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The Long Road Forward

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~ Part 1 ~

 

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Aftermath

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~ Aya ~

 

"Oh my God! Look at my precious little baby! There's nothing left of him! See, Harold? I told you that disgusting Japanese habit of eating soo... soosh... you know, raw fish, wouldn't agree with my baby's delicate constitution!"

 

Unable to help myself -- which just about seems to be the story of my life at the moment -- I turn in the direction of the loud, slightly hysterical female voice and... yeah... very nearly don't believe my eyes.

 

Oh dear God. Surely her 'precious little baby' can't be...

 

Okay. That's it. I think I've now seen -- or should that be *heard*? -- everything. To hell with hideous mutations and false Gods created in laboratories, this just about takes the cake.

 

Only just remembering to mask my shock by smiling politely and vacantly at anyone and everyone -- hello, yes, Japanese abroad. Please, so long as it means you leave me the hell alone, stereotype me to your heart's content -- I watch the grand reunion unfolding before me with a mounting sense of disbelief. If there's 'nothing left' of that fat, obnoxious, and quite frankly offensive adolescent now then I'd hate to have seen him before some teacher somewhere had the bright idea of sending him to Japan on an exchange program. Standing at just over five foot and clearly obese, I find the concept of 'Precious' having once been bigger than he is now somewhat hard to accept. Whoever his host family were, I truly pity them. I've only had the misfortune of his, and I use the word lightly here, company for the past fifteen hours and already I'm anxiously looking forward to never having to lay eyes on him again.

 

Bursting with maternal pride, his mother, a bottle blonde with a body not best suited to the lycra shorts and tank top it's poured into, ruffles the teenager's already disheveled hair and beams happily. "Come on, Charles, love, say something in Japanese!"

 

Lowering his Gameboy Advance, which I was actually beginning to think he only tore his attention away from in order to eat, Charles smirks, bows, and calmly tells his mother to fuck off. In Japanese. Of course. Proving unconditionally to all within earshot that the exchange wasn't a complete waste of both time and money.

 

Her smile broadening, Charles' mother none-too-gently elbows her husband in his considerable paunch and points at their still smirking offspring. "See, Harold? Isn't our baby a smart cookie? I bet he just told me that he loves me and missed me."

 

Grunting noncommittally, Harold gives Charles a suspicious look and shrugs. "Good to have you back, son," he mutters, looking pointedly at his watch. "Now, where's that luggage of yours, huh? If we're not out of here in the next ten minutes we're gonna have to pay another hour of parking to the thieving bastards."

 

"Like I care," Charles retorts, his exceptionally limited attention span once again drawn to his Gameboy. "Man, have they got some cool games over there," he continues almost reverently. "I can't wait to see Scott and all the others just to watch 'em go green with envy. Hell, half of them ain't even gonna be released here. I tell you, for games, Japan is just the coolest."

 

My plastered-on smile in threat of slipping, I move closer to the luggage carousel and try not to think about how much I'd quite like to bring Charles up to speed on how little I happen to think of him. Thing is, if I started ranting at him -- 'there's more to Japan than Nintendo and Sony you repugnant overweight freak and if you think telling your mother to fuck off is either smart or amusing then, well, you're as stupid as you are fat!' -- I very much suspect I wouldn't be able to stop. And that just wouldn't do.

 

Control, remember? I've got to remain in control. Always.

 

I'm hot, bothered, overtired, cranky and, after fifteen straight hours of alternating between clenching my jaw and grinding my teeth, I have a headache that I swear could drop a stampeding elephant in its tracks.

 

I have, in other words, been happier.

 

As much as I'd like to lay the blame for all of this at Charles' Nike clad feet, I can't, and know that, ultimately, I have no one to blame for any of this other than myself. Hell, it's all down to me and me alone. Me, me, me. I'm the idiot of the piece. I'm the one who took it upon himself to misguidedly fuck with the status quo.

 

Go me.

 

If all had gone to plan, the plan *I* worked out in the minutest, foolproof detail, I would have caught the British Airlines flight back to Heathrow with ChloÈ and Ken and would have been... home... hours ago. And, while I'm at it, things would be coasting along as normally as they're ever capable of getting.

 

But, no.

 

That would have been too easy. Far, *far* too easy.

 

After five hours staring blankly at the departures board in Narita I end up having to fly Singapore Airlines into Gatwick. Being a last minute booking and First Class being full, the only seat, just to make things that little bit worse, I could get was in Cattle Class. This, in turn, meant I got the pleasure of sitting between Charles and his ever-present, ever-bleeping Gameboy and an old lady who, I swear, had some sort of baby-bootie production line going on. By the time the captain was telling the crew to take their seats for landing she'd crocheted, and I know this because I counted them as they disappeared into the bag at her feet, sixteen pairs. Her Japanese being only slightly better than I was pretending my English was, she told me that the booties were for her grandson (who's what, a centipede?) and that she'd just spent a week visiting her only daughter in Kyoto and seeing him for the first time. She then returned her attention to her crocheting and, barring apologizing profusely every time she wanted to get out of her seat to use the bathroom, didn't speak again. As passengers to be trapped next to go, she was close to perfect.

 

Unlike Charles.

 

Charles, who would go into spasms of air punching, squirming delight every time he achieved whatever it was he was wanting to achieve on his Gameboy. Charles, who, having sampled every brand of aftershave Duty-Free had to offer, smelt like nothing on earth. Charles, who guzzled -- oh, the irony -- Diet Coke like it was going out of fashion and who had no problems whatsoever with dumping his empty cans on my tray. Charles, who, while making the possibly life changing decision of which game to play next, would stare at me like he was trying to work out if I was actually human or something. Charles, who I wouldn't look at for fear of bursting into overemotional, overwrought tears at the fact that he wasn't ChloÈ or Ken and that the reason I was having to sit next to him for fifteen long, tedious hours was because I was a fucking idiot.

 

"Hey, Charlie, ya fat cocksucker, what did you get me, huh? I tell you now that if it's Hello fucking Kitty or any other Jap crap like that then I'm going to shove it somewhere uncomfortable!"

 

Excuse me? You mean to say there's *more* members of this family running around Gatwick? Christ. Hasn't Charles Senior ever heard of condoms?

 

"What makes you think I brought you anything back, ya stupid skank? Sheesh. Like I'd waste luggage space on anything for you. If you're nice to me I *might* contemplate giving you the toothbrush they gave me on the plane."

 

"Mu-*um*! I know you gave Charlie money to buy me something and I want you to make him give it to me!"

 

The family drama being played -- screeched -- out behind my back getting the better of me, I turn around and shoot them a scowl. Charles' sister, who looks like a slightly smaller version of their mother and who's clutching a Burger King bag in one hand and a jumbo soft drink in the other, is glaring at her brother as though the thought of being happy to see him hasn't even crossed her mind. Catching my gaze on them, the mother has the decency to blush and for all of a split second manages to actually look apologetic.

 

"Hannah! Charles!" she hisses. "Keep your voices down. I think you're upsetting that nice Japanese man over there."

 

"Nice?" Charles snorts, looking me up and down before shaking his head and laughing. "Try strange and you'd be getting warmer. I had him sitting next to me on the flight and I reckon he's peculiar. Spent the whole time staring at that boring plane data screen as though he was waiting for it to tell him the secrets of the universe or something. He didn't even eat his meals or anything. At one point I was afraid that I was sitting next to a freakin' corpse."

 

Oh. Dear.

 

Charles, who had no qualms about helping himself to the food off my tray, doesn't like me. Shit. However will I now sleep at night? And there I was thinking that things couldn't possibly get any worse...

 

"Oh, I dunno," Hannah, who I hazard a guess is all of thirteen if she's lucky, drawls, running her tongue along her bottom lip and winking at me. "I think he's kinda cute in a kinda odd sorta way, like a popstar or something."

 

"More like an alien," Charles smirks. "You might not be able to see 'em from here, but his eyes are purple. Now, if that ain't abnormal then I don't know what is."

 

"His hair is a little on the different side too, isn't it?" the mother muses, unconsciously toying with the tips of her own peroxided mop. "The Japanese have such lovely, glossy black hair. I don't know what possesses them to dye it such unnatural colors."

 

"I reckon he looks like one of them pansy ass fags," Harold interjects, shooting me a dismissive look before giving an exasperated sigh and stalking closer to the luggage carousel. "For fuck's sake, where's your fucking suitcase, huh? I wanna get home before Countdown comes on."

 

My appearance, sexuality, and most likely my sanity as well, having been so succinctly, not to mention eruditely torn to shreds, I move further away from Charles and the rest of his delightful family and wonder idly what particular wrong turn I made in my life to end up here.

 

Oh.

 

That's right.

 

Yohji.

 

My allegedly strong streak of common sense having decided to take a sudden, unannounced holiday, I, in what can only be described as a fit of madness, took it upon myself to drag Yohji into Krypton Brand. Not content at leaving it at that, I then insisted that he go back to London with ChloÈ and Ken and that I was perfectly okay with having to wait for the next flight.

 

Silly me. How could I have possibly forgotten that?

 

Oh yeah, that's right. I remember now.

 

The reason I could possibly have forgotten about the hole I've very busily dug for myself is, well, because for the past twenty-four hours or so I've steadfastly refused to think about it.

 

Don't want to think about Yohji and what possessed me to even go looking for him let alone why I... Urgh. Why I did what I did.

 

Don't want to think about why a memorial to Kimura has suddenly sprung up in Tokyo and how I felt upon seeing it.

 

Don't want to think about the hundreds of questions -- that I know now that I won't be able to give a coherent answer to -- I've got to look forward to having shouted at me once I finally get home.

 

Having lost -- given up -- so much, putting things behind me and blithely pretending they never happened is pretty much one of my specialties, an art form self-preservation made me learn years ago.

 

... Is an art, like everything else.

I do it exceptionally well.

 

I do it so it feels like hell.

I do it so it feels real.

I guess you could say I've a call...

 

Wonderful. Just wonderful.

 

And now, because I can and because I'm clearly losing the plot, I'm having flashes of Sylvia Plath's poem, 'Lady Lazarus', popping uninvited into my head. The one that ends...

 

... Out of the ash

I rise with my red hair

And I eat men like air.

 

Christ.

 

Seriously, all I need now is to start hallucinating or holding a one-sided conversation with myself and I'd just be set. Quoting Sylvia Plath, harboring a festering desire to do something violent to now not only Charles but also his entire family as well, opening my fool mouth and turning -- not only -- Yohji's life upside down... I'm going well, I really am. For my next trick I might just turn around and catch the next flight to, oh, I don't know, Sydney. Right now the other side of the world is looking pretty good from where I'm standing.

 

Sighing, I run my fingers through my hair and do a quick mental search for something other than Yohji and my mind-blowing stupidity to think about. The luggage carousel still not having been activated, I decide -- for the want of anything better to do -- that I may as well direct some of my considerable, jet-lagged hatred towards the terrorists of the world. Before the abhorrent... despicable... downright hideous... events of 9/11 one could blithely jet around from location to location without either having to weigh themselves down with luggage or explain to the authorities that they were only on a flying -- no pun intended -- visit and would be back home before nightfall. As far as I was concerned this worked perfectly. If I was having to fly somewhere to... deliver justice... then the last thing I wanted was to cart around a suitcase with me.

 

Now however, because flying without luggage just happens to be the equivalent of walking into an airport wearing one of those F.B.I. type jackets with 'TERRORIST' written in big print on the back, we now have to take a suitcase with us whenever we have to go somewhere and, right at this exact point in time, this is annoying me even more than it usually does. While I don't particularly want to face everyone at home, nor do I exactly want to stand around Gatwick waiting for a suitcase that means nothing to me. Hell, the only reason I even know what it contains is because we pack to a carefully prepared list. Toiletries, underwear, socks, one complete change of clothes, an umbrella, a book with a bookmark slipped halfway through it - all very normal and not worthy of rousing anyone's interest or suspicion. We only carry them because, constantly having to be one step ahead of the authorities, we have to.

 

And, while I'm at it and because the damn carousel *still* hasn't given any indication of going to move, I resent knowing that while up in the air I have to force myself to get up and go to the toilet -- even if I don't have any need to -- in order to reassure the all knowing, all seeing flight attendants that I'm not trying to smuggle drugs and *don't* have something that I shouldn't have shoved up my...

 

Yes, well.

 

Stupid, selfish terrorists. Stupid, mentally deficient drug mules.

 

After my obligatory, forced trip to the bathroom, Charles made me wait in the aisle for five minutes while he finished his game before deigning to allow me back into my seat. Controlling the urge to simply walk over the top of him was, I have to say, incredibly difficult. As was stopping myself from wrenching his Gameboy out of his hands and seeing how far down the aisle I could manage to throw it.

 

"Praise the Lord! About fucking time too."

 

His voice possessing foghorn like qualities, Harold's gruff cheer travels across the waiting area, heralding the first collection of luggage to make its way onto the carousel. Being a last minute booking, my much maligned suitcase -- which I only recognize by the rose embossed luggage tag, the one that ChloÈ insists we all use, hanging off the handle -- is the second case out and I snatch it up with a sigh of relief.

 

As Harold said, about fucking time too.

 

Suitcase obtained, I give in to the general feelings of contrariness I can feel simmering just below my surface and smile triumphantly at Charles as I stroll past him. I also, because my impulse control is clearly still up in the stratosphere somewhere, murmur under my breath in Japanese that I very much hope his luggage has been sent to Beirut in error and that he and his horrid family have to wait around in the airport until it finally arrives. Charles' eyes widen in fear at the fact that I'm -- the half-dead alien with the purple eyes -- speaking to him and he surreptitiously sidles closer to his mother for protection. Given that I suspect he wouldn't have a clue what I just said, I can only hope that he's thinking I've just cast a curse -- 'may all your oh-so-cool Japanese games turn into Barbie dolls' -- on him and that he spends the rest of the day worrying himself sick about it.

 

Free at last from Charles and co, I stride towards the exit as the unwelcome realization hits me that the time has come where I have to make an actual decision about something. Damn. Do I catch a cab straight home or do I hire a car and drive to Kent, thus circumventing KR's inevitable summons to explain myself? Decisions, decisions. Stammering my justifications (which I can only hope will come to me when the time comes) to KR and Mihirogi being imminently preferable to what I just know is lying in wait for me at home, I think I'd quite like to simply go straight to Kent. Not really wanting to make things any worse than they already are though, I know that I can't and that I have to go home, that I can't just, contrary to how much I wish I could, turn my back on my actions and try and hide.

 

Besides, the way I'm feeling I think I'd be lucky to get the car out of the airport in one pristine piece let alone all the way down to Kent. Not only that but, and I can just see it now, I'd probably find myself being stalked by Hermes and, just, no... Not today and not in the mood I'm in. I still haven't fully forgiven ChloÈ for sending his damn owl after me that -- *one* -- time I just happened to misplace my bearings in Covent Garden as it is. Wanting the ground to open up and swallow me whole had nothing on it.

 

"Look, mummy! Hedwig's following that man!"

 

I mean, it's alright for ChloÈ. He thinks having an owl hovering around him is perfectly normal and has the ability to feign complete and utter deafness when any children that are nearby start carrying on about Hogwarts and wizards and the like.

 

So, ah, yeah. Don't want to drive up the back of a bus and don't particularly want to be hunted down by Hermes, so, looks like a cab it is then.

 

Eschewing the row of waiting minicabs, I make a beeline for the much more respectable Black Cabs and climb into the one at the front of the rank.

 

"Where to, mate?" the middle-aged driver queries cheerfully, turning around in his seat to address me. A deodorizer cut in the shape of a t-shirt hangs from the rear vision mirror, its telltale colors of red and white telling me in no uncertain terms that, gosh, damn, I've just lost the ability to speak English again.

 

Making a point of speaking both as carefully and as thickly accented as I can manage, I give the driver the address and slump back in my seat. Okay, driver, drive. You know where you're going, so, let's go.

 

Or not. Of course not. Again, that would be too easy.

 

"Hey! That's right near the Gunners' home ground!" the driver, just as I'd expected him to, exclaims happily. "I bet you can hear the cheers of the crowd when they're playing."

 

"Solly?" I murmur politely, leaning slightly forward and effecting a blank look. "Gu... Gunners? I no understand."

 

I'm sure the driver is a very nice man but the thought of having to make small talk about football, something I've never had -- much to Ken's disgust -- any great interest in anyway, for the next seventy or so minutes just makes me want to cringe. Ken, it goes without saying, is still basking in the warm -- despite actually hating the team for reasons unknown -- afterglow that living near Arsenal's home ground has installed in him and, because he seems to think my life is incomplete without having seen a match there, I have to ensure that I'm busy every time they're playing a home game. And, yes, in answer to the driver's question, we *can* hear the crowd. Drunken sporting fans being capable of a volume all of their own, we'd have to be deaf *not* to hear them. We also have to clean up after them should their beloved team lose and they decide to take their grief out on the front of the shop or the street.

 

"Never mind," the driver sighs, giving me a disappointed look before turning back around and starting his cab. "You just sit back and relax," he adds. "I'll get you where you're going in no time."

 

"Sank you, sank you!" I chant, giving a couple of token gesture bows before returning to my slumped position on the middle of the seat. As much as I dislike pandering to racial stereotypes I'm not above using them in order to obtain the result I desire, which in this case is simply being left alone. Just... Whatever it takes, you know...

 

Assured that his passenger's English skills are on the lacking side, the driver ignores me and concentrates on his driving. Still refusing to think about anything of any meaning or consequence, I stare out the window and watch the slowly becoming familiar scenery fly past. Sainsbury's. Tesco's. Marks & Spencers. Rover. Vauxhall. Black Cabs and red double decker buses. Billboards advertising British Telecom, Barclays, and Sky Sport. So different from Japan but things I now take for granted.

 

While I never once thought I'd end up living in London I have to say that it's gradually growing on me. I'd rather be in Japan, for sure, but it's nonetheless far better than New York and I like the base KR has given us. Although I didn't expect it to ever be the case, it's now home and, today aside, I generally look forward to returning there.

 

The driver's definition of 'no time' being, give or take a minute here or there, ninety minutes, he finally deposits me at the back gate just as the time on his dashboard clock ticks over to three-thirty. I've only been away for something like forty hours yet it feels like a lifetime.

 

Over tipping the driver by way of apologizing for my boorish behavior, I drag my suitcase out of the cab, throw in a few more 'sank you's' and bow until he's driven off up the street. I then stare at the electronic keypad that activates the gate for five minutes, waiting none-to-patiently for the code to just come to me, and am about to give up and hit the intercom button when, finally, I remember it.

 

Inputting the code with fingers that really don't want to obey my commands to work, I push open the gate with my hip and walk into the back courtyard. Its purpose having been served, I deposit my suitcase next to the water lily covered pond and trudge inside. I've barely made it in the back door when Ken comes bounding out from the shop, his arms full of flowers that, in my current air headed state, I can't even recognize.

 

"My God, look at you. You look like shit!" Ken states bluntly, dumping his flowers on the table and peering at me closely. "What took you so long, huh? I was beginning to think you'd either decided to swim back or simply head off somewhere in the opposite direction."

 

"The next plane to London, the Qantas one, was full and I had to wait for the Singapore Airlines flight," I mutter, leaning limply against the wall and mentally willing Ken to turn around and disappear back from whence he came. "Sorry if I took longer than you would have liked but there wasn't a damn lot I could have done about it short of hiring a private jet."

 

"Oooh! I'm taking it then that you feel exactly like you look?" Ken queries with a hint of smirk. "Like shit, yes?"

 

"Whatever gives you that impression?" I sigh, lacking the energy required to shoot Ken a withering scowl and settling on giving a lackluster shrug. "I'm just wonderful. I had a lovely flight sitting next to this truly delightful teenager and his Gameboy and, as you can see, I'm now home."

 

"You also happen to look dead on your feet," Ken replies, shaking his head and giving me a concerned look. "When was the last time you slept, huh? Did you sleep on the plane?"

 

When was the last time I slept? Good question. Oh. Hang on. I know. The last time I slept was here, upstairs in my own bed. "I..."

 

"You haven't slept since leaving here, have you?" Ken interrupts, shaking his head again. "Fuck. No wonder you look like death warmed up. Now, I don't know what you had planned for the afternoon but I have to insist that you go upstairs and take a nap. You should see yourself, Aya. I'd say you looked like something the cat dragged in but I honestly don't think any cat that I know would have bothered."

 

"Not taking a nap," I mutter, sounding even to my own ears petulant. "You know as well as I do that in order to avoid jetlag one has to immediately set their body to local time."

 

"Two things," Ken retorts, rolling his eyes. "One, if you're still awake at five let alone ten it'll be nothing short of a miracle. And, two, what if we get called out on a mission tonight, huh? I can just see you having to use your katana as a walking stick in order to remain upright and, well, if that is the case I can already hear the slightly hysterical sound of our targets laughing themselves silly at the sight of you."

 

"You have an over active imagination," I mutter, knowing that Ken happens to be right, that I need to sleep if I'm going to be of any use to anyone, but not wanting to let on that he's thinking more sensibly than I'm currently capable of. "I'm... I'm fine."

 

"Mmm... So fine in fact that I've been speaking Japanese to you ever since you staggered in the door and you haven't yet picked me up on it," Ken replies, referring to our self-imposed rule of always speaking English in both the shop and the house. Because I can see the sense in it, I'm usually pretty strict on abiding by the rule and am forever ticking Ken off when he lapses back into Japanese. Except for, apparently, now.

 

"I..." Damn. He's got me and he knows it.

 

"See? You're off with the fairies, Aya, and you need to sleep," Ken smiles, still speaking in Japanese safe in the knowledge that I'm too vague to do anything about it. "Now, go. Have a shower and go to bed. I don't want to see you again until you're looking a bit more with it."

 

"Where is everyone?" I query, sticking to Japanese simply because it's easier and making no move to drag myself away from my nice comfy wall. My nice comfy wall that, in lieu of my katana, is indeed helping to keep me upright. "You're obviously manning the shop because you're here annoying me, but where's everyone else?"

 

"Free's helping me in the shop, Michel and Yuki are probably on their way home from school, ChloÈ's..." Pausing, Ken shrugs and gestures airily above his head. "I think ChloÈ is upstairs," he continues, "but don't quote me on it. Quite frankly, for all I know, he could be anywhere."

 

"And..." Don't really want to know but have to ask. "Yohji? Where's Yohji?"

 

"Sound asleep under the watchful guard of both Missy 'n' Milly, who, I suspect, are reassuring themselves that he's friend and not foe," Ken grins. "The shock of everything and the long flight adding up to get the better of him, he pretty much crashed the minute we got back here."

 

"You know ChloÈ will get tetchy if he hears you calling Mystique that," I sigh, digesting the news that Yohji is asleep and moving straight on. "I'm telling you now, for your own good, not to make a habit of it."

 

"You don't get precious when I call Tantomile, Milly," Ken replies, still grinning. "Besides, if ChloÈ doesn't like what I call his cat then he can just bite me."

 

"If I see him would you like me to pass that particular comment on?" I murmur drily. "I'm sure he'd be delighted knowing you were offering him the opportunity to bite you."

 

"Nah," Ken drawls, starting to sort his flowers into neat little piles. "I think ChloÈ's reached his allocated levels of delight for the time being and would probably just threaten to kill me. I'll tell you something though. You're going to have to watch him and Yohji as already there's some pretty serious fascination going on. ChloÈ's fascinated by the fact that Yohji's suddenly a fixture in his life and, well, Yohji is just fascinated by ChloÈ period."

 

Oh great. Wonderful. Just what I wanted to hear.

 

"I..." There being nothing I can think of saying, I fall silent and stare blankly at Ken.

 

"Hey, Aya, what's the matter?" Ken queries worriedly, putting his flowers down and giving me his full attention. "You're not having second thoughts, are you? This is Yohji we're talking about here. *Yohji*! Oh my God, I swear I thought I was going to burst with happiness when I got in the car and saw him there. Hell, get this, I'm *still* having trouble believing that he's really here, that he's really upstairs and a part of our lives again."

 

"I..." With practice, and assuming I don't have an aneurysm due to the strain of pushing myself too hard, I might eventually come out with a full, coherent sentence. That said, I'm not holding my breath or anything.

 

And, is it just me or is the room, like, *spinning* or something?

 

"Aya? Come on. Talk to me," Ken states, walking over and coming to stand next to me. "You did the right thing, okay? Whatever it is you're thinking... or trying desperately *not* to think about as I suspect the case may be... I want you to just stop it. Again, we're talking about Yohji here, the *old* Yohji. Sure he mightn't remember anything but to both look at him and hear him speak, he's just like he used to be! The smart mouth, the speech patterns, the longer hair..."

 

"I... I know..." I murmur softly, cutting Ken off mid enthusiastic rant. "That's... Oh God... That's why I did it." Closing my eyes, for a second I'm transported back to The Cat's Whiskers, my heart trying to beat a tattoo straight through my chest at the sight of Yohji, his hair the length I'd always preferred it, sitting by himself in the middle of the bustling bar, his expression a picture of misery. I'd...

 

I'd only wanted to see him. That's all. Just wanting to see for myself that he was okay, I hadn't even planned to speak to him. Seeing how unhappy he looked though, I...

 

I went over to him. I had to. What else could I have done? I mean, really? Having abandoned him twice I couldn't, not in all conscience, do it again. I just couldn't.

 

"I'm just..." I whisper, opening my eyes and slowly pushing myself away from the wall. "I'm just afraid that I may have made a hideous mistake," I finish, shaking my head and making my way unsteadily towards the stairs. "Please, Ken, you're right, I... I need to sleep. I'm... I'm overtired and not thinking straight."

 

"While I agree that you're clearly not thinking straight," Ken replies, giving my shoulder a gentle pat as he returns to the table and his flowers, "you'll never hear me agreeing that you've made a mistake. You'll see, Aya. Yohji's back where he belongs now and, trust me, everything's going to work out for the best."

 

"We'll see," I murmur under my breath, somehow finding the strength to drag myself up the stairs to the second floor. Ken, thank God for small mercies, stays in the storeroom, common sense clearly telling him that I'm best left alone for the time being.

 

Noting that door to the room virtually opposite mine, the house's designated 'junk' room, is shut, I realize with surprise that that's where Yohji probably is. Despite it making perfect sense -- spare room on a floor devoted to bedrooms, well I never, how sensible -- I'm still a little taken aback. So...

 

So close.

 

I could open the door and he'd be there. After so long apart we're back sharing a roof again and...

 

And, fuck it. I'm shaking like a Goddamn leaf.

 

Stumbling into my room, I kick the door closed behind me and sink down on the edge of the bed. Burying my head in my hands, I breathe deeply and will myself to calm down. If I've ever felt this dithery before I can't remember it. Worse, I even feel as though I'm close to tears.

 

Sensing the door being carefully opened, I don't look up and know that my uninvited guest is ChloÈ by the delicate scent of roses that wafts into the room. Company. How marvelous.

 

"I'm not even going to ask if you're okay because it's clear that you're not," he murmurs softly, shutting the door and coming over to stand directly in front of me.

 

Prying apart my fingers, I stare at ChloÈ's kneecaps and for some unknown reason seeing that he's wearing black velvet pants cheers me up slightly. I don't know. There's just something reassuring about knowing that while the universe could be being sucked into oblivion ChloÈ would still look as though he'd just stepped off the pages of a GQ fashion spread. "Go away," I mutter, sighing. "Unless you're feeling masochistic, you don't want to be anywhere near me at the moment."

 

"So what you're saying is I should take my tea and just go?" ChloÈ queries lightly, backing his words up by turning around and heading back to the door. "And to think I just brewed it fresh and everything..."

 

"You could always just leave the tea," I reply hopefully, lifting my head and making an effort to sit up a little straighter. Along with his, casual, around-the-house velvet trousers, ChloÈ's wearing a violet silk shirt, the top buttons of which are undone to display both his pale chest and his favorite Celtic cross. He looks, as usual, exquisite. Unlike me. Who, as Ken so kindly pointed out, currently looks like something not even a cat would want to drag in. Or, even better, as Charles said, an alien.

 

"Sorry. If the tea stays I stay," ChloÈ responds, pausing by the door and frowning as his gaze flicks over me. "I'd say if you want it come and get it but, well, don't really want to be having to pick you up from the floor."

 

"You're not funny, I hope you realize," I sigh, reaching out my hand as, his point having been made, ChloÈ returns to the bed and hands me a mug from the two on his tray. The mug not being *my* mug, the black one covered in white paw prints with the statement 'My Cat Walks All Over Me' on the front that Yuki -- for reasons best known to himself -- decided to buy for me, I take it from ChloÈ hesitantly, nearly having to shield my eyes from the glare of its brilliant, lime green glaze. A quick glance confirms that ChloÈ's got one of his numerous, rose covered mugs and I can't help but wonder what I've done to deserve the green monstrosity.

 

"If you're... ah... pissed with me I'm sure you can think of better ways of making me suffer than *this*," I mutter, using my free hand to point at the cup. "I mean... Look at the color! It looks like it's radioactive."

 

"Don't blame me, blame Ken," ChloÈ replies, placing the tray on my chest of drawers before coming to sit alongside me. "If you can bring yourself to turn it around it should, hopefully, make more sense to you."

 

Doing as suggested, I carefully spin the mug around and, hallelujah, start to laugh as it does indeed make more sense to me. Although the purple is somewhat garish against the lime green, the chibi, homeboy style dragon of The Dragon's Tears is instantly recognizable and I can see now why Ken would have just had to have bought it. "He explained the relevance, yeah?" I query, nonetheless closing both my hands around the mug, covering it, before taking a welcome mouthful of tea.

 

"Once he'd calmed down, yes, he explained the relevance," ChloÈ murmurs, shaking his head. "Do you honestly think I would have let the horrid things in the house if Ken *hadn't* had a good reason for buying them? He bought three of them, you know, one each for the members of Weiss. You have no idea how much I wished you'd been there when, upon finding them in the Duty-Free souvenir shop, Ken took it upon himself to go into spasms of delight. On one hand I had to keep an eye on Yohji, who, I might add was already going into nicotine withdrawal, and on the other I had to deal with Ken behaving like a hyperactive twelve year old. It was, as I'm sure you can imagine, a right treat."

 

"If it makes you feel any better I just spent fifteen hours trapped next to a truly obnoxious adolescent," I reply, forcing myself to be brave and taking another look at the mug. Yes, it's... kinda... cute, and yes, The Dragon's Tears *did* used to be Weiss', but... Well, let's just say I hope Ken isn't too hurt if I go back to using my paw mug. "Said adolescent not only smelt like an aftershave factory but it was also like he simply couldn't function without his Gameboy bleeping reassuringly at him. I hate to say it, but the closer we got to London the more I wanted to kill him."

 

"Hmm... You know something, that *does* make me feel a little better," ChloÈ smiles. "Oh yeah... Knowing your flight sucked as much as mine did helps quite a lot, actually."

 

"Mine sucked more," I mutter, once again making a point of closing my hands completely around the mug. "Trust me."

 

"And as competitions go, I'm already over this one," ChloÈ responds, shrugging. "We're all... well, plus one... home now. That's all that ultimately has to matter."

 

"I..." Hanging my head, I stare down into my tea and sigh. Heavily. "I'm sorry..."

 

"For what?" ChloÈ queries, shifting position so he can face me. "For leaving me with Ken, who it has to be said was behaving as though he'd taken a shot of pure caffeine to his system, and a nicotine addict that I don't even know? If so, forget it. I sweet talked the check in clerk into ensuring we all had separate seats and spent the entire flight simply pretending that neither of them even existed."

 

"You too, huh?" I murmur dully, taking another mouthful of tea. "I... No. Really. I'm sorry. For everything, okay? I never should have gone to The Cat's Whiskers. Nor should I have ever opened my fool mouth. It was also wrong of me to dump... Yohji... on you and... I'm just sorry. I apologize. My fault. It's all my fault."

 

The words falling out of my mouth in a mumbled rush, I risk an embarrassed glance at ChloÈ and find him looking at me with evident concern. First Ken and now ChloÈ. Great. Obviously I'm behaving as ditsy as I feel then.

 

"Who said anything about you having to apologize?" ChloÈ replies gently. "Besides, what's done is done. You can't undo it and it's not like worrying about it is going to achieve any thing."

 

"It... It was still foolish, a mistake," I murmur, shaking my head numbly. "I... I wasn't thinking and now... and now everything's up in the air and I... I don't know what I'm supposed to do about it!"

 

"Right now you're not going to do anything," ChloÈ responds, standing up and taking the mug out of my hands. I haven't finished the tea but, too tired to attempt to keep a hold on it, I let him take it without protest. "In fact, all you're going to do right now is have a shower before crawling straight into bed," he continues, placing both of our mugs back on the tray. "I thought you were in a bad way when I first saw you but now, now that I've listened to you ramble on for a couple of minutes, I know for sure. You should hear yourself, Aya. It's like listening to a stranger."

 

"But I need to explain, to... to justify my actions," I mutter, staring at ChloÈ as he folds his arms across his chest and shakes his head. "No! I... I do! I have to..."

 

"Get some rest before you make an even bigger idiot of yourself," ChloÈ calmly finishes for me. "Yes. I know. Couldn't have put it better myself, in fact."

 

Smug, as they say over here in England, git.

 

"But..."

 

"Uh-uh. No buts," ChloÈ interrupts, waving in the direction of the en suite. "Listen to me, Aya. You're overtired and not thinking at your best. While, yes, you *do* have some talking to do, now is not the time. You need to rest and regroup before you even *contemplate* attempting to sort through things. Now. Shower. Go."

 

"And if I don't?" I retort querulously, nonetheless dragging myself to my feet. "What are you going to do then?"

 

Shrugging, ChloÈ glances at the door, a half smirk forming on his pale lips. "Oh, I don't know," he murmurs sweetly. "I could always, I suppose, go wake Yohji up and see if he'd like to come have a little chat with you."

 

What's more, he would too. He'd probably even perch himself on the desk in order to watch what happened next as well.

 

"Anyone ever tell you that you're a complete bastard?" I sigh, dutifully walking over to the bathroom. "I don't want to see Yohji and you damn well know it too. If you won't even talk to me, what am I supposed to say to him, huh? Welcome to your new home. Here's your wire. Now, here's your target, go get him. Sound good?"

 

"If you're not in the shower in the next sixty seconds you're going to find out," ChloÈ retorts, trailing after me. "At the risk of you biting... well, given your current condition, perhaps *gnawing* might be more apt... my head off, would you like some help washing your back?"

 

He gives me nothing but grief and then he wants to share my shower with me? And *I'm* supposed to be the one who's currently off in his own little world?

 

And...

 

Damn it.

 

It's the best offer I've heard in days.

 

If ChloÈ stays with me I won't be alone and, if I'm not alone, I'll have an excuse for not thinking about the fact that the only man I'll ever love with all of my heart is sleeping in the room opposite mine. Selfish, possibly, but definitely logical. Besides, it's completely within the boundaries of the unspoken understanding we've somehow formed between us.

 

Pausing in the doorway to the en suite, I nod. "Please..."

 

"You get in and I'll be right back then," ChloÈ replies, thankfully being gracious enough to accept his victory and quit while he's ahead.

 

"I'm not going anywhere," I murmur, listening to ChloÈ pick up the tray and walk out of the room before slowly stripping my clothes off. A creature of obsessive -- or as Yohji would no doubt say, anally retentive -- habit, I know that ChloÈ won't be long and that he's only gone to get some clean clothes to put on... afterwards. He's probably only been wearing what he's currently got on since returning here earlier today, but God forbid he had to put them back on once they'd already been worn. I used to think I was bad with my penchant for changing clothes, but ChloÈ's a thousand times worse.

 

Naked, I look down at my clothes strewn all over the bathroom floor, as opposed to being placed neatly in the whicker laundry hamper, and see the mess as yet more proof that I'm not so much losing it as have already totally lost it. Oh well. Shit happens. Either ChloÈ will pick the clothes up or they'll be still there in the morning. Right now I could honestly care less.

 

Turning the shower on, I don't pay any attention to the taps that I'm busily rotating and step under a stream of freezing water. While the shock of this should wake me up, it doesn't, and I've only just managed -- too hot, too cold, urgh, why's everything so hard? -- to get the temperature right when ChloÈ returns. Blinking the water out of my eyes, I watch as he carefully picks all my clothes up and places them in the hamper before stripping off and throwing his clothing in on top of mine.

 

"Obsessive," I comment drily, stepping further back into the shower, making room. Beautiful too. But he knows that already.

 

"Charming. Especially coming from someone who looks like a drowned rat..." ChloÈ murmurs, smiling as he joins me in the shower, pulling the glass door shut behind him, sealing us in.

 

"I'm tired," I state, well and truly apropos of nothing. "Everything's heavy... My head, body, everything. Don't know what you expect from me but whatever it is you're going to have to work for it."

 

His light blue eyes drawn to the -- Forever Weiss -- scarring on my waist, ChloÈ seems to hesitate for a couple of seconds before moving behind me and pressing up against my back. Like just about everything he does, his movements are sensual without being sexual and, suddenly craving his familiar, comforting touch, I relax against him with a small sigh.

 

"Aya, I... I hate to do this to you when you're obviously in a state," ChloÈ whispers, his hand ghosting over the scars, "but, my curiosity getting the better of me, I'm going to take advantage of you..."

 

My whole body threatening to go into immediate shock at ChloÈ's words, I freeze, a distant, hollow voice in the back of my head telling me that I have to get away. Three years have passed and still the thought of being... taken advantage of... fills me with dread.

 

ChloÈ? Why would he... ? I... I don't understand... I know I'm not with it, but...

 

"Oh God, Aya... I'm sorry!" ChloÈ suddenly exclaims, backing away from me as I stand frozen to the spot in the middle of the shower. Although we've been speaking English ever since he first walked in to my room, clearly flustered, he's reverted to his preferred German and sounds completely mortified. "I should have put more thought into what I was going to say before opening my mouth. What you're thinking, I'd... I'd never do that. Not to you and not to anyone. I'm... Please. Believe me. I'm sorry, incredibly so..."

 

"What do you mean by 'take advantage of' then?" I murmur, sticking to English and, ashamed by my instinctive reaction, feeling quite unable to turn around to face ChloÈ because of it. ChloÈ might, if we ever came to be on opposite sides, kick my ass in a fight, but he'd never do anything to me... *that* way. He just wouldn't and if I had any sense I would have known that without freaking out first and thinking later. "The way you said it, I..."

 

"And, again, I can only apologize profusely," ChloÈ interrupts, tentatively wrapping his arms around my waist and coming back to press against me. "What I should have just said is that I want to ask you something that I think, because you're tired and overemotional, you might just answer for me..."

 

"And to think you think I'm the one not making much sense at the moment," I reply, once again relaxing into ChloÈ's embrace. "Come on, ChloÈ, what are you talking about?

 

"There's something I've been wanting to ask you ever since... well, ever since the first time, actually," ChloÈ responds, resting his chin lightly on my shoulder. "It not really being either any of my business or something you freely talk about, I've managed to control myself. Now though..."

 

"Mmm?" I interject, not really wanting to know what ChloÈ's question is going to be but at the same time wishing he'd just spit it out and be done with it. "Given that I have no intention of ever letting myself lose the plot like this again, you'd better make the most of your window of opportunity before it's gone, never to be seen again."

 

"Then... Your scarring..." ChloÈ murmurs, ghosting his hands over my waist again. "What I would like to know is why the cross and... Yohji's name... don't appear to be healing as well as I would have expected them to. I mean, I've got scars that aren't as old as they are and mine don't look..."

 

No!

 

Of all the things he could have asked...

 

Without warning, my knees give way beneath me and, ChloÈ's voice becoming little more than a low, barely audible hum over the top of the sound of the water, I slump unceremoniously to the tiled floor. Thinking fast, and I'm relieved that at least one of us still has his wits about him, ChloÈ grabs me by the arms, saving me from hitting the base of the shower with too much force. The impact of tired flesh on the hard tiles still hurts though and I whimper plaintively. Whether this is relation to the pain or ChloÈ's question though isn't something I really know -- or even want to know -- the answer to.

 

Following me down to the floor, ChloÈ shifts around to kneel in front of me and gathers my unresisting body into his arms. "And once again I feel compelled to apologize profusely," he states soothingly, gently rubbing his hand up and down my back. "I'm sorry, Aya, some things are obviously meant to remain private. I never should have asked and I promise you now that I'll never..."

 

"The reason they don't look... as though they're healing," I interrupt hoarsely, unable to meet ChloÈ's gaze, "is because I... I... I've reopened them. Twice. I've reopened them twice."

 

"Aya... Shhh... You don't have to..."

 

"You asked and I'm answering!" I exclaim, shaking my head back and forth. For no known reason I feel as though -- seeking atonement? Absolution? -- I have to answer ChloÈ. If he cares enough to ask then it's only right that I answer him, right? "The... The first time was the night we... *I*... it was down to me and me alone... ended our relationship. Caught up in the grief of my own making I took a razor blade and re-branded myself with Yohji's mark. It... It didn't even hurt. It should have, I suppose, but it didn't..."

 

"Shhh... Aya..." Trying again to cut me off, ChloÈ brushes my hair away from my face and lightly strokes my cheek. "You don't have to tell me and I'm sorry..."

 

"The second time was my first night in New York," I continue, my voice barely above that of a whisper as my hands, operating entirely under their own steam, clutch at ChloÈ's shoulders. "I felt so alone, so... separated... from everything that I... I turned to one of the few links I still had to my past, to Weiss, to... To Yohji..." Trailing off, I blink back futile tears and lower my head, afraid that I've already said far too much "So... There. Now you know. Not only am I emotionally unstable but I'm also prone to the odd spot of self-mutilation..."

 

"Not mutilation," ChloÈ murmurs gently. "If you wanted to self-mutilate you would have branched out and kept cutting. Or... Ah... Never mind. As you just said though, all you were doing was trying to keep a desperate link to everything that you'd lost. It... It makes sense to me."

 

"I..."

 

Oh God... When will feeling like this, like there's some disembodied stranger inhabiting my flesh, stop? I've never felt so... so vulnerable before, as though I'm lying open for anyone to come along and take a piece of me. And all because of what I've done, because of Yohji?

 

Stupid.

 

It's just... stupid, irrational. And I don't do irrational.

 

"You're reacting like this because, for perhaps the first time ever, what you've done is blindly followed your heart without pausing to think of the consequences," ChloÈ states quietly, his expression giving away nothing as I jerk my head up to stare at him. "And, no, I'm not reading you... I've told you before that you're a closed book to me, Aya, and I meant it. I do however know you well enough to know that what I just said is likely to be the truth. Someone you love... and quite possibly even *need*... was hurting and, wanting to alleviate some of his pain, your instinctive reaction was to do whatever you could to help him. Anyone in your situation would have reacted the same."

 

"Not me..." I protest faintly, giving ChloÈ a suspicious look and not quite knowing whether to believe his assertions of not being able to read me or not. "Don't need Yohji... Don't need anyone... What I did was make a mistake, one that I now don't know how to rectify."

 

"And here we are right back where we started," ChloÈ replies, reaching up for the soap and giving me a borderline condescending kiss on the forehead. "You're tired and you're talking rubbish. Now, we're going to finish our shower and then you're going to bed where, and I don't care if I have to sit on you to ensure this, you're going to stay until the morning. Do I make myself clear?"

 

"Dictatorially so," I mutter wearily, hoping ChloÈ knows that if wants something from me he's going to have to spell it out in basic, easily understood terms. "Ah... What about you? Do you want..."

 

"I offered to wash your back because I was feeling sorry for you, not because I wanted to have my way with you," ChloÈ retorts with an amused smile. "So relax and make the most of the fact that I'm in a caring mood."

 

"Mmm..."

 

Doing as ordered, I let ChloÈ wash me. His thorough, gentle touch very nearly succeeding in putting me to sleep, he has to physically lift me to my feet and guide me out of the shower when he's finished. He then, after propping me up against the wall in order to tie a towel around his waist, dries me off. Once I'm dressed in a pair of my obligatory black silk pajamas -- that I hadn't even noticed he'd carried in with him -- he opens the bathroom door and all but literally propels me in the direction of the bed. I think about making the effort to clean my teeth but the siren pull of my bed wins out and, yawning, I sink down on the edge of it with a sigh of relief.

 

My bed not being the only item in my room calling to me though, I then, after ensuring that ChloÈ is still getting dressed in the bathroom, swiftly open the drawer in my bedside table and pull out a small black lacquer box. Usually I pause to admire the craftsmanship that went into making the antique and delicate box (that just happens to be close to identical to one my mother used to keep on her dresser), but not today. Opening it quickly, I ignore both the watch, earring, and bracelet contained within it and snatch up the diamond and white gold pendant and chain. As usual it feels achingly familiar in my hand and, shoving the box back into the drawer, I clutch it tightly, the points of the cross embedding themselves in my palm.

 

Yohji...

 

Forever Weiss...

 

Past. Present.

 

Future?

 

"Bed!" ChloÈ commands, strolling out of the bathroom. Dressed now in charcoal trousers and a tailored white shirt, he still looks nothing short of pristine and I fully expect him to simply walk straight out of the room in order to go about whatever his business for the rest of the day may be. He doesn't however and, picking up a book that I hadn't noticed on the foot of the bed, settles himself, propped up by pillows, on the other side of the mattress.

 

"Until Tantomile gives up keeping watch over the newcomer anyway, I don't really think you should be left alone," he comments matter-of-factly, opening his book and giving me a cool look as I stare at him no doubt blankly. "Now, unless you're planning on sleeping sitting up, get in to bed and go to sleep. Apart from you being hopefully far more with it, everything will be the same in the morning."

 

It being the afternoon for doing as I'm told, I get into bed and, lying on my side, my back pressed against ChloÈ's leg, pull the covers half up over my face. Although it's summer and quite hot outside, none of us deal too well with the heat and, thanks to the wonder of ducted air conditioning, it's always kept lovely and cool inside the house. Given that I can't sleep without feeling fully covered this is something I have to confess to being immensely grateful for. Need to know that I'm safe from invasive, prying eyes... Need the comforting warmth and weight...

 

Closing my eyes, I tuck my hand holding Yohji's chain under the pillow and am asleep within minutes, what could quite possibly be the strangest twenty-four hours of my life having finally come to an end.

 

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

 

~ Yohji ~

 

Okay.

 

Uh-huh.

 

Not a dream then. Should be. Without a doubt. But isn't.

 

Or...

 

Maybe it *is* and I'm not really awake and am, in fact, still dreaming. *That*, it has to be said, makes far more sense.

 

So, yeah... I'm dreaming. Have to be. There *isn't* a black cat sitting on my chest, I *wasn't* woken by a plaintive meow at all, and...

 

Okay.

 

Fine. I'm not dreaming and there *is* a black cat perched on my chest, its golden eyed gaze fixed on me unblinkingly.

 

Peachy.

 

No. Really. It is. God alone knows I'd rather have some strange cat using me as a mattress than the Contemptible Canine snorting meaty, rank breath all over my face.

 

Meowing again, the cat leans forward and head butts my chin before glancing over its back in the direction of the door. I think, although I could of course be wrong, that it wants me to get out of bed and open the door.

 

"What, huh?" I mutter, not really caring if the cat can understand Japanese or not. "You got in here under your own steam so I fail to see why you need me now." When Ken showed me into the room it was cat free. Hell, when I shut the door before collapsing into bed it was still cat free. Ergo cat somehow entered uninvited and I fail to see why it's my problem that it now wants to get out.

 

Narrowing its eyes, the cat gives a chirrup of what I swear has to be annoyance and, turning around, flicks its tail dismissively at me. Perhaps I'm wrong, but given that I'm now staring at the cat's backside, I'm kinda thinking there's a good chance it *does* actually understand Japanese. And that, well, I've offended it.

 

Ooops.

 

My bad. I've pissed off a cat that wasn't in my room when I went to sleep, how ever will I be able to live with myself?

 

Starting to purr, the cat gives a languid stretch and, while still on my chest, starts to knead the comforter.

 

"Ooh, now, that's so gonna get me up," I drawl, settling back down on the mattress. "Nice try, kitty-cat, but it's going to take a bit more than..." Trailing off, I realize two things simultaneously and groan. One, where the damn cat is needing is directly above my bladder and, two, oh boy, I suddenly really need to go to the toilet. Like, really, *really* need to go. Like, *now*.

 

"I'm going to remember this," I sigh, pushing the cat off me and swinging my legs over the edge of the bed. My feet have barely hit the floor when, out of freakin' nowhere, another cat materializes and starts entwining itself around my bare legs. Rubbing my hands over my face and yawning, I glance down at the cat and shake my head. The cat that stares back up at me is unlike any cat I've ever seen before. While size wise it's clearly only a domestic cat, it looks for all the world like a perfectly formed miniature leopard, its spotted coat an exact replica of its big cat ancestor. Like the other one, the bonsai leopard is wearing a black velvet collar with a collection of tiny silver charms hanging from it and, again, I've never seen anything quite like it before. Cross, dream catcher, the Egyptian Cat Goddess, Bast, bud rose, Celtic cross, pentagram... I mean, what the...?

 

Strange. Really strange.

 

Standing up, I retrieve Ken's robe, the one he had to let me borrow because ChloÈ looked like he'd rather trek across the Sahara barefoot than lend me one of his, from the floor and, yawning again, pull it on. Hopping delicately off the bed, the black cat joins its mate on the floor and, meowing in unison, they both run across to the door.

 

"Christ! Ever heard of the concept of patience?" I mutter, my gaze falling on the small clock radio sitting on the bedside table. It's almost nine o'clock? Shit. You've got to be kidding me. I mean, no way have I slept for close to twenty-two hours. Sure, the combination of alcohol and jetlag knocked me about a bit but, still... Then again, now that I come to think about it, *that* is sunlight streaming through the gaps in the drapes and bathing my room in a soft, golden glow, meaning, I suppose, it *must* be morning.

 

Shit. Again. Why didn't someone wake me? Hell, for all anyone knows -- or quite possibly even cares -- I could have died in my sleep.

 

Upping their volume, the cats chorus their demands for freedom, the bonsai leopard rubbing up against the door while the black one glares daggers at me. It's all just so surreal that if I wasn't afraid of offending either of them I'd start to laugh.

 

Good morning world. Welcome to London and your new life.

 

"Don't ever say I'm not one to take a hint," I murmur, opening the door and giving a mock bow as the cats race out into the corridor. Following them out, I pause just through the doorway, trying to remember whether the bathroom is to the left or to the right. I'm hedging my bets that it's towards the left when I realize that, oddly enough, I no longer have the frantic urge to relieve myself.

 

Making a mental note to never antagonize the black cat for fear of what it might do to me in retribution, I run my hands through my hair and lean against the wall. Now what? Do I go in search of... company... or do I retreat back in to my room and simply wait for someone to remember that I exist? Assuming he hasn't decided to cut his losses and take off in the opposite direction of England, Aya should be -- home -- here now and I don't really know how I feel about the prospect of seeing him again.

 

Unlike Ken, who I genuinely think is delighted that I'm here, that I gave up everything I knew in order to follow my past, Aya, I'm quietly positive, is regretting ever having laid eyes on me again. God knows he couldn't get away from me fast enough once we reached Narita. While a little distant and keeping in the background, he'd been okay while my passport and token gesture luggage had been arranged, but then, once we'd ran out of things to do, he just switched off. From then on even ChloÈ had more to say to me than Aya did. It was almost like, his part played, he just wanted to wash his hands of me.

 

And, well, if that's the case... Fuck him. As much as I want to remember my past and adapt to my new life, I'll be damned if I'm going to put up with any crap or mind games from Aya. If he honestly didn't want anything to do with me then he simply never should have opened his mouth back at The Cat's Whiskers. In other words, if he doesn't like the fact that I'm now here or is having difficulty dealing with it, then that's just his tough luck. I don't care if he does look like he fell from the heavens or that he carries a photo around of the two of us embracing in his wallet. The way I see it, I've got enough on my plate as it is without having to deal with Aya being all cool and antsy towards me on top of everything else.

 

Sighing, I glance down the corridor and find the cats sitting expectantly outside the door to what I believe to be, if I remember correctly from the whirlwind tour of the house Ken took me on, Aya's room. Ha! Yeah. Right. If they think I'm going to blithely open the door in order to let them in there then they've got another thing coming.

 

Suddenly sensing movement, I slip back through my door and, hiding behind it, watch as ChloÈ walks out of Aya's room. More unexpected than the sight of ChloÈ, looking as pale, pristine and interesting as ever, though is the sudden twinge of jealousy that hits me at knowing that he'd been with Aya. Of course, they could have just been talking, or maybe Aya isn't even in there, but...

 

Aya and ChloÈ?

 

Fuck. This is just fucking ludicrous. So what if ChloÈ was with Aya, huh? For all I care they could have spent the last six hours practicing and perfecting every page of the gay Karma Sutra. Let's face it, it's not like -- Aya -- either of them mean anything to me, right? Aya himself said that our relationship was over before... whatever it was that happened to make me lose my memory... and, well, given that I can't even remember it, who cares anyway?

 

Glancing over his shoulder, ChloÈ stares for a moment in the direction of my room before shrugging and striding down the corridor towards the stairs. The bonsai leopard follows him at a happy, bounding gallop -- warlock and familiar, anyone? -- and the sight is so quaint that I have to control the urge to laugh. Clearly interested in neither ChloÈ nor its friend, the black cat, its tail switching from side to side with intent, disappears into Aya's room without so much as a backwards glance.

 

Telling myself that I merely want to confirm that he is actually back, I creep out of my room and make my way across to Aya's door. Reaching it, I take a deep breath for good luck and, without bothering to knock, walk straight into the room.

 

And, yeah...

 

Finding Aya in bed, curled on his side and sound asleep, both his hair and what little skin I can see stark against the plain black of his bedding, all the ire I'd been building up towards him deserts me and I just stare at him. In his hand, although I can't quite make out what it is, he appears to be clutching something silver, possibly a chain or pendant of some sort. Just like back at The Cat's Whiskers, I find him so impossibly beautiful that he quite literally takes my breath away. Even though I can only see his profile and one pale hand, I'm still captivated, my legs refusing my commands to, having confirmed that he is indeed back, turn around and leave.

 

And to think we were once lovers, that he was once mine...

 

Fuck me.

 

I mean, seriously, you've just got to be fucking kidding me.

 

Aya and ChloÈ I can see (or should that perhaps be - would, ahem, pay good money to see?), given that they're both stunning and, well, not exactly what you'd call normal, but... Nah. Me and Aya? I really just can't see it. If we were... *had been*... lovers, then what happened to us? If I still mean anything to him then just where the hell has he been all this time? If...

 

If, if, fucking if! Always fucking if.

 

Biting back a sigh, I remain standing flat-footed in the middle of Aya's room and slowly glance around me. As bedrooms go it's both highly stylized and oddly impersonal, everything other than the myriad of neatly lined up books in the wall of bookshelves being in either red, black or a light beige color. Red carpet and drapes, black lacquer bookshelves, chest of drawers, desk, and bedside tables, wrought iron bed and walls of the palest beige - it's like a picture out of an interior designer's portfolio. The only piece of art is a framed print of ThÈophile Alexandre Steinlen's 'TournÈe Du Chat Noir' hanging on the wall directly above the bedhead and I don't know whether it's there because Aya actually likes it or because its colors fit in perfectly with the rest of the room. Other than the print though, there's no personal touches in the room whatsoever. No photographs, no knick-knacks, no nothing. Hell, despite just about everything being black, there's not even any dust that I can see.

 

Shaking my head, I look back down at the bed and find the black cat sitting bolt upright on the mattress alongside Aya's hip, looking for all the world as though it's emulating Steinlen's 'chat noir' and once again staring at me unblinkingly.

 

Quaint. Odd as fuck, yeah, but definitely quaint.

 

There being no real help for it, I resign myself to the fact that things are becoming more and more surreal by the second and, very much on the spur of the moment, decide that waking Aya would be a good idea. Whether he particularly wants to see me or not, he's still capable of explaining things and, well, if I'm up then, Goddamn it, he should be too. It is only fair, after all.

 

My mind made up, I'm about to take a step towards the bed when, very nearly giving me a heart attack in the process, a hand closes around my shoulder and pulls me backwards. "What the...?"

 

"Shhh!" Ken hisses, pulling me all the way out of the room before letting me go and gently closing the door. "What you were about to do?" he continues, giving me a lopsided grin and moving a little further down the corridor. "Well, let's just say it wasn't one of your better ideas."

 

"What are you talking about?" I complain, reluctantly trailing along after Ken. "I was only going to..."

 

"Wake Aya," Ken finishes for me, coming to a stop near the stairs and flashing me another grin, "I know. And I'm telling you now that it was a good job that I just happened to be passing."

 

"What was he going to do, huh?" I scowl, leaning against the wall, annoyed at Ken for having interfered. "Run me through with his katana because he's not a morning person?"

 

"One, waking Aya without a damn good reason is *never* a good idea," Ken replies, leaning against the opposite wall and shrugging. "Two, believe me now when I say Aya needs to sleep for at least another six or so hours before *any* of us want to have anything to do with him. As for three? Well, I hate to break this to you, but it's not morning."

 

"But my clock said it was nearly nine and I could see daylight outside," I murmur, looking at Ken in confusion. "If it's not morning then..."

 

"Daylight Savings," Ken interrupts. "Believe it or not, it'll actually be light for another hour before night finally falls. I'll admit it's strange, but you'll get used to it. You'll also learn, come winter when it's dark before five, to look forward to it."

 

Great. On top of everything else I have to adapt to night not falling when it should. Peachy.

 

"So... It's still..."

 

"Wednesday, yep!" Ken states cheerfully. "We landed at ten and you've been on English soil for nearly twelve hours."

 

"And Aya? When did he get back?" I query, digesting the timeline Ken's effectively sketching for me and finding it far more acceptable than my original fear of having slept for twenty-two hours.

 

"Just after three," Ken responds, glancing towards Aya's door and shaking his head. "You should consider yourself lucky that you missed his return. After not sleeping for something ridiculous like fifty hours he *so* wasn't at his best." Pausing, Ken pushes himself away from the door and, coming over, places his hand on my arm. "Some things never change though..."

 

"Huh?" I grunt, once again looking at Ken in confusion. "What are you talking about?"

 

"You're still the only person who can watch over Aya while he's asleep and get away with it," Ken murmurs softly, giving my arm a gentle squeeze before stepping back and gesturing down the stairs. "Now, come on. I went out and got a surprise for you while you were asleep."

 

"Hang on," I mutter, reaching out and snagging my fingers in Ken's soccer top, stopping him from getting away. "What do you mean I'm the only person who Aya will sleep through having anywhere near him? What about ChloÈ? I... I saw him leave Aya's room not ten minutes ago and..."

 

"And ChloÈ would have been there when he went to sleep. It mightn't make much of a difference to anyone else, but it does to Aya," Ken explains, glancing at me over his shoulder. "If he... or any of us for that matter... went in there now Aya would be awake in seconds. Trust me. It's just how it is. Although he trusts us he'll..." Trailing off, Ken looks away and starts to head down the stairs.

 

"He'll *what*?" I prompt, not wanting Ken to just leave it at that and following him down the stairs. "Come on. Spill."

 

"He'll always trust you more," Ken sighs, walking slowly in what I believe to be the direction of the kitchen. "You could go into his room and stretch on the bed next to him and he'd still sleep on. Not, I hasten to add, that I'm suggesting you try it..."

 

"What makes you think I'd want to try it?" I mutter, trying to find the logic in what Ken's telling me and failing dismally. "I mean, whatever we... apparently... had is well and truly ancient history. Besides, hasn't he got ChloÈ for that now?" The question slipping out of my mouth before I can stop it, I mentally berate myself for giving the impression that I care one way or the other and am about to attempt to retract it when Ken, slamming on the brakes and spinning around, fixes wide, shocked eyes on me.

 

"What? ChloÈ? No..." Ken stammers, blushing and avoiding my gaze. "It's... It's not like that at all."

 

"You mean they're not lovers?" I query coolly, shrugging. Oh well. I suppose this conversation was bound to take place sooner or later and don't really see why I shouldn't run with it. God knows I doubt I'd get a straight answer out of Aya. "So, what? ChloÈ was just in Aya's room because he was looking for something to read?"

 

Still blushing, and looking like this is just about the last thing he wants to be talking about, Ken turns back around and continues walking towards the kitchen. "Not lovers," he mumbles. "Well, not in the... ah... 'relationship' sense of the word anyway."

 

"Fuck buddies then?" I offer, remaining where I'm standing and watching with mounting interest as, stopping yet again, Ken visibly flinches.

 

"While both Aya and ChloÈ are fluent in at least three languages," he states, a hint of what sounds like amusement creeping into his voice, "I have to say that I'm quietly confident the term 'fuck buddy' wouldn't register in any language with either of them." Shaking his head, Ken gives me a beseeching look. "How about we drop this topic, yeah? I... I don't really feel comfortable talking about..."

 

"I just want to know what they are to each other," I interrupt, sighing. "That's all. It's not that I care or that I'm jealous or anything like that. Hell. Quite frankly I couldn't care less who either of them are fucking. If I'm to live here however I'd nonetheless like to know the mere basics of everyone's relationships so I can try not to put my foot in it. Surely you can see the logic in that, yeah?"

 

"And if I tell you you'll then let it drop and simply come and see your surprise?" Ken replies hopefully, his expression clearly telling me that he's regretting ever having rescued me from Aya's room.

 

Sensing victory, I smile and nod. "Promise."

 

"Fine," Ken mutters, indicating that I should follow him as once again he starts to walk towards the kitchen. "ChloÈ, and you'll soon come to see what I mean by this, loves nothing more than surrounding himself with, for the want of a better description here, things of beauty. Now, Aya, as you can imagine, well and truly falls into that category, making him pretty much a 'must have' in ChloÈ's book..."

 

"And Aya?" I murmur, thinking of what little I know about the redhead and deciding that he doesn't exactly strike me as someone who'd have any interest in collecting 'pretty things' or even just sleeping around for the sheer hell of it. "What does he get out of it? Er... Other than the obvious, that is."

 

"What Aya gets, I *think*, is a gentle reminder that he is actually human and that there's nothing wrong with occasionally wanting the touch of another," Ken replies hesitantly. "I... I could be wrong, but, well, that's what I think it is. They care for each other in their own way but what they share is nothing like what..." Abruptly stopping, Ken straightens his shoulders and shakes his head. "I've said enough. Now, do you want to see what your surprise is or not?"

 

"Lead the way," I reply, accepting that pushing Ken on the subject would probably only succeed in upsetting him and, that given he's really the only friend I currently have, that's not something I particularly want to do. Everything he's just said is interesting though and I'm glad that I've at least got *some* idea of the dynamics between ChloÈ and Aya.

 

And... No. I'm not jealous. Uh-uh. Not one itty-bitty iota.

 

Just... no.

 

I'm not.

 

I mean... No longer mine. Nothing *to* be jealous of.

 

Right?

 

"Don't worry, Yohji," Ken states softy as we *finally* make it into the very white, chrome and ultra modern kitchen. "Not only will it all make sense to you in time but, look! Because I know how much you love the muck I went out this afternoon and bought you a coffee machine. That's your... uh... surprise. I hope you like it."

 

"For me?" I murmur, pitifully touched by Ken's thoughtfulness and staring at the shiny Krups coffee maker that's sitting on the bench next to the kettle as though it's the most wondrous thing I've ever laid eyes on. "You... Oh my God. You shouldn't have."

 

"Why shouldn't I have, huh?" Ken smiles, walking over to the machine and switching it on. "You may not currently remember me but I know *you* and I know what you're like without having access to a constant stream of coffee. Sheesh. Bear with a sore head had nothing on it." Pausing, Ken leans against the bench, his expression suddenly one of doubt. "You still *like* coffee, don't you? Shit! I never once stopped to think your tastes might have changed. If you don't I can always take it..."

 

"Trust me, I still like coffee," I interrupt, grinning. "In fact the only thing better than a cup of coffee and a cigarette is, well, in my books anyway, a cold can of beer and a cigarette. I'm just... touched, you know? I... I never expected any of this."

 

"You mean to say it never crossed your mind that choosing to go to The Cat's Whiskers the other night would have had such a far ranging impact on your life?" Ken queries facetiously as he returns his attention to operating the coffee machine.

 

"If you must know my plan for the evening was to drink until first the pain in my palm went away and then I passed out," I retort, glancing down at my hand and lightly fingering the bandage covering what turned out to be the Contemptible Canine's parting gift to me. "So... ah... no... The thought that a knight in a kinky black leather coat would come swooping in to save me from myself never really entered the equation."

 

"A knight in a kinky black leather coat," Ken echoes, snickering, "I like it. While I've heard Aya called a lot of things I have to say that's both a new one *and* a good one. *Not*, and once again I hasten to add this, that I recommend sharing it with him. Until it comes back to you, it's best to remember that Aya's sense of humor is, some might even say repressed, deeply hidden and that needling him is something only the truly masochistic are want to do."

 

Common sense making me decide that now probably isn't the best time to indulge in bombarding Ken with the one hundred and one questions about Aya I can feel busily forming in my mind, I give a mock salute and nod. "Noted. Now, what flavor coffee did you get for this whiz-bang machine, huh?"

 

"You may wish to rephrase that to what flavor I *didn't* get," Ken replies, opening the cupboard under the coffee maker and gesturing me over to have a look. "None of the brands or flavors looking familiar, I kinda, as you can see, went overboard and pretty much got an example of each. By my reckoning you'll have to like at least *one* of them. If not, well, you can pick your own up tomorrow when we go shopping."

 

"You're not saying that no one else here drinks coffee, are you?" I mutter, crouching down and, overwhelmed by the choice of coffee on offer, grabbing the first packet of espresso I see. "If so, that's just not natural," I continue blithely, standing up and handing the coffee to Ken. "I mean, how else do you fully wake up in the morning?"

 

"Open eyes, roll out of bed, stand up, start moving. It's fairly simple, really," Ken responds with a laugh, taking the coffee and frowning as he pours the required amount into the machine. "You know something? I thought choosing which maker to buy was hard but working out how to use the damn thing is something else again. Stupid thing should come with its own instructional video."

 

"Do you want me to have a go?" I offer, leaning over Ken's shoulder and watching as he struggles with working out what to do next. "We only had... urgh... instant at home and the office but the machine kinda looks oddly familiar."

 

"That's because we had an older model of this brand at Souzou. Being newer and better though, they've either moved around all the switches or it's been so long that I've simply forgotten how to operate it," Ken replies, flashing a triumphant smile at me as the machine starts to make the gurgling sounds expected of it. "Virtually every time you went into the kitchen you switched it on in order to get a fix. Hell, there were days when you drank so much coffee that we were all surprised you didn't start bouncing off the walls."

 

... God. There's just no help for it. Either Ken is the world's greatest actor or he does in fact, as in absolutely no doubt about it, know me. Everything he says is so natural, so heartfelt, that's it honestly as though we've been friends for near on ever. And, well, it's just nothing short of truly astonishing. It's not that I ever doubted any of the things I've been told, more that I never really stopped to think about them in any sort of detail or, really, what their consequences could be.

 

Weiss. Assassins. Aya. Ken. Omi...?

 

"Souzou?" I query softly, leaving Ken to beat the coffee maker into submission and sinking down in one of the chairs at the kitchen table. "What's Souzou?"

 

"Souzou is..." Stopping himself, Ken bangs both hands down hard on the bench and swears under his breath. "Fuck! Christ. What a Goddamn fucking confusing mess. Ah... Shit! Sorry, Yohji. That was directed at Aya and myself, not you."

 

"Uh-huh," I murmur cautiously, wishing I had a cigarette and not quite knowing how I'm going to make it through to morning without one. I'd have bought some in Duty-Free but, wanting to distance himself from Ken, ChloÈ dragged me out of the store before I could pick them up. "Whatever you... ah... say."

 

"Sorry, sorry, sorry," Ken mutters hurriedly, "It's just... Well, it's just, and I'm sure you're feeling exactly the same way, hard. I look at you and I see my old friend, someone who's been through the same things that I have and who knows the things I know. You, on the other hand, look at me and all you see is someone who claims to know you and who keeps carelessly rambling on about things you wouldn't have a clue about. Tomorrow, when everyone's hopefully more with it, we'll have to sit down and attempt to come up with some sort of plan in regards to how to go about things. I've got some ideas... and I've already been in contact with Omi in regards to having your files sent over by email... but..." Trailing off, Ken shrugs. "Perhaps Aya has his own plan though and won't agree with the route I'm thinking of trying. I... I don't know."

 

"Or perhaps, having done his bit, Aya will continue avoiding me like the plague," I reply flatly. "Don't worry, Ken. None of it's your fault. While I admit a bit of structure sounds like a hell of a good idea, I'm just happy to take whatever you can give me. After so long with... nothing... even tidbits are a Godsend."

 

"Mmm... But doing it ad hoc isn't fair on you," Ken responds, shaking his head. "You deserve better and I promise you that by tomorrow we'll have come up with a plan to bring you up to speed on your own history. We'll keep talking tonight, if that's what you want, but, please, don't expect too much from me..."

 

"And again I say anything is better than nothing," I murmur with a wan smile. What Ken is saying makes sense though. As much as I want to know everything, there's really very little point in just firing off questions left, right, and center when it would be so much easier to simply read about myself on a computer screen or have someone sit me down and start from the very beginning. Let's face it, having waited a year it's not like another night or two is going to kill me anyway.

 

"Hey, Ken," I continue, watching as, with a grin of delight, he pulls down two of the Dragon's Tears mugs, the ones he just *had* to buy in Narita, down from the cupboard above his head and places them on the bench. "Thank you... For everything. While you're right in that I don't feel as though I know you, I nonetheless feel comfortable with you and want you to know that I'm truly grateful for everything that you're doing for me..."

 

"Don't thank me," Ken retorts, focusing on carefully pouring out two cups of coffee. "Thank Aya. He's the one who had the balls to both tell you the truth and to offer you a life line, not me. I... I wanted to... when I saw you and you gave me Aya's katana... but... I couldn't. I just couldn't... I wanted so desperately for you to have a chance of a better life, to be free of the pain and blood that colors our days, that I forced myself to leave you. It's clear now that I made a mistake, one that I can only hope you'll be able to forgive me for."

 

"No. You didn't make a mistake," I reply soothingly, the answer coming to me naturally because I know it to be the truth. "When I saw you, I *was* happy. If you'd said follow you I honestly have to say that I wouldn't have. Things change though and when Aya made his... offer... I didn't even really have to think twice. Don't blame yourself for anything, Ken, seriously. There's no need."

 

"Mmm..." Ken sighs, carrying two mugs of coffee over to the table and placing one down in front of me. "It's still something I kinda regret though. But... Enough of that, yeah? What do you think of the mug? ChloÈ said that Aya was so disgusted by it that he could hardly bring himself to look at it."

 

"Well, it *is* a little on the bright side," I respond, laughing. "Um... Cute though, I suppose, in a kinda nuclear flash sorta way. Get this, I was actually looking at these mugs on the Dragon's Tears' website only last week."

 

"Yeah? I wish I'd known they'd had a website as I would have ordered these ages ago," Ken replies cryptically, taking a tentative sip of his coffee and wrinkling his nose in distaste. "Mmm... Either this is a really crap brand or it's been so long since I've had a cup of coffee that I'm going to have to retrain my taste buds into dealing with it. Oh! And in answer to your earlier question, no, no one here drinks coffee. ChloÈ will, if he's out, but like Aya sticks to tea at home. Free drinks really foul smelling herbal tea that I suggest you steer clear of at all costs, Yuki drinks tea 'cos Aya does, and Michel, well, Michel just has an aversion to hot beverages of any description and prefers milk. So, really, I suppose you can say coffee isn't something any of us think about having around."

 

"Oh..." Not really wanting to ask the obvious -- as in who the hell are Free, Yuki and Michel and when am I going to be introduced to them? -- I pick up my mug and toast Ken with it. Green and purple... Mmm... It's not like I can really blame Aya for not wanting to look at it. "You know, the more I look at this the more convinced I become that it would look better through the smoke of a cigarette."

 

"Ah, shit!" Ken exclaims, placing his mug on the table and hurrying out of the kitchen. "I *knew* there was something I'd forgotten," he adds, returning with a carton of cigarettes and a lighter. "Here. I got these while I was out too. Not knowing where to get any Japanese brands over here I can only hope that they're okay. And, no, don't thank me. Again, I *know* you and ensuring that you've got access to both nicotine and caffeine is as much for our benefit as it is yours!"

 

Opening the carton -- Silk Cut? Yeah. Whatever. Nicotine is nicotine as far as I'm concerned -- I ferret out a pack of smokes and shoot Ken a querying look. "It's probably not okay for me to smoke in here, is it?" I murmur, not really wanting to piss off any of the mysterious inhabitants of the house without even having met them first. "Oh, and before I forget, be they for entirely selfish reasons or not, thanks for the smokes. Um... Although I have no idea how off the top of my head, I'll pay you back somehow."

 

"Forget it," Ken replies airily, picking his mug up after a moment's hesitation and walking towards the door. "As for smoking inside though? Er... Probably not. I don't really know if anyone... other than ChloÈ who'd probably complain solely on principle... would care, but until we ask them it's probably for the best if you do it outside. Come on though, it's a lovely evening and the courtyard's nicer than the kitchen anyway."

 

Standing up, I slip the lighter and a packet of cigarettes in the pocket of my robe and, after picking up my coffee, wander after Ken. The kitchen and, I think, general living areas being on the first floor, we have to walk down a flight of stairs and through the storeroom situated at the back of the shop before reaching the courtyard. As Ken implied, the fully enclosed yard, with its lush green trees, carefully potted plants and terracotta paving, is indeed beautiful and I glance around it appreciatively. The suitcase just dumped in front of the water lily covered water feature is a little out of place though and I have to laugh at it.

 

"Hey, what's with the suitcase, huh?" I snicker, following Ken over to the wrought iron and glass outdoor setting that's set up under the branches of the tallest tree. "Modern art, perhaps?"

 

"More like unmistakable proof that Aya was in a world of his own when he got home," Ken replies, taking a seat and stretching languidly. "I'm surprised someone hasn't taken it upon themselves to move it, actually. Oh well. It's not like there's any rain forecast or, well, that I really care one way or the other about it anyway."

 

Seating myself opposite Ken, I retrieve the cigarettes and lighter from my pocket and light one with a happy sigh. "I think I could get used to this," I comment, taking a welcome drag and settling myself comfortably. "Nice courtyard, coffee, smoke... Yeah. This is definitely all good."

 

"You have no idea how relieved I am to hear you say that," Ken smiles, toying with his mug for a few seconds before forcing himself to take another mouthful of coffee. "You may not remember it, but this is you, Yohji, all of it. From the flowers to being part of a team, believe me when I say this is definitely you."

 

"What about to the 'killing'?" I murmur quietly, taking a sip of coffee and finding nothing wrong with the flavor whatsoever. In fact, oh yeah, it's almost as good as the espresso from the small cafÈ that I used to frequent near the station. "Is killing going to be part of me too?"

 

As with everything, while accepting that I was once an assassin is one thing, it's not something I've paused to think about in any -- soul searching -- detail. While a possibly odd reaction, I can't really say that it bothers me greatly. If I killed in the past then so be it. Mentally tearing strips off myself isn't going to bring back any of my victims so, yeah, accept and move on is really the only way to go. The thought of having to kill again though...

 

Now *that* I'm not so blasÈ about. I *think* I could have killed Nakagami but... Could I? Really? If I'd been in Aya's place would I honestly have been able to deliver the justice that Nakagami so deserved? I...

 

I don't know...

 

"Only if you feel as though you want it to be," Ken replies, scowling down at his mug before putting it back on the glass topped table and pushing it away from him. "As Aya said, if it's what you decide you want then, yes, killing can once again be part of you too. That said, it doesn't have to be and I know I'm speaking for all of us here when I say this. If you're uncomfortable with the idea or simply don't want to do it then, seriously, don't sweat it. Your being here isn't dependent on your ability to kill."

 

"No?" I query bluntly, surreptitiously dropping ash down by the side of my chair and making a mental note to come out and clean it up in the morning. "Then what *am* I going to be able to do for you, huh? I've had enough of the Takatori's treating me like some sort of charity case and insist that there has to be *something* I'm capable of doing."

 

"There's always research and computer stuff that needs doing," Ken responds, "so, really, rest assured that we'll find a use for you in some form or another. Not to mention there's always the shop. With a little training I'm sure the art of running a flower shop will just come *flooding* back to you."

 

"You know, I thought you were kidding when you said you all worked in a flower shop," I groan, rolling my eyes. "While, yeah, day jobs are all well and good, what gives with being an assassin by night and a florist by day, huh? Talk about defying logic!"

 

"If it makes you feel any better it's something I've given up trying to make sense of," Ken grins. "As odd and, yes, illogical as it seems, it's what we're used to now. I'm also sure that after a day or two you'll be creating bouquets with the same ease and skill you used to."

 

"Now *there's* something to look forward to," I laugh, finishing my smoke and stubbing it out on the ground. "What's the name of the shop again? I know you told me but I appear to have forgotten it already."

 

"Kitten's House," Ken mutters, pulling a face. "Don't tell me, I *know* it sounds sucky but, well, we're stuck with it."

 

"Sucky..." I smirk, knowing that if I don't laugh at the shop's name I'll probably either cry or start banging my head repeatedly against the table. Kitten's House... I mean, *fuck*. The Dragon's Tears is suddenly sounding really inspired when it comes to names for flower shops. "Given that I think it sounds like the name of a brothel, it's kinda apt that you should use that word..."

 

"Yohji!" Ken exclaims, shaking his head and laughing. "I'll have you know that we're a respectable business! God... Trust you though. The rest of us just accept the shop's name but, oh no, not you... You just have to go and plant the idea in my head that the local florist's is in fact a front for a brothel!" His laughter dying off, Ken gives me a fond look and smiles softly. "I've missed you, you know..."

 

"I'm beginning to think already that I've missed you too," I reply, returning his smile, the answer once again coming easily to me. While I still can't profess to remembering anything about Ken, the fact that I feel so comfortable with him can't be denied and I know that I can trust him. "Now, quit changing the topic on me! I want to know more about what possessed some idiot to call a flower shop 'Kitten's House'. I mean, come on! Kitsch or what?"

 

"Kitsch, definitely kitsch," Ken agrees, nodding. "As for why? Fuck. Your guess is as good as mine. Perhaps the original owner was one of those mad cat people or something, or... Christ! I don't know. There's enough cats wandering around the place to make it more or less the truth though, if that helps you get your head around it."

 

"Nah, it doesn't," I drawl, lighting another cigarette, "but thanks anyway. As for this being cat central though, tell me about it! While I have no freakin' idea how they got in there, I woke up to find two cats in my room. If I hadn't gotten up to let them out I don't even want to think about what the black one was going to do to me to pay me back."

 

"Ah, that'd be Tantomile," Ken replies, "Aya's cat. She's the black one that looks like she's just stepped out of that print in his room, while the other one, the one that looks like a tiny leopard, is Mystique. She's ChloÈ's. Neither of them, just like their owners, are to be messed with. As for how they got into your room? Trust me, while getting *out* usually proves to be a problem there isn't anywhere that I know of that they can't get *in* to. Like Kiri, they can both push open doors and have no qualms whatsoever about simply inviting themselves into your room whenever they feel like it."

 

"Oh. *Nice*. Voyeuristic cats," I respond, wanting to ask who Kiri is but at the same time not wanting to bombard poor Ken with questions every time he tells me something. "I have to say their names are interesting too. Mystique, given that she looks like a bonsai leopard, I can kinda see the sense in, but *Tantomile*? What gives with that, huh?"

 

"The name Tantomile comes from the work of T S Elliot," a young male voice with just a lingering trace of an American accent replies in English from behind me. "It means witch's cat. As she's black, Aya thought the name suited her."

 

Witch's cat. Of course. Going on her behavior in my bedroom, I can't say I'm surprised by this in the slightest either.

 

"Oh yeah, it suits her alright," I retort, turning around to introduce myself to the newcomer and promptly finding not one but two adolescent boys staring back at me, open curiosity written all over their faces. Taking a haphazard guess at their ages, I'd say the dark haired one with the glasses -- who incidentally looks none too pleased to see me -- would be about fifteen or sixteen, while the other one, the one with the very blond hair and *interesting* taste in clothes, would be, maybe, thirteen. "Uh... Hi. I'm..."

 

"You're Yohji," the blond interrupts in halting Japanese, an almost blinding smile lighting up his face as, his right hand extended, he barrels over to me. "Free told us you'd be coming and that you're a friend of Aya's and Ken's. I'm Michel and I'm very pleased to make your acquaintance."

 

Taking his small, calloused hand in mine, I give it a shake and smile back at Michel in bemusement. "Pleased to meet you too."

 

"You're part of Weiss," the other one states flatly, looking down at the sheets of A4 paper he holds in his hands and scowling. "That's three of you now. All it will take is for the other one to return and none of you will need Krypton Brand anymore and then Aya and Ken will return to Japan and..."

 

"That's enough of that, Yuki," Ken states warningly, getting up from his seat and walking over to join the two boys. "Aya and I have both told you before that the... 'other one'... won't be joining us..."

 

"That's what you said about him too!" Yuki exclaims, pointing at me angrily. "We're your team now, not Weiss and I don't see..."

 

"Yuki! Again, that's enough of that," Ken mutters, cutting Yuki off mid rant. "Without wanting to sound too insensitive or blunt, you only *think* you know Aya and I'm telling you now that there's a damn good reason for why Yohji has now joined us here. I'm sorry if you're upset, and we *all* agree that we could have gone about things better, but you're just going to have to deal with it."

 

"Yuki thought Aya was going to leave now that you're back," Michel whispers to me, looking at his friend with evident concern. "I told him that he was being silly, that you'll simply join our team, but he wouldn't believe me." Pausing, he blinks large light green eyes at me and smiles again. "While I don't know you yet, I'm happy that you're here! Hopefully we can be friends, yes?"

 

"I'm sure that won't be a problem," I reply, giving Michel's arm a squeeze and nodding in Yuki's direction. "Hell, I'll admit now that I'm in need of as many friends that I can get."

 

"Yuki will come around," Michel responds in his very careful Japanese. "If he doesn't then Aya will chew him out and he hates that. Don't worry about Yuki, Yohji. Free's already told me that, in time, everything is going to sort itself out perfectly."

 

"Uh-huh... Pleased to hear it," I mutter, raising an eyebrow as I struggle to make sense of what I appear to have found myself in the middle of. Michel, I think, wants to be everyone's friend, while Yuki, who may or may not hero worship Aya, views me as some sort of nasty home wrecker, and Free... And, yeah... Whoever Free is appears to be something of a crystal ball gazer... Possibly.

 

Brilliant. In the space of twenty-four or so hours I've gone from being a disgruntled office worker trapped in an unhappy marriage to living above a flower shop with a bunch of freaky ass assassins. Christ. It's all just so far fetched that I don't even think you'd see it on one of those American chat shows.

 

And it's now my life? Oh dear God...

 

"Yohji," Ken states, snatching the papers out of Yuki's hands and dragging him over to stand in front of me, "this, as you've probably already gathered, is Yuki. Like Michel, Yuki both lives here and is a member of Krypton Brand. Now. Yuki, this is Yohji. He is *not* here to pull the rug out from under your feet and he is to be treated with the same courtesy you extend to the rest of us. Do I make myself clear?"

 

"Perfectly," Yuki murmurs, blushing slightly as he extends his right hand towards me. "Yohji, I... I apologize for my earlier behavior and hope that you can find it in yourself to forgive me."

 

"It's already forgotten about," I reply magnanimously, giving Yuki's hand a quick shake before releasing it and settling back in my seat. "As Ken said, I'm not here to upset you or change things and hope that, given time, you'll come to see that."

 

Nodding curtly, Yuki steps back and turns his attention towards Ken. "Because they're both marked to your attention and urgent, we thought you might want to see them," he states, gesturing at what I now see appear to be plain paper faxes in Ken's hands. "That's... That's why we came in search of you. Our intention wasn't to interrupt."

 

"You did the right thing, Yuki," Ken replies, returning to his seat and shuffling through the faxes. "If I'd known they were going to be so quick coming through I would have asked you to keep watch for them anyway. Now, have you both done your homework?"

 

"I have!" Michel beams. "I just wanted to come out and meet Yohji before going to help Free with the watering."

 

"I've nearly finished," Yuki sighs, turning around and slowly heading back inside, Michel in tow. "Just got a history essay to finish and then I'm going to bed. It's... ah... been a pleasure meeting you, Yohji. I suspect I will see you in the morning."

 

"Good night then," I call out, watching the pair of them disappear inside before glancing at Ken and shrugging. "I'm almost afraid to ask this, but are the Munchkin Twins assassins as well?"

 

"Both Yuki and Michel are more than adept fighters and, yes, they have both killed," Ken replies with just a touch of sadness. "We work hard at keeping them out of the field though and they generally look after things behind the scenes. When it all boils down to it though, we're all here for the same reason and that's to protect the innocent and to deliver justice to the truly deserving. Don't let their appearances fool you. Both have known immense suffering and both their hearts and characters are strong, very strong."

 

"Mmm..." I murmur noncommittally, lighting another cigarette and watching as Ken, stifling a yawn, glances over the information contained in the faxes. Like everything else, finding out more about Yuki and Michel can wait until I know a little more about myself. "So, anything I'm able to know?" I query, waving my smoke airily in the direction of Ken's reading material.

 

"Given that they're in relation to you, yeah," Ken replies, sliding all but one page across the table. The page he keeps seems to be a letter and folding it into a neat square, he slips it into his pocket for safekeeping. "Go on. Have a look. They're reports from the Asahi about both Nakagami's murder and the unfortunate accident that claimed the life of one Itou Yohji. I had Omi get Singapura to fax them over, you know, 'cos I thought you might be interested in seeing them."

 

Singapura? As in perhaps, Sing?

 

Glancing cursorily at the print outs about Nakagami, I zero in on the small, insignificant report on my alleged demise and pick it up.

 

And, sure enough, to the people of Tokyo I'm now dead. To Asuka and Utsunomiya and Mr Kuwashima, I'm now little more than history, a memory that will fade over time until they can no longer even remember my name, let alone my face.

 

Itou Yohji is now dead and Kudoh Yohji has returned to take his place.

 

... Or should that be, will *hopefully* return?

 

"I'm not sure I want to know," I whisper, tracing my finger over the plain, both in format and wording, black and white print, "but... The body that's meant to be mine, whose is it?"

 

"Don't worry about him," Ken responds, stifling another yawn and shaking his head. "He was just another team's target for the night, another black beast that the world is better off without. Rest assured that we didn't just kill an innocent man as we don't... would never do that. If it helps, his body taking the place of yours is probably the most good he's ever done."

 

"It helps a bit, yeah," I murmur, letting the fax slip from my fingers and watching it glide across the table. "Everything's just going to take some getting used to, I suppose."

 

"You'll be fine," Ken smiles, standing up and stretching. "Now, I'm sorry, but I'm suddenly beat and think I'd better go to bed before you find yourself sitting here listening to my snoring. I was fine until I sat down but, oh boy, the effects of jetlag have just well and truly caught up with me and I feel dead on my feet."

 

"If it's okay with you I might just stay out here for a little longer," I reply, the long sleep I'd had during the day meaning I'm in no big rush to return to bed. "You know, smoke, enjoy the evening, try and make sense of everything..."

 

"Feel free to stay out here for as long as you'd like," Ken replies, giving an exasperated sigh as he yawns again. "That's it! To hell with showering, I'm crawling straight into bed! Um... Don't worry about anything, Yohji. I'll take you shopping for clothes and stuff tomorrow morning and then, once you're settled, we'll see how we go about filling in the gaps in your memory. As for Aya? Don't worry about him either. Contrary to how he's acting, he knows in his heart that he's done the right thing and, trust me, will come around in time."

 

"Here's to hoping," I sigh, waving Ken in the direction of the door. "Go on, go to bed before you fall asleep and, having to carry you and not fully knowing my way around, I end up depositing you in ChloÈ's bed by mistake..."

 

"And, you know what?" Ken snickers, wandering slowly towards the door, "I'm too tired to tell you who out of the two of us would find that more disturbing! Ack! Good night, Yohji."

 

"Good night, Ken!" I laugh, watching him walk inside before glancing back at the faxes that are now lying scattered all over the table. I could read the reports on Nakagami's death, yeah, but what's the point? I smelt the blood, the *proof*, on both Ken and Aya when they returned to the Lexus. There wasn't any blood actually on them, but, even over the scent of roses that I'm beginning to accept follows ChloÈ around, I could still smell it. Nakagami, the fucker, is dead and all I have to say on the subject is good riddance.

 

Running my fingers through my hair, I glance around the courtyard as a sense of peace settles over me.

 

I've never been here before, I don't know half the people (who the hell is Free and where's he currently hiding?) who live here, Aya is giving every indication of turning into a right, albeit a fascinating one, pain in the butt, the flower shop I'm going to find myself working in goes by the truly cringe worthy name of 'Kitten's House', and...

 

Go figure.

 

I feel as though I'm home.

 

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

 

~ Aya ~

 

The barely discernable sound of someone entering my room waking me, I bite back a groan and reluctantly crack my eyes open. If I'm to believe the time on the antique alarm clock I keep on the bedside table, it's just past six. *Assuming* that's six AM as opposed to six PM, I've slept for nearly fourteen hours and yet I still feel as though I've been run over by a bus.

 

"Go away," I mutter, rolling over onto my back and, with an effort, struggling into a half upright position.

 

"Ha!" Ken exclaims, beaming back at me broadly, his whole demeanor, obnoxiously enough, screaming of bonhomie and good will to all men. "I knew I was right!"

 

"Huh?" I grunt, narrowing my eyes. Given that Ken hasn't come bearing tea and is grinning in a way that's more than slightly disturbing for the time of morning it is, I hope he's got one hell of a reason for being in my room and that he wastes no time in sharing it with me. "Not that I care or anything, but what are you talking about?"

 

"You," Ken retorts, wandering further into the room and seating himself, uninvited, I might add, on the foot of my bed. Tantomile, being far more pleased to see Ken than I am, uncurls herself from her little nest that she'd made out of the comforter and, after stretching, strolls down to greet him. "You still wake the minute any of us dare step foot in your room while you're sleeping," he continues, rubbing Tantomile under the chin and causing her to purr in contentment. "Now, look. At least your cat's pleased to see me."

 

"My cat's a whore for affection," I reply, earning myself a chirrup of complaint and a malevolent look from Tantomile for my troubles. "As for being so bold as to wake up the second some unwanted guest materializes in my room, well, sue me for liking a bit of privacy. What about you, Ken, huh? How about I come into your room tonight and hover over you, you know, just so I can see how'd you react?"

 

"Knock yourself out," Ken responds blithely, running his hand down Tantomile's back as, having had enough of his ministrations for the time being, she returns to her position by my hip. "Seriously. You want to lurk in my room while I'm sleeping then, yeah, go for it. I'm telling you now that, because I trust you, I won't even know that you're there."

 

"Your point being?" I sigh, leaning back against the bedhead and idly wondering how Ken would react if I kicked him. "I trust you too but that doesn't mean I welcome you creeping around me while I'm asleep. Now... Can I help you? Should I be in the shop or something, or did you just wake up this morning with the burning ambition to annoy me?"

 

"Not annoy you, talk," Ken states matter-of-factly, kicking off his trainers and -- aaargh! -- settling himself cross-legged on my bed. "I let you off the hook yesterday because you were so clearly whacked, but now, before things go any further, we really have to talk about Yohji. You know, about what we're going to do with him."

 

"And it absolutely positively *has* to be now?" I scowl, suddenly regretting ever having opened my eyes. Everything was all calm and peaceful while I was asleep. If I dreamt at all I can't remember any details and, more to the point, I was free from all Yohji orientated thoughts. It was good, just what I needed. Now however... I've barely been awake for three minutes and already I'm being bombarded. "I mean, it couldn't possibly wait until I was, oh, I don't know, fully awake and dressed perhaps?"

 

"No. It can't wait," Ken replies flatly, his manner now all business like. "I can understand... well, sorta... why you've been avoiding him but, really, it's just not fair. Think about it. You're the one who extended him the lifeline in The Cat's Whiskers and now he thinks you want nothing to do with him. Now, if you were in his shoes, how would you feel, huh?"

 

"You perhaps would have preferred it if I'd crawled straight into bed with him when I got back yesterday?" I query, a warning tone entering my voice. "I mean, short of that I don't really know what you expected of me. But, please, tell me anyway. I get the impression that you're just dying to."

 

... Back off, Ken. I don't want to be having this conversation and I definitely don't want you giving me grief over my behavior. I *know* I fucked up, but if you're going to insist on rubbing it in my face then, trust me, we're going to come to blows. Whether this is figuratively or literally is entirely down to you and how carefully you choose your next few responses...

 

"I..." Shaking his head, Ken drums his fingers lightly on his knee and sighs heavily. "Cut the attitude, Aya. The last thing I want is to push your buttons but, come on! We can't just leave Yohji floundering like this. While, yeah, he *believes* what we're telling him, he doesn't actually *remember* any of it for himself and I think having some sort of structured plan in place would have to help him. I was talking to him last night and, well, if I'd explained every piece of throwaway information that I carelessly dumped on him then we'd *still* be sitting in the courtyard."

 

Shrugging, I reach out and start to scratch between Tantomile's ears. "A plan sounds like a good idea," I mutter unenthusiastically, not wanting to be reminded of Yohji let alone of my promise to help him. Christ. I *knew* there was a reason I never fall prey to the urge to act on the spur of the moment. As good as the idea may appear at the time, it never fails to come back and bite you on the ass. Repeatedly, at that. "Seeing as you've obviously put some thought into it already, whatever you're thinking is fine by me."

 

"So," Ken drawls, prodding my thigh for emphasis, "if I tell you that my plan is to lock the two of you in a room together until you've brought him up to speed on everything then, you'll do it, yeah?"

 

"If that's your plan then I suggest you put a little more effort into it," I shoot back, moving my leg away from Ken and wishing like mad that he'd get the fuck off my bed and leave me alone. "I'm warning you, Ken, you're..."

 

"Treading on thin ice?" Ken suggests, cutting me off. "I'd apologize only I'm not in the slightest bit sorry. Again, this is Yohji we're talking about here. *Yohji*! The man who's solely responsible for the fact that you're even still here and the man you once professed to..."

 

"Ken!" I exclaim, the vehemence in my voice startling Tantomile and causing her to -- if in doubt, disappear -- squirm under the comforter. "I *know* who Yohji is. Okay? I know who he is, what he's done for me, and, get this, not yet suffering from Alzheimer's, I even know what we used to mean to each other! Now, if there's anything you'd like to share with me that I *don't* already know, I suggest that you do so quickly before I eject you from my room through whatever means necessary."

 

"Sorry... I... I overstepped my boundaries," Ken murmurs apologetically, hanging his head and having the decency to blush. "But, Aya, please... If you need more time to come to terms with Yohji now being back in our lives then... then that's fine. I can appreciate what a shock this is to your system and, while it mightn't seem like it, it's not my intention to pry or interfere. But..."

 

"But *what*?" I prompt, groping around under the covers for Tantomile and giving her a reassuring pat. "Come on, Ken. Whatever you've got to say to me, say it and get it off your chest."

 

"I just don't want you to wash your hands of Yohji, that's all," Ken states softly, giving me a beseeching look. "Your... Your *relationship* may be a thing of the past, but surely that doesn't have to mean that you can't be friends. But... Oh God! Fine. Having enough intelligence to accept that this isn't exactly going anywhere and that dumping this on you this early in the morning probably *wasn't* the greatest idea I've ever had, will you at least give me the courtesy of listening to my plan?"

 

"Hit me with it," I mutter, refraining from adding that if it would get him out of my room I'd listen to him sing a medley of Britney Spears' greatest hits. "I... I am interested, honestly, but... Well, for now at least I think you're the best person to look after him, yeah?"

 

Let's face it, given that I very nearly burst into tears over the fact his bedroom is now opposite mine, I don't really think I'm the one best suited to fulfilling the role of the guidance counselor that Yohji is in desperate need of. Ken though... He'll be perfect. Not having any of the... issues... that I've got, he'll not only be able to devote all of his time to Yohji but he'll also even enjoy doing it.

 

"Yeah, I think you may be right there," Ken agrees, nodding sadly. "You can't hide from him forever though, Aya. But, whatever. I know you're not going to listen to me and that I'm just wasting my breath trying to engage your interest so, do what you like."

 

"I thought you were going to share your plan with me," I grind out, giving Ken an expectant look, "*not* keep harping on at me like I'm supposed to answer to you or something." Much more of this and, to hell with how he reacts, I *am* going to kick him. Hard, at that.

 

"Fine. Bury your head in the sand. See if I care," Ken mutters, shrugging. "I suspect I'm even wasting my breath telling you this, but what I was thinking was sitting Yohji down and giving him a kinda brief overview of Weiss before just letting him read all the files Omi has sent over for himself. It's not brilliant, I know, but I'm at a loss to think of anything better."

 

"Omi's sent over files?" I query, a little taken aback by this as there's some things in our past that I don't really want Yohji being reminded of. Not... Not just yet, anyway. "I..."

 

"Mmm..." Ken interrupts, grinning, his good mood momentarily restored as his thoughts no doubt flit in Omi's direction. "He sent me a letter too. If I had it with me I'd let you read it. He's... Oh my God! He's just so happy that we've got Yohji here with us, that he's no longer alone and that at least three of us are together again."

 

"I'm happy for him," I reply dismissively, wanting to know more about what exactly is contained in the information Omi sent over. "Now... When you say 'files', do you mean that you're going to dump *everything* on Yohji? Is that a good idea?"

 

"Pretty much everything, yeah," Ken responds, watching me closely as though to gauge my reaction. "How Weiss was formed, the... ah... Takatori influence, Estet, Schwarz, General Powell, what happened at the Kou Academy... You know, all the hits, misses, and other assorted crap we've had to put up with in our time. Sure, it's not pleasant but, still, it *is* his life and he has a right to know about it."

 

"I..." Damn. How do I tell Ken that I'd rather Yohji wasn't told about Kimura without sounding like a two faced, hypocritical bastard?

 

"I was kinda thinking of maybe leaving out all references to Ewigkeit and Kimura," Ken murmurs tentatively, still watching me intently. "It's... It's still a part of our history but, well, I don't really think it's down to me to share that particular chapter with him. Nor, and I've got to be totally honest with you here, do I want to."

 

"And you think *I* do?" I reply, to my utter disgust sounding as horrified as I feel. "I agree entirely about not mentioning that... time... but..." Shaking my head, I stare blankly at Ken. As thankful as I am to him for already having decided to refrain from mentioning Kimura, I can hardly believe he thinks I should be the one who finally tells Yohji about...

 

Just... no. I don't even want to think about it.

 

Smiling wanly, Ken reaches out and closes his hand around my knee, giving it a reassuring squeeze. "When you're ready, Aya. Only when you're ready," he replies softly. "He'll have enough to work his way through without that as well so, don't worry, it's not like it has to be rushed. I just... Well, I *know* that when it comes it has to come from you."

 

There being absolutely nothing I can think of replying to that, I continue to stare at Ken blankly. Sit down with Yohji and tell him about Kimura? You've got to be kidding me. I'd rather spend a week camped out in a sewer with ChloÈ whinging constantly in my ear than so much as *mention* that time. Yohji's interest being so obviously piqued by Ken's reaction to the fucker's glass pyramid was bad enough without having to explain everything to him.

 

"Aya? It's okay... I mean, it's not like it has to be done tomorrow or..."

 

"Ah, how sweet, a tÍte-ý-tÍte," ChloÈ interjects in English from the doorway, his expression one of bemusement. "At the risk of breaking up your private little meeting, am I allowed to come in?"

 

"See? At least some people have the manners to *ask* first," I mutter, reverting to English and directing my response at Ken. Ken, who I'm going to have strong words with if he thinks he can continue getting under my radar and speaking Japanese to me all the time. Hell, if not for ChloÈ's arrival he probably would have gotten fully away with it too as, his presence disconcerting me, I hadn't even noticed what language it was we were speaking. And, wonderful, to think it's not even half past six in the morning yet and already I'm off to a good start.

 

The day can only get better, right?

 

"I'll take that as a yes, then," ChloÈ murmurs, sidling into the room, Mystique at his heels. Ignoring Ken completely, Mystique bounds up onto the bed and, after giving me the most cursory of glances, immediately wriggles under the comforter to join Tantomile. "So, talking about anything interesting that I need to know about?"

 

"No," I scowl, trying my best to ignore the fact that I'm now sharing my bed with two cats and my room with two very much unwanted guests. "Nothing that concerns you at all."

 

"We were just talking about Yohji and how best to start filling in the gaps in his memory," Ken adds reluctantly switching to English. "I know you don't know him, but if you've got any ideas I'd love to hear them."

 

"If he keeps calling me Lestat then I'm here to tell you now that suffering from amnesia is going to be the *least* of his problems," ChloÈ retorts drily, folding his arms across his chest and sniffing haughtily. "I just passed him in the corridor and he had the nerve to ask whether it was okay for me to be out of my coffin as the sun was already up."

 

Lacking both my control and sense of self-preservation, Ken starts to laugh at the thought of Yohji referring to ChloÈ as a vampire. He then, the extent of his mirth making him blind to the fact ChloÈ is glaring daggers at him, keeps laughing until tears are pouring from his eyes and he's gasping for breath. "Oh... Oh God!" Ken wheezes, trying unsuccessfully to control himself. "I know I've said it before but, hell, I've *so* missed Yohji!"

 

"I'm glad you think it's so amusing," ChloÈ states coldly, flicking his gaze across to me and giving me an annoyed look. "You too, huh? While you've always had better self control than Ken, you're, and I hate to break this to you, Aya, still smirking."

 

I am? Shit.

 

"Well, Lestat *is* a dapper dresser," I offer hurriedly, leaning forward and poking Ken in the ribs to shut him up. "I mean, you should take it as a... ah... compliment."

 

"Lestat is an immensely overrated figment of someone's immensely overrated imagination," ChloÈ pouts, "and I don't care if he's a good dresser or not as I'm not a Goddamn vampire!"

 

"Aw... C'mon though, it's still..."

 

"Shut up, Ken."

 

Not liking where this could very well be heading, I decide that the time has come to make a bid for control and clear my throat to get everyone's attention. "Enough! As positively delighted as I am to have the pair of you arguing in my room, how about you both just go about your business and leave me to get dressed in peace?"

 

"Why? It's not like it isn't anything I haven't seen before," ChloÈ murmurs with a smirk, focusing on me, Ken already forgotten about. "Besides, I did actually come in here for a reason."

 

"I'm outta here though," Ken exclaims, swinging his legs off the bed and, not bothering with the laces, squashing his feet back into his trainers. "No offence, Aya, you're cute and all that, but I can live without seeing it!" Standing up, he winks and adds, "You're not my type. Too cranky in the mornings and hard to get on with."

 

Reacting first and thinking second, I pick my pillow up and throw it at Ken. Missing him, it falls to the floor as, waving coyly and laughing, he slips through the door, leaving me alone with ChloÈ.

 

ChloÈ, who's now standing next to me and holding Yohji's chain in his hand, his pale blue eyes glittering appreciatively.

 

Fuck. I know he moves quickly but this, even for him, is something else again.

 

"This is lovely," he murmurs, trailing his finger lightly around the diamonds that make up the ankh and giving me a speculative look. "Is it new?"

 

"No," I mutter, holding my hand out for the chain and glaring at ChloÈ. "Give it here."

 

"Ken's right, you *are* cranky in the morning," ChloÈ retorts, ignoring my outstretched hand and strolling into the bathroom. "So, are you going to tell me about this or am I just going to have to wear it until you cave in?"

 

Wear it?

 

Oh dear God no...

 

Lurching into action, I roll out of bed and bolt for the en suite. As I could have all but guaranteed, ChloÈ is holding the chain around his throat and admiring his reflection in the mirror. Because he's wearing a black satin shirt, the top buttons of which are undone, there's no denying that the cross suits him, but I...

 

I can't just let him have it. It's...

 

It's not mine to give away.

 

"ChloÈ, please..." I implore, holding my hand out again and hating how pathetic I sound. As with everything though, it's my own fault. I should have left the chain where it was hidden and never gotten it out.

 

"It's not yours, is it?" ChloÈ queries gently, returning the chain to his hand and turning to face me. "You've got it now, yes, but it's not really yours." Pausing, he smiles softly and places the cross in my waiting palm. "It's Yohji's. And you've just been minding it for him. Am I right?"

 

"I don't want to talk about it," I sigh, closing my fingers around the cross and breathing a sigh of relief that I've got it back again. "Please, ChloÈ. If I tell you that you're right, that it is Yohji's, will you let the matter drop?"

 

"For now," ChloÈ murmurs, checking his appearance in the mirror for a few seconds before walking past me back into the bedroom.

 

"What were you saying about being in here for a reason?" I mutter, trailing after him. Although I want to return the chain to the box I know I can't while ChloÈ is still lurking and resign myself to having to keep a hold on it. "Whatever it is I'm hoping it's a good one."

 

"Depends on your definition of good," ChloÈ replies, shrugging as he sits on the edge of the mattress. "I just thought you'd like to know that Mihirogi has sent an email requesting your presence down at the castle this morning."

 

"Ah, so the summons has finally arrived," I reply, not surprised by this in the slightest. "Does the email go into any detail or am I just going to get hit with it all when I get there?"

 

"When *we* get there," ChloÈ corrects, watching with amusement as first one and then another furry head pokes itself out from under the comforter. "I was going to drive down to Kent today anyway to give Mihirogi some of the Singapore orchids that have just arrived, so we may as well go together."

 

"You mean you just want to hear me get raked over the coals," I counter, walking over to dresser and beginning to ferret through the drawers for some clean clothes to put on. "Come on, you may as well fess up. It's not like I can stop you going or anything."

 

"Anyone ever tell you that you're a cynic?" ChloÈ replies with a laugh. "Fine. If you must know, yeah, I'm a little curious as to what's going to be said to you. Really though, I hardly expect it to be anything earth shattering and, believe me or don't, it's up to you, I *had* been going to go there today anyway."

 

An unwanted question suddenly popping into my head, I place my clothes on top of the dresser and turn back around to face ChloÈ. "Ah... The request, is it just for my presence or are they wanting to see Yohji as well?" I query dully. "I know they'll want to see him, of course, but are they wanting the pair of us together?"

 

"Just you, for now," ChloÈ responds, paying me scant attention as Mystique and Tantomile clamber all over him seeking affection. "Given that you're the one they know, I suspect they'll want to hear your take on things first. And, let's face it, it's not exactly like Yohji is going anywhere or anything."

 

"Mmm..." I murmur noncommittally, picking my clothes back up and making my way towards the en suite. "When were you planning on heading off?"

 

"Pretty much as soon as you're ready," ChloÈ replies, standing up and wrinkling his nose as he tries to brush all the cat hair he's suddenly got clinging to him off his clothes. "The forecast is for another hot day and I'd prefer to travel while it was still relatively cool."

 

"Just give me time to have a shower and get dressed and I'll be right with you," I state, sounding as unenthused as I feel. "How about I meet you in the kitchen when I'm ready?"

 

"Sounds good," ChloÈ agrees, starting to walk out of the room, the two cats tripping over each other in their haste to follow him.

 

Mentally thanking ChloÈ for having enough intelligence to shut my door after him, I turn around and walk back over to the bed. There, I return Yohji's chain to the box for safe keeping before entering the bathroom and turning the shower on. Closing the door, I then strip off my pajamas and step under the spray of water. Being more with it than I was yesterday, the temperature is just right but, not wanting to keep ChloÈ waiting, I can't take the time to enjoy it and wash myself quickly. I don't, as is my current want, think about anything in any great detail. In fact, like an automaton, I don't really think about anything other than what I'm doing.

 

Wash self. Dry self. Get dressed. Shave. Clean teeth. Run some mousse through hair because if I don't ChloÈ will take it upon himself to do it for me. Retrieve phone and wallet from pocket of trousers in the clothesbasket. Leave bathroom. Make bed. Walk out of bedroom into corridor...

 

... And stop dead in my tracks because the at once both familiar and foreign aroma of freshly brewed coffee is wafting through the house. Familiar, because I'll forever associate it with Yohji, and foreign because it's not a scent of I've ever smelt here before.

 

Yohji.

 

Here.

 

We're no longer apart.

 

He...

 

Telling myself firmly to get a fucking grip, that all that is going to come of things is that Yohji is most likely going to be once again a team mate, I straighten my back and make my way down into the kitchen. The scent of the coffee apparently *not* being enough of a give away, the sight of Yohji sitting at the table throws my carefully constructed world of pig headed denial off its axis and I just stare at him. Dressed in what I think is Ken's robe and drinking coffee while flicking through a newspaper, the image damn near takes my breath away. If not for the fact that it's still far earlier than Yohji's preferred time to drag himself out of bed, we could be back at Souzou again.

 

"My God! Did you fall out of bed or something?" I comment, the words slipping out of my mouth before I can stop them, remembered instinct making me want to tease Yohji for being out of bed this early.

 

"Huh?" Yohji grunts, looking up at me in surprise. "What with sleeping away most of yesterday I've kinda had enough of bed for the time being and..." Trailing off, he shrugs. "And, well, I suppose you could say that I wanted to be up in case you decided to put in an appearance."

 

"ChloÈ's waiting for me," I mutter hurriedly, shaking my head and trying to back out of the kitchen as casually as I can manage without giving in to the urge to spin on my heels and run. Damn, damn, damn! So much for the delusion of always being in fucking control. "So... Uh... I've got to go."

 

"Don't let the door hit you on the ass on the way out," Yohji retorts flatly, waving at me. "Think happy thoughts, Aya. If you're really lucky you'll be able to stay wherever it is the two of you are going and you won't have to see me again."

 

"Yohji... I..."

 

Once a perceptive smart ass, *always* a perceptive smart ass. It's almost reassuring how some things just never change.

 

"I've got to go... I'll... I'll see you this evening."

 

"Don't count of on it. I have plans to be busy."

 

"Fine. I hear there's some great clubs in London. If you start now you might be able to get through all of them by the end of the year."

 

"Thanks for the suggestion. I was thinking more along the lines though of seeing if there were any courses going on how to be a silent, closed off prick. Oh! I know! Given that they're obviously the best, perhaps you could tell me who taught you."

 

"Fuck you, Yohji."

 

"Nah. I don't think so. That would involve you actually having to stay near me for a period of time and God forbid you put yourself through the horror of that. Well, unless, of course, you're *that* quick."

 

"Go to hell!"

 

"Been there, done that, and apparently, albeit deeply hidden, I've got the memories of you to prove it."

 

"And how about we save round two for this evening, yes?" ChloÈ interjects, materializing behind me and, closing his hands around my shoulders, guiding me out of the kitchen. "Those two always like this?" he queries, propelling me past Ken, who's leaning against the wall and looking quite ill.

 

"About five or so lifetimes ago, they were, yeah," Ken mutters, shooting me a sour look. "You know something, Aya? I don't think I'm the only one who's treading on thin ice."

 

Shaking off ChloÈ's hands, I ignore Ken and stalk down the stairs. Emotion of some description, and although I'd like it be anger I don't really think that is, making me shake, I have to hang on to the banister in order to remain upright.

 

Goddamn it! Treading on thin ice? More, I think, like losing my mind.

 

"You're shaking," ChloÈ comments bluntly, coming down the stairs after me. "Would you like a cup of tea or perhaps..."

 

"What I want is to get the fuck out of here," I state, striding through the storeroom and turning a deaf ear to the greeting Free calls out to me. "That, right now, is *all* I want."

 

"Are you sure? Thinking selfishly here, are you absolutely positive that you wouldn't like a Valium or five to calm yourself down with?" ChloÈ suggests blithely, muttering under his breath to Free that he expects it to be a very, very long day.

 

"If you don't want to drive me then I'll drive myself!" I snap, roughly pulling open the back door and heading off through the courtyard in the direction of the side entrance to the garage. "It's not like I need a fucking chauffeur anyway!"

 

"You're lucky that I'm too polite to share with you what it is I think you *do* need," ChloÈ replies coolly, still trailing after me. "I will, however, break it to you that one of those things you do actually need is a set of car keys..."

 

That's it. There's just no help for it. I'm surrounded by smart asses.

 

"Fine. Drive me, then. See if I care," I scowl, entering the code into the keypad on the wall and walking into the garage. "If you're expecting scintillating company then let me tell you now that you'd better have brought along enough CDs to fill the silence otherwise you're in for a very quiet drive."

 

"Hey, don't take your distemper out on me," ChloÈ murmurs, shrugging as, using the remote, he unlocks the door to his preferred car, the black Mercedes S-Class. "Without wanting to set you off even further, this is all, and you know it, down to you and you alone. Now, I *know* your carefully constructed world is in danger of falling down around your ears but that's nonetheless no reason to take your tetchiness out on the rest of us."

 

"You going to offer unsolicited advice all the way down to Kent?" I sigh, opening the door and sinking into the passenger seat. "If so, give me a couple of seconds and *I'll* go get some CDs."

 

Giving me a disdainful look, ChloÈ gets into the driver's side and, after pulling on his seatbelt, starts the Mercedes.

 

Hopeful that I've put on enough of a petulant performance for ChloÈ to realize he's better off just leaving me the hell alone, I settle back and fold my arms across my chest. My stomach lets it be known that I should have put something in it before flying out of the house with my tail between my legs and I try to placate it by telling myself that I'll get something to eat at KR's. Despite making it known that it would be both an affront to his delicate sensibilities and all but asking for a bout of food poisoning, ChloÈ *would* stop at one of the services en route but I'll be damned if I'm going to ask him.

 

Cut off my nose to spite my face?

 

Oh hell yeah. Especially now that I'm embarrassed by own behavior and, really, would just like the ground to open up and swallow me.

 

Instead of behaving maturely and making an effort to at least be *friendly* towards Yohji, I retreated behind my wall and simply sharpened my claws on him. Why? Because I could, I suppose, and because it didn't involve any thought or effort on my behalf. Ken was right. Yohji and I haven't been, particularly for no good reason, so downright hostile and rude to each other for *years*.

 

I...

 

Christ. I'm so fucking confused that it's not funny. I'm so busy *not* thinking about the consequences of my actions that things are further unraveling by the second. If I'm not careful Yohji will end up taking my place in Krypton Brand while I'm reduced to hunting out a nice park bench in Hyde Park to live under. I can see it now. Everyone's going to learn to love Yohji while simultaneously learning that I'm an obnoxious pain in the ass with no redeeming features whatsoever. And, again, it will all be down to me and me alone. Yohji didn't *ask* for this, I offered it to him.

 

And the reason I offered it to him is because...

 

"You still love him, don't you?" ChloÈ queries gently, his eyes fixed on the road as, only just out of the garage, we find ourselves in bumper-to-bumper traffic. "Both the reason you brought him here, and the reason you're behaving so ditsy is because you still love Yohji. You try to tell yourself that you don't, but you do."

 

"I..."

 

It's odd. ChloÈ's finally voiced the question I've been dreading ever since first walking out of The Cat's Whiskers with Yohji in tow and, instead of wanting to vehemently deny it all I feel is calm, as though a heavy weight has been lifted from my shoulders.

 

"I've never stopped loving him," I confess softly, unfolding my arms and letting my hands rest limply in my lap. "He... He means everything to me. I'll always love him. It... It's like he's a part of me somehow."

 

"Then, and I hate to ask the obvious," ChloÈ murmurs after a moment or two of weighted silence, "why are you behaving like such a prat? If you love him as you say you do, and I've never known you to lie, so I believe you, then why aren't you fighting to spend every second that you can with him?"

 

"Because it can never be like it was again," I whisper, unconsciously clenching my fingers around the black fabric of my trousers. "I love him but... but we can't be together, not... not like we were. It wouldn't be right."

 

"And not for the first time I'm rendered speechless by your very own special brand of logic," ChloÈ mutters drily, giving me a fond look. "Now, you just know I've got to ask this... Why? Why wouldn't it be right? You love him and, well, until this morning's little show anyway, he's been looking at you as though you were the embodiment of every sexual thought he's ever had, so... Well..."

 

"It's complicated," I interrupt flatly, resigning myself to the fact that the time has come to at least *attempt* to explain myself. "It's because I love him that I know he's better off without me. And... And it's because of this particular unmistakable fact of life that I broke up with him in the first place. I... I pushed him away for his own good."

 

"And have been regretting it ever since by the sounds of things," ChloÈ replies, scowling at the sea of traffic in front of us and increasing the speed of the cool air coming out of the air conditioning vents. "What about taking a risk every now and again, huh? I mean, how do you know that Yohji's better off without you? Did you ever stop to ask his opinions on the subject or did you, your mind made up, simply dump him because it was what you'd decided *you* wanted?"

 

"He's better off without me," I repeat faintly, choosing to ignore how my oft-flaunted statement flies in the face of history. "He... He is. He deserves more than I could ever give him and..." Trailing off, I decide to make a bid to change the subject slightly. "As for taking risks? What do you think dragging Yohji away from Tokyo was, huh? I can tell you now that it wasn't exactly something I've been planning for months or... or even really stopped to think about. If... If that's not a risk then I don't know what is.."

 

"That, as I said last night, was following your heart," ChloÈ smiles. "You can't even find it in yourself to accept it, but your refusal to leave Yohji when he was so clearly hurting was pure instinct. As for regretting it? I suspect that's merely what you're *wanting* to do simply because you'd find it easier. Aya, you may be many things, but ultimately you're just human, and humans have needs."

 

"You're only the second person to ever call me human," I murmur quietly, glancing at ChloÈ and sighing. "The first was Yohji..."

 

"If it makes you feel any better, that's still two times more than I've heard it," ChloÈ replies, not meeting my eyes and, lowering his head, causing his hair to fall forward, covering his face.

 

"I..."

 

Shit. I probably couldn't have said anything more insensitive to ChloÈ if I'd tried. ChloÈ with his ability to call animals and plants to him and who can, if he lets his defenses slip low enough, read peoples' minds. ChloÈ, who wasn't even privileged enough to have a normal childhood like I was and who's always been looked on as 'different'.

 

ChloÈ, who, in my own way, I happen to care greatly about and who I'd never willingly hurt. When I was perhaps at my lowest ebb since the whole Ewigkeit saga, it was ChloÈ who both took the risk of trying to shake some -- life -- sense into me and who managed to earn the dubious distinction of being only the second man whose touch I'd actually welcome.

 

Although it's not something we speak about, I owe him a lot.

 

"I'm sorry," I whisper, reaching across and lightly trailing my hand down his arm. "I never meant it that way."

 

"Of course you didn't," ChloÈ murmurs dismissively, still not looking at me. "It doesn't matter anyway. I... I am what I am."

 

"And that's as human as I am," I finish adamantly, dredging up a wan smile. "You've got Hermes and I've got enough emotional baggage to sink the QE2. If you look at it that way we're perfect for each other."

 

"If only things were that easy," ChloÈ responds, flicking back his hair and giving me a poignant look. "We, in our own quaint little way, care for each other but it's not love, not true love anyway, and we both know it. To pretend otherwise would achieve nothing. Besides, you've got Yohji..."

 

"Uh," I snort, shaking my head. "Uh-uh... Stop there. I do not *have* Yohji. I *had* him, past tense. What I have now is a very deep hole that I've dug for myself. There is, if you care to think about it, a *huge* difference."

 

"Do you want to tell me about it?" ChloÈ offers, gesturing expansively at the incredibly slow moving traffic stretched out in front of us. "It's not like we're going anywhere in a hurry and, well, you're going to have to cough up something halfway decent to KR and Mihirogi anyway, so, if you think about it, it probably makes *sense* to practice on me."

 

"Curiosity killed the cat, you know," I mutter, choking back a laugh at ChloÈ's cunning attempt to get out of me what's no doubt been eating him alive ever since I presented Yohji to him in Tokyo. He's patient though, I'll grant him that.

 

"Ah, but satisfaction brought him or, not wanting to be sexist here, her back," ChloÈ retorts, flashing me a hopeful smile. "Hey, I just thought it might help you sort things out in your head before talking to KR, that's all."

 

"Mmm... And when we get back tonight Free's going to be wearing a pair of jeans and one of Ken's football tops," I snicker, suddenly feeling better than I have in days. God alone knows why, but I just do. "I can see it now, can't you?"

 

"Remind me to never take you out of the house this early in the morning again without plying you with tea first, yeah?" ChloÈ replies, rolling his eyes in a mock display of sufferance. "I mean, you're beginning to slightly disturb me. Free in *jeans*? Next you'll be suggesting that I wear shorts, or something abhorrent like that and, to hell with going to Kent, I'll be having to find the closest psychiatric institution in order to have you committed."

 

"You in shorts?" I drawl, cocking my head to one side and peering at ChloÈ closely. "Nah. I'm not *that* delusional."

 

"No? Keep this up however and I'll have no choice but to accept that you're clearly out of your mind," ChloÈ responds with a truly award winning sigh of exasperation. "Now, as much as I'd *love* to listen to your new stand up comedy routine all the way to Kent, are you going to explain your actions or do I have to see if there's any earplugs in the glovebox?"

 

"Anyone ever tell you that you're no fun?" I pout, relaxing back in my seat and staring out the passenger side window. A dog of some description -- it's largish and a kind of yellow color and, honestly, I could care less in regards to what its breed is -- lopes after a hot and sweaty looking male jogger, an inane grin stretched all of its furry face. The simplicity of dogs -- 'oh, yes, I just *live* to retrieve that stupid stick for you' -- never having impressed me greatly, I scowl at the animal and sigh.

 

"Did you know that the wound on Yohji's hand was courtesy of his wife's brain dead canine?" I mutter pretty much cryptically. "It wanted... carnal relations... with his leg and reacted tetchily when the answer was no. Stupid animal. I don't know how he was able to live with it for as long as he did."

 

"His wife loved it and I suspect that's all that mattered to Yohji," ChloÈ murmurs, his expression telling me in no uncertain terms that he feels the same way about dogs as I do. "To each their own and all that."

 

"What you really mean is it takes all sorts," I reply, returning my attention to the world outside my window. "I... Okay. Fine. You win. While I haven't exactly admitted any of this to myself yet, I'll try and tell you about what happened in Tokyo. I'm warning you now though, don't blame me if it doesn't make any great degree of sense."

 

"Cross my heart," ChloÈ responds, failing dismally in his attempt to not sound too eager. "If you're good and don't... accidentally on purpose... skip bits I might even stop in Cambridge and buy you morning tea as a way to make up for inflicting the horror of talking about yourself on you."

 

"If I'd known there was going to be a bribe involved I would have killed the small talk and coughed up ten minutes ago," I state facetiously before giving a nod to indicate that I know the time for deflecting the issue is well and truly over. "Okay... Uh... Here goes nothing."

 

"I'm sure you'll be fine," ChloÈ comments, giving my knee a little reassuring pat. "If you just stick to the truth and don't try and psychoanalyze every single detail you'll probably be surprised at how simple and logical everything sounds."

 

"I should be so lucky," I mutter, giving another nod and bracing myself for what I'm about to have to find the words for. "Ah... Whether this comes as a surprise to you or not, I actually... ah... went into The Cat's Whiskers with every intention of seeing Yohji. That part, if nothing else, was definitely premeditated. I... I just wanted to see him, you know? Both Omi and Ken had seen him and I wanted to. I wanted to see for myself that he was happy with his new life, that everything was working out for him. That's all I wanted though. You've got to believe me! I just... All I wanted was to *see* him... I... I thought that would be enough for me, that seeing that he was happy would have offered me that ridiculous American concept of closure..."

 

"But he wasn't happy," ChloÈ murmurs, "was he? And that, I'm assuming, is what threw you into a tailspin. If he'd been sitting there looking like the life and soul of the party you would have told yourself that you were content and left without even having gone over to him, yes?"

 

"Yes," I confess softly, lowering my head and staring without really seeing anything down at my lap. "If he'd just been smiling or... or looked anything other than as miserable as he did... I honestly suspect that I would have been fine. I would have *seen* him and, yes, I think that would have been enough to placate me. But... Oh God! He just looked so utterly depressed that I *had* to go over to him. I told myself that I was still fully in control -- hell, I even had enough piece of mind to buy myself a drink so as to simply blend in and not raise anyone's suspicions -- that surely just having a word or two with him wouldn't hurt, but..."

 

"It hurt," ChloÈ interjects sagely. "It was the last thing you were expecting, but it did."

 

"It hurt like you wouldn't believe," I sigh, replicating ChloÈ's trick from earlier of letting my hair fall forward and using it to hide behind. "Up close, and ignoring how depressed he looked, he was just Yohji... Yohji how he had been and how I'd always chosen to remember him. Realizing that he had no recollection of me, that when he looked at me all he saw was a stranger, was quite literally like being gut punched. Then... when he started to talk, again, as Ken said to me yesterday, it was just Yohji. The way he spoke, his gestures, everything, and..."

 

Trailing off, I once again clench my fingers into the fabric of my trousers and shake my head. "And he was so clearly unhappy that I could hardly bear to listen to him," I continue, now talking more to myself than ChloÈ. "Right at the end, just before Weiss imploded, he'd been going on about how he desperately wanted to forget, how the pain of his life had got too much for him and how he just wanted to start afresh. When... Get this... When I heard that he'd lost his memory I was actually pleased for him. I thought, because it was what he'd been wanting, that it meant he had a chance for not only his much longed for fresh start but also for a normal life. I... Goddamn it! I wanted him to be happy with his office job and his shitty apartment in the suburbs and... and his *wife*! I... I wanted his life to be what it *should* have been, for all his dark memories of Weiss to be a thing of the past, and for him to be happy. I know I'm repeating myself but, seriously, I just wanted him to be happy... That's all... Just... happy..."

 

Pausing, I blink back the -- *stupid* -- tears I can feel welling in my eyes and sigh softly before starting again. "He wasn't happy though. In fact, as far as Yohji was concerned his life pretty much sucked. His marriage was over in everything but name, he hated his job with a passion and... and the not knowing about his past was eating him alive. He... He felt as though he had nothing, that... that *he* was nothing. *Nothing*! Oh my God... Listening to him say those things was like finding myself trapped in either a spider's web or quicksand. All I could do was listen. I... I had the answers he was so desperately seeking but I couldn't give them to him. When, after reacting badly to the sight of Nakagami on the news, he bolted to the bathroom to calm down, I saw my chance to extricate myself from the mess I'd unwittingly got myself into and took off. It... It was the only thing I could think to do. Get away. Retreat. Forget and, once again, move on. Only..."

 

"Only this time you couldn't do it," ChloÈ finishes gently. "Now, without wanting to interrupt here, see how logical it's all sounding now that you're finally allowing yourself to think about it? Everything you're saying makes perfect sense..."

 

"Glad you think so," I mutter dully, wanting to push ahead and get my confession over and done with. "Outside, I called you to come pick me up and then... go figure... realized that I couldn't simply leave him, that I had to do *something*. After everything he's ever done for me, and after having left him twice before, I honestly didn't feel as though I had any other choice. I couldn't, contrary to how much common sense was telling me to, just walk away. I... I just couldn't. Just as I couldn't think of anything to do other than offer him the opportunity of coming with me and joining up with Krypton Brand. Maybe... I don't know... Maybe if I hadn't been in such a flat panic I would have thought to call Omi or something, but, at the time my mind was just... urgh... a total blank. If... Christ! If he hadn't agreed to come with me I have no idea what I would have done then. Given that I wasn't acting myself as it was I probably would have knocked him out and dragged him back to the car by his hair or something equally as ludicrous as that."

 

"Now *that* I would have liked to have seen," ChloÈ snickers. "Seriously. The idea of you going all caveman in a crowded bar is just too funny for words."

 

"Anyone ever told you that you have a warped sense of humor?" I reply, lifting my head and giving ChloÈ a fleeting, grateful smile. Whether he knows it or not -- and I suspect he does -- he's actually making this far easier for me than I ever imagined. Instead of rattling off questions or seeking clarification every few seconds, he's just letting me talk and, yeah, it's helping. It's helping a lot, actually. I'm not *enjoying* it, not for a second, but nor is it as hard as I expected it to be.

 

"No one's ever been so rude, no," ChloÈ replies, smirking. "Now, before you take it upon yourself to rectify this fact, pray, continue... Suddenly remembering that you weren't as hard hearted as you'd have everyone believe you are, you bolted back in to The Cat's Whiskers and..."

 

"Well, I got him to come with me, didn't I?" I retort, deciding at the last second to refrain from going into the specific details. Now that I think about it, showing him the photo I keep in my wallet -- the photo Yohji himself gave to me -- was perhaps my greatest mistake. If, flustered and desperate, I hadn't shoved proof of our relationship in his face then possibly things wouldn't seem as fucked up to me as they currently do. I mean, it's not like he really *needed* to know we'd once...

 

... meant the world to each other.

 

And, while I'm thinking about it, he *certainly* didn't need to know that I still carried proof of this around with me. Talk about acting without thinking. Didn't have to show him the picture. Didn't have to make mention to our... history... together. Didn't have to give him a portal into the one part of his past that *has* to stay buried.

 

Didn't have to *interfere* and fuck with anything at *all*.

 

"And you were doing so well too," ChloÈ sighs, prodding me on the arm in an attempt to get me going again. "Okay though, skipping the obvious fact that, yes, you managed in your own no doubt *unique* way to convince Yohji that you were his fairy Godmother and that he absolutely had to follow you out into the great unknown, what next, huh? Surely you had to have *some* sort of plan."

 

And, again I say... I should be so lucky.

 

"Plan?" I echo, snorting derisively. "I know not of what you speak. From just wanting to *see* him, all I could barely deal with was the fact that I suddenly couldn't leave the bar without him. A *plan*? You've got to be kidding me. Now... Now that I'm being forced to account for myself though, I think... for Yohji's sake anyway... that what I did was the right thing..."

 

What the...?

 

I mean, where the *hell* did that come from, huh? One second I'm paddling along in my pool of denial and the next, *bang*, I'm blithely stating that, yeah, I *did* do the right thing after all...

 

"I..." Looking at ChloÈ helplessly, I blink owlishly and wait expectantly for the rest of my out of left field admission to come to me.

 

"Don't tell you were finally struck by a moment of clarity?" ChloÈ queries, giving me an hopeful look.

 

"I..." Blinking again, I nod slowly, ChloÈ's words striking a chord with me. A moment of clarity. Yes. That's absolutely what it was.

 

Hallelujah. Things are finally beginning to become clear to me.

 

Well, *clearer*, anyway.

 

"For Yohji's sake, what I did was the right thing," I repeat, surprising myself with how adamant I sound. "You don't know him, but he's very gregarious, a true people person. He likes having people around him who he can talk to, trust, and, well, tease. Being alone is simply not in his nature and he thrives in... groups. I... I think that being a part of Krypton Brand will do him the world of good, that he'll be a lot happier being part of a team again. So, yeah, for his sake I don't regret my actions at all."

 

"Now, that wasn't so hard at all, was it?" ChloÈ murmurs smugly, frowning first at the traffic and then at the dial that controls the air conditioner. "On a totally unrelated side note, have I told you recently just how much I hate summer?" he adds with a sigh, switching the dial over to its fastest, coldest setting.

 

"Only every day the thermometer has climbed over twenty-five degrees Celsius," I reply, laughing. "You hear of people following summer around the globe but if you had your way you'd follow winter, wouldn't you?"

 

"In a shot," ChloÈ agrees, nodding. "Rain and snow I can deal with a hell of a lot better than I can blinding sunlight and horrid heat. But... Enough about me. I'm boring. You, on the other hand, are for more interesting..."

 

"You have an... ah... interesting definition of interesting," I retort, pulling a face, "but, yeah, whatever. Maybe you're right and, well, maybe it *wasn't* as hard and as confusing as I was busily making it out to be. I... I fully believe everything I've just said to be the truth. With Ken helping him with his memory and finding himself once again surrounded by... friends... I honestly think bringing Yohji here *was* in his best interests."

 

"I suspect you're right," ChloÈ states, shooting the air conditioner control one last annoyed look before reluctantly activating the switch that slides down the driver's side window. I'd tell him that he wouldn't be so hot if he'd dressed more sensibly but know that I'd only be wasting my breath. If ChloÈ even owns a t-shirt, or ever a short sleeved shirt for that matter, then I'm yet to see it.

 

"I cannot see any reason why he *won't* fit in," he continues after a moment's contemplation. "Ken's all over him, Michel is delighted with the thought of having a new 'friend', Yuki... well, Yuki just needs to accept that Yohji being here doesn't mean that *you're* leaving and he'll be fine, I'm... *adapting*... to the idea, and Free, well, he seemed to be expecting him anyway so I can't say he's that bothered one way or the other..." Trailing off, ChloÈ turns towards me and shrugs lightly. "What about you though, Aya? Now that you've accepted that you haven't made a mistake and can finally pull your head out of the sand and move forward, what do you hope might come out of Yohji's return to your life?"

 

"Hope?" I echo, the simplicity of ChloÈ's question once again causing me to feel all flustered. "I... Ah... All I hope is for Yohji to be happy. Maybe... I don't know. Maybe in time we can even be friends again."

 

"Just friends?" ChloÈ prompts, clearly choosing his words carefully. "You wouldn't perhaps like..."

 

"No!" I exclaim, my abrupt response sounding far more defensive than, really, I would have liked. "Things... They can't go back to the way they were. It wouldn't be fair on Yohji and... and it's not what I want, okay? I ended it with him two years ago and my reasons for why I did it still stand. I want Yohji to be happy but I... I don't *want* him, not in the way you're implying! Just... ChloÈ... Leave it, please. Surely I've told you enough for the time being..."

 

"For the time being," ChloÈ concedes, his eyes telling me in no uncertain terms that he doesn't believe a word of what I just said. "You've done well though and I thank you for being so honest with me as I know it wouldn't have been easy."

 

"Not easy?" I snort, mentally breathing a sigh of relief that he's accepting my -- fervent -- wish to drop the topic. "Don't understate it or anything."

 

"Ah, but you can't deny that it's helped, can you?" ChloÈ replies, bringing the Mercedes to a smooth stop at yet another red light. "When you talk to KR now you can at least do so truthfully and without sounding like a stammering idiot."

 

"And for that I'm forever in your debt," I respond, my attempt at sounding suitably gracious failing dismally. "Although I didn't expect it to, yeah, I suppose that it's helped though. At least now if nothing else I know why I did it and what I want to come out of it for Yohji."

 

"Which is a lot more than you had when you flounced out to the car half an hour ago," ChloÈ murmurs, looking out the side window and, physically recoiling slightly, making a tsking sound under his breath. "Audience of rednecks at two o'clock," he sighs, glancing at me and rolling his eyes. "Now, given that I'm too hot to be thinking my best, I *think* the really ugly one in the tasteless, allegedly amusing slogan t-shirt is enquiring as to how much we charge..."

 

Suppressing a smile as an old, nearly forgotten about memory enters my head, I lean forward to check out our 'admirers' and discover that ChloÈ is right. Sitting in a small council truck and leaning out the passenger side window, a malicious grin stretched across his unattractive face, a middle-aged man is indeed staring at us. His black t-shirt, which has seen better days and which I wouldn't even use as a rag, has the statement 'Mancunians Do It Better' written across the chest it in white. *What* exactly it is that they do better, going on the look of him, isn't something I'd particularly care to hazard a guess about.

 

"Hey! You two! Lookin' like that ya surely gotta be a couple of fags. How much to blow me and me mate here?"

 

"Blow?" ChloÈ mutters disdainfully, starting to slide the window up. "Personally I'd have no qualms whatsoever about blowing him and his 'mate' into a hundred tiny pieces."

 

"Leave it," I whisper, reaching over and brushing ChloÈ's hand away from the window switch.

 

... Tokyo. A traffic jam not dissimilar to this one but late at night. Yohji driving while, slumped against each other, Omi and Ken slept on the back seat. Pulling up at a red light alongside a car full of drunken men making rude gestures and loudly slurring declarations about 'disgusting fags'. Anger making me want to get out and drive my katana through their windscreen. Yohji's hand on my knee, stopping me, his breath, warm in my ear -- "Disgusting? What would they know? -- his lips, setting on mine. Silence...

 

"Huh? You're not telling me you actually *want* to listen..."

 

"Shhh..." I murmur, cutting him off and, snaking my hand around the back of his neck, pulling him closer. "Let's just give them a taste of what they could never afford."

 

"Wha..."

 

Not giving ChloÈ time to finish his question, I lean across and, capturing his lips with mine, give him a gentle, lingering kiss. Although no doubt somewhat shocked by it, he returns the kiss with natural passion. As I'd known it would, our simple display of affection renders the redneck immediately silent and, having achieved my aim, I pull back and rest my forehead against ChloÈ's. His earlier comment -- "We, in our own quaint little way, care for each other but it's not love, not true love anyway, and we both know it." -- coming back to haunt me, I stroke his smooth cheek and wish that, for once, things could be easy.

 

If only we truly loved each other.

 

If only I didn't still love Yohji...

 

If... Only...

 

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

 

~ Yohji ~

 

The sound of a door being softly shut rousing me slightly from my supine position on the bed, I lift my head off the pillow and glance out into the corridor.

 

"I think that ChloÈ and Aya may have just returned," Michel comments quietly, looking up from his laptop and flashing me another one of his frequent, genuinely happy smiles. "I'm glad that they're back, aren't you?"

 

"Ecstatic," I reply blithely, relaxing back on the mattress and idly toying with Snowball's tail. As if Tantomile and Mystique weren't enough of a feline good thing, Michel has his own very white and very cross-eyed cat that goes by the name of Snowball and who he likes nothing more than to cart around with him like a sort of furry, breathing teddy bear. Given that she's been sitting on my bed for two hours now and has neither once yowled at nor kneaded me, I have to say that I quite like poor old Snowball. As the cats in this place go she's by far the - sanest -- sweetest and easiest to get on with.

 

For reasons best known to himself, Michel materialized in my doorway just over two hours ago with a cup of freshly brewed coffee for me and the odd, softly voiced request as to whether it would be okay if he did his homework on my floor. As, you know, one does. Although, my mind struggling to come to terms with everything Ken had shared with me during the day, I'd wanted to be alone, I didn't really have it in me to say no and, since retrieving all his bits and pieces -- laptop, school books, *Snowball* -- he's been camped out on the floor alongside the bed ever since. What's more, I think I'm even oddly grateful for his predominately silent and self-contained company.

 

I don't know. It's just kinda, well... *nice*... not being so alone.

 

"If you would like me to leave now then you only have to say," Michel murmurs politely, making to log off his computer. "I do not wish to outstay my welcome and would understand if you wish to go and speak to Aya."

 

Speak to Aya? My God. After this morning's verbal fun and games? Somehow -- just call me a born again wimp -- I think not. Well, not without a few stiff drinks under my belt first anyway.

 

"If Aya has anything to say to me then he knows where to find me," I reply, scowling at the ceiling and not really wanting to think about the redhead at all. "That said, please, stay. I can't see how you'd be comfortable down there but, if you've still got homework to do and want to stay then, seriously, that's fine by me."

 

"Good," Michel responds happily. "So long as I'm not bothering you then I'd be delighted to stay."

 

"Knock yourself out, kiddo," I retort, glancing over the edge of the bed and somehow finding the energy required to share a believable looking grin with him. "As I told you earlier, so long as you don't want any actual *help* with your homework then you're more than welcome to stay for as long as you want."

 

"Thank you," Michel smiles, returning his attention to his laptop and his history assignment. "As Ken may have told you, I don't like being alone and enjoying spending my time with others."

 

"That's something we have in common then," I reply softly, dragging myself into a half sitting position and looking across to the new, state-of-the-art Toshiba laptop that's set up on my bedside table. Photographs, captured images of times that I should remember but don't, scroll across the screen illustrating a past that is at once both undeniably mine and completely foreign to me. Five years of Weiss... of Aya... of Ken... of -- Takatori Mamoru! -- Omi... and it's like watching a slide show of someone else's life.

 

I...

 

I *believe* it, yeah, but I don't remember it. I don't remember any of it.

 

The files and photographs on the laptop, along with everything Ken's told me, all tell of a life that holds no recollection, no *meaning* for me. I accept everything I've had carefully laid out before me, because there's simply too much evidence to deny it, but I can't say that it... engages... me in any way.

 

I don't know. Maybe 'engages' isn't the right way to describe it. Again, I just don't know. I think, if I were to be perfectly honest with myself, I was probably hoping for at least *something* to have a triggered the merest hint of a memory, for something to have acted as a catalyst for my own memories to have come flooding back. *Anything* would have done but, no... Nothing. While what I've learnt has made me cry, because I can't actually remember any of it, it all may as well be a work of fiction. Seriously. And that, the believing but not *feeling*, on top of everything else, hurts like a bitch.

 

Fuck! That's not really the right way of describing it either. Of course I *feel*. The history of Weiss -- *my* history -- is so Goddamn tragic that you'd have to be some sort of cold hearted bastard *not* to feel something upon having it shared with you. Murdered parents, your father (who, if I've got my head around it correctly, was actually your uncle) refusing to pay your ransom when you were kidnapped, a much loved sporting career being sabotaged by the asshole you thought of as your best friend, a younger sister in a coma, your (my) lover being gunned down in front of your (my) eyes... I mean, *Christ*. I've watched American daytime television series that are less gut wrenching and far fetched than that.

 

So, yeah... Of course I fucking feel. If I could I'd round everyone up and give them all -- even Aya, although I suspect I'd probably get a well aimed, and very forceful knee in the balls for my efforts -- a great big group hug. Hell. Speaking for myself here, I certainly wouldn't say no to an offer of a well-meaning hug at right at this very moment. I mean, the obliterating sense of pain and loss is bad enough from my current position of detached observer, but...

 

Knowing that it's real, that it's not just some delusional author's idea for a best seller, well...

 

It's just...

 

Shit. I don't know what it is.

 

Numbing... Devastating... Unbelievable... Shocking... Fascinating... Compelling... Heart breaking...

 

Something like that, anyway.

 

And I don't recall any of it. As painful as it obviously all is, I now crave my actual memory returning more than I ever did. It mightn't be a life anyone in their right mind would want, but it's nonetheless *my* life and I want it back. I want it *fully* back. The truth I now *have*, it's contained -- to an extent -- on the laptop and within Ken and Aya. If I want answers they're now within easy reach. Well, given that it remains to be seen whether Aya will ever deign to talk to me again or not, I know *Ken* will do his best to help me with the answers I still seek but, while it's more than I've had for a year, it's not enough. Remembering what I've learnt is a good start, for sure, but, just call me masochistic, I long for the pain I know should come hand in hand with the cold, hard facts.

 

I want to remember Asuka, the *first* Asuka, who was my partner in my detective business (I was a private detective?) and who appears to have been my first great love. I also want to remember her death and how losing her made me feel.

 

I want to remember what it was about Aya -- other than the glaringly obvious factor of his appearance -- that made me fall in love with him and what it was that caused us to break up.

 

I want to remember the good times with both of them. The bad times too.

 

I just...

 

Fuck it! I just want to remember, period.

 

Believing and accepting and knowing is all well and good, but it's not the same, not even close in fact. Take that picture of Aya and I embracing in the rose garden. I can look at it and see both the intensity of the moment and how much we used to mean to each other, how clearly in love we were, but that's it. I can't look it and remember the feel of Aya's hair or even why we were out amongst the roses that night. It's just, to me, a photo and, well, the person Aya's clinging to could be anyone.

 

And, again, it hurts.

 

Perhaps now even more so than ever, I feel as though I'm missing something important. Who knows. In one way I was possibly better off not knowing any of it as this way I just feel as though I'm being taunted by my much longed for past. So close and real, yet at the same time still so far away. Ken says that I'm not to be impatient, that I need to digest everything I've had fall into lap and that in time everything will be bound to come back to me. I just hope that he's right, that this, this existing as though my past is nothing more than a work of fiction, isn't going to be how it is from now on.

 

Still, I don't suppose I can complain, not really. Let's face it, forty-eight or so hours ago I still had nothing. Now, however...

 

God. Now, it's more a case of what *haven't* I got. In no particular order of importance I've now got my *name* back, a new life in London and a freshly decorated room in a house populated by -- *interesting* -- people that Ken is convinced will shortly be like family to me, a wardrobe full of swish new clothing, my life story easily accessible on my brand, spanking new laptop, at least one old friend who is delighted with my being here...

 

Just about you name it and I've got it.

 

Well, with the noticeable and somewhat huge exception of Aya wanting to have anything to do with me, that is.

 

And... Peachy.

 

Speak of the devil.

 

"Aya!" Michel exclaims brightly, sitting up just that little bit straighter and flashing one of his 'oh my God, like, I'm just *so* pleased to see you' smiles at the redhead. "I'm so glad ChloÈ and yourself made it back safely. Did you have a pleasant day?"

 

"I have had worse," Aya smiles, directing his response at Michel as he hovers, a vaguely uncertain expression on his face, in the doorway. "ChloÈ bought me morning tea at a little cafÈ in Cambridge before reaching the castle, which was nice. Oh, and before I forget, both KR and Mihirogi are well and send their regards. Work permitting, Mihirogi hopes to be able to come up for a visit early next week."

 

"Excellent. I'd very much like to see her," Michel replies, his face falling as he looks from Aya to me and back again. "Would you perhaps like me to go so that you can talk to Yohji in private?" he offers respectfully.

 

"If you wouldn't mind," Aya responds softly, still making no actual move to either acknowledge my presence or step foot into my room. "You can leave your homework, if you wish. I doubt this will take very long."

 

Standing up, Michel gathers up an unprotesting Snowball in his arms and gives Aya a worried look. "You're not going to give Yohji bad news, are you?"

 

"No," Aya replies, deigning, for the first time, to glance in my direction before shrugging casually. "I'm afraid that it's now official," he continues flatly, his voice curiously devoid of emotion, "and that's that we're stuck with him for as long as he wishes to stay here."

 

Huh?

 

"Brilliant!" Michel retorts, hugging a sleepy looking and purring Snowball as he makes his way to the door. "Knowing that has made me very happy. See, Yohji? Free was right. Everything's going to work out perfectly."

 

"Of course it is," I reply, sitting up a little straighter myself and smiling vacantly until, still grinning from ear to ear, Michel disappears through the door. Settling myself cross-legged, I then roll my eyes and scowl at Aya. "And the Oscar for best performance in the category of pretending to be a normal human being goes... drum roll please... to... ta-da!... Aya!" I state sarcastically. Still smarting from our exchange this morning, the words roll off my tongue as though I've got no control over them. "It's okay now though, your little friend has gone so you can drop the act and go back to being your usual charming and easy to get on with self."

 

Visibly flinching, Aya sighs and takes a hesitant step into my room. As I'm rapidly becoming accustomed to, his unique beauty very nearly takes my breath away. Just... Fuck! There ought to be some sort of law forbidding people to look as Goddamn spectacular as he does. Failing that, said Beautiful People *shouldn't* be allowed to get away with being complete assholes. Fresh from a shower and wearing loose fitting black three-quarter length cargo pants and a cream, short sleeved silk shirt, he looks quite literally as though he's not of this planet. Not even his wet hair falling in haphazard bangs around his face or his closed expression can detract from his beauty.

 

And... Damn it! It's just not fucking fair! We were lovers yet I don't even know if he ever sat still long enough to allow me to try and paint him. Or... if he did... what the finished painting would have looked like. Skipping over the fact that it's doubtful he'd react favorably to the idea, it goes without saying that I'd love to see if I actually had it in me to commit his breathtaking uniqueness to canvas. I mean... Talk about a challenge...

 

"Yohji, please..." Aya murmurs, glancing at me from beneath his hair. "I... I'm sorry. About this morning, I shouldn't have..."

 

"You don't have to apologize about this morning," I interrupt, giving a dismissive wave of my hand as I -- once again -- wonder just what the hell is going on here. Aya's almost behaving like -- Ran -- he did at The Cat's Whiskers and I have no idea what to make of it. Ken didn't say anything about him suffering from Multiple-Personality Disorder but, who knows, maybe it just hasn't been diagnosed yet and he's actually mad as. Going on everything I've learnt so far, it's not like it'd exactly surprise me or anything. "We both... ah... opened our mouths without pausing to think first, I think," I add, shrugging. "Besides, if anyone should apologize then it would be me. I seem to recall that what I said to you ran rings around what you said to me."

 

"I'm still sorry," Aya replies, frowning. "I shouldn't have reacted the way I did and I apologize. Fighting like that isn't going to achieve anything and it was certainly wrong of me to walk off on you the way that I did."

 

"Don't tell me, let me guess," I mutter, giving Aya a suspicious look, "this castle you spent the day at, it's actually a reconditioning facility, yeah? I mean, God knows that's the only halfway viable explanation I can think of for your sudden change in character."

 

"You still have an over active imagination, I see," Aya responds, the faintest hint of a smile ghosting across his lips. "I've merely had time to both think and talk things over, that's all. I realize now that my behavior towards you has been inexcusable and that, if you're to feel at home here, I have to make an effort to be more... forthcoming... with you."

 

"Forthcoming, huh?" I echo, uncrossing my legs and swinging them over the edge of the mattress. "Does that mean you're now prepared to talk to me as opposed to fucking off in the opposite direction as fast as your legs can carry you?"

 

"Yes," Aya whispers, nodding. "We... The time has come. We need to talk. I... I can't say this is something I'm particularly looking forward to, but it has to be done and, I think, for everyone's sake, I'd like for it to be now. If..." Trailing off, Aya's frown intensifies and looking up, for the first time since he materialized in my doorway, his eyes meet mine. Although, caught off guard by this, he quickly blinks and looks away, I can't help but catch a glimpse of what appears to be pain hidden deep in the depths of his violet eyes.

 

... And, fuck -- just like that -- there goes my self-absorbed thought that I'm the only one who's fucked up. I...

 

I can't remember, but Aya can. While I'm sitting here bemoaning my existence and my lack of memory he's having to come to terms with the fact that he's now perhaps reawakened memories that he'd rather have remained dormant... I can hide behind my 'disability', my lack of memory, but all Aya has, whether he wants it or not, is the truth.

 

"I... I'd like to talk to you too," I interject quietly, standing up and heading across to the door. "How about outside, yeah? That way I can smoke."

 

Just call me psychic, but for some strange reason I think having a cigarette in my hand for this is going to be damn near an imperative.

 

"If you must," Aya sighs, hurriedly taking a step back -- oh! Yohji germs! Ack! -- to let me pass. "I hope you realize though that every cigarette you suck into your lungs is doing you damage and that, to put it plainly, it's a disgusting habit that I've never approved of."

 

"Bite me," I retort cheerfully, flicking my finger up at Aya as he trails behind me. "Going on the photographic evidence contained on the laptop Ken gave me, what more can I say other than 'once a smoker, always a smoker'."

 

"You're not totally without willpower, you know," Aya replies with a disdainful snort. "If you wanted to quit smoking you could."

 

"The main concept of your argument being, of course, *if* I wanted to," I drawl starting down the stairs. "Without wanting to dash your hopes or anything, I *don't* want to, ergo this is a pointless conversation. Besides, I'd like to talk more about some of the other things I've discovered courtesy of all those photos that... ah... Omi... has so busily collected over the years."

 

"Such as?" Aya queries hesitantly, following me slowly down the stairs. "Do I... ah... even want to know?"

 

"Hey, I was just going to compliment you on the fact that you no longer give every impression of either dressing in the dark or of being color blind," I mutter facetiously, glancing over my shoulder and smirking. "Congratulations. Seriously. What I've seen of your wardrobe so far is a *vast* improvement. I'm thinking those sunglasses I always used to wear were to both protect me from the glare of that horrid orange sweater and for hiding my identity from strangers when I had to be seen out in public with you while you were wearing it..."

 

Coming to an abrupt stop, Aya blinks in either astonishment or anger -- it's a tough call -- at my unasked for critique of his fashion sense and shakes his head. "There was nothing wrong with that orange sweater," he murmurs at last, giving me an odd look. "It was warm..."

 

"And orange," I interrupt, our apparent ability to indulge in effortless banter giving me hope that maybe Aya isn't going to be a complete bastard to get on with after all. "Very, *very* orange. Now, I hate to break it to you, but with your coloring, well, wearing it kinda made you look like a spastic... You know, like one of those poor souls who can only get dressed with the assistance of a well meaning carer and who's never quite mastered the complicated task of buttons..."

 

"A *spastic*?" Aya echoes incredulously. "Lovely. Just lovely. A man who used to think that wearing midriff bearing tops and flashing his navel at unsuspecting members of the public was his gift to society is telling me that my orange sweater made me look like a spastic..." Shaking his head again, he starts to continue down the stairs. "Do you remem... Ah... Sorry. Did Ken bother to share what the pair of you took it upon yourselves to *do* to that sweater?"

 

"I just assumed that it either died of old age or that you've got it buried in the back of drawer somewhere as your very own version of a security blanket," I reply, turning in the direction of the kitchen as I know that's where I left my smokes. "As for having the nerve to pick on my tops? Pah! If you've got it, flaunt it..."

 

"Oh, and you flaunted it at every given opportunity too, believe me," Aya retorts, still wandering along in my wake. "The sweater though... Get this... The pair of you were juvenile enough to set fire to it as some sort of pagan sacrifice. Omi and I were out at the time but I've always had this scary suspicion that you were both so off your head on sake when you did it that you probably ended up dancing naked around its smoldering remains or something as equally as pathetic and as creepy as that."

 

"And you have the nerve to say that *I've* got an overactive imagination!" I laugh. "Burning sacrificial sweaters? I mean, come off it..."

 

"No, it's true," Ken smiles, walking out of the kitchen, his expression one of unmistakable relief as he realizes that we're not trying to tear verbal strips off each other like we were this morning. "I can't even remember where we got the sake from but, anyway, after consuming the... bottles... yeah... there were definitely *bottles* plural... we decided that the time had come to rid the world of the menace of Aya's orange sweater." Pausing, he laughs happily and wanders across to stand next to Aya. "Actually, given that, drunk or not, neither of us wanted to enter Aya's room for fear of enduring immense suffering and possible death if we happened to get caught, it's actually nothing short of divine intervention that we even managed to get our hands on the monstrosity."

 

"It was in the laundry," Aya explains, giving Ken a long-suffering look. "I'd put it out to be washed and you two drunken fools managed to somehow cotton on to this fact. As for divine intervention? I'm personally more of the opinion that it was merely sheer dumb luck that you didn't burn the place down. Hell, you couldn't even stand up and were laughing like prepubescent schoolgirls when we got back. Oh, and let's not forget the hours of puking and groaning and whining that followed..."

 

"It was still worth it," Ken grins, giving Aya a very brief hug before wisely skipping out of his reach. "Actually... Truth be told, especially given the way you carried on like a banshee over it, I always expected you to pick up a pair of knitting needles in order to knit yourself a replacement..."

 

The mental image of Aya, complete with feline company half knotted up in the balls of wool at his slippered feet, sitting in a rocking chair and knitting a new orange sweater being too hysterical for words, I choke back laughter and have to lean against the wall for support. As tedious as this line of thought is becoming - oh God do I wish I could remember this, our daring attack on Aya's beloved jumper...

 

"Anyone ever told you that you're *so* not funny?" Aya retorts, the amused glint in his eyes giving it away that he's not really annoyed. "Now. Go away. I need to go out into the courtyard and passive smoke with Yohji here. Unless, of course, you've got a few more *hilarious* anecdotes you'd like to share at my expense..."

 

"Ah, they can wait," Ken replies airily, clapping Aya on the shoulder before starting to bound up the stairs. "Have fun you two! Don't do anything that I wouldn't!"

 

"Hyperactive idiot," Aya mutters just a tad fondly, gesturing me into the kitchen. "Oh, and allow me to remind you that Ken all but lives on Coca-Cola and if he ever gives you grief over your coffee consumption then you're to totally ignore him. If anyone's on a constant caffeine high around here then it's Ken."

 

"I'll be sure to keep that in mind," I smile, walking into the kitchen and, intent on retrieving my smokes from the counter by the microwave, very nearly walking straight into ChloÈ. "Urgh!" I exclaim, staring into distinctly unimpressed looking pale blue eyes. "Where the hell did you materialize from?"

 

Sighing, ChloÈ declines to answer and, after giving me a cool, snooty look, strolls across to the refrigerator. Opening it, he pulls out a bottle of Evian water and, still clearly intent on ignoring me, walks back over to the cupboard above the sink. There, he grabs a glass and pours the Evian into it before sitting at the table and, finally, taking a mouthful of water.

 

"You know, it would have been so much easier if you'd just drunk straight from the bottle," I comment, completely unable to help myself as I walk across the kitchen and pick up my cigarettes. "Not to mention you wouldn't have dirtied a glass that some poor sucker now has to wash."

 

"I don't care if he followed you home, Aya, and that you've cleared it with the top that we can keep him," ChloÈ murmurs, glancing casually at the redhead. "I don't think he should be allowed indoors until he's properly house-trained or at the very least until he's learnt to think before opening his mouth."

 

"Oooh! *Funny*!" I exclaim, slipping my cigarettes into my pocket and giving a little clap. "Ever thought of a career in comedy?"

 

"Yohji... ChloÈ... I don't really think..."

 

"You mean you haven't been told yet?" ChloÈ states, calmly interrupting Aya and glancing at me dismissively. "The whole flower shop, assassin thing? It's merely a front for our true purpose, something to wile away our hours while we perfect our routine. You see, our real aim is to perform at next years Edinburgh Comedy Festival. Sadly though..." Pausing, he sighs theatrically and takes a delicate sip of water before continuing. "Sadly, we're not very good. To put it in a way you'd understand, we suck. I refuse to swear, Michel and Yuki are too young to be allowed in to the venues, Aya here loses the ability to speak when confronted by the lowest common denominator of toilet humor, Ken starts off all right but then, his attention span not stretching that far, usually ends up waffling on about football, and Free, well, Free just flicks tarot cards at the audience which, as I'm sure as you can imagine, doesn't really do a lot for our act at all. Perhaps though... Perhaps now that you're here we may finally stand a chance..."

 

"Um... I actually think you're doing just fine without my help," I mutter, laughing more at ChloÈ's impassive, disinterested expression than his odd little tale. Anyone else would have started snickering halfway through such a sarcastic, long-winded response, but not ChloÈ. No. He shared the entire spiel with about as much enthusiasm as someone reciting a shopping list. "Seriously. Keep the deadpan act up and you'll go far."

 

"Really? You think so?" ChloÈ replies coolly. "Thank you. You... You have no idea how long I've been waiting to hear words such as those."

 

"Have you two quite finished?" Aya queries, his gaze flicking over each of us in turn before he looks pointedly at his watch. "I told Michel that this wouldn't take long and already I'm beginning to doubt whether it's ever going to *start*, let alone end."

 

"You mean you're not enjoying the show?" I drawl, still laughing as I start to walk back towards the door. "Speaking for myself, I'm finding it most entertaining. I mean, who knew that Lestat here could be so downright hysterical?"

 

"Yohji! I don't really think you should..."

 

"Speaking of Lestat," ChloÈ murmurs, once again cutting Aya off as though he'd never even opened his mouth. "I take it that the book left in the middle of my bed was *your* idea, yes?"

 

Heh. Ooops. And to think I'd forgotten about that already. Tsk... Just where *is* my mind these days?

 

"Not... exactly," I reply, plastering what I hope to be my most innocent smile on my face before turning to face ChloÈ and shrugging.

 

"Not... *exactly*?" ChloÈ repeats, narrowing his eyes. "Care to perhaps elaborate on that?"

 

"It was Ken's," I state cheerfully, giving another, casual shrug. "Me, I wanted to get you a fresh copy of your memoirs, but he thought it would be best if we started at the beginning, you know, back with 'Interview'..."

 

"You didn't..." Aya whispers, sharing a look with ChloÈ before non too subtly shifting away from me. Taking my eyes of ChloÈ, I watch as Aya puts what he apparently thinks is a safe distance between us before stopping and folding his arms across his chest. While I could be wrong, I think Aya knows something that I don't and I don't know whether I should be wary of this apparent fact or not.

 

"Oh, believe me, he did," ChloÈ responds just as, quite seemingly out of nowhere, something whizzes past my ear close enough for me to actually *feel* it fly by. "But it's okay now. I think we're even... Don't you?"

 

"What the fuck was that?" I exclaim, hastily putting my hand to my ear and feeling for any blood or damage. Looking around for whatever it was that came flying through the air with the greatest of ease, I find some sort of rose adorned dart embedded in the doorframe. Going by the tiny holes in the wood surrounding it, I don't think it's the first time that the doorframe has come under attack either. "Sheesh... Someone remind me that you're not one to take a joke."

 

"Not one to take a joke?" ChloÈ echoes, smiling smugly. "Oh, I don't know about that. Take that delightful shocked expression you're currently sporting, now *that* I find quite amusing. Aya, what do you think?"

 

"Oh! So you're talking to me now?" Aya mutters, effecting surprise as, shaking his head, he wanders over to the fridge and grabs a bottle of water. "As for what I think?" he continues blandly. "Well... Let's just say I'm perhaps regretting ever having introduced the pair of you..."

 

"Ah, come on, deep down you know you've missed me," I interject, taking a closer look at ChloÈ's weapon of choice before sidling out of the door. Yeurgh. Once again I'm reminded of my initial thought of not really wanting to get in ChloÈ's bad books. Just because he looks like a particularly frail 'n' fey vampire doesn't mean he couldn't royally kick my ass if I pushed him far enough. Besides, Aya, who history doesn't exactly paint as the world's most gregarious person, likes him which, yeah, I suppose has to count for something. Hell, it's not even as if I *don't* like him, more that, out of my depth, I just took the tried and true route of attempting to be humorous. As with so many things, it all seemed like a good idea at the time. So...

 

Damn.

 

Knowing what I have to do, I sigh and poke my head back through the door. "Sorry," I mumble, retrieving my smokes from my pocket and pulling one out in anticipation of bolting for the courtyard the second I know ChloÈ no longer wants to familiarize himself with the exact color and constancy of my blood. "At the time... Well, you know... It was funny at the time but, yeah, I'm sorry if I offended you as that wasn't my intent at all."

 

"Who said anything about being offended?" ChloÈ smiles, leaning back in his chair and giving me a coy look. "I just wanted to know who had left the book so that I could thank them. It was... kind of you to think of me while out shopping."

 

"Much more of this and I'm going to go and beat my head against a brick wall for a couple of minutes just so I can get some light relief," Aya mutters, smacking ChloÈ lightly on the back of the head before striding over and slapping me on the arm. "The pair of you are like children and I don't know what I did to deserve either of you. Now, if you've both finished this... *flirting*... or whatever the hell it is that you're doing, can I *please* talk to Yohji in peace?"

 

"He's all yours," ChloÈ murmurs sweetly. "Enjoy. Please."

 

"Right now I'm thinking anything would have to be better than this," Aya retorts with a laugh as he gestures me towards the stairs. "Quick. Before you two start up again and I end up screaming."

 

"Hey, it's been fun," I snicker, waving at ChloÈ. "We must do it again some time."

 

"Preferably when I'm in another country," Aya sighs, giving my shoulder a prod to get me moving. "Why does everything have to be so damn hard, huh?" he adds under his breath as, finally on the move again, we head down the stairs to the back door.

 

Not wanting things to revert to the way they'd been this morning, I lower my head and focus on the goal of my soon to be lit cigarette. "Um... About ChloÈ and everything," I mumble softly, "I'm sorry, okay? I... ah... I didn't want to piss him, or you either, for that matter, off and, well, you know, probably just let my mouth get away from me."

 

"You don't have to apologize," Aya replies, sounding surprised. "It's not like any of us were getting tetchy or anything. Even ChloÈ, contrary to how you may have perceived his reactions, was fine with things. If he hadn't have been he wouldn't have missed..."

 

"He wouldn't have? Wow, I feel all privileged now," I mutter drily opening the door and stepping out into the courtyard. Although it's close to six in the evening the sun is still high in the sky and, as I walk across to the outdoor setting, I think to myself that I could definitely get used to all of this. Aya's suitcase is still in front of the water feature, only instead of standing on its side it's now lying flat and doubling as a comfy cat bed for both Mystique and Tantomile. Two sets of golden eyes blink open to watch us as we walk past, but that's as far as their interest in our arrival goes.

 

"I don't know though, are you sure I didn't overstep any invisible boundaries or anything?" I continue, wanting to make sure. "I don't want to pretend to be something that I'm not but nor do I want to upset anyone in their, you know, own home. I... I am the interloper here, after all..."

 

"You're not an interloper," Aya responds firmly, waiting until I've sat down before settling himself, one foot tucked under his butt, in the chair Ken sat in last night. "You are new here, yes, but I'd like to think that you already feel as though you belong. As for upsetting anyone? Nonsense. If ChloÈ's in a bad mood then, take my word on it now, everyone knows about it."

 

"What about you though?" I query, picking up my lighter that I'd left on the glass-topped table and quickly lighting a smoke. "If I'm causing a disruption to your life or..."

 

"I enjoyed it," Aya murmurs quietly, cutting me off and smiling faintly. "It... Despite ChloÈ not being either Ken or Omi, it was almost like old times. You..." Looking down, Aya toys with the label on his Evian bottle and avoids my eyes. "You haven't changed... Not... Not really."

 

Not entirely certain how to take this, I decide to seek clarification. "Do you mean this is a good way or a bad way?" I ask, relaxing back into my chair as -- yeah, baby -- the first hit of nicotine reaches my system.

 

"Good way," Aya replies without hesitation, still toying with the bottle. "You mightn't be able to remember but I can and you're still you. Given the set up here I'm confident that you'll fit right in. You might think everyone seems a little strange but, and I don't say this lightly, they're all good people. If not for ChloÈ and the others well..." Looking up, Aya smiles wanly and shrugs. "Well, let's just say at the time I needed them far more than they needed me."

 

"You like it here?" I prompt, for some reason more interested in asking Aya questions about himself than about me.

 

"Yes, I do," Aya responds slowly. "A part of me would still like to be back in Japan, and Krypton Brand are... different... to Weiss but, yes, I like it here. It... It suits me. I think you'll find that it will suit you too. Assuming, of course, this is where you think you'd be happy..."

 

"I thought it was done deal," I murmur, tapping ash in my newly purchased, just for me, ashtray and giving Aya a curious look. "From what you said to Michel, and what ChloÈ said, I thought the mysterious KR had given his approval for me to stay with you."

 

"He has," Aya states, glancing around the courtyard and, clearly seeing them for the first time, widening his eyes at the sight of the two cats using his suitcase as a mattress. "If you wish to remain here then you are more than welcome to. You can work in the shop or do things behind the scenes until you're ready to decide what it is exactly that you'd like from life. There's no pressure to... ah... take the final step and, well, that said, nor are you to feel any sense of obligation to stay."

 

"Where else am I supposed to go, huh?" I query plainly, skipping over the connotations of the 'final step' for the time being. "I thought back in Tokyo that this was to be it, that if I came with you I was going to stay with you."

 

"That's only one option," Aya explains, his fingers still toying aimlessly with the Evian label. "If you are... uncomfortable... here, or simply don't like either the company or what it is we do, then KR has promised me that he'll do everything he can to ensure that you are happily settled somewhere else. What I did the other night was... foolish. I acted without thinking, without really pausing to think of the consequences, and now you're paying for it. I, while I know this is too late, apologize for this."

 

"Why'd you do it then?" I murmur, mentally crossing my fingers that Aya's apparent willingness to talk extends to this particular point. "You... You must have had some idea of what you were doing..."

 

"You were unhappy, I..." Trailing off, Aya blinks very clear and very violet eyes at me before lowering his head and sighing. "Seeing you so unhappy, so miserable, wasn't something I could tolerate," he continues so softly that I have to lean forward in order to be able to hear him. "I thought, and admittedly this was very much a spur of the moment thing, that you'd be happier back with people like yourself and with having access to your past. I'm... I'm sorry if I was wrong. The last thing I wanted was to upset you and I'll do whatever I can to make it up to you if you regret your decision to follow me."

 

My response not really being one I have to think about, I stub out my cigarette and shrug. "I feel as though I'm somewhat out of depth, for sure, but so far I've had no reason to regret my decision at all," I state matter-of-factly. "What about you though? You're the one that's been behaving like you've just fallen down a well and can't quite get your head around things."

 

"Do I regret the fact that you're now here, once again blowing carcinogens in my face and polluting my air with the constant scent of caffeine?" Aya murmurs, blushing ever so slightly as he glances at me shyly. "No. I don't. I... I can't deny that I did for a while though. In fact, from the time you flew out of Tokyo until this morning in the car with ChloÈ, I thought I'd made perhaps the worst mistake of my life. Being forced to talk about it though, first with ChloÈ and then with KR, helped me worked through my confusion and now I have no regrets. I know I went about things very much the wrong way, but I'm now confident that they'll work out in everyone's best interests."

 

"How do you work that?" I query, hoping that Aya doesn't know how desperately I'm hanging off his every word. "How's having me here going to improve anything?"

 

"Ken's over the moon that he's got you back so the pair of you can gang up on me," Aya replies lightly, giving me a funny look as though he's trying to read me or something, "and as for everyone else, well, I'm sure they'll quickly adapt to having you around and before long won't even remember what life was like without you."

 

"And you, what do you get?" I mutter, hating how damn needy I sound. As much as I hate to say it, to hell with everyone else, I just want to hear from Aya how he feels. "You abandoned me before and I suppose you could say I'm just curious as to why you care now."

 

"I've always cared," Aya murmurs, his unconscious attack on the Evian label finally seeing it slip from the bottle. If he notices it fall he doesn't show it though and, once again avoiding my gaze, continues scratching at the sticky residue left over from the label. "Before what happened at the Kou Academy you'd been saying that you wanted to forget, that you no longer wanted to be a part of the life you'd found yourself in. Because of this I thought that the amnesia was a Godsend, that it was exactly what you'd been longing for and that you'd be happier for it. If... I don't know! If I'd known you were unhappy perhaps I possibly would have tried to help you earlier. As it was I'd only gone to The Cat's Whisker's to confirm that you were indeed happy..."

 

Taken slightly aback by Aya's clearly heartfelt response, I light another cigarette and smoke half of it before finding it in me to reply. "That doesn't answer my question though," I prompt tentatively, "and that's what *you* get out of having me here... I know our relationship is long over, that we'd hardly seen each other in the year leading up to the debacle at the Academy and, well, what gives, Aya, huh? Don't tell me this is just your altruistic good deed for the year or something?"

 

"What I get is being able to see whether you're happy or not," Aya replies simply. "I also get a team mate who I know I can trust and who, in my own way, I've missed. Yes, our... relationship... is over, but that doesn't have to mean that we can't still be friends." Stopping abruptly, as though he's suddenly afraid that he might have said too much, Aya takes a gulp of water before untucking his foot from beneath him and sitting up straight. "Now, back to how we got on to this particular line of conversation," he adds, obviously making a bid to change the topic, "it is entirely down to you and you alone whether you wish to remain here or not. If you would prefer we could set you up with a new identity and that way you wouldn't have to have anything to do with... ah... our particular line of work."

 

"It's what I used to do," I mutter, not really succeeding in sounding blasÈ. "Ken even says that I was good at it."

 

"Of course you were good at it," Aya responds, looking vaguely relieved that I've accepted his slight change in subject matter. "While it may only be a somewhat hollow claim, only the best were allowed to be part of Weiss. As distasteful as our work was, we were all good at it and we always got the job done. Even our last job at the Academy was, ultimately, a success. We... We just paid a higher than usual cost for it, that's all."

 

"You mean good still triumphed over evil and who really cares anyway about what happened to the good guys?" I murmur, casting my mind back over everything I've learnt today and only just managing to repress the urge to shiver. "Some job."

 

"When it's all that you know you learn to make the most of it," Aya replies sadly, his expression completely closing over. "It's what we do here. All of us. We know the risks and the high cost that may be asked of us, yet it's our lives. We may not have asked for it but it's ours now and we've all accepted this. You, however, well, you've been protected from it for over a year and I'd understand if you didn't want to return to it. If I was in your shoes I doubt I'd want to either so, please, don't think that you have to simply in order to fit in."

 

"I..."

 

I *what*, huh? When it all boils down to it, now that I've found myself with more options than I ever expected to have, what exactly is it that I want?

 

"Yohji? I know it's a big decision to make and I don't want you to think you have to make it now. Everything's still so new to you that it makes sense for you to take as long as you..."

 

"I want to kill," I state abruptly, the words slipping out of my mouth before I've even really had time to think about what it is that I'm saying.

 

And... Christ. Did I really just put it as borderline psychopathically as 'I want to kill'? Fuck. Good one. I may as well have just asked Aya for the keys to the weapons cabinet and the directions for the closest shopping precinct or primary school and been done with it.

 

"Um... Er..." I stammer, my ability to form a coherent sentence deserting me as I take in the sight of Aya's bemused expression. God help me. He looks, not to put a too fine a point on it or anything, like he's trying hard not to laugh. "I... ah... I didn't really mean it like that. I don't, you know, *want* to kill. I mean, not particularly. I'm not... well... I hope I'm not anyway... a homicidal maniac just waiting to happen."

 

"And you have no idea how relieved I am to hear that," Aya replies, still looking amused. "Don't tell me though, let me guess... That little outburst, which I just have to say would do a serial killer proud, by the way, was an out of the blue moment of clarity, yeah? You perhaps said it without thinking about it first? I ask because, well, I did the exact same thing this morning."

 

"Something like that, yeah," I murmur, relaxing slightly as I realize that maybe I didn't say the completely wrong thing after all. "As you can imagine, I don't *want* to kill, but..." Trailing off, I nod to myself and, for no other reason than I suddenly feel the urge to do something with my hands, start fiddling with my lighter. "But if the need arises I will. If I'm to stay here, which is what I'm pretty sure I want, then I want to be able to play my part and... and I want you all to know that you can rely on me. The offer to man the computers or help with research is a kind one but, to be honest with you I've had enough of sitting on my butt in front of a pc to last me a lifetime or two. So, yeah... If I'm to be a part of Krypton Brand, if that indeed is what you're offering, then I want to be able to play a full part."

 

As I talk a sense of calm descends over me as, for the first time in what feels like forever, everything begins to finally make sense. Of course I don't want to kill but if it's what it takes to fully belong here then I know now that I'll have no qualms in upholding my end of the deal. If something happened to any of the others simply because I was in denial over my bloody past then I wouldn't be able to live with myself. I was an assassin, there's nothing that can ever change that just as my hands will never be truly clean of the blood they've already helped spill. Fact of life time here - I've killed. And I know, in order to protect my friends or the innocent, that I could do it again.

 

"Are you sure?" Aya queries softly, leaning forward and studying me. "If you don't want to or simply don't feel capable of it then there's no need for you to feel as though you have to simply in order to fit. Again, you can have as long as you'd like to think things over. The last thing I want to do is railroad you into making a decision that you'll live to regret. It's your life, Yohji, and you're welcome to remain here even if all you truly want to do is putter around in the shop selling flowers."

 

"I'm sure," I reply firmly, my mind made up. "I'm not saying I want to join you if by chance you go out on a mission tonight but... in time... yeah, it's what I want. You said something in Tokyo, I think, about wanting to help give me my old life back. Well, now that I know exactly what it is it entails, I'm accepting your offer without reservation. Despite the fact that I think you're all mad, and I fully expect ChloÈ to one day flip out and try to turn me into a frog, I... I think I could like being a part of your team and don't want to leave." I also, for reasons that are a few degrees shy of even being so much as vague, want to remain near Aya. Common sense however tells me that sharing this with him probably wouldn't be the best idea I've ever had and, because of this, I decide to keep it to myself.

 

"You can change your mind at any time," Aya murmurs, reaching into his pocket and pulling out something that he keeps hidden in his hand. "If things don't work out how you'd like them to, or you have second thoughts, then all you have to do is let someone know and we'll do whatever it takes to help you. I know I abandoned you before and I want to promise you that I won't do it again." Pausing, he clearly hesitates over displaying whatever it is he holds in his palm and flashes a fleeting, relieved smile at me. "As for ChloÈ turning you into a frog? Given that Free would never forgive him and the ensuing fireworks would be felt for blocks around us, believe me when I say that he'd never dare."

 

"That's not the world's most reassuring response, I hope you realize," I drawl, raising an eyebrow. "Speaking for myself here, I would have preferred it if you'd just said I was being silly and that there was no way in hell ChloÈ could ever turn me into anything."

 

"Ah, but then I couldn't guarantee that I was being one hundred percent truthful," Aya retorts, glancing down at his hand and still seeming to hesitate over sharing whatever it is that he's got. "I can however guarantee that it wouldn't be a frog as, well, let's just say Free is not exactly what you'd call a big fan of frogs."

 

"You're not saying he's afraid of them?" I snicker, my list of acceptable phobias -- snakes, spiders, geese, small lap dogs, homicidal lunatics brandishing any manner of pointy things -- never having stretched to including frogs. "Sheesh. What's a freakin' frog going to do to him, huh?"

 

"Your guess is as good as mine," Aya replies, shrugging. "I can tell you though that should a frog somehow make it into the water feature over there then Free won't step foot out here until someone has removed the poor stupid creature. But... Enough about frogs. After everything you've just said, I've... ah... got something of yours to give back to you."

 

"Huh? What could you possibly..."

 

The rest of my question dies on my lips as Aya finally decides to give up what he's got hidden in his hand. My mouth gaping open, I watch with a combination of mounting shock and disbelief as he places a chunky, sports-style watch on the table and slowly pushes it towards me.

 

My wire.

 

The weapon I simultaneously have no recollection of ever using yet have spent, in a sense, the better part of year searching for in the form of a watch.

 

"Where... Oh my God... Where'd you get this from?" I murmur hollowly, picking it up and holding it tightly in both hands as though my very life depended on it. "I... Shit. Without even knowing what it was I was hoping to find, I... I've been looking for this..."

 

"I took it from you after I'd pulled you out of what was left of the Kou Academy," Aya states softly, his gaze meeting mine for a split second before traveling across to Mystique and Tantomile. As though only just realizing that they're no longer alone in the courtyard, both cats sit up and, after stretching lazily, begin to stroll towards us. "I... I don't know. At the time it made sense to me. You had my katana so something in me thought it was only fair that I... borrowed... something of yours... Now though, well, it belongs to you and you should have it back."

 

"I..." Shaking my head, I take off the watch I'm wearing and replace it with my wire. As I'd known it would, it feels... *right*, as though it was made for my wrist. "Aya..." Once again not knowing what to say, I fall silent and concentrate on watching the cats. Tantomile makes a beeline for Aya and meanders around his ankles a few times before jumping up onto his lap and promptly curling into a tight ball. Mystique on the other paw decides that I'm the one in most need of her company and takes the unique route to my lap of jumping up onto my shoulder before flicking her tail in my face and slithering down my chest. "Wonderful," I murmur faintly, flinching as she then decides to knead my knees through the thin cotton of my pants for a few seconds before sitting down and promptly beginning to groom herself. "I now feel as though I've just experienced a version of feline extreme sports."

 

"You'll get used to them," Aya responds, stroking Tantomile on the head and all but causing her to grin at me in delirious contentment. "So long as you realize that you're here to serve them and that what they want they get, you'll be fine."

 

"Oh, don't worry about knowing my place in the feline grand scheme of things," I mutter, taking a risk and giving Mystique a tentative pat. When she doesn't turn around and take a swipe at me I decide that I'm probably onto a good thing and continue stroking her. "I learnt that in one easy lesson last night. Now... Ah... I have another question for you. What now, huh? Where to from here?"

 

"Tomorrow, and this was on the cards regardless of whether you made a decision today or not, Ken's going to take you down to the castle to see KR," Aya replies. "There you'll not only get to talk to KR and Mihirogi but I also think they've got plans to have you checked over by their doctors. This isn't anything you've got to worry about though as I'm sure it's just to confirm everything that's in the reports Omi has already sent over. What happens from there though, well, to be honest I don't have an answer for you. I suspect you'll probably have to do some training there but whether that starts straight away is most likely down to you. You might think things are happening too fast, Yohji, but you're the one who's ultimately in charge. No one wants to make you do anything that you don't want to."

 

"Don't tell me that, the power might just go to my head," I reply, any unease I might feel about having to meet KR so soon being tempered both by the fact that I'll have Ken with me and that I believe unconditionally that Aya's being nothing but honest with me. "Actually, that sounds good. The sooner I get my head around things the sooner I can get on with life, yeah?"

 

"Sounds sensible to me," Aya agrees, looking over my shoulder as the back door opens and someone wanders out to join us in the courtyard. "Hey, Yuki," he smiles, gesturing the adolescent over, "is there anything we can do for you?"

 

"ChloÈ says he's too hot to be bothered cooking and wants to know if you'd both be in on going out for Thai," Yuki states, happily returning Aya's smile while all but ignoring my very presence. Ken says he'll warm to me once he accepts that I'm not a threat to his 'family' and my only hope is that he's right.

 

"We were thinking of going to that restaurant in Covent Garden," Yuki continues, glancing at me and dredging up a forced smile. "Everyone else has said that they're in, so we're just waiting for you."

 

"Well I think it's a good idea," Aya replies, holding onto Tantomile as he stands up before carefully depositing her back in the chair. "Yohji? What about you?"

 

"Count me in," I state, nodding. While there's still a thousand and one questions I could easily ask of Aya I think, especially given that I'd truly wondered whether he'd ever even talk to me again, we've been through enough for the time being. Despite being fine with it once he gets going, I get the impression that Aya isn't exactly one for 'deep and meaningfuls' and don't want to risk doing anything that could upset him or push him away. "Not only am I starving but I'd also like to see a bit more of London."

 

"Excellent," Yuki replies, directing his response to Aya and once again ignoring me. "I'll go and tell the others."

 

"Mmm... You do that," Aya murmurs, glancing down at what he's wearing and frowning. "Tell ChloÈ that I'm just going to change and that I'll meet him in the garage."

 

"What you're wearing looks fine to me," Yuki responds sincerely as, his messenger duty completed, he dutifully heads back inside.

 

"He's right, you know," I interject, inspecting what I'm wearing and rapidly coming to the conclusion that it'll do. Besides, I'd rather use the time Aya's going to take to change to have another smoke than stuff around with my appearance. "You look fine. Hell, if I didn't want to risk giving you a big head or anything I'd even go so far as to say more than fine."

 

"And I still wouldn't go out wearing something like this," Aya mutters, shaking his head dismissively as he starts to walk off. "Too... Never mind. I won't be long."

 

"I'll still be here."

 

Here being so many things that I never expected.

 

"Hey, Aya," I call out, swiveling around and causing Mystique to dig her claws into my thighs in order to remain in position. "Thank you..."

 

"It's..." Reaching the door, Aya turns around and smiles softly. "As you once said to me, it's so not a problem..."

 

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

 

~ Part 2 ~

 

-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-

Domesticity

-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-

 

~ Aya ~

 

 

"Oh, you think, do you?" I mutter, stepping back from the suitcase and folding my arms across my chest. "Now, I hate to be the bearer of bad tidings, but have I got news for you. Better late than never, I'm here to take your new piece of bedding back inside where it belongs."

 

Switching her tail, Mystique sits up just that little bit straighter and gives me a truly evil look, the sort of look in fact that almost makes me understand why it is that some people don't like cats. Hell, if I didn't know her any better I'd say right at this exact point in time I'm Mystique's number one enemy, that, given I'm the bully that wants to take her bed away from her, she'd just as soon shred me as look at me. She's already made one token gesture attempt, giving me a warning swipe as I made to pick her up, and I have no intention of letting her have another go.

 

"Come on, you, off," I state commandingly, giving the suitcase a none-too-gentle kick with my foot. "I bet you wouldn't be behaving like this if it was ChloÈ who was wanting you to move your furry ass."

 

Hissing -- 'but ChloÈ isn't here and you can just bite me if you think I'm going to pander to your whims' -- Mystique quickly rearranges herself so that she's standing, all four sets of claws embedded in the tough hessian fabric of the suitcase, effectively anchoring herself to it.

 

Game on.

 

"You have access to, I have no idea how many comfy beds inside, yet for some reason you want to sleep on a scummy suitcase?" I sigh, shaking my head, the small fact of life that I'm basically holding a one-sided conversation with a cat making no impact on me in the slightest. "You're peculiar, you know that?" I add, lightly kicking the suitcase again and laughing as Mystique lets rip with a truly disgruntled yowl of complaint. "Come on, *off*! While I mightn't have anything better to do with my time nor do I really want to waste it fighting you over my suitcase."

 

Although I've studied them for years now, I can't for the life of me get my head around cats and their penchant for choosing totally random places to call their own. Sure, the suitcase is more comfortable than the paving, but, well, it's not like both Mystique and Tantomile don't already have their own beds out here in the courtyard as it is. Nice beds, lined with a cut up mink-feel blanket and everything, they are too. Not, mind you, that I can even remember when I last saw either of them anywhere near them, but that's beside the point. There's just something weird in the feline mind that whispers in their ear that while a specifically designed cat bed is all well and good, a suitcase is actually a better. Or, if you're Tantomile, a glossy magazine left carelessly on the floor is also an excellent substitute for a bed. She once spent the better part of a week carefully hatching a woman's magazine with Prince Charles on the cover that someone had left in the shop. Go figure. I can only assume it made a degree of sense to her at the time and she wasn't actually making a comment on Britain's antiquated monarchy that we were all too stupid to appreciate.

 

"Mystique! Get off the damn suitcase already! Not that I actually believe them or anything, but the idiots at the Bureau of Meteorology are forecasting rain and I really think the time has come for the stupid thing to return inside."

 

Hissing again -- 'bring it on. Who's afraid of a little rain, huh?' -- Mystique flexes her claws in the suitcase and narrows her eyes. I don't know where Tantomile is and am just thankful that she's not here for the 'sit-in' as well. If she was and they were both staking a claim on the case I'd probably just wave the white flag of defeat and leave it to them. While I may be bigger, I still know my place in the feline grand scheme of things and know that pissing both of them off without having ChloÈ around as back up would be the equivalent of simply asking for it. I once made the mistake of accidentally keeping their cat-door shut for a whole day and they repaid me with the daily 'gift' of either a dead mouse or small bird left smack bang in the middle of my bed. This went on until ChloÈ managed to convince them that I was heartbroken over my careless error and knew never to do it again. Seriously. I possibly would have found the whole thing a little on the strange side if not for the fact I was just so relieved that the animal sacrifices were no longer being dumped on my bed. One of the mice lived long enough to crawl under my comforter too, meaning I then had to purchase an entire new set of manchester, which I'm sure really made their day and is most likely still a cause of merriment for them.

 

Mystique on her own though? Pah. While I may have only just woken up to it, there's safety -- and comfort -- in numbers and I'm sure this refers to felines as much as it does humans.

 

"Okay," I mutter, shrugging. "You win. We'll do it your way then."

 

Her eyes narrowing to the point of being little more than golden slits, Mystique doesn't stand a chance as, bending down, I grab the suitcase by the handle and pick it up. As good as her claws are for gripping into things, they can't defeat gravity and, with yet another hiss, she lands on all four paws on the ground.

 

Game over.

 

"Hey, it's not like you didn't have ample warning," I murmur, snickering as Mystique promptly sits down and gives her paw a token lick in embarrassment. "Now, as much fun as it's been, I'm going back inside. You, however, may want to look for a new bed while you word your complaint to ChloÈ about my disgusting, selfish behavior."

 

Still snickering, and knowing that I have to get moving before I find sharp claws introducing themselves to my bare ankles, I carry the suitcase inside and take it up to the upstairs storeroom. Depositing it on its allocated spot on the shelving that takes up an entire wall and is full of pieces of luggage of all description, I turn a blind eye to the fact that the case is quite literally covered in cat hair and wander out of the room. Operation Suitcase Retrieval successfully completed, I'm once again at a loss as to what to do with myself and, not really knowing what else to do, slowly head back downstairs.

 

Although I wouldn't exactly say I'm grateful for it, I have a day totally devoid of chores or planned activities of any kind stretching out before me and I quite literally have no idea what I'm supposed to do with it. With the exception of Free, who's manning the store, I have the house to myself and I doubt I could be any less thrilled about this fact if I actually put some effort into it. Yuki and Michel are at school while ChloÈ and Ken are allegedly 'helping' -- their word, not mine -- Yohji with his training down at the castle. Despite it being an almost unheard of occurrence, I'm so bored that I wish I could just hop in a car and drive to Kent in order to join them. Not really wanting to hear what they'd have to say about my unannounced arrival though -- the smart ass comments they'd all feel compelled to share with me just don't bear thinking about -- I know that I have to stay put and, with a sigh, decide that I may as well go and see whether there's anything worth reading in my room. There wasn't last time I prowled through there but, who knows, perhaps I've now reached the prerequisite level of desperation where I'll read anything.

 

Reaching my doorway, something stops me from entering the room and, on a whim, I cross the corridor to what is now officially Yohji's room. Without pausing to think about what it is I'm doing, I open his door and walk straight in. Coming to a stop near the foot of the bed, I look around me, marveling at how, in such a brief period of time, Yohji has already made the room his own.

 

Although he only spent two nights in it before disappearing down to the castle, it's honestly like, right down to the distinct scent of nicotine and aftershave that permeates the air, it has always been his. Dirty socks roam free on the floor and there's a patch of purple silk peeping out from beneath the bed which I can only assume belongs to a pair of boxers, telling me in no uncertain terms that housework is as low on his agenda as it ever was. The bed, while -- arguably -- made, looks like a horde of children have used it as trampoline and not one but two coffee cups have been discarded on the bedside table. Both are the hideous green and purple 'Dragon's Tears' mugs that Ken bought at the airport and I can't help but wonder how Yohji can bring himself to drink from them. Behind the cups sits a photograph in a simple wooden frame. Unable to make out what the picture is because of the way the mugs are placed, I walk over to have a closer look, all the time telling myself that it won't bother me in the slightest if it's a photo of -- the *wife* -- Asuka, that it's of no interest of mine whatsoever if he still has... feelings... for her.

 

Picking up the frame, the photo contained within it causes me to gasp and, clutching it tightly, I sink down on the edge of the bed. Knowing that Ken would have got in from Omi, and that the reason I've never seen it before is because I've never asked or demonstrated the required amount of interest in wanting to look back, not lessening the shock any, I stare numbly at the picture, my fingers unconsciously stroking the image protected by the cool glass.

 

Weiss.

 

The four of us outside the Dragon's Tears just after Yohji had finished painting his sign on the front window. We all look so... young. His smile bright enough to do away with the need for a flash, some of Omi's long lost innocence even seems to shine through in his eyes. Even Ken, his hand resting proprietarily on Omi's shoulder, looks genuinely happy. Paintbrush still in his hand and standing by the window, Yohji's gaze is directed not at his dragon but at me. Although I was blissfully ignorant of it at the time, he loved me even then, and, looking at this photo, I can't believe I was so self-absorbed as to miss it. Here we are however, forever captured looking as though I view the whole photograph thing with a level of disinterest that's bordering on contempt while Yohji stares at me as though he thinks I'm something special.

 

Special.

 

Me.

 

And, despite sharing my every day with him, I'd never even noticed it. Never realized that he was looking at me differently, never took the time to notice that the whole Estet saga had shook Yohji up more than he was letting on, never really paused to think that we could be anything other than begrudging friends...

 

... Never once thought that anyone would ever love me or that I'd be able to love them in return.

 

Hindsight as usual being a complete bitch, I know now that I was a fool, that, too self-contained to open myself up to another, I could so easily have lost something extremely important to me without even knowing that it was freely on offer to begin with.

 

Dismissing the thought outright that -- once a fool, always a fool -- I'm still behaving like a closed off idiot, I return the frame to its spot on the bedside table and stand up. While I can't deny that I still love Yohji, that I'll always love him, I also know that I should consider myself lucky that we can once again be friends and simply leave it at that. To want anything more would be wrong of me, especially seeing as what I've now got, let's face it, is more than I ever expected anyway. Just because we can never be lovers again doesn't mean I can't revel in the fact that Yohji is once again a part of my life, that I can see him whenever I want to. In a way I feel almost spoilt, as though it's a luxury I don't really deserve.

 

Always being one to consider all the angles though, I've even reached the conclusion that Yohji's continued memory loss actually works in my favor. While he accepts what he's learnt of his old life, he can't remember anything about our relationship and, well, I have to say I find that to be something of a -- huge -- relief. If he knew all the details, if he knew the true extent of what we meant to each other and how I destroyed it, then...

 

No. He's just better off not knowing any of it. Given that I was the one who ruined it it's only right that I'm the one to carry all the memories. This way, and there's no other way of looking at it, is really for the best. I can deal with him knowing that we were lovers so long as no one inadvertently takes it upon themselves to share with him any of the specific details. Our time apart not really having changed him in any way, well, not that I've seen yet anyway, I'm confident that I both still know Yohji and that hitting him with the full story would be nothing short of cruel. He doesn't need to know about either Kimura or all the time and hard work he had to waste on putting me back together again.

 

He just doesn't. Some things are just better off kept buried.

 

Besides this is all about Yohji, not me. I wasn't just trying to fob ChloÈ off when I blurted out that, essentially, my only goal is ensuring that Yohji is happier than he was in Tokyo. Because -- albeit admittedly after a period of freefalling -- I was lucky enough to land on my feet with Krypton Brand, I think extending the same lifeline to Yohji is the very least that I can do after everything he's done for me. Again, I just want him to be happy. Having him near is just an added bonus.

 

End of story.

 

Shaking my head -- there's wandering around aimlessly and then there's loitering in a bedroom that, really, I've got neither any right nor reason being in -- I pick up the two coffee cups and carry them down to the kitchen. Half filling the sink with water, I add a splash of detergent and glance around in search of anything else in need of washing. Not finding so much as a dirty teaspoon, I wash the cups and return them to their rightful place in the cupboard. Nestled amongst ChloÈ's collection of rose covered, fine bone china mugs, they look incongruous to say the very least and the odd sight causes me to smile. While they look totally out of place, space has nonetheless been made for them and I know that they're now as much a part of the kitchen as Free's collection of foul smelling herbal teas are. Even the coffeemaker that Ken went out and bought for Yohji already looks as though it's always been on the bench.

 

Despite his arrival in their lives being completely unexpected, my new -- friends -- team have all made Yohji feel welcome and I can only hope they all know how grateful I am for this. Michel's delight in his new 'friend' in particular is quaint to behold and, credit where credit is due, Yohji's coped remarkably well with Michel pretty much wanting to be wherever he was during the two days he was here before leaving for Kent. Even Yuki, who I was afraid at the very beginning was likely to be difficult, is already more accepting of Yohji's presence. Whether this is because Yohji's natural charm has won him over or whether it's simply because he's realized I'm not going to up and disappear on him isn't something I can really comment on. Not that it makes any difference either way. All I care about is life returning to what passes for normal around here and for everyone to be as content with their lot as they're capable of.

 

Given that I'm still standing in front of the cupboard -- waiting for inspiration to finally descend upon me -- I decide that I may as well kill a bit of time by making a cup of tea and reach for a cup. Unable to see mine through the plethora of ChloÈ's mugs, and why he even needs so many is one of life's great little mysteries that I doubt I'll ever know the answer to, I stand up on tiptoe and finally spot it right at the back. Carefully retrieving it, I place it on the bench and, after checking it to see if it has enough water in it, switch the kettle on. While it's boiling I decide that I'll be nice and, putting kindness to my fellow man above my olfactory senses, make Free a drink as well.

 

Returning to the cupboard, I can't find the plain stoneware mug that Free prefers and settle on volunteering the services of one of ChloÈ's many cups. Picking the one least likely to appear in an afternoon tea scene in one of the BBC's myriad of overdone period, costume dramas, I place it next to mine and, wrinkling my nose in anticipation, go across to the cupboard that Free keeps his teas in. Opening it, I grope around randomly and pull out the first small tin my hand comes in contact with. While the tins are in fact color-coded, I have no idea what flavor is contained within the blue one I'm holding and, my good will only extending so far, don't really care. I'm yet to smell a single solitary one of Free's teas that I would let anywhere near my lips and can't for the life of me understand how he's capable of drinking anything that smells so downright offensive. Hell, I've smelt decomposing corpses that have smelt better than some of them. I made the mistake of going with him and ChloÈ once to the tiny, shabby looking shop in Camden that sells the teas once and it was all I could do to stop myself from spinning on my heels and bolting out the door in search of fresh air. As it was I could only force myself to remain by all but attaching myself to ChloÈ and breathing in his familiar, delicate scent. The shopkeeper, a wizened old Chinaman who looked as though a gust of wind would blow him over, no doubt thought I was mad.

 

But, hey, to each their own. There was a time when Yohji's coffee was enough to send me into fits of intolerance too.

 

Hearing the kettle switch itself off, I make my tea first before turning my attention to Free's. The odd looking tealeaves contained within the blue tin not exactly helping me to ascertain their flavor, I scoop the required amount up and dump them into the waiting teapot. History having taught me well, I then breathe through my mouth as I fill the pot with boiling water. Picking up my cup, I take a mouthful of tea and wander across to the table as I let Free's tea steep. When I think it's ready I pour it into the cup, once again wrinkling my nose as I notice its somewhat unique pale brown hue. It looks, not to put a too fine a point on it or anything, like I've just scooped up a cup of water straight from the pond.

 

Tea, be it disgusting or not, made, I pick it up and, with a cup in each hand, head down to the shop. As I walk I realize that not only am I looking forward to seeing Free but that also what both Mihirogi and ChloÈ said to me the other day is indeed correct, that I'm nowhere near as much of a loner as I've always tried to paint myself. While it was very much a last ditch attempt to extricate myself from the mess I'd convinced myself I'd caused, I'd offered to take on all solo missions, the further away from London the better. It wasn't that I particularly wanted to leave, more that I thought there'd be a chance that everyone would settle down more easily without me.

 

KR, I think, would have taken me up on my offer too, but neither Mihirogi nor ChloÈ would have a bar of it. Too taken aback by my surprising request to fully get his argument in order, ChloÈ merely -- cleverly, mind you -- inquired as to whether I'd given any thought to how Yuki might react to my leaving, while Mihirogi took the more tried and true lecture route.

 

"Think about what it is you're asking for, Aya. Now, think back to your time in New York. Do you *want* to be alone like that again, is that it? Flustered by Yohji's return to the fold you're opening your mouth without thinking and I'm positive that if you were to give your offer some serious thought you'd see that it's not really what you want at all. You think you're so solitary, a lone wolf that needs nothing and no one, but are you? Again, think about it. You didn't have to accept the invitation to join Krypton Brand but you did, without hesitation if my memory serves me correctly, too. To put it plainly, Aya, you both like and need the team structure. You weren't happy in New York and no one wants to see you that low again. Now, I ask you once more, is being on your own what you truly want?"

 

By the time Mihirogi had finished slapping me figuratively in the face with a few choice facts about my life that I'd never really paused to dissect before, I hardly had it in me to come up with an answer for her. Having had it laid out so clearly, I couldn't deny that Mihirogi was right, that the idea of being on my own again was completely abhorrent to me. Despite always trying to convince myself that I thought to the contrary, I relied on being part of a team and hated being left for too long in my own company. Weiss, in so many varied ways, had effectively saved me and there wasn't a day during my time in New York that I hadn't missed the comforting sense of camaraderie that I'd always felt at being part of such a loyal team. Even Crashers -- and now Krypton Brand -- albeit far less overtly than Weiss, had played their part in keeping me from flipping out once and for all and keeping me more or less together.

 

Taking my silence as victory, Mihirogi calmly told KR to forget my foolish idea and that was just that. ChloÈ couldn't resist having a bit more of a go at me as we drove back to London but, really, he may as well have just saved his breath as the -- somewhat surprising -- truth was already out. Whether I cared to admit it or not, I was simply happier being surrounded by people I knew I could count on than I was on my own. It wasn't even something I could mount an argument against. As much I like reading in the peace and quiet of my room, I also like knowing that once I'm done I can wander out and, in one room or another, there'll be welcoming company waiting for me.

 

Ironically, I'd always thought that Yohji was far more of a people person than I was. I know now, however, that there's just different takes on the term. While Yohji might like nothing more than to surround himself with a group of friends, I'm content just knowing that they're there should I decide that I want to join them.

 

Take now for example, because I'm bored and don't know what to do with myself, I'm glad that Free is around and that I can go and talk to him. If he wasn't and I was stuck here by myself then I honestly don't know what I'd do. Although I never thought it would ever come to this, I can't even be bothered reading and wish like mad that I still had some chores or something to do. Usually I can write a day off by reading a couple of books, but not today. If I'd known the time was going to drag so intolerably I would have taken longer with the research I've been embroiled in over the last couple of days. But no, as is my usual way of doing things, I had to give it all my attention and just had to have it completed in as short a time as possible.

 

If I wanted to give in to the desire to whinge I'd say that it just wasn't Goddamn fair, that ChloÈ's got a nerve taking off yesterday to join Ken and Yohji at the castle, and that, really, he should be here suffering my boredom with me.

 

But I can't complain though, not really. As much as I currently might feel like it, I just can't. I don't have proprietary rights over ChloÈ and nor -- God forbid -- do I want them. What ChloÈ does has always been his business and his alone. We share enough to make us close but neither of us lay claim to the other. Whether it sounds either ideal or enough, it works and I've never had cause for doubt or complaint. Sure, I'd like him to be here now for the purpose of his company but, again, I have no valid reason to complain about his decision to join the others at the castle. Truth be told I'm actually relieved at how well he's taken to Yohji because if anyone had been going to take offense at him then, guaranteed, it would have been ChloÈ.

 

As far as I've been able to ascertain anyway, ChloÈ, like me, enjoys having those that he can call friends around him. That said, he finds it even harder than I do -- which is no small achievement in itself and is probably why, over time, we ended up gravitating towards each other -- allowing others close enough to him to both be able to trust and relax near them. Because of his childhood and the fact that he's so clearly... different... he's been hurt more often then he'll let on and he's subsequently naturally suspicious of all newcomers. After I'd joined Krypton Brand it took him weeks to get used to my presence and until he'd accepted that I neither thought myself superior to him nor posed any sort of a threat, I considered it a good day when I'd get so much as begrudging salutation out of him. Ken says he was the same when he arrived too. Hindsight once again wafting in to kick me on the ass, I realize now, just as I'm sure Ken does too, that I treated ChloÈ with skepticism in the beginning though and that he wasn't the only one to blame for the coolness that existed between us.

 

With Yohji though ChloÈ's behaved totally differently. Instead of avoiding him like the plague and watching him from a respectful distance, he's been actively seeking him out. At first I thought -- and no comment whatsoever in regards to the impact this had on me -- it was because he was attracted to Yohji and had decided the time had come for a new conquest. When we all went out to that Thai restaurant in Covent Garden it would have taken nothing short of a miracle to have gotten me anywhere near Yohji -- even if I'd particularly wanted to -- as ChloÈ, Ken and Michel didn't let him out of their clutches all evening. They were so caught up in their new pet that I have this sneaky suspicion I could have indulged in the old 'chopsticks-up-the-nostrils-oh-look-I'm-a-walrus' trick and, with the exception of Yuki and Free who would have looked at me as though I'd just expressed a desire to try lap dancing, no one would have even noticed. My paranoia threatening to get the better of me, I then had to spend the rest of the night and the following morning, until Ken and Yohji left for Kent, watching ChloÈ like a hawk.

 

What I discovered through my not-at-all jealousy inspired surveillance still, five days on, gives me pause for thought. Unless I've totally misread the signs, which I honestly don't think that I have, the reason ChloÈ is so enamored with Yohji has nothing to do with what he looks like or the desire to get him into bed at all. No. Simply put, ChloÈ likes Yohji because, instinctively, Yohji likes ChloÈ. And, yes, I seriously think it *is* that simple. Yohji's taken who ChloÈ is on board and just, no questions asked, accepted him for who and what he is. He's also launched straight into light heartedly teasing him, which is something I doubt ChloÈ's ever experienced before. Although he bitches about being called Lestat I think, deep down, he enjoys it because he knows it's not meant with any ill will and that, if he said anything, Yohji would stop it. If he'd asked I would have told ChloÈ that so long as he can be himself around them then Yohji couldn't care less what his friends did in their spare time or what their secrets were, but, ultimately, I think it was for the best that he was able to learn it for himself.

 

So, anyway, wanting to see for himself how his new friend's re-training was going, ChloÈ went down to the castle yesterday afternoon. His expression was so deliberately blank when he asked whether I wanted to go with him that I wish now that I'd said yes simply in order to watch his reaction. While never being one to confine himself to a timetable -- yet simultaneously having the knack of always being there if you need him -- he hasn't said when he plans to return and I haven't asked. Nor have I asked Ken how Yohji's training is going. By my reckoning if the news was bad someone would have forced me to listen to it by now and I'm content to leave it at that.

 

Reaching the storeroom, I'm about to walk into the shop, Free's tea held way out in front of me like some sort of peace offering, when something causes me to stop and glance down at what I'm wearing. Like the other evening I'm wearing -- my summer, 'around home' outfit -- three-quarter length pants and a loose short sleeve shirt and, irrationally body conscious to the bitter end, I hesitate over continuing into the store. Like a woman who won't venture out of the house without makeup on, I have deep seated, and let's not mention truly pathetic, issues regarding what I will and won't be seen out in public wearing. Tight fitting clothes that show off my body are acceptable because they fully cover me, just as -- arguably kinky -- articles of clothing covered in buckles are fine because I can kid myself that they run added interference to anyone who might ever want to get me out of them.

 

Loose fitting clothes and -- innocent -- expanses of skin, however, I can only deal with wearing within the sanctuary of my own home. Mind you, not even here could I bring myself to stroll around bare chested. I... I just couldn't. Three years on and I still hate the feeling of being naked more than just about anything. I even lock the door to my bathroom when I'm showering although I know full well that no one, not even ChloÈ who's seen it all before anyway, would ever barge in on me. It's silly, and I know I'm amongst friends, but I could no more wander down to breakfast in nothing but a pair of boxers like Ken has no qualms about doing than I could fly. While never having a lot of body confidence to begin with, Kimura saw to it personally, just as he did many things, that what little I did have was trampled all over and destroyed.

 

Mentally berating myself for not having thought about what I was mooching around in earlier, I hide behind the door and peer into the shop, checking for customers. After ensuring that no one other than Free, who incidentally is wearing a linen sarong and matching tank top in earthy tones of brown and who seems not in the least bothered by his distinctly non-conformist outfit, is in there, I decide to risk it and step into the shop.

 

"Here," I mutter, placing Free's cup of tea on the counter near the cash register before hurrying back to the security offered by the doorway and its immediate access back into the privacy of the storeroom. "I thought you might like a drink."

 

"Thank you," Free replies, picking up the cup and inhaling the revolting scent of the tea with obvious approval. Taking a mouthful, he gazes at me appraisingly, a half smile tugging on his lips. "Don't tell me that you're bored, Aya," he comments softly, walking over to join me near the door.

 

"Whatever gives you that idea, huh?" I murmur, shrugging lightly and taking a sip of my tea. "Perhaps I just wanted to..."

 

"You could always join the others in Kent," Free interrupts, his expression telling me that he already knows how I'm feeling and that if I'm going to waste my breath on lying to him I may as well just turn around and leave now. "It's not like there's any compulsion for you to stay here."

 

"And nor is there any compulsion for me to go to Kent," I retort, shaking my head dismissively. "I'll admit that I'm a little bored but that doesn't mean I need to go gallivanting around the countryside in order to amuse myself. I... I just need to find something good to read and I'll be fine."

 

"If you say so," Free murmurs, giving me a strange look before glancing at the time on the cash register. "Given that you're now here, would you mind looking after the shop for a couple of minutes? I've suddenly remembered a few things that I need to do."

 

"Um... Sure, I suppose," I reply unenthusiastically, peering down at my bare feet and praying that no one's feeling any great urge to purchase flowers at the moment. "You won't be long?"

 

"I'll be quick," Free confirms, placing his hand on my shoulder as he walks into the storeroom. "They're your concerns, Aya, and I know you've got good reason for them, but, believe me, you look fine."

 

"I'd prefer..." Trailing off, I shrug, knowing that if I push the issue Free will insist upon waiting for me to change, and gesture airily into the storeroom. "Go. Do whatever you have to do and take as long as you like. You're right. I'll be fine."

 

"If it makes you feel any better I'm confident our predominantly middle-aged clientele will be able to control themselves at the sight of your ankles," Free replies facetiously, giving my shoulder a gentle squeeze before swiftly disappearing up the stairs.

 

"Oh, very funny," I murmur, laughing after his retreating back. While it very rarely sees the light of day, Free's brand of particularly dry humor never fails to hit its mark and I'm still snickering as, leaning against the doorframe, I glance around the shop. Snowball is sound asleep on the counter alongside the cash register, her tail draped across a tray of corsages. On the other side of the register, a layout half completed, is one of Free's numerous tarot decks. Although I can read the tarot, I have no real belief in it and don't bother going for a closer look.

 

Snowball and tarot cards on the counter aside, the store looks just as it always does, a slightly mundane, suburban flower shop. The flowers are as exquisite and as vibrant as ever, but the plain beige walls and functionary fittings do little to inspire. The Dragon's Tears, it has to be said, the Kitten's House is not. It still does a nice enough business though and, well, having lived through the screaming fan girl thing once I'd be lying if I said I really wanted it to be any more popular.

 

The sudden, harsh sound of the phone starting to ring startling me slightly -- and causing Snowball to jump off the bench in consternation -- I put my tea down next to the register and pick it up.

 

"Good morning, Kitten's House. How may I..."

 

"Cut the spiel, Aya," ChloÈ states cheerfully, cutting me off. "Not only have I heard it thousands of times before but, oddly enough, I'm not really calling to place an order."

 

"No? Perhaps just to annoy me then, is that it?" I reply, carrying the handset back to the doorway and stifling a smile of pleasure at hearing ChloÈ's voice.

 

"However did you guess?" ChloÈ retorts. "I'm having such an entertaining time here that I thought I'd just give you a call to rub your nose in it. Kind of me, no?"

 

"You got it in one," I mutter, leaning back against the doorframe and watching as Snowball takes herself off to hide behind a bucket of carnations. "No. Actually, it's not kind of you. In fact, I'd almost go so far as to say it's nothing short of childish."

 

"Childish, granted, but still fun," ChloÈ replies, laughing. "Actually, the real reason I'm calling is to try and sweet talk you and the others in coming to join us. Come on, you know you want to. It's even slightly cooler here and everything."

 

"Free hasn't just called you, has he?" I query suspiciously. "If he did then..."

 

"Why would Free have called?" ChloÈ interrupts. "See? That's another reason you should rustle up the troops and drive down, you get paranoid when left to your own devices."

 

"I'm not paranoid," I sigh, not entirely convinced that Free and ChloÈ aren't in cohorts but nonetheless knowing there's not a lot I can do about it even if they are. "Just bored. If you're so concerned about my well being however you could always take it upon yourself to come home."

 

"What? And miss the nonstop hilarity of Yohji's training?" ChloÈ snickers. "Thank you, but... Hey! There's Yohji now. Would you like to talk to him?"

 

"Not particularly, no, I wouldn't. In fact..." Realizing that ChloÈ isn't listening to me, I trail off and drum my fingers impatiently against the wall.

 

"ChloÈ?"

 

"Is that Aba-bloody-ssinian?" Yohji exclaims, his voice coming through the phone lines loud and clear even though ChloÈ's still holding the phone and he's somewhere in the background. "Ha! If it is, tell him that *Balinese* sends his greetings and is kind of curious as to why *Siberian* has only *just* shared with him the whole freakin' cat-breed-codename-thing!"

 

"When did that little tidbit slip?" I laugh, the sudden wish that I'd been there to witness it coming from out of nowhere and surprising me.

 

"Ken dropped it at breakfast this morning," ChloÈ replies, sounding clearly amused. "I'm actually surprised you didn't hear the shriek of shock in London. I only wish I'd had a camcorder with me to capture the moment. To refer to it as precious doesn't even begin to do it justice."

 

"I wish you had too," I whisper, the truth slipping carelessly out of my mouth. "But... Uh... Oh well, never mind," I add hurriedly, stepping back into the storeroom to let Free pass just as -- with perfect timing -- a customer wanders into the shop. "Other than reacting badly to our codenames, how's everything going?"

 

"If you joined us you'd be able to see for yourself," ChloÈ replies matter-of-factly. "Come on, Aya. You're bored, it's Friday, you've got no plans and, as far as I'm concerned anyway, it makes complete sense for everyone to join us here. Free can close the store while you pack the cats in their travel baskets and then, after picking up Yuki and Michel from school, you can all drive straight down."

 

"In peak-hour, Friday afternoon traffic as everyone tries to beat everyone else out of London," I reply drily, "you're too kind. Besides, Mystique and I aren't friends at the moment and I doubt I have a snowflake's chance in hell of catching her to put her in her basket."

 

"So get Free to catch her," ChloÈ states, sighing. "Your excuses are lame, Aya, and you know it. If you stop thinking about yourself for a second you'd realize that Michel and Yuki would love to spend the weekend here and that you're just being selfish."

 

"What about Free?" I mutter, peeking into the shop and watching him help the customer, an elderly woman with somewhat alarming pale purple hair who comes in once a week without fail, choose between a bouquet of roses or gerberas. "Is he allowed to have an opinion on the subject or is it all just on my head?"

 

"Free couldn't care less about his surroundings and you know it," ChloÈ replies, sighing again. "Do what you like though, Aya. I just thought..."

 

"Fine," I mutter wearily, giving up all pretences of arguing with ChloÈ. "I'll think about it, okay? I'll also ask the others and if the consensus is yes then we'll be down sometime this evening. Happy now?"

 

"Quite," ChloÈ responds smugly. "Actually, now that you've finally come to your senses I'll let you know that KR was hoping to see us all Sunday anyway. I assume you've finished your research, yes?"

 

"Of course," I reply, shaking my head fondly as it becomes abundantly clear that I've well and truly been had over. "You do of course realize you could have mentioned this to begin with?"

 

"And spoil my game of making you jump through hoops?" ChloÈ laughs. "Now, why would I want to do that?"

 

"I honestly have no idea," I retort, smiling. "Given that you've won, oh, and congratulations by the way, we'll see you later."

 

"Looking forward to it already," ChloÈ replies blithely. "If you're lucky I might even see what I can do about getting Ken out of the pool early enough so that he's not all icky and withery looking by the time you arrive. Seriously, what with the amount of time he's spending splashing around, I'm beginning to think he might be half fish."

 

"More power to him then," I murmur, not wanting to think about how long it's been since I last went swimming. If I'm not mistaken I think it was back during a rare family vacation and I spent more time glowering at the local boys as they checked out Aya-chan in her bikini than I did enjoying myself in the water anyway. "Ah... I suppose I'd better go get organized," I continue, pushing the memory to the back of my mind and moving on. "See you tonight."

 

"Mmm... See you then."

 

Despite ChloÈ having just effectively stitched me up, I'm pleased that the decision to visit the castle has been taken out of my hands and flash a smile at the elderly customer as Free rings up her sale. As Free had foreseen, the sight of my bare ankles has no negative effect on her that I can deduce and she returns my smile happily.

 

"You should do that more often," she comments, reaching across and touching my hand as I return the phone to its base.

 

"Excuse me?" I murmur hesitantly, unsure of what it is she thinks I should do more often.

 

"Smile," she replies softly, taking her roses from Free and placing them carefully in her ancient straw carryall. "It suits you."

 

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

 

~ Yohji ~

 

Stubbing my cigarette butt out in the ashtray, I stretch languorously and try to raise the energy required to return inside. It's nearly midnight and, other than Mystique and Tantomile who are chasing each other around like felines possessed, I'm alone in the courtyard, just kicking back and enjoying the night. Close to four weeks have passed since that night in The Cat's Whiskers and I can honestly say that not once have I paused to regret my snap decision to follow Aya. As different as things are, there's no denying that I'm happier here than I can remember being in a long time. Not even during the early, flush with love days of my marriage to Asuka can I recall being quite this content. I can't put my finger on why this is exactly but I think it probably has as much to do with the fact that I now know who it is I am as it does that I'm now constantly surrounded by people who I can class as friends.

 

It's, and there's really no two ways of looking at it, nice. I even enjoy my time in the shop, the art of flower arranging and flirting with the customers having come back to me quickly. One old lady in particular loves me -- says I remind her of her grandson -- and she checks in every day to see if I'm working. I give her bunches of discarded flowers and she tells me stories about her family. Compared to my old cubicle and zombie-like colleagues, working in the flower shop is a laugh a minute. I like it.

 

I also like how everyone -- with perhaps the notable exception of Aya, who more often than not still behaves as though he's acting whenever he's near me -- has fully accepted me into their lives. God knows they didn't have to, that they could have forced themselves to barely tolerate my presence and simply left it at that, but, no. I'm now a fully signed up member of Krypton Brand and -- again ignoring Aya here -- if anyone's less than thrilled about this then they're doing one hell of a job of disguising it. Even Yuki has stopped glowering at me like I was some sort of home wrecker and, since I've returned from the castle, has taken to asking me the odd --- as in the odder and harder to answer the better, but, hey, at least he's talking to me --homework question. Without any effort on my behalf whatsoever, I honestly feel as though I've found myself not only a home but also a family as well.

 

As for Aya...

 

Well, I'm beginning to accept that Aya is just... Aya. As -- and I mean this with both respect and love -- *unique* as ChloÈ is, I have to say that I currently get on better with him than I do with Aya. On one level this worries me slightly, going on what we clearly used to mean to each other, yet on a whole it's not something that bothers me too greatly. If anything though I'm just relieved that Aya is still here, that he didn't decide that the can of worms he'd misguidedly opened was too much for him and he had to retreat. Which, going on past form, is something I'm sure he would have considered. We haven't sat down and talked since my second night here, and something tells me that Aya's in no great rush to repeat the performance, but nor does he seem to go out of his way to avoid me. If for whatever reason we find ourselves together then he's always polite and attentive -- even if he does have the knack for deflecting questions that he doesn't want to answer -- and I'm beginning to feel more comfortable in his company. As... odd... as I find Aya to be, I still can't help but like him though and it's obvious that everyone else does as well. Ken, I've learnt, even actively sought him out after the destruction of Weiss.

 

The sound of a loud 'splash' breaking through my reverie, I turn towards the pond and start to laugh as a very waterlogged Tantomile clambers over the edge and flops onto the ground. Mystique, who'd had enough forethought to slam the brakes on in time, sits by the edge of the pond, her furry face the embodiment of calm and grace. On the inside, I'm sure, she's dancing with joy at the fact that her friend is saturated and she isn't. Impassiveness at all costs being the feline motto however, heaven forbid she let this on or anything.

 

Watching Tantomile shake herself vigorously like a dog for a couple of seconds before settling down to groom herself thoroughly, I'm reminded of the indoor pool at the castle and how, in a momentary lapse of sanity, I'd decided it was a good idea to pull Aya into it. His jeans rolled up to the knees, he'd been sitting on the edge dangling his feet in the pool while talking to Yuki. Although I'd tried to convince him to strip off and get in proper, he'd refused outright, even going so far as to vehemently say he'd leave the pool area if I didn't just drop it. Happy to see him again after the five days I'd spent at the castle, I'd conceded defeat and had gone back to lazily swimming laps with Ken. Then, and I still don't know what came over me, I really don't, after ten or so minutes I reached the very rapid conclusion that the time had come for a more direct approach.

 

Direct in that grabbing Aya's feet and pulling him in was one hundred percent, guaranteed the only way to go.

 

Yes. Well.

 

Let's just say the immediate aftermath, of watching Aya splashing water around and spluttering, isn't something I ever need to see again. For a dreadful moment I even thought that he couldn't swim and that I was going to be responsible for drowning him. If, his timing as immaculate as ever, ChloÈ hadn't materialized and immediately started laughing, which in turn went some way to putting my mind at rest, I don't know what I would have done. As it turned out though, Aya calmed down sufficiently to glower at me ominously from the other end of the pool even before I remembered that I did in fact have to release that breath I'd been holding in panic. Not surprisingly, mind you, he declined to speak to me for the rest of the evening after that and I swear Ken's still of the opinion that he's just biding his time before getting me back.

 

Me though, I've learnt my lesson. If Aya doesn't want to do something then, hell, that's fine by me. I still don't know why -- given that it turns out he *can* swim and is in fact quite good at it -- he didn't want to get in the pool and, what's more, I'm not going to ask. I'm just thankful that after a night spent hiding out with ChloÈ in his bedroom he was able to find it himself to speak to me again the following morning.

 

Yawning, I'm contemplating the merits of having another cigarette versus going to bed when, totally without warning or for that matter precedence, exceptionally awful music starts to emanate from one of the upper levels of the house. It's so raucous and Goddamn awful that it immediately makes me think more kindly towards Eminem. I'm sure that I have to be wrong, but it almost sounds as though it's coming from ChloÈ's room and, curiosity immediately getting the better of me, I stand up and head inside.

 

Jogging up the stairs, I'm halfway up the second flight when, as abruptly as it started, the music stops. Pausing, I'm about to dismiss the racket as a mistake -- 'When Random Button Pushing On The Stereo Goes Horribly Wrong' -- when it starts up again. The song, and I use the term lightly here, while different, is still teeth grindingly awful and, wanting to know just what the hell is going on, I start moving again and quickly reach the third floor.

 

Just in time for the music to stop.

 

Again.

 

My curiosity going in to overdrive, I creep along the corridor as ChloÈ's voice, oozing high dudgeon, floats out from the open door to his room.

 

"Touch the stereo one more time, Ken, and I swear I'm going to break your fingers. Don't think I don't mean it either as I will. Hell, I've heard wounded animals that sound better than that Godforsaken racket."

 

"You're going to be hearing it shortly in the club, so why not get acclimatized to it here first?" Ken retorts. "It's going to be louder at Anarchy too, and there you're going to have no choice in the matter."

 

"Anarchy is not my bedroom and here in my bedroom I do have a choice," ChloÈ states firmly, backing up his response by flinging, Frisbee style, the offending CD through the door. Rebounding off the opposite wall, it lands on the carpet and rolls towards me, coming to a stop as it hits my foot. Bending down, I pick the disk up and am somewhat nonplussed to read that it's 'Never Mind The Bollocks' by the Sex Pistols, which, going on what little I know about punk music, pretty much explains why it sounded akin to nails being repeatedly scraped down a blackboard.

 

Wanting more than ever to get to the bottom of whatever it is that's going on, I carry on down the corridor and, after giving a cursory knock on the open door, walk into ChloÈ's room. Never having been in his bedroom before, I take a split second to compute that both ChloÈ and Ken must be in the en suite and then just gaze around me, taking it all in. Like Aya's room, ChloÈ's has a distinct color scheme happening. Only instead of red, cream and black, his colors are gray and black with a smattering of silver and pale pink thrown in just to break things up. ErtÈ prints in silver frames complement the dark gray walls perfectly and fit in with the Art Deco lamps on the matching wrought iron bedside tables. Despite lacking Aya's bookcase full of books, ChloÈ's room, with its pink satin throw cushions and dressing table cluttered with, amongst other things, Egyptian perfume bottles and crystals, somehow seems both more lived in and welcoming. Not surprisingly there's even a huge bouquet of white roses commanding pride of place in the center of the chest of drawers and I have to smile to myself at the sight of it. ChloÈ and his roses. Of all of us he's the only one who I can understand wanting to have anything to do with a flower shop.

 

Suddenly feeling as though I'm intruding, I'm about to poke my head into the en suite when -- it apparently being the night for it -- ChloÈ and Ken start bickering again. Loudly.

 

"I. Don't. Care," ChloÈ declares, deliberately enunciating each word as though he was speaking to someone a couple of I.Q. points lower than that of the village idiot. "The only reason they were repulsive enough to do that was because gel clearly hadn't been invented back then and... look... I've got gel."

 

"According to the website I was reading this works just as well," Ken replies enthusiastically. "You just spit in your hand and off you go. Look. I'll demonstrate if you really want me to."

 

Rapidly reaching the conclusion that I *so* don't want to know the intricacies of whatever it is exactly that ChloÈ and Ken are... discussing... I back away from the bathroom door, my discarded packet of cigarettes suddenly calling my name.

 

"Don't you dare!" ChloÈ hisses, clearly agitated. "If you spit in your palm then that'll just be that, I won't have anything to do with any of it."

 

Oh yeah. There being a lot of things in this world I'm honestly better off not knowing about, I think it's safe to say that I've so gotta get out of here. Like, *now*.

 

"For God's sake you two!"

 

Recognizing Aya's voice -- Aya's in the en suite as well? -- I come to a stop by the chest of drawers and hesitate over what to do. Do I leave them to it or do I throw caution to the winds and see for myself whatever it is they're doing in there?

 

"You think you've got problems," Aya continues tetchily, "well, what about me, huh? I don't even know whether this... *gunk*... Ken spread all through my hair is going to wash out or not."

 

And, snap decision time here, that's it.

 

My imagination threatening to pull me in places that, really, an innocent such as myself should never have to experience, I take a deep breath for luck and stride into the bathroom. I mean, fact is always easier to deal with than fiction, right?

 

Or, okay then, maybe not.

 

Perhaps in this case laboring under the delusion that the three of them were experimenting with a new kink would have been, oh, I don't know, far more logical and easy to comprehend.

 

I'm sure there's a good explanation though. Given the, and I can think of no other word to do the vision justice, *spectacular* sight I'm staring at, there has to be. Seriously. There just has to be. Either that or they've all been invited to a fancy dress party that I haven't.

 

Not caring that my jaw is probably somewhere near my ankles and that my eyes are no doubt all but popping out of my head, I start with Ken, because he's the closest to me, and blink at him in amazement. Instead of his usual, casual attire he's dressed as the stereotypical -- albeit one with a full head of spiky hair -- skinhead. Faded Levi 501's cuffed to show off the tops of his eighteen hole, reddish-brown Doc Martin boots, threadbare, ill fitting black t-shirt that shows off far more of his body than his seemingly never ending collection of football tops do, and, for the final touch, a pair of Union Jack braces to complete the outfit. If his eyes weren't twinkling in amusement as a result of his squabbling with ChloÈ then, yeah, he looks like the sort of person I'd make a point of crossing the street to avoid.

 

Next to Ken, and if anything looking even more amazing, stands ChloÈ. If my fashion history serves me correctly, ChloÈ's gone for a more 'traditional' punk look, the sort that you used to see on unimaginative tourist postcards of London. Well... Sort of. This is, after all, ChloÈ we're talking about here. Looking him up and down, I don't know what I'm more taken with, the red tartan bondage trousers or the decidedly unique skin tight black top with its fishnet sleeves, velvet cuffs, and elaborately buckled collar. Both are stunning and such a dramatic change from his usual, Romantic styled outfits that it's like looking at an entirely different person.

 

And, last but -- oh boy, so much for thinking I was becoming inured to his incredible beauty -- by no means least, there's Aya.

 

Aya, who's had either black mousse or hairspray put haphazardly through his hair so that, with no discernible pattern, it changes randomly from red to black. Aya, who's wearing tight black leather trousers with obvious red stitching and a customized, long sleeved Emily The Strange t-shirt with the statement 'We're All Strange Here' printed on the chest above a picture of Emily and her posse of black cats having a tea party. One of the cats is even wearing a top hat in a take off of the Mad Hatter's Tea Party. If truer words have ever been printed on a shirt before though then I think it goes without saying that I'm yet to have seen them. Strange? Understatement, if you ask me. While the body of the t-shirt is black, the background of the image and the arms are red. The right arm though has been torn off just below the bicep and, to cover this out of place expanse of pale flesh, a jumble of black and red leather bands travel from his wrist to a third of the way to his elbow. Silver studs gleam from some of the black bands. Even his fingernails have been painted black.

 

Although more goth than punk, he looks like the poster child for disenfranchised youth everywhere.

 

He also looks good enough to eat. Or, alternatively, as though he has no right being unleashed on an unsuspecting public and should in fact be locked away in a room somewhere for his own protection.

 

Just...

 

Fuck me.

 

History or no history, I want him. I want him so bad that I can hardly bring myself to take my eyes off him. I love Ken as a friend, and I'd have to be blind not to be attracted to ChloÈ, but it's Aya that does it for me. There's just... *something*... about him.

 

And... I really, *really* should shut my mouth and stop gaping, shouldn't I?

 

"I didn't know they celebrated Halloween early over here," I murmur weakly as three sets of surprised looking eyes bore into me. "Nice... ah... looks though, honest. If you came to my door I'd take the treat option for sure."

 

"Did we wake you?" ChloÈ queries, glancing at my robe and bare legs before shooting an annoyed look at Ken. "See? I bet that atrocious music woke him."

 

"Oh shit, I'm sorry," Ken states, giving himself a mock smack to the side of the head. "I didn't even stop to think if anyone was sleeping or not. Again, if I woke you then I'm truly sorry."

 

"Bit late for apologies now that he's standing here in front of you," ChloÈ mutters, wagging his finger at Ken. "Idiot."

 

"It didn't wake me," I interject hurriedly as Ken's eyes narrow and he glares at ChloÈ, "so you neither have to worry nor apologize. I was just having a final smoke in the courtyard before going to bed when I heard the music and decided to come and investigate. I then heard the tail end of your... ah... conversation and, well, now that I'm here I'm kinda being eaten up with curiosity in respect to what's going on..."

 

"It's a fact finding mission," Aya states blandly, returning his attention to the mirror and the state of his hair. "That's all. Nothing exciting."

 

"And you always dress like Sex Pistols' groupies to go on fact finding missions?" I drawl, raising an eyebrow. Now that Aya's turned around I can see not only how snugly his leather trousers hug his ass but that also the back pockets are made of shiny red rubber and, to my addled mind, seem to screaming 'grab me'. "Interesting. Can you perhaps think of anything else you haven't told me yet? Like... Oh, I don't know... This is only one of your *mild* looks or something..."

 

"Our likely target, Scott Chesterton, a highly successful drug dealer who's decided to expand his business portfolio into people smuggling and who just happens to be the son of one of the Prime Minister's best friends, is going to be holding fort at Anarchy tonight," Ken explains, striking a pose and slipping his thumbs beneath his braces, drawing attention to them. "If you don't know already, Anarchy is London's latest hip 'n' trendy, *the* only place at the moment to see and be seen in, nightclub. It is also styled on punk's heyday and should you not wish to given the door nazis a quick blowjob, the only way to get in is by dressing up." Pausing, he flashes me a grin. "What do you reckon, huh, do we look the part?"

 

"Definitely," I confirm, returning Ken's grin and running my fingers through my hair. "You all look... ah..."

 

"Like freaks?" Aya offers, scowling at his reflection. "Please, you don't have to hold back on my account. I can *see* what I look like and wouldn't take the slightest offence at being called a freak. In fact, freak is probably polite."

 

"I was thinking more along the lines of hot myself," I murmur, walking across to Aya and lightly trailing my finger along the collection of leather bands on his arm. "All of you. You just look terrific," I add, retracting my hand as, lowering his gaze, Aya takes a step away from me.

 

His reaction, while not surprising -- avoiding even the most fleeting of casual touches appears to be one of Aya's most stringently adhered to pastimes -- dismays me and I toy with the idea of pushing him until I get some sort of reaction. Some sixth sense tells me though that if I listen to what his red rubber pockets are telling me and grabbed his butt that I'd probably find myself flat on my back on the bathroom floor even before I knew what it was that had hit me. Whatever Aya's intimacy issues are though, they're clearly huge and I have no idea how ChloÈ's been able to make inroads through them. Then again, given their odd -- and seemingly shared -- views on what is and what isn't acceptable to be seen wearing, for all I know they're both cast from the same mold and simply deserve each other.

 

"ChloÈ would look even better if he'd just let me do his hair," Ken comments teasingly, winking at me. "I don't know whether you heard or not, but we were discussing the merits of gel versus good old fashioned spit just before you came in and ChloÈ here was going into conniptions at the mere thought of his hair being contaminated with icky saliva."

 

"I was *not* going into conniptions," ChloÈ exclaims huffily, snatching up a tube of gel from the vanity unit and brandishing it at Ken like a shield. "I'll admit that I find the idea abhorrent but if you want to spread... spit... through your hair then, please, by all means go for it. As I was saying before however, I'll just stick to gel."

 

"And as I was telling you, this is how they used to do it back in the proper punk era," Ken retorts, clearly delighting in the fact that he's grossing ChloÈ out. "Look. All you do is..."

 

Not feeling any great urge to witness Ken's historical demonstration of how saliva is indeed as good as gel, I tune him out and focus on Aya. "You know," I murmur, pointing at his wristbands but -- what's the point? -- making no attempt to touch him again, "you should be wearing a neck collar to match. It'd look great."

 

His eyes widening, Aya shakes his head as his hands unconsciously reach for the base of his throat. "No," he states flatly, taking another step away from me and effectively cornering himself between the edge of the vanity and the shower cubicle. "Just... No..."

 

"C'mon, it'd match perfectly and look really cool," I reply enthusiastically, the thought of seeing Aya in a collar suddenly striking me as very appealing. "A black one with studs would be ideal."

 

"I said no," Aya whispers, shaking his head again and fixing me with a pained look. What little color he had in his face to begin with draining away, a thin sheen of sweat breaks out on his forehead and, swallowing hard, he hugs himself in a way that almost makes him look as though he's wanting to fold in on himself. "I... I won't wear a collar. Not... Not for anyone, not again."

 

"Aya?"

 

Oh God... What have I done?

 

Regretting ever having opened my mouth and wishing the ground would just open up and swallow me, I turn around and grab ChloÈ by the arm. "If you'd both stop bitching about your hair for a moment I... I appear to have upset Aya," I stammer anxiously. "I... Fuck! I didn't mean to... do whatever it is that I did. Honest. All I did was suggest that he might like to add a collar to his outfit, that's all. I..."

 

"It's all right. You weren't to know and it's nothing to worry about," ChloÈ murmurs soothingly, his light hearted argument with Ken immediately forgotten about as he gives my hand a squeeze before going over to whisper in German to Aya. Clearly embarrassed by his reaction, Aya straightens up and, after listening intently to ChloÈ, nods and smiles wanly.

 

"Of course I'm fine to go," he murmurs, meeting ChloÈ's gaze for a second before facing me. "I'm... I'm sorry, Yohji. I don't know what came over me and I apologize if I... disturbed you. Please, just forget about it."

 

Forget about it? He freaks out at the suggestion of wearing something as harmless as a collar and I'm supposed to just forget about it? I don't think so. "But..."

 

"Hey! I know," Ken interrupts, clapping me on the shoulder. "What about taking Yohji with us to Anarchy, huh? He's gotta do some sort of active duty sooner or later and I reckon Anarchy is as good a place to start as any."

 

"Sounds good to me," ChloÈ replies brightly, nodding at Ken and looking relieved. "What do you say, Yohji? Want to come clubbing with us?"

 

Realizing that a concentrated effort is being made to deflect the attention away from Aya, I decide to go along with it and shrug nonchalantly. "Whatever," I respond. "As Ken just said, I've got to start somewhere."

 

"Aya?" Ken queries gently, glancing at his friend with evident concern. "What do you think about taking Yohji to Anarchy with us?"

 

"It's fine," Aya mutters, not looking at me and starting to walk out of the en suite. "I... I'm just going to get a drink of water. I'll meet you in the garage when you're ready."

 

"I'll come with you," Ken states, ignoring the immediate, annoyed look that Aya shoots him and gesturing at ChloÈ. "Given that you're the mastermind behind these outfits, I assume you'll be able to dress Yohji, yeah?"

 

"I'll sure I'll be able to come up with something suitable," ChloÈ replies, his eyes brightening as he looks me up and down as though he's never really taken the time to pay me any real notice before. "Mmm... I think I know the perfect thing already," he adds silkily, clapping his hands together with obvious glee.

 

"I think I now know what it feels like to be truly afraid," I murmur lightly, forcefully pushing the discomfort I'd inadvertently caused Aya to the back of my mind. "Whatever it is you've got in mind, it's not going to be too ridiculous, is it?"

 

"Oh ye of little faith," ChloÈ laughs, propelling me out of the bathroom. "Trust me. Failing that, think about it this way... Do you honestly think I'd allow myself to be seen out in public with you if you looked *too* ludicrous?"

 

"You've gotta admit that when he puts it that way you know you're in safe hands," Ken snickers, waving from the doorway before following Aya out of the room. "Now, Maestro, I know you like to take time with your work, but, remember, we're on a timetable here and don't have all night," he adds, his voice getting fainter as he heads off down the stairs.

 

Only just remembering that I'm still holding the Sex Pistols' CD, I look around for the stereo to place it on and, to my surprise, can't find it. I know there has to be one in here because that's where the music was coming from, but where it's actually kept is beyond me.

 

"Very little is exactly as it seems, particularly in this house," ChloÈ comments softly, taking the CD from me and placing it on the dressing table where, even amongst all the clutter, it looks singularly out of place. "Now, let's see what I can do about making you look the part."

 

Seating myself gingerly on the edge of the bed, I watch ChloÈ ferret with intent through his chest of drawers and sigh. "Aya... He's been hurt, hasn't he?" I whisper, knowing that he probably won't answer but feeling as though I just have to try anyway.

 

"Yes, terribly," ChloÈ states candidly, retrieving a pair of black trousers made from a vaguely metallic fabric from a drawer and throwing them across to me. "Here. Put these on. I think they should fit."

 

Standing up, I shuck off my robe and, after only a second's hesitation during which I eyeball the trousers with a practiced eye, boxers. Pulling the trousers on, that, as I'd already guessed, fit like a second skin, I decide to see just how obliging ChloÈ is feeling and, tentatively, ask another question.

 

"It... It wasn't me, was it? I... Please tell me that I wasn't the one who hurt him..."

 

His errant prey finally located, ChloÈ pulls what looks to be little more than a scrap of sheer, skin colored fabric from the drawer and, turning around, gives me an odd look. "Of course it wasn't you," he murmurs. "You, and I suspect this is the case even now, could never hurt Aya." Pausing, he toys with the top in his hand and, after a couple of weighted seconds, nods to himself. "For what little it's worth given that I'm not going to elaborate, you saved Aya. First physically and then mentally. Now, having already said too much, let's just drop the subject."

 

Saved him? From what? And does it have something to do with his refusal to wear a collar?

 

Help. I'm confused.

 

"But..."

 

"Uh-uh, not buts," ChloÈ declares firmly, cutting me off and giving me a warning look. "Here," he continues, handing me the top. "I was hoping someone was going to get to wear this. God alone knows what I was thinking, but when I bought it I'd envisioned Aya wearing it. Given that it's not like I'd wear it myself, I honestly must have been ensnared in a vague moment or something. I suspect it'll suit you though."

 

Taking the top from ChloÈ and unfolding it, I see that while the body is indeed sheer, there's elaborate, black markings running along the full length of each arm to emulate Celtic tattoos. "Don't tell me, you won't wear it because it'd show off your third nipple," I mutter glibly, pulling the top on and admiring how realistic the tattoos look now that they're stretched tight around my arms.

 

"Not third nipple, no," ChloÈ replies, fussing with the arms to ensure that they're straight before taking it upon himself to tuck the top in to the waistband of the trousers. "More the scars on my back from where my wings were sheered off when I fell to earth."

 

"I should have known," I laugh, stilling as ChloÈ's fingers ghost over the cross/ankh tattoo on the small of my back.

 

"I must say it looks better as a tattoo," he murmurs cryptically. 'Looks good showing through the top too. See, I told you that it would suit you."

 

"What do you mean it looks better as a tattoo?" I query curiously. "Have you seen something like it before?"

 

"What? Oh... Don't mind me, I was just thinking aloud," ChloÈ replies dismissively, walking over to the dressing table and, without even looking, snatching up a chain of black crystal rosary beads. Placing them around my neck, he casts a critical eye over my 'costume' and sighs contentedly. "Perfect. Not as obvious, perhaps, as the rest of us, but still striking. Now, go and put some shoes on. We'll be waiting for you in the garage."

 

"Uh... Sure," I mumble, doing as I'm told and wandering out of the room, my head a mass of thoughts all clamoring for attention. Aya's been hurt... I'm somehow responsible for having saved Aya... ChloÈ's seen -- the original? -- marks like my tattoo before... I'm dressed up like a yuppie club kid turned feral and am about to be involved in my first piece of undercover surveillance...

 

And to think a quarter of an hour ago I'd been planning to toddle off to bed.

 

Astonishing. Really. Just astonishing. Nothing like being constantly kept on my toes.

 

Not wanting to keep the others waiting, I make short work of completing my outfit with socks, shoes, and, because it catches my eyes, a black leather belt with a large silver buckle. I then, just as I'm about to bolt from the room, grab both my wire and my wallet. Because it would spoil the effect of the tattooed arm on my top, I shove the wire in my pocket instead of placing it around my wrist. Why I decide to grab it I can't really say but, somehow, it just strikes me as the right thing to do. Ready, I jog down to the garage, a tremor of excitement beginning to make itself known in the pit of my stomach.

 

Leaning against the Mercedes S Class -- which tells me that ChloÈ's driving -- and talking to Ken, Aya's gaze lingers on me as I make my way over to them, the slightest hint of an appreciative smile crossing his lips. "You look good," he murmurs, walking around the car and opening the door to the front passenger seat. "I... I admire your confidence in being able to wear a top like that."

 

"What are you talking about?" Ken snickers, handing me the laptop he'd been holding and going around to join Aya on the other side of the car. "This is Yohji, after all, the original Mr Show Off."

 

"And again I say, if you've got it flaunt it," I retort, smoothing the top down with my free hand and preening. "Besides, if I don't want to pale in comparison to the rest of you I've gotta be able to flaunt *something*."

 

"Ready to go?" ChloÈ queries, strolling into the garage and making straight for the driver's side of the Mercedes. Unable to help himself, a white rose from the bouquet in his room is now entwined around one of the belt loops on his trousers, its brilliant petals bright against the red tartan.

 

Murmuring our confirmation in unison, we all climb into the car, Ken reaching across the backseat and tapping on the laptop even as he pulls his seatbelt on. "I thought you might like to have a look at this," he states, all businesslike, indicating that I should open the laptop. "It's what we've gathered so far on Scott Chesterton. While we have no reason to believe tonight will be anything other than surveillance it still wouldn't hurt for you to be fully up to speed on just how much of an asshole he is."

 

"Good idea," I reply, settling the computer on my lap and, opening it up, finding it already switched on, the screen opened on Chesterton's file. A photograph of an overweight man in his mid to late thirties stares back at me sullenly and I stifle a groan at his failed attempt at a trendy hairstyle. Bleached blond and cropped so short that you can see his premature bald patch, instead of making him look youthful it adds years to his fleshy face and contrasts shockingly with his solarium tanned skin. "Looks like a true delight," I mutter drily, scrolling down and starting to read the abbreviated version of Chesterton's life story as the Mercedes glides silently out of the garage and into the night.

 

"Definitely," Aya murmurs, swiveling around and scowling at the laptop. "A true prince amongst men. We've been monitoring him for months now but I think his number is almost up. If our information is correct he's about to smuggle another group of Russian women into the country to sell off as sex slaves and, this time, we're going to stop him."

 

"Oh yeah, a true prince amongst men," I echo, glancing at Aya for a second before returning my attention to the computer screen. Although, wanting to know that we're truly okay, I still want to apologize for earlier, something tells me that I'm better off remaining silent and simply focus on the information before me.

 

By the time ChloÈ's parking the car -- in one of his customary 'No Parking' zones that he pays no heed to and never gets booked in -- opposite Anarchy, I know more about Scott Chesterton than I needed to and am feeling self righteously indignant that scum like him are allowed to live unchecked. Man, talk about a complete bastard. Drugs, underage prostitution, people smuggling, mysteriously withdrawn rape charges aplenty... And, solely because of who his father is, he's allowed to get away with all of it. Like Nakagami, it just defies all common decency and logic.

 

"Here we are," ChloÈ states redundantly, opening the door and peering across at Anarchy's dingy faÁade. Leaving no stone unturned it its quest for the right ambience, the club's name is scrawled, graffiti style, across its plain brick frontage in black spray paint and its windows are all boarded up with decrepit looking planks of wood. Despite it now being just past one in the morning, a queue of thirty or so artfully scruffy looking club goers snake down the street, the hopeful gleam in their eyes at odds with their calculatedly vacant expressions. "Hope you're all ready for some fun," he adds, getting out and stretching lazily, putting on a performance for the going nowhere queue.

 

Looking at the, as Ken called them, door nazis in their camouflage cargo pants and white t-shirts with the Union Jack emblazoned across the chest, I can't help but wonder how we're going to get past them and sigh resignedly. "Hey, what makes you think they're going to think any higher of us than those who are already queuing?" I mutter, joining ChloÈ on the road and wishing I'd remembered to bring my cigarettes with me. "I mean, just look at 'em. They look dead from the neck up."

 

"Watch and learn," ChloÈ replies, smiling as, bounding away from me, he grabs Aya's hand and drags him into the middle of the road. He then, as I stare on in disbelief, wraps his arms around Aya's waist and, to the cheering delight of the suddenly animated crowd, kisses him passionately. Aya, and I *think* he's only acting, struggles furiously for a second or two before clutching his hand around ChloÈ's butt and kissing him back passionately.

 

My mouth once again gaping open in astonishment, I take a hesitant step away from the car just as a vodka bottle goes flying over my head and crashes down on the road just inches away from ChloÈ and Aya. Spinning around, all ready to go on the defensive, I find Ken standing on the roof of the Mercedes, his expression one of sneery contempt.

 

"Fuckin' pansies," he hollers, miming poking his finger down his throat in a 'I'm so gonna vomit' gesture before jumping off the car and pulling ChloÈ away from Aya. "Can't fuckin' keep your hands off each other for a fuckin' second. You make me fuckin' sick!"

 

Quickly deciding that this little show had to have been planned in advance, I see my opportunity and take it. Rolling my eyes dramatically at the two bouncers, I sashay across the road and grab Ken by the back of his braces. "I can't take you... *children*... anywhere, can I?" I sigh, roughly shoving Ken in front of me and continuing determinedly towards the club's entrance. "Honestly, I'm just embarrassed to be seen in public with any of you."

 

"Hey! Wait for us!" ChloÈ shouts, bounding up behind me and crashing into my back. "Come on brother, darling, you know you love us."

 

"Love us," Aya repeats, giggling as, out of nowhere, he materializes by my side and drapes his arm around my shoulder. "You know you love us."

 

As I'd counted on, the door nazis are either confident that we're rich, decadent, and most likely drug fucked or, alternatively, simply want us off the street before we give Anarchy a bad name, because they step back and wave us in without hesitation. The moment the door closes behind us, Aya whispers, "Well done," in my ear and drops back to join ChloÈ. Ken though is a little more demonstrative in his praise of my acting abilities and gives me an enthusiastic bear hug before bouncing through the door that leads into the body of the club.

 

"Remember," ChloÈ states softly from behind me. "We're just here to monitor Chesterton and his cronies. If you feel compromised or out of your depth or anything, grab one of us and we'll take you back to the car. I know this was pretty much just dumped on you, so please don't think we're expecting any sort of miracle from you. We know this is your first time back in the field, so to speak, and don't want to place undue stress on you."

 

"I'll be fine," I retort confidently, straightening my shoulders and walking into the club without once looking back. The music emanating from the huge bank of speakers surrounding the bar is approximately ten times more horrid than what Ken was trying to play in ChloÈ's bedroom and twenty times louder. I have no idea who's behind the racket and, not exactly ever wanting to hear it again, nor do I want to know.

 

Rapidly deciding that I need a drink if I'm going to survive the music without grinding my teeth down into my gums, I push through the crowded dance floor and head for the bar. ChloÈ's top apparently possessing magical, 'notice me' qualities, the barman with the very becoming electric blue Mohawk serves me straight away, much to the disgust of the Sid Vicious clone standing to my right and who was waiting to be served before I reached the bar.

 

Once I've paid for my heavily watered down scotch and Coke, I lean against the bar and survey the crowd. Spotting Chesterton sitting in one of the darkened back booths, his hand down the flimsy top of the young, over made up girl next to him, I make a point of paying him scant attention and continue glancing around me. Taking Anarchy's strict dress code to heart, everyone is done up the nines in punk finery and I doubt I've ever seen such an outlandish, colorful display before. A number of the women wear tiny tartan miniskirts that are barely held on by huge safety pins over torn fishnet stockings and knee high fuck me boots or Doc Martin's, while ripped jeans and t-shirts with crude statements -- 'FUCK London', instead of 'FCUK London' -- splashed across them seem to be the outfit of choice for a lot of the men.

 

Thanks to ChloÈ, we simultaneously fit right in while still managing to stand out, with both ChloÈ himself and Aya in particular drawing admiring glances from all those whose paths they cross. A flicker of jealousy ignites in me at this -- 'look at ChloÈ if you absolutely have to, but back off Aya, he... was... is... mine' -- and, suddenly craving nicotine, I turn back around and buy a pack of smokes and a lighter from the barman. I then, wanting to get my mind back on the task at hand, systematically smoke two of them before moving away from the bar and positioning myself a discrete distance away from Chesterton's party. Chesterton, to my dismay, is no longer sitting with them and, berating myself for my futile jealous attack, I hope he hasn't snuck out. Leaning against the wall and praying that I look more casual than I feel, I glance around for the others, finding only Ken in the middle of the dance floor and no sign of either Aya or ChloÈ.

 

Forcefully telling myself not to panic, that I haven't necessarily stuffed up the surveillance, I down the rest of my drink in one gulp and light another cigarette. A young couple attached at the lips bump into me, nearly causing me to drop my smoke but, too caught up in each other, they don't even notice and stumble back into the crowd without apologizing. I watch as they're swallowed up by the heaving dancers and sigh. As though effectively opening my eyes to it, I now see amorous couples getting it on just about everywhere that I look. Sex not really having been high on my agenda since being in England -- and I still don't know, ChloÈ and Aya and their odd arrangement aside, how the others deal with their, assuming of course that they even have one, sex lives -- I'm suddenly reminded that I do in fact still have a libido and toy with the idea of trying my hand at picking someone up. This idea is short lived however as, scanning the crowd and dismissing everyone as not being what I'm looking for, I realize with shock that the only person I want is Aya.

 

I...

 

Oh fuck.

 

It's true. I want Aya. I want Aya because he's beautiful and he fascinates me and, although I'm still having difficulties accepting it, he used to be mine. He's fucked up, and he's got ChloÈ, and it's clear that he doesn't want me, but... Goddamn it... I want him bad.

 

Slumping against the wall, I chain smoke my way through another three smokes and am about to return to the bar to get another drink when I happen to notice Ken and ChloÈ, clearly engaged in a heated conversation, standing on the other side of the dance floor. Wanting to know what's going on, I make my way across to them, wondering how they can even hear each other over the thudding music.

 

"Ah, good, there you are," ChloÈ mutters his voice only just making it over the top of the music as he pulls me towards the corridor that leads down to the toilets. Thankfully it's well insulated against the noise and subsequently a lot quieter. "We have a problem," he adds, looking just about as pissed off as I've ever seen him. "Chesterton's buyers are getting impatient and, in order to placate them, he leaves for Russia in three hours. The heat getting a little too much for him, he then plans on assuming a new identity and disappearing for a year or two."

 

"In other words, if we're going to take him out it has to be done now," Ken states, shrugging expansively and looking even more tetchy than ChloÈ. "Because this wasn't on the cards, we're without our weapons and..."

 

"Not all of us," I interject softly, patting my pocket. "I have my wire. I grabbed it on a whim before joining you in the garage. If we're really going to have to take out Chesterton tonight then... well... I'm your man."

 

"KR's given his go ahead," ChloÈ murmurs, sharing a worried look with Ken. "I don't know though... There's always the distasteful option of simply snapping his neck... That'd do, at a push."

 

"I can do it," I declare, managing to sound surer of myself than I actually feel and slipping my wire on. "I've done the training, I'm prepared for it and... and if it's what I have to do then I'm ready to do it. Why should you have to snap his neck when I'm here with my weapon. I... I don't need protecting from the hard truths of what it is you all do. Remember... I used to do it too..."

 

"He's right," Ken replies, closing his hand around my shoulder and giving it a reassuring squeeze. "Yohji is a part of Krypton Brand and our orders are to take out Chesterton. If it was anyone else who'd come clean about having their weapon on them we wouldn't hesitate about giving them the job..."

 

"I suppose you're..." Trailing off, ChloÈ suddenly glances behind him, towards the toilets, and visibly tenses. "Given that Chesterton in all his drunken belief that he's God's gift to people everywhere has just discovered Aya, I think it's time this conversation came to an abrupt end."

 

"Aya?" I exclaim, pushing past ChloÈ and stalking off in the direction of the toilets. While he can keep his affinity with flora and fauna, ChloÈ's ability to catch 'readings' from people when they're most needed is something else again. "What do you *mean* Chesterton's discovered Aya?"

 

"I left Aya monitoring Chesterton in the bathroom," ChloÈ replies agitatedly, following me, "and, well, in hindsight it may not have been my greatest idea."

 

"He's not..." Ken murmurs, leaving the rest of his question unvoiced as, all but falling over the top of each other, we reach the door to the men's toilet.

 

"He'd like to," ChloÈ retorts flatly, grabbing Ken's arm and gesturing that he keep guard by the door. "Stay here. We don't want an audience."

 

"You're damn right we don't want an audience," I snarl, adrenaline thumping heavily in my veins. I've done the training, I've killed before, Chesterton is a low life scum bag who doesn't deserve to live, I...

 

I can do this.

 

Shoving the door open and taking comfort from knowing that ChloÈ is behind me, I stride into the bathroom and see red. Chesterton, who actually looks worse in real life and close up than he did in the photograph on the laptop (an achievement to be proud of if ever there was one), his fly undone, has Aya trapped between two urinals, his hands scrabbling at the redhead's chest.

 

"C'mon, you're so hot," he slurs, oblivious to the fact that he's no longer alone in the toilets. "Just tell me what you want and I'll get it for you, anything. My daddy knows the Prime Minister..."

 

His face flushed and his eyes bright, Aya squirms against the wall, struggling to control his distress and clearly uncomfortable. "I don't care if your father *is* the Prime Minister," he hisses, like Chesterton seemingly unaware that he's no longer on his own, that help's arrived. "I'm not interested, okay, so... So get your fucking hands off me!"

 

"But I want you," Chesterton whines, taking one hand off Aya to rub at his crotch. "Come on..."

 

"Get off me!"

 

Seeing Aya so obviously flustered -- over something so trivial? -- for the second time in the space of two hours going straight to my head, my wire is flying towards Chesterton's fleshy neck even before I'm fully aware that I've let it go. Reaching its target unerringly, I pull back on the wire, increasing the pressure around Chesterton's throat and jerking him away from Aya. Unlike the mannequins I'd practiced on at the castle, he fights back, his fingers clawing frantically at the wire. I don't let up though and continue tightening my hold until, with a final gasp, Chesterton slumps heavily to the floor.

 

Dead.

 

I've killed him.

 

For a moment, sickened, I just stare at his body, not paying any attention to ChloÈ's urgent entreaties to leave the bathroom, not really paying attention to anything. Then...

 

Then Aya's in front of me, his expression of embarrassed relief clarifying things for me more quickly and simply than either a bottle of scotch or a session with the world's best psychiatrist ever could.

 

"Thank you," he murmurs weakly, blushing. "I... I knew I could count on you..."

 

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

 

~ Aya ~

 

Distracted by the fact that the back fence is no longer white -- as it was when I left ten days ago for Chicago -- I over pay the cabdriver and stare at the now forest green fence in puzzlement. No one said anything about painting the fence during my daily calls. Mind you, come to think of it, no one said much about anything at all. Even ChloÈ, who sometimes I have extreme difficulty getting off the phone and who I have at times even had cause to hang up on, seemed vague when I asked him how things were. Too busy with my mission -- chasing down Chesterton's 'silent' partner who only came to light after the fat pervert's death -- I hadn't thought anything of it at the time, but now, faced with the irrational shock of the unfamiliar looking fence, I can't shake the feeling that something's happened.

 

Hoping that it's nothing too bad and that everyone's all right, I drag my -- full to the bursting of obligatory gifts and dirty laundry that I'd been hoping to get done straight away -- suitcase across to the gate and hurriedly press my code in to the keypad. When the gate's lock doesn't disengage, I frown at the electronic pad and try again. To my annoyance the gate still doesn't unlock and, my frustration levels growing by the second, I'm about to jab my finger into the button on the intercom when I hear the sounds of movement heading my way from within the courtyard.

 

"What's the magic word?" ChloÈ calls out, not bothering with the intercom. "If you don't get it right though I'm afraid you'll have to walk around the block and come in the front door."

 

"Let me in or you're not going to like the consequences," I grind out, only just controlling the urge to give the gate a violent kick. While my flight out of America was blissfully free of any Charles-like clones, and I'm in a far better frame of mind than when I came back from Japan a little less than two months ago, it's still quite warm standing here in the sun and, well, to put it plainly, I want to be on the other side of the gate.

 

"Wrong!" ChloÈ retorts in a singsong voice, clearly unaware or completely unbothered by the fact my mood is in danger of rapidly souring. "Because I'm in a good mood though I'll give you another try."

 

"Fine. How's this then?" I reply in Japanese, pausing to smile vacantly at a red-faced man passing behind me walking his wife's -- surely -- fluffy white yap-yap dog. "You either let me in now or I give the nice man here your present. With a little modifying I'm sure it would fit his horrid little canine perfectly."

 

"Well I never, it looks like you knew the magic word after all," ChloÈ laughs, opening the gate and stepping back to let me in. "We had a power surge," he offers by way of greeting, giving me a brief kiss on the cheek before strolling across to the outdoor setting and perching himself on the glass-topped table. "While the power wasn't off for very long it nonetheless caused merry havoc with all our codes and Yuki has spent days recoding everything. Sorry. We should have given you your new code."

 

"I'm thinking there's quite a few other things you should have told me about as well," I mutter, dropping my suitcase and glancing around me as though I've just stepped through the cupboard and found myself in Narnia. Like the now green fence, I'm thrown by the sight of the courtyard and give ChloÈ a questioning look. Not only are half of the shop's fittings forming a maze in front of the back door, but the terracotta paving has been sandblasted clean and the small collection of cuttings I'd been cultivating in clayware pots near the water feature are nowhere to be seen.

 

"What gives with the spring clean, huh?" I add when it becomes clear ChloÈ, who's staring intently at his fingernails, isn't going to answer me. "More to the point, why am I getting this sinking feeling that something's happened that everyone just happened to casually forget to inform me about?"

 

"I thought Free had told you," ChloÈ murmurs evasively, glancing up from his fingernails and shrugging. "I'm... sorry if he didn't. We've been so busy that it must have slipped our minds."

 

Looking at ChloÈ, who I've only just noticed is wearing -- that's it, the world's going to hell and I'm officially the last to know -- a fitted black t-shirt on top of faded denim jeans and who has what looks to be dust in his hair, my sense of unease grows exponentially. "For God's sake, ChloÈ, stop being so damn vague and get to the point!" I exclaim, striding over to the table. "Is everyone okay? If someone's been hurt and no one's told me then I'm going to be..."

 

"Everyone's fine," ChloÈ interrupts, his eyes straying to the spot near the water feature where my cuttings had been and visibly flinching. "Seriously. We're all... Well, let's just say we're better than we were a couple of days ago."

 

The same self-control I'd used to stop me from kicking the gate saving me from grabbing ChloÈ by the shoulders and shaking him, I bite back a sigh and try again. "If everyone's fine then what about the cats?"

 

"Tantomile and Mystique are fine," ChloÈ murmurs, closing his eyes for a moment before meeting my gaze and grimacing. "Snowball however, well, after it being touch and go for a few days, she'll live."

 

Snowball? Something's happened to Michel's Snowball? Shit. While the placid white Persian never really makes that much of an impact on me, I know that she's Michel's pride and joy and that he'd be devastated if he lost her.

 

"What happened?" I query, knocking ChloÈ's feet off the chair in front of the table, that he'd been using as a footrest, and sitting down. "Was she run over?" Even before I've finished voicing the question I know that the answer will be no. Unlike Tantomile and Mystique who, if bored, have no qualms about terrorizing the neighborhood and teasing any dogs that unwittingly cross their path, Snowball never leaves the property. I've never even seen her so much as sitting up on the fence.

 

"She was attacked, just over there," ChloÈ sighs, pointing towards the water feature. "When we had the power surge all the locks were disengaged and the back gate swung open, allowing two passing Dobermans free access to the courtyard. Because, I suppose, they *could*, they flew at Snowball and tried their best to tear her to shreds."

 

"Oh no," I groan, horrified. Stupid people who own stupid vicious dogs should, no two ways about it, be made to keep them locked up at all times. "She's going to be okay though, yeah?"

 

"Not for the want of trying on the dogs behalf," ChloÈ replies, a flicker of a wan smile tugging on his lips. "If not for Tantomile and Mystique wading in and sounding the alarm she would have been history. You'd be proud of them though, Mystique screeched as though she was being gutted alive while Tantomile attached herself to one of the dog's snouts and proceeded to scratch several shades of hell out of him. By the time she'd finished with him I'm sure he was regretting ever having stepped through the gate."

 

"Good," I retort coldly, proud of my cat for wading in where I couldn't. "Please tell me she managed to take out one of his eyes as well."

 

"Oh, don't worry about Brutus and Fang, or whatever their silly names were," ChloÈ replies matter-of-factly, "they're now history. The vet was so horrified at the extent of Snowball's injuries that she called the police and they impressed on the dogs rock-ape owner that if he wanted to avoid criminal charges it would be in his best interest to have the revolting creatures put down without a fight." Pausing, ChloÈ shrugs. "After a heavily expletive laden rant about fairies and cats and how the police wouldn't know a honest, law abiding citizen such as himself if they were kicked up their collective backside by one, his two brain cells finally connected for a brief moment and he handed them over."

 

"Good," I repeat, scowling. "I'm glad the idiot saw sense and gave up the horrid animals without too much of a fight. I bet he's already got replacements though and can only hope he keeps better control of them this time around."

 

"I doubt we'll have to worry," ChloÈ murmurs sweetly, the feigned innocence in his voice immediately making me wary of what's to come. "Despite having lived in this area his entire worthless existence, I do believe the dog-loving Mr Pryor is now thinking of moving away. Passing by his hovel yesterday, I saw that a For Sale sign was up in his excuse for a front lawn and, in preparation for a prompt sale, the two car wrecks that had been passing as modern art in his driveway had already been towed away."

 

"I'm not sure I want to be asking this," I reply, my curiosity piqued, "but, come on, tell me. What did you do to him?"

 

"He started it," ChloÈ smirks, placing his hands flat on the table and leaning back lazily. "If he'd just let it go after handing over the dogs then everything would have been fine. But, no. He just had to take it upon himself to paint libelous comments, misspelled and with deplorable grammar too, I might add, all over the back fence."

 

"Which explains why the fence is now green," I murmur, nodding to myself. "Uh-huh. Makes sense. As pleased as I am to know about the fence though, you didn't answer my question... Mr Pryor, what did you do to him?"

 

"Not a lot," ChloÈ replies, cocking his head to one side and glancing at me coyly. "We didn't hurt him, if that's what you're concerned about."

 

"We?" I prompt. "We as in you and...?"

 

"Yohji," ChloÈ responds, sitting up straight and giving my knee a poke with his foot. "It was Yohji's idea actually. Albeit far less creative, admittedly, I'd just wanted to give him a free stint in traction."

 

"Are you going to tell me what you did or should I just go inside and ask Free?" I sigh, making to stand up. Honestly. One more ambiguous answer from ChloÈ and I'm going to cut my losses and retreat inside.

 

"I won't ask if anyone's ever told you that you're no fun as I suspect I know the answer already," ChloÈ mock pouts, giving my knee another prod. "Given that you're clearly getting tetchy though, I'll tell you..."

 

"Hallelujah," I mutter, sitting back and folding my arms across my chest expectantly. "Go on then, tell me."

 

"You know how everyone instantly springs to the wrong conclusion about the Death card in the tarot?" ChloÈ snickers, smiling for the first time since I'd entered the courtyard. "Well we had Hermes fly over Mr Pryor and drop one, the most gory of Free's that we could find, of course, right in front of him. You should have seen his face. It was like the Grim Reaper himself had materialized in a puff of smoke and pointed a skeletal finger at him. He went so white that I thought he was going to have a heart attack on the spot. It was great, well worth Free's future ire when he eventually notices one of his cards are missing."

 

"Nice," I murmur, laughing appreciatively. "Let's face it, it really serves him right." Without even having met this Mr Pryor I feel no degree of responsibility for his well being and know that if I'd been here I would have been as involved as anyone in teaching him the error of his ways. Petty -- while not to us who take everything too seriously -- though the reasons were, revenge governs our way of life and to have simply let him get away with his graffiti attack on the fence wouldn't have crossed anyone's minds. As it is he really should consider himself lucky that he was let off lightly.

 

"That's our opinion too," ChloÈ replies, his smile slipping. "You should have seen Snowball once we got the dogs off her. There was so much blood that I honestly didn't think she was going to survive. If we hadn't got her to the vet as fast as we did she wouldn't have stood a chance. Pryor though, he didn't care in the slightest. I could share with you his opinions on cats, people who own cats, and distraught boys who cry over cats like girls and-haven't-you-heard-boys-don't-cry-you-great-sissy, but, really, I think you're better off not knowing. He was just... thick, you know? Ignorant, common, and just plain nasty."

 

"Sounds it," I mutter, "and, no, you're right, I don't really think I need to know any of his verbal highlights, thanks all the same. What about Snowball though? From what you're saying she's a real mess. Is she really going to be okay?"

 

"In time the vet's hopeful she should fully recover," ChloÈ responds softly. "Again though, if you'd seen her you would have immediately thought she didn't stand a chance. One of her ears was half hanging off and there was a gaping wound in her side. It... It was just awful. She needed three blood transfusions just to make it through the night."

 

Leaning forward, I place my hand on ChloÈ's knee and look up at him, forcing him to meet my gaze, which he does so reluctantly. ChloÈ's genetic make up, unique as it is, makes him susceptible to the pain of animals, especially cats and, to a lesser extent, birds. Yuki once accidentally trod on Mystique's tail and ChloÈ could feel his cat's momentary jolt of pain even though he was in another room. Because of this he views venturing anywhere near a veterinary surgery with about as much enthusiasm as I do contemplating a trip to Free's tea shop.

 

"What about you, are you okay?" I murmur gently, refraining from going straight for the jugular and inquiring how he managed to be of any assistance at all without passing out. "You must have..."

 

"Try lost the plot entirely and you'd be getting close," ChloÈ finishes for me, a pained expression crossing his face. "You know something though, next time you feel the urge to indulge in one of your little panic attacks about dragging Yohji over here, don't bother. If it hadn't been for him Snowball would be running around in the Great Cattery in the sky. He was terrific. While I sat slumped on the kitchen floor like a rag doll because my head was threatening to explode, he took charge and got Snowball straight down to the vet's. He even took on the task of picking Michel up from school and explaining everything to him. If..."

 

The mass of silver bracelets he's wearing on both wrists jingling quietly as he moves, ChloÈ rests his hand over mine as a deep shudder works its way through his body. "If it had been down to me Michel would have come home not only to a dead cat but also the sight of me lying half comatose on the floor in the kitchen," he continues miserably. "Yohji though, he was, as I've already said, terrific."

 

"You can't blame yourself for reacting the way that you did," I reply quietly, "and I'm sure Michel doesn't blame you for anything either. All's well that ends well, yeah? Yohji proved to be Snowball's savior, Brutus and Fang have already paid the ultimate price for sticking their snouts in where they didn't belong, Mr Pryor is about to shuffle off to pastures no doubt grayer and..."

 

"And, courtesy of the great Snowball saga, the shop's in the process of getting a make over," ChloÈ interjects, giving my hand a quick, grateful squeeze before gesturing at the shop fittings that are blocking the back door. "Just wait until you see what we've already done."

 

"Oh-oh," I groan, visions of the Yukio managed, Dragon's Tears franchise popping into my head and making me want to bury my face in my hands. "Please tell me this isn't as worrying as it sounds."

 

"It's not as worrying as it sounds," ChloÈ dutifully replies, smirking. "Actually, it's quite good and, once you hear the reasoning behind the upgrade, I'm sure you'll be all for it too."

 

"Try me then," I sigh, wondering if I'm going to encounter any more 'surprises' before the day is out or whether this, the all out assault, by the looks of the things, on the shop is the last of them. "All being well there's no way it can be bad as the mental images I'm currently falling prey to."

 

"You worry too much," ChloÈ retorts, shaking his head mock gravely. "Trust me though, there's nothing really to worry about at all. Snowball's vet is a member of a cat protection society and, basically, her passion for the cause managed to rub off on Michel to the extent of him wanting to donate just about everything he owns to the shelter they run. We stopped him because, well, it was the logical thing to do, but at the same time it got us thinking. The profits from the shop go in to some account that we never draw on, never touch, and, let's face, don't really have any use for. After speaking to KR, who, for what it's worth expressed surprised that we were actual able to operate the shop at a profit, he agreed that, if it's what we want to do, we can donate the money to the cat shelter. Michel, as you can imagine, is over the moon about this and we're renovating simply in order to push home the 'feline' angle a little more."

 

"So far it all sounds good," I state cautiously, pleased with the plan despite the fact that no one bothered to consult me about it. "Tell me more about the renovations though. We don't want to do anything too garish in case it scares off our middle-aged, suburban clientele."

 

"Fresh paint, a new logo, a few paw prints stenciled on fridges and the like, and, just to impress on everyone how caring and sharing we are, a big poster explaining about the cat shelter and how every flower sold helps purchase a can of Whiskas for a starving feline," ChloÈ replies airily, reaching behind him and retrieving an A4 sketchbook that I hadn't noticed lying on top of the table. "Here, take a look at the new logo," he adds, flipping open the book and handing it to me.

 

Taking the book, I look down at the brightly colored sketch and can't stop myself from smiling. Taking the shop's name -- Kitten's House -- literally, three kittens, one white, one black, and one who looks like a miniature leopard, stake their claim around a simple, primary colored and obviously plastic looking cubby house. The black kitten -- Tantomile -- is standing on the roof, her back arched and her tail draped around the bright blue chimney, while the white kitten -- Snowball -- is curled in a tight ball on the front mat. On the windowsill, sitting upright and looking regal, is -- Mystique -- the spotted kitten. All are drawn in such a way as to be instantly recognizable.

 

"Yohji?" I query pointlessly, lightly trailing my finger across the image.

 

"Of course," ChloÈ responds, giving me a funny look. "Do you like it? If you flick through the book you'll see some of the other options amongst... ah... other things."

 

"I think it's pretty good, actually, and can't wait to see what it will look like on the front window," I murmur, closing the book and, starting from the front, quickly flicking through it. Sketches of the three cats fill up the first few pages -- a particularly witchy looking one of Tantomile entwined around an old fashioned looking broomstick making me laugh out loud -- before giving way to, variations on a theme, shop logos. While none of them are bad, I like the one of the cubby house the best and am about to return the book ChloÈ when I realize that the sketches on the last few pages aren't of cats or logos and are in fact of... me. One -- I'm sitting, leaning against a tree trunk with Tantomile on my lap, my gaze staring off in the distance, my expression oddly sad -- takes up a full page. Like all the other images, it's drawn exquisitely.

 

Perhaps even a little... too... exquisitely.

 

Feeling as though I've had the wind knocked out of me, I slam the book shut and drop it carelessly on the table. Oh God... Why's Yohji wasting his time on drawing me? I...

 

I don't want to know.

 

Knowing without looking up that ChloÈ is watching me like a hawk, I take a deep breath and quickly decide that the time has come for a change in topic. "So, do you want to wait for me to wrap it, or would you like your present now?" I offer, hating how I sound as flustered as I feel and, not wanting to show it, standing up and going over to my suitcase. "It's your call. It's... It's just that I know how impatient you are and... and if you're needing help getting the shop back together I don't know when I'll get time to wrap it."

"Twist my arm then," ChloÈ replies easily, clearly accepting my need to move on and being gracious enough to not make an issue of it. "I mean, with an offer like that how could I possibly say no?"

 

"That's what I was hoping you'd say," I murmur, opening the zippered compartment on the front of the case and pulling out a long, thin velvet pouch. While I can't really say that I get the whole 'buying presents for everyone whenever you go somewhere' line of thought, it now -- after months of industriously training myself not to forget -- comes naturally to me and, sometimes, I even enjoy hunting around for things that I know the intended recipient will like. Michel, who for reasons best known to himself collects snow globes of all things, is the easiest to buy for, while ChloÈ, with his love of roses and all other sorts of pretty, pointless things, is a close second. As for the others, well, Free and Yuki thankfully like to read, so books usually suffice for them, and Ken, despite how he usually shovels them all in at once, subsequently giving himself a sugar high for the rest of the day, seems content with sampling all the different sweets the world has to offer.

 

Mentally ticking myself off for, yet again, behaving like a dithery idiot, I carry ChloÈ's present across to him and place it in his waiting hands. "Here. I... I hope you like," I whisper, my gaze straying to Yohji's sketchbook, the sight of it causing another wave of unwanted emotion to wash over me. Goddamn it! Just what the hell is he doing drawing me? I...

 

Fuck.

 

Just once I'd like things to be simple.

 

Taking another deep, meant to be calming but isn't in the damn slightest, breath, I wrench my gaze away from the book and focus on ChloÈ. By way of thanking him for putting up with my cranky behavior of late I've spent more than our usual, unvoiced yet stringently adhered to average on his gift and, praying that I haven't misjudged and that he likes it, watch anxiously as he pulls it out of the velvet pouch. Made of pewter and allegedly from the turn of the last century, the strand of vaguely Art Deco roses that make up the choker are both perfectly sculptured and delicate. When I saw it in the window of the dusty old antique shop near my motel it made me think -- with a degree of homesickness that I had to forcefully ignore -- automatically of ChloÈ.

 

"Oh, it's lovely," ChloÈ smiles, holding the choker up and casting an appreciative eye over it, before placing it around his neck and fumbling over the fiddly, intricate clasp. "Thank you. You've excelled yourself, you really have."

 

"I'm glad that you like it," I murmur, moving behind the table and, batting ChloÈ's fingers away, taking over the task of doing up the choker. "Let me. The man who sold it to me showed me how to do it. Depending on the mood I'm in later I may even help you take it off."

 

"If I wasn't rapidly approaching the point of suffering heatstroke I'm sure I could come up with a double entendre by way of response to that," ChloÈ replies blithely, reaching up and running his fingers over the choker once I've managed to do the clasp up. "You're safe, however. Too hot and light headed from the shock of wearing a t-shirt, I think..."

 

"I didn't even know you owned a t-shirt, let alone would be seen dead in one," I respond, draping my arms over ChloÈ's shoulders and leaning limply against his back. Why? Because, basically, I can, that's why.

 

"And there I was thinking I was the only one suffering heatstroke," ChloÈ laughs, shaking his head and closing his hands around mine. "Take a look. I know you've been busy the last ten days but surely you can recognize one of your own t-shirts when you see it. Ken kindly offered me some disgusting Manchester United rag but, not even for the purpose of doing the dreary, manual labor thing in the shop would I, as you say, have been seen dead in a football top."

 

"Fair enough too," I snicker, my brain not quite up to the task of picturing ChloÈ in one of Ken's Man United tops. Oddly content in this position, I look down over ChloÈ's shoulder and focus on his myriad bracelets. Like his preferred long sleeves and, more often than not, cufflinks, they complete their purpose admirably and disguise the faint white scars on his wrists perfectly. Although I know -- their history stretching back, or so I think anyway, to when they were teenagers -- Free knows they're there, I don't think any of the others do and know that that's how ChloÈ wants it to remain. I've thought about telling him that no one would take any notice of them, or judge him on his past despair, but always fall short of actually saying anything. Given my own peccadilloes -- let anyone see the scarring on my waist? Hell no -- it would just be too much of a case of the pot calling the kettle black for my liking.

 

Noticing that one of the bracelets, a charm bracelet that, come to think of it, I haven't seen since our first time together in that motel in Prague, is missing the heavy silver ankh that used to hang from it, I shake off ChloÈ's hands and stand back. "What happened to the ankh?" I snap, my good mood of only a moment ago deserting me. "There used to be an ankh on that bracelet and I want to know what's happened to it."

 

"I want to know and I want to know now," ChloÈ responds, mimicking my petulant tone and shrugging. "I don't know. Maybe it just fell off and I never noticed."

 

"Bullshit it just fell off!" I exclaim returning to my seat and, keeping my gestures in line with my tone of voice, all but throwing myself down in it. "For fuck's sake, ChloÈ! You don't have to pander to me. I see one of the damn things every time I shower or change my top, so it's not like I can't deal with seeing them."

 

"Maybe I don't want to be reminded of what they stand for, have you ever thought of that?" ChloÈ replies smoothly, gazing at me impassively from beneath his fringe. "As for pandering to you? Look at the life we lead, Aya. We all pander to each other, it's how we survive. We tolerate and we adapt and we accept. You might swear and declare that it wouldn't bother you, that I can do what I like, but, just as an example here, you'd be upset if I decided to hang a painting of an ankh in the living room... and don't say that you wouldn't be... and that's why I removed the charm from the bracelet. You don't rub my face in things that you know might upset me, so why would I want to do it to you?"

 

"You still didn't have to remove it on my account," I mutter softly, looking down at my hands, unable to meet ChloÈ's gaze. He's right though, we *do* pander to each other and, my attack of the vapors reiterating this, it's something we've learnt to take for granted, something we probably even unconsciously count on. Suffering rapid mood swings having nothing on it, I'm now ashamed of my behavior and, slumping down in my seat, sigh. "I... I'm sorry though, for going off at you like I just did. Maybe you're right and the heat *is* getting to me."

 

"Which leads nicely onto the question I should have asked you the second you stepped foot through the gate," ChloÈ murmurs, sliding gracefully off the table and crouching down in front of me. "How are you feeling? You left here in such a spectacular fashion that we've been quite worried about you. If not for Snowball I'd even been thinking of flying over to join you. Given how you unwittingly scared him that night, Yohji in particular has been concerned about how you've been doing and, let me tell you now, has been anxiously awaiting your return."

 

"I..." Just as ChloÈ doesn't particularly want to be reminded about his -- natural, for him -- reaction to Snowball, I don't want -- understatement -- to have to think back to the Anarchy debacle.

 

And what a debacle it was too.

 

Nearly a fortnight has passed and I'm still of the opinion that Ken should consider himself extremely fortunate that I was too sick to -- with extreme prejudice, I might add -- teach him the error of his ways in relation to *always* taking the time to read instructions on things first. If he'd read the label on the black mousse before smearing it gleefully through my hair he would have seen that it was prone to producing allergic reactions in people and that it was recommended that you *test* it before actually going ahead and using it. But, no. His 'gung ho' nature being such that the mere concept of pausing to read instructions is completely foreign to him, he simply hit me with a palm full of the gunk while I was still telling him that I didn't want to have anything to do with it, that, thanks all the same, I already looked as stupid as I was planning on looking.

 

The effect being all but immediate (the mousse smelt indescribable), I started to feel a little off even before he'd finished running it through my hair. Not wanting to appear as though I was wanting to back out of the surveillance -- which everyone already knew I thought was a complete and utter farce because I'd been whining about it all day -- I didn't say anything and continued getting ready. If I'd had any common sense I would have confessed that I wasn't feeling well when I reacted to Yohji's -- innocent -- suggestion that I should wear a collar as though he'd told me Kimura himself was waiting outside the bathroom to pick up where he'd left off.

 

That however would have been far too easy, too sensible. And sick, stubborn people who have an odd obsession with 'saving face' don't, God forbid, *do* sensible.

 

No, instead of admitting that I could feel the contents of my stomach beginning to rise in revolt I allowed myself to be dragged, with the added bonus of Yohji in tow, down to Anarchy.

 

Anarchy, where -- the heat and the noise adding up to make me wish I'd never gotten out of bed that morning -- I got cornered by our target and proceeded to make a complete ass of myself. All -- ha! -- Chesterton did pretty much was trap me between two urinals and breathe alcoholic fumes all over my face. And that, contrary to my performance, was it. He *didn't* slobber on me, or grope me, or even offer to show me a 'good time' but, firmly entrenched in freak out mode by his mere proximity, I couldn't even raise the required co-ordination to push him away. If the others hadn't arrived when they did I honestly don't know what would have happened. Regardless of my training and what I'm capable of, Chesterton well and truly had my number and, pathetically, I was terrified of him. My head was swimming, I was so close to throwing up that I could feel the nausea rising in my throat, and all I could think of was how I wouldn't be able to stop Chesterton if his libido got the better of him and he seriously attempted to try something on.

 

If not for...

 

Well, taking everything into consideration, probably the worse thing that would have happened is that I'd have thrown up on Chesterton and that would have been the end of it. Not having the wherewithal to think this at the time though, seeing ChloÈ and Yohji come flying through the door was, by my addled way of thinking, nothing short of an answered prayer. Hell, I was so grateful and relieved that I even let Yohji drape his arm around my shoulder in order to guide me back to the car. Once I was safely ensconced on the backseat I woke up to myself a little though and, no doubt confusing Yohji incredibly, spent the entire journey home glowering at him balefully -- Don't touch me! Don't look at me! Don't get any ideas! I'm sick, leave me alone! -- from my huddled position against the door.

 

Back home, Ken's Killer Mousse not having quite finished with me, I managed to top my night off by clinging pitifully to the toilet bowl and throwing up until I passed out. One second I was staring numbly at the incongruous sight of my black nails clutched around the white porcelain bowl and then... nothing. Who found me and what happened after that isn't something I care to consider. When I woke up I was sitting on the floor of the shower while ChloÈ patiently washed and rewashed my hair until, finally, the water ran clean and all of the mousse was out of it. He then put me to bed where, exhausted, I slept through everyone's well meaning visits -- and, I can only assume, Ken's contrite groveling for forgiveness -- and didn't rise until news filtered down in to my hibernation that KR was wanting someone to go after Chesterton's hitherto unknown financial backer.

 

Still weak, but seeing an excellent excuse to avoid everyone -- *Yohji* -- for a week or two, I convinced KR that I was the best man for the job and managed to sneak, my tail very much between my legs, out of the house without seeing anyone other than ChloÈ, who, I swear, was lying in wait for me. While unimpressed with having to witness yet another example of my considerable avoidance skills, he wearily accepted my reasoning behind wanting to escape though and even managed to refrain from lecturing me as he played chauffeur and drove me to the airport.

 

And now, ten days later, I'm back home, no more ready to face the music than when I left.

 

"I'm fine," I murmur at last, glancing down at ChloÈ and smiling wanly. "My stomach hasn't so much as grumbled since... that night... and, yeah, I'm fine. The worst thing that happened to me during the whole mission was the airhostess on the flight over giving me odd looks because I was still wearing the black nail polish. Other than that... Well, everything went perfectly to plan. I even wrote up the report on the flight back."

 

"That wasn't entirely what I meant," ChloÈ replies mildly, "and you know it. If I hadn't known you'd recovered physically I never would have let you out of the house. What about..."

 

"That's fine too," I interrupt, the inevitability of his question being such that I've been expecting it and don't need to hear him voice it. "I behaved the way I did because I was sick. That's all there is to it."

 

"That's the story we've been trying to sell too," ChloÈ sighs, standing up and toying with his choker. "Without wanting to be the bearer of bad news, Yohji isn't really buying it though. He knows there's more to it and, don't jump down my throat here, because he cares about you he's been asking questions. No one's said anything but, well, I just thought I should warn you."

 

"I was sick," I repeat stubbornly, glossing over ChloÈ's comment about Yohji still caring about me and standing up. "Maybe Yohji just needs to hear it from me and then he'll finally believe it."

 

"Well, we're all entitled to our delusions," ChloÈ murmurs drily. "Now, I don't know about you but I've had quite enough of being outside for one day and think the time has come to go back indoors. Care to join me, or would you prefer to remain out here finalizing your story and stewing?"

 

"I need to see Snowball and the state of the shop," I retort tetchily, grabbing my suitcase and striding towards the backdoor. "As for finalizing my story? There is no *story*, just the fact that I was sick and not operating at my best."

 

"Whatever," ChloÈ replies dismissively, following me through the door and into the storeroom. "I'm going to the kitchen for a drink. Do you want anything?"

 

"Ah, no thanks," I respond off-handedly, looking around the storeroom and seeing yet more proof of ChloÈ's theory that we pander to each other. On the floor beneath the large table we use for sorting flowers on is the Oriental rug from Free's room and, stretched out on it and half under the table, lies Michel. A half full milkshake -- that, going by the overly sweet caramel scent of it is one of Ken's creations -- sits on top of the table alongside an empty chocolate wrapper, telling me both that Michel's probably all but set up camp here and that everyone's doing whatever they can to ensure that he's comfortable.

 

Crouching down, I peer under the table and, taking in the sight of the huge cat basket, piles of books, along with yet more discarded chocolate wrappers strewn all over the rug, realize that, yeah, this is definitely his new home away from home. Curled in the middle of the basket and barely recognizable -- with her stitches and shaved patches -- is Snowball. Tantomile and Mystique, who normally don't even give her the time of day because she's too passive and loving for their more vitriolic natures, are also squashed in the basket, doing their bit for keeping her both warm and safe.

 

"Aya!" Michel exclaims happily, crawling out from beneath the table and giving me an awkward hug. "Are you better? You look better. Did ChloÈ tell you about everything that's happened? Poor Snowball! Those horrible dogs really hurt her. The vet says she's going to be okay though. Isn't that great?"

 

"It's definitely great," I reply, answering his last question because I know he's most likely already forgotten the others. "I also think the idea of donating our profits to the cat shelter is great too."

 

"I knew you'd like it," Michel smiles, giving my knee a friendly little pat before settling himself back under the table. "Everyone else in the shop if you're looking for them."

 

"Mmm... I'm just going there now," I murmur, straightening up and -- because it has to be done some time -- walking into the shop. As ChloÈ had implied, it's a hive of activity and for a moment or two I'm able to watch unnoticed from the doorway. Free, who has paint flecks in his hair and a determined expression on his face, is halfway through painting the walls a blinding white, while Yuki, who's humming along to an inanely boppy sounding pop song that's coming from the new, Bose mini hi-fi (complete with a goth Hello Kitty sticker slapped over its left speaker) on the floor near the counter, is stenciling frosted paw prints on the glass doors of the refrigerator. Yohji, his hair scraped back in a ponytail and clad only in a pair of baggy, stone colored cargo shorts that show off his tan, is out the front of the shop putting the finishing touches on his window design. He looks so good, so... desirable... that I have to force myself to look away.

 

"Feeling better, I take it?" Ken queries softly, his voice startling me slightly because I hadn't even noticed him sitting cross-legged on the counter. "I'm sorry, you know, about the mousse. I never meant for it to make you sick."

 

"Of course you didn't," I respond, not liking how morose Ken looks and walking over to join him. Catching sight of me out of the corner of his eye, Yuki waves and smiles a greeting but Free, intent on his painting, remains oblivious to my return. "I'll admit I could have cheerfully force fed you a tube of the stuff while I had my head down the toilet but, rest assured, I'm over that now and know you weren't really trying to kill me."

 

"I'm still sorry," Ken mutters, twisting the Coke can in his hands and not looking at me. "It's my fault that you were sick and..." Trailing off, he shrugs. "Look at all this, huh," he continues slowly, lobbing the empty can in to the bin and running his fingers through his already messed up hair. "It's great, isn't it? The shop's going to be all rejuvenated for a good cause and..." Pausing again, he looks up and sighs. "And every time I look around me I can't help but think of Omi and how much he would have loved to have been involved in something like this. I mean, surely you remember how he used to go on about his visions for the Koneko and how, every school holiday without fail, he'd try and rev us all up into doing something about it..."

 

"Only we always found better things to do with our time until school had gone back and he'd missed his opportunity," I murmur quietly, nodding. "Yeah. I remember. That first weekend after school had broken up was always the worst. I think once I even threw a book at him to shut him up."

 

"And Yohji once locked himself in his room and refused to come out until Omi had agreed to drop the subject," Ken adds, his voice tinged with sadness. "It's silly of me, I know, but right now more than ever I just wish he was here with us."

 

"We could always take some photos of the working bee and email them over," I suggest, moved to the point of wanting to do something about it by Ken's melancholy mood. Too caught up in keeping Yohji at arms length, I'd completely forgotten how much Ken and Omi used to mean to each other. "I know it's not the same as being involved but maybe he'd like to know that we were thinking of him anyway."

 

His face brightening, Ken jumps off the counter and slaps me enthusiastically on the shoulder. "What a great idea!" he states, heading towards the door. "Don't think you're going anywhere though as you'll have to be in a few of the shots too."

 

"Can't we just say it was my idea?" I retort, spinning around and sighing as I realize that I'm already talking to an empty doorway. Damn. I hate having my photograph taken at the best of times and can hardly believe that I basically just volunteered for the horror. All I can say is I hope Omi appreciates it and, perhaps more to the point, doesn't expect it to become a common occurrence.

 

"Aya!"

 

Yohji! Shit.

 

Turning around, I just have time to notice Free looking at me with evident surprise -- yes, hi, I'm back -- before it hits me that Yohji is barreling in my direction with his arms outstretched as though he thinks he's going to hug me.

 

Which, well, God help us both, he's not.

 

Making to take my customary step backwards, I find myself backing into -- that's it, I'm going to kill him -- ChloÈ and, too slow to side step him, Yohji in on me before I can get away.

 

"I'm so glad you're back," Yohji declares, all clumsy enthusiasm as he wraps his arms around me. "Although everyone's told me not to, I've nearly worried myself sick about you."

 

"You don't have to worry about me," I murmur weakly as, his interfering complete for the day, ChloÈ meanders casually around me and joins Yuki by the refrigerator. Noticing me glaring at him over Yohji's shoulder, he winks and gives a little wave. "I... I'm fine," I continue, the knowledge that I'm now free to extricate myself not, oddly enough, having any impact on me. "There's... ah... no need for you to worry about me at all..."

 

Should get away...

 

Should push him off me and retreat...

 

Shouldn't... let myself fall like this...

 

Shouldn't... relax into his embrace, my arms settling themselves naturally around his waist...

 

Definitely shouldn't... long for his lips on mine...

 

"Hey, stay like that for a sec, will you? Stupid camera is still warming up..."

 

Ken!

 

The presence of a camera being all that I need to lurch into action, I squirm away from Yohji and, shooting an evil look at Ken, make a show of straightening my clothes. Unable to think of anything to say, I remain silent, suddenly desperate for the sanctuary of my bedroom.

 

"Aya..."

 

Ignoring Yohji's tentative use of my name, I concentrate on the task of getting the photographs over with as quickly as possible and -- if in doubt, dictate -- start barking orders. "Yuki, Free, we're going to take some photos in order to send over to Omi, so, come on, let's get the group shots done first."

 

It being clear that I'm not in a mood to be messed with, everyone snaps to attention and the photos are over in next to no time. Both Yohji and ChloÈ try to talk to me but I shrug them off and, the second I can, take off for my room.

 

Forty-five blissfully silent minutes later I'm freshly showered and calmly sorting through my laundry when someone has the nerve -- or alternatively *balls* -- to knock on my door. I'm still in the process of muttering go away when the door opens and a laptop is pushed along the floor into the room.

 

"Not wanting something thrown at my head for daring to bother you," Ken states, his voice getting fainter as he moves down the corridor, "I thought I'd just put the pictures on the computer for you to have a look at."

 

Sighing, I pick up the laptop and, sitting down on the edge of the bed, scroll disinterestedly through the photos. Thankfully I'm not in many of them. Two pictures, both group shots taken by timer outside the shop next to Yohji's sign, grab my attention though and leave me feeling... peculiar...

 

In one Yohji is looking straight at me, his expression a mirror image of the one in the photograph taken outside the Dragon's Tears, the one he keeps next to his bed.

 

Love.

 

Without rhyme nor reason, logic or basis, just love.

 

In the other one it's me who's looking at him, my eyes conveying what my lips can't.

 

Want.

 

Need.

 

Love...

 

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

 

~ Yohji ~

 

Holding the mug in both hands, I lean forward and, needing a fix *bad*, inhale the coffee's rich aroma with as much glee as a heroin junkie discovering a fresh vein. My tongue all but hanging out in anticipation, I savor the scent for another moment before caving in and taking a mouthful. As I'd known it would, the coffee tastes as good as it smells and, not caring that a) everyone's either in bed or out, or b) they wouldn't fight me for it even if they *were* lurking, I gulp it down before -- mine, mine, *all* mine -- pouring myself a refill and meandering out of the kitchen.

 

Having come from six straight hours of ass and mind numbing surveillance -- suited businessman type with alleged ties to the underground goes to bar, suited businessman type with alleged ties to the underground *stays* in bar, stupid possible villain drinks himself into a stupor and passes out in bar -- I'm too wired to sleep and, not knowing what to do with myself, come to an aimless stop near the stairs.

 

Knowing that my options -- read, watch TV, make myself even more hyper by dragging out a games console and pitting myself against virtual foes, stand in Aya's doorway and watch him sleep just 'cos, you know, I *can* -- are limited not making my choice any easier, I take another mouthful of coffee and decide that I may as well give reading a go. Watching television, which while here in England is pretty dodgy at any time of the day, seems to get even worse after midnight, would probably make me want to throw the remote at the wall, having my butt kicked by the PS2 *would* make me throw the controller at the wall and, well, hovering in Aya's room, I suspect, has untold dangers all of its own attached to it. Untold dangers that I'm sure, liking my body in it's current operating condition, I don't even want to contemplate.

 

Aya...

 

Yee-ha! Aya! My number one favorite topic to think about. All roads in the known universe and beyond lead to Aya.

 

Aya, Aya, Aya!

 

Fascinating... Beautiful... Unique... Cranky... Closed off... Kind... Mysterious... Loyal... Blinkered... Stubborn... Gentle... Determined... Aloof... Compelling... Shy... Secretive... Artistic... Talented... Intelligent... Proud...

 

Ex-lover... Distant friend...

 

All round constant, unrelenting pain in my ass...

 

I...

 

Goddamn it!

 

Despite there being absolutely no logical explanation for it -- and I can't help but wonder if this is how it was the first time too -- I can feel myself falling in love with him. Like a lemming is drawn to a cliff (yes, I know lemmings committing mass suicide over a cliff is a myth but, hey, it's an *accepted* myth, one that everyone knows and considers factual), I gravitate towards him as though I have no free will of my own. God knows, given how much care and attention he lavishes on avoiding me, I shouldn't feel a damn thing for him, but...

 

I want him.

 

It's illogical, completely without any valid reason that I can think of, and, well, quite frankly damn ludicrous. He's instrumental in keeping facts about my own life from me, he'll only hold the most cursory of conversations with me, hell, he's even been known to leave the room when I've entered it, and...

 

And for one glorious moment the day before yesterday he was in my arms, his expression blissfully unguarded and his body pressed against mine. Perhaps it's only wishful thinking on my part, but I think there was even a chance he may have kissed me if Ken hadn't inadvertently opened his stupid mouth and started blithering on about taking a picture.

 

Maybe.

 

Who knows.

 

I'm supposed to *know* Aya better than anyone yet -- Goddamn fucking dumb shit useless memory! -- he's an enigma to me. I -- both physically *and* mentally? -- saved him, and I loved him (he meant the world to me), and... And I can't remember any of it. *Nothing*. Not a damn fucking thing! He could die and I wouldn't even be able to speak at his funeral because I know nothing about him worthy of sharing.

 

Red hair... Violet eyes and body to sell your soul for... Light on his feet... Friend of felines everywhere...

 

Aya.

 

I look at him and all I feel is *need*. It's like a constant craving that governs my very existence, an itch that will never truly be scratched, an addiction that will never be fully cured. At first, in desperate search of an easy, palatable explanation, I thought that all I wanted was to get him into bed. You know, a case of - Me Man, Me Think With Cock, Him Good Looking, Me Want To Fuck Him. Strip him bare, fuck him, sate my lust by reducing him to little more than an object, a commodity to be used and discarded before, crowing with self-congratulatory victory, pushing him out of bed and getting on with life.

 

This thought, however, didn't last the day. Although I worked hard -- an entire packet of cigarettes dying nobly for the cause -- on it, I just couldn't convince myself that I'd be content with simply bedding Aya.

 

No. Aya is *not* a one-night-stand prospect.

 

Hell, as fucking incredible as he looks he's not even really what I'd call *sexual*. Sensual, yes, the way he moves, his clothes, his gestures, just about every damn thing about him oozes sensuality, but not sexual. There is nothing overt about Aya at all. Somehow, although fuck knows how, he's just completely oblivious to the effect he has on people. While anyone with a half active libido would immediately be overcome with a hot flush at the sight of him sucking on the end of a pen while concentrating on something, to Aya he's just idly sucking on a pen and he'd probably blush the color of his hair if someone was to be so rude as to suggest otherwise.

 

Sometimes, when he thinks no one's looking and he's on his own, I look at him and, seeing through the glamour of his physical appearance, see hints of a deep-seated vulnerability. I know that he's been hurt, thanks to ChloÈ letting it slip that night we went to Anarchy, but have no idea in what way or by who. Although I've begged and pleaded and cajoled, neither ChloÈ nor Ken will give me any details and -- I'm not just saying this because I *want* to know either -- the *not* knowing is actually harder to deal with, I'm sure of it, than actually knowing what the truth is. As bad as it may be, and I'm thinking it has to be pretty bad, it has to pale in comparison to some of things my mind's been subjecting me to.

 

Although...

 

I -- surprise, surprise -- just don't know. Did he react the way he did over my suggestion to wear a collar and over Chesterton's drunken propositioning simply because he was sick? Or is there a darker, less... pleasant... explanation? Although two weeks have passed, both of his reactions are as clear in my mind as though they only happened an hour ago. The idea of wearing a collar unnerved him while Chesterton's attempt to get into his pants actually, I'm sure of it, terrified him. Trained killer or not, if Chesterton had grabbed at his crotch then I honestly think he would have sprung in to life and trampled the fat bastard in his haste to get to the door or, failing that, simply passed out in a dead faint.

 

This in turn, when I'm too slow to stop the thoughts from festering and mutating, leads me in the unwelcome direction of wondering whether if by 'hurt' ChloÈ's really meaning to say... abused...

 

And -- please God, don't let it be the case -- if so, in what way and by whom? Did that fucker Takatori take something else from him? Or is that pretentious creep with the Egyptian fetish, Kimura, somehow involved? Something gives with him, I'm positive of it. Ken's reaction to his hideous memorial, Aya's refusal to acknowledge it, ChloÈ's surreptitious comforting of Aya, the small fact that Kimura just happened to meet his unfortunate end during the two months Weiss were officially listed as non-active...

 

Maybe it's nothing, but for some reason I just don't think so. Like Aya though, Kimura is one of those topics that no one seems willing to talk about. Ken, without bothering to explain why, gets tetchy, ChloÈ merely shrugs and murmurs that it was before his time, and Free just looks at me as though he can't quite comprehend what it is I'm asking or why, for that matter, I'm even asking it in the first place. Aya, I simply don't even ask. As much as I want to know, I've been here long enough to accept that pushing the issue is just, in the long run, going to do me more harm than good.

 

The thought of someone hurting Aya though, it... It just boils my blood. He may be an assassin, and he may treat me with caution, but ignoring these two small facts of life he's inherently kind and I don't think he's got a mean bone in his body. Vindictive, yeah, but not mean. Despite Chesterton being my first -- remembered -- 'kill', his death means nothing to me. He was an evil son-of-a-bitch - strike one, he thought he was above the law - strike two, he was distressing someone that means a lot to me - strike three and, do not pass go, do not collect two-hundred dollars, he was *out*.

 

Be it insanity, kismet, or the faintest residue of a long forgotten memory, Aya does things for me that I never even really considered possible.

 

I...

 

I want to wake up next to him more than I want to fuck him. Scary -- Me Man, Me Think With Heart Made Of Soggy Tissue -- though the thought is, it's true. I want him warm and sleepy and snuggled against me because, more importantly than anything, that's where *he* wants to be. As Goddamn hot and as irresistible as his body is, I want the man contained within it more. I want Aya, all of him. Every fear, every idiosyncrasy, every emotion, every scar, every vulnerability, everything. I want to love and know him. I want to make him smile, to protect him, to have him confide in and trust me, to feel the weight of his head against my shoulder as he dozes off while watching a movie... I want it all.

 

Sex, even with those who look as though they should be staring out at you from the glossy covers of fashion magazines, I can get anywhere. Go to a club, pick up a willing, accommodating body, fuck them, scream your pleasure to a foreign ceiling, go home, forget about them. We -- and I think of myself as a fully-fledged part of Krypton Brand now -- even have an apartment in the very center of London that can be used for this exact purpose. People -- most of them, anyway -- have needs and simple, no strings attached sex can be one of these needs. It works for people the world over. It's even worked -- frequently -- for me. But not now. No. Now, for no other real reason than I'm a drippy Piscean, a dreamer with no interest in reality, I want -- the whole package -- a relationship.

 

I want what I used to have.

 

I want Aya.

 

Everything from logic to comprehension, I've discovered, flies out the window and takes off permanently for places unknown when it comes to Aya. He's like, I don't know, some sort of anti-matter or black hole for common sense. Taking everything into consideration, I shouldn't feel anything for him other than a mild, general sense of affection. I just shouldn't. He's responsible for my being here in London, he's hot, he's pleasant enough to be around... Yeah. Whatever. Ken and ChloÈ are both hot and pleasant to be around too. In fact, given that I spend far more of my time with them -- and they even *talk* to me -- it would make far more sense to be lusting after either one of them. Hell, Free's not exactly unattractive either and, well, he doesn't seem to mind spending time with me. Perhaps, given that -- odd fashion sense and facial tattoos notwithstanding -- he's arguably the sanest in the entire household, I should just set my sights on him.

 

But, of course, that would be too logical. Without wanting to blow my own trumpet or anything, Ken, ChloÈ, and Free at least *like* me. What's more, I know where I stand with them. Despite my initial opinion of him, ChloÈ, compared to Aya -- except, ironically, when it comes to Aya -- anyway, is an open book. If he's tetchy with me then, instead of hearing the siren call of his bedroom and stalking off, he tells me. Unique though the concept might seem to some of us, it *works*. I know what I've done to push his buttons and, depending on my own mood, I can try and rectify it.

 

If I knew what it is about me that causes Aya to behave so skitterish in my presence I'd try and correct that too.

 

Whatever it is though, I can't even guess at the magnitude of it. It's just like there's something about me that induces a nervous reaction in him. Take his ass about way of completing the Maneki Neko wreath I asked him to make to celebrate the re-opening of the shop. Instead of making it -- like a *normal* person would have -- during the day while the rest of us were all puttering around, finalizing everything in the shop, he waited until I'd gone to bed before sitting down and working on it. Pissed at him because I thought he'd simply declined to do it, I was all prepared to blow a fuse the following morning when I found the -- perfectly -- completed wreath leaning against the wall opposite my door. No note, no explanation, no sign of Aya.

 

Honestly. Just go freakin' figure.

 

He brings me here, he claims that he wants me to be happy, and then, for some deeply intrinsic reason he treats me as though I'm contagious or something.

 

And -- go me! -- I nonetheless find myself falling for him. Falling *heavily*.

 

Good one. Real fucking good one.

 

Logic? I'm sorry, *what*? I don't even know if any such thing exists.

 

But, well... You know, he *is* beautiful though, and quite unlike anyone I've ever met...

 

Sighing, I take another sip of coffee and, not wanting to risk waking anyone, tiptoe up the stairs. The door to Aya's room is closed as usual and I make a concentrated effort not to think about him lying in bed on the other side of it. Entering my room, I retrieve my book -- the first Harry 'overrated to hell' Potter novel because Michel simply wouldn't accept my response that, oddly enough, my life *was* complete without the presence of the four eyed child wizard in it -- from the dresser and, after catching sight of my unmade bed out of the corner of my eye, quickly decide that I'd be more comfortable reading in one of the armchairs downstairs.

 

Decision made, I meander back down to the first floor and make my way towards the living room. Finding the door to the room shut, which is a little peculiar given that I'm confident I'm the only one foolish enough to be still up at two in the morning, I shrug to myself and push it open.

 

And...

 

Shit.

 

This is going to be good.

 

No doubt fully expecting to have the room to himself, Aya is curled up on the sofa, book in one hand and cup of, I assume, tea in the other. Tantomile is stretched out along the length of his thigh, her whiskers twitching as she probably dreams of the good old days when cats were worshipped as Gods. For a moment, too intent on scowling into his, I'm now thinking, *empty* cup, Aya seems unaware of my arrival and I'm able to just stare at him. Summer still dragging on, he's dressed in his customary (around house only - *why*?) three-quarter length black pants and light colored short sleeve silk shirt. A pair of delicate gold rimmed reading glasses -- that I haven't seen before -- are perched on his nose, making him look in a quaint sort of way as though he's twenty-four going on seventy.

 

Not wanting to disturb -- or possibly even *antagonize* -- him, I very nearly spin on my heels and leave. I then, the 'nothing ventured, nothing gained' line of thought settling over me, think, fuck him, I've got as much right to be in the living room as he does, and step boldly through the door.

 

"Hey. I didn't think anyone else was up," I comment by way of greeting as, clearly startled, Aya jerks his head up from his cup and stares at me blankly.

 

"Yohji! I..."

 

"Would you like me to make you another cup of tea?" I offer, jumping in and trying to deflect the rest of Aya's response. Just call me a mind reader but I'm pretty sure it was going to be something along the lines of, 'I was just going to go to bed' and, well, I don't need to hear it. Placing my coffee and book on the seat of the armchair, I move over to stand in front of Aya and hold my hand out, waiting to take his empty cup. "You looked as though you were disappointed you'd finished it and I'd be happy to get you another one."

 

"I... I can get it," Aya murmurs, seemingly realizing that turning tail and bolting now would be too obvious even by his normal standards, and attempting to struggle into a more upright position. "Thank you for the offer though. It was very... *Ow*! Tantomile!"

 

Biting back laughter, I watch as his cat takes matters into her own paws and clenches her claws into his thigh, letting him know in no uncertain terms her opinion -- 'you move, I shred you' -- on him getting up and disrupting her comfy bed. Her golden eyed gaze, which is fixed on me, seems, I swear, to be saying 'you owe me one.'

 

"I think you've been told," I snicker, giving Tantomile a pat on the head before snatching the cup out of Aya's hand and sashaying back towards the door. "Now, you'd better be still there when I get back or you'll have the pair of us to contend with."

 

"Given that I don't appear to have much of a choice, I'll... uh... still be here," Aya mutters resignedly, resettling himself with a sigh. "Liking my thigh with less holes than an acupuncturist's practice dummy, you have my word on it."

 

"Pleased to hear it," I smile, stepping through the door and making a beeline for the kitchen. Knowing how Aya likes his tea because I've watched the others make it for him on enough occasions, I turn the kettle on and, keeping my mind deliberately blank, set about preparing it. Because I'll try anything to get in his good books, I even rinse his cup out (something I rarely bother doing with my own mugs) before refilling it and returning to the living room.

 

Entering the room, I find, to my relief, both Aya and Tantomile in the exact same position as they were in when I left. The effort Aya's putting in to pretending to be reading his book is so good that he doesn't even glance at me until I'm standing directly in front of him. "Here," I murmur, watching as he places a tasseled bookmark between the pages of his book, marking the spot he's up to, before taking the tea from me with a tentative, blandly polite smile. "I hope you like it."

 

Obediently -- 'if I'm good and please him then maybe he'll go away and leave me alone' -- taking a sip of tea, Aya nods. "It's fine," he replies quietly, resting the cup on his hardback biography of Jean Paul Sartre and, after hesitating for a couple of seconds, glancing up at me from beneath his bangs. "Just how I like it, thank you. I'm surprised you remembered how..." Realizing what he's saying, Aya trails off and flinches. "Sor..."

 

"There's nothing to be sorry about," I interject, shrugging as I walk over to the armchair and, after moving my book and coffee to the overstuffed arm, sitting down. "As much as I'd love to be able to say that I did, I *don't* remember and only know how to make it because I've watched the others while they've done it."

 

"Well, thank you... anyway," Aya responds, staring down into his cup, a slight frown marring his features. "You... You still don't remember anything?"

 

"Sweet fuck all," I retort, taking a mouthful of my now stone cold coffee and grimacing.

 

Frustratingly, it's the truth too. I keep waiting for the day when I'll start experiencing random flashbacks but so far nothing, not so much as a *rumor* of a memory -- distinct or otherwise -- has descended on me. I still believe and accept unconditionally but, really, my history is still that of a stranger's. While how to use, with both expertise and accuracy, my wire came back to me in a matter of days, it's anyone's guess whether this was down to a case of either nature or nurture. Am I simply a natural at it or did the skill just come back to me? Needing *something* to base my hopes on, I know which answer I'd prefer.

 

"Nothing?" Aya prompts, meeting my gaze for a moment before quickly returning his attention to his cup. "Nothing Ken's given you has jogged your memory?"

 

"Nothing," I reiterate, sighing. "I believe it but I can't for the life of me remember any of it. The doctors, both the ones in Japan and the ones KR has sent me to, say that it might come back to me one day or it might not. Because I'm otherwise okay they're not too bothered about it either way. You know, it comes back or it doesn't."

 

"It must be hard for you," Aya whispers, running his finger around the rim of his cup. "I used to think it would be good to simply forget everything but I've come to accept that it wouldn't be good at all. To forget everything would be to obliterate both the good and the bad and... and we *need* the good. The bad might color our life but, if that's what it takes to remember the good, then it's worth it. There's some things I'd love to forget but, on the other hand, there's some memories I'd be devastated to lose, memories of times that are precious to me..."

 

Once again realizing what it is that he's saying, or, failing that, *who* he's talking to, Aya falls silent and, his gaze straying to my book, flashes a bright, patently false smile at me. "I see Michel's got to you too," he states lightly, pointing at the Harry Potter novel, his eyes imploring me to accept, to move on. "It's okay, I suppose. I've certainly read worse."

 

"He *was* somewhat adamant in his insistence that I read it, yeah," I reply, reluctantly complying with Aya's abrupt change in topic. Sure, I *could* attempt to push him into talking more about memories and our past and the like, but, really, what's the point? I don't need a crystal ball to tell me that all I'd get for needling him would be the sight of his back as he retreats from the room, Tantomile no doubt clinging to his leg like an irate limpet. "As you said, it's... okay. I've read better though."

 

"You read a lot?" Aya murmurs, hiding his apparent surprise by taking another sip of tea and peering at me over the top of his cup, his eyes almost unnaturally luminous behind his glasses.

 

"You sound surprised," I snort, placing my cup of cold coffee on the floor and picking up my book. "Don't tell me I used to be an illiterate heathen or something like that."

 

"Well, I wouldn't go *quite* that far," Aya replies, a hint of a genuine smile ghosting across his lips. "Your reading activities *were* usually confined to glossy magazines however. Or, if you were really bored, you'd pick up whatever novel Omi was studying at school at the time and, on the strength of skim reading a few random chapters, proceed to offer him your own unique take on it for his assignments. They were usually... ah... very informative too. Wrong, granted, but definitely informative and creative."

 

"He didn't actually listen to me, I hope," I laugh, longing, as usual, to be able to remember it for myself. "As for reading a lot now? Well, let's just say I learnt very early on that the only way of surviving the Godforsaken tedium of three plus hours of train travel a day was to *always* have something to read with you. I suppose now I'm just used to it."

 

"If you're ever looking for something to read I've got a lot of books in my room," Aya offers off-handedly, flicking the tassel of his bookmark. "So long as you return them in the condition you found them then, please, feel free to borrow as many as you like."

 

"Thanks," I reply, tapping Michel's Harry Potter book and smiling ruefully. "I suspect it'll take me the next six months to find my way out of the wonderful world of Hogwarts first. Given that I've seen the amount of books you've got in your room, I may have to take you up on your offer at some stage though."

 

"You've been in my room?" Aya queries, giving me a guarded, suspicious look. "I didn't know that."

 

"It was... uh... just after I first got here," I respond hurriedly, hoping that I haven't inadvertently -- especially as things had been going so well -- stumbled into hot water. "You were still en route from Japan and, my bearings still up in the air somewhere, I mistook your room for mine after coming back from the bathroom, that's all."

 

"I... I don't mind," Aya mutters, shrugging in an attempt to cover up the fact he's clearly lying through his teeth. "I was just curious. Again though, if you want to borrow any of my books then please do. I've even got some in Japanese, if you're ever... feeling homesick."

 

"Thanks, I'll remember that," I reply, watching Aya open his book and carefully place his bookmark on the cushion next to him. Tantomile flicks a lazy paw at the tassel but, yawning daintily, quickly loses interest in it when it doesn't move and promptly goes back to sleep. Aya's actions being blatantly obvious -- 'I'm over this whole chatting thing now and wish to return to my reading' -- I swallow a sigh and decide that I may as well blindly follow suit.

 

Opening my book, I take out the tatty looking Safeway receipt I'm using as a bookmark and settle back in the armchair to read. The usual myriad of questions -- that I'd love to be able to ask -- run riot in my head but I pay them no heed. Although I'd stake my life on Aya far preferring for me not to be here with him, he's actually behaved himself admirably and I actually feel inanely privileged that he's forced himself to remain in the room. As stupid and as pathetic as it is, I'd even go so far as to say I'm enjoying simply being in his company like this. Especially seeing as it's the first time it's happened since that long ago talk we had in the courtyard during my second day here.

 

As shit boring as my earlier stint of surveillance was, maybe, well, you know, it *is* my lucky night after all.

 

Sneaking a glance at Aya over the top of my book, I watch him read for a couple of minutes before turning my attention to my own book. Half afraid that Michel is going to quiz me on the goings on of Dumbledore, Hagrid and all the other wizards, muggles, freaks and geeks running around Hogworts, I read carefully, trying to commit as much of the novel to memory as I can. Because of this the time gets away from me and I don't look up again until ChloÈ's old fashioned, rose-entwined mantle clock above the fireplace chimes four.

 

Slightly shocked that it's gotten so late without me knowing it, I mark my place with my receipt and, stifling a yawn, close the book. More shocking than the lateness of the hour however is the fact that Aya, his own book closed and resting on the arm of the sofa, is staring at me. For all I know, given how engrossed I was in my reading, he could have been engaged in this futile pursuit for ages and, flustered, I don't know how to react.

 

"Aya..."

 

"Are you happy, Yohji?" Aya queries simply, his gaze for once never wavering from mine. "I... I just want to know whether you're happy or not."

 

"I'm happy," I reply softly, touched that he still cares enough to ask. "There's a lot of things I'd... like returned... but, yes, I'm happy. Although I still think every one of you happens to be mad, I love you all anyway and honestly can't think of anywhere else I'd rather be. This... This is my home now."

 

"You're right, this is your home," Aya murmurs, stretching his leg out in order to give Tantomile the gentle hint that it's time to move. Obligingly, she complies and, standing up, strolls down the length of his leg to the other end of the sofa. "This is your home and... I'm glad that you're here," he adds, the latter part of his response falling out his mouth in a rush as he stands up and starts to walk towards the door.

 

"Aya..."

 

... Don't go. Stay with me.

 

Reaching the doorway, Aya turns around and lowers his head. "I... I'm sorry," he whispers faintly, blushing.

 

"Sorry?" I repeat, putting my book down and standing up. "Aya? What have you got to be sorry for?"

 

"I'm sorry for not being able to give you the answers that I know you're wanting," Aya responds quietly, directing his response not to me but to the floor.

 

"Maybe one day, huh?" I murmur gently, stopping by the edge of the sofa because I don't want Aya to feel as though I'm crowding him. If he's found it in himself to say this much to me then the last thing I want to do is ruin the moment. "Maybe one day you'll be ready..."

 

"I..."

 

Lifting his head, violet eyes fleetingly meet mine before sliding away.

 

"I'd like that..."

 

And, with that bombshell, he's through the doorway and gone.

 

"I... I'd like that too," I whisper, staring helplessly at Tantomile.

 

Tantomile, who, I swear, is sitting there on the sofa nodding her agreement back at me.

 

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

 

~ Part 3 ~

 

-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-

Fireworks

-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-

 

~ Aya ~

 

"Take that you mother-fucking piece of scum!"

 

"Ken! Was that *really* necessary?"

 

"Oh *hell* yeah it was necessary. I kicked that mother-fucker's ass *good*!"

 

"Ken!"

 

"Come on, ChloÈ, you've got to admit it was a fancy bit of footwork."

 

"It was gratuitous. Both the slicing and dicing *and* the screech of triumphant. Hell, all you need to do now is some sort of pathetic victory dance and your over-the-top, primate-like performance would be complete."

 

"You're just jealous because you're hopeless at this sort of thing."

 

"Jealous? Oh. Yeah. Right. That's it. How ever did you guess that some quality time with the PS2 is just what my life happens to be missing?"

 

"Come on then. I'll take you on. Right here, right now."

 

"Thanks, but if it's all the same to you I'd rather poke pins in my eye."

 

"Wimp."

 

"As you're so fond of saying... Bite me."

 

Some things, Ken and ChloÈ arguing over things of no consequence for example, are almost comforting in their consistency. They don't *have* to argue, but they do. Frequently. There are times when I think it's a shared, yet unvoiced hobby. Sometimes, if the mood strikes, they'll even argue over things they usually agree on. To me they're like my very own, live action sitcom and watching them in action is capable, assuming I'm in the mood, of course, of bringing me no end of amusement. Knowing that they're apt to continue their often returned to debate over the PS2 for hours, I wish...

 

Never mind.

 

Sensing my resolve wavering, I shake my head and force myself to continue walking down the stairs. Although I'd like nothing more than to go and play objective observer to Ken and ChloÈ's bickering, I know that if I'm going to do this that I have to keep moving, that, my mind having been made up, I have to see it through.

 

Besides, let's face it, going on past form I suspect they'll still be at it when I get back anyway. It's not, after all, like I plan to be gone for all that long. Go there, poke around to put my mind to rest once and for all, come home. Simple. London traffic notwithstanding, I doubt my hare brained excursion will take much more than an hour. I'll be back even before anyone's noticed I'm not holed up in my room where, hiding behind a feigned headache, I'm supposed to be.

 

Hearing the living room door opening and someone stepping out into the corridor, I stop loitering on the stairs and, hurrying down them, slip through the storeroom and out in to the courtyard. After carefully pulling the door shut behind me I jog across to the garage. The rain that hasn't let up for two days now is still falling heavily and, again, my resolve gives a little twitch. I mean, it's not like I *have* to be doing this. No. I could -- if only I wasn't so suspicious and paranoid that is -- easily be sitting in the living room with the others, killing time, listening to repetitive arguments, and just watching the rain drenched world through the window in complete comfort.

 

But, hey, why would I want to do that, huh?

 

The easy life not being for me, oh no, I've got better things to do with my time.

 

By the time I get to the garage my hair is plastered to my skull and I'm soaked through. My feet and ankles in particular, courtesy of sloshing through the three inches of water the courtyard is currently under, feel as though they're saturated and I rue my decision not to have looked around for a pair of higher sided boots. My hands too are so wet that my fingers nearly slide off the keypad as I enter my access code and, just to make things that little bit more uncomfortable, rain drips down the collar of my coat and shirt, making me squirm as it comes in slithery contact with my bare skin.

 

And, seriously, to think I could be comfortably ensconced inside with the others...

 

It's cold, wet, and dark - the sort of weather that only complete idiots care to venture out in. And, here I am, the number one contender for Idiot Of The Year, blithely venturing out as though I honestly think it's some sort of good idea.

 

I don't, but that's beside the point. Hell, I'll freely admit that what I'm doing is nothing short of plain idiotic and pointless. That said, if I want to be able to sleep tonight, it's something that I feel as though I have to do. Although I fully expect to find nothing, it's nonetheless something that I won't be able to put out of my mind until I've done it. Illogical or down right stupid though it may be.

 

My fingers finally getting the code right, the door 'clicks' open and I step into the garage. The movement activated lighting is still in the process of flickering into life when, with an aggrieved yowl, Tantomile darts between my legs and into the courtyard. Startled by her sudden appearance, I spin around and watch as, momentarily oblivious to the rain, she looks over her back, her golden eyes luminous and fixed on me unblinkingly.

 

"Hey. Don't look at me like that. It's not my fault you chose to get in somewhere that you couldn't get out of," I mutter, shrugging as I pull the Audi's car keys out of my pocket.

 

Flicking her tail, Tantomile blinks once at me before -- 'oh, well I never, it's raining' -- she takes off for the house, skittering through the cat-door with such speed that I wouldn't be at all surprised if she managed to score herself a mild concussion from the impact of it.

 

Putting my cat's odd (even by her usual standards) behavior down to the rain, I pull the garage door shut and walk across to the silver Audi A8, my current car of choice. Getting in, I immediately discover that Free -- by virtue of the fact that the seat's so far back that my feet can hardly reach the pedals -- must have taken the car somewhere since I returned this afternoon and, with a snort of annoyance, bring the seat back into position before quickly disabling the GPS and starting the engine. Having studied the AA's helpful online street directory before leaving, I know how to get where I'm going without having to rely on the GPS and, more importantly, by not leaving it 'live' no one will be able to track my whereabouts if they wake up to the fact that I've gone out. Given that I feel foolish enough about it all as it is, the last thing I want is to have to explain myself to the others. They'd understand, yeah, but...

 

Well, Free would understand and, other than probably giving me a disappointed look, would promptly forget about it. Ken, on the other hand, would also understand but would probably make such a song and dance over the fact that I hadn't said anything to him that I'd most likely end up either hitting him or stalking off in disgust. ChloÈ would understand too. He'd also lecture me and the disappointed look I'd be subjected to would last approximately one hundred times longer than Free's. As for Yohji? Shit. There are things he needs no insights into and this just happens to be one of them.

 

So, I'm on my own. Which, given what I'm poking around in, is for the best.

 

Pressing the button on the dashboard to operate the roller door, I put the car into gear and, once the door has finally completed gliding open, drive out into the street. Switching lights and wipers on, I watch the roller door in the rear vision mirror until it's shut itself and then turn in the direction of the delightfully named Wapping, my destination for the evening.

 

Last night, in a disused warehouse in an industrial estate in Wapping, there was a dance party that Adrastea, the promoters, in all their wisdom, called Heliopolis. I know this because while I was out delivering flowers in the pouring rain this morning, a flyer for Heliopolis blew along the street and attached itself to my leg. Now, not being someone who cares for dance parties in the slightest, this sort of thing would normally make no impact on me. Dance party, Heliopolis, special guest mixer, DJ Nero, drink specials - like, seriously, who cares? God knows I don't.

 

Thing is though, incorporated in the flyer's computer generated image of a mythical ancient city, there was an ankh. Etched in the wall of one of the city's buildings, it hardly dominated the image but, given what was under it, to me, it was all that I could see. Under the ankh, and this, really, is what's driving my obsession to get to the bottom of it, was an inverted cross.

 

A *white* inverted cross. Not, as logic dictates it should have been, black or etched as the ankh was, but white. If not for the cross being inverted, it...

 

Forever Weiss.

 

Well, it's unnervingly close to both my scarring and Yohji's tattoo, that's what it is.

 

I'm *sure* it's just a coincidence, that it's probably Adrastea's silly idea of an eye-catching emblem or something, but, still...

 

Not liking shocks to my system like this -- it's a bit like seeing Kimura's pretentious pyramid again, only worse because this time it's literally on my doorstep -- I have to get to the bottom of it before I'll be able to successfully put it out of my head. Having finally -- and it's not like it hasn't taken me long enough -- adapted to and fully accepted Yohji back into my life, I don't really need to now work myself up over something that, I'm confident, will turn out to be nothing.

 

Fortunately though, everything I was able to dig up about Adrastea on the net this afternoon helps me believe that I'm merely indulging in a spot of paranoia and that all I'm going to find in Wapping is an empty warehouse showing all the signs of having last night hosted a dance party. From my research, Adrastea seem to be one hundred percent aboveboard. They have a ten year history of having hosted such events around London and the rest of the UK, their bank records and backers -- record companies, magazine publishing houses and the like -- seem legitimate, and, well, nothing points to there being anything untoward about them whatsoever. For all I know the ankh and the inverted cross is just the 'tag' used by whoever the graphic artist is that designed the flyer.

 

Not wanting to leave any stone unturned -- why break the habit of a lifetime now? -- though, I just want to see the warehouse for myself and have a quick look around in it before signing off on the whole imaginary project and putting it all behind me. Coincidences *are*, after all, both perfectly viable and capable of occurring. I don't like them, and history has made me suspicious of them, but, yeah, they *do*, whether I like them or not, happen.

 

Sighing, I turn the wipers on to their highest speed in a futile attempt to achieve better visibility and, when this doesn't work and I can still barely see one car length ahead of me, once again rue the fact that I feel the urge to be out and about. If I had any brains I'd have bided my time until it was at least a little lighter, not to mention considerably drier.

 

I should, and, really, there's no two ways of looking at it, be still at home. It's the only thing that makes any degree of sense. Having tentatively waved the white flag of defeat where he's concerned, it's not even like I can blithely blame Yohji for my desire to be out of the house. Hell, I even wish I was sharing the sofa with him in the living room right now, his thigh pressed against mine as ChloÈ and Ken's ongoing debate over the pros and cons of game consoles carried on and on.

 

I...

 

Despite it having taken me far too long, I've come to understand and work around Yohji's place in my life. Seeing him everyday -- he's really here -- thrills me and I'm grateful to all the others for making his transition into Krypton Brand an easy one. As I'd always known he would, he fits in perfectly. Above and beyond everything else though, he still means the world to me and I know now that it's unlikely anything is ever going to change this. I love him as much as I used to when we were together and I'll always love him. I just will. He *is* my other, and I still think, better, half. I can't allow myself to show it like I long to, but it's true. He saved me when I could have so easily have lost everything, he loved me when I'd resigned myself to the fact that no one would ever want me, and, effortlessly, he made me love him in return.

 

In the very beginning, and thinking this now makes me cringe, I only accepted his love because I saw it as a convenient way of pulling myself together. Yohji believed in me when I didn't and, to put it bluntly, his love and his faith was something for me to anchor myself to. Sure, I liked him well enough, I suppose, and I knew I was forever in his debt for all his selflessly devoted care and attention, but I didn't love him, didn't even think I was capable of it. To my clinical way of thinking I was just going to use him until -- he came to his senses and realized that I simply wasn't worth the time and effort -- I was back on my feet again and that would have been the end of it.

 

Only it didn't quite work like that.

 

Instead of Yohji's constant attention getting on my nerves it actually comforted me and I found myself craving his gentle, hesitant touch. For all his much bragged about experience he never once made me feel inadequate or as though he was lowering his standards by being with me. He also, in no end of small ways, made me believe that he genuinely wanted to be with me, that every murmured declaration of love came straight from the heart.

 

My decision to string him along lasted for less than a fortnight. I then realized that, completely unexpectedly, I loved Yohji back. I mean, how could I not? He knew who -- *what* -- I was and, proving the illogical nature of love, didn't care. He loved me for *me* and that, I saw, was simply all there was to it. He wasn't lavishing his time on me for the greater good of Weiss or because he had nothing better to do, he just loved me and wanted to do whatever he could to help me recover. When I stopped to think about it, being with Yohji made me feel -- clean -- *good*, as though I wasn't a complete waste of space after all. And, given that I'd come close to longing for death only a few weeks earlier, this, in turn, was nothing short of spectacular.

 

All in all, Yohji gave me back not only my life but also my ability to feel and to love. To say that the debt I owe him will never truly be able to paid back is still, to this very day, something of an understatement.

 

We *were* happy together. The time we spent at Souzou was the happiest of my life and even now, over two years on, I wish that Kritiker had never made us leave. Would we have stayed together if we'd been allowed to remain at Souzou? Despite the fact that we'll never know now, I think we would have. Souzou, even when everything else was going to hell, was a constant, a haven to retreat to, and I honestly believe everything would have played out differently if we hadn't been made to leave.

 

Not that it matters now.

 

We left. I broke up with Yohji because I was convinced it was in his best interests (if you love something enough you should set it free, isn't that how it goes?). Weiss broke up. Weiss, or the remnants thereof, momentarily reformed before -- a few more cracks having been formed in everyone's hearts --breaking up for good.

 

Whether I've wanted to or not, I've survived everything that has been thrown at me. In hindsight, contrary to how pissed I was at Omi's coup at the time, being immediately moved on and having Sena and Kyou dumped on me after breaking up with Yohji was a Godsend as it kept me busy. Sure, I wasn't *happy* about any of it, but at least I was too busy to sit around dwelling on the fucked state of my life and missing Yohji. It, in a sense anyway, worked. By the time Yohji was brought in for the final assault on the Kou Academy we'd had so much time apart that we were both able to treat each other with cool indifference. It was still hard being with him again though, especially considering how much he'd changed and how unhappy he clearly was.

 

Actually, no, it wasn't just hard, it was abhorrent. Yohji was hurting and, despite the fact that I'd been the one to push him away, I still wanted to be able to help him. My head in the sand routine aside, there was no denying that I'd missed him every single day that we'd been apart and seeing him so miserable was like a constant weight around my neck. While we'd been separated I hadn't had to see what I'd helped cause but I couldn't escape it with Yohji moping around in front of me and I hated it. Absolutely hated it. The mission, as always, being of paramount importance though, I told myself that I'd wait until it was over before biting the bullet and offering Yohji a comforting, familiar shoulder to cry on. I'd even decided I was prepared to go as far as it took to make him smile again. And, if that had meant rekindling our relationship then so be it. Just because I'd made a mistake once didn't mean that I had to make it again.

 

Once again however, it didn't quite work like that.

 

Although I hated it from the very moment I stepped off the plane, New York, like Sena and Kyou before it, offered me a diversion from everything I'd left behind. And, again, as a diversion, it worked as well as could be expected. I survived and was able to carry on, sleepwalking through each day, until the time came when some deity took pity on my worthless existence and I was effectively rescued by Mihirogi and ChloÈ.

 

Now, everything's different. While not Souzou, I like the house in Islington and I'm proud to call the members of Krypton Brand my new... yes... family. I've even, in a way, got Yohji back. The *old* Yohji at that, the one who used to flirt with everyone and anyone and who smiles far more frequently than he frowns. Without even being able to remember any of the details of his old self, he's -- happy, confident, sexy -- exactly as he used to be and there are times when I almost want to surreptitiously pinch myself to confirm that it's all real, that I'm not just dreaming.

 

And this, I've realized, again better late than never, is where all the trouble I've been having dealing with Yohji lies. Instead of being separated, as we were after we broke up and after the final showdown at the Kou Academy, he's just *there*... In front of me and within easy reach. He's even showing signs of seeing something in me that, without the benefit of memory, he seems to want. I could go to him -- if I was brave enough -- and he'd welcome me with open arms, I know he would. We could possibly even give our relationship another go.

 

Thing is though, although I know I want it, I don't know if I actually have it in me to do anything about it. As I'd decided two years ago, Yohji *doesn't* need me and is in fact quite likely better off without me. I have, sort of, in a round about sense, ChloÈ now and, on top of everything else, I don't want to hurt him. To truly open myself up to Yohji I'd also have to tell him about Kimura and, well, that's not one of those things I'm really in a huge rush to do. His memory may come back in due course and with it the cold hard fact of how I dumped him in the first place after everything he'd done for me. I've survived without Yohji for years now, so it's not like I can't live without him. Besides, being friends is far better than nothing anyway...

 

And, ultimately, it's all just too fucking hard. Albeit far more happily than in New York, I'm just taking each day as it comes now. Thinking in advance isn't getting me anywhere, so, really, I may as well try and make things as simple for myself as I possible can.

 

There being next to no one on the roads, I make Wapping in good time and, pushing all thoughts out of my mind in order to concentrate, start to look around for the street that will take me to the industrial estate where the warehouse is. Finding the street, I smile grimly to myself and turn into it. As the map had told me it would be, the street, which is labeled a dead end, leads directly into the abandoned industrial estate. Signs on the falling down fences read 'Private Property. Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted', but the gates are wide open and the amount of graffiti scrawled on the walls of the sheds and the like lead me to believe that the estate probably doubles as a hang out for the local youth.

 

Switching the headlights onto high beam, I drive slowly around the estate, looking for warehouse number nine. When I find it, a large stand-alone structure with boarded up windows, I bring the car to a stop and start to ferret around in the glovebox for a torch. Locating one, I climb out of the car and jog across to the warehouse, the barely adequate beam of light doing little to illuminate my path.

 

Blinking rain out of my eyes, I sweep the torch beam over the warehouse's faÁade, all the time mentally kicking myself for not having had enough sense to bring an umbrella. Or a weapon, for that matter. While it's all very well being convinced that I'm not going to find anything, common sense nonetheless dictates that it's better to be armed than not and, honestly, I don't know what possessed me to leave the house without at least having picked up a gun or a blade. It's odd, actually. I normally don't go anywhere without having access to a weapon...

 

Annoyed at myself, I resolve to be as quick as I possibly can and move towards the warehouse's door. From what I can see of its exterior, everything is exactly as it should be. A hand painted sign above the door reads Heliopolis and there's enough litter -- water bottles, cigarette packets, ticket stubs, used condoms and syringes, crisp wrappers -- bunched up against the warehouse and flying around the estate to suggest a number of people went through the place last night. Despite the rain, the air carries the lingering scent of sweat, vomit and urine too, leaving me with no difficulties in believing the warehouse recently played host to a dance party.

 

Trying the door, I find it unlocked and, opening it, step into the warehouse. While I'm a little surprised that the door wasn't locked, wanting to get out of here as soon as I possibly can, I don't give it a second thought and start looking around for a light switch. Finding one just to the left of the door, I turn it on and within seconds the entire cavernous warehouse is bathed in harsh, fluorescent light. Shielding my eyes from the sudden brightness, I glance around and once again find nothing suspicious. A stage runs across the far wall with scaffolding running from floor to ceiling behind it, while a makeshift bar takes up most of the right wall. Other than that, the warehouse is empty. Like outside there's litter scattered everywhere. The smell is worse though because it's been shut up, causing me to wrinkle my nose in disgust. I'm sure those that attended last night had... what passes in their minds as fun... but, ack... Thanks, but no thanks.

 

Noticing a closed door leading off the left wall, I decide to have a quick look behind it before giving up and going home. Walking across to it, I'm about halfway there when, without warning, something whizzes through the air and embeds itself in the side of my throat. Instinct making me shake off enough of my shock to claw at it, I pull it out and see that it's a tranquillizer dart of sorts before my knees buckle beneath me and I collapse, wheezing, onto the hard concrete floor.

 

My vision fading, I grope desperately for my mobile phone -- that, *fuck*, I left at home for the same reason I disabled the GPS -- but, again seemingly out of nowhere, a hand clad in a leather glove stops me by yanking my arm behind my back.

 

"Now, now. If we wanted any of your ratty little friends putting in an appearance we would have invited them to the party ourselves," a vaguely familiar male voice comments lightly as he... or someone else... kicks me forcefully in the ribs.

 

Gasping from the pain and unable to fight against the effects of the tranquillizer, I try to crawl into a ball, my mind unable to compute what's happening. Despite having understood what the man said, I can't work out what language -- Japanese? English? German? -- he's speaking and this, inanely, bothers me.

 

"Time has been kind..." another, different voice murmurs from somewhere above me as cool fingers stroke my cheek. "You're still as beautiful as you were back then, I see. I do wonder however whether you've remembered any of your training... Not to worry though, it will still, I'm confident, be fun finding out..."

 

Back then? Training? Finding out?

 

Consciousness sliding away from me, everything goes black before I'm able to put two and two together.

 

When I come to I retain just enough awareness to realize the hell I'm in -- oh dear God, please, no -- before an arc of terror shoots through me that's so great and so overwhelming that, blissfully, I immediately black out again.

 

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

 

~ Yohji ~

 

"Aya!"

 

There being something not quite right in ChloÈ's sudden, exclaimed use of Aya's name, I glance up from the magazine I've been aimlessly flicking through and, after checking the doorway and satisfying myself that the redhead's nowhere in sight, shoot him an inquiring look. "Mmm? Aya *what* exactly?" I prompt, not liking how pale (even for him) and... startled... ChloÈ looks.

 

"He..." Dropping the bracelet he'd been polishing carelessly down the side of the armchair, ChloÈ abruptly stands up and blinks very wide and very puzzled eyes at me. "He's panicking... I... I just got this flash of sheer, unadulterated terror and I'm sure it's from Aya."

 

"Crap it was from Aya," Ken interjects dismissively, hitting pause on the controller and reluctantly dragging his attention away from whichever level of whichever version of Final Fantasy it is that he's been engrossed in for the past four hours. "A) Aya's upstairs trying to sleep off a headache and, B) Aya doesn't panic. You probably just got your wires crossed or something."

 

"Maybe you caught a snippet of a nightmare he's having or something?" I offer, putting my magazine aside and standing up in preparation of nonetheless going to check on Aya. "Ken's right. I'm sure it's not..."

 

"He's not here," ChloÈ interrupts, shaking his head and looking more anxious by the second. "Free? Can you sense him?" he adds, striding across the room and closing a trembling hand around Free's shoulder. "Tell me that the rain's just getting to me and I'm imagining things, please..."

 

Letting the tarot card he'd been holding slip from his fingers, Free places his hand on ChloÈ's, giving it a gentle squeeze. "No. You are not imagining things," he murmurs, frowning in concentration. "Aya is not here... And nor has he been for some time."

 

"What?" Ken exclaims, hurriedly swapping the controller in his hand for the remote that accesses the security system through the television set. "You all heard him, right?" he continues, quickly punching in the number sequence to bring up the video footage of the garage. "He said he had a headache and that he was going to bed. How the fuck that translates into sneaking out..."

 

"The Audi's gone," I state softly, cutting Ken off mid rant as the real time image of the garage flickers on to the screen. "Look. It... It's true then... He's definitely gone somewhere..."

 

"Fuck!" Ken swears, entering more code into the remote and, swapping channels, rewinding through the garage footage in search of Aya's actual departure. "What's the fucking idiot gone and done this time, huh?"

 

"Oh dear God," ChloÈ whispers, keeping one eye on the television as he moves slowly towards the door. "This isn't good. Wherever he is he's..."

 

"Aya. Does. Not. Panic," Ken grinds out, turning around and glaring at ChloÈ. "I mean, what's he fucking got to panic about? We're not even in the middle of a mission or anything."

 

"Ken's got a point," I murmur faintly, following ChloÈ's lead and moving towards the door. "Maybe he's just..." Trailing off, I realize that I can't think of a solitary thing to say and, my mouth suddenly going dry, swallow hard.

 

"He's panicking," ChloÈ repeats, narrowing his eyes and returning Ken's glare with a considerable degree of interest added. "If you'd stop opening your mouth without thinking and thought about it for a second you'd wake up to yourself and realize that there *is* one thing that's guaranteed to cause Aya to panic and that you're not achieving anything by..."

 

"Oh my God, you're right," Ken whispers, interrupting ChloÈ and paling. "You don't think..." Like I did only a moment ago, Ken trails off, his expression pained. I want to ask him to continue, to say what he'd been thinking, but don't quite dare too. For some reason I just don't think I really want to know.

 

"I don't know," ChloÈ murmurs, reaching the door and opening it. "What I do know however is that we've got to find him."

 

"He had some sort of pamphlet with him when he came back from his deliveries this morning," Free comments, standing up and joining ChloÈ in the doorway. "I asked him what it was and he said it was nothing, just some piece of rubbish he had picked up in the street and was going to throw in a bin. He wouldn't let me see it though, which, I have to confess, I found rather odd. I could be wrong, of course, but perhaps it has something to do with why he has snuck out."

 

"And with any luck it'll still be in his room," ChloÈ replies, the vaguest hint of relief entering his voice as he spins around and takes off for the stairs. "Come on! What are you waiting for, a written invitation?"

 

Not needing telling twice, I follow Free through the door and, leaving Ken to continue going through the surveillance footage, run up the stairs behind ChloÈ. Entering Aya's room, my heart starts to beat a nervous tattoo in my chest as I watch ChloÈ push things around on his scrupulously neat desk. A piece of paper poking out from under the laptop catching his eye, he snatches it up and waves it at Free. "Does this look familiar?" he demands, smoothing it out on the desk and frowning it.

 

"It looks like the flyer Aya had, yes," Free confirms, his frown mirroring ChloÈ's as he glances down at it. "I must say that I do not understand the relevance however..."

 

Joining them by the desk, I look at the B5 flyer spread across it and, like Free, can't for the life of me work out why Aya's felt any urge to keep it. A dance party called Heliopolis was, last night, mind you, held in a warehouse in Wapping... Like, big whoop. If we were on the trail of, say, a group of drug traffickers I could possibly see the relevance but, as it is, nope, nothing. The flyer isn't even what you'd exactly call that eye catching.

 

"Heliopolis... Is that not the name of the ancient city where the phoenix buries the ashes of its parent?" Free muses, sharing a confused look with ChloÈ. "I will admit I have never particularly understood dance culture, but surely that is an odd choice for a name?"

 

"No more so than the name of the promoter," ChloÈ mutters, pointing to the small print running across the bottom of the flyer. "Adrastea... Now, isn't that another name for Nemesis, the Goddess of Revenge?"

 

"You're right," Free replies, nodding. "It is actually a Greek word meaning 'she whom none can

escape', and yes, it is another name for Nemesis."

 

"This isn't sounding good," I interject softly, nervous adrenaline beginning to bubble in my veins. "If you think that's where Aya's gone don't you think we'd better get our asses into gear and get there ourselves?"

 

"Don't think, *know*," ChloÈ exclaims, what extremely little color he had left in his face draining away as he jabs his finger at the flyer. "Look... Damn fool! This is what would have grabbed his attention and... And I tell you now I'm so going to have words with him when this is all over!"

 

"Shit," I whisper, my eyes barely believing what it is that they're seeing. Although I hadn't noticed it before, there's an ankh and an inverted cross on a wall of one of the buildings on the flyer. If not for the cross being inverted it's almost a mirror image of my tattoo...

 

"ChloÈ? What... What does it mean?" I stammer, the peace and quiet of only a few minutes ago seeming almost as though it had never happened. "Why would Aya..."

 

"If he survives this I'm going to kill him!" ChloÈ states agitatedly, snatching the flyer up and bolting out of the room. "If you're coming be in the garage in two minutes or I'm going without you."

 

"I suspect he means it too," Free murmurs, giving my shoulder a squeeze before he too bounds through the door and disappears.

 

Not having the time to pander to the sense of panic I can feel threatening to settle over me, I hurry out of Aya's room and into mine. Grabbing my wire, I slip it onto my wrist before pulling on the first pair of shoes I come to and hurrying downstairs. Reaching the storeroom, I'm about to head outside when, sounding like a herd of elephants, Ken flies into the room behind me.

 

"Before you ask, he's been gone three fucking hours," he states angrily, all but elbowing me out of the way and wrenching the door open. "I heard ChloÈ say that he's going to kill him but I tell you now that I have plans to get to him first. Damn idiot. He knows we'd all help him and he still does something as fucking stupid as this..."

 

"Let's just get him safely back before we start fighting over who's going to kill him," I mutter drily, gesturing Ken through the door before following him out into the rain and pulling it shut behind me. As positives go it's hardly a great one, but I'm suddenly glad Yuki and Michel decided to spend the weekend down in Kent. While I don't doubt their capabilities for a moment, I just think four -- or three, and Free, who, come to think of, it I've never seen flustered -- of us running around like headless chickens is probably enough.

 

"What can I say other than I like to think in advance," Ken retorts, running across to the garage and slipping through the already open door. "Besides, it gives me something to look forward to," he adds, shaking his head and causing water to fly off his hair in all directions. "Stubborn fool... How you ever managed to get so far with him honestly escapes me."

 

"And I'm thinking now isn't really the time for reminiscing," ChloÈ comments, tapping his fingers impatiently on the bonnet of the Range Rover, the only vehicle that has immediate access to the roller door. Not that I really needed any more proof highlighting the gravity of the situation, ChloÈ's apparent willingness to drive the Range Rover -- which, being of the opinion that only yuppies, land owners, and the Queen are gauche enough to find anything pleasing about, he hates -- nonetheless hits me with another spark of worry.

 

Aya?

 

What have you done, huh?

 

I... I don't care though. So long as you're okay I promise not to be angry with you or to even go off at you. Hell, I won't even ply you with questions about the relevance of the ankh and the cross. I... I just want you to be okay, that's all... Nothing else is important.

 

"You fine to drive?" Free calls out, directing his question at ChloÈ as he jogs into the garage, a small handheld device like a palm pilot clutched in one hand, a set of keys in the other.

 

"Given that while I hate this horrid vehicle I actually hate that thing even more, yes, I'll drive," ChloÈ replies -- to me, cryptically -- catching the car keys that Free throws to him and using the remote to unlock the 4WD. "Come on. Let's get out of here," he mutters, opening the driver's door and, with his black velvet, full length priest style coat flaring out around him, climbing in to the Range Rover. Although droplets of rain cling to his hair, his admittedly very spiffy coat is bone dry, making me think that it's probably been treated to repel the elements or something, which, knowing ChloÈ, wouldn't surprise me in the slightest.

 

There not really being anything that needs to be said by way of response, Free, Ken and I make our way over to the Range Rover and climb in, Ken and I in the back seat while Free joins ChloÈ in the front.

 

"Taking into consideration my desire to stop once we're moving is at an all time low, you'd better get that thing synchronized to perfection," ChloÈ murmurs, switching on the ignition and rolling the 4WD forward until its bulbar is all but pressed against the roller door which, or so I'm gathering anyway, isn't quite opening as quickly as he'd like it to.

 

"Trust me, you will not have to stop," Free responds, plugging his handheld device into the GPS and activating it. "By the time we hit the road at the end of the street the GPS will have plotted our route and, I guarantee you now, all the lights will be green by the time we are in sight of them."

 

"And all I'm saying is that they'd better be," ChloÈ scowls, leaning forward and peering through the windscreen in order to watch the roller door's frustratingly slow ascent. "About time too," he adds under his breath as the door finally clears the Range Rover's roof and, planting his foot on the accelerator, we burst out into the street. "Okay. We're off. Now, how long is it supposed to take to get to this Wapping place?"

 

"Twenty-five minutes, give or take," Free replies, glancing down at the GPS. "Given the time of night and the fact that red lights are not going to be an issue, I would think we would make it comfortably in twenty."

 

"Try fifteen," ChloÈ mutters, increasing the acceleration. Although I can't see his knuckles clutched around the steering wheel because I'm sitting directly behind the driver's seat, it wouldn't surprise me in the slightest if they white. "This... ah... tractor *does* have airbags, doesn't it?"

 

"Anyone ever tell you you're a treat to have around in a crisis?" I comment, shaking my head and surreptitiously pulling my seatbelt on. "I mean, hey, it's not as though we're not already worried enough without having the added threat of being involved in a RTA hanging over our heads as well."

 

"It was a joke," ChloÈ sighs as, on cue, the traffic lights ahead of us change to green and we shoot through the intersection. "If you don't laugh you'd cry, right?"

 

"Or hit something," Ken interjects lowly, his hands curled tightly into fists as he glowers out the window. "Just... For fuck's sake! What the hell was Aya thinking, huh? He *knows* at least one of us would have gone with him. All he had to do was freakin' *ask*!"

 

"Care to remind me when the last time was that Aya asked for something of more pressing importance than, say, whether someone would pass him a pair of scissors?" ChloÈ queries, shrugging. "Just think about what you're saying for a second. I'm as tetchy as you are, hell, I suspect we *all* are, but I think the dishing out of blame can wait, don't you? We..."

 

"We do not even know if he is going to be okay," Free finishes softly. "Whatever has happened to Aya was clearly a trap, one that has caught all of us unawares. I think, until we know he is, at the very least, safe, that we have more pressing concerns than how to voice the lecture we are all wanting to hit him with."

 

"I'm still furious with him," Ken mutters stubbornly, clenching and unclenching his fists. "He's an idiot and whatever's happened to him just about serves him right!"

 

"I'm going to pretend I didn't hear that," ChloÈ states coolly as, taken aback by his outburst, I just stare at Ken with my mouth hanging open. "You didn't really mean it though and you know it. Now, seeing as you've got nothing constructive to say I'd appreciate it if you kept your mouth shut until we get there."

 

Narrowing his eyes, Ken glares daggers at ChloÈ for a few seconds before slumping heavily back in his seat and staring down at his fingernails. "Sorry," he whispers contritely. "I..."

 

"We're all worried," I murmur, reaching across the seat and closing my hand around Ken's arm. "I don't even know half of what the rest of you know and I still feel as though I'm going out of my mind."

 

"For the first time I think I'm almost envious of your inability to remember," Ken replies quietly, placing his hand over mine and giving it a quick squeeze. "I... I'm sure Aya's going to be okay..."

 

"Of course he is," ChloÈ murmurs unconvincingly. "It's probably not what we're thinking anyway and when we get there we'll find that he's just done something stupid like fall in a hole or something."

 

"We can hope," I reply, following Ken's lead and slumping back in my seat. Like in Aya's room, my heat beats a nervous, too fast tattoo in my chest. I'm so worried, so wired with tethered adrenaline that I literally feel sick. Although I've done a couple of live action simulations (attack, retrieve, escape) at the castle -- and at the time found them pretty invigorating -- this is like something else again. Despite not knowing what it is we're going driving into, I hold no concerns about my own safety and simply long to know how Aya is. I'm so worried that, unlike Ken and ChloÈ, I'm not even angry with him for having gone off on his own. I suspect that will come, yeah, but for now it's just sheer worry.

 

If something terrible has happened to him, I...

 

I'll cross that bridge when I come to it. Until then, hope springs eternal... Right?

 

Thanks to the combination of Free's natty handheld device and ChloÈ's -- careless disregard for both the safety of his passengers and every other motorist out on the road -- driving, we reach the street that leads down to the industrial estate where the warehouse is situated in just under ChloÈ's allocated fifteen minutes. No one speaks as, flicking the headlights onto high beam, ChloÈ drives through the estate's open gates. Spotting the Audi parked out the front of warehouse number nine, someone gasps. It could even have been me. Too intent on running a silent mantra -- pleasegodlethimbeokay -- through my head, I couldn't even say for sure that it wasn't.

 

"Looks deserted," Free murmurs dubiously, placing his toy on the dash and cautiously opening the door.

 

"I'm sure Aya thought the same thing," ChloÈ replies flatly, climbing out of the 4WD. "Now, I don't think I need to tell you that we need to approach the warehouse with caution... *Ken*!"

 

Too late.

 

Taking matters into his own hands, Ken jumps from the Range Rover and sprints across to the warehouse's only visible outside door.

 

"And he has the nerve to call Aya an idiot," ChloÈ hisses, his eyes flashing with temper as he and Free bolt after Ken.

 

Feeling slightly out of my depth, I clamber out of the 4WD and -- when in Rome and all that -- run after the others. By the time I'm nearing the warehouse Ken is throwing himself bodily at the door while ChloÈ is wasting his breath on shouting at him that it might be booby trapped and that he needs to show a little common sense. Ignoring him, which seems to be par for the course at the moment, Ken changes tack and, spinning around fluidly, lands a flying kick on the door that sees it splintering away from its hinges.

 

"Booby trapped my ass," Ken mutters triumphantly, pushing his hair out of his eyes and, with another vicious kick to the door, stalking into the warehouse.

 

"If he gets himself killed then he can bloody well whistle if he thinks I'm going to bother going to his funeral," ChloÈ sighs, waiting for Free to hesitantly follow Ken before strolling in after them. "Come on, Yohji. It appears that the coast is clear."

 

In too much of a rush to get into the warehouse, I don't pay much attention to where I'm barreling and promptly walk straight into ChloÈ's back as he comes to an abrupt stop just inside the door. Straightening myself up, I step around ChloÈ and, the world as I know it ceasing to exist, just... stare...

 

I *know* it... some of it... anyway... isn't real, but that doesn't lessen the impact any. If anything, knowing that someone's staging the whole show makes it even worse. Planned. Perfected. Executed. Whoever the sick fucker is who's behind the performance knew what they were doing, that's for sure.

 

Courtesy of a light show being screened from a not immediately ascertainable source, brilliant red and orange flames engulf both the left and right walls of the warehouse. The result is so realistic that I almost expect to feel the warmth being generated by the fire on my face. Worse though than the fire, and by worse I mean far, *far* worse, is what's on the far wall. At first, my eyes drawn to the flickering and fiery image of a phoenix -- a phoenix with a black ankh in the middle of its chest, of all things -- that's being beamed above the scaffolding that runs along it, I think I have to be imagining things when I glance down and see what's beneath it.

 

Strapped to the scaffolding, directly under the phoenix's flame colored tail, his arms outstretched in a pose eerily reminiscent of a crucifixion, is a half naked man. Dressed only in faded, blood stained jeans that are too large for him and that sit almost indecently low on his hips, he looks a true fright, his face disfigured by a blindfold and gag both made of black. His torso and arms are covered in what looks to be bruises and abrasions. There's also blood staining his left side and, from where I'm standing, it looks as though it was painted on him to form an ankh...

 

Aya.

 

"Oh dear... God..." ChloÈ whispers, taking another, faltering step into the warehouse. "I... I never..."

 

"Is he..." Unable to finish voicing the question, I grab ChloÈ by the arm and look at him helplessly. "ChloÈ...?"

 

An invisible switch being flicked over in ChloÈ's mind, his expression hardens and he nods curtly. "Ken! Find where this Godforsaken light show is coming from and shut it down," he barks, reaching out and giving Ken a none-too-gentle slap on the shoulder to get him moving. "See that door over there? Free and I will investigate what's behind that while Yohji goes to Aya," he continues as, with a pained, startled look, Ken lurches into action and slips back through the door.

 

"Me?" I murmur, shaking my head numbly. Oh Christ... What if he freaks? Worse, what if he's... dead? "Shouldn't... I mean... Wouldn't it be better if you..."

 

"You've done this before, I haven't," ChloÈ mutters, shaking off my hand and quickly pulling off his coat. "Here. Use this to cover him."

 

"I..."

 

Shaking his head, ChloÈ drapes his coat over my shoulder and, for reasons best known to himself, plants a soft kiss on my cheek. "Go on. You'll be fine. If it helps, trust me when I say you're the only one he'd want anywhere near him at the moment anyway..." With that, he shares a knowing look with Free and together they start to run across to the door.

 

Feeling as though I've got the weight of the world on my shoulders and then some, I yank ChloÈ's coat off my shoulder and, clutching it tightly in my hand, sprint for the stage in front of the scaffolding. Reaching it, I throw the coat up on to the stage and hoist myself up after it. I'm now so close to Aya that I can smell the metallic tang of the blood clinging to him and my stomach gives a lazy gurgle of complaint. There's so much blood on the jeans that its pooling around his ankles and dripping onto the stage. If the blood is Aya's, and I don't know who else's it possibly could be, then...

 

Nope. Don't wanna think about it.

 

"Aya? It's... It's Yohji. You're... You're safe now..." I stammer, my voice coming out as shaky as I feel. Nearing him, I see that he's breathing and the relief that hits me at this sight is nothing short of overwhelming. "Oh thank God," I whisper, offering a silent prayer of thanks to any and every deity that may be listening.

 

"I'm just going to get you down and then we'll get you home," I babble, talking as much for my own benefit as Aya's. "It's okay... Seriously... You're going to be okay. Everything's okay now."

 

Strapped to the scaffolding by rope, I'm about to reach up and untie his left wrist when something makes me look down at the bloody ankh drawn on his left side. At first I think it's only painted on but then I see that it's actually highlighting what looks to be a brand of sorts. A brand that, well, looks as though it's been there for years.

 

Aya has an ankh branded into his side?

 

Puzzled, I forget about the position he's in for a second and lean in for a closer look, and...

 

Fuck me.

 

Under the ankh he has a cross scarred into his skin?

 

An ankh / cross hybrid... ChloÈ's cryptic comment about it looking better as a tattoo...

 

Was Aya's odd body art the inspiration for the tattoo in the middle of my back?

 

Seeing something else etched into Aya's skin under the cross, I reach out without thinking and brush my fingers across his side. My mind hardly has time to grasp that the scarring under the cross appears -- surely not -- to be my name when, my touch having an adverse effect on him, Aya begins to freak out. Sucking his stomach in to avoid being touched, he struggles madly, the fact that he basically can't go anywhere having no impact on his sense of panic whatsoever.

 

"Fuck!" I exclaim, disgusted at myself for being both so careless and so selfish. "Shit! Aya, I'm sorry! Come on, calm down... It's Yohji. I... I'm not going to hurt you."

 

My voice clearly having no effect on him, I quickly decide for a more hands on approach and, not bothering to waste time on untying it, wrench off his blindfold. Incredibly bright violet eyes blink at me uncomprehendingly as, more gently, I remove his gag and throw it to the floor. Gasping, Aya shakes his head agitatedly, causing his hair to fall forward, subsequently exposing both his ears and the earplugs embedded in them. The sickening realization that he'd been strung up in complete sensory depravation making my blood boil, I carefully pull the earplugs out with shaking fingers and throw them as far down the stage as I can manage.

 

"It's okay now," I murmur faintly as silent, over distraught tears stream down Aya's cheeks. "It's over and you're safe," I continue, fumbling over freeing him from the scaffolding. Once I've got the rope undone he slumps limblessly into my waiting arms with a whimper of what could either be relief or pain. Not wanting to aggravate any possible injuries, I hold him loosely and am busily working out how I'm going to be able to retrieve ChloÈ's coat when he starts to struggle weakly against me.

 

"Get... Get them off me..." Aya stammers desperately, his hands clutching at my shirt as he stares down, wide eyed, at his legs. "The blood... I... Oh God... Just get them off..."

 

"Shhh... Just give me a second and I'll get them off," I murmur, hopefully soothingly as, unfolding Aya's hands from my shirt, I shuffle backwards and, in a move that would have done a contortionist proud, snatch up ChloÈ's coat from the floor. "Here... We'll just put this on you first and then I'll get the jeans off for you."

 

Nodding, Aya looks at me gratefully and tries to help as I gently manhandle him into the coat. He's too weak from his ordeal to be much assistance though and, batting his hands away and keeping a constant hold of his shoulder, I do the coat's buttons up from torso to knees. I then, all the time keeping my eyes on Aya's pale face, unzip the jeans. Because they're -- clearly not his -- too big for him, they fall straight down to his ankles and, not wanting to risk him falling over, I lift him up and out of them. Whimpering again at the sight of the bloodied jeans, Aya almost swoons and, not knowing what else to do with him, I lower him carefully to the floor.

 

"Come on, Aya, hang in there," I murmur softly, wanting to make sure he's fully covered and quickly doing up the rest of the coat's buttons. Not really wanting to touch him for fear of upsetting him even further, I crouch down and, brushing his bangs gently away from his face, cradle him against me. "I... I'm sorry... The blood, is it yours? I mean, are you injured?" I query hesitantly.

 

His consciousness fading, Aya's looks at me blankly through eyes bright with tears. "I... Yohji..."

 

"Shhh... It's okay," I whisper, accepting both that he doesn't currently have it in him to answer and that if the blood was his he'd be in a far worse state than he appears to be. "Don't worry, Aya. You're safe now."

 

"Having found the body of who I can only assume to be the donor behind that door over there," ChloÈ comments, bounding gracefully onto the stage and making a beeline for Aya, "I think I can assure you that the blood is not Aya's." Crouching down, he lightly strokes Aya's cheek, his expression an interesting combination of intense sorrow and equally as intense fury. "I think it's time we went home, don't you?" he murmurs, straightening his coat around Aya before standing up and scowling at the phoenix still burning vividly above the scaffolding. "Given that I have no idea what he's up to or where he's got to, I've sent Free after Ken..."

 

"Shit," I swear softly, watching Aya's eyes widen even further as he listens to what's being said and not, Goddamn it, knowing what to say to reassure him. "I'm sure..."

 

"Bomb!" Ken screams, suddenly materializing in the doorway and jumping up and down excitedly. "The fuckers rigged the fucking light show to enough C4 to blow this entire dump to hell!"

 

"Then disarm the damn thing," ChloÈ shouts back, bending down and pulling Aya gently away from me before picking him up. "Surely you remember..."

 

"Can't! When I tried to disarm it the countdown went from an hour to five minutes! So, come on! *Move*!"

 

"I've heard worse suggestions," I mutter, somehow instinctively knowing what ChloÈ expects of me and scrambling down off the stage. As I'd -- don't ask me how -- expected, he then gingerly passes me Aya, who, dare I say thankfully, appears to have passed out. The threat of being blown to itty-bitty pieces hanging over my head aside, I'm irrationally pleased to have Aya back in my arms and hug him carefully.

 

"For God's sake! *Move*!" Ken shouts, gesticulating wildly. "Free's already got the car running and we *so* have got to get the fuck out of here."

 

"Destroying all the evidence," ChloÈ states, glancing at me to confirm that I'm right with Aya before running towards the door. "They're clever, I'll grant them that."

 

Despite having to carry Aya, I manage to keep up with ChloÈ and am only a few steps behind him when he bursts through the door. As Ken had said, Free's already in the car and he's brought it over to right in front of the warehouse to enable both swift access and escape. Wrenching open the back door, Ken clambers across the seat and waits to take Aya from me while ChloÈ sprints around to the front passenger seat.

 

Quashing my reluctance to even so much as momentarily give up my hold on Aya, I place him in Ken's waiting arms and jump in. Time very much being of the essence, I've barely got the door shut before Free's got the Range Rover hurtling towards the exit. With immaculate timing, the first explosion rocks the warehouse just as we fly through the gate.

 

Not wanting to look behind me -- if we'd been slower, if... if... if... oh my God I so don't wanna think about it -- I pull Aya away from Ken and, cradling him, settle back against the door.

 

"The... The Audi..." Ken whispers, staring out the back window, his face a picture of shock.

 

"*Fuck* the Audi," ChloÈ retorts, turning around and once again rearranging his coat around Aya, fussing with it until it covers his feet.

 

My heart feeling as though it's decided to take up residence in my throat, I arrange Aya more comfortably in my lap and, because it's by far the easiest thing to do, fixate more on the fact that that's the first time I've ever heard ChloÈ swear as opposed to thinking about anything of, well, you know, more pressing importance.

 

"Just what the..." Trailing off, Ken slumps back in his seat and, stretching out his arm, clearly hesitates over touching Aya. "Was he..." Stopping himself yet again, he bites his bottom lip and retracts his hand. "How bad is he hurt?" he murmurs dully. "The blood... Please tell me that all that blood wasn't Aya's..."

 

"It wasn't Aya's," ChloÈ replies, swiveling further around and giving Ken's knee a pat. "Neither were the jeans he was wearing. Both, or so we believe anyway, belonged to some poor unfortunate whose... remains... Free and I discovered in a back room. Please do not ask, however, about either the room or his condition as I really don't want to have to tell you."

 

"Good," Ken mutters, his gaze locked on Aya. "I... I mean, you know... I don't mean that I'm glad that other man is dead, but..."

 

"You don't have to explain," ChloÈ interrupts softly. "I think we all know exactly what you mean. As for your question in relation to Aya's injuries... Yohji?"

 

"I..." Jerking my head up, I stare numbly at ChloÈ, wishing I had a coherent answer for him. "I don't really know. There's... Well, there's bruising on his torso but... I'm sorry... I don't know about... ah... further down. I... I didn't look."

 

"I think I'll call Dr Symons anyway, just to be on the safe side," ChloÈ replies, seemingly unperturbed by my non-answer and starting to dig in his pocket for his phone.

 

"It is already done," Free interjects calmly. "I took the liberty of calling him while looking for Ken, simply, as you said, to be on the safe side. Unfortunately however Dr Symons is not available and Dr Hastings will be the one attending. He is already en route and will meet us at the garage when we get back to the house."

 

"Oh *damn*! Why isn't Dr Symons available?" ChloÈ sighs, twisting back around and scowling. "Hastings is a cretin."

 

"He is a cretin, granted," Free responds, shrugging, "but he is a cretin with a medical degree and who just happens to be on our small list of people we can rely on to keep their mouths shut. As for Dr Symons? Apparently he is out of the country on a holiday at the moment and will not be back until next month."

 

"Nice to be some people," ChloÈ mutters drily, his gaze drawn, like Ken's, once more to Aya, who's still unconscious and completely oblivious to everything that's going on around him. "This is... Hell, I don't even know where to start."

 

"Anywhere would be good," I murmur, gently stroking Aya's cool cheek and trying desperately to ignore the scent of blood and... sex... that's coming from him. I couldn't smell the... latter... in the warehouse but here, in the closed confines of the Range Rover, it's unmistakable. Sweat, semen... *sex*. "Just... Fuck. What the hell is going on here, huh? Surely you've got to have some freakin' clue?"

 

"None that make any degree of sense to me at the moment," ChloÈ whispers, shaking his head. "I've got some... ideas... but, well, they almost seem too far fetched to be viable. Obviously the whole set up was orchestrated to perfection, but..."

 

"Ewigkeit," Ken interrupts flatly, his hands once again unconsciously clenching into fists. "You saw the pretentious use of the ankh in both the flyer and at the warehouse... They have to be involved."

 

"Maybe," ChloÈ replies noncommittally. "While I agree that the use of the ankh definitely points in their direction, for all we know it may just be a red herring used to confuse us. One thing is certain though and that's whoever is behind this is exceptionally well informed and knows what it is they're doing. Although I could be wrong, I think we were all played tonight, that they achieved exactly whatever it was they wanted to achieve. Given that we were operating blind, if they'd wanted us dead then, well, I very much suspect we would be."

 

"If not Ewigkeit, then who?" Ken demands angrily. "And what do they want from us, huh? Why go to this much trouble if not to kill us? This... For fuck's sake! It's bullshit. They've completely got the upper hand and I hate it."

 

"And you think I'm particularly enamored with any of it?" ChloÈ retorts coolly. "Getting narky isn't going to solve anything though and, to be blunt with you, I don't really see much point in continuing this conversation, well, not until we've been able to do some research anyway. We know that Aya walked into a trap that had been clearly set for him, but other than that we're completely in the dark."

 

"If they want a fight I wish they'd just show themselves right now as I'd love to give 'em a fucking fight," Ken mutters. "Whatever the sick bastards have done to Aya is just damn wrong. You saw him. It's like they knew exactly what buttons to push to do the worst possible damage. I... I don't even want to think about how this is going to effect him. He... Christ..."

 

"He'll be fine," ChloÈ interrupts quietly, glancing at Ken and nodding in my direction. "While we mightn't know what's been done to him we know that he's alive and that he's... survived worse. Aya's a fighter, Ken, and you know it as well as any of us. Tonight's bad, but tomorrow will be better."

 

"I'd still love to fight them," Ken sighs, finally finding the courage to reach out and lightly rest his hand on Aya's leg. "Bastards."

 

"I am sure you will get your chance in due course," Free murmurs, glancing at Ken in the rear vision mirror before swapping to German and addressing ChloÈ, who, with a heavy sigh, returns his attention to the front of the 4WD and replies in kind. Knowing that neither Ken nor myself have that good a grasp on German, they continue speaking it softly, effectively closing us out of their conversation.

 

"Aya will be fine," I murmur, shifting position slightly to close my hand over Ken's. "We'll make sure of it, yeah? Whatever he needs or whatever it takes, we'll be there for him."

 

"You more so than me," Ken replies, smiling gently. "You know, if whoever these fuckers are *had* to do this, I'm glad they waited until you'd joined us. If they'd done it earlier... Shit. I don't even want to go there."

 

"Huh?" I grunt, looking at Ken in surprise and shaking my head. "What are you talking about? ChloÈ seemed to imply something along those same lines back at the warehouse and... and I don't understand what either of you are getting at. Aya actively avoids me and you're thinking, what, that I'm somehow going to be responsible for helping him through this?"

 

"You'll see," Ken responds, turning his hand over and entwining his fingers with mine. "I wish to God it didn't have to happen like this again but, you'll see. Even if it doesn't come back to you and you have to rely purely on instinct which, let's face it, is all you had at Souzou, you'll still see. Whether he admits it or not, you're Aya's rock."

 

"And when I fall spectacularly on my ass you'll be there to pick up the pieces, I hope," I mutter dismissively, wishing I shared so much as a hint of Ken and ChloÈ's apparent -- misguided -- faith in me. Just because I'm willing to do anything that I can for Aya doesn't mean I'll actually be able to help him in any way. Hell, probably the only reason he's even letting me hold him at the moment is because he's out cold and simply doesn't know any better.

 

"We'll be there," ChloÈ interjects, switching back to English as Free parks the Range Rover a little up the street from the house. "We won't be needed, but, and I don't really think I even need to be saying this, we'll be there. For you... For Aya... As I heard you say, whatever it takes. We'll get through this."

 

His piece said, ChloÈ pauses and gestures out the passenger window in the direction of the garage. "Now, Ken, do you want to go check the security system or do you want me to do it? Again, just to be on the safe side, I think it'd be for the best if someone checked everything out before we got there."

 

"I'll do it," Ken states, pulling his hand away from mine and opening the door, an expression of what looks to be relief at being able to do something crossing his face. "If it's all clear I'll send the roller door up, yeah?"

 

"Sounds good," ChloÈ replies, watching as Ken gives a quick nod before gently shutting the door and running across the street.

 

"You don't think he'll be walking into a trap, do you?" I query hesitantly, pulling Aya a little tighter against me in what can only be described as a reflex -- possible danger, cling to what you hold dear -- action. "I mean, everything else so far has been a trap."

 

"I think they have had their fun for now and that the house will be untouched," Free replies, turning around and visibly flinching at the sight of Aya looking so pale and crumpled. "As has already been said, if they wanted us dead we simply would not be sitting here now."

 

"And knowing that will make me sleep so much better tonight," I mutter, quashing a sigh of relief as, through the still heavily falling rain, I see the roller door slowly gliding open. "See, Aya?" I whisper into his hair, "I told you that we'd get you home, that you're safe."

 

"As if there was ever any doubt," ChloÈ comments, giving a mock, haughty sniff as, doing a sweeping u-turn, Free drives the Range Rover into the garage. Aya stirs slightly at the sudden brightness offered by the fluorescent lighting, but doesn't wake. Ken shouting the all clear doesn't have any discernible impact on him either and nor does, after getting out of the front, Free opening the back door and gently taking him from me.

 

Immediately missing his weight, I climb out of the 4WD and am about to ask Free to give him back when a sudden flash of headlights heralds a new car pulling into the garage. Immediately alert, I shoot an anxious look at ChloÈ who, oddly, just shakes his head and shrugs.

 

"The great Dr Hastings," he mutters disinterestedly, already turning and moving towards the door into the courtyard. "Check out his car. Do you honestly think an insane criminal mastermind would drive a Ford Ka?"

 

"Er... Probably not," I murmur, watching the doctor climb out of his car and blink owlishly in the bright light. While I've met Dr Symons -- he did my physical at the castle -- I've not had the pleasure of Dr Hastings before and, taking ChloÈ's dislike for the man to heart, stare at him critically. Hmm... On the road to nowhere side of thirty, prematurely balding, nondescript, geeky fashion sense (I swear his mother had to have knitted his cardigan for him), nervous...

 

Great. He's probably a really nice man, deep down, but...

 

Reluctantly trusting Aya to Free, I walk over and join ChloÈ by the door. "Is he really the only other doctor on our payroll?" I whisper, pulling a face.

 

"In London, yeah," ChloÈ sighs, opening the door and glancing out into the courtyard. "Don't worry though. He's a good enough doctor and won't hurt Aya. I just happen not to like him very much and think he's an idiot, that's all."

 

"This is my patient, yes?" Dr Hastings queries unnaturally brightly as he bustles over to Free and waves his hand airily at Aya. "What an *interesting* coat. Very Matrix meets... now, what's that peculiar penchant for wearing all black and holding sÈances on tombstones called? Goth, yes? Yes, I'm sure it is. Very Matrix meets goth, yes?"

 

"Get used to it," ChloÈ mutters, rolling his eyes as he steps out into the rain. "He says 'yes' a lot... A *real* lot."

 

"This is Aya, yes?" Dr Hastings continues, peering at the unconscious redhead and gingerly taking his pulse. "Well, his heartbeat is strong which is a good sign, yes it is. Now, I would think it would be best if I were to look him over inside, yes?"

 

Not waiting around to hear if either Free or Ken fall in to the trap of simply, parrot-like, replying 'yes', I leave the garage and jog across to the back door, which ChloÈ has already unlocked and disappeared through. Holding it open, I watch the others file across the courtyard and mentally berate myself for not having had the forethought to grab an umbrella to cover Aya with. Annoyed, but knowing there's not a damn thing I can do about it now, I wait until everyone is inside before pulling the door shut and locking it. Without bothering to announce his intent, Free immediately starts to head up the stairs, Aya still in his arms. I want to follow him but, not knowing how I could possibly be of any assistance, quickly decide against it.

 

Staring down at his sodden feet and ankles with an almost comical expression of dismay, Dr Hastings prattles on about the rain being the heaviest he's ever seen it -- "Why, yes, yes it is" -- before realizing that no one's listening to him and obediently trotting off up the stairs after Free.

 

"Why, yes, I think ChloÈ's right," Ken mimics, shrugging out of his wet coat and dropping it carelessly on the floor. "Dr Hastings is indeed an idiot, yes he is."

 

"Let's just hope he's a competent idiot," I sigh, reaching back and wringing some of the rain out of my hair. "Um... Now what though? What do we do now?"

 

"Now we wait for Dr Idiot's verdict on Aya," Ken mutters, nervous energy making him hop agitatedly from foot to foot as though he can't tolerate the thought of standing still. "Why don't you go find ChloÈ and wait with him?"

 

"What about you?" I ask, accepting Ken's suggestion as sounding reasonable and already moving slowly towards the stairs. "You look as though having to sit down right now would probably kill you."

 

"Oh, you are *so* right on that account," Ken retorts, tilting his head from left to right and causing his neck to click as his spine falls back into alignment. "Ah. That's better. Don't worry about me though. I think I'll do a sweep of the house before rechecking the security system and sending a 'what the fuck?' email to Omi in the desperate hope that he may know something we don't."

 

"Well... er... enjoy," I murmur lamely, watching Ken stride determinedly into the store before walking up the stairs to the kitchen. My body suddenly craving nicotine, I grab my cigarettes from their spot on the bench and, with fingers that don't want to work, fumble over lighting one up. Because I'm not really permitted to smoke inside, I think about heading back down to the back door -- which is where I've been furtively smoking ever since the heavens opened up and decided to dump two months of rainfall on London in three days -- but, the need being so great, I come to the conclusion that I simply can't be bothered moving and bring the smoke up to my lips. It's close enough for me to be able to taste the nicotine when -- sprung big time -- ChloÈ silently materializes next to me and snatches it out of my hand.

 

"I'm sorry..."

 

Or not.

 

My apology dying on my lips, I watch dumbfounded as, instead of stubbing the cigarette out in the sink and glaring at me, ChloÈ takes a long drag and collapses into a chair. "You have no idea how much I needed that," he states, taking another drag and giving no indication whatsoever of wanting to give me my smoke back.

 

"I didn't know you smoked," I murmur pointlessly, shaking my head as I pull out another cigarette and light it up.

 

"If things are bad enough it's either that or drink and, well, wanting to get a start on the research, the drinking option is currently out," ChloÈ replies, shrugging as he looks me up and down. "You should change."

 

"I'm fine," I respond dully, retrieving a saucer from the cupboard to use as an ashtray before placing it on the table and taking a seat opposite ChloÈ, who, of course, has somehow found the time to both dry himself off and change. "I... I don't even feel wet... just... numb..."

 

"And I suspect the numbness has nothing to do with the fact that you're dripping everywhere either," ChloÈ sighs, tapping his ash in the saucer and looking at me with sudden interest. "Actually... How *are* you holding up? I know this has been a shock to all of us but, really, it's your first slap in the face of how perilous and... *sudden*... our lives can be and no one would blame you if you were suddenly having grave doubts about the life you've kind of had dumped on you."

 

"It's not me I'm worried about," I whisper, staring at my cigarette and wondering why the nicotine isn't doing its usual trick of making me feel any better. "What about Aya, huh? When I think of the state we found him in and how effortlessly he was played I just want to scream. I... I'm also worried about why you and Ken somehow think I'll be able to help him. You say I've done it before, that I've cared for him in the past, but... Oh God! I don't remember any of it and I'm terrified that I'll only make things worse for him."

 

"You won't," ChloÈ replies matter-of-factly. "For what it's worth, right now, as far as Aya's concerned, things couldn't really get any worse. Whatever it was that he was made to endure tonight, believe me when I say that it would have been the embodiment of all of his worst dreams coming hideously true and..."

 

"And you tell me this by way of encouragement?" I interrupt derisively. "Hell, ChloÈ, you've got to be freakin' kidding me. I mean, seriously, if Aya's at his lowest ebb then just what the fuck am I supposed to be able to do for him? If I've done it before then, yay, good on me. Thing is though, that was then and this is now. Things are different."

 

"Not really, they're not," ChloÈ smiles, taking another drag of his cigarette. "Whether you even realize it or not, you've already shown yourself capable of caring -- dare I say, instinctively -- for Aya."

 

"Man, you are so talking crap," I mutter, leaning back in my chair and rolling my eyes at the ceiling. "What have I done for Aya, huh? If you're talking about untying him, well, you know, I pretty much think a trained monkey could have done that if we'd had one on stand by."

 

"Why waste bananas on a trained monkey when we've got Ken?" ChloÈ retorts facetiously, stubbing out his smoke and standing up. "Believe me or don't though, I don't really care. I know that I'm right and I'm confident that you'll soon wake up to this yourself," he continues, walking over to the bench and switching both the kettle and the coffeemaker on. "As we said in the car, you'll see."

 

"I'll see *what*? I exclaim, slamming my hand on the table in exasperation. "Christ, ChloÈ, just what the hell are you talking about? Come on, help me out. You say that I've already shown that I'm capable of caring for Aya but how, huh? What exactly did I do that was so worthy of praise?"

 

Sighing, ChloÈ lines up three cups on the bench before turning around and giving me one his Oscar Award winning, long suffering looks. "I was watching you when you took those disgusting jeans off Aya and I knew then that you could never let him down," he murmurs quietly. "Instead of just stripping them off, you made sure he was covered in my coat first and that, whether you're consciously aware of it or not, was the kindest thing you could have done for him."

 

"I..." Letting my still burning cigarette slip from my fingers into the saucer, I stare at ChloÈ in mute astonishment. "It... It was?"

 

"It was, yeah," ChloÈ confirms, turning back around and returning his attention to his drink making. "Do you even know why you did it that way? Think about it. If it had been anyone else wouldn't you have just ripped them straight off without a second thought? I know I would have."

 

"But Aya isn't anyone else," I mutter, talking more to myself than to ChloÈ. "I mean, you know how he is, how he won't even go out in public in three-quarter length pants... How could I have done it any other way? He was distraught enough without being stripped naked. I... I just didn't want to further upset him, you know? Covering him first was... ah... yeah... instinctive..."

 

"Told you so," ChloÈ retorts smugly, crouching down in front of the cupboard and actually seeming to put effort into picking which one of Free's teas he wishes to use. A green tin apparently meeting his criteria, he pulls it out and spoons the required amount into the waiting teapot before returning it to the cupboard. Unlike Aya, he actually manages this *without* having to either wrinkle his nose or hold his breath.

 

"Yeah, but..." Realizing that there's nothing I can really think of saying, I trail off and light another cigarette. Confident that I've come to my senses and accepted that he's right, ChloÈ remains silent and concentrates on his self-imposed task of making drinks for everyone. I watch him bustle around though a thin haze of smoke and -- be it instinctive or not -- return my attention to worrying about Aya.

 

What really happened to him tonight? Will he be okay? Is Dr Hastings being gentle with him? Will I really be able to help him? Why does waiting in a kitchen like this, smoking and worrying myself silly, seem vaguely familiar?

 

DÈjý vu?

 

The myriad questions without answers backing up in my head, I'm contemplating raising the courage to ask ChloÈ what could possibly be familiar about this scenario when Free wanders into the kitchen. Like ChloÈ, he's taken the time to change into dry clothes.

 

"I have called KR," he states softly, taking the cup of tea ChloÈ offers him with a small, grateful smile. "He and Mihirogi are going to see what, if anything, they can dig up on who might possibly be behind this. They are also not going to tell Yuki or Michel any of it until morning, which I think is probably for the best."

 

"Damn. Would you believe I'd completely forgotten about the two of them?" ChloÈ mutters, placing a steaming cup of coffee down on the table in front of me. "Here. If you don't like it blame the machine... Again though, damn... Yuki will freak when he learns that Aya's been hurt and I'm glad that I'm not the one who'll have to tell him."

 

"Fuck," Ken swears, striding into the room and throwing himself down into a chair. "I'm with ChloÈ on that one. Not only had I forgotten all about Yuki and Michel but, yeah, I *so* wouldn't want to be the one who's going to have to explain things to Yuki."

 

"The house all clear?" I query, as, still playing the role of host to perfection, ChloÈ retrieves a can of Coke from the fridge and slides it across the table to Ken.

 

"Just as we left it," Ken confirms, pulling the tab on the can and toasting ChloÈ with it by way of thanks before downing half of it in one long gulp. "Not a thing is out of place and if anything's been tampered with than I sure as fuck can't find it. I also, without giving too much away because I know it would only upset him, sent Omi an email asking if he's possibly heard anything on the grapevine in respect to who we might have pissed off recently."

 

"They won't have done anything to the house," ChloÈ mutters, bringing his tea over and returning to his seat at the head of the table. "Again, I'm sure they achieved what they wanted to and are now sitting quietly somewhere having a congratulatory drink and a group patting on the back session. The light show, the phoenix, the way they sucked Aya in and what they did to him, the explosion - it was all orchestrated to perfection. I suspect, in their grand scheme of things anyway, we're now just meant to sit back and wait until they decide to next yank our chain."

 

"Oh goody, something to look forward to then," Ken sighs, running both hands through his hair and causing it to stick up everywhere. "Hey, speaking of Aya... Free? Are you sure leaving him alone with Dr Hastings was wise?"

 

"You can not possibly be implying I should have remained in the room with them?" Free murmurs, raising an eyebrow in surprise and shaking his head. "God, no. While I may be wrong, I honestly believe Aya would have wanted me there only slightly less than I myself would have wanted to have been. Besides, Tantomile and Mystique are both watching over the doctor with malevolent intent and claws at the ready should he so much as consider stepping out of line, so, really, I think he is perfectly safe."

 

"I'd been wondering where Mystique was," ChloÈ comments, wrapping both his hands around his cup and staring vacantly out the door. "The more I think about this the more concerned I get," he adds quietly. "To ensnare Aya like that, I... My mind keeps going back to..."

 

"I thought we had decided that following that line of thought was going to be the last resort," Free interrupts, shooting ChloÈ a look that's half warning and half worry. "While, yes, it is certainly a possibility, so, however, are lots of things."

 

"You're right," ChloÈ sighs. "It's just..." Stopping himself, he smiles weakly and shakes his head. "Never mind. I'm sure if those bastards were around I'd have felt their slimy presence by now."

 

"Enough with being Cryptic ChloÈ," Ken scowls, peering at ChloÈ with open curiosity. "Come on. Spill. Something's getting your hackles up and I want to..."

 

"Hello? Yes? Is anyone around?"

 

Saved by Dr Hastings' tentative sounding voice calling out from the top of the stairs, ChloÈ jumps to his feet and walks across to the door. "We're in the kitchen," he calls back, waiting for the doctor to meander into the kitchen before picking up his tea and leaning against the bench next to Free.

 

"Oh, I say, yes," Dr Hastings exclaims, his eyes lighting up behind his bifocals as he makes a beeline for the chair ChloÈ had only just vacated and sitting himself down in it with a little sigh of relief. "A cup of tea would be lovely, yes it would. White with one, please."

 

Narrowing his eyes, ChloÈ glowers at Hastings for a second or two before flouncing across to the cupboard and, with a spot of loud ferreting, pulling out one of the Dragon's Tears mugs. "A cup of tea coming up," he grinds out, his hand hovering over the teapot he'd used to make his own tea in before sliding across to Free's. Picking up the teapot, he fills the doctor's cup from it before cursorily dumping a teaspoon of sugar in it and plonking it unceremoniously on the table.

 

"That looks lovely, yes it does," Hastings states timidly, looking down at the somewhat murky looking tea with evident dismay. "Now, I hate to be a nuisance, but would you happen to have some milk?"

 

Not particularly liking the look ChloÈ shoots at the back of the doctor's head, I get up and retrieve the milk from the fridge. "Here," I mutter, placing it in front of him and noticing -- with no real surprise, I might add -- the collection of very red scratches that crisscross his hands and wrists. "Do I even want to know?" I murmur, running my finger lightly along his right hand as I walk back to my chair.

 

"Those vicious cats attacked me!" Dr Hastings splutters indignantly, pouring a hefty slug of milk into his cup and frowning as it does nothing whatsoever to improve the color of his tea. "While, yes, I thought they were cute to begin with I soon changed my mind when they took offence to being kept out of the bathroom and went me. Yes! They went me! I very nearly thought I was going to have to call for assistance."

 

After mouthing 'I'm going to go you in a moment', ChloÈ plasters on a false, sympathetic smile and moves back to stand near Free. "Most people neither know it nor believe it," he murmurs, "but cats are actually as loyal, if not more so, as dogs."

 

"Ah, now dogs, there's an animal I know where I stand with," Hastings replies, sniffing his tea cautiously before, his bred into him 'good and proper' English manners kicking in, taking an equally as cautious mouthful. "Why, what an *interesting* flavor," he murmurs politely, hurriedly placing the cup back on the table. "Yes... I think the word interesting is most apt."

 

"On the subject of interesting and what we're, you know, actually interested in hearing," Ken interjects, fixing the doctor with a flat, no nonsense look. "The reason you're here, remember? Come on. Enough with the pleasantries. How's Aya?"

 

"Aya... yes," Dr Hastings replies, nodding. "It's, and again I feel compelled to use the word apt here, yes I do, *apt* that you use the word interesting and Aya's name in the same response as his condition is most interesting indeed."

 

"Interesting?" I query, staring at the doctor in disbelief. "How can you possibly say his condition is *interesting*? What a... Christ! What a dumb ass thing to say."

 

"No, no," the doctor exclaims, shaking his head adamantly. "Interesting is definitely the right thing to say, yes. You see, despite what I'd been led to believe from Free's phone call, Aya shows no signs of having been sexually assaulted."

 

"But he stunk of sex!" I blurt out. "And... And the way we found him and everything! It doesn't make any sense..."

 

"It may not make any sense," Hastings replies soothingly, "but allow me to assure you, all of you, that your friend shows no signs of either having been recently penetrated or any of the other tell tale signs of having been raped. He has been beaten, yes, and he's suffering more deeply from shock than anyone I've ever seen before, but he has *not* been molested."

 

"You can still assault someone without leaving obvious marks," Ken mutters darkly, taking his frustrations out on his empty Coke can and twisting it violently out of shape. "I... I'm glad though, and I know I'm speaking for everyone here, that... that it's not as bad as we feared... I mean, it's still bad, but..."

 

"But..." ChloÈ murmurs, glancing at Free in confusion. "That... room... with the body, we saw Aya's clothes in there, didn't we? I... I'm sure they were his."

 

"They were," Free agrees, looking as puzzled as ChloÈ, "and that other man, he had definitely been..." Trailing off, he turns to Hastings and looks at him expectantly. "You are certain that Aya shows no signs of having been sexually assaulted?"

 

"One hundred percent, yes," Hastings huffs. "Aya is bruised, and there are small puncture marks in both his neck and left arm that indicate he was drugged, but he has not been raped." Pausing, he cocks his head to the right and frowns. "I do believe however, and, yes, this too is interesting, that he currently believes that he was. It's quite odd. I'm putting it down to the unknown drugs in his system, however, and believe he'll have changed his tune after a good sleep."

 

"So, what you're saying is that apart from having been drugged and beaten, there's really nothing wrong with him?" I query, wanting to be certain that I'm understanding what it is I think I'm hearing.

 

"Physically, apart from the bruising, he's quite fine, yes," Dr Hastings replies. "Mentally, however... Well, I'm hoping he's just in shock and, again, will be better after he's slept it off. Would you believe that although he'd regained consciousness before reaching his room, that he never once said anything to me while I was tendering to him? He wouldn't even speak when I asked him a direct question and just looked at me as though I was Jack the Ripper or someone equally as horrid and evil like that. Now, while this may not be my place, may I be so bold as to suggest, when he's feeling a little better, of course, that he go for a fresh psych evalu..."

 

"No, you may not suggest," ChloÈ interrupts, banging his cup down on the bench and stalking across to the door, his patience for Dr Hastings' ramblings having clearly deserted him. "Thank you for coming out on this horrible night, doctor, but I do believe that we can take things from here. Free? Perhaps you'd like to show Dr Hastings back to his car?"

 

"It would be my pleasure," Free replies, calmly finishing his tea and placing his cup in the sink before slipping through the door. "Dr Hastings?"

 

"I... I was actually going to suggest..." Hastings stammers, looking at first flustered and then downright worried as ChloÈ starts to make his way back towards him. "Um... Yes, yes... I'm sure you'll be able to look after your friend admirably," he adds hurriedly, standing up and, giving ChloÈ a wide berth, darting over to the door. "I am, yes, as I'm sure you all know, only a phone call away."

 

"We know," ChloÈ mutters dismissively, waving at the doctor's retreating back. "Good night, Dr Hastings, it's been, as always, a pleasure."

 

"Yes, yes, a pleasure," Dr Hastings murmurs, disappearing through the door with an audible sigh of relief. "Good night, boys. I'm sure I'll see you all again sometime."

 

Once he's confident that the doctor's gone, Ken leans back in his chair and laughs. "And I don't need to be a mind reader to know that you're thinking 'not if I see you first," he snickers, wagging his finger at ChloÈ. "You're cruel to him, you know. What's he ever done to you anyway?"

 

"The man's an open channel," ChloÈ replies, scowling, "and, unlike you, I know what he really thinks of us. You don't need to lose any sleep though as, trust me, he thinks I'm the worst..."

 

"Oh..." My not overly glowing opinion of Dr Hastings slipping another notch, I stand up and glance out the door. "His... ah... medical opinion though, you'd trust that?"

 

"As far as I believe him to be telling the truth about Aya, yeah," ChloÈ sighs, following my gaze and giving a little nod. "Go on. If I hadn't chased him out he was going to suggest that someone stay with Aya and, although it pains me to agree with him, it's a good idea."

 

"Me?" I squeak, sounding as apprehensive as I feel. "Are you sure? I know we had that discussion and, who knows, maybe you're right, but... Well, aren't you currently closer to him than I am?"

 

"Not in the same way as the pair of you were and not in the way he needs right now," ChloÈ replies, hoisting himself onto the bench and gesturing towards the door. "I'd be lying if I said that I didn't want to go to him, but I care enough for him to know that I'm not who he wants. That said, I also have all that research I really need to get started on..."

 

"Stop fucking around and just go to him," Ken interjects bluntly, swiveling around and giving me a reassuring smile. "If you're that worried, look at it this way... If Aya doesn't want you anywhere near him then Tantomile will shred you even before you've stepped into the room..."

 

"And on that delightful note..." I mutter, accepting that I don't have a snowflake's chance in hell of winning this argument -- of sorts -- and walking slowly through the door. Not wanting to allow nerves to get the better of me, I then force myself to walk up the stairs and straight to Aya's room. Finding his door open, I take a deep breath, murmur a prayer under my breath to the unknown for guidance, and step boldly through his doorway.

 

And...

 

Goddamn it! How does he *always* do this to me?

 

My breath being sucked away from me in a rush, I stand flatfooted just inside the doorway and simply stare, my mouth no doubt gaping open like a fool, at the picture of vulnerability sitting in the middle of the bed.

 

Dressed in black silk pajamas, the top of which has a Mandarin collar, Aya sits between his pillows, his back pressed up against the bedhead and with his knees hugged loosely to his chest. His pale skin is flushed pink and it's clear that he's just fresh from the shower. The sleeves of his pajama top having ridden up because of the position he's in, I can see the angry red abrasions from where the rope has burnt him and only just manage to stop myself from flinching. Tantomile sits, her golden eyes fixed on me in lieu of Aya's violet ones, on the pillow to his left while, her guarding duty having been completed, Mystique, with a casual rub around my legs, meanders silently out of the room.

 

I...

 

To hell with it.

 

If Tantomile shreds me she shreds me.

 

"Aya..."

 

Clinging to the old fallback, 'nothing ventured, nothing gained' school of thought, I throw caution and common sense to the winds and walk across to the bed. Choosing the right side of the mattress, I sit down on it and -- here goes nothing -- simply pull Aya towards me. Although I'm expecting slight resistance at the very least, he accepts my invasion of his personal space with what almost strikes me as relief and, allowing himself to be maneuvered passively, slumps against me with a soft moan, his fingers clutching reflexively at my shirt.

 

Hugging him tightly, as Tantomile, for her part, starts to purr like a steam train, I blink back the tears I can suddenly feel trying to squeeze their way out of my eyes and kiss Aya on the top of the head.

 

"It's going to be okay, my love, you'll see," I murmur thickly, rocking him gently against me. "You'll get through this and, together, we'll defeat whatever it is that's coming. Trust me, Aya, I... I'm here for you... if you want me... and I'll do whatever it is you ask of me."

 

Shifting slightly, Aya looks up at me through shadowed, haunted eyes, his fingers tightening their grasp around my shirt. "Stay with me..." he whispers, looking away and resting his head against my shoulder. "Please... Don't leave me... Not again... I..."

 

"Leave you?" I reply gently, giving his head another kiss. "Never. If you want me then you're stuck with me..."

 

"Good." Yawning, Aya shivers and tries to huddle even closer against me. "Cold... Tired... Want to sleep but don't want to move."

 

"How about we make the big effort of getting into bed then?" I offer, making no move to release Aya until he's indicated one way or the other whether he's willing to be shifted or not. "Come on. You'll be warmer and I promise, if that's where you want me to be, that I'll be right next to you."

 

"Want," Aya mutters, reluctantly uncurling his fingers from my shirt and, drawing on a reserve of energy that, really, he shouldn't even still have, clambering under the comforter. Looking a little put out at having to move but still purring, Tantomile stands up, stretches, and walks down to the foot of the bed where she promptly resettles herself.

 

"Yohji... Please..."

 

Hoping that I'm reading the signs correctly, I decide that getting into bed wearing only my boxers is going to -- hopefully -- upset Aya marginally less than if I immediately went back on my word in order to obtain something less revealing to wear from my room, and quickly strip off. Once I'm down to my boxers, I switch the bedside lamp on before turning the overhead light off and shutting the door. Aya watches all of this through eyes that can barely stay open and gives a small whimper which I translate to mean 'about time too' when I sit down on the edge of the mattress and slip under the covers.

 

Once I'm settled comfortably, I reach for Aya and almost purr with delight myself when he wriggles over without hesitation. Curling around me, I wait for him to drape his left leg over mine and, when he does, feel both at peace and as though I'm finally whole.

 

Hugging Aya to me and listening to his breathing even out in the cadence of sleep, it then hits me that I'd *expected* him to drape his leg over mine, that I *knew* it was something he always did when we slept together.

 

And what this means, just to top this mind blowing night off, is that I've just had my first honest to goodness memory...

 

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

 

~ Aya ~

 

Waking, I find myself in a position that's both so familiar and so comforting, that, for a few blissful moments I honestly feel as though I can't actually be awake at all and, in fact, have to be still asleep and dreaming.

 

There being no way that it can actually be real though, there's just no other explanation for it. I simply *have* to be dreaming.

 

I'm not *really* draped around Yohji and he's not *really* holding me as tightly as he used to during the nights we slept together back at Souzou. Nor can I smell his immanently recognizable -- a combination of caffeine, nicotine, shampoo and long ago applied aftershave -- scent or hear his soft, almost rhythmic snoring.

 

Now, if I *wasn't* dreaming, then common sense dictates that the only person I'd be likely to be sharing a bed with would be ChloÈ.

 

And -- again with the common sense -- if I was sleeping with ChloÈ then the scent I'd be smelling would be roses and, because he quite literally sleeps like the dead and doesn't snore, the room would be silent.

 

Ergo, I'm dreaming. I have to be.

 

I'm asleep... somewhere... in my own bed, hopefully... and I'm dreaming of Yohji, of times past. The details of the dream are so specific and realistic that I'm even able to feel a feline shaped lump on top of the bedding near my foot, that logic tells me is meant to represent Kiri. I can also, over Yohji's snoring, hear the dull sound of rainfall. Souzou -- which is where I'm positive my dreamscape has me -- is only a single storey house though, meaning the sound of the rain hitting the roof should be a lot louder. Given that everything else is so realistic -- me in pajamas, Yohji half naked, a cat sharing the bed with us, the slight, tender feeling (Kimura's legacy to me) in my body that dogged me the first few times we slept together -- I find it odd that the rain is so quiet. This in turn makes me think how it sounds far more like what it does falling on the -- four storey -- house in London...

 

... And...

 

Fuck!

 

... No! Please God, no...

 

Oh, fuck, fuck, fuck!

 

Unasked for, unwanted, and very much unneeded reality hitting me like a bolt of lightning -- Not. Dreaming! -- I detangle myself from Yohji and, my body co-ordination deciding that now would be as good a time as any to desert me, all but literally fall out of bed in my haste to get away. Somehow, I have no idea how, I manage to land on my feet and, without pausing to check whether my panicked scrabbling into life woke Yohji or not, I stumble, my skin crawling, towards the door.

 

Not again!

 

Reaching it, I wrench it open and stagger, gasping for breath and with my heart trying to beat straight through my chest, into the corridor. Leaning against the wall for support, I run my fingers shakily through my hair and, firmly entrenched in 'flight' mode, glance around me nervously.

 

Now what?

 

My stomach feeling as though it's getting ready to stage a revolt, I hurriedly make the decision to head down to the bathroom on the first floor -- can't use mine because of Yohji being in my room, don't want to pass Ken's room in order to reach the one on this floor, and most definitely don't want to stumble into either ChloÈ or Free on the third floor -- and, on legs that don't even feel as though they're connected to my body, head for the stairs.

 

Somehow, and yet again I have no idea how, I make it to the bathroom just in time and, dropping heavily to my knees in front of the toilet, grab the seat with both hands and dry retch into the bowl. Nothing comes up and, instead of calming me down, this merely adds to my increasing, irrational, hysteria.

 

Unclean!

 

Crawling numbly across the tiled floor, I use the edge of the vanity unit as leverage and slowly drag myself to my feet. Upright and swaying, I grope around the vanity in search of the collection of toothbrushes and toothpaste that I know have to be there. Not caring whose I use, I snatch up the first toothbrush my fingers stray across. My mind very much on other things, I don't care about which flavor toothpaste I get either and squeeze a generous amount onto the brush from, again, the first tube my hand comes in contact with.

 

Whether I was made to... to... 'oblige'... or not...

 

I...

 

Dirty!

 

Jamming the toothbrush in my mouth, I use my left hand to hold onto the vanity unit and just... scrub. The toothpaste is spearmint and when the coppery flavor of blood takes over from that of the mint I spit into the basin, rinse my mouth out, and start again.

 

Need... to... be...

 

No!

 

Can't... ever...*be*...

 

Need to... *feel*... at the very least... clean...

 

The concept of knowing when to stop being lost to me, I'm on my forth refill of toothpaste and am still scrubbing away like a man possessed when the bathroom light is switched on and a cool hand closes gently around my right wrist.

 

"I think that's quite enough, don't you?" ChloÈ murmurs softly, taking the toothbrush from my hand and throwing it into the bin. "Come on, Aya, it's..."

 

"Never... enough..." I mutter, flinching at ChloÈ's closeness and reaching for another toothbrush. "Need to... Clean... Need to be clean..."

 

"We appear to have our wires crossed here," ChloÈ states quietly, taking the toothbrush from me and placing it on the vanity unit. "You see, what I said a second ago, it wasn't really meant as a question. In fact, let me rephrase it entirely... You've done enough damage to your gums already and I'm not just going to stand here watching you spit more blood into the basin."

 

"Go away then," I whisper, making to grab the toothbrush again. "You... You don't want to be near me any more than I want you sticking your nose in where it's not wanted."

 

Beating me to the toothbrush, ChloÈ picks it up and throws it forcefully into the bin. He then, just to ensure that I'm getting the hint, quickly collects all the remaining toothbrushes and lobs them into the bin as well. "Given that this is a bathroom and you have no idea what's already in that bin, are you *still* wanting to clean your teeth some more?" he queries mildly.

 

"I..." Shaking my head, I stare dully at ChloÈ, wishing he'd just turn around, cut his losses, and leave me to it. I may be disintegrating around the edges but that doesn't mean I'm already too far gone to know that I don't need an audience watching me. "Un... Unclean... I'm..."

 

"Shhh..." ChloÈ interjects soothingly as, with one eye on me, he bends down and retrieves a plastic cup from the cupboard under the vanity unit. "Here," he continues, filling the cup with water from the tap before holding it out to me. "Rinse your mouth out and then we'll go somewhere a little more... amenable... than the bathroom."

 

"You... Y-you don't understand," I stammer, making no move to take the cup from his hand not because I don't want to rinse my mouth out but because I'm trembling so badly that I know I'd only drop it if I took it from him. "I... I want to know that... if..."

 

"If you weren't so distraught you'd know that I *do* understand," ChloÈ replies grimly, helping me over to the basin and bringing the cup to my lips. "Come on, Aya, just rinse and, if it's honestly going to be what it takes, I'll show you that your mouth is as clean as it ever was."

 

The cup being pressed gently against my bottom teeth not really leaving me much choice as to whether I want to open my mouth or not, I take a mouthful of water, spilling half of it down my chin in the process, and, after swilling it around for a couple of seconds, spit it down the drain. Now that the light's on I can see proof of all the blood I've spat up and, without having to be told, take another mouthful of water from the cup ChloÈ's still holding. Releasing it into the basin, I see that the water isn't as red this time and, refusing the cup a third time, straighten up.

 

"Feeling better?" ChloÈ murmurs, glancing cursorily at the bloodstains around the rim of the cup before throwing it into the bin to join the toothbrushes.

 

"No... I'm not," I mumble, jerking my head up and, to my horror, catching sight of my reflection in the mirror above the basin. Not liking the image of the pasty faced and hollow eyed ghoul that I'm looking at, I take a hurried, stumbled step backwards. "ChloÈ... I... Please, just leave me be. I... I need to..."

 

Sighing lightly, ChloÈ walks over and closes his hands tenderly around my shoulders, his expression an equal mix of determination and compassion. "I'm *not* leaving you and although I know I'm not the one who really should be doing this for you, I'm the only one here, so..." Trailing off, ChloÈ locks very clear pale blue eyes on mine before leaning forward and gently settling his lips on mine.

 

Too shocked -- how can he possibly be kissing me when he knows...? -- to push him away or react any other way, I allow the kiss passively, even going so far as to open my mouth far enough to let his tongue slip in between my lips. When, confident that his point has been made, ChloÈ pulls back from the kiss and rests his forehead against mine, I whimper in what I suppose can only be either disbelief or disappointment.

 

"I told you that you were clean," ChloÈ whispers, removing his hands from my shoulders and pulling me towards him for a hug that, like the kiss, I allow passively. "I don't know what happened to you in the warehouse, Aya, but you're not to let it get to you. You've come too far to lose ground now."

 

"I... I don't know what happened either," I mumble hesitantly, a deep shudder of revulsion working its way down my spine even as I relax into ChloÈ's embrace. Although he's not -- and this, given the circumstances, isn't necessarily a bad thing -- Yohji and I'd wanted him gone only moments ago, I'm glad ChloÈ's here and, not for the first time, realize that I'd be in a far darker place than I am now without him. "I heard what the doctor said to me, but... Oh God, ChloÈ! I don't remember! I don't remember what they did to me! They... They did something... they had to... but I don't fucking know what!"

 

"You have no idea how much I wish I had an answer for you," ChloÈ replies softly, releasing his hold on me only to grab my hand in his and slowly lead me towards the door. "I, and I doubt you want to hear this, believe that something had to have happened though in order for me to have received that flash of... terror... from you. Come on though, given that there has to be places you'd rather be, let's get out of the bathroom."

 

"And go where?" I query, clutching so tightly at ChloÈ's hand that I cause him to stop and face me. "I... I don't know where I want to be..."

 

"I'm personally thinking returning you to bed would be a pretty good option," ChloÈ murmurs with a faint, fond smile. "How about it, huh? No offence, but you look as though you could do with your beauty sleep."

 

"No! Not bed!" I exclaim agitatedly, shaking my head as it only just dawns on me that ChloÈ's dressed for bed -- in white silk pajamas and a cream robe -- himself and that he's probably only up and about because of me and the fact that I was beaming my not inconsiderable freak out loudly and clearly through the house. "Yohji's in there," I add lamely, pulling my hand away from ChloÈ's and feigning interest in the doorframe.

 

"You're not implying that's a *bad* thing, are you?" ChloÈ replies, not sounding as surprised as perhaps I expected him to. "Okay though, fine, whatever... I can, of course, if you'd like, go in there and evict him..."

 

"No!" I interrupt, forcing myself to make a move and walking through the doorway into the corridor. "Leave Yohji where he is. I... I don't want to sleep anyway. Please though, you don't have to stay up on my account. I'm... I'll be fine."

 

"Fine or not, I'm not leaving you," ChloÈ retorts, following me out of the bathroom and starting to walk towards the living room. "Come on then. If you're going to stay up then I have to insist that you're comfortable."

 

"Thank you," I whisper gratefully, relieved that ChloÈ isn't going to leave me and trailing down the corridor after him. "I'm sorry... for... putting you to so much trouble. I know that I'm a... nuisance..."

 

"Nuisance?" ChloÈ echoes, opening the living room door and gesturing me through it. "When it comes to talking utter nonsense like that, well, nuisance is an understatement," he adds blithely, placing his hand lightly on my back and herding me over to the sofa. "Now, you just sit here and calm down. I'll be back in a minute or two."

 

Sitting down, my gaze is drawn to the laptop computer set up on the coffee table and, wanting to see what's on the screen, half reach for it. My fingers don't even get to brush against the casing though as, snapping the computer shut, ChloÈ shifts it out of my reach. Going on his closed, evasive expression, I think it's only the network, power, and modem cables coming out of the back of it that's stopping him from tucking it under his arm and taking it with him.

 

"Don't tell me you're downloading porn again," I comment weakly, drawing my feet up onto the sofa and curling up against the overstuffed arm.

 

"Hard core," ChloÈ replies, giving a little whistle that wakes Mystique from her sprawled position on the armchair and, after stretching and yawning daintily, brings her across to him. "Now, don't take this the wrong way or anything, but for now at least the contents of the computer are of no concern of yours and I don't want you anywhere near it."

 

"So you're using Mystique to guard it from me?" I query, raising my eyebrow as Mystique hops onto the coffee table and promptly positions herself *on* the laptop. "Nice try, but I'm sure she wouldn't scratch me."

 

"Who said anything about scratching you?" ChloÈ smirks, walking back towards the door. "Seeing as, and I'm only telling you this so you don't take it upon yourself to try your luck, I'll know about it the second you move, *I* might scratch you though..."

 

"In other words she'll sound the alarm," I murmur, very nearly feeling the urge to laugh at the quaintness of the situation. "Lovely. Thanks for that. It's reassuring to know how much you trust me."

 

"It's got nothing to do with trust," ChloÈ sighs, "more your best interests... Now, stay put. I'll be back."

 

"Stay put? I'm not going any..." Realizing that I'm effectively only talking to Mystique, who, taking her duty seriously, is looking at me through slitted eyes, I trail off and sigh. Feline company aside, I'm now alone when, really, I don't want to be. Then again, short of tonight -- at the very least -- never having happened, I don't even really know what it is that I *do* want.

 

Taking a deep breath as another shudder of revulsion works its way through me, I try to concentrate on the laptop and what might be on it that ChloÈ is trying to hide from me. My attention span not exactly being something you'd write home about at the moment though, I quickly discover that I can't focus on anything that could be considered logical or of holding any purpose and, because, I suppose, I can, regress to simply feeling sorry for myself.

 

Huddling against the corner of the sofa, I blink back futile tears as, apparently not having suffered quite enough for one night, my treacherous memory drags me kicking and screaming back not to earlier tonight but to three years ago... to Kimura...

 

Everything...

 

Every. Little. Thing...

 

It all comes flooding back to me. All the things I've tried desperately to forget and put behind me.

 

Everything.

 

The...

 

... being kept naked and, more often than not, locked in a glass cell for over a fortnight.

 

... all consuming belief that the others were all dead and knowing that I'd never see them again, that I was truly alone.

 

... hands, invasive and cold, touching me.

 

... disgust.

 

... pain.

 

... blood.

 

... fear.

 

... shame.

 

... disbelief.

 

... constant use of my body in ways that I'd never even imagined possible.

 

... sound of his voice and the way he tasted.

 

... never ending supply of 'equipment'.

 

... desire for death and the knowledge that he was going to succeed where Takatori had failed and destroy me.

 

"Aya! It's okay. That was a long time ago and you're safe here. Come on, Aya, let it go..."

 

ChloÈ's voice slowly penetrating through the fog in my head, I snap out my reverie of horror and discover him crouching down in front of me, his eyes wide and his expression worried.

 

"ChloÈ...?" I whisper faintly, shaking my head and staring, without really seeing anything, down at the floor. "I... I feel as though I'm losing my mind."

 

"I know," ChloÈ murmurs, reaching up and tentatively cupping my cheek in his hand, "but, and you've got to believe me here, you're not losing your mind and nor are things as bad as your subconscious is trying to make you think they are."

 

"They're not?" I sigh, reluctantly meeting ChloÈ's eyes and shrugging. "If you know something that I don't then, well, I'd kinda appreciate it if you'd share it with me."

 

"You're alive, aren't you?" ChloÈ replies, giving my forehead a quick kiss before standing up and retrieving a blanket from across the back of the armchair. Recognizing it -- which isn't hard given that it's leopard print and furry -- as having come from Yohji's room, I deduce that ChloÈ must have picked it up while I was ensnared in flashback hell and let him drape it over my legs without protest. He's barely straightened up when, with a trill of delight, Mystique jumps elegantly over from the coffee table to the sofa and, without bothering to so much as glance at either of us, promptly proceeds to begin kneading the blanket into submission. Quaintly, given her fur, she almost blends into it.

 

"To each their own," ChloÈ mutters, laughing as he watches his cat. "Now, where I was I?" he continues, picking up a cup of tea from the tray on the coffee-table and, after hesitating for a moment, placing it on the arm of the sofa. "Oh yes, that's right... Not only are you alive but you're also safe and surrounded by people who both love you and who will do anything in their power to protect you. You're also clean, in one piece, and back home. Given the other scenarios, you've got to admit all these things are definitely positives."

 

"When you put it that way," I murmur, eyeing the cup of tea with interest and, all the time hoping I'm able to get it to my mouth without dropping it, cautiously picking it up. The warmth seeping through the cup feeling good to me, I close both my hands around it and, not wanting to over exert myself, just rest it on my lap. "I just... I don't know. I just feel as though things... no, *everything*... is currently out of my control, like I'm being played or something. I wasn't... you know... but that doesn't mean nothing happened and... I don't know... the *not* knowing is striking me as actually being worse than if I *did* know and could remember..."

 

"We may never know what happened," ChloÈ states softly, picking up his own drink and sinking down in the armchair opposite the sofa. "I don't like saying it any more than you like hearing it, but it's true. We know that you walked into a trap, and we know that things were set up to appear even worse than they actually were, but... Well, other than that we pretty much know nothing. We don't know what happened to you while you were at the warehouse and, although we've already started looking into it, we don't know who was behind any of it."

 

"Whoever it is well and truly has the upper hand then," I mutter sourly, slowly bringing the cup to my lips and taking a welcome sip of -- Rosehip, I should have known -- tea. "I feel, on top of everything else this is, like a complete idiot for having fallen so effortlessly for their trap too. I doubt I could have behaved more obligingly for them if they'd sent me a list of clear cut instructions."

 

"It's not your fault, Aya," ChloÈ replies, looking at me closely for a few seconds before, apparently making his mind up about something, shrugging and taking a mouthful of tea. "I'm not saying this is what happened or anything, but, well, there's no real guarantee that you were operating entirely under your own free will... I mean, for all we know a telepath could have been controlling at least *some* of your actions..."

 

"A telepath?" I exclaim, not knowing whether this possibility makes me feel any better about my stupidity or not. In total control and simply behaving like an idiot versus having someone mess with my head... Christ. What a choice. "You mean like that insane orange haired Schwarz bastard, Schul..."

 

"He's one example, yes," ChloÈ interrupts, his expression hardening as it always does -- for reasons entirely unknown, mind you -- whenever Schwarz are mentioned. "There are many more telepaths out there than just that... lunatic... though, so it's not like I'm necessarily thinking of him. It's just, the whole telepath angle that is, a possibility, you know..."

 

"I didn't think I was susceptible to... mind games," I murmur, frowning down at my tea. Schwarz? What could they possibly want with me after all this time? "If, and I'm just using him as an example here, Schuldig *is* able to fuck with my head, then surely he would have tried it on all those years ago. Not only that, but you've said yourself that I'm impossible to get a read on, that I'm like some sort of closed, locked book."

 

"There's a chance the rain may have something to do with it," ChloÈ responds tiredly. "Again, I'm not saying that this is definite or anything, but whether we're consciously aware of it or not, heavy rain like this effects all of us. Don't ask me why, but, speaking for myself here, it heightens my ability and allows me to pick up on things that I wouldn't normally pick up on, not even if I was really concentrating or putting effort into it." Pausing, he looks across at me and smiles wanly. "Actually, I think it's only because of the rain that I was able to catch that flash of panic from you that woke us up to the fact that you weren't really in your room where, I feel obliged to add, you were *supposed* to be."

 

"You caught a flash of panic from me?" I query, blinking at ChloÈ in dull amazement. "Is... Shit! Is that how you knew to come looking for me?"

 

"You came to or something and the bolt of terror that went through you was so great that I think I felt it nearly as sharply as you did," ChloÈ murmurs, shrugging. "To be honest with you I've never felt anything like it before, not even back at..." Stopping himself, he shakes his head and takes another mouthful of tea. "Ah... Never mind... All that matters is that I felt you and that we were able to get you out of there."

 

"I went there looking for clues," I sigh, reaching down and petting Mystique as, the blanket having been kneaded to her liking, she stretches out along my thigh. "It was stupid of me, going off like that on my own and not telling anyone, yeah, but... you know me, I didn't want to put anyone out or cause them to worry... You saw the ankh and the white cross on the flyer, didn't you? To me they were like a sign and I just had to look further into it. Whether you believe me or not, I didn't just fly down to the warehouse blind either and did actually do some research into the matter first. Fat lot of good it did me, granted, but I *did* do it. For what little it's worth now I even thought it all looked fully above board and, in all honesty, didn't expect to find a damn thing at the warehouse..."

 

"The name of the promoter, Adrastea... Do you know what it means?" ChloÈ queries plainly, once again watching me closely.

 

"It means something?" I mutter, taking another sip of tea and looking at ChloÈ expectantly. "I have to say I was only interested in looking up the promotion company itself and when I saw that everything checked out, I quickly lost interest in it after that."

 

"Adrastea is another name for Nemesis, the Goddess of Revenge," ChloÈ explains quietly. "Couple that with the club being called Heliopolis and the image of the phoenix that was burning above the stage when we go there, and, well..."

 

"Phoenix?" I interject, not sure that I really want to know. "What phoenix? I didn't see any phoenix. Was it painted on? If we go back in daylight will it still be there?"

 

"Go back?" ChloÈ retorts, giving me a strange look. "Go back to what exactly? Assuming the fire brigade have even managed to put it out by now, all that's left of the warehouse is smoldering rubble. Oh... The same I suspect can be said for the Audi too... I hope you weren't too fond of that car as it too was caught up in the explosions that destroyed the warehouse."

 

"Explosions?" I echo, staring at ChloÈ numbly. You'd have thought that by now I'd have accepted that things can always get worse, but, well, apparently not. "What explosions?"

 

"The warehouse was rigged to blow if someone interfered with the pretentious lightshow they were putting on for our benefit," ChloÈ responds, still looking at me curiously. "We only just got out in time."

 

"Oh."

 

Traps. Symbols. Explosions... There's no way in hell any of this can be good.

 

"Having decided it was all too much at the time, you were out cold and missed most of it," ChloÈ adds helpfully. "Not, I hasten to add, that you really missed anything worth seeing at all."

 

"Tell me what happened from your side," I request quietly, rearranging myself in a slightly more upright position and almost dislodging Mystique from my thigh in the process. Meowing a complaint, she shoots me an annoyed look before resettling herself and draping her tail over her nose. "Please. I... need to know..."

 

"What I *really* think you need is to go back to bed," ChloÈ replies, glancing at the mantle clock and sighing. "Come on, Aya, it's nearly six in the morning and you need to rest. Besides, there's not really a lot that I can add to what you already know."

 

"What I *need* is to know is just what the fuck is going on here," I respond stubbornly, placing my tea back on the arm of the sofa and folding my arms across my chest. "Help me here, please. If I'm to be able to make sense of any of this then I need to know as much of the full story as I'm able to."

 

"Given that I suspect you'd only follow me if I got up and left, fine, you win," ChloÈ murmurs, shrugging in resignation. "I'd like to make it clear now however that I'm not particularly happy about it and would far prefer you to be obliging, for *once*, and just go off back to bed like a good boy."

 

"I'll think about it after you've told me what I want to know," I mutter, choosing not to think about the fact that when I left it, Yohji was in my bed and how there's just about no way I could go back to it knowing he's still there.

 

"And I'll believe it when I see it," ChloÈ sighs. "Okay though, again, you win. This is what happened from our side of the fence..."

 

As he'd warned me, listening to ChloÈ's side of things doesn't exactly add to my comprehension of the evening's events and, if anything, merely increases my confusion.

 

"There was a dead body in a back room?"

 

"Yes."

 

"Male?"

 

"Mmm-hmm."

 

"How'd he die?"

 

"Gunshot wound to the temple. Very messy. I doubt his own mother would have recognized him."

 

"Any other injuries?"

 

"..."

 

"ChloÈ!"

 

"He was dead, okay? Given that there wasn't really anything I could do about that, I chose not to pay him that much attention."

 

"Fine. What was the room like then?"

 

"You don't want to know."

 

"I do."

 

"Trust me when I say that you don't."

 

"ChloÈ! Stop being so damn obtuse and just tell me!"

 

"I don't want to tell you and you don't want to know. Can't we just leave it at that and be done with it?"

 

"No. We can't. Whether I *want* it or not, I *need* to know."

 

"You don't."

 

"I do!"

 

"Anyone ever tell you that you're a pain in the backside?"

 

"Plenty of times. Now, tell me."

 

"It was set up like..."

 

"Mmm? Go on."

 

"The room was done up to look like a S&M dungeon... Okay. There you have it. Are you happy now?"

 

No. No, no, no...

 

"..."

 

"Aya?"

 

"..."

 

"See? I told you that you didn't want to know."

 

"..."

 

"Okay. Now I'm *convinced* that you didn't need to know."

 

Finding the will from somewhere to shut my mouth, I watch numbly as ChloÈ gets out of the armchair and comes over to crouch in front of me.

 

"Aya?" he murmurs gently, placing his hand lightly on my arm. "Come on, it's okay. Just because that room was there there's nothing to prove that..."

 

"My clothes were in there, weren't they?" I interrupt hoarsely, shaking my head as though in denial. "They were! I... I know they were! And... And that means..."

 

"Shhh... It doesn't have to mean anything," ChloÈ states calmly. "Your clothes *were* in there, yes, but..."

 

"What did they do to me?" I whisper, only just managing to keep the hysteria I can feel bubbling inside of me from coming through in my voice. "ChloÈ... I can't remember any of it. I... I remember losing consciousness and I remember waking up and... and that's it! They could have done anything to me in between..."

 

"For what it's worth, and I know it's easy for me to say, I don't actually think they did anything," ChloÈ replies softly, giving my arm a squeeze before standing up and sitting himself on the edge of the coffee-table. "If you look at it all objectively, the whole thing appears to be little more than an elaborately set up... well, fright. For whatever reason they appear to have wanted to unsettle you and, I'm guessing here, announce their presence. And, if this *is* the case, they've succeeded admirably. Given how in the dark we are though, things could have been far worse. Far, *far* worse..."

 

"It doesn't feel like nothing," I murmur, hugging myself and wishing like crazy that things like this didn't effect me so badly. I can walk, alone, into battle and think nothing of it. Touch me where I don't want to be touched however and I lose it. Logical or not, it's just how it is. "It feels... Goddamn it! I know what Dr Hastings said and, what's more, knowing what it feels like, I believe him. That said, I still feel..."

 

"Violated?" ChloÈ offers quietly. "You've got every right to... While I firmly believe they did nothing to you -- and I'm not just saying that to make you feel better -- you were still stripped and... strung up on that scaffolding like some sort of pagan offering... And that, even without your past, would be enough to freak anyone out."

 

"It still doesn't feel like nothing," I repeat dully, lowering my head and staring down at Mystique. "When I woke, the smell of... sex... was almost overpowering... Surely that..."

 

"I'm still thinking it was nothing more than a finishing touch to their gratuitous display of their, in their minds anyway, brilliance at being able to so effortlessly get one over on you," ChloÈ responds with a casual shrug. "To put it another way, and I want you to think about this for a second, do you honestly think you'd feel any worse than you already do if you knew for a fact that all the things you're fearing happened actually had?"

 

Lifting my head, I glance at ChloÈ and, his words hitting home, slowly nod. "You know what, probably not," I murmur, slightly astonished by how a such a simple way of looking at it could clear things up so easily for me. "The way I feel about things like this, well... You're right. I doubt I'd be any worse off if I could offer you chapter and verse of what happened..." Trailing off, I sigh and force myself to meet ChloÈ's concerned gaze. "Whoever or whatever it is that's behind all of this are good, aren't they? They appear to know me inside and out while I... *we*... flounder in the dark and know nothing."

 

"We won't always be floundering in the dark," ChloÈ retorts, glancing at his laptop and scowling. "They may have won tonight but we'll be ready for them next time. Whatever it is that they want, they won't be getting it without a fight."

 

"Things are going to get worse, aren't they?" I sigh, trying not to think back to how relatively simple everything seemed to be less than twenty-four hours ago and how I should have known better than to have taken them for granted. "We're under attack from forces unknown and here I am feeling as though it would take next to nothing to make me view cowering in bed as just about the best idea I'd ever heard. Great. Just great."

 

"Three things," ChloÈ replies, stifling a yawn and looking at me with barely disguised hope. "One, things will only get worse if we let them. Secondly, if you take to bed then whoever it is that's got us in their sights has already won half the battle and, thirdly, assuming you can find it in yourself to get up again, how about going back to bed now, huh? While I've given up on attempting any more research I'm still clinging to the vain hope that I might be able to be asleep before the sun comes up."

 

"Um... You go then," I mutter, failing in my attempt to sound more enthused than I feel about being left to my own devices. "I'm sorry for keeping you up and... ah... thank you for having been so patient and understanding. I know I'm no fun to be around and don't want to keep you up. I... I think I'll just stay here though."

 

"You won't, you know," ChloÈ states matter-of-factly. "Whether you realize it yet or not, what you're actually going to do is drag yourself to your feet and obediently trot off back to bed. If we're to beat this great unknown we need you firing on all cylinders and, because of this, you need to rest."

 

"But... But Yohji's in my bed!" I blurt out, shaking my head agitatedly. "I woke up and he... he was there and..."

 

"And what?" ChloÈ prompts wearily, rolling his eyes heavenwards. "You're not telling me that you don't want him there?"

 

"I..." Here we go again. I can see the going nowhere fast conversation that's about to take place as clear as if it were scripted. "You don't understand."

 

"I don't understand what exactly? From where I'm sitting you've finally got what you've been longing for."

 

"It's not like that at all."

 

"No?"

 

"No. Look, can't we just drop it? If you want me to rest then, fine, I'll sleep here."

 

"You're being illogical."

 

"I've had a bad night and if that doesn't give me the right to be illogical then... then sue me!"

 

"You love Yohji, don't you?"

 

"You know I do, but..."

 

"But nothing... You love him and, even without the benefit of memory or reason, he loves you back. You also, and you'd realize this yourself if only you weren't so damn stubborn, need him. He is quite literally your other half."

 

"You're overtired and talking complete crap. I... I don't need anyone."

 

"I beg to differ, but let's save that argument for another day, shall we?"

 

"You're pissing me off, I hope you realize."

 

"And you think you're doing a lot for me?"

 

"Hmph!"

 

"Fine. We'll start again. You love Yohji, yes?"

 

"Yes, but..."

 

"Ah! No buts."

 

"How am I supposed to argue my point if you won't let me?"

 

"Who said anything about letting you argue your misguided and pig headed point?"

 

"Hmph!"

 

"Charming. Now, how did you feel when you woke up next to him?"

 

"Like..."

 

Damn he's good.

 

"Go on."

 

"Like I was... home again..."

 

"Home?"

 

"Back at Souzou... It was like being back at Souzou..."

 

"And this is a good thing?"

 

"Yes... A... very good thing..."

 

"If this is the case, then why are you not wanting to go back to him?" ChloÈ queries gently. "I'm sorry, Aya, but I just don't get it. Why can't you just admit that he's what you want and go for it?"

 

"Because..." Shaking my head, I look down at my hands and can't for the life of me work out what to say next. "It... It's not that simple," I murmur at last, clutching the blanket with both hands and only just resisting the urge to pull it over my head.

 

"It is, you know," ChloÈ replies softly. "You just have to accept that it's okay to want something for yourself instead of putting the needs of everyone else first and you'll be fine. You... Take a long, hard look at yourself, Aya. Everything you do is for others. Think about it. You brought Yohji here not because it meant you'd have him near you again but because you wanted him to be happy... Not only that but you initially only agreed to join us because it was what Ken wanted and even then, instead of taking the time to settle down yourself, you went straight back to New York to rescue Yuki. Now, do you want me to go on?"

 

"You make me sound like a martyr," I mutter. "I do what I have to do, that's all. You're the same."

 

"Ah, that's where you're wrong," ChloÈ retorts, sounding oddly pleased with himself. "While I'll admit that we're scarily similar in a lot of other aspects, seventy-five to eighty-five percent of everything I do I do solely because I want to. I've tried conforming to society's ideals of what's normal and what's not and, well, let's just say it's not a chapter of my life I'm in a hurry to repeat. Although it took me long enough, I now realize that life's too short to waste on being miserable and, in most aspects of it anyway, live my life exactly how I want it to be. If you had half a brain you'd do the same."

 

"But..." Unable to deny the logic behind ChloÈ's response, I decide, in desperation, to try another tack. "But what about you, huh? If I wave the white flag of defeat and hope that Yohji wants me back, where does that leave you?" I murmur, forcing myself to lift my head and look at ChloÈ. "Although this isn't a position I ever expected to find myself in, I don't want to hurt you... You're my friend and, albeit in a different way, I feel as though I owe you almost as much as I owe Yohji..."

 

"And here you are, yet again putting others before yourself," ChloÈ replies, avoiding my gaze and looking a little taken aback. "Aya... Thank you for thinking of me. Seriously. It's... It's lovely of you but, really you don't have to. We've never made any commitments to each other and nor have we ever expected anything more than what we already have to come out of it. I won't lie and say that I don't love you, as I do, but it's in a different way to the love Yohji feels for you and nowhere near as strong."

 

"But still... It just doesn't strike me as right," I mutter, sighing. It goes without saying, I suspect, that I wish we'd never gotten onto this particular topic as... yet again... I feel as though I'm well and truly out of my depth. "I don't want to appear as though I've been using you and I don't want to hurt you. Whether I've ever made it clear or not, which I suspect I haven't, you mean a lot to me and, yeah, in my own way, I do... love you... You're very special to me and I value our friendship highly."

 

"And I'm not going anywhere," ChloÈ murmurs, shifting off the coffee table and kneeling in front of the sofa. "How can I put this in a way that won't see us still sitting here at midday? Okay... Let's try it this way... For starters, if... and I find the concept distasteful... there was any 'using' going on then it was mutual. You though, in a sense, belong to Yohji and I've not only known this from the very beginning but I've also always held the hope that you'd get back together. As I said a moment ago, Aya, we're too similar to ever have a traditional, for the want of a better word, relationship together. I'm also not strong enough for you and know that I'd only end up letting you down. Now... All that said, I will always be your friend and will always be here for you. Unless I'm sadly mistaken, I like to think you'll be able to say the same for me..."

 

"Of course," I reply firmly, reaching out and clasping ChloÈ's shoulder. "If you ever need me then I'll be there for you, you have my word. I still... Oh, I don't know, I still feel kinda bad about this."

 

"Don't," ChloÈ retorts, giving my hand a kiss before standing up and stretching. "If it makes you feel any better... and I don't want you to jump on this or have a go at me for not having said anything before... I've actually got my own, well, 'Yohji' somewhere..."

 

"You *what*?" I exclaim, quickly lifting Mystique off my thigh and swinging my legs over the edge of the sofa. ChloÈ has someone he's never told me about? "Who? You never said anything about him before. Where is he, huh? Is he alive? And if he is, what's happened to your 'carpe diem' school of thought you were feeding me a moment ago?"

 

"As I said, I only do what I want seventy-five to eight-five percent of the time," ChloÈ responds slowly, his expression closing over as, yawning again, he starts to move towards the door. "Before you ask again though, yes, he's alive and, no, I'm not going to tell you anything more about him."

 

"But..."

 

"Enough with the buts already!" ChloÈ interrupts, scooping Mystique up as she runs across to him. "Aya, although I love you and want what's best for you, I don't want to be having this conversation any longer and want to go to bed. If anything I've said has made any impact on you, you'll bite the bullet and go to Yohji. It's down to you and you alone though whether you want to see something good come from everything that's happened tonight. It can... If you'll let it."

 

"ChloÈ..."

 

"Ignoring that the sun is about to come up, goodnight Aya. I hope that you're able to put tonight behind you and that you sleep well."

 

"Goodnight... And... thank you, for everything," I murmur, twisting around and seeing that I'm already speaking to an empty room.

 

Alone again, I stand up and neatly fold Yohji's blanket before placing it back on the sofa and, turning the light off, leaving the room. Pulling the door shut, I see the power light blinking on ChloÈ's laptop but, oddly, feel no compulsion to go back and have a look at what's on it. As unnerved as I am by the thought of being hunted by fuck knows who, I have other, arguably more important things on my mind that I have to put to rest first.

 

How he was able to do it isn't something I know the answer to, but somehow everything ChloÈ has just said makes perfect, clear and concise sense to me. Maybe I'm just exhausted or still feeling the aftereffects of whatever I was drugged with, but for the first time in what feels like ages I actually feel as though I know what it is that I have to do.

 

Perhaps I'm about to make a horrible mistake because I'm simply feeling... fragile... as a result of whatever it was exactly that happened tonight, but...

 

I love Yohji and, right now, even if it is a failing, a fuck up just waiting to happen, I need him. He held me after Dr Hastings had left and, even if it is selfish of me, I want him to hold me now.

 

And... Just like that, there you have it. After two years of denial and over three months of perfecting the art of playing hard to get, I concede defeat and accept -- what, deep down, I've always known -- that I simply can't imagine going on without having Yohji close by my side. My concerns and fears haven't changed, I still think he's better off without me, that I'm not good enough for him or even worthy of him, but...

 

To hell with it. ChloÈ's right. If something can be salvaged from tonight's mess then it's solely down to me to attempt to achieve it.

 

Not pausing to give myself time to second guess myself or fall prey to the doubts I can already feel simmering just below my surface, I walk up the stairs and, taking a deep breath to steel myself, straight into my room. To my relief Yohji, although he's sitting on the edge of the bed as opposed to in it, is still there. Listlessly patting Tantomile, who's purring contentedly in his lap, he glances towards me and shrugs wearily.

 

"I'd been going to follow your lead and piss off too," he states flatly, "but Tantomile started to behave as though she was being abandoned and I thought I'd better stay. Now that you've decided to return though, I'm outta here. I may be stupid enough to love you, and even possibly believe the others when they say that you need me, but I've still got enough wits about me to know when I'm not wanted."

 

Flinching, even though I accept that I deserve it, from Yohji's verbal attack, I shut the door and, suddenly knowing what it is that I have to do, walk across to the bedside table. "Don't go, please," I murmur, crouching down and, opening the drawer, pulling out the small black lacquer box. "I'm... I'm glad you're still here as I've got something... a couple of things, actually... to give you."

 

"Don't tell me, let me guess," Yohji mutters, glancing at me without any real interest, "more grief, right? If so, thanks but no thanks. You can keep it, Aya. I've had enough for one lifetime."

 

"Not grief, no," I whisper, sitting down on the edge of the bed next to Yohji and opening the box. "Well, I hope not anyway. I know I've been..." Trailing off, I notice Yohji moving Tantomile off his lap as though he's getting ready to leave and grope frantically at the box's contents. Pushing aside Aya-chan's -- *my* -- earring and the charm bracelet, my fingers finally brush against the chain and, with a sigh of relief, I pull it out. "Here," I add, pressing it into Yohji's hand. "This is yours. I... I gave it to you once and... if you'll have it... I want to give it back to you..."

 

His expression giving nothing away, Yohji slowly lifts the chain out of his hand and holds it in front of him. "An ankh and a cross," he murmurs at last, resting the pendant on his finger. "It's like my tattoo, the one..."

 

"On the small of your back," I finish quietly, "I know. I was there when you got it."

 

"Hooray for you," Yohji replies drily, hesitating for a moment before, with a shrug, placing the chain around his neck. "Now, as nice as this is, you said you had a couple of things for me..."

 

"I did, didn't I?" I respond, picking up Yohji's right hand and, lifting my pajama top with my free hand, pressing it lightly against my scarring. "This... This is the other thing... Again, if you want it..."

 

"I... I saw this at the warehouse," Yohji murmurs, his fingers softly stroking across the raised ridges of the scars and making me shiver. "Again an ankh and a cross, only this time with the addition of... my name?"

 

"Forever Weiss," I whisper, glancing hesitantly at Yohji. "Also... Forever yours... I know I'm probably even less of a prize than I was back then and that God knows I could have in oh-so-many ways treated you better, but... What I'm trying to say is, if you want me, I'm... I'm yours..."

 

His face brightening, Yohji surprises me by grabbing me in a bear hug and burying his head into the crook of my neck. "I know I should play harder to get and all that," he mumbles emotionally, squeezing me tightly and causing the bruises on my torso to complain from the sudden pressure, "but, yes! Yes, yes, yes! You might be a thorn in my side but you're still one that I don't feel as though I could possibly live happily without..."

 

The emotion, and to a lesser extent, the pain, adding up to get the better of me, I hug Yohji back as tears start to stream silently down my cheeks. "I... Oh God! I'm so sorry about everything and promise that, starting from now, I'll be nothing but totally honest with you," I murmur, the words spilling out of my mouth in a rush. "Anything you want to know you just have to ask. Anything... Kimura... What you mean to me... The symbolism of the ankh and the cross... Why I'm such a basket case... I... Better late than never, I promise to tell you everything. If you want to start now then, by all means, ask away..."

 

"As tempting as the offer is," Yohji replies, loosening his embrace and -- again surprising me -- kissing the tip of my nose, "what I really want is for you to calm down. You've had a shit night and I honestly think it would be for the best if you just went to bed. Oh, don't worry, I have questions for you, *lots* of questions, but given how long they've already waited, another few hours or even another day isn't really going to matter a damn now, is it?"

 

"And to think I'd forgotten that you're another one who always knows the right things to say," I mumble, whimpering in protest as Yohji removes his arms from around me and gently uses his thumbs to brush away my tears. "Y-you don't have to be so kind to me though... If there's something you want you just have to come straight out and say it."

 

"There is *one* thing I'd like assurance of," Yohji whispers, looking at me with such -- *remembered* -- love that I doubt I could look away even if I wanted to.

 

"Name it," I state faintly, nodding. "Anything."

 

"All I want at this very moment is a guarantee from you that you'll still be in bed next to me when I wake up," Yohji replies, patting the mattress and smiling at me hopefully. "Waking up to an empty bed was an unpleasant surprise, one that I don't really wish to repeat."

 

"If you want me to be there, I'll be there," I respond, returning his smile and hardly believing my luck at how easily this is going. While I know I've got a lot of both bridge building *and* mending ahead of me, it's nice knowing that things at least are getting off to a good, promising start. "Yohji... Believe me, please... This is all for real and I want you to know that, if you want this to work as much as I do, I'll do whatever you ask of me..."

 

"I'm still happy to settle right now for getting you into bed in the most innocently way possible," Yohji murmurs, backing his reply up by clambering back under the covers and stretching out along the mattress. "Come on, Aya. Let's just go to sleep. You look as though you're dead on your feet and, well, I'll be here when you wake up, and *you'll* be here when I wake up, so it's not like anything *has* to happen now..."

 

Unable to come up with an argument against Yohji's response, I return the lacquer box to the drawer in the bedside table and, yawning, climb into bed. I then, acting on pure instinct and totally without thinking, arrange myself around Yohji until I'm half draped over him. When, with a sigh of contentment, he places his arm around me to keep me in place, I feel -- just as I'd told ChloÈ -- as though I'm home.

 

Battered, and with a lot of hard work -- on so many levels, some known, some not -- ahead of me, but home nonetheless.

 

Definitely home.

 

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

 

~ Yohji ~

 

Grinding my cigarette butt into the still damp ashtray, I kick back in my chair and stare at the sky as I try to decide which of the three main options I currently have on offer to me I want more.

 

Another smoke? A cup of coffee? Or do I drag myself upright toddle back upstairs in order to check on how Aya's surviving all the love and attention being thrown at him by the bucket load from Yuki and Michel?

 

It goes, I should think, without saying that I've had far worse dilemmas in my time. In fact, if pushed on the subject I could possibly even go so far as to say it's a *pleasant* quandary. Mmm... Definitely pleasant, actually.

 

Reaching for my smokes, I decide that there's nothing to stop me from doing all three in quick succession -- nicotine, coffee, rescue -- and, lighting up a smoke, bring it to my lips. I've barely managed the minutest of drags when the back gate is roughly shoved open and Ken -- looking like a living, breathing, sweating, bouncing Adidas advert -- bounds into the courtyard. Catching sight of me, the original picture of vigor and vitality with my cigarette, unbrushed hair and crumpled clothing, he beams happily and jogs over.

 

"Hey!" he states by way of greeting, jogging on the spot. "Thank God the rain finally decided to fuck off, eh? If it had kept up I was beginning to think we were going to have to start looking up blueprints for an ark on the net!"

 

Not sharing Ken's love of the great outdoors or his claustrophobic hatred of being cooped up inside (and how he survived his self-imposed stint in jail is anyone's guess), I shrug dismissively and take a deeper drag on my cigarette. "Apart from being able to smoke in a little more comfort," I reply, gesturing at the outdoor setting that doubles as my very own personal smoking corner, "I can't really say the rain bothered me much at all. You know me, most of my preferred activities can all be done indoors anyway."

 

"So what you're telling me is that the smug 'cat got the cream' expression on your face has nothing at all to do with the clear blue skies, is that it?" Ken retorts, stopping his jogging in order to begin a cool down routine of stretches. "Silly me. I should have known."

 

"I have absolutely no idea what you're getting at there, young man," I murmur innocently, wagging my smoke at him as, better late than never, it dawns on me that he'd been out running when, really, I'd been laboring under the thought we were operating in lockdown mode. "Hey, where have you been anyway?" I query, unable to keep the telltale tone of worry from entering my voice. "Shouldn't we, you know, be being more careful now that..."

 

"I think it was proven pretty fucking clearly last night that if they want us they'll damn well get us," Ken interrupts, his eyes glittering with what I think has to be temper. "In answer to your question though, I've been out running. If I'd stayed inside much longer... Well, let's just say you all would have known about it."

 

"Did you tell anyone where you were going?" I mutter tetchily, annoyed at Ken for having blithely left the house even though -- and, yes, I'm annoyed at myself here too -- I hadn't even been aware that he wasn't around.

 

"I told Free," Ken replies, shrugging as he collapses into the seat opposite mine and less than elegantly props his feet up on the table. "ChloÈ was still in bed, *you* weren't in yours, and, well, I didn't really want to poke my head through Aya's door in case I saw something that I wasn't meant to..."

 

"Such as?" I query, laughing at Ken's less than subtle way of asking how things went last night. "What did you possibly think you'd see, huh?" If it was Aya parading around in Tigger pajamas then, sorry, he's assured me that he only brings them out for truly special occasions."

 

"Tigger pajamas!" Ken snorts, almost falling off his chair as, I suspect, some very odd images pop into his head. "Do you mind, Yohji? If I'd been drinking something when you said that I'd be probably be choking to death right now!"

 

"You're right, of course," I reply mock seriously, "the orange *would* look shocking with his hair. Thing is though, as you well know, you can't argue with Aya when he's got his mind set on something. I suggested that perhaps Eeyore would be better, you know, the purple would go with his eyes, but..."

 

"Yohji!" Ken exclaims, tears of laughter appearing in the corners of his eyes. "Do. You. Mind? If it's all the same to you I don't really want to think about Aya running around in either Tigger *or* Eeyore pajamas! Hell, I'll probably start to snicker the next time I see him as it is, and how do you think that's going to go down, huh?"

 

"Your loss," I smirk, finishing my cigarette and stubbing it out in the ashtray. "Hey, given that you're wholly responsible for this line of conversation anyway, you've got no right having a go at me."

 

"Smart ass," Ken shoots back, still laughing. "Okay though, *fine*. If it'll stop you dishing up oddly disturbing mental images, I'll be delighted to be more blunt and to the point. Come on then, cough up... How's Aya?"

 

Deciding to let Ken off the hook for the time being, I nod and smile happily. "Aya's... good," I reply quietly. "Well, that's to say I think he is. He definitely seemed good, if a little bemused, when I left him to Yuki, Michel and Snowball's tender mercy."

 

"Your bed wasn't slept in, was it?" Ken grins, leaning forward and looking at me expectantly. "Come on, Yohji! You're killing me here. Did you spend the night with Aya? Has he finally woken up to himself and admitted to you just how much you mean to him? Is he seriously okay? I know he's with Yuki and Michel, but are you sure he doesn't want you to be there too? How do you..."

 

"Whoa! Enough!" I declare, cutting Ken off mid question. "Aya is, and I'm fairly confident of this, seriously okay. Well, you know, as okay as you can expect, given the circumstances. I'm also confident that, given that he's done it for two years, he can survive without me for an hour or so. That said, yes, I did spend most of the night with him and, yes, we both now have a clear understanding of where we stand with each other."

 

"Aya's finally come clean, hasn't he?" Ken retorts, punching the air with undisguised glee. "*Yes*! I knew there had to be a reason for why you're sitting here looking so pleased with yourself and hoped like mad that that would be it. Oh my God! This is just so great. I'm so happy for you, for both of you. Whether you can remember it or not, this is just *so* right!"

 

"I'm glad it meets with your approval," I respond facetiously, oddly touched by Ken's almost uncontainable enthusiasm. "If I'd known it was going to make you so happy I would have tried it on with Aya earlier."

 

"And he would have promptly, figuratively if not literally, slapped you straight back down again," Ken replies, still smiling happily. "Oh God, Yohji! How can you joke about something as momentous as this, huh? You two... Aaaargh! You have no idea, either of you, how close I've come to simply locking you in a room together and letting you sort it out between yourselves once and for all."

 

"You're not by chance implying there that the direct approach would work with Aya, are you?" I query lightly, returning Ken's smile because, really, it would be next to impossible not to. "If so, I think all the exercise has gone to your brain and you really need to go inside and have a nice, relaxing nap."

 

"Given who we're talking about, you're probably right too," Ken replies, effecting a 'what *was* I thinking?' expression. "I keep expecting to one of these days open up a dictionary to check on the meaning of the word stubborn only to find a picture of Aya there in lieu of the explanation. I don't know whether it comes with the red hair or what, but, yeah, stubborn and blinkered is Aya all over."

 

"I never thought I'd find myself saying this," I murmur, my mood turning serious as I remember the -- very eye opening and very heart wrenching -- conversation I had with Aya not two hours ago, "but, taking into consideration everything that I know now, Aya... the way he acts and his reactions to certain things... he makes sense, you know? Hell, when you look at everything he's been through, it's amazing how... and don't laugh here... well adjusted he actually is. Let's face it, God knows no one would be able to blame him if he was a pill popping nut job who never wanted to leave his room..."

 

"Assuming he'd even managed to get away from that fucker, Kimura, he could have well turned out like that," Ken mutters, his eyes hardening and his expression closing over. "You though, again, whether you remember it or not, were great. Man, you were more than great. You not only defied Kritiker by not giving up on him but you also pretty much single handedly put him back together again. I don't even think it would be too much of a push to say you put him back together even better than he'd started. Aya..." Pausing, Ken shakes his head. "Christ. Without you he probably wouldn't even have stood a chance. He's strong, yeah, but he's not that strong."

 

"I... I knew he'd been hurt," I whisper, glancing down at my lap, embarrassed by Ken's praise for a time that I still can't remember. "But... Shit! I had no idea how badly... When he told me this morning I made a complete fool out of myself by beginning to cry... Get this... Aya, who as we all know has just had the rug very effectively pulled out from under his feet, had to comfort *me*. Ha! Talk about feeling the size of an amoeba..."

 

"I wouldn't worry about that," Ken replies reassuringly. "Seriously. It's not an issue. In fact, if I were you, I'd concentrate more on the positive that, well... that Aya's letting his defenses down far enough to talk to you about it. He told you... everything... yeah?"

 

"If everything's more than I ever wanted to know," I murmur, Aya's whispered tale of unspeakable -- unspeakable *what* exactly? Grief? Anguish? Horror? Debasement? -- *hardship* playing word for word over in my head, "then, yeah, he told me... He told me, I cried. He hugged me in an attempt to calm me down and I cried even harder. It was peachy."

 

"And I still view it as a huge positive," Ken responds, his smile sliding back into place. "If he wasn't wanting... well... *you*... he wouldn't have said anything. Without wanting to sound too crude, you are *in*! I wish it hadn't taken what happened last night to get him to wake up to himself but, well... It's worked, hasn't it?"

 

"For now, anyway," I mutter drily, the corners of my mouth twitching at Ken's turn of phrase. "You know, assuming he doesn't take a long hard look at himself a few hours from now and hop on the first plane that will take him far, far away from me."

 

"You're talking bollocks and you know it," Ken retorts, shaking his head. "Aya might have been feeling fragile, granted, but that's still no reason to think he would have allowed himself to do something that he hadn't thought over in explicit detail first. If he opened himself up to you then, trust me, he only did it because he'd decided he wanted to."

 

"Bollocks?" I echo, raising an eyebrow. "Nice."

 

"When in London and all that," Ken snickers, glancing at his watch and swinging his legs off the table. "Now, quaint English phraseology aside... and don't get me started, it's quite astonishing what you pick up at football matches... did you actually listen to what I was telling you, huh? If Aya was hugging you and sharing his life story with you, then, rejoice, as it means, if you want him, he's as much yours as he ever was."

 

"*If* I want him?" I snort, my response coming out a little more... *emphatic*... than I would have liked. "Fuck me. Is the grass green? Is the Pope a Catholic? My God. Get a grip, Ken. Memory or no memory, of course I fucking want him. He... He's incredible..."

 

In more ways than I ever imagined, too.

 

"Oddly enough, that's what I kinda thought you'd say," Ken grins, standing up and patting his watch. "Now, as much as I'm enjoying this chat, not to mention some of your more... ah... creative... responses, I've gotta go get ready."

 

"Ready?" I query, looking at Ken suspiciously. "What do you mean *ready*? More to the point, where do you think you're going, huh? Again, shouldn't we be behaving like good little meece and killing time around the house until, at the *very* least, we know what it is that we're up against?"

 

"Fuck that," Ken replies matter-of-factly. "If we're going to be hunted out of existence then I for one plan to make the most of the time I have left. Case in point, the Gunners are playing Man U on their home ground in a couple of hours time and I have every intention of being there."

 

"Huh?" I mutter, not quite following what Ken's getting at. Gunners? Man U? I mean, what the...?

 

"*Arsenal* are playing *Manchester United*," Ken responds, speaking both slowly and clearly, as though he was talking to quite possibly the stupidest person he'd ever had the misfortune to meet. "You know. Only the two best football teams in the country. If the Gunners win today they're going to push United off the top of the Premiership ladder. Just you wait. If they succeed then this whole suburb is just going to *erupt*."

 

"Oh..." I murmur dubiously, wanting to keep it from Ken that he kinda lost me after the whole 'Arsenal', 'Manchester United', explanation. Gunners. Man U. Right. Clearly these... code names... or whatever the hell they are, happen to be something I need to remember. "Sounds... ah... fascinating."

 

"Me personally, I hope the Red Devils whoop the Gunners five nil," Ken exclaims, his eyes brightening with what I can only hope is fan fervor and not plain insanity. "Fuckin' London clubs, they think they're so great. Hey, do you wanna come? I've got three tickets."

 

Red Devils? Help me... I'm confused...

 

At least when I was crying all over Aya I could understand what it was he was telling me.

 

"Um... That's very kind of you," I reply cautiously, praying that I don't hurt Ken's feelings. "But... Well... I was kinda thinking of spending the afternoon with Aya, you know..."

 

"Wimp," Ken pouts, shrugging. "Fine. There's no point asking Aya whether he'd want to come because even when he's fully with it he always manages to find an excuse to wriggle out of it. Same goes for ChloÈ. I tell you something though, I'm gonna get the pair of them to a match if it damn well kills me..." Trailing off, Ken sighs and starts to head inside. "Oh well, looks like I'll be dragging Yuki and Michel with me then."

 

"Assuming you can drag them away from Aya, that is," I mutter, standing up and, after stretching, following Ken over to the back door. "Yuki in particular hit the bed with such speed that if I hadn't already been out of it I swear he would have flattened me through the mattress."

 

"I'll make the offer non-negotiable then," Ken replies, glancing over his shoulder and smiling. "Safety in numbers, blah, blah, in these trying times, blah... If I word it carefully I'll make 'em both believe that I need their company for protection."

 

"Works for me," I murmur, relieved that I'm not the one who's going to have to detach Yuki from Aya. While he tolerates, and may even -- possibly -- *like* me now, I still don't want to do anything to jeopardize his feelings towards me and know that looking as though I was running interference between him and Aya at the moment would be a big no-no. As it is I'm sure he thinks the rest of us failed Aya in a way that he'd never have allowed if he'd been here. "I'm still not so sure you should be going out at all," I add with a sigh. "I mean..."

 

"When I know what we're meant to be fighting, I'll fight it," Ken interrupts, holding the door open for me. "Until then... Whoever it is that's yanking our chain can go fuck themselves with my compliments. I've never hidden yet and I refuse to start now."

 

"And if they're famous last words then, so be it, yeah?" I retort, accepting Ken's blasÈ line of thought because, well, really, it makes a warped degree of logic to me. If we collapse like a house of cards now then our mysterious attackers will have already, in a sense, won. And, as I'm sure Ken's thinking, that's just not on.

 

"Exactly," Ken replies, spinning around and engulfing me in a sweaty hug before bolting up the stairs. "If I don't see you before I drag my *bodyguards* out of here, have fun!"

 

Fun? Not quite knowing about that but knowing for a fact that a cup of coffee is definitely in order, I meander up the stairs and head in the direction of the kitchen. Reaching it, I walk into the room and am immediately greeted by the decidedly odd sight of ChloÈ, in his pajamas and robe and with all three cats sitting patiently at his bare feet, staring at the toaster as though he's never seen anything quite like it before. While the scene *should* -- 'it's a *toaster*, dumb ass' -- be funny, it isn't. In fact, given that ChloÈ's skin appears to be a shade paler than that of his white silk pajamas, I don't even know how he's managing to remain upright.

 

Okay. Uh-huh. Either he knows something I don't, or... yeah...

 

"Hey," I mutter, stepping closer to ChloÈ and making to touch his arm. "You're looking, even for you, pale and..."

 

Jerking his arm away from my hand, ChloÈ stammers something in German and takes a hurried, stumbled step back from me. As if this wasn't bad enough, Mystique then goes all Attack Cat by arching her back, bristling her fur, and hissing what I can only assume is a -- 'back off, asshole' -- warning at me.

 

And, again, what should be funny *isn't*.

 

"Given that I speak neither German nor Feline, if you're wanting me to fuck off and leave you alone you'll have to tell me in either English or Japanese," I state cautiously, keeping one eye on ChloÈ and -- wanting to see the day out with the same amount of skin on my legs as I started it -- one on Mystique. "Come on, ChloÈ. Chill... If the toaster's done something to you we'll show it who's boss by ditching it and buying a new one..."

 

"W-what?" ChloÈ stammers, blinking dull blue eyes at me and looking slightly shocked, as though he hadn't even been aware that I was standing in front of him. "What are you talking about? I... Ah... The toaster? I..."

 

"You're freaking me out, I hope you realize," I murmur, shaking my head. "What's the matter, huh? No offence, but you really do look like shit."

 

"I..."

 

When it becomes clear that ChloÈ isn't going to continue, I decide to take matters into my own hands and, praying Mystique doesn't go me, make a grab for his wrist. Although all I'm wanting to do is lead him over to the table, he reacts even worse to this than he did to my hand advancing towards his arm and, to my complete horror, literally cringes at my touch.

 

"Don't.... Don't touch me!"

 

It being too late to change my course of action, I push ahead and, as Mystique lets rip with an ear-shattering yowl of distress, gently close my hand around ChloÈ's wrist. He tries to pull away but, not knowing what else to do, I tighten my grip a little and don't let go. Thin, telltale ridges of scarring press against my fingers as, out of nowhere, it dawns on me that this is the first time I've actually touched ChloÈ on the skin.

 

"ChloÈ! My God! While I have no idea what the matter is with you, I'm here to tell you that you're fine..." I murmur desperately. "Are you listening to me? Whatever you think is wrong - *isn't*, okay? And... Fuck! Will you call your damn cat off before she mistakes my ankle for a dish of Whiskas?"

 

Something in what I said thankfully getting through to ChloÈ, he stops struggling and, hanging his head, releases a shaky breath. "Yohji?" he whispers faintly as, clearly being able to read him far better than I can, Mystique 'stands down'. "I think I need to sit down..."

 

"Think?" I reply drily, guiding him over to a chair. "From where I'm standing there's no *think* about it. Here... Take a seat and, please, for God's sake, calm down."

 

"I'm sorry," ChloÈ apologizes wanly, slumping limply in the chair and, with a look of relief, shaking off my hand. "This is... ridiculous. I'm... I'm fine."

 

"And your definition of fine is perhaps the quaintest one I've heard yet," I retort, eyeing the three cats off nervously as they undulate over and position themselves around the legs of the chair. Even Snowball, patchy fur and cross eyes aside, looks as though she's not in the mood to be messed with. "If you're as fine as you're trying to kid me you are, what's with the posse of Guard Cats, huh?"

 

"They..." Pausing, ChloÈ shrugs wearily. "It's nothing, seriously. I should never have gotten out of bed and now I'm paying for it by making a complete fool of myself. Please, Yohji, I'm fine..."

 

"No wonder you and Aya get on so damn well," I mutter, wandering over to the bench and switching the kettle on. "God knows you're both as stubborn and as delusional as each other."

 

"It's nothing," ChloÈ repeats softly as I pop two pieces of bread into the toaster and start to hunt around for the Rosehip tea. "Yohji... You don't..."

 

"Quaint definition of fine, odd definition of nothing," I murmur, shaking my head as, having found the tea, I grab a cup from the top cupboard and set it down on the bench. "Again, you and Aya... Two peas in the same pod had nothing..."

 

"Not that similar," ChloÈ interrupts flatly. "Y-you've got it wrong. I'm... different to Aya... Different in ways you'll both never know and are better off *not* knowing."

 

"Well, different or not, you're still both capable of completely freaking me out," I respond lightly, going over to the fridge and pulling out the butter and the cinnamon jam. "Right now however, Aya, I can understand, while you... Well, whatever's going through your mind is almost enough to make me wish I'd accepted Ken's offer to take me to the football..."

 

"You shouldn't be worrying about me," ChloÈ murmurs dismissively, placing his elbows on the table and burying his face in his hands. "You... Shouldn't you be with Aya anyway? Is he..."

 

"Last seen he was playing the role of begrudging invalid for Yuki and Michel and, please, believe me when I say that I'm confident that he is indeed okay," I reply, cutting ChloÈ off as the kettle boils and I finish making his tea. "Whether you like it or not, right now I'm more concerned about you than I am about Aya, anyway."

 

"Yuki and Michel are back?" ChloÈ queries with evident surprise, looking up as I place the cup of tea in front of him. "How? I... I mean, when did they get back? I thought... I don't know... I just thought..."

 

"That someone would have to drive down to Kent to pick them up?" I finish gently, returning to the bench and turning my attention to the freshly cooked toast. "They would have too, if not for Mihirogi deciding both that she wanted to see for herself the aftermath of last night's fun and games and that it made sense for her to play the role of chauffeur at the same time."

 

"Mihirogi's here too?" ChloÈ replies weakly, pulling his tea closer to him and looking suspiciously like he'd quite like to see whether he was capable of drowning himself in it. "Oh... God... That's just wonderful. Now I'm *really* glad I made the effort to drag myself out of bed."

 

"If it makes you feel any better she's currently out with Free," I respond, cutting the toast into halves and placing the pieces on a plate. Whether ChloÈ was actually contemplating breakfast -- and let's just ignore the fact that it's after midday -- or not, he's now got it and I can only hope he appreciates it. Hell, too busy crying all over him and hardly daring to believe my good fortune that he was actually opening himself up to me, I didn't even *think* of getting Aya breakfast.

 

"They've gone back to the warehouse, you know, to have a poke around," I continue, putting the toast on the table and, because it smells so good, snatching up a slice before shoving it closer to ChloÈ. "Here. Not wanting you to get any paler, eat this."

 

"While I still think you should be doing your mother hen impression for Aya's benefit as opposed to mine," ChloÈ murmurs, smiling gratefully, "thank you. I... I'm still sorry that you're having to see me like this though..."

 

"Instead of apologizing, how about explaining?" I mutter airily, taking a seat and tapping my toast on the plate to indicate that he should eat. "Something's clearly pushed your buttons, ChloÈ, and, well, how can I help if I don't know what's upset you in the first place, huh?"

 

"It's kind of you to offer, but, really, there's nothing you can do" ChloÈ replies softly, dutifully picking up a piece of toast and taking a small bite out of it. "Although God knows I'm ashamed of my behavior, the only thing that's wrong with me is that I've got a headache. There... Now you have it. Again, I apologize for..."

 

"Scaring the hell out of me?" I offer, not really buying ChloÈ's explanation at all. Granted, he *looks* like he's suffering from a bitch of a headache but, well, surely there has to be more to it than that. "Hell, ChloÈ, I'm feeling enough off my game as it is without encountering you looking like death warmed up... Come on, there's more to it than just a headache and I want to know what it is. Have you discovered something about who set up Aya that you're not wanting to share?"

 

"No, nothing," ChloÈ whispers, shaking his head and causing his hair to fall in his eyes. "I've looked into every lead I could think of, along with some that I knew to be totally far fetched, and... nothing... Whoever they are, they're covered their tracks exceptionally well..."

 

"You've got an idea though, haven't you?" I prompt, watching ChloÈ closely and knowing that I'm on to something when he flinches. "It may not be right, but... but you're afraid that it might be, and..."

 

... And it terrifies you?

 

"I don't know what you're talking about," ChloÈ mutters, picking disinterestedly at his toast and avoiding my gaze. "I've found nothing and I know nothing. If I knew something don't you think I'd tell you, huh? In case it's escaped your attention, I want the bastards who messed with Aya as much as you do..."

 

"ChloÈ..."

 

"God, Yohji! Just drop it, will you?" ChloÈ exclaims, throwing his toast back down the plate. "If you absolutely positively have to know, and if it's what it'll take to get you to move on, I didn't sleep well, and..."

 

"*And*?"

 

"And, fine, you don't want to know about the nightmares I had when I *did* manage to doze off, okay?" ChloÈ scowls, his eyes flashing with agitation. "I... They were just... *bad*... and, well, I haven't had nightmares that... *realistic*... for so long that I'd forgotten how badly they were capable of effecting me..."

 

"I don't suppose you want to talk about them?" I murmur tentatively, knowing full well that I'm wasting my breath but not really knowing what else to say. "If you..."

 

"No! I *don't* want to talk about them," ChloÈ retorts flatly. "They're nothing you... or anyone else for that matter... need to know about." Pausing, he flicks his hair out of his eyes and picks up his cup of tea. "Look, whatever it is you want to hear from me is never going to happen and I don't know what else to say to you. I'm just making a mountain out of a molehill, okay? I'm fine... really."

 

"Bullshit you're fine," I sigh, shrugging resignedly. "But, hey, fine. If you won't talk to me you won't talk to me. Given, however, that you won't play nice and talk to me, then, well, I have to insist that you at least go back to bed and try to get some sleep. Please, I mean this with both love and genuine concern, but you're no help to anyone in your current condition and really need to pull yourself together."

 

Staring at the cup in his hand, ChloÈ exhales deeply and doesn't reply.

 

"Hey, I know," I continue brightly, for some reason feeling the need to fill the silence with the sound of my own voice. "Aya's still mooching around in bed, why don't you go and join him? Perhaps, you know, you'd feel better if you weren't on your own..."

 

"No," ChloÈ whispers, putting his cup back down without having taken a drink and pushing it away from him. "Look at me, Yohji. Now, do you *really* think I'm what Aya needs to see at the moment?"

 

"Maybe not," I reply calmly, "but I know that he'd want to help you in any way that he could. Maybe, oh God, I don't know, maybe you'd feel more comfortable talking to Aya than..."

 

"*No*!" ChloÈ declares vehemently, shoving his chair back and lurching to his feet. "Aya doesn't need to know about any of this and you're not to tell him. Got it? I'm tired, I had a few nightmares, and I've got a headache... That. Is. All. Now, I appreciate your concern but, please, just leave me the hell alone."

 

Feeling exasperated at ChloÈ's stubbornness, I stand up and, all the time glowering at him, fold my arms across my chest. "Okay. Be a pain in the butt then, see if I care," I murmur. "From where I'm standing you have two, possibly three, options. One, you agree that I'm talking sense about you needing to rest and obediently make your way back to bed. Two, you can continue to dig your heels in, which, and don't think I'm joking, will only result in me leaving you long enough to go retrieve Aya in the vain hope *he'll* be able to talk some sense into you. And as for the third option? Well, if you really want to you can always just set the cats on me..."

 

"Don't tempt me," ChloÈ mutters, sighing. "Now, only because option three would leave me in a bigger mess than I'm currently in, and because option two would, contrary to your opinion, be unnecessarily cruel, I suppose I'm left with no choice but to go for option one... I'm not saying I'll sleep, but... Well, you're right. I need to pull myself together."

 

"You have no idea how relieved I am to hear you say that," I reply, smiling as I move over to the door and bow graciously. "Even if you have to take a pill or two to achieve it, you really need to get some sleep. Now, move! The sooner you go to bed the sooner I can relax."

 

Nodding his acceptance, ChloÈ, with all three cats in tow, starts to walk out of the room. "Thank you," he whispers as he passes me, "for not pushing me and for being so understanding. While I never really had any doubts, Aya is lucky to have you..."

 

Deciding to keep my immediate response -- 'if he's lucky then what does that make me?' -- to myself, I merely smile softly and pat ChloÈ on the shoulder. "Take your feline friends and go to bed," I murmur. "The sun is shining, everyone is safe, and I want you to think happy thoughts. Failing that, I want you to keep in mind that if you're looking this bedraggled the next time I see you that I won't be so understanding and that, guaranteed, I'll ensure Aya's involvement."

 

"You're all heart," ChloÈ replies, flashing me a quick smirk over his shoulder as, hugging himself, he heads slowly in the direction of the stairs. "Hey though, quid pro quo... Given that I'm doing what you're telling me to do, oh, and I'd make the most of it if I were you as it isn't likely to happen again in a hurry, I want you to do the same for me."

 

"Which would be what exactly?" I query, trailing after him. Well, make that trailing after Snowball, actually.

 

"Go to Aya..." ChloÈ murmurs, pausing at the bottom of the stairs to check that I'm listening before starting to walk up them. "He might be fine, and he mightn't need you, but..."

 

"Well, would you believe that seeing as I've already missed my chance at going to the football," I retort, following him up the stairs, "I *had* actually been going to go annoy him next anyway... So, yeah, consider it done."

 

"Good boy," ChloÈ responds in a voice not dissimilar to one I suspect he'd use on a dog that had just sat for him. "Now, as utterly embarrassing as this exchange has been, it's finally over and it's with no great sadness on my part that I bid you adieu..."

 

"Sleep well," I reply, coming to a stop at the top of the stairs and watching ChloÈ continue on to the third floor, Mystique and Snowball hot on his heels. Tantomile however pauses on the second floor and, her tail switching with indecision, stares in the direction of Aya's room.

 

"If it helps, that's where I'm going," I murmur, laughing not at the fact that I'm talking to a cat but more that it's now something I do as a matter of routine. "But, hey, go where you want. Don't let me try to influence you."

 

Glancing up at me, Tantomile shoots me what I take to be a warning look -- 'I'm trusting you. You let me down and your insignificant life is forfeit' -- before, with a final, violent switch of her tail, darting up the stairs. Amused by her behavior, I snicker under my breath and watch her disappear, a black furry blur before my eyes.

 

Running my fingers through my hair in a half-assed attempt at brushing it, I'm about to continue down to Aya's room when I hear the sounds of someone walking up the stairs behind me. Deciding to wait and say hello to whoever it is that's coming, I poke my head around the corner and, not immediately recognizing who it is that's heading towards me, am too slow to stop myself from gasping.

 

Now what? I mean, seriously...

 

While the man is Free's size, his hair is brown and cut in a decidedly unimaginative, conformist style, and no tattoos mark his lightly tanned face. He's also wearing an expensive, albeit crumpled and uncared for, business suit -- an item of clothing I honestly never expected to see Free in -- complete with a white shirt and a loosely knotted, unimaginative tie. He looks, I suppose, like a civil servant or, come to think of it, possibly a cop.

 

"Yohji? Are you okay?" the man asks, fascinatingly enough, in Free's voice. "You are looking a little... worried."

 

"Free?" I query cautiously, peering at him more closely as he joins me at the top of the stairs. "Oh my God, it is you! What the hell gives with the get up though, huh? I didn't even recognize you."

 

"Detective Sergeant Spencer, at your service," Free replies with a put upon sigh, pulling a small leather ID holder out of the inside pocket of his coat and flipping it open to display his credentials. "As you can see I am from the Major Crimes unit at Scotland Yard. More importantly, as I am sure you can smell, I have just returned from checking on the teams working the mysterious Wapping warehouse explosion case."

 

"Lucky you," I snort, peering the ID intently and letting out an impressed whistle at the quality of it. "This is great though. Again, I didn't even recognize you."

 

"I am glad you think it is great," Free mutters, pulling his wig off and staring at it dispassionately. "Speaking for myself, I hate it and can not wait to change. That said, and granted this is all that matters, the disguise served its purpose and we were able to gain access to the police data far quicker than if we had waited for them to log in into their database."

 

"Mmm? Learn anything interesting?" I ask, unable to stop myself from staring at the odd -- far odder than usual -- sight Free makes. Now that he's taken the wig off I can at least, sort of, recognize him, and this just makes the dowdy suit he's wearing seem even more incongruous.

 

"We now know the identity of the corpse we discovered in the back room," Free replies, tugging his tie off. "Mihirogi is in the basement emailing the information to KR and seeing if there is anything else she can dig up," he continues, transferring the tie to the hand he's holding the wig in and swiftly undoing the buttons on his shirt. "Whether this comes as a surprise to you or not, he is known to us."

 

"Huh?" I grunt, hoping like mad that Free's now feeling comfortable enough to *stop* with the stripping off in front of me. "You mean to say the body is that of someone you know? Christ... That... That's just plain creepy."

 

"His name is Victor Sorenson," Free explains, untucking his shirt and leaning against the wall. "He was an accountant for Majestic Holdings, a corporation owned and run by Roger McWilliams. Now, unbeknownst to the shareholders, McWilliams was siphoning Majestic's profits and using them to fund a particularly nasty extremist group who, in their attempt to 'keep Britain white', were planning on blowing up quite a few targets of national importance. Sorenson stumbled across this and reported McWilliams to the authorities. McWilliams however had too many friends in high places and was able to dodge all the charges laid at him."

 

"Which is where you came in, yeah?" I prompt, interested in the tale but still not quite grasping the relevance of Sorenson. "Your mission, I assume, was to take out McWilliams?"

 

"That was only part of it," Free responds, shrugging. "Our mission was actually twofold as along with targeting McWilliams we also had to keep Sorenson safe from all the miscellaneous two-bit assassins McWilliams had set on him by way of payback. McWilliams not being an easy target to get close to, ChloÈ, who had scored the role of bodyguard, had to spend the better part of three weeks with Sorenson before it was all over and we could declare him safe. Although this actually took place some months ago, I think they may even have been sporadic touch since then. Sorenson, you see, was quite taken with ChloÈ and I think he was actually quite upset when, his safety having been assured, we pulled ChloÈ out."

 

"Please don't tell me ChloÈ felt the same way about him," I sigh, shaking my head in disbelief. Honestly, it never rains it's just always got to fucking pour. While I thought the twenty-four hours that followed Aya's out of the blue arrival at The Cat's Whiskers was surreal, the past sixteen or so hours beats them hands down for general head fuck-iness. "On second thoughts, don't answer that as I seriously don't want to know either way. I'll tell you now though, you may want to keep this particular tidbit about it being Sorenson's body in the warehouse from ChloÈ until he's a little more with it. I... I just... Well, I just don't think it's really what he needs to hear at the moment."

 

"What are you talking about?" Free queries with obvious concern, pushing himself away from the wall and coming across to stand in front of me. "Is ChloÈ okay?"

 

"ChloÈ's a wreck," I reply bluntly, flashing back to some of his behavior in the kitchen and making the snap decision that it's best if Free knows about it. While I don't want to appear as though I'm spreading idle gossip, I just think it's in everyone's best interest if Free, who from all accounts has known ChloÈ the longest, is fully aware of what's going on. "I found him in the kitchen staring at the toaster as though he honestly didn't even know he'd gotten there. He says that he's merely suffering from a headache caused by nightmares and a lack of sleep, but... I don't know. I'm not saying he was lying or anything, but, well, I was... make that *am*... worried about him."

 

"Damn!" Free mutters, glancing towards the stairs. "I was afraid that this might happen. Do not worry though, Yohji. I will just have a shower and then I will go and talk to him. Oh, and I can assure you that he was not lying. He was not telling you the whole truth, such as the cause and the form of his nightmares, but nor was he lying about anything. He will be okay though so, again, please don't worry."

 

"You tell me not to worry without the benefit of actually having seen him," I respond with a dismissive snort. "Hell, I'm not second guessing you or anything, but... Shit! I just want ChloÈ to be okay, you know? I don't want to stick my nose in where it's clearly not wanted or look as though I'm prying, but, you know, given the way things currently are, not worrying is just a little easier said than done. I'm also concerned that ChloÈ might know more than he's letting on."

 

"He does not," Free replies adamantly, reaching out and closing his hand around my shoulder. "Without going into detail, ChloÈ's problem is that the events of last night have laid him open to memories, fears and, yes, possibilities, that he has immense difficulty dealing with. Once he has caught up on his sleep, however he will be a lot better."

 

"So long as he is," I murmur, giving up on getting any sort of actual *answer* in regards to ChloÈ's apparent attack of the vapors. "If you've got the time, you'll go to him, yeah? I sent him off to bed but I'd feel better if someone was looking over him."

 

"I will go to him, definitely," Free confirms, beginning to walk over to the stairs. "Again, do not worry, Yohji. I know ChloÈ and I can tell you now that by the next time you see him he will be closely approaching his old self."

 

"Hey, Free," I call out, choosing against muttering, 'I'll believe it when I see it', and, suddenly realizing something, quickly changing the topic. "I know the suit is probably doing strange things to your karma or something, but... well... you didn't ask about how Aya's doing..."

 

"Aya is fine," Free replies, glancing over his shoulder and smiling at me beatifically. "If he was not you would not be standing here talking to me..."

 

"No one likes a smart ass, I hope you realize," I laugh, accepting without question that I pretty much just walked into that one. "Point, however, taken."

 

"As I fully expected it to be," Free murmurs, disappearing up the stairs.

 

Idly hoping that I've had my allocated number of surprises -- Aya's halting confessional, ChloÈ, DS Free -- for the day, I give my hair another token comb through with my fingers and make my way down to Aya's room. The door, just as it was last night, is open and, walking straight in, I find Aya sitting up in bed, reading. Looking at him -- violet eyes bright behind his glasses, faint, barely visible bruising on his cheeks marring otherwise flawless skin, red hair sticking up all over the place -- I feel such a... flood... of love that it literally hits me with all the force of a physical blow.

 

In the early days, I loved Asuka (version two, the only one I can remember) with what I thought at the time to be all of my heart. Being with her made me so happy that I used to think that I was the luckiest man on earth for having her, for having her love.

 

Now however...

 

Aya...

 

Christ. What I feel when I look at him seriously makes what I felt for Asuka seem like little more than mild, casual affection. He just...

 

Forever Weiss...

 

... Forever Yours.

 

Forever Mine...

 

"Well, it looks like congratulations should be in order," I state lightly, knocking the door shut with my hip, kicking my shoes off and, before either nerves or doubt stops me, crawling onto the end of the bed.

 

"Huh?" Slipping his bookmark between the pages, Aya closes his book and places both it and his glasses on the bedside table. "Although I'm almost afraid to ask... What are you talking about?"

 

"When I left, you were hardly visible through all your well meaning guests," I murmur, reaching the top of the bed and flopping over on to my back, "but, just in time for my return, I might add, you've somehow managed to get rid of all of them. Wanna let me in on the secret of how you achieved it?"

 

"On how I achieved it?" Aya echoes, glancing down at me as I snatch up a spare pillow and place it under my head. "I'll have you know that Yuki and Michel abandoned me for *football*, of all things and, well, as for the cats, they just took off. So there. I'll also have you know that I had nothing to do with evicting them at all. Now... Comfortable, are we?"

 

"Quite," I reply, making a show of stretching and, with only the minimalist of efforts, dredging up a mock yawn. "In fact, come to think of it, I wouldn't say no to a nap," I add, smiling hopefully. "Mmm? Sound good?"

 

"I had actually been about to get up and have a shower," Aya responds slowly, frowning as he looks at me. "As tempting as the offer may be to some, I can't exactly stay in bed all day."

 

"Why not?" I grin, lifting my left leg and waving it in the direction of the door. "With the exception of Mihirogi, who's working in the basement, there's nothing going on out there at all. Ken, Yuki and Michel have gone to the football, and Free's making sure ChloÈ stays in bed in order to sleep off his headache. So, as you can see, unless you've got something pressing to do, you may as well just stay in bed anyway."

 

"And what about you?" Aya queries, encouragingly making no move to swing his legs over the edge of the mattress. "You've been up for, what, three hours, and now feel as though you're in need of a nap?"

 

"You've got it in one," I retort, stretching again and, this time, yawning for real. "Hey, it's all right for you. You've been here lounging around in bed while I've..."

 

"Been upright?" Aya offers, smiling. "Come on, Yohji, out with it. You've wandered around, had a smoke or five,