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~ A Life On Hold ~

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// May I have your attention please?

May I have your attention please?

Will the real Slim Shady please stand up?

I repeat, will the real Slim Shady please stand up?

We're gonna have a problem here! //

 

Oh yeah. In fact, I think there's a chance we might even have a really big problem, unless...

 

Shit.

 

I can't look.

 

Closing my eyes, I brace myself for the inevitable screeching sound of metal meeting metal and say a quick prayer under my breath that both the -- pig-headed, arrogant and damn near suicidal -- drivers live to tell the tale.

 

Tires squealing. Eminem blaring. Horns blasting.

 

"Stupid punk! I've got a good mind to call the authorities on you!"

 

"Fuck you, mother-fucker!"

 

Nice. Just what I need to start the day.

 

Opening my eyes, I watch as the red-faced businessman in the black Mercedes gesticulates both angrily and rudely at the driver of the Jeep Wrangler before, with tires once again squealing, he plants his foot and takes off down the street.

 

"Dumb fuck," the young male driver of the Wrangler mutters, clambering out of his vehicle and rolling his eyes at me. "No offence, man, as I don't know how old you are, but I swear you should lose your license the minute you hit, like, thirty."

 

Deciding that there's nothing to be achieved from telling him that, well, *he* was the one at fault for performing both an illegal and ill-judged u-turn, I smile politely and nod. "You may have a point there."

 

According to all the tests, all the hoops I've been made to jump through, I'm -- give or take -- twenty-five years old. Not knowing any better, I just take their, the ever numerous doctors in their white coats, word for it. Just as, once again the lack of viable options not really giving me any choice in the matter, I accept the first of January to be my birthday.

 

New year. New life.

 

Or that's the reasoning, anyway.

 

Given that I'm already late, I fail to see how another five minutes will hurt and walk over to a conveniently placed park bench. Placing my -- ball and chain -- briefcase on my lap, I open it up and pull out a cigarette. Lighting it, I take a welcome drag and relax against the uncomfortable wooden bench as the nicotine begins to work its magic. Oh yeah, baby. I needed that. Given that I've taken to it like the proverbial fish to water, I can only assume that I used to smoke before and don't know how I managed to make it through -- the first -- six months without having it as a crutch to fall back on.

 

'Before'... 'Assume'... Two words that I hate for the frequency in which I feel compelled to use them. 'Maybe' rates pretty highly too. In the realm of brief and to the point sentences, I'm pretty much over 'I don't know' as well.

 

Over, very much so, but nonetheless accustomed to.

 

Again, it's not as though I have a freakin' choice in the matter.

 

Shutting the briefcase, I drop it carelessly on the ground and idly watch the driver of the Jeep as he gingerly lifts an elaborate flower arrangement from out of the backseat. Aaah... Silly me. I should have known he was from the Dragon's Tears by the unique, shimmering green color of the Wrangler and his hip 'n' trendy but barely decent denim overalls. Yes, it's a lovely day and, yes, he has a -- very -- nice body, but, well, baggy overalls with nothing underneath just don't really strike me as what you'd call normal attire for a florist. Then again, this is a member of the Dragon's Tears' posse we're talking about here, someone for whom I very much doubt the word 'normal' holds a lot of weight.

 

The Dragon's Tears being, of course, a very trendy and successful franchise of flower shops that I swear are beginning to take over Tokyo. Started from nothing in a run down, crime infested part of town, they're now seemingly everywhere. The young men who operate the shops are so popular that not only are they taking up ever-increasing column space in the youth orientated pop culture magazines but they've also got their own incredibly popular -- as in now as scarce as hen's teeth and something worthy of bragging to your friends about if you're one of lucky ones to have your own copy -- calendar.

 

How I know this is because a copy of said calendar hangs over the refrigerator at home and just happens to be, with the exception of the Contemptible Canine, Asuka's number one favorite belonging. I made the mistake of tearing Mr March and his bouquet of whatever the damn flower of the month was that was -- barely -- covering his modesty off the calendar instead of simply flipping it over and, oh boy, I thought she was going to divorce me on the spot. Liking the quiet life, it took a huge bunch of flowers, from, where else but the Dragon's Tears, of course, to get her to deign to talk to me again.

 

"Oh, oh! Look! It's a member of the Dragon's Tears! Isn't he just, ohmygod, *hot*!"

 

"Quick! Take a photo!"

 

"Just wait until I send this to Mari! She's *so* gonna be green with envy!"

 

"Wonder who the lucky bitch is that's getting the flowers? It's not fair! I don't even know her and I'm jealous!"

 

"My birthday's coming up. I hope someone loves me enough to send me flowers from the Dragon's Tears."

 

"Did you get a photo? Quick! Get another one!"

 

Rolling my eyes, I watch the small group of pre-pubescent school girls get all giggly and flustered at the sight of the florist and only just resist the urge to laugh. Cute. Getting all excited by a florist. I mean, whatever next? If the latest rumors doing the rounds are true, and members of the Dragon's Tears are about to release a CD, then I very much suspect -- even if it is in that dreadful rap style they so favor and that pumps out from not only all their vehicles but also their shops -- there'll be no stopping them. Hell, on the strength of marketing and flowers alone they've already got the fan base.

 

"My, what an unique arrangement," an elderly female voice comments from behind the bench. "I've never seen flowers quite like them before."

 

"They're Kangaroo Paws," I reply, swiveling around to face the woman, the answer coming out of nowhere to me, "and the reason you wouldn't have seen them before is because they're native to Australia."

 

"However do you know that, young man?" the old woman queries, smiling at me brightly. "I've got a grandson your age and I doubt he'd be able to tell a rose from a carnation."

 

"I..."

 

Fuck.

 

Fuck it, fuck it, Goddamn fuck it to hell and back!

 

Kangaroo Paws. Christ. Where on earth did that piece of freakin' pointless information come from, huh?

 

Standing up, I retrieve my briefcase and smile wanly. "I honestly don't know," I murmur, bowing my head. "Now, if you'll excuse me I really must be getting to work."

 

Will the Real Slim Shady please stand up, indeed.

 

~*~

 

"Ah, Mr Itou, so nice of you to finally put in an appearance."

 

Still fighting to make sense of the whole Kangaroo Paws deal, I ignore the snooty sounding voice and continue making my way down the very modern and very soulless corridor towards the -- equally as soulless but not quite as modern and nowhere near as spacious -- cubicle I get to call my own for ten hours a day, five days a week.

 

Native Australian flowers? I mean, what the...? Have I been to Australia, is that it?

 

"Mr Itou!"

 

And, okay, assuming I *have* been to Australia, why would I have gone there? Work? Holiday? The Olympics? To get up close and personal with a koala?

 

"Mr Itou! Most other employees, when I'm talking to them, give me the courtesy of their attention."

 

Oh. Shit.

 

Itou. That's -- allegedly -- me.

 

Ooops.

 

Stopping, I turn around to face Mr Utsunomiya, the dead from the feet up CEO, and shrug nonchalantly. "Sir."

 

"You're late," Utsunomiya grunts, wagging his finger at me disapprovingly. "That's the third time this week."

 

"Sorry," I mutter flatly, feeling, in fact, far from it. "Trains though, what can you do?"

 

"You can always catch an earlier one," Utsunomiya replies, glowering at me through his small, close-set eyes. "No one else here seems to suffer the same problems with public transport as you do."

 

"Sorry, sir. I'll try harder tomorrow. Promise," I murmur, somehow managing to actually sound contrite. Go me. Given that I'd really like to tell the little toad what he could do with his soul destroying, so called *job*, I really feel as though I should be congratulated on my restraint.

 

"I'll be watching," Utsunomiya scowls, officiously straightening his tie and smoothing down his -- already gelled to within an inch of its life -- hair. "Oh, and Itou, what have I said to you about your hair?"

 

"Sir?" I query blankly, not wanting to give him the satisfaction of repeating, parrot-fashion, his oft barked order, the one that, like so many of his dictatorial commands, never fails to go in one ear and straight out the other. Utsunomiya and I have an understanding. He hates me and I hate him. It really is that simple. I could gel back my hair and wear pinstripes, turning myself into a clone of the officious prick, and he'd still hate me. Not, it has to be said, that I really care a damn.

 

"Get it cut," Utsunomiya states commandingly, flashing me a warning look that would make a lesser individual drop immediately to the floor in penance but, oddly enough, has never had any impact on me whatsoever, before spinning around and striding down the corridor.

 

"Yes, sir," I mutter under my breath, flicking the bird at his pinstriped back. "Three bags full, sir. Bite me, *sir*."

 

... News flash, asshole, and I really hate to break this to you, you don't own me. I work -- begrudgingly -- for you but that's it. And, well, I *like* my hair this length. I don't know, it just feels more *me*, somehow.

 

Or... fuck it... something like that anyway.

 

~*~

 

Stretching, I scowl at my empty coffee cup and, deciding that it's too much effort to go for a refill, ferret in my drawer for a stick of gum. It's a poor man's substitute for a cigarette but, my Teflon coated position in this place only stretching so far, there's not a lot I can do about it without drawing yet more unwanted attention in my direction. Unfortunately.

 

The lingering aroma of stale smoke that clings to me and the slight yellowing of the fingers on my right hand, I can deal with no problem. What I can't deal with so easily however is the nicotine cravings that settle over me while I'm stuck in this hell hole. I've found that I smoke more when I'm bored. This in turn means, if -- only -- I could, I'd chain smoke from the minute I stepped in to the office until the minute I left.

 

Bore. Bored. Boring.

 

Popping a piece of gum in my mouth, I lean back in my ergonomically designed, and quite frankly a right bitch to sit on, chair and stare idly at the ceiling.

 

Man, what I wouldn't give for a smoke.

 

And, hey, while I'm at it I wouldn't say no to a shot or five of whiskey either.

 

My life ain't no great shakes, sure, but I think I hate my job more than just about anything. My home life -- what there is of it -- sucks and my past is a blank page just waiting to be written on, but, hey, not a problem. Home I can simply avoid as much as possible and, well, drinking to forget has more than one meaning, you know. Work, however is simply an unavoidable constant. Cigarettes and watches and all of life's other little essentials not, regrettably, falling from the sky like manna from heaven, one has to endure the never ending drudgery in order to earn money. As much as it bites the big one, it's just one of those horrible, inescapable facts of life.

 

Some days I just want to sit at my desk and cry. Others I want to put my fist through the computer monitor before perching on the photocopier and screeching like a baboon on heat. Hell, if nothing else it might get a reaction from the zombies I have the misfortune of spending far too much of my time with. If Utsunomiya is dead from the feet up then these sad, downtrodden and pathetic creatures are fucking comatose. I've been here near on a year now and I swear I haven't seen so much as a hint of a smile from any of them.

 

No. Hang on. That's not entirely true. The bespectacled geek with the truly shocking personal hygiene that sits in the back cubicle, I *think*, managed to crack a smile when the new computers arrived. Then again, it not being an expression I'd seen on his nerdy face before, for all I know he may have just been passing wind.

 

Whatever.

 

I've tried talking to them, to my *colleagues*, but it's like they either have no social skills or they simply don't want to know me. Mind you, it's not just me that they ignore. Despite the fact they've all worked here -- since dinosaurs roamed the earth -- for years now and should, to my way of thinking anyway, be at the very least friendly with each other, it's quite literally like working with a group of strangers. I made a point of learning everyone's names but, given that I never have any need to use them, don't even know why I bothered. There being only so much of being stared blankly at that I can take, I stopped saying good morning to everyone halfway through my third week.

 

Rebelling against the self-imposed office policy of no personal items brightening up our -- cells -- cubicles, I have a postcard of Munch's 'The Scream' stuck to the side of my computer monitor. God knows it couldn't be more fitting if I'd painted it myself.

 

... And, I can paint. Reasonably well, in fact. Whether this means I was an artist or whether it's just something I can do isn't something -- surprise, surprise -- I know the answer to. It's kinda nice knowing that I can do something though.

 

As the days go by in their infernal, numbing slowness, 'The Scream' is beginning to strike me more and more as representing the ultimate in self-portraits. To hell with always looking for the fucking bright side and making the most of a bad situation. Maybe my adult life always consisted of this obliterating sameness, of files and computers and paperclips and temperamental pieces of office equipment that somehow know instinctively when you're in a hurry and immediately call a stop work meeting for the next two hours just to piss you off further... I don't know. What I do know, however, is that I now know the true meaning behind the term 'going postal'. Seriously. Some days more than others it would literally take next to nothing to push me over the edge once and for all.

 

Not, I suspect, barring breaking a few noses and getting carted off either in handcuffs or a straight jacket, that it would exactly do me a lot of good. While it's yet another aspect of my life that I don't have a freakin' answer for, I appear to have this job until the day some unknown deity takes pity on me and I drop dead. Go figure. I neither like it nor want it, but it's mine for life. All of Utsunomiya's Christmases would come at once if he could see me manhandled off the premises once and for all by a couple of his pet guards but, for reasons unknown, he can't touch me.

 

Again, go fucking figure. In the grand scheme of things I'm a nobody, a paper-pushing, unimportant, and easily replaceable pleb. I should, like all the other spineless amoebas in the office, lower my gaze and cower whenever Utsunomiya deigns to grace us with his almighty presence. What I most definitely *shouldn't* do is a) salute him, b) clap him on the back, c) laugh at his tie, or d) completely ignore him. Oh. And while I'm at it, giving him a Nazi salute, for some reason, is worse than a normal, every day salute. I've also snapped at him, swore at him and -- the horror! -- argued with him. I once back-talked him to such an extent that I honestly thought he was going to have a heart attack, he was that angry.

 

Tedious lectures and pointless chastisements aside though, nothing ever comes of it. I don't get sent home, my pay doesn't get docked, and I don't even get to go play head-fuck with some bored, know-it-all shrink. Sometimes I even think I could casually hold a letter opener to the bastard's throat and he'd still just have to grin and wear it.

 

Untouchable.

 

With no recognizable skills or confirmed schooling, I walked into this job as though the Gods themselves had decreed it. Asuka thinks that I should be thankful to the Takatori family for taking an interest in me, that without their kind assistance my life would be even more worthless than it currently is. She also thinks that I should feel honored that they not only paid all my hospital bills but that they also considered enough of me to make a position available in one of their many firms for me to slot into.

 

Money being a necessary evil, yes, I'm -- for the want of a better word -- grateful for both the hospital bills being paid and for the fact that I'm employed. I'd place myself forever in their monetary debt though if it meant finding out *why* I'm worthy of such -- *distant* -- care and attention. Hell, if it meant answers, I'd even hock any internal organs I had going spare.

 

My own limited investigations having uncovered a big fat fuck all, to the best of my knowledge I really am a nobody. Average looks, average intelligence - just, well, average period, really. Why the Takatori family... conglomeration... some, the conspiracy theory freaks amongst us, might even say yakuza like organization... give a rat's ass either way about me is quite seriously beyond my bounds of reason. They claim, although God forbid their well-dressed representative ever states it quite this bluntly, that I'm merely a charity case, one of their many public relations / tax dodge endeavors for the year.

 

It sounds good, yeah, and the cynic in me is apt to believe it -- 'oh, let's feel all altruistic and throw the poor amnesiac a bone' -- but...

 

Fuck. I don't know! I mean, as admittedly far fetched as it sounds, what if... just what if... I used to work for them in some capacity? I have less than no idea what I may have done for them, given that the Takatori's have everything money can buy and then more on top of that, but...

 

Well, it would kinda make sense, wouldn't it? Perhaps whatever happened to me happened while in their employment and, without having to cough up an explanation or anything decent like that, this bullshit job is their equivalent of a settlement package.

 

Or perhaps I'm simply paranoid and everything -- that is known, anyway -- really is exactly just as it seems.

 

I...

 

... Oh, oh! Wait for it. Here it comes again...

 

I don't know.

 

I wish to God that I did, but I just don't have a fucking clue.

 

Clueless, that's pretty me all over.

 

My name is Itou Yohji. The Yohji part I believe because -- and Christ, would I *love* to know the reasoning behind this -- that was the name written on the underwear they found me in. Itou, however, is the family name of Asuka's great grandmother. She gave it to me with love and I accepted it.

 

I'm -- probably -- twenty-five years old. My fingerprints having been run through every registry of prints that there is, I've never been in trouble with the law. My teeth are either perfect or I used to have an aversion to dentists as a search through dental records also came up with squat. There being no accessible paper trail on me, it's honestly as though I only came into existence twelve months ago.

 

I'm married to Asuka, a nurse I met in the hospital after waking up from a coma that no one truly knows the origins of. Badly beaten and with my leg broken, an ambulance crew received an anonymous call to pick me up from the blown apart wreckage of what had, only the day before, apparently, been the Kou Academy, a very expensive and elite school. Whoever it was that called for help had also tendered to my wounds before, having done their bit, disappearing into the ether. Clutched in both hands I held a katana that, upon waking, meant nothing to me. Before... handing it back to the... courier... I tried practicing with it, just to see whether I could wield it with any skill. And, well, ungainly having nothing on it, let's just say there wasn't a snowflake's chance in hell of it ever having actually been mine.

 

I have two bullet scars, one on my left shoulder and the other just to the right of my navel, and two tattoos, the word 'SIN' on the top of my left arm and a hybrid of a cross and an ankh on the small of my back. Of all these marks it's next to impossible to specify which one fascinates me the most. The tattoos, well, yeah, okay, I may have just had one drink too many and simply thought that they were a good idea at the time. Maybe. The bullet wounds though? I mean, I was *shot*? *Twice*? What gives with that, huh? What's more, the shoulder wound predates the stomach one by something like twelve months. And, again, I say, huh? Japanese schools not exactly being the roughest of places, the bullet scars pretty much put an end to the one and only viable theory I had that I'd perhaps once been a teacher.

 

As logical as it would be to search through the staff database of the Kou Academy, I can't because the official story is that all the records pertaining to the school were destroyed in the explosions that ripped it apart. Now, me, I find this impossible to believe. Record keeping is a meticulous art form and, well, who'd keep records better than the anally retentive Education Department? I asked my 'face' of the mysterious Takatori's, a young woman with a penchant for tight black skirt suits worn with knee high, fuck me boots, and whose name I know only to be Sing, to look into the records for me and even she wasn't able to come up with anything. Given who she works for, I'm not sure that I believe her but have nonetheless resigned myself to the fact that there isn't a damn thing I can do about it. If my benefactors want to keep something to themselves then God knows it would take far more than me to get it out of them.

 

There are times when I swear that all paths lead, indirectly, of course, and with lots and lots of dead ends and wrong turns thrown in for good measure, to the Takatori's. Classing it once again as a generous, magnanimous gesture to the people of Tokyo, they even bought the land where the school had once stood and turned it into a public, memorial park. The young Takatori, Mamoru, became so distressed at the opening ceremony that, or so the rumor goes anyway, he had to be sedated. Why it's called a memorial park -- I mean, what's it a memorial to? According to all reports the school was deserted when it went up and no lives were lost -- and why cutting the ribbon on its peculiar, cross adorned gates stressed out Mamoru is yet another couple of questions to add to the pile of the great unknown.

 

I hate to have to say it, given that he's never done anything to me personally, but Takatori Mamoru kinda freaks me out. He's hardly what you'd call big and scary looking, and I've never heard a harsh word spoken against him, but for some reason he just makes me feel really uncomfortable. He came here, to the office, once, I think, on some sort of tour of the family's holdings. Utsunomiya and his troop of data entering zombies nearly had conniptions at the sight of him and his entourage silently materializing in the doorway. Too intent on my thirtieth or so game of Solitaire for the morning, I didn't even bother to look up and was subsequently somewhat nonplussed when he -- the young heir with the huge, sad eyes -- appeared at my elbow.

 

Fuck knows why he singled me out and fuck knows why he felt compelled to ask five times, albeit worded slightly differently each time, whether I was happy. Just wanting to get him away from me, I faked the brightest smile I could manage and told him that I'd never been happier. For some reason this seemed to please him and, with only the most cursory of conversations with Utsunomiya, he waved his ever-present minders towards the door and took his leave. Talk about freakin' strange. What was worse though was the fact he totally put me off my game and the damn computer proceeded to kick my ass for the rest of the day.

 

The other reason I'm a little, no doubt foolishly and totally without good reason, wary of Mamoru is because it was just after his peculiar visit that things really started to go pear shaped. Before then, while definitely not jumping with joy at the state of my life, I'd been more or less content and still felt as though I'd be able to make a go of everything. Happy with married life and in love with my wife, I'd even been able to successfully push the mystery of my past to the back of my head. Some days were better than others, of course, but as a rule I didn't let it bother me too greatly.

 

So what if I didn't know who it was that I'd once been? Perhaps, in a way, it was even for the best. I had my health, a job that paid more than adequately, and I had Asuka. How could whatever it was that I'd had before compare to all of that? Knowing would have been nice, for sure, but it wasn't a huge concern. Whoever it was that I'd been before didn't matter. I was Itou Yohji. Husband, businessman, and, even if I do say so myself, all round nice guy.

 

In the midst of this, hidden in the back of my closet, I had the katana that I'd been found with. Sometimes, usually when Asuka was at work or out with friends, I'd get it out and just hold it. The part of me that's prone to wishful thinking used to hope that just by clasping its hilt it would be able to tell me, a bit like a crystal ball, something of both its rightful owner and my past.

 

It never did though. Nor did I ever feel anything other than foolish while holding it. If by chance it meant anything to me then it sure as fuck didn't feel compelled to share its secrets. Finding me holding it once, Asuka suggested taking it to a clairvoyant or medium but I wouldn't have any of it. As completely unexplainable and totally without reason as I knew it to be, I simply didn't want anyone else touching it. While not *mine*, per se, it had clearly been entrusted to me and something in me felt as though I'd be betraying its rightful owner by carelessly handing it around.

 

As unknown a quantity as the katana was, I *liked* having it. Illogically, while accepting that it wasn't really mine, it was still the only link to my past that I had, the only thing that was -- in a round about, twisted, contradictory sort of sense -- mine.

 

When the... courier... came for it, less than a week after Mamoru's odd appearance in the office (leading to the no doubt pointless paranoia on my part...), handing it over actually *hurt*. I pretended that it didn't, hell, I even made a point of being all blasÈ about it. What's more, I told myself at the time that it was for the best, that clinging to it was never going to achieve anything anyway. Watching my, his words, not mine, 'friend' -- who I couldn't for the life of me recognize and who could have been a random stranger off the street for all I knew -- walk off with it though was like being gut punched. The second it was out of my hands I wanted it back. I also wanted to ask all the questions that, somewhat shocked by his unexpected appearance on my doorstep, I hadn't been able to formulate while he'd been standing in front of me.

 

Who was he? How did he know me? Why had he chosen now of all times to materialize out of nowhere and pay me a visit?

 

Who was 'Aya' and how did I instinctively know that, female name aside, he was most definitely a *he*? Why hadn't 'Aya' come for his katana personally? Why had he left it with me in the first place? What, if anything, did we mean to each other?

 

Who? What? Why? How?

 

Who...

 

Who was I, really?

 

If not for Asuka coming to the door and placing her hand on my arm, I would have gone after him, my 'friend'. As it was, I still hesitated. Chase my past or embrace my future? Reaching the rapid -- *wrong* -- conclusion that what I had was enough, I let him go and allowed Asuka to guide me back inside.

 

And that, really, was the beginning of the end.

 

Perhaps if I'd kept the katana, my -- only -- tenuous link to an unknown life, things may have continued coasting along as they had been. I just don't know. What I do know though is that things started to disintegrate after it had gone.

 

As stupid and freakin' illogical as it sounds, I honestly believe that letting the katana go was a mistake. If I'd kept it... If I'd waited for 'Aya' to retrieve it himself... If I hadn't let my 'friend' go without demanding some answers... If I'd put the unexpected change behind me and forged ahead with my life instead of dwelling on... everything...

 

From that point onwards what I'd contentedly accepted as normal became stifling and a constant, heavy weight across my shoulders. Work, without actually changing at all, became intolerable and Asuka...

 

And Asuka, as much as I'm loathe to admit it, started to slowly turn into a stranger. I tried to talk to her about how much losing the katana had upset my flighty equilibrium but she simply didn't want to hear it. Never having shared my fascination with it, good riddance, was her opinion on the subject. In fact, I think she was actually happy, if not downright relieved, that it was gone.

 

"Your life is now entirely yours so, let's, you know, start thinking about children..."

 

Children!

 

Oh my God! I couldn't even force myself to *pretend* that I thought it was a good idea. I mean, Christ... Just how on earth could I think about bringing another life into the world when I didn't even know who I was? Not only that, but was the world we lived in, with its hideous crimes and questionable justice system, any place for an innocent child? I know children are brought into the world every minute of the day, but...

 

But that doesn't mean I wanted to be responsible for one of my very own. I tried to convince Asuka that now wasn't the time, that perhaps it would be better if we waited for a year or so, but, her mind stuck firm on the idea of booties and a nursery, she wasn't prepared to listen.

 

"If you loved me you'd want to have a child with me!"

 

"A baby will make us a family."

 

"Your own child will ground you, give you something to truly call your own."

 

"I hate you! You care more about that stupid katana than you do about me!"

 

Her tears and angry words hurt but I wouldn't -- *couldn't* -- budge. I like children enough (so long as I can give them back after an hour or so and don't have to feel responsible for their well being twenty-four/seven) but the thought of having my own was nothing short of horrifying.

 

After a few weeks of teary arguments and sullen expressions, by which time our until then fulfilling sex life had gone the way of the dinosaur and a chasm had appeared in the middle of our bed, Asuka simply gave up.

 

"Fine. At least I now know, before things went any further, that you don't love me."

 

The ability to know what to say not going hand in my hand with my desire to comfort her, there wasn't even anything I could do to reassure her to the contrary. I still, in my own, barely adequate way, loved her but it wasn't enough. I loved her for her kindness and for the first, happy six months we'd spent together but, again, it just wasn't anywhere near enough.

 

Asuka is a lovely, exceptionally giving person and if I was normal she'd be more than I could ever want from a partner. The farcical state of our marriage aside, I know that I'll be forever in her debt. When everyone else... when my 'friends'... when 'Aya'... had abandoned me, Asuka was the one to offer me a light at the end of a very long and dark tunnel. She was there for me when no one else cared to give me the time of day and there will be a part of me that always cares for her.

 

Again though, it's not enough. It should be, and God knows I'm lucky to have had it at all, but it's just not.

 

We live together yet we're now more acquaintances than husband and wife. Not wanting to remain in each other's company for any longer than we absolutely have to, Asuka works every extra shift available to her at the hospital while I prowl the clubs looking for willing partners -- male or female. It doesn't matter so long as they're willing to have me -- to numb some of the pain with. I don't know if she's found a broad shoulder to cry on in a kind hearted doctor but I hope that she has. Just because we're not meant to be together doesn't stop me from wishing her every happiness. Because we so steadfastly avoid each other, the divorce word is yet to have come up but I'm just waiting for it. It could, I suppose, even be said that I'm looking forward to it. I'm letting Asuka run the show though and I'm confident that when she's ready she won't hesitate in pulling the plug.

 

The past six months, since I handed back the damn katana, have crawled by with the all speed, charm and grace of a crippled snail drugged to the eyeballs on Valium. During this time I've started to smoke, grown my hair down to just past my shoulder, turned more and more frequently to the demon drink, and fucked more strangers than I care to recall. I've also wasted hours upon hours on dwelling on my life... on my past... on the mysterious 'Aya'... on my dark haired 'friend'... on the Takatori's... on what I could possibly hope to achieve from my meaningless existence...

 

And, oddly enough, it's all been to no fucking avail.

 

I exist, but I don't live. The one night stands kill time and momentarily fill a void, but I don't really derive any lasting pleasure from them. Work fills in the weekday hours and increases my frustration levels, but, really, I could spend my day sitting on a park bench in the middle of nowhere for all I cared.

 

But...

 

What else can I do, huh?

 

Short of 'Aya' -- and why merely thinking his name, when I have no face to put to it, immediately makes me feel as though a hand is squeezing my hand dry is anyone's damn guess -- or my 'friend' reappearing in my life and whisking me away to pastures greener, I'm pretty much just stuck. I *could* look for another job, one that would suit me better, but, well, not really knowing what would suit me, what's the point in even looking?

 

The ceiling not exactly being forthcoming with any of answers I so desperately seek, I blow a bubble with my gum and, sitting up a little straighter, brush my hand over the mouse, clearing away the -- Flying Windows! Oh! The originality! The excitement! -- screensaver from my monitor. Thrilled to be active again, tinny music immediately begins to come out of the tiny speakers, reminding me in no uncertain terms that the only thing worse than Eminem proper is Eminem in the midi format.

 

Honestly, the Dragon's Tears and their Eminem obsession is just too much. Seriously, isn't having his music on their website just taking things a *little* too far? I don't know if I had Eminem *issues* before but I sure as hell do now. Hearing him is enough to make me twitch. Worse, with no effort on my part whatsoever, I even know the words to at least half of his stupid, and I use the word lightly here, songs. Oddly enough, I kinda would have liked to discover that I could speak English in some way *other* than finding myself mouthing along to freakin' Eminem.

 

Oh well. I can, or so it appears anyway, speak English. Yay for me. If nothing else I'm multi-lingual and somewhat handy with a paint brush.

 

Watch out world, I don't think.

 

Blowing another bubble, I turn the speakers off and return my attention to the very snazzy Dragon's Tears website. As I'd -- correctly -- told that old lady this morning, Kangaroo Paws are this weeks' specialty and, if I liked, I could order some straight from the site. I *don't* like but, not exactly having anything better to do, I do place an advance order for next years' calendar for Asuka. Idle curiosity being the best friend of mind blowing, ass numbing boredom, I then click on the link for merchandise and amuse myself by checking out what they've got on offer.

 

Their emblem of a purple dragon holding a bunch of gerberas and wearing a baseball cap backwards and an Adidas t-shirt, drawn chibi style, being just too darn cute for words, I can see why girls Tokyo over are anxious to part with their parents' hard earned cash on as many items as they can possibly collect. Mugs, make-up purses and mirrors, totes, notepads, the obligatory t-shirts - just about you name it and you can get it with their dragon plastered all over it.

 

While their marketing and targeting of their demographic is really second to none, I don't really get it.

 

I mean, when did florists do anything other than arrange, care for, and sell flowers?

 

~*~

 

Every day, it's the same.

 

I have the cigarette out of the briefcase and in my hand before I get up from my desk. By the time I've reached the door my finger is hovering... no... *twitching*... over the lighter. Time very much being of the essence, I then place the unlit smoke in my mouth as I hurry towards the foyer, and subsequently freedom. Within a split second of having stepped foot outside in the fresh air the smoke is lit and I'm sucking nicotine into my lungs with all the relief and gusto of a true addict. The need being so great, the cigarette hardly gets me past the ugly fountain and so called artistic pieces of sculpture that 'decorate' the forecourt and onto the footpath before I'm scrabbling in my pocket -- where, knowing myself too well, I've moved the pack of cigarettes from the briefcase to -- for another one.

 

The walk to the train station takes, at a normal, non feet dragging pace, ten minutes. If I've had a bad day it can take five smokes to get me there.

 

Every day it's the damn same. In terms of the nicotine governed ritual I perform every evening after work, I'm as regular as freakin' clockwork. Gotta get the fuck out of there. Gotta smoke. Gotta calm down. Gotta get away.

 

I used to go straight home but now, more often than not, I loiter aimlessly in the streets, avoiding the peak hour rush and generally putting off returning to the apartment for as long as I possibly can. Sometimes I go shopping. Other times I take up space in a cafÈ, drinking cup after cup of coffee and, foolishly, guaranteeing myself a wired, sleepless night. Mostly though I just walk, my shoulders slumped against the world and my face hidden behind a thin veil of smoke from the ever present cigarette in my hand - invisible and totally and utterly alone.

 

Today, however, being pay day, I'm full of intent and know exactly where it is I'm going. Miracles only existing in fairytales, I've given up hoping to find the *one* -- 'my preciousssss' -- but, needing *something*, that doesn't mean that I have to stop looking. If anything, it's something I quite enjoy, in a crazy masochistic, hope crushing sort of way. Besides, who knows, maybe one day I *will* find it. Let's face it, stranger things have, I'm sure, happened.

 

Flicking the butt of my smoke into the gutter, I gently push open the door and step into the old world charm of my favorite shop. As always, Mr Kuwashima greets me, his number one customer, by name and flashes a genuine, pleased-to-see-you smile in my direction. Returning his smile, I echo his greeting and place my briefcase just by the door, leaving both my hands free. My visits to Mr Kuwashima's watch shop having their own ritual, he remains hovering by the till as I browse. Unlike a lot of shops I've been to, he doesn't crowd me or try to push the latest or most expensive model at me. Not really knowing what I'm looking for, I like that he leaves me to my own devices and doesn't breathe down my neck, offering 'helpful' suggestions and mentally ringing up the sale in his head.

 

The other thing I like about Mr Kuwashima is the fact that he once let me try on a Rolex even though it was clear I'd never be able to actually afford one. He didn't even blink when, its exceptional craftsmanship and ageless, effortless style aside, having done nothing for me, I handed it back to him and bought a Swatch.

 

...Casio. Seiko. Pulsar. Tag Heuer. Swatch. Adec. Raymond Weill. Hugo Boss. Dressy. Trendy. Sports. Diving. Round face. Rectangular face. Square face. Swiss made. Japanese made. Metal band. Leather band...

 

When it comes to watches, just about you name the style or make and I've got at least one example of it. The drawer in my bedside table is devoted solely to all of my watches. Last time I counted them I had twenty-eight, not counting the ones I'd broken it a pointless fit of disappointment. I argue that it's a collection but, really, I think Asuka's claim that it's an obsession is probably closer to the truth.

 

The thing is though, and nothing I can say will make her believe me, none of them *feel* right. I don't know what I'm really expecting to feel from a watch but somehow they're all missing that *something* that will finally tell me that I've found the perfect watch. None of them cut it though. Some, the chunky sports watches for example, are better than others, but even they're not really right.

 

Given that I wasn't even wearing a watch when I was found -- and for all I really know had never worn one in my life -- I have no idea what possesses me in regards to my relentless search for *the* watch. All I know is that none of them are *right*, that they're all lacking that certain something. My holy grail, until I tried it on, had been a Rolex. I'd thought, because of its extravagant cost, that it would have had to have been what, deep down, I was looking for. It wasn't though. Wasn't even close in fact. It looked good, sure, but it still wasn't right.

 

Oh well. It's not like people the world over don't all have their own, peculiar foibles.

 

Gesturing Mr Kuwashima over, I spend the next forty minutes trying on watches and making idle small talk before finally settling on a slightly dressy, silver Seiko. While not striking me as anything overly special, I quite like the look of it and, unlike the Casio with the stretchy band, it fits my wrist nicely.

 

Mr Kuwashima smiles happily as he rings up the sale and, as I retriece my briefcase and open the door, wishes me a pleasant evening. Replying in kind, I exit the shop and, with my new watch already on my left wrist, head towards the station. Striking a bit of luck for the first time in days, my train is just pulling in as I walk onto the platform. Peak hour having pushed and shoved its way through the station while I was pouring over the watches in Mr Kuwashima's shop, I'm able to stroll into a carriage and take a seat without any hassle whatsoever.

 

Some kind soul having abandoned today's paper on the seat next to mine, I pick it up and rearrange its sections back into their rightful order. Although I have a book in my briefcase -- the idea of suffering the seventy minute train journey without reading material striking me as abhorrent to the extreme -- I decide to glance over the day's news before getting it out and settle back to read.

 

And...

 

Damn it!

 

I *knew* there was a reason I -- every time -- favored fiction over nonfiction. Fiction not being *real*, I can lose myself in tales of vampires and the like, safe in the knowledge that they're the work of some author's fervent imagination and nothing more. The paper on the other hand *is* real and the horrific things contained within its pages actually -- God forbid -- *happened*.

 

And...

 

Just fuck it!

 

Fucking lame ass justice system letting fucking Nakagami off!

 

Christ. And to think Asuka honestly believes this is a decent society to bring children in to. I mean, fuck...

 

This seriously defies all belief.

 

Nakagami, the slime ball, is a serial pedophile with a thing for little, as in the younger and more helpless the better, boys. He is also the son of high ranking government official while his wife is a member of one of the few families in Japan that are bigger than the Takatori's, the Nishimura's. The latter two points holding more weight than the law ever could, the fucker could probably set up his very own pedophile network from a government office somewhere and still get away with it.

 

As far as I'm concerned Nakagami simply shouldn't even be allowed to draw breath. Failing that, at the *very* least, he should be thrown in a cell somewhere and -- be left to rot -- simply forgotten about. What he most definitely shouldn't be doing, however, is congratulating his flock of lawyers for a (con)job well done and strolling down the steps of the court house a free man.

 

Un-fucking-believable.

 

His crimes being the sort to turn a sane man's blood to ice, the fact that he's back on the streets is nothing short of a complete travesty. Some of his small victims having attended the hospital where Asuka works, I know -- in far more detail than, really, I would have liked -- more than what the media is letting on and it just sickens me. All of it. What he did to the boys, how money and influence saved him from a much deserved life in jail, the sight of his smug, victorious expression plastered all over the front page of the paper - just fucking all of it. If anyone deserves to die then it's Nakagami. I even think, if I knew how to and could get to him, I'd be able to finish him off myself.

 

And, again... Just fuck it!

 

I'd made a point of not following the case because, naively, obviously, I was convinced that justice would be done and he'd have to pay for his sins. Yeah. Right. Looks like it doesn't exactly pay me to think, then.

 

Screwing the paper up, I throw it back on the empty seat and, seething with frustration and futile anger, stare glumly out the window. It apparently being par for the fucking course, what I see further sours my mood and, laughing dryly to myself like one of those strange people in the street you cross the road to avoid, I shake my head. Choosing this part of the journey to glance out the window would be *so* just about right. I mean, I'm already pissed off so why *not* throw in the sight of the pretentious, butt-ugly and quite frankly aesthetically offensive pyramid to make everything just that little bit worse?

 

For reasons that are as unknown as they are intrinsic, I despise -- as in hate, loathe, detest and would very much like to blow into a million tiny pieces -- the shrine to Kimura Hirotaka that some German organization decided to erect in his memory. He, Kimura, has been dead for three years anyway and it's beyond me why anyone would waste their money on building a memorial to him. Especially one so fucking hideous. At three storeys high and made of glass bricks engraved with hieroglyphics, the -- abomination -- pyramid couldn't look more out of place if someone had actually sat down and put some effort into it. At night a blue neon ankh glows in the middle of it, making the whole architectural nightmare even worse than it is in the bright light of day.

 

Apart from the fact that it's too ugly for words, I don't really know what it is about Kimura's pyramid that pushes my buttons. I've read magazine articles about Kimura but what I learnt from them was hardly worth writing home about. Rich, blah, head of Ewigkeit, blah, friend of the rich and famous, blah, blah, had a deep and abiding fascination with Egyptology, blah, died under mysterious circumstances during the opening night of what had been his labor of love, Cathedral. Yeah, like, whatever. Who cares, you know? Despite clearly being a firm believer in his own publicity, Kimura doesn't really strike me as being worthy of much interest at all.

 

Logic not exactly holding a lot of sway in my charade of a life, reasons matter little though and all I know is that I hate the pyramid and have done so since the day its construction was first announced. Go figure. Perhaps it's got something to do with the ankh I've got tattooed on my back, who fucking knows. Seeing the pyramid reminds me of the Egyptian symbol I've forever got marked into my skin and, not knowing what it means to me, I hate being reminded of it?

 

Or not.

 

Who knows.

 

Hate the pyramid. Hate Nakagami. Hate my life. Hate not knowing. Hate the thought of this being all there is until the Grim Reaper comes to claim me.

 

Hate... so much...

 

Burying my face in my hands, I breathe deeply and try to stave off the tears I can feel welling in my eyes.

 

... Aya?

 

If we ever meant anything to each other, where are you, huh? What did I do to you to make you abandon me like this? Did I hurt you? If I did I'm sorry.

 

I...

 

I think I'd quite like to see you.

 

Please.

 

Needing more than a new watch to give me a reason for carrying on, I need something to cling to before it's too late.

 

~*~

 

"Oh! For fuck's sake! I heard you the first fifteen fucking times!"

 

Unmoved by my response to his cacophony of raucous barking, the Contemptible Canine -- known to those who actually *like* him as Frodo -- jumps up onto the back of sofa and, because he *can*, ups the volume.

 

Yap! Bark! Woof! Yelp! Repeat ad-fucking-nauseam!

 

Not being able to translate stupid, monotonous barking, I have no freakin' idea what his problem is and don't know what to do. I know what I'd like to do -- and that's garrote him with one of my ties -- but, not wanting Asuka's opinion of me to get any worse, resign myself to letting the little bastard live. Maybe I'm just not a dog person. Hell, maybe a dog attacked me when I was young and that's the why I don't, as a rule, like them now. Or perhaps I'm just a cat person. God knows I'd have preferred Asuka to have picked a cat when, needing something to fill the void, she decided that the time had come for a pet.

 

Cats, I can deal with. You feed them, they walk all over you -- literally -- and they think they're doing you a favor by deigning to share their life with your far less significant one. They're also clean and firm believers in both kitty-litter and personal hygiene. Wonderful. Not a problem. Cats, really, are pretty cool. If I've had too much to drink and can't face going inside, I sometimes hold one-sided conversations with a tabby stray that hangs around the apartment block. Having no one else, he (or she... respecting its privacy, I've never checked) seems to be a pretty good listener. The down side, of course, of talking to the stray is the Contemptible Canine's reaction to his scent when I finally go inside. Despite the fact that he hates me, it's as though my fraternizing with a cat is a personal affront to the stupid animal. Given that whatever his breed is means he's hardly bigger than a cat anyway, I honestly don't know what he'd do if he ever met one. Bark and then run for his life, I suspect.

 

"*What*, huh? You can keep fucking barking until hell freezes over for all I care," I scowl, avoiding the sofa and sinking down on the nearby armchair in order to tie my shoelaces. "In case it's escaped your attention, Frodo, sunshine, I'm not Asuka and your well being, in the grand scheme of things, doesn't so much as rate a mention in my game plan."

 

I'm glad that Asuka both has and loves the Contemptible Canine. Really, I am. Seeing him brings a light to her eyes that I no longer can. C.C., for his part, idolizes the ground that she walks on and he goes into spasms of excitement whenever she walks through the door. That said, I do not like him one little iota. He's noisy, demanding, has a wind problem that could clear a crowded hall, and his penchant for wanting carnal relations with my leg -- the only part of me he apparently likes -- is quite literally too disgusting for words. I don't know what it is about my right shin that does it for him, but whatever it is does it for him big time. So long as I'm still, it doesn't even matter what I'm wearing or what I'm doing at the time. It was -- arguably -- cute the first time he wrapped his front paws around my leg and started going for it. Speaking for myself though, I was over it by round two. Pity the same, unfortunately, can't be said for Frodo. Hates me, loves my right leg. It's just great. In return I hate all of his small, furry self and am quite prone to amusing myself with daydreams of him -- accidentally, of course -- taking a flying leap off the balcony.

 

"Don't tell me that my leather pants aren't to your liking?" I drawl, standing back up and grabbing my jacket from the back of the armchair. "Is that it? Or are you just miffed that I'd rather go out than stay here and baby-sit your annoying ass?"

 

Jumping off the sofa and -- again, because he *can* -- running around in ever decreasing circles, Frodo barks himself into a frenzy, adding more proof to my theory that, well, he's insane.

 

Slipping my jacket on, I check the pockets for all the essentials; smokes, keys, wallet, and stroll towards the door. "Don't wait up," I mutter, somehow controlling the urge to give Frodo a gentle tap up the butt with my foot. Just, you know, to see how much he likes it.

 

Walking out of the apartment, I ensure that the door is locked before making my way to the lift. Muffled barking follows me and not for the first time I'm thankful that our neighbors are either elderly and hard of hearing or dog owners themselves. If they weren't... Shit. It just doesn't bear thinking about.

 

Having no real plans as to what to do with myself other than knowing that I had to get out of the apartment before the sound of my screaming drowned out that of the Contemptible Canine's barking, I light a cigarette once I'm out on the street and head in the direction of the station. Asuka is working yet another late shift and won't be home until after I'd have already left for work, meaning I could stay out all damn night if I wanted to. If not for the fact I'll need a change of clothes before forcing myself into the office, I'd have no qualms about doing it either. It's sad, yeah, but nonetheless the cold, hard truth.

 

My unconscious choice of clothing -- black leather trousers that feel better against my skin than even my most expensive work suit and a tight fitting black t-shirt that doesn't quite reach my waist -- no doubt influencing my destination, I'm queuing up outside Illusion before I even really know it. Although it's nearly midnight there's still a crowd gathered outside the club and, because I'm both eager to fit in and don't want to scare any prospective suitors off, I return their happy, speculative smiles with practiced ease.

 

... Hi. Oh yeah, I'm just like you. What you see is what you get, you know?

 

Illusion is, and there's really no two ways about it, a meat market. The DJ is adequate and the drinks aren't too watered down or overpriced, but, really, if you come to Illusion you come to fuck. There are far nicer gay clubs, for sure, but I don't want nice. Nor do I want to dance, make small talk or waste valuable time on cruising. No. Now that I'm here I want to, bluntly put, fuck. And, Illusion being the sort of 'no questions asked' place that is, I know that there's no chance of me leaving unfulfilled.

 

Reaching the bored looking doorman, I pay my entrance fee and stride into the Illusion. The scent of sweat, sex, smoke and Amyl assails my nostrils, leaving me momentarily dizzy. Ignoring the couple that are trying to suck each other's tonsils out to my left, I check my coat and walk into the club proper. Bass heavy Western dance music pumps out across the dance floor and scantily clad male dancers bump 'n' grind in perfect sync with it on the temporary stage set up near the DJ. Out on the dance floor men with slightly -- but only slightly, mind you -- more clothes on try to emulate the dancers' smooth moves. Most of them being either high or drunk, they look like paralytic monkeys in the grips of some sort of group epileptic fit. If I was a nicer person I'd probably feel embarrassed for them. As it is though I just think they look funny.

 

I'm trying to decide between going to the bar and getting a drink or undulating out onto the dance floor and showing the poor fools how it's really done, when the sound of amused laugher coming from my right distracts me. Turning around, I glance at the man and raise my eyebrow speculatively. Seeing that he's both attractive and -- more importantly -- has red hair, I then decide to try my luck and sidle a little closer. "Don't tell me," I murmur, flashing a grin, "the floor show, yeah?"

 

Returning my smile, the man nods. "How'd you guess?" he laughs. "Christ. If they could only see themselves they'd want the ground to open up and swallow them whole."

 

"And then what would we have to look at?" I reply, letting my gaze slide lazily over the man. Hmmm... Definitely an attractive package. Slim, obviously toned body under his trendy Versace jeans and Bathing Ape t-shirt, blue eyes, couple of centimeters shorter than I am... Uh-huh. All good. A little too tanned for my liking but, well, given that I'm unlikely to ever see him again after tonight I think it's something I can live with. Although it's hardly something I could come straight out and ask him, I'd love to know whether his hair was naturally red or whether it was a bottle job. So few are natural and, irrationally, I'm always disappointed when I discover this fact. It's like unwrapping a much longed for present only to discover you've already got it or it's the wrong size or something.

 

Not that, really, it matters a damn. I mean, I don't even know what it is about redheads that do it for me anyway. They just do. If I had the ability to design my perfect man I've give him red hair and pale skin before I even contemplated the rest of his specifications. Oddly enough though, I only go for red hair on males. On females I have no real preference - red, brown, blonde, fluorescent pink, whatever... Males though, gotta be red.

 

And... Yeah, yeah... For the millionth time, go figure.

 

A predatory, thin lipped smile appearing on the man's face, he tilts his head in the direction of the darkened back room and winks. "Oh, I dunno..." he purrs, "I'm sure something will come up."

 

~*~

 

Taking a welcome sip of scotch, I swirl the amber liquid around in my mouth, savoring its smooth, familiar flavor. Although this is my third glass, my mood not having improved greatly since I stormed out of the apartment, I still feel as though I need it. Pain killers not having done a lot to numb the pain, my left hand still throbs from where the Contemptible Canine decided to lock his teeth around it and, because of this and because I have no other viable options open to me, I plan to drink until all the pain has gone and I no longer feel anything.

 

Putting my glass down on the small table, I relax back in my chair and survey The Cat's Whiskers' clientele. Apart from one other man, an Utsunomiya in training if ever there was one, I'm the only loser sad enough to have a table all to myself. Given that he was here when I arrived though and, apart from brusquely ordering more coffee every ten or so minutes, hasn't dragged his attention away from his laptop, I like to think that he's perhaps slightly more pitiful than I am. The fact that he has another laptop stashed away under the table, I feel, adds credence to my theory. I mean, I thought carrying two mobile phones around was pretentious. Two laptops though? Sheesh. God forbid he dare stop working or anything.

 

Geek man -- and me -- aside, all the other tables, excluding one at the back, are crowded and I can't see the bar staff through a row of patiently waiting people wanting to order drinks. A young woman had been alone at the bar when I first got here but, after a quarter of a hour during which she checked her watch every second minute, her very apologetic and frazzled looking boyfriend has since joined her. He arrived bearing a bouquet of red roses wrapped in the immediately recognizable shimmering purple paper of the Dragon's Tears and I can still hear her shriek of delight ringing in my ears. Sitting at a table now, they're both staring deeply into each others eyes and, clearly in love, I silently wish them every future happiness.

 

Near the back of room, and making enough racket to sound as though they're everywhere, a bucks night is in full, rowdy swing. Having had enough alcohol poured down his throat for him to be already feeling no pain, the soon-to-be groom sits at the head of the table smiling vacantly and giggling to himself. His so-called friends have dressed him in a red tartan kilt and a pink cashmere sweater and one of them has taken enough photographs of him looking resplendent in his fetching outfit that I suspect they're going to haunt him for the rest of his life. The oldies but allegedly goodies having to be dragged out, he has a ball and chain attached to one ankle and a set of handcuffs dangling from his right wrist. The sound of his giggling being the equivalent of nails being scraped down a blackboard, I hope for his future wife's sake that he only sounds like this when he's drunk. If not... Urgh.

 

All in all, nearly everyone looks as though they're having a good time. Being the bitter and twisted individual that I'm rapidly turning into, I'm envious of the lot of them. Hell, I'm so green with jealousy that I can feel it gurgling, bile like, in the pit of my stomach. Even fucking geek man and his computers has more going for him than I do. At least he's doing something and isn't just sitting here taking up space and drinking. If it wasn't raining I might as well have just bought a bottle of whiskey and sat under a tree somewhere.

 

Sighing heavily, I slam down the rest of my scotch and, flagging down a passing, harried looking waiter, order another. Straight. You can keep your mixer.

 

I'm still waiting for my drink when the door opens and the wind blows in a newcomer. Annoyed by the burst of cold air washing over me, I plaster a scowl over my face and...

 

Hook.

 

Line.

 

And...

 

*Sinker*.

 

Oh boy. I think I now know what the embodiment of my -- mythical -- perfect man would look like.

 

Goddamn it! And here I am sitting here in my scummy work suit (with its truly attractive blood splatters down both the coat and trousers courtesy of the Contemptible Canine's attack of the vapors) looking for the world as though I've just lost my last yen and am busily contemplating which bridge best to throw myself off.

 

Seriously. I may as well just slip under the table and crawl out the door before he mistakenly catches sight of me and regrets having eaten dinner.

 

But -- and let's apply a little logic here -- if I were to slink out into the night I wouldn't be able to stare at him and, well, that's far less acceptable than the threat of my appearance offending his vision is. Hey, just call me selfish.

 

Despite the far ranging debate of whether it's okay to use the word beautiful to describe a man, there's just no helping it, no other word that I can think of off the top of my head that would do him adequate justice. Hot is too gauche, gorgeous too prepubescent and gushy.

 

Beautiful.

 

He's just... beautiful, almost otherworldly.

 

Tall, but not overly so, he carries himself with both effortless style and grace, his slim fitting black clothing showing off a body that I very much doubt carries so much as an ounce of excess weight anywhere on it. Flushed a faint pink by the wind, his pale skin is both smooth and blemish free and his wide, feline-shaped eyes are the most astonishing amethyst color I've ever seen. Given that his hair, which brushes the top of his collar and is cut in an unique, jagged style, is my beloved red in color, his eyes should, really, make him look like some sort of circus freak. They don't, however, and simply add to his striking appearance.

 

It's safe to say I've never encountered anyone quite like him before. Nor have I ever felt such an abiding... *longing*... for anyone before. I look at this man and I want him. And I'm not just talking in the sexual sense either. No. I want to *be* with him... Always.

 

Ha!

 

Which, let's face it, is fucking ludicrous.

 

Maybe I'm drunker than I thought. I know. Perhaps there's truth in that whole 'don't take pain killers and drink' thing after all. I'm probably just tripping.

 

The waiter returning with my drink, I throw some notes on his tray and, because he's blocking my view, impatiently wave him away. Some things being just more important than money, I don't know what I paid him and nor I don't care.

 

Transferring his coat -- black leather with enough buckles to make it worthy of its own photo shoot in a bondage magazine, be still my beating heart -- to his left arm, the man pulls his wallet out from his pocket and, after casting a cool glance around the club, walks calmly over to the bar. Wishful, *delusional* thinking whispers tauntingly in my ear that, for all of a split second, that is, he seemed to stare directly at me. My hopes not up for being further quashed, I ignore this particular spot of fantasy though and concentrate on checking out his ass.

 

Like the rest of him, it's perfect.

 

Not caring one way or the other if I look like I'm drooling, I don't take my eyes off the man and wish like crazy that this was a gay bar and I could kid myself that I possibly stood half a chance with him.

 

Who am I kidding though? I mean, really. Even if he was gay he wouldn't give me the time of day. I'm... nothing, no one... He's probably here to meet his girlfriend -- a model whose just been signed up as the next cover girl for Vogue -- anyway. Failing that, and yeah, so what if I'm clutching at straws here, he's an emotionally unstable killer who I'm probably better off staying far away from.

 

His drink obtained, the man turns around and, his expression unreadable, once again surveys the club. To my surprise he holds not a glass of wine or scotch in his hand but one of the tall, thin glasses The Cat's Whiskers' use to serve their softdrinks in. Coke, by the look of the color. Truly pathetically -- he doesn't drink alcohol? -- I actually find this interesting.

 

Sad, huh?

 

The only empty table being next to the bucks -- oh, and look, when did the groom-to-be decide that it was good idea to clamber up on to the table? -- night, a fleeting look of distaste crosses the man's face and he shakes his head. He then starts to walk in my direction, passing geek man and his laptop without so much as sparing him a second glance.

 

Not quite believing what I think I'm seeing, I casually glance over my shoulder, fully expecting a table to have become vacant behind me. When I see that one hasn't I swear my damn heart skips a beat in excitement. He...

 

Oh God... He's going to sit with me?

 

... No. Don't be so freakin' stupid. What he's going to do is tell me to fuck off because he wants a table and he can see that this one is merely being wasted on my worthless prescence.

 

"Excuse me..."

 

Jerking my head up, I stare at the man in amazement, my expression no doubt doing a good impression of emulating that of the village idiot. I can't help but notice, up close like this, that there's a tiredness, a world weary guardedness around his eyes. Instead of detracting from his appearance though it only serves to make him look more human and...

 

And... I really should stop staring and reply, shouldn't I? Ooops.

 

"Uh... Yeah?" I grunt, truly, *truly* less than eloquently.

 

"Would you mind if I sat here?" he queries politely, his deep voice almost at odds with his bordering on delicate appearance. "If you're waiting for someone or would rather be left alone then I won't..."

 

"No!" I interrupt, firmly telling myself that I need to get a fucking grip, that if I want to at least give the impression of being a normal human being I have to pretend to act like one. "Please. Sit down. I'm not waiting for anyone and I've had enough of my own company to last me a lifetime or three."

 

Oh great. Good start. How not to make friends and influence people in one easy lesson. I may as well have just told him that I'm depressed and been done with it.

 

"Sorry!" I continue hurriedly, holding both my hands up in an apologetic gesture. "If it helps I promise to not open my mouth again and assure you that I'll leave you in peace."

 

His eyes widening slightly at the sight of my bloody left palm, he, after placing his coat carefully on the spare chair, sits down and reaches across the table for it. "You're injured," he murmurs softly, his fingers brushing lightly across my hand. Not expecting his touch, it comes as something of a shock and I pull my hand back as though burnt. I don't know why, I just, being stupid and out of sorts, do.

 

Retracting his hand, the man blushes and lowers his head. "I apologize," he whispers. "I didn't mean to offend you."

 

"No," I sigh, toying with my glass in an attempt to cover up my own embarrassment over my reaction. "I'm the one who should be apologizing. It's just..." Pausing, I shrug. "I suppose it's just that I wasn't expecting it, you know, someone whose name I don't even know caring enough about a stranger to see that he's injured."

 

Nodding, he looks up and smiles faintly. "If it helps, my name's... Ran."

 

"Yohji," I reply, extending my right hand across the table. "Pleased to meet you."

 

Taking my hand in his, an expression of what I can only describe as sadness crosses Ran's face. It's gone as quickly as it came on though and is replaced by one that looks like schooled, practiced interest - an expression to hide behind. "Pleased to meet you too," he responds quietly, releasing my hand and reaching for the other one. "Now... May I? I... I know a little first aid and would like to have a look at it for you."

 

"Knock yourself out," I murmur, dutifully placing my left hand palm up on the table. Hell, having accepted the strangeness of the situation, if Ran wants to tend to my hand then it's all his. "It's nothing though, really."

 

Frowning, Ran leans forward and peers closely at my wound. "*Nothing* looks very much like a bite to me. May I ask how it happened?"

 

"A disagreement over sex," I laugh drily, the response bypassing my brain and leaping straight out of my mouth before I can stop it. "A disagreement as in he wanted it and I didn't."

 

His eyes once again widening in surprise, Ran looks up and just stares at me, no doubt wondering how he can extricate himself from the weirdness he's unwittingly found himself in without appearing rude. "Excuse me?" he murmurs at last. "I'm sorry. I mustn't have heard you correctly."

 

"No, you heard me correctly," I reply, rolling eyes. "I'll admit that I didn't exactly explain myself well though and, as embarrassing as the story is, will try again. My wife's dog has this... ah... sexual fetish for my leg and he and I had a disagreement over this earlier this evening. It's pretty simple, really. He was in the mood and I wasn't. I tried to remove him gently but the little bastard just growled at me and returned to what he was doing. Things... ah... deteriorated from there, pretty much. I got violent, *he* got violent and, not wanting to piss my wife off by dropping her pet over the balcony, he won. Again, it's simple."

 

And... Fuck. Would someone just gag me? By the time I've finished with Ran he'll never make the mistake of going near a stranger again. Hell, he may even never venture out of his home again.

 

"Dogs are stupid animals," Ran replies, seemingly not at all taken aback by my sob story and pulling a pristine white linen handkerchief out of his pocket. "Without knowing the animal in question I have to say that you used more restraint than I would have."

 

"Asuka never would have forgiven me if I'd done anything to him," I mutter, watching as Ran uses a little of my scotch to clean the wound before both carefully and deftly wrapping his handkerchief around it. Although I feel as though I should have stopped him from sacrificing his handkerchief on me, I don't say anything and luxuriate in the simple feeling of being cared for. Whoever Ran is, he's already done more for me than anyone else I can think of from the past six or so months.

 

Once he's done, Ran gently closes my fingers over my palm and, his expression still unreadable, sits back. "Asuka is your wife, yes?" he queries, picking up his drink and taking a sip, his eyes watching me closely.

 

"In name, yeah," I reply, the blunt truth once again slipping carelessly out of my mouth. "Ah... Thanks for the bandage," I continue, making a desperate bid to change the topic. "Please. Let me buy you a drink or pay you for your handkerchief. It's... It's the least I can do."

 

Putting his glass down, Ran makes a dismissive gesture with his hand and shakes his head. "I need neither another drink nor your money," he responds mildly, "although I thank you for your offer."

 

"Mmm..." Damn. As changes in subject go that pretty much sunk like a lead balloon. "Um... I haven't seen you in here before. Are you a local?" If in doubt, try again.

 

"I'm from Tokyo originally but am currently based in London," Ran replies, shrugging. "I'm merely here on business and will be returning to England later tonight."

 

"What do you do?" I ask, trying to hide my disappointment at the fact that it's likely I'll never see him again. I mean, I *know* I never stood a chance with him but, still...

 

"What I'm told," Ran states flatly, glancing down at the table top, his eyes avoiding mine. "I do what I'm told..."

 

"Ah... Same as me with the added bonus of international travel thrown in," I mutter drily, downing what was left of the scotch in my glass in one gulp. "Hey, if it makes you feel any better at least you get to travel. Me, I have a cell and that, no shit, is just about it."

 

"You don't like your job?" Ran queries, another fleeting expression, this time concern, crossing his face before swiftly being replaced with his favored unreadable one.

 

"Don't get me started," I sigh, unconsciously drumming my fingers on the edge of the table. "If you get me started you'll only live to regret it. Before you ask though, in a nutshell, I hate not only my job but my life in general. I..." Trailing off, I look at Ran and smile wanly. "Sorry. I'll shut up now. You only wanted somewhere quiet to have your drink and I'm monopolizing your time with stories of my worthless life. Again, I'm sorry."

 

"Your life's not worthless and I refuse to sit here and listen to you say it is," Ran declares firmly, his eyes glittering with an emotion that, too surprised to think straight by the vehemence in his voice, I can't quite place. "I... I may not know you but I'm certain that... that you're a good person and that things are better than you might think they are."

 

"I wish I had your misguided optimism," I mutter dully, shaking my head. "Look, I thank you for trying to make me feel better but, really, you're right, you don't know me... Hell! I don't even freakin' know me!"

 

And, fuck it, that's just it. I seriously should just quit while I'm ahead and slink out of here, leaving poor Ran alone.

 

"Do you want to talk about it?" Ran murmurs gently. "I may not be able to help but I can listen."

 

"You... You don't want to know..."

 

"I do. You're clearly unhappy and I want to know why."

 

"Why, huh? What am I to you?"

 

"I... I'm concerned, that's all. Please... I can't even try to help if I don't know what it is that's causing you so much unhappiness."

 

Fine. Whatever. If he wants it he can damn well have it. God alone knows *why* he wants to hear about my pitiful existence -- something to tell his friends about back in England, perhaps? -- but, again, whatever. I have this feeling that if I don't wave the white flag of defeat and tell him he'll just keep arguing with me until the bar closes around us and he misses his plane. I also have this sneaky suspicion that determination and the inability to give up are a couple of Ran's strong points.

 

"Don't say I didn't warn you," I murmur wearily, gesturing a waiter over and ordering another drink before slumping back in my chair. "Okay... It's like this..."

 

Ran listens intently as I give him my -- abbreviated -- life story. He doesn't interrupt with either questions or pointless words of advice and just listens. Unable to look at him while I talk I don't know if his expression changes and simply concentrate on unburdening myself. Although I tell him most of it, from being found at the Kou Academy to my loveless marriage and crap job, I decide to keep the katana and 'Aya' side of things private. For some reason I still don't feel as though I've got any right to talk about them, especially not with a stranger.

 

"... And, yeah, there you have it," I finish, giving a mock bow. "Fascinating, huh? For all either of us know I could be anything from a teacher to a failed artist to a... to a florist! I... Christ! Again, I'm sorry. You didn't need to know any of this. I... I thank you for listening though. Would you believe you're the first person I've held an actual conversation with for what feels like ages? It's been... nice..."

 

"I..." Falling silent, Ran looks at me, his expression a picture of sorrow that he makes no attempt to mask from me. I think too, although I seriously have no idea why my tale would have affected him so badly, that he's almost in tears. "Yohji... I..."

 

Whatever else Ran was about to say being drowned out by the sounds of splintering wood and shattering glass coming from the area of the bucks party, I drag my attention away from him and glance over at the source of the commotion. Oh. Nice one. From the looks of it, while the table was strong enough to hold the groom-to-be, it wasn't quite up to a few of his more enterprising friends clambering up and joining him and, its legs calling it quits, they're all now lying in a heap of tangled limbs, wood and glass. The numbing qualities of alcohol being proven once and for all, none of them appear to be feeling any pain and are all laughing like a pack of hyenas.

 

"Pathetic," Ran scowls, giving the scene a dismissive glance. "They ought to feel disgusted with themselves. Now... Where were we?"

 

"You were about to tell me that my story is so tragic I should talk to Steven Spielberg about the movie rights," I deadpan, looking away from the drunken hilarity coming from the wreckage and...

 

Fuck. If that just doesn't take the fucking biscuit then I don't know what does. Cherry on top of a fucked evening, anyone?

 

"Christ!" I exclaim, gesturing angrily at the large-screen television that's set up over the bar and which is usually tuned into a station playing non-stop music videos. Tonight though some bright spark has changed it to a news station and, my timing being as immaculate as ever, of course I have to choose this exact moment to notice this fact. "That is *so* the last fucking thing I need to see! I mean... Fuck! Don't you just want to rub the smug grin off the bastard's face yourself, huh?"

 

Following my gaze, Ran watches the television for a few seconds before turning back around. "The Nakagami case, it bothers you?" he murmurs questioningly. "I... I have been following this case from England and I must confess that his getting off came as something of a shock."

 

"A shock! It was more than a fucking shock," I reply agitatedly, the live-feed images of Nakagami's celebratory party making my blood boil. "Try a travesty of justice and you'd be getting closer. I mean... For what he did to those little boys he should have been sent straight to the fiery pits of hell. It... It just makes me sick that his name and his wife's bank balance were able to secure the fucker's release. I..."

 

Everything beginning to add up and get the better of me -- the noise, the scotch I've poured down my throat settling heavily on an empty stomach, Ran's unexpected concern and interest, the sight of Nakagami -- I drag myself clumsily to my feet and run my fingers through my hair. "Excuse me," I mutter shakily, backing away from the table. "I... I'll be right back..."

 

With that, and without waiting either for a reply or looking at him to gauge his reaction, I stumble towards the bathroom as waves of dizziness wash over me. Reaching the bathroom, I crash through the door and make a beeline for the nearest basin. There, forgetting all about my bandage, I turn the cold tap on and, scooping it up with both hands, splash water over my face. Only when it's dripping down my neck and making an even bigger mess of my suit coat do I begin to feel slightly better.

 

"Shit," I whisper, turning the tap off and, closing my eyes resting my forehead against the mirror. Wondering idly if this is what it feels like to have a nervous breakdown, I focus on getting my breathing under control and calming down. After a couple of minutes I gradually begin to feel a little better and, taking a deep breath, stand up straight. Knowing that I can't hide in the bathroom all night, I then turn away from the mirror and return to the bar.

 

Ran, as I'd known deep down he would be, is gone. Given that he got nothing from his encounter with me other than an earache and a lesson in depression, I can't exactly say that I blame him. Hell, I actually commend the fact that he managed to stick it in for as long as he did. I hope...

 

Well, I hope he knows how much his kindness means to me. I may not have been able to show it like I would have liked to, but his taking the time to talk to me has touched me on a level that I'd forgotten even existed.

 

Sinking back down in my chair, I pick up my scotch and toast the door.

 

... Wherever you are, Ran, I wish you every happiness. You may not realize it, but you're as special as you are beautiful.

 

And...

 

And, wearing your coat and barreling through the door with a determined expression on your face, you're striding back towards me as though on some sort of mission?

 

Huh?

 

"Yohji! I..."

 

"How on earth did you get into that so quickly?" I interrupt, reaching out and lightly running my finger down the cool leather of his coat. Given that it has buckles at the waist, neck, and both wrists, I kinda doubt it to be the easiest piece of clothing to get into and, well, I don't think I was in the bathroom *that* long...

 

"Practice," Ran mutters matter-of-factly, stepping back and looking flustered. "Now, Yohji, please... I don't have much time and I want you to listen to me. There's no easy way for me to say this, but..."

 

"But?" I prompt, cutting him off. The change in Ran's demeanor -- from cool, calm and collected to looking like it wouldn't take much to set him off -- unsettling me, I'm not overly sure I want to know what it is he's going to tell me and look up at him apprehensively.

 

"I..." Sitting on the edge of the chair and, reaching across the table, grasping both of my hands in his, Ran blinks very bright eyes at me and drops his bombshell.

 

"I know you, the real you..."

 

"You what?" Pulling my hands away from his, I push the chair back from the table and... and just *stare*. Blankly.

 

He knows me?

 

He... He can't. Or, if he does, why tell me now and not when he first came over?

 

I...

 

I don't get it.

 

"Yohji? I know this is hard but..."

 

"You... You can't," I whisper numbly. "You can't know me and you can't possibly know how hard this is for me!"

 

"I know you," Ran repeats, leaning further over the table, his incredible eyes imploring me to believe him. "Your name is Kodou Yohji and your birthday is the third of March. You have two tattoos, one on your left arm and... and one on the small of your back. You've also been shot twice, once in your left shoulder and then, a year later, in your stomach. Both times were... because of me, the second bullet in particular had my name on it. You like alcohol, nicotine and caffeine, not necessarily in that order, and you've got a penchant for, when bored, watching anime..."

 

"Stop it," I plead, shaking my head as though I hope it'll somehow help what Ran's saying sink in. "I don't know why you're doing this to me but I want you to stop it! Other than the fact you know I've got tattoos and have been shot -- which, although I have no idea why you'd bother, you could have picked up from my medical records -- everything else could be a work of fantasy for all I know. Answer me something though, Ran... Why are you doing this to me, huh? I thought you were..."

 

"Not Ran," he interrupts quietly, sitting back in his chair and seemingly bracing himself for what's to come. 'My name isn't Ran... well... not any more, anyway. Aya... My name is Aya..."

 

Oh. Dear. God.

 

"Aya?" I echo dully. "Aya as in the rightful owner of the katana I was found with? You're *that* Aya?" I suppose, really -- if I had half a freakin' clue, that is -- that I should have known. If nothing else, and assuming he's telling the truth, I think I now have a good idea where my predilection for red hair comes from. "I... I don't believe it."

 

"Please," Ran... no... *Aya* replies urgently, "Yohji, you've not only got to believe it but you've also got to trust me. I know you've got a thousand and one questions you want to ask and I know it's presumptuous of me to ask this of you, but..." Pausing, Aya roughly pushes up the sleeve of his coat and checks the time on his watch. "Shit," he swears softly. "This is not ideal but, sorry, it can't be helped. Yohji... I want you to come with me. This new life of yours isn't bringing you the happiness that I'd hoped it would and I want to help give you your old life back. I... I can't guarantee any miracles but I still think it would have to be better..."

 

Fuck me. And he seriously expects me to buy this bullshit? This is just getting better and better.

 

"Why should you care?" I mutter, folding my arms across my chest and glowering across the table at Aya. "You fucking *abandoned* me and now, what, you're wanting to atone for your sins or something by whisking me away back into the fold? Just... Fuck you, Aya. For all I know this is just some twisted game of yours that you're playing with me because you're bored."

 

"It's not a game," Aya murmurs pleadingly, shaking his head. "Yohji, *please*. We don't have time for this. The choice is entirely yours. Come with me now and say goodbye to all this misery and unknown forever, or stay here. It's down to you. Now, I don't want to pressure you but if the answer is no then you'll... you'll never see me again. I... I shouldn't even be here now..."

 

"And I still don't know why I should believe a word coming out of your mouth," I scowl, trying hard to disguise how tempted I am by his offer to just up and leave all this crap behind me. Whatever he could give me would surely have to be better than all of this... I mean, wouldn't it? "You waltz back into my life," I continue, "and throw your name and a few so-called facts about my life at me and then just expect me to follow you in to the great unknown? Now, either you're incredibly arrogant or you know something else about me that you're not letting on."

 

Sighing, Aya stands up and, after a few seconds digging around, retrieves his wallet from under his coat. Opening it, he then ferrets out what looks to be a small, credit card sized, laminated photo and places it on the table. "Here," he whispers, remaining standing, "maybe this will help."

 

Picking up the photograph, which although laminated is looking the little worse for wear, as though its been handled a lot, I look down at the admittedly beautiful image of a Koi pond and shrug. "Wow. Fish. Hell, it's all coming back to me already."

 

"Turn it over," Aya murmurs faintly, coming to stand next to me. "Turn it over and you'll see proof that we used to know each other..."

 

Doing as I'm told, I turn the photo over and what I see on the other side quite literally takes my breath away. "We... We were lovers?" I whisper, reverently stroking my finger over the captured image of the pair of us embracing in a rose garden. Taken, I'd hazard a guess, a couple of years ago, my hair is longer than it is now and Aya's is both a different style -- check the eartails! -- and a seemingly brighter red, but there's no mistaking that it is indeed the two of us. Nor is there any mistaking how tightly I'm hugging Aya or how he's clinging to me in return.

 

"We were, yes," Aya replies, his hand hovering near the photo as though he's afraid I'm going to try and pocket it. "It... It was over by the time of... of your accident... but, for reasons I can't go into now, you still mean a lot to me and I want to help you. If... Oh God! If you'd been happy I would have just disappeared back into the night, leaving you none the wiser, but you're not and..." Trailing off, Aya snatches up the photograph as it slips from my fingers and, before I've had time to reach for it again, places it carefully back in his wallet.

 

"I'd love to give you more time to reach a decision, but I can't and -- I'm truly sorry about this -- I'm going to have to demand that you give me an answer," he continues, sounding more flustered and anxious by the second. "It's your call, Yohji. Come with me back to London and at least have answers fill some of the void, or stay here. Keep in mind that whatever you decide is going to be permanent and there will be no going back... It's your choice."

 

It's my choice. How freakin' wonderful. Give up everything I know and follow this man, who's essentially a stranger, half way around the world in the hope he'll be able to help me remember, or increase my odds of going insane by simply staying here? Decisions, decisions.

 

"Yohji?"

 

Not really having anything to call my own as it is, I have nothing to lose by simply throwing caution to the winds and...

 

"Count me in," I murmur, standing up and, ignoring the expression of relief on Aya's face, giving him a warning look. "Don't think however that this is merely to give you a chance of crawling back into my bed."

 

"It'll be hard, but, having done without it for this long, I think I'll be able to survive," Aya retorts dryly, grabbing my hand and pulling me towards the door. "Now, what's to come isn't something I can protect you from and will no doubt come as a shock. What it is however is the truth and I assure you now that no one will ever lie to you or try to make things out differently to what they actually are. Although not exactly the same as they were... before, you're back with people you belong with now."

 

"You're making me think that I don't really want to know any of this," I mutter, following Aya out of The Cat's Whiskers and, not having had enough intelligence to grab a coat before storming out of the apartment, shivering in the cool, damp air.

 

"There's a chance that you don't," Aya replies, letting go of my hand and scanning the street. "Your reaction to Nakagami though, it... It gave me hope."

 

"Huh? What are you talk..."

 

"Ah, here's our ride," Aya interrupts as, materializing out of nowhere, a midnight black Lexus GS300 with tinted windows and, oddly, matt black alloys, pulls up in front of us. Opening the back passenger door, he gestures impatiently that I should get in. "Come on. Once we're on the move I can explain some more but we really have got to get going."

 

"You always this bossy?" I complain, striding across the pavement and shooting Aya a scowl.

 

"I can be, yes," Aya replies, a hint of a smile crossing his lips as he again gestures at the car. "Now, shut up and get in."

 

"Yes, sir!"

 

Expecting the car to be being driven by a chauffeur, I'm somewhat nonplussed to find myself, as I settle on the backseat, coming under the distinctly astonished gaze of a man who looks as though he's just stepped out of the pages of an Anne Rice novel. Seriously. Pale, silvery blond hair, icy blue eyes narrowed in the glare to end all glares, skin so fair as to suggest most of his activities are done either indoors or under the cover of night - it's like looking straight at a member of the Vampire Chronicles. He's even wearing a snug fitting black velvet jacket over a brilliantly white shirt, the cuffs of which are both adorned with cuff links -- you can still get those things? -- and peeping out from under the sleeves of the coat. A fresh rose, the red of its petals stark against the black velvet, is pinned to his lapel, its rich scent filling the interior of the car.

 

Attractive, oh hell yeah, but definitely a little on the different side. In other words a perfect match for -- my old friend -- Aya.

 

"Can I help you?" I murmur politely, wondering -- for the first time, mind you -- exactly what it I've just got myself into.

 

"No," the man replies in English, turning the full intensity of his glare in Aya's direction as the redhead climbs gracefully into the car. "I am, however, hoping that Aya may be able to find it in himself to enlighten me."

 

"ChloÈ, meet Yohji," Aya replies, also in English, calmly pulling his seatbelt on as though he doesn't have a care in the world. "Yohji, this is ChloÈ. While he may not look it at the moment, he's actually a friend and can, when he feels like it, even be quite pleasant."

 

Whatever ChloÈ feels about this goes over my head because, turning on Aya, he replies in a volley of quick fire German. Now, I don't speak German, but I'm kinda gathering that he's not that pleased to see me.

 

And... Well I never. Aya can speak German too and now, complete with flashing eyes and sour expressions, they're indulging in what I can only imagine to be a heated argument. About me. Peachy. They're so worked up, in fact, that I suspect I could slip out the door and they wouldn't even notice.

 

Which, well, may not be that bad an idea. While Aya might seem -- increasingly -- peculiar it's fairly obvious that ChloÈ's a law unto himself and I'm not too sure I *want* to know what's going on here. If I leave now I can go back into The Cat's Whiskers' and drink until I pass out meaning, come morning, I'll be able to put the whole evening down to being nothing more than a hallucination.

 

I'm still toying with the idea of sneaking off when the car door is suddenly wrenched open and another man makes to get into the Lexus. Giving no indication of having seen me, I only just manage to scoot over to the other side of the seat before he quite literally sat on me.

 

"Hey, watch where you're..."

 

I don't get to finish my complaint as two things happen simultaneously. One, I recognize the newcomer as my 'friend', the man who I gave the katana to, and, two, said friend, with a shriek of delight and a positively blinding grin, wraps his arms around me and engulfs me in a clumsy bear hug.

 

"Oh my God!" he exclaims happily, trying, I swear, to hug the life out of me. "Yohji! Aya... Shit, man! Why didn't you tell me, huh? Oh... Fuck! I'm so happy!"

 

"Pleased to meet you too," I croak, extricating myself from the suffocating embrace and leaning limply against the door. "I have no idea who you are but, again, I'm pleased to meet you."

 

His face momentarily falling, he gives me a crestfallen look before extending his right hand and waiting for me to take it. "My name's Ken," he smiles brightly, giving my hand a firm shake, "and, don't worry, I'm sure it'll all come back to you now that there's three of us together again."

 

"Here's to hoping," I murmur, returning Ken's smile because, well, it would just be harder not to.

 

"It'll be fine, you'll see," Ken replies, giving my hand a final squeeze before leaning forward and giving Aya a friendly thump on the shoulder. "Go Aya! You sly fox, you still have it in you to surprise me, you know."

 

"Go Aya, indeed," ChloÈ mutters, this time choosing to speak in Japanese. "Now, if the grand reunion is over, may we be on our way?"

 

"You have to ask?" Aya scowls. "We're still on schedule, but only just."

 

"And whose fault is that?" ChloÈ retorts, glancing cursorily in the rear vision mirror before smoothly pulling the car out into the traffic. "I was beginning to think I was going to have to come in and retrieve you."

 

"Not now, ChloÈ, okay?" Aya mutters, a slight warning tone entering his voice. "I'll... I'll try and explain later. For now though, please, let it drop."

 

Giving a curt nod, ChloÈ focuses his attention on his driving and doesn't reply.

 

"Ah... I hate to ask this," I pipe up nervously as the car turns not in the direction of the airport -- where I just *assumed* we were going -- but towards the city. "But where exactly are we going?"

 

"You didn't tell him?" ChloÈ sighs, directing his question at Aya.

 

"I didn't get the time," Aya murmurs wearily. "I do not think, however, that it will come as an unpleasant surprise to him."

 

"Huh?" I grunt, hoping like mad that the confusion I'm beginning to feel settle over me isn't going to become a common occurrence. "*What* isn't going to come as an unpleasant surprise to me."

 

"We're going to deliver to justice to Nakagami," Aya replies flatly, glancing over his shoulder so as to watch my reaction.

 

"As in... kill him?" I query, failing in my attempt to feel anything other than self-righteous vindication at this.

 

"Yes," Aya confirms, a satisfied expression ghosting fleetingly over his face. "We're going to kill him. For his crimes, for the failure of the justice system, we're here to remove all of his tomorrows."

 

"Good," I reply, nodding. "It's what he deserves." A dim part of me whispers that I should perhaps feel a little uneasy about this but, well, really, I just don't.

 

"We're assassins," Ken interjects softly. "You used to be one too... A *good* one."

 

An assassin, huh? Again, knowing that I *should* be perturbed by this doesn't really have any impact on me. Somehow it...

 

Somehow it feels *right*.

 

"Open to the highest bidder or do we have standards?" I ask, this being the only question I feel -- for now at least -- I really need to know the answer to.

 

"High standards," Ken replies, flashing me another smile. "We only kill those who believe themselves to be above the law. It's a dirty job, for sure, but someone's got to do it."

 

"I only have to think of Nakagami to know that you're right," I murmur, relaxing back in my seat and watching the familiar scenery fly past the window. "And I know how to do this, how to kill, yes?"

 

"Once upon a time you did," Aya responds quietly, his voice barely above that of a whisper. "In time, if it's what you decide you want, I'm sure with training it will all come back to you."

 

"Mmm..." Falling silent, I run through everything I've just learnt in my head as, curiously, a sense of peace descends over me. Aya and Ken clearly know me and that in itself opens the door to answers that an hour ago I could only dream about. I may not *like* some of these answers, sure, but I'll at least have them and that in itself is something. I...

 

I'll know who I really am.

 

"What in the name of God is that?" ChloÈ suddenly exclaims, sounding as though he just found something disgusting, dead and bloody laid out in the middle of his freshly made, no doubt strewn with rose petals, bed. "It's... It's hideous!"

 

"You're being polite," I drawl, looking through the windscreen and seeing, lit up in all its neon horror, Kimura's pyramid. "I take it then that you haven't seen the memorial to the late, great Kimura Hirotaka before? Revolting, isn't it?"

 

"Kimura?" Ken whispers hoarsely, shaking his head as he leans forward and closes his hand gently around Aya's shoulder. "I thought that bastard died without a will."

 

"Some company in Germany forked up the cash for it," I reply, bothered for some reason by why Ken is apparently feeling the urge to -- unobtrusively -- offer comfort to Aya. "This Kimura, he means something to you?"

 

"No... Nothing..." Aya murmurs flatly, steadfastly looking out the passenger side window, thus avoiding the sight of the pyramid. "He means nothing."

 

"Kimura..." ChloÈ muses, "Isn't he the one..." Trailing off, he visibly flinches and, reaching across to gently pat Aya's knee, murmurs something softly in German. Aya, for his part, doesn't turn away from the window.

 

Throwing himself back in his seat, Ken glowers malevolently at the pyramid. "Next time we're in Tokyo I've got a good mind to blow the fucking thing up," he hisses angrily. "While I'm at it, I can't believe Omi didn't see fit to tell us about it either. I mean, what gives with that, huh?"

 

"It doesn't matter," Aya whispers, resting his hand over ChloÈ's for a second. "He can have his pretentious pyramid for all any of us have to care, it's not, after all, going to make him any less dead."

 

"I'd still like to blow it to hell," Ken mutters, folding his arms across his chest. "I bet when Yohji remembers what the bastard did he'd agree with me too..."

 

"Ken! Please, that's enough," Aya states firmly, sitting up a little straighter in his seat. "Yohji's already had enough dumped on him for one night and, besides, we're almost there and need to concentrate."

 

There being nothing whatsoever I can think of adding to this -- slightly disturbing -- conversation, I don't even attempt to come up with a reply or comment and remain silent. One thing's for sure though, it appears as though my hatred for Kimura's pyramid may actually be for good reason.

 

"Here we are," ChloÈ murmurs, turning the car into a darkened alleyway and bringing it to a stop, "right on schedule, too."

 

"Of course," Aya replies, opening the door and retrieving a katana from by his feet. Getting out, he mutters something in German to ChloÈ and shoots him a warning look. Then, switching effortlessly back to Japanese, he tells Ken to get a move on and reassures me that they'll be back before I know it.

 

Nodding, I give them both a little wave and, after watching them melt into the darkness, turn my attention to ChloÈ. Why? Because like the Contemptible Canine and his barking fits, I *can*, that's why.

 

"Don't tell me, let me guess," I mutter, "Aya's parting words to you were to play nice with the interloper..."

 

"Something like that," ChloÈ responds, choosing for reasons best known to himself to address me in English. "Aya not being my keeper, however, if I wanted to kill you I would."

 

Okay. So maybe sharpening my claws on ChloÈ may not be the greatest idea I've ever had.

 

"And... ah... do you?" I query, following his lead and speaking, albeit hesitantly, in English.

 

"Not really, no," ChloÈ replies, watching me in the rear vision mirror as opposed to making the effort to turn around and face me. "If I killed you then Aya would try and kill me and... Well, things would just get messy."

 

"Stop it, you're making me feel all warm inside," I retort, shaking my head. "Um... Forgive me if this is a stupid question, but we don't know each other, do we?"

 

"No, we don't. You are from a time before I knew Aya," ChloÈ mutters disinterestedly. "Aya, yourself, Ken, and another one known then as Omi, made up a team of assassins called Weiss. While, yes, I know more, I don't really think it's my place to tell you these things and respectfully ask that you wait for either Aya or Ken to sit down and talk with you about them."

 

It's on the tip of my tongue to retort that I had no intention of fucking asking him anything when it suddenly strikes me what it is that's actually happening. Not the fact that Aya and Ken are at this exact point in time hopefully ridding the world of Nakagami's slimy presence, no, that doesn't bother me in the slightest, it's more...

 

Aya said he's based in London, that he'll be returning there after completing his job tonight, meaning, in turn, that I too will be leaving Tokyo for England.

 

Leaving Japan... Leaving everything I know... Leaving Asuka...

 

Asuka!

 

Shit!

 

What was I thinking? I can't just up and leave her like this. Our marriage may only exist on paper but to simply disappear on her would be unforgivable.

 

"Your wife will be taken care of," ChloÈ comments softly, seemingly reading my mind. "It is only right that you worry about her but allow me to assure you that, really, there is no need."

 

"Taken care of?" I repeat dully, shaking my head in horror. "No! You can't kill her. I won't allow it. I'll..."

 

"What you'll do is calm down," ChloÈ interrupts flatly, scowling at me in the rear vision mirror. "By taken care of I mean a nice police officer will arrive on her doorstep in the morning to notify her of your unfortunate death. She will then receive a phone call from an insurance company informing her of the considerable policy you had in your name. All being well she and that... *animal*... will then live a very happy and comfortable life."

 

First he seems to read my mind and then he picks up on my feelings towards the Contemptible Canine... Wonderful. To hell with finding out about me I think the first load of questions I'm going to fire off are going to be about Lestat here.

 

"You can arrange this?" I query suspiciously. "I may no longer love Asuka but I still care for her and I don't want her to suffer."

 

"It will all be arranged at the same time as your new passport and papers," ChloÈ replies matter-of-factly. "All we need from you is your wedding ring and any other personal items you may have on you such as a wallet or mobile phone as they will be handed to her as proof of your... passing."

 

"I'd rather it not be suicide," I mutter, starting to ferret through my pockets for the items ChloÈ mentioned, "my death, that is."

 

"Unfortunate motor vehicle accident," ChloÈ mutters. "Inebriated, you weren't looking where you were going and got hit by a runaway car. Said car, having a faulty fuel line, then exploded, thus rendering your body unrecognizable. A tragic set of accidents, nothing more and nobody's fault."

 

"The ease in which you described my alleged death disturbs me on some deeply personal level, I hope you realize," I reply, glancing down at the insignificant collection of belongings I've accumulated in my lap and hesitating over giving them up. "ChloÈ... Am I doing the right thing?"

 

"It depends on what you want from life," ChloÈ responds softly, turning around for the first time to address me. "And that, Yohji, is something only you can answer."

 

What I want from life...

 

I want...

 

I want to know about my history... I want to know about Weiss... I want to know why Aya still carries that photo around in his wallet when he says our relationship was over before my 'accident'... I want to know the story behind what happened at the Kou Academy... I want to know how Kimura factors into things... I want to *know* Aya... Hell, while I'm at it, my curiosity already having been tweaked, I think I might just want to know ChloÈ too...

 

Catching sight through the windscreen of Aya and Ken running down the alleyway, I pick up my meager belongings and, my decision made, drop them in to ChloÈ's waiting hands.

 

Whatever this may turn out to be, it's what I want.

 

It's definitely what I want.

 

~ end ~