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~ Forever Pure ~

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// Two trailer park girls go round the outside, round the outside, round the outside. //

 

Instinctively flinching, I tighten my grip on the broom handle and hold my breath. I already have a headache that would stop a rampaging elephant in its tracks and the last thing I want is to have to listen to fucking Eminem pounding through my skull. If I'm lucky, if by chance there's still a deity around that I haven't managed to piss off somehow, the car might keep moving and it will all just go away...

 

// Guess who's back, back again. //

 

Or not.

 

Gritting my teeth, I brace myself against the broom and casually glance around the shop. The volume of the music coming from the car stereo outside is so great that everything is vibrating and, quaintly, the flowers look as though they're dancing. Even Aya's hair appears to be moving in time to the music. If he notices it, hell, if he even realizes that things are no longer as peaceful as they were a moment ago, he's doing one top notch job of pretending otherwise. In fact, knowing Aya he probably can't even hear the Godforsaken racket. Focused entirely on the wreath he's working on, as far as he's concerned he could be just about anywhere.

 

Not that I'm jealous or anything, but...

 

Bastard.

 

// I've created a monster, cuz nobody wants to see Marshall no more they want Shady I'm chopped liver. //

 

Why me, huh? I don't want Marshall *or* Shady.

 

I know I've done unpleasant things and that the deposit is already paid for my very own personal room in hell, but, shit... Eminem, or *worse*, every fucking night? I'm not *that* old, and I like popular music as much as the next person, but this is just like some sort of cruel and unusual punishment. It's bad enough when I *don't* have a headache. Tonight however, Christ... I could have well and truly lived without my teeth pounding in sync with my head.

 

Why Yukio and his posse of wannabe homeboys and girls choose to hang out outside the Dragon's Tears is beyond me. It really is. I mean, there are enough dingy street corners in this neighborhood for them not to have to revisit the same one twice in any given month. But, no. For reasons as inexplicable as their taste in so-called music, they like *our* corner. A lot.

 

A real fucking lot.

 

// Shock when I get shocked at the hospital by the doctor when I'm not cooperating. //

 

Again. Why me? Hell, I'd like to give the little American toad a shock that he'd never get up from.

 

When I was their age...

 

Yeah, okay. When I was their age I was already firmly entrenched in securing that deposit for my very own corner of hell. That, however, is entirely beside the point. I certainly wasn't wasting my money on all things American or the endless pursuit of having the most kitted out -- *wicked* -- car in the parking lot.

 

If I was to open the shutters the scene that would greet me in the street would be something like out of that movie, The Fast And The Furious. The only thing more impressive than Yukio's Nissan Skyline is its stereo system. He told me once how much it cost. If I remember correctly he then went on to proudly list all of its specifications. Not that I really listened to any of them. Too shocked by the price of the thing, all I could do was nod politely while working out in my head lists of what else the money could have brought. Given that I know for a fact that it's through said stereo that Eminem is currently being shared with the neighborhood, I'm kinda of the opinion that even wasting it on booze and cigarettes would have been preferable. Hell, by my way of thinking far, *far* preferable.

 

// They tried to shut me down on MTV but it feels so empty without me. //

 

Finding myself mouthing along to the words -- my parents would be *so* proud to know all those years of learning English didn't go to waste -- I hurriedly clamp my lips together and cast a surreptitious, embarrassed glance in Aya's direction. As much as it pains me to admit, I've heard the stupid song so many times that I'm beginning to know it off by heart. To my relief -- and how -- Aya isn't paying me the slightest bit of attention however and, head bowed, is still concentrating on the elaborate wreath he has laid out on the table in front of him.

 

While I didn't think he could do it, and very nearly told him as such when he accepted the order, I can now see the recognizable design of Artoo-Detoo being formed out of the masses of cornflowers and white carnations I helped bring in earlier. Typical of the tragic tales we've heard on a daily basis since taking over the Dragon's Tears, 'Artoo' -- real name Maiku and nicknamed after the Star Wars droid because he'd only ever wear blue and white -- died after injecting a bad batch of heroin on the eve of his fifteenth birthday. Fleeing an abusive father, he'd run away from home only months before. According to his friends, none of whom who'd be over sixteen and who are the ones somehow paying for the wreath, he'd been more hopeful about the future than he had in years. He'd even been talking about re-enrolling in school. Every other florist having laughed them out of the shop, I thought they were going to cry in gratitude when Aya said we'd do it.

 

We'd... Well, *he'd* do it. Go figure. Aya has an aptitude for wreaths. While I know he only views them as a challenge, something to prove to himself that he can create, he's just got a real knack for them.

Our clientele of happy, smiling girls being a thing of the past, most of our trade is now either wreaths or arrangements for church services. Occasionally one of Yukio's gang will sidle in and shyly buy a rose for his girl of the week but, well, it's death that really pays the bills around the place. I'm just waiting for the day when someone comes in to order a wreath for one of our own victims. Taking into consideration how busy we've been since Kritiker moved us here, it's all but bound to happen too. And then, well, providing a full service will have nothing on it.

 

// Now this looks like a job for me so everybody just follow me. //

 

Oh. This is so not good. Now I'm not only mouthing along to the words but I'm also -- the shame, the shame -- dancing as well.

 

And, oh yeah, of fucking course, Aya chooses this exact moment to look up from what he's doing and glance over at me.

 

Oh yeah. My life sucks. It sucks *big* time.

 

Clamping my mouth shut, I feign interest in my sweeping as Aya stares at me with this close to completely unreadable expression on his face. I think, although God knows I could be wrong, it's what passes for his curious look... Or maybe it's bemusement... Or, then again, perhaps it's nonplussed...

 

Christ. I don't know. While I spend a fair bit of time casually staring at Aya I'm still none the wiser as to how to translate the majority of his expressions. Disinterested, contemptuous, professional killer, and pissed off, I'm clear on. While rare and fleeting, I'm also clear on both amused (and trying hard not to show it) and cheery. As for the rest, fuck, I have no freakin' clue.

 

And, clearly never having seen anything quite like it before, he's *still* staring at me.

 

"Come on!" I exclaim, gesturing at the vibrating shutters. "What can I say other than the atrocious noise was getting to me." As excuses go -- for no doubt looking for all the world like I was thrusting my crotch at the broom handle -- I'll admit it's about as lame as they come but, hey, truth, as they say, *is* stranger than fiction.

 

Shaking his head as though he can't hear me, Aya places the cornflowers he'd been holding down on the bench and lifts back his eartails. To my considerable annoyance -- if I'm suffering then it's only fair that everyone around me suffers as well -- he's wearing tiny bud earphones, the cord of which had been hidden behind his hair, that I recognize as belonging to his MP3 player.

 

"If you're listening to a self-help program on how not to be a smug bastard your entire life," I mutter, tetchy that I hadn't thought of getting my own player, "then let me tell you now that it's not working." Talk about no fair! Here I am thinking I'm providing Aya with -- albeit unwanted -- company and there he is not even sharing in the horror of Eminem.

 

The faintest of smirks crossing Aya's lips, he carefully extends his middle finger at me before returning his attention to the wreath.

 

"You can lip read?" I groan, neither what you'd call surprised by this or at all bothered by the fact I'm essentially talking to myself. "Typical. Any other hidden super powers you'd perhaps like to tell me about?"

 

"I'm also apparently quite adept at taking out my earphones without you noticing," Aya states calmly, lifting his hair back again to show that, yes, his ears are now devoid of earphones. "Honestly, Yohji, if that admittedly deplorable music is doing such... ah... funny... things to you then you should just go into the apartment. I don't mind cleaning up."

 

"But I'm on sweeping duty," I protest, giving a token sweep of the broom. "And you know how much I hate that disappointed look Omi gets when one of us is rude enough to deviate from his baby... ooops... I mean roster."

 

"I'll be here for ages yet," Aya replies, shrugging. "Besides, as I said, I don't mind doing the cleaning up. In fact, as I'm the one making the mess it's really only fair that I'm the one expected to clean it up afterwards. You just go. I'll be fine."

 

Coming out and confessing that I couldn't give a flying fuck about the sweeping and am only lurking in the flower shop so as to be near him not really being an option, I give a mock pout and sigh. "Come on, Aya. Why don't you just tell me fuck off because I'm annoying you and be done with it."

 

"Because you're not exactly annoying me," Aya responds mildly, "more *distracting* me. I'm trying to concentrate here and seeing you doing whatever it was you were doing to the broom out of the corner of my eye isn't really what I'd call conducive to concentrating."

 

"Eminem has a bad effect on me," I whine, waving a fist at the shutters for emphasis.

 

"So I'm gathering," Aya retorts drily. "Come to think of it, didn't you say something about having a headache earlier? Surely this can't be helping it."

 

"You don't say," I drawl. "I feel as though my head is wanting to explode and, no, fucking Eminem at a volume loud enough to wake the dead *isn't* helping it."

 

"In that case I absolutely insist that you leave the sweeping to me," Aya states firmly. "Now. Go. If you ask nicely maybe Ken or Omi will give you a neck massage."

 

"The last I saw of Ken he was chasing Omi into his bedroom with a decidedly predatory glint in his eye," I mutter, raising an eyebrow as unwanted mental images threaten to pop into my head. Ken and Omi. Sweet couple. The kind of sweet couple, however, that you don't ever want to think about getting naked together. Why? Because it's oddly disturbing, that's why.

 

"Ah... In that case you may want to steer clear of them, then," Aya murmurs, frowning as he removes an errant cornflower from Artoo's dome. "Luckily the painkillers, the ones that are I just know are calling your name, are in the other end of the apartment."

 

"Fine," I sigh, propping the broom against the bench and slowly making my way towards the door. "Never say I'm not one to take a hint."

 

"You've got a headache, the music is making you do stranger than usual things, and I'm more than willing to clean up," Aya replies matter-of-factly. "Staying isn't going to achieve anything."

 

"Yes, boss," I retort, leaning against the doorframe. "Hey, before I go, I never knew you were a Star Wars fan."

 

"I'm not," Aya responds, picking through the carnations and dropping the ones that don't reach his standard onto the ground. "In fact I've never seen any of the films and have to say I have no real inclination to ever rectify this state of affairs either. Science fiction has never really been my cup of tea."

 

"Um... Then how do you know what Artoo looks like?" I query, more taken aback by the fact that Aya took on a commission without even knowing what he was getting himself into than I am surprised over him never having seen any of the Star Wars movies.

 

"Ever heard of internet search engines? If not, they're great. Take my word for it," Aya murmurs blithely, waving a carnation at me over his shoulder. "Good night, Yohji."

 

"Smart ass," I mutter, pushing myself away from the doorframe and shaking my head fondly. "Night, then," I add, wandering out of the shop and through the storeroom into the apartment.

 

My bedroom being off limits because of it being too close to Ken's, I meander into the kitchen and pop a couple of painkillers before making my way into the living room. It well and truly not being my night, Kiri is curled in a tight ball in the middle of the sofa and I sigh heavily as I contemplate the easiest way to remove her. If I was in a better mood I'd just leave her there but tonight, Goddamn it, I want the sofa. I have a headache, I'm suffering from a bad case of Eminem Rage, Aya's shooed me out of the shop and, feeling sorry enough for myself as it is, I simply refuse to allow a freakin' cat to stop me from sitting where I want to sit. Uh-uh. Just no way.

 

Kiri, who -- just like her adopted owner -- is touchy at the best of times, opens her eyes and peers at me balefully. Stretching out a paw, she bares her claws and admires their sharpness for a couple of seconds before retracting them and giving a dainty yawn.

 

Gingerly sitting on the edge of the sofa, I stop short of simply upending the center cushion to get my way and give her a gentle poke in the side. "Go on you. Scoot," I mutter, quickly pulling my hand back as, stretching, she sits up and gives me the evil eye. "Hey! Don't look at me like that. You should consider yourself lucky that I didn't just tip you on to the ground."

 

Meowing what I suspect is the feline equivalent of 'yeah? You and what army?', Kiri sits up straighter and attempts to stare straight through me. If I wasn't wary of the state he'd be in I'd call Omi into the living room as -- despite the fact that he loves her to pieces and would never do anything to hurt her -- Kiri views him as some sort dog-like creature that's to be avoided at all costs. All he'd have to do was walk through the door and that would be it, she'd be out of the room as quick as a flash.

 

It pains Omi immensely that she hates him but, well, he brought it on himself by chasing her around the apartment when we first got here. If he'd remained completely unfazed by the fact our new home came complete with its own half starved stray cat instead of tearing after her with all the enthusiasm of a small child then she probably wouldn't be so wary of him. Hell, if he'd followed Aya's lead and pretended that the tiny gray ball of fluff that kept darting around the place was little more than a figment of his imagination there's a chance she may have even decided that he was the one she was going to adopt. Then again, given that it tickles my fancy no end that she chose Aya as the man for her, I have to say that I'm not really sorry about Omi having scared her off at all.

 

Kiri *loves* Aya. Between her busy schedule of sleeping, eating, and trying to kill a pair of my socks that she somehow got her paws on, she likes nothing more than to follow Aya around like the dog he never had. It's so cute. The first time I saw her trotting along behind him I laughed so much that I got a stitch in my side. Actually, although we've been living here for six months now it still amuses me to see her running along after him. It's just one of those all too rare things that offer up instantaneous amusement factor.

 

Just like Omi though, Aya scored his number one spot in Kiri's affections all by himself. Feline psychology stating that the person who shows you the least attention is the one least likely to be a threat to your well being, she probably saw him as an island of serenity in a sea lashed by fierce storms. Omi was chasing her. Ken was chasing her because Omi was chasing her. And, yeah, okay, I was chasing her because I couldn't stand to see Omi's lower lip beginning to wobble from the strain of not being able to corner a damn cat. Aya, on the other hand, went about his business shifting boxes and unpacking and didn't involve himself in the Great Cat Hunt at all. Subsequently, when we'd all begrudgingly admitted defeat and were sitting in the living room enjoying a well earned drink, Kiri -- or 'Cat' as she was then known -- timidly crept into the room and jumped onto Aya's lap.

 

What's more, Aya, to his credit, didn't even drop his tea in shock. In fact he didn't even flinch as she clawed her way up his shirt and perched on his shoulder in order to wail a lament about being weak from hunger in his ear. No. It taking far more than a cat to faze Aya, he calmly finished his drink before picking her up and, with a warning to Omi to not to go anywhere near her, placing her carefully in the armchair. He then sealed his fate by -- without so much as a word to anyone about what he was doing, mind you -- going out and buying cat food.

 

And, well, that was just that. Aya, with no effort on his behalf whatsoever and much to Omi's annoyance, had scored himself a cat. He'd never admit it but I know, going on the expensive food he buys her *and* the fact she's allowed to sleep on his bed, that he's fond of her. He even, while the rest of us were still debating what to call her, went out and bought her a collar with an engraved silver name tag in the shape of a fish hanging off it. Her fur being a very pale gray, he named her Kiri because it's Kanji for mist and, well, also because I suspect he was sick to death of our endless debate over what *we* thought she should be called. If he hadn't bit the bullet and just given her a name I suspect the rest of us would still be arguing about it.

 

Sighing again, I give Kiri another poke and point at the door to the storeroom. "Your hero's in the shop, you know," I murmur ever so slightly pleadingly. "I'm sure he'd just *love* to see you. Think about it. You could go rub round his legs and tell him what a mean and horrible person I am for evicting you from the sofa."

 

After a few more moments of staring through me as though she doesn't quite know where the voice talking at her is coming from, Kiri hops off the sofa and, with a dismissive flick of her tail, starts to stroll in the direction of the storeroom. Smiling victoriously -- success over a cat! Go me. Perhaps the evening is beginning to look up -- I grab one of the throw cushions to use as a pillow and stretch out on the sofa.

 

While it's one of our increasingly rare nights off I can't say that I mind spending it in at all. Sure, headache from hell notwithstanding, I could go out clubbing or on the make but, truth be told, given the current state of my life I'd rather just be here anyway. That final showdown with Esset, although I'm loath to admit it, effectively turned my world upside down and I know I'm not the same person I was six months ago. The status quo being ever-so important -- especially now -- I pretend to be, but I'm not. Esset and their mad as fuck plan for world domination... or obliteration... or whatever it was... shook up everything I took for granted and left me feeling as though I hardly knew myself any more.

 

Mind you, the whole Esset and Schwarz debacle fucked us all around so it's not exactly like I'm a special case or worthy of particular note. If anything I was the least affected of all of us. While it sure as hell doesn't feel like it, I came out of the mess relatively unscathed. Even my physical injuries were only minor and I was able to limp out of the hospital without having to suffer the indignity of being kept in over night for observation or, worse, tests. I stayed there in the hospital, though, waiting impatiently for the others to be well enough to walk out the door with me. Of course I did. Not only didn't I have anywhere else to go but, really, there wasn't any place I'd rather have been anyway. My friends... no, my *family*... were suffering and it would have taken more than a pack of wild horses to drag me away from them. Manx tried to tempt me away from the hospital with promises of a nice motel room and all the scotch I could drink but I simply wouldn't -- *couldn't* -- budge.

 

It was during that night, that long, dark and seemingly endless night, I finally realized just how much the other three, how much *Weiss*, meant to me. Until then I'd just taken what we shared together for granted. Work colleagues to team mates to, finally, friends. As gradual as the process had been, there was no denying that I relied on Aya, Ken and Omi and that, although it wasn't something I'd ever really paused to think about before, I always wanted them to be around and couldn't quite fathom the thought of life without them. I don't know. Perhaps there's just nothing quite like one near death too many to make you appreciate the things you've already got.

 

The one thing I *am* certain of though is that when everyone took stock of their lives and agreed to remain in Weiss, the relief I felt was so absolute, so all consuming that I very nearly burst into tears on the spot. If they'd wanted to go their separate ways, like we did after finally defeating that fucker Takatori, I honestly don't know what I would have done. Weiss, for better and for worse, is my life. Although I thought I was enjoying myself at the time, that I was glad to be 'free', I look back on that time when we'd temporarily disbanded now with a sense of horror. As abnormal as I know full well it to be, I *like* the point my life is currently at. I also like knowing that I have three people who I can trust unconditionally and who I would willingly do anything for because I know that they'd do the same for me. For reasons quite probably illogical, small things like these help make me feel good.

 

Hell, for reasons that no doubt indicate once and for all that I have some sort of mental deficiency, even my exceptionally dumb ass crush makes me feel relatively good about things. God knows, especially given the sheer ludicrousness of it, that it *shouldn't* make me feel good and should in fact make me want to book myself into a nice padded cell somewhere, but, well...

 

Hey. It's not like I ever claimed to be normal or anything as presumptuous as that. I *know* as doomed crushes go I'd be just as well off wasting my time lusting after some unattainable popstar -- or even a deceased movie star, for that matter -- but, no, even something as simple as desiring someone famous is too mundane for me. Me, because I can and because I obviously received a phantom blow to the head somewhere along the line, I find that it makes far more sense to develop a crush on a team mate. Not just *any* team made though. Of course not. Being the idiot that I am I just have to go and fall for Aya.

 

Aya!

 

Oh my God. Stupid has nothing on it.

 

I'd have more success -- not, I hasten to add, that I have any intention of ever attempting it -- at ingratiating myself into a threesome with Ken and Omi than I would of giving Aya a peck on the cheek that didn't immediately result in the seeing of stars and a black eye or two. The reason he'd hit first and ask questions later wouldn't even be because I was a man and would, I'm sure of it, have far more to do with the fact that I was invading his space and taking most definitely unasked for 'liberties'.

 

Aya is not homophobic. The way he went off at Omi and Ken for attempting to hide their relationship from him being more than enough proof of this fact. I think, whilst totally unwittingly, they actually hurt his rarely seen feelings by thinking he'd be offended -- disgusted? -- that they'd decided to take their friendship to a whole new level. If anyone was game enough to ask Aya his opinions on sexuality -- which, well, they're not -- I suspect his response would be something along the lines of not caring either way so long as it was consensual and legal. Aya is just, well, Aya, though. While he looks like something out of a wet dream brought to life and has a collection of coats that wouldn't be out of place in an issue of 'BDSM Monthly', sex just isn't something that seems to have any impact on him.

 

Sex, to Aya, is something other people have because -- like Ken and Omi -- they're in love or because -- and I no doubt fall in this category -- they have nothing better to do with their time. Aya is neither in love nor looking for things to fill his time in with, ergo, and this is just my take on it, of course, sex holds no interest for him.

 

Which, needless to say, is something of a shame to my way of thinking. The poor boy simply doesn't know what it is he's missing out on. Sex has held a considerable degree of interest for me ever since I hit puberty and right now, God help me, when I think of sex I think of Aya. It'd be amusing if only it wasn't so serious. There being no two ways about it, I want Aya. I've tried to convince myself that I don't, that the world is bursting with far more available propositions, but nothing works. I look at Aya -- who's usually scowling back at me because he hates being watched -- and my mind says quite firmly that, yep, no question about it, he's the one for me, the one I want.

 

Again, stupid has nothing on it.

 

I want Aya for reasons that are sketchy at best, and he wants no one. And, for the cherry on top of this confusing state of affairs, I'm not even really bothered by knowing that I don't stand a snowflake's chance in hell with him. Get this. I'm actually content with things the way they are. Aya doesn't know my feelings towards him have changed and I get to go about my business without risking upsetting the status quo. If I said anything to him -- and I'm not deluded enough to think he'd either just shrug it off or take me up on my offer -- then, guaranteed, things would change and that's the last thing I want. While, sure, hope would be a nice thing to have, I don't really miss it. This way I have the best of both worlds. I have my fantasies and I have Aya acting the same towards me as he always has.

 

And, for now anyway, it works just fine by me.

 

Having both two fully functional eyes and an active libido, I've *always* found Aya attractive. Then again, you'd have to be either blind or a man hating lesbian *not* to. Aya, not that he's even aware of it, is hot. It's just one of those inescapable facts of life. The first time we met I even, for all of a split second until I realized that the homicidal glint in his eyes meant he'd just as soon kill me as look at me, thought about making a move on him. Self-preservation warning me off though, I quickly relegated him to the 'not worth the effort' basket and simply got on with life. Aya joined Weiss and although he eventually stopped staring at me as though he was imagining my blood running down the blade of his katana, I never once thought about reawakening my original desire to try it on with him.

 

And then Esset joined forces with Schwarz to fuck over the world and life as I'd come to accept it exploded into a million and one tiny pieces.

 

Months have passed and we're still coming to terms with all the changes in our lives courtesy of that final, bloody showdown. We could have lost everything but, somehow, we didn't. Battered and bruised and shell shocked, we survived both the battle and the aftermath to still be here and to still be operating as a team. To me this is nothing short of amazing.

 

Kritiker offered us the choice of breaking up and going our separate ways but no one took it. Not even Aya. Out of the four of us he was the one I was positive was most likely to take the opportunity to start afresh but, despite everything he had available to him, he decided to remain with Weiss. He could have stayed with his sister and made an attempt to claw back the normal life that Reiji Takatori had so carelessly taken from him but, for reasons known solely to Aya, he chose not to. Nor did he take back his birth name and, without a word of explanation to anyone, to this day answers only to Aya. His sister is alive and well but as far as she's aware her brother died when their house exploded. Thinking it would be easier for her, he didn't even allow himself the treat of seeing her before effectively closing the chapter on yet another part of his life and moving on.

 

Although I can see the logic in what he did, I feel the pain of his sacrifice even if he doesn't. After giving up everything for her she's now further away from him than she ever was. Manx sends photos but what he does with them is anyone's guess. He doesn't even keep one in his wallet or on display in his room. I've tried to ask him about his sister but he always tells me to mind my own business and that's the end of that. I think he feels that she's free now and that the life that is hers to make what she wants of it is more than enough payment for everything he himself has lost in the process. Again, as arguably logical as this is I still can't help but feel sorry for him. And, go figure, somehow this sorrow managed to mutate into love.

 

I don't know. I really don't. In a nutshell I think I've got it something bad for Aya because, in the midst of all the turmoil and doubt, he's still just Aya. He's *consistent* and something that I know I can rely on unconditionally. He's also beautiful and the most fascinatingly fucked up creature that I've ever met. I can spend hours thinking about Aya without my thoughts even deviating in the direction of what he'd look like when he climaxes. *That's* just how fascinating he is to me.

 

The sound of footsteps heading in the direction of the living room rousing me from my supine, half asleep position on the sofa, I drag myself upright just as Ken and Omi both try and get through the door at once. Being bigger, Ken wins and he celebrates his success by triumphantly ruffling Omi's hair, making it look even more disheveled than it already did. Wearing each other's robes and glowing, it's clear what they've just come from doing and once again I have to ward off unwanted mental images from popping into my head. As cute and as perfect as couples go, I just so don't want to think about them having sex. I'm ecstatic that they're together but, just, no...

 

"Hey, Yohji-kun," Omi smiles, batting Ken's hand away and blushing. "Where's Aya?"

 

Omi, it has to be said, is never truly content unless he knows where we all are. In sight is good, but just knowing will do.

 

Lifting up the cushion I'd been using as a pillow, I peer under it and shrug. "Nope. Not there," I retort facetiously. "I don't know then. Perhaps he's gone out clubbing? Isn't it Foam night at Vixens? I'm sure getting wet and groped by a pack of sodden and drunk strangers would be right up Aya's alley."

 

"Now why didn't I think of that?" Ken snickers. "You're mooching around home while Aya's out hitting the clubs... Mmm-hmm... Honestly, Omi, I don't even know why you asked given the obviousness of the answer."

 

"You're as mad as each other, you know that," Omi laughs, walking across to the storeroom door. "I bet Aya's still in the shop finishing the wreath."

 

"Go on then. Be sensible and spoil our fun," I reply, standing up and stretching before trailing after Omi. Although I don't know how long I lay on the sofa for, my headache is now down to a dull throb and, better still, I can no longer hear any freakin' Eminem being blared in through the walls of the shop.

 

"Oh wow," Omi breathes appreciatively, stopping in the doorway of the shop and gesturing at the work table. "Like you I never thought he'd be able to do it but, look. It's perfect."

 

Looking over Omi's shoulder, I see that Aya's finished the 'Artoo' wreath and that, right down to a circle of red miniature roses making up the droid's sensor light or whatever it's meant to be, it is indeed perfect. I also see that both he and Kiri are fast asleep, Kiri having made a nest out of the left over carnations while Aya's simply slumped over the work table. As insignificant as the sight really is, to me it just effortlessly reinforces all my feelings in one simple scene.

 

"You're right," I whisper, pulling Omi back from the door so as not to wake either of them. "It *is* perfect."

 

~*~

 

"So glad you could join us," Singapura drawls, impatiently tapping her long lacquered nails on the folders she's holding as she waits for Aya to take a seat. As usual she's dressed to impress in a form fitting black skirt suit and glossy black leather knee high boots. Ken thinks Sing's random visits are half the reason Yukio and his posse like to hang around outside the Dragon's Tears. Given that not so long ago -- pre-Aya fixation -- I would have given my right eye to get her into bed, I suspect he may very well be right too.

 

"I was serving a customer," Aya replies, carefully drying his hands on his apron before taking his customary seat at the head of the table. "Perhaps however you would have preferred it if I'd told her to come back after I'd finished receiving my orders in regards to who I'm meant to kill next?"

 

"Who was it?" I interject, rifling through Singapura's black leather satchel in search for the cigarettes I know have to be in there. Sing, our current 'face' of Kritiker, is the only person I know who smokes more than I do and I know for a fact that she never goes anywhere without at least two packets of cigarettes on her. "Was it a regular?"

 

"Mmm... Sister Mary," Aya responds, giving me a disapproving look as, finding what I was looking for, I light up a smoke. "She was ordering the flowers for Sunday's services."

 

"Don't tell me," I mutter, relieved that it was Aya who got to serve the little old nun and not me. As harmless and as polite and as lovely as she is, she takes just about forever to make the same order she makes every week and I usually end up wanting to throttle her. "Lilies *again*, right?"

 

"Oddly enough, yes," Aya murmurs, smiling. "I've tried telling her that she doesn't have to come in, that we know what she wants, but I think she likes her weekly visits."

 

Clearing her throat, Singapura slams her folders down on the table and glares at each of us in turn. "Have you two quite finished? I'm here on business and you're talking about some old nun with a thing for lilies. *Hello*."

 

"Excuse us for breathing," I retort, placing my cigarette in the ashtray so that I can sit up straight and fold my hands together primly on top of the table. "Is this better? Please, Sing, pray continue. We're all ears."

 

Well, we would be if not for Kiri sidling into the room and, after nervously inching her way past Omi, giving a loud chirrup of delight and hopping up onto Aya's lap. Pouting, Omi makes a point of looking the other way while Ken and I roll our eyes at each other.

 

"I see you've still got that stupid animal then," Sing scowls, snatching the pack of cigarettes that I'd unearthed away from me and lighting one with a sigh of relief.

 

"Come on, Sing, don't talk about Yohji that way," Ken pipes up, "he might take offence and sulk."

 

"Or he might get up and hit you over the head with something hard," I smirk, poking my tongue out at Ken. "Funny boy, aren't you?"

 

"Hysterical," Singapura states flatly. "Hell, right now you're all a laugh a freakin' minute. Thing is, if I wanted to have anything to do with children I'd be standing in front of a class room at this very moment instead of sitting here trying to get it through to you lot that I've got a mission for you."

 

"Well, let's have it," Aya responds, shooting us all a warning look. "No offence, Singapura, but, like you, we too have other things to do with our time."

 

"And to think I actually asked for this job," Sing mutters under breath as she spreads out the folders across the table. "Okay. Omi, pick a folder and we'll start from there."

 

"That one then, I suppose," Omi murmurs, pointing to the one nearest to him.

 

Picking the folder up, Singapura opens it to display a glossy black and white photo of an attractive young woman. "Gentlemen, meet the late Hasegawa Kasami," she intones, sliding the photo across the table. "Her body, along with that of another fifteen young women, was recently discovered in an unmarked mass grave behind one of the city's largest dumps. Not wanting to unduly panic the public there has been a media black out on this discovery which, before you ask, is why you haven't heard about it. The other reason the story is being kept from the media is because of its truly disturbing nature."

 

"Why do I have this feeling that I so don't want to know?" Ken interjects, picking up the picture of Kasami and staring at it sadly. "It's bad, isn't it?"

 

"It's bad," Sing confirms, spreading the rest of the folder's contents, photographs of the different victims, over the table. "These women share nothing in common other than the fact they are all dead and that they were murdered not long after having given birth. Autopsy results tells us that they were all killed exactly ten months after having been first listed as missing. None were older than twenty and none were married. Most, in fact, still lived at home. They were, and I don't use the term lightly, 'good girls'. Good grades, good relationships with family and friends. In short, nothing has them pegged as the sort to lead a double life or who would just up and run away."

 

"Yet they all ended up carelessly discarded in an unmarked grave together," I sigh, already disgusted by what I'm hearing. "Please tell me that you know who's responsible and that he... it... they... are our target."

 

"Your target is one Dr Mirimoto Makato," Singapura replies, flipping open another folder and displaying a blurry photograph of a middle aged man wearing a white lab coat. "And, yes, we believe he is the man behind the murders. Dr Mirimoto works for the Faber Institute. His specialty is listed as gene and stem cell research, however our investigations have also lead us to be of the opinion that he has a sideline in human cloning. While none of this is illegal per se, Dr Mirimoto appears to work outside the guidelines set in place by his ilk and some of the papers he's had published hint at experiments that are neither ethical nor accepted practice by his fellow scientists."

 

"Fifteen victims though," Aya muses, neatly laying out the photographs so that the happy, smiling faces of the deceased cover the table. "Surely he must have had assistance. Assuming he got them pregnant in order to harvest the fetal stem cells... or whatever... then he'd still have to keep they subdued and out of the way for nine months. Now that, you would think, wouldn't be something you'd be able to do on your own."

 

"His assistants are of no interest to us for the time being," Sing responds. "While you're absolutely right in your thinking, we're currently only targeting Dr Mirimoto. Assistants come and go and, for all intents and purposes, do solely as they are told. Mirimoto, however, is the one we are convinced is the one doing both the experiments and the killing. Chemical samples taken from the bodies have been linked back to the specific part of the Faber Institute that he operates from and the fact that they had all been 'bred' fits in with what he know of his pet line of research."

 

"And the babies?" Omi queries faintly, pushing his chair back from the table as though he can't stand being near the photographs of the once vibrant and living young women. "What happened to the babies?"

 

"Our informant not finding any sign of them in Mirimoto's laboratory, we're apt to believe that, having served their purpose, they were sold onto the black market," Singapura explains flatly. "Although we've got agents working on it, it's highly doubtful any of these infants will ever be located."

 

"That... That's just plain despicable," Ken mutters, shaking his head. "Actually, the whole sordid case is despicable. Kidnapping women, getting them pregnant, keeping them trapped for nine months before ripping their babies out and killing them? I mean, Christ, that's just sick. Honestly, the things people are prepared to do in the name of so-called research just makes me ill."

 

"We think Mirimoto was being funded by someone bigger and more powerful but we're yet to discover who," Sing states matter-of-factly. "While we'd have preferred to have taken them both out at once we're now afraid that Mirimoto may be on the hunt for fresh victims and have decided that we need to act now. I'll give you all the details of his lab and timetable in a moment but first, and you know I have to ask this, are you all in?"

 

Reaching across the table and pulling Mirimoto's photo towards him, Aya runs his finger across the doctor's neck in a cut throat gesture. "When it comes to perverted freaks like this," he murmurs mildly as we all nod in mute agreement, "I don't really think you need to ask at all."

 

~*~

 

"Doesn't look like much, does he?" I comment, prodding Mirimoto's body with my foot. "I mean, this insignificant creep was responsible for untold horrors and now, just look at him, he's nothing."

 

"Even the truly evil lose all their power in death," Aya replies, casually wiping the blade of his katana clean on the doctor's lab coat before returning it to its sheath. As I've come to expect, his expression betrays nothing of what he's currently feeling. He's just killed a man but, save for the body and the pool of blood at his feet, you'd never know it. "Mirimoto deserved to die," he continues, his eyes narrowing as he takes the time to glance around the pristine looking laboratory. "No research, however noble the desired end result may be, is worth the lives of both mother and child."

 

"But we don't know about the children," I mutter, stepping over Mirimoto's cooling corpse and aimlessly picking through a collection of test tubes on the bench top. "They're probably still alive. Somewhere. When Singapura said they were sold, well, what's to say they weren't simply sold to childless couples with fat wallets and lots of love just going wasting?"

 

"And what's to say they weren't sold to pedophiles or modern day slavers?" Aya retorts coolly. "As much as I'd like to believe your theory I'm sorry to say that the pessimist in me leans towards mine being the more likely scenario."

 

"Er... Thanks, Aya. I'd actually been trying really hard not to go down that road," I sigh, my attention caught by the row of old fashioned Bunsen burners set up along the edge of the bench. "Hey! Do you remember these from school? A girl in my class, she had really long hair, really, *really* long hair actually, once accidentally flicked her plait through the flame and set it alight. At the time we all thought it was really funny."

 

"As you do when someone's hair is on fire," Aya responds, shaking his head as he opens the door of the industrial size fridge at the back of the room. "Urgh," he groans, leaving the door swinging open and taking a hurried step back. "You might want to come take a look at this."

 

"I'm pretty sure I don't," I murmur, nonetheless trotting over and peering in the fridge. "And, oh yeah, I was right," I add drily, slamming the fridge door shut and only just managing to control my gag reflexes. Half formed fetuses in jars of yellowy fluid of some description, while tolerable to look at on television screens, are, fact of life time here, nowhere near so tolerable in reality.

 

"If you're searching for an appropriate word," Aya comments, watching as I fumble in my coat for my cigarettes and lighter, "I think you'll find 'repulsive' works well."

 

"I was thinking more along the lines of 'gross' myself," I murmur, sticking a smoke in my mouth as I continue digging around for my lighter.

 

"You know what that fridge contains, don't you?" Aya continues, frowning. "In there is the continuation of Mirimoto's work. In fact, all this lab probably needs to continue operating is a new doctor. We walk out of here and come morning there could already be a replacement studying the research and deciding where to go next."

 

"Mmm... And what can we do about it?" I mumble through my cigarette as, my coat finally giving up its treasure, I gleefully pull my lighter out of my pocket. Cheered by the thought of a nicotine rush, I'm about to light my cigarette when I notice Aya staring at my lighter as though he's studying it. His expression determined, he then walks over to the Bunsen burners and, one by one, turns them on.

 

"Does this answer your question?" he murmurs, glancing at me before talking into his com and confirming that both Ken and Omi are already at the rendezvous point and well out of harms way.

 

"Uh... Yeah," I mutter, slightly shocked by his snap decision but nonetheless in total agreement with it. "Good thinking."

 

"With any luck Kritiker will have located the head of operations before they have time to start up again," Aya responds, holding out his hand for the lighter as the smell of gas begins to fill the room. "I'll do it," he continues, gesturing towards the door. "You should go and get a head start. Given the contents of the room and the amount of gas, I expect this place to blow big time and..."

 

"And? With what, you in it?" I protest, shaking my head adamantly. "Uh-uh. I ain't leaving here without you."

 

"I'll be right behind you," Aya replies, giving me an annoyed look. "Think about it though. If something goes wrong there's no point in both of us going up in flames. This is my idea, remember, so it's only logical that I'm the one to see it through. Oh, and by the way, if you think I'm acting in a suicidal manner, let me assure you that I'm not. I simply want to ensure that this place goes up."

 

"Tough," I state firmly, holding the lighter away from Aya and scowling at him. "Either way, we both go together. To put it another way, we either leave this place together or we die together. If you don't like it then, well, I'll say it again... *tough*."

 

"Yohji! You're not..."

 

... Listening? Well, no, actually, I'm not. Leave him here? I mean, not freakin' likely. I'd never hear the end of it from either Omi or Kiri for one thing.

 

"You can inject as much exasperation into my name as you like," I interrupt, "I'm still not leaving without you. Now, we either do it my way or you'd better start looking around for two sticks to rub together to do it your way."

 

"Stubborn idiot," Aya hisses, looking for a second or two as though he's going to lunge at me in order to wrestle the lighter out of my hand. Thankfully he decides however that it's not worth the effort and starts to stalk towards the door. "*Fine*. We'll do it your way then," he snarls, folding his arms across his chest as he waits for me to join him.

 

"Ready?" I query, ignoring the flash of anger in Aya's eyes and preparing to ignite the lighter.

 

"Ready," Aya mutters, watching intently as, ever the consummate showman, I carefully light my cigarette before lobbing the lighter across the room. As we'd hoped for, the reaction is immediate and flames quickly begin to consume everything in their path.

 

"Time to go," I mutter, grabbing Aya's arm and dragging him through the door as the flames move ever closer to the gas tanks feeding the burners. Our job done, Aya shakes my hand off and, together, we start to run down the corridor towards the exit. We're barely halfway there when the first explosion rocks the complex. Adrenaline kicking in, we pick up pace and crash through the double doors that lead to the car park just as the flames start to flow into the corridor. By the time we're a safe distance away the entire building is engulfed in the brilliant red and orange fire.

 

"Told you my way was the right way," I pant, patting Aya on the shoulder as he stares, his expression one of satisfaction, at the flames. "Come on. Let's go join the others and get the hell out of here."

 

~*~

 

The thought of coffee winning out over my need for a shower, I pull my robe on over my boxers and, leaving the sanctuary of my bedroom, meander in the direction of the kitchen. My hair still smells strongly of smoke but, addictions coming before personal hygiene, bathing can wait until I've had my morning pick-me-up. If the others don't like how I smell then that's just their bad luck. While cleanliness is good, caffeine is better. And getting a fix of both nicotine and caffeine together is, by my way of thinking anyway, even better still.

 

Entering the kitchen, I find the unusual sight of Singapura sitting at the table smoking a cigarette and drinking a cup of coffee and -- oh-oh -- raise my eyebrow at her questioningly. "And what have we to thank for your gracious company this early in the day?" I query, slumping down in the seat next to Sing and helping myself to one of her smokes.

 

"Early for you is actually close to eleven," Aya mutters drily, wandering into the room and putting the kettle on. Unlike me he's dressed in his work clothes and looks as though he's been up -- which he most likely has -- for hours. "You know something, Yohji, you could die in your sleep and we wouldn't even think to check up on you until nightfall at the very earliest."

 

"You sure do know how to make a person feel all warm and wanted," I reply, wasting one of my most charming smiles on him. "Oh, waiter! Waiter! Be a dear and make me a cup of coffee."

 

"What did your last slave die of?" Singapura smirks as, shaking his head and scowling, Aya gets my cup out of the cupboard and slams it down on the bench top. "Exhaustion?"

 

"How ever did you guess?" I grin, leaning back in my chair and blowing smoke at the ceiling. "Hey! Come on, team work and all that. Aya's already at the bench and I'm sure he'd just love to make me a cup of coffee."

 

"It's an honor, truly," Aya retorts sarcastically over his shoulder. "In fact, if you'd like to get a bell to summons me I'd be delighted to cater to your every whim. Serving you is what I live for, after all."

 

"Sounds good to me," I reply with a laugh, liking the idea a lot. A *real* lot. "Perhaps you could wear a..."

 

"Yohji!" Aya interrupts, turning around to give me a look that tells me quite clearly that unless I'd like to find ground glass in my coffee I'd do well to quit while I was ahead. "Assuming you want to be drinking this coffee as opposed to wearing it, I think that's quite enough."

 

The arrival of Ken and Omi saving me from having to attempt to come up with a suitably apologetic reply, I wave a greeting and point at Singapura. "Look. We have an unexpected breakfast guest."

 

"*You* have an unexpected breakfast guest," Ken replies, going to the fridge and grabbing a can of Coke. "Having eaten hours ago, the rest of us just have an unexpected guest. You know, Yohji, and forgive me if this sounds completely ludicrous, but have you ever considered getting up early enough to have breakfast with us one morning? You never know, you might even enjoy the experience."

 

"Not as much as staying in bed I wouldn't," I respond cheerfully. "Thanks for the offer though. The next blue moon that comes along I might even contemplate it."

 

"For someone who hates mornings so much you sure have a lot to say," Sing comments, reaching under the desk and retrieving her leather satchel. "Me, I can't even grunt coherently without my first cup of coffee hitting my bloodstream."

 

"This is called hopeful anticipation," I reply, flashing a grin at Aya who's spooning coffee into my cup and looking none too impressed about it. "You could also say that I'm just naturally garrulous."

 

"Or full of shit even," Ken states, grinning as he takes a seat on the opposite side of the table.

 

"Coffee, *sir*," Aya mutters, walking over and ungraciously placing my cup on the table in front of me. "Please. Enjoy," he adds sardonically, returning to the bench and starting go through his usual tea making ritual. "Would you like a cup of tea, Omi?"

 

"Yes please, Aya-kun," Omi beams, sitting next to Ken and looking for the world as though Aya's offer of a cup of tea was all that he needed to make his life complete.

 

"Yes please, Aya-kun," I mimic, rolling my eyes at Singapura. "See? This is why I choose to stay in bed for as long as I can. At least in bed everything's nice and peaceful."

 

"My heart bleeds for you, Yohji, it really does," Sing responds, glancing over her shoulder at Aya. "As much as I don't want to ruin your morning tea or anything, but are you almost ready? Believe it or not I do actually have other places I need to be."

 

"If it's about last night," Aya replies, making no move to speed up whatsoever, "then I can tell you now that the fire was my decision. If Kritiker are unhappy with the outcome then I take full responsibility."

 

"Hey, it was my lighter," I interject, pulling the cup of coffee closer and savoring the scent of its rich aroma. "So it's not like Aya's the only one to blame. I was there too and I stand by his decision whole heartedly."

 

"Kritiker don't have any issues with the burning of the Faber Institute at all," Singapura murmurs, reaching into her satchel and pulling out, along with one of her beloved folders, a stack of newspapers. "In fact it's something we regret not having thought of before sending you in. Too caught up in wanting Dr Mirimoto stopped we hadn't thought of his research simply being picked up by another and are appreciative of your use of initiative."

 

"But?" Ken prompts, batting his now empty Coke can from hand to hand across the table top. "No offense, Sing, but you don't usually come out here just to pat us on the back for a job well done. Come on, spill. There has to be more to it."

 

"Ken's right," Aya comments, carefully placing a steaming cup of tea in front of Omi before returning to the bench and leaning his back against it. "What are you not telling us, Singapura?"

 

"I'm not 'not telling' you anything," Sing mutters, shaking her head. "Hell, if you'd all just stop bickering or thinking of your stomachs for a second I'd be able to get to the damn point!"

 

"I'm taking it then that your answer would be a no if we asked you to move in with us," I snicker, picking up my coffee and taking a very welcome mouthful. As I would have felt safe betting my life on, it tastes perfect and, smiling, I toast Aya with the cup. Given how begrudgingly he made it he could have intentionally put sugar in it just to annoy me but, no, not Aya. The -- childish and pointless -- thought probably never even crossed his mind.

 

"I'd rather eat a plate of snake entrails," Singapura retorts, mock shuddering. "Seriously though, can we get down to business? What I've got to bring to your attention is important and may very well have far ranging consequences."

 

"Is it about last night's mission though?" Aya queries, warming his hands around his cup. "If you've managed to find out more about Mirimoto's mysterious backer then we'd be delighted to hear it."

 

"I think you'll want to rethink the whole 'delighted' angle," Sing sighs, spreading the newspapers out across the table. "As you can see, the destruction of the Faber Institute and the death of Dr Mirimoto made front page news across the country. You may also recognize the picture of the man who's accompanying all the headlines as one Kimura Hirotaka ..."

 

"The head of Ewigkeit?" Omi interrupts, looking confused. "What's he got to do with either the Faber Institute or Dr Mirimoto? I thought he was simply a high profile businessman with a lot of friends in high places."

 

"Nice hair," I drawl, picking up one of the papers in order to get a better look at Kimura. A very well preserved, slightly eerie looking man in his late thirties stares back at me in black and white newsprint. While his expensive business suit is completely standard, his perfectly straight hair falls below his shoulders and, curiously, appears to be a platinum blond color. Well, make that platinum blond *and* black, as, three quarters of the way down, his hair turns to pitch black. I've never seen anything quite like it before. Irrationally though, strangeness of his appearance aside, there's something about the cold expression on his face that makes me instinctively wary of him.

 

"Talk about perfect regrowth," Ken mutters. "Is it just me though or does he look a bit, oh, I don't know... *creepy*?"

 

"He certainly looks... unusual," Aya states, wandering over to the table and peering over Omi's shoulder.

 

"I read in a magazine once that he washes his hair with a shampoo that contains the dust of ground up diamonds," Omi pipes up. "And, see that nail on his little finger," he continues, pointing to Kimura's left hand on the paper in front of him, "it's made from solid gold. According to the same magazine article that mentioned the diamond shampoo, the gold is actually from a melted down artefact from one of the tombs contained within the great pyramids."

 

"Rich, pretentious, funny looking, *and* an idiot," I declare, pushing the paper away. "Allow me to say right now that I don't like him already."

 

"Not only is he all those thing Yohji so succinctly pointed out," Singapura replies, "but he's also the man behind Mirimoto's research. As you've gathered from the papers, Kimura is taking what happened last night very personally. Ignoring the reward that he's offered for any information leading to an arrest, we're very concerned that he's going to take matters into his own hands and that there's a good chance you may all be in danger."

 

"But I thought he was just a businessman who had a sideline in dating celebrities and getting his face in glossy magazines," Ken muses. "I've never heard of him being linked to anything other than Ewigkeit and gossip columns."

 

"There's two sides to Ewigkeit," Singapura explains with a sigh. "The public face that everyone knows about and the other, far seedier face. As far as the world at large knows, Ewigkeit is a highly successful corporation that deals with everything from media ownership to logistics and transport. In the world of business they, and Kimura as their CEO, are untouchable. What nobody knows however -- hell, we at Kritiker didn't even know until early this morning either -- is the underground networked controlled by Ewigkeit is almost as prevalent and as wide spread as that of the yakuza. Kimura, before you ask, runs both sides. The, if you like, dark side of Ewigkeit is so secretive and protected that we've run into them in past without even having known it."

 

"We have?" I query, not really liking where this appears to be leading. "If they're so big and bad, how come it's taken until now for Kritiker to wake up to their presence?"

 

"We had an idea that there was a new dominate voice in the underground," Sing mutters, shrugging, "but, until making the breakthrough only a few hours ago, we never connected the gangs of ankh wearing thugs that have been stirring things up with Ewigkeit."

 

"Yet Ewigkeit is German for eternity," Aya comments as he finally deigns to take a seat, "and an ankh is the Egyptian symbol for eternal life or, to put it more simply, forever. If you think about it, the connection is glaringly obvious."

 

"When you put it like that, yes, the connection *is* glaringly obvious," Singapura replies. "But you think about it, Aya. Ewigkeit are a world renowned corporation. Jumping to the conclusion that they have ties to the underground would be akin to thinking that just because Microsoft make so much money they have to be involved with the mafia. It's so obvious as to be easily dismissed."

 

"Apparently," Aya responds flatly, picking through the papers and frowning at their headlines. "I assume you know why it is that Kimura is crying outrage to the media about Mirimoto and the Institute?" he queries. "I mean, even if he is just using it as an excuse for some free publicity he sure seems to have a lot to say on the subject."

 

"Ewigkeit were one of the main backers of the Faber Institute," Singapura murmurs, lighting another cigarette. "This we knew about already as it's public knowledge. Ewigkeit work hard at keeping their image user friendly and do this by throwing their spare change at both community events and medical research. They are, it has to be said, an extremely well run organization. Their public face is faultless and their dark side all but impossible to link to them."

 

"So what you're basically saying is that Kimura's merely having a bleat to the media about what happened last night because Ewigkeit had been pouring money into the place," I comment, failing to see what the big deal is. "Isn't that, like, normal? You know, nothing that should really bother us. The results of our missions have made the press before and you've never come to brief us about the possible aftermath."

 

"This is different," Sing replies bluntly. "Albeit too late, our investigations uncovered what we believe to be the true reason behind Mirimoto's hideous line of research. As Aya has already pointed out, Ewigkeit is German for eternity and, yes, both sides of the organization use the ankh as their symbol. The business side use it on their offices and their letterhead while the underground side wear it either as an earring or a tattoo to show their loyalty and standing. Now, everything that bears the mark of Ewigkeit is controlled by Kimura. Power hungry and obsessed by his own mortality, Ewigkeit is Kimura's baby. Not content however with his organization being his legacy to an unsuspecting world, we have reason to believe that Kimura was secretly funding Mirimoto's cloning research."

 

"You've got to be kidding me!" Ken exclaims, looking disgusted. "You mean this creep was having Mirimoto do all those awful things to those women because he seriously thought it would result in him being able to be cloned? That's just repugnant."

 

"Repugnant as it is," Singapura responds, "we believe it to be the truth. You only have to look at the name of his organization and his use of the ankh to see that Kimura is transfixed by the prospect of, in one form or another, living forever. By taking out Mirimoto and destroying all his research we've put a very big dint in his plans and it's clear that he's pretty pissed about it. Reports are coming in thick and fast that tell us in no uncertain terms that he's out for blood and that his people are already looking in to who's responsible."

 

"We're not going to have to move again, are we?" Omi queries anxiously, looking crestfallen. "Obviously we will if we have to, but..."

 

"We're not looking at moving you, not for the moment anyway," Sing states, cutting Omi off. "Be warned however that, depending on how close Ewigkeit get, that it may nonetheless come to that."

 

"And you're certain that their threat is a serious one?" Aya asks plainly, reaching across the table and pulling Sing's folder towards him. "We have, after all, angered people in the past and Kritiker have never thought to personally give us the heads up about it. I don't doubt your information, Singapura, however I can't help but wonder whether Kritiker are simply jumping to conclusions in relation to all of this."

 

"Ewigkeit are extremely good at what they do," Singapura replies, gesturing at Aya to open the folder. "See for yourself. They have been rising in stature for the better part of a decade now and we've only just discovered them. That in itself should tell you something about how cunning and well connected they are. While we still think it would be exceptionally unlikely that they'd be able to link Weiss with Mirimoto's death, we don't want to take any risks and I'm here not only to bring you up-to-date but also to tell you that effect immediately you're all off active duty. This may be an overreaction on Kritiker's part but, it always being better to be safe than sorry, we don't want to take the risk of one of your missions inadvertently crossing Ewigkeit's path."

 

"While this is all well and good, we can't simply be taken off active because, in case you've forgotten, we're still working on the Hideyuki matter," Aya responds, opening the folder but paying no real attention to its contents. "Now, he returns to Tokyo tomorrow night and we've made arrangements to be waiting for him outside his club. Given the work we've already put into this case I must insist that we see it through."

 

It takes me a few seconds to cotton on to the case Aya is talking about but when I do I nod my agreement. Hideyuki. Drug pusher extraordinaire who just happens to be outside the confines of the law because he's the son of a high ranking police officer. Oh yeah, I remember now. As hard as it was to suck up to him, he thinks Ken and I are his friends now and that tomorrow night we're going to set him up with a moneyed up buyer. "Aya's right. He's already used to seeing us around and would become suspicious if he was suddenly surrounded by a sea of new faces," I murmur, shrugging. "Surely this Ewigkeit threat isn't so big that we can't complete our mission."

 

"I *had* forgotten about Hideyuki," Singapura sighs, scowling. "Fine. Okay. Given that you've already set this up then, so long as you're extra careful, you can finish it. After that however it is imperative that you keep a low profile until we've either worked out what to do about Ewigkeit or Kimura finds a new target to fixate on."

 

"You really believe he's that much of a threat?" Omi queries, his expression worried as he glances at Ken.

 

"Yes, unfortunately we do," Sing replies, gesturing again at the folder Aya has in front of him. "Contained in that folder is all the information we've so far been able to gather in relation to both Kimura and Ewigkeit. Read it. All of you. Unwittingly we've..."

 

Having heard quite enough about Ewigkeit for the time being, I zone Singapura's voice and the ensuing conversation out and entertain myself by watching Aya. There's just no help for it. Even frowning in concentration he's almost too beautiful to be believed. Sing, who like all of Kritiker's female agents has the good looks of a fashion model, pales in comparison next to him. Not that I'd ever tell her this, mind you.

 

Catching my eyes on him, Aya shoots me an annoyed look and taps on the folder, indicating that I should concentrate. Only just resisting the urge to salute him, I focus on Singapura and let her voice wash over me until, finally, she retrieves both her cigarettes and her satchel and stands up.

 

"Are we all clear now on the threat Ewigkeit poses?" Sing queries, her gaze fixed on me for some reason. "Yohji?"

 

"Clear as," I murmur, smiling. "We take out Hideyuki and then we amuse ourselves experimenting with flower arrangements in the evening until we're told otherwise. We also steer clear of men wearing ankhs. Got it."

 

"While I perhaps wouldn't have put it as blithely as that, you're right," Singapura replies, starting to move towards the door. "Once we have more information I shall be sure to pass it on to you."

 

"It will be okay, Singapura," Omi states with clearly forced optimism as he stands up and follows her over to the door. "Come on. We've just got some sunflowers in and I'll give you one to cheer you up."

 

"Thank you, Omi," Sing murmurs, the smile that accompanies her response not quite reaching her eyes. "That would be lovely."

 

"'Cos I hid all the best ones at the back I'd better come and pick it," Ken declares, bounding up from the table. "C'mon. It's about time we reopened the store anyway."

 

"See ya, Sing," I call out, wishing I'd had the forethought to purloin another smoke before she'd packed them away. "Next time you've got bad news for us be sure to drop by."

 

"Was there any particular reason for you to be staring at me a few moments ago?" Aya queries coolly once the others have left the room. "Do I have something in my teeth or, taking what Singapura's just informed us seriously, were you simply just trying to memorize what I look like?"

 

"Neither," I grin, leaning back and stretching as Aya starts to clean up the table. "I was actually trying to decide who, out of you and Sing, I'd pick up if I didn't know either of you and you were both sitting at a bar."

 

"Oh," Aya murmurs mildly, neatly stacking the newspapers before picking up the empty cups and carrying them over to the sink. "I'm glad to see that your mind was on the job then," he continues, his reaction to my response being nothing if not boring. Still, I don't know what I really expected. My bisexuality never having been something I've kept secret, I could have probably told Aya that I'd been wondering what he'd look like naked and all he'd think was that his theory about my brains being in my pants had been proven once and for all.

 

"Do you want to know who I ended up deciding on?" I smirk, knowing that I'm wasting my time trying to get under Aya's skin but unable to stop myself from trying.

 

"Oddly enough, no, I don't," Aya responds, starting the washing up. "Sorry if that comes as a disappointment to you, Yohji, but I'm sort of more interested in this new threat than I am in the orientation of your libido."

 

"You rate it as one we should take seriously?" I query, what little professionalism I possess telling me that perhaps now isn't really the time for jokes.

 

"Of course we should take it seriously," Aya replies, glancing over his shoulder and giving a weary, resigned shrug. "I doubt anything will come of it, what with Kritiker already on the case, but, certainly, we should take more care and be more vigilant about things. We're not, contrary to what we sometimes may think, untouchable, you know."

 

Sighing, I nod and stand up, the time having come to go in search for another nicotine fix before I can contemplate starting the day proper.

 

"Yeah. I know."

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

Reality holds no sway over me as I struggle vainly against the darkness of unconsciousness. Hours, maybe even days pass as I fight to open my eyes and keep them open. As hard as I fight though, I'm always thwarted, the oblivion of sleep always swooping back down to reclaim me. Life carries on around me, I know it because I can sense it, but I play no part in it. People move about the room I'm in, shifting furniture and dumping what sounds like boxes on the floor, but I may as well be invisible for all the attention they pay me.

 

Sometimes, just before my world turns to total blackness once more, I think I hear Singapura's voice. Unable to reconcile the strange words coming out her mouth though I put it down to being nothing more than a hallucination.

 

"No. It's too soon. They need to sleep a little longer. It's in everyone's best interest if things are allowed to cool down before they wake. Trust me. We need this time more than they do."

 

~*~

 

Yawning, I struggle into a sitting position and peer blearily around me, my sleep fuddled brain trying to come to terms with what my eyes are trying to convey to it. I feel, not to put a too fine a point on it or anything, like Alice just after she fell ass first down the rabbit hole. I'm relatively used to waking up in unknown surrounds, but this... This is something else again.

 

The room I'm in is an unfamiliar one, yet the comforter covering me, unless my eyes are playing tricks, is mine. Mine as in the one I can remember last falling asleep under back at the Dragon's Tears. Running my fingers through my tangled hair, I stare down at the comforter, searching for the burn mark that finally brought home to me the dangers of smoking in bed. Finding it, I don't know whether to feel relieved or completely and utterly spooked. It's a tough call, one that I don't exactly feel confident of making.

 

Just what the fuck is going on here?

 

Throwing back the comforter, I swing my legs over the edge of the mattress and, wincing from the effort, place my feet on the floor. With consciousness comes the cold hard fact of life that everything hurts. I don't feel so much as though I've been run over by a bus as I do a convoy of heavily laden freight trucks. Head, shoulders, ribs, thighs - just about you name it and it hurts. I'm in the process of hoping the other guy came off even worse than I did when it all comes flooding back.

 

Shit.

 

Hideyuki not being in the club as we'd expected... The fight in the alleyway... Walking into Ewigkeit's trap... Black clad strangers appearing out of nowhere and, seemingly, joining the fight on our side... Aya going down... The suffocating sensation of the chloroform being clamped over my mouth and nose...

 

Shit. Again.

 

Where am I and how did I get here? More importantly, where are the others?

 

Deciding that panicking would hardly be in my best interests, I take a deep breath and stand up. I'm only wearing a pair of boxers and, having enough to worry about already, I choose not to think about what happened to the rest of my clothing. My body issues forth with a vehemently worded complaint to the management but I ignore it and limp over to the window. Pulling back the curtains unveils a view that, not that I needed it or anything, increases my confusion tenfold. Instead of urban sprawl I find myself staring numbly at a large overgrown and seemingly abandoned garden that once upon a time was probably someone's pride and joy.

 

After so long asleep the sudden brightness of the -- morning? -- sun is too much for me and I have to turn away from the window. Like the garden, the room shows no signs of having been lived in for years. Once white walls are now grubby and stained with age and the dirty carpet looks like it's seen better decades as opposed to merely better years. Everything smells musty and closed up. Other than the bed the only other furniture in the room is a decrepit looking dresser. Stacked against the wall is a small collection of cardboard boxes, each bearing my name scrawled across the side in thick black marker.

 

Oh yeah. Hello Mr White Rabbit, could you possibly tell me the way to the Cheshire Cat?

 

Not liking the weirdness I've woken up to one little bit, I walk over to the boxes and open the first one I come to. Seeing that it contains a neatly folded collection of my clothes should surprise me but, well, it doesn't. I suspect the other boxes contain the rest of my meager belongings. I've only been up for a couple of minutes and already I feel as though I'm beyond the concept of surprise. Snatching up a pair of jeans and a black t-shirt, I dress as hurriedly as my injuries will allow and stride determinedly over to the door. Enough is freakin' enough. I want answers and, Goddamn it, I want them now.

 

Grabbing the door handle -- the idea of the door actually being unlocked never having occurred to me -- I wrench it violently and the door flies open, very nearly knocking me off my feet in the process. Swearing under my breath, I waste a bit of precious energy by giving the door a vicious kick before stepping into the passageway. Although it hurts my foot it still nonetheless makes me feel momentarily better.

 

"Ah," an unfamiliar male voice grunts from behind me, "you're finally awake."

 

"Ten points for observation," I snap, spinning around and glaring at the man. If I'm playing with fire then so fucking be it. I feel as though I'm out of my depth and because of this playing nice is just about the furthest thing from my mind. If the man mountain in the bad suit doesn't like it then, well, that's just his tough shit.

 

"Singapura said you wake up like a bear with a sore head," the man smirks, gesturing down the passage. "Come on. The others are waiting for you. I'm Tonkinese, by the way."

 

Kritiker!

 

Wonderful. Just fucking wonderful. Looks like the hoops they've got us jumping through are getting more surreal by the minute.

 

"I couldn't give a flying fuck if you were Garfield or Hello freakin' Kitty," I scowl, ignoring Tonkinese's offer of an arm to lean on and stalking off as fast as my battered body can manage. "Just what the fuck is going on here, huh?"

 

"Everything will be explained in time," Tonkinese replies, striding in front of me and using the considerable bulk of his body to push open a door at the end of the corridor. "Getting your boxers in a knot ain't gonna help anything."

 

"Thanks for the advice, Confucius," I mutter, narrowing my eyes and giving Tonkinese a final, malevolent stare before stepping through the door. "Next time I want a question answered I'll be sure to seek you out."

 

"Looking forward to it already," Tonkinese replies with another smirk, waving at me coyly as he closes the door behind me and disappears.

 

"Asshole," I hiss, turning around just as a familiar slight figure throws himself at me and wraps his arms tightly around my waist.

 

"Yohji-kun!" Omi cries, hugging me as though his very life depended on it. The strength of his embrace adds to my pain but I welcome the sensation of his body against mine and hug him back as best I can. If I've ever been as pleased to see him then I can't recall it. "Am I glad to see you! Singapura said you were here but I had to see you for myself before I'd believe it."

 

"I don't know where here exactly is," I reply, extricating myself from Omi and ruffling his hair, "but, yeah, wherever it is I'm definitely here."

 

"Well that makes three of us now," Ken interjects, giving me a long-suffering look from his slumped position at what looks to be a dining table. Their eyes shadowed and fading bruises marring their faces, both he and Omi look pretty much just as I feel. A quick glance around the rooms confirms that we appear to be in a dining-room-slash-living-room of sorts and that like the rest of the house it's in serious need of the services of a good interior decorator. The peeling wallpaper in particular is something even my grandparents' generation would have scorned as old fashioned. "Given how I felt when I came to things are almost looking good."

 

"Where's Aya?" I query, following Omi over to the table and all but collapsing into a chair. As gratifying as it is to see Ken and Omi, I need to know where Aya is before I can even consider relaxing. "Don't tell me I actually beat him out of bed for once? I know things are strange, but surely they can't be *that* strange."

 

Oh-oh...

 

The words are barely out of my mouth before I realize the impossibility of what it is I'm saying. Aya could have had his head repeatedly slammed into a brick wall and be suffering the worst concussion imaginable and he'd *still* manage to get out of bed before me. It's just one of those inescapable facts of life. Hell, he's even told me that, if left to my own devices, I could out sleep a cat with ease.

 

"Omi? Ken?" Oh dear God. Fantastic. I sound as anxious as I feel. Today seriously just keeps getting better and better. "Where's Aya? Have you seen him? Is he injured? Has Singapura said anything?" I run my questions together like a small child, all the time feeling the pounding in my head increasing in both tempo and force. If I thought screaming would release some of the pressure I can feel building up then I'd scream and scream until I had no voice left. To hell with control, I'm fairly sure it's overrated anyway.

 

"I keep asking," Omi murmurs, glancing helplessly at Ken, "but..."

 

"But the Powers That Be aren't answering," Ken finishes glumly. "We've only been up for something like ten minutes and believe me when I say we don't know any more than you do."

 

"We were waiting for Yohji to put in an appearance so that we could bring you all up to speed at once," Singapura states from a doorway that I hadn't even noticed leading off the room. Wearing a very un-Singapura-like pink gingham apron over her usual tight fitting black skirt suit and knee high fuck me boots, she looks just about as out of her depth as I feel. "Now, before we get down to business, what would you all like for breakfast? We've got..."

 

"Cut the domestic crap and get to the point," I interrupt flatly, banging my hands down on the table for emphasis. "I'm here now so tell us where the fuck Aya is."

 

Sighing, Singapura shakes her head and steps further into the room. "Somali?" she calls out, glancing behind her into what I can now see is the kitchen. "You're on."

 

"Abyssinian will unfortunately not be joining you," a tall, elegantly dressed middle-aged man murmurs matter-of-factly as he steps into the dining room. "Allow me to introduce myself, I'm Somali, Kritiker's head of operations in Japan."

 

"Wow, we're not worthy," I mutter sarcastically, sizing Somali up and coming to the rapid conclusion that I dislike him on sight. I don't know whether it's his small piggy eyes or the almost cruel set of his thin lips but, there's just no help for it, I instantly don't like him. "So tell me, Mr Head Of Operations In Japan," I continue, staring at him coldly, "oh, and excuse me for sounding like a cracked record here, but just where the hell is Aya?"

 

Looking me in the eye and no doubt finding me somewhat lacking, Somali gives a dismissive shrug of his shoulders. "Abyssinian..."

 

"His name is Aya," I mutter, meeting Somali's steely gaze unflinchingly. Again, I couldn't care less if I'm in danger of pushing buttons.

 

Somali shrugs again. "I believe his name is actually Ra..."

 

"Again with the repeating myself," I scowl, cutting him off. "His name is Aya, okay? Perhaps you'd like me to spell it for you. Now, I accept that you've probably never met him and wouldn't know him if you fell over him, but the least you can do is offer him the respect of using his name. Got it?"

 

"Yohji," Omi whispers nervously, sinking down in the empty chair between Ken and myself and placing his hand lightly on my thigh. "Don't you think we should just hear Somali out?"

 

"So long as he uses Aya's name then I'm all ears," I reply, folding my arms across my chest and leaning back in my chair. Fuck him and, while I'm at it, fuck Kritiker too. Contrary to their opinion we're more than trained cats and deserve to be recognized as such.

 

Sighing, Somali shares a guarded look with Singapura before giving a curt nod, his lips struggling into a parody of a reassuring smile. "As you wish," he murmurs, walking further into the room and coming to a stop at the head of the table. "*Aya*, and there's really no easy way of telling you this, is currently missing in action..."

 

The silence that greets Somali's bombshell is so absolute that it's almost as though our very world momentarily stops spinning on its axis. Omi's fingers dig into my thigh and, numb, I concentrate on the pain of his nails embedding themselves into my flesh. For perhaps the first time in my life I can think of nothing to say. Missing in action? Aya? The fight was bloody, yeah, but surely he would have been able to get away.

 

I mean, surely...

 

"The fight that took place three nights ago was, as you've already realized, a trap," Somali continues, both his expression and tone of voice devoid of all emotion. If he cares about our shock or the fact that Omi is blinking back tears then he's doing a hell of a job of hiding it. "We underestimated Kimura's rage over both the death of Dr Mirimoto and the destruction of the Faber Institute and subsequently let our guard down. Ewigkeit were waiting for you in that alleyway and, although we sent extra forces, we discovered the trap too late. On behalf of Kritiker I humbly apologize for this oversight on our behalf. We should have been more diligent. Rest assured however that we will be more thorough with our information in the future."

 

"Enough with the Kritiker sob story, I'm feeling all warm and fuzzy," Ken mutters drily. "We get it, okay? You fucked up, shit happens and all that. Now, cut to the point and tell us about Aya. Is he dead?"

 

"To the best of our knowledge, no," Singapura replies quietly, reaching into the pocket of her apron and pulling out a pack of cigarettes. After lighting one and taking a long drag, she places both the packet and the lighter on the table and propels them towards me. Choosing to turn a blind eye to how dithery I suddenly feel, I light a cigarette and inhale the welcome nicotine rush with a gratefulness that borders on the truly pathetic.

 

Noticing Omi's too bright eyes on me, I berate myself for being so inconsiderate as to blow smoke in his face and make to stand up. He stops me though by shaking his head and increasing the pressure of his hand on my thigh. Knowing instinctively that Omi's delicate sense of loyalty and family is in serious danger of collapsing in a heap, I nod and sit back down. I mean, hey, when your world is falling down around your ears, what's a little smoke between friends?

 

"So, if you think he's alive," I murmur shakily, fixing my gaze once again on Somali, "what are we doing sitting around here playing this futile game of twenty questions when we should be out there looking for him?"

 

"It's too dangerous for the three of you to be in Tokyo at the moment," Somali responds, gesturing around him airily. "That is why you've been brought here. Until new prey along, Weiss are Ewigkeit's number one priority. Kimura took Mirimoto's passing very personally and, as a man to hold grudges, he wishes to avenge the doctor's death."

 

"You say this yet at the same time you think Aya is still alive," Omi whispers, hesitantly glancing up and, for the first time, meeting Somali's eyes. "Surely if Kimura wanted revenge he would have simply had Aya killed and been done with it. What you are saying contradicts itself, Somali."

 

"I am confident that Abysin... *Aya*... is still alive," Somali replies solemnly. "Whether Kimura believes he'll be able to use him to lure the rest of you out or whether it's for some other reason, I have no doubt that he's still alive. Kimura is a man ruled by the power of imagery and delusions of his own greatness, if he had killed Aya then rest assured we'd be aware of it. Going on past form his body most likely would have been laid out in a public place for all to see."

 

"Somali!" Ken exclaims, angrily shaking his head. "Do you mind, huh? This is our friend you're talking about here, not some sort of object."

 

"Forgive me," Somali murmurs, looking anything but apologetic. To him Aya -- a good Kritiker agent should never have allowed himself to be captured -- is probably little more than a nuisance, something that he'd like nothing more than to sweep under the mat and forget about. "I'm sorry if that sounded harsh but, and I say this with the benefit of having studied Ewigkeit in the utmost detail, you have to understand that this is how they operate." Pausing, he gives another one of his annoying, dismissive shrugs. "Your friend, I'm sure, is still alive."

 

"And again I feel compelled to ask just what the fuck are we doing sitting here when we should be out looking for Aya," I grind out, cursorily stubbing out the cigarette butt before lighting another one. "So Ewigkeit's looking for us, big fucking deal. We've dealt with being public enemy number one before. I don't know what game you're playing but you need to get out of our way here. If you think we're going to sit back and abandon Aya then you've got another thing coming."

 

"I understand how you feel," Somali replies with all but blatant disinterest, "but you are to remain here. While you may not believe it, Kritiker takes the protection of their agents seriously and we'd be signing your death warrants if we were to allow you to return to Tokyo at the moment. Because we accept blame for what has happened it is our responsibility to do our best to rectify it."

 

"And what of Aya?" Ken queries bluntly. "Is he to be hung out to dry as the Kritiker scapegoat? As Yohji just said, that's unacceptable to us. We, and let's just mention here that this is solely Kritiker's doing, are a team and, as a team, we look out for each other. There's no way we can just sit here knowing that Aya's out there needing our help."

 

"There is nothing you can do that is not already being done," Somali states flatly, his eyes narrowing. "We have the best agents Kritiker has to offer on the case. Think about it. There are only three of you whereas Kritiker has dozens of agents engaged in the task of locating and retrieving Abyssinian. I appreciate that you are anxious to assist but I have to insist that you do as you are told and leave the clean up to us."

 

"This is complete bullshit!" I exclaim, the nicotine having no effect on calming my nerves whatsoever. If I have to listen to this asshole dictate to us much longer I'm going to end up trying my best to shove whatever's at hand down his throat. "We're not your fucking pets, Somali! If you think you're busily keeping us alive so that we'll work for you again after you've so coldly stabbed Aya in the back then you've got another fucking thing coming."

 

"Just out of curiosity," Ken interjects quietly, "what are you going to do to us if we get up and make to walk out of here, huh? If you're, to use your term here, *protecting* us from Ewigkeit then you could hardly just shoot us down as that would defeat the whole protection deal. You may think of us as pets but never forget Somali, we're pets of your making... Deadly pets that would have no qualms about biting the hand that feeds them."

 

"I know what you are," Somali responds grimly, "and I also know that it's my job to guarantee that you remain here. You're right in that you will not be killed if you attempt to leave. You will, however, be stopped. Tonkinese is authorized to use whatever means needed to ensure your continued presence here. We do not mean to make this an unpleasant experience for you but, ultimately, it's down to you how pleasantly the next few days pass. If you end up strapped down or locked in your room then you'll have no one to blame other than yourselves."

 

"Fuck you," I whisper sourly, rubbing my temples. I'm so angry that there's nothing more I can think of saying.

 

"It mightn't seem like it, but all of this really is for the best," Singapura murmurs as Somali slips into the kitchen to take a call on his mobile. "Ewigkeit want you dead and you're safe here. As for Aya, Somali is telling the truth about there being agents out searching for him. There really is nothing more that you could do. Three days have passed -- and, yes, before you say anything we have kept you drugged for this period of time -- since the fight and you know as well as I do that the trail would have gone cold by now. If you think about it you also know that there's nothing to say Aya is even still in Tokyo. Kimura has contacts around the globe and, courtesy of his legitimate transport business, the means to transport him wherever he desired."

 

"If you're trying to make us feel better, Singapura, you're not doing a very good job of it," Omi mumbles, wiping his eyes with the back of his hand. "Surely you must know how we're feeling. Aya... Aya is very important to us and knowing that we can't help him is..."

 

"Is hell," I mutter flatly. "I hope you can sleep at night doing this job, Singapura, because I know that I wouldn't be able to. We might all have a job to do, and we might all be owned and operated by Kritiker, but this is bullshit and you know it."

 

For a split second Singapura's professional faÁade slips and she looks at me with a hint of compassion gleaming in her bright blue eyes. "You're right," she whispers sadly, "but there's nothing any of us can do about it. You just have to be patient. Kritiker will get Aya back. His abduction is a personal affront, one that they simply will not stand for."

 

"When you put it like that," I sigh, lighting yet another cigarette, "I feel better already."

 

~*~

 

Never one to do things by halves, Kritiker go out of their way to make Souzou a five star prison. We only have to think we want it and it arrives, brand spanking new, no questions asked. Wide screen, pro logic, Bluetooth, LCD, Sony, HP - it's as though we've died and gone to consumer heaven. The laptop that arrives for Omi is top of the range but he can't bring himself to touch it. I tried to ask Somali whether all the whiz-bang toys are in exchange for Aya, that that's all he's really worth to them, but the words died in my throat. The fear of throwing myself at him, coupled with a healthy dose of self-preservation makes me avoid Somali on his infrequent visits.

 

They ask us whether there's anything we want and then ignore our requests. All we want is Aya and Kiri, who they claim not to have seen hide nor hair of at the flower shop when they stripped it, and both seem to fall in the too hard basket. Now we don't even bother answering. There's just no point.

 

Blank faced workmen busy themselves restoring Souzou, which was once a garden of some renown and supplier of flowers to the best florists in Tokyo, to its former glory. Singapura informs us that they'd been contemplating moving us out here for some time now, that they think we'd do well based in a more rural setting. I asked if they were going to give us a helicopter as well and, no real surprise here, don't receive an answer. It's so quiet that I find myself missing the thumpa-thumpa of Eminem.

 

No one smiles. Even the workmen seem incapable of cracking a laugh.

 

The toys and dÈcor mean nothing to me. For all I care, for all the use I feel, I could literally be locked within four concrete walls. To say I feel helpless is an understatement of hideous proportions. I only have to think of Aya to feel as though a giant hand is reaching into my chest cavity and squeezing my heart dry. For no other real reason than I can't bear the thought of the alternative, I believe that he's still alive. I have to. Because of this though logic then dictates that I think of him -- waiting for us -- needing our help and I hate myself more than ever.

 

Useless. Helpless. Waste of space.

 

Numbness closets me and I exist, for the want of a better word, in a daze. Omi and Ken cling together, unconsciously making me feel even more alone. I don't resent their closeness though. I can't. If anything I'm envious of it. Everything may very well be going to shit but at least they have each other. All being well, if push really comes to shove, it will be enough to get them through.

 

Some days I feel as though I'm truly losing my mind. The drugs that had kept me under for the three days after the fight react badly with my system, making me sicker than I've been since I was twelve and celebrated finding the key to my father's liquor cabinet by drinking all of its contents. When I'm not throwing up or staring dully at the ceiling I'm suffering nightmares of the like that make Stephen King's imagination seem like that of a rank beginner. One in particular plagues me. I've had it five times now and every time I wake up screaming. Omi made the mistake of waking me the last time I had it and, still ensnared in the horror, I smacked him away, bloodying his nose in the process. Sickened, I tried to apologize but he wouldn't hear of it, saying that he'd rather have a blood nose than watch me suffer in my sleep like that. It should have, but his compassion didn't make me feel any better, especially when I refused his offer to talk about it.

 

Oh God... Talk about it? Not in this lifetime, not if I have any say in it. Dreaming it is bad enough without having to share it. If my subconscious feels compelled to inflict it on me then, well, so be it. Omi doesn't need to know any of it. Given his sensitive nature it's the last thing he needs. It's enough that I carry the images with me into waking without inflicting it on others. In this case ignorance well and truly is bliss.

 

The nightmare is the same every time, the realism of it devastating in its attention to detail.

 

Wearing the same nightclothes I'd worn to bed, I wake in the bedroom that has been designated as mine at Souzou. A golden light flickers at the window, calling me to it. Unable to ignore the siren call of the light, I get out of bed and look out the window. Amongst the overgrown rose bushes in the garden is a circle of burning ankhs. They're all the same size, about seven foot in height, and I stare at the scene as though transfixed, images of the Ku Klux Klan running through my head. When I see the kneeling body in the center of the circle my first impression is that it's a stranger, someone I've never seen before. Naked, he kneels, his wrists bound in front of him, in flickering shadow, the flames disfiguring his appearance. Then, as though through some sort of unholy intervention, the flames wane and I can see that the man is Aya. Trails of blood stain his pale, littered with bruises skin and he holds his hands towards me in pleading supplication. He looks beaten, his breaking point being little more than a distant memory. Instinct screams at me to go to him but, frozen to the spot, I can't move. Tears start to slide down my cheeks as a figure appears out of nowhere behind Aya and possessively caresses his cheek. Moonlight glints off the gold nail on his little finger and he laughs, an evil cackle that makes nails being scraped down a blackboard sound like a delicate piano piece. The flames then build up again, consuming them and leaving me wanting to gouge my own eyes out.

 

It's always the same. Always.

 

Aya needs me but I'm unable to go to him. Aya, who never asks for anything and who has always come through for us, needs my help and all I can do is stand by and watch him be destroyed.

 

Helpless. Useless.

 

In my worst moments, as I lie sweating and groaning in bed, I can't quite decide whether it's Ewigkeit or Kritiker that I hate more.

 

~*~

 

"Finally stopped puking your guts up, eh?" Tonkinese queries with a smirk as he lumbers into the living room. "Going on the size of you I suppose there's nothing left in your stomach to get rid of."

 

"Go away," I mutter, rolling over on the sofa and presenting my back to Tonkinese. "If I wanted to hear an asshole talk I'd fart."

 

Tonkinese snorts and flops himself down in an armchair. "You're a right little charmer, aren't you? A regular laugh a minute."

 

"Well, you know, it was either Weiss or a career in stand up comedy," I sigh, wishing Tonk would just fuck off and leave me alone. While I'm feeling a lot better, and -- thank God for small mercies -- haven't thrown up for twelve or so hours, I'm still not exactly in the mood for company. Even Omi only had to take one look at me to quickly reach the conclusion his time was better spent with Ken. "What about you, huh? Kritiker versus a lucrative career in providing brain dead muscle outside clubs. I bet it took all of your two brain cells a long time to reach a decision too."

 

"Fine talk from someone who's been picked up like a parcel and dumped here," Tonk sneers. "At least I'm capable of acting of my own free will."

 

Ouch. That hurts because it's true. Not, mind you, that I'm going to let on to Tonk that he's wounded me. "You just keep telling yourself that," I murmur, rolling back over and fixing him with a baleful stare. "You're nothing more than a barely glorified baby-sitter and you know it. If Somali said jump you'd be so busy jumping up and down on the spot like an idiot that you wouldn't even think to ask how high. You're hired bulk, nothing more."

 

"And what of you, huh?" Tonk growls, glaring back at me. "You're nothing more than a hired killer with a side line in fucking flower arranging of all things. Ooooh... Scary."

 

"Bite me." Asshole.

 

"You know," Tonkinese continues, settling back in the armchair and stretching his legs out, "we were led to believe that Weiss was one of Kritiker's top teams. Looking at you I find it impossible to believe. You're fucking pathetic, the lot of you."

 

"Damn, if I'd known we'd had a fan in our midst I'm sure we would have put more effort into putting on a show for your benefit," I scowl, plastering what I hope passes as a contrite expression on my face. For Christ's sake, what does he fucking expect? "God, Tonk, I'm so sorry for disappointing you."

 

"You're right, I'm disappointed in you," Tonk smirks. "You're supposed to be the best of the best and you're nothing but a joke. You, you've got a smart mouth but that's about it. As for the other two, well, all they seem capable of doing is clinging to each other like a couple of fags. Oh, and let's not forget your beloved Aya while I'm at it. He's so freakin' incompetent that he allowed himself to get caught by Ewigkeit. Shit, if you lot are the best then I'd seriously hate to see the worst."

 

"There's a mirror in the bathroom," I mutter through clenched teeth, "knock yourself out." As is becoming increasingly frequent, I don't trust myself to say anything more. If I started ranting at Tonkinese I doubt I'd ever be able to stop.

 

"Again with the useless mouthing off," Tonk retorts. "All I can say is thank God Turk's coming to relieve me this evening. I don't think I could take much more of you and your big mouth. Hell, I think I preferred you when you could hardly get your head out of the toilet."

 

"Turk's coming to relieve you, huh?" I murmur, somehow managing to dredge up a cold smile. "And to think a second a go I thought you were a homophobic asshole. Word of advice, Tonk, there is such a thing as jerking off. Perhaps if your balls weren't so blue you wouldn't be such a fucking bastard all of the time."

 

"Oh yeah, I'm so gonna miss you," Tonk drawls, standing up and stretching languorously. "I'll have to get Turk to record all your little verbal highlights for me just to give me something to get up for in the morning."

 

"Turk... Don't tell me, let me guess," I reply with a bitter laugh. "Turk as in Turkish Van, right? Hey, what do you suppose is going to happen when they run out of cat breeds for us? Personally I'm looking forward to meeting Ragdoll. Now, isn't that just a code name to inspire fear in the hearts of one's enemies..." Trailing off, I sit up and shrug indolently. "Fuck, and you think we're pathetic. At least we're still human enough to use our own names."

 

"Whatever you say, *Balinese*," Tonk mutters as we walks towards the door. "If by chance I get stuck with this lame ass duty again I suspect I'll find you still lying there, mouthing off and waving a futile fist at the Gods. Let's face it, it's just about all you're good fort."

 

"See you in hell," I whisper to Tonk's retreating back, everything he's just said playing in constant repeat in my head. While I'd rather chew my own hand off than admit it, he's kinda right. Kritiker may be holding our reins and it may very well be in our best interests to simply remain here like good little mice, but at the same time that doesn't mean we have to resign ourselves to doing nothing.

 

Standing up, I decide to have a shower and, for the first time in four days, get dressed in something other than pajamas. A week has passed -- my how time flies when you're not having fun -- since all hell broke loose in that alleyway and, well, perhaps the time has come to do something constructive.

 

Whatever that may be exactly.

 

~*~

 

Stubbing the cigarette butt out against the wall, I watch the car slowly make its way up the driveway. Night has fallen and Turk, much to Tonk's considerable glee, has arrived to take over the role of baby-sitter.

 

It would be a blatant lie to say I had a plan.

 

All I know is that I want the car. Other than that...

 

I go to Tokyo and, what, find Aya waiting for me on a street corner?

 

Oh how I wish.

 

Even though I might walk straight into Ewigkeit, and that will be just that, game over, I still haven't told either Omi or Ken of my half-assed plan to do something. Something... *Anything*... They'd come with me, I know they would, but I honestly can't see it helping any. Already, even before I've left, I know in myself that if I don't find anything I'll be back, my tail between my legs and my spirits lower than ever. I have to go though. Even if it's just to prove to myself that I'm still capable of independent action, I just have to.

 

Turk, who has the physique of an out of condition Sumo, is down for the count even before he's registered he's not alone. Not having the time to hide his unconscious body, I kick it out of the way and jump into the car. The keys are still in the ignition and the GPS already set up to show the route between Tokyo and Souzou. As car-jacking goes I couldn't ask for a better set up.

 

Smiling grimly to myself, I plant my foot on the accelerator and, spinning the tires in the gravel path, take off just as Tonk materializes in the front door. Seeing me, he runs out of the house but, short of having a flamethrower hidden in his coat, there's nothing he can do. The apoplectic expression on his face pleases me and I give him a wave in the rear vision mirror. All being well he won't take his temper tantrum out on Ken and Omi. Although, going by the look in Ken's eyes this afternoon, he'd be a fool to try it. Ken, I think, has just about had enough of being cooped up inside and the need for fresh air and sunlight is slowly beginning to add up and get the better of him.

 

Reaching the entrance of Souzou, I reluctantly slow down and waste a few seconds looking for the button to activate the automatic gates. Finding it, I tap my fingers impatiently on the steering wheel as the gates slowly glide open, all the time keeping one eye on the mirror and the other on the GPS, planning my route. As Singapura had told us, Souzou is situated approximately an hour out of greater Tokyo. Although a little off the beaten track, it's only ten miles away from a small town that has an offshoot to the freeway leading off it, meaning the journey should be both a quick and easy one.

 

The gates having finally opened far enough, I slam the car into gear and take off. Having grown used to the crappy Hyundai's they'd allowed us to use at the Dragon's Tears, it's a relief to be finally driving a car with some grunt again and for the first time in ages I offer Kritiker a piece of begrudging gratitude. While not my old Jag, the BMW isn't to be sneezed at and I know I'll be able to make good time to Tokyo.

 

Once I'm on the freeway I take a quick inventory of the car's contents. A laptop sits in its case on the passenger seat and Turk's suit coat is thrown carelessly on the floor behind the driver's seat. With a bit of creative groping I'm able to confirm that he's left his wallet in the pocket and pull it out with a snort of relief. Like the coat, it smells overwhelmingly of McDonald's, which explains, I suspect, Turk's bulk. Thankfully it's full of money. Money that while I may have no plans for is still good to have.

 

I drive, too fast and taking far too many risks with the traffic, towards Tokyo on autopilot. Nervous adrenaline courses through my veins and I clench my fingers so tightly around the steering wheel that my knuckles are white. I'm not afraid of being followed or stopped by Kritiker. If they want me bad enough they'll get me. I know that and there's nothing to be achieved by attempting to kid myself to the contrary. If they come, they come. Shit, as we are all too aware, happens. The mood I'm in though, I won't come quietly.

 

Seeing the bright lights of the CBD loom on the horizon is like being slapped in the face with a reality check. Although I'm here I'm no closer to knowing what it is I'm wanting to do or what I'm going to do next. Slowing down so as not to draw unnecessary attention to myself, I find myself pulling up at the mouth of the alleyway before I even know it. Unable to help myself, I turn the car off and get out. It looks exactly as it did when we first got here a week ago - devoid of life and filthy. If our fight left any marks on the alleyway at all then someone's made a point of clearing them all away. Looking at it, it's as though we were literally never here, that a vicious fight to the death never marred the desolate peace of the place.

 

Closing my eyes for a second, I see the two leather clad baboons dragging Aya off. Shivering, either from the cool night air or the feeling of someone walking over my grave, I can even hear him yelling at me to take care of Omi, that he was fine. If they're the last words I ever hear out of his mouth then I'm never going to forgive myself.

 

Never.

 

... Oh God, Aya... I'm sorry. I should have paid more attention and seen that Ken was already by Omi's side instead of blindly turning my back on you. If I'd kept coming I may have been able to get to you in time. I'm sorry... I'm so fucking sorry...

 

Blinking back tears, I return to the car and switch the heat on full blast in an attempt to shake off the chill I can feel settling over me. The adrenaline that carried me from Souzou has deserted me and now all I feel is empty. Feeling like a fool for having come here, I start the car and turn it in the direction of the flower shop. There's nowhere else I can think of going. Knocking on Kimura's door and demanding Aya back is a fanciful option, one that, miracle of miracles, I still maintain enough intelligence to not to really want to try. What little logic I possess also tells me to steer clear of Ewigkeit's haunts, that to venture near them would be to well and truly play a dangerous game of come into my parlor said the spider to the fly.

 

No one ever said that logic doesn't have to hurt like a bitch though.

 

Ewigkeit's headquarters dominate the Tokyo skyline, the massive ankh illuminated on each of its three sides dogging me as I drive through the crowded city streets. I can't believe that I hardly ever noticed it before, that I must have simply taken the pretentious office building for granted. Wondering if there's any chance whatsoever that Aya may be being kept there makes my breath catch in my throat and my heart try to beat straight through my chest. My attention severely wandering, luck more than anything keeps the car driving in a straight line.

 

Yet again I'm left with the clinically detached thought as to whether this is what it feels like to be truly losing your mind.

 

Reaching the flower shop my mood further deteriorates. Singapura hadn't mentioned that they -- or perhaps Ewigkeit on a rampage -- had trashed the place. The dragon on the front window, the one I'd spent so long perfecting, has a gaping whole in its middle. Its face is intact though and, to me, the glistening tear dripping from its eye has never been more apt. For once the street is empty, the kids and their booming Nissan's apparently having found somewhere less haunted to hang out. Not that I blame them; I wouldn't want to stay here either. Not now.

 

Parking the car, I lock it out of habit and walk into the flower shop. Not having my keys isn't a problem because the front door is lying flat on the floor, an embedded footprint in the middle of it paying testament to a well-aimed kick. The smell of decaying flowers assails my nostrils, nearly making me gag.

 

... When we left that night we never thought we wouldn't be coming back... It shouldn't be like this. Aya should be sitting at the table putting the final touches to his latest creation, Ken should be pretending to help Omi with the accounts and I should be complaining about Eminem while half-heartedly sweeping. Things should be as normal as they ever get for us. We were just doing what was expected of us, nothing more...

 

Leaving the shop, I walk through the storeroom and into the apartment. What's left of the furniture lies in tatters. Even the prints have been torn off the walls. Goosebumps prickle my skin as I hesitantly make my way through what had been our home. It's like walking through a crypt. My senses on a hair trigger, the slightest sound above my head grabs my attention and, not pausing to think of the possible consequences, I bound upstairs. Luminous green eyes watch my arrival from the doorway to what had been Aya's room before swiftly turning tail and disappearing.

 

Overjoyed at having found Kiri, I follow her into the room and instinctively get down on my hands and knees in order to peer under the bed. As I'd expected she's doing her very best to pretend to be invisible in the furthest most corner, her bright eyes watching me with a wariness that echoes her fear of us when we first arrived.

 

"Hey, Kiri," I whisper, cautiously extending my hand. "Come on, Kiri-neko. I know I'm not who you want to see but surely I'll do for now."

 

Five minutes of coaxing -- not to mention wondering who exactly I wronged in a former life to end up here -- later I have Kiri in my arms. Weighing next to nothing, I wonder what she's been living on for the past week and cradle her gently as she starts to purr. Perhaps inanely, I no longer view the evening as an entire waste of time. Already I've managed something that Kritiker claimed to be incapable of achieving.

 

"It's okay, Kiri-neko," I murmur, not really caring that I'm talking to a cat. "Things are going to get better now, I promise." Kiri purrs her assent as I carefully place her in the pocket of my coat and I find myself smiling as I make to leave. Halfway down the stairs I hear it, the unmistakable sounds of someone trying to be quiet as they make their way through the debris. Shocked, I'm still praying for inspiration to hit me when, seemingly out of nowhere, I see the barrel of a gun being pointed directly at my face.

 

Goddamn it! Now what?

 

The trained killer in me taking over, I kick the gun out of my would-be-attacker's hand and, a split second later, am behind him with my arm pressed tightly against his throat. He struggles vainly, clawing at my arm and gasping for breath. "Yohji," he wheezes desperately. "I'm sorry. It's me, Yukio."

 

Yukio! Shit!

 

Immediately releasing him, I step back and glare at the teenager. "Fuck, Yukio!" I exclaim, shaking my head. "Just what the hell do you think you're doing sneaking up on a man and pointing a gun at him, huh?"

 

"I..." Breathing deeply, Yukio collapses on the stairs and peers up at me imploringly. "I'm sorry, Yohji. When I saw that the BMW was back I decided the time had come to demand some answers. We... Shit, man! One minute it was business as usual and the next the shop was trashed and you guys were gone."

 

Sighing, I retrieve the gun and, after only a moments hesitation, hand it back to Yukio. "Tell me about it," I mutter drily. "Now, Yukio, I appreciate your concern about us but, and I really want you to listen to me here, keep away from this place. Do you hear me? Once you leave here you're not to look back."

 

"I always knew you guys were more than just florists," Yukio replies, still panting slightly. "What are you, drug dealers or something?"

 

"You so don't wanna know," I murmur, glancing away and unconsciously petting Kiri as she pokes her head out of my pocket. "Trust me on this, Yukio... What we are is something you're better off not knowing."

 

"But..." Trailing off, Yukio sighs heavily and shrugs. "We miss you, you know? Things just ain't the same since you've been gone. Isn't there something you can tell me, huh? We're worried. We thought you might have been killed."

 

"Not killed," I respond, reaching into my other pocket and pulling out a cigarette, "just... er... moved on."

 

"You're not going to tell me anything, are you?" Yukio complains, stashing his gun under his coat and, in the process, uncovering the telltale Ewigkeit ankh embroidered on the pocket of his coveralls.

 

Unnerved by the sight of it, I nearly drop my smoke and point at it with a shaky finger. "You work for those assholes?" I query flatly, fumbling over my lighter as I light the cigarette.

 

"Work?" Yukio snorts, rearranging his coat and covering the offending emblem. "You could say that. I clean up their mess like some sort of common slave and they pay me a pittance that only just manages to keep my sister in schoolbooks. Please. Feel free to say what you like about them, I have no loyalty to the greedy bastards."

 

I laugh bitterly. "Don't get me started." Pausing, I look at Yukio as a light bulb goes off in my head. "Um... You're a cleaner, right?" I continue, hoping like mad that I'm not about to make a hideous mistake. "Where exactly do you work?"

 

"Headquarters, you know, that monstrous skyscraper with the pretentious Egyptian crosses," Yukio replies, an expression of distaste crossing his face. "Why do you ask?"

 

"Um..." Good question. "Yukio, do you trust me?"

 

"You won't tell me what you guys are really up to and you ask me if I trust you?" Yukio responds, rolling his eyes. "But, yeah... Maybe I'm just dumb, but, you know, I think I do."

 

I nod. So far, so good. "Okay. Now, I'm going to ask a favor of you, a favor that may very well be slightly dangerous. I'll pay, of course, but I want you to think seriously about your answer. I also want to stress that you are not to take it too far and that if you think you'll draw too much attention to yourself then you're not to agree at all. Do I make myself clear?"

 

Please God, don't let me be setting him up...

 

"Perfectly clear," Yukio replies, curiosity gleaming in his eyes. "Now, ask away. Ryoko, that's my sister by the way, needs a new uniform and I could do with the extra cash."

 

"I'm serious here, Yukio," I mutter, taking a long drag on my cigarette and watching the smoke spiral towards the ceiling. "This is not a task to undertake lightly. Oh, and again, the less you know about the specific details the better."

 

"Ask away already," Yukio retorts, feigning a long suffering sigh. "If you're in trouble with Ewigkeit then I'm your man. Most of the posse work for the fuckers in one form or another and none of us would piss on the bastards if they were on fire."

 

"Not me... I'm not the one in trouble..." Okay. Here goes nothing. "Aya... We think that Ewigkeit are holding Aya."

 

"Aya?" Yukio queries, looking slightly puzzled.

 

"Ah... The redhead," I reply, immediately berating myself for not having been able to come up with a better description.

 

Yukio nods. "A-ha, gotcha. The one with the girly earring and who hardly ever smiled," he replies with a grin. "He did the wreath for Ai's funeral, remember? Man, that fucking dove was just perfect. Her mother still talks about it, you know. So, anyway, yeah, I know who Aya is."

 

A ghost of a smile tugs at my lips. "Good. Now, please, Yukio, just accept what I'm telling you and don't ask any questions. As you've already guessed we're not your average every day florists. Now, for reasons completely out of our control we fell foul of Ewigkeit and last week walked into a trap," I explain quietly as Yukio hangs off my every word. "While our people were able to pull Ken, Omi and myself out, Aya was unfortunately captured. They tell us that they're doing everything in their power to find him and they also tell us that we're to remain out of Tokyo unless we want to suffer the same fate. I want to believe them but, just call me a cynic, I can't. That's why I'm here."

 

"You want me to keep an eye out for any signs of Aya," Yukio murmurs, giving another nod. "Consider it done. I'll call the posse together and put the word out. As favors go, this one's a piece of cake, Yohji."

 

"It's not, and you're a fool if you go into the task with that attitude," I state forcefully. "I'm grateful for your help, Yukio, but you've got to be careful. None of you are to take any risks, do I make myself clear? As much as I want Aya back I don't want any of you to have to suffer thanks to my desperate request for assistance. Hell, I don't hold out much hope that you'll find anything but, again, you've got to be careful. Look around you and you can see for yourself that Ewigkeit are not a bunch of people you want to mess with."

 

"We'll be careful, you have my word," Yukio replies solemnly, standing up. "Hey, how am I going to contact you if we do find something? Have you got a mobile number or an email address?"

 

"God alone knows," I mutter wearily. Kritiker have probably wiped our old email addresses and I have no idea where my mobile is.

 

Reaching into his back pocket, Yukio pulls out a mobile phone and hands it to me. It's casing hot pink and covered with bright red hearts, I've seen prepubescent girls with more tasteful looking phones. "Here. Take this. I was about to deliver it to someone but something tells me you need it more."

 

"It's hot, I take it?" I murmur wryly, nonetheless taking it and slipping it into my pocket. "Thanks. You've got the number, yeah?"

 

"Given that the babe I was about to give it to is hot enough to make your eyes bleed," Yukio grins, "you betcha I've got the number. If we find anything out, I'll call you straight away and set up a meeting."

 

"I'm looking forward to it already," I reply, walking over to Yukio and closing my hand around his shoulder. "Oh, and another thing, if things go pear shaped don't hesitate to call and we'll come for you. And, Yukio... Thanks. Thanks a lot for doing this. It... ah... it means a lot to all of us."

 

"Wait until I call you with good news before thanking me," Yukio responds airily, clasping my hand for a second before walking off towards the door. "Stay safe, Yohji. It's been great seeing you again."

 

"You too," I murmur, glancing around the ruins of our old home one last time before following Yukio outside. He gives me the thumbs up sign as he gets into his black Skyline. I hope I haven't put him in any danger yet can't quite find it in myself to regret having asked for his help.

 

There being nothing I can think of to keep me in Tokyo, I get in the BMW and make for the freeway. Spotting an all night convenience store on the way, I remember Kiri and stop in order to buy some cat food and kitty litter. Loath to leave her in the car, I keep her in my pocket and absentmindedly talk to her as I peruse the rows upon rows of cat food. "What's that brand Aya always used to buy for you, Miss Kiri-neko, huh? I know it was the most expensive because although he'd never admit it he was inordinately fond of you and wanted you to have the very best to make up for your years of mistreatment."

 

The sound of giggling to my right brings a blush to my cheeks as I realize I'm not alone and that there is a young woman standing next to me. Covering up my embarrassment by drawing on my well of barely remembered charm, I smile disarmingly at the woman and shrug. "My friend's left me in charge of looking after his cat and I'm afraid I wasn't listening when he told me what food to buy," I murmur theatrically. "I don't suppose you could possibly help me, could you? I'm sure it was expensive, but there's so many to pick from that I feel as though my head is going to explode!"

 

Giggling again, the young woman points out a selection of vaguely familiar looking sachets, whispering that they're the best and that her cat wouldn't eat anything else. Filling my basket, I thank her profusely just as Kiri decides to poke her head out of my pocket and meow plaintively. No doubt making a mental note to never go shopping at this time of night again for fear of meeting strange men with cats in their pockets, the girl giggles again and hurriedly moves away from me.

 

"It's okay, Kiri-neko, there's nothing to be jealous of," I whisper, trying hard to control the sudden urge to laugh I can feel bubbling inside of me. Fighting to keep a straight face, I pay for the cat food and kitty litter with the money out of Turk's wallet, all but clearing it out, and go back to the car. Once there I laugh solidly about the fucked state of my life -- talking to a cat in the middle of a supermarket, what next? -- for five minutes before pulling myself together and driving off.

 

The trip back to Souzou seems to take next to no time and I'm not surprised to see, as I drive through the gates, Somali's Mercedes parked at the front of the house. My hand is still on the handbrake as Tonkinese storms out the front door. He has a black eye and I know without having to be told that he and Ken have had a falling out and that -- *yes*! -- Tonk was the loser of said altercation. Wrenching the car door open, he glares at me with an intensity that tells me in no uncertain terms that he hates me as much as I hate him.

 

"Have a nice trip?" he snarls, making to pull me out of the car.

 

Dodging him, I slither through the door and slip the car keys into his top pocket. "Be a dear and park it away from the trees," I murmur coyly, sashaying towards the house with a lightness in my step that I'd all but given up on ever feeling again. Not even the sight of Somali waiting for me in the doorway can alter my good mood.

 

"Where do you think you've been?" Somali demands, invisible plumes of steam coming out of his ears. "Didn't you listen to a word I said..."

 

Ignoring him, I grin triumphantly and lift Kiri out of my pocket as Omi and Ken come running into the foyer. "Hey, Somali, hasn't anyone ever told you I take my pussy very seriously," I smirk, winking at him for good measure before strolling over to join the others.

 

All in all, I've got to say as evening's go, I've certainly had far worse.

 

~*~

 

Squirming away from the insistent tongue lapping roughly at my cheek, I reluctantly crack an eye open and groan. "Do you mind?" I complain, picking Kiri up from her position on my pillow and gently depositing her at the foot of the bed. "I bet you never woke Aya up by slobbering all over his face."

 

... Or, if you did the odds are you only ever did it once.

 

Meowing what no doubt translates as 'you're no fun', Kiri curls into a tight ball and drapes her tail over her nose, effectively dismissing me. Why she's sleeping with me at all is yet another of life's great mysteries. Last I'd seen of her she'd given up searching the house for where we were hiding Aya and was huddled miserably on one of his sweaters that Omi had unpacked for her.

 

And, hey... Wasn't my door shut when I went to bed?

 

Whatever.

 

"Fine. Be like that," I mutter, lying back down again. "Just remember it was you who invited yourself to share my bed, not the other way around." Pulling the comforter up to my chin, I decide that I may as well remain in bed as get up and mope, and close my eyes. As usual I've had a shit night's sleep, the reoccurring nightmare once again plaguing me and allowing me to watch the clock tick past three hours as I sat by the window, chain smoking and ruing my life.

 

A full day has passed since my little trip to Tokyo. I think, although fuck knows why, Somali honestly expected me to be apologetic for having broken out of Souzou. Man, talk about having a fucking bee in his bonnet. He got so red in the face as he ranted his displeasure at me that I began to think he was in danger of having a heart attack. My suggestion that he save his breath, that I basically didn't give a rat's ass what he thought, fell on deaf ears though and he continued lecturing, only pausing every now and again to clutch his chest and wipe the sweat from his brow before picking up exactly where he left of. The only reason I'm glad he didn't drop down on the floor in front of me is because it saved me the moral dilemma of whether I made any attempt to save him or not.

 

It has to be said though, I didn't listen to a single word that came out of his mouth. I've seen cartoons where a man is yelling at a dog and all the dog is really hearing is 'blah, blah, blah', and, well, Somali's little diatribe pretty much had that exact same effect on me.

 

"Blah... Fool... Blah... Do you have any idea... Blah... You could have... Blah... I hope you feel... Blah, blah... I thought... Blah... I'm very disappointed... Blah... Should have known better... Blah."

 

Reiterating my theory that we're little more than unruly children or pets as far as Somali is concerned, he's punishing us for my indiscretion by making us wait an extra three days before finally pulling back and leaving us to our own devices. Given that we hadn't even known we were going to lose our baby-sitters in the first place, I can't really say his punishment is having the effect on us that he no doubt would have been hoping for. So Kritiker are going to rescind their baby-sitters. Big-fucking-whoop. With the -- welcome -- addition of cars and the freedom to go as we please, we're still going to be left -- without Aya -- at Souzou with the threat of Ewigkeit hanging over our heads.

 

As much as it pains me to admit it, and Christ how that's an understatement, we're probably better off just staying put for the time being. I hate it, but there's literally nothing I can envisage us achieving if we stuck our collective fingers up at Kritiker and returned to Tokyo. Well, other than a most likely slow and painful death that is. I'm not kidding myself. I was lucky the other night. I'd gone off half-cocked and it just about would have served me right if I'd encountered Ewigkeit. We need a plan before we go back, a good one. For this reason alone I haven't told Ken or Omi about my arrangement with Yukio. *If* he comes through with any information then I'll tell them then and only then.

 

Kritiker are many -- annoying, *very* annoying -- things but I have no reason to believe that they're not keeping us here for any other reason than they honestly want to keep us alive. That said, and this is something I'll never change my mind about, they still could have gone about things a hell of a lot better. Dealing with people may not be their forte but they could have at least tried to be a little more understanding. If I thought it would do any good I'd get t-shirts printed with the slogan 'Assassins Have Feelings Too' and hand them out to the Kritiker hierarchy as early Christmas presents.

 

The bitter and twisted part of me tells me that I'd be wasting my time though, that they treat us exactly how they want to treat us. End of story.

 

What the... ?

 

The sound of something crashing to the floor in the room next to mine wakes me from my half doze and, yawning, I sit up.

 

"Ooops! I thought you had hold of it, Ken."

 

"Me? I thought *you* were the one holding it."

 

Waving goodbye to the idea of going back to sleep, I swing my legs over the mattress and stand up. "Curiosity, as they say, killed the cat," I murmur to Kiri as I pull on my robe and make for the door. "Um... No offence."

 

If Kiri's offended by my comment she doesn't show it. In fact she doesn't even bother to register my presence and sleeps on. Shaking my head, I make a mental note to stop talking to Kiri before someone overhears me and questions my mental state, and slip out for the room.

 

Not having a clue what Omi and Ken are up to, I'm still a little surprised as I peer around the door and discover them preparing to paint the walls of the, well, empty room. Open paint cans are stacked by the window and they're both wearing old clothes, their hair covered by bandannas. Going by the upturned dresser lying in the middle of the floor I'd hazard a guess that that was the crash that got me up.

 

Although Singapura had told us that we could have whichever room we wanted none of us had felt any compulsion to change from the room we'd first woken up in. I mean, what was the point? Even when it was made crystal clear that we weren't going to move any time in the near future it still seemed like a waste of energy. A room is a room is a room. This one, although designated a bedroom by where it's situated in the house, was merely being used to store Aya's few belongings and -- just call me still asleep -- I can't for the life of me work out why Ken and Omi are feeling the urge to decorate it.

"Er... Perhaps this is a really dumb question, but what exactly is going on here?" I query, stepping into the room and wrinkling my nose up at the smell of the paint. "Have you decided to move bedrooms after all?"

 

"No," Omi replies, shaking his head and fixing me with a wide-eyed look. "This is going to be Aya's room."

 

Oh. Of course it is. Silly me. I should have known.

 

"Aya's room," I repeat slowly. "Oh..."

 

"Mmm..." Turning his back on me, Omi picks up a brush and starts to carefully stroke a pale gray paint onto the bare wall. "Aya will need somewhere to sleep when he returns and I thought it would be a nice surprise if we did the room up for him."

 

*When* Aya returns...

 

*If* Aya returns...

 

"Oh..." Again.

 

"I agree with Omi," Ken murmurs, giving me a look that clearly says if I've got a different opinion then I'm to damn well keep it to myself. "Besides, it'll give us something to do. What do you think of the color? Omi chose it and we had Singapura pick it up for us yesterday in town."

 

"The color's... ah... fine," I reply haltingly, running my fingers through my hair and wishing I could think of something more enthusiastic to say. As exercises in futility and denial go, this is just about something else again. Omi knows as well as I do that, so long as they're clean, Aya doesn't really care one way or the other about his living quarters. "I'm sure he'll... ah... appreciate it."

 

"Wanna help?" Omi offers, his voice catching in his throat as he concentrates on his painting. "We got you a brush."

 

There being nothing else for me to do, I nod. "Give me a minute to get dressed and I'd love to."

 

Hey, let's face it, it's not like I had anything more exciting planned for my day.

 

~*~

 

"You know, we've been here for over two weeks now," Omi comments, frowning down at the weed he holds in his hand. "Somehow it feels simultaneously like a lifetime and no time at all. I think of what life was like at the Dragon's Tears and the memories are so distant, so hazy, that I have difficulty believing them to be real. Perhaps before long we'll think we've always been here, that this is how it's always been... Just the three of us..."

 

Concentrating on the seemingly never-ending task of weeding the overgrown rose garden, I don't reply. Omi's right. More than two weeks have crawled by since that fateful fight in the alleyway. He's also right in that time here at Souzou seems to have a quality all of its own. Some days I feel as though I'm existing in suspended animation, that I'm just sitting on my hands while the rest of the world goes about its business without me. We spend our days killing time by either gardening or aimlessly working out in the gym. Aya's room is finished and it looks the best in the house. We haven't bothered with our own rooms but his is perfect. Even if it was pointless we worked hard at and I think he'd like it.

 

He would...

 

He will...

 

It's getting that I'm having trouble with past and future tenses.

 

If Aya was with us all the free time would almost be like a holiday.

 

But he's not.

 

And I've never felt less like having fun in my life.

 

Nightmares color my sleep, denial and numbness my days.

 

Even though Kritiker have packed their bags and fucked off I still feel useless. We have Souzou to ourselves and everything we could possibly need at our fingertips yet still we do nothing. The conversation that took place after Singapura had handed over the keys to both the garage and the cars contained within it was nothing if not brief and to the point. Yes, we now had transport and could do as we please. No, contrary to our heart's opinion on the subject, we shouldn't go rushing back to Tokyo. Without meeting each other's eyes we were all in agreement. Omi blinked back tears, Ken picked at the skin on his knuckles and I smoked.

 

It's the hardest decision any of us have ever had to make.

 

Maybe in a month...

 

Maybe Kritiker will finally come through with some news.

 

"Omi," Ken murmurs, a slight warning tone in his voice. "What do you say we quit weeding for the day and go inside? Night's coming and we still haven't decided what we want to eat."

 

We don't talk about what's happened. It's an unvoiced yet cast in stone rule. Omi and Ken may have possibly talked amongst themselves, I wouldn't know. We've become the kings of small talk. I think I've learnt more about flowers from Omi in the last few days as I have during my years in the various flower shops.

 

"I'm not hungry," Omi replies quietly, dropping the weeds and staring up at the sky.

 

Sensing what's coming, I dig in my pocket for a cigarette. I've barely got it to my lips when he says it.

 

"I miss Aya."

 

Such a simple, heartfelt statement.

 

Ken's hands reflexively ball into fists. "Omi..."

 

I want to scream.

 

Or cry.

 

Or perhaps both would be good.

 

Perhaps if I started I wouldn't stop and then I'd have an aneurysm and then it would be all over.

 

"Do you think he's still alive?" Omi whispers. "Or do you think he's dead? No one talks about him and I hate it! Goddamn it! I fucking hate it! He's our friend and we're behaving like he never even existed. What's our fucking problem, huh? Have Kritiker put something in the water or are we just too afraid to show emotion for fear of appearing weak?"

 

Pausing, Omi takes a deep breath and, narrowing his eyes, glares first at me and then at Ken. It's hard to say what's more disturbing, the look in his eyes or the fact that he's angry enough to be swearing. Neither are the Omi we're used to.

 

"Fine. If neither of you will say it, I will. I miss him, okay? I miss Aya. He might be stubborn and a pain in the butt at times but he's a part of Weiss and my friend. He's also your friend. Yohji... Ken..." Faltering, Omi stands up and shakes his head. "I keep wondering if he's dead and... and..."

 

"I think he's alive," I murmur, focusing on the burning ember of my cigarette so I don't have to meet anyone's gaze. "I... I have to think that. If I didn't... Fuck! If I didn't think he was still alive I'd never get out of bed."

 

"Me too," Ken whispers, standing up and going over to give Omi a hug. "If Kimura had had him killed then, as Somali so delicately put it, we'd know about it. I don't know where he is, and I wish to God that I did, but I think he's still alive."

 

"But why?" Relaxing against Ken, Omi shakes his head again and gazes pleadingly at his lover. "Why would they keep him alive? If it's just to wait for us then it should be clear that we're not... that we're not coming. I know we've done some bad things, that to some we're nothing more than common killers, but... but to keep someone alive that you really want dead... He's strong, but he's not unbreakable. Ken! I... When I think about what Aya could be going through I feel sick."

 

"Then don't think about it," Ken murmurs soothingly. "I know it sounds simplistic and hardly helpful, but just don't think about it. Think about Kritiker doing everything they can to find him and how, in the future, this will be all behind us. Hell, maybe they've just got him thrown in a cell somewhere. We just don't know and, let's face it, thinking about all the various possibilities could be far worse than reality."

 

Or not.

 

The file on Kimura, the one Kritiker only 'discovered' after we took out Dr Mirimoto, has him down as a sadist. And let's not forget all the grotesque murders linked in various forms Ewigkeit either.

 

The half a sandwich I'd choked down at lunch rising in my throat, I start to get unsteadily to my feet.

 

"Yohji!"

 

... Yes, Ken. I know I'm looking pale. Before you ask, yes, I very much do feel like I look.

 

"Yohji! Your coat pocket is vibrating."

 

Yes!

 

Please God let it be good news.

 

My nausea immediately forgotten about, I run over and pick my coat up from where I'd carelessly thrown in. Although I've been carrying Yukio's phone around with me like a talisman I can't really say that I ever expected to hear from him. Scrabbling frantically in the pocket, I pull the phone out and, with fingers that don't want to obey my commands, hurriedly open Yukio's text message.

 

'Have news. Meet at Dexter's. Tonite @ 12. C U.'

 

~*~

 

Dexter's, it has to be said, is not somewhere I ever really expected to find myself. Situated in a neighborhood that makes the one surrounding the Dragon's Tears look upper class, it's a club -- read, dive -- favored by gangs and wannabe criminals. Respect within the four walls of Dexter's is earned solely by size. The size of your tattoo, the size of your gun, the size of your girlfriend's breasts; all have to be big.

 

Not surprisingly, even the bouncers are big. Big as in built like fucking Gundams.

 

"What do you want, punk?" the neckless oaf blocking the darkened entrance to Dexter's grunts, jabbing his meaty finger forcefully into my chest for emphasis. The t-shirt stretched nearly to fraying point over his huge chest reads 'Hel's Angels'. If I was feeling suicidal I'd draw it to his attention that wearing it makes him look like an illiterate retard.

 

"You lost or something?" his mate, Rock Ape Number Two, queries with a snort of laughter. His t-shirt reads 'Fucked'. On anyone else the statement would probably be ironic. "If you're looking for Fantasia or one of them other fancy clubs then you took a wrong turn about fifteen fucking miles back."

 

"Maybe he's looking for a bit of rough," Neckless comments, poking me again. "Is that it, punk? You wanna see how the other half live or something?"

 

I sigh and grab Neckless' hand in my fist. "Poke me one more time, asshole, and you're going to regret ever having dragged your lard ass out of bed this morning."

 

"A smart ass, eh?" Neckless glowers, his close-set eyes gleaming in anticipation of a fight. "If it's regret you wanna know about then it'll be my pleasure to fucking teach it to you."

 

"Leave it," a voice interjects commandingly from the doorway. "He's my guest and you're to treat him accordingly."

 

Relieved to see Yukio, I release Neckless' hand and give him a slap on the back for good measure. The look of rage in his eyes clearly tells me that he'd like to do unpleasant things to my still warm corpse. "Nice meeting you," I murmur cheerfully in his ear as I stroll past and through the door Yukio is holding open for me.

 

"The pleasure's all mine," Neckless grinds out, making a show of cracking his knuckles before snorting and turning away.

 

"Friends of yours?" I query drily as Yukio, who's dressed to impress in all his homeboy finery, ushers me into Dexter's inner sanctum. The sound of Missy Elliott being played at a volume loud enough to wake the dead pulsates through the dingy looking club and bored, or alternatively stoned, looking patrons sprawl inelegantly over booths and stalls. One look at the ingrained grime covering the bar, not to mention the feral appearance of the surly looking barman, tells me that accepting any offer of a drink would be a big no-no. Having made it inside, no one pays me the slightest bit of attention.

 

"Hired help," Yukio replies with a roll of his eyes. "An unfortunate necessity. Hell, Yohji, you look like shit, man. What have you been doing with yourself, huh? You look like you've been pulled through a hedge backwards."

 

"Um... I was gardening when your message arrived." Glancing down at my bedraggled looking outfit, I grimace and shrug. The knees of my jeans are grass stained and there's a tear in the sleeve of my top from where I came off second best after a run in with a rose bush. My only priority after reading Yukio's message being getting away from Souzou without having to answer any of Ken's or Omi's questions, I simply grabbed a set of car keys and took off. The state of my hair or the dirt under my nails isn't something I even want to think about. Nor are the two sets of accusing eyes and demands for answers that are going to be waiting for my return.

 

"Is it Aya? Do you know something? Yohji! Come back here! If you know something you've gotta tell us!"

 

I can still here the plaintive, pleading tone in Omi's voice as I ran towards the house.

 

Perhaps, especially given the discussion we'd just been having, I should have taken the time to bring them up to speed. I didn't though. Not wanting to get their hopes up I left them with nothing.

 

Hopefully the news I take back to Souzou will make it up to them.

 

"C'mon, I'll take you through into one of the back rooms," Yukio responds, sizing up my mood and coming to the rapid conclusion that small talk isn't on the agenda. "We can talk there."

 

Nodding, I trail after Yukio as he leads the way through a maze of tables and bodies. I can feel my heart beating a nervous tattoo in my chest as I follow him into a small room that's set up as a stereotypical card den, right down to the tasteless posters of naked women peeling off the yellowed walls. Patience never having been one of my strong points, it's only through sheer willpower that I don't jump on Yukio, demanding that he get straight to the point. The smell of cigarette and marijuana smoke hangs so heavily in the air that my eyes water. How people could want to sit in here for hours playing cards escapes me. I've been here all of five seconds and already I want out.

 

Taking a seat on one of the rickety looking metal chairs, I watch Yukio as, after ensuring the door is locked, he sits down opposite me. "You have news?" I query softly, unable to disguise the hope in my voice. As disgusting as the room is, it's at least soundproof and we can talk without having to shout over Missy Elliott.

 

Reaching into his pocket and pulling out what looks to a small tissue wrapped parcel, Yukio nods. Placing the package on the table, he pushes it across to me. "This look familiar?"

 

Taking a deep breath that is more shuddery than calming, I fold back the tissue and uncover Aya's earring. The gold is tarnished with blood and the butterfly clasp has been replaced by a silver one, but there's no mistaking it as Aya's. Reverently tracing my finger along the cool metal, I realize that the blood is still sticky and pull my hand back as though burnt.

 

"It's Aya's," I confirm shakily, unable to draw my eyes away from the earring. "Shit! Where did you find it?"

 

"In Ewigkeit's rubbish," Yukio replies matter-of-factly. "You'd be surprised at what they throw out. Hell, I even scored a palm-pilot once. The bastards have got so much money that..." Trailing off, Yukio sighs. "And you couldn't give a fuck what they throw out, could you?"

 

"When you say it came from Ewigkeit's rubbish, do you mean from their headquarters in the city?" I query flatly, forcing myself to pull the earring closer. Professional. I've got to be professional. The time for breaking down can come later. "I'll also need to know when it was found."

 

"Shinichiro found it in one of the bins at HQ this morning," Yukio responds, settling back in his chair, trying vainly to make himself comfortable. "Because he could tell that it was real gold he was gonna give it to his girl. Thankfully he showed me first and I was able to get it off him. For a price, of course. Man, that Shinichiro is one cheap bastard."

 

"I'll pay you back. Double. Whatever," I mutter, picking the earring up and starting to clean it -- out damn spot, out -- with the tissue. "Please, Yukio, think. What else can you tell me?"

 

"Shinichiro's pretty positive it came from the top floor. That, in case you haven't already guessed, is the penthouse, Kimura's own personal suite for when he's in town," Yukio explains with a scowl. "We mere plebs aren't allowed anywhere near it. Sure we get the odd treat of handling the garbage, but other than that the floor is like totally off limits. Get this, it's so freakin' secretive up there that one of his personal staff, his secretary or something, gets the honor of cleaning it."

 

"Any idea what could be up there?" I ask, the pessimist in me telling me that I don't want to know. "Surely you've heard rumors."

 

"Sure we've heard rumors," Yukio replies. "Some think Kimura keeps a harem of sex slaves up there. Others think he hides some sort of mutant relative that he can't allow the world to see. Hell, you want rumors I can give you rumors. Truth be told though, no one really knows. The secretary handles both the running and the cleaning off the place personally. Given that it's only accessible by a private elevator, most of the time we just forget that it's even there. It's not unconceivable to think your friend is being kept there. As you've probably already gathered we're all kept in the dark when it comes to that place."

 

"I suppose you're going to tell me that it's all but impossible to break into," I sigh, examining the now clean earring in the dim light. Once I'm assured that there's no blood left on it, I wrap it back in the tissue and slip it into my pocket.

 

"Ah, you might be in luck here," Yukio states with a grin. "Tomorrow is Friday, and Friday is, amongst other things, cleaning day. Even though Kimura is currently in residence I know for a fact that nothing alters the cleaning schedule. It's a dumb time to do it, what with the entertaining he also does up there on a Friday but, hey, what would I know?"

 

"Entertaining?" Again, I'm sure I don't really want to know.

 

"Mmm... Sour looking men in expensive suits flock up there on a Friday night," Yukio replies, his expression one of distaste. "It's always the same though, *always*. They get there around eight and stay until eleven. Then everyone, including Kimura, clears out to a nearby karaoke bar. They stay there for a couple of hours or so before staggering back, drunk as skunks, to the penthouse."

 

"And they do this *every* Friday?" I query, already searching my head for possible plans of entry. "You're absolutely sure of this?"

 

"Oh yeah, they're as regular as clockwork," Yukio confirms. "The only things that change are the suits. I've been cleaning the foyer when they've arrived and they won't even deign to glance at me. If you want to get in there then you'll have no better time than after eleven tomorrow night. The only person in the penthouse should be Kimura's secretary, and he's a mousy looking creature that wouldn't be able to fight off a newborn kitten. I can't guarantee that Aya's in there but, well, surely it has to be worth a look, huh?"

 

"Definitely worth a look," I murmur, nodding. "You've done a great job, Yukio, and I thank you. Listen to me though, you've already done more than enough and I want you to leave the rest to us."

 

"What about getting into the building and stuff?" Yukio asks, pouting slightly. "I could probably get you a keycard if you want me..."

 

"Thanks for the offer," I interrupt, digging in my pocket for my wallet, "but we'll be able to take care of entry and the like." Well, more to the point Omi and his computer hacking skills will.

 

"You sound like you've done this before," Yukio comments with a sigh. "I don't suppose you're going to tell me what you guys are, are you?"

 

"I told you before, you're better off not knowing," I reply, emptying my wallet of notes and sliding the money across the table to Yukio. "Here, payment for services rendered. Again, you've been a great help."

 

"Come on, Yohji," Yukio pleads, pocketing the money without counting it. "Just tell me your name. You're clearly a team of some sort and, hell, you've just gotta have a name."

 

Standing up, I place my hand in my pocket, closing my fingers around the tissue containing Aya's earring.

 

... Hang on, Aya. We're coming.

 

"We're Weiss," I state, knowing that this snippet probably means more to Yukio than the money. "And you're right. We are a team."

 

~*~

 

"One car?" Omi asks dubiously, hesitating by the Impreza, his laptop held securely under his arm.

 

Opening the driver's side door, I lean across the roof and nod. "We go in together..."

 

"And we come out together," Ken finishes, giving Omi's shoulder a reassuring squeeze before clambering into the front passenger seat. "Come on. If we have to wait around here for much longer I think I'm going to explode."

 

"Let's go then," Omi replies firmly, nodding to himself as he carefully stashes his computer on the back seat before getting in himself. "The sooner we get going the sooner it's all over with, right?"

 

"Something like that," I murmur, climbing into the driver's seat and pulling on my seatbelt. Although we hadn't discussed it, we're all wearing our old mission clothes, or, if you prefer, uniforms. Speaking for myself, digging the bits and pieces out of the boxes I'm still living out of was all but instinctual. The clothes hang loose on me though, telling me in no uncertain terms that I've lost weight over the last few weeks. As so with many things, it's something I push out of my mind and don't dwell on.

 

No one speaks as I drive. After all the talking we've done during the past sixteen hours I doubt very much whether we've got anything left to say to each other anyway. As simple as the plan is, we've been over it and over it and over it again. Go in, scout Kimura's penthouse, leave. The only thing we haven't talked about in detail is whether we honestly think we're going to find Aya or not.

 

If he's not there...

 

Well, if he's not there we'll just have to cross that bridge when we get to it.

 

For the first time in what feels like far too long we're feeling both hopeful and useful again. Omi actually smiled as he brought the schematics of Ewigkeit's headquarters up on the computer, his fingers flying over the keyboard as though they were a natural extension of his body. Within minutes he had all the access codes and floor plans we needed. It was as simple as that.

 

I think they've forgiven me for not having told them about Yukio earlier. That said, I have to say I also think Ken's promise to punch my lights out if I ever pull a trick like that again is one to take seriously... Very seriously, if the look in his eyes was anything to go by.

 

"There it is," Omi murmurs, referring to Ewigkeit's pretentious looking building as we reach the outskirts of the city. "You do of course realize that the ankh is merely made by leaving lights on in certain windows," he continues. "It would take next to nothing to change it. I've already had a look in to the mainframe that monitors the lighting. If we wanted to we could..."

 

"We'll think about it on the way out," I interrupt, liking where Omi's going but not knowing whether there'd really be any point to it. "Good thinking though. I like it."

 

"Me too," Ken agrees. "It'd really show that prick Kimura. Hell, just imagine the look on his face when he saw it."

 

"Again, we'll think about it once we're done," I murmur, planting my foot on the accelerator as I watch the clock on the dash flick over to eleven. Although Yukio made it pretty clear that we had plenty of time to play with, I want to get in and out as quickly as possible.

 

With near on immaculate timing I park the car opposite the building just as a group of men in Italian business suits crowd into a waiting fleet of limousines. Because of his hair, Kimura stands out. Irrationally I long for a gun, knowing that if I could I'd quite happily shoot him down in cold blood. I'd even smile as I pulled the trigger.

 

"Armani doesn't suit him," Ken comments drily. "I always thought the devil was meant to wear red."

 

"What? And spoil the effect of his glorious hair?" Omi snorts, taking his laptop out of its case and booting it up. "He'll get his one of these days, I'm sure of it."

 

"Sooner rather than later, with any luck," I retort, glaring at the limousines as they pull away from the building and disappear down the street. "Ready, Omi?"

 

"Oh yeah," Omi replies, forcefully hitting a key on the computer before snapping it shut and shoving it under his arm. "For the next thirty minutes every door and elevator in the place are unlocked and waiting for us. Even if their security cotton on to the fact that they've been hacked it will take them at least ten minutes to get the system on line again."

 

"Excellent. Good job, kiddo," I exclaim, unfastening my seatbelt and stepping out of the car. Cool night air buffets me, blowing my coat and hair, but -- nerves apparently having a warming effect -- I feel anything but cold.

 

"Let's get this show on the road then," Ken states almost gleefully as, together, we run across the street. Getting into the foyer proves to be as easy as we expected it to be and we're slipping into the express elevator to the penthouse before we really know it. I put the lack of actual security guards down to yet more arrogance on Kimura's part. He's probably so confident of his state of the art offices being safe from mere thieves that he's never felt any need for them. Not, mind you, that I'm complaining. If I have to fight someone I'd far rather them to be part of Ewigkeit proper than some poor stooge wearing a security uniform.

 

Kimura's penthouse is on the fifty-eighth floor and the elevator gets us there in no time at all. Exiting it, we find ourselves faced with a choice of two corridors. As good as the plans were that Omi was able to find on the computer they couldn't tell us much about the penthouse other than a number of rooms of various sizes lead off the two corridors we're now staring at.

 

"You two take the left and I'll take the right," I whisper, for some reason feeling compelled to voice something we'd already decided on hours ago. "If you see the secretary then feel free to take him out any way you see fit. If you find..."

 

"If we find Aya we call you straight away on the com," Omi murmurs, already tiptoeing down the corridor. "Same goes for you."

 

"Be careful," Ken whispers, clapping me on the shoulder as he trails after Omi.

 

Mumbling, "mmm-hmm," under my breath, I start to move down the corridor. At first I can't place the smell that hangs in the air but then I realize that the entire place smells like a -- combination of flowers, incense and dust -- church. Looking down, I'm not surprised to see that the carpet too looks as though it's come from a place of worship. In fact, glancing around me at the art on the walls and the color scheme, the design of the entire penthouse seems to be a hybrid of both Catholicism and Ancient Egypt.

 

Oh yeah. Bullseye.

 

The first door I tentatively open shows a room containing a collection of statues that look as though they've come direct from both the Vatican and the Great Pyramids. It's doubtful that any of them were obtained legally. My com crackling into life startling me slightly, I pull the door back shut and continue onto the next room.

 

"Don't worry about the secretary, he's taken care of," Omi states, all business-like. "Other than that, nothing."

 

"Ditto," I reply, not bothering to ask about the condition of the secretary. Let's face it, his being alive or dead is something I could honestly care less about.

 

Nerves slowly start to get the better of me as door after door opens to no sign of Aya. Religious and Egyptian artifacts litter every room but other than that I see nothing of any real interest. Some of the rooms I doubt are ever entered by anyone other than Kimura himself. As to what he does in them, well... some things are just better left not thought about.

 

Reaching the end of the corridor, I pause, hesitating over opening the double doors that lead off it. I don't know why, I just do. Maybe it's fear that this is the last door and I'm not going to find Aya behind it, that we got our hopes up for nothing. Or maybe it's the fear that I am going to find him and he's going to laid out dead in a sarcophagus...

 

Mentally telling myself to get a fucking grip, that the word pathetic doesn't even begin to come close to describing my behavior, I take a deep breath and shove open the doors. Stepping into enveloping blackness, I very nearly have a heart attack when, as though putting on a show, lights begin to flicker on in the back of the room.

 

No. Not lights, television sets.

 

As though frozen to the spot, I watch with mounting shock as a wall of televisions turn on, one after the other, to the blue screen of the AV channel. Blinking in the eerie pale blue light they generate, I tell myself that I have to hallucinating, that my eyes are playing tricks on me when I see what's set up in front them.

 

Oh dear God, no...

 

A Perspex cross stands bolted to the floor in the center of the room. It's both large enough and strong enough to bear the weight of a person strapped to it.

 

I know this because, naked and bleeding, there *is* a person, arms outstretched like a scarecrow, strapped to it.

 

Aya.

 

The blue light making him look like a bloody apparition, I can't even tell if he's still alive and, shaking off my shock, rush over to him. The lighting in the room apparently being movement activated, the overhead lights flash on as I reach the cross, bathing everything in a harsh, fluorescent glare. It also highlights the horrific extent of Aya's injuries, making me immediately think more kindly towards the blue glow from the television sets. Although hopefully superficial, the myriad bruises, abrasions, welts and -- so help me God I'm going to fucking kill the bastards -- burn marks that cover Aya's body take up more space than unblemished skin. He looks, not to overstate the case or anything, half dead.

 

"Aya..." Whispering his name like a plea bargain to unknown deities, I place my fingers gently on the base of his throat. He's so cold that it takes me a few seconds to be sure it's not just wishful thinking telling me that I can feel a faint pulse fluttering beneath my touch. Looking closely at his lax features and the general relaxed position of his body I deduce that, on top of everything else, he's been drugged. Accepting that he's completely out of it doesn't stop me babbling as I reach for the leather and metal cuffs strapping his wrists to the cross though.

 

"It's okay, Aya. We're here now and we're gonna get you out of here. Come on, it's all over now. You're safe and no one's going to hurt you again. Come on, Aya, it's me... Yohji. It's over... Okay? Trust me. I'll tear Kimura to shreds with my bare hands before I allow him to touch you again."

 

Once I've freed Aya from the elaborate cuffs holding him in place, I lower him to the floor and, taking my coat off, gently slip him into it. Irrationally, I want him covered before the others see him. I've just finished gingerly pulling the zip up when Ken's voice crackles in my ear.

 

"We've reached the end of the corridor and there's no sign of Aya. How about you?"

 

"I've got him," I whisper hoarsely, glancing down at the battered body I'm holding limply against me. "He... He's..."

 

"Where are you?" Omi interrupts anxiously. "Is he alive? God, Yohji! Now's not the time to protect our allegedly delicate sensibilities! If the news is bad you've gotta tell us."

 

"We're in the room at the end of the corridor," I reply dully, lightly stroking a lock of Aya's lank hair away from his face. I've never seen his hair so dirty before, its matt color making me think -- somewhat hysterically -- of dried blood. "He's alive but we've gotta get him out of here *now*."

 

"We're on our way," Ken shouts, his voice sounding like foghorn through the com.

 

"Hear that, Aya?" I murmur softly, rearranging him as gently as I possibly can in order to pick him up. "Ken and Omi are on their way and then we're all going to walk out of this hell hole together."

 

I've barely stood up, Aya's body seemingly weighing close to nothing in my arms, when Omi and Ken come bursting through the doors. Slamming on the brakes, Omi comes to an abrupt stop in the middle of the room, his eyes huge in his pale face. At first I think it's the sight of Aya that's shocking him but, following his gaze, I see that it's more the room in general. Too intent on taking care of Aya, I hadn't bothered to look around me when the main lights came on. Given the collection of hard-core BDSM equipment lining the walls I kinda wish that I wasn't looking now either.

 

"Did they..." Shaking his head, Omi can't voice the rest of his question and comes over to softly stroke Aya's face.

 

"I say we do it," Ken hisses, kicking viciously at the cross until it falls to the floor. Glancing at it, I see smeared blood staining the Perspex and feel ill. "What Omi was talking about in the car, I say we do it. That fucker needs to know that he can't get away with doing this to Aya."

 

Nodding, I start to move towards the door. "You can do it, Omi?"

 

"It'll be done before the elevator reaches the ground," Omi replies confidently, opening his laptop and immediately beginning to tap on the keyboard as he walks. "What's more, it'll be even brighter than the ankh."

 

"Do it then," I reply. "Ken's right. Kimura needs to know that this isn't something we're going to take lying down."

 

Silence descends as we get into the elevator, each of us lost in our own thoughts. Although he's in my arms, I never take my eyes off Aya. He's so deeply unconscious that he doesn't move, not even when we step outside into the cold night air.

 

"Ready?" Omi murmurs once we've crossed the road and are standing next to the Impreza. "I thought I'd wait until we could see it before actually doing it."

 

Tightening my hold on Aya, I nod. "Do it."

 

"And... Voila," Omi declares, quickly entering a final code into the laptop before snapping it shut. "If Kimura doesn't get the point of this then he's as stupid as he is evil."

 

"Oh, he'll get it," Ken mutters just as, without so much as a flicker, the ankh disappears from the windows of the skyscraper. "I mean, how could he not?"

 

Watching the huge white cross blink into life where the ankh had been only seconds before, I smile grimly. "Oh, he'll get the message. Now, come on, as much as I'd love to see the fucker pop a blood vessel at the sight of it, we've got to get out of here."

 

"Which hospital are we taking Aya to?" Ken queries, opening the passenger door that, oops, I apparently forgot to lock. "St Luke's is nearby but we've been there before and they might recognize us."

 

"What about that private one, you know, the one near the exit to the freeway?" Omi offers, throwing his computer into the car before scooting over the back seat and settling himself against the closed door of the driver's side. "They could probably be trusted to keep their mouths shut," he adds, reaching towards me. "Here, Yohji. Give me Aya."

 

"We're not taking him to a hospital," I state vehemently, staring in the car at Omi but making no move to place Aya on the backseat. Although I know I have to, I don't want to let him go. "We can't. It's too risky."

 

"Risky?" Omi repeats, clearly appalled. "I'd have thought not knowing whether he was suffering internal injuries would be considered riskier."

 

"Speaking of risky," Ken mutters, gesturing at Omi as he starts to climb into the car, "isn't standing here having this discussion a little on the risky, if not downright stupid, side of things too? Come on, Yohji, move it. Hand Aya over to Omi and lets continue this debate as we get the hell out of here."

 

Sighing, I reluctantly place Aya into Omi's waiting arms and, after carefully closing the door, walk around to the driver's side. By the time I'm starting the engine Omi has Ken's sweater placed under Aya's head as a pillow and a hard, contrary expression on his face.

 

"We have to take him to a hospital," Omi states, glaring at me in the rear vision mirror. "He looks in a bad way and we don't know the extent of his injuries."

 

"We can't take him to a hospital," I repeat dully, turning the car in the direction of Souzou. "God, Omi! Do you think I like saying this, huh? I've seen what the coat's hiding and I *know* he's in a bad way. Think about it though. If we take him to a hospital what's to stop Kimura and his slimy mates coming for him, eh? You heard Somali. We're not safe in Tokyo."

 

"Then we'll call Kritiker," Omi replies flatly. "Surely they'd have a safe hospital we could take him to. Look at him, Yohji! If not for the fact I can feel his pulse I'd think he wasn't dead and... And that can't be good."

 

"We're not calling Kritiker!" I exclaim, disgusted at the mere suggestion. "Oh God, no fucking way."

 

"Then what, huh?" Omi snorts, the intensity of his narrow eyed gaze burning holes in the back of my skull. "We're just going to shove a couple of Tylenol down his throat and hope for the best?"

 

"We'll..." Not having an answer for Omi, I trail off. I *know* Aya needs medical attention but the thought of asking Kritiker for help is just abhorrent to me.

 

"What about a doctor?" Ken murmurs calmly, finally wading into the argument. "We could use the one from that town near Souzou. That way we could get him checked out *and* keep him with us."

 

"There's a doctor in the town?" Omi queries hopefully, giving me dismissive look before turning his attention to Ken.

 

"Mmm-hmm. His residence is next to the small grocery store," Ken replies. "I saw it when I was there the other day buying stuff for tea. I'm sure he'd be able to treat Aya."

 

Relieved, I nod my agreement. "Sounds good. Omi?"

 

"Well it's certainly better than anything *you* were able to come up with," Omi mutters with a sigh. "But, yeah, okay. If the doctor says that he should be in a hospital though, and this isn't something I'm prepared to debate, I'm calling Kritiker."

 

"Fine," I reply, mentally crossing my fingers that it doesn't come to that. "We'll stop by the doctor's on the way and get him to come back to Souzou with us."

 

"Um... What are we going to tell him?" Ken murmurs dubiously. "I know it was my idea and everything, but... Er... It's kinda obvious that Aya didn't just come off second best in a bar fight."

 

"Leave it to me," I retort, paying no heed to the speed limit and pressing down harder on the accelerator. "By the time we get there I'll have thought of something."

 

"Looking forward to hearing it," Ken replies, rolling his eyes.

 

Although I think 'you and me both', I don't respond and concentrate on my driving. Omi and Ken continue to murmur amongst themselves but I tune them out. Keeping both the car on the road and my mind deliberately blank is an art form I mastered years ago and I zone everything out as I drive. There will come a time when I have to deal with everything that's happened but that time isn't now, not while it's all too fresh and vivid.

 

The time on the dashboard clock reads twelve, the Witching Hour, as I park the car outside the doctor's residence. I stare at the clock, barely able to compute how little time has past since we first walked into Ewigkeit's offices, as Ken gets out to rouse the doctor. If he mentions anything about what he's going to say I don't hear it. The journey should have taken an hour, yet less than sixty minutes ago we were breaking into Kimura's penthouse...

 

"Even if we had seen any police patrols I doubt they would have been able to catch us," Omi comments quietly, as though reading my mind. "Actually, I doubt they would have seen anything but a blur before their eyes anyway."

 

"Did I drive dangerously?" I query hesitantly, swiveling around, my gaze drawn automatically to Aya. If he's moved at all during the trip I can't see it. If anything he looks even paler. "If I did I'm... I'm sorry."

 

"I never once felt anything other than perfectly safe," Omi replies softly, following my gaze and visibly flinching. "I'm sorry for arguing with you, Yohji-kun. You were right about the idea of taking him to a hospital being a stupid one. I should have considered the threat of Kimura coming after him. It's just... Well, it's just that I can't bear the thought of Aya suffering any more than he already has and want to do what's best for him."

 

"We were both right in our different ways," I sigh, pleased that Omi has decided now isn't really the time to bear a grudge. "You know Kritiker are well and truly off my Christmas card list at the moment but, yeah, you're right. If Aya needs to be hospitalized then we'll call them. Hell, I'll call 'em personally. I'm sure Somali would just love to hear me grovel."

 

"Aya's strong," Omi whispers, stroking the unconscious redhead's deathly white cheek with a trembling finger. "With... With any luck he won't need to go to hospital. It's not exactly like I want to ask Kritiker for help either, not after..."

 

"Not after he's been all but directly under their noses all this time," I finish drily. "Don't go there, Omi. It'll only make you mad."

 

Sighing, Omi blinks luminous, suddenly tear filled eyes at me and smiles ruefully. "I'm already mad."

 

I'm saved from having to reply by Ken returning. Behind him, dressed in his pajamas and robe, trails the doctor. A kindly looking man in his early fifties, he appears a trifle nonplussed at having been gotten out of bed at midnight. Opening the back door, Ken leans into the car and mouths, "You're on. All I've told him is that we need his help."

 

Thinking fast, I plaster a hopefully believable smile on my face and climb out of the car. "Doctor," I state, shaking my head ruefully, "I apologize for interrupting your sleep but I'm afraid we have a rather delicate matter that we were hoping you'd be able to solve for us."

 

Stifling a yawn, the doctor looks me in the eye and extends his right hand. "Doctor Miyazaki," he announces, "and you are?"

 

"My name's Yohji," I reply, shaking his hand, "and the other three men you can see before you are my brothers. You've already met Ken and the two on the backseat are Omi and Aya." I say Aya's name with just the slightest hint of a sigh and gesture for the doctor to follow me a short distance away from the car. "It's Aya that unfortunately needs your services. I'm afraid..." Pausing, I shrug expansively and, as though embarrassed, glance away from the doctor. "I'm afraid that he went off the rails again and we were a little slow to realize just how far he'd gone."

 

"Meaning?" Dr Miyazaki queries gravely. "If you are wanting my assistance you will have to be more forthcoming."

 

"My brother, I'm extremely sorry to say, is a masochist," I murmur sadly, praying the doctor buys my hastily thought up bullshit. "He's okay for months but then something happens and he just loses it. This time it seems that he got into a scene that was too hard core for even his... ah... perversions. We were able to get him out but he needs medical attention. The animal, I'm sorry, his so-called friend, that got him into this wouldn't tell us what he's taken and we're worried that he may be having an allergic reaction or something. There's also the matter of his... ah... injuries. I can't profess to understanding the need for pain but from what I've seen of my brother's body he's definitely taken things far too far this time."

 

"If he is as injured as you believe him to be then why have you not taken him to a hospital?" the doctor asks, walking back to the car and crouching down by the open back door in order to peer at Aya. "I have to say that I find all of this quite questionable."

 

"Our father is high up in the government," I reply, the lies rolling smoothly off my tongue. "If it were to be leaked to the press that his second oldest son was into bondage then, as I'm sure you can appreciate, his career would be in ruins. He's given us Souzou, the old gardens and their residence just out of town, in the hope that we'd be able to look after Aya. To tell you the truth, Dr Miyazaki, I'd rather our father never learnt of any of this. I know the situation is a strange one and again I apologize for arriving on your doorstep like this. It's just that we didn't know what else to do. He's our brother and we love him. Surely you can see our dilemma?"

 

"Very well," Dr Miyazaki sighs, standing up and straightening his robe. "I can see without even having to examine him that your brother is in need of medical attention. While I wish to make it clear that I am not exactly happy with this arrangement I can not simply leave him like this and will do what I can to help. If you'd just bring him inside I'll..."

 

"I hate to be even more of a nuisance, but could you possibly come out and tend to him at Souzou?" I interrupt, flashing a hopeful smile at the doctor. "We'll more than adequately pay you, of course. As you can imagine though I'm sure it would be more beneficial for Aya's recovery to wake up in his own room."

 

"Don't ask for much, do you?" Dr Miyazaki mutters, giving me an oddly suspicious look. "If I were to come out to your home then I would need a guide. Although I have lived in this town for twenty years I've never been out to Souzou and wouldn't know how to find my way out there."

 

Sensing victory, I nod towards Ken. "If it would suit, Ken can wait while you get dressed and then he can guide you personally," I offer. "Would that be acceptable?"

 

"That will work, yes," the doctor replies, walking back towards the house. "If you don't mind remaining outside, Ken, I won't be long."

 

"And the Oscar for best performance goes to Yohji," Ken comments, strolling past me to lean on the doctor's fence. "Truly, that was simply masterful."

 

"It worked, didn't it?" I retort, shutting the back door of the car. "If he takes too long making himself presentable then by all means hurry him up."

 

"I wouldn't push it if I were you," Ken replies. "So far so good, yeah, but we don't want to make him any more suspicious. Oh, the brother thing was a stroke of genius by the way. At least this way he won't think we're totally peculiar for living out in the middle of nowhere together."

 

"Did you ever doubt my ability for story telling?" I smirk, waving over the car at Ken as I get back in the driver's seat.

 

"From what I heard that indeed was some tale," Omi murmurs as we drive off. "I'm not too sure Aya will thank you for it but, yeah, it's certainly more or less believable."

 

"The doctor appeared to buy it," I reply, hoping like crazy I remember the intricacies of my story and don't trip myself up later on. "Given what he's going to find, I couldn't think of anything else to keep his suspicions at bay."

 

"You did well," Omi replies. "Dr Miyazaki seems like a nice man too. He could have asked a lot more questions but I think he was willing to keep them to himself out of concern for Aya."

 

"Here's hoping," I mutter before once again letting silence descend over the Subaru's interior.

 

Once we're at Souzou I park the car directly outside the front door and carry Aya inside. I keep waiting for him to wake up or show signs of movement or even moan, but he remains dead to the world. Although it's the last thing I want I begin to fall prey to an avalanche of doubts. Maybe he's dying... Maybe he's in a coma... Maybe we've already hampered his recovery by moving him... Maybe the drugs have done something to his brain... Maybe he'll never be the same again...

 

"Don't look so worried, Yohji," Omi whispers, his own expression being a long, long way from happy-go-lucky as I lay Aya down on his bed. "Aya will be okay. He has to be."

 

Not wanting Omi to see the tears I can feel welling in my eyes, I turn away from the bed and walk out of the room. "You stay with Aya," I murmur over my shoulder, "I'm going to wait for Ken and the doctor."

 

Heading straight to the kitchen, I pick up the packet of cigarettes I'd carelessly left on the bench instead of taking with me, and light one up. Needing the fix badly, I smoke it quickly and am lighting my second when the doctor's car pulls up. Knowing that Ken's more than capable of guiding him to Aya's room, I remain where I'm standing and concentrate on my cigarette. Ken gives me a look as they walk through the kitchen but doesn't say anything. Dr Miyazaki nods a greeting, frowning at the sight of the cigarette in my hand. Saving his lecture on the perils of smoking for another time, he remains silent though and follows Ken down the corridor.

 

Minutes, possibly hours, pass as I stand in the kitchen. Ken and Omi help the doctor by getting water and towels from the bathroom. I listen to them moving about but don't go to see if there's anything I could do to assist. When I've finished the packet of cigarettes I get another one from the cupboard and continue smoking. I keep waiting for Omi to run into the room with the cordless phone in his hand and the demand that I call Kritiker, that there's nothing Dr Miyazaki can do for Aya. When someone does finally enter the kitchen behind me I screw my eyes shut in futile denial and don't turn around.

 

"Your brother's injuries, while shocking to look at, are mostly superficial," Dr Miyazaki announces softly. "I have been able to clean them and can tell you that they will all heal in time. I can also tell you that I can find no signs of any internal damage. He is however, and I have to say I find this most disturbing, both dehydrated and malnourished. What I also find disturbing is the fact that he has endured this treatment for a couple of weeks at least. Whoever did this to him is skilled in this type of sexual torture as although none of the injuries are life threatening they are all nonetheless quite painful. If I were you I would contemplate reporting them to the authorities. Even if he was a willing participant this sort of behavior should not be allowed to flourish."

 

"They'll be taken care of," I murmur, stubbing my cigarette out in the sink and turning to face the doctor. Suddenly I feel very, very tired. "Thank you, Dr Miyazaki. As much as what you've just said pains me I have to say I'm relieved that Aya is going to be okay, that his injuries aren't as bad as we feared. What of his drugged state though? Is that cause for concern or do you think he will just wake up from it?"

 

"It is my belief that sometime during the next twelve or so hours he will simply wake," the doctor replies. "From what I can deduce without the benefit of a blood test he appears to have been given a large dose of a common sedative. Now, I have left some painkillers and a bottle of far milder sedatives with Omi. I will also return in the afternoon to check on his condition. While I wouldn't go so far as to say he was lucky, it certainly appears that you were able to rescue him before his condition was allowed to considerably worsen."

 

"Again, thank you," I respond, trailing after the doctor as he begins to walk towards the front door. "It was very kind of you to come out here tonight and to care for someone who is essentially a stranger. We are all in your debt."

 

"I am a doctor," Dr Miyazaki replies with a smile. "It is my job, if not my duty, to care for strangers. As for holding you in my debt? Nonsense. I shall merely send you an account as I do all my patients. Now, if you'll excuse me I had better be going. If you need me, Ken has my number."

 

"I shall see you this afternoon then," I murmur, opening the door for the doctor and gesturing him through it. Once he's in his car I close the door and, for the first time since being here, make a point of locking it before heading back into the house. Ken's drinking Coke straight from the bottle in the kitchen and when he sees me he waves at me to stop.

 

"Did Dr Miyazaki tell you about Aya?" he queries, returning the bottle to the fridge and yawning. "I tell you, if I could get my hands on Kimura right now I think I could even find it in myself to draw out his death."

 

"It would still be too good for him," I reply dully. "And, yeah, the doctor told me more than I wanted to know about Aya's condition." With that, and without waiting for a response, I walk out of the kitchen and into Aya's room. Coming to a stop just inside the doorway, I stare at the frail figure lying in the bed as pure, icy hatred courses through my veins. For what he's reduced Aya to I want Kimura's death so badly that I can taste it. We kill, but we don't torture. As much as Aya despised Reiji Takatori he never would have contemplated torturing him. To some it might be a fine line but to us it's a rule we both cling to and live by.

 

"Have I missed anything, do you think?" Omi queries softly, padding into the room and gesturing around it. "I didn't want Aya to wake up in total blackness so I've brought the lamp from my room in here and set it up on the bedside table. I've also dragged an armchair from the living room in here so I... or someone... can be with him when he wakes up. You know, so he knows that he's safe. What do you think, Yohji? I just want to do what's best for Aya."

 

Too intent on dwelling on my hatred for Kimura, I hadn't even noticed the changes to the room and berate myself for it. Trust Omi, though. He could be in a worse way than any of us and he'd still see to it that we were all comfortable before collapsing himself.

 

"You've done a great job," I reply, grinning as the first pleasant thought I've had for days pops into my head. "I can think of one thing you've forgotten though," I add, walking out of the room. "Wait there and I'll get it for you."

 

Entering my room, I find what Omi had missed curled up asleep on my pillow. Picking Kiri up, I carry her back into Aya's room and place her on the bed. She blinks sleepy green eyes at me for a second before settling down and starting to purr. Without wanting to over credit a cat or anything, I think she knows instinctively who's sharing the bed with her.

 

"You're right, I had forgotten something," Omi smiles, joining me by the bed and leaning his head on my shoulder. "Everything's going to be okay now, though. I can feel it. We're all back together again."

 

Albeit battered, Aya's back and that, to Omi, is all that really matters.

 

Ten minutes later, I'm sitting on the floor of the shower hugging my knees to my chest as scolding water that I can hardly feel cascades over me.

 

I'm also sobbing like a banshee, my attempt at wanting to draw hope from Omi's faith having failed miserably.

 

~*~

 

"Go 'way."

 

Squirming away from the insistent hand prodding my shoulder, I roll over and attempt to pull the comforter over my head. While I don't know what the time is I'm nonetheless entirely convinced that it's far too early to be waking a person.

 

"Come on, Yohji. You need to get up."

 

If Ken doesn't have a valid reason for upsetting my beauty sleep like this then I think I may just have to kill him.

 

"Don't wanna get up," I whine, batting haphazardly at Ken's hand. "Happy here. Warm here." More to the point, if I stay here with my eyes screwed tightly shut I may just luck out and return to sleep. And God knows I could do with it. Last night's dream was different, sure, but I'd be lying if I said it was a vast improvement...

 

... Continuing on from my nightmare of the burning ankhs, I find myself standing amongst their burnt out shells, Aya lying curled in the fetal position at my feet. He's completely covered in ash, making him look like one of the victims of Pompeii's famous eruption. I long to touch him but an all-consuming fear stops me. A voice whispers in my head that if I dared touch him he'd disintegrate, that within seconds there'd be nothing left of him. Unable to fight this feeling, I just stand there, frozen...

 

"For fuck's sake, Yohji!" Ken exclaims, grabbing the covers and yanking them off me. "Will you get your useless ass out of bed already, huh? Somali and Tonkinese are here."

 

"Yeah, like that's gonna make me wanna get up," I murmur, reluctantly cracking an eye open and peering at Ken. The vibrant red of his Manchester United soccer top nearly blinding me, I fling an arm over my eyes and moan. I'm not surprised by the arrival of our unwanted guests though. The Kritiker grapevine would have been in overdrive even before we'd left the outskirts of Tokyo. Hell, they probably already know as much about Aya as we do. "Christ, Ken. You could have warned me."

 

"Couldn't sleep so I've been up for hours," Ken mutters, tugging my arm away from my face and glaring down at me. "Now, will you get the fuck up already? I don't know how much longer Omi can hold them."

 

Hold them?

 

Warning bells ringing in my head, I sit up, immediately alert. "What are you talking about?"

 

"Oh, you care now?" Ken replies, the smirk dying on his lips as he takes in my 'now is so not the time to play games' expression. "Fine. Somali and Tonkinese are here to, and let's use Somali's exact words here, 'to take Aya off your hands'."

 

There being nothing I can say to that that doesn't involve either unleashing a volley of expletives or simply howling, I scramble off the bed and, pausing only to snatch up my robe, stalk out the door.

 

"See? I thought you'd want to be up," Ken comments, unable to resist having the last word as he trails behind me.

 

"Oh yeah, I'm overjoyed," I retort with a scowl, coming to a sudden stop outside of Aya's room and, for no other reason than I want to reassure myself that he's still there, looking through the door. Finding him pretty much in the exact same position that I left him in last night, Kiri still sleeping sentinel-like by his side, I allow myself a grim smile. "They get him over my dead body," I mutter coldly, turning away from the door.

 

"You know, and I know this sounds, like, completely wrong," Ken states quietly, "but right at this point in time I'm almost envious of Aya."

 

"You what?" I hiss, giving Ken a suspicious look and wondering if I actually heard him correctly.

 

"I'd rather be asleep than be part of the fireworks that are about to erupt in the kitchen," Ken elaborates with a slightly embarrassed shrug. "God knows he's better off out of it."

 

Twisting my lips into a cruel parody of a grin, I shake my head and continue towards the kitchen. "Oh, there's not going to be fireworks," I murmur. "Just watch, Ken. I'm going to be on my very best behavior."

 

"Oh great," Ken sighs. "Thanks for that, Yohji. I'm now even more wary than I was a moment ago."

 

"Watch and learn, grasshopper," I whisper, mentally bracing myself for the coming onslaught as I open the door and step into the kitchen.

 

"Ah, looks like the errand boy was able to get his message through," Tonkinese comments sarcastically, looking at me as though I'm some sort of insect that's just crawled out of his Big Mac.

 

"Hey, Tonk, long time no see," I reply, smiling balefully. "Would have preferred it to be longer, but, oh well, we can't always get what we want."

 

"Yohji!" Omi exclaims, hurrying over to stand next to me. "Did Ken tell you why they're here?" Still dressed in his pajamas and with his hair standing up in all directions, Omi looks like a severely disgruntled pixie. At any other time I'd have no qualms, despite the bruise I'd know I'd be all but guaranteeing myself, sharing this thought with him either.

 

"He muttered some fantastical bullshit at me, yeah," I respond, giving Somali a dirty look as I make a point of nonchalantly strolling across to the sink and the pack of cigarettes I'd left there. "As flights of fantasy go it was something else again."

 

"It's not a flight of fantasy," Somali grinds out through clenched teeth. "As representatives of Kritiker, your, in case you've forgotten, employer, we've come to ensure Abyssinian receives the care he requires."

 

Lighting a cigarette, I take a long drag and deliberately blow the smoke in Somali's face. "Just out of curiosity, why care now?" I query conversationally as, his expression hard enough to crack granite, he angrily waves the smoke away. "I mean, and why beat around the proverbial bush here, abandoning him to become Kimura's own personal fuck-toy didn't seem to impinge on your ability to sleep at night, so why now? Help me, please. I'm confused."

 

"You don't have to answer him to him, sir," Tonkinese interjects with a growl. "I say we just retrieve our objective and get out of here."

 

"Objective?" Omi snorts in disbelief as he and Ken position themselves directly in front of the door leading in to the living area. "You can't talk about Aya like that."

 

"Tonkinese is right," Somali states arrogantly. "As much as I'm enjoying this little discussion I'm afraid to say that I'm going to have to cut it short. The helicopter leaves from Tokyo in just over an hour and we really must be on our way."

 

Realizing that Somali really means business, I stare at him in shock as my mind refuses to come up with a viable plan. Sure, plunging a carving knife in his back would work but, well, unfortunately he's standing between me and the knife block. "No," I murmur, shaking my head as though I hope it's going to dislodge a brilliant idea. "You're not taking him. He was under your fucking nose all the time and... And, fuck! Congratulations, Somali. I'm actually speechless at the nerve of you."

 

"Ah, so there is a God after all," Tonk mutters, what I take to be a genuine grin crossing his face.

 

"I never took you to be a religious man, Tonkinese," a female voice comments from the door leading to the back of the house. "Be it through God's will or not," Singapura continues, stepping into the kitchen and, surprisingly, walking over to join Ken and Omi, "I'm relieved to find you still here."

 

"But..." Looking at Singapura as though he's just seen something he'd hoped never to see again, Somali shakes his head and frowns. "I thought you'd been recalled to..."

 

"Not recalled, *invited*," Singapura interrupts, tapping her red lacquered nails on her ever-present leather satchel that she's holding to her chest. "The president had matters he wished to discuss. I am now however, as you can well see, back in Japan."

 

"You are still my subordinate," Somali responds, the nervous way he keeps looking at Tonk not quite in keeping with his forceful tone. "You have no business being here."

 

"I have documents in this satchel that say otherwise," Singapura replies, smiling for the first time. "Now, if you'll excuse me for a moment I'd like to see Aya. Yohji? Perhaps you'd like to escort me."

 

"Um... Sure." Flustered by the rapid change of events, I stub my cigarette out and walk across the kitchen to Singapura. Neither Somali nor Tonk make any attempt to stop me. Going by their dumbfounded expressions I have this sneaky suspicion that what they're both experiencing is the feeling of the rug being pulled out from beneath their feet.

 

Gesturing Singapura through the door, I wait until she's through it before grabbing her by the shoulder and spinning her around to face me. "Just what the hell is going on here, huh?" I demand. "If you're here to simply sugarcoat Kritiker's abduction of Aya then I'm telling you now that we're not giving him up without a fight."

 

"Who said anything about abducting Aya?" Singapura murmurs, brushing my hand away from her shoulder. "I'm here because I wish to see him and because there's a deal I'm hoping to make with you."

 

"A deal? What sort of deal?" I query flatly. "In case it hasn't already met your attention, we're not exactly in the best of moods at the moment and anything coming from Kritiker is likely to be greeted with both the contempt and outright dismissal it deserves."

 

"You haven't heard what I'm offering yet," Singapura replies, winking as she slips past me into Aya's room. Pausing by the foot of his bed, she glances at me, her expression pained. "It's true then, you were able to rescue him," she whispers. "Sorry, Yohji. It's not that I ever doubted Weiss, more that I just had to see him for myself."

 

"Do you want to know what that bastard Kimura did to him, huh?" I mutter flatly, pulling her away from the bed and back towards the doorway. "For Christ's sake, Singapura! He was in Tokyo all the time. What I want to know is how come Kritiker weren't able to find him! Didn't you damn well think to place an agent in Ewigkeit's headquarters? I... I just..." Trailing off, I lean against the doorframe and shake my head.

 

"There was an agent inside that building," Singapura responds matter-of-factly. "As to why he was unable to come up with any information regarding Aya also being there, well, I'm sorry, I don't have an answer. The entire situation has been mishandled from the very word go. I know you don't particularly care, that you probably think I'm wasting my breath, but I'm truly sorry for what has happened to Aya."

 

"Of all the Kritiker representatives in the house, you're the only one I'll believe that from," I sigh, dredging up a wan smile. "Hey, just so I don't indulge in a spot of latent paranoia later and search the place for bugs, how'd you know we'd gotten Aya back? Was it the cross?"

 

"Well, it *was* pretty obvious that it was a sign to stick it up Ewigkeit," Singapura smiles, patting me lightly on the arm before walking across the room and taking a seat in the armchair. "Now, Yohji, as much as I'd like to remain here I don't have the time to answer all the questions you've no doubt got and have to get to the point."

 

"Then point away," I murmur, crouching down by the armchair. "I'm not promising you anything, but I'll hear you out."

 

Singapura nods. "As you already know, Somali and Tonkinese are here for Aya. Somali believes that he needs to be in an institution that will monitor him and pump him full of happy pills and generally make his life even more of a misery than it currently is," Singapura explains quietly, keeping her voice low so as not to wake Aya. I think about telling her that I doubt even an earthquake would wake him at the moment but, not wanting to interrupt, remain silent.

 

"Perhaps, although I personally very much doubt it, it *is* what he needs," she continues, her gaze straying to the still figure in the bed. "There's no denying that the environment would be monitored and that there'd be a constant stream of staff to cater for his every need."

 

"And it would be enough to push him over the edge once and for all," I interject, mortified. Shit. Just the thought of Aya in a controlled environment is enough to make me want to scream. While not exactly the most spontaneous of people, and, hell, I've even been known to call him retentive on a number of occasions, I know for a fact that he just wouldn't be able to cope with being locked up and kept constantly under watch.

 

"Which is my opinion too," Singapura replies softly. "Aya is, and I don't want you to take this the wrong way, a special case. As solitary as he likes to think of himself, he's, and I have no doubt this is both unwillingly and exceptionally begrudgingly, grown attached to the three of you. You're his family now and I think separating you would be far more detrimental to his recovery than it would beneficial. He would never admit it, but he needs the three of you. Especially now. You may not have degrees or diplomas but I have this feeling that you'll be able to do more for Aya than any doctor or shrink ever could."

 

"Enough with the flattery already, Sing," I mutter, hoping that she can't see how much her words have effected me. I know she could just be buttering me up, but for some reason I believe she's being sincere. And, yeah, it touches me.

 

Not enough, however, to make me lose sight of the possible consequences of this conversation.

 

"You spoke of deal a minute ago, what is it? What do you want from us and what do we get in return?"

 

"What you get is Aya," Singapura responds, all business-like. "In exchange for one teeny promise I'll ensure that Kritiker completely withdraws from your lives until you're ready for further missions. You'll also get Souzou and everything it contains. Aya will remain here and you'll be free to do as you choose."

 

"And what's the promise?" I snort, picking aimlessly at a small tear on the fabric covering the arm of the armchair. "If it's our first born then I think you're out of luck. Come on, Sing, spit it out. What you're offering sounds great but I need to know what you want in return."

 

"It's simple," Singapura states, smacking my hand away from the tear and smoothing the fabric back over it. "I want you to promise to call me if for whatever reason it becomes clear that Aya isn't recovering. That's all. If you think he's suicidal or not showing any signs whatsoever of improving then you're to call me and I'll arrange for someone more qualified to help him."

 

"Don't tell me," I mutter sourly, knowing that her offer just had to be too good to be true, "you'll pack him up and send him to the same nut house that Somali already has him booked into. Some deal, I don't think."

 

"No, not that hospital," Singapura retorts, giving me an annoyed look. "One that is, I think, more suited to the circumstances. One that also has residences on site for family and friends to stay in so as to be close to the patient. I'm not saying it will come to that though, all I'm doing is seeking assurances that you won't try to soldier on when it's clear that he's not getting any better."

 

My hopes rising again, I lock eyes with Singapura, forcing her to meet my gaze. "What's in it for you, huh? You've got to admit that the deal is weighted heavily in our favor and, just call me suspicious, I want to know what you're going to get out of it."

 

"Again, it's simple," Singapura smiles smugly. "I want Weiss to be operating at full strength again and I know this will only occur if Aya is able to recover. I don't care how long this takes so long as it happens. Weiss *are* Kritiker's best team in Japan and I need them."

 

"Need?" I query curiously. "What exactly is it you've got planned for us?"

 

"Nothing," Singapura replies, still smiling. "Not at the moment. I just need to know that you'll be there for me when the time comes that I need your help. Oh! Shit! In case I've forgotten to tell you already, I'm now officially the head of operations in Japan! The president was so displeased with Somali's handling of events that he's revoked his command. I have the signed proof of this in my satchel. Now, come on, Yohji! Wake up and put two and two together. If I'm to make a success of this position then I need the backing of Weiss. As far as I'm concerned this is a win-win situation."

 

"Somali's really out on his ass?" I query hopefully, the day suddenly looking far brighter than it had been. "Tonkinese too?"

 

"They'll both be moved on to lesser positions within Kritiker," Singapura murmurs, standing up. "The main thing is it's doubtful you'll ever have the pleasure of seeing their faces again. Now, what do you say? Do you need time to discuss this with the others or do we have a deal?"

 

Knowing that Omi and Ken would reach the same decision as I have, I nod and extend my right hand.

 

"It's a deal," I grin, the weight that had landed heavily on my shoulders as I'd gotten up suddenly lifting. "So long as you let me watch Somali's face as you hand him his demotion, then, oh yeah, we're in."

 

~*~

 

Slamming the fridge door shut with far more force than is really necessarily, Ken folds his arms across his chest and, noticing me looking at him, scowls. "You know, for a household that consists of three people who claim they're never hungry and Sleeping Beauty, we sure have a lot of nothing to eat around here," he complains tetchily.

 

"Hungry then, I take it?" I mutter, raising an eyebrow in mock consternation. "I'm sure there's some rice crackers left in the cupboard."

 

"I don't want freakin' rice crackers," Ken mutters with a long-suffering sigh. "Man can not live on rice crackers alone, okay? If I have one more rice cracker I'm going to turn *into* a rice cracker."

 

"So what you're saying is you've got a hankering for something other than rice crackers," I reply blithely, pushing the keys to the Subaru across the table towards him. "There you go. Why don't you go into town and buy supplies? I'm sure it's a lovely day for a drive."

 

"Interrupting your peace, Yohji?" Ken queries, his mood visibly lifting as he snatches up the keys and dangles them from his finger. "You could be a little more subtle, you know. Like, oh, I don't know, telling me to fuck off or something."

 

"Surely it wasn't that obvious?" I murmur, feigning offence. "Come on, Ken, what makes you think I mind you banging cupboard doors and complaining while I'm trying to read, huh?"

 

"Trying to read my ass," Ken laughs, grabbing his coat from the back of the chair and sidling towards the door. "You've been staring blankly at the same page for ten minutes and you know it." Pausing, he bows gallantly. "But, never let it be said that I remain where I'm so obviously not wanted. Do you want anything while I'm out?"

 

Putting my magazine down, I mentally run through how many packs of cigarettes I've got stashed around the place. Including the emergency packet hidden in the dresser in my room, I come up with a total of six which, given the rate I'm currently going through them is next to nothing. "Could you get me a couple packets of..."

 

"Let me guess, cigarettes?" Ken interrupts, rolling his eyes. "I'll have you know that buying those death sticks for you offends my healthy living sensibilities."

 

"This coming from the man who could quite happily drink nothing but Coke?" I snort, enjoying our easy banter. "Oh yeah, nice one."

 

"Tonkinese was right, you *are * a smart ass," Ken retorts. "Fine. I'll put my dark glasses on and buy cigarettes for you. Happy now?"

 

Picking my magazine back up, I smile smugly. "Ecstatic."

 

"Mmm... You look it too," Ken mutters, pulling his coat on. "Do me a favor, if Omi wakes up can you just let him know that I won't be long."

 

Omi's asleep? Well I never. So much for thinking he was still hovering over Aya. Then again, given that I can't really say how long I've been sitting here for it all but stands to reason I have no idea what Omi's doing. Lost in my own little dream world, that's me. "Um... Sure. Not a problem," I reply. "Assuming he actually misses you, then, yeah, I'll be sure to tell him."

 

"You want these cigarettes or not?" Ken smirks, shaking his head and snickering as he leaves.

 

Alone in the suddenly far too silent kitchen in the already far too silent house, I drop the magazine -- that I haven't been reading for the last hour or so -- down on the table and slump back in my seat.

 

Damn.

 

Now that Ken's gone I miss him. That'd be about fucking right. As inane as our conversation was, it was still a welcome noise, a diversion from the otherwise numb state that characterizes my waking moments. As wrong as I know it to be, I, just like Ken yesterday, find myself almost envious of Aya. If I could sleep the time away like he is then surely I'd have to be better off...

 

Oh yeah. There's just no help for it. I'm losing it. Big time.

 

Envious of Aya? Christ. Envious of what exactly? The fact that the reason he's sleeping so much is because he's too weak to do anything else? Or maybe it's his injuries and what caused them? God knows they're a reason to incite jealousy all in themselves. Shit. I mean, what a fucking wonderful choice of things to be jealous of. The way my mind is operating at the moment I'll be rethinking my opinion of Kritiker hierarchy next and putting in my resume in the hope of joining them.

 

Laughing mirthlessly, I lean forward and bury my face in my hands. I thought getting Aya back would make me feel better but it hasn't. My relief at having him at least near knows no bounds, sure, but it's not enough to lift the veil of nothingness I can feel lingering over me. I look at him lying pale and unmoving in bed and the despair I feel is almost as great as it was when he was still missing. Although I know I shouldn't, that I shouldn't let hatred consume me, I spend just about as much time dwelling on what I'd like to do to Kimura as I do worrying about Aya.

 

I used to worry about Aya's obsession with gaining revenge over Takatori. Even when I knew what had caused his rage I still thought that he was just a tad blinkered in making Takatori's death the be all and end all of his existence. Now though... Fuck. The thought of Kimura still being allowed to draw breath preys heavily on my mind. For achieving what no one else has been able to, and that's reducing Aya to a frail shadow, a wraith who hides behind sleep and silence, I want his blood staining my hands.

 

Foolishly, I made the mistake of inviting Dr Miyazaki to join me for coffee before he left yesterday. Talk about regretting ever having opened my mouth. He repaid me by informing me in great detail about the extent and range of Aya's injuries. Better still, he even hazarded a guess as to what may have caused the more -- to use his word here, not mine -- 'unique' of his cuts. Clamping my hands over my ears unfortunately not being an option I had available to me, all I could do was sit there and nod politely. I like Dr Miyazaki, he's a kind and caring man, but there's no way in hell I'm ever sitting through a conversation like that with him again. What can I say other than I really didn't want to know, that what I'd seen of his injuries was far more than enough information for me...

 

Dr Miyazaki, who thankfully keeps any suspicions he has to himself about my hastily thought up cover story, thinks that Aya is making good progress. How he's actually able to tell this isn't something I know. I was lurking in the doorway when Dr Miyazaki woke Aya for the first time and, well, the uncomprehending look on his face didn't exactly fill me with hope. Having expected at least a fleeting show of recognition and relief, Aya's blank expression was like a kick in the stomach. Omi tried to convince him that he was safe, that we were all here, and all he was rewarded with for his troubles was the sight of Aya squirming away from his outstretched hand.

 

At Ken and Omi's insistence I have Singapura's new number programmed into the phone. While they were more than fine with our little deal, they want the back up plan to be easily accessible. I don't want to ever have to use it but I'm afraid that I might have to. Perhaps I'm being unreasonable in my expectations but I honestly would have thought Aya would be a little more with it by now. Near on forty-eight hours have passed since we rescued him and I can see little change in his condition. I don't know what I truly expect, given what he's been through, but impatience makes me long for some sort of sign. Just about anything would be good. I'm not choosy. Even the slightest hint of recognition in his haunted eyes would do.

 

Time drags by as slowly as it did before Yukio's message. Although I've tried to emulate Omi's patient hovering, I can't remain in Aya's room for any lengthy period of time. Not only does watching him make me feel like a voyeur but the desire to gather him in my arms is almost unbearable. If it was anyone else I wouldn't fight it. But Aya, after what he's been through? I don't really think it would be in either of our best interests. He'd have freaked enough if he'd woken up in my embrace a month ago let alone now.

 

"Yohji! Ken! Come quickly!"

 

I'm standing even before Omi's panicked cry has fully penetrated the fog of misery in my head. "What's the matter?" I shout back, sixth sense telling me that there's no way it's going to be something good.

 

"Aya's locked himself in the bathroom!" Omi yells, running into the kitchen and grabbing me by the sleeve. "Come on! You've got to do something."

 

"Um... Aren't you possibly over reacting a little?" I query, dutifully jogging after Omi, my mind struggling more to come to terms with the fact that Aya has dragged himself out of bed than the fact that he's locked himself in the bathroom. "I mean, bathrooms do have locks for a reason, you know. Not to mention I'm sure you agree that Aya's entitled to some privacy."

 

Shaking his head agitatedly, Omi lets go of my top and hammers forcefully on the bathroom door. "Aya! Come on, Aya, open up!"

 

"Chill, Omi," I murmur, all but picking him up and lifting him bodily away from the door. "Let Aya stay in there if that's where he wants to be."

 

"But there's razor blades in there!" Omi exclaims, shaking off my grip and throwing himself back at the door. "What if he... Oh God... You know... What if he tries to..."

 

Aya and suicide? Never.

 

Then again, after the shame and degradation of what he's been through...

 

Jesus-mother-fucking-Christ!

 

"Come on, Aya!" I shout, this time moving Omi out of the way so I can throw myself at the door. "Open the fucking door! Hell, Aya, I tell you now that if you're stupid enough to kill yourself then I'm going to tap dance all over your freakin' grave!"

 

"Yohji! Do something!" Omi whispers hoarsely. "You've got to get in there."

 

"And what does it fucking look like I'm doing, huh?" I growl, stepping back from the door and deciding that a change of tactic is in order. Whoever built the damn house built it to last. Although I've broken through many doors in my time none of the bastards have been as solidly built as this one.

 

"Stand back," I command, gesturing Omi further away as I get as far back from the door as possible before, in a leap that a TV cop would be proud of, kicking it in. Pain radiates up my leg from the impact but I ignore it and rush into the bathroom, Omi close enough behind me to be pressing against my back like a second skin.

 

"Oh my God..."

 

Too horrified by the sight that greets us to be capable of rational thought, I don't know if the whispered exclamation comes out of Omi's mouth or mine.

 

Leaning against the tiled wall and holding a razor blade in his trembling right hand, Aya looks for all the world like someone you'd have to talk down off the roof of a skyscraper simply in order to slap a straight jacket around before carting them off to a nice padded cell somewhere. It is not, not by any stretch of the imagination, a good look. Nor is the ghastly pallor of his skin against the black of his silk pajamas. His stance as wary as a cornered animal's, he stares at us through shadowed eyes, his expression betraying nothing as to what's going on in his head.

 

"Omi," I whisper, never taking my eyes off Aya, "why don't you go and wait for Ken in the kitchen, yeah? I can deal with this."

 

"I..."

 

"Please, Omi," I mutter pleadingly, cutting him off. "I need to be alone with Aya."

 

"If you need me you'll yell?" Omi murmurs, reluctantly backing out of the bathroom. "I... I don't know about this, Yohji. I think..."

 

"I promise I'll yell!" I state firmly, taking my eyes off Aya just long enough to ensure that Omi has left. Once I'm convinced that he's gone I force myself to remain calm and take a tentative step towards Aya. Given that I'd rather be facing off against a half starved man eating lion, I have no idea what I'm going to do and resign myself to yet again having to bluff my way through.

 

"Okay, you," I proclaim, holding out my hand. "I don't know what's going through your thick skull but I want you to give me the blade. I mean, shit, Aya! Scaring Omi like that? You should know better. The kid's gonna have nightmares for months now."

 

Shaking his head, Aya closes his hand around the razor and inches further away from me. His silence unnerves me just about as much as the sight of the blade does. Dr Miyazaki says that his muteness is simply a result of the shock his system has endured and that he'll talk when he's good and ready. Me personally, I'm thinking right now would be a real good time to be ready. I think I'd even welcome it if he just told me to fuck off and mind my own business.

 

"Come on, Aya. Hand over the razor already." If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. "If you think I'm going to stand here while you just slash your wrists then you've damn well got another thing coming! For one thing I ain't in the mood to clean up the mess."

 

Narrowing his eyes, Aya slides further along the wall, his expression as unreadable as it was when I first barged into the bathroom. I think it's safe to say he has no intention whatsoever of calmly handing over the blade and contritely trotting off back to bed.

 

Shit. This is Aya we're talking about after all. God forbid he backs down or anything.

 

There are things in a person's life that they long to say. 'I love you', for example. Perhaps even, 'I do'. There are also things that they dread having to one day say. 'I'll take the oak casket', being one example that springs readily to mind.

 

And then there are things that they never thought they'd find themselves saying, that they can't believe is actually having to come out of their mouth...

 

"For fuck's sake, Aya! Just hand over the Goddamn blade!"

 

Even though he's clearly leaning against the wall for support, self-preservation still makes me loathe to lunge at him. He might be looking delicate -- or unhinged, depending on your point of view -- but that's not to say he still couldn't take me if he really put his mind to it. Oh. And then there's the small matter of the razor blade in his hand too. If anyone knew how to kill with just one slash then that person would be Aya. Again, if he really put his mind to it I have this sneaky suspicion we could both be dead on the floor before Omi realized that there was no sounds of movement coming from the bathroom.

 

Shit, shit, shit!

 

What I wouldn't give for a quick acting tranquillizer dart.

 

"Aya! There's no reason it has to come to this." Desperate times calling for desperate measures, I decide the time has come to offer him some unsolicited counseling. "Things might seem bad but, hell, they've been bad before."

 

Shaking his head again, Aya lifts his hand containing the blade away from his body. He then, his eyes fixed on an apparently fascinating spot on my chest, uses his free hand to hesitantly pull up the left side of his pajama top.

 

"Aya? Just what the hell do you think you're..."

 

Oh my God. Again.

 

The ability to speak deserting me, I stare, my mouth no doubt gaping open like a fool, at what Aya's little peepshow has uncovered. While I *know* it had to be there when I got him down from the cross I can hardly believe that I hadn't noticed it. Nor can I believe that I missed the comment Dr Miyazaki would have had to have made about it.

 

"Aya..."

 

If he was merely attempting to deflect my attention then, well congratulations should be in order because his plan has succeeded admirably.

 

Branded into the too tale flesh of the left side of his midriff is the mark of an ankh. Going by the pink, puckered skin forming it, I'd say it was probably burnt into him not long after he was captured. At approximately the size of my palm, the macabre brand dominates what I can see of Aya's torso.

 

Pushing back the sudden desire to throw up I can feel churning in my stomach, I force myself to take a hesitant step forward. "Come on, Aya. Everything's going to be okay. You've got to believe me," I whisper desperately. "This... This isn't going to solve anything!"

 

Glancing up, Aya blinks haunted, determined eyes at me and...

 

"No!"

 

Too late.

 

Proving that Aya will always be faster than I'll ever be, he's brought the blade down even before I've finished shouting. Instead of aiming for his wrist or throat however, he slashes the blade lightly through the ankh. I only note this out of the corner of my eye though as, lurching into life, I fly at him. Not caring whether I end up coming off second best or not, I grab Aya by the shoulders and slam him hard up against the wall. Wanting to keep the upper hand, I brace myself for a counter attack that never comes...

 

The counter attack that never comes because I'm too close to him and because the invasion of his personal space is doing things to his memory that I suspect I'm better off never knowing about.

 

His body going limp, Aya's eyes go wild and he starts to hyperventilate. Sheer unadulterated panic makes me release him. Not wanting to push him further towards the abyss, I don't even try to wrestle the razor blade out of his hand and back a short distance away, giving him space to breathe.

 

"Shit, Aya," I whisper shakily. "I'm sorry, okay? I didn't mean to scare you and... Fuck! I'm sorry. The last thing I want is to upset you but I'll be damned if I'm just going to stand by and watch you hurt yourself."

 

Once again shaking his head, Aya struggles to get his breathing under control and, apparently forgetting about the blade for a moment, begins to scratch desperately at the ankh. Just call me slow on the uptake, but I'm kinda beginning to get the impression that he wants it gone.

 

"Okay, okay! Enough already," I declare, throwing caution to the winds and, while still standing away from him, grabbing his wrist. Like a deer caught in the headlights of a coming truck, he freezes in my grasp. "I know, you want it gone," I continue, fighting to keep my voice light. "How about waiting until you're a little better though and going to see a plastic surgeon, huh? Scratching at it is only going to make it sore and, well, let me tell you here and now that if you think you're going to cut it out - you're not. Got it?"

 

Still either unwilling or unable to talk, Aya hisses and tries frantically to free his wrist. Tightening my grip, I hold on for dear life. I'm resigning myself to remaining pretty much in this position until Aya passes out when I see something I never thought I'd live to a witness.

 

Although it's only a one off, the solitary tear that slides down Aya's right cheek is enough to pierce me to my core. I could no more deny the power of it than I could fly. If Aya is agitated enough to allow his defenses to slip this far, then...

 

"Give me the razor," I murmur, releasing Aya's wrist and reaching for the blade. "Although this goes against my better judgment, I'll help you. I'm not cutting a patch out of your side but I'll... I'll do something to disfigure it, yeah?"

 

Frowning, Aya stills and looks at me suspiciously. I can almost see the cogs whirring in his brain through the bright amethyst gleam of his eyes. Trust not being something Aya gives easily, he probably thinks that I'm going to double cross him, that once I get the razor blade I'm going to celebrate by either locking him in his room or keeping a guard on him at all times.

 

"I'm not trying to trick you," I add carefully, still holding out my hand. "You have my word, Aya. You give me the blade and I'll do something to that... that *mark*."

 

Apparently deciding to take the chance, Aya gives a curt nod and drops the razor into my waiting palm. Although it's warm, I only just manage to control the urge to shiver as I pick it up.

 

Here goes nothing.

 

Kneeling down in front of Aya, I press the blade into the soft flesh of his midriff before either nerves or doubt get the better of me. Starting from the cut he made a few minutes ago, I work quickly, my hand guided by something I wouldn't exactly like to call natural. Although I'm only making shallow cuts, I know it still has to hurt yet Aya doesn't flinch once. He takes a sharp intake of breath as, without thinking, I use my free hand to steady myself on his hip, but that's it.

 

When I've finished I lean back and take in the bloody sight of my handiwork. The cross I've unconsciously carved into Aya's skin distorts the ankh by sitting half across it. While both are obvious, the cross is slightly larger and thus the one that more draws the eye. Somehow I've even managed to keep the lines of its outline straight.

 

"Hey... If you ever want me to autograph my work, all you have to do is say the word."

 

Fuck.

 

I've just scarred a cross into Aya's skin and that's all I can think of saying? Good grief. Seriously. Sometimes I just shouldn't open my fool mouth.

 

Standing up, I numbly retrieve a flannel from the washbasin and press it against the lightly bleeding cross. Aya's expression is as closed as ever, his gaze fixed somewhere above my head and most likely on some plain far away from the humdrum of reality.

 

Fearing that the tears I can feel threatening my control, I turn away from Aya and shout for Omi. "Hey, Omi! Come take Aya back to bed, will you?"

 

Pushing himself away from the wall with obvious effort, Aya starts to limp slowly towards the door. He doesn't look at me.

 

It's the equivalent of the straw that broke the camel's back.

 

Rushing to the toilet, I only just make it in time and drop to my knees, dry retching. When I think I've finished the sight of the bloodstains on the bowl from where I've gripped it immediately makes me retch again.

 

Blood. My whole existence is colored in the red of blood. Aya's blood... The all-consuming desire to spill Kimura's...

 

And...

 

And I've got to get out of here, got to do something before I lose what little grip I have left on my sanity.

 

Standing up, a sense of cool detachment settles over me. After washing my hands, I leave the bathroom and walk into my room. Omi looks at me questioningly as he hovers in the doorway of Aya's room but I ignore him.

 

He's still standing there when, five or so minutes later, I stalk out of my room dressed head to toe in black.

 

Black clothes. Black heart. Black soul.

 

"Yohji?" Omi murmurs nervously, his eyes darting from me to where Aya lies in bed and back again. "Are you going out?"

 

"Places to go, people to see," I reply coldly, striding past. "Don't wait up."

 

~*~

 

Leaning against the back door I've just slipped silently through, I slide my hand back into the pocket of my coat, closing my fingers around the cool silver of my newest prize.

 

Two for two.

 

I'm doing well.

 

Two nights. Two silver earrings in the shape of an ankh, the mark of rank for an Ewigkeit henchman, my reward for a successful hunt.

 

Neither knew what hit them. One was in the process of demanding a freebie from a prostitute when he met his unfortunate end while the other was taking a leak behind a tree in a public park. Their deaths were quick, quite possibly too quick. I doubt they even saw me, which is a shame. Needing to vent the rage I can feel threatening to consume me, I would have preferred for them to have put up a fight.

 

Oh well, though. There's always more where those two came from.

 

I'm not deluded enough to think I can wipe out Ewigkeit by myself but I can certainly make every effort possible to thin out their numbers. It's the least I can do by way of temporary retribution. Official word has it that Kimura's in Sydney attending a conference. It could even be the truth. I'd rather it was because the sight of the cross on his office building scared him shitless though. Either way, he's currently not around and I have to content myself with hunting his worthless minions.

 

If nothing else it gives me something to do with my nights. Not only that, but it also gives me a valid reason to stay squirreled away in my room during the day. I haven't seen Aya since the... incident... in the bathroom. His footsteps being far lighter than either Ken's or Omi's, I've heard him moving around in his room and the corridor, but that's it. Although I'd already waited too long as it was, I lurked behind my bedroom door for over half an hour this afternoon before being convinced that Aya was nowhere around and scurrying across to the toilet. Hell, I'd rather come up against four Ewigkeit goons high on PCP than I would accidentally crossing Aya's path at the moment.

 

So far, touch wood, I've been lucky. I've avoided Aya, scored two Ewigkeit scalps at no physical cost to myself and, what's more, I've even managed not to raise Omi's suspicions. Go me. According to Ken, who felt compelled to share his theory with Omi as I tried to slip unnoticed out the door this evening, the reason I'm suddenly heading out is because -- get this -- I'm suffering from sex withdrawals. Omi, I swear, believed him too. In fact, by the expression on his face I think he was surprised that he hadn't thought of it earlier.

 

Still, whatever. If they think I'm on the prowl then, well, that's just wonderful. God knows it's better than the cold hard proof that I've turned vigilante. I even, in order to feed their theory, bought a selection of perfumes and aftershaves -- that are now hidden away in the glovebox of the XK8 -- before coming back tonight. All I have to do is give myself a quick spray before coming in and, just like that, I instantly smell like I've just returned from a one night stand. I don't feel good about playing them like this but it's for the best. They don't need to know what it is that I'm up to. When Kimura is lying dead at my feet I'll think about confessing my sins then. Until that time however, I'm on my own.

 

Moving away from the door, I walk into the kitchen and switch on the kettle. The time on the microwave reads a quarter to five but just about the last thing I feel like doing is going to bed. Absently fixing myself a cup of coffee, I decide that I may as well go and see whether there's anything worth watching on television. Cartoons would be good. Something nonsensical that I wouldn't have to think about and that could possibly make me laugh. I think I could do with a good laugh. It might even remind me of what it feels like to be human.

 

My attention focused on not spilling the coffee, I leave the kitchen and head into the living room. Not expecting anyone to be up, I'm subsequently surprised to see, upon entering the darkened room, that the television is already on, its channel tuned into a twenty-four hour, nonstop news station. Scowling, I mentally malign Omi -- as there's no way Ken would willingly watch news when there's undoubtedly a game of soccer being screened from somewhere in the world on another station -- for leaving the television on and stalk further into the room, my eyes searching for any sign of the remote. I find it on the sofa... Right next to a pair of bare feet.

 

Bare feet that are attached to -- there goes my string of good luck -- Aya.

 

Goddamn it.

 

Oblivious to the fact that I'm effectively blocking his view of the television, I stare at Aya feeling for all the world like I've just been sprung big time. Like a common thief who's just tripped an alarm system, I stand frozen to the spot, my mind refusing outright to tell me what to do. Aya, still clearly entrenched in his 'ignore Yohji' stage, stares through me, his unblinking gaze just about giving me the heebie-jeebies more than anything.

 

Still dressed in black silk pajamas and sitting curled up in a most un-Aya-like pose on the sofa, I'm stuck by how vulnerable he looks. Under normal circumstances, even if he was exhausted and slumped in a chair, he'd snap to attention the second he was no longer alone and, in his mind, back on show. Not this morning though. While I wouldn't go so far as to say he looks comfortable, I think it's pretty safe to say that he doesn't care one way or the other in regards to what I think of his position.

 

And...

 

Whatever.

 

There being nothing I can think of doing for him, I shrug wearily and walk towards the door. Reaching it, something makes me glance over my shoulder and I find Aya watching me, his face a blank canvas. Suppressing a shudder, and hating myself for feeling so freakin' useless, I carry on walking through the door. Be it merely courtesy of my overactive imagination or not, I continue to feel his eyes boring into my back as I make my way down the corridor to my bedroom.

 

Passing Aya's room, I pause in his doorway, my gaze caught by the golden glow of his bedside lamp. His bed is unmade, something I can't recall ever having seen before. It's such a small, inconsequential thing, but...

 

Like just about everything these days, it's just wrong.

 

Shaking my head, I'm about to walk into my room when I suddenly realize that I can't just sit back and accept things the way they are. However much I'd like to, I can't just make a point of avoiding Aya, of throwing him in the too hard basket. If I can take it upon myself to kill for him then it stands to reason that I should also be able force myself to remain in his company, regardless of how uncomfortable I'm currently finding it. Hell, I love him. Nothing's changed that.

 

And... Fuck it. I can't just leave things as they are.

 

Yet another snap decision having been reached, I walk into Aya's room and grab the blanket from the top of his bed, uncovering Kiri in the process. Yawning daintily, she peers at me for a second before nestling deeper into the comforter and promptly going back to sleep. Fickle creature. Now that Aya's back I haven't seen her in my room once.

 

Blanket obtained, I carry it back to the living room and, after depositing my cup of coffee on the arm of the armchair, drape it over Aya's legs and feet. He watches silently, any annoyance he's feeling at my mothering him being kept well masked. Standing back, I wait for him to kick the blanket off in a show of defiance but he simply returns his attention to the television.

 

Refusing to be put off by his terminal lack of interest in my company, I wander into the kitchen and switch the kettle back on. I toy with the idea of asking Aya whether there's anything in particular that he'd like but dismiss it because I can't see there being anything to be gained from talking to myself. Looking around the kitchen for inspiration, I spot a bowl of fruit on the bench and snatch up an apple. By the time the kettle has boiled I've got it peeled and sitting on a plate in slices. Although not hungry I'm still unable to resist snacking on a couple of the slices while I make Aya a cup of tea.

 

Once I've finished preparing the no doubt unwanted snack, I return to the living room. Positioning myself directly in front of Aya, I hold out the tea and wait for him to take it. After a few weighted moments he reaches out a pale hand and takes it from me. Any relief I feel about this is obliterated by the sight of the still red and angry looking abrasions circling his wrist. While I know in far too elaborate detail the extent of his injuries, I still hate actually seeing proof of them.

 

Fucking Kimura. When I get my hands on...

 

Mentally taking a deep, calming breath, I carefully balance the plate containing the apple slices on the arm of the sofa and stroll across to the armchair. Remembering just in time to pick up my rapidly cooling cup of coffee, I settle down in the chair and feign interest in the -- bad -- news being screened on the television.

 

War. Terrorism. Natural disasters. Murders. A toddler accidentally ran over by her father as he backed the family sedan out of the garage. The world's tiger population still in decline. A fresh outbreak of SARS in Singapore. Happy stuff, I don't think. Honestly, is there any wonder I don't watch the news as a rule? I have enough misery and death in my life without having to deal with the rest of the world's, thank you very much.

 

Aya, bless him, continues to ignore my presence. Given that he does actually drink his tea and eat the apple, I'm prepared however, just this once, to forgive the glacial shoulder he's giving me.

 

An hour passes in no time whatsoever. The adrenaline of the evening's hunt well and truly having deserted me by this stage, I start to yawn and decide that the time has come to toddle off to bed. Standing up, I stifle another yawn and stretch languidly. "Well, it's been fun," I murmur, heading towards the door, "but I'm hitting the sack now."

 

Not expecting so much as a hint of acknowledgement from Aya let alone a response, I nearly don't stop when I hear a soft voice whispering my name.

 

"Yohji..."

 

Spinning around, I don't even bother attempting a neutral expression and beam at Aya hopefully. "Mmm?"

 

After glancing at me fleetingly from under lowered lashes, Aya bows his head and stares at his hands. "Thank you..."

 

"It's..."

 

Flustered, I fall silent. It's *what* exactly? It's not a pleasure, that's for sure. Besides, hell, I don't even know what he's thanking me for. Rescuing him? The tea? Not wasting my breath for talking at him?

 

"It's so not a problem," I finish lamely, turning back around and, knowing that I'd only risk my luck by lingering, continuing out the door. A grin breaks out across my face as, a skip in my step, I walk down the corridor.

 

Whatever it takes. However long and hard the road ahead is, we're going to make it.

 

~*~

 

While it's the sound of the shower running that wakes me, it's the smell of food cooking that convinces me to get out of bed. Still buoyed by my slight success with Aya only a few hours ago, I'm smiling as, pulling my robe on, I walk out of my room and towards the kitchen.

 

"Good morning, kiddies," I state cheerfully, side-stepping Omi as he backs away from the fridge without looking and making a beeline for the kettle.

 

"Good afternoon, even," Ken replies, rolling his eyes heavenwards and waving me out of the way. "Are you sure you should be up, Yohji? I mean, it is only midday after all."

 

"And miss getting some of whatever you two are whipping up?" I smirk, wandering over to the table and taking a seat. "Besides, I'm in a good mood and I thought I'd share it with you."

 

"We're so not worthy," Ken retorts, returning my smirk. "Come on though, spill. What's with the good mood? Was she that good?"

 

She? Oh. That's right. My imaginary conquest that I spent the evening with. "Good..." I drawl, giving Ken a knowing wink. "Man, good doesn't even begin to come close to describing her... ah... particular skills."

 

"So long as she's good enough to risk being caught by Ewigkeit for then I suppose that's all that has to matter," Omi interjects just a touch sourly. "I'm sorry, Yohji, but are you sure going into Tokyo by yourself is a good idea? Things are bad enough... with Aya the way he is... already without something happening to you as well."

 

"Nothing's going to happen to me," I reply airily, getting up and giving Omi a quick hug. "Relax. I've got an itch that needs scratching, that's all, not a death wish. Hey, give me some credit. I don't want to run into any of those assholes either, you know."

 

Sighing, Omi shrugs and shifts away from me. "I worry about you. You say you're being careful but, think about it, we thought the same thing when we walked into Ewigkeit's trap," he responds tiredly. "When Aya's better I want for us to be a team again, like we were before. What I don't want is for him to get better only for you to take his place in bed."

 

"Assuming Aya *does* get better," Ken mutters drily, getting out a chopping board and starting to cut up a red capsicum. "Hey! Don't look at me like that," he adds, glancing up and noticing Omi's shocked expression. "I'm just saying what you can't tell me you haven't already thought yourself."

 

"Of course Aya is going to get better," Omi replies firmly. "Isn't he, Yohji?"

 

"Of course he is," I murmur reassuringly, giving Ken a warning look. "In fact..."

 

"But what if he doesn't, huh?" Ken interrupts, shaking his head. "God, it's not like I want to be saying this but, come on, you've got to admit that he's next to useless at the moment. I want him to recover as much as anyone but at the same time I want to know beyond all doubt that he's capable of watching our backs and isn't going to flake when we need him. You can't deny that he isn't acting like himself and, well, sue me for admitting my doubts instead of keeping them bottled up inside."

 

"Ken..." Omi whispers, his eyes fixed on the door as all the color drains from his face.

 

Following Omi's gaze, I'm just in time to catch sight of Aya's back as he swiftly backs away from the door. "Oh... Shit..." I murmur under my breath, glancing at Omi. "Did he...?"

 

Omi nods. "I think he heard everything," he states sadly. "Ken, you really should have..."

 

"You really should have kept your fucking mouth shut," I snarl, cutting Omi off and stalking towards the door. "Honestly, Ken, good fucking one. For your next trick what about getting Aya a poster of Kimura, huh? I'm sure waking up to that in his room couldn't do any more damage than what you've already done!"

 

"I'm... I'm sorry, okay? Shit! I didn't mean..."

 

Ignoring Ken's stammered apology, I leave the kitchen and jog to Aya's room. Finding the door open, I don't bother knocking and walk straight in. Aya, his head bowed and his shoulders slumped, stands with his back to the door in the middle of the room. Without even having to see his face he looks like a picture of abject misery. His hair still damp from his shower, he's dressed in jeans and a long sleeved t-shirt, proof that he was making an effort to pull himself together. Both are black and hang too loosely on his frame. I remember the jeans. The last time I saw him in them they fitted like a second skin.

 

"Aya..." I murmur his name hesitantly, wary of approaching him. "Ken didn't mean..."

 

"It doesn't matter if he meant it or not," Aya interrupts quietly, hugging himself, "because it's true. Whether he said it in as many words or whether any of you have thought it, I'm a liability."

 

"Bullshit!" I exclaim, taking a further step into the room. "I won't listen to you say garbage like that, Aya. You're not a liability. Just ignore Ken. All the fresh air is probably just going to his head."

 

"I..." Shaking his head, Aya all but folds in on himself. "I know what I should do, what my own logic tells me I *have* to do," he murmurs, his voice so low that I have to move closer simply in order to be able to hear him. "Common sense tells me that I should just leave, that I should walk away from here and free you all from the risk my continued presence places on you. It's... It's the only thing that makes sense to me."

 

"There you go again, talking complete and utter crap," I reply, the increasing agitation I'm feeling coming through in my voice. "Honestly, Aya, much more of this drivel and I'm going to start wishing you were still in mute mode. You can think about leaving all you want. I'm telling you now though that if you even try it we're going to hunt you down, that there's simply no way we're going to just sit back and allow you to disappear. Once was enough. I don't think I can live through it again."

 

"But you don't need me around," Aya continues hoarsely. "Wake up, Yohji. I'm a liability. Look at me, I..." Trailing off, he hugs himself tighter. "I can't even do what my own detached logic tells me to! I know I shouldn't remain here but I can't leave! I... I think about leaving and I just want to pull the covers over my head. The thought of being fully alone, of being separated from the three of you, just makes the darkness seem even blacker. So... Don't worry. I think about leaving but I'm too gutless to actually do it. To your detriment you're stuck with me."

 

"Detriment my ass," I retort adamantly. "One, I meant what I just said and that is there's no way we'd just let you leave anyway. In case it's escaped your attention, Aya, you're our friend and, be they messed up or not, we don't abandon our friends. And, two, both you and Ken are wrong. I don't think you're a liability at all."

 

"But..."

 

"Uh-uh. I hadn't finished. You're weak and you've had a shit time the last couple of weeks. If the last thing you feel like doing is fighting then I can't say that I blame you. What I do know however is that I still trust you, that I *know* you're still capable of watching our backs."

 

"No! Listen to me, Yohji," Aya whispers pleadingly, slowly turning around to face me. Well, stare at my feet. "I'm not capable of anything. If..."

 

"If a horde of Ewigkeit goons landed on our doorstep this very instant you wouldn't turn tail and jump out of the window or crawl under the bed to hide," I state matter-of-factly. "Although it'd be the last thing you'd feel like doing, you'd grab whatever was to hand and you'd join the fight. You might think that you wouldn't, but you would. Even if you were wavering, and the window option was looking good, you'd only have to hear Omi scream and you'd be in the thick of things before you knew it."

 

"You have more faith in me than I do," Aya mumbles, cautiously lifting his head and, for a fleeting second, meeting my gaze. "Maybe you're right though, I don't know. Nor do I really want to find out."

 

"I know I'm right," I reply, smiling. "Come on, Aya. Don't tell me you've been out of it long enough to forget that I'm *always* right. It's just one of those facts of life. Grass is green, the sky is blue and Yohji is always right."

 

Ignoring my attempt at humor, Aya gestures at the room. "Omi says you painted this for me," he murmurs, effectively changing the subject.

 

"Well, it was Omi's idea and he and Ken did most of the painting," I reply, following his lead and moving the conversation along. "If you count buying the paint as help, even Singapura had a hand in it."

 

"What about you?" Aya queries, his gaze once again directed at the floor. "Did you help too?"

 

"Yeah," I admit, shrugging. "I did. Just look for the wall with the most obvious brush strokes and that'll be the one I did."

 

"Why?" Backing away from me, Aya shakes his head. "Why, Yohji? Why'd you all waste your time doing up the room for me? I... I don't understand..."

 

"It's simple, really," I respond, wishing he'd asked Omi this question instead of me. While I know the answer it just would have been better coming from Omi, seeing as it was his idea in the first place. "We never once gave up on the hope of getting you back. So, you see, it wasn't a waste of time to us at all. We knew you'd join us here and it made sense to have your room ready for you. If you don't like it then redecorate, we won't be offended."

 

"I... I do like it," Aya whispers, suddenly looking up and locking too bright amethyst eyes on mine. "It's just that I don't... I'm not worthy of all the care and attention being shown to me and... and I don't deserve any of it. I'm a failure... a waste of space... and... and..."

 

"Shhh..." The Pisces in me being unable to simply stand by and watch Aya break down in front of me, I close the distance that separates us and, without thinking, wrap my arms around him. The rigid body pressed against mine having no immediate impact on me, it's not until I look down into a shock of red hair that I realize what it is I've just done.

 

"Oh shit, Aya... I'm sorry," I stammer, my arms refusing my desperate command to release him. "I didn't mean..."

 

"Don't..." His body going limp, Aya shivers and rests his head against my shoulder. "Don't apologize..." he murmurs thickly, relaxing into my embrace, his fingers clutching reflexively into my robe, anchoring himself to me.

 

Okay. Clearly I let my attention wander and, without even being aware of it, I appear to have fallen down Alice's rabbit hole again. This time however, there isn't anywhere else I'd rather be.

 

"It'll be okay," I whisper into his hair, the unwanted question of when it last was Aya had allowed himself to be comforted like this jumping uninvited into my head. After his parent's death he'd had to take on both his loss and the news of his sister's coma all by himself. Although he'd lost his family there'd been no one around to look after him, to offer him a shoulder to cry on. I don't know how he did it. If it had been me I doubt very much that I would have been able to stoically carry on the way he did.

 

"I promise you, Aya, you're going to get through this."

 

... And I promise you this, Kimura, your card is marked. While I've longed to hold Aya in my arms for months now this isn't how I wanted it to be. I wanted him willing, not broken.

 

Hear me, Kimura. For succeeding where others have failed, for breaking through the surface of someone once so proud, you're mine.

 

~*~

 

"And to think you two have the nerve to call *me* insatiable," I drawl, folding my arms across my chest and leaning nonchalantly against the doorframe. Christ. If I'd had any inkling that Ken and Omi were going at in the kitchen I would have stayed in the bathroom longer. I'm happy for them and they make a great couple but, oh God, I so don't wanna see 'em pawing each other. I don't know. I just can't help it. Knowing that Omi has a sex life is a bit like discovering that your youngest sister, the one who used to make you read stories to her favorite teddy bear, is a bondage mistress with a sideline in watersports.

 

"You're just jealous," Ken replies, removing his mouth from the base of Omi's throat long enough to grin smugly at me.

 

"Mmm... That's it!" I exclaim facetiously, making a show of clutching my heart. "However did you guess? Omi, I'm sorry that you have to hear it like this but... I want you. I've always wanted you."

 

Blushing as red as that damn Manchester United top Ken appears to have decided to live in these days, Omi lowers his head and waves coyly at me. "If only I'd known how you felt earlier," he whispers blithely. "Oh, Yohji! Please don't hate me for finding happiness in the arms of another."

 

"I'll survive," I reply as solemnly as I can manage, "but only because your happiness means the world to me. Just remember, my love, I'll wait for you. Always."

 

"Much more of this and I think I'm going to puke," Ken mutters, laughing as he hugs Omi just that little bit tighter. "Now, are you just going to stand there or did you actually come here for something?"

 

"If I'm spoiling the mood you could, you know, always take it into the bedroom," I retort, strolling into the kitchen. "Hey, what's that?" I add, spying a long thin parcel wrapped in brown paper lying in the middle of the table. While it's clear what it has to be, I didn't exactly expect to see it there and wonder where it came from.

 

"Why, it's a bowl of goldfish, of course," Ken smirks, earning himself -- and quite rightly so -- an elbow in the ribs from Omi for his troubles. "Honestly, Yohji, perhaps you'd better get your eyes checked."

 

"It's a katana," Omi murmurs quietly, jumping in before I can think of something suitably scathing to say to Ken. "It arrived this morning via courier. According to the label, Singapura sent it."

 

"Thank you, Omi," I reply, casually flicking my finger up at Ken. "Has Aya seen it?"

 

"Mmm-hmm... He signed for it before dumping it on the table and going outside," Omi responds, shrugging. "I was going to go after him but..."

 

"Don't tell me, let me guess," I smile, picking up the katana and swiftly tearing off the paper. "Something came up, right?"

 

His blush intensifying, Omi makes a concentrated effort to ignore my double entendre and frowns. "Are you sure you should be opening it?"

 

"I want to see if it's actually his, and not just some token replacement," I reply flatly, pulling the blade from its sheath. "Well I never..." To my surprise, the katana is Aya's and this immediately raises the question of where Singapura managed to get it from.

 

"Oh my God," Omi whispers, extricating himself from Ken's embrace and coming over to reverently lay his hand on the katana's hilt. "It *is* Aya's. I... I just naturally thought it had to be a replacement."

 

"You said Aya went outside, yeah?" I sigh, slipping the blade back into its sheath, my mind racing with unwanted questions that I'm not even sure I want answered. I mean, just how the hell did Singapura get her hands on Aya's katana? The last time I'd seen it he still had it as he was being dragged away in the alleyway.

 

"Mmm... About ten minutes ago," Ken responds, coming over to join us standing around the table. "He didn't look upset or anything, if that's what you're worried about."

 

"And remember who it is you're talking about here," I murmur drily, heading for the back door, the katana still in my hand. While Aya is a lot better, both physically and mentally, than he was I'm still confident that's he's bottling up far more than he's letting on. Two days have passed since our discussion in his bedroom and there hasn't been so much as a hint of it being repeated. He's talking now though, albeit not about anything that's happened to him, and you're just as likely to find him in the living room as you are his bedroom, which is definitely a positive step forward. Even Dr Miyazaki, who called by yesterday, seemed greatly pleased with his progress.

 

He's still not the Aya we used to know though, not by a long shot.

 

Walking out of the house, I shield my eyes from the sun and go off in search for Aya. It's the first time I've been outside in daylight for days and I wish I could remember where it was I last saw my sunglasses. My self-imposed nocturnal -- four for four now -- missions having made them redundant, I have no idea where I left them and resign myself to simply having to squint.

 

The gardens that make up Souzou stretching for miles, I breathe a sigh of relief when I find him sitting cross-legged on the patch of lawn next to the rose garden. Intent on brushing Kiri, who's rolling around wantonly on the grass and dribbling in contentment, he doesn't hear me coming and noticeably flinches as I gingerly take a seat on the old park bench that separates the lawn from the roses. To my, for the want of a better word, annoyance, I see that the brush in his hand is the one we had at the Dragon's Tears. Honestly, Kritiker incompetence strikes again. They could pack a cat brush for us but they didn't once think of looking for the cat it had to belong to. Given that said brush is black and covered in white paw prints, it's not exactly as though the fools could have mistaken it for a hairbrush.

 

"Hey," I smile by way of greeting. "Lovely day, isn't it?" Small talk. Gotta love it.

 

"Lovely," Aya murmurs, glancing at me for a second before returning his attention to Kiri. If he sees the katana in my hand he doesn't show it and continues grooming his feline friend. Still dressing in all black and still too pale as to appear healthy, he's nonetheless still a vision of beauty, one that I thank each and every deity the world has ever known for having in front of me.

 

"I opened your parcel," I continue lightly, deciding that I may as well just press ahead with what it is that brought me out here in the first place. "I hope you don't mind."

 

"I could possibly care less," Aya replies flatly, "but I doubt it. Whatever it is, if you're that interested in it you can have it with my blessings."

 

"It's your katana," I state softly, holding it towards him. "See? Not just some token replacement but *yours*."

 

"It's only mine because I bought it," Aya murmurs, not even bothering to look at the katana. "It was the best I could afford at the time, that's all. There's no family history, no tradition attached to it. Kritiker wasted their time retrieving it from the alleyway as, quite frankly, I wouldn't have cared if I'd never seen it again."

 

"You say it has no family history yet it's the blade that you used to avenge your family," I reply plainly, placing the katana on the bench. "Surely that in itself makes it a part of you."

 

"Mmm..." Aya mumbles noncommittally, letting the brush drop from his hand as Kiri, her attention caught by a low flying moth with a suicide wish, bounds away. Changing positions, he hugs his knees to his chest and sighs softly. "Get this, when I was young my parents actually had a book on this place," he murmurs apropos of nothing. "It was so old that I think it may even have been a wedding gift to my grandparents."

 

"By this place you're meaning Souzou, yeah?" I query, accepting his apparent need for a change in topic without question. Given how well the katana discussion was going, hell, I think I even welcome it. "According to Singapura it used to be a garden of some note."

 

"Before the anti-westerner feelings generated by World War Two caused it to be abandoned by its then owners, Souzou was renowned throughout all of Japan for both its beauty and its quaintness," Aya explains quietly. "Although it's next to impossible to see now, the gardens used to be of English design. Souzou was built as a labor of love by the Japanese landowner for his English wife back in the mid eighteen hundreds. No expense was spared. All the plants were shipped from England in an attempt to make his beloved feel more at home in a foreign land. You know that small group of trees at the back of the house? Well that used to be known as the enchanted forest because of the collection of fairies and toadstools and the like that were hidden within it. Somewhere there should even be a large, ornamental pond."

 

"You sure know a lot about the place," I murmur, impressed. "Hell, we've been here for weeks now and we didn't know any of that."

 

"As I said, my parents had a book on it," Aya replies, shrugging. "When I was young I used to use it to rest my paper on when I was drawing because it was the perfect size and had a nice flat surface. Sometimes, if I was bored with drawing, I used to flick through it. I liked the pictures because they were so different from Japanese gardens. When I was old enough, for no other reason I suppose than I'd always been fond of the book, I sat down and read it."

 

Pausing, Aya surprises the hell out of me by giving a muffled laugh. "By that stage though reading it was easier said than done because, miffed at there being no Koi in the pond, Aya-chan had taken it upon herself to rectify this by drawing fish on just about every page in the book. What's more, she not only drew them with mother's favorite lipstick but when they were discovered she tried to blame me! Not believing his darling daughter could do any wrong, I think father believed her too."

 

"I..." I've never heard Aya talk so openly about his past before and don't know how to reply. If I closed my eyes it would be like listening to a stranger speak. The strangeness of it aside though, I like this side of Aya and feel privileged that he's deigning to share it with me.

 

Sighing, Aya glances at me and smiles wanly. "Believe it or not I was young once," he states faintly. "I had a family and I was normal. I... I wasn't always like I am now."

 

"I..."

 

Oh, this is great, it really is. I come out to speak to Aya and he's the one doing all the talking. Needless to say it's clear why I'd starve to death if I'd chosen to become a counselor.

 

"Forget it, Yohji. You don't have to say anything," Aya adds dully, resting his chin on his knees and staring at a point directly in front of him. "I know what I am and... well... given that I thought I'd even lost that I have to say I'm almost grateful."

 

"Huh?"

 

Wonderful. My repertoire of futile responses has now been extended to include the odd grunt. Wondering idly whether Aya would mind if I got up and left in order to come back and start afresh, I'm about to try my luck at coming out with something more coherent when, with another sigh, he continues.

 

"Kimura told me that you were all dead, that I was the only one to make it out of the alleyway alive," he whispers haltingly. "At first I didn't believe him, not even when he dumped what he called proof at my feet. Although the coat looked like yours, and the sweater like Ken's, I still refused to believe that you were dead. Then... Then as the days passed in their excruciating slowness and you didn't come, I came to accept that Kimura had to be telling me the truth. Although I didn't want to believe that you were dead, it was the only thing that made sense. I was convinced that if you were alive you would have come for me and... and when you didn't..."

 

"Kritiker assured us they were doing everything in their power to find you," I interrupt, reflexively curling my fingers into fists as I mentally tick off yet another black mark in Kritiker's name. "We... Shit! Aya, you've got to believe me. We wanted to search for you but Kritiker holed us up out here and told us in no uncertain terms that we'd be signing our own death warrants if we were to venture back into Tokyo. It... Oh God! Listening to them and staying here was the hardest decision any of us have ever had to make. I... I still regret it."

 

"Don't," Aya murmurs, shaking his head. "Kritiker always had access to more of the bigger picture than we did. If they thought keeping you here was the only way to keep you alive then I'm apt to trust their judgment. Besides, contrary to all their instructions and warnings, you still came in the end. Don't regret anything on my behalf, Yohji, please. It's... It's over now..."

 

"I still regret not having come for you sooner," I mutter contrarily. "I also regret that it took so long for us to achieve what Kritiker should have been able to achieve far sooner."

 

"It doesn't matter now," Aya replies, giving a weary shrug of his shoulders. "It's over. I'm here now and... and more importantly I know where here is."

 

"Huh?"

 

Back with the grunting so soon. Peachy.

 

"When I woke up to Omi hovering over me I thought that I'd truly reached the point of no return, that something had finally snapped and I'd lost my mind," Aya states softly. "Again, it was the only thing that made sense to me. Not only had I accepted that you were all dead, but when he started going on about Souzou it... Well, it was as if Kimura had reached into my head and rifled through my memories. That's why it took me so long to come around. I thought you were all ghosts or hallucinations caused by the drugs."

 

"Shit!" I swear, getting off the bench and going to crouch on the grass near Aya. "I'm sorry. If we'd known..."

 

"There was nothing more any of you could have done that you weren't already doing," Aya replies, glancing at me and giving another one of his wan smiles. "It was just me. You weren't to know that I didn't think you were real."

 

"No, but..." Trailing off, I run my fingers through my hair and sigh. "What made you decide we weren't just a figment of your imagination?" I query gently.

 

Shifting into a kneeling position, Aya lifts up his top, exposing the still healing cross shaped scar I'd marked into his skin. Willpower alone stops me from flinching at the sight of it. "This," he replies, looking down at the scar for a second before letting his top fall back in place. "Whether you believe it or not it's because of that that I finally believed you were real and that perhaps I hadn't lost everything after all."

 

"Because of that?" I whisper, grimacing. "I... Fuck! I thought you hated me for it."

 

"No," Aya murmurs, returning to his original cross-legged pose. "It shocked me, yeah, but not for the reasons that would have been going through your mind. To me, if all of this had honestly been part of the Ewigkeit plan to send me crazy then there was no way they would have defaced their precious ankh." Pausing, Aya reaches out and lightly places his hand on my knee. "And, well, even if they'd decided to take the game that far there was certainly no way they would have defaced it with a cross. So, you see, because of that I knew things had to be real."

 

"Wow," I breathe, somewhat taken aback not only by his confession but also by the feel of his hand on my knee. "I... Hell, given that it was all I could think of doing at the time I'm pleased that it made such an impact on you. I'm... Well, that said, I'm still sorry for having done it to you and wish that I hadn't had to. I'm sure a plastic surgeon will be able to get rid of... both of them... for you though."

 

"Assuming I want to get rid of them," Aya replies cryptically, taking his hand away from my knee and leaning back on his elbows. "Do you know what they effectively mean now?" he adds, resting his hand over the scars. "Think about it. An ankh being the symbol for eternity, and..."

 

"Forever Weiss..." I whisper, shaking my head dully. Oh dear God. I hadn't even thought of it that way.

 

"Forever Weiss," Aya repeats, nodding. "Perhaps it's just a sign of how fucked up I am, but for some unknown reason it gives me a curious sense of hope."

 

"I..." Nope. Forget it. I'm not even going to attempt to come up with a reply to that.

 

~*~

 

Telling myself that I'm being silly doesn't help. Nor does trying to put it down to a lack of sleep.

 

While accepting that I'm simply paranoid, that I've been pushing myself too hard and that it's finally catching up to me, is all well and good, I nonetheless can't shake the feeling that I'm being followed.

 

And, as the cherry on top of what had already proven to be a fucked evening, it's a feeling I could most definitely do without.

 

Wincing as I make the mistake of gingerly touching my jaw, I duck into a convenient doorway and mentally berate myself for having been so stupid. While I'm perfectly capable of taking on two at a time I have no idea what possessed me to think I could take on four. Not just four common garden variety thugs either. Oh no. That would have been too easy. Being the mental genius that I am, I decided to try my luck against four Ewigkeit goons, all of whom smelt like a keg of beer and sported the sort of physique that suggested they were each perfectly capable of bench pressing a bus. If the, equally as drunk but nowhere near as large, group of suited businessmen hadn't chosen to lurch down the street...

 

Yeah. Well.

 

Let's just say it's only through dumb luck that I managed to get away with only a bruised jaw.

 

*If* I got away, that is.

 

Carefully poking my head out of the doorway, I scan the deserted street and decide to make a run for the car. While it may be my first good idea for the evening, I think cutting my losses and getting the fuck out of here is the way to go. I've already made my presence pretty clearly known to Ewigkeit without needing to make things any worse than they already are by having another try. Oh well. It's not like I'm really doing anything other than sharpening my claws on the hired help while waiting for the reappearance of Kimura anyway. I'm not saying they don't deserve what I deliver, but they're not my main aim. Not even close in fact. I just wish the fucker would stop gallivanting around the world and hurry up and get his ass back to Tokyo already.

 

Although my resolve hasn't deviated one iota, I'm finding it harder and harder to leave Souzou and make the trek to the city every night. Things having settled into a comfortable -- if not normal by any stretch of the imagination -- routine of sorts, I'm enjoying frittering away my days with the others. The myth of my overactive libido feeling like a weight around my neck, it's only my obliterating hatred of Ewigkeit and Kimura that sees me slipping into the role and forcing a skip into my step as I walk out the door every evening. If I could find another outlet for all the rage I can feel bubbling inside me, I'd stay at Souzou, biding my time for Kimura to show, but I can't. Aya only has to flinch when someone inadvertently gets too close to him and, that's it, the desire for revenge takes over everything.

 

Reaching the Jag, I unlock it with the remote and jump in. Although paranoia whispers in my ear that there's still someone out there watching me, I can't see anyone and, for the umpteenth time during the last ten minutes, tell myself to get a freakin' grip. Eschewing wasting a few precious seconds fumbling for the seatbelt, I start the car and drive off, one eye fixed firmly on the reflection in the rear vision mirror. Although not seeing anything to make me think I've got a tail, I only allow myself to breathe a sigh of relief once I've turned onto the freeway. If any of the Ewigkeit rock-apes followed me after the businessmen accidentally broke up our fight then, thank God, I appear to have lost them.

 

Oh yeah. To say I was lucky tonight is an understatement.

 

Switching the radio on to some pop station, I let the inanely happy sounding music wash over me. While not the sort of music I'd usually listen to by choice, I don't bother changing stations and crank up the volume. I even, simply because the choruses are so damn repetitive, find myself singing along as, relieved to be leaving Tokyo behind me, I speed back to Souzou.

 

Having driven the road so many times just recently, I don't have to pay that much attention to my driving and let my mind wander. As usual, my thoughts turn to Aya. Although he seems to be doing a good job of moving forward on his own I wish there was more I could do for him. Sure, he randomly drops snippets -- when *he* feels like it, of course -- about what he was made to endure and what's going through his head, but, I don't know, just listening doesn't seem like enough. I *know*, knowing how Aya's mind operates under normal circumstances, that there's nothing else I can really do, but that doesn't stop me from wishing otherwise. Feeling melancholy, I shared my feelings with Omi yesterday and he says that I've just got to be patient and that, really, it's nothing short of a miracle that Aya's talking about it at all.

 

Again though, I'd love to be able to do more. Cornering Aya and issuing forth with a big touchy-feely declaration of being there for him if he wanted to talk, I know, however, would be the equivalent of prodding him with a bargepole or erecting a ten foot high fence between us. Hell, he'd probably never speak to me again. And that, needless to say, is the last thing I want to happen. There really being little else for me to do, I've had to resign myself to simply leaving things as they are. *If* Aya wants to talk, he does. If he doesn't then, well, I'd probably have more luck training Kiri to fetch my slippers than I would in extracting so much as a grunt out of him.

 

Mind you, given how I already feel about Kimura I don't really know if I should be wanting Aya to unburden himself on me. I mean, what's next after hatred and the desire for revenge? My head simply exploding in a futile fit of rage? It would hardly surprise me.

 

Still, I can't complain, not really. Things could be a lot worse. Ken and Omi are getting into the swing of country living and, fascinated by Aya's tales of Souzou's history, are talking about perhaps trying to restore the gardens to their long forgotten prime. Aya is healing and, perhaps more importantly, not trying to hide himself away. And I'm... Well, too busy worrying about everyone else and fixating on Kimura, I'm probably unraveling at the seams. But, hey... Win some, lose some. I'll relax when Kimura's stone cold body is lying dead at my feet.

 

Souzou finally in sight, I switch off the radio and pull into the driveway, taking care to ensure the gates are locked behind me. Oddly enough, what started off as a prison is now somewhere I think of as home.

 

Parking the car far enough away from the house so as not to wake anyone, I switch off the ignition and, yawning, get out. The promise of a hot shower and sleep captivating my thoughts, I'm halfway to the backdoor when I realize that I've forgotten to spray myself with perfume. Pausing, I weigh the odds of making it to the bathroom without meeting anyone and quickly decide that, yeah, given the night I've had, I'd better make the effort to go back.

 

Trudging back to the Jag, I open the passenger door and grab the first bottle I come to from the glovebox. After liberally spraying myself, I throw the perfume back into the car and head inside. I've barely shut the backdoor when the sound of the television being played softly in the living room reaches my hearing, making me immediately glad that I'd gone back for the perfume.

 

The layout of the house being such that there's no way to get to the bedrooms from the kitchen other than walking through the living room, I bite back a sigh and hope that whoever it is that's watching television isn't in the mood to chat. It being par for the course for the night though, I walk into the room and find Aya curled up in the exact same position on the sofa that he was in the other morning. Right down to the black silk pajamas and images of war on the screen, it's a serious case of dÈjý vu.

 

Looking up, the greeting he'd no doubt been going to say dies on his lips and he frowns, his narrowed eyes fixed on my jaw. "What happened to you?" he queries bluntly, reaching for the remote and muting the sound on the television. "Didn't she like your pick up line or something?"

 

"Oh, she was fine with it," I drawl, knowing damn well that I'm trapped and sinking down into the armchair. "It's just a shame that the same couldn't be said for her boyfriend."

 

Sighing, Aya shakes his head and climbs gracefully off the sofa. "You need to be more careful," he chides, padding into the kitchen. Returning with an icepack, he hands it to me with a disapproving look before settling himself back on the sofa. "I..." Apparently thinking better of it, he falls silent, choosing instead to continue to glare at me as though I've disappointed him somehow.

 

"I'm usually luckier than this," I mutter, holding the icepack against my jaw and flinching. "He... Christ, Aya. You should have seen him. Hell, if *I'd* seen him I never would have said anything. It's not like she was that special or anything."

 

Again with putting on an Oscar Award winning performance. If I have to keep this faÁade up much longer I suspect I'm going to start believing in it myself.

 

Looking away, Aya sighs again and mumbles something under his breath that I don't quite catch.

 

"What was that?" I reluctantly query, having this sinking feeling that my night is just about to get that little bit worse. "I'm sorry, I didn't hear you."

 

"Why?" Aya murmurs simply. "I asked why."

 

"Why *what* exactly?" I reply, the sanctuary of my bedroom suddenly feeling a very long way away. Why? Fuck. As loaded questions go that's one in a million. "If you want me to give you an answer you're going to have to be more specific."

 

"Why do you do this?" Aya whispers, directing his question to the over made-up anchorwoman on the television screen. "Why do you go out night after night? I... I don't get it. Are you searching for someone in particular or is it just the sex? I've tried to work it out in my head but I just can't."

 

"Er..." My acting skills packing up their collection of gold statuettes and running away in horror, I stare at Aya as my mind refuses point blank to come up with an answer.

 

"Come on, Yohji," Aya continues softly, "surely you have to know why it is that you feel the urge to go out every night. You come in every morning smelling like a perfume counter, so I assume you're always successful. But... If you don't want to tell me then just say so. I'm... I'm just curious."

 

"Sex... Sex is a release, something that you can make solely about pleasure," I offer wanly. "By meeting like minded people I... I can lose myself in the simple act of pleasure. It's, yeah, it's a release, that's all."

 

"Oh."

 

Not liking Aya's thin lipped expression of distaste, I decide to try again. " When you're with someone, and it doesn't even have to matter if you don't know their name and won't ever see them again, you can forget everything else about your life and just give in to ecstasy. It's just sex. Something we all indulge in every now and again to make us feel good, you know?"

 

"No. I wouldn't know," Aya replies flatly. "If I knew what the compulsion was I wouldn't have asked you."

 

Oh. Fuck.

 

Fuck, fuck, fuck!

 

Just how the fuck could I forget who it is that I'm talking to here? Aya, who -- although strangers stop in the street to stare at him as he walks past and who could have his pick of just about anyone -- I've never seen go on a date. Aya, who I used to tease mercilessly about being a virgin. Aya, who Ken and Omi once thought was going to be both offended and disgusted by their relationship.

 

Aya, who has just had his sexuality trampled all over and torn to shreds by Kimura.

 

"I'm... I'm sorry," I whisper faintly, wishing that the ground would just open up and swallow me. "I... I didn't mean it that..."

 

"Doesn't matter," Aya interrupts blandly, standing up and flicking a dismissive glance in my direction before walking towards the door. "If pleasure is what you're looking for, Yohji, then good luck to you. I wish you every success."

 

"Aya..."

 

Dropping the icepack onto the floor, I bury my head in my hands and will the tears I can feel forming to remain unshed. Although it's too late now, I think coming clean and telling Aya the truth about my evenings would had gone down far better. Let's face it, it's doubtful it would have gone down any worse.

 

~*~

 

Grinding my teeth in frustration, I screw the empty cigarette packet up and throw it with quite unwarranted force onto the backseat.

 

Great. Now I'm not only plagued by indecisiveness but I'm also out of smokes as well. I mean, that's just it. It's now official. I doubt my day... month... entire existence... could get any worse. Fuck. If I'd known I was going to spend two hours sitting by the side of the road chain smoking I would have made a point of bringing more cigarettes with me.

 

Resting my forehead on the steering wheel, I count to ten before running through my options again. Oddly enough they haven't changed. I can either a) turn the car around and return to Souzou, b) sit here until someone calls the police on me or I simply wither away, or, c) stop procrastinating and continue on to Tokyo like I'd originally planned. For no other reason than it would save me from actually having to make a decision, I quite like option b. Sitting here is good. In fact, I can sit here without having to exert any effort whatsoever. Sure, it doesn't solve anything but, on the plus side, nor can it get me into any more trouble.

 

Option c, I suppose, isn't that bad either. I've had such a shit twenty-four hours that getting to punch an Ewigkeit goon would probably do me the world of good. God alone knows I certainly *feel* like punching something. But... I don't know. Last night's ill advised attempt to bite off more than I had any hope of chewing kinda unnerved me a little. Perhaps, if I were to cast a logical eye over things, taking a night off could actually be in my best interests. I haven't slept, I feel like shit and... And the longer I sit here staring aimlessly at the moon the further away Tokyo seems to get.

 

Which leaves option a - return to Souzou and risk putting my foot in it with Aya again. He hasn't spoken to me all day, hell, he's even conveniently avoided being in the same room as me, but that's pretty much beside the point. It's not like I made any sort of attempt to talk to him either. Close to twenty-four hours have passed and I still can't believe I was so careless as to respond the way that I did. What makes it worse is that we'd been getting on so well up until that point too. I'd even thought, in my own way, that I'd been helping Aya. Even Omi had expressed surprise in the way he'd seemingly been opening up to me.

 

And I just had to go and blow it.

 

The sex addict and the freak. That's probably how he sees us. Omi and Ken are okay because they clearly love each other and they're monogamous. Me, on the other hand... Well, so long as it's got a pulse and is hopefully willing, I'd fuck it in a second. As for Aya himself? Christ. Let's just not go there. While sex never appeared to hold any interest for him it's now something he no doubt views with complete repugnance.

 

Hell. Let's face it. Right now he most likely sees me as the embodiment of everything he hates. Wanton. Intent only on the pointless pursuit of pleasure. Self-absorbed. Vapid. I fuck people that mean nothing to me because I can, because it's a means to an end, because it's a twisted form of power, because I think with my cock, because it's what I want and I don't care what anyone else thinks of me...

 

Oh God. Putting it in that sort of perspective makes me sound like Kimura. Sex. Corruption. Power. Domination.

 

And what a fucking horrible thought that is. Now I really need a cigarette.

 

If Aya's tarring me with the same brush as that bastard then, seriously, I may as well just end it all now. While I'll freely admit to having fucked around in the past, that's all behind me now and, fuck it, in this case it's all just a lie anyway.

 

Okay. That's it. I'm going back to Souzou and, if he's still awake, I'm going to corner Aya. I don't care if he doesn't want to talk or looks at me as though I'm a cockroach, I'm not letting him get away until he believes me that I'm nowhere near as bad as he thinks I am. While I can deal with him thinking I'm someone to be merely tolerated, there's simply no way I can live with him thinking I'm some sort of sex fiend. *Especially* not now. It mightn't have bothered me before, hell, I may even have welcomed the label, but that was then. Things were different.

 

Besides, returning to Souzou, really, is a win-win situations. If Aya's asleep then at least I'll have access to all the cigarettes I need to see me through to morning.

 

My mind made up, I start the car and turn for home. Only having just made it through the town before being struck down by my attack of indecisiveness, it only takes me fifteen minutes to get back to Souzou. Nerves niggle at me, but I ignore them. Walking inside and glancing at the clock on the microwave, I note with a degree of surprise that, for the first time in over a week, I'm home before midnight.

 

Standing in the kitchen, I'm struck by how silent the house is. Having seen the Impreza still parked outside Dr Miyazaki's as I drove through town, I know that Ken and Omi -- being the ones to accept the doctor's invitation to dinner on behalf of all of us -- haven't come home yet, which in turn must mean that Aya's already in bed.

 

Damn.

 

Wanting to speak to him and wanting to speak to him *now*, I decide that there's nothing to be lost by peering in his door and checking to see if he's awake or not, and wander out of the kitchen. A dull light shining through Aya's doorway giving me hope, I straighten my shoulders, tell myself forcefully that I absolutely positively know what it is that I'm doing, and stride into his room.

 

And.

 

Yeah.

 

It never rains it's just always got to fucking pour.

 

"Aya..."

 

... Dumb question, I know, but why are you huddled in the corner?

 

Biting back the king of all sighs -- here we go again -- I walk across to Aya and crouch down. Hugging his knees to his chest and giving every appearance of simply wanting to disappear into thin air, he ignores me completely. A quick glance at the bed confirms that it's unmade and looks as though it was gotten out of in a hurry. Kiri sits on the pillow, her baleful stare telling me in no uncertain terms that she holds me wholly responsible for Aya's state.

 

"Aya... Hey... You okay?" I murmur lamely, reaching out a tentative hand.

 

"Don't!" Coming alive, Aya squirms away from me, backing himself further into the corner. "Don't touch me!"

 

Quickly retracting my hand, I -- settle in for the long haul -- shift into a kneeling position and try again. "Come on, Aya, it's okay. I'm not going to hurt you. You're safe here," I state softly, wondering if this is finally where I wave the white flag of defeat and call Singapura. From where I'm currently sitting it pretty much looks like it.

 

"Leave me alone, please," Aya pleads, shaking his head, his eyes avoiding mine. "I... Just go away. I... I'm fine."

 

"You're fine and I'm Mickey Mouse," I mutter drily. "Come on, spit it out. I can't help you if you won't tell me what is that's caused you to set up camp here in the corner when you've got a perfectly comfortable bed you could be in."

 

"Can't help... Just leave me..." Aya murmurs disjointedly, hugging his knees tighter. "I'm fine... Nothing wrong with me..."

 

"Just call me a skeptic, but I'm not buying this 'you're fine' crap," I murmur gently. "Seriously, Aya, I'm not going anywhere until you tell me what's upset you so you may as well just get it over and done with."

 

"Had nightmare, that's all," Aya whispers begrudgingly, his attempt at shrugging failing dismally because of the position he's in. "There. You can go now."

 

"Nightmare? What do you think brought that on?" I query, thinking it must have been some nightmare to have had this effect on him. "Was it because we all went out and left you alone?"

 

"Don't need a baby-sitter," Aya scowls, lifting his head and giving me a baleful look that beats Kiri's hands down for intensity. "I... I decided to stop taking the sleeping pills, okay? I decided in all my limited wisdom that I no longer needed to rely on the pills to help me sleep and this -- go on, take a good look -- is what happened. Happy now?"

 

"What possessed you to stop the pills cold turkey?" I sigh, rolling my eyes, everything now making more sense than it did a minute ago. "Even if you were afraid that you were becoming reliant on them you should have weaned yourself by cutting down your dosage gradually instead of just pulling the plug."

 

"I thought I was doing the right thing!" Aya hisses agitatedly. "Do you think I like relying on the damn things, huh? If... If I'm going to have any chance of living up to the faith you've all misguidedly placed in me then I've got to do something! I... I feel as though I'm living in a void. No... Not living, trapped... I'm trapped in a void. I thought if I stopped the pills then maybe I'd be taking a step in the right direction. My mistake."

 

"Why didn't you say something?" I murmur, crawling just that little bit closer to Aya but making no attempt to touch him. "We're here for you, Aya. You know that. Perhaps Dr Miyazaki would even have been able to prescribe you a lighter dose. I know you're strong, and that you don't want to ask for help, but you don't have to go through this alone."

 

"What are you doing back here so soon anyway, Yohji?" Aya queries with a derisive snort, indulging yet again in his new hobby of randomly changing the subject. "Don't tell me you were incapable of finding a partner for the night?"

 

Ouch. I should have expected that.

 

"I..." Think, Goddamn it. Do I tell the truth or, for fear of making things worse than they already are, do I keep with the lie? "I wanted to go to Vixens," I reply, shrugging as I make the snap decision to continue with my carefully constructed world of make-believe, "but unfortunately they were closed. By the amount of cop cars parked out the front I think they'd just been raided or something."

 

"And, what, every other club in Tokyo was full?" Aya drawls, narrowing his eyes and glaring at me. "I have to say I find that incredibly hard to believe."

 

"I just thought I'd come home, that's all," I sigh, unable to meet his icy gaze. "Oh God..." Nope. I just can't do it. For perhaps my own sake more than his I've got to tell the truth. Well, at least some of it.

 

"It's like this, okay... I came back because I wanted to talk to you," I continue, the words spilling out of my mouth in a rush out. "What I said to you last night, Aya, I said without thinking and I want to apologize. While I'm at it I also want to apologize for giving you the impression that I'm some sort of disgusting sex-obsessed pervert. Please, Aya, believe me. I'm not as bad as you think I am. In fact..." Trailing off, I force myself to stop short from telling him all of it. "I'm... Shit. I'm just sorry, okay? I didn't mean to offend you."

 

His eyes widening in surprise, Aya relaxes his hold on his knees slightly and shakes his head. "I... I don't think you're a disgusting pervert," he whispers, blushing slightly. "Maybe... I don't know... Maybe I'm just jealous..."

 

"Jealous?" Of me? Now I've heard just about everything. "You've got to be kidding."

 

"Why?" Aya murmurs plainly, staring down at the carpet. "Why can't I be jealous of you? Or of Omi and Ken? You're all so sure of your sexuality and of who you are and what it is that brings you pleasure. I... I look at you... at all of you... and what I see is completely foreign to me. Maybe it's not jealousy. Maybe it's simply fascination. Before... It wasn't something I thought about before, but now..." He trails off and shrugs. "It doesn't matter. It's not important or anything."

 

"Of course it's important," I reply cautiously. "What happened, Aya, is in the past. I know it's easy for me to say, but you'll get through it. Whatever you want from life is still available to you..."

 

"What I want from life?" Aya interrupts wryly. "Right now I'd settle for not being so pathetic. Given however that I can't see that happening any time soon, let's move on from me. What about you though? What do you want, Yohji?"

 

"Me?" Again with changing the topic. Honestly, it's an art form. It really is.

 

"Mmm... You. Surely there's something you'd like from life," Aya replies, crossing his legs and pressing his back up against the wall. "Love, perhaps? You're always going on about that. If... If Asuka hadn't... well, if you hadn't lost Asuka did you have plans to be settled down with children by now?"

 

Sighing, I follow Aya's lead and, before the tingling in my knees gives way to full blown numbness, change position. Stretching my legs out in front of me, I lean against the wall next to Aya and run my fingers through my hair. "Perhaps," I murmur quietly. "I certainly wanted to spend the rest of my life with her. And, yeah, maybe even having the odd rug rat or two. Once upon a time it may even have happened. Now though..." I shrug. "You're right. Although you might think it's foolish, love *is* important to me. If I could have one thing in life it would be love. I want to love, and to be loved."

 

"Love is more important to you than anything?" Aya queries, glancing at me sideways through a veil of hair. "More important than even money or... or sex to you?"

 

I shrug again. "Yeah... It is," I confirm adamantly, getting into the swing of the conversation. "Sex is great and all that but, really, it's only fleeting. Love is, I don't know, more permanent or something. To wake up next to someone you love is just an unbelievable feeling. One that... Well, it's one that I miss."

 

"Never having experienced it, it's not something I can comment on," Aya states flatly, returning his gaze to directly in front of him. "So I'll just have to take your word on it."

 

"There's plenty of time for you to fall in love and experience it for yourself," I reply gently, berating myself yet again for not thinking before opening my mouth. "You're still young and you've got your whole life ahead of you. It mightn't be what you think you want from life but that doesn't mean it won't happen to you."

 

"Love?" Aya echoes incredulously, shaking his head and -- no doubt intentionally -- causing more of his hair to fall forward and cover his face. "Oh God, Yohji... You've got to be kidding me. I'm neither capable of love nor fit for it. I'm... I'm an abomination, now more so than ever."

 

"Again with the talking garbage," I sigh, watching Aya as intently as he is avoiding looking at me. "You're not an abomination. Strange, most definitely, but not a freak. Just ask Sakura. She saw something in you that made her love you."

 

"Sakura..." Aya whispers, visibly wincing. "Sakura was just another one of life's little jokes at my expense. I'm sorry, Yohji, and I honestly hate to say this, but she meant nothing to me. I tried to make myself feel something for her, to imagine what it would be like if I just gave in and pretended to return her love, but I couldn't do it. The thought of her... always being there... just made me cringe. For her sake more than anything I'm glad she thinks I'm dead. She... She deserves far more than I ever could have offered her anyway. As I just said, I'm not fit for love. I don't deserve it and I can't return it."

 

"You're the only one that feels that way," I murmur, wanting more than anything to place my arm around his thin shoulders and giving him a hug. Common sense stops me though. Aya's apparent willingness to talk is one thing but I don't think he's exactly giving off 'feel free to touch me' vibes at the moment. "Not to mention it's how you feel right now. Things change. Just because you felt nothing for Sakura doesn't mean you won't one day meet someone you'll fall in love with."

 

"Just drop it, Yohji, please," Aya beseeches, staring down at his hands as they rest on his knees, their paleness stark against the black of his pajama pants. "Even if I did once believe in the possibility of love it would be foolish of me to still contemplate it now. I'm... Christ! Think about it. Who'd love me, huh? I'm a freak. I was bad before but now I'm in a class all of my own."

 

"You're being too hard on yourself, too negative," I reply soothingly. "Come on, Aya, just let up on yourself a little. Things are going to be..."

 

"No! Don't say it!" Aya suddenly exclaims, cutting me off as he twists into a kneeling position, his eyes wild. "Don't say things are going to be okay because they're not! Fuck, Yohji! I don't even know why it is that you keep bothering with me. If you had any sense you'd just cut your losses and leave me the hell alone. I'm nothing! A killer for hire and a fuck-toy. That's it! I can kill you or I can bend over. And... And if that makes me more than nothing in your eyes then you're even more fucked up than I am! Just... Just give up on me, okay? I'm not worth it."

 

"Aya..."

 

"No! Don't 'Aya' me," he continues just the slightest bit hysterically. "What part of what I'm trying to get through your thick skull are you having difficulties with, huh? Listen to me, Yohji. I'm nothing. Hell, this little performance alone should be enough to convince you that you're better off without me being anywhere near you!"

 

"You're upset..."

 

"I'm not fucking upset!"

 

Okay. Fine. Interrupt me again. See if I care. Better out than in... Right?

 

"I beg to differ," I mutter, shifting position to kneel in front of Aya. "You're clearly upset and..."

 

"For fuck's sake, won't you listen to me?" Aya spits, violet eyes flashing contemptuously. "Am I speaking in Latin or something? I'm not upset, I'm... I'm disintegrating... Surely even you can tell there's a difference."

 

"You're not..."

 

"Shut up! You... You have no fucking idea what I'm feeling..." Trailing off, Aya's hysteria disappears as quickly as it descended and, hugging himself, he slumps down hard on his knees. "Kimura... He..."

 

"It's all right, Aya," I murmur softly, inching closer to his crumpled form, my hand wafting uselessly in the air as I try to raise the courage to touch him. "You don't have to..."

 

"Kimura destroyed everything that I took for granted," Aya whispers hoarsely, blinking back tears. "My life mightn't have been anything wonderful but for the first time in years I was actually content. I'd made peace with what I'd become and I thought things were honestly on the up. Now though... Now there's just nothing."

 

"Things will improve, you've just got to give them time," I reply lamely, hating how utterly dejected and miserable Aya looks. While it's not an expression that suits anyone, it looks positively foreign of him, as out of place as a porn poster on the wall of a nursery. "As for having nothing, you're wrong there. Very wrong. You've got the three of us. We're still here and not going anywhere in a hurry."

 

"But you will," Aya mumbles, the raw emotion he's generating making him tremble. "When you realize how useless I am you'll have no choice but to move on. I say I'm a killer but even that's in the past tense. Get this. I don't even know where my katana is. Ever since I bought it I either had it in hand or close by. There were many nights when I even slept with my hand wrapped around the hilt. Now though I have no idea where it is. I know I left it on the bench after you'd brought it out to me, but other than that... Nothing. No clue. Hell, until now I hadn't even thought about it either."

 

"It's on the sideboard in the dining room," I respond, my hand still floating in mid air. "Omi brought it in from outside and put it there. Would you like me to go get it for you?"

 

"Why?" Aya mutters, meeting my gaze for split second before lowering his head again. "That's the whole point. I don't want it. I've wasted hours imagining using it again and... and I just can't. All I can think about is Kimura and the irony of the fact that I'm terrified of meeting him again. Did you hear that, Yohji? The thought of seeing that bastard again makes me come out in a cold sweat. You probably think that I should be hell bent on seeking my revenge but I'm not. Pathetic, huh? I... I just want to hide."

 

"Come on, Aya, no one can blame you for not wanting to see that prick again," I murmur, nonetheless slightly surprised by his vehement confession. Mind you, given the hatred I feel for Kimura there's hardly any need for both of us to be gunning for him. "Again though, it's early days. You're still healing. In time everything will seem different. Just because you don't want to go after Kimura doesn't mean that you've lost what it takes to be in Weiss though. But, hey... If you never want to pick up a katana again then so be it. With a bit of careful prodding I'm sure Omi would be delighted to hand over his computer geek crown to you and you can run things from the sidelines."

 

"I..."

 

Folding in on himself, Aya begins to cry in earnest, his whole body shaking from such a massive, uncharacteristic outpouring of emotion.

 

Oh God. What did I say? Whatever it was, I'd take it back if I could.

 

"Hey... Aya... What's the matter?" I murmur pleadingly as, throwing caution to the winds, I lean forward and wrap my arms around him. To my relief he doesn't attempt to fight me off and slumps limply against me. "Come on... Hey... Shhh... It's okay..."

 

Sniffing wretchedly, Aya rests his head against my shoulder and shudders. "Why are you so kind to me, Yohji?" he whispers. "Here I am telling you that I've lost it, that I'm nothing, yet you're still here, still talking to me as though you believe I'm something that I'm not. Look at me. You should just give it up. I'm not worth the effort... Not worth anything."

 

"And you can repeat yourself until you're blue in the face and I'm still not going to buy into the bullshit you're spouting," I reply firmly, rubbing my hand up and down Aya's back as, still sobbing, he settles more comfortably in my arms. "You'll get there, I know you will. It doesn't matter that you don't feel capable of facing Kimura. Nor does it matter that you're sitting on the floor quietly freaking out over a nightmare. How you're reacting is, dare I say it, normal. Believe it or not, Aya, you're human... and you've been through hell."

 

"But..."

 

"Uh-uh, no buts," I murmur, gently rearranging Aya so that I can sit with my back against the wall while still holding him against me. Like a rag doll, he allows this passively. "I... *We* still believe in you and there's nothing you can say that will make any of us change our minds."

 

"You're making a mistake, all of you" Aya repeats faintly, closing his eyes. "You should just..."

 

"Shhh... We believe in you, Aya, even if you don't," I reply, tightening my hold around Aya's shoulders as it becomes obvious that he's settling down. "What's more we'll do whatever it takes to make you wake up to our way of thinking."

 

"I don't deserve this," Aya whispers as yet more tears spill over his gaunt cheeks, his fingers entwining around the hem of my shirt. "And I still think you're making a mistake, but... but thank you... Thank you for being here..."

 

"I'm always here for you," I state gently, using my free hand to stroke Aya's hair in a calming gesture. His hair, which has long fascinated me, is as soft as silk and once again I'm left hating Kimura for being the sole reason behind why Aya's actually huddled against me. "If you need me I'll always be here for you..."

 

... For you, Aya, anything. I wasn't able to protect you and I'm still unable to tell you how I really feel, but, you have my unspoken word that there isn't anything I wouldn't do for you. I may hesitate too long and occasionally open my mouth without thinking, but you are everything to me...

 

Concentrating on getting his tears under control, Aya doesn't reply. He does however release a shaky, pent up breath and relaxes fully against me which, well, I think says more than words ever could. Because he seems unbothered by it, I keep stroking his hair, petting him as I would a cat. Within minutes he's asleep, everything finally having added up to get the better of him.

 

I think about picking Aya up and returning him to bed but, not wanting to risk waking him, decide against it. Besides, even though the floor is both hard and cold, I'm oddly comfortable. Deliberately keeping my mind blank -- why spoil the moment by dissecting everything I've just been given an unwelcome insight into when God knows it'll all still be waiting for me tomorrow -- I hug Aya to me and slide off into a light sleep.

 

A little while later the sound of Omi and Ken returning home causes me to stir and I reluctantly open my eyes, hoping that they don't inadvertently startle Aya. When -- right on cue -- Omi materializes in the doorway I'm ready for him and shoot him a warning look. "Don't ask," I mouth, mentally willing him to simply turn around and continue on his way.

 

Shaking his head sadly, Omi ignores my silent plea to just fuck off and walks quietly into the room. Carefully pulling the comforter off the bed, and somehow managing not to wake Kiri in the process, he carries it over and drapes it gently on top of us. Whispering, "Good night," he then walks through the door and straight into Ken. Ken's eyes widen at the no doubt peculiar sight we make but Omi drags him away before he has time to formulate a comment. Aya, thankfully, sleeps on, oblivious to everything.

 

Touched, not to mention warmed -- literally -- by Omi's gesture, I close my eyes and settle back down to sleep. My last thought before Morpheus claims me is that while Aya mightn't want to seek revenge against Kimura, it's something I want more than ever.

 

~*~

 

The dimly realized sensation of something landing none too gently in my lap wakes me from my abyss of nothingness. Thinking that it has to be Kiri and not feeling in the need for feline company, I make to push her away. Instead of my hands coming in contact with fur however I find myself groping around what feels suspiciously like a paper bag.

 

Uh-huh. Excellent.

 

Curiosity getting the better of me, I cautiously open my eyes. A car windscreen and very, *very* bright light greets me and, mortified, I quickly shut them again. Feeling like a vampire who's mistakenly opened the door of his crypt onto a brilliant summer's day, I groan pitifully.

 

"Oh! Ooops! I nearly forgot," a familiar female voice exclaims cheerfully as a pair of sunglasses are placed in my hand. "Here. Sorry they're not your usual style but, well, beggars can't be choosers."

 

Shielding my eyes with my free hand, I glance down at the sunglasses and groan again. "Ray*bands*? Come on, Singapura, you've got to be kidding me," I complain. "What if someone I know sees me, huh?"

 

"Given the state of your face at the moment I'm kinda not thinking anyone's going to notice that you're wearing no-name sunglasses," Singapura retorts, settling in the driver's side and pulling her seatbelt on. "That said, stop your whining. Put 'em on or don't. They were the best the pharmacy had to offer."

 

"Thanks," I mutter unenthusiastically, slipping the glasses on. "You're all heart, Sing, you really are."

 

"Hey, I saved you, didn't I?" Singapura grins, lowering her -- designer -- sunglasses and giving me a wink. "What's more, if you stop bitching about your admittedly tasteless eyewear and look in the bag, you'll see that I've even supplied you with painkillers. Hell, given that Somali argued hard and long for leaving your sorry ass to Ewigkeit you should consider yourself lucky that you're here at all."

 

Oh. Yeah. That's right.

 

I remember now. Don't particularly want to, but -- what else is new -- that's beside the point.

 

Another alleyway. Another trap. More Ewigkeit goons salivating at the bit for their pound of flesh than I could poke the proverbial stick at. Boots. Lots of them. Pain. Lots of it. The feeling that this was it, that I wasn't going to live to see another sunrise.

 

And then...

 

Just like before. Black clad strangers materializing from the shadows and wading in to join the fight.

 

And then...

 

Blackness. Not from chloroform this time but a well aimed plank of wood coming in forceful contact with the back of my skull.

 

And now...

 

"I..."

 

Fuck. This is so not good. In fact, I feel it's fairly safe to say that it's pretty damn terrible.

 

So much for thinking I was going to be back at Souzou before anyone even woke up to the fact that I wasn't ensconced in bed where I was supposed to be. Fuck it. So much for thinking, period. Once again it just doesn't pay me to think. Hell, if it did I'd be destitute and living on the streets.

 

"I don't suppose you've put a gun in here as well," I sigh, opening the bag and peering down at its contents. Hmm... A bottle of water and packet of Panadine Forte. While I'm pleased to see the painkillers I know already that they're not going to be enough to get me through what lies in wait for me. "Nope... Damn."

 

Shaking her head, Singapura slips her sunglasses back in place and starts the car. "A gun?" she echoes drily. "Why ever would I give you a gun? Wake up, Yohji. I know things seem a little haywire to you at the moment but surely you've got enough wits about you to realize that if I wanted you dead you wouldn't be sitting here right now looking like something a huge cat had just dragged in. In case it hasn't come back to you yet, Ewigkeit were kicking several shades of shit out of you last night. If we hadn't got there when we did... Well. I'm sure you get the picture."

 

"Mmm..." I mumble, popping a couple of pills and chasing them down with a long swallow of water. "A gun. Quick and easy, you know... Save Aya the effort of finding his katana and then running me through with it."

 

Because God knows it's going to be what he wants to do.

 

"Speaking of Aya..."

 

"Preferably not until the pills have kicked in," I interrupt, trying to find a comfortable position in the seat and failing dismally. Everything hurts. If my ribs aren't broken then they sure as hell feel as though they should be. As for my left ankle... Well, it's so numb that the only reason I know my foot's still attached to it is because I can see it. "Aya... Urgh... No..."

 

"You're going to have to deal with him, along with everything else, sooner or later," Singapura replies matter-of-factly, pulling away from the curb without so much as glancing to see if any traffic is coming. The sound of squealing tires tells me in no uncertain terms that there had been something coming mere seconds before a shrieking horn does really horrible things to my already delicate head.

 

"Don't worry about the gun," I murmur blithely, scrunching down further in my seat. "What with the way you drive we probably won't make it wherever it is we're going anyway."

 

"He was speeding and should have been paying more attention to the road," Singapura mutters, flicking the bird at the driver of the car behind us in the rear vision mirror. I contemplate swiveling around to have a look at him but rapidly decide it would require way too much effort and that, really, I'm not that interested anyway. "Cheer up, Yohji," Sing continues, reaching across the gear stick to pat me on the knee. "I'll get you back to Souzou in one piece. You have my word on it."

 

"Wonderful," I reply flatly, slumping back in my seat. The welcome party waiting for me at home isn't something I want to think about. Omi will be relieved to the point of tears, Ken will be tetchy with me for having upset Omi, and Aya... Well, Aya will probably pretend that he's never seen me before and has no inclination to make my acquaintance whatsoever. "Not that it's going to do me any good or anything but, what's the time?"

 

"It's just gone four in the afternoon," Singapura responds. "You've been gone from Souzou for just over fifteen hours, approximately eleven of which were spent flat on your back unconscious."

 

"Lovely," I sigh, running through the list of questions that are crowding into my head and rapidly coming to the conclusion that going for the simplest ones are probably my safest bet. "Okay. Next question. Seeing that this is a standard Kritiker issue BMW, where's the Jag? If you left it where I parked it I hope you realize that that's the last anyone will ever see of it."

 

"What? Don't tell me you're actually concerned about a piece of Kritiker equipment?" Sing mutters just that little bit sarcastically. "The doctor said that you were fine but I'm beginning to wonder whether that last bump to your head hasn't perhaps done some lasting damage."

 

This, I can see, is going to be a long drive. "I couldn't give a rat's ass about the Jag," I drawl, raising the effort to lean forward and open the glovebox. As I'd expected I find a packet of cigarettes and a lighter inside and, pulling them out with a triumphant grin, I light up a smoke. "Knew I could count on you, Sing."

 

"You flatter me, you really do," Singapura murmurs, holding out her hand and waiting for me to light her a cigarette. Taking the hint, I do so quickly and place it between her waiting fingers. "Thanks. Now, come on then, Yohji. Fess up. If you don't care about the car, why'd you bother to ask about it, huh?"

 

"I..." Good question, actually. While -- once again -- it had seemed like a really good idea at the time I suspect my gift will now be greeted with an offer to shove it somewhere uncomfortable. "Um... There's just something on the backseat that I was kinda hoping not to have lost."

 

"And that would be...?" Singapura prompts, taking what at first looks like an unfamiliar turn off to the freeway. I then realize that the only reason it looks unfamiliar is because I've only ever traveled the road at night. "Honestly, Yohji. It's like pulling teeth talking to you at the moment."

 

"You expect me to be chatty?" I snort. "Christ, Sing. As you yourself so delicately put it, I've had several shades of shit kicked out of me and now I'm being driven back home to a waiting lynching mob. Sheesh. Forgive me for not being garrulous."

 

"Nice try at changing the subject," Singapura grins, waving her cigarette airily at the ashtray and missing it completely, causing ash to fly everywhere. Going on the appearance of the car's interior, I'd say it was a common occurrence, neatness clearly not rating high on Singapura's agenda. "Now however, I'll ask you again... What's on the backseat of the Jag? If you don't tell me I won't tell you where it is."

 

Oh yeah. This is so going to be a long journey alright. "It's a book, okay," I mutter. "Happy now?"

 

"No. A book on what exactly?"

 

A number of sarcastic replies flicker through my head but I decide that sharing any of them with Singapura would only drag out the inevitable. "It's a book on Souzou," I confess sullenly. "I drove past a dealer in antique books last night and, seeing a light still on in the store, I went in on a whim to see if they had anything on Souzou. They did and I bought it. *Now* are you happy?"

 

"Happier," Singapura replies with a smirk. "Now, of course, I've got to ask why it is you felt the need to buy an antique book on Souzou. Truth be told I didn't even know there *were* any books on the place." Pausing, Sing shrugs as her smirk softens to a smile. "You surprise me at times, Yohji."

 

"I'm a man of surprises," I reply flatly, closing my eyes and leaning my head against the cool glass of the window. "As for why? Well... Aya had mentioned that his parents used to have one and... and I thought it would make a nice surprise for him."

 

"Aah..." Sing murmurs. "All roads lead back to Aya... Are you ready to talk about him now?"

 

"No. Are you ready to mind your own business?"

 

Singapura chuckles. "You *are* my business. All of you. I thought you'd realized that by now."

 

"Nope. I'm a slow learner," I respond. "Speaking of being your business though, how the hell did you know where I was last night? Have you been following me?"

 

"Haven't had to," Singapura replies. "Thanks to the wonder that is GPS we've been able to track you from the very second you started the Jag's engine. We've known what you've been up to right from the very beginning. Seven of Ewigkeit's most senior members down in the space of eight nights, I'm impressed."

 

"Impressed?" I repeat, opening my eyes and giving Sing a questioning look. "You mean to say you're not about to deliver the famous Kritiker lecture on how I'm now nothing but a common killer because I wasn't operating under your authority? Shit. It must be my lucky day after all."

 

"While perhaps not formally, when it comes to the scum that is Ewigkeit, you've always had our approval," Singapura responds bluntly. "At this present point in time they are the most dangerous and powerful group operating in Japan and, yes, Kritiker wants them stopped. There are better ways of going after them than taking on the sole responsibility yourself, however. I understand..."

 

"You *think* you understand," I interrupt quietly, closing my eyes again. "You might even think you know us, Sing. Hell, you might even be of the opinion that we make nice, easy-care pets. I'm telling you right here and now though that you don't. You don't know us and there's no way you could possibly understand what it is that's driving me at the moment. Give us a big garden to play in and nice toys to amuse ourselves with and that's it, that's your job done. What we're feeling doesn't come into it..." Trailing off, I sigh heavily and shrug. "Just forget it. I'm sure you mean well, Sing, and most of the time I actually like you, but... Nah. Again, just forget it."

 

"Okay, so maybe I don't understand, not entirely," Singapura replies softly. "I can guess though and I *know* that things haven't been easy. While we may have different motives, we both want the same thing and that's for Weiss to be able to pull together and to get back to how things were. And, just as we have different motives, we also have different methods of dealing. You want Ewigkeit to pay for what they did to Aya and I've been ensuring that you've been allowed to go about seeking your revenge. Remember the other night when you had that run in with four Ewigkeit members? Well, the allegedly drunk business men that facilitated your escape were actually Kritiker agents that I'd had watching you."

 

"Why didn't you say something?" I query wearily, the painkillers doing little to take the edge off the pain I can feel radiating throughout my entire body. "If you've been watching me all this fucking time, why didn't you say something?"

 

"Why? Would it have stopped you?" Sing responds plainly. "Of course it wouldn't. I only had you tailed so as to ensure you didn't come to, well, *too* much harm. If not for last night's incident you'd still be none the wiser as to our involvement."

 

"Ignorance really is bliss then," I murmur, no longer really wanting to be having this conversation. "Hey, back to the Jag... Where is it?"

 

"Should be well and truly back at Souzou by now," Sing replies. "Once the doctor had confirmed that you *were* actually going to wake up sometime today and that there wasn't -- thank God -- going to some bad news that I was going to have to deliver personally, I had Turk drive it back."

 

"Mmm... With what message exactly?" Please don't let it have been the...

 

"Why, the truth, of course," Singapura states, effectively causing my silent plea to die a very abrupt death. "What else was he going to tell them, huh? That you'd started a barroom brawl or something?"

 

"Would have worked for me," I mutter. "I hate to be the one to tell you this, Sing, especially since you went to so much trouble to save me, but I think it's pretty safe to say you can now officially wave goodbye to Weiss. It's over. *We're* over. *If* and, trust me, this is a big if here, Aya doesn't kill me then he'll never speak to me again anyway."

 

No. Wait. He'll rant and he'll make sure that I'm fully aware of how little he thinks of me and *then* he'll never speak to me again. I can hear him now. I can even see the closed expression on his face and how my pitiful groveling and stammered justifications will fall on deaf ears.

 

And, both knowing and accepting that it's entirely my own fault, that there's no one to blame but myself, I won't even be able to argue with him. Sure, I'll try, but my heart won't be in it. How could it be after what I've done, after everything I've said?

 

"What on earth are you talking about, Yohji?" Singapura queries with, if I'm not mistaken, a note of concern creeping into her voice. "I have this scary feeling that you're about to tell me something that I'm sure I really don't want to know."

 

"You don't want to know and I don't want to tell you," I reply bleakly. "Works for me. Hell, let's just drop the subject here and now and talk about the weather."

 

"Drop the subject?" Sing repeats with a snort. "Not likely. I may not *want* to know, but I'm going to. Am I making myself clear enough?"

 

"Crystal," I sigh. "Don't blame me if it's not what you want to hear though."

 

"I think it's already just a tad too late for that, don't you?" Singapura mutters. "Okay. I'll make it as simple for you as I possibly can... *Why* are you laboring under the belief that Aya is going to want to kill you?"

 

"It's not simply a belief, it's a fact," I respond slowly, not really knowing where to start. "I... Fine. The others don't know what it is I've been going to Tokyo for. They... well, they think I've been disappearing into the night in order to assuage my raging hormones."

 

"What?" Sing exclaims with a low hiss of annoyance. "You mean to say you've been taking on Ewigkeit without even letting the other members of Weiss know what you were up to? I... Fuck! I suppose that answers my question as to why you always went out on your own."

 

"I didn't tell them because I didn't want them to know," I reply plainly. "It was something *I* had to do. Get that? *Me*. Nobody else needed to be involved."

 

Hissing again, Singapura reaches across and snatches a smoke from the pack on my lap. "I don't believe you're telling me this," she complains. "I thought it was something you'd discussed. Hell, I thought it was something you'd *agreed* on. If I'd known you were basically running a suicide mission I would have pulled you that very first night."

 

"And I would have found a way to go out again," I retort, following Sing's lead and lighting another cigarette. "When I said that this was something I *had* to do, I meant it. In case I haven't made it clear enough yet, I want Kimura's head and I won't stop until I have it."

 

"But... *Alone*?" Singapura queries with a sigh. "Christ, what a fucking stupid thing to do. I'm sure Ken at least would have gone with you."

 

"Nobody needed to know. The desire for revenge was mine and mine alone."

 

"You're sounding obsessed."

 

"Maybe I am."

 

"Stubborn too."

 

"Yep."

 

"What if I said that you're sounding a lot like Aya?"

 

"You'd be wrong," I murmur slowly, a more rapid fire response not forthcoming. "The old Aya, maybe... But not now."

 

"Surely he wants Kimura's death as much as you do," Singapura replies. "I've always thought that he was just waiting to heal before going after him himself. Are you telling me that I'm mistaken?"

 

"Very," I murmur, resigning myself to having to have this conversation with as much petulant reluctance as a small child being dragged to the dentist. "Aya doesn't want revenge. Nor does he want to fight. He's... He's broken. Sing... You haven't seen him like I have. If you had you'd know why it is I've been going out night after night in search of retribution."

 

"So, let's see if I've got this right... You're seeking revenge on Aya's behalf yet he doesn't know it," Singapura paraphrases, sounding confused. "Am I right?"

 

"Mmm-hmm," I confirm. "And now that he knows he's going to want nothing to do with me. I've..." Pausing, I shudder. "I've lied to him, I've broken my promise, and, if that wasn't enough, I've betrayed him. Put all that together, Sing, and you can no doubt see why, as far as Aya's concerned, I'm little better than Kimura. I mean, fuck. I may as well have just kicked him a few times while he was down and been done with it."

 

"But... Help me here, Yohji," Singapura responds, still sounding puzzled. "I can understand him being pissed over not knowing what is you've been up to but, everything else? I'm sorry. You're going to have to enlighten me."

 

"No... I can't. It's... It's private," I whisper, hugging myself in a futile attempt to ward off the chill I can feel settling over my skin. "He... He confided in me, Sing, and I betrayed him. He laid himself open to me and now he knows that I've been lying to him..."

 

And that, in a nutshell, is why I know Aya is going to react with icy contempt when he sees me. If he hadn't opened up to me, or if this had happened a couple of days ago, then things wouldn't be as bad as they are now, but...

 

But, with perfectly shit timing, of course it had to happen now.

 

"I don't want to talk about it," I finish faintly, shaking my head. "Please, Sing, just leave it. I've told you enough. You know that I'm an idiot, that I've been acting in secret, and that I've inadvertently stabbed Aya in the back. If you want to lecture me then, hey, be my guest. I tell you now though that there's nothing you can say that will make me feel any worse about things than I do already."

 

"Shit, Yohji," Singapura sighs. "You win. There's some more questions I'd like to ask you but, for now at least, I'll leave them. As for a lecture? I can see that there'd be no point, that I'd simply be wasting my breath."

 

"Thank you," I mumble dejectedly, relieved at being granted so much as a temporary reprieve. "Seriously, Sing, thank you."

 

"Mmm... I think you should just rest now," Singapura replies gently. "I'm sure things will sort themselves out though. Although I know all too well how good Aya is at holding grudges, I doubt he'll stay pissed at you for too long."

 

Not sharing Singapura's confidence and not being able to set her straight because it would require telling her things that I have no intention of ever mentioning to another living soul, I remain silent. Even if it meant a chance at absolution I could never tell her any of things Aya confided in me yesterday morning.

 

I...

 

Even through the haze in my head I can still remember everything he said clearly. Every word, every hitch in his breath, every silent tear. Given the undeniable power of his confession I suspect it will remain with me forever. No. I *know* it will forever stay with me.

 

He told me everything. Without moving from his crumpled position in my arms, he told me everything.

 

He shouldn't have, and I have no idea what compelled him to, but he did. Details of what Kimura and his perverted cronies did to him... How it made him feel... How the memories alone are enough to make him think he's losing his mind... How he doesn't know what's going to become of him... How Kimura took something from him that he hadn't even really thought of as his to lose...

 

All I could do was listen helplessly. I tried to interject -- to *deflect* -- but Aya just kept talking. Maybe it was cathartic for him, I don't know. When he'd finished, when his voice was hoarse from unburdening his litany of despair, he blinked shocked eyes at me and bolted for the bathroom. It was the first time he'd moved since falling asleep against me the night before. Only when I heard the shower running did I allow myself the release of tears. The more Aya had told me the harder it had been to keep them in and once I started I couldn't stop. I cried for Aya, for what he'd been reduced to, and I cried tears of impotent rage over the fact that Kimura was still merrily slithering around the face of the earth when God knows he should have been cold in the ground somewhere.

 

How I managed to stop before Aya returned from the bathroom, or Omi's over-sensitive emotional radar detected that one of his family was crying and came running, is anyone's guess. I did though. Somehow. I even managed to spend the rest of the day acting arguably normal. Aya didn't mention his break down and I didn't attempt to raise it with him. We, as in all four of us, spent the afternoon playing cards and generally turning a blind eye to the greater picture. Omi made popcorn and Aya even smiled at Ken's totally gratuitous victory dance when he won his fourth game in a row.

 

It was nice.

 

Nice enough for me to promise everyone that I wasn't going to go out, that I was going to spend the night in. Omi was so pleased that I was putting 'family' before my cock that he hugged me. Ken laughed and teased me about no longer being as young as I used to be and Aya... Well, Aya just looked oddly, curiously, grateful.

 

In hindsight, never actually having had any intention on sitting on my laurels when there was a chance that Kimura may have finally returned to Tokyo, I never should have opened my mouth. Sure I waited until everyone was asleep before sneaking out but, let's face it, that just makes my deception that little bit more devious.

 

I should have just taken a leaf out of Aya's book and -- swallowed my pride in the hope of it somehow helping -- come clean.

 

I should have told the truth.

 

"We're here," Singapura whispers, her voice breaking through my painful reverie. "I can see Omi and Ken loitering with intent at the back door already. Omi's pretending to be watching Ken while Ken is pretending to be practicing with a soccer ball."

 

"And Aya's probably in my room ferreting around for some of my hair to add to his voodoo doll," I mumble, dragging myself into a slightly more upright position and peering blearily through the windscreen. Sure enough, Omi and Ken and clearly waiting for me, their expressions an interesting combination of relief and anger.

 

Aya, as I'd expected, is nowhere in sight.

 

~*~

 

It starts even before I open my eyes

 

"How *dare* you!"

 

... And good morning to you too, Aya. Did you sleep well? Before you ask, yes, I slept like a log, thank you. Well, you know, what with fainting spectacularly the second I put weight on my injured ankle and all the groovy drugs Singapura supplied me with and everything, I haven't had such a good night's sleep in ages. Get this. I didn't even dream. First time for everything, huh?

 

"I know you're awake," Aya snarls, kicking the base of the bed for emphasis, "so stop lying there playing dead and open your damn eyes."

 

"Aya..." I murmur weakly, trying to struggle into a sitting position. When this fails, I settle for prizing my eyelids open and blinking at the ceiling. "Let me..."

 

"Explain?" Aya interrupts with a snort. His expression is so cold that it makes the one he used to save for Reiji Takatori seem almost warm and loving. It is not, needless to say, something I really need to be on the receiving end of. "There's nothing you could possibly say to me that would make up for... for your deception. How... Just how fucking dare you, Yohji? Answer me that. You've lied to all of us and I want to know what gives you the Goddamn right to think you can play us like this."

 

"Isn't that the same as explaining?" I murmur drily, my inner smart ass not up to being ranted at without the benefit of a caffeine, nicotine and painkiller fix first. "Look. If you'd just calm..."

 

"Don't you dare tell me to calm down," Aya retorts, pacing back and forth as though he can't stand still. "In fact, you can thank Omi and Ken for letting you sleep as long as you have. If I'd had my way I would have been in here ages ago."

 

"I'm sorry, okay?" I sigh, turning my head slightly and spotting both the painkillers and a glass of water on the bedside table. Common sense telling me that it would be a waste of time asking Aya to hand them to me, I start to inch across the mattress. Like a common junkie, I need a fix and I need it now. The whole passing out deal meaning someone had to put me in bed, I still haven't seen the state of my injuries and can't really say that I want to. I can *feel* them, that's enough.

 

"Sorry?" Aya echoes. "You're *sorry*? Come on, Yohji, surely you can do better than that."

 

"What more do you want from me, huh?" I mutter, groping across the table for the pills. Once I've got them I decide to eschew risking my luck with the water and dry swallow two in quick succession. "You don't want me to explain and you don't want my apology either. If all you want to do is rant at me, Aya, then go ahead, knock yourself out. As you can see I'm quite the captive audience."

 

"Asshole," Aya hisses, pausing in his pacing to glower at me ominously from the foot of the bed. "I can't believe you, Yohji, I really can't. You've basically been out killing in my name yet you never felt any urge to share this fact with anyone. You even actively fed the lie of your sleeping around to put us off the scent. I bet you think we're really stupid for having fallen for it so easily, too. Did it make you feel good, huh, pulling the wool over our eyes like this?"

 

"No, it didn't," I confess tiredly, slumping back down on the pillow. "I... I hated doing it, if you must know, but I had to... If you'd known you only would have tried to stop me. I couldn't just do nothing, not after..."

 

"Not after what Kimura did to me," Aya finishes with a scowl. "Hear that last word there, Yohji? *Me*. What Kimura did he did to me. Not you, not Weiss, not Kritiker... Just me. It's something I have to deal with, not you. Now, did I *ask* you to seek revenge on my behalf? No. No I..."

 

"Did Aya-chan ask you to seek revenge on her behalf?" The question -- the equivalent of red rag to a bull -- slips out of my mouth before I can stop it.

 

"How... *dare*... you..." Aya grinds out, eyes flashing. "She's my sister, my *family*. There's a difference and you..."

 

"And we're *what* exactly?" I interrupt, warming slightly to the argument even though I'm lying flat on my back in bed and couldn't sit up to face Aya even if I wanted to. "I don't know what the rest of us are to you, Aya, but to us you're family. Just ask Omi. Ken might be his lover but he'd just as willingly put his life on the line for either of us. You might think we're little more than a ball and chain around your neck at times, but in our own ways we love you and would do anything, stupid or otherwise, for you. Now, I'm sorry if I went about it the wrong way, but I did what I felt I had to do."

 

"I..." Shaking his head, Aya returns to his pacing. "You had no right," he mutters, neatly avoiding the whole family/love issue. "You took it upon yourself to seek revenge for me when you had no Goddamn right! Not only could you have gotten yourself killed but... Fuck you, Yohji! You lied to all of us! Omi thought Turk was lying when he told us that you'd been beaten up by Ewigkeit. He even laughed." Pausing, Aya throws me a dismissive glance over his shoulder. "Needless to say he didn't laugh when Singapura arrived with your battered body and the same story."

 

"I'm sorry," I repeat wanly. "The last thing I wanted was to upset anyone."

 

"We *trusted* you..."

 

"And I'm sorry. God, Aya, what more do you want me to say? If you want I'll roll out of bed and grovel at your feet." And I would too, if I thought it would do any good.

 

"*I* trusted you," Aya murmurs plainly. "Yohji... All those times we spent together... You let me talk... and talk... And yet you never once thought of telling me what you were up to, am I right? Trust, in case you've forgotten, is a two way street. We gave you our trust yet you weren't prepared to return the honor. I'd ask if the word betrayal meant anything to you but, given your interpretation of trust, I'm assuming it doesn't."

 

"I did what I thought I had to," I reply faintly. "If you want me to say that I'm sorry for hunting down Ewigkeit then you'll have a long wait. What I am sorry for however is the way I went about it. God knows I didn't want to offend you, Aya."

 

"Offend me?" Aya murmurs dully. "You've lied to me and you've taken my shame and tried to atone for it... Hell, how could I possibly be offended by that? You motives may be pure, Yohji, but your actions leave a lot to be desired. I thought, foolishly, that I was beginning to know you. Obviously I was wrong."

 

With that, and without waiting for a reply, Aya walks slowly out of the room. I call out his name pleadingly, not wanting the conversation to end like this, and end up with Ken peering down at me for my troubles.

 

"You look like shit," he states with a lopsided grin. "Would you like me to get a mirror so you too can see the scary sight that I'm seeing?"

 

"What I'd like is for you to get Aya," I reply, wanting to scowl at him but lacking the energy. "He just walked out of here and..."

 

"And I value my life far too much to attempt to coax Aya back in here," Ken responds, shaking his head as he sits down on the edge of the mattress. "As should you. In case you've missed it, he's well pissed at you. In fact, the way he went on last night was just like the old Aya."

 

"You think he's pissed with me?" I drawl. "Whatever gives you that idea, huh?"

 

"You've made him feel even more useless, you know," Ken murmurs matter-of-factly, unperturbed by my sarcasm. "Ignoring the lying and screwing us all over, you've been out doing what he can't bring himself to. Think about it. I'd be pretty pissed too. Oh, and he's found the ankhs too, by the way. Don't know what he was doing in your room, but, yeah, he came out with them not long after Turk rocked up. I tried to get them off him, just so I could have a look, but he wasn't having any of it."

 

"Wonderful," I sigh wearily, Ken's response highlighting a point that I hadn't even thought about. Now I've not only offended Aya but I've also done a really good job of undermining him as well. Excellent. "I suppose you and Omi are braying for my blood too?"

 

"Omi's more disturbed over the fact that you could have got your fool ass killed than he is about the lying," Ken replies, shrugging. "As for me? Well, yeah, I'm pissed that you went after Ewigkeit without asking for my help. As cranky and as hard to get on with as he is, Aya's one of us and I want those fuckers to pay as much as you do. You only had to ask and I would have been by your side in a second."

 

Sighing again, I close my eyes. "It doesn't matter now, Ken. It's over. All of it."

 

I've done enough damage.

 

~*~

 

In a round about, decidedly illogical sort of way, this is all Aya's fault.

 

It is.

 

If he hadn't stood behind the sofa and sniffed disdainfully at the fact that I was -- perfectly contentedly, mind you -- watching cartoons then I wouldn't be going to do what I'm about to.

 

I wouldn't.

 

I'd still be at Souzou. Hell, I'd probably still be watching cartoons.

 

But no. Instead of trying to stay out of trouble at home I'm lurking around a street corner waiting to mug a popstar.

 

As life highlights go, this is definitely not one of them.

 

Seriously though, it's all because Aya took offence at my viewing material. If he hadn't peered down his nose at me I wouldn't have -- oh-so-casually -- picked up the remote and quickly developed a feigned interest in channel surfing. And, Goddamn it, if I hadn't been flicking stations I wouldn't have seen...

 

Well, I wouldn't have seen the propaganda machine going into overdrive in relation to Kimura's latest in-your-face venture.

 

And if I hadn't seen Kimura himself smirking directly into the camera and promising to be presiding over the opening night spectacular himself then maybe, just perhaps, I would have been able to control myself.

 

So, you see, it's ultimately Aya's fault. Given that he'd steadfastly ignored me for three days I don't even know why he bothered to take any notice of what I was watching in the first place. All he had to do was stalk through the living room with his blinkers, the ones he'd been wearing in relation to my presence ever since our disastrous, for the want of a better word, conversation in my bedroom, on and everything would have continued just as it had been. I would have continued to feel sorry for myself, Omi would have continued tempering his lectures on my behavior with offers of food or drink, Aya would have continued to ignore me, and Ken... Well, Ken would have continued just being Ken.

 

But, again, no. Not wanting to give Aya even more ammunition -- the concept of too little, too late not entering into my fool head -- to view me as some unpalatable form of lowlife, I just had to go and pick up the remote.

 

And, *bang*, four hours later, here I am.

 

Actually, once again in a round about sort of way, I'm almost glad that I did see Kimura staring at me through the television screen. Maybe. Whatever happens tonight though is going to, one way or another, herald the end. I know I told Ken that it was over already, but, although I possibly believed it at the time, I lied. It isn't over. God knows that I wanted it to be, that I wanted to be able to put it behind me, but I just can't. Regardless of the trouble it's already caused, the trouble *I've* already caused, I can't just drop it.

 

I tried to forget about it.

 

I even tried to concentrate on the future and on healing the wounds I'd effectively caused.

 

Nothing worked though. No matter how hard I tried to move forward, to forget about my quest for revenge, I simply couldn't -- *can't* -- do it. Singapura's wrong in saying that all roads lead to Aya. They don't. As far as I'm concerned all roads lead straight to Kimura. Or hell. Either or. If there's a difference between the two at all then I'm yet to be able to work it out.

 

I still want Kimura's death. Everything that has happened can be linked directly back to that asshole and, having nothing left to lose, I'm going to make sure he pays for fucking up our lives. If I die trying then, well...

 

Whatever.

 

It would be a lie to say I particularly cared. Aya hates me, my actions alone may have been the final nail in Weiss' coffin and, to put it bluntly, I can't see any reason great enough to carry on. I'm tired. Tired of everything. I don't want to die but, so long as it ends tonight, it's a sacrifice I'm prepared to make.

 

Even if I do survive I doubt I'll see the others again anyway. While Omi and Ken were able to forgive my lies once I wouldn't expect them to let me off again. Nor, for that matter, do I feel as though I'd be able to look them in the eye even if I were to crawl back to Souzou. Knowing that there's a chance I'll never see them again hurts, it hurts like a bitch it fact, but, again, it's a risk I'm willing to take. I have to. I can't live with things the way they currently are. If I survive maybe I'll grovel to Singapura and ask to be assigned to a new team.

 

Maybe.

 

I haven't really thought that far ahead.

 

The others don't need me anyway. I'm sure of it. Since being unceremoniously returned by Singapura I've pretty much been kept out of the loop as it is. While I haven't the faintest idea what they've been up to, Aya, Omi and Ken have spent the better part of the last three days either bonding or playing a game of Secret Society. If they weren't holding whispered meetings around the kitchen table then they were out and about doing God knows what. My pleasure at seeing Aya more or less acting like his old self being somewhat negated by the fact that something was clearly going on that I wasn't a part of, the sight of them being together all the time began to grate on my nerves. When I asked... okay... *begged*... Ken to tell me what was going on he merely shrugged and muttered something about hoping I had enough common sense to never have to find out. As cryptic responses went he couldn't have been less helpful if he'd tried.

 

I didn't leave a note. No doubt I should have, but I didn't, *couldn't*. I thought about it but couldn't think of a single thing to write that wasn't trite or too simplistic. I'm sorry... I love you, all of you, in my own way... Please forgive me but this is something I have to do... In the end I settled for leaving the book on Souzou in the middle of Aya's bed. I hope he realizes that it was bought with love and that, despite my actions to the contrary, I'm truly sorry for all the trouble I've caused. If he doesn't, then...

 

Then it doesn't matter. He could systematically tear out the pages to make paper airplanes and it's not going to matter a damn. I mean, it's not like I'm ever going to know.

 

I live. I die. It doesn't matter. Nothing matters. Not now.

 

I've made my bed and now I'm going to lie in it.

 

By choice. Possibly even by fate. Who knows.

 

My prey finally in sight, I step out of the shadows and silently materialize in front of him. Yuasa Hiruka, the nation's current number one pop sensation, blinks large green eyes at me in stunned surprise. I stare back at him coldly, seeing not the face that sells hundreds of thousands of teen magazines but the face of my doppelganger. Omi used to tease me that Yuasa and I could be twins and now, now that I'm counting on our similarities, I see that he's right. I'm a little taller, and Yuasa's hair is both slightly blonder and longer than mine, but other than that the resemblance is uncanny. There's a light, an innocence in Yuasa's eyes though that I know is missing from mine.

 

"W-would you l-like an autograph?" Yuasa stammers, edging away from me nervously. While used to dealing with screaming fan girls scrabbling for a piece of him, he's clearly unsure of how best to deal with me. Given that it's dark and looking at me is like looking in a mirror, I can't say that I blame him.

 

"It's nothing personal," I murmur, shifting behind him and bringing my hand down hard against the back of his neck even before he's had time to realize that I've moved. "But you've got something I need."

 

Yuasa manages to get out a squeak of shock before the lights go out and he crashes to the ground. Not wanting to risk being caught, I grab him under the arms and drag him into the alleyway. Dumping him behind a conveniently placed dumpster, I quickly rifle through his clothing in search of what it is I know he has to have... What I'm *counting* on finding on him.

 

Doubts are beginning to raise their ugly head when, in desperation, I pull out his wallet and tip its contents onto the concrete. Hidden amongst the coins, I find it. Picking it up, I slip it into my pocket and shake my head. Silly me. I should have known that printing the invite on something so mundane as paper would have been beneath Kimura's snobby little heart. Pretentious fuck. What it cost to have the date, time and personal invite engraved on tiny pewter ankhs no doubt would have kept an orphanage or five in food for a month.

 

Yuasa'a part in my plan over and done with, I prop him up against the wall and stroll back to where I'd parked the car. If his chauffer or manager or photo opportunity date for the evening notice he's missing and come looking for him then, well, good luck to them. I've got what I wanted. With any luck it'll be all over with even before the alarm -- oh my God! Famous pop star, Yuasa , Hiruka found lying mugged in alleyway! -- is raised. If not, then, once again, so be it. All I wanted from Yuasa was his invitation to Cathedral. And now I have it.

 

Cathedral.

 

Ewigkeit's latest and greatest legitimate venture. Apparently, if I'm to believe the close to orgasmic ravings of the reporter I saw interviewing Kimura, it's the nightclub to end all nightclubs. Tokyo's night life, again apparently, is never going to be the same after tonight's no expense spared opening gala. Through sheer hype alone the waiting list to become a member stretches to thousands and the invitation I currently have burning a hole in my pocket is the hottest ticket in town. Anyone's who's anyone either has one or would sell their soul -- and/or designer wardrobe -- to get one. Rumor has it, as gleefully shared by the reporter to Kimura and her audience, one young starlet even attempted suicide when she realized that she hadn't been invited.

 

Kimura, his arrogant nature being such that he couldn't even pretend to be sympathetic, laughed at this. It was at that point I unclenched my fingers from around the remote and switched the bastard off. I'd already seen more than I needed to, learnt more than I ever needed to know.

 

The damage, effectively, had been done.

 

My timetable, such as it is, going to plan, it takes me ten minutes to drive from Yuasa's neighborhood to Cathedral. It then takes double that amount of time to get the car through the nightclub's heavily guarded perimeter. Not particularly wanting to think about anything that could possibly be classed as deep and meaningful, I kill time while waiting to be cleared by staring aimlessly around me. If the circumstances were different, if I wasn't numb from the feet up, I'd perhaps even be impressed by the hype and spectacle surrounding the club.

 

Situated on the site of a once heritage listed hospital -- that just happened to mysteriously catch fire and burn to the ground three years ago -- Cathedral takes up approximately half of a city block. It is also, just as its name implies, a cathedral. Never being one to do things by half, Kimura had it shipped brick by brick, gargoyle by gargoyle, flying buttress by flying buttress from Italy. The rebuilding took over two years to complete and, given the imposing size of the structure, I can't say this exactly surprises me. How I've missed taking any notice of it as it was going up though, seeing as this is a part of town that I used to drive through quite frequently, escapes me.

 

Then again, let's face it, two months ago the name Ewigkeit never meant anything to me either. While nothing to write home about at the time, I now look back on those days with an incredible sense of fondness.

 

And longing...

 

Kimura's propaganda machine having outdone itself, the streets surrounding Cathedral are all blocked off and filled with happy smiling sightseers playing spot the celebrity. It's really quite incredible, not to mention ludicrous. Anyone would think this was the Oscar's the way everyone's carrying on. There are even snipers positioned on the roofs of the nearby buildings. Going on the fact that one deserts his post as I watch him, not very good snipers at that.

 

Even though the windows of the Jag are tinted, I still scrunch down in my seat and steadfastly turn a blind eye -- and ear -- to the group of teenage girls screaming Yuasa's name. While it wouldn't kill me to acknowledge them, to flash a smile in their direction, I have this scary feeling that my face would crack from the strain and that I'd probably end up scarring them for life. This only causes them to scream louder though and one enterprising young girl with somewhat alarming pink hair, obviously having decided that enough is enough, hurdles the barricade and throws herself at the car. She manages to wrench off a windscreen wiper before a harried looking policeman drags her off by her Hello Kitty backpack. By the look of teary glee on her face I suspect the mangled wiper is now going to be her number one prize position and the envy of all her friends.

 

Slowly the queue of expensive European cars in front of me inch their way through the makeshift gates. Finally reaching them myself, I flash my -- Yuasa's -- invite at the bored looking uniformed guard and climb out of the car. I know, having had a flying visit to one of my favorite clothing stores before going to lurk around outside Yuasa's apartment, that I look the part. Sheer black, tight fitting t-shirt, silver leather trousers, high gloss, black three-quarter length leather coat - I look as much like a popstar as I'm ever going to get. I've even got my hair scraped back in Yuasa's trademark ponytail. Not that the guard, who clearly skipped charm school, seems to care one iota what I look like. I suspect I could be standing before him dressed as Hitler and he wouldn't so much as raise an eyebrow. No doubt having seen enough celebrity flesh for one night, he glances at me impassively and snatches the ankh out of my hand. Running his scanner over it, he nods to himself and hands it back without so much as a grunt.

 

"Nice meeting you too," I mutter drily, slipping the ankh back into my pocket and following a scantily dressed woman in some barely there black Versace number -- who something tells me I should recognize -- across the car park to the waiting red carpet.

 

The crowd of onlookers having kept me occupied while I was waiting to get in, my first true sight of Cathedral nearly blows my mind. Yes, I'd listened to the reporter blither on about how incredible the opening night was going to be. And, yes, I expected it to be well and truly over the top, but...

 

But...

 

Seriously. Words escape me.

 

Mindless of that fact that they, well, clash like stripes and polka dots, Kimura's brought his two pet subjects of Catholicism and Egyptology together and unleashed them on an unsuspecting public.

 

I can now say I've literally seen everything.

 

Cathedral, a striking example of Gothic architecture that should have been left in Italy where it belongs, sits in the middle of what I think is meant to look like a desert oasis. White sand, no doubt shipped at great expense from a tropical paradise somewhere, surrounds the massive church, making it look like someone's picked it up and dumped it in the middle of a beach. Although there's a slight breeze, there's no grains of sand marring the pristine red carpet and this leads me to wonder whether they've gone so far as to glue it into place.

 

Adding to the freakish picture of a cathedral surrounded by sand are electronic 3D images of palm trees. As if this wasn't tacky enough there are also a number of surly looking camels with equally as surly looking handlers wandering around... Not that I really needed any more convincing or anything, but the fact Kimura has hologram palm trees and real, nasty, stinking camels making up his lame diorama really proves once and for all that his brains are in his ass. I mean, when was the last time a palm tree ever spat at anyone or relieved itself in front of the rich and famous? Idiot.

 

Shaking my head in dismay at the garish sight, I stride past the two doormen -- their steroid enhanced bodies resplendent in gold paint and itty-bitty Egyptian style kilts that barely cover their meaty thighs -- and step into Tokyo's so-called new premier nightclub.

 

And, yeah...

 

Okay.

 

If the residents of the Vatican were capable of having a collective nightmare then I think I'm standing smack-bang in the middle of it.

 

Forgetting my self-imposed mission for a moment, I lean against a column and just gawk. A respected politician wanders past me, his gaze fixed firmly on the floor as his wife cries against his shoulder. The both look mortified. I almost stop them just to ask what in particular it was that finally broke through their tolerance level. There being too much to look at though, I don't and quickly lose sight of them in the pulsating, beautiful crowd.

 

Perhaps it was the drag queen --nearly -- dressed as Cleopatra and her troop of scantily clad dancing boys kicking up a storm on the alter that did it for the politician. Alternatively, especially seeing as how terrible it is, it could even have been the deafening American dance music that they're bumping and grinding to. I somehow doubt it though. Compared to everything else the drag queen almost looks mundane.

 

The 'angels' hanging from the ceiling on wires or performing trapeze acts could be another option. Again though I doubt it. Sure they're basically naked -- their costumes of a g-string and gold body paint not really leaving a lot to the imagination -- and their huge golden wings are dropping feathers left, right and center, but, really, they're eye candy more than anything else. Personally I quite like them and have to force myself to look away.

 

Following the spotlight that's swooping around the club, I then see what -- guaranteed, no question about it -- would have upset the politician and his wife. In fact, going on the pained expressions on the faces of most of the guests over the age of forty, I think it's fairly safe to say that if Kimura was aiming to shock and offend then he's succeeded admirably.

 

Two nuns kissing... An alter boy on his knees before a priest... 'Jesus' bowed under the weight of a massive wooden ankh strapped to his shoulders, blood running down his face from the crown of thorns on his head... A Sunday school teacher straddling a chair, her hand between her legs... A young man dressed to represent a vampire licking blood from the stigmata like wounds flowing from a living statue of the Madonna...

 

The spotlight highlights the staged scenes seemingly at random. The younger guests cheer and point while the older generation cringe and stare at the floor. While I'm not exactly offended by any of it nor do I really find anything overly clever or even artistic about it. As far as I'm concerned it's like something a disgruntled goth would try to pass off as a semester's work in art school and little more.

 

Actually... Heh... While I never thought I'd find myself thinking this, I wish Farfarello was here. I swear it would be enough to make him either implode or spontaneously combust on the spot. His eyes would bug out of his head, he'd twitch uncontrollably and that'd be it - game over. It'd be great.

 

And... Christ. Could I crawl any further backwards if I tried? Wishing Farfarello was here, I mean, what next?

 

Shaking my head, I move away from the column and scan the crowd for Kimura. A young woman spots me and calls Yuasa's name. When I ignore her she yells something positively libelous about his lack of staying power in bed before breaking down in tears and throwing herself into her friend's arms. Although I've only 'been' Yuasa for less than an hour I already feel sorry for him. Just call me boring but, well, there's only so much of being screamed at that I can take without wanting to scream back.

 

Surreptitiously walking away from the teary young woman, I'm contemplating going to get a drink from the bar when I see him. Although surrounded by unimaginatively black suited lackeys, Kimura still stands out. Hell, in his outfit of an unbuttoned white silk shirt and iridescent pearl colored leather trousers, the bastard quite literally glows. A diamond encrusted ankh hangs from his left earlobe, his impossibly smooth hair tucked neatly behind his ear so as to show it off. Staring at him, I can't decide what looks more out of place, the kohl he's rimmed his icy blue eyes with or the broad, vacuous smile he's got plastered all over his face. Neither suit him.

 

Fucker. This is the closest I've been to him and his death is so near that I feel as though I can smell it.

 

You and me, Kimura. This is it.

 

There unfortunately being too many people milling around to simply get him with my wire, I melt back into the crowd and track him with my gaze. Clearly awestruck at his own extravaganza, he works his audience for a while, shaking hands and exchanging coy kisses with anyone misfortunate enough to stray across his path. I think about positioning myself in his way, just so I can get close to him, but hold back. If I can help it I don't want to make a scene.

 

Eventually, just as I'm beginning to get antsy, Kimura breaks away from his adoring crowd and, goons in tow, heads towards the alter. Situated above it, on a sort of mezzanine level, appears to be what I imagine to be the office. From the center of the club it just looks to be a huge wall of stained glass -- depicting more ankhs and pyramids, naturally -- with a walkway in front of it but, going on the way the wall is placed, I'm pretty sure there has to be rooms behind it. Stairs lead to the walkway on either side of the alter, further adding credence to my theory. Watching Kimura walk up the stairs before disappearing behind the stained glass, I know for sure that I'm right and set off after him.

 

Reaching the foot of the wrought iron stairs, I'm stopped by a bodyguard looming out of the shadows and positioning himself directly in front of me, blocking my path. "This area is out of bounds," he grunts, folding his arms across his chest and tilting his head back in the direction of the crowd. Like every other Ewigkeit pleb he looks as though he'd be lucky if he had two I.Q. points to rub together. "So be a good boy and run along."

 

"I don't think so," I reply, smiling balefully as I make to walk past him. As expected he tries to stop me but, instinct taking over, I have my wire around his throat before he's even had time to uncross his arms. Not wanting to kill him, I exert just enough pressure to render him unconscious before gently lowering him to the floor.

 

The guard's body just waiting to be found and the alarm to be raised, time is now of the essence and I bolt up the stairs at a run. Another guard materializes in front of me just as I make it to the top. Thinking fast, I jump out of reach as he lurches for me and he topples down the stairs, landing in an unnatural looking heap on top of the other guard at the bottom. The adrenaline that had been missing until now hits me with all the force of a tornado and, without pausing to think, I throw myself through the door...

 

... And straight into the waiting arms of two more guards.

 

Ooops.

 

"What the fuck do you think you're doing?" one of them growls, grabbing the lapels of my coat and, just because he can, giving me a good shake. "This area's off limit."

 

Going limp, I stare at the guard vacantly. "You mean this *isn't* the way to the toilets?" I murmur uncertainly, widening my eyes in an attempt to affect drug fucked consternation. "Man, I'm sorry but, like, I've really gotta go. Surely there, like, has to be..."

 

"Shut up," the second guard exclaims, moving across to the door and reopening it. "Now, get the fuck out of here before you have a nasty accident."

 

"Were you born an asshole or did you have to study for the title?" I retort, twisting away from the guard holding me and making a run for the door opposite the one I came in. With it's coffee table littered with glossy magazines and overstuffed sofa, the room appears to be a waiting -- or vetting -- room of sorts. His abilities not quite up to simply disappearing into thin air, I know Kimura has to be on the other side of the second door. I also know that if I make enough noise he, or at the very least another guard from inside the inner sanctum will have to open the door in order to check that everything's okay.

 

Well, that's what I'm counting on anyway.

 

"Now you've done it!" the first guard exclaims angrily, body slamming me into the door and knocking the wind out of me. "Listen, dumb fuck, this area is out of bounds. If you don't like it then that's just tough. Now, as my friend just said, it's time for you to get the fuck out of here."

 

"Is that any way to treat an invited guest?" I pout, banging my fists petulantly against the door. "I'll have you know that... that I'm *famous* and... and you're nothing but a hired gorilla with ideas about his station! I tell you now that I'm going to write a letter of complaint to Kimura himself about you."

 

"Be my guest," guard number two mutters, stalking over and making to drag me away from the door. "If you play nice I might even leave one finger unbroken so you can still type it."

 

"Unhand me!" I shriek, firmly entrenched in my role of prima donna extraordinaire. "I will not be treated this way by an uneducated baboon such as yourself!

 

"Hey, Otoya, making friends again, I see," a new voice interjects from the second doorway as yet another guard steps into the small room. His expression impassive to the extreme, he glances at me without interest before glaring at his fellow guards. "Anyone care to tell me just what the hell is going on out here?"

 

"Nothing of importance," guard number one replies, reaching out and closing his hand forcefully around my arm. "We were just trying to convince Yuasa here that he's in the wrong place for the toilets."

 

"They were manhandling me!" I exclaim indignantly, making a show of squirming to get free. "I made a honest mistake and..."

 

And...

 

Show time.

 

"That's not Yuasa, you idiots," Kimura murmurs calmly from the doorway, the slightest of smirks crossing his face as he stares at me. "That's a member of that annoying pack of rodents, Weiss. While the similarities between himself and Yuasa are quite uncanny, I'd know him anywhere."

 

"I'm honored that you recognize me," I sneer coldly, breaking free of my captor with a violent twist and, squaring my shoulders, standing to my full height. "Tonight you die, Kimura," I add with a hiss, taking a step towards him. "For what you've done, for all the people you've made suffer, I'm here to make you pay."

 

"You Weiss idiots really are all the same, aren't you," Kimura smiles, spinning on his heels and walking slowly back into the other room. As though on cue, the three guards descend on me and, one wrenching my arms behind my back, march me after Kimura. I know I should be afraid but I'm not. Nor have I entirely given up hope of achieving my aim. Sure Kimura and his army of clone-like guards may hold the upper hand but, as one bright spark once said, it's not over until the fat lady sings.

 

The room I get marched into is, just as I'd expected, a lavishly appointed office. A huge desk, made, by the look of it, from the wood of old church pews, sits in front of the wall of stained glass, dominating the room. Given its elegant lines and fine workmanship, the desk looks glaringly out of place in the otherwise garishly decorated office. Purple carpet and green walls. Mmm... Gotta get me some. Just like my life really isn't complete without having a print of the 'Kimura as St Sebastian' painting that's taking up far too much space on the wall opposite the door we entered through. Seriously. Tastelessness at it's most spectacular had nothing on it. The wall directly in front of the desk, paying homage to Kimura's techno-fetish, is taken up with a bank of television monitors, the sight of which give me an unwanted flashback to that room in Kimura's penthouse, the one I found Aya in. Images from Cathedral flicker on them, each screen showing a different scene. Whether the purpose of the televisions is for security or merely for the cheap thrill of watching isn't something I'd feel confident taking a guess at.

 

Fact of life. I really don't want to die here. Hell. I'd rather take a swan dive off the walkway and land in the middle of Cathedral's dance floor than I would taking my last breath in such a hideous room.

 

"Trust you, Kimura, to hire a blind interior decorator," I drawl, glancing around dismissively. "I thought the camels outside were an inspired touch but this, this wins hands down. Oh, and as for your stunning self portrait as St Sebastian over there? You do of course know that he survived the arrows only to be later beaten to death..."

 

"Such misguided, not to mention futile arrogance," Kimura smirks in reply, leaning against the desk and eyeing me lazily. Up close his hair quite literally shimmers, making me think of Omi's throwaway comment about how he washes it with the dust of ground diamonds.

 

Omi...

 

Oh dear God.

 

I really should have said goodbye.

 

"That other one, the one with the lovely violet eyes and nasty attitude, he was the same," Kimura continues conversationally. "Would you believe he honestly thought he could defeat me? Fool. I soon had his delusions beaten out of him though. In fact it didn't take long for him to start begging for mercy at all." Pausing, his smile broadens. "I fully expect you'll be exactly the same."

 

"It's a pity you won't live long enough to find out," I snarl, trying to twist away from the guards and getting a well aimed fist to the stomach for my efforts. The pain is so immediate and crippling that it's only thanks to the guard holding my arms behind my back that I'm able to remain upright. While I've recovered from my beating the other night I'm a long way off my best and I know it'll only take a few more blows like that to fell me. "Trust me, Kimura, you're mine."

 

Sharing an indulgent smile at me, Kimura shrugs indolently. Behind him I see a flash of shadow through the stained glass as someone uses the walkway. Following my gaze, the punch happy guard scowls and gestures at the glass. "There's someone out there, sir," he states, looking expectantly at Kimura. "Do you think he has back up?"

 

"The angels use the walkway to launch their aerial act from," Kimura replies, the slightest of frowns marring his smug expression. "I'm sure it was one of them. However, just to be on the safe side, perhaps it would be prudent to arrange for more guards. Rats *do* like to travel in packs."

 

His master having tugged on his leash, the guard nods and steps away to mutter into his headpiece. Within seconds two more identically blank guards walk into the room through the second door and position themselves either side of Kimura. It's now six against one and I'm thinking, due to unforeseen circumstances, that the fat lady's manager may have suddenly cancelled tonight's performance.

 

"Tell me something," Kimura murmurs, moving towards me with an expression that can only be described as predatory on his face, "the name of your little redheaded friend, what was it? Sadly the only times I ever thought to ask were when his mouth was otherwise occupied and he couldn't answer."

 

"Fuck you!" I retort acidly, my hatred for Kimura slipping effortlessly over the edge and dragging me into the abyss. "You... You disgust me!" Too angry at the bastard for having referred to Aya in that way to think straight, I start to struggle furiously. "You're going to pay, Kimura, you fucking dumb shit asshole. I swear, you're..."

 

A nod from Kimura being all the encouragement the original two guards need to go to town on me, I'm on the floor gasping for breath even before I've finished ranting. I start to laugh as their fists continue to rain down on me. "Is this the best you can do, Kimura?" I grind out breathlessly. "I thought you were more... imaginative... than this..."

 

"Oh, I'm very imaginative," Kimura purrs, crouching down next to me and gesturing airily behind him. The head honcho guard, clearly adept in Kimura's sign language, grins and stalks over to the desk. "I'm hurt that the redhead didn't tell you about some of our more, shall we say, *creative* games," he continues, reverting to his conversational tone of a few minutes ago. "I was his first. Did you know that? I'd have thought that someone so beautiful would have been around the block more than a few times, but, no... Just think. Anyone else who ever gets to touch him will be following me. It's enough to make me feel quite proud."

 

"Shut up, shut up, shut up!" I howl, sounding almost more animal than human and failing in my pitiful attempt to drag myself to my knees. "Just don't talk about him like that! You have no..."

 

"I do wonder whether you'll be the same," Kimura muses, taking a small leather case from the guard with a pleased smile. "I somehow doubt it for some reason," he continues, opening the case and pulling out a syringe. "But still, you're attractive enough in your own way to be surely worth an hour or two."

 

What?

 

Oh... Fuck...

 

While I'd prepared myself for failure and possible death, I'd never once stopped to think of any of the other possible outcomes.

 

"No..." Shaking my head, the word slips out of my mouth before I can stop it.

 

"I think yes," Kimura smiles as one of the guards grabs my arm and pushes up the sleeve of my coat. "While I don't see breaking you as a challenge I'm confident it will be nonetheless an amusing enough way to pass the time. Maybe when I've finished I might even save your friends the hassle of looking for you. Given that you're so fond of crosses, what do you think about a public crucifixion in Kitanomaru Park? I think it would be quite fitting after that little trick you pulled on my offices."

 

"You wouldn't have the balls," I sneer, determined that if I'm going to go down then I'm going to do so mouthing off. "Face it, Kimura, you're all show."

 

"You just keep telling yourself that when you're biting your tongue to stop yourself from pleading for your worthless life," Kimura replies pleasantly, jabbing the needle with practiced ease into my vein. The contents of the syringe are just beginning to enter my bloodstream when, without so much as a flicker of a warning, all the television screens black out.

 

"Ah, so your ratty little friends *are* here then!" Kimura exclaims, leaving the syringe hanging out of my arm and standing up. "And to think I'd thought you were acting on your own."

 

"Am acting on my own," I wheeze, slumping further down on the floor as the drug starts to make itself known in my system. Without even having had a full dose I can already feel it acting and it's a struggle to concentrate. Maybe the televisions simply went out because of a faulty fuse or something. Personally I neither know nor care. Having disconnected the Jag's GPS before leaving Souzou, I know that it can't be Singapura coming to the rescue again so, yeah... Who cares?

 

"Get him out of here anyway!" Kimura snaps, striding towards the desk. "And get me the electrician. I want..."

 

The shock of both the doors into the room crashing open simultaneously silencing him, Kimura's mouth gapes open and a fleeting glimmer of doubt appears in his eyes.

 

"Yohji-kun!"

 

Uh-huh. Brilliant. Whatever the fucker injected into me is obviously a hallucinogen of some description because I could have sworn that was Omi's voice calling my name.

 

"Behind you, Omi!"

 

Ken too. Peachy. Clearly Kimura only uses the good shit.

 

My guards having deserted me in order to join the affray, I drag myself across the floor until I'm half-sitting, rag doll like, with my back against the televisions. From here I get to see pretty images to go with the imaginary voices in my head. Yay me.

 

For products of my chemically enhanced imagination, Ken and Omi look good. Real good. And not only because I'm getting to see them again either. No. They look good because they're systematically taking out Kimura's guards and because they're both wearing spiffy new mission outfits. All black, menacing looking mission outfits at that. Jeans, a tight fitting long-sleeved t-shirt and baseball cap for Ken and the same t-shirt, cargo shorts and bandanna for Omi. An iridescent white cross shines from both the back pocket of Omi's shorts and Ken's jeans.

 

Although I know for a fact that everything is merely a hallucination, that none of what's happening is real, I still yell out when Kimura grabs a gun from under the desk and aims it at Ken.

 

"Ken! Look out!"

 

Snarling in temper, Kimura spins around and -- an unmoving target apparently being more up his alley -- trains the gun on me. Without hesitating he then squeezes the trigger and my happy little world of happy little images dissolves in a blaze of pain. Hitting my left shoulder, I know the bullet flies straight through me because the television I'm leaning against explodes, showering me with glass.

 

Looking apoplectic, Kimura lifts his arm and takes aim again, this time the barrel of the gun being pointed directly at my forehead. The stained glass window suddenly shattering into a million fragments saves me from having my brains splattered all over the already fucked television set though and...

 

And what it is I think I'm seeing makes me giggle. "Heh... Now you're gonna get it, Kimura," I snicker happily, the pain in my shoulder fading as my imagination well and truly takes over. "You're soooo gonna get it."

 

A cat always landing on its feet, Aya crouches perfectly still in the middle of the desk, his eyes focused solely on Kimura as shards of colored glass rain down over the room. Still snickering to myself, I decide that I wish my imagination had a rewind function so I could backtrack through the last few seconds in order to have seen him come flying through the window. I mean, talk about making the coolest of cool entrances...

 

Watching Aya unfold himself and gracefully stand up, I stop giggling and fall silent. He looks... Oh boy. He looks incredible, like nothing on earth. In his black leather trousers, pristine white shirt hanging loose with its bottom buttons undone, and long black 'Neo-from-The-Matrix-style' coat, he literally looks too good to be true. Black leather gloves and what looks to be a silver charm bracelet sitting low on his left wrist complete the outfit. Unlike the rest of us, with our caps, bandannas and ponytails, he's done nothing to disguise his hair and I hope this is an intentional sign of defiance to Kimura. In his right hand, already unsheathed and with its blade glinting in the light, he holds his katana.

 

And... Again... He looks just incredible.

 

A sixth sense telling him that there's a guard attempting to approach from behind, Aya takes his eyes off Kimura long enough to spin around and fell his would be attacker even before the man has fully stepped into the room. When he moves his coat billows around him as though its got a life of its own. His shirt too fans out, uncovering in the process something which, even in my current drugged state, makes me gasp in surprise. Like Ken and Omi, Aya too is wearing the white cross of Weiss. Instead of it being on his clothing though he's got it marked on his flesh, the cross I cut into his skin glowing with some sort of white body paint. As if that wasn't enough he's also, this time in red paint, highlighted the ankh, effectively drawing attention to both of his scars.

 

Everything rapidly adding up to become too much for me, I stare at Aya and Kimura as the rest of the room fades from my consciousness. I hear Omi -- "Why's Yohji-kun laughing like that?" -- and I hear Ken -- "See that syringe there? Well, that's your answer. I... I hope." -- but I can't see them, not even in my peripheral vision. I still don't believe any of what's happening to be actually real but, given that it's all I've got, I'm not really complaining. Let's face it, it could easily be far worse.

 

His evening having now officially reached the status of totally fucked, Kimura fights for poise and waves his gun at Aya. "Well I never," he comments with a malevolent smile, "I nearly didn't recognize you with your clothes on."

 

Leaping off the desk, his expression giving nothing away as to the effect Kimura's words had on him, Aya advances towards the man who very nearly succeeded in destroying him. Determination glints in his eyes. If I had it in me to speak coherently I'd tell Kimura that he may as well drop the gun now, that even if he empties the remaining bullets into Aya he's *still* going to feel the blade of the katana sliding into him.

 

Omi's aim as true as ever, a dart hits the barrel of the gun, causing Kimura to drop it. "So now what?" he murmurs, straightening his shoulders and looking down at Aya, his smug expression once again firmly in place. "Are you going to simply murder an unarmed man?"

 

I honestly think, although I have no idea why, that the idiot thinks he can reason with Aya, that he's still going to walk away from this suffering an affront to his security and status and nothing more.

 

Again. Kimura really is just about as stupid as they come.

 

"Given that, unlike some, I derive no pleasure from playing with my prey," Aya states flatly, drawing the blade back for the kill, "yes. I am."

 

Reality, that he's in a doomed position, slapping Kimura in the face, his self-control deserts him and, dropping to his knees, he starts to beg. "You can't do this. Whatever you want, it's yours. Please. Don't do this," he pleads, reaching pitifully for Aya's coat as kohl stained tears of panic begin to spill down his cheeks. "Just tell me what you want and I'll get it for you. I promise. You've got to let me..."

 

"You can never give back what you've taken from me," Aya replies quietly, closing his eyes and allowing sheer instinct to guide the katana to its destination. Kimura, his eyes opened wide in shock, drops to the ground as blood gushes from the gaping wound in his neck. Transfixed by the vivid red of the blood and the way it's making a mess of his veil of platinum hair, I start to crawl towards Kimura's body. Hands grab for me, trying to pull me away, but I shake them off.

 

Dead?

 

Surely not.

 

This is all just a product of my imagination after all.

 

"Come on, Yohji! Leave it. He's dead we've gotta get out of here."

 

Ignoring Ken, I reach Kimura and, panting from the exertion, make a desperate snatch for his earring.

 

"Yohji? What are you doing? Aya? Why are you just standing there? Shouldn't we..."

 

"Leave him," Aya interrupts, cutting Omi off before he can rattle out yet another question. "Whatever he thinks he's doing is clearly important to him."

 

My fingers clumsily closing around their prize, I yank the diamond ankh out of Kimura's earlobe and giggle gleefully. "Got it!"

 

Oh my God...

 

And with the bloody earring clutched firmly in my hand comes the unmistakable proof that this is real...

 

That Kimura is dead...

 

That Aya, Ken and Omi are hovering over me...

 

That I've been shot...

 

That...

 

Blinking helplessly at Aya's leather clad kneecaps, I murmur something that may or may not have been 'I don't feel very well' before waving the white flag and passing out.

 

~*~

 

Cold air.

 

Voices.

 

"Give him here." Omi

 

"No. You can sit in the front with Ken." Aya.

 

"But..." Omi again.

 

"But nothing. I've already given the keys to Ken. Now, shut up and get in." Aya again. Aya sounding like he's not in the mood to be messed with.

 

"Hospital?" Ken.

 

DÈjý vu?

 

Yeah. Definitely dÈjý vu.

 

"No. While I think it'd be safe enough now that... now that Kimura's out of the picture... I want him back at Souzou. That doctor, what's his name, Miyazaki? He'll do. The wound's clean anyway. I've already looked." Aya. Ever the practical one.

 

"Let's go then." Ken.

 

Hands, trying to be gentle but failing, manhandling me into the backseat of a car.

 

Pain.

 

"Hang in there, Yohji. You... You can't die on me, you hear? If you do I'm going to... I'm going to, to use your colorful phrase, tap dance all over your grave!"

 

Aya?

 

Nothingness.

 

~*~

 

Leather covered fingers tugging carefully at the elastic band holding my ponytail in place teasing me into consciousness, I open my eyes and groan. His pale face easily recognizable in the darkened interior of the car, Aya looks down at me, his expression as close to concerned as I think I've ever seen it.

 

"Sorry," he murmurs softly, pulling off his gloves and carelessly dropping them to the floor. "I never meant to wake you."

 

Uh-huh. I have my head in Aya's lap, he's looking at me with concern *and* he's wanting to play with my hair?

 

Needless to say I've got to be dreaming.

 

Or alternatively I'm dead and this is my version of heaven.

 

"S'okay," I mumble as Aya succeeds in releasing my hair from its ponytail. A soft jingling sound catching my attention, I remember the charm bracelet that I'd seen on his wrist and, with an extreme effort, reach for it. As though sensing what I'm groping for, Aya places his wrist in my hand and guides it into my line of sight.

 

I was right. He *is* wearing a charm bracelet. Seven silver ankhs, the ones I'd claimed from my Ewigkeit victims, hang off a heavy silver chain along with a mother-of-pearl cross.

 

The drugs running rampant in my blood stream and the pain I'm in aside, I get the relevance of the bracelet immediately and, through willpower alone, pinch the cross and an ankh between my fingers.

 

"Forever Weiss," I whisper, my eyes drooping closed as I can feel the icy tendrils of unconsciousness once again reaching out to claim me.

 

"Forever Weiss," Aya agrees quietly. "Now... Shhh..."

 

~*~

 

Apart from hearing him murmur something about whether we take it in turns to require his assistance, I sleep through Dr Miyazaki's careful tendering and when I'm next graced with more than a fleeting moment of consciousness I find myself lying in my own bed back at Souzou.

 

I feel like shit, and Omi's hovering over me, his mother hen mode once again being switched to the on position, but other than that...

 

But other than that it's almost as though nothing ever happened.

 

"You're awake," Omi murmurs somewhat redundantly, I think, given the way I'm blinking at him owlishly. "Can I get you anything?"

 

"Mmm... Aya... I... I want to see Aya..." I mumble disjointedly. "Omi... Please..."

 

... Please let him come.

 

... Please don't let him have reverted to not wanting to have anything to do with me.

 

"Aya's seeing Dr Miyazaki off," Omi replies soothingly, seemingly unperturbed by my all but outright dismissal of him. "He should be finished now so I'll see if I can go get him for you," he adds, moving towards the door.

 

"Omi! Wait!" I whisper, an all important question suddenly jumping into my befuddled head and demanding to be answered. "How... How'd you know?"

 

Stopping in the doorway, Omi glances over his shoulder and smiles. "Aya put a tracer in your wire," he responds, giving me a fond look before disappearing out of the room.

 

"Mmm... And it's a good job that he did too, huh?" Ken comments, poking his head through the door and sighing heavily. "Once again, Yohji, it pains me to have to tell you that you look like shit. I tell you, keep this stupid habit up and I'm going to begin to think you *enjoy* being beaten up."

 

"No. It's the smart ass comments I get to hear from you afterwards that make me do it," I mutter, resigning myself to the fact that I lack the energy to get my hands out from under the covers in order to flick my finger up at Ken. "Honestly, Ken, I just live for moments like this."

 

"Don't forget the lectures your spectacular examples of stupidity generate too," Ken smirks, wagging his finger at me in a far too cheery manner to be considered normal. "I suspect this one will surpass even your greatest expectations though..."

 

"Wanna start now?" I sigh, not really wanting to be reminded of the inevitable. "I'm not going anywhere."

 

"And deprive Aya of the honor?" Ken retorts, flashing a grin at me before sidling away from the door. "Speaking of who..."

 

"Dr Miyazaki confirms that the bullet went straight through you and that it didn't do any lasting internal damage," Aya murmurs matter-of-factly, stepping through the door and glancing at me coolly. If he even heard Ken he isn't giving any indication of it and, still dressed in his black leather pants and -- now blood stained -- white shirt, I can't help but notice how tired he looks. "It will be sore for a while," he continues, "and you're to be careful not to put too much strain on it, but, ultimately, the wound isn't serious. As for the other bruises well, I don't think I have to tell you that they'll simply heal over time."

 

Trailing off, Aya shrugs wearily. "You were lucky. He could have killed you. Or... Or worse."

 

"Thank you," I whisper lamely, knowing that there's so much that I could say but not knowing where to start. "We... ah... we need to talk."

 

"Later," Aya replies, his expression as unreadable as ever. "You need to rest now."

 

"Don't go!" I plead, what passes for logic in my addled mind telling me that given the circumstances I may as well be as pitiful and as needy as I can manage. If Aya leaves... If I'm left alone... Well, none of it will feel real. And I need it to feel real. Desperately. "Please... Stay."

 

His expression unexpectedly softening, Aya shakes his head. "I need to shower," he states quietly, turning around to walk towards the door.

 

"But..."

 

"I'll be back," Aya replies, pausing in the doorway. "The doctor thinks you may be concussed and that means we'll have to monitor you throughout the night."

 

"You'll be back?" I query faintly, seeking reassurance.

 

"I will, yes."

 

"Aya?"

 

Glancing over his shoulder, Aya nods. "Mmm?"

 

"What's with the tracer, huh?" I murmur, relaxing back on the mattress as the need to return to sleep suddenly comes crashing down over me. "Don't you trust me?"

 

"It's not that at all," Aya sighs, continuing through the door. "The problem is that I *do* trust you..."

 

~*~

 

"Come on, Yohji... You need to wake up."

 

The dreamscape I'm having of an elaborate fountain of miniature platinum pyramids with blood flowing where there should be water not really being something I want to linger in, I latch on to the distant voice and blearily open my eyes.

 

And...

 

My, Aya, what big *blue* eyes you've got.

 

Hmmm... Nice choice of sleepwear you're sporting too. I trust Ken knows you're wearing his beloved Manchester United top?

 

Damn.

 

"Omi!" I mumble dispiritedly, hoping I don't sound *too* disappointed. Silly. Although I'd been asleep I'd clearly still been counting on Aya being the one to wake me up. Oh well. So much for taking his word on it that he was going to return.

 

Nodding, Omi beams happily. "I had been going to ask you some of those boring concussion questions," he whispers, thankfully turning the mini Maglite off that he'd been using to shine in my eyes, "but I'll take the fact that you recognized me as a good sign."

 

"Mmm... 'M'peachy," I murmur, feeling just about anything but. "Hey, Omi... Where's Aya? He said..."

 

"Behind you," Omi replies softly, cutting me off. "Now... Shhh... Go back to sleep."

 

Behind me? I'm in bed. My bed is pushed up against the wall. Ergo, there is no *behind* me.

 

"Huh?"

 

"Shhh..." Omi repeats, backing away from the bed. "Please...Don't wake him. He needs to sleep."

 

With that, and without bothering to elaborate, Omi slips out of the room. Ken's top falls mid thigh on him and, concussed though I may be, I quickly decide that I don't need to know whether he's wearing anything under it or not.

 

My old friend the White Rabbit clearly back to pay me a visit, I wriggle gently and find myself pressed up against an immovable object lying on top of the bed.

 

A warm, breathing immovable object that's sound asleep and half draped around me. Hell. If the thought wasn't so ludicrous I'd almost say I was being snuggled against.

 

Aya?

 

The White Rabbit agreeing with me that I'm kinda... sorta... sharing my bed with Aya coming as no great surprise, I close my eyes and settle down to return to sleep.

 

For some reason it just seems like the easiest thing to do.

 

~*~

 

The next time I wake I do so naturally, without the benefit of a voice calling my name or a beam of light being flashed in my face. Daylight shines through the gaps in the drapes, telling me that it's morning, that one of the strangest night's of my life is finally over. As appears to becoming par for the course these days, I feel like I've been trampled on by a heard of overweight elephants. My shoulder in particular aches like an addict in the throes of heroin withdrawal.

 

Not that I really care in the slightest.

 

I hurt therefore I am.

 

I'm alive.

 

Kimura's dead, I'm alive, and Aya -- for reasons known solely to himself -- is still sleeping next to me.

 

Fully expecting the moment never to be repeated, I want to make the most of Aya's weight pressed against my back but my bladder has other ideas on the subject, drawing it to my attention that it pretty much needed relieving, say, at least ten minutes ago. I try to ignore it, to concentrate on the simple pleasure of listening to Aya's deep and even breathing, but it doesn't work. I have to go. And, yeah, I have to go now.

 

Biting back a sigh of annoyance, I'm about to swing my legs over the edge of the mattress when, with perfect timing, Aya stretches and rolls over. Missing his weight but relieved to be free, I gingerly clamber off the bed and weave my way to the bathroom, my feet operating entirely under autopilot. Standing up, not to mention actually *moving*, increases the myriad aches and pains in my body tenfold and I'm still mentally cursing my bladder even as I'm washing my hands.

 

Bodily functions and personal hygiene dutifully pandered to, I pad back to the bedroom, my number one priority being that of returning to bed. My mind not exactly operating at what passes for its best, it's not until I'm sitting on the edge of the mattress that I notice Aya is no longer asleep where I left him. In fact, now that I actually look, he's standing in the middle of the room, meaning I had to have walked straight past him.

 

Holding a neatly folded blanket -- that I assume Omi probably would have draped over him -- against his chest and looking just about as lost as is conceivably possible in a contained space, Aya glances at me shyly from beneath his bangs. "I'm sorry," he murmurs, quickly looking away. "I don't know what I was thinking. I shouldn't have..."

 

"Huh?" I interrupt, confused as hell as to what's going on. "What are you talking about?"

 

"I shouldn't have fallen asleep on you like that," Aya replies, staring down at his fingers as they unconsciously toy with the blanket. "Again, I'm sorry. I should have been more thoughtful and..."

 

"And again I say, huh?" I murmur, digging my elbows into my knees in order to rest my chin between my hands. "Take pity on me here, Aya, please. I'm sore and you're confusing me. Now, what are you apologizing for? If... Er... If anyone should be apologizing here then it should be me..."

 

Sighing, Aya lifts his head slightly and hugs the blanket tighter as though he's using it as some form of shield. "I'm apologizing for crushing you with my weight. As you just mentioned, you're injured and, again, I'm sorry, I simply didn't think."

 

"Your *weight*?" I retort, wearily accepting that this conversation has already taken a rapid nosedive into the realms of surrealism. "Come off it, Aya. Take a good look at yourself. You're hardly in danger of giving a Sumo a run for his money in the weight department. Besides..." Pausing, I make the effort of lifting my head and somehow raise the energy required to smile. "I actually liked knowing that you were there..."

 

"You don't just have to say that, Yohji," Aya replies softly, backing further away from the bed. "I know that what I did was foolish. By falling asleep like that I not only neglected my duty in checking on you but I also put extra strain on your injuries. You should have just pushed me away."

 

"And you're not listening to me," I sigh, drawing my legs up onto the bed and propping myself up with the pillows. "I *liked* having you there. As for checking on me, Omi and his trusty Maglite did that and, as you can see, I'm still here and more or less with it. Come on, believe me. Why would I lie to you, huh?"

 

"You..." Shaking his head, Aya bites his bottom lip and looks at me uncertainly. "You bolted from bed the second I woke up. I... I thought that was because you couldn't get away from me quick enough, that... that my presence offended you..."

 

"Offended me?" I echo, horrified. "Oh my God, Aya, no! I bolted because I thought you'd conveniently rolled over in your sleep and, well, because you have no idea how badly I needed to go to the toilet. Hell. I didn't even know you'd woken up."

 

"If you needed to go so badly, why didn't you just go?" Aya queries, frowning at what no doubt strikes him as something completely illogical. "I don't understand."

 

"I didn't want to wake you," I confess with an embarrassed shrug. "I thought you'd merely rolled over and made my move. If you hadn't... Well, let's just say there's a good chance I'd still be lying here with my legs crossed."

 

"Why?" Aya repeats, looking at me with obvious confusion. "All you had to do was get up. I don't understand why you were worried about waking me."

 

"I just didn't want to wake you, that's all," I respond wanly. "There's no hidden agenda or ulterior motive, Aya. I just thought you needed your sleep and... and I didn't want to interrupt it, okay? That's simply all there is to it."

 

"This conversation isn't going anywhere," Aya murmurs, still looking bewildered. "I think you need to get some more rest before we try to discuss things properly. I... I'll just go now and leave you in peace."

 

"No! Don't go," I reply hurriedly, patting the mattress. "Come back to bed. I meant what I said about liking having you next to me and... and surely you could do with some more rest too."

 

Oh. Shit.

 

Going by the shocked expression on Aya's face I *did* just extend an invitation to him to climb into bed with me. Good one. I wonder if I can claim to be still under the influence of Kimura's drugs or whether I've simply done my dash once and for all.

 

Oddly enough though, instead of giving me a disgusted look and stalking out the door, Aya doesn't move. In fact, unless I'm once again imagining things, he actually seems to *hesitate* over what he should do.

 

"We have our own beds," he murmurs at last, still making no move to leave the room. "Falling asleep on your bed was a mistake, one that I shouldn't have made. It's just... It's just that there's no chair in here and instead of thinking to drag one in I, for some reason, decided to sit on your bed. In hindsight I don't know what came over me."

 

Aya's incisiveness giving me hope, I pat the bed again and smile softly. "Please?"

 

"I..."

 

"You don't have to, and I'll understand if you don't, but... Please?"

 

"You're injured," Aya mutters, slowly shaking his head. "You don't need anyone encroaching on your space. What if I hurt you? Have you thought of that?"

 

"If you hurt me I'll take another pill," I reply blithely. "As for needing someone next to me? Maybe not. I do however want you there. I know you're wanting to yell at me and I know I deserve everything you can throw at me, but... Well, can't we pretend for now that maybe... just maybe... we're simply in need of comfort? You fell asleep next to me for a reason, Aya, and I want you now for a reason. Can't that just be enough?"

 

Bowing his head, Aya nods. "I..."

 

"Shhh..." I murmur, wriggling across to the other side of the bed. "There's nothing to be gained from attempting to dissect things that we already feel as though are out of our hands."

 

"Maybe you're right," Aya sighs, placing his blanket on the floor and walking across to the bed. Reaching it, he sits down tentatively and lightly strokes the sheet. "This is the side you always sleep on," he adds quietly. "Let me go back to the other side, where I was before."

 

"No... This side's better for you," I whisper, settling down. "If you don't like it or have a bad dream or whatever then it'll be easier for you to get away. Besides, I don't care which side I sleep on anyway."

 

"There you go again," Aya murmurs, a hint of sadness entering his voice, "thinking of me..."

 

"Someone has to," I reply quietly, stifling a yawn. "Now... Shhh... Let's just sleep."

 

"Mmm..."

 

Lying down, Aya pulls the comforter up and lies very, *very* still. I think about inching closer to him but, not wanting to push my luck, stay where I am. If he was to bolt now I think I'd just about hate myself forever. Although we're not touching I still feel comforted by his proximity -- and this, the slightest of victories -- and close my eyes with a contented sigh.

 

Sleep is close to claiming me when Aya slowly squirms closer. He then, very cautiously, settles himself around me. At first I think he's moving so gingerly because he doesn't want to aggravate my injuries. It then strikes me that he's probably never shared a bed with anyone like this before and simply doesn't know how to act. Pained by this thought, I ignore the ache in my shoulder and carefully hug him back.

 

My touch coming as an unexpected shock to him, Aya stiffens for a moment before letting his body completely relax. "Is this okay?" he whispers hesitantly.

 

My answer not even being something I have to think about, I smile to myself and thank the unknown for the simple purity of the moment.

 

"Very. It's very okay."

 

~*~

 

Discounting Kiri, who's sprawled inelegantly -- on her back with all four paws in the air and her belly exposed for all to see -- over the foot of the bed, I wake alone. Given that it's nearly midday according to the time on the clock, I can't say this either surprises or dismays me. The sheets on the other side of the bed still retain a residue of warmth though, telling me both that it wasn't a dream and that Aya hasn't been long up anyway.

 

Yawning, I catalogue my various aches and decide that I'm well enough to get up. Well, that's to say I decide that the amount of pain I'm in is highly unlikely to change whether I'm horizontal or vertical. It's just one of those facts of life. I'm going to hurt *wherever* I am and, really, there's not a hell of a lot I can do about it.

 

Besides, I want to find Aya. What's more, I even want to talk to Aya. It's something that now needs to be done more than ever and putting it off, I'm sure of it, isn't going to do either of us any favors. Whatever the outcome is, we have to talk. I'm even prepared to lay myself completely open, to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth...

 

So help me God.

 

Wincing as a bolt of pain erupts from my shoulder, I clamber slowly off the bed. Waving her front paws at me to get my attention, Kiri stretches languidly, wanting her stomach rubbed. Having fallen prey to her game -- 'you tickle me and I shred you with my claws 'cos, like, it's just so much fun!' -- before, I ignore her and limp over to retrieve my robe. Although I know I didn't leave it there, it's hanging from the back of the door, meaning -- someone's thought of me -- I don't have to bend over to pick it up from its usual spot on the floor somewhere.

 

Pulling my robe on, I walk out of the bedroom and, leaning my good shoulder against the wall for support, head towards the living room. The house is quiet -- too quiet -- and I'm suddenly struck by the fear that the others may have gone off somewhere to have a meeting without me. Let's face it, it's not like they wouldn't have every right to given my behavior over the last few days. Lying, followed by a spot more lying, topped off by needing to have my ass saved when it was just about the last thing anyone felt like doing.

 

So... um... yeah...

 

Although I'm sure I've reached this conclusion before, I honestly deserve everything I've got coming to me.

 

Reaching the living room, I prop myself up against the doorframe in order to get my breath back as the sound of movement coming from the kitchen takes the edge off my sudden attack of paranoia slightly. Wanting to see who it is in the kitchen, but not really wanting to push myself too hard in case I collapse at their feet, I remain where I'm standing and focus on finding the strength to stand up as straight as I can possibly manage. While it might sound easy, it isn't.

 

"Should you really be up?" Aya queries disapprovingly as -- sprung -- he wanders out of the kitchen and into the living room. Dressed in faded jeans and a loose fitting white linen shirt, he looks just about as far removed from the vision in the black coat and leather trousers from last night as possible. That said, albeit in an entirely different way, he still looks positively incredible. Scowl on his face and all. "You don't look at all well. In fact, you look..."

 

"Like shit?" I offer blandly, feeling as though my response warrants a shrug but not daring to attempt one. "Don't hold back on my account. God knows Ken doesn't."

 

"I was actually going to say 'pale'," Aya replies, grimacing as he looks me over. If he's embarrassed... or bothered... or going to acknowledge it at all... by what happened in the bedroom he's hiding it incredibly well. "Seriously, Yohji, are you sure you should be out of bed? If you want or need anything I can bring it to you. I... I was just coming to check on you, anyway."

 

"Gonna hurt wherever I am," I retort, pushing myself away from the doorframe and slowly making my way over to the sofa. "May as well be here as in bed."

 

"Stubborn fool," Aya mutters, shrugging as he comes over to help me settle myself. "I'm telling you now though, and I don't care if I have to drag you there by your feet, if you get any paler... or perhaps I should say 'greener'... then you're going straight back to bed."

 

"I'll be fine," I mutter, glancing around the room in a bid to change the subject. "Hey, where's the Munchkin and Japan's answer to David Beckham? If they're around they're being awfully quiet about it."

 

"Ken and Omi are having a picnic," Aya replies, his expression telling me in no uncertain terms that he finds nothing odd or amusing about this fact at all.

 

"A picnic?" I repeat with a snort. Unlike Aya I have not so much a problem with this as I do *issues*. "What do you mean a *picnic*?"

 

"A picnic," Aya responds, a hint of exasperation entering his voice. "What do you think I mean by picnic? I just happened to comment that it was a lovely day for a... picnic... and they both agreed."

 

"A-ha!" It all making sense to me now, I grin. "Commented, or perhaps *suggested*?"

 

"You'd rather they were still here?" Aya queries coolly as he walks back towards the kitchen. "If you're missing them I can always call one of their mobile's and ask them to return. Just say the word and I'll get them back here. I just thought, and forgive me if I'm wrong, that we could perhaps do with some privacy."

 

"You're right," I sigh, my amusement over Ken and Omi being out on a picnic quickly deserting me as I remember what I've effectively got staring me in the face. "Sorry."

 

"Mmm..."

 

Disappearing into the kitchen, Aya leaves me alone with my increasingly flighty thoughts -- What am I going to say? What's going to happen here? Is he simply toying with me, getting my hopes up, before issuing me with the cold hard fact that I'm to be kicked out of Weiss? What was this morning all about? -- as I strive desperately to remain calm. Unable to stand my own company, I'm about to drag myself after him when he finally returns, a laden tray balanced effortlessly in his left hand.

 

"If you're going to insist on staying out here then you may as well be as comfortable as possible," he murmurs flatly, placing the tray on the coffee table and handing me a plate of toast from off it. "Here. I don't care if you're hungry or not as you can't keep taking painkillers on an empty stomach."

 

"Thanks," I reply, deciding against passing comment on his bedside manner lacking that certain something that would allow him to make it in the world of nursing in favor of simply behaving myself. "You didn't have to though. It's very kind of you and everything but, honestly, you don't need to feel as though you have to look after me."

 

"You've suffered two severe beatings in a week and you've been shot," Aya mutters, busying himself with popping various pills out of their packets so that he doesn't have to look at me. "I shudder to think what would happen to you if you were just left to your own devices. That said, I feel under no obligation to look after you. I'm merely..."

 

"Making sure I'm in a fit state to have this conversation that neither of us really want to have?" I finish for him, eyeing off the pills with a sense of longing. "Is that about right?"

 

"Something like that," Aya sighs, waiting for me to settle the plate of toast in my lap before handing me both the pills and a cup of coffee. "Here. If you'd rather take them with water I can go..."

 

"Coffee's fine," I interrupt, quickly swallowing the cocktail of pills and chasing them down with a mouthful of thankfully not too scolding coffee. "See?" I open my mouth wide and poke my tongue out at Aya. "All gone."

 

"Thanks," Aya retorts drily, giving me a strange look. "You have no idea how incomplete my life was not having seen your tonsils before."

 

"Anything to be of service," I smile, dutifully picking up a piece of toast with my free hand and nibbling it.

 

"Open your mouth now and I'm leaving you to it," Aya mutters, retrieving his cup of tea from the tray and taking it over to the armchair. Sitting down, he then cradles the cup in both hands and stares down at it as though waiting for it to tell him what to do next. "So... Ah..."

 

"So now we stop stalling and talk?" I suggest quietly, not particularly because I want to but because I know someone has to be the one to get the ball rolling. "If you don't want to then, hey, that's fine too. I just..."

 

"We have to talk," Aya whispers, I swear, to his teacup. "I just... I don't know where... or *how*... to start. Thinking, and even *knowing* it is one thing, but to actually voice it? Nothing has even been said yet and I already feel as though I'm out of my depth and sinking fast."

 

"Let me start then," I murmur, unconsciously taking my cue from Aya and staring down into my coffee. "I'm... I'm sorry."

 

"For?" Aya prompts, sounding oddly confused. "You're sorry for what exactly?"

 

"Er..." Good grief. He asks what I'm sorry for? Here's to hoping Ken and Omi took enough food with them for tea as well. If they didn't I suspect we'll still be sitting here, our conversation not having got very far, by the time they return.

 

"I'm sorry for... for last night," I reply softly, deciding that there is as good a place to start as any. "I'm sorry for being stupid enough to have run away like that and for making you think you had to come and save my worthless ass."

 

"There's no need to apologize for last night," Aya responds calmly, causing me to jerk my head up in surprise. "We all did what we felt we had to."

 

"We all ended up doing what *I* felt *I* had to do, more like," I mutter, unable to meet Aya's gaze. "Because of me you were placed in a position that you hadn't wanted to be in. If I hadn't been so intent on getting Kimura you wouldn't have had to face him and... I'm sorry, okay? What I did was both stupid and wrong."

 

"Don't be so hard on yourself, Yohji," Aya replies, shrugging. "Again, you did what you felt you had to just as I did. As for Ken and Omi? Well, no one made them come, it was a decision they reached on their own. We're, as everyone's so fond of telling me, a family. I never could have lived with myself if I'd knowingly left you to die."

 

"But..." Shaking my head, I try again. "But, *Kimura*? Because of me you had to face him when I *know* that was just about the last thing you wanted to do. If... If I'd just stayed put you wouldn't have had to and..."

 

"And if anything I should thank you for forcing me to stand up to my fears," Aya interrupts, a hint of his old determination creeping to the fore. "As much as it pains me to admit this, you're right, I *didn't* want to ever have to see Kimura again. If you think about it though, I had to. What's the overused American phrase again? Closure?" Pausing, Aya nods to himself before continuing. "Mmm... I think it's closure and that, in a sense, was what I needed. If I couldn't face Kimura then how was I supposed to move on?"

 

"But it didn't have to be like this!" I murmur desperately. "It didn't have to be so soon and it definitely didn't need to be because of my stupidity! I'm glad, and you have no idea how much I mean this, that you were able to stand up to Kimura but, well, at the same time I hold myself responsible for pushing you into it."

 

"You are responsible," Aya replies simply. "If not for you I'd probably be still hiding from reality and pretending to be something that I'm not, something that I've never been and never will be. It's all down to you and..."

 

"Me?" I exclaim in disbelief. "Oh God, Aya. How can you say that? I... I lied to you and totally went behind your back. I deserve your anger not your... your gratitude! You... Christ! You don't know what you're saying."

 

"Of course I know what it is I'm saying," Aya states candidly. "Because you were out doing what I was hiding from I realized that the time had come to get a grip and move forward. Yes, I was angry and, yes, I could hardly believe you'd been out hunting Ewigkeit when we all thought you were simply on the prowl. You were, as you've so willingly admitted, in the wrong. You were also, however, doing *something*. Which was more than could be said for me."

 

"You were healing," I murmur, none of what I'm hearing making all that much sense to me. "Nobody expected anything from you, Aya. You'd... What Kimura did to you..." Nope. Can't say it. "Hell! No one thought any less of you for simply wanting to keep well out of it. In your shoes I doubt anyone would have reacted any differently."

 

Shaking his head, Aya takes a sip of his tea and looks up at the ceiling. "By shutting down I was allowing Kimura to continue having a hold over me," he murmurs quietly. "The longer I... hid... the greater his victory become. When Singapura unwittingly shared the secret of your nocturnal trips I realized that the time had come to wake up to myself, that I could either give up or I could, like you, keep fighting."

 

"You never said anything," I whisper dully, suddenly remembering my toast and taking another bite. "I... I thought you were so pissed off with me that you were never going to speak to me again," I continue after swallowing. "All that time though you were..."

 

"I was starting to train again," Aya replies. "The reason I didn't tell you was because not only was I angry with you for the way you'd done things but I also didn't want to, in a sense, get your hopes up or anything. When I picked the katana up again it wasn't solely with the intention of facing Kimura with it. More than anything I just wanted to know that I *could*. And, again, I have you to thank for giving me the kick that I needed."

 

"And you were perhaps going to tell me this sometime?" I query just a tad sarcastically. I mean, talk about wonderful. There I was eating myself up with worry over Aya hating my guts and there he was crediting me with giving him what he needed to pull himself together. Sure it's great news, but...

 

But, well, I seriously could have done with hearing it before now, that's all.

 

"When I was confident that I was capable of playing a valid role in Weiss again," Aya responds, "then, yes, I was going to tell you. Your little disappearing act last night merely sped everything along. And, before you ask, the tracer was because I'd been expecting it. People may call me stubborn but you're no better and I was certain you weren't going to simply sit back and drop it. While I didn't know when, or what it was that would prompt you, I knew you'd go after Kimura again..." Trailing off, Aya smiles wanly and shrugs. "I'd rather hoped it would have been later rather than sooner though. Just ask Omi. I almost had a panic attack when I realized that you'd dragged yourself away from your scintillating anime viewing and gone to Tokyo."

 

"If you were afraid of facing Kimura then you sure did a good job of hiding it," I murmur, my imagination not quite up to the task of picturing Aya having a panic attack over my disappearance and settling instead on him throwing a contained temper tantrum. "From my position on the floor you looked to be in complete control."

 

"Appearances can be deceiving," Aya states softly, seemingly unconsciously running his finger around and around the rim of his teacup. "I was actually shaking. Seeing him again... Oh... Oh God... It was just..." Taking a deep breath, Aya blinks and offers me another wan smile. "As horrible as this sounds I was almost pleased when he shot you because it gave me the rage I needed to focus."

 

"And again I say anything to be of service," I retort facetiously, flinching as I lean forward to place the plate of uneaten toast on the coffee table. Goddamn pain. Call me impatient but I wish the painkillers would just hurry up and work already.

 

"I know it sounds terrible, but it's true," Aya replies, shrugging lightly. "If you hadn't been there and it had just been me and him then I honestly think I would have froze. Thinking that you're prepared for something isn't always enough, you know. I... Yeah... Seeing him just standing there was quite literally like being gut-punched. If I'd been alone he would have... I think... had me..."

 

"I'm sorry," I whisper miserably, my attention once more caught fast by my cup of coffee. "While you say that you needed to be able to face him and that you're not angry with me, I'm still sorry for having placed you in that situation. Shit... Anything could have happened..."

 

"We could have been late... He could have killed you... He could have turned on me and made me work for his death..." Aya murmurs dismissively. "Thinking in 'could haves' however is nothing other than a waste of time. The facts are far more relevant. Facts such as we got there in time and he *didn't* kill you. They're all that matters. We're all still here and Kimura's dead. End of story."

 

"Only it's not, is it?" I sigh. "When you say we're all still here, what do you mean exactly? Because of my actions, and because I betrayed everyone's trust, I still feel as though I deserve to be on probation. I'm listening to what you're saying and I'm slowly beginning to see it from your point of view, but... Where are we now, Aya? I mean, what's to become of us?"

 

"We're Weiss," Aya responds quietly yet firmly. "That... That's all I'm sure of. Everything else... Well..."

 

"One step at a time, huh?" I murmur, knowing that there's still a lot left unsaid on both of our parts. "Kimura's dead and you're ready to move on with your..."

 

"I didn't kill Kimura for revenge over what he did to me," Aya interrupts flatly, "if that's what you're thinking. I made myself face up to him for myself, yes, but I killed him for all the other innocent lives that he's ruined. Singapura supplied us with everything Kritiker had been able amass on Kimura and Ewigkeit and it has to be said that their combined evil spread far and wide. Did you know they even had ties to the child sex trade? Or that they also dabbled in people smuggling? Perhaps it's not really for me to say or pass judgment, but he deserved his fate and if it had to be at my hands then so be it. My only regret is that I wasn't capable of delivering it to him sooner."

 

"You don't need to tell me that the fucker got what he had coming to him," I reply venomously, looking up from my coffee and risking a glance at Aya. "If things had gone more to plan last night I would have had him myself and saved you from dirtying your hands."

 

"My hands are already dirty," Aya murmurs, meeting my gaze for a split second before gracefully standing up and walking over to the window. "Now, I'm sick of talking about last night," he continues, glancing over his shoulder and fixing me with a pointed look. "I think it's time for a change of subject, don't you?"

 

"Um... Yeah... If that's what you want," I reply hesitantly, the sinking feeling that I'm about to find myself under the spotlight settling over me like an early evening fog. "What do you want to talk about?"

 

"You," Aya responds, turning his back to me so as to stare out the window. "I want to know why it is that you wanted Kimura bad enough to risk both your life and everyone's disapproval."

 

That's my Aya. Why work to something slowly when you can simply go straight for the jugular?

 

"As you... ah... just said, he deserved to die," I mumble, my attempt at sounding casual failing dismally. "I... Um... Country life was just getting to me, you know? I was going stir crazy being cooped up here and I thought going after Ewigkeit and Kimura would be a good use of my time..."

 

"If it's as simple as that, then why didn't you tell anyone?" Aya queries, his tone of voice telling me that he's not really buying my story. "Ken and Omi would have gone with you. I'm sure, if you'd asked, Kritiker would have granted their approval too and then everything would have been totally above board. Come on, Yohji. As hard as it was for me I've been perfectly honest with you and I like to think you'd pay me the same courtesy."

 

A-ha! Jugular *and* the laying on of a guilt trip. Whatever else is going on in Aya's head surely hasn't dampened his ability to constantly think one step ahead.

 

"Personal reasons," I whisper, placing the coffee on the arm of the sofa so I can wearily rub my hands over my face. "I did what I did because it was the only thing I could think of doing to keep me sane."

 

"Personal reasons?" Aya repeats, slowly turning back around to face me, his expression carefully masked. "What personal reasons? As I said that other morning, the only person with any real personal reason to hunt down Kimura was me."

 

"I... I had... *have*... my reasons," I reply, logic telling me that I'm merely drawing out the inevitable and that I should, if I wanted to take pity on myself, just come out and tell him. This, however, is easier said than done. Of course. "They mightn't make sense to you, hell, they may even offend you, but... But I had my reasons, okay? I just did."

 

"Such as?" Aya scowls. "I don't know about you but, not having any other plans, I've got all day free for you to finally decide to tell me what it is that possessed you to go after Kimura with such single minded intent."

 

"You don't need to know," I mutter pleadingly. "Please, Aya, just let it go. Knowing won't..."

 

"You're wrong," Aya states, cutting me off mid plea, his expression suddenly changing to an odd cross between uncertainty and longing. "I do... I do need to know."

 

"He... He hurt you," I murmur haltingly, unable to meet Aya's gaze for fear of it obliterating what little composure I've got left. "What... Oh God, Aya! What he did to you just made me see red. Every time I thought of what you'd been through, what you'd endured, the need... the all consuming desire... to make him pay intensified until it was just about all I could think about. For... For you... For what he'd done to you I wanted his life. And, yeah, that's just about all there is to it..."

 

There. Ta-da. I've said it. Now he just has to make me say that I love him and what's left of my life is going to explode into a million tiny fragments.

 

"For me?" Aya echoes. "I... I don't understand. You didn't give up and you saved me, surely that should have been enough. Yohji, help me here. I know, although I can't even confess to really understanding this, that we've become a sort of family, but your hatred of Kimura seems to go above and beyond that, for the want of a better way to put it, familiar bond and, please, I'd like to know why..."

 

"Because..."

 

"Mmm...?"

 

Fuck it. Didn't some mental genius once say that honesty was the best policy?

 

Shrugging in resignation, I look at Aya and mentally brace myself for fireworks. "Because I love you, okay? And God alone knows love makes a person capable of just about anything, be it logical or otherwise."

 

"You love me?" Aya whispers, his muted reaction almost being something of a let down. Hell. He's not yelling at me that I'm an idiot or even looking at me as though I've just grown a second head. In fact, he's just *looking* at me... Blankly. "You... You can't."

 

"I can," I murmur, smiling faintly, "and I do. I'm sorry if you were expecting a different answer or if I've either disturbed or offended you, but it's the truth. I went after Kimura because he'd hurt someone I just happen to love."

 

"No..." Shaking his head, Aya leans limply against the wall and hugs himself. "You're confused. You don't love me. It's just your compassion confusing love with pity. Now that I'm... Now that I'm better you'll be able to put all of this behind you and..."

 

"It's not pity," I interrupt gently, not knowing what I should make of Aya's reaction. Having expected him to get tetchy with me I'm at a loss to comprehend why it is he's acting -- as though he's in denial -- like this. "I don't pity you, Aya, I love you. Trust me. There's a huge difference. Now, don't worry though. I know this is my cross to bear and I want you to know that it doesn't have to affect you in any way. I won't mention it again and we can both forget we ever had this little chat."

 

"You don't love me," Aya repeats with a snort of exasperation. "Contrary to what it is you think you're feeling, you just can't. You feel... *sorry*... for me and that's what's making you feel as though you have to help me... Christ, Yohji! I know you seem to think you need love in your life but surely you can see this is dredging the barrel. I mean, *me*? Come on. You're insane."

 

"Did I ever claim not to be?" I smile, resigning myself to somehow convincing Aya that I mean it when I say that I love him. While letting him accept his version would undoubtedly be easier, I think the time has come to simply rely on honesty. "Look, Aya, I don't know what I can say to make you believe me but, well, for reasons I haven't been able to truly fathom myself, I love you. Now, you can call me stupid all you like. You can even perform your standard 'I don't deserve to be loved' routine, but I tell you now that it's not going to alter how I feel."

 

"You're deranged," Aya mutters, the glare he's directing at me lacking its usual knee-trembling intensity. "Given that I'm so predictable I won't *perform* my usual 'I don't deserve to be loved' routine but, tell me, why, huh? Why now? Perhaps I'm wrong and it's not pity on your behalf but idle curiosity. I mean, I'm now even freakier than I was before. Surely that's got to be worth some twisted form of interest."

 

"Haven't we been through this before?" I sigh, making a mental note to tread carefully. "You're different, not a freak. Besides, while I doubt this is going to exactly work in my favor or anything, I've felt like this for a while now."

 

"You *what*?" Aya exclaims, his eyes widening in surprise. "Now you're really losing me, Yohji. Are you seriously sitting there telling me you've had... *feelings*... for me for months now? This..." Trailing off, he shakes his head. "This is just too much. I hate to ask this, but, well, were you ever going to share this small fact of life with me?"

 

"Um... No," I reply, hanging my head and hiding behind my hair.

 

"No?"

 

"Uh-uh..." Here goes nothing. "I didn't... ah... see any point."

 

"You didn't see any point?" Aya queries tetchily. "So, again, *what*? Humor me here, please, I'm a bit slow when it comes to affairs of the heart and I'm not quite understanding what you're getting at."

 

Sighing, I slump further back against the sofa and start to toy aimlessly with the tie of my robe. "I can deal with unrequited feelings better than I can upsetting the status quo," I confess softly. "Come on, Aya, get off your high horse for a moment and view things subjectively. If I'd told you that I love you back at the Dragon's Tears, how do you think you would have reacted? Forgive me if I'm wrong, but as far as I could deduce the best case scenario would have had you simply giving me a wide berth from then on."

 

"Are you calling me homophobic, is that it?" Aya questions sullenly. "Now, *that* makes sense, I don't think. What have I ever done to give you the impression that I'm..."

 

"I know you're not homophobic," I sigh, rolling my eyes heavenwards. "I just thought I was better off not saying anything, okay? There was no way you were going to fall into my arms and, well, sometimes it's just better to kid yourself in a world of make believe than it is to be crushed by reality. I... Hell! You didn't know and I wasn't hurting anybody. I'm sorry that you're upset but honestly don't know what else I can say."

 

"I... I'm not upset," Aya whispers, pushing away from the wall and returning to the armchair. "I'm perhaps more confused than I've ever been but... but I'm not upset," he continues slowly, sitting on the edge of the chair and looking just about anything but comfortable or relaxed. "You say you've had these feelings since back at the Dragon's Tears yet you also seem to be saying that you were perfectly happy to keep them to yourself. I... Sorry. I just don't get it. I thought it was generally accepted that if you loved someone then you were prepared to fight for them, that you didn't just sit back with your... ah... dreams and not do anything."

 

"There's different ways of fighting," I reply, forcing myself to face Aya. "I just chose to mount my particular fight against Kimura. Again, it's just what made sense to me. While I'd resigned myself to not fighting for your affections that didn't mean that I couldn't fight for *you*. If it helps, Aya, there's no point in stressing yourself over attempting to make sense of any of this. From my experience logic and love pretty much appear to be sworn enemies."

 

"Without the benefit of experience I think I have to believe you," Aya responds, glancing at me shyly from beneath his bangs. "Okay, you've still got to try to help me though. I get -- I think -- why you never said anything. What I don't get however, and I apologize if I sound like I'm repeating myself here, is the why... Look at me, Yohji. I'm a fuck up of monumental proportions. What could possibly be even the slightest bit lovable about me, huh?"

 

"You're a fuck up, I'm a fuck up, hell, we're *all* fuck ups in our own way," I state lightly. "That doesn't have to mean that we're not, again in our own way, lovable. Hey. Just look at Ken and Omi. They're arguably no more normal than we are yet they've found love with each other."

 

"True," Aya concedes begrudgingly, lifting his head and absolutely pinning me with his unwavering gaze. "That doesn't answer my question though. Ken and Omi are..."

 

"Different?" I interject, shaking my head. "No they're not. We're all, for our varying reasons, the same. That's why we're here. If we were normal -- and I defy you to give me a foolproof definition of the word -- we wouldn't be sitting here trying to make sense of this conversation and we wouldn't be Weiss. We are what we are though and no amount of introspection or Hail Marys or self flagellation or whatever is going to change that. Me, I've accepted this and just want to make the most of it. I'm guessing so have Ken and Omi."

 

Warming to my theme, I lean forward and smile wistfully. "You just have to look at them to know that, despite what they're involved in and what they've seen, they're happy," I continue. "Their relationship carries no secrets and they don't have to make up barely believable stories for the number of scars that litter their flesh. They... Shit! Just think about it, Aya. What they have is really pretty incredible. Honesty, trust and love all rolled up into one neat little package of perfect understanding. You... God... You have no idea how envious I am of that."

 

"And you think you're capable of attaining it with *me*? Aya queries incredulously, looking slightly taken aback. "I'm sorry, Yohji, but now I think I'm really worried about the state of your mental health. Again, just look at me. What have I ever done to make you view me as some sort of viable prospect?"

 

"To be honest with you, Aya, this isn't exactly a question I can give you a valid answer for," I reply with a tentative shrug and another wistful sigh. "You were there... You're not exactly hard on the eye... The idea of having someone that I could be myself with appeals like nothing else on earth... You look, although you work overtime to hide it, as though you could do with someone to love you... You're someone I trust and respect... Fuck! I don't know, okay? You're right. I'm an idiot... An idiot who took the whole Esset thing and being moved to the Dragon's Tears pretty hard and who probably latched on to you because you were there and he knew he could love you from afar to his heart's content..."

 

There. Reprise. I've said it.

 

If I've got anything left in me to say I'm sure Aya will find a way to wheedle it out of me but, for now, I seriously feel as though I'm done.

 

"I don't understand you, Yohji," Aya sighs, the faintest hint of a fond smile ghosting across his lips. "You say you love me for reasons, I have to be honest with you, I don't really grasp, yet in the same breath you seem to imply that you felt safe loving me because you knew nothing would ever come of it. If that makes sense to you then, well, more power to you."

 

"I'm not saying it makes sense, per se," I murmur, "more that that's pretty much how it is. As I said a moment ago, love and logic don't make good bed partners. Yes, it's totally nonsensical, and no, I can't expect you to fully understand, but, yeah, I'm kinda, you know, keen on you..."

 

"That book on Souzou, the one I told you about my parents having," Aya replies apropos of nothing, "finding a copy and buying it was one of the nicest things anyone has done for me for a long time. I want to thank you for it. It was very kind of you."

 

"I hoped you'd like it," I respond, accepting, as always, his abrupt change of topic. "I'd actually wanted to give it to you that morning Singapura hauled me back here but, as you well know, things didn't exactly go according to plan. Is it the same book? The somewhat scary old man -- he looked like he was at least one hundred years old, I kid you not -- in the bookshop told me there were a number of books published on Souzou but this was the only one he had in stock."

 

"It's the book, yeah," Aya confirms, nodding. "While it's missing Aya-chan's scrawled lipstick fish, it's definitely the same book. Although it's been years since I last saw it, I recognized it immediately. Again, thank you. I warn you now though that buying it might come back and haunt you as Omi's already working on estimates of what it would take to bring the gardens back to their former glory. If you thought he was enthused before then the pictures have made him positively determined. We even, while you were flat on you back reliving you childhood with those infernal cartoons, uncovered where the pond used to be. And, just like Aya-chan, Omi's vision includes Koi."

 

"Well, it's a project, I suppose..." I respond doubtfully, picturing hours and hours of hard labor staring me in the face. "I mean, this, for all intents and purposes, is home, isn't it?"

 

"Mmm..." Standing up, Aya hovers near the armchair, his entire stance screaming of indecision. "Yohji... Thank you," he murmurs, blushing. "Thank you for everything. Despite all my problems you've been nothing but kind to me these last few weeks and I honestly don't know where I'd be today without you. I... I'm in your debt."

 

"Nonsense," I reply, noting that the topic appears to have changed yet again. "There's nothing to be in my debt for. Anything and everything I did was solely to help you heal, not to get anything over you or make you feel as though you owe me something."

 

"Everything you did was near on faultless," Aya whispers, taking a hesitant step closer to the sofa. "You... You were always there for me and you always seemed to know instinctively what to do. I kept waiting for you to give up in disgust, to wash your hands of me, but you kept coming back. It... It helped. A lot. In fact I doubt you have any idea how much it helped."

 

"Come on, Aya, it wasn't just me," I murmur, slightly embarrassed that he's directing all his gratitude in my direction. "Omi and Ken were there for you too. Sure Ken put his foot in it once or twice but there's still nothing he wouldn't have done. And let's not forget Omi and his world famous mother hen impression. He spent so much time lurking in your room during those first few days that we almost dragged another bed in there for him."

 

"But Omi..." His voice cracking with emotion, Aya takes a shaky breath, his blush intensifying. "Omi never hugged me," he states quietly, dropping to his knees and kneeling in a half crumpled position alongside the coffee table. "He... He wanted to... I could see that... But, probably too afraid of my reaction, he wouldn't. You... You though... You just did it... You hugged me when I felt as though my world was disintegrating and... and you made me feel safe, and... and... not so dirty... or... completely worthless..."

 

I...

 

And how in God's name am I supposed to reply to that?

 

"Aya..."

 

If in doubt say his name in such a way that it infers something deep and meaningful is going to follow.

 

At some point.

 

Hopefully.

 

"I... I always thought that I didn't need anyone," Aya continues haltingly, wisely ignoring my attempt to come up with something relevant to say, "that I was so far above what anyone could offer me and that I was better off alone. The last thing I thought I wanted was to actually derive... comfort... from someone." Blinking too bright eyes at me, Aya shakes his head and gives a dry, mirthless laugh. "Get this, you're the first person to ever hug me that I haven't been related to and... And, well, I think you know enough of my family history to have a good idea how long that makes it. I..."

 

"Shhh... It's okay, Aya," I murmur gently, dragging myself with all the speed and grace of a crippled snail up to the other end of the sofa. "You don't have to keep talking about any of this, not if you don't want to. We... We've made good inroads and I don't think it would matter greatly if we took a break."

 

"No... Started now, gotta finish it," Aya responds hoarsely. For a second it looks as though he's going to lean closer to me but instead he shudders and remains where he is. "I... I liked it. The being hugged and comforted, it... it made me feel good. Despite knowing that I was being weak, that wanting to feel your arms around me was a failing, I... I liked it."

 

"Needing comfort is neither a weakness nor a failing," I reply, reaching out and closing my hand around Aya's shoulder. "Like I said the other night, you're human, and it's a fact of life that humans have needs. You don't have to be alone, Aya, and you certainly don't need to feel ashamed for liking being hugged. Hell, if you'd like I'll tell Omi that you're needing a hug and that way you'll probably score your very own personal limpet."

 

"Don't wanna be hugged by Omi," Aya mumbles, glancing at my hand but stopping short of looking up to face me. "And I especially don't want Ken glaring daggers in my back because Omi's attached himself to someone else. I think I'm in enough of a mess without getting myself in Ken's bad books, don't you?"

 

"Then allow me to volunteer my services," I offer softly, releasing my hold on Aya's shoulder to lightly stroke his cheek. To my relief he, with a sigh, allows this, even going so far to lean into my touch. "If you want a hug or a shoulder to not cry on, then I'm your man. No strings attached. I promise. How I feel about you doesn't have to alter anything and I want you to know that I'll never attempt to make a move or do anything that could possibly upset you."

 

"No... That's not fair on you," Aya whispers, reaching up and clasping both his hands around mine. "If you give me everything that I want and I give you nothing in return then... then that makes me little more than a... a cock tease!"

 

"A cock tease?" I laugh, totally unable to help myself. While, albeit far less frequently or colorfully as me, Aya has no qualms about swearing, I wouldn't even have thought 'cock tease' would have been part of his vocabulary let alone that he'd ever feel the urge to use it relation to himself. "I'm sorry, Aya, but you've lost me."

 

Shaking his head, Aya tightens his hold on my hand and shuffles closer. "If you love me as you say you do... and although I can't really fathom why, I think you honestly do... then it would be wrong of me to use you for my own confused needs," Aya replies agitatedly. "God, Yohji. Think about it for a second. What would you get out of it, huh? A warm fuzzy feeling that you were keeping me together and... And nothing. That'd be it. It just wouldn't be fair."

 

"Maybe not, but I could live with it," I respond, clasping my free hand around Aya's, locking us together. "If I haven't said it before, Aya, there isn't anything I wouldn't do for you and, while I'm at it, anything I offer you I offer freely. In other words, I'm here for you and I don't expect anything in return. Family. Love. Friendship. Human nature. Call it what you like, I just want you to know that I'm here for you."

 

"What if I were to say, if I could... if I'm even capable of it... I wanted to be able to give you something back?" Aya whispers falteringly, his eyes glinting more from the threat of tears than his usual determination. "Not because I owe you -- even though I do -- but because you've unwittingly uncovered a part of me that thinks it wants what you want... Last night I was so relieved that you were still alive that I didn't want to let you go. As for this morning, well, sharing your bed made me feel the happiest I've been in a long time. I... I don't know if I love you or, again, if I'm even capable of loving anyone, but I do know that my life would feel incomplete if you weren't in it and... And I want to be with you..."

 

"I... Aya..."

 

Choosing the age old fallback of letting actions speak louder than words, I give up trying to formulate a coherent response and slip off the sofa. Ignoring the pain this generates, I then wrap my arms around Aya and hug him to me. Sliding his arms gingerly around my back he, for the very first time, returns my embrace and relaxes against my chest with a heartfelt sigh of relief.

 

While I didn't see any of this coming, now that it's here I fully intend to grasp it with everything I'm worth.

 

"You'll have me, then?" Aya mumbles, resting his head on my shoulder and looking up at me through eyes full of hope. "Even though we both know it won't be easy and may not even work, you're still willingly to give me a chance? If... If it helps I promise to try to live up to your expectations."

 

"You don't have to promise me anything other than you'll be completely honest with me and that you won't try too hard simply because you think it's what I want," I reply, my voice so thick with emotion that it doesn't even sound like mine. "This is a two way street, Aya, one that will only work if we operate as a pair."

 

"Sounds good," Aya whispers, bowing his head. "Who knows, if I don't ruin things it may even work."

 

"If you ruin things it will only be because I mistakenly allowed you to," I murmur, kissing the top of his head and hugging him just that little bit tighter. "And I can tell you now that I have no intention of letting that happen."

 

How we come to reach this point falling into the realm of irrelevancy, we settle down in a comfortable position against the sofa and simply hold each other, the need to continue talking no longer anywhere as pressing as it had been.

 

There's more to be said, sure, but for now I think I'm pretty happy with things exactly as they are.

 

Pretty happy?

 

Nah. Given that I honestly never saw this ending as being a viable one, *more* than happy.

 

~*~

 

There are times when I think I'm just about the slowest learner on the face of the planet. History makes it fairly clear that when it comes to making bets with Ken my losing streak is rapidly approaching legendary status, but do you think that stops me? Fuck no. Of course not. I spend all of half a second coming to the conclusion that this time, guaranteed, I'm on to a winner before blithely opening my mouth and sticking my foot in it.

 

Take what happened thirty or so minutes ago for example.

 

"Whatever it is you two are making, I'm telling you no way is anything that icky looking going to taste good," said I, peering down my nose at the sticky mess Omi was mixing.

 

"Wanna bet?" said Ken, winking at Omi.

 

The wink should have tipped me off but, again, of course not. I'm just a little dim witted, remember?

 

"You're on," said I, smug in my knowledge that this time I was finally going to get one over on Ken. "What's the wager?"

 

"If it tastes good you clean the kitchen," said Ken, grinning evilly. "How does that sound?"

 

"And what do I get if it tastes what it currently looks like?" said I, not liking the look of the state of the kitchen but still feeling secure enough to accept.

 

"We'll do your chores for the next week," said Ken, his grin sliding from evil to truly malevolent. "Deal, yeah?"

 

"Deal," said I, shaking my head sadly as I grabbed a bottle of water from the fridge and sidled back out of the kitchen. "It's been a pleasure doing business with you. Call me when your... ah... masterpiece is ready and I'll dutifully sacrifice some of my taste buds for you."

 

Idiot.

 

It tasted good. Of fucking course. While I'm still none the wiser as to what the concoction actually is -- I'm thinking dessert or confectionary of some description -- it tasted quite delectable. In fact it tasted so damn good that I was incapable of pretending otherwise.

 

Which is why -- if there is a God then there's no debating that he/she/it hates me -- I'm currently elbow deep in a sink of never ending dishes. Knowing Ken, he was probably so certain of his victory that he went out of his way to dirty as many dishes as he possibly could simply in order to prolong my torture. He even had the nerve to suggest that I might like to mop the floor once I've finished too.

 

I swear, even though I don't know where the bastard currently is, I can still hear Ken laughing. Maliciously, I hope he laughs so much that he makes himself sick. It would serve him right.

 

"Remind me next time it looks like I'm going to make a bet with Ken that it's in my best interests to keep quiet," I sigh, adding a handful of cutlery to my precariously stacked draining board and saying a mental prayer that it all stays put and doesn't fall in a heap. "Hey, Aya! Hello! Oh..." Trailing off, I glance over my shoulder and see that the reason he hasn't responded is because, well, he hasn't returned from getting his glasses and I'm still alone in the kitchen. "Okay. Fine. Whatever. I'll just remind myself, shall I? Hell, while I'm at it I may as well hold a one sided conversation with myself too seeing as I'm clearly a complete idiot..."

 

This sucks.

 

Drying my hands on my jeans, I turn my back on the disaster zone that is the sink and decide to go off in search for Aya. At least while he was sitting at the table, going through the plans he and Omi are drawing up for the rebirth of Souzou, the washing up was arguably bearable because I had someone to whine to. Now, however... Forget it.

 

Pausing by the table, I lean over the carefully drawn plans and try not to think of the many back breaking hours of work they're going to entail. While I'm all for the restoration I fail to see why we can't just employ others to do the work. Flowers, I can handle. I can even, if I have to, handle pruning. Hours upon hours upon hours slaving away in a garden are, on the other hand, taking things to the extreme. The visionaries, Omi and Aya, won't hear of calling in outside help. Oh no. For some reason they view it not only as a challenge but also as something -- dare I say pleasurable? -- to wile away the hours on. Assuming Ken has an opinion that doesn't match Omi's, I'm yet to hear it.

 

Missions on an 'as required' basis during the evening and -- oh the joy -- gardening during the day. By my reckoning, if I'm lucky, I may be able to catch a nap every fourth day.

 

But, hey...

 

Petty complaints aside, the answer to if I would change any of it even if I could is a resounding no. Ignoring the dishes and the communing with nature and the exhaustion I just know is waiting around the corner for me, I wouldn't change any of it. In fact, even if I do say so myself, life is pretty damn good at the moment. As of next week we're back on active Kritiker duty, Omi and Ken are more or less behaving themselves, and Aya...

 

Well, Aya is seemingly dealing with his new version of what passes for normal without too much difficulty at all. Sometimes, and I'm positive it's not just me seeing what I want to see, he even looks happy. Or at the very least *happy-ish*. Which, for Aya, is a minor triumph in itself. Just over a week has passed since our stammered and stuttered heart-to-heart in the living room and while we haven't really talked in depth about anything since then, I haven't felt as though we've needed to. I like to think, and God how I hope I'm not wrong, that Aya is now comfortable enough with me to speak up if there's something bothering him or he's having second thoughts. And, well, given that he's taken to sneaking into my bed in the morning it's not exactly as though he hasn't had ample opportunity to speak his mind.

 

The first morning he did it, and to hell with sounding like a pathetic romantic here, was, I think, one of the most wonderful and idyllic moments of my life. I woke up and he was just *there*, curled around me and sound asleep. Not wanting to risk saying the wrong thing, I haven't bothered to ask why he doesn't just come to bed with me in the evening. I'm sure - well, *hope* -- in one way or another, he knows what he's doing and why he's doing it.

 

A loud crack of thunder, causing both the table to shake and Kiri to bolt out from beneath it, waking me from my reminiscing, I shoot a scowl at the rain drenched world outside the kitchen window. It's been raining for hours now and, going by the general grayness of the day, I doubt that it's going to let up any time soon. Thinking that if I play my cards right Aya might perhaps share the sofa with me and we could watch a movie or something, I cheer up slightly and walk out of the room. If Ken has issues with the pile of half washed dishes then he can just bite me. All he said was clean the kitchen, he didn't specify a time frame for which it had to be done in.

 

"Hey, Aya, where are you?" I call out, wondering where he could have got to. When he'd said it was getting too dark in the kitchen and he needed his glasses I just assumed that he'd get them and come straight back. My mother wore glasses and she was forever losing them, and, subsequently searching the house for where she'd left them. Having to help her look was a daily, sometimes even hourly occurrence. Aya, however, never loses his glasses and always knows exactly where he last had them. I hid them once, not long after he'd joined Weiss, just to see what his reaction would be. You know, 'cos I *could*. Watching him systematically strip his room in search of them not exactly being the most fascinating of things to watch though, I only did it once. Mind you, the threat to beat me to within an inch of my life if I ever touched them again was, you could say, kinda something of a deterrent too...

 

Not finding Aya in the living room, a twinge of unwelcome unease settles over me and I hurry down the corridor to his room. Finding the door shut, I give the most cursory of knocks before opening it and entering. Standing by the window, his back to the door, Aya doesn't acknowledge my arrival, immediately causing my sense of unease to take on a life all of its own.

 

"If you've misplaced your glasses then let me tell you right now that I had nothing do it with it this time," I murmur lightly, shutting the door and slowly walking over to the window. "Come on, Aya," I continue when he doesn't answer. "What gives, huh? Is everything okay?"

 

"Define okay for me and maybe I'll be able to give you an answer," Aya replies dully as a flash of sheet lightning illuminates the dimly lit room in a blaze of white light. Blinking at the sudden brightness, he turns away from the window and shrugs wearily, his expression pained.

 

"The definition of okay? Um... How about the opposite of whatever you are?" I offer hesitantly, instinct screaming at me that whatever it is that's upset Aya is unlikely to be cured by a hug. He just looks on edge, as though something's happened to cause him to rethink everything. "Now, are you going to tell me why you're suddenly not okay or are you going to make me work for it?"

 

"It's nothing, really," Aya mumbles, leaning against the wall, unconsciously tugging on an eartail. "Well, nothing to justify the way I'm reacting anyway. It's just... stupid..."

 

"Ah... So you're going to make me work for it then," I reply, smiling gently. "Last chance. You either tell me or I start playing twenty questions."

 

Shrugging again, Aya nods his resigned acceptance. "Fine," he mutters, "if you want to know once and for all how pathetic I am then, here, I'll tell you. Omi and Ken were in the living room when I went to get my glasses. They were on the sofa, in fact, kissing and possibly doing... other things... I don't know as, not really caring what they were up to, I didn't look." Pausing, Aya goes from tugging on his hair to pulling at it quite viciously. "Now," he continues dispassionately, "this would have been fine if Omi hadn't decided that what they were doing was an affront to my delicate sensibilities and jumped off Ken as though he'd been burnt."

 

"Uh-huh," I murmur cautiously, reaching out and grabbing Aya's wrist before his attack on his hair results in him sporting uneven eartails. "And..."

 

"And I'm a freak, that's what!" Aya exclaims, shaking off my hand and stalking across to the other side of the room. "Don't you get it? There was nothing wrong with what they were doing yet Omi still felt as though he had to protect me from seeing something he thought would offend me. And... And he shouldn't have had to! What Ken and Omi do is their business and I think they should have every right to... to show their affection... in whatever Goddamn room they want to without being afraid of my reaction!"

 

"Uh-huh," I repeat, sort of following Aya's logic and sort of not. Instead of being offended by what they were doing, he's offended by Omi's reaction to his presence... Okay. Again, I sort of get that. But to take it *this* personally though? "Is it.. ah... Well, is it really that big a deal? You know Omi wears kid gloves where you're concerned and you can't deny that he would have thought he was doing the right thing."

 

"That's entirely beside the point," Aya scowls. "I don't want them to think I'm so freakin' delicate that they can't even kiss in front of me."

 

"So we'll go tell 'em," I murmur unenthusiastically. "You know as well as I do that just standing in here isn't going to solve anything. If you talk to Omi I'm sure he'll understand and they'll be mauling each other in front of you in no time."

 

Shaking his head, Aya looks up, a calculating expression on his face. "I've reached a different decision," he states. "Omi, and probably Ken too for that matter, think that I need to be protected from anything that so much as hints as being of a sexual nature. Now, they know that we're dancing around each other and that you're probably beating your libido down with a brick..."

 

"Hey!" I interrupt, so not wanting to be dragged into Aya's world of wonderfully warped logic. "I've told you before that I'm not as sex mad as I used to pretend to be. I'm fine... *more* than fine, in fact... with things as they are. You'll know when you're ready to take the next step and I thought you knew that I don't have a problem with waiting for however long that may take."

 

"You mightn't, but I do," Aya replies matter-of-factly. "Sex may not be the root of all evil but right now it's playing a dominate, confusing part in all of our lives and, feeling as though I'm the main source of this confusion, I want it to change."

 

"You do?" I query faintly. "Um... How?"

 

"That next step you were just talking about," Aya responds flatly, "I'm ready. If Omi and Ken know that we're... ah... doing it... then they won't have any reason to think I'm some sort of asexual freak."

 

"Excuse me?" I squeak, knowing that I heard correctly but not quite feeling up to actually taking it in. "Oh my God, Aya, you don't have to make the snap decision that you're ready for sex just because you want to placate Omi. In fact, and don't take this wrong way or anything, that would have to be just about one of the most..."

 

"It's not just because I want to get Omi off my back," Aya interrupts softly, gesturing helplessly with his hands. "I... I also want it for me, okay? I want to know that I... *can*."

 

"Of course you can," I retort, shaking my head as I suddenly regret ever having abandoned the dishes. "When you're good and ready though, and by that I don't mean you're acting on a whim simply because you think... Well! Whatever it is that you're thinking! Come on, Aya. Have a think about it and just let it drop for now."

 

"I *have* thought about it and it's what I want!" Aya snaps, glowering at me and hugging himself defensively. "Christ! I never thought it would be this hard. You say you love me but, what, that doesn't mean you want me? Do I disgust you or, like Omi, do you think I'm made of fine bone china and there's no way I could possibly cope?"

 

"You..." Oh yeah. Leaving the dishes was a definite mistake. A big, no, *huge* mistake. "Of course you don't disgust me," I sigh, taking a step closer towards Aya and causing him to move -- out of reach -- towards the bed. "Yes, I love you and, yes, I want you. I just don't think now is the time. "You're..."

 

"What?" Aya mutters, sinking down on the bed and looking up at me through hurt filled eyes. "Delicate? A freak? Out of my mind? I... Goddamn it! How hard is this for you to understand, huh? Like being able to face Kimura, I *need* to know that I can do this."

 

"I..."

 

I don't believe this is happening. Aya's talking about sex as though it's something to tick off his 'to do' list and I'm standing here no doubt doing a very good impression of quietly controlled shock.

 

"But does it have to be *now*?" I murmur at last, sitting down on the edge of the bed as far away from Aya as I can possibly get and running my hands through my hair. "Why don't you sleep on it or..."

 

"If you don't want me just come out and say it," Aya whispers, lowering his head. "It's not like you're the only, as they say, fish in the sea. Perhaps I should just go in to Tokyo and hang around one of those clubs you used to favor so much. I'm sure some poor sucker there would want to fuck me. Hey, I'm not fussed. I'll even pay for it if I have to."

 

Again, this simply can't be happening.

 

Something snapping, I jump to my feet and kick the foot of the bed. "For fuck's sake, Aya!" I exclaim, starting to pace agitatedly. "Listen to yourself for a moment. I never took you for a manipulator but I'm beginning to think I must have misread you. 'If you don't want me then I'll...' Fuck! Do you have any idea how that makes me feel, huh? I either do what you think you want or you go out and let some... some *stranger*... have his way with you... and... that's..."

 

And that's just not something I can bear to contemplate.

 

Jerking his head up, Aya stares at me, a horrified expression on his face. "Manipulate you?" he murmurs, further paling. "Oh my God! That... Shit! That was never my intention. You've got to believe me. I just... Come on, Yohji. You know me. I make my mind up about something and then I'll do whatever it takes to see it through. Please... Forgive me. I never meant to put you on the spot or to hold something over your head. It... I wasn't thinking. Sorry..."

 

"You won't go in to Tokyo to pick up a stranger?" I query quietly, calming down enough to crouch down in front of Aya. Really, I should have known that what he was doing wasn't manipulative and was simply a spectacular example of how his mind operates, but... My God. What a despicable thought. "Promise me, Aya... Please."

 

"I promise I won't go to Tokyo and whore myself," Aya mumbles, rolling his eyes in a way I take to mean he's disgusted with himself. "I... If it makes you feel any better I can't say I was particularly enthused by the prospect anyway."

 

"But you would have done it if you'd felt it was the only way of achieving your goal," I sigh, placing my hand on his knee and giving it a gentle squeeze. "You really are the most stubborn, determined creature that I've ever met."

 

"I still want..." Trailing off, Aya places his hand over mine and shrugs. "I know I'm undoubtedly going about it entirely the wrong way, but this *is* important to me. Sex never held any great interest for me before but now I feel it weighing me down. For me... For you... I need to know that it's something I'm capable of doing..." Pausing again, he shakes his head. "No. Not just doing, but also capable of enjoying. It... It means a lot to me."

 

"Okay..."

 

Thought it. Decided it. Said it. All in zero-point-five seconds too which, even for me, is something of a record. Not that, really, I could have reached any other conclusion. I mean, leave things as they stand? I don't think so.

 

"Okay, what?" Aya queries, frowning slightly.

 

"If it's what you really want and it's going to give you peace, then count me in," I reply softly. "Seriously. I'm not saying it's the best idea you've ever had but, yeah, let's do it."

 

"Let's do it?" Aya repeats, sounding bewildered. "Are you saying now that you're... ah... giving in?"

 

"I prefer *agreeing* to 'giving in'," I smile, "but you can call it what you like. I'm all yours."

 

"But a minute ago..." Aya starts to protest before falling momentarily silent. "You don't have to, not if you don't want to," he adds after a few seconds. "I've already promised that I won't do anything stupid so... You win, okay?"

 

"Do you want to try this or not?" I query gently, lifting my hand from under his to cup his chin. "You've convinced me that you're serious and, while it hadn't exactly been on my agenda for the day, I'm willing to give it a go."

 

"Oh."

 

"Oh?" I prompt. "It's your call, Aya. We try silencing a few more of your demons or we go sit on the sofa and watch something nonsensical on the television. Either, before you ask, works well for me."

 

Abruptly standing up, and very nearly knocking me off balance in the process, Aya nods, his all too familiar determined expression firmly in place. "Fine. Let's do it," he states, immediately reaching for the buttons on his shirt. "Here, yes?"

 

Jumping to my feet, I grab his hand and shake my head. "Uh-uh," I mutter, hoping like crazy I'm not about to regret my decision. "If we do this we do so by my rules. Your request. My rules. Got it?"

 

"That depends entirely on what your rules are," Aya replies hesitantly, biting down on his bottom lip and avoiding my gaze.

 

"They're simple," I reply, letting go of his hand and straightening his shirt. "We take things slowly and you *don't* just grit your teeth and bear it if you find that you're not enjoying it."

 

"Fine, whatever," Aya murmurs, his acceptance not exactly what I'd call reassuring. "Now, shall we?"

 

"The first thing I think we need to work on is your interpretation of foreplay," I respond drily, waving towards the door as what I hope would have to be one of my better ideas flits through my head. "Why don't you go get in the shower and..."

 

"Of course," Aya whispers, lowering his head and blushing. "Clean... I... I should have thought of that myself..."

 

"No!" I exclaim, berating myself for reinforcing his opinion that he's unclean. Good one, I don't think. "It's not like that at all. I just thought... Never mind. You'll see. Now, if you're still wanting to do this, go get in the shower and I'll join you in a minute."

 

"In the shower?" Aya echoes, looking at me suspiciously before shrugging and turning towards the door. "Um... Okay."

 

"If you change your mind just lock the door!" I call out, watching Aya open the door and disappear through it before following him out the room. "If not I'll be there in a minute or two."

 

The sound of movement having my hoped for result, Omi pokes his head out of Ken's room and blinks at me. "Yohji..." he murmurs, gesturing me over. "I have this horrible feeling that I did something to upset Aya."

 

"How terribly perceptive of you," I reply, strolling into the room. "Don't eat yourself up over it though, Omi," I add hurriedly as his face falls and Ken shoots me a warning look from his position on the bed. "As much as I hate to say it, it was probably bound to happen sooner or later."

 

"He'll be okay?" Ken queries with a sigh. "You know, we weren't even doing anything and..."

 

"He'll be fine," I interrupt, mentally crossing my fingers that the next thirty minutes or so manage to pass without either tears or blood being shed. "I kinda think, however, that it would be best if we had the house to ourselves for a while..."

 

"In case it's escaped your attention, it's hardly picnic weather," Ken drawls, nonetheless obligingly standing up and looking around for his coat.

 

"Er... Lovely day for a drive though, don't you think?" I offer, digging in my pocket for my wallet. "You know, you could always drive into town and go to that cute little coffee shop with the to-die-for lattes..."

 

"The one with the gorgeous chocolate cake?" Omi interjects, eyeing me hopefully, his concern over Aya duly placated now that he knows I've got the matter in hand.

 

Or so we all hope, anyway.

 

"Fine. The one with the gorgeous chocolate cake then," I mutter, pulling out a handful of notes from my wallet and placing them in Omi's waiting hand. "Ever thought of swapping assassination for extortion?" I add with a laugh. "Take my word for it, you'd be a natural."

 

"Love you too, Yohji-kun," Omi retorts, winking at me as he grabs Ken's hand and makes to drag him out of the room. "Now, I don't have to tell you to be gentle with Aya, do I?"

 

"Oddly enough, no," I reply, shooing them down the corridor. "Enjoy. Take your time. Think happy thoughts." I was going to say think of me while enjoying the chocolate cake but, thankfully, managed to think better of it.

 

"You too," Ken responds, giving my shoulder a pat as he gets pulled past. "If it helps I firmly believe that everything is going to work out just fine. Hell, we've all made it too far for it not to."

 

"Mmm..." I murmur noncommittally, watching from the doorway as, hand in hand, they walk into the living room. I then wait until I hear the back door being closed before releasing a deep breath and starting for the bathroom.

 

It would be a complete and utter lie to say I felt even the slightest bit in the mood for sex In fact, and without wanting to over exaggerate things at all, I view the prospect of walking into the bathroom with about as much trepidation as someone being marched up to the gallows. It's weird. As much as I love Aya -- and sex too, for that matter -- I haven't, well, not since the whole Ewigkeit saga anyway, put any real thought into getting him into bed. I don't know. Thinking about Aya and sex in the same breath just seemed wrong somehow.

 

In a sense it still seems wrong and I fear that what's about to take place my be little more than a charade of going through the motions.

 

But, well, what will be will be and all that. Aya has his reasons and while I would have preferred them to have been born out of, say, a genuine desire for me or something like that, I simply can't deny their importance to him. If he wants to do whatever it takes to overcome another hurdle and I can help in someway, then I'm there. I have to be.

 

Doubts or no doubts.

 

Sighing, I reach the bathroom and try the door handle. It's -- almost to my dismay -- unlocked and, turning it, I step into the room. Aya, as directed, is in the shower, his clothing folded in a neat pile under the towel rack. Standing facing the glass door, he's just finished washing his hair and it's all slicked back against his skull, highlighting both his bone structure and incredible eyes. I can't help but note how he looks, and I don't mean this the slightest bit facetiously, somehow naked with all his hair pulled back from his face.

 

Noticing that he's no longer alone, Aya gives a quick flick of his head and his hair obediently falls back in place. He then, and I honestly thought he would have done this first, turns around to face the tiled shower wall.

 

Not wanting to add to his plethora of self doubt, I start to strip off. By the time my clothes are strewn haphazardly around the bathroom I've reached the realization that Aya uses his hair to hide behind. He'd deny it -- 'if I wanted to hide behind my hair do you think I'd leave it this color?' -- but I'm sure that I'm right. God knows this is the one and only time I've ever seen him with it off his face. It's not something I'll ever ask him though as some things, especially those that we're not even aware of that we're doing, are simply better off left unspoken.

 

Once I'm naked -- and not wanting to add to *my* plethora of self doubts -- I slide open the glass door and step into the shower. Aya acknowledges my invasion of his personal space by not quite managing to stop himself from flinching. He doesn't turn around and I can almost *hear* his mind muttering a mantra of 'I must not panic, I must not panic, I must not panic' as he inches further into the corner.

 

"Hey," I murmur softly, standing as far back from Aya as I can get while still remaining in the shower cubicle. The water is so hot that Aya is flushed a dark pink from head to foot and all his remaining scars stand out angrily on his skin. Kimura being dead already doesn't stop me from wishing horrible, evil things on him. Scarring aside though, Aya still makes for an undeniably attractive sight. Slim and toned in all the right places, his is a body that truly deserves to be worshipped.

 

"Hey," Aya whispers, turning the cold tap on further -- or possibly just *on* -- in order to make the water temperature more comfortable for me. "Um... Now what?" he adds tentatively, still facing the wall. "Do you want me to..."

 

"I don't want you to do anything," I reply, stepping under the water and closer to Aya. "All you have to do is stand there. I'll do the rest."

 

"The... ah... rest?" Aya repeats, his body instinctively tensing as, reaching around him for the soap, I press up against his back. Although I'm still too wary to be hard, my cock brushes against the crack of his ass, causing him to hiss in what could either be surprise or apprehension.

 

"Sorry," I mumble, immediately jumping back. "I didn't mean..."

 

"Nothing... to... be sorry about," Aya grinds out, straightening his shoulders and standing just that little bit taller. "My idea, remember?"

 

"Yeah... But..."

 

"Uh-uh. No buts. I'm fine. If I was going to have a fit I think I would have had it by now."

 

"Mmm..."

 

... I'll believe you even if thousands wouldn't.

 

Knowing there's nothing to be gained from trying to argue with him, I close the distance that separates us and gingerly rub the bar of soap against his shoulders. When this has no noticeably negative effect I start to relax slightly and lose myself in the simple, self-imposed task of washing Aya's back. He tenses slightly as I make a point of gliding the soap along his scars but I neither stop what I'm doing nor pass comment. Skipping his butt, I kneel on the floor and take my time washing his legs. When I'm finished I reach up and tap him lightly on the small of his back. "Okay. Time to turn around now."

 

After only a moment's hesitation Aya does as asked and turns slowly around. To my heartfelt relief not only is his expression far less closed than I half expected it to be, but he's also semi-hard. Crowing about the obvious clearly not being the way to go, I smile and plant a very light kiss on his right hip before continuing with my washing.

 

"S'nice," Aya whispers, reaching down and tangling his fingers in my hair. "I think I could get used to having my very own shower slave."

 

"But wait," I reply, my smile broadening as I suddenly realize that things might just be going to work out for the best after all, "it gets better. Trust me."

 

"Mmm... Trust you... That's what I'm here," Aya murmurs, looking down at me and smiling softly. "The only reason..."

 

Standing up, I don't reply and start to wash his flat stomach and torso. The ankh and cross stand out lividly on his skin and I pay them both careful attention. While Aya doesn't show any discomfort from having them touched, my hand trembles as I remember how they both happened to be marked forever into his skin. Kimura, I hate to say it, got off easily.

 

"They're part of me now, Yohji," Aya states gently as my hand stills in the center of the cross. "Nothing can change that. Even if laser surgery got rid of them I'd... *we'd*... always know that they'd been there."

 

"They *shouldn't* be there," I mutter, shaking my head sadly as I force my hand to continue gliding the soap across Aya's chest.

 

"No, but they are," Aya replies, sliding his arms around my waist and pulling me closer. He then, after smiling at my surprise, kisses me. While we've shared the odd -- tentative -- peck during the past week this is something else again. Unpracticed and clumsy as it is, Aya's kiss sends shockwaves through my entire system. What he lacks in skill being more than made up for with genuine enthusiasm, I find it difficult to return the kiss and have to lean back from it.

 

"Whoa," I gasp, grinning as, without changing position, Aya looks at me expectantly, *hopefully*. "And that was for what exactly?"

 

"Many things," Aya murmurs, resting his head on my shoulder. "Because you're here... Because in the space of five minutes you've shown me there's more to sex than simply being fucked... Because I wanted to... Because you haven't felt the urge to pass comment that I'm a natural redhead... Because, despite everything, I feel good about things... Because I can touch you back... Because you'll stop if I tell you too..." Pausing, he sighs contentedly and starts to run his hand slowly up and down the length of my spine. "So, yeah... Many things."

 

"You're easy to please," I whisper, nuzzling his cheek as sparks of pleasure course through my veins. Mind you, given how good both Aya's body pressed against mine and the way he's lazily stroking my back feels, the same thing could just about be said about me. I'm now, without my cock actually having been touched, as hard as I can ever remember being.

 

"Mmm... Very," Aya purrs, tilting his head up and gently capturing my lips with his. Slightly more prepared for it this time, I slowly kiss him back as, no longer needing it, I let the soap slip from my fingers. I then, all the time praying that I haven't misread Aya's willingness, slide my hand down across his stomach and carefully grasp his cock.

 

"Okay?" I murmur, reluctantly breaking the kiss. Although he didn't tense or try to back away, I still want to know for sure.

 

"Mmm... Keep kissing me and you can do whatever you want," Aya responds thickly, sheer instinct causing him to push into my hand. "Like this... Warm... No pain..."

 

"I think you'll soon discover that it's how it's supposed to be," I reply, fighting to keep the sadness out of my voice. Although I don't really want to think it, Aya is most likely so accustomed to being abused that merely being touched with affection like this is enough to do things to him that he'd never imagined possible. "Never any pain... Just pleasure, nothing more. You'll... You'll learn. This is only the beginning, my love."

 

"Some beginning," Aya groans, blinking at me languidly as, remembering his request, I return my lips to his. Giving myself over to the sweetly passionate kiss, I wrap my free arm around Aya's waist while I use my other hand to slowly jerk him off.

 

While my -- admittedly vague -- original plan consisted of a blow job, I now think this is more than a good enough start. Besides, why hurry something that doesn't have to be hurried. Aya's sexuality, courtesy of both Kimura and his life of the past few years in general, is most likely even more backwards than a virgin's and I can suddenly see many a pleasurable 'training session' ahead of us. Having reached the point where I kinda believed my own publicity in regards to my prowess, I suspect this could well be a learning curve for both of us.

 

Aya's hand tentatively brushing across the tip of my cock coming as something of a surprise, I very almost climax on the spot. Control apparently not playing a part in this scenario, it's then nearly over before it's even started as, emboldened, Aya starts to stroke me. My staying power -- again, I'm somewhat of a legend in my own lifetime -- not quite up to dealing with the emotions installed in me by Aya's cautious touch, my knees go weak and, already, I can feel the beginnings of my orgasm pulse and flare through me.

 

And it's all just unbelievable. Spectacular. Incredible.

 

What we're doing is both nothing and everything simultaneously. Rebirth. Sex. A new beginning. Affirmation.

 

As though choreographed by a higher power, we climax in unison, our lips still locked together. I moan something incoherent into the kiss while Aya remains silent. Trembling from the intensity of his orgasm, he slumps against me, his hand digging in my hip to help keep him upright. Pulling back from the kiss, he then, with a soft sigh, returns his head to my shoulder.

 

"Good?" I query quietly, releasing his softened cock from my hand and hugging him closer. "Enough to put your mind to rest that you're more than capable of this?"

 

"I'd say it was a promising start," Aya murmurs. "Far better than I'd hoped for. I... I suppose I just expected to be..."

 

"Uh-uh," I interrupt hurriedly, bowing my head and resting it against his. "I don't want to hear what you expected because, let me tell you now, it will never... *never*... be like that."

 

"Pleased to hear it," Aya whispers, glancing up at me through very bright and clear eyes. "Yohji... Thank you. Seriously. Just... Thank you. I never expected that this would ever be the case but, and you've got to believe this, I can't think of a single place I'd rather be than here... with you..."

 

~*~

 

"Please tell me I didn't just hear what I thought I heard," Aya murmurs as, stilling, he looks down at me with an oddly horrified expression on his face.

 

The state of bliss I'm currently existing in being such that I doubt a car bomb going off outside the window would have any great impact on me, I can't say that I heard a thing and squirm encouragingly, hoping to get Aya moving again. "You didn't just hear whatever it is you thought you heard," I reply plaintively, digging my fingers into the sheets. "Whatever it was, you didn't hear it."

 

... Now. Please. I'm dying here from sensory overload here and would really, *really* like you to move again. Remaining perfectly still is good, better than good in fact, but when you move I honestly feel as though I'm the luckiest man in the entire universe and, well, that's just something I'm kinda all for, you know...

 

"No?" Aya mutters, cocking his head to one side, clearly oblivious to the fact that I'm dying beneath him. "Then, and I hate to say this, I *didn't* just hear it again. Listen! There's someone trying to get in the door."

 

That gets me.

 

"Nonsense," I retort, lifting my head far enough off the pillow to glance warily around Aya. "Who'd be at the door, huh? Ken and Omi are in Tokyo doing the whole screaming fan boy thing at the exhibition soccer match and..."

 

"There!" Aya exclaims, his eyes widening as goodness knows what thoughts fly through his head. "Surely you heard it that time."

 

"Uh-huh." Hell. I not only heard it but I also saw the door move inwards too. While the door is shut, it isn't locked and I try to convince myself that it's only a draft that's causing it to look as though it's opening.

 

"Do you think we should perhaps, you know, investigate?" Aya murmurs unenthusiastically. "If Schwarz or whoever have come to rattle our cage then, no offence, I'd rather this wasn't the first thing they saw," he adds, making, I can't help but note with relief, no actual move to climb off me.

 

"Do we have to?" I whine, unclenching my fingers from around the sheets and placing my hands firmly on Aya's hips. "If I'm going to die then at least this way I'll die happy."

 

"*And* Farfarello might just blow a fuse at the sight, I suppose," Aya smirks, pressing down slightly harder on my cock, I suspect, to remind me of our currently very much joined position. Not, it has to be said, that he needed too. Being buried to the hilt in the tight velvety heat of Aya's body not being, let's face it, one of those things I'd exactly forget in a hurry. "Come to think of it, you're right, there's definitely worse ways to go."

 

*Far* worse ways," I agree, mentally congratulating myself for retaining the ability to speak while teetering on the abyss of total ecstasy. "Now... Why are we talking when we could be..."

 

Oh.

 

That's right.

 

The door.

 

The door that is now opening.

 

Craning my neck around Aya, who appears to have momentarily shut down in either embarrassment or shock, I see who it was that was so desperate to get into the room and start to laugh.

 

"What?" Aya hisses urgently, glancing over his shoulder just in time to see Kiri hop onto the bed behind him. His confused expression bordering on the truly comical, he blinks at his cat in amazement. "Uh... Kiri?"

 

Kiri, who's clearly on a mission, ignores Aya totally and stalks along the bed, her tail sticking straight up in the air like a flagpole. My existence being of as little interest as Aya's, she doesn't even bother glancing in my direction and jumps lightly onto the bedside table in order to drink from the glass of water Aya keeps there. By the way Aya's screwing up his nose I don't think he knew he was sharing his water with his cat and start to laugh even harder.

 

"This... This is just too precious!" I snicker as Kiri all but sticks her entire head in the glass to get at the water. If she gets stuck then I swear I'm just going to lose it totally.

 

"Precious?" Aya repeats, shaking his head as he stares at Kiri in bemusement. "I don't quite know if that's the exact word I'd use for it."

 

"No, no. Definitely precious," I grin, wiping away tears of laughter with the back of my hand. "I mean, just imagine being a fly on the wall in this room right now. Coitus Interruptus -- of sorts -- courtesy of a dehydrated cat. There's no way you can tell me that isn't funny."

 

"I..." Shaking his head again, Aya begins to laugh. "When you put it that way I suppose you have to be right," he smiles, the sensation of his body shaking with laughter going straight to my cock. "This *is* precious." Bowing his head, he then plants a very moist and lingering kiss on my lips before adding softly, "*Very* precious, in fact."

 

There being nothing I can think of adding by way of response, I slide my hand up the smooth planes of Aya's sweat slicked chest and stroke his cheek. More feline than Kiri herself, he leans instinctively into my touch and, with a sound suspiciously like a purr, closes his eyes. He's so beautiful, so Goddamn exquisite, that I almost want to surreptitiously pinch myself to confirm that he's real. That, naked save for his unbuttoned black silk pajama top, he's really straddling my hips, a contented smile on his flushed face as, moving slowly, he returns to the rhythm he'd set before Kiri so rudely interrupted us.

 

Seriously. There's just no help for it. I *am* the luckiest man in the entire universe. I... Oh God... I simply have to be.

 

Six weeks and three days have passed since Kimura was sent back to the fiery fits of hell that saw fit to spawn him in the first place and, unspoken list of unbreakable ground rules aside, we've now got what could only be described as a full sex life. Arguably vanilla, perhaps, but more than good enough for me. Quite frankly I doubt there's any form of kink out there that could come close to doing what the mere sight of Aya's naked body does to me anyway.

 

Aya's come further than I suspect either of us expected in such a relatively short period of time that, really, it's nothing short of amazing. Although I sometimes worry that he's only doing it to prove that he *can*, I keep these concerns to myself and simply coast along, following his lead. It not really being something I can call him on, I pretty much just let him go, all the time watching closely for cracks appearing in his carefully constructed faÁade. I don't think any of it is just an act though, I honestly don't. If he only wanted to tick things off his mental check list of 'sexual-activities-to-participate-in-without-freaking-out' then God knows, having already done this a couple of times before, he wouldn't be here now.

 

I -- like to -- think, although, again this isn't something I feel the urge to comment on, he's genuinely getting into the swing of things. He's not spontaneous, and there's a few things that I've quickly learnt not to do -- grabbing his wrists or pushing him up against anything being two prime examples -- but so long as I'm gentle and he knows that he's in control, then everything's just fine. I already know what he likes and what all the little noises he makes mean. Aya in turn has stopped apologizing for his lack of skill and is slowly becoming more confident in his abilities to turn me on. As I'd originally thought, it's a constant learning curve for both of us, one that we're both happy to work at.

 

Moaning in pleasure, I pry my fingers away from Aya's hip and reach blindly for his cock. Closing my hand around it, I slowly massage my thumb across the tip, eliciting a gasp of approval from Aya.

 

"M'gonna come," I pant, something in my heat effected brain telling me that it's of vital importance for Aya to know this. "Too... good... You're... just... too... good..."

 

"Ever thought of becoming a poet, Yohji?" Aya murmurs facetiously, smiling down at me innocently as he clenches that little bit tighter around my cock. "With words of endearment like that, I mean, watch out Shelly."

 

"You try doing better," I reply mock huffily, poking my tongue out at him for good measure. "Given that I think my brains are leaking out of my ears, I thought I happened to be most erudite."

 

"Erudite?" Aya laughs, his expression bordering on the most youthful and carefree I've ever seen it. "Poetic *and* eloquent, I am impress..." Trailing off, Aya starts to giggle as he gestures wildly at the mattress. "I... I have a... *cat*... licking my leg!" he hiccups. "Oh my God! Kiri! Do you *have* to?"

 

The willpower I'm putting into staving off my orgasm not allowing me to multi-task to the extent of lifting my head off the pillow, I take Aya's word for it that his crazy cat is giving his leg a bath and start to laugh. "Told you she loves you," I giggle, "and now we know just how much."

 

"You implying my cat's some sort of deviate?" Aya snickers, reaching down to push her away and, going by the look on his face, getting his fingers licked for his troubles. "Uh-huh... Okay, Kiri. Love you too, but, please, not now..."

 

The whole scenario being just too much for me, I'm still laughing as, my willpower calling it quits, I climax. Aya follows merely seconds afterwards, his seed spilling hotly over my hand. As usual he doesn't call anything out. While Aya seems perfectly content with holding actual conversations during sex he doesn't engage in anything so much as vaguely related to sex talk. No demanding that I suck harder or place my hand *there* and no screaming his release to the world. In an odd way it's so characteristically Aya that I'd probably do something ridiculous like faint -- or laugh -- if he ever decided to call me his 'bitch' or slapped me on the ass to hurry me up.

 

Panting, Aya climbs gingerly off me and collapses on the mattress. Kiri, miffed at having been pushed away from the action, jumps onto the floor and starts to give my robe the thorough kneading it apparently deserves.

 

"When Kimura had me I never thought sex could be pleasurable let alone something I'd ever find myself laughing during," Aya murmurs quietly, flinging his arm over his eyes and stretching. "It must be true then... You really *do* learn a new thing every day."

 

"I like to think so," I reply, somehow finding the strength to reach down and pull off the condom. Tying a knot in the end, I lob it -- he shoots, he scores! -- into the bin by the bedside table. My housekeeping not quite finished, I then lean over the mattress and snag up both my boxers and Aya's pajama bottoms. Dropping the boxers on the bed, I drag myself into a kneeling position and start to dress Aya in the pants.

 

Obligingly lifting first feet and then butt off the mattress, Aya moves his arm from his eyes and smiles softly. "Thanks."

 

To my inane joy, for the first time, he neither blushes nor apologizes for the fact that he feels more comfortable covered, and I take this as yet another positive step forward. "S'okay," I mumble, quickly pulling on my boxers before lying back down and stretching out alongside Aya. "You know, and I don't want you to get a big head here or anything, you really are incredible."

 

"Me?" Aya snorts dismissively, trailing his finger down my chest as his expression clouds over. "I'm nothing special, just a product of different influences, the majority of which you would have to say are negative." Pausing, he sits up abruptly and reaches under the pillow. "There is one influence I'm proud to accept though, one that I'd be honored to wear the mark of, " he adds, pulling out a razor blade and placing it on my waist. "Yohji..."

 

"Aya," I interject warningly, dejectedly waving goodbye to the state of golden afterglow that I'd hoped to remain in for a few more minutes at least. "I already have this sinking feeling that I don't want to know, but... What the hell is this, huh?"

 

"I'm going to simply assume you meant that rhetorically," Aya replies calmly, shrugging his left arm out of his pajama top before lying back down again. Ghosting his hand over the ankh/cross hybrid that's forever marked into his skin, he looks at me and smiles grimly. "Do you remember when you did this you said..."

 

"Remember?" I exclaim, grimacing. "It's one of those events I'll never forget. It's also one of those events that I make a pointed effort of pretending never happened."

 

"You said you'd autograph it," Aya continues, seemingly oblivious to the fact that I'd even opened my mouth. "Do you remember? You said if I wanted it autographed then all I had to do was say the word."

 

"Uh-uh." Shaking my head, I stare at Aya as though he's just confessed to having a liking for wearing women's underwear. "Like, no way," I splutter, "I was joking! Well, not exactly joking, more... Oh God! Forget it, Aya. Just forget it."

 

"Please, Yohji, I want you to do it," Aya states gently, looking away from me and staring at the ceiling. "I... I want to wear your mark because it's something I have to be proud of. As I just mentioned, I'm who I am through different influences. Reiji Takatori destroyed my original life, the one I'd been born to, and made me a killer. Kimura then took the one thing I could still call mine, my body, and turned me into a whore. He also took everything I'd come to take for granted and made me feel as though I'd truly lost my mind..."

 

"Aya..." I whisper weakly, so not wanting to hear any more.

 

"Shhh... I haven't finished," Aya murmurs, reaching across the mattress and clutching his hand around mine. "I'm what I am thanks to both Takatori and Kimura. Nothing will ever alter the impact, the *power*, they've had over me. I'm here, however, courtesy of your love and determination. I also, for the first time in ages, feel truly alive, as though I do perhaps have reasons for wanting to keep on fighting."

 

"Of course you've got reasons," I reply quietly, squeezing his hand back. "Hell, you've got plenty of reasons. None of which, mind you, have anything to do with me scarring my name into your skin. You have enough scars already, my love, without specifically asking for more."

 

"But it wouldn't be a scar," Aya sighs, "it would be a mark of honor, something I'd be proud to wear. Please, Yohji... I could do it myself but I'd really rather you did it." Pausing, he turns towards me and grins. "Of course, if I did it myself there'd be a risk I'd do it upside down and then, well, I'd look like a complete idiot. Now, surely you wouldn't want that..."

 

"You mean if I truly loved you I'd want to protect you from looking like an idiot?" I smirk, letting go of Aya's hand and sitting up. "Nice try."

 

"It was worth a go," Aya mutters, picking the razor up from my thigh, where it had slipped to when I sat up, and holding it towards me. "Come on, Yohji, please. I know you don't want to and I also know that what I'm asking makes no sense to you. Let me assure you though that I know what it is I'm asking and that, yes, it *is* important to me. I wouldn't ask if it wasn't something I'd thought long and hard about."

 

"I just don't think it's a good idea," I reply, hesitantly accepting the razor. "What if something happens, huh? Look at the lives we lead. Without wanting to sound too pessimistic or anything, I could walk into a bullet on our next mission and, well, where would that leave you? You'd be stuck with my initials on your stomach while I rotted away to dust in the ground."

 

"The future can't change the past," Aya replies softly. "Whatever happens tomorrow or next week or next year can't alter what you've done for me. Think about it. Even if you die or we grow apart, there'll still be a part of me that exists solely thanks to your influence."

 

"Anyone ever tell you that you would have made a great lawyer," I grumble, staring down at the razor blade in my hand and barely suppressing a shudder as I realize what it is I'm going to have to do with it. "Honestly, if you closed all your cases like that you'd never lose."

 

"It's not an argument, it's fact." Aya murmurs, shrugging. "Now, do you need more convincing or are you going to do it?"

 

"I'll do it," I sigh, knowing full well that there's nothing I could possibly say to sway Aya once his mind is made up about something. "On one proviso though..."

 

"What?" Aya asks quickly, narrowing his eyes slightly. "This is something I want you to do for me, not something I'm wanting to negotiate."

 

"Tough," I smile, my hastily thought up plan appealing more to me by the second. "I'll, if I *have* to, disfigure you just that little bit more if you tell me the best place for the tattoo I've suddenly decided to get."

 

"There's no way in hell I'm letting you get my name tattooed anywhere on you!" Aya exclaims, propping himself up on his elbows and giving me a scathing look. "Just... No!"

 

"Who said anything about it being your name?" I retort, my smile broadening.

 

"Then what?" Aya queries, peering at me with open curiosity. "How am I supposed to tell you where to put it if I don't know what it is?"

 

"Use your imagination," I reply, trying not to laugh as Aya glares at me. "Hey! Don't look at me like that! It's a secret, one that will be revealed as you sit there holding my hand in the tattoo parlor."

 

"And you promise me that my name's not going to have anything do with it?" Aya responds dubiously. "This isn't about quid pro quo, Yohji."

 

"I didn't say that it was," I murmur, the fleeting thought of telling Aya what the tattoo will be of dying just as swiftly as it came. While not his name he may still have words to say on the subject and, liking the easy life, I think it's for the best that it comes as a surprise to him. "Now, like you, I have my reasons for wanting this mystery tattoo. All I'm asking of you is where I should put it... Right arm? Shoulder? Lower back? Chest? Hell, I'll even put it on my ass if that's where you think it should go."

 

"I wish you'd tell me what it is," Aya pouts, relaxing back on the bed. "Okay though, fine. If you want my opinion on where to put your new Gundam tattoo, then I say you should put it on your lower back. With any luck it will really hurt over the base of your spine as it will serve you right for being so obtuse."

 

"My new *Gundam* tattoo?" I laugh, raising an eyebrow. "Excuse me?"

 

"Hey, not my fault you're in the midst of an anime watching second childhood," Aya retorts, smiling innocently. "If not a Gundam, which I have to confess to not really being a fan of, then how about the God Phoenix from Gatchaman? Now that'd be cool." Pausing, Aya's smile slips from innocence personified to wistful. "Did you ever watch Gatchaman? I used to watch it with Aya-chan when we were children. She wanted to be Jun when she grew up and would run around the house wearing 'wings' that our mother had made for her from an old sheet."

 

"I was rather taken with Katse myself," I respond, saddened by how far away my childhood now seems. "I mean, with an outfit like that, what wasn't there to like, huh? Kinky red boots, red lipstick, very spiffy purple cape..."

 

"You worry me at times, I hope you realize," Aya snickers, stretching languidly and, subtle as a wrecking ball, drumming his fingers on his waist. "Now, enough hilarity, I'm getting cold here and would really like for you to do what I've asked."

 

"So I can put my purple cape wearing Gundam on my lower back then, yes?" I murmur blithely, crawling a little down the bed and straddling Aya's left thigh.

 

"Mmm... Good place for a tattoo," Aya replies, reaching out and trailing his fingers lightly across my knee. "I didn't mean it about wanting it to hurt though and promise, if that's where you want me to be, that I'll be there to hold your hand."

 

"Good enough for me," I respond softly, giving his fingers a quick squeeze. "Last chance to change your mind here..."

 

"Like you even need to ask," Aya whispers, pulling his hand back and closing his eyes. "Please. Do it."

 

"Honestly, the things I have to do for you," I lightly mutter under my breath, leaning forward and, with as steady a hand as I'm ever likely to manage, making the first cut. Not having specified either size or location, I aim for both small and just to the left of the base of the cross. Just like the first time, I work quickly, my hand guided by something more than just instinct. Aya remains completely still as I make my shallow cuts. Even his breathing remains regular, not even the slightest of hitches in it giving anything away. I don't know whether to be envious of his composure or afraid of it.

 

When I've finished and my name is a collection of tiny slash marks on Aya's waist, I throw the razor blade into the bin and wipe my fingers on my boxers. Although the cuts barely broke the skin they're nonetheless bleeding and, bowing my head, I start to lick them clean. The taste of blood and semen on my tongue making me forget why it is I'm licking Aya's torso in the first place, I extend my 'cleaning' to his navel, causing him to squirm beneath me.

 

"First Kiri and now you," Aya murmurs softly. "Am I lickable or something?"

 

"Mmm... Very lickable," I reply, giving his navel one final lick before shifting off him and grabbing the comforter from the foot of the bed. I don't ask whether he's happy with my work and, after glancing down at it, he doesn't comment on it. It's done now and that, to Aya, is all that matters. I doubt it will ever be mentioned again, not even when we're standing out the front of the tattoo parlor I have every intention of dragging him to.

 

"You know, I never once thought I'd ever be described as lickable," Aya declares quietly, pulling his pajama top back on over his left arm. "I... Actually, I never thought a lot of things..."

 

"Lickable... Desirable... Memorable... Loveable..." I murmur, batting his fingers away and gently doing up the buttons on his top. "Whether you've ever thought of them yourself, my love, you're a lot of things."

 

"Mmm... So I'm slowly beginning to believe," Aya replies, yawning as he rolls over on to his side. "Right now however I'll just settle for being tired."

 

Arranging the comforter over Aya, I turn off the bedside lamp before, suddenly exhausted myself, settling down next to him. As I've come to -- rely on -- expect, he immediately curls around me, his left leg draped over mine a welcome, comforting weight. Clearly having forgiven us for our ignorant behavior of earlier, Kiri hops onto the bed and, all the time purring loudly stretches out near my feet, making our peculiar version of a happy family complete.

 

Seriously, there's just no help for it.

 

Life is pretty damn good in my books.

 

~*~

 

~ Epilogue ~

 

 

// If you ain't dirty you ain't here to PARTY! //

 

Dear. God.

 

There's just nothing quite like some raucous American pop music to do atrocious things to the peace and quiet of a summer's evening.

 

When Yukio said he'd been upgrading the stereo in the Nissan he clearly meant it. Then again, maybe it's not coming out of Yukio's Skyline. For all I know -- or care really, for that matter -- the decibel breaking racket could be coming from the Celica... or the Soarer... or the MX-5... or whatever the funny looking Hyundai is that's parked alongside the Celica. The red Celica, that is, as opposed to the black Celica that's parked next to the Nissan 350Z.

 

In hindsight I really should have expected this. While you can take the boys out the suburbs you can't take the suburbs out of the boys. Or, you know, something like that anyway.

 

Oh...

 

I can't look.

 

No. Make that I don't *want* to look yet, my previously undiscovered masochistic streak jumping to the fore, can't for the life of me turn away.

 

It's like, I hazard a guess, mistakenly stumbling in on your parents having sex. On your bed. In front of your beloved collection of Transformers. Or, once again, something like that anyway. Whatever. It's wrong. Very, *very* wrong.

 

"You don't have to look, you know," Aya comments, peering over the top of his book at me. "There's no law against simply looking the other way."

 

"But I can't," I wail, gesturing at the impromptu party that's forming around the parked cars. "Believe me, I *want* to... quite desperately in fact... but..."

 

"You have no one to blame but yourself," Aya replies, flashing me a smirk before returning his attention to his novel. "If you hadn't stacked on that little turn about suffering from garden fever, or rage, or whatever it was, then Yukio and his gang of possibly reformed thugs wouldn't be here and..."

 

"And you're supposed to be sympathetic to my plight," I groan, "not point out the freakin' obvious. Besides, Yukio and co I can handle, it's just Ken and Omi and their 'lets have sex while fully clothed' method of dancing that's doing strange things to my stomach. I mean... Christ! Just look at them! Anyone would think they were auditioning for the next Madonna tour the way they're gyrating and... and thrusting!"

 

"Leave them alone," Aya responds, poking me in the thigh with his foot. "I think they look like they're having fun."

 

"Fun?" I snort, weighing up the pros and cons of tickling Aya's bare feet. Given that his legs are draped over my lap I decide to err on the side of caution and keep my hands where they are. If he didn't react by slamming his knee into chin then his heel would most likely end up in my groin and, well, I'm not so bored as to be wishing for a spot of personal injury to liven things up. "If you think that looks like fun then perhaps you'd like to put your book down and go join them."

 

"That would involve moving," Aya murmurs calmly, "and I'm too hot to want to move. I'm also too comfortable. Don't let me stop you though if you want to go dance with the others. As much as a personal sacrifice as it would be, I *would* lift my legs for you."

 

"You're too generous," I snicker, leaning back and stretching my arms across the back of the park bench. "As tempting as the offer is, I think I'll stay put. Hell, just watching them makes me feel old. Where are they getting the energy from, huh? They've been working on that part of the garden all day. They should be exhausted."

 

"Aaaw... Poor old Yohji," Aya retorts blithely. "Perhaps you should go inside and take a nap if you're feeling that old and tired."

 

"And deprive you of my company?" I smile. "Never. Besides, like you I'm too hot and comfortable to move. I think I'll just stay here and enjoy the floorshow."

 

"The floorshow that's essentially of your own making," Aya replies, turning over the page and making a show of wanting to read. "Never forget that it's down entirely to that little bleat you had in Singapura's ear that they're here disrupting the countryside and causing an offence to my eardrums and your eyesight."

 

"Hmm... Hours of backbreaking gardening in this Godforsaken heat versus a little outdoor party," I murmur, pretending to be lost in thought. "When I think about it that way then I'm happy to say they can party their hearts out."

 

"Oddly enough I knew you were going to say that," Aya responds, giving me another prod with his foot. "Now, how about shutting up so I can return to my reading before it gets too dark?"

 

"You spoke first, remember?" I reply, earning myself yet another prod. "But, fine, I'll shut up. Never let it be said that I interrupt the written word of... Er... Some dead guy, yeah?"

 

"Franz Kafka."

 

"Mmm... The Trial, yes?"

 

"Yes."

 

"In its original German?"

 

"Yes."

 

"You're strange, you know that?"

 

"And you're still talking."

 

Laughing, I don't reply and stretch my legs out in front of me. If Aya wants to read existentialism in German then good luck to him. I'd rather -- and this is saying something -- go and join in the Ken and Omi bump 'n' grind fest that's going on dangerously close to the newly completed Koi pond, but, hey, that's just me.

 

The awful music and equally as awful dancing that's going on aside, I don't regret for a second Singapura's idea of enlisting the help of Yukio and his crew in doing up the garden. All I did, as Aya so eloquently put it, was bleat that I'd had enough of slaving away in the garden all day before trotting off to Tokyo in the evening on a mission. Truth be told, all I really wanted to do was whine to someone who hadn't already told me -- hello, team -- that I was just being lazy and that not having a sleep in every morning *wasn't*, contrary to my opinion on the subject, going to kill me. I never expected Singapura to do anything about it. All I thought she'd do was pat me on the back before rolling her eyes at whoever happened to be standing closest by and handing over the folder containing the details of our latest mission.

 

But, no. Not only did she agree that we were working too hard but she also decided to come clean on the fact that she'd already handed over the running of the Dragon's Tears to Yukio by way of thanks for his help in getting Aya back. Some things never changing, although it had been our home for over six months, we were the last to know any of this. It makes sense though and I'm glad that Yukio is being rewarded. If it hadn't been for him...

 

Yeah...

 

Well...

 

Let's just not think about that.

 

Yukio, although he tries very hard not to let on, loves his new position as the proprietor of the Dragon's Tears. He's even discovered, much to his considerable surprise, that he has something of a green thumb and that even the most contrary of plants thrive under his care. His posse, after debating the merits of being a, and I quote, 'pansy ass' florist versus a dumb ass -- my description, not theirs -- cleaner, are now on board too. Mind you, given that Kimura's death saw the beginning of the end for the Ewigkeit corporation, they were kinda on the look out for a new job anyway and didn't really have that much choice in the matter.

 

Ewigkeit's massive headquarters in the center of Tokyo now house a myriad of small, predominately insignificant businesses while Kimura's penthouse is let, rent free, to a charity specializing in saving animals on the verge of extinction. Singapura knows in detail why Ewigkeit followed Kimura into the ground but it would be a total lie if I said I had any interest in the specifics. All I care about is the fact that they're both well and truly history. Kimura's illegally obtained collection of Egyptian artifacts and religious treasures have either been returned to their rightful owners or donated to museums around the world. An arrogant son of a bitch to the very end, the idiot was so convinced of his immortality that he didn't leave a will, meaning that all his money and everything ended up in the government's pocket. Cathedral, and this really amuses me, has been turned in to a sort of drop in center for the poor and homeless. For a while the manager tried to honor Kimura's unintended bequest by keeping a portrait of the bastard in the foyer. Sadly though it kept getting defaced by the ungrateful poor -- who just happened to keep finding thick black markers left in all of their hang outs -- and the manager has had to concede that perhaps people didn't want to be reminded of Kimura after all.

 

Yawning, I watch with relief as, sick of dancing, Ken and Omi collapse on the grass. They both look happy and I can't help but grin back as Omi waves at me. For a change they actually look both their age and carefree. Although Yukio and his friends get paid for their work, Omi can't resist sticking his nose in and overseeing everything they do, hence why he and Ken are over in the thick of things while Aya and I are back here on the park bench. Ken hovers because Omi hovers. And, yeah, when Aya decides he wants to go and make sure everything's being done to his standards, I more often than not drag myself after him too. Yukio, to his credit, hasn't told any of us to fuck off yet. I'm waiting for it though. God knows I would.

 

Idly scratching my arm, I contemplate the intelligence of sitting on a rickety old wooden bench clad in nothing but a pair of shorts and conclude that, really, putting on a t-shirt before venturing outside wouldn't have been a bad idea. The peeling paint against my back is making my new tattoo itch like nothing else though and if Aya wasn't using me for a footrest I'd like nothing more than to indulge in a quick scratching frenzy. Although the tattoo -- which is of a white cross in front of a gray ankh and is a replica, of sorts, of Aya's scars -- has healed nicely, there's just something about the combination of sweat and old paint that's seriously making me want to repeatedly rake my nails across it. Knowing that I can't so much as squirm without getting Aya's attention, I try both to remain perfectly still and to not dwell on my desire to scratch. The tattoo artist having done an excellent job though, and Aya's thin lipped disapproval having been only fleeting, I'm pleased with the tattoo and don't mind too greatly having to put up with a little discomfort.

 

As ironic as I know it is, we've adopted Kimura's beloved ankh and combined it with the white cross to form the new symbol for Weiss. Aya and I have it forever marked into our skin while Ken and Omi wear the symbol when on a mission. The charm bracelet Aya made out of the ankhs I collected from Kimura's henchmen has now been modified in that two of the ankhs have been removed -- going to Ken and Omi for earrings -- and there's now four mother-of-pearl crosses hanging from it. He wears it on missions while I wear, on a chain around my neck, the diamond encrusted ankh that I pulled from Kimura's ear that night at Cathedral. Aya had it set in a white gold cross and presented it to me, with no fanfare whatsoever, just before we left Souzou for our first mission since falling foul of Kimura.

 

Forever Weiss.

 

I like the symbolism.

 

The music getting louder and the dancing getting more debauched, I glance around for Yukio's young sister, Mikuni, wondering where she could be. Unable to find a babysitter for her and unwilling to pay the exorbitant fee required by Ryoko, his other sister, to look after her, Yukio did the only thing he could and brought her along with him for the day. Six year old girls never having been my idea of a good time, I nearly had a fit when I saw her clamber out of his Nissan, my mind immediately envisioning six straight hours of Spyro the freakin' Dragon or something as equally as inane to keep her amused and out of harms way. Thankfully however, and I'm yet to decide whether to be miffed by this or not, she was as enthused to see me as I was to see her and attached herself to Aya. As Kodak moments go it was priceless. As was the expression on Aya's face as she solemnly told him that, as they both had red hair, they were obviously meant to be special friends.

 

"At the risk of you hitting me with your book, have you seen Mikuni recently?" I query softly. "It's just that it's getting dark and I'd hate for her to get lost."

 

"Last I saw of her she was asleep on the sofa," Aya replies, lowering his book far enough to glance at me over the top of it. "Going how exhausted she was, I suspect she's still there."

 

"Surely there's no way she could sleep through the music though," I mutter. "I know if I happened to be asleep and woke to that I'd be out for blood."

 

"But you're not a six year old girl who's just spent a very busy day naming every single Koi in the pond," Aya responds, smiling. "Trust me, Yohji, you try differentiating between fifty fish that all look the same and you'd be out cold too."

 

"What have you done with the... ah... guide?" I ask, referring to the piece of paper on which Mikuni has drawn every one of the fish alongside of their carefully thought out name. "After all that hard work you wouldn't want to lose it."

 

"You're so right there," Aya murmurs, marking his page with a bookmark before closing his book. "I've placed it in the book on Souzou for safekeeping. I know you think it just looked like scribble but the markings on each fish appears to be fairly accurate." Pausing, Aya laughs. "Albeit creatively colored. I don't know about you but I'm yet to meet a black, green and purple Koi."

 

"Obviously you just haven't been looking hard enough," I retort, suddenly deciding that it would be a good idea to lean across and give Aya a gentle kiss on the lips. Audience of ex-homeboys aside, he returns my kiss willingly and actually pouts in disappointment when I pull back.

 

"And what was that for exactly?" Aya smiles as I flop back against the bench.

 

"Because..."

 

... Because you have absolutely no idea how much you mean to me and because if I was one for praying I'd thank God every day for the fact that you're here with me.

 

... Because you didn't let that bastard Kimura beat you.

 

... Because although you've got the nasty habit of likening yourself to the Grim Reaper you're kind to small children and cats and because you're nowhere near as hard as you want people to believe you are.

 

... Because, despite everything, what we share is special and waking up next to you is enough to make every day a good day.

 

... Because although you don't say it I know this is where you want to be and that you love me in your own way.

 

"Because I like knowing I can," I murmur, choosing the simplest of responses because, ultimately, it covers everything.

 

Dropping the book on his lap, Aya sits up and, as a chorus of wolf whistles and cat calls somehow manage to make themselves heard over the music, ghosts his lips across mine.

 

"Me too," he whispers, resting our foreheads together. "Me too."

 

~ end ~