Cages

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chapter 16

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…they all fall down

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Aya ducked his head as he entered the lavish reception hall and cursed himself for not wearing a wig or some kind of disguise. While he hadn’t wanted to risk security not recognizing him and possibly searching him and finding the weapon, he also didn’t want to be noticed. Why hadn’t he thought about that a little earlier? He needed to start thinking straight if he was hoping to pull this off. Reaching up, he draped his braid over one of the Fujimiya kamon on his chest and pulled enough strands of hair loose to drape over the other one. He couldn’t hide the other three kamon but hopefully no one would get a good look at them if he kept moving. As for being noticed… he’d just have to keep moving quickly enough to not be recognized.

His hand slid inside his kimono and touched the tanto held against his chest by his obi. Rage burned through him, overwhelming the shame and slight panic he felt at possibly being recognized by the people around him. He’d regain his honor soon enough. All he wished for was to be able to strike a lethal blow against Reiji or Hirofumi before he was stopped. He realized it was doubtful if he’d be lucky enough to kill both men and resolved to strike at whoever crossed his path first. He hoped it was Hirofumi.

Hate roiled inside him as he thought about what Hirofumi had done to him for over five years. His hands shook from the emotion and the one inside his kimono clutched at the hidden knife. Yes, let it be Hirofumi. The resulting scandal of his murder should cause Reiji enough trouble and shame that he’d have to step down as Prime Minister even if the bastard and his family managed to suppress Nijo and Ayumi’s information. At the very least, enough attention would be focused on Reiji that he wouldn’t be able to make a move against Yohji, Ayumi or Kikyou.

He paused for a moment as he tried to get his bearings. Over to the left was the raised platform where Reiji would sit during dinner. Judging from all the activity in that area, Reiji was probably already holding court up there, talking to and charming his guests. That would make it all the harder for Aya to get close to him but Hirofumi should be around there somewhere, not quite by his father’s side but close. If Aya made his way there and kept his eyes open, he should be able to spot the bastard. If he could keep his temper under control long enough, he could even try to lure Hirofumi somewhere private to kill him.

Heading toward the dais, his stomach clenched as he realized how calmly he was thinking about committing murder. He’d never started a fight in his life, let alone killed anyone, and yet here he was, contemplating the deaths of two men. His conscience was quickly eased, however, when he remembered the look of disbelief on his father’s face when the charges were first filed against him… the police arriving at Aya’s house that cool morning to inform him about his father’s suicide… coming home from school hugging a tearful Aya-chan close and trying to soothe her after her classmates’ abuse only to find his mother hanging from one of the beams in the dining room…. He had dozens of heartbreaking memories to firm his resolve, five years worth of pain and shame. The pity was that he couldn’t make Reiji and Hirofumi suffer a fraction of the pain and loss that he and his family had been dealt over the years.

Intent on reaching his targets, Aya shoved aside a hand that grabbed his kimono sleeve. He didn’t have time to talk to anyone, especially if they recognized him. However, the person didn’t back away and grabbed his arm instead. Looking over his shoulder to glare at the person, Aya stilled when he recognized Rindou, one of the Takatoris’ security guards. "What do you want?"

"I’d like you to come with me," the tall man replied calmly. When Aya tried to move away, Rindou’s strong fingers dug into his arm and wouldn’t let go. It was then that he realized Rindou wasn’t alone and that another guard, Kuroyuri, was standing beside him. Kuroyuri grabbed his other arm and the two guards begun to walk briskly. Having no choice but to go with them or risk causing a scene, Aya allowed himself to be led away.

His temper seethed with each step away from Hirofumi and Reiji. Escorted by the two guards, he saw how people glanced at him and then looked away immediately. A few openly stared at him, one man a former colleague of his father’s. Aya thought he heard his family name whispered as he walked past but didn’t look back to confirm it. So much for not being noticed….

He was led out of the extravagantly decorated dining room and down a long corridor. Coming to a door with more security stationed outside, Rindou and Kuroyuri dragged him into the room. The couches and chairs were covered with various personal items and articles of clothing, not to mention the table covered with electronic equipment and what looked like a few containers of takeout, so Aya surmised that this was the room that Takatoris’ security had taken over for their own. His sense of suspicion and unease increased as he was escorted over to the couch and pushed down onto it.

"What are you doing?" he asked the guards, eyes narrowed in anger. Normally he had no problem with Shion’s men but right now they were being very irritating. "Why am I here?" Maybe Hirofumi found out he was here and ordered Aya taken somewhere private before anyone recognized him.

Rindou, appearing wary for some reason, stood in front of Aya. "I’m sorry but you’re going to have to stay here for the time being."

Aya stared coldly at the guard. He tried to stand up and was immediately pushed back onto the couch. "Let. Me. Go. I have to see Hirofumi."

"I’m afraid I can’t allow that," Rindou said apologetically. He appeared nervous about something and reached inside his black jacket. "I have orders from Shion to keep an eye on you until he figures out what to do with you. Please, Aya-san, just sit here until we can get you out of this building without attracting any attention." His tone was actually pleading.

Oh no, he wasn’t leaving until he saw Hirofumi or Reiji dead. Aya’s hands clenched into fists and he had to resist the impulse to reach for his hidden weapon. He didn’t come here for Shion to tell him to go home and be a good boy. Dammit, he should have realized that, if Kikyou was involved, Shion would be too, and that his friend had anticipated Aya’s actions. Shion was insane if he thought Aya would just sit in his apartment while Ayumi attempted to blackmail Reiji.

When Rindou pulled something out of his jacket, Aya made his move. In one smooth motion he was on his feet, arms extended to send the guard flying away from him. As Rindou yelled out in surprise, Aya grabbed a pillow from the couch and threw it at Kuroyuri to distract him. All he had to do was get back to the dining hall and lose himself in the crowd. The guards wouldn’t want to call attention to their pursuit of him and wouldn’t be able to follow him very easily.

Just as he ran past Kuroyuri, Aya realized he’d forgotten about the guards stationed outside. Two of them; Ayame and Azami, stepped into the room while he was still a good meter or two from the door. While attempting to dodge Ayame, Aya came too close to Azami and found himself shoved roughly against the wall by the guard. When he lashed out with his left arm to try and make Azami release him, Ayame grabbed his arm and bent it painfully behind his back.

"Ayame! That’s enough. Bring him here," Rindou ordered. Finding himself escorted away from the door, Aya glared furiously at the guards, his hair falling into his eyes. He found Rindou rubbing his stomach and scowling back at him while speaking to someone over the phone.

"It’s all right, he didn’t get away. Yes, we’ll keep a better eye on him from now on. I’m sorry, sir. Yes. Thank you, I’ll do that if he gives us any more trouble." There was a slight pause. "We’re keeping an eye out for him too." Then Rindou put his phone away and combed a hand through his hair. "Please, Aya-san, don’t try anything like that again. Shion has just given me permission to restrain you if you attempt to leave." His stern look wilted as he rubbed his stomach again. "He wants you kept safe, Aya-san. That won’t happen if you go running out there and find Hirofumi."

Staring coldly at the guard for a moment, Aya tried to jerk his arm free but ended up hissing when Ayame twisted it further behind his back. His barely healed left arm started to throb in pain. "You know, don’t you? You know what they did to me and my family." His guess proved true when Rindou looked away, his face flushed with shame. "Why won’t you let me go?" He was livid that Rindou still wanted to protect Hirofumi and Reiji when he knew what those two had done.

"I have my orders, Aya-san," was Rindou’s quiet reply. "They’re to make sure you don’t do something you’ll regret. You probably know that you’re putting yourself at risk trying to confront the Takatoris in public like this."

"I don’t care," Aya growled. He went perfectly still for a moment and then, suddenly leaned forward. Pain flared up his bent arm but he managed to pull Ayame off balance. He kicked backward, hoping to hit the short guard in the knee but only managed a glancing blow. For his trouble, Azami and Kuroyuri quickly jerked him upright and held on to his arms. He panted, both in frustration in being thwarted *twice* and in pain from the growing ache in his left arm and tender ribs.

Ayame looked pissed at being hit and stepped closer to Aya, his dark eyes glimmering with anger. "Ayame," Rindou snapped, "you and your partner are to go up front in case our other guest shows." Giving Aya a dirty look, Ayame and his partner quietly left the room.

His one arm now free, Aya straightened his kimono and tucked back the hair from his face. Kuroyuri kept a strong grip on his left arm, clearly intent on not letting go. "Who are you waiting for?" Aya asked. With the other two guards gone he had a better chance of getting out of the room this time. All he had to do was calm down and wait for the right moment. It was so hard though, knowing that Hirofumi and Reiji were nearby.

"Kuroyuri, keep an eye on him," Rindou said, ignoring Aya’s questions. Forcing himself to settle down, Aya glared a little more at the tall guard before allowing Kuroyuri to walk him back to the couch and push him onto the soft cushions. His hand lifted to touch the hidden knife to keep it from shifting as he sat down.

Unfortunately, Kuroyuri was paying very close attention to him and caught the motion. "Eh, what do you have there?" he asked as he leaned closer. Without thinking, Aya lashed out at the guard, trying to keep the weapon concealed. This time he didn’t get more than a step away from his seat before Rindou crashed into him, knocking him to the floor. Aya groaned in agony as his ribs strongly protested the abuse.

"Dammit! Kuro, give me your handcuffs!" Aya struggled against Rindou but the guard savagely yanked back on his sore arm, the pain intense enough to make Aya’s sight grow dark. Rindou took advantage of that to quickly handcuff his arms behind his back before jerking him to stand upright.

The tall guard looked even more angry than Ayame had, his normally placid visage shattered. He gave Aya a warning look while Kuroyuri grabbed his bound hands and held him still. Rindou reached into Aya’s kimono and snatched out the tanto.

He stared at the weapon for a moment before walking over to the table and placing it down near the electronic equipment. "I should have searched you right away," he told Aya when he returned, his expression chagrined. "If you try anything else, I’ll chain you to a chair. I’m sorry about your family but my orders are to keep you from harm. Let Shion handle this matter," he pleaded.

Upset about losing his father’s tanto, Aya ignored the guard and stared at the family heirloom. His plans quickly falling apart, he thought desperately about what he could do to salvage his honor. No matter what Ayumi, Kikyou and Shion thought, there was no way they could bring the Takatoris down. They could cause Reiji some embarrassment and difficulty, yes, but, at best, all he’d lose was his position as Prime Minister. Even that was doubtful as long as he had the backing of his brother and his father. The Takatoris were too powerful, too firmly entrenched in the government to be made to pay for their crimes unless they were exposed in a manner scandalous enough that they couldn’t suppress the rumors and gossip. In truth, Aya had little hope of achieving anything but taking Hirofumi’s life, a deed he expected to pay for with his own death. But, at least, he’d have done his best to make the Takatoris pay for what they’d done to his family.

Lost in his thoughts, he only half-noted that Rindou received a call that their ‘guest’ had arrived and ordered Ayame and Azami to intercept him. Aya assumed that the person was probably Tsubaki or someone else sent to take him away and hide him until Ayumi’s plan took affect. He tensed at the thought of being made to leave and Kuroyuri quickly jerked on his bound hands, pulling him off balance.

"Please don’t try anything, Aya-san. Shion will be very upset if we rough you up."

Trying to flex his sore arm and wincing in pain, Aya thought it was rather late for that. "So let me go."

"I’m sorry but he’ll even be more upset with us then. I’ll take Shion a little pissed off at me over very pissed off any day," Kuroyuri said cheerfully, proving he wasn’t an idiot.

Hating the fact that he was reduced to this but now desperate enough to do whatever was needed, Aya decided to give pleading with the two men a chance. He couldn’t allow them to send him away and lose his one chance at getting Hirofumi and Reiji. "Please, I have to-"

He was cut short by a commotion at the door. From the hallway he heard the sound of raised voices, one of them very familiar. Rindou rushed to the door, speaking over his headset the entire time. He opened it just enough to slide outside and his voice joined the others. Hearing Hirofumi arguing about something, Aya focused his attention on the closed door, his hate and rage flaring up once more. The bastard was just on the other side of the door….

"Don’t get any ideas," Kuroyuri hissed in his ear as he grasped Aya’s forearms, holding onto him even tighter. Aya grunted in anger. He wanted more than anything to get free of the guard, retrieve his knife and shove it into Hirofumi’s heart. The fucking bastard. What had he been thinking all these years? Had he enjoyed seeing Aya reduced to becoming a common whore, delighted in playing a part in Aya’s degradation? In having Aya spread his legs for the man responsible for his family’s shame? Each thought stoked the fury burning inside him, making him struggle with Kuroyuri.

Cursing softly, the guard dug his fingers into Aya’s elbows, the pain making Aya cry out and stop struggling. He felt tears gather in his eyes and had just blinked them away when the door opened, Kuroyuri apologizing to him all the while.

Rindou, busy whispering something over his headset, stored into the room, followed by Hirofumi and Shuuichi. Aya’s breath hitched at the sight of the police commissioner but his surprise was quickly replaced by anger when Hirofumi shoved past the two other men and hurried over to him.

"Aya? What are you doing here? You’re supposed to be at home tonight! You shouldn’t be here, no matter how happy I am to see you." Hirofumi, dressed in a dark suit minus his jacket, eyes shining with happiness and worry behind his glasses, smiled and stopped right in front of Aya. He reached out a hand.

Aya flinched from him, finding it hard to breathe with the revulsion and hatred that utterly filled him. "Don’t touch me," he hissed, his hands clenching behind his back, aching for a weapon to use against the bastard.

The sharp statement took Hirofumi by surprise. "What’s wrong, Aya?" He glanced behind Aya, a scowl forming on his face. "You, why have you restrained him?" he demanded of Kuroyuri. As he spoke, his hand brushed back Aya’s bangs.

"I said not to touch me, you bastard!" Aya snarled as he jerked his head back, banging it against Kuroyuri’s. Aya’s eyes narrowed in anger, he watched as Shuuichi approached a stunned Hirofumi, watched as a dangerous fury slowly replaced the confusion in Hirofumi’s eyes.

*******

Kikyou stared in shock at Saijou. The old man shouldn’t be here, was all he kept thinking. Since his knees felt weak, he did as he was told and sat down at his desk, his eyes never leaving Saijou’s for an instant.

The old bastard chuckled and made himself more comfortable on the bed. "What’s the matter, Kikyou? You look as if you’ve seen a ghost!" He chuckled again. "You’re as pale as Aya right now."

"What… what do you want?" Kikyou managed to say after a few seconds. "Can’t it wait until morning?" Maybe Saijou was just feeling lonely or in the mood to torment him and that’s why he was here. Kikyou didn’t want to think about there being any other reason.

"I told you, I want to talk to you. You’ve been very busy these past few weeks," Saijou said, his eyes bright with excitement and a hint of malice in his sly smile. "You’ve been poking your nose into private matters that don’t concern you and even dragged Shion into this mess." He frowned for a moment. "I can’t believe you corrupted my chief of security."

Forcing his dry throat to swallow, Kikyou fought to regain his composure. Saijou clearly had a very good idea of what went on behind his back. Kikyou had to decide whether to try and deny everything or brazen through this. Several people’s lives were on the line, including those he cared about. While he wanted to tell Saijou that he was imagining things, he knew he ran the risk of infuriating the perverse man if he tried lying. Saijou would much prefer the truth.

"I’m sorry if I’ve neglected you but your family has given me such… interesting research. It’s your fault that there was so much to investigate," Kikyou said, his voice and demeanor calm while inside his heart beat frantically.

"You mean Reiji," Saijou stated, his good humor returned. "Ah, Kikyou, you never disappoint me. Anyone else would have denied everything but not you. You’re so very clever, though that’s not always a good thing." His tone suddenly became serious. "Come here. Now."

Hating the way he was ordered about but not ready to chance any more defiance at the moment, Kikyou rose and crossed the room. As he approached, Saijou motioned to the floor beside the bed. Kikyou knelt next to the old bastard, anger growing along with the fear deep inside him.

Saijou ran a trembling, gnarled hand through Kikyou’s hair, down his neck and along his right shoulder. "So lovely," the old man crooned. "I’ve enjoyed you so much these past years. Your lovely body and quick mind." The hand grabbed his shoulder and squeezed with considerable strength. "I kept my word to you and you’ve honored our agreement, for the most part. What possessed you to meddle in my family’s affairs, hmmm? Is it because of Aya?" Saijou’s tone was perfectly calm, as if he was asking about the weather or what was for dinner, not a matter of betrayal. "You know, I thought that he was your lover, not Shion. You always manage to surprise me, Kikyou."

He wasn’t the only one, Kikyou thought with increasing dread. He’d hoped to keep his true relationship with Shion a secret, even if the truth about their recent activities was now known. "I’ll ask it again. What do you want, Saijou?" There was no way he could match his older lover in a battle of wit. Saijou had decades of experience on him and, despite his age, was still as sharp as ever. "Are you here to gloat or have some fun before you make me pay for my… insolence? Are you having fun yet?" Kikyou demanded to know.

"Oh yes. I haven’t had this much fun in years. It almost makes up for the recent disappointment of realizing that my heir is a hapless idiot." Saijou released Kikyou’s shoulder and laughed. "Oh yes, much fun indeed. You should see your face right now. I haven’t seen you this off-balance in ages."

So, of course he’d be enjoying Kikyou’s confusion. "I’m so glad I can amuse you, Saijou. What do you want?" Kikyou asked wearily. "You’re obviously here for a reason, one I can’t possibly fathom."

"Ha! I’ll forgive you that, seeing as you’re not at your best right now. I know you’re worried about Aya." Saijou grinned and squeezed Kikyou’s shoulder again, this time more gently. "Ah, if you want to know what I’m doing here, you can sit quietly while I tell you. You thought I didn’t know what you’ve been up to lately, correct?"

Kikyou shook his head, obeying Saijou’s demand for his silence.

"No, I imagine you didn’t. I must say that you and Shion did a very good job covering your tracks." Saijou paused for a moment and began stroking Kikyou’s hair. "However, considering what you two were poking your noses into, it was only a matter of time before I noticed."

"Why did you let things get so bad?" Kikyou asked, unable to remain quiet any longer. "You hid things from Shion and covered for Reiji. He’s a damned rapist who betrayed his best friend!"

Saijou didn’t appear upset at his outburst. "Yes, he is." The old man sighed. "I guess I thought he’d eventually grow up. I wanted to see how far he’d go if I let him," he stated calmly, to Kikyou’s growing horror. "It’s clear that the greedy fool never knows when to stop. If he thinks that I won’t approve of his actions, he just hides them from me." Saijou frowned at some inner thought, his hand stilling on Kikyou’s hair. "I never thought I’d raise a son who was so stupid, although he did manage to hide a thing or two even from me." His expression grew dark for a moment, causing Kikyou to flinch from his touch. "Your search encouraged me to begin my own investigation, you see," he explained to a very confused Kikyou.

The room was quiet for several minutes, the two of them lost in their own thoughts. His knees growing sore from kneeling and his patience wearing thin, Kikyou shifted about, drawing Saijou’s attention back to him. "Saijou… please, I need to go to Tokyo." He swallowed before continuing, wondering what he was getting himself into this time. "I promise you that I’ll do whatever you want me to and come back to face whatever…." His mouth felt dry as he thought about all the ways the old bastard could make him pay for his audacity.

"That’s what I’ve always liked best about you, Kikyou." Saijou tilted up Kikyou’s chin and smiled, yet the expression wasn’t reassuring in the slightest. "You’ll do anything for those you care about, anything at all. You’ll sell yourself for revenge and barter again with the devil for a friend. You and Aya both. Yet you… you have a darkness as well, one that almost swallows your conscience whole. You never gave a damn about what happened to those four ‘friends’ of yours and you never cared about what Reiji or Hirofumi did until it affected your friends. You did all this for Aya, didn’t you?"

"Yes."

"I thought so," Saijou noted smugly. "I truly thought that you chose him for your lover. It was what I expected." He laughed and gently patted Kikyou’s cheek. "I should have known better, really. You and Shion… and I didn’t even suspect. Very good." His mood suddenly changed, this time to barely contained anger as his fingers grasped Kikyou’s jaw tightly. "Were you thinking about leaving me? Tell me the truth."

"No. I never thought that," Kikyou answered honestly. "You lived up to your end of the bargain, and I meant to keep mine… more or less." He winced as he thought that Saijou had never actually forbidden him to have another lover. "I want to go to Tokyo because of Aya. He… he found out somehow that Reiji and Hiro were involved in what happened to his father and went to confront Hiro. Please, I need to make sure he doesn’t do anything stupid."

Saijou regarded him coolly for a few seconds before smiling. "There’s no need for that. I have everything under control, you see. I know about Aya leaving for the fundraiser and Shion’s men finding him. I know everything that your friend Ayumi is trying to do, know who she’s gathered tonight in hopes of bringing Reiji down." He tugged on the sleeve of Kikyou’s kimono, urging him onto the bed. "Some of those men are my… colleagues, although they’ve always preferred to keep our connection a secret. I’ve known everything for the past several days. Don’t worry, I’ve sent Shuuichi to take care of everything."

Somehow, Kikyou didn’t feel reassured in the slightest. "What have you been up to, Saijou?" he asked, fearful of the answer. Nothing during this conversation made any sense, from Saijou’s calm acceptance of his relationship with Shion, their investigation and betrayal, to the comments about his darkness.

"I’ve been looking out for my family," Saijou replied, the smile was still on his face but there was also a cold look in his eyes. "I’ve decided what will be best for us and I’m acting on that decision. Shuuichi will handle the matter in Tokyo, not you. I will not let anyone drag the Takatori name through shame and ridicule."

"What about Aya?" Kikyou asked, suddenly very afraid for his friend.

Saijou’s eyes warmed the slightest bit. "Aya, eh? You really do care for the boy after all, don’t you?" He didn’t wait for Kikyou’s answer. "Poor Aya. I thought he was just like you but…. No, I think it’s best if he’s gone, I really do. Shuuichi will take care of him." He patted Kikyou’s cheek again. "Now stop worrying about him. You and I need to have a serious talk now, one that‘s long overdue about what I’m going to do with you."

*******

Hirofumi reached out and grabbed Aya’s chin, fingers digging into his jaw. "What’s wrong with you?" He glared at Aya, his eyes raking up and down. Aya knew the instant Hirofumi recognized the kamon on his kimono, saw the man’s eyes dilate even more with anger. "I told you to get rid of this years ago." He snatched at the kimono as if to rip it off Aya and only then remembered that Aya’s hands were bound behind his back. "What the hell is going on here? Why are you handcuffed?"

"Hiro, please, leave Aya alone," Shuuichi said as he approached his furious nephew. "Sit down on the couch and wait for your father to arrive so I can explain everything." He glanced at Aya, his eyes cool behind his glasses.

Aya glared at Hirofumi’s uncle. Here was part of the reason Hirofumi and Reiji was able to get away with all their crimes. Shuuichi covered up each and every one. Aya felt an intense hate for any Takatori at that moment, a family that cared only for the power it could gather and not give a damn who was left to pay the price. "Leave me the hell alone," he said venomously and yanked his head free of Hirofumi’s hold, earning himself a few scratches from Hirofumi’s nails and Kuroyuri’s hand over his mouth to keep him quiet. Aya, in return, sunk his teeth into the guard’s palm, wringing a muffled groan of pain from the guard and a forceful jerk on his bound hands, hurting his arm even more.

Hirofumi looked at him as if he was possessed, clearly stunned by his behavior. Aya stared back and hoped all the hate and disgust he felt for Hirofumi were evident in his eyes. He was gratified when Hirofumi actually took a step back, his face pale.

The room fell quiet but then the door was thrown open and Ayame and Azami returned, the smaller guard restraining a tall man. That caught Aya’s attention and he quickly looked away from Hirofumi to make sure he wasn’t seeing things. His heart fell when he saw it was indeed Yohji, who smiled at him before the look turned angry when he spotted Hirofumi.

"What the hell have you done to him, you pri-" Yohji was cut off by Ayame’s arm around his throat.

Seeing the guard put Yohji in a chokehold, Aya took an instinctive step forward, only to be immediately stopped by Rindou’s hold on his elbow and Kuroyuri’s hand over his mouth. Cursing the handcuffs, he tried to kick backward again to break free but stopped when Rindou squeezed his elbow rather painfully.

"Let him go."

His entire arm tingled from the pinched nerves and the strain on his barely healed bone and wrenched shoulder throbbed in pain so it took Aya moment to realize that Shuuichi had just ordered Yohji’s release so he stopped struggling and looked with concern at his lover. Yohji’s face was flushed and sweaty as he took deep gulps of air. Aya never thought the moment would come when he wouldn’t be happy to see Yohji but right now, he wished him far, far away. He leaned forward, his heart beating fast as he imagined anything happening to Yohji. He couldn’t let that happen, wouldn’t let that bastard Hirofumi harm him.

"Hirofumi, sit down," Shuuichi ordered. Aya felt his anger flare when he saw Hirofumi standing uncomfortably near Yohji, the insane bastard’s face slowly turning red. The anger glittering in Hirofumi’s eyes and one of Hirofumi’s hands clenched into a fist and raised as if he was going to punch something warned Aya that the man’s temper was building to a dangerous level. Aya stiffened in fury at the thought of the bastard hurting Yohji…. Restrained or not, if Hirofumi so much as touched Yohji, Aya would kill him with his bare hands if necessary. There was no way a Takatori was ever taking anything away from him again.

Hirofumi glanced back and forth from Yohji and Shuuichi, obviously torn between anger and listening to his uncle. "I want to know why he’s here, Uncle. First I find Aya back here refusing to let me touch him and then this-"

Shuuichi cut off Hirofumi and gestured at one of the couches. "Sit down. As soon as Masafumi and your father arrive, I’ll explain a few things." He stared at Hirofumi until the bastard, after sparing Yohji a dirty look, stomped over to the leather couch and sat down. Hirofumi glared at nothing in particular for a few seconds before looking at Aya, his hands clenching and unclenching into fists.

Aya met his look for the briefest of seconds, rage and hate boiling up inside him at the mere sight of the man before he focused his attention once more on Yohji. His lover was no longer out of breath and was even trying to give him a reassuring smile. Aya felt torn between wanting to kiss Yohji breathless and smacking him on the head. The damned idiot. Didn’t he have any idea what he’d done by coming here? Yohji knew better than most what the Takatoris, Hirofumi especially, were capable of so why did he play into their hands so easily? While it might be perfectly acceptable for Aya to throw his life away trying to regain his family honor, Yohji was a different story. Dread and pain filled him. He was resigned to being hurt himself and probably killed but he couldn’t bear the idea of that happening to Yohji.

Yohji’s look faltered slightly and became more confused and hurt than reassuring. "Ayan…. Why didn’t you just stay home?" His question got the attention of the entire room before Ayame’s arm tightened around Yohji’s throat once more, cutting off any more words.

Hirofumi started looking back and forth between Yohji and Aya, his expression growing darker by the second and his breathing faster. He quickly jumped off the couch and stalked over to Aya, his hands balled into fists at his sides. "What have you been up to, Aya?" he asked, his voice rough with anger. With the guard’s hand still over his mouth, Aya couldn’t answer, not even when Hirofumi grabbed his braid and yanked it hard. "Let him speak, I want him to answer me."

More than anything Aya wanted to tell the bastard to go to hell but he didn’t try to push Hirofumi away. As long as Hirofumi focused his anger on Aya, Yohji would be safe. Aya just ignored the pain from his pulled hair and tried to relax his body knowing what was to follow. The punch to his stomach hurt like hell, knocking the breath out of him even though he had been expecting it. Kuroyuri let go of Aya and stepped closer to Hirofumi.

Rindou also released Aya, his hand rising as if to push Hirofumi away but stopped at the last minute as Shuuichi yelled. "Hiro, leave him alone!" Shuuichi’s order was ignored as Hirofumi punched Aya in the stomach again, making him double over in pain. Rindou cursed under his breath as he shoved Hirofumi away from Aya, only to be hit himself by Hirofumi a moment later. Aya spared a moment of thanks for Rindou’s failed attempt to protect him and lifted his head to spit on Hirofumi. He hit the bastard right in the face and took perverse delight in the action which got the man’s fury focused purely on himself as Aya’s chin was once again seized by harsh, grasping fingers. Hirofumi glared at him, his eyes filled with a familiar madness that warned Aya to brace for another painful blow.

This time it wasn’t his sore middle but his face that was hit, a brutal slap to his cheek that made his ears ring from the force of the blow. Aya almost fell down, only Kuroyuri’s sudden hold on his arm kept him upright.

"Hiro, calm down!" That sounded like Shuuichi, although it was hard for Aya, still reeling from the blow, to be sure. As the guards steadied him, he saw the older Takatori grab Hirofumi’s arm and prevent another blow. "Dammit." Shuuichi pulled something from his pocket and jammed it against Hirofumi’s neck. "Rindou, Azami, put him on the couch and keep him there!" As the guards hurried to comply, Hirofumi continued to struggle, cursing at Aya and his uncle. Aya scowled as he probed the inside of his cheek with his tongue. The flare of pain from the light touch made him quickly stop and he swallowed the blood that was filling his mouth. If Hirofumi had been close enough he’d have spat on him again.

Ayame released Yohji and rushed to join his co-workers in attempting to subdue Hirofumi, who was still fighting. The moment he was free, Yohji came over to Aya. Bracing himself for a painful hug, Aya let out a sigh of relief when Yohji stopped right in front of him and reached out, tenderly brushing back his bangs before gently engulfing Aya in a loose embrace, holding him close.

"Are you all right? Dammit, Aya, I nearly had three heart attacks tonight because of you!" Yohji gave him a shake, wringing a moan of pain from Aya before hugging him close again and whispering an apology for his thoughtlessness. The remaining guard, Kuroyuri, stepped back from Aya, shaking his bitten hand and smiling ruefully as he gave them some privacy.

Aya gave him a cold look for a moment, still upset at being handcuffed and gagged, before turning his attention to his lover. "You shouldn’t have come, Yohji," he said as he leaned against his lover. Part of him said that he shouldn’t be touching Yohji like this, not in front of Hirofumi but he needed Yohji close, needed to make sure he was all right and to keep him from acting without thinking again, such as trying to punish Hirofumi for hurting him. As much as he wanted the bastard to suffer, Aya knew that with Shuuichi, and the guards’, presence there wouldn’t be any chance for revenge. Not unless he wanted to be killed the instant he approached Hirofumi or Reiji.

"What the hell was I supposed to do when I came home and found you gone? All you had to do was stay put and let Ayumi handle this, you idiot," Yohji whispered furiously. "How the hell are we going to get you out of this now? Did you ever think about that?" Aya hung his head, reluctant to look at Yohji and reveal that he hadn’t planned to get out of this at all. He felt a spark of anger at how his plans had been utterly ruined, first by the guards and now by Yohji. It had been simple; his death in an earnest attempt to regain his family’s honor. He would also become a scapegoat to protect Yohji, Ayumi and Kikyou. Now, that was no longer an option. He’d have to give up his revenge and any desire to make Hirofumi and Reiji pay in exchange for the faint hope of getting Yohji out of here alive. Aya almost growled at that thought, of the bastards getting away scott-free once again.

Yohji appeared to be just as angry as his hands tightened briefly around Aya’s arms, causing Aya to wince. He frowned at Aya before glancing at Hirofumi. Aya looked over at the bastard who was finally calming down although Hirofumi’s glassy eyes still directed at him. Ayame and Rindou kept their hands on Hirofumi’s shoulders to make sure he didn’t move from the couch. Aya wondered what the hell Shuuichi had injected into the bastard and hoped it was a lethal dose. Lethal and something very, very slow and painful.

Things slowly quieted down although guards remained alert to Hirofumi’s possible resurgence. The calm came to an end as more people entered the room. Aya seethed anew when he recognized Reiji and Masafumi. Masafumi rushed to Hirofumi’s side while Reiji, his face flushing with anger, came to a stop a few feet from Shuuichi. His small, dark eyes glanced contemptuously at Aya before his attention returned to his brother. Aya’s loathing grew as he stared at the man responsible for his family’s pain.

Reiji folded his arms in magisterial fashion and gave his brother a stern look. "It may have escaped your attention but I’m rather busy at the moment, Shuuichi. I don’t have time to talk to you privately so go away and take Hiro’s whore with you. The man shouldn’t be here in the first place." He paused as if he just realized something. "I thought you were supposed to be in Kyoto with Father." Reiji didn’t even acknowledge Yohji, who bristled at Reiji calling Aya a ‘whore’. Azami noticed his reaction, along with Kuroyuri, and both took up guard positions a few feet away from Reiji. The message was clear: they wouldn’t allow Aya or Yohji to do anything foolish. When Aya met Rindou’s eyes, the tall guard shook his head in subtle warning. Biting his lip, Aya kept quiet and returned his attention to Reiji, wishing that looks could kill.

"You do have the time, Reiji, so shut up and listen to me for once." Shuuichi’s voice was tight with anger but a smile teased at his lips. "Father sent me here to take care of something for him, something that Aya is privy to and so he will remain here until I’m done." He tilted his head toward the couch. "I suggest you sit down."

While Reiji stared in confusion at his brother, Masafumi patted Hirofumi’s face and glared at Shuuichi. "Did you have to drug him? I only gave you the shot in case he got out of hand." Aya snorted at Masafumi’s indignation. Maybe if it were him that had been slapped and hit, Masafumi wouldn’t mind so much that his precious sibling had been drugged.

"He did," Aya said coldly, drawing the room’s attention to him. He lifted his head to show the marks on his left cheek and stared at Masafumi. "Recognize his handiwork, Masafumi?" It amused him, even in his anger, to note that it was Masafumi who looked away first. Masafumi sat down on the arm of the couch beside his brother and urged Reiji to sit down as well.

"Shuuichi, I don’t have time for this," Reiji blustered, acting as if Aya hadn’t said anything. "If you have a message for me from Father, tell me and let me get back to business. If Hirofumi’s having one of his moods again, take him and…Fujimiya," he sneered as he said Aya’s name, "and go back to Kyoto."

"Gods, what a pompous ass," Yohji muttered and was instantly silenced by Aya. Something was happening here, something he didn’t understand and needed close attention paid to it. He needed not to be distracted by his foolish lover. He expected to either be placed under arrest or handed over to Hirofumi when Shuuichi had appeared, yet the police commissioner didn’t do either and even stopped Hirofumi from hurting him.

"I’m afraid that’s not possible," Shuuichi stated. "You have no idea of the mess you’ve created this time, do you, brother?" He didn’t wait for an answer and turned to one of the guards. "Rindou, I think you should contact Shion right now. He’ll have a few new orders for you." As the security guard bowed and pulled out his cell phone, Shuuichi nodded to Kitada, who Aya now noticed was standing by the door. The attractive woman nodded back and stepped outside the room, only to return seconds later with two men behind her. Aya recognized Tanema and Honjyou and wondered if they were here to arrest him after all. He prayed fervently that Yohji didn’t try to fight when they came for him.

However, Tanema just smiled at Aya as he and his partner took guard by the couch. Reiji frowned at them and looked at his brother. "Why are they here? Does this have anything to do with why Fujimiya is in handcuffs?"

"Yes, but not like you think." Shuuichi glanced at Aya and smiled apologetically. "I’m sorry, I forgot all about that. Rindou, please release Aya. I’m sure he’ll remain calm and listen to what I have to say." Then he returned his attention to Reiji. "You’re going to cancel your plans for tonight. I’m terribly sorry," he said, a smile once more teasing at his lips. He appeared to be a man about to carry out a job he very much looked forward to doing.

"The hell I will," Reiji snapped as he took a step toward the door. Tanema and Honjyou moved to block him, which confused Aya. It was almost as if they were here for Reiji, not him. He started to feel a glimmer of hope that maybe he and Yohji would get out of here alive. Maybe Ayumi had gotten to Shuuichi in some way…. He shifted as Rindou removed the handcuffs so he could keep an eye on Reiji, wondering what would happen next.

"Get out of my way. Shuuichi, call off your dogs."

"No. Reiji, I’m not joking. Sit down and listen to me before I have *you* handcuffed." Shuuichi sighed but his brother, ignoring him, called out to the security guards to make the police officers leave him alone. Reiji glared at them when, after a curt headshake from Rindou, none of the guards moved to obey.

Aya remembered that Rindou had just talked to Shion, and his hopes grew before he sternly told himself to stop being so foolish. The Takatoris always stuck together, he reminded himself as he rubbed his sore wrists, his left shoulder and elbow aching abominably from the rough treatment. "What are you here for, Shuuichi?" Aya asked, impatient to find out what was happening. "Shouldn’t you be busy covering up your brother’s messes? Surely there’s a murder or embezzlement you need to take care of for him." His comment earned him a dirty look from Reiji, not that Aya cared.

"Not any more, Aya." Taking a step toward his brother, Shuuichi put his hand on the older man’s shoulder and made Reiji turn around to face him. "I’m going to be blunt as we don’t have much time and I doubt it’ll sink in any other way. You are to go home as soon as we’re done talking. You will remain there until you announce your resignation as Prime Minister and then Father would like to see you." He was perfectly calm, as was Masafumi and the two police officers, Aya couldn’t help but note. Of the guards, only Rindou didn’t react but only nodded his head when his coworkers, amazed and confused, glanced at him, clearly looking for some sort of lead.

"You’ve got to be joking," Reiji scoffed but gradually he became aware of the lack of reaction to Shuuichi’s seemingly absurd statement and his eyes narrowed in suspicion. "Why would I do such an insane thing as that?"

Unable to remain quiet any longer, Aya spoke. "Because you framed my father, you son of a bitch," he said, his voice laden with hate.

Reiji started to laugh but the sound quickly faded when everyone merely stared at him. "Be quiet."

"No." The anger that had faded a little under his curiosity and hope burned brightly again, stronger than before. "You betrayed a man who was your friend for over twenty years. You took away his honor and his home, ruined his family name just so you and your friend Miwa could cover up some bad loans. You slandered him even after he killed himself in protest and pocketed all of his money." Aya seethed with hate. "Do you think anyone in the Diet will have anything to do with you when they find that out?" Reiji’s fat face turned dark red and his mouth opened and closed, as if he was trying to think of something scathing to say but, before he could, Shuuichi spoke.

"He’s correct, brother. I’m afraid it’s becoming common knowledge about how you and Miwa framed Fujimiya Yutaka. Nijo’s also aware of your plans to do the same to him as well as Hirofumi’s involvement in his son’s death. That’s only scratching the surface of what you’ve done over the past several years." Shuuichi’s face took on an expression of great satisfaction. "Father’s aware of *everything* and has decided that the family will no longer protect you."

Reiji’s face turned red as he glanced at his brother and then Aya, to his sons and back at Shuuichi. "You’re lying. Father would never do such a thing. He would never listen to a whore nor will anyone else."

"Yes, he did and they will. You see, it’s not just a ‘whore’ who knows what you’ve done, brother." Shuuichi sighed wearily as he removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes. Putting his glasses back on, he spared an apologetic look at Aya before staring coldly at his brother. "Father sent me here to inform you of his decision. Right now Nijo and several of his colleagues are discussing your crimes. Father wants you to willingly retire before they have a chance to confront you with their demand that you step down. He’ll take care of them once your announcement is made."

Yohji hissed in a breath and opened his mouth to say something. Before he could speak, though, Aya nudged him sharply in the ribs and shook his head. "Don’t say anything," Aya whispered. He thought he might have a clue where this was going now. If Saijou was involved…. The old man was the only person Reiji would ever listen to, the only one with the power to make Reiji obey. He could take everything away from Reiji. This might be ten times better than Aya killing the bastard, even if Aya would enjoy that so much more.

"Aya, he’s just going to lose his job. This isn’t right!" Yohji whispered back, furious. "Shuuichi and his father will just hide Reiji’s crimes and the sick fuck will keep on what he’s been doing to other people. He and Hiro deserve to be locked up in a damned asylum, or at least have someone other than their family watching over them."

"What did you think Nijo and Ayumi could do to Reiji?" Aya asked, exasperated. "All they can do is force him to retire. Why do you think I came down here?"

Reiji’s raised voice reminded Aya that something very important was happening and he had to pay attention. "-I’m not going to do a damned thing but go out there and see to my guests. You’re talking nonsense, Shuuichi!"

Shuuichi grabbed his brother’s arm and shook it roughly. "Dammit, Reiji, listen to me for once! You and Hirofumi are going to resign from your posts and remain on the family estates. If you don’t obey Father’s orders I’ll openly charge you with several crimes, including embezzlement, murder and rape. If you don’t believe me, ask Masafumi!"

Reiji looked doubtfully at his son. Masafumi, his jaw clenched in anger, refused to meet his father’s eyes. "Listen to him… Reiji. I’ve already talked to Nanami about what was done to her and I’ll have her testify if necessary to ensure you never touch her again."

Reiji seemed shocked by his son’s defection. Shuuichi continued, his stance relaxing slightly. "Father knows about that, too. Before you start on any nonsense about your family betraying you, remember that you started this. Not only did you take advantage of that young girl, and many others, but Father just found out about your involvement in the kidnapping attempt on Mamoru years ago." Shuuichi’s face twisted in anger. "Your own son, Reiji. You know how Father feels about Mamoru. He might have ignored everything else you’ve done but he’ll never forgive you for that. You’ve finally gone too far and now I can do something about it."

Aya cleared his throat and took a chance. "It’s also gone beyond Saijou’s control," he reminded. He didn’t like exposing Ayumi but, if there was a chance of breaking Reiji here and now, he’d take it. It wasn’t the type of revenge he craved but, in a way… in a way, this would hurt Reiji so much more, if he lost everything. It was poetic justice. Besides, Reiji would only suffer for so long before he died if Aya gutted him while this would last quite a bit longer. "You might be able to stop Nijo and the others from going public with this information but enough people will know the truth and word will spread about how dishonorable you are. Who would want to support you when you could turn on them at any moment, like you did to my father and Nijo?"

Shuuichi took a deep breath and glanced at Hirofumi, who Aya just noticed was still staring at him. "He’s right, brother. You’ve both disgraced the family name. Father and I will make sure that your crimes remain secret but you will still to pay for them. Even if we wanted to continue to protect you, it’s too late. Nijo and his associates won’t rest until you’re no longer the Prime Minister. But, by doing things Father’s way, we can still save face."

Reiji stepped toward Shuuichi and was quickly checked by Tanema and Honjyou. "You’re quite proud right now, aren’t you?" he asked spitefully. "It was your job to cover for me and you failed. You probably told Nijo yourself in a fit of jealousy."

"I didn’t have anything to do with this until Father called me to Kyoto yesterday," Shuuichi said. "This is all your fault, Reiji, yours and Hiro’s. I can hide the things that you’ve done but I can’t erase them. You can thank someone else for bringing you down," he pointed out with great satisfaction. "You two made more than enough enemies and a few of them started digging, drawing Father’s attention to things you never wanted him to know. They uncovered enough to make Father reconsider protecting you."

Reiji continued to glare at his brother for a little longer before his eyes shifted to Aya. "*You*. You found out about your father, you little slut. What did you do?"

"It wasn’t me." Aya placed his hands on Yohji’s arms as he stared at the older man, filled with a cold fury. "If I had been behind this, I’d have merely killed you and Hirofumi for what you did to my family. I must admit that I wouldn’t have thought about this. My friends, though…."

Hirofumi made a choking sound and tried to stand up but Masafumi pushed him back into his seat. "Ay-a…."

"Don’t speak to me. I know everything, Hirofumi," Aya spat. "I know that you were fully aware of what your father was planning to do to mine and you did *nothing*. You knew that my father was innocent when you came with your condolences and your offer. You turned me into a damned whore. Why? Because you could never have me any other way?" His voice was thick with hate as he remembered what he’d had to do these past few years to give his sister a normal life.

While the man who’d been fucking him was the one who tore his family apart. "I’ll kill myself and take you with me before I ever let you touch me again," he said and meant it. Hirofumi would never lay a finger on him, taint him like that again. If Hirofumi really did love him…. Aya hoped the bastard suffered immensely from knowing the man he loved detested him.

Hirofumi’s eyes snapped wide open at Aya’s bitter, hate-filled words, filling with tears as he shook his head. "Didn’t… wasn’t my fault. Love you… Aya, please." Aya turned away, unable to stand the sight of him any longer, and pressed against Yohji. Hirofumi spoke a moment later, his voice laden with malice "You, Kudoh. You were the-"

"Yeah, me." Yohji brushed his hand through Aya’s hair. "You’ll never hurt him again, I made sure of it." He kissed Aya on the forehead before he turned to look at Shuuichi. "You’re really just going to place them under house arrest? After everything they did?"

Shuuichi had the grace to look ashamed as he reached into his suit jacket and pulled out a cell phone. After dialing a number he handed it to Reiji. "Here, Father will confirm everything I just said. He wants to talk to you." Reiji numbly accepted the phone.

Shuuichi turned back to where Aya and Yohji were standing. "I don’t know what you expect me to do, Kudoh-san." Yohji seemed surprised that Shuuichi knew his name. "If I make my brother and nephew stand trial the repercussions…." He took a deep breath and pushed his glasses up his nose. "It’s not just my family that’s involved. My father and I will handle this. We’ll make sure that Reiji and Hiro are never in a position to abuse their power again and," his eyes rested on Aya, "they’ll be losing the things they prize the most. They won’t go unpunished." Behind him, Hirofumi moaned something but was quickly hushed by Masafumi who was preparing to inject him with another syringe.

"I don’t give a damn about them losing their positions," Yohji snarled. "They’ve ruined too many lives to get away with this."

Aya didn’t know if it was a good or bad thing that his lover could be this… quixotic and he felt so tired and cold that he just wanted to get this over with as quickly as possible. He was heartily sick of dealing with Takatoris. "Yohji, it won’t do any good. The commissioner is correct," he said quietly. "Even Ayumi would agree. That’s why she took the information to Nijo and not the press. Too many other people would be affected by Reiji facing trial for it to be risked. It would throw the entire government into chaos."

"For fuck’s sake, Aya, because of these assholes you lost your parents and everything! I know they can’t go to jail but they deserve some sort of punishment! How else is anyone going to know that your father was framed?" Yohji stared angrily at him, making Aya feel even more tired and tainted.

"I want them to pay more than you’ll ever know, that’s why I came here in the first place." Aya sighed and wrapped his arms gingerly around his sore chest. "But I also understand how many other people will suffer if I push for a trial. Most of them would be guilty but some of them…. How many more families have to suffer because of Reiji, Yohji? As much as I detest him I won’t destroy another innocent man for being associated with Reiji."

"Yes, he did, and I’m very sorry about that," Shuuichi said uncomfortably. "Please… Fujimiya-san, accept my apologies." He bowed low.

"Great, you apologize after the fact," Yohji grumbled as he snaked an arm around Aya’s waist. "It still doesn’t change the fact that your brother took everything away from Aya and his sister and that his parents are now dead."

"My father and I have every intention of making restitution for what Reiji took from Aya. While I might not be able to prosecute my brother, Miwa is another matter," Shuuichi quickly pointed out. "Thanks to you, Kudoh-san, my detectives have more than enough information to charge him for the crimes for which your father was accused. He’ll cooperate unless he wants other crimes to become public knowledge. I promise to restore your family’s good name, Fujimiya-san." He bowed again.

"Fat lot of good it does now," Yohji muttered. He managed to block the blow to his ribs just in time. Aya settled for glaring at his lover and willing him to shut up. Antagonizing Shuuichi when they were both at his mercy wasn’t a very good idea.

Shuuichi heard the comment and flushed. "Yes, I’m aware that we will never be able to fully repay Aya for what he and his family suffered." He glanced at Hirofumi and flushed deeper. "But we will try."

"Then what do you propose to do?" Aya asked, pressing while he sensed the Takatori was off-balanced.

"Aya… My father insists on paying you for the assets that were seized from your family during the investigation."

"What about my family’s home in Tokyo and the rest of our property?" Aya demanded. "What about the shares in my father’s company that your brother seized and gave to his friends?" Just the thought of all that had been taken from him made him sick with anger. Did Shuuichi and Saijou just think they could make up for everything with a check? About to verbally tear into the man, Aya forced himself to take a deep breath and shut his mouth. As much as he hated to admit it, they had the power here. Even with truth on his side Aya had none. He would indeed have to accept whatever the Takatoris decided to give him and take comfort in the fact that he was hitting them in the two areas that cursed family cared about the most – their wealth and their power. He could at least attempt to bleed them dry by regaining all he could of his family’s assets if he couldn’t do it physically, like he yearned to do.

"I’m sorry, we can’t do anything about your family’s property or return control of your father’s business to you but we can make sure that you and your sister will never want for anything monetary ever again." Shuuichi removed his glasses and wiped his sweaty face with a handkerchief.

"Yes, I imagine you can, considering that the Takatoris were the ones who benefited most from the seizure of my family’s assets," Aya said frostily. "The question is, what do I have to do for the money?" He wasn’t foolish enough to imagine he could get back a fraction of what his family had been worth and have his family’s name restored without there being some price. In the end it would hurt the Takatoris more than it did him.

Shuuichi stiffened, his face flushing darker and his gaze darting away from Aya to rest on the floor. "It would be best if you weren’t around when the news breaks about your father. People will want to talk to you and find out what you and your sister have been doing these past few years. Someone will find out about…." Shuuichi’s glasses slid down his already sweaty face. "For that reason and others," he glanced at a drugged Hirofumi, "it would be best if you left. I can’t guarantee your safety if you remain in Japan."

He nodded, the price was pretty much what he was expecting but apparently Yohji was taken aback at it. "Wait a minute, you’re going to keep punishing Aya for something your brother did?" Yohji asked. "You’re going to make him leave the country so people don’t find out that Hirofumi…." He scrubbed a hand over his face. "What if he doesn’t go? He won’t get the money?" Shuuichi didn’t say anything. "You fucking bastards."

"I’m sorry but there’s nothing I can do." Shuuichi looked at Aya. "The arrangements are already made. Kikyou and Shion had them mostly completed before my father stepped in. The only question is, where do you want to go?"

"What, Kikyou knew about this?" Yohji asked, his eyes going wide.

"Yohji." Aya glanced around him before tugging his lover to a corner of the room. He wanted privacy for this. Shuuichi and Rindou still remained within earshot but at least he didn’t have to look at Hirofumi and Reiji while he tried to talk sense into Yohji. The rest of the room was occupied keeping an eye on Reiji and Hirofumi.

"He’s right." Aya sighed and tried to brush back his bangs, stopping when his arms twinged with pain. "Kikyou and probably Ayumi planned this from the start. They knew that Saijou wouldn’t let anyone else but him deal with Reiji and Hirofumi. He’s an old man… it would be best if I left."

He took a deep breath as it sank in that he’d really have to leave. As much as the thought of leaving Ayumi and the land of his birth hurt, it was nothing compared to leaving Yohji. Yet, if he wanted to keep Yohji, his friends and his sister safe, he’d have to give into the Takatoris on this matter. "If I stay in Japan it won’t be hard for Hiro to find me, plus it would only be a matter of time before someone discovers what I’ve been doing these past few years." Aya’s shoulders sagged, weighed down with exhaustion and a sense of approaching loss. "Why didn’t you think any of this through, Yotan? This isn’t like the movies. The bad guys don’t get locked up for the rest of their lives just because they’re guilty. That’s why I came here, to make sure Hiro paid for what he did." He shook his head. "Then you had to show up." His lover had to show up and Aya would have to leave him to keep him safe. Sometimes he wondered what he’d done in his past life to deserve to lose everything he loved in this one.

Yohji sighed and hugged Aya. "I… hell, I don’t know what I thought. I knew they’d never do any jail time but I thought their punishment would be something more than ‘we’ll keep an eye on them, here’s a check now leave’. I mean, they killed and raped people, Aya, and that’s just for starters. Looking back, though, I bet Ayumi knew that things would turn out like this." He tilted Aya’s face up for a brief, yet savored kiss and Aya didn’t give a damn that the whole room grew quiet during their embrace. When they pulled apart he was bemused to notice that everyone but Hirofumi were looking away from them. "What are you going to do? I’m sure as hell not letting you do something stupid like throw your life away for revenge." Yohji gave him a shake. "So think of something else."

"What can I do? I have no way to support my sister now and… I have to do what they want if it means my father’s name will be cleared," Aya said sadly. As much as he loved Yohji, that obligation came first. "I have to leave."

"Not without me," Yohji growled and bent his head down for a desperate kiss.

Aya pulled away a few moments later, a hint of a smile on his lips but his eyes uncertain. Surely Yohji didn’t mean what he’d just said. "Are you sure? I can’t ask you to go with me." He knew how much Yohji loved Tokyo and couldn’t ask him to leave his life here to take a chance in a foreign country.

Yohji smiled. "Idiot. You said if there was ever a chance of getting free from Hiro that you’d go away with me, so how can I not do the same? We just have to figure out where we’re going. How does Hawaii sound?"

"Not great," Aya frowned as he thought about it. It was too close to Japan. "It has to be someplace where we’d be least likely to run into anyone we know."

Yohji thought about it for a moment. "Well how about somewhere else in America? We both know English and it’s a big country."


Aya was considering the suggestion when Shuuichi approached them, an apologetic smile on his face. "I’m sorry to interrupt but may I make a suggestion? My father and I have several contacts in England. If you go there we’d best be able to help you with any difficulties you might face moving to a new country. I can pull strings to get you new identities and citizenship."

"All right. I assure you we won’t rely on your… kindness for very long," Aya said coldly, after he thought about the offer for a moment. "You do have a point about citizenship and some other legal matters." He glared venomously at the unconscious Hirofumi. "We’d be less easily tracked down with new identities." New identities that he and Yohji would have trouble setting up themselves. As much as it galled Aya to have anything to do with any member of the Takatori family other than Mamoru, he had to think of what would be best for him and Yohji. Besides, he was willing to bet that Saijou would keep a close eye on them wherever they went and might feel more at ease if they didn’t seem to be trying to run from the family. He doubted their sudden benevolence would extend past the belief that he and Yohji would try to expose them in some way.

"Which is what I thought," Shuuichi said quietly. "Shion has already set up new identities for you and Kudoh-san, so it won’t take much effort to get your visas." Aya was surprised that his friend had thought to include Yohji but was grateful nonetheless for Shion’s thoroughness. "Once you’re there, I’ll arrange for funds to be transferred to whatever bank you wish. My father and I insist on seeing that you and Kudoh-san have all the means required to make your new life a successful venture."

Aya nodded and forced himself to push aside his hate and think of what was best for his loved ones. "I’d like for half of the returned money to be set up in an account for my sister and the information on the account sent to me." This way Aya-chan would be taken care of, no matter what happened to him. "As for your offer to us…." He looked at Yohji, his face carefully blank to hide the glimmer of hope he felt inside. "Would England be all right? I imagine that you’d probably prefer the United States since-"

Yohji silenced him with a quick kiss. "I don’t give a damn, Aya. Pick where you think you’d be happiest and I’ll tag along." He nudged his nose against Aya’s ear. "And we’ll have the money from my account and sale of my apartment so we won’t have to rely on them for everything," he whispered.

Ah, it appeared his lover was finally thinking straight. Aya sighed in relief before returning his attention to Shuuichi. "We’ll go to London." They shouldn’t stand out as much there and the city was big enough they shouldn’t run into anyone they knew as long as they were careful. "Give us two days to pack and take care of a few matters and we’ll leave."

But Shuuichi frowned. "Aya… I’m afraid it would be best if you left tonight." He waved off Yohji and Aya’s protests. "Please, listen to me. The sooner you’re gone the sooner I can ensure your safety." He glanced to the other side of the room where a stunned Reiji was talking quietly on the phone. "Father insists that you leave now before Nijo or anyone else tries to drag you into what is certainly going to be a nasty mess once Reiji resigns."

"What’s our guarantee that you won’t make us leave the country and bar us from ever returning if you don’t honor your promises?" Aya asked, his voice frosty with distrust and anger. He felt uneasy with this sudden rush to get them out of the country and didn’t like the idea he wouldn’t be able to say goodbye to his friends before leaving, perhaps forever.

"The same thing that’s allowing you to leave here at all," Shuuichi remarked, his voice and expression blank. "Aya… I’m sure that you, better than anyone else, is aware of what my family is capable of doing. We’re going to a considerable expense to repay the damage some of our own has done to your family." His tone became more earnest. "I promise that we’ll honor our word to you. I’m sorry that there are conditions involved but I’m trying to do what’s best for both of our families." He stared at Aya, who refused to look away.

The stalemate was broken when Rindou cleared his throat and stepped closer to Aya. "Aya-san, Shion asked me to pass a message to you when he called earlier." He brushed his hand nervously down the front of his black jacket. "He said to tell you to go, that he and Kikyou are fine and they back Takatori-san’s promise." His eyes flickered toward Shuuichi.

"Thank you." Aya took a deep breath and closed his eyes. He’d known Rindou for five years, as long as he’d known Shion and Kikyou. The guard was Shion’s and wouldn’t lie about something like this. If Shion told him to trust the Takatoris’ promise and to leave he had no choice but to do so. His friend wouldn’t betray him.

"Huhn, talkative fellow, that Shion," Yohji muttered as he ran his hands up and down Aya’s arms. "Things are moving too quick for me to follow anymore." Aya agreed but knew he had to think as clearly as possible anyway. "Do what you think is best, Ayan. I’ll follow you."

Aya opened his eyes and smiled gratefully. That Yohji would trust him this much, loved him enough to leave Japan warmed him and gave him strength. Then his thoughts turned serious as he looked at Shuuichi. "We’ll go, after we spend some time taking care of a few matters," he said firmly, daring to push. All he needed was a few hours to set things up for his sister and Ayumi and then he’d let Shuuichi shove him onto a plane.

Shuuichi bowed. "Thank you." He seemed grateful that Aya wasn’t going to fight him anymore. "I arranged a flight that’ll leave in four hours; that should give you enough time." After a glance at Reiji, who was sitting dazed on the couch, he gestured to the door. "Let’s go somewhere more private."

"And return my property to me," Aya said quickly. There was no way he’d leave the tanto here. "I promise not to use it," he reassured Rindou who, after a moment, waved Kuroyuri over to the table.

Aya held out his hands for the precious heirloom and smiled with relief when it was returned. Tucking it into his kimono, he looked over at the couch and noticed that Ayame and Azami instantly regarded him with caution. The message was clear; they wouldn’t allow him to attempt anything on Hirofumi and Reiji. While Aya hated the two men enough to want to kill them with his own hands, Yohji’s presence beside him forced his body to relax and turn away. Besides, the image of those two would remain with him for some time to come. Reiji, his bravado lost, appeared old and worn. Hirofumi was drugged unconscious and would wake to find his world drastically different than it had been earlier today.

"You said that they’ll never bother us again?" Aya asked Shuuichi. He needed to be sure about this, to know just what the Takatoris were going to promise him.

"I promise you that they’ll never be able to harm you or your…," Shuuichi glanced at Yohji, "loved ones again. Hirofumi will be placed under house arrest and won’t be allowed to go off his medications. I won’t allow him to kill anyone else," he said in obvious shame and disgust. For a moment he looked as old as Reiji. "As for my brother… you were right when you said that people will find out about what he did. When Miwa goes to trial, his power base will be broken."

"Are you certain that’s enough?" Yohji asked worriedly. "He’s gotta be pissed as hell at us right now."

"I don’t doubt that he’ll blame you for everything," Shuuichi stated. "However, my father was very clear on the matter. He wants you compensated for what Reiji and Hirofumi did to you, Aya. As long as you don’t try to return to Japan or cause us any trouble, Father will make certain that you’re never troubled by us again. So will I," the commissioner finished earnestly.

Aya knew that he only had two choices here, to trust them or not. If the Takatoris were going to betray him they’d do it quickly, before he had a chance to cause them any trouble and there was nothing he could do to stop it. He hated this feeling of powerlessness more than anything. "If our plane leaves in four hours we don’t have much time," he pointed out.

"No, we don’t. Follow me, please." With Yohji by his side, Aya left the room, his eyes never once glancing at the two men sitting on the couch. Even with his resolve to no longer seek revenge in that matter, he didn’t know if he could control himself if he looked at them again. He stared straight at the door as he followed Shuuichi and felt grateful when Yohji grasped his hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. Squeezing back, Aya walked away from Reiji and Hirofumi.

*******

Yohji sat in the back of the car, Aya a limp presence beside him. It was after midnight of an evening that had been… well, stressful was putting it mildly, yet Yohji felt no trace of sleepiness. He sat there, his body rigid and his eyes vigilant, suspecting them of being led into a trap at any moment. He remained on edge, almost jumping in his seat when Aya sighed before closing his eyes.

"Are you all right? How are your ribs and arm? Do you want more pain medicine?" Yohji brushed Aya’s hair and patted his face, worried about how quiet his lover had become after they’d started their trip to the airport.

"I’m still a little sore but I feel more tired than anything now," Aya replied, his hand finding Yohji’s and threading their fingers together. "I don’t know why you aren’t."

"Oh, I’ll probably crash the moment we’re on the plane but right now I’m too anxious to be tired," Yohji said, his words rushing together. He didn’t want to tell Aya the real reason he was on edge so he made up an excuse. "It’s not every day I help take down a Prime Minister and have to leave the country." He was quiet for a moment and then spoke hesitantly. "Do you really think we can trust them?" Aya hadn’t given him any sign that he was expecting trouble but Yohji wanted to be certain.

"We don’t have much choice," Aya pointed out before yawning. "I think we can trust Saijou and Shuuichi and I know we can trust Kikyou and Shion." He yawned again and slouched down in the seat, his head resting on Yohji’s shoulder. "You don’t have to come, you know."

Yohji tugged on his braid in response. "Don’t be such an idiot, Ayan. Or should I say Mitsuyoshi Ran?" He smiled at his lover’s new name, easily envisioning Aya as the great swordmaster he’d been renamed for. "You’re not getting rid of me so easily."

"Why am I not surprised, Katsura Yohji?" Aya asked, smiling just the slightest bit when Yohji grumbled at the sound of his new name. Trust Kikyou to come up with a little joke while choosing their new identities. He’d picked legendary swordsmen for both of them but Yohji’s…. He’d turned beet red when Aya made the association first and called him ‘Runaway Kogoro’. As if he’d ever run from a fight…. He suddenly reminded himself that he needed to stop thinking of Aya as Aya and as Ran instead. He’d seen the way his lover’s eyes lit up when finding out his new identity. It meant something to… Ran that he could take up his old name once again. Yohji guessed it was Ran reclaiming something that Hiro had taken from him and made up for the fact that he couldn’t be Fujimiya any longer.

While…Ran and Shuuichi worked out how to sell the Hanabatake apartments and what to do with his and Yohji’s belongings, which they weren’t allowed to fetch, Tanema and Honjyou went to pack a few of their possessions and brought them a change of clothes. Ran didn’t want to remove his family kimono but had to admit that he’d attract less attention if dressed normally. The precious garment was in his carry-on, along with a picture of his sister and the small, carefully wrapped Ozaki vase. Now he wore a pair of grey slacks and a white shirt. Yohji realized he’d have to get used to more than his lover’s name changing as Aya truly became Ran again. He just hoped that Ran didn’t mind wearing the occasional yukata or kimono since he looked as good in them as he did jeans and t-shirts. Hadn’t Ay- Ran told him that he’d worn them often while growing up?

Now was not the time for these kinds of thoughts. That could wait until they were safe. "Have you given any thought to what we’ll do once we reach England? I think it would be nice to live in London but I hear it’s even more expensive than Tokyo." Ran, lost in his own thoughts, started at the question.

"I… well, if Shuuichi is serious about setting us up, I thought…. Ayumi always wanted me to open a flower shop," Ran said hesitantly. "I can do ikebana, maybe that would be enough to get me a job at least."

"Hell, if the bastards are paying, I say you set up your own shop." The Takatoris sure as hell owed it to his lover. "I’ll lend a hand." Yohji nudged Ran with his shoulder. "Then we can rely on the money we bring in and not what they’re giving us, even if it is yours." The sooner they were financially independent the happier he, and probably Ran as well, would be.

"Yes," Ran said as he rubbed his eyes.

Yohji could understand why he was so tired. Tonight had been draining. It was amazing that Aya – no - Ran was still awake with all that had happened and the rapid turn of events.

 

"I hope Ayumi is all right," Ran said quietly.

"I’m sure she will be, as much as she can now that her precious Ayan is gone." Yohji draped his arm over Ran’s shoulders and hugged him close. "She probably knew this would happen." It certainly explained all the little hints and weird looks she’d given him when Yohji discussed what would happen after their plan succeeded. "I don’t think she cared about anything other than making sure you were safe. Kohmi and her friends will look out for her, I’m certain. Mamoru too, since you asked him, and Kikyou will watch out for both of them. I’ll miss those two, and Ken. Gods, a new life…." Yohji was oddly pleased at the idea, despite his current anxieties. As long as the Takatoris kept their word, he’d get what he’d wanted almost since he’d met Ay- Ran. A new life with someone he loved.

"Yes." Ran pressed closer. "You got your wish."

"I know." Yohji kissed the top of his head and tried not to think about all the stories his mother told him about wishes backfiring. "I think that’s part of why I’m so full of energy. I’m afraid to fall asleep and wake up to find this was all a dream. That I’m not going away with you and we won’t get the chance to live our lives together." He fell quiet for a few seconds. "I’ll make you happy, Ran. I promise."

"You already do," Ran replied as he stifled a yawn. "’Ran’. It’s weird, having to get used to being called that again."

"My little orchid," Yohji cooed, suddenly wanting to be a little silly to escape all the tension that filled him. "I’ll take good care of you," he said, perfectly serious. "I mean it."

"Yotan, I’m too tired for mushy stuff right now," Ran grumbled "Why don’t you carry on about how right you were to believe in hope and how we’ll be so happy together once we reach London when I’m too busy suffering from jetlag to care," he said with a frown.

"It’s a deal," Yohji chuckled. Trust Ran to not be tired enough to listen to mush, even after the day they’d had. "Why don’t you try to sleep for a few minutes? I’ll stay awake and make sure they don’t try anything funny with us."

"All right." Soon enough Ran was asleep, his head lolling on Yohji’s shoulder to the motion of the car. Pulling his lover even closer, Yohji devoted all of his attention to what was happening around him, making sure that they were indeed headed to the airport. He didn’t think he’d get much sleep in the upcoming weeks, not until he was sure that they perfectly safe.

*******

Kikyou stood by the water fountain and listened to the soothing sounds. He felt too wound up to fall asleep so he had come here, hoping that the garden’s tranquility would tire him. All it did was remind him of Aya….

Footsteps crunched lightly on the gravel, just barely audible over the sound of falling water. Warm hands wrapped around his waist and pulled him back against a broad chest. "You should be in bed," Shion whispered in his ear.

"I can’t sleep," Kikyou replied as he hugged his lover’s arms around him. "Can you blame me?"

"No." Shion was quiet for a moment. "They should be boarding the plane shortly. I’ve just spent the past hour making plans to ensure their safety. Rindou and Kuroyuri will be leaving tomorrow morning for London." He fell quiet again. "Saijou approved of my actions."

Kikyou wasn’t sure how to take that information. He still had to grow used to the idea of Saijou knowing damned near everything and caring about very little of it. "He’s serious about protecting Aya?"

Shion considered the question. "I think he’s serious about keeping his promise," he stated with conviction.

"That, and it’s another way to punish Reiji by letting the people who helped bring him down go on their merry way," Kikyou added. The more he thought about it the more he was convinced that was the reason behind Saijou’s sudden generosity regarding Aya. The old man certainly hadn’t cared about him before over the past few years…. "I’ll never understand this family and the way they can so easily turn on each other."

His lover’s arms tightened around him. "Remember that when Saijou tries to make you just like him. Don’t let the power go to your head, Kikyou, like it did to him. People aren’t puppets."

"I know." Kikyou thought about Saijou’s plans for him. "What a disappointment to realize that neither of his sons were fit to replace him," he said sarcastically. "I don’t know whether to be honored or insulted that he always thought of me as something more than a… concubine," he finished weakly, knowing that Shion hated it when he called himself a whore.

"Prove him wrong then," was Shion’s simple answer. "Prove that you’re neither a whore nor like him." Kikyou thought about it for a moment and decided it was a brilliant one. The best part was, by the time Saijou realized that Kikyou would never let himself become as twisted as the old bastard, it would be too late.

"You’ll have to help me then," he said as he turned in his lover’s arms. "Help keep me on the straight and narrow."

"That’ll never happen," Shion teased unexpectedly, leaving Kikyou stunned by the rare flash of humor. "I’ll keep you in line as much as possible, though."

"Huh, don’t think you can tease me like Aya did just because he won’t be here anymore to do it," Kikyou snapped before standing on his toes for a kiss. If he didn’t know that Shion had a million and one things to do, many of them concerning Aya’s safety, he’d drag his lover off to bed and ravish him. "I’m going to miss him."

"Me too. He’ll be fine, though," Shion reassured him.

"Yes." Kikyou knew his friend would be all right. He had Yohji look after him and Aya would be determined as hell to succeed at the chance he’d been given. And maybe, in a few years, they could see each other again. He didn’t hold much hope of that but it was a nice dream. Considering how the impossible had already happened today, he didn’t think he was being silly to have a little hope.

"Come on and tuck me in bed," he ordered as he tugged on Shion’s hand. His lover smiled slightly and nodded before heading to his bedroom. Kikyou looked back over his shoulder at the garden, determined to have that image to think about as he tried to fall asleep again rather than Saijou’s plans for him and comments about his inner darkness.

*******

Yohji glanced at Tanema while wishing he could drape an arm around Ran’s waist and help his lover stand up straight. Ran was fading fast and was barely keeping up with them as they headed toward their plane’s gate. "You know, you don’t really have to escort us onto the plane."

"We’re to make sure that you board and that the plane takes off," Tanema replied sweetly. "We’re just following orders."

"Hmph." Yohji settled for walking very close to his lover and letting Ran lean slightly against him. "Well then, we’ll be out of your hair in another five minutes." He clutched their first class tickets in his hand, the realization finally sinking in that he was really leaving Japan, perhaps for good, now that he was about to board his flight. Excitement and anxiety warred inside him.

He suddenly remembered something. "Tanema-san, how exactly did your boss and his father find out about what I was doing?" Shuuichi said that his father had called him to Kyoto yesterday, so Saijou had to have known for a day or two. Then there was the matter of the letter sent to Nijo….

"Oh, that." Tanema lit a cigarette while his partner glared at him. "Well…. That’s my fault, you could say." Honjyou grunted and looked away as Tanema smiled sheepishly. "While you were doing your own investigation, I was watching you. What I didn’t know was that Takatori-sama was watching me. It appears he had a few damned, impossible to spot flags placed on any files related to his brother. His father did, too."

Yohji stared at the detective in amazement. "How… I thought no one knew about the access…." His eyes narrowed suddenly. "No one was supposed to know about it."

"No one did… other than two people Iwasaki Atsumori trusted to help set up that account." As Yohji’s eyes widened in surprise, Tanema chuckled. "He’s a good friend and was my partner when I first joined the force. You could say I owed you a debt for not turning him in." It was implied that the debt was now paid off. Yohji wondered if the payment had anything to do with him miraculously coming across the files he’d needed that one day.

Tanema chuckled again and took a drag from his cigarette, making Yohji itch to have another one before he boarded the plane. "I guess it all worked out in the end." He looked at Yohji and Ran as they came to the proper gate. "Good luck in England."

Honjyou stepped forward and handed a piece of paper to Ran. "Shinobi Taku from the Japanese embassy will be waiting for you at the airport. He’ll make sure that you’re settled properly in England." He paused for a moment. "You can trust him but I’d be very cautious if anyone other than him is waiting for you in Heathrow. Here’s a picture of Shinobi and some contact information in case something goes wrong. You shouldn’t have any problems in customs, Shinobi will take care of everything. I wish you luck as well." He bowed slightly and stepped back as a flight attendant came to escort them aboard the plane.

Waving to the two detectives before following the woman, Yohji nudged his lover’s side. "Time to go."

Ran stood still for a moment, looking about the airport before he nodded. "Yes, it is." He leaned against Yohji for a moment before walking toward the boarding ramp.

Excitement starting to overtake his sense of apprehension, Yohji followed his lover without looking back.

*******

Ran surveyed the room with a critical eye, trying to imagine it filled with coolers, worktables and a register. It was a little on the small side but when he took into account the back rooms, the large basement downstairs and the three floors above, the tall, narrow building just might be suitable.

He didn’t think he needed to ask Yohji his opinion of the place. His lover was practically bouncing on his toes over in the corner by the door. For a moment, Ran was reminded of Mamoru and smiled sadly as he thought of the friends he’d had to leave behind in Tokyo.

"We could put the cash register right over here. I’ll be in charge of that while you handle the flowers." Yohji turned around to look at him, a silly grin on his face and his eyes glowing with joy. Something must have shown on Ran’s face because Yohji’s suddenly became serious as he approached him. "Don’t tell me you don’t like it," Yohji said quietly when he was near enough. "This is the best place we’ve seen yet."

"Yes, but I’m not certain about the location," Ran pointed out. "Wouldn’t Chelsea be better?" He thought he heard that was one of London’s more fashionable districts.

"Well, the hotel maid said that Battersea is pretty popular right now, and I can see why from the drive here. It’s much prettier and more spacious, not to mention the Covent Gardens are nearby," Yohji said as he stepped closer to him. For a moment the craziness of the past fortnight wore down on Ran. All he wanted to do was put his arms around Yohji’s waist, lean against his lover and breathe in the familiar scent of clove and cigarettes. But even that had changed since Yohji used the soap provided by their hotel instead of his preferred brand. They hadn’t ventured outside much while they’d recovered from their trip and everything they’d been put through their last night in Japan. It had given them some time to be alone with each other and to see if Shuuichi was going to honor his word. When Shinobi had told them about looking at potential property for their shop and apartment, they’d felt it was time to get on with their new lives here in London.

Forcing himself to fight off the weakness, Ran grunted and shook his head to help clear his mind. "Yes, but does this area really need another flower shop?" As Yohji opened his mouth, most likely to argue with him, he suddenly decided to throw in the towel. Yohji did have a point; this was the nicest place they’d come across by far, much nicer than Aya had been hoping for, in fact. It had even been recently renovated. "I guess there’s only one way to find out, na, Yohji?"

Yohji’s smile returned and he reached out to trail his fingers down the back of Ran’s hand before heading over to where Shinobi and the English solicitor were standing. As he told them that they’d take the place, Ran headed to one of the back rooms and up the staircase to the next floor. There was an old elevator that the solicitor assured them was working but he didn’t feel like chancing it until they could have someone come out and confirm that fact. He didn’t mind the walk upstairs, not after spending so much time holed up in a hotel room.

The second floor contained several small rooms that would be perfect for bedrooms or offices. The next floor up held a kitchen and a large area that would do as a huge living room and the fourth floor had three large rooms. It was definitely too big for just the two of them, the space almost shocking after a lifetime in Tokyo. Not even Ran’s old house had been as big as this.

Staring out the picture window in the back room of the top floor, he heard someone approach him from behind and wasn’t startled when long arms wrapped around his shoulders. "What are you thinking?" Yohji breathed against his ear.

"That we won’t know what to do with all this space." He leaned back against his lover, grateful for the boundless energy that kept Yohji going these past two weeks. "Aren’t you ever tired?"

"No." Yohji nuzzled his ear and chuckled. "In another day or two I’ll probably crash and pass out for a week," he said, continuing with the running joke, "but right now I’m too excited to be tired. We’re starting a new life, Ran. I’ll rest when I’m sure we’re all set up and okay."

"You make me tired just listening to you talk," Ran complained as he turned around. He kissed Yohji, trying to express how grateful he was to have him here. If it weren’t for Yohji he’d be hiding in the hotel room, lost in a foreign country and having to start his life from scratch all by himself.

When he pulled back, Yohji clasped his hand around the back of Ran’s neck and held him still. Leaning forward to rub their noses together, Yohji smiled. "We’ll be trying to get this place ready for your shop and then you’ll be the one running around like crazy while I just try to sleep." He chuckled again and held Ran tighter. "I left Shinobi and Thorne downstairs talking about building titles and permits. Even with Shinobi pulling strings for us, this place is going to cost a fortune, especially converting it into a flower shop. The wiring will need to be updated through the whole building."

"That’s not a problem," Ran muttered evilly. "We’re not paying for anything." Yohji looked oddly at him before nodding. Resting his head against his lover’s shoulder, Ran sighed as his hands rested on Yohji’s hips. "Once the place is set up and the shop open, then it’ll be up to us to keep it going. Until then… they owe me a hell of a lot more than renovated property and a nice bank account." However, he had to settle for those things if he wanted a future with Yohji. He told himself that it was a miracle that they’d gotten away with their lives from the Takatoris, let alone anything else.

Yohji kissed him on the temple. "I know, Ay-Ran. Damn, guess I better watch out for that. I was doing so well today, too." Ran nuzzled Yohji’s neck to show he wasn’t upset about the slip. It was a bit odd to hear his real name again after so many years, especially since Yohji had known him simply as ‘Aya’. It was just one more change in a sea of them, lately.

"We have more than enough room to do some entertaining if we ever make any friends and I think this bedroom will be perfect for us." They looked out the window and its lovely view of the river for a moment. "Any idea what we’ll do with the rest of the rooms?" Yohji asked.

"Not a clue. I guess one of them will come in handy when I kick you out of bed for coming home from the local pub all drunk," Ran teased. His mood suddenly lifted, standing here in Yohji’s arms and talking about their future together. Part of him was terrified by all the changes but the rest of him…. Yohji was with him; that was all that mattered.

"Why would I want to spend the night out drinking with a bunch of foreigners when I can be at home pouncing on you?" Yohji teased back, his hand sliding down Ran’s back and cupping his ass. "I think we can set aside a room, though, just in case someone from say… America ever wants to come for a visit. Or even if she wants to live here while doing graduate studies." Yohji tilted Ran’s head back and looked him in the eye. "I wouldn’t mind in the least if Aya-chan joins us here. Well, maybe a little, as long as she realizes that I have equal claim to you."

"Not now, Yohji." Rubbing his eyes, Ran decided it was time to end this discussion about his sister. "I… I just…." He didn’t know how to express his feelings without sounding heartless. "I need some time, Yohji. I let her know I’m not in Japan anymore and that I’m okay, and I’ll talk to her again tonight or tomorrow. But…." He shook his head before resting it back on Yohji’s shoulder.

"You need some time to yourself, is that it?" Yohji asked after a few moments of silence. Looking up at him, Ran nodded. "I’m sorry, Ran, I just wanted you to know that I wouldn’t mind it if you wanted to be with your sister again."

"I do, Yotan. Someday. Just not right now." He’d spent the past five years living for his sister, right now he wanted to focus on getting his own life straightened out. They couldn’t depend on the Takatoris’ largesse forever. He needed to make this shop a success, to make this new life a success. He’d given Aya-chan everything she needed to create the life she’d always wanted. It was now his turn.

"Guess that just means I have you all to myself for a bit longer." Yohji sighed dramatically, earning a puzzled look from Ran. "I guess I’ll survive somehow." He yelped when Ran hit him in the ribs. "Then again, maybe not!"

"Quit acting like an idiot, you damned kitsune. Let’s go see what they’re up to downstairs." Ran stalked away as Yohji wailed over being abused, a smile on his lips and feeling better than when he’d first come upstairs.

*******

Wishing goodbye to the last of their customers, Yohji followed the two young women to the door and locked it behind them. Quickly flipping the sign so it showed ‘closed’, he pulled down the metal blind and strolled toward the back of the shop. He found his lover bent over his workstation, busy cleaning it off and putting away his tools for the day. Ran’s face was completely hidden by strands of red and black hair, with two long locks actually touching the table’s wooden surface.

Reaching out, Yohji tucked back the long bangs, surprising Ran and earning a frown. "Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you like that. You almost done?"

Ran’s look softened and he squeezed Yohji’s hand. "Yes. Why don’t you go upstairs and put on some tea? I’ll be up in a few minutes."

"Okay." Yohji lingered for a second, his fingers still tangled in Ran’s hair, combing back the silky strands. The black dye that liberally streaked his lover’s hair until one couldn’t tell if Ran’s natural color was black or red hadn’t damaged it at all. It had taken him some time to get used to the effect, and the short length, but the look was now growing on him. While he knew that Ran had cut and dyed his hair because he felt the need to rid himself of something forced on him by Hirofumi, Yohji had to admit that he still missed the long, bright red braid he’d played with so often.

Ran seemed to sense his thoughts. "It’ll grow back."

"I know. I just miss having your braid to tug on," Yohji teased as his fingers slid through an eartail. The odd style suited Ran, framed his lovely face and made his eyes stand out even more than usual.

Coming out from behind the table, Ran tugged Yohji’s head down for a quick kiss. "Give it a few more months, my hair grows very fast. Faster than yours." He tugged on Yohji’s hair, which had also been cut but not as drastically. "And this time I won’t have a reason to cut it short again."

"No." Yohji leaned forward for another kiss, taking his time on this one. "I’ll make some tea. Any ideas for dinner?"

"Anything but curry." Aya wrinkled his nose and headed for the register. "I think I’m burned out on it."

"I guess that last batch was a little too hot for you, love." Yohji laughed as his lover ignored him in favor of opening the register and decided he better go make the tea. It had been a busy day and he was looking forward to some quality cuddle time on the couch after dinner, which he wouldn’t get if he pissed off Ran. Still chuckling, he ran up the stairs to the third floor, taking the steps two at a time.

Entering the spacious kitchen, Yohji filled the electric kettle and got his boyfriend’s precious tea water boiling. Then he pulled a bottle of white wine out of the fridge and uncorked it, letting it breathe as he tried to figure out what to make them for dinner. He was half tempted to order take-out when he spied the leftover chicken from the day before. Grabbing that and some vegetables, he set about making a quick stir-fry. It wouldn’t be as good as Ran’s but his cooking skills were getting better. It wasn’t fair to make Ran cook all the time… except for breakfast.

Pulling out the rice cooker, Yohji smiled at that thought. When they had the time for a leisurely breakfast, Ran always made him something wonderful. In return for that and Ran doing the laundry, he took care of the apartment, keeping it clean and tidy. He didn’t even mind the lack of maid service and took pride in his chores, a fact that amazed his lover to no end at first. For the first time since Asuka died, Yohji had a true home and someone to share it so he took great pride in keeping it looking nice. It made him happy and he was more content here than he could ever have imagined.

Not that their first couple of weeks here had been idyllic, he thought ruefully as he poured the hot water into the teapot. Between their unexpected move, adjusting to a new country, getting the apartment and shop ready and living together for the first time, there had been some spectacular fights. At least he’d lived with someone before, unlike Ran. It had taken his boyfriend a few weeks to get used to the fact that they didn’t have separate apartments to retreat to anymore when things got rough, though Ran did have his study on the second floor and greenhouse on the roof.

The tea done and the rice cooking, Yohji started chopping up the chicken and vegetables. Ran walked in just as he’d thrown everything into the wok, carrying some flowers for the kitchen table and the money and credit slips from all their sales that day.

"So, how well did we do today?" Yohji asked as he added some sauce to the wok.

"I haven’t added it up yet but it looks pretty good." Ran set the moneybag and paperwork down on the counter and pressed himself against Yohji’s back. "We haven’t had stir-fry in a while."

"See, no curry." Yohji tilted his head back for a kiss. "Though I threw enough Szechwan sauce in here to make it just as spicy."

"Hmmm, good thing I bought some ice cream yesterday. That should help cool things down." Ran poured himself some tea and set the table. Dinner didn’t take long and soon they were both enjoying it, along with the wine.

Proud of how well the dish turned out, Yohji raised his wineglass. "To me, for not ruining dinner yet this week."

Raising his glass, Ran clinked them together and smiled. "You do realize you’ll mess up the next meal you make, don’t you?"

"I guess you’ll just have to cook until the jinx wears off," Yohji countered. "Or we could order out for the next few weeks. You think we have enough for that?" He looked over at their earnings for the day.

Staring down at his food, Ran appeared to be thinking it over. "We’re no longer dependent solely on the business orders now that word of mouth has gotten out." His tone was slightly bitter as they both knew who was behind the corporate contracts. It bothered Yohji too, since it was more of the Takatori influence on their lives, but the contracts helped their new business and, pulled strings or not, Yohji doubted they’d have gotten as many orders as they did if those companies didn’t think that Ran did a good job. The orders had practically tripled after the first two weeks.

"So we should have enough to splurge on a few things such as… maybe some more help in the shop?" Still speaking to the top of Ran’s head, Yohji set his chopsticks aside and leaned back in his chair. It was time to bring up their latest recurring argument. "Ran, you work your ass off each and every day, trying to get all the orders done now that we have both the contracts and the walk-in business. If I had the skill to do more than put together a simple bouquet or two I’d help with the arrangements but I don’t."

"You help with the customers," Ran mumbled at his dinner. "You’re responsible for getting most of our regulars to buy something in the first place."

Yohji felt some relief over the fact that Ran wasn’t acting jealous of his flirting with the customers anymore but didn’t let that distract him. "Yes, but what am I going to do when they place orders you don’t have the time to fill? Hire somebody, Ran. Okabe’s always going on about how good his daughter, Sana, is at floral arrangements when he drops off the flowers, so why don’t you see if he’s telling the truth?" When his lover remained quiet he sighed and tapped his fingers against the table in growing anger. "I know you want to make a living for yourself and not live off their money any longer but what good is working yourself to death?" He tried a different tactic when he saw Ran’s shoulders stiffen. "The shop will do better if we can fill all the orders. Turning too many people away is bad for business."

The room was silent for several moments before Ran looked up at him. "I…." He rubbed his hands over his eyes and then combed them through his hair, a sign that he was just as tired as Yohji imagined him to be. "All right. I’ll call Okabe tomorrow. That has to be easier than listening to you go on about this each and every night."

"Thanks." He reached over to brush his thumb along Ran’s cheek, trying not to notice how much weight his lover had lost the past few weeks. The next time he cooked he was making something fattening as hell - they both could stand to put on a few pounds.

They talked about inconsequential things after that, about flower orders and possibly getting around to seeing all the sights they’d discussed before the shop had taken up all their time. Yohji made sure they both ate seconds and then washed the dishes while Ran figured out their profit for the day, and was pleased to note the gleam in Ran’s eyes when he set the bag aside for deposit in the morning. They must have done very well indeed.

After that, another bottle of wine was opened and the pint of ice cream taken from the freezer as Yohji tugged his lover into the living room. "Come on, ‘Waking the Dead’ is almost on." He loved the detective show and tried not to miss an episode. He had hopes in a few years, when the shop was well established and he knew London as well as he knew Tokyo, of resuming his old career.

"Hmph. You just like listening to that detective," Ran grumbled as he settled on the couch, his long legs tucked beneath him and leaning firmly against Yohji.

"Who, Franklin?" Yohji smiled and rested the pint of chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream on his knee, his jeans soaking up the drops of condensation that slid down the container. "He does have a great accent. Almost sounds as nice as yours." Trust Ran to have an English accent as ‘posh’ as his Japanese, whereas Yohji kept being mistaken for an American. He thought his mom would have laughed at that.

"Well I have to make up for you, don’t I?" Ran said dryly.

In the process of sipping his wine, Yohji choked as he tried not to spit all over himself and the couch. Sputtering and wheezing, he sat up straight and set his glass aside as he concentrated on breathing. His concerned lover just swiped the pint of ice cream and pounded him on the back a few times.

Finally able to breathe, Yohji turned to glare at Ran, who smiled sweetly and offered him a spoonful of the dessert. After swallowing the ice cream he leaned forward for a kiss. "You’re so mean."

"I’m just making sure to keep an evil kitsune in his place. It’s hard work doing that all by myself." Ran’s smile faltered for a moment, which he covered by having some ice cream and turning his attention back to the show.

Settling beside him, Yohji draped his arm over Ran’s shoulder and hugged him. They hadn’t made many friends since moving here and all of those were more along the line of acquaintances. He knew he missed Ayumi, Mamoru and Ken, as did Ran. They were at least able to exchange a few letters with Ayumi but it wasn’t the same as having their dear friend over for tea.

The ice cream and wine slowly disappeared and Yohji at least forgot his troubles as he watched television. He ended up pulling Ran half onto his lap and giving him a back massage during the show, enjoying the way his lover’s tense body relaxed under his touch. Stuffed, tired and a little tipsy from the wine, they were half asleep by the time the news came on.

It was a ritual for them to watch the news each evening, when they had the time, and Ran would spend at least ten minutes each day scanning the Asahi Shimbun that he had delivered to their house. It made them feel more secure to be able to keep an eye, however removed, on the Takatoris.

So, as Yohji settled in to watch the news, Ran took the empty wine bottle, ice cream container and their glasses to the kitchen and returned with the Japanese newspaper. They curled up against each other while Ran perused the articles. Yohji was falling asleep during an inane interview about one of the royal family when Ran jerked upright beside him.

"Yohji, listen to this… ‘Reiji Takatori, the Prime Minister until three months ago, passed away this morning, reportedly from a heart attack. He was at his family estate in Kyoto, and is survived by his father, brother and three sons….’" Ran’s voice trailed off.

Yohji stared numbly at the television for several seconds until his eyesight became blurry. Blinking his eyes, he hugged Ran tightly and pressed his face against the back of his lover’s neck. "Do you think it’s real?" he asked, not wanting to but knowing that the issue had to be faced.

"…yes. If it was Hiro I’d be suspicious but there’s no reason for Reiji to fake his own death. Masafumi always complained how his father’s drinking and… other habits were bad for his health." Ran sounded weary and he set aside the paper and reached for the remote to turn off the television. "We’ll just have to wait until Ayumi or Kikyou sends us some more information but I’m not too worried about this. If anything, it should make things safer for us. Shuuichi’s officially now Saijou’s heir."

"Well, it should help if the old bastard changes his mind about us." Yohji debated opening another bottle of wine but they had to work in the morning. "Poor Mamoru. He’s probably torn between being happy his dad’s dead and upset that he’s thinking that way."

"He should be all right." Ran rubbed his eyes and sat forward, on the edge of the cushions. "The last letter I received from Kikyou said that Reiji was spending almost all of his time in Kyoto and that Shuuichi was looking after Mamoru."

Yohji suddenly decided that going to bed would be a good idea and stood up. He pulled Ran to his feet and led him upstairs. "Do you… did he ever say why Reiji was there?"

"He couldn’t go into details but he gave me the impression that Reiji was trying to change his father’s mind, along with the reassurance that Saijou wasn’t going to budge." Ran draped his arm around Yohji’s waist and hastened up the steps. "I just wonder if Saijou got tired of having to deal with him."

Yohji almost missed a step as he thought about what his lover just said. He couldn’t put murder past the Takatoris but it was a bit much to kill each other. On the other hand, Saijou didn’t seem to be bothered with ‘betraying’ his oldest son so maybe killing him for being a pest wasn’t that out of character. Yohji was suddenly grateful that he and Ran were far away from that crazy family and hard at work so they were no longer dependent on them. It was such a shame that Mamoru had been born a Takatori.

They made it to the bedroom, the light of the full moon streaming through the huge picture window overlooking the river and illuminating the room enough so they didn’t need to turn on a light to see. With their arms around each other they fell onto the bed, Ran letting out a small sigh of relief as he hit the mattress.

"You wouldn’t be so tired at the end of the day if you hired someone to help you with the arrangements," Yohji couldn’t help but point out, wanting to both ensure that Ran did call about Okabe’s daughter in the morning and to change the topic. He leaned over his lover and started to undo the buttons of Ran’s black shirt.

"I said I’d see if Sana’s any good," Ran snapped before closing his eyes and sighing. "It might be a good idea to hire a woman. Some of the male customers are nervous around us. She could help with business."

Pushing open the cotton shirt, Yohji chuckled and pulled his sweater over his head. "You mean it would give the straight men an excuse to come into the shop." He straddled his boyfriend and stroked his hands up and down the pale chest. "You know, the gay ones who come in every day aren’t there for the flowers. Not with the way they look at you."

Ran opened an eye and grunted. "They look at you, too. I think they’re waiting for you to flirt with them like you do all the women customers."

"No no no *no*," Yohji groaned as he leaned down. "I thought this argument was over and done with, I’m not putting up with you starting it all over again." He caressed Ran’s cheek and leaned closer, until their faces were scant centimeters apart. "I flirt with the women because it puts them at ease and makes them happy. Besides, if you think they don’t know about us, you’re nuts." His fingers pressed against Ran’s lips stopped yet another old argument. "Yes, they know we’re lovers, accept that fact and move on. We’re two men living together in *this* neighborhood and we sell flowers for a living. Plus, there’s the fact that I can’t help but constantly stare at your wonderful ass when you’re not sitting behind the table. You look fantastic in jeans, Ayan." The familiar nickname helped take some of the heat out of Ran’s glare.

"I don’t flirt with the men because I don’t trust them not to pull something," Yohji explained. "If they think I’m fooling around on you they might try and steal you away." He replaced the fingers on Ran’s lips with his mouth, pressing down for a sweet second. "I won’t let that happen. You’re mine. Besides, I don’t have any desire to flirt with them. You’re the only one I want."

Ran’s expression softened and he tucked back the hair that was falling onto Yohji’s face. "I just worry sometimes. You only have me now… I guess I get afraid that you’re growing bored."

They’d been over this often enough the past few weeks that Yohji felt like smacking his head against the wall. Instead, he leaned down for another kiss and put his considerable skills to use to prove to Ran how much he utterly adored and desired him. A few minutes later he rolled onto his back, making certain to drag his stubborn fool of a lover along with him, not breaking off the kiss for a second. Ran moaned in pleasure as he nestled between Yohji’s thighs.

His hands fumbling with the zippers of their jeans, Yohji tried frantically to get their jeans open while Ran shrugged off his shirt. Yohji reluctantly broke off the kiss and panted for breath as they both started to wiggle out of their clothes. As soon as they both were naked, he pulled Ran back on top of him, his fingers threading through the streaked hair and forcing Ran to look at him.

"I don’t want anyone else. I’ll never grow bored with you, Ran. Gods, I want you too much to ever do that. You’re stuck with me forever. Get used to it." Then he pulled his lover’s head down for another searing kiss as his hips rocked upward. The way Ran sighed and melted against him proved that the stubborn idiot had gotten the point… for the time being, at least. Grinning widely, Yohji trailed his mouth over to Ran’s ear and thought what a shame it would be to spend the next sixty years or more convincing Ran of the truth over and over again.

Things progressed rapidly from that point, Ran taking an aggressive role in their lovemaking and Yohji was only too happy to let him. The way Ran touched him, stroked him in all the right spots until he was thrashing on the bed, mindless with bliss and begging for more, the reverent care and devotion focused on his pleasure…. No one had ever been like this with him, totally consumed with making him feel as cherished as possible. That alone would keep him by Ran’s side through anything else Fate decided to put them through. That Ran loved him with all his heart and had chosen to stay with him was an even better reason.

Yohji moaned in bliss when Ran’s slick finger pressed slowly inside him, his hips rocking up and his hands clenching the duvet. Oh gods, this always felt so incredibly good…. Part of the pleasure was the way his lover always took his time preparing him, concerned about causing him any pain. He knew that Ran didn’t take any of this for granted, didn’t take him for granted, as was evident in the care the long, thin fingers took in stretching him, driving him mad with ecstasy as they flicked about inside him. "Ran… please, don’t make me wait any longer," Yohji pleaded.

He choked back a groan as Ran entered him, slowly and steadily, his hands soothing down Yohji’s hips before sliding around to gently grasp his cock. Ran lavished the same care and focus on the actual lovemaking as he had the foreplay, driving Yohji to the brink again and again with the gentle, deep thrusts that always drove him wild. His name was whispered over and over again, barely heard over the blood pounding in his ears and his own, harsher breaths and cries. As much as he wanted the ecstasy to go on forever, Yohji’s body finally betrayed him.

Just as he started to come down from the crushing orgasm, Ran cried out and came. Yohji held his shuddering lover in his arms, his hands stroking through damp hair and smoothing down Ran’s back as they both recovered. Ran rested on top of him for a moment and nuzzled his neck before pulling out slowly and falling over to the side, his arm draped over Yohji’s chest.

Yohji rolled over to face his lover, a goofy grin on his face when he saw how dazed Ran looked. The goal might have been to make him feel as good as possible but Ran had also enjoyed the sex, from the look of it. There was nothing one-sided about their relationship. When Yohji had the strength, say maybe in the morning, he’d set out to return the favor and assure Ran even more how much he loved him.

"Hmmm, maybe Ayumi was wrong about you being a cat," he told Ran. "Maybe you’re a kitsune after all. You’re much too good at sex to not be one of them. You’re almost as good as me, in fact." He grinned some more as Ran stuck out his tongue, leaning forward to suck on it for a moment and share a lingering kiss.

"I’m not even dignifying that with an answer," Ran moaned as he slowly sat up. He handed Yohji some tissues and pulled down the sheets. Cleaning himself up, Yohji crawled beneath the flannel sheets, enjoying the feel of soft cotton against his still sensitive skin. As soon as Ran joined him he spooned around his lover and held him close. One of the best things about them living together was being able to sleep together at night.

Domesticity quickly settled upon them. Ran mumbled about making sure that the alarm was set and Yohji reluctantly pulled away to double-check. Assured that they’d be up in time to open the shop, he curled against his lover again, the both of them shifting minutely until they were perfectly comfortable. They soon fell asleep.

*******

Ran blew at a strand of hair that was falling into his eyes and returned his attention to the arrangement in front of him. It was the last one of the day, the middle-aged man who ordered it was standing a polite distance away from his table as he put the finishing touches on the orchids. Around the shop, Sana and Yohji worked hard to satisfy the remaining customers by either putting together last minute requests for flowers or ringing up the sales.

He’d just handed the complex arrangement to the very satisfied man when the door opened. Wondering why everyone waited till the last minute to rush the store, Ran glared at the customer. He noticed the woman was wearing an elaborate kimono, the first one he’d seen since arriving in London, a silvery grey colour with deep red camellias. It was still a little early in the season for the spring pattern, one he slowly recognized. Staring at the customer, he dropped his pruning shears to the table and rushed toward the door.

Yohji must have realized that this wasn’t just any Japanese woman coming into the store as Ran heard his lover bellow out her name in surprise. Ran reached the woman first, though, and picked her up off the ground in a sweeping hug.

"Ayumi! What are you doing here? I thought you weren’t supposed to arrive for two more days!" She didn’t answer him as he set her down, too busy laughing and patting his face. As soon as her feet touched the floor, Yohji swept her up for another hug.

"Gods, Ayumi, what are you doing here early?" Yohji asked, prompting Ayumi to laugh even harder. A wicked gleam in his eyes, he set her on the floor and pulled her to him for a kiss, stifling her laughter. Standing beside her, Ran smiled as he saw his dearest friend’s eyes open wide with surprise.

Moments later she pulled her fan from her red and green obi and smacked Yohji on the shoulder until he stopped. "Oh, you… evil kitsune!" Her chiding tone was ruined by her brilliant smile. "I see you’ve only changed for the worse!"

"What do you expect when you stop by so unexpectedly?" Yohji teased as he tried to snatch away the fan. "You should have told us you’d changed your flight, we made plans to close the shop early to pick you up at the airport and everything! We even rented a limo!" He glanced over and winked at Ran and seemed to notice that the whole shop was staring at them. He gave Ayumi another kiss, this time a peck on the cheek. "Give me ten minutes, darling, and then you better tell me why you showed up early. If it’s because you’ve finally come to your senses and want to elope with me, give me another ten minutes to pack my things." There was another wink. "I’ll leave you with Ran until then." Yohji walked away, shooing the curious people toward the register so he could ring up their purchases.

Grasping Ayumi’s wrist, Ran bowed to the staring customers and led his friend toward the backroom. "Thank you, please come again," he gritted out, irritated at all the attention, at the people intruding on a private moment. "Would you like some tea, Ayumi?"

"I’d love some, Ay- ah, Ran." Ayumi stepped quickly beside him, her eyes sparkling with pleasure. She looked a good thirty years younger than she really was, and Ran was taken back by how well his friend had fared the past few months. He’d worried so much about her, about what she wasn’t saying in her letters and if she was being taken care of properly.

They stepped out of the shop and passed the storeroom, heading toward a small room that was set up for breaks. There was a table, a small refrigerator and a microwave, along with a small but comfortable couch and a sink. Ran urged Ayumi to take a seat as he filled up the electric kettle with fresh water and opened a tin of green tea. "When did you arrive in London?"

Ayumi sat down at the table and looked around the room. "I arrived late last night. I was so excited about seeing you again that I moved my flight up. I’m sorry if I’ve inconvenienced you," she said as she bowed her head for a moment. Then she looked up and smiled proudly. "It’s a lovely shop, Ay- Ran." She laughed as he joined her at the table. "I must remember to call you Ran now. It’s easier to write your old name than it is to remember to say it to your face."

"It took Yohji a few days to get used to it, too." He drank in the sight of her, at how happy she appeared, not tired in the least from her flight. "He still calls me ‘Ayan’, though. Everyone just assumes it’s a nickname."

"Well, it is. I’ll wait to use it, though, until I get your name right." Ayumi leaned over the table and brushed back his bangs, which kept falling into his face. He hadn’t cut his hair in the past two months and it was indeed growing as fast as he told Yohji it would. "You cut your lovely hair. It doesn’t look bad, but these streaks…." She tugged on a strand and pressed her lips together in a frown.

"I’m growing it back out, including the color." He grasped her hand and held it. "I… I just needed a change after we moved here. You know why I grew it long in the first place."

"Yes, I do," Ayumi said quietly. "I like your eartails. They suit you. Even if one of them is black." She pouted and tugged on the offending lock of hair. "Bah, I hope it grows out soon. You are letting it grow long again, correct?" At his nod her eyes lightened with delight. "You’re doing it for Yotan, aren’t you?"

"Yes," he mumbled as he went to pour the tea. "He prefers it long." Quickly preparing the tea, he returned to the table with the pot and two mugs. "Ayumi… why are you here a couple of days early?" he forced himself to ask. "Where’s Kohmi? Didn’t she come with you? Are you still staying for two weeks?"

Ayumi took over pouring their tea. "She’s in California with her niece. The poor girl recently had a baby that…." She frowned again as she set the pot on the table. "They need Kohmi more than I do so I let her go. As for how long I’m here…. I think I’ll be staying for a bit longer than two weeks. I sold my apartment."

"Why?" Ran asked, surprised that she had done such a thing. Ayumi had spent most of her life in the Hanabatake, had kept her apartment even when money was tight.

She handed him his mug. "There was no reason for me to stay. You were gone and most of my friends left Tokyo. I made up a story that I was joining some old friends in Okinawa and packed up everything. I visited them for a couple of weeks and came here." Ayumi ducked her head and stared at her tea. "I wanted to be able to see you more often… Ran. You and Yohji both. I thought… I know a few people here in London. Maybe I can get an apartment somewhere, or a little house. I could visit you every now and then."

He sat there and processed this latest turn of events, trying to adjust to the idea of Ayumi living here in England. He realized he was smiling and reached out to pat Ayumi’s hand. "You don’t have to look for an apartment," he told her, hoping desperately that Yohji wouldn’t mind what he was about to do. When Ayumi looked up, he smiled.

"We own this whole building. Shuuichi purchased it for us and we hold the deed." His smile faltered for a moment. "It’s part of what he meant when he said he’d see to it that I had a means to support myself. The shop takes up the first floor and the basement and we have a greenhouse on the roof but the rest is living quarters. It’s too much for just Yohji and me," Ran was aware he was babbling but couldn’t stop, "so there would be plenty of space for you."

Ayumi merely stared at him after that, her cup of tea cradled in her hand. Yohji walked in a minute later, a huge grin on his face. "There you two are! I was afraid you’d run off together!" He swooped by the table to give each of them a kiss on the cheek before heading to the sink. He grabbed a container of instant coffee and scooped some into his mug. "So, what have you two been talking about, hmmm?" he asked. His smile faded when no one said anything.

"Ayumi was telling me that she sold her apartment and was thinking of living here in London," Ran told him.

He almost dropped the jar of coffee as he started at the news. "Really? You left the Hanabatake? They must be lost without you, Ayumi-sama!" He poured the remaining hot water into his mug and sat down beside Ran. "So you’ve decided to move to London? That’s great! You can move in with us," he said enthusiastically as he stirred his coffee.

Looking over at him, Ayumi started to smile. "Ran already offered for me to live here. I would think the two of you would be eager to have some privacy."

"That’s what bedrooms are for, darling," Yohji said saucily. "And kitchen counters, and soft rugs on the living room floor, and the wonderfully large bathtub, and th-" His litany was cut short as Ran covered his mouth with both hands.

"Good thinking, you idiot. She’ll never want to stay here now," Ran muttered while glaring at his lover. Yohji just winked and licked his hand.

Ayumi began laughing again, her hands cupped over her mouth as if to hold back the soft sounds. "Those images aren’t as discouraging as you might think." She smiled at them, the expression wicked enough to make Ran’s cheeks heat and he sipped his tea to hide his shock. "However, I should find my own place."

"Nonsense," Yohji stated succinctly. "We’ve got two rooms on the top floor that you can take your pick of for a bedroom, or we can convert one of the rooms on the second floor for you. There’s even an elevator so you don’t have to worry about steps." Yohji pushed his mug aside and stretched his arms out on the table. "Ran’s even talked about making up a tearoom. We can sit in there and talk all night, just like old times." His voice suddenly became all quivery and his eyes very big. "Don’t you want to stay with us?" He sniffed melodramatically. "We’re hopeless without you. Think of the favor you’d be doing us if you stayed here to keep an eye on us."

"Well, I guess you at least need looking after," Ayumi teased. "After all, they hunt foxes in this country, don’t they? I can just imagine them showing up at your door, on their horses and everything, and poor Ran left all alone to defend you." She picked up her mug and turned it around in her hands. "He could probably use some help protecting your wicked self, even if you deserve to be caught."

"What can I say, they’re all after my tail." Yohji grinned as Ran and Ayumi groaned at his joke. "So you’re staying, right? We can go get your bags later. Honestly, Ayumi, there’s more than enough space and it won’t take much work to get you all set up here. The last owner had almost everything renovated before he decided to sell the place." Yohji switched back to the pleading look.

"I don’t know…." Setting her empty cup down, Ayumi glanced at Ran. "I thought… is it really just the two of you?"

Ran guessed what she was hinting at and spoke out. "My sister is still in America. She knows I’m living here but…." He frowned at Yohji, who shifted in his seat and looked ready to say something. He wasn’t going to argue about this again, not right now. "She was accepted into medical school and will remain at Harvard. Aya-chan’s grades were good enough she even got free room and board and a part-time job for one of her professors." Which relieved Ran to no end. Even if Shuuichi promised to continue paying for her education and living expenses and set up a trust fund for Ran’s sister with some of the money returned to them, it was good that Aya-chan was able to take care of herself now.

Ayumi clapped her hands together. "Oh, congratulations! She’s such a bright girl! Have you seen her yet?" When he didn’t say anything, Ayumi’s eyes narrowed in suspicion. "You haven’t paid her a visit yet, have you?"

"There hasn’t been any time," Ran pointed out as he glared at a suddenly smug Yohji. Of course his lover was pleased to hear him being bitched out on this topic. "We haven’t had a spare moment to ourselves since we moved in and set up the shop. I… I’ve talked to Aya-chan about maybe her visiting later in the year." A visit he wasn’t looking forward to very much. Why couldn’t anyone understand why he was so hesitant to see his sister again? Aya-chan would drag the truth out of him, all the sordid details of what he’d done to pay for her schooling in America. While he wasn’t as worried about her reaction to that, other than knowing she’d feel guilty, he stayed awake at night wondering what she’d do when she found out he was living with another man. It was one thing to do that for money but to have to admit that he was gay…. He was probably worrying for nothing but didn’t want to be proven otherwise.

Looking at Ayumi, he saw an understanding in her eyes that hinted that she knew his fears. After all, Ayumi had lived through something very similar. Her son had wanted nothing to do with her when he’d found out the truth behind his birth.

She patted Ran’s hand and leaned back in her chair, her shoulders slumped and a hint of exhaustion showed on her face. "You should let her come here, if she wants. You can’t hide from her forever but you also can’t be forced into seeing her if you’re not ready." Ayumi tapped her bottom lip as she thought about something. "I believe I will take you up on your offer." As Ran and Yohji smiled at the news, she held up a hand in warning. "I think a room on the second floor would be best. That way we both have our privacy. And I insist on paying for any renovations for my quarters."

"You got yourself a deal." Yohji leaned in and kissed her cheek. "As of now you’re living with two gorgeous men, you lucky thing." He sprawled back in his chair, his hands tucked behind his head. "Try not to take advantage of us too much, okay?

"I’ll keep it to a minimum," Ayumi promised him, her voice bubbling with laughter. "Oh my, what have I let myself in for?"

"Like I said, two gorgeous guys at your beck and call. The neighbors are going to absolutely hate you." Yohji smiled at the idea. "I can’t wait until they find out." He jumped out of the chair and grabbed Ayumi’s arm. "Come on, you need a tour of your new home. We’ll start back in the shop and help Sana before we take you upstairs." He glanced over his shoulder at Ran. "Well, are you coming?"

"Yes." Standing up, Ran had to smile at how carried away Yohji was getting. The smile grew wider as he thought about how he had Ayumi back in his life. He hurried over to her and grabbed her free hand, giving it a gentle squeeze as he walked beside her. Ayumi smiled up at him and squeezed back, her face glowing with joy. "I’m glad you’re here," he told her quietly.

"So am I. Now show me this shop of yours, Ran. I always said that you’d be successful as a florist, didn’t I?"

"Yes, you did." As always, Ayumi had proved to be correct. Ran idly wondered what she was going to do now, considering he was living with Yohji and pursuing the career Ayumi preferred for him. His friend was certain to find some other aspect of his life to meddle in, if he knew her at all. He laughed quietly at the thought.

*******

Yohji looked over Ran’s shoulder and took a deep breath. "It smells delicious, even if I have no idea what it is." He pressed against his lover and wrapped him in his arms before nibbling on Ran’s ear. "Although I doubt it tastes as good as you."

Ran sighed in annoyance and shrugged his shoulders in an attempt to dislodge Yohji. "It’s fish chowder. I hope it turns out well or we’ll have to order take out. *Someone* forgot it was his turn to go shopping yesterday." Ran’s glare made it obvious who that someone was.

Not feeling guilty in the slightest, Yohji decided to nibble on his lover’s neck instead. "Yeah, well I had better things to do. Namely, you." He had to laugh at hearing another exasperated sigh and reluctantly let Ran go. "Let me have a taste." Picking up a spoon he blew on the hot chowder and gave it a try. "Hmmm, very nice but you still taste better."

Putting a lid on the large pot, Ran lowered the heat beneath their dinner and turned around to face Yohji. He stepped aside and leaned back against the counter near the stove and combed a hand through his hair. Unable to resist, Yohji helped him tuck back the black tipped strands and sidled closer. His hands dropped to rest on Ran’s jean clad hips, his thumbs teasing at the pale flesh left exposed between the low waistband of the pants and Ran’s t-shirt. His lover looked good enough to eat. Who was Yohji to resist?

Ran met him halfway for the kiss, moaning softly when Yohji’s hands slid underneath his shirt. His hands cupped Yohji’s ass in return, pulling Yohji closer as the kiss deepened. They had just taken a step toward the stairs when they heard a stifled giggle.

"I think I should start wearing a bell so you know when I’m nearby but I can’t force myself to buy one." Ayumi giggled some more. "I’d hate to deprive myself of all this."

"Ayumi, for an old woman, you’re such a damned pervert," Yohji joked as he broke off the kiss. "That must be why I love you so much."

She blew him a kiss before reaching into the fridge for some fruit juice. At her feet, one of the two kittens Ran recently adopted whined piteously. Ayumi patted its head as she closed the door. "Something tells me, Hoshi, that you’ve already been fed for the evening."

"Yes, and barely ten minutes ago," Ran said as he picked up the black and white cat and draped the purring beast over his shoulder. Hoshi gave a happy little meow and spared Ran’s cheek a lick before lying on his favorite perch. "Not to mention all the treats he and his brother got from the customers today. They’re going to get fat soon."

"Yet you keep feeding them," Yohji pointed out as he stroked the cat’s head.

"What can I say? I have a soft spot for dumb animals with voracious appetites."

Because of Ran’s perfectly dry tone, it took Yohji a moment to realize that he’d just been insulted. Ayumi’s muffled laughter tipped him off. Carefully removing Hoshi from his boyfriend’s shoulder, he set the furball down on the floor and told him to go play with his brother. Then he unleashed his assault.

Within seconds he had Ran laughing so hard that tears streamed down his face. The dreaded tickle attack worked every time, Yohji thought with some satisfaction. "Come on, apologize or I won’t stop until you pass out from lack of oxygen. Just imagine the perverted things Ayumi and I can do to you while you’re unconscious!"

Ran tried to breathe and squirm away from him but Yohji had him pinned against the counter. When he appeared to be trying to say something, Yohji eased up the assault for a moment. "Yo-you’re right," Ran gasped. "Shouldn’t have called Hoshi dumb."

"Oh, you’re just asking for it, Ayan." Yohji intensified his attack until Ran was red in the face and all but hyperventilating.

"Yotan, you might want to let him breathe at some point. You can’t play with him if he expires from lack of air," Ayumi pointed out from her seat at the table. "Besides, I happen to agree with him," she finished sweetly.

"You’re always taking his side," Yohji grumbled as he stopped tickling his lover. "I’ll get you later for that comment." They shared a grin as Ran gulped huge breaths of air. As soon as he judged that the poor man had almost recovered from the attack, he leaned in for another kiss. Ran was just so cute when he was oxygen-deprived….

Adoring the way Ran clung to him and convincing himself that he was overwhelming his boyfriend with passion, Yohji let out a growl when the apartment’s doorbell rang. He pulled away from Ran to glare at the offending speaker system and yelped when Ran recovered enough to hit him in the ribs. "Sorry, love, we can get back to that once I tell our guest to go away," he wheezed as he headed for the beeping appliance. Ran’s inventive curses for him, in both English and Japanese, made him chuckle despite the pain.

"Who is it?" Yohji barked in English over the speaker. They didn’t get many uninvited guests so it was probably someone wanting to know the shop’s hours or something. Stupid bastards couldn’t read a damned sign….

"Yohji-kun? It’s… it’s Mamoru."

He stared at Ran for a moment before it sunk in that Takatori Mamoru was standing outside their home. Then they both moved at once and rushed toward the stairs. Yohji laughed as he took the steps three at a time, Ran right behind him. It only took them a minute to reach the first floor and the front door. Through the metal they could hear the faint sounds of Mamoru speaking into the intercom.

"Uhm, is anyone there? Aya? Yo-"

"Surprise!" Yohji yelled as he threw open the door. Mamoru stared back, clearly stunned by their sudden appearance and was immediately engulfed in a bear hug. "What the hell are you doing here, kiddo? It’s great to see you!" Yohji picked his friend off the ground, noting that Mamoru had grown a little over the past few months. Either that or he’d gotten weaker.

As soon as he set the kid down, Ran took his place in a rare show of affection. He pulled Mamoru into a tight hug, his eyes closed and a huge smile on his face. After a while he released Mamoru, raising a hand to smooth his friend’s tousled hair. "It’s good to see you again."

"I was afraid I had the wrong address!" Mamoru hugged Ran quickly and stepped back, his hands on his hips. "Don’t scare a guy like that!"

"Sorry, kiddo but we’re just returning the favor!" Yohji noted that Mamoru didn’t have any luggage on him so he assumed his friend didn’t come here straight from the airport. Also, he was too happy for it to be bad news that brought him here. Telling himself not to worry as his joy was slowly replaced by suspicion, Yohji draped an arm over Mamoru’s shoulders. "You’ve got the right address, welcome to our new abode!" He swept his other arm through the air, gesturing to the red-bricked building that was now home. "Let’s get you inside."

He glanced at Ran as they headed for the door and noticed that his lover didn’t seem too worried about Mamoru showing up out of the blue. No, Ran seemed pretty damned happy and not concerned about the possibility that if Mamoru was here, other Takatoris might be as well. His jaw clenched at the thought of Hirofumi finding them, Yohji forced himself to relax. Mamoru wouldn’t betray them. They’d go upstairs to the kitchen and he’d find out why exactly the teenager was here. While glad to see Mamoru again, he just hoped that Fate hadn’t decided that they’d had enough happiness for the time being.

 

*******

 

Mamoru stood inside the brightly lit kitchen and looked around. Ayumi bowed her head slightly in his direction, a smile on her lips, and he returned it deeply. "It’s good to see you again, Ayumi-sama."

"And you as well. Please, sit down." She motioned to a chair near her and when he paused, Yohji gave his shoulder a nudge.

"Go on, kiddo, and sit down. Gods, I can’t believe you actually grew a few centimeters." Yohji tousled his hair and walked over to the sink. "How about some tea? Or do you want something else to drink?"

"I’ll have some tea, Yohji-kun," Mamoru said as he sat down. He took a deep breath, his ribs protesting, sore from the bear hugs Aya and Yohji gave him downstairs. "Something smells delicious."

"That would be dinner," Aya said as he joined them at the table. "It should be ready in another half an hour. You’re more than welcome to stay."

Mamoru smiled. "I’d love to, Aya." He stared at his friend, taking in Aya’s shoulder length hair and casual clothes. Then he flushed with embarrassment. "Ah, I mean Ran. I’m sorry."

"It’s okay, Mamoru. I know it takes a little time to get used to, the, er, new name." Aya smiled and shrugged. "I’d appreciate it if you remembered to call me ‘Ran’ when in public but it doesn’t really matter when I’m alone with friends."

"I need to remember to call you by your real name," Mamoru mumbled, happy that his friend wasn’t upset with his slip. Ay- no, he had to get used to thinking of him as Ran again or he would keep screwing up. At least Yohji only changed his family name.

"So, are you here for a brief visit or what?" Yohji asked as he set a tray with a pot of tea and several mugs in front of Ayumi. "We’re happy as hell to see you but don’t tell me you flew all the way here just for old time’s sake."

Blushing again, Mamoru shook his head. "No, I didn’t." His blush deepened. "I mean, I didn’t come here just for a brief visit although I’d have been quite happy with that. Not that I’m here bothering you for any particular reason." His head started to hurt. "Am I making any sense?"

"Not at all," Yohji chuckled. "Still feeling a bit jet lagged?"

Mamoru smiled and rubbed his temples. "A little." Taking a deep breath he organized his thoughts and decided to put his friends at ease. Despite their evident joy at seeing him, they were clearly wondering why he was here. "You two look good." Then he remembered about Ayumi and smiled at his friend. "You do too, Ayumi-san."

Accepting the mug of tea that Ayumi just handed him, Ran nodded. "London seems to agree with us. How are you doing? I understand you finished school this year second in your entire grade."

Mamoru felt his cheeks heat yet again but didn’t mind it this time. "Thanks. I could have done better…," he shrugged his shoulders. It hadn’t been the best year for him and the last thing he’d worried about was his grades. "Anyway, since I’m done with school, I just wanted to get out of Japan. Things have been a little crazy since Father resigned."

"We can imagine," Yohji said, his voice subdued. He scooted his chair closer to Ran’s and draped an arm over his lover’s shoulder. The new hairstyle he sported, his blond hair cut in layers that framed his face and touched the collar of his shirt, helped to make him appear a little more mature than his longer style had. "We’re sorry we weren’t there to help you with any of that."

"It’s all right. I know why you guys had to leave so suddenly and couldn’t write to me." Mamoru sipped his tea, grateful for the warmth. "Things have calmed down somewhat since Father’s death. Everyone assumed that he knew his health was failing and that’s why he resigned. I talked things over with my uncle and told him that I wanted to get away from things for a while." He smiled at his friends as he reached into his pocket for his passport. "Meet Tsukiyono Omi. That’s me." He showed them the document, the page with his new name and photo.

"We decided it might be a good thing for me to leave home for a little bit. Uncle Shuuichi set things up with Saint Eustace’s to accept me under that name for security and privacy purposes." Mamoru took another sip, the familiar taste helping to center him. "For the next few years I’ll be able to do whatever I want without worrying about reporters following me around. I’m hoping that after graduation I can attend university here in England, maybe even at Oxford." Setting his empty cup down, he looked at Ran. "It’ll be nice to just be myself for a while, and not a Takatori. I should be left alone since very few people know I’m here." He paused for a moment. "Hirofumi isn’t one of them."

"I’m not too worried about that," Ran stated, his voice and expression blank. "Sooner or later he’ll track me down. He shouldn’t have any power to do anything when that does happen, however." He might not appear too anxious about his old lover finding him but Yohji frowned and shifted closer to him, Mamoru noted.

"Uncle has kept his word," was all he said. Even finding out all the things his brother had done, Hirofumi was still family and one of the few who cared about him.

Everyone was quiet as Ran refilled their cups, and then Yohji leaned forward to kiss his boyfriend’s temple and whispered something in his ear. Then he sat back in his chair. "So, you’re here, and should be sticking around for a while since St. Eustace’s is nearby, Ayumi is here, all that’s missing is Ken and the Hanabatake gang will be reunited. How is the dumb jock doing? We’ve seen his name in the paper lately." He sounded a little worried about his old friend.

"Ah, you might get your wish, Yotan," Mamoru drawled as he sipped his tea. "You know about the case against his boyfriend, don’t you?"

"We managed to follow a little of it, over the ‘net and the news." Yohji combed a hand through his hair and smiled weakly. "Kase was accused of being behind betting on the game that cost Ken his career."

"Yeah. It’s all your fault, you know," Mamoru told Yohji, who seemed stunned at the news. "Uncle told me about the investigation since he knows I’m friends with Ken. One of his detectives finished the search into Kase’s background that you started and noticed several links between Kase and yakuza members known for rigging games."

"How’s Ken taking the news?" Aya asked.

Feeling something nudge against his ankles, Mamoru looked down and saw a white and grey cat butting its head against his legs. "Hello there," he said as he leaned down to pet the friendly feline. "You’re a pretty one." The name on its tag was ‘Tsuki’. "He’s doing better now. When Kase was first charged…. Ken didn’t understand how Kase could have done that to him, especially if he loved him." Mamoru thought about his friend for a moment as he stroked the cat. "The good news is Ken should be reinstated any day now. Once he’s cleared of the charges, he’s hoping to come here for a visit and maybe talk to some clubs here and visit an old coach who works here now. Maybe he can help find a job. Ken doesn’t feel like staying in Japan anymore." Mamoru felt a warm glow at that thought. All his friends would be here then. Maybe they wouldn’t be able to see each other as much as before but they’d still be together.

Yohji chuckled and reached over to muss Mamoru’s hair again. "What’s that smile for, kiddo? Did Ken finally realize that blonds are more fun?"

"Yohji!" Mamoru cried as he shoved his friend’s hand away. "You’re still as perverted as ever!"

"Don’t try to change the subject. So Kenken finally ditched his loser boyfriend and is following you halfway around the world. You go, boy," Yohji teased.

"You’re just jealous because Ken never gave you the time of day." Mamoru stuck his tongue out at his friend. "I’m not gay."

"That’s what they all say. We’ll find out when Ken gets here, won’t we?" Yohji laughed as he stood up from the table. "You know, we need to celebrate tonight. I’m heading out for some champagne. You wanna tag along?" He looked down expectantly at Ran. However, it was Ayumi who answered him.

"That sounds wonderful, Yotan. I’ll come with you." She slowly rose from her chair. "One of us needs to go with him to make sure he doesn’t end up as a part of a fur coat," she explained to Mamoru, a twinkle in her eyes. "If you hear any hounds baying, come quickly."

"Ha ha. You’d probably be leading the hunt, sweetie, looking for a nice fox tail for your stole," Yohji chided her as they walked out of the room. "Here everyone thinks you’re this sweet old lady. If they only knew," he said with a snort.

Ayumi’s retort was lost as they walked out of hearing range. Mamoru had to smile as he imagined them walking to the liquor store, arguing all the while. Of course Ayumi would end up the victor and, as long as they talked in Japanese, no one would suspect her of merrily haranguing Yohji.

He looked over at Ran to see his friend shaking his head, a smile on his face. "She hasn’t changed a bit, has she?"

"A little," Ran answered. "She says it’s very nice living in a country where so few people speak her language that she can get away with murder and all they do is pat her hand and ask her if she’d like some tea. Ayumi has the whole country wrapped around her finger. She rules over the shop." Ran didn’t seem to mind in the least. He smiled a little before his expression turned serious.

"Mamoru, you talked about your uncle but haven’t said a word about Saijou. I’m quite surprised that he allowed you to leave Japan."

Squirming on his chair, Mamoru stared down into his empty mug. "I guess Kikyou hasn’t said anything to you about Grandfather. Uncle wants it to remain a secret for as long as possible." He glanced up to see Ran staring intently at him. "Grandfather had a stroke last month. It was a bad one. He’s not in any danger of dying, at least not right now, but he’s paralyzed. Kikyou and Shion are taking care of things in Kyoto."

Ran was quiet for a moment. "That explains a few things in Kikyou’s last letter." He offered to pour Mamoru some tea and was refused. "He’s never been able to go into any depth in his letters but lately he’s hinted that he’s making sure that Hiro leaves me alone and that things are now better in Kyoto." A smile teased at Ran’s lips. "He’s taken over completely for Saijou, if I know him at all."

Mamoru thought that over and had to agree. "I saw him before I left Japan and he certainly seemed very happy. I have a few things he asked me to pass along to you." He played with his empty mug, rolling it between his palms. "I wasn’t sure how much you two could say in your letters or if you knew about what he’s been doing the past few months."

"Yes." Ran grabbed the mugs on the table and headed over to the sink. "As I said, he couldn’t tell me much but we have a code we used in the past. He reassured me about a few things." Ran stared off into the distance for a moment. "That’s why I wasn’t worried when I saw you. Kikyou will make sure that Hiro never has anything to do with me again."

He turned around and leaned against the sink. "I’m happy to see you again, Mamoru. I hope you can spend some time here before going off to school. Where are you staying?"

"At a hotel right now. In a few days Shinobi will help me find someplace to stay." Mamoru picked up the pot of tea and carried it over to the sink. He stood next to Ran. "Would you mind if I spent some time with you and Yohji?" he asked, his desire to see his friends prompting him to impose on them.

Ran smiled to show he didn’t mind. "I think we’d be very upset if you didn’t spend some time with us. In fact, you can stay here until school if you want, or even move in. We have the room for you and even Ken."

"Really?" Mamoru squealed. When Ran nodded, he hugged his friend rather enthusiastically. "That would be great, Ran! It could be like old times!" Suddenly it didn’t seem so bad, being in a strange country.

"Yes, I’m sure it will be. We can all pick on Yohji together." Ran patted his head. "It’ll be quite the full house when my sister stops by in August."

Mamoru looked up at Ran. "Aya-chan is coming here? I haven’t seen her in ages! How is she?"

"Pretty good." Ran’s smile faltered for a moment. "It’ll be the first time I have seen her in several years."

"Maybe Ken and I shouldn’t be here then," Mamoru said quietly. "We can-"

"No," Ran sternly cut him off. When Mamoru blinked at his friend, Ran smiled sheepishly. "I… I think I’d like it if my friends are here when she comes. That way she’ll see it wasn’t all bad, what I did to support her. And… well… maybe things will be less awkward if there are other people around. She’ll be meeting Yohji for the first time too."

Mamoru thought about things for a few seconds. "We’ll stay however long you want us to, Ran. Does she know about Yohji? Surely she won’t be upset once she sees how happy you two are together!" The Aya-chan he remembered was a young woman who frankly adored her older brother.

"I hope not." Ran turned toward the stove. "I’ve dropped a few hints about Yohji and she’s made a comment or two that makes me think she knows what’s going on but we haven’t spoken openly about the matter." He took the lid off the large pot, releasing a cloud of wonderfully scented steam. "Dinner should be ready as soon as Yohji and Ayumi return."

"Here, let me help you set the table." Mamoru started to look in the cupboards, trying to figure out which ones held the plates. He guessed right on his second try. While Ran added the finishing touches to their meal, he quickly set the table and then helped his friend make a salad. Things were all set when Yohji buzzed them to say he and Ayumi were back with the champagne. The sound of laughter drifted up as the elevator made its way to the third floor.

Looking over at Ran, who was standing by the table, Mamoru noted the happy expression on his friend’s face. It was a genuine, contented smile, one that made Ran look years younger. The stress and coldness was gone from Ran’s visage, as profound a change as him retaking his old name. Without a doubt, Mamoru knew that his friend was happy, and seeing Yohji’s eyes light up as he sauntered into the room, several bottles of alcohol in his arms and Ayumi lightly beating his shoulder with her purse, Mamoru knew that Ran wasn’t the only one.

Ayumi was happy too, her love for Yohji and Ran evident on her face as she rushed over to Ran to complain about Yohji’s terrible antics during their shopping. Feeling laughter bubble behind his lips, Mamoru realized that he could be included in that number as well. He was free from his family’s name and, with the people he cared for the most, he was given a few years to himself before he had to return to his responsibilities. He resolved to make the most of his time and share in the joy and contentment that Ran, Yohji and Ayumi had found here.

"Come on, ‘Omi’, and help me open this bottle!" Yohji called out from over by the sink. Smiling, Mamoru hurried over to his friends.

*******

Hoshi – star

Tsuki - moon

*******

Let me just give a huge hug of thanks to Forsaken *hugs*. Forsaken helped me plot out Cages’ rough outline and encouraged me to write it and listened to me gripe about the fic and constantly redoing its chapters. 

Not that Byakko, Kato-chan and S2Kitty weren’t invaluable w/ all their beta help, either. Much thanks to you also!  Tameiki1 helped to provide some names.

*******

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