Crossroads

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chapter three

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Cassandra reached out her hand but stopped short of touching the small cabinet’s oak door. Her cards were stored inside, hidden away after last night’s reading. Part of her wanted to deal the cards again, to discover what new things they revealed… and part of her feared what she’d see. As the crossroads neared, she was reminded more and more of the upcoming betrayals. She felt intense guilt at how she would hurt the star child and his Knight.

Cradling her hand against her chest, she turned her back on the small cabinet. She looked around her cozy cottage, her gaze skirting the dark corner that held the large loom. Everything was neat and in its place, suitable for visitors, even unwelcome ones. Knowing it would only be a matter of time before the brat paid her a visit, she put on a pot of water for tea. She was amazed he waited this long after yesterday’s pain and blood to stop by.

She had just had a sip of tea when he strolled into her house, a rose matching the ones in the vase on her windowsill tucked into the lapel of his green jacket. She was filled with shame at the sight of him, followed by another wave of guilt. She’d tied the star child to this monster, the bindings irrevocable. How was she any better than her masters?

The Magician walked over to the table, a cocky grin on his face. He stopped beside Cassandra, the smile never slipping as he reached out and snatched the mug of tea from her hand. Once it was set on the table, his other hand, moving almost too fast to see, lashed toward her face.

The harsh blow knocked her out of her seat and onto the floor. As she lay there, gasping in pain and shock, the evil one, still smiling, squatted down beside her, his hands resting on his knees. "Don’t ever hurt him again, do you understand? Or I’ll make you feel a hundred times the amount of pain you dealt him for eternity." His voice matched his smile, being perfectly calm, but his eyes glowed with fury.

She wiped the blood off her lips with a trembling hand, the taste of copper bitter in her mouth. There were times she could clearly see the boy’s father in him. She said nothing as she slowly sat up, her body aching from the fall to the floor. Her devil rose with her, his eyes intent on her face.

Once she was standing, she brushed at her grey skirts and sat down at the table. The hot tea helped to wash the taste of blood from her mouth but the throbbing pain in the left side of her face remained. The Magician watched her, not saying a word and still smiling his mocking smile. "Are you done now or will there be more threats and violence?" she asked after a few moments.

He snorted as he sat down on the edge of the table. "I can give you more if you want." His eyes glittered with hate and anger and his voice finally lost its cold edge. "I’m serious, you old witch. You ever cause him another ounce of pain and I’ll make your time with *them* seem like a sweet dream. Now tell me why the hell he was here, against his will."

She bit back on the retort about how it was perfectly acceptable for him to cause the star child pain but not her and sighed. She should have expected the blow and the threats. With his nature now linked to a catalyst, the Magician was changing. The Lovers indeed. It gave her some hope that the star child wouldn’t suffer unduly. "The crossroad approaches. I thought to warn him about the Erinyes, to not let her and her brood trick him down the wrong path. He is blind where his sister is concerned."

"Tell me something new," her unwanted guest snorted. His eyes narrowed as he regarded her with an increased coldness. "Why the pain? You hurt him, you bitch."

Her hands tightened in anger at the insult but she forced them to open and rest flat on the table. "He’s as stubborn as you, evil one. Resisted, he did, and tried to leave when I sought to speak to him. He even tried to use his power to do so. I had to trap him here long enough to hear my warning." It cost her a great deal of strength to restrain him, even though he was untrained and his power mostly bound. For a moment she wondered what she’d unleashed by awakening this catalyst. The pain served a twofold purpose, to weaken him enough for her to keep him here and to cloud his mind.

"About that crazy pack of whores, right?" The Magician’s right hand toyed with the white and crimson rose in his lapel, his long fingers stroking the petals. "You also told him something regarding his sister. What?"

"That he’d never find her if he followed the Erinyes. They have a potent hold on him because of the girl." She finished her tea and pressed a hand against her sore jaw. It appeared the brat had picked up more of the conversation with the star child than she hoped but not all of it or he wouldn’t have stopped with the one blow.

She had sworn to hand Death over to him but… but if Death chose his Knight now, there would be some hope in the future for them. Not much, for the road to their reunion would be lined with rhododendrons and marigolds but the Star card appeared in the Knight’s reading. There was some hope.

She set the empty mug down and glared at her visitor. "Watch him better you should. Your heart he is, or so you claim. Tell me you don’t know the dangers that await him in facing the Erinyes. Hate him they do, oh, so very much."

His eyes narrowed in anger as his mouth twitched but he took a moment to regain his composure before he spoke. "I know exactly how those lunatics feel about him, their anger radiates almost as strongly as their madness. I’ll make sure they don’t hurt him but he can also take care of himself."

Not if the Knight chose poorly, she feared, but couldn’t say anything without raising suspicions. There was always the possibility that, faced with the loss of both his heart and soul, Death would seek his own ending. "He’ll face great danger."

"He always does, the man kills for a living for Christ’s sake," he said, clearly exasperated… and a touch worried. "I’ll be nearby the entire time and keep him from undue harm."

So he could gloat when the Knight chose the revenant, no doubt. She sighed in weariness and tried to school her expression into one of nonchalance. "You could release his power, that would keep him safe." If the brat did that, she could call Death back here and do her best to convince him to use his talent to influence the Knight’s decision. Maybe even more than that, the catalyst was impressionable where his love was concerned.

The faint hope was soon shattered. "No, he won’t need it, I’ll be there," the evil one said, his demeanor suspicious. "Besides, there’s no telling what he’d do if he has that much control over it." The distrustful look faded into a pleased one. "Not that it’ll let him do anything. He tried to break our link yesterday but his talent put a stop to it." He chuckled as he plucked the rose from his lapel and breathed in its sweet scent.

That was not something she wanted to hear. She wrapped her arms around her chest and clutched them tightly. "That link will not be an easy one to break," she said softly.

"You mean it never can be," he snapped.

"Yes." A link such as that could never be broken… but it could be moderated. Somewhat. "He has no choice, does he?" Not since the red strands were added to the dark weaving.

"No," he gloated. He sniffed the flower again before replacing it in his lapel. "Even though you’re making sense today, a truly rare occurrence," he said, voice dripping with sarcasm, "I’ve things I need to do. Remember, hurt him and-"

"You’ll make me suffer as no other before. Yes, yes, I’ve been properly cowed." She ignored the potent glare and waved the brat away. "One hopes your heart isn’t so stubborn in the future."

He stared at her, his pale green eyes glimmering with malice. "There shouldn’t be any need for him to return here." The Magician appeared about to say something else but thought better of it and settled for shaking his head. "Stay away from him, you old witch." With that he left, as suddenly as he appeared.

She took a deep breath and slumped over the table. He was gone… for now. However, if the Knight made the right choice, the brat would be back, even more furious than he was today. She still didn’t know what she’d say to him then, other than to remind him of the vision with the cherry blossoms.

Still, she’d cross that bridge when she came to it. With luck, she’d enrage him to the point he’d kill her. Then she’d finally be free of all of this… and wouldn’t have to remain here and see the pain and suffering her actions wrought.

 

*******

Crawford sat in his office, his chair pushed back from his large desk, his hands folded on his lap and his eyes closed. He became still as much as he could in both body and mind, keeping his breathing shallow and thoughts quiet as he focused his power.

Usually, his talent dictated when he’d receive visions, often unpredictably and painfully but there were moments, such as now, when time seemed to stop its flow and the world took on a crystalline nature, sharp and clear enough to ‘see’ through if he could concentrate enough.

He’d gotten quite good at recognizing those moments and taking advantage of them. Right now, he honed his talent with a precision born of half skill and half desperation as he tried his best to ‘see’ all he could of the future. As he focused, the cloud of mist surrounding the flow of time dissipated ever so slightly, revealing more of the future time streams.

He saw Balinese torn between two lovers and realized that this was what Schuldig was waiting for, to make Abyssinian his. The damned mist obscured the choice but there was a glimpse of Schuldig and Abyssinian in a hotel room and a kiss, accompanied by the shifting feeling that this was the proper beginning of the ill-wight becoming Schwarz… but that current flowed off into the future, signifying that it wouldn’t happen right away.

Or perhaps not at all. The next image was of Schuldig standing behind a girl who looked remarkably like Aya Fujimiya. She aimed a gun at a furious Abyssinian and, as he watched, a bullet was fired and both men clutched their chests. The wound wasn’t fatal though, because then, there was Abyssinian standing over the body of one of the Elders, his sword coated in blood. Very interesting.

The next image was a familiar one, almost making Crawford sigh and destroying the stillness he needed to maintain. Abyssinian, his throat mottled with dark bruises, lying beneath Schuldig, the two of them utterly engrossed in each other. The damned vision made him feel like a peeping tom – he felt a twinge of thanks when it shifted outside the traditional Japanese house to the cherry trees in full bloom under a perfectly round moon. *That* was when the future snapped into a clarity that stunned him, it revealed a myriad of currents and streams which sprung from that one moment and all he could do was glance at them before his mind, reeling from the information overload, betrayed him by ordering his body to take a deep breath.

The necessary stillness shattered, he did his best to memorize as many images as possible. Bombay walking away from Siberian and changing from a teenager into a young, serious man dressed in an expensive, dark suit and weighed down by… something. Nagi, just as changed, appeared by the young man’s side. Farfarello holding a small boy with golden eyes and russet-colored hair. The Eurasian child radiated so much power…. An altered Balinese, his eyes shadowed with loss and longing, staring at Abyssinian whose hair was now longer and darker. A vision of himself with the dye stripped from his hair, wearing an utterly ridiculous suit. Last, but not least, the changed Abyssinian kissing Schuldig in the hallway of a hospital, clutching at him for a moment before he reluctantly let go and walked away. Then everything faded into an endless knot of green, gold and violet.

He sat there for a moment and relished the rush left by the use of his talent as he reached for the bottle of painkillers on his desk. He barely managed to swallow several and washed them down with coffee before the pain set in, vicious claws striking deep within his brain. It hurt so much that, for several minutes, all he could do was breathe in and out, his eyes filled with tears and his jaw clamped shut.

Eventually, the pain receded and he could devote some thought to the visions. Even with the special clarity, things were still too muddled to make much sense and this bothered him, along with the fact that much of the future rested on Balinese and Abyssinian’s actions. There was also a growing certainty that things weren’t going to proceed as he’d planned over the years, yet he had a sense that they would work out fine, more or less, in the end. He hated the thought that he now had less control of the future than before but he pushed the feeling aside. All that mattered in the end was breaking free from and destroying Esset. There were other goals, too but they’d never be achieved until Esset no longer controlled Schwarz.

He rested his aching head against the back of his black, leather chair and closed his eyes. He couldn’t shake the niggling thought that there was something going on, something he was missing. There was a reason for the clouded visions and the odd images, such as the tricolor knot but it escaped him. He was greatly irritated that he should know the answer but one was still not forthcoming. With a sigh he resolved to try and figure things out later, when it didn’t feel as if his brain was being pulverized and beginning to ooze from his ears. At least he’d sent Schuldig out on a mission so there’d be one less thing to add to his headache. A frown tugged at his brow, he thought that Schuldig was somehow connected to everything and suspected that his teammate was hiding something very important from him. However, it would be just as productive to try to stop a speeding bullet train with his own body than it would be to pry the truth from the telepath. There was the annoying feeling that he’d have to bide his time for the elusive answers.

While he practiced the art of patience over the decades, Crawford still felt it was one virtue that was highly overrated.

 

*******

Schuldig stood across the street from the flowershop, a cigarette between his lips and his eyes squinting to make out the small image behind the shop’s windows. Aya moved back and forth, setting out plants and readying the store for business.

What he wouldn’t give to cross the street, enter the shop and kiss Aya. Of course he’d probably end up smacked for his audacity and he’d have to make sure the cocklicker and Siberian remained asleep through the resulting fight but he was certain he’d be able to calm Aya down… eventually. Maybe after a little ‘persuasion’ or as his heart’s power overwhelmed Aya.

But the moment wouldn’t last forever and that fact hurt. Eventually Aya would regain his senses and lash out, furious at the both of them. No, Schuldig had to bide his time a little longer and then Aya would be completely his. There’d be no more fighting, not after Kudoh broke Aya’s heart.

Just a little longer to go. God, he hated waiting, especially when what he wanted was so close. He remembered the meeting yesterday, the way Aya’s power protected their link and the vision of them together…. That caused him to frown as he wondered why Aya’s talent chose to repeatedly show that moment and not the scene from the hotel room. Still, it was a very lovely image of the future, even if he was left quite disturbed over what had happened to Aya’s throat. He didn’t like the idea of anyone harming his precious lover. Cassandra was so damned lucky he hadn’t hurt her worse this morning….

Shaking his head, he tried to figure out where that thought came from; not so much the logic of it but the intensity of the emotion behind it. Aya was his. No one would hurt him. He waited for the ‘except him’ qualifier and grimaced when it failed to surface. Damn. He knew the link would affect him just as much as Aya but didn’t like the new emotions, the intense protectiveness and shared pain that he felt. If he wanted to possess Aya and his talent, he needed to be able to do whatever was necessary. However, that was no longer the case.

His star scarred hand still ached from the slap he’d given Cassandra, over an hour ago and in a dream. He so wanted to kill the senile bitch the moment he saw her, the memory of Aya’s pain tingling along his own nerves. No, no one hurt his lover – except Kudoh for one last time. He smiled in anticipation of the betrayal to come. Soon enough, that bastard would break Aya’s heart, making him Schuldig’s. The dreams would come true and there’d be no reason for him to hurt Aya any more. They’d be together, the link even stronger between them and nothing would ever hurt either of them again.

With that thought in mind, he forced himself to walk away from the flowershop and complete the mission Oracle had given him.

*******

Aya stopped counting the money for the register and looked up as heat flooded through him. For a moment he felt as if he was standing outside, with the taste of cigarette smoke in his mouth, a cold wind causing him to hunch his shoulders against the chill and the sound of traffic all around him. Then the warmth faded and he was left shivering and disturbed.

He couldn’t tell what it was, short of consulting the skeins of threads with his talent. However, that was something he refused to do after yesterday though he was certain something was wrong. He’d woken up on edge this morning and couldn’t shake the impression that today wasn’t going to be a good day; it felt as if he was about to lose something precious, as if his happiness was going to be snatched away. Cassandra’s warning rang in his ears and he spent most of the morning trying to figure out her cryptic comments.

He refused to lose anything else, he didn’t care what price he had to pay. He’d already lost too much. He didn’t think he could take it if anyone else was snatched from him, especially if it was Yohji. For a moment he had a vision of himself, soaked to the bone and freezing, in an elevator but it quickly faded, leaving him reeling from vertigo. He leaned against the register and panted, feeling weak and nauseated in the vision’s wake and knew that it was another warning of sorts. He didn’t care. If that vision coming true was the price he had to pay to keep Yohji, so be it.

*******

Hell checked the results once again and confirmed that the tank’s solution was still functioning properly. It wouldn’t do for it to fail and Masafumi came down with an infection or worse. The fluid was an amazingly complex solution of nutrients and minerals, designed by her lover to sustain and help repair any organic matter immersed in it. Masafumi was a genius and one day people would realize that, some day soon after he woke up….

"Daddy, get better soon. I want you to play with Tot and Mr. Bunny again." Tot, busy playing with her bunny beside the tank, pressed the stuffed animal’s face against the glass. Hell flinched when she heard the scraping sound from the plastic orbs scratching against the Plexiglas tank and had to remind herself that there was no danger of it breaking.

It was Schoen who urged Tot away from the tank, her lovely face twisted with anger as her hand tightened on the teenager’s arm. "When will Masafumi be-" Schoen began to ask.

"It's Weiß' fault," she interrupted her friend before Schoen could take out her frustration over Masafumi’s slow healing on Tot. They were all on edge from waiting for their lover to awaken.

"I'm going to kill them." Neu didn’t even look away from the knife she was tossing into the air and catching as she spoke, and there was a rare spark of emotion in her voice, noticeable only to people familiar with her. Hell set aside the chart she was writing on to look at her usually silent friend.

Neu glanced up, her face expressionless. However, just as Hell was about to say something, there was the sound of a door opening, prompting Neu to turn around and throw the knife. Her aim was as good as always, the blade striking the frame of the door just as Mastermind walked into the room, a mocking smile on his face.

He stared at the tank for a moment, his smile widening with a malicious spark in his eyes as he turned to face Hell. "You need to get rid of the giant guinea pig."

Her hands clenched in anger as she wished once, just once, she could hit the smug bastard. His help almost wasn’t worth putting up with his attitude.

Schoen spoke for her, though, too much on the edge to remain quiet and swallow the insult. "You better watch your mouth!" She fondled the handle of her whip, making it abundantly clear what would happen if the telepath didn’t behave.

Mastermind didn’t look upset in the least, the smile still on his face as he waved a hand at Schoen and winked at Tot, who pressed against the tank. "Why don't you let us use Masafumi for the Kundalini experiment?" He looked at the tank, his expression growing sly. Hell wasn’t sure if he was staring at Tot or Masafumi and didn’t like either possibility. "I chose to hire you guys because I like you, you know that, right?" Having uttered that odd phrase, he waved at her and walked away, his hands in his pockets and whistling a cheerful tune.

She watched him carefully until he left the lab, a cold feeling settling in her chest when she noticed his almost imperceptible glance in Fujimiya’s direction. When the door closed behind him, she looked over at the corner where Abyssinian’s sister slept, oblivious to the world.

Schoen snorted in disgust and held her arm out to Tot who hurried over for a hug. "How long do we have to live like this?" the teenager asked, her voice bewildered but possessing a clear edge to it for once, not masked by her little girl persona.

"A little longer... just a little longer," Hell said as she rubbed her eyes. The four of them gathered around the tank, their eyes intent on Masafumi. Mastermind’s visits always unnerved them, the man stopping by unexpectedly and leaving after a few cryptic remarks. She had the impression he didn’t care as much for the experiments Esset paid them to conduct as he did Abyssinian’s sister. She felt a flush of anger at the thought. The girl was theirs, precious bait to lure Abyssinian and his teammates to their deaths. They must pay for what they did to Masafumi, especially the redhead. "Weiß will be looking for us soon." They deliberately left a trail of dead bodies for the assassins to follow.

Schoen chuckled softly as she stroked her healed cheek. "They’ll think they’re chasing us, when it’s the opposite. I can’t wait to make them pay."

"None of us can," Neu said before she settled back in the shadows. Hell spared her a glance, surprised that she’d spoken twice in less than an hour. All of them were very excited about the thought of making Weiß pay.

"Did you hear that, Mr. Bunny?" Tot asked her toy. "The bad boys will pay for what they did to Daddy and then he’ll wake up and play with us again. It’ll be ever so much fun!" She giggled as she made the bunny’s head swing back and forth in a parody of a nod.

Yes, it was going to be ‘ever so much fun’. Hell pressed her hand against the tank and prayed that the day came soon.

*******

Lying on the bed, Yohji looked up when a figure blocked the open doorway of the small apartment. The light streaming inside made it hard to identify the person – until he heard the laughing voice.

"Yohji! Yohji! Are you still in bed? Come on, get dressed and come over here," Asuka ordered, sounding much too cheerful for the early hour.

He shifted in bed, pulling the covers tighter around him in an effort to hide himself away. He was comfortable and tired, and there was a nagging voice telling him that bad things would happen if he got out of bed.

"Check out this view," Asuka said, not about to give up on dragging him from bed. "You can see the ships way in the distance."

That’s right, their apartment was located much closer to the harbor than the Koneko. Sometimes at night they’d go up on the roof and watch the running lights of the ships approaching and leaving. He missed the view, though there was something to be said about curling up on a blanket and trying to see the stars with Aya beside him….

Wait… Aya… Asuka…. "I’m getting up," he mumbled as he tried to make sense of his thoughts. Something wasn’t right here….

He opened his eyes to see Asuka, already dressed for the day, standing by the bed. She smiled at him and then… then she changed. Her hair became longer, a visor covered her face and her casual clothes were now a catsuit. In her right hand was a weapon - he recognized Aya’s katana, dripping with blood. As the katana fell, he moved on the bed and grabbed the first thing he could find, a pillow, and held it up as if it were a shield.

"Never going to leave me, you’re never going to leave me," Neu chanted as she slashed the pillow. Black feathers spilled out and Yohji heard the cawing of crows.

"If I can’t have you, he can’t either. You’re mine, Yohji, in life and death."

He sat up in bed, panting and covered with sweat, to hear crows cawing outside his window. Those damned birds - Aya had taken to muttering about them in his sleep lately and they were on his shit list for creating such a ruckus. If the nightmare hadn’t woke him up, they would have.

He rubbed his hands over his face as he looked behind him. He knew Aya was down in the shop but part of him hoped to see his lover sleeping peacefully and being able to cuddle with him. Gods, he needed to see if Aya was all right. He gave his eyes one more rub, his fingers combed through his hair and then he stood up while reaching for the pack on the nightstand. Lighting a cigarette, he searched around the room until he found a pair of clean jeans and pulled them on. Then he looked out the window at the grey day outside and noticed there weren’t any birds to be seen. Damned pests must have flown off already. He remembered the black feathers from his dreams and Asuka turning into Neu. Somehow, he knew that the blood on the katana was Aya’s.

"Let me sleep, it’s my morning off," he muttered but knew he wouldn’t be able to fall back to sleep, not now. Even though he had at least two hours before his shift started, he needed to go down into the Koneko and make sure Aya was all right. Besides, he’d just have another nightmare since his lover wasn’t there. He took a long drag from the cigarette before he moved from the window.

Going through his closet, he pulled out a shirt he could wear after his shower. He draped a white t-shirt and a clean pair of boxers over his arm and closed the drawers of the dresser. The last thing he needed for the day was his cigarettes but, when he looked on top of the dresser, he couldn’t find the pack he left there the night before. Huh. If Aya decided to try to make him quit by tossing away his smokes, his lover was in for an earful of bitching. He grabbed the pack off the nightstand instead. He’d have to replace it later - he liked keeping a pack there so he could have a smoke while in bed.

After a quick shower, he slicked back his hair into a ponytail and headed for the kitchen. While brewing a pot of coffee, he found his missing pack on the counter, looking mashed and a little worse for wear as if someone had sat on them. He frowned when he looked inside the soft-pack and found several bent cigarettes. They should be smokable so that wasn’t a problem but how the hell did they get down here? Maybe Omi was so damned frustrated over Ken that he’d taken up smoking.

He fixed himself a bite to eat from the leftovers, thankful that Omi made such a big dinner last night. The noodles tasted wonderful then but were even better today. Dishes rinsed off and in the sink, he poured himself some more coffee and went downstairs to the shop. He didn’t know how Aya managed to drag himself out of bed for work this morning, not after last night. He smiled as he thought about all they’d done before going to sleep….

Then, he remembered what inspired the frenzied lovemaking and his good mood came to an abrupt end. That fucking prick, Mastermind- He growled in frustration as he stepped into the flowershop. What he wouldn’t give to be able to kill the Bastard. However, if Mastermind hadn’t lied to Aya, that was never going to be possible. It figured. The one time he actually told the truth it would be about that. He shook his head in disgust and frustration.

"Hey, what’s with the long face? I didn’t think you’d be that upset after last night," Ken said as he smiled and tossed a pink daisy at him. "Are you feeling all right?"

"Ha ha, Kenken." He sniffed the flower before tucking it behind his ear. "Where’s Aya?" He wanted to know where his lover was and felt a bit disturbed not to find Aya in the shop. He also wasn’t sure if Omi told Ken about yesterday and wasn’t about to be the idiot to do so. Ken would be beyond pissed if he knew that Mastermind had fucked with any of their heads again, let alone Omi’s.

"He’s getting something from the storeroom. We had a busy morning." In the process of lifting a bucket of flowers onto Aya’s worktable, Ken paused and stared at him in puzzlement. "I thought you weren’t supposed to start working until after lunch?"

Pulling out a pack of cigarettes, he lit a smoke. Ken frowned at him for that but he waved aside the coming complaint. "I didn’t want to be away from my kitten that long."

Ken made a gagging sound. "Yeah, right. God, you have it bad, Yohji. When’s the wedding and who’s wearing the dress? If it’s you, it’s definitely not going to be white. Coal black would be more fitting."

He swiped at Ken’s head but the laughing asshole dodged the blow. "Very funny, Ken. You know, if you ever work up the balls to propose to Omi, the boy could wear white. But that will never happen, will it?"

Instead of an angry retort, Ken just smiled at him, appearing so happy it was almost sickening. "Don’t count on that, Kudoh."

Sensing that something was going on that he didn’t know about, he was prevented from asking any questions when Aya, his arms full of rolls of colored cellophane, walked into the shop. After setting the rolls on the table, Aya stalked up to him and before he knew it, his cigarette was snatched and tossed to the floor.

"Don’t smoke in here," Aya said as he ground out the cigarette with the toe of his boots.

"Then I’ll just have to find some other outlet for my oral fixation." Yohji grabbed Aya and yanked him close for a passionate kiss. Gods, even after last night he was more than ready to ravish his lover. That Aya looked so damned sexy wearing his red wool sweater and the gray, leather pants he utterly adored didn’t help matters either. The pants were so soft and way too tight for Aya to be wearing anything beneath them. Breaking apart when the door chimed as a customer walked inside, he leered and reluctantly let go of his kitten. "Hmmm, even better than a smoke."

Aya sighed in annoyance and pushed him out of the way to start working on some flower arrangements so he wandered over to help Ken with the customer. He arrived during a lull in business it seemed, as more people walked into the store, most likely drawn by the sale on daisies and chrysanthemums. He started to regret coming in to work early but had to admit he felt better being able to keep an eye on Aya. No insane telepath or Neu would snatch his lover away while he was watching.

The large lunch crowd bought enough that their supply of daisies was seriously depleted, enough so that he didn’t think the sale would last much into the evening. Once the fan girls arrived and realized that Aya couldn’t yell at them if they bought the discounted flowers, their stock would be gone. Yet, oddly enough, his lover didn’t look very happy. Aya stared down at the arrangement he just finished, a frown on his face as he shoved the flowers aside. He glanced at Yohji before heading toward the back of the shop.

Yohji checked his watch and was pleased to note that Omi should be arriving soon. This meant he could leave Ken up here all alone and go see what was bugging his boyfriend. Whistling as he removed his apron, he rolled it into a ball and tossed it onto Aya’s worktable. "I’m taking a break."

Ken looked up from the counter he was organizing and glared. "Come on, Yohji, you had all day yesterday to fool around. Try working for once instead of feeding that libido of yours."

"Hey, I came to work early so I’m entitled to take a break. And don’t get on my case for having a healthy, normal sex drive," he retorted as he walked away.

"If that’s a normal sex drive we’d be hip deep in kids," Ken muttered. "Try to keep down the-" He was prevented from making any other smart comments as a middle-aged woman entered the shop.

Making good his escape since Ken was distracted, Yohji hurried off in search of his lover. Aya wasn’t in the storeroom or coolers so that left one other place. He couldn’t help but grin from ear to ear as he stepped into the greenhouse. Ah, there was Aya, busy inspecting the rest of their chrysanthemums. "Need any help?"

Aya looked up at him and, for a moment, Yohji was struck by how tired and drained his lover appeared. "We need to take out some more flowers," Aya said, his voice quiet but his eyes intent on Yohji.

"No problem, I’ll help you load them on a dolly." But Yohji walked past it to come over to Aya’s side.

Aya frowned but the dark expression faded as Yohji brushed back the bangs falling into his lover’s face. "Why do I get the impression that you’re not back here to help me with the flowers?" Aya asked, a weary smile teasing at his lips.

"Because you know me so well?" He tilted Aya’s chin up for a gentle kiss. "When have I ever passed up an opportunity to ‘have’ you back here?"

"I guess if you did, we’d all be worried about you." Aya draped his arms over Yohji’s shoulders and pulled him close as he leaned against a table.

"That’s how you’ll know I’m dead," Yohji teased as his hand slid beneath the sweater.

Leaning away from him, Aya glared and batted his hands away. "Don’t ever joke like that," he snapped.

"What, about me being dead?" Aya’s eyes flashed at the question and Yohji suddenly felt very tired. He didn’t want to think about things like this, not now. Hell, he didn’t want to think about him and certainly not Aya dying at any time. "I’m sorry," he whispered and Aya appeared mollified after a second. Deciding he couldn’t put his foot in his mouth if it was already occupied, he leaned in for another kiss.

Aya had finally gotten past the point where he put up any resistance when Yohji approached him back here for a little fun, probably because he wasn’t pouncing on the poor man all the time now. However, he couldn’t recall the last time Aya was this eager. His lover’s hands tightened in his hair and pulled him close, a long leg wrapped around his hip so he could rub against a growing hardness. Not one to turn such an opportunity down, he pressed against Aya, his hands sliding down the back of the leather pants.

As he suspected, there was nothing underneath them but Aya. He gave his love’s luscious ass a squeeze and removed one hand so he could work on the zipper while Aya moaned and started to pull off his shirt. That led to a flurry of undressing, pants shoved to the floor and kicked away as shirts were impatiently yanked off and tossed aside.

Aya looked up at him, his crimson hair falling about his face and an eartail clinging to the side of his mouth so it looked as if he was covered with blood. Yohji blinked away the awful vision and brushed back the bright hair to assure himself that it was just his imagination. Nothing had harmed Aya, he’d kept his love safe. He wasn’t going to lose him.

He leaned down for another kiss, his hand trailing along Aya’s cool skin, feeling the defined muscles beneath and felt goose bumps form beneath his fingers. Aya shuddered when Yohji wrapped a hand around his cock and actually whimpered. Smiling at the needy sound, Yohji nuzzled his lover’s neck and kissed him there, gently at first and then sucking hard enough to leave a bruise. Something about his kitten just short-circuited his brain, bringing out all these possessive instincts. Which was even worse than usual lately because of the damned dreams.

He grabbed Aya by the waist and tried to turn him around but his hands were again batted away. He groaned in frustration and wondered if Aya was going to go all frigid on him now.

"I have an idea," Aya said, his voice husky and eyes heated with passion and determination. "What do you say to us trying something a little different?"

Not this again, not now. Aya had been pushing for a role reversal in their sex life the past couple of weeks but now was not the time, not when all Yohji wanted to do was fuck his lover silly. Besides, he was still trying to get used to the idea. None of his experiences as bottom had been pleasant and he didn’t want to mess with a good thing.

"How about we don’t?" Aya scowled and tried to push him away but Yohji held on to his boyfriend. "I want you too much now, can’t we talk about this some other time?" He smiled to try to lessen the refusal. "Besides, I don’t see what’s so great about my scrawny ass. It’s so bony you’ll be sore as hell and it’s not as luscious as yours." He patted said bottom and had his hand knocked aside.

"Why do I get the impression that ‘let’s talk about it some other time’ is the same as ‘no way in hell?’" Aya asked, his voice cold. He shoved Yohji away and folded his arms over his chest.

Yohji ran his hand through his hair and tried to figure out just how this had all gone downhill. If there was one thing he hadn’t missed these past few weeks, it was how he and Aya could get into a fight at the drop of a hat. "Fine, forget all about it." He wasn’t going to grovel and end up making things even worse, not when Aya was in a mood to argue with everything he said. Reaching for his pants, his hand was grabbed tightly.

"Yohji…." Aya closed his eyes and sighed. "Don’t go." There was an odd note to his voice, as if he was almost pleading. Yohji looked at him for a moment and stood up. Aya suddenly became shy and stared at the floor.

Feeling shamed, Yohji cupped his lover’s face between his hands and kissed him, trying to put all his love and desire into the caress. Words obviously weren’t his friend right now so he tried to express his feelings with actions instead. Gods, he loved Aya so damned much that it tore at him to cause his lover any pain, even inadvertently.

Aya responded to the kiss, his fingers entwined in Yohji’s hair, his tongue deep in Yohji’s mouth. Gods, Aya tasted so fucking good. Yohji had a sudden image of them in another sixty years or so, Aya hobbling away in a walker while he chased his geriatric lover in a wheelchair, desperate for that taste. He couldn’t help but snort in amusement.

Aya pulled away, his fine, red brows furrowed as he stared at Yohji. "I was just thinking about how I’ll still be chasing after you even when we’re old and grey. We’ll have to find a retirement home that has a greenhouse and pray we don’t dislocate or break anything while we play."

Aya smiled at the comment and nuzzled beneath Yohji’s chin. "I can see us getting kicked out of one nursing home after another." He became serious all of a sudden and wrapped his arms around Yohji’s neck. "I’ll still be yours, even then." The words were spoken with the hushed reverence of a sacred vow. Maybe it was his imagination but Aya’s eyes appeared to turn a darker purple just then.

"I know, kitten." Aya would be his forever, that was the promise between them. He wasn’t going to cheat on or leave the man, he might be blond but he wasn’t that stupid. "I love you," he said, needing to make a vow of his own. "Always."

Aya didn’t say anything in return to Yohji’s declaration - his lover wasn’t as free with the words as he was and always felt that actions were much better than speaking. He knew he was loved, though, knew it from the fact that Aya hadn’t killed him for his stupid attitude earlier and put up with him when he was an idiot. Knew it from the way Aya’s hands roamed over his body, unfailingly stroking each of his erotic zones, the way Aya offered himself up to him. There were a million other ways he knew his boyfriend loved him back but all he could think about right now was that Aya wanted him.

The slow caresses became hurried pawings, both of them desperate to lose themselves in each other. He ravished Aya’s mouth as he stroked his lover, pumping Aya’s cock until strong fingers dug into his shoulders and he heard those sweet, desperate whimpers again. He broke off the kiss, his breathing ragged from more than the lack of oxygen as he stared at his lover, at Aya’s flushed face and passion-dark eyes, at the way the crimson hair clung to pale skin and sharp muscles clenched and unclenched in time with his strokes. All of this was his. Gods, was he a lucky bastard.

"Want you," he managed to gasp as Aya shuddered against him. His boyfriend stared at him for a moment, eyes heavy lidded with desire and pink tongue swiping along dry lips before he was kissed briefly but with astonishing ardor. Aya released his shoulders and started to turn, making him reluctantly let go of his prize so the man could turn around and brace against the table. Yohji pressed against the slender, pale back, his hands skimming along Aya’s sides in just the right spots that made his lover shiver in his arms. His entire body felt so tight and heavy with desire that, for a moment, it was all he could do, to lean against Aya, his lips kissing a sweat-damp nape softly while his right hand wrapped around a twitching, slick cock. Sometimes, it wasn’t so much taking Aya that made him so damned horny and uncontrollable but just being allowed to do that, to have Aya naked and wanting in his arms, utterly trusting him. To know he was the only one permitted to do this.

But that moment of clarity never lasted long as desire and need pushed him to complete what he started, to take what was offered. It was almost painful to pull away from Aya to go search for a tube of lube but, thankfully, the one he’d left on the shelf that held the watering cans was still there. He rushed back to Aya and, eager as all hell, started to prepare his lover.

It was easier to get Aya’s muscles to relax now even though it still felt utterly tight and perfect when he buried himself inside his kitten. Panting with need and not helped in the least by Aya’s throaty moans and whispered pleas, by the way his lover bucked against his fingers, he wasn’t about to draw this out. He felt dangerously close to coming as it was, just from the feel of Aya’s body against his, from hearing the ragged pleadings for him to hurry up and-

He drew in a sharp breath before he squeezed out more lube and slicked up his cock, already slippery from his own fluids. His hands shook as he positioned himself and grabbed Aya’s hips, the only warning he gave being the kiss to Aya’s shoulder right before he pushed inside. He couldn’t help but groan, both in intense pleasure and wanting to enjoy slowly entering his lover’s willing body. Aya quickly fell silent, head tilted back to rest on Yohji’s shoulder as he buried himself completely inside his lover.

They were both utterly still for a minute as Yohji gave his boyfriend time to adjust; and then Aya gave a little shuddering breath that Yohji recognized as his signal. He started out slowly to find that perfect position, both of them shifting minutely until Aya gasped sharp enough to be heard throughout the greenhouse.

"Right there, na?" Yohji chuckled as he resumed stroking Aya’s cock, quite proud of himself at how quickly he found the right spot. When Aya sighed in agreement, he picked up his pace, no longer able to control himself. All that mattered was the ecstasy coursing inside him, being shared with the man he loved. He was buried deep inside Aya, connected to him, and all his fears of finding his lover gone vanished at the irrefutable proof that Aya was still here and they were still together. His thoughts broke down as the thrusts quickened, spurred on by the increasing pleasure and Aya’s urgent pleas.

Perfect, every thing was perfect. Hot. Tight. Smooth. Taut body pressed back against him. Cool, damp skin for him to lick and suck and tease. His name was a ragged whisper choked out again and again. Pleasure. Intense pleasure. Love a warm glow that filled him. The feeling of completion. On and on, all of it, building higher and higher until he heard a cry and things became even tighter, even more perfect. Yohji yelled as he came, his body shuddering with Aya’s name on his lips. The orgasm ripped through his body, centering in his groin and bursting out of him with a last few desperate thrusts. Perfect.

Aya slumped down on the table and he followed his lover, draped over Aya’s cool, sweaty back as he tried to remember how to breathe. It suddenly seemed very, very complicated until he gasped and picked up the rhythm. That was it, breathe in floral and musk scented air, breathe it back out. Repeat. "Gods, that was good," he managed to croak after a minute.

His lover grunted in response and shrugged his shoulders. Yohji got the hint and shifted to Aya’s side, his shaking hand reaching out to brush back the hair clinging to Aya’s face. "You all right?"

"Hmmm." Aya tilted his face into the caress, a hint of a smile on his lips. Somehow Yohji found the energy to lean forward to kiss him, he needed to feel that smile against his mouth. It was always such a thrill to know he was responsible for the rare expression.

"I’ll take that as a ‘yes’." He smiled at Aya and groaned as he pushed himself away from the table. Leaning down for one more kiss, he grabbed his shirt and fished a pack of cigarettes out of the breast pocket before settling back against the table.

Aya grabbed a roll of paper towels left lying out and ripped some off. He used that to clean himself. Yohji watched for a moment before tapping a smoke out of the pack. He could wait to clean up until after his cigarette.

His good mood faded slightly when he realized the cigarette in hand was too crumpled to smoke. "Dammit. Hey, Aya, do you know how the hell my smokes managed to get from our room to the kitchen?" He held the pack up to eye level and turned it around as he studied it closely. "I don’t see any legs on it so it couldn’t have walked."

Aya, in the process of pulling on his pants, looked up at Yohji and then quickly turned away. He mumbled something and reached for his shirt.

Remembering how Aya reacted yesterday whenever he smoked, he grabbed his lover by the arm and yanked him close. "Hold on, what did you say? Did you have something to do with this?" He held up the crumpled soft-pack. "I know you hate my smoking but I don’t trash your stuff just because I don’t like it." Cigarettes were damned expensive.

"I took them downstairs by mistake," Aya said, his voice muffled as he pulled on the heavy sweater.

"How the hell did you manage that since you don’t smoke?" Yohji asked as he helped smoothed down Aya’s tousled hair. When his hand was batted aside, he looked through the hole at the top of the pack and did a quick count. "And how did I manage to lose a cigarette? I had five in here Saturday night." When his lover remained silent, he pulled Aya back to the table and frowned. "What’s going on? You never touch my smokes and now you’re wandering around the house with them, not to mention flinching whenever I light up. You take up smoking or something?"

"No!" Aya snapped, his eyes wide and his face pale. Yohji had the distinct impression he was missing something and that it wasn’t good for Aya to react like this.

"What the hell is going on?"

His hand shaking, Aya raked it through his shaggy hair and sighed. "I woke up yesterday and went to see why the place was so cold. For some reason… I picked up your cigarettes and had one. It didn’t take me long before I started hacking up my lungs so I left them on the table when I went back to bed."

Aya smoked one of his cigarettes. The guy who used sex, to be more exact, the lack of it, to get him to go from a pack a day to half of one. Something was very, very wrong here. "Why do I think you’re still hiding something from me?" When Aya flinched the slightest bit and glared, he knew he was right. "Didn’t you say that Omi fixed the furnace? How did you know that?" Of course Aya didn’t answer him. "You must have seen him in the morning then. What did he think about you smoking?" More importantly, why didn’t Omi say anything to him about it?

Aya sighed again and rubbed his arms as if he was cold. "He saw me smoking the cigarette… and heard me speaking… German." Yohji’s jaw snapped shut when he heard that, his teeth clenching. "I was tired, Yohji, I didn’t know what I was doing. I sometimes dream in other languages, maybe I dreamed in German that morning." Not even Aya looked like he was buying that story.

"You mentioned a bad dream but nothing about foreign languages," Yohji pointed out. Dammit, the quiet bastard had been keeping something from him. Something involving Aya smoking cigarettes and speaking German. Let’s see, who did that remind him of…. "You didn’t think there was any reason why I should know about you waking up and acting like Mastermind?" he snapped. "Are you fucking stupid or what? What the hell were you thinking?" First the damned link and now this.

"I was thinking that if I was acting like Mastermind, I’d have strangled you in your sleep," Aya spat. He pushed away from the table, his eyes flashing with anger and his face became an impassive mask.

"Isn’t that a nice thought," he snapped back. "And I wouldn’t have had a fucking clue when I woke up with your hands around my neck. So nice to see you’re concerned about my safety, love."

"There wasn’t any danger in the first place, other than you running out of cigarettes." Aya stepped away from him, his eyes locked on Yohji’s and his voice growing deeper from barely contained anger. "Why do you have to twist everything into some sort of conspiracy?"

"Maybe because you act like you’re in the middle of one." He took a step closer to his lover, his fists clenched at his sides. "You keep so many godsdamned secrets from me and I only ever find out about them when they either blow up in our faces or I stumble across them. Let me remind you of the fact that Mastermind fucked with Omi’s head yesterday so he could get you alone. You’re probably lying about why the Bastard wanted to see you, too. Do you ever tell the fucking truth?" He was so sick of finding out just how little Aya trusted him. Dammit, even Omi had known and hadn’t said a word.

Aya paled at Yohji’s words, his eyes shining with fury through the strands of hair that fell onto his face. He shifted his feet until he stood in a stance that Yohji recognized from watching his boyfriend practice his katas; ready to lash out at any moment. "I always tell you the truth. I haven’t told you one single lie in months, Yohji. Can you say the same?"

The question knocked some of the wind out of his sails as he realized he was suddenly on the defensive. In true fighting spirit, Aya didn’t give him a chance to recover. "You’re saying that I’ve been lying and keeping things from you? What about you?"

Yohji desperately tried to figure out what Aya was referring to, what he could admit to without causing too much trouble. "What are you…."

"Care to tell me about *your* dreams?" Aya asked as he stepped closer and not away.

He was the one to take a step back now. "So I’ve had a few nightmares lately. You’re just trying to change the subject and you know it."

Aya snorted in disgust and pushed his hair out of the way. "A few nightmares? You have them almost every night and you try to hide them from me. What do you dream about, Yohji?"

"Why didn’t you tell me about yesterday?" he countered, desperate to get the conversation off of him. The last thing he wanted to discuss was his dreams.

"Because I wasn’t sure it was anything more than me being too tired to think properly. It didn’t feel like Mastermind was messing with my mind or that I dreamed about him." Aya shook his head as if trying to clear his thoughts. "I didn’t want to worry you if it was nothing." His anger, which seemed to fade during the last minute or so, flared back to life. "At least I haven’t lied to you."

Yohji scoffed as he shook tossed aside the bent cigarette. "No, how can you lie about something I don’t know anything about?"

"Like your dreams?" Aya shot back. "I know you’re not dreaming about being attacked by the fan club while working a shift in the Koneko or about Ken shaving you bald during your sleep or any other stupid explanation you’ve come up with after waking up from a nightmare." He smacked his hand down hard on a worktable. "You’re dreaming about *her*."

"Who told you that, Mastermind?"

"No, you call out her name in your sleep." The anger once again faded, this time leaving Aya appearing sad and worn in its wake. "You call out her name almost every night, either pleading with her to come back or to not leave you." He wiped a hand over his face and let out a shuddering breath. "Then you wake up and lie to me."

Yohji just stood there for a moment, stunned that Aya knew about his dreams. "Why didn’t you say anything?" he asked, his unease changing into anger. "You knew about this for how long and you didn’t say a damned thing?"

"Because I’m a quiet bastard who doesn’t tell you anything, remember?" Aya’s lovely eyes turned as cold as his voice. "No matter how much I’ve opened up to you lately, how much effort I put into talking to you, all it takes is one thing and I’m a callous bastard who never tells you the truth. Meanwhile, you’re the one lying to me every day and keeping a secret for over a month. Yet, I’m the bad one. I’m guilty." His mouth twisted in a grimace and he suddenly walked away, careful not to brush against Yohji as he left.

Yohji watched him leave, desperate to figure out how something so pleasant turned into something so bitter and accusing.

*******

Ken watched as several teenaged girls walked away in defeat, unable to win a smile from their heartthrob, Yohji. Around the shop, many of Weiß’s fan club talked in whispers while glancing at Yohji, obviously trying to figure out why he was so short tempered and distant today. He didn’t flirt with a single one of them and had even adopted a rather Aya-like attitude toward the girls. Ken kept expecting him to yell ‘buy something or leave’ any moment now.

He knew the change in mood had to be related to whatever had happened back in the greenhouse earlier. Yohji happily disappeared back there with Aya, only to return to work clearly upset about something. Aya had been the same way, avoiding both of them and not saying a single word, not even to the customers and disappeared the moment his shift was over which left Ken with a Yohji who became even more upset with Aya’s departure.

If it wasn’t for Omi, he’d have gone insane hours ago. He had to smile when Omi did his best to cheer up the disappointed girls, giving them the last of the daisies as presents. Soon, the rest of the girls were clustered around the register, begging him for free flowers as well. "I’m sorry," he said, blue eyes shining with laughter, "but we’ve run out."

Ken seized the opportunity presented and stepped toward the mob. "You’ll have to come back tomorrow to see if you can’t get a free flower from him then." The girls cried out in dismay. "I’m sorry but we have to close now. We need some time to restock everything! Good night!" He started to herd the crowd out the door, ignoring the girls’ pleas and flirting with ease. He long suspected that Weiß had been set up to work in the Koneko to harden them. It wasn’t very difficult to slice open a pleading guy’s throat after steeling oneself to a daily barrage of tears, begging and seduction attempts from a horde of lovely young women.

Omi joined in and, between the two of them, they managed to get all of the girls out of the shop, the doors closed, locked and the shutters down. Lucky for them, there weren’t any displays outside to bring in because of the cold weather. One or two of the girls usually managed to sneak back in while they struggled with racks of flowers and plants but today, emptying the shop was relatively easy. It wasn’t until the Koneko was safely shut down that he realized Yohji had vanished.

"I guess it’s just the two of us closing the store," Omi said, also noticing that they were alone in the flower shop.

"Yeah, I guess so." He untied his apron and grabbed the broom to start sweeping the floor. "I’d chase after him and make him do some work for once but I get the impression that all he’ll do is sulk." It wasn’t fair, he wasn’t supposed to be stuck closing today. It was a good thing he didn’t have anything planned after his shift.

Omi started to put things away. "What happened, Ken? First Aya leaves the second I show up and then Yohji…." He sighed as he slowly rolled up and organized the cellophane. "Don’t tell me they were like that all day."

Ken snorted at the thought. "No, I’d have killed them by noon if I had to put up with their shitty attitudes. It started out as a good day," he said, busy sweeping the leaves and dirt into one pile. "Then they did their disappearing act back to the greenhouse," he rolled his eyes while Omi stifled giggles. "Next thing I knew, Aya came out of there like a cat that just had its tail stepped on and a few minutes later Yohji appeared, doing his best impression of a storm cloud. The two of them wouldn’t even look at each other after that." Well, that wasn’t quite true, he caught them looking at each other a few times when the other wasn’t aware. He didn’t like the expressions on their faces at all. Aya and Yohji gave him the impression of two very hurt, very upset people.

Closing the empty register, Omi rubbed the back of his neck while he thought about something. "I guess they were overdue for a fight, although I must say it’s been nice to see them get along so well the past few weeks."

"It’s downright unnatural," Ken snorted as he stood up straight, dustpan full of debris in hand. "Those two thrive on fighting with each other. Gives them a reason to have lots and lots of makeup sex." He and Kase had been pretty good at that, always forgiving each other after a bout of intense lovemaking. He shivered at the thought of his treacherous ex-lover and hurried over to the trash to empty the dustpan. "They’ll be fighting with each other even when they’re old and grey." If they lived that long.

"If Aya doesn’t manage to run Yohji through with his katana before then." The front counter taken care of, Omi puttered around the shop, looking for anything he missed. "I don’t think they have to fight all the time and I wish they were still getting along. They’re always so miserable when they’re mad at each other, even if they have fun making up later." Omi blushed as he said that and smiled shyly at Ken. "I don’t want a relationship where it’s normal to fight all the time."

"Neither do I. People fight, I know they do, over shit like dropped towels," he said, making Omi smile. He was always being yelled at for leaving his used towels on the bathroom floor. "Yohji and Aya think fighting is foreplay." He couldn’t help but make a face after listening to himself. "I sound like a stupid women’s magazine, don’t I?"

Omi laughed and left his fussing to pat Ken reassuringly on his arm. "I hate to say it but yes, you do. If I didn’t know you picked that stuff up from hearing the girls read those articles to each other here in the shop, I’d be worried." He fell silent for a moment, and the next thing Ken knew, Omi stood up on his tiptoes and kissed him lightly on the mouth.

He could have let it end there but part of him rather liked the idea of kissing Omi right now. He grabbed his teammate’s arms and held him still as he deepened the kiss, heady with his own daring and the taste of the strawberry pocky Omi had been munching on. The kiss lasted at least a minute and when he pulled away, feeling lightheaded, he saw the most radiant smile on Omi’s face.

Omi stared at him for a few seconds. "Nice to know we have the same views on a relationship. What do you want to do about dinner?" The change in topic had Ken’s already dizzy head whirling about even more. "I can make something or we can eat out."

Giving the matter some thought, which wasn’t the easiest thing to do at the moment, he remembered their other teammates. "I vote that we go out. It’s not like it’ll be a fun dinner at home with Yohji pouting during the meal while Aya hides in his room or the gym." Besides, right now it seemed like a very good idea to have some time alone with Omi.

"Great! Give me some time to get ready and I’ll meet you in the kitchen in…. twenty minutes?" Omi stared at him until he nodded and then became a blur streaking across the room. "Twenty minutes!"

"I know." He should be able to be ready by then, if Omi didn’t spend the entire time in the bathroom. He’d like to wash off a little, suddenly in the mood to take Omi somewhere nice for dinner, making the evening a proper date.

They were taking things slow. Now that he’d gotten over his fears about a relationship with Omi, he promised himself that this wouldn’t be like his last two. He wasn’t going in blind as he had with Kase, unwilling to see his former lover’s faults, nor was he being as impulsive as he’d been with Yuriko. No. If this was to work, he had to do things right this time. He still had some doubts, about how far he could trust Omi and uncertain how their dating each other would affect the team but he decided that it was better to face those doubts than to keep being so miserable by himself. Now, if he could only keep their relationship from developing into one like Yohji and Aya’s….

Checking the shop to see if they missed anything, he headed for the stairs, his mind busy on where they should go for dinner. He was in the mood for something different, maybe they could try something European tonight. Some of the girls had been talking about a new restaurant lately, going on and on about how good the food was supposed to be and how they wished someone, like a handsome florist, would take them there for dinner since it wasn’t too expensive but terribly romantic….

He snorted at the girls’ obviousness and wondered how they’d react if they knew that two of the objects of their affections had gone there on a date… with each other. Just once he wanted to jump up on the counter and scream ‘we’re gay!’ at the top of his lungs just to get the annoying twits to leave them alone but was afraid that it wouldn’t discourage the girls in the slightest. Ah well, if it did, it would be bad for business.

He stepped into the kitchen… and immediately started coughing. "God, Yohji, have you taken up chemical warfare or something?" His eyes were streaming from the smoke-filled air as he stumbled toward the kitchen window, only to find it already open. Omi must have done it when he came through before, there was a little bit of fresh air by the window but not much. He pushed it open wider and turned to glare at the man responsible for single-handedly giving all of Weiß lung cancer. "What the hell is wrong with you? It’s going to take days to air out the reek of smoke in here! I’m surprised one of the neighbors hasn’t called the fire department yet!"

"Go to hell, Kenken."

His anger flared at the words but he calmed down as he noted the misery with which they were uttered and the way Yohji was hunched over the table. "Keep smoking like this and you’ll end up there before me." Taking a deep breath, he left the refuge of the open window and sat down at the table. "What’s wrong?" he asked, as if he didn’t already know.

Yohji was quiet for a moment as he took a drag off his cigarette and held his breath. After a few seconds he released it, smoke streaming from his mouth, his face haggard. He looked like a Noh mask just then, a broken old man breathing fire. "I’m an idiot. It doesn’t help that I’m in love with another idiot."

"Ah." He was in way over his head here and regretted asking the question. "He’ll forgive you, Yohji, he always does." After Aya made Yohji miserable for a few hours, of course.

Yohji snorted and ground out the cigarette that was smoked down to the filter. When he reached for another, Ken was quicker and swept the pack across the table, safely out of reach. Yohji raised an eyebrow at his actions but didn’t try to get it back. "It’s not just my fault this time, you know."

"I didn’t say it was."

"You said he’d forgive me. Do you ever think there might be something that I need to forgive, hmmm?" Yohji stared at him before rubbing his bloodshot eyes. "I need a drink."

That was the last thing Yohji, in his opinion, needed right now but he was an adult, he could do what he wanted. "Aya can be a stubborn bastard, I know that. And he doesn’t always think about how his actions can hurt someone else. You’re a matched set if I ever saw one."

Yohji gaped at him and eventually looked away and chuckled weakly. "Yeah, we are," he said, once again rubbing his eyes as if they bothered him. "I don’t know if that’s good or bad."

"Considering the fact that you’re usually deliriously happy when you’re not making each other miserable by fighting, I’d say that’s good." His patience was coming to an end and all he wanted to do was smack Yohji on the head and tell him to go apologize. He’d do the same to Aya but that would probably lead to one hell of a fight that would wreck half the house. He didn’t want to put up with two depressed roommates for however long it took the idiots to forgive each other. Hell, he’d rather be kept up all night by Yohji’s screaming Aya’s name again and again.

When all he got from Yohji was a grunt and a blank look, he decided he’d had enough and the lack of oxygen was making him cranky. Now he really would need to wash to get rid of the stench of smoke that clung to him. "Have fun wallowing in misery then," he said as he left Yohji to his own devices. He wasn’t going to worry about the man’s messed-up relationship when he was trying to put together as normal a one as possible of his own.

*******

Aya stepped out of the shower and reached for a towel. The hot water helped with his aching muscles but he’d pushed himself a little too hard during the workout for the heat to take away all the pain. He should have stopped sooner but it felt so good to do something, to lose himself in the katas instead of going over the argument with Yohji again and again in his mind.

His body dry, he rubbed the towel over his head and approached the steam-covered mirror. He had to wipe off the condensation to be able to see himself and he didn’t look long before turning away in disgust. There was nothing special about him, nothing at all to warrant Yohji and Schu’s attentions or even his own.

Why didn’t he tell Yohji about yesterday morning? That question bothered him for hours. He knew part of the reason was because he hated telling his lover anything that had to do with his link with Schuldig, unwilling to put up with a furious Yohji. There was nothing they could do about the link – he knew that before Schu’s surprise visit yesterday - so it was a waste of energy to try to find a solution that wasn’t there. Yohji would want to talk the matter to death, something he hadn’t been in the mood to do and would involve the others. He didn’t want his lover or teammates second-guessing every move he made, trying to figure out if his thoughts and actions were really his own.

Wrapping the wet towel around his waist, he bent down and picked up his sweaty clothes. Whatever his reasons for not telling Yohji, logical or not, his boyfriend didn’t want to hear them. Funny how Yohji was so pissed off at him over keeping secrets when he was guilty of doing the same. Aya had to tell him everything in his life relating to Schuldig but Yohji… anything dealing with Asuka, Yohji plainly thought was off-limits. He could count the number of times they talked about the dead woman on one hand.

He sighed and tucked back his bangs as he left the bathroom, the cooler, dryer air in the hallway raising goose bumps on his skin. He didn’t hear Omi or Ken and assumed that they had fled the Koneko, not wanting to be caught in the crossfire. There was no sound of Yohji wandering about either, leaving him to wonder where his boyfriend went. He walked as quietly as possible to his bedroom, his pace picking up when he found the door closed and no light spilling out along the crack at the bottom.

Once inside, he tossed his towel on the couch and pulled on some clothes, grabbing the first things he saw. He paused when he realized that it was Yohji’s jeans and sweater he was wearing but dressed in them anyway. It felt good to wear something of his lover’s, to smell Yohji’s spicy cologne. Sitting down on the couch, he picked up the towel and twisted it in his hands.

He couldn’t shake the feeling that something bad was going to happen, that he was about to lose someone he loved again. This premonition intensified the moment he confronted Yohji about the dreams. His hands shaking, he buried his face in the damp towel. How unfair was it to be jealous of a dead woman? It made no sense, Asuka was dead and gone but…. Yohji clung to her memory, and that of their relationship together even after all this time his lover. He couldn’t compete with a dead woman, couldn’t fight her. Asuka was the perfect lover tragically snatched away. He was just a substitute but he still loved Yohji with all his heart. He couldn’t bear to lose the man - not with Aya-chan missing. There’d be nothing to live for then.

‘You’d still have Schu. You’re linked forever, you’ll never be alone now.’

That thought made his head jerk up in anger. Dammit, his own mind was being a traitor again, thinking things that were nothing but lies. What good would Schuldig do him when he lost his heart and soul?

"This is ridiculous, you’re acting like you already lost Yohji, you moron," he told himself bitterly. Maybe he was a freak in body and mind but Yohji loved him. Perhaps not as much as he loved Asuka but still…. For a moment Aya wondered what would happen if he reached for those gold strands that clung to him and twisted them until Yohji no longer cared about Asuka, no longer cared about him waking up and speaking German….

He cursed as he jumped from the couch, his aching body protesting the sudden movement. He couldn’t do that, couldn’t twist Yohji’s thoughts and emotions. He’d be no better than Schwarz then and he’d break his lover’s trust. Any emotions Yohji felt for him after that would be tainted, false things.

No, if he didn’t want to lose Yohji, didn’t want a dead woman to win, he’d have to do something else instead. As much as it galled his pride to be the one apologizing when Yohji was equally to blame, he’d do anything to keep his lover. He didn’t want this paralyzing fear to be realized, didn’t want to lose the only person other than his sister that he truly loved. Before his pride could rally, he got to his feet, paused to drape the towel on the closet’s doorknob to dry and left the room.

Yohji wasn’t in the spare bedroom or the bathroom so he went downstairs. His lover wasn’t there either but he found the kitchen reeking of smoke and an ashtray overflowing with cigarette butts on the table. He wondered if Yohji went out, but knew there was one more place for him to check. He headed back upstairs, noting that the light was off in the exercise room and continued on until he reached the roof.

Stepping outside, he immediately regretted not grabbing a jacket before coming up but the thought was shoved aside when he caught a glimpse of a silhouette. Over to the left, Yohji was standing by the edge of the roof, his hair blowing in the breeze as he smoked. For a moment, Aya was mesmerized by how gorgeous his lover looked in the moonlight, his golden color silvered and features possessed a sharp, shadowed quality. His heart constricted at the sight and he tried to imagine never seeing Yohji again, never being able to touch that golden skin or comb his fingers through the wavy, long blond hair. It was agony to even contemplate such a thought.

Letting the door close behind him, he shivered and rubbed his arms as he walked toward his lover. Yohji chose to ignore him - there was no way the man hadn’t heard the door slam shut or seen him out of the corner of his eye. Aya pushed aside the anger he felt as he stopped at Yohji’s side and turned to look out over the city.

Colored lights and dark shadows glittered before them, a landscape of blackness and jewels clouded by haze. Above it all, reigned the moon. They stood side by side and enjoyed the sight, Yohji finished one cigarette and lit another.

"I’m sorry," Aya said, his jaw clenched to keep his teeth from chattering.

"Huh?" Yohji glanced his way. Of course his lover was dressed for the weather in a ridiculous, long black coat with fur trim at its collar and cuffs. "You say something for once?" Yohji asked as he tossed down the cigarette and stamped it out with his foot.

Ignoring the jibe, he tried not to shiver as he repeated his apology. "I said, ‘I’m sorry’." The words were tainted with anger and bitter in his mouth but he said them loud and clear. To see the astonished look on Yohji’s face was almost worth the loss of pride it took to utter the apology.

His lover stared at him for several seconds before turning to face him squarely. "You’re sorry. I certainly don’t hear that very often."

This time his jaw clenched with anger, not cold. Trust Yohji to drag this out instead of just accepting the apology and letting the matter drop. "I should have told you about yesterday morning." He ran an almost numb hand through his hair and really wished he’d thought about gloves and a coat. "I just…." He fumbled for the words to explain. "I feel like he’s always there, on the edge of everything, just waiting to ruin things for us. I hate talking about him, about anything related to him. It’s…," he shivered as he stared up at the moon, "it’s like I have this fear that just by talking about him we’ll summon him, like a demon or a curse. I just want to be happy with you." He felt so cold, chilled all the way through and it just wasn’t from the temperature. He didn’t know what he’d do if Yohji didn’t accept his apology.

Yohji was quiet for a few seconds and then reached out, his gloved hand grasping Aya’s chin, making him look down. "He won’t go away if you ignore him, love."

The endearment made his heart skip a beat. "I know that. However, I don’t see what good it does talking about him, especially when it always leads to a fight between us."

"Damned if we do and damned if we don’t, don’t you agree?" Yohji snorted before growing serious. "I’d still rather talk about him, Aya, and know what’s going on. I promise that if you tell me about him without me needing to find out on my own, I won’t start a fight. I swear it. If I do, you don’t have to mention anything to do with that Bastard again. Deal?"

Aya looked at his lover, part of him wondering if the matter could be laid to rest so easily, part of him all too happy at being forgiven. He hated it when they fought, hated the thought that maybe he’d finally driven Yohji away for good and wasn’t about to bring up the other half of their argument, not now. Not when the one breach had just been healed.

Yohji reached out again, this time wrapping him in his arms and pulling him close. His lover smelled like cigarettes, prompting him to sneeze when his face brushed the furred collar. He pulled away slightly as Yohji laughed and lowered his head so their foreheads touched.

"Gods, Aya, you’re like a block of ice!" Yohji started to curse as he yanked his long coat open. "Dammit, you’re not wearing a coat!" He pulled Aya against his chest and wrapped the garment around him as much as possible, his hands rubbing up and down Aya’s back.

"Hmph." He huddled close to the warmth, his nose pressed against Yohji’s neck as he inhaled the familiar, beloved spicy scent. Yohji continued to rub his back as Aya slid his hands into his lover’s back pockets.

"I can’t believe you came up here without a coat. You, the man who wears a thick sweater just to walk around the house," Yohji muttered.

They were silent for several minutes, even though he was cold, he wasn’t about to suggest they head inside and pull away from his lover. Freezing or not, it felt so good to be held by Yohji like this.

"I’m sorry, too." He started at the unexpected words and looked up at his lover. "I… I know talking about… Asuka upsets you so I didn’t want to bring up the nightmares." Yohji smiled apologetically and closed his eyes. "I guess I feel the same way about her as you do about Mastermind."

"Yohji." He sighed as he pressed against his boyfriend, unable to stop shivering. "I don’t hate hearing about her, what I don’t like is the fact that the only time I do hear about Asuka is when you’re dreaming." He frowned, uncertain if he was expressing his thoughts well enough to be understood. "You loved her, she was a large part of your life. I hate not knowing if she’s part of your past or still has an active role in your life now." It seemed more of a case of the latter.

Yohji opened his eyes, his gloved right hand rose to rest on Aya’s cheek. "She’s the past, Aya," he said sincerely, yet somehow Aya felt a ring of falsehood in the statement. "I keep seeing her die, in the dreams. Or I’m too late to save her."

He really didn’t want to hear this, to know just how much Yohji regretted not being able to save Asuka’s life but he didn’t interrupt his lover.

"That’s not the worst of it, though, as painful as it is to watch her die again," Yohji continued. "The bad part is the fact that you’re almost always with me when I see her and somehow she comes back to life to… snatch you away from me." His arm tightened around Aya. "The damned nightmares are so awful I just want to forget them when I’m awake."

Aya stared at his lover, unable to look away from the naked emotions in the shining green eyes. Yohji smiled slightly, his hand still cupping Aya’s cheek, his fingers caressing his chilled skin. "I should have said something, I know that now. You’d think a bright guy like me would realize that ignoring things don’t make them go away. I’m sorry I didn’t say anything. The thought…," Yohji paused, closed his eyes for a moment and swallowed before looking at Aya, pain and fear naked on his face. "I hate to even think about losing you, I couldn’t bear it if it really happened."

"Keep your promise and that will never happen," he said, throat tight with emotions. Feeling surprise and happiness that Yohji was telling him this, reassuring him that he was loved, and yet there were still some doubts about how Yohji truly felt about Asuka. Nonetheless, during the conversation, he felt some of his fears of being abandoned, of losing something so very precious, fade away. Yohji didn’t want to lose him.

"I will." They kissed, long and deep and he forgot all about the cold during the embrace and told his doubts to shove off. He wasn’t going to let them or Schuldig’s ludicrous claims destroy the one good thing in his life. When Yohji was the one to pull away, he moaned in disappointment and pressed forward to bridge the sudden gap between them.

Yohji chuckled and stepped toward the door. "Let’s take this somewhere a little warmer, okay?" He winked, a wicked air about him, his arms still tight around Aya, leaving him no choice but to follow. "I have a sudden urge to curl up in our nice, warm bed, with you, of course."

"That sounds wonderful," he said with heartfelt conviction through chattering teeth. Yohji and flannel sheets, a lovely combination certain to warm him up.

"Doesn’t it? Maybe once we thaw you out I can sweet talk you into a backrub." Yohji opened the door and bowed, urging him ahead. "There must be something I can do for you in return."

Heading down the steps, he didn’t say anything, just glanced over his shoulder and gave his lover a smoldering look. Yohji’s smile faded into an expression of hunger and he hurried after him, the door slamming shut and cutting off the cold air.

*******

Omi put on the hot water while singing his latest favorite song. Sitting at the kitchen table, Ken joined him on the chorus, the two of them singing at the top of their lungs and soon dissolving into laughter. "I think I hear dogs howling in agony," he joked as he wiped his eyes.

"Yeah, but not even that racket will drag Yohji and Aya out of their room." Ken spared a glance up at the ceiling. "They’re getting a lot faster at moving on to the makeup sex after their fights."

He blushed at the comment and spared a peek at the ceiling himself. He felt relieved that his friends were happy once again. He always hated it when any of them fought with each other and Aya and Yohji had so much stress in their lives right now they didn’t need to be upset with each other on top of it. "I guess we won’t see them for the rest of the night." He wondered if they’d had anything to eat and resolved to get up early enough in the morning to make a nice breakfast for the couple who were scheduled to open the shop.

"Nope, so that means the television is all ours. What do you want to watch?" Ken asked, his arms on the table as he leaned forward.

It took Omi a moment to answer, busy as he was thinking about the two of them cuddled together on the couch. Just when he was ready to say he didn’t care about the program, there was a knock at the door.

He frowned as he hurried to answer while a bad premonition washed through him. Aya had said something about them getting a mission today and things were going too well, this evening with Ken. He wasn’t too surprised to open the door to find Birman, wearing a dowdy blue dress and a serious expression with large, yellow folders tucked beneath her left arm.

"Evening, Omi," she said as she stepped into the kitchen. She nodded at Ken and straightened her shoulders. "Evening, Ken." She didn’t give them any time to return the greeting. "Where are Aya and Yohji? I have a mission for Weiß."

His bad feeling intensified as he heard those words. Something told him this wasn’t going to be a good assignment.

*******

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