Shadows of the Past

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chapter 7

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Ken and Miko approached the large cottage, wet grass squelching under their feet and a soft, drizzling rain falling down upon them. The weather seemed to have decided that it was time for autumn and had taken a rather sharp, cold turn from the heat of the last few months. Ken thought for a moment how the ride home wasn’t going to be pleasant if the rainy season decided to come early.

"So, a rich lord like Fujimiya ends up spending his last days in a place like this." Miko pushed back her damp bangs and stared at the house, which was almost completely engulfed in ivy.

He ducked under a branch from one of the apple trees that lined the stone path leading to the cottage. The trees had grown wild over the years, their branches stretched out and intertwined together, almost forming an arch above the path. "I wouldn’t exactly call this place a dump." His tone was sharper than he’d intended; this was exactly the type of house that he and Yuriko had always dreamed about owning one day.

Miko’s steps faltered for a moment and she flashed him an apologetic grin. "I didn’t say it was one, I just…." She shrugged her shoulders and pulled the hood of her slicker a little further forward. "You must admit that this is a far cry from the palace or a highborn’s estate. Aya’s father must’ve really wanted to get away from the capital and Court if he willingly agreed to live here and work for Prince Reiji."

"According to Reiichi, he didn’t have much choice." He cursed as a branch he’d just pushed away swung back, droplets of water spraying all over his face. "Overgrown weeds." He cursed again when Miko shoved him into some more wet branches. "What the hell was that for?"

His partner rolled her eyes and snorted in disdain. "Please, Ken, I know the story, all right? I think any commoner girl born a few years before or any time after Ranmura Fujimiya’s wedding has heard it many times. Mothers use it to make their daughters dress neatly and behave, and fathers to keep their baby girls from running off with the first boy who courts them." She laughed, and when she continued, her voice was altered to sound like an old woman’s. "’Now be a proper young lady, Miko-dear, because you never know when a lord might see your radiant beauty and decide to give up everything to make you his wife, just like Lord Fujimiya. That won’t happen if you go running around covered in mud and your hair resembles a rat’s nest.’"

That made sense, he thought as he wiped at the water running down his cheek. "I guess you never cared for the idea of marrying a lord then, considering that you’re still covered in mud and your hair’s a mess."

"Bastard," Miko muttered without any real heat. Then, she looked at him with an impossibly innocent expression, causing him to shiver in fear. "Why would I need a rich lord when I’ve got my very own Kenken?"

"Uhm, I think I hear my mate calling me," he whimpered as he pressed back against wet branches, away from Miko.

"You don’t have one, remember?" She leaned closer, her hand resting on his chest. "But Kenken, don’t you love me? Don’t you want to take me away from the cruel, cruel world and shower me with pearls and gems and velvets, and have servants ready to cater to my every whim?" She batted her eyelashes as if something was stuck in both eyes, and even though a branch was poking him rather painfully in his left kidney, he tried to creep backward a little further. "Don’t you want to pamper your poor Miko-dear?"

"Right now I want to be very far away from a very scary ‘Miko-dear’." He swallowed past a tight throat and managed to slip away to the right. "In case you didn’t notice, I’m a poor commoner just like you."

Miko laughed as she followed him down the trail, the sound bright on such an overcast day. "Ah, another dream shattered. I was certain you were really a lord slumming in the Guards." She winked at him.

He had to laugh at his partner’s silliness as he carefully stopped a few feet from the cottage’s front porch. "Right. You’ve seen through my clever disguise, Miko-dear. Was it my fine silks and velvets that gave me away," he asked as he smoothed his hand down the dark rain slicker he was wearing, "or the servants following me everywhere, eager to obey my every command?"

She stopped beside him and elbowed him in the ribs. "I think it was your fine, courtly manners that tipped me off." They shared a grin for a few seconds before turning to face the cottage. "So, are you sensing anything?"

Snorting over that bit of foolishness, he took a small step forward. "I’m not Aya, and all the ring does is make me invisible to magic, not warn me when it’s near. It’s likely that the wards he told us about are still in place."

"All right, I’ll go check out the back then." She waved him on as she skirted around the house. "I’ll meet you in the garden, and don’t take too long."

"What about me being careful?" he called out as he stepped onto the porch.

Miko’s amused voice drifted back to him. "Mean bastards who play with my affections aren’t given any warnings. Go break a leg or something!"

"You know, things like that are probably why you’re still single!" he yelled as he fought back a laugh. Gods, he really did adore the woman. If he ever was insane enough to give into the urge to date her, he was sure she’d drive him even crazier in a matter of days. What was it with him being paired with crazy women? Sorrow washed through him as he thought about Liss, the memories occurring less and less lately. He guessed it was natural to move on, but he still missed his old partner. Almost as much as he missed….

Shaking his head, he stepped onto the small porch. So far, so good. He frowned as he approached the door, suddenly wondering if he’d have to pick the lock or find another way inside the house, but the doorknob turned easily in his hand. Guess the Takatori hadn’t seen any sense in locking up a house that had been warded against trespassers.

The windows were shuttered and the curtains drawn, so very little light managed to make its way inside the house but that didn’t bother him. After a few seconds his sight adjusted to the darkness. He walked around the furniture draped in sheets, stirring up dust with each step he took.

As Miko had said, there wasn’t much to the place considering that a once-powerful lord had lived here. There was the small receiving room and then a larger room beyond that, and a dining room big enough for a small party. He found an office on the first floor, its bookshelves mostly empty but the large desk in front of the shuttered window was still covered with neat stacks of paperwork. The kitchen and pantry were bare, save for a few rusting skillets and pots.

The second floor was much more depressing. There were still personal mementos left behind in the rooms, and he found his eyes burning as he came across a room that would be full of sunlight if the windows were opened and still filled with what had to be Aya-chan’s possessions. There was a lovely rocking horse with faded ribbons for the mane and tail, shelves filled with dolls, stuffed animals and various knickknacks, and a bed that was covered with a beautiful quilt that looked like a field of flowers.

He wasn’t surprised to find that Aya’s room had only two small windows and was filled with books. A few dried sprigs of lavender hung from one bookshelf, and over in the corner was a small wooden sword. Aya’s father had probably begun teaching him swordplay before his untimely death.

Ken did a quick survey of the rest of the rooms as he told himself that it was the dust that bothered his eyes and made his nose all stuffed up. He paused for a few seconds by a painting of the whole family in Aya’s parents’ room. From the looks of it, Aya had been about seven or eight back then and was actually smiling. Ken forced himself to move on, to check out the attic partially filled with more covered furniture and then back downstairs. He felt like a thief of some sort, intruding where he shouldn’t. Aya was the one who should be here, not him. But that wouldn’t happen until they caught the blendings and Birman and Reiichi were convinced that his friend wouldn’t be in danger. He could at least tell Aya and Yohji that the house appeared to be in good shape and hadn’t been ransacked for its belongings. There was plenty here for Aya to take back to the Koneko, some bits of his past to remind him of happier times.

Walking out through the back door, he felt sorry for his quiet friend. From the looks of it, Aya had had a rather nice childhood. What must it have been like to lose his parents and then end up in the Takatori’s hands? Having lost his own parents, Ken could sympathize – up to a point. He’d been raised in a good orphanage and his maternal grandmother, though too ill to take him in, had visited often while she’d been alive.

His nose twitched at the riot of scents that bombarded it with each breath, and he stared in wonder at the wild, tangled mess that was the cottage’s garden. Miko was over by a hibiscus plant at least as tall as herself, the flowers were as big as her head.

She smiled as he made his way through the dense foliage. "Amazing, isn’t it? No wonder Aya loves playing in the garden so much if his mother planted all of this."

He swatted at a fat bumblebee buzzing around his left ear. "Can you imagine what this must have looked like when it was cared for?" A sudden thought occurred to him, making him moan. "I don’t know if Aya should see this. He might want to stay to try and tame it."

Miko groaned as well. "Just great, I can imagine Yohji yelling at him about being out in the sun and Birman screaming that she needs him back in the capital, not playing around in the dirt!" She managed a weak chuckle. "Maybe we can lock the door and keep him from coming out here."

"I don’t think that would work very well against… his type," he pointed out as he moved away from a wild thatch of honeysuckle, a little sickened by its too sweet smell. He needed to get out of here; there were too many scents, so overpowering, that all he wanted to do was sneeze. First the dust from the house and now this – sometimes enhanced senses were not a good thing.

He decided it would be easier to walk to the edge of the garden and then skirt around it instead of cutting through it again. The clean aroma of pine was a welcome relief from all the flowers and herbs, so he took a few deep breaths. At first he had no clue why he suddenly started to growl and then his brain caught up with his sense of smell. There was a familiar odor not quite hidden by the pine trees and rain.

As soon as he realized what it was, he was in motion, running to where the odor was strongest. His claws were unsheathed when he came to a halt by a large pine tree that was bare of branches for its first several feet, and he felt like slashing it to kindling. The scent was all around the tree.

"Ken? What’s wrong? What is it?" Miko ran over to him, a knife in her hand.

"One of them was here," he snarled. "Dammit, the scent’s strong enough that he had to have spent some time right here and he didn’t leave too long ago." He whirled around, trying to track the scent but once again the rain did him no favors, especially not when his poor nose was so stuffed from the dust and the garden. "Dammit!"

Miko flinched but put away the knife. "I guess this proves Reiichi was right, then, if they’re watching Aya’s old house. I take it you can’t track them?"

"No." He couldn’t help it; he lashed out with his claws, scoring deep into the pine tree. The strong smell of sap filled the damp air and helped him to calm down. "I want them, Miko. I want to…." He bit his lip. Great idea there, Hidaka, tell her how you want to tear out their throats with your own teeth. He cursed himself and the demon soul bound to his as he fought for some control. "Why does it fucking have to rain *now*? I swear, it’s like even the weather’s against us."

"Well, if we were in the middle of summer and the weather turned this cool and damp, I’d say maybe some bounds were messing with things but this isn’t unusual for this time of year," Miko pointed out. She stepped closer but remained just out of reach, her hands held at her sides. "They really get to you, don’t they?"

He was quiet for a minute as he struggled to get his bound nature under control. "Yeah, they do. I don’t know if it’s just them or knowing what they do…." He hated the part of him that screamed in rage at these creatures hunting near him and wasting food. "I just want to find them and then go home." Left out was the part about tearing them limb from limb.

"I agree with you." Miko dared to pat him on the shoulder. When she spoke, her voice was hardly more than a whisper. "Think, Ken. We know they’re watching this place. If they stop hunting because of our presence, we still have a way of finding them. All we have to do is keep coming back until we run across them."

She had a very good point. Just as the rain washed the blending’s scent away, it would do the same for theirs. "Wow, you have a brain after all," he joked, rather lamely at that, and forced himself to walk away.

Miko glared at him for several seconds before breaking out into laughter. "Well what do you expect? One of us has to have some smarts and that’s obviously me. You’re the muscle of this partnership."

"Yeah, well if only you were as smart as I was strong, then we’d be on our way home," he shot back, the scent of the flowers helping to calm him down.

"I do pretty damn good considering I often have to think for the both of us." They argued with each other until they got back on the main road and were headed for Timbergrey Castle.

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Shadows formed around Aya’s fingertip in the shape of a sharp, black claw. With a simple motion he used the claw to break the fine thread of magic that wrapped around the lovely oak and glass cabinet. He watched as the ward ‘melted’ away and then searched for another one. Masafumi may have been a brilliant wizard but he’d also been paranoid as hell, judging from how many protective layers of spells he’d placed around his belongings. Aya soon found two more wards and easily broke through them.

"This one is done," he told Botan as he touched the small brass lock. Instantly it snapped open, allowing him access to the various knickknacks and books stored within the top part of the furniture. He easily sensed the magic emanating from the objects. "Do you want me to break the wards on these things as well?"

Botan looked up from the drawer he was searching. "I… oh, you might as well. *Just* the protective wards, though. I’ll box everything when we’re done for the day and ward that, then figure everything out once we get back home."

"I can’t believe how much practice I’m getting at breaking and creating wards," Omi remarked as he set down his fountain pen and approached Aya. "Here, you can hand them to me once you’re done and I’ll record them."

"All right." Aya reached for the first object, which appeared to be a fox or small dog’s skull made out of crystal. "Even I’m learning a bit about magic," he said as he tapped his clawed finger against the top of the skull’s crest. Ward disintegrated, he handed it to Omi.

"Everybody’s learning something, even Botan!" Omi laughed as he held the skull up to his face and then stuck his tongue out at it. "Let me guess, this is a pretty paperweight."

"Wrong." Botan pushed the drawer closed and then leaned against the wooden counter as he brushed dust from his hands. "There are clans on the Kinsha Plains who worship a god named Furugitsune, a sly old man who can turn into a fox and who loves to play tricks on his enemies. I’d say that’s a totem from one of his shrines."

Omi stared at his mentor. "You just made that up, didn’t you?"

Botan smiled and looked at Aya, eyebrow quirked over his left eye. "Please tell this young heathen that I did no such thing."

Aya glanced back at the skull before pulling out a few books. "There is indeed a god named Furugitsune who is worshiped by Plains’ clans who used to raid one another for horses and rites of adulthood. However, I thought they left fox heads made out of grey clay found along certain wells at his shrines, not ones made out of crystal." None of the books he’d read had mentioned that.

"Oh, most of the time they did, but crystal skulls like these are said to be from his servants. This is why it’s considered taboo to kill foxes on the Plains, because you might be harming one of Furugitsune’s own." Botan reached for the skull. "There must have been many sacrifices offered to the god after some poor hapless hunter skinned this ‘fox’ and found out what he’d done."

"We have too many gods," Omi complained as he flipped through the books Aya handed to him. "How can I be expected to learn each and every one?"

"You’re smart, Omi," Botan said, all traces of humor gone from his voice. "You learn things quickly and you have a wonderful memory. Stop thinking up new means of mischief to occupy your time and study a little more and you’ll learn these things. I believe a future ruler would be very wise to know as many of the gods his people worship as possible." There was a sternness to him that was unusual, causing Aya to pause in his work. Botan stared at Omi with a frown on his face. "Considering how much time you’ll have as a wizard, you’d be very wise to devote a good bit of your extended life to learning the gods of your enemies as well. Some venerable scholars claim that there’s a price we pay for so much magic in our world and that’s drawing the gods’ attention to us. A smart person would do his best to study how not to offend any of them."

"Yes, sir." Omi looked down at the books in his hand, his demeanor just as serious as Botan’s. "I was only kidding."

Botan sighed and set the skull down so he could ruffle the boy’s hair. "I know you were, but some things aren’t safe topics to joke about, especially when you’re holding something precious to them." He tugged on Omi’s bangs. "You could afford to learn a bit of tact as well." He smiled at Omi until the boy smiled back.

"Now you sound just like Lady Meara." Omi wrinkled his nose. "I’ll do my best to learn about as many gods as I can, but have no fear about me learning some tact. She’ll make certain I do if it kills the both of us." He thought about something for a moment as he flipped open a book. "Make that just me, I don’t think anything could kill Lady Meara." The color quickly drained from his face and his hands began to shake.

Aya snatched the book away from him and was filled with disgust as he looked down at the opened pages. He snapped the book shut and tossed it on the table. "I think this is where Masafumi stored anything related to religion," he explained to Botan, his jaw clenched in anger. "That was a book describing proper ways to sacrifice to the Morrighan."

A look of disgust crossed Botan’s face. "One of Esset’s god triumvirates. Lovely." He picked up the book and put it in one of the wooden crates scattered about the floor. "That should make for some enjoyable reading." He wrapped an arm around Omi’s shoulders and gave him a hug. "What else do you have there?"

Omi took a deep breath before examining the covers of the other books. "I think this one contains more about the Morrighan," he gingerly handed that over to Botan without checking its contents, "and this one says ‘hiyoku’."

Botan snatched at the book before Omi could open it. "Ah, I think I know what that refers to, and we don’t want you to pass out from a nosebleed and leave me explaining some rather embarrassing things to Birman." He chuckled nervously as he tucked the book into the crate as Omi looked on in interest. "Aya, what else have you found?"

Amused at the wizard’s antics, especially since Omi was no longer a virgin, he handed the rest of the items on the shelf as soon as he broke their wards. "Be careful not to cut yourself," he warned as he gave Omi the unsheathed obsidian blade wrapped in scarlet ribbons. Next came a clay bowl inlaid with turquoise, several icons made out of bone and wood, and a small statue of ivory shaped into a tall, thin man with birds’ claws as hands. Omi noted each object in his notebook before handing them to Botan to be wrapped and stored away.

The next shelf contained more books that they were careful not to open and an extensive collection of amulets and fetishes, many of them made with precious metals and gems. Aya decided that he’d ask Botan if he could help research the items later, when they were back at the capital. Many of fetishes were rather fascinating, and he thought he recognized a few from his father’s books.

With the top part of the cabinet cleared out, he’d just removed the wards protecting a drawer when Yohji walked into Masafumi’s office. He smiled when he saw Aya and strolled over, his calm demeanor masking the concern and weariness he felt. Aya allowed himself to be hugged, judging that, for once, his mate needed the embrace more than he did.

"How are you doing?" Yohji breathed into his ear before giving it a quick nuzzle.

"Not bad." The office didn’t bother him as much as other rooms as what he found was constantly fascinating – if not a little morbid at times. He purred slightly as Yohji gave his neck a massage. "Is Birman done interviewing the staff already?"

"Not quite." Yohji peered into the open drawer. "More manuscripts. I never thought I’d find someone who owns more things to read than you do." He chuckled when Aya gently bumped his elbow into his ribs. "Dealing with Katsura has done her in, I’m afraid, but I’d say she won that skirmish. She made him turn over all of the account ledgers." He stopped the massage, his hands skimming down Aya’s sides. "Okay, he might not be as bad as I thought, but I’m getting sick of him acting like all we’re trying to do is find reasons to tear this castle apart. I mean, not that I don’t want to do that, but that’s not an option. We’ll be out of his hair more quickly if he would just cooperate."

"Yes, but we’re strangers poking into everyone’s business and we’re digging up proof that my uncle and cousins really were traitors," Omi said as he finished writing something in the notebook. "I’m surprised you managed to get anything out of him or the others."

Yohji leaned against the cabinet, one arm still around Aya. "Yeah, well Eri’s given Birman enough information so she knows just what questions to ask, and they seem to be much more talkative when I’m in the room." He smiled and a familiar tingle of magic made Aya shiver. "I didn’t think I’d be getting this much practice while on this mission."

"We are all getting a lot of practice," Omi complained as he stared at his ink-stained fingers. "Is lunch ready yet? I’m really hungry."

"Not yet." Yohji nudged Aya’s shoulder. "I was thinking of running down to the market and getting something to eat." He radiated concern as his fingers tangled in one of Aya’s eartails. "Would you mind?"

Aya took a slow, deep breath as he pushed aside a spark of annoyance and jealousy. The weather was perfect for him to spend an hour or two outside – but that wasn’t an option. Besides, he wanted to get this office cleared out and move on to the next room. He didn’t want going through the Takatori’s belongings to be what kept them in Timbergrey any longer than necessary. "Go."

His lover stared at him for a few seconds, and the annoyance won out. "Go on, and bring back some more of that honey candy," he said as he pushed Yohji away. He’d spent most of the day away from Yohji since they were both needed for different tasks. He was determined to finish this day alone as well, to prove to himself that he could face this place and the terrible memories it provoked on his own. Having Yohji beside him was just someone to lean on and that he couldn’t allow. That wouldn’t be good for either of them. And now that the worst parts had been faced, returning to his room and the dungeon, he was learning to cope with the rest.

Maybe Yohji sensed his determination because he didn’t argue for once. "Okay, I’ll make sure to buy lots of candy. I love how Naru keeps Ken up all night while bouncing off his sugar rush." Yohji gave him a wink and then looked over at Omi. "So how about you, kiddo? You willing to be seen in public with me?"

Omi smiled immediately – and then glanced over his shoulder at Botan. "Would it be all right?"

The wizard smiled as he folded his arms over his chest. "Oh, go on. Grab something to eat so you’ll have a lot of energy to help me ward all these boxes later."

"Thank you!" Omi didn’t waste a moment, he was instantly on his feet and headed toward the door. "I need to fetch some money so I’ll meet you out at the gates, Yohji."

"That sounds fine." They watched him run from the room and then Yohji looked at Aya, his hand cupping Aya’s cheek. "Anything else you want me to pick up while we’re out?"

"No." Aya leaned forward for a kiss, amazed as always at how good it felt to have Yohji next to him. "Watch yourself," he ordered when he finally pulled away. He wasn’t too happy with the thought that he couldn’t go with Yohji. This village had taken away almost everyone he’d ever cared about, so he had this irrational fear that it would try to do so again.

"I’ll be fine, Omi’ll be there to keep me out of trouble." Yohji gave him a smile and then leaned down for another kiss. "Seriously, we’ll be okay. *You* stay here. We’ll be back soon."

"Wait." Botan approached Yohji and handed him some coins. "If you see any pretty ribbons, buy a few yards, all right?" A distinctly reddish tone spread across his face. "Maybe some gold or bronze ones."

Yohji laughed as he pocketed the money. "I think I know what Cass likes." He winked at the blushing wizard. "I’ll bring you back something for lunch, Cat."

Aya grunted softly and resumed emptying the drawer as he tried not to think about Yohji being so far from him. At least it wasn’t fear or concern for himself that made him wish his mate was close by. He sternly thought that Yohji could more than look out for himself and that he was starting to become as overprotective as his lover. A slight smile curved his lips as he thought about the two of them in their bedroom, refusing to let the other leave the room.

"Do you think they’ll bring me back something to eat as well?" Botan’s plaintive voice almost made him jump, as lost as he’d been in his own thoughts.

"Hmmm? Oh, I imagine so. If you’re hungry, you can always order something from the kitchen, though."

Botan grimaced as he picked up the fountain pen Omi had used. "No thank you, not right after the staff has just dealt with Birman. I’ll give them a few hours to calm down."

Aya handed over a box filled with a king’s ransom of precious gems that Masafumi had probably intended for various amulets, judging from the way they’d been cut. "Maybe we shouldn’t rely on them for dinner, either."

"I hope Birman hasn’t upset them that much." Botan seemed to perk up when he noticed the gems. "She’s a smart woman, I’m sure she didn’t rile them any more than she needed to during the questioning." He held up a ruby the size of his thumbnail, with no imperfections that Aya could see. "Ah, very nice. You don’t often see focus stones of this size or quality."

"Probably because the Takatori hoarded them all." He found another box, this one was more heavily warded than the first. The stones in this box made the others look like pebbles. "I can’t get over how much they managed to collect over the years." And he’d even helped contribute to the collection when he was ordered to steal.

"Reiji definitely raided a few storerooms before he was sent into exile, and he had the contacts and money to buy whatever he wanted." Botan looked at him for a moment and then quickly turned away, leaving him to wonder if the man realized that Reiji hadn’t paid for everything. "I guess he felt that if he couldn’t have the throne, he could possess everything else. We’ll spend months properly going through everything."

He finished with the drawer and moved down to the next one. "You can have your apprentices or some of the Shadow Guard help you with the work." Birman would probably keep him and Yohji too busy to help out much.

Botan examined an amethyst the size of a quail’s egg. "I don’t know; a lot of these objects are very dangerous, even with the wards gone. I’m not sure I trust anyone other you, myself or Omi around them in case something goes wrong."

He was worried about their magic, Aya realized. That was the reason that Reiichi wasn’t helping them – he didn’t possess a charmed ring or any special talents that would prevent him from being harmed by any spells that were connected to the items. This was not the first time this concern had been raised, although he knew that Botan and Birman avoided discussing it in his presence.

He thought about the corner downstairs with its chains and the table covered with knives and silver bowls, and then about all of the Takatori’s belongings. More than likely there were more useful objects like the hikyaku spheres and helpful information in the many books they’d found. There were so many things that all they had the time for right now was jotting down a brief description to catalog each item as it was packed.

"You could make more rings," he said, his voice soft because his throat had become so dry. "Not many, maybe enough for Reiichi and a few others in the Shadow Guards." He was very grateful that Yohji wasn’t here for this discussion.

Botan set down the jewels and stared, face carefully blank. "I don’t have the blood to do that, or any more of your tears."

Ah, he’d forgotten about the gems created from his tears. "Do you need my tears to make the rings?" He treated the discussion as an academic one, focusing on the answers and not the fact that he was offering something he never thought he would again – not after having it forcibly taken from him for so long.

"I think… no." Botan held up a small garnet, so red it almost appeared black. "Some stones could be substituted for your tears, although the rings won’t last as long as the ones I made before the wedding." He held the stone in his hand. "Are you offering to… to help me make more rings?" He asked the question carefully, as if afraid of the answer – or possibly Aya’s reaction.

Aya took a moment to reflect on everything others had sacrificed for him and his sister. He thought of the few friendships he’d made and the Shadow Guards’ willingness to protect him and keep his secret. "If you have the stones, I’ll… give you enough blood for some rings." He tamped down on the pain at the thought of being bled before he worried Yohji.

Botan didn’t look at him but instead rummaged through the boxes of gems. "There are enough stones to do ten, maybe even twelve more rings. Would that be all right?"

"How much blood would you need?" He folded his arms and pressed his scarred wrists tightly against his chest.

"A little more than a cup," Botan answered as he stroked his chin. "Even then I’d have a few drops left over that I could use at a later time to either recharge the rings or make new ones."

He looked at the wizard in amazement. "That’s all?" His body ached with the remembered pain of being almost completely drained of blood time and time again.

"Yes, that’s all." Botan gave him a shaky smile. "I don’t need much for the rings, even with reducing your blood as I render it."

He unbent his right arm and looked down at his wrist. A nice, deep nick should be able to provide the blood, one that would heal quickly and leave him barely weakened. "Then it shouldn’t be a problem." At least until Yohji found out, he thought rather grimly. But it was his blood, his body, and he owed the Shadow Guards more than a little blood. That was what he’d remind himself when the time came to cut his wrist. "When do you want to do it?"

"Not here!" The words tumbled in a rush from Botan’s mouth. "At home!" Then he calmed a little when Aya only looked at him. "Ah, I have everything set up in my office, and I’d feel more comfortable doing it there."

A small shudder ran through Aya’s body as he thought about how he wouldn’t have to be bled here ever again. "I have no problem with that." He turned to resume clearing the drawers, no longer in the mood to talk.

For a few minutes, all that was heard was the scritch of the pen and the occasional rattle or click as he handed over more things for Botan to catalog.

"If you like, I could go fetch us a pot of tea. I’ll watch over the brewing water myself."

He nodded at Botan’s offer. Tea might help dispel the slight chill that had settled inside him since volunteering his blood.

"And some cookies as well, if you’d like, or scones… whatever treats they’ve got left over." Botan’s voice was hesitant, as if he was unsure how far he should push just then.

"No thank you, just tea will be fine." He didn’t have much of an appetite right now.

"All right." Botan shuffled over to him, and as he looked up, gently rested a hand on his shoulder. "You don’t have to, you know. If you change your mind by the time we reach home, I’ll understand."

"I know." He resisted the urge to shrug off the wizard’s hand. "I know it’s my choice, and it’s freely made. Reiichi and the others could use rings of their own." And maybe Birman could give him and Yohji a little bit of a break if there were more Shadow Guards who were immune to magic. "But just for the rings, Botan," he added, his voice cold and sibilant.

"Just for the rings, and only a few of them. You have my word, Aya." Botan squeezed his shoulder and then left for the kitchen.

Setting the last object in the drawer down on the table, Aya took a deep breath. He didn’t think he’d change his mind before they reached the capital and, if anything, fighting with his mate over this would just firm his resolve. He couldn’t let the past limit him, or allow it to prevent him from doing anything that was needed. And maybe then, as Cassandra and Yohji constantly assured him, the pain would finally start to fade. He couldn’t allow it to continue to be a weakness.

*******

Yohji frowned as he sensed Aya’s emotions turn sad and painful for a few seconds. His lover had probably come across something that had stirred bad memories. "I can’t wait to go home," he sighed, not so much homesick as longing for things to be better – for the both of them. Staying in the castle where Neu had lived reminded him of the fact that he also had some painful memories to put behind him.

Omi kicked at a rock and looked up. "Back to the Koneko? I agree, and I don’t even live there." The last was spoken in a wistful tone.

Yohji smiled as he tousled his friend’s hair. "Yeah, right, kiddo. You want Jo and Mickey ordering you around all damn day, and Teddy thinking up new tricks he can play on you. The palace is much quieter."

Omi batted his hand aside. "Sure it is. There’s Lady Meara determined to make a ‘civilized man’ out of me, the tutors trying to teach me things I already know, and I won’t even go on about all the courtiers." A frown settled on his face. "I’m happier as Omi."

"I’m sure you are." That was why he’d first snuck the boy to the Koneko all those years ago, after wheedling the illusion charm from Botan. Maybe Omi was going to be the next king, as Brad had said, but he was happiest when he was not being the crown prince. "’Omi, the wizard’. For some reason, I can’t imagine Koyu using that in a song. Not… robust enough."

The teasing got him a stuck-out tongue. "And ‘Yohji, the lecher’ sounds better?"

"I’m only a lecher with one person now, you damned brat. Nagi’s definitely ruined you; you’re no longer the sweet little kid I used to know and adore." He sniffed melodramatically and wiped away an imaginary tear.

"Oh please, you had more to do with how I turned out than Nagi did." The frown melted into a dreamy smile as Omi stared down the road. "I hope there are plenty of those almond nougats at the market, and Reiichi said something about glazed blueberries. I know a preservation spell or two that should make sure everything remains fresh long enough to reach him."

Yohji sighed and draped his arm over the boy’s shoulders. "A fine lot we are, mooning over our boyfriends and trying to figure out how to placate their sweet tooths." He had to laugh. "They have us wrapped around their little fingers, don’t they?"

"Yeah, but do you really mind?" Omi flashed him a grin and then looked up at the grey sky. "I mean, I used to think that Ken was crazy for everything he… well, what he used to do for Yuriko. He was always running errands for her or picking up little gifts." His smile slowly faded away. "I want to do so much for Nagi. I just wish he was here so I could buy him even more sweets than you do for Aya, so I could cuddle up with him in the garden and count fireflies and all the other things you do with someone you love."

"I know." He tugged Omi’s hood up as it started to rain and then his own. "You just want him to be happy." And if there was one thing both Nagi and Aya could use, it was a little bit of happiness. "He’ll be back someday. I’m sure Esset will be glad to be rid of him at some point and inflict him on Kritiker." He dodged Omi’s fist. "Then, you can have your little demon all to yourself – and keep him the hell away from me."

"Be nice to me or I’ll tell him about how mean you were to Aya and me," Omi threatened rather sweetly.

"Brat," Yohji shot back, and then someone else joined them on the road so he could do nothing other than glare at Omi for a moment before smiling. Ah well, Nagi did make Omi – and Aya – happy, so he wouldn’t complain when the boy returned to the Koneko. Besides, Omi would probably drag him off to the nearest available room and neither would be seen for days. "So you plan on buying all the sweets you can find?" He shifted the conversation onto safer topics.

"Whatever I don’t think I can find back home." Omi walked faster when the market came into sight. "He really does like sweets."

"Yeah, I noticed that by the way he would literally inhale any berry tart that was near." Yohji laughed a little before his thoughts became dark. From what Aya had told them, they hadn’t had many sweets over the years, especially Nagi. They were lucky that a few times the kitchen had sent some along for Aya, and then they usually had ended up in Nagi’s belly. "We do indeed enjoy spoiling them," he said quietly.

Omi glanced at him but didn’t say anything, and then their attentions were occupied with the variety of covered booths lining both sides of the road. Since it was a dreary, rainy day and not many people were out, the sellers were more than eager to chat a little about their goods and anything else that came to mind. Not only did they buy enough meat buns and pasties to feed even Ken if he stopped back for lunch, but Aya and Nagi’s sweet tooths would be very well satisfied. Yohji wanted to pick up some treats for the Koneko staff as well but realized he couldn’t carry everything back in just one trip. Oh well, he’d just have to come here again. Hopefully on a day when it wasn’t pouring down rain, like it was now.

They headed back to the castle, Omi happily munching on a warm pasty. Yohji’s stomach rumbled but he wanted to wait to eat with Aya – besides, he was stuck carrying most of their purchases and didn’t have a hand free to feed himself. Omi wasn’t much better off.

"Mmmm, these are good," Omi said – more or less, since his mouth full of food.

"They certainly smell good." Gods, he really was starving. Good thing he’d fed well this morning from Aya, he didn’t think he could take it if both appetites were screaming for food.

"Would you like a bite of mine?" Omi offered as he waved the pasty in front of Yohji’s face.

"Nah, I’ll wait." He knew that the kid was starving after working all that magic and he didn’t think he’d be able to stop after just one bite.

"Okay." Omi shoved the rest of his meal into his mouth, cheeks puffed up like a squirrel’s and juice dribbled down his chin. Just as Yohji was about to point out his ‘wonderful’ manners, the thin paper that had been wrapped around the pasty went flying, blown from Omi’s hand by the wind. Omi tried to catch it but ended up choking, which made Yohji have to set some of the bags down on the wet road so he could thump his friend’s back.

"That’s what you get for eating like a pig, kiddo."

"Thanks… Yotan," Omi sputtered. He wiped his mouth and managed to smile. "But it was so good and I was so hungry. Casting spells always make me hungry."

"You’re a teenager, *everything* makes you hungry," Yohji teased as he picked up the bags. He hoped that the water hadn’t soaked through to any of the treats. As he straightened up, a chill ran through him, raising the hair on the back of his neck and the wrist bearing his gauntlet to twitch. Suddenly ill at ease, he frowned as he looked around, but saw nothing but wet trees and shrubs lining the road. Maybe the weather or even Aya’s sad mood was getting to him, he thought as he shrugged and continued on his way. He certainly couldn’t see anything to raise his hackles like that, no sign of anyone watching him. That didn’t mean there hadn’t been anything there, he thought, more than a little paranoid because of his strong reaction.

"Is everything all right, Yohji?" Omi stepped aside and urged him to do the same as a large cart pulled by two horses came toward them.

He waited a few seconds before answering. "Yeah, I think so." Nothing was happening and he wasn’t about to go chasing into the woods with no back-up other than Omi, so he tried to convince himself it was a case of the nerves. But he was very grateful that Aya was back at the castle.

"Heya. You two look more overworked than my horses," the cart’s driver called out to them as he slowed down. "And even more wet. There’s some space on the back if you’d like a ride."

Omi smiled as he stepped forward. "Really? You wouldn’t mind? We’re heading to the castle."

"Not if you’re the two who just bought out Nika’s stall," the carter chuckled. "My cousin won’t be happy if you fall sick from walking in the rain and can’t buy any more sweets from her."

Feeling apprehensive about standing out here in the open, Yohji walked over to the cart. "We’ll take you up on the offer then." He could set some of the purchases down and keep his weapon at the ready that way, and right now he just wanted to get back to Aya as quickly as possible. "Thanks." Omi quickly joined him on the back of the cart, and they arranged the tarp that was covering a load of firewood to keep most of the rain off of them.

"No problem." The carter’s cheerful voice faded a little. "I always try to offer rides when I’ve the space and I’m headed in the right direction. Not the best idea to go walking around here." He clicked his tongue to make the horses speed up. "But if you’re staying at the castle, I’m sure you already know that."

"Yeah, we do." Yohji draped his arm over Omi’s shoulders as he kept an eye on the patch of woods they were leaving behind.

*******

Cho reached out and grabbed Gen’s arm as soon as he heard the horses. A rare curse slipped past his lips as he pulled his pack-mate further back into the woods.

"Dammit, Cho, we have to grab him-"

"Not when there are witnesses," Cho hissed. "If we’re seen taking the man, how much do you want to bet that they’ll lock Ran up?"

Gen grumbled but backed away from the road. "All right, you’ve got a point. But dammit, we almost had him. Ty’s going to be pissed that we missed a chance like this."

"Ty doesn’t want anyone finding out about us until it’s too late."

"Too late?" Gen laughed, the sound grating on sensitive ears. "Isn’t it ‘too late’ now? Why else would the Guards be here?"

Cho felt like growling but didn’t want to start a fight. "The Guards know about us, but does anyone else?" He wasn’t as smart as Sei but he’d been known for possessing a level head back when he’d been human. "If the villagers find out about us they’ll be screaming for the Army and more Guards while sending out search parties of their own. Have you ever seen a lynch mob string up a bound – or someone they think is a bound?" he asked Gen, his claws biting into his friend’s arm. "I saw one when I was a child. As soon as someone said the words ‘flesh gaki-bound’, the whole village was armed and turned on anyone who was a stranger or who wasn’t sociable."

Gen glared at him and even though the younger man was stronger than Cho, he was the first one to look away. "We need Ran," Gen mumbled, acting like a scolded child. "Once we have the kage, we won’t have to worry about any villagers or Guards."

"Yes, but we need to be able to get *to* him." Cho was tired of saying the same things over and over again. "So that means we need to get the blond man and then use him against Ran before anyone figures out what we’re up to, understand?"

"Yeah, I guess." Gen continued to sulk as he crept toward the road. Not hearing the horses anymore, Cho didn’t try to pull him back and remained quiet. He’d said all he was going to on the matter.

Checking to make sure the road was clear, Gen walked around where the two strangers had stood before the cart’s arrival. "They like sweets, they do."

Cho merely grunted as he leaned against a tree, water dripping down his face and plastering his hair to his skull. He just wanted to get back to the cave and dry off, but he didn’t enjoy the thought of telling Ty how they’d almost managed to grab Ran’s… whatever he was. Captor or friend or lover – not that it really mattered as long as they could use the man against Ran.

Sniffing around, Gen headed down the road. Cho kept a careful eye on him and listened for any sound of footsteps or hoof beats. About to speak and call his friend back, he frowned when Gen suddenly ran over to something caught in a bush of holly. "Gen?"

"Come here, Cho! Quick!"

Looking up and down the road, he stepped out from the safety of the trees and went over to where Gen was standing.

"Check this out," Gen said, his voice rough with excitement. A piece of wet waxed paper was shoved in Cho’s face. "What do you smell?"

Thinking that his pack-mate better not be this excited over the thought of a nice, warm pasty, Cho reluctantly did as he was told. At first, all he smelled was the food the paper had been wrapped around: warm flour dough and seasoned meat, vegetables and spices. Then, he noticed the scent of the boy who’d touched the paper. He looked up at a smiling Gen and went over to where the strangers had been standing. He hadn’t paid attention to anything other than the tall one with blond hair, the one Sei had told them about, but the boy….

"You smell it?"

"Yes." He sniffed a few more times to be sure and then stepped back into the woods.

"Hey! Where are you going?" Gen cried as he followed.

"To tell Ty. Bring the paper."

"I know that, I’m not stupid like Mas," Gen grumbled as he easily caught up with Cho. "Ty’s gonna be pleased."

"Yes," was all Cho said as he slid under pine branches heavy with rain. Ty would indeed be happy.

Of course Gen wouldn’t shut up, though he pitched his voice not to carry very far. "The boy’s a Takatori, I bet my life on it. He smells a lot like Masafumi." Gen spat after he said the wizard’s name. "We get to tear one of them apart after all."

Why couldn’t he have been paired with Sei today? Cho thought with some despair. Masafumi had picked them more for their desperation and strength than for brains, and sometimes he thought that he, Ty and Sei were the only pack members who had any. "We won’t kill him, not unless Ty says so," he said quietly.

"Eh, what’s that?" His pack-mate stared at him, teeth slightly bared. "I want to gut him. He’s a filthy-"

"I know what he is." Cho came to a stop and gestured to Gen’s head. "Use your brains for once. He’s a Takatori, yes, but where’s he been all this time?"

Frowning, Gen showed a little more teeth, as if to try to cow Cho into being quiet and agreeing with him. "What does that matter?"

"Think."

"I’m not Sei, dammit," Gen snarled.

He didn’t back down, even if he was older and weaker. The others left him alone because Ty told them to, because Ty needed pack-mates like him and Sei to help calm the others. "He wasn’t in the castle while we were there. There were only three of them then. But strangers came, didn’t they? From the capital?" He was wasting his time on this idiot.

"Yeah, some Guards and wizards came." Gen’s jaw snapped shut and he stared in wonder. "Guards and wizards. You think this kid is a wizard?"

Maybe there was hope for Gen after all. "He’s a Takatori, and some of them are wizards. He’s certainly not here to take over Timbergrey or we’d have heard something by now." Or so he thought. He wanted Ty and Sei’s opinion on this.

Laughing, Gen waved the sheet of paper as he continued on to the cave. "Both a Takatori wizard and Ran’s lover." He suddenly stopped laughing. "Ty’s gonna be happy if he doesn’t rip our throats out for letting them get away."

"We didn’t know the boy was a wizard until after he’d gone," Cho pointed out. As focused as they’d been on the blond man, they probably would have killed the boy before they realized who and what he was. "Now we know."

"Now we can have a wizard who’ll fix Ran’s blood for us. We won’t need Mitoji." Gen frowned as he jumped into the stream. "Hey, how do we get them both without the bastards hiding Ran from us?"

Cho thought he understood how things would work out. "We just need the blond man right now. Once we have him and then get Ran, the wizards will come for us. We’ll just keep the boy alive when that happens." Ty should be very happy with this news, maybe happy enough to pair him with someone other than Gen, Mas or Lin for a few days. He’d much prefer Ahm or Sei, or even to be allowed to stay inside and work on building some more. He missed his life as a carpenter, back before the arthritis had become so bad he couldn’t work anymore. That wasn’t a problem now. And once they had the kage’s blood in them, he’d be strong enough that he could spend his days building and carving and not worrying about being captured and killed. He’d make an offering to the gods later to grant him and his pack some luck. To give them the opportunity to snatch the blond man with none the wiser, and use him to get Ran.

*******

Aya walked into the bedroom, and with a heartfelt moan, stretched out on the bed beside Yohji. His lover immediately reached out to him, Yohji’s warm hand brushing along his left cheek.

"Was it that bad today?"

Aya sighed again as he rolled over to face Yohji. "Not really. I…" he reached into his pocket and pulled out a heavy ring made of platinum. The light from the setting sun was reflected from the ring’s amethyst stone. "We came across some of my father’s belongings." He handed the ring to Yohji.

His lover instantly sat up. "Fuck, I knew I sensed something from you today." Yohji clutched the ring in one hand while the other stroked through Aya’s hair. "I’m sorry, I should have checked up on you or something."

"Yotan, I’m fine," Aya snapped, a little annoyed at the ‘checked up on’ part. "I don’t need to be babysat." He glared at Yohji for a moment, until he felt how his anger caused his mate a flash of pain. Yohji was only worried about him, he reminded himself, and at least he hadn’t rushed over to him upon sensing Aya’s pain earlier but gave him some time and space to work through it.

Sorry now for snapping like that, Aya tried to soothe his lover. He sat up and hugged Yohji tightly. "I… didn’t mean to say it like that. I guess… I’m just surprised to find my parents’ personal belongings. I thought Reiji got rid of them a long time ago. So stop worrying, all right?" He nuzzled Yohji’s neck and breathed deeply of the man’s wonderful scent. He’d kept the pain and shock from overwhelming him this time, and then he’d continued working – despite Botan and Omi’s pleas for him to stop. He hadn’t allowed his emotions or a Takatori’s actions to beat him. There was a bit of pride to be found in that.

Yohji hugged him back and chuckled slightly. "My stubborn cat," he teased before kissing Aya on the neck. "Just don’t push too far, okay? I understand why you don’t want me by you all the time while we’re here but you’re not weak if you need me every now and then." He leaned back far enough to look Aya in the eyes. "Don’t cause yourself more pain by trying to be so strong."

Aya wanted to snarl at his mate and tell him that he was trying so hard to be strong for Yohji’s sake – and safety - but stopped himself just in time. He didn’t want to start a fight right now; all he wanted was to rest here beside Yohji and remind himself that the pain was all in the past.

"I’m not pushing too far. I let you join me… downstairs… yesterday, didn’t I?" He felt cold just remembering the day spent in the basement helping Omi, Botan and Reiichi box up everything. "This was just Reiji’s library and I was fine." He scowled at Yohji and dared him to claim otherwise.

Yohji sighed and fell back onto the bed, dragging him down with him. "I know." Yohji was quiet for a moment. "You’re doing good," he said, voice thick with emotions, pride and love foremost.

Aya grunted as he settled himself on top of his lover. He didn’t care if he was ‘doing good’ or not, he just wanted to be as strong as possible so his weakness didn’t affect Yohji. Also, he was tired of the nightmares and wanted to put this part of his life behind him. He wanted to stop flinching whenever someone said ‘Takatori’. He had a new life now, and it was time to move on from the past.

Either hoping to avoid a fight or finally convinced that he was fine, Yohji thankfully dropped the matter. Holding up the ring, Yohji squinted as he stared at it. "It’s lovely. Your father’s, did you say? There’s something stamped inside."

"Orchids. My father would wear that ring instead of the one bearing the Fujimiya seal." Aya reached out to tap the heavy metal. "Aya-chan always wanted to play with it and would beg him to give it to her." The memory was painful, but the emotion was bearable. For once he remembered something nice from his past, remembered his sister and his father laughing as he teased her by holding the ring too far out of her reach. "I found the rest of his jewelry, everything but the clan seal which was sent to the capital to confirm his death. I think… one of the boxes we didn’t get to today contains my mother’s belongings," he continued in a soft voice.

"I’m happy that you got their stuff back." Yohji looked worried as he stroked his hand up and down Aya’s arm. "Do you… need any help in the library tomorrow?"

Aya understood the offer and instead of losing his temper this time gave it some serious thought. At least Yohji was *finally* asking now and not just assuming he needed some help.

Thinking about the offer, he remembered the pain of finding his father’s things and thought about Reiji touching the precious items his father had given to his mother out of love. "If you want to see my mother’s belongings, that would be fine." Yohji’s presence would help him work through the pain and rage more quickly than if he was by himself, he was forced to admit. Leaning up on one elbow, he gave his lover a stern look. "But just for a little while. You need to help Birman with the employees."

Of course Yohji ignored the scowl as he leaned up to kiss Aya on the nose. "Slave driver."

"I have to be since you’re too lazy for words." The last of his pain fading, Aya tangled his fingers in his lover’s long, wavy hair. "Thank you." There was so much to thank Yohji for that he didn’t try to be more specific. But Yohji seemed to understand.

"You’re welcome, Cat." He was yanked back down onto the bed so his throat could be nuzzled. "You know, if you want me to stop being so lazy, I know a surefire way you could motivate me." Desire washed through him, making the faint pain fade away.

As much as he wanted to give in and tilt his neck to the side right now, his stomach reminded him that he’d worked through lunch by rumbling loudly. Yohji’s exasperated sigh quickly turned into a laugh as a kiss was pressed against Aya’s neck.

"All right, dinner first, sex later." Yohji smiled tenderly as he helped Aya sit up, then handed over the ring. "Hopefully lots of sex. I miss you so damn much when I’m stuck working with Birman."

"I know." Aya leaned against his mate, his arms wrapped around Yohji’s narrow waist. "I miss you too, but you must admit we get more work done when we’re not over-reacting to each other’s emotions." All he wanted was to finish this mission and spend two entire days in bed with his lover. "We’re almost done here in the castle. I just wish the blendings would do something so we could track them down."

"You’re telling me." Yohji’s emotions felt odd just then, almost fading out as if he was trying to prevent something from crossing their link. As Aya frowned and was about to ask if Yohji had found out something today during the latest round of ‘interrogations’, someone knocked loudly on the door.

"If you two want anything to eat, you better hurry. Ken’s back and complaining about how hungry he is!" Omi yelled through the thick wood. "I’m heading to the dining room right now so I have a chance at the food as soon as it’s brought out!"

"Thanks, kiddo." Yohji hopped off the bed and tugged on Aya’s arm. "Well, come on. I don’t get to eat much if you don’t, if you know what I mean." He waggled his eyebrows in a lecherous manner.

"I would dearly love to see one of your kind mated to a flesh gaki-bound," Aya mumbled as he stood up and straightened out his clothes. "There’d be non-stop eating – and not the type you’re thinking of right now, I’m sure."

Yohji leered as he held open the door. "You know, there’s a lot of kinky things you can do with food."

"As long as you don’t ruin the sheets in the process," Aya pointed out, reminding his lover about how Mickey hadn’t handled very well finding out that several sets of high quality sheets had been ruined. His ears had ached for hours after the one incident.

Yohji’s leer faded with that reminder – and instantly reformed. "You know, these aren’t our sheets here. In the mood for a little experimentation after a raid on the kitchen tonight, Cat?"

"You look as if you have two demented caterpillars on your forehead when you move your eyebrows like that," Aya remarked as he walked past his mate. But he allowed himself to feel a bit of excitement over Yohji’s proposition, and a good bit of interest. Judging from the wave of happiness and lust that almost caused him to trip, Yohji would spend most of dinner trying to figure out what he was going to steal from the kitchen later on. There should be a very interesting night in store for them – and, with luck, he’d be too tired afterwards to dream. All Aya wanted was a night of pleasure and peace to drown out the pain of this damned place.

*******

Birman filled three teacups and pushed the plate of scones toward Eri. "How much longer do you think we’ll be here?" she asked her companions.

Reiichi seemed to be thinking that over as he bit into a scone. After a few bites he brushed some crumbs from his mouth, had a sip of tea and then answered. "I don’t think it’ll be much longer now. The blendings haven’t killed any humans in over two weeks. Not counting the slaughtered livestock, they usually commit at least three murders a month. I believe that they’ll act soon."

"I don’t know. I think they’re trying to outlast us or something." Eri stared into her teacup. "They definitely know we’re here and they’re behaving themselves. They’re not even attacking any travelers and hiding the remains as far as we can tell. I don’t like this sudden restraint of theirs."

"I know what you mean. As much as I want to prevent any more murders, the blendings attacking someone would alert Aya to their presence." Birman thought with some annoyance about the shinigami who would only report any deaths to Aya, not where the blendings were hiding. The demons had to know where they were, they just weren’t interested in talking about the living, or so Aya said. "Are the creatures still staking out Aya’s family house?"

"Ken says they are." Eri nibbled on a scone. "He doesn’t want to scare them off so he’s trying to stay away from the woods, but he can tell they’ve been there. Sooner or later he’ll come across them."

"I hope so. Botan and Aya have made progress in going through the Takatori’s belongings, and I’ve cleared most of the staff of any involvement with the attempted coup. The main task left to us is finding the blendings." She was upset that there was so little headway on that part of the mission, but couldn’t accuse any of the Guards of not trying. The damn creatures obviously still retained their human logic. "I don’t like this waiting. How much do you want to bet that they’re purposely hiding until they can get their hands on Aya?"

Reiichi sipped his tea. "Not much, as you’re probably correct, considering how they’re watching the house but otherwise remaining out of sight. You do realize they most likely have the castle under surveillance as well, and possibly even the road. Yohji made a comment about sensing something when he came back from the market the other day."

She’d thought about that. "I have Jonsten and the others keeping an eye open for any signs of the creatures." Tapping her finger against the chair’s arm, she let out a frustrated sigh. "I wonder if there’s a way we could have someone impersonate Aya to lure them out into the open."

Eri pushed her teacup aside and leaned against the table. "We don’t know how good their senses are. If they’re as sharp as most bounds’ then I don’t think that will work, especially since they know Aya. They should be able to recognize his scent from a distance and their eyesight should be pretty good."

"Perhaps someone wearing his clothes and his cloak?" Reiichi asked, a small frown on his face as he considered the problem.

"That might work. Yohji would probably be best at impersonating him since he most closely resembles Aya." Eri rested her chin on her hand. "I wonder if Botan could cast a spell of some sort, something subtle that they couldn’t sense."

"I’ll ask him in the morning." Birman poured more tea for herself and Reiichi. "Although it would be easier if Ken or Botan could just track them to their hiding place."

"These blendings are too smart for that, and there are too many creeks in this area for effective tracking," Reiichi pointed out as his frown deepened. "The weather’s not helping much either. If we’d come a few weeks ago, things would’ve been dry enough that the rain wouldn’t have washed away their scent or trail, and they couldn’t have used the creeks as effectively."

"If wishes were fishes…," Birman joked and managed a weary smile. After finally finishing with the staff, now she had this problem to keep her busy.

"We’d all be sick to death of the things by now," Reiichi finished, and also managed a smile of sorts.

Eri picked up the teapot and waved it around. "Are you certain this tea wasn’t spiked with anything?"

"If that’s your way of saying we’re being silly, your subtlety can stand a little work." Reiichi snatched the pot and poured himself some tea. "And don’t abuse the tea so, it’s done nothing wrong to you."

Eri chuckled softly as she leaned back in her chair, her arms folded over her chest. "You sound like Aya. I think he could care less about what happens around him as long as he has Yohji, a pot of tea and a book nearby."

"Some of us have delicate palates which we’d rather not have ruined by coffee strong enough to peel paint from the walls," Reiichi said, then sniffed with disdain. "And don’t change the subject. I’d like to get some sleep tonight, thank you."

Birman rubbed her eyes, more than a little tired herself. "No, no more topic changes or silliness. To be perfectly honest, I want the blendings dealt with by the end of the week." Judging from how grim Reiichi and Eri became, they knew exactly how she wanted Masafumi’s creatures ‘dealt with’. They were murderers, they didn’t deserve any leniency, and she’d rather not have any live specimens left for other wizards to study in order to try to create blendings of their own.

"The end of the week." Reiichi stared down into his teacup. "I guess we could try to use someone as bait but if these creatures are as smart as we think they are, wouldn’t they be suspicious if Aya suddenly appeared outside?"

"A good point." Eri pushed the scones away. "What do you propose we do?"

Reiichi took a deep breath. "I’ve no idea," he admitted quietly. "There are no known connections between the creatures and the staff that we can use. A decoy may be the only solution if we don’t track these blendings down soon or if they continue to refrain from killing."

So they were back to square one, basically, Birman thought as she rubbed the back of her neck. "All right, I’ll talk to Botan tomorrow about-"

"Wait, Aya would never let Yohji impersonate him." Eri flushed a deep red. "Not if Yohji might be in any danger. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have forgotten about that." She rubbed her eyes. "I’m really tired right now."

"Well, you’ve been working hard so it’s understandable. I should have realized that Aya wouldn’t allow Yohji to be placed in danger as well." Birman really felt like cursing just then. "All right, so Yohji is out. I’ll still talk to Botan to see if there’s any way someone else can convincingly impersonate Aya." Her head started to ache. "I refuse to sit here and acknowledge that we can’t do anything but wait."

"That’s all we might be able to do, but I don’t think we’ll have to wait for too long." Reiichi looked her in the eye, his expression grim. "They know Aya’s here and that we’re after them. No matter how clever and human they’ve been up until now, Aya says they’re part animal. Sooner or later, they’ll stop being so clever and either defend themselves or try to take what they want."

"Some animals would just run away."

"Yes, Eri, but these animals have human pride." Reiichi closed his eyes and pushed his glasses up his nose. "They’ll do something soon, we just need to wait to see what that is." Eyes still closed, he slumped back into his chair.

That opinion just made Birman’s headache even stronger. "You’re probably right, Reiichi." She rubbed her neck again, hoping to ease some tension. "Let’s just hope they do something sooner rather than later." And that she didn’t regret feeling like this when it finally happened.

*******

Ty paced back and forth in the cave. Even though his stomach was full of the deer he’d caught earlier, he still felt a craving gnawing at his guts. Nothing was the same as human flesh and blood, nothing as sweet. Damn Masafumi for addicting him and the others to it. He didn’t know how much longer he could hold the pack back from attacking the first person they stumbled upon. He didn’t know how much longer he could hold himself back. They just needed another day or two to capture first the blond man and then Ran but the cravings drew him on, urged him to go down to the road and attack the first person who walked by….

The footsteps were soft but he heard them even with all of his pacing and whirled to see who approached him. He recognized Sei from his scent even before seeing him and relaxed a little – only a little. Sei was smart and young, and while not the strongest of the pack, he was not the weakest. He was a potential threat.

"What is it?" Ty snarled, his temper close to snapping.

Sei stopped in his tracks but didn’t retreat. However, Ty was pleased to see that it took him a few seconds to gather the courage to speak. "They were back at the market today, both of them. They accompanied some Guards from the castle to fetch a cartful of food."

Ty frowned for a moment as he wondered why the castle suddenly needed so much food. Did more Guards sneak into Timbergrey than they were aware of and were hiding in the castle? No, they would have noticed something if that was the case. "That’s the third time they’ve gone together in the last four days. Was it around noon again?"

"Yes."

He started pacing again as he considered this latest bit of information. He’d been taught to look for patterns of behavior in his enemies and he definitely saw one now. But why? Was it a trap of some sort? Did the Guards expect his pack to attack this threat to them while the blond man and wizard appeared off duty and in the mood to shop? Or were they really just enjoying the chance to leave the castle and walk around, even in this rainy weather? "What do you think about this?" he asked Sei.

Sei straightened up and his hands slid behind his back. He would have made a good soldier. "I’m not quite sure what to make of this, Ty. Judging from his reactions, I think the blond Guard knows we’re watching him sometimes. But I don’t smell any fear from him or the boy. I must admit I’m leery of the fact that two of the things we need the most, a wizard and a means to control Ran, are practically being paraded under our noses. I think they’re waiting for us to make a move."

That’s what he was afraid of, but he needed those two men too badly to wait any longer. "Are the Guards still sniffing around Ran’s old house?"

"Yes. They stop by every day to pick flowers. Lin and Pa are always careful to leave at the first sign of them, and to not get too close to the house." He was quiet for a few seconds. "I don’t know how the Guards know we’ve been there."

"Maybe one of them is a wizard and sensed some wards that were disturbed." Ty bared his teeth at the painful loss of the powers they’d gained from Ran’s blood. They used to be able to sense wards so they could avoid them but that talent was a month gone. "We need his blood. Once we have it, we won’t have to worry about shit like this. We’ll be unstoppable." But they needed the blood first. Needed more than just Ran’s blood….

"Yes, Ty. Should we stop watching the house?" Sei asked quietly.

Thinking clearly just then was very difficult because of the hunger, but he tried to focus on the question. "No. There’s always a chance that they’re fetching the flowers for Ran or that he’ll go there eventually. Plus, I want to keep track of those Guards. As soon as we have Ran, we’ll move against them." He salivated at the thought, causing his stomach to tighten in anticipation.

"Maybe it’s a trap or maybe not, but I want the pack to move on the blond Guard the next time he’s on the road by himself or with the wizard." A small voice inside him screamed that he was being too hasty but the hunger quickly drowned it out. He was strong and smart and ruled the pack; he could do whatever he wanted and kill anyone who dared try to stop him. Once he had Ran’s blood in him nothing would hold him back. "Tell the pack that they’ll feed well soon enough, but not until I give the word." He stared coldly at Sei, carefully watching for any reaction. The smaller man didn’t voice any dissent but nodded instead, his teeth pulling back slightly from his fangs.

"We’re starving but we’ll hold out a little longer," Sei hissed. "Ran’s blood is better than any human’s."

"And soon we’ll have plenty of it." Ty could almost taste it, could feel the tingling warmth spreading through his body as Ran’s magic sank into his flesh. He almost started running for the castle just then, only the thought of his probable failure kept him in the cave. He couldn’t risk losing his chance at Ran by being foolish. "Get the Guard – and the wizard if possible – and kill any witnesses. We’ll have to move fast but once Ran finds out his lover is in danger, he’ll do anything to keep him safe." After all, he never once dared to fight back against the Takatori.

"Yes, Ty. We’ll be ready tomorrow."

"Good." Just one more day and they’d be free from any danger, Ty thought. He could suffer the hunger for one more day.

*******

Miko imagined that she could feel the frustration and anger that filled her partner, that caused him to scowl at nothing and curse under his breath as they headed back to the castle. She glanced at Ken out of the corner of her eye and frowned. Right now he looked ready to tear something into tiny, bloody little pieces. "You okay?" she asked, voice quiet so as to not startle him.

Ken snarled and wiped his hand over his face. "They’d just left, I can tell."

"Ah." She switched the flowers she was holding in her right hand into her left. Ken hadn’t said anything the entire time she’d collected them, their ‘reason’ for returning to Aya’s house, but had just stalked around the edge of the garden. Now she knew what had him so upset.

"We’re getting closer to them. Another day or two and maybe they’ll still be at Aya’s house when we arrive."

"Right." Ken brushed back his bangs and let out a slow breath. "Right." This time the word wasn’t said as sarcastically as before. "We’re getting closer. Just a little more time and they’ll slip up." He turned to look at her and managed a lopsided smile. "Have you ever known me to be patient?"

She laughed. "Not particularly. I wouldn’t say that’s one of your stronger suits." She didn’t mind it so much when he went all ‘bound’ on her because soon enough he’d return to ‘normal'. That helped with the occasional flashes of fear she felt when he’d snarl or look ready to bite something – that and the fact that he’d never threatened her. "But patience isn’t something I insist my men have, if you must know." She winked as she teased her partner. Gods, the look on Ken’s face right now was priceless.

"I really do hope I have a mate out there somewhere and that she’ll arrive soon to save me," Ken whimpered, but his eyes were bright with mischief. "You’ve taken down better men than me."

"Oh please, you make it sound like I tie them up and haul them off to my bed." She couldn’t resist teasing him a little more. "Not a bad idea, all in all." She almost laughed when Ken whimpered and stepped away from her.

"No, you just get them drunk and take advantage of them."

Stung by the comment, she almost made a comment about Ken being too easily whipped to really attract her attention but caught herself just in time. No reason to remind him about Yuriko, who he’d adored. Even though Yuriko had been a good friend, she could never forgive her for running away like she did. If Yuriko had really loved Ken, she would have at least faced him after she healed.

"Wow, did I actually get the last word in?" Ken asked her, shaking her from her thoughts.

"You wish." She threw one of the flowers at him. "More like I was holding myself back to keep from crushing you like the bug that you are."

"And here I thought you adored me," Ken moaned as he tucked the red dahlia behind his ear. "My heart is broken."

"The truth is out, I just use you for the wild sex," she shot back and then laughed as Ken pretended to wipe away tears. "I tell you what, since I was such a mean bitch to my sweet little Kenken, how about I buy you something at the market?"

Ken rubbed his stomach, which was growling loudly. "Yum. I’ve been craving more of those chicken pies Yohji and Omi bought yesterday."

"Everyone liked them so much I heard Omi tell Yohji they were going back for more today. I think they even roped Reiichi into helping them carry everything back since they weren’t taking the cart." She was starting to feel a little hungry herself.

"I wonder if…." Ken gave the woods a significant look. "Hopefully Reiichi will see something," he continued after a minute, his voice so quiet she could barely hear it.

"Yes, hopefully." Maybe Reiichi would catch a glimpse of the blendings and come up with a plan to catch them. "At least it’s not raining today."

"No, but it’s windy." Ken tugged at the collar of his jacket. "Feels like we have a cold autumn in store for us."

"Marta said something about a colder than usual winter," Miko remarked, more than a little amazed at how bounds could predict and even influence the weather. "I guess it’s to make up for the fact that this summer wasn’t as hot or humid as usual." She glanced at her partner who was staring off into the pine trees lining this portion of the road. Ken took a deep breath, an intent expression on his face.

The wind blew some hair into her face just then, her mouth open as she was about to ask Ken if something was wrong. Spitting out the hair and tucking it behind her ear, she then watched in stunned amazement as he literally vanished from beside her after growling savagely. A dark blue blur shot across the road and into the trees.

"Fuck!" She reached for her sword - then stopped and tapped on her bracelet instead. If Ken was going after the blendings – the only reason she knew would make him tear off like that - she didn’t think a mere human would be any good to him during a fight. All of the Shadow Guards had been drilled to remember that they couldn’t take down bounds by themselves and to leave them to their bound partners when possible. And blendings were a lot like bounds. So she did the sensible thing and called in reinforcements before unsheathing her sword and following her idiot partner into the woods. Maybe she couldn’t do much but she wasn’t going to let him face the creatures by himself, even if her hands were shaking at the thought of facing Masafumi’s creatures.

Several feet from the trees she could hear loud snarls and the sound of something crashing through the undergrowth. A sharp cry of pain had her running into the forest, afraid that Ken had been outnumbered. A few more steps and she could smell blood, the copper tang overwhelming the scent of pine and mud.

She wanted to call out Ken’s name but knew better than to do that, so she just followed the noise. Coming to a small clearing, she almost slipped on something wet. A small cry of surprise and disgust escaped her just then as she barely managed to right herself, and then something dark was racing toward her. She didn’t have the time to try and figure out if it was Ken as she brought up her sword, and somehow managed to keep ahold of it as sharp pain flared through her arm. There was another cry, this time not from her, as something smashed into the creature that was pulling back its arm to strike her again.

Ken and the blending rolled onto the ground, both of them snarling and snapping as she stared at them in shock, still shook up from almost being killed. A few quick rolls and Ken landed on top. As Miko watched, he did something to the blending’s arm, the one that was trying to push him away. There was a whimper of pain and then Ken moved fast, his head diving forward. Within moments the blending’s throat was torn, blood spurting everywhere. However, Ken didn’t pull away; it took Miko a few seconds to realize he was drinking the blood as the blending writhed beneath him, its struggles growing weaker and weaker. She couldn’t breath just then, stunned motionless as she was by Ken’s savagery.

Lost in the sight of her partner feeding from a living creature, she completely forgot about the other blending until pain flared along her left hip. She spun around, her sword swinging. "Ken! For fuck’s sake, one of them is still alive! *Ken!*" With her right arm wounded and now her hip, she didn’t have a chance in hell of fighting the thing by herself. She shivered in fear as she tried to defend herself the best she could.

This blending had fared little better against her partner, from the looks of it. Its face and arms were badly scratched and blood trickled down its throat. Dark eyes slit like a snake’s stared back at her from a tan face half covered in a short, dense beard. When it bared its teeth at her, she saw sharp, bloody fangs that were almost as big as Ken’s. The blending’s left arm hung limply down its side and its gait hitched as it circled her, clearly looking for an opening.

"Ken, if this thing kills me I’ll haunt you forever, you bastard!" she cursed almost hysterically as she moved cautiously, refusing to let the thing slip behind her. That would be the end of her, she knew, and shivered again as she imagined the creature ripping out her throat much like Ken had done to its companion. Each step hurt and she had to force her injured arm to not tremble, the weight of the sword making the wound ache even more. But she didn’t stop circling the blending.

"Fucking Guard," the blending spat right before it moved, crashing into her and knocking her into a tree. Its teeth snapped at her throat, held away just far enough by her arms – and then it was flying in the opposite direction. Ken, covered with blood but showing only a few bite and scratch marks, moved after it.

"We need it alive, Ken!" she shouted as her knees gave out, dumping her onto the ground. Oh gods, she’d spend an entire day in the temple district praying to each and every god she came across to make up for today. She’d almost been killed – she’d felt that *thing’s* breath on her neck right before Ken had saved her. "Don’t," she coughed, her throat tight from barely restrained panic, "don’t kill him just yet!"

"I know that," Ken snarled back, surprising her with how… *lucid* he sounded and helping her fight back against the shock. Forcing her body to move, she stood up and limped over to where her partner had pinned the blending against a tree. Its other arm was broken now and it alternated between whimpering and snarling.

"You okay?" she asked as she approached, worried that Ken’s demon nature was in charge. She prayed fervently that he’d be able to control it if it was.

Ken managed a smile, something that didn’t reassure her in the least because it exposed all of his sharp teeth, covered in blood. "Yeah, I’m all right. Sorry for that back there but sometimes… sometimes a bit of blood helps to calm me down." He avoided looking at her, but that might be because he was staring at the blending. "What the fuck are you doing out here?" he growled at the creature. When it remained silent, he shook it roughly and snapped his teeth. "Tell me before I fucking tear your throat out!"

That seemed to break the creature as it began to whimper and cry. Miko found it hard to believe that it had once been human with the way it acted as if… as if it was a puppy rolling onto its back to expose its belly to its master. Then she reminded herself that it had almost killed her and lost the little bit of sympathy she felt. "No! No! Ty-"

"Isn’t here right now," she said, as coldly as possible and thankfully without too much of a quiver in her voice. "Now answer my partner or…." She managed to lift her sword – with her left hand – and hold it mostly steady mere millimeters from his neck. Her hands wouldn’t stop shaking. "We’ve no use for you if you don’t talk."

Ken snarled as he leaned forward, his sharp teeth snapping at the blending’s neck. "Tell us." His voice just then sounded as deep and as sibilant as Aya’s when his shinigami side took over.

An acrid odor filled the air, wetness splattered down onto the leaf and needle-covered ground as the blending shook. "Yes, yes, yesyesyesyesye-" A growl from Ken shut it up.

"Where were you going? Back to where you’re hiding? Tell me where that is!"

The blending whimpered and tilted its neck up submissively. "No, not home."

Miko remained quiet, leaving the questioning to Ken since she didn’t think she’d the strength to be much help. Besides, if she guessed correctly, Ken had just established his dominance over the blending – something that made sense when she remembered pack behavior and her partner’s fights with Yohji. The blending should respond to him but most likely would just ignore her since she was human and hadn’t bested it in a fight.

"Where then?" Ken seemed less in control with each passing minute, his fangs fully exposed and his claws still unsheathed.

"Muh-market."

That startled her. "Why?" Of course the blending, too busy staring at Ken, ignored her. "Ask him why, Ken."

"I know that, Miko," Ken snapped, thankfully sounding more like himself just then. "What’s at the market, eh? You looking for dinner?" When the blending remained quiet he tightened his hold on the creature’s shoulders, claws digging into its flesh.

"Guard!" it shouted, eyes practically rolling back in their sockets. "The golden Guard should be there. Ty said to snatch him, to catch him alive and we’ll have the kage! Kage blood and we’ll be strong again. Nothing hurt us, then," it whimpered. "Said nothing about demon Guards. Nothing’s supposed to be stronger than the pack."

Miko felt her blood chill as soon as she figured out who the ‘golden Guard’ was – which didn’t take long as soon as she heard ‘kage’. Her fingers flew over her bracelet as she tried to send a warning to Yohji, forcing her fingers to stop shaking.

"Miko-"

"Already doing it, Ken." She had a little trouble moving her right arm but her fingers worked if she concentrated enough. The message was sent out with only a few mistakes.

Ken returned his attention to the blending. "’Demon Guard’, eh? You don’t know the half of it."

The blending whimpered again. "What are you? Nothing beats the pack in a fight. You… you don’t smell right. Not pack but not human, either. We never noticed."

"Your mistake." Ken’s voice dropped into a dangerous purr that made her shiver in fear. "You could say that Masafumi created me as well… but he did a better job."

"Then you’re pack," the creature said, sounding a little hopeful. "You’re one of us."

Ken didn’t answer the blending. "Miko?" he asked, saying nothing other than her name but she understood what he wanted.

"Quickly, Ken." That said, she turned around so she didn’t have to see him tear out the blending’s throat. Once was enough for her today. She could still see Ken killing the other blending when she closed her eyes and wondered if she’d have nightmares about today. Fearing that she would, she waited for her partner to tear into the captured blending.

Instead, there was a loud ‘snap’ then the sound of something falling down. Ken appeared at her side moments later and put his arm around her shoulder. "You okay?"

She started at his touch but the flash of pain that crossed his face at her reaction reassured her that he was back to normal. "A little worse for wear," she joked rather lamely to try and make up for hurting him like that. Her bracelet started to vibrate, startling her as the other Shadow Guards ‘shouted’ questions to her. "Ken, they’re after Yohji. He should be on the way to the market right now. You need to get going."

He looked grim as he helped her over a fallen tree. "Let me get you onto the road and then I’ll go. I’m not leaving you back here while you’re wounded. Make sure to tell them you’re alone and that I’m on my way, all right?"

Now that they were out on the road, she nodded. "Be careful, Ken." She wasn’t sure how much he needed it after what she’d just witnessed, but she didn’t want to lose a friend.

Her concern made him smile. "I’m not the one who’s wounded," he teased, but there was a wild look in his eyes, as well as hunger. "Here." He shoved his ring into her hand, the one made from Aya’s blood. "Get to the house as quickly as you can. They shouldn’t be able to get to you in there if someone comes looking for those two." He gave a quick squeeze to her hand to make sure she was holding the ring then he was gone, a dark blur tearing down the road.

She watched him for a moment before she limped back to Aya’s old house, her fingers busy trying to answer Botan, Birman and Naru’s questions as they started to shake once again. As she explained in more detail what had just happened, an emergency message from Reiichi cut across hers. The blendings had found him, Omi and Yohji. As she came to a halt and tried to reassure him that Ken was on his way, another message came through – Aya had left the castle.

She had the feeling that there was going to be a lot of bloodshed very soon, and wondered if there’d be a village left by the time Aya was finished defending his mate.

A very small part of her almost felt sorry for the blendings. They didn’t know that death was on his way.

*******

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