The crick in his neck was as much responsible for waking Yoji up as the cold making icicles of his feet. His bed was not a comfortable one, firmly padded and angular and positioned it seemed, directly under a draft of moist, cool air. Yoji groaned and cracked open an eye, peering up at a tall window, hazed slightly from a sheen of condensation, casting its grided, rectangular eye out upon a gray world. A cloth, drawstring shade was pulled up to the halfway position, letting in the dubious light of what appeared to be a miserable day.
He wasn’t in Spain then. The weather in Spain had been phenomenal. England then. A southern Suburb of the city, called Hither Green. Aya’s spartan apartment. Aya’s damned uncomfortable couch. Yoji groaned and shifted, rotating his neck against the hard arm of the couch, pulling his long legs far enough up to get his feet under the chenille throw that had been guarding him against the ambient chill of the flat. There was the very faint sound of traffic wafting in through the insulation of thick glass windows and thicker stone and plaster walls, but it was minimal and easily overwhelmed by the silence of this place Aya called home. No ticking of a clock or dripping of water, or low buzz of radio or TV filtering in from some adjoining apartment. Just perfect silence. Aya must have adored it, always having been very much one for prolonged silences.
The fact that Yoji remembered that was no small victory. Not long ago, Yoji had remembered very little of his life prior to the few years after he’d woken, victim of an all inclusive case of amnesia. Things had only started coming back a few weeks ago, prompted by a coincidental encounter with Aya and the traumatic events following. There were still gaps, annoying, itching little blank spots where facts ought to be, but a great deal of his life had come back to him. Good and bad. There were things that he’d probably have been better off loosing for good that were lurking around in his head, old things that had been become fresh, open wounds now that they were newly recalled.
Some of those very things had been broached last night . . . no, this morning . . . between himself and Aya. But only a few and they’d only scratched the surface before exhaustion had claimed the both of them, Aya having only recently come back from a mission and Yoji fresh from his flight in-country. Yoji had not been invited to share Aya’s bed and not being asked, his pride had refused to allow him to push the issue, no matter how good Aya had looked or how uncharacteristically vulnerable and open he’d been. Which wasn’t to say he might not push for it later, when he was a little more certain of his footing, when ghost wounds and phantom grievances had faded. When understanding was within just a little bit closer reach. For the both of them. He wondered if Aya were still abed now, comfortable and warm, just beyond the door in the next room. Aya had claimed he had no obligations today, having earned a day off through the merits of a strenuous mission. He hadn’t told Yoji the details. Yoji, having newly reacquired an understanding of the Job, hadn’t asked. There were some things that a man was just better off not knowing if it didn’t involve him.
Yoji fished for his pillow, which had shifted into a position between shoulder and couch and no longer protected his head and neck from the firm arm of the couch. Aya’s taste in furniture, when unhindered by more comfort minded opinions, ran towards utilitarian lines and spartan comfort. Yoji supposed an uncomfortable couch might serve a purpose for a man who was trying to discourage guest’s from lingering. It certainly did nothing for those that attempted to get a decent few hours sleep on it.
He drew a breath and pushed himself up, blinking grit from his eyes and enviously staring at the door to the bedroom. He wondered if pity might induce Aya to invite him to the comfort of bed, even if no offer of sex was involved. At the very least there had to be thicker blankets.
He had a legitimate excuse to venturing past the cracked portal of Aya’s bedroom door. There was only the one bathroom and the call of nature demanded that he make use of it. But, upon edging open the door, the gray light from the window over the bed revealed a room empty of life. The bed was smartly made, spread so flat and even that the most demanding of drill sergeants would have been proud.
“Well . . . damn.” He felt miffed that Aya had left without waking him. Vaguely embarrassed that he hadn’t roused at Aya moving through the apartment on his way out. He’d lost his edge somewhere along the last two years of normalcy. He’d never been that light a sleeper when he’d been engulfed in the life of an assassin.
Well then, if Aya wasn’t here to complain, then Yoji saw no reason not to take advantage of comfort when comfort presented itself. Especially since the call of sleep was still so strong. According to his watch, it was barely past eleven and he hadn’t gotten to sleep till almost seven, so lazing in bed well past noon would be no crime. Even if it was Aya’s bed.
He relieved his bladder, wincing at the cold of bathroom floor tiles and hurriedly retreated across the gleaming and only marginally less cool hardwood floor to Aya’s bed. The spread was varying shades of ochre and brown, the sheets under it crisp white and of a satisfyingly high thread count. Aya might never have appreciated the comforts of goose down as much as Yoji, but he’d always had a taste for expensive linens.
It was a nice bed. The fragrance of its owner lingered and Yoji pressed his face against the pillow inhaling, remembering the last time he’d gotten close enough to Aya to really appreciate the smell of his shampoo and the unique impression of his own personal scent. He hadn’t known who Aya was then, but he’d wanted him plainly enough. Aya had known and very likely might have left Yoji in ignorance, sex or no sex had events not conspired against him. Well, events and Ken, who hadn’t been the least inclined to keep Yoji’s tainted past concealed from him. Ken didn’t hold his secrets as close as Aya. A man might find fault with that habit of Aya’s and hold grudges, if he didn’t deep down realize that Aya had been trying in his own misguided way, to protect him. And really, Yoji had always considered himself reasonable, easy to get along with and generally forgiving.
He sighed, letting himself melt into the comfort of Aya’s bed, letting the lure of sleep creep back over him now that he could truly enjoy it. He succumbed easily enough, falling into dreamless slumber and woke what seemed only moments later, roused by some indefinable noise that had pierced his veil of sleep.
He lay listening, instantly awake, somewhat gratified to know that he hadn’t lost his touch entirely, catching the faint creak of a floorboard, the subtle movements of a body outside the bedroom door. If it was Aya, returned from where ever he’d gone this morning, well, Yoji would have to live through the abashement of having commandeered his bed. If it wasn’t . . . he didn’t have a weapon and he doubted the sort of intruder that would break into Aya’s flat would be the bumbling, unarmed sort.
The bedroom door cracked open and Yoji tensed.
“Hello?” A vaguely girlish voice queried, proceeding a vaguely girlish head by a mere heartbeat. “Is anyone here?”
Short and blonde and entirely unthreatening, though appearances could most certainly be deceiving, the intruder looked around the edge of the door, spotted Yoji and smiled in relief.
“Oh there you are. I was afraid I’d missed you.”
“Were you?” Yoji lifted a brow, struck by the sudden uncertainty of whether he was addressing a boy or a girl. Honestly it could have gone either way, what with the tousled mane of short, thick hair, the sweetly pretty face, the skirt – – – no the kilt that showed off a set of pale legs from mid thigh to mid calf, where thick wool socks took up the job of shielding the kid’s legs from the cool air. The legs were what decided Yoji. He was well enough versed in women’s legs to know the difference between a girl’s legs and boys.
“And who might you be?” Yoji propped himself up on an elbow, still a little on edge but not feeling that tingling little edge of anxiety that raised his hackles when real danger was afoot.
“Oh, I’m Michel, I didn’t know if you’d be asleep or not – – Aya said you’d had a late night.” The boy moved into the room, not shy in least and stood at the bedside, beaming down at Yoji as if he were the answer to his nightly prayers. Honestly, with the kid’s androgynous looks and his unshakable aura of good cheer, he made Yoji a little nervous. If he was an associate of Aya’s then it was very likely that the pleasant veneer hid something considerably more dangerous than a fifteen year old in a kilt.
“He did, did he? Where did he say this?”
“Oh, at the shop, before he left. He asked me to give you this . . .” the boy held out a brass key paper clipped to a folded piece of paper. Yoji took it, opened the paper expecting maybe some sort of note, but found only a set of numbers written in Aya’s precise hand. He looked back up at Michel questioningly.
“It’s the key to this flat and the security system code. He said you’d need them if you decided to go out.”
Yoji turned the key over in his fingers pondering the implications of that. Wondering why Aya hadn’t seen fit to give them to him himself, or why it was that Aya figured he needed them unless Aya was planning on making himself scarce.
“And where is Aya?”
“Oh, he had to go out. He had to make a trip out to the country and said he’d probably be gone for most of the day and wouldn’t be back till late this evening. He said you should make yourself at home.” Michel added helpfully frowning just a little at Yoji’s no doubt sour expression. Aya had said he was free today and unless this was some impromptu Krypton brand business, this outing had been voluntary, which, considering that Yoji had made a none too brief trip into the country with the express purpose of seeing him, was a bit irksome. Asking details of this strange kid would be pushing it.
“All right. Thanks.” Yoji tossed the key and paper on the foot of the bed. “Sooo, you work at the flower shop with Aya and Ken?” Yoji prompted, for lack of anything better to say, and pinned by the kid’s unwavering presence at his bedside.
“Yes.” Michel nodded enthusiastically. “And with Free and Chloe and Yuki.”
Free, Yoji had met, but he wasn’t familiar with the other two. All things considered though, it was doubtful that this boy was an innocent employee of a shop manned by the likes of Aya, Ken and Free. No one would have ever thought Omi was an assassin to look at him either. At least not the Omi that lived in Yoji’s memory. Persia was another matter altogether.
“We were supposed to be closed today, but there’s a wedding on Wednesday and Chloe wanted to get a head start on the alter pieces.”
“Ah. Right. Okay. Well, is there a place around here where I can get a decent cup of coffee.” God knew Aya wouldn’t have the stuff in his cupboard.
“Of course. There’s Smith’s pub a block down to the right, and a little further is The Southbrook, which also serves late breakfast. They’re very good.”
“That sounds like the place. I think I’m due for a shower now – – so thanks for that – -” Yoji waggled his fingers at the key, hoping the kid would take the hint and vamoose.
Michel stood there, waiting. Yoji ticked off the seconds in his head.
“Did you want to watch, maybe?” he finally inquired, which got a start from the boy and a faint blush.
“No. No! I thought perhaps, you might need me to show you the way to the cafe?”
“I think I can find my way. If I get lost, I’ll come knocking at the shop.”
“Of course. Well, then I’ll be on my way. Nice to meet you, Yoji.”
“Yeah, same here.” Yoji realized as soon as the kid had said his name, that he hadn’t had the manners to mention it himself. The kid hadn’t called him on it, but he felt a little guilty over the omission nonetheless. “Ah . . .thanks, you know, for doing Aya’s dirty work and all.” He cast the boy an honest smile of gratitude and Michel’s face lit up like a beacon at the effort. He waved a hand as he retreated from the bedroom, pulling the door shut behind him. Yoji heard the outer door open and close and then the flat was plunged back into its habitual silence.
Yoji flopped back onto the bed, arms outstretched, staring at the high, white plaster ceiling. There were spider-weby cracks that couldn’t quite be hidden by fresh paint here and there along the edges, hinting at the age of this building. He wondered if Aya lay here in the mornings, when the sunlight filtered in through the windows and illuminated the cracks, frustrated at the imperfections. At the tell-tale signs of age that he had no control over. Aya liked his control and his order, liked things arranged to his taste. He used to be obsessive about it, but that had been back when he’d been caught up in his psychosis of revenge. Once his taste of vengeance had been served and his sister had woken up, he’d began to get better, though. Began to occasionally smile, began to venture out of his shell and into the world where other human’s dwelled. Yoji liked to think he’d helped in that transition. Liked to think that he’d been responsible for a lot of those smiles – – until Aya had relapsed and began the systematic sabotage of their relationship. Because he’d been afraid. For Yoji. For Weiss. That’s what Aya said. Yoji thought the reasoning wasn’t that simple or that altruistic. Yoji thought Aya had been afraid for himself. Afraid of giving. Terrified of investing himself in something so fragile as flesh and bone and blood.
He threw an arm over his eyes, sighing, wishing he hadn’t gotten onto this particular track of thought this morning. He’d had enough of that last night on the way here and early this morning trying to hash things out with Aya. Forget it for now. Think about breakfast and a good cup of coffee. The shower wasn’t a bad notion, either. He lifted his arm and looked at his watch. 12:37. He supposed he could drag himself up and greet the day.
He fetched his duffel from beside the couch and pulled out a clean shirt to go with the jeans he’d shed when he’d crashed on Aya’s couch.
After his shower, he shaved, cleaned his teeth and swiped some of Aya’s mouthwash. He finger combed damp hair, contemplating pulling it back into a tail then decided it would take forever to completely dry that way and left it down. The brief time in sunny Spain had darkened his skin a shade and managed to lighten his hair. He looked, if he did say so himself, damned good and it was Aya’s loss for not making the moves to get Yoji into his bed.
He grabbed jacket, wallet and the key to Aya’s apartment, stopping by the wall mounted security panel before leaving and taking a moment to figure out the controls. Simple enough to set it. He supposed that even in as quiet a neighborhood as this seemed, assassins living under the cover of florists could never be too careful.
It was cold and wet outside, a fine mist permeating the air and cloud cover casting a pall over the day. Yoji stuffed his hands into his pockets, Staring down the narrow, car lined side street. There was relatively little traffic, but he could hear the sound of car horns and engines from a busier street not too far away. The people that moved along the sidewalk walked quickly, haunched into their coats or hidden by umbrella’s, eager to get to where ever it was they were headed and out of the dour weather. Trees dotted the sidewalk, protected by iron fences their trunks, and at one end of the street he could see a cluster of green that signified a small park. Michel had suggested he head the other way.
Yoji joined the sparse foot traffic, damp hair getting damper by the minute, shivering a little and wishing he’d put on a second shirt over the rather thin pull over that he wore. His clothing options were limited at the moment, all his previous wardrobe having gone up in flames. Everything he owned was stuffed into the one duffel. He’d have to go shopping or do some serious rifling of Aya’s wardrobe.
He passed the glass paned front of the florist, front display shelves artfully filled with silk arrangements and the sorts of nic nacs that florists worldwide always seemed to carry. The closed sign was turned out on the door, and the front room was darkened, but there was a light from the door leading behind the counter that suggested that someone was working in the room beyond.
Yoji passed on by, a wavering reflection in dark glass. Down the street. He passed the flat faced, plain facade of Smith’s pub. This early in the day it seemed dour and lifeless. Further down the block and he came to The Southbrook which seemed a bit more inviting, a converted brownstone sitting on the V shaped corner of intersecting streets, the lower portion painted bright blue with white trim, while the upper boasted aged gray stone and arch toped windows. He could see people through the windows, at booths and along a weathered Formica counter/bar. Quaint, local and popular. He could smell the strong aroma of brewing coffee when he opened the door and sighing happily, he found a seat at the counter.
He read English better than he spoke it. His speech was passable, but not nearly as fluent or accent free as Aya’s. His charm extended the bounds of language though and he smiled flirtatiously at the vaguely hostile woman who approached for his order. Some of her animosity towards a foreign-seeming tourist melted, but not enough to manage a smile of her own.
“What’ll it be?”
“Coffee and – -” he turned the menu her way and pointed to the number four breakfast special. “Still serving breakfast?”
She cocked her head a little, catching his accent, confirming her suspicions about him. She nodded, took the menu and retreated to place his order, came back in short order with his coffee, which he took a sip of black just to get the full effect of the caffeine, before doctoring with sugar and cream.
He’d gotten his breakfast plate and just started the process delving into cheese scrambled eggs and aromatic sausage when the bell at the door announced another customer and immediately after Ken plopped down onto the stool next to Yoji, grinning at him with the flushed excitement of someone who’d just sprinted a block to reach an elusive goal and found it still well within their reach.
“I was afraid I’d miss you.” Ken grinned.
“That seems to be the general consensus this morning.” Yoji grunted around a forkful of egg. Well, with the exception of Aya. Yoji figured that Michel had informed Ken where he had been headed to break his fast.
“When did you get in?”
“God awful early this morning.”
“And you stayed over at Aya’s?”
“So that means things went . . . you know . . . well?” Ken leaned an elbow on the counter and leaned forward to peer at Yoji.
“Well enough.” Yoji confirmed. “I talked. He talked. No blood involved.”
“You got Aya to talk? Well, damn, Yoji, you are the Man. So, you staying?” There was a hopeful yearning in Ken’s eyes that bordered on the sort of look a man’s dog might express after a long absence, a joyful reunion and the fervent hope that no more trips would be forthcoming. If he’d gotten that look from Aya last night, things might have gotten a hell of a lot more intimate than simple conversation. As it was, he smiled and shrugged, sipping at freshly topped off coffee. “I dunno. Maybe for a while, you know, till I see how well I fit in here.
“We fit in where our friends are.” Ken said firmly. “And yours are here.”
“Yeah . . well. You’ve got lots of new friends. You and Aya both. I don’t see where I’d be that much of a loss.”
Ken snorted and slapped him across the back of the head. It stung and Yoji glared, thankful he hadn’t had the cup to his lips.
“There’s friends and there’s family.” Ken said firmly. “You’re family and you know it. At least you do now.”
The annoyance melted away at Ken’s heartfelt statement, turning instead to a sort of wistful melancholy. “I don’t want to go back to . . . what I was. You know? I still don’t remember a lot of things from before, especially that last year – – there are a lot of big blanks that I can’t seem to fill in, but I know I wasn’t happy. I know that for me to do some of the things that I did . . . towards the last I had to have been really, really miserable. I can’t do that again.”
“You don’t have to tell me, I was there.” Ken said without hesitation. “And nobodies saying you have to. I think that’s what Aya’s up to this morning, out in the country seeing the boss and its probably about you being here.”
“What? I need the okay from Krypton Brand to be in the country?”
“No. I didn’t say that. But you’re Weiss, regardless of whether there is a Weiss anymore or not and that means there’re people who’d just as well see you dead, so having the protection of an organization like KB is not a bad thing, knothead.”
Omi had said very much the same thing, in his executive office in a building that his family had built and owned, in a suit that probably cost as much as an economy car. It was only the blatant truth, no matter how much a man might wish he had faded for eternity off the radar of all the unsavory characters out in the big bad world that thought tearing off a piece of Yoji Kudoh’s hide might be of some benefit to them.
“Yeah, so I’ve been told.” He muttered, then glanced up under his lashes at Ken. It was easy to see the changes that the years had wrought in Ken. His face had lost its boyish roundness, defining his bones, making his face seem leaner. Yoji did a bit of rapid math in his head, figuring that Ken was twenty-five, maybe twenty-six now and he looked it, having broadened a little in the shoulders and gained that fraction of extra height that put him almost of a height with Aya. Even so the changes in Ken had been more subtle than the one’s in Omi. That had been a shock, remembering the Omi from two years prior and having the new, polished, Takatori present himself. Aya . . . well Aya’s changes were more subtle and went beyond anything as simple as a new haircut.
“Sooooo . . . what’ya wanna do today?” Ken asked, sharp enough to see that Yoji had slumped into melancholy.
“I dunno. You tell me. I’m the tourist here.”
Ken snickered. “Yeah, we’ll have to work on that accent of yours. It sucks. And you know the saying . . . if you want to fit in round here you’ve got to walk the walk and all that. Aya can beat the proper pronunciation into you if you ask. He’s got the whole proper English thing down and bitches at me that I talk like an American. Big fucking deal, I say, but I guess when you’re trying to get in tight with some foreigner-phobic snitch, it pays to sound like you belong.”
They ended up, after Yoji finished breakfast, heading into town to beef up Yoji’s dreadfully threadbare wardrobe. Ken took him on a whirlwind tour of some of the more popular shopping areas. They ended up at Camden Market where there were a great deal of bargain shops, trendy boutiques, vendors selling vintage and used apparel as well as many other unique items that were laid right out on the street, or under canvas tenting, in quaint, carts that looked as if they belonged in a bygone era. It was like walking through one immense meandering flea market, swarming with the obvious tourist traffic as well as a flood of locals looking for bargains. They ate lunch from a vendor selling sausages that were ground and packed in front of them. Yoji was dubious of some of the contents but Ken enthusiastically assured him that they tasted better than they looked.
It was well into late afternoon by the time they got back and Yoji would have liked nothing better than to kick off his boots, sit down and relax in front of some mind-numbing television. Only, puritan snob that he was, Aya didn’t have a television. Ken had the solution to that.
“Its beyond me how anybody can survive without a TV.” Ken complained, dragging Yoji past the stoop to Aya’s building and towards the brownstone that housed the flowershop. “And its getting to the point that without satellite I’d loose my mind. The local channels here are nothing to write home about. But I’ve got this crazy awesome satellite link up that gives me like 9 ESPNs and two 24 hour soccer channels, all the porn you could ever want plus all the new American shows.”
“Its a wonder you ever leave the house.” Yoji said dryly.
“Tell me.” Ken grinned at him, bypassing the glass door that fronted the shop and going down a claustrophobically narrow alley between buildings towards the back. Through a locked gate and they entered into a small, well kept rectangle of back yard, lined with neat little beds of autumn shade plants along the stone of the tall fence surrounding the space. A grandfather elm tree dominated the center of the yard, its branches fawning out over neighboring yards as well as the house.
Ken bounded up the steps to the back door, which lead into a small laundry and past that a well equipped kitchen that looked out over the back yard.
“Hey.” Ken said to the two people inside the kitchen, hardly seeming of a mind to pause and introduce the apparent stranger following along behind him. Well, stranger to one of them anyway. Michel looked up from the sink where he was filling a kettle with water and smiled a sugary welcome.
“Hello Ken. Hello Yoji, I see Ken found you. Have you met Chloe?”
Ken made an impatient sound, hesitating at the foot of stairs leading up to the second floor, efficiently stalled in his current mission by the demand of good manners.
“Oh, yeah. Yoji. Chloe. Chloe. Yoji.” Ken’s charm was a thing of beauty. The side of Yoji’s mouth quirked a little in amusement, which Michel seemed to share, but the man at the kitchen table appeared immune to. A very attractive man at first glance, with the palest of pale blonde hair, a lean, obviously European face and very cool, very gauging ice blue eyes. He was dressed rather casually in khaki pants and a brown button down shirt, the sleeves of which were neatly rolled up to his forearms, still there was just something about him that screamed ‘Clothes-hound’. Maybe it was the gleam in the fine brown leather, alligator patterned shoes, or the matching brown leather belt, or how neatly the shirt was tucked into the pants regardless of the fact that, according to Michel this man had been working all morning in the florist at the front of the building trying to get wedding pieces done early.
“Hey.” Yoji nodded, not one to make assumptions about a man’s personality, based on the state of his wardrobe.
“Humm.” Chloe flicked an invisible speck of dirt from his sleeve, long pale fingers idly beginning to roll down the shortened sleeves. “Yoji Kudoh. I’ve heard a great deal about you.”
“Ahh . . . all of it flattering, hopefully?”
“hummm.” Chloe didn’t comment one way or the other, though Yoji rather thought that his last year with Weiss hadn’t especially been one to leave shining marks on his record.
“Don’t be silly.” Michel jumped in to fill an uncomfortable void. “Of course we’ve heard good things. We’re all so grateful that you stepped in to help Aya during the mission in Japan. It would have been terrible if you hadn’t been there to help.”
“Yes.” Chloe drawled. “Protocol actually might have been followed if you hadn’t been there to distract Aya from his job. But yes, so handy that you were there to help clean up the mess. Not that most of it wasn’t incurred because certain fools were too busy trying to keep you under the radar rather than do what they were supposed to. . .”
“Oh, fuck off.” Ken snapped, “If we rehash this one more time, I’m seriously going to go off on somebody.”
Chloe lifted a brow, unintimidated, then shrugged, turning his attention back to his sleeve. Yoji felt as if he’d been dropped into the middle of an ongoing argument, the details of which he was hazy about at best, but of which he was something of an issue.
“C’mon.” Ken sniffed and started climbing again, leaving a stricken looking Michel and a disinterested Chloe in the kitchen below. Stranger in this house or no, Yoji couldn’t leave it at that. He gave Michel a nod and friendly smile, which seemed to relieve the kid somewhat. To Chloe he said.
“I can’t express the depth of my feelings at meeting you, Zoe, at least not in public.”
“Chloe. His name’s Chloe.” Michel corrected helpfully, even as the edges of Chloe’s mouth turned down in a frown. Ahead of him on the stairs, Ken snickered, well pleased. He didn’t offer a comment until they were on their way to the third floor, then said in a low voice, as if he were afraid any compliment might carry and be heard below; his reputation ruined.
“Chloe, he’s okay. Just sort of a prude. Stickler for detail. Worse than Aya, if you can believe such a thing is possible. Michel’s a good kid, but God, sometimes the non-stop good cheer just makes my teeth ache. Its a good team, Yoji. Not Weiss, but well – – its a good team.” Ken stopped at the door to what might have been a loft at the top of the stairs. It was one big room beyond, the ceiling slanting inwards at both ends and so low at the sides that a man could walk upright along those walls. The space along the center was more than tall enough and four window gables cut into the slanted roof, facing the street out front. It was a good deal of floor space, regardless, and Ken had made a nice niche for himself, bed and furniture pushed up against the low sides, along with crates stacked on cinder blocks for storage. It wasn’t that Ken probably couldn’t afford nicer, it was that he liked it that way.
“Do you practice up here?” Yoji turned around in the bare central space of the loft, thinking there was more than enough room for an energetic man to workout.
“Only if I want to get bitched at royally for the racket. Chloe complains enough just from me walking around. No, we’ve got a kick-ass gym next door. Krypton Brand uses this brownstone and the two on either side of it for housing, storage, a buffer between us and the neighbors. Let me tell you there’s a lot more money coming in here than they ever gave us in Weiss.”
“Sounds like a cushier set-up. Sounds like you’re happy.”
“Oh, hell yeah! Fucking Persia and all that bullshit . . . Fucking Omi . . .” Ken took a breath, face gone a little flushed, nostrils flaring as he tried to fight down indignation. There were issues there that Aya had only alluded to, that Aya might not even know the full gist of, really, Ken and Aya never having had the habit of heart to heart conversations, but Yoji knew that for Ken to hold that much anger towards Omi . . . there was loads of pain there and loads of accusation that Yoji might never know the extent of. So he stood there, waiting, for Ken to either vent something more of his frustration or pull himself together and pretend nothing was wrong. There might have been a time that Yoji would have pressed for the former, but right now, in this new place with annoying little holes in the canvas of his memory, he didn’t feel on solid enough ground to urge such intimacy.
“Okay. Okay, where was it . . .?” Ken ran a hand through tousled brown hair, covering up with a flurry of looking through the accumulated junk along the walls until he found an 20 inch TV under a pile of dirty laundry.
“Ah, here it is.” He hefted up and swung it into Yoji’s startled arms. “Hold this. One more thing.”
Having little choice in the matter, Yoji shifted the weight and waited while Ken unhooked the slim black box of a Playstation and piled the tangled wires of controllers and cords along with a stack of video games atop it.
“That all?” Yoji inquired, hiding a wry grin.
“That’s it. We’re gonna hook Aya’s flat up.” He cackled as if it were some brilliant practical joke they were perpetrating.
It was a good thing that Ken had thought to bring the game, since the TV had no antenna and only barely picked up one local station and that only with a good deal of static. Between the six pack of beer that Ken had snagged on the way out and a bevy of sports games, they had ample entertainment for the remainder of the afternoon. They were sprawled on the floor before the couch, the couch’s cushions as well as the pillows from Aya’s bed surrounding them, engrossed in one of the more recent NBA games when Aya finally came home.
Afternoon had turned into evening and the sky outside the window had turned purplish with sunset. The light from the TV was the only one illuminating the living room and must have cast the both of them in some sort of eerie countenance, for Aya stopped short, key in hand sill at door knob level and blinked, taking in scattered pillows, empty beer cans and foreign television littering his living room floor as if it were some dastardly crime scene.
But Aya, being Aya was never off his balance for long, and with a slight tightening of the lips, returned his key to his pocket and walked into the room. He had what looked to be a canvas grocery sack in his left hand, which he sat on the kitchen island, before turning on the incandescent light in the kitchen ceiling. Having grown accustomed to the dim glow provided by the television, both Yoji and Ken blinked at the sudden flood of yellowish light. Yoji might have been wrong, spots dancing in his vision not withstanding, but Aya might have actually smirked a little bit at their discomfort.
“Well, I see the two of you have been broadening your minds.” Aya commented dryly, unpacking what were definitely groceries from the sack.
“Is there coffee in there?” Yoji asked hopefully.
“Instant.” Aya said with something akin to guilt in his voice. “I don’t have a coffee maker.”
“Score!!” Ken crowed, having taken advantage of Yoji’s inattention to drive past his guard and make a basket.
“Your game.” Yoji admitted defeat with grace, tossing the controller aside in favor of devoting the lion’s share of his attention to Aya. He stretched his arms over his head, arching his back against the edge of the couch before rising and sauntering over to lean on the kitchen island.
Aya was in black, head to toe. A sweater of some thin, fine weave over a black silk shirt, over black chinos, over black low heeled boots that were just beginning to show a little scuffage around the toes, as if they were a much worn favorite pair. The ensemble made Aya’s skin seem all the paler and his hair all the more vivid. His eyes shone like beacons under wind tousled bangs. A thin silver chain hung around Aya’s neck, glimpsed beneath the collar of the shirt and hidden beneath the neck of his sweater. Yoji had to curl his hand to keep the urge to snake a finger out and strand of silver, drawing it up to see what dangled at the bottom. Aya might have reacted badly. Ken would have hidden a snicker of amusement, thinking he knew more than he did about just how intimate they had been last night. Aya would definitely take that badly.
“Took you all frickin’ day to talk to the boss-man about Yoji?” Ken asked bluntly, getting a sharp, displeased look from Aya for his lack of tack.
Yoji lifted a brow in curiosity, waiting for an answer to that question.
“There were other matters that needed discussion.”
“What kind of matters?” Ken had never been any good at taking hints.
“Krypton Brand matters.”
Ken rolled his eyes and gave up the fight. “Whatever. I’ll find out when I find out.” He tossed his own controller down, and cut off the Playstation, then the soft static of the TV.
“What’cha got there, Aya?”
Aya hefted a white paper wrapped package thoughtfully. “Dinner. I can stretch it if you want to stay.”
Both Ken’s brows shot up and he tossed Yoji a wry look. Yoji worked at bland expressionlessness until Ken gave up trying to pass innuendo and shrugged. “Nah, I’ll fend for myself. But tomorrow we eat out, all of us.” He grinned and waved, sauntering for the door.
“Sounds great.” Yoji agreed, palms flat on the counter top, barely catching the tail end of Ken’s departure in favor of watching Aya organizing his groceries. Aya was fascinating in his organization, a place for everything and everything in its place, and yet he’d intruded upon the simplicity of his cabinets by purchasing coffee and powdered creamer and various boxes and bags of snacks that Yoji knew, just absolutely felt in his gut, had never blemished Aya’s cupboard before. A generosity which was touching in and of itself, Aya buying junk food because he knew Yoji had a fondness. Aya feeling the need to capitulate in something small and trivial, because Aya was feeling uncertain and guilty. Which he damn well should have been, considering he’d left Yoji without a word in the wee hours of the morning.
“So you’re cooking me dinner?” Yoji asked, the hint of a smile spoiling the neutral expression he’d schooled for Ken’s benefit.
“I always cook dinner.” Aya said simply. “I just got larger portions tonight.”
“Ah. I see.” Yoji shifted around to sit on one of the island stools, pulling a bottle of Marsala wine out of the bottom of the sack and turning it in his hands. “As long as you’re not going out of your way.”
Aya paused in tearing the plastic off of a carton of mushrooms and gave Yoji a narrow look, lips pursed just a little as he contemplated whether to respond to that obvious acerbity or not. “I’m not.” He finally said and left it at that.
Yoji grinned, surveying the ingredients that Aya had left out on the counter. “Mushrooms, chicken, Marsala . . . we eating French tonight?”
Aya shrugged. “Its easy to prepare.”
“For you maybe. Sooooo, Ken says you went to talk to your boss man about me today, that true?”
“Ken talks too much.” Aya said, dumping the mushrooms into a bowl and taking them to the sink to rinse. “And yes, you were mentioned. Omi . . . Mamoru . . . had already contacted him about the possibility of you coming here it seems, but not the details. They had not discussed it with me.”
“Umm. Bet that pissed you off.”
Aya didn’t respond to that assumption, busily washing mushrooms, but Yoji knew for a fact that being kept out of loops was not one of Aya’s favorite things.
“So, what conclusions were reached. About me, that is?”
“As long as you don’t decide to take up some illegal freelance operation, Krypton Brand will support you within the limits of its ability.”
Yoji mulled that over. “So freelance hits are out, but other than that, you guys have got my back?”
“Something like that.” Aya smiled a little, long nimble fingers rinsing each mushroom individually until he was satisfied they were dirt free. When he’d finished he drained the water from the bowl and placed it on a folded dish towel on the counter. He pulled out a plastic cutting board and began to prepare the chicken.
“What would you like to do?” he asked with apparent idleness, slicing the chicken breast into thin layers.
“I dunno . . . well, I sort of do. I liked what I was doing before, back in Kyoto. Hell, before Weiss even. I seem to keep going back to the whole P.I. thing. I work well on my feet. I like the idea of helping people out of bad situations without actually having to go in and slit the throat of the problem.”
Aya paused in his knife wielding, a contemplative look on his face. “I’ll speak to Mihirogi about it. KB has long arms and a lot of resources that it uses outside of the actual teams. Freelance businesses and investigators that feed us information when we need it. Perhaps something can be found that suits you, until you speak the language and know the terrain well enough to go solo.”
Yoji shrugged. “Maybe. A steady income wouldn’t be a bad thing. Freeloading off of you on that stiff-ass, back breaking sofa can not be a permanent thing.”
“My sofa’s uncomfortable?”
“Have you ever slept on it?” Yoji laughed at Aya’s expression of surprise, as if he’d never had a clue that his choice of furniture bordered on airport comfort – – or lack of.
“I didn’t know. You should have told me.”
“When. As you were skipping out on me this morning?”
Aya opened his mouth, then shut it, finishing with the last slice of chicken, then putting the knife in the sink. He’d gotten out wax paper and a mallet before finally responding, albeit a little sourly. “You looked comfortable. I didn’t want to wake you.”
Yoji snorted. “Oh, so it was just consideration on your part. I see.”
Aya smacked the wooden mallet down upon a slice of chicken, flattening it between its sheets of wax paper. There was a resounding splat that Yoji flinched at.
“If you don’t like the couch,” Aya said between blows. “You can sleep in the bed.”
Splat. Splat. Splat. Yoji counted to ten before he asked. “With you?”
Splat. Splat. Splat. “Its a big bed.”
“That’s very . . . generous of you.” Yoji propped his chin on his palm and watched Aya pound the chicken into thin cutlets, all the while trying to calm the sudden, excited pounding of his heart, the sudden stirring between his legs at the mere mention of sharing a bed with Aya. Old wounds and grievances aside, being between the sheets with Aya had the tendency to make Yoji forget a great deal of rational arguments. Hell, carrying on a rational conversation now, while he watched Aya flour the chicken and begin to brown it was almost beyond him, while the possibilities danced inside his head of just what might come of bedding down with Aya. But of course, he had to take into consideration that Aya’s offer might be nothing more than it sounded. An offer to escape the miserable embrace of couch with nothing of sex involved. All things considered maybe sex was not in anyone’s best interests right now, regardless. Yoji was still feeling bruised from the onslaught of memory from Aya’s previous, albeit misguided breakup with him years before and Aya – – well it had been only a few months since he’d been tortured and raped by that internet psycho, the Reaper. Hell, Yoji still had the occasional nightmare about that, and he’d only come in on the hind end of it, he could very well imagine that Aya might still be a little skittish when it came to intimate matters. Not that Aya had mentioned it. When Yoji had tentatively asked if he was okay after it, during their talk last night, Aya had brushed it aside as if it were old news of little interest to him and gone on to other matters.
“So . . .” Yoji said, more to distract himself from thinking about sharing a bed with Aya than anything else. “Ken told me what he’s been up to the last few years, but other than snippets here and there, you haven’t really given me any details to sink my teeth into about what’s been going on with you.”
Aya turned the chicken cutlets and threw in a handful of sliced mushrooms to sauté, either devoting a great deal of concentration on the food before him or taking his time in debating whether to answer Yoji’s query or not.
“There’s not a lot to tell about my life since . . . you know. I’d tell you about the married year but It’ll only piss you off.” Yoji said to fill in the space, to perhaps prod Aya into speaking.
“I don’t see why it would.” Aya said with a trace of indignation in his tone. It made Yoji grin, the old, familiar touchiness. Aya was so easy to embarrass and offend. It was one of the things Yoji had always found endless amusement over.
“It’d piss me off, if you started telling tales of all the lovers you’ve had the last two years.”
Aya sniffed. “There’s nothing monumental to tell about my life, either. Weiss was over. The position in Krypton Brand opened up.”
“Oh, please, even at your most anal retentive, you’ve never been that boring. Favor the recently memory challenged and fill in the blanks.”
Aya gave him a look, which only made Yoji’s smile broaden until Aya snorted softly and relented. “It was suggested that I leave Japan until certain situations stabilized. I’d lost track of Ken along the way and you . . . you . . . well, it seemed as good an idea as any, so I did.”
He trailed off, idly shifting the mushrooms about in the pan, eyes gone just a little unfocused as memory assaulted him. There was something in his face, in the tightening of his mouth, that spoke of remembered pain. “I don’t honestly recall a lot of what I did the first month or two. I wanted so badly to see Aya-chan, but I’d promised myself that I wouldn’t put her at risk. I don’t think I was entirely . . . rational, for a while there. I think I might have done some things that were less than savory . . . anyway, I ended up in New York where through an unfortunate series of events I met Yuki . . .”
“Another member of the team.” Aya almost smiled. “Which in turn led to my first meeting with Krypton Brand.” Aya trailed off, as if that pitiful recount constituted a proper retelling of a no-doubt convoluted story.
“Ah, so that explains everything.” Yoji said drolly. “There’s nothing quite like your rich, storytelling talents, eh, Aya.”
“I didn’t write it all down.” Aya said defensively, pursing his lips and pouring a good splash of Marsala into the pan, letting the wine mix with the butter of chicken juices and the alcohol burn off. It smelled wonderful. Yoji watched him add in a little flour to thicken the sauce, then cut the fire down and rattle in his cupboard for plates.
They ate at the kitchen island, perched on Aya’s padded stools and since Aya had done such a poor job of telling entertaining stories, Yoji launched into his travels of the last two months. What Aya lacked in the area of narration, Yoji excelled at. He even got a chuckle or two out of his tails of busing it through southern Europe, of waking up hungover and lost in Agivnon after getting on the wrong transit and of the Swedish couple he’d met and traveled with into Madrid who after a day and a half of his company had eagerly suggested all three of them get to know each other on a more intimate level and had pursued him on the matter vigorously until he’d been reduced to resort to his more nocturnal skills to skip out on them.
“And you didn’t jump at the chance?” Aya asked with wry amusement.
“Oh, I had thoughts. They were both blonde and pretty, but I’m not as easy as I used to be, you know.”
Aya lifted a dubious brow and Yoji sighed. “Living on the other side . . . the normal side of life for two years . . . not remembering what I used to be . . . it just doesn’t go away cause I get my memories back. I feel better now. Grounded, I guess. Like I don’t have to go out of my way to prove something or bust my ass trying to feel everything there is to feel just because I might not be around tomorrow. It feels good, Aya.”
“I’m glad.” Aya said quietly, something very much akin to gratitude in his eyes. Or naked relief. Sitting there, listening to Yoji ramble, not being pressured to tell stories of his own had softened Aya’s perpetual defenses, Yoji could see it in the way he held his body, in the relaxed set of his mouth.
They finished off the Marsala, the cloying sweetness of the wine lingering on the tongue long after the meal was finished and the dishes cleaned and put away. Between it and three cans of beer, Yoji was feeling the kiss of alcohol induced mellowness. He watched Aya tidy up the clutter he and Ken had made, watched him hesitate over the TV sitting on his floor, momentarily at a loss as what to do about the ungainly intruder into his meticulous space, but then he shrugged it off, maybe sharing a little of Yoji’s mellowness from his glass and a half of wine as well.
“Sorry.” Yoji admitted with an embarrassed half smile as Aya dumped an armful of crushed cans into the trash.
“S’okay. Where Ken goes, clutter usually follows.”
Yoji snorted in amusement.
“I’m tired.” Aya said with just a little too quickly, as if the statement or excuse had been fluttering around in his head for some time and he’d finally gotten up the courage to blurt it out. “Too little sleep last night, up too early this morning.”
“No explanation needed.” Yoji said. Aya hadn’t mentioned his earlier offer and Yoji had to wonder if he regretted it. If he’d rather Yoji make due with the couch again. But when he retreated to his bedroom, he took all the pillows they had appropriated from his bed with him, which Yoji took as a hint that the offer still stood, even if it included nothing but simple sleep.
Yoji occupied himself sorting his new clothes, pulling dirty clothes out of his duffel for washing tomorrow, finding a place for the new ones. He could have asked Aya for a space to put them, but that would have smacked of some sort of permanency and there was still that underlying sense of uneasiness and tension between them. Still an uncertainties that he thought the both of them exuded and that was feeding off itself. Aya had been slipping him occasional looks all night, wary glances, as if he expected the other shoe to drop. Yoji didn’t know that he had another shoe to hurl, quite honestly. If he’d been prepared to hold grudges and place blames that he wasn’t willing to forgive, he wouldn’t have come here in the first place. He didn’t know if they could go back to exactly what they had. Hell, what they’d had had been furtive and desperate and full of underlying violence and was certainly no great goal to work towards. So not exactly that . . . God knew there had been passion and not all of it of the sweet, cuddly sort, but when you got past the tension and the stress of living day by day, there had also been regard and caring and protectiveness . . granted Aya had taken that way too far . . but he’d done it out of the only sort of love he knew how to give and you couldn’t hate him for it. You could want to shake him till his teeth rattled, you could resent the hell out of him for thinking he knew better than anyone else, but hating Aya was just a damned hard thing to do.
So Yoji slumped on the couch, the contents of his duffel, the totality of all he owned in the world, at the moment, spread out on the sofa around him, waiting for the tell tale sounds that indicated that Aya had finished his nightly routine and settled in bed. No matter what irritating little gaps he had in his memory, he knew Aya. He knew the routine. Aya had a healthy belief in hygiene. Shower in the morning, shower before bed, the occasional nighttime bath if Aya was feeling the need to indulge himself. Listen for the sound of the shower to cease, wait five or ten minutes for Aya to finish puttering about in the bathroom, then saunter in like it was no big thing. Like Yoji’s heart wasn’t thumping like a bass drum.
He closed himself in the bath, washed up, cleaned his teeth, ran a nervous hand through his hair, wishing that one of the things he’d bought today might have been pajama bottoms. He was used to sleeping in boxers or if he had his rathers, less. Somehow he didn’t think it would settle an unsettled atmosphere if he strolled out sporting his birthday suit, though it might be amusing to see the expression on Aya’s face. Not that Aya hadn’t seen it before, Yoji just doubted he was expecting it tonight.
He grinned at himself in a mirror that was still foggy around the edges, his private levity melting the little knot of ice in his belly. It wasn’t like there was anything scary in the next room. Not unless Aya had gotten his sword out
So, with a girding of his loins, Yoji stepped out into the lions den.
The lights were out, but the lamp Yoji had left on in the outer room let enough light in that Yoji could see Aya under the covers, on his side, one pajama covered arm revealed atop the covers. He might have been asleep for all Yoji knew, but somehow, he doubted it.
“So . . . the offer still stands.” He said into the shadows.
“Of course.” Aya murmured back after a moment.
Of course. Yoji shuffled around to the side furthermost from the door, pulling quilt and sheet back and sliding in-between soft sheets. Aya’s back was to him, a gulf of space between them. Aya’s breathing was even and calm, but then Aya’s breathing was even and calm when he was stalking a victim, so that was really no telling sign.
Listening to him breath was soothing though, more soothing that Yoji would have thought possible, the hills and valleys of his body a mysterious landscape an arm’s reach away. Lying there, Yoji realized that despite all his unrest about coming in here, about coming to find Aya period, that he felt more at ease, more restful now than he had for a very, very long time. With Asuka, even at the happiest, he’d known there was something missing. All through the last year in Kyoto, he’d been drifting, searching in vain for what that something was, only seeing bits and pieces of it in his dreams. It came to him, breathing in Aya’s scent on the sheets, that it was okay just to sleep. It was more than okay, just to take it slow and easy and make sure the right steps were taken in a dance that they had more than enough time to get right.
More than enough time, if he had anything to say about it.