Cages

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chapter 2

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Illuminating discussions

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Yohji looked down over the railing unto the busy street below. Pedestrians hurried back and forth, going about their day as if they had something important to do. It had been a long time since he’d felt the same.

"Hey, Yohji, I’m not hanging up your laundry for you!"

Flicking his cigarette onto the street below, he turned and walked over to where Ken was hanging laundry. He had a basket of his own, overflowing with wet sheets and the few articles of his clothing that didn’t require professional cleaning. Since he hated doing laundry he’d put it off the whole week he’d been here at the Hanabatake, and had only broken down today because he needed clean sheets. Yohji had debated letting the apartment’s cleaning staff take care of that onerous chore for him, but hadn’t been able to rationalize the expense. While he was more than happy to allow Momoe to clean his apartment for him, Yohji drew the line at paying that much money for someone to wash his dirty linen.

"All right, I was just checking the place out, Ken. You’d think you could go a bit easier on the new guy," Yohji grouched as he started to hang his sheets. Despite his earlier words, once Ken was done hanging his and his ‘roommate’s’ clothes, he hurried over to help Yohji with the task. It wasn’t long before several of the lines were filled with their belongings.

"Thanks for the help, Ken. What do you say to coming back up here in a few hours and taking them down for me?"

Ken smiled at Yohji. "Why do I get the feeling that if I make the mistake of doing that once, I’ll be stuck with your laundry for good?" It seemed that Ken was a bit smarter than he appeared.

Looking up at the sky, Ken shook his head. "It’s warm and sunny today, and there’s a nice breeze. The sheets should be done in a couple hours, and you’ll want to take them down then or someone will do that for you. And trust me, you won’t appreciate them for doing that." He chuckled at Yohji’s crestfallen expression. "They’ll end up so wrinkled you’ll need to wash them again. Some of the residents get very nasty when the lines are taken up with dry clothes."

Yohji grunted and looked over at the greenhouse on the other side of the roof, and the few belongings on the line in front of it. The laundry drying was mainly towels and sheets, and if one watched long enough, one could see a figure moving about inside the greenhouse.

"Is he one of those people?" Yohji waved a hand in the conservatory’s direction.

"Who, Aya?" Ken glanced in the direction that Yohji had motioned in and shook his head. He sat down on the roof’s floor and took a sip from the bottle of sports drink he’d brought to the roof with him. The younger man had roused Yohji from bed once he’d finished his run and after making him do a load or two of laundry, had dragged him up here to hang it.

"Nah, I’ve never had any problems with him touching my stuff. Since he’s one of the building’s earliest risers, he usually gets his laundry out and done before anyone else comes up here." Ken looked at the greenhouse for another minute and then turned to face Yohji. "Why are you so interested in Aya? I think every time I see you you’re always asking about him."

Well, part of it was the fact that, while he was very talkative about other people, Ken had told Yohji little more about himself other than the fact that he lived with his ‘friend’, Kase. A friend whom Yohji had yet to meet, even though he saw Ken at least once a day, and who seemed to work very late hours. Unlike Ken, who didn’t seem to have any job. Or at least a respectable one that he wanted to own up to. Since Yohji wasn’t able to find out much about the younger man, he focused on the other mystery in his life at the moment, which was Aya.

"Because I sure as hell can’t ask him. All the man does is glare at me each time our paths cross." The little voice that Yohji hadn’t managed to rid himself of reminded him of the fact that he had some responsibility in the current situation with his new neighbor. Aya had refused to say anything to him since that night in the hall.

Ken sighed as he stretched out his legs and tilted his head back so the sunlight could fall on his face. "I don’t know why you’re looking to me for any answers. I think I’ve talked to the man maybe five times. Once was when he told me not to…." A look of pain crossed Ken’s face and he swiped a hand over his face. "Well, he told me to be careful about exercising up here on the roof because of his greenhouse. That’s why I run, now. One day he actually wished me ‘good morning’ when we were hanging up clothes, another time he said good-bye as he left the gym. Then there was the time when I told him he better watch how he acted around Sakura and not hurt the girl, and he hasn’t spoken to me since."

Yohji let out an appreciative whistle. "You stood up to the pretty boy? I’m amazed you didn’t get kicked out for your audacity."

"Well, he didn’t seem so much pissed at me as upset about something, and a bit sad. All he said was for me to mind my own business, and that he would never hurt the girl, not intentionally. He even made the comment about her being like a sister to him." Ken closed his eyes for a moment. "Kase almost killed me when he found out about it. I made the mistake of confronting Aya in the gym while other people were there."

Yohji tucked back the strands of his hair that were blowing in his face. "Why was he mad at you?"

"Because he worried that Aya could get us kicked out." Ken opened his eyes and squinted at the sun for a few seconds, then shifted his gaze to stare at the drying laundry. Yohji noticed a faint blush creep along his friend’s face. "We don’t own the apartment, Kase is just subletting it through someone he knows. He likes being able to tell people he lives here, and says he got a great deal on it and that it’s close to work for him. It would be very easy for Aya to get us evicted if he wanted."

"So did he try anything?"

"Nah, not that I’m aware of, at least. It wasn’t long after I talked to him that I saw him all beaten up, and he wouldn’t speak to anyone but Ayumi and Sakura for a couple weeks after that. I guess he had more important things to worry about than me bitching him out."

Lighting up another cigarette, Yohji focused his attention on the greenhouse. "Does he get beaten up often?"

"I… that’s the first time I’ve seen him that bad since I’ve been here, which is almost two years now. I don’t know if it was his boyfriend who did that to him, or Kimura or someone else." Ken’s voice became slightly amused. "I don’t know if you’ve noticed it or not, Yohji, but Aya isn’t exactly the chatty type. If I can’t even have a conversation with the guy about who’s gonna take the World Cup, I highly doubt that I can ask him why he’s sporting a bunch of bruises."

"Yeah, I guess you have a point." For some reason mention of the sport’s title stirred a memory in Yohji’s head, but the sight of the greenhouse’s door opening up distracted him. Aya, dressed in a red yukata the same shade as his hair and decorated with exploding fireworks, stepped out of the glass building with a basket of flowers on his arm. His long hair, which reached the small of his back, was braided and draped over one of his shoulders, falling into the basket. The quiet man checked his laundry before walking towards the stairwell. His eyes flicked over Yohji and Ken, but Aya acted as if they weren’t there and continued on his way.

Realizing that he held a burning cigarette between his fingers, Yohji cursed and flicked it away. "Damn but that man has a serious attitude problem."

"Yohji, it’s Aya. I suggest you stop thinking about him so much and just accept the fact that he’ll do his thing and will act as if you don’t exist." Ken rose to his feet to tug one of his sheets straight. "Besides, you’re starting to come across as obsessed with him. I thought you were into women," Ken said as he treated Yohji to an assessing glance.

About to say that he was, mostly, Yohji thought about how he was about to defend his sexuality to someone who was so far in the closet that he practically reeked of mothballs. Yohji knew what lubricant stains on sheets looked like, and had been about to suggest to Ken that he either use a water based lubricant or get a better detergent when he’d realized that fact.

"I like pretty things, Ken. As long as they’re willing and understand that I’m in charge…," and able to meet his price, "… I’m up for a good time. Why do you care?"

Blushing once more, Ken swallowed and resumed fussing with his laundry. "I really don’t care who you sleep with, Yohji, as long as they’re of age. But Aya is so far out of your reach it’s not funny. You’d have to pay him, not the other way around. And from what I’ve heard, Takatori pays quite a hefty sum for the privilege of having Aya in his bed. Hell, from what I’ve heard, he’s so wrapped around Aya’s fingers that he’s even paying some of Ayumi’s bills for her. The man built Aya a greenhouse up here so he could play in the dirt, and updated the gym so Aya could practice his kendo. Somehow I doubt you could afford someone as high maintenance as Aya."

That fact galled Yohji when he thought about it. He was used to getting attention, mostly for his exotic looks, and once he had that attention he could snare just about anyone. Hell, he could make Ken blush at the drop of a hat. But Yohji couldn’t get any reaction from Aya other than that sad look the night he’d insulted him, and he couldn’t get Ayumi to give him a second glance. While he normally wouldn’t care about an old woman, he minded her ignoring him because of the fact that Ayumi was very well thought of at the Hanabatake, and Yohji knew that he wasn’t being looked kindly upon by some residents for the fact that he had her displeasure. He’d have to take her up on the offer of tea sometime soon, and see if he could make amends. As for Aya….

Yohji could admit to himself that he did find the man attractive. That fact had taken him by surprise the other day when he’d ridden in the elevator with Aya. He hadn’t been able to tear his eyes away from the sight of the long red hair flowing down Aya’s back, admiring how striking he looked in a dark blue kimono decorated with fireflies. Yohji didn’t usually feel attraction for men that strongly, but Aya had a beauty that couldn’t be ignored. Too bad he was an asshole.

So Yohji was stuck with wanting someone who could care less about him. It had been so long since he’d felt actual desire for a person, not just the desire to use sex to escape from his memories for a short while. It worried him, that feeling, and he wanted it to go away. But Aya was so fucking aloof that Yohji couldn’t get him out of his mind. Normally he’d just fuck the object of his desire and move on… but Ken was right about Aya being out of reach. Maybe Aya had fooled around with that girl, Sakura, or maybe not, but other than smelling of sex that one time, he showed no inclination to sleeping with anyone. Yohji guessed that Takatori was paying well for the exclusive privilege of having Aya just for himself.

Yohji hated when things were out of reach because he couldn’t help but keep trying for them. However, the voice in his head that acted as his conscience was a reminder of what his last attempt at the impossible had earned him. He wasn’t going to be burned again.

*******

Aya had just finished changing the sheets on his bed when there was a knock on his door. He hurried from his bedroom and allowed his guest inside.

"Good afternoon, Aya. How are you today," the small teenaged boy at the door asked him.

"I’m fine, Mamoru. How are you?" Aya led the youngest brother of his lover to his kitchen. There was a plate of crackers waiting on the table, and Aya filled his electric kettle with water so the two of them could have a cup of tea.

"I’m okay. Ah, you got more of the shrimp ones! Thank you, Aya." Mamoru picked up one of the crackers and munched on it as he sat down at the table. Once the treat was done he slid his laptop out of its bag and hooked it to the phone line by the table. Next came several textbooks.

"You’re welcome." While he waited for the water to heat, Aya finished tidying up the kitchen. There never was much for him to do in the apartment, but if Hirofumi stopped by and found him cleaning, he would once again press the apartment building’s maid service on Aya. He didn’t want that to happen, he was perfectly fine doing the cleaning, and it gave him something to do. Besides, he didn’t like the thought of someone being in his apartment and snooping around. Aya preferred his privacy.

Once the water was ready he poured the two of them some tea and sat across from the teenager. "How can you have so much homework when school just started back up?"

Mamoru smiled at him as he reached for another cracker. "You know how it is, Aya, for your junior year. I think my teachers have a pool running on seeing how many of us they can make suffer a breakdown."

Aya did remember his second to last year in school, and had to take a deep breath to ease the pain in his chest. All that work to try and get into the best possible college… and to have that goal snatched away from him when he had finally achieved it. Focusing on the hot cup in his hand, Aya forced his memories of the past aside. He didn’t need to think about such things now. He no longer had a past or a future. Shikata ga nai.

"Then would you care to explain to me why you’re reading a novel that I know you did a report on this time last year?" Aya held up the book in question. Mamoru blushed and then bent his head to blow on his tea, as if to cool it. Along the way he mumbled a little.

"Yes?"

"Because Ouka has to read it for one of her classes, and I promised I would help her."

"Ah." That translated into Ouka having Mamoru do the report for her, which was nothing new. The girl had Mamoru wrapped around her little finger. It seemed a common phenomenon for younger sisters and older brothers. "How is your sister?"

Mamoru smiled and slid the book back into his bag. "She’s well, Aya. Her mother asked me to tell you that she’s having another omakase dinner at her restaurant next week, and wanted to know if you and Ayumi would like to attend."

Aya thought about it for a minute and knew that his friend would dearly love to go. "I’ll stop by her apartment tomorrow and give her the money then. If I can’t attend, Ayumi and Kohmi can go." He didn’t know if Hirofumi would have plans for him that night or not.

"Okay, Aya." Mamoru sipped his tea and then focused his attention on his laptop. Leaving the electric kettle on so the boy could make himself more tea when he wanted some, Aya returned to his bedroom. He would finish his housecleaning while Mamoru did his homework. As he started cleaning his bathroom, Aya thought about how he had missed Mamoru the past month. It was nice to have company in his apartment for a few hours, someone who didn’t need to be entertained or didn’t interrupt Aya’s work. For a moment Aya thought longingly about his sister. He missed her terribly, but she was better off at Harvard. There she could make her dream of becoming a doctor come true. There’d been no chance of that here.

The next couple of hours passed in relative silence as Aya finished his housework and then cooked a simple dinner for the two of them. He helped Mamoru with his English homework and was in the process of doing the dishes by hand when his front door opened. Aya was drying his hands when Hirofumi walked into the kitchen with a smile on his face. He crossed over to Aya and pulled him close, kissing him ardently for several seconds.

"Hmm, you look great in red," Hirofumi murmured in his ear before shifting back. "Hello, Mamoru."

"Hello, Hiro." Mamoru started to pack his schoolbooks and shut down his computer. "Is the car still downstairs?"

"Yes, and Choshi is waiting for you, so hurry up." When Mamoru was ready to leave, Hirofumi reached out his hand and ruffled the boy’s blond hair. "Who fed you tonight, Sakaki or Aya?"

"Aya did. Ouka had her friends over so I fled here as soon as possible." Mamoru rolled his eyes. "They were arguing over who I’d marry. Thanks for dinner, Aya. May I return tomorrow?"

"Yes." Mamoru smiled and wished them a good night before leaving the apartment. Once the door had closed Hirofumi pulled Aya against him again.

"You know, you’re not his babysitter. If you don’t want Mamoru to come here almost every afternoon, he can just go home instead."

A home where the boy was not particularly wanted, and Mamoru knew that. Hirofumi was the only one who cared for Mamoru for some reason, and Aya wasn’t stupid enough to ask his lover why that was. Especially if Kikyou’s suspicions were true.

"Hiro, he’s welcome here."

Hirofumi grunted softly as he slid his hand down the front of Aya’s yukata. "You did eat, correct?"

"Yes." Aya wrapped his arms around Hirofumi’s neck and shivered as his yukata was untied.

"Good. Tea can wait for later, right now I want you too much." Hirofumi started to lead them towards the bedroom, his hands stroking along Aya’s chest as he walked backwards. "It’s been one hell of a lousy day, and the only thing that got me through it was the thought of you."

Aya didn’t say anything as they reached his room, just shrugged out of his yukata and let the bright cotton fall to the ground. Hirofumi’s hands pushed down his boxers, and in moments he was naked and being lowered onto the bed. Quickly stripping off his suit, Hirofumi eagerly lay atop Aya, covering him with his body as he set his glasses aside. He then kissed Aya, plunging his tongue into his mouth as his hands sought to provoke a reaction from Aya’s body. Aya lay on his sun-dried sheets and lost himself in the sensations that were slowly building within him.

*******

Yohji entered his apartment and headed straight to his kitchen, opened his fridge and pulled out a bottle of sake. Within moments he was pouring the alcohol down his throat in a continuous stream, and didn’t stop for several seconds. Reluctantly tilting the bottle upright, he wiped his mouth and decided he needed a bath. He took the bottle with him.

A couple minutes later he was standing under the hottest water his body could tolerate, the bottle of sake resting on the floor outside the tub and covered with condensing water. Yohji scrubbed his skin with a loofah until it started to turn red. Then he just let the water beat down on him.

Servicing Gensai always made him feel dirtier than usual, but tonight had been the worst. Yohji wished the man would soon realize that he needed to hire a S/M specialist and stop calling him, and renewed his resolve not to take the man on as a client again. Tonight had been enough, and only the fact that he had agreed to the appointment had prevented Yohji from storming out of the man’s apartment.

He should have known better when Gensai kept asking him to be rougher and rougher during the sex the past few times. Yohji didn’t mind using a little force if his partner wanted it, but he was into pleasure, not sadism. At least all Gensai had wanted tonight was a really rough fuck, and Yohji had made sure to wear two condoms to protect himself from any tearing and bleeding on the other man’s part. He didn’t know what was worse, a dry, hard fuck or fisting the sick bastard. That had been so bad that Yohji had refused to do it more than once. He wasn’t going to stick around any longer and find out what sick new twist the man wanted from him next time.

That reminded him, he had to go get tested sometime this week. Yohji was as clean as they came, shocking as that was considering the first few months after Asuka’s death, but some of his clients insisted on seeing monthly test results from him. It wouldn’t be proper for a CEO’s wife or a local celebrity to come down with some disease or another. Yohji always used protection and turned down any clients who wanted the sex without it. He couldn’t chance catching anything.

"Yeah, why let AIDS finish you off when liver disease and lung cancer will do just as well?" All that mattered was his corpse looked good on the outside, Yohji thought as he turned off the water. He stepped out of the shower, grabbing the bottle of rice wine before a towel, and only after a couple of swallows did he dry himself off.

Tossing the towel aside, he strode naked towards his bed. He sat down on the clean sheets and finished off the bottle. Too bad it hadn’t been one of the larger ones, he could have used all the alcohol he could get in his system at the moment. He hated feeling so filthy, and he was upset at himself for the fact that as he’d been thrusting harshly into Gensai’s body, he’d imagined it was Aya beneath him, begging to be fucked even harder. What he wouldn’t give for that to come true, for the stuck up redhead to be begging him for… anything.

Yohji set the empty bottle on his nightstand and slid between his clean sheets. He allowed the fantasy he’d started earlier that night to play out as he fell asleep. How he’d love to play with that long, red hair, to see his marks of passion on the man’s pale skin. Letting the erotic dream lull him to sleep, he stroked his half arousal and for the first time in months fell unconscious without thinking of Asuka.

*******

Aya pulled the freshly washed sheets out of the washer and set them in a plastic basket so he could take them up to the roof to dry. Hirofumi had bought him a dryer, but Aya preferred to have them dry outside whenever possible. Besides, he was usually up there an hour or two a day anyway, tending to his flowers.

A knock on his door had Aya frowning as he wondered who it was. Ayumi would always call before stopping by for a visit, and Mamoru was in class. Hirofumi had left an hour ago for work, and wouldn’t be back until tomorrow evening at the earliest. Other than that, there were no other people who bothered to visit him, Aya thought as he walked towards his door.

A look through the peephole had a smile threatening to break loose on his face. Aya opened the door to find Kikyou lounging against its frame, Tsubaki standing behind him in the hall.

"What are you doing here?"

"And a good morning to you too, Aya." The longhaired man reached out his hand and tucked a strand of Aya’s long bangs behind his ear. "Is that any way to treat two friends who have come so far to see you?"

Stepping aside so the two men could enter his apartment, Aya finally gave into the urge to smile. He’d missed Kikyou, and had been upset that their time together on his last trip to Kyoto had been so short. Even if the older man had dragged him out for all that ridiculous shopping.

"How did you manage to get away for the day?" While grateful for the visit, Aya was curious as to how Kikyou and Tsubaki had managed to show up on his doorstep.

Kikyou, dressed in a formal kimono with a black and white pattern so small it appeared grey from any more than two feet away, slipped off his shoes and, after donning a pair of slippers, walked towards Aya’s kitchen. Tsubaki, his large build covered by grey slacks, a white shirt and a navy blue blazer, followed his assignment and friend after he set their bags down. Closing the door, Aya went to join them.

"I desperately need some tea, Aya. After that, we’re going to work out since I’m all stiff from the train ride." Kikyou filled the electric kettle with water and searched for the black tea he’d left here for himself. He much preferred that blend to the green kind Aya usually drank.

Aya watched with amusement as the man continued to open and close various cupboards, but never the right one. "What if I don’t have the time to amuse you today?"

Smiling slyly, Kikyou gave up on his search and leaned against the sink counter. "I checked Hirofumi’s schedule and know he’ll be too busy to see you for another two days. Which means you’re free to play. We didn’t have much time together in Kyoto, so I wheedled Saijou to allow me to come to Tokyo for a little shopping."

Groaning internally at the thought that Kikyou was going to drag him all over the city to do that shopping, Aya opened the cupboard he stored the man’s tea in. Then he selected a deep blue pot with frosted white roses and measured out the aromatic leaves.

"I was on my way to hang some laundry up to dry before you came." Aya filled the delicate pot with the hot water and set if in front of his guests. "So the two of you sit here and drink your tea while I take care of it."

Tsubaki rose to his feet and picked up the basket of wet sheets. "Let me, Aya. I can also check your plants while I’m up there," he added in an eager voice.

Knowing that the large man would be very happy to shed his bodyguard role for a few hours, Aya nodded his head. Kikyou and Tsubaki had come here for an escape of sorts, Kikyou from his lover and the decorum forced upon him, Tsubaki from the job he’d taken on to remain close to his childhood friend. Not that Aya minded much providing that escape for them, since their stay would be a break from the daily monotony he found himself surrounded by.

Tsubaki immediately departed with the laundry, which left Aya alone with Kikyou. He poured the tea and sat down at the kitchen table, the most Western style piece of furniture in the apartment. "So, where are the two of you staying?"

"I’d hoped you would let us sleep here since I don’t feel like staying at Reiji’s house or in a hotel." Kikyou sighed in pleasure as he sipped the hot beverage. "Is that all right?"

"I have the futons, you know it won’t be a problem as long as Hirofumi doesn’t come over." Aya toyed with a strand of his hair as he waited for the tea to cool. Hirofumi wouldn’t appreciate having guests stay at the apartment while he was there, even if one of them was his grandfather’s lover, more or less.

At the sound of a chuckle Aya lifted his eyes to stare questioningly at Kikyou. He was graced with another sly smile. "He won’t, Aya. He’ll be stuck at his father’s side while they work on a new budget. Now don’t worry about him and relax; I’m here for some fun, not more kimonos." Kikyou gave him an assessing look. "Don’t even try to tell me that you have anything better to do than wash sheets and play with flowers."

Kikyou knew Aya didn’t, just he had nothing else to do than spend his lover’s money and look after the old man. Aya wasn’t sure which of the two of them had it worse. While Saijou didn’t call upon Kikyou for any sexual favors very often, the man’s life was rather regimented, and certain things were expected of him. Aya had to deal much more often with Hirofumi, but his days were usually free to do what he wanted, to a certain extent.

"No. What are your plans?" Aya asked warily, not sure if he wanted to hear the answer. Kikyou enjoyed sneaking around behind his lover’s back, and had this habit of dragging Aya along with him.

"Ah, I knew I’d win you over." Now Kikyou gave him an honest, tender smile, and then he finished his cup of tea. "I want to enjoy one more cup of tea, and then we’re off to spar. Once that’s done, I think we need to spend a ridiculous amount of money. Then dinner, and after that… we will be rather naughty. We’ll let our hair down, as they say." Kikyou laughed softly as he brushed back his long hair, his face losing some of its haughty mask as he plotted what trouble the two of them could get into. Aya looked forward to when his friend could unwind enough to drop his mocking, humorous attitude and be himself. As much as Kikyou could be any more.

Aya finished his tea and rose to his feet. "Let me go get changed, then."

*******

Grumbling about his mild hangover, Yohji stepped out of the elevator and waved goodbye to its remaining occupant, a fourteen-year-old girl named Izumi. For a moment he thought that it was a crime that a lovely girl like her was wasting her youth by being some yakuza’s fucktoy, but if he couldn’t save himself he didn’t know what good he’d do her. Shaking his head, Yohji walked towards the gym.

He’d become quite popular already with the younger residents of the Hanabatake, though the older ones were giving him a bit of a cold shoulder. But Yohji could deal with that when there were so many lovely young women around eager to be his friend. As long as he kept it as just friends, though, things should be fine. Yohji had no desire to get beaten up by a jealous boyfriend for touching the man’s girl. So far the yakuza here hadn’t given him much trouble, especially since he hadn’t brought any of his male clients back here yet.

He’d woken up a bit earlier than usual that morning, his head hurting from the sake. He’d decided to sweat out the hangover, and figured some light exercise would do the trick. Ken was off somewhere running, so Yohji had decided to work out on his own and then drag the man out for something to eat later on.

Since it was before noon, the gym was pretty much empty. There were two women over in one corner of the gym laughing as they more or less did some aerobics. Yohji had just walked over to one of the rowing machines when he heard the sound of wood striking wood. He saw two men dressed in heavy gear practicing kendo, and was rather surprised by that. Yohji knew Aya practiced the sport, but thought him the only one in the building that did so.

Whoever the other man was, he was a little taller than Aya and seemed just as good a swordsman as the redhead. While Yohji worked out he kept an eye on the bouts across from him, noticing that each man landed almost the same number of blows on each other. He wasn’t very knowledgeable about kendo, but he had the impression it was being performed properly in front of him. The two men made it seem more like a ritual or dance than a sport.

Just when his body had decided it had had enough, the two men bowed once more and then pulled off their large masks. Aya removed the cloth he’d tied his hair back with and tried to brush aside the damp tendrils that clung to his flushed face. For a moment Yohji imagined that would be what Aya would look like during sex, flushed and tousled and appearing like an actual human instead of some fancily dressed museum mannequin.

Aya’s companion also had long hair, though the thick strands that reached the middle of his back were of a more conventional color of black. The stranger was several years older than Aya, in his early thirties if Yohji had to hazard a guess, and had a tall, slim build and handsome face. He caught Yohji staring at him and smiled, waving his hand lazily in Yohji’s direction before walking over to him.

"I do believe you’re new here. I’m Kikyou." He bowed slightly to Yohji.

Amused that a friend of Aya’s could be so informal and _friendly_, Yohji smiled at him and dipped his head. "I’m Yohji. You live here?"

"No, I’m just visiting my friend for a couple days. It’s sort of an informal vacation from work." Kikyou laughed and looked over his shoulder at Aya, and after a minute a puzzled look crossed his face when Aya didn’t come any closer to Yohji or join in the conversation. He tilted his head to the side and frowned for a second, and then turned his attention back to Yohji, smiling once again but there was a touch of coolness to the expression now.

"You wouldn’t happen to know of any new clubs, would you? Some place fun and not too crowded?"

Yohji thought about the question for a moment, and as he did his gaze kept shifting over to Aya. The redhead was standing a few feet away from him, his eyes downcast as he stared at the wooden sword clutched in his hand.

"There’s a club called Shinju that’s pretty new, and it hasn’t been too crowded the last couple times I was there. It’s located on the eight floor of the Hayashibara building." For a moment Yohji wondered why the man was asking him about a club, but as soon as he gave an answer Kikyou bowed slightly and thanked him and then walked away. Aya picked up their gear and followed his friend, not sparing Yohji a single glance as he walked by. Gritting his teeth, Yohji watched his neighbor leave the gym and thought dark thoughts about Aya’s attitude. The man needed to get the stick out of his ass before Yohji either fucked the attitude from him or smacked him silly.

*******

Kikyou smiled at the flustered store assistant as he enjoyed the woman’s discomfort. "Please put all of this on the Tsukiyono account." He watched as her eyebrows rose, either from mention of the account’s name or from the amount of money that was about to be charged. Kikyou had done himself proud on this shopping trip. He doubted Aya and he would ever have the opportunity to wear all the yukatas he’d just purchased, but that wasn’t the point. What mattered was spending as much Takatori money that they possibly could, and since Aya refused to spend his lover’s money frivolously, Kikyou had to make up for him.

He gave the assistant the code for the account Saijou had set up for him, and then Aya’s address so the garments could be dropped off there later that afternoon. When that was done he allowed Aya to drag him out of the store, Tsubaki on their heels, his hapless friend relegated as their bodyguard by Saijou’s orders. Hah, what a joke. If anything did happen to them, more than likely Aya or Kikyou would handle the matter rather than gentle Tsubaki.

"Kikyou, why did you have to spend so much money there?" Aya’s voice was icy, and Kikyou knew that he wouldn’t be able to drag his friend into too many more shops. Aya’s nerves must be worn thin by now from the constant attention they drew to themselves because of their kimonos and hair. He hated being stared at, and was one of the reasons why he rarely ventured outside his apartment building anymore. Aya had learned the hard way just how much his distinctive looks made him stand out and be remembered.

While Kikyou had grown used to being stared at and had even learned to flaunt his strange looks in public, Aya was too reserved to develop a similar attitude. It didn’t help that at some of the shops they stopped at, such as the kimono and porcelain ones, the assistants there knew who and what they were, and never quite masked their disapproval, even though the two of them were their best customers. Then again, Kikyou thought bitterly, how could one expect such respectable people to easily deal with such perverts as Aya and himself?

"Because I’m doing our part to help the economy, Aya. Besides, think of how happy your sister will be when she receives those yukatas and the dresses you bought for her." The trick of getting Aya to spend any money at all was for the items to be for someone other than himself. He’d reluctantly bought a new tea set for Ayumi, this one decorated with plum blossoms and bumblebees, to replace one that had been broken a couple of weeks before. Then there had been several gifts for his sister. But Aya wouldn’t pay for anything for himself with the accounts that Hirofumi had set up for him, so Kikyou had taken matters into his own hands.

He slid his arm into Aya’s and tugged the quiet man across the street. "What do you say to us getting something to eat, and then we’ll make only one more stop today." They needed new clothes for tonight, and those they would pay cash for. Saijou and Hirofumi wouldn’t have set up any accounts for them in the stores they would be visiting for club clothes. The men didn’t want Aya and Kikyou to go out to a club of all places, and to be able to blend in with the partygoers. No, Aya and he had some damn ideal to live up to, and weren’t allowed any unregulated fun. The Takatoris hated to be cheated out of what they felt was theirs, and wouldn’t countenance the chance of someone touching their ‘lovers’, let alone anything more enjoyable.

Pushing aside the dark thoughts that would only make Kikyou bitter and angry, which he didn’t want to be on a day he was out with two dear friends, he dragged a protesting Aya into a noodle shop. Once the waitress, who couldn’t stop staring at them during their order, left the table, Kikyou sighed and reached out to tap the back of Aya’s right hand.

"So, I’ve been wondering this for the past couple of hours. Who was the gentleman in the gym? The blond with the highlights and killer smile?"

Aya rolled his eyes and wiped his hands with one of the damp towels the waitress had given them. "That was my new neighbor. He’s an asshole." Aya tossed the towel aside and focused his attention on breaking apart his chopsticks.

Kikyou exchanged a look with Tsubaki, who then nodded and suddenly left the table, heading back towards the men’s room.

"An asshole? He didn’t seem like one to me, but then again, I don’t live near him. What happened, Aya?" Kikyou gazed levelly at his friend, hoping the look expressed the fact that he wasn’t going to drop the topic until Aya told him all the details. They had to be bad for someone to ruffle Aya’s cool reserve as strongly as this Yohji had. "It’s just the two of us, so start talking."

Aya glanced at Tsubaki’s empty seat and then looked around the small restaurant. Then he hunched his shoulders and poured himself some tea. "It’s nothing, Kikyou. We didn’t meet under the best of circumstances, and things have gone downhill from there. It doesn’t help that he stays up late all the time entertaining his customers, so I have to spend my nights in my bedroom if I want any peace and quiet."

Knowing that wasn’t the entire story, Kikyou propped his head on his hand and stared at Aya. The younger man flushed the slightest bit but refused to say anything else, his face gradually becoming impassive. The situation had to be really bad between Aya and his neighbor if he was so flustered just at the mention of the man.

"Does he own the apartment or does it belong to one of his… patrons?" Kikyou kept his voice as smooth as possible, but from the wary glint in Aya’s eyes his friend knew what he was alluding to.

"Don’t get him kicked out, Kikyou. The apartment is his, and if he’s gone…." Aya swirled the tea in his cup for a few seconds. "I’d rather have the rude bastard there than another child. The next person to live there can always be worse than him."

"Not if you ask Hiro to buy the apartment for you and to keep it unoccupied. You know he’d do it in a heartbeat. Or his brother could buy it for his two girlfriends."

Aya grimaced at that thought. "Their father would go through the roof if that happened. It would be a waste of money, and he’d refuse to have his sons’… lovers living next to each other."

"But the hypocrite has his long time mistress and daughter two floors up from you." Kikyou reminded himself again that he wasn’t going to allow himself to be angry with the Takatoris today. This was a day of fun, not bitterness. There were too many other days for that.

When Aya remained quiet for a few seconds, Kikyou shook his head. "Well, let me know if this Yohji keeps bothering you. There must be something we can do to make him leave you alone. Perhaps threaten to toss him off his balcony or something; you know Tsubaki would do that for you. Or Hiro can have him audited." Ah, he’d managed to win a ghost of a smile from Aya.

Seeing his other friend return from the bathroom, Kikyou winked at Aya and sat back in his chair. "Keep it in mind, okay? I know the perfect kimono to wear if we do decide to dangle him from the Hanabakate’s rooftop. I’ll stop by and buy it the moment I return to Kyoto."

Aya sighed again and tossed the paper wrapper from his chopsticks at him. "Kikyou, is there anything you don’t shop for?"

"No, Aya. I’ve perfected it to an art over the years." Aya should know better than that. They’d both sold themselves to the Takatoris for the clan’s money and power, and Kikyou was determined to make sure that the price of his pride and honor was met threefold. If all he was to the world now was an expensive whore, he’d be an extravagantly expensive one.

*******

Yohji tossed back his fourth shot of the night and groaned in pleasure at the feel of the expensive whiskey sliding down his throat, leaving a trail of warmth in its wake. He smiled in thanks at the bartender and turned to drape his arm over the shoulders of his ‘date’. Umeko was busy looking out at the crowd on the dance floor, but she sidled closer to Yohji at his touch. She was a businesswoman in her thirties, determined to spend the best years of her life banging against the glass ceiling of the company she worked for, instead of marrying and having a family. Yohji saw her about once a month, when he wined her and dined her, took her to a club and then back to her place for sex. He sometimes wondered if she slept with anyone other than him, but he really didn’t care. She was a good customer and he didn’t mind spending the night with her, once he got her to unwind.

"Ready to dance yet?" He breathed into her ear, pausing to give it a quick lick before he pulled away. Umeko shivered a little and turned to the bar to order a drink. Yohji rubbed her back as they waited for the bartender to fill the order.

The Shinju wasn’t his favorite club, it wasn’t trendy or packed enough for that honor. But Umeko preferred the smaller clubs, and he hadn’t been able to resist coming here tonight after having mentioned the place to Aya’s friend. For the eighth time in the past hour, Yohji found himself scanning the club for either longhaired man. Kikyou had to have asked him about clubs for a reason, and he had said he was just here for a few days.

It was when the bartender was bringing Umeko her drink that Yohji finally caught sight of a familiar mane of hair. He stared in surprise as Aya, his long hair pulled back, except for his bangs and two long strands that framed his face, walked up to the bar several meters away from him. His hair was held in place by two silver hairpins, his long legs clad in skin tight black leather and his upper body covered in a loose silver mesh top with a tight weave that slid down his left shoulder. Yohji swore he saw a trace of glitter around the man’s eyes, making their violet color stand out even more, and some gloss on his lips. Aya looked like some glamorous rock star, slightly androgynous but not in the least effeminate.

Then he noticed Kikyou come up behind Aya and reach around him to hand the bartender some money and give him their order. The older man was dressed in red leather pants just as tight as Aya’s and a white Chinese-style top complete with full sleeves and fancy frogs fastening it closed. It clung to his upper body, flowing down past his hips but slit up the sides. All of his hair was pulled back in a bun, save for several tendrils that fell around his face and onto his neck. Again Yohji caught a glimpse of makeup, but the effect was more one of drama than femininity.

Kikyou noticed his attention and smiled coldly at Yohji then leaned forward to take his drink from the bartender. He said something to Aya, and the redhead turned to look in Yohji’s direction. Their eyes met for a moment, then Aya shifted his gaze downward to take in Yohji’s skintight pants and the cropped black top that he was wearing. Aya’s eyes flickered to Yohji’s right and then he turned around and headed off towards the dance floor. Kikyou gave Yohji another cold grin and then followed his friend.

Distracted as he was by watching the men vanish into the crowd, Yohji jumped when he felt a touch on his arm.

"Yohji, I said I’m ready to dance now." Umeko’s voice was a touch petulant and slurred, causing him to assume that the alcohol was kicking in now.

"What?" Yohji looked at Umeko as he dragged his hand through his hair. "You want to dance?"

"That would be nice," Umeko snapped. Then she sighed and set her empty tumbler on the bar. She looked in the direction Yohji had been staring in. "Did you know those two?"

Shaking his head, Yohji started to tug Umeko towards the dance floor. "Not really. I was just wondering where the one guy got his hair dyed. I’m thinking of giving up blond in favor of being a redhead. What do you think?" He smiled charmingly at the older woman.

Umeko giggled and toyed with a strand of his hair. "I think you look great as a blond. Your hair matches perfectly with your skin. Even if you have the green eyes, you’d look odd as a redhead. You need to be pale like that guy to pull off his color."

It figured he’d take after his mother with the coloring of his eyes and hair, but his father for his skin tone. "Ah well, maybe I’ll just buy a wig then." He found a spot on the dance floor for the two of them and wrapped his arms around Umeko’s waist. "I’d hate to disappoint you."

"You’ve yet to do that," Umeko purred as she pressed herself against Yohji. "That’s what I like about you."

He chuckled and pulled her closer, bending down to kiss her on the nose before he started dancing. They’d dance for a while and have a few more drinks, and in a couple hours Yohji could take her back to her place and finish his business. He just wanted to get work out of the way and go home. There were some nights that his new lifestyle weighed heavy on him, and tonight was one of them. Yohji hadn’t felt this way recently until he’d seen the amount of disdain a pair of violet eyes could hold.

Every now and then he’d catch sight of Aya and Kikyou, dancing with women or even with each other, but nothing that was suggestive of anything between them but friendship and a desire for a good time. Once he’d ascertained that their body language towards each other wasn’t as lovers, Yohji tried his best to ignore the men and focus his attention on Umeko. It was hard, though, as his eyes kept wandering to watch Aya dance, completely lost in the beat and the slightest of smiles on his face. That was the last possible way he’d ever imagine Aya being, flushed with alcohol and dressed in club clothes, dancing with enough skill as if he did this on a regular basis. This sexy Aya clashed with his memory of the kimono clad, glaring edition he’d seen for the past couple weeks.

For a moment Yohji wondered how Aya did it, how he made the switch. Yohji had sought to lose himself in sex and alcohol as a way to make the pain go away, and had found himself hitting rock bottom and being stuck there. What had started out as a way to grieve had become his lifestyle, and he didn’t know how to get back to what he had been, or even how to change into something new. But here was Aya, appearing as if the evil twin of his prissy, asshole neighbor, the usual icy attitude completely gone. He hadn’t thought that such a change was possible, and as he stared at the dancing redhead, oblivious to the hell that awaited him back at the Hanabatake, Yohji hated him. He hated that someone had escaped, even if just for a night, and he couldn’t.

*******

"Aya, it’s lovely," Ayumi cooed as she carefully stroked the white and gold lilies, their creamy color offset by the shallow copper vase Aya had arranged them in, the green of their stems echoed by the veins of color in the porcelain and the brown and viridian stones around their base. It was a beautiful arrangement, one of the best Ayumi had ever seen, even in all her years of training maikos in the art of ikebana.

Aya bent his head, allowing his long bangs to obscure his face as he pushed the flowers closer to Ayumi. "Thank you."

Accepting the gift with a bow, Ayumi set the vase to over to the side and then tucked her hands into her kimono sleeves. "It is one of your best, Aya. I’m honored to have a student as talented as you. You should open a shop and sell your creations, I know many who would love to buy something as beautiful as this."

"Somehow I can’t ever see myself owning a flowershop, Ayumi." Aya looked up and shook his head. "It would require a lot of money to set one up, and there are many places one can purchase ikebana in Tokyo."

For a moment Ayumi wanted to continue with the dream, to tell Aya that he could find the money he needed for his shop, and she could provide the customers. It was often a favorite game she’d play with her clients, spinning silly imaginations of what some overworked businessman or politician could do if he ever tired of his stressful job. However, Aya didn’t have the option of leaving his current life and creating a new one, and it would be cruel to tease him with a silly daydream. Those clients had been amused at the thought of trading in their suits and long hours to be an actor, or a sumo wrestler, or even a gangster of sorts. There would be no amusement for Aya to think of something that would ever be out of his reach. He was Hirofumi’s, and Ayumi was certain that the Takatori would never let him go.

"I suppose you’re right. Now is not the best time for a new business venture, not with this never-ending recession." Ayumi shivered theatrically. It wasn’t as bad as it had been during the war, but after so many years of prosperity, the failing economy was a harsh blow for some people. As a geisha, though, she was used to falling fortunes. She just hoped that her profession would be able to survive the changing times and lack of wealthy sponsors.

"Please, Ayumi, I hear enough about the economy from Hiro," Aya groaned. "It’s gotten so bad that I dream of numbers at night."

Ayumi giggled as she patted her bottom lip. "Oh my, I’m sorry to cause you such pain, Ayan. I never meant to bring the dreaded apparitions of red budgets into the light of day." She couldn’t help but giggle some more at the glare Aya directed her way. "There’s only one thing option left to us, and that’s to do our part for the economy. I will gallantly allow you to take me to dinner tonight." She smiled at her friend.

Aya sighed and brushed back his bangs. "You sound just like Kikyou, I’ll have you know. I can only imagine how Reiji reacted when he saw how much was charged to the accounts while he was here in town." A hint of a smile hovered on Aya’s lips, there wasn’t any love lost between him and his lover’s father. Not when Reiji looked on him with such scorn.

"That one would have made a wonderful geisha. Kikyou would have a long string of patrons wrapped around his finger, and he’d need each and every one of them to pay for his extravagances. Maybe it’s for the best that he was born a man."

"Hm." Aya ran a finger over the teak wood of the table, tracing the faint patterns of whirls. "He’s only that way now because of Saijou."

Ayumi nodded as her fingers tangled in the sleeves of her kimono. She’d known a few courtesans like Kikyou, trapped in a life they hated and hiding their resentment behind a mask of smiles and false cheerfulness. The elegant man was a consummate actor, not many people saw past his defenses, especially not the Takatoris. Unless Saijou knew about how unhappy his lover was and delighted in causing him such pain. Maybe that explained why he’d said nothing when Hirofumi had forced Ran into becoming Aya, a copy of his own lover. Or maybe it was just two men too caught up in their fantasies to realize how the objects of their affections suffered in their roles.

It wasn’t just Aya and Kikyou, either. Many of the Hanabatake’s residents were forced to don masks of one sort of another, to present a pleasing façade to their patrons. Ayumi sighed as she thought of the poor things. At least all that had been expected of her was not to ever appear tired or unhappy. She’d kept up with a grueling pace of constant entertaining with a smile on her face. It was easy to seem playful and happy when one was making others smile and laugh, and could spend the evening drinking and telling jokes, playing her shamisen or dancing. She’d never been required to do what many of her neighbors had to on an almost daily basis, to whore herself.

"Where would you like to go to dinner, Ayumi?" Aya’s question caught her by surprise, and it took Ayumi a moment to shake off her dark thoughts and to think.

"Why don’t we go to Sakaki’s tonight? I adore how her new chef prepares black cod." She wouldn’t mind another taste of that dish, and Reiji couldn’t complain about Aya spending Takatori money when it was at his mistress’s restaurant.

"I’ll be back around six, then." Aya rose to his feet, his natural grace stirring a pang of jealousy in Ayumi’s chest. It had been a long time since she’d moved so fluidly, and her arthritis had become bad enough the past two years that she had stopped taking on students. She missed the companionship and the extra money she’d earned for herself. But at least the gods had sent her Aya in recompense.

"I will be waiting for you, Aya." It would be a nice evening, the two of them escaping the confines of their apartments together and enjoying the company. Perhaps they could do a little window-shopping or see a movie, if Aya felt comfortable enough. The poor boy still worried that someone would recognize him. Ayumi adored his exotic coloring, but had to admit that it made Aya easily remembered.

That must be why Hirofumi never allowed Aya to dye his hair or hide his eyes. He must have praised the gods indeed for his fortune and Aya’s shame, and he certainly had wasted no time in snatching up the prize he’d watched from afar for so long. As Aya bowed and left the room, Ayumi wondered once again at how fortuitous Hirofumi had been. She didn’t believe in anyone being that lucky.

*******

Wondering if he was about to make a mistake, Yohji shifted the gaily-wrapped bottle of sake in the crook of his right arm to his left hand and knocked on the door. The woman he’d briefly seen before, the one with grey streaked hair, opened it and looked at him suspiciously. He pulled on his most charming smile.

"Hello, I’m Kudoh Yohji. I’m here to have tea with Ayumi-sama. She invited me." Technically she had, at least. All the old woman had told him was that they should have tea sometime. Well, Yohji thought that now was a good one. He just hoped that Ayumi didn’t mind not being given any advance warning. It was just tea, after all. However, considering how her friend Aya still acted as if Yohji didn’t exist, he hadn’t wanted to risk calling ahead and being turned down.

The older woman sniffed and reluctantly allowed him inside the apartment, motioning with her hand for him not to move much beyond the door as she hurried away. As she left, Yohji idly noted that tangerine really wasn’t a good color for her, and that the kimono she was wearing made her look very stocky. Since the garment, when worn properly, hid all feminine curves, one had to either be very slender or delicate to avoid looking as if one had the form of a block of wood. Then, thinking of Aya, Yohji added tall to the list. Aya did indeed look slender in his kimono due to his height and his broad shoulders. That slim and toned body of his wore the outdated outfit well, but Yohji much preferred him dressed as he’d been that night two weeks ago.

It was only a few seconds before the woman returned, a sour look on her face. "Ayumi-sama will see you now." When Yohji took a step forward she hissed. "Your shoes! Take off your shoes!"

Realizing that he’d been so used to just walking about his apartment with them on, Yohji abashedly toed off his shoes and slid on the largest pair of slippers he could find among the ones lined up underneath an oak table. Surprisingly enough, the slippers were a pretty decent fit and only pinched his feet a little. The size of his feet, thanks to his American mother, caused him many problems, and he often had to either buy imported shoes or have them custom made for him.

Following the grey-haired woman, whose name he had no idea of, Yohji walked over tatami floors and past cream-coloured walls decorated with a few lovely ink drawings. The woman slid open a paper-covered door and motioned for him to enter what was the spare room in his apartment. Walking inside, Yohji found a room decorated in creams and browns, with a small nook along one wall that held another ink painting and a lovely flower arrangement. It was then that he noticed the scent of flowers which permeated the apartment, and recalled that there had been a rather large arrangement on the oak table in the foyer.

"Ayumi-sama, I hope you don’t mind that I took you up on your kind offer. I apologize for not arranging the time with you beforehand," Yohji said as he bowed to the elderly woman. He held out the bottle of sake to her.

Ayumi nodded slightly as she accepted the present and then looked at the other woman. "Would you please fetch the plum tea set, Kohmi? Thank you." Then she fixed her gaze on Yohji and gestured to a pillow on the opposite side of the low table from her. "Please, sit."

Sighing at the thought of having to sit on the floor for who knew how long, Yohji reluctantly lowered himself and forced his longs legs to contort into a position that allowed him to sit close enough to the table yet be almost comfortable. Almost. He should have expected this and worn a pair of pants that were a little looser. As it was, Yohji was a bit thankful that his back wasn’t to the door, or Kohmi would get quite an eyeful when she walked in. He made a mental note to himself to never wear such low-cut pants again if he would be spending some time sitting cross-legged on the floor, or at least to wear a long shirt if he did. His cropped sweater wasn’t doing him much good at the moment.

Wondering if he should say something or not, Yohji merely looked at Ayumi as the woman silently sat across from him, nodding her approval at the bottle of rice wine he’d given her. A minute later Kohmi reappeared with a black lacquer tray in her hands, filled with a porcelain teapot, two matching cups and a plate of treats that if Yohji guessed correctly, contained red bean taste. He hated red bean paste. Kohmi set the tray down in front of Ayumi and quietly left the room.

The elderly geisha then filled the pot with some hot water from an electric kettle that rested on the table, whirled it around in the tea pot decorated with plum blossoms and bees, and then emptied the water into a small bowl. She measured some powdered green tea into the pot and added more hot water, until it was full. Ayumi set the pot down and regarded Yohji with her light brown eyes that almost looked gold.

"So, Kudoh-san, to what do I owe the pleasure of this visit? Thank you very much for the fine gift."

"You’re welcome. You told me that I should stop by for tea one day, so I did, Ayumi-sama." Yohji repeated as his fingers played with the cuffs of his jeans. Suddenly uncomfortable, he slid the shoes up from his toes so they would no longer be pinched. Why did he feel as if he was being brought to task over something? All Ayumi did was stare at him for several seconds before nodding slightly.

"So I did. I must admit, however, that I’m surprised that you took me up on my offer after all this time. I’d thought that you’d forgotten about my invitation." Ayumi pushed the plate of treats towards him. "Here, please help yourself."

Yohji shook his head. "No thank you, I’m not hungry at the moment, though they look delicious." He was beginning to regret having come here, and his surroundings were largely responsible for making him feel so uncomfortable. Sitting in a room that looked as if it belonged in the nineteenth century, and next to a woman who would fit in better then than now, Yohji couldn’t help but notice how out of place he was. He hated feeling out of place, even if he should be used to it by now.

"A shame, they are very good. Hopefully the tea will suit you better." Ayumi poured some of the beverage into one of the cups and then held it out to Yohji. He accepted the tea and nodded his head in thanks, then set the cup aside. He should have expected he’d have to drink the stuff when Ayumi had mentioned tea to him.

"So, are you enjoying living at the Hanabatake apartments so far, Kudoh-san?"

"Please, call me Yohji, Ayumi-sama. It’s not very often that I stand on formality." Yohji lifted his cup and forced himself to sip the bitter beverage. "It would please me greatly if you called me by my first name. And yes, I’m rather happy here."

Shaking her head, Ayumi ran one of her fingers alongside her teacup. "It’s very odd to an old woman like me how informal your generation is. How… foreign at times. It’s almost shocking."

"I suppose my generation must appear strange to yours. I remembered being lectured about tainted our culture had become when I was in school," Yohji said, careful not to let his voice show his bitterness. He’d been seen as a prime example of how Westernized Japan had become, being a half-breed. When he’d realized that he could never be Japanese enough to fit in, Yohji had pretty much given up on his native culture.

Ayumi nodded and smiled at him. "I have a hard time keeping up on all the new words. It seems there’s a different one every day, and my English was never very good. I have to have Aya explain things to me all the time. I feel so old when that happens."

He wondered if that meant Aya knew English. If that was the case, he had to be a bit careful of calling the man any names in that language. Yohji was getting fed up with being treated as if he didn’t exist, and was finding it rather difficult to bite his tongue and not say something else regrettable whenever he saw Aya.

"Come now, a lovely thing such yourself can’t possibly be a day over forty, Ayumi-sama." Yohji smiled in his most appreciative manner at the woman.

Who giggled slightly and batted her eyes at him. "Ah, Kudoh-san, I see you are a charmer. Be careful of what you say, or I might be tempted to seduce a handsome young man such as yourself."

"I look forward to that happening, Ayumi-sama." Yohji found himself relaxing, thanks to the flirtatious bantering. He was beginning to regret not having come to talk to Ayumi sooner. "You know where I live, should you ever wish to come and fulfill a few of my fantasies." He allowed the slightest bit of a leer to enter his smile.

Ayumi laughed as she shook her head. "You should be ashamed, Kudoh-san. Such a forward creature you are. I fear I am a bit more old-fashioned than you, and prefer the man to come after me." She tilted her head to the side and graced Yohji with a seductive look that even considering her age had him paying attention to her. "I prefer my men to be a bit old-fashioned too, so I don’t feel so outdated."

"Is that why you like Aya so much, because he’s so old-fashioned?" The question slipped out of Yohji’s mouth before he could give any thought to how rude it might be. The redhead was often in Yohji’s thoughts, so it wasn’t that surprising that he’d immediately question about Aya when given a chance to. Besides, Yohji wasn’t sure how much longer Ayumi was going to put up with his presence, so he didn’t apologize and try to take back the question. Hopefully, Ayumi would answer him before she asked him to leave. Maybe once he knew a little more about Aya, he could stop trying to figure the sullen man out and ignore him.

Ayumi glanced at him through her lashes as she sipped her tea. She set her cup down and folded her hands into the sleeves of her pale blue kimono. "How so do you mean? Because of the way he dresses, or because he knows what manners are, Kudoh-san?"

Gritting his teeth at how Ayumi refused to call him by his first name, Yohji pushed his cup of tea away from him. "I’m very happy that you are blessed in seeing that side of him, Ayumi-sama, but perhaps you’ve noticed that I am not so fortunate in that regard. I fear that Aya doesn’t think much of me, and am at a loss for the reason why. I did apologize for running into him that one day."

One of Ayumi’s hands lifted to pat her bottom lip as she seemed to consider what he’d just said. "Kudoh-san, I will be the first to admit that Aya and you got off on the wrong foot. I will also admit that Aya… can be a bit aloof at times. But I won’t listen to a man who has never given a dear friend of mine the chance to prove himself, slander him. If that is why you came here, you can leave."

Yohji sighed and leaned against the low table. Things had been going so well, and he had to ruin them with that one question. "Ayumi-sama… I didn’t come here to cause you, or Aya, any grief. If anything, I came here to do just the opposite. I can’t help but feel that you are upset with me, and wonder what I can do to help with the wrong impression you seem to have of me. I don’t have much hope of making things right with Aya, but I was hoping for a better relationship with you."

Regarding him with her light-colored eyes, Ayumi’s hand returned to her kimono sleeve as she shook her head. "For myself, Kudoh-san, I bear you no animosity. But I know you have upset my friend, and I don’t like that in the least. Aya doesn’t need you giving him any trouble." The old woman fell silent for a moment as she lowered her head and stared down at the tea set before her. She picked up her teacup and cradled it in her hands. After gazing upon the lovely porcelain for a few seconds, she looked Yohji in the eyes, her expression serious.

"I fear that I may seem very blunt for the next few moments, but there are a few things that I want made perfectly clear. Please understand that I won’t have you causing him any grief. I know you are not entirely to blame for what happened between you and Aya, but nevertheless, if you cannot settle your differences with him, or at least stop being so rude to him, you will be gone from here. I can not say it any more plainly than that."

His throat suddenly going dry, Yohji flexed his hands into fists when he thought about losing his apartment here at the Hanabatake. "That sounds suspiciously like a threat, Ayumi-sama. I must say, I wasn’t expecting to hear something like that from you. I also fail to see how you can back your intentions. I own the apartment, and I’m not leaving anytime soon. Certainly not on behalf of a bitchy okama. It’s my home, and I’m keeping it."

Ayumi’s eyes grew hard, their color more golden as her anger shone in them. "If I hear you refer to Aya in that matter one more time, you will be homeless, Kudoh-san," she replied in a very quiet voice, her hands shaking around the teacup they held. "I will see you on the streets in less than a day. Do not think for one moment that I am a senile old woman making an idle bluff. It _will_ happen."

The woman seemed so serious that Yohji bit back on his retort and just stared at her. Ayumi’s lips were pressed tightly together, her hands still trembled and there was an air of restraint around the old geisha, as if she was only holding herself still through great effort. He hadn’t meant to upset her, but the threat about his apartment had bothered him greatly. Even if Yohji wasn’t sure how Ayumi was going to keep her word to make him homeless.

He suddenly recalled Ken telling him about how much power and respect she had here. Yohji had caught sight of a few of her visitors, who regularly included the management of the apartment building and elderly gentlemen he’d seen in the company various prime ministers over the years. She did indeed have influential friends. Having once made a living from putting two and two together, his gaze narrowed on Ayumi.

"It’s been you, hasn’t it? You’re the one who’s been evicting anyone who causes Aya trouble."

Ayumi didn’t refute his claim; in fact she nodded as she set the cup on the table. "Indeed. I watch out for my friends, Kudoh-san, and I’m not afraid to use whatever influence I have on the management here. If I wanted you gone, which is very close to happening, you would no longer live here. Continue to mistreat Aya, and you will lose your home." Then Ayumi patted her lip again, appearing slightly agitated. "Oh my, threats at tea. This is not how I imagined our meeting going, Kudoh-san."

Yohji picked up his neglected teacup and sipped the cooled beverage as he tried to make sense of the situation. Ken had said that Aya had rid himself of any troublemakers, yet Ayumi had admitted to being the one to blame. That fact clashed with the image he’d built in his mind of the redhead. But what else was knew? Aya seemed to delight in confusing the hell out of him with no effort on the other man’s part.

Clearing his throat, Yohji proceeded to talk in the politest manner he could manage. "Please, Ayumi-sama, answer me this and then I’ll leave." Ayumi nodded her assent after a moment. "Why do you care for him so much? Why is Aya so special to you? Perhaps if I see him with your eyes, I can understand why I should treat him better."

"That is a rather personal question, Kudoh-san." She reached for his now empty cup and poured him more tea before refilling hers. "Again, your bluntness shocks me, but perhaps an answer on my part will make you rethink your attitude."

Ayumi sipped her tea and then cradled the warm cup in her hands. Her golden eyes remained focused on the fragile vessel. "I care for Aya… because he is the most caring, the most loyal and generous person that I know." At Yohji’s muffled snort her eyes lifted and glared at him. "Be quiet and hear my answer to your question. You have known him for a few weeks; I have known him for over four years. You only see the mask that he shows the world, largely because of people such as you.

"He will sacrifice anything for those he cares about, which is why they are so few." Ayumi’s eyes dropped back to her teacup and her voice softened with sorrow. "I will not speak of his past, only to say that something happened that caused him to give up his hope for the future so another would not have their dreams crushed. He gave up a life that many would sacrifice everything for, and picked up one of shame in its place. This he did willingly for someone he loved."

Ayumi carefully set the cup back down before her. "And he keeps on sacrificing, even to this day. I’ve never asked Aya for a thing other than his friendship, and he has given me all that I could ever want or need. He watches out for me as I try to do for him, and I know that he will take care of me, an obligation he picked up willingly. All because I saw past the mask he shows the world, and understand his pain. Many here think he’s nothing but an expensive whore, and they couldn’t be more wrong."

She stared at Yohji, and he felt himself squirm under her regard. "I know about you, about your past and how you came across your new home. I know about the women and men who pay you. If anyone here is the ‘whore’, it is you. You are not alone in that regard, not in this place. But do not assume that everyone here is the same. You must have your reasons for choosing your current life, be it willingly or not. There are as many different reasons for everyone living here as can be imagined. Do not assume to know one’s story or you will make false assumptions. Do not assume to know Aya, for he has taken great pains to see that only a very few have that honor."

A bit stung at the whore comment, which Yohji knew to be only accurate, he sighed and picked up his cup and drank more of the bitter tea. He’d come here hopefully for some answers and to make peace with the old woman, and instead only had more questions and felt as if he’d made an enemy.

What was Aya’s past, and why had he sacrificed it? Who had he sacrificed it for? Why did he wear his mask of indifference? Skill and instincts that Yohji had tried hard to suppress the past couple years were reawakening inside him, faced as he was with his first mystery in ages. For some odd reason he found himself wanting answers to all of his questions.

"Thank you very much for such an honest and personal answer, Ayumi-sama. You have been very kind to seek to enlighten me on this matter, a kindness that I probably don’t deserve. I’m sorry if this wasn’t the way you imagined our tea would be." Yohji took a deep breath as he set his teacup aside. "I’d come here hoping to get to know you better, and I end up upsetting you instead. Please believe me when I say that wasn’t my intention."

Yohji rose to his feet and executed a short bow before Ayumi. "Thank you very much for the tea. I apologize for my base behavior and any pain I might have caused you. I will think upon what you said, and I will try my best not to antagonize Aya. But you must admit, I’m not solely to blame here."

Ayumi sighed as she bowed her head. "No, you are not. And knowing Aya as I do, he will not be courteous to you for some time to come, even if you do change your attitude in his regard. However, I will not change my mind, either."

"I understand. Thank you again for the tea and conversation. Good day." Yohji turned to leave when Ayumi quietly called out his name.

"Kudoh-san." He turned to look at her. "I want you to know this is not normally how teas that I conduct go. But there were certain matters that needed to be made clear, and I believe that if we had both been perfectly civil to each other that would never have happened. Should you heed what I’ve told you, I want you to feel free to return here again, if you wish, and we will have a proper tea, among two friends." Ayumi suddenly smiled at Yohji in an utterly charming manner. "It is not often that I have such a handsome young man as you pay me a visit."

Unable to keep a smile forming on his lips, Yohji bowed again. "Then I feel that you will be seeing more of me, Ayumi-sama." He waited to see if she waved aside the formality of her name, but when all Ayumi did was nod and wish him a good day, Yohji shook his head ever so slightly and left. Something told him that he would have to earn Ayumi’s friendship, and the idea appealed to him. It had been too long since he’d found someone who could resist his charm and make him behave properly.

For once he didn’t feel the usual stab of pain when he thought about who the last person had been to keep him in line.

*******

Sighing as he rubbed his eyes, Aya turned off his computer and rose from his chair. The small desk the machine rested upon was tucked into the corner of his workroom, hidden from view by a lovely screen decorated with koi.

Forcing his stiff body to move, Aya chided himself for remaining on the computer for so long, but he’d wanted to check up on his sister and make sure everything was alright with her funds. She wasn’t spending all the money Hirofumi sent her, and the sight of the growing bank account in her name eased some of Aya’s worries. His sister was thinking ahead, and when the time came that the money stopped arriving, she should be fine. Not that it would happen anytime before she finished her degree and had a decent job, barring any incidents. Aya wouldn’t leave his sister until he was sure she could take care of herself.

He walked into his living room to close the sliding doors that he’d left open because of the cool breeze that evening. It was a good thing that Hirofumi was out of town for the next couple of days, or he would have been very upset at the doors being open this late at night. Even though only the stupidest of criminals would break into the Hanabatake, and this was one of the better areas of the city, Hirofumi didn’t appreciate Aya taking any chances with his safety. It was a miracle that he’d talked his lover out of having a bodyguard follow him around everywhere, as with Kikyou, but Aya only very rarely left the apartment building, and almost never on his own.

Once the living room was locked up he double-checked that everything was fine in the kitchen, and then headed for his bedroom. As he crossed the foyer, Aya heard a thumping sound. He stopped for a moment, wondering what Kudoh was up to now. The only other neighbor he had to deal with at the end of the hall was Harada, who was usually out all night until the sun rose, so the noise must be the blond man.

About to retreat to his bedroom, Aya heard the thumping sound again, and this time he heard a moan as well. His curiosity getting the better of him, Aya slowly opened the door and peeked out in to the hallway. Unsure of what he’d expected to see, perhaps Kudoh screwing one of his clients in the hall or something, Aya wasn’t prepared for the sight of the man sprawled on the floor, his hand beating against the door to his apartment.

For a moment Aya considered closing his door and going to bed, but if one of the other residents on the floor woke up and found Kudoh like that, there would be a lot of fuss and noise. Besides, Ayumi had specifically asked Aya the other day to be a bit more polite to his new neighbor, and if she heard about this she would give him grief.

Sighing, Aya pushed his door wide open and stepped into the hallway. "Kudoh-san, what the hell are you doing," he hissed quietly.

One of the man’s eyes slowly opened, the other was swollen shut. As Aya knelt beside the man he noticed that Kudoh had obviously been in a fight, and hadn’t been the winner. At least, he hoped the man wasn’t the winner, considering how torn and soiled his clothes were and the blood all over his face. He’d hate to see the loser, then. Aya idly wondered if Yohji had pissed off one of the yakuza who kept their lovers here.

He looked around for a moment, checking the hand that Kudoh had been banging against the door, but couldn’t find any key. There went unlocking the man’s door and dumping him in his apartment. Thinking about how Ayumi would owe him for this, Aya sighed and started to pull the man upright. Or as upright as Kudoh could manage, as he was barely cognizant.

"Aya?"

"Hn." Aya turned his face away as Yohji breathed on him. That explained why the man was so out of it, he stank of alcohol and vomit. Kudoh was probably too drunk to feel any pain at the moment. The idiot.

"A~ya. Why are you in my apartment?" Kudoh slurred rather loudly.

"Hush. We’re not in your apartment." Aya heaved Yohji onto his feet and half dragged him into his home. He didn’t feel the slightest tinge of remorse when the taller man banged into the doorway and moaned in pain. The idiot, it served him right. He managed to get the man into his living room and then propped him up against the wall and told him to stay. Judging from how unfocused Kudoh’s eyes were and the way he started to slide down the wall, Aya knew he didn’t have much time.

He practically ran to the cupboard that held the futons, and in a few seconds had two of them, stacked on top of each other, lying on the floor and covered with several sheets. Aya dragged Kudoh over to the bedding and pretty much let him flop onto the floor, making sure Kudoh landed on his back. There was another moan of pain from the man, and he shifted about as Aya knelt beside him.

"Are you going to be sick?" Aya slapped Kudoh’s cheek and repeated the question until a green eye opened and more or less focused on him. He didn’t want the man throwing up on his tatami floors.

"…No. Hurts." Yohji rested his hand on his chest and winced.

Deciding he could be left alone for a minute, Aya hurried to fetch a few things. He grabbed the bucket he used for cleaning, some medical supplies, shears and one of the yukatas that Kikyou had bought the last time he’d been here and carried them to his living room.

"If you feel sick, use this. I’ll kill you if you ruin my floor," Aya muttered as he brandished the bucket in front of Kudoh’s face before setting it by his head. Then he took the shears and started to cut off the man’s clothes. The blue jeans and spandex shirt were much too tight for him to try and take off, and they were filthy to boot. Judging from the flecks of vomit on them, Kudoh had already been sick. Aya grimaced in distaste as he wrapped the soiled shirt into a ball and set them in the bucket. When he cut off the pants he blushed slightly, having not expected to find nothing worn underneath the jeans. Considering how tight they were, though, it shouldn’t have surprised him that Kudoh had worn no underwear. The filthy pants were added to the bucket once he’d emptied their pockets, and the man was still covered with blood and grime.

How had the man let himself get into this condition? Drunk, beaten and filthy. Aya hoped he hadn’t been working. Maybe his client was responsible for Kudoh’s current state? Not that it was any of Aya’s concern.

Kudoh seemed to have finally passed out, so Aya was able to fetch a bowl of water and to clean him somewhat. He wondered about the scars on the man’s chest, his fingers stroking the scarred, golden skin. When Aya realized what he was doing he focused on cleaning Kudoh and checking him for his injuries. Aya wasn’t a medical expert, but he’d learned a few things from his sister when they had still lived together, and he had some experience with patching up himself. He didn’t think Kudoh’s ribs were broken, but they would definitely be causing the man some pain, considering how bruised they were.

The blood was from a split lip, and after Aya washed Kudoh’s face and rubbed ointment on the cuts and bruises he set an icepack on the worst of the swelling. He wiped Kudoh’s hair clean as best he could, watching in bemusement as the honey-blond strands with gold and mahogany streaks took to curling as they became damp. The man must try to straighten it, since it didn’t normally appear so curly.

When his unwanted guest was tended to, Aya dressed him in a white, blue and green yukata. Kudoh moaned as he was shifted about but never woke up. It was almost a shame to cover up the man’s lean, toned body and golden skin, but if by some odd chance Hirofumi arrived early from Taiwan and found Kudoh in Aya’s living room, it would be easier to explain the situation if the man wasn’t naked.

After cleaning up the mess and replacing the bucket, Aya stared down at his neighbor for a moment. Kudoh wasn’t going to be happy when he woke up in the morning, sore and bruised, but Aya had done his best and hopefully he wouldn’t look too bad. It had to be hard for a prostitute to get clients when their face was swollen from a beating. So why had Kudoh allowed something like that to happen to him? Had he been paid to take it? Aya barely knew the man, but Kudoh didn’t seem disturbed enough to go for that kind of clientele. No, he was just an ignorant asshole. An asshole who would be spending the night on Aya’s floor.

"You better not be sick during the night. Gods, Ayumi better damn well appreciate this." Aya rubbed a hand over his face and left the curtains of his patio door open. That should provide Kudoh with enough light to see if he woke up in the middle of the night. Though considering how strongly he reeked of alcohol, Aya wouldn’t be surprised if he spent the whole day asleep. He better not, though, because Aya wasn’t going to explain a strange man sleeping in his living room when Mamoru stopped by tomorrow. He just hoped that no one ever found out about this, especially Hirofumi.

"I really should have left you out in the hallway," Aya muttered as he headed for his bedroom. What was it with 13E and its inhabitants forcing their way into his life? All he wanted was to be left alone, and looked what happened. Drunken idiots camped on his floor. He couldn’t wait for the day he could put all this behind him.

*******

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