track down all the spells you can and help us with the murders, and we’ll go home. During that time, *nothing* is going to hurt you, my word on that." Yohji’s fingers tangled in his hair and tugged ever so gently, until he looked up. Yohji smiled at him, his fingers now massaging his tingling scalp. "They’re dead."

"I know." His hands slid from his mate’s waist to press against Yohji’s chest, feeling warm muscles flex beneath his touch. "Twelve years, Yotan. Over half my life was spent here, spent in pain. I tell myself the same things you do but the memories are so strong."

"Just remember that they’re just memories, and they belong in the past." Yohji captured his right hand and raised it to his lips for a kiss. "I know this is very easy for me to say and hard as hell for you to do, but you have to stop giving them power over you."

He felt slightly annoyed at the advice but knew that Yohji meant only the best. He leaned forward, his chin resting on his mate’s shoulder. "I keep expecting to see them walk into the room. Everything’s the same here." Except for the scent. The castle didn’t smell so strongly of the Takatori, or of Masafumi’s women. That helped drive home the fact that they hadn’t been here for months, that they weren’t waiting for him to drop his guard and then surprise him.

"But you’re not, Cat." Yohji nuzzled his ear and walked backwards to the bed, arms still wrapped tight around Aya’s waist and leaving him no choice but to follow. "This place doesn’t hold any power over you now." Yohji fell backwards onto the bed, so down he went, landing on his mate’s chest.

"I *know* that." He was getting a little tired of being told to ‘move on’. As if he hadn’t tried to do just that these last few months. Snapping at Yohji’s chin, his fingers tangled in his mate’s long, thick hair and tugged gently. "Say that again and I’ll bite you. *Not* in a good way, either," he added when Yohji just waggled his eyebrows at him. Against his will, he felt his anger and apprehension fade away to be replaced with amusement and affection. "Incorrigible. That sums you up rather well." He leaned down for a kiss.

Yohji held him close, tongue delving deep into his mouth and hands rubbing his shoulders. They remained locked in the embrace for several minutes, tasting each other and taking what comfort they could. Then he remembered the hot water and reluctantly pulled away. "We need to bathe."

"Is that your way of telling me I stink?" Yohji asked as he arched an eyebrow.

Leaning down, his lips trailed over his mate’s neck before he pressed his face into the crook of Yohji’s shoulder and inhaled deeply. Again, Yohji’s scent worked its magic on him, made him relax. He pulled away and started to unlace his shirt. "I much prefer it when you don’t reek of wet horse and mud."

"Oh, well then, a bath it is. But we have to take our clothes off first, don’t we?" Yohji gave him a lazy grin that belied the wave of lust and hunger that washed into him through their link. Aya thought about his mate’s beautiful naked body, thought about allowing Yohji’s emotions to overwhelm him until his own darker ones were buried, thought of the pleasure and completeness that could be found in losing himself to that lust and hunger. He wasn’t Ran anymore. He wasn’t alone in the world with only someone younger than himself to count on. He had a mate, someone who would always be there for him. Someone he loved so very, very much and who loved him back.

His eyes becoming heavy lidded, he slid his hands beneath Yohji’s shirt. "You’ll have to get up to take your clothes off." Part of him enjoyed being a tease, being contrary. He never had much of an opportunity to be either while living here, and he reveled in knowing he could be those things with Yohji and nothing bad would happen to him. "Also, the water’s getting cold."

Lifting up just enough to pull his shirt over his head, Yohji tossed the garment aside and yanked on one of Aya’s eartails. "Now I know you’re just being a tease. The tub’s spelled, I can sense it from here. The water won’t be getting cold any time soon." His fingers still in Aya’s hair, he pulled slowly until Aya once more rested on his chest. "Come here."

"So bossy," Aya murmured as he curled up on Yohji’s chest. "You need to learn some manners." He nuzzled his mate’s left shoulder and traced his tongue along a fading scar. He felt it when the breath slowly left Yohji, when the warm body beneath his shivered with pleasure and anticipation. "You feel so hungry," he moaned as he shifted his mouth to Yohji’s neck.

"I’m starving for you." Long fingers tangled in his hair and pressed his face against an arched neck. He gave in to the instincts inside him and grasped it between his teeth. As always, his true nature rushed to the fore, spurring him on to bite down as he straddled his mate’s hips, hands stroking over warm, wonderful flesh that belonged to him. Before, he could only let this side of himself out when he killed, but with Yohji….

He was here, in Timbergrey, and he was Aya. Ran was truly gone, along with the people who had abused him and taken away almost everything he’d ever cared about. That was the last clear thought in his mind as he dropped the thin veneer of humanity that he usually hid behind and all the troubling emotions that went with it. All that was left was love and need and desire. All that mattered now was Yohji.

"Cat." He felt his mate’s throat vibrate beneath his teeth, felt the rush of pleasure as Yohji squirmed beneath him and clutched at his shoulders. "You better damn well be in the mood after this."

Sucking hard on Yohji’s neck, Aya finally let go so he could shift upward, his mouth scant millimeters from his mate’s panting one. "I need you." His voice was raw with the truth behind that statement, his emotions burning through the two of them. Love foremost, but intense need almost rivaled it, along with passion.

Yohji stared back at him, those same emotions shimmering in his dark green eyes. "I’m not going anywhere, love." He looked like he was about to say something else but then just bridged the gap between them. Aya moaned as they kissed, feeling shared bliss, the energy flowing from him to his mate, making that foreign hunger burn even brighter instead of quenching it. He wasn’t the only one losing himself to his true nature tonight.

They battled during the kiss, seeking to delve as deep into each other as possible, not minding in the least as they won and lost in turns. It wasn’t a fight for dominance as much as to be whole, to be so deep inside the other that they’d never be parted. They only broke off when they both fumbled to rid themselves of their pants and boots. Curses filled the air, along with the ripping of fabric as they fought to become naked while still trying to touch each other as much as possible. There was a crash as a boot was sent flying, a chuckle of satisfaction as skin was bared that might have been from both of them, and then they were falling back onto the bed, against each other.

He ended up on top, Yohji only putting up enough of a fight to inflame the both of them with need. There was a curse as his hands slid along his mate’s firm, lanky thigh but the shadows responded to his frustrations by fetching Yohji’s pouch and the precious vial of oil it contained. As he uncorked the vial, his mouth roamed over his mate’s body, tasting and licking and nipping, desiring all the golden skin he could find.

Yohji groaned, voice rough and deep, as he hooked a leg over Aya’s hips. "Don’t…oh… don’t even think of repeating last night," he stuttered as his fingers dug into Aya’s shoulders. There was an amused chuckle as fingers found an eartail. "Think of the hot water."

His mouth stopped at Yohji’s navel, tongue flicking out to circle the dip as his body refused to go any lower. There was a quick flash of pain and fear, of something salty and rank in his mouth, and then there was real pain as Yohji yanked on his hair until he moved forward. "Don’t bring those memories here," his lover ordered before kissing him deeply, chasing away the fear and awful taste.

Aya focused on that kiss, on his mate, until the memory faded away. His fingers dipped into the glass vial and then skimmed down Yohji’s hip, a teasing caress against hot, hard flesh that made his mate suck in his breath and jerk his hips forward. A smile curved on his lips at the needy sob he wrung from Yohji as his fingers sought downward, pressed against the tight opening insistently until they slid inside.

Nudging Yohji’s legs wider apart, he settled between then, his mouth once more drawn to a taut, golden neck as his fingers scissored apart. While Yohji moaned in bliss, the hunger built between them, spiked so high that he was left feeling dizzy. He dipped his fingers once again into the oil and then had the shadows stopper the bottle as any pretense of control that he had quickly melted away. His teeth biting gently into his mate’s flesh, he slicked himself and then slid inside, breath catching in his throat as he sunk into perfect, tight heat.

The ecstasy was from both of them, so strong that he had to remain still for a second just so he could remember how to breathe. Then the hunger spurred him on, the need for more pleasure and closeness. He began to thrust slowly at first as he pulled away from Yohji’s neck and knelt between his mate’s thighs.

With each quickening stroke deep into Yohji’s body he lost more and more of himself to their emotions, allowing himself to be overwhelmed. He gave his mate everything he could, pleasure and love and energy, sharing in the emotions when they were returned to him. Fingers dug into his hips, a mouth fastened to his neck and teeth bit down, setting off a spark of bliss that made him cry out. So much sensation and pleasure, too much really, and he couldn’t tell who was driven over the edge first because the other immediately followed. Nearly senseless with ecstasy, all he could do was surrender to the feelings.

He felt Yohji’s racing heart pound against his chest, knew his own was beating just as quickly. They panted as they clung to each other, slowly coming down from that impossible high together. The bed smelled of both of them, a little bit of home that comforted him, as he reluctantly slid off his mate’s body and curled up beside him, face tucked in the crook of Yohji’s shoulder. His throat throbbed and he felt drained, but peaceful.

"Hmmm, I hope that spell lasts a bit longer because the last thing I want to do right now is move," Yohji mumbled as his arm curved around Aya’s waist.

"It’ll be fine," he said with a yawn. He could sense the spell’s strength and didn’t think it would hurt to wait a bit longer for a soak. "The tub’s even smaller than the one at the inn, you know."

Yohji sighed as fingers stroked his hair. "I know. I guess out of respect for your own awesome dick, I’ll let you go first."

The recurring joke brought a hint of a smile to his lips. Right now, in this strange room smelling so much of sex and Yohji, it was easy to forget exactly where he was. The denial wouldn’t last forever, but right now he needed to center himself before facing what the castle held. "Yotan, let’s just stay here tonight. We can ask Omi or Reiichi to bring us dinner."

Yohji rolled over onto his side so they could face each other. "Are you sure it’s a good idea? You have to leave the room sometime." He caressed Aya’s face, fingers slowly trailing down to lightly touch the bite mark on his neck.

Aya put his hand over Yohji’s. "I’d like to know there’s someplace here where I can relax, that isn’t tainted by bad memories. We’re going to be very busy the next couple of weeks just tracking down all the spells, let alone dealing with what we find and tracking down the murderers. I… I just want to spend a night together while we can."

"Well, when you put it like that, who can resist?" Yohji’s lovely eyes sparkled with understanding and amusement. "Besides, this way we can have a rematch later. I still think I’m a bit more ‘skilled’ than you in the ‘awesome dick’ department."

He lifted his mate’s hand up to his mouth and gave it a nip. "You’re starting to wear that joke out, you know."

"It’s not a joke, it’s the simple truth." Yohji leaned down for a kiss. "Tell me you’d really mind me proving it to you."

"Mmmm," was all he could manage as he tugged Yohji on top of him. Right now he wanted to lose himself in his mate, to be reminded of how much things had changed and what all he’d gained since the last time he was here. He wanted a short break before facing what Timbergrey held for him, before tracking down the stench of death he’d sensed upon entering the castle grounds. His true nature knew that bad things awaited them, so all he wanted was a little peace before more pain and sacrifice. He didn’t think it was too much to ask for.

"You’re thinking too much," Yohji growled in his ear before licking his way down Aya’s neck.

"Then do something about it," he answered as he pressed Yohji’s head against his neck. He then let out a soft cry and arched his back when his mate did just that.

*******

The rain tapered off to a soft mist, leaving the air thick and moist. Shadows darted amidst the trees lining the road, there were the sounds of soft pants and low growls, spatters of water as vegetation was trampled and jostled.

One large shadow stepped out from the forest and paused by the washed-out hoof marks. It crouched down beside the muddy road, seemed to study it as if it was an oracle. Two more shadows joined it while the rest paced nervously amongst the trees, slashes of black against grey and dark green and brown.

"What is it?" the smaller of the shadows growled, voice rumbling and deep.

There was silence for a few more seconds, and then the first shadow inhaled deeply several times. "Can’t you smell it?"

"Smell what? Horseshit and leather and human?"

The first shadow lashed out, sending its companion tumbling onto the muddy road. "Use your brain for once! You think I care about any of those things?"

"I’m sorry, Ty," the beaten shadow mumbled as it prostrated itself. Meanwhile, the other shadow crept down the road, stopping every foot or so to take a deep breath.

"It’s stronger down here, by the wards." The dark figure stopped and bent down, face pressed almost to the road. "I smell… darkness. Death. Something… something else."

"Ye~s," the largest shadow purred as it stood up. The clouds moved over the half moon, sending weak light down to reflect off of golden eyes. "I think little Ran has come home. This bit of the road smells of his magic."

"Ran? He’s back?" the still crouching form cried, the name being picked up by the figures still hiding in the forest, murmured over and over again until it echoed down the road. "He’s even dumber than I thought." There was a nasty chuckle as Ty joined his two companions.

"He isn’t alone. Perhaps the kage has only traded masters instead of breaking free as I thought." Below glowing eyes, dark lips parted to reveal gleaming white fangs. "We’ve a use for him. Whoever has him won’t keep him for long."

"We need him alive," the quietest of the three pointed out. "Else we’ll be in the same straits in a few more months."

More fangs were exposed to the moonlight. "That won’t be a problem. Whatever hold those people have on him, we’ll find out and exploit." There was a deep chuckle as the large shadow moved from the road. "Ahm and Xi, I want you watching the castle at all times. We need to find out what that hold is."

"Ty, there’s something…." The quiet shadow sniffed again. "Something’s odd about the other riders, but the scents have been almost washed away."

Ty didn’t stop grinning as he headed back into the woods. "We’ll find what’s odd about them soon enough, Sei. Who knows, maybe they’ll be some good sport." He melted into the shadows, and after a moment, his two companions did as well.

*******

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