Art of Cruelty

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chapter four

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"Konomi-san!"

Busy smoking a cigarette as he headed for his afternoon art class, it took Yohji a few seconds to realize that his ‘name’ was being called out, repeatedly at that. He nearly dropped the cigarette as he turned and looked around, curious as to who wanted his attention so badly. It took a few more seconds before he spotted Murata Eriko waving at him, the petite young woman jumping up once or twice to be better seen amongst the crowd of college students.

"Ah, Murata-san, don’t tell me you’re so cold that you’re doing jumping jacks!" he teased when she finally reached his side, her long, dark brown hair slightly disarrayed and her cheeks flushed pink with either the cold or exertion.

"Very funny, Konomi-san." She smiled as she fell in step beside him, her left hand twitching her long black skirt free from her legs. "Actually, I was hoping to borrow a cigarette."

"Anything for a pretty lady." Yohji managed half a bow as he removed the pack of cigarettes from his coat pocket and shook one free for her.

Murata giggled as she accepted the cigarette. "Thank you very much." The smile of gratitude strengthened when he held up his lighter as well, although she didn’t say anything else until after she’d inhaled deeply a couple of times. "I really wish we could smoke in class – although it would help if I remembered to buy a new pack before classes started." She bowed her head in his direction. "Again, thank you."

Yohji shrugged, which made him have to resettle the strap to his portfolio higher up on his left shoulder. "I understand the pain of sitting through a boring class while desperate for a smoke. However, Hasegawa-sensei’s classes aren’t too bad so I’m sure you could have made it a little longer if you hadn’t run into me." He wondered if Murata had singled him out like that just for a cigarette – she’d been very friendly toward him in class, but they rarely spoke once the lesson was finished and everyone left the room. She was a good enough of an artist that she was considered as a suspect, and he’d met enough ‘meek and quiet’ young women who’d turned out to be completely opposite of that false image to know better than to be fooled by appearances. That thought prompted an image of Asuka in his mind, which caused him to shiver in pain. At least it was cold enough outside to excuse the odd action.

Exhaling slowly, Murata waited until her lungs were empty before shaking her head. "No, his classes are always fun, but my hands would be shaking too much to draw properly. Also, Saito-chan would then remind me about how smoking is terrible for my skin." Murata wrinkled her nose as if both amused and annoyed. "Smoking ages you, you know," she confided, her dark eyes sparkling as she leaned closer to Yohji.

"So I’ve been told." All in all, Yohji would take his chances with cigarettes considering what he did for a living – somehow, he felt the risk of lung cancer and other diseases were a lot less probable than being shot to death one night. He leaned closer and whispered in a conspiratorial manner. "I must admit, I fail to see how dry skin is any worse than smooth skin perforated by a bunch of metal rods!"

That comment made Murata giggle, her left hand covering her mouth while her right one held the cigarette a safe distance away from them both. "Oh, Konomi-san, you’re so mean!"

He shrugged and took one last drag on his own cigarette before tossing it aside. "You should try telling her that the next time she gives you a lecture."

"Hmm, I’m not sure it would work since those piercings are ‘to enhance one’s natural beauty and individuality’." She tilted her head to the side and exhaled sharply when the cold wind blew some of her hair across her face. "I just do my best to have a smoke before class starts, so I appreciate you saving me today!"

"You’re welcome." Yohji smiled, something that came easily to him when he was talking to a pretty woman, even if it was for a mission and it was cold as hell outside. "Now you won’t have to worry about shaky lines in class!"

"I know!" Murata clapped her hands together, excitement plain on her face and in her voice. "I’m hoping that Hasegawa-sensei managed to reserve that one model again – the redhead. I’ve a painting in mind for him since his color is so striking." She began to rummage through her portfolio and didn’t notice the way that Yohji’s smile slipped when she mentioned Aya.

Doing his best to keep his voice normal while warning bells went off in his head, Yohji shrugged again and attempted to tuck his hair back behind his ears. "Oh yeah, the one with the incredible shoulders and arms. I hope we can move on to colors soon since charcoal really doesn’t do him any justice."

Murata nodded several times while still searching for something. "Exactly. He has to be one of the most handsome models we’ve ever had; although we really have been blessed with some great models lately. Ah!" A shy smile on her face, she pulled out a notebook and slowly held it out to Yohji. "If you don’t mind… well, this was what I thought might be a good painting to do with him."

He accepted the notebook and actually stopped in the sidewalk, causing the two kids behind him to complain quietly before walking around him and Murata. The artwork was sketched in what seemed to be colored pencils, too good to be considered a ‘rough’ outline even if the details weren’t very sharp because of its small size. Murata seemed to have been inspired by that one foreign artist, Klem or Klempt or something, considering the blocks of color that stood in stark contrast to the paleness of Aya’s face. It would be a beautiful painting, one unique enough that Yohji felt he had to mention this to Omi and to wish that he could take a picture of the drawing somehow.

Doing his best to remember the art classes he’d taken in high school, he cleared his throat and decided to just tell her the truth. "I really like it." Of course, it helped that Aya wasn’t naked in the drawing, the elaborate, patchwork kimono he was wearing only leaving his upper body, hands and flashes of his legs visible, but Murata had done a wonderful job of capturing one of his lover’s more serious expressions and upright but relaxed posture. "The colors are a great choice, and it’s different enough to catch the eye."

"Thank you." Once again, Murata bowed her head, and now her smile was pleased instead of shy. "Saito-chan seems to think his looks call for an ukiyo-e style, but I prefer something a bit more modern." She held the now closed notepad in front of her mouth as she giggled. "Of course, the ‘harridans’ prefer a much different style than the both of us!"

If he wasn’t very mindful of his expressions right now, Yohji’s jaw would clench in anger and possessiveness at the mention of the ‘harridans’. The girls in question seemed to relish the ‘nickname’ they’d inadvertently been given by Hasegawa, enough so that other art students took to calling them that when collectively referring to the young women. While Yohji usually had no problem with cute girls who liked looking at pictures of nude men, he *did* have a problem with their constant harassment of Aya.

"I’m surprised Hasegawa-sensei’s been able to get Matsumoto-san back to pose for us after the way those girls have done their best to latch on to the poor guy," he finally said a few seconds later, hard-pressed to retain his friendly tone as he answered Murata. However, something must have slipped past him since her eyes narrowed slightly and she patted him on the shoulder.

"Don’t worry, Konomi-san," she said, voice pitched low in a confidential manner. "They want to ask you to pose for them, too, but I hear that Matsumoto-san resembles a character in a doujin that they need to finish first." She giggled again and gave his left arm a squeeze. "If I were you, I’d hide once they have that one published and are about to begin a new project! Then they can latch on to another model – the one with the dyed hair has a wonderful body."

"Ah, my faith in the ability of people to recognize my innate sexiness has been restored!" Yohji laughed and held the door of the building which housed their class open for Murata. "I was beginning to feel unloved!" he sniffed.

Murata giggled again, showing a side of herself that she didn’t often reveal in class. "How can that be when you’ve told us about your girlfriend?" Her smile slipped for a moment, providing Yohji with a clue as to why he’d been singled out today.

"Yes, my little ‘kitten’." He couldn’t help but smile when he thought about how Aya would *hate* to hear of himself being referred to like that, but it was the best way to keep the fact that his ‘girlfriend’ was actually a guy a secret. "I’ve been told that it’s her duty to keep my ego in check, sadly enough." He sniffed again before following Murata up the stairs.

"It sounds like she’s taking her job as your girlfriend very seriously!" Murata fumbled to lift her portfolio out of the way as she went up the crowded steps, so Yohji grabbed it for her and carried it along with his own. "I keep having to thank you, Konomi-san!" There was a hopeful look on her face as they climbed up to the third floor.

"I always enjoy helping a pretty damsel in distress," he replied, his voice retaining its warmth with some effort on his part. At least he could help Murata, and he really hoped that she wasn’t involved in the murders since he was beginning to like her. "It seems like you need to find a man who will take his job as your boyfriend very seriously, Murata-san. If I wasn’t already taken…." He let his voice trail off so she could take whatever implication that she wanted.


Murata actually blushed a little and ducked her head. "To be honest… I’ve someone in mind and maybe he’ll notice me one day soon. It’s rather hard to compete with some of the models that have been hired lately!" She laughed, the sound tinged with sadness, and shook her head. "Oh well, at the least I’ll have some really good paintings thanks to them."

Not sure what he was supposed to say just then, Yohji gave her a gentle pat on the back as they made their way into the classroom. He followed her to her seat and set her portfolio next to the chair, noticing how Saito arched an eyebrow over his actions and Baruma frowned as if displeased by something. Across the room, the ‘harridans’ were busy giggling over one of their sketchbooks, and Yohji caught one of them, he thought it was Saibara, give him an assessing look before whispering to one of her friends.

He went over to the spot that he’d taken over in the last week and a half of classes, setting his portfolio down and flipping through the sketchbook that had been placed on the easel before he’d arrived for today’s class. A warm glow spread through him at the partially sketched images of Aya, at the beauty of his lover’s face and physique. There was something about Aya, be it the challenge he presented or his often contradictory characteristics, that Yohji knew would have drawn his attention to the redhead no matter how Aya looked, but it wasn’t any hardship to have fallen in love with someone so gorgeous. It was also a source of some smugness that he knew so well all of the body put on display before the others, that he knew about the hidden scars and sensitive spots and… and a bunch of other things he really shouldn’t be thinking about while standing around other people like this. Yohji took a deep breath to calm himself, and almost jumped when Baruma nudged him in the side.


"What?"

"I thought you had a girlfriend," Baruma hissed, for the first time since Yohji had known him showing an interest in anything other than artwork.

Resisting the urge to roll his eyes, Yohji unpacked his box of charcoal sticks instead. "I do, and I’m not looking for another one. Just being nice to a cute girl." Was it possible that Baruma didn’t realize that Murata liked him because he was too busy kidnapping and torturing people? The bad thing about this current mission was the longer it went on, the more that Yohji and his teammates found possible suspects. They hadn’t been able to rule out more than a handful of students at this point, and none of the instructors. Why did people have to act so suspiciously, Yohji wondered. He’d counted on the mission being over by now and Aya no longer standing naked in front of a bunch of perverts.

As if the gods had heard his thoughts, the classroom’s door opened to let in Hasegawa and Aya. The ‘harridans’ actually clapped when Aya walked into the room, prompting Hasegawa to scowl in their direction and stomp his foot.

"If I have to constantly repeat that this is a *classroom* and not some perverted den where you harridans spend all your free time defiling artistic integrity, then there will be no more models," the old bastard snapped. However, Yohji was in total agreement with the man this time, especially if it meant that Aya didn’t have to model so much. He did his best not to appear hopeful while Nagae and her friends gasped in shocked before falling silent, and the rest of the students shuffled their feet and hid their grins.

Hasegawa glared at the room as if to ensure that his point had been made. "Now, as I’ve stated *many* times before, you are here to perfect your skills at artists. The goal of this class is to progress toward a painting that showcases your talent – or lack of it – by the end of the semester, so I *highly* suggest that *some* of you focus on that project rather than the puerile drawing of ‘naughty bits’." He slapped his hand against the top of his desk as he looked around, staring pointedly at the ‘harridans’ for several seconds. "The purpose of a nude model is to show every aspect of the human body’s amazing and complex form, and we’ve been lucky enough to hire some superb specimens lately. Continue to waste their and my time and you’ll find your next model to be one of those… those… stupid little dolls I see some of you carry around." Hasegawa flapped his hands about as his voice grew louder. "Now act like proper students!"

The shame of it was, the tirade seemed to have little effect – well, other than the threat of not hiring Aya as a model anymore – on the students since they heard something like it at the start of almost every class. It would be clear to even an idiot like Teddy that Hasegawa felt that teaching was beneath him and that the pursuit of ‘art’ was one that required more dedication and devotion than most students could provide. That type of mentality worried Yohji, as did the way that the instructor referred to Aya as if he was a glorified piece of meat.

If he wasn’t aware of Murata and Baruma’s attention, he would try to send some sort of warning look to his lover, but he couldn’t risk anyone making a connection between the two of them. Also… well, as much as he worried, he knew that Aya was aware of the instructor’s weird fixation on him and could look out for himself. That was obvious by the very slight tension in Aya’s shoulders whenever Hasegawa came near him, this time to motion for Aya to sit down on the chair placed in the center of the room. Hasegawa didn’t quite touch Aya as he directed the redhead on how to pose today, and Yohji didn’t look away from the two men until the instructor began to pace around the room.

Sometimes Yohji thought it was easier to draw Ken, even if he’d reached his limit of wanting to see his friend naked *days* ago. At least with Ken as the model he was able to focus better on his drawing in an attempt to disassociate himself from the naked person sitting a few feet away. With Aya… there was good and bad about having Aya as the class model. Yohji certainly spent more time observing his classmates and instructor’s reactions to his lover, but he had to be careful to not let any sign of a relationship between him and Aya slip out. Also, when he did concentrate on his artwork, he could easily lose himself in capturing that little shadow formed by the muscles of Aya’s upper left arm, or the oval shape of Aya’s navel. There was also the fact that it was frustrating as hell to see the man he loved and desired naked before him and be unable to do anything but look.

At least the other students mostly behaved themselves around Aya, other than the harridans’ constant entreaties to get him to be their private model or to shift his pose into something they could better use for one of their books. Oh, Yohji was sure quite a few girls and even a couple of boys would love a chance to do more than look at Aya, but they gave him a proper amount of respect and left him alone. Well, mostly alone; even when Nagae and her friends tried to hire him for their projects, they made it clear that they weren’t asking for anything more than he already did in class… just to pose nude in some more ‘risqué’ positions than Hasegawa allowed.

As if Yohji would ever allow that. He managed to control himself over the nude modeling for the mission, but there was no way *anyone* was going to see Aya naked for the purpose of sex, even if it was imaginary sex. Nope. If that was the case, then the body count around the city was going to spike as soon as Yohji tracked down those people and choked them to death. He had to draw the line somewhere.

And he had to draw, period, considering the way that Hasegawa was standing beside him and clearing his throat. Yohji moved the piece of charcoal in his hand and began to sketch out Aya’s outline, hoping against hope that the next time he did this, the two of them were alone in their bedroom. It was getting to the point where he seriously considered drugging his lover’s food to make Aya come down sick with something.

If he had any hope of getting away with such a thing, he’d do it, but to incapacitate Aya in the middle of a mission like that…. Ah well, Yohji preferred to continue living, all in all. At least this was the last class of the day for both him and Aya, and they could go home and spend the evening watching old movies. Two more days and it would be the weekend, when Aya didn’t have to model, and Yohji would do his best to pour over every bit of evidence that Weiss had gathered by then in desperate hopes of finding the killers. They’d checked so many leads that the answer *had* to be there somewhere.

Then he got lost in contemplating how best to draw the fall of Aya’s right eartail along his neck and forgot about the mission for several minutes.

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It took an inordinate amount of strength for Aya to watch Yohji leave the classroom with a female student – Murata – practically hanging on his arm and not do anything. He wasn’t sure if he was jealous, angry or upset, and suspected that it mostly had to do with being very tired, cold and uncomfortable. He glared at nothing in particular as he hugged his white robe tighter around his body, wishing more than anything that he could change back into the sweater and jeans that he’d left in the locker assigned to him.

However, first he had to find out what it was that Hasegawa wanted from him. He watched as the art professor approached, mindful not to tense up his body as if preparing for a fight.

Hasegawa bowed slightly before motioning with his right hand at the easels scattered about the room. "Thank you once again for a productive class, Matsumoto-san."

"You’re welcome," Aya replied, hoping that was all the man wanted to say to him. He’d made sure that Yohji left no more marks on him after that first class, so Hasegawa had little to talk about other than work.

"Yes." Hasegawa frowned a little, his palms rubbing together in what seemed to be a nervous habit. "Do you have any plans for this weekend?" He waited for Aya’s response, his lips pressing together when Aya shook his head. "Good. I was wondering if you’d care to earn some more money by modeling for me. I’ll pay you twice as much as what the university does." There was a note of… something in his voice, nearly suppressed to the point that Aya couldn’t read it very clearly. It could be desperation or excitement, and for once he wished that he had Schuldig’s talent for reading minds.

He paused for a moment as if considering the offer. "I’m afraid that I’m supposed to only accept offers from the university," he reminded the professor, a test to see how far the man would push to have him as a model.

Hasegawa held up his hands. "I know, Matsumoto-san, and I’m sorry to put you in this position, but it’s become very difficult to hire models of your caliber lately." He waved his right hand about, the gnarled fingers stained from red chalk. "The university frowns… well, it’s very difficult for me to hire models through them," he continued, a fierce look settling on his lined face for a moment. "I promise you that I have no intentions whatsoever other than having you pose for three or four hours, and hope you’ll allow me to take pictures that I can use for future reference. I’ll destroy them once the project is completed." As he spoke, the suppressed emotion leaked more and more into his tone and expression – an excitement that made Hasegawa look a few years younger than his true age.

Again, Aya pretended to consider the offer, but only for a few seconds. "All right." He nodded once. "I’ll get the information from you after Friday’s class."

The professor actually smiled, the first time that Aya had seen such an expression on the elderly man’s face. "Thank you." He surprised Aya by bowing, and by the time he straightened up he was back to his usual scowling self. For a moment, Aya had to wonder if that was how he’d appear in another forty years….

Now that the offer had been accepted, Aya felt free to leave and get dressed. He hurried to the locker room, looking around for Ken but not finding his teammate there. Figuring that he’d been delayed too long by Hasegawa, Aya fetched his clothes and quickly pulled them on, very grateful for the thick, black wool sweater that helped to warm him up as soon as he had it on. Once he was completely dressed, he left the locker room, hands busy buttoning up his tan coat.

He wanted to call Omi right away about Hasegawa’s offer, but knew it would be better to wait until he was home to pass on that information. With a sigh of impatience, he put his cell phone back in its pocket and stroked his gloved right hand over the copper bracelet on his left wrist. If he knew Yohji half as well as he thought he did, his lover would insist on him not taking the tracking device off until after the private session with the professor. That led him to consider if the offer had been made by a serious artist or by a serial killer, and he felt a startling pang of confusion when there was no response at all from his talent. He didn’t ‘feel’ anything that indicated that Hasegawa was a threat… but he didn’t feel anything that left him reassured that he’d be fine, either. A scowl settling on his face, he told himself that he would *never* rely on his talent as he stalked out of the arts building.

So focused on his bad mood, he didn’t even notice the two young women hanging out by the door until it was too late. "Matsumoto-san! Matsumoto-san, please wait!" one of them called out.

With a sinking feeling to his stomach, Aya recognized her as Nagae, and sure enough that was Saibara standing beside her. Why didn’t these women accept the fact that he had *no* interest in modeling for them?

For what had to be the hundredth time by now, he squared his shoulders and shoved past them while muttering ‘no’. The modeling he did for class was only because of the mission, so there was no way in hell that he’d stand naked before several young women for a measly few bucks. Even if the money they offered him was enough to gain his interest, the thought of how there would be hundreds of books out there bearing his likeness killed any urge to agree with their mad scheme. Also, he wouldn’t seriously consider them suspects in the murder case unless there were no other options available to him.

"Aw, don’t be like that!" Nagae made to grab his arm, but stopped when he gave her a particularly virulent glare for her audacity. She giggled nervously and did her best to keep up with him as he walked away as quickly as possible. "Why won’t you model for us? We won’t make you pose with another guy if you don’t like!"

"One of us can pose with you!" Saibara offered, sounding a little too eager with the way the words rushed from her. Aya almost shuddered at the thought of posing so intimately with people he didn’t know and only shook his head in answer. The girls who regularly came to the flower shop weren’t half as persistent as these two.

"No. Go bother someone else," he said, voice deepened with annoyance as he did his best to lose the two women. However, they took to jogging beside him, something that couldn’t be easy considering their huge art portfolios.

Nagae was panting slightly as she did her best to keep up, dark green coat flapping around her long legs as she ran. "What about you bring your girlfriend along and pose with her, eh?"

The thought of Nagae and her group drawing pictures of him and Yohji in intimate positions made Aya’s teeth clench together in anger. "No!" He came to a stop and turned on the young women, about to yell at them to leave him alone when he noticed that they’d already stopped a few feet back. Opening his mouth to give them the verbal lashing they had earned, he instead stared in confusion at the blank looks on their faces.

While trying to puzzle out their strange behavior, he felt a familiar brush against his mind and looked aside to see Schuldig standing a few feet away, dressed in a long black leather coat and lounging against the side of the nearest building. As Aya watched, the German waved at him and slowly approached, only to stop at his side and drape an arm over his shoulders.

"Go away, Fotzes," Schuldig urged in a sing-song voice, waving his right hand about as if he was shooing away children or small animals. Moving in unison, Nagae and Saibara nodded once and walked away, acting as if they were sleepwalking or deeply dazed.

Aya didn’t spare them much more attention, instead he grabbed Schuldig’s left arm and did his best to remove it from his shoulders. Of course he couldn’t make the damn limb move at all, and Schuldig only tightened it around him until he found himself being hugged in the middle of the sidewalk.

"Schuldig!"

<Relax, mein Herz, I’ve decided that enough people have ‘seen’ you today.> The bastard actually nuzzled the side of his neck, which prompted Aya to punch him in the ribs as hard as he could. As soon as Schuldig’s embrace loosened, Aya twisted his way free, easily ignoring the curses heaped upon his personage. Served the bastard right, suffering a little pain for all the aggravation he put Aya through on an almost daily basis. Since he’d already found out about his sister’s condition for the day, he turned on his heel and walked away as quickly as possible when his own left side ached from the blow.

Of course, it was never as easy as that, and Schuldig just had to catch up to him within half a block. An arm once more settling over his shoulders, Aya hissed in annoyance and was about to punch the bastard once again when his right hand was caught and given a painful squeeze.

"I’m keeping people from noticing us right now, but try to hit me once more and I’ll give everyone on campus something to talk about," Schuldig threatened, the maliciousness in his voice enough of a warning that Aya seethed but accepted the embrace.

"Good kitty," Schuldig crooned, and Aya found himself led into the history building, down a hallway and into what had to be one of the professor’s lounges that was suspiciously vacant at the moment. Maybe most of the professors had gone home for the day, but he’d bet a good deal of money that a certain telepath was behind the lack of their presence. That suspicion was confirmed by the two mugs of still steaming coffee that sat out on the table.

"What, you’d prefer that we had this conversation outside, where it’s freezing?" Schuldig asked while shrugging out of his leather coat. "Besides, I know you have a thing for privacy." He leered at Aya in a manner that almost resulted in a mug being thrown in his face, and Aya was very disappointed in having to control that particular impulse.

<Which is a good thing, because there’s only so much abuse I’m in the mood to take from you today.> Schuldig’s eyes narrowed as he bridged the space between them, coming to a halt right in front of Aya. <Especially when I’m in a lousy mood to begin with.>

"As if I care about your mood," Aya snapped, furious that he’d been dragged here and now was being threatened. "If you don’t want the abuse, then let me go home." He moved to go around the telepath, only to find that his body was not cooperating with him at the moment. "Let me go, you asshole!"

"No." Schuldig draped both arms over Aya’s shoulders and grinned, appearing so pleased with himself that Aya’s right hand twitched with the need to wrap around his katana’s hilt. "I came all this way to make sure you were all right, so you’re going to stay here for however long I like and give me a reward for saving you just now." The leer from before making a comeback, he leaned closer and pressed his lips against Aya’s. <Now show me a little gratitude.>

Wishing he could gut the bastard, Aya couldn’t do anything but close his eyes and think up all the ways he would kill Schuldig for doing this to him. There was a building heat inside of him, the faint sensations of threads attached to him being pulled, and he did his best to fight against his talent and its unfathomable need for Schuldig. There was nothing between then, nothing but hatred and pain, so why did the damn thing practically purr whenever Schu was nearby? It should be doing whatever it could to ensure that Aya didn’t have to put up with this ever again, and instead….

Instead it seemed to want nothing but this, a realization that caused Aya enough panic that he managed to turn his head aside and break off the kiss. "Your reward is me not killing you," he muttered, his voice raw for some reason.

"But you can’t kill me, Aya." Schu – no, *Schuldig* - licked at the side of Aya’s mouth before chuckling in a manner too pleased for Aya’s comfort. "Not unless you want to die, and despite all your insane actions in the past, you do want to live. After all, who’ll look after your precious sister if you’re dead, hmm?" Schuldig pulled away a little, his hands resting on Aya’s shoulders and playing with the hair that brushed against the back of his neck. "So show some fucking gratitude for once."

Aya refused to wince as nails scraped along the nape of his neck. "She wouldn’t need to be looked after if it wasn’t for you."

Schuldig shook his head. "No, that was never my fault. If anything, you *owe* me for her still being alive because if Esset had sent another team to do Takatori’s bidding, she’d definitely be dead by now." Images flooded into Aya’s mind, dozens of way that his family could have been murdered and injured; most of Esset’s teams wouldn’t have used explosives, much preferring a more… ‘hands’ on approach to their assignments. He felt his stomach heave at the image of his sister lying in a broken heap on the floor, her hands and feet tied with strips of skin that had been flayed from her own back.

<You bastard,> he thought with as much hateful force as he could, refusing to be grateful that his sister was instead lying in a coma while Esset’s scientists treated her as if she was a human guinea pig.

<I’ll admit that my parents were never married.> Schuldig was much too amused at the moment, which Aya knew would never bode well for him. <So I guess it’s all their fault that I turned out this way.>

That wasn’t true – try as he might to block those memories, Aya had seen into Schuldig’s past and knew that it was Rosenkreuz’s fault that he’d turned into the monster he had become. If that organization had cared about more than producing as powerful a telepath as possible, maybe things would be different between the two of them. In the back of his mind was a flicker of images, the barest form of ‘what might have been’ that was too faint for him to ‘see’ correctly. Not that it mattered when they were stuck in the present, the past something that they never could change.

<Maybe, maybe not.> Schuldig’s hands stroked along Aya’s neck, moving forward to trail fingers down his cheeks. <If we combined our talents, there’s no telling what we could change. Your ‘threads’ connect to the past as well as the present and the future.> He sounded so sure, so tempting… but Aya didn’t need Geli to tell him what Schuldig proposed could never happen. No, or else she would have done something to erase whatever horror it was that she’d suffered.

He felt Schuldig ‘push’ deeper into his mind and quickly stifled all thoughts about the ‘girl’. <What do you mean, you ‘saved’ me today?> he asked as a means of distraction.

A displeased look on his face, Schuldig stared intently at him for a few seconds before sighing and shaking his head. "I meant those bitches who were about ready to tie you up and keep you as a slave so they could draw lots of obscene pictures." The frown disappeared, replaced by a wicked grin that made Aya brace himself for what was to come next. "I’m the only one who can do that to you." Schuldig’s hand trailed down his back and gave his ass a squeeze, the same time that he was once again subjected to images – this time ones of a sexual nature between him and Schuldig.

"Are they the killers?" Aya asked, gritting his teeth to keep from yelling about the groping in the hopes that it would put the bastard in a good enough of a mood to tell him the truth for once.

The look he got in return let him know that Schuldig was aware of the reason behind his ‘good’ behavior, and his ass was squeezed again before he started to curse under his breath. "Now, now, how can I resist?" When Aya’s glare intensified, Schuldig’s hand moved away. "No, they’re not the killers," he admitted, acting like a grumpy child that had just lost its favorite toy.

Wishing desperately that he could have brought his katana with him today, Aya used that anger to force his body to step back a little; when he found he could move again, he knocked Schuldig’s hands aside. "Are you sure about that?"

Frowning as he folded his arms over his chest, Schuldig clicked his tongue a few times in annoyance. "No, I was just in their imbecilic minds and didn’t bother to check to see if they had anything other than perverse intentions for you." Moving in a blur, he grabbed Aya’s right wrist and gave it a painful squeeze. "This time I was close enough to fully scan their minds, and no, they don’t have anything to do with the murders. Now show me some gratitude!" he snapped, the good mood from earlier completely gone.

"You scan two minds out of how many suspects, and I’m supposed to reward you?" His temper already frayed by this ridiculous situation, Aya found it snapping at the thought that Schuldig really did expect something from him right now. "You show up here to harass me, and I’m supposed to be grateful? Your ‘reward’ is me not throttling you!"

Ever since the mission had started last week, Schuldig had pushed into his mind at the most inconvenient of times, using the fact that Aya had to remain calm to his advantage. He’d been harassed, insulted and stalked, had the mission put at risk on countless occasions and been refused when he’d attempted to use his talent to find the murderer. Whenever he’d turned Schuldig’s complaints back onto the telepath by telling *him* to find the murderers, he’d been treated to an endless round of excuses as to why that would never happen. It wasn’t so much that he wanted Schuldig’s help, just that if the bastard was going to interfere with things to such an extent, that *Aya* should be the one gaining some sort of recompense for the absurd situation he found himself in.

If it wasn’t bad enough that Weiss was no closer to finding the murderers then when they started, he was spending most of his days naked in front of strangers while almost freezing to death and under constant risk of being kidnapped, he had to put up with this bullshit as well. His anger taking control of his actions, he managed one good hit to Schuldig’s chest that left him doubled over with pain. Never the less, he did his best to ignore it and shoulder his way past the bastard, only to end up grabbed by the right arm and shoved onto the room’s old couch

Schuldig put his talent to use, tearing into Aya’s mind with a ferociousness that left Aya struggling to breathe through the agony. <Stop it, damn you! Stop fighting me all the time! I’m so sick of it and waiting for you to stop!> There was a strained ‘tone’ to Schuldig’s telepathic voice, as if he hadn’t completely escaped the pain that enveloped Aya. <You’ll give in one day, so why can’t it be now?>

Shuddering with the need to inhale and escape the pain, Aya did his best to shake his head. He’d never give in merely because of a ‘dream’ on his or Schuldig’s part – he hadn’t done that back when Yohji had killed Neu and he wouldn’t do that now. Maybe, just *maybe*, the time would come when the telepath and Aya’s power won out, but he’d fight both with his last bit of energy until then. He wasn’t some doll to be played with or forced into a certain position, and he already had a lover with whom he intended to spend his entire life. The sooner that Schuldig realized those things, the better his life would be.

<You have Balinese as a lover for only a little while longer, mein Herz,> Schuldig taunted, no longer tearing into Aya’s mind but filling it completely. <He still dreams about his lady-love, you know. Still finds himself searching for her whenever he sees someone with a similar hairstyle or face. One day he *will* betray you, and then you’ll welcome me with open arms.>

The pain slowly fading, Aya realized that he was stretched out on the couch with Schuldig lying on top of him, a warm, almost comforting presence. If it had been Yohji on top of him, he’d smile and pull his lover closer, would play with wavy, blond hair that always felt so soft to touch. However, it was Schuldig, and no matter the dreams that had left him so confused and afraid for his sanity, the promises he’d sworn and his own traitorous power, Aya summoned a glare instead. "When will you accept that I love Yohji, not you?" he asked, already in enough agony that he didn’t shy away from causing more for himself. An image flickered through his mind, of a rose bush entwined with an orchid.

"You love him *now*," Schuldig whispered, sounding certain rather than upset. He brushed his lips against Aya’s left ear, shifted his mouth downward so he could kiss the sensitive spot below that always made Aya shudder.

"Arguing with you is like talking sense to a brick wall," Aya muttered, wishing more than anything he could change the past and ensure that he’d never met Schuldig.

"That’s because you’re not the one making any sense here, Katzchen." Schuldig chuckled, the sound low and wicked, and Aya had the sense to turn his head aside in time to prevent being kissed on the mouth again. For once, Schuldig didn’t appear upset at being thwarted and licked Aya’s cheek instead.

Aya was surprised when the telepath got up from him and stood beside the couch. "Why don’t you go home and have a nice, hot bath?" The concern in Schuldig’s voice almost seemed real.

Wary that this was a trick of some sort, Aya slowly sat up. "Why do you care if I’m cold or not?" He truly didn’t understand the man, constantly put off-balance by how Schuldig seemed to care about him one moment, and then hurt him so badly the next.

"Because you’re mine." The words were almost crooned as Schuldig stroked the back of his fingers along Aya’s left cheek. <If I hadn’t been busy earlier, I would have made sure you were warm during those damn classes.> Some of the familiar malice that Aya expected from the man flickered through his pale green eyes just then. <Maybe I’ll be nice enough to help you tomorrow.>

"More like you’re in the mood to torment me again." Aya glared at the bastard as he stood up, careful to not put much pressure against his sore chest and stomach when he smoothed his coat back into place.

Schuldig’s smile just then turned utterly malicious. <Do you really want me to torment you tomorrow?>

Aya stared at him for several seconds before sighing – yet refused to look away. "No, not really." He could easily imagine Schuldig making him believe he was having sex or something during one of the classes.

<Such a lovely imagination you have.> Schuldig chuckled again and managed another stroke to Aya’s cheek before his hand was batted aside.

"Why don’t you do anything helpful for once?" Aya spat, wondering why Schuldig couldn’t put that talent to use for something other than harassing him. "Does Hasegawa want me to model for him or is it just a trap?"

The look on Schuldig’s face just then was very cold and possessive as he once more pressed into Aya’s mind. "The old bastard asked you to model for him? Dammit, I won’t be able to be back here in person for a few more days." He was still for a moment, then moved in a blur to approach Aya and grasp him by the chin. "I *will* be there on Saturday."

"You’ll do nothing, Schuldig," Aya warned. "You’re not Weiss, and you don’t get to pick or choose when you help me."

"Says the man who’s asking me to read minds for him." Something must have restored Schuldig’s less malicious mood because he smiled and released Aya’s chin before stepping back. "Just admit that you need me, Aya. That’s half the battle right there."

His laughter filled the room as Aya grabbed the nearest object – one of the mugs of coffee – and threw it in the bastard’s direction. Unfortunately, Schuldig put that amazing speed to use and wasn’t there to be hit by the mug. Aya glared at the coffee dripping down the wall of the small room and decided that it was best to leave before anyone returned or his temper got the best of him. All these years, and one would think that he’d manage by now to not let Schuldig get to him so much. He should be used to the torments and harassment, yet no one could get under his skin as easily and deeply as the telepath. That Schuldig could sense his emotions and know how effective his actions were didn’t help at all.

Leaving the room as quickly as possible, Aya stormed his way through the campus to his bus stop. He changed routes twice, careful to ensure that no one was following him, before walking the three blocks that would take him to the Koneko and home. By the time he reached the shop, his temper had partially cooled down, but he knew better than to go into the store and deal with both Teddy and all of the girls who supposedly were ‘shopping’.

He used the kitchen entrance, and barely was inside when he felt himself enveloped by a pair of warm arms.

"I was two seconds away from calling your cell and forcing Omi to check your tracking device," Yohji murmured into Aya’s hair, holding him tightly enough to be a bit painful.

"Idiot, I can look after myself," Aya reminded his boyfriend, the same time he leaned against Yohji and did his best to stop shivering.

"Right." Yohji grunted out the word and only let Aya go when he got nudged in the ribs by an elbow. Pulling away just a little bit, Aya began to work on undoing the buttons of his coat, something that Yohji helped with until the coat was hanging up by the door. "Why are you so late? Don’t tell me that Hasegawa invited you out for tea!" As he spoke, he steered Aya to the kitchen table, where a pot of tea, a familiar mug and a plate covered with strawberry flavored cookies were waiting.

Not about to argue with a chance to sit down and enjoy some warm and delicious tea, Aya smiled in gratitude as he picked up the filled mug. "No, and I’ll wait until Omi’s here to tell you about that." He didn’t see any point in repeating things twice, and Omi should help rein in Yohji’s overprotective nature. However, there was one thing he didn’t want to discuss with his friend present. "Unfortunately, I’m late because of Schuldig."

Yohji’s handsome face twisted with anger at mention of the telepath. "What the hell did he want now?" He stared intently at Aya as if looking for any bruises or wounds, which made Aya happy that his chest and stomach had stopped being sore about half an hour ago. Right now, he didn’t want to think about the link between him and Schuldig, or how Yohji and Weiss had to stay their hand against the bastard for Aya’s sake.

"It seemed to me to be the usual harassment." Aya’s voice roughened into a growl, his glare from earlier returning as he thought about how infuriating it was to put up with Schuldig’s ‘affections’. "He did show up in time to save me from Hasegawa’s ‘harridans’ and then proceeded to be his usual, idiotic self."

To his surprise, Yohji chuckled at the comment and sprawled out on the chair across from Aya. "Oh, I’m sure he’s not happy with the thought of those girls wanting to use you as their private model." There was a sharpness to his tone that hinted that he wasn’t ‘happy’ with the thought, either. "Did he find out if they were the murderers or not?"

"He said they had no intentions of killing me." Aya frowned into his mug of tea; while it was nice to eliminate some suspects - *if* he could trust Schuldig’s word – it would help if it hadn’t been people they hadn’t really thought of as the killers in the first place. Nagae and her friends were among the easier suspects to trace, and the girls had been out of town during one of the corpses’ ‘stagings’ to attend a convention to sell their doujinshi. While there was the possibility that they had an assistant or co-conspirator not connected to the doujinshi circle, it wasn’t very likely, either. No, whoever was behind the murders was a very tight-knit group, probably consisting of only two or three people, because any more involved than that and the probabilities of someone messing up or leaking information would increase.

Besides, Ken had overheard students talking about how Saibara and Kurachi were balking at taking one of the advanced anatomy classes to further their art degrees because they refused to deal with cadavers or human body parts. Perhaps it was a ploy by the young women to throw off suspicion, but Ken believed Saibara’s horrified reaction when another student brought up the class to her to be genuine.

"No, I think they’ve a few other felonies that they’d like to do to you," Yohji grumbled, his brows drawn together in a thoroughly possessive look. "Things *I’m* only allowed to do, dammit."

Aya rolled his eyes and debated tossing a cookie at his lover before his stomach reminded him about how little he’d eaten that day. "The last thing I’m going to do is model for those women." At least now he had an excuse in case Mickey or Omi tried to order him to go along with the young women as a possible lead.

"The last thing you should be doing is standing naked in front of a bunch of people." Yohji waved his right hand to cut off any objections Aya was about to make and shook his head, then rubbed his hands over his face. "I know, I know, it’s for the mission and a bunch of other bullshit, which still doesn’t mean I have to like it." His hands fell away and he stared at Aya, his expression a bit bleak. "I don’t like you being bait, Aya. I haven’t had a decent night’s sleep since this fucking mission started."

More than likely, Yohji was suffering from those nightmares again – the ones where a rotting Asuka showed up and killed or kidnapped Aya. Yohji had confided that much to him, which had offset Schuldig’s attempt to make him jealous or angry about the dreams earlier this afternoon. He wasn’t pleased that Yohji dreamed of his ex-lover so much, but he could understand the nightmares; several times he’d been woken up by remembering that awful day when his father’s business had exploded, and when he’d pushed away the rubble to free his sister he’d found Yohji’s body instead.

So instead of starting a fight about how he could look after himself and that Yohji needed to put the past behind him, he got up from his chair instead, a cookie in his right hand. Straddling Yohji’s lap, he pushed the strawberry flavored snack against his lover’s lips. "I’ll be fine, Yohji. I… *we* won’t make the mistakes we have in the past, and no one will be hurt."

"I know," Yohji mumbled around the cookie, his arms sliding along Aya’s waist as he chewed and swallowed. "I’ve seen you take down a dozen guys with nothing but a bad attitude and a sword, but that doesn’t make it easier to sleep at night." His left hand trailed along Aya’s arm and grasped his wrist, the one encased with the copper band. "This better be the first thing you put back on after a class."

Aya frowned a little before reluctantly nodding. "Even if I end up freezing, the clothes can wait." He could assure the man he loved of that much. "Why did these murders have to take place during winter?"

"Because you’re so damn adorable when you’re covered with goosebumps," Yohji teased, back to a good mood after all that concern and seriousness. "I like how the hair stands up on the nape of your neck." He laughed as he stroked that area, then did his best to prevent being hit in the chest for his foolishness. There was a quick struggle, one half-hearted at best, before Aya grunted in mock-annoyance and allowed himself to be kissed; the tea could always be warmed up, right now he wanted to enjoy his lover after a long and trying day apart.


No matter what Schuldig said, he’d never stop loving this man. Perhaps Yohji would betray him in some manner – they were only human, after all – but nothing could ever destroy that love. For a moment Aya felt bad that he couldn’t clearly express that thought, but he figured that he was here, in Yohji’s lap, making out in the kitchen of all places should inform the idiot that what Aya felt for him was true and abiding.

Of course Yohji’s hands had just slid up his back and beneath his sweater and t-shirt when the kitchen door opened again, this time to let in Omi and Ken. Considering the way that Yohji had tormented Ken last week, it wasn’t surprising that Ken decided it was time to get a little teasing in himself.

"Quick, grab one of the water bottles from the fridge so we can cool these perverts down!"

Yohji broke off the kiss to scowl at Ken. "Do that and someone will have a broken hand." Then his expression turned sly enough that Aya leaned back and tried to get off his boyfriend’s lap. "On second thought, try ‘cooling’ us down with the whipped cream instead!"

"You wish," Aya muttered as he pushed Yohji’s clinging hands aside and stood up. Of course Yohji latched onto him again in a matter of seconds, but at least he wasn’t on his lover’s lap now. "You brought dinner?"

Omi held up the bag of takeout in his right hand. "It’s nothing special I fear, just some okonomiyaki to go around. I got shrimp and noodles for you, and pork with extra sauce for Yohji."

"The squid’s all mine." Ken placed the two bags in his hands on the kitchen table, then helped Omi with his bags as well. "No one was home when I got back from the university, so I met up with Omi," he explained while removing the take-out containers from the bags, and Omi fetched several bottles of water and soda from the fridge. As they helped set out dinner, Aya poured the last of his tea into his mug and went to the microwave to heat it up.

"You were on your way back from the medical supply store, right?" Yohji asked Omi while dragging Aya’s chair closer to his own. "Find out anything new?"

"No." Omi pressed his hands together for a moment before opening up one of his containers then picking up his chopsticks. "The ones nearest the university don’t have any security cameras that I can hack into, and the extensive use of cash makes it difficult to track down most of the purchases." He sighed as he broke off a piece of his dinner. "I wish things were more like in America, where everyone has a credit card."

"It would make life a bit easier," Yohji agreed, a bit of sauce clinging to his bottom lip. He licked it clean, winking at the fact that Aya had noticed it, then continued. "Also means there’d be a lot of disappointed muggers out there, chibi!"

Omi stuck out the tip of his tongue at that bit of nonsense. "Somehow, I think they’d survive. Anyway, I haven’t had much luck with my surveillance there – which was basically built around the hope that the murderers would need new supplies sometime soon. With the way things are going lately, they stocked up on things right before we took on the case. You’ll have to see what you can find out from talking to the staff, Yohji."

"Ever the optimist," Ken remarked, which startled not only Aya but Omi as well, judging from his younger friend’s expression. "Hey, where is it written down that Yohji gets all the good one-liners?" He picked up a piece of squid from his okonomiyaki and let it flap between his lips a few times before swallowing it.

"Careful, Ken-ken, or you’ll break that image of a dumb jock." Yohji got up from the fridge to fetch himself a beer, for which Aya gave him a warning look that it wouldn’t be one of many tonight.

Ken snorted and picked up more of his meal. "The good thing about being labeled as a ‘dumb jock’ is people underestimate you while ogling your awesome body." He popped the piece of food into his mouth and leaned back in his chair as if to show off that ‘awesome body’. Aya had to admit that Ken was in great shape, something that quite a few art students were very pleased to talk about.

He didn’t get to show off for too long, as Omi smacked him across the chest and told him to eat his dinner. "I hope you’re doing something other than being ‘ogled’ all day," he muttered, such a dark look on his face that everyone scooted their chairs back a little.

"Ah, yeah." Ken chuckled nervously and pushed his dinner about a few times. "A couple of students tried to invite me out for a beer after class one day, but Hasegawa stepped in and reminded them that models aren’t supposed to fraternize with the students." He grimaced in annoyance then shoved a big piece of okonomiyaki into his mouth, which made everyone wait to hear what he had to say next. "It’s those girls who think you’d make a great basis for one of their characters, Aya. It seems they’re already planning their next project, and it has something to do with baseball players."

"They tried again to get me to agree to their insane demands today." Aya speared a piece of shrimp with more force than was necessary. "You may find it of interest that before they could do so, Hasegawa had a proposal for me." He wouldn’t mention running into Schuldig just now, that could wait until he had Omi alone since hearing about the telepath always made Ken very upset, but he couldn’t put off his ‘appointment’ on Saturday any longer.

Yohji stopped lounging in his chair and sat up straighter, while Omi set his chopsticks aside. "Really? What did he want?" Omi asked, seeming colder and more focused than he’d been seconds before.

"To arrange a private modeling session this Saturday at his house. I agreed." Aya shot his boyfriend a warning look to forestall Yohji going on and on about taking proper precautions.

Yohji clearly wasn’t pleased with this development in their mission, but he was professional enough to know that Aya had to follow the lead. "We’re going to stick another tracer on you, then. There’s no way you’re going to that guy’s house when for all we know, he regularly carves up people there."

Not about to get into a discussion about *where* they’d put another tracer on him when he’d be standing around naked for a couple of hours, Aya mostly ignored that comment and focused on Omi instead. "He mentioned that the university doesn’t condone him using its models for his own use, and he waited for a time when no one else was around to overhear us."

Omi nodded once. "That might be from his scandal several years ago, or else he’s just being very cautious about finding new victims. Of course you’re going to his house." He frowned in Yohji’s directions for a few seconds before giving Aya a reassuring smile. "I’ll make sure to increase the surveillance at his place tomorrow, and Yohji and I will be nearby in case he tries anything." When Ken opened his mouth to complain, Omi quickly shook his head. "I’m sure if he’s not the suspect and for some reason he sees Yohji, we can pass off Yohji’s presence as him stopping by for a private lesson or even stalking Aya. But I won’t risk both of you blowing your cover."

"Damn, and here I was hoping to get out of that Saturday class." Ken appeared close to pouting for a few seconds. "It’s bad enough that half the class doesn’t want to attend the thing and that the room’s so cold that day."

"You could always be working in the flower shop instead." Yohji gave his friend a reassuring clap on the shoulder. "Best to suffer for an hour or two, na?"

Ken shrugged and resumed tearing apart his dinner. "Yeah, I guess so. I certainly wouldn’t want to be alone with Hasegawa considering how he likes yelling at people."

Yohji’s smile instantly vanished. "Let’s hope that yelling is all he likes to do." Judging from the look he was giving Aya, they probably would get into a fight tonight over Yohji’s over-protective nature.

Aya wasn’t sure what else he could do to reassure his lover, other than to threaten to gut the idiot. He didn’t think telling Yohji that he didn’t have a bad ‘feeling’ about the private session would do any good, nor would mentioning that Schuldig would be on hand in case there was any real danger. No, that would probably have Yohji off hunting for Schuldig instead, not that he had much hope of doing anything to the telepath while he shared a link with Aya.

Feeling a tension headache coming on, Aya sighed and did his best to eat his dinner before he lost his appetite. At least there wouldn’t be any dishes to do, so he could go upstairs and work out for a bit, relieve a bit of tension and give Yohji some time to calm down. He had a feeling it was going to be a very long two days until Saturday, and that Yohji would probably do something that had him sleeping on the couch.

"Don’t do anything stupid," he mumbled under his breath, the words pitched low enough that only Yohji should hear them. His lover gave him an offended look, which actually made Aya feel a bit bad. How would he like it if Yohji was the one facing a possible serial killer alone, not to mention naked so unable to hide any weapons on him? They’d both lost so much in the last few years that it seemed unbearable to lose anything else – especially something so dear to them. Against all common sense, Aya had let Yohji get close to him, and there was no way he’d risk losing the man he loved. He just wished that the clearest danger to Yohji at the moment wasn’t being hit over the head with a sheathed katana for being ridiculously over-protective.

*******

Omi let out a slow breath and rubbed his eyes, which ached from staring at the computer screen for so long. He’d just spent the last two hours hacking into Kaneshiro’s cell phone account and checking for any suspicious phone calls, and of course hadn’t found anything. That was to be expected when anyone could buy a phone under an assumed name and use an untraceable pre-paid card, but sometimes criminals did the stupidest of things. It was Weiss’ luck that whoever was behind the horrible murders appeared smart enough to avoid the most common pitfalls.

Kaneshiro was known as a very friendly and open professor, so it didn’t seem odd that many students called him or sent him emails. With a bit more hacking, Omi hoped to read those emails, but he was resigning himself to finding requests for help and questions about art classes. Maybe he’d be lucky enough to break up the boredom by finding a few amorous proposals from female students – and be unlucky enough to have Yohji look over his shoulder just then.

Thoughts of his oldest teammate made him smile as he leaned back in his chair. Yohji *really* wasn’t happy about this mission and pestered him just about every day to find out who was responsible for the murders, his frustration growing each time that Omi didn’t have any information to give him. Yohji was supposed to be out today checking the medical stores that sold a few items that Mickey and Omi felt had been used in the murders, so at least Omi had a bit of a break before the harassment started up again.

He wasn’t happy about the mission, either, and wished that Yohji would remember that he wasn’t the only one who had someone he cared about stuck being naked in front of a bunch of strangers. Ken seemed to be handling it better than Aya, but Omi knew his boyfriend was stressed by the continuing classes; Ken never cared for being the center of attention with anyone other than his close friends. That probably had to do with keeping people from realizing who he’d been before joining Weiss, and he also was nervous about showing off the faint burn scars he’d received during his official ‘death’. The make-up did a good job of covering the scars, but Ken was pretty self-conscious about them.

Omi desperately hoped that they found the targets very soon. It was bad enough that his teammates had to suffer like this, but he truly didn’t want to find another body like the eight ones he’d studied enough to have memorized. He was used to seeing death, and rarely the ‘peaceful’ variety that most people encountered brought on by old age or illness. Even the horror of an unexpected death by accident or violence paled into what the people the targets had killed had been subjected to, the possible weeks of torture as they were ‘molded’ into a gruesome work of art.

Things had to be bad for Aya and Ken to agree to pose nude and for Yohji to very begrudgingly allow his boyfriend to do such a thing, but this mission definitely deserved all the hard work and sacrifices that Weiss had put into it so far. Omi could even understand why Mickey appeared to be working himself to utter exhaustion with this mission, and knew it must be even worse for the American since Mickey had dealt with this longer than anyone else. He’d picked up on a sense of relief from Mickey back at that bar, as if he was very grateful that something was finally being done to catch the killers.

With that in mind, Omi had a few swallows of now warm soda and leaned forward so he could resume his online searches. Deciding to move on from Kaneshiro for the moment, he went in search of Hasegawa’s email account. He’d already cracked the man’s cell phone account days ago and found very little in the way of discriminating evidence, but it seemed that the elderly professor had set up a private email address that he rarely gave out. Omi had lucked into a text message last night and wanted to investigate it further – and knew he better do so before Yohji returned. Now there was someone who was furious that Aya had to go to the professor’s house.

To Yohji’s credit, however, he wasn’t being too much of a pain about it. Whatever had happened between him and Aya over the Neu affair, it seemed to have instilled a sense of trust between the two men that had been lacking ever since they got together. Yes, Aya could be a suicidal idiot at times during missions, at least whenever dealing with a Takatori, Omi thought with only a touch of bitterness, but he was still alive. And when one dwelled on the way that Mastermind watched over the redhead….

Even if Omi didn’t think that Aya was in life-threatening danger, he knew it would be better for Yohji and Aya if they found the murderers soon. Yohji’s restraint would only last for so long, after all, and it was a miracle that Aya hadn’t killed any students yet, especially those girls who kept after him to pose for their books.

Pulling up the text message he’d intercepted last night, Omi spent a fun twenty minutes hacking into the email account. He forgot all about his soda and the ache in his shoulders as he investigated the emails, his lips pressing into a grim line as he read. While his discovery didn’t make Hasegawa out as the obvious suspect, it cast some serious doubts on the man’s innocence. Tracing back an email from a bank, Omi passed some more time hacking into a system, only to find even more troubling information.

He was delving into how the money he’d discovered was being spent when he felt someone touch his left shoulder. Letting out a startled cry, he whirled around on his chair to find Yohji now standing a careful distance away, an amused smile on his handsome face.

"Don’t you dare make any comments about me looking at porn!" Omi said in a rush, determined to prevent that terrible, worn-out joke.

Yohji grimaced as if just told something distasteful and leaned against the computer desk. "You sure know how to take the fun out of things, Omittchi." He reached out again, this time to tousle Omi’s hair.

"Says the man who has a very perverse idea of what’s ‘fun’," Omi grumbled, even if he was pleased with the attention. After so many hours dealing with this grim mission, it was nice to have some human contact and to be treated like a normal person.

"Says the young man who thinks being online all day is fun when he could be pouncing on Ken instead," was Yohji’s quick retort. Omi didn’t bother to take the verbal sparring any further since he was sure he wouldn’t win.

Instead, he sniffed and reached for his neglected can of soda. "Do you want to insult me all day or do you want to hear what I found out about Hasegawa?"

As if a switch had been flipped, Yohji suddenly turned serious. "Why do you even bother to ask such a stupid question?" A disquieting look settled on his face as he began to play with the wire in his watch.

Omi sighed and reminded himself that Yohji wouldn’t have much of a sense of humor about anything dealing with Aya being naked and in danger. "I tracked down an email and a bank account of his."

Yohji’s eyes narrowed. "Is he the killer?" When it came down to it, that would be what he wanted to know the most.

"I can’t convincingly say ‘yes’, but I can tell you he’s hiding a few things." Omi scooted his chair closer to the computer and pulled up a couple of screens. "Do you remember why he’s teaching college students?"

"What’s that proverb about sucking eggs?" Yohji tousled Omi’s hair again. "I actually did read the mission profile, you know. Hasegawa got slapped with a sexual harassment suit a few years ago by one of his models, with whom he settled out of court. He ended up divorced and pretty much in the poor house as a result, so he accepted the job offer."

It was heartening to know that Yohji could focus on a mission when it mattered, instead of leaving the research to Omi and Aya. Well, that wasn’t entirely fair, Omi told himself, but Yohji could be lazy when it came to work.

"So what does this have to do with what you found, eh? Did he kill the woman who sued him or something?" Yohji pushed Omi’s chair a little to the side so he could see the screen better, something that Omi begrudgingly allowed.

"No, but it does have to do with her." He pulled up the email screen. "Hasegawa set up a private email account so they could communicate with each other. It seems that the woman only pressed charges because her husband found out about the affair and she panicked." There were several letters of apology from her in the earliest emails, pleadings for Hasegawa to forgive her. "But she got divorced anyway, and apparently felt very guilty that she’d ruined Hasegawa’s career and marriage as a result. He eventually forgives her, and from the looks of things, they’re back together." Omi was willing to bet that with the new cameras that he’d set up around Hasegawa’s house last night, that he’d soon have video proof of the woman visiting the professor.

He pulled up the next screen. "I guess to try to make amends, she opened up a joint bank account with him so they could share the money she got in the settlement. Of course, if anyone found out about this, they’d both be in a lot of trouble."

"Yeah, I hear the law frowns on what it believes to be filing false charges and bilking one’s insurance company." Yohji read through the screen and motioned for Omi to scroll down. "So the old man is getting it on with someone less than half his age. I’d say ‘good for him’, but he’s the cantankerous old man who sees Aya naked too damn much." His voice turned rough toward the end, which led Omi to hope that his friend didn’t run into any of the art students or professors once this mission was finished.

"From what I can tell, Hasegawa is doing his best to keep anyone from finding out that they’re back together, supposedly to protect his lover. That’s why he keeps working at the university." Omi frowned at the screen and highlighted a recent bank transaction. "They’ve been spending the money, but I’m not sure who is doing it when, and I’m only seeing cash withdrawals. It’s possible that he’s using some of it to purchase whatever supplies he needs to prepare his victims."

That prompted a grunt from Yohji. "And on that topic, I guess I should tell you what I found out today."

"Hmm?" Omi spun the chair around enough so he could directly look at Yohji. "Does it have anything to do with Hasegawa?"

"I wish." Yohji grimaced again and folded his arms over his chest. "While having a nice chat-"

"You mean flirting shamelessly," Omi muttered, not quite over Yohji getting the verbal best of him earlier.

"Ahem, while I was having a *nice chat* with a young lady who works at one of medical supply stores," Yohji continued after giving Omi a warning glare about not interrupting again, "I managed to steer the conversation to her having to put up with boring old doctors as customers all the time. She told me that it wasn’t true – in fact, the day before she had another cute university student come by to buy some hypodermic needles and sterile bandages in bulk. He told her that his grandmother is diabetic so he gets the stuff for her, but she confided in me that he seems to buy an awful lot."

Omi clapped his hands together in appreciation of Yohji’s infamous flirting skills… and hoped that Aya didn’t find out about how Yohji had come about this new bit of information. "Did she describe the student to you?"

"Yeah." Yohji chuckled and picked at a lock of his hair, holding the strand out until it was straight. "She said he was blond like me, although his hair was definitely bleached. I talked to her a little more about him, and the description she gave me sounds a hell of a lot like Yakumo Masayuki. When I told her that he sounded like a classmate of mine and mentioned that name, she said that she believes ‘Yakumo’ could be the name on the prescription for the needles."

Spinning the chair around again, Omi pulled up a new screen and typed in a command to start a search program. "Yakumo… we’ve files on all of the students’ immediate family members, but I don’t think there’s anything on their grandparents." Of course it was easy for him to access hospital records, and within a couple of minutes he had the information that he wanted. "Ah, he does indeed have a grandmother who is diabetic."

"Keiko said that he ordered two boxes of a hundred count of needles, and had done the same about two month’s ago. Unless the woman’s getting over three shots a day, she shouldn’t go through the stuff so quickly." Yohji leaned against the back of Omi’s chair and tapped the screen. "Does this say how bad her condition is?"

"I haven’t had the chance to get a medical degree yet, Yohji-kun." Omi laughed when Yohji gave him a gentle cuff to the head. "However, I don’t think her condition is that bad since there’s nothing in regards to dialysis or frequent exams." He shooed his friend away from the chair so he could rest against its back. "But would they need that many needles for the victims?"

Yohji sighed and pulled out a cigarette from the pack in his shirt pocket, mindful to only put it between his lips and not light it. "I was wondering that, too. There’s always a chance that someone’s using him to get the stuff; you know, having him place a large order and split it up, half for his gram and half for the murderers." His lips pressed together, causing the cigarette to flip upward. "Yakumo… he’s pretty laid back in class, and I know it bothers a few students that he’s not serious about an obvious talent. It might be an act, though."

"Maybe, maybe not." If it was, then Yakumo must be aware that the police would suspect people with an intense passion for art to be responsible for the murders. Omi checked the man’s academic record, which he’d just skimmed before at the start of the case. "Hmmm, his grades aren’t terrible, but nothing remarkable. Don’t they say that most serial killers don’t really stand out?"

"There is that whole ‘he seemed so normal’ line we always hear on the news." Yohji removed his cigarette from his mouth and held it between his right index and middle fingers, as if he was smoking it, then gestured at the screen with it. "The background checks say he’s from a wealthy family and mainly just getting a degree before he joins the family business."

"Yeah." For a moment, Omi wondered what it was like to grow up in a normal family and know that one day you’d have a job doing something as ‘mundane’ managing several important real estate businesses. Perhaps Aya could tell him, but he wouldn’t want to bring up any old pain for his friend. "Wait a second, let me check something." He tapped furiously at the keyboard for a minute. "Ah! One of his family’s businesses is in Roppongi Hills."

However, Yohji didn’t look impressed by that revelation. "There are a lot of real estate companies involved in that area," he reminded Omi. "And if his family’s business was involved in any more of the crime scenes, Mickey would have caught that."

"Unless he was too tired to do so." Omi didn’t think that was the case here, but would double-check just to be sure. The last thing he wanted was another murder to occur because he didn’t take ten minutes to do a search that just might have been overlooked. "So you don’t think he’s involved with the killings?"

Yohji stared off into the distance for several seconds. "Gut feeling? No. He strikes me as the type of kid who’s dutifully going along with his family’s wishes while being just the tiniest bit of a rebel. Listening to him talk to the other students, I think he doesn’t focus so much on being an artist because he knows that it can only be a hobby for him. He enjoys doing it, but he won’t give it too much attention."

Out of all four members of Weiss, Yohji was the best at judging people; he had a gift in that regard that he’d honed during his time as a private investigator, and he’d certainly put it to use to find a very large number of willing dates over the last couple of years. There was the fact too that somehow he’d gotten behind Aya’s impressive defenses and survived a continuous relationship with the down-right prickly redhead. The mess with Neu aside, Omi trusted Yohji’s ‘gut feelings’.

As good as Yohji’s intuition about people could be, he had sadly proven fallible to various traps in the past. While Omi hadn’t had the best of luck in that regard, he usually was good at thinking things through from an alternate angle when it wasn’t so personal. "It could be that someone’s setting Yakumo up, don’t you think? I mean, if the profile of the murderers is correct, they should be serious artists. They might be offended that he’s not fully developing his talent."

Yohji nodded and gave him a pat on the right shoulder. "Great thinking, there. We know they’re damn good at covering their tracks, so it would make sense they have people do some of the more ‘risky’ errands for them. If the cops had gotten hold of Yakumo, they probably wouldn’t look any further than the fact that he bought the supplies and assume he’s lying about doing it for someone else."

Sadly enough, if the police felt that their case was strong enough against the poor man, that’s probably what they’d do just to wrap up the murders as quickly as possible. If the murderers’ intent was to frame someone else with the crime, they might actually stop after Yakumo was arrested, or at least alter their ‘style’ enough that they’d be taken as copycat killers.

"Why can’t we ever get any dumb targets," Omi mumbled as he continued with his latest search. "Someone who leaves lots of evidence around and makes lots of mistakes."

"Because we don’t often deal with any amateurs," Yohji reminded him. "Well, other than those idiots who thought it was fun to murder people by chasing their bikes off of highways."

Omi nodded as he remembered that case – it had been pretty easy to track those targets down and arrange for the trap at Villa Weiss. He felt an intense longing for the small cabin, an urge to get away from Tokyo and Kritiker for a short while and just have fun with the people who were closest to him. "Maybe we can go back to the Villa this winter. Ken likes to ski, and it’s always so peaceful up there."

Yohji took to rolling his cigarette between his long fingers. "I can see it now, Aya all bundled up in sweaters until he looks like a vibrantly-colored snowman!" He chuckled at the mental image, which even made Omi laugh; he could see it so clearly in his mind, Aya wearing so many clothes that he could barely move and scowling at anyone who dared to make a comment about his odd appearance.

"Well, except for when I get him out of those clothes and do my best to keep him warm the old fashion way!" Yohji even waggled his eyebrows for added emphasis.

"Mah, Yohji-kun, I don’t want to hear about that!" Omi made a show of covering his ears with his hands. "No wonder I’m so ‘perverted’ after living with you for so long!"

"It’s nice to see me influencing the younger generation." Yohji beamed like a proud parent and laughed when Omi tossed the empty soda can at him. "My skills deserve to be passed down, and do you really mind putting them to use against dear old Ken, eh?"

Omi folded his arms over his chest and did his best not to pout. "Like I’ve had any chance to do so with this mission."

"Very true." Yohji winced and rubbed his ribs on the left side of his chest. "There’s that whole ‘don’t leave any more bruises’ thing going on. Which is why we need to find the targets quickly!"

Waving his right hand at his friend’s loud and impassioned demand, Omi sat up straight so he could check out the result of his search. As mostly expected, there was no other visible connection between Yakumo’s family business and the other crime scenes. "Oh, sure, get all concerned when it’s affecting your love life," he teased.

Yohji was quiet for a moment before sighing heavily. "Well, I won’t lie and say that I miss the chance of having lots of ‘fun’ with Aya, but this is one of our more gruesome missions. Bastards who can do that to cute girls deserve to be caught." He tried for a mocking tone and failed utterly, but Omi summoned a weak smile because he knew what Yohji was trying to do.

"It always come down to cuteness with you. At least you get to see Ken naked!" He also tried to lighten the suddenly serious atmosphere here in the mission room, and appeared more successful than Yohji’s recent attempt.


His friend made a gagging sound. "Only you find him ‘cute’!" Then Yohji’s expression turned serious. "Though I must admit he has a pretty good ass from all that running around. Too bad I’ve seen it before you have! And for hours and hours at that!" he taunted Omi, laughing as he very smartly ran to the stairs.

"You, oh…! Rub it in, why don’t you!" Omi yelled as he followed his friend, deciding that now was as good a time as any to take a break and get some more refreshments before continuing with the online searches.

He ran into the kitchen and came to a halt when he found Ken leaning against the fridge with a can of fruit juice in his right hand. "Rub what in?" he asked, so clearly confused that Yohji burst into laughter and went to hide beside Aya, who was busy at the stove making what looked to be some pork cutlets for dinner.

"Ah, that he gets to spend the day driving around the city while I’m stuck with class and searching online," Omi replied after a moment’s pause, his voice quiet as he did his best to come up with a rather lame excuse. However, it seemed to be good enough for Ken.

"I still say Yohji should be the one doing the nude modeling," Ken muttered before sipping more juice. He got out of the way so Omi could open the fridge and fetch a new drink, his left hand trailing down Omi’s arm in a lingering caress that made Omi not feel so tired anymore.

Aya grunted in agreement. "He would have a knack for it." He easily ignored Yohji’s hurt look, but not the arm that wrapped around his waist and pulled him in close enough for a kiss. For his part, Yohji ignored being hit with a spatula.

"I didn’t realize it was so late. We’re having pork for dinner, eh?" Omi was glad that Aya was cooking tonight since he’d forgotten all about doing it himself. "Can I help with anything, Aya? Maybe make some salads or soup, or pry Yohji off of you with a crowbar?"

Aya managed the last without the help of any aids other than a well-placed hit to Yohji’s left side. "Some miso soup would be good," he replied when it seemed he had mostly gotten his breath back.

"With lots and lots of mushrooms and tofu," Ken added, and gave Yohji an innocent look in return for the evil scowl he got. "Yum, yum."

"I hate you all," Yohji grumbled, but he appeared rather happy to be able to wrap his arm back around Aya’s waist. "Just for that I won’t share the ice cream I picked up today!"

"Oh, you *so* don’t want to be that mean, Yohji-kun," Omi warned. "Not unless you want all of your silk boxers starched to cardboard the next time I find them down in the laundry room!" He could do mean just as good, if not better.

"That threat only works if I bother to we-ow! Dammit, Aya, how can your elbow still be so damn bony through such a thick sweater?" Yohji did his best to keep Aya’s left elbow as far away from his chest as possible, which was a wise move on his part.

"It helps that you’re little more than skin and bones, Kudoh. Now shut up and check on the rice." Aya followed his orders with a glare, and Yohji huffed as he went to do as told. Omi and Ken shared an amused look over their friends’ behavior, and for the first time all day, things felt ‘right’ in Omi’s world. Perhaps he had to deal with more horror and evil than was good for someone his age, but he had great friends who made him smile and feel happy. The search could wait a little longer, until he finished dinner, and maybe Ken would keep him company while he started a few more searches and finished his homework for the weekend. That seemed like a great way to end the day, and to keep the darkness of the mission at bay.

*******

Ken wondered why the hell the university had to hold these Saturday classes – half the students were only here to make up missed classes and resented having to do so on the weekend, or were here for much-needed extra credit. The other half, of course, were the die-hard students who tended to look at him as if he was a statue or some unusual sight, their gazes intent as they examined every inch of his body.

Right now, they were getting a good look at his body covered with goosebumps. Ken felt a moment’s sympathy for Aya and promised not to yell the next time his friend cranked up the heat back home, something he looked forward to doing himself after spending over an hour standing around naked in a freezing classroom. Then he remembered that Aya, Omi and Yohji should be gone by the time he returned, already on their way to see what intentions Hasegawa had with Aya. Ken was torn between hoping the cranky old man tried something with Aya so he didn’t have to model anymore, and worried that his friends would be hurt.

One thing was certain - he was tired as hell of this mission. What he liked best about being in Weiss was taking on the enemy, in *doing* something to make those who deserved it pay for their crimes and keeping innocent people safe. All he’d done for the last week and a half was take off his clothes in front of a bunch of strangers, which was as frustrating as it was embarrassing.

"Ten more minutes," Taira-sensei informed the class, and Ken was hard-pressed not to let his shoulders sag in relief. The look the graduate student gave him contained some sympathy, as if she was well aware how he was freezing his - well, how cold it was, but she had a habit of allowing the students a little extra time to finish their projects. In a way, she was as easy-going as her supervisor, Kaneshiro, who often allowed his obvious love for art to make his classes run late. Ken supposed that wasn’t a bad thing if you were paying to learn, but he got paid on a per class basis, and right now he *really* wanted to put on some clothes.

Even if he was discomforted by the cold and the students’ attention, he did his best not to move while covertly examining the people gathered in the room. Yakumo was here today, his expression bored as usual and his hands barely moving along the sketchpad propped in front of him. He’d shown up late for class, which had raised Ken’s suspicions; had the rich kid been helping Hasegawa set up a trap for Aya? Or had he run another errand for supplies that would be used on the next victim? Yohji still hadn’t found out what the kid had done with the supplies he’d bought the other day, only that he’d brought them to the art building and had left them behind.

If Yakumo was a serial killer, he was certainly an unconcerned one. The kid – Ken couldn’t help but think of him that way even though Yakumo had a year on him – appeared bored to the point that he’d fall asleep at any moment. As much as Ken wanted to finally have a target to tear into, he had a sinking feeling that Yohji was probably right. Yakumo was quite the contrast to Baruma, who was busy sketching in between glances at Ken and the girl seated next to him, Murata. She didn’t seem to notice the attention, not when she kept whispering and giggling with Saito, something that the usually serious art student didn’t do in class. Maybe it was because it wasn’t a professor who was teaching today, maybe not, but her stifled giggles were getting on Ken’s nerves. Well, to be honest, *everything* was getting on his nerves right now – all he wanted was to go home, take a long, hot shower and steal a few of Yohji’s beers.

About to break his pose so he could rub his hands up and down his cold arms, Ken sighed in relief when Taira finally announced that the class was finished for the day. While most of the students hurried to gather their belongings and flee, a few hung around in the room while Ken snatched up his robe and yanked it on. He was tying the belt in a knot when he noticed that Yakumo was speaking to Masashi, his right hand held out as if he was offering the other student something. Try as he might, he couldn’t hear what the two men were saying, not when Murata and Saito were standing closer and making plans to go see a movie tomorrow night.

He decided it would be best to hurry and get dressed, then return to the room on the pretext of needing to talk to Taira about something and hope that Yakumo was still hanging around. Doing his best not to run from the room, he walked away quickly, actually breaking into a jog once he was in the hallway. Fortunately the locker where he stored his clothes was close by, and once in the changing area, he tore off his robe, no longer mindful of how cold he was. Dressing in a hurry, he pulled on his clothes in a haphazard manner, pausing to shove the copper bracelet into the pocket of his jeans. Once he was decent enough, he raced out of the changing room and back toward the classroom.

Of course he wasn’t lucky enough to find Yakumo still there, and when he stepped back into the hallway he didn’t see any sign of the kid there, either. Cursing his bad luck at losing what appeared to be one of their most promising leads, he almost jumped when Saito walked out of another classroom.


"Eh! Ueno-san, I’m sorry!" Saito moved back in time to prevent from bumping into him, her arms wrapping around her chest as if she was afraid of being hurt.

"It’s okay," Ken assured, feeling like a clumsy oaf for nearly running into the small young woman. Good thing that Yohji wasn’t here to see what had almost just happened, or else he’d be teased for the rest of the night. "Ah, has everyone left?" he asked, hoping that Yakumo was hanging out around here somewhere.

Saito nodded. "Yes, I’m afraid so – everyone has plans, it seems." She pouted for a moment, which made the ring in her bottom lip jut out. "I was hoping that someone could help me carry something I need for a project to the van I borrowed from my brother. Why does plaster have to be so heavy?"

Disappointed in that he didn’t seem to be doing much in the way of ending the mission today, Ken sighed and gave the girl a lopsided smile. "I’m just going home to wait for some friends to come back, so I can help you with the plaster." Maybe he could ask Saito if she knew what Yakumo and Masashi were up to, since she was good friends with Masashi. Now to figure out how to bring up the topic and not seem too obvious about it…

Saito clapped her hands together and giggled. "Wonderful!" She latched onto his arm and pulled him into classroom she’d just exited. "Kaneshiro-sensei is letting me take home some home so I can work on a few moldings, but the bag is so heavy! I didn’t think about bringing a cart or anything."

He let her prattle on while he picked up the bag of plaster powder, which had to weigh a good fifty pounds – about half as much as Saito weighed, so he didn’t blame her for being so happy for his assistance. "Where did you park?"

"In Lot Four – I’m using a friend’s parking pass," Saito explained, a nervous smile on her face when Ken groaned at having to carry the bag that far. "If you don’t mind, I need to do something else before I can go home, so why don’t you go to the parking lot and I’ll be right behind you." She patted his shoulder, appearing truly grateful for him lugging the bag around that he felt it would be churlish to insist that she walk with him.

"I’ll see you there." He grunted a little as he shifted the bag higher in his arms and headed for the parking lot, telling himself that the exercise would be good. Saito followed him far enough to help him with the elevator, then returned to the room they’d just left. Wondering what else she was taking home, he smiled in thanks at the student who held the outside door open for him.

Lot Four was about a mile away from the art building, far enough from most of the campus that there were only a few vehicles parked there. Since it was a Saturday, he didn’t see why Saito couldn’t have parked closer to the building or offered to bring the car around to meet him, but it wasn’t as if he had much better to do today and he still had some hope of asking her about Yakumo and Masashi.

He’d been standing in the parking lot with the bag of plaster by his feet when Saito ran toward him, appearing out of breath. "I’m sorry, Ueno-san, that took a little longer than I thought it would." She bowed low to him then motioned toward a small van about fifty feet away. "That’s my brother’s car."

"I guess it would be a bad thing if he drove a motorcycle!" Ken laughed as he picked up the bag again, Saito giggling as well as she led the way to the vehicle. She unlocked the doors and opened the back hatch up, revealing that nothing was stored in the back of the van other than a large pile of blankets. Ken placed the heavy bag down and leaned into the van to push it forward, cursing when he felt something sharp bite into the back of his neck. At first thinking that he must have hit something on the van’s door or frame, it only took a moment to notice the way Saito quickly stepped back, a hypodermic held in her right hand.

"What did you do?" He struggled to turn around and face her, anger vying with the growing sense of disorientation that made his motions sluggish. A voice inside his head yelled at him for being such an idiot, and he’d just managed to turn around when there was another sudden movement that he caught out of the corner of his left eye, this time the large pile of blankets erupting as Masashi reached for and grabbed him, a blanket tossed over his head as he was pulled into the back of the van. Ken did his best to struggle, his limbs feeling heavier and heavier with each heartbeat, and his last thought before passing out was about how furious Omi was going to be with him for being kidnapped.

*******

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