Cages

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chapter 12

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the pain of reality

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Feeling uncomfortable, Ken scrubbed his hands over his face before leaving the bathroom. Sensing that Yohji was staring at him, he hung his head as he walked into the living room and slouched down in his seat on the couch. He still felt the urge to crap, and his ass was starting to itch again.

"You okay there, Ken? Thatís the fourth time youíve gone to the bathroom in the past hour." Yohji sounded worried, not teasing. Not like he had yesterday, when Ken had to keep running from the rooftop to his apartment as theyíd done their laundry.

"Iím okay," Ken grumbled. He didnít want the attention or to talk about his problem. "Whatís the score?"

Yohji stared at him for a few more seconds before telling him. Ken thankfully managed to lose himself into the football game for a short while. His favorite team was winning, and it was nice to sit with a friend, drink a beer, and relax. Kase had just left for Thailand, and Ken wanted a distraction from the fact that heíd be alone for the next week as much as from his growing discomfort and worries.

His team had just scored another goal when Ken found himself heading back to the bathroom. Unlike the last dozen times, he actually managed to pass something, and let out a yelp when he found blood after wiping himself. He went through half a roll of toilet paper cleaning himself, and was somewhat relieved to find out that he wasnít still bleeding. Trying not to worry about the blood, he flushed and returned to the living room.

Yohji watched him intently as he sat down. "All right, Iíll ask again. Whatís wrong? You havenít had enough beers to make you have to go that often, and you look pale. Any particular reason why you yelled while you were in there?"

Ken ran his hands through his hair nervously and sat forward on the couch. "IÖ." He sighed wearily and hid his face in his hands. He didnít want to talk about something so personal, but Yohji had a determined look on his face, and this was something more than just him being constipated. "Lately, Iíve been having trouble going to the bathroom," he mumbled.

Yohjiís eyes narrowed and he set aside the can of beer heíd been holding. "Pissing or shitting?" As Kenís cheeks became heated, Yohji rolled his eyes and laughed. "Oh, come on, donít act like I just said something that offended you. You were on a damn football team for how long? It should take more than that to shock you."

"I could care less about some guy taking a shower next to me, and there arenít any swear words I havenít heard, but I didnít usually discuss my bowel movements with my teammates," Ken snapped, still feeling embarrassed about the question. Those discussions were usually limited to who had stunk up the bathroom or clogged the toilet. "Iím having trouble taking a shit, okay?"

"What do you mean? Canít you take one, or does it hurt when you do? Is this why you asked me for some laxatives yesterday?" Yohji sounded like some sort of demented doctor.

Feeling mortified, Ken wished that heíd kept his mouth shut. "I feel like I have to go all the time, but most of the time nothing happens." He rubbed his hand over his chin. "And just nowÖ there was blood in it."

That had Yohji sitting up straight in his chair, looking worried. "Blood? Ken, thatís not good."

"Well, you know Kase left today, so last nightÖ." It was still uncomfortable as hell to talk about his sex life, even with Yohji. "We fucked a couple of times," Ken said in a rush, the sentence coming out as one long word. "He probably just tore me a little."

"You should have felt it if he had," Yohji told him sternly. He leaned forward, his elbows on his knees and his eyes intent on Ken. "If he ripped you that bad, you would have known. What about condoms - do you guys use any?"

"No!" Ken glared at his friend. "We donít need them, unless thereís no lube. I donít fuck anyone whoís willing, unlike some people I know." He immediately regretted what he said, but Yohji didnít seem offended. "This hasnít happened to me before, Yohji," he said in a tight voice. He had no clue what to do about this situation, if he should worry or not, and that was the only reason he was talking to Yohji about it, even if he was ready to die of embarrassment. "Maybe itís just from the sex last night. We got a little rough." Dammit, he was blushing.

Yohji grunted as he seemed to think about something, and after a minute he shook his head slowly. "Maybe, and maybe not. Listen, I need to go get tested this week, so why donít you come with me?" The anxious look in his eyes had Ken biting back on the comment that he didnít need to get tested for AIDS or something. Yohji was being too serious to be trying to insult or tease him. "Just come with me, okay? You donít have to have an AIDS test done, just talk to one of the doctors there. Theyíll know if you need a check-up or not."

Ken wanted to tell him no, that heíd be fine and things would return to normal in another day, but then he started to squirm in his seat. The itching was back. "All right, when do you want to go?"

"Tomorrow?" Yohji pulled out his cell phone and checked something on it. "I can go at eleven in the morning. Thereís usually no problem seeing anyone then, but Iíll call and make appointments for us." He gazed sternly at Ken. "Iím not going to let you back out, okay? Meet me at my car at ten thirty."

Ken sighed and nodded. He didnít have the willpower to try and get out of the appointment, no matter how uncomfortable it would make him. While he believed that this would be a waste of his time, the thought of seeing a doctor was a relief, in a way. It was nice having a friend care this much for him, and tomorrow heíd have his worries laid to rest. Next time, heíd just have to make sure Kase used enough lube. "If the doctor says itís just rough sex, youíre paying for lunch tomorrow."

"Sure, why not? It seems to be my week for treating people anyway." Yohji put his phone away and sat back in the couch. Ken waited for his friend to make a smart comment, and felt disappointed when Yohji didnít say a thing. For some reason, that made him feel more nervous than the whole conversation had.

*******

Yohji had to practically drag Ken into the clinicís office, earning several odd looks from passersby. "Dammit, Ken, you agreed to come with me. Stop acting like a baby and get in here." He managed to get the idiot into the waiting room, which was thankfully empty. Once it looked as if Ken wasnít going to bolt, Yohji let go of his arm and motioned towards a chair. "Now sit," he told him firmly, feeling like he was talking to a small, unruly child.

Ken, appearing pale under his tan, jerked a hand through his hair and offered up a shaky smile. "Thanks, Yohji." He nervously sat down and picked up a sports magazine, flicking through the pages too quickly to be reading anything.

Yohji warily eyed him a minute longer before heading over to the receptionist. He smiled at the middle-aged woman and leaned against the counter. "Hi, Hitomi."

She adjusted her glasses and gave him a warning look. "Someone will be right with you, Kudoh-san. Youíll just have to wait until then." She handed him some paperwork before breaking down and smiling. "Another friend? Heís not as cute as the last one. What are you up to?"

"Iím just being a doll and drumming up more business for you." He smiled charmingly at the receptionist and winked. "Besides, Iíll use any excuse to see your lovely face." He chuckled as Hitomi blushed and shooed him away.

Sitting next to Ken, Yohji helped his friend fill out the paperwork. Luckily, heíd timed things just right, and as soon as theyíd finished with it, a cute nurse called Kenís name. Yohji gave him a forceful shove in the right direction and relaxed in his chair, waiting for his turn. It wasnít long before another cute nurse, the doctorís wife this time, called Yohji back for his blood test. As she drew his blood, he passed the time answering her questions about his sex life. He distracted himself by making her blush several times, but didnít make her too flustered. It wasnít a good idea to get too Ďfriendlyí with a woman who had a needle shoved into his arm, or who was married to his doctor.

Once that was taken care of, it was back to the waiting room. After going through a magazine front to back, Yohji started to get worried. Usually he came in here for a blood test and was on his way, unless he had a cold or something. Aya had been given a complete physical when heíd been here a couple of weeks ago, and it hadnít taken this long. Yohji thought grimly that it looked like Ken was going to lose their bet.

A few minutes later his friend walked towards him, his face ashen and sweaty. He was holding a prescription in his hand, and didnít say a word as Yohji rose and fell in step beside him. It was a very quiet walk back to the car.

Once they were seated inside Yohjiís Jaguar, he lit a cigarette and motioned towards the slip of paper. "I take it you need to stop by a pharmacy before lunch?" When Ken didnít say anything, Yohji sighed anxiously and blew smoke at him. "Earth to Ken. Are you all right?"

Ken slowly shook his head. "No, Iím not." He rubbed his hand over his face and sighed. "The doctor thinks I have gonorrhea, though he wonít know for sure until the test results come back."

"Fuck." Yohji angrily tossed his cigarette outside and started his car. His suspicions confirmed, he didnít know what else to say. It didnít seem like a good time to tell Ken he was lucky to have caught something that could be treated. Then it occurred to Yohji that gonorrhea might not be the only thing that Ken had caught and he bit his lip. "Okay, I know a pharmacy thatís nearby. Itís even on the way to lunch."

"Yohji, forget lunch. Iím not really hungry right now." Ken sounded utterly miserable. Deciding it would be best to keep his mouth shut, Yohji merely nodded and drove the car out of the garage.

*******

Ken sat nervously in the living room, waiting for Kase to come home. His lover had called from the airport to tell him he was on his way, and to have a few beers ready. Ken had obediently taken a few bottles out of the fridge, and steadily drank each one as he waited. He felt a little tipsy at the moment, and hoped that was a good thing.

Ten minutes later he heard the door open, and Kase called out his name rather enthusiastically. He almost jumped off the couch and ran to him. Part of him was so happy to see his lover. The other part was noting how healthy Kase appeared when he walked into the living room. Ken was filled with a mixture of love, desire, shame and confusion - and it disturbed him.

Kase didnít seem to notice anything at first. He set his bags down on the floor and pulled Ken to him for an enthusiastic kiss. "Hmmm, I see you started on the beers without me." He smiled warmly at Ken, the expression slowly fading when Ken didnít smile back. "Are you okay?"

Reluctantly pulling himself out of Kaseís arms, Ken shook his head and sat down. "Iíve been better. I had to go to the doctor a few days ago."

"What?" Kase, who had started to pick up an empty beer bottle, set it down and sat next to Ken. "What was wrong? Are you sick?"

Ken couldnít help it, he started to laugh. "You could say that." For the past week heíd rehearsed what heíd say to Kase, the questions heíd ask. All that careful planning seemed to disappear, and he felt anger start to replace his confused emotions. "Guess what, I have gonorrhea," he said, watching carefully his lover for a reaction.

Kase was still for a second. Ken felt his anger grow when he recognized guilt as one of the emotions that flashed across his loverís face. "What? You mean you caught a STD?" When he nodded, Kase flushed before a guarded expression settled on his face. "How?"

"I thought you might be able to tell me that," Ken snapped back testily. His hands clenched into fists as he became even angrier. Donít let Kase turn this back on him, he pleaded internally. Donít. He wanted the truth, not accusations. "The doctor said Iíve probably had it for a couple of months, for it to have gotten so bad. Thatís around the time you started going away on business."

Standing up, Kase shook his head, an indignant look on his face. "Wait, you think you got this from me? What the hell is wrong with you, Ken? How could you think that about me? Maybe you got it from sitting on your friend Kudohís toilet."

"Donít you drag him into this," Ken yelled, furious over Yohji being blamed. "Heís clean. Heís the person who took me to get tested, since you werenít here, you asshole. I didnít get it from using his bathroom, and I certainly didnít get it from fucking someone else! I havenít slept with anyone but you since we moved here. What about you?"

His face turning red, Kase took a step backwards, his hands raised as if to ward off an attack. "Iím clean, Ken. I feel fine. If I gave it to you, wouldnít I be sick too?"

Noting that Kase hadnít said that heíd been faithful in return, Ken felt his chest start to hurt. "The doctor told me that some people never show any symptoms of gonorrhea. He wants you to go for some tests right away." He swallowed with some difficulty and hugged his arms against his chest. "Thereís a chance you might have something else. We both need to keep getting tested for the next six months or so."

"To hell with that. Iím not fucking sick!" Kase yelled.

Starting to rock back and forth on the couch, Ken laughed bitterly. "Only one way to tell, right? Go with me to the doctor and get tested." When Kase paled at the suggestion, Ken ignored the pain and focused on his anger. "Itís simple, really. Ten minutes and youíll be done. Iíll make you an appointment for tomorrow." He reached for the phone, only to have it snatched out of his grasp.

"I donít need any tests. Iím not sick," Kase repeated, but he didnít sound so sure anymore. He was starting to sweat, and he refused to meet Kenís eyes. "Maybe the doctor messed the test up. Maybe youíre not sick, either."

"I was shitting blood, Kase. I doubt he made that happen," Ken retorted. This wasnít the way this conversation was supposed to be going. Kase shouldnít be acting as if he had something to hide. Feeling nauseated, he stood up and headed for the bedroom.

"Hey, where are you going?" Kase followed him. "Are you okay?"

"No, Iím not." Ken reached the bedroom and picked up one of the bags on the bed. Turning to face his lover, he saw his confused expression. The pain in his chest grew stronger, but he refused to give into it. "Iím not staying here until you go with me and get tested."

"What?" Ken was getting sick of hearing that word. "Youíre leaving? Where are you going?"

"I donít know." It was the truth, he hadnít thought that far ahead. Heíd expected Kase to be worried about him, to confess the truth about a mistake heíd made one night. To own up to what heíd done like a man. Not to lie and accuse Ken of somehow being the one responsible. "Maybe Iíll go to Yohjiís."

That appeared to make Kase angry. "Youíll go live with the whore? The one who probably got you sick in the first place? You been fucking him, Ken? How much does he charge?"

His temper finally getting the better of him, Ken set the bag down and punched his lover, putting all his strength into the blow. Kase yelled in pain and crumpled to the floor, a hand pressed against his eye.

"Fuck, Ken, what the hell-"

Ken grabbed Kase by the collar of his expensive suit and pulled him back onto his feet. "I didnít fuck Yohji! I havenít fucked anyone but you! An asshole who doesnít seem to care that I could have gotten really sick if I hadnít gone to the doctor. I want the fucking truth, Kase. I want you to go get tested. If you donít, Iím gone."

Kase stiffly brushed his hands aside and glared at Ken, his left eye already starting to swell shut. "Where the hell are you going to go, Ken? You donít have a place to stay, and if you try to get a job or rent an apartment, theyíll find out who you were. You donít have anything without me." He sounded like a petulant brat, upset that his toy had been taken away from him.

"You just canít say youíll go with me, can you?" Ken asked quietly. Any hope he had of things being fine between them slowly died. "You canít admit that you screwed up, can you?" When Kase remained quiet, he shook his head and stepped towards the bed. He felt so tired at the moment. "I still have money, you know. A bunch of CDs I invested in, and the money from the Adidas campaign. You always told me to make sure I diversified my investments, and I didnít hand over all my money when we moved in here." He smiled bitterly as he picked up a bag. "I was saving some in case we ran into trouble. Guess it can help me out now."

"Ken, wait a minute." Kaseís anger appeared to have faded, and he actually looked worried now. "Donít leave. Iíll go see my doctor tomorrow."

"No, youíll go to the same one I went to." Ken didnít want his lover to lie to him, either by not going to the doctor or having the man lie about his test results. "We go together, and both hear your test results." He stood defiantly, bags in hand, as Kase thought things over.

Taking a deep breath, Kase pressed a finger against his swelling eye. "KenÖ Iím sorry, okay?" His voice was smooth and low, his eyes downcast. Ken had seen his lover like this a thousand times before, after he screwed something up and was trying to charm his way out of the mess. Kase had perfected the act years ago in the orphanage theyíd grown up in, and Ken had never been able to resist it before. Now, though, the pain in his chest helped him to remain cold to the look.

"IÖ itís hard, keeping us a secret. I canít tell the guys I work with that I have a girlfriend, because then theyíd want to meet her. I canít tell them I have a boyfriend, becauseÖ." Kase gave him a sad smile and shrugged. "When I was away on business, they kept pushing girls on me. I got tired of coming up with excuses, and they started to get suspicious. They made a comment one night that maybe they should find a cute guy for me to fuck. You know how guys can get. I need this job, Ken. I couldnít risk losing it because they found out I was gay."

Kase stepped closer to him, a remorseful expression on his face. "It was one time, I swear. I let them hire a girl for me, andÖ. I used a condom, but it must have broke or something. It was lousy. I didnít have a good time. All I thought about was you."

Ken let his lover touch his arm, but when Kase tried to take the bags from him, he pulled away. "Funny, you never had a hard time with girls before. You used to fuck them all the time when we were on the road." Sixteen years of being together, growing up, working and living together, and still Kase thought he wouldnít know when he was being lied to. Ken laughed, the sound bitter and harsh. "You think the condom broke. Yet you never told me a damn thing, and you even tried to blame me." He headed for the door.

"Ken! Wait! I thought you werenít going to leave if I told you the truth!" Kase sounded frantic, and he grabbed Kenís arm, trying to stop him. "Where are you going?"

Dropping one of his bags, Ken used his free hand to shove his friend away from him roughly. "Leave me the hell alone. I donít want to see you right now. I want you to fucking leave me alone." He glared furiously at the man heíd loved since heíd been a child and felt tears threatening. "If it had been one time you should have told me. You shouldnít have lied to me. How many people did you really fuck? Why the hell didnít you just tell me you were bored and wanted to see other people?"

"Ken, I love you. I swear. IÖ I did something stupid. I admit it. Donít walk out on me," Kase pleaded with him. "I need you. You need me, too."

"I love you too," Ken admitted wearily. "I would have forgiven you, you know. If you had told the truth straight out, if you had acted as if you gave a damn that you made me sick. I might have AIDS because you fucked around, did you ever think of that?" Judging from the shocked look on Kaseís face, he hadnít. "Iím going to Yohjiís. Heís a friend, and right now, I need one. Leave me alone until I cool down, okay?"

"Iím sorry, Ken. I really am. I love you." Kase looked at him sadly. "I donít want you to go. Stay so we can work things out, please?"

"I didnít want to get sick or be cheated on, you know. We canít always get what we want. Iíll see you." Ken turned his back on Kase and walked quickly towards the door. He had to force himself to keep moving, to not give in and stay. Kase had been the one constant in his life since theyíd met. It was scary, walking away. It hurt, and for a moment he didnít know if it would be more painful to stay or go. He kept on walking, though.

*******

Yohji walked into his kitchen, and immediately did a double take. Ken was sitting at his table, a cup of coffee cradled in his hand. He looked as if he hadnít gotten any sleep at all. "Was the futon that uncomfortable?"

Ken looked blearily at him and smiled wanly. "Nah, it was okay." Ken returned his attention to his drink.

Scratching his stomach, Yohji went to the coffee pot to get himself his first dose of caffeine for the day. He could tell just by the smell that it wouldnít be as good as Ayaís. He couldnít afford such an expensive blend, but Ken hadnít done that bad a job. He leaned against the counter as he sipped his coffee, trying to decide if he felt in the mood to make some breakfast. It just wasnít the same unless Aya was with him. Yohji spared several dark thoughts for Hiro as he finished his coffee.

"You hungry?"

Ken started at the question, jerking his head up and twisting in his chair to look blankly at Yohji. He had to smile at the sight, and how rumpled and out of it Ken appeared. "Is that a yes or a no?"

Ken blinked a couple of times and shook his head. "Iím not really hungry." He was quiet for a moment. "Thanks, though. Give me a little bit, and Iíll be out of your way." Ken turned back around and resumed brooding at his coffee.

Yohji poured himself some more and sat down at the table, right across from his friend. He paused for a moment, thinking about how he never would have made an offer like this a few months ago. He guessed that he really had changed. "You donít have to leave."

When Ken gave him another blank stare, Yohji rolled his eyes and leaned back in his chair. He wanted to get this out of the way so he could go have a cigarette. "Do you have any place you can go, Ken?" His friend shook his head. He felt a flash of anger at Kase for hurting Ken like this.

"No." Ken slumped in his chair and pulled his hands away from the mug of coffee. "I have some money, though, I told you that last night."

"Yeah, I know." Yohji sipped his coffee, savoring the bitter taste as he thought of how to best get through to Ken. His friend had been in a daze ever since heíd shown up at his door the evening before. "I also know how expensive apartments and hotels are. How much money do you have? Are you planning on getting a job to support yourself?" He hesitated before asking the next question. "Are you planning on going back to Kase?"

Mention of his boyfriend had Ken sitting up and glaring at him. The angry expression didnít last long, though, and Yohji just stared evenly at Ken until his friend flushed and rubbed the back of his neck. "IÖ donít know, Yohji. He lied to me. I could haveÖ." Ken became more flustered and hung his head, as if it was too much effort to hold it upright. "Are you sure I can stay here? I donít want to bother you, butÖ. I donít think Iím ready to walk away just yet, either."

Oh yeah, Yohji definitely was pissed off at Kase. He hoped the asshole realized how much Ken loved him. Then he had the bitter thought that the asshole probably did, and was counting on that to make Ken come back to him. If Yohji thought that kicking Ken out would do him any good and not make him crawl back to his cheating boyfriend, heíd do it in a heartbeat.

"Well, thereíll be some ground rules if you stay. You have to keep from trashing the place like you do your own apartment." Yohji smiled sweetly at Ken when he lifted his head to scowl at him for that comment. "Donít even try to play the wounded innocent, Iíve been in your place, you know. You can have the spare room, so keep your mess in there. Iím sure Ayaís not in any hurry to have his futon back. The other thing is that you have to get out of here when I have clients over. Iím not about to explain having a roommate to people who pay me to keep things quiet." He tapped his hands against the tabletop impatiently, feeling the nicotine craving get worse. He really should have had a smoke before talking to Ken, but hadnít wanted to chance seeing Takatoriís car picking up Aya.

"That shouldnít be a problem. I can go work out or to the movies or something." Ken didnít appear quite so forlorn anymore, and there was even a hint of a smile on his lips. "Thanks, Yohji. I really didnít want to have to get a place of my own just yet. Not until Iím sure." His eyes became shadowed, as he picked up his coffee and had a sip. He immediately made a face and hurried over to the sink to dump the drink. "Gah, I hate cold coffee." He poured himself some more and sat down. "I can help out with the groceries and stuff. Itíll only be for a few weeks, until I decide what to do."

"Take however long you need, Kenken," Yohji lied breezily. "Iím going to have a smoke. Why donít you take a shower and try to get some more sleep? You look like you could use it." He left his friend drinking coffee and hurried to his balcony. He lit a cigarette the second he stepped outside, taking a deep breath of smoke and holding it in for a moment.

He felt calmer after a few drags. Picking up the jug of water he kept out here, he watered his plants, thinking about Aya. It was his loverís fault that heíd changed so much. When heíd gone over to Ayaís apartment last night to ask for a futon for Ken to sleep on, Aya hadnít blinked an eye. Heíd told Yohji that Ken could borrow it for as long as he needed. It was then that Yohji had realized that Aya expected him to allow Ken to stay for more than just one night. It shouldnít have surprised him, considering the lengths Aya went to for the people he cared about.

He also realized that he didnít want to disappoint Aya. That if Aya thought that he was too good to throw his friend out on the street because it was inconvenient to let him stay, he didnít want to let his lover down. Before moving here, Yohji would have kicked Ken out the next morning. NowÖ.

Now he thought back with disgust on how much heíd changed. Heíd been a pretty decent person before Asukaís death. Just because he sold his body for a living didnít mean he had to be a bastard. A real man stood by his friends. Yohji wasnít going to shame himself in front of Aya, Ayumi and Ken. He might not have come here with the intention of making friends, but he had, and heíd honor those bonds.

Flicking his cigarette butt off the balcony, he ruefully acknowledged the fact that the return of his conscience would cause his relationship some difficulty. Aya couldnít come over whenever he wanted now, and they certainly couldnít fool around when Ken could walk in at any moment. Theyíd decided last night that Yohji would have to pass off their private time together to Ken as him seeing clients. Poor Ken better be prepared to get his ass kicked out for a couple of hours each day Aya was free of Hiro.

He debated having another cigarette, but decided he should get something to eat instead. Maybe he could go mooch some food off of Ayumi and Kohmi. Those two were always willing to feed him. Besides, he could commiserate with Ayumi while Aya spent the day with Hiro. Yohji couldnít wait to see Aya once he returned home. His lover would probably need some cheering up.

For a moment he wished he could go back to being a cold bastard. It would be so much simpler to just send Ken back to Kase, or make him get his own place. Dammit, he already had so little time to spend with Aya, and now this. It was as if the fates, after conspiring to get them together, delighted in torturing them by keeping them apart as much as possible.

Theyíd make this work, somehow. Hell, if they had to go to love hotels or someplace private just so they could touch each other, so be it. Besides, it wouldnít be forever. Ken would either leave Kase, or go back to him. Yohji hoped it was the first, but being in love himself, he knew things werenít that simple. Ken probably loved Kase enough to forgive him for being a selfish, fucking idiot.

He had to laugh bitterly at that thought. What Aya and he wouldnít give to be able to be monogamous, and Kase, the asshole he was, had someone like Ken and cheated on him. Things were definitely fucked up.

*******

Masato collapsed in his chair and glared with annoyance at the room around him. The people near him didnít pay him the slightest attention, which was what he wanted, so he grunted and sipped his coffee. He hated mornings. Detested them with a passion. First crawling out of his nice, warm bed. Then having to shower and dress to make himself presentable for people he couldnít give a damn about. Then facing morning traffic, which always gave him the impulse to just snap and go on a killing spree when he was stuck at the same traffic light for more than ten minutes. He wasnít a morning person.

It didnít matter what time he woke up, before ten am he wasnít fit for human company. So he was one of the earliest people to arrive at work, and for a couple of hours heíd be deliberately ignored while he had several cups of coffee and did some paperwork. After ten, heíd be in the mood to be sociable, and then he and Yuushi could go out and talk to people.

He still had three more hours to go until ten, though, so heíd waste some time trying to clear out some of his emails. Masato logged on to his account without any pleasure at the prospect of what he would find there. Some emails were about his cases, some were stupid policy reminders, and a few were jokes that friends sent him, no doubt hoping to put him in a better mood. The one about the American president almost made him smile, and he made sure to save it for a time when he could appreciate it better.

Halfway through his emails, Masato found one that had him sitting up in his chair, his foul mood forgotten. It was an automatic notice that heíd set up years ago, telling him that a certain computer account had been accessed.

He immediately logged on to the police database. It wasnít much of a surprise when he saw that the user had been checking the system for anything related to Fujimiya Yutaka and his son, Ran. Was Kudoh doing this on his own, Masato wondered, or had Fujimiya put him up to it? Whatever the reason behind it, it was a rather thorough search. Kudoh was accessing anything that had to do with his neighbor. If he kept this up, he might find a few unpleasant things.

Running his hands through his hair, Masato pushed away from his desk, his chair squeaking in protest. He grabbed his pack of cigarettes and his coffee mug off his desk before hurrying away. Yuushi would be arriving soon. He needed to think about a few things before his curious partner showed up and noticed that something was wrong. He wasnít in the mood to have to explain things to Yuushi.

A couple of minutes later, and Masato was standing on the roof. He took a sip of his cooling coffee before setting it down on the ledge. Lighting a cigarette, he took a deep drag before staring at the building across from the police station. Exhaling a cloud of smoke, he thought about his friend Atsumori, and the email notice.

Kudoh hadnít used the account in two years. If it had been a normal one, it would have defaulted from the lack of use. However, there was nothing normal about that user account. Only four people knew of its existence, and it had the highest clearance that Taki could give it. Kudoh had insisted on it.

Kudoh had only used his access to the database Ė access heíd gained via Masato in exchange for silence over a good friendís minor corruption - to research cases he was working on. When heíd quit the investigation business upon the death of his partner, the account had been left unused.

So what had changed for him to start using it now? Was he bored? Looking for some information on his neighbor? Or trying to repay Fujimiya by finding out some things for him? Masato itched to find out. He hated mysteries.

He took another drag as he thought about the situation. Kudoh had been a damn good detective. Heíd had a pretty high success rate on his cases. If he was looking into the Fujimiya case, there could be trouble. While there wasnít much about it to be found on the police mainframe, Masato doubted that Kudoh would stop there.

The Fujimiya case had always left a bad taste in his mouth. Especially after heíd paid a visit to the Hanabatake one day and found Fujimiya Ran living there as Takatoriís boy. It wasnít right - but heíd learned his lessons well from Atsumori, whoíd mentored him when he joined the police force, a wiser man who taught him to chose his battles. He knew that he didnít have a chance in hell of winning that fight. Even Yuushi had enough sense to realize that.

Kudoh didnít, though. As Masato finished his cigarette, dropping it to the floor as he reached for his coffee, he had to wonder how far Kudoh would take this case. With the amount of information that was out there, it wouldnít be very far. Masatoís colleagues had made sure to bury anything remotely incriminating. But heíd paid attention as heíd worked on that assignment, had kept personal notes that would make some people very upset if they knew they existed. Heíd known that as heíd worked the case, but hadnít cared. He hadnít been able to do a thing about the case. Not without losing his job and a hell of a lot more. That didnít mean he couldnít do his job, or hope that one day he could do something.

What was Kudoh willing to lose? What would he do if certain files were uploaded to the mainframe? Maybe it was time for a little justice. Masato had more than enough dark secrets weighing him down. Would losing even one of them help him sleep better at night? He wearily sipped his coffee, already knowing the answer to that question. Yuushi must be rubbing off on him.

*******

Aya let himself into Yohjiís apartment, and found his lover sitting in front of his new computer. It had been set up in the spare room, but Yohji had moved it to his living room after Ken had moved in. It was stationed behind a folding screen, just like Ayaís, so Aya didnít have a problem with draping his arm over his loverís shoulders and nibbling on an ear that was too tempting to ignore.

Yohji quickly put the computer on Ďhibernateí and tilted his head back, so Aya gave up on the ear to nibble on a smiling pair of lips instead. Yohji tasted of his cigarettes and coffee, a taste that Aya was slowly becoming addicted to. He moaned hungrily and pulled the chair away from the computer desk so he could straddle his loverís lap.

Yohjiís mouth was so smooth and hot. Aya loved to delve his tongue in again and again, to savor his loverís taste. He adored the feel of Yohjiís body flexing beneath his, toned muscles shifting about and large hands coming to rest on his ass. As lean as Yohji was, it should be uncomfortable to sit on him like this, but wherever their bodies touched, Aya felt a tingle of pleasure. It was as if Yohji was a live wire.

Burying his hands in Yohjiís thick, wavy hair, Aya enjoyed his loverís presence for a few more minutes before reluctantly breaking off the kiss. "Please tell me that Ken will be making up his mind sometime soon." He ached to drag Yohji off to the bedroom and make love, but knew they had to be careful. Ken would be back from his daily jog soon.

Yohji took a deep breath and let it out slowly as he leaned his forehead against Ayaís. "Iím giving him another week before I bring up the subject. As roommates go, heís not bad, butÖ." He squirmed beneath Aya, an evident bulge in his pants. "We still have a date for later tonight, right?"

"Yes." Aya moved his head so he could kiss Yohji. A few more hours and he could do what he wanted to his lover. He smiled at the thought. He was becoming rather familiar with addictions lately. Instead of drugs or alcohol, he constantly craved a certain blond who smelled like cloves. Desire filled him almost constantly, a banked fire that flared to life as soon as he thought of his lover.

Sternly reminding himself that he had to be good for a few more hours, Aya leaned back and nodded his head at the computer. "What were you doing?"

"Oh, balancing my checkbook, searching for porn, telling everyone about what we did the other day in my on-line journalÖ the usual things." Yohji laughed in the face of the glare Aya was giving him. He seemed relaxed and happy now, which was pretty odd considering how tired heíd been at breakfast. Aya noticed that whenever he interrupted his loverís computer time, Yohji would always put him off with some sort of joke or something - yet whatever he was doing on the computer seemed to make him happy, so Aya didnít press the issue. All Aya needed to know was that Yohji enjoyed spending his time like this.

Getting off his loverís lap with some reluctance, Aya headed for the kitchen. Yohji trailed after him, and as Aya started warming water for tea, came up behind him and hugged him. It felt so good to be held in Yohjiís arms, to feel warm and cherished. Aya lolled his head back so it rested on Yohjiís shoulder and breathed deeply. Cigarettes and cloves. His favorite scent.

"Whatís wrong?" Yohji asked, his voice low and worried.

"I have to leave for Kyoto tomorrow. I should return the next evening." Ayaís throat felt tight, so he didnít say anything more than that. Heíd come here after talking to Hirofumi on the phone, needing Yohjiís presence to calm him down. A whole day at the Takatori estate, putting up with Saijouís leers and Reijiís scowls. Putting up with comments about how whores should know their places. If it werenít for the fact that Kikyou would be thereÖ. Aya pushed all thoughts about Kyoto out of his head and focused on Yohjiís body pressing against his, the strong arms wrapped snugly around his chest.

"I have to work that night, so I wonít be able to see you when you get back." Yohjiís warm, moist breath tickled Ayaís ear with each word. "Iím free the day after, though. Can you come by around noon?"

"Yes." Hirofumi had a luncheon that day, which was why theyíd only be in Kyoto for one night.

"Good." Yohjiís mouth settled on Ayaís neck, a teasing touch that made him suck in his breath and tilt his head to the side. "Only one night, and Iím going to miss you so damn much," he said roughly, spinning Aya around to kiss him fervently, his arms still tightly wrapped around him.

They stood in the kitchen, just kissing and holding each other, until they heard the front door open. Pulling away with great reluctance, Aya caressed Yohjiís cheek before stepping back. "Call me the moment he leaves," he told Yohji, his voice husky with all the passion he was barely holding in check.

Yohjiís eyes were as heated as his voice had been, burning brightly with an emotion that made Ayaís heart pound in his chest. He ran his fingers over Yohjiís swollen lips as his lover nodded, and then forced himself to turn around and tend to his tea. Yohji went to the fridge and pulled out a bottle of beer, immediately twisting off its cap and guzzling it down.

By the time Ken had washed off and entered the kitchen in search of a sports drink, Aya was sipping his tea and Yohji another beer. Aya nodded at Ken and avoided looking at his lover. He was afraid that Ken would notice the longing in his eyes. Heíd have to wait a few more hours before making it clear to Yohji how he felt. It was going to be a long afternoon.

*******

Feeling the burn of a good workout, Ken slowly jogged back to the Hanabatake. He was covered with sweat and dying for something cool to drink. God, he couldnít wait until fall, when it would be a little cooler to run. It felt as if heíd jogged through an endless sauna today, but he needed the exercise. Needed something to distract him from thinking about what he was going to do.

Grimacing at the type of thoughts heíd been trying hard to avoid, he wiped himself with the towel heíd worn around his neck, hoping to dry off enough that he didnít drip any more. He had just enough time for a quick shower before heíd have to head back out, leaving Yohji the apartment to entertain.

Too bad that Aya had plans for this afternoon. Ken had been hoping to hang out at his apartment, as he did on some of the evenings Yohji was busy with his clients. Even Mamoru was busy today. Ken tried not to get depressed as he thought about all his friends doing something, either working or socializing, and that his life was so pathetic that the only thing he had to look forward to was his daily jog.

Entering the lobby, Kenís gait faltered when he glanced at the elevator. It just wasnít his day, he decided wearily. Kase was standing in front of the elevator, looking so damn good in a dark, three-piece suit. Ken debated taking the steps, not feeling up to speaking to his lover, but was spotted before he could make it to them.

Kase waved to him, a hopeful smile on his face. Taking a deep breath, Ken forced himself to walk to the elevator. Threat of heatstroke or not, he was rather wishing heíd jogged a few more kilometers. "Morning, Kase."

"More like Ďgood afternooní." Kase winked at him, and Ken noticed that his boyfriend was wearing his favorite cologne. It was difficult to resist the urge to step closer to Kase, to be better able to smell the scent. What were the chances that Kase had worn it by accident?

"Youíre looking pretty good," Kase continued, obviously determined to keep up the conversation. Ken prayed that the elevator arrived soon, before he did something stupid. Heíd been deliberately avoiding Kase the past two weeks, needing the time to think. Kase was too good at making him do things with no thought involved at all. Just like right now, when Ken wanted to drag his lover back to their apartment and tear off that suit, to lie next to him on their bed and breathe in the scent of his cologne.

Well, if his defense was shit, he thought dazedly, he might as well go on the offense. "Thanks. Iím clean now, thought you might like to know." He felt a small bit of smug satisfaction at the look of pain on his boyfriendís face. He might still love the cheating bastard, but he wanted to cause Kase some pain. It wasnít fair that he should be the only one suffering.

The elevator arrived, its warning ding sounding much louder than normal in the painful silence that had followed his comment. Ken stepped inside quickly and pushed the button for the thirteenth floor. He sighed in annoyance when Kase joined him, not bothering to press any floor buttons. "What do you want?"

"I want you to come back," Kase told him earnestly. "I want us to be roommates again, to be friends. Iím not asking you to be my lover right now, not until you know you can trust me. I miss you, and I want another chance." Kase was laying the charm on very thick, his eyes solemn and his tone pleading. "Iím sorry. Please donít throw away everything away because I was a fucking idiot. Give me a chance to make amends."

Ken could only stare at his lover. As if it would be that simple for them to return to things had been between them. He couldnít forget the embarrassment and pain heíd felt sitting in the doctorís office and being told that he had been infected with a sexually transmitted disease. To have a stranger tell him that his lover had cheated on him. That thought fought with the memory of how, for most of his life, Kase had been there for him, had offered him love and support.

"Please, Ken."

Confused by the conflict that raged on inside him, Ken shook his head wearily. Before he could say anything, the elevator reached his floor. He stepped out, needing to put some space between his lover and him. Part of him wanted so much to step back on and go with Kase to their apartment, but another part of him told him to keep walking.

"Iím sorry, Kase, I still need some time." Ken risked glancing at his boyfriend, and felt a fresh stab of pain to see how crushed Kase seemed to be upon hearing that. "JustÖ I need to think things through. Give me more time." He wanted to go back when he was sure he could trust Kase. That hadnít happened yet.

Kase gave him a trembling smile and bowed his head. "All right, Ken. Take however long you need. Iíll be waiting for you, you know where I live." His smile wavered as he straightened up. "ButÖ I donít want to pressure you, but maybe I could see you a couple of times a week? Just to prove to you that Iím sorry. We could go to dinner or something."

Ken thought seriously about the offer. It sounded good, and would help him on the nights that Yohji needed him out of the apartment. "Maybe. Let me think about it a little more. Iíll call you tomorrow and let you know." Heíd let Kase sweat things out a little longer.

Kaseís smile brightened, and he bowed again. "Thanks. I hope to see you soon." He sounded happy, and continued to stare at Ken until the elevator door shut.

Suddenly feeling exhausted, Ken shuffled down the hallway to Yohjiís apartment. He was grateful to find it empty. He made sure to tuck his shoes out of sight before hurrying to the shower. As good as it felt under the cool water, he didnít linger and quickly washed off. Once he was dry he tidied up the bathroom and headed for his room.

Collapsing wearily on his futon, Ken realized that he didnít want to go back out. Talking to Kase had left him drained, and he wanted to give serious consideration to his loverís offer. He didnít want to go watch some movie by himself, and risk being recognized by some football fan. That had happened last week. He was used to being out with Kase, who always knew what to do in that situation, knew what to say that had the person apologizing for mistaking him for someone else.

Feeling more confused than before, Ken decided he wasnít going to leave. He really needed to think this through. If he stayed in his room and didnít make any noise, Yohji would never know he was here. He could always sneak out while his friend was in the shower, after his client had left, and pretend to just arrive then. It sounded like a good idea to him.

Still feeling exhausted, he decided to take a nap. Closing his eyes, he started to drift off, and was only faintly aware of the front door opening and closing. People moved about in the apartment and started talking. Half awake, he idly noted that one of the voices was very deep, much deeper than Yohjiís in fact. That caught his attention, as Yohji had told him that he only ever brought his female clients home. After the Gensai incident, he was careful to meet his male clients in public places.

Wondering what was going on, Ken gave up on sleeping and quickly sat up in bed. There was the deeper voice again, sounding oddly familiar. He scooted impatiently off the futon and crept stealthily towards the door, pressing his ear against it in the vain hope of hearing better.

There was some muttering, the voices too low for him to catch the words. Things were silent for a couple of minutes, and then there was the sound of something falling down, the impact muffled. A rumble of bass, and then Yohji cried out.

Imagining that it was another male client hurting Yohji, Ken didnít pause to think before throwing open the door and running out. Luckily, he managed to slow down a few steps into the hallway, and reminded himself that he didnít know what Yohji did with his clients. Maybe Yohji wasnít in danger after all. Ken decided heíd cautiously check out the situation, and if Yohji was getting the shit beaten out of him again, heíd kick someoneís ass. No sense in warning the psycho that he was here before then.

If it was Yohji with a client, heíd slink back to his room and hide his head beneath his pillow. Creeping down the hall, Ken inched his way towards the corner and cautiously peered around it.

The damn couch was at the wrong angle for him to see the people on it clearly. Muttering under his breath about Yohjiís decorating skills, he crept forward into the room. If Yohji was with a client, he could be kicked out at best over this. Ken finally managed a clear shot of the couch, and was thankful that the two people on it were distracted and not looking his way.

Yohji was lying down, his head thrown back and his throat taut. He moaned, this time the sound clearly one of pleasure, as he buried his hands in the hair of the woman giving him a blowjob. Ken, feeling almost as embarrassed as heíd been in the doctorís office, vaguely thought that something wasnít right with the picture. Wasnít Yohji supposed to be the one doing things? Then he noticed the lovely yukata the woman was in the process of shedding, a black one covered with silver and white lightening bolts. It made her long red hair appear very brightÖ.

"Oh fuck." He hadnít meant to say anything, and certainly not so loudly, but the shock of seeing reserved, prim Aya giving Yohji a blowjobÖ. He knew he should be walking away, shouldnít be here any longer, but he couldnít move. Not even when his two friends stopped what they were doing and scrambled to sit up. Aya quickly tied his yukata shut while Yohji tried to pull up his jeans. Both of them were glaring furiously at him, until all Ken wanted to do was melt into the floor and ooze his way back to his room.

"What the *fuck* are you doing here, Ken?" Yohji shoved himself off the couch and stalked over to him, his face bright red. "Why the hell are you still here?"

In the face of his friendís rage, Ken suddenly found his voice. "What the hell am I doing? Arenít you the one whoís supposed to be fucking some woman right now, and not Aya? What the hell were *you* doing?" They glared at each other until Aya got off the couch and headed for the door.

Yohji looked away from Ken and went running after Aya. "Wait! Donít go yet." He grabbed Ayaís arm and forcibly dragged him back to the couch. "Youíre not going anywhere. I havenít seen you for two days." He pushed Aya onto the couch and straddled his hips. He then glared over his shoulder at Ken. "You were supposed to be gone."

"Iím sorry. I felt like shit and didnít want to go out. How long has this been going on?" When neither of his friends said anything, Ken stomped into the room. His shock was quickly being replaced with anger. "Have you two been getting together every time I got kicked out of here?" Two of his closest friends had been hiding something from him. Ken felt untrustworthy and inconvenient, which only made him angrier. Why hadnít they just told him the truth?

Yohji and Aya exchanged a glance, then Aya sighed and shook his head. He tucked back his hair, revealing a face that appeared tired and anxious. "Itís been a couple of months."

Yohji leaned forward to kiss Aya on the forehead before standing up and facing Ken. "Donít get mad at me kicking you out so I could see Aya. We canít meet in his apartment because of Hiro. We didnít tell youÖ." Yohji let out a slow breath and chuckled, sounding as tired as Aya looked. "What were we supposed to tell you? ĎHey Ken, did you know that Aya and I are together, despite the fact that he has a psycho patron? So could you keep it quiet so neither of us are killed by said psycho patron?í"

They were a couple? Ken looked back and forth between the two, noting how worried they were. He suddenly started to feel very bad about the whole mess. It was one thing to bitch his friends out for fooling around and lying to him, but if they were seriousÖ. They didnít act as if theyíd been caught fooling around. If that had been the case, theyíd be a little anxious, but not like this. As if they were waiting for someone to come and take them away, or something. Ken shook his head. They were in love.

"Iím going back to bed. Sorry for bothering you, it wonít happen again. Just let me know next time, okay?" He glanced at Yohji, wondering if there would even be a next time. He might be kicked out over this. "I really am sorry for bothering you. IÖ I didnít see a thing." He returned to his bedroom and lay down on the futon. Just when heíd thought he couldnít be any more confused, life just had to go prove him wrong.

A couple of minutes later he heard Yohjiís bedroom door close. A while after that came the sounds of soft moans and hushed voices. Ken did his best to ignore them. He turned on his radio and listened to music, trying hard not to think of what his two friends were doing in the next room. *Yohji* and *Aya* were lovers. Yeah, heíd been aware of the attraction between them, but for those two of all people to take things this farÖ. Well, at least explained how close theyíd become, didnít it? And he hadnít noticed a thing. Granted, heíd had his own troubles lately, but Yohji was his best friend. He should have picked up on something. Just like he should have guessed about Kase. Why was he so stupid?

Somehow he managed to fall asleep. He was jerked back to consciousness by a loud knock on his door. As he sat up and sleepily rubbed his eyes, Yohji entered the room, wearing a pair of sweatpants and with a beer in each hand.

"Here." Yohji handed him a bottle and sat down on the floor. "I thought you could use one."

He certainly could. Ken made quick work out of it, enjoying how the cool liquid slid down his throat. Yohji barely sipped his. He just sat and watched Ken drink.

Burping from the beer, Ken set the empty bottle aside and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He might as well start. Most likely, Yohji was here to throw him out. "You thought I might tell someone, didnít you?" Ken asked accusingly. "I thought we were friends. Donít you trust me?"

Yohji bent his head, his hair hiding his face. "I trust you, Ken. It wasnít an easy decision, keeping this from you, especially after you moved in. But youíre not the one whoíll have Hiro after your hide if he finds out." He remained hunched over, but as he spoke, his voice became stronger, rougher with emotion. "I couldnít risk Aya being hurt. What if you let something slip to Kase one night? He doesnít seem to care much for me or Aya, would he be sure not to tell anyone?"

Ken thought about that for a minute. Heíd like to say that his lover would never betray his trust in him, but Kase certainly had, hadnít he? "I wouldnít have said anything." It didnít come out as convincingly as heíd have liked. A little voice nagged him that there was a chance he might have let something slip to Kase. Back when heíd trusted his lover. "Itís not like you have anything to worry about now," he joked bitterly.

When Yohji didnít say anything, Ken started to fidget with the sheet pooled in his lap. He twisted the material between his fingers as the last of his anger drained away. Yohji had been right not to trust him. "Thanks for letting me stay here. I know now why you werenít exactly crazy about me showing up on your doorstep, and appreciate you taking me in anyway. Iíll find somewhere else to stay," he finished weakly. He could at least spare Yohji having to kick him out, and maybe salvage their relationship.

"You can stay here." Yohji looked up at him, a tentative smile on his face. "I mean, you know the worst, so why should I throw you out? At least now I can tell you when Ayaís coming over so you can make yourself scarce. We wonít have to worry about you walking in on us again." Yohji smiled a moment longer, and then grew serious. "If you care about us, please donít tell anyone else."

"Youíre my friend, Yohji," Ken said as sincerely as he could. "I donít betray my friends." Ken scratched his head as he thought about Yohjiís offer. Would it be better if he left? "You donít have to let me stay just because youíre worried about me telling someone."

Laughing, Yohji stretched out on the floor, resting back on his elbows. "Iím not offering to keep you here because of that. Youíre a friend too, Ken. Even if you have lousy timing. If I kick you out, itíll be over the fact that youíre a slob."

Thinking of what heíd walked in on, Ken blushed even as he flipped Yohji the finger. "Well, I thought you were getting beaten up, not sucked off. Thereís no way Iíd have gone out there if I thought there was a chance of seeing you naked."

"It would be too much for you, right?" Yohji grinned cockily as he wiggled his hips. "The sight of this would have you tearing off your clothes and offering yourself to me."

"Yeah, right. Youíre a delusional son of a bitch, Iíll have you know." Feeling better now that they were back to the familiar bickering, Ken smiled in relief and reached for Yohjiís neglected beer. "Seriously, I donít want to see you two at it ever again. Iíll never be able to watch Aya eat soba again without thinking about today."

"And you werenít the one on the receiving end." Yohji smiled dreamily for a moment, before glaring at Ken. "I hadnít seen him for two fucking days, and you almost ruined things for me. Youíre buying dinner tonight, for the three of us."

"Itís a deal." It was the least he could do for making his friends worry. "As long as itís not soba." He grimaced to show his distaste at the thought of seeing Aya sucking on noodles. Then something occurred to him. "Uhm, does anybody else know? About the two of you, I mean."

Yohji rolled his eyes and fell back onto the floor. "Ayaís friends Kikyou and Tsubaki know since they were staying with him when weÖ." To Kenís intense delight, Yohji actually appeared flustered for a moment. "Well, they know. I think Kikyou had something to do with us getting together that night, but I canít prove anything. Ayumi knows just because Ayaís her precious baby and she makes it her business to meddle in his life." He shook his head and grinned affectionately. "Sheís been cheering us on ever since. Mamoru knows, too, because he caught us kissing one day. You two can compare notes now. We didnít plan on telling anyone, butÖ." Yohjiís voice drifted off, his face growing anxious as he stared at the ceiling. "Please, Ken."

"Not another living soul, Yohji, I promise you that," Ken stated as solemnly as he could. "Even if I go back to Kase, I wonít say a word. You and Aya donít have to worry about a thing." He meant it, too. No one would find out about them from him.

"I believe you," Yohji said after a minute. It was quiet after that, Ken sipping the beer while Yohji stared thoughtfully at the ceiling. Then he suddenly sat up and hopped to his feet. "Iím supposed to meet Aya and Ayumi for tea. Weíll be back later." He leaned down and caressed Kenís cheek, causing him to stare at his friend in confusion. "Iím sorry, Kenken. I couldnít wait for you any longer. Try not to be too heartbroken over me choosing someone else. It was all your fault for playing so hard to get." Yohji leaned down some more and placed a sloppy kiss on his nose. "Iíll always love you." Then he was gone, the sound of laughter trailing out of the room.

Ken scrubbed his nose with distaste. God, and Aya had to put up with that on an almost daily basis. The poor man, having Yohji as a lover. He had to chuckle at that thought.

*******

Ayumi poured the tea and handed Aya his cup. She smiled tenderly at her friend, amused at the sight of him trying to stifle a yawn behind his hand. "Where does Yohji find all his energy?" she teased.

"It must be all that coffee he drinks. I donít know how he does it. He sees his clients more often than I do Hiro." Aya blew on the hot drink and started to sip it slowly, not giving it any more time to cool. Ayumi slid the plate of sponge cake over to him to help him cool his poor tongue.

"Would you like some ice cream instead?" When Aya shook his head she smiled again and picked up her teacup. "I guess you must inspire him, but kitsune are said to be lusty creatures."

Aya glanced at her over the rim of his cup, and she thought amusedly that his cheeks were the slightest bit flushed. "Come now, donít tell me that you two spend your time together talking." It was so fun to be able to tease Aya about his lover. However, considering the look she was getting, it might be a wise idea to change the topic. Sheíd tease Aya more another time. "How are things going with Hidaka?"

Ayaís scowl softened, and he placed his cup on the table before picking up a piece of sponge cake. "We think heís going back to his lover. Yohji found out that heís been seeing Koge a couple of times a week. We always thought he was just staying at my apartment whileÖ."

"WhileÖ?" Ayumi prompted. Aya, having obviously grown used to all the teasing, didnít blush in the slightest. Instead, he just nibbled on his treat. She pouted and sipped her tea. Maybe she should hold back on the teasing a little, if he was getting so used to it. It wasnít nearly as much fun if she couldnít bring a hint of color to Ayanís cheeks.

"One of Yohjiís clients asked him to escort her to a sumo match. He wants to know if we can take him the night before and teach him enough that he doesnít embarrass himself." Aya changed the subject so deftly that Ayumi almost clapped her hands together with pride. Ah, what a wonderful geisha heíd have made, she thought fondly, and with some regret. "I can get the tickets from Hiro for the two of us. Heís already asked if I wanted to go during this tournament."

"Of course Iíd love to go. We can say that I insisted on bringing Yohji, as thanks for him going shopping for me last week." She shivered as she remembered how sore her joints had been, because of the constant rain. "We can ask Sakaki to make bentos for us, and spend the day watching the bouts. Itíll be a lovely day." She smiled mischievously and pulled her fan out of her obi. "Iíll have to bring the fan I was saving for when Yohji misbehaves, and use it to fend off all the ladies that will try to steal my handsome escorts from me. I donít believe in sharing."

That brought a warm smile to Ayaís face. "I can lend you my wakizashi if youíd like."

"I think nothing short of your katana would drive those shameless women away. You and Yohji together are just too much temptation for the poor things. They donít have my restraint." Ayumi tilted her head to the side and narrowed her eyes. She let her lips curl into a pouty smile, a look sheíd perfected years ago and that never failed to charm her clients. "Youíre lucky I decided that I was too old for the two of you."

"Youíll never be too old for us, Ayumi," Aya told her, revealing that charming side to him that was rarely shown. "Yohji and I adore you so much." His eyes shone with amusement, his deep voice rich and smooth and containing a hint of laughter. "Weíre yours for the taking, whenever you want us."

"I think youíre picking up a few things from Yohji. I may have to check you for a fox tail soon," she teased her friend, feeling a warm glow in her chest. Sheíd cherish this image of Aya, of him so happy and relaxed. "Be careful not to tempt me too much, I only have so much self-restraint." They smiled affectionately at each other as she poured them more tea.

Ayumi switched the topic to the floral arrangement Aya had brought her, a lovely thing comprised of early blooming red chrysanthemums and pale yellow daisies. She coaxed several more smiles out of Aya, each one making the glow inside of her brighter and brighter. She knew that his relationship with Yohji was a trying one, because of their fear of being found out, yet it was obviously the best thing that had happened to Aya in years. Each visit revealed more and more glimpses of Ran, and gave her hope for Ayaís future. And Yohjiís too, as his eyes were now filled with genuine emotion, and he appeared at peace with himself.

Their visit was eventually cut short by the arrival of an old client of hers. Ayumi felt some of the glow fade as Aya rose to his feet and bowed to Sekine, his face impassive and bereft of the smile that had been there minutes ago. All traces of Ran were gone, leaving only Aya, cold and distant. She watched her friend leave, tapping her bottom lip as she worried at the sudden change, and told herself that it was just Aya slipping back into the mask he wore to keep a painful world at bay. It still hurt to witness it.

Then she forced such thoughts from her mind and smiled charmingly at Sekine, motioning for him to sit down while she calmly asked Kohmi to fetch her a fresh tea set. There was a purpose to her stepping out of her self-imposed exile and taking on clients again. It certainly wasnít for money. If she wished for her Ayan to become Ran once more, it would not be an easy thing. Hirofumi would not give him up without a fight. Ayumi wanted to make sure when the time came, she would be more than able to fight back with an arsenal that even a Takatori would take heed of. Despite the pain in her joints, she continued smiling and soon had Sekine, a former yet still highly regarded Cabinet member, laughing and reminiscing with her.

*******

Ken could only sigh as he looked down at his stained shirt and jeans. As the teenaged girl who spilled her iced coffee on him kept apologizing, he just shook his head, thinking rather forlornly about his futon back at Yohjiís. He never shouldíve gotten out of bed today. He should have realized that as soon as he woke up and found that Yohji and Aya had used up all the hot water, and that there was no coffee left in the apartment.

"Itís okay," he told the frantic girl while looking around for some napkins. One of her friends gave him a handful, and he used them to pat himself dry. It didnít do much good. His white shirt was probably ruined, unless he treated it with something very soon.

Brushing aside the girlís apologies, Ken gave up his place in line and headed back home. It was just his luck that Yohji was entertaining a client right now. He wouldnít be able to change at his new home, but maybe he could borrow something from Aya. There was no way Ken could meet Kase for dinner looking like this. As it was, he felt very uncomfortable from all the stares directed his way. He tugged his cap down and hunched his shoulders.

A quick check with the guards killed his faint hope that Yohjiís client was running late and that heíd have a chance to change before she arrived. It looked as if Aya was his only option for clean clothes.

He knocked on his friendís door, and was immediately greeted by Aya, who appeared surprised to see him. "Ken? What do you want?"

Ken gestured at his front and grimaced. "I hate to bother you, but could I borrow some clothes?"

Aya looked down the hall, and then back at Ken. "All right." He gestured for Ken to enter the apartment, then spun around and headed for his bedroom.

Following his friend, Ken noticed that Aya was wearing a kimono that bore Takatori crests, and that his hair wasnít tied back or braided as usual. "Are you expecting someone?"

"Yes. Hiroís supposed to be arriving later today." Aya didnít sound very happy about that. He walked over to his dresser and briskly opened a drawer. "I should have something for you to wear, though the fit might not be perfect." He searched through the drawer and pulled out a pair of tan Dockers. "Here." A white, long sleeved jersey was pulled from another drawer and tossed at Ken. "Do you need anything else?"

"I hope not," Ken answered wryly. He set the clean clothes down on the bench and quickly stripped off the soiled ones he was wearing. They were still damp, so he dropped them onto the floor. Aya tsked in annoyance before picking them up and leaving the room, saying he would spray some stain treatment on them.

The pants were a little snug and a bit long in the leg, since Ken was both shorter and stockier than Aya. He had to roll up the sleeves and cuffs a bit, but he didnít look too bad. It should be good enough for dinner and a movie.

Aya walked back into the room, a plastic bag in his hands. "Here, hopefully they wonít be permanently stained."

Ken looked at the bag and shrugged. "Uhm, would you mind holding on to them for me? I canít drop them off next door until later." He fell quiet after that, not sure just how much he should be pointing out to Aya the fact that Yohji was busy screwing someone else right now.

"You have a point," Aya responded softly, his gaze directed at the floor. "Stop by for them tomorrow." He set the bag down on his bench and gave Ken a quick look over. "Theyíre not a bad fit."

"Thatís what I thought." Ken smiled as he smoothed down the front of the soft, cotton shirt. "Thanks, Aya, I really appreciate this. Iíd be happy with a yukata, as long as it was clean." He glanced down at the bag and shuddered. "Itís just the way my luck has been lately to end up wearing a cup of coffee. At least it was cold." He made a face at the bag. "And wasnít mine."

"Just try and not spill anything on this outfit," Aya told him. "I donít have too many normal clothes left. If you ruin these, next time you *will* be wearing a yukata." He stared appraisingly at Ken for a moment before dropping to his knees. "Here, let me straighten these out for you."

"Thanks." Ken watched as Aya expertly re-rolled the cuffs of the pants. "I promise to avoid cups of coffee for the rest of the night." Aya looked up from his task and actually smiled. Feeling better now that he was clean again, Ken smiled back. "If you want, Iíll wear a raincoat over the outfit, just to be on the safe side, although Iíd have to borrow one from you."

"Letís just agree that if you ruin this outfit, you have to buy me a new one." Aya looked critically at the rolled cuffs and made a minor adjustment. "Iím going to have to kick you out now. I have some things I need to do before Hiro arrives."

"Thatís okay, I should go meet Kase soon. Thanks so much for the loan." Ken impulsively reached down and patted Aya on the head. Aya stiffened at the gesture, but didnít do anything more than glare at him. "Iíll see you tomorrow." Hearing the sound of footsteps, he looked up and was startled to find someone standing in the doorway. It took him a moment to recognize the older man as Takatori Hirofumi. He looked taller in real life.

"Hiro," Aya said quietly as he quickly stood up and in front of Ken. "How are you today?"

*******

Hirofumi sat across from his father, impatient for this meeting to be finished. He had some paperwork that needed to be done before he could go to Ayaís for the evening. It had been a lousy day, part of a lousy week, and he couldnít wait to hold Aya and forget all about it. "Is there anything else, Father?"

Reiji looked up from the file heíd been reading and set it down on the large desk. He frowned as he tapped the top sheet of paper. "Youíve been handling things with the Harris Corporation, yes? Werenít they supposed to take over those loans for us by now?"

Suddenly uncomfortable with the new topic, Hirofumi forced himself to remain still and not look away from his father. "Iíve been working hard on this deal for over six months. It looks as if all the papers will be signed by the end of the month."

"I was talking to Miwa-san today, and he expressed concern that things have taken so long." Reiji frowned at him as he leaned forward, his hand still tapping the file. "Why is that so?"

"Because the man in charge of things died recently," Hirofumi told his father. He was proud to notice that his voice sounded calm. "He suffered an accident a couple of months ago. Iíve spoken with his superiors, and itís taking them some time to go through the proposal heíd been putting together. Someone from the company should be arriving in another week to discuss the contracts."

Reiji stared coldly at him for a minute. The only sound in the room was that of his fatherís finger hitting the desk again and again. "Someone to take over Tylerís position? Are you going to kill him too?"

His mouth suddenly going dry, Hirofumi forced himself to swallow and answer his father as calmly as possible. "What are you talking about?"

"Iím talking about the fact that you had Rindou kill the American." Reiji stopped tapping the desk and slapped his hand down. Hirofumi jumped in his seat at the sound. "You said you sent him to America to take care of a few things for you. You never said you ordered him to kill someone. What the hell were you thinking, Hirofumi? Why the hell would you do something like that? Iíd promised Miwa-san that those loans would no longer be his concern by the end of summer, and itís already September! Why did you have the man killed?"

"The loans will be taken care of by the end of the month! I wasnít trying to jeopardize this deal, Father. Tyler stepped out of line. He knew things that-" Hirofumi fell silent as he breathed in deep lungfuls of air. He felt brittle with anger, ready to snap at the slightest thing. Dammit, why did his father have to question him about this? Why did this one death bother the old man?

Reiji slapped the desk again, drawing Hirofumiís attention back to him. "Listen to me, Hirofumi," Reiji growled. "If those loans arenít picked up by the end of the month, Miwa-san will be in an uncomfortable position. He wonít allow himself to be the only one to suffer. Whatever the foreigner did had better be worth you jeopardizing this deal. If it doesnít go through, youíll have to come up with the funds that Miwa-san needs. That means youíll have to get rid of some of your expensive toys." His father sneered at the last two words.

Hirofumi felt himself turn cold at that statement, and his hands trembled with the need to smash something. He just knew that his father was referring to Aya. The old bastard had been trying for years to make him give his lover up. The hypocrite. How many messes had Reiji created because of some stupid woman he had to have? The incident with the girl from Osaka alone could have had him tossed out of office in disgrace.

"Iíve already talked to Tylerís replacement, and heíll be bringing the contracts with him when he arrives next week." Hirofumi took another deep breath before continuing. "It should only take a week or two to iron out all the details, and Miwa-san will be rid of those loans."

"One week." Reiji glared at him as he closed the file. "Youíll have the contracts signed in one week. I donít care about what else you have to postpone to manage it. This deal will be your top priority. I donít want you working on anything else, and I forbid you to go play with your slut until everythingís taken care of." Reiji grimaced in disgust. "Maybe if youíre not distracted by the Fujimiya brat, youíll do some work for once."

Hirofumi rose to his feet, his hands clenched at his sides. He struggled not to yell at his father. He wanted nothing better than to lash out at him, to make him take back the insult to Aya. "Itíll be taken care of within a week of the new agentís arrival," he finally gritted out. "Tell Miwa-san not to worry. Good day."

Fortunately, his father didnít try to call him back to talk about anything else. Hirofumi wasnít sure he could spend another minute in that office without doing something heíd regret later. All fucking week long heíd busted his ass handling all the problems his father had dumped on him, having almost no time to see Aya. He was tired and worn out, and Reiji had bitched him out because one of his more foolish friends was panicking about the over-extended loans. Miwa should have known better to make them in the first place. It would serve the man right if he had to call in those debts.

Heading for the elevator, Hirofumi decided to hell with the waiting paperwork. Heíd go see Aya now. Maybe that would help to calm him down. Reaching for his cell phone, he called his driver and told him to have the car ready. Unhappy with having to wait outside for a couple of minutes for the car, he berated the driver when it finally arrived.

"The Hanabatake," Hirofumi snarled at him, barely resisting the urge to hit the man. He itched to vent the simmering anger inside him, to lash out and feel something crumble beneath his fists. Belatedly he thought about his medication, which heíd left back in his office. He couldnít remember if heíd taken a pill today or not, things had been that hectic. Oh well, he could always double up tomorrow, he thought, his temper growing with each red light and delay because of traffic.

Once they reached the apartment building, he was so impatient to be upstairs that he didnít wait for the door to be opened for him. He wanted Aya so much. He wanted to hold his lover and be soothed, to have the anger inside of him transformed into something much more pleasurable. He didnít have time for an idiot to do something he was more than capable of doing. Hirofumi slammed the car door shut behind him and hurried inside the Hanabatake.

The elevator ride seemed longer than normal, and he bit back on a curse when a young woman, who had been eyeing him the entire ride up from the lobby, got off on the sixth floor. Once she stepped out of the elevator, he angrily stabbed his finger at the button for the thirteenth floor until the doors closed.

Once on the desired floor, he strode down the hall, eager to see his lover. All he could think about was how things would be better when that happened. Aya would calm him down and make him forget about his father, work and everything else. Hirofumi fumbled anxiously for his keys and unlocked the door, not bothering to call out.

Hearing voices from the bedroom, he hurried back there. He wondered if Mamoru had stopped by after school. He smiled at the thought of Aya generously keeping the boy company. Poor Mamoru would have to find another friend to hang out with now. Hirofumi wanted Aya all to himself.

It came as an unpleasant shock when he looked into the bedroom and found his lover on his knees before some stranger. The brightly lit room took on a reddish tint, and his hands clenched into fists.

"Iíll see you tomorrow."

Hirofumi came to a halt in the doorway and just looked on as the young man turned around and saw him, a look of surprise on his face. A moment later, Aya did the same, his eyes going wide. Aya quickly jumped to his feet. "Hiro. How was your day?" His voice sounded tight, the sound grating to Hirofumiís ears.

"Aya." Hirofumi had to choke out his loverís name past a throat tight with anger and betrayal. "What are you doing?"

Ayaís gaze flickered to the stranger. "This is Hidaka Ken. Heís Kudoh-sanís roommate, and he needed to borrow something from me." Aya turned to Hidaka and smiled, the expression as tight as his voice. "You can pick up your clothes tomorrow."

"Uhm, yeah, thanks Aya." Hidaka nodded at Hirofumi and carefully edged around him, heading towards the front door. Hirofumi let him walk away, remaining still until he heard the front door close. His eyes never left Aya the entire time, his hands curled into fists and trembling.

His lover nervously tucked back a strand of his hair. "Hiro, heís just a-"

Aya didnít have time to finish the sentence, as Hirofumiís temper finally snapped. He stepped forward, his arm swinging out with all the strength he could put behind it. There was a loud crack as his hand slapped against Ayaís face, cutting him off. Part of him reveled in the feel of his hand impacting against warm flesh.

"I donít want to hear it!" Hirofumi snarled as he grabbed Aya by the shoulders. He started to shake him vigorously, causing Ayaís head to snap back and forth. "You thought you could fuck your lover right before me? You wanted him that bad?" With each passing second the fury grew. All he could think about was making Aya suffer. His lover had hurt him, so heíd hurt him back. He could think of nothing but making the rage go away with Ayaís pain.

He punched Aya savagely in the ribs, knocking the wind out of him and sending him falling to his knees. Grabbing handfuls of long hair, Hirofumi yanked Aya back up and hit him again, just as hard. "You fucking whore. I love you, and you do this to me." He backhanded Aya, grinning when he saw blood flow from the manís split lip. "You fucking cheat on me." He tossed his unfaithful lover forcefully to the ground.

Aya let out a moan of pain as he landed on the floor, his hands outstretched as he tried to break his fall. Hirofumi lashed out with his foot, kicking Ayaís arm and making him fall on his face. Stepping forward, Hirofumi stomped his foot down with all his strength on the outflung arm, making Aya cry out in pain.

"I warned you, Aya. I told you never to do this to me." Hirofumi kicked Aya in the side, making him roll over. He then straddled the smaller man and knelt down on top of him. Grabbing Ayaís hair, Hirofumi slammed his head against the floor again and again. Each impact was a salve to his rage. "I fucking own you. Youíre mine. Do you have any idea what Iíve done for you? The shit I put up with to keep you?" Aya tried to say something, but Hirofumi didnít stop with the blows. Ayaís bleeding mouth moved, but no sounds, other than whimpers of pain, came out. They sounded better than any lies he could come up with.

"I give you every damn thing you could ever want. Anything your sister or that old slut down the hall needs. I fucking feed and clothe you." Hirofumi was so mad that saliva flew with each word as he repeatedly slammed Ayaís head against the floor. "I look out for you, I do whatever you ask of me. I fucking kill for you, and what do you do? You spread your legs for anyone."

He released Ayaís hair and slapped him again. This time the impact wasnít as satisfying. "You damn bastard. How long have you been fucking Hidaka? Heís dead."

"DidnítÖ didnít sleep with him. PromiseÖ heísÖ friend." Aya gasped out each word, his eyes unfocused and his face pale beneath the blood and bruises. "DidnítÖ not Hidaka. DonítÖ not him. Kill me."

Hirofumi stared at his battered lover, the words finally sinking in. The red haze left his vision, and he saw his lover clearly for the first time since heíd stepped into the room. As Aya whimpered in pain, Hirofumiís anger ebbed out of him, leaving him drained and shocked.

"Aya?" His hand shaking, Hirofumi touched his loverís bruising cheek. "Love?" Aya moaned in pain, his eyes closing as he flinched from the touch. Now that his mood had broken, Hirofumi slowly realized how much heíd hurt Aya.

"Oh no. No. I didnítÖ I didnít do this. What did you make me do, Aya?" He tried patting his loverís face, and moaned in distress when Aya flinched from his touch. Ayaís face was swollen and bleeding and he held his left arm cradled against his chest. His hair was spread out on the tatami floor, like a pool of blood. When Hirofumi touched Ayaís shoulder, his lover whimpered in pain and tried to move away. There was a look in Ayaís eyes that made Hirofumi flinch too.

"Iím sorry. Iím so sorry." He touched Ayaís cheek, jerking his hand away when there was another whimper of pain. "You shouldnít have had him in here, Aya. What was I to think?" Hirofumi started babbling as he clenched his hands in Ayaís hair, trying to make that awful look go away. It hadnít been his fault, Aya had to realize that. "Iím sorry."

Aya stared at him a moment longer, his eyes growing more and more unfocused. Blood trickled from his mouth, trailing into his hair as he lay on the floor. This time he didnít even flinch when Hirofumi touched him.

"Iím so sorry." Hirofumi tried to untangle Ayaís hair, tried to do something that would soothe his lover. When Ayaís eyes closed, Hirofumiís panic spiked, making him grab Aya by the shoulders and shake him to try and make him open his eyes again. "Donít! Iím sorry, Aya."

His lover cradled on his lap, Hirofumi frantically pulled his cellphone out of his pocket and dialed. Masafumi would know what to do. He would make things better, he always did. Tears ran down his face as he waited for his brother to answer the damn phone, panic and fear overwhelming him just as the anger had minutes ago. It wasnít his fault. He hadnít meant to hurt Aya like this. He hadnít. It had been a mistake. He hadnít meant it.

*******

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