Cages

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chapter 7

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past acquaintances

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Ayumi sat in her tea room, her swollen fingers, which were causing her more pain than the usual that day, brushing along the rim of the sake set that she’d bought over forty years ago. She remembered the artist, a stocky young man with the thickest southern accent she’d ever heard, who had been quite talented. He’d just begun to be sought after before the accident with his kiln and his subsequent death. On rainy nights like this, the aches and pain of her old body would often cause her to reflect on how strange mortality and fate often were…. She hoped that Yohji and Aya arrived soon.

As if her prayers had been answered, Kohmi escorted Yohji into the room at that moment, a smile on both of their faces. Yohji leaned forward to kiss her on the cheek and then settled across from her as he set a chilled bottle of sake on the table.

"Ayumi, I swear you grow more beautiful each time I see you. I’m afraid one day I’ll walk in here and the sight of you will drive me mad, like cherry blossoms viewed in the light of a full moon," he waxed eloquently, his expression so serious that she couldn’t laugh in the face of such nonsense.

"Ah, you missed your calling as a poet, Yohji." She smiled demurely at him as she adjusted the fold of her violet kimono. "It must be the attentions of the two handsomest men in Tokyo that make me appear so lovely."

Yohji pouted as he tucked back a strand of his hair. "In Tokyo? Sweetheart, Aya and I are the handsomest men in the country. Dare I say the Eastern hemisphere as well?"

"Oh, did you think I meant you?" She batted her eyes at her friend. "I meant Aya and Mamoru." She couldn’t help but giggle at the flabbergasted look on his face.

He growled for a moment, his face contorted into an expression of rage similar to a Noh mask, but he couldn’t sustain the look for long before he sighed and shook his finger at her. "You… are a very naughty young lady. Someone should spank you, you know." Then the look became a leer. "I think that would be a wonderful idea…." He placed his hands on the floor and started to crawl over to her.

Ayumi let out a mock shriek of fear and started to wave the fan that had been tucked into her obi around, as if to keep Yohji at bay. "Oh no, I won’t let you try your perversions on me, you… you beast!"

Yohji laughed and crawled a little closer, just out of reach of her fan. "Come on, Ayumi, you know you’ll enjoy it. When I’m done, I’ll even kiss it to make it better."

"Oh!" He actually managed to bring a blush to her cheeks. "You… pervert! I swear, you must be a kitsune in disguise, with those green eyes of yours!" She giggled as she batted his outstretched hand away with her fan, making him pout for an instant before another leer broke out on his face.

"A kitsune, eh?" Yohji growled again as he rolled over, onto his back. "You wanna pull my tail?" That made her laugh even harder, causing her to choke repeating the word ‘pervert’.

"Am I interrupting something?" The sound of Aya’s weary voice had them falling silent in an instant, and they looked over to see him and Kohmi standing in the doorway, the older woman tutting quietly as she appeared scandalized, and Aya paler than normal, his hair damp and strands that weren’t tucked into a braid clinging to his face and neck.

"Ayan! You’re just in time to save me from this… this pervert!" She treated Yohji to an offended look, and had to bite on her lip to keep from laughing when he winked at her.

"Ohhh, sweetheart, I just love the way you say that word," he drawled as he rose to his feet and walked over to Aya. "The truth of the matter is I was barely able to fend her off. She’s in a lusty mood tonight." When Aya didn’t laugh, the two of them started to frown. He was normally tired after spending time with his lover, she thought, but Aya was quieter than normal this evening. She’d hoped he would shake off his melancholy mood and join in the teasing, but that didn’t seem to be the case. Had something happened tonight? Yohji quickly voiced her fears. "Is everything okay, Aya? Hiro… he didn’t…."

"No, he didn’t hurt me tonight, Yohji," Aya sighed as he sank to the floor, wincing slightly as he sat down on a pillow. She noticed that the skin on his arms and hands appeared red, as if from soaking in hot water, and that there were a couple of bruises on his neck. He noticed her attention and stared back at her, a small smile curving his lips and relieving the weariness in his eyes the slightest bit.

"Hiro told me some interesting news tonight. He leaves in a week’s time to travel with his father, and will be gone for a month or so." His voice grew stronger as he talked, his shoulders relaxing as he rested his folded hands on the table.

A whole month…. She smiled too, a show of restraint when she wanted to cry out with joy at the reprieve her friend was receiving. Then something else occurred to her. "Oh, Ayan! That means we can celebrate your birthday together! Where do you want to go to eat?"

"Birthday? It’s Aya’s birthday?" Yohji frowned in confusion. "You mean he was born like a normal human, not crafted out of sakura petals and camellias like I’d always thought?" When Aya glared at him, he chuckled and sat down beside him. "Sorry, I couldn’t resist that, and I’ve been told I’m quite the poet. When’s your birthday?"

"…. The fourth of July," Aya quietly replied. "I don’t want to do anything too fancy for that day, Ayumi." He appeared exhausted for a moment, his head falling down until his chin rested on his chest. Then he sighed and looked back up, rubbing his eyes as he did. "I’m sorry, I’m tired. Could I have some tea instead? I think having sake will put me to sleep right here."

"Of course, Aya." She glanced at Yohji. "Could you ask Kohmi to bring us some tea, please? Make it oolong." He quickly rose to his feet and hurried to do her bidding. She looked at Aya, and her hand reached out to rest on one of his. "Are you sure you’re all right? You look tired. You should have just stayed at home and rested."

He shook his head and patted her hand. "I just needed to get out of my apartment for a while. I’m fine. Hiro… just wanted as much of me as possible before he left." Aya’s cheeks flushed the tiniest bit, the color only noticeable due to his pallor. "He was rather affectionate tonight," he said dryly. "I shouldn’t see very much of him during the next week, though he asked me to stay at home so he could always reach me and stop by if an opportunity presented itself. I’m sorry to say that we’ll have to cancel our plans for tomorrow."

"It’s all right. We’ll have a whole month to spend together, and then he’ll be so busy when he comes back we’ll have even more time." A whole month of the darkness to be gone from Aya’s eyes, for the weariness to leave him. She’d have to arrange as many nights with him and Yohji as possible, and she swore to herself to have him laughing by the end of the first week. They’d have to do something special for his birthday, she’d have to talk to Yohji and Mamoru about what they could do. "Will Kikyou be here for your birthday?" His friend always tried to come to Tokyo to take Aya out on that date, or near it, if Hirofumi had already made plans for the night. Aya usually became very depressed on his birthday. She imagined it was from seeing another year of his life pass him by, another year spent as Hirofumi’s unwilling lover.

"No, he’ll stop by the day after. He sent me my present already, and there was a note inside it. Saijou will be entertaining that day, and wants him in Kyoto for the event." Aya glanced aside at Yohji, who had returned, a tray in his hands.

"Well, I worked my wiles on Kohmi," Yohji declared with a wicked grin on his face, "and as soon as she’s done swooning she’ll start whipping up a batch of those famous brownies of hers, and top them with ice cream." He sat down and pushed the tray closer to Ayumi. "I hope she recovers soon, I only have an hour or so before I have to go to work." He smiled at Aya. "Do you think you’ll be rested enough for breakfast tomorrow? I’ll do the cooking again. Well, after you show me how."

"I should be," Aya replied. "We’d best stick with breakfasts this week, since if Hiro shows up, it will be around lunch or in the evening." He seemed to notice her perplexed look since he shook his head as he ran his fingers along the top of the table. "I’m teaching Yohji to cook."

"Ah, thousands of fast food and delivery chains will find their businesses failing when that happens," she bantered, and even Aya smiled at the look Yohji treated her to for the comment. "Come now, Yohji, since you moved here the guards are very familiar with the delivery men of all the surrounding restaurants. They even call you to place orders for them." She checked the tea, which Kohmi had made, and decided that it had steeped long enough. She poured Aya a cup and handed it to him, and got another ghost of a smile, this time in gratitude. It seemed that the news of Hiro’s trip was already cheering her young friend. "Would you like some tea, Yohji?"

"No, I think I’d rather have the sake," he answered, his attention focused on their companion, who lifted the tea to his mouth and blew on the hot liquid. Aya was wearing a white yukata with pale green bamboo shoots, which made his eyes and hair appear brighter. For a moment Ayumi drank in the sight of him, enjoying his beauty, and then she glanced back at Yohji, who was dressed in a pair of black leather pants and a grey, clingy silk shirt. They were sitting almost side by side, a contrast of complexion and styles. Yet their differences only seemed to complement each other.

She poured the sake for Yohji and herself, a smile tugging on her lips at her thoughts. Maybe it was just her imagination, picturing the two of them belonging at each other’s side, but since the men had become friends Aya’s eyes had regained a little of the light that had been fading from them, the same gleam that she’d noticed appearing in Yohji’s the past couple of weeks. Then there were the cooking lessons, something that Aya hadn’t offered anyone else, not even Sakura.

"Still, the delivery boys’ losses will be the grocers’ gain, I suppose. And it will be hard for Yohji to get into trouble if he’s busy shopping." She handed Yohji a cup of the sake. "I hear some of the younger women here are upset with you. Are you breaking their hearts already? You evil kitsune."

"Heh, just call me Inari," Yohji chuckled. He sipped the sake and sighed in appreciation. "No, I upset a couple of them for failing to agree that Maki getting tossed out on her ass is a bad thing. I can’t wait - only three more weeks and she’s gone for good. Did they really have to give her a month to find someplace else to live?"

She reached out and slapped him on his knee. "For shame, Yohji, there’s no need to be so rude. Maki will be gone soon enough, maybe even before her month is done." She’d allowed the woman that long to remain here out of simple courtesy, and she’d be happy to see her gone before she tried anything else against Yohji.

"I imagine we won’t see much of her since she’ll be busy looking for a new patron or job," Aya quietly commented. He held his cup of tea against his chest, and appeared more relaxed than when he’d first arrived. "That’s usually the way things go when someone leaves here." They exchanged a brief look, and Aya’s eyes dimmed, probably in remembrance of how things usually ended for those people.

"More tea, Ayan?" When her friend held out his cup, she refilled it and then sat back on her heels. "She’s hard at work on that already. Kohmi told me about how she and several others are going golfing tomorrow, so she can try to find a rich man." She tsked and shook her head. "On a golf course, no less. I don’t know what your generation thinks at times." She tapped her bottom lip and shook her head some more. "Actually I almost never know what your generation thinks. A golf course. It seems so… vulgar." Not at all like the festival where she’d met Natsuo.

Yohji chuckled and rested his elbows on the table. "Well, there are a lot of rich men on golf courses since memberships are so expensive. She’s bound to meet a lot of them, especially if she goes to the clubhouse after a few rounds. It’s not the most romantic approach, but she’ll do well. I’ve met a couple of clients that way." His eyes grew shadowed for a moment, and his smile weakened. "Anyway, I’ll be glad when she’s gone, and my laundry’s safe." He looked at Aya, his eyes lighting up as he did. "Speaking of which, I need to do some more tomorrow, how about you?"

Aya nodded as he rubbed the back of his neck. "I’ll have a couple of loads to hang out as well. We can do it after your cooking lesson; I can leave the apartment since I have a cell phone, I just can’t be very far from it in case Hiro stops by."

"Then it’s a date." Aya rolled his eyes at that comment, but Yohji shared a wink with her. She quickly refilled his sake cup and then her own, looking forward to an hour or so of joking and flirting, the three of them relaxing and having fun. It was a shame that Yohji had to leave soon, but at least they had this time together.

Yohji leaned closer to her and pretended to whisper in her ear. "He’s crazy about me, you know."

"Hmmm, you evil kitsune, you’ve clearly put a spell on him already." She waved her finger in front of his face a couple of times. "You better treat him well, or I’ll take him to a shrine to have it broken."

Aya groaned and buried his face in his hands. "Why do I have the impression that the two of you becoming friends was the worst thing that could have happened to me?"

"I think someone is a bit paranoid," Yohji tsked, and then leaned closer to her again, his voice again pitched low. "So all I have to do is treat him well and you won’t complain?" His eyes sparkled mischievously when she nodded her head. "Goody. Now the fun can really begin."

Aya groaned again, and she couldn’t help but laugh at the sound. She lifted her cup in the air. "Let us drink to that."

*******

 

Mamoru looked up from his homework when he heard Aya berating Yohji for folding his sheets wrong. He smiled as the handsome blond hung his head in mock shame while Aya folded the sheet himself, explaining all the while why he wanted them folded lengthwise first for the center crease. Trust Aya to have a preferred method for folding laundry.

Ken echoed his thought. "Does it really matter how the sheets are folded? I think Aya needs to get a new hobby."

"Well, he does take his housekeeping very seriously," he defended his friend. "It’s when he starts arguing about the tea towels that I’ll worry." They exchanged a smile and then returned their attention back to Yohji and Aya.

Yohji was holding one end of another sheet as they folded it together, and when he brought his end to meet Aya’s, he grabbed the man’s hands and started to waltz him around the rooftop. Aya called out that if his sheet got wrinkled or dirty, Yohji was going to be up here tomorrow, hanging it up to dry after washing it. Other than that, Aya allowed himself to be spun around for a minute or two, until they came back to the clothing line. Then he stepped away from Yohji, busy inspecting the sheet.

"You’re lucky it’s not wrinkled, or I’d have made you iron it," Aya gravely informed his dance partner.

Yohji reached out and tugged on a lock of Aya’s hair. "What you mean is you’d have made me burn the thing with an iron. I don’t do sheets, darling." He let out a meep and pretended to hide behind some drying laundry when Aya glared at him.

Ken was chuckling, and Mamoru felt the urge to laugh as well. "I think you should have him iron all the laundry, Aya, and watch over him to make sure he doesn’t scorch anything," he called out.

Yohji looked over his shoulder and glared at him. "Thanks, kiddo, for giving him ideas. Next movie night, there will be no shrimp and soba noodles."

"Oh, you’re so mean, Yohji-kun." He clutched at his chest as if it caused him pain and fell backward, landing on the backpack he’d brought his homework in. "Now I have no will to live."

"Yeah, well make sure to live long enough to help us take all this laundry downstairs, and then you can die of heartbreak," Yohji grumbled. "Hey, Aya! Watch how you fold those pillowcases, you’re doing it wrong."

"Idiot. Go play on the edge of the roof, why don’t you?" Mamoru sat up in time to see Yohji stalk over to Aya and to start teasing him some more about how the pillowcases needed to be folded. Aya called him an idiot again and slipped the case in his hands over Yohji’s head.

"You know, I never thought I’d see Aya of all people playing around with, well, anyone." Ken commented as he just sat there, watching the horseplay as he sipped on a sports drink. "He just never seemed the type."

Mamoru stood up and started to take down the towels that were hanging by them, no longer interested in his homework. He’d finish it up after dinner, when Yohji would leave to get ready to ‘work’, and Ken would return to his apartment to wait for his roommate. "Well, he’s not the prankster that Yohji is, but he has his moments." Mostly when Yohji was around.

The past week had been an interesting one, with Aya having most of his afternoons and evenings free so they could hang out together, and Yohji and Ken usually showing up. It had been a little awkward, that first night out when it had been the four of them, especially after Yohji had left. But once he’d gotten some ice cream into them, Ken and Aya had haltingly begun to talk to each other. They weren’t exactly buddies… but they no longer seemed to mind being in each other’s company, and would even joke a little with each other.

While he missed having Aya to himself, he had to admit that it was very nice to hang out with Yohji and Ken. Ken and he had hit it off, once the former athlete had gotten over his discomfort with Aya and his past being exposed. It seemed to have taken Yohji and Aya a little longer to get used to his presence, but they were now back to teasing each other, or at least, Yohji teasing Aya and Aya putting him in his place.

"Yeah, though I don’t know if that’s a good thing for Yohji." Ken laughed when Yohji, who had just pulled the pillowcase off his head, started to bitch about his hair being messed up. "Oh, stop being such a wuss, Yohji."

Looking their way, Yohji made a face and gave Ken the finger. "Shouldn’t you be doing something other than just sitting on your ass, Ken? Like taking down your own damn laundry?" An evil glint entered Yohji’s eyes. "Wait, just keep on sitting there, I’ll look after your stuff."

Ken sighed and rose to his feet. "Yeah, by rolling everything into a ball so it’ll be wrinkled. I’ll do even worse than Aya. I’ll get the staff here to iron it, and make you pay the bill."

Mamoru laughed at the expression of terror on Yohji’s face. "I think he means it, Yohji-kun."

"Probably, since he’s such a sadistic bastard." Yohji tossed the pillowcase over his shoulder and started to take down his shirts. "What’s the matter, Kenken? Not getting enough loving at home? Do you want me to see to those needs of yours?"

Ken blushed and tossed a couple of clothespins at his friend. "Not on your life, Yohji. Pervert."

"That’s why you love me, Kenken," Yohji smirked, the expression growing more evil when Ken snorted at the remark.

He couldn’t help but smile at his friends’ banter, and for a moment he wondered if this was what having older brothers was supposed to be like. Hirofumi sometimes teased him, though nothing like this, and Masafumi would, every now and then, corner him and give him some unsolicited advice, usually about the latest figures on teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases and drugs, leading to a very uncomfortable but well-meaning conversation. They appeared to care for him, but there was just too much difference in their ages and his brothers were too busy to spend much time with him for there to be much affection. That’s why he liked spending time with Ouka, when she wasn’t surrounded by her silly friends, and with Aya. Now he had Yohji and Ken, too.

Maybe, since Hirofumi had left today, they could go out later tonight or even tomorrow and see a movie or have some dessert. It was going to be fun spending as much time as he wished at Aya’s, or down at Ken’s, playing video games. As much as he loved his brother, he wished that Hirofumi would stay away for even longer. At least his father would be gone at the same time. That was the best part of the trip, in his mind. A month free to hang out with his friends and not hear about what a disappointment he was to his family. He wished that his father would never come back.

*******

Aya and Ayumi walked around the small park near the Hanabatake, enjoying the slight breeze that helped to cool down the sunny, summer day. They’d decided on a walk in the late morning, before the heat became too oppressive.

"Ah, I’m glad it’s not so humid today. As much as I love to see everything blooming, I hate summers in Tokyo," Ayumi said.

"Hmmm, it is a nice day." Summer had never been his favorite season, but he had to admit that it was a lovely day as they strolled in the shade beneath maple trees.

"Yes, it is. We should have brought Yohji with us, so he could enjoy it as well. The lazy boy is probably still in bed." Ayumi tapped her bottom lip as she looked up at him, and for a moment she looked decades younger than her eighty years, dressed as she was in a lavender kimono decorated with roses. Aya’s sister had had a kimono just like it….

He shook his head to dispel the thought before he became sad. "No, we had breakfast together, and when I mentioned our walk to him, he said he had a few things to take care of before he’d be free for the day. I told him I’d let him know when we returned, and maybe we could all have some tea together."

Ayumi smiled at him and patted his arm. "The two of you just want some more sponge cake, I know it. I might," she drawled, "have enough for two handsome men who stop by later. Maybe."

"Temptress. And you call Yohji a kitsune. I should check the hem of your kimono for any tails peeking out," he chided his friend.

She laughed and bent her head so it rested on his arm for a second. "Yes, I think that’s why Yohji and I get along so well, we’re two of a kind. But where does that leave you, Ayan?"

"Putting up with the two of you," he replied forlornly, and had to smile, just the littlest bit, when his arm was pinched.

"Shame on you, Ayan, being cruel to such an old lady as me." Ayumi pouted prettily for a few seconds. "I know, you’re a cat, you wicked thing. Maybe I’ll get you a ball of string and some catnip for your birthday, and a pretty collar with a silver bell, so I can hear you approach when you come calling."

"How about just taking me out for some sashimi instead?" He almost smiled again at the face she made, and finally did when she pulled out her fan and lightly tapped his arm.

"Bad cat." They walked along in silence for a couple of minutes, attracting the odd look or two from the other people out enjoying the day. He knew he must be quite a sight, escorting Ayumi about in his black and white kimono, his hair pulled back in a braid. He was mostly used to the looks by now. As long as he didn’t hear mention of his family name he could ignore them and concentrate on the blooming flowers that they passed.

Ayumi motioned at an empty bench that was in the shade, so they walked over to it and sat down. "Honestly, Aya, I would appreciate some suggestions for your birthday. It’s not very far away now, so I won’t have more than a week to plan for it."

He patted her hand as he leaned back in the bench. "Something quiet, that’s all I ask. We can go out to eat, or stay at home, it doesn’t matter." As far as he was concerned, he’d already had his present, which was Hirofumi going away. His lover had only been gone a short time, and he’d treasured each day. It was nice not having to worry about being away from his apartment for too long, or how much time he spent with Yohji and Ayumi. It was nice to sleep alone in his bed. "You don’t have to do anything at all."

"But I want to," she said, sounding exasperated. "This is the first year that I don’t have to compete with Kikyou or Hiro for you, and I want to do something special. Besides, Yohji and Mamoru are planning on celebrating with us, and there’s been mention of Hidaka joining us, as well." She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. "Mamoru seems quite taken with him."

"He’s not that bad," he told her. "I can see why Mamoru and Yohji are friendly with him." It was still a surprise to him that he had somehow become friends with Hidaka. It was all Yohji and Mamoru’s fault, but he didn’t mind it that much. The gossip around the Hanabatake focused on how odd it was for the four of them to have become friends, but nothing invidious was being implied, for once. If word ever reached Hirofumi about his new friends, there would be nothing for him to be upset over, especially since he wasn’t hanging out with just Yohji. The fact that Mamoru was there should help convince his lover that nothing romantic was happening, even if Aya’s true feelings for his neighbor were more than those of just a friend. And if anyone saw Yohji flirting with him, they would soon see the handsome blond do the same with Hidaka moments later, and then even tease Mamoru.

"Well, be careful around him. I haven’t heard anything bad about Hidaka, but I don’t like the rumors about his lover." Ayumi then sighed happily as she stretched out her legs. "I may not like the heat, but my poor joints certainly appreciate it. Now if only it won’t rain for a day or two I’ll be very happy."

"I’ll see what I can do about that," he informed her solemnly, and bit back on a laugh when she tapped him again with her fan.

"You’re just as wicked as Yohji and I, you’re just less obvious about it. I’ll get you some catnip plants for your birthday." She gave him a mock glare as she put the fan away. "Give my poor joints another few minutes to rest, and then we’ll return home, and Yohji can put up with you for a while." The glare was transformed into a breathtaking smile, one that made her again appear decades younger than she was. "I can watch the two of you tease each other, my favorite pastime, lately."

"I don’t tease him," he said quickly. "He teases me."

"Of course, Ayan, of course," she said in a patronizing voice. "Think what you will."

*******

Yohji heard a knock on his door and hurried over to open it, not bothering to check and see who it was first, since he thought he knew who it was. Aya and Ayumi should be back by now, so maybe he was being invited to tea. Or maybe Aya was just stopping by to talk. Hoping it was the latter, and that he could spend some time alone with him, he tossed open the door and stared in confusion at the tall man who’d been knocking, a baseball cap tugged low on his head, its brim hiding his face. It took him several seconds to recognize the stranger’s build, and by then it was too late to slam the door shut. Gensai shoved his way inside, pushing Yohji back into his apartment and closing the door behind him.

"Get the fuck out, y-" The blow to his stomach knocked the wind out of him, and as he fell to his knees, Gensai grabbed him by his hair and dragged him further towards the living room. Yohji struggled to breathe as he twisted in his ex-client’s hold, his hands scrabbling at the large hand gripping his hair, scratching Gensai’s skin.

"Stop that, you slut." Gensai tossed him into the couch and punched him in the stomach again, before he could manage to scramble away or strike back. Yohji’s brain seemed to be broken. It kept telling that this had to be some sort of dream, because this sick fuck couldn’t have possibly gotten past the Hanabatake’s security and be beating him up.

"Are you surprised to see me? Did you think you’d gotten rid of me? You damn slut, fucking everyone but me." Gensai’s voice was thick with anger. "Where’s your fag boyfriend now? How are you going to kick me out this time?" Each question was punctuated with another blow, either to his stomach or head.

A vicious slap to his face had him coming back to his senses, and he managed a wild swing that connected with Gensai’s arm and knocked it aside. He followed it with a punch to his chest, causing Gensai to fall back enough so that he could scramble off the couch, but he didn’t get more than a couple of steps before his leg was grabbed and yanked out from under him, causing him to fall to the floor.

Yohji landed poorly, his wrist caught underneath him and twisting painfully, his chin smacking into the carpet and scraping along it as the rest of his body joined it on the floor. As soon as he came to a rest, a weight settled onto his back, followed by a blow to his kidneys that had him gasping in pain. Then he was rolled over.

Gensai grabbed him by the neck, his large hands encircling it, his fingers digging into his flesh, and as they tightened. Yohji’s head was lifted up and slammed back down onto the floor several times. "What’s the matter, Yohji? You don’t seem happy to see me." That blow made him see stars, and his chest started to burn from lack of air. "Nice place you got here, very nice. I wouldn’t expect a half-breed whore like you to have something like this. Do you think you’re too good for me now that you have a fancy place and a fag boyfriend? Huh?"

His hands clawed weakly at Gensai’s, and finally the bastard let go of his throat. All he could do was suck in lungfuls of air. Just when he seemed to have gotten back his breath, he was slapped again. Gensai stared down at him, his eyes narrowed in anger, his face red and his breath ragged. The worst was feeling his attacker’s arousal pressing against his stomach, and knowing the sick bastard was getting off on hurting him. He tried to shift backwards and escape.

"Do you think you’re too good for me, you fucking whore?" Before he could answer he was slapped again – hard enough to rattle his brains in his skull - and as his vision started to blacken, he felt his jeans being tugged at. "You know, I’ve been checking up on you, trying to track you down since you dropped me as if I was the filthy one here." Now Gensai’s voice was smoothing out, slowly becoming calmer. He sounded as if he was gloating. "They say that you always do the fucking, that you won’t accept being bottom, no matter how much money is offered. It’s not just me that you turned down, and a lot of people out there would love to have you. I think you’re an uppity little prick who needs to be taught his place, that you’re just a whore. Maybe if I fuck your ass bloody, you won’t mind returning the favor anymore. Maybe you’ll know to listen to your betters, then, you fucking whore."

Yohji could feel it when the first button of his jeans was loosened, and he again tried to force his battered body to move. This wasn’t happening, it couldn’t be. He wasn’t about to be raped in his own home, by Gensai of all people. He had to be dreaming.

"Ge’ off me, you sick fu-ck," he groaned as he tried to scramble away, his legs kicking out. Gensai’s face became even redder, and slammed a meaty fist into his stomach, and it was all he could do to not throw up, his body stilling as he was dragged towards Gensai, as hands again started to work on his jeans.

"I won’t be tossed aside by a fucking whore," the bastard snarled as he undid another button. "You’ll never do that to me again, not when I’m done with you."

*******

Aya walked into the Hanabatake with Ayumi on his arm, and the sound of a woman’s laughter caught his attention as the din of traffic died out behind the closed door. He nodded at the guard who smiled at the two of them, and then glanced over at the elevator. There were a couple of people standing there, including Maki, who was still laughing. She was wearing a short red skirt that barely covered her butt, red stilettos and a tight black halter-top. She was escorting a very tall, stocky gentleman up to her apartment, a man dressed in khakis and a polo shirt, with a green and white baseball cap tugged low on his head so it was hard to see his face. Something about him seemed familiar, causing Aya to frown as he tried to place the man.

"Ah, I see she’s working hard to find a new patron," Ayumi commented quietly. "I wonder if he knows what he’s getting into with her."

He was saved from having to comment, and was distracted from trying to figure out where he’d seen the stranger before, when Shizuka walked over to them and bowed.

"Ayumi-sama, Aya-sama, a pleasure to see the both of you looking so well. How are things with you? Is there anything I can assist you with?" The concierge glanced at Ayumi when he asked the last question, making Aya wonder if he was eager to kick out another resident.

"No, Shizuka-san, we’re quite content at the moment, aren’t we, Aya?" She looked up at him and smiled before she returned her attention to Shizuka.

"Yes, we are." He nodded at the concierge. "Please pass on my appreciation to the gentlemen who have been cleaning the outside of my greenhouse. They are doing a wonderful job." Much better than the last people, who had always left streaks on the glass panes.

Shizuka beamed at him. "I will certainly do so, Aya-sama. I’ve gotten several compliments about those two already. They are hard workers who take pride in their jobs." He went on to talk about the new changes he’d made to the staff, with Ayumi joining in and reminiscing about various workers from the past, and Aya almost had to smile at the obvious pride the two felt towards the Hanabatake, and their joy at seeing the place run so well.

He stood there, Ayumi’s hand tucked into the crook of his elbow, and merely listened to them talk. He was in no hurry to return to his apartment, and Ayumi appeared happy chatting away. It was the guards’ shift change that had him remembering where he’d seen the stranger with Maki before, and he felt a chill run up his spine as he shivered.

Ayumi stopped talking to Shizuka and looked up at him. "Is everything alright, Aya?"

"I need to go check on something." He removed her hand from his elbow and gazed at Shizuka. "I… I’m afraid there might be someone here who shouldn’t be, someone Kudoh-san asked not to be allowed inside. I’m going to check up on him and find out if that’s true."

The concierge’s smile faded away and he straightened his shoulders, his demeanor now thoroughly professional. "Please, inform us if that is indeed true, and we will handle the matter. Would you like some guards to go with you while you investigate this matter? Maybe they should do that instead of you. I can have them check up on Kudoh-san."

"Let me make sure first." If he was mistaken, it wouldn’t be good for the guards to rough up a patron, and he didn’t want to attract too much attention to the matter if that was the case. He patted Ayumi’s hand and nodded as she called out for him to be careful, and then he hurried behind the counter in the lobby, startling the young woman working there, and quickly made his way to the service elevator. It would take too long to wait for the other one, and he didn’t want to have to worry about it stopping for other residents.

Aya ran out of the elevator as soon as it opened on his floor, heading down the hall towards Yohji’s room. He banged on his friend’s door, cursing under his breath as he waited for a response. Yohji should be home. He’d mentioned it at breakfast this morning, and had invited him to stop by after his walk with Ayumi. Granted, he could have gone down to Ken’s, or be indisposed and unable to answer the door, but Aya had a very bad feeling about this and couldn’t be bothered to wait any longer. It had already been several minutes since Maki and the stranger had come upstairs. For a moment he thought that maybe he should go to her apartment and check up on the man there, but if his suspicions were correct, he didn’t want to risk leaving Yohji alone while he went running off.

Aya quickly unlocked his apartment door and hurried towards his bedroom, stripping off his kimono but leaving on his under-robe and pants, and keeping the obi. Once there, he grabbed the katana that rested on a black lacquered shelf and ran to his living room, heading for the balcony. Yohji and he shared a common wall along their living rooms, and their balconies were only about three meters apart. He strapped his katana to his back with the obi and then shifted the trellis of jasmine that acted as a privacy screen between the two balconies. Yohji had either be in trouble or not at home; Aya would kill his friend if he managed to get into his apartment, armed with a katana, and found him taking a bath.

Climbing onto the ledge, he took a deep breath and forced himself to calm down. It wasn’t a very big jump, and he’d done it before, but he refused to look down at the street below. Yes, Yohji better damn well appreciate this, even if he didn’t need help. After a few deep breaths he leapt across the empty space, his arms catching on to the stone flower boxes on Yohji’s balcony, his legs dangling thirteen stories above the street as he gritted his teeth and hauled himself onto the ledge, scattering flowers everywhere, even over the ledge to fall to the ground.

Once he was safely on Yohji’s balcony, his breath coming in gasps and his hands and arms scraped from the stone ledge, he straightened up and checked that his katana hadn’t been lost in the jump. It would be his luck to lose the one family heirloom he’d managed to keep over a stupid stunt like this, but if Gensai had managed to get to Yohji, he’d need more than his knife to discourage the man this time. Aya edged closer to the glass doors, which were closed, and then tried to slide them open. As he’d suspected, Yohji didn’t bother locking them, not when he was so high up and constantly going in and out to smoke.

As the door opened, he caught the sound of someone talking, someone other than Yohji, in a voice rough with anger. He paused to untie the katana, as it appeared he would need it after all. Why couldn’t Yohji have been out?

"I won’t be tossed aside by a fucking whore. You’ll never do that to me again, not when I’m done with you."

There was a low mumble from Yohji, and as Aya slipped into the room, he heard the sound of flesh smacking flesh. He snuck around the couch and saw Yohji lying on the floor, the stranger from downstairs, now minus his hat, straddling the blond. It was definitely Gensai, and he slapped Yohji again before fumbling at Yohji’s jeans.

Aya took a deep breath and held his katana at the ready, the sheath still on the blade. He then dashed forward, swinging the weapon at Yohji’s attacker and striking him across the right shoulder. Gensai let out a shrill cry of pain as he rolled off Yohji, clutching his right arm as he fell. Wary of the man’s longer reach, Aya struck out again, hitting him in the chest with the end of his katana and knocking him farther away from his friend. He took up guard over Yohji and slowly unsheathed the katana, letting the sheath fall to the floor as he rotated the blade, causing the light to reflect off the oiled steel.

Gensai’s eyes went wide at the sight, and for a few seconds they just stared at each other, the older man with growing fear and Aya making it perfectly clear that he would follow through with his threat from the previous week. Then Gensai started to scramble backwards, and as Aya stood there watching, he shakily stood to his feet and ran from the apartment.

When he felt sure that Gensai wouldn’t be returning, Aya lowered his sword and glanced down at Yohji.

His friend was badly beaten, his face swollen and red, blood dripping from a cut on his cheek. Yohji groaned and slowly tried to sit up. Aya lent a hand until Yohji was sitting on the floor, hunched over his stomach, one hand resting on the mostly open fly of his jeans. Seeing Yohji’s condition, Aya wished he’d gone after Gensai. As it was, it was a very good thing that he hadn’t gone to Maki’s. Somehow he’d make sure that the bastard would never be able to bother Yohji again.

*******

Yohji groaned as he sat up, his stomach hurting like hell, almost as much as his head, neck and wrist. His right hand fumbled at the crotch of his jeans, feeling the open buttons and, more importantly, those which were still closed. Part of him felt like laughing, if he didn’t think it would hurt too much to do so. All he could think of was that he was never going to put up with people disapproving of his tight jeans anymore, not when they’d given Gensai so much trouble….

"Are you…." Aya’s quiet voice faltered, and then he cleared his throat. "Will you be okay?"

He considered the question for a moment as he flexed his sore wrist. It didn’t seem broken. "Yeah, I will be." He looked up at Aya and stared, taking in the sight of his usually immaculate friend standing there with his hair escaping his braid, a scratch on his cheek and all along his hands and arms, wearing a dirty light blue under robe and hakama that appeared to have been rubbed against concrete, and then he finally noticed the katana. He had a dozen questions he wanted to ask, yet all his fuddled brain could come up with was "How the fuck did you get in here, and where’s Gensai?"

"One moment." Aya bent down to pick up the sheath to his katana, his crimson braid brushing along the floor as he did, and then he straightened up and walked over to the phone. He quickly dialed some numbers and then waited for a second. "Hello, this is 13E." He paused for a second. "Ah, Shizuka-san, this is Aya. It’s as I feared, and the man, Gensai, had broken into here." Another pause. "He’s fine, but could use the services of a doctor, just to make sure. I’m afraid his attacker got away." Aya was quiet, and then nodded his head at something that was said on the other end of the line. "I understand. Yes, it’s regrettable; I should have had the guards come with me, but I feared making a scene if I’d been wrong. I’ll call the police and have Kudoh report this incident. Yes, I do believe it would be for the best. Thank you very much." He set the katana down on the coffee table but held onto the phone, and then returned to Yohji.

"Are you telling me that the sick fuck got away?" Yohji asked as Aya helped him stand up. Gods, his stomach really hurt, and he was pissed as all hell that Gensai was getting away with doing this to him. He wanted to gut the bastard with Aya’s sword. "Is that what’s so regrettable? And what’s the deal with calling the police? I told you, they won’t take me seriously."

Aya gently touched his face and frowned when he flinched from the touch. "Shizuka informed me that he’d have the guards on the lookout for Gensai, but that it was possible that he’d make it out of the building before they could find him. Now, just one moment." He dialed another number and held the cordless phone to his ear.

Something wasn’t right here, and if his head didn’t hurt so much, he’d be able to figure it out. "What do you mean, he might get out first? We’re up on the…." Aya was holding up his hand, clearly motioning him to be quiet.

"I’ll explain later. It’s best you don’t know the truth until they’ve come and gone." After that cryptic statement Aya returned his attention to the phone. "Yes, I’d like to speak with Kitada-san, please. Yes, I’ll hold." Aya glanced at him. "You really need to get some ice on those bruises, and it looks like you’ll need to see a doctor for your cheek. One should be here shortly." Before Yohji could ask anything about who Aya was talking to and what doctor, he was again motioned silent. It was getting very irritating.

"Kitada-san? This is Aya." Aya waited for a few seconds, and Yohji thought he heard a female voice on the other end of the line. "Yes, that’s correct. I’m sorry to bother you, but I fear there’s been an incident at my neighbor’s, and he needs to file a police report. He was assaulted." Aya’s violet eyes assessed Yohji for a moment, a bit colder than normal, and he shivered under their regard. "He’s a bit bruised, but otherwise seems fine." Aya sighed as he tucked back a strand of his hair. "Yes, that will be fine, we’ll wait here for them. And Kitada-san… I’d appreciate this matter being kept private. I don’t want to worry anyone needlessly over the matter, since I wasn’t in any danger. Good, I thought you’d understand. Thank you very much."

Aya sighed as he tossed the phone onto the couch and then rubbed his eyes. When he was done, he seemed to notice how scratched up his hands were and lowered them to his sides. "What happened, Yohji?"

"That’s what I’d like to know right now," he grumbled, but when he was glared at, he slowly let out a breath. "I… I need to sit down." He took a couple of trembling steps toward the couch, and when Aya didn’t follow him, he looked over his shoulder at the man. "Aren’t you joining me?" He didn’t want Aya to be too far away from him for some odd reason, and he suddenly felt better when his friend nodded and walked over to the couch, setting aside the phone before he sat down.

Yohji moaned as he lowered his sore body to the cushions, but it felt good to be off his feet. Aya shifted closer to him and pulled at some fabric that was wrapped around his waist, folding it up after removing it and then handing it over. He accepted the silk and pressed it against his cut cheek. Damn, it figured that Gensai had to have worn a ring today. Yohji hoped the cut wouldn’t leave a scar. Then he realized he was worrying about something as silly at that when he’d almost been raped and beaten to death, and wondered if he was suffering from shock.

"Yohji…." Aya’s voice sounded worried.

"Give me a minute, Aya. I’m not firing on all cylinders right now." He leaned back against the couch. "Okay. I heard a knock on the door, and I went to open it, assuming it was you or Ayumi. It wasn’t." He tried to make a face at his stupidity, but it hurt too much. "Gensai pushed me aside and came in, and then started to beat the shit out of me. I told you he was strong, didn’t I? I just love being proved right. And then you came from nowhere. Just so you know, I think I love you. Let’s get married, or would you prefer to live in sin?"

Hearing how silly he was sounding, he closed his eyes as he thought about how close he’d come to being raped, and maybe worse, if it hadn’t been for Aya. "How did you know?"

Aya’s hand lightly brushed aside the hair that was falling in Yohji’s face, and the touch was soothing, despite the pain. "I saw him enter the elevator with Maki, though it took me a while to recognize him. Even then, I wasn’t completely sure, which is why I came up here by myself. When you wouldn’t answer the door, I… came in through the balcony. You know the rest."

Aya came in through the balcony. Aya had managed to somehow get onto his balcony, which was thirteen stories up, while wearing a dress and carrying a sword. The crazy bastard. He stared at his friend, suddenly realizing he must have gotten all scraped up from coming in that way. "You’re fucking nuts." He was definitely in love. Moving slowly, he leaned forward and hugged Aya, who stiffened at his touch but allowed it, even gently patting his back after a moment. "Thank you."

"You’re welcome." Aya rested his head on his shoulder, and they stayed like that for several minutes, until there was a knock on the door. Aya pulled away, his cheeks flushed, and rose to his feet. "Yohji, do me a favor and don’t mention that I scared Gensai away. Tell people that you fought him off, and that I came in after he left."

Wondering why Aya didn’t want anyone to know he’d saved him, he nodded anyway. "Okay. But I want some explanations about what’s going on when we’re alone again." His thoughts were finally starting to make sense again, and they were telling him that a hell of a lot was going on that he had no clue about.

"….Later." Aya headed for the door, and the sound of Ayumi’s voice drifted into the living room.

"Ayan! Are you all right? What about Yohji? What happened?" She appeared in the doorway, a middle-aged man carrying a large leather satchel following her. She was holding onto Aya’s hand, but the moment she spotted Yohji, she dropped it and hurried over to his side while Aya stayed near the hallway. "Yohji? Oh my, who did this to you?"

She sat down on the couch and her hands fluttered about him, almost touching him then pulling away at the last moment. "Oh, your handsome face! Yohji, what happened?" As she spoke, the stranger came closer to the couch.

Yohji looked beseechingly at Aya, who just sighed and lowered his head. "Yohji, this is Royama-sama, a doctor who usually responds to any emergencies here. He’ll tend to you. I’m going to change."

"Aya…," he called out in a hoarse voice, suddenly uncomfortable at being left alone and totally confused by the situation, even if Ayumi was beside him.

Aya looked up at him, through the long bangs that fell onto his lovely face, and slightly smiled, the expression reassuring. "I’ll just go to your bedroom, if that’s okay. Can I borrow something to wear?"

"Sure, whatever the hell you want," he said, and meant it. Aya could have his whole damn wardrobe and he wouldn’t care. He felt relieved that Aya wasn’t leaving the apartment. Suddenly, he started to shiver.

Ayumi patted his hand. "It’ll be all right. Royama-sama is very good. Now what happened, Yohji?"

Yohji nodded at the doctor and shifted to the edge of the couch. "Nice to meet you." He smiled weakly at Ayumi. "I’m afraid an old customer of mine wouldn’t take no for an answer, and he found some way to get inside the building. Aya mentioned something about Maki…."

The doctor tilted up his face and held a small penlight before his eyes. "Please, Kudoh-san, follow the light."

"This is the man who has been sending you presents, isn’t it?" It was hard to nod at the moment, so he grunted instead. Ayumi held his hand and gave it a squeeze. "It’s a very good thing that Aya recognized him. He told me about what happened when you went shopping. Yohji, you should have called the police then."

He didn’t want to listen to how he could have possibly avoided what had happened today, not right now "Not now, Ayumi." He let out a ‘ouch’ as his cut cheek was prodded.

"I’m afraid I’m going to have to glue the wound closed, Kudoh-san, unless you want it to scar. Let me clean it and then I’ll tend to it. Before I do, are you hurt anywhere else?" The doctor set his pen aside and gazed at him levelly.

"Just my throat and my stomach, oh, and my wrist." He lifted his shirt so the man could prod him in the abdomen and ribs. There were more ouches, but he was pronounced in decent shape, and after his throat was checked out and his wrist wrapped, the doctor started to clean the cut on his cheek. Yohji tried not to wince in pain.

Aya walked in while that was happening, and Yohji couldn’t help but smile at the sight of the redhead wearing a pair of his jeans, the pants rolled up a couple of times, and one of his cotton shirts, left untucked and unbuttoned around the neck. It looked as if Aya had tended to his scrapes; he had several band-aids on his hands, and even one on his cheek.

"You were right about the doctor," Yohji rasped, his throat growing even sorer from all the talking.

Aya quietly grunted and then gazed at Ayumi. "Could you please make some tea? I think we could all use something to drink." He then tossed a denim shirt at Yohji as she rose and went to the kitchen. "You looked cold, so I brought this for you."

"Thanks." He gratefully slipped the shirt over the bloody t-shirt he was wearing, and then noticed that his fly was still partially unbuttoned. He flushed as he quickly took care of that. Gods, Gensai had almost raped him, how the hell could he forget about that…?

"Thank you, Aya-san. He’s suffering from a slight case of shock and the warmth will help," the doctor reported as he held an odd syringe ready. "Now hold still, Kudoh-san, this will just take a minute." He closed his eyes as something cold was squirted along his throbbing cheek, then there was a flash of pain as his cut skin was pressed together. It was very hard to hold still while that was happening, so he closed his eyes and tried to think of something soothing to distract him. When he opened them, he saw the doctor stepping back and dropping something into his satchel. Sometime during the procedure Aya had perched himself onto the arm of the chair. He could smell the soap that Aya had used to clean himself up with, and he felt the urge to rest his head in Aya’s lap and just go to sleep.

Suddenly, Aya reached for the katana that rested on the table. "I’m going to put this in your bedroom. I’ll be right back." He hurried away, but returned a minute later. "They should be here soon, and I don’t want them to see that."

"Who should, Aya?" Ayumi asked as she reentered the room. The doctor, meanwhile, was busy searching his satchel for something.

"I called the police. They should be here any moment now." Aya resumed his seat on the arm of the couch, and Yohji shifted closer to him. He was shaking again. For some reason he’d just started and couldn’t stop, but Aya’s arm around his shoulder helped to calm the tremors. He felt so tired, and all he wanted was to take a long, hot shower and crawl into bed. He racked his brains to see if he could come up with an excuse for Aya to join him. Right now he just wanted Aya to hold him until he fell asleep so he didn’t feel alone and vulnerable. He’d almost been raped. Gensai had almost raped him, and judging from how much he’d already beaten him, he didn’t think the bastard would have stopped there. If Aya hadn’t have come when he had….

Royama knelt in front of him and applied some sort of bandage to his wounded cheek. "You should be fine, Kudoh-san. I suggest some icepacks for the bruising on your face, and I’ll leave some pills for the pain. Please keep the wound clean, and I’ll leave my card here so you can contact me if there are any problems." He glanced at Aya. "I don’t see any signs of a concussion, but it would be a good idea if someone spent the day with him, making sure he’s all right."

"Yes." Aya nudged Yohji aside and slid down onto the couch. "Thank you for coming." Ayumi saw the doctor to the door and then returned to the kitchen. They just sat there, and he snaked an arm around Aya’s waist, hugging him even closer. Soon enough, Ayumi was back with several mugs of tea balanced on a plate, which she set on the table.

He reached for one of the mugs and picked one up, only to have tea spill onto his shaking hand. As he started to curse, Aya took the mug from him and pressed on his shoulder until he turned around. "Here, you look like you need help with that."

"Bu I dun…" he slurred, suddenly feeling too drained to speak properly. Aya held the cup of tea to his lips, and when he felt the hot liquid trickling into his mouth he started to swallow. With Aya’s help, he managed to get most of the coffee down his sore throat. When he was done, Ayumi tugged at his bloody t-shirt.

"You need to change, Yohji. Here, I have a new shirt for you to wear." She must have fetched a sweatshirt from his room while Aya had been helping him with the drink. Grateful for the change of clothes, he shrugged off the denim shirt and gingerly pulled the t-shirt over his head, his ribs and sore wrist protesting the movement. Oh, he was so going to be in a world of pain tomorrow. Then she held an icepack out to him, which he pressed against the cut cheek. He was willing to bet he’d be taking a few days off from work to heal.

"How bad?" he managed to ask as he gestured at his face. Ayumi smiled as she tucked back his hair.

"Bad enough to earn you a good deal of sympathy for the next day or two, but not too bad. I’ve seen worse." She finished fussing and sat back down on the couch, and it felt nice to have two friends sitting so close to him, making him feel cherished and protected.

He snorted at her statement, though wondering where Ayumi would have seen someone beaten up as badly as him. He glanced at Aya, expecting a more honest answer from him. "Well?"

"A little worse than the night you ended up on my floor," was all he said. "At least you’re cleaner this time, though I’m sure a long soak would feel good right about now. As soon as they come for your statement, I’ll run a bath for you."

Now that sounded promising, if he could somehow convince Aya to scrub his back. Even if he’d been beaten and almost raped, it was almost worth it to have Aya of all people babying him. He wondered if he could milk the situation for a couple of days…. Now that Hiro was in North America, Aya would have plenty of time to help him ‘recover’.

Before his thoughts could become too perverted, there was a knock at the door. Aya hugged the arm about his shoulders tight for a second, and then stood up. "Remember, I arrived after Gensai left, and try not to talk too much," Aya whispered in his ear, and Yohji watched Aya go to the door, now recalling all the questions he’d had for his quiet friend.

When Aya returned it was with two strangers in tow. Both of them were pretty tall. The handsome, younger one had blond hair and blue eyes, and was smartly dressed in blue pants with a white shirt, blazer and even a scarf, of all things, around his neck. The other, taller detective appeared to be in his thirties, with unruly light brown hair, hazel eyes, and wearing a pair of worn Dockers, a light yellow shirt that was left half unbuttoned, and a thin leather jacket, despite the heat. He seemed familiar, for some reason, but Yohji was too befuddled at the moment to figure out why. It seemed that now that the worst was over, it was getting harder and harder to think properly.

"Yohji, these men are policemen, and they’ve come for a statement from you." Aya sat back down on the arm of the chair and waved his hand at the men. "They are Honjyou and Tamema."

The younger one bowed slightly to him, but his eyes remained on Aya. "I’m Honjyou. I understand that you were assaulted earlier."

Tamema snorted and pulled a pack of cigarettes from one of his jacket’s pockets, sliding a stick from the pack before returning it, but didn’t light the cigarette. "You say that as if it was a question. I think we can safely conclude that an assault has indeed occurred." He smiled at Yohji and chewed on the cigarette as he reached into his pockets again, this time retrieving a small notepad and pen. "I’m sorry. We would have been here sooner, but we stopped to talk to the building’s manager and to interview a young woman a few floors down."

"Yes, Uno-san, in 6I," Honjyou added. "It seems that her… guest assaulted her also before leaving her apartment. She described him as being 6’3’, in his early forties, with short black hair and brown eyes."

"Tha’s Gensai," Yohji slurred, causing him to grimace at how the words had come out. It was getting harder to think with each passing minute. "Gen-sai Kazu," he carefully enunciated.

Aya lightly touched his shoulder and leaned forward, a slight frown on his face. "I’m afraid that Kudoh-san is still trying to recover from the attack, so I’ll try to answer your questions. I’ve seen the man in question before, and saw him in Uno’s company right before Kudoh was attacked."

"Beat the shit out of me, the bastard," he mumbled as he gestured to his face. "Managed to beat ‘em off." He shivered as he remembered the attack, and hoped that the police wouldn’t ask him too many questions. Let them bother Aya instead. That way he couldn’t screw anything up, especially since he had no clue what he could screw up.

Honjyou and Tamema exchanged glances, and then Tamema stepped closer to him. "Kudoh Yohji, isn’t it? The manager told us your name," he said as flipped open the notepad. "You look like hell, so I’m not doubting that this guy did a number on you. Did you manage to do any damage to him before he fled? Pull any hair or scratch him at all?"

It took him a moment to think about that. "Yeah." He held up his good hand and wiggled his fingers. "Scratched ‘em good," he giggled. Tamema smiled as he jotted that down in a small notepad.

"Did you know this Gensai?" Honjyou shifted forward as he asked the question. "Why would he attack you?"

Ayumi stiffened and set aside her cup of coffee. "Why do you-"

"It’s all right, Ayumi, they’re just being thorough," Aya interrupted. Yohji glanced aside to see his friend gazing impassively at the blond detective. "Gensai was his client, and from what Kudoh has told me, he severed his relationship with the man a couple of months ago. However, Gensai continued to call him and send him gifts, prompting Kudoh to ban him from the Hanabatake. The man wasn’t discouraged, though, and even followed him around, bothering him at a grocery store about a week ago."

Honjyou kept his eyes on Aya during the explanation, his lips pressed in a tight line as if he wasn’t happy about something. "Kudoh, is that correct?" He didn’t even bother to look his way as he asked the question.

Wondering what the hell was up with the guy, Yohji grunted out ‘yes’. Why would Honjyou not care for Aya? Did they know each other?

"I’ll need a sworn affidavit about your past… relationship with the suspect," Honjyou continued, his mouth turning down at the corners as he spoke. "I want to know about all past incidents between the two of you."

"Huhn, later," he replied, not feeling like obliging the detective at all. Honjyou frowned and finally looked at him, stepping forward as he did.

Tamema put the notepad back in his pocket and then grabbed his partner’s shoulder. "He’s in no condition to do that now, Honjyou, so leave it." Then he smiled at Yohji. "Besides, he knows all about police procedures, if I’m not mistaken. I trust that you’ll show up in a couple of days time to leave a statement, yes?" He pulled a card case out of his pocket this time, and handed over a business card. "Here’s where we’re stationed. Show that to the officer at the desk and he’ll have someone take your statement. Don’t give it to just anyone, please, even if you know them."

Something was definitely going on here. Honjyou seemed to know, and dislike, Aya, and Tamema must remember him being a former private investigator. Maybe he’d met the man during an investigation. That was just great. The last thing he felt like doing at the present was showing up looking like this, and filing a report about one of his customers beating the shit out of him. Yeah, why not let the whole Tokyo police force know just how low he’d fallen? "Okay."

"Good." Tamema smiled yet again and tugged his jacket straight. "Well, we’re done here, then. The building’s security has informed us that this Gensai has escaped, so please be careful, Kudoh-san." His smile grew bitter for a second. "Not that I think he’ll be back to bother you." This time it was Tamema giving Aya a flat look before shaking his head. "Good day."

"But-" He started to question how that could possibly be all the police were willing to do at the present, considering the fact that he’d believed Aya when his friend had told them he’d be taken seriously, but Aya suddenly squeezed his elbow. Tamema and Honjyou stopped to look at him, so he tried to smile and nod. "Thanks," he giggled again.

"You’re welcome, Kudoh-san. Please be more careful in the future." Honjyou smoothed the scarf around his neck while he glanced around the living room. "This doesn’t seem to be the luckiest apartment around." He stopped looking about the room to gaze at Aya. "Yet you seem to be here an awful lot… Aya-san. Quite the neighbor, aren’t you?"

Aya was silent for a moment, and then spoke in a cold voice. "I’m sorry if I show too much concern for my neighbors, Honjyou-san. Next time I’ll mind my own business and save you the work."

Honjyou flushed at that, but before he could respond, Tamema grabbed him by the upper arm and pulled him towards the door. "Good day, Kudoh-san. I hope we won’t need to see you again on this matter. We’ll just see ourselves out." The detectives left, Honjyou muttering about something as they went.

Okay, his head had taken more than a few hits, he hurt all over and he’d just giggled, twice, something he hadn’t done in years. He was definitely more than a little shocky at the moment. However, that… that wasn’t how a police interview should have gone, especially considering that a serious assault had occurred. Yohji turned around to look at Aya, who was staring at his hands, his hair falling around his face and hiding it from view.

"I think I’ll leave now, since you seem all right, Yohji." Ayumi patted his shoulder, but he didn’t turn to look at her. "I’ll make you something warm to eat for supper, and check up on you later. You should take a bath and then rest." She was silent for a second, and then sighed as she rose to her feet. "Look after him, Aya."

"Bye, Ayumi," he managed, but he still didn’t look away from Aya as he spoke. The redhead remained as he was for several seconds, until Yohji moved to touch him. Then he jumped off the couch and started walking to the hallway.

"Aya?"

"I’ll start your bath. You should take some of the medicine now, and then get some rest." Aya didn’t stop talking as he walked out of the room.

Wishing that he was telepathic and could just read Aya’s thoughts, instead of being stuck trying to figure him out, he picked up the bottle of painkillers from the coffee table and slowly rose to his feet. Damn, but a hot bath and sleep sounded wonderful. He slowly made his way to his bedroom, and once there, set the pills by his bed and painfully stripped off his jeans and shirts. He felt like burning the clothes that he’d been wearing during the assault, never wanting to see them again and be reminded of what had almost happened, what he’d been powerless to stop….

He ran his hands through his hair and took a deep breath, and after grabbing the yukata that Aya had given him, he headed for the bathroom. He found Aya kneeling by the tub, testing the water with one of his hands. The room was filled with steam, making him groan in anticipation of crawling into the tub and letting the heat soak into his battered body.

"Thanks, Aya." It took some effort to speak properly, but it was a little easier to think now that the police were gone. Not bothered by the fact that he was naked underneath the robe, he let it slide down his arms as he shrugged out of it, and then he stepped into the hot water.

"I… don’t you want to wash off first?" Maybe it was all the steam, but Aya seemed to be a tiny bit red in the face. "I’ll go now."

He reached out and grabbed his friend’s wrist, holding him fast as he sank into the water. "I just want to soak right now, and you’re not goin’ anywhere. What the hell is going on, Aya?" If he had to, he’d drag his friend into the bathtub with him and keep him there until he got some answers.

"I don’t know what you’re talking about," Aya replied as he tried to pry off the hand around his wrist. Yohji faked a whimper of pain before he could manage to do that, and Aya immediately stopped. "Get some rest, I’ll leave you alone now."

"The doctor said I needed someone to watch me, and that’s you. Sit down and talk, or get soaked." He threateningly tugged Aya closer to the tub. "Now spill."

He was glared at for a few seconds, then Aya’s eyes drifted lower. There was no doubt that he was blushing this time, even if his expression never changed. Normally Yohji’d be crowing about getting that much of a reaction from Aya, but he was tired, in pain, and not romantically minded at the least. Also, he refused to be distracted from getting some answers. "Did you know those guys?"

Aya grunted and sat down on the bathroom floor, his eyes averted and his wrist still held captive. "I know them. They… they were the ones assigned to investigate Sakura’s death." Aya’s eyes closed for a second. When they opened back up, Yohji would have given anything to be able to see what emotion was in them, but Aya’s hair prevented that. He started to reach out to brush back the strands when Aya resumed talking.

"In case you aren’t aware of it, Hiro’s uncle is the police commissioner. He assigned Tamema and Honjyou to deal very quietly with Sakura’s suicide. Since Reiji has his own mistress and daughter here, Shuuichi makes sure that all matters involving the Hanabatake are never made public, and that includes having his own investigators handle any crimes that occur here. That’s why I called his secretary earlier. Tamema and Honjyou will make sure that, should it ever be needed, there will be a report that you were assaulted by Gensai, but that it remains a private matter until that time. If anyone tries to connect you to Gensai from this point on, they’ll handle the matter."

"Why, Aya? Why is that so important?" He slid further down into the tub, releasing his hold on Aya’s wrist to entwine their fingers together, which the other man allowed as he leaned against the tub. "Why aren’t they worried about him bothering me anymore?" When Aya remained quiet he tugged on his hand and sighed. "Please? I need to know." He wanted to know why he wouldn’t ever have to worry about Gensai bothering him again, as Tamema had hinted.

Aya brushed back his bangs and rested his chin on the tub. "Yohji… think about it. Why is this place so safe? Why don’t you have to worry about anyone breaking in to your apartment, or stealing your car when it’s parked downstairs?"

"Because of the…," it was suddenly dawning on him what Aya was talking about. "The yakuza and the rich guys who keep their girls here."

"Yes, though I’m thinking more about the yakuza at present. The building guards didn’t catch Gensai because I’m willing to bet that Shizuka had informed one of the yakuza that there might be a problem. He pretty much told me that when I spoke to him on the phone by saying that the *Hanabatake* guards wouldn’t be able to stop him. They were probably told to look the other way the whole time so the yakuza could handle the security breach. And if by some chance Gensai managed to escape, it won’t be long before he’s found. Then the yakuza will make sure he never bothers another person again. The people who’ve invested money here won’t let it be said that they allowed something like what happened occur in a place they’re supposed to be keeping safe, even if you’re not one of theirs." Aya closed his eyes again and brushed his thumb along the back of Yohji’s hand. "Gensai will never bother you again."

Just when he’d managed to get his feet back under him, he was knocked back onto his ass. He had to remind himself that Gensai had tried to rape him, and probably would have beaten him to death once that was done, but he was still shocked that Aya was talking this calmly about another person being killed. "What about th’ police? Won’t they suspect something when he shows up dead?"

"I doubt they’ll ever find the body," Aya said as he opened his eyes, appearing as tired as Yohji felt. "They know they’ll never find him alive, which is why I wanted you to talk to the police, in case anyone looks for him and goes to them. Those two detectives will make sure to handle any inquiries, and to bury them."

"Hmph." He used his free hand to comb through Aya’s hair, tucking back his bangs so his face could be easily seen. Aya just stared at him, appearing reluctant to say anything else. Yohji didn’t blame him, he didn’t want to talk about the topic any longer. This day had not been a good one. "I owe you, you know."

"Hmmm?" Aya sat back as he blinked his eyes.

"For helping me." When he could think properly he’d be a bit more eloquent and properly express his thanks, and yell at the idiot for risking his life like he had, just to get here and save him. It would have killed Ayumi if Aya had fallen. Yohji would have been a little upset himself.

"Oh." Aya resettled against the tub. "You’re welcome." His eyes lightened with mirth and a smile teased at his lips. "I didn’t want to have to break in another neighbor, so I decided to make sure that you stick around for a while."

"Prick." He splashed some water at Aya and then sank down into the tub until the water level was right below his mouth. His scraped chin stung for a moment, but his neck seemed to appreciate the heat.

They remained like that, Aya leaning against the tub, him soaking, both holding on to the other’s hand and not saying a word, until the water started to grow cold. Then he sighed and sat up, groaning as he forced his body to move.

"I’m all pruney." It was easier to think now, even if his whole head was throbbing with pain. Aya stood up and held out a towel for him, helping him to step out of the tub and draining it as he patted himself dry. He rubbed the towel over his hair and then pulled on the yukata, tying the belt loosely before going over to the sink to fetch a cup of water. Aya followed him to his bedroom, pulling the curtains closed as he shook out a couple of pain pills and swallowed them.

"I’ll check on you later," Aya told him as he helped turn down the bed. "Ayumi and I will both be back."

He set down the empty glass and grabbed Aya’s braid, holding on to it tightly as he shook his head. "Nope, you’re staying here. Doc told you to watch over me. Don’t you have to wake me up every hour or something?"

Aya glared as he grabbed his braid and tried to yank it out of his grasp. "That’s if you have a concussion, which you don’t. I’ll be next door, Yohji."

"You’re supposed to be here." Since it had done him wonders in the bathroom, he looked pleadingly at his friend. "Please?"

Aya continued to glare at him for a few seconds, but when Yohji wouldn’t back down, Aya’s expression crumbled and he rubbed at his eyes. "Okay, I’ll stay." Then the glare quickly returned. "You better not try anything, though."

"I won’t, Aya. I just don’t want to be alone right now." He wanted to sleep, knowing that Gensai couldn’t just walk back in here and hurt him, not while Aya was here. He lay down on the bed, pulling the sheets up to cover him, and had to smile when Aya stretched out beside him, on top of the covers. "Thanks."

"Huhn. I’m just taking a nap," Aya grumbled. "So shut up and let me sleep." Yohji rolled onto his side, spooning behind his friend and enjoying the man’s warmth. Aya grumbled out his name as he shifted on the bed, making himself comfortable and adjusting the pillow. Once he stopped moving, Yohji inched closer, until his front was pressed against Aya’s back, separated only by the sheets and their clothes. He was still sore, and his ribs didn’t appreciate being lain on, but soon the pain pills would kick in and he wouldn’t care in the least.

He snaked an arm free of the sheets and rested it over Aya’s waist, just wanting to make sure that Aya wouldn’t leave without him knowing. His friend tensed for a moment, and he thought that maybe he’d pushed things too far, but then he felt Aya’s fingers entwine with his, and they both relaxed. Feeling oddly content, he let himself drift off to sleep.

*******

Ken knocked on Yohji’s door and waited anxiously for an answer. He was surprised to see Mamoru open the door, and quickly stepped inside when the teenager motioned him in. "Is Yohji all right?"

Mamoru closed the door behind him. "He’s doing well. I take it you heard about what happened? Is the news making the rounds all ready?" He talked as he walked towards the living room, and Ken followed him.

"Well, Kase was the one who told me that there’d been a whacko running around here earlier, and that he’d hurt Maki and Yohji. I haven’t heard much more than that." Ken entered the living room and came to a halt as he caught sight of Yohji, who was sitting on the couch wearing, of all things, a yukata, with a heating pad pressed against his chest. "Damn, you look like you got the shit kicked out of you."

Yohji glared at him as he hugged the heating pad. "Thanks, Kenken, I feel so much better now. You wanna see my bruises so you can guess how many hits I took?"

He flushed a little as he slowly approached the couch. "I’m sorry, but… I can barely tell it’s you beneath all those bruises. Are you okay?" He sat down at the opposite end of the couch that Yohji was curled up on.

"Thanks to the wonders of modern medicine, I’m doing all right." Yohji flashed him a lopsided smile. "It’ll be a different story once the drugs wear off. So you heard about me, ne?"

Forcing his gaze from his friend’s battered face, Ken nodded as he leaned back onto the arm of the sofa. "Kase only told me just a little while ago, or I’d have been here sooner. It seems like the staff is trying to keep things quiet. Do you need anything?"

He got another smile in response. "Nah, I’m good. I’ve got my drugs, a heating pad," Yohji touched the pad around his chest, "and two of the sexiest guys in Tokyo to do my bidding. Hell, Ayumi’s even cooking for me, so I know I’m special now." Then Yohji leaned back and slowly stretched out his feet. "But a foot massage would be nice, if you really want to do something."

Ken knocked Yohji’s feet aside. "You wish." He smiled at his friend.

"’Two of the sexiest guys in Tokyo’? Really?" Mamoru leaned over the back of the couch and gently touched Yohji’s head. "I think you got hit one too many times if you’re saying things like that."

"Damn brat," Yohji muttered as he batted the teenager’s hand aside. "I’m only quoting Ayumi, you know. That, and *the* sexiest guy around, who is me, is out of commission for right now. Otherwise, I’d be talking about Aya and myself."

"Yep, you definitely got hit one too many times, Yohji," he commented, and he shared a grin with Mamoru while Yohji glared at them. Then he was ducking a pillow that Yohji had thrown at him. "Hey, watch the face, I’m hoping to be one of the two sexiest guys around someday."

Yohji rolled his eyes as he settled himself against the back of the couch. "And I thought I was supposed to be the delusional one, thanks to the drugs. It’s a nice dream, Ken, but you’ll never stand a chance against me, even as bad as I look right now." Then Yohji glanced towards the kitchen. "Hey, Aya! Get in here and defend me while I’m too weak to fight back." His voice, which had been the slightest bit raspy, grew hoarser as he yelled. Ken noticed the bruises around his throat, and couldn’t help but to massage his own in sympathy.

Aya walked out of the kitchen, a tray of mugs in his hand. "Too weak or too lazy?" He set the tray down on coffee table and picked up two mugs before he knelt on the floor, by Yohji’s end of the couch. He handed him a mug while he nodded at Ken. "You said there haven’t been many rumors yet about what happened?"

Ken leaned down to pick up a cup, and Mamoru came around the couch to get his and sat down in the middle, prompting Yohji to curl his long legs up again. "Yeah, I honestly hadn’t heard a thing until just now, and Kase told me that the yakuza don’t want people talking about this guy getting in here and roughing Yohji and Maki up. He said that he-"

Yohji interrupted him. "Hey, this isn’t coffee! This is tea." Yohji glared at Aya as he took another sip. "Tea with honey."

"Of course it is, for your sore throat." Aya prevented Yohji from setting the mug down. "You’ll drink it too, or hear from Ayumi. She brought it over while you were napping, along with some honey." Aya tucked back a strand of his hair, and Ken realized that the redhead wasn’t dressed in his usual kimono, but in jeans and a shirt that looked a little too big for him. "She needn’t have, you have at least a gallon of the stuff." Aya frowned in distaste as he sipped his drink. "I don’t want to know why you have that much honey on hand when you don’t have any tea."

Yohji’s glare shifted to a leer as he bent his head towards Aya. "I’d be more than happy to show you what I do with it." Aya glared even more angrily at him, and Yohji started for a second, shifting back a bit so he could suddenly grin in his direction. "Ken will volunteer to help me with the show, won’t ya, Kenken?"

"In your dreams, Yohji." His eyes narrowed as he gazed at the men at the end of the couch, who seemed to refuse to look at each other, even though they were looking at everything else around them, nor did they shift away from each other. "I hate to tell you this, but I’ve never been into blonds," he joked, hoping to break the sudden tension. "So unless you get a dye job, find someone else for your little show."

Yohji gazed mournfully at him, even going so far as to pretend to sniff and wipe away a tear. "You cruel bastard, you just dashed all my romantic hopes for the two of us. I’m utterly heartbroken now." He let his head loll against the back of the couch as he pressed the back of a hand against his forehead, as if he was swooning. "I have nothing to live for anymore." Then he did another quick change and was leering once again, this time at Mamoru, who he nudged with his toe. "Oi, kiddo, how about you console me in my misery? We can show mean old Ken that blonds really do have more fun."

Mamoru picked up the tossed pillow and made to hit Yohji in the face with it, stopping at the last minute and bopping him over the head instead. "I agree with Ayumi, you’re a pervert, Yohji. Aya, beat some manners into this… kitsunes," he said.

"I’ll wait until he heals a bit and the beating will leave more of an impression," Aya dryly responded, making Ken almost spit out the coffee he’d been drinking. Maybe Aya had taken a few blows to his head too, if he was joking around like that. Come to think of it, the whole situation was weird, with Yohji in a yukata and Aya in jeans.

"I’m going to tell Ayumi that you’re being mean to me," Yohji whined. He shifted on the couch until he was lying down, his head resting near Aya’s. "You’re supposed to be looking after me, not abusing me."

"Yohji… shut up and drink your tea," Aya wearily replied. "She’ll be here soon enough, and you can whine to her then."

"I don’t whine," Yohji griped as he sat back up and did as he was told. "And can’t you add a little whiskey to the tea or something? I wanted coffee, dammit." He started to sulk as he took another sip.

"I don’t think it’s a good idea to mix alcohol with your medication, especially since it seems to be affecting you so strongly." Aya sipped his own drink and closed his eyes, resting his head against the couch as he did. "You know, your throat would feel better if you didn’t talk so much." Yohji just grunted softly as he finished his tea and set the mug on the coffee table. When he sat back, his hand reached out to brush back the bangs that were falling onto Aya’s face. The redhead’s eyes flew open at his touch, but he just sat there until Yohji was done, and then lifted his head. He looked over at Ken, an unreadable look on his face, and then nodded. "You were talking about the rumors before this idiot distracted us."

"I’m not an idiot, I’m a kitsune," Yohji grumbled as he tugged on Aya’s braid.

Aya snatched back his hair and sighed. "What about the rumors, Ken?"

Covering the smile on his face by sipping the last of his coffee, Ken had to admit that Yohji and Aya made a pretty funny sight; even Mamoru was chuckling softly, trying to smother the sound. He could tell that Aya was barely holding onto his temper, and that Yohji seemed aware of that and was having fun pulling at the strands of Aya’s braid.

"Yeah, for once the rumor mill seems pretty quiet. I didn’t hear a word about it while I was working out earlier." He set his cup aside and started to play with the hem of his t-shirt, flipping it over and folding it again and again. "Kase said that Maki got beat up pretty good, and that her… ah," he glanced at Mamoru for a second, "patrons are even more upset with her. She might not even have a few more weeks to find someplace else to live. Kase thinks she’ll be out of here by the end of the week."

Everyone was quiet for a minute, and then Mamoru spoke up. "How did she meet this Gensai in the first place?" He must have noticed Ken’s puzzled look, because he explained the name. "That’s the man who hurt Yohji-kun and Maki. Aya told me he’d seen them together, but we don’t know why."

Happy to be able to provide that piece of information, before anyone else, such as Ayumi, could, he leaned forward. "Well, remember when you guys mentioned her going golfing?" Aya and Yohji nodded, the latter even starting to groan. "It seems she met this guy on the golf course, and thought he might be… you know, another patron for her."

"Gensai has a well-paid job, but he’d never be able to afford putting her up somewhere, at least, nowhere like the Hanabatake." Yohji’s hand drifted near Aya’s braid. "Besides, he can’t get it up for women, or at least that’s what he told me. He must have been lying like crazy to Maki, and she bought all of it."

"She probably wasn’t thinking, Yohji. She probably just wanted to find someone as quickly as possible," Mamoru pointed out. He tucked his knees against his chest and hugged them. "I wonder what it’s like, to be so dependent on someone like that." It took him a few seconds to realize what he’d said, and he blushed as he looked at Aya. "Aya… I…."

"Never mind, Mamoru." He rubbed a hand over his eyes and sat up straight. "Ayumi should be done cooking by now, so I’m going to see if she needs a hand bringing anything over. Why doesn’t someone get the plates and drinks ready?"

"I guess I should be going, then," Ken said reluctantly. Kase was heading out for a business dinner, so he’d be eating by himself.

Aya rose to his feet. "I’m sure that Ayumi has made more than enough for everyone. You can stay if you want."

Yohji snickered and gave Aya’s braid one more tug. "He hates eating leftovers, you know. Stay, Kenken, the more the merrier, and I want a merry party tonight."

"Okay." He really didn’t need to be talked into it. Like Yohji, he hated eating by himself. Besides, the past two weeks had been so nice, with his new friendship with Mamoru and even Aya. For the first time since he’d quit football, he felt like he belonged somewhere, that he had friends other than Kase. He enjoyed the time he spent with the other men; even if it hadn’t been very long since they’d all met. Hell, he’d never thought he’d be friends with Aya, of all people, but the four of them just… clicked together.

Aya tsked in disgust as he reclaimed his braid. "I hope you run out of those pills soon, or I’m not dealing with you anymore until they’re gone." Having said that, he stalked out of the room.

Mamoru stopped trying to smother his chuckles and started to laugh out loud, and Ken soon joined him. The look on Aya’s face as he’d left, one of disgust and sufferance, had been pretty funny. He glanced over at Yohji and found the man resting his head back onto the couch, softly laughing to himself.

*******

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