Garden of the Broken

Chapter Twenty-seven

October 15

Gods above and below, he was not looking forward to this.

Tearing his gaze from the evening murk outside their bedchamber's large windows, idly gazing out at the thick fog that had begun rolling inland on their small island, Julian crossed his arms tighter against himself and let loose a reluctant sigh. It was ten o'clock – roughly 2PM the next day in Kyoto. He'd procrastinated long enough – if he waited much more, Rori would inevitably come around inquiring as to whether or not he'd phoned his doctor yet. If he wound up responding to the negative, Rori would end up giving him that look that was equal parts disappointment and concern, and after the conversation they'd had in the kitchen that morning about the subtle thing that had changed in the Manor, Julian couldn't bear the thought of provoking either any more than he already had. The poor man had enough to worry about as things were.

Of course, there was no denying that neither did Julian particularly want to call his doctor – he enjoyed Stigma Ayame's company just fine, and his services had proved to be invaluable in keeping Julian's symptoms as a soul eater on a tighter leash – but he was also without a single shadow of a doubt that the call would reach an inevitable conclusion that he couldn't help but dread.

Ayame would want him to come to Japan as soon as possible for treatment, which typically lasted a week of arduous, unpleasant ordeals of both the physical as well as mystical variety. Honestly, without that, he would have considered the trip a vacation. An opportunity to enjoy the solitude of Ayame's uncommonly spacious home with its polished wooden floors and rice paper doors; a chance to sink down in a hot spring or two, admire the verdant forests surrounding the area, maybe even take a day trip to Kyoto to immerse himself more fully in Japan's history and culture. He knew Ayame would try to accommodate as many of Julian's whimsies as possible, but it was often difficult with the affable doctor's busy schedule and the toll Julian's treatments frequently took.

Certainly, he liked Ayame well enough as a person – or perhaps "daemon" was a better way to phrase it, a creature who'd crossed the Veil separating their worlds – but the treatments…

A necessary evil, at best. Bitter medicine to fortify one's feeble constitution.

Not to mention, to leave the Manor in its already vulnerable state… It seemed unconscionable, at best. They needed him here, the younger tenants and Rori both. He was the stabilizer of their home, the protector of peace and civility, and with Yami still ill, his lover – although his heart had been in the right place, that was beyond question – couldn't have possibly picked a worse time to reach out to the Japanese witchdoctor. What would they do without him? Who would tend to Yami once he started recovering? Who would mind Potatoe? And never mind just watching her, he needed to rebuild his bond with her. Their tiny moments of reconciliation were good, but he needed to be able to assure her that all was well, and he would never frighten her so terribly again.

Julian released another strained breath, a tiny furrow etching itself into his brow, his shoulders wilting, as he peered out at the nighttime fogs.

Which meant, of course, that despite his reluctance, Ayame's help was desperately needed. That he ought to go, and pray that the Manor would still be standing and the tenants all healthy and hale by the time he could fly home again.

I hate this.

As selfish as it was, he couldn't help but wish for all the world and everything in it that Ayame could simply come to him, but the good doctor had already explained to him that there was simply no way he would be able to fly with all of his tools. They would be confiscated in the blink of an eye, and some of them were simply too valuable to lose – all but irreplaceable in ways that Julian would never understand. For all of his fluency, Ayame had yet to find the words to describe their value in English.

Taking another fortifying breath, Julian gave the tiniest shake of his head and turned away from the window, circling around the enormous width of their four-poster bed to the old, Victorian-style telephone on the nightstand on the other side. He perched on the edge of the mattress, distractedly wringing his hands with moths fluttering in his stomach at the idea of separating himself from his family.

Rori hadn't understood Julian's line of inquiry earlier that day, about whether or not anything about the house felt different, and if something had changed, he would have thought that Rori – with his vast and varied grasps of the psychic gifts – would be the first to notice. But instead, Rori had seemed oblivious, while Li had reacted like a hunting dog to the sound of gunfire, and now he wasn't at all certain whether something was different or if he was simply losing his mind again. It could have been a side-effect of his relapse, or perhaps – if Li wasn't lying to him out of sheer malice – there was something new wandering the halls of their home. Typically enough, the spirit refused to talk about it, refused to explain what he felt or what he thought he'd felt.

Julian didn't understand any of it.

And if you're left to wonder, his thoughts sternly reminded him, you really will lose your mind. So best man up and be done with it all.

He shunted the thought from his mind and slipped open a drawer in the nightstand to collect Ayame's calling card, then gently eased the drawer shut again and picked up the antiquated handpiece from their rotary phone, balancing the black and brass masterpiece between his ear and his shoulder as he dialled. To him, it was a small pleasure that had sadly been forgotten by modern technology, the action wonderfully physical and tangible each time he turned the wheel plate 'round – and suddenly Rori's preference for antiques, as a highly sensual man himself, made perfect sense.

Even so, that wouldn't stop him from chuckling during the vampire's next row with modern technology. Watching his lover dissolve into a bitter, ranting mess had always been too entertaining – all poise gone, his charming wit replaced with grumbled insults and exasperated incredulity. It was the perfect reminder that Rori himself was far from the specimen of perfection he thought he was, a creature who'd been blindsided by the extreme and abrupt burst of technological advancement and who either could not be bothered or could not manage to match the current's pace. It fed a tiny ember of warmth in his heart, a welcome distraction from the task at hand, but before too long, he found his worries overtaking the notion and drowning it all over again.

Sucking in a long, tremulous breath through his nose, he worried at his lower lip while he waited, trying his very best to keep his mind calm, even though he could feel the anxiety building in his chest with every dial tone. Breathe, Julian, he murmured to himself. Just breathe, see what Ayame says, and then worry about the rest after.

After what felt like an eternity, the phone line clicked, and what sounded like a man in his mid-twenties answered with a lazy and casual, "Moshi moshi." Frankly, Ayame would have been appalled to greet a client with such informality – never mind the lack of professionalism – and the new voice as well as the greeting knocked Julian off his own stride only for a moment before he managed to answer.

"Oh." He blinked wide, startled eyes. "Um, hello. Do you… speak English, by any chance?"

The man's voice took on a gravelly quality, not in an entirely unpleasant way, as he replied in heavily accented English. "A little. Not well."

"May I speak with Stigma-san? I'm one of his patients?" God forbid that the doctor had moved residences without informing him, but such a thing was out of character for the man and Julian was rather reassuringly aware of it. Ayame would never simply pick up his roots and relocate any more than a tree could. Unless…

"Name?"

"Julian Redcliffe. From Canada."

There was a grunt on the other end before the man set the phone down and bellowed the doctor's name into the house he operated out of, the sudden eruption both plucking a wince from Julian's system and releasing his worries once and for all before he relaxed with a tolerant smile. Picked up a stray, have you? Or a lover, perhaps…? He stifled a small chuckle, a puckish grin twitching at the outskirts of his lips. Gods above know it's about time, old friend. I do so hate seeing you alone all the time.

Soon enough, there was faint bickering in the background, growing louder as the pair neared the phone. Judging from the sharp, clipped tones of Ayame's smooth, androgynous voice, it wouldn't have surprised him in the least to find out that Ayame was scolding the younger man before finally sending him off with a hiss and a sharp flick of his wrist.

When the witchdoctor answered the phone, his voice was nothing if not the epitome of genteel professionalism, his English clear but stiffly – albeit charmingly, Julian had always thought – accented. "Hello, Julian. I am so relieved to hear from you! How are you?"

"I'm… doing all right, thank you." Julian teasingly chuckled, "I didn't know you had an assistant."

The witchdoctor let a strained sigh slip, voice dry. Julian could all but see the unimpressed stare on the doctor's pale, fine-boned countenance, his fuchsia eyes narrowed into slits. "He is something of a… recent acquisition. A stray cat, so to speak. No manners, I am afraid."

"Only a stray?" An impish grin plucked at his lips. "Are you quite sure about that? Not many seem to be able to ruffle your feathers the way he just did."

Ayame's voice was dry as sun-baked parchment as he replied, "Quite sure. I like to believe I have higher standards than that of freeloaders who laze about, eating my food and sleeping wherever they can find a sunbeam. If he is not in fact a daemon of the feline variety, he has me well and truly fooled." Without missing a beat, the doctor swept onwards to the matter at hand, always direct and to the point. "I trust you are calling me at O'Connor-san's behest? He was left quite distraught by your recent… difficulties."

"Ah…" And here it was, the concern that always proved very much valid. Inhaling a long, slow, tremulous breath, Julian sighed, a watery smile on his lips as he began coiling the phone's wire around his finger, watching the gesture with distant eyes. "Yes. Well…"

Softening from its crisp and professional tones, Ayame's voice faded down to something worn smooth with concern. "He said he found you unconscious, in a pool of your own blood, with severe lacerations on your arms, and 'I am still here,' painted on the door. You would not wake up. Were you conscious for any of the events prior to this?"

Wetting his lips and choking down the barricade in his throat, Julian clenched his eyes shut against the hazy memories assaulting his mind. The terror, the complete and utter lack of control over his own body – even his own voice. "I was, in a sense," he uttered, the words little more than a breath. "But I wasn't… in control. Li was." A pause, as a noose abruptly cinched itself shut around his throat, tears stinging in his eyes and nose. "He tried to hurt my daughter," he gasped, a hand flying up to shakily press itself against his mouth as though merely speaking of the event might resurrect it, eyes clenched shut at the thought, brows deepening into a furrow.

Hissing a soft breath in through his teeth, Ayame offered little more than a ponderous hum in the silence that overtook the line.

Blinking back the moisture in his eyes and staring doggedly up at the ceiling, a breath punched itself out of him as his hand dropped back into his lap, restively fidgeting with the phone's wire, winding it, weaving it, nestling his fingers into its coils. You will not cry. You will not. She's fine. She was only frightened, nothing more.

But that didn't change the fact that if Potatoe hadn't chosen to hide where she had, there was simply no way of telling what Li might have done to her.

"Oh give me a goddamn break already," the spirit groused in the back of his mind. "I didn't touch the goddamn kid!"

"I would like you to come to Japan," the doctor stated in carefully enunciated English, "so that I may properly assess your present condition and we can discuss how to best address these issues with your… passenger."

Only distantly aware of how he was still wringing the phone's cable around his finger, Julian sniffled back a breath, but couldn't keep the etch of concern from his brow. "Do you think that's really necessary?"

He could practically see the way Ayame's dark brows subtly climbed on his forehead in askance, his body language always so subtle and controlled, Julian remembered, to everyone except those who knew what to look for, and how to interpret the many tiny signs. Even now, Julian could imagine him garbed in a beautiful women's yukata, sitting quietly at the small table at which he took his calls, socked feet tucked neatly underneath himself. "Do you?"

A soft, noncommittal hum escaped him just then, and there was little else for him to do but peer down with reluctance at the cord choking his index finger. He didn't want to do this. He really didn't. Not now. Not when the house needed him. Not when Rori needed him. He pulled his finger free, the cable's path painted in ribbons of white around swollen, bruise-colored patches of flesh.

Sensing his hesitation, Ayame settled himself more completely on the polished hardwood floor, his even, velvety voice softening. "Julian, from what Rori has told me, I think it would be in your best interest to at least consider the possibility of pursuing a more aggressive line of treatment, to prevent such episodes from happening again. By the sounds of it, he is getting stronger, and I will do whatever is within my power to protect you from being consumed or harmed yet further by his malevolence."

"I… don't suppose Rori could at least accompany me, could he?" Before the words had even finished leaving his mouth, he knew how wrong that would be – to strip the Manor of its most steadfast guardian, the last remaining bulwark should the outside world attempt to threaten the Manor's inhabitants.

A tsk and a soft, inhaling hiss of breath served as his only reply for a moment before Ayame sighed, and Julian knew immediately what his answer would be. "As benevolent as his intentions may be, I believe his presence may prove to be more a hindrance than a help." A pause. "He has a dark and troubled spirit, Julian. In this, he cannot help you. And your… passenger… He does not care for him. We cannot afford to antagonize him any more than need be if your treatment is to be effective."

As the tension seeped out of his muscles, his shoulders wilting, Julian peered down at the floor in defeat, his heart breaking in acknowledgement of the practicality and truth in Ayame's words. Ever realistic, ever frank and forthright, no matter how much it might hurt. In that sense, he could only wish that he could be more like his daemonic doctor.

"I know."

"You will purchase a ticket to Kyoto soon, then?"

"Yes."

With only half of his mind on the remaining conversation as Ayame tried to raise his spirits before bidding him farewell, Julian finally set the handpiece back in its cradle, bent over his knees, and buried his face in his hands in weary despair. Knowing it was all for the best, but hating it nonetheless.

-x-

He was, he'd decided, quite simply not cut out for this whole… stress, thing. Perhaps it was selfish, what with everything that had been transpiring of late, but what was he, after all, if not inherently selfish? He'd been selfish as a human, and once he'd been turned? Well, his selfishness had merely been compounded into complacency by the comfortable knowledge that whatever problem might throw itself at him, he could easily deflect away again with little more than a psychic bat of his hand.

Except for his thrice-damned sire. And Julian's fits. And Yami's withdrawals. And the murders near Hellfire. And dealing with Jason, even more so like treading upon thin ice now than before, when Jason had merely been perpetually annoyed by him and void of the contract Rori had scrawled into existence, leaving his very life in the muse's capricious brown hands.

No, if this was true stress, he would be more than happy to live without it. He felt spread entirely too thin, his concerns dominating what felt like his every waking hour, tending to one to some degree of satisfaction before moving onto the next. Constantly juggling, constantly fretting that one slip might lead them all to ruin.

Christ, he needed a cigarette. And a good, long fuck to set his inner mechanisms right again, to reset the whole mess that had been thrown so completely out of order by the recent onslaught of events.

Leaning his head back against the wall outside of Yami's bedroom, barely even aware of the tingling sensation of the flesh of his forearm knitting itself back together, Rori closed his eyes and let a strained breath slip into the silence. He could still hear Jason's song, in some corner of his mind; he could still feel the overwhelming crush of Yami's grief before it had hollowed out his chest and left him quietly mourning what could have been. But once the torrential grief had dispersed, whisking its veil away from Yami's eyes – while some part of it remained eternal and everlasting – he'd found himself contemplating his new family, and the strange catharsis that greeted him at the thought. They would never replace the family and the future that had been lost to the fires the night the Atrium stole him away, but perhaps…

Perhaps, he could come to love them for what they were, chaotic and dysfunctional, vexing more often than not, but each with a gemstone for a heart that made them both precious and unique in his half-breed's eyes.

It had been strange, sitting unbeknownst with the dhampir during that process, riding the ebb and flow of those emotions with him, and Rori still couldn't quite manage to put his finger on how it had left him feeling. He'd quietly ignored his own demons, still very much alive and well, and decided such a train of thought was left to the quiet hours of the morning with Julian naked by his side, contentedly slumbering with his face nuzzled into the crook of his shoulder. He'd waited until Yami had calmed enough to be somewhat less perversely opposed to feeding from him, although he'd still had to force him to drink, and now…

Now, he would have liked to retire to bed and make slow, languorous love to Julian until the wee hours of the morning, but his mind was still tumbling chaotically from one worry to another, and he'd two more stops to make in the interests of the Hellfire murders and potentially his sire's whereabouts.

Might as well get to it, old boy. These questions won't ask themselves. Heaving another put-upon sigh as he dragged a hand down his face, Rori lurched away from the wall, scrubbing a hand back through his oxblood hair as he wandered down the hallway to the bedroom of yet another one of his wards. This time, it was the intense, electric thrumming of Artemis's lair, all computers and old coffee cups and anarchy.

He rapped his knuckles twice on her door before letting himself in. He knew better than to worry he might be interrupting something. The thief suffered from a perverse and utterly bewildering lack of a sex drive, and had a mind sharp enough to multitask in her work even when burdened by conversation – even if it did result in somewhat vague and desultory answers. The only thing he risked interrupting was her latest bout of mischief in a modern and highly digital world and that, he thought, was not necessarily a bad thing.

Save the light radiating from her outrageous collection of monitors, the German's room was engulfed in total darkness, but still he could see that she was hunched up in her chair, knees pulled up to her flat chest, and the fact that she hadn't jumped several feet in the air meant she hadn't bothered getting into any kind of noteworthy trouble… yet. But with Artemis, it was always and only a matter of time.

Padding quietly across the expanse of her room, weaving his way through the paths clear of detritus, he took a moment to quietly marvel at the monstrous multi-computer system she'd fondly dubbed, "Jude," and admitted without an ounce of shame that he would never understand what drew the hacker to her favorite pastime. All of this technology was evolving far too fast for his liking and complete comprehension. It was practically a blip in time between the first modern computer in 1936 to the technological behemoths flooding the markets now, never mind the tiny, penny dreadful-thin computers called smart phones one could now hold in the palm of their hand. The progress felt like it had taken place in a single blink of his eye.

Tearing himself from his reveries and his gaze from the monolith that was Jude as the German excitedly typed away, her yellow-lensed goggles pulled down over amber eyes, Rori lightly tapped the hacker on top of her head – prompting the tiniest of flinches – before peeling a headphone away from her ear and bowing until his lips were about even with it. "I trust you've not started a war yet?"

"Oh, hey!" The German swivelled towards him with a guileless little smile, shifting to sit cross-legged in her chair. She pulled her goggles up onto her forehead, owly eyes blinking and squinting under the sudden assault of the light from the screens as she switched to German. "What's up?" Her grin abruptly faded, her elfin face alien in its seriousness. "Yamz didn't get worse, did he?"

Settling her headphone delicately back onto the choppy magenta locks behind her ear, Rori straightened and sent a wandering gaze over her wall of monitors, questing for something familiar or identifiable and finding nothing. "No no, nothing of the sort. I've just fed him, not that he'd ever debase himself so as to thank me for my care and concern." Rori accommodated her switch as he glanced down at her again, the language rolling off of his tongue with a fluency that one could have mistaken for a native's. "I was rather wondering if you could look into something of a delicate matter for me."

A devilish smirk oozed across her pierced lips as she drummed her skinny fingertips together, eyes alight in anticipation. "Ooo, who do I get to terrorize this time?" Gods, the girl would have been an absolute menace under the care of anyone else.

But then, I suppose that would explain her track record with the authorities, wouldn't it?

Rori took a curt breath. "No one this time, I'm afraid. I'm looking for something a touch more specific. Animal attacks, please, or any string of unusual deaths. Recent. Of questionable origin."

Spinning back towards her computer before he'd even finished speaking with a high-pitched hum of intrigue escaping from her throat, Artemis pulled up a window on a different monitor than she'd been using when he came in, and switched keyboards as well. She plucked a piece of Pocky from the box on her cluttered desk and popped it into her mouth as she started typing, her slender fingers flying over the keys with a speed that baffled even him. "Radius?"

He pursed his lips, considering the question for a moment as distracted eyes roved the screens, irises rendered silver by their insipid light. Fingers combed themselves through his hair again, melting down to clamp over the back of his neck as he glanced back down at the unfathomable little menace he'd welcomed into his home. "Within 500 km of our location ought to be enough, I should think."

A tiny, high-pitched "mmm" escaped the German as she turned to begin her search, but after only an instant she paused and peered up at him, still lingering at her shoulder, her face guileless in its curiosity. "This 'cause of the wholesale slaughter-fest near Hellfire?"

Rori faltered mid-breath as he looked down at her. "Unfortunately, yes." He paused again, a frown flitting across his countenance like the shadow from a falcon in the great blue sky. "No." Holding a breath captive for a moment longer than he'd have liked, he sighed out a weary, "Perhaps. I'm afraid I'm not at all certain."

Pursing her lips into a tight little line that quirked itself to one side, Artemis hummed over his responses before giving a lackadaisical shrug, as though none of the answers held a whit of concern for her. Fortunately, she had no idea that her search may very well mean the difference between life and death, slavery and freedom, and Rori was committed body and soul to ensure that it remained that way until he was left with absolutely no other option. His wards had had enough scares, and the last thing anyone wanted or needed just then was the idea that somewhere out in the great wide world was a madman who would happily flay them alive before drinking from their still-beating hearts to ensure Rori returned to him, docile as a lamb. He would not give Gabriel that satisfaction. Ever.

Fear was the enemy, and if he could root out where his sire was hiding before he had the opportunity to make his move, Rori might have his own ill-fated chance to end him once and for all.

Happily oblivious to the many bloody scenarios parading themselves through his mind, Artemis stretched her goggles out above her head, then pulled them down and let them smack over her eyes once again. "Right-o Batman! Wolf-faced chainsaw massacres at 500 klics!"

"Thank you," Rori murmured, stroking a hand over her choppy magenta hair in appreciation. "Do let me know if you find anything, won't you?"

"Got it! Hey!" She called out as he turned to leave, the percussive pounding of her keyboard falling silent. Rori paused and glanced back at her from the doorway. "Where're you going?"

"To enlist the help of our little sorceress, of course."

-x-

Once he'd permitted Yue within the tower, she had flowered and propagated throughout all of its three floors like a fungus the sorceress might use in one of her spells. Every last inch of the place, while not as grand in stature or décor of the Manor, had been transformed by her touch. A homey study area dominated the first floor, with a worn but well-loved sofa occupying part of the circular walls; bookshelves and an antique writing desk cluttered the rest. Rori swept past it all to the wrought iron spiral hugging the tower's walls, and climbed its three stairs at a time to the next level, where Yue had decided to locate her bedroom, with floral touches and lush green plant life in abundance. But it was the top floor that interested him above all, and where the young sorceress spent most of her time – her workroom.

Dried bundles of herbs, plants, and other specimens hung from the rafters of the tower. Fungi, moss, powdered concoctions, liquids and occult tomes crammed the limited space on the shelving units situated around the room and the scarred wooden table that hosted the sorceress's more scientific apparatuses. Bunsen burners, phials, books and beakers, parchments and scrap pieces of paper, burn marks and light spots of bleached wood decorated its long-suffering surface, and Rori cast a critical eye over the scorch marks adorning the walls from projects that had gone… slightly less well than the sorceress often planned.

But she's not utterly annihilated my house… yet. He stifled a sigh. Hell be praised for such minor miracles.

Yue herself, clad in a long, flowing skirt and a cardigan with the sleeves rolled up, bangles on her wrists, had her back to him, tapping a finger idly against her lower lip as she perused one of her larger tomes. Rori invited himself to sit at the lone table that was relatively naked compared to the others in the tower, occupied only by Yue's worn tarot cards, and made himself comfortable, gaze lingering on the sandalwood box wrapped neatly in a fine silk scarf.

It was strange to think, now, that those cards were the very things to bring Yue to his awareness, and subsequently lead the young Italian to live under his roof. More so the fact that it had started with Yue setting up a table outside of Hellfire, and then within, to read the fortunes of curious passersby for a small fee. He'd dismissed the practise as the same daft trickery the humans used, but Julian, after having had a reading of his own, had been the one to convince him otherwise.

Julian always seemed to be the one to convince him otherwise, but even he could not convince him that his sire was not a constant, looming threat that had thoroughly overtaken a small part of Rori's mind.

Rori turned his mind back to his current objective and asked the oblivious sorceress, "How accurate are these Tarot readings of yours?"

Wincing with a full-body flinch, Yue whipped around in a whirl of skirt to gape at him with enormous, Mediterranean blue eyes, open book clutched to her chest. "Jesus Christ!" She angrily spat in Italian, "How many times have I told you not to do that to me, you sanctimonious sack of-"

"Yes, yes, 'you sanctimonious sack of other people's blood', and so on and so forth," Rori waved away any further insults to his person. He leaned back into the curvature of the wooden chair he'd settled himself in, and laced his fingers together over his stomach, expression flat. "Really, darling, you can hardly blame someone for being light of foot. It does come to one quite naturally, after all," pale celadon eyes flicked themselves towards one of the more prominent scorch marks on the wall and fixated upon it with a dryly arched brow. "Much akin to your talent for blowing up my house, it would seem."

Indignantly flushing, book still clutched to her breast, Yue retorted, "You do blame me for that!"

"In your case it should be perfectly avoidable."

"In your case it can be resolved by knocking on the bloody door!"

"In mine own home? Ludicrous!"

Finally, the Italian let her book drop as she gave a temperamental roll of her eyes, heaving a sigh of defeat before she snapped the tome closed and set it on her workbench. Leaning on the hand she'd planted on its surface with its sibling propped on her slender, girlish hip, she scowled at him from the center of the tower. "So what have you come to blame me for now?"

"Nothing, you may be surprised to learn." The sorceress's eyes narrowed into a chary squint. "I am, in point of fact, in need of your assistance for a rather sensitive matter."

The harsh mask softened itself somewhat on her youthful countenance, melting the furrow of her brows as she tucked a lock of golden brown back from her face and behind her ear. "I can't really imagine I can do anything to help," Yue mused. "At least, no more than you should already be capable of. I mean, you're the Red King and everything. I'm just an intermediate student of the occult, and things do tend to progress somewhat slower when you're left in charge of your own education."

Rori leaned forward, elbows braced on his knees with his fingers twined. "Which brings me back to my initial question: how accurate are these Tarot readings of yours?"

Blue eyes flicked up to scrutinize the rafters in thought, shoulders giving a minute, wandering shrug. "I don't know," she said as she glanced back down at him, hands suspended with their palms to the ceiling, shoulders rolling in a continual gesture of uncertainty that brought to mind the image of a dancer. "Fairly accurate… ish?"

"Then, if you wouldn't mind, I'd like you to do one for me."

"A reading?" Yue frowned as she made her way over to the table at which he sat, and seated herself in her own chair – one more amply padded than his own, with an autumn-coloured shawl thrown over the back. "What for?" Delicately ringed fingers reached for her cards, carefully unwrapping the silk scarf and smoothing it over the table's surface before she slid the wooden box's top off.

"I'm looking for someone, and unfortunately all of my usual channels have thus far proven to be somewhat less than effective."

The sorceress hummed under her breath, lips pursing and quirking to one side as she peered down at her cards. "I mean, we can try, but it doesn't really work like that."

"Whyever not?"

She peeked up at him from under her brows, a grin plucking at the outskirts of her mouth. "You've… never had one of these done before, have you?"

Rori's expression flattened. "In my time, people could be pilloried or hanged for things such as this – particularly if the poor sod who'd recently sought you out for a cure for the venereal plague or to have his fortune told suddenly came to harm, or if you were in the habit of making enemies of the particularly spiteful and vindictive. We may have treated suspected witches with a good deal more dignity and mercy than the French or the Spanish, but under the wrong circumstances, one could still find themselves suffering a quick drop and a sudden stop for," his hands flicked up for his fingers to quirk into air-quotes, "'consorting with the Devil.'"

Yue huffed out a chuckle, her grin growing ever so slightly wider. "You sound like you're speaking from experience."

"In regards to which part, pray tell?"

"Enemies and venereal plague."

This time, as his lids drooped to half-mast, it was Rori's turn to huff out a laugh, his own laced with wry cynicism. "Two more apt summaries for the 16th century have eluded me to this day."

"Right," Yue breathed, "well, let's get on with it. Hold your question in your mind, and don't let it go," she instructed. "Focus on it."

At least that wasn't hard, as skeptical as he was of the cards' results. Where are you, Gabriel, and what are you planning?

"Got it?"

"Correct."

Murmuring a soft, "okay," to herself under her breath, the Italian girl withdrew the dog-eared cards from their box, held them between her palms as her eyes slipped shut, and she inhaled long and slow before she started to deftly shuffle. A weight, nearly imperceptible, lent itself to the atmosphere all of a sudden, gently pressing on Rori's shoulders and chest as a slow tingle began traversing the length of his neck and spine. There was a prickle to the air that would have set his tiniest hairs on end, had he not been quite so thoroughly shaved at the time of his turning – for his sire did so appreciate a hairless body in his bed.

Julian shaved and waxed himself by choice, and Rori could not and would not dictate to his angel how to groom himself, but there was no denying that there were indeed times when Rori craved the sensation of combing his fingers through chest hair, or the act of teasingly following a thin trail of hair down someone's pelvis to their pubic area. Smooth skin was all well and good, and all the gods above and below knew how he adored and lusted after Julian and his more effeminate lovers just as they were; however, dominating well-groomed lovers who were thoroughly masculine, from their body hair to musculature to facial hair, proved to imbue him with its own special kind of pleasure. It was gratifying beyond words to control a creature so undeniably masculine and bring them low before the sheer rapture he could inflict upon them. He enjoyed the way their stubble or beards would bristle against his skin, the flex of their muscles beneath their flesh while he fucked them, the sight of sweat drawing wet paths through the hair on their chests or stomachs…

But he was distracting himself, and while it was, by god, an utterly mouth-watering distraction to say the least, Yue had demanded of him that he remain focussed, and if it would help her cards narrow down Gabriel's location, he would obey to the absolute best of his ability.

After all, nothing trumped his desire to see his sire eliminated or at least removed from the board upon which Rori had built his home.

Shuffling finished, Yue meaningfully tapped the deck three times on the tabletop and then set it aside to her right. She cut the deck three times before reassembling it seemingly in random order. Drawing a deep breath in through her nose, inhaling first through her chest and then through her stomach, Rori couldn't help but watch each inflate in turn before the sorceress finally expelled the breath through a tiny crack in her lips. She cupped her hands protectively around her cards, and before his very eyes, those same hands began to emit a warm glow from within.

Under anything brighter than the soft illumination of the lamps scattered throughout her rooms, it would have been utterly impossible to notice, but here, in the belly of Yue's domain, Rori could easily see the phantasmal shadows of her bones, the fine tracery of veins and capillaries through her warm olive skin. It was rather unexpectedly fascinating.

Only after the glow had faded did Yue begin laying down her cards, pulling each one delicately from the top of the deck before placing it face-down on the table before her.

Rori leaned back onto the arm of his chair with his chin in the cup of his palm and a finger under his nose, absently stroking at his upper lip, keen eyes tracking the sorceress's every movement and marvelling at the sight of the magic on display. It was neither showy nor gauche, so understated that if it weren't for the prickling of his skin, the feeling of something utterly ineffable filling the room and shrouding him in a light veil, he might have thought the girl wasn't using her magic at all. That she was just another mortal, playing with cards without ever really understanding what they were doing.

At least, he hoped Yue knew what she was doing. It was the whole reason he'd come to her, after all, and he didn't particularly relish the idea of finding out whether misworked magic had the potential of making a simple deck of cards explode.

Selections made and laid out in an elaborate kind of cross, she began patiently flipping the cards over, one at a time, her Mediterranean eyes scrutinizing each one in turn for a while before she moved on. Once all of the cards were facing up, she laid her palms on the table, leaned in, and a tiny frown began beetling her brows as she took another look.

Rori could have peeked into her mind to read her thoughts, and as tempted as he was to do so, he also doubted he would understand the magical jargon any better than he would if he simply waited for Yue to explain it to him. The cards themselves were interesting, however. He recognized a few – the shattered Tower, Death, the Devil sitting upon his throne with a man and woman leashed at his cloven feet – but the rest, as limited as his experience was, were foreign to him in more ways than the simple fact that their names were all written in Italian. If that had been the totality of their strangeness, he would have understood. After all, Italian was one of the many languages he'd picked up during his long tenure on this mortal coil, but the images… the names… They were all alien.

Perhaps a deck specially tailored for our little sorceress, then, he pondered, eyes reflexively narrowing into a thoughtful squint as he stared down at the aged cards. Or handed down to her by her teacher, perhaps, or family. He peered at each card in turn, gaze tracing their worn edges, their antiquated images and faded inks. They certainly look like they've passed through many a hand before reaching hers.

Interrupted by the girl's abrupt intake of breath, Rori's gaze flicked up to her just in time to see her lips part for a fleeting moment before they pursed themselves shut again, thinning into a narrow line. She cocked her head, and without even needing to read her mind, Rori could tell by the flickering of her eyes across the spread how quickly it was racing in a bid to make some kind of sense out of what she saw before her. A single forefinger began gently rubbing the silky fabric of the scarf she'd kept her cards wrapped in, now laid beneath them like a mat.

Patience quickly coming to an end as silence continued to reign supreme in the sorceress's lair, a single brow crawled up into an arch on his forehead and Rori tilted his head forward with a soft, prompting, "And…?"

Yue flopped back into her chair in a slouch, frowning at her cards with her arms crossed over her breasts. She slipped into Italian without fully realizing she'd made the switch. "I'm not sure," she murmured, tapping a finger against the back of her arm before she gestured at the elaborate spread of cards. "They're… complicated."

Interesting. Rori straightened in his chair, his interest renewed by the complication. He switched to Italian as well, lest English jar her from her thoughts. "In what ways, pray tell?"

"Well," she began, "clearly you're going to be facing some pretty significant changes," she touched the Tower, and Death. "The foundations will be broken by a force – or forces – that have remained the same," she laid a finger on a card Rori didn't recognize, and gently tapped it twice. "But…" Yue crooked a finger against her lips, softly rubbing them in contemplation, never once meeting his expectant gaze. "The changes have a duality to them, both good and bad. Friends have become enemies, enemies come bearing knives behind smiling masks of gold." She paused, frown deepening as she cocked her head again. "I don't…"

"What is it, Yue?"

Lips pursed themselves, tightened into a thoughtful little pucker. "They're usually clearer than this." For the first time since she'd begun the reading, Yue glanced up at him. "You sure you were focusing on your question? One question?"

"My thoughts may have wandered briefly to things of a slightly more… sexual persuasion," Rori fixed a smart but fleeting smile on the girl, "but for the most part, yes."

"Because this reads like something written by a madman who's been locked in an oubliette for a hundred years. On the one hand, the cards are talking about changes, big ones. For you specifically, without a specific timeframe. On the other hand… I can't even begin to understand what they're talking about. Too many things, with insufficient words for them."

Mm, that doesn't sound particularly helpful. Mustering the last remaining dregs of his patience, Rori laced his fingers together atop the table's beaten surface and tried to smile. "Then let's start with some of the things."

Yue began ticking them off on her fingers. "Betrayal. Ownership. What I'm interpreting as an unexpected lover. Evil masquerading as kindness. Kindness masquerading as evil. A journey. Stagnation. Redemption, revelations. Forgiveness, or the lack thereof. Someone will break, utterly and completely, but within the fractures, something green like life grows. Or it could fail completely." The sorceress paused briefly before she looked up at him again, her palms facing the heavens. "But this isn't an exact science, Ror. These are all… possibilities. Implications. Nothing is set in stone, and the paths are mutable and ever-changing. I mean, you could probably sneeze on someone tomorrow and that could be enough to change everything. This isn't one path," she said, her voice carrying something like the bastard child of both awe and alarm, her eyes fixed on his with a discomforting intensity. "This is hundreds of them."

-x-

He was still mulling over the sorceress's words as he thanked her for her service and excused himself from her tower, wandering through the halls of his home like a ghost towards yet another thing he couldn't understand. It was becoming a trend, recently, and he hated it with every fiber of his being. He didn't like failing to understand a thing, he never had; even though he'd never understood the exact nature of the relationship between his brother and himself, he'd accepted it because it was safe, the easier path to tread. Now, however, there were wolves baying at his door, and the lack of comprehension was putting his entire makeshift family at risk.

And still, you're in no way even a jot closer to knowing where that whoreson is or what he's planning. It left a foul taste in his mouth, like blood turned to rot.

Heaving a sigh in the Manor's deathly hush, Rori raked a hand back through his hair, training his mind instead on the texture of the locks as they slipped through his fingers. He'd always had thick hair, but it felt light, smooth, perpetually clean as it brushed along his skin like silk and fell back into his face. Of course, it was only a temporary distraction, and before he knew it, he found himself in front of Artemis's door again, probing the peaks and craters of his molars as part of his awareness listened to the percussive clacking of skinny, dextrous fingers against her keyboard.

Well, he silently mused, let's see if our little felon's somewhat more… mundane approach has turned up anything particularly telling.

Thoughtfully rapping on the German's door, Rori let himself in without waiting for the hacker to respond. She was wearing her headphones, anyways, so she wouldn't have heard him even if he'd tried.

Well, that was a lie. If he'd honestly tried there would have been no ignoring him, but he was far from feeling playful today… Unless that playfulness extended to toying with Julian's beautifully pink nipples and watching his lover squirm as a result. Perhaps later, then, as long as "later" was defined as, "as soon as his business here was done." Christ, the mere thought of ending the day with Julian panting and gasping, nails clawing and expression flush with rapture, was enough to brighten his mood and lessen the frustration at his lack of progress.

It was only by the slightest margin, but just then, Rori was willing to accept just about anything.

He navigated the mess of the German's room towards her computers, where she was still busily typing away with numerous screens scrolling through news feeds and police reports, and gently brushed a finger over the side of her neck. The violence with which she jolted and cringed in on herself tugged a minute grin onto his lips as she whipped around and gawped at him.

"Why would you do that!?" She cried in German, her voice thick with betrayal and horror. She ripped off her headphones. "Here I am busting my butt looking for suspicious activities for you and you come in here like a total creep and go ooo-spooky-vampire on me!"

Rori chuckled softly and leaned an arm on the back of her chair, his face fixed into a complacently amused mask. "I'm having something of a rather rough day, my dear, and startling my girls at every available opportunity tends to bring me some fraction of joy, no matter how small. Therefore I indulge my whims to do so whenever possible. You can hardly blame me for that."

"I do blame you," the German hissed, vibrant amber eyes squinted as she levelled an accusatory finger at him. "I blame you so hard."

"Speaking of hard," Rori mused, entertained only momentarily by the parallels to his discussion with Yue as he folded his arms atop the chair's backrest and leaned his chin on them, his voice escaping for a second time in a tired, breathy sigh. "What have you found for me?"

Artemis huffed out a breath and turned her expressive pout back to the screens as she gestured violently at them with a single hand. "Nothing," she groused. "Absolutely nothing," she gave another jab before her hand flopped down into her lap.

The response coaxed a tiny, incredulous frown onto Rori's brow. "Nothing? Truly?"

"Complete jack-shit and then some," the German griped, scowling ferociously at her screens as though she blamed them personally for the failure.

Rori straightened and rounded the side of her chair, leaning with one arm onto her desk while celadon eyes scoured the multiple monitors as if he would have understood anything even if he had managed to find something that Artemis had overlooked. "No unusual murders, no animal attacks, nothing…?"

"Nope."

Nothing that would indicate Gabriel's whereabouts, then. Nothing that might betray his intentions. Celadon irises tightened into a suspicious squint as he looked over her monitors again, the words slipping from him unbidden and unnoticed, riding on the tiniest of breaths. "Where are you…"

Artemis sucked in a short, sharp breath, frowning as she swivelled to peer up at him. "Is everything okay, Ror? You're being a little uncharacteristically weird. And I mean, if this is about what happened at Hellfire, I'm sure it was just a rogue vamp throwing a… a…" She faltered, snapping her fingers as she cycled through her vocabulary. When that failed, she heaved out a frustrated exhalation and glanced up at him again, her face a perfect question. "Wutanfall?"

His mind couldn't have been farther from the German's inquiry, but still, out of long-practised habit, the translation escaped him all the same, soft and absent as his thoughts raced, his heart increasing from a trot to a panicky gallop in his chest. "Conniption fit."

"Ja!"

"No," he thoughtfully mused, the panic rising until he could feel his pulse hammering against his throat, "it would never be something so simple. There are too many variables, too many implications for it to be something so prosaic."

"Prosa-whatty now?"

Rori could barely even open his mouth before Artemis barrelled over him, frantically waving her hands to banish her previous train of thought. Rori could only wish that his own could be exiled with that amount of ease.

"No. Wait. Never mind that. You said implications. Implications of what?"

He stared at the screens a moment longer before turning without even so much as a murmur and taking his leave of the German and her cluttered bedroom. His mind was in utter chaos, a whirlwind of questions roaring through his thoughts that demanded answers of both Yue's as well as Artemis's finds, but discovering only yet more questions strewn amongst the detritus left by the storm. Gabriel was out there, somewhere, plotting and scheming, and Rori was still absolutely blind to his doings. Not even magic or modern technology could find him, and the depths to which this disturbed him were utterly and unspeakably unfathomable.

Suddenly, he wanted nothing more than to curl up in his bed with his head in his lover's lap and seek solace in a breed of nothingness he'd never known – or even so much as cared to know – until now. The nothingness of deep and dreamless sleep, of wine bottles drained dry in too much haste, of enough sex to leave him a fragile husk of the man he'd always been, spent beyond words and empty beyond comprehension. Of the drugs from which he'd fought both tooth and nail to free not only Julian, but their elfin hacker, as well. He yearned for his awareness to be snuffed out like a simple, solitary candle flame, to be abandoned to the smothering darkness that Jason had found only fear in, so long ago.

I don't know if I can do this. I don't know if I can face him again without going utterly and irrevocably mad. How am I supposed to fight him if I can't even bloody find him?

Even with his mind lost to the chaotic, panicked abyss in which he was suddenly drowning, however, he could hear Artemis calling after him from her doorway, "Rori!? Implications of what?!"

It was only after he'd turned the corner, safely ensconced from prying eyes, that he allowed himself to crumble against the wall and swipe a trembling hand down the face that would have been beaded with sweat if only it still could, his dead lungs heaving like a bellows, all but hyperventilating, at the very notion that Gabriel was out there. Planning. Waiting. Watching him dance like a marionette strung up by Gabriel's own fingers.

And even with all of his power, there was nothing that Rori could do to stop him.

Nothing to do, but wait for the trap to violently snap shut around his neck.

-x-

Julian was sitting at his vanity in their cavernous washroom, smoothing the last of his night creams into his skin, all but wreathed in a blend of soft, soothing fragrances, and despairing over the appearance of his own countenance in the mirror. He looked tired, he noticed with a sigh; sallow and overwrought, with bags under his eyes and his skin a sickly shade of white, his hair limp and loose. Even as he worked the cream into the tender skin of his face and neck, he found himself wondering whether it would accomplish anything by morning, or if he would still look like he'd narrowly escaped a brush with death.

That thought alone was enough to etch a fine line between his brows, and he irritably scrubbed a finger against it until his skin had smoothed again.

He knew it would take time to recover from the days he'd been trapped in a catatonic state, but even so, he hated that he was wearing the trauma so openly. It wouldn't do anyone in the house a favour by reminding them of what had transpired just a handful of days ago, and the sooner Julian could get back to normal, the easier the tenants could rest, knowing that everything – save Yami, the poor thing – was all right.

But that's the problem, isn't it? His mind mused to itself. Things aren't all right. And the fact that you'll be fleeing the house to Japan will only serve to emphasize it more.

But if he didn't go to Japan, to Ayame… There was no telling what might happen the next time Li found himself with an iota of control over their shared body, and Julian couldn't risk that. Not with Potatoe in the house – not with the teens in the house. Neither Jason nor Yami were to Li's tastes – they were both too masculine for him, even with Yami's slight, sharp frame – but the girls posed a different risk entirely, and he would never be able to live with himself if they were ever to come to harm, especially at his own hands.

Much as he hated admitting it, much as he had his doubts about the trip, Ayame was right. He had to do something.

Hands drifting down into his lap as he stared at himself in the mirror – tawny eyes bloodshot and lined with exhaustion – Julian found himself ripped from his unpleasant thoughts when he heard the bedroom doors click open before softly snicking shut again. Massaging the last remaining bit of moisturizer into his face, sparing his distressed countenance a final dismayed look in the mirror, Julian hurriedly pulled his robe up around himself, tied it shut at his waist – just in case it was one of the teens – and flicked his bounty of hair out from under the collar. Rori had always had a habit of simply phasing through the doors, especially at night, but he wasn't exactly consistent about it, whereas the other tenants had no other choice than to use the doors as they were meant to be used. There was no telling who his new guest might be.

And, honestly, he didn't think he'd be able weather the embarrassment if he went out to greet one of their wards buck naked just now. They were all very happy to see him up and about again, he was sure, but even so, he was equally as sure that they weren't particularly inclined to see quite that much of him.

The thought brought the tiniest of smiles to his lips as his mind envisioned the whole calamitous scene, how each one of their wards would react if such a thing actually happened, and warmed his breast with the love he had for them. It would be mortifying for all parties involved, unspeakably so, but still, there was the slightest grain of humor to be found in the situation.

This is why you must go, Julian, a soft, tender voice reminded him, and the smile gradually faded from the corners of his mouth, sorrow settling on him once again in a heavy leaden mantle. You are a danger to them as long as Li has even the slightest of opportunities to run wild, you know this. Just as you know that you would never forgive yourself if something were to befall them at your own hands.

Sniffling back the noose suddenly cinching itself tight about his throat, Julian quickly swiped at his eyes with his fingertips – wary of even the slightest trace of tears – and took but a single moment longer to compose himself before he turned and padded out of the marble sanctuary of their washroom.

Overcome with a curious mixture of relief and sorrow as the sight of his lover greeted him – a hand in his pocket as he turned away from the roaring fireplace, a tired grin on the outskirts of his lips – Julian shifted course and wandered over to join him by the hearth. A palm slid over the small of his back as he laced his arms around his lover's waist, and Julian couldn't help but nuzzle into his neck, desperate for the comfort only Rori could offer.

"Come," Rori murmured into his hair. "Sit with me."

Following his lover's descent onto the voluminous cushions of their chaise longue, Julian wasted no time in easing himself down with his bare legs draped across Rori's lap – savouring every reverent, caressing touch of his fingertips against his pale, smooth skin – as he settled himself against the vampire's side. Nuzzling once more into the comfortable crook of his neck with the fire's merry crackling filling the silence between them, he let his lids slip shut to relish every moment he could feel Rori's fingers painting delicate patterns over his thigh, or his hand stroking the unbound locks of his hair, the pressure of his touch soothing in such a way that nothing else could compare. Even so, as much as he yearned to simply idle in his lover's embrace or succumb to it entirely, there were things they needed to discuss, and the memory of the vampire's weary expression was what prompted the words to his lips as he shifted just enough – Rori obligingly lifted his head as he did so, lids lifting for celadon eyes to find his face – to take in the other Englishman's countenance.

"How was your day, my love?" Julian raised a hand to gently stroke its fingers down an impossibly perfect cheek, keen gaze taking in the strain around the vampire's spellbinding green eyes, skimming a thumb over the phantom of a crease between his brows. "You look tired."

A soft huff of laughter escaped as that weary smile twitched a fraction wider, and Rori gently brought Julian's fingers down to his lips for a kiss. "I am," he admitted. Voice scarce more than a murmur, Julian could still hear the phantom of arch levity traipsing through his next words. "Who'd have ever thought that minding a catatonic dhampir could be so strenuous?" Instead of saying anything more, however, the vampire redirected his gaze to the fire dancing in its hearth for a long moment before he lifted Julian's fingers to his cheek and, eyes slipping shut, nuzzled against them. 'I am so very tired,' the gesture seemed to say to Julian.

Pausing only a moment to debate whether or not to pursue a line of questioning about Yami's wellbeing before realizing the vampire had offered it explicitly as a distraction – although he was keen to know how the half-breed had been faring since Rori forbade him from entering his bedroom – Julian's touch trickled like rainwater down his lover's cheek, his gaze trained unerringly on his lover's face. "Is there anything I can do to help?"

A wry hint of a smile tugged at the corners of his lips. "I never could deceive you, could I?" Half-expecting Rori to forge on with his distraction, Julian couldn't help but feel a little surprised by the vampire's candidness as his lids crept open again, those pale green irises dancing with firelight as they gazed down into a pensive well of nothingness, and Rori shook his head. "No," he sighed, his voice little more than a breath on those fine, white lips. "This is something I must weather alone."

Retreating from his lover's embrace, Julian felt a tiny thrill of alarm at the sight of the carefully restrained anguish on his beloved's face. If Julian had been anyone else, he might have missed it entirely, but he'd spent seven years with the man now, and he'd grown accustomed to searching for the truth hidden beneath Rori's porcelain mask, betrayed by the shades of his eyes, the tiny flaws and fractures that couldn't hide his true feelings. "You know that as long as I breathe you won't be alone, my love." He pulled his hand away from his lover's visage and clasped Rori's hand in both of his own as Julian bowed and tilted his head in a futile attempt to meet Rori's gaze. "Whatever it is, we'll face it together, just as we always have."

Rori, however, would not meet his eyes, sign enough that something was terribly wrong and he was refusing utterly to speak of it. "I wish that were true, dear one. I wish it were true with all of my heart and more… but not this time."

Instead of arguing, Julian's brow furrowed as he let the tiniest breath slip free, and, shoulders wilting, leaned back into his lover's body, forehead nestled against his neck while arms wound themselves around him in a protective embrace.

"I'm sorry," the Englishman whispered into his hair. "But I cannot permit you to be involved in this. I've almost lost you once already."

Nestled into the vampire's body, tawny eyes staring aimlessly into the empty air above his thighs, Julian murmured, "I called Ayame." He could tell by the movement of his lover's neck that Rori had inched his head back to peer down at Julian's crown of dirty blonde waves. Julian said nothing more, leaving the rest for his lover to intuit. And, typically enough, it didn't take him long – mere instants before he could predict where this new conversation was about to go.

"And he wants to see you," he said in a voice rendered carefully neutral.

Lids slipped shut and clenched lightly as Julian gently nodded in dismay.

"In Japan, I take it."

Again, Julian nodded, feeling even more wretched about the trip – despite the fact that Rori had been the one to contact Ayame first – now that he knew for a fact that his lover was battling with demons he refused to even name.

His lover's form wilted with the expulsion of a trapped breath. "Haps it is for the best, given the current circumstances."

Gods, the words felt like a betrayal. "I don't want to leave you," Julian protested softly, tightening his grip around the vampire's midriff, fully aware that he was acting like a child and not caring a whit about it. "I don't want to leave at all. Not when things are so obviously going wrong."

"There's nothing you can do, my love. Nothing but tend to your own well-being. I'm here, as I've always been and always will be. I'll not let things fall apart in your absence, I swear."

Julian straightened, meeting his lover's eyes and holding them, his face a mask of sorrow and concern. "But what about you?"

Another weak smile, little more than a flicker on the outskirts of smooth, porcelain white lips. "I'll survive, as always." Rori scarcely paused long enough for Julian to draw a breath before he continued onwards – and changed the subject while he was at it, Julian noted with the tiniest flare of annoyance. "And when is the esteemed doctor expecting you?"

Knowing there was no arguing with the man once he'd made his mind up about something, Julian heaved a sigh and leaned into him again, absently popping a button on his shirt and sliding his hand in against finely chiseled abdominal muscles sheathed in perfect, cool white flesh. "As soon as possible, I would imagine."

"Mm." The vampire settled back into the cushions once more, tilting his cheek onto the crown of Julian's head, fingers absently stroking his hair. "How long do you suppose you'll be gone?"

Fingers painted languid, absent-minded patterns against the vampire's skin, savoring the dip and swell of his stomach muscles as he breathed. "A week, at least."

Julian could feel his lover's head bob in a minute nod of understanding. "I'll not pretend that I won't miss you, and fiercely at that, but… Anything you need, my love. Anything at all, you need only say the words."

The only thing Julian could think of in that moment, however, was a simple plea. Ask me to stay, that's all I want. Don't make me leave. But of course, Rori could not hear him as he heard everyone else. To his thoughts, Rori was utterly deaf, and no matter how much he yearned to do so, Julian couldn't bring himself to give voice to such begging. After everything that had happened, though – Li's vicious assault on him, Yami's withdrawals, the attack near Hellfire, Rori's unspoken of demons, the presence in the house Li could feel but refused to describe – he couldn't help but feel as though he were running away from his responsibilities and leaving them for his lover to deal with on his own.

Rori was, of course, many things and more, but overly conscientious had never been one of them, and, much as he hated admitting it to himself, he was… Gods, how he hated himself for it, but he was frightened to leave the vampire alone with Jason in particular. What if Rori had another episode, and Julian wasn't there to stop him? What would happen if there was no one home to tend to Jason's wounds afterwards? He'd sworn once, in the many intervening weeks since Jason's rape, that he'd never lay a hand on the boy again, but Rori's self-restraint had also never been one of his more vigorous character traits.

It broke his heart to think that there was anything with which Julian couldn't trust him, and for what seemed like the very first time since they'd met, he was glad the vampire couldn't hear his traitorous thoughts. He would have been devastated to find that a seed of misgiving had planted itself in the darkest corners of Julian's mind, his doubt flourishing even as the days passed without incident. Absolutely devastated, when Julian trusted him so absolutely in regards to so many other aspects of their strange life together.

Li's words came back to him unbidden, carried unerringly on the spirit's deep, abrasive voice. "Please. If you hadn't eaten half o' his fucking soul, he would've left you to bleed out all over that pretty marble floor."

Without warning, his lover's voice wrenched him from his thoughts, and Julian could have wept with the relief of it.

"I love you, you know," the vampire mused, pressing his lips to the loose waves of Julian's hair as he held him close. "More than any human words could possibly hope to convey."

"And I you," Julian managed, forcing a feeble smile to tug at the outskirts of his lips, the words choked by the noose tightening around his throat. "Forever and always."

-x-

To Be Continued…

-x-

So, like it? Hate it? Wish it would spontaneously combust? Leave me a review and tell me all about it! C'mon, I wanna hear everything!

Not going to lie, the Tarot section is what held this one up. I was torn between doing an accurate reading or a fictional one, and in the end I decided to take the short cut because sitting down to do the research through my own tarot books just wasn't going to happen. It's a lot of information to dig through and sort out to make some semblance of sense the way I wanted it to, so… Imaginary Yue-specific deck it was. Anyways, hope you're all staying safe out there. 'Til next time!