Cages

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chapter 6

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new thoughts

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Aya watched the tide roll back into the ocean, giggling as the cool water brushed against her toes. Soon, she’d have to either scoot up the beach if she didn’t want to get more than her feet wet, or just sit here and let the tide come in over her. For a moment she didn’t think that sounded like a bad idea, and then she resolved to return to the house once the water lapped past her ankles. She shouldn’t be out here on her own much longer than that anyway.

Jan and Mia were probably in bed already. They had said something about getting up early tomorrow and scavenging for any good shells the tide might leave behind, and she should really join them. She was the only one on the beach this late at night, and even though they were renting a house in what she’d been assured was a good part of the Outer Banks Aya wasn’t sure it would be wise to remain out here for very much longer.

But she wanted to look up at the stars for a little bit longer, and try to think of what to get Ran for his upcoming birthday. He’d be twenty-three this year, an age when most young men were finished with college and striking out on their own. Only, for Ran, he had lost his chance at Tokyo University because of a ‘budget error’ and had never attended.

Aya gritted her teeth and smacked her hands onto the cool sand, fighting back tears all the while. It still got to her, even after all these years, to think of what they’d lost. No, what Ran had lost. It hurt, the death of her parents. Not a day went by that she didn’t think of them, but Ran had suffered more than her. After all, here she was on a beach in the States, spending her summer in a wonderful house that overlooked the ocean. When fall came, she’d head back to Harvard and start her third year of college, driving her new car and inviting her classmates back to her apartment to study.

Once again she wondered how Ran was getting on, and what he was doing back in Tokyo. She felt the impulse to go to the beach house, grab her passport and a few belongings and fly home to see her brother. The problem with that was Ran had insisted that she not return, at least not until her education was finished. Even if she were to disobey his explicit request, she had no idea where he lived or how to reach him, other than through a post office box and a phone number. He had deliberately concealed his real address from her, just as he had been evasive about what he was doing to earn the money for her new car and fancy apartment.

He had promised her he hadn’t joined a gang or was selling drugs. He wasn’t a thief or a murderer. She’d even asked him if he was, of all things, a prostitute, and he’d written her back that he wasn’t working some club or out on the streets. That had pretty much exhausted the more probable illegal ways she could think of him earning so much money.

Maybe he was working for some wealthy person, maybe even someone in the government, as an assistant, helping them with their foreign guests and putting to use the skills Ran had picked up by aiding their father over the years. He’d been intelligent enough to earn a scholarship to Japan’s most prestigious college, after all, so he would have a lot to offer an employer. But she knew how much her apartment cost, and the new car, not to mention the money that was placed in her bank account each month for her living expenses, with enough left over for spending money. Not to mention this vacation. Then she added on Ran’s own living expenses, and didn’t understand how he was managing all this.

She’d hated mentioning the beach house to her brother, but he’d already asked what her summer plans were and if she was planning on going back to Toronto with her friend Aiko. So she’d told him about Jan and Mia’s offer, and about how she’d hoped to get a job down here to pay for her share of the house. She honestly hadn’t expected him to put enough money into her account to pay for the rent and groceries, and supply a very nice spending allowance. She’d thought of refusing the money, but in his next letter, Ran had practically pleaded with her to go. He’d written that he wouldn’t be able to take a vacation this year, most likely because he was working to pay for hers, and that it would make him happy if he knew she was having a good time on the beach with her friends. Ran had even mentioned the trips their family used to take each year to the ocean, and how they’d been inseparable, even when they’d been teenagers, and how they would spend the whole vacation either swimming or wandering along the beach and talking.

So she’d come here despite her misgivings, and each night before she went to bed she wrote him a letter about what she’d done that day, so he would know how much she was enjoying herself and how grateful she was to him. She never failed to mention how much she loved him, either, nor to sneak in a few hints about how she would love to spend the next summer in Tokyo.

She shivered slightly at the thought of returning to Japan. She wanted to see her brother so much, wanted to hear him laugh and scold her, to see the way he’d always shift from being such a serious young man to a quietly content one when she smiled at him, and wished there was some way she could get him to visit her. What she didn’t want was to return to Japan, to hear people whisper her family’s name and feel their eyes accusing at her as they gossiped about how dishonorable her father had been, to cheat a close friend as he had. To run into her classmates, the ones that had been her friends until the accusations had been made against her father, and who had turned their backs on her and tormented her that last semester of school. Or to walk down the street with her beloved brother and know that people would instantly recognize him because of his bright hair and pale eyes, just as they did her when they noticed the dark blue of hers. An old neighbor had called them cursed, bearing the mark of their father’s shame, their odd coloring setting them apart from honest people.

She’d go back in a minute, though, if it meant seeing Ran again. She missed her brother so very much and wished he would come and see her. She’d hug him for at least an hour, unwilling to let him go until she was convinced that he was really there and safe, and then she’d sit him down and find out why he would rarely call her, why he wouldn’t let her visit or know where he lived, and find out the truth about his job.

Ran had never lied to her - not yet, anyway. She believed that. But she knew he was keeping something from her, and wondered if she’d missed something when she’d gone down her list of criminal activities. Ran sent her a picture of himself, once a year, and she had them all arranged on her dresser at home, proof of how her brother had changed over the years. He’d grown a shade thinner and taller, his shoulders a bit broader and his skin paler. Aya had been shocked at first to see that he hadn’t dyed his hair at all, which she would have done if she’d been him. Lately, it looked as if it was pulled back, but she couldn’t tell how long it was or if she was just imagining things from the rare photos he sent. The most noticeable change was how it looked as if he never smiled anymore, how each year the light in his eyes became dimmer and dimmer. It was probably her imagination, but to her it seemed as if Ran had turned from a serious teenager into a distant young man, very handsome yet somehow untouchable. That was another reason she’d hug him for an hour the next time she saw him, just to prove to herself that she could indeed touch him.

"Tsk, you’re an idiot, Aya. He hasn’t become a ghost." Her voice sounded out of place against the crashing of the moonlit waves, and she blushed for a moment when she realized that she had spoken out loud, in Japanese. Normally she tried to speak as much English as possible to work on her accent. Yet lost in her thoughts as she’d been, she’d returned to her native speech. Not for the first time in the four years that she’d been here, Aya felt a wave of homesickness. Not so much for Japan, but for her brother.

A resolve formed in her heart. "Next year, Ran, I’m coming home. I want to see you, to make sure you’re okay and that I’m not imagining silly things. I’ll meet your employer, and I’ll prove to myself that the scandal has died down, that I can indeed return home one day, maybe even go to med school there. And I won’t take no for an answer." The only thing she wasn’t sure of was whether she should inform her brother of this resolve or just call him from the airport once she arrived in Japan. There was the emergency number he’d given her that she could use, though he would probably yell at her for doing so. Well, if she didn’t tell him she was coming, he’d yell at her anyway, so she wouldn’t feel bad about that.

Feeling better for her resolution, Aya watched the waves creep towards her and then retreat while she mused over Ran’s present.

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Aya heard Hirofumi enter the kitchen, and soon felt an arm slide around his waist and lips press against his right cheek. He stopped washing the dishes and turned in his lover’s embrace, until he was facing him. Hirofumi was dressed in one of the suits he kept here, a grey one with thin black stripes. Aya straightened the silver tie he was wearing, then smoothed the lapels of the fine wool jacket.

Hirofumi bent his head, and Aya parted his lips so he could kiss him, tasting the toothpaste Hirofumi had just used. He held Aya tightly, one hand on the small of his back and the other resting along his shoulders. The kiss lasted for several minutes, and despite the forceful hold, it was surprisingly tender. When Hirofumi pulled away he smiled at Aya and cupped his cheek, just looking at him for a few seconds.

"As much as I missed you while you were away, I think I need to send you and Ayumi to the hot springs more often. You do look better since you came back." His fingers ran through Aya’s hair, which was pulled back in a loose ponytail. "I’ll be busy all day today, but I should be able to stop by for a few hours tomorrow after lunch." Then he reached into his suit jacket and pulled out his wallet. He selected several bills from it, and placed them on the counter beside Aya. As he did so, his gaze lowered and he shifted about, as if he was feeling uncomfortable.

"Please, Aya, take Mamoru out tonight, either for dinner or dessert and a movie. I know he’s working hard for school, but a night out won’t hurt him. Make… make sure he’s all right." His voice grew softer the longer he spoke.

Aya nodded and picked up the money, tucking it into the sleeve of his dark blue yukata. "I think we can manage a movie, if he wants to go." He touched Hirofumi on the shoulder. "I’m sure he knows you didn’t mean it, Hiro. He knows you care about him."

Hirofumi looked at him and smiled a little sadly. "I didn’t mean to hit him, Aya. I… things have been so busy at work that I don’t always remember to take my medication, or find somewhere private to do so." He touched Aya’s cheek again, his thumb brushing along his cheekbone. "That’s no excuse to hurt him and you, I know, but…. I’m sorry. I hate repeating that, but I don’t know what else to say."

"I know you are, Hiro. I know you don’t mean to do those things, and that you’re under stress." The familiar litany fell effortlessly from Aya’s lips, and then he changed the topic. It wouldn’t be wise to dwell on what happened for very long, since it made Hirofumi uncomfortable, and that was never a good thing.

"Do you want me to make anything for you tomorrow, some food perhaps?" He was heartened by the fact that Hirofumi would only be able to stay for a couple of hours, but knew better than to think all they would do was sit and talk. When Hirofumi was this stressed, from either his family or work, he always sought some sort of sexual release.

Hirofumi smiled at him, with no sorrow in his expression now but with more than a hint of lust. "All I want is you. Don’t worry about fixing anything, I have a dinner to go to in the evening. Maybe have some beer ready and just be willing to hear me rant about another lousy day at work." He pulled Aya closer once again, his hands sliding down to fondle his ass.

"That’s fine, Hiro." He was kissed again, rather thoroughly, causing Aya to worry that Hirofumi wasn’t ready to leave for work just yet, but then Hirofumi was walking away, picking up his briefcase as he went. Aya trailed after him and saw him out, but once the door was closed he rested against it for a moment, feeling utterly worn out. Ever since yesterday afternoon, when Hirofumi had shown up unexpectedly and suddenly flown into a rage over Aya not being in the apartment when he’d arrived and finding out about Mamoru’s accident, he’d been on edge, waiting to see if Hirofumi would lash out at him, too. He hadn’t – Aya had been successful in distracting his lover until his temper had burned out - and the two of them had spent most of the night in the bedroom. It was a routine he was painfully familiar with from the past four years. Aya only hoped his nerves held out until Hirofumi cycled back into a more peaceful mood. At least this downswing wasn’t turning out as bad as previous ones.

Just as Aya had pushed himself away from the door, eager to go scrub himself clean and spend the rest of the morning soaking in the tub, there was a loud knock. Wondering who would be bothering him at eight in the morning, he thought that maybe Mamoru had gone to Ayumi’s after being kicked out of the apartment last night, and now she was here to check up on him. If that was the case, he was going to yell at the teenager the next time he saw him - Mamoru should know by now not to let Ayumi know about these incidents. It was bad enough when she found out about the ones that left Aya with visible bruises or injuries.

He was a bit surprised to open the door and find Yohji standing there, his eyes surrounded by dark circles and his face covered in stubble. Aya barely had the time to note that and the fact that Yohji was wearing a pair of old grey sweatpants and a worn t-shirt before his neighbor pushed past him and entered the apartment. He stood there for a few seconds and watched Yohji disappear into his kitchen, and then closed the door and followed him.

Aya found Yohji pouring himself a cup of coffee, slumped over the counter as if he was exhausted. He tightened the belt of his yukata and crossed his arms over his chest as he glared at him. "What gives you the right to just barge in here like that? If you want breakfast today, go make your own."

Yohji took a sip of his coffee and then set the mug down. In three steps he was standing in front of Aya, and he grabbed his chin and shifted his head from side to side, staring intently all the while. Yohji let go of his chin and snatched at his hands, checking out his wrists and even pushing up the sleeves of his yukata.

Aya spluttered with anger and took a step back, snatching back his arms as he did. "Have you gone insane? Don’t touch me." He was filthy, still feeling Hirofumi’s sweat on his body, everywhere his lover had touched or kissed him.

"I wanted to make sure you weren’t sporting a bruise like Mamoru was last night. Is there anything underneath the robe?" Yohji gestured at Aya’s belt, causing him to drop his hands protectively to the length of cloth.

"He didn’t hurt me." When it looked as if Yohji was going to keep his hands to himself, Aya rubbed his eyes and sank down in a chair. "Mamoru went to you last night?" He guessed it was better than the teenager going to Ayumi, but not by much.

"Yeah, he hung out at my place for most of the evening. For some reason he didn’t want to go home." Yohji reached for his cup of coffee and sat down at the kitchen table, across from Aya. "I wonder why, when he has a brother who’ll beat him up."

"Hiro doesn’t beat him up, Yohji," Aya wearily replied. When his friend appeared ready to argue, Aya held up his hand and shook his head. "I’m not saying he doesn’t hit him, but I’ve never known him to do more than slap him once or twice." It was true - it seemed he saved the more… energetic beatings for Aya and others.

Yohji grunted softly and cupped his mug between his hands. "Don’t you think even that is a bit too much?" Aya dropped his gaze to the tabletop, unable to answer the question. "Why the hell do you two hang around with that psycho? First he hurts your wrist and then he smacks Mamoru. Why the hell don’t you tell the man to fuck off?"

Aya didn’t answer, and then he heard Yohji sigh. "There are times when I just want to smack you myself, you know? To do something to make you talk." Then a hand touched his hair, running through the strands to rest on his neck. He jerked at the touch at first, but the warmth of Yohji’s hand on the nape of his neck soon had him relaxing and lifting his head. Yohji was staring at him, his eyes shining with concern.

"He’s not always like that. Sometimes… just a few weeks here and there, he gets worse, and then things return to normal. It’s mainly brought on by stress, and he doesn’t intentionally hurt us." At least, not the past few times, Aya thought, as he clenched his right hand.

Yohji’s hand remained on the back of his neck, and without thinking Aya tilted his head to the side and nuzzled Yohji’s arm, resting his cheek against it for a moment. He was so tired, and it felt so nice to have someone he liked touch him, to not feel threatened by the gesture, other than by his own treacherous thoughts. Then he shifted back in his chair, breaking the contact, and lowered his gaze.

"Why are you here, Yohji? You look like you should still be in bed." He hoped to get the conversation off himself and his life and on to a less painful topic.

"Hmmm." Yohji took a long swallow of his coffee. "I couldn’t sleep at all last night, and I was watching some television when I heard your door open and close, so I figured I’d check up on you." He shifted about in his chair for a few seconds, and when he spoke again it was in a much more cheerful tone of voice. "Are you sure you won’t make me any breakfast?"

Aya risked looking at the man, and found Yohji gazing at him mournfully as he started to rub his belly. "I really need to get something to eat; maybe that will help to put me asleep. It’s kinda hard to rest when you’re suffering hunger pangs."

Knowing that he was being played and not really minding, Aya snorted but rose to his feet and crossed over to his fridge. As much as he wanted to take a bath, he had to admit that it was nice to sit here and unwind in Yohji’s presence. He’d truly come to enjoy their mornings together, and he’d have all day to wash and rest. "I can make you a cheese and mushroom omelette, but that’s about it. I need to go shopping today."

"That sounds fine, Aya. You have more food than me. My fridge contains a moldy loaf of bread and some beer, and that’s it." Yohji appeared happy once more, and got up to fetch himself more coffee. "Would you mind if I tagged along on the shopping trip? I’ll even drive."

In the middle of beating the eggs, Aya paused and thought about the offer. He really should go by himself. It wouldn’t be wise to be seen out with Yohji too often, unless Ayumi was with them, and there was no way the three of them and their groceries would fit in Yohji’s car. But he was free for the day, and he didn’t want to be restrained by Hirofumi or his wants in any way today.

"Alright, then. If you don’t mind, I’d like to go shopping around one." Aya started the eggs cooking and then poured himself the last of the coffee. He felt that he needed the extra caffeine, and it was worth it to see the surprised look on Yohji’s face as he sipped the beverage.

"One o’clock it is. That’ll give me time to get some sleep and make myself decent." Yohji grimaced as he ran a hand through his hair. "I need more coffee," he sniffed, taking a moment to glare theatrically at Aya before going to the freezer to pull out the grounds.

"How are you going to sleep if you keep drinking coffee?" He finished grating the cheese and added it to the eggs and mushrooms.

"Hmmm, I burn it off pretty quickly, which is why I need so much of it in the first place." Yohji poured water into the coffee maker and smiled as it started to brew. He walked over the stove and, standing behind Aya, looked over his shoulder at the omelettes. "They smell delicious."

Acutely aware of how close the other man was, Aya grunted in acknowledgement and turned off the heat under them and the pot of miso soup left over from Hirofumi’s breakfast. He reached for some bowls, only to have Yohji hand them to him. He nodded his thanks and ladled the soup into them, and then took a step backwards, expecting Yohji to move. He bumped into the man, and instantly Yohji grabbed him around the waist.

For a moment they stood still, just looking at each other in surprise, and Aya had an overwhelming desire to bridge the distance between them and kiss Yohji. He thought that he how Yohji would taste, like cigarettes and sake, his lips soft but his chin the slightest bit stubbly….

The wave of desire that washed through him shocked Aya, had him stepping backwards and bumping into the stove. He’d never felt lust that strongly before, and it had been years since he’d felt it, other than a couple of times with Hirofumi. He knew he was attracted to Yohji, and he’d tried to keep him at arm’s length at first, and then he’d thought that he could be friends with the man and deny the attraction. Judging from what he’d just felt, the feelings he had for Yohji were only getting stronger, and he was suddenly unsure of what he should do about them.

He glared at Yohji and pushed him towards the table. "Sit down, I’ll bring the food over." Aya noted that his voice was hoarse and that his hands shook as he placed the two omelettes on a plate. He set them and a bowl of soup in front of Yohji, who wouldn’t stop looking at him, and sat down with the other bowl of soup.

"Aren’t you going to have an omelette? There are two here." Yohji’s voice was also hoarse, and he fidgeted in his seat for a few seconds, but his eyes never shifted away.

Aya felt his exhaustion return as he rested his elbows on the table and played with his soup. "I had something to eat with Hirofumi before he left. Besides, you look like you’re really hungry." He didn’t think his stomach could handle anything at the moment - it felt too unsettled. At least his hands had stopped shaking.

"Well, as long as you already ate." Yohji finally stopped staring at him and started to eat the eggs with gusto, and even devoured the miso soup. Aya watched him for a minute and then got up to make himself some tea. He didn’t think his stomach could take any more coffee. Once Yohji was done eating, he’d kick him out of the apartment and finally have his long delayed bath and try to relax.

It was a good thing that he’d just finished measuring some tea into his porcelain teapot and had set it back down when Yohji started talking again. "Aya, can I ask you a personal question?"

"Mmmm." He started to reach for the electric kettle.

"Well… are you gay?" Yohji rushed through the question, and it took him a moment to decipher the mash of words. When he did, he was grateful that he hadn’t been holding anything at the time.

He bought himself a few seconds to think as he shakily poured the hot water into the pot and took it with him to the kitchen table. He wanted to ask Yohji what the hell had possessed him to ask such a personal question, but didn’t want to chance bringing up what had happened a few minutes ago.

So he settled for the other obvious question. "What makes you think that I might not be? Last I checked, Hiro was a man."

Yohji, who had been staring intently at him, flushed and looked down at his empty plate before shrugging his shoulders and glancing back up. "Just because you sleep with him doesn’t mean that you’re gay. Just that…." He sighed and sat back in his chair. "I know girls who aren’t really gay or bi who put on shows with other girls, just to please their customers."

Again he was tempted to mention that he was being asked a very personal question, but he didn’t see the point. It was clear that Yohji was aware of that fact from the way he was still slightly blushing, although his gaze was still intent. Aya poured himself some tea.

"I’m gay, Yohji." He thought back several years to his first real crush, his classmate Aki, a boy who had been quite good at kendo, and who had been responsible for him taking up the sport. The crush had led nowhere, but he’d met Hideo through the club, who had become the closest thing he’d ever had to a boyfriend, at least before Hirofumi. Though all they’d worked up the courage for had been a few kisses before…. "I’m gay."

He was long past the point that the thought brought him any shame. Not when there were other things that shamed him more. He’d come to terms with who and what he was, and being able to accept the pleasure that Hirofumi could make him feel was all that made their arrangement bearable. If he’d held onto the shame of his sexual orientation, along with the shame of what he’d become, he’d have given in to his death wish years ago. But he’d accepted it, with Ayumi’s help, and used that to help him survive. He couldn’t change what he was. "Shikata ga nai."

Yohji blinked at him, and Aya realized he’d spoken the last few words aloud. "What was that, Aya?"

He almost asked why Yohji wanted to know about his sexual orientation, but immediately shied away from that thought. It shouldn’t matter to Yohji which sex he preferred. He wouldn’t let it matter. Some things were far out of his reach, and the handsome blond was one of them.

"I asked if you wanted any more coffee." Yohji didn’t seem to buy that, but he nodded anyway and held his cup out. He seemed to be waiting for something, and he began to frown when all Aya did was pour him some more coffee and sat back down again and sipped his tea.

"So, I guess that answers that question. I thought you might be bi like me, because of…." Yohji suddenly fell silent and gulped his coffee, even though it had to be painfully hot.

Aya waited until he finished drinking before asking a question he deemed to be relatively safe. "You thought I might be bi because…?" When Yohji wouldn’t look at him he started to glare at him. "This wouldn’t happen to have anything to do with certain rumors around this place, would it?" When Yohji didn’t answer him Aya’s eyes narrowed in anger. "You should know by now not to believe a word of gossip you hear. You think I slept with… Sakura, don’t you?"

Yohji had the grace to look uncomfortable as he shook his head. "No, I don’t think you slept with her. I just… I can’t figure you out, Aya. You don’t act like anyone I know, and each time I think I’ve got you pegged, I find out I’m wrong." He leaned forward, his arms resting on the table, his hands just a few centimeters from Aya’s. It was hard to resist the urge to reach just the slightest bit further and touch him, but he didn’t want to distract Yohji before he got some answers.

"Why do you stay here? Why do you let him hit you? You’re smart, talented, and handsome. You could be doing so much more. Hell, you can find someone just as rich as the bastard if you wanted. Or you could leave this whole life behind. What hold does he have over you?"

Aya gazed coldly at his friend. "I don’t go the highest bidder, Yohji, or to some stranger." His hands clenched into fists at that thought, and he refused to think about the American, Tyson. "I have my reasons for what I’ve chosen, and why I stay with Hiro, who you barely know. You’ve no business asking the questions that you just have. You have no right to dare judge me, or to think that you know what’s best for me, what I could do differently. I don’t tell you how to live your life." He didn’t tell him that he needed to stop drinking so much, to stop smoking and to take care of himself. He shouldn’t care, yet he couldn’t stop feeling that way. At least he had the sense not to voice his feelings.

Yohji seemed to suddenly deflate. "No, you don’t ask me much of anything, do you? You honestly don’t give a damn about my past. Or what I do for a living. Do you care about anything, Aya? Anything other than Ayumi and that girl in the pictures?"

He bridled at the mention of his sister, whose pictures he’d seen Yohji eying one day as he’d been coming back from having a cigarette on the balcony. Then Aya took a breath and forced himself to calm down. He was on edge from Hirofumi’s visit, and he knew if he didn’t stop to think, he’d say something to hurt Yohji, to drive him away. He’d done that often enough when he’d been younger, before he’d been forced by circumstance to be more careful of what he said and did.

"You’ll soon learn, Yohji, that this is not the place to ask one about one’s past. It usually leads to pain. I don’t ask you about yours because I don’t see what good it would do, and know that it could cause harm." Aya thought of all the Hanabatake residents he’d met over the years, and those he’d seen leave, either alive or dead. Usually dead. There hadn’t been a suicide here for several months, which was a rare occurrence.

"As for what you do for a living, you’re an adult, so I imagine that you had some say in what you’ve become. It’s not as if I can judge you, either." Aya smiled bitterly. "Not without judging myself." This had to be one of the weirdest and most depressing conversations he’d had during breakfast in quite some time, which was saying something.

Yohji looked at him and smiled back, rather sadly. "Do you care about anything, Aya? You don’t seem to care much about your life, if you refuse to get yourself out of this mess. You don’t seem to care about it at all."

He wanted to lie and say that he did, but for the past four years all Aya had thought about was his escape. "I care about Ayumi, and the girl in the photos." He scowled at Yohji. "Don’t ask about her, Yohji, there are some questions I won’t answer."

"Well, I’m glad that you care about something, Aya," Yohji drawled, his tone the slightest bit angry. "Though the flip side of there being only *some* questions you won’t answer is that there are some you *will*. Why do I think that both statements are a lie?"

It was Aya’s turn to be taken aback, both by what Yohji had just said and by the man’s tone. He told himself that he didn’t have to explain anything to him, and then his mouth opened and he did just that. "I do care about people. Not many, but…." Aya tucked back a strand of his hair as he chewed on his bottom lip. "I’ve never been one to care about a lot of things, but I do feel strongly about a few, and that hasn’t changed over the years. I care about a few people." There was his sister and Ayumi, Mamoru and Kikyou… and to his dawning horror he realized that somehow in the past few weeks Yohji had been added to that list. He had become more than just a friend. How had quiet mornings and teas together endeared Yohji to him so quickly and thoroughly?

"Do you care about anything?" Aya asked, his voice little more than a whisper.

Yohji stared at him for a few seconds, and then suddenly became very interested in the depths of his coffee cup. He was silent for several seconds, and then he cleared his throat. "You know, if you’d asked me that question a couple of months ago, I could have honestly said I didn’t. Over the past few years I’ve put a lot of effort in not feeling a damn thing, especially not for other people." He chuckled briefly. "I must be getting old or something, because I find myself actually caring again."

He gave up trying to find whatever it was he’d been searching for in his coffee and gazed at Aya. Another silence stretched between them, and then Yohji broke it, a bitter smile on his face. "It hurts like hell, doesn’t it? To feel something for another person, especially when you’re trying so hard not to." Aya could only nod as he wrapped his hands around his mug of tea.

"It hurts." Yohji suddenly took a swig of coffee and sat back in his chair, a picture of nonchalance. He started to twirl a strand of his hair around his finger. "I think we’d actually be better off if we were like… oh, I don’t know, Maki or Kane. Sooner or later the person you care for lets you down, or even worse, you let them down, and it feels as if someone has just ripped out your heart and filled your chest with glass shards. Yeah, we’d be better off if we were just these empty, beautiful shells that other people could use and never have to experience pain again." He spoke in an even voice, but his eyes shone with an inner pain that drew Aya’s gaze and wouldn’t let him look away. "I think that’s why neither one of us tries to give a damn about living. We can’t be those shells, and there’s only so much pain we can take. I also think we’ve just about reached our limit."

He laughed again, startling Aya enough that his whole body jerked at the sound and he spilled tea onto his hands. Yohji tossed him a napkin and continued talking. "You know, I’ve always thought that stereotype of the whore with the golden heart was this crock of shit, and now that I *am* a whore, I’m sure of it. The movies always have this woman who falls for a sob story, or some righteous asshole who will never see past what she does. Or maybe, they do, and they give away everything they have for them. The worst part is when there’s some sort of happy ending for the whore, where they get the person they love or a new chance at life. As if it’s really that easy." Yohji slumped down in his chair. "As if there’s actually a chance of that happening to us. You don’t see a hell of a lot of redemption in this occupation."

No, you didn’t. Aya thought again of the residents who had left, how most of them had either moved on to new patrons or to some soapland or another, or they’d chosen a more permanent escape. The few who had gone away, determined to not prostitute themselves anymore were never heard from again, except for a few depressing rumors.

He knew how he’d leave, had been planning it ever since he’d come here. He’d follow his father’s example, more pain before he was done with it forever. He’d prove he wasn’t some weak-willed whore with his last act, and he hoped to make some sort of reparation to his ancestors. There was no other option for him, really. If he tried to leave alive, Hirofumi would only find him and drag him back like before, and he refused to spend the rest of his life here at the Hanabatake as the man’s plaything.

Yohji’s voice shook him from his dark thoughts. He’d thought the other man was done talking, but it seemed he’d only paused for some coffee. "Still, I refuse to think it’s completely hopeless." He smiled at Aya and waved his mug at him. "Just that we’re fools if we think some knight in shining armor will come to our rescue. If we’re getting out of this mess, we have to do it for ourselves. With one another. I think that the only thing that might save a whore is another whore. Someone who knows how bad things must have been for us to choose this life, someone who’s been able to survive this hell with some of their soul still intact. We need someone who can understand what we’ve been through and wouldn’t judge us for what we’ve done.

"I think that’s what kept me up all night, thinking this through, I mean." Yohji left the table to pour himself more coffee, and then leaned against the counter, his eyes focused on Aya as he sipped his drink. "The past couple of months… it’s been nice to speak to someone who understands, and I hope you feel the same. It makes me…." He shrugged as he appeared to be searching for what to say next. "It makes me feel that I’m not alone, and that there’s some hope, after all. Then I thought that if I had any chance of being something other than a whore for the rest of my life, I needed to care about something again. But that’s a pretty scary thing to do, and what scares me even more is the fact that I know I’d have to open myself back up and risk more pain. However, what happens if I begin to hope again, to care about something more than myself, and I end up failing or being hurt? Hope is such a dangerous emotion." He fell silent, his eyes staring at Aya over the rim of his coffee cup as he drank.

Aya watched his friend for a few seconds and let the impact of Yohji’s words sink in. They sounded a lot like what Ayumi had been trying to tell him for years, and reminded him of what Kikyou had said when he’d confessed his secret over a year ago. But he couldn’t help but think Yohji was right, how they could be opening themselves up to even more pain if they dared to take the chance, and he knew he couldn’t bear much more without snapping. The incident a couple of weeks ago with Tyson had taught him that. He had to wonder if there was any honor in shying away from more pain, in not taking any chance to escape that came his way. He knew his sister would want him to, as would Ayumi and Kikyou. He just couldn’t see how he could go on supporting Aya-chan and Ayumi if he did take that chance. However, he wasn’t stupid enough to pretend that his preferred choice of escape wouldn’t hurt them terribly. He was left wondering what it was that he really wanted.

Yohji continued to stare at him, and he wondered if he was supposed to say something. He didn’t know what he could possibly say, if he should give him any hope or remain silent and think about the matter some more. Then Yohji surprised him once again by setting his mug on the counter and suddenly leaning forward and tucking back the strand of hair that kept falling onto his face.

Yohji’s warm breath hit his ear as he chuckled softly. "You actually seem to be listening to what I say, you know. I guess it’s only fair then to warn you that I’m a bit of a reckless idiot." He whispered in Aya’s ear as he shifted closer. "I’ve always been willing to take a gamble, always thinking that I’d be the only one to pay that price until I learned better. I’d thought that I’d learned my lesson after… after losing the one thing I’d cared about, but it looks like all I’ve really learned is that I’m more stupid than I thought I was. Even after everything I’ve been through, I’m still willing to take another chance on hope, even if it’ll just end up hurting me. Maybe someone would call that courage. Some maybe not. So, that leaves me with yet another damn question. Are you courageous, Aya?"

Then Yohji simply turned and left, taking his warmth with him and leaving Aya feeling cold and confused, wondering if he’d imagined what had just happened. How the hell had things gone from a simple breakfast to this? To a man he barely knew, yet cared strongly for nonetheless, offering him a chance at redemption, of breaking out of the cage he’d become trapped in?

Shikata ga nai. The phrase echoed through Aya’s mind, a way of thinking that had helped him many times these past four years. But what if some things didn’t have to be endured? What if there was a chance that Yohji was right?

He wasn’t sure what the answer was, only that it would be one long in coming to him. He’d have to think hard about what Yohji had said, and decide if he did have any courage left in him. Then he’d have to weigh his desires against Aya-chan and Ayumi’s needs, because as much as he wished, there was more than his happiness at stake.

However, as he made his way to the bathroom, Aya had to agree with one thing Yohji had said. Hope was indeed a very dangerous emotion.

*******

Yohji breathed in a lungful of smoke and leaned closer to the flowers that Aya had given him. He’d chosen snapdragons and dahlias, and the riot of color always made Yohji smile when he saw them. His mother had always liked snapdragons…. Aya had chrysanthemums on his balcony, and a trellis of jasmine that was the only thing blooming at the moment. When he’d asked his friend why he hadn’t picked an earlier blooming flower for the stone boxes, Aya had calmly replied that he thought the chrysanthemums were worth the wait, and that when everyone else’s flowers were dying, his would be showing well into autumn. That seemed a rather hopeful image for a rather hopeless young man.

Had he been more of an idiot than usual by talking to him like that this morning? He’d been tired and stressed, all because of Aya, and he hadn’t been thinking too clearly. Not after spending the night wondering if Aya was being hurt while he sat and did nothing, and unable to convince himself that he wouldn’t do any harm if he started pounding on Aya’s door to check things out. He’d realized that for him to be this worried, he had to be in over his head. Hell, he could care less if Nomi, his other neighbor, ended up hacked into pieces during the night, the vain, gossipy bitch that she was, but just the thought of Aya being hit again….

How the hell had he gotten in this deep? Hadn’t he learned anything by now? To care for someone was to be hurt, to have them die on you and leave you shattered. First his dad, then his mom, and finally there had been Asuka. He’d sworn to himself that she would be the last, yet had broken that vow when he’d started, ever so slightly, to care for Aya. Even when he’d realized that something was happening, he hadn’t really thought about it, and here he was, having told Aya that they should take a chance on each other, feel something for each other and see where that took them. Maybe it would lead to freedom, and maybe it wouldn’t. Considering their luck, it would likely be the latter.

Yet he’d gone ahead and said what he’d had, wanting to feel something again, wanting something more than idle chat at breakfast. He was such an idiot, and one that was about to be stood up. Aya would probably want nothing to do with him now, and wouldn’t go shopping with him.

He sighed as he flicked his cigarette away, and stepped into his bathroom to brush his teeth before heading out. He didn’t look so tired anymore, which was good, considering he’d only had a couple hours of sleep after breakfast. He’d picked a tight green nylon t-shirt that enhanced the color of his eyes while showing off his upper body, and a pair of tight blue jeans to wear. For some reason he wanted to dress sexily for Aya….

"Because you’ve definitely decided that what you want to do is fuck the man, Kudoh," Yohji told himself. He wanted Aya, period. It was as simple as that, and considering how long it had been since he’d really wanted something, it was terrifying as well. And while he could wallow in guilt with the best of them, denial was never something he’d been very good at. Perhaps because when he wanted something, he did so with every last bit of himself, and it was kinda hard to pretend otherwise when that was happening.

When he left his apartment to knock on Aya’s door and didn’t receive a response, he had to believe that no matter how much he wanted the man, it was obvious that he wasn’t going to get him. He guessed he’d scared him away right and proper. He cursed under his breath as he debated going back to bed, but he knew he needed to go shopping. Feeling dejected, he headed to the elevator. There were a few people on their way down to the lower floors. Sumi and Mina greeted him cheerfully, but he did little more than grunt at them when he stepped in. He didn’t speak to anyone the entire time it took to reach the garage floor.

He walked over to his car, wondering idly if he should call Ayumi on his cell phone and see if she needed anything from the store. He didn’t want her to come with him, he wasn’t in the mood to hear her prattle on about Aya, as the way she usually did, and she’d quickly realize that something was bothering him and press for the reason why. He also wasn’t in the mood to explain what had happened this morning.

He came to a halt when he reached his car, surprised to see Aya, dressed in a plain grey kimono and hakama, leaning against the wall beside it. The redhead straightened up when he saw him and walked over to the passenger side of the car.

Yohji couldn’t help it, he started to smile as he fished the car keys out of his pocket. He hadn’t frightened Aya away with his talk earlier. While it didn’t mean that Aya was seriously considering his offer, it still seemed to be a pretty positive sign. He didn’t think Aya would be here if he disagreed with him, or didn’t want anything more to do with him.

"So, ready to go shopping?" he asked, his voice sounding disgustingly happy, even to his ears.

Aya snorted and folded his arms over his chest. "I was hoping to, if you ever plan on unlocking your car."

"Geez, give me a moment to disengage the alarm." Yohji did just that and then unlocked the doors, and for a moment debated running to the other side and opening Aya’s for him. But that might be pushing things a little far right now. He settled for sliding inside the Jaguar and quickly opening Aya’s door. His friend gazed impassively at him for a moment before sliding inside.

Yohji waited until they were out on the street to start talking. "I didn’t know you were waiting for me down here. I knocked on your door, and thought you must have changed your mind when you didn’t answer."

"Well, you said you were driving, so I assumed you’d meant to meet by your car," Aya mumbled as his hand stroked the silk covering his thighs. "Go to the store near the Onarimon station, it usually has the best fish," he said when they came to an intersection.

He’d wished he’d known that when Ayumi had sent him shopping a couple weeks ago; it would have saved himself a stop or two. "No, I thought we’d go down to my car together." Then he realized why Aya had probably met him down there. The garage was dark enough that no one had probably noticed him waiting there. If they had met upstairs there would have been witnesses to the two of them leaving together, if anyone else had been in the hallway or elevator. "You’re worried about people gossiping about us, aren’t you?"

Aya sighed as he nodded. "I know we won’t be able to escape it completely, there are some people who twist everything they see, but I am more comfortable with… being friends with you if our relationship appears as simply casual."

Having noticed Aya’s slight pause, Yohji felt his grin grow even bigger. "I guess you have a point. Plus, two sexy guys like us definitely attract attention, no matter how hard we try not to." He pretended to primp his hair while Aya muttered something along the lines of "vain blonds". "I’m too gorgeous, and you stand out in your dresses."

"If you weren’t driving at the moment, I’d hit you," he was warned. "Don’t ever call it a dress again." Aya’s voice sounded genuinely angry.

"Sorry," he apologized, and they were quiet for several minutes. "You have to admit though, that you stand out because of the kimonos and yukatas. Why don’t you dress more like you do on our movie nights?"

Aya leaned against the car door and played with the hem of his kimono. "Because I don’t leave the apartment on those nights."

"I don’t see why you don’t wear jeans and a t-shirt when you go shopping, at least. It would probably make things a little easier for you, and save on the dry cleaning. I assume no one saw you leave today, and it’s not like Hiro has spies in the market." Yohji pulled into a parking space and turned to look at Aya. "He doesn’t, does he?"

Aya smiled the slightest bit as he shook his head, but the expression wasn’t one of good humor. "No, he doesn’t, but I can’t chance people seeing me leave the apartment dressed other than I normally do, or to running into them as I shop. I can only dress normally on special occasions, and running errands isn’t one of them. Also, it would attract attention to my outings, and who I’m with…," he raised an eyebrow at Yohji, "…which wouldn’t be a good thing. I can pass this excursion off as you simply doing me a neighborly favor and giving me a ride to the grocers, but people would talk if I was dressed like you." He tilted his head to the side and seemed to be taking in Yohji’s wardrobe. "Well, not exactly like you. I do have better taste than that," he said as he opened the door and got out of the car.

Smarting a little over the comment about his wardrobe, Yohji smoothed down his green top and joined Aya in the parking lot. They entered the store together, and he grabbed a cart for both of their belongings. He got another arched eyebrow for tugging Aya away from selecting a cart of his own, but no verbal complaint. They walked through the store, going down each aisle and pausing often to select items. Aya chided him about only buying what was possibly bad for him, such as frozen dinners packed with sodium, bottles of soda, tons of ramen noodles, and on and on. He was practically dragged over to the fresh produce section against his will.

"Aya, if it doesn’t come pre-cooked or instant, I don’t know how to cook it," he told his friend as Aya picked through various vegetables and selected some for the both of them. "Besides, there’s always take-out, and that’s fresh."

Aya snorted as he tossed some radishes into a bag. "No wonder you’re so damn skinny. Not everything takes forever to cook, Yohji. Plus, you save money if you make it yourself."

"I’d rather spend the money." He sighed and rested his arms on the cart, refusing to go anywhere else. "I can’t cook, and I honestly mean that. Anything other than fried eggs and microwavable sausage is beyond me, which is why I’ve only ever offered to make you breakfast." Aya stopped picking through mushrooms to look at him, so he continued with his confession. "I don’t know if you noticed this or not, but I’m not your typical Japanese man, and I didn’t have the most traditional upbringing. My mom was American, and the only Asian dish she ever made was fried rice. I have no clue how to cook most of the stuff you just put into the damn cart." Asuka hadn’t been one for cooking, either, and had been more than happy to order out all the time.

All he got for his revelation was a grunt and the cart being pulled out from under him, almost making him fall forward. "We’re going to get the fish now." Aya paused until he caught up, and then continued on his way through the store. "There are healthy Western dishes, you know. Did she ever make you any of those?"

"She complained about how expensive beef was, and that she couldn’t make meatloaf as often as she wanted." Yohji scratched behind his left ear for a few seconds and grinned at the expression Aya had at that latest revelation. He wondered if his friend had ever eaten meatloaf in his life. Growing up in a rich household, he’d probably had nice, healthy meals cooked for him all the time, and hadn’t to bother with much American or fast food.

"She was a number cruncher for an American company here, and was always working on the budget for one project or another." For the life of him he didn’t know why he was revealing something about his past, something personal to him, to Aya in the middle of the grocery store, while they waited in line for fish, no less. "She wasn’t here for the culture, and only learned enough Japanese to get by. Hell, she had an assistant translate everything but the numbers to her. She wasn’t home to cook very often, and usually meals were whatever she bought on the way home from work."

"Hmmm. Wait here." Aya motioned for him to remain where they’d been standing as he went up to the fish counter. The man behind it seemed to know him, and they chatted for a minute or two before he started showing Aya some of the fish. Aya ordered several fillets and returned to his side while they were being wrapped.

"Watanabe always gives me what’s freshest," he explained, "and I had him cut a few extra fillets for you too. I hope you like fluke and tuna." When Yohji sighed, he leaned against the cart for a moment, until they were almost touching. "I’ll show you how to prepare it, Yohji. It isn’t hard, I promise you. I… my mother always prided herself on having something homemade for us every day, and I never bothered to learn how to cook from her." Aya’s eyes were filled with sadness as he talked, and Yohji was stunned that he was actually revealing something about his past. "I had to learn how to cook when… when I was on my own. I don’t know many fancy dishes, just good, simple ones. I’ll have you cooking within a week, I promise."

Maybe Aya really had taken what he’d said earlier to heart. At least he hadn’t been deterred by Yohji’s crazy talk. Not if he was going to spend that much time with him. Yohji couldn’t help smiling at the offer, and he couldn’t resist teasing Aya just a little. "I don’t know, I think you’ve got your work cut out for you. How about this, if you can’t manage to teach me how to cook in a week, you have to cook ten dinners for me, and you have to go out to a club with me." At Aya’s incredulous look, his smile grew bigger. "I’ve been wanting to drag you out drinking ever since that night I saw you and your friend at Shinju. I know we’d have a blast together."

"What do I get if you do learn how to cook within a week?" Aya asked, a slight frown on his face.

He thought about the question for a moment. "Well, if I say that I’ll cook for you, you’ll know I’ll try and lose the bet. How about you having to cook dinner for me ten times and me taking you out to a club one night?"

Aya rolled his eyes again and headed over to the counter to pick up his packaged fish. "How about you accept the lessons and try your best, or I won’t cook for you at all?"

He pouted at the offer and followed Aya to the checkout. "What about us going clubbing?"

"Maybe, if you’re a good boy." Aya offered him a rare smile, one that contained just enough of a hint of wickedness to make Yohji’s heart flutter. He wanted to say something smart and just as wicked, and barely remembered in time that flirting with Aya in public wasn’t a good idea.

They paid for their groceries and headed back to the car. "So, when do our lessons start? I have dinner plans with Ken tonight, so how about tomorrow?" For a moment he wondered if he could cancel those plans, but knew Ken would be upset with him if he did.

"I… I have plans for tonight and tomorrow. I’m going to take Mamoru out later for dinner and a movie, and…." Aya didn’t continue, but then again, he really didn’t need to. Yohji wondered if there would be any bruises on Aya tomorrow. "We can start with breakfast, if you want. Are you working tonight?"

"Yes, but I shouldn’t be out til morning. Make it a bit of a late breakfast, and you have a date." He winked at Aya, which caused him to sigh and shake his head, and then they rounded the corner to the parking lot. Yohji took a few steps forward and realized that someone was standing beside his car.

This time it wasn’t a welcome surprise. His hands tightened into fists when he realized who the man wearing a pair of khaki pants and a white cotton shirt with the sleeves rolled up, showing off his muscled arms, was. Gensai had somehow tracked him down. Yohji wondered if the man had been trolling his neighborhood to find his car or something.

For a moment he almost turned around and walked in the opposite direction, but he refused to leave his car here for the bastard to trash. Besides, it was best to get this out of the way - he just wished that Aya wasn’t here for this. His friend had slowed down beside him and was glancing back and forth between Gensai and him.

"Wait here, Aya, and give me a few minutes to deal with this guy," he said quietly, just loudly enough that only Aya could hear him.

"Ah, you do know him, then." Aya nodded curtly and stopped walking. "Be careful. I don’t want to have to patch you up again."

He briefly smiled at him and handed over his bags before squaring his shoulders and walking over to his car. Gensai smiled at him when he approached, but all he did was frown and come to a halt out of the man’s reach. "What are you doing here? Are you stalking me now?"

Gensai flushed and stood up straighter, as if trying to intimidate him with his greater height. "I just wanted to talk to you, Yohji, since you won’t answer my calls. I can’t get into your apartment building, so I drive by your neighborhood occasionally to see if I can catch you while you’re out."

Great, now he was being stalked. Gensai should be working at his golf course during the day. "I’ll say this once more, leave me the hell alone. I don’t want to see you anymore. That means no more gifts, no more phone calls, and definitely no more surprise visits while I’m out shopping. No more surprise visits, ever. How much more straightforward do I have to be for you to get the hint?" His angry tone gave way to one of exasperation. What the hell was wrong with this man that he wasn’t willing to let a replaceable whore like him go?

His former client flushed and took a step closer, making him want to step back, but he didn’t move. "What the hell is your problem, Yohji? I’ve been your customer for over a year, and I paid you well. Now you get a new place to live, and suddenly you’re too good for me?" Gensai waved his hand in Aya’s direction. "You’ve got a girlfriend now? Does that have something to do with why you won’t see me? I know you didn’t give up on fucking guys. I’ve been checking up on you since you wouldn’t talk to me. I’ve seen you on your ‘dates’."

For a moment he wanted to laugh, mainly because Gensai had thought Aya was a woman. Gods, maybe he should tell Aya what Gensai had said, and let him rip into the bastard. "I won’t see you again because you’re a sick fuck. You need help, or a whore who’s as sick as you, because I won’t do what you want me to do anymore." He tugged on one of his earrings as he glared at his former client. "I fuck people, that’s it. I don’t hurt them or do whatever new abusive kink you’ve come up with. Go find yourself someone else to do that stuff and leave me the hell alone."

Gensai, his face red with anger, suddenly lunged forward and grabbed one of Yohji’s arms. "Listen to me, you damn whore, you don’t tell me what to do. I pay you, and you damn well--"

Both of them stared in shock at the knife that was suddenly held right in front of Gensai’s eye. Aya held the knife steady, which was a very good thing, or else Gensai would, at best, be half blinded due to the weapon’s proximity. He cleared his throat and spoke in a quiet voice. "I believe he said he doesn’t want to see you anymore. Now go away."

Gensai swallowed a couple of times and cautiously stepped away from the weapon. His face had drained of color and he was sweating. Yohji swore his hands were shaking. Gensai opened his mouth to speak, but Aya shifted forward, the knife held at the ready. "I told you to go, and stay the hell away." The large man abruptly turned around and left.

Yohji watched him leave, and then turned to see Aya walking over to the bags of groceries he’d left on the ground. He peeked in one bag. "Good, I don’t think I broke any eggs." He picked up the bags and headed to the Jaguar. "I think it would be a very good idea if we left, too."

That helped to make him move. Yohji found his own hands were shaking when he patted his pocket for his keys. "Um, okay." He unlocked his car and helped Aya place their bags behind their seats.

Once they were in the car he started the engine and then turned to face Aya. "What… where the hell do you keep that knife? Why do you keep it on you? And do you have any idea what he could have done to you if he got his hands on you? Gensai’s pretty damn strong."

"If he’d have tried anything, he’d have been blinded," Aya calmly replied. "Let’s get going."

Unsure how he was supposed to take Aya stating the fact that he would have maimed a man in the same tone of voice he reserved for, oh, telling Mamoru not to hog all the popcorn, he did as he was told. "You didn’t answer my other questions."

Aya grunted as he ran his hands along the leather interior of the car door. "I know how to take care of myself, Yohji. Hiro… he made sure I had some training, because I won’t accept a babysitter when I go out on my own, and because of all the people and yakuza who frequent the Hanabatake. I carry the knife in case anyone tries something." He tilted his face until he was looking at Yohji. "As for where I keep the knife, I don’t think you need to know that."

That earned a chuckle from him. "Need to, no. Want to? Hell, yes. Why do I get the idea that’s one lucky knife?"

"Hmmm." Aya rested back in his seat. "So who is this Gensai, other than a former customer?"

Yohji made a face as he came to a stop at a red light. "He’s a sick fuck who’s into me hurting him, so I told him to find someone who’s willing to do that and leave me alone."

"He’s the one who’s been sending you the gifts?" Aya frowned when he nodded. "I take it you warned the guards at the Hanabatake about him?"

"Yeah, weeks ago." Yohji snorted as he pressed down on the gas pedal. "I’m not stupid, you know, I actually thought of that on my own." Then he waved his hand, to dispel the effect of his angry reply. "Sorry, this whole situation has me on edge. I never thought he’d start stalking me."

"It must be because you’re so damn sexy." Aya’s remark startled him, and he ignored traffic to look at the man, who had the hint of a smile on his face.

Smiling himself, Yohji nodded. "You better believe it. Once you’ve had a taste of me, you’re forever smitten." At least, he hoped so. He didn’t know whether to be thankful or not that Aya didn’t seem to remember their kiss.

"Arrogant twit," was all Aya said. They were quiet for a few minutes, as it seemed that neither of them felt like joking around much more about his situation. "Maybe you should call the police, Yohji."

The comment took him by surprise. "What will I tell them, Aya? That some guy, the respectable manager of an upscale golf course, was paying me to fuck him, and now he won’t leave me alone? I’m not sure if they’ll be more amused or pissed off and disgusted with me."

"I… I know a few policemen who would take you seriously," was Aya’s reply. After he said that, he seemed to withdraw inside himself, his face becoming impassive. Yohji recognized the signs, and knew that Aya was thinking of something unpleasant.

It hit him then who Hirofumi’s uncle was. There was a good possibility that Aya could get someone from the police to listen to him, if Takatori Shuuichi knew who he was. Well, other than Fujimiya Yutaka’s son. He then wondered if the man had been involved in investigating the elder Fujimiya. Why hadn’t he read anything about that in the articles? There had been no mention made of the prime minister’s brother, who was in charge of the Tokyo police department, heading the investigation of the scandal. Was it not part of his jurisdiction, or had he allowed someone else to take care of the matter?

They pulled into the Hanabatake’s garage, and it didn’t take them long to sort out the bags and head towards the elevator. "Why don’t you go ahead, Aya? I’ll follow you in a couple minutes." He was sure Aya didn’t want them to be seen together.

"We were just shopping together, Yohji, so it doesn’t matter if anyone sees us now. Besides, they’ll be more suspicious if we come back separately after being out together." Aya explained it to him as if he was a child. "Now get into the elevator."

Why was it he was constantly doing whatever Aya told him to do? He grumbled as he stepped into the elevator. "Then why didn’t you come down here with me earlier?"

"Because people would have talked while we were out, making up wild stories about where we were going. Now, they’ll see us with grocery bags and won’t be able to do that. At least, not much." Aya winced slightly and shook his head. "I hate gossips."

"Me too," he heartily agreed. "So, you’re taking Mamoru out later? That’s what you said back at the store, right?"

"Yes." For a moment it looked as if Aya wanted to say more, but then he just shook his head. "He doesn’t know yet. It should be a nice surprise for him, since we don’t go out very often."

"I can imagine, considering who his father is. I’m surprised he’s allowed to run around as much as he does, all things considered." The door opened and they stepped out into the hallway of their floor.

"He doesn’t run around much, other than to come here most days. Also, his father asked that he be allowed to grow up in peace, and the media prefers to stalk the older members of his family." Aya reached his door and turned around. "Thank you for driving today, Yohji."

"It was my pleasure, Aya. Thanks… thanks for taking care of that problem for me." Yohji toyed with his hair for a second, and quickly glanced up and down the hall. "Uhm, eleven?"

Aya seemed to consider something before he replied. "Ten."

"Ten?" Yohji lowered a few of his bags to the ground, and with his free hand melodramatically clutched at his chest. "Ten? You’re killing me here."

"I know. Ten." He could have sworn Aya was smiling when he entered his apartment and closed the door behind him.

*******

Mamoru tugged on Aya’s hand, urging his friend to walk a bit faster. Really, now, Aya’s legs were longer, so why was he going so slowly? If he didn’t pick up his pace, they would miss the movie.

"Aya, I want to see the whole movie, you know. Don’t make me miss the intro." He tilted his hat back enough so he could look pleadingly at him.

Aya sighed and started to walk faster. "We have twenty whole minutes before it starts, Mamoru. Relax."

"Hmph. Take a look at those lines and then tell me to relax." The movie theater was pretty packed, and he was beginning to worry the tickets would sell out before they got up to the counter. The American movie had been heavily hyped the past couple weeks, and the word of mouth about it was pretty good. "I wish we’d thought to get the tickets before we’d gone out to dinner."

"So do I. Why is it so busy?" Aya hunched his shoulders, clearly uncomfortable being in such a crowd. Mamoru felt sorry for his friend, especially when the teenaged girls in line behind them started to talk about Aya’s hair. They were wondering where they could go to get theirs dyed that color.

"Aya, you really must start watching television more often. There’s been ads for this movie for weeks and weeks." He needed to drag the man out of his apartment more often, he thought. It would be hard though, considering the only reason Aya was here with him now was to make up for Hirofumi’s behavior yesterday. He touched his sore cheek for a few seconds. It was worth the slap he’d received to have a fun night out, and he could probably ask his brother to buy him a new laptop now. Maybe he should feel a little ashamed of himself for planning on taking advantage of Hirofumi’s guilt, but he had to seize the opportunity while it was there for the taking.

"We’re never going to see the movie," he whined when the line hadn’t moved for five minutes. For a moment Mamoru thought about seeing if he could use his family name to get them a couple of seats for the movie, but Aya would kill him for that, and then his father would do the same when he went home. People would notice that he’d been in the company of a redheaded Japanese man, and some would recognize Aya, and then there would be trouble. Add Hirofumi to the list of people who would kill him for being so foolish.

Suddenly, several tickets to the show he wanted to see were shoved in front of his face. "You wouldn’t happen to be waiting in line for these, would you?" He looked to the side to see Yohji grinning broadly at him, and then back at the four movie tickets the blond was holding, and stared in disbelief for a few seconds. Then he let out a loud yelp of joy.

"Yohji-kun! Where did you get those tickets? What are you doing here?" He bounced up and down on his toes as he asked the questions, hoping that Yohji hadn’t shown him the tickets just to torment him.

Yohji laughed and motioned to the man standing beside him, whom, once Mamoru tilted his head to see beneath the brim of the man’s hat, he recognized as Hidaka Ken. Guess the man was trying to be ‘incognito’ like him.

"We were waiting in line for our own tickets when we spotted you two walk in. It’s hard to miss Aya with that head of hair, though it took me a moment to recognize him." Yohji leisurely looked Aya up and down, appearing to appreciate the sight of him in a pair of black Dockers and a long-sleeved shirt that matched the color of his eyes. "Looking good there, darling." Yohji drawled out the last word, and his eyes were sparkling with humor.

Aya glared at him and crossed his arms over his chest. "I’m not your darling. Are you waiting for friends to show up?" He waved his hand at the tickets.

"Well, if I’ve been elevated to ‘kun’ status, I thought you should get a special nick too." Yohji stuck his tongue out at Aya. "As for the tickets, when I spotted you I assumed you guys were here to see the same movie as us, so I bought them for you. You are, aren’t you?" Mamoru and Aya nodded. "Why don’t you get out of line so we can get our seats?"

It was officially confirmed, he now adored Yohji. Mamoru jumped up and hugged the man. "You’ll always be Yohji-kun from now on. Let’s go." He released Yohji, only to grab his hand and Aya’s and started to drag them toward the screening room.

He heard someone chortling, and when he looked over his shoulder he found Hidaka with his hand over his mouth, as if trying to hold back his laughter. He winked at the older man. "Aren’t you coming too? Sorry, but I don’t have an extra hand right now."

"Oh, I’m coming, it’s not often I see Aya and Yohji bossed around by someone half their size," Hidaka chuckled. Then the smile quickly left his face, probably because of the scowl Mamoru and his two friends were giving Hidaka. He hated it when people teased him about his size or how young he appeared. He also hated the comments about his hair and eye color, something he had in common with Aya, though he didn’t stand out in a crowd as much as his friend.

It took them a couple of minutes, but they were soon settled in their seats, with him and Aya in the middle, Yohji on the one end and Hidaka on the other. Of course Yohji had claimed the seat by Aya, so he felt a little sorry for Hidaka, who was sitting hunched in his chair and surrounded by strangers. Also, he owed him an apology about what had happened yesterday on the roof, but knew better than to bring it up right here. So he shifted in his seat, turning his back on Aya, whom Yohji was pestering about not wearing leather pants, of all things, and smiled at Hidaka.

"So, do you know much about this movie, uhm…?" It suddenly occurred to him that it might not be a good idea to mention the former athlete’s name in public.

Hidaka tensed, but when there was no mention of his name his shoulders slowly relaxed. "It’s okay, call me Ken. Yeah, I’ve seen the ads and talked to someone who saw the movie, so I have a pretty good idea of what’s going to happen." He smiled for the first time since being glared at a couple minutes before. "I’m glad we got here a little early for the tickets. It doesn’t look like there’s going to be enough seats for everybody in line."

"I know, that’s exactly what I was afraid of when I saw the crowd. I’m glad that Yohji spotted us." He smiled happily and bounced a little in his seat. "This is turning out to be such a great night." So much so that he didn’t want to go home. It occurred to him that he really didn’t have to, at least not to change and be ready for school the next day. He’d left his school uniform at Aya’s apartment and had changed into a spare set of jeans and a jersey that he’d left there, and he had some more clothes at the Sakakis’ for the few occasions he spent a night or two there. His father couldn’t care less if he didn’t come home tonight. Only Hirofumi and possibly Masafumi would give him any grief, but Hirofumi wouldn’t yell at him over *anything* for the next several days. Maybe he could sweet talk Aya into letting him spend the night. He could stay out later, then. It was just that he was having so much fun - first going to his favorite restaurant, and now seeing a popular movie that his father wouldn’t approve of - that he didn’t want the night to end.

"Are you and Yohji doing anything after the movie? I was thinking we could go for some dessert or something." He pitched his voice low, since the lights were dimming and the movie was about to start.

Hidaka gazed at him for a few seconds, and then looked past him, probably at Yohji. "I don’t know… Yohji has to head back home after this, but I wouldn’t mind."

Well, it would be nice if Yohji tagged along, but Mamoru didn’t let that get him down or disrupt his plans. "That’s okay, the three of us can do something without him. I know this great ice cream parlor." He smiled at Hidaka, who didn’t seem too sure about the idea. "Come on, you must like ice cream."

"I don’t know… I do, but I don’t know if Aya would like that."

"Oh, he won’t mind, not if I ask him. Dessert it is!" And after that, maybe they could head to an arcade for a few games. If this was supposed to be his night, then he wanted to make the most of it. It wasn’t often that he had a chance to do this kind of thing, and even more rare that Aya joined him in the fun. He would beg Aya to go for ice cream and the arcade if he had to, he just didn’t want to go right home after the movie. Was it really too much to ask that it not come to an end sooner than it absolutely had to?

Hidaka seemed to think about it, and in the dim light of the theater, Mamoru saw the man suddenly smile. "Well, if you can talk Aya into going, and I can watch you doing it, count me in. I’ve got nothing better to do tonight, anyway."

"Good! You better start thinking about what type of dessert you want right now, then." He smiled back at Hidaka, and then settled in his seat to watch the movie. Yohji finally stopped talking to Aya, something about him needing an extra hour of beauty sleep in the morning, and the four of them sat in silence as the credits started to roll across the movie screen.

*******

Aya checked the kitchen one more time, making sure there was no evidence left of the cooking lesson from earlier. It was spotless, so he shouldn’t have anything to worry about, and despite the effort it had taken to return it to its usually immaculate condition, it had been rather nice teaching Yohji how to cook.

The man hadn’t been kidding. He really didn’t know how to make the simple breakfast that Aya had decided upon for their first lesson, but he’d been a quick learner. Despite the mess, Yohji had done a very good job, and they’d happily sat down and eaten the fruits of their labor. While glad that he’d have another day to recover before the next lesson, he was also looking forward to spending more time with Yohji, and having an excuse to stand next to him, breathing in his spicy scent…. Yohji must have used a soap or lotion scented with cloves. Aya didn’t have a clue as to why he would smell of the spice if he didn’t.

He made himself derail that train of thought, to stop thinking of how nice it had been to stand next to the man, to feel his warmth and breathe deep his scent. Yohji hadn’t said anything today about what he’d been saying yesterday morning, and he’d been grateful for that. He still didn’t know where he stood on that matter. Logic told him he was insane to even be considering what Yohji had offered, yet he couldn’t find the strength to stay away from him like he should. So, for the time being, he was pretending that the discussion had never occurred.

Some beer was chilling in the fridge, so he started to light several candles about his living room, hoping their lavender scent would help Hirofumi remain calm this evening. When he was done, he went out to the living room balcony to check on his plants, and spent several minutes shaping the chrysanthemums, which were growing splendidly. At this rate, they would be even larger than last year.

"I think you must have been a gardener for the Imperial Garden in your past life."

Aya looked up from his plants and noticed that Hirofumi was standing at the sliding doors, a bemused expression on his face. He quickly set the pinched leaves and steams aside and hurried to the man’s side.

"Hiro, I didn’t hear you come in. How was your day? Do you want a beer?" As he talked, Aya helped Hirofumi to remove his suit jacket, and as soon as he was done and they were in his living room, Hirofumi pulled him close for a kiss. He could feel his lover’s hard arousal pressing against his thigh, and the kiss was particularly ardent, leaving him panting when it was broken off. He felt a stirring in his body, one that had been smoldering since Yohji’s lesson, and it quickened at Hirofumi’s touch. For once, he wouldn’t mind Hirofumi’s preferred method of relieving stress.

Hirofumi smiled at him as he ran a thumb along Aya’s bottom lip, and heartened by how relaxed Hirofumi appeared, he flicked his tongue at it as it swept past his skin. "Gods, Aya, you’ve just made my day worthwhile, and at the same time, you’re making the news I have to tell you even worse." Hirofumi groaned and bent his head for another kiss as his hands started to unravel the braid that held Aya’s hair back.

"Hmmm, my day was, in a word, awful." Hirofumi’s hands combed through his hair until it flowed unhindered down his back. "A beer would be great, and I have something for you, from Kikyou."

"Oh. Let me put this away and get the beer," Aya replied, a bit still short of breath. He smoothed his hand over the dark brown coat and walked towards the foyer closet, where he could hang it up. It was then he noticed the large blue and gold box that rested on the low table in his living room. Once the coat was disposed of neatly, he went to get their refreshments.

As he walked back into the living room, where Hirofumi was sitting amid some pillows, he wondered why it was he felt such a strong attraction for Yohji, but not for his lover of four years. Hirofumi was attractive, and while his body wasn’t as toned as Yohji’s, it was still in shape from his workouts and hunting expeditions. Many people would consider Hirofumi a good catch, and not for just his family connections, his… mental weakness aside. Yet all he’d ever felt for the man was friendliness and respect that had changed to tolerance mixed with distaste once they’d become ‘lovers’, and the occasional spark of lust when his body wanted release.

He set the beer down on the table, next to the box. "Here, let me help you with that." He batted away Hirofumi’s hands and completed the task the man had started, which was unraveling the dark gold tie and unbuttoning the top couple of buttons on the light gold shirt. "You said the present is from Kikyou?" he asked as he frowned at the box. What was his friend up to now?

Hirofumi nodded as he ran his hands over the light blue obi that was holding Aya’s dark blue and grey kimono closed, but didn’t try to loosen it before he reached for a beer bottle instead. "Yes. He sent it with one of the family’s security officers, along with his regrets that he would be missing your birthday by a day or two. He wanted you to have this before his late arrival in Tokyo for that event."

A little upset that he wouldn’t be able to celebrate his birthday on that day with Kikyou, Aya opened the gaily-wrapped box very carefully. Once the cardboard lid was lifted, a dark blue kimono decorated with pale fans adorned with lovely scenery was revealed, and he lifted up a corner to see a matching haori, with the pattern repeated on pale blue sections of the jacket, a pale blue nagajubon and dark blue hakama. Even with all the thick silk, the box felt heavier than it should, so he was careful not to pull anything out of the box. He would wait until later to discover Kikyou’s real gift.

"I’ll have to send him a letter with my regrets and my thanks," he replied as he set the present aside. Pausing to take a sip of his beer, he gazed at Hirofumi through his bangs, suddenly remembering what he’d said earlier. "You mentioned something about news, and it not being very good." He took a deep breath, wondering if he was about to set his lover off by bringing up the topic. "What was it?"

Hirofumi shook his head and quickly drained his beer, and when he was done he pulled Aya onto his lap, making him straddle his hips. Then he started to untie the obi. "Do you remember me mentioning a trip to South America after your birthday?"

"Yes." The feel of warm hands sliding inside his kimono and stroking his chest made him start to grow erect, and he thought idly that Hirofumi wouldn’t have to work very hard to wring a response from him today. "You’ll be traveling with your father as he visits several countries there. Weren’t…?" His breath hitched as his kimono and under robe were pushed down his arms, trapping them in the heavy silk. Hirofumi then worked on the loose pants he was wearing. "Weren’t you to be gone for almost two weeks?" He was really looking forward to that time.

His hips were lifted, and in a few seconds the pants were gone, along with his boxers, leaving him naked. Hirofumi settled him back on his lap, so Aya started to finish unbuttoning his shirt. If the news wasn’t very good, he’d need to make sure Hirofumi wasn’t upset, and for once he didn’t mind that task.

"You’re so very lovely, Aya." One of his nipples was licked, causing him to catch his breath. "It was to be a short trip, but I just found out today that it’s been extended. There’s to be an informal summit in the United States on what to do about North Korea, and Father has been invited to spend a couple of weeks there, including some time at the president’s private residence over the Fourth of July holiday week." Hirofumi shrugged out of his shirt. "We’ll be gone for over a month now, and we leave next week."

He was shifted about again, this time as Hirofumi pulled off his dark brown slacks, pausing to fish something out of their pockets before they were folded and set aside with the shirt and tie. "I wanted to break something when I heard the news," Hirofumi breathed against his neck as his hands urged Aya forward, as at the same time they parted his buttocks, making their erections rub together. "I even asked Father if I could join him after the holiday, but he is adamant that I be in attendance throughout the whole trip with him. I’m sorry, love, but I’m going to miss your birthday."

His neck was kissed a few times as Hirofumi’s mouth slowly moved up to his mouth. "It’s okay, Hiro. We’ll do something when you come back." He wasn’t in much of a hurry for a fancy dinner in a private room of some exclusive restaurant, or the bevy of gifts that he’d be given when they returned back here.

Hirofumi’s mouth latched on to his. There was the sound of something tearing, then slick fingers pressed against his opening. For a second Aya imagined it was Yohji kissing him and preparing him, and he couldn’t hold back a moan before he reined in his rebellious imagination. Hirofumi pulled back, his eyes heavy-lidded with desire and a smile on his face as his finger pressed in deep.

"So very lovely, and all mine. I want you so much, Aya, so much it hurts." Hirofumi’s hand stroked along his arousal, making him thrust into the loose grip, and then he was crying out as sparks of pleasure shot through his body.

"Hiro… please." He didn’t want to be teased tonight, he just wanted this ache to go away.

"Say it, Aya," he was told in a rough voice as another finger entered him and twisted about.

For once he didn’t care about the lies he had to mouth, not when he knew what they would lead to. "I want you, Hiro. Please…."

His breath coming in uneven gasps, Hirofumi twisted his fingers again. "What, Aya?"

He could tell his lover was enjoying this, enjoying him being unusually demanding. He ran his hands up Hirofumi’s sides and then raked his short nails down his back, just the way he liked him to do, at the same time squirming in his lap, rubbing against him and his dripping cock. "Fuck me, Hiro."

"Oh gods, Aya. I’d wanted to take my time tonight, but…." Aya was raised up a few inches and guided above Hirofumi’s cock, and then slowly lowered down. He gasped as his body was parted and invaded. Thick, hot flesh pressed into him and he pushed his hips down, taking it in even quicker. He’d use this rare spark of lust to spur Hirofumi on, to take his own pleasure and hasten this visit to its conclusion, and then one day would be over, one day of the week before he’d be free for a month. That thought alone had him gasping in pleasure, and he did it again as Hirofumi grunted and thrust into him, hitting his sweet spot.

Then Aya was suddenly pushed backwards, his back resting on the tatami floor and his hips on the pillows, Hirofumi kneeling between his thighs and thrusting forcefully into him while pulling on his hips to meet the slamming blows. "Is this what you want?" Hirofumi grunted as he rocked his hips forward with an ever more frantic pace, burying himself deeper with each thrust. "Is it?"

"Yes…." He felt his release building, a lovely tension that would wind tighter until he shattered, and for once he didn’t mind the sweat that dripped down upon him, the hands clenching his hips tight enough that he’d bear their marks for the next few days.

Hirofumi groaned and bent down to lick at his chest, a quick swipe before he resumed his thrusting. "I’m going to fuck you into the floor, Aya, I’m going to make you scream, and then I’ll do it again. I want to leave you drained and filled by me, to have your cries echo in my ears so when I’m sitting at that awful dinner tonight, all I’ll have to do is close my eyes to hear you and feel your body beneath mine."

Hirofumi made good on his words, making Aya cry out his name and thrash his head back and forth, his hair flying about and sticking to his sweat slickened skin. A hand took to stroking his neglected arousal, and suddenly the tension snapped, causing him to cry out again as he came.

Hirofumi thrust for another minute, his body shaking as he did, choking out Aya’s name again and again, and then he came, spurting as he pushed in as deep as he could. He then collapsed forward, resting against Aya’s chest as he panted.

Now that the bliss was fading, Aya felt the aches from the rough sex, the sensation of the mat floor pressing against his shoulders and back, the hair trapped beneath him and between his and Hirofumi’s body. Their skin was stuck together with sweat and his semen, and suddenly he felt dirty, felt the overwhelming urge to scrub his skin until he couldn’t feel the other man’s touch anymore. The escape, wanted or not, never lasted for long before the reality of the situation crashed down on him.

He shifted and realized that Hirofumi was still buried inside him. When he moved again his lover grasped his hips and stilled them, and nuzzled his neck before rising up on his arms and looking down at him. "Aya… I have four hours before I have to go to that damn dinner, and I’ll only be able to see you an hour or so here and there before I leave. Let me just feel you around me for as long as I can, and then make love to you again, as much as I can in this short while. I need something to get through the thought of four weeks without you." Hirofumi’s voice was rough and his eyes were filled with both sorrow and a hint of familiar insanity.

There really was no choice, and once again his wishes were to be ignored. However, for a month free of this, he could smile weakly at Hirofumi and nod his head, and part his lips and work up some semblance of enthusiasm when he was kissed.

"Aya… you have no idea how much I love you, of what I do for you. I don’t want you to be sad, or hurt. I’ll keep you safe and make you happy, forever." Hirofumi stroked the side of his face, his eyes shining with an almost madness that, even though it didn’t contain any rage, still made him uncomfortable and caused a chill to run up his spine. "I’ll take care of everything, I promise."

He swallowed and tilted his face into the caress. "I know you will, Hiro." He was kissed again as the hand trailed down his body. He closed his eyes and tried not to think how tender the touch and kiss were, not when all he wanted were the next four hours to be over, for this next week to be over. For a moment he wondered if Hirofumi ever noticed that he never said how much he loved him, a lie that he felt was too much for his feeble acting skills. Maybe, as delusional as the older man was, he knew not to push that far. His heart belonged to his sister and Ayumi, the two people who mattered most in his life, whom he suffered this for. He didn’t think it possible for him to love anyone else.

As the kiss continued, Aya imagined that the other mouth tasted of sake and cigarettes, and that he could feel a stubbled chin against his, long strands of hair falling onto his face. It helped the spark of desire to return, which would see him through the next few hours and closer to his month of peace.

*******

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