Cages

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chapter 3

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New impressions

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Yohji’s brain was yelling at him about being in pain, feeling wet and cold. He moaned even as he tried to make sense of his thoughts. Why did he feel as if he’d been beaten up and left face first in a snowdrift? As the memories from the previous night trickled back, he realized that half of that last thought had been true.

Peeling open his eyes, he found his vision blocked by something. Mindful of his ribs, which had received a couple of kicks during the fight, he slowly lifted his arm, wincing all the while. Touching his face, his hand felt something cold and soft. Upon picking up the object and holding it in front of his face, Yohji realized that someone had wrapped a thin towel around an ice pack and had left it on his face.

That explained the sensations of wet and coldness, at the least. He set the compress aside and painfully raised his upper body enough so he could look around him. He had been sleeping on what felt like a soft feather bed, and a light blanket had been draped over him. He was on the floor in a room that looked as if it belonged in another century. Tatami floors, low tables and mats were scattered about, with several screens dividing up the large room. He belatedly realized that the room looked familiar, even with the odd furniture, but couldn’t figure out how.

"Gram?" His throat was dry, so the word came out weak and quivery. The place was too expensively furnished to belong to his father’s mother, and he felt a stab of relief at the thought that the woman wasn’t going to charge out of nowhere and start berating him over something or another. Sitting up a little more, something his queasy stomach didn’t appreciate, he realized that the room had a rather large sliding glass door that led to a balcony filled with plants, and his mind finally made the connection.

He was in the Hanabatake, but not his own apartment. Not unless someone had redecorated it while he’d been out. He tucked back his hair as he tried to recall what had happened last night and if he’d run into someone as he’d staggered back home.

There had been the fight at the bar, and Yohji snorted as he remembered how little of a challenge he’d put up. No more tequila for him if it was going to make him maudlin enough to actually allow some jealous punk and his friends to beat him up. There had been a barmaid there that he’d tumbled a time or two who had gotten him a cab and sent him home, and Yohji could vaguely recall how the guards in the foyer had looked away from him as he’d stumbled inside the apartment building. He remembered a little about leaning against the wall in the elevator, and after that….

Damn, he really had drunk too much last night. Even if it had been a night for himself, he should have done something other than go to his old stomping grounds and get drunk off his ass. Not to mention the fight. Gods, his face hurt. His whole body hurt. Still, on the plus side, he was in too much pain to feel very hungover.

However, his present misery aside, he needed to get up. He was in a stranger’s apartment, and he needed to find out how he’d gotten there. For a moment he wondered if he’d passed out in front of Ayumi’s door, and the woman had taken pity on him and dragged him inside. Or whatever it took for an eighty-something year old woman to get a tall, drunk, beaten up man inside her apartment. Good thing he was a bit on the skinny side.

Pushing back the blanket, Yohji realized that he wasn’t dressed in the clothes he’d been wearing the night before. He was wearing a white, blue and green yukata of rather fine cotton. Obviously, an expensive one, he thought. Feeling the material, he noticed a crispness to it that hinted that it was brand new. Puzzled by the outfit, something he hadn’t worn since he was a kid and his mother had dragged him off to his Gram’s for a holiday or two, he shook his head and cautiously rose to his feet.

His head and stomach didn’t appreciate the movement, but he distinctly remembered throwing up all over his assailants’ shoes, so he doubted there was anything left in him to come up now. Once he felt that he wouldn’t fall down if he moved, he started to investigate his surroundings. The ornate chest of black lacquered wood covered with maple leaves and swallows proved to be a very nice entertainment center, complete with electronic equipment. Well, that seemed normal enough - at least he hadn’t managed to rip the fabric of time or drop down a rabbit hole while drunk. Behind one screen was a large desk complete with a phone and what looked to be a laptop port, with a nice leather chair pushed up against the furniture. A glance outside the sliding doors revealed a view very similar to Yohji’s, but he didn’t look very long since the bright sunlight made his eyes ache.

Turning away from the doors, Yohji noticed a couple of shelves, ornamented with trinkets and several photographs. They all contained pictures of the same girl, a lovely little thing with long black hair in braids and dark eyes. In one scene she posed in what looked to be a graduation gown, and another photo had her smiling as she leaned against a large sign that proclaimed ‘Harvard University’. The girl was smiling in all of the pictures, but somehow Yohji didn’t get the impression that she was very happy. There was something familiar about her, something about him seeing her before. And why did he think that she looked too old and that her hair was all wrong? Then he heard someone clear their throat so he ignored the pictures and spun around, only to stare in amazement at the apartment’s owner.

"Good, you’re up. You can leave now. Your keys and wallet are on the table in the foyer; make sure no one sees you leaving here." Aya glared at Yohji as he spoke and immediately walked away when he was finished, heading into what had to be the kitchen.

Fuck. Aya. This was Aya’s apartment. Yohji should have realized that when he’d seen the traditional décor and the familiar view. It was Aya who must have picked him up off the floor and put him to bed. Suddenly suspicious, Yohji opened the yukata to see if Aya had taken advantage of his unconsciousness to mark or scar him in any manner. He even wondered if he had ‘asshole’ tattooed to his forehead or something. But all he found was clean, bruised skin.

"I must be dreaming." Ignoring Aya’s order to leave, Yohji stalked off to the kitchen.

He found Aya by the stove, stirring something in a pot. The redhead looked up at his entrance, frowning as he glared at Yohji. For an instant, Yohji remembered that the girl he’d tried to pick up last night, rather successfully, before her boyfriend had intervened, had been a redhead. The only one in the club, as a matter of fact.

"Go away."

"And good morning to you too, sunshine." Yohji made his way to the kitchen table and sat down. "I have a question for you; how the hell did I end up on your living room floor?"

Aya turned his attention to the rice cooker next to the stove. "You were passed out in the hallway. I didn’t want to be woken up by some yakuza finding you there and having some fun, so I dragged you inside." Yohji received another dirty look. "You were disgusting."

"I can imagine," Yohji dryly commented as he tucked back a straggling lock of his hair. Which was wavier than normal for some reason, and felt pretty clean. At least cleaner than it should have been, considering his ‘disgusting’ state last night. Aya must have tidied him up, along with taking care of his injuries. Yohji tenderly touched his face and realized that it didn’t feel too puffy, so the icepack must have helped with the swelling.

Grunting softly, Aya resumed what he’d been doing, which appeared to be making himself some breakfast. He was wearing a dark blue yukata with gold, red and orange carp swimming all over it. The dark color accentuated Aya’s paleness and his red hair, which hung down his back in a long braid.

"Can I have some breakfast too?" He desperately needed some caffeine at the moment, even if it seemed unlikely for Aya to have any on hand in a form other than tea, and he thought that maybe if he had something to eat, things would start making sense. At the very least, he could try and pry a few answers out of Aya as he ate.

Setting the wooden spoon he’d been using to scoop out the rice down on the counter, Aya stared at Yohji. "What part of ‘get out’ don’t you understand?"

"Sorry, I must be too faint from hunger to understand the point you’re trying to make, Aya. Wait a minute, is that a coffee maker I see?" Yohji rose from the table and walked over to the appliance. Even darling Aya, a reject from the shogun era, had to have coffee grounds somewhere if he had a coffee maker. Yohji pounced on the freezer, tearing the door open and finding a bag of French Roast right before his eyes.

"Yes, just what I ne-ow!" Yohji clutched the coffee in one hand as he waved the other about in pain, which had been smacked by a wooden spoon. "What the hell is your problem?"

"Would you get the hell out of my apartment? And leave the damn coffee alone." Aya snatched at the bag, but Yohji took a step back and clutched it protectively against his chest.

"Back off, pretty boy. I’m not going anywhere until I get some caffeine in me." Yohji bared his teeth as he walked backwards toward the coffee pot. Aya already hated him, he didn’t see how things could get any worse between them if he made Aya toss him out of the apartment. Hell, as long as Yohji had a cup full of coffee in his hand when that happened, he wouldn’t complain in the slightest.

Aya sighed and looked down at the floor for a moment, his white teeth chewing on his bottom lip as he seemed to be thinking about something. Then he shrugged his shoulders and walked back to the stove. Yohji kept his eyes on the man for a moment to make sure that Aya wasn’t trying to lull him into a false sense of security before tossing him out, and then cautiously started to brew some coffee. His head was killing him, and as unsettled as his stomach felt, he knew he had to get something into it if he wanted to start feeling better.

"Do you still want breakfast?"

Yohji looked up at the question, surprised by how… blank Aya’s voice sounded. There’d been no emotion behind the question, the redhead might have been commenting on the sun being bright or something. Aya’s face was impassive, betraying nothing as he started to set the table for two. Yohji nodded and then went back to measuring the ground coffee.

Once the machine was brewing, Yohji sat down at the table. There was a bowl of rice on his left and miso on the right, and on the table was a platter of steamed mackerel, a couple of different types of pickles, and some natto. Wishing that Aya could have at least made a rolled omelet or something a bit more Western, Yohji picked up some of the fish with his chopsticks. He nibbled on a piece of it and was pleasantly surprised at how tasty it was. He’d been afraid it would be salted, but all there was to it was a hint of soy sauce.

"This is good." Yohji looked over at Aya and found him scooping some natto onto his rice. "Aren’t you going to have any?"

"No." Aya poured himself some tea and started to eat his rice. For a moment Yohji wanted to snap at the man and ask him if he felt too special to share a dish with him, but then Yohji realized that there wasn’t that much of the fish in the first place. He realized that Aya hadn’t counted on him staying for breakfast and had only made enough for himself.

Dammit, what was with the man? Yohji had never been so confused by one person before in his life, ever. Aya infuriated him, got under his skin, made him horny as hell, and just when Yohji had written off ever getting to know the man, he found himself in his apartment. All Aya had needed to do last night was unlock Yohji’s door and toss him into his own apartment, yet instead he’d cleaned Yohji up and tended to him, and was letting him stay for coffee and breakfast. His own breakfast, at that.

He swallowed the fish, along with a couple of pickles that turned out to be better than they looked, and then left the table to pour himself some coffee. He sat back down, the mug clutched between his hands, and, staring into the beverage’s dark depths he spoke quietly.

"Thank you, Aya, for looking after me last night. And thanks for the food, too." He couldn’t remember the last time he’d thanked someone like this, other than Rika for the apartment. It had been a long time since anyone had done something to require any heartfelt thanks from him.

Aya remained quiet, and just when Yohji started to grit his teeth and wonder why he’d even bothered, Aya set his chopsticks down and picked up his soup. "You’re welcome. Just make sure no one finds out that you spent the night here."

Furious at the thought that Aya didn’t want to be associated with him in any way, Yohji immediately snapped his mouth shut, cutting off his biting retort. He’d forgotten where he was living now, a place that loved gossip almost as much as money.

"Don’t tell me they’d make a fuss over me sleeping on your floor for one night. Hell, I’m in no shape to be fooling around," he scoffed as he gingerly leaned back in his chair.

"All it takes is one rumor floating around in this place, and everyone will believe we… were up to something last night." Aya gazed levelly at Yohji, his hands cupped around his soup bowl. "I don’t want that one rumor to start."

Wishing he had a cigarette to smoke at the moment, Yohji looked at Aya as he sipped his coffee. The caffeine and protein were making him feel better already, and now he noticed that Aya’s face was no longer a blank mask. For a moment he looked weary, his eyes filled with shadows and sadness. Something inside Yohji stirred at the sight, something that was better left dormant, dammit. He didn’t want to start caring for anyone at this point. He could barely care for himself anymore.

He grunted and drank more of his coffee. He remembered Ken telling him about Aya’s jealous boyfriend, and how the man had sported bruises after the rumors of him fooling around with Sakura had spread. Something clicked inside Yohji’s mind at that thought, one puzzle possibly solved, but he pushed it aside for the moment so he could better ponder his current mystery. Maybe that was how Aya had known how to tend to his bruises last night, because he had taken care of similar injuries of his own from time to time.

Suddenly wanting to change the topic, he munched on a few pickles and waved his chopsticks in Aya’s direction. "Uhm, I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, but what did you do with my clothes? You mentioned my keys and wallet, but not them."

Aya jerked his head towards a corner of the kitchen, and Yohji noticed a small garbage bag, neatly tied, resting on the floor. "I had to cut them off of you, but they were ruined already. You can keep the yukata."

Yohji winced as he remembered how much the jeans and top had cost. Damn, couldn’t Aya have tried to remove them without damaging them? Maybe he could have dry-cleaned them or something. Then Yohji thought about Aya having sharp objects anywhere near his body and winced again.

"How did you resist the impulse to cut anything else off when you had the chance?"

Aya surprised him yet again by smiling, just the slightest bit, at his offhand question. "I didn’t want any blood on my floor."

Snorting, Yohji hid his grin behind his coffee mug. Such a pretty boy answer, he should have expected it. He drank in the sight of a smiling, however faintly, Aya and couldn’t help but stare. No wonder Aya’s lover spent so much money on him. The man was breathtakingly gorgeous when he lightened up.

"Aya, I have to ask this, and then I’ll go. Why didn’t you leave me out in the hall last night? I mean, you had every right to just kick me and leave me there."

An instant change came over Aya, and the hint of good humor faded beneath a cold façade. He stood up and cleared his dishes from the table and set them in the sink before turning around and looking Yohji straight in the eye.

"I did it because Ayumi would have been upset if she’d found you out in the hall. Which she would have when Kohmi arrived in the morning to fix her breakfast. I understand that you’ve had tea with her a couple of times."

Yohji nodded, and Aya’s eyes narrowed. "I’ll say this once, Kudoh. If you have any plans to use Ayumi or to hurt her, I will make you suffer. You’ll have _nothing_ by the time I’m through with you. I trust her judgment in befriending you, she’s not as sheltered as she appears, but sometimes even the smartest people make mistakes. If she’s misjudged you and your intentions, you’ll be the one to pay, not her. Am I clear?"

"Yeah, you are." Yohji was almost tempted to tell Aya about how Ayumi had threatened him in an almost identical manner, but he kept quiet. Ayumi hadn’t made Yohji want to shiver when she’d issued her threat. Then again, all she said she’d do was toss him out on the street. Aya’s demeanor made it perfectly clear that he wouldn’t stop there. It would be worth Yohji’s life if he hurt the geisha, and he knew it. He suddenly realized that he didn’t want to cross Aya, and was amazed that Aya hadn’t made him suffer for his own hurtful comment a couple weeks back.

"Good. Are you finished?" Aya gestured to the empty dishes in front of Yohji. When he nodded, Aya started to collect the bowls and plates and then took them to the sink. Yohji got up and poured himself another cup of coffee and drank it as Aya washed the dishes. He glanced around the kitchen, noting how the metal surfaces of the stove and fridge gleamed, and how clean the room was. The wood cabinets appeared oiled, the white and blue tablecloth just washed, and there was no clutter, even though were enough appliances and cookware neatly scattered about that hinted that Aya didn’t order takeout that much, or at least live off it as Yohji did.

"Do you have Momoe-san clean your place too?" Yohji smiled as he thought of the old woman who cleaned his apartment every other day. She would always talk about her cats if he happened to be home when she showed up.

"I do my own cleaning." Aya set the last of the dishes on a metal drying rack and started to clean up the sink. "You need to get going before anyone wakes up."

"I know." Yohji gulped down the last of his coffee and set the mug aside with a longing look towards the still half full pot. Aya sighed and refilled the mug, holding it in one hand as he pushed Yohji towards the door with the other.

"Okay, okay, I get the hint," he muttered as he stumbled toward the door. He bent down to pick up his boots, which Aya had thankfully not cut up, as the man cautiously opened the door and peeked outside.

He handed the mug to Yohji. "It’s clear. Get going."

Yohji accepted the mug and stepped into the doorway. "Listen, Aya, I really appreciate what you did for me last night. I’m sorry we got off to such a bad start, I really am. Are you sure you don’t want the yukata back?"

Aya seemed to only be paying Yohji half a mind as he kept scanning the halls. "Yes, you can keep it, I have more than I can possibly wear. Now get going."

Shaking his head, Yohji fumbled for the key to his door as he walked into the hallway. Aya immediately closed the door behind him, and Yohji quickly unlocked his, having caught some of Aya’s paranoia. Before he closed it he scanned the hall to see if anyone was looking at him, and grinned sheepishly when he found all the doors closed. Some of them even had papers resting against them, testament to the fact that the thirteenth floor’s residents, except for him and Aya, were probably still in their beds. Hell, he realized he didn’t even know what time it was.

Locking his door, he tossed his boots aside and placed his wallet on a table in the living room. He sank down on his new loveseat, which was covered with a rich, red chenille, and glanced over at his VCR for the time. It was only nine o’clock. Gods, what was he doing up so early? He needed to go back to bed and sleep for a couple more hours.

He set Aya’s mug aside after a few more sips of coffee and headed for his bedroom. A quick stop in the bathroom to take a leak showed he had a slightly puffy lip and a black eye, but he knew the damage could have been worse. As it was, it’d only take a day or two to heal enough that he could cover the eye with some makeup. Last time he’d started a fight and let someone else finish it, he’d been a fright for a week. Aya’s care had lessened the damage he’d done to himself.

As he stretched out on his bed he thought about his odd neighbor. So Aya had taken him in because of Ayumi. Yohji had gone back again for tea just the other day, and had spent a pleasant hour with the woman now that the threats were out of the way. She was a treat to talk to, a natural flirt who could make even him blush, yet without being vulgar. Hell, he’d felt honored that she’d entertained him, knowing that men must have paid dearly for that honor when she’d been younger. It was no wonder Aya was so protective of her.

He was beginning to understand why in turn Ayumi was protective of Aya. That brief smile had transformed the redhead from an aloof pretty boy to a lovely man Yohji wouldn’t mind getting to know. He groaned as he rolled onto his back. Great, the last thing he needed was to get any more fixated on Aya. It probably had been better when he’d been annoyed with the guy, even hating him the slightest bit. Not amused and grateful to him. Not wanting to make him smile again, and wondering what Aya’s bedroom looked like, especially with the man spread out on his bed, his hair unbound and the yukata gone.

"It’s a nice wet dream, Yohji, but that’s all it is. The man wanted you out of his apartment as soon as possible to avoid a rumor, do you think he’s going to be stupid enough to fool around with you?" Rather unlikely. Still, Yohji’s imagination refused to listen to reason. And as he lay there on his bed, it showed him how Aya might look lying on his bed, gloriously naked. His hands drifting along his body, one stroking his growing arousal and the other flicking his nipples, he fantasized about what he could do with a naked Aya, the dream building until he came in his hand.

*******

Aya rubbed his eyes as he walked into his living room. He hadn’t gotten much sleep last night, not with the thoughts of his unwelcome guest and the possibility of Hirofumi showing up out of the blue. Aya actually had nightmares of his lover waking him up and demanding to know what Kudoh was doing in the apartment. In his dreams the blond man had been in his bed, and Kudoh had woken up and hugged him as the fury had grown in Hirofumi’s eyes.

To say that it would have been a bad thing, Hirofumi having found Yohji here in his apartment, let alone his bed, would be an understatement. Aya shivered at the thought. Hirofumi didn’t deal very well with the thought of Aya cheating on him. He better not ever find out about this morning.

He set out to remove any last trace of Kudoh from his apartment. The futons were stripped of their covers and shaken to air them out. Once they were back in their closet, Aya gathered the covers and the blanket Kudoh had used, and tossed them in the washing machine along with the sheet. The coffee maker was shut off and cleaned; Aya didn’t often drink the beverage unless Hirofumi had spent the night. The breakfast dishes were dried and put away, and all that was left to do would be to take out the trash.

Feeling relieved that he’d taken care of everything, Aya slumped into a chair and rested his head in his hands. He’d been such an idiot to have dragged Kudoh into his apartment last night. Hirofumi had surprised him before by returning early from a business trip.

However, he just hadn’t been able to kick Kudoh out once he’d dragged the man inside his apartment. Ayumi would have been upset with him… and he did owe Kudoh for not saying anything about seeing him at the club the previous week. Aya had wanted to kill Kikyou when he’d seen Kudoh at Shinju, worried as he’d been that the blond would tell everyone that Aya had been out clubbing. Hirofumi would be livid with him if he ever found that out, even if he’d been with Kikyou the entire night. He’d be stuck with a bodyguard for sure if that ever happened. But it appeared that Kudoh hadn’t said a word.

So he’d let Kudoh sleep, and when the man hadn’t left as ordered, he’d fed him as well. Aya rose from his chair to open the kitchen window, having finally noticed that the room smelled of the coffee that Kudoh had wanted so badly. Once that was taken care of, he went to his bedroom. He might as well get ready so he could hang the laundry once it was washed, and then go work out while the gym should be vacant.

As he changed into a yukata he could work out in, he reflected on how… civil Kudoh had been to him that morning, his refusal to leave without any coffee aside. Aya wondered what Ayumi had said to the man to bring about the change. He knew his friend was behind it since she’d been after him to give Kudoh another chance after their disastrous first meeting. Maybe she’d called Kikyou and had him bring Tsubaki back to Tokyo to dangle Kudoh off the top of the Hanabatake’s roof.

Almost smiling at the image, Aya folded the yukata he’d been wearing that morning and set it aside for after his workout. Whatever the reason, he had to admit he was grateful for the thought that Kudoh might not be such an officious bastard to him anymore. He didn’t need the grief of living next to an asshole. Not after the grief caused by his last neighbor. He deserved a break. If only the gods would be kind enough to send him one.

*******

Yohji tucked back his long bangs and straightened his sunglasses before knocking on Ken’s door. The younger man hadn’t been up on the roof or in the gym, and the guards had told Yohji he wasn’t out running when Yohji had gone for cigarettes, so that meant he had to be in his apartment. Which suited Yohji just fine, since there was something inside that he wanted to look at again. Now that he was awake and his hangover mostly gone, he was about to put an end to one mystery.

The door swung open, leaving Yohji face to face with a man about Ken’s age, maybe a little older, with slicked back black hair and a smile on his handsome face. He was dressed in an expensive business suit, one that was tailor-made.

"Hello, you’re not Nikaidoh," the man said in a friendly voice.

"Last I checked, I wasn’t. I’m Yohji, Kudoh Yohji. Ken’s friend." So, this had to be the mysterious boyfriend, Yohji surmised. He adjusted his sunglasses to cover his eyes a bit better.

"I’ve heard about you." The man opened the door and motioned for Yohji to enter. "I’m Kase. Come in."

Yohji entered the apartment and even toed off his shoes, wincing a bit in pain as he tried to remove them without bending his sore body. The place didn’t look any different from the last time he’d seen it, maybe just a little cleaner. One could tell that two guys lived here because of all the stuff scattered about: football and sports magazines, a couple of empty beer cans, a suit jacket and a jersey resting on the back of the couch and so on. He spotted the end table cluttered with the photographs that he wanted to look at and barely restrained himself from hurrying over to it.

"Ken, your friend is here," Kase called out. "Come out and see him, I’ll be leaving in a minute." He smiled at Yohji. "I’m going out of town for a couple days, so I’m sure Ken will appreciate the company. I have to warn you though, he’s been talking about trying to get you to start running with him in the mornings."

"Well wish him luck, then, because he’s going to need it. I don’t get out of bed for anyone." Yohji glanced at where Kase had been looking the moment before, at what he assumed was the apartment’s bedroom. This should be interesting, seeing Ken with his ‘roommate’.

"I guess that Ken will have to resign himself to running by himself then, won’t he?"

He spoke in an odd tone of voice, which caused Yohji to look at him, instantly recognizing the spark of jealousy in the man’s eyes. Grimacing at the thought of seducing someone as… innocent as Ken, as odd as that sounded, Yohji shook his head.

"You better believe he’ll be running by himself. No friendship is worth jogging when I can be curled up in my bed sleeping." Yohji shook his head. "Besides, I’m not much of a jogger. Ah, there you are, Ken." He smiled at his friend when the man finally emerged from the bedroom.

Ken looked as if he’d just gotten out of bed, despite it being past noon. His hair was rumpled and his face sporting a shadow of a beard. He was dressed in a pair of boxers and a rumpled t-shirt. There was a hint of a blush on his face and he didn’t look Yohji in the eye.

"Hey, Yohji. How are you today?" Ken stopped a foot or two away from Kase. The other man frowned for a moment and then slid his arm around Ken’s waist. Ken’s blush intensified, especially when Kase leaned in and kissed him.

"I left some eggs for you in the fridge, and a pot of coffee is on." Just then there was a knock on the door. Kase kissed Ken again, pulling him against him for a moment. "See you Thursday, Kenken. It was nice meeting you, Yohji." Somehow Yohji doubted that Kase was being so informal with him out of friendship. He watched the man pick up the bag by the door and leave the apartment.

There was a moment of silence while Ken stared intently at the living room’s carpet, and then Yohji started to chuckle. "So, that’s your ‘roommate’, eh, Kenken?"

Ken jerked up his head and glared at Yohji for a moment, and Yohji reflected that the man had a way to go before he could match Aya’s venomous looks. However, after a few seconds Ken blushed again and grinned sheepishly.

"Yeah, that’s Kase." Ken started to tug on the hem of his t-shirt. "Ah, I guess you’re wondering what’s going on between us, ne?"

Yohji snorted as he headed for the end table that held the photos. "There’s nothing to wonder about, Ken."

"I don’t know what you’re thinking, Yohji, but we’re friends." Yohji stopped walking and stared incredulously over his shoulder at Ken. The younger man flushed and yanked hard enough on his shirt that he had to be stretching it. "We are. We’ve known each other since we were kids. It’s just… well, we also…."

"Have sex? Are fuck buddies, or whatever you want to call it? I get the picture, Ken." Gods, but Ken needed to get out of the closet. Yohji couldn’t care less about who or what a person slept with, as long as it wasn’t a kid, and he wasn’t about to start now. After all, he had no room to talk when at least a quarter of his clients were men. Hell, he was currently fantasizing about a man at the present.

Ken grunted. "Don’t call it that, Yohji."

About to ask what the hell he was supposed to call Ken fucking his best buddy on a basis that was probably too regular to be classified as ‘just experimenting’, Yohji decided he didn’t need this drama. He was still hurting from last night and all he wanted to do at the moment was look at Ken’s pictures and see if he was remembering things correctly.

"Okay, Ken. Hey, where’s your picture of that girl who used to live in my apartment? The one you showed me about a week ago?" Yohji started to sort through the various frames on the table.

"You mean the one of Sakura?" Ken walked over and picked up a blue frame painted with kites. "Here it is. Why are you interested in her? Don’t tell me you saw her ghost last night or something."

"Not exactly." Yohji took the frame and squinted at the photo. He pushed up his glasses so he could see it better.

"What the hell happened to your face, Yohji?" Ken sounded shocked.

"A bunch of guys decided I was too pretty for their tastes last night, and that I’d have a harder time picking up their girlfriends if I was a bit uglier." Yohji settled the glasses on the top of his head and stared at the photo. As he’d thought, the girl in the pictures in Aya’s apartment looked a lot like Sakura. She was a bit older than the girl he was currently staring at, and had long black hair instead of short brown. The eyes were different too, and Sakura’s legs a bit longer. He remembered that Ken had told him that she used to run with him some mornings.

"Hey, did Sakura ever travel outside the country or have any sisters? Older sisters at that?"

Ken shook his head as he took the picture from Yohji. "No, she’d never even been outside Tokyo. Her family was too poor to travel, which is why she accepted Kimura’s offer. She’d thought that she could earn some money for them, and maybe meet someone who would… I don’t know, take her away like some prince in the movies." Ken gazed sadly at the photo of the dead girl. "She was a silly thing. I think she mentioned a brother to me, but no sisters," he said as he set the photo back down. "So, you haven’t said why you’re so interested in Sakura all of a sudden." Ken asked. "Oh, and do you want any coffee?"

Yohji declined the offer. "No thanks. I had a couple cups already this morning." He debated telling Ken about waking up in Aya’s apartment, but found himself reluctant to do so. Aya had asked him not to, and while Yohji didn’t think that Ken had gossiped about anything he’d told the man in confidence, he didn’t want to chance any word of what had happened getting out. Ken seemed a bit too eager to share supposed secrets with him to be completely trusted.

"I thought I saw someone like her while I was out last night, but the girl was a bit older, by about four years or so. It must have been my imagination." He smiled at Ken as he lowered his sunglasses back onto his face.

"You should put some ice on that eye, Yohji. Were you seeing things before or after you got hit?" Ken started to walk towards the kitchen. "I’m getting some coffee, do you want an icepack?"

"I’m okay. I had one on it all night and this morning, it’s actually not as bad as it looks." Yohji spared one more glance at the photo and shook his head. "I need to get going. See you later, Ken."

"Yohji." He stopped walking towards the door when he heard his name called out. Glancing back at Ken, Yohji found the man to be once more tugging on the hem of his shirt. "About Kase and me, that doesn’t bother you, does it? I mean… I mean that we’re more than just friends?"

Wanting to say that he’d figured out that part of their relationship weeks ago, Yohji just shook his head instead. "It doesn’t bother me, Ken. I’m not doing anything tonight, I sorta had to cancel my ‘date’ because of this," Yohji waved at his eye, "so if you want to grab a bite to eat, let me know." He hated eating by himself.

Appearing rather pleased at the invitation, Ken smiled and nodded. "That sounds great. I don’t have much to do while Kase is out of town."

"So, what does he do?" Yohji wasn’t able to prevent himself from asking that question. He should know better, especially here of all places, but after having met the mysterious Kase, he was curious about him.

Ken waved his hand vaguely. "He’s a manager for a small company. He calls it more of a ‘fetch boy’ position, since he’s always sent here and there to get things for his employers, but it pays well." A guilty expression crossed Ken’s face at that last bit. "I’ll call you later about dinner."

Yohji nodded as he left the apartment. So, a lower management guy like Kase could afford to sublet an apartment at the Hanabatake and pay for expensive suits to boot. That seemed… a little off. Plus, there was the fact that Ken didn’t have a job, though he’d made mention of having some money in the bank. Yohji really needed to put his old abilities to use sometime soon and find out Ken’s dirty little secret.

But right now he was more interested in Aya. He wanted to know about the girl in the photo, the one who looked just like Sakura. Ken had mentioned that Aya had treated the dead girl as if she was his sister, or something along those lines. Ayumi had told him that Aya had sacrificed his future for someone else. Was the girl his sister? His lover? One thing Yohji was sure of, he wouldn’t get the answers from Aya. Maybe it was time for his neglected detective skills, the ones that had made him such a great private investigator. At least until the end, when he’d gotten too cocky. Both of them had.

Feeling his good mood vanish, he hunched his shoulders and didn’t even acknowledge the greetings a couple of women called out to him, too lost in his misery to notice them. For a moment he wanted to forget all about finding out Aya and Ken’s pasts. But he knew that now his curiosity was engaged, that wouldn’t be possible. He was reminded now, though, that he might find more than a few sordid secrets. At least this time, if he got in over his head, he’d be the only one to pay the price.

*******

Ayumi sipped her cup of tea while the waiter cleared the table. Once the man was gone she smiled at Aya.

"Dinner was delicious, thank you very much."

Aya nodded and picked up his cup of tea. Ayumi thought he looked wonderful in a dark grey kimono shot through with random silver threads. It accentuated Aya’s pale skin but didn’t make him appear too washed out, and the color contrasted with the red hair Ayumi adored. He was such a lovely man, she wished she was a bit younger and could do more than just appreciate his looks.

"You’ve been awfully quiet tonight. I hope it’s not the company," Ayumi chided.

Aya immediately looked up from his cup of tea and shook his head. "No, it most certainly is not. I was just thinking of the letter I received from my sister."

"Ah, and is she enjoying her new car?"

"Yes, very much so." Aya glanced back down at the black porcelain cup in his narrow hand. "She has an offer to spend part of the summer with some friends in a place called the Outer Banks. It’s by the ocean. It would be a nice break from school and her job as a lab assistant for one of her professors."

Ayumi detected the slight catch in Aya’s voice and set her teacup aside. "Yes, it sounds wonderful. Your sister studies so hard so she can be at the top of her class, she deserves a little fun while on break." She waited for Aya to tell her what was wrong.

"Yes, that’s what I thought. However, this place is very expensive. Aya-chan mentioned that she’d be more than happy to find a job while she was there, but I don’t want her waiting tables or working in some hotel when she should be enjoying her summer." Aya sighed and closed his eyes. "She’s not even sure if she’d be hired, and she has to give her answer in another week."

Ah, now Ayumi knew what was upsetting her friend. "Aya… you know Hiro will pay for her to go, all you have to do is ask." She hated to point this out to Aya, but she was only saying what Aya himself was thinking. Ayumi never understood his reluctance to ask favors of his lover. Hirofumi never turned him down, in fact seemed delighted when Aya asked anything of him, and Aya shouldn’t feel any shame in doing so. He’d given up everything to be Hirofumi’s lover, and lived exactly how the man dictated he should. Hirofumi owed this to him, in Ayumi’s opinion.

Hunching his shoulders, Aya bowed his head until the long strands of hair around his face that he hadn’t pulled back into his braid touched the table. "I know, Ayumi. Don’t you think that’s a lot to ask of him, though?"

"Not in the least. Aya has worked hard and earned a scholarship for herself. Hiro hasn’t even had to pay for her schooling the past two years, just for her living expenses and spending money. Besides, he paid for her to go to Toronto last summer; I can’t imagine him turning down this vacation. Ask him, Aya. He’ll be upset if he finds out that you didn’t." Hirofumi would be angry that he’d missed another chance to bind Aya even tighter to him. Ayumi wondered when the man would realize that he couldn’t buy love. Not Aya’s, at least.

"I’ll ask him later. I don’t want Aya-chan to worry about if she can go or not. She really must want to if she mentioned it to me." Aya sighed and sat up straight, but his eyes remained on the cup between his hands.

Reaching out her hand, Ayumi patted Aya’s. "Your sister is a good girl. She almost never asks anything of you, so you should indulge her when you can. You should be proud of how hard she’s working to earn such good grades in a foreign school. She’s a bright one, and will do well."

If there was anything that could make Aya happy, it was the mention of his sister. He smiled at Ayumi and held her hand gently. "Did I tell you her professors have already mentioned medical school to her? They want her to stay on at Harvard for that degree. She wrote to me that if she keeps her grades up, she’ll automatically be accepted when she applies."

"And in a few years she will be a doctor." All thanks to her brother, who had sacrificed his own future so Aya-chan could have the best one possible. For a moment Ayumi wondered what Aya would do when his sister was done with college and her training. Something inside her told her that she would have to watch over him very carefully then.

She decided it would be best to change the topic. "You must have inherited some of the same skills as your sister to have patched up Yohji-san so well the other day."

Aya stiffened for a moment, his hand sliding from Ayumi’s. She stopped him by tightening her hold on it, even if her fingers ached from the grip. "Don’t worry, Aya. Yohji-san told me what happened yesterday at tea, and he swore that he hadn’t told anyone else, not even Hidaka. I believe him, too. I’ve not heard a single word about you tending to him that night." She stared at her friend in reproach. "I shouldn’t have heard about it from him, Aya."

He sighed and stopped trying to take his hand away, so she relaxed her grip. "I know, Ayumi. I just didn’t see how to mention it to you, not without Kohmi overhearing us. This is the first time we’ve been alone together since that night."

Ayumi gently swatted Aya’s hand. "Hmph, that excuse almost works. You know you can trust her to remain quiet on what she hears at my place, or I wouldn’t keep her on. I can’t believe you were going to keep something like that from me, Ayan. You will have to work hard to earn my forgiveness."

Her friend smiled again and bowed his head. "Would tickets to a sumo match do? Hiro gave me a couple the other day, and I was hoping to take you."

Clapping her hands, Ayumi smiled at the offer. She so loved to see the wrestling matches, and it had been a while since she’d attended any. Then her demeanor became more serious and she glanced at Aya through her lashes.

"It will do… if you tell me the story of what happened that night."

Aya shook his head. "I should know better than to try and bargain with you." He picked up his tea and sipped the beverage, his eyes flickering about to make sure no one was paying them any attention. When he was confident that they wouldn’t be overheard, he set the cup on the table.

"I found Kudoh-san in the hallway that night, and thought that you would be upset if you heard about him spending the night out there, or one of the yakuza finding him and…." Ayumi didn’t need an example of what one of those thugs would do if they’d stumbled upon an unconscious man. They didn’t possess the most pleasant sense of humor.

"I couldn’t find his keys while we were in the hallway, so I dragged him into my apartment. I cleaned him up and settled him in the living room, and in the morning tried to make him leave when he woke up. He didn’t want to go without any breakfast, so I fed him." Aya touched his empty teacup with one of his long, tapered fingers, and Ayumi poured him more tea. He stared at the table for a moment before looking her in the eye.

"I… must admit that he was surprisingly civil to me. What did you say to him during your teas?"

Ayumi smiled at Aya’s incredulous tone. She batted her eyes as he returned the favor and poured her more tea. "All I did was make it clear to him that if he wished to be friends with me, he would have to treat with respect the people who I felt deserved it. He admitted that he had judged you unfairly because of your first meeting, and told me he would try to make amends. I’m glad to see he didn’t lie to me. That would make me most upset."

The two of them sipped their tea for several minutes, the time passing in silence. Then Ayumi shook her head. "So, will you try to make amends? It does no good if he is the only one making the attempt."

"I didn’t realize that I had any amends to make," Aya said quietly.

"Ayan." Ayumi’s hand darted out to lightly smack Aya’s that rested on the table. "You know very well how you treat that man. So cold and aloof, barely acknowledging that he exists. You treat him as if he was an untouchable. I know he damaged the arrangement I gave you, but that’s not reason enough for you to look down on the man so," she chided.

He gazed coldly at her as she spoke, but the look faded when she brushed her hand along his cheek. For too short a time he looked like Ran, so young and uncertain, and Ayumi couldn’t decipher all the emotions that flickered through his violet hued eyes. She thought she saw guilt, shame and fear, and wished she knew what her friend was feeling.

"Aya?"

"You’re right, Ayumi." He reached across the table and returned the gesture, his hand feeling cold against her face. "It was a bad way to meet the man, and I guess I continued to be rude to him because… I didn’t want another Sakura." He all but whispered the last few words.

Ayumi smiled sadly. "I don’t see how that is possible. Sakura was a sweet, delusional girl, even younger than her few years. This Yohji-san… he’s intelligent and charming, but I feel that he’s almost as closed off from the world as you’ve become, Ayan." Aya frowned slightly at her words. "I don’t see any danger of Yohji-san believing that there would be anything more between you than neighborly friendship if that’s all you want from him."

It was something in the way that Aya’s eyes widened slightly before his gaze dropped to stare back at his teacup, his head bowed and his hair covering his face, that made Ayumi think about what she’d just said. Then she thought of her new friend, Kudoh Yohji, and how handsome the man was, and how charming he could be when he was being polite.

"…Unless you’d want there to be something more than friendship. Is that it, Aya?" Excited, Ayumi leaned toward her friend. In the four years she’d known Aya, he’d never shown any romantic interest towards anyone, and there had been more than a few who would have chanced Hirofumi’s fury to make the man their lover. She worried that Aya would never know love, would never feel true passion. It hadn’t seemed possible for Aya to feel those emotions… perhaps a bit of Ran still resided inside him.

"Ayumi… we should leave." Aya lifted his head and searched for the waiter, probably to ask for the check. One of Ayumi’s hands grasped his chin and jerked his head back in her direction so he’d look at her.

"We will leave after you answer my question. Why are you truly being so rude to Yohji-san?" She stared intently at Aya, willing him to answer her.

Aya held her gaze for several seconds, and then blushed the slightest bit. "He thinks I’m a whore, Ayumi. He even taunted me about it, once. This, from a man who sells himself to whoever has the money each night. It doesn’t matter what I think about him, nothing could ever happen."

Her mouth tightening in a thin line, Ayumi resolved to have another talk with Yohji when he came to tea. She would never tolerate him insulting her Aya. "How do you feel about him?" She asked the question in a quiet voice, but Aya knew her well enough by now to know she wanted an answer, and wouldn’t drop the matter until he supplied one.

His blush becoming the slightest bit rosier, Aya licked his lips in apparent nervousness. "I think he’s very handsome. I like his eyes and his smile. His voice, he has a very nice voice. I see him and wonder what things would be like if we’d met anywhere other than… where we live. Then I listen to what he’s saying to me and I want to never see him again."

"Was he rude the other morning, the one in your apartment?"

"No." Aya grasped Ayumi’s hand and pulled it from his chin, but he held on to it gently. "He smiles at me now, and there’s no mockery in the expression. I think he’s even tried to start a conversation one or two times, but we only see each other around the apartment building, and someone is always there. I don’t understand him, Ayumi. How can he go from such scorn to almost friendship in such a short time? All I did was let him sleep on my floor."

Aya sounded so confused that Ayumi almost smiled. She wanted to say that Aya had done more than just allow Yohji a safe place to sleep off his intoxication, but the point would be lost on the man. Instead, she focused on the rest of what he’d said to her.

"I think you like him, even if just the slightest bit." When Aya started to shake his head she clicked her tongue. "No, listen to me, Aya. I think you like him, and that’s why you’re so rude to him. He hurt you, so you hurt him back instead of just ignoring him. At least, until a few nights ago."

She leaned forward again. "Do something about it, Aya. I don’t think he comes to tea just because of me. He asks about you, Yohji-san does. Just little things, but I can tell he’s interested. Maybe he wants to be your friend. Maybe he wants more than that." Maybe Aya could learn to open up his heart before it died of bitterness and sorrow. Ayumi had seen many geisha and ‘courtesans’ go that way, consumed by their pain until they were ghosts of themselves.

"I’ll be nice to him, Ayumi, because I know you want me to. I’ll be his friend. However," Aya’s voice became colder as he spoke, "that is all. You know why it can never go any farther than that between Kudoh-san and myself." His right hand clutched at his teacup, and Ayumi’s gaze drifted to his pinky, the largest knuckle appearing swollen with a faint scar running along the finger. Because of the bad break, Aya suffered a taste of Ayumi’s arthritis.

What a fool she was. In her romantic fantasizing, she’d forgotten about Hirofumi. Even if Aya felt a rare spark of desire for Yohji, he would never follow through with it. He was Hirofumi’s, and he would not risk the man’s wrath. It was foolish of her to even encourage him, and dangerous as well. If Aya’s lover had been jealous of him over a young girl, it would be nothing compared to his rage if he found Aya with another man. But she couldn’t stop hoping that he’d do something that brought him a taste of happiness and love.

"I’m sorry, Aya." She briefly touched his right hand. "I just… I want you to have more friends. I hate that you spend most of your time alone in your apartment, or in your greenhouse."

"I see you, and Mamoru stops by often." Aya let go of the cup and patted her hand. "I don’t want as many friends as you have."

"Still, one more won’t hurt you, and it would make me feel better. Be nice to Yohji-san, Aya, and try to talk to him when you can. It’s better to have friends than enemies." Aya had more than enough of the latter at the Hanabatake.

"Fine, Ayumi. I give in." Aya sighed as he bowed his head at her.

"Such a good boy." She patted him on the head and smiled when he sighed again. "Now, are you in the mood for a movie? Kohmi was telling me of a new one today that sounds very good. She said it’s rather scary, but not one of those…," Ayumi waved her hand about, "…oh, you know the ones. All blood and gore. Not one of those, thankfully." She shuddered. "Youth today. If they want to see that nonsense, they should go work for a butcher."

"I’m sorry, Ayumi, but I have to go home. Hiro’s going to stop by later." He nodded at the waiter and smiled apologetically at Ayumi. "If you want dessert, I have time for that, but not a movie."

She shook her head. "That’s all right, we can go another time." Ayumi tucked her hands into her kimono sleeves as the waiter returned to their table.

 

*******

Hirofumi wanted to sigh as he gazed about the elegantly furnished room, filled with tables covered in fine linens and china, people dressed in tuxedos and fine dresses, drinking and talking. He glanced to his side when he felt a hand on his arm.

"Hirofumi, dear, I’ll be back in a minute." Moritake Chiyo smiled at him as she rose to her feet, a stunning vision with her long hair pulled back with diamond barrettes and dressed in a strapless, beaded blue dress that clung to her curves. Several people at the surrounding tables glanced her way as she rested a hand on Hirofumi’s shoulder and glanced at the other woman seated at the table.

Ryusaki Nomi blushed slightly and rose as well. "I… I think I’ll join you, Moritake-san." She barely looked older than twenty, and she had seemed uncomfortable all evening long. She stumbled slightly as she followed the famous singer-actress.

He gave into the urge to sigh. "Masafumi, where did you find her?" Hirofumi made sure to pitch his voice low.

Masafumi shook his head and pulled his chair closer to Hirofumi’s as he reached into his pocket for his silver cigarette case. He offered one to Hirofumi and then lit both sticks, taking a puff before he answered.

"She’s a research assistant." Masafumi shrugged his shoulders. "Bright, quiet, and no one who should attract attention. I got tired of dragging the model of the month to these events."

They were here for a government function, their presence required to show their support of their father. Takatori Reiji was somewhere in the room; if Hirofumi wanted to find him all he’d have to do would be to look for the center of the room’s activity. However, all he wanted to do was go home. These dinners bored the hell out of him.

It seemed that Masafumi shared his thoughts. "How much longer do we have to sit here? I hate wasting my nights at these things. The incessant chatter, the backstabbing and ass-kissing… there’s a reason I went into medicine and not politics, after all."

"Yes, because you love taking things apart and putting them back together, and machines are much too boring for you." Hirofumi smiled at his brother. "We’ve only another hour or two to go, and then you’ll be back at home with your ladies, and…." There was only so much he would say in such a public place. While Hirofumi believed that their table was far enough away from the others that there wasn’t a danger of them being overheard, he didn’t believe in pushing his luck. If anyone heard him talking about Aya, they would demand to know who the ‘girl’ was, and if he was cheating on Chiyo. That was something that neither he nor his date wanted to happen. They much preferred the press and public to believe that they were in love with each other and not someone else. Someone… the press and public would find disagreement with.

Masafumi leaned in a little closer and tapped the cigarette case on table. "I can’t wait to get home. I hate leaving in the middle of a project, even if…," his voice dipped even lower, "…Chizura is perfectly capable of monitoring the research for me, but it’s at a critical stage, and I will be livid if something goes wrong while I’m here." Masafumi glared at the table for a moment, and then his expression softened. "Besides, Nanami wanted me to tuck her into bed tonight." He smiled, as he always did when he thought of his foster daughter.

Hirofumi picked up his drink, more ice melt than whiskey by now, and quickly swallowed it. "I’d rather be somewhere else as well, brother."

"I’m sure you would." Masafumi’s smile took on the hint of a leer. "How is… Aya doing?"

"Fine, just fine." He couldn’t help but smile himself at the thought of the last few nights he’d spent with Aya. His lover had been… amazing. Willing to do whatever Hirofumi asked of him, so eager to please. He knew he’d made Aya happy by agreeing to pay for his sister’s vacation, and that his lover was showing his thanks in the only way he knew how.

For a moment Hirofumi’s smile slipped when he thought of how much Aya had changed over the years. He’d been more open when he’d been Ran, better able to express his joy. Hirofumi hated to think that he was responsible for that change, but he knew better. It wore on Aya to be so far from his sister, to have to remain in his apartment for most of the day. He knew he should allow his lover more freedom, but…. Hirofumi grunted and looked around for a waiter. He needed another drink.

"Masafumi, I’ll need my prescription refilled soon." He didn’t want to cause Aya any more pain, any more sadness. He wanted his lover to be happy.

"I’ll have it to you by tomorrow afternoon." Masafumi didn’t say anything else since the waiter was approaching their table, and he ordered them more drinks. If it wasn’t acceptable to be living with two women, and certainly not acceptable to be gay, then talking about one’s health problems, especially of a mental nature, wasn’t either.

"Thank you."

"It’s not a problem, Hiro." Masafumi stubbed out his cigarette and sighed. "One more hour. I’m giving this banquet one more hour, and then I’m going to be ‘paged’ because of a medical emergency." He closed his eyes for a second. "Multiple vehicular accident, I think. What will your excuse be?"

He had to bite back on his smile as he thought about how Masafumi and he had played this game since they were children. "I’ll be getting a call from my secretary about some critical documents that should have been sent out the other day being found still in our possession. Of course, I’ll have to go and help straighten the matter out."

"Of course." They shared a brief conspiratorial smile.

As his brother looked about the room, either for their waiter or their dates, Hirofumi thought about how his night would be, once he managed to escape from here. Aya would be waiting for him, dressed in a silk kimono. He’d be served either tea or sake, depending on his mood, and Hirofumi would be able to spend some time just talking to him, telling him about the stupid dinner, hearing about Aya’s day, and after he started to relax, he’d pull the man close to him, breathe in Aya’s scent and feel his hair slide through his fingers. His beautiful lover. He hadn’t wanted anyone else since Aya had become his alone. To be truthful, he hadn’t wanted anyone since he’d met Aya several years ago, but since their affair had started, Hirofumi had been faithful to Aya. All he needed to make him happy was Aya, and that would never change. He loved the man too much.

*******

Yohji stood on his balcony and smoked a cigarette while he watched the dark clouds slowly move in. It seems that the forecasters had gotten it wrong, and that the rain wouldn’t wait for evening to come. For a moment he spared a thought to the residents who had their laundry drying on the roof. They better get it down soon, or it would be soaking wet and need to be rewashed.

He sighed and leaned on the brick wall of the balcony. His finger started to idly trace one of the flowers carved in the stone. Unlike most of the building’s balconies, the only flowers on his were fake. Maybe he should ask Aya about some flowers he could plant in the boxes built into the low wall.

It would be a good excuse to talk to Aya, one that if someone should happen to overhear them, wouldn’t give the gossip mill that ran rampant in this building any pause. It was so damn frustrating now that Aya no longer pretended he didn’t exist and would actually talk to him, if they were alone, that he could only find a few minutes of privacy here and there to actually talk to him. Someone would always interrupt the two of them, and Aya would clam up and walk away, as if they hadn’t been talking in the first place.

He needed an excuse to spend some time alone with the man, to get to know him. To find out if Aya was worth all this obsessing. The more time Yohji spent with him, the more the answer seemed to be yes, but he wasn’t going to be fooled by a few minutes here and there, even if the man had done him a huge favor almost two weeks ago. Or by the fact he felt completely warmed through whenever Aya offered up one of his very rare smiles. He growled as he flicked his cigarette into the air and told himself to stop thinking like that.

Walking into his kitchen for something to drink, he spotted the mug that Aya had lent him. For some stupid reason he hadn’t returned it yet. While it would be a good excuse to go knock on Aya’s door, he wasn’t sure if it would be good enough to have Aya allow him inside again. Yohji had some foolish notion that maybe he could fill the mug with something, as appreciation for the care that morning, and for the coffee, but he had no clue what. Ayumi could probably tell him, but he had the distinct impression that she was already too interested in this little dance between Aya and him, and he was reluctant to pull her in any further. It was bad enough he was continually pumping her for information about Aya and his past, and coming up with nothing. He’d have to resort to a few underhanded tactics soon if he ever wanted any answers.

Perhaps he could get drunk and be beaten up again…. Yohji smacked his head against the fridge before opening it and picking up a can of beer. He was a fucking idiot, that’s what he was. Aya would really appreciate having to pick his bruised and bloody ass off the hall carpet again, and would probably never speak to him again. Besides, he’d lost a couple nights work because of the bruises, and he didn’t want that to happen again. It hadn’t been so much the loss of money, which wasn’t that important anymore, thanks to him now owning his own apartment, but the fact that one of his clients had been rather upset with him. Yohji would have to make it up to her their next session.

Tonight, however, he’d taken off for himself, his first one since he’d been back at work. And this time he wouldn’t go out and get trashed, discarding the previous idea. He’d rented some videos earlier while on his way back from a client’s, several comedies that should put him in a good mood. Add that to the six-packs in his fridge, and some delicious takeout, and he was set for a relaxing evening. He hadn’t done anything like this in ages. If he wasn’t working, he was usually in a club or bar. After his last night out on his own, though, he’d decided he’d needed the break. He’d recognized the warning signs, and knew he had to cool the drinking down for a bit.

As he drank his beer, he tried to decide on what takeout to order. He was a bit hungry at the present, even though it was early for dinner. He hadn’t been hungry, though, when he’d come back from Soseki’s, so he’d skipped breakfast and lunch.

Flipping through his takeout menus, he wondered if he should see if Ken wanted something to eat, and then remembered that he was out with his ‘roommate’. They were supposed to spend the afternoon in the park since Kase had the day off. Yohji had seen the man a couple more times, now that Ken invited him over more often, and he still didn’t like him. He didn’t say anything to Ken, though, since his friend was convinced that Kase was the best thing in his life.

It suddenly occurred to Yohji that Aya shouldn’t have any plans for the day. A few friends were treating Ayumi to dinner, and he’d seen on the news that Takatori Reiji and Hirofumi were currently in Malaysia, and would be for another couple of days. He should see if the redhead wanted to join him for dinner since they both were alone.

He decided on a noodle place and started to walk to his door, so he could ask Aya if he wanted anything. However, a couple meters short of it, he thought about what he’d do if Aya said no. It would seem a bit strange, inviting the man over for dinner out of the blue, but Yohji didn’t want to waste the opportunity before him. He jerked his hands through his hair as he paced about his living room, wondering what to do.

The sound of rain hitting his glass doors distracted him from his predicament. He hurried over and closed them, and spent a minute watching the rain come down. It looked nasty out there, and he pitied anyone who had to go in this weather. He’d have to make sure to order a lot of food so the delivery guy at the noodle place didn’t mind having to brave the rain.

He stopped frowning as he came upon a solution to his problem. He’d have an excuse to stop by Aya’s, and if anyone happened to see him at the redhead’s door, they shouldn’t think much of it. Plus, it wouldn’t seem as if he was being a bit forward and asking Aya to anything that remotely resembled a date. He had the feeling that Aya wouldn’t react well to any blatant overtures on his part, not with the way he constantly worried about rumors and so forth. He’d start slowly and work his way up to the videos. If he played things smoothly enough, with a bit of luck he’d be spending the evening with a gorgeous man, and maybe get to know him a little better. He much preferred that to hanging out here with nothing but his memories and a cabinet of alcohol to keep him company.

*******

Mamoru hummed as he finished his math homework. All that was left to do now was some reading for his literature class and he’d be done for the day. He could do that later, when he went back home, so for the rest of the day he was free to hang out with Aya. Maybe he could run out and rent a video while Aya made dinner, or better yet, talk Aya into some takeout. It would be a nice day, just the two of them. Mamoru preferred to spend his days like this. He got along much better with the quiet man than he did with his school friends, and Ouka was always surrounded by her friends who drove him crazy if he was in their presence for very long.

Putting away his homework, Mamoru then got up to fetch himself something to drink. Aya kept some soda just for him, and once he found a can he walked into the living room to see if Aya had rented anything in the past day or two. He didn’t find any tapes, so Mamoru decided to hook his laptop up to Hirofumi’s port and check his email. The connection was quicker there than the one in the kitchen.

He’d just logged on when Aya returned to the apartment, his hair tousled and slightly wet, carrying a basket of laundry. "Mamoru, please get the balcony door, it’s starting to rain."

"Really?" He looked away from his computer screen and noticed that it had gotten dark outside, and that a strong wind was blowing. Mamoru hurried to the glass doors and slid them mostly shut. He left them open just enough so some air continued to circulate inside the apartment.

Aya must have taken care of the windows and doors in the other rooms and put the laundry in his bedroom. He was trying to brush back his hair with his fingers when he returned to the living room.

"Sorry I was gone so long, but when I noticed the clouds I decided to take Ayumi’s laundry down too. I didn’t think it was supposed to rain until tonight." Aya stared out the glass doors, a slight frown on his face. He watched the rainfall for a minute, and after one more try at tucking his hair behind his ears he glanced at Mamoru.

"I’m going to make some tea. Do you want any?"

"No thanks, Aya. I have some soda." Mamoru waved his can about, and let out an eep when some almost spilled onto the floor. "Oops, sorry about that."

"Don’t spill any or I’ll make you clean the mats for me," Aya warned before heading into the kitchen. Mamoru smiled at the empty threat, which he heard at least once a week. He’d yet to spill anything on Aya’s precious tatami mats, though there had been several close calls. And Mamoru knew that Aya wouldn’t make him do the cleaning even if he did. Give him grief about it while he cleaned them himself, yes, but that would be all.

The reason Mamoru enjoyed spending as many afternoons after school with Aya as he could was because this was the only place he could really relax. Aya treated him as if they were brothers, chiding him all the time about his studies and to not make a mess, giving him some space if all Mamoru wanted was a quiet place to study or think. There was no disapproval here, as there was at home. He wasn’t ignored here, nor was he fawned upon. Mamoru was happy to escape from his father’s and the servants’ notices. Plus, Hirofumi was always in a good mood when he was here, unlike back at the house. His older brothers didn’t like being there, either, but their father insisted that they all live together, at least until his sons had families of their own. With people other than the ones that Masafumi and Hirofumi had chosen to love.

He could understand his father’s disapproval of his older brothers, but Mamoru didn’t understand what he’d done to the man. He was in the top of his class, so far didn’t think he was gay, and caused no problems, yet his father couldn’t seem to stand him. So he fled to Aya’s as often as he could, when he didn’t have to be at home or school. He was quite happy to be spending his Saturday with the older man.

"Aya, what are your plans for the evening? Do you want to rent a movie?"

Aya walked out of the kitchen, a frown on his face. "Don’t yell, Mamoru." He glanced outside, and Mamoru noticed that it was raining much harder now. "Perhaps, once the rain stops. I’m not going out in this, and neither are you." He glanced at Mamoru for a moment. "Are you staying for dinner?"

"I thought I would, if you don’t mind." Mamoru stared at his computer screen as he spoke. "You don’t have plans, do you? I mean, I know Hirofumi’s with Father in Malaysia for a week, but maybe you and Ayumi were going to do something tonight."

"No, she’s going to dinner with some friends tonight. I was just planning on staying in." Aya walked over to the glass doors and shut them a little more since the rain was being blown onto his balcony. "Which is probably a good thing, because of this weather. You’re welcome to stay."

Feeling relieved since Aya had given his permission, even if he almost never kicked him out, Mamoru quickly scanned through his emails to see if there was anything important. Nothing but some messages from his friends - they probably wanted the answers to the math questions. He quickly shut down his computer, in case the storm got any worse.

Aya drifted back into the kitchen, and Mamoru decided he wouldn’t mind a cup of tea after all and followed him. They spent the next hour going over his homework, Aya having a talent for math that was even better than his, and he helped Mamoru practice his English. Mamoru guessed that since Aya had planned to study international business he’d made an effort to become fluent in that language, and he hadn’t lost any of his skills over the years. Then again, Hirofumi did call upon Aya to entertain a few foreign investors, so he probably used his English to speak to them.

The loud rumbling of his stomach brought an end to the study session. "Sorry, Aya."

"Hmmm." Aya walked over to the fridge. "I have some salmon maki left over from last night, if you’d like something to eat."

Jumping up from his seat, Mamoru hurried to the fridge to fetch the food. He was starving, but he didn’t want to ask Aya to make something for him, and he didn’t want to order takeout with the rain falling so heavily. The maki should tide him over for a little bit, and then maybe the rain would stop and he could talk Aya into ordering something or going out to eat.

Just as Mamoru started to eat the rolls, there was a knock on the door. He noticed how Aya tensed at the sound, his face becoming guarded as he went to see who was at the door. Mamoru set the food aside and followed him, wondering if it was Kohmi or if his brother had come back early. He hoped it was Kohmi, since Hirofumi would probably kick him out so he could spend some time with Aya. Besides, the man shouldn’t be returning for several more days.

He wasn’t expecting to see a tall man with green eyes and streaked blond hair standing at the door, a large takeout bag in his hand.

"Hello, Aya."

"Kudoh-san, what do you want?" Aya didn’t sound too upset at the moment, more like confused. Mamoru was trying to figure out who the stranger was and edged closer to the door.

The blond smiled sheepishly and held up the bag, from which some delicious aromas were emanating, making Mamoru’s mouth water.

"I ordered some noodles for lunch, but they screwed up the order and gave me someone else’s. I thought I’d see if you’d want to help me eat all of this, since I’ll never manage to do so on my own." He smiled again at Aya, and then seemed to notice Mamoru. His smile faltered somewhat, and his eyes narrowed. "Oh, I didn’t know that you had company."

"Hello, I’m… Mamoru." He didn’t like giving out his last name when he could avoid doing so, even if it was a bit rude of him. Mamoru bowed to the man. When he straightened up, he found him staring oddly at Aya.

Aya let out a breath and impatiently waved the blond into the apartment. "Stop standing in the door. He’s my… friend’s brother." Aya crossed his arms over his chest and gave Kudoh a disapproving look. "Why didn’t you notice that you had the wrong order when they delivered it?"

The man seemed to ignore the question as he turned towards Mamoru. "I’m Kudoh Yohji, but just Yohji will do, unless you’re Aya, it seems." He winked at Mamoru as he bowed. "As for the food, I did notice it, but the guy said he’d rather give me the extra food than have to come back with the right order in this weather. So, what do you say? There’s enough in here for the three of us." Kudoh gazed earnestly at Aya.

Mamoru couldn’t believe that Aya was actually standing here talking to a man he didn’t know. He knew that Aya didn’t have many friends, and wanted to know why he had never heard of this Kudoh Yohji before. He also didn’t buy the man’s story about the extra food. Mamoru narrowed his gaze at the blond, wondering if he was another one who wanted to sleep with Aya.

"… Take off your shoes and bring that to the kitchen." Aya spun around and walked to the kitchen, leaving behind a stunned Mamoru, and from the looks of it, an equally stunned Kudoh. They looked at each other for a moment, and then the older man smiled and toed off his shoes. As soon as he slid on a pair of slippers he hurried after Aya.

Well, that hadn’t gone as he’d expected. Aya must be friends with the man after all, or else he’d have tossed him out. Mamoru went to join them, his mind filled with questions. He found Kudoh sitting at the table, watching Aya set out bowls and chopsticks for the three of them.

"Excuse me, Kudoh-san, how do you know Aya?" He asked as he sat down at the table.

Kudoh wrinkled his nose and started to pull the cartons of noodles out of the plastic bag. "Like I said, call me Yohji. Only Aya calls me by my last name." He actually stuck his tongue out at the redhead, causing Mamoru to giggle. "I’m Aya’s neighbor."

"Oh, I see." Not really, but that explained how Aya would have met the man, and even why he hadn’t tossed him out. Mamoru had heard that Aya’s new neighbor was a man, and he was glad to see him getting along with his friend. Aya needed to spend time with someone other than him and Ayumi. Maybe that would make him smile a little more often. However, he’d have to keep a careful eye on Kudoh, to make sure he wasn’t up to any mischief. That was the last thing Aya needed; Mamoru knew he was still upset about the whole Sakura affair.

Kudoh helped himself to some food, and when Mamoru spied a carton of soba noodles and shrimp he started salivating again. Aya didn’t say a word as he pushed the noodles toward Mamoru.

"So, you still in school?" Kudoh asked as he gestured his chopsticks to the uniform Mamoru was wearing. "Shouldn’t you be out with your friends or studying?"

"I am with my friends, Ku-" at the man’s theatrical glare Mamoru had to smile, "Yohji-san. I didn’t have any club activities today, so I came to spend some time with Aya."

"Hm." Kudoh glanced from him to Aya, who was quietly eating. The pale man looked out of place in the kitchen, dressed as he was in a dark green kimono decorated with pine branches, while Mamoru wore his dark blue school uniform and Kudoh a pair of low cut jeans and a tight t-shirt.

"You two have anything planned for today?" Kudoh asked, his voice perfectly even.

"No." Just the one word from Aya, but it made Kudoh smile. Mamoru decided he would definitely have to keep an eye on the man.

"We were thinking of renting some videos, but only if the rain stopped." He twisted in his chair to look out the kitchen window. If anything, it looked even darker outside. "I’m not sure that’s going to happen, though."

Kudoh reached for another carton of noodles. "I have a couple of videos that I haven’t had a chance to watch yet. I’m not planning on returning them until tomorrow, so why don’t I bring them over?"

This was definitely appearing to be a set-up. The extra food, the videos… Mamoru wondered just what this Kudoh was trying to pull. He turned his attention to Aya, who had stopped eating his noodles and was gazing inscrutably at his neighbor.

"Don’t you have… plans for tonight?"

For a moment Kudoh’s smile faltered, but it soon returned as he sat back in his chair. "No, it’s my night off. From what I’ve heard, it’s supposed to rain all night, and no one wants to go out in weather like this. I’m all alone tonight."

Mamoru blushed when he figured out what Aya had to have been asking the man. He should have known when he’d found out that Kudoh lived here. He set his chopsticks down as he waited for Aya’s response.

His friend glanced at him for a moment, and his impassive façade cracked, just the littlest bit. Aya bit into his bottom lip as his gaze shifted briefly to Kudoh and then rested on the table.

"I… Mamoru and I were going to do something tonight…."

It occurred to him that Aya wouldn’t mind spending some time with this Kudoh, and for a moment Mamoru felt jealous. Then it was guilt over feeling that way about his friend, and he wondered why Aya didn’t just tell Kudoh ‘yes’. A moment later he wanted to hit himself on the head for being so thick. Aya wasn’t going to agree to spend some time with another man when his lover’s brother was here.

"That sounds like a great idea, Yohji-san. Why don’t you go get the videos?" Mamoru smiled at both men, who stared at him in wonder. Then Kudoh excused himself, saying he’d be right back. That left him alone with Aya, who stared at Mamoru, his head tilted to the side.

"It will be nice to spend the night watching videos, don’t you think, Aya?" When the man didn’t say anything, Mamoru focused on scooping more food into his bowl. "This Kudoh, he seems nice. It’s good for you to be friends with your neighbor. I can’t see Hirofumi objecting to that… but then again, he doesn’t need to know about it, either."

"Thank you, Mamoru." Aya resumed eating, so he did the same. He’d watch this Kudoh tonight and see if he was just trying to get into Aya’s pants or not. But if the man wanted to be friends with Aya, and Aya didn’t object, something that Mamoru somehow doubted, he didn’t see why they couldn’t do just that. True, Hirofumi would probably be upset… but he wasn’t here. He didn’t see how lonely Aya was all the time, so bored that a visit from a sixteen year old made his day. If Kudoh made Aya happy, Mamoru didn’t have a problem with that. And what Hirofumi didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him.

*******

Aya closed his eyes as he felt Hirofumi’s hand stroke through his hair, pulling the long strands away from his face and neck. Then his lover shifted closer to him, hugging him tightly as he kissed Aya on the shoulder. Unfortunately, the closeness meant that Hirofumi was lying on some of his hair, and Aya felt the strands being pulled. He couldn’t seem to make himself move and free them, though. If he did, he’d not stop until he was in the bathroom, washing off the traces of sex that clung to his skin.

"Aya, did you set the alarm clock?" Hirofumi’s breath was warm against his skin, and the older man pulled Aya closer to him, holding him tight with the arm around his waist. Hirofumi’s hand caressed his stomach, and he had to fight the urge to suck in his breath and withdraw from the touch.

"It’s set for six o‘clock. Is that enough time, Hiro?"

"That’s fine." Hirofumi nuzzled his neck. "It should be enough time for me to have breakfast with you before I have to leave for work." He was kissed again, and then Hirofumi fell silent, his breath slowly evening out.

He lay there, feeling so tired and wanting so much to have a bath, to change his sheets and air out the scent of sex that lingered in the room. Hirofumi’s sweat clung to him, his taste lingered in his mouth, and Aya’s hands clenched in the sheets. He much preferred it when Hirofumi had to leave after the sex and didn’t spend the night. Aya could wash himself and hide away the evidence of what had just happened, instead of being reminded of it all night long.

He was so tired. In the couple days that Hirofumi had been back, he’d spent every night at Aya’s, and had even spent a whole day here. It was too much. He hated wondering if he’d say or do something that would upset the man, not having the time to spend with Ayumi and his flowers. He hated knowing that he was at Hirofumi’s beck and call, to be taken whenever the man wanted him. Yet he had to pretend that he was happy to see him, happy to be treated like a possession and pretend that he wanted Hirofumi as much as the man seemed to want him.

Four years of this, and Aya no longer felt completely sane. The isolation and demands were getting to him, wearing him down to the point that he often felt tired nowadays. Ayumi, Kikyou and Mamoru were his escapes, as was his ikebana and kendo, yet that didn’t seem enough any more. All that kept him from the box in his closet or from leaping off the top of the Hanabatake some days was the thought of his sister, working so hard to earn her degree and to restore some honor to the Fujimiya name. She kept the madness from taking over.

Yet, she caused him so much pain, too. Aya knew she was unhappy that he wouldn’t allow her to come back to Japan over the summer, though she tried not to show it. He couldn’t allow her to come here and find out how he earned the money for her, to know how far he’d fallen. He also didn’t want her to come back here and have old wounds re-opened. There were still people who remembered the shame associated with their father, and hence their whole family. Aya didn’t want to see his sister be hurt anymore, to see people turn away from her in disgust as they did from him.

He tried to bury his head deeper into his pillow, but the pulled strands of hair wouldn’t allow him any movement. Aya sighed and forced his body to relax, to try and rest even with Hirofumi pressing against his back, holding him too close and tightly. It would be another night with little sleep.

At least Hirofumi would be busy for the next couple of days, and Aya could rest then. He’d spend a day up in his greenhouse, soaking in the moist warmth of the place and the myriad scents of the plants housed within, and make a new arrangement for Ayumi. Then they’d go out for dinner and a movie, and spend the evening talking. She’d talked about that the other day, when Hirofumi had been at work and Aya had a little time to himself. She already had the night all planned, and had talked about inviting Kudoh along with them.

He felt his cheeks burn at the thought of his neighbor. For a moment he imagined what it would feel like to have Kudoh in his bed, holding him close, instead of Hirofumi. Then he pushed the thought aside. That wouldn’t happen, it just couldn’t. It was risky enough just being friends with the man, but to dare anything further…. He was an idiot for even speaking with Kudoh, no matter what Ayumi thought. He was taking a very big chance with both his and his sister’s lives.

And yet… that night when Kudoh, Mamoru and he had watched videos had been the closest to how his old life had been in years. He’d even found himself almost laughing once or twice, both at the comedies Kudoh had rented and the antics of the man himself as well as Mamoru. The two of them had gotten along rather well, and their fun had contaminated Aya to the point that he had actually participated in a popcorn battle in his own living room.

Since that night, there had been no glares or snide comments from Kudoh. Actually, there had been none since the morning when the man had woken in his living room. It was strange, to be hanging out his laundry and see a sleepy and disheveled Kudoh join him on the roof, and if no one else was about to talk to him about… little things. How his plants were doing, or some of the building’s gossip, and so forth. Aya had learned that he didn’t need to fear a painful topic being brought up in those rare conversations, that Kudoh knew exactly what to avoid talking about.

Maybe that was why it was so nice to spend time with Kudoh; the man understood what Aya was going through. Ayumi… she’d loved Natsuo and hadn’t minded the sacrifices she’d made for him. Mamoru… was just a child, though an observant and intelligent one. He had no way of imagining what Aya went through. As for Kikyou, his friend was too often away for Aya to rely on for any support and understanding, and he’d found his own means of escape from their lifestyle. But Kudoh was here and knew what Aya went through each time Hirofumi stopped by. Aya finally had someone he could talk to and sympathize with, as he’d originally hoped for with Sakura. That must be why seeing Kudoh filled him with a kind of contentment he’d never felt before.

Hirofumi started to faintly snore, and his arm tightened around Aya. Shivering slightly as his sweat cooled on his skin, Aya managed to snag a corner of the duvet and pull it up to cover him. He could still smell a hint of lavender from the detergent he used to wash his sheets, and he focused on that faint scent, using it to soothe him. Aya sighed as he tried to relax enough to fall asleep for a few hours, wanting the escape that unconsciousness granted him. Time would pass much faster if he wasn’t awake, and then soon enough Hirofumi would leave him, and Aya could wash the man off him and for a short while forget about what his life had become.

*******

Yohji bolted out of his chair when he heard his mail drop into the box on his door. He hurried over to his door and pressed his ear against it, listening for the sound of footsteps going down the hall. When it was quiet for a couple minutes, he opened his door and looked around. No one was in the hallway.

Knowing that someone could step out of their apartment at any moment, or get out of the elevator, Yohji hurried to Aya’s door. His neighbor was out with Ayumi today, she’d told Yohji about their plans last evening. The two of them were to spend the day shopping for new plants for Aya’s greenhouse. That meant that Aya hadn’t been there to get his mail.

Yohji pushed back the brass door on the slot and peered inside. There was a shallow basket to catch the mail, and he could clearly see several envelopes. Grateful for both long fingers and the fact that the mailbox hadn’t been designed to be burglarproof, Yohji managed to pinch his fingers around most of the mail. He cautiously slid the envelopes out of the slot and then flipped through them.

There was what looked to be a couple of invitations, and a flyer for a pottery exhibit. There was a bank statement, too. Yohji noted with interest that the mail bore no name, just Aya’s apartment number. Yohji set the letters aside and peeked back into the mailbox. It took him a minute, but he managed to get the two letters he’d missed on his first try. There was another flyer, this time for a kimono shop, but the second article of mail had his attention.

It was from the United States. There were several stamps on it, and a sticker with Aya’s address over what had probably been the original one written on the envelope. It had clearly been forwarded from somewhere else. Yohji tried to lift the sticker, but he didn’t have much luck and knew he couldn’t tamper too much with the mail. So he gave up and concentrated on the return address.

It was from… Massachusetts. Interestingly enough, if Yohji remembered correctly, that was where Harvard University was. Then he noticed the name. Fujimiya Aya. For a second he wondered if Aya was sending mail to himself, and then he shook his head. Somehow he doubted the man had left the country at any point in the past week or so, especially since he’d seen him almost every day.

Fujimiya. That name sounded very familiar. Yohji knew he’d heard it somewhere before, but couldn’t remember where. Oh well, if he didn’t recall it in a day or two, he’d go do some searching through old newspapers. He knew that the name had to be connected to Aya somehow, especially since the letter’s sender and he had the same name. Yohji had wondered if Aya was the redhead’s real name, since many of the people who lived here had taken on aliases, but he’d never thought to wonder why the man had chosen to be called that. Maybe he’d figure that out when he researched the name Fujimiya.

He slid the letters back into Aya’s mailbox and hurried back to his apartment. He had a lead now, and he felt that it was a solid one. The more time he spent with his neighbor, either talking to each other up on the roof or in Aya’s kitchen, and the few times they’d gotten together at Ayumi’s or gone to dinner, the more he wanted to know about Aya, to have all his questions answered. He wasn’t sure what exactly was drawing him towards the redhead so strongly, whether it was Aya’s beauty and quiet intelligence, or just the aura of mystery he exuded.

Hopefully it was the latter, because maybe then he could stop obsessing about him, before something happened to either of them. If it wasn’t… He wasn’t sure what exactly he would do, and that scared him. For the first time in too long a while, his emotions were influencing his actions, and he was too caught up in them to stop himself. Which was very bad. It wouldn’t just be him who paid for his mistakes this time, he’d realized; Aya could possibly be hurt by his actions. Just like she’d been. That thought didn’t seem to be stopping him, though, which scared him all the more.

*******

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