Shadow Games: 10

Yoji staggered into a wall liberally defaced by graffiti, head swarming with the pounding echoes of the explosion, hearing nothing but the thud of blood and the labored beating of his heart. Everything else was muffled and distant. He knew there were sirens, he’d seen the glaring lights, but had not been able to distinguish the sound. There was a trickle of blood coming from his left ear and he shuddered, leaning against a cinder block wall and staring at the bright red on his fingers not quite able to reason out why. It took a moment of concentration, forcing his mind away from the horror of Sister Hisa’s ash white face and bloodied body, from the burning need to warn Aya and Ken, to concern for his own well being.

He’d staggered away from the clinic numbly, hardly aware of the hundred points of pain in his body, desperate only to take the chase away from the Sister and to work his way back to Aya.

Aya . . . a haphazard, jumbled flood of knowledge bombarded him, images of Aya whom he’d drawn weapon against, and tried to kill . . . When? Where? Why?

The school. More surety, seeping in through what felt like cracks in his skull. The school and the mission . . . and the woman who’d struck every chord that Aya had left frayed and broken in his wake.

Yoji blinked, rocked off his balance by the influx of recollection and the flood of emotional baggage that came with it. Anger, frustration, resentment, regret . . . hurt. So much hurt bandied back and forth that there had been no choice but for Persia to divide the team to send him and Ken to infiltrate one sect of Estet while Aya got a new team unmarred by interfering emotional garbage . . .

“God . . .” Yoji sobbed, clutching at his head, squeezing his eyes shut to block out the torrent of unwelcome things, sliding down the wall and hardly noting the protest of a dozen lacerations and abrasions from his back and shoulders. He sat in the debris of the alley and rocked back and forth over his knees, overcome by something he’d wished for for so many months. Memory.

Memory of harsh words and emotional warfare. Of disillusionment and pain and deliberate cruelty. And of bafflement that had nothing to do with amnesia and everything to do with wondering what the hell it was that he had done.

He started at a movement at the end of the alley, but it was only an early morning pedestrian passing by, unaware of his existence. Still, it reminded him that he was vulnerable huddling in this alley. There was no safety here – – there never was, alone and on the run. He stared at the garbage strewn ground against the opposite building face and recalled himself in similar straits and tragic cost. Asuka . . . No wonder the name had struck suck a familiar note with him. No wonder . . .

He cursed and surged up, using the wall as a brace, desperate now to find a safe place to get his head together, to sort through the mishmash of confusion that was overwhelming him. This time he felt the pain when it lanced through his back, screaming muscles, protesting flesh that had been bombarded with chips of flying debris from the clinic explosion. The pain was no stranger either. Nor was doing what needed to be done despite it, keeping on the move to avoid the pursuit that might or might not still be on his tail.

Onto the street, where a few cars traveled, a few early morning bikers peddling through fog the sun had yet to burn away. Fewer pedestrians, but those he passed looked twice at him. He caught a glimpse of himself in the polished window of a shop and understood why, seeing a reflection that was bloody and pale faced and haunted.

Asuka. Asuka . . . the first Asuka was long gone. Along with so many other women that were mere ghost faces in his imperfect memory. Aya was there, even if he came with strings attached and upheaval and trauma and hurt. Ken was, a reliable presence in the back of his mind. Omi . . . Omi was too and Yoji suddenly placed a name with a face he recalled at the hospital when he’d first awakened. A glimpse of a boyish profile in the hall outside his room, conversing with his doctor. Omi had known and Omi had paved the way for him to have a normal life. And Omi had kept it from Aya and Ken. Who the hell had be been protecting? Him, them or himself? Weiss? No, there wasn’t a Weiss anymore, if the snippets of conversation he’d heard between Aya and Ken were any indication. Yoji couldn’t even fathom a guess, the facts too fresh and vague in his mind.

Aya . . . he had the feeling there were grudges that needed rekindling, and old grievances and justified anger. Aya knew. Aya damn well knew there was blame to be placed and debts paid and some of the things he’d said and the expressions he’d worn made more sense now knowing that. Guilt. So much guilt. He hadn’t worn that guilt so openly when he’d been designing the destruction of their relationship.

Yoji cursed again and fumbled in his pocket, remembering the phone and the channel he had to Aya and Ken. He stood in the alcove of a shop that hadn’t opened for the day yet, and punched in the number.

The ringing was so faint he could barely hear it, but faint was better than nothing. At least his hearing was creeping back. A simple beep instead of a message requesting a voice mail be left. Ken had the phone turned off. Hadn’t he learned his Goddamned lesson from the last time?

“Its me.” Yoji hissed. “Somebody came after me at the clinic. They may come for you guys. Call me!!

He folded the phone shut and stuffed it back in his pocket, leaning against the door with eyes shut, trying to even out his breathing and collect his thoughts. There was another call he needed to make. He got the number of the laundry from information, but no one picked up on it. He hoped against hope that it meant the old laundry woman had gone with Sister Hisa to the hospital. Would an ambulance have had time to arrive yet. He tried the ER reception desk and got put on hold for long enough that he started walking again, afraid to stay in one place too long, starting to panic with the notion that the assassins had diverged from his trail and gone to the laundry to finish the job on Sister Hisa. Eventually a brusque sounding receptionist came back on the line and Yoji asked whether Sister Hisa had been brought in yet.

Yes, but her condition was unknown. If he was family, he ought to come in. If he wanted more information he ought to come in. Coming in would be dangerous for a man who didn’t want particularly talk to the police, for the police most certainly would be in attendance, eager for clues to what had happened at the clinic. When they discovered the bodies inside the burnt out remnants of the place, they’d be even more anxious to talk with Sister Hisa’s lone tenant. There was also the possibility that whoever had come after him at the clinic would also be waiting for him to show up at the hospital.

He shuddered, assaulted again by the image of Sister Hisa’s bullet torn figure, of how light her body had been and how deathly still. His fault. His Goddamned fault for bringing trouble to her doorstep. Aya had told him, had tried to distance himself so this very thing wouldn’t happen and Yoji had pursued, drawn by the sure knowledge that Aya was the key to his past. Well, he was, but that past was strife with violence and death and pain, no small part of which had been caused by Aya himself.

He had the gun in his pocket. Its solid weight gently thumped against his leg as he walked. How many rounds left? He couldn’t pull gun or clips out to check walking down the sidewalk. The clip in the gun had been a full one, he thought and he hadn’t emptied it. He was not without protection. He almost wished somebody would show up. He felt a surge of bloodthirstiness that had nothing to do with the knowledge that he was uniquely equipped to carry it out. It came from one more innocent hurt because of him and himself helpless to do anything about it. He almost wished the past had stayed buried, if it was going to bring recrimination with it. Amnesia had its benefits.

The hospital was a definite danger, so his only other option was the hotel where Aya and Ken were and to hell with their worries over their new teammate catching site of him. To hell with whatever it was that Aya had been so desperate to protect. It wasn’t as if Aya had held him in much consideration the year before all of this had happened. If Aya was trying to make up for past guilt, then it wasn’t Yoji’s place to make it any easier on him . . . only . . .

. . . Only Aya had gone out of his way to protect him and Aya hadn’t been able to maintain the icy aloofness that might have driven Yoji away, that had driven him away damned efficiently in the past . . the past . . . the past . . . and Aya had been as desperate as he during that little mutual jerk off in the hotel room. Maybe more so. And Aya was hurt and that was Yoji’s fault too, because without Yoji’s presence Aya would have followed procedure and called in his team and taken the Reaper down with a group of operatives that actually all knew what they were doing.

He didn’t have enough money for a taxi, but he had the spare change to hitch a ride on a bus that took him across town to the more prosperous section where Aya’s hotel was. The twenty minute ride was his undoing. By the time his stop came round his body had had the time to come to the realization that it had been caught in the outer fringes of a none too small explosion. Getting up was an effort. He climbed down onto the street like an old man, and looked with dismay at the distance yet to walk to the hotel. He had a sudden appreciation and respect for Aya’s stubborn endurance. If Aya could walk in the miserable shape he’d been in, then Yoji damn sure would as well. He squared his shoulders and started the walk, making the hotel lobby and bypassing the desk clerks and bellboys, who cast wary, disdainful glances his way, confirming the fact that he looked like warmed over hell.

Up the elevator to Aya’s floor, but when he got to the room the door was open and housekeeping busily cleaning the room. There was no sign of suitcase or habitation.

“They checked out?” he asked of the maid, who nodded affirmatively. He felt the world lurch under him and stood out in the hall a few precious moments, shoulder to the wall trying to digest the fact that Aya and Ken were gone. He made it outside before he had to sit down, legs giving out on a stone wall containing a garden outside the hotel. It took a few moments to force his mind out of the rut Aya’s departure had lodged it in.

What to do now? No money, everything he owned up in flames, his friends either gravely injured or missing and various unknown parties out for his life. It was enough to make a man scramble after dwindling composure.

His pocket vibrated with the ringing of the cell phone. His hearing still wasn’t completely back, but it was sound enough to hear Ken’s anxious voice when he answered.

“Yoji? What happened? You okay?”

Yoji shut his eyes, struck silent in a moment of profound relief.

“Yeah.” He finally said. “Where are you?”

“We moved.”

“No fucking shit. I’m at the hotel.”

“What happened? You said somebody came after you?”

“Yeah. At the clinic not long after I got home. Maybe followed me from the club. Maybe followed you guys too.”

“If they did, they’re off our tail now. If not . . . let ’em come. You okay? You sound shaky.”

“Yeah. No. The woman I was renting the room from was hurt. Bad. I’m afraid to go to the hospital to see. Ken-ken, we still have any contacts here that can maybe send a little protection her way? She was collateral damage, but I can’t trust that whoever did this won’t want to finish her off just on principal. If it was yakuza or the like backing the Reaper they won’t leave witnesses.”

Ken hesitated, and Yoji could just see him frowning in concentration at the other end of the line. Then. “Let me make a call. You know your anonymity will be shot to hell after this.”

“Fuck Anonymity. I’m sick to death of it. Just do it. How’s Aya?”

“Out. We got a doctor in to look at him. Just left in fact. Stitched up his shoulder, shot him full of drugs. Would have rather had him in a hospital, but said he probably wouldn’t die from waiting a few days.”

“Probably . . .?”

“You know doctors. He’ll be okay. You stay put, I’m coming to pick you up.”

There was no arguing that. Yoji quietly agreed and flipped the phone shut, wondering if he ought to drag his sorry ass back into the lobby or stay out here. He chose the latter, retreating to a stone bench within the shelter of the hotel garden, out of the path of increasing pedestrian traffic and easy view from the street.

Twenty-five minutes later Ken pulled up in a nondescript silver Nissan and Yoji forced his stiffening muscles into gear, getting up with a groan and easing himself into the passenger side.

“You look like hell.” Ken said, pulling away from the curb almost before Yoji had the door closed.

“Thanks. You make that call?”

“Yeah. Somebody’s on it.”


Ken slanted him a look. “Do you really want to know?”

“Maybe. No. Not really. As long as the job gets done.” He took a long breath, sinking into the seat, trying to pretend his back wasn’t one big bruise and that his head wasn’t starting to shriek with the high pitched pain of an ear ache.



“You really do look like shit.”

He snorted miserably. “I was a little too close to the clinic when they blew it up.”

“Are you sure it had to do with the Reaper thing? You have any other enemies?”

“That come wielding automatic weapons and explosives? Those’re Kudoh Yoji’s problems, not Ikeda Yoji’s.” He pressed the palms of his hands over his eyes. “The last person I really pissed off was a drunken wife beater, not a yakuza hitman.”

“You remember the difference?” Ken asked trying to sound idle and failing. Ken was not that good at subterfuge. Not that Yoji was. Not that he felt the need to deny what Ken was hinting at. There were gaping holes, but his life was coming back to him, piece by agonizing piece.

“Yeah. I remember the difference. I almost wish I didn’t.”

Ken was silent for a while, eyes on the road, weeding into the increasing traffic of early morning rush hour. Yoji’s mental faculties weren’t spry enough, at the moment to keep track of where they were going. The road flashed by in a blur while Yoji tried to cope with the merging of the here and now and the then.

“Where’s Omi?” He finally asked. Neither Aya or Ken had spoken of him. Omi’s absence seemed an important omission considering he was damn certain he’d seen the kid at the hospital.

Ken’s mouth tightened, his fingers squeezing on the wheel. “In Japan.”

Ken was irritated and not going to a lot of effort to hide it, which baffled Yoji. “Is he okay?” he asked warily.

“He’s fine. He’s just fine.” Ken said shortly and apparently had no intention of saying more. Yoji didn’t have the energy to press the issue.

Eventually Ken turned into a drive on a residential street. One of many lower middle class houses, crowded close together in the suburbs just outside of the city. There was a low stone wall around the closet sized front yard and a dry pond surrounded by long dead plants.

A safe house, which probably hadn’t seen occupancy in a very long time, till their coming. There was a stranger leaning in the open doorway that he didn’t recognize. Which in and of itself meant nothing to a man in the midst of recovering from a long bout of amnesia, but this man stirred not even the faintest hint of remembrance and Yoji had the feeling that the unfamiliarity was real and not injury induced. Tall and rawboned, with hair that was more silver than prematurely gray. Narrow eyes and slanted brows on a long face that hinted at European descent. The facial tattoos hinted at other things, more eccentric in nature. The expression didn’t alter when Ken tromped up the steps and beckoned Yoji to follow, the dark eyes simply accessing him and giving away nothing of what this man thought.

Ken nodded in passing, hesitating a little as if uncertain if an introduction to Yoji would be in anyone’s best interest. Finally he must have decided that confusion would benefit no one and said.

“Yoji. Free. Free. Yoji.”

Free arched a brow and that was that, until in passing, as Ken urged Yoji into the house, the man lifted his hand and flipped one card over from the oversized deck in his hand.

“Akaza.” He said idly, the garish image of a painted crone on a tarot card stared up at Yoji from Free’s palm. “The ten of swords. Reversed.”

Yoji stopped, blinking and Ken rolled his eyes in annoyance. “Not now, Free.”

“What does that mean.” Yoji felt a vague little tingle of superstition.

The straight slash of Free’s brow lifted. “A great many things. Suffering. Transformation. Defeat. Victory.”

Bullshit.” Ken said, pulling Yoji into the dim house. “And don’t get him started.”

It was a small house, with a simple main room that housed kitchen, dining room and living area. There were two doorways on the back wall, leading to what Yoji assumed to be bedrooms.

“There’s a bathroom where you can clean yourself up between the two bedrooms.” Ken said. “Doctor left some gauze and ointment and stuff. You need any help?”

Yoji shook his head, slipping into the darkened bedroom on the right while Ken went back to the door and exchanged low words with Free. The drawn shades didn’t fail to hide the silhouette on the bed. Aya, lying very still, curled on his side, hair a smear of darkness against the shadowed white of the pillow, face turned to the wall and covered by the back of one lax hand. Yoji was torn between the lure of the bath and checking out the extent of his own injuries and approaching the low bed. He just needed to touch Aya’s skin to make sure it was warm and vibrant with life.

There. He shut his eyes with relief as his fingertips touched the curve of Aya’s shoulder, feeling the warmth of skin and the subtle movement of breath.

He went to the bath, discarding the jacket and hanging it on a hook on the back of the door. He wet a wash rag and wiped the dried blood from his earlobe and the corner of his jaw. Hearing was mostly back, but that ear was still throbbing, compliment of broken blood vessels and an abused drum. He lifted his shirt and turned around, looking at his back over his shoulder in the mirror. God. Dozens of little bruises dotted his skin, the result of being pelted by flying debris that he hadn’t even really felt at the time. He was lucky nothing larger than chips had hit, or he would have never made it out of that alley. Hell, he was lucky even one of the little one’s hadn’t hit his head, for even a small chunk of brick flung at explosive speed might have cracked a skull.

He wiped away a few trickles of dried blood, but there was nothing major and nothing that hadn’t already started scabbing over on its own. He’d been more tenderized than lacerated and that was something that he was just going to have live with until time faded the bruises and loosened stiff, protesting muscles.

“Yoji?” Ken was at the bathroom door leading to the other room, a frown between his eyes, the cell phone in his hand. Yoji made his feet move, not wanting to really hear whatever had prompted that look on Ken’s face.

“My contact has arranged to have someone at the hospital – – but – – I’m sorry, but the word is really bad about your friend. They’re not sure if she’ll pull through.”

“God.” A little tingle of pain started in his belly and leeched up towards his chest. “I should be there. This is my fault.”

“You can’t be there right now.” Ken said softly. “There’re cops all over the place.

Which he knew, but Ken’s confirmation didn’t make the urge any less, nor the guilt of not being there to see the outcome of something he’d brought down upon Sister Hisa’s head. She deserved that much of him. It must have shown on his face, that urge to run right back into jeopardy, because Ken caught his arms, fingers squeezing into his elbows.

“Yoji, you can’t. If anything changes someone will let us know. Okay? Just go sit down before you fall down and be patient.”

It took an effort of will to nod agreement to that. An effort to keep his teeth from chattering in front of Ken. He clenched his jaw and went into the darkened room where Aya was. There was a chair with various pieces of clothing tossed haphazardly upon it, which meant Aya had had nothing to do with the placement. Aya didn’t toss clothing around when there were perfectly good hangers or drawers available. Aya could take neatness to the point of absurdity sometimes – – but that was just one of Aya’s little obsessive compulsive whimsies. Just one of all the old facts that were newly crowding Yoji’s head. It was a fond one, annoyance at getting bitched at a hundred times for wrinkled clothing and cluttered messes aside.

He sat down in the chair, not bothering to remove the clothing. Ken followed him through the bathroom.

“Just rest, Yoji. There’s nothing else to do until we find out something.” Ken said and pulled the bedroom door closed behind him, plunging the room into deeper shadow. Yoji shut his eyes and saw blood. Imagined wounds that he hadn’t really gotten a good look at. Imagined one more still lifeless body on a table in the morgue because of him.

“Yoji . . . .?”

He started a little, not expecting Aya’s voice. It took him second to answer without his words trembling.

“Hey. You’re awake.”

“Wha’re you doing?” Aya’s speech was hoarse and a little slurred with sleep or pain killers.

“Sitting. Just . . . sitting here.” In the dark, wishing he were elsewhere. Wishing . . . so many things that were just not going to come true.

“. . . . here?” Aya murmured. “You aren’t supposed to . . .”

Aya didn’t know. He hadn’t been awake when Yoji had called Ken and Ken hadn’t woken him to let him know.

“When I got home . . . I was followed, I guess. From the club. They destroyed the clinic . . . shot Sister Hisa. You were right . . . I should have kept my nose out of it and she’d be okay now. One more fuckup in a long line, huh?”

There was silence from the bed. A quiet stillness that made Yoji think that Aya had drifted back to sleep. But after a bit the sheets rustled and Aya’s arm snuck out, beckoning.

“C’mere.” A soft order/question/plea. Yoji didn’t hesitate longer than it took to push his aching body out of the chair, going down on one knee to the low mattress, trying to be gentle about it and not jostle Aya who’s bruises no doubt went deeper than his own. But Aya rolled a little towards him regardless, maybe a purposeful movement and Yoji had to juggle positioning to find a equitable arrangement for his own sore body as well Aya’s. He lay very still afterwards, with Aya’s head against his shoulder and Aya’s very warm body close enough that it began to take the chill off his own. Aya seemed content with that and settled back into silence. Yoji stared at the ceiling, trying to settle his breathing, trying to keep his hands from shaking and his eyes from leaking wetness. Easier to think about the last time he’d lain with Aya, before things had quite gone to hell. He tried to recall the time before that – – a very long time ago after things had gone sour between them. It hadn’t been particularly gentle, nor satisfying considering the blood and the bruises and he’d left soon after in that final separation of Weiss . . . .

Yoji shook his head, clearing it of unwelcome memories, and the questions they brought with them. If they had parted so damned badly, why in hell was Aya welcoming him now? He shuddered and it ate through his body like sickness, bringing the fear and the uncertainty, the grief and the guilt in a wave with it. Another incarnation of himself destroyed. How many lives could a man have in one short lifetime and lose? How many casualties could he leave behind and still stay sane?

Aya’s arm slid around his ribs, urging him closer and Yoji turned into the embrace, pressing his face into Aya’s hair, quietly shedding tears here in the darkness that he would have been ashamed to show during the light of day.

Aya woke groggy and sore. He lay for a while, commiserating with the pain that seemed to permeate arms, legs, torso, head – – everything hurt. For a while his mind was simply concerned with that rather than the cause of those varied pains and he was content, if not uncomfortable, lying there in the pitch dark of the room on a mattress that was a little too soft for his tastes. Of course eventually, as his mind cleared, he remembered how so much of this pain had been delivered and the marginal tranquillity was broken. Better to push it from his thoughts and if his mind insisted on dwelling on it at least he could be content to recall the satisfying thunk of the bullet splitting the Reaper’s skull. Emptying the gun into him had been as therapeutic an experience as Aya could easily remember.

He became aware of Yoji by degrees. First the realization of the weight dipping the mattress beside him, then of the faint press of cool skin against his arm, of soft, even breathing. He started a little, unnerved by waking up next to a body in the dark, but then he caught the faint scent that was uniquely Yoji and relaxed. It took a few moments more for him to remember that Yoji was not supposed to be here. That he’d sent Yoji very purposefully away for his own protection.

Annoyance was easier felt that displayed. The act of lifting an arm to shake at Yoji’s shoulder proved a painful challenge. All the injury and abuse his body had taken over the last days had finally reached the point that it overwhelmed even Aya’s stubborn insistence at ignoring it. Whatever had been in that last unwanted shot the doctor had given him might also have had something to do with the leadenness of his limbs. He’d certainly slept long and hard if the darkness outside the drawn shades was any indication.

“Yoji.” He finally whispered, in place of shaking the other awake. And again when Yoji didn’t respond. Finally Yoji murmured something and shifted, turning towards Aya with a grunt and resettling with his hand across Aya’s chest and one leg edging over his thigh. That was the extent of wakefulness he got out of Yoji, but his own alertness was too elusive to allow energetic pursuit of chastisement and he soon sank back under the influence of fading painkillers and weakened body.

He came back up again to light in his eyes and more aches than he’d remembered upon that first awakening. A good indication that the painkillers had run their course. He was alone in a bed striped by sunlight seeping in through the closed panels of the shades. In each band of light a thousand dust motes danced and for a while he lay blinking at the spectacle, mind clotted with sleep.

There were voices from the outer room. Low murmurs at first then a burst of louder words from a tone that sounded like Ken. Aya couldn’t hear the words through the thin wood of the door and he didn’t have the energy at the moment to particularly care. He was thirsty and needed to pee, which driving force made him contemplate swinging his legs over the edge of the bed and going for the bathroom. He got as far as sitting up, feet on the cold wood floor, before the stamina to do more deserted him. He was sitting there bent over his knees when the door opened and Ken came in.

“Hey, you’re awake.”

Aya looked up from under his lashes at Ken’s brilliant observation. Free strolled up and lingered in the doorway behind Ken. Aya only faintly recalled Free’s arrival . . . yesterday? He’d been in and out of consciousness even before the painkillers.

“A card is not even required to foretell the shit you’re in, Fujimiya.” Free said dryly. No hint of accusation, just simple statement.

Aya hardly had the chance to summon a glare before Ken whirled and stabbed a finger under Free’s unconcerned nose.

“I told you to lay off him!! Why is it that everygodamnedbody has to get the last word in?”

Free simply shrugged and backed off, unimpressed by Ken’s overprotectiveness.

“Was . . . Yoji here?” Aya had to ask, not quite certain it hadn’t been a dream.

“Still is.” Ken frowned. “Out back taking a smoke. Upset. Really upset.”

Obviously ascertaining what Aya had been attempting to do, Ken moved forward and held out a hand.

“Why?” Aya allowed himself to be pulled up and was grateful for Ken’s hand on his arm while the room spun around him.

“Somebody tried to take him out.” Ken said, after Aya had regained some semblance of balance. “The Reaper’s underworld backers most likely. There’s a lot of shit going on right now and a lot of pissed off people. You need a hand . . . you know?”

Aya glared indignantly over his shoulder and shut the bathroom door in Ken’s face, using the counter to keep his balance as he made it over to the toilet. Someone had kindly left the seat up, so it was just a matter of not falling down while he drained his bladder. He turned the water on in the sink afterwards, rinsing his hands, then cupping water into his mouth. His hands were barely adequate for the task, trembling so badly that he could hardly get them to his mouth without loosing precious liquid. He leaned there, shutting his eyes, trying to will the shudders away.

He half remembered Yoji telling him something about the clinic last night. Half remembered Yoji’s distress . . .

“Aya, you okay in there?”

He didn’t respond immediately and the door knob turned, Ken poking his head in regardless of privacy. “You hungry?”

No, but the thirst was overwhelming. Ken urged him out, pattering on about catching a chill, even though Aya was sweltering hot. Yoji showed up in the doorway as Ken was trying to convince Aya that it wasn’t 90 degrees inside the house and Ken sighed, obviously glad to have backup, and beckoned him over.

“Could you deal with him. I’m going to put some water on for tea and he doesn’t think he’s sick.”

Yoji didn’t say a thing, just inclined his head a little before moving towards Aya. He looked pallid and weary. There were a few small bruises on his face and larger ones on his arms that Aya hadn’t noticed before the club.

“C’mon.” Yoji held up a robe that looked suspiciously like one from the hotel. “You’re hot because you’ve got a fever. Don’t make it worse. Put it on.”

Aya submitted, but only because Yoji looked too depressed to fight with.

“Do you want to go back to bed or sit in the other room?”

“Sit.” Aya said, not eager to return to sweat dampened sheets. He was walking a little better. The room was not spinning at the rapid rate it had when he’d first gotten up. It only tilted on occasion, though it felt as if the gravity had been doubled somewhere along the way.

Free was at the small dining room table, idly shuffling his cards. He hardly looked up at all at their appearance, though his eyes did subtly follow Yoji after Aya had settled in the one arm chair and Yoji went to the small kitchenette to help Ken with the tea.

It made Aya’s hackles rise, that quiet observation. Yoji had come because he hadn’t had a choice and now he was compromised. Aya had asked Ken not to reveal who he was, but honestly, it was only a matter of time before they figured it out, if they already didn’t know. Maybe Ken had had to tell Free to explain away Yoji’s presence and their eagerness to compromise themselves for his benefit. He was missing a day and there were a great many things that could have happened in that time.

Ken came back with the tea, scalding his fingers as the green liquid splashed over the side of the chipped mug. Aya took it gingerly in both hands, watching Yoji in the kitchen ruining his own tea with a spoonful of sugar. He oughtn’t be surprised, after living in England for close to a year, at the things people could do to spoil a perfectly good cup of tea. Yoji came in and sat down on the couch next to Ken without a word, distinctly staring at nothing.

“What happened?” Aya asked quietly, because this was not the Yoji of two days ago, not the content, well-adjusted one who’d started a new life, but more a withdrawn, miserable one whom Aya had seen far too much of during the bad spells of Weiss.

Yoji cast him a glance, took a breath, then shook his head, as if the words just wouldn’t come. Ken spoke up for him.

“His friend from the clinic . . . she’s bad off. On life-support. They’re not sure she’s going to wake up.”

Oh. If Yoji had mentioned that, Aya couldn’t remember it. And of course, Yoji would shoulder all the blame for it, he couldn’t help it, being Yoji.

“I’m sorry.”

Yoji’s green eyes flickered to him again, a little less pain there and little more irony as if he wanted to say something that was not quite a ‘thank you’.

Aya couldn’t fathom the expression, but it worried him.

The ringer on Free’s phone broke the heavy silence. Ken flinched, frowning, wary of phone calls and what they might bring. Free rose fluidly, going for the door with the clear intention of taking the call outside and in privacy. Whether that privacy was designed to exclude Aya as well as Yoji, was a viable question. Richard Krypton and Mihirogi could not have been well pleased with his actions over the course of the last week.

“Aya,” Ken said urgently, casting a wary glance at the door that Free had disappeared through. “they want us out of Japan as soon as you can make the flight. Our – – connections – – here want us out. They’re trying to keep a lid on the problem, but your likeness is all over the place and not just from the umm . . live feed . . . and we think maybe Yoji’s and mine too. There must have been surveillance camera’s. We just made the top of the Yakuza’s hit list for this month. It’s just a matter of whether you can take a long flight.”

That most certainly wasn’t good and honestly Aya thought it deserved more concern, but he was having a hard time wrapping his mind around it past the fuzz in his head and the unrelenting ache of his body.

“He’ll have to make it.” Free walked back in. “We’ve got a flight out this afternoon. Your Takatori contacts were kind enough to smooth the way. There will be no problem with customs or passports, should your friend wish to wisely depart the country for a while.”

“Yeah, Yoji, you don’t have much of a choice here. You can come with us to England. I know your English was never that great, but neither was mine and I picked it up pretty quickly and . . .”

Aya felt a queasiness that had nothing to do with the fever as he listened to Ken ramble on. He’d tried so hard to keep this from happening, to protect the peaceful world that Yoji had made for himself. Yoji had left the dark world of assassination and espionage behind him and he deserved the chance to keep it that way.

“No.” Yoji finally said, cutting Ken off. “I have things to do. To take care of. I can’t leave.”

“Dude, are you insane?” Ken said in disbelief. “You’re on a freakin’ Yakuza hit list. They’ve got your picture.”

“I can deal with Yakuza thugs. I just have . . . business to take care of.”

There was something else in Yoji’s eyes that hadn’t been there a few days ago. A coldness. A weary acceptance of life and death that only came from a great deal of experience of both.

“You remember.” Aya whispered, shaken to the core. A terror sweeping over him that had nothing to do with Yoji’s safety and everything to do with the precarious shell of Aya’s conscience.

Yoji met his eyes, solemn and serious and full of knowledge. “Yeah. A lot more than I did, at any rate.”

Of course, it was bound to happen. No way to stop it really, to block out the unsavory things that Aya might rather Yoji didn’t recall. The mistakes that Aya had made because he’d thought he was doing what was best for all of them. Because he’d been scared and it had been easier to take it out on Yoji than face the root of the fears.

How did he say it was a mistake? How did he express that it had taken Yoji’s death to make him realize that nothing was so important to him as Yoji’s life? He couldn’t. Not then, sitting huddled in physical misery in a lumpy chair in a safe house in north Kyoto.

The world narrowed down to a tight, one dimensional shaft of sight and the only concept that managed to get through was the one that Yoji would rather stay in Japan under fire from Yakuza guns than travel to safety in his company. It was only fair. It was only just. Almost three years ago Aya had felt a dull sense of triumph when he’d achieved just that goal. He’d been much better then at lying to himself and blocking out the hurt and the longing and the guilt. Colder maybe, because the job then had required it more so than the one he had now.

But even had he been whole and well he could not have found the words to express the simple fact that his judgment had been in error and that he was sorry for it. It was just so much easier to sit there and half listen to Ken’s arguments and Yoji’s quiet refusal and not say anything at all.