Shadow Games: 3

One foot in front of the other. Step. Step. Step. Don’t allow attention to waver or determination to crumble under the pressure of weakness and pain and distraction.

Out of that building past the crying children in the lobby left mostly unattended by a mother hunched in a plastic chair, too interested in the dregs of her own hangover or drugwithdrawal – – whatever – – to care, and out onto the street. He sensed the eyes of the thin woman on his back as he left, as she hovered at the counter separating lobby from back room. Caught a passing glimpse of her from his peripheral vision and saw disapproval and worry in her eyes. She didn’t call out or pursue him. It wouldn’t have mattered if she had.

Yoji was another matter. But Yoji didn’t follow him down the narrow, creaky stairs. Yoji had stayed upstairs with hurt on his face, trying to hide it with disdain. And failing. Yoji had never been that good a liar. Unless he were trying to get into your pants, then the falsehoods slid off his tongue like sweet wine. Yoji . . . alive.

Distraction. Yoji- thoughts were a distraction he didn’t need at the moment, when he could barely concentrate enough to see straight past the pounding in his head and the aching weakness of his body. He was unarmed for all intents and purposes and exposed and in jeopardy and focus was a must. So pushing everything but the immediate objective from his mind was imperative to survival.

A man on the street two doors down from the place Yoji had brought him asked for change. Almost he flinched from the unexpected voice, shocked that his vision was so narrowed that hehadn’t even noticed the shabby figure of the beggar crouched against the wall. Blood pounded hard in his chest, thumping deafeningly inside his head. He forced his hand away from the clipless gun under his jacket, forced his eyes back to the sidewalk ahead of him,ignoring the plea for handouts. There was a intersection ahead. Not a busy one. A few cars traveled it. A few more people on bicycles. Stepping down off the curb made him catch his breath in a moment of panic as his knee almost gave way and he had to stand there for a second regaining balance and grasp on strength, before stepping the rest of the way down and crossing the street. He’d never make it back to the hotel on foot. He knew that very well, but he needed to put a little distance between himself and Yoji before he hailed a cab, which would be an indelible human trail between himself and where he’d been. And he needed desperately for there to be no trail leading back. No clue leading back to Yoji for anyone to follow,either friend or foe.

Friends could be just as dangerous.

Stop thinking about Yoji. He clenched his teeth in disgust at his own weak mindedness and walked another block, putting two between himself and the clinic before finally giving in and hailing a passing taxi.

He gave an address and sat back tuning out the drone of the driver’s chatter as he drove away from this more destitute section of the city and towards a more prosperous one. He paid the driver with a bill from his clip and managed to hide his weakness all the way to the hotel elevator. Once inside that, cool and private, he gave in a little and rested his shoulder against the wall on the ride up to his floor. Not too much, though. Relax too much and he’d have trouble making himself move again when the doors opened.

It was a hard path, down the corridor to his room. He’d made it all the way here and yet the last steps were the one’s that almost undid him. The walls seemed to bend inwards and the carpeted floor undulate under his boots. Nausea rose that he reasonably knew was a side effect of the concussion the woman at the clinic had told him he had. It didn’t make it any easier to quell.

He slid the key card into the slot on the door and turned the handle, putting his weight against the door as it gave, staggering into the dark of the room and towards the single king-sized bed. He connected with it with more force than he’d intended, legs finally giving out, slumping down to lie on his back while his vision spun sickeningly. Even with eyes shut tight, the world still revolved too quickly around him. He threw an arm over his face, trying to block it out, but it only slowed of its own accord, some minutes later and left him weak and sick in its wake.

The quiet darkness was imminently welcoming, so great an attraction in fact that he almost drifted off then and there, legs hanging off the side of the bed, holster digging into his side, before a lingering sense of obligation dragged him out of the stupor and made him pat his pockets looking for the phone.

He brought it out, flipping it open and punched out a number on the softly glowing blue buttons. He glanced at the clock on the bedside table and grimaced. Twelve hours overdue checking in. They might already have sent someone in after him, assuming that his lack of contact meant he’d found the target – – or the target had found him. Whether that was true or not was beside the point at this very moment, when procuring the whereabouts of a merciless killer was less important to him than protecting Yoji from unintentional discovery from people who thought him safely dead, even if those people were a far sight more merciful than Kritiker orTakatori ever had been.

“Aya?” A voice picked up on the other end. Crisp and female.


“You’re late.”

“I know.”

“I was about to send someone into Japan. We didn’t know if you’d been compromised.”

“I’m not. Just a complication. I’m on track.Still checking on The Reaper’s connections here. I’ll check back in twelve hours and update you.”

” . . . Are you all right?”

“Fine. Tired. Twelve hours.” He clicked the phone shut, cutting the connection and dropping it onto the bed. He shut his eyes and grimaced at the bald faced lie he’d just told Mihirogi Nana. The mouthful of bald faced lies. He probably was compromised. He wasn’t all right. He hurt. He felt sick. His head wouldn’t stop spinning. He didn’t think he could get up and trave lthe few feet it would take to throw up in the toilet if the need arose.

And Yoji . . . Yoji, alive and well and living in Kyoto. Aya’s defenses broke and the wall holding back the rush ofquestions, suppositions, memories came crashing down and there was nothing left in him to stop the flood of them from overwhelming him.

Yoji. Yoji. Yoji. He was supposed to be dead. One more sacrifice to the Takatori crusade against the evil they perceived to be Estet. He’d gone back after that final battle and searched until his fingers were bloody and raw, until the distant sirens of police and rescue workers forced him to fade into the night. And all to no avail. There were no survivors and maybe, just maybe, it was just as well. Maybe Yoji had been looking for death long before it had found him and maybe Aya hadn’t wanted to see it because it hit far too close to home for comfort. And maybe he might have stopped it – – the cause if not the result, at any rate – – if he hadn’t been blinded so badly by his own cowardice. The admittance of his failing had come all too easily that night, when he sat in the hills overlooking the ruins of the school, mourning. Of what he had and hadn’t done those last two years of Weiß’s existence. Of what he’d blindly overlooked and blindly allowed because it was just easier than trying to get to the source of it.

But deep down he’d known. He’d known of Yoji’sdisillusion with the job and with the merciless tasks that their master’s set them to. To protect against the greater evil, sacrifices sometimes needed to be made. Compassion was not an option. That had been Kritiker’s motto and Takatori’s creed. It wasn’t Yoji’snature. It had never been his nature and as good as he’d been at thejob, each and every kill had stolen some little bit of his soul until there had been very little left to stop the long, dark slide into despair that had overtaken him in the end. Aya blamed himself for that downfall. For being too damned distracted by a sister newly awakened to the world of the living to notice what was going on within his own team and when he did notice, for letting that same preoccupation with Aya-chan be an excuse to avoid it. He’d been at the verge of that pit himself, after all, almost letting it swallow him whole and had come back from it, gun-shy of ever wanting to venture close to it again. So he’d distanced himself out of some twisted sense of self-preservation that had really been nothing more than cowardice and fear. And Yoji had trembled on the edge of self-destruction, forced there by loyalty to Weiß and the blindness of his teammates. And there had been no bringing him back by reminders of duty and responsibility, because he’d gone past that. He’d gone past caring – – or maybe he’d just cared too much and it had destroyed him. And Aya had watched.

So Yoji had died and Ken had disappeared and Omi was willingly swallowed up by the many headed beast that was theTakatori empire.

Weiß was gone and Aya drifted. Withou tpurpose, blaming himself for more than one downfall.

Omi – – no Mamoru – – had told him, days anddays later when he’d come back to himself enough to track him down, that no survivors had been found. That many of the bodies were unidentifiable. That he’d see to it that Yoji got a grave marker somewhere and all the quiet honor a shadow assassin could expect. He had to have known. How could he not have? Someone had to have orchestrated Yoji’s arrival in Funabashi. Perhaps it had been a mercy on Mamoru’s part, that secrecy. One last thing he could do forYoji, perpetuating the belief in his death. Dead, none of the factions that might hold an interest in former agents of Krittiker would be looking for him. Dead was as safe as it got.

Which was why Aya hadn’t spoken truths to Yoji. He’d started figuring it out from the moment he realized that Yojididn’t know – – that ignorance was a blessing. Somehow,miraculously he’d drifted back to a life he’d known before Weiß had ever been. He was happy. That was clear from the ease in his eyes, and the way he held his body. He might not know what he’d been, but the signs were there, and Yoji, at heart, was still Yoji and Aya knew Yoji. Knew his moods and his idiosyncrasies and the little signs that told whether he was happy or sad or horny or deadly serious. There had been no one either before or after in his life,save for perhaps Aya-chan and even she baffled him sometimes, in the way women have of confusing men, that he had ever taken the effort to so thoroughly comprehend. There had never been anyone worth the waste of time.

Omi had never gotten the chance to tell him where Yoji’s grave marker was – – if there even was one – – He’dnever gotten the chance to go there and pay proper respect. But perhaps it was just as well, because standing somewhere in public,where just anyone might happen by, and losing his grasp on control would have been mortifying. Losing his grip on control in private was bad enough, so he’d tried his damnedest not to dwell on things lost. He’d tried not to think about it, that neglect on his part,during the many months afterwards. There were acceptable, reasonable excuses not to, such as settling into the ranks of Kryptonbrand and discovering a new take on an old way of life.

Ken had asked him, a few weeks after his arrival in England, about whether he’d talked with Omi – – Omi would alwaysbe Omi to Ken, even if there were layers of unspoken blame in thedepths of Ken’s eyes. Aya had admitted, yes. And softer still Ken had asked about Yoji, and Aya had faltered then, out on the turrets of Richard Krypton’s castle, under gray English skies – – and just not been able to utter the words.

“He’s dead.” Ken had said for him and Aya had pressed his forehead against the cold stone, trembling on the verge of emotion he hadn’t allowed himself in a very long time. It had been just the two of them up there, and Ken was the closest thing he had left of family since he’d severed ties with Aya-chan for her own protection – – the only person out of the new team he’d found himself immersed in that he really, truly trusted with his life and even him he couldn’t admit the guilt to. The pain that left a hole in wha twas left of his soul.

Dead. And he’d believed it for two years.Lived with that guilt for two years. Spent two years wishing, on the occasions that he let himself fall into the melancholy of remembrance, that it wasn’t so. And low and behold – – it wasn’t. Low and behold Yoji turns up with a light in his eyes that had been missing for too long, with a purpose that didn’t involve betrayal and death, but the very opposite. To ruin that would be a crime worse than Aya could presently imagine and that realization burned like the stroke of a rusty, jagged knife in the gut.

Aya shuddered, swallowing past the thick, bitterlump in his throat. That hurt too, raw and acrid from the sinus drainage that always seemed to go hand in hand with unwelcome tears. He lifted his left hand and touched wetness at his temples. It had bled down into his hair and he hadn’t even realized. Stupid. Weak. Emotional. He couldn’t afford it. He squeezed his eyes shut, spreading his hand out upon his forehead over skin gone hot and dry.

Fevered. Wonderful. His head was spinning with it. The gun was digging into his armpit. With an effort he reached into his jacket and removed it, slipping it under the pillow, within easy reach, out of plain view. He pressed his face into the same pillow, blotting the moisture on his skin, relieved at the cool softness of the linen. He lay there, lacking the strength to move,thoughts starting to spiral down a dizzy, surreal path of exhaustion.

Yoji had looked good. He’d let his hair growout . . .

Aya woke up in darkness, disorientation and dull, aching pain. Instinct made him catch his breath and strain to hear a telling sound in the silence. The only perceivable sounds were the muffled drone of distant traffic and the faint hum of aircondition. The room was cold with it. A rented room. A hotel. In Japan. Kyoto.

Yoji. Alive.

He blinked, staring up into darkness, trying to wrap his mind around that foreign concept. It took a moment to gather his sleep frayed wits and force his thoughts into acceptable patterns. He turned his head to look at the clock and groaned. He’dslept ten hours straight. Little wonder he was stiff and sore ,having spent the entirety of the day and well into the evening lying lengthwise across the bed, his legs dangling off one side. In two hours he’d have to check back in with Mihirogi and he hadn’t furthered the Kyoto search in the smallest way. Two hours to figure out what he was going to do, or plain out lie to her again.

Either of those options required clear headed thought, which seemed a distant possibility with the way his head was pounding. He reached up gingerly and touched the bandage. He’d been surprised by the gunman who’d scored that shot. He had not expected security to come busting in while he was searching the hard drive in the Zero G executive office. But he had not left entirely empty-handed. There had been the mention of another club in Kyoto run by the same management company. Another lead since the Zero G one had fizzled out to nothing.

But he needed to be functional to follow it. Which meant forcing himself up despite his body’s doleful reluctance. He shrugged out of the coat and stumbled into the bathroom, the sudden flare of fluorescent lights blinding him. He relieved his bladder and splashed water on his face, guessing that the fever still lingered from the dry heat of his skin. His right arm, his favored arm, was as good as useless. The bundled katana in the closet would be beyond him. As much as he hated admitting it, he was a mess and if it came down to him against a few more well trained enemies, he’d lay odds against himself. Letting Mihiroji know that would guarantee she pull one or more of the others from their own searches and send them here. One of those others would absolutely recognize Yoji, even on abad day. The others might if they’d been briefed on Weiß. Regardless, recognition would compromise Yoji. That would not happen. Absolutely it would not. Which meant he had to pull himself together.

Room service and aspirin. He needed food to quell the lightheadedness. That woman, the nurse at the clinic, had said he’d lost a good deal of blood, which was as much responsible for the dizziness as the concussion. More so, if past experiences were any indication. Food and rest would counteract that. The former, at least, he could allow himself.

He eased himself down at the small table in the corner and plugged his laptop into the phone jack provided for such things. He’d been out of the loop close to twenty four hours and if the Reaper had skipped ahead of schedule and already broadcast his ‘show’, then he’d be on the move soon. Bangkok, Hong Kong, Manila, Prague, Amsterdam, Kiev – – they’d tracked the Reaper and his crewover half of Europe and a good deal of Asia and come up time after time with nothing. It was proving an impossible task to trackon-line broadcasts that were being bounced from relay to relay allover the world. All they could do was watch and try to track thevictims.

Torture, rape, murder. It was big business whenthere was an audience out there willing to pay handsomely to see the real thing in real time. It had gotten bigger of late, when theReaper had formed affiliations with those who wished to provide a similar hands on service to those twisted few – – well not so few, if one wanted to be accurate – – who wanted more than the thrill ofwatching a slow death on a computer screen. They’d started private sessions. For an outrageous fee – or maybe not so outrageous considering the end result was human dignity and human life – you could be the star of your own private movie. They’d find you a victim to match your specifications and put you in a room with all the necessary props and let you live out your most twisted, malicious fantasies. And you’d have it on film to watch over and over.

Aya found a subtle mention in one of the chatrooms frequented by people sharing in the Reaper’s fetish of choice. A suggestion to visit a site that had recently uploaded exciting images captured off a video feed. One of those floating websites that required the immediate input of plastic money to access. Ayahad seen more hard-core porn in the last month of pursuing the reaper than he had his entire life. So many of the leads were dead ends,show casing staged violence. One in a hundred hinted at reality. He’dgotten rather good at telling the difference at a glance. He’d gotten good at differentiating the Reaper’s personal handiwork from the mess left by his paying patrons. The Reaper was an artist. Sometimes his sessions might be drawn out over days. It was nauseating to watch. Infuriating.

He found a series of pictures that looked genuine, though it was impossible to tell anything of the background,other than plain cement walls and incandescent, overhead lighting. It could have been anywhere. The victim was Asian though and young,which meant the chances of him being in the right hemisphere were slightly better than none. If the photos were actually connected with the Reaper, as suggested by the trail he’d followed gettinghere, the man himself hadn’t had a hand in it. Too quick. Too brutish. Whatever had happened in the dozen or more pictures displayed, had happened fast and the damage lacked in creativity. Someone had paid to do this and they hadn’t the self-restraint to make it last. There was no indication of when the main event would be held, only hints that it would be soon. The people in the know,those in the loop would get word out when and where to find it when the time came.

There was a knock at the door. Room service. Aya closed the laptop and got up with a grimace to open the door. He signed for the supper, and sat down on the bed with the tray, downing the aspirin first, then uncovering food he didn’t really know if hecould keep down. He had to try. The soup was plain and unthreatening. It whet his appetite and he ventured into the rice. He drank three cups of tea criminally sweetened with enough sugar that it congealed, undissolved at the bottom of the cup. But he figured he needed it, to fend off the dizziness left by low bloodsugar. It helped. He felt marginally better by the time he’d pushed the tray away.

Good enough to go on-line again and see what he could find out about Club Shadow Dance. Not a lot. It was new enough or secure enough in its patronage that it didn’t feel the need for on-line advertisement. He tried a different route and accessed newspaper archives, looking for club reviews, incident articles or the like. More success there. It wasn’t the glamorous, high profileclub that Zero G was. It catered to a darker, hungrier crowd. It was a members only club, which probably meant that things went on inside that made the top floor of Zero G seem like kindergarten. It didn’t mean he couldn’t get inside easily enough, he saw a review with a photo of a line of eager hopefuls outside the plain, gray facade of the club, waiting to be granted access. The bouncers most likely would choose the best of the lot to venture inside to mingle with the members. The members, after all, needed a wide variety of willing entertainment to justify the price of membership.

He gleaned enough information from that one grainy photograph to know what he needed to do to infiltrate ClubShadowDance. He made his mandatory call to Mihirogi. Told her the very basics and promised to check in again in twelve hours.

It was close to 10 p.m. now. He’d slept the entire day away. But, he had the feeling that ShadowDance didn’t get started until late and carried on into the hours of morning. He had just enough time to get himself together and plan a visit to Club ShadowDance.

It was a gray concrete building. Nondescript, unattractive in the extreme. Windowless, lacking in landscaping around its perimeter. The small lot behind it was full of cars. Cars lined the curb of the streets around it. A popular spot, though there was no neon lit sign to proclaim it. There was a doorwith a covered stoop where a line of people gathered. Two muscular bouncers stood guard there. Another man walked the gathered crowd, talking sporadically into headgear. He picked a young woman in black leather and put a black wristlet about her arm. Separated from the crowd, she beamed, sashaying towards the entrance where the two bouncers checked the black wristband and let her pass. A car pulled up, a long black sedan of expensive make, and the driver got out and opened the back door, letting out a middle aged man and a much younger one. They bypassed the line and were let in with respectful nods from the two bouncers. A member, no doubt and a recognized one.

Aya drifted towards the edges of the crowd,eyeing the muscle, looking for obvious signs of hidden weapons. He’d been around the perimeter of the building looking for alternate routes in or out. There was a service entrance in the back, a featureless, handeless metal door with a spyhole and an electric keylock. He didn’t have the equipment with him to break that system, which meant going in through the front. He watched two more people get weeded out from the waiting crowd, before he moved into its ranks. He moved slow and carefully, trying not to favor his righ tarm, trying not to let the insistent headache color his expression. The fever still clung to his skin, which worked some small bit to his benefit, lending a certain brightness to his eyes and a flush to his otherwise pale skin. It made the cool air feel good, jacketless a she was.

“Hey. You there.” The man with the headgear moved down the line, small speculative eyes looking Aya up and down. Approving. Aya knew he looked good, had been told it enough times,by enough people to actually believe it. For the most part, the attention those looks got him was annoying and embarrassing, but for some occasions, it was an invaluable tool that he’d learned not to overlook. With the right attire, he’d had little doubt that he could gain entrance into Club ShadowDance.

The man held out a black wrist band and Aya held out his wrist. He walked past the other hopefuls, drawing jealous stares in his wake. Up close he didn’t see any more sign o fholstered weapons under the bouncer’s jackets than he had from adistance. It didn’t mean they weren’t armed. He was, and it would have taken more than a casual pat down to detect it. All they did was nod him past, though. There weren’t even any metal detectors to pass through to weed out weapon carrying patrons. It wasn’t tha tsort of club. There was an awful lot of metal adorning various club-goers. It didn’t cater to gang bangers or the like. It might seem gritty and lowtech on the outside, but underneath the current ran money and wealth. There was nothing cheap about the sound system or the brand of beverage served at the bar. The wealthy with a kinkcame here to play and the management set up an atmosphere appropriate to the sort of entertainment its members craved.

There was a dance floor, but that wasn’t the center of attention inside the cavernous insides of the club. Theceiling was high and cloaked in darkness, but suspended from it wereat least a half dozen cages, lowered just above the level of the tallest head where young women and men writhed. All of them were mostly nude save for strips of black leather, or glittering chain,dog collars and wristlets and anklets. There were two raised platforms at either side of the club, one where a black vinyl clad dominatrix was practicing her art on what might have been a volunteer from the club, on the other a group of men were working on encasing another one in black rubber. There were manacles on the steelgirders which served as support throughout the room, the majority of which were occupied by willing prisoners, whose bodies were open season for any passer by to fondle. Cries rose every now and then over the music, though whether in pain or ecstasy was uncertain. People came here for both.

All of that and he had only entered the dark recesses of the club, only seen a portion of what it had to offer. The music wasn’t overwhelming, more of a sultry beat that didn’t offend his headache or reverberate though his chest like the soundsystem at Zero G.

“Dominant or submissive?” A body sidled close to him, invading his personal space. He turned his head marginally tolook into the speculative eyes of a man not so much older than himself, dressed in thick black leather that bared his furry chest and pants so tight they molded to the bulge at his groin. He mus thave seen something in Aya’s eyes that screamed ‘Danger Zone, stepback from the yellow line’, for he did shift away marginally. Ayadidn’t bother answering the question, instead moving into the depths of the club, looking for telltale signs of doors and exits out of theclub proper that might lead to hidden sections of ShadowDance. Theyhad photos of a few of his known associates, but not of the Reaper himself. Aya scanned the crowd for any of those faces.

Propositions flowed his way, as well as fleeting curious hands on his body. It was to be expected, this was the sort of place people came to be free with their bodies – – or as free as one could get, when bondage was involved. He hated it. It made his nerves tighten and his attention waver towards the defensive everytime a hand skimmed the thin, sheer fabric of his shirt, or across the leather of his pants. He’d dressed to entice, soft black leatherpants with bootlegs wide enough to lift up and get to the gunstrapped to his ankle or the knife in his boot if need be, but tight enough above the knee so that the leather was stretched to smooth tautness. The shirt hid nothing below the pecs, the lower half sheerblack mesh, the upper black velvet that hid the bandages around hisshoulder. He had an assortment of silver jewelry that he’d picked up cheap at the same shop he’d bought the shirt. Just enough blackeyeliner to make him look Goth and to emphasize already long, darklashes against pale flesh. It was a different enough look from theone he’d gone into Zero G with, that with luck no connection would be made if word had spread to ShadowDance security about his intrusion.

He got jostled one too many times and it hurt. He ended up having to lean against the unused side of a support column to catch his breath and force the pain stars out of hisvision. The aspirin’s dubious help was beginning to wear off. Any use of his right arm aggravated the hurt. He’d known he was far less than 100 percent when he’d come out tonight, but choices had been limited and he’d hoped he could endure the discomfort. He just needed a moment to get his focus and force the pain back to amanageable place.

“To much to drink . . . or not enough?” Someone loomed near, targeted on him instead of simply pressed close by the sway of the crowd. A man that smelled just a little too heavily ofcologne and underlying sweat. He had a hand on Aya’s arm, thick fingers sprinkled in black hair up to the knuckles, applying just enough pressure with the grip that there was no mistake that it wasn’t meant to be a casual touch.

“Or were you hoping to make use of this column?” Aya looked up, following the man’s gaze, and saw the unused pair of dangling leather cuffs. He started to extract himself, indignant,and focused for the first time on the man’s face. It held a trace of familiarity. He’d seen it in a photograph only recently, he was sure. One of the men suspected of being within the inner circle of the Reaper’s associates.

“No.” It didn’t come out as disdainful as he’d first planned. He was off his game and not thinking as quickly as he ought because of it. He’d come here looking for a sign of the Reaper’s presence in Kyoto and now that he had it thrown in his face, by all rights he ought to extricate himself from here and immediately call in for reinforcements. Splitting the team up had been imperative to cover as many likely locales in the shortest timepossible. But once confirmation had been made, none of them had been expected to deal with the problem without backup. Of course that had been before the unexpected discovery of Yoji in the city. Yoji whowas very likely sniffing around the same problem Aya was, albeit from a different angle.

So he had a choice, follow procedure and call in the rest of Kryptonbrand and risk exposure to Yoji that he didn’twant – – or see where association with this man might take him.

“That’s a little too – – public.” As if a little private bondage might not be out of the question. The hand on his arm didn’t loosen, even though the man’s lips curled a little in a smile. This was a man who liked to be in control, Aya could see it in is eyes, and in the aggressive way he leaned into his personal space. It stood to reason, the lure of the Reaper’s cyberspace operation was domination, force, pain and the ultimate act of power which was the taking of life.

“Let me buy you a drink.” He was pulled awayfrom the column, and the urge to shake off the grip on his elbow was close to overwhelming. There were tall tables along the walls where people could stand and play voyeur. Aya’s new acquaintance deposited him at one of those, told him to stay put in no uncertain terms and weeded his way towards the bar to get the promised drink. God knew what would be in it by the time it got back to him. He’d have to be careful to avoid actually drinking any of it. His lack of tolerance for hard liquor notwithstanding, he didn’t need to fall prey to any Mickey’s slipped into his drink.

He tried to track the path of the man through the crowd, looking for tell tale signs of contact with other parties that might also be connected with the Reaper operation.

“Umm, hello. Crowded in here, tonight, huh?.”

Aya let his gaze flicker to the middle aged man that had almost nervously sidled up to the table. Nondescript and obviously out of place. The clothing wasn’t up to par with the rest of the players here in the club. This was some business man that had come here on a whim or a dare, or in the company of more adventuresome associates. Aya turned back towards the bar, ignoring him in favor of his prey.

“First time here.” The man edged a little closer, so he didn’t have to raise his voice over the background noise.

“No.” Aya said, short and curt, not bothering to look at the man again, hoping that would be signal enough that hewasn’t interested.

“No, I meant me.” The man laughed weakly. “You thought I meant you, right? My name’s Howard. Howard Meada.”

Aya let his gaze flicker back to the man. 40ish and slightly balding. Round faced with lines around the eyes and forehead. He was squinting a little, as if he couldn’t quite focus. Probably wore glasses, which he’d taken off for appearances here. Asif anyone would take him for more than what he was.

“I came here with a friend of mine, who’s a member. I didn’t expect all this. Is it always like this? If my wife knew I was here, she’d die of shock – – well, she’d disown me, before that and then die of shock.” More weak laughter. Ayawondered if he was being hit on, or if this was simply an uncomfortable man’s attempt to avoid the more hard-core company out on the floor. God knew, if he had a choice himself, this was the last place he’d be. Where the hell was the man with the drinks? Aya had lost track of him in the press of bodies surrounding the bar. He stepped away from the table a little to see better.

“So are you here with anyone?”

God. Definitely he was being hit on.

“No.” He said absently, craning his neck to try and see the man at the bar.

A hand slipped around his waist, smooth andwarm, pulling him a little off his balance against a black T-shirt adorned with hundreds of silver safety pins.

“Can I have this dance?” Yoji smiled lazily a thim. Aya narrowed his eyes, agitation turning to surprise turning to flat out frustration. Yoji was drawing him into the crowd undulating on the dance floor, smiling over Aya’s shoulder at the businessmanwho’d been trying fumblingly to pick him up.

“Sorry, man, but you gotta play within your league.”

“What the fuck . . .” Aya hissed, trying toextricate himself without making an obvious fight of it. “. . . areyou doing here?”

Yoji shifted his arms, latching on to the backbelt loop of Aya’s pants with one hand and weeding the other under Aya’s left arm, palm pressed flat to the small of his back. In amongst so many other bodies, there was little choice but to press close. Yoji had all sorts of buckles and zippers, metal loops and catches on his pants. He was all in black, but he glinted from hundreds of silver bits of shiny metal. Aya could feel the thick leather of his bracelet against his back, but it didn’t equal the warm impression of his palm through the thin material of his shirt.

“I’m doing my job.” Yoji had let the smile fade. In the club lighting, his hair was almost the same shade as his skin. His teeth were brilliant white.

“I told you,” Aya ground out, wishing Yojiwasn’t swaying just so to the sultry beat of the current song, wishing his heartbeat wasn’t speeding up, or his skin going goose pimply from the simple contact. “To stay the hell out ofit.”

“Oh, right. You did tell me that, didn’t you? And you know, I do generally follow the orders of strangers, who used to work with me a long time ago, but didn’t really care enough to get to know me and all that, but geeze, it just sort of slipped my mind this time.”

Aya glared, biting back the useless blasphemy on Yoji’s parentage that first came to mind. The last thing he wanted was more attention than he already had. He scanned what he could of the crowd around them, looking for a familiar face. Nothing. Damn.

“Sooo, it looks like whatever it is you’re doing, it sort of coincides with what I’m doing, huh?” Yoji ventured.

“Not likely.” Aya said tightly, trying very hard not to focus on the feel of Yoji’s hips and thighs against his.

Yoji’s body matched the rhythm of the music witha liquid, natural grace that Aya just didn’t possess. Even before one life had ended and a second, darker one had been undertaken, Aya had never particularly been drawn to participate in trivial things such as dancing. The few school dances he remembered attending had been under duress and had been spent along the sidelines with the other kids that had either been too cool, too unpopular or too uncertain of themselves to venture out onto the floor. Aya didn’t dance. Yoji danced well enough for the both of them, if swaying suggestively to the steamy vocals and sultry beat of a new age band could be termed as such. Funny that during the time they had been together, back before Weiß had begun its slow decent into inner turmoil and eventual destruction that Yoji had never once tried tocajole Aya into dancing. Even privately. And Yoji loved it. Yojiloved to hit the dance clubs and loved to move to the music. Maybe,when he’d actually known Aya, he hadn’t had the balls to dare and suggest it.

“Something occurred to me about you this morning.” Yoji said conversationally, lips close enough to Aya’s earthat his breath stirred his hair.

Aya didn’t ask what. He didn’t want to know what. He didn’t want Yoji making connections with him on any level. He didn’t want to be this close to Yoji if it was going to make his body betray him.

“I was making breakfast.” Yoji continued. “Cereal and coffee and it just struck me that you liked white rice and tea and in a pinch, you’d eat a danish or something like, but that you wouldn’t touch eggs if they jumped down your throat. Now isn’t that a funny thing to remember all of a sudden? And how would I know what you ate for breakfast on a regular basis, tell me that?”

Really, what could he say to that? What could he say at all when his throat clogged up of a sudden with a lump that felt the size of a fist. He was over Yoji. Had been over Yoji for years, so there was no reason for the butterflies in his gut or the clenching ache in his chest when he contemplated another lie. Hewanted to protect Yoji’s anonymity because of the guilt he’d carried for all the time he’d thought him dead. That was all. He owed Yoji that much, the assurance of a normal life. He would have gone to the same effort for Ken or Omi had they turned up in the same position.

“I’ve got a job to do.” He said softly. “Backoff and don’t come near me again, understand?”

“No.” Yoji said, with the same tone he might use in turning down the offer of a refill on his coffee. “I don’t think so. Maybe later. What are you looking for here?”

“None of your business.”

“Why did you tell me the kid I was looking for was dead, Aya?”

Aya snapped his mouth shut, not wanting this conversation here where unfriendly ears could be listening. Not wanting it at all. Yoji didn’t need the grim details of the operation that revolved around the Reaper. He needed to move on to something else less dangerous and less likely to put him into contact with people who might make a connection between him and a decommissioned Weiß.

“Because it’s a harsh world. Get used to it.” He tried to break away, but Yoji’s fingers curled in his belt loop and it would have been a fight to disentangle them. Aya seethed.

Yoji laughed, but it had an edge of bitterness. “Well you’re an optimist, aren’t you?”

“Realist.” Aya corrected. “Let mego.”

“What are you doing running around anyway, you just got shot like twenty-four hours ago?”

Aya didn’t want to argue with Yoji, he really didn’t. It only ever served to frustrate and piss him off, so he didn’t respond. Of course that didn’t stop Yoji from continuing.

“Must hurt like hell, huh? Shoulder. Head.” Yoji’s hand skimmed up his back, closer to the hidden bandages. Aya drew breath, glaring a warning. Yoji didn’t press hard enough to hurt, just grazed the area, feather soft, before moving his hand slowly back down Aya’s back. He drew his brows, a furrow of uncertainty appearing between his eyes.

“You know how things just occur to you sometimes. . . really obvious things that you ought to have realized, but didn’t and then like, boom, they just slap you upside thehead?”

Aya watched him warily, waiting for Yoji’s sudden realization to be revealed, wondering if he ought to do something subtly violent and painful to break Yoji’s grip on him that wouldn’t attract the notice of the other dancers, and make his escape before he could find out what it was.

“I swing both ways, don’t I? Cause, I reallylike women, no question there . . but damn, I’m thinking evidence is evidence . . .” he looked down towards the non-existent space between their bodies. Aya didn’t have to follow his glance to realize that there was an erection pressing up against his thigh, through the baggy material of Yoji’s pants. Aya felt his face go a little hot. Embarrassing to blush over something as simple and commonplace as Yoji with a hard on. It was just well – – there was a twitch in his own pants that he’d been fighting since Yoji had pulled him onto the dance floor and God help him if Yoji felt it – for so many reasons.

“So, I’m bi, right?” Yoji asked with a certain equitable blandness that simply pissed Aya off.

“Why are you asking me?”

“Well . . . two years worth of wet dreams with you playing a pivotal part, for one? And you being the only one of u shere that actually remembers, for two.”

“You’d think you’d know on your own.” That came out testy. It made Yoji grin at him.

“I think I do. Just wondering about your first hand knowledge.”

Damned if Yoji’s unshadowed grin didn’t do things to him. It had been so long since he’d heard Yoji laugh, or seen him smile when it didn’t have the echo’s of guilt or sadness in it. He shivered in a sudden burst of longing that he hadn’t felt in longer than he cared to recall, and really, when you got right down to it, Yoji wasn’t really even trying. Yoji wa ssimply playing the same part Aya was, trying to blend into the bd/sm club atmosphere, initiating this slow dance, because it had been th eonly way to get Aya close enough, for long enough to talk to him. But of course, this wasn’t the Yoji he’d been retreating from for the past year of their time together, or even really the one he’d know nbefore that. This was a Yoji closer to the young man he’d been before he’d joined Weiß and the guilt of assassination after assassination began to eat him up from the inside.

And it was attractive. So attractive that it made Aya’s gut lurch at the same time fear started to pound inside his heart. He could say to himself all he wanted that his top priority was to protect Yoji’s presence from interested parties, butwhen it came right down to it protecting himself from the pain thatYoji could unwittingly – – or wittingly cause, was right up there along side the other.

There was a shriek that superseded the volume of the music, Aya felt Yoji flinch, saw his eyes dart about reflexively looking for the source of the cry. The dominatrix on her stage had really gotten into her play, but her victim was more than willing and the cry, though probably from real pain, had not been one for help. Some of the people around them moved closer to her platform though, to better watch what she was about, subsequently clearing a line of sight between them and the bar. Aya saw his target talking with another man, whose face he couldn’t see. There were no drinks in hand, so likely he’d gone back, found Aya missing and moved on to other things. Damn Yoji for interfering with his mission.

“I’ve got to go.”


Aya twisted, unhooking Yoji’s hand from his belt with his good hand, and moving towards the bar. The man at the bar didn’t see him, turning instead and walking towards the end of it and the service door there. Aya paused long enough to look at the face of the man he’d been talking to, but didn’t recognize it, which meant absolutely nothing, he could be the Reaper himself for all he knew, but for the moment, following the target he did have a visual id on was more important. The door at the end of the bar was metal and solid with an electronic keypad lock on the frame by the handle. He could get past that, but not without the proper equipment, which he didn’t have with him. He kept moving, around the outskirts of the room, looking for other doors.

Yoji wasn’t following him, which made him nervous wondering where he was and what he was doing. Yoji made hishead hurt, the pick up lines of predatory strangers did, but they were easier to ignore. He asked a woman in strips of black leather that barely concealed the vital parts of her anatomy what time theclub usually closed. 4 in the am, she answered, assessing him while she stroked the fringe of a leather whip she held in hands tipped byclaw-like black nails. Do you want to play? No. She pouted but it faded, as another willing partner came out of the crowd, eager to take her up on the offer.

It was close to three now. Aya was done. He felt it in the way his hands were shaking and the weakness in hislegs. He could ignore the pain, but his body had limits that could only be pushed so far before it rebelled against him. As much as he’d have liked to stay and continue observation at ShadowDance, it would be pointless if he couldn’t follow through if a chance arose. He doubted he’d get that chance regardless, while the club was open. If he wanted to see what went on behind the locked doors of ShadowDance, he’d have to come back when it was closed to the public and the staff had gone home. During the morning hours he doubted more than ghosts roamed the interior of the building. He’d come back then with the proper equipment and see what it was ShadowDance was hiding. Which meant another lie when he checked back in and the lies were building to a point that he was going to have a hard time extracting himself from them. It couldn’t be helped. He’d deal with this himself and come up with something to explain why he’d broken the cardinal rule and not waited for backup.

He looked around once more for Yoji, but Yojiwas hidden within the shadows and the crowd doing whatever it was he thought he could do to find a kid that was more than likely a los tcause. If he attracted the wrong notice, he was going to find trouble without even realizing he’d stumbled into it. But short of tracking him down and hauling him out of there, there was not a great deal Aya could do about it at the moment. He had to at least trust that Yoji’s instincts hadn’t gone the way of his memories and that hecould at least recognize deep shit when he stepped directly into it and would have the common sense to back the hell up.

Sure. Right. That was Yoji all around.