Cages

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chapter 13

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For want of a nail…

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In Masafumi’s office, Hirofumi stared at his chapped hands. The blood was gone, but they remained red from repeatedly hitting his lover. Masafumi had made him wash them before they took Aya to the hospital. He swore that he could still feel his bones reverberating from the blows, still hear Aya’s moans of pain. Still feel a hint of the terrible rage that had made him delight in those sensations. In hurting his lover, returning the pain Aya had caused him. But had Aya really done anything to deserve that? What had he walked in on? Cursing himself, Hirofumi wrapped his arms around his waist and started to rock back and forth. How could he have done that? How could he have hurt Aya so badly? Why couldn’t he control his temper? He’d been so weak to give in to it, and he’d hit the man he loved. He could still see the burning emotion in Aya’s eyes when he stopped, still hear his lover’s pleas and denials….

The stark sound of the office door opening and closing made him lift his head. Masafumi, appearing bone-tired, walked slowly into the room. He held a glass of water in one hand, and as he approached, held it out. Hirofumi grabbed the glass, and found a couple of pills dropped into his open palm.

"How’s Aya?" he asked reluctantly, half afraid of the answer. Aya had to be okay. He hadn’t hurt him that much, surely.

"I think you need those." Masafumi’s voice was just as weary as he looked, and contained a note of concern. "When was the last time you took your medication?"

Quickly swallowing the pills, Hirofumi washed them down with water. Masafumi took the empty glass and set it on his desk before dragging his chair over to the couch. "Hiro…."

"I… I know I took one yesterday morning." Hirofumi ran his hands through his hair as he tried to remember. "That’s the last I can recall," he admitted guiltily. "How’s Aya?"

"Hiro…." Masafumi sighed and rested back in his chair. "He’s got a concussion. I did some scans, and it shouldn’t be anything serious. He’s having trouble focusing his eyes and he’s a bit confused, not to mention in a lot of pain. Besides having a bruised set of ribs, his left arm is broken. A clean fracture in his radius - that’s a bone in his forearm. You’d know that if you’d paid any attention during anatomy," Masafumi told him, making an attempt at humor. When Hirofumi could only stare blankly at his brother, Masafumi sighed again and continued. "It should heal in a few weeks. It looks like there’s no permanent damage."

"You said he was in pain," Hirofumi pointed out doggedly, having difficulty processing anything else. Aya was in pain. That was his fault. "Can’t you do something about that?"

"I could, if it weren’t for the concussion. I don’t want to heavily medicate him right now." Masafumi regarded him intently, making him feel like he was being reprimanded by his father. "Speaking of medication, why haven’t you been taking yours?"

Staring guiltily at his lap, Hirofumi shrugged. All he could think about was how much Aya had to be hurting right now. Why had Aya allowed that other man into his apartment? He should have known better. He should have fucking known. "I’ve been so busy with work, I forgot all about taking it. You know how Father’s been the past two weeks."

"Yes, I do. I’ve been working all these double shifts to avoid him." Masafumi was quiet for a moment, and then he shifted his chair closer to Hirofumi and gently grasped Hirofumi’s hands. "Hiro, you have to keep taking your meds. You know things like this tend to happen when you skip them. Imagine what would have happened if you’d lost control while at a dinner or something. You can’t take the risk. Take your medicine."

Looking up, Hirofumi tried to pull his hands away from his brother while glaring at him, but his anger quickly ran its course, and he couldn’t muster the concentration to remain upset for more than a few seconds. "Something did happen, dammit. Look what I did to Aya."

"He’ll be okay," Masafumi assured him. "What happened tonight? I couldn’t quite understand you earlier."

Taking a deep breath, Hirofumi closed his eyes and recalled walking into the apartment. It was funny, all the little details he could remember now, such as the fact that the bed had been neatly made, and that Aya had been glaring at the stranger. All he’d been aware of at the time was Aya on his knees before another man, the two of them in the bedroom. Aya should have known better….

"I had an argument with Father, and decided to leave work early. He’s pissed off because I haven’t gotten rid of Miwa’s loans yet, and insists that I stop playing around until they’ve been taken care of." He laughed bitterly at the memory of that conversation, and almost wished that he’d lost his temper then, before he’d gone to Aya’s apartment. "I stopped by Aya’s, and found him in the bedroom with another man--"

"Do you really believe he was cheating on you?" Masafumi interrupted him hastily.

Starting to feel disoriented, both from what had happened earlier and the medicine that his brother had just given him, Hirofumi shook his head slowly. "I…. I thought so at first, but now…. He told me the man was just a friend, there to borrow something from him. They didn’t act like they were lovers." He felt so confused. He didn’t believe anymore that Aya had cheated on him, but why had the man been there?

Masafumi was quiet for a minute before sitting back in his chair. "You said something earlier about a man being there, so…." He combed back his hair, an embarrassed expression on his face. "I gave Aya a thorough exam," he appeared flustered by this, a very rare occurrence, "and didn’t find any signs of recent intercourse. Also, he kept saying something about not doing anything with Hidaka, whoever that is."

So the man really wasn’t his lover. Oddly - Hirofumi felt like laughing. He was relieved and yet still felt wretched because he’d beaten his lover for no reason. What was it going to take to make Aya forgive him?

"He must be the man who was visiting him. Aya didn’t want me to hurt him." He remembered his lover pleading with him, begging Hirofumi to kill him, not the stranger with him. He’d really messed things up tonight. Aya had been so relaxed around him the last few months. Now it would all be gone. He’d have to keep a close eye on Aya the next few weeks to make sure he didn’t try to run away again. He had Aya’s passport, so Aya couldn’t get very far but he didn’t want to have to track his lover down. His hands clenched into fists at the very thought of Aya running from him.

"I know that Mamoru’s mentioned Aya having a couple of friends now, and that he’s been hanging out with them, too," Masafumi mused. "I’ll ask him about this Hidaka tomorrow." He pushed back his chair and rose wearily to his feet. "I think you should go home now, Hiro. I should be able to release Aya in another hour, hopefully before anyone recognizes him."

Hirofumi shook off his brother’s helping hand. "I’m staying until he’s ready to leave, and then I’ll take him home."

"You need to get some sleep. You look ready to pass out right now, and once those pills kick in, you won’t be able to watch over Aya. He’s going to need someone to wake him up every hour until morning, to monitor his concussion. Go home and go to bed." When he stubbornly remained seated, Masafumi rubbed a hand over his eyes and frowned. "Go home. You said that Father’s upset with you? How do you think he’ll feel if you spend the night at Aya’s?"

Thoughts of his father and his threat to make him get rid of Aya brought back Hirofumi’s anger, but instead of the earlier uncontrollable rage, now the emotion was a suffocating blanket over his reason. He was filled with the urge to hurt his father the way he’d been hurt, but couldn’t find the energy to do anything about it.

"I don’t give a damn what Father thinks. I’m not giving Aya up." He glared angrily at his brother. "I want to make sure he’s all right."

"He will be, Hiro, trust me on this. I know how much he means to you," his brother said, trying to placate him.

"But you’ve never cared much for him," he pointed out, suddenly paranoid. "You’d probably be happy if something happened to him." He tried to stand up, intent on taking Aya away from his brother, to have another doctor check out his lover and make sure that Masafumi hadn’t lied about Aya’s injuries….

He was shoved roughly back into the couch. "Dammit, you know that’s not true. Think, Hiro. You must have been off your meds for longer than a day, if you’re this confused. You need to get some rest, and I want you to see Ichimura tomorrow." Hirofumi started to struggle with his brother, not happy at the thought of seeing his psychiatrist again but Masafumi wouldn’t release him, and pretty soon he was too exhausted to continue.

"Hiro, I don’t want anything to happen to Aya, I swear. I’ve even asked Hel to take him home and stay with him tonight." He gazed intently at Hirofumi for a few seconds before releasing his hold on his wrists and stepping back. "I don’t have anything personal against Aya, I just don’t like Father being able to use him against you."

Hirofumi’s anger slowly drained from him, in its wake leaving him tired and lacking the will to fight. "Are you sure Aya will be all right?" he asked, needing to be reassured.

"He’ll be okay. He’ll be in pain for a few days, but there should be no lasting damage." Masafumi smiled, the expression wryly. "I do good work, don’t you know? Now let’s get you home."

This time he didn’t fight his brother, and genuinely needed help rising to his feet. "I can’t lose him, Masafumi." His father was crazy if he thought he’d let go of Aya without one hell of a fight. He’d finally made Aya his, and that fact would never change. He’d do whatever he had to do to make sure that it never changed.

"I know. I feel the same about my ladies. Focus on taking care of what Father wants done, and everything will be fine" Masafumi reassured him. "And take your meds. You can’t afford to lose your temper like this."

"Yeah. I want to see him before I leave."

"That’s not a good idea. It might attract too much attention if you do," his brother said quickly. "Besides, he needs some rest before I send him home, and I doubt you’ll stay awake for the walk to his room. Go home and get some sleep. You can see him in the morning."

The medicine must have kicked in, because he didn’t want to argue with his brother any longer. Grunting in agreement, Hirofumi allowed himself to be half-carried to his car. Masafumi helped to settle him in the back seat and told the driver something, but everything started to be too distant from him for him to focus on. Staring blurrily at the back of the front seat, he concentrated on being able to see Aya in the morning, and what he’d have to do to wipe away the look of hatred and hopelessness he’d seen in his lover’s eyes after returning to his senses.

He reassured himself that he’d been mistaken, that Aya didn’t hate him. Aya loved him. He’d make tonight up to Aya somehow. He’d give his lover a couple of weeks to heal, and then spend as much time as possible with him, taking care of him. He’d make sure that Aya knew how much he loved him. He’d be forgiven, just like the last few times, and things would go back to normal.

Thinking about Aya, he slowly fell asleep.

*******

Ayumi stood in Aya’s bedroom, her eyes riveted to the stained tatami mats before her. It wasn’t that much blood, not really. Just random spots here and there, already soaked into the woven reeds. But it was Aya’s blood, and a single drop was too much. Clenching her hands, Ayumi was consumed by the utmost hatred for Takatori Hirofumi. He’d beaten her Ayan, had broken his promise to never cause him harm again. She wasn’t just going to take Aya away from him, she was going to destroy the man. She’d do it before the bastard had a chance to harm Aya again.

Taking deep breaths, she focused on the mantra her elder sister had taught her long ago, during her training. She had to calm down. There was nothing she could do right now, and letting her anger rule her would be disastrous. She needed to be able to think clearly, and to focus on Aya right now. Later, she could deal with Takatori.

As she stood there, staring at the spots of blood, someone slid open the door behind her and cleared their throat. "Ayumi-sama, the workers are here."

She turned around and nodded at Shizuka. "I understand." She walked past him and two strange men dressed in overalls that bore the Hanabatake’s motto, leaving the room so they could replace the ruined tatami. By all means, let there be no sign of what had happened this evening when Aya returned. If he came back home tonight, or any time soon.

Shizuka followed her to the kitchen, where Kohmi was busy making some tea. Sitting down at the table, Ayumi nodded curtly at the concierge. "Tell me again about Aya."

He bowed low to her, his face lined with pain. "I barely saw him as the Takatoris left with him, but he didn’t seem that badly injured. He was able to stand with support, and Takatori-sensei didn’t feel there was any need for an ambulance."

That fact did nothing to alleviate the knot of worry and fear in Ayumi’s chest which had formed when Shizuka had called her and informed her that Aya, beaten and bloody, had been rushed out of the building by his lover. Knowing Takatori Masafumi, he would only have called for an ambulance if Aya had been dying. He wouldn’t want to attract any attention to his brother’s lover.

"Thank you, Shizuka-san, for calling me, and for repairing Aya’s apartment so quickly. Would you like some tea?" She forced herself to smile charmingly at him and motion to the empty chair across from her, ever the gracious hostess. Never mind that this wasn’t her apartment, and the situation wasn’t one of the best.

"No, thank you." Shizuka bowed again. "I’ll go check on the men’s work, and leave with them. There are a few details that needs tending to." He hesitated for a moment, as if debating something. "Perhaps you should leave with me, Ayumi-sama."

"I’ll stay," she told him sternly, all tact forgotten. She was going to remain here until Aya returned, and make sure he was fine. She didn’t care if Hirofumi brought him back and was upset with her for being here. She wasn’t leaving. "Thank you again for your consideration." She bowed before shifting in her chair to watch Kohmi pour hot water into the teapot.

Shizuka appeared to realize that he’d been dismissed, and after bowing once more, said goodbye and left. Ayumi and Kohmi were quiet until they heard him and the workmen leave several minutes later. Kohmi, her motions jerky with worry, set a tray with the teapot and two cups on the table, and slid a cup towards Ayumi.

"We’re spending the night here, aren’t we?" Kohmi asked, her voice quiet.

"Yes." Ayumi picked up her cup and sipped the hot beverage, needing something to warm her. She had felt so cold, ever since hearing the news about Aya. "We’ll sleep in the living room."

Not appearing very surprised, Kohmi nodded. "We haven’t had dinner. Do you want me to make something?" She didn’t appear surprised when Ayumi shook her head. She sipped her tea before setting the cup down and jerking her head to the side. "What do we do about Kudoh-san?"

Ayumi rubbed her tired eyes. She’d been worrying over the same thing. "If he stops by to see Aya, don’t tell him anything. Leave that to me." Yohji would be enraged beyond all reason when he found out that Aya had been hurt. He’d want to confront Hirofumi, and while she’d be ecstatic if he beat the bastard into the ground, she knew that would only make things worse. Even if by some miracle Yohji’s actions didn’t draw attention to his relationship with Aya, Hirofumi would still seek retribution. Aya being hurt was bad enough. They didn’t need Yohji to be injured - or worse - as well.

Kohmi quietly agreed to leave Yohji to her and finished her tea. She then stood up and fussed about the kitchen, washing her mug and a few dishes that were in the sink, putting away various things and wiping down almost every surface. It was clear that Aya had been in the middle of making something, most likely dinner for Hirofumi, when… it had occurred. Ayumi wondered what had set Hirofumi off this time.

She’d thought at first that he’d found out about Aya and Yohji, but reason told her that wasn’t the case. Yohji was next door, and as far as she knew, quite safe. If Hirofumi had found out the truth, she imagined he wouldn’t have stopped at hurting Aya, and would have sought Yohji out.

Pushing her cup away from her, Ayumi rose to her feet and left the kitchen. She spent a few minutes in the living room, looking at the pictures of Aya’s sister and sliding open the balcony door so the scent of jasmine filled the apartment. Then she stopped in Aya’s workroom, noting with a sad smile how organized the small space was. She could see the tools she’d given him when they’d started the ikebana lessons lined up in orderly fashion on the low table.

She forced herself to walk to Aya’s bedroom. She could smell the new mats before she entered the room, so once inside, she hurried over to the balcony doors to open them. Only then did she turn around and survey the room with a critical eye.

There were no spots of blood left on the floor, but there were a few on the comforter. Grimacing with disgust, Ayumi quickly stripped the grey duvet cover off the bed. Thankfully, the cotton fabric was thick enough that the blood hadn’t soaked into the down comforter itself. She rolled the duvet into a ball and set it aside before fetching a new cover from Aya’s linen closet. Within minutes the bed was back in order, and she took the time to straighten out the rest of the room. Returning to the bench to pick up the soiled bed linen, she noticed a small plastic bag, which upon opening it, revealed a stained shirt and pants. They didn’t look like anything that Aya would have worn.

Puzzled by the strange garments, she took them and the duvet cover back to the kitchen to be washed. Kohmi was in the middle of her own cleaning spree. It looked as if she was getting ready to wax the floor, her kimono sleeves tied back and a focused look on her face. Ayumi wisely decided to just hand over the soiled articles and leave the room quickly. When Kohmi was in a mood to do some cleaning, a smart person got out of her way.

Checking her watch, Ayumi noticed that it had been little more than an hour since Hirofumi had left with Aya. Yohji would still be with his client, and it was still light outside, so she decided to chance a quick run up to the greenhouse. She wanted the place to be filled with fresh flowers when Aya returned, hoping their scent would work their soothing magic on her friend.

A basket on her arm, she hurried towards the roof. It was turning into a cool evening, the summer’s heat losing its hold on Tokyo as fall approached slowly but surely. There were a few residents enjoying a break from the heat, and they gazed curiously at her as she crossed the roof to Aya’s greenhouse. Once inside, the scent of myriad blossoms helped to calm her. Picking up a pair of shears from the basket, she began to cut some of the flowers.

Focusing her attention on the blooms, she thought of the flowers’ meanings and possible arrangements for them, a distraction from the reason why she was clipping the beautiful things. Over the years she’d studied the Victorian flower language, and had even taught it to Aya. There had been times they’d exchanged messages in front of Hirofumi, cloaked in the discussion of, or in a gift of flowers. There hadn’t been a need of that lately, since Hirofumi was often busy with work, leaving Aya more free time, and…. And because the man had kept his promise, more or less, and hadn’t harmed Aya these past few months.

They were foolish to think Hirofumi had changed. They’d been so worried about him finding out about Aya and Yohji’s relationship that they’d forgotten the normal danger he posed. They’d been so… foolish. Ayumi sniffed back tears as she cut some roses.

Hirofumi wouldn’t have many more chances to harm Aya. She’d see to that. Yohji had given her beloved friend a reason to leave this life behind, and she’d make sure that they had their chance to leave. No matter how much the thought of losing Aya pained her.

*******

Aya bit his lip to stop a moan escaping.

"Keep your head down," Hel said quietly.

"I’m trying, Hel," he mumbled, and immediately caught his slip when she hissed in warning. Chizura, she was called Chizura in public like this. Only Hel when she was with Masafumi.

She tightened her arm about his waist, and Aya had to lean against her as they walked through the Hanabatake’s lobby. His gaze focused on the floor, he hoped that his hair hid most of his face from view. It was hard to see through the loose strands, but his vision was still blurry and his right eye all but swollen shut, so it didn’t really matter. He let Hel half carry him towards the elevator, wanting nothing more than to make it to his room and collapse. He ached all over.

He looked up when they reached the elevator, and found one of Shizuka’s assistants holding the door open for them. He felt grateful for that, and the fact that the young woman was keeping anyone else from stepping into the small car. Now he wouldn’t have to endure a long ride upstairs with someone staring at him.

Once in the car, he leaned against a wall, slumping as an overwhelming urge to lie down came over him. Hel sighed and shoved a shoulder under his arm, keeping him from sliding onto the floor. Her help, while painful, was appreciated.

"Are you all right?" She seemed to realize how silly the question was when she didn’t wait for an answer. "Just a little longer, Aya, and you’ll be home." Her voice sounded anxious and tired. Raising his head, Aya nodded slightly, forcing his eyes to focus on the older woman. Hel appeared as worried as she sounded.

"Thank you," he slurred, too tired to force his sore mouth to work properly. His face hurt so much, especially his split lip. That pain merged into that of his sore ribs and abdomen, with a sharp flare in his broken arm whenever he moved his hand. In as much pain as he was, he was grateful to be returning home and not staying in the hospital, where he’d be treated like a dirty secret.

"It’s okay," Hel quickly reassured him. While they weren’t exactly friends, repeated stays at Kyoto together had forged a common bond between them, and Schoen as well. They were all trash in Reiji’s eyes, sluts who led his sons astray and prevented them from giving him his much desired grandchildren. Aya suspected the women remained cool toward him because of Masafumi’s disproval.

When the elevator reached his floor, he wearily pushed away from the wall, once again relying on Hel to help him walk. The pain was even worse now, and he couldn’t wait until he could lie down in his bed and rest. He just wanted to make it safely to his apartment - his body tensed as he passed Yohji’s door. For once things went right for him, and they made it to his place without his lover seeing him.

Hel unlocked his door with Hirofumi’s keys, and both of them were surprised to find the lights on inside. No more than two steps into the apartment, Aya heard his name and looked up to see Ayumi hurrying towards him.

"Oh Aya, you’re home!" Small hands patted him gently on the shoulders, tucking back his hair. Ayumi took a quick breath, her hand resting for a moment on his cheek. "Aya…." Her voice was thick with sorrow and pain, making Aya’s eyes prickle with tears. As much as he loved Ayumi, he didn’t want her to see him like this.

"Ayumi-sama, I need to get him to bed," Hel said firmly. Ayumi instantly apologized and backed away, running in front of them to Aya’s bedroom. As he shuffled to his room, Aya noticed the scent of flowers. Gazing around, he found vases scattered about, filled with flowers. Taking as deep a breath as his sore ribs allowed, he lowered his head and fought back tears.

Ayumi had turned down his bed for him, and hovered by it as Hel slowly lowered him onto it. Aya refused to cry out from the pain of bending his body, but soon enough he was lying in his bed, plumped pillows supporting his head. Ayumi fussed with his sheets for a moment, tucking them around him in a motherly way. There was another caress to his cheek before she stepped aside.

Feeling utterly drained from the trip back home, Aya closed his eyes, wanting nothing more than to go to sleep and escape from the pain.

"Aya, do you want more medicine? I can give you another small dose now." He didn’t bother to look at Hel as he nodded slightly. There was a rustling sound, like a bag being opened, and then the crackle of a blister pack being popped open. He heard someone, most likely Ayumi, hurry from the room, and when she returned, a cool glass was pressed against his hand. Aya opened his eyes enough to raise the glass of water to his lips, but his eyesight was even more unfocused than before so he almost spilled the liquid until Ayumi helped. The pills were quickly swallowed, and his eyes already closing as the glass was taken from them.

Exhaustion creeping over him, Aya heard, as if from a distance, Ayumi and Hel’s voices. They were talking too quietly for him to understand the words, but Ayumi’s voice took on a sharp tone, and Hel fell quiet for several seconds. When she spoke next, there was a relieved note to her voice. Ayumi said something, and then someone was lightly touching him on the shoulder.

"Aya, Ayumi-sama insists on watching you tonight. She’ll stay and wake you up during the night. You should be fine, but if you need anything, don’t hesitate to call me." Hel repeated the last part to Ayumi, stressing the need for medical attention if he didn’t wake or remained confused for much longer. Ayumi’s reply faded out as he finally was allowed to rest.

*******

Sitting on the edge of Aya’s bed, Ayumi ran her hand through her friend’s hair. She still felt like crying over the sight of him, at how bruised and swollen his lovely face was. She gently adjusted an icepack over his right eye, hoping to help the swelling go down, and resumed gently combing her fingers through his hair.

On the nightstand was a variety of pills, which Chizuru had taken the time to explain to her before fleeing the apartment. Tylenol to help with the pain now, stronger pills that he wouldn’t be allowed to take until tomorrow, when they were certain he was recovering from his concussion. She’d given him another dose a short while ago, after his hourly wake-up, and she hoped that the lessening of the pain lines around his mouth wasn’t just her imagination.

When Aya showed no sign of waking up, she slowly got to her feet. Her body wasn’t very happy with her, demanding loudly and painfully that it deserved to be in bed right now. She had a futon made up near Aya’s bed, but didn’t hope to get any rest until morning. Kohmi had told her to wake her when she needed to sleep so Kohmi could take over, but Ayumi wanted to look after him herself. She was too worried about his condition worsening through the night.

She paused at the doorway to glance at Aya, but as he hadn’t stirred, she continued on her way. She was careful not to wake Kohmi, who was sleeping in the living room, and crept out the door.

She’d received a call an hour or so ago informing her that Yohji’s guest had left. She was hoping to catch him just when he’d gone to bed or was getting ready to, tired from his date. She’d debated all evening long when would be the best time to inform Yohji of what had happened to Aya, and had decided that now would be best, not in the morning when he would be rested and there’d be more of a chance of Hirofumi showing up.

It took several knocks on his door before Yohji eventually answered, wearing a yukata. He gazed groggily at her, a worried frown on his face. "Ayumi? Is something wrong? You all right?"

"Shhh." She grabbed his hand and tugged him into the hallway. His frown deepened, but he followed her, letting out a sharp breath when she led him to Aya’s apartment and not her own.

Once they were safely inside, he pulled his hand free. "What’s going on? Why did you bring me here? Aya?" He called out his lover’s name as he looked around.

"Quiet." She glanced worriedly towards the living room, but Kohmi, most likely exhausted from her cleaning spree, was still asleep. Grabbing Yohji’s wrist again, she led him down the hallway. "You need to see Aya right now. He’s sleeping, so *don’t* wake him up. He needs his rest." She gazed sternly at Yohji, the expression almost faltering when she saw how worried he was. "He’s… fine," she forced out, "just let him sleep."

Yohji practically shoved her out of his way as he dashed to the bedroom, but she tenaciously held on to his wrist. As he entered the dimly lit room he came to a halt, and then took a tentative step towards the bed. "Aya?"

She let go of Yohji’s wrist, knowing that she would be dragged along if she didn’t. One more uncertain step, and then Yohji seemed to clear the space between him and his lover in a heartbeat. "Aya? Love?" He knelt beside the bed and stroked a shaking hand along Aya’s left cheek. She heard him choke back a sob before he buried his head against Aya’s shoulder.

Aya moaned softly but didn’t wake. Judging from how difficult it had been to wake him the last several times, she guessed that he was seeking relief from the pain as best he could. Since he’d always woken up and known who she was, she hadn’t been concerned on that score.

Yohji’s shoulders shook as he cried out his grief. She considered leaving them alone, but decided against it. Stationing herself in front of the doorway, Ayumi waited patiently for Yohji’s emotional outburst to lessen. She knew that anger had to take over soon.

A few minutes later, he lifted his head and kissed Aya gently on the cheek. Then he whirled around, his eyes flashing with anger in a tear-streaked face. "It was Hiro, wasn’t it?" His voice was rough with hate.

Bracing herself, Ayumi nodded. "From the little I can get out of Aya, Ken stopped by this afternoon, needing a change of clothes. Aya provided him with some, and Hirofumi walked in on them. He…." She shook her head, unwilling to say any more. It was painfully obvious what the bastard had done.

Yohji took a deep breath, then a look of determination settled on his handsome features.

"He’s dead." Yohji tried to walk out the door, but Ayumi refused to budge, clutching determinedly onto the doorframe and door with both hands. "Ayumi, you better move." She’d never heard Yohji speak to her so roughly before.

Refusing to budge, she shook her head. "Listen to me, Yohji. You can’t go after him, not now."

"Like hell I can’t. Look at the fucking bed and see what he’s done," Yohji’s voice was so thick with anger that it was almost unrecognizable. "He can’t hurt Aya again if he’s dead."

"No, Yohji," she pleaded with her friend. "You can’t go after him." She held on even more tenaciously when he tried to pry her hand off the door. "You won’t even get near him. Guards always surround his family. They’ll stop you and they’ll want to know why you’re after the Takatoris. Hiro doesn’t know about you and Aya, can’t you see that? If you go after him, he’ll find out the truth and Aya will pay. Aya will lose you and…." She choked back a sob. "He’ll lose you, and there’s no telling what Hiro will do to him. We’ve always feared Hiro finding out and Aya paying for it. If you go after him, it’ll be your fault this time. I won’t mourn an idiot, do you hear me?"

She sniffed and glared at him, willing him to see reason. Yohji would be stopped, possibly gunned down before he even got near Hirofumi. Didn’t he think that she wanted revenge for Aya? She knew better than to face the Takatoris head on. "You’ll break Aya’s heart if something happens to you. Didn’t you promise me you wouldn’t cause him any pain?"

Yohji’s hands clenched agonizingly around hers, his eyes filled with pain and hate, before he took another deep breath and backed away. As soon as her hands were released she rubbed them, barely focusing on the pain as she watched Yohji carefully. He just stood there for several seconds, his head hanging down dejectedly, before he slowly returned to the bed. Tucking her aching hands into her kimono sleeves, Ayumi followed him, even though she was reluctant to leave the doorway.

Moving as if he was wounded himself, Yohji slowly made his way to Aya, and once at the bed, curled up beside his lover. Ayumi stopped herself telling him to not disturb Aya, but as soon as Yohji lay down beside him, Aya moaned in pain. His eyes fluttered open and he stared blankly at Yohji for a moment before flinching.

"Aya." The word came out as an anguished whisper as Yohji soothingly brushed back Aya’s bangs. Aya stilled at his name, his eyes focusing on Yohji before he sighed. Closing his eyes, Aya went back to sleep while Yohji stroked his hair.

Ayumi gave them a couple of minutes before settling on the bed near Yohji. He didn’t seem to notice her as he continued the caress a while longer, before curling up as close to Aya as he could.

"What’s wrong with him?"

Startled by Yohji’s soft voice, Ayumi realized she’d been falling asleep and wearily shook her head. "Aya? He has a concussion and a broken arm. He needs to be woken every hour until morning." She rubbed her eyes, wanting nothing more than to lie down on the bed and sleep. Dealing with Yohji had drained the last of her strength from her.

Yohji grunted and gently draped his arm over Aya’s waist. "He went to the hospital? When did this happen?"

"Earlier this afternoon. Hiro’s brother checked Aya out and sent him home." At Yohji’s glare, she gestured towards all the medication. "He asked one of his lovers to make sure that Aya was tended to, but I sent her away. The only thing we need to worry about is Aya’s concussion. He seems to have a problem seeing, but it’s getting better. The arm will take a few weeks to heal, and the rest is just superficial." She wrinkled her nose in distaste at having to recount Aya’s wounds, at having to make them sound as trivial as possible.

"Yeah, I’m sure Aya will wake up all fine and dandy," Yohji said sarcastically. "I really want to kill him. He shouldn’t be able to do something like this and get away with it." He resumed stroking Aya’s hair, the anger fading from his face to be replaced with weariness and concern. "I’ll take over waking Aya up. Why don’t you get some rest?"

"I doubt you’re any less tired than me," she calmly pointed out. "I’d rather stay up and be certain that Aya’s woken up on time." At Yohji’s disappointed frown, she smiled tiredly and patted his shoulder. "You can help me, though. Between the both of us, Aya will be checked on as often as he should."

He chuckled weakly, as if trying to put on a brave face. "I just remembered that Aya’s a real grouch when he wakes up. Go to bed. You’ve done enough for him already, you don’t need to put up with him in a temper on top of all that."

She lightly smacked him, her mood lifting for the first time in hours. "You’ll do no such thing. Don’t try to give me a heart attack by being a gentleman all of a sudden. I’m not going to bed. I’ll just make sure to wake you up first. You’re right next to him, so you’ll deal with the brunt of his displeasure."

Yohji rolled his eyes and lifted his head, about ready to continue arguing, when Aya groaned. They immediately fell quiet and peered anxiously at him, worried that something was wrong. His left eye cracking open, Aya managed a rather effective glare. "Shut up." He managed to show his disproval at being disturbed for a few more seconds before tucking his head under Yohji’s chin and going back to sleep.

Too surprised to do more than stare at their friend, their mouths hanging open, she and Yohji remained still for a couple of minutes. Then they exchanged tired grins and shook their heads. Gently brushing back Aya’s hair, Ayumi checked the alarm clock to make sure it was set for Aya’s next check-up and sat down on her futon. Looking up at the bed, she found Yohji holding his lover close. Lying down, she decided to get some rest for the next half hour.

*******

Yohji became aware of an annoying ringing sound and cuddled deeper in bed, unwilling to wake up. The sound gradually stopped, earning a relieved sigh from him as he hugged Aya closer. About to fall back asleep, he was startled when someone began to shake his shoulder roughly.

"Yohji, get up." It was Kohmi, and she sounded very serious. "I need you to help me with something," she insisted, and before he knew it, he was unceremoniously pulled out of bed. Almost falling onto the floor, he barely managed to get his feet under him in time and glared at her. Kohmi didn’t pay him the slightest bit of attention and continued dragging him out of the room. Glancing back at Aya, he noticed that Ayumi had taken his spot beside his lover.

"What the hell is going on? Let go of me, dammit." He tried tugging his wrist free, but Kohmi held on with a grip that started to make his captured wrist ache. "Is something wrong with Aya?" They’d finally been able to give his lover some real painkillers the last time they’d woken him up. Yohji had been hoping to get some uninterrupted sleep now, after spending the night checking up on and worrying about Aya.

"He’s fine. I need you in the apartment. Hurry up." Kohmi didn’t slow down the whole while, and before he knew it, he was being shoved into Ayumi’s apartment. He turned around to find Kohmi in front of the door, almost as if standing guard.

"What the hell is going on?" Suddenly suspicious, Yohji took a step towards the door. He wasn’t surprised when Kohmi pressed against it, as if barring it. "Why did you want me here?"

She levelly met his glare and braced herself. "Ayumi wants you to stay here for a while. Go sit down. If you promise to behave, I’ll get you something to eat."

"What. Is. Going. On?" Yohji snarled out the words, his hands itching to grab Kohmi and shove her out of the way. First Ayumi dragged him to Aya’s apartment, and now Kohmi was dragging him out of it. "If Aya’s not-"

Kohmi interrupted him, her voice sharp with anger. "He’s fine. Do you think Ayumi would let anything else happen to him? She’ll watch over him, just like she did all night. If you want both of them to be all right, you’ll sit down and behave."

They glared at each other for several minutes. Mentally willing Kohmi to back down and get away from the door, Yohji growled in irritation and took a step backwards. "Tell me why I should go sit down."

She shook her head and made sure the door was locked behind her. "Takatori is here to see Aya." When he took a step forward, she grasped the doorframe with her hands and widened her stance. "You’ll stay here! You won’t do any good if you kill that man!"

"The hell I won’t! He’ll never be able to hurt Aya again!" Yohji yelled as he tried to pry her out of the door. She was even stronger than Ayumi, and giving him more trouble than a woman half his size should. "Get out of the way."

"If you touch that man, Aya will pay. Takatori Reiji will make sure that everyone involved with his son’s death suffers, including Aya and Ayumi. You’ll hurt them worse than Hirofumi can. Do you understand?" Panting, she refused to budge from her post. "Ayumi won’t let him hurt Aya again. That’s why she stayed, to protect Aya. Trust her."

Wanting nothing more than to break down the damn door and strangle Hirofumi, Yohji cursed and stepped back instead. Aya would get in trouble if he gave into his homicidal urges. Dammit. "Okay, I won’t kill the prick." There were other ways of hurting a person.

Kohmi eyed him warily, clearly not believing his acquiescence, and remained in the door. Sighing wearily, Yohji headed for the kitchen, desperately needing some caffeine. Not long after he started searching the room for some coffee, Kohmi appeared, looking disgruntled and slightly confused, and pushed him towards the kitchen table.

"Sit down. I won’t have you rummaging about in my kitchen." She glared at him for a moment before closing the cabinet doors he’d left open. Pulling a tin out from a cupboard near the stove, she opened the new container and started the coffee brewing.

Yohji sat down and tried to gather his scattered wits. It had been a very stressful night, going from a client who believed in getting her yen’s worth to Ayumi pounding on his door right before he’d gone to bed, and seeing Aya…. He sucked in a deep breath and buried his face in his hands, feeling the urge to tear something into little pieces. Now was not the time to break down, unless there was a certain Takatori bastard as his target. Aya would be all right despite his injuries and his appearance. He’d been pretty clearheaded the last time they’d woken him, and hadn’t had any more trouble focusing his eyes. Yohji’s heart had been in his throat each time he and Ayumi had woken his lover up, worried that Aya would fail to do so. It seemed that the worst of the concussion was gone, leaving the pain from his beating as Aya’s main problem.

Kohmi handed him a brewed cup of coffee and wisely left him to his brooding. While he sipped his drink and contemplated various methods of torturing Hirofumi, she was busy cooking. Before he knew it, a large omelet, overstuffed with peppers and cheese, and a bowl of miso soup was set down in front of him.

"Eat. You look ready to fall face first onto the table at any moment." Kohmi folded her arms over her chest and glared at him until he took a bite of the omelet. His stomach threatened to rebel for the first bite or two, and then decided that food was a good idea after all.

Yohji ate mechanically, thinking that Aya had promised to help him make pancakes and bacon today, a little celebration for them after spending a night working. He’d looked forward to standing behind his lover, holding him close as he showed Aya how to properly flip the cakes. Then they’d spend the rest of the morning in his bed, and had planned to see a movie together. Now Aya was lying in bed, beaten badly enough to have required medical attention. Not feeling hungry anymore, he shoved his half empty plate away.

"You need to eat, Yotan." He glanced up in surprise, not having heard Ayumi enter the apartment. For the first time since he’d known her, she looked every one of her advanced years. Dark circles surrounded her eyes, and wrinkles framed her mouth.

"So do you." He scrambled onto his feet and pulled out a chair for her to sit down on. The entire night and morning, it had been Ayumi who had kept track of the time, who’d fussed around the room while Yohji had lain in bed with Aya.

As soon as she was sitting down, Kohmi hurried over with a bowl of soup and a pot of tea. "Thank you, Kohmi. Please go to Aya’s and keep an eye on him," Ayumi asked, ever polite despite her evident exhaustion. "He’s sleeping again," she remarked as she grabbed Yohji’s wrist and kept him at her side.

Kohmi pulled off her apron and tucked back the strands of hair falling around her face. "I’ll go over and make something for you to eat later. He has enough groceries that I should be able to get several meals prepared." She patted Ayumi on the shoulder tenderly. "Get some rest. I’ll watch over him for a while." Straightening up, she gave Yohji a steely look. "That means you too. Finish your meal, you’re too skinny."

Feeling the urge to laugh, Yohji sat down and dragged his plate back in front of him. "I’ll eat if you do," he told Ayumi, once Kohmi had left.

She flashed him a tired smile and sipped her tea. "I’ll have this bowl of soup and the tea. If I know Kohmi, she’s going to do nothing but clean and cook for the next day or two. Aya’s freezer will be stocked with enough food to last him a month."

Forcing himself to swallow another mouthful of eggs, Yohji helped wash it down with some coffee. "What did the bastard want?"

"To see how Aya was doing." Ayumi’s delicate face twisted into a grimace of disgust. "He apologized profusely, and brought Ayan a huge bouquet of flowers. The gifts should start arriving this afternoon: expensive trinkets to buy his way back into Aya’s graces. The only good thing about seeing him was hearing that he’d be too busy with work to do more than stop by and see Aya on his way to the office in the morning." She cupped her mug between her hands and shivered in exhaustion.

"You woke Aya up to see the bastard, didn’t you?" Yohji asked her balefully. "What did he say to Hiro?"

Her hands trembling too much to hold the mug steady, Ayumi set it down and tucked her hands into her kimono sleeves. "He forgave him. What did you expect?" she asked Yohji, her reddened eyes intent on his. "To do anything else would only worsen the situation. If Hiro suspects that Aya won’t forgive him or would try to leave… things would be very bad even if he were stable at the moment, which certainly isn’t the case."

"So Aya forgives the bastard who beat the shit out of him." Yohji was so disgusted that he pushed the plate away, unable to even bear the sight of food. "This can’t go on, Ayumi. What if he hurts Aya worse the next time?"

"I know," she whispered, a hand creeping out of her sleeve to tap her bottom lip. "I’ve thought of that too, but things aren’t ready yet." She took a deep breath and tried holding her mug again. "Besides, Hiro will be careful now, and keep a watchful eye on Aya."

Yohji rose to pour himself more coffee and leaned back against the counter, gazing intently at Ayumi. "What are you up to? Are you doing something for Aya?" When she took a sudden interest in her soup, he slammed his cup down on the counter, spilling coffee everywhere. "Dammit, you order me around and tell me to leave Hiro alone, but you won’t give me a reason to, other than Aya. Give me some fucking hope, Ayumi. Are you working on something to make that bastard leave Aya alone?"

Ayumi flinched when he slammed the mug down, and then drew in on herself, a tiny, fragile old woman in a rumpled kimono. Yohji almost felt guilty for yelling at her, but he was at his wits end as to how he could save Aya. He hadn’t yet found enough information to blackmail Hiro into leaving his lover alone.

"I… I’m trying, Yohji." Ayumi’s voice wavered pitifully, causing him to push away from the counter and kneel beside her. She smiled wanly as he patted her hand. "I’m trying to free him, but it’ll take time. The Takatoris have made enemies, and I’m hoping to coax a few of them into action. But…."

"But it takes time, I know." Yohji smiled tenderly and hugged her close. Time and patience and a hell of a lot of effort. He wondered if this had anything to do with all of Ayumi’s strange guests lately. "Thanks, sweetheart. I shouldn’t have yelled at you. I should have known that you’d be doing something for Aya."

"I’ve been inviting people to tea who have their own reasons for wanting to see Takatori Reiji fall," she told him shyly. "Once that happens, Hirofumi will lose most of his hold on Aya. Aya will be able to leave him then." She sighed as she started to stroke a hand through his hair. "It will take time, though. These people will not recklessly seek to unseat Reiji. I’m afraid of what could happen to Aya during that time."

"Nothing will," Yohji reassured her, hoping fervently that he was correct. "We’ll figure something out before Hiro has a chance to hurt him again." He gave her another squeeze before taking a seat next to her. "I’ve got a confession of my own to make. You’re not the only one trying to get Aya away from that bastard. I’ve been checking into a few things."

He tucked back his bangs and grinned sheepishly at Ayumi, who stared back curiously. "You said something about knowing all about me when we met. Do you know what I did for a living before I became a prostitute?"

"You were a private investigator." He wasn’t all that shocked that she’d found that out. "From what I was told, you were quite good." Ayumi dropped her gaze to her teacup. "You quit…."

"After my partner was killed." It didn’t hurt as much to talk about Asuka now. He’d finally started to put her death behind him. He’d always feel guilty about it, and still loved her, but it was time to move on. "Not to sound arrogant, but yeah, we were pretty damn good. I’ve been putting those old skills to use."

"What are you hoping to accomplish, Yotan?" Ayumi asked him, her head tilted to the side. The light reflected off her light colored eyes, making them shine like molten gold.

"I’m hoping to find out what really happened to his family." He got up to fetch his coffee, and wiped up the mess he’d created. His back to Ayumi, he continued speaking. "Even you mentioned how suspicious it was that Hirofumi came along when he did, after Aya had lost everything. I don’t believe for a damn second that it was just luck on the bastard’s part."

He returned to the table, conscious of Ayumi’s questioning gaze. "I know Aya’s really Fujimiya Ran." That fact raised a startled gasp from his friend. "I found that out months ago, along with what happened to his father. I think he was framed, and that the Takatoris played some part in it."

Gripping the mug between his hands, he decided to tell her everything. "Back when I was a detective, I came across a cop who was accepting bribes." He shrugged and took a sip of his coffee while Ayumi stared at him, clearly wondering where he was going with this. "It’s nothing new, I know. He wasn’t a bad guy. I found out he was helping his son with some debts, and all he was really doing was trashing some evidence. The guys he was letting off weren’t anything special, they weren’t killers, just extortionists and such." He laughed bitterly as he set his mug back down. "If they’d been arrested, there’d have been fifty other guys fighting to take their place, and that would have been worse."

"I’m familiar with the type, having lived here for most of my life," Ayumi pointed out as she poured herself more tea. She appeared ready to fall asleep sitting up, so Yohji decided to make this as short as possible, so they could go back to Aya’s and both get some rest.

"Yeah, they were a lot like the yakuza you see hanging out here. Anyway, I cut a deal with this guy. I’d keep my mouth shut about what he was doing, in return for a favor." Ayumi suddenly perked up, her shadowed eyes growing wide. "He gave me access to the Tokyo Police’s computer system. With that, I’m able to go into their database and pull up any case that I want to. I made sure to ask for the highest clearance possible."

For a moment he remembered how proud Asuka had been when he’d told her about the access. Proud and excited. They’d been able to use the information on several cases, making their reputation. He bitterly thought that if they hadn’t been so successful, they never would have been asked to handle the Riot case, or have been cocky enough to accept that job. Funny how something that had played an indirect part in one lover’s death might help prevent the same fate from befalling another lover. "Anyway, long story short, I still have that access."

"Which is why you got yourself a computer, and have been spending so much time on it," Ayumi exclaimed. Suddenly she didn’t appear so exhausted. In fact she looked at least ten years younger with her eyes sparkling and the wide smile on her face. "And all this time we’ve teased you about looking for porn." She started to pout, a mischievous sheen to her eyes. "How mean, to let us think that."

"I’ll gladly allow you to make it up to me," he gravely told her, and had to smile when she pulled out her fan and waved it threateningly at him. "Seriously, I’ve been looking for any information I can find about Aya’s father." His good mood instantly evaporated. Leaning against the table, he threaded his fingers through his hair and shook his head. "It was a cover-up. I’ve found out that much. There are reports that were seriously edited or left out all together from the final version." It was so damn frustrating that he hadn’t yet found the reports he knew would prove that the Takatoris were involved, beyond a shadow of a doubt.

"I’m not surprised, considering that Reiji’s brother is in charge of the police." He looked up at Ayumi and found her tapping her lip, lost in thought. "Fujimiya Yutaka was highly respected, and had very few enemies. Those he made had to admit that he was an honorable man, one who didn’t believe in officials profiting from doing their jobs. If you find any proof that Reiji was indeed involved with his death, I know that will be enough cause to motivate my friends to take action. If Reiji can do something like that to an honorable man who was a close friend, no one will want to trust him with power."

"Well, I’m working on getting that proof. I know it’s there." He sighed wearily and sat back in his chair. "I see references to certain reports, but haven’t been able to find them just yet. I’ll keep looking."

"I’ve no doubt that you will, Yotan, and that you’ll find them." She patted his hand in a motherly way, her lips curled in a contented smile. "We’ll both manage. We love Aya too much to quit."

"Yeah, I guess we do." For a moment the exhaustion and pain that had filled him since seeing Aya lying battered in bed, seemed to overwhelm him. All he wanted to do was sleep beside his lover. He wanted to make sure that Aya was never hurt again. If he thought they stood a chance, he’d grab Aya and leave. Maybe take him to America, however much he now knew that was a hopeless pipedream. Over the past couple of weeks, he’d realized how much power the Takatoris had at their disposal. That was what kept Aya here, as much as his sister’s needs.

"Something just occurred to me. What do we do about Aya’s sister?" He blinked weary eyes at Ayumi, hoping that she had a solution to that problem.

She seemed to think about it while he finished his coffee and poured himself some more. "Aya told me she now has a scholarship, and that it’s likely she’ll receive another one when she goes to grad school. The past few years, Hirofumi has only been paying her living expenses. It shouldn’t be that difficult to support her until she graduates."

"This girl’s what, nineteen? Twenty? You telling me she can’t take care of herself?" he scoffed. "Aya sold himself to Hirofumi to make sure she has a nice apartment? I thought there was more involved than that." How could Aya be suffering so much for a spoiled little bitch?

"There was, at first," Ayumi chided him. "He needed the money to continue her education and to support the both of them, along with his mother’s medical bills. Hirofumi offered to pay for everything. There wasn’t a school in the country that Aya-chan could go to and not be recognized, and Aya didn’t want her to know what he was doing to support her, so she was sent overseas. Because Aya can’t watch out for her, he’s always insisted that she live somewhere safe, and has everything she needs. It came as a pleasant surprise when she got the scholarship into Harvard, but it didn’t pay for her living expenses. And by that time…."

"By that time it would have already been too late," Yohji finished. Aya had sacrificed himself for a mother who would die a few months later, and a sister who was fast growing up. "The silly fool. Someone needs to teach that boy to be a bit more selfish."

"I’ve tried for years, and never succeeded." Standing up, Ayumi started to clear the table. "You’re the first thing that he’s decided he wanted, no matter what the consequences. I don’t know whether to say if you’ve been a good or bad influence on him," she remarked lightly.

"If you want any help with those dishes, you better say ‘good’." He got up from the table and joined her at the sink, hugging her tightly from behind. Ayumi didn’t even come up to his shoulder, so it was like hugging a child. "If I was bad, I’d tell Kohmi that you barely ate your soup."

A child wouldn’t rap his hand quite so strongly with a fan. "Hmph. You didn’t finish your breakfast either, you evil kitsune. Now be some help for once, and dry these dishes. The sooner we get them done, the sooner we can see Aya."

He quickly picked up a towel and waited impatiently for her to finish rinsing off a bowl. "Get your butt in gear, Ayumi. Who taught you to wash dishes? Here, give me that." He reached for the dishtowel, and ended up getting splashed with water. The sound of Ayumi’s laughter, genuine and bright, made him feel better than all the coffee he just had. Somehow managing to laugh himself, he flicked some suds at his friend and gently pushed her away from the sink. The moment lasted until he realized that he was waiting for Aya to come to Ayumi’s defense, or make some wry comment about evil fox spirits. His smile fading, he focused his attention on washing the dishes and getting back to his lover’s side that much quicker.

*******

Aya sat up gingerly, his eyesight blurring for a few seconds. Staring at the cream-coloured comforter pooled in his lap, he waited for his vision to clear. Absentmindedly, he realized that it wasn’t the duvet cover that had been on his bed yesterday. He puzzled over that fact for a moment, before his train of thought led to what had happened yesterday and reminded him of the reason why he was trying to get out of bed. Starting to shake his head to clear it, he quickly stopped when the pain, barely held at bay by painkillers, spiked and made his vision blur.

He slowly let out his breath before trying to stand. Slightly surprised at how easy it had been, the dull ache in his head and ribs aside, he smiled a little and took a step forward. Nothing was wrong with his feet, though he felt off-balance the moment he moved forward. He threw up a hand, trailing it along the wall as he crept towards his goal.

It was a little difficult sliding the closet door open, since it hurt too much to use his left hand and his right was busy propping him up. Resting against the wall, he finally managed to open the door and stumble inside the closet. He tried to take a deep breath of the cedar-scented air, but that made his ribs ache too much. After puzzling over how to get down to the level of one of the cedar chests, he smiled and just stopped concentrating so hard on remaining upright. Before he knew it, he was crumpling downward, and had to brace his arms to prevent himself from falling face-first onto the floor.

Letting out a hiss of pain, he cradled his left arm against his chest as he sat up. The flash of agony from his weight settling on the broken bone helped to clear the drug haze from his mind, and he breathed through his mouth for several minutes while waiting for the pain to die down to a throbbing ache. He kept his arm pressed against his chest while his right hand reached out to open the chest before him.

It took him a minute to be able to grasp the smaller cedar box inside and pull it out one-handed. Setting it on the floor, he flipped back the bronze latch and opened it. With a shaky hand, he pulled out each item and set them around him. Sheets of rice and washi paper, ink and a brush, a wooden tray, and last, his tanto. All that was missing was the white kimono that was stored above, and he’d intended to use one of the futons when the time came. It wasn’t the right size, but it would do. Aya laughed bitterly. A futon or two would do just fine, and should spare the tatami floors from soaking up any more of his blood.

He didn’t have a kaishakunin, but he really didn’t know too many people skilled with the katana, other than Shion. He could just imagine asking Hirofumi to send his grandfather’s chief of security to Tokyo to act as a second for seppuku. He laughed again, clutching the knife in his hand as the closet was filled with the jagged, barking sound. No, he’d have to do without any assistance. He’d do it, though. His father had gotten most of the way through the second cut before blood loss, shock or agony had taken its toll on him. Aya would honor his father and do the same, when the time came.

Right then, he wished it were now. He ached to put the tools to use, to compose his poem and pick up the knife. Due to the medication Masafumi had given him, the pain would be dulled, maybe enough for him to commit jumonji giri. He could leave this world before being hurt again, or endangering his loved ones.

The desire to hold on for Aya-chan’s sake, to give her a few more years before leaving her unsupported, clashed with the need to ensure that Yohji and Ayumi weren’t harmed. Hirofumi had been serious about killing Ken, and that was after just catching Aya alone with him. What would he do if the truth about his relationship with Yohji was revealed? And Ayumi’s role in them getting together?

Aya had woken up earlier to find Yohji curled up beside him, and the fear from yesterday had rushed back. He’d waited in terror for Hirofumi to come into the room, to see them and to lose control again. Then to be woken up later and find Hirofumi there…. Clutching the tanto to his chest, Aya bowed his head and tried to think clearly. He’d saved some money for his sister, and her apartment was paid for through the year. There should be enough for her to get through her bachelors program, at least. If she kept her grades up, she should be able to get a fellowship or grant to help get her through grad school.

He refused to think of what his death would do to her, Yohji and Ayumi. Ignoring the pain in his chest, he told himself it would be for the best. Ayumi didn’t need to stay here. She’d had offers from friends in the south to live with them. It would be warmer there, better for her arthritis, and the money she made from selling her apartment should keep her comfortable for the rest of her life. Yohji could move on with his life, sell his apartment and have a chance at being something other than a whore. A chance that Aya would never have. Yesterday had reminded him of how Hirofumi would never let him go.

Lost in his misery, he stayed on the closet floor, trying to decide if now would be the best time or not to go through with his suicide. Part of him felt that it was, but it was so hard to make himself get up and fetch the last things he needed.

"Aya? What the hell are you doing in here?"

Glancing up, he was surprised to see Yohji standing in the doorway, a worried look on his face. His lover quickly stepped closer to him. "Didn’t you hear us call your name? Why aren’t you in bed?" Yohji knelt down beside him as Ayumi also walked into the large closet. "What are you holding? You planning on having a tea ceremony in here or something?"

Yohji reached towards him, making Aya clutch the knife closer to his chest. He moved his left arm, intent on scooping up the things and dropping them back in the box, but it hurt too much when he tried to flex his hand. He let out another hiss of pain.

"Aya! Are you all right? What the hell are you doing?" Yohji wrapped his arms around him and hugged him close. "What’s this? Why are you holding a knife?"

"Go away," Aya gritted out, upset at being discovered, trying to scoot away from his lover but unable to get his limbs to work properly. He needed to hide his belongings before Yohji realized what they were for. The tanto still clenched in his right hand, he pushed at Yohji’s chest, trying to make him let go. "It’s none of your business."

Ayumi chose that minute to crouch down beside him, and he knew the exact moment when she recognized the box’s contents. She let out a hiss of breath and went stiff before reaching for the knife. Stunned by how fast she moved, Aya didn’t hold on to the knife tightly enough, and it ended up being pulled from his grasp.

"Don’t…." He fell silent at the look of hurt and betrayal in Ayumi’s eyes. She stared at him as she slowly gathered up the belongings, her gnarled hands feeling about for each one.

"I’m missing something here, aren’t I?" Yohji asked, the worry back in his voice. "What’s going on? Someone please answer me, I’m getting damn tired of asking questions and not being answered."

Her eyes glittering with unshed tears, Ayumi snapped the cedar box’s lid shut and held it on her lap. "How long have you been hiding this from me, Aya? When did you put together this box?"

"When I accepted Hirofumi’s offer." Still trying to break free from Yohji’s hold, Aya struggled another moment before slumping against his lover. He held out his hand towards the box. "Give it back, please."

"No." Just the one word, spoken in the coldest tone Ayumi had ever used with him. "I won’t let you use these things."

"Then I’ll hang myself, or jump off the building," he snapped, angry with her for taking the box from him. It had kept him going over the years, thinking of when he could end things, planning it out in his head to the smallest detail. "Does it matter how I do it?"

"What the fuck are you talking about?" Yohji yelled as he pulled Aya back against him, causing Aya to wheeze in pain. "Hang yourself? Jump? You’re not killing yourself, Aya. What the hell is wrong with you?"

"He planned it from the start," Ayumi told Yohji, a tear finally sliding down her cheek. "Just like your father, ne? Or are you honoring your samurai ancestors with an excruciating death to wipe clean all dishonor?" He folded over on himself, his broken arm pressed against his body and his hair hiding him from Ayumi and Yohji’s view.

"You… oh shit, Aya, you want to kill yourself? To commit seppuku? Are you fucking nuts?"

He flinched from the rage and anguish in his lover’s voice. "What else am I supposed to do? Remain Hiro’s until he grows old and dies? Be free when I’m too old to do anything? It’s better this way," he whispered. Didn’t they think he’d thought this through?

Yohji grabbed him by his chin, and gently but insistently forced him to look up. Yohji’s eyes were glimmering with tears, full of disappointment and pain. "All those talks we had about having hope, did you believe any of them? Or were you just thinking that you already had your out? Did you even stop to think what it would do to me to find you dead?"

"I’m not you, Yohji. I don’t have any hope of being anything than what I currently am," Aya responded. He ignored Ayumi’s cry, concentrating on making his lover see reason. "It’s either that box, or that dream of mine coming true. I prefer an honorable death."

"You damn fool," Yohji gritted out, his anger seeming to win over his pain. "You’d actually do it and leave us. You’re still thinking of doing it." He let out a shuddering breath and shook his head. "Don’t you give a damn about me? Or Ayumi?"

"You’d be better off. There would be no reason for Hirofumi to harm you if I was gone."

Yohji didn’t appear moved by his explanation. He just smiled tiredly and combed his fingers through his hair. "Better off, eh? I’ve already lost a person I loved, Aya, and it nearly destroyed me. Her death’s the reason I ended up like this. Now I have someone else I care for just as much, and a reason to hope, and you tell me I’d be better off if you sliced yourself open." He laughed bitterly. "I can’t go much lower than this, Aya. You kill yourself, and the only thing left for me is to do the same. I won’t go through that pain again, I swear."

Stunned by both Yohji’s open declaration of love and his promise to follow him in death, Aya could only stare at him in shock. He wanted to rail at Yohji, to tell him that he could move on, but the thought of him being responsible for Yohji’s death, however indirectly, immobilized Aya with pain.

Yohji smiled at him, his expression sad and anguished, and began to stand up. Still held in his arms, Aya gracelessly rose with him. He allowed himself to be led back to his bed. When Yohji urged him to lie down, he held onto his lover’s arms, tugging him along. Yohji didn’t hesitate to climb into bed with him and hold him tightly. Despite the pain in his ribs, Aya hugged him back.

"Don’t you dare kill yourself," he managed after a minute, lacking the strength to come up with anything more persuasive.

This time Yohji’s smile contained only a trace of bitterness. "Then don’t kill yourself. I’m not letting you go, Aya. Maybe that makes me like Hiro, but I won’t. You’re stuck with me for however long you live. I love you too much to make a go of it without you."

He stared incredulously at his lover, still shocked to hear the words they’d carefully avoided mentioning all this time. Suddenly he found himself crying, and buried his head against Yohji’s chest to hide the tears. He felt lost and adrift, unsure of what he was supposed to do now. For the past five years he’d had the end all planned out, and now Yohji had gone and ruined everything.

Yohji crooned softly to him, nonsense words that Aya barely heard. Gentle hands stroked through his hair and caressed his back, a warm mouth pressed against his forehead. Emotionally exhausted, he just couldn’t stop crying.

When he finally looked up, several minutes later, with his head aching and his nose running, Yohji smiled tenderly at him and kissed him on the nose. "You feeling better now?" Oddly enough he did, so he nodded. That made Yohji’s smile grow brighter. "You can’t keep shit like this bottled up inside you, Ayan. No wonder you felt like killing yourself. You have to let us help you. Right, Ayumi?"

"Correct. Here." Ayumi leaned over and handed Yohji some tissues. Aya finally noticed that she’d been sitting on the edge of the bed all this time, and felt his cheeks flush when she smiled at him. "Oh, Ayan, you should have told me it was that bad. I could have helped." She brushed back his sweaty bangs while Yohji pressed the tissues against his nose. He felt more than a little smothered, but didn’t try to pull away. He even blew his nose obediently.

"Trust us, Aya. We won’t let this go on much longer," Ayumi chided him. "We care too much about you, and it would break our hearts if you harmed yourself. Give us some time, please. There’s always options other than death."

He didn’t say anything and just tucked his head beneath Yohji’s chin. A sharp tug on his hair had him looking up again to glare at the offender. He was taken aback to find both Ayumi and Yohji scowling at him.

Ayumi tugged on his hair again. "Promise us, Ayan. Promise us not to do anything so stupid."

"We won’t leave you in peace until you do," Yohji informed him sternly, no hint of humor about him. "We won’t get any rest until we know you won’t try to kill yourself as soon as we leave, so make it easy on yourself and promise." His touch was tender, though, as his hand caressed Aya’s cheek. "I really will keep mine, you know."

Wanting to rub his eyes in frustration, but knowing that would only hurt, Aya snorted in annoyance and pulled the comforter up to his nose. "I promise," he told them sullenly, knowing that they’d never leave him alone if he didn’t. It wasn’t like he could go through with it now, knowing that Yohji would follow him.

"Atta boy," Yohji remarked lightly before kissing his forehead. "Now get some sleep. You look exhausted. Do you need any more painkillers?"

He shook his head, not wanting to feel any more drugged than he already did. Look at what trouble having his senses dulled had already caused him. "Yohji, you need to go. Hiro-"

"Won’t be back until tomorrow, you heard him say that," Ayumi reminded him as she stood up and tugged on the comforter. "He’s too busy with work."

"What if he stops by unexpectedly?" he asked, his mind filled with nightmarish images of Hiro walking in on him and Yohji.

Still straightening out the comforter, Ayumi clicked her tongue as she shook her head. "Then the guards will call me, just like they did this morning. Don’t fret so, Ayan. You need to get some rest and heal. Let Yohji and me worry about Hiro." The cover finally to her liking, she stepped back and nodded in approval. "I’m going to get some rest now, but I’ll be in the living room. Are you hungry? Kohmi’s making us a feast, and you should eat something." She frowned slightly when he shook his head. "All right, I suppose you can eat later, but you must have something today. Now go to sleep, you’ll feel better if you do. Keep an eye on him, Yohji." She winked at his lover and offered Aya another concerned smile before walking away.

"I’ll do my best," Yohji called out to her as he snuggled closer to Aya. "I think we both need some sleep. Are you comfortable? How’s the arm?"

"I’m fine," Aya muttered, having reached his limit for being coddled. His arm ached though, pressed between him and Yohji, so he shifted it to his lover’s hip. Yohji immediately took advantage of the space and pulled him closer. His face pressed against Yohji’s neck, Aya breathed in the scent of cloves and cigarettes and sighed, almost feeling content. He didn’t have the energy to worry about Hiro stopping by or what his promise to Yohji and Ayumi would mean for him, so he closed his eyes and let himself drift off to sleep.

*******

Checking her alarm clock one last time, Ayumi made certain that it was set early enough for her to be up and back in Aya’s apartment before Hirofumi stopped by for his morning visit. Aya and Yohji had insisted that she sleep in her own bed tonight, and she had to admit that her body wasn’t happy with the thought of another night on the floor. Telling herself that Yohji would tend to Aya, she forced herself to sit down on her bed.

She was utterly exhausted. She’d barely gotten any sleep last night because of the need to wake Aya every hour, and it had been a long day. Add to that the stress of her dear friend being hurt and finding out about his plans…. She rubbed her tired eyes, wanting nothing more than to curl up and sleep. She had something to do before that could happen, though.

Reaching for her phone, she haltingly dialed an unfamiliar number - one she’d memorized years ago, and always dreaded using. It usually meant that something had happened to Aya. Taking a deep breath, she counted the rings while waiting for an answer. She hoped she didn’t have to leave a message.

"Hello?" The voice on the other line sounded cautious and confused.

"Hello, Kikyou-san. I’m sorry for disturbing you." Ayumi tapped her lip before continuing. "Do you have a minute or two to talk?"

"Yes." Kikyou sounded more focused now, and worried. "What’s wrong, Ayumi-san? Did something happen to Aya?"

"I’m afraid so. Hirofumi lost his temper yesterday." She had to pause before recounting her friend’s injuries. "Aya suffered a broken arm and a concussion, and is in quite a lot of pain at the present. I thought you might like to know."

"The fucking bastard," Kikyou growled with malice. There was a muffled sound over the line, giving Ayumi the impression that Kikyou was talking to someone else. "Where’s Aya? I can try to come out in a day or two, maybe even tomorrow night."

"He’s at home. It’s nothing life-threatening, I promise." Her hands clenched around the phone as she thought how easily it could have been otherwise. "I knew you’d want to be informed of what happened."

"Thank you, Ayumi-san. Tell Aya that I’ll be by as soon as I can. I’d call him myself, but I don’t want to disturb him." There was another short, muffled conversation, and Kikyou was speaking to her again. "I assume Hiro’s being eaten by guilt?"

Surprised by the question, Ayumi nodded. "Yes, he is."

"Good. He shouldn’t pitch a fit at me staying with Aya then. I’m sure he could use someone around right now. Is there anything he needs?" She was quiet for a moment, trying to think of the best way to ask something of Kikyou. "Aya, I mean. Is there? Ayumi-san?"

"I can’t think of anything right now," she slowly told him. "Other than the most obvious." She didn’t know how secure this line was, and was hesitant to come out and say what she meant. She knew Aya was always careful what he said to Kikyou over the phone, and now understood his paranoia. Too much was at risk to speak freely.

"I’m not sure that I’m following you, Ayumi-san. What does Aya obviously need?" Kikyou again sounded confused and wary.

Forcing her voice to be bright, she held onto the phone with two shaking hands. "I’m talking about what would make Aya happy, of course. He’s been reflecting of the past lately, and hasn’t been himself. He’s been thinking a lot about his *father*."

"Ayumi-san, I don’t mean to be rude, but-"

"Have I ever told you that I met his father?" she rudely cut him off, her tone still light and inconsequential. "It was almost fifteen years ago. I was hosting a party as a favor to a friend, and met him there. He was such a serious, polite young man. Aya greatly resembles him. I could see Aya following in his footsteps, had things been different. I believe that Aya still wishes to do so, even to this day. He still wants to pattern his life after his father’s." She willed Kikyou to understand what she was trying to say. There was a chance he couldn’t come to see Aya, so she couldn’t wait for his arrival to talk to him. She had to take this chance.

He was quiet for a moment, his breathing the only sound over the line. "Aya is his own person, he doesn’t need to follow in his father’s footsteps."

"He apparently doesn’t feel that way. I found that out today, thankfully. Your presence could remind him of the importance of creating his own future." She took a deep breath. "It could give him a chance to be Ran again," she said, careful not to put too much emphasis on that statement.

"I’ll… I’ll see what I can do." Kikyou sounded rattled, but quickly covered his feelings. "I didn’t know Aya was feeling down, and will do my best to cheer him up. Tell him I *will* be stopping by within the next day or two. It sounds like he could really use a friend right now."

"Yes, he does. I look forward to seeing you, Kikyou-san." They exchanged goodbyes and hung up. Feeling better now that she knew Kikyou would be arriving soon, she pulled down the comforter and went to bed. Once Kikyou was here, she’d invite him and Yohji over for tea.

There was only so much she and Yohji could hope to uncover on their own. They were working from the outside. Kikyou was on the inside, privy to information they had no hope of finding. Working together, the three of them could bring Hirofumi and Reiji Takatori down, freeing Aya from their grasp. Before Hirofumi did something unthinkable, or Aya broke his promise to them.

******* 

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