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Root and Branch

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People always seemed to think that what Ruki did was easy.

It was probably a common misconception among people who didn’t know anything about being part of the priesthood of Templi Malum. How hard could being Satanic clergy be, right? You just stood there chanting and looking menacing in front of the coven?

They had no idea that it involved being a flat-out master of all things related to dark magicks – spellwork, lore, divination, even the history and culture of witches and warlocks. You had to be an advisor on all levels, whether someone was looking for the perfect charm to ace a job interview or seeking advice on what to do about a child who didn’t want to stay in school.

He knew damn well he’d be taking all this on when he decided to start training for the priesthood at the age of 18. He also knew that, unlike the clergy of mortal religions, he’d be doing it all while maintaining a day job. Witches and warlocks lived in the shadows by necessity, and that included putting up a façade to the mortal world of being, well, mortals.

So, yeah, he’d been working his ass off since he left school – studying harder than he ever had for any class, while simultaneously holding down a job as a fashion photographer’s assistant. And all this was with a single goal in mind – to attain the highest level of priesthood, the Third Degree, which would entitle him to break away from the group he was raised in and form his own coven.

And oh, how he wanted to do that. He had his own ideas of how things should be done – and they were counter to the ideas of his priestly mentor, Mendes-sama, who was rigidly set in his ways and focused on protocol.

“That’s not the way that ritual should be done,” Mendes-sama would say to him.

“But my instinct tells me this way works better,” Ruki would reply.

“This way has worked for centuries,” Mendes-sama retorted in a frosty tone.

“Aren’t I supposed to be listening for the voice of the Dark Lord within?” Ruki said. “As a priest, aren’t I supposed to be letting that be my guide, not what’s written in a book?”

“As a priest, you are supposed to be maintaining the traditions of your people,” Mendes-sama replied. “And that includes performing rituals as they are SUPPOSED to be performed.”

So Ruki grumbled inwardly, and did it the High Priest’s way – although he knew that his way WAS better. What is the point, he thought, of worshipping the god of rebellion if we’re not going to . . . rebel?

His resentment fueled his determination to take his Third Degree all the more. He waited, and waited, and waited for his mentor to recognize his hard work . . . but it never came. He seemed to be stuck as a Second Degree priest.

Then, his best friend Uruha forced Mendes-sama’s hand when it came to promoting him. Uruha was that rarest of creatures among warlocks, a Child of Two Worlds – someone who had both human and warlock blood and could function in both societies. As such, Uruha’s commitment to Templi Malum was highly sought.

One of his conditions for signing himself over to the Dark Lord had been that Ruki be allowed to take his Third Degree. Mendes-sama had agreed. Finally, Ruki thought, I get to leave that bastard in the dust.

Except, of course, it wasn’t going to be that easy. Mendes-sama was going to make damn sure he passed every test required for the promotion – and then some. Which was why Ruki was in the high priest’s office at the moment.

“Surprisingly, you’ve done exceptionally well on most of the requirements,” Mendes-sama told him. “Mental spellwork, ritual spellwork, divinations . . .”

“Surprisingly?” Ruki said.

“You haven’t always been the most conventional of priests,” Mendes-sama replied.

“That’s because I’m not trying to be,” Ruki retorted.

“There is, however, one area you’re lacking in,” the high priest said. “I can’t make you a full third degree until you demonstrate more competency in herbalism.”

Ruki frowned. “Herbalism? Really?”

“Yes, really.”

“But every coven has an herbalist. It’s one of the requirements of forming one.”

“And your people are still going to come to YOU for advice. What if your herbalist isn’t available and you’ve got someone whose vervain patch is failing and they need it for a spell right away? You’re not much of a priest if you can’t help them.”

Ruki groaned and put his hands over his face. “Fine. Fine, whatever it takes, I’ll do it. Now, what do I have to do to past this test?”

“There is an old herb bed out behind the temple,” Mendes-sama said. “I expect you to have it up and growing within a month. You can use whatever spellwork you want to encourage the plants, but it has to be a fully functional garden. Oh, and include some standard vegetables in it, too.”

“And WHY is that?” Ruki said.

“Because some coven members will want help with their food plants, too. Now, go, and do what I told you.”

Ruki sighed, stood up, bowed and said, “Yes, Master.”

How many more times am I going to have to bow and scrape to this asshole and call him my master? he thought. How much longer am I going to have to put up with this shit? How much longer before I’m able to do what I’m meant to do?

One month. At least another month. And dammit all to hell, he was going to make the most of that month. He was going to have the best goddamn herb garden there ever was, and Mendes was going to let him take that Third Degree at last.

There was just one problem, though. He really didn’t know that much about herbalism. Well, fuck, he thought, I’ll wing it. I’ll get some books and read them and do whatever they tell me.

Anything was worth it to get where he needed to go. Anything.

* * *

He was sitting in a patch of dirt, a bunch of seed packets and plastic bags scattered around him, muttering every obscenity he’d ever learned and then some.

Ruki had no idea what he was doing – and his research sources were no goddamn help at all. The one web site open on his phone was telling him one thing, the one on his iPad was telling him something entirely different, and the old-school print book open in front of him was contradicting them both.

“Fuck,” he muttered. Why did HE have to do all this? Why couldn’t his coven just have a backup herbalist – someone on-call – in addition to the regular herbalist? Was Mendes-baka making this as hard as possible ON PURPOSE? (Well, he knew the answer to THAT all too well).

And then, just when he thought things couldn’t get any worse, a voice above him said, “Look who’s trying to develop a green thumb.”

Ruki glanced up, and saw the too-damn-attractive-for-the-bastard’s-own-good face, the halo of wavy brown hair. It was a face he always found hard to get out of his mind – dammit. Too bad the beauty doesn’t match the person behind it, he thought.

“Hello, Byou,” he said in a cool tone.

“That’s it?” The other man crouched down in the dirt next to him. “Just hello?”

“Well, what the fuck do you want me to say? You look like you stepped out of a fashion magazine?”

“Well, thank you.”

“I didn’t actually say that, you asshole!”

“Is that how you should be talking to someone who can help you?”

Ruki gave him a wary glance. “What do you mean by that?”

“The only time this patch is ever used is when someone has to pass an herbalism test to advance a degree in the priesthood,” he said. “We all know you’re going for your third.”

“And getting the fuck out of here? You’d better believe it.”

“It just so happens,” Byou said, “that I’m from a long line of master herbalists. My aunt has been the official herbalist to Mendes-sama for decades. My parents have co-authored herbal spellbooks. So, yes, I can help you with this garden.”

“So what do you want in return?” Ruki said, fixing him with a steely gaze.

“Who said anything about wanting anything in . . .”

“Oh, come on, Byou,” Ruki said. “I don’t think you’re the type who does favors out of the goodness of his heart.”

“Shows how little you know me. But, if you’re in a deal-making mood . . .”

Ruki rolled his eyes. “Fucking knew it.”

“I want to be the herbalist of your new coven.”

“Really? You’re just going to leave this group, after your whole clan’s just been kissing Mendes-baka’s ass since the dawn of time?”

“Since when do I have to go along with my family all the time?” Byou said. “Besides, I want to see what you do with the group. I understand you have some original ideas.”

“That’s one way of putting it.”

“So, what do you say? I help you get your Third Degree, you make me your herbalist?”

Ruki sighed. Anything, he thought, to get away from Mendes. Even putting up with Byou.

“Deal,” he muttered.

“Okay!” Byou jumped to his feet. “First thing we’re doing is going to Plant Shack.”

“Plant Shack? That mortal store?”

“The best plants have the same ingredients, whether grown by a mortal or one of us. They all come from nature. Nature loves natural tools. Seeds, organic fertilizer, metal shovels. Magic can help it along a little, but if you don’t start from nature? Your plants are going to look fake, and they’re not going to perform as well in a spell.”

Ruki rolled his eyes. “FINE,” he said.

One month, he thought. Just one damn month. Once this is over, I swear, I’m kicking him into his own fucking garden and not touching another plant again.

* * *

Plant Shack was the kind of place that made Ruki’s skin crawl, having been a person raised among black magic users. It felt so . . . clean. Sterile. It reeked of mortals.

He just stood there staring blankly at a rack of seed packets, feeling utterly out of his depth.

“Blackstone’s Nature,” Byou said. “The best brand of organic seeds there is. You have to grow vegetables as well as herbs, right?”

“Unfortunately.”

“Take these.” Ruki found his hands stuffed with packages bearing brightly colored carrots and peppers. “And some of the stuff we need for spellworking is offered by these people, too.” More envelopes were shoved at him, this time featuring pictures of leafy and flowering plants.

“Why are we using mortal plants for spells?” Ruki said.

“Plants don’t know whether they’re being grown for potions or just to smell pretty. They’ll yield up the same magical properties as seeds from one of our own kind – except these will be healthier.”

This is bullshit, Ruki thought as Byou dragged him across the store. His family got so good at herbalism by using mundane methods? Really? I don’t see how this is going to get me usable plants in a month.

“Okay, over here are pots and containers,” Byou said. “You’ll need some of these, some of these, and . . .”

“I’ve only got two hands!” Ruki said.

“I’ll help you carry them, don’t worry. And if it’s too much stuff? We’ll use a cart.”

In the end, they ended up with a very big cart, and both of them dragged two heavy bags each back to the temple. Ruki set them down next to the wooden plant beds with a thunk.

“Please tell me we won’t have to do that again,” he said.

“Nope. A shopping trip that intense only happens at the beginning of the growing cycle.”

“Thank Satan.” Ruki plunked down to the ground with almost as loud a thunk as the bags.

“So now, we prep the earth and plant.”

Ruki shot him a withering glance. “NOW?”

“Of course, now! You want this thing up and growing by the time Mendes calls on you, right?”

Fuck, Ruki thought. This is going to kill me. And I’m supposed to meet my friends at the Suicide Circus tonight. I just might pass out in the middle of the dance floor.

* * *

Ruki was sitting at a table on the side of the club. Maybe sitting wasn’t entirely accurate – more like half-laying on the table. His arms were crossed on its surface, his forehead pressed against them.

“Never seen anyone go to sleep at the Circus before,” remarked Aoi, who was sitting opposite him. “Planning on pitching a tent here or something?”

“Fuck off, Aoi.” Ruki sat up just enough to shoot his friend a withering glance – and even that took too much effort. Fuck, how did people live as herbalists and still walk upright?

“Nice to see you’re charming as ever,” Aoi said. “So, tell me – why are you in that kind of a state, anyway? Had any fun orgies? Summoned any hot incubi?”

“Piss off and die,” Ruki said. “You have NO idea what’s involved in getting your Third Degree. None at ALL.”

And then, a voice in front of their table said, “So, it’s true. You ARE getting the hell out of Mendes’ shit show.”

Ruki raised his head higher – and groaned. Great. Just what he fucking needed. The Weird Brothers, otherwise known as the Pink Plague. The Mean Boy clique of Templi Malum, all pink-haired and fashion-forward. And in many ways, the bane of Ruki’s existence.

“I didn’t think I was interesting enough for you to gossip about, Yuuki,” Ruki said, glaring at the leader of their group, who was resplendent in a broad-brimmed black hat and an ensemble built around a black leather corset.

“You’re always interesting,” Yuuki said. “You’re the first person who’s dared to try to make his own coven since my dad, you know that. Bold of someone who hasn’t gotten his Third Degree yet, you know.”

“I am WORKING on it,” Ruki said, gritting his teeth. “I’m CLOSE. But someone who was just about born fucking royalty in this organization wouldn’t know about having to WORK for anything, would you?”

“Hey, Yuuki works harder than anyone!” said the man to Yuuki’s right – who was dressed even more outrageously than Yuuki himself. As in, he was in a riotously bright kimono trimmed with stuffed animals on each shoulder, and an enormous spiky headpiece perched on his pink hair. “Nobody’s better at designing spells!”

“How the fuck do you keep your head upright wearing that thing, Koichi?” Ruki said.

“I’m not telling,” Koichi said. “You think I’d give away my image magic secrets to you?”

“Leave him alone, Koichi.” Yuuki put his hand in front of his friend. “Look, if you really are serious about this, we have a proposition. If you really do get this separate group going, we want in.”

Now Ruki looked surprised. “You . . . you do?”

“Of course,” Yuuki said. “We’re getting bored in my father’s group. It’s same old, same old all the time. We’re interested in seeing what you have up your sleeve.”

Ruki narrowed his eyes. “There’s a catch, isn’t there?”

“Why do you think there would be a catch?” Yuuki said. “Okay, I might have a SLIGHT request, in return for my family connections, and influence in getting other people to join you . . .”

“Out with it, Yuuki. What is it?”

“That I be your Master of Ceremony.”

Ruki groaned. He KNEW something like this was coming. Master of Ceremony was one of the highest-ranking positions in a coven. It was the person responsible for designing new spells, maintaining the integrity of spellwork, and making sure the coven’s materials were always on hand in in working order.

Goddamn it, he thought, does EVERYONE want a piece of my coven? First fucking Byou wants to be my herbalist, now THIS. Am I everyone’s magical job marketplace? What do I look like, fucking LinkedIn?

“Your father won’t appoint you to the position,” Ruki said. “Is that it?”

“My FATHER favors my brother over me just because he’s older,” Yuuki said. “Never mind that I’m more talented at this than he is. Or that I took degrees of priesthood before he did.”

“Yuuki is sadly underappreciated,” said the young man at the leader’s left side – and Ruki felt his heart skip a beat. Hell, anyone in the room who was at all attracted to androgynous young men probably felt their hearts skip.

Sena was the kind of creature that anyone would dream of having to themselves for the night. Long, curly, pink hair, the only thighs that could rival Uruha’s (on full display in black leather booty shorts), full and pouty lips . . .

Ruki’s gaze didn’t escape Yuuki’s notice. “He’d be coming along with me too, you know,” he said. “We all will.”

At first, Ruki wanted to tell him to fuck right the hell off – but he realized that Yuuki did have one very good point. His family DID have connections, and influence, and besides, Yuuki could bring in a lot of the younger people he wanted in his group – the kind open to new concepts and ideas.

Fuck, the bastard had him up against the wall. He’d call this a deal with the devil, if that wasn’t considered a GOOD thing in their culture.

“Fine,” he sighed. “But I want your word that you WILL help me. And you won’t be trying to take over the group, either.”

“Would I do something like that?” Yuuki said.

“Yes,” Ruki replied.

Sena leaned over so that Ruki could feel his breath on his face, and said, “You won’t regret it.” He gave him a smile over his shoulder as the three of them turned and walked away.

Aoi let out a low whistle. “Damn,” he said. “If I wasn’t with Kazuki, I’d be all over that.”

“So, what’s stopping you?”

“What’s stopping YOU?”

“I’m not in the mood.”

“Or maybe it’s got something to do with Byou?”

Ruki wheeled on him. “Why are you saying that?”

“Sources say you WERE with him this afternoon.”

“He was helping me with HERBALISM! That’s what I need to pass my Third Degree! That’s all!”

“Just that?”

“JUST that!”

“Well, then, maybe it’s not such a big deal that THIS is happening, is it?” Aoi raised his hand and pointed across the room.

Ruki turned his head in the direction where he pointed, and his blood froze. There was Byou, talking to Sena. No, not just talking to him. Leaning up against him. Getting in his personal space. Hell, he was just about sucking face with him.

That bastard, he thought. He saw them talking to us, saw the way I was looking at Sena, and moved in. What the fuck does he think he’s doing? He suddenly found himself burning with jealously, he didn’t know why, and worst of all . . .

He didn’t know who he was jealous of. Byou, Sena, or both.

“I’m getting the fuck out of here,” he said, standing up from the table. “I’ve had enough for tonight.”

“So it DID bother you,” Aoi said.

“I’m tired,” Ruki said. “I SAID I was tired! I’ll talk to you later.”

He couldn’t get outside and find his broom fast enough. What a day, he thought. Between the herbalism shit, Byou, the Weird Brothers, and . . .

He wasn’t going to think of Byou and Sena at all. Nope. Not at all.

Except that was the image he couldn’t get out of his mind as he mounted his broom and flew off.

* * *

He was still in a grumbly mood the next day when Byou came up to the garden, where he was frantically pulling weeds.

“You really are doing that the old-fashioned way, aren’t you?” Byou said.

“And how the fuck else am I supposed to get rid of the weeds? I can’t just blast the whole patch with magic. We don’t want to get rid of the good plants along with the bad!”

“You DO have access to levitation magic, do you not? Watch.” Byou concentrated on the patch, snapped his fingers, and the weeds pulled out of the soil and floated upward. He grabbed them out of the air and stuffed them in a bag.

“How the hell did you do that?” Ruki said.

“Simple visualization magic. You hold the image of the patch in your head, mentally separate the weeds from the plants, then push the weeds upward. Come on, you of all people know how to do visualization magic, with those looks you create for yourself.”

“Oh, you noticed what I wear,” Ruki said with a touch of bitterness in his voice. He moved over to the next patch and looked at it. Okay, he thought, hold the image of it in your head, separate the weeds from the plants, and . . .

He snapped, and the weeds floated upward. He grabbed them out of the air like Byou had done. “So I CAN do it,” he said.

“Of course you can,” Byou said. “You’re talented. You’re powerful. Would I be helping you otherwise?”

“This is a deal so you could be my herbalist, remember?” Ruki said. “Everyone wants a fucking deal with me. You, Yuuki, probably half the people under 40 in our group. . .”

“Yuuki?” Byou looked surprised.

“Oh, you should know about that, given how cozy you were with Sena last night,” Ruki said, his voice dripping with scorn.

Byou laughed. “Well, you know, YOU weren’t making any moves in that direction, so . . .”

“You just decided to be all over him like white on rice?”

“Somebody’s jealous.”

“And somebody needs to get back to the subject at hand. The fucking plants.”

“Hey, YOU were the one who brought up Yuuki.”

Fuck, he had him there. “And I’m ending the subject. Now, what else am I supposed to do to boost these plants?”

“Well, the first thing I’m going to teach you is how to use water magic to time-release the moisture in the plants. They grow better when they’re getting a steady stream of water, instead of a whole bunch of water at once.”

“Fine, fine, let’s do it,” Ruki grumbled, levitating the weeds out of the third bed of plants and shoving them roughly into the bag.

“Whoa, someone’s still upset,” Byou said. “Seriously – what did Yuuki say to you last night?”

“He wants to be my Master of Ceremony, all right? And the worst part is, the fucker has a point when he says he can help me. He can bring people into my group. So, I caved.”

“Caved? I’d say that was smart. Yuuki and his inner circle are influential as hell. Bringing them in is going to get you a long way. And it’s not like he asked to be high priest, anyway.”

“So why doesn’t he start his OWN fucking group?” Ruki said.

“Because you have one thing he hasn’t got – the ambition to get a Third Degree. You’re one of the most tenacious bastards I’ve ever seen in this organizaiton.”

“Thanks, I guess,” Ruki grumbled.

“Besides, won’t it be nice to have Sena as part of the group?”

“You WOULD fucking say that!” Ruki snapped.

Byou was quiet for a moment. Then, he said, “You know, herbalists have a saying. ‘A common flower can be found anywhere, but when it doesn’t open, it’s left alone in this world to embrace loneliness.’”

Ruki turned sharply toward him. “What the fuck is that supposed to mean?” he said.

“Let’s get started on learning that water magic, shall we?”

“I mean it, Byou. What the fuck does it mean?”

Byou just looked amused. “You’ll figure it out,” he said. “Now, let’s do what we were supposed to do.”

Ruki just looked annoyed, but he picked up a hose. He’s lucky I don’t shove this up his ass, he thought. Why the hell does everything he says, everything he does, have me so on-edge?

* * *

Over the next few weeks, he and Byou worked on fine-tuning the magic to get the plants to grow.

He’d pour water on them and then portion out the water into “use now” and “use later.” He’d boost the nutrients in the soil. He cast banishments to keep out insects – but that didn’t stop rabbits from coming up to his garden beds and trying to eat the plants. (Some things, he found, required nothing more or less than good old-fashioned fences).

His first major success came when he was able to harvest a handful of carrots – and they turned out to be very edible. Maybe this will shut that damn idiot Mendes up, he thought.

Throughout all this, Byou came every day to check his progress and give him advice. “Not bad,” he said one day about two and a half weeks into the process. “Not bad at all. You might actually be halfway decent at this.”

“Thanks – I think.”

“Of course, that’s because you had a good teacher.”

“Piss off, will you?” Ruki turned his attention back to a row of herbs.

“By the way, why haven’t we seen much of you at the Suicide Circus lately?”

Ruki bristled. Because I don’t feel like fucking watching you make out with Sena all over the dance floor, he thought. Not like I’m ever going to tell him that.

“I’ve had other things to do,” he said. “I AM working on my third degree, you know.”

“Didn’t stop you before. You were there just about every night when you were getting your second degree. And your first.”

“This is more serious.”

Byou shook his head. “And I thought you were the kind of guy who always went for what he really wanted.”

“I AM going for something I really want. Why the fuck do you think I’m spending so much time studying?”

“You didn’t get it, did you?”

“Get what?”

“That horticulturalist saying I told you.”

“What the fuck does that have to do with anything?”

Byou leaned closer to him. “If you figure it out,” he said, “you’ll know.”

Now Ruki just felt annoyed. What the hell was he on about? “Will you stop being cryptic and say what you mean?” he said.

But the other man just gave him a smirk and went back to his plants. Fuck him, Ruki thought. Why does everything about him get to me so much, anyway?

* * *

It was the morning of Ruki’s final exam, so to speak. Mendes-sama was going to come and inspect his garden.

“The old fucker had better like it,” Ruki grumbled. “After all that crap . . . weeding, watering, putting up with Byou . . .”

He was stepping back to admire his row of deadly nightshade when a voice behind him said, “Ruki? I came to wish you luck.”

“Yeah, because I’m going to need it,” he said – and turned around to see Sena, standing there gorgeous as a magazine cover. Of course, even away from a club, he was wearing a tight little black top and a pair of shorts. It was like he’d made it his professional business to look like Satan’s gift to . . . well, everyone.

“Surprised to see me?” the younger man said, approaching him, slowly.

“Well, yes, I am,” Ruki said. “Especially since you’re without Byou.”

Sena shrugged. “I’m my own guy, you know,” he said. “I’m not tied to anyone. At least, not right now.” He took a step toward Ruki. “I haven’t seen you at the club lately, you know. I’ve missed seeing you.”

“You have?”

“You bet I have. And . . . I’d like to see more of you again.”

He’s just about daring me to ask him out, Ruki thought. So why aren’t I? This is the gorgeous guy everyone has their eyes on, right? The one I wanted? The one I got so fucking mad when I saw Byou making out with him? The one who . . . who . . .

The picture of Byou and Sena getting close in the middle of the dance floor flashed through Ruki’s head again, along with Byou’s “horticulturalist saying,” “A common flower can be found anywhere, but when it doesn’t open, it’s left alone in this world to embrace loneliness. . . .”

Fuck, he thought. Fuck, I am NOT feeling this. I am NOT thinking this. But he knew he damn well was. There was a reason he wasn’t asking Sena out. Because it wasn’t Sena he was jealous about. It wasn’t because of Sena that he was avoiding the club.

What the hell do I do now, he thought. What the hell do I do . . .

“I . . . I have my master coming in a few minutes to look at the garden,” Ruki said. “I’ll be at the Circus tonight.”

“You mean it?” Sena said.

“Oh, yes, I do.”

He watched the young man go. Okay, Ruki thought, it’s showtime. Mendes is going to look at the garden, and evaluate it, and this is going to make or break me.

Except he knew that the REAL showtime was coming later tonight. And that’s what scared him.

* * *

Ruki thought that his mentor had stared at the herbs and vegetables for roughly three hours.

The older man bent over, pulled on some leaves, poked at a stem, moved to the next patch, pulled out a carrot, sniffed it, moved to the next bed, pulled off a leaf, crushed it in his hand . . .

Is he going to examine every inch of every plant? he thought. I’m going to get old waiting for this to be done!

Finally, Mendes-sama stood up and said, “Surprisingly, this is top-notch. It’s above and beyond what I thought you were capable of.”

“I’m capable of a lot,” Ruki said. The old fuck sounds disappointed, he thought. I’ll bet he was hoping I’d crash and burn and be under his thumb for the rest of my life.

“This really means a lot to you, doesn’t it?” Mendes-sama said. “The Third Degree, I mean.”

If it means getting away from your ass? Ruki thought. It means the world. “What do you think?”

“I think you’re persistent as hell.” He patted Ruki’s shoulder, but it felt more like a stick dropping from a tree than an expression of affection. “Very well, we shall have the ceremony conferring your Third Degree and ordaining you as a full priest on the next full moon. May the Dark Lord guide your footsteps.”

As soon as Ruki heard the words, he thought, this is all I’ve wanted to hear all my life, right? This is the thing I’ve wanted the most in the world. I’m going to be a full priest with my own coven. I’ll be able to bring my own ideas into fruition, not have to bow and scrape to Mendes . . .

But the emotions he thought would be there weren’t. He didn’t feel exultation, or profound relief. There was joy, sure, but it was . . . hollow. As if the victory were incomplete, and there was unfinished business. Because there was. There very, very much was.

He knew now in his heart that there was one thing he wanted just as much as his own coven – if not more.

* * *

He stormed into the Suicide Circus like a man on a mission. Which was precisely what he was. He glanced around – right, left, right again – his eyes scanning the crowd like a heat-seeking laser.

“Damn, Ruki,” Aoi called to him from their usual table. “Somebody steal your wallet or something?”

“Not now,” Ruki said, pushing past him. “I don’t have time for this.”

“Well, SOMEONE got his butt in a knot, didn’t he?” Aoi said, teasingly. “Is that the way someone who’s getting his Third Degree should act?”

Ruki looked around the room some more – and saw just the guy he was looking for at the bar, calmly sipping some kind of damn multi-colored drink. He launched himself at his target like a guided missile.

“So, how did it go?” Byou said, when Ruki rushed over to him. “Are you a fully-qualified priest now or . . .”

He didn’t get a chance to finish the sentence, because Ruki pulled him close and kissed him hard, pulled apart from him just long enough to catch his breath, and then kissed him again. It went on and on, Ruki plundering the other man’s mouth with his tongue, as if he were trying to make up for lost time, for every damn word that hadn’t been said until now.

“I finally know,” Ruki said. “I finally know what your goddamn horticultural saying is about.”

“Oh?” Byou looked rather cat-that-ate-the-canary smug. Ruki would find it annoying if it wasn’t so goddamn hot, damn him. “Do tell.”

“‘A common flower can be found anywhere, but when it doesn’t open, it’s left alone in this world to embrace loneliness.’ It means that you can think you have it together, you think you know what you want, you think you’re the strongest goddamn plant in the world and your roots are going to hold you in place no matter what – but unless you get your head out of your own ass and open yourself to what you’re afraid to face, you’re going to choke and die.”

Byou nodded. “Interesting interpretation. I mean, you got it. You really do. So tell me – how does it relate to you?”

“I thought I had all my goddamn roots in place!” Ruki said. “Becoming a full priest. Starting my own coven. It was all I ever wanted out of life. And then YOU were right there in front of me, your very presence pissing me off, and every time you got near Sena it pissed me off MORE, and then I realized that the reason I was so pissed off was I was scared. I didn’t want to admit that I wanted you in my life, dammit. That you were the fucking water and sunshine that was going to help me open up.”

“Water and sunshine, huh?” Byou said. “I’ve never been called that.”

“Don’t you hear what I’m telling you?” Ruki said. “I’m asking you to be my boyfriend! To be a permanent part of my life! Because I’m getting my Third Degree, dammit, but it’s all going to feel empty if you’re not there with me.”

There was a long moment where they just stared at each other, Ruki still breathing hard from his rant, Byou just seeming to look him over, take him in, appraise him.

Then, Byou raised a hand and gently caressed Ruki’s face. “You could have just asked, you know,” he said. “You didn’t have to make a scene in the middle of the club.”

“You wouldn’t listen otherwise!”

“Now, is that any way to talk to your boyfriend?”

“It . . .” Ruki sighed, rubbing the top of his head. “Just shut the fuck up and kiss me.”

“You don’t have to ask,” Byou said. He pulled Ruki into his arms, kissing him hard, and the two just stayed there for a long moment, time seeming to stop around them . . .

Until a voice said, “HEY! Hey, Mr. Priest! A little birdie told me you passed!”

“The birdie being Uruha,” another voice said. “He’s more of a duck, though.”

Ruki looked up. Fuck, it was the Weird Brothers. The last thing in the world he needed to see right now. “Do you always interrupt people’s celebrations?” he said.

“Only when it’s important business,” Yuuki said. “So, is it official? Am I going to be your Master of Ceremony?”

“Yes, it’s official,” Ruki sighed. “We’re going to have a meeting about officially forming the group this weekend, I’ll text everyone.”

“Fantastic,” Yuuki said. “Go back to what you were doing.”

“That doesn’t mean you can watch!” Ruki growled.

Sena walked up to the two of them, smiling and looking . . . well, as irresistible as ever. “So, Byou,” he said, “are you going to be joining the group, too?”

“Oh, I am,” Byou said. “And I have a very important role.”

“Not more important than mine, I hope!” Yuuki snapped.

“The High Priest’s boyfriend,” Byou said. “I’d say that’s a pretty important role.”

“Yeah, whatever,” Yuuki said. “Just as long as . . .” He suddenly turned around so fast that he nearly gave himself whiplash. “Wait a minute! BOYFRIEND? You two are official now?”

“That’s usually what boyfriend means, doesn’t it?” Ruki sighed.

“Well, it’s about fucking time!” Yuuki said. “Fuck, life on other planets knew you liked him!”

“Now I don’t have to put so much energy into making you jealous,” Sena said. “You finally saw the light!”

“You did that ON PURPOSE?” Ruki said.

“You wouldn’t get your head out of your ass otherwise,” Sena replied. “I had to hit on Byou in front of you so you’d finally see what you were feeling. When that didn’t work – I hit on you, too.”

Ruki facepalmed. Did EVERYONE see that he liked Byou except for, well, him?

Uruha and Aoi came running across the club. “Hey!” Uruha said. “Did I hear what I think I heard? You admitted you like him?”

“YES!” Ruki said. “Fuck, doesn’t ANYONE care that I’m getting my Third Degree and I’m going to be the High Priest to all your asses now?”

“Oh, we all knew you were going to do that,” Aoi said. “You getting your Third Degree? Done deal. Admitting you liked Byou? That was about a one in a billion longshot. Congratulations on beating the odds!”

Ruki groaned and facepalmed. Byou hugged him. “Come on,” he said. “I’d say it’s time for a private celebration – away from all the gossipy mouths.”

They left the club and passed through the anteroom. As he turned the doorknob to go outside, Ruki said, “You told me that goddamn saying for a reason, didn’t you?”

“Of course I did,” Byou said. “Because I was trying to be the gardener of your heart. Caring for it, watering it, and waiting for it to bloom. But, as any horticulturalist knows? Plants can only bloom on their own time. You had to be ready for a relationship. And I bided my time . . . until you were.”

“You and your weird fucking plant metaphors,” Ruki mumbled.

“Admit it,” Byou said. “You’re glad I helped you with gardening. You wouldn’t have gotten your Third Degree otherwise – and you wouldn’t have realized what you really wanted.”

Ruki was going to retort – but he knew Byou was right. Without them being together so much, without them working on a project, he would never have seen that what he thought he wanted . . . wasn’t ALL that he wanted.

“Fine,” he mumbled. “You’re right.” He walked outside and went to the rack to get his broom.

“Of course, I’m right,” Byou said.

“But just know you’re not ALWAYS right, okay?” Ruki climbed on the broom. “This is going to be an HONEST relationship, and if I see you spouting bullshit, I’m going to call you on it.”

“Whatever you say,” Byou said, clearly highly amused.

They kicked off and flew toward the sky together, and strangely, Ruki had never felt lighter on a broom. Maybe because he’d shed weight he didn’t know he had.

It was the beginning of a new era for him – in more ways than one.