Shadows of the Past

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chapter five

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Aya awoke to the sensation of fingers gently combing through his hair. He opened his eyes and smiled slowly at Yohji, then shifted until his head rested on his mate’s chest. He felt tired and was still haunted by last night’s bad dreams, but his mate’s touch helped to chase the pain and fear away. Yohji’s fingers continued playing with his hair and he started to purr very softly.

"Such a cat," Yohji teased. "I should get you a little collar with a bell, and maybe a ball of yarn to play with, too."

Lifting his head, Aya gave his mate a warning glare. "I’m not a pet."

"I didn’t say that." Yohji continued to smile as his other hand lightly massaged the small of Aya’s back. It was very difficult to remain angry while tingles of pleasure were running through him. His purr grew louder and he couldn’t help but rub his cheek against Yohji’s chest in thanks for the wonderful sensations.

His mate laughed and tugged very gently on his eartail. "Yes, you’re certainly a big cat. Do you feel like having some mice for breakfast?"

"Idiot," he mumbled as he nipped Yohji’s chest. "If I’m a cat, what does that make you?"

"A cat lover." Bright laughter, which was only the tiniest bit forced, filled the room. "That didn’t sound very good, did it?"

"No." He decided he wasn’t in the mood to be angry with his lover, not when Yohji was obviously trying to cheer him up and make him forget about his nightmares, so he slowly stretched and straddled his mate’s hips. Yohji had the loveliest smile on his face, a mix of contentment and amusement. Aya couldn’t resist stroking his chin and feeling the rasp of golden stubble against his palm. "Do I get to bite you when you mistreat me?"

"Oh, very funny." Yohji leaned forward for a kiss, one he was only too happy to return. He ended up lying against his mate’s chest again, relishing the feel of skin against skin. Aya’s contentment lasted until, once more, he felt a tug on his hair. "You already bite me all the time so how will I know when it’s about me abusing you?"

"Maybe because you do it all the time?" he snapped, his teeth bared in warning. Really, did Yohji have to tug constantly on his hair like that when he was this tired?

Sorrow and regret washed through him from his link with Yohji, immediately dulling his annoyance. "Do I really?"

He took a deep breath and forced himself to control his emotions. This damned place put him so much on edge. So did the fact that any minute now they would have to leave this room. His emotions were moving too swiftly for him to make any sense of. He wasn’t upset with Yohji, it wasn’t fair to have him take the brunt of his unease, no matter how drained he felt. "No." He stretched out on top of his mate. "You’ve never done that to me."

Yohji gave him another lovely smile and cupped his cheek, fingers sliding into his hair. "I couldn’t bear to do that to you." The smile took on an amused edge. "Not to my precious cat." Just like that, the suddenly heavy atmosphere was lifted and they could relax with each other again. He both envied and treasured his mate for the ability to change moods so quickly.

Aya returned the smile as best he could, after a gentle nip to golden flesh. "I’m never getting rid of that nickname, am I?"

"It suits you too well." Yohji scooted along the bed and sat up, his arms around Aya the entire time. "Tell me the truth, your parents let the family cat baby-sit you, didn’t they?"

"Yotan," he growled as his fingers twisted in his lover’s wonderful hair. Seated on Yohji’s lap, he looked down on the man, a mock glare on his face. "Stop being so silly. Next thing I know, you’ll bring a box of sand up to the bedroom if I let you keep this up." He immediately groaned at the return of the wicked smile and the amusement pouring from his mate. "No. Do that and you’ll be sleeping alone for a week."

"Yes, Aya," Yohji said with so much solemnity that he almost believed him. Then, Aya thought better of it and did a little hair tugging of his own.

He tried another threat, this time choosing one he actually had a chance of following through. "I’ll tell Jo you were mean to me."

That made Yohji’s eyes go wide with surprise, before they narrowed again. "Cats are known for their cruel streaks."

"If I really wanted to be cruel," he said as he bent down to lick his mate’s ear, "I’d wait until Cassandra, Omi and Mickey were in the room when I told her." He purred again at the feel of Yohji’s amusement.

"You were definitely raised by a pack of felines, love," Yohji purred himself as he nuzzled Aya’s neck.

Something broke free at the comment, had him pulling away from his mate and frowning. "There was… it was an old woman who watched over me. A very old woman, but she always managed to keep up with me. Her name was…," the word teased at his memory but he quickly caught it, "Momoe. She was called Momoe and there was something odd about her." His frown deepened as he tried to sift through memories almost two decades old.

Yohji’s hand on his cheek broke his concentration. "What happened to her?"

"My parents chose not to take her with them when they…." He shook his head and rested against his mate. "She wasn’t a cat, though she always seemed to have one or two around her. She called me ‘kitten’." He could feel Yohji’s laugh before it burst forth, so he gave his mate a good whap to the ribs. "Shut up."

Yohji chuckled softly as he rubbed his chest. "See, it’s official now." Then he grew serious. "You know, Ken and Miko are going out today to investigate the murder scenes. How about I ask them to check out your family’s house," he asked quietly.

What he’d been trying all morning to keep at bay crept up and threatened to overwhelm him, but then the feel of Yohji’s arms around him and Yohji’s voice murmuring reassurances helped him push the pain aside. He took a shuddering breath and rested his chin on his mate’s shoulder. "Yes, please. It’ll be a few days at least before we’re not needed here."

"All right, I’ll talk to them after breakfast." Yohji nibbled on his ear for a second. "Cat, I’m sorry for asking it like that."

"Not many better ways you could have broached the subject," he mumbled even as he shivered with pleasure. "I’d rather deal with this place first." He wanted to put some painful memories to rest before he returned to his old home, where he’d been so happy. It would be even more painful to stop there, to face the fact that his family was dead. He’d even had a nightmare about it last night, of returning ‘home’ to find his dead parents and sister waiting for them, their bodies decaying corpses seated in their chairs.

"Okay." Yohji’s hand cupped the back of his head and gently urged him to look up. He did so, his lips parting, and met his mate halfway.

He felt sorry for normal people and bounds who didn’t have mates. He didn’t know what he’d do without Yohji, without feeling his emotions, without being able to *know* that someone cared about him, loved him and who he trusted would always be there for him, just like he would do for Yohji. There was such a comfort in that, in knowing that his love was returned, that he’d never be alone.

Then he thought about their hungers, about the pleasure he could lose himself in instead of pain. He started to rock against his mate very slowly – and let out a surprised whine when Yohji pulled away from him.

A little out of breath, Yohji closed his eyes and laid his head on the pillows. "Gods, Cat…. We need to go to breakfast."

He stared at his mate in surprise. "Are you all right?" he asked when he got his voice back. He didn’t feel anything bad over their link, just a sense of determination – which was usually associated with Yohji initiating sex, not turning it down.

Yohji opened first one eye and then the other, a huge grin spreading across his face. "You should see the look on your face right now." He chuckled as his fingers tangled in an eartail. "I’m fine."

"Then what’s so funny?" Aya asked as his hand pressed against his lover’s forehead checking for signs of fever. Yohji captured his hand and pressed a kiss on the palm.

"I’m trying to think for once and not use the awesome dick to make things better." He gave Aya’s palm a gentle nip. "Or let you do the same." As Aya stared at him in confusion, he sighed and shook his head. "If we start now, we’ll be late for breakfast and probably find some excuse to stay up here until Birman drags us out, and by that point you’ll be exhausted. We need to just get going, leave here and start working because I think you’ll need all the energy you can get today."

Aya thought about that for a moment and realized things would have happened just as Yohji described. Part of him relished the thought of hiding here for as long as they could, and he never minded sex with his mate - quite the opposite. But they had things to do first before they could go home and properly enjoy each other. Dammit. "*Now* you start thinking," he muttered as he pulled his hand free.

"No, don’t you even start to give me grief over this," Yohji said as he hugged him close. "What do you really want, Aya? Me to ‘save’ you all the time or for you to work through things? I thought you said you just wanted last night and today you’d face your past." His voice softened. "I just want you to be happy."

"I know." He stopped trying to push away and relaxed against his mate, his nose pressed against Yohji’s neck. "I want to get through this." The pain wouldn’t go away until he faced it and he had to be strong for Yohji. They were only as strong as each other, after all. That didn’t mean he wasn’t more than a little disappointed at not spending the morning making love, though.

Yohji caught his face between his hands and leaned in for a kiss. "Hey, the sooner we get to work, the sooner we get to go back home to enjoy some time off." He waggled his eyebrows as a wave of sheer lust blazed over their link. "There’s going to be lots of ravishment going on then."

"Good." He enjoyed the feel of his mate kissing him one more time, the feel of Yohji close to him, and then forced himself off the bed. He just wanted to get through these next couple of weeks and go home.

"I think we should mark this day down," Yohji said in a light tone as he rummaged through their saddlebags for some clothes. "I can indeed keep my hands off you when there’s a need."

He cocked an eyebrow at his smug mate. "So do we start counting all the times when you couldn’t keep your hands off me? I think there’s a little bit of difference in the two numbers, you know."

Yohji tossed one of his shirts at him. "See, this is why I always indulge you when it comes to sex. You’re a real grouch when you don’t get any."

He had to be hearing things. "When I don’t get any? I can basically count those days on one hand since we became lovers, and usually I was unconscious or miserable!"

"See, you’re already grouchy and I just turned you down five minutes ago." Yohji smiled as he stretched his arms over his head, displaying his nude body to its advantage. Aya felt a twinge of desire but ignored it, knowing that was just what his mate wanted. "Don’t worry, love, be a good boy today and I’ll let you ravish me later."

If Yohji thought he was grouchy now, wait til he got his hands on him in another three seconds….

*******

Omi smiled in relief when Aya and Yohji as they walked into the dining room. He’d been afraid that Birman would have to order them out of their room, but here they were showing up to work willingly. Yohji practically glowed with energy, while Aya had the blank look on his face as he’d had last night. That worried Omi a little, but he figured that if something was seriously bothering Aya, Yohji wouldn’t be so relaxed. Both men sat down at the table, the last of their group to arrive.

"I thought we’d have to drag you two out of bed," Ken teased as he tossed a piece of scone at Yohji’s head. "Ready to do some work now?"

Yohji tossed back the bit of pastry. "Yes. I figured someone had to show you how." He smiled as Ken snorted. "I see no one’s been poisoned yet."

"That’s not very amusing, Kudoh." Birman took a sip of her coffee as she gave him a disapproving look. "Need I constantly remind everyone that they are supposed to act like professionals?"

Yohji looked as if he wanted to say something - Omi had a feeling nothing very nice - but he was forestalled by a servant arriving with another pitcher of coffee and a plate of fresh eggs. The young woman paled when she noticed Aya sitting at the table, and even though it was further away, she set the food and drink down at the end opposite from him and started to hastily leave the room.

"Hey!" Yohji yelled angrily. "We’d like a pot of tea."

"Y-yes sir," she stammered as she practically ran through the door. Yohji stared after her, his lips pulled back from his teeth. Beside him, Aya, his face still revealing no emotion, merely asked Reiichi to pass him the eggs. Omi didn’t know how his friend kept the servants’ attitudes from bothering him, or at least from showing that it bothered him.

"This has to stop," Yohji muttered as Aya scooped some food onto both their plates. "They worked for a bunch of murderous traitors; now they’re daring to act like Aya has the plague or something." He frowned when his lover didn’t do anything but set the plate of eggs back down. "Are you all right?"

"I’m fine, Yohji. They’re not acting in any way unusual as far as I’m concerned," Aya said, his voice perfectly flat. "Yelling at them isn’t going to make them like me any better.

"I refuse to let them treat you like some horrible creature that should be locked away for their safety." Omi had only heard Yohji’s voice this furious once before and that had been back when Aya had been whipped and drained of blood. Everyone around the table, including him, glanced at the couple nervously and Ken and Eri both pushed their chairs away from the table a little, as if getting ready for a quick departure. He was beginning to think that they had the right idea and set his cup of coffee down.

"That’s all they know me as," Aya replied calmly as he picked up a piece of bacon. He took a bite before Yohji reached over and grabbed his hand and made him look at him. The two men stared at each other for several seconds, Yohji’s face flushed red with anger and Aya’s perfectly impassive.

Yohji was the one to break the silence. "That’s not what you are," he said, so quietly Omi could barely make out the words. His friends stared at each other for a few more seconds before Aya sighed, his expression suddenly very tired. "I won’t let them treat you like that," Yohji continued as some of his anger seemed to leave him. "I won’t let you think you deserve that sort of treatment for a single second."

"I know that." Aya tried to pull his hand away but Yohji held on for a few more seconds. He turned it around and placed a kiss on Aya’s wrist before snatching the piece of bacon and eating it for himself. He got a glare for his audacity but it was clear that Aya wasn’t very upset. "Get your own food," he said, snapping his teeth.

The tension broke then, and everyone resumed eating and talking quietly while Yohji and Aya fought over the bacon on Aya’s plate. Omi felt relieved that the mates weren’t fighting any more, and laughed quietly when Yohji got his hand smacked. He’d have to make sure to tell Nagi about that in the letter he was currently writing. However, the good mood came to another screeching halt when the young maid returned with the requested pot of tea.

She was practically shaking as she approached Yohji, tea spilling onto the tray. Yohji’s temper, understandably, immediately flared again, his eyes narrowing in anger and his lips pulling back. Just as he opened his mouth, the woman’s face became blank and she stopped trembling. Smoothly setting the tray down beside Aya, she then left the room. Everyone stared after her for a few seconds, and then Omi noticed Reiichi turn toward Eri.

"Do you think that was wise?"

Eri flushed slightly as she rubbed her temples. "I’m supposed to make them forget about Aya before we leave so I don’t see how making her stop fearing him is in any way wrong," she said in defense of her actions.

"We’re in public," Birman quickly reminded them again. She picked up her coffee cup and nodded at Eri. "I don’t have a problem with that." She then looked pointedly at Reiichi. "Do you?"

"Not at all." He started to butter a piece of toast. "I wondered if there would be any repercussions from altering just one person’s thoughts." Birman frowned at the mention of Eri’s power.

"It’s only temporary," Eri explained. "I need time to do something more permanent."

"Again, we’re in public," Birman sighed. "Please refrain from discussing anything… work-related until Aya and Botan clear the rooms, all right?"

"You’re much too young to be so paranoid," Botan chided, making Omi smile at his friend’s audacity. Botan was the only one who could get away with talking to Birman like that.

She frowned for a moment, but then a slight smile spread across her face. "I distinctly remember you telling me I couldn’t be paranoid enough when I took over as Spymaster." Botan appeared surprised for a moment, and then also smiled as he shook his head.

"I don’t sense any active spells other than the usual maintenance ones," Aya said over the rim of his teacup. He didn’t look at anyone in particular as he sipped his drink, and his face and tone were impassive once again.

"That’s reassuring to know, but I’d rather everyone was a little more careful." Birman pushed her plate away from her and surveyed the table. "Everyone is aware of their assignments, correct? Is there any reason why you’re not following up on them?"

Ken cast a longing glance at the basket of fresh muffins and snatched several as he stood up. "I think that was a hint, Miko."

"Hey, you’re the one acting as if he hasn’t eaten in a month. I’ve been ready for the past twenty minutes." She grabbed the last muffin and smiled at Ken as she took a bite.

"Sure, you were just sitting here gulping down coffee to keep me company."

"Nope, more like I was waiting to see if the poor maid cried if you asked her to fetch one more plate of eggs. Come on, you glutton, let’s go explore the countryside." Miko waved at everybody as she limped out of the room with Ken on her heels complaining that he hadn’t been the only one eating that morning. Omi smiled at the partners, happy that they were getting along so well. Even if they hadn’t been paired together for long, Miko knew just how to put Ken at ease, especially when he was about to use his demon nature to help track down the murderers. She was perfect for him. Now if only they could find a new lover for Ken to help him forget Yuriko….

"Did they have to take all of the muffins?" Naru grumbled as he stood up as well. "I mean, they weren’t as good as Jo’s but they weren’t bad."

Eri rolled her eyes as she pushed him toward the door. "I swear, you’re just as bad as Ken and half his size. The sooner we get to work, the sooner you’ll be back at the Koneko and pestering Jo for some sweets." She snorted as she tugged her jacket straight. "I feel like I’m babysitting half the time." Naru’s indignant reply was cut off as the door closed behind them.

As Omi thought that Ken and Miko weren’t the only ones lucky to be partnered so well, Reiichi finished his coffee before standing up and bowing slightly. "Does anyone want anything from the marketplace today? It will look odd if I don’t buy anything while I’m there."

Birman reached into the small pouch on her belt and handed him a few silver coins. "I’ve heard that this area is renowned for its beehives. Please pick me up some unscented candles and a few small jars of honey. Any flavors, but foxglove and orange blossom if they have any."

He nodded as he accepted the money. "A good idea. I think I’ll pick up a wide variety for Jo and Cassandra while I’m out." He tucked the coins away in pocket of his light blue cotton shirt. "I’ll see about getting something for Naru and Aya’s sweet tooths as well, since I’ll need to buy more than that." He winked at Aya before going on his way, appearing to be nothing more than a well-groomed gentleman out to do some shopping. The poor people of Timbergrey had no idea what had been unleashed upon them, but between Reiichi’s sharp mind and Ken and Eri’s talents, they should be able to track down the killers.

Omi glanced over at Aya and Yohji, who were still eating, and thought that soon they’d be doing their part as well. He hoped that Aya’s belief that his cousin’s creations were behind the murders was soon proved false, but he knew it was foolish. There were too many ‘coincidences’ for it to be otherwise. Watching his friends eat, he didn’t blame them for taking their time, even though Birman was clearly growing impatient over the delay. He wasn’t looking forward to going down into Masafumi’s laboratory either even though he didn’t have any bad memories about the place the way Aya did. No, he’d much rather be investigating murder scenes with Ken and Miko or wandering around the nearby village with Eri or Naru.

"If the two of you are ready, I’d like to get started," Birman said as she stood up, her patience clearly having reached its limits. Yohji glared at her as he poured himself more coffee, but Aya wiped his mouth and hands clean and pushed away from the table.

"Let’s go." He looked at Yohji, who was now glaring at him. "As Eri said, the sooner we get to work, the sooner we go home."

Yohji’s expression softened as he tossed his napkin onto the table. "I seem to recall saying something similar myself this morning."

"Then follow your own advice and hurry up." Aya trailed his fingers down Yohji’s arm and then stepped away from the table. His mate sighed but quickly followed, and Birman hurried to catch up with them as they left the room.

Omi exchanged a grim look with Botan. "This isn’t going to be much fun," he murmured as he followed his friends, a sinking feeling growing in his stomach.

"No, I highly doubt it will be, but you’ll learn something at the very least."

That was what he was afraid of. He really didn’t want to know anymore about how evil his family could be, or how cruel. Somehow, he knew he’d learn more about both, and he didn’t want to think about how tainted his bloodline really was. Sometimes he thought being a real demon would be better. At least they had an excuse for behaving like they did.

Botan caught up with him and gave his shoulder a reassuring squeeze. "You’re not them, Omi. Tell yourself that until it sinks in. We know you’ll never do anything like Reiji and his sons have done."

He stared at his friend, amazed at how Botan had read his mind so accurately. But the tender smile Botan gave him reminded him of how the man had practically raised him and had been ‘reading’ his mind for years. He smiled back, sure that Botan wouldn’t lie to him nor be so nice to him if he believed for one moment he’d turn out like his uncle or cousins.

Still, even with his greatest fears lessened, he wasn’t looking forward to this. Whatever was waiting for them downstairs wasn’t going to be pleasant. No wonder Aya hadn’t wanted to come back here; the entire castle radiated evil and pain, but they couldn’t do anything about its terrible legacy until they confronted it. He just hoped that they weren’t the ones being confronted when all was said and done.

*******

Yohji and Aya stepped out into the hall and the two servants lingering there immediately scurried away. Yohji glared after them, furious at the way they treated his mate as if he was some type of monster but Aya’s hand on his arm kept him still. He growled under his breath as first Birman, and then Omi and Botan joined them.

"In which direction is Masafumi’s laboratory?" Birman asked as she smoothed a hand down the front of her dark green tunic.

Aya was still for a second; he could feel his mate’s reluctance to move but didn’t do anything, leaving this choice up to Aya. After a few seconds, Aya nodded slightly down the hall. "The stairs are down here." He walked in the direction he’d indicated, and everyone was quick to follow. Not knowing how he could give his mate some encouragement without seeming to be too clingy, Yohji brushed his fingers along the back of Aya’s hand and got a shaky smile in thanks. It galled him a little that all he could do right now was offer such simple reassurances, but that smile helped soothe his temper - that and the fact that Aya wasn’t allowing his pain to get the better of him.

Everyone was quiet as they walked, except for Botan as he readied a few spells. Yohji began to notice the stench of magic growing stronger with each step, a feeling of malevolence that seemed out of place in the sunlit, brightly painted hallway. He began to feel unsettled and wondered if they really had to do this. He was not happy with the idea of going down into some mad wizard’s lair in search of real monsters.

Aya stopped in front of a small, plain door located at the end of the hall as if it was a small linen closet or storage room. However, Yohji knew it was neither because of the now overpowering sensation of magic that emanated from it.

"This is it," Aya said, his voice containing a hint of weariness. Yohji couldn’t stop himself from reaching out to touch his mate, to try and soothe him by running his fingers along Aya’s shoulder and down his arm. Aya’s expression didn’t change but a feeling of gratitude washed over their link. "Can you see the wards, Botan?"

"No, I’m afraid not," Botan said with a disappointed sigh. "I feel utterly useless here. Can you tell me how strong they are, Aya?"

"They feel a little weaker than the last time I sensed them but they’re still potent." Aya concentrated on something, and Yohji sucked in a breath as shadows formed around the door revealing shivering black lines and arcane runes. "That’s the layout of the spell."

Yohji stared at the lines as he slid his arm around Aya’s waist, uncertain over who exactly he was trying to comfort right now – Aya or himself. The magic made him nervous, putting his teeth on edge with its malevolent nature. Beside him, Botan and Omi started muttering about something as they crowded around the door so he stepped aside to give them space. He focused his attention on Aya, on how tense he was and hugged him close. Aya let out a long breath and leaned against him while watching the wizards at work.

"Ah, do you see this rune, Omi? It’s almost always used in death-spells associated with wards. This part of the glyph stands for ‘mor’ and this part ‘ciaran’." Botan indicated the rune in question as Omi leaned closer to inspect it.

"I see, ‘great darkness’." Omi motioned at various parts of the spell. "I notice that it’s repeated not three but four times and is located at the cardinal points. That’s an Eastern influence to the magic, isn’t it?"

"Yes, but don’t mistake it for an Eastern style spell. In this case, it’s just that the wizard who created-"

"Botan." Birman’s annoyed voice cut short the lecture. "As pleased as I am that you and Omi are taking his lessons so seriously, we’re not here for that. Are you going to disable the spell or leave it up? We should be able to cross the wards with the rings." She glanced nervously at Aya and shook her head slightly. "I think it would be best to leave some sort of wards up to discourage people from wandering down there, even if they are dangerous."

Botan took a step back from the spell and studied it for a moment. "I think it would be best to leave it up in its entirety for now. I’d like to see what’s beyond this and make sure it’s not tied into anything down there. If so, breaking the wards might set off another spell or two." He turned and looked questioningly at Aya.

"I can sense the magic here leading to something downstairs. I’ll mark it off as we go." Aya gave Yohji’s hand a squeeze and stepped forward. "Let me lead the way." He stepped toward the door, and there were several audible clicks as his hand neared the doorknob. Then he opened the door, revealing nothing but darkness beyond it, and stepped inside.

Yohji followed him, right on his heels, the darkness not bothering him as much as the thought that anything could be lying in wait for them. Behind him, he heard Botan mutter a spell and then footsteps as everyone else joined them, a feeble light now shining from behind. Who wanted to miss out on checking out a mad wizard’s lair? Gods, he better be getting paid for this mission….

At least his enhanced vision allowed him to keep track of his mate, who walked down the steps with the ease of familiarity. He didn’t want to think about how many times Aya had done this before because he knew he hadn’t been brought down here for anything good. Through their link, he could feel Aya’s suppressed pain and dislike of the place.

"Cat-"

"It’s all right, Yohji." Aya looked over his shoulder. "I know it’s all in the past, you don’t have to say it yet *again*."

He managed a shaky smile. "Well, just checking." He hurried down the steps and gave his mate’s shoulder a squeeze, his nature driving him to constantly touch his mate while they both were feeling this disturbed. "Are you sensing anything down here?" he asked to change the subject.

"I…." Aya jumped down the last few steps and stood on the smooth, tiled floor, his stance wary. "There’s been a few deaths down here recently, but I’m not sensing anything alive." He stared off into one corner and frowned. "I should be sensing his experiments, but they’re no longer here."

"Fuck." Their worst fears had just been confirmed. Yohji hurried to Aya’s side and gently slid his arm around his mate’s waist. "Is there any way for them to hide from you?" he asked as he scanned the darkness, wary of something leaping out and attacking them.

Aya leaned against him and took a deep breath. "There’s nothing, Yohji. Even if they had my blood, I should be able to sense *something* from them." His mate sounded distinctly peevish and annoyance could be clearly felt over their link.

He let his frustration, anxiety and fear wash through it in return, and Aya squeezed his arm as the feeling of understanding came back. He didn’t want to push, he really didn’t.

"There’s nothing down here, Yotan."

"Okay. Now we figure out why that’s the case." Yohji stood close to Aya as Botan and the others finished creeping down the stairs, their arrival heralded by the weak mage light.

"Aya, are there lamps or any candles down here?" Birman asked, her voice tight. "I can’t see a damned thing."

"Dawn," Aya said loudly, and light slowly suffused the underground chamber. Yohji squinted at first but his eyes adjusted quickly as he studied everything around him with interest. They were standing in a large room with bookshelves all along one stone wall, and shelves filled with objects both arcane and mundane on two of the other walls. With a start, he realized that he recognized this room, everything from the hue of the grey stones to the smell of mildew and earth. His attention was instantly drawn to one corner in particular where iron shackles hung from the moss covered walls.

Fury burned through him, fury and hate. Yohji was only dimly aware of Aya’s pain until something squeezed his hand. He snapped back to himself to find himself growling and clutching Aya’s arm.

"Yotan, *don’t*." Aya’s voice was thick with remembered pain, the same emotion coursing over their link and sparking his rage. Yohji wanted to stalk over to that corner and rip out the chains, to knock over the large table holding the silver bowls and stomp everything to bits but Aya wouldn’t let go of him. So he took several deep breaths instead and forced himself to calm down. Going into a rage right now wouldn’t help anything - but he wished fervently that he hadn’t left Masafumi to Jei, and that he had all three Takatori to kill over and over again.

His mate’s faint relief took the edge off of his fury, and Yohji pulled him into a hug as he forced himself to look away from that corner. "Never again, love," he promised, his voice hoarse.

"No," was all Aya said, but his emotions were much more eloquent. He had faith in Yohji keeping that promise, and an iron resolve that would never be broken. Aya was never going to allow some bastard to bleed him dry again. They’d kill the first one who tried. And the next, and the next, and… however many fools tried.

Of course the others noticed that something was happening and it didn’t take them long to figure out why. As he stood there holding Aya, he heard Omi’s shocked cry and muttered curses from Botan and Birman.

They stood still as Omi approached, wearing a sorrowful expression. "Are you…?" he started to say, but then he shook his head and cautiously, slowly, stepped toward them. He smiled sadly at Aya, and his mate nodded back as he acknowledged the regret and understanding behind the expression. Yohji gave his friend a grim smile, one that was quickly returned. Then Omi turned around but still stood beside them.

Birman was the next to approach. There was pity in her look but she very wisely didn’t say anything in that regard. "Did I hear you tell Yohji that you aren’t sensing anything alive down here?"

They were both relieved at the change in topic. "Yes." Aya motioned with his right hand toward a large, iron-bound door that wasn’t far from the detested corner. "I don’t sense anything in either chamber, other than deaths that occurred in the past two months."

Botan spared a dark look at the manacles and turned his back to the corner. "I think we need to go over this room before we explore any further. Aya, can you please reveal all the spells you can?" His frown faded as black lines appeared all over the walls, the door, part of the floor and most of the objects within the room. "Thorough bastards, weren’t they," he muttered as he took it all in. "Do you have any idea what all those books are?"

Aya rested his head back on Yohji’s shoulder and let some of his weariness show on his face. "They’re Masafumi’s journals and spell books. You’ll find records of all of his experiments in them." He rubbed his right hand along the inside of his left arm. "He has a few books from his father’s collection on bounds but only the ones pertaining to refining bound blood and theories on their creation."

Botan surveyed the huge collection with a weariness that matched Aya’s. "There’s going to be an awful lot of work involved in going through everything. I think my best bet would be to nullify any spells on the books themselves, and then cart them back to the capital to go through them there. It would take two weeks alone to go through just these." He whispered a spell as he approached the shelves and some of the black lines vanished. However, he had to chant for another couple of minutes before more of them faded away, and he was left looking exhausted. "A very impressive security system," he said as he wiped sweat from his brow. "I have a feeling that I’m not going to like whatever’s in these books if he went to such great pains to guard them."

Omi joined him in front of the shelves, a frown on his face. "There are even more spells on the books themselves." He glanced at Botan before reaching for one of the thick tomes. Yohji could see black runes on its leather cover, but Omi’s ring kept them from reacting as he flipped through the pages. "This book is from Esset!"

"Masafumi’s women would do favors for the Elders in exchange for the books. He wanted as much information about Esset’s Wizard as he could find, especially anything dealing with magic and bounds." Aya walked away, over to the bookshelves. He stopped beside Omi and, after a moment’s hesitation, motioned to books that were suddenly sporting black spines. "Those are the ones that I know are from Esset." He looked over his shoulder at Birman and gave her a cold stare. "There is some information on tactical uses for bounds in these and more of the same upstairs. These books should be guarded carefully."

"I agree." Botan muttered another spell and began touching all the black spines. When he was done he nodded and glanced at Aya. "I’ve marked them now, and I’ll make sure not to remove any of the spells until I’ve replaced them with ones of my own. That should keep them from falling into the wrong hands."

"Thank you," Yohji said, expressing both his and Aya’s gratitude. Then it was his turn to give Birman a cold look. "Have you given any thought to what’s going to happen to all of these books? From the sounds of it, there’s a lot of dangerous information in them." Information he wasn’t about to let Shuuichi’s Court get their hands on.

"I planned on claiming them for the Shadow Guard, at least anything that Botan and Aya don’t take for themselves." Birman folded her arms over her chest and sighed. "I wasn’t going to put them in the Court Library, you know," she snapped somewhat waspishly. "Nor can they go into the Koneko’s new library."

Aya reached out and touched one of the books. "I want everything that belonged to my father, all of Aidan’s journals and anything related to kage. There are a few other books on bounds that I’d like, but the Shadow Guard can have the rest. There are probably some bounds who can learn something from them." He glanced around the room. "There’s going to be an awful lot of things that will need safekeeping."

"I’m going to have to arrange for several caravans to cart all this back to the capital," Birman sighed rather unhappily. "All right, have we talked enough about the books now? I’m more interested in what’s supposed to be in the other room."

Botan stopped investigating the books and backed up to the center of the room. "Give me some time to check out these spells. Omi, I want you to map out all of them in the western corner." He started muttering again, Omi quickly picking up the chant, and waved one hand at them to get out of the way.

Yohji, Aya and Birman sat down on one of the large tables scattered around the underground room and let the wizards do their job. Aya sat next to him and slid an arm around his waist, his emotions calmer than they’d been upon coming downstairs – but that wasn’t saying much. On top of the pain and unease was his exhaustion from getting so little rest last night. "How many people had access down here, Cat?"

"Hmmm." Aya rubbed his chin against Yohji’s shoulder as he thought about the question. "The Takatori, of course, and Masafumi’s women. There was also one of the servants who handled the cleaning."

"Where is he?" Birman asked, her back going very stiff. "You haven’t pointed him out to me yet."

"I think…." Aya’s eyes closed as he concentrated on something, and Yohji heard shinigami start whispering. "I think he’s one of the deaths in the next room. I know I didn’t sense him among the staff."

"Oh." Birman relaxed a little. "I was afraid you’d say he escaped, but him being dead is almost as bad." She nibbled on her bottom lip for a few seconds. "I know they all deserved to die but I wish one of them, maybe one of Masafumi’s women," she was quick to add, "had been left alive for questioning."

Aya shook his head. "You’d never have gotten anything from them. They loved Masafumi too much to betray him, even at the cost of their own lives, and no soul gaki-bound would have been able to read their minds as long as they were still affected by my blood. They’d have killed themselves before it wore off."

"Did he brainwash them or something?"

"No." Aya gave Yohji’s shoulder another rub, most likely sensing his pain upon listening to anything concerning… Neu. Asuka had only been a mask the woman had been wearing, after all. It… *she* hadn’t been real. "From the little I know, he rescued all of them somehow. I’m not saying that magic wasn’t involved in their devotion, but he saved them from something horrible, brought them here and healed them, gave them his ‘love’ and made them powerful. That’s why they were so loyal to him." Teeth very gently bit into Yohji’s shoulder and made him look down. He smiled at the worried expression on his mate’s face and stroked back his crimson bangs.

"I’m okay," he said, softly enough that Birman couldn’t hear him.

"Liar," Aya said just as softly and gave him another nip.

He wanted to say something about pots calling kettles black, but he noticed Birman studiously not looking at them. "I’m sure Eri will sniff out any servants who were familiar with what the Takatori were doing."

"I’m sure she will, too." Birman glanced their way and relaxed a little more. "I wish I had a dozen of her. No wonder Yuushi’s made her his unofficial aide. Not to change the subject, but what do you think we’ll find behind there?" She gestured to the thick door.

Aya leaned against Yohji and conversed with the shadows. "Two…, no, three deaths. Destruction. Something happened in there and Masafumi’s creations are now gone."

Yohji wrapped an eartail around his index finger. "Did you really think you’d find them waiting here, especially after the reports of people being mauled to death?"

"I…." Aya shook his head and hissed softly. "I know he kept them warded. They were dangerous, just barely under his control. He hadn’t reckoned with the pack mentality of the animals he used to create them, nor with the fact that they wouldn’t see him as a potential leader. He talked about breeding it out of them or finding the right spell to break them."

Yohji felt sick listening to his mate talk about the creatures, about how Masafumi played at being a god or like the great wizards who had nearly destroyed the continent. He shivered a little as he wondered if those wizards had had similar thoughts almost a millennium ago, if they had debated the merits of various bounds and their great plans to make them more efficient or controllable over the years. It was a very good thing that both had died, but his kind were still suffering from their legacy. "The bastard should have played with dolls or something."

"If he had, he would have just come up with toys to kill and destroy," Aya replied coldly.

"What I wouldn’t have given to have had a spy in this castle years ago. Each time I tried, they were always found out somehow." Birman sounded disgusted about her failure. "They had good security, I’ll give them that much." She looked expectantly at Aya, who shook his head.

"I was almost always in my rooms when I wasn’t training, out on missions or," he glanced quickly at the one corner, "down here. I really don’t know much about what they did, other than some of the things for which Masafumi needed my blood. The journals will probably give you some answers." Aya fell quiet, a thoughtful look on his face.

"I just don’t know if I have the stomach to read through them." She snorted softly as she played with the dagger attached to her belt, an impatient look on her face. "I wish I could have brought more people along. I’ve a feeling that we’re going to need them."

Oh, Yohji really didn’t like hearing about Birman’s bad feeling, not when he was already pretty certain this wasn’t going to be an easy mission but, before he could say anything, Botan and Omi finished with their spells.

"All right, we’ve finished mapping out this room. There were a few spells connected to the one next door but we’ve taken care of them." Botan’s face appeared a bit sweaty and he was a little short of breath. "I’ve left most of the spells associated with this room intact, but modified the main wards slightly. That should keep everything down here safe and not be so likely to backfire on any of our own people."

Omi slowly wandered over to the table and leaned against the table near Yohji. "You wouldn’t happen to be able to do that thing with the energy again, could you?" he asked hopefully, his face pale and dark circles forming under his eyes.

"Sorry, kiddo," he said earnestly as he gave Omi’s arm a squeeze. Poor kid looked exhausted; he really did wish he could send him some energy. "You all right?"

"Yeah, just used a lot more energy than I’m used to," Omi said in a quiet voice.

"Since the wards were so convoluted, it took a little more effort than normal to alter or break them," Botan explained. "Plus, there’s the fact that Masafumi was a pretty powerful wizard in his own right. Given another few decades, he would have been rather difficult to bring…." He stopped as Aya suddenly jumped off the table and stalked over to the shelves containing the magical apparatus. Shadows skittered after him and there was more hissing.

"Aya?" Yohji hurried after his mate, a little worried but mainly just sensing concentration from him. He stopped in front of the shelves and watched as Aya walked back and forth, touching one thing and moving another, only to hiss to the shadows and move to another shelf. Then he felt a flare of satisfaction as Aya uncovered several small, round objects stored in velvet bags.

Aya hurried over to the table they’d been using as chairs and carefully set the bundles down. "I just remembered how Reiji would find out about potential targets for me to deal with." He quickly uncovered a clear glass ball, one that reminded Yohji rather uncomfortably of the one that had held Aya-chan’s soul, only half that size.

Botan let out a sharp breath and snatched at the globe. "A hikyaku? How many are there?" he demanded, his whole being radiating excitement.

Aya motioned to the velvet bags. "At least three matched sets, and that many halves."

"Hikyaku? Would someone mind explaining what the hell that means?" Birman asked as even Omi shrugged in confusion.

Botan held up two of the globes. "A hikyaku, or a set of them to be more exact, were used at the beginning of the War as a means of communication. You had a matched set of crystal balls, and anyone with a spark of magic could communicate through them. They fell out of favor after soul gaki-bounds were created, since you could only communicate through the matched set and spies, or anyone under suspicion of being one, were regularly searched for them. After the War…." He shook his head and carefully set the globes on the table. "Like much of the magic from those times, it was too complex for the remaining wizards to understand and duplicate. Most of these were destroyed during the war so to find six matched sets… Reiji probably raided the Royal Armory before he was exiled."

Birman gave one of the crystal objects a gentle poke. "So, he used these to keep in touch with people? Is there a way to track down who holds the other halves to the set?"

Botan thought about the question for a moment. "I think so, using a corresponding magic spell. Let me read up on them a little more then I’ll let you know for certain." Even with his uncertainty, Birman looked distinctly pleased at the prospect of flushing out more traitors.

Omi also seemed very curious about the things. "Do these have much value now?"

"There’s the fact that they’re at least a millennium old, and that they probably can’t be created anymore. They’re also not the most ideal method of communication since not everybody can use them, and they’re a bit obvious to anyone who knows what to look for." Botan tousled Omi’s hair. "Why, do you want a set as a memento or something?"

"Well, if we don’t need them since we have Eri and her kind helping us out," Omi shot a pleading look at Birman, "I would like a set."

Wondering why Omi was so interested in the things, Yohji opened his mouth to tease the boy – and abruptly shut it when Aya pressed a bony elbow into his ribs. He frowned at his mate and gained enlightenment when a certain name was mouthed. Nagi. Omi couldn’t talk to his lover since neither were soul gaki-bounds, and they could only chance a letter every month or so but with these…. "Is there any way to trace messages sent with them?"

"Not unless you have one of the globes in your possession." Botan studied Omi intently for a moment, and then handed over a set.

"Botan! We might have a use for those!" Birman protested.

"I highly doubt that the loss of one set will harm us, especially since we didn’t know they existed before today," he told her. "Besides, Omi can study their magic this way, and maybe even help figure out how to make them." He gave his student a wink. "Don’t disappoint me."

"I won’t." Omi hugged the globes to his chest before tucking them very carefully inside his shirt. "Thank you."

Yohji rolled his eyes as he tugged on Aya’s hair. "He’s gonna waste the things on that little demon. The boy has it bad." He grinned at the dirty look his mate gave him and snapped his hand back just in time to avoid it being smacked.

"Any other amazing discoveries that you know about?" Birman asked Aya.

"No. I just remembered the hikyaku because I saw Reiji use them a time or two." He glanced at the door. "Are we ready now?" he asked, his face once more becoming impassive. Yohji reached out and gave his shoulder a squeeze and felt appreciation over their link.

"I’ve dealt with the spells in here so we might as well." Botan was now grimfaced, and Omi lost some of his excitement over his new toys.

Birman was the first to approach the door but stopped when she saw its massive weight. With a sigh, Yohji gently ushered her aside and put his hand on the doorknob. As always, he was slightly surprised when the locks shifted for him. Then he put his bound strength to use and started to push the door open. As soon as there was enough space, Aya was instantly at his side and slid into the dark room beyond.

"Fuck! Aya." He growled in annoyance and shoved the heavy thing open with a screech of wood against stone. "If you get hurt by something in there I really will make you wear a collar from now on, and a leash as well." His mate snorted at his threat. Hurrying inside, ahead of Botan’s mage light, he almost crashed into Aya. "Dawn." Nothing happened as he hugged his mate close, other than sensing a wave of amusement.

"The lights’ reservoirs are drained. They must have been left on until they ran dry," Aya explained. And then he went… cold as he pulled away. The part of him that was human seemed to shut down. Yohji could feel the shadows seething around them, heard their sibilant voices and his mate’s responses to them. He wanted to hug Aya close to snap him back to ‘normal’ but knew that would interfere with their job.

While Aya conversed with the shinigami, the others joined them, both Omi and Botan creating enough mage light to help illuminate the room. Forcing his attention away from Aya, he finally noticed the stench of offal, blood and musk. All along two of the walls were cages, about two meters square each, twenty in total. He could smell death in here and looked around to see Aya crouching over what looked to be a bag of bones.

"Damn, there really is nothing in here," Birman cursed as she hurried over to Aya’s side. Yohji beat her there and gave her a cold look for her doubt. She returned the look and nodded her head toward some of the cages. "Come now, you must admit it would have been better if Aya had been mistaken about this place being empty."

She had a point, so he only glared at her for a moment longer before examining what had Aya’s attention. There were blood-soaked scraps of grey cloth, a heap of bones – some of them cracked open – and what looked to be bits of dried skin and hair. "Who was it?"

"Brukar, the servant who assisted Masafumi down here," Aya answered, a hint of sibilance to his voice.

"How did he die?" Birman asked.

Aya was quiet for a moment, listening to the shadows, and then took a step away from the mostly eaten body. "Masafumi’s experiments killed him." He wandered around the room, Yohji following, and Botan and Omi stepped out of his way as he approached the cages. "From what I know and have been told, Masafumi created a new blending before he left for the capital. He used my blood to help bind the two souls together and set the magic, so the creature had some of my talents as a result. Usually they’re very disoriented after their creation, and he had Brukar or his women keep a watch over the new blendings until they lost the abilities associated with my blood. With him and his women gone, it seems that Brukar didn’t watch over the latest creation well enough." He touched one of the cage doors. "The other blendings somehow convinced the new one to spring the lock and let some of them free."

He gestured to a dried corpse huddled inside one of the cages. "They killed the new creation for my blood and then Brukar when he came downstairs to feed them. I sense another of the blendings was violently killed." He left the cages to go over to smashed bookshelves, the floor littered with a few torn books and shattered glass. "Masafumi kept some of my blood in here for when he created the blendings. It’s gone now."

Birman made a sound of disgust. "You’re telling me that they turned on each other and sucked one of their own dry for your blood?"

"Yes." Aya left the broken shelves to stand beside Yohji. "My blood would help them negate the spells in the room." His back was straight, his head held high as he looked Birman in the eye. "They may be part animal and unable to pass for human, but they’re intelligent. At least, some of them are. Masafumi created a few of them that way."

She didn’t seem very happy to hear that. "You told me there were twelve of the things when you left here, which means there are eleven of these… blendings now. How did they escape?"

Omi provided that answer. "Over here, Birman." He created another globe of light, illuminating the door of a dumb waiter. "They seem to have crawled their way up."

"That leads outside." Aya motioned with his hands and once again, black lines illustrated the various wards and spells decorating the open sliding doors. "Brukar used it to bring livestock down here to feed the blendings and the animals Masafumi used in the experiments."

Yohji had a bad feeling about this. "You said they were smart. They knew better than to leave through the house, where they probably would have attracted attention." He knew that bounds would kill each other over threats to their mates and loved ones, and some would fight over food, but with all he’d learned about his kind, he knew they’d never turn on each other like these blendings had done down here, betraying one of their own for a little power. They could have waited until they found Aya’s blood, if they were that desperate for it. He didn’t like this blend of intelligence and utter savagery – it was worse than facing a ravenous soul gaki-bound, in his opinion. "Birman, you better give us a damn good vacation for this mission." It had just taken a very ugly turn.

There was a deep frown on her face, making her appear much older. "I really, really hoped it wasn’t these creatures behind the murders, but I know better than to continue that in the face of their escape and the recent deaths." She took a deep breath and looked steadily at Botan. "Forget about the wards today, I want you to focus on those books, specifically Masafumi’s journals. I want to know *everything* about his creations; their personalities, their strengths and weaknesses, their habits, whatever you can find." She turned to Aya. "If you could help Botan find those journals, he and I can comb through them while you, Yohji and Omi continue checking out the rest of the castle. Would he have any other information on these ‘blendings’ elsewhere?"

Aya gave the question some serious thought. "I never saw his journals other than down here, but he might have one or two in his private quarters. I can’t see him storing them anywhere else, due to the nature of their contents. He didn’t even like discussing the spells and procedures with his father."

"Very well. Help us find the books and then go back upstairs."

Yohji gave Birman a slow nod and held her attention when his mate went to help Botan find the journals, then mouthed ‘thank you’. He could clearly see her startlement over the thanks but she managed a small smile before she left for next door.

Omi touched his arm as he gave the room one more look. "What was that for?"

"For her not making Aya stay down here any longer than he has to." He’d felt his mate’s misery lessen at the mention of going back upstairs and he knew that Birman could have made them stay down here to search out clues for the rest of the day.

Omi kicked at a piece of broken glass as they went to join their friends. "My family really sucks, doesn’t it?"

He reached over to tousle his young friend’s hair. "Relax, kiddo. It’s the personal belief of many of us that you’re really a foundling. Somewhere in the Mist Forest, there’s the real crown prince being raised by a pack of oni."

That got him a laugh as Omi lightly hit him on the arm. "Yohji! You really think I’m an oni after having fought them?"

"Well, you’re really ugly for one of them," he barely managed to say with a straight face, "but weren’t you the one who always wanted to be one? You were just missing your real family," he finished with a loud laugh, especially when Omi hit him harder. Birman gave them a cold look as they entered the room, and Botan and Aya looked at them quizzically. He flashed his mate a smile while Omi muttered about how mean he was.

*******

Aya looked down at the small stack of books on the mahogany table and let out a slow breath. "That’s all of them. If we’ve missed any, they’re too well hidden to ever be found."

Omi flipped through the topmost book. "You didn’t think there would be many in the first place." They’d found these volumes in Masafumi’s study after a careful search of his living quarters.

"Well, why don’t you go give them to Botan and Birman and then order some lunch for us, okay kiddo?" Yohji nodded toward the door as he smiled at Omi. "We’ll meet you in a bit in the drawing room we waited in yesterday."

Omi looked at him for a moment and then picked up the books. "I don’t know about you, but I’m starving. I doubt Botan and Birman will want to join us but I’ll see if any of the others are back yet." He gave them a smile as he picked up the books. "See you soon."

"Bye." Yohji watched him leave and then turned to Aya with his arms outstretched. Aya didn’t take more than a few seconds to slide inside them and give his mate a hug. "How you doing, love?"

Funny, he was about to ask Yohji the same thing but he settled for licking his mate’s neck and mumbling that he was fine. For the most part he was – they hadn’t dealt with many servants during the afternoon and Masafumi’s quarters held no painful memories for him since he’d never been in them before today.

But Yohji…. There were little mementoes of Neu scattered all over; she’d practically been enshrined after her death. His lover had a particularly painful minute or two after they came across the portrait of her, draped in black. Yohji didn’t often think about his first love but this place was bringing her memory back to the fore. Aya felt guilty for forgetting that he wasn’t the only one with a painful past.

He nuzzled Yohji’s jaw. "What are we going to do while Omi’s arranging lunch?" he asked, a hint of a purr to his voice even though he didn’t feel any amorous emotions from his mate, just sorrow and worry.

Yohji tilted his chin up for a slow, loving kiss and then brushed back his bangs. "Aya… I’m sorry, I don’t know if you’re ready for this but I want to see your quarters now." Yohji’s arms tightened around him when he started at the request. "It’s just… I want to know, love. I saw that damned room downstairs and I can’t stop thinking that where you lived was just as bad. I think my imagination is worse than the truth but I can’t stop obsessing about it until I find out for certain." Yohji’s voice was slightly pleading, and Aya felt a hint of guilt from his mate for asking this.

Taking a deep breath, he pressed his face against the crook of Yohji’s neck for a moment, just enjoying the feel of the man he loved holding him close. That helped to drown out Masafumi’s scent, something that had been bothering him all afternoon, putting his emotions even more on edge. There’d been a time or two when he’d half expected to see the wizard or one of his women enter the room, their scent had been so strong.

"All right. I want to ward a few books anyway and make sure nothing happened to them." He leaned back and gave his lover a slight smile. "It’s not that bad, Yohji, honestly." He didn’t feel much pain at the thought of his old quarters. After all, they were the closest thing to a sanctuary he’d had here, them and the dark corner of the courtyard where Shion had trained him. "Let’s go."

Yohji seemed more than willing to leave Masafumi’s study, and as they stepped out of the room, Aya called the shadows to them. He didn’t want to deal with any of the servants right now, didn’t want to see them cower from him or give him cold looks. As he led Yohji down the halls and upstairs, he felt some of the pain associated with Timbergrey lessen ever so slightly. He’d never been allowed to use his power freely like this, allowed to mask his presence other than the very few times when he’d been ordered back to his rooms after a mission. The Takatori hadn’t wanted to take the chance of anyone discovering his true nature so it had been stifled over the years, unleashed only during missions. He’d had to hold it in by force when dealing with his ‘masters’, so much so it had been an ingrained habit even when he was alone. But not now, not anymore. That fact helped to remind him of what all had changed – for the better.

They passed a few servants along the way, and his mood lightened a little more when he saw Yohji stick his tongue out and make rude gestures at the people. Considering the way some of them had treated him and Nagi, he felt tempted to do the same – if not worse – but he didn’t want to risk discovery so he behaved. At least the silliness helped to restore some of Yohji’s usual good mood, which unfortunately faded the further they went.

"Gods, where did they keep you? On the roof?"

"Close enough." When he felt Yohji’s anger, he tugged on his mate’s hand and sighed. "It’s not as bad as it sounds. I was away from everyone so things were quiet and it kept people from stopping by," he explained as he went up yet another flight of steps that were narrower and shabbier than the previous ones. "Nagi and I felt safe up here." As safe as they could be while living with the Takatori. He deliberately shoved aside the thought that living so high up hadn’t benefited his sister, but Yohji caught the flash of his pain and lifted his hand to press a kiss against his palm.

He stopped for a moment to pull his mate close and kiss him on the lips, to enjoy his presence and settle both of their emotions. Yes, he’d lost his sister and even Nagi, but he had Yohji now. The joy outweighed all the pain, something that he’d once thought to be impossible. "Thank you," he murmured as he pulled away.

Yohji’s hand threaded through his hair and kept him from continuing up the steps. "What brought that on?" his mate asked as little confusion but a good bit of happiness crossed through their link.

He gently pulled Yohji’s hand free from his hair and nipped his wrist, right above the pulse point. "I just remembered how happy you make me. As much as I feared returning here, you’ve made it bearable." He frowned a little, not sure if he’d voiced his feelings very well, but he’d never had that talent in the first place. Considering the way Yohji was smiling at him, maybe he hadn’t done such a bad job this time.

As they continued on their way, he paused for a second when he caught sight of the massive door to his tower quarters and had to take a deep breath before resuming. Now that he was faced with it, he wasn’t so certain that there’d be no pain from this visit back to his past. He remembered all the times before when he’d climbed these steps to spend days, sometimes even weeks locked in those rooms and felt a wave of sadness. There was so much he’d lost out on, over the years.

"I’m sorry, Cat."

He squeezed Yohji’s hand. "Don’t be, I had to come up here sometime." He vanished the shadows and reluctantly let go of his mate as he pushed open the doors.

The room was just as he’d left it, books scattered everywhere and the old curtains pulled tight over the windows. Knowing that his mate’s night vision wasn’t as good as his yet, he navigated the stacks of books and pulled the curtains open a little, the afternoon sun making his eyes tear up. After a blink or two, he turned to face Yohji and took a deep breath. That was when he noticed that something wasn’t right and frowned.

At first he thought he was ill-at-ease because of the pain and anger pouring off of his mate. Yohji stood in the middle of the room, his gaze fixed on its only real furniture, the worn chair covered with blankets and the small table about to fall apart under the weight of books. "This is where you lived for twelve years?" he asked in a very quiet voice.

"Yes." Aya crossed over to the table and picked up one of the books, a favorite of his father’s on the topic of Kritiker’s many shrines. "Like I said, it was quiet up here, and for the last few years the only person other than me who came here was Nagi." That was what was wrong, he smelled the scent of someone else. Hirofumi’s scent….

For a moment his nightmare from the other night came rushing back. The book fell from his hands as he turned to the door, expecting Hirofumi to walk through it any second now, his rotting flesh stitched together with black thread, small pieces missing here and there. He’d be helpless as the man approached, would feel cold, clammy hands on his flesh, would feel them grab the back of his head and push him down once more, onto his knees as-

Pain flared through his head, his cheek stinging as an eartail was harshly tugged. He found himself sucking in a breath of air as he stared at Yohji who gave his hair another hard yank. "Aya!"

"Yo-hji." He knocked his mate’s hand aside and touched his sore cheek, his brain trying to figure out what just happened. "You… my…."

Yohji gave him a gentle shake. "I’m sorry I hit you, but you weren’t snapping out of it! One moment you were talking to me and the next…." He shook his head and pulled Aya close for a hug. "Don’t do that, please. I’m sorry I brought you up here. We’re leaving now."

His mate had hit him to break the nightmare. His fears started to settle as he breathed deeply of Yohji’s scent, blocking out Hirofumi’s faint one. "No, not yet," he said as he refused to allow himself to be dragged out of the room.

"Aya, if you think I’m going to let you stay up here and have another attack, you’re insane. Go ahead and be pissed off at me, but I swear you scared a good century off of my life right now!" Yohji’s voice still had a hint of hysteria to it and he wouldn’t let him go.

Taking a deep breath, he knocked his mate’s hands aside and quickly stepped back. "I’m not leaving just yet!" he snapped, their shared panic driving him on to find an answer as to why Hirofumi’s scent was up here where it had never been before. Reiji had come up here once, after his sister’s death, but that had been it. Usually they sent Masafumi’s women after him.

Despite the panic, his resolve hardened. He wasn’t going to be chased out of here by a bad dream. Even now he could taste bile in his mouth, feel goose bumps on his skin, and he knew that if he left he’d never have the strength to come back. Focusing on his mate’s turbulent emotions, he followed Hirofumi’s scent into his bedroom – and came to a stop.

Yohji caught up to him almost immediately, his arms tightly wrapping around him. "I said- what the hell? Aya, *please* tell me those weren’t here when you left." Yohji’s rage increased and he started to growl.

Stunned, all he could do was stare at the four thick chains, ending in iron shackles, dangling onto his bed. Hirofumi had moved the old piece of furniture until it was pressed against the flat wall that divided the tower into two rooms, and chains were connected to the thick joist above, hanging down to rest at the top and foot of the bed. Just enough length to keep him on the bed, to allow him to sit up a little or be moved about but not enough to leave the furniture. "They’re… new." He remembered that awful night in the carriage, what Hirofumi made him do and then afterwards, being chained up, feeling the bastard’s hands on his body. Bile flooded his mouth as his stomach threatened to rebel.

He refused to allow himself to be sick. With a great amount of willpower, he forced himself to swallow and turn away from the bed. Yohji held him tightly against his chest and he buried his face in the crook of his mate’s neck, used his presence to keep from breaking down. If he’d ever come back here while Hirofumi had been alive… he brutally shoved the thought from his mind.

"They… he installed them after you left?" Yohji asked, his voice hesitant.

"They weren’t here when I went to the capital," he said, his arms wrapping around Yohji’s waist and holding him tightly enough it had to hurt but his mate didn’t complain.

There was silence for several minutes, then Yohji let out a deep breath and nuzzled the side of his head. "I really, really hate this place. I thought it wouldn’t be so bad with those bastards dead but…."

"I don’t… let’s go," he said, no longer willing to be in this room. Yohji loosened his hold on him just enough so they could walk out of the bedroom, his legs a little shaky. Hirofumi was dead, he told himself. Hirofumi was dead and he was back here mostly of his own free will, and would be leaving shortly. He wouldn’t end up chained to the bed, awaiting whatever the bastard wanted to do to him. "I hate this place, too," he hissed, his voice thick with the dark, painful emotions that filled him.

"I’m sorry, Aya, I really am." Yohji’s voice was thick with remorse, the emotion flowing through their link as he kissed him on the forehead.

He looked up and gave his mate’s chin a nip. "Don’t say that." As much as he wanted to agree with Yohji, he knew doing that would only feed the nightmares. Now, at least, he had hopes of recalling walking out of this room with his mate whenever the dreams of him being trapped up here with Hirofumi returned.

Yohji took a deep breath and nodded, the motion curt. "Listen to me, love. The bastards are all dead, you don’t live in this… fucking *cell* anymore, you’re free. If anyone tries to change those facts, I’ll tear them apart. And should I fail, Jo will destroy them." He gave Aya a weak smile and caressed his cheek. "I wish I could burn this place down for you."

The thought was so tempting… he could order the shadows to writhe and stretch until the stone walls shattered, caving the whole castle in. Just a thought…. "Don’t tempt me, Yotan," he whispered before pushing away from his mate. "Come on, I want to take some books with me." He didn’t want to have to come back up here anytime soon. Hastening to the chair, he bent down to pick up the book he’d dropped on the floor and then the ones on the table, many of them Aidan’s journals. She’d had a lot to write about in the century of her captivity, and he didn’t want the heartfelt entries to be discovered by anyone else.

Yohji joined him at the table, and after another soothing touch to his cheek, which didn’t hurt anymore, helped him to gather up the books. They could only carry a fraction of them downstairs in one trip but this would be enough for now.

"One moment." Juggling an armload of books, Yohji somehow managed to crack open the windows a little. "There. It shouldn’t be so bad when we come back," he said quietly, and Aya gave him a smile as he realized his mate was helping to air out the room. Next time he’d be prepared, and Hirofumi’s scent wouldn’t be as strong.

As they left the room, he warded it so only he, Yohji or someone bearing a ring made of his blood could enter. Soon the staff would notice them collecting books, and he didn’t want any of them thinking they could ‘liberate’ a few of their own, either to protect the Takatori or to see if they were worth anything. As Yohji had mentioned, there were a lot of things that should be kept out of the hands of most people.

He followed Yohji downstairs, his arms full of Aidan’s and his father’s books while telling himself that he wouldn’t be walking down these steps for much longer, his eyes never leaving his mate for a second.

*******

Ken noticed the charmed stones lying on the ground and squatted down before the ones that indicated where the last murdered body had been found. His sharp eyesight easily noticed all the smaller pebbles scattered about wherever blood had been found, noticed the trampled grass that showed there had been several people in this tiny clearing, that there had been some sort of a scuffle or struggle.

Over by a pine tree, Miko cleared her throat. "Can you smell anything here?"

He nodded as he took a deep breath. Yesterday’s rain hadn’t done him any favors, and the scent was over a week old on top of that, but he could smell… something. Blood. Fear. The sharp, bitter tang of torn intestines, a lingering hint of marrow. Oh so faint… but all of them stirred up his hunger which sharpened his senses even more. Perhaps Aya could talk to the shinigami and find out more information than he could, but what he sensed told him plenty. This had been a painful, drawn out death. The young man – or what had been left of him – had been torn to bits, but it hadn’t been quick, as the Guard who’d recorded the murder scene had suspected. Nor had he been mostly dismembered somewhere else, as was assumed due to the small amount of splattered blood and the lack of remains. No, on top of the scent of flesh and blood he could smell musk, potent enough that he started to growl, he could also smell aggression and enjoyment. Whatever had done that had taken its time and loved every minute of the man’s pain and fear.

Make that several whatevers. He stood up and circled the crime scene, his claws flexing and lips pulling back from his fangs as he smelled more of that infuriating musk. As faint as it was, it drew forth his demon nature, enraged it enough that he wanted to tear at anything that was marked by it, obliterate that scent and then track it down to its source. He followed it for a few feet but then it dispersed, grew fainter as it went off into different directions.

"Fuck." If he’d been here a few days ago, maybe even before the rain, he’d have had some hope of tracking it, but not now. Not when the pack of… blendings, or whatever Aya called the things Masafumi had created, had split up.

"Ken?"

He started to take a deep breath – and stopped as it only fueled his hunger and rage. Turning toward one of the pine trees, he broke a branch free and held it beneath his nose; the scent of pine and sap filled his senses and drowned out the infuriating musk. After several deep breaths, he tossed the branch aside and took shallow breaths as he walked toward Miko, his mind busy on the exercises Jei had taught him to try to distract his demon nature.

He walked past his partner and down the forest path, Miko quickly following him. She didn’t say anything… but he didn’t smell any fear from her, even after she’d seen him put his demon nature to use. That helped to calm him down even more and, after several meters, he slowed down to allow her to catch up.

She looked him up and down and then spoke in a quiet voice. "Did you find anything this time?"

"Yeah, I’ve got the bastards’ scent now." He frowned when he noticed that he was still growling and cleared his throat. "There were several of them, from what I can tell. At least ten and they don’t smell like anything human, bound or demon." So much for the theory that a flesh gaki was roaming the woods, one of the rumors they’d heard as they’d wandered around the village.

Miko sighed as she brushed back her bangs. "Aya and Birman should know when we get back if it’s really Masafumi’s creatures." She coughed slightly and then reached out to touch his arm. "Could you slow down? I’m still sore as hell, even if we didn’t ride today."

He almost snarled at her touch, but stopped himself in time. This was his partner, his friend, and he couldn’t risk driving her away because of his new nature. Very few of the Shadow Guards had wanted to be paired with a flesh gaki-bound and if he lost Miko, he might not find another human willing to put up with him. He didn’t mind hanging out with other bounds, but to know that he was being shunned by humans now… he didn’t want to think about that.

"I’m sorry." He felt bad that they hadn’t been able to ride today, as horses didn’t like being around him when he let slip his demon nature, even if Miko had insisted that she’d much rather walk than be stuck in the saddle yet another day.

"It’s all right." She flashed him a grin and rubbed her stomach. "I’m working out some stiff muscles this way, and for once I’ll have a good excuse to try and match you and Naru at the dinner table! I’m starving after walking around all day."

"Please, don’t mention ‘dinner’. You’ll make me drool." The scent of blood, as faint as it had been, had really whetted his appetite.

Miko laughed. "Oh boy, I think you better give us a five minute head start tonight so we have a chance at the food." She shrugged her shoulders and unbuttoned the top part of her coat. "Though, with this sun and heat, a nice pitcher of beer would be just as good. I think I actually miss yesterday’s cold and rain."

He looked up at the sunny sky and grinned. "There’s just no pleasing you, Miko dear."

"That’s what my last boyfriend said, the lazy lout." They shared a grin before she grew serious. "Once Botan and Omi clear the wards, we can check out the holding pens Aya told us about. You should be able to get a clear scent to track them down."

He rubbed the silver ring on his right hand. Even with its protection, he wasn’t eager to step into a mad wizard’s lair until a few of the spells had been dismantled. "I’ll check out the place as soon as they say it’s safe but I think I’ve already got a lock on their scent. Now, if I could just find a fresh trail." His hunger flared at the thought, along with his temper. He had them now. Their scent was so distinctive he wouldn’t have any problem tracking it – in fact, his demon nature clamored for him to do just that, to hunt down the abominations, the challenge to this territory, and rip them to shreds. His human side chimed in as well, wanting the brutal murderers found and stopped. For once his two natures were in agreement. These ‘blendings’ didn’t stand a chance.

He smiled at the thought, his lips pulling back from his teeth, and wondered how the bastards would like being torn apart like the poor people they’d slaughtered.

*******

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