Shadow Games: 7

Yoji didn’t quite know how to handle the sudden, tearful embrace of an angry, violent stranger. Especially one that knew his name and was alternately cursing him for his duplicity and praising him for being alive. There was something about allegiances made and betrayals and being a cold hearted bastard for making other people grieve all of which came to an abrupt stop when Aya got himself together enough to growl from his position on the floor.

“Ken . . . shut up!”

The relief that Aya was okay after taking a none too gentle hit got swallowed up by the concern that he was going to get hit again when the brown haired stranger jerked away from Yoji and stalked a few aggressive steps towards Aya with fists clenched. He didn’t seem particularly cowed by Aya’s very pissed off tone or his dangerously narrowed eyes.

Okay, so Aya knew this guy and this guy knew Aya and they both knew Yoji. This was all becoming very, very confusing.

“Don’t tell me . . . you fuck . . . how could you hide this from me . . . to shut up, Aya. Mihirogi said you were acting shifty . . well she hit the nail on the goddamned head, didn’t she?”

Aya had gone cold as ice, from his expression and the look in his violet eyes, or as cold as a man could get sprawled naked on the floor with only a sheet for protection. This kid was all raw emotion, his face still wet from tears, hair-trigger violence emanating from him like heat from a flame. Aya had to have had sense enough to know that if he provoked this kid he was going to get his ass kicked, wounded as he was. Baffled by the situation or not, this kid knowing him notwithstanding, Yoji’s protective instincts kicked in and he pushed himself off the wall, stepping forward and laying a hand on the young man’s shoulder.

“Listen, this is all interesting as hell, but you really, really need to back off from him . . . uh, Ken.”

“‘Uh, Ken‘, my ass.” Ken whirled, shaking off Yoji’s hand and turned eyes brimming with betrayal towards him. What the hell does that mean? What the hell have you been doing all this time? Living it up while the rest of us thought you were dead. That was a real shitty thing to do, Yoji. You don’t know . . . how could you let us . . . we were supposed to trust each other.”

Yoji blinked, taking a step back, shocked by the vehemence, by the accusation and the absolute feeling that somewhere along the line he was culpable . . . though for exactly what he wasn’t quite sure. There was real pain in those dark eyes facing him, unmasked and honest, unlike anything he’d gotten from Aya without benefit of a major uphill battle. He didn’t know how to respond to that pain when he didn’t know the cause, so he stood there, helplessly returning that dark stare.

“Ken . . he doesn’t remember.” Aya said softly from the floor.

“Oh shut the fuck up, Aya, I wasn’t asking you.”

“He can’t remember. Since the school . . . he can’t remember us, Ken.” Aya’s voice betrayed him a little, a ghost of a tremor, a ghost of hesitation that belayed the cool irritation in his eyes. Aya masked everything as if his soul would be endangered if too much of himself were revealed. Ken hid nothing and the key to his soul could be seen clearly enough through the portal of his eyes. And Yoji . . . well, he thought he floated somewhere in-between, honest enough when it came down to it, but hiding a great deal of his utter bewilderment in the face of two relative strangers who really weren’t.

Ken stared, not shifting his gaze from Yoji and blinking, either not understanding or not accepting Aya’s words. A bitter laugh escaped him. “You expect me to believe that bullshit? That you don’t remember me? Or Omi or Weiss?”

“None of it.” Aya answered for him.

“Who are Omi and Weiss?” Yoji ran a hand through damp hair, eyeing Ken warily. More ghosts out of his past. More pieces to the puzzle of his life. Ken started, eyes gone just a little wide.

“Ken!” Aya glared at Ken warningly and Ken stiffened, glaring right back, grinding his teeth in irritation, but something seemed to click, some bit of rational returned as he started thinking . . . really thinking, instead of simply reacting. He swung his gaze back to Yoji.

“And Aya? You don’t remember Aya, either?”

“No. Not . . . mostly. Just met a few days ago.” That was a hard one to answer.

Ken lifted a dark brow, glancing back at the bed, and Aya wrapped in his sheet on the floor. “And promptly felt the need to shag him?”

Yoji felt a blush creep up along his neck. “Ahh – – well – – There was no actual shagging . . .”

“Shut up! Just shut the hell up.” Aya was struggling up, holding the sheet with one bad hand at his waist and using his uninjuired arm to push himself up. If Yoji wasn’t mistaken there was a blush staining his cheeks as well.

“What the hell happened to you?” Ken must have caught sight of the bandage on Aya’s shoulder. He moved away from Yoji. Aya waved him off.

“He got shot.” Yoji supplied helpfully and Aya transferred his glower to him.

“You got shot? You idiot. You complete moron. And you thought you’d just not mention it to Mihirogi? Are you trying to commit suicide?”

Aya pressed his lips shut, not arguing that particular point when Ken so obviously was in the right.

“So you just found out about this . . . about him . . . how long ago, Aya?”

“He told you.” Aya said tightly.

“A few days? And you thought not telling me was a good idea?”

“I thought not telling anyone was a good idea. He’s out of it. He’s safe. He can’t remember, and nobody knows he’s alive . . .”

“I’m standing right here.” Yoji reminded them with a tight smile.

“I don’t want him compromised.” Aya hissed, ignoring Yoji and glaring daggers at Ken. “Kb can’t know. They have too many connections. There are too many people who . . .” He trailed off, gaze flickering to Yoji meaningfully, then back at Ken.

Yoji didn’t quite get it, but Ken must have. Yoji saw the moment the fever pitch of excitement drained away, replaced by dismal realization.

“Son of a bitch. You can’t remember.” He looked at Yoji.

It was a statement, not a question. Yoji answered it anyway. “One big blank. Mostly. There’s some Aya-stuff that’s sort of floating around . . .”

Ken snorted. “I guess there is. Goddamn it Aya, if you’d given me some sort of heads up, I could have helped head off Mihirogi from the other end . . . you got her ‘woman’s intuition’ working and she’s pulling Free from Bangkok as soon as he finishes up with a lead he’s got and sending him here, too.”

Aya shut his eyes, took a shuddering breath and gathered his calm around him as firmly as the sheet he clutched to his body. “Okay. Okay. When?”

“Tomorrow afternoon. Maybe. He’s got to finish up – – catch a flight. It’s not that long a trip.”

“Can you call her and tell her not to bother. Tell her Kyoto is a dead end.”

“Is it?” Ken inquired.

Aya took another long breath, not flinching from Ken’s questioning stare. It was answer enough. Ken swore.

“Goddamnit, Aya. Can’t leave you alone for a second, can I? Yeah, I could call her. Lie to her. But I’m not that good at it and she’s got a nose for sniffing out bullshit. And then we’d both be in deep, deep shit when they did find out, which they will.”

“Could somebody clarify.” Yoji asked, feeling miserably out of the loop. It was starting to irritate him.

Aya swung his glance around, frowning, serious thinking going on behind his eyes.

“Why don’t you go and get dressed, Yoji?”

“Oh, right, so you two can talk about me behind my back.”

“Exactly.” Aya agreed, dead pan. Ken looked Yoji’s way warily, then shrugged, as if Aya’s bluntness was no big surprise to him. Which it probably wasn’t, the lot of them apparently being well aquatinted.

Aya was standing there, not talking, waiting with thinly veiled impatience for Yoji to gather his scattered clothes and retreat to the bathroom. Like some kid sent away while the adults talked about grown-up things. Prick.

Yoji scowled and stalked to the end of the bed for his pants, found his underwear on the other side of it, and his shirt bunched up with Aya’s borrowed sweater under the bedside table.

“I just want you to know,” he complained. “That I feel like I’ve officially entered Bizzaro world and you two are first rate fucking citizens.”

He slammed the bathroom door and tossed the clothing onto the sink top, then stood there with his hands on the edge of it, glaring at his reflection in the wide mirror.

It had been a damned good afternoon. He had felt very much . . . at ease . . . at peace . . . at home? . . . lying there with Aya’s quiet warmth pressed up against him. But of course nothing good in his life ever lasted longer than it took for him to get really comfortable with it. So welcome Ken, who in and of himself wasn’t so much a problem or a disruption of Yoji’s sense of well-being as he was a trigger for Aya’s overwhelming reticence to kick in.

Ken? Ken who? Ken who looked like any other early twenty-something Japanese collage student . . . or jock. Yoji thought he was more likely at home on a sports field than in a classroom. Nothing particularly unusual about him other than the fact that he was another figure out of Yoji’s clouded past and he was apparently in the same business as Aya, which sort of discounted Yoji’s strange notion that he ought to be kicking a ball around a field somewhere.

Yoji tossed the towel to the floor beside the tub and shook his shorts out from the tumbled pile of clothing. There was the crust of mostly dry semen on the inside. Damn. He’d sort of forgotten about that. Sticking his head out the door and asking if Aya had a pair of clean ones while Ken was in the room just sort of seemed more of an embarrassment than he thought he could handle. Not that the situation hadn’t been perfectly clear to any observer. Hell, a blind man could have figured it out.

Yoji swore under his breath and turned on the tap, rinsing the boxers under the water, figuring they’d dry in good time and in the meanwhile, he’d just have to go commando.

So what did Aya have to talk to Ken about that he so blatantly didn’t want Yoji to hear? The ‘I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.’ sort of things, or the ‘don’t tell Yoji shit, because he’s too fucked up to understand and its for his own good.’ Spiel? He rather doubted it was a detailed analysis of Yoji’s proficiency at oral sex – – oh, God he hoped that wasn’t a conversation Ken was likely to find an interest in. He could only hope that he hadn’t been that big of a slut back in the day. But then, though there was something vaguely . . . familiar . . . about Ken, it hadn’t gone straight to his libido the way his first sight of Aya had.

He laid his wet boxers out on the shower rail to dry, then pulled on his jeans. After disentangling his shirt from Aya’s sweater, he slipped into it, not bothering with anything but the bottom most buttons.

He’d given them all the time he was prepared to give.

“I’m coming out and fuck anybody that has a problem with it.” He was out of the bath by the time he finished the statement and fixed Aya with a meaningful stare.

“I think he means you, Aya.” Ken pointed out helpfully, with the twitch of the first smile Yoji had seen from him at the corner of his mouth. Aya’s eyes narrowed. Ken immediately went up a notch or two in Yoji’s estimation.

Aya still had his sheet on. Apparently dressing in front of Ken was not an option for him, which small realization gave Yoji a bit of satisfaction.

“So have a nice talk? Figure out what to do with me?” Yoji stood there, the focus of both their stares. Ken shrugged, casting a disgruntled look at Aya, as if whatever it was they had talked about hadn’t exactly gone over well with him. Aya didn’t give a thing away, unimpressed by Yoji or Ken’s disfavor.

“So why don’t you go and get dressed.” Yoji suggested. “So me and Ken can talk about you.”

Ken was amused, Aya was not. He tossed Ken a warning glare, before going for clean clothing in the drawer and stalking into the bath, sheet and all.

Yoji stood, at a loss, and he thought perhaps Ken was too, from the distressed look on the young man’s face.

“So, I’m guessing introductions are sort of a mute point. For you at least.” Yoji had to say something.

Ken’s look of distress grew stronger. “Geeze, Yoji . . . I can’t get over it . . . you not knowing.”

“Yeah, it sucks to be me.”

Ken stood, too agitated to stay down, pacing to the window to lean against it “You don’t know how good it is to see you, man. Well, I guess you don’t know – – but well, I missed you. A lot.”

“Ahh . . . thanks, I guess. So we were friends?”


“Good friends?”

“Good friends.” Ken agreed, starting to look evasive.

“And you’re not going to give me a detailed play by play of my life prior to whatever the hell it was that caused me to forget it in the first place, because Aya told you not too?”

Ken shifted, eyes downcast, looking very, very uncomfortable. When he’d said he was no good at lying, he’d meant it. His dislike for this was written very clearly on his face.

“Maybe he’s right. Maybe it’d do more harm than good. If it’s gonna come back, it ought to be naturally, don’t you think?”

“No. I don’t think.” Yoji snapped. “And Aya is not the boss of me . . . is he? Was he?”

Ken grinned. “No . . . not in the literal sense.”

“Sooooo . . . him and me . . . we were . . .?” He cast a glance at the rumpled bed and Ken followed his stare, still grinning, not in the least embarrassed.

“Jesus, man, I’d have thought you’d have figured that one out for yourself.”

“Yeah, it kinda crept up on me.” Yoji muttered, feeling a little bit of heat in his cheeks again.

“I never thought I’d see you blush talking about sex.” Ken observed, more amused than Yoji thought he really needed to be, then his eyes brightened a bit in honest good humor and he asked. “So . . . all this time . . . What have you been up to?”

Slugging Aya aside . . . And really, who didn’t want to slug Aya on occasion? . . . Yoji liked Ken.

“Well, I’ll lay odds that its not nearly as exciting as what you and Aya have been doing, but if you want a long, boring story . . . I’m game.”

Yoji and Ken were being very quiet outside the bathroom door, which worried Aya to no ends. Ken and Yoji were not generally quiet. Their voices tended to rise to indecent levels and carry in the throes of excitement, Ken most especially. They got quiet and serious when important things were afoot. Aya did not want Ken talking to Yoji about important things. Aya would rather Ken didn’t talk to Yoji at all, but even at the depths of his uncertainty over the whole Yoji dilemma, Aya realized that it was simply too many overprotective impulses clashing. Ken was not the harbinger of doom. He was simply one more piece of Yoji’s past and Yoji putting pieces of that past together was not necessarily going to lead to his downfall. More likely it would just make it much harder to return to the new life he’d found, what with the old one rearing its ugly head.

Not that he’d made it any easier. Not with that stupid, stupid stunt on the bed. He honestly didn’t know what he’d been thinking, if thinking had been involved in the operation at all. If he’d wanted to distance Yoji, he’d certainly gone about it in an obscure fashion. But there’d been a moment there, with Yoji’s hand on his face and Yoji’s eloquent green gaze tangled with his own that it hadn’t mattered. That every pound of longing and grief and guilt that had built up over the years had come crashing down and taken his common sense with it. Just so. And he’d not come back to the world of reason until Ken had come knocking and forcefully thrown him there.

He lifted a hand gingerly to his jaw, cataloguing yet one more ache in the list of complaints his body was throwing at him. He washed away the remnants of his blunder with Yoji and slipped into his clothing, and then back out into the room. Ken was on the bed, shoes kicked off, sitting cross legged and comfortable. Yoji had the padded chair next to the desk. They’d been talking, though they hesitated at Aya’s appearance. He wasn’t quite sure if they looked guilty or not, but he doubted Ken had flown against all of Aya’s convictions so soon, so he decided to give them the benefit of the doubt.

“If we’re lucky, we can take care of this problem tonight.” Aya said, searching the floor for his hand drawn map and finding it crumpled and somewhat worse for wear between the bed and the left-hand lamp table.

“Which problem?” Ken asked warily. Well, there were a few at hand, so Aya let him get away with that as well.

“The reaper one. We have his location and I have a plan.” He laid the map out on the bed and Ken leaned over to look, listening carefully as Aya explained the strategy. With Ken as backup he felt considerably better about the whole scheme. With Ken, there was really no need for Yoji to . . .

“Don’t even.” Yoji said sharply when Aya dared to voice that last hopeful thought. Well, he hadn’t really thought it would go over well. Wishful thinking. He didn’t push it.

Ken knew the game and this particular plan was simple enough that it hardly needed multiple explanations. Ken wanted to check equipment, and cracked open Aya’s suitcase to do so, with Yoji leaning over his shoulder, taking it all in, with never a question asked.

Which still meant there were hours yet to kill before it was time to go out again. The prospect of which was uncomfortable. At least for Aya.

Ken and Yoji filled it easily enough, finding things to talk about that didn’t involve Yoji’s past or the present job. Yoji had always had the gift of conversation. He could talk about anything and it came out sounding glib. Ken was not quite so smooth, but he was eager and pleasant when he was of a mood and between the two of them recent sporting events were covered, popular movies, music, the state of Japanese politics and the recent events of Yoji’s life, as well as the more innocent new ventures of Ken’s. That camaraderie was enough to make a man that had never been that well versed in the gift of gab, envious. It was enough to make him wish that Ken would just go away for a while so he could have Yoji to himself for the next few hours, for after tonight, he very well might not have the chance to see him so easily again.

So easily again? Yesterday it had been never.

Ken got hold of the room service menu and he and Yoji conspired over ordering more food. Aya waved them away, not hungry enough to find an interest in food again yet. They went American this time. Burgers and fried potatoes and sodas. In the meanwhile, Yoji offered to change the bandages on Aya’s shoulder, which Aya almost refused, on the verge of a sulk over the two of them acting like kids at a sleep over. But common sense suggested it needed changing, so he let Yoji peel the old tape off and clean the tender wound with the antiseptic he’d brought with him and put new pads over it.

It was barely seven o’clock. At least three hours to go before mission time. He relented and accepted the dinner salad that had come with Yoji’s burger platter and sat at the head of the bed picking at it while the other two consumed their meat on a bun at the table.

He drowsed again, the low grade fever he couldn’t quite shake, making him susceptible to it. He half came out of it to the low babble of the television and the sound of intermittent conversation between Yoji and Ken. There was a dip in the mattress as Yoji sat down next to him, ghosting his fingers across Aya’s temple.

“You up?”

“Yes.” Aya swatted Yoji’s hand, chasing away the haze of sleep with just a little more effort than it usually took.

“It’s time to go.”

Yoji and Ken went down into the sewers. Yoji hadn’t argued about carrying the gun this time, which might have simply been his attempt to save face in front of Ken or might have been a hardening of his current moral agenda after seeing that room last night and imagining the things that had been done within it. Aya didn’t care, as long as he was armed. Ken would take the brunt of whatever happened, regardless. Ken would have even if Aya hadn’t made it clear that he wanted it so.

Aya went back in via the club. Easy enough with the member’s bracelet he’d swiped on the way out last night. He got waved through, hardly noted at all in the press of the weekend crowd vying for entrance to this notorious nightspot. Dozens of hopefuls that weren’t being waved in like last time, but who could only stand and hope that they’d catch the eye of a member looking for a new plaything to entertain within the depths of the club.

It was crowded inside regardless. A more selective crowd to be sure. Expensive clothes, expensive gear. The music was smoky and lurid, like the atmosphere. Aya focused on the faces and not so much what they were doing. The activity was varied and intense and he had no inclination to be distracted. Suffice to say what had gone on last night had been weak and watered compared to the weekend play. He worked his way through the crowd, spotting the door leading to the back rooms and the cellar and noting the burly guard standing watch over it. People went in occasionally, in couples and trios or small groups, to take advantage of the rooms beyond. Others would come out, looking sated or exhausted or excruciatingly high.

He didn’t see the man from last night, nor anyone else connected with the Reaper’s operation. Either they were already at work downstairs or they were still trolling for victims. Aya stayed close to the walls, where he could watch the crowd and not be so painfully obvious about it. But even the shadows along the walls were filled with people intent on pursuing their own personal kink, be it simple fellatio or something less straightforward involving equipment other than that supplied by nature.

He sidestepped to avoid a man intent on bending a vinyl covered woman over a table, and inadvertently into the path of someone else. A surprised face blinked at him from behind innocuous glasses. It was the man from last night, the businessman who’d latched onto him before Yoji had shaken him free.

“You’re here again?” the man grasped after his hand, ignoring personal boundaries in his eagerness. But, Aya supposed that such things as personal space and social graces were somewhat altered in this place. He pulled his fingers from the man’s dry grip with the sinking sensation that he’d acquired a shadow.

“My friends, they convinced me to come again, said tonight would be something to see and well, here I am. You disappeared last night and I couldn’t find you again.”

“I’m not interested.” Aya said flatly. Best to discourage interest now and boldly, since the man seemed somewhat resistant to more subtle hints.

“Was that a friend of yours. Boyfriend?” The man shuffled along beside him, having to twist and squeeze through a crowded spot to keep close. Aya gave him an annoyed glance.

“No.” He shouldn’t have said that, but some defensive reflex kicked in and prompted the denial before common sense could latch onto the excuse to be rid of the man and agree to the claim.

“Really? Because he seemed to know you.”

A hiss of agitated breath escaped through Aya’s teeth. “Listen, I am not . . .”

“Can I buy you a drink?”


“Oh, I understand, I don’t hold my liquor very well either and its so close in here and hot with all the people . . . how about a soda or mineral water.”

“Fine.” It was as good a way as any to get the man off his back. As soon as he’d disappeared into the crowd towards the bar, Aya moved into the crowd, heading for the other side of the cavernous room and hopefully beyond the notice of his stalker.

There was a buzz of static in his ear, then a soft, tinny voice.

We’re in. Nothing so far. The reception sucked. Maybe it was all the concrete in-between the receiver disguised as an earring clamped around the shell of his ear and Ken in the sewers below him. He didn’t respond. Ken wouldn’t expect it. It was just a heads up to let him know they were in position and were setting up the charges and surveillance electronics, just in case they didn’t score tonight. If they didn’t, this whole thing was going to get so much more complicated than it already was. He relaxed a little regardless. They hadn’t missed the Reaper at least. It was just a matter of waiting him out. Someone would show eventually and they’d have to go through that door to reach the killing room.

“Oh, there you are. I thought I’d lost you again.”

Aya groaned, beginning to have serious notions of luring this man into a corner somewhere and incapacitating him. A cool glass of clear liquid was thrust into his hand. Ice clinked. A cherry on a toothpick floated against the rim. He saw a flash of a face that looked familiar through the crowd. Same broad bone structure, same dark hair as the Reaper’s goon from last night – – but no, a second look disproved the similarity. Someone jostled him and water sloshed onto his hand. He shook it off, distracted, idly lifting the drink and sniffing. Water, flavored with peach or apricot. He took a sip to wet his throat, only half hearing whatever the man – – what had his name been – – Walter – – no Howard. Howard Meada, who’s wife would be shocked to know what went on in this place, who was here on business. Who wanted to walk on the wild side and had a secret taste for men.

He put the water down after a sip, but kept the cherry, sucking it off the toothpick before dropping that back into the glass. He waded into the crowd, regardless of what Howard was saying, watching faces, keeping an eye on the door throughout it all.

He passed by a group of people clustered around a woman strapped to a post, wrapped from head to toe in latex, nothing visible of her skin, no eyes, no ears, no mouth, simply a set of metal straws piercing the second skin at her nostrils allowing breath. Her body writhed under the thick coating as hands touched her, kneading sensitive places hidden by latex. He stared a moment longer than he should have, unnerved by the fetish. There were worse things. He’d passed worse things already – – one corner of the club stank of urine and he’d quickly enough passed that area and the people attracted to that sort of play. He shook his head, chasing away the distraction, moving into the press, sidestepping a couple mostly naked, sporting piercings in every conceivable spot a body could be pierced. That was as disturbing as the latex.

The music became a dull throbbing echo, distorting the sound of the crowd. Someone said something to him, a pick-up most likely, but he couldn’t hear the words, could only stare stupidly for a moment at moving lips, before it occurred to him that it didn’t matter anyway. He moved on. There was a woman being fucked quite opening against one of the columns, her hands in manacles above her head, her eyes covered with a black leather blindfold. She was moaning quite ecstatically. There were men gathered, waiting for their turn. Aya turned, and found himself staring at a boy in a leash, bare bodied except for the leather collar and the gleaming metal of a male chastity belt, that fit snug and high around his hips, and encased his hidden penis in a curved sheath of metal that pressed tightly against bound, reddened balls. The boy could not have been old enough to be legally here – – or perhaps it was the doe like submission in his eyes that lent him the air of innocent youth in this den of inequity. The man holding the leash smiled at Aya, like some surreal circus master with his freak on a leash. The floor swayed, like the deck of a big ship. Aya felt a vague sense of nausea. Someone slid up close beside him, an arm curled around his neck and a mouth pressed boldly over his, tongue finding its way inside before he had the sense to clench his teeth against it. He should have pulled away, twisted, done something painful and telling to his accoster but the world was beginning to sway a bit, his focus upon it turning lackadaisical. He stood there, hardly caring, while a stranger thrust his tongue down his throat and slid a hand down the front of his pants, warm fingers finding him and grasping him.

“You’d look good in one of those.” A wet whisper against his ear as the mouth disengaged. The hand was still down his pants, squeezing, causing blood to flow, but strangely enough not garnering reaction other than that. Aya was forced forward a step, arms around his body, thrust close to the slave boy in his chastity belt and his leering master. The boy’s hands came up, sliding under his shirt . . . god, he couldn’t think . . . the lights were spinning overhead . . . the nausea was growing at the pit of his stomach . . . a hand in his hair pulled his head back and a strange mouth covered his again, while the boy in front of him pressed close, pushing his shirt up, pressing his reddened lips to a nipple . . . and biting . . .

That brought him out of it. At least to the point where he gained enough awareness to shove the boy away and stagger out of the arms of the man who’d been kissing him. He caught a glimpse of a face so pale it had to be covered in makeup, of red lips pouting in disappointment, but no malice. He collided with someone, spilling their drink, causing them to bark something unintelligible at him. He hardly cared, beginning to realize that something was wrong.

God. He had to get out. Find fresh air and the privacy to clear his head. Was it the fever – – or some bad reaction to Yoji’s antibiotics? It was his own fault for pushing this when by all rights he shouldn’t have gone out injured. But there were things at stake that made it worth the risk. He had to pull himself together. Just take a moment to gather his wits, to chase away the dizziness and the nausea and he’d be all right. The exit was too far away, all the way across a room full of people he had no wish to navigate through in his present state of disconnection. He saw the neon sign above the bathroom.

Maybe not much in the way of privacy, but it would be out of the press of a crowd that seemed to be closing in one him. He miscalculated and hit the doorway with his shoulder, which hurt. The pain chased away some small bit of the fog his wits had fallen prey to.

Thank god there was no one there doing anything other than making use of the facilities. He ignored the man at the urinal and went to the sink, leaning over it and splashing cold water on his face. He slurped a handful, wanting the taste of the stranger out of his mouth, gagging a little in the aftermath, now that he could think a little clearer, at the memory of a thick tongue and too much of the other man’s saliva finding its way into his mouth. He spat, took another handful of water and leaned there shaking, beads of water dripping off his nose and the tips of his bangs. He ought to activate his comm and tell Ken and Yoji something was wrong. It would be the responsible thing to do, if he wasn’t up to par. Not doing it would only put them in danger if they had to rely on him and he was too sick to come through. But if he did that, they’d pull out and want him to do the same and their chance at the Reaper would be gone. He couldn’t. He’d get himself together and carry on. There was no other choice.

If he could just get his head to stop spinning.

“Are you all right? You looked a little sick?”

Aya looked up and saw the reflection of Howard Meada in the mirror. The man was smiling, harmless looking with his glasses and his receding hairline and his soft, small hands. Aya had lost track of him, but apparently Howard hadn’t abandoned him. Not after the drink.

God. Stupid. Stupid. He’d only taken a sip . . . and the cherry. . . hardly enough to send him over the edge unless whatever had been in it had been strong enough to take him down completely. Fool. Never, ever take a drink from a stranger and doubly never when on a mission of this nature, even if they looked harmless and innocent.

“There was something in the drink.” He said bluntly. Could he dare assume whatever it was, hadn’t been intended for anything other than to get a date the easy way when the man’s inconsiderable charm wasn’t working? That was the optimistic viewpoint, the one he might be able to walk away from with nothing more than a bout of lightheadedness and a headache.

He expected surprise or evasion. What he got was a simple agreement.

“Yes.” Howard Meada’s eyes lost the ineptitude like some internal switch had been flipped. From bovine and naive one second to sharp, emotionless precision the next. Aya felt a stab of dread miscalculation. He knew what it felt like to look into the eyes of a killer. He saw them every morning when he looked in the mirror.

He spun, slamming a hand out, palm forward, hoping to catch the man in the face with a killing blow that would drive bone and cartilage from the nose up into the brain. It might have worked if he’d been a little less dizzy, a little faster, a little more agile than a bullet hole in the shoulder allowed. He miscalculated the distance, couldn’t follow the man’s moves properly, as if he were watching a video being fast forwarded at a sporadic rate. He had a fist in his gut and he hadn’t even seen it coming. It made the lingering nausea rise up with a fury. Made him double over and gag, helpless to avoid the hands that gripped his shirt and his hair and slammed him head first into the porcelain edge of the sink.

He went down then, sprawled on a tile floor sticky with god knew what – – tried to get himself up enough not to choke on what was coming up his throat, and knelt there on hands and knees adding his own mess to the human debris on the floor. Meada was polite enough to wait it out. Polite enough to let Aya take a shuddering, miserable breath before kicking him squarely in the ribs, sending him tumbling over away from the puddle of vomit. Defending himself was a lost cause. He knew that almost from the first. The drug prevented any real effort on his part, the fever and the injury only adding to the disadvantage.

“Did you find what you were looking for?” Meada kicked him in the side, low enough that the toe of his boot rebounded off Aya’s hip, bruising to the bone. Again in the kidney, and this time vision went skewered and dark around the edges, the floor was an unstable, swaying thing under his body. He curled around the red-tinged pain, gagging on more bile that wanted to come up. Another impact to his back and the darkness around the edges began to crowd in towards the center. He blinked through it and could vaguely make out another pair of boots in front of his face. A different pair. Another body that said something to Meada that Aya just couldn’t put meaning to. He needed to trigger the comm unit. Just a matter of finding his left arm and flicking a button on the inside of the bracelet on his wrist. Only his right arm was a numb thing beneath him and his body seemed to have lost the ability to do anything but hurt.

Fingers tangled in his hair jerking his head up off the floor, slamming it back against the hard knee of the man crouching behind him. “Were you looking for me, boy? That eager to have a taste of the Reaper? My audience likes them younger, you know . . . but you’ve got a look about you – -makes a man’s mouth water – – that makes up for the difference . . . and you went to so much trouble to find me, didn’t you? Where’s your friend? The blonde. Did you like what you saw in the cellar this morning? Did you come back wanting a more personal tour?”

Aya shuddered, not able to wrap his scattered thoughts around the question of how Meada had known they’d seen the room in the basement, but fretting over it regardless. And Yoji, they knew about Yoji. He couldn’t reason that out either, too busy fighting off the darkness and the pain and another onslaught of nausea.

“He’s got backup somewhere. Keep an eye out. The other one’s not easy to miss. Club security will know.” He released Aya’s hair abruptly and Aya’s head dropped, connecting with a solid, painful thump, to the tile floor. They spoke more, quiet and concerned, but he couldn’t discern it, overwhelmed finally by the totality of his problems. There was little choice but to shut his eyes and let it sweep over him.