Cages

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chapter 5

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 peaceful moments

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Hirofumi lay behind Aya, one arm under his head and the other draped over his lover’s waist. He lay there, enjoying the feel of Aya being near, his skin so smooth and his hair still smelling faintly of lavender shampoo. He always took advantage of the few opportunities he had to hold his sleeping lover, since Aya often woke up before him. However, despite his very late night out with Tyson, going from nightclub to club searching for a suitable ‘date’ for the foreigner, he’d woken up first. It was most likely because of the sake he also smelled on Aya that he was still asleep.

A stab of guilt went through him as he thought about the day before. He’d hurt Aya, even if it was only briefly and largely unintentionally. Hirofumi ran his fingers over Aya’s left wrist, the one he’d bruised while he’d been accusing his lover of cheating on him. He was such a fool. Aya wouldn’t do that to him, wouldn’t hurt him that way, yet Hirofumi had broken his promise and harmed the man he loved.

But he’d been so damn angry, yesterday, finally meeting Kudoh and seeing that he was nothing like Aya had led him to believe the whore would be. Kudoh was handsome, very much so, oozing charm and a sexual aura that had even caught his attention. He’d been expecting… someone like Hoshi or Kane, two of the men who lived here. Effeminate men who resided here by the graces of their patron and clients respectively. Men whom Aya had very little interest in thus avoided. This Kudoh seemed like someone one wouldn’t mind getting to know better, and Hirofumi worried that Aya might want to do just that. He was even more worried that Kudoh might be interested in Aya. He’d checked into the man, discovering he made his living with both male and female clients. It was his bisexuality that worried Hirofumi.

It still didn’t justify his accusing Aya of infidelity. "I’m so sorry," he breathed before shifting up to kiss Aya on his cheek. He remained asleep but moaned softly. Hirofumi stroked Aya’s head, savoring the feel of the hair beneath his fingertips. That seemed to soothe Aya, as he quieted and snuggled backwards against him.

A short while passed before Aya uttered another sound, this time a low groan as his body shifted about. Hirofumi reached over him for the glass of water, and watched his lover as he slowly woke up. Aya blinked for a second or two before screwing his eyes shut. His complexion appeared pasty with the slightest hint of green. Holding onto the glass with one hand, Hirofumi very carefully helped Aya to sit up, which caused him to moan again and lean against him. He held the glass to Aya’s lips, rationing out the water as Aya slowly sipped it. When it was about half gone, he pulled it away and reached for the aspirin bottle, shook out a couple pills and pressed them against Aya’s lips. The man swallowed them and then the rest of the water. Once it was done he slumped against him, breathing shallowly through his mouth.

Once it appeared that Aya wasn’t going to be sick, at least not right away, Hirofumi set the glass down and wrapped his arms around his lover. He hummed in happiness at the feel of Aya in his arms, as he carefully lowered the two of them back onto the bed. Aya groaned again as he rested against the mattress, but he didn’t try to break free of his embrace.

"Are you all right, Aya?" He gently rubbed a hand up and down Aya’s back.

"…Not really," Aya replied, his voice hoarse and weak. "When… when did you get here?"

"About three in the morning," Hirofumi said wearily. "It took that long before Tyson was happy and I could leave him alone." It had been somewhat difficult, to find the American a redheaded Japanese man he’d deemed worthy of his affections and to not kill him during the search. If the American tried another pass at Aya in the future, however…. He nuzzled Aya’s neck and held him closer. "I’m sorry, Aya. I didn’t know he’d ask something like he did last night, and I won’t ever expect you to attend one of our meetings again." If he didn’t need the man’s business, he’d never deal with Tyson again, either. However, until their business deal was concluded, he’d have to put up with the foreigner.

"Hmmm." Aya just lay there, his arm draped over his eyes as if to block out any light. Hirofumi was reminded of his atrocious behavior again by the sight of Aya’s wrist. He grasped Aya’s hand and cradled it between his, causing Aya to open his eyes and stare blearily at him.

"I’m sorry, Aya. I… it’s been a bad couple of weeks at work," he said in a vain attempt to justify his actions. "I’ve been under some stress, and I didn’t handle meeting Kudoh very well. I just…." He bent his head until it rested against Aya’s shoulder. "I always over-react when I think of losing you. I’m so sorry." It was the truth. Whenever he thought of walking into the apartment and finding Aya gone again, or with another man, he lost control of his volatile temper and lashed out, usually at Aya.

Aya’s trembling hand touched his hair, and when he looked up at him, he found Aya staring inscrutably at him. For a moment he wished he could read minds; Aya, over the years, had become much too talented at masking his true feelings for him to ever be able to decipher them. He’d possessed that talent to a lesser extent when he’d been a teenager, but he’d honed it to perfection since he’d become his lover. With another twinge of guilt, Hirofumi realized he’d probably learned it as a defense against him. He knew it had to be hard on Aya to remain here and have so little to do, day after day, other than to put up with a man who at any point might strike out at him. However, it was the only way he was able to keep him, to make Aya his. He’d make it up to his lover, somehow.

Aya sighed and curled up on his side, his arms held loosely around his stomach. "It’s okay, Hiro. I know you didn’t mean to do that."

"No, I didn’t." He never did, and at least he’d been able to stop himself before going too far this time. "Love, do you want something more to drink? Maybe some tea?" He wanted to ask Aya how he’d become so drunk after leaving him, especially since he hadn’t found any sake bottles when he’d come here several hours ago, but he didn’t want to start interrogating the man again. Most likely, Aya had gone to Ayumi’s to tell her about his night, and the woman had plied him with alcohol.

"Tea, please, and water." Aya fumbled for the sheet, and Hirofumi pulled it up to cover him and kissed him gently on the lips before Aya pressed his head deeper into the pillow. He rose from the bed and went to the kitchen to fetch Aya’s request, pausing to close the blinds on the sliding glass doors in the room before walking out.

He’d spend a couple more hours by his lover’s side before going to work. No doubt his father would be upset about him reporting in late, but to hell with the man. He wanted to take care of Aya for as long as he could and to make up for his atrocious behavior the night before. He should have never had Aya come to dinner last night, not when Tyson had asked for his lover’s presence. Well, he knew better now and no damage had been done.

Hirofumi filled the electric kettle with water while he thought of how he could make this up to Aya. He’d be busy with work the next couple of days, finishing the deal with Tyson and helping his father drum up support for the new fiscal budget. He took a moment to consider grabbing Aya and going away for a week or two, possibly to Kyoto, but he knew it wouldn’t be feasible. No, he’d make it up to him another way, either arranging for more tickets so Aya and Ayumi could go out to the theater together, or perhaps tickets for them to go to another sumo match. In between those events, he’d spend as much time here as he could.

If only Aya were a woman, then he could marry him and never have to sneak around to see him or Aya to have to worry about keeping a low profile. Instead, Hirofumi was reduced to calling the man he loved by a more feminine name in case he mentioned him in public, had to pretend to be in love with Chiyo, and heard from his father on an almost daily basis about his ‘perversion’. As if the man was utterly respectable and didn’t have almost a dozen lovers, some of them no older than his own daughter, scattered about the country. At least Father couldn’t order him not to see Aya, not with Grandfather supporting him.

Nothing was going to keep him from Aya, not his father or prejudice or anything else. He’d loved the man since he’d seen him over seven years ago, and had wanted him with an unsurpassed passion. Now that he had him, he wasn’t ever going to let go.

*******

Aya was distracted from his book by the sound of his front door opening. He set the book aside, closed his eyes and pressed his palms against them at the thought of Hirofumi returning, just when he’d gotten rid of him. He couldn’t take any more of the man’s guilty fussing, and he just wanted to be left alone.

"Come now, surely it’s not that much of a hardship to look at us, ne?" Ayumi’s amused voice had him dropping his hands and opening his eyes in surprise.

The elderly woman was standing at the foot of the bed, a smile on her face and flowers in her arms. Behind her stood Yohji, a tray in his hands and a worried look in his eyes.

"What are you doing here?" Ayumi never just entered his apartment without warning, she always made sure to call first. Not that Aya was upset with her presence, or Yohji’s, although he felt a bit ashamed when he looked at his neighbor, since he couldn’t recall much of what had happened last night, other than drinking too much sake and talking about what had occurred at dinner.

"That is no way to welcome guests, Ayan, even if we are uninvited." Ayumi sat down on the bed beside him. "Yohji, set the tray down and fetch me a vase for these flowers. There should be a blue one that will suit them perfectly." She shifted the gold, pink and periwinkle dahlias in her arms until she had a hand free to gently touch his cheek.

"All right. That would be in the spare room, correct?" Yohji didn’t wait for an answer before he set the tray down on the chest at the foot of Aya’s bed and walked away. Aya was distracted for a moment at the sight of Yohji’s ass encased in tight blue jeans, not hidden in the least by his white t-shirt, but Ayumi’s touch quickly brought him back to himself.

He looked at her, and found the worry that had been in Yohji’s eyes now reflected in hers. "Are you all right? You feel a little warm." She tucked back his bangs. "Yohji was at my door today, telling me about what had happened last night. I apologize for using my key without warning, but… we were worried about you." Her eyes flicked down to his bruised wrist, and he wished he’d had the forethought to hide it underneath the sheet.

"I’m…." The regard in Ayumi’s golden eyes had him choking on his lie. "I’m tired, still a bit hung-over, and in general feel miserable." Only Ayumi could drag the truth out of him like this. She patted his cheek again, her eyes misting with tears.

"My poor boy." Ayumi’s fingers ran through his hair, and she started to frown. "Ayan, your hair is soaking wet! Here you are with a fever, and you haven’t even dried your hair," she scolded.

"What about his hair?" Yohji had chosen that moment to return to the room, carrying the blue vase Ayumi had asked him to fetch. He’d even filled it with water, and set it down on Aya’s nightstand before fetching the tray, which contained a pot of tea and some mochi.

"It’s wet," Ayumi proclaimed, as if it was a horrible crime. "He’s lying here with it all but dripping, and he has a fever."

Aya resisted the impulse to roll his eyes more out of tiredness than anything and meekly accepted the cup of tea that his friend handed him. He’d managed to soak in the tub after Hirofumi had left, but hadn’t the energy to do more than dry himself off and pat his hair with a towel a few times before slipping on a yukata and falling back into bed. He’d fanned his hair out on the pillow behind him so it could then dry quicker and had forgotten all about it.

Yohji frowned at him and then walked away, to the bathroom. Moments later he returned with a dry towel and sat down in the middle of Aya’s bed, right next to him.

"Okay, sit up a little so I can dry your hair." Yohji grabbed the cup from his hands and set it aside before tugging on Aya’s arm.

Indignant at how he was being treated, he glared and clutched the sheet tightly against his chest, refusing to move. "It’s fine, just leave me alone."

"I’m not leaving you with wet hair, Aya, not if you’re getting sick." Yohji tugged on his arm, and as weak as he felt, Aya could do little more than curse softly and glare as he was hauled upright. Well, he could punch the man, but Ayumi would give him hell for doing so.

"I’m not sick, I’m just tired and hung-over. I fail to see how my hair being wet is such a problem." He tried to pull away from the man, but Yohji had an arm around his waist, keeping him pressed against the man’s chest. He had a brief memory of leaning against Yohji, breathing in his scent as gentle hands combed through his hair, and he stopped struggling. Had Yohji held him last night? It sure seemed like it, and his treacherous body was only too happy to be near the man again. It felt so different from being held by Hirofumi.

Ayumi touched him on the cheek again, and then her hand pressed against his forehead. "I don’t recall ever suffering a fever during a hangover, Ayan, nor being as tired as you appear. I think… you’ve been under too much stress lately. Your body needs to rest. Yohji, dry his hair for him while I go make some soup." Her hand rested on his cheek for a few seconds, and he could feel it tremble slightly before she smiled tenderly at him and left the room, stopping at his bathroom first.

Yohji did as he was told and started to pat Aya’s hair dry with a towel. "Your pillow’s soaked because of all this hair, and it would have taken forever to dry. How do you stand it, Aya? I mean, you look great with it, but maybe you should cut it a little."

Aya couldn’t, not without provoking Hirofumi, who had told him to let it grow out in the first place. "I’m used to it, Yohji," he replied wearily. Yohji was being rather gentle, his touch soothing enough that Aya just wanted to go back to sleep. His head hurt and his stomach was still a bit queasy, and resting until his body felt better seemed like a very good idea. Not to mention that it felt nice having someone do his hair for him, reminding him of when he’d been a child and his mother would dry it after bathing him. He gave up resisting and decided to just enjoy the attention.

"Yohji, what happened last night?" He asked the question as neutrally as he could, half afraid of the answer. It was very rare that he drank enough to pass out, yet he remembered nothing after having confessed to Yohji about his night and then be held closely by him. Surely nothing had happened after that.

Yohji stopped patting his hair for a moment, and then started to run a comb through the damp strands. "Don’t you remember?" Aya shook his head. "Well, you did drink a lot, so I shouldn’t be surprised," he mused. "I dragged you into my apartment to see what was wrong with you, and after drinking most of my sake you finally told me of that asshole at dinner."

"I know about that," Aya mumbled irritably, and he pulled away a little before Yohji’s arm dragged him back. "What about after that? How did I get back to my apartment?" That was what had him worried, what had happened after he’d blacked out, and the thought of what would have happened if Hirofumi had come here and found him missing.

Yohji resumed patting his combed hair. "You were so tired and depressed that I didn’t want you to leave right away, so we sat on my couch for a while. I… held you, since you pretty much fell asleep on me, and when I thought it was safe I brought you back here and put you to bed. Which wasn’t fun, let me tell you." Yohji mock glared at him before pretending to wince and rub the small of his back. "You’re heavier than you look, Aya." Then he grew serious. "What happened with Hirofumi? Did he give you any more trouble?" His voice took on a rough edge as he asked the question.

Thankful that nothing Yohji had said contradicted his few fuzzy memories, Aya relaxed against him again, his irritation fading away. "He came in sometime early in the morning and stayed for a few hours. He helped me with the hangover a little, and then left for work." It had been almost nice, just being held by the man and having his back rubbed. No demands on him, no abuse. Hirofumi would be careful around him for the next couple weeks, if he followed his usual pattern, and would soon be driving him nuts with his clingy attitude.

Alternating between patting his hair dry and combing it, Yohji’s touch was so soothing that Aya felt himself start to drift asleep. He closed his eyes and just enjoyed the sensations he was feeling, of Yohji’s warmth and scent, his hair being carefully tended to. It seemed much too soon before Ayumi was calling out his name and patting his hand.

"Aya, wake up. I have some soup for you." He opened his eyes to see Ayumi holding a tray with a bowl of soup and a glass of orange juice resting upon it. She’d made him white miso with thick chunks of mushrooms, tofu and seaweed floating in it, and for the first time that day, his stomach seemed remotely interested in food. Then he remembered that he was leaning against Yohji’s chest and felt a flush of embarrassment and irritation. However, Yohji held onto his shoulder when he tried to sit up.

"That looks good, Ayumi. Did you make enough for all of us?" Yohji asked as he pressed Aya back against his chest. "Just sit, Aya, I’m almost done. You can eat while I comb out your hair and braid it." Before he could protest, Ayumi was handing him the orange juice and some more aspirin.

"Take these, Aya. I’ll go fetch you some soup in a moment, Yohji. Maa, such a glutton you are. You’d best watch that appetite of yours before you grow fat and frighten your patrons away," she chided as she watched Aya do as she’d said. He was swallowing the pills when he felt Yohji’s chest shake. The man laughed as he finished the juice.

"I’ve never had that complaint before, Ayumi. If anything, they try to fatten me up some, but I burn it all off." Yohji gathered Aya’s hair into his hand, his fingers brushing along the nape of his neck and making him shiver. "Which is a good thing, because unlike a certain geisha I know, I can’t hide my fat under layers of silk kimonos. Just how much of that is padding, dear?"

Ayumi sputtered as she rose to her feet. "I am as slender now as when I was a girl, I’ll have you know. Shame on you, Yohji."

"Yeah, well, I think you need to prove it to us. How about you modeling a nice bikini and showing us that lovely body you’re always hiding away?" Yohji’s voice was thick with amusement, and Aya could feel his chest shake again, with suppressed laughter.

"You… oh!" Ayumi snatched up Aya’s book and immediately whacked Yohji over the head with it. "Pervert! I can’t believe you would talk to an elderly lady such as me like that. Hmph." She stormed out of the room, but not before Aya caught a hint of a smile on her face.

"You know, it’s not wise to tease her like that. She always finds a way to get you back when that happens," Aya warned his friend. However, the humor of the moment made him feel much better, helping him to relax properly for the first time in way too long. He felt Yohji separate his hair into strands and start to braid it.

"It’d be worth it for the look on her face back there. Plus, I can now complain of a headache and make her feel guilty." Yohji stopped braiding to rub his head. "But, ow, she’s pretty strong for such a little thing." They fell silent after that, and Ayumi soon returned with more soup.

"I should have dumped a container of salt in this, Yohji. I don’t know why I didn’t," she grumbled as she handed over the bowl. "Aya, you must eat! I won’t have you become sick." She picked up his soup bowl, and with a sigh he accepted it and started to eat.

It was warm and delicious, with just enough tofu and seaweed for his taste. His stomach rumbled during the first couple of sips, but soon settled. Before he knew it, all the soup was gone and he was feeling tired again, even more so than before. He leaned his head back against Yohji’s shoulder as Ayumi took the bowl from him. A part of him scolded him for letting his guard down around his friends, for taking advantage of Yohji’s warmth and presence, but he was too tired to argue with it. These two were among the precious few people he could relax with, and he wasn’t doing anything other than rest against a friend. His eyes fell shut again, and there was a gentle touch on his cheek. A warm pair of lips pressed against his temple and then he fell asleep.

*******

Setting the empty bowls aside on the tray, Ayumi caught Yohji’s movement out of the corner of her eye. He stroked Aya’s cheek and then pressed a kiss against the side of the man’s face before lowering him down to the bed. Aya moaned softly but didn’t wake up as he was settled and a sheet pulled up to his chin.

"So, what did you slip him?" Yohji’s voice was the slightest bit rough, and his eyes remained focused on Aya. "He seems too out of it to just be taking a nap."

"Hmmm… I ground up one of his sleeping pills and mixed it in the orange juice." She stopped cleaning up to sit besides her sleeping friend and tenderly brush aside his bangs. Aya still felt warm to the touch, but hopefully a little rest would do him good and he’d feel better. She’d have to make sure to have some proper food ready for him in a couple of hours. "I didn’t want to give him any more than that, for fear of making him sicker, but he seemed so tired that it was enough to do the trick. He needs to sleep, and for longer than just for an hour or two."

Yohji smiled and stretched out on the bed beside Aya. She almost raised an eyebrow over that move. She wondered what had really happened last night in the man’s apartment. It wasn’t just friendship that had him knocking on her door at barely past seven in the morning and staying by her side as they waited for Hirofumi to leave so they could check on Aya. Nor was it at all usual for Aya to be so physical with another person. Granted, he wasn’t at his best at the moment, and she’d expected to find him more grouchy than feverish and tired.

"You did good, Ayumi. He needs the rest - last night he said he felt exhausted. I can imagine how tired he was after what he went through." Yohji fidgeted with Aya’s braid, placing it this way and that before settling on draping it over his shoulder. Then he seemed to notice her attention and sat up on the bed. "How much longer do you think we’ll have before the bastard returns?"

"Do you mean Hirofumi?" She frowned when Yohji nodded his head. While she agreed with his assessment of the man, Aya would be unhappy to hear him referred to as that. "I doubt he’ll return this evening at all, or else he wouldn’t have stopped by my apartment to ask me to check in on Aya today." She’d so wanted to slam the door in his face when he’d come calling, furious at him for hurting her Aya again, but she knew she couldn’t risk upsetting him, not after yesterday. Aya might be hurt even more badly next time.

"I’ll remain here with him, and make sure he gets something to eat later and stays in bed." She looked down at her dear friend and straightened the collar of his yukata. Aya’s collarbones were rather prominent, and she strengthened her resolve to make sure he ate enough to satisfy her. He’d obviously been more stressed than usual the past couple of days, and if she wasn’t careful he’d end up as skinny as Yohji.

"Do you want any company?" This time it wasn’t Yohji’s voice that betrayed him, but his eyes. They appeared hopeful as he gazed at her, and then turned sad when she shook her head.

"I think it’s best if it is just me. Aya might wake up and realize what I did, and he’ll get over his anger much quicker if he snaps at me for a couple of minutes and then feels ashamed for yelling at an old lady." She smiled slightly at the mental image that accompanied her words. Yes, Aya would be grouchy for all of five minutes, and then he’d force himself to be pleasant so as not to risk hurting her. She, of course, would pretend to almost cry the moment he snapped at her, and Aya would do her bidding for the rest of the night. He was too soft when it came to the people he cared for.

And so was she. "However, he won’t wake up soon, so you can stay for a while and then do some shopping for us, and spend the evening here once he’s over his fit of temper." She didn’t want to see any sorrow in any of her friends’ eyes, even one as new as Yohji.

The young man smiled at her and stretched out alongside Aya again. At her look he grinned and rested his head on a pillow, only to sit back up with a curse. He quickly switched pillows with Aya, shifting the sleeping man about then tossing the wet one to the foot of the bed.

"I forgot about that until just now." As Ayumi continued to stare at him, he toyed with a strand of his hair and resumed lying on the bed. "If I’m going to stay here for a while, I might as well be comfortable." Yohji stifled a yawn as he curled up around Aya, as close as he possibly could without touching the other man. "I didn’t get much sleep last night, either."

"Then rest now. I’m going to go see what I’ll need for dinner, so I can prepare you a shopping list for later." She rose to her feet as gracefully as her arthritic knees allowed, and headed for the kitchen. She wondered in amusement how long it would take Yohji to fall asleep.

Once in the kitchen, she did a more thorough inventory than before, when she’d made the soup. She wanted to make some oden for Aya, and would need several ingredients. She also didn’t mind in the least that Yohji should be out from under her feet while he shopped. That should take him long enough for her to have a talk with Aya.

However, it was very heartening to see how the two men reacted around each other. Over the past couple weeks she’d seen them become friends, notice their common bonds and trust each other. As she’d wished, Aya now had a new confidante, one who was more readily available than Kikyou. The spark of interest that she’d seen in Yohji was slowly being returned by Aya, of that she had no doubt. Not after what she’d seen in the bedroom.

Things were proceeding even better than she could hope, she mused as she rummaged through Aya’s cupboards. Though Yohji and Aya would have to be careful, now that the blond man had met Hirofumi. For a moment her hands shook in anger as she thought of the new bruise on Aya’s wrist. At least he hadn’t been hurt more than that, this time. It didn’t change her mind, though.

Aya would never break free for his own benefit. He’d spend his life as Hirofumi’s lover just so his sister would be taken care of. So Ayumi had to come up with a reason for him to wish for another life, one where he was away from Takatori and happy with someone else.

At first she had thought that Kikyou would serve that purpose, but for all he and Aya had become good friends, they saw each other too rarely. Aya had made few friends when he’d first moved in, and one by one they had all left as their fortunes rose or fell. Then there had been Sakura, the silly girl… who had only caused Aya pain and reminded him of why he had chosen the path that he had.

Hopefully, Yohji’s presence would change that, and Ayumi would do her best to make sure that happened. If Aya had another lover, one that he wanted and loved… that might be enough to make him leave Hirofumi. She didn’t think any further than that; she thought it would be difficult enough to make Aya take a chance on his own happiness to even consider new obstacles. Yet somehow, she just knew the future she wished fervently for would come about. Aya would be happy, and smile and laugh once more. Yohji would shed some of his bitterness and know joy as well, and she’d watch two friends enjoy life and each other.

She paused in her search to gaze out the kitchen window, a smile on her face as she daydreamed.

*******

"Go away," Yohji mumbled as someone patted him on his shoulder. He was warm and comfortable, pressed against Asuka in their bed, and all he wanted to do was sleep a little longer. Then a niggling voice asked him who could possibly be bothering him if he was in the apartment he shared with his girlfriend and she was asleep in his arms. Blearily he opened his eyes, and instead of short dark hair, long crimson strands greeted him.

"Yohji, wake up. I need you to go shopping now." Ayumi patted him again. "Come now, I didn’t give you a sedative."

Stifling a curse, Yohji quickly sat up in bed and jerked a hand through his hair, trying to tuck back the wavy strands. Somehow during his nap he’d ended up all snuggled close to Aya again, and Ayumi had caught him. He scowled at the woman as he tried to get his tired brain to work properly, but all she did was give him an innocent look before she began to fuss over Aya like a mama cat with her kitten. She stroked his cheek and pressed the back of her hand against his forehead, and then combed her fingers through his hair, trying to brush back the thick strands that fell onto his face.

"He feels cooler, now. I think all the poor boy really needed was a bit of rest, and some food should do him wonders." Ayumi’s gaze shifted to him. "However, I need you to do some shopping before that can happen. I’ve let you sleep for a couple hours, now be of some use and fetch me this." As she spoke she thrust a piece of paper at him. He grabbed it and sighed at the long list.

"I’m going to have to visit at least two different stores to pick all this up, Ayumi. Can’t you just make him some teriyaki and rice?" He stared beseechingly at her, not in the mood for trudging all over the neighborhood for the stuff. Of course she blew off his look with a wave of her tiny hand.

"Bah, Aya needs something more filling than that. Go on, Yohji, or I won’t allow you to join us for dinner." She crossed her arms over her chest and started to glare at him, though the look was ruined with the way the corner of her mouth twitched. "Nor dessert, for that matter. Kohmi received a package from her sister-in-law in the States, and it included a very good brownie mix. I was planning on serving that with some vanilla ice-cream, and it would be such a shame if you couldn’t join us." She said the last in such a sorrowful voice that for a moment Yohji considered what a great actress she would have made.

He sighed again and reluctantly crawled off the bed, tugging his white t-shirt down as he did and adjusting his jeans. "Okay, I get the hint, o subtle one." He walked over to her and kissed her on the cheek, and paused to check on Aya before going on his way. The redhead looked better; he had some color back in his cheeks but wasn’t flushed. "Those brownies better be worth it though."

"They are. Even Aya gorges himself on them, and he doesn’t even care much for brownies." She patted Yohji on the shoulder and pushed him in the direction of the door. He decided to take the hint and returned to his apartment.

He checked his answering machine before he went to brush his teeth and change his shirt for one a little less wrinkled, and found a cheerful message from Ken, one from his client for tonight, double-checking that he would arrive at ten, and another client who wanted to reschedule for this weekend. There was also a message from a Kawate who worked for the apartment building, asking him to stop by the front desk. He was puzzled by that, but at least he felt relieved when there was nothing from Gensai. For the past week or so, the man had been calling at least once a day. Maybe he’d finally gotten the hint, or so Yohji hoped. He didn’t want to have to change his number because of one sick bastard.

Once he was presentable, his hair combed and wearing a blue shirt loose over a white tank top, he went to get the groceries. He rode down in the elevator with Nayoko and Taka, two young women from the fifteenth floor that he’d gone out with one afternoon for a couple of drinks. They were usually inseparable, and hadn’t seemed to be looking for anything other than a friendly person to complain about ‘work’ with. He’d enjoyed himself that day. They talked about going out again sometime soon, and Yohji found himself looking forward to it. Perhaps he could drag Aya with him….

His good mood lasted until he reached the lobby of the Hanabatake and spoke to Kawate, a young woman dressed in a plain grey dress and who spoke with a soft voice. He asked her what it was that she’d wanted, and was surprised when she handed him a slim package.

"This arrived for you earlier today, Kudoh-san, but we were unable to reach you in your apartment at the time." She bowed slightly to him and went back to checking something on her computer.

Puzzled by the gift, he wasted no time in checking the small card attached to it. He grimaced when it turned out to be from Gensai. Great, the man had moved on from phone calls to presents. He was torn between tossing whatever it was out and returning it to his former client, but he didn’t want to have anything to do with Gensai anymore. He didn’t even want to grace him with a response, albeit a negative one. Walking over to the door, he handed the present, which felt like a bottle of liquor, to the guards stationed at their post.

"Here, enjoy this." He thrust the package at the older of the two guards, a gentleman twice his age but still possessing a physique of solid muscle. "My compliments." He then walked away, but before he reached the door he heard his name called out again.

The older guard was holding what looked to be a bottle of cognac in his hands, a very expensive one at that. "Kudoh-san, are you sure you don’t want this?"

"I’m positive." He waved their thanks aside and quickly left the building. So Gensai thought to ply him with alcohol, ne? Well, it was better than flowers, he thought wryly, but it wouldn’t do the man any good. Yohji had enough business that he didn’t need a client who made him sick with his requests, and that was that.

As he walked down the street, enjoying the early summer day, one where the weather wasn’t too hot or humid, he looked at the shopping list Ayumi had given him. Damn, he’d most likely need to make at least three stops to get the meat, spices and vegetables that she wanted, not to mention the sake and, of all things, candles and tea. Too bad there wasn’t a decent market in the neighborhood, or he’d have been able to get this over with relatively quickly.

He thought about his day as he headed for the store that had the freshest vegetables in the area. He’d gotten no sleep the night before, as worried about Aya as he’d been. Each time he’d fallen asleep, he’d have a nightmare of Aya committing seppuku and him discovering the man’s body. Finally he’d given up on sleep and as soon as he thought Ayumi might be up, he’d been knocking on the woman’s door. Kohmi hadn’t even arrived yet to help her for the day, but Ayumi had allowed him in and made him tea as he’d filled her in on the night before. She’d called the guards downstairs to see if Takatori had stopped by during the night. They’d readily told her yes, and that he hadn’t left. Then came the long wait for the bastard to leave, culminating in him knocking on Ayumi’s door and having the audacity to ask her to watch Aya, who was under the weather all because of him. Yohji had stayed in the kitchen for that conversation with Kohmi keeping an eye on him to make sure he didn’t give in to the impulse to punch the bastard, a Takatori or not.

He shouldn’t be feeling this way, shouldn’t be so upset on another person’s behalf, something that hadn’t happened since Asuka had died, but he couldn’t stop himself from caring about Aya, or Ayumi. Hell, even Ken had grown on him. For the first time in too long, he felt as if he belonged somewhere, even if it was with a bunch of other whores.

He shook his head at the jaded thought. His friends weren’t whores, he was. Yet Ken spent most of his days with him and was always asking him to do things together, and Ayumi, despite her initial feelings toward him, had become someone whose company he truly enjoyed. As for Aya…. Once again, Yohji was worried about the depth of his feelings for the man. For a moment he remembered how he hadn’t been able to stand Aya, and wondered what had changed his feelings so drastically. Was it Aya being a better man than him and helping him out that one night, or finding out the truth about his past and the knowledge of his sacrifice? Was it the fact that Aya had never looked at him as if he was some filthy whore, that all he had cared about was if Yohji was trying to take advantage of Ayumi or not?

It had been a while since he’d let anyone get this close to him, intentionally or not. Was he finally getting over Asuka? He’d loved his partner deeply, and knew that she had felt the same about him. That’s what made her death - because of his own stupid pride - that much harder to take. He’d had happiness, and he’d lost it through his own stupidity. Was he being foolish enough to try for it again?

He wanted Aya to be happy, he couldn’t deny that, for whatever reason that may be. And if Aya was happy, then Ayumi would be too. He cared enough about the geisha to wish for her happiness as well. Two people had slipped past his defenses somehow, and were making him feel like a human being again. Enough so that he’d cut back some on his drinking, and hadn’t felt the urge to go out, get trashed and start a fight he had no intention of finishing or even winning.

Having reached his destination, Yohji rubbed his hand over his head, feeling the slight bump from the impact of Aya’s book earlier. Damn, but Ayumi was strong. Maybe he had started another fight that he couldn’t win, but not from a lack of trying on his part. He’d have to make sure there were no books around the next time he started teasing her. Somehow he doubted she’d break a teapot or sake bottle over his head, so he wouldn’t have to give up on his favorite new pastime completely.

As he walked through the grocery store, he noticed that the young woman by the cash register was smiling at him. So he walked over to her, deciding he’d ask for her help in picking out vegetables that would meet Ayumi’s high standards, and to spend some time harmlessly flirting. It had been ages since he’d done something as innocent as that.

*******

Aya slowly woke up, aware at first of his headache and then the smell of something cooking. He slowly sat up in bed as he clutched his head and tried to swallow with a dry mouth. It took a moment for him to be able to stand, and even longer to find his slippers. They turned out to be right where he’d left them earlier, and then he made his way to his kitchen.

Ayumi was standing in front of the stove, stirring something in his largest pot, his apron tied over her blue and green kimono. Strands of her white hair were falling around her face, and she was singing under her breath as she cooked, her voice still lovely despite all her years.

"Why are you cooking and not Kohmi?" he asked as he leaned against his fridge.

She let out a startled yelp and lost the wooden spoon into what he supposed was their dinner. Then she turned around and clutched a hand over her heart. "Ayan! You shouldn’t sneak up on me so!"

"I didn’t sneak up on you," he pointed out as he opened the fridge and pulled out a can of green tea. As he closed the door he noticed that it was dark outside, and a glance at the clock on the wall confirmed that he had slept the better part of the afternoon asleep. Stunned at the amount of time that had passed, he rubbed his eyes, which were still a bit bleary. His head felt as if it was packed with wool, which wasn’t a usual hangover symptom for him. Besides, he should be over it by now, and not feeling so…out of it. He normally only felt like this whenever he took one of the sleeping pills Masafumi had prescribed for him….

It was then that he noticed the wary look on Ayumi’s face, and managed to put two and two together. "What did you put the sleeping pills in, the juice or the soup?" His voice was harsh, partially because of the dryness of his mouth and partially his anger at having been drugged.

"It was the juice," she answered quietly. "Aya, you looked so worn, and you had a fever. I wanted to make sure you got some sleep, so I…." She sniffed ever so slightly. "I was so worried about you, Aya. Yohji came to my door early this morning, telling me about how strangely you behaved last night, and my fear didn’t lessen when I learned that Hirofumi was here with you. I felt that I was doing what was best for you, honestly."

He gritted his teeth as he popped open the tab of the can, wanting nothing more than to yell at her. However, he’d never been able to retain his anger in the face of tears, something his sister and mother had been well aware of, as was Ayumi. He was furious about being drugged, about someone else deciding that they knew what was best for him and treating him like a child. He hated feeling that way, but this was Ayumi. If there was one other person out there who he honestly believed cared for him as much as his sister, it was her. He still wanted to yell, though.

"What did you do while I was drugged?" His voice still contained a hint of his anger, and he wanted to wince when her eyes started to glitter with unshed tears. He set the can down on the counter and ran his fingers through his hair, scrubbing at his scalp in an effort to jumpstart his brain.

"I started making you some dinner. We’re having oden and sunomono, and Kohmi made some brownies earlier, the ones you like. You know, the gooey kind." She smiled at him, the expression fragile, and even though he realized he was probably being expertly played, he had no choice but to push aside the anger and bow his head.

"Thank you. It smells wonderful." He picked up the can and drank the cold beverage, needing to wet his throat so he could speak without sounding as if he was growling. As he drank, she approached him and touched her hand to his cheek.

"Yes, you feel much better now, but you are still a little warm to the touch. You do need to sleep more, Aya, and to eat." Her hand dropped to wipe along the front of the apron. "I… I talked to Hiro today." Her eyes hardened as she said his lover’s name, her displeasure with him very clear. "He called while you were sleeping, wanting to know how you were. I told him that you were worn out and becoming sick, and I suggested that you needed a break. He agreed with me. How would you like to go to Odoriko-Onsen-Kaikan for a few days?"

Aya felt his spirits rise at the mention of the hot spring. It was quite a distance away from Tokyo, so they would stay at a small inn that friends of Ayumi ran, and spend their days soaking in the hot water. They hadn’t been there for several months.

"I… just the two of us?" He wanted to make sure that Hirofumi wasn’t planning on joining them, even though it would be impractical for him to be so far from Tokyo at the present.

"Yes, just the two of us. I thought of asking Yohji to come with us, but I fear he can’t get away from his clients on such short notice. We’re to leave the day after tomorrow, if you want to go." Ayumi’s smile grew stronger at his evident joy. "Does that sound all right?"

"Yes." He smiled back at her, delighted at the thought that he would escape Tokyo, and Hirofumi, for a few days at least. He doubted he was anywhere near as sick as Ayumi had told Hirofumi, but he wasn’t about to complain at this point.

She laughed out loud and clapped her hands. "Good! I’ll call Rei after dinner tonight and tell her we’ll take the two rooms. Oh, this should be fun. We can spend the evenings in the mandarin grove, sipping sake and counting fireflies. Her grandchildren are visiting, so maybe they’ll put on a show for us." She laughed again and returned to the stove, using chopsticks to fetch the lost spoon. "It’s such a shame that Yohji can’t come with us. He would enjoy the trip, I know he would."

He felt some of his happiness ebb away. "It’s for the best, Ayumi. I assume that Hiro is paying for this, and if he found out that Yohji was with us…." He rubbed his wrist, which was still a bit sore from yesterday. No, he didn’t want to upset his lover again anytime soon, even if it would be fun if Yohji came with them.

Ayumi stilled for a few seconds, her face bent over the large pot. "Aya… he… please tell me the bruise is all he did to you."

"That was all, Ayumi. He didn’t hit me this time." He suddenly felt very weary, and needed to sit down at the kitchen table. "What time is dinner?" he asked, wanting to change the topic. He didn’t want her asking for any more details, and didn’t want to recall the hopelessness and shame he’d felt last night.

She was quiet, and turned her head to look at him for a few seconds. Then her attention returned to the oden. "Another half hour, I think. Yohji will be joining us for dinner, if you don’t mind. The poor boy deserves it, with the way he ran all over the district for the ingredients." Ayumi poked at something in the pot and then set the chopsticks aside. She joined Aya at the table after filling a teapot with hot water and tea leaves.

"He should be here soon." Ayumi stared at him through her lashes, her head slightly bent over the teapot. "I may have said this already, but he was very worried about you, Aya. You have a true friend there for all that you’ve only known each other a few months."

Wondering what she was getting at, Aya just grunted and tried to tuck back the loose strands of hair that were clinging to his face. "I’m very sorry to have caused the two of you so much concern."

"What happened last night, Aya? You don’t normally drink so much." She gave up on the teapot to stare him in the eyes, her voice laden with concern.

He sighed and once again scrubbed his fingers through his hair. "Hiro was very upset about Yohji, but he didn’t hit me. After he’d calmed down we went out to meet a client of his, Tyson, for dinner." Her lips tightened at the mention of the American’s name. "He was even more of an oaf than the last time I saw him, and he…." He closed his eyes, not happy about repeating the incident, even to Ayumi. "He asked Hiro if they could swap lovers for a while, hopefully the entire time he was in Tokyo, but for at least one night. I couldn’t do anything but sit there as he said that."

He’d been so afraid that Hirofumi would have said yes, just to please the American. However, the possessive hand on his thigh and the look of anger in Hirofumi’s eyes had soon put his fears to rest. He still felt dirty over the whole ordeal. Not to mention disgusted with himself over the fact that if his lover had said yes, he would have gone to the American.

"All that separates me from any whore on the street is that Hiro refuses to share what he pays for." His voice was thick with self-disgust. Just thinking about last night made him feel sick again. He yearned for some way to rid himself of the shame. Suicide might be out of the question for now, but drinking himself unconscious again wasn’t.

"You know that’s not true, Ayan, and I won’t hear you say such nonsense," Ayumi chided him. "You are no more a whore than many a married person, who agreed to a union with another person solely based on wealth and status. It’s such a new concept, marrying for love, and even today it isn’t as common as people think. If everyone only followed their heart when it comes to choosing a spouse, there would be no need for geisha, or the bar girls that have replaced us. You did what you had to do, and you are selfless. You are no whore."

Her holding his hand kept him sitting at the table when he wanted to run away from her concern. Her touch on his cheek brought tears to his eyes. He felt so close to crying, but he refused to give in to the emotion. He couldn’t be weak, he wouldn’t allow that to happen. He had to be strong for his sister’s sake. Besides, he would just distress Ayumi further if he broke down.

Taking a deep breath, he thought about his sister. She was trying her best to restore honor to the Fujimiya name, believing that he was working hard to do the same. He had to be strong and make sure she had the best possible chance to fulfill her dreams. But he felt so lonely and tired, even with Ayumi sitting here beside him. He couldn’t wait to get away for a couple days and try to rest.

Reluctantly releasing his hand, Ayumi poured the two of them some tea, which he sipped as she continued preparing dinner. She would pause in preparing the salad to periodically check up on him, to refill his tea and to touch his face or hands tenderly. After about fifteen minutes of the fussing, which made him feel guilty about worrying Ayumi this much, he announced that he was going to take a bath.

He retreated to his bathroom, and after stripping off his yukata and boxers, he methodically scrubbed his skin until it was red. He then soaked in the tub for ten minutes, mindful of dinner and how disappointed Ayumi would be if he didn’t attend. The soak did him some good and helped to clear his head. Once he was dried off, he searched for an appropriate kimono to wear. He chose a dark grey one decorated with pale grey and white zuiun, with phoenixes flying through the auspicious clouds. Pale grey hakama and obi completed the outfit, and he took the time to rebraid his hair.

When he returned to the kitchen, he found Yohji sitting at his table and flirting with Ayumi. Her cheeks were bright red, and he didn’t think it was because of the heat of the stove. The two of them stopped talking when he walked in, and he felt self-conscious under their gazes as they fell silent for several seconds.

"I have to say, you look a hell of a lot better now than you did this morning," Yohji commented as he sat up straighter in his chair. Ayumi hissed out the man’s name and slapped his shoulder as she set down their salads.

"Shame on you, Yohji. Has no one taught you the meaning of tact?" She turned to Aya and smiled. He had to smile back at how lovely she looked, with her hair escaping in thin tendrils around her face and dressed in his favorite of her many kimonos. "I hope you are hungry."

"I am." He sat at the table and noted the candles and the vase of lilies that added their scent to the delicious aroma that filled the room. Yohji was seated on his right and Ayumi on his left; his loneliness lessened at the close presence of two friends. He knew it would be an enjoyable meal, and not only for the food.

Even with his lingering headache and tiredness, Aya was happy to be in Yohji and Ayumi’s company. With them, he could forget a few of his troubles and entertain a few fantasies. No matter how much Hirofumi disapproved of Yohji, he wasn’t going to give this friendship up. It was about time that he had something for himself, and if he hoped to survive the upcoming years, he would need their strength to bolster his own. He finally had something of his own once again.

*******

Hearing a knock on the door, Mamoru hurried to the foyer and opened it. "Yohji, you’re running late! Aya’s already started on the popcorn." He smiled at his new friend and noticed that Yohji didn’t smile back at him as he stepped into the apartment. "Is something wrong?"

"…It’s okay, Mamoru. I just found an unwelcome surprise when I returned home just now." Yohji tucked back his hair with one hand and Mamoru noticed that he held a gift bag in the other.

"Is that a present for Aya?" he asked as he headed for the living room, where things were set up for their movie night. It was being held on a Tuesday this week since Hirofumi had a dinner to go to and they had been waiting for Yohji to come back from having his car checked out to start the festivities.

Yohji shook his head as he sank to the floor, groaning a little as he rested against the pillows set out for him. Mamoru waited for the man’s usual tirade on the benefits of owning real furniture, such as a chair or a couch, and was surprised when it was left unsaid.

"No, it’s one for me." The blond looked down at the blue bag, filled with gold and blue tissue paper, and grimaced. "There’s a sick fu- ah, sick man out there who doesn’t seem to get the hint that I don’t want anything to do with him anymore, and he won’t stop sending me gifts." He suddenly pushed the bag towards Mamoru. "Here, you can have it. If I send it back to him he’ll just return it with another present and I don’t want to keep anything from him."

Gingerly accepting the gift, Mamoru pulled out the tissue paper and unfolded them to reveal an expensive watch, the weight of which led him to believe that it was indeed made of gold, and not a gold colored metal. It was an elegant piece of jewelry and a very expensive one if he was any judge. "Uhm, Yohji, are you sure about this?"

He looked at the watch and then nodded. "Yeah, I really don’t want anything from him and I already have several watches."

"What about watches?" Aya stepped into the room, dressed in a pair of faded jeans and a white cotton shirt, untucked and with the sleeves rolled up, his hair pulled into a ponytail. It was still a bit of a shock to see him in something other than kimonos and yukatas, but for some reason he’d decided to dress in more normal clothes for their video nights after the second one. Mamoru guessed it had something to do with the fact that they only held them on nights that Hirofumi was guaranteed not to show up, so Aya felt safe enough to dress as he wanted.

Yohji smiled in appreciation, and Mamoru didn’t think it was for the tray of popcorn, soda, and beer that Aya had brought with him. He noted that his friend had seated himself right next to Yohji and had to hide a smile.

Since Aya had gone away for a couple of days last week he was more relaxed than he had been for a while, especially when around Yohji. Mamoru was glad that Aya seemed happier than he’d been for a long time, he’d been starting to worry about the way the older man had been losing weight and appeared tired all the time. He guessed that getting away for a few days and spending that time with Ayumi had done him a world of good.

"Yum, I’ve been craving a beer for the past hour." Yohji leaned over and snagged a can from the tray. "I just gave Mamoru a watch. Do you want one too?" He batted his eyes at Aya as he stretched out on the floor, lying down near Aya. "I think we can work out a deal if you do."

Aya just grunted and shoved a hand in Yohji’s smirking face, making him roll over. "I have more than enough watches, thank you. Why did you give Mamoru one?"

"Well, someone gave it to me, and I didn’t need it, so I figured why not give it to the kid? He can wear it to impress his girlfriends." Yohji, unruffled by being rebuffed by Aya, grinned at him while he rolled closer to Aya. "The ladies love a well-dressed man, and accessories matter."

"You would know," Aya muttered as he tucked his long legs underneath him while he opened his beer, and Yohji used the opportunity to start tugging on Aya’s ponytail. Once Aya took a sip, he set his beer back down on the tray and grabbed at his hair, trailing it over his shoulder and into his lap.

Smiling at his friends’ antics, Mamoru stuck his tongue at a suddenly pouting Yohji. "I don’t need to do anything to get attention from the ladies, thank you very much. I get too much as it is. There have been three girls who’ve approached me this week already, asking me to go out with their friends."

"And yet you’re sitting here with two men, kiddo, when you’re not hanging out with your sister." Yohji squirmed around on the floor until he was lying with his head near Aya’s leg. Surprisingly enough, the other man allowed the closeness. "You might want to consider the possibility that you’re gay, you know. Do you have the urge to do any flower arrangements or to decorate?"

Aya didn’t even bother to look down, he just snatched a pillow and pressed it against Yohji’s face until the blond thrashed about. As Yohji lay gasping on the floor Aya stood up and walked over to the VCR to select their first video for the night.

"I’m not gay," Mamoru said, once Yohji had stopped gasping. "I like girls, but not ones who are more interested in dating the Prime Minister’s son than me." He just wished he could go to a school where no one knew what his father did and be treated well for being Mamoru, not Takatori Mamoru. The funny thing was, all the people who tried to get close to him because of his family’s connections didn’t understand that his father didn’t want to have anything to do with him. It wasn’t as if he could ask his father to do any favors for him.

"Whatever." Yohji sat up and took a swig of his beer, glaring at Aya the whole time. "You’re a mean bastard, Aya, I hope you know that. It must come from playing with flowers all day long. Their aromas must mess with your head and make you psychotic."

Aya didn’t seem very upset about the insult as he put a tape into the VCR and sat back down, right next to Yohji. "So says the man who inhales nicotine and chemicals willingly. Keep up with the stereotypes and I’ll show you what a fag with a sword can do."

"Ohhhh… that sounds promising. What type of sword are you going to use, Ayan?" Yohji leered and scooted closer to Aya. "Can I pick the ‘weapon’?"

Mamoru decided that watching the two men together was much more fun than the videos he’d picked up after school. He stifled a laugh as Aya casually shoved a handful of popcorn down Yohji’s tight black t-shirt. He couldn’t believe how much fun Aya could be when he wasn’t being so formal, and how Yohji could twist just about anything into sexual innuendo or an excuse to flirt. Reaching for one of the bowls of popcorn, he adjusted his seat so he had a better view of the older men and watched as Yohji fished the popcorn out of his shirt and offered to hand feed the snack to Aya, if he licked all the butter off his chest.

One thing was for certain, he was picking up quite a lot of English swear words from Aya on these video nights.

*******

Yohji yawned and then ended up sputtering as the wind blew hair into his mouth. He grimaced and pulled the strands out and tucked them behind his ear. It was a bit windy, so he’d decided to come up to the roof and air out his down comforter.

"You know, you should probably get that cut," Ken commented as he joined him overlooking the streets below. "Or are you going to let it grow as long as Aya’s?"

For a moment Yohji recalled how silky Aya’s hair had felt, and his lips curved the slightest bit. He was slowly coming to adore Aya’s hair and looked for any excuse to touch it. The first few times he’d started tucking back the crimson strands or sliding his fingers through the length of it, Aya would pull back and glare at him, but lately all he was receiving were puzzled looks, and, he liked to believe, a hint of a blush on occasion.

"I don’t know. I don’t have the patience to wait for it to get that long." He tugged on one of the strands. "Besides, why mess with perfection?"

"Sure you are," Ken rolled his eyes and grinned. He suddenly coughed in his hands something that sounded suspiciously like ‘stuck-up bastard’, but Yohji chose to ignore it, or else he’d have to toss the man over the ledge. He’d hate for that to happen, since they were leaning over the side of the building he lived in and he didn’t want to put up with a ruckus outside his balcony all afternoon.

So instead he took a puff of his cigarette and blew smoke in Ken’s face. "I’ll have you know that I haven’t had any complaints yet, other than there not being enough of me." Okay, so he did sound like a conceited ass, but he had an image to uphold. Besides, Ken looked so cute when he rolled his eyes like that. "Come on, you know you want me."

Ken started to chuckle at that statement. "Sorry, Yohji, but you’re too high maintenance for my tastes. I’ve always gone for the girls who tend to be tomboys, not guys who spend more time primping in front of the mirror than most women."

Or he went after thugs like his roommate Kase, but Yohji didn’t say that out loud. He liked being friends with Ken, and the relative ease of their relationship. He didn’t want to offend him. All the younger man wanted was a buddy to hang out with, and he could easily manage that. It was a bit of a relief after spending as much time as he did with Aya, a man who resisted his advances so thoroughly that Yohji was beginning to wonder if Aya really was gay. Then he remembered the hints of blushes from toying with Aya’s hair and decided that he was just playing very, very hard to get, something that Yohji didn’t usually put up with for very long. Yohji had yet to lose interest, though. He deliberately refused to think why that might be.

"I think you’re just afraid, Kenken. You know that once you have me, no one else will do." He leaned against the security fence and struck a sexy pose, and refused to take it personally when Ken burst out in laughter. He didn’t even glare at the man when he in turn leaned against the fence, most likely weak from the lack of oxygen from laughing so hard.

"You know, I might start to be offended if you don’t stop laughing sometime soon, Ken," he remarked as he faked a glare at his friend. The truth was he enjoyed being so silly, it had been ages since he’d joked around like this with another person. Usually he did try to put his clients at ease, but never at his own expense. He used to do this all the time with Asuka. Yohji was surprised at how little it hurt to think about his dead lover. He was used to feeling more pain at her memory.

"Yohji…." Ken gave up speaking for a few seconds as he gasped for air while sliding onto the roof’s floor. "You…." The man was actually crying, tears running down his bright red face. "Ah god, I…." Ken shook his head as he gradually stopped laughing. "I haven’t laughed like that in years."

"I’m so glad that I amuse you," Yohji retorted with the slightest hint of bitterness. Yes, he’d been kidding, but it was a bit of a hard blow to his ego that Ken had found the matter so hilarious.

Ken shook his head, his shaggy brown hair flying around as he wiped at his eyes. "It’s not you, Yohji. Okay, maybe it is…," he smiled at Yohji, "…but you know you weren’t serious about anything you said back there, well, other than you being so damn sexy." His smile grew wider and he leaned back against the fence. "I was just thinking of this line I’d read in a book, where some guy referred to himself as the white chocolate cheesecake of relationships." At Yohji’s confused look he elaborated.

"I guess the guy was trying to explain that while people wanted him, after a short while he became too… rich for them, or something, and so none of his relationships lasted for very long. And then I thought about how that summed you up pretty good. If we started anything, it would be death by chocolate for me. White chocolate cheesecake, at that." He smiled at Yohji again, looking younger than his years with the genuine expression on his face.

"Yeah, but you’d die happy, Kenken," Yohji drawled as he pulled out his pack of cigarettes for another smoke. Once one was lit, he slid down to sit beside his friend. "Do you think that’s true? That I’m the white chocolate cheesecake of relationships?" Surely Asuka hadn’t felt that way. They’d been so happy together, after all.

"I think you would be like that for me," Ken said quietly. "I’m more like mochi myself. You need to find yourself another white chocolate type and go at it like bunnies." He tilted his head back and looked up at the sky. "Hmmm, it’s starting to clear up a bit. Everyone will probably try and get their wash done, then, so you might not want to leave your comforter up here for long."

"Yeah, or it might end up by the air shaft again," Yohji growled as his eyes narrowed. He was still livid about finding his best set of sheets wrapped around the metal tube, filthy and stained with grease. He knew the bitch Maki was behind the incident. He’d done a good job securing them on the line that day, and it hadn’t been too windy. However, before he could confront her, it seemed that Ayumi had stepped in and taken care of the matter. There had been a new set of sheets left by his door one night and rumor had it that Maki wasn’t going to be at the Hanabatake for much longer, or so Ayumi had said rather smugly.

It seemed as if Ken had been reading his mind. "I warned you about pissing Maki off, Yohji." Then he sighed and rose to his feet. "Well, to be honest, I won’t mind seeing the back of her. From what Kase has told me, as soon as her ‘protectors’ line up a new girl, she’s back on the streets." Ken appeared saddened at that for a moment, and Yohji thought about what a softie his friend was.

He also thought that it was rather interesting how Kase always knew the latest gossip concerning the yakuza and their women. It seemed the man was rarely wrong. However, that was another matter that he wouldn’t bring up around Ken, since the man would only staunchly defend his ‘friend’ and explain it away as Kase having made a few friends amongst the gangsters. In Yohji’s experience, they weren’t that loose-lipped with a mere drinking buddy, but he could be wrong.

"Don’t feel sorry for her, Kenken. From what Ayumi’s told me, she’s been trouble since the day she got here." Only the fact that she gave Aya a wide berth had prevented her from being kicked out before this. It seemed that Ayumi only used her pull with the management and the respect the yakuza had for her when one of her friends were being bothered. It warmed him to know that he was being included in that rare group.

Ken turned to look down on the street before he answered. "I know that, Yohji, and there have been many times I’ve wanted her gone. But somehow I doubt she’s going to have the easiest life once she’s out of here."

Yep, he was definitely a softie, thought Yohji as he patted the man on the shoulder. "Worse things have happened to better people, Ken." He then tried to change the subject. "So, are you free tomorrow night? I have a late date, and I wanted to go watch this one movie beforehand. It’s an American one. Ayumi says it’s got enough senseless gore, explosions, swearing and nudity to numb anyone’s brain before the opening credits are done. Doesn’t that sound like fun?"

That got a smile from Ken, and he eagerly agreed to go to the movie with him. "I think I’ve even seen the ad for that. We can stop for dinner while we’re out and make a whole evening out of it."

"I think you got yourself a date, lover boy." He winked at Ken, and was unable to hold back on a smile when the man blushed just the slightest bit. "I suggest you devour me in tiny nibbles, so you can hold back on the dreaded death by chocolate for as long as possible. We wouldn’t…." Two young men walked out onto the roof, ensnaring Yohji’s attention. At least, one of them did.

Aya walked over to the strung lines, a slightly peeved look on his face that faded when he caught sight of Yohji. Behind him was Mamoru, who seemed rather upset about something.

"… so sorry, Aya, I really am. Do you think it’ll be stained?" He was carrying a couple of pillows in his arms and Aya had a basket filled with a dark brown fabric that turned out to be one of his kimonos, which he started to hang on the line.

"I think I rinsed all the soda out, so we’ll have to see how it is when it dries. Now give me those." Aya reached for the pillows, his manner brusque.

Yohji walked over to them, tossing his cigarette aside along the way. "Do you two need help with something?"

Mamoru’s face lit up when he saw him. "Yohji! How are you?" After he replied he was fine, the teenager became a bit subdued. "I’m afraid I finally spilled something in Aya’s apartment. I’m afraid I got it all over him."

"Huhn." Aya adjusted the kimono better on the line, and Yohji was close enough to notice that while it had appeared plain from a distance, up close one could see the irregular pattern of the silk weave, complete with short threads sticking out all over. He realized that this wasn’t a cheap kimono that Mamoru had potentially ruined, not with that kind of weave. Not that Aya ever wore a cheap kimono or yukata. Oh boy, no wonder he seemed pissed.

"Really, I’m sorry." Mamoru appeared ready to throw himself down on his knees in front of Aya and plead for forgiveness at any second, and Yohji didn’t think he deserved the chilly treatment from Aya for what he was sure was an accident. However, mindful of Ken standing by the fence, he couldn’t do too much at the present. Aya and him were still pretending to not be more than neighborly to each other in public.

"He said he’s sorry, Aya, and I believe him." Yohji grabbed the teenager by the shoulders and pulled him in front of him. "Look at the boy, is this the face of someone who would deliberately ruin anything of yours?"

Mamoru picked up on what he was trying to do and sniffed loudly. When he looked down Yohji noticed the boy’s eyes had become impossibly wide and filled with tears. He glanced at Aya, who glared back for a moment before grunting and turning to fuss once again with his kimono.

"Fine, I accept your apology. However, no more drinks for you in the living room. You’re not allowed to leave the kitchen with them from now on." Aya glared once more and repositioned the pins holding up one of the damp pillows.

Yohji exchanged a conspiratorial grin with Mamoru before reaching over to hold up the pillow while Aya fussed with it. Leaning in a bit closer, he breathed in the scent of cedar and lavender before he whispered in the man’s ear. "Besides, I think you look better in grey and blue than you do brown, so it’s no big loss if it’s ruined." Aya didn’t say anything, but his elbow in Yohji’s ribs had him backing off and swallowing a groan of pain.

"Yohji, I think I’m going to head on down now. Do you want to come to my place and have a beer?" Ken walked over to where they was standing, his left arm holding onto the basket of towels he’d brought up here to dry.

Yohji rubbed his sore ribs and waved towards the clotheslines. "No thanks, I’m gonna stay up here and guard my comforter a little longer. Oh, and sorry for forgetting, but Ken, this is Mamoru, a friend of Ayumi and Aya’s. Mamoru, meet Hidaka Ken." He stood back as the two younger men nodded at each other, edging closer to Aya as he did. He was sure that it was purely coincidental when Aya blew a puff of air at some hair that was falling onto his face and stepped closer to the line, and Yohji, to tug on a fold of the kimono.

"It’s nice to meet you," Ken politely replied before looking at Yohji. "If you want one later, feel free to stop by."

Mamoru, who had been standing there staring at Ken, clearly puzzled about something, suddenly clapped his hands together. "I know why you look so familiar! You played football, didn’t you? My friend Murai has a picture of you on his wall." He smiled at Ken. "Maybe I can-"

"Not now," Aya said in his deep voice, his hand clamped over Mamoru’s mouth. He looked up from the teenager and inclined his head at Ken. "I’m sorry, he’s obviously mistaken."

"It’s okay," Ken said weakly, and then he was hurrying away from them, heading back downstairs so fast he was almost running away. Yohji stared in amazement at his retreating friend’s back, until he heard Mamoru’s soft question.

"Aya, what’s wrong? Why did you stop me from talking like that?" Then his eyes went wide. "Uhm, I wasn’t mistaken, was I?"

Aya shook his head, a weary expression on his face. "No, you weren’t, but don’t say anything about who he was if you run into Hidaka-san again." Then he frowned at Mamoru. "You should know better by now to not say anything about the pasts of the people you meet here." Mamoru hung his head at the reprimand and apologized.

Meanwhile, Yohji was thinking on what the teenager had said. Football, Ken had played football. Now he was remembering what had looked so familiar about his friend, and why he often thought of the sport when he saw the man. If his memory wasn’t playing tricks on him, there had been some sort of scandal involving a professional player named Hidaka about two years ago.

"What did he do, Aya, that got him kicked out of J-league?" At Aya’s impassive stare Yohji sighed and tucked back the strands of crimson that had fallen onto the man’s pale face, barely resisting the urge to stroke his fingers over Aya’s cheek as he did so. "Don’t go all iceman on me, Ayan," he taunted, using Ayumi’s nickname for the man. "I’ll find out one way or another, so why don’t you save me some trouble and tell me now?"

"I don’t gossip, Yohji," Aya snapped at him as he crossed his arms across his chest. Behind him Mamoru appeared to try and be unnoticeable as possible as he ran his fingers over one of the damp pillows he’d brought up.

Yohji gritted his teeth together and hooked an arm over the laundry rope. "No, you barely talk at all, now do you?" What pissed him off the most was the fact that if he hadn’t been so taken with Aya from the moment they’d met, he would have figured out about Ken by now. But he’d been pretty damn near obsessed with the redhead, who still remained a bit of a mystery to him, and hadn’t tried to dig much into Ken’s past. "Never mind, I’ll find out on my own, or just ask Ken."

He started to walk away when Aya grasped his arm, the strong grip stopping him in his tracks. He looked at the man to see Aya searching the roof for a few seconds and then he was tugged towards the left.

"Come on, I won’t talk about this while out in the open. There are some people here who don’t know about Hidaka, and I refuse to allow them to overhear this should they come up here while we talk." Aya headed for his greenhouse and Yohji meekly followed with Mamoru at his heels.

The greenhouse was hot and humid, but not uncomfortably so. Aya didn’t seem to notice the heat in his cotton yukata. Yohji was just thankful he’d worn an old pair of jeans and a sleeveless t-shirt. Mamoru quickly undid the blue jacket of his school uniform, and the two of them leaned against the various tables that sported the potted plants.

Aya focused his attention on some orchids he had growing in the far corner of the conservatory. After spraying some water on one variety that perfectly matched his eyes, he faced Yohji and Mamoru, his mouth pressed in a grim line.

"I’ll only tell you of what I know to be fact. I refuse to gossip about the man. And I’m only telling you so you’ll leave him alone," he looked pointedly at Yohji. "If you can’t remember, about two years ago there was a scandal surrounding a football team over rigged games. Several players were accused of conspiring with gamblers and placing bets on their team’s games. Hidaka was one of them."

Now Yohji was able to remember the details of the allegations. It had been right after Asuka had died and he hadn’t been in a frame of mind to give a damn about any sporting scandal, but there had been a big enough fuss that it had left a slight impression on him.

"Wasn’t he involved in drugs of some kind?" he asked Aya while Mamoru played with the leaves of a snapdragon.

"He was accused of being under the influence of drugs during his last professional game, which was why he couldn’t finish the game and his team lost." Aya started to brush the tail of his braid along the palm of one of his hands. "He was their star goalie, and considered one of the best players in the country. Once the allegations came out, he was kicked off the team." He stopped looking at Yohji and shifted his gaze to Mamoru. "Don’t mention anything to your friend about meeting Hidaka."

"I wouldn’t do anything as stupid as that, Aya." Mamoru managed to look offended at the order. "The only reason I said anything today was because I was so surprised. I’ve seen famous people here before, just not as a resident."

Aya nodded and replied "good" before he started watering a few more plants, and a couple minutes passed in silence.

"Wait a minute, is that all you’re going to say about the man, Aya?" Yohji reached out and tugged on the long braid. "Don’t stop talking now. Is he guilty? Was he really into drugs? I haven’t seen anything to make me believe he’d do either."

Aya glared at him and batted his hand away. "That’s all I’m saying on the matter, Yohji. You wanted to know who he was, and I told you. Now prove you have the common sense that Ayumi believes you do and don’t mention a word to Hidaka about what we just talked about."

He did some glaring of his own for that comment. "I know better than to go up and ask him ‘hey, is it true you got kicked out of the football league for cheating and doing drugs, Kenken?’ I just said I would do that to get you to open up." Did Aya really think he was that stupid, he wondered as he glanced at the plants around him, anywhere other than at the redhead.

"…I don’t want to talk about this anymore, Yohji. Hidaka has a right to his privacy, and I’ve said everything that I know is fact and not rumor. Hidaka has never talked about his past to me or anyone that I know of, and I feel we have to respect his wish that it remains unspoken." Aya’s skin took on a faint rosy cast. "Well, more than we have already."

Why was he not surprised that the man who hadn’t said one word about his past in the three months he’d know him was defending the other man who had been equally quiet? Yohji wanted to tug on his hair in frustration at all the secrets that everyone was trying to keep from him. "How did you learn about him, Aya? Ken told me you’ve talked to each other about three times over the past two years."

Aya stepped closer and tugged Mamoru’s hand away from the snapdragons. "Ayumi told me when he moved here. She was concerned about one or two things, but was soon proven wrong," was all he would say before he settled beside Yohji, leaning against him the slightest bit as he watered some irises on the table.

He listed to the side that Aya was brushing against, trying his best not to appear obvious about what he was doing with Mamoru standing a meter away, but the teenager was ignoring them, as he tended to do when Aya and he were close to each other. Yohji wondered what the hell Mamoru thought of the two of them, considering that Aya was sleeping with his brother, but during the evenings they’d hung out together, either for dinner or movies, the teen had never once acted as if he was bothered by Aya and his growing closeness.

"So it’s okay for Ayumi to gossip, but not the rest of us?" Yohji wanted to smack himself for saying that when Aya drew away from him, his face showing his displeasure over the question.

"I’m not talking about this any longer, Yohji." Aya glared at him for a second and then walked out of the greenhouse, leaving Mamoru and him staring after the man. Then Mamoru sighed and patted him on his shoulder.

"He’s a bit touchy about the subject, if you can’t tell." At his snort of mock disbelief, the teenager smiled sadly. "He just wants to respect people’s privacy, Yohji. I think it’s from living here so long, where everyone seems to have something they want to hide. Plus, he’s used to keeping secrets."

Of course he was, considering the fact that he regularly slept with the Prime Minister’s son, of whom there was no word said anywhere about him being gay. Not to mention Aya’s own past, which he refused to talk about, no matter how carefully Yohji tried to broach the subject. It was so damn frustrating.

He sighed and pushed away from the table he’d been leaning against. "I know, Mamoru, but sometimes I still want to shake him until he starts talking." He patted his pockets, checking to make sure he still had his cigarettes and lighter, and then headed outside. "I’m going to talk to Ken now. I’ll see you around, kiddo."

"Bye, Yohji," Mamoru called as he walked over to the stairwell. Yohji collected his comforter before he went downstairs, stopping at his apartment to drop it off on his way to Ken’s.

It took a minute or two after he knocked for the younger man to open his door. Ken stared grim-faced at him for a moment before stepping inside and allowing him in. Yohji made his way to the couch, sat down on the soft cushions and rested his head on its back. "So, how about that beer, Kenken?"

Ken didn’t say a word as he went to the kitchen and came back with beers for the both of them. It wasn’t until Yohji had finished his that he started to talk.

"I guess you’re wondering if what the kid said is true, aren’t you?" Ken held the unopened beer can between his hands. "Or were you guys talking about that after I left?"

"Sorta." Yohji leaned forward and wished he could smoke a cigarette, but knew that Ken hated it when he smoked in his apartment. "I knew I recognized you from somewhere, it wouldn’t have taken me much longer to figure out where if Mamoru hadn’t said something. Oh, and Aya refused to gossip about you, if that’s any consolation."

"That’s nice to know. No, it doesn’t usually take people long to figure it out, my past, though most don’t say anything to me." Ken grimaced and set his beer on the coffee table. "They don’t want to bring up the scandal anymore, especially since the team’s doing so well now." He stared at the sweating can for a few seconds and then gazed at Yohji. "It’s not true. None of it was. What they said about me, at least. I never threw a game in my entire life, and I didn’t take any drugs, not willingly at least."

"I know, Ken, I don’t believe the rumors." He honestly didn’t. He’d known drug addicts, especially over the past couple of years, and Ken wasn’t one of them. "I’ve never met a person who was more of a sports fanatic than you, and I can’t imagine you cheating like that."

Ken slumped in his chair and smiled at Yohji. "Thanks. I… I thought once you heard about that, you might believe the lies. A lot of people do. I loved playing, Yohji, and I’d never have done anything to get kicked out of the league." His smile grew bitter. "It didn’t stop it from happening though, did it?"

Yohji reached over and grabbed the full can of beer since Ken didn’t seem interested in it. If he couldn’t smoke, at least he could drink. "You don’t have to answer me, but what happened, Ken? How did you end up here?" He really couldn’t push the issue, not when he hadn’t told Ken anything about his past. If the man decided not to answer him, all he’d have to do was go back to the library and do a little more snooping on the net. Come to think of it, he really needed to get a computer of his own….

"I don’t mind. I’d rather you know the truth than believe some of the rumors." Ken rubbed a hand over his face before he started talking again. "The last game I played in, someone, I don’t know who, slipped something in my drink. That’s what showed up on the drug test and made me miss the second half of the game. No one believed me, of course." He snorted in disgust. "What made it worse was that some of the other players who were accused, lied and told the police that I was in on the rigging, I guess so they could spread the blame around or something. However, the police couldn’t find any real proof, no matter how hard they looked. I had legitimate excuses for missing the games where we’d lost, and doctors to back me up, and there wasn’t any evidence to support their claims. I managed not to be sent to prison, but that was about it.

"Kase had started out in football with me, but he’d been injured in his first season and had to quit. He’d gotten a job helping the team’s manager, and had been managing me. He refused to stay on with the team because of the whole thing, and we’ve been together ever since." Ken’s eyes drifted over to the table that held his photographs, many of which showed him and his boyfriend together. "I couldn’t find a job though, not when everyone recognized me, but I had some money saved. We managed until Kase found the job he has now, and shortly after that, he got this apartment and we moved in together. He figures that when enough time passes, I’ll be able to get a job again, maybe even coaching at some school. I’d like that," he said in a wistful voice.

Yohji wondered just how much time would have to pass before people forgot about Ken’s shame, be it real or not. His past would definitely be held against him and any employers would be leery of a man who had gambled and hurt his team as Ken was alleged to have done.

"Why don’t you just change your name or something? There are enough yakuza here, many of them Kase’s friends, who should be able to get you a fake ID and references. It would be pretty easy, I imagine, and then all you’d have to do is dye your hair or buy some contacts," he pointed out. Hell, Ken had to be about the only other person in the building beside himself who was using their real name. The only reason he hadn’t changed his was that he hadn’t started using an alias when he’d first gotten his customers, and no one would care much about his past anyway. Not that he had some big secret he was trying to hide, not like Ken and Aya.

"But I didn’t do anything wrong!" Ken’s voice roughened in anger, and his hands, which had been resting on his lap, clenched into fists. "I didn’t do anything, so why should I hide? If I change my name, it’s like I’m guilty of something."

Not about to argue with the man, even if he felt that his logic was flawed, Yohji merely shook his head and finished his beer. "It’s your life, Ken, you can do what you want. I just think it would be a little easier for you to get a job and move on if you didn’t use your real name, but you’re the one who has to live with yourself, so do what you think is best."

"I won’t act like a criminal, Yohji, I just won’t." Ken closed his eyes as he ran his hands through his hair. "Listen, thanks for being so understanding about this, but I… I don’t think I’m in the mood for company right now."

Getting the hint, Yohji set his beer aside and rose to his feet. "Don’t bother getting up, Ken, I know my way to the door by now." He paused for a second, wondering if he should say something to cheer Ken up, not sure what exactly that would be. ‘Gee, sorry you lost your dream job over a bunch of lies and have to hang out in this place until you get past your delusions and stubborn pride’ didn’t seem like a good idea. He’d never been one for words, other than what it took to get something he wanted from someone. So he settled for reminding his friend about tomorrow night.

"How does getting something to eat around five sound? We can catch a seven o’clock show, and I can head out for my date when it’s over." He carefully kept his voice neutral as he asked the question, not wanting to sound as if he’d just blown off hearing about Ken’s loss or as if he didn’t want to go out anymore.

"I…yeah, that sounds great, Yohji." Ken smiled at him as he brushed back his shaggy bangs and sat up straighter. "I’ll meet you down in the lobby."

"We got a date then. Hope you’re in the mood for white chocolate cheesecake," he said as he winked at the man. Gods, he loved getting a blush out of Ken. It was nice to see that his charm still had some effect, which he sometimes doubted when he was around Aya.

Yohji let himself out of the apartment and headed for his. He was a bit surprised to see Mamoru, his head bowed, sitting in front of his door when he stepped off the elevator, so he hurried over to the boy. "Don’t tell me that Aya kicked you out for spilling that drink."

"No, we came down from the roof to find Hiro waiting for us," Mamoru told him as he unlocked his door. "Can I stay at your place for a couple hours? My sister and her mother are out shopping, and I…. Well, there’s going to be a political function at the house this weekend, and it’s so crazy there right now because of the preparations that I wouldn’t be able to study very well."

Doubting that was the reason why the boy wanted to stay away from the place, Yohji nodded as he walked into his apartment. "Sure thing. I don’t have to leave for another hour or two and you’re more than welcome to stick around after I’m gone. Just be sure to leave by ten."

"Thanks, Yohji." Mamoru picked up his school bags and hurried into the apartment, heading straight for the living room. "I’ll leave by nine thirty, just to be safe." He quickly unpacked his computer and set it up, having learned from the last time he’d spent the evening here where Yohji’s electrical outlets were in the room.

It was when the teenager sat down on his couch that Yohji finally got a good look at his face and the bruise that was spreading along his right cheek. "Mamoru? What the hell happened to you?" He grabbed the teen’s chin and tilted his face up into the light. "You didn’t have that bruise twenty minutes ago."

Mamoru tried to jerk his head away, and when that failed he lifted his hand to cover the darkening bruise. "It’s nothing, Yohji. Do you have an icepack I can put on it? I didn’t think it was that bad."

"One sec, I’ll get it." He stalked off to his kitchen and pulled one of his icepacks out of the fridge, and after wrapping it in a towel stalked back into the living room. "Here," he snapped as he thrust the pack at Mamoru, "now tell me what happened." He had his suspicions, but he wanted them confirmed before he ripped the bastard’s heart out.

"Well… Hiro was a bit upset to find out that I’d spilled something on Aya’s kimono and floor." Mamoru spoke in a quiet voice, so soft that Yohji had trouble hearing it. "He knows how hard Aya works to keep the place clean."

So the man had hit him. "Bullshit. He has no excuse to hit you for an accident." Then he recalled that Aya was alone with the bastard at the moment, and he started for the door. If Aya was bruised in any way, there was a Takatori that was about to be tossed off the balcony and it wouldn’t be Mamoru.

The teenager quickly dropped the compress and grabbed Yohji’s arm. "Where are you going?"

"Next door to check on Aya. Let go, kiddo." He tried to pry the boy’s hands off his arm, but Mamoru was stronger than he looked.

"You can’t, Yohji. You’ll make him mad if you go over there. Aya’s fine, he had Hiro calmed down instantly." Mamoru looked at him pleadingly, his blue eyes wide with concern. "Hiro’s fine now, and he was sorry for hitting me. Sometimes his temper gets the better of him, but he’s more careful with it around Aya, he won’t hurt him. Besides," he added as he blushed, "I think he wanted me gone for a reason and he really will be upset if you interrupt them."

That bit of news didn’t do anything for Yohji’s temper. The bastard had hit his own brother, and now he was fucking Aya. His friend was probably doing whatever Hirofumi wanted just to keep him from getting pissed off again. No wonder Aya was under so much stress. For a moment Yohji wanted to tell Mamoru about what had happened a couple weeks ago, why Aya had gone away for a few days, but he knew the redhead would be furious with him for doing so.

Dammit, he felt so… weak and useless. He wanted to strangle Hirofumi, to beat him so bad that the man never dared to show his face around here again, but he couldn’t do a damn thing without Aya and probably Mamoru, too, paying for his actions. He sank down on the couch next to the boy and punched the leather cushion, wishing it was a certain Takatori.

"He shouldn’t treat you like that, or Aya. If I find out he left so much as a single mark on Aya, I’m punching the bastard the next time I see him," he growled. So what if the man was the Prime Minister’s son? He wasn’t untouchable, not in the slightest. Hell, all Yohji had to do was leak out what the man was currently doing, and with whom, and Hirofumi wouldn’t be able to show his face for months. However, that would involve Aya, and he knew his friend wouldn’t want people to find out what he was doing. It was only that fact that held him back. But there had to be something he could do….

"Hiro doesn’t mean to hurt anyone, Yohji. He… he has a problem, but he works hard to keep it under control." Mamoru pressed the compress to his cheek as he stared down at his lap. "He does it for Aya, too. Hiro’s much less likely to lose his temper when he’s around him. Aya’s good for him."

"Huhn." But Hiro wasn’t good for Aya, that was for sure. "I’m gonna grab a beer, do you want one?"

"Um, I’m not sure that’s a good idea," Mamoru replied in a small voice.

"Trust me, kiddo, it won’t make things any worse. I’ll grab one for you." Yohji rose to his feet and walked towards his kitchen, suddenly feeling much older than his twenty-three years. He felt his resolve harden as he entered the bright room and found the mug Aya had given him weeks ago, which he’d never returned, sitting on his counter. He decided he was going to have a long talk with Ayumi soon and this time he wasn’t going to let her get away with not answering him. He needed to know as much as possible about Hirofumi if he had any hope of breaking the man’s hold on Aya, since his friend wasn’t going to break free on his own. He’d do whatever it took to see that the bastard wouldn’t be ‘losing his temper’ around Aya anymore. He hadn’t felt this helpless since that day when he’d lain in the street and watched his lover get shot right before his eyes. He wasn’t going to risk losing someone he’d come to care about again by not doing anything and that was that.

He just hoped he didn’t make things any worse with his meddling, but Yohji honestly wondered if that was possible. He knew he could get into trouble, but that didn’t really matter to him. He was a whore, things couldn’t get much worse for him, not when he’d already lost or tossed away everything that had once mattered. But he was damned if he’d let what had happened that one dark day occur a second time. The worst of it was, he didn’t think Aya would care in the least if he ended up paying for Yohji’s stupidity, as Asuka had. Neither of them had anything to lose at this point. Yohji had recognized that when Aya had talked about wanting things to end the night he’d gotten drunk. Well, if they didn’t have anything to lose, there wasn’t anything to hold him back.

*******

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