Ch 7: AN: I looked up the kanji for names of the main characters, just out of curiosity. Aya's name has the kanji for "figure" and "Person," Jin's was anything from "battle formation" to "camp" or possibly referring to a sword. Yen's name is the kanji for "flame" or "blaze." On other notes, gakushi is basically a bard, the kanji for maga is a variant of "evil," Miki's name essentially means "future," and the kanji for the Ragun family name consists of "equal" and "army." I kind of want to work their names, or at least Aya's in here somehow, but I'm not sure if it will work. My first thought at seeing Aya's kanji was "Wait, it's like saying he's named 'doll' or that he's not human!" Yeah. Fun, but I should have been writing my English paper while looking these up. -_-;


Yen stared at the ceiling of his hospital room. The drone of heart monitors and steady snoring were the only distractions. It was maddening. He should be out there fighting to get his place back, nit stuck in a room. How could he avenge Jin or his father when he was stuck in bed with an IV in his arm? He sighed. Truthfully, his wounds weren't that bad. It was mostly bruising and damage to one forearm. He could still function properly as a gakushi. There wasn't anything wrong with him spiritually.

The idea of his uncle sitting in his house, eating at his table, patrolling his land… Well, for the first time he was realizing just how territorial a gakushi could be. If only he wasn't stuck in the hospital.

He sighed. He had had an attack. He wasn't supposed to have anymore. Hadn't the doctors said that he was safe from relapses? But…but Aya seemed to have understood them better than the doctors did. He had always thought it was more psychological than physical. It was part of why he hadn't wanted to take his medicine. It was admitting something was wrong with his mind, and when your mind was your greatest weapon much of the time, it was not a weakness you wanted to admit.

But… He frowned. It seemed like it would only be worse if he kept ignoring that he had such a problem. And he couldn't afford to lose control anymore.

Aya… Yen cringed internally. He had been too harsh. Again. Today had broken his promise with himself to not make Aya look so…lost, left out, sad… And Aya had forgiven him in a heartbeat, and that was the true cause of his guilt. Yell at him, then he goes and kisses him… It had been nice to hug for a moment. If it hadn't been for Aya's mother interrupting… he had meant to warn him. Not just against his father but… Something odd was happening, and it didn't feel like it was entirely caused by human hands. There was something darker out there than his uncle scheming for power. He couldn't figure out what though.

His eyes slid shut against the stark white of the room. Under the harshness of the heart monitor, he could feel his own heartbeat and the sounds of his breath, assuring him he was alive. Koga was a flickery shadow presence beside him. Like Sora, he wasn't in the best of shape. They could use a doctor as well. What had happened to his Father's maga? It might be gone by now… If it was, that was not a good sign for his family. A gakushi could accomplish little without his maga companion. For his father's and his own sake, he hoped his father's maga would be alright.

Yen ran through his physical well being and cataloged his injuries. Most of them would not be unduly impeding to his duty. Two days. He nodded to himself. He would give himself two days to heal and then he would leave. Hopefully by then Jin or his father would wake up. He wanted to go into this knowing they would live. He grumbled to himself, settling down to nap as there was nothing better to do. He had better heal fast.

Two days passed quickly, but not quickly enough. The only development had been Jin coming out of his drugged sleep for long enough to recognize their mother before going under again. Yen was glad that he had managed to wake up. It made him feel a bit more hopeful, and it certainly helped their mother. His father was still unconscious. There didn't seem to be any good or bad news in that respect. He was stable, and that was that.

Yen stood up from his hospital bed, disconnecting the IV he had been given. He wasn't sure why. Unlike Jin or his father he could eat and drink on his own just fine, but it was time to go. On the other side of the room, his mother was curled up in a chair again, like she had been for the last two days. She was going to have a really stiff neck if she kept it up, but he didn't blame her.

With careful footsteps, he moved to look at Jin. His brother looked very vulnerable. He wasn't sprawled out like he normally slept and it made him look small. Yen brushed a hand over an unwounded shoulder, squeezing gently. "I'm sorry for leaving you behind," he whispered. He put the letter he had written earlier on the stand next to Jin. "I can't take Sora with me, but he seems to be healing on his own. Don't do anything stupid." Like he was doing. Yen knew it was insane to go on his own, but he had to. No one else could at the moment. And he had to check on what allies he had. "I'll be back later, Jin. Take care of Mom and Dad." He tightened his grip on his brother's shoulder for a second, then let go, turning to where Koga was waiting.

Time to go? Koga asked.

"Yes." The gakuki had been set near the door and he pulled on the gloves he had convinced his mother to get earlier. His headband was gone, but he would make do without it. He had Koga and his gakuki and his brain. They would have to be weapons enough.

No one noticed them leave. Yen had enough experience sneaking in and out of places that he could assure no one noticed. It was not a typical gakushi skill, but one he had picked up over the years. Blend in with your surroundings and no one would even look twice. He knew that when his mother woke up, she would find the letter. He also knew it would make her angry and scared, but he hoped she would understand that it was something he had to do. This was as Ragun heir, but also as Yen, someone who was very angry and wanted his family avenged. For his rational mind, the last bit was hard to admit, but he knew what Aya had meant when he told him to be himself. He was the Ragun heir. It would always shape how he acted and thought. But damn it if he wasn't angry on a more personal level as well.

It was raining outside. The water was purifying the taint left by the maga outbreak, but it wouldn't be enough. Likelier than not, things wouldn't work as they usually did in the area. Yen wished he had a coat or an umbrella or something. He just had his gakuki and the clothes on his back. Worse, he didn't dare go to his home and risk running into his uncle at this early in his plan.

He looked at Koga, loyally standing at his side. "We're going to visit Mikami and Goroh," he said. "They need to be told what's going on." Koga didn't reply, flickering back into nothingness as he stepped out into the rain. It was cold, and went straight down his back, but he ignored it, thinking of the day when he ran into Aya meditating in the rain. If Aya could focus enough to ensnare a maga after sitting in icy rain for hours, he could endure long enough to reach the branch family home.

People rushed by on either side of him as he walked, coats pulled tight and umbrellas out. A few stared at him in disbelief. He was fortunate that his bandages weren't showing or someone might really stare. It was disempowering, walking in the rain. Your clothing stuck to your skin, hampering your movements, hair fell in your eyes or water made it hard to see and it was surprising how cold you felt so quickly, but he walked on. It took half an hour by foot to reach the compound from the hospital, and by then Yen's teeth were chattering.

He raised a hand to knock only to have his hand shake so badly he had to stop and collect himself before reaching out to knock. The sound was muffled. The traditional style door absorbed much of the impact, rattling more than it banged, but after a moment he could hear footsteps.

"What do you want?" a tired voice asked.

Yen looked at Mikami-kun. His eyes were shadowed and he looked like he hadn't had a chance to bathe in a while. The hand holding the door open was bandaged. "Hello, Mikami-kun," Yen said. He could have said anything really, but he knew it would only get lost in whatever reaction would follow.

"Yen? What the hell are you doing here? You're supposed to be in the hospital!" The door slid open further as Mikami shoved it open, pulling Yen out of the rain. "You're soaked! Are you trying to kill yourself, idiot?"

"Nice to see you too," Yen muttered as he was dragged dripping down the hall. The young branch head shoved a towel in his face.

"Dry off. Stay here." He stomped off, leaving Yen bemused in what seemed to be the annex to the baths. Yen set his gakuki to the side and pulled off his shirt and tried to get his hair dry. The sound of feet returned as he was stripping his pants off.

"Here, wear—aagh." Mikami looked the other way hurriedly. "Here." He held out a change of clothes, a bit too big for Yen, but seeing as it was a robe, it wouldn't matter too much. "Uh, what are you doing here anyway?"

"Thanks." Yen took the robe, examining it and ignoring the question for a moment. Considering the Mikami family crest and the strange geometric choice of patter, he was willing to bet it belonged to Mikami. He glanced at the other boy, still standing awkwardly in the doorway, looking anywhere but at him. Yen smiled to himself slightly, finishing drying. Even though they were wet, he kept his underwear on for Mikami's sake. "You don't have to be embarrassed, you know."

"Er, right." Mikami glanced at him, then away. "Just put the robe on, ok?"

Yen did, taking his time. It was warm in here. His shaking had stopped the second he had dried his hair, and now with the addition of the robe, he was on his way to feeling normal again.

"I have tea, if you'd like…" It was weird to see Mikami acting timid. Yen wondered if it was because of his near nudity or if it was due to his position in the clan. He hadn't seen Mikami very often since he officially became heir, not since Mikami's own ceremony of succession a few months ago.

"That sounds nice," Yen said. He knotted the belt comfortably tight. "I trust that we won't be interrupted?"

Mikami looked at him a moment and nodded. "No one should be coming by today," he said. In it Yen knew that they had come already, and likely would come again. "Now will you tell me what you're doing here, injured, and soaked to the bone?"

Yen followed him to the kitchen where Kana's maga, Kira, was preparing tea. She held out a cup, bowing nervously. Yen took it with a smile. "Thank you."

"Sit down, sit down," Mikami grunted, taking a seat himself. He seemed a lot more comfortable now that Yen was clothed. Maybe he was body shy? "Now, talk!"

Not willing to be rushed, Yen sipped the tea first, letting the warmth sink into his bones. It was good tea, too. He let his gaze fall on Mikami, his expression turning serious. "I'm sure you've heard that the rest of my family is in the hospital. The main household was attacked. We were on separate missions, trying to deal with the influx of maga that keep appearing lately. Dad went one way, Jin another, and I managed to defeat the maga I was assigned to alone… But everything felt wrong. We went back to the main house, feeling a disturbance, only to find it overrun with maga." He shook his head. "The wards were still up and everything, but they were inside. Jin and I tried to clear them out, not really having much of a choice once they noticed us, but there were too many." He gripped the teacup, glad for the slight burn on his palms from its heat. "There were ancients. They shouldn't be awake let alone in the city. Jin got knocked out. I figured I would have to hold on until Dad returned. But it wasn't Dad that came. It was our uncle. He had Dad, dragging him around when he should have been hospitalized and he's trying to blackmail me." He worried for a moment that he might break the cup with his grip, and loosened his hold slightly. "He threatened Jin and the branch families…"

Mikami listened in silence. He sighed when it looked like Yen was done. "Someone was here yesterday. They said we had to follow the Hosui family for a while. …Only the way they said it, it was clear that it wasn't going to be anything temporary. I tried to refuse, Yen, but… they took Kana."

Yen glanced at where Kira was standing at the counter.

"Kira's here because she's acting as a go between." Mikami ran a hand through his spiky hair angrily. "I don't know what to do. And you still haven't explained why you walked through the rain to get here when you should be having bed rest."

"You don't think I'm going to let him threaten me, do you?" Yen's voice was almost inaudible as he sipped the tea. He had been expecting it, really. Of course Mikami would be targeted and threatened as well. He was as much of a threat if not more of one as Yen half the time. He had more experience than either of the main family's heirs, and traditionally if both head and heirs were unable to fulfill their roles, it would fall to the branch heads to take over until their leader was able to fulfill their duty. But what could Yen do about it at the moment?

"You're crazy you know." Mikami looked sad, but his tone was understanding. "He can put you in the hospital for good, even if he doesn't kill you. You're injured already, what can you do?"

"I don't know," Yen admitted with a hollow laugh. "But I had to check on at least one of the branch families first. If he's gone to you, he will have gone to the others. I suppose it's not worth checking with them since they'll be immobilized as well."

"I didn't say I wouldn't help," Mikami said sharply.

Yen met his eyes across the table. "I don't want you to risk your family for me, Mikami-kun."

"What were those vows for if I can't serve your clan when you're in need?" Mikami shot back. "Kana understands. And I'm sure some of the other branch families feel the same way. The Toba family would never betray you any more than the rest of us would. Don't count us out completely. We just have to be more creative about how we help."

For a moment Yen didn't know what to say, then he smiled. "Thanks. Don't get caught."

"Don't worry about us." He grinned toothily. "I want to cut down the freaks that hurt everyone. And no one threatens Kana and gets away with it."

"Could I stay the night?" He didn't want to ask, but Yen didn't have anywhere else he could go at the moment. It wasn't likely that anyone would come to Mikami's house for a while, at least not until someone notices he was gone. Which…would be in a few hours if he had calculated correctly. Enough time to rest up and move on. Should he try contacting the Toba family next? Or contact Bara-sensei to see if he could heal what wounds Sora and Koga had…or even his father's maga. Dr. Bara didn't usually make house calls, but if he heard that they were unable to leave the hospital… Did Grandma and Grandpa know what happened? Maybe he should get in touch with Utsukita-kun and Meiya? All dealings with them came at a cost, but if he went there, he would be more or less guaranteed safety for a bit. He sighed. There was too much uncertainty in the situation.

"Sure," Mikami was saying. "I have guest rooms. Do you need dinner?" He started to get up.

"Don't bother." Yen yawned. The warmth and the tea added to his inactivity the last few days were too much. "Some fresh bandages and a place to sleep a few hours would be all I need at the moment."

Mikami glanced at the thick bandages. "You're not going to be able to bandage them back up on your own."

"Probably not, no. Could you help?"

For a moment he thought the branch head would refuse, but he sighed instead. "Sure. Just…follow Kira to the guest room and I'll bring the bandages."

Yen watched him leave and looked at the maga standing near the counter. She bowed her head and motioned toward the doorway. He followed her out and down the wooden floored hall. The walls were old fashioned paper screens, a couple with repairs. He wasn't sure what he should think about that. Were they having financial trouble? Or had they just been temporarily fixed until the paper could be replaced? Kira opened a door on the right side of the hall, bowing to him.

"Thank you," he said, nodding in return. Inside was a futon folded in a corner, a small end table with a lamp the only other addition to the tatami mats. There was a wall scroll with calligraphy tastefully hung on the wall opposite the door. Kira entered and unfolded the futon while Yen stood to the right of the doorway, not sure where to go.

"I've got bandages," Mikami said, popping his head in. "Sit down and I'll help you change them."

Yen loosened the knot of his robe enough to slip it off his shoulders as he sat on the edge of the futon. Across the room, Mikami hesitated for half a step. "Is there a problem?" Yen asked bluntly.

"Er…"

"You froze up earlier when I undressed, and when I was drying off. It's not like you haven't seen another male torso before."

"It's not that!"

Yen looked behind him where Mikami stood mid step in the middle of the room. He was passing a medical kit from hand to hand as Kira watched on near t he door. Yen lifted an eyebrow. "Oh really. Mikami-kun, you've seen me without a shirt plenty of times. If I remember correctly, you even showed up at one of my swimming lessons with a message from my father."

"It's just…er, you like your cousin, right?"

"Mikami-kun, who I like has nothing to do with why you are uncomfortable to see me half clothed." Unless…. "Are you homophobic?"

"No! No, I'm not." Mikami waved the med-kit around wildly. "Er," he scratched his cheek, blushing. "You don't like any other men, do you?"

Yen sighed. "Mikami-kun, I don't and never have thought of you as anything other than a friend and colleague. Does that help?"

"Yeah. Sure." He finally sat down next to Yen and took out the bandages. "Um, please don't tell anyone about this ok?"

"I'll keep my mouth closed," Yen said. He wondered if he should be amused or annoyed. Or both. Instead he sat still and let Mikami unravel the bandages as carefully as possible. It was a slow process as Mikami was avoiding touching his skin if at all possible. Yen held his arm at a better angle. It hurt to lift it that high, but it gave Mikami better access and moved it further from his body.

Mikami hissed as he pulled back layers of fabric. "What happened?"

"Ice burns," Yen said. He winced as a length of bandage stuck to his skin. "It's more or less instant frostbite of the outer layer of my skin. Jin has it a lot worse. The maga that caused it only touched me a few seconds."

"A maga did that? It looks like someone had their hand on fire and grabbed your arm." He was gentle as he pulled the last length of cloth off. "I have burn ointment, would it help?"

"Probably. I just need it sanitized. Infection is all I'm worried about… It's healing quickly."

"I don't even want to know how bad it was initially." Mikami opened a jar with a pale colored cream in it. "This should feel cold," he said, dabbing it onto the reddish-purple ice burns.

It felt soothing. The cool burn ointment and Mikami's careful smoothing it into the wound made Yen want to relax onto the bed and take a nap. All too soon, the bandages were being tediously rewrapped, the pressure from the cloth stinging against the wounds. Burns needed air to heal, but he didn't have time to sit with his skin exposed, and he was in an unsterile environment. Frostbite used aloe ointment, and it could take weeks to heal. "You're lucky it's only skin damage," Mikami murmured, tying the last knot.

"I know. Jin had some second degree frost bite. His arm will scar…not to mention the after affects. They're treating it with warm water." Yen looked at his own arm, knowing it could have been worse. The skin hadn't blistered, and the damage was only to the outermost layers of skin. Jin had been hurt pretty badly where the claws had gripped him, and that was discounting the bruising and bone fractures from being tossed.

"Any other injuries that need taken care of?" Mikami held up the roll of bandages, nodding at the bandage on Yen's left arm.

"Oh, I forgot about these." The frostbite was the steady ache. His other injuries faded into the background unless jarred. He unraveled the bandage on his other arm, looking at the stitches. There were five. He was unlucky enough that he had needed them. The gash had been worse than he thought. His knee, now that he thought of it, was also throbbing. It was a yellow-green color under its bandage by this point.

"That's going to scar," Mikami said to fill the silence. He was looking a bit too closely at the stitching. "Antiseptic," he added, pulling out a tube.

"I can get the rest myself," Yen offered.

"I've got it." He slathered on ointment and wrapped it quickly. He seemed more comfortable with the cut than the frost burns. The medical supplies were packed away and Kira moved to take them back to their cabinet. "Get some sleep, Yen-kun. I'll wake you when it looks like you need to move on."

"Thanks, Mikami-kun." He slid his arms back into his sleeves. "For everything."

"Eh. Don't mention it. Really." Mikami scratched his chin, eying the ceiling. "I'll be in my room. If you need me just ask Kira."

"Thank you," Yen repeated. He waited until Mikami had slid the door shut behind him to collapse onto the futon. It hadn't been a particularly active or eventful day. The day wasn't even half over yet, but… But with recovering from injuries and spending the last few days restless from inactivity and unable to sleep… He yawned. The bedding was warm and inviting, a temporary safe haven against the world. He curled up under the blanket and was asleep in moments. ***

The soft pitter-patter of feet on tatami mats woke him. It was dark, so hours must have passed. Yen looked to his right where the sound came from and met Goroh's glowing eyes. The doglike maga tapped the mat with a forepaw, nodding toward the door. Koga ghosted into existence in his peripheral. He rolled out of bed.

"Is Mikami-kun still here?" Yen asked quietly.

Goroh shook his head and nodded to the door where Kira stood looking nervous. She fidgeted and glanced around.

"I have everything I brought," Yen assured her. His clothes were clean and lying next to the bed with his gakuki. "I'll change and leave."

No time… Kira's otherworld voice whispered in his mind. Come…

It was oddly personal having someone's maga speak or touch you, Yen decided as Kira tugged the robe's sleeve. It didn't bother him to touch Sora, and it was completely different in the midst of battle where you were comrades and touch could be inevitable at times, but here, with Kira who he barely knew it seemed too much like touching a part of Kana's soul. Kana, who was still devoted to Jin last Yen knew. He tried not to think too hard about that. The gentle insistent tugs led him out the door and down the hall faster than a walk, but not quite a jog. He stumbled into Kira as she stopped suddenly.

Floorboards creaked around the corner and a door slid open than shut. Yen could hear Mikami's voice. It was flat and neutral, the voice he used when being professional. That meant someone important was visiting, and Yen didn't need many guesses to figure out who.

"Is there a back way out?" he asked softly. Goroh nudged his hand and padded softly in the opposite direction. Yen followed past the line of closed doors and paper screens, the only change along the walls being the hanging scrolls in between doorways.

The exited through a doorway off of the kitchen. It was small, built low into the wall, the kind of door you had to crawl through. Yen wondered what it had been built for, or if it actually had been intended for escape. It certainly blended into the wall.

"Thanks Goroh, Kira," Yen said as he slipped through the hole. Koga followed, fitting with more difficulty than he would have in the past.

Kira let out a little Ah of sound and grabbed something off the counter. A bag was shoved roughly into Yen's hands. She made shooing motions, looking over her shoulder at the kitchen door.

Inside the bag was food for a day, a change of clothes, and an umbrella. Yen smiled and added his original clothes to it. "Thanks," he said again. He slung the bag over his shoulder. "Keep Mikami-kun safe."

The rain had cleared while he slept. In its place was an icy chill. Yen shivered as water dropped from the leaves on the trees near the kitchen window. He was crouched near an azalea bush, its blossoms only partially open and weighed down by the water left by the rain. He would go to see Utsukita and Meiya. He wondered if offering water after rain to the statue guarding the path to their shop would still work or if it needed a food offering more after having been drenched all day. Either way, Yen was set thanks to Kira's provisions.

The door shut behind him, and when he glanced back, it was indistinguishable from the rest of the wall. "Huh, now wouldn't that be useful at home," he murmured. Koga stirred next to him, tense and uncomfortable.

Maga. Strong maga are close, Koga said. He looked back toward the right wing of the house where the reception room was.

Yen nodded. "Of course. With Hosui here, I'm not surprised." Now how to get out…? Ah. Along the fence line in the back there was a small gate built into the wall. It was probably used in the past as a delivery entrance or for use by servants, but it would do for a timely escape. He looked back one last time. Mikami would be all right. He was smart and he knew what he was doing. Yen looked forward and stepped quickly through the wet grass, sticking to the shadows until he reached the gate. It opened without a creak, the hinges well oiled. Beyond it was a dirt path into a patch of scrub and trees, a line of stones indicating a shrine further in the wooded area. The path split off to the left, leading back toward the main road where he could take the side walk, but Yen hesitated. Taking the main road would be predictable. There were probably maga watching the main roadway, so it would be more beneficial to cut through the woods, pass the shrine, and hope there was a path out further on. If there wasn't, well, it was not a very large space. The woods couldn't be more than a few acres at least, being on the outskirts of the city.

Now…to get to Utsukita he had to go to Tatsunami Street, and that was…North. Cutting through the woods would take him east, so he would have to double back west a bit, but it was worth it not to get caught. Water soaked through Yen's pants as he waded through tall grass where the path had been neglected. Twigs scraped his arms, aggravating the bandages where the undergrowth was thicker and catching on his gakuki. The path to the shrine had definitely seen better days. The trail was a barely visible parting between bush and tree, and the occasional stone marker showing he had the right direction. Only the peace in the surroundings was proof to Yen that there was an up kept shrine at all.

Koga slipped silently through watery shadows behind him. It was nice to know that the maga was watching his back. Yen didn't think he would be able to handle negotiating with a maga at the moment. While the sleep had helped, his arm ached and the exertion of ducking undergrowth was pulling uncomfortably at his stitches.

It took maybe fifteen minutes to reach the shrine. It was small, made of stone, at one point in time carefully cut so that they fit together without mortar. It had moss growing on one corner, but it was clear that it had been removed at some point in the last year. The current growth was jagged and uneven as if it were trying to reclaim lost ground after being torn off previously. The wooden doors that normally would have sheltered the altar had long rotted, and no one had bothered to replace them. The altar inside, however, was surprisingly clean. All in all, Yen was still a good foot taller than the structure, though a couple years ago he might have been able to fit inside.

Yen pulled out one of the rice balls that had been packed in the bag Kira gave him and set it on the edge of the shrine, clapping his hands together. "Thank you for allowing us to travel through your territory," he said to the wood spirit. "Please accept this offering in gratitude." The air was still, the night sounds around them becoming hushed. Yen waited but no figure appeared. He clapped again, bowed to the shrine, and headed east to get through the rest of the woods. The stillness felt oppressive for a moment, then it vanished. The offering had been accepted.

The trip out of the wood went much faster. Branches caught less, the mud wasn't as slippery, and it was as if something pulled him toward the other side. Yen thanked the wood spirit that had to have helped him and headed north.

Inevitably, when he reached the stairs lined with jizou, his clothes were wet again. The dew from the trees and the grass along the way more than soaked the thin cotton robe and plastered it to his frame. It chilled him, but the wet bandages were worse. Yen sighed, climbing stairs as he looked for the backward facing statue. It was halfway up the stairs, red bib and stone hat out of place among the others, much like its oddly blank stare.

Yen pulled out a water bottle. The dish in front of it was full of water already, but… He added a rice ball to the mix, pouring water until it overflowed the dish and setting the rice ball next to it. "An offering," he murmured. The air turned still and the statue smiled, sending a shockwave through the spiritual plane. Koga shivered next to him at its force, and the two watched the road unfold in front of them. "Now we wait," he said.

The trees shook drops from their leaves as a breeze passed through them. The night was still and quiet, too still. A presence made Yen look up at where a cat sat in the fork of a tree. "Meiya," Yen said. "Where's Utsukita-kun?"

An impossible looking grin grew on the cat's face as it jumped to the ground. It waved its tails nonchalantly. "He's busy, so I am your guide."

"Busy with business or something personal?"

Meiya laughed, flicking one tail toward the trail. "Do maga count as business or personal when they are neither customer nor friend?"

"Ah." He gripped his gakuki. "Anything I can do to help?"

Meiya looked at Yen's arm pointedly. "Well, if you hurry you can at least help drive off the weakened ones."

It was annoying to be dismissed like that, Yen thought. It was like being back to square one where the shopkeeper was setting up tasks to prove that he was worthy of being a customer. "I take it I won't have to be tested?" Yen asked wryly.

Meiya grinned. "Ah, and here I thought you were over that. Now hurry up. It's not fair to make him do all the work, Ragun head."

Yen flinched. "I'm not the head."

"You, your father, it doesn't make much difference at the moment. Someone is where he shouldn't be and you're next by right." Meiya took off down the path and Yen was forced to run after him.

"How many maga are there?" Yen asked, panting. The running was warming him up at least.

"Not many, but then, I'm not sure how many you could handle right now…"

Yen scowled at the forked tail flicking a ways ahead of him. He was injured, not useless. And it wasn't like he was an attack type like Jin, he was more of an immobilizer. "I can negotiate perfectly well as I am," he grumbled.

Meiya laughed again. From his behavior, Yen surmised that the maga threat had probably already been subdued. If the cat spirit had the time to joke, it couldn't be too strong of a threat. The path gave way to the shop and Yen was filled with the same sort of surprise he always got no matter how often he had visited it. For some reason he always expected it to be better up kept or larger. It had such a forceful impression on him that it was strange that its appearance didn't mimic its effect.

A maga shrieked from somewhere nearby and Meiya paused. "Well, it looks like the ones inside have finally been caught…"

Yen blinked. "They got through your wards too?" he asked, thinking of his home.

"Mm. The Ragun household as well? Seems we have an annoying enemy on our hands…"

The front door opened with a snap. "What took you so long?" Utsukita snapped. "I've already dealt with them." He stared at Yen. "Ah. So you came after all." He shot Meiya a glare and swept back inside.

"Ahh…As to the point as ever," Meiya muttered. He shrugged, taking human form. "You might as well come in. He'll be cleaning up."

Yen relaxed his grip on his gakuki. He wasn't disappointed that he hadn't fought exactly, it was more…He wanted to feel like he was doing something and a battle would have helped. He sighed and patted Koga's head. "Next time," he promised.

The inside of the shop was abnormally quiet. Unlike the last few times he had visited, he wasn't immediately assaulted by Akari and Kureha, the two dolls that had the habit of latching onto him and Jin whenever they saw them. The air did smell like smoke though, so it was a high probability that some part of the shop caught fire.

"I was expecting you earlier," Utsukita's voice said from somewhere deeper in the shop. "Even allowing for your injury, you're late. And what are you wearing?" He stuck his head around a doorway, looking strange with the pile of miscellaneous objects in his arms. After he had gotten his sister back, he still didn't talk much, but what he did say was usually sharp and to the point of what he was thinking.

"I was at Mikami-kun's home. I stopped to get information on the branch families before coming here." Yen bent down to help Meiya move a vase with his good arm, the motion causing the robe he was wearing to rub against his arm uncomfortably. "The robe is Mikami-kun's as well. I had to leave in a bit of a hurry and didn't have time to change back into my clothes."

Utsukita pushed his glasses back up his nose and nodded. "I'll be back in a moment."

Meiya lounged against the wall, the vase now righted. "And that is his way of showing concern, believe it or not." He yawned. "Not very good at it is he?"

"He still doesn't let many people close." Yen plucked at the wet robe unhappily. Somehow it wasn't looking like he would be allowed to change into his dry clothes.

"Mm. You are probably his most consistent visitor though." The cat spirit grinned, one eye closed. "He actually approves of you too."

"I feel like I should be visiting for more than business if that's the case," Yen muttered. He wasn't friends with the shop keeper, he could barely call him an acquaintance, but helping him find his sister had definitely given them a connection.

"Here." Yen turned and received a towel in the face. "You're dripping." Utsukita watched expressionlessly as Yen wrapped the towel around his shoulders. "Come," he said after a moment. "We have news to share."

"How did the maga get in?" Yen asked as they walked down the hall, Meiya trailing behind.

"The same way they likely got through your defenses. Scrolls."

"Scrolls…" It made sense, but how would they set them off? Hmm, more questions than answers. Although where the scrolls came from was obvious. Yen could still remember the time with Aya in the rain and the scroll Hosui-san had used…

"Evidence points to the Kamen Kugutsushi being behind it."

Yen blinked, pulled from his memory. "Kamen Kugutsushi? It isn't the Hosui clan?"

"…Why would you suspect them?" Utsukita asked carefully.

"They were behind the attack on my home…unless they weren't…" Yen trailed off, brain making rapid connections. Hosui-san was too strong. Even given Aya's help, there was a power leap in there. He had never been a threat before, but suddenly he was, and he was making a move as well. That meant he had gained allies. And what better allies than the enemy of gakushi everywhere? Plus, Aya's family was already on the fringe of gakushi morals. It wouldn't be a stretch to assume they had stepped over the thin line separating the two sides. And it would explain where the Kamen Kugutsushi got the scrolls… "I see… So the real masterminds are the Kamen Kugutsushi. That…oddly enough that makes a lot more sense."

Utsukita raised an eyebrow. "I assume your reasons for suspecting your uncle's clan lie with his current takeover." He frowned. "That would have been the logical conclusion if I hadn't already had more information."

"What information?"

"A ritual," Meiya cut in. He was lounging against the doorway looking both smug and serious, which was a strange combination. "There have been rumors lately about a ritual to link this world with the spirit plane, and wouldn't you know it, the Kamen Kugutsushi are at its core."

"Don't we already have links to the spirit plane?" Yen asked. He thought about all the times he had gone into different pockets of space. Heck, even this shop didn't exist in regular space.

"He means another world," Utsukita said. He glared at Meiya's carefree shrug. "The ritual is supposed to link with another plane of existence. The details aren't clear, but there is a link to a legend, two warriors opening the gate to the temple of the living god. The translation of the text was fairly ambiguous. Some interpret it as a spirit plane, but most people believe it connects to another world entirely. They all agree that opening the gate will bring power to the person who manages it."

"A world gate…" The hairs on his arms lifted in a chill that had nothing to do with his soaked clothing. Memories flashed through his mind, all of them bits of dreams—daydreams mostly—when he had felt, just for a moment, that he was somewhere else, that there was more than just the pool or a battle with a maga… "That's… not good."

Utsukita gave him a look, one eyebrow raised. Yen returned it. Yes, he had stated the obvious. It was perfectly acceptable to voice one's thoughts out loud. "What course of action do you recommend?" he asked finally. Utsukita had known longer, and he trusted the other boy to think through a problem clearly. He was good at understanding the whole picture, and that understanding was what Yen needed at the moment.

Utsukita was silent as he thought. Yen found himself listening to him breathe. The shopkeeper even breathed steadily, the same amount of time pausing before breathing in and out. "I will need a bit more time," Utsukita said finally, "to decide on the best course of action." He pushed his glasses up his face in the practiced manner of someone who always had to readjust their vision. "Rest here. Meiya can get ointment from storage for your wounds."

"Ah…" Yen had never been invited to stay any longer than a transaction required. "Thank you."

Utsukita glanced at Meiya who vanished into the depths of the shop. "Do not thank me yet. The ointment will be going on your list of debts." He smiled. "Along with the vases Jin broke the last time you were here."

"Are you sure there aren't any tasks I could complete to make us even?"

"The time will come eventually." As if hitting a wall in his conversational abilities, he cut off.

"Doesn't it always come down to eventually," Yen murmured to himself. In all honesty, he suspected Utsukita wanted him in his debt to assure he kept coming back. "Is there a room or…?" Yen asked in a more audible voice.

Utsukita nodded, then motioned to where Meiya was returning, a pot cupped in one hand. "Alright, Ragun-sama," Meiya said, making Yen wince at the title he attached to his name. "Off to get you patched up. Yoshino-chan is making you something to eat, so you'd better be hungry."

"Thank you, Meiya, Utsukita-kun." Yen nodded to each of them as the cat spirit latched onto his good arm, dragging him out.

"Hurry up! I want to get this done before Yoshino-chan finishes. I can't have you seducing her with your half clothed body!"

Yen raised an eyebrow at the accusation and as he was pulled through the door he could swear he heard Utsukita snort with amusement. Perhaps he was hearing things. Utsukita never looked amused.

It took Meiya half the time it took Mikami to change the bandages. The ointment was cool and tingled when it touched his skin. Meiya smeared it on all of his wounds, bruises included. Yen felt a bit like a mummy with all the bandages that were layering up, but he had to admit that the medicine was already chasing away the aches and pains. When the cat spirit was done he slapped Yen on the back familiarly.

"Well, you're all patched up." Meiya grinned. "If I come back later and find that you've left anything on your plate though, I'm removing your stitches. One. By. One." He said this with the same smile, which was disturbing enough without the accompanied plucking motions.

If it hadn't been for the need to be grateful, Yen would have thrown a threat right back. He ignored him instead, looking to where Yoshino stood in the doorway. She had a smile on her face, but there was tension her jaw that boded ill for Meiya.

"Here is some soup and rice. They should be easy to digest." She set the tray of miso soup and a perfectly molded bowl of white rice on the floor by Yen's side. There was an assortment of rolled eggs and pickles as well, but no meat.

"Thank you, Yoshino-san." He picked up the chopsticks.

"Yoshino-chaaaan!" Meiya cried, practically swooning. "Is there any of your delicious cooking left for me?"

The dangerous twitch Yen had noticed earlier reappeared in Yoshino's jaw, her feline claws appearing a bit more noticeable in the light. "Meiya, do you need to be reminded that we have a guest?"

"But Yoshino-chan—guh!" Meiya grunted as an arm caught him neatly in his middle, knocking the air from his lungs. Yoshino smiled cheerfully, shoving the gasping Meiya out the door. "Rest well, Ragun-sama. Don't worry about the food, eat what you are able."

The door slid shut, and Yen listened to the ominous thumps and hisses on the other side before carefully picking up his soup bowl. It tasted as good as any of Yoshino's cooking, although he normally let Jin eat what was presented to them when they visited. He gripped the lacquered soup bowl tighter than he meant to, and Koga's reassuring touch on his mind snapped him out of his frustration before he did any damage to the chopsticks or bowl. Yen looked at the soup; suddenly not as hungry as he had been moments before. He ate it anyway, though, every scrap on the tray, and with each bite his thoughts cleared and his determination grew stronger. Thoughts centered around his brother, he began to plan.


AN: Holy crap did this take forever to write! I'm sorry it took so long. I was literally writing sentences at a time in come places writer's block was so bad...Good news, I know how many chapters are left. THere will be four plus a fluffy epilogue. I believe in happy endings. But until then there will be more chaos! MWAHAHAHA. Gah, I am not looking forward to next week and the 21 pages of essays and 30 pages of writing I will have to turn in. I hate finals. For those of you who still care, leave a review! They really do help motivate me.