Yoji left without preamble. Oh, he spoke to Ken out in the tiny yard, about things that Aya could only surmise and they came back in with Ken frowning and not happy and Yoji frowning and determined. Ken gave Yoji two extra clips of ammunition, which Yoji grimly took and stuck in the pocket of his jacket before mulling about uncertainly for a few brief moments, as if he were trying to work up the courage for something but couldn’t quite manage it. He met Aya’s eyes briefly, maybe even a little expectantly and Aya couldn’t bring himself to utter a word. Nothing came to mind past the tumble of apprehension and guilt and fear. He had never been the one to offer apologies or excuses or the extension of peace. He’d only ever allowed his pride to bend after Yoji had gone to the trouble of shattering his own.
But there was no give on Yoji’s part now and Yoji turned with a nod at Ken and a last flickering glance at Aya and walked out of the house. Just like that. Gone.
It felt vaguely like a wound had opened somewhere on his body and all the blood was draining out of him, leaving him cold and empty and hollow. He heard the words of Free, calmly arguing the wisdom of letting Yoji just walk out, knowing what he knew of them and heard Ken get defensive and loud in reply. Aya tuned them out, curled on the low bed wishing of a sudden for more of the drug the doctor had given him the day before, that had effectively drowned out pain and consciousness. Oblivion would not be a bad thing.
He was not in the best of moods when it was time to leave the safehouse for the airport. He said things that were less than pleasant, striking out at victims at hand when the real source of pain was far beyond his reach. Free simply lifted a brow, unconcerned as always, while Ken looked hurt and a little offended, which on any other day might have triggered some small bit of remorse on Aya’s part. He didn’t have the strength today to regret it.
The ride to the airport was torturous and once there, after they’d gotten through customs and taken a airport trolley to their departure area, Ken offered up the bottle of painkillers and a bottle of water and suggested Aya partake. He’d wanted the pills a few hours past, but now found it oddly satisfying in a martyr-like sort of way to glare at Ken and his offering and refuse it. It was spite, pure and simple. Spite towards the world. Spite towards himself. It was sheer folly. Thirty minutes on the hard airport seat and he wanted to die. He was sweating and so lightheaded he thought he might faint right there in the terminal by the time the flight started boarding.
He wavered in that tight line of bodies shuffling step by slow step down the cramped aisle onto the plane. Free caught him under the elbow and Ken got a hasty arm around his waist, thrusting their combined boarding passes at the stewardess and claiming Aya to be recently recovering from surgery to relieve her fears of contagious sicknesses or drug induced stupor.
Someone had splurged. They had first class seats, which boon Aya could only thank God for, once it occurred to him that he might have spent the flight crowded in coach. Surviving that intact in his current condition might have been a chancy thing. He found himself instead seated in the not too unbearable comfort of a wider, better padded airplane seat, between Ken who had the window seat and Free on the aisle. Ken pulled out the bottle of water again from his backpack and extended two white pills.
“If you don’t take the friggin’ pills, I swear I’m gonna stuff them down your throat, Aya.”
“I’ll help.” Free offered, a very slight curve to his lips, but his eyes were otherwise unreadable.
Threatening retaliation if they attempted it seemed petty, regardless of how much he wanted to snap something back at them. Refusing out of stubbornness or more likely he admitted grudgingly to himself, some twisted need for punishment defied all reason.
He plucked the pills from Ken’s palm and placed them in his mouth, washing them down with two gulps of room temperature water. They still left a powdery, aspirin-like taste in his mouth that didn’t really go away until the properties of the pills kicked in, helping numb the permeating ache in his body. The numbness brought lethargy with it and as soon as the plane was in flight he let the seat back the marginal amount it was able and dropped into a doze.
He remembered nothing of the flight and very little of the trip home, save for the scattered awareness of a female voice talking in hushed tones with an array of male ones. Mihirogi had been waiting to pick them up then. It must have been a disappointment to her that he wasn’t aware enough to complain to over his actions during this mission.
He got home somehow. Home? Well, at least to the place he’d lived off and on for almost the last year and half of his life. A flat on the second floor of a brownstone next door to the shop that served as a cover for the comings and goings of Krypton Brand. They owned the buildings flanking each side of the florist – – or Richard Krypton did – – wisely deducing that the covert activities that went on during off hours did not need the scrutiny of close neighbors. Which meant that there were an array of empty living spaces to choose from and a degree of privacy of having a floor all to one’s self. The building was old and drafty, but the ceilings were gloriously high and the windows tall and arched at the tops, letting in sunlight on clear mornings that chased away the chill.
Someone, hopefully Ken and not Mihirogi, had gotten him undressed and into bed, turning up the heat and pulling the shades to keep the sun from striping the bed and breaking into the sleep his body needed to recoup from the trauma it had taken.
He had no idea how long that sleep had lasted, but his mouth was stale and dry and his limbs sore and stiff when he woke and tried to stretch. A little of the bone deep ache had faded and he didn’t feel the exhaustive,
dizzying touch of high fever. The most agitating hurt was the dull ache of his shoulder and the equally irritating itch that taunted him under the bandages. He’d always been a quick healer if given half the chance, it was only when one injury was taken atop another and another that he had trouble rallying.
He pushed himself up, finding it easier than the last time he’d tried. His head only spun a little, not enough to keep him from getting to his feet and heading towards the necessity of the bathroom. He felt grimy and he hated the feel of hair gone too long without a proper washing. His capacity for the growth of facial hair was sporadic at best, but he had a fair shadow of stubble along his jaw that needed removal. He paused in the contemplation of it, fingers frozen on his jaw, staring into the mirror at the nasty circle of scabbing over his wrist. A little fisting of pressure closed around his heart, stifling breath as memory of how that flesh had been torn flashed through his mind.
He’d been holding back the memory, refusing to think about those hours spent in the Reaper’s care for long enough now that when it came upon him unawares, it was like a physical blow. He forced himself to stare at the colorful array of blemishes on his body, the heavy dark imprint of boot tips against his side and the tender feel of no doubt fractured ribs beneath. The bruises on his chest, circling normally pale nipples. Faint discoloring around the edges of his mouth and jawline from the gag . . . other hurts that were fading reminders. Stare at them and admit they were there and get over it. There was no other choice in the matter. No other way to look at this than as one more sacrifice made in the line of duty. The job had gotten done and no price was too high to pay to have the Reaper out of business permanently.
Aya took a breath and turned away from the brutal honesty the mirror demanded. If he was going to attempt the shower, he’d need clean towels. He felt like an old man besieged with arthritis making his slow progress across the bedroom. He took health and strength and grace so for granted that when it was gone, it was frustrating and he hated it.
The totality of his personal belongings were categorized and stored in one large, Spartan shelving system on the wall opposite the bed. He had never gone to the trouble of buying furniture, never sure if this week would be the last one spent here, but the elegant simplicity of the polished wooden shelving had appealed to him. No drawers, just open cubbies of varying sizes to accommodate various things. He froze in the process of pulling out towels as the sound of radio music wafted through the closed bedroom door. For a second instinct kicked in and he started to go for the sheathed katana neatly stored in a tall cubby behind crisply pressed hanging shirts, then it occurred to him that an unwelcome intruder would hardly stop to turn on the radio by which to carry out his nefarious deeds. Aya took a calming breath and reached for a robe instead.
Upon opening his bedroom door the smell of steeping tea reached him. Yuki looked up from the bar that served to separate kitchen from the single large room that doubled as dining and living area. Yuki was young and Japanese and obviously very happy to see him up and about from the wide smile that split his face. He wasn’t the youngest member of Krypton Brand, but he was the one Aya felt the most responsibility towards, his association with the group being primary a result of association with Aya. It didn’t mean he was particularly happy to see him in his kitchen.
“What are you doing here.” He asked bluntly, one hand on the edge of the door the other on the frame of it. Yuki’s smile faltered just a little. He was in the process of spilling tea on Aya’s pristine countertop, though honestly the spilling might have resulted from Aya’s sudden appearance and subsequent query.
“Aya – – you’re awake. Should you be up?”
The question grated. Aya narrowed his eyes and repeated his own.
“We didn’t want you left alone.” Yuki blanched, squirming a little under Aya’s displeasure, suddenly looking as if he’d been caught stealing when in all honestly he was only following someone’s orders. “Ken was here, but he was so tired that he had to go home and get a few hours sleep. He said he’d be back.”
“He said you’d be upset.” Yuki ventured and Aya lifted a brow at Ken’s prediction. “And that you’d probably bite my head off.” That last was said with a sixteen year old’s naive optimism that just such a thing wouldn’t happen. Aya took a breath and relented.
“There are Tylenol in the cabinet. Would you get me two?”
Yuki’s face brightened a little. “Ken said that you could have the stronger stuff.” He gestured to an array of new prescription drug containers on the breakfast bar. Aya had had his fill of being drugged to oblivion. With no dreadfully long flight to endure, he had no intention of allowing himself such vulnerability.
“Tylenol.” He said. Yuki brought them over with a cup of the tea. Aya downed them and a quarter of the cup of the warm brew, then handed the cup back, intent upon pursuing the shower.
“Do you need anything else?” Yuki asked hopefully.
“No. Just a shower.” He gathered his clean towels and something more substantial to wear afterwards than a silk robe. Yuki looked like he wanted to follow him about. Aya gave him a warning look and the boy stopped uncertainly.
“Ken said that you weren’t to move around . . . not if you could help it. He said you needed to stay in bed.”
“I’m taking a shower.”
“Okay.” Yuki agreed. “You look a little shaky. Will you be okay?”
Aya opened his mouth, then stopped himself from saying something truly nasty. It was not Yuki’s fault he felt like warmed over death. It was not Yuki’s fault that his hands were shaking or that his knees felt weak after being on his feet for less than ten minutes. It abruptly occurred to Aya to wonder if Yuki had seen any of the Reaper’s live feed. He shuddered, vision going a little out of focus as the impact of that thought hit fully,. Please no. Please let someone have chased Yuki and Michel away when those images had come on. It was bad enough that the older members of KB might have seen, but the two teenagers . . . it was too shameful to contemplate.
He made for the bathroom and shut the door with his elbow, dumping towels and clothing on the sink, then leaning there while he forced his breathing back to normal.
He showered. He shaved and only nicked himself once in the process. He felt almost human when he left the warm, steamy air of the bathroom. Human and exhausted. He didn’t want company. He wished Yuki wasn’t there. He wished for complete solitude in which to lick his wounds and wallow in his pain. But if wishes were horses . . . he bit his lip and stopped that thought short. He’d picked that saying up a long time ago from Yoji, just one of a hundred little influences that Yoji had worked upon him. One of a hundred things to regret/cherish/bemoan.
Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. He rebuked himself, desperate to get the walls back up that would block out the emotional turmoil. The physical pain he could deal with. He was equipped for that in a way that he was not for the hurt that ate at him from the inside. He had always been so much better at bricking grief inside a tomb of his own making than dealing with it. And Yoji had always been the only one that could knock down those walls and make Aya admit things that he otherwise would have denied until the day he died. Wasn’t that one of the reasons he’d broken Yoji’s heart? Because Yoji made him vulnerable and vulnerability wasn’t a trait that a man in his line of profession could afford to have. Because Fujimiya Aya couldn’t tolerate that sort of weakness . . .
It was almost a relief when Yuki’s soft knock on the door broke the cycle of his thoughts. He stared, glum and silent as the boy hesitated, a fresh cup of steaming tea in his hands, a questioning look on his young face.
“I thought you might want a little more?”
“Thank you. Sit it down by the bed, please.” Yuki did so and stood there hesitantly afterwards looking like he wanted to say more. To ask questions and assure himself that everything was all right.
“Thank you.” Aya inclined his head politely, the hollow hopelessness that seemed to be coming and going like the tide swelling up inside him again. “Please shut the door on your way out, Yuki.”
The boy nodded, shuffling for the door, knowing better than to insist on something that Aya had no intention of offering. Convenient that it was Yuki instead of Ken. Ken would not have left so easily.
Aya settled back onto the bed, reaching for the tea after a while, sipping it without really tasting the flavor. Weariness came over him, heavy and undeniable and he put the cup down on the floor by the bed and shut his eyes, surrendering to it.
He was chastised over his deviation from protocol, but not to the extent that he’d been expecting. Ken had been taken to task first, long before Aya was well enough to make the drive to Richard Krypton’s country castle, and had apparently explained away a good deal of the incident. They understood the bond that Weiss had held for each other. Having adopted two of its members into their own operation they were willing to forgive Aya and Ken’s rash actions upon the discovery of a third. Or maybe it was it was simply unexpected pity for the hell he’d been put through via the conduit of his own mistakes and they figured he’d been allotted punishment enough and anyone that doubted the logic of that only had to look at the recording of the incident that KB no doubt still had on file.
Whether it was for punishment or recuperation, Aya was given a full month of leave from any sort of covert KB operation. It was just as well, for his interest in detail was gravely lacking. He hadn’t even the impetus to wonder down to the shop and partake of the soothing relaxation of flower design. He certainly avoided the company of his team mates and the way they treaded so very carefully around him. Even Ken tired of trying to draw him out of his self imposed shell, having been snarled and snapped at one too many times in his efforts. Ken’s disposition had never ran to placid acceptance of bad temper and his final shouted remark one day as Aya’s aloofness chased him from the flat was that Aya if Aya wanted to mourn, he at least ought to find a proper corpse.
It hadn’t occurred to Aya that he was. Not until he thought about it and grudgingly enough accepted that perhaps this was not an unfamiliar phase. That perhaps he had wallowed in similar states in the past. Too many times. He was mourning Yoji’s dismissal of him as if it were a second death and there was little enough reason for it. Rational reason at any rate. He had stopped being rational about Yoji the day he’d first thought he’d died in the rubble of Kou Academy. He wondered idly, sitting on the ancient metal radiator by the tall window next to his bed, staring out at the slow moving traffic on the street below, if this was how Yoji had felt when Aya had cut himself off from him. Lost and gutted and betrayed.
Common sense said that it wasn’t simply the Yoji-mess that had him so twisted up inside. No matter how much he might tell himself that what had happened to him at the hands of the Reaper was nothing more than a job related misfortune and not to be taken personally, it was no easy task to wash away the filth of those memories. He dreamed about that at night with as much frequency as he dreamed about Yoji and in neither circumstance did he wake rested and comfortable.
When his four week furlough was over, he returned to active duty, though they eased him into it warily, withholding him from the frontlines of the operation until they were certain that he was capable of handling the pressure. Despite his self-imposed exile it was good to return to the structure of planning and executing mission, to be forced into the company of people who gave a damn about his existence. He even had the impetus to apologize to Ken, who was still holding an impressively long grudge over his bad treatment during Aya’s recuperation.
“Forget it.” Ken said brusquely, pushing a broom across the stem cluttered floor of the shop after an afternoon of catering to the demands of their cover. “Its okay. I know you’re a bitch when you’re sick. You ought to save your apologies for other people.”
“What other people?” Aya didn’t particularly recall being quite as snarky with the other members of the team that had ventured over to visit him as he had with Ken. The concept of familiarity breeding contempt was quite accurate. Ken looked up from his sweeping, giving Aya a long, measuring look and Aya blanched, struck by inspiration of just who he meant.
“Have you . . . talked to him?”
Ken resumed his sweeping, mouth drawn in a tight line. “Yeah.” He finally said. “We’ve been talking.”
Aya blinked, shock slowly fading to an offense that this communication had been kept from him.
“You didn’t think to mention this to me?”
“No.” Ken agreed. “I didn’t think that. You know, I knew you’d been a prick to him, but not how much of a prick.”
“He told you . . .”
Aya flinched snapping his mouth shut as the key rattled in the front door and Chloe returned from making the day’s deposit. He paused to stare at Ken and Aya, most certainly taking note of strained expressions and marked silence.
“Am I interrupting?” he asked with the casual air of someone who didn’t particularly care if he was. His hair was the palest shade of blonde and contrasted starkly with the utter black of his tailored jacket.
Ken and Aya said in unison, at which contradiction Chloe lifted an amused brow. Aya turned on his heel and abandoned the fray, retreating in dignity before they had more of an audience than they already had gained. He knew well enough what Yoji might have said to Ken though, not to need to hear it from Ken’s lips. He should have known Ken and Yoji would have kept in contact.
Out the front door, the bell chiming cheerfully in his wake and down the sidewalk towards his brownstone. Ken caught up with him a dozen steps down the block, on the very edge of initiating physical conflict when he grabbed Aya’s elbow to slow his pace.
Aya shook him off and glared warning.
“Oh, fuck you.” Ken huffed, withdrawing his hand and matching Aya pace for pace. “You know, I don’t blame him in the least for being pissed off at you. Hell, I’m pissed off at you. I knew you guys had broken up badly, but I didn’t know all the bullshit you’d been dealing. You put me through hell having to keep him company all that time and he wouldn’t tell me a Goddamned thing about it then. Just walked around like somebody had killed his dog the whole damned time, until that bitch got inside his head, which wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t already fucked him up.”
“Apparently he’s gotten over the ‘not telling you about it’.” Aya said thinly.
“Well I guess he got over you, huh?” Ken shot back.
That hit an unexpected center of pain. Aya passed the stoop of his building, not particularly wanting Ken following upstairs where he’d have him cornered.
“Fine. He hates me. Expected.”
Ken stuffed his hands in his pockets, stomping along in momentary silence. “He doesn’t hate you.” He finally said.
There was a little park at the end of their street. A tiny little triangle of greenery sandwiched between three walls of old buildings. Not much of a retreat, but it was well kept by the neighborhood and the shade trees offered a soothing respite from manmade shadows.
How do you know? He said that? What else did he say? A dozen questions burned to the surface, but Aya refused to let them out. He walked the length of the park, finally settling on a deserted bench on the far side. Ken didn’t join him, retreating off the paved walk and onto the grass. He found a tennis ball sized red rubber ball that some child had most likely lost in the park and picked it up, idly tossing it from hand to hand.
“I miss him. A lot.” Ken said. “I swear to God, I think I miss him more now that I know he’s alive, then when I thought he was dead.”
Aya sat there in silence, refusing to admit how close that statement hit home.
“We always said we’d stick together. That we’d always be there for each other and it might have been childish of me to believe it, but I did. That’s why it hurt so much when Omi . . . when Omi started putting Takatori interests over us. Because he’d been right there with us when we’d made those promises.”
“Omi did what he had to do.” Aya said softly, knowing how very difficult it was for Ken to talk about Omi and the betrayal he perceived Omi had committed against him.
“Omi knew about Yoji.” Ken snapped. “He knew he was alive and he knew where he was and he kept it from us. He kept it from you. How’s that for loyalty?”
“He did what he thought was right. For Yoji. I’m glad.”
“You’re a fucking liar.” Ken said matter of factly.
Of course Ken was right. No matter how he looked at it, no matter how he’d tried to do the right thing regarding Yoji before his memory had come back, it didn’t negate the fact that deep down something broken inside him had mended after he’d gotten over the shock of seeing Yoji’s face. And yes, he’d been pissed at Omi.
“Is he okay?” Aya asked softly, interrupting Ken’s little fit of frustration.
Ken took a breath and shrugged. “Last I heard.”
Aya took a breath. Another. Either Ken didn’t know more, or Yoji hadn’t told him. Either way, it had to be enough.
There was a job in Amsterdam. A dealer in biochemical weapons stolen from ancient stores in the former Soviet Union. The man was Russian and had been an officer in her army two decades past. Now he dealt death for monetary cause. It took less than six hours for them take him out. In and out of Amsterdam with none the wiser and on their way back home. They debriefed, relating all the details of the mission to Mihirogi in the London townhouse that Richard Krypton kept when he was in the city. It was a far cry more convenient than making the long drive to the country estate.
It was not so late afterwards that unwinding in a place other than home was suggested. Ken argued with Chloe over location, their tastes in entertainment varying a great degree, though Michel and Yuki’s inclusion meant that certain nightclubs were taken out of consideration. The ended up at a tavern of Free’s suggestion, that played all night live Reggae as well as serving a wide selection of island food. It was a place that Free obviously frequented, the servers seeming to know him by face if not name.
It was not a celebration. They did not for the most part, celebrate their victories, since their victories rested on the blood of others. Even if it was evil blood. But it was important for the team to feel their fellowship, important to bond in ways other than those related to mission work.
Aya did his duty. He always did his duty, even if he’d found little enough pleasure in it recently. He went home early, leaving the rest of his team in quiet camaraderie. Ken watched him go with a frown, not angry at him any longer, but disapproving of his all too frequent search for solitude all the same.
It was after three when he slipped between the covers, and longer still before he found sleep.
It was very, very early when the pounding on his door began. Aya cracked open an eye and stared balefully at the morning sun coming in through the shades and estimated from its angle that it was only scant hours after sunrise. He swung his legs out from under the covers and shuddered at the chill. If it was Ken, staggering to his door after a night of drinking, he was most certainly going to feel more than hangover when he eventually sobered up.
Aya pulled on a sweater over his pajama bottoms and padded barefoot to the door, testy from lack of sleep and not prepared to practice diplomacy. He yanked the door open and stared at Yoji, who had a fist raised in mid-air in preparation of banging once more upon Aya’s door.
It didn’t occur to Aya until later, after the dumbfounding shock of finding Yoji at his door had worn off, how very good Yoji looked. Healthy and content, albeit nervous, with a fine wash of color in his skin and a gleam to almost shoulder length hair that spoke of subtle things like good nutrition and time and care. It spoke of a man who gave a damn and Aya felt a profound relief knowing that Yoji had not slipped back into the dank depression he’d wallowed in before his supposed death.
But for the moment, before any of those things sank in, all he could do was stand there on the cold wood of his floor and stare stupidly at the man across the threshold.
“Hey.” Yoji said. He stuffed his hands into the pockets of the light, dove gray jacket he wore. He had on a black fleece pullover under it and jeans that managed to look worn and comfortable while at the same time outlined the long, leanness of his legs. There was a small duffel back on the floor at his feet.
Aya hadn’t realized he wasn’t breathing until he opened his mouth to attempt response and his lungs rebelled, greedily pulling in air before he could force out words. Yoji took it in stride, tilting his head down to look at Aya’s bare feet under the hem of loose cotton pajamas.
“I wake you up?”
“It’s five thirty in the morning.”
“Ah . . . no shit? Guess I need to reset my watch.” Yoji shrugged it off, looking vaguely apologetic.
Aya opened his mouth. Shut it again and wondered briefly if this placid conversation in his doorway were some bizarre dream.
“Do you wanna talk?” Right to the point without hedging or hesitation, as if he’d been repeating the question over and over to confirm its validity.
Aya blinked again, and took a step backwards, in no sense feeling as if he were on firm ground. But there was no answer but one to give, so he nodded and opened the door wider, ushering Yoji in.
“Is your friend . . .” Aya hesitated over the question, remembering Yoji’s panic and the heavy mantle of guilt that he’d been drawing around himself. He was heating water for tea and stood with his back to the stove while the kettle warmed.
“Alive.” Yoji said, a faint, fond smile touching his lips. “Against all odds, they tell me, but I imagine she had enough good marks on her side that heaven owed her one. She woke up about a week after you left. She’s still got a long way to go though, rehabilitation-wise. Her home is gone. Her work . . .” he trailed off into thoughtful silence. The kettle began to steam and Aya took it off the burner and added tea to steep.
“And what have you been doing since?’ he tried to make it casual, tried not to glance Yoji’s way as he was turning the stovetop off and setting the kettle on a back burner, but he couldn’t help an under the lashes glance that way.
“Getting my head straight. Figuring some things out. Making sure Sister Hisa didn’t have trouble because she had bad luck in tenets. Making sure she has something to go back to once she’s able.”
“And how were you able to manage that?” Aya a cup on the bartop within Yoji’s reach and took his own to the end of the counter where he leaned against the wall, a reasonable distance from Yoji. A safe, impersonal distance.
Yoji didn’t touch the tea, but he leaned elbows on the countertop and shrugged, an amused glint in his eyes. “You know, I always sucked at putting away rainy day money. Never had a head for it, but it was always in the back of my mind that it might come in handy and I knew that you had cash squirreled away and God knew Omi did. I always thought that if – – you know, something really bad happened and we needed to make ourselves scarce, we’d need something to fall back on. A couple of years ago . . . maybe more than that I guess, I had Omi invest a little something for me. I guess he chose well. I remembered where the accounts were, checked them out and there was a nice, tidy little nest egg waiting for me.”
Finally Yoji dragged the cup over, wrapping his hands around it, thumbs idly caressing the rim. “I took care for her. It was only fair. She’d done the same for me when she had no reason to other than the fact that I was lost and hurt and needing a little something to anchor me down. I made sure she’d be safe from repercussions from . . . you know.”
Aya knew. He couldn’t imagine how Yoji might be able to discourage the long arm of the Yakuza, though. “How?” he asked softly.
Yoji swallowed and brought the cup to his lips. A small sip and he made a face. He never had had the taste to accept the flavor of a fine tea without ruining it with sugar. Ken had picked up the bad habit from him.
“I had to do some . . . work . . . outside the hospital. Funny how it comes back to you. I didn’t like it, even though they were bastards sent to off an old lady in her sickbed. I caused a bit of a ruckus. Stirred things up and higher powers decided to take notice. You talk to Omi before you left?”
Aya shook his head. Even if he had, he probably wouldn’t have recalled it. Maybe someone from Krypton Brand had . . . more than maybe, considering they had been hunting in Tatatori’s backyard. There would have been a courtesy recount and maybe even an inquiry about Yoji, and any rumor of anything concerning Weiss would have been redflagged straight to the Takatori in charge.
“Well I did and before he kicked my ass out of Japan he promised to make sure all interest in the sister evaporated. I believed him. The kid looked . . . well, not so much like a kid anymore. Like he was carrying the weight of the world.”
“He asked you to leave?” Aya asked softly and Yoji snorted.
“Said they were trying to put a lid on things and I was stirring the pot and he wanted me gone.” Yoji waved a dismissive hand and smiled. “I think he was more worried about me than the state of the Japanese underworld, though. I guess like you, he didn’t think I could tell my ass from a hole in the wall and needed a little protection. Do I come off as so inept?”
Aya blinked, realizing that Yoji was staring at him as if waiting for an answer to what sounded like a hypothetical question. It was either think up something to say or stand there caught in Yoji’s green gazed stare like a petrified deer in the glare of proverbial headlights.
“No.” He said softly. “Just ignorant.”
Yoji’s brow shot up.
“Innocent.” Aya amended. “Just . . . you’d regained a sort of innocence despite everything you were . . . we were . . . and it seemed a crime to tarnish it.”
Yoji mulled that over a bit, hands back on his tea cup. Finally he asked. “So, how’re you? You okay after . . . that night?”
Aya didn’t want to talk about it. He’d pushed it to the back of his mind and there he wanted it to stay, isolated and ignored where it couldn’t do him any harm. He nodded affirmative, which was true enough. He’d healed. He had no lasting damage. No visible scars.
For a while after that, having covered the more mundane topics of possible conversation, neither one of them spoke. Aya finished his tea. Yoji’s got cold. Aya’s feet felt frozen on the floor and yet to go into the bedroom and find socks or slippers was beyond him. He realized he was afraid to make that move and that realization fed his growing unease.
Just ask. Accuse. Condemn. He wanted to cry out. Wanted to get the whole dreadful confrontation over with.
Of course when Yoji did speak, Aya flinched in dread, a flutter of dizziness beginning at the pit of his belly and working its way up to his head.
“How much of it was lies?” Yoji asked carefully, fighting for neutrality in his voice.
Aya stared, round eyed, fingers clutching his empty cup, pressing his back into the wall as if he could will himself to sink into it. It took him a moment to register he was doing it, to register the stark fear and to attempt to smother it in the same neutrality that Yoji was practicing.
“What?” He knew what Yoji was asking. He just needed a few precious moments to gather his thoughts.
“Was it all an elaborate scheme to tick me off – – or did you mean it, Aya?”
There was no avoiding it. When he got right down to it . . . he didn’t want to avoid it. Deep breath. His answer gusted out on the sigh of exhalation.
“No. No. I thought it was the best thing . . . for everyone. I thought you’d thank me for it . . . eventually.”
“You were thinking of me?” The neutrality faded, replaced by scathing bitterness. Yoji pushed his tea cup away from him, as if afraid if it was within his immediate reach it might come to harm. “Well isn’t that a relief. The next time I get well and truly fucked over, I’ll have to make sure to look for deeper altruistic motives.”
“Do you remember Kagoshima?” Aya said bluntly. “Do you remember the fuck up there? Both of us this close to dead and Omi to boot and all because the both of us were more worried about each other than the mission objective. Do you remember that, Yoji?”
Yoji sat there for a moment, maybe not remembering, maybe simply absorbing what it was Aya had said. Finally he took a long breath and peered up from under a fall of waving hair, face pale and eyes haunted.
“I remember. We salvaged that. We did the job. What’re a few scars if you survive?”
“A few . . .?” Aya pushed himself away from the wall, the frustration and fear that had ate at him over three years past rushing back. “It was more than a few scars Yoji. It was careless and unprofessional and it was as much my fault as yours, so I had to stop it from happening again.”
“Oh my God.” Yoji laughed, but there was no humor in it. “That was what started it? You worried about me getting my ass kicked on a mission?”
“I thought you were dead. I thought they’d killed you. And then I wasn’t thinking at all, do you understand? It couldn’t go on. You wouldn’t have understood, you wouldn’t have backed off just because the job demanded it, so I made you back off. Even Omi understood the need . . .”
“Omi? You fucking discussed it with Omi? Well that’s just great. I didn’t even rate an explanation, all I got was the cold shoulder of all time and so many knives in the back that you might as well have used the damn sword.”
“I know.” Aya said quietly, trying to calm his breathing. Trying to find the control that had slipped through his fingers.
“Yeah, I guess you do. You wanna know what I think? I think you were never that good an actor. I know you aren’t and yet you had that role so down pat that I bought it hook, line and sinker, so you had to have believed it. You had to have held it close to that block of ice you call a heart and convinced yourself it was fact. If I’d have had one clue it was all some self-sacrificing bullshit, I would have . . . I dunno, done something. But I trusted you even when you were doing your best to tear my heart out, so it never occurred to me that you were playing me.”
“Fuck sorry. Did you still love me? While you were doing it? Or had you convinced yourself to stop that too?”
Love was a word Yoji used. Aya had never felt comfortable with it. All love got you was vulnerability and pain beyond belief. When he didn’t’ answer, Yoji swore under his breath and rose, perhaps with the intention of retreating from this confrontation in a huff.
“I forgot. Love’s for human beings. You don’t like to admit to being that. All that effort and pain just so we could be better at our damned jobs. More professional. As if we hadn’t already given up everything else anyway. I swear to God – – I remember that time, but its like I’m remembering some bizarre movie with a completely unbelievable plot line, cause nobody in their right mind would have mooned after you for so long after the things you said and the reasons you said them.”
Yoji was at the door, anger radiating from him like heat. Emotional and flighty and everything that Aya was not. Could not be and survive. Panic welled up. Panic at being forced into this corner, forced to voice things he held close to his heart, forced to admit that he was terrified that Yoji would walk out that door and he’d never see him again.
“I was scared.” Aya hissed the admission and the tea cup’s fragile handle shattered under the pressure of his fingers. He stared down at the broken porcelain in shock, at the shallow slice in his finger that was only just beginning to seep blood. “I was scared.” He said again, softer, somehow profoundly relieved to have uttered the words.
“I don’t know if this is an excuse or a confession or . . .” he swallowed, not wanting to meet Yoji’s eyes, grateful that the door hadn’t opened and spilled Yoji out of the apartment because he wouldn’t yell it down the hall in his wake.
“You don’t understand what I felt . . . I could feel myself going numb in Kagoshima . . . I’d lived so long with that feeling after my parents died, during Aya-Chan’s coma . . . I couldn’t let it happen to me again. I couldn’t go back to that. I couldn’t let anyone mean that much . . .” he trailed off, shuddering, not knowing what to do with the remnants of the cup. “It was so much easier to convince myself that we had to stop because of the job than because I was afraid you would die and I wouldn’t and I’d have to survive it . . . again. And then when it happened anyway, despite everything I’d done . . . maybe because of what I’d done . . . I can’t even tell you what I felt. I don’t remember what I felt . . . just that I’d robbed myself of so much time with you . . . that I’d never get back . . . that it was my fault, all of it and it should have been me.”
“Should have been . . .?” Yoji took a breath, lashes fluttering in a very obvious attempt to gain some control over his temper. “That would have been easier for you, wouldn’t it? That last, final escape from having to deal with the world. Do you think you’re the only one who’s ever lost anyone they loved? You think your grief is so much heavier than what the rest of us go through?”
“No. I don’t think that.”
“Bull shit.” Yoji glared and took a step towards him. “You want I should start ticking off times and places . . . I remember enough now to come up with a pretty thorough list.”
“No. You don’t need to . . . I remember well enough.” Carefully, Aya laid the broken cup down. “In retrospect I realize not all the things I did were wise . . . or even reasonable. I regret it. I – – – just regret it.”
“Yeah, hindsight is always 20/20.”
What did he say to that? He couldn’t find the words. Yoji had every right to beat him down – – more than just cause, though his condemnation would have to stretch far and wide to equal that which Aya had piled upon himself during the last few years.
“Okay.” Yoji finally said, sounding as drained as Aya felt. “I think I need to go now. Jet lag must be catching up with me, I guess. Find a hotel and crash for a while.”
Aya opened his mouth. Shut it. Not certain if he had the right to ask where, or if he dared, what Yoji would make of the question.
“Ken will probably be asleep for a while.” He said instead, retreating to the safe common ground of Ken. A desperate ploy to keep Yoji within reach until he could gather his wits and figure out what to do. “He lives a few doors down above the florist.”
“Florist?” Yoji’s mouth quirked in a weary smile.
Aya shrugged. “Go figure. Pages from the same playbook . . .”
“I know where Ken is.” Yoji admitted. “Who do you think told me where to find you?” He hesitated, looking as if he’d like to say more, but finally forced himself to refrain, reaching for the door and pulling it open.
“Yoji . . .” Aya said softly, as Yoji shouldered the duffel by the door and stepped into the hallway, leaving Aya by the breakfast counter. “. . . . I’ve missed you.”
Yoji stared for a second, green eyes flickering with some indefinable something, then he nodded and shut the door behind him.
Yoji was tired. He hadn’t been when he’d stepped out of the taxi onto the sidewalk in front of the weathered facade of Aya’s apartment building. Ken had told him the address and the apartment number, in-between excited babblings about how good it would be to see him again and did he really remember and wouldn’t they have an awesome time showing Yoji the finer points of London, which as far as Ken was concerned immediately negated all the normal touristy haunts. That conversation had taken place two days ago from a hotel room in Madrid, which was where Yoji had retreated after Omi had given him his walking papers out of Japan. Omi had handed him a set of airline tickets, reservations for several European hotels, a passport and false Id, as well as a small envelope of cash to assure he wasn’t left destitute in the streets of some strange and foreign city. Like he wasn’t used to that feeling?
Omi had known that he’d spent almost everything he’d had in those forgotten investment accounts seeing to it that Sister Hisa was taken care of. That she had a place to go to when she was out of the hospital and ready to take up her work of helping the helpless again. That meeting with Omi – – well, Takatori Mamoru – – as he called himself now – – had been bittersweet. He had been so sure that the greater sum of his memory had returned that to walk into that room with suited Takatori guards outside it and find the boy he’d remembered dressed like he was on his way to a wall street meeting, with every bit of nativity that Yoji recalled him possessing gone from his face like the world had sucked him dry of all the foolish hope that the young are imbued with . . . . well, it made Yoji wonder if there were not chunks still missing. He’d damn well remembered enough to recognize the dark eyed, quiet young man in the shadows of a corner as a former enemy turned Takatori lapdog. Omi had seen the direction of his gaze and gauged the expression. Things change. He had said simply.
And God, but wasn’t that the understatement of the decade?
So, you gave away all your money. Omi had opened with a statement veiled in a question. And what could Yoji say other than it had seemed the right thing to do. The just thing. And maybe Omi understood, because those big, blue, hard as nails eyes softened a little and a ghost of a familiar smile had touched his lips.
“You should have gone with Ken and Aya. I arranged for you to have a way out quickly and quietly. You thwarted my carefully laid plans.” That was also said with a ghosting of humor. Yoji doubted Omi had a lot of time for pleasantries these days. He mourned for that lack.
“I had arranged things with our English contacts – – – spoken personally with Richard Krypton to assure that you were welcomed . . .”
“I wasn’t ready to go.” Yoji said and Omi had sighed, and finally motioned to his various attendants that privacy was required. The bodyguards retreated, including the former Schwartz telekinetic, Nagi. Yoji watched them go warily, not knowing why he felt naked without a weapon when he’d gone unarmed for close to the last two years. Weirder now that he felt so in the presence of a once trusted team mate.
“I don’t know. Well, I do know. I had Sister Hisa to worry about.”
“I’ll see to it that she’s protected, that any retribution against her is highly discouraged, though you’ve done little enough to settle Yakuza interest, instead stirring them up even more than they were. It was a multi-million dollar operation they lost when the Reaper and his broadcasts were destroyed.”
“Yeah, . . . well . . .”
“Is it your ex-wife?”
“No.” Yoji laughed. “Not Asuka. Did you set that up, by the way? Pretty little nurse with a face and a name to match my Asuka?”
“No.” Omi smiled. “Just blind coincidence that worked out well in the short run if nothing else. She gave you something to ground yourself, even if you didn’t know why. Does it have something to do with Aya? With that time?”
Ah, there it was, blunt and to the point and damned, damned perceptive, just like Omi ever was. Yoji wasn’t ready to discuss Aya-induced gripes with anyone. Not yet. It did not hold the sting of a new wound, despite the details only recently returning to haunt him, he wasn’t even sure he recalled everything that had happened during the last year of Weiss’ existence, it was very much like recalling the details of a movie he’d watched stoned. He knew what had happened . . . mostly, but he still felt insulated from the full impact of the action. Maybe that wasn’t even the results of the headwound, maybe it was simply his psyche trying to protect itself from a very bad, very traumatizing period. It was still painful thinking about so many of the things done and the words said, but the memories were not threatening to drag him down with quite the tenacity as the reality had. Simply put, he just wasn’t in the same place he’d been then. Between surviving married life and the therapeutic balm of living under Sister Hisa’s roof something had healed. It didn’t mean he wasn’t pissed.
“You can’t place all the blame on his shoulders.” Omi said quietly, with just a trace of guilt in his voice. “There were – – outside influences. Suggestions from . . . Persia . . . that separation for a while might be the wisest course of action.”
“But, you were Persia . . . still are, right? Are you telling me you . . .?”
“At the time . . . I wasn’t. Not quite at any rate. My grandfather was pressuring me to take the position – – he was pressuring me to deal with problems external as well as internal.”
“I was an internal problem? We were. Me and Aya?”
“Grandfather didn’t . . . approve. For a lot of reasons.”
“Oh, I bet he didn’t. You know, if you put the bee in Aya’s bonnet . . . he still chose the way to act on it. He chose. I wouldn’t have.”
“I know.” Omi whispered. “Your loyalty to us . . . to Weiss. . . was stronger than your loyalty to cause and country. That’s not a good quality as far as Takatori is concerned.”
“No. I don’t imagine it is.”
“I’m glad Aya and Ken are out.” Omi admitted. “KryptonBrand answers to no single political master and thus the struggle for political power does not influence the method of their operation. It makes the survival of their operatives somewhat less chancy than what we endured as Weiss.”
“Omi . . .” he couldn’t ever get used to calling the kid anything but. Omi didn’t seem to mind, all the formality dissipated with his silent bodyguards. “I’m not looking for a way back in.”
Omi looked at him, long and critical, then nodded, lashes lowering as his mind started working behind the crystal blue facade of his eyes. “Okay. Then we need to get you out of Japan and away from the attention of people and factions that can’t forget what you were and what you know. Understand, Yoji? And don’t dismiss the protection that KryptonBrand can offer, because believe me, you’ll need it. If you’ve got powerful backers you can keep the predators at bay . . . if not, you’re just prey. Remember that.”
“I’ve got you, don’t I?” Yoji had said it lightly, half joking, half serious. Omi didn’t take it that way. Omi’s face lost that softness it had regained for so brief a time and he said. “If you work for me, then you have Takatori protection. If you don’t . . . I’m sorry, Yoji, but you really need to get out of Japan . . .”
And that had been that. Meeting over. Reunion stunted by the onslaught of real life. And Yoji ended up in Spain, finding one excuse after another to extend his layover. One day. Two. Four days. A week. He picked up a few dozen words in Spanish for his time. Extended his English vocabulary with a little pocket translation booklet he’d picked up at the airport. As second languages went, he supposed he was stronger in English than anything else, which wasn’t saying much. He’d never spent that much effort at perfecting it. Not like Aya or Omi. If he was going over there and he didn’t want to sound like the proverbial ignorant tourist, he’d have to hone those skills. If he was going over.
But of course he was. He could nurse his grievances forever and still not set anything to rest if he didn’t get the weight of them off his chest. The only way to do that was to track Aya down and say the words. To demand explanation out of Aya whether Aya wanted to give it or not.
Only once the words were said and truths he had already half known revealed, it didn’t lesson the indignity or the anger. It didn’t make him want to not beat the shit out of Aya any less. Nor did it lessen the desire to press Aya up against that spotless kitchen counter of his and kiss him until they were both faint from lack of air. Among other things.
It was the ‘other things’ that made his pants a little too tight and his head a little dizzy from lack of blood and the ‘other things’ that had pissed him off enough from the damned bad timing to make him raise his voice and revert to snarling when he’d told himself he was going to handle this calm and rationally. Like an adult instead of a jilted teenager.
The first stone in that path had been the unexpected sight of Aya in the doorway, sleep ruffled and barefoot and shocked into momentary vulnerability from the surprise of seeing Yoji on his doorstep. Whether he remembered Aya or didn’t, was pleased to see him or pissed enough to want to strangle him, all of that notwithstanding, Yoji never failed to get that little rush of sexual adrenaline from just the mere sight of him.
And after that, well, he’d been nervous and flustered, saying things he hadn’t really meant to voice out loud. He really had planned on a rational, adult conversation . . . but he supposed hurt feelings and pent up frustrations had nixed that dream. The important thing was he’d said what he’d needed to say, for the most part and he’d survived the saying without Aya showing his claws.
Come to think of it, now that he was outside in the cold, moist air of early morning London, Aya had seemed very subdued. Contrite almost. Aya hardly ever did contrite. At least the Aya he remembered. Aya had never been above admitting when he was wrong, at least blatantly so, but he wasn’t the sort to shuffle his feet over it in guilt. Nor stand pressed in a corner clutching a cup like it was body armor while he came up with excuses for things that were just – – – just damned annoying.
Aya had said he regretted. Well, Yoji had known that. He’d know Aya held guilt long before he’d remembered what it was that Aya was guilty over. Hell, he even understood what Aya had been trying to do. Agree with it, hell no. Find it reasonable or even rational, again a resounding NO. But knowing Aya and how Aya’s convoluted, pessimistic, compulsive, fucked-up mind worked, he knew that Aya had thought at the time that he was making the right choices. You couldn’t blame Aya for not being the humanitarian of the year, it wasn’t in his mental make up. He’d been systematically raped of all his compassion and trust in one tragic event after another, all of which had lead up to building the man he had been when he’d made the decision to sever his ties with Yoji for all the wrong reasons. Hell, life had tried to do the same thing with Yoji, but instead of turning him cold and hard, it had just beaten him down until oblivion would have been a welcome lover. Maybe finding a final end in the ruins of that Academy so many, many months before had been a conscious choice of his. He didn’t remember. He didn’t remember much of anything from those final days, other than hating Aya, and hating how utterly cold Weiss had become , all of which only covered the fact that what he’d truly despised had been himself. So yeah, maybe he had welcomed death.
Maybe that was the only reason he had escaped it, because he’d wanted it so bad and fate had always had it out for him. Well, a part of him had died out there, under the rubble, and he didn’t miss it, so maybe fate hadn’t fucked him over completely. Maybe it had given him a second chance. The least he could do was extend the courtesy.
With a lung filling inhalation of breath and a grunt of intent, he lowered his hand, waving the taxi on that had started to pull over for him on its way. Back into the brownstone building, up weathered, marble topped stairs to the second floor. He knocked at Aya’s door for a second time that morning. It didn’t take quite so long this time for it to open. Aya didn’t look so much surprised this time as shaken to the marrow of his bones. White faced and hollow eyed, the hand that wasn’t on the edge of the door quaking ever so slightly. He hadn’t so much as fetched a pair of slippers in the ten or so minutes that Yoji had been gone. He looked sufficiently miserable to inspire a marked mixture of pity and craving, the latter stemming from Yoji’s natural predatory instinct blaring clear and loud that wounded prey was easy pickings as opposed to dangerously wary ones.
“It occurred to me out there waiting for a taxi . . . ” Yoji said, since Aya didn’t seem inclined at the moment to do anything but stand there and stare at him mutely. “that people who are complete social retards can’t always be held entirely responsible for the bizarre things they do. And that though being fucked-up isn’t necessarily an arguable defense unless you’re certifiable, that it does go over well with a lot of juries. Appealing to their sympathies and all.”
Aya tore his gaze away from him, transferring it to the doorstop at their feet. Finally, as if he’d been turning over an appropriate response in his head he looked up through the fringe of his hair. “You’re calling me retarded?”
“Did I say that?”
“Well, then, yeah, you have certain . . . underdeveloped area’s of expertise that border on . . . ”
“Are you insulting me?” Aya’s sense of humor at the best of times was an underfed, wry and reclusive thing. When Aya was stressed it hardly had the strength to poke its head up out of the sand it was buried in. It just meant that you had to prod and prod and prod until he either saw the light of day or snapped and did you bodily harm. Yoji didn’t have the energy at the moment for either alternative, especially when what he’d really come back to say was could they please start this conversation over again, since the first go round had ended badly.
“I guess so. But in all good humor.”
Aya considered that, the faintly sharp look that had formed around the edges of his eyes, fading.
“Listen, I could beat around the bush all day and just end up irritating the both of us, so . . . do you want me here?”
“Here?” Aya echoed warily. Yoji honestly didn’t know if he was being obtuse or if he was just so used to being guarded, to holding his emotions so close to his vest that he doubted his own common sense.
“Not right here, dufus. Around. Within reach. You know, actually close enough to hold a conversation without a phone or catch lunch or . . . ”
“Do you . . . want to be here?”
Yoji laughed and waved a hand about aimlessly. “I have unlimited choices. Anywhere but Japan I’m told. Here’s as good as any place. Better, maybe. Depending on . . . ” He trailed off. Depending on Aya’s mood? Hah, a man couldn’t count on that to ensure his stability. He supposed it depended more on his own. He’d been angry at Aya for something Aya had done years ago – – but the anger wouldn’t last and no matter what Aya thought he wanted, Yoji knew he’d end up drawn back within his influence eventually.
“I would like for you . . . to stay.” Aya finally said, though it must have been hard admitting it, if the low, halting speech was any indication. But it didn’t matter, it had been said.
Yoji nodded, relief swelling his throat up and swallowing vocal response.
“And . . . here would be all right, as well. For the time being. I mean, there’s no need for you to try and find lodgings so early in the morning when you’re so obviously tired . . . there’s always tomorrow for . . . and I needed to be up and about anyway . . . ” Aya trailed off, a faint blush coloring his pale cheeks.
That was as sweet an offer, though fumblingly offered, as Yoji could remember, since a kind hearted ex-nun had taken him in off the streets.
“Okay. That sounds good.” He waited for Aya to make a move, but Aya stood there, hand still clutching at the door fame, feet glued to the spot, until he finally looked up, meeting Yoji eye for eye. The shields were down. Yoji realized that the instant he met Aya’s gaze. A medley of emotion broiled within liquid purple depths. Sorrow, guilt, need, desire and oh so tentative hope, the things Aya never gave hint of except during the throes of sex and the after math, or on those rare occasions when he was particularly drunk or particularly sick.
“I’m sorry. For everything . . . I’m sorry. I don’t know if you can forgive . . . for driving you away, for believing you were dead instead of continuing to search . . . which I should have. I should have known. I don’t think I could forgive . . . but, I’m sorr- – -”
“You’re not me.” Yoji said simply and did what Aya couldn’t, which was to step forward and wrap his arms around him. Aya shuddered, returning the embrace with desperate, clutching fingers, still breathlessly murmuring apology that Yoji had accepted the very first time. It might not all be forgotten, but if he were to restart his life yet again and do it right this time, grievances that would only hurt the most important facets of that life needed to be put aside. He wouldn’t go back to the life of an assassin. He couldn’t take that path again and not end up back where he’d been before, but he could love one. And that for the time being, would have to be enough.