Crossroads

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chapter 1

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Still don’t own Weiss, but I’m working on it.

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Yohji groaned as the warm flesh encasing his cock constricted around him. He was fighting a losing battle with himself as he strove to keep from coming, wanting the pleasure to last as long as possible, but his body betrayed him. The bliss became too much, and he shuddered and fell forward, his hands sliding from Aya’s sweaty, relaxing body to brace against the mattress. He choked out his lover’s name as his release wracked through him, his sight going dim for a few long seconds. Afterwards, he blinked his eyes as he panted for air, starting when a cool hand pressed against his flushed face.

"Yohji." Aya purred his name, his tone pleased and sated. When he had the breath to do so, Yohji chuckled weakly and bent his head to brush his lips along Aya’s. He savored the tang of spice he always tasted when kissing Aya. He felt pretty sated himself. Gods, how did the sex keep getting better and better? It was difficult keeping his resolve to not focus all of his attention on the physical part of their relationship when the sex felt this incredibly good. However, his restraint was definitely paying off, if the past couple of weeks were any indication. Maybe because Aya wasn’t constantly being pounced on, or because he felt more comfortable about their relationship, but he was being much more… energetic during sex. Hell, Aya had even initiated this morning’s fun, which had left Yohji shocked for several seconds. Then lust and his opportunistic nature had taken over….

Yohji sighed happily as he pulled out of his lover’s body and fell onto his side. He most certainly was going to let Aya take advantage of him like this as much as his lover wanted. He lay there contentedly, with his eyes half closed, and watched Aya brush aside the hair clinging to his face. Once Yohji had cleaned them up, Aya rolled onto his side, looked up at him and gave him the ghost of a very pleased smile.

Unable to stop himself, Yohji chuckled again. "You look like a cat that just found a bowl of cream," he told Aya as he draped an arm over his waist. Aya’s smooth skin felt oddly cool against his. In fact, it felt almost clammy with the cooling sweat that covered it, causing his smile to fade into a frown. He reached down and pulled up the comforter, catching Aya’s soft sigh of pleasure as he covered the two of them.

"Mmmm, thanks." Aya sidled closer to him, and Yohji rubbed his hands along his lover’s back. "You’re always so nice and warm."

"Yeah, I’m pretty hot stuff." Yohji barely managed to catch the hand about to poke him in the ribs and twisted it about so he could press a playful kiss to Aya’s callused palm. "Come on, you know that’s true, love."

Aya glared at him for a few seconds before shaking his head. "I’m not going to argue with your ego right now. It’s our day off, and there are better ways to spend it other than trying to beat sense into your swollen head." He softened the words with a slight smile, the barest hint of a curve to his lips that most people would have missed. However, after months of intense study, Yohji had learned to recognize his lover’s poor excuses for smiles and knew when he was being blessed with one. The score was three smiles so far this morning, two in the past five minutes alone. He was doing pretty damn good today, if he said so himself.

"You know you love me, swollen head and all." He kissed Aya then, delighting in the feel of ardent lips kissing him back, and the way Aya shifted even closer to him and sighed in disappointment when he broke off the kiss. It was always such a thrill to know that he was loved and wanted again, and when he remembered that person was Aya, the thrill was just that much sweeter.

"Well, it’s never been said that I’m completely sane," Aya remarked calmly, so straight-faced that it took Yohji a moment to realize he’d been insulted. He could only stare in wonder at Aya for a moment, and then rolled onto his back, dragging his lover with him. Three smiles and a joke, even if at his expense, was very damn good. He grinned smugly. Yohji had a feeling that today was going to be a great day.

Once Aya was settled on top of him, pointy chin and crimson eartails resting on his chest, Yohji smiled tenderly at his lover, and tucked back the long bangs that were hiding Aya’s lovely eyes from his view. He adored staring into them, especially when their unusual violet hue was warmed, as now, with love and contentment. "So, what do you think of your day off so far, oh paragon of sanity?"

"Hmph." Aya lightly pinched his side for the last remark and closed his eyes, appearing to think things over. "It’s not off to a bad start, but what do we do now?"

Yohji pretended to give the question some thought. A couple of months ago he’d have pressed for them to stay in bed all day long, but things had changed, and for the better. "I was thinking of treating you to some breakfast and then dragging you off for some shopping." At Aya’s frown, he smiled and shook his head to forestall Aya’s protest at the thought of going to the dreaded mall. "Ah ah, you’re not getting out of it this time, kitten. We need to get you some warm sweaters to wear. While I adore seeing you in mine, I’m gonna need to wear them myself in another month or two." The building they lived in was old and not very well maintained, and the apartments were drafty as all hell in the winter. Add to that a furnace that was older than him, and they all bundled up during the cold months. Winter here was usually hard on him, but now for Aya….

Aya hadn’t had a migraine since they’d found out the truth behind them almost two months ago, though he’d had some bad headaches after missions. He hadn’t been plagued by any odd dreams, or unwelcome visitors in them either. There were no more doubts about their relationship, no more bouts of unfounded fears that Yohji would leave him. For the first time in months Aya seemed to be wholly himself again… except for the fact that he was still cold all the time.

Yohji knew better than to think things were fine, not after finding out the full extent of the link between his lover and Mastermind, but things had been so calm and relaxed these past several weeks that he was more than happy to push aside the bad and concentrate on the good. Such as the two of them working on their relationship, and growing closer to Aya than he’d ever hoped as they spent more time with each other without some new crisis or a certain German bastard messing things up for them every time they turned around. It was a welcome and much needed change. That didn’t mean the bad wasn’t still there, and Aya spending the day shivering in misery as the summer’s heat faded away was proof of that.

"Can’t you buy sweaters on your own?"

His lover’s reply distracted Yohji from his thoughts, causing him to shake his head and hug Aya tightly. Someone sounded annoyed at being ignored Yohji thought as he kissed Aya’s crinkled nose. "I’m not spending all day shopping for clothes, Yohji." Aya rubbed his nose, his glare slowly fading as Yohji stroked his cheek. One day Yohji would find out how Aya kept his skin so soft….

"Of course not," he reassured Aya. "There are so many other things *we* can buy." He had to smile as that bit of news put a distinct crease in Aya’s brow. Not to mention the way Aya’s nose crinkled when he glared, but Yohji managed to resist kissing it this time. "Like more books, and CDs, and a new bookcase to put all those books in, and cigarettes, and-"

Still scowling, Aya leaned forward and kissed him. Not at all displeased about being silenced this way, Yohji kissed Aya back with equal passion, his fingers threading through his lover’s silky hair. He felt a familiar hunger in his body and began to wonder if they could wait until lunch to grab a bite to eat, but his stomach chose that moment to loudly protest its empty state. He nipped teasingly at Aya’s bottom lip and reluctantly broke off the kiss. "Okay, I suppose we can continue this debate after we eat."

"There won’t be a debate, Yohji." Aya kissed him again, a quick peck on the lips, and then sat up, gracefully balancing himself astride Yohji’s stomach and with the comforter wrapped snuggly around his shoulders. "We’re just going shopping for some clothes and," Aya drawled, his voice uncommonly light with good humor, "flannel sheets. Maybe even a thicker comforter, too."

Yohji thought of Aya lying naked on top of a set of soft, dark flannel sheets and leered. "Oh yes, definitely." He snaked his arms around Aya’s waist, one hand resting on the swell of his kitten’s delectable ass. "Lots of new sheets, a comforter, and maybe some pillows, too." He’d make sure the bed was so warm and comfortable that Aya wouldn’t want to leave it on cold mornings. He could think of quite a few enjoyable ways to while away the day while in bed.

*******

Schuldig sighed as he flipped through the channels. How could there be so many of them and yet nothing to watch? He didn’t like to cook, so he definitely wasn’t going to watch someone else do that, he hated sports, the news bored him, refurbishing an old couch was pointless, romantic movies made him sick…. He was growing frustrated as well as bored. Maybe he should just move his ass off the couch and go find some poor sap and mess with their mind.

Oh, wait, he couldn’t do that, he was on assignment. One that didn’t include any mind-fucking, at least for now. Why couldn’t Schwarz have been given their usual task of mayhem and murder instead of coddling a bunch of insane women? There was nothing for his team to do but meet up with the bitches every now and then, no one for him to play with.

"If you’re not going to watch anything, put CNN on, please."

Schuldig twitched in his seat, surprised by someone sneaking up on him. Damn Crawford and his mental shields. He glanced to the left and saw his fearless leader in the process of sitting down on the couch, dressed in black slacks and a grey and white pinstriped shirt. The light from the television reflected off the American’s glasses, rendering his face and eyes as unreadable as his mind. In a fit of pique, Schuldig switched to the news channel… but the Japanese version of it.

Crawford cleared his throat and folded his arms over his chest. "The American channel, please. I already know what’s going on in this country." His voice contained the slightest hint of annoyance, which mollified Schuldig enough that he did what he was told to do. Hell, Crawford even thanked him for it, which was a rare event.

He sat there in annoyance and listened to the newscasters talk, the English sounding odd to his ears. Idly, he wondered if he’d spent too long in Japan if its language seemed more familiar to him than the second one he’d learned. He puzzled over that, trying to figure out if it was just the accents or the way the middle-aged man and slightly younger woman behind the desk spoke that annoyed him, before realizing it was just the language on the whole that bothered him. So different from the cultured Japanese he’d grown up with….

Schuldig felt a strong urge to smack himself in the head when he realized what was happening. Dammit, Aya’s thoughts had snuck into his own again, something that had been happening with alarming frequency ever since he’d revealed the true extent of their link. He found himself thinking things from his tuberose’s point of view every now and then, especially when his guard was lax. Of course, being bored out of his mind wasn’t helping in that regard, as he thought more of ways to relieve said boredom than keeping his mind focused. Concentrating for a moment on his mental shields, Schuldig strengthened them until the English didn’t sound so odd to his ears.

He had to be more attentive to the thin shields that kept their minds separated. Because of their strong link, they could share not only dreams and injuries, but their very thoughts and personalities too. If Aya was still pissed off at him for feeling his pain, Schuldig could only imagine how he would feel to suddenly start speaking in German. Or waking up one morning with a strong urge to have a cup of hazelnut coffee, much like Schuldig had woken up over a week ago with an insistent craving for green tea. Which he hated with a passion usually reserved for authority figures and telemarketers. No, Aya would be even more furious with him, and the last thing Schuldig wanted was Aya angry with him. What he wouldn’t give to twist that anger into a more enjoyable form of passion. Schuldig smiled hungrily at the mental image of Aya writhing beneath him, naked and begging to be taken. Too bad his little fantasies were the closest he’d come to that happening lately.

He’d left his love strictly alone the past several weeks, hoping to give Aya’s temper time to cool. That had required more patience and willpower than he’d thought to possess. It had also left him with a growing need to shoot the next person who told him that patience was a virtue. Hell, he was so damn bored and frustrated right now that he was looking for any excuse to hurt someone. Give him another month like the past two, and he’d be sharing a room with Farfie.

As hard as it was, though, he’d kept his goal in mind and behaved himself. He’d stayed out of Aya’s dreams, hadn’t paid him any visits or sent any presents. Through their link he’d felt the depth of Aya’s fury at finding out that they were apparently irrevocably linked. Aya’s rage at finding out that his dreams had been manipulated so such an extent that it had affected his relationship with Kudoh had made his own over the present situation pale by comparison. Oh yes, Aya was definitely pissed at him. And it wasn’t a very good idea to make a catalyst mad at you. No, people who did that tended to have unfortunate accidents. Only the fact that he was linked to Aya’s power and had some control over it kept him from falling down the stairs and breaking his neck, or forgetting to look both ways while crossing the street and getting hit by a bus.

What he missed the most was the intimate contact with Aya’s unique mind. Missed feeling the intense emotions that filled Aya, hidden behind his impressive cold façade. He especially missed needling the cocklicker and doing all the little things to speed Kudoh along in fucking up his relationship with Aya. But since the last time Schwarz had faced Weiß, he’d been good and left those two in peace.

It was so damn hard to give Aya time to cool off, almost as hard as it was to be good for this amount of time. He wasn’t cut out for this shit. It went against his very nature, especially when he was after something he wanted so much.

He needed a real job, something that would distract him. But he needed Crawford’s permission to do anything other than grow stupid from watching too much television and giving the occasional order to Schreient. All because he’d been injured at Kudoh’s hands when Schwarz had last faced Weiß. A mere human shouldn’t have been able to best him like that, and his leader had seen it as a sign that Schuldig had become inexcusably sloppy. He couldn’t exactly argue the fact that the blond asshole had a catalyst as a lover, and had some help in slipping past his guard. "Crawford, can I go kill someone? That Tot girl, perhaps? You can’t tell me that she has any useful information in that empty head of hers that we need."

Crawford didn’t even turn his attention away from the television screen. "No."

"Well, can I mess with someone else’s head? Maybe that politician from the Kanagawa prefecture that’s been giving you so much grief?" Schuldig tried not to sound too eager, and all but sighed in frustration when Crawford predictably shook his head. Damn anal-retentive bastard, he was enjoying this way too much. "How about taking Farfie out for a walk?"

That earned a snort from Crawford. "Certainly not. I can only too well imagine the mayhem you two would leave in your wake. No, there is nothing ‘fun’ for you to do other than behave for once." Crawford turned towards him but didn’t say anything else, to all appearances reflecting on something for a moment. Schuldig grew hopeful, thinking that maybe the precog had a vision about something that needed done or just remembered a detail that needed tended to. "Oh, and go pick up some more bread and toilet paper, since we’re almost out." Crawford adjusted his glasses and resumed watching the news.

Schuldig started gritting his teeth together in frustration when Crawford added. "Go do some shopping, Schuldig, and enjoy the time off. We’ll have work to do shortly."

That got his attention. "Work? Real work, meaning lots of minds to fuck with and a high body count, or more of this stupid babysitting?"

"Real work." Crawford pinched a pleat on his trousers and glanced his way. "But first, I need to you act as the go-between again for our latest assignment." A faint hint of venom crept into Crawford’s voice at the mention of Esset. "Tomorrow, you need to see if Masafumi’s whores have made any new discovers with their little science project."

At least he had something to look forward. Not so much meeting with Schreient, but a possible opportunity to visit a little café across from a certain flower shop. "Feh, I seriously doubt that. I think they’re having too much fun chopping up people to bother with producing results. Why are we really bothering with those nutcases? It can’t just be for Masafumi’s experiments." Schuldig had to ask, half hoping that the answer was the one he’d been waiting for.

"Our employers have expressed some interest in a young woman in Schreient’s possession." Crawford smiled just the slightest bit, the glare on his glasses dimming just enough that his light-coloured eyes were revealed, but it was an expression that only a psychopath would find heartwarming. Schuldig liked to think that he was more misunderstood than psychotic, but Crawford’s look warmed his heart nonetheless. Someone was going to die, and if he were lucky, he could have some fun fucking with them before they died. "We’ll continue to gather the data. Then, when the time is right, we’ll take the girl as well."

"Oh, that sounds like fun," Schuldig leered. Inside he was anything but composed. His heart raced with excitement as he realized what was about to happen. It was almost time. Very soon - as soon as Schwarz had dear little Aya-chan in their possession - Aya would be his. The dreams the old witch had shown him would come true, and he’d have Aya as his lover and a partner forever. With the catalyst firmly on their side, Schwarz would never have anything to fear, and there would be no one to stop them. But what he wanted most was Aya.

He rose nonchalantly to his feet, flipping back his hair as he smiled patronizingly down at Crawford. "Well then, if the fun’s about to start soon, I better stock up on a few things first." He stretched his arms over his head with lazy ease and started to walk away. "Let me know if you think of anything else we need while I’m out."

"I will. Remember, Schuldig, behave while you’re out."

Schuldig resisted the urge to turn around and stick his tongue out at Crawford. It would only convince his leader that he was too capricious to go shopping on his own, and he’d be saddled with Nagi as a chaperone. "I will, spoilsport."

He sauntered out before Crawford could change his mind and make him stay inside the damn house for another day. He’d get out of the house, and maybe see what a certain redheaded swordsman was doing. Then he’d come home and have a nice chat with Cassandra, and see what she’d been up to the past month or so. It seemed that he’d have a need of her services, and it would be best to remind her of their deal. Aya would be his in exchange for her death.

Schuldig smiled in anticipation. It was shaping out to be a good day, after all. And he certainly wasn’t bored anymore.

*******

Crawford watched Schuldig leave the room and shook his head. While the television droned on in the background, he allowed his attention to focus inward as he recalled the visions he’d had lately. There were so many possibilities leading to one crux, the kidnapping of Abyssinian’s sister, and after that….

It was as if he stood on the edge of a waterfall and was looking down. The future, fluid like water, split apart and wove back together as it fell, twisting about all those possible paths it could take, before forming into only one or two possible futures. Yet a mist stymied his power, obscured his sight before that branched point. It was so damn frustrating that he wanted to take his gun out and shoot something, but he’d never allow himself that lapse of control, no matter how tempting.

So he focused on the few winding paths that he could clearly see before everything was hidden from him. Nagi would have his allegiance tested, and though that should be a cause for concern, Crawford retained the sense that the telekinetic would remain true to Schwarz for a while to come. Despite the ‘mist’, he could see part of the path that the future would eventually take, and was certain that Nagi would be at his side for it. But he had the impression that things wouldn’t go quite how Schuldig was hoping they would. He didn’t see anything that indicated that Abyssinian would be joining Schwarz any time soon.

To his great frustration, what he couldn’t see at this point far outweighed what he did. If it was Abyssinian’s ill wight nature that was interfering with his talent, Crawford wanted the man on his side as soon as possible. He was greatly irritated that he couldn’t see how exactly that could be made to happen, other than the one vision of Abyssinian and Schuldig together in Kyoto some undetermined time in the future. He didn’t think he could wait that long for it to happen, though, not with the interference clouding his gift. Perhaps taking Abyssinian’s sister from Schreient would aid them in that regard. Thanks to the link between Schuldig and Abyssinian, he wasn’t worried about the Japanese man’s power turning on Schwarz. Not when that link was strong enough to make them feel each other’s wounds, and had Schuldig speaking Japanese with a cultured accent that he’d never possessed before.

As obscured as the future was, Crawford was sure of two things. Eventually Schwarz would be free - and Abyssinian and Schuldig would play a large part in that event. Until things became clearer, he’d just have to keep a closer watch on those two.

*******

Aya tried not to wince when he saw the total for the new sheets and accessories that Yohji and he had picked out for their bed. He really wondered if thread count was that important to rate such an extravagant bill, but Yohji had insisted on buying only the best. In a way it made sense, considering the fact that they’d be sleeping on the sheets, and the last thing Aya wanted to do after a grueling mission was come home to scratchy bed linens that wouldn’t keep him warm, but…. He bit into his lip as he held out his credit card, inwardly cringing at the thought of the bill being added to his account.

Yohji batted his hand aside and gave the saleslady a smile that had her simpering and blushing as she accepted the money he was holding out to her. "It’s my treat, Aya, don’t worry about it." Yohji winked at him over his sunglasses and then returned his attention to the simpering saleslady. "Could we leave the bags here? We still have a bit of shopping to do, and those will slow us down." Yohji’s smile became even brighter for a moment, causing the mousy young woman to blush furiously as she dropped the change she’d been counting. She stuttered out a breathless ‘yes’ as she placed the coins and bills on a tray and slid it across the counter to Yohji.

"Good. We’ll be back soon, gorgeous." He smiled charmingly at the woman again, and Aya rolled his eyes and walked away. It was embarrassing to watch women so easily fall victim to Yohji’s charm. At least he made the playboy work hard with him.

Yohji caught up to him, walking alongside him and brushing his hand against Aya’s. "Let’s go look at the sweaters, and then go home." Yohji slid his sunglasses down his nose enough to gaze inquiringly at Aya over them. "Unless there’s something else you want to do." When Aya shook his head, Yohji smiled, a hint of a leer lurking around the expression. "Good, I can’t wait to see what the bed looks like with the new sheets and stuff."

Aya sighed and elbowed his lover lightly in the ribs. "Why did I know we’d end up back in bed at some point?"

"Well, we do have to sleep sometime," Yohji pointed out, the picture of innocence. Of course he couldn’t maintain the expression for very long. "Come on, Aya, don’t tell me that you can’t wait to try those sheets out yourself. Just think of how soft they’ll feel and how warm you’ll be, curled up between them with the new comforter and featherbed we got."

Aya rubbed his hand up and down his arm, all but shivering in anticipation at the inviting picture Yohji painted for him. It was rather cold outside for early November, and the department store still had the air conditioning on full blast. He’d been freezing ever since he’d stepped inside the store, despite the fact that he was wearing one of Yohji’s wool sweaters. He wished that he hadn’t left his coat in the car, and couldn’t wait to get warm again.

Yohji caught the gesture and frowned slightly, green gaze concerned at him. He took off the red, corduroy shirt he was wearing over a white t-shirt and handed it to Aya, who accepted it gratefully. The shirt was warm from Yohji’s body heat and smelled like his lover, of spice and tobacco. Pulling on the shirt, Aya hugged it tight around him and gave Yohji a slight smile. "Thank you. I’ll pay you for my half of the sheets when we get home." He was never comfortable carrying much money on him, and preferred to use a credit card instead when he did any major shopping.

"Don’t worry about it, I said it was my treat." Yohji stepped onto the escalators that would take them to the men’s clothing section of the store.

Stepping on behind him, Aya shook his head stubbornly. "You shouldn’t have to pay for everything." While he wasn’t happy about the thought of spending that much money, the bed was half his, and so was the responsibility for the bill.

"Aya…." Yohji sounded exasperated as he raked a careless hand through his wavy hair, which he’d left loose, the way Aya preferred it. "Any other time you refuse to spend a single yen, and now you’re offering to help pay for the sheets? Don’t worry about it, okay? I got the bill this time, you can pick up the next." He grinned and leaned forward, until he was almost touching Aya. "I know, the next time we go away for the weekend, you can pick up the tab. We should be able to afford a really nice little getaway, considering how much money you must have saved up by now-" Yohji suddenly stopped talking and looked away, a hint of a flush on his golden skin. After a second he gazed intently at Aya, as if gauging his reaction. "I’m sorry," he said, in a strained voice.

Aya nodded, not sure enough about his own voice to say anything. He did have a lot of money saved the past couple of months, now that he wasn’t paying for Aya-chan’s medical bills. The abrupt memory that his sister was still missing and in the hands of psychopaths who hated him hit him like a blow to his chest, knocking the air out of him and filling him with pain. Self-loathing churned through him for forgetting that fact for even a short while, and just because he had a day off was no reason to do so.

He was barely aware of his surroundings when Yohji tugged him off the escalator and led him deep into a series of clothes racks. When he felt Yohji’s arm slide around his hips, he looked up at his lover’s worried face.

"Hey, I’m sorry. Don’t worry. We’ll find her, and she’ll be okay." Yohji sounded so sincere that Aya just nodded again. They’d find her, alive and as well as she’d ever been since the explosion - deep down inside he felt sure of it. But the wait was threatening to drive him mad with guilt. He tried to push back the depression when he was with Yohji, and so sometimes he managed to forget about his concerns for his sister. Other times, he felt torn between her and Yohji, as if something were forcing him to choose between them. A thought whispered in his head that he already had, but he ignored it with long practiced ease.

He pushed Yohji away from him sharply. "Let’s get those sweaters." They were out in public, Yohji should know better than to hug him like this. He started to walk away, tense at first but slowly relaxing as Yohji followed him. "Right now, returning to bed sounds like a good idea." He’d be warm for the first time since they’d left the Koneko, and he wanted to feel Yohji near him, safe and sound.

"I think a nap sounds like a great idea, myself," Yohji told him as he led the way to the sweaters. For once there was no sexual innuendo in his voice. Aya glanced worriedly at his lover, wondering if Yohji wasn’t feeling very well.

They found a large selection of sweaters to choose from, and Aya sighed when he noticed the price tags. He wanted to complain to Yohji about the extravagance and go somewhere cheaper, but his lover noticed his dismay and quietly told him that this was where he got all of his sweaters. Aya rubbed the sleeve of the dark blue one he was wearing between his fingertips, enjoying how soft and warm it felt, and resolved himself to paying an exorbitant amount for new clothes. There was a reason why he wore Yohji’s clothes so often, after all.

While Yohji was holding up some merino wool sweaters to see how well they matched Aya’s complexion, Aya felt… something, and turned to look around the store. He felt as if he was being watched, and the sensation filled him with a disconcerting mixture of longing, contentment and annoyance rather than the usual warning. It didn’t make any sense, and he couldn’t see anyone nearby beside a few other men who were shopping and two salesladies. None of them seemed to be paying him any attention.

"Aya? Is something wrong?" Yohji sounded worried, so he quickly shook his head.

"Just imagining things," Aya told his lover, and then groaned when he saw the tops that Yohji had picked out. "What is it with you and bright colors? They’ll make me stand out too much."

"As if we’d just blend into the crowd if we wore something a bit duller," Yohji retorted as he held up two red sweaters to Aya’s shoulder, and then quickly discarded the more orange of the two. "Let me tell you something, Aya. You stick out like a sore thumb even when you wear dark colors, and as for that orange sweater…. " Yohji shuddered, as if in horror as he held up another sweater. "No one who wants to remain unnoticed wears that color, except you."

Aya glared at his lover as he batted Yohji’s hand aside. "I like that sweater."

"Gods, I certainly hope you like the damn thing, or else I’d be worried about you. There’s no other reason anyone could wear something that ugly unless they were colorblind." Yohji picked out sweaters in red, cream, light grey, purple, and teal. He added a black and white check one to the mix and handed the stack to Aya. "Here, those are yours. Are you going to try them on?"

Rubbing his hand along the soft wool, Aya shook his head as he added up the bill in his head. He tried not to wince when he came up with the final number. "Are you still getting some for yourself?"

"You bet." Yohji hummed happily while he picked out half a dozen sweaters, pausing every now and then to hold one up to Aya before adding it to the pile. "It’s been a while since I did any clothes shopping." Yohji turned to him and smiled at him, pouring on the charm. "I know we said we’d go home after this and crawl into bed, but I just realised that I need a few more things. Since we’re already here…."

Aya almost groaned as he thought of more shopping, but Yohji did have a point. "What do you need?"

Yohji’s smile became even more charming. "Just some new jeans, boxers and a pair of boots." He stepped closer to Aya, staring him in the eye as he slowly licked his lips. "I promise, I won’t be long, and I really do need those jeans. Somehow, one of my favorite pairs got ripped."

Aya felt his cheeks threaten to grow warm as he thought about how Yohji’s pants had gotten torn. That had certainly been a… memorable rainy day at the park. He let out a puff of air and nodded reluctantly. They might as well get the shopping out of the way now, and not have to come back for another month or so. "One hour."

"Okay." Yohji sidled closer and brushed back Aya’s bangs, which were falling into his face. Yohji’s hand lingered on his cheek for a second, warm and gentle, and Aya felt a sudden burst of anger that left him confused. True, Yohji was being awfully affectionate in public, something he hated, but the touch had felt nice. Why was he so upset by it?

Shaking his head in confusion at his unsettled emotions, Aya hurried over to a cash register to pay for his sweaters. He didn’t look at Yohji when his lover joined him at the counter, and almost started when his hip was nudged. "How about stopping for something warm to drink before heading home?"

Aya thought about going to his favorite café and glanced at Yohji as he nodded. His lover was smiling affectionately at him, and Aya felt the urge to do the same, but controlled it so his lips only curved the slightest bit. It would be nice to sit and talk to Yohji, maybe share a pot of mulled cider or something else that would warm him from the inside, and then return home. They were going out to dinner later, but until then they could curl up in the bed together. He could do some reading, and Yohji would probably want to talk, but he didn’t mind that. It was getting easier and easier to talk to his boyfriend these past few weeks, to open himself up and reminisce about the past or even daydream about the future.

He bumped his hip into Yohji’s. "That sounds nice," he said, and actually meant it.

*******

Cassandra walked among her wildly growing garden, wending her way around the narrow paths until one led her to a flowering bush festooned with white roses, whose petals looked dipped in blood. The air was fragrant and heady from the perfume of the blossoms, a sweet, spicy scent that had her pulling in a lungful of air and holding it for a moment.

The catalyst was blooming along with the rosebush. The loom inside her cottage radiated happiness and peace, shadowed with hints of worry and guilt. She knew he felt those emotions over his sister, who was still lost to him. Who would be forever lost to him, but he refused to see that. So much power he had, and much of it was focused on the empty shell of his sister. It took great strength to defeat death, yet he’d managed it these past few years. She wondered what he’d become if he ever let go of his guilt.

It was for the best, though, that he had become fixated on his sibling, or Cassandra would have never been able to hide him from the cruel ones all these years. The catalyst had bound his own power the moment it had awakened, and it had remained mostly dormant until the evil one had broken it free. Foolish child, she thought, a sneer on her lips. How typical that *he* was endangering her carefully crafted plans. Such a bane, the brat was.

Yet he still had his part to play in this as well. He’d help ensure that the cruel ones suffered for what they’d done to her family and to her. She would crush their dreams just as they had hers. Everything they’d ever wanted would be within their grasp, and Death and the Magician would snatch it away from them. All because of her.

She giggled as she reached out to the rose bush. The wind picked up and blew her tangled hair about, obscuring her vision for a moment. As she touched the plant, she saw the catalyst curled up in bed with his Knight, lying side by side as they talked. It faded as quickly as it had come, and she felt a stinging pain as she snapped a flower free. It didn’t surprise her that the cost of the bloom was blood and pain. Most things of value required them as payment.

Mindless of its thorns, she cupped the rose between her hands. She stared at the lovely flower for a few seconds before crushing its petals. As the scent of blood and roses became overwhelming, she had another vision. Or rather, a series of visions, swirling around in her addled mind like a tornado. She felt scoured raw by her power, and was left aching and confused over what it had shown her.

The wind echoed the tumult inside her mind, and not only did rose petals flutter around her, but white cherry and cypress, myrtle and hawthorn leaves did as well. Amongst the foliage were black feathers, one even brushed against her cheek before flying away. Her eyes went wide at the sight before her, and as she watched the wind slowly died down. Until all that was left in her hand was a thorn-covered stem, several of the sharp things embedded in her skin.

She carefully pulled the stem free and walked to her cottage. It was time. The crossroads were upon them, where the Knight’s choice would greatly affect the future to come. If he chose the Erinyes, there would be darkness and despair. If he chose the star child…. Cassandra frowned as she walked past a patch of yarrow, absentmindedly pulling a stalk free as she did. If the Knight of Cups didn’t chose his old lover over his present, there would still be darkness and despair, but it would be off in the future.

Faced with the truth of her visions, as confused as they’d been, Cassandra began to realize that her hope had been in vain. That some things were inevitable, and that she was largely to blame for that. There would be pain regardless, it was only degree and duration that could be changed. She’d doomed them because of her desire for revenge.

Savagely tossing aside the stalk of yarrow, she rubbed her hands along her arms and walked faster. This was not the time for guilt or doubt. She’d set things into motion decades ago, and she wasn’t going to weaken when now her revenge was so near. She’d do what she could to minimize the damage, but what was done was done.

She growled in frustration as she walked into her cabin. She’d given the Knight three warnings, and could risk no more than vague dreams these past two months. He’d at last found out the truth behind his lover’s dreams, and since Death and the Magician were no longer so engaged, she couldn’t risk tapping into the Knight’s mind deep enough to pull him here for another.

Walking over to the loom, Cassandra surveyed her crafting. The catalyst, star child that he was, was firmly bound in the Magician’s and her chains. He wouldn’t be able to break free until the Convergence, his warmth safely cloaked from prying eyes until then. It was a necessary betrayal. She had no other hope of controlling him but this. Ah, if only she had a similar leash on the evil one. If her guilt and warnings won out, he’d be losing the prize he’d sought for so long, and would turn on her.

She’d worry about that when the time came, however. Things had been set into motion, and the crossroads was the only path before them. No matter which branch they took, the three fours would end at the same destination. Then she would have both her death and her revenge.

Cassandra smiled as she stroked a thread of the dark cloak, anticipating that day. For now, however, she would have to prepare herself for some unwelcome company.

*******

Schuldig stormed past Nagi, barely taking the time to thrust the shopping bags into the telekinetic’s arms. Nagi slightly smacked him on the back of his head for that but otherwise ignored him, as he seemed to sense that Schuldig was in no mood to argue and wisely left him alone. Which was a very good thing. While he might end up slammed into a wall, Schuldig was in a foul enough mood to guarantee that Nagi would be the one hurting the most from a fight. The body could only feel so much pain, while the mind could suffer infinitely more.

He stomped to his room, not in the mood to interact with his teammates. What he really wanted to do was kill something, but he was somewhat limited by who he could shoot, since he’d promised not to touch the cocklicker and it would be very bad if he killed Crawford. Esset tended to frown on their lackeys killing team leaders.

Once he reached the sanctuary of his room, he slammed the door shut and locked it before collapsing onto his bed. "Gottverdammter Schwanzlutscher," he muttered as he hugged a pillow to his chest, barely resisting the urge to tear it apart.

He’d been good these past several weeks, not that he’d really had much choice in the face of Aya’s fury and Crawford’s orders. But he’d done it, content with the fact that Kudoh had fucked things up to such a degree that Aya had serious doubts about their relationship. Yet when he’d checked up on his little tuberose today, he’d found him out with the man-whore, shopping and *smiling*. Kudoh somehow rated a fucking smile for being an utter asshole. He couldn’t understand it.

Somehow the cocklicker had undone the damage done to his relationship with Aya over the past couple of months. He’d *somehow* convinced Aya that they belonged together, and they were now *deliriously* happy. How the hell he’d managed that, Schuldig had no clue.

However, things weren’t absolutely perfect between the two. He’d felt Aya’s irritation as Kudoh had continued to flirt with the salesladies, and knew that the jealousy was still there, just waiting to flare up at the right time. And Aya had felt Schuldig’s emotions as his own, when he’d let slip his shields at the shock of seeing Aya happily shopping with the asshole. So the seeds were there, and under the right conditions would bloom. He just had to bide his time before destroying the lovers’ nauseating little dream world.

Schuldig might not be able to stand Kudoh, but he’d been in the man’s mind enough times to know him well. All that delicious guilt that filled the cocklicker… he thought about his lost love continuously, and had made the connection between Murase and Neu. Good, something was going right. Schuldig thought about what would happen when their two paths crossed again. Kudoh would act on instinct and emotions, not thought, and he’d destroy his relationship with Aya for a fucking ghost, shatter Aya in his attempt to reclaim the past and assuage that guilt - and Schuldig would be waiting to pick up the pieces.

Suddenly feeling better, he stretched out on the bed until he felt comfortable and closed his eyes. A few deep breaths later and he fell into a trance that would take him to the old witch’s garden. He entered her world at a time of twilight, the scent of dozens of flowers heavy in the damp air. It felt as if a storm was brewing, so he hurried into the stone cottage, where it was bright and warm. He found Cassandra standing before the loom.

"Remembered me, did you?" she called out, not even bothering to look away from the loom and the dark fabric stretched upon it. "I’d hoped you’d forgotten the way here."

"Now why would I do that?" Schuldig asked her as he approached the loom. "You’re such lovely company, after all." Once he reached it, he stroked the dark material, causing it to shift on the wooden frame. Strands of reddish orange sparkled in the candlelight, entwined with the darkness. As he touched the cloak on Aya’s power, he radiated love, want and desire, and felt the purr of happiness and need that his touch provoked. Aya’s power called out to him, eager to merge with his, to be free and put to use. The more his precious used his power, the more he’d feel the same about Schuldig. The power was part of Aya, his vital essence, and what it felt so did he. Between that and the dreams, Aya’s heart would be his.

"Is it time?"

She started at the sound of his rough voice, her hands lifting from her sides as if to ward him off. "I… almost. The time approaches. A few more steps and at the crossroads we’ll be. Hear the blackbirds, cawing in the trees at our presence." Her hand fluttered about as if chasing away the imaginary birds. "One or two, one or two, one and two." She drew in a sharp breath. "Oh, both? Four paths, four choices for the four. Though the past is gone, gone, gone. Three for three. One or two, that’s what it should be." Her voice became more agitated with each word she spoke. "Naughty, naughty star child, he cloaks it all in darkness, just as we cloak his light." She moaned and swayed where she stood, appearing lost in thought.

Then she suddenly stilled, her eyes narrowed and the fey air about her gone. The cottage felt cold, all the heat draining away as her attention focused on the loom. "Naughty star child, he twists things past my ken. Twist *him* I should, make him bend to what I choose. I won’t lose the pattern now, no, no, no." She reached out to the loom, her eyes filled with unaccustomed malice.

Schuldig put his speed to use and smacked her hands away from the dark material, shoving her aside for good measure. He didn’t know what she’d intended to do, but he’d felt danger to Aya, and he wouldn’t let that happen. Aya was his, no one else could harm or ‘twist’ him. "Are you out of your fucking mind?" he yelled furiously at Cassandra, who had fallen to the floor. "Are you truly that insane? You try to ‘twist’ him again, and I’ll shred your garden until it’s nothing but mulch and dust, do you understand?"

Cassandra sniveled as she nodded her head, a pathetic heap of grey rags and hair. "I’m sorry. Everything is so confused, and it’s all his fault. I see up to the crossroads, and precious little past that." She slowly stood to her feet and wiped her face with the sleeve of her dress. "I won’t alter the cloak."

"You better not," Schuldig warned her in a low, menacing voice. He’d been gone for less than two fucking months, not in the mood to put up with the old witch’s craziness when there was nothing he could do about Aya, and she’d done the impossible and gone even more bonkers. "I’ll feel it if you so much as touch it, and I’ll fry what’s left of your brain." He stepped closer to her. "You’ll be a fucking vegetable, lying in that cell of yours for decades to come. Just think what our masters can do to you then."

Cassandra flinched and covered her ears with her hands. "So mean. Evil you are, evil. You should be the Devil, not the Magician." She glared at him, her voice petulant. "Need me you do, evil one. You can’t hold the cloak on your own, and can’t turn to the reversed Fool to see the future. Has plans, that one does, plans for your precious. Dreams of what an ill wight can do for you black ones. What do you think he’ll do when he finds out the ill wight is a catalyst, hmmm? A catalyst tied to one of his dogs, linked to him forever." The thought apparently pleased her, because she smiled and clapped her hands together.

He wanted so much to strangle the insane bitch, but knew he couldn’t. He did need her, and it would just be giving her what she wanted. Schuldig wasn’t going to do that until Aya was his, utterly and forever. So he gritted his teeth together and took a step backwards, needing the space between them. If he were too close to her, he’d give in to the impulse to snap her neck.

"And you need me, Alte Hexe. Never forget that." Schuldig tried to calm down before reaching for the cloak. As soon as he touched it his anger was soothed, lulled into contentment by the feel of Aya’s power straining to join with him. "Now, what do you see?"

Cassandra pouted for a moment, and then sighed and folded her arms over her chest. "Hmph. I see the crossroads. Myrtle and hawthorn down one road, cypress and white cherry down the other. The third is nothing but darkness, none and none. That road looms ever present for all, be careful you must." She motioned at his hand, resting on the dark material. "You can still break him. Never forget *that*."

Schuldig had never met a person who could talk as much as Cassandra and still say absolutely nothing. "What. Will. Happen?" he gritted out, thoroughly annoyed by the double-talk.

"Tsk, so impatient. I tell you, you just don’t listen." Cassandra glared at him from behind her grey bangs. "Brat," she said in a hushed voice before continuing. "The Erinyes will come, thirsty for blood and vengeance. The Knight will be drawn to the revenant amongst them, thinking her his fair one lost. There will be heartbreak and betrayal, shifting alliances and hope. Is that what you want to hear?"

"Why is it that five minutes into a conversation with you, I feel the urge to bash my head against a wall?" Schuldig asked to no one in particular. When Cassandra opened her mouth, indignation plain on her face, he smiled evilly and waved aside her diatribe. "Never mind, it was a rhetorical question. I guess all that nonsense you spouted will have to do, since you won’t tell me anything else. One more question. Has the star child been here recently?"

Cassandra shuffled her feet and gazed down at the floor, her hair hiding her face from Schuldig’s view. "No, he hasn’t been here since your bleeding. Angry he is, and not just at you. Angry with me he is, seeing himself as betrayed. That emotion shields his dreams from me, and he won’t wander what he thinks is treacherous ground." She lifted her head the slightest bit, peeking at him behind a veil of grey, tangled strands of hair. For a moment she appeared as an unkempt child. "Have you been in his dreams?"

Schuldig grimaced and shook his head. "No. He has quite a temper, and needs to cool down." He’d feared that if he’d visited Aya, his tuberose would have broken the agreement between them. As much as he wanted to kill Kudoh, it was better to use the man-whore as collateral for Aya’s good behavior. Besides, they fought enough in reality, they didn’t need to do the same in dreams. There had to be somewhere that Aya gave himself to him that was a haven from the fighting. "I haven’t spoken to him since shortly after the incident." Hate burned through Schuldig at the thought of the injuries they’d suffered, all because of Kudoh.

Tossing her hair back, Cassandra gave him a gloating smile. "Ah yes, the ‘incident’." She had the nerve to giggle. "I see you are well now. The Knight didn’t score you too deeply." The unsaid ‘unfortunately’ hung in the air between them.

"He shouldn’t have been able to fucking touch me," Schuldig snarled. His hatred for Aya’s lover hadn’t abated in the least. Once he was free to kill Kudoh, he would do so with great relish.

Cassandra tilted her head to the side, her smile increasing as she gazed at him. "Poor Magician, finding out your wards and spells can’t spare you from all harm. Tied the Knight is, to the catalyst. Golden threads bind him tight to his love, and his love to him. If the green threads give you control over Death’s power, why not the Knight, too?"

Schuldig cursed for a moment, too angry to think properly. Finally he managed to spit out something. "But he’s a fucking normal, a null, and shouldn’t be able to do a damn thing with Aya’s power."

Cassandra made a hushing noise as she glanced anxiously around her cottage. "Quiet, evil one. Say names of power, and attract attention you will. Things have progressed too far for you to be so careless. The cruel ones keep watch on me, calling me to their sides to ask me questions. They know the Convergence approaches, and plans they make, plans that need a prophetess. You don’t want to draw their attention to your heart."

She glared venomously at him before fussing with her hair. "Normal the Knight might be, but his lover is a catalyst. He has the star child’s heart, and has freely given his. The gold matches the green, and while he might not have your talent, a heart is a potent thing. He can influence the strands to a small extent. Hate and the desire to protect his loved one are potent emotions, and would give him the impetus he needed to twist those strands until they strangled you." Cassandra smiled nastily at Schuldig. "Such a shame that he didn’t finish what he started."

"He’d have killed the catalyst then." Schuldig stepped closer to the madwoman, his voice thick with hate. "The star child would have paid for my sins at the Knight’s hands. I thought you liked A- the star child. Do you want my fall that much?"

"Oh, no." Cassandra sniffed, as if holding back tears. "No, he shouldn’t have to pay for your sins, evil one. Cruel betrayal, always cruel betrayal." With that cryptic remark, she whirled around and headed for the door. "Go away, evil one," she called out, her voice agitated, before disappearing into the storm outside.

Schuldig watched her leave, and stared pensively at the open door for a minute before his attention returned back to the cloak, which he stroked with both hands. "Soon. I promise." It was meant both for the trapped power and for Aya. They’d both be his, after a little more blood and betrayal. That was normal for them. It seemed that not a day went by without one of the two in their lives. Just a little longer, and he’d have what he’d wanted for so very long. A lover he could trust, who matched him and more, and security. The best part was that Kudoh would provide the two things he needed for that to come true, Schuldig felt it in his bones. Aya’s power purred and agreed, whispering about the threads that would make it happen. He just needed to be patient for a little longer.

*******

Aya jolted awake, his body tight with desire. He took a deep breath of air, which for some reason smelled of the heady perfume of roses, and tried to make sense of his dream. He’d been cloaked in a thick, black fabric shot with shimmering strands of red-orange, his hands bound with thick green cords. There’d been a sense of frustration and desire, of wanting something that was just out of reach, so much that he ached from longing. At the same time, the thought of gaining it filled him with fear.

Shaking his head in hopes of clearing it, Aya sighed wearily and sat up. The soft, new sheets slid down his body and pooled in his lap. The cold hair hit his flesh and made him shiver. The room still smelled of roses, overpowering the more familiar scent of smoke. Aya was reminded of a rose bush he’d seen in Cassandra’s garden, and the potent perfume it exuded. A little voice, the same one that told him that his sister was still alive, whispered to him that there were answers to be had if he returned to the garden. Maybe even surcease from the longing that had plagued him the past couple of months. He angrily ignored that voice.

There weren’t many things he was certain of, since the death of his parents. He knew Yohji loved him, that he could trust Weiß with his life, and that he’d never be Ran again. Those things he knew with utter certainty. He also knew that Cassandra was using him. While she’d helped him in the past, Aya *knew* she hadn’t done it just for his benefit. Cassandra wanted something from him, something that made him apprehensive at the thought of seeing her again. Lately, she had begun to remind him of Schu….

Aya put an abrupt end to that thought. He wasn’t going to think about Mastermind right now. The past two months had involved steadfast determination on his part to not think about that man. He’d spent an entire week wracking his brain to find a solution to dissolving the link between them while he healed from injuries that hadn’t been his. Unable to come up with one, Aya finally decided that he wouldn’t think about it, or Schuldig, any more. Maybe if he ignored him, Schuldig would leave him alone. It wasn’t the most logical of solutions, but so far it seemed to be working. Until it stopped doing so, he’d stick with that plan.

Lying down on the bed, Aya tugged up the sheets and snuggled against his lover. Yohji moaned in his sleep, a word that sounded suspiciously like a name. Aya’s eyes narrowed in sudden doubt as he studied Yohji, just now noticing how his lover’s body was covered with a sheen of sweat and his creased brow. Yohji moaned again, the sound much less distinct this time, and rolled onto his back.

Aya stroked his hand through his lover’s hair, brushing back the sweat-soaked strands. Yohji seemed to calm under the gentle touch. He became still and his brow smoothed out. Aya’s hand trailed lightly down Yohji’s face, along his throat and down to his chest. Aya loved touching Yohji like this, loved to feel warm, velvety skin against his, to know that he was allowed this. To know that Yohji wanted him to do this. After years of holding everyone but his sister at arms’ length in fear of being rejected, it was still a surprise to know that he’d allowed someone else this close to him. The fact that Yohji wanted him back, despite his freakish appearance and nature, had Aya smiling in happiness and curling up against his lover’s side.

Things were quiet after that, and Aya felt himself drifting back to sleep. It was a bit silly, napping away their day off, but it felt so nice to be warm and next to Yohji. Aya didn’t want to leave their bed, not even to go out to dinner later. Yohji had made them reservations at his favorite restaurant, and it promised to be a very nice night. He still preferred lying here beside his lover.

He was startled awake when Yohji jerked beside him. Sitting up, Aya watched Yohji carefully, and saw his eyes fly open, glassy with fear. His lover panted for several seconds while dazedly looking around, as if trying to remember where he was. After a minute, Yohji’s eyes focused on Aya, and he found himself pulled into a crushing hug.

"Aya, you’re okay." Yohji’s voice trembled, shaking as much as his body.

"Yohji… can’t breathe," Aya managed to gasp, and was immediately released. He sat up, one of Yohji’s arms around his waist, and gazed with concern at his lover. "Are you all right?"

Yohji smiled weakly at him. "Yeah, I’m fine." His smile slipped a little, but Yohji quickly recovered it and sat up beside Aya. "Man, these new sheets sure are warm, aren’t they?" He wiped his free hand down his sweaty chest. Aya noted that Yohji’s thumb kept rubbing against his ring finger.

"Did you have a bad dream?"

"Ah, yeah." Yohji’s smile slipped again, and he wrinkled his face as his gaze was directed down at the new duvet. "We were working in the shop, and this mob of girls attacked us. You got carried away by some of them." Yohji looked up and winked at Aya, his face pale and sweaty. "You were wearing your orange sweater, so I could see you for quite a distance. I was fighting the girls to get to you, and that’s when I woke up."

While that sounded like a perfectly good nightmare to Aya, he knew his lover was lying. First off, Omi had told them about a very similar dream a couple of weeks ago. Secondly, Yohji wouldn’t look him in the eye for more than a second or two. Aya refused to think of the third way that he knew that Yohji was lying to him.

Aya took a deep breath. He felt too tired to push the issue right now. Yohji had obviously dreamed about something that he didn’t want to talk about. There were times when Aya didn’t want to share his dreams, and he either refused to talk to Yohji about them, or made up something. He couldn’t push things without being a hypocrite. However, those dreams happened only once or twice a month. Yohji had been having nightmares that he refused to talk about several times in the past couple of weeks.

Aya didn’t want to start a fight by making Yohji tell him the truth about the bad dreams. Not when both of them had been trying so hard to be happy together. Another thing that Aya was certain about was that if he pressed this issue, it would lead to another fight. Most likely over an issue that Yohji felt had been put behind them. If Aya mentioned Yohji’s dead lover, then the peaceful idyll they’d worked so hard for would be shattered. So he’d give Yohji a little more time to confess to the dreams, and tell himself that it had been all Schu’s fault, the doubts he’d had abut his lover. Yohji wasn’t going to leave him.

Yohji cupped Aya’s chin and lifted it up. Aya hadn’t even been aware that he’d been glaring at his hands, folded in his lap. "Hey, it was just a dream. I promise, I won’t let that happen in real life." Yohji tried for a teasing tone, and the more he spoke, the less forced it sounded. "I know, we can get handcuffs made with really long chains, and wear them while we’re working together." Yohji winked, the color returning to his handsome face. "We’ll be our own little chain gang."

"I think the girls would go nuts if they saw that, and never leave us alone." Aya informed his lover solemnly. He didn’t want to do anything that would attract any more of those silly things’ attention to him.

"Hmmm, good point." Yohji appeared to think about something for a moment, and then smiled wickedly while pulling Aya towards him. He didn’t resist, as usual, and ended up on his lover’s lap. He didn’t really mind being there, to feel Yohji’s lanky, toned body beneath his. "How about this? We’ll chain Omi and Ken out front during our shifts, barricade the greenhouse and stay in there. Where it will be nice and private and," Yohji’s large hands trailed down Aya’s back, making the desire from earlier flare back to life, "warm." Yohji practically purred the last word, his green eyes glowing with lust and amusement.

How could Aya resist someone so handsome, someone who knew him so well? The thought of the greenhouse’s lovely, moist heat made him moan. "Now that sounds possible." Then Yohji would be there to help make him even warmer. Aya moaned again as he rested his arms around Yohji’s shoulders. His boxers suddenly felt very constrictive.

"Well then, I’ll buy the chains next time we go shopping." Yohji chuckled, his mouth mere millimeters from Aya’s neck. The warm bursts of air against his skin made Aya shiver in pleasure and anticipation. He adored Yohji’s mouth, how hot and talented it was, how it could reduce him to a pile of tingling, pleasure-filled nerves in an instant. Just like Yohji himself. All thought of nightmares and doubts fled his mind when Yohji kissed his neck.

*******

Omi, on his way to the kitchen to make himself dinner, heard the unfamiliar sound of Aya laughing. He decided that dinner could wait in the face of this unprecedented event and knocked on Yohji and Aya’s door, curious to see what his friends were up to. When Yohji called out for him to come in, he cautiously opened the door and peeked around it. When he noticed that the two of them were both dressed, he smiled in relief and entered the room. "Did you two have fun today?"

Aya, who was brushing his hair, nodded. He was dressed in black slacks, a sweater the color of his eyes, with a black leather jacket over it. Over on the bed, Yohji was sprawled out, dressed in tan slacks and a vibrant blue shirt. He levered himself up onto his elbows and smiled at Omi.

"Yeah, we did. I even got Aya to willingly go into a department store and spend more than ten minutes there." Yohji shared a smile with Omi before sitting up all the way. Omi noticed that the bed looked noticeably… plumper, and was sporting a new duvet cover made of grey and burgundy velvet patches. There were several matching pillows scattered about, and a burgundy chenille blanket was thrown across the leather couch.

"Wow, the bed looks really comfy now. Is that a new blanket?" He wandered over to the couch and ran his hand covetously over the chenille blanket. It was even softer than it looked, and he’d bet that it was very warm. Omi smiled as he imagined Aya and Yohji curled up together under the blanket, keeping each other warm. He felt a slight pang of jealously and longing at the image. He wouldn’t have thought that Yohji and Aya would be buying home furnishings, of all things, but the new items did make the room look cozy. Like a real home.

"Yeah, we bought a couple of new things for the place. Good eye there, Omi." Yohji winked at him and patted the mattress beside him playfully. "Come on, give it a try." When Omi hesitated, Yohji suddenly stood up and grabbed him around the waist. He found himself tossed into the air and landed on the bed, which was definitely very well padded.

"Yotan!" he giggled as he rolled about. "You could have missed, you know, and I’d have landed on the floor. Do you want me all bruised and unable to sit down for a week?" He treated his friend to a mock glare.

Yohji didn’t appear to be upset by his pretended anger, and walked over nonchalantly to Aya to wrap an arm around his waist. "Nah, I wouldn’t have missed, though you almost gave me a hernia there." He waved a finger in Omi’s direction. "I think you need to lay off the ice cream, kid." When Omi started to pout, he laughed. "Seriously, what do you think of the bed? It wasn’t easy finding things we both agreed on."

Omi pouted for another minute before stretching out on the luxurious fabric. "It’s so soft and comfy, and looks great. Did you get a new mattress?" He hadn’t seen any deliveries being made today while he’d been working in the Koneko.

"Nah, we just bought a really nice featherbed and comforter." Yohji hugged Aya to him, his boyfriend grunting quietly and resting his hands on top of Yohji’s at the embrace. "We wanted a warm, soft little nest for winter."

Omi groaned as he sat up on the bed. "Great. Will we ever be able to get you two out of bed in the morning now?" Aya scowled at him while Yohji chuckled. "It is really comfortable, though, and looks warm." He looked at the two older men with big, sorrowful eyes. "It’s an awfully big bed, you know. And on some nights I have these bad dreams…."

"Don’t even think it, Omi." Yohji stepped away from Aya and advanced towards the bed. "If you want to be warm and feel safe at night, there’s a bed down the hall that would be perfect for you. I’m sure Ken won’t mind in the least sharing it with you." Yohji grabbed him by an arm and started tugging. "Now get off our bed before you get any more silly ideas."

He resisted as best he could while Yohji dragged him off the bed, but didn’t have anything to hold onto. "But Ken’s bed isn’t as nice as yours," he said, and immediately blushed at the appraising look Yohji was giving him. "Oh, I haven’t been in his bed," - yet, dammit - "but I’m sure yours is much more comfy." He suddenly grinned. "I know, you can trade beds with him."

"Not on your life, Omittchi." Yohji finally got him onto his feet and shoved him away from the bed. "Shouldn’t you be doing your homework or something?"

He lightly kicked Yohji in the shins, not enough to hurt but just enough to stop all the manhandling. Maybe he could get Yohji to go shopping with him later in the week and buy similar things for his bed. He was tired of sleeping on a hard mattress. "I got it done down in the shop. What are you two doing tonight? Are you going out somewhere fancy?" They were dressed for more than a simple meal out.

"We’re going to dinner and then to a movie." Yohji walked over to the closet and pulled out a dark blue blazer. "So you and Ken be good boys while we’re gone. Try not to topple too many governments, okay?" Pulling on his jacket as he returned to Aya’s side, Yohji winked at Omi. "Or spend all that time looking at porn."

Omi wished he had something on hand to throw at his friend for that comment. Since he didn’t, and because Aya was standing right there and wouldn’t tolerate anyone abusing Yohji besides himself, he sniffed and straightened to his full height. There were other ways to discipline Yohji, though. "Abyssinian, kindly teach Balinese some manners."

Aya glanced at Omi, his eyes lightening with amusement though his face remained impassive. "Yes, Bombay" was all he said, his deep voice containing a hint of laughter as he jabbed his elbow into Yohji’s ribs. "Behave, Kudoh."

Yohji let out a yelp as he was hit, his face stunned for a few seconds. Then he started grinning wickedly as he encircled Aya’s waist and did his best to get his lover onto their bed. Omi giggled as Yohji eventually managed to shove Aya onto it. It was clear that Aya wasn’t really fighting him. "Hah! As if you’re one to talk about manners." He straddled a struggling Aya’s waist and glared over his shoulder at Omi. "I’ll deal with you later. We were going to bring some ice cream home, but I just might have to rethink that in face of your betrayal."

"Oh! You better bring some back, or you won’t see a shift with Aya for a whole month!" Omi glared threateningly at Yohji, who only scowled back at him before returning his attention to Aya. It appeared that he was actually daring to tickle his lover. Omi took that as a cue to leave the room before he saw something that scarred him for life. Or, more likely, saw something that made him even more frustrated than he was at the present, since he didn’t have anyone he could practice it on. All thanks to the amazingly thick head a certain jock possessed. As he reached the door, he gave in to his curiosity and glanced back, only to find the two men kissing, their hands entwined together and resting on either side of Aya’s head. Feeling a bit jealous of the sight, Omi sighed as he left them alone and went downstairs.

Aya and Yohji had been so happy together lately. They’d barely even fought this past month, which was certainly the longest amount of time since they’d been together that had gone by without a major argument. Omi couldn’t help but wish that he were experiencing the same. Sure, he was spending a lot of time with Ken, but they’d barely kissed at all, and they weren’t exactly intimate with each other. While he didn’t mind taking things slow, he would prefer there be some hope of them having a real relationship rather than them becoming just very good friends.

He walked into the kitchen and found Ken sitting down at the table, drinking a soda. Ken smiled at him, but the expression quickly faltered. "Is everything all right?"

Dredging up a smile, Omi nodded and sat down beside Ken. "Yeah." He made a face as he motioned upstairs. "I just stopped by Aya and Yohji’s room."

Ken laughed and pushed his soda towards Omi. "That explains it. Were they decent?"

"Yes, thankfully." Omi paused to shiver dramatically before taking a sip of the soda. "I’m still trying to get rid of the image of catching them in the greenhouse last week. They went shopping today, and bought some things for their bed. It’s really comfortable now." He sighed enviously, not just over the bed.

"Oh, that’s just great. As if it isn’t hard enough getting Yohji’s lazy ass out of it already." Ken rolled his eyes and propped his chin on his hand.

"That’s what I said." Omi finished the soda and tossed the empty can into the trash. "They’re going out tonight, so it’s just the two of us for dinner. What are you in the mood for?"

Ken appeared to think about that for a few seconds, and then he smiled. "How does take-out sound? Maybe some curry? I’m in the mood for something spicy." Omi nodded, thinking that curry sounded great. They hadn’t had it in a while, and he wouldn’t have to cook. "We could rent some videos while we’re out and…." Ken grinned wickedly at him.

"And?"

Ken made a hushing noise and looked at the doorway, which Yohji and Aya walked through a moment later. Aya actually had a very small, very satisfied smile on his face, and Yohji was beaming with happiness, his eyes sparkling and he was wearing a huge grin. "Okay, we’re off now, so stay out of trouble. Don’t wait up for us." He winked at Omi and Ken as he followed Aya to garage.

Ken waited a minute after they left before looking at Omi and smiling. "And I say we go upstairs, hook up my VCR to Yohji’s television, and watch the movies on a really comfy bed. What do you think?"

"That we’ll be killed if we spill anything on their new bedcovers, so we better be careful." He smiled back at Ken. "It’s really, really comfortable, so I think it’s worth the risk." And maybe whatever aura it was that Yohji exuded that had Aya willing to have sex with him in the greenhouse, and the living room, and the… well, *anywhere*, would work in his favor and help put Ken in the mood.

"Great." Ken rose to his feet. "The usual order?" he asked as he reached for the phone. Omi nodded. The order was quickly placed and Ken looked back at him, a frustratingly bland, friendly smile on his face. What Omi wouldn’t give to have Ken look at him like Yohji did Aya…. "You wanna tag along with me and help pick out the videos?"

"Sure. We can take your bike." That way he’d have an excuse to hold onto Ken. He hopped to his feet, rather pleased with how the night was turning out. A quiet dinner with Ken, and then snuggling up on Yohji and Aya’s wonderful bed and watching videos together. It sure beat spending the night on his computer, or out on a mission. "Oh, and we need to pick up some more ice cream while we’re out." He’d finished off the last of it after the mission a couple of days ago - even Yohji’s stash, which had made the older blond very upset with him when he found that out. Omi was willing to bet he’d had some kinky plan in mind involving the dessert and Aya. He sighed discreetly, watching Ken longingly from the corner of his eye. Why couldn’t Ken be more like Yohji?

*******

Birman handed Mickey a new file. He glanced up from the reports on his desk and noted the serious expression on her face. "Is it another one?"

"Yes. This time they found the body at the Kinshicho station. A twenty-two year old woman." Birman’s voice was tight with suppressed anger, and after he accepted the file from her, she sat on the edge of his desk, her back rigid.

"That makes her the ninth victim," Mickey said with remorse as he started to go through the file. He shook his head at the sight of the gruesome pictures inside and set it on the pile to his left. "What happens now?"

His superior straightened the light green sweater she was wearing. "I need you to make up mission dossiers for Weiß. Persia has decided to let them handle this case."

That bit of news took him by surprise. "Is that wise? If Schreient is involved, there could be a conflict of interest with Abyssinian." As much as he liked Red, Mickey had to admit that his friend wasn’t the calmest person around. He’d checked up on Weiß’s past mission reports, and there were several instances of Aya losing his cool while on assignment.

Birman shrugged, not appearing worried at all. "It would be worse if he found out that the first positive lead we have on Schreient was given to another team. He’ll be driven to find the women, which should result in the mission being successfully concluded." She then sighed, her body relaxing slightly. "Besides, Weiß has an excellent success ratio. Persia doesn’t want any more dead women." Her eyes softened at mention of their boss.

Not saying anything, Mickey just grunted noncommittally as he started to pull up some information on his computer. "Give me a day to get the dossiers ready. I want to do a bit more research into the kundalini aspect of these murders." He’d be willing to bet that Weiß wouldn’t be very familiar with that philosophy, Omi and Aya’s educations aside. His friends weren’t exactly the religious type. It would be best if he supplied them with as much background information as he could. "There should be a couple of days grace before another murder."

"That’s fine." Birman stood to her feet and smoothed down her short skirt, her demeanor perfectly professional once more. "I’ll handle the mission debriefing this time, so let me know when it’s ready."

"I will." It appeared it would be a long night for him, but he was used to staying up late. "I’ll get in contact with Koyu and see if he’s come up with any new information."

Birman nodded in approval. "I’ll see you tomorrow."

Mickey watched her leave, appreciating the view her short, tight skirt afforded him. God, he wished that Nami would get back from her study year abroad. Though once she did return, he’d be faced with the problem of explaining his new job to her. He could try lying to her about it… but that hadn’t done Teddy any good. Somehow, he doubted Nami would handle the news as well as Koyu had, and he refused to entertain the idea of her joining Kritiker like Teddy’s lover.

Koyu was doing well at Kritiker, which made Teddy very happy. The organization was pleased to have a minor level celebrity join, and were taking advantage of Koyu’s entertainment connections. He’d spent the past two weeks checking out upscale yoga centers, and talking to other celebrities about the places. He was an excellent listener, and had given Mickey enough information to help whittle down the very long suspect list. Every little bit of input helped. Koyu was pleased that he was being of use.

Mickey still didn’t want any lover of his working for Kritiker. He’d done a little snooping, and there were several things that made him nervous about the organization. There seemed to have been some major shake-up of the upper echelon a couple of months ago, but he hadn’t been able to find out much information about it. He’d just observed the aftershocks, and had picked up a few very interesting rumors. What had him worried was that, despite all his digging, he couldn’t come up with very much, other than the suspicion that he wasn’t seeing the whole picture. He had the unsavory impression that there was much more to Kritiker than many of its employees suspected.

Sighing worriedly, Mickey ran his hands through his hair. He didn’t have time to think about this right now, he had to get a mission report ready. That involved compiling all the information on the murdered women: the police and autopsy reports, the background checks, the kundalini information, etcetera etcetera…. He couldn’t help but smile begrudgingly. Yes, he might have his suspicions about Kritiker, but he loved his job. For the first time in his life he felt as if he had a purpose other than looking out for Teddy. He was using his brain for something other than figuring out how much liquor needed to be ordered each week, and it felt good.

He didn’t even mind the occasional field assignment. It was nice putting to use all the training his father had drilled into him over the years. If only Teddy hadn’t developed a worrying tendency of being shot during the missions, Mickey would be happy. As it was, his brother had been shot three times in the arms so far. Mickey was in the process of trying to figure out how to make Teddy Kevlar arm guards. At least the wounds had all been minor.

Thinking of his brother, he reached for his phone and called Teddy and Koyu’s apartment. Someone answered on the third ring.

"Allo?"

Naturally, he’d gotten Teddy. "Did you forget what country you’re in?" Mickey asked his brother, in English, with some amusement.

"Mick! How are you? And no, I didn’t forget, I’ve decided that I’m bored with ‘moshi moshi’. It’s time to bring a little culture to this country." Teddy spoke at a rapid pace, and Mickey could all but imagine his brother bouncing up and down on the other end of the phone. He was suddenly very glad to not be sharing an apartment with his brother anymore.

"So you decided to go French?" Yohji was right, he decided. Teddy was insane. He smiled as he leaned back in his chair. "I think you just like showing off how well you can pronounce the ‘l’ sound."

Teddy blew him a raspberry. "Is there a reason for this call, other than to hassle me? Are we working tonight?" The idiot sounded way too happy at the prospect of a mission, considering that he was still recovering from his last foray. Teddy should be returning to active duty in another day or two, and could have another chance of being shot at then.

"No, you get to stay at home while I put together a mission report," Mickey informed his brother rather sternly. "I need to talk to Koyu about a few things he was checking out for me."

"Ah." Teddy’s exuberance dropped down to a bearable level. "He’s out right now, but I’m expecting him back in about an hour. How about we pick up some dinner and come by and help you with the report?"

Mickey considered the offer. Teddy might pick up on a few details he’d missed, and it would make a long night a bit shorter and more enjoyable. "That sounds fine. Ask Koyu to bring all the information he’s gathered on the kundalini case." Mickey didn’t want to bother Koyu if he was in the recording studio.

"Will do. And Mick? Thank you sooo much for having him help you with that." Just from the sound of Teddy’s voice, Mickey could picture the huge grin on his brother’s face. "Yoga lessons are doing wonders for our sex life."

Mickey rubbed the bridge of his nose and suppressed the urge to sigh. Twenty years of trying to teach Teddy how to act properly had all been for nothing. His brother was hopeless, he thought affectionately. "I didn’t do it for that reason, Teddy, but I’m glad you’re so happy. Make sure to get enough food for all of us, I didn’t get a chance to eat lunch today."

"Sure thing, bro. I’ll bill it to the business account. I hope you’re in the mood for Kobe steaks and beluga caviar. See you in two hours." Teddy hung up the phone, and Mickey finally sighed. Maybe having Teddy help him out wasn’t such a good idea, but it was too late now.

*******

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