Shadows of the Past

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chapter 8

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Ty leaned against an oak tree and watched the road from his shaded vantage point. The weather was dry, not too cool and perfect for a nice long walk. Now, to see if the blond Guard and the Takatori would think the same. They’d gone to the market before in lousy weather. Even if they went by cart again, his pack would be ready for them.

He heard Sei slowly approach, steps quiet but not too quiet - not an attempt to sneak up on him, which was just as well. No, as on-edge as he was over the thought of finally having his hands on Ran, he would brook no attempts for pack dominance. Being rather smart, Sei seemed to realize this and kept his steps only quiet enough that the sound didn’t travel down to the road.

"Is everyone in place?" Ty asked, forcing himself to sound calm.

"Yes, Ty." Sei stopped about a meter from his right side. "Ahm and Xi left to watch the house while Tem and Lin are on guard by the castle."

"Good." He didn’t want to have to worry about anyone forgetting their assignment because of excitement or hunger. He’d rip out the throat of whoever dared to screw up today. They needed Ran, needed the immunity and power his blood could offer them. But to get their hands on Ran they had to do things right. Once they had the Guard, Ran would be as good as theirs. "Is everyone under control?"

Sei sighed and scratched his head. "Well, Mas and Pa are too excited, but Gou and Cho are watching over them. They’ll make sure everyone follows your lead."

Grunting his approval, Ty looked out at the road. There’d been little traffic today, a few carts and once, a small group of people. The villagers were avoiding the sections of the road that took them through the forest, much preferring to take a longer path to the market. They were afraid of his pack, and their fear would help them, would give them the perfect opportunity to snatch the necessary hostages. Once they had the Guard….

"Tell Mas and Pa that if they screw up, I’ll flay them alive. I don’t care how hungry they are, they’ll control themselves until we have the Guard and the wizard." His voice was deeper than normal as rage boiled in his blood. He was starving, desperate for fresh blood and soft flesh, but he wouldn’t give in to his animal nature right now. The others could behave for a few more hours. "Once we have taken the hostages, they can feed on any witnesses or Guards who come after us." Part of him, the rational part that had made him such a good soldier, railed against that but he knew he had no hope in hell of controlling his pack for much longer. They’d never gone this long without feeding on humans and once they had a means of controlling Ran, he’d lose the best threat he had to keep them in line. But once they fed on Ran’s blood, they wouldn’t need to worry about Guards or even the Army.

Sei remained quiet for a moment and then bowed his head. "I’ll tell them that, Ty. Knowing they won’t have to suffer much longer will probably help keep them under control." When Ty didn’t say anything else, he walked away, barely making any sound as he returned to the rest of the pack.

With his attention once more focused on the road, Ty waited for any sign of the blond Guard and the Takatori. They had to come today. If not, there was going to be bloodshed, the pack was too starved to be concerned about their safety much longer. While the massacre would probably draw his prey toward him, he wanted to take them hostage on his terms. They had to do this right, had to capture the two men in such a manner that whoever was in charge of the Guards’ mission wouldn’t try to lock up Ran before the kage could come after their hostages. No, this plan was best; it would work. As long as the blond Guard decided to go to the market.

His claws digging into the tree’s trunk as his stomach clenched in hunger, Ty prayed to whatever gods would listen to a monster such as him that the Guard would come soon.

*******

Yohji watched as Omi practically bounced down the road ahead of him and couldn’t help but laugh. When he glanced at Reiichi, he found the older man smiling and shaking his head. "Are you thinking about how old he can make you feel?" he asked.

Reiichi chuckled, the sound warm and quiet. "I was wondering when was the last time I felt as energetic as he looks right now, and I was also feeling a little sorry for Botan. Even if being a wizard keeps him from aging normally, he has to feel worn and tired after a day with the boy."

Yohji laughed again. "Hell, I’m only a few years older than Omi and he’s always made me feel exhausted by the end of a day spent guarding him. Why do you think I snuck him into the Koneko so often? At least I could let him safely run around there and have a chance to sit down and catch my breath."

"What amazes me is so many of the highborns think of Prince Mamoru as a timid, ill child too weak to attend Court." Reiichi smiled as he looked at a frowning Omi who was standing in the road waiting impatiently for them to catch up. "Things should be very interesting when they learn the truth."

"Yeah." Yohji chuckled as he imagined the shocked look on most of the Court’s nobles.

"Maybe I have so much energy because I don’t waste my time talking when I’m supposed to be walking," Omi snapped as soon as they caught up with him.

A little taken aback at his friend’s show of temper, Yohji reached out and tousled Omi’s hair. "What bug crawled up your ass, kiddo? We’re walking as fast as we can."

Omi looked at Reiichi, and judging from how red his face became and the sense of embarrassment Yohji could feel, he’d forgotten the fact that the Guard was crippled. "I’m sorry. I just…," he shrugged uncomfortably, "well, I want to make sure we get to Nika’s stall before she runs out of the blueberry buns."

"Figures this would have something to do with the little demon," Yohji teased as he tugged up the neck of Omi’s tunic. "I’m sure Nika’s going to keep some of the treats for you, considering how you’re her best customer lately. Tell me, how the hell do you expect to get all the treats you’re buying to Nagi? And do you honestly believe that Crawford and Jei aren’t making sure he gets enough to eat?"

"Since I’ll preserve them with a spell, I can send them out in several packages," Omi sniffed as he batted Yohji’s hand aside. "Besides, he needs lots of food. I’m just making sure he’s keeping his energy up." Then he smiled as he bumped his shoulder into Yohji. "You buy almost as much as I do, you know."

"Yeah, which Aya eats right away. I don’t have to mess with spells or packages." Yohji winked at his friend. "Then we have fun burning off all that energy."

"Why am I not surprised? So I guess, in a round-about way, you’re the one ingesting the treats," Reiichi pointed out as he removed his glasses to clean them. "If I understand your kind at all, you’re the one benefiting the most from the energy sweet snacks provide."

"You’re such a glutton," Omi teased as he walked ahead – but at a much slower pace than before. "Poor Aya, no wonder he’s always craving snacks!"

Yohji had never thought of Aya’s sweet tooth that way. Things made sense when he considered the fact that he was draining energy from his lover on a regular basis.

"In that case, I better make sure the man has as many snacks as he wants!" Yohji smiled at Reiichi and gave him an ‘everything’s fine’ wave of his hand before he started tearing down the road. "I’ll buy everything before you get there!" he shouted as he raced past Omi.

"Yotan!" Omi wailed as he started running as well, trying to catch up. Yohji made sure to be always in the lead – not a hard feat to manage considering his nature – but only planned on teasing the boy as far as the bend in the road. He didn’t want to leave Reiichi too far behind, not in this section of the woods.

About ten yards from his destination, his skin started to crawl - a sensation that was quickly becoming familiar on this part of the road. He pretended to have a stitch in his side as he slowed down and looked back at his friend – which gave him an excuse to search the surrounding trees for a glimpse of… something. Anything, really, to let him know he wasn’t imagining things.

Omi quickly caught up to him. "Yohji, don’t scare me like that! I had visions of- is something wrong?"

He started coughing to cut off Omi as he once again surreptitiously glanced around. All he could see was a forest filled with dark shadows. Maybe it was his imagination or maybe just the gentle breeze but he thought some of those shadows were moving. "Sorry, Omi, I guess I’m too out of shape to be running around like that." When Omi stared at him in confusion for such a blatant lie, he placed a comradely arm around his friend and hugged him close. "I’ve got a bad feeling, kiddo," he whispered so the words wouldn’t carry past Omi. "Humor me and get a defensive spell ready for you and Reiichi." He could see their friend slowly shuffling toward them. In a loud, bright voice, he called out to the older man as he tapped a warning message over his copper bracelet. "Hurry up, Reiichi or we’ll leave you behind. Nika’s buns wait for no man."

Reiichi showed no sign that he’d received the message other than the suddenly serious look in his eyes. "Now, now, I’m sure the lady’s husband might have something to say about her buns, after all. I’m also certain that he wouldn’t appreciate you talking about them in that manner." Like Yohji, he kept his voice light and teasing, betraying nothing of his true feelings.

Omi donned what Yohji thought of as his ‘Court face’, with a bland smile that never reached his eyes. "Reiichi, I’m shocked, I tell you. All this time we thought Yohji was the biggest pervert around and here it’s really you. For shame."

As Omi teased the Guard, Yohji felt his bracelet vibrate and became worried when he noticed that neither of his friends were tapping him a message. Then, its meaning sunk in; Ken and Mika had been attacked and the blendings were coming after him. His fingers settled on his gauntlet as he forced himself not to search the woods for any sign of the creatures. No point in letting them realize that he knew they were out there and provoking them into attacking while his friends weren’t ready.

Omi’s hand also fell to his own gauntlet while Reiichi crossed his arms over his chest, his sleeves now pushed back from his wrists. "You do me a great injustice, Omi. No one is as big a pervert as Yohji."

Keeping up the appearance of nonchalance, Yohji started to growl in irritation – but had to stop when the sound took on a feral edge. "You know, once we get to the market I’m gonna tell Nika about the way you two abused me and she’s gonna give me all of her buns to cheer me up." He used the pretense of looking away from his friends as if he were hurt by their actions to scan the woods once more. He couldn’t see anything – but that wasn’t saying much. As he searched, he tapped a message to Miko asking for more information.

When Omi and Reiichi stepped toward him, he sniffed loudly but then, in a hushed voice, told them to get ready. He didn’t like that neither Miko nor Ken were answering.

Omi muttered a few words and then looked at him. "What about you?" he asked quietly.

Yohji tapped the weapon wrapped around his left wrist. "I’ll be fine." Between that and his nature, he should be able to manage a decent job defending himself. He just didn’t want to worry about his friends while he was doing that. "Look after Reiichi first since-"

He was cut off as something large, dark and very fast leaped out from the woods. Shoving Omi toward Reiichi, he quickly pulled some threads loose from his gauntlet and managed to get them around his attacker’s throat as he was knocked onto his back.

"Pa, don’t kill him!" something growled, sounding a lot like Jei when the madness was upon him.

"Fuck." Yohji stared in wonder at the snarling creature lying half on top of him. The first thing he noticed was its glowing red eyes and sharp, white fangs. The look of smugness on the blending’s face began to fade as he tightened the wire around its neck – but he noticed with dismay that it wasn’t slicing into the thing’s flesh like it should. He focused on his weapon to make it sharper, but still, nothing happened other than him cutting off the blending’s air supply. As the creature slowly choked, it started to claw him, lines of pain flaring along his arms and shoulders. Feeling the wave of panic and fear that emanated from Aya, he jerked his grip on the wire and twisted his arms sharply enough to break the damned thing’s neck before his own got slashed. He had to get things under control before Aya grew too panicked.

Shoving the blending’s corpse off him, he quickly jumped up – and realized he was surrounded. Aya had told them that there were eleven blendings in all, and from the looks of it, all but four of them were here. They stood all along the road, three of them clustered around Omi and Reiichi who were safe behind a ward. Looking around, he noticed that one of the blendings was bigger than the rest by at least a head, broad enough along the shoulders to make two of him. This didn’t look good.

As the blendings stared in shock at their dead comrade, he quickly pulled several strands from his bracelet and held them ready. Taking advantage of the lull in the attack, he cleared his throat. "Omi, whatever you do, don’t lower that ward. I don’t think that magic works-" He was cut off as another of the creatures charged at him. Whirling around, several wires acting as a shield, he managed to hook a line around the thing’s feet and sent it crashing to the ground. Preparing for another attack, he noticed that, despite the fact that he was standing in the middle of the road, a large pool of shadows had gathered around his feet, and lines of blackness were creeping along his golden wires.

About damn time the things decided to help him out.

Another blending looked ready to attack him but one of its friends grabbed it by the arm and pulled it back. As the impulsive one growled savagely at Yohji, sounding like a furious guard dog, the calmer blending turned toward the largest of its kind, a creature that towered at least a good head above Yohji. "Ty, do you see that?" Its voice, while possessing a gravelly quality, was quiet and sounded intelligent.

"Yeah, I see it." The massive blending stepped toward Yohji, causing him to ready more wires. Shit, the blending was huge, bigger than Mickey in both height and girth. As it approached, the fingers on its right hand flicked about. One of the blendings trying to break through Omi’s ward stopped and joined its friends in circling Yohji. Now more than a little apprehensive about the odds, he still stood his ground, shifting about slightly as the blendings closed in. At least they were leaving his friends alone. He just hoped they still meant to capture him - that would be to his advantage in the fight.

Then suddenly they stopped, no more than a meter or so from the shadows gathered around his feet. The huge blending with the rugged face covered with short, light brown hair and thick body dressed in patched together hides, spoke in a deep, gruff voice. "Put the weapon down, and we won’t hurt you."

Yohji snorted as he let out a little more wire between his fingers. "Sure you won’t. I have every reason to believe you, don’t I?" His wounds twinged in pain; some of the cuts were pretty deep but at least his bound nature slowed the blood loss to a trickle. What worried him more than the injuries or his situation, however, were the emotions he felt from his mate. Fury and hate burned into him despite the chill he got from Aya when his lover became lost in his shinigami nature. He knew he had to get this mess settled soon before Aya showed up and did something rash.

The shadows gathered around his feet writhed about, black waves that now lapped at his shins. All of the blendings stared at the darkness – oddly enough, they seemed rather pleased. A few of them smiled while a look of grim satisfaction settled on their leader’s face.

"Well, we didn’t expect you to put up so much of a fight." The creature laughed at its own joke, some of the other blendings echoing it. The one with the quiet voice, however, merely stared at Yohji. "You’re pretty fast and you’ve a handy toy there, but you’re outnumbered. Now, be a good boy and we won’t rough you up anymore. We want you alive, but if you keep fighting, we can’t guarantee that’ll remain the case."

Yohji didn’t like this, didn’t like the fact that they wanted to capture him but said nothing about Omi and Reiichi. The blendings usually attacked their prey in a secluded area and killed them; they didn’t try to capture people in the middle of the road. "You don’t really think I’m just going to go along with a bunch of murderers, do you?"

The large blending’s fists clenched at its side as some of its pack mates slowly growled. Guess they didn’t like hearing the truth about themselves. But just Yohji got ready himself for another attack, the creatures calmed down. "You don’t have a choice, not if you don’t want people killed. Whoever stumbles onto our little party here won’t be allowed to leave, and your friends over there can’t hide behind that ward forever." Smiling, the blending cocked its head in the direction of Omi and Reiichi. "Surrender now and we won’t kill any of you."

"You think I’m going to trust you? You’re nuts," Yohji scoffed as he pulled out more wire. The shadows slid along the golden line while he slowly created a web around himself. Once it was complete he could try to move toward Omi and Reiichi and bring them inside it as well, then wait for Ken and the others to arrive. Someone should be coming soon - all he had to do was hold out a little longer. He just prayed that Botan somehow managed to keep Aya away from here.

"You don’t have a choice," the blending growled, its good mood gone once again. Face now twisted in anger, it took a step forward. The shadows, in response, doubled in size and crawled up Yohji’s legs, to his knees. "Stop making the shield, *now*."

So much for stalling them with small talk, Yohji thought. As the creatures crept forward, teeth bared and claws unsheathed, he hoped that the shadow-enhanced wire could hold them back. He hoped that his weapon didn’t fail him again. He cursed the creatures for being so damn impatient and his friends for taking too damn long in getting their asses here to help him out.

*******

Aya broke through the ward guarding Reiji’s desk. While he waited for the magic to fade, he carefully checked for any more layers of protection around the furniture. He’d thought that Masafumi was paranoid, but the man was nothing compared to his father. Aya had broken through eight wards already – and noticed that there was still one more for him to remove. When finished, he nodded at Botan and Birman.

"Thank you, Aya," Birman told him, her tone pleasant even as a slight scowl settled over her features. She gingerly rested her hands on the desk as she leaned forward to examine the many stacks of documents resting on top. "Is anything else warded?"

"Some of the documents, but you should be able to pick them up and read them now." He stepped back and leaned against a wall, arms folded over his chest. He didn’t like being in this room with its large windows and ornate decorations, hated the memories of all the times he’d been called here to be told of a new mission to be completed.

Birman’s lips pressed together as she started to sort through the paperwork. "One would think that Reiji wouldn’t bother to ward *everything* in his office." She glanced through the documents. "Household accounts. The man wasn’t careless enough to leave anything important out in the open, even if it was warded. Where would he keep something incriminating?" she asked as she looked up.

He shrugged, his features carefully schooled not to show his discomfort. "Your guess would be better than mine." He wanted to be elsewhere, wanted to be at the market with Yohji. Staying in the castle day after day was beginning to bother him, making him feel as if he was a prisoner once again. Neither he nor Yohji had gotten much sleep last night because of his nightmares, the ones where he was upstairs in his attic room awaiting a resurrected Hirofumi. There was nothing that he wanted more than to be able to leave Timbergrey and return to the Koneko. Being fussed over by Jo and Mickey and teased by Teddy seemed very appealing right about now.

Botan stopped examining the wards on the various bookcases to approach the desk. "I’d say look in the drawers and the filing cabinet over here," he pointed out, tone mild in the face of Birman’s scowl. "I wouldn’t be surprised if he has some hidden cubbyholes around here as well."

"I’m well aware of that," she snapped, then let out a deep breath as she combed both hands through her hair. "I’m sorry. I just don’t want to miss anything. Reiji took many important documents from the Royal Archives before he went into exile and I want them all returned, not to mention how good it would be to find some nice, incriminating proof on other traitors."

"Which he’s not going to have kept anywhere remotely accessible, wards or no wards." Botan sounded amused and a little tired. "They might not be here at all."

"We’ve looked just about everywhere else, they have to be here." Birman started to open the various drawers, pulling them all the way out and feeling inside the desk as she searched for hidden compartments. Bored, Aya closed his eyes and concentrated on his link with Yohji rather than watch the Spymaster or listen to her argue with Botan.

Yohji was in a teasing, happy mood. His bright, warm emotions flowed into Aya and helped to lessen the coldness that seeped into him more and more each day. He found it very easy to lose himself in what his mate felt.

At first he thought it was his own concern and uneasiness that darkened Yohji’s bright emotions. Then they strengthened – and Yohji abruptly stifled their link. Aya opened his eyes and frowned as he wondered what was happening. Was his lover concerned about his upset mood? Had Yohji encountered some trouble on the way to the market? Was it something to do with Reiichi or Omi?

He wasn’t sure of the cause, all he knew was that he grew more apprehensive by the moment. Pushing away from the wall, he clenched his fists as he tried to strengthen their link. He barely registered the confused glances Botan and Birman sent his way before he began to concentrate.

Only to have his concentration shattered as his copper bracelet vibrated madly against his wrist. He was confused for a few seconds as he tried to decipher the message, still not used to the device, but the code for Yohji instantly sharpened his focus. As soon as he realized that his lover was in danger, sharp, burning emotions shot through him: panic, fear and an adrenaline rush, followed by anger and determination. Yohji was in danger.

"Birman? The blendings?" The wizard sounded confused as he first clutched at the band around his wrist and then began to tap it.

"I *know*, Botan." Birman stepped closer to Aya as he quickly turned around, searching for the fastest way to Yohji. "Aya, we need-"


He didn’t listen to whatever it was Birman had to say as she stepped closer to him, her hand extended. Right now, he was concentrating on the shadows, making the ones located around and inside the elaborately cut panes of glass and the mortared bricks supporting the windows writhe. A katana forged from the shadows gathered in his hands as the wall trembled, more shadows formed around him as familiar armor. He heard Birman cry out right before most of the outside wall of Reiji’s office exploded outward, providing him with the exit he needed. Too much time would have been lost going through the castle, something that was unacceptable when Yohji was in harm’s way. Feeling pressure against his shoulder, he brushed Birman’s hand aside with shadows as he called more of them around him as a cloak and stepped forward.

The relatively short drop to the ground was easily managed despite the debris scattered about and then he was racing across the castle grounds. He felt most of his emotions fade away with each passing second, leaving him drained of everything but potent rage and concern. Yohji’s emotions, more under control now, were an echo inside the darkness overtaking him, a beacon leading him through the gates and down the gravel road. As long as he felt those emotions - things would be fine. The moment they stopped… the rage almost overwhelmed him then, as shadows writhed out around him and tore the trees up from their roots as he ran past. If Yohji died, he’d destroy everything around him, commanding the shadows to rip apart *everything*. He wouldn’t allow his mate’s attackers to live after that, not if he had to annihilate the entire countryside.

Coming across a small caravan on the road, he ordered the shadows to draw in around him. There was panicked neighing from horses as he ran past them, the creatures sensing something that made them rear up in their harnesses and cry out. Not that their reaction mattered to him, not when his senses were busy extending outward, seeking Yohji. He could feel tainted magic both behind him and in front of him, the stronger sensation gathered around his mate. There was a whiff of what he considered ‘Omi’ as well, but right now all he cared about was Yohji. Rage flared inside as more pain flooded into him.

Something - the blendings - had dared to harm his mate. He would make sure they suffered before he shattered their bodies with shadows and drank in their life force. They’d harmed Yohji. That one thought drove out all of his human thoughts and emotions, leaving pure wrath in their place.

*******

Botan forced himself to stop crouching on the floor and stood up. His ears were still ringing from the… explosion, he blinked tear-filled eyes and tried to survey the damage. Beside him, he heard Birman cough but he didn’t think she was hurt. No, not when Aya had sent most of the room’s outside wall into the courtyard. A cool breeze circulated the dust created by brick walls exploding and thinned the choking cloud of dust a little so he could breath easier.

In a matter of mere seconds, Aya had produced a hole two meters high and about twice that wide. Only one window remained intact – but not by much. Its panes were webbed with cracks, a few small pieces of glass missing here and there. Botan began to pray that the kage hadn’t damaged the support beams holding up this floor or the ones above. As he stood there a brick broke loose and shattered into a pile of debris as it hit the floor.

"Of all the-" Birman coughed again as she walked over to join him in staring at the damage. "What possessed him to do this?"

He coughed a little to clear his throat. "I believe it’s the principle that the shortest distance between two objects is a straight line. Ah, maybe we should step back a little." He didn’t like how the floorboards were creaking beneath his feet. Outside he could hear voices loudly exclaiming their shock at the damage and guessed that it would be just a moment or two before some of the staff gathered the courage to unlock the door to see what had happened here. Just then he realized that his bracelet was vibrating from messages being sent by the others but he couldn’t concentrate on their meanings. "We need to get out of here and go to Yohji and Omi." His fingers flew over his bracelet, cutting through those messages as he warned his friends that Aya was on his way to Yohji.

Birman snorted as she moved toward the door, her right hand cradled against her chest but her left one busy both reading and tapping out messages. "Why? Aya’s on his way, I seriously doubt there’ll be anything left for us by the time we catch up to him." Her face, covered with pale dust, was schooled into what he considered to be her Spymaster mask, cold and slightly disdainful. "What we need to focus on right now is clean-up."

He was more than a little shocked by her attitude. "Yohji, Omi and Reiichi are in danger," he reminded his friend in case her brain had been addled by the explosion.

"I’m well aware of that." She wiped her face with the sleeve of her jacket, managing only to smear the dust. With an exasperated snarl she succeeded in pushing back her jacket’s sleeve by rubbing her left arm against her body, exposing the still-clean undershirt. Then she tried to wipe off some dust again. "And, as I said, Aya’s on his way – is probably there now, in fact. There’s nothing we can do." Face a little cleaner now, she turned to glare at him. "You should have stopped him."

"Who, Aya?" He snorted at that bit of nonsense. "The only thing I could have done was slow him down for the second or two it took him to kill me to get me out of his way." Botan’s skin started to itch from all the dust. "He’s going to destroy everything in his path to Yohji, and then…." He wasn’t very happy to remember all the destruction other kage had caused when their loved ones had been attacked.

"And then I doubt we’ll have to worry about the blendings any longer." Birman’s professional mask slipped a little. "And to think we wanted the damned things to make a move soon. You think there’s going to be a Timbergrey left in another ten minutes?"

 

He stepped closer to his friend and reached out for her wounded hand. "I think that depends on how badly Yohji’s been injured. What happened to you?"

Birman hissed softly in pain at his touch. "I made the mistake of trying to hold Aya back after he covered himself in shadow armor. It feels like a bad case of frostbite." She flexed her fingers and hissed again, to his relief. At least she hadn’t lost the use of her fingers.

"Let’s go tend to this and try to make sense out of what’s happening." The various messages were coming in too quickly on top of each other for him to understand any of them. "Where are Eri and Naru? Can you tell anything from all the gibberish?" he asked as he waved his wrist bearing the bracelet about.

"They’re closer to Miko so they’re going to check up on her first." Birman took a deep breath as her hand rested on the doorknob. "As much as I want to help Omi, Reiichi and Yohji, I think we’re needed more here. Some people might try to escape from the grounds since things are so confused, and then there’s covering up both what just happened and what Aya will do to the blendings." She looked exhausted just then, face worn with pain and stress. "Not to mention the fact that I think being wherever Aya is right now is a very bad idea."

"Especially if you happened to have hurt Yohji," he agreed as a chill ran down his spine. What a way to court one’s death.

The panicked people standing in the hall put an end to their discussion. Straightening her shoulders, Birman was once again the implacable Spymaster. Stepping to the side, Botan left the task of calming everyone down to his friend as he readied several spells. Most of these would be to dull the minds around him so Eri could easily alter their memories later on, but a few were defensive spells, just in case. He didn’t have much hope of standing against an enraged Aya if worse came to worst, but maybe he could buy some time for the others. Spells ready, he cursed both the blendings’ stupidity for harming a kage’s mate and his own for not thinking that something like this would come to pass.

*******

Omi tried not to flinch when the blendings around him once again attempted to break through his ward. He fought back the panic threatening to weaken his spell and concentrated on the magic. After a moment the magic shield strengthened, its glow intensifying.

"Is there anything I can do?" Reiichi asked, his voice quiet. Omi glanced over his shoulder to find the man with knives in both hands, staring at the creatures surrounding Yohji. The usual peaceful, polite expression on his face was gone, replaced by a cold, ruthless look. Omi had never seen this aspect of the Guard before, and he began to realize why Yuushi and Birman were so certain a lame man could help protect Aya and Yohji.

"No, nothing." He flinched as another beast threw itself against the ward.

"Can we attack them somehow?" Reiichi hadn’t flinched, hadn’t moved at all, and his voice was perfectly calm as if he was asking about the weather.

Omi considered the question, weighing all their options and his ability to control the ward. "I’m sorry, but I don’t think I can modify the ward to allow anything through it and I’m afraid that if I lower it at all, I won’t be able to get it back up in time." He was amazed at how fast the blendings had surrounded them. If they hadn’t focused on Yohji first, he and Reiichi would probably be dead.

"I see." With the knife still in hand, Reiichi used a finger to push his glasses up. "I think I need to talk to Botan after this to see about some magical weapons of my own. Something unaffected by wards, if possible."

Part of Omi’s mind focused on the problem, wondered if there would be a possible solution. As powerful as Botan was, he could overcome most wards so maybe he could create something that wouldn’t be hindered by the barriers. The rest of Omi’s mind wondered why they hadn’t thought about something like this before. Then again, he hadn’t imagined that he’d be trapped behind a ward, helpless to do anything while his friends were attacked on the other side of it.

Two blendings remained near them while the rest gathered around Yohji. While what appeared to be their leader began to talk to Yohji, Omi stood on his toes to try to get a better view of what was happening – and jumped when Reiichi’s hand settled on his shoulder. "Wha-?"

"As Miko said, they seem to want Yohji alive. They must have figured out his connection to Aya somehow," the Guard said, his voice as analytical as Botan’s during a lesson. "I don’t think, however, they expected him to put up so much resistance."

No, probably not considering the dead body not far from Yohji and the wary blendings circling him just out of reach of his wire. Some of the blendings showed signs of being harmed by the wire; there were thin cuts along their bodies. Yohji didn’t look much better, his shirt torn in several places and covered with blood, but he was steady on his feet and focused on the creatures surrounding him. At first uncertain about what he was seeing, being so far away and his view partially blocked by the blendings, Omi started when he realized that shadows were gathering around Yohji, and that they were slowly forming a web with his friend’s weapon. "I think they’ve pretty much had their suspicions about Aya and Yohji confirmed by now - look at how the shadows are trying to protect Yohji."

Reiichi pressed as close to the ward as he could and squinted, his hand cupped around the bracelet on his arm. Omi felt his own vibrate but couldn’t concentrate on what it was saying at the same time he maintained the ward and tried to make sense out of what was happening to Yohji.

"Even from far away Aya’s power is reacting to Yohji’s danger." Reiichi paused for a moment, as if he was considering something. "How strong can you make your ward? Aya’s on his way here."

Omi’s eyes went wide upon hearing that, his arms wrapping around his chest and hugging it tightly. "Aya…?" His mind dredged up the stories that Botan had told him about the cities (and island, his memory chimed in, not at all helpful) that various kage in the past had utterly destroyed. "That’s… not good."

"No, it isn’t, unless Ken, Eri and Naru manage to make it here and take care of the blendings before Aya arrives." Reiichi didn’t seem to think that was likely to happen, considering the seriousness of his tone and expression. "When he arrives, drop the ward from around me and worry about yourself, do you understand? You’re the heir, you must do whatever you can to survive."

Omi’s reply was instant. "No. You won’t survive more than a minute out there." He didn’t mean to insult Reiichi but it was the simple truth. Between the blendings and Aya, the man wouldn’t stand a chance without some magical protection. "Besides, I doubt I can make anything that can directly withstand a kage. He’ll rip through my wards no matter what."

"That’s not a pleasant thought, Omi," Reiichi said, a little weariness creeping into his voice.

"I know." Just then the blendings near them joined the others around Yohji. Not liking the looks of things, Omi pressed as close to his ward as he could. The largest blending, the one who appeared to be the leader, was trying to talk Yohji into surrendering but his friend would have none of it. Yohji wasn’t stupid, after all. "Where are the others?"

Reiichi stepped beside him, hand still cupped over his bracelet. "Eri and Naru went to guard Miko since she’s wounded and…." He frowned as he tapped something on his bracelet. "Eri says she won’t be able to reach us before Aya does. So she’s going to do her best to mentally divert anyone else heading toward us."

Omi nodded in approval. "She has the right idea. The last thing we need is people wandering into this mess and being injured or killed." Or for someone to see Yohji like that, covered in shadows. For someone to see Aya in control of the shadows and covered with them from head to toe.

"Well, considering the fact that these creatures were created with Aya’s blood and still seem to have some immunity to magic, I doubt she or Naru would be of much help even if they could make it here in time. However, I- dammit." Reiichi’s hand settled on Omi’s shoulder as one of the blendings leaped at Yohji, its long arm slashing forward. The defensive web, still not fully formed, the blending managed to slip its clawed hand between the wires and sliced Yohji across the chest. But, as his friend cried out, the shadows quickly overwhelmed the blending, completely covering it.

The other blendings came to an abrupt halt as their pack mate fell to the ground, its terrible cries smothered by the shadows. It lay writhing on the ground, shadow-covered hands clawing at its face in an attempt to break through the darkness.

Yohji stood within his web with his hand pressed against his bleeding chest and panted in pain. Something made him look away from the shocked blendings, to look down the road and, as Omi turned to see what had attracted his friend’s attention he felt himself grow cold. Darkness covered the road, racing toward them.

"Aya’s here."

He didn’t need Reiichi to state the obvious, not when a black-clad figure quickly approached them, two red strands of hair falling across Aya’s armored chest. The hair and burning silver eyes were all that could be seen of their friend. Coldness and anger radiated so strongly from Aya that Omi instinctively looked away as he uselessly strengthened his ward.

"Aya! Dammit, Cat, get away- what in all the hells?" Yohji cried out as the shadows completely engulfed him, forming a solid wall. Omi blinked in surprise as he recognized one of Aya’s shadow wards enveloping his friend.

"Aya’s protecting Yohji. That means he plans to fight the blendings by himself." Reiichi pushed up his glasses. "This should be interesting."

Interesting. Omi was shocked out of his fear as he stared incredulously at the Guard. Yohji was injured, the blendings were closing in on Aya who appeared to have gone completely shinigami on them and Reiichi thought things were ‘interesting’. If they survived this, he was going to have the man’s sanity checked out.

*******

With Miko safely in the old Fujimiya cottage, Ken ran through the woods in the direction the blendings had headed. All he had to do was follow the road long enough and he should come across Yohji, Omi and Reiichi – or Aya would do something to clearly indicate where the fight was going on. He tried not to think too much about that as most likely that section of the forest – if not all of Timbergrey – probably wouldn’t remain in one piece for very long. He needed to get there soon and try to settle things before Aya lost it.

Along with concern for his friends, a ravenous hunger spurred him on which made him run even faster. He could still taste the blendings’ blood, could still smell it. He wanted more, wanted to sink his teeth deep into their unnatural flesh and tear it away, to swallow it and bite off more. Only the stench of Miko’s fear had kept him from feeding earlier, her fear alone had allowed him to rein in his demon nature. It had taken so much willpower to quickly slash the one blending’s throat when his teeth had ached to sink in and tear the flesh. But he’d managed and Miko’s fear had faded. She hadn’t turned away from him in disgust like Yuriko had….

Coming across the corpses of the two blendings, the small clearing where they lay filled with the scent of blood and flesh, he couldn’t help but growl. Only the thought of new prey ahead allowed him to ignore the feast just laying there, two fresh kills for him to gorge upon. His demon nature struggled with his human one for a few seconds, gradually giving in when he thought about the fight to come. As much as his gaki soul craved fresh blood, another fight was just as appealing. All of him was in agreement then, eager to kill the filthy blendings.

He raced through the woods, reveling a little in how… *good* it felt to let loose like this, to stop pretending to still be human. To let his bound body move as it could, tearing through the woods as easily as strolling down a street. For the first time in what seemed forever, he felt whole. The pain and confusion he’d felt these last couple of months melted away with each step.

The smell of blood and fear and the sound of someone crying out in pain alerted him to the fact that he was closing in on his friends. As his claws unsheathed, he felt his gaki nature take over, the tiny bit of fear and uncertainty within him disappear beneath eagerness and hunger. He didn’t care that he was running toward an enraged kage or a pack of supernatural killers, it was time to fight and feed. Lips pulling away from his fangs, he continued at full speed into the fray.

Running that quickly, he was only able to catch a glimpse of what was going on. Yohji seemed to be behind the shadow wards in the middle of the road, his voice furious and concerned as he yelled at Aya to release him. Not far away were Omi and Reiichi, safe behind a ward as well, though it was merely a magical one. Four blendings lay scattered about, one still twitching beneath a cloak of shadows, and the rest of them surrounded Aya. An Aya who was encased in shadow armor, his fingers ending in long, black claws. A shiver of fear ran through Ken at the sight but he continued his momentum, bore down on one of the blendings and knocked it into the ground.

The fear inspired by Aya vanished as he rolled around with the blending, the creature’s face covered with dark grey hair. Gaki nature fully in charge, he rolled over one more time until the blending was beneath him, claws digging deep into its arms as he prevented it from lashing out. His hunger now unbearable, he smiled as his head dove forward, toward its unprotected neck. The blending just didn’t move fast enough, couldn’t get its chin down in time to prevent him from sinking his teeth into its throat. A feeling very close to ecstasy washed through Ken as blood gushed down his throat. Swallowing quickly, he continued to drink as the creature struggled beneath him, growing weaker by the moment. So distracted by his feast, he didn’t notice someone approaching until pain flared down his back.

Hissing as he forced himself away from his meal, Ken crouched on the road and looked up at another blending; it was tall, thin and much younger than the one dying at his feet. This one looked like a real challenge, blood dripping from one of its clawed hands while it growled savagely. Ken growled back, still hungry and now actually excited to be facing a more worthy prey. Around him were screams of pain and fury, muttered curses and pleas for mercy but all he cared about was his opponent. His demon nature held him still as the blending took a step forward, reeking of hate and hunger.

"You bastard," it snarled, claws flexing. All Ken did was sneer at the creature while he waited for an opening, the pain in his back already fading.

"Sei!" Another blending called out, voice deep and tinged with worry. "Kill him and get back here!"

Ken’s opponent shifted its attention to its friends just for a moment, but that was all he needed. Even wounded he was more than a match for these things, was faster and stronger. The blending didn’t even have time to do more than step back and lift its arms to try to fend him off as he attacked. Claws bit into his flesh but he didn’t mind the pain, not when he could smell its blood and fear. Slashing it across the chest, he backed off a little, teeth bared in an amused grin. He wanted to savor its fear as it realized that something meaner and stronger was after its blood.

"A… a bound?" it asked, brown eyes wide in surprise. "But, you’re a Guard."

Circling the confused blending, Ken couldn’t help but chuckle. "Yeah, I am." He struggled with his two natures, one calling for him to end this quickly to help Aya, the other one practically crooning in happiness at the thought of sliding his claws deep into the blending’s body, tearing out intestines so he could feast on the more delicious organs such as its liver and heart…. The painful cry of another blending, quickly stifled, shook him from that cruel voice’s thrall. Time to end this before Aya killed all the prey and left him with none.

Feinting to the left, he then quickly slid to the right, in too close for the blending to lash out at him. He whirled behind the too-slow creature, hands encircling its neck as his mouth watered at the thought of fresh, warm meat. A quick twist and the blending was dead. Unable to resist, he sunk his teeth into its throat and tore away a chunk, then another and another. Covered in its blood, he took a couple more hasty bites before forcing himself away from his meal. He could come back and finish it later. Right now he smelled two more blendings, covered from sweat as if they’d just exerted themselves. New prey for him to feast upon – if he could get to them before Aya.

*******

Ordering the shadows to protect his mate, Aya came to a halt before the blendings. He could feel Yohji’s pain and anger, the latter emotion was of no concern as fury burned through him, fury over these things daring to harm Yohji, let alone touch him. Shadows skittered about and surrounded this section of the forest while shinigami gathered around him and chattered on in excitement and anticipation.

/Feed soon, yes? Oh… yes, yes./

/Burn you do, young one. Dark and bright at once. Touch them, that you can, touch them and feed./

The shinigami urged him to touch the physical world, to rend it and the life it supported, to release sweet energy so he and his kind could then feed. But he could care less about hunger, could only care about his lover’s pain and the fact that these blendings were responsible for it. Now that Yohji was safe, he was going to destroy the creatures, was going to tear them apart.

"Aya! Let me go, dammit!" He easily ignored Yohji, not about to let his lover be harmed again. Not when several blendings stared at him, hunger and anger plain on their misshapen faces.

"Is that really Ran? What the hell is he doing, Ty? I thought he never used his power," a hissing voice asked as the blendings moved away from Yohji and focused their attention on Aya, just as he’d hoped. A cruel smile curved Aya’s lips as he thought about how easy they were making this for him.

Wasting no time, not when Yohji was in danger, he called forth sharp shards of shadows and flicked his right hand through the air, the motion sending the shards racing toward the blendings. He’d let the weapons carve into their bodies and scatter them to the winds. Around him, the shinigami moaned in happiness.

But the shards didn’t tear into blending flesh, didn’t slice them to bits. The shadows hit the creatures, provoking cries of rage and pain but did little more than batter them leaving thin scratches scattered over their bodies. As the shinigami hissed in disappointment, Aya felt a spark of confusion rather than the all-consuming rage. Trying again, he sent another wave of shards toward the blendings, some of them hitting the mark as the creatures dodged out of the way – but still drawing only a little blood. As he stared in confusion, the blendings began to circle around him.

"Stop it, Ran. Lower your wards from the Guard and Mas *now*," Ty growled, his face drawn in an enraged scowl. "Behave, or else."

A flash of humor washed through him just then, the human emotion stark against the rage he felt. "… or else, what?" he asked as a shadow katana formed in his hands. Did these things really think he’d just bare his throat to them in submission after they harmed his mate?

Ty and the thin blending beside him, Sei, seemed taken aback by his question. They exchanged a look before Ty moved and bent the fingers on his right hand, the motion sending two of the blendings to stand near Yohji. Aya snarled at that and ordered more shadows to gather around his lover. "Do you want your pretty Guard killed? What about your other friends, hmmm?" Ty taunted, seemingly unaware of the fury he provoked. "Stop trying to fight us and obey – or I’ll skin you worse than Hirofumi ever did."

That stoked his rage even higher, made it burn so hot that everything human about Aya was seared to ash. He trembled in fury at the thought of allowing Yohji to be harmed again by the blendings, to meekly submit to whatever abuse they had in store for him. To hell with that. "Shi-ne." The ancient curse slipped past his lips like a hiss from a teakettle, raw with hate and rage. Sei flinched at the word and stepped back as Ty’s glare strengthened.

"Not smart, Ran. You should know what fighting back gets you – nothing but pain. Are you going to keep flinging the shadows at us until we grow bored?" Ty taunted him. "You think you can smother us all before one of us takes you down?"

The shinigami around him hissed at the insults and clamored for the blendings’ life force, their noise distancing Aya slightly from his rage. His hand clenched around the katana’s hilt as he puzzled over why the shadows hadn’t torn into the blendings, why they hadn’t crushed the last one to hurt Yohji into a pile of broken flesh and blood….

… blood. They’d been created with his blood. While the blendings clearly couldn’t manipulate the shadows as he could, his blood must give them some kind of limited immunity. He’d have to take them on individually, then. Once again he smiled, now at the thought of exacting revenge for his mate with his own hands.

"Yes," he crooned with a deep voice, filled with anticipation and bloodlust. The word stunned the blendings for a few seconds. Then they growled at his insolence, unsheathed their claws and moved closer.

The katana melted away in his grip, shadows reforming around his fingertips as claws, thicker and denser than the previous weapons. Putting his unnatural speed to use, he raced over to the blending nearest Yohji. Fueled by rage and concern for his lover, he savagely slashed the shadow claws along the blending’s chest, strength fueled by emotion and his intense need to protect Yohji. If this didn’t work he’d shred the very forest around the damned things until they were caught up in the destruction as well, would cause the ground to swallow them whole and crush their bones.

"Lin! Watch out!" Ty yelled as he and his pack mates realized that Aya wasn’t going to go down without a fight. The warning was too late.

While experiencing some resistance, the claws still drew blood. Aya smiled as a familiar coppery scent filled the air. The blending, once a stocky young man, howled in pain and struck out at him in return. He felt the force of the potent blows but the armor managed to protect him from being cut. Easily ignoring the pain, he knocked the blending’s arm aside, the fingers of his right hand cupped together, claws forming a thick, sharp weapon. Rage lent him the strength to punch into the blending’s abdomen, claws seeking upward until they pierced the creature’s heart. A blast of hot, delicious energy washed through him as it died, the shinigami gathered around him to join in the feast.

/Yes! Yes, young one. More,/ they cried out to him. Letting the body drop to the ground, he turned to face the dead blending’s pack mates. Four more deaths and Yohji would be safe.

As if sensing his concern, Yohji yelled, sounding both furious and panicked. "Aya! Let me the fuck out of here!"

He once again ignored his mate as he stared down the remaining blendings – who stared back at him in shock. Now they seemed to realize that he wouldn’t stop until they were dead.

"Ty… how… he’s not…" the oldest blending, Gou, stuttered. Aya’s smile grew stronger at their confusion. No, that hadn’t been a very ‘Ran’ thing for him to do, was it?

"Aya, I swear-"

Blocking out Yohji’s anger, he focused on finishing the job. This would take longer, but he enjoyed the thought of ripping into the rest of the blendings. That would appease his fury much more than killing them from a distance.

Ty stared back at him, appearing to be as enraged as he felt. "I just need you alive, Ran, not whole or unbroken. Let’s see how much you fight back once I crush your spine."

Cold fury filled him at the new threat, at hearing his old name. He wasn’t Ran anymore, who was too afraid to fight back. Yohji was as safe as he could make him, was protected until he killed the last of the threat. Just four more deaths and Yohji would be safe once more.

Just then, he sensed a new source of magic, sensed Ken racing toward him. The blendings didn’t notice the Guard until it was too late, until Ken was rolling on the ground with Gou, the air once more scented with blood. Aya used the distraction to attack the blending nearest him, the last creature he witnessed Masafumi make.

It managed a blow to Aya’s head but he shook off the pain and didn’t allow it to distract him from piercing its neck with his claws before pulling his hand back to tear out its throat. The ringing in his head faded as more energy poured into him, warming him through and making the world around him turn the slightest bit flat and grey. Only Yohji’s emotions, burning even hotter than the energy, prevented him from falling into that grey, insubstantial world. He needed to remain in the physical one if he hoped to take his enemies down.

/More. More, young one./

He was distracted from the shinigami’s crooning voices by the arrival of two more magical beings, this time not allies. Vaguely recalling the two blendings he passed on his way here, Aya dropped the corpse he was holding and turned to face them as they flanked Ty on either side.

The former soldier glared at him, snake-like eyes full of hate. "Sei!" it called out, never once looking away. "Kill him and get back here!"

Even though his enemies had increased, Aya wasn’t concerned. The last of the blendings were here, once he killed them, all this would be over. Once more he faced three of the creatures – and smiled when he felt more released energy burn into him, another kill attributed to Ken. Sei’s death actually seemed to hurt Ty making the blending’s face pale beneath dark hair.

"You gonna take them all on or what, Aya? I’m still hungry," Ken said, voice crackling with madness. He was covered with blood, the white gleam of his fangs stood out in sharp contrast to his crimson-smeared face.

"Ty’s mine," Aya replied, his voice quiet and trembling with rage. Ty would be the one behind all of this, would have been the one who pushed the other blendings into trying to take Yohji hostage and harm him…. Ty was in charge. Calling the shadow shards into being once more, he sent them flying toward the blendings gathered around his adversary. Once again they did minimal damage – but they scattered the blendings, leaving Ty standing alone.

The creature seemed just as eager as he was to battle one-on-one. "I’m going to rip out your spine, Ran," it growled as they circled each other. "Gonna tear through that scarred back of yours and pull it out, make it into a collar for you to wear. I saw the abuse you lived through, you’ll survive. A spineless, pale slug for me to drain every damn day." Spittle flew from its lips as it threatened him, eyes growing wilder as another of its pack mates fell to Ken with a curdling scream of denial and pain. "Once you’re lying there helpless, I’m gonna skin that lover of yours, flay him alive and use his skin to bind you tight."

The threats to himself hadn’t caused any concern. Ty wasn’t Hirofumi, wasn’t a familiar nightmare to inspire fear or panic. The threats were empty, harmless. He wouldn’t fall to the creature, wouldn’t stand still and accept the pain. But once Yohji was mentioned… Aya burned with rage upon hearing Ty brag about harming his mate, causing Yohji pain just to hurt him in return.

Fury bursting forth in a wordless scream, he charged at Ty, determined to end this now. Once the threat was gone Yohji would be safe. That was all he could think about, all that mattered. Not the pain that radiated from his ribs as Ty lashed out at him and sent him stumbling. Not Ty gripping his arm and twisting it behind his back powerfully enough to snap bones if it wasn’t for his armor. None of that mattered. Physical pain was too familiar to him, too common to concern him. But as long as the blending lived, there would be a danger to Yohji and that he wouldn’t accept.

He twisted in Ty’s hold, agony flared through his arm and shoulder as he wrenched free the precious inches he needed. Right hand swinging up, he distracted the blending with a cloak of shadows over its face. Ty flinched, one hand scrambling at Aya’s back as if to make good the threat to cripple him, and that was all the space Aya needed. He drove his claws deep into Ty’s eyes. Once they breached the screaming blending’s skull, he extended the shadows deep into the creature’s brain, twisting and tearing as they went. His arm was released as Ty fell to the ground, yell of rage and pain choked off by death.

The energy that washed into him then was so sweet, was warm and bright and helped to soothe the worst of his pain. Once he was able to move his left arm again, he looked around and felt one more wave of energy. Ken was hunched over the last of the blendings, its ribcage cracked open to expose the heart and lungs.

The sight of his friend feasting on a corpse didn’t bother him; it was nothing to be concerned about as he stepped over scattered bodies along his way to Yohji. All that mattered to him was reaching his lover and making sure he was safe. Aya touched the wall of shadows guarding Yohji and commanded them to melt away.

"-fucking beat your ass bloody for-" Yohji stopped mid-curse as the ward vanished, staring at the road before reaching out and grabbing Aya. Aya didn’t resist being pulled close, even when his body protested the painful embrace. All he cared about was Yohji being able to hold him like this.

"Don’t you ever do that again," Yohji yelled before leaning in for a kiss. Content to feel Yohji against him, safe and mostly sound, Aya dropped the shadow armor and returned the embrace with passion. Energy flowed from him to his lover through the kiss, helped to dull the pain he felt over their link. He didn’t begrudge Yohji any of it and even prolonged the kiss as long as he could, determined to be sure Yohji took all that he needed.

Panting heavily from lack of air, Yohji did eventually pull away but kept his arms wrapped around Aya, hands skimming up and down his back. "You’re not hurt too badly, are you? I felt pain, you stubborn bastard." Yohji’s worry, love and anger filled Aya, potent enough to make him lean against his lover. "Hey, are you all right?"

"Fine, Yotan." He carefully draped his arms over Yohji’s shoulders, mindful of various half-healed cuts. "I’m fine. We need to get you home." He didn’t want to stand here any longer, surrounded by corpses. The shinigami flowed around Aya and whispered thanks and pleas for him to join them but it was easy to ignore them when Yohji held him like this.

"I’m all right. I didn’t take them all on, now did I?" There was distinct anger just then, and Aya allowed his mate to tug on his left eartail without an answering hiss or smack on his part. He didn’t regret what he’d done in the slightest.

"They are all dead, aren’t they? It’s hard keeping track of things when you’re stuck behind a shadow ward," Yohji said, his voice sharp with anger and concern.

"They’re all dead." Sighing with regret, Aya released Yohji and turned around in his lover’s arms. "Give Ken a little time and he’ll eat all of them.

There was another tug on his poor eartail, and this time Yohji’s hand was smacked aside. "Ow. Hey, Ken! Where the hell are your table manners?" In the middle of munching on a thankfully unidentifiable organ, Ken looked over at them.

Yohji made a sound of disgust as he urged Aya to take a step forward. "Put that down. You don’t know where it’s been. I wouldn’t touch any of those bastards, let alone eat any of them."

At first Ken bared his fangs at them but, as Yohji spoke, some semblance of sanity returned to him. He dropped his meal and slowly stood up, his shoulders hunched over in embarrassment. "Ah… I…." he stuttered.

Heading toward Omi and Reiichi, Yohji wrapped his arms around Aya’s waist as he glanced back at their friend. "I know, Ken." Aya could feel a sense of remorse from his lover. "But don’t you think a few meat pasties would taste better? Not to mention they’d be a little neater. I pity whoever has to wash your gear."

"Sorry." Ken looked down at his blood-soaked uniform. "I guess… well, I get so *hungry* when I fight." The madness slowly drained from his voice. "Ah, shit, do you think Birman will issue me a new one?"

"She better, considering it looks like you and Aya did all the hard work for her." Yohji’s arms tightened almost painfully around Aya. "Leave a little for the rest of us, next time." There was a warning in his voice that Aya easily ignored. "Omi, it’s safe to drop the ward now," Yohji called out as they approached him and Reiichi.

A shiver ran through Aya as the magic shield dissipated. He didn’t feel completely *human* yet and was still sensitive to anything of a magical nature. All he wanted right now was to be alone with his lover, not surrounded by humans. But Yohji’s arms held him still and grounded him, helped him to remember what it felt like to be human instead of shinigami.

Reiichi held onto Omi’s left elbow as if he were supporting the teenager. "Sorry, we were waiting for an ‘all’s clear’," he explained, staring at Aya with a worried expression. "Is everything all right?"

"Far as I can tell. Bad guys are dead and good guys still standing, more or less," Yohji answered as Aya nodded. Reiichi seemed pleased with both of their responses and managed a smile.

"That… that was so quick," Omi said, voice subdued as he looked around. "I mean…." He shook his head. "I’m sorry, we weren’t much help, were we? But they moved so fast, I didn’t want to lower my ward," he explained, not looking at them as if he was ashamed.

Yohji reached out and tousled Omi’s hair. "Don’t worry about it, kiddo. They’re dead and we’re not hurt – well, mostly not hurt." Aya grabbed Yohji’s other hand and entwined their fingers together, wanting the contact of skin so more energy could flow into his mate. As full as he was from the blendings’ life-force he was starting to feel tired from using his power so much in such a short time, not to mention standing out here in the sun.

Picking up on his uneasiness, Yohji hugged him closer and stepped toward the shadows lining the road. "We need to get back to the castle. What about this mess?"

Reiichi surveyed the road as he pushed up his glasses. "The two of you head back to Timbergrey, we’ll handle the rest." He glanced at Omi. "Eri’s been distracting everyone but can you set up some sort of spell to discourage any traffic through here?" When Omi nodded he looked over at Ken. "Can you help… dispose of the bodies? I think it would be best to burn them so there’s no trace left."

Ken took a deep breath. "Yeah, I can do that. Just have to keep thinking about nice warm pasties." He chuckled nervously but, when everyone but Aya joined in, tension left his body and a genuine smile spread across his face. "I’m already a mess, I’ll handle the gory stuff."

"Right now I’m asking Eri to send Naru on an errand for clean clothes and those pasties for you," Reiichi said as he tapped on his bracelet. "Yohji, Aya, I really think it would be best if you left now. Oh, and try to be unnoticeable when you return to the castle." He raised an eyebrow as he pointedly looked at Aya. "I think it would be best if you’re not ‘seen’ around there any time soon."

There was a spike of curiosity as Yohji wrapped an eartail around his finger. "What does he mean, Cat?"

"You’ll see," Aya said, voice still slightly sibilant. He wasn’t in the mood to explain just yet, and wasn’t sorry in the least for what he’d done. If anything, people should be grateful he hadn’t torn down the entire castle when he’d left. "Let’s go back."

"If there’s anything still standing," Yohji commented, and gave his hair a tug when Aya flinched. "Uh oh, what did you do?"

Growling softly, Aya smacked Yohji’s hand aside and stepped forward. "It’s all your fault. You should have been more careful." He’d only reacted to Yohji’s distress.

"That bad, is it? Oh, I can’t wait to see what you did." Sounding more amused than he should, Yohji followed Aya, an arm still around his waist. "Let’s go, Cat."

*******

Miko watched as Naru finished wrapping the improvised bandage around her injured arm, wincing a little as it was tightly tied. "Thanks."

"You’re welcome." Naru gave her a shaky smile and patted her uninjured thigh. "You still need to see a healer, you know."

"Yeah." She tried not to grimace as she thought about drinking some awful tasting potion and how weak she’d feel afterward, but there was no telling what diseases she could have picked up from the blendings’ claws. Thinking about the creatures, she rubbed her neck, still remembering hot breath hitting her there, a precursor to nasty fangs. She couldn’t help but shiver while she prayed that Ken and the others were safe.

Naru patted her once more and then set aside the few supplies he’d gathered to help clean her wounds. Over by the edge of the porch, Eri stared down the road, a distant look on her face. Miko debated asking her if there was any news but decided not to break the bound’s concentration. One thing was certain, she was going to *beat* into Ken, Reiichi and Omi’s brains the necessity of sending updates over their copper bracelets. That is, if they were still alive…. She shook her head to dispel such a dark thought.

"They’re fine," Eri said, breaking the silence around the abandoned cottage. "Well, mostly fine." She stepped away from the railing, a slight frown on her face. "Aya and Ken have killed all the blendings."

"Were they injured?" Miko asked, worried about her partner – and more than a little surprised at the lack of any explosions that she knew of. Considering the stories about kage that she’d been told, she’d half expected all of Timbergrey to have vanished into the shadows by now. After all, she’d grown up not too far from the ruins of Toyoma.

"A little, but nothing serious." Eri began to fasten the closures of her Guard jacket just as Miko’s bracelet began to vibrate. "I’m going to be needed at the scene of the… fight. Even though I kept people away, there’s some cleanup that needs to be done." Her hand cupped over her bracelet, she looked at Naru. "Take Miko back to the castle and then join me after you find a clean set of clothes for Ken and something for him to eat."

"All right." Naru stopped fussing with the remains of the bandages and rose to his feet, his hand extended to Miko. "We’d best get going, then."

"Yeah." She was a little peeved that Eri and Reiichi didn’t want her help, but realized an injured Guard would probably just invite a lot of unwelcome attention. Besides, if the blendings were dead, there was little she could do besides help dispose of the bodies – not something she really wanted to do right now. No, what really upset her was her concern for Ken. She wanted to make sure he was really all right. After losing her partner Kain a couple of months ago, she didn’t want history to repeat itself. She’d lost too many good friends lately.

Eri smoothed her coat down and approached Miko and Naru. "Ken’s fine, really. Go back to the castle and he’ll join you shortly, and spend the next few days complaining about every little scratch he got from the fight."

Smiling, Miko fought the urge to laugh. "Don’t you ever get tired of hearing everyone’s thoughts?" She regretted the words when Eri’s worried expression smoothed into polite blankness and the older woman took a step back. "I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it like that. I’m just tired and shook up," she tried to explain.

"That’s all right." Eri’s stiff demeanor relaxed slightly as she rubbed her temples. "I only heard your thoughts so clearly because we’re in the middle of nowhere and you’re so worried." She managed a thin smile. "At least your thoughts aren’t as loud as Naru’s."

The young man in question sniffed as he helped Miko stand up. "That’s because I’m so smart," he answered. He glared at Eri as she quickly turned around and stifled something that sounded suspiciously like a snort of derision.

"Let’s get going, Naru," Miko said to distract him before any stones exploded near Aya’s old house. Somehow, she doubted the kage would be very happy if that happened. "The sooner you drop me off at the castle, the sooner you can come back to help out."

He frowned as he helped her down the steps. "Clean up duty, what fun. I missed out on the exciting part."

Thinking back on the blending pinning her to the tree, on how fast the creatures had moved and how easily their claws had torn into her flesh, she shivered. "Eri, you have my sympathies," she called out, certain the bound would understand her. "And no, I’m not trading you partners," she added, able to read minds herself sometimes – or at least recall how many times Eri had complained about wanting a new, *sane* partner.

"Damn."

*******

"At least you didn’t destroy our room. Good thing it wasn’t near Reiji’s office," Yohji commented as he went to sit on the bed before he remembered he was covered in dirt and blood. Grimacing in distaste, he slowly pulled off his clothes, his battered body complaining all the while. The pants came off without too much of a problem but he let out a hiss as he tried to remove his shirt, which was stuck to a couple of mostly healed wounds by dried blood. "Though I think you should avoid Birman for the next few days, even if blowing up a wall revealed Reiji’s secret hideaway." He was still impressed at the amount of damage Aya had done, all to get to him as quickly as possible. Then he hissed again as his shirt refused to budge without breaking just-formed scabs.

"Wait – let me help," Aya chided as he hurried over with a basin of steaming water and some towels. His voice reverberated slightly and, as he drew closer, Yohji noticed shards of silver shifting in the violet of his lover’s eyes. Aya obviously wasn’t ready to return to normal just yet.

Despite having seen the carnage his lover could create, Yohji didn’t feel any fear or anxiety as Aya drew near. In fact, something inside of him that was wound tight, slowly uncoiled as Aya used wet towels to dampen the dried blood and gently work his shirt free. More towels were used as his mate tended his wounds, cleaning them with a soft yet sure touch. He found himself listing toward Aya, his eyes closing as he breathed deeply.

A gentle touch that tucked back his bangs made him open his eyes and straighten up. Aya gave him a shaky smile and touched him again. "I think that’s the worst of them." His lover was quiet for a moment. "They’re not that bad; you should be completely healed in a few hours."

"Maybe even sooner," Yohji replied, his voice thickened by strong emotions. With one hand he took the damp towel from Aya and wiped himself off, wincing a little as various cuts and scrapes protested the rough treatment. His other hand cupped Aya’s cheek, finger stroking along a sharp cheekbone. Perhaps it was his imagination but he swore he could feel the energy thrumming inside of his lover, energy he’d had such a delicious taste of back on the road. Energy that had and would help speed along his recovery. "Thanks to you."

Aya looked down suddenly and took a step back. "You wouldn’t have been injured if it wasn’t for me," he said quietly, words and emotions heavy with guilt and fear.

Dropping the towel, Yohji wrapped both of his arms around his lover’s shoulders and pulled the idiot closer. "Don’t start that, Cat. I’m not blaming you for what happened back there. I’ve no clue how they found out about us but I suspect that they would have picked someone from the mission to use against you. Sheer dumb luck that it was me and not someone else."

Aya didn’t say anything but at least he looked up, so Yohji continued. "All they did was rough me up a little, and they more than paid for that. You can’t protect me from everything, Aya. Some people are going to find out the truth about us and decide that I’m your weakness. But that doesn’t make you responsible for their stupidity." He smiled as he stroked his lover’s cheek, fingers trailing against smooth skin before tangling in silky hair. "If anything it’s all my fault. I pushed for us to be mates, even if I didn’t realize it at the time. I don’t regret that choice." He tugged on the eartail. "Not for a single second."

Face crinkling into a frown, Aya snatched back his abused hair but didn’t try to pull away. "I don’t want you to be used against me. I don’t want to see you harmed again." He let out a shuddering breath and pressed against Yohji, face hidden against the crook of Yohji’s neck. "I want to go back to the Koneko, go up to our room and barricade the door. If they can’t reach us they can’t hurt you."

"I know how you feel, love." Yohji’s arms slid down Aya’s back and squeezed tightly. He noticed the faint flare of pain and how his mate flinched slightly and loosened his hold just a little bit. Pressing a kiss to Aya’s temple, he closed his eyes and once again deeply breathed in his lover’s scent. Amazing how such a little thing could make him feel so safe. "I want to do the same thing to you." The mere thought of the blendings getting their hands on Aya to use him like the Takatori had… he growled softly and nuzzled Aya. "I guess we’re both overprotective idiots who still need to learn a bit of balance in regard to each other. We need to learn we can’t hide the other from our troubles and take them on by ourselves." A spark of anger flared as he thought about standing there, warded in shadows, while Aya fought so many of the blendings.

Sharp teeth bit gently into his shoulder. "I’m not going to apologize for what I did. You weren’t hurt anymore, were you?"

He growled deep in his throat as he tugged on an eartail again. "All right, I admit I’ve gone overboard before in trying to keep you safe, but I at least let you fight, dammit!" He was still annoyed at being prevented from fighting earlier. "What was I supposed to do if they hurt you, huh?"

"They didn’t." Aya looked up, the silver growing stronger in his eyes, gradually overwhelming the violet. "I can take care of myself."

Well, it was a little difficult to dispute that when the man had just successfully taken on several magical creatures created for battle, but Yohji was almost annoyed enough to do so. Then, he felt a twinge in his shoulder and decided that he didn’t want to be up all night fighting about this and coming off worse than he had during his encounter with the blendings. "Yeah, you can. I won’t argue about that any more. But," he drawled as he flicked the ends of Aya’s eartail against his lover’s lips, "I can take care of myself, too. Do you think we’ll ever be able to remember that about each other?"

Aya glared as he batted Yohji’s hand away, but the look soon faded, replaced by one that was more thoughtful. "You won’t try draining me again until I’m unconscious?"

Yohji sighed and almost laughed. Trust his cat to never forget a thing. "All right, I’ll make you a deal. I won’t drain you like that again without your permission, if you never ward me inside your shadows during a fight. Is that a deal?"

His lover thought about the offer for a minute. "I promise I’ll *try* not to do so."

"Then I promise to do the same." They probably couldn’t promise outright never to be so overprotective again, not with their natures. However, he knew that he’d try his best to control the urge in the future because while he did so, so would Aya. Besides, if he thought that Aya was pushing himself too hard over something, he’d just tell Jo. That thought made him smile.

Growling softly, Aya pushed him toward the bed. "You’re thinking of ways around your promise already, aren’t you?"

More than willing to end up there, Yohji allowed himself to be pushed onto the soft mattress – and made sure to drag Aya down beside him. "No, I’m just reminding myself that I’m not the only one who wants to make sure you don’t work yourself too hard." His arms wrapped around his lover’s shoulders and pulled him closer.

Squirming a little, Aya glared and pushed back his bangs. "I can take care of myself. I don’t understand why everyone has to fuss over me. It’s just a waste of time."

"Well, I guess we can all try to leave you alone if we’re so bothersome," Yohji teased as he nuzzled his irate mate’s neck. "I mean, Jo has better things to do than to make you endless pots of tea and batches of cinnamon rolls. I’ll ask her to stop as soon as we get home." Yohji almost laughed as he felt Aya’s righteous indignation become replaced with uncertainty and worry. Ah, lovers and their vulnerable sweet-tooths.

Aya must have picked up on his amusement as he hissed slightly and tried to pull away. "Now isn’t the time for teasing," Aya grumbled.

"No, it’s not." Yohji slowly pulled his lover closer, smiling when Aya stopped resisting and settled on his chest. There was a twinge of pain from both of them at the contact but it faded quickly, their various cuts – well, his – and bruises healed quickly. "You all right?" he asked, hand cupping the back of Aya’s head, fingers tangled in soft hair.

Leaning forward, Aya gave him a quick kiss. "I’m fine." Aya’s hand ghosted down Yohji’s scratched side. "I just got bruised a little, unlike you." Worry washed through their link, worry and a hint of fear. "Don’t… don’t do that again." Aya’s voice echoed the emotions, sharpened by pain.

Yohji didn’t know what to say just then. He couldn’t promise that he’d never be hurt, that wasn’t a vow he could hope to keep. But he understood what his mate was trying to say. The thought of Aya being harmed caused a spike of pain and fear deep inside him, it was something he couldn’t accept. Taking a deep breath, he managed a shaky smile. "I’ll try my best. You’ll just have to keep a close eye on me to make sure I stay out of trouble from now on."

Grunting softly, Aya leaned closer, his eyes locked on Yohji’s until their lips brushed against each other. Moaning deep in his throat, Yohji wrapped his arms around his lover, not wanting him to be able to pull away again. The kiss deepened, his hunger flared to life, drowning out his aches and pains. This was what he needed right now: burning sunlight pouring into him and making him whole, Aya touching him, loving him, emotions as potent as the energy his body craved.

At first Aya was still, only kissing him, and then he shifted about, lying more fully on top of Yohji. His hands caressed Yohji’s body, the touch gentle on the healing wounds but firm and possessive on whole flesh. Yohji wasn’t so restrained; his fingers tugged on Aya’s clothes in an effort to feel skin against skin, to hurry the pleasure awaiting them.

With a rumbling growl, Aya sat up, straddling Yohji’s waist, and yanked his shirt off over his head. Not content to be idle, Yohji did his best to assist his lover by fumbling with the laces of Aya’s pants, wanting them gone as well. The way Aya was looking at him, eyes heavy lidded with desire and gleaming with silver, made his hands tremble and body quiver in anticipation. His hunger was a purring beast inside of him, demanding to be fed.

Once Aya was naked he stretched out on top of Yohji again, lips pressing together in a demanding, almost savage kiss. Yohji groaned in happiness as he opened his mouth, Aya’s tongue slid in quickly and flicked about, tasting him. Yohji groaned again as his lover rocked his hips forward, grinding their erections together. His hands grabbed Aya’s ass and urged him closer, urged him to repeat the motion. Oh… that felt so good he couldn’t do anything but close his eyes and tilt his head back as the pleasure washed through him.

Pleasure that spiked as Aya abandoned Yohji’s mouth in favor of his arched neck. Aya’s hot mouth settled against his skin, with a quick lick of a rough tongue and then wonderful pressure that made his cock twitch and hands shake. All the while Aya stroked his body, fingers skimming up and down his sides, rubbing and pinching his sensitive nipples. His entire being thrummed with eagerness, with need, blocking out everything but how incredibly good Aya made him feel. He couldn’t stop his hips from moving against his lover’s body, was too addicted to wonderful friction. The breath caught in his throat for several seconds when Aya ground against him almost savagely, with the way Aya’s wonderful hard, hot body rubbed against his.

"Oh gods, don’t stop," Yohji practically pleaded as his hands trailed their way up along his lover’s spine until he could tangle his fingers in silky hair, his legs wrapped around Aya’s as they spread apart, allowing more wonderful contact each time Aya rocked his hips forward. A loud cry of pleasure escaped him when Aya’s hand touched his cock, teasing at first with quick caresses but soon enough wrapping around him and squeezing just right while sliding along its length. Yohji mimicked the gesture, his hand eagerly grasping his lover’s cock, enjoying the feel of heat and slick hardness against his palm, enjoying the way Aya growled and bit into his neck, a flash of ecstasy that left him gasping.

"If this is your idea of keeping a close eye on me, I must admit I approve," Yohji teased once he got his breath back – again, stuttering over the words. He tried to smile but moaned instead when one of Aya’s arms hooked beneath his right knee, spreading his legs wider while pushing it toward his chest. A little worried over how quiet his lover had become, he tangled his fingers in Aya’s ragged hair and tugged gently, forcing Aya to look at him. "What do you want?" he asked as he wondered how far into his shinigami nature his lover had become lost.

His worries were put to rest by the look Aya gave him, one that clearly considered him to be an idiot and was thankfully, very human. "What do you think?" Aya practically snapped while leaning forward a little, his right hand scrabbling on the nightstand for the container of lubricant.

Laughing softly, Yohji released his lover’s hair and let his arm fall back onto the bed. "Just checking." He smiled in a sultry manner as he stroked his neck, right at the spot where Aya had just marked him. "I wasn’t sure if I’d struck you dumb with lust yet."

Aya growled and back on his heels, one hand still holding Yohji’s leg bent forward while the other managed to unscrew the jar’s lid. "Don’t joke." He leaned forward for a kiss, one that made all thoughts of teasing leave Yohji’s head. When he eventually pulled away, ending the kiss with a nip to Yohji’s lips, his eyes were heavy-lidded with desire, the emotion pouring from him in waves. "I want you," was all he said, just as his slick fingers pressed against Yohji.

"I want you, too," Yohji replied, voice husky with need and sincerity as he spread his now shaking legs wide open. Aya continued to rub against his opening, the one doing the teasing now, right until Yohji wanted to growl in frustration. The fingers pressed inside slowly, welcome after a moment’s resistance, and Yohji’s growl turned into a long sigh. Oh… this was what he wanted right now. His fingers clutched Aya’s arm, squeezing tightly as he tossed his head back. "Ohhhh… yeah, love." He couldn’t keep his hips from rocking forward to take the fingers in even deeper.

His breathing became harsh as the fingers delved deeper and brushed against his sweet spot, making his body spasm as bolts of pleasure sped through him. Moaning Aya’s name, he tried to pull his mate closer so Aya was draped over him. What he really wanted filling him weren’t Aya’s wonderful, teasing fingers, not by a long-shot. "Need you, Cat. Want *your cock* inside me." He’d never been bashful to say what he wanted out loud, but right now the need and desire choked the words in his throat, making it damned difficult to express himself.

Not that Aya needed the words, not with his emotions so strong and turbulent. Pulling his fingers out, Aya settled between Yohji’s legs and reached out to grasp Yohji’s chin and made him look forward. The look on his face was possessive and fierce, his feelings were so strong that Yohji couldn’t help but shiver in ecstasy from them and what was to come.

"Mine." Just the one word as Aya thrust smoothly inside, quiet Aya who always preferred to let his emotions and actions talk for him. Yohji couldn’t help smiling as he was filled, his body eagerly accommodating the hot length of his lover’s cock, his arms and legs wrapping around Aya and pulling him even closer. The feel of Aya slowly filling him, grounding him with solid heat sent sparks of pleasure shooting up his spine and through his veins. He choked out Aya’s name as his fingers dug into Aya’s ass to urge him in even deeper, so eager to have every last inch of his lover.

"Yours." Oh gods did he love it when his mate was this possessive. "Hell yes, I’m yours." He moaned as Aya tugged his hips forward and up, more sparks of pleasure burned through his veins. That and the sunlight roaring into him, setting him on fire with passion and need, made everything blur together – and that was before Aya began to move inside him, thrusts steady and just slow enough to drive him mad with want.

"Oh… oh hell, yes," he could barely mumble while shivering from the wonderful sensations gradually overwhelming him. Aya’s sweat-slick, smooth skin and the way it slid against his with each powerful, deep thrust that shoved him against the bed. Aya’s scent, the way it filled the air with each shuddering, desperate breath Yohji took, too lost in the pleasure to control such unimportant things as breathing properly – especially when his lover rocked Yohji’s hips up a little more, the hands clutching his ass spreading him even wider to be penetrated even deeper. Aya’s mouth on his, savage and insistent, the way Aya’s tongue stroked against his own tongue, his teeth and the roof of his mouth. Taste and sensation and smell so strong he closed his eyes and reveled in it, in the way Aya would growl out Yohji’s name as if so possessive of it he didn’t want to relinquish it to the air. Yohji was stroked and pinched and caressed and kissed so thoroughly… was fucked with a passion that had him digging his fingers into Aya’s back, desperate to keep his lover this close, to keep him from stopping.

"Oh please… more…," he managed to say when he had enough breath – right before Aya squeezed his cock just tightly enough to make him gasp while he fought not to come right then and there.

All through this, Aya never stopped moving, not even when he hooked Yohji’s left leg over his shoulder. His eyes locked on Yohji’s, strong hands continued to caress and tease; a rake of nails down a sweaty side, a quick pinch to a pert nipple followed by a soothing rub, a twisting stroke up and down Yohji’s cock not quite in time with the forceful thrusts that pushed him deeper and deeper into the mattress. Yohji gave up on everything but clinging to his lover, refusing to allow him to pull away and end the ecstasy.

A ragged cry filled the room as ardent lips once again brushed against Yohji’s throat and then everything – sensations, passion, pleasure and need – reached an impossible point; the world burst into light and sensations that were so overpowering he could do nothing but shudder as his body finally gave in. Then a torrent of energy flooded into him, making him lose even that small grasp on reality as everything turned into pure bliss – body tingling with ecstasy, hunger sated with delicious, potent energy which made him shiver as it coursed through his veins. On top of it all were Aya’s feelings which made everything even more intense, prolonged the rush long enough to make him hope that it would never end.

Of course it couldn’t, despite his fervent wish. As the bliss gradually receded, he was aware of panting breaths, his and Aya’s. His lover was curled up on top of him, face pressed against his collarbone, arms around his shoulders and clinging to him as if Aya was afraid he’d just vanish. Somehow, Yohji produced a shaky laugh as he successfully moved his fingers to the streak of crimson hair lying across his chest. "Gods, I adore you," he managed to croak, throat a little sore and very dry. Then he sighed with regret when Aya slowly pulled out of him and took away the wonderful sensation of warmth and fullness that had filled him.

"Hmmm." After an attempt or two, Aya finally moved his head enough so his chin now poked into Yohji’s chest. "Good." The way Aya’s violet eyes twinkled, bright with love and happiness, made him laugh again.

"Eloquent as always, Cat." He hummed in happiness as he stroked Aya’s flushed cheek. Right now he felt so incredibly good – all his aches and pains were gone, save for the faint throbbing on his throat. Nothing like a healing bout of sex, being filled with so much energy that he felt ready to burst. "Try not to gush too much, okay?"

He learned it wasn’t such a wise thing to tease Aya when his lover was still full of energy from fighting. Moving quicker than he was used to, Aya managed to nip Yohji’s chest right above his left nipple. "That’s what *you* do." Aya’s tone was harsh but happiness still flooded into him, happiness and contentment and the tiniest flare of desire as Aya licked the bite. The warm tongue was a teasing whorl around his nipple for a moment.

"What can I say, I have to make up for the both of us." He couldn’t stop smiling now, not when everything seemed so right in the world. Of course he knew the sensation wouldn’t last but he was determined to enjoy it before reality intruded. Pulling Aya closer, he kissed his mate, doing such a thorough job of it they both were left panting again when he finished.

Aya began to purr, violet eyes once more heavy-lidded and a rare, content smile on his face. He looked so feline just then that Yohji shook his head in amusement. How the man could look so damn sexy… as stuffed as Yohji was, he felt his hunger stir. His hands skimmed down Aya’s sides and settled on his luscious ass, firmly gripping the warm flesh. Now *he* felt possessive, felt the need to make sure Aya understood that they belonged to each other. There was a slight spark of anger as he thought about making sure Aya knew they were equals, and that he was strong enough to take care of himself…. "How did you keep from strangling me, right before we left the Koneko?" he asked, having to laugh at himself for being so upset with Aya acting like – well… him.

Taking a moment to understand the question, Aya shook his head before nipping Yohji’s chin. "You’re very lucky I didn’t have the energy to do just that." There was another nip, not as gentle as the first. "Don’t you ever dare complain about me again."

"I know," Yohji sighed as he rubbed his abused chin. At least Aya wasn’t heaping more scars on his shoulder…. "Cass would tell us *we’re* both young and that *we’ll* learn better over time."

Grunting softly, Aya sat up, his legs straddling Yohji’s waist and presenting him with quite a lovely view. "I hope so, before we kill each other in frustration."

The sight of his lover before him, naked, hair tousled, skin gleaming and still slightly flushed with passion, still mostly unmarked – made his breath catch in his throat as his hunger more than stirred back to life. "I doubt we’ll kill each other, maybe just maim a time or two." His hands once again settled on Aya’s ass. "I just realized that the mission is pretty much over now. The blendings are dead, you’ve uncovered most if not all of the spells here, and Birman and Botan have enough work to keep them occupied for months. We should be able to leave for home in another day or two." His longing for the Koneko and their room with their wonderful bed was almost as strong as his desire for Aya.

The smile on his lover’s face was glorious to see, a memory to be savored in the years to come. "Home." Head tilted to the side, Aya seemed to think about what he just said. "I want to go home, Yotan."

"Soon, love." Yohji smiled in return and gave his lover’s ass a gentle squeeze. The way that Aya called the Koneko home warmed him through. "Just a few more days, and then we’re locking ourselves in our room until someone has to break down the door to drag us out." He waggled his eyebrows in a salacious manner as his fingers dipped into the cleft of Aya’s ass.

"Succubae-bounds," Aya said with an aggrieved sigh, as if the name explained everything. Then he was leaning forward, ass wiggling ever so slightly in a manner that Yohji was very certain couldn’t be accidental. Not when he caught a gleam of a smile as a jolt of pure lust blazed through him. Then Aya was kissing him with enough passion that he really didn’t think his lover had that much of a problem with his nature after all. Groaning happily, he rolled over on the bed with Aya tucked beneath him.

*******

epilogue…

"Thank the gods, we’re almost home," Ken groaned in relief as they turned down the cobblestone road that would lead to the Koneko. Just a little longer and he’d be seated in Jo’s kitchen, stuffing himself silly before heading up to his room. To sleep in his own bed… Ken decided that he wasn’t cut out for traveling.

"Do you think Mickey will let me spend the night?" Miko asked, her voice tired but hopeful. "Or at least spend an hour or three soaking in the hot spring?" She shifted about uncomfortably in her saddle.

"I don’t see why he wouldn’t, unless there aren’t any rooms free." Ken offered his partner a smile and rose to stand up in the stirrups slightly. What he wouldn’t give to be able to stretch his legs and spend some time on the ground, not on a horse. Slowed down by the cart filled with Aya’s belongings, it seemed they’d been traveling forever this time.

Miko snorted as she brushed back her bangs. "If there’s not, I’m crashing in your room. You can sleep on the floor, Kenken." She batted her eyes furiously. "I’ve always wanted to be in your bed, you know."

He couldn’t help it, his cheeks heated up - which caused Miko to laugh. "You’ll be the one sleeping on the floor. Get near my bed and you’ll be tossed out the window," he threatened – which only caused Miko to laugh even harder. "Oh, shut up," he grumbled, a smile snuck up on him even though he tried with much effort to appear serious. Too bad it didn’t work; Miko knew he wouldn’t harm her like that. He lost his battle with the smile at that thought. After all that happened during this mission, he still had a partner who trusted him.

Giggling softly, Miko shook her head. "You know, it would almost be worth it if you did, just to see what Jo would do to you." As he shuddered in fear, she giggled again. "But you won’t because you adore me way too much. I’m just that cute," she said matter-of-factly.

Now it was his turn to laugh. "More like, I’m too afraid to see who they’d stick me with as my next partner." He smiled sweetly when Miko glared. "Aw, you know I love you," he said, barely able to say the words without laughing too hard.

"Yeah, I can really tell." Miko’s scowl faded, however, as she laughed again. "But you can abuse me all you like as long as I get some good food in me and a nice soak." She nodded in the direction of the riders behind them. "That is, if the bath’s available tonight."

He twisted in the saddle to look at Aya and Yohji. Aya, despite the overcast sky, was once again completely enveloped in his cloak. Yohji hovered near his lover but, unlike their journey to Timbergrey, this time he was obviously in a good mood. He smiled as his horse bumped into Aya’s, laughing out an apology as his fingers brushed against a cloak-covered knee.

"Maybe, maybe not," Ken hedged. "I think it depends on if they decide to stop anywhere before locking themselves in their room." Even though he’d kept his voice quiet, Yohji looked at him and winked broadly.

Thankful that his friend was in such a good mood, Ken just smiled as he looked further back at the cart that Reiichi was driving. Omi, perched up front next to Reiichi, waved to him before saying something to his companion, the words drowned out by the din of city life. The one good thing about Timbergrey was how quiet it had been, a nice break for his enhanced senses. But even with the increased noise and the smell of many people crammed together in close quarters, he was happy to be back. Birman had told him and Miko that they were to take a day off after they arrived, and once they handed Omi over to whichever Guards were currently at the Koneko, he could enjoy some rest. He just hoped that the construction was mostly done so he could have some peace and quiet.

Finally arriving at the Koneko, he heaved a sigh of relief and rode through the opened gates leading to the stables. Ichiro was there in an instant, smiling and waving to them as he quickly grabbed the bridles of Ken and Miko’s horses. "Ah, you lot look tired. Leave the horses to me and go on inside." He smiled at Yohji and looked curiously at the very full cart they’d brought back. "Should I do anything with the cart other than take it into the stables?"

Yohji, in the process of dismounting, shook his head. "Best to leave it alone for now, Ichiro. Do you have the space for it?"

"For the night, at least," the stablemaster said after a moment’s thought.

"We’ll take care of it tomorrow… well, if you need the space." Yohji didn’t appear too happy at the thought of unloading the cart any time soon. He frowned as he slung his saddlebags over one shoulder and wrapped his other arm around Aya’s waist.

Ichiro chuckled as he scratched his head. "Maybe we won’t get any guests with carriages for the next day or two. Now go on, Jo will have my hide if she thinks I’m keeping you out here when you could be inside."

"Yeah, we don’t want you to be sleeping in the stables any time soon, do we?" Yohji smiled at his friend before leaving the stable.

Helping Omi with his luggage – all but the small bag that the prince hadn’t let out of his sight during their return trip – Ken quickly followed. His stomach growled in anticipation of having some of Jo’s wonderful food.

Walking out of the stable, he had a good view of the new wing that had been added over the last couple of weeks. Gone was the grass lot which was now filled with stone and wood. There were a few workers cleaning up, gathering tools and scraps of wood, sweeping and raking the grass while storing the supplies they’d need for the next day. He estimated that they were almost finished with the outside of the new addition, save for the windows and some stonework. Good, maybe the workers wouldn’t be too loud while they worked on the interior of the new wing and he could get some rest during his off-time.

"Wow, they’re working fast."

Yohji shaded his eyes against the setting sun as he surveyed the construction. "Yeah, they really are. I know Mickey promised them a bonus if they finished quickly and did a good job. The summer caravans should be returning soon, we could really use the extra space then."

"Not to mention the new library," Aya said, his voice slightly rough. That was the first time Ken heard him talk since lunch.

"I hope so, considering how many books you brought back and with more on the way," Omi laughed as he caught up to the couple. He seemed the least exhausted out of all of them and was smiling brightly. That surprised Ken, considering how Omi had to go back to the palace tonight.

"Wait until Jo and Mickey find out what all’s arriving," Ken said, the last couple of words distorted by a wide yawn. Yep, dinner and bed, that was all he wanted right now. He growled softly when Miko knocked her elbow into his side and told him to cover his mouth when he did that, then remembered about his teeth. Oops, good thing no one else was out in the garden.

As they approached the kitchen door it swung open, revealing a frowning Jo, her arms folded over her chest. "About time you guys remembered where you live," she snapped – then smiled as she reached out to tuck a strand of Yohji’s hair behind his ear and to brush back Aya’s hood. "We’ve been expecting you. Now get in here and sit down." The frown returned as she moved away from the door. "Where’s everyone else?"

Eagerly obeying her command, Ken hurried to the large table and sat down. As he groaned in happiness, Yohji dumped the bags he was carrying onto the floor and gave Jo a one-armed hug. "Birman, Botan, Eri and Naru are still at Timbergrey. They’re dealing with a few loose ends that needed tying up and should be on the road in another day or two."

"Which is why I’m sad to say that I need to drop off and pick up a few things and then get back on the road," Reiichi said as he cleaned his glasses. "My assignment’s not over just yet." Ken was amazed at the fact that Reiichi didn’t seem to mind the extra work, and even seemed happy about it. While he knew that Reiichi didn’t like to feel useless to the Shadow Guards, there were better assignments than seeing to travel arrangements for all the wagons filled with the Takatori and Aya’s belongings that would soon be leaving Timbergrey.

"Hmph." Jo rested her hands on her hips and eyed Reiichi from head to toe and back again. "You can get to work after you have something to eat, and don’t even think of leaving until I’ve prepared a travel bag for you."

Reiichi, despite his lame leg, managed a graceful court bow. "I wouldn’t dream of it, milady. Thank you for your kindness."

A smile tugged at Jo’s mouth as she snorted. "Go on and sit down." The smile faded as she looked around the kitchen. "I thought I told all of you to do that!"

Omi and Aya, in the process of shedding their cloaks, hastened to hang up the garments and then practically ran over to the table. Yohji snickered as Aya settled beside him, the sound turning to one of barely muffled pain when Aya elbowed him in the ribs. Omi set his precious bag down on the table in front of him while Aya leaned against Yohji and smiled slightly when Yohji’s arm snaked around his waist.

"You said you were expecting us," Aya asked as his hand rested on top of Yohji’s. "What did you mean by that? Did Cassandra see something?"

Jo filled a large teapot with hot water and carried it over to the table, along with two mugs. She set one in front of Aya and the other by Reiichi. "Not Cass but Crawford, apparently. One of his agents arrived a couple of days ago, saying that he’d sent her here to pick up a few things. She’s been waiting for you to return since she showed up."

"Huh." Yohji rested his chin on Aya’s shoulder and watched as Jo returned to the stove and started to pour some hot coffee into several more mugs. "The man’s probably busy salivating back in Esset, waiting for her to return." At Jo’s curious expression as she set down the mugs on the table, he rubbed his cheek against Aya’s. "We’ve a cartload of books, among other things, out in the stables – and more are on their way. Aya’s making up for not bringing anything with him when he arrived here last spring."

"Ah." Jo smiled as she wiped her hands on her apron. "I take it you have a few things meant for him, then."

Aya nodded as he poured himself and Reiichi some tea. "Yes. There are a few books and other objects of interest that I thought he could use. I’ll fetch them after we eat."

"And there will be more within a week’s time," Reiichi added. "As soon as Birman returns with the rest of the wagons."

"The woman, Tabitha, said she would only be staying for as long as it took Aya and Omi to return," Jo pointed out as she carved off slices from the roast cooking in one of the fire pits.

"She mentioned me?" Omi asked, his hand reaching out for his bag. "Oh, then she can take something to Nagi!" His smile just then was dazzling, happiness and excitement fairly radiated from him, Ken imagined. Young love, he thought, and for once there wasn’t a trace of bitterness to it. Nagi and Omi weren’t going to desert each other.

Yohji groaned and earned another elbow to his ribs, this time making him wince from the blow. "Great, you’re going to make that poor woman carry all those damn sweets back to Kritiker for the little de- oof!" Aya obviously had used a bit more force this time, considering how Yohji was glaring at him while rubbing his ribs. "Stop that!"

Aya snapped his teeth in reply, the sound clattering through the kitchen. "Then behave for once, and stop calling Nagi a ‘little demon’."

"You’re right, it’s an insult to de-" Yohji quickly shut up as Omi glared at him and Aya drew back his elbow again. "All right, all right." Pouting, he hugged Aya close. "I come home and I’m immediately abused."

"Yes, things are back to normal," Reiichi commented in his dry, quiet voice, and within moments everyone but Yohji and Aya were laughing. Aya had a slight smile on his face while Yohji just shook his head in amusement.

"Maybe you should stay here, Reiichi, and let me go back on the road." Yohji chuckled as his fingers stroked through one of Aya’s eartails. "That would get me out of helping to unload the cart."

There was more laughter and, as Jo set down platters of meat, the aroma that rose from the plates was delicious enough that Ken’s mouth started to salivate immediately, Kira and Ani entered the kitchen. They let out cries of joy and rushed over to Yohji, giving him hugs while patting Aya on the shoulder. Kira surprised Ken when she hugged him as well, moving on to Omi and Reiichi before he could recover from the pleasant shock – just in time for Ani to do the same.

"You’re back! You saw the construction, right? What do you think?" Kira asked as she quickly moved to help Jo carry bowls of food and bread over to the table.

"They couldn’t miss it!" Ani exclaimed as she refilled their coffee mugs. She smiled sweetly at Ken as she poured the hot beverage into his cup. "More importantly, did you bring us back any treats?"

"Abused and harassed for presents, some homecoming!" Yohji complained with a smile.

"Do you really want to go back out on the road?" Ken teased as he helped himself to the food.

Yohji grimaced as he snatched up a piece of bread right before Omi could. "No, not really." A wicked gleam entered his eyes. "Guess I’ll just have to hide in my room with Aya to get away from it all," he said as he once more nuzzled his lover’s neck, Aya’s head lolling back to rest on Yohji’s shoulder as a faint purr could be heard.

Ken couldn’t help but laugh at the comment, especially when Miko did the same. While Omi and Kira chided Yohji for being so lazy and Jo hovered around Aya and Reiichi, insisting on them taking more food, he exchanged an amused look with his partner.

Just sitting here in the Koneko’s warm kitchen, full of the aromas of wonderful food and drink and the sound of laughter, he felt at home for the first time in months. Judging from the content expressions on Aya and Yohji’s faces, he wasn’t the only one, either. He hadn’t realized how much he’d missed being able to relax and enjoy himself around people he considered close friends and family.

Then Miko began to complain about how Ken hogged all the roast beef and hadn’t left any slices for her, all the while her hand crept toward his plate. Careful not to expose too much of his fangs, he pulled his plate closer and sweetly warned her that he was more than hungry enough right now to eat the horse he’d just rode in on – or a scrawny partner. As Miko’s inventive curses filled his ears, he merely smiled and munched on a slice of bread piled high with the delicious meat.

*******

The setting sun casting a lavender veil over the garden, Aya stepped toward the small Kudoh family shrine, his arms full with the ceramic urns holding his mother and sister’s ashes. A gentle breeze blew his hair into his eyes, he shook his head as he carefully set first one urn and then the other down. Beside him, Yohji handed him the vessel that contained his father’s remains.

Once the urns were safely in place, he accepted the bouquet of flowers he’d gathered earlier from Jo and set them in front of the shrine’s altar. Next, he lit several incense sticks before stepping backwards, Jo and Yohji flanking him on either side. Bowing his head, he prayed that the souls of his family were at peace and working toward their next reincarnation in this world. Tears stung his eyes as he did this, which he told himself was because of the incense blowing in his face. His family had been dead for years, all he was doing now was giving their remains a proper place to rest until spring.

"Aya." Yohji uttered just the one word, heavy with his concern and love. Aya’s mate gently massaged the back of his neck once he stopped praying. He reached up for Yohji’s hand and gave it a squeeze, allowed himself to be pulled closer to his lover and embraced in a warm hug. "It’s all right to cry."

"There’s nothing to cry about," he snapped, full of confusing, conflicting emotions. "I already did that years ago." Still, he buried his face against Yohji’s neck and clung to him, body trembling as Yohji stroked his hair. He refused to cry, there was nothing to be sad about now. Why did these emotions do this to him?

"I cried when I brought my boy here," Jo confessed, sounding quiet and worn. "Yes, I’d already mourned him but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with still feeling pain over the loss of a loved one, be it months or years later."

Sniffing slightly, Aya looked at Jo, feeling her admission was worth some sort of acknowledgement. "I’m not going to cry," he replied firmly, and felt grateful when she nodded in understanding. There was nothing to cry about, the only emotion he should feel now was happiness that his family’s remains were no longer shamefully ignored. Still, he felt a prickling in his eyes when he glanced at the altar, at the three urns and the small wooden plaque bearing an orchid, a katana nearly hidden among the flower’s stem and leaves. "Thank you." He wasn’t sure anyone but Yohji could understand how thankful he was that his family was allowed to rest here, in the Koneko’s garden.

"You’re welcome, Cat," Yohji said, the sentiment echoed by Jo. Still filled with so many emotions, all Aya did was hold on to his lover and close his eyes. His family could be at peace now, that was all that mattered.

He heard Jo light an incense stick of her own. "I hope you don’t mind but the rest of the staff would like to be here when you scatter their ashes come spring. You… you really are a part of the family now, Aya."

Unsure what to say, he could only nod his head. While he hadn’t wanted a crowd when he interred his family in the shrine, he didn’t think he’d mind Mickey, Koyu and the others joining him as he carried out the Kudoh tradition of scattering loved one’s ashes around the garden. He just hoped his family didn’t mind waiting a little longer, til when the garden would be in full bloom and full of life. He thought his mother and sister would approve.

The three of them stood in silence for a few minutes, their attention focused on the shrine and the curls of smoke that rose up into the darkening sky. Yohji still held him close, hands soothing up and down his back in silent comfort. Aya found the prickling sensation in his eyes slowly fading as he took first one deep breath and then another, the knot of emotions dissolving into sadness, a touch of regret but also a sense of peace. They were all home now, he and his family. Not a home any of them would have imagined years ago but he was happy here and felt that his family would accept that fact. Yohji and the Koneko was his present, would be there for him in the future, and now he could leave behind the pain of the past. He didn’t think he could do that overnight but he was beginning to walk away from it, slowly but surely. One day there wouldn’t be any nightmares and he could come out here and smile as he lit an incense stick, could think of something other than how much it hurt to lose his family.

"Aya." Yohji pressed a kiss against his temple and wrapped both arms around his shoulders. Love and concern filled him, warmed him through.

"Well, there are cinnamon buns fresh from the oven if Kira remembered to take them out, and I’m in the mood for some mulled wine tonight," Jo said, breaking the silence. "Just the thing for a cold night, no? I think it’s going to be a chilly autumn if this is how it starts out."

"Something warm would be nice." Aya was relieved that his voice was steady and pressed his hands against Yohji’s arms. "Let’s go." He could do this, could leave his family and walk back inside the inn. They would be here for him come morning but they couldn’t offer the comfort that Yohji and his new family could. Besides, he was pretty certain his father would chide him for acting foolish and standing out in the cold when he could be someplace warm and bright with his loved ones.

"Yeah, some mulled wine sounds great, Jo." Yohji kept one arm around his shoulders as they walked toward the Koneko. "Any chance of taking a pot of it up to our room later?"

Jo snorted as she rubbed her hands up and down her arms. "Maybe – if you go to the market for me tomorrow. I don’t have too many mulling spices left."

"It’s a deal. I need to stock up on almond cookies anyway." Yohji slid his fingers through an eartail. "You feel like shopping tomorrow, Cat?"

"If we can stop by the bookstore. I need more oil for the books." Happiness bubbled up inside Aya as he thought about the almost-completed library. Soon, he could walk into it and be surrounded by his father’s books, could spend his nights off curled up in his bed reading with Yohji beside him. That was something to look forward to, in his opinion.

Yohji sighed melodramatically. "I’m going to be tossed aside for books, aren’t I? I mean, how can I compete? I’m just gorgeous and alive and fantastic at sex, not a bunch of paper and ink. No contest, na?" he asked rather mournfully.

Stopping his lover on the stone path leading to the kitchen, Aya threaded his fingers through golden hair as he rocked up onto his toes. Yohji did indeed look gorgeous, standing out here beneath the rising moon. He kissed his lover thoroughly, putting all of his emotions into it so there would be no doubt where Yohji rated when compared to books. Yohji came out ahead – barely.

Laughing softly, Yohji pulled away, his hands settling on Aya’s hips. "I don’t want to know what you were thinking towards the end there, do I?"

"Hmmm, no." Aya nuzzled his mate’s neck. "Just think about all the times you’ll have to convince me that you’re much better than a library."

Yohji’s laughter reverberated through the garden. "I think I’m up to the task." When Aya groaned at the pun, Yohji kissed him on the nose. "In fact, I’ll start tonight, once you’ve had your fill of cinnamon rolls." There was another kiss, this one of smoldering desire and bright love.

"Those rolls will be all gone if you don’t get your butts in here now! Yotan, let the poor boy inside before he comes down with a cold!" Jo yelled from the kitchen door. "Think with your brain for once!"

Growling softly, Yohji broke off the kiss. "How about we take those rolls and the mulled wine and hide out in our room all night?"

"That’s fine," Aya whispered as he stepped forward. Glancing over his shoulder, he gave his lover a wanton look and smiled.

Yohji appeared stunned for a moment, and then seemed to bridge the space between them in a heartbeat, his arms once more around Aya. "Dammit, why did we promise to go shopping tomorrow? Maybe we can head out to the market in the afternoon."

Knowing how Yohji planned to spend the rest of tonight and most of their day off tomorrow, Aya merely continued to smile as he threaded his fingers with those of his lover’s hand that rested on his right hip. "We have almost all day." A precious day for themselves, no shifts at the Koneko, no tasks set upon them by Birman. He planned to thoroughly enjoy it.

"True," Yohji said, sounding mollified. "A day mostly spent in bed with a nice pot of mulled wine simmering in the fireplace. Not bad."

Agreeing quietly, Aya glanced over his shoulder as they approached the Koneko’s threshold. The garden was dark as twilight fell, the moon shone down and cast a silver gleam over all the leaves and blades of grass. He’d done the best he could for his family, had brought them to a place of peace and beauty, and now it was time to go on with his life. A life with Yohji. That thought eased the last of his pain and allowed him to step into Jo’s bright, warm kitchen, filled with half of the Koneko’s staff and several friends, with a relatively light heart. He was home.

*******

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