Shadows of the Past

*******

chapter 6

*******

Yohji lay stretched out on the bed with Aya beside him, Aya’s head resting on Yohji’s stomach as he read one of the books they’d brought down from that damned… "room". Fuck calling it a room - it was a cell, Yohji thought as he twined his fingers in his mate’s soft hair. Aya didn’t like to hear him call it that but it was the truth. Hell, he’d seen prisoners held in quarters many times more pleasant than the one up in the tower. No wonder Aya loved their room at the Koneko so much; it was comfortable, had real furniture that didn’t look about ready to fall apart at any moment, and wasn’t drafty. To think that his love had spent over a decade hidden away up there….

Yohji took a deep breath and forced himself to focus on the sounds of the falling rain outside the window, of the wind gently blowing against the glass panes. More rain had suddenly rolled into the area in the late afternoon as if in response to his dark mood.

"Yotan?" Aya carefully set aside the book and rolled over to face him, his chin poking into Yohji’s chest, worried frown marring his lovely face.

Yohji tried to smile in a reassuring manner as he stroked back his mate’s bangs. "Yes, Cat?" He shouldn’t have lost control of his own emotions just now, not when they both were hurting and worried about each other.

Aya appeared as if he wanted to say something for a moment but then just shook his head and snaked an arm around Yohji’s waist to give him a hug. They both stared at each other for several seconds before Aya rubbed his cheek against Yohji’s chest. "Are you hungry yet?" he asked, his voice barely audible over the sound of the rain and wind.

"No, not really." Yohji stroked his thumb along Aya’s cheek, a small thrill of pleasure at the contact making him smile slightly. "I guess it’s my turn to not feel like leaving the room." He just couldn’t take seeing any more signs of how abused Aya had been here, or more reminders of Asuka. The first would infuriate him almost to the point of madness. The latter surprised him by how much they hurt. Like it or not, he had loved the woman.

His mate stared at him for a few more seconds before turning onto his back and picking up his book. After he opened it to the page he’d been reading before, he held it in one hand while his other searched out Yohji’s hand and twined their fingers together. Yohji could feel a strong sense of worry, the familiar ache of pain and a sense of contentment. He thought he understood his lover’s emotions since they so closely echoed his own.

He worried over how quiet Aya had become ever since they’d found Hirofumi’s nasty little surprise, but he knew Aya needed some time to gather his thoughts. When he’d mentioned to Aya that he really wasn’t in the mood for lunch and just wanted to go lie down for a while, he’d been grateful for the suggestion. After having the past rubbed in their faces all day long, they needed some time alone. Right now he felt that the best thing was just lying here with Aya nearby, his love’s heartbeat blending with the sounds of wind and rain. Tightening his fingers against Aya’s, he started to comb through the crimson strands fanned out over his chest.

The silence stretched on until he almost fell asleep, lulled by Aya’s presence and scent. Shaking his head slightly to wake himself up, Yohji rubbed his eyes before giving one of Aya’s eartail a gentle tug. "Hey, what about you? Are you hungry? We can always go grab a quick bite if you are."

"I think… I’m too comfortable to move," Aya said after giving the question some thought. "Besides, if we step out of this room, we’ll probably be put to work."

"Yeah, well I think we did enough work for today. Right now there’s not a whole lot for us to do other than wait for Botan to find a few clues in Masafumi’s books," Yohji said with a disgusted snort. Birman better not give them any grief about their ‘retreat’. She couldn’t expect them to work all day long, not when this place held so many bad memories for Aya. He sighed as he tugged Aya’s wrist up to his mouth so he could press a kiss against its pulse point. "We can always stage a raid on the kitchen later."

Aya pulled his hand free and caressed Yohji’s chin for a moment. "That sounds like a good idea," he said before returning his attention the book.

"Hmmm." Truth be told, Yohji was starting to feel a little hungry from all this talk about food, not to mention the fact that Aya was so near, but he really didn’t want to move right now. After having last night’s sleep interrupted by Aya’s nightmares and then the emotional draining from earlier today, he felt tired. And while taking a little energy from his mate would perk him up a bit, he recalled Aya’s blind panic up in the tower room. Right now he didn’t want to do anything that would trigger more pain and terrible memories for him.

But as panicked as he himself had been up there, he was also proud of his mate. Aya had pushed aside the awful fear and refused to allow it to overwhelm him again. He’d refused to leave the room, to be chased away by Hirofumi’s ghost. Yohji hoped that when they left this accursed place, Aya would have made a start on putting his past behind him. Maybe the nightmares wouldn’t be so bad when they returned to the Koneko.

The rain started to die down, and he could smell some wonderful aromas that must be coming from dinner. His stomach rumbled faintly but Aya didn’t seem to notice. Reaching down, he stroked his fingers along a pale forearm left exposed by the rolled up black sleeve. He traced a faint blue vein that ran just underneath the skin until Aya shivered and closed the book

"Hungry after all?" Aya asked him as he set the book aside and once more rolled over to face him. Reaching out, Yohji pulled his mate closer, needing to feel Aya pressed against him.

"Not necessarily hungry as much as just being jealous of a book, of all things," he said in a wry tone so Aya didn’t take the complaint to heart. "Am I really that boring?"

Aya smiled at the comment and leaned down to nuzzle his shoulder before folding his arms on top of Yohji’s chest and resting his chin on top of them. "You did say something about just wanting to be with me while I read, didn’t you?"

Yohji recalled their discussion from the other day and chuckled. "Yeah, I did, but I’m sorry to say that I don’t have any cookies to feed you." He tangled his fingers in Aya’s silky hair. "Why didn’t I think to pack any?"

"A box right now would be nice," Aya murmured as he closed his eyes, a slight smile curving his lips. "Or some of Jo’s cinnamon rolls."

"I’ll have to remember to stock up on those when we get back home," he said, the prospect of being back in their room at the Koneko helping to cheer him up. "A big tin of cookies, as many rolls as we can sweet talk out of Jo, some plum wine and a big pot of tea. That should last us for the day." He couldn’t help but smile at the thought, especially when Aya purred quietly. "I can feed you while you ignore me for your books."

Aya opened his eyes and gave him a look heated enough to make the breath catch in his throat. "I’m sure you’ll find some way to get my attention."

"I certainly hope so." His fingers skimmed down the side of Aya’s neck lightly enough to make him shiver. "I’d like to think that my…," he drawled out as Aya frowned, "wonderful personality would be more interesting than a book." He picked up the dusty tome that his mate had been reading and flipped it open – and couldn’t help but grimace when he noticed the familiar blocky handwriting. "This is one of Aidan’s journals, isn’t it? Why the hell are you reading it now?" The last thing his lover needed to do in this awful place was read about how his ancestor had been a slave until she killed herself.

Aya snatched back the book and set it down on the bed. "Because I… enjoy reading her journals."

"Cat, that is morbid as hell. Can’t you find something, I don’t know, more uplifting to read? Didn’t I see some history books in the pile?"

"It’s not morbid to read her journals," Aya hissed in irritation.

Yohji sat up a little so he could properly glare at his mate, something that was a bit difficult to do while he was flat on his back. "You’re reading about a woman who was held captive for over a century and abused to the point that she took her own life. I wouldn’t call that ‘happy reading’, love."

After resettling against his chest, Aya sighed and shook his head. "You don’t understand, Yotan."

When nothing else was added to that comment, Yohji let out a slow breath and tried to tuck back the hair falling onto Aya’s face. "All right, what am I missing here?"

"Her journals…." Aya shifted about until he was straddling Yohji’s waist. "I like to think that some part of her would be happy to know that someone is reading her words and understanding her pain."

"Yeah, love, but you escaped all that," Yohji said, his voice thick with emotion. He sometimes had nightmares about what would have happened to Aya if he’d failed during the fight against the Takatori.

"I know I did." Aya leaned against him, his head resting on Yohji’s shoulder. "I used to think that we’d share the same fate until I got lucky. But… that just makes it more important, don’t you see? She shouldn’t be forgotten, nor should I ever forget how fortunate things turned out for me."

Yohji began to knead his lover’s tense shoulders as he thought about what Aya just said. "None of that stuff’s going to happen to you again," he promised as his mate let out a happy little sigh and relaxed against him.

"I know. Even thought I can take care of myself, you and Nagi would never allow that," Aya said, sounding a little sleepy. "And if something should happen to the two of you, Jo will keep me safe." Yohji sensed his amusement and even though he wasn’t happy about being grouped in with the little demon, he had to chuckle at the image of Jo riding off to do battle in lacquered and shining metal armor – wielding a marble rolling pin.

"If there’s any trouble we’ll hide in the bedroom and let her handle it," he joked as he nuzzled Aya’s ear. Aya leaned back to look at him, his smile a little more certain now before moving in closer for a kiss. The last of the tension left his body now that Aya was snuggled against him. Funny how something so simple made life all better.

*******

"Omi, be careful," Reiichi warned as he noticed the tray that the young prince was carrying start to tip over to one side. Omi righted it just in time to prevent anything from sliding off – which was a good thing, as Reiichi was currently carrying two trays of his own and couldn’t be much help. Two rather heavy trays at that, filled with more than enough food to feed four hungry men, or so he hoped.

"I guess I’m not quite ready to work at the Koneko just yet," Omi joked as he steadied the tray in one hand before lifting the other to knock on the door they were standing in front of. "Uhm, maybe we should have asked first before deciding to eat in their room."

His own stomach rumbling from the wonderful aromas wafting up from the trays, Reiichi frowned. "They haven’t eaten much all day, if what you said is correct. This is work, and they both need to be in top form, especially after what you found downstairs."

"Yes, but maybe they’re skipping dinner on purpose." Omi’s cheeks flushed a little as he took a step back.

*Now* the boy thought about that. But even if Yohji and Aya were… ‘busy’, Aya at least would need some food to help replace all the energy his boyfriend was taking from him. "Or maybe they just don’t feel like putting up with the servants any more today."

"True, but I don’t want to interrupt anything. Yohji can get in a nasty mood if he’s disturbed while in… mid-snack."

Omi wasn’t telling him anything Reiichi didn’t know, considering the fact that he’d been watching over the two men for the last couple of months. "I agree, but considering the fact that we’ve been standing out here and debating whether or not we should bother them while they’ve probably heard the entire exchange makes it all a moot point, ne?"

As his young friend pondered that fact, the door suddenly swung open to reveal a slightly peevish looking Yohji, his hair tousled and his shirt all unlaced. "Exactly. So either bring the food in or go away." Then he sniffed the air. "But if you go, leave dinner."

Omi recovered quickly from the surprise, and stuck out his tongue. "We’re a matched set so if you want to eat, move out of the way." Yohji grumbled slightly at the bossy tone but, smiling all the while, did as he was told.

Reiichi followed them both into the room, one that looked rather similar to the one he shared with Birman. On the rather large bed sat Aya, his legs curled up underneath him, his hair as tousled as Yohji’s. He didn’t seem upset though, and gave them a nod as they entered. "You brought us dinner?"

"Yes, and ours as well if you don’t mind the company." Reiichi returned the nod with a smile and then looked for places to set the food down. One of the trays he placed on the bed by Aya, the other on the table beside the couch. Then he removed the bag he’d slung over his shoulder and sat down.

Yohji joined his mate on the bed, careful not to disturb the tray which was practically overflowing with food. "What, you guys haven’t eaten yet?"

Omi poured all of them some tea. "No. Birman and Botan are holed up in her room going over Masafumi’s books, so Reiichi and I decided we didn’t want to sit in a stuffy dining room if we didn’t have to." He handed the two bounds their tea before joining Reiichi on the sofa. "Besides, Ken came back starving from his assignment and we didn’t want to have to fight him supper."

Looking over all the food they brought, Yohji laughed and slid his arm around Aya’s waist. "I don’t know, you’ve brought so much I’m expecting to hear him pounding on the door at any moment!" Judging from Yohji’s happy expression and the fact that there wasn’t any snarling, they hadn’t interrupted the couple during anything too serious. Reiichi hid his smile behind his teacup at the thought. No, if Yohji truly minded their presence he’d have made that fact known by now.

"Everyone’s back?" Aya asked as he started to pick through the large assortment of food.

"Yes. Ken and Miko were the last to return, about a half an hour ago, so we decided to grab some food while they dried off." He pushed his glasses up his nose and frowned. "Ken basically confirmed that the murders were indeed carried out by Masafumi’s ‘blendings’, although he hasn’t gone downstairs yet to compare the scents."

Omi cleared his throat before giving Reiichi a displeased look as Aya and Yohji stopped eating for a moment. He silently cursed himself for ruining dinner already with the talk of work but then smiled as he set his plate aside. "I, however, had a very interesting day at the market, more of which I’ll tell you after dinner." He picked up the bag he’d placed on the floor and approached the bed. "While finding some interesting honey for Jo and Cassandra, I came across these." He handed over one of the boxes of sweets he’d bought. "They’re a bit chewy but otherwise very good." Somehow he didn’t think Aya and Yohji, with their sharp teeth, would have much of a problem with the sweets.

Aya set aside the drumstick he’d been nibbling on and quickly opened the box. His eyebrows arched upon revealing the nougat and almond candy, and he cautiously took a bite out of one of them. Judging from the immediate purr and the huge grin on Yohji’s face, Reiichi would say that the kage liked the treat.

Yohji laughed as he nuzzled Aya’s cheek, his mate happily munching away on the candy. "I think you found something he likes just as much as the cookies." He reached for the box and laughed some more when Aya hissed at him. "Yep, he definitely likes them. Aren’t you going to share, Cat?"

Aya, appearing rather surprised at his strong reaction just then, blinked his eyes and slowly lifted a piece of candy to Yohji’s mouth. Reiichi felt his cheeks heat a little at the look the two men shared as Yohji’s lips brushed Aya’s fingers and turned his attention to his bag. "I bought several boxes; you can have them all. I’ll go back to the market in another day or two." He set the boxes down on the bed and smiled a little when he thought about how Naru would complain when he found out he wouldn’t be getting any treats this time.

"Thank you, Reiichi," Aya said as he carefully set the boxes aside. "I’ll have to give you a few coins for all of these."

He waved the offer aside. "Don’t worry, they weren’t that expensive and I can always bill them to the Guards since they’re a business expense." His smile strengthened as he thought of Yuushi’s face upon seeing that bit of paperwork.

"Maybe I can go with you to the market one day," Omi asked as he settled back on the couch. "I’d like to do some shopping of my own."

"Aw, don’t tell me you’re wasting good money on treats for the little demon. I’m sure he can buy candy in Esset."

Both Aya and Omi took to glaring at Yohji for the comment. "I can spend my money on whomever and whatever I want," Omi snapped, his tone slightly haughty. "If you can buy your boyfriend treats, so can I."

"Yeah, but my boyfriend isn’t in another country, forcing other people to lug those treats all the way to him. Besides, with the way he eats anything it’s just a waste of good food." Yohji’s teasing grin slipped as Aya’s glare went up a notch, and he developed a sudden interest in eating.

Reiichi wished he’d met this ‘little demon’ before the boy had gone off to Esset. For someone like Omi and Aya to care so strongly for him, he had to be special. As for Yohji… he shook his head in amusement at the stories Teddy had told him about how "well" Yohji and Nagi had gotten along.

He decided to change the topic before Yohji dug himself any deeper into trouble. "The market had many honey products. Beehives flourish here, and I believe they’ve figured out how to use honey in just about any recipe you can imagine. I had a slice of some very delicious bread earlier that I need to try to find the recipe for. I think it would do well at the Koneko."

"Jo might not be thrilled to be stuck making something else considering how much she bakes already, but Mickey will thank you if it’s as good as you say it is." Yohji sipped his tea and must have judged it safe enough to resume hugging his mate. His shoulders relaxed when Aya didn’t snap at him for the arm around his waist. "Lilla should be able to get a good deal on honey for us, as most of her family are beekeepers."

"Ah, making her decision to become a candle maker a very wise one. She seems like a smart young woman." Reiichi decided he rather liked the spiced meat dish and helped himself to a little more. "I saw several candle stands today but, to be perfectly honest, none of them were up to her standards.

"She hasn’t been feeling well, lately," Aya commented, his voice barely audible over the sounds of everyone eating.

"Hmmm, what’s that, Cat?" Yohji asked as he gave Aya’s hip a squeeze.

"I said, she hasn’t felt well the last couple of weeks. She complained about a stomach ailment the last few times I stopped by." Aya looked around for something, and Yohji put his long arms to good use and snatched the teapot to refill their cups. "That’s why she hasn’t been at the Koneko much lately."

"Ah, I wondered about that." Yohji held up the pot and Omi reached over for it. "Thanks a lot for bringing us something to eat. We really didn’t feel like putting up with the staff tonight." Yohji’s expression darkened briefly.

"They’re nothing compared to the palace servants," Reiichi remarked calmly as he tried the creamed potatoes. "Yuushi, Naru and I were very grateful to find quarters outside of the palace where we wouldn’t have to put up with dirty looks every time we dared to walk around the slightest bit dirty or rumpled. Some night I’ll have to tell you all about the story of how one of Naru’s spells got out of control, filling the entire floor of our wing with smoke. The stench was absolutely horrid and the staff was about ready to hang all three of us out the windows by our heels." He smiled at the memory, time dulling the pain his nose had suffered enough to find amusement in how much trouble his friend had caused.

Yohji laughed as he set the now empty tray of food aside. Reiichi blinked as he realised that the two bounds had finished eating everything on it and were now working on one of the plates of cheese and fruit that had been on Omi’s tray. Stretching out on the bed, his head resting on his lover’s lap, Yohji smiled and nibbled on an apple slice. "Oh, I definitely want to hear that story one night. I still remember some of the trouble he caused when he first joined the Guards and those stories always made me laugh."

Nodding, Reiichi pushed up his glasses again and leaned back onto the couch. "He’s definitely a handful, but I must admit that he makes life very interesting. I feel a little sorry for Eri, though. Since Naru was an undercover agent like me, he’s never really had a partner before. She gets the joy of trying to ‘break’ him in."

Omi, who had been busy eating, burped slightly as he set aside his empty plate of food. "Excuse me." He blushed slightly as he helped himself to a few slices of cheese. "You know, it’s too bad Teddy never went for the Guards, then he could be Naru’s partner. They’re an awful lot alike, don’t you think?" He let out a yelp of surprise as a grape was tossed at his head.

"Shut it, kiddo." Yohji gave the prince a potent glare – that was somewhat ruined by the way the corners of his mouth twitched upward. "Between the two of them, the capital would be reduced to rubble within a month of them being paired together."

"Naru’s not quite as bad as Teddy," Aya said in his quiet, deep voice. "And I can’t really see Teddy as a Guard." He toyed with Yohji’s hair, wrapping the wavy strands around his fingers.

Reiichi thought about that for a moment. "No, I don’t think I can either. I doubt he’d have made it through training." He could see Teddy being a little too flippant to the wrong instructor and being booted out on the spot.

Yohji laughed as he captured Aya’s hand and pressed a kiss against his mate’s palm. "The entire Guard would be taking bets on who would break first, my brother or the Sergeant of Cadets. Having lived with Teddy for almost twenty years, I can tell you that my money wouldn’t be on the Sergeant." He chortled as he stacked up the empty plates and set them aside. Then he stretched out again on the bed, lying on his side with his head propped up by his hand, and Aya settled against him, using his body as a backrest.

Reiichi, smiling at how the two mates had curled up around each other, thought about what Yohji had just said and removed his glasses to clean them with the hem of his tunic. "Thank you for the very disturbing image of seeing Finnegan break down and cry like a lost child." He couldn’t help but grin a little. "We went through training together, you know. Ever since we’ve met, I always believed that there was something very wrong about a man who enjoyed doing push-ups as much as he did." He thought of the early days of his career. While he never wanted to go through training again, he missed how enthusiastic and hopeful he’d been back then, ready to take on any challenge. Keeping an eye on the Court the last ten years had made him a touch cynical in his approach to life.

Yohji groaned as if in pain. "Don’t mention that man’s name. I still ache from all the sit-ups he made me do during my training. Between him and the Swordmaster, I seriously thought I’d flunk out and never become a Guard."

"Well, you were part of his first class if I remember correctly. I heard he was very… enthusiastic about taking on his new job."

"Reiichi, ‘enthusiastic’ isn’t the word." Yohji’s hand took to stroking Aya’s arm. "My entire class was about to commit mutiny right before we were finally passed."

"I thought mutiny only occurs on ships," Omi calmly pointed out as he finished off the last of the cheese slices.

"Whatever," Yohji said huffily, and then there was a knock on the door. Aya frowned in its direction and slid off the bed to go investigate. Reiichi slipped on his glasses and hoped it wasn’t Birman wanting the two bounds to do more work tonight.

Aya opened the door to reveal Ken, Miko and Naru. "Ah, we knew there was a party somewhere," Naru exclaimed as Aya stepped out of their way and returned to Yohji’s side. He did a double-take upon seeing Reiichi on the couch then shoved something behind his back.

Inwardly amused as he guessed what his friend was hiding, Reiichi gave him a stern look as he folded his arms over his chest and wondered aloud what the three Guards were doing here.

"We got bored being the only people at the dinner table tonight and decided to find out where everyone went," Miko explained as she sat down on the edge of the bed. Ken began to poke through the trays as if in hopes of finding something left over, but soon gave up and with an aggrieved sigh dropped down into the room’s chair. That left Naru, still standing with his back to the door and rather obviously hiding something.

"We’re sorry for not inviting you but none of us felt like eating in the dining room tonight," Reiichi explained. "Naru, are you going to hide the bottle of alcohol all night or were you planning to share?"

His friend flinched at being found out but then laughed. "Please don’t tell me you’re going to enforce Birman’s order over no alcohol during the mission." Naru tried the big, pleading eyes, which only made Reiichi chuckle.

"You look like a demented child when you do that," he remarked sweetly and earned a frown from Naru. "I’m not adverse to anyone having a drink or two as long as it’s no more than that nor too strong. Now is not the time to get drunk or have a clouded judgment."

"It’s just a bottle of mead we bought today," Miko explained. She picked up one of the pillows that someone had tossed aside and set it on the floor, then slid down onto it. "We just got the one bottle."

Ken held out his hand and motioned for the bottle. "We figured everyone could use something stronger than water or fruit juice after today." He took the bottle from Naru and used his claws to uncork it before looking around for something. "Uhm, we forgot to bring any cups with us."

"Oh, don’t be so prissy," Miko snapped as she snatched the bottle away. She stuck her tongue out at her partner and then took a swig straight from the bottle. "Ah, that tastes… really, really sweet." She made another face. "Oh well, at least it’s not too strong so Birman won’t kill us if she finds out."

Ken snatched the bottle back. "Great, now we’ll have Miko-cooties." He made a big production out of wiping the rim of the bottle with his sleeve. "There, that should do it."

"Good thing you don’t do your own laundry anymore, Kenken, or none of us would touch the thing now," Yohji pointed out with a sly grin. "Where’s Eri?"

"Oh, she wanted to talk to Birman about what she found out," Naru explained as he followed Miko’s example and settled on the floor. "Hey, don’t hog the bottle, Hidaka!"

"Quit whining," Ken replied as he held out the bottle – just out of Naru’s reach. After a few curses and failed attempts to catch it, Naru finally got his hands on it. He glared at Ken before taking his turn.

The mead was quickly passed around and Reiichi thought that, while it was a cultivated taste, the liquor did seem like a good idea as it helped relax everyone. He’d make sure no one drank too much, but he didn’t have a problem with a few sips each.

Aya was the one to break the silence as he handed the bottle back to Miko. "What did you and Ken find today?" Everyone sat up a little straighter at that, and appeared more focused than moments before.

"I haven’t gone downstairs to check yet but I’m positive that the murderers are Masafumi’s creatures," Ken answered for his partner. "Granted, I haven’t been a bound for long but I’ve never smelled anything else like them." His claws unsheathed and it took a visible effort of will for him to retract them. "Just thinking about them now… something about their scent makes me want to tear them apart."

Yohji sat up and draped his arms around his mate’s chest. "I didn’t have that strong of a reaction while I was downstairs. What about you, Cat?"

Aya rested his head against Yohji’s shoulder and appeared as if he was thinking about something. "I don’t feel as strongly about them as Ken does but… there is something off about them, something that disturbed me while I was in their presence."

"What do you think that was?" Omi asked, beating Reiichi to the question. "Bounds are part demon and part human, these blendings are human and animal. I’d think that your two kinds would get along."

Aya shook his head. "No, not at all. We’re not the same, Omi. With bounds… at least bounds other than kage, they’re both human *and* demon." He took on a distant manner, reminding Reiichi of one of his old instructors. "Masafumi called his creatures ‘blendings’ for a reason; it’s as if the human and animal souls merge, creating a new being entirely."

Reiichi thought that the explanation made sense. "Everything I know about demons – which, admittedly, isn’t much – seems to indicate that they have some sort of intelligence similar to humans. Animals, on the other hand, are… less complicated." He wasn’t happy with that word but it was the best he could think of at the moment. "That didn’t come out right, did it?"

"I think I understand what you’re saying." Omi leaned forward, his arms resting on his knees. "I think demons are better at ‘reasoning’ than animals, as if they’re a… I don’t know, a higher form of life. They seem less driven by instinct." He glanced at Ken. "Well, most of them."

"I’ve read stories about soul and flesh gaki overcoming traps as well as their hunger if there was something they wanted badly enough," Aya said quietly. "All demons are driven by their instincts and appetites to some degree but I think what you’re both trying to say is that they are more ‘human’ than animals. For some reason, that seems to allow human and demon souls to bind together but not fully mesh. I think the only way Masafumi could get his spell to work was if he forced the souls of animals and humans to completely merge together, creating an entirely new being."

Ken took a long gulp of the mead before passing it on. "I mean, look at me. Have I really changed all that much since I became a bound?"

"Not really, you always had atrocious table manners, Ken," Yohji teased. He got his hands up just in time to deflect the thrown cork and laughed. "You’ve got a point there. Yeah, you have all these new powers and eat your own body weight in food every day but besides your appetite, you haven’t changed all that much. You’re still recognizable as our beloved Kenken." He laughed again at the face Ken made at that statement.

"The blendings even took new names after they were created." Aya ran his fingers through his hair and let out a slow breath. "I didn’t see them when they were just humans but judging from the way they acted afterwards…." He shook his head.

"What are they like, Cat?"

"They really do seem part animal." Aya hugged Yohji’s arms around his chest and stared off at nothing in particular. "They definitely have a pack mentality. They all looked to Ty, one of the blendings, to see how he’d react to Masafumi’s orders before they’d obey. Masafumi was convinced that once he broke Ty, he’d have the other blendings’ total obedience." His lips pulled back from his teeth, revealing sharp but dainty canines while a sheen of silver coated his eyes. "I’m sure Ty would have loved to have gotten his hands on Masafumi just once."

Reiichi cleared his throat to get the kage’s attention and was relieved that when Aya looked at him, his eyes were clear purple once more and his teeth were hidden. "What’s this Ty like?"

"Smart and ruthless. He’s the biggest and strongest of all the blendings. I heard that he was a former Army soldier." Aya leaned back against Yohji. "I can see him ordering the others to kill the new blendings for my blood; he didn’t seem to care about anything except his own wants."

"What? Explain that part about the killings, please," Reiichi requested as he reached for the mead.

Yohji threaded his fingers through one of Aya’s eartails. "Aya says that’s how they got out of their cages. They talked the newest blending into using the talents he received from Aya’s blood to open the doors, and then they killed him for his blood. They turned on another of their own, too."

"But I thought that bounds didn’t really kill their own," Omi said, a frown on his face. "I mean, I see Yohji and Ken fight at times but you guys don’t even touch each other before one of you backs down."

"Meaning me," Ken mumbled.

"Our kind rarely kill each other." Aya grasped Yohji’s hand as if to forestall a tugging. "There has to be a very good reason when it happens, such as one bound threatening another’s mate or… pack mate. Some bounds do form bonds like you find in wolves and other pack animals, and they’ll protect each other with their lives. But when we do fight, over such things as food or territory, it doesn’t always come to blows. The weaker – meaning less demon - of the two combatants will almost always back down."

"You guys need to come with a book or something explaining all of this," Miko complained as she leaned over and poked Ken in the leg. "Just so we set the record straight, you’re the weaker one of this partnership."

Ken seemed stunned for a moment and then recovered enough to frown with potent indignation. "And why is that, when I can pick you up and toss you across the room without breaking a sweat?"

"Because you’re a man." Miko smiled radiantly; from her manner one would think she’d just revealed a great but unknown truth. "Sure, the body might be nice," she gave her partner a wink, "but you’re a guy, and we all know that women are smarter and tougher than men. I mean, look at Jo. Everyone backs down from her if they want to live, even bounds."

The room was quiet for several minutes, save for the sound of mead being swallowed. As the bottle came back around to him, Reiichi pushed up his glasses and spoke. "Well, you made a very good point there, Miko, but I do believe that – while in no means putting women-kind down – Jo is quite unique. It’s less of a matter of her being female as just being…."

"Jo," Yohji finished for him. "But you’re right about you being tougher and smarter than Ken. Have you seen him around spiders yet?"

"Hey! I seem to recall someone screaming like a little girl when we had to catch a bat that got into Omi’s room that one time." Ken grabbed a pillow as if to throw it at Yohji but let it drop onto his lap when Aya gave him a chilling look. "The entire wing heard you carrying on."

Yohji didn’t seem very happy being reminded about that while Omi was trying his best to smother his laughter with his hand. Reiichi promised himself to ask the prince about that incident one day but decided it would be best to put an end to the teasing before Aya took it in his mind to defend his mate. "So we’re dealing with intelligent, vicious creatures, not flesh gaki or the Takatori returned as ghosts to plague Timbergrey like I heard during my wanderings today. That’s good to know."

"You’re a weird one, all right," Naru commented from his pillow on the floor. "I personally was hoping for some deranged soul being the culprit; you know, the kind that blow up easily." He pouted for a moment. "Do these blendings blow up easily?"

"They have enhanced healing abilities even without imbibing my blood, but are not as strong as bounds." The way Aya talked so matter-of-factly about the creatures being enhanced by his blood made Reiichi and several others in the room shiver. "I imagine they would explode if you threw enough of your stones at them."

"Good. I brought lots of bombs so I could have some fun." All seemed right in Naru’s world once more.

However, the conversation made something suddenly occur to Reiichi. "Aya, you said they killed two of their own for your blood, correct?"

"Yes." Aya rubbed the inside of his left arm as Yohji growled softly and hugged him close. "Stop that," he chided Yohji before continuing. "Then they took all the blood that Masafumi had stored away for use before they left the castle."

"How long do the effects tend to last, if you don’t mind me asking?"

Aya chewed on his bottom lip for a moment. "I’m not sure. People seem to react differently, and it all depends on how refined the blood is and how much they ingest. A few weeks at the most, I guess, if they don’t use the abilities they’d gain from it too much."

A few weeks. The murders stretched back about two months, a bit more than a ‘few weeks’. "So the effects should have worn off by now, yes?"

"Yes." Both Aya and Yohji stared at him with concern.

Just as he’d suspected…. Taking a deep breath, Reiichi let it out and ran the risk of harming his developing relationship with Aya. "I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you not to leave the castle under any circumstances until we’ve caught these blendings, Aya."

"What?" Yohji wasn’t the only person to react to the request, but he was the loudest. "Where the hell do you get off bossing him around like that?"

"Because of the simple fact that these blendings have proven themselves willing to do whatever is necessary to get ahold of Aya’s blood." He pitched his voice loud enough to drown out everyone else. "They killed for it, Yohji, and they took it with them when they left. What do you think is going to happen when they find out the source of their amazing and now long-gone powers is back here?" Really, he didn’t know why Birman hadn’t figured this out already; he assumed that the Spymaster must be distracted by what they’d found in the basement.

"They won’t fucking touch him," Yohji snarled.

"I can take care of myself," Aya added, his eyes once more containing a hint of silver.

"Yes, but what about everyone else around you?" Reiichi asked as he refused to allow himself to be cowed by the demon natures of the two men in front of him. "If they can kill one of their own, what makes you think that they won’t try to harm someone else to get to you?" He hoped they saw his point without too much trouble and realized he was acting in everyone’s best interest. "What if these blendings attack whoever goes out with you, or some innocent villager?"

Yohji continued to glare angrily at him but Aya’s gaze faltered as he again hugged his mate’s arms around him, this time seeming unsure of something. He looked down at his lap and shook his head. "You have a point, Reiichi. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s the extent that people will go to for kage blood. It would be best not to stir these creatures up, there’s no telling what damage they’d do then."

"Hold it, Aya, how would they even know about you?" Yohji tugged on his mate’s shoulder to get Aya to look at him. "Eri’s making sure that none of the staff talks about you, and we didn’t come though the village on the way here."

"No, but if I go out, someone will be sure to talk and I don’t think Eri can make the entire village not notice me."

"But Aya, what about your powers?" Omi asked. "You can go outside without anyone noticing you."

Aya thought about that for a moment and then shook his head. "We’re just assuming that the blendings don’t have my powers any longer. If Ty and the others killed more than just the two downstairs, they might have enough of my blood to be able to sense me even if I’m cloaked in shadows." He took a deep breath and turned to face Yohji. "I don’t really care about not going out, to tell the truth. There’s not much for me to see, and they can wait until we’ve taken care of the blendings."

Aya faced the room again, Yohji’s arms loose around his shoulders. "I hadn’t thought about the blood," he told Reiichi, his voice quieter than normal and a slightly worried expression on his face.

"I hadn’t either, not until you mentioned something about the killings," he explained, a little worried that Aya would hold the order against him. "I’m not trying to order you around, Aya, I promise you that. I’m just trying to think about what’s best for the mission." Besides, once Birman thought things through, she’d tell Aya the same thing, only probably without as much tact as he’d tried to use.

"I understand, Reiichi." Aya growled softly and leaned back against Yohji. "The main thing to focus on right now is the mission."

"Yes, exactly. Once it’s done, we can go home." He smiled at Aya and was pleased when his friend nodded back.

The conversation slowly resumed after that, tentative at first and then Miko started to tease Naru about trying to drink the last of the mead, and the comfortable, friendly feeling from before returned. Reiichi settled back into the couch and enjoyed the interaction, but half of his attention was focused on the mission and how what he’d just learned this evening could complicate matters.

*******

Eri was enjoying a nice, spicy cup of tea, her belly mostly full from dinner. The buzz from Birman and Botan’s thoughts as they went through the books spread out on the bed was easily ignored as she gave the other minds around her a light scan. She smiled a little when she found out that the rest of her companions were gathered in Yohji and Aya’s room enjoying a bottle of mead and wondered if she could wheedle a few free drinks from them once the mission was over by pointing out how she’d been left out of the fun. True, it had been her choice to have dinner with Birman so they could go over her findings, but she regretted that decision when all she’d done was eaten alone. If those two didn’t leave the books alone in a few minutes, she’d go see if there was any mead left.

The staff’s thoughts revealed that all the work she’d put into altering their memories last night and today was paying off. Thankfully, Aya had ‘disappeared’ after breakfast so the compulsion she’d placed in their minds to forget about the kage was given some time to settle in. If he remained in his room all night –which was more than likely since he was mated to a succubae-bound – then, come the morning, the house staff shouldn’t ostracize him anymore. They would just see him as a stranger here on the King’s orders. She still had to alter a few more minds and was planning on a visit to the stable later tonight, but she was happy that this part of her job was almost done.

"Would you like some more tea?"

Birman’s question shook her from her thoughts, but she hadn’t been deep enough in the scanning to be truly startled. Which was good, because the Spymaster might not like having fangs snapping at her throat. "Yes, please, with lots of honey."

"I’ll go ask them for another pot and some more coffee as well." Botan was barely understandable as his words were mangled by a rather large yawn; he looked exhausted as he picked up the tray filled with empty plates from in front of her. "Do you want anything else to snack on?"

"A few sandwiches would be nice." Eri rubbed her stomach, which still felt a bit empty, even after all the food she’d just eaten. "Make that more than few." Botan and Birman should be very thankful that she hadn’t eaten their dinners as well, which still sat on their trays.

"Whatever the lady wants." Botan actually managed to execute a courtly bow while holding the tray and then winked at her before leaving the room. She was beginning to see what attracted Cassandra to the man, even if he was a wizard. A wizard with bound blood in him, she reminded herself.

Birman shook her head and radiated amusement as she sat down at the small table. "He’s starting to get all punchy now, we really need to take a break and eat." She gestured to the empty space in front of Eri. "I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to make you eat all by yourself while we worked."

"That’s all right." Eri rubbed the back of her neck and promised herself a nice long soak before going to bed. She should be able to manage that without disturbing Miko’s rest. "I was doing some work myself."

Birman’s eyes narrowed and she once again projected the intense concentration from when she’d been going through the journals. "May I ask what you were doing?"

Eri bristled slightly at the bossy tone in Birman’s voice but recognized that the woman really wasn’t being snippy with her. She had to get used to being around other people again and taking orders. "I’ve made sure that the staff inside the castle doesn’t recognize Aya anymore. I need to reinforce the command for a few more days, but they should stop wetting themselves in fear whenever they see him from now on." The stupid twits, offending a kage like that.

"Good." A weak smile spread across Birman’s face. "I would be very upset if Yohji harmed one of the staff because of the way they treat Aya." There wasn’t any humor in her thoughts at the moment.

Eri nodded and had another sip of tea as she thought the staff probably deserved whatever Yohji did to them – and then reminded herself that having an irate succubae-bound on a rampage would not be a good thing for her people. "I hope to have everyone on the castle grounds adjusted by tomorrow evening, and the change will be permanent by the time we leave. They’ll think of Aya as simply being the king’s servant, nothing more."

"Thank you." Birman poured herself some tea and sat back in her chair. "Please don’t take this the wrong way, but is that all you’ve done?"

For a moment she was tempted to ask the Spymaster just what the hell the woman expected her to be able to do in such a short time while wandering around the castle grounds with Naru bouncing along beside her, but she’d long practice controlling her temper. The Spymaster was unaware of her strengths and weaknesses, so she couldn’t take anything personally until that situation was corrected.

"I’ve managed some scanning of the staff’s minds while I was altering them." She tapped her fingers against the fragile teacup and watched the brown liquid ripple and quake. "One of the reasons I wanted to talk to you and Botan is because I found out that one of the staff is a minor wizard. He’s tapped into a few of Masafumi’s wards such as the ones along the road, and he’s been trying to find all of the man’s journals. If you do a search of his quarters you’ll find a few more books, along with many of Reiji’s. He basically took whatever wasn’t warded too strongly."

Birman’s lips pressed together into a thin line and, for a few seconds, she reminded Eri of a hawk that had just sighted its prey. "Who is he?"

"Mitoji Abe. He’s Katsuya’s assistant." She set the porcelain cup down on the tray and motioned toward the room’s door. "From what I can tell, he has an inkling of what Masafumi was involved in and believes he can sell the books for a nice profit. I discovered him earlier and put a block on his memories about the journals and his plans to flee Timbergrey with them tonight." She snorted as she thought about how easy that had been. No wonder the man had never gotten farther in the Wizard Guild than he had; he was much too weak-willed to be very powerful.

"Thank you." Birman’s expression still remained predatory but inwardly she was very happy about that bit of news. "I’ll have Botan deal with him after dinner."

"Once I uncovered the truth about his magical abilities I scanned him pretty thoroughly." Eri rubbed her temples at the memory of the headache it had caused her. "He really doesn’t know very much, the Takatori were aware of his ability but it was too minor for them to put it to any use. If I’d found anything other than his talent and the few journals he’s stolen, I would have alerted you right away."

Birman poured the last of the tea into Eri’s cup. "You did fine. Was there anything else of interest that you found?"

Eri hoped that Botan returned soon with the tea and sandwiches so she could fuel up for the long night ahead. "The staff is either very loyal to the Takatori or too afraid to say anything bad about their former masters. More than a few suspect that whatever Masafumi was doing downstairs might be related to the murders but since they seem pretty safe on the castle grounds, they don’t really care." She bared her teeth in disgust at the self-centered humans. "They won’t risk coming forward to speak and be held responsible for the Takatori’s actions."

Birman took a few bites of her dinner, her mind busy digesting that statement. "So they won’t be much help to us on this mission, is what you’re saying. What about any of them being aware of Reiji’s associates? Can they identify anyone who would have been involved in the conspiracy against the king?"

"I’ll need to do deeper scans to find that out." Why did humans think that bounds were these all-powerful magical beings? If her kind were that powerful, they wouldn’t have to worry about being drained of their blood or murdered by humans and wizards. "There are a few people I’m suspicious of but if they have that knowledge, chances are they’re going to be very guarded in both their actions and thoughts. I do know that Katsuya was very aware of what the Takatori were doing and I’m sure he will supply us with a few leads, but I thought my main priority was keeping the truth about Aya a secret." She couldn’t quite keep a waspish tone from her voice and heartily wished that Yuushi were here. He didn’t seem to make as many assumptions as Birman did or expect her to single-handedly solve every problem with a wave of her hand.

At least Birman had the grace to blush slightly. "Eri, I’m sorry." She let out a long breath and combed her fingers through her hair. "I know it’s no excuse but it’s been a long and rather depressing day. The little bit we’ve found in Masafumi’s journals already…." She tugged gently on her hair. "He was hoping to create his own army and he didn’t care that they’d most likely annihilate everything in their path as long as they listened to him."

She took a deep breath before she continued. "Thank you very much for dealing with the staff’s memories. You’re right, ensuring that no one figures out that Aya’s a kage is the most important thing right now. Everyone else is working on finding the blendings, you’re the only one who can help us in regards to Aya."

The sincerity behind the apology mollified Eri. She really had to get used to working with humans and not take everything so personally, but she had decades of bad habits to break. "As I said, I hope to have things regarding him settled by tomorrow. Once that’s done, I’ll concentrate on Katsuya and whatever he knows about Reiji’s associates."

Birman smiled. "That’s all I can ask, really. The brief report I received from Ken and Miko indicated that they should be able to track down the blendings and Reiichi will assist them as much as he can. The Guards stationed here can pitch in as well. Aya, Yohji and Omi will remain here to help Botan and me to uncover as much information about the blendings as possible, so that leaves you and Naru to keep an eye on things around the castle and to handle its staff." She toyed with her knife as she thought about something. "I wish I could have brought more help but that would only have attracted attention and I don’t see how more people really could do what you, Ken, Yohji and Aya are already doing."

Eri thought about how to answer that very carefully before she spoke. "In this situation, our talents are certainly an important factor, but a lot of what the Guards do can be handled by well-trained humans."

"I’m well aware of that." Birman set aside the knife and stared earnestly at Eri. "If things were normal they’d be more than up to the task before them. However, I’ve noticed a trend in magic related crimes over the last few years as well as a growing intrigue at Court since Shuuichi became king. Add the fact that Esset is gearing up for another war and humans, trained or not, won’t be able to handle what’s awaiting us. So for the gods’ sakes, if I’m screwing things up with my misconceptions or ignorance, say something, please. I might be upset over having my mistakes pointed out, but it would be more at myself than anything else."

Unable to hold back a smile, Eri decided that she was beginning to like this woman. Yes, she was what an old friend would call an ‘acquired taste’ but Birman truly was trying her best to learn and learn fast. "Understood. I’ll be certain to correct you on your failings from now on."

"Oh, great joy," Birman replied rather sarcastically but returned the smile. "I suggest you have a nice long talk with Botan one night, he’s enjoyed putting me in my place for the last few years. He’ll be happy to know he’s not alone in that anymore."

"Thank you for the suggestion." Eri relaxed back in her chair. "Speaking of Botan, where is he with our drinks and the food?"

A look of long suffering settled on Birman’s face. "Knowing him? He’s been bedazzled by a bit of magic and is standing in front of it drooling right now, oblivious to the world." She made a sound of disgust. "Wizards."

Eri raised her teacup. "I’ll drink to that."

*******

Aya looked up from the book he was reading when Yohji, done washing off, settled on the edge of the bed. He set the book aside for the night and slowly reached out to touch Yohji’s bare and slightly damp back. Sometimes he had to remind himself that it was perfectly all right to touch his mate like this. So many years of living by himself….

He shook aside the grim thought and scooted forward so he could give his mate a massage. Yohji groaned in appreciation and shifted about until his back was presented to Aya. "Gods, love, you have all night to stop that."

"Mmmm." Yohji’s skin was addictive, firm and golden and radiating his wonderful scent… Aya scooted forward a little more and licked the scarred shoulder as his hands kneaded along Yohji’s spine. "Why are you so tense?"

Yohji laughed, the sound bright and loud as leaned his head back on Aya’s shoulder. "Oh, keep that up and something will be even more ‘tense’ pretty soon." He waggled his brows in such an outrageous manner that Aya couldn’t help but grin. "You wanna tell me if that’s a bad thing or not?" he asked, suddenly a touch serious.

Aya thought about the question, and then thought about how good it felt to touch his lover. "No, I don’t think that’s a problem." He loved Yohji for so many reasons, but chief among them was the way his mate would always ask for permission first – well, for everything but draining him dry, he thought a bit wryly, the anger from their fight long gone.

"Ah." Yohji pulled away, and as he protested the loss of contact, tugged him down onto the bed so they could lie facing each other. "You sure about that?"

He took a deep breath to help calm himself as his good mood wore a little thin. Yohji’s constant coddling was becoming more than annoying. He knew that his mate had his best intentions at heart but the attitude was getting rather stifling. "I’m sure."

Yohji stared at him for a few seconds before stroking a hand through Aya’s hair; he couldn’t help but purr at the touch. All right, he was more than grateful that Yohji was here with him and looking out for him, they just needed to find a balance between concern and coddling.

"I’m annoying the hell out of you, aren’t I?" Yohji asked, his voice soft and a little uncertain.

Aya smiled back and snuggled closer. "Yes and no. One moment I want you to give me some space but then I want you there beside me." He pressed his face against Yohji’s chest and breathed deeply. "I… it’s this place. Just when I think I’ve found my balance here, something comes along and knocks me off my feet." He *hated* that.

"I know what you mean." Now it was Yohji who was giving a massage, and Aya’s purr grew louder as the skilled touch smoothed out his knotted muscles. "But you’re doing great, Aya."

He nuzzled Yohji’s neck and hugged him close, utterly happy for it to just be the two of them once again. Desire slowly pooled inside him with each passing minute but he felt so languid at the moment that he just enjoyed the closeness and caresses they gave each other. From his mate he sensed much of the same and a touch of hunger, which caused him to shiver.

Judging from Yohji’s pleased chuckle, he knew why he shivered. "I want to enjoy you tonight, to touch you all over until you’re a purring lump of contentment." There was a husky, lust-filled quality to Yohji’s voice that made him shiver again. "How does that sound?"

"Wonderful," he moaned against Yohji’s neck, his tongue flicking out to lick delicious, golden skin.

"I didn’t think you’d complain." Yes, Yohji was definitely gloating a little. "But before we start…." A gentle hand urged him to look up into a pair of beautiful, concerned green eyes. "Do you really not have a problem about being ordered to stay inside? We can go knock some sense into Birman’s head before Reiichi has a chance to get to her if you do."

Disappointed that the massage had been interrupted, he had to force himself to seriously consider the question. "I think… no, not really." As long as he wasn’t required to go downstairs or back up to his room too often, he could manage. "I didn’t think I’d be wandering around here much to begin with, and if I concentrate on finding all the spells, that should help get us home sooner. There’s just…." He sighed and closed his eyes, a little surprised at how this still hurt. She was at peace now, which was all that mattered.

"’There’s just…’ what, Cat?" Yohji stroked his cheek until he opened his eyes. "Something’s bothering you."

"I was planning on visiting my sister’s grave tomorrow." He’d hoped that Birman would allow him the personal time since he’d put in a day’s work.

"Oh." Yohji blinked a few times, as if he was uncertain how to respond. Maybe it was silly of Aya to want to pay his respects when he knew his sister’s soul was gone now, but he couldn’t bear the thought of her lying neglected in Takatori land.

"Maybe we can talk Birman into letting you out for a little bit." Yohji smiled tenderly and stroked his temple "Don’t worry, we’ll be taking her with us when we leave, she won’t be neglected for much longer."

"I know. And the sooner we finish with the work, the sooner we all can leave." Besides, waiting to see her might be for the best, as he’d probably be tempted to bring her ashes back here with him. But as much as he hated the thought of her all alone out in the field, he also didn’t like the idea of bringing back to the place where he’d been held captive for several years and had killed herself trying to leave. "I can wait another week or two to visit her grave. Her and my parents’." At least their graves were looked after by Kisei’s priestesses and hadn’t been neglected during his absence.

"Shit, I forgot to ask Ken about checking out your house. Sorry, Cat." Yohji nuzzled his forehead and gave him a quick kiss. "I’ll ask him in the morning. Is that really all that’s bothering you?"

He managed to dredge up a smile, the expression becoming more genuine as Yohji stroked his hands along Aya’s body and made his skin tingle in pleasure. "That’s all."

"Good," Yohji purred, and leaned in for a kiss that he was certain wasn’t going to be as quick or gentle as the last one. "Now then, let’s move on to turning you into that purring lump of contentment."

*******

Yohji searched through the field, trying to find the small grave his lover had described to him this morning. He wished he’d asked for more detailed directions but he hadn’t really thought that he’d been able to go outside today. But Birman had wanted someone to go to the market and order some more provisions, and Aya had grown annoyed with him hovering about as he helped Botan map out the various spells that filled the castle. Yohji smiled as he thought about the last, at how determined Aya was not to let this place get to him today. Fortunately, he didn’t have to go back down to the dungeon today so the work wasn’t as painful as it had been yesterday. Yohji decided he’d give his lover some much-needed space and some peace as well - if he could just find Aya-chan’s grave.

He walked around, on the lookout for a small rowan tree. He finally found it, still bearing a few red berries, then focused his attention on the ground near it. He stared down at the wooden marker before him, at the emblem and the simple name carved onto the oak plank. Above the Fujimiya clan emblem it said ‘Aya’, and he couldn’t suppress a shiver at seeing his mate’s name on a grave marker. Kneeling, he carefully set aside the flowers he’d bought at the market and started to pull out the weeds that cluttered around the board. It was painfully obvious that no one had bothered with tending the grave while *his* Aya had been gone.

"These idiots don’t even care about giving proper respect to the dead, do they, darling?" he said quietly, ashamed that Aya’s sister had been mistreated even in death. He doubted that the grave had been much of a secret, but no one had cared at all about tending to it during Aya’s absence. "You’re probably wondering why I’m doing this and not your brother. Long story, that, but let’s just say it’s better this way."

He had to use his knife to dig up some of the weeds’ roots and was careful not to disturb the urn that contained Aya-chan’s ashes. For a moment he was determined to dig it up and take it with him regardless of the fact that Aya had decided it would be best to leave the girl’s remains here until they were ready to leave. Aya didn’t want to risk anything happening to the urn while they stayed at the castle, even if the servants didn’t seem to fear him anymore.

"Just a little longer, darling, and you’ll be somewhere much better than here." He felt a little silly talking out loud like this when he knew that Aya-chan’s soul had passed on. There was no doubt in his mind that she’d moved on to… whatever lay in wait for everyone after they died and she wasn’t haunting her grave now. But she was Aya’s beloved sister and deserved something more than him just silently tidying up her grave and walking away. "You’ll love the garden at the Koneko." Though they’d have to create new markers for Aya’s family; it wouldn’t be a good idea to display the Fujimiya emblem in the capital. "Maybe we can grow some orchids around the shrine or something. Marta and Aya will figure something out, I’m certain." Done with the weeding, he picked up the small brass vase that Aya used to hold flowers and emptied out dirt and leaves. The pouch he’d brought contained enough water for the flowers and, in moments, almost everything was restored to proper order. All that was left for him to do was to rake the fine sand into a small pile and stick an incense stick into it. Once lit, he sat back on his heels and smiled, filled with both satisfaction and sadness.

This was the closest he’d ever be to one of Aya’s family, not counting the few times he’d held the soul sphere before it had been destroyed. He was reminded of how alone his lover was outside of his new family at the Koneko, of how much he’d lost. Also, he was reminded of the fact that Aya hadn’t been the only one to suffer all those years. His parents’ lives had been cut short and his sister….

Fiddling with the flowers, he cleared his throat and spoke again. "Thank you. Even if it didn’t work out as you’d hoped, thank you for trying your best to free him." Aya-chan had cared enough about her brother to give up her own life, something he wasn’t sure many people would do let alone a young girl with her entire life ahead of her. "What you did wasn’t in vain, you know. He’s free now." They both were, it had just taken longer than Aya-chan had hoped and had cost them both so much pain. "I’ll make sure that never changes."

The wind picked up and sent his hair flying into his face. He spat out a few strands that got caught in his mouth and tucked them back the best he could as he stood up. The grave appeared out of place right at the edge of where the meadow turned into woods, but he had to admit it was peaceful here. He knew, however, that his mate wouldn’t be happy until his family was enshrined at the Koneko. "Bye, darling," he waved as he stepped away. "Both of us will be back soon enough."

Grimacing as the wind once more played with his hair, he looked up at the sky and noticed that it would probably rain sometime that evening. With summer slowly waning into autumn, the storm season wouldn’t be too far away. He couldn’t wait until things cooled down a little and the weather took on an overcast nature. That way Aya would be able to spend more time outdoors and not have to worry about being burned by the sun.

He spared one last look at Aya-chan’s grave and, as a disquieted feeling settled on him, set out to return to the castle. How he wished there’d been some way to spare the girl but it had probably been for the best that she’d died several years ago. Considering what the Takatori had done to her soul, he didn’t want to think what would have happened to her if she’d been alive these last few years. He just wished that Aya hadn’t had to lose everything. At least Aya had a family once more, he thought, refusing to lose himself to pity and sorrow. He thought about walking up to his lover and hugging him close, of them going back to the Koneko and spending a day or three just curled up with each other. Right now, he just wanted to leave Timbergrey Castle and never come back.

"Then it’s about time you got your ass in gear, isn’t it, Kudoh?" He had a work ethic a few years back, it was time to dust it off and put it to use. This mission couldn’t be over soon enough in his opinion.

*******

Sei crouched beneath the pine tree and waited for the tall man to return to the castle. He’d caught a few of the words spoken but what really had him hopeful was the smell the wind blew down to him, familiar and disturbing at the same time. Waiting until the stranger had been gone for several minutes, he cautiously crept out into the clearing, constantly searching for signs of anyone watching him and busy sniffing the air for any scents. Oh, how he missed the shadows that he used to be able to cloak himself in. Soon enough, if Ty was right, he’d have them back.

Creeping toward the grave, he couldn’t help but smile when he was less than a few yards away from it. That was *definitely* Ran’s scent, he hadn’t been mistaken. Why the stranger radiated it so strongly he wasn’t certain; maybe the man was Ran’s keeper. But why had he been tending to the grave of Ran’s sister? There had to be more to their relationship than that. Ran’s scent was mixed with the tall blond’s even more strongly than the women’s scents had clung to Masafumi. Along with that scent was… he leaned closer to the flowers and felt heat suffuse his body when he caught the faint but still potent aroma of sex. Ah, that explained a few things and gave him even more hope, so much that he shivered in eagerness.

He lingered by the grave for a few more seconds and took one of the flowers with him as he left, holding it away from his body so he didn’t taint its scent. No, Ty would find this very, very interesting. He was indeed optimistic that it wouldn’t be much longer before they had their old powers back, never to have them wear off again. Once their former strength was restored, they would have nothing to fear from Guards or anyone else.

Running swiftly through the forest, he was careful to leave as little trace of his presence as possible. He even took a longer way back home, most of the time was spent splashing through various creeks to mask his scent. When he reached the cattle fields he made sure to travel through the area the animals would cross during their evening wanderings, further hiding his trail. They couldn’t be too careful now, not with wizards and Guards looking for them. They overheard many travelers along the road talking about the visitors.

Finally coming across the cave where his pack lived, Sei stepped out of the shallow stream that ran right by its entrance and nodded to Gou. The taller man nodded back but didn’t speak or move from the post that Ty had assigned him. That reminded him of the fact that technically he’d deserted his post so, rather apprehensively, he crept into the dark cave to find his leader. Surely Ty would forgive him once he told him the news.

Ty was sitting on one of the chairs they’d managed to build on their own, his arms folded over his chest as he watched over his pack – at least the ones not out on sentry duty or hunting for food. Mas and Gen were over in the corner scraping hides while Cho worked on building new furniture. Tem, Pa and Lin were playing cards, Lin growled as he folded his hand. All and all, a rather domestic scene for them, but Sei could sense an underlying tension that made the hair on the back of his neck stand on end and his lips start to pull back from his teeth.

"Why are you back so soon, Sei, and what have you there?" Ty asked as he rose from the chair. As he stepped toward him, he sniffed a few times. "A flower and…?" Moving almost too quickly to see, he snatched the flower from Sei’s hand and shoved it under his nose. "Ah, kage." He smiled widely, exposing most of his sharp, white teeth. "Where did you find this? Ran’s scent is still fresh, along with someone else’s." He sniggered as he wafted the carnation under his nose. "My, Ran’s been a naughty boy from the smell of it."

The rest of the pack had stopped what they were doing as soon as Ty had mentioned the kage and now they crowded around the two of them.

"Did you see the kage, Sei? Why didn’t you snatch him?" Gen asked as he slipped between Tem and Pa.

"Where was he? Is he still out?" Lin growled, his bared teeth gleaming in the dim light.

Mas laughed, the sound high pitched and humorless. "We can have his blood by tonight if we-"

"Enough," Ty growled, and everyone fell silent and shuffled back a few steps, even Sei. Ty grabbed him by the arm and pulled him closer. "Where did you see Ran?"

Sei swallowed as he dipped his head a little, hiding his neck as he bore the brunt of his leader’s attention. "I didn’t see him, Ty. I was at his sister’s grave," he was quick to add when the large man growled, "and this stranger cleaned it up and left the flowers. He reeked of Ran, Ty, so much so that I could smell him yards away. He kept mentioning the name ‘Aya’ but… he seemed to be talking to the girl, not about her. He said something like ‘he’s free now." He swallowed again and hoped that there hadn’t been too much of a whine in his voice. If he appeared too weak, Ty wouldn’t respect him anymore.

Sniffing the flower once again, Ty stared at him, his golden eyes now appearing cold and his broad face emotionless. Another sniff and then he handed the flower back. "What were you doing by that meadow? Didn’t I tell you to keep an eye on the gates of the castle?"

Sei flinched at the rough tone. "Yes, Ty, you did. And I did keep a look out there, I just… I wandered around a little bit as well." He fought to keep his chin from touching his neck and to control the fear that arose from his leader being angry with him. "I thought… I remembered one of the women talking about Ran visiting his sister’s grave and being beaten for it so I tried to swing by it during my rounds." He was trembling but he still held his ground.

Ty stared at him for a moment longer, his lips pulling back even farther from his teeth, and Sei couldn’t prevent a whimper from escaping him. However, the sound seemed to appease Ty, whose dark expression lightened to one of thoughtfulness. "Always the clever one, aren’t you, Sei?" There was the slightest hint of a warning there, but he was already well aware that being clever wasn’t enough to lead this pack. Ty had no cause to fear him becoming too independent and wanting to be the one in charge. "I’d forgotten about the grave. You said something about a stranger. What did he look like?"

He wiped the damp palm of his right hand against his leg and tried to restore some order to his thoughts before he answered. "He was tall, almost as tall as you but lanky. He was blond and golden-skinned, and he wore shaded glasses of all things." He frowned as he thought some more about the stranger. "There was something odd about him, both his scent and the way he moved."

"How so?" Ty asked, his arms folded across his chest once more.

Sei gave the matter serious thought. He’d been so excited about Ran’s scent he really hadn’t paid that much attention to the stranger. "The way he moved… he’s had weapons training, I’ll bet anything on that. And… I don’t know," he flushed a little as he remembered his initial reaction to the man. "There’s something about him, something that makes it hard to look away from him." Maybe it was just the scent of sex that had clung to him.

"Hmmm." Ty started to pace, and everyone got out of his way. "He might be a Guard or in the Army, though the first is more likely since other Guards are here. Perhaps he’s one of the Spymaster’s hounds." He frowned at something and then shook his head as if to clear it. "He must be near Ran an awful lot to reek so strongly of him."

"That’s what I thought," Sei said quietly, afraid to disturb his leader’s train of thoughts. "He didn’t have to visit the grave."

"No." Ty sat back down in his chair, the wood creaking with stress. "Ran’s a pretty thing, and you could smell Hirofumi’s lust for him whenever he was around the man. Maybe this stranger has a thing for kage and, from the scent of things, Ran’s finally putting out." He laughed at that, his deep voice echoing throughout the cave.

"This stranger… was definitely attractive," Sei forced himself to admit, a little ashamed to remember how he’d first reacted to the man.

Ty laughed again. "Good. So, it seems we might have the key to the kage, considering the fact that little Ran hasn’t stepped outside of the castle yet. He didn’t seem the sort to just let anyone tumble him so there has to be a bond between the two." He licked his lips in a lascivious manner. "Sei, I want you to be on the lookout for this man again. If there’s a chance to take him, we will." Ty’s rough voice deepened and his fangs flashed once more. "He’s to be taken alive," he ordered as he met each of the pack-members’ eyes. "A hostage will be the best way to control Ran."

"What about the Guards?" Mas whined as he crept forward. "We don’t need them now that we’ve found out about this man. Can we kill them before they find us?"

As fast as a thought, Ty was on his feet and snarling. "I’ve *told* you not to touch any Guards until *after* we’ve gotten a hold on Ran. A dead Guard will bring trouble down on our heads the likes of which you’ve never seen, and we’d be helpless unless we’ve gotten more of Ran’s blood." He marched over to Mas, who was cringing and whining, and shook him violently. "Any more talk of killing them and I’ll rip out your throat." His claws dug into Mas’ flesh, the scent of blood filling the enclosed space and soon followed by voided bowels, and then Mas was thrown across the cave to lie crumpled on the ground. "Is that clear?"

All of them hastily assured their leader that they understood. Cho, who was usually loathe to talk at all, stepped closer to Sei. "Ty, what about the wizard? We need one of them as well as Ran."

Breathing deeply, Ty didn’t lash out at the quiet man but instead appeared to think about the question. "You’re right. We’ll need one of the ones who came with the Guards if we can’t get Mitoji out of the castle, but Ran is the most important thing. We’ll drain him bone dry if we have to for enough blood to get our powers back – he’ll recover eventually. Wizards are much more plentiful than kage."

Cho nodded and melted back into the shadows, as did everyone else, eager to be away from Ty while his temper was still chancy. Sei retreated to a quiet corner and thought about the stranger some more. The man had definitely been odd… but he couldn’t figure out why he was sure of that fact. Then, there was the stranger’s link to Ran to consider. Ran had always seemed so quiet and withdrawn, would he really take a lover just to be treated a little better? Sei wasn’t sure… but sooner or later they’d have their answers. Now that they had a means of controlling Ran, it would only be a matter of time before the kage was in their hands.

*******

Return to Archive

Next Chapter