Mercy: 1

Normally Weiß was not brought into play to take care of such simple, mundane crimes as the trafficking of drugs. Heroine import was the jurisdiction of local and federal law enforcement. All above board, in legal pursuit of the crimes – – for the most part. If the cops had been doing their jobs, if there hadn’t been the suspicion of payoffs and threats to encourage legal harassment to go away . . . if the stuff the bastards were cutting hadn’t proved stone cold lethal to some seventeen unlucky addicts already . . . well, maybe Kudoh Yoji wouldn’t be freezing his ass off in the moist winter air on the docks at the southern tip of Tokyo sound. The warehouses here were older, a good deal of them remnants of the turn of the century, and time and the quest for money had not yet gotten around to tearing them down. Some of them were still used sporadically by low rent clientele. Others had sat empty and dilapidated for years, nothing but a waste of space in a city where space was at a minimum.

Those dark, unvisited places drew a certain sort of attention though. Offered a safe haven for cargo that arrived in the depths of the night, slipping past customs unnoticed. A good deal of it for the unsavory shadow men that dealt in chemical addiction and blissful slow deaths. Slow if the addict were lucky. Quick and jolting if they got hold of a bad batch of the new strain that was being cut in this makeshift dockside laboratory.

“We’ve got movement,” Omi’s tinny voice whispered through the ear piece nestled within the cup of Yoji’s ear. Whatever the kid was seeing on the outside, Yoji was not privy to, braced on his precarious perch within the webwork of rusty girders and supports that made up the warehouse ceiling. Enough ceiling panels were gone to provide little enough shelter from the wind coming in off the bay and he’d been perched here, silent and still, for the last forty minutes. He was cold and stiff and damned pissed that the targets were late. From his vantage he could see the movement of the two lackeys left to guard the lab and the single cooker below. None of them were vital targets. Oh, they’d take the cooker out for sure, but if they didn’t get the big guns, they’d have another lab rat making their poison within the week.

“Two vehicles,” Omi reported. Yoji didn’t respond. Ken and Aya wouldn’t either, not unless there was a snag. Carefully, Yoji shifted, stretching out a leg, shaking out stiff muscles. It wouldn’t do to cramp up at a vital moment. It had been months and months and still his leg ached sometimes in the cold or rainy weather. A byproduct of the bullet that had pierced it.

“Six men,” Omi’s report echoed in Yoji’s ear. “Kenjiro is with them. Two girls, as well.”

Yoji breathed a sigh of relief. Without taking out Kenjiro Tazawa, tonight would have been a colossal waste of time. Kenjiro was the brains and the money of the operation. Kenjiro Tazawa knew his drugs were killing people and just didn’t care.

Six men outside, plus the three inside, if you counted the cooker, which one had to when figuring in the desperate lengths even a non-violent man might go to when his life was at risk. And it would certainly be at risk. Word down the chain of command called for a total clean up. Pretty little Korat, their newest Krittiker handler, had calmly and emotionlessly called for the deaths of anyone involved in the Kenjiro drug operation. Take out the whole crew and make damned sure anyone lurking in the shadows waiting to take over Kenjiro’s territory had second thoughts about using his techniques.

The men entered the warehouse through a creaking wooden door with a brand new padlock. One or two of them would have remained outside to keep watch. Omi would take them out with his usual quiet efficiency. It was easy to figure out which one was Kenjiro, even through the gloom. The women would be drawn to the power of the group. They always were. He had his arm around the waist of one of the girls, a man not much smaller than his hired muscle, but sleeker, with a long, fur trimmed coat, and slicked back dark hair. The one girl was leaning into Kenjiro, giggling, obviously high from the stagger in her step, the other one hung back a little, eyes darting to the shadow uneasily, as if she’d just stepped down the rabbit hole into a totally unexpected reality.

You don’t know the half of it, Alice, Yoji thought sadly, tearing his gaze away from the girl and back to the positions of the men, waiting for the go sign that would bathe this dingy warehouse in the blood of the not so innocent.

One bodyguard stayed just inside the door while the others moved into the depths of the warehouse in a loose cluster around Kenjiro. There was an exchange of words, the cooker bobbing his head nervously, casting uneasy glances at the ominous bulk of the gathered muscle. Most probably Kenjiro had acquired this kid fresh out of collage, a geek with a degree and a shitload of loan payments weighing him down, or gambling debts or some other trouble that connections with the Japanese mob could ease. At a price. Always at a price with these people. It would certainly cost him now. The ultimate price.

There was a slither of movement atop the crates stacked along the border of the makeshift lab. The only reason Yoji saw it, was because he was looking for it. Waiting for that first move.

“Go.” A soft declaration of intent whispered through his ear piece. Yoji moved, only catching the flutter of motion as Aya dropped down into the midst of their targets from the crates. He never even saw Ken dart out from the shadows, but he heard the cries of the startled men. Heard the report of a gun fired and tightened his jaw, zeroing in on his target from above, flinging out wire and feeling the solid yank of weight as it encircled flesh and bone and flesh and bone writhed away in a fruitless attempt to escape it. The wire always won out. Yoji wound a gloved fist in the wire and yanked back. Hard. The wire came free of a sudden, cleaving its way through obstruction. He triggered the release of that line even as he vaulted down an already chosen pathway. In the midst of this confusion there was no time to scan the melee on the floor below and check to make sure Aya was in one piece. He had to fight the urge though. Damned annoying thing, to have a split focus when life and death were on the line. Damned frustrating to reasonably realize that his hesitation in worrying about where Aya was or what Aya was doing might very well be the thing that caused Aya injury. It was a hard thing to fight though, the concern. The fear that someone you loved might simply cease to be in a split second by the whim of fate, by the luck of a dying target, by one wrong step that put him in the line of fire. Stop it. Aya could damn well take care of himself, if . . . IF Yoji did his job and kept his focus on the mission.

He chose a second target on the outside of the fray, a man with gun drawn, trying to find a target in the midst of confusion and shadow. The wire whipped out, twining about a solid neck, tangling with the wrist of the raised gun hand. Cutting through the thick bones of the wrist was a considerably tougher task than slicking through the cartilage between the vertebrae of the spine as it narrowed out in the region of the neck. It was a twenty foot drop to the ground where Yoji was. He got a firmer grip on the wire and hopped over the side of the beam he was perched upon. The wire jerked taut, grating over the rusted surface of the beam, Yoji’s drop and the impact of his weight jerking his target up with enough force to sever the head, but lodged in the bones of the wrist, leaving the man hanging halfway between floor and ceiling.

Yoji didn’t bother looking to check the results of his handiwork, simply hit the release and dropped to the floor, swinging his head about for other targets. There was one man left standing. Kenjiro, protected to the last by his hired muscle. Ken was crouched over a body on the floor, bugnuks dripping blood, a not quite sane look in his dark eyes. Aya was stalking Kenjiro, the gleam of his katana dulled by a coating of red. Yoji caught the sprawl of female legs near one of the lab tables that had been overturned in the struggle. Saw wide, lifeless eyes and a ragged bloody hole in the side of what once was a pretty cheek. She’d taken a bullet. A stray from one of Kenjiro’s panicked bodyguards. He didn’t see the other girl, but her heard her muffled scream as Aya’s sword took Kenjiro up through the ribs and into the heart. There she was, huddled against the crates just beyond the spot that Kenjiro’s limp body thudded to the floor as it slid off the point of Aya’s sword. She was young. Really young, he thought in that one brief glance. Sixteen, seventeen at the most. And terrified beyond coherency. He thought he heard her babbling for her mother, begging that all encompassing symbol of comfort and protection for succor. She wasn’t going to get any, because dispassionate death stepped over the body of Kenjiro and towards her, ready to finish the job, which was a total clean up. No witnesses, no survivors.

“God . . . ,” Yoji whispered, snapping out of that cold place where he took himself of necessity when a job was in full swing.

He’d always had a soft spot for women. Any woman, young, old, pretty, plain. Even the one’s out for your blood. They all deserved some sort of consideration unless they put you through enough pain and torment to prove otherwise. He’d been burned enough where he should have known better, but then, some things a man just took to heart and held on to like they were the last vestiges of a salvation for a drowning soul.

“Wait . . . Goddamnit, Aya . . . Wait.” He leapt up, snagging Aya’s arm and getting a hiss and a reflexive defensive movement for the transgression. The tip of the katana swung his way. Aya’s eyes were dead cold. Narrowed, emotionless. Aya was in his own death dealing place, and it took a lot more to shake Aya out of mission phase than it did Yoji.

Yoji held up his hands, stepping between Aya and the huddled girl.

“Not the girl. She’s not part of this.”

“You don’t know that.” Ken stood in the shadows beyond Aya.

“Yoji . . .?” Omi melted out of the darkness behind him, cross bow in one hand, backpack in the other, eyes taking in the details of the slaughter inside.

“I know.” Yoji said stubbornly, eyes fixed on Aya, the most prominent danger to his cause.

“No survivors,” Aya said softly, deceptive calm, but there was a tick on his jaw that hinted at irritation. The girl was crying behind him, knees pulled up to hide her face, still begging for her mama. He couldn’t take in the details of her, not daring to take his eyes off Aya.

“We don’t kill the innocent.”

Aya blinked at him. Once. Omi was bustling beyond, them, setting up the explosive that would take the entirety of this warehouse down and all evidence of Kenjiro and his drug lab with it.

“We don’t have time for this,” Omi reminded them. “Figure it out, guys. You’ve got three minutes.”


“Move, Yoji,” Aya said, soft and dangerous.

But he couldn’t. It wasn’t in him to abandon this sobbing, terrified young woman. She was a victim here, Kenjiro’s, theirs, and she deserved succor. She deserved a chance to collapse into her mama’s arms and remake her life. Her mama deserved not to have a daughter that just never came home.

“You’ll go through me to do it,” Yoji said, just as soft and just as serious as Aya. More serious, for he didn’t waver in the face of that bloodstained length of blade that hovered level with his gut. The tip of the sword did.

Aya’s mouth tightened, eyes the color of dusk in the shadows of the warehouse, narrowed in frustration and no small anger. There was hardly time for debate. Ken and Omi were already heading for the door.

Aya hissed, turning on his heel and stalking after them, sword still unsheathed, shoulders square and tense. Yoji grabbed the girl’s narrow wrist, hauling her up and dragging her after him. She staggered in his wake, hysterical and weak-kneed. She stumbled and he wrapped an arm about her waist pulling her up and against him, taking the majority of her weight as he ran pell-mell for the slice of night revealed through the door that Ken had kicked open upon his exit.

They were through it, and he kept up the pace, just putting the bulk of the black SUV between them and the warehouse as the charge Omi had placed detonated with a deafening bass boom that shook a body to the core so close at hand. Wood and glass and panels of rusted, corrugated metal sailed out, littering the dock, pelting the warehouse facing side of the SUV, hitting the surface of the water with curious little plopping sounds.

“Balinese?” That was Omi’s voice in his ear, having gotten a little more distance than Yoji from the explosion.

“Here,” he said, waiting for the last clatter of debris to cease before pulling the girl up and hurrying towards the neighboring warehouse and the dark alley that hid their own getaway vehicle.

A dark sedan that would stand out in no one’s memory. Ken was at the wheel, one arm hanging over the open window, urging Yoji to hurry. Aya sat shotgun, eyes invisible under the shadow of his bangs, the rest of his face glacial and emotionless. Omi had the back door open, half in, half out, waiting for Yoji and the softly crying girl to pick their way down the alley and slide into the back seat, the girl sandwiched between them.

“Where?” Ken asked, uncertain, not used to picking up strays during missions.

The girl didn’t seem physically hurt, but she was high on something, dazed and shell-shocked. When she sobered up tonight would probably only be recalled as the most hazy, distant nightmare. He doubted she’d recollect details, much less faces. But then he was more forgiving in some things than his colleagues. Certainly more so than Aya.

“There’s a shelter not too far west of here . . . takes in runaways and the like.”

“I know the one,” Ken said and got the car into motion rolling slowly down the ally away from the docks, coming out the other side even as the distant sound of sirens could be heard, drawn by the fireworks.

The girl was pressed against his side, her face buried against his shoulder, hands clutching at his coat with desperate intensity. She was murmuring incoherent words that came out muffled against his coat. A frightened, out of her depth girl, who had come out tonight expecting a good time with her friend and wound up getting more than she bargained for. Probably would have gotten more than she’d planned even if they hadn’t shown up.

He looked up, saw Aya’s shadowed gaze in the rearview mirror and had the sudden wish that this girl wasn’t clinging to him so tightly, that his arm wasn’t trapped between her back and the seat in such a fashion that easy retraction was out of the question.

God, but he was going to catch hell for this. Still, it was worth it. She would have been one more innocent life lost if he hadn’t done what he’d done. One more piece of his soul washed away in the darkness. The cost of fighting the shadow war they helped wage, Krittiker would say.

He tightened his mouth, thinking exactly what Krittiker could do with that doctrine. If Aya didn’t like it . . . well, fuck Aya.

The only thing that saved them from treacherous Tokyo traffic was the hour. Even this close to the docks, during waking hours the streets would be crowded with pedestrians, bicyclists and motorized traffic. It wasn’t dead now, even in the hours before dawn. Tokyo never slumbered. The lights never went out entirely.

They found the shelter, which took up the bottom floor of an older era building crammed in between other such weathered structures. There were an array of neon religious symbols in the window, everything from Buddhism to Christianity, signifying that no one of any denomination was denied charity here. Signifying perhaps that the folks who ran the place were just a little on the born again side and desperate to impart the grace of any God upon the desperate, forlorn masses, even if they had to give out free beds and meals to do it.

Yoji got the staggering girl onto the sidewalk and into the front door, figuring that she’d hardly remember her name, much less the faces of the men who’d pulled her out of that warehouse. Even if she did, he doubted she’d share the information. Shame and fear would keep her quiet.

He slipped back into the car and Ken pulled off, while the girl was still standing with her back against the door. Yoji didn’t look back, just settled deeper into the seat and breathed, trying not to stare too hard at the sliver of Aya’s profile that he could see from his vantage. Trying to figure out how to soothe this over. Handling Aya had been touchy enough back when Aya’s good opinion of him hadn’t meant that much. Now that it did, it was damned treacherous, Aya not responding to the sort of diplomacy that a sensible man might. Aya held tight to strange notions and stranger rationalizations, which meant his piques were dangerous and unpredictable to the man who shared his bed more often than not, nowadays. Still, treading some minefields was worth it. More than worth it, for the rewards gained.

“You realize,” Ken said, not able to maintain the strained silence that had fallen over the car. “That if the shit hits the fan because of this, you’re cleaning it up.”

Yoji grunted, not willing to get into a debate over his no doubt universally agreed upon, lack of common sense

“It’ll be okay,” Omi said, more to take an edge of strained nerves and ignitable tempers than from any real belief. “Just . . . it’ll be okay.”

Aya didn’t say a thing. Didn’t blink so much as Yoji could make out. Pissed. Still damned annoyed that Yoji hadn’t let him bloody his sword that last time. Yoji clenched his jaw, and stared at the back of Ken’s seat, thinking sulkily that if Aya was going to be pissed at him, it damned well ought to be over something more dreadful than sparing a terrified, teenaged girl’s life. There came a point when it had to be admitted that their priorities were just fucked.

Even with the light traffic, it took the better part of two hours navigating the close city streets and eventually getting on the south west highway, to get home. Or at least the newest set of walls and ceilings that they called home. The house Kritiker had set up for them was on the southern outskirts of the city, a university suburb in Machida City. Considering some of the places they had stayed in their capacity as Weiß it was a nice little town full of students and shops that catered to the young and young at heart. Most importantly it was out of the Tokyo press. Yoji used to like people, had liked the rush of a city and its ever changing crowds. Not so much anymore. Maybe it was Aya rubbing off. Maybe he was just getting old. God knew.

The house had a front yard not much wider than the car, pebble covered instead of grass, but there was a neat little backyard space that was protected by a privacy fence where grass grew and a body could stretch out and relax after a long day. A pond would have been nice back there, the sound of trickling water a sure way to soothe frayed nerves. They’d talked about it, him and Aya, when they sat out there sometimes at night, Yoji dragging out the one cigarette he promised himself he’d stick to a night, Aya watching the night sky and content enough in Yoji’s company. But they’d made no move to act on the plan, not knowing how long they’d be here.

He missed Venice. He missed not being at Kritiker’s beck and call. He missed the long lazy days with nothing to do but seduce Aya into things that Aya might not think of doing himself. This little house in the suburbs of Tokyo just wasn’t the same.

They piled out of the car, the lot of them tired and showing it in their movements. Aya wasn’t talking. Wasn’t looking at Yoji at all, just stalked ahead and keyed open the door, cutting off the alarm on his way in. He’d head for his room first thing, to take off his gear and clean his sword. Caring for the tricks of his trade was of paramount importance to Aya. More so than settling a dispute with lovers in bad favor.

Yoji shed his coat on the way in, noticing the crusty feel of dried blood on the sleeve. He stopped by the laundry nook and stuffed it into the washer, pulled off his black, high necked shirt as an afterthought and put that in too. He walked down the hall bare chested, working at the buckle of the wristband that contained the wire, hearing the sound of running water from the single bath, which meant that Ken had already claimed it.


He detoured to the kitchen, lying his wire on the table and opening the fridge in search of a cold beer. Found a long necked bottle and snagged it, sighing with pleasure as he took that first frigid swallow.

“Don’t ever get between me and a target again.”

Yoji half canted his head towards the doorway, not having heard Aya pad down the hall, hardly able to see his face now in the shadows of the room. He stood there in the dim light of the refrigerator bulb and considered the damned dangerous tone in Aya’s voice. Considered the rigid set of Aya’s silhouetted shoulders, the sheer indignity of the stance . . . and felt his own anger swell.

“Or what?” he asked softly. “You’ll take me out, too? Easy as that, huh, all to finish the bloody mission?”

“Fool,” Aya hissed.

“For what?!” Yoji flung the mostly full bottle and it hit the cabinet over the stove, not shattering, but clattering to the range-top, spilling its contents into the burner wells. “For having a fucking conscience? You need to grow one, you cold hearted bastard, else you’ll end up as bad as some as the trash we put out of the world’s misery.”

“I don’t need you practicing it for me,” Aya said coldly, offended. Yoji snorted, and stalked towards him and the doorway, more than through with this conversation. He pushed past Aya, shoulder colliding with Aya’s shoulder. Aya reacted, shoving him hard against the wall, leaning in and growling. “I meant what I said. If you can’t follow mission para – – -”

Which was as far as he got, Yoji’s vision going abruptly red around the edges, Yoji’s elbow swinging up and around and slamming solidly against the side of Aya’s head. Aya staggered, stunned from the unexpectedness of that blow.

“Don’t fucking push me,” Yoji snarled, stalking down the hall towards his room as Aya got his balance with a hand on the wall. He pulled on the first shirt that caught his eye, grabbed his wallet and a jacket and was through the living room and out the front door while Aya was probably still wondering what the hell had possessed him. It was one thing for Aya to go on rants and get pissy for little enough reason – – it was quite another for Yoji to lose it so thoroughly. Damn Aya anyway, to get high and mighty with him for practicing a little mercy. Like mercy was a commodity that only had its uses at certain times, and needed to be shunted away and ignored at others. A little mercy was good for the soul, it balanced out some of the dark things they did on a karmic scale and Damnit, Aya needed that good karma as badly as Yoji did., he was just too stubborn to see it.

No one came to the door as he squealed tires pulling out from the front of the house and heading down the little side street lined with houses to the intersecting one that was filled with shops and restaurants. It was too early in the morning for much of anything to be open, but then again he wasn’t in a people mood. There were plenty of places to park, scenic little grottos and historic parks cultivated for the heavy exchange student population that came to attend Oberin university. Easy enough to stop by an all night convenience store and pick up a six pack of beer on the way and sit and watch the sun rise away from all semblance of human life.

And brood. Sometimes he wanted Aya so bad he could feel the texture of his skin like a ghostly reminder. Sometimes he wanted to shake him so hard he could taste the coppery tang of adrenaline at the back of his throat, but he generally never acted upon those latter urges, the desire to protect Aya stronger than the desire to throttle him even when he was in one of his moods. Maybe that was why tonight, he’d been so damned adamant about the girl. Maybe there had been as much concern for Aya there, as for a frightened teenager, because Aya wasn’t a conscienceless killer, and sooner or later, the killing of an innocent would come back and bite him on the ass.

Somebody had to protect Aya from himself.

Yoji came back once the sun was up and most honest folk were out and about, on their way to honest jobs with honest things on their minds. Aya hadn’t stayed up waiting for him. That would have meant he was worried – worried about whether Yoji had done something stupid, or taken off not to be seen for days or weeks and God knew Yoji being gone without word for weeks could rub Aya’s nerves to raw irritation – but no, Aya was not concerned in the least about Yoji’s tantrum and he told himself this repeatedly as the darkness outside his bedroom window turned gray with approaching sunrise.

Whatever had set Yoji off, it was Yoji’s problem, because Aya’s complaints had been nothing but reasonable. If Yoji was going to get sentimental in the midst of a mission, then he needed a hard reminder of his priorities. All it took was a pretty face and crocodile tears and Yoji lost his common sense. As far as they knew, that innocent seeming girl could have been one of Kenjiro’s seasoned drug runners, or worse. Deadly things often hid beneath pretty facades. Yoji ought to know that. If she was in the company of wolves, then more than likely she had wolf-like tendencies. Ken and Omi understood that, so why couldn’t Yoji?

He lay awake turning that over in his head for far too long a while, lay awake convincing himself that Yoji’s anger was a trivial thing and that Yoji would come back contrite and willing to make amends. Yoji always did, Yoji being the peacemaker between them. Aya would accept the apology without making Yoji work for it, Yoji having been very, very upset before he stormed out. When Yoji wasted a perfectly good bottle of imported beer, Yoji was clearly not thinking coherently.

Aya dozed off at some point, and came awake to the sound of the security system chirping as the front door was opened. He waited with his eyes still shut for the soft beeps of the cut off code being entered, and then for the soft footsteps as Yoji crept down the hall towards his own room and the bed he hadn’t seen in close to twenty-four hours.

Aya settled deeper into his pillow, tension flowing out of him, truly able to relax and search for the restful sleep that had eluded him before. He doubted he’d see hide nor hair of Yoji till the evening, but he could wait that long to settle matters between them.

He was right, of course. Despite his own lack of proper sleep, Aya’s internal clock had him out of bed before nine and puttering around the house while the rest of the team slept in. He brewed tea and made a light breakfast, which he took out into the backyard, sitting in one of the slope-backed wooden chairs, his feet in dew covered grass, listening to the sounds of a suburb not so inundated by the rush of the city, to drown all hint of nature. There were bird calls, and the rustle of tree branches in the wind. The neighbor on the other side of the privacy fence had a pond and Aya shut his eyes and listened to the simple sound of gurgling water.

He sat for a long time, simply enjoying those sounds, enjoying the solitude and the peace it brought. It wasn’t Venice. It wasn’t that sort of peace where he could live day by day and know a call wouldn’t come that would send him and his into harm’s way. Where a body could relax and a mind could forget and heal. But it was a little slice of harmony this morning, after a trying night, so there were no complaints.

After a while he heard the quiet sounds of movement in the kitchen, through the screen door that led from it to the backyard. Omi. Yoji wouldn’t have been up and Ken didn’t do anything quietly. Eventually the screen door swung open and Omi came out, barefoot beneath a pair of sweat pants, a loose T-shirt hanging off lean shoulders. He settled in the second slant backed garden chair, a cup of tea and a plate of toast with butter and jelly on his knee.

“It’s a nice morning,” he commented idly, toying with a slice of doctored white bread.

Aya grunted assent.

Omi bit into his toast, finished a slice and sipped at his tea. “You and Yoji had a fight last night.”

It wasn’t a question. Aya tightened his mouth somewhat in annoyance. It was a small house. Ken and Omi could not help but have heard.

“I checked around this morning,” Omi commented. “No repercussions yet. No police report. Nothing to suggest Kenjiro’s contacts have a clue who took his operation out.”

“Fine,” Aya said shortly. Which didn’t mean a thing. The girl was probably still incoherent from whatever she’d been on last night. She could still bring trouble down upon them.

“I didn’t mention her in the report,” Omi added, but what he really meant was that he hadn’t mentioned Yoji’s regrettable act of heroism.

Aya flicked a look at him from under his lashes. That was no small thing, the omission of what could be a very important detail, but it would save Yoji trouble and it would save Yoji black marks in Krittiker’s estimation.

“Thank you,” he said softly and meant it. If this problem came to a head, he’d deal with it without the organization knowing what the initial source was.

Omi nodded, finishing off his toast, sitting there in companionable enough silence while he sipped his tea. He didn’t offer opinions on whether he thought Yoji had been right, or Aya. Aya was grateful for that, too, though sitting there waiting for a comment that didn’t come, effectively shattered the peace of the morning.

Eventually Aya couldn’t stand it any longer and picked up empty teacup and bowl and went back inside, washing the dishes and putting them up, giving the kitchen a once over to see if there was anything else left out of place. But it had been Omi making his breakfast, not either of the other two, so things had been left neat and tidy in his wake. There was nothing to occupy him there. He made a circuit of the house, picked up a pillow from the floor beside the couch where Ken had most likely been sitting last night, unwinding with the Playstation. He opened the blinds on the front windows, letting bright sunlight flood the room. The car was haphazardly parked outside, its back left tire and rear bumper protruding a little into the street. Yoji had evidently not been at his most graceful when he’d come home. Drunk most likely. Aya frowned, annoyed that Yoji hadn’t the sense to stay off the roads in such condition.

He went back to his room finally, and picked up the book he’d been trying to finish for the last few weeks and this time was actually able to read more than a few pages without Yoji’s inevitable distraction.

Ken got up with noon, and made a clamor about lunch and whether to fix something at the house or go out. Omi it seemed, opted to go out. Ken pushed Aya’s door open without knocking, which raised Aya’s hackles to half mast, then finished pissing him off by bluntly asking if Yoji had come home after their little ruckus last night, or had he shacked up somewhere in efforts to avoid Aya?

“Fuck off,” Aya said flatly, at which Ken grinned, having achieved his goal of annoying Aya.

“We’re going for lunch and to ogle the college girls in town. Wanna come?”

Aya waved a dismissive hand at him, and Ken shrugged and backed out of the room, neglecting to shut the door on his retreat. But eventually, he and Omi left, choosing to walk the few blocks distance to the closest commercial district, instead of driving. Which left the car in its damned annoying cock-eyed position. Aya stared out at it between the blinds and drew a hissing breath. He couldn’t leave it like that. He’d ignored it only with some effort all morning, and Ken having tweaked his frustration level, it was beyond him to sit a moment more with it parked half way in the street.

He put a marker in the book, took the keys from the bowl by the front door and went out to park it correctly. He dithered a little with the pebbled surface of the front yard, smoothing over a section by the walk that someone’s foot had carelessly disturbed. He caught himself squatting there, smoothing the surface of marble sized gravel in a front yard that he really didn’t care for much anyway, and realized he was obsessing . . . realized with some distress that he’d been coming close to obsessing all morning. It was nerves. It was simply him worrying about the ticking bomb that Yoji had set on the steps of that shelter last night. Worrying about exposure and having to move again. Worrying about Krittiker’s disciplinary actions if they found out that their mission edict had been ignored.

He stood up, wiping hands on his pant legs and walked back to the house. He caught the distinct smell of strong coffee the moment he entered. Yoji was up. Aya stood in the doorway for a moment, momentarily uncertain how to approach the matter. Should he go into the kitchen, acting as if there had been no altercation at all? Retreat to his room and wait for Yoji’s inevitable appearance at his doorway? Find some meaningless task to occupy him, maintaining his distance and his silence and let Yoji make the first step towards reconciliation?

While he was standing there deciding, he heard the back door open and close and no more noise from the kitchen. Which meant Yoji had retreated to the back yard with his coffee, no doubt intending to take a morning smoke. He took his own sweet time at it, and the longer Aya waited for Yoji’s appearance, the greater his irritation level grew. Aya wasted as much time as he could tolerate in his room, before he found the ideal excuse to venture into the back yard, the hanging of wet laundry along the line that could be strung from the house to the back fence. Most of their mission clothes had been dumped into the washer last night. Omi had started it this morning, sometime before he and Ken left. Aya hated to use the dryer when the sunny day was perfectly capable of doing the same job for free.

There Yoji was, lounging in one of the slant back chairs, ash tray on the arm, empty coffee cup on the ground by his bare feet. He was shirtless, wearing a pair of the loose, cotton pants he preferred to pad around the comfort of home in. Some of his recent tan had faded, but his skin, never pale to begin with, had retained a good bit of the golden glow that he’d had after their hiatus at the beach house some months past. He looked, Aya had to admit . . . ridiculously good. Lean and predatory, sitting there with eyes half lidded against the sun light, the long strands of his hair tucked behind his ears, long legs stretched out before him, toes curling in the grass.

Yoji didn’t say a thing. Didn’t acknowledge Aya’s presence with his basket full of damp clothes at all. Simply sat there with a mostly smoked cigarette dangling from long fingers.

Aya tightened his lips in annoyance and went to string the line. He tidily pinned the predominantly black array of clothing on the line. Their work wardrobe was excessively Spartan when it came to color. When one lurked in the shadows to accomplish one’s job, it was best to blend.

He put the last piece up, one of Yoji’s tight black shirts and stood there scowling at the fabric, his expectations of Yoji breaking the silence neatly shattered. Yoji put him off his balance in that refusal to initiate peace talks. It went against the natural order of things and Aya did not operate well when his world view was skewered, nor did he offer up apologies gracefully. Especially when he was damned well in the right.

He turned with military finesse and fixed Yoji with a glare. Yoji took a drag off the butt of his smoke, unconcerned. Uninterested.

“If you’re going to go out and get drunk, don’t take the car,” Aya snapped, getting the first off the list of the morning’s irritations off his chest.

Yoji blinked. Slowly. Stubbed the cigarette out in the ash tray before looking at Aya. Well, not at Aya’s face. His eyes traveled a lazy path down his body, taking in loose T-shirt, thin cotton khakis, comfortable loafers. Aya had not dressed to impress anyone this morning, having other things on his mind. Yoji reached for another smoke, not commenting. He could have called Aya every nasty name in his broad vocabulary of nasty names and not pissed him off more than he did with his non-response. Aya was well used to perpetrating cold silences himself, but being on the receiving end was intolerable.

“Omi lied in his report because of your stupidity, which puts us all in danger, if Krittiker discovers it. Damn you and your idiocy where women are involved.”

Yoji lit up the smoke and took that first drag, eyes fluttering a little in appreciation of the poison he sucked into his lungs. Aya had the strongest urge to knock it out of his hands, to initiate the violence that had sprang to life last night. At least then Yoji would be participating and he’d have a reasonable excuse to beat some sense into him.

“Do you even care that you put all our lives at risk with that little stunt?”

“Do you wanna fuck?” Yoji looked up at him and asked, dead pan and cold eyed.

“What?” Aya was frankly stunned into a lack of proper response, hardly believing the question had come out of Yoji’s mouth.

Yoji took a second drag and shrugged. “If you just wanna fuck, I can do that. No talking needed. I wouldn’t even have a problem with getting a little rough, if that’s what you want. Slap you around, if you like, since you seem to be begging for it. Otherwise, get the fuck out of my sunlight. I’m working on my tan.”

Aya stood there, trying to wrap his mind around that blunt statement, a muscle starting to tick in his jaw. The violent urge grew considerably stronger. He fought it back with a clenching of iron will, fixed Yoji with the nastiest glare he could summon and stalked back into the house. A series of incoherent curses tumbled about haphazardly inside his head. Thinking straight at that very moment was an accomplishment far beyond Aya’s capacity. He stood at the kitchen sink, fingers gripping the edges and stared blankly into the white porcelain basin, the entirety of his morning’s optimistic speculation washed down that drain by Yoji’s lack of capitulation.

Damn Yoji for his stubborn blindness. Damn him for his weakness. Damn him for the ability he’d gained somewhere along the way to drive Aya past reason. He would prove he was right. He would prove to Yoji that head ruled over heart every time.

If it was one thing Yoji knew how to do it was push Aya’s buttons. Granted he hadn’t had a lot of reason to do it lately, not if he wanted an active sex life, but he’d used to be damned good at it, back in the day, before he’d discovered an attraction to his obsessively compulsive, painfully anal retentive, patently dangerous team mate.

And damned if he was going to back down on this. Not this.

All Aya had really had to do, was let it drop. Was simply not open his mouth about it and let Yoji, work the indignation out of his system. It wouldn’t have taken long, maybe through the afternoon, maybe sooner, if his inability to keep his eyes off Aya’s tight little ass while he’d been hanging clothes had been any indication. But no. Aya had obviously been holding on to his grievances all night and all morning long, for he’d started in and gotten Yoji’s back up. If Aya wanted to hang onto it like a damned bull terrier with a rat in its jaws, then Yoji would respond in kind.

It had been gratifying to see Aya’s face turn red after that last exchange, but he’d probably pay for it in the long run with extended abstinence.

He sighed, deliberating about tapping out another smoke to calm agitated nerves. But no. Absolutely no. He’d been trying to cut down. Been doing a reasonably good job at it lately, maybe halving the amount of cigarettes he went through in a day. It made Aya happy, that reduction. It kept Aya off his back over something that actually did Yoji a little good in yielding to.

Aya didn’t want Yoji to smoke for his own good. Yoji didn’t want Aya to blithely kill innocent girls for the same reason. Fair was most definitely, fair.

Eventually the chair got uncomfortable, and he got up, stretched vigorously enough to hear his back crack, then picked up his coffee cup and the ash trey and went back to the kitchen. He put the cup in the sink without bothering to wash it, put the ashtray on the kitchen table without dumping its contents and wondered cautiously deeper into the house. After his little parting comment to Aya, he didn’t particularly trust his safety in close quarters. But Aya had shut himself in the den, with his sword most likely, taking advantage of the only room large enough in the house to use as a practice area. They’d taken out all the furniture, leaving only a thick carpet and venetian blinds on the windows. They’d certainly had larger work out rooms, but this one was adequate as long as only one of them at a time utilized it. He could hear the quiet sounds of rhythmic movement behind that door. Aya practicing some stance or technique over and over and over. He’d wear that rug thin in his doggedness, especially if he was pissed off, which Yoji had to assume, on good authority, that he was.

Leaving the house now would smack too much of running away from Aya’s pique, so Yoji puttered around a bit, eventually ending up in the kitchen searching for a lunch his limited cooking skills would make palatable. Instant ramen and grilled cheese seemed to fit the bill. He was good at toasting bread and excellent at boiling water. He opened a cold Pepsi and stood by the stove, spatula in hand while his sandwich sizzled in a frying pan liberally coated with melted butter.

Aya was a stubborn twit. An egotistical one, who would only under great duress admit fault. If then. It was only sheerest luck that they didn’t butt heads more often, personal ideologies tending to run on different paths. It was Yoji’s fault that Aya thought he could trample over him and not get called on it. Because Yoji didn’t like drawn out grudges and long silences, and Yoji had the tendency to accommodate the idiosyncrasies of his lovers. Well, not that he’d had a lot of those lately, and even before Aya, there’d been mostly one night stands and it was easy to agree with everything, no matter what he thought, when all he’d really recall of the person he’d slept with was how good a fuck she’d been on that trusty scale of 1 to 10. He’d just started out bending to Aya’s whimsy – – well, for the most part – – early on in their relationship. It was simply easier to keep Aya happy and content and subsequently warm and passionate, if he agreed to most everything and then went and did what he thought was right once Aya’s attention was elsewhere. And damnit, it was important to him that Aya was happy. More so sometimes than his own comfort. Left to his own devices, Aya was uncomfortably self-destructive and he needed a stable, flexible influence to keep him sane.

Yoji thought he filled that bill admirably nowadays. He hadn’t teetered on the edge of madness in a very long time himself. Had come to grip with his losses and his failures rather well, if he did say so himself.

Something was burning. Yoji blinked his way out of self inflicted Aya introspection and hissed, shoving the spatula under the very browned cheese sandwich and rescuing it from the heat. It was somewhat blackened around the edges, but trimming the crust took care of that and Yoji wasn’t particularly picky about what went in his mouth.

Ken and Omi got back when he was down to the dregs of the noodle broth. They were chattering cheerfully about whatever it was they had been doing while they were out this morning. Ken’s voice rang through the house, especially excited about, so it sounded to Yoji, who only heard the dregs of the conversation, some impromptu soccer game that they had invaded on their way home. Not surprising. There was a small park a few streets into the commercial district where students gathered for picnics and conversation.

Omi hit the kitchen first, Ken trailing behind him.

“What’ja you burn?” Ken had a nose like a bloodhound. The answer was obvious in the form of the blackened crusts that littered Yoji’s empty plate.

“You and Aya had a fight,” Omi stated the even more obvious, brows drawn in concern.

“Yeah,” Yoji grunted. No reason to deny it.

Ken made a rude noise.

“And this surprises you . . . why? Like you didn’t expect him to jump down your throat after backing him down like that?” Ken asked, as if he were the supreme authority in Aya baiting, which Yoji considered, he probably was, having spent more time and effort at the dubious sport, than Yoji ever had.

Yoji canted his head, staring dryly at Ken, who he figured didn’t really expect an answer to his hypothetical question. Ken didn’t, moving on without missing a beat.

“So, Omi checked with the powers that be and we’ve absolutely got the next few days free, maybe more. So I was thinking, its nearing the end of the season and there are some good college games coming up. A really big final at Chubu University tomorrow night. Wanna take a road trip?”

Ken and Omi were driving up to Nagoya and they were taking Yoji with them. Aya didn’t care in the least. Aya flipped through a magazine with supreme indifference up until the point that he heard the rumble of the car engine starting outside the window. The magazine was hurled with a great deal of pent up frustration at that very same window. Thankfully the window pane didn’t break, but the blinds made a terrible racket.

He sat there a few moments afterwards, glaring daggers at the damage done, a section of the blinds bent awkwardly from the magazine impact.

Yoji hadn’t said a thing to him. Not a single word. Omi had explained, rather bashfully, where they were going and why, while Ken had been stuffing ice and road snacks into a cooler. Yoji had gone and changed clothes, put on his darkest pair of sunglasses, and gave Aya an over the rim look as if he were expecting him to make some comment, before sauntering out the front door and piling into the car with Ken and Omi.

Aya hardly waited until the car had pulled off from the front of the house before he stalked to Omi’s room and the computer there. He didn’t remember the name of the shelter where they’d dropped the girl off, but it was easy enough to find on the city planner’s map site. He found the number from the on-line directory and had a cover story and a reasonable excuse why they ought to give out the name of a girl that had come to them in need to a complete stranger over the phone. As it turned out the woman who answered was so blindingly naive and good natured that he had hardly gotten into his explanation before she was happily spewing out the information he wanted.

Taku Kobayashi was her name. After she’d slept off the worst of the drugs and the shock she’d called her parents to come and pick her up. At least that’s who the woman at the shelter thought the girl had had her call. He got a number and confirmed with some of Omi’s more intrusive software that Taku Kobayashi indeed lived at the address that the number was connected with.

The girl had no record with the police. She was sixteen and attended a school in a Tokyo suburb. None of which meant she didn’t have underworld connections. She could have been a carrier, an informant, a lure or worse. Deadly things were very often hidden within innocent appearing packages.

He was damned and determined to prove that to Yoji. The second car was in the shop, thanks to Ken cruising the college town last Friday night and a pair of drunken college seniors rear ending him while he’d been admittedly girl watching instead of paying attention to the changing light in front of him. Which meant Aya had to walk into town to get to the nearby rail terminal that sped from Nagoya and the neighboring towns into Tokyo proper. It took a considerably shorter time by train than it would have fighting traffic in a car. It just meant that once in the city, he’d have to battle foot traffic and the oppressive crowds that utilized the subway.

That was the thing he hated most about Tokyo. The inescapable crowds. Crowds that surged and ebbed like a sea of humanity, crowding, touching, breathing on each other like cattle in a pen, herded together for the slaughter. Aya hated to be touched. Hated with a passion being jostled and shifted along helplessly with the movement of the crowd at the subway platform as they moved as one towards the opening doors of the train.

He gritted his teeth and endured it, breathing a sigh of relief as the subway reached his destination. The doors gusted open and he allowed himself to be swept out with the exiting crowd. Not so much of a crowd as there had been when he’d gotten on in the heart of the city. It was easier to breathe in this smaller terminal. Easier not to want to tear someone’s heart out simply because they jostled him in passing.

He found the girl’s home with little enough problem. An apartment in a building with dozens of similar dwellings. If a mother and father lived there, they were out. More than likely both held jobs. The girl would still be in school.

The school was within walking distance of the apartment. An easy walk past residential streets, past a small business district that had seen better days to the school grounds. It was an old neighborhood. Though it had not fallen into slum or disrepair, it had seen better days. The people that walked its streets were plain-clothed, hard-working and reputable. It was not the sort of neighborhood one would expect to see drug peddlers loitering, but then drug peddlers these days had gotten extremely subtle at the spreading of their poison.

Not wanting to seem the pervert lurking around school grounds, Aya situated himself at a sidewalk table in a cafe within view of the academic building, on the girl’s direct route home. He’d picked over a late, late lunch, numerous cups of tea, dessert and more tea by the time the higher grade level classes were let out for the afternoon.

A bevy of youngsters in school uniforms issued forth onto the grounds, clumping together into small groups and clichés to either socialize on the grass and under the trees, or walk home.

They walked past, packs of girls, laughing, chattering, shrieking in girlish excitement, trailed after by high school boys who were only marginally quieter in their speculation of their female classmates.

Aya didn’t ever remember being like that. That loud. That interested in cell phones and beepers and impressing his friends. That pack oriented, for most certainly most of these kids seemed to run in tight knit little cliques that disdained the interference of outsiders.

He noticed Taku Kobayashi more because she walked alone, apart from the packs, than from any blaring imprint of her face in his memory. She might have passed by without him recognizing her at all if she’d been in one of those groups, for she didn’t quite look like the same girl from that night, devoid now of make up and clubbing clothes. She looked like nothing more than a high school – – god, junior high school student, a little shy, a little plain even, as she walked by herself down the sidewalk opposite one of the large groups of chattering girls.

He let her pass by, leisurely settling up his tab, and rising with no apparent interest in passing teenage girls. He knew where she lived and the route she would take to get there. No hurry.

He followed a block behind, keeping her within his line of vision, waiting for something incriminating, anything that would indicate that she was more than she seemed.

The most he got was one of the group of girls across the street from Taku Kobayashi calling something over. He couldn’t quite hear the gist of it, but Taku faltered in her stride, head down, hugging her book bag tight to her chest. It was the sort of dejected slump of shoulders that a teenaged girl walking home from school would have little enough reason to fake. The comment had had something to do with a cousin, he thought.

He passed a group of boys who had paused at a corner convenience store, paused himself as he heard Taku Kobayashi’s name as one of the boys reported the latest gossip. Heard her cousin Mia – she’s an upperclassman at Meiji high – took her out with her out of pity, and then Taku chickened out and left her at some club or something and her cousin never got home. Police are looking for her even. Taku says she can’t remember, but word is she was so drunk that she couldn’t find her own way home.

Aya moved on, remembering that other girl. The one that Yoji hadn’t had the chance the champion. Taku’s cousin? They’d probably never find her. Between Omi’s charges and the volatile chemicals in that warehouse, he doubted the police could even get proper dental identifications from whatever charred remains were left. He wondered if Taku Kobayashi had truly blanked out that night, or she was simply covering her own ass. Or, more than likely, he admitted, she hadn’t said a thing to her classmates, not a single word to feed their imaginations, so they’d had to fill in the blanks. Kids could be unbearably cruel. He remembered that well enough, having been something of a loner himself during those years. Aya-chan had been to a certain degree, by association, defending him more often than not, against verbal attacks that he wouldn’t respond to himself. She had been ferociously protective, his little sister, and only her outgoing personality and innate charm had kept her from being the outsider that he had been. But she’d had her days and for an uncomfortable moment, Taku Kobayashi’s retreating back reminded him of Aya-chan, walking home from school on one of those days where she’d been little more on the outside than on the in.

He shivered, forcefully booting that association from his mind.

She walked home unmolested, meeting no shady characters, stopping by no suspicious cars, making no calls, if she even had a cell at all. She climbed the steps to her front door and went inside. And that was it.

He positioned himself across the street in an unobtrusive niche and settled down to watch the apartment. He was too good at his job to fidget, even though nothing more interesting happened that afternoon than an old couple having a fight. The parents came home. First the mother, a squat, short little woman with graying hair and an armful of groceries. The father arrived not long after, a menial laborer of some sort by the stained overall’s he wore. Through shades open to let in the evening light, he could see mother and daughter working together in the small kitchen. The girl was slump shouldered and quiet and the mother often put a comforting hand on arm or shoulder. Aya wondered if the girl believed what her classmates were saying. That she had run off and abandoned her missing cousin. That, if not for her, the other girl might be safe at home.

God, what if he’d been wrong? What if she were nothing more than a girl who’d been in the wrong place at the wrong time, unwillingly tagging along with a more brazen cousin? An innocent, as Yoji said. What if it had been Aya-chan in a similar situation and there had been no one there to stay the hand of a hell-bent executioner?

He felt a vague rumbling of nausea. With a sense of desperation he pushed it aside, settling down for the night to wait.

Yoji had actually enjoyed the game. Had enjoyed the excitement of the crowd and the sunny, crisp weather of the outside playing field. He’d had a fine time watching the college coeds bouncing around in their seats. It was just that somebody seriously needed to slip Ken a Valium afterwards.

After several long, long hours trapped in the car with an exuberant soccer enthusiast, one could learn to abhor the sport. Ken wouldn’t shut up about it. About the game they’d sat crammed in the stands amidst throngs of other sports fans, about the professional games that Ken only got to watch on the TV, about various god-like players that Ken idolized, about the tactics and the strategy the winning team had used as well as the mistakes the losers had clearly made – all of it got hashed and rehashed over the duration of the drive home.

Yoji dozed when he could, head against the window, Ken’s voice a droning buzz in his subconscious. Omi listened and occasionally contributed to Ken’s babble with what could only be considered the patience of a man four times his age. Omi had Yoji’s respect for that feat. Although, honestly, some of the looks Yoji caught Omi throwing Ken’s way made him think that there was more than patience at work. God knew Ken didn’t notice, but maybe Yoji’s imagination was working overtime and the infatuation he thought he saw in Omi’s eyes was nothing more than simple regard for a friend.

If not . . . well, damn, but when had that happened and he hadn’t noticed? He supposed Aya was enough of a preoccupation to keep a man oblivious to a good deal of the everyday things going on around him, but still . . . you’d think a thing like Omi developing a crush on Ken would have shown up on his radar.

But other than a niggling little sixth sense about it today, he hadn’t anything more concrete to go on and actually asking the kid about it would be as embarrassing for him as Omi, if he was completely off the mark.

So he decided that discretion was the better part of valor in this case, and keeping his mouth shut was the way to go. He had enough troubles of his own at the moment without inviting more in.

It was past eleven when they got home and the house was dark. Of Aya there was neither hide nor hair, which didn’t particularly raise alarms, since he’d been pissed when they’d left. Having gained an inkling over the past months into the way Aya’s mind sometime worked, Yoji figured that he’d taken off, damned and determined not to be outdone by Yoji’s flight during the midst of a fight. He could have been as close as Machida City, or have taken it into his head to outdo Yoji by a long shot and be on the other side of the island. Or further. Probably not further, Yoji surmised, turning on lights as he delved deeper into the darkened house. The extent of Aya’s eccentricities were directly connected to the current state of his psyche. Other than this recent spat, there had been little weighing on Aya’s mind. At least that he’d admitted to Yoji, and of late, they’d been rather intimate in their late night admissions.

Yoji retreated to his room to shuck off his clothes and sprawl in bed in front of the TV, sans Ken’s chatter or contemplation of Omi’s romantic hopes. He wasn’t worried about Aya. Aya could take care for himself.

That knowledge didn’t stop him from having alarming nightmares that he couldn’t quite recall the details of when he woke with the sun coming in through the half open blinds. He just knew the night scares had involved Aya in some sort of distress and his own inability to help him.

Rubbing sleep from his eyes, he padded into the bathroom and slouched over the toilet, relieving a full bladder. He gave himself a cursory glance in the mirror, ran a hand through sleep tousled hair and decided a shower could wait until he’d had a smoke and a cup of coffee.

Passing Aya’s room on the way to the kitchen, he noted the cracked door and the neatly made, empty bed. He frowned, thinking unsavory things about stubborn, closed-minded twits.

“Hey.” He nodded absently at Omi, who sat at one end the kitchen table, holding a half empty cup of tea between his hands. Through the screen of the backdoor, Yoji could see Ken in the backyard in white wife-beater and blue sweats, working out with hand weights. Omi had a rather good vantage point for Ken-watching, even though with Yoji’s appearance, he was paying more heed to the pattern of the table cloth than what Ken was doing in the backyard.

Yoji kept his mouth very firmly shut, reiterating to himself that broaching the subject of possible infatuations was not the wisest course of action. Omi, likewise did not comment about Aya’s absence, or the reason behind it.

He made his coffee. Went outside to drink it while he smoked, watching with less aesthetic interest than Omi, Ken’s repetitions with the weights. Ken, like Aya, could become unpeturbedly focused when he was about business. Even workouts that did not involve his weapons of choice were to be taken seriously. Yoji didn’t bother even nodding morning to him, knowing the gesture would go unnoticed.

It was not until he’d smoked his cigarette down to the butt, savoring every lung full knowing he wouldn’t get another until after lunch, and gone back inside to deposit his coffee cup in the sink for someone else to wash, that he heard the front door open and close. Quietly.

That lack of defiant slamming said something. He gave Omi a glance, which the kid shrugged off without comment. Not to be considered a coward in his own house, Yoji sauntered out of the kitchen and down the hall towards the shower, figuring that unless Aya had made a run for it, he wouldn’t have had the time to escape to his room before Yoji rounded the corner.

He hadn’t. Yoji caught him with his hand on door to his bedroom. Black jacket, white shirt, black pants. All of them looking a little less than freshly pressed. Aya’s eyes flickered to him from under tousled bangs, then away, before retreating to the shadowed safety of his room.

Okay. Yoji’s resolve was beginning to show the first signs of wavering. Maintaining grudges was just damned exhausting.

With a sigh, he passed Aya’s door and went to take his shower. He spent a nice, long time under the hot water, standing with his hands against the wall, letting the water sluice down over his head and shoulders, content enough in his cocoon of wet hair and water. The only way to fix this, was going to be him caving. Him giving way on something he didn’t believe. What was the big deal anyway? It wasn’t like done wasn’t done. He’d accomplished what he’d needed to accomplish. The girl was safe, one less victim, so what did it really matter if he ate a little crow for Aya’s benefit?

It was only his pride, after all. He could pretend it was an equal trade for Aya’s good graces.

Fuck. Just . . . fuck.

He reluctantly left the sanctuary of the shower, wrapping a towel around his hips, towel drying his hair on the way out with another. He stopped by the small laundry closet, dumping that second, damp towel in the hamper, looking to see if there were any clean things of his that someone had washed with their load and left stacked on the shelf above the washer and dryer.


Yoji paused in reaching for what promised to be a pair of his boxers, canting a look at the narrow laundry room door. Aya stood there, tight lipped, stone faced.

God, here it comes, Yoji thought dismally. Aya was going to make one more go at him and he was just going to suck it up and admit defeat. He lifted a brow, waiting for Aya to start in.

“You may not have been,” Aya started, hesitating a beat, lashes flickering down to hide his eyes before he picked up the thread, “entirely out of line in your actions the other night.

Yoji blinked, rocked off his guard by the unexpectedness of that simple statement. Aya wasn’t looking at him. Aya was studying the white, enamel front of the washing machine.

“What?” Yoji asked stupidly, not quite believing Aya had said what he had said.

Aya’s mouth tightened. Yoji could practically hear his teeth grinding.

“It wasn’t a bad call. I was . . . it was just as well that you did what you did.”

I was . . . wrong? Had those words almost come out of Aya’s pretty mouth? Yoji felt a surge of exuberance that almost defied the laws of gravity. Was Fujimiya Aya actually apologizing? To him? He wanted to hear the words. All of them, not just an aborted, clumsy attempt to save face. He wanted a little vindication.

And yet . . . he could choose to act superior and bask in the glory of this highly unprecedented moment, or he could encourage future acts of contrition and accept the apology with good grace.

“Okay,” Yoji said, leaning a towel clad hip against the edge of the dryer.

Aya looked up at him, a glimmer of wariness in his eyes. “Okay?”

“Sure, I’m cool with that.” Yoji smiled, back on his stride and feeling very, very good about it. Aya, being Aya, expected repercussions. He expected a lecture. He expected a bit of sermonizing to grind home the admission of error before the matter was carefully filed away for future use. He expected Yoji to do what he would do if the roles were reversed.

Yoji baffled him and Yoji knew it and the burgeoning satisfaction spread like warm honey under his skin. Aya off his balance and confused, those black fringed eyes of his softening with uncertainty was like juiced up jolt of adrenaline straight to Yoji’s libido.

“All right,” Aya said, loosening his grip on the door frame, preparing a retreat. Yoji reached out, casually catching a handful of white shirt.

“So, did you sleep in these clothes or what?”

Aya looked down at Yoji’s tanned hand on the crisp white of his shirt. He shook his head slightly. There was a fragile, slightly bruised quality to him, once the pressure of his apology was off, that suggested that he hadn’t gotten any sleep at all.

Yoji fingered the material. It was a soft blend of polyester and silk that felt smooth and supple to the touch. Much like Aya himself. He curled his fingers in the cloth and pulled, drawing Aya closer.

“Think maybe this needs to be washed.” He toyed with a lower button, feeling the flutter of Aya’s breath beneath the layer of material.

“Yoji . . . .” Aya put a hand on Yoji’s wrist, staying his progress with the button, staring into his face with naked distress. It had to be frustrating for him, his gesture of repentance, which was no minor thing for Aya, to be so casually accepted then dismissed for other goals. Maybe he did want that lecture. Maybe whatever had changed his mind on the matter demanded that he allow himself to be berated . . . condemned.

He’d damn well come to the wrong place. Yoji caught Aya’s jaw and kissed him. A long, soft caress of lips, the flicker of tongue that was more about forgiveness than passion.

“I’m sorry I hit you.”

Aya blinked at him, uncomprehending.

“You know. In the hall. My elbow. Your jaw. Sorry.”

Aya nodded, eyes liquid and wide, pulse throbbing against Yoji’s knuckles where they grazed his throat. Yoji leaned forward and kissed him again, this time deeper and with more serious intent. He pressed close, rubbing his towel clad hips firmly against Aya’s, feeling the satisfactory hardness beneath Aya’s pants. Aya’s hands tangled in his hair, splayed across the naked expanse of his shoulders and back. Yoji groaned and ground harder, pushing Aya back against the washer. Got his own fingers tangled in Aya’s hair and pulled his head back, fastening his lips to that seductive, rapid pulse beneath the corner of Aya’s jaw. The taste of Aya’s scent was intoxicating, the solid feel of flesh under his mouth, between his teeth. He bit down a little, and Aya shuddered, digging his fingers into the muscles of Yoji’s back even as he rolled his head back, exposing more vulnerable neck.

Yoji nibbled his way down to the hollow between Aya’s collar bones, fumbling with the buttons of his shirt, pulling it open as he went, finding a taut little nipple begging for attention, even as one hand roamed lower, kneading Aya’s rigid cock through the material of his pants.

“Yoji, Wait, Yoji, we’re in the . . . Laundry . . . ”

Yoji slid his palm hard against Aya’s erection, pressing it tight against his stomach, sliding his hand from tip to base, knowing full well how the friction of cloth against sensitive skin would drive Aya to distraction. Aya shuddered, struggling to keep hold of his train of thought, and when he found, it there was such a tremor in his voice that the words were barely legible. “Ken . . . Omi . . . We can’t . . . here.”

“There’s a door,” Yoji pointed out reasonably, and leaned around Aya to slide it shut. In the process, the towel around his hips slid free, baring his straining erection for all to see. Obligingly enough, Aya’s eyes fixed upon it. He looked back up to Yoji, lips parted and full, a faint blush of exertion staining his pale cheeks. God, but he was pretty. Just damned gorgeous with tousled overlong bangs, eyes huge with passion, stark white shirt falling open against pale strip of chest and belly. Oh and that beautiful, proud tenting of his trousers that Yoji seriously wanted to get his hands upon.

“You know,” he said softly, idly rubbing a thumb across the weeping head of his cock. “The best way to really get across that you’re sorry is a bit of penitent oral sex.”

Aya’s brow shot up. Pink tongue flicked out to wet his bottom lip. For a moment, Yoji thought he’d killed the mood. Then Aya reached behind him and turned the flimsy door lock, before gracefully sliding down Yoji’s torso and onto his knees before him. He looked up, meeting Yoji’s eyes, chin resting in Yoji’s pubes, Yoji’s thick cock pressed against his cheek. There was very little of penitence in Aya’s eyes. He turned his head, kissing the base of the erection, nuzzled his way along the length of it and took the head slowly into his mouth. He pulled back a little, teasing the slit with his tongue and Yoji had to put a hand on the wall to brace himself against the jolting waves of sensation that ran through the breadth and length of his nervous system. He shut his eyes and thanked God, when Aya swallowed him to the hilt. He had to force himself to open his eyes so he wouldn’t miss the sight of Aya’s soft, pink lips stretched around the base of his cock, of the convulsive working of Aya’s long throat. Aya wasn’t as good at deep throating as Yoji, his mind tended to get in the way and the gag reflexes would kick in whether he wanted them to or not. He pulled back after a moment, wrapping his hand around the base of Yoji’s cock and began a sensuous, bobbing rhythm that threatened to milk Yoji then and there.

He abandoned Yoji’s cock for a moment, crouching lower to take one of Yoji’s nuts into his mouth, sucking on the loose skin, biting just enough to make Yoji shudder happily and wish for something soft to fall back in when his knees finally gave out under the bliss.

Aya drew it out, all soft touches, firm pressure, excruciating pleasure/pain jolts as he used his teeth now and then, wet velvet of his tongue, slick upper side of the roof of his mouth, tantalizing tightness at the back of his throat . . . God.

Yoji spurted and Aya got most of it in his mouth, some of it on his face as he pulled back a little out of reflex. Swallowing a mouthful of come was not Aya’s favorite thing in the world, though he rarely complained when Yoji hadn’t the presence of mind to warn him it was coming.

“Adequate?” Aya asked, with just a hint of smugness, using the towel at Yoji’s feet to wipe his face.

It took Yoji’s vocabulary a second to reboot after the system overload. He grinned, reaching down and helping Aya to his feet, Aya’s erection still tenting his pants.

“Completely. You want I should take care of that, for you?”

Aya’s eyes flicked down, back up, speaking volumes. Yoji smiled, and had Aya’s belt undone and pants unfastened with the ease of long practice.

“Up.” Yoji patted the top of the washer, and with a questioning arch of one fine brow, Aya complied, hopping up onto the washer, with his pants around his knees. Yoji finished the job of shucking them off and Aya was as bare as he was from the waist down. He patted Aya’s knee, urging him to spread his legs, then bent down to capture Aya’s long cock in his mouth.

If Aya had gotten good at giving head, it was due to Yoji’s creative tutelage. Yoji was a master at it and left no ground uncharted. He pulled Aya’s hips to the edge of the washer, hooking one knee over his shoulder, while Aya braced the other against the opposite wall and made a path down the underside of Aya’s twitching cock, savoring every soft centimeter of his balls, to the sensitive patch of skin between scrotum and anus, then to the pink, puckered hole itself.

Aya was gasping little half complete words/curses/pleas above him, his head against the wall under the cabinet, his hands clutching the edge of the washer. Yoji wormed his tongue inside the tight ring of muscle protecting Aya’s depths, savoring that particular acrid flavor as well, simply because it was part of Aya. Aya arched and writhed and hissed for Yoji to ‘fuck me. Just fuck me.’ Yoji’s sated organ twitched, swelling with interest at the reflexive, breathy litany. The lack of lube handy in the laundry room was a regretful deterrent, even though it was doubtful Aya would have complained. Yoji substituted a finger, moving his mouth back up to Aya’s cock, taking him down to the base even as he curled his finger inside Aya’s body, searching out and accurately finding the hypersensitive prostate.

Aya cried out, aborted the sound by biting his lip, and came in great spasming spurts.

Yoji had none of Aya’s reservations about the taste of come in his mouth. He loved it. He loved milking Aya for every drop he was worth. He slid down to his knees when Aya had gone small and limp in his mouth, and rested his head against Aya’s calf, hand curling around the heel of his dangling foot, fingers stroking the graceful arch.

“So you wanna tell me?” he murmured, pressing his lips against the side of Aya’s knee.

“What?” Aya pushed himself up, leaning over to peer down at the top of Yoji’s head.

“What changed your mind.”

Silence. Yoji canted his head back to look up at Aya.

“No,” Aya said softly. “Later . . . maybe.”

Yoji digested that, accepting that it was enough that Aya had changed his mind on the matter, which was no small thing once his path was set. Expecting whatever mental processes had been involved to be explained was simply a pipe dream.

Aya swung a leg over Yoji’s head and hopped to the floor. He offered a hand and Yoji took it, hauling himself up. He grabbed the pair of boxers he’d originally come in here in search of.

“I need a shower,” Aya murmured, zipping up his pants, not bothering with the buttons of the shirt.

“A couple hours sleep probably wouldn’t hurt, either,” Yoji said, ghosting a finger across Aya’s cheek and the shadow of dark circle under his eye. “You look like hell.”

Aya opened his mouth, thought better of whatever it was he had been about to say and simply shrugged. He slid the narrow door open and paused as his foot collided with a small pile of dirty clothes. Sweat pants, wife-beater, dirty briefs. Yoji had seen Ken wearing at least two out of the three earlier that morning. Fuck.

“If you’re finished with the make-up sex,” Ken’s voice drifted from behind the closed door of his room. “Put my shit in the hamper.”

“God.” Aya shut his eyes, shoulder hitting the door frame as if the shock of being overheard had robbed him of his equilibrium. He knocked the side of his head against the frame. Once, twice, three times for good measure and Yoji had to grin past his own brief embarrassment and urge Aya forward. He scooped up Ken’s small pile and tossed it towards the hamper, before trailing Aya to the bathroom.

“Listen,” He put a hand on the frame, leaning in as Aya arranged a clean towel to his liking on the rack beside the shower. “Why don’t you come sleep in my room when you’re done.”

“If I come to your room, I won’t sleep.”

“Yes, you will.”

After a moment of contemplation, Aya nodded. Yoji grinned and retreated, pulling the bathroom door shut behind him.

Ken’s door opened as he passed, Ken leaning there with a smirk on his face.

“So I guess you wussed out after all, and made nice with him?”

Yoji smiled beatifically and flipped Ken off, sauntering down the hall towards his own doorway.

A two day fight wasn’t bad at all, considering the parties involved. There had been no blood and not much in the way of violence, and somehow, at some level Aya had turned a corner, which would have made a whole week – – hell, a whole month, without sex worth the while.

Two days was a windfall.

All in all, his act of mercy had been right on the mark.