Crossroads

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chapter 8

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Yohji followed Aya up the stairs to their bedroom. For the entire drive home, Aya had been quiet and withdrawn, staring at nothing and barely responding when Yohji asked him something. If it hadn’t been for that hug back at the remains of the mansion, Yohji would have thought that Aya was shutting him out. Instead, he felt that Aya was just trying to deal with the fact that he’d failed to save his sister.

Pain spread through Yohji’s chest at that thought. He knew what Aya was feeling, could sympathize much more than he would ever want. After yesterday, he was all too familiar with failing someone he so desperately had wanted to save. At least Aya-chan was still alive, unlike Asuka.

He attempted to shove all thoughts of his dead girlfriend aside with a shake of his head. Right now, thinking about her would solve nothing. Right now, *Aya* needed him. He couldn’t save Asuka but he could save Aya; that was the most important thing now. Perhaps being there for one lover would help soothe the pain of having failed another.

When he saw Aya stumble into their bedroom, he didn’t follow but instead hurried down the hall to the linen closet by the bathroom. Grabbing a few towels, he practically ran to the bedroom, unwilling to leave Aya alone for very long. There was no telling what could happen when his lover was like this.

He found Aya in the middle of the room, standing perfectly still as water dripped from his leather coat onto the carpet. "Ayan…," Yohji moaned, terribly worried about his lover. He didn’t like that dazed, distant expression on Aya’s too pale face or how Aya’s eyes were still a bit dark. Unfolding one of the towels, he draped it over Aya’s wet hair, uncaring that he was just as soaked. "You look like a drowned rat," he teased in a feeble attempt to get some sort of response.

The weak joke seemed to work since Aya focused his eyes on Yohji and glared slightly. "You don’t look much better." He tried to move the towel from his head to Yohji’s but lost the battle. However, since he seemed to be aware of things again, Yohji let go of the towel and used another one to dry himself. "I didn’t think it was supposed to rain today," he commented as he draped the towel over his wet hair and then unzipped his coat.

Aya gave his hair a few quick rubs with the towel then used it to wipe his face dry. "No." For a moment he seemed to fade out again but a gentle caress to his left cheek made him snap back to normal. Well, mostly normal. He still appeared a bit dazed, but that was to be expected after what had happened.

Yohji quickly pried his wet, clinging clothes from his body and let them fall to the floor, uncaring that they would soak the carpet where they lay. As much as everyone made fun of his outfit, he could free himself from it a lot quicker than Aya, thanks to all the buckles and straps the redhead wore. Hands numb from the cold fumbled with those buckles until Yohji wrapped the towel around his waist then gently batted them aside. "Here, let me help." The sooner Aya was out of the wet clothes, the better.

Concentrating on drying himself and his lover helped Yohji to focus on the now, rather than think about everything that had gone wrong in the last few days. He and Aya had suffered so much, had their hope taken from them, and that made him want to scream, to go out and find someone he could beat to a bloody pulp. Preferably a German someone with orange hair, at that. When Yohji stopped to consider everything that had happened the last several months, he couldn’t believe that Schuldig had just walked off with Aya’s sister like that. A part of him was thrilled that the German bastard had finally done something that would make Aya detest him.

Dammit, Yohji mentally cursed, he was doing it again. What he needed to do now was focus on Aya and not everything that had gone wrong. Finally undoing all the buckles on Aya’s coat, he pushed the water-laden leather off his boyfriend’s shoulders. Then he moved to undo the strap around Aya’s neck. When his hands touched the thin leather, his memory suddenly flashed back to Asuka, to how it felt to strangle the life out of her….

"Yotan?"

Aya’s apprehensive voice snapped him back to reality. He blinked his eyes to find Aya staring at him in concern, Aya’s hands resting lightly on his as they clutched at the thin strap.

"Sorry, it’s been a long day, love," Yohji mumbled as he quickly got rid of the strap and threw it to the floor. He draped his arms over Aya’s shoulders and pulled him close, aware of how tense Aya’s body felt. However, the longer he held his lover, the more relaxed they both became. Aya’s shaking arms wrapped around his waist while a cold nose pressed against his neck.

"I’m so sorry." Yohji whispered the words to apologize for his behavior the last few days and for Aya-chan’s latest abduction. More than anything he wanted to spare Aya pain, to give his lover anything that was needed. His chest ached again, not from a sense of failure but from just how deeply he loved Aya. Without the stubborn, cold-nosed fool in his life, Yohji didn’t know what he had left to live for anymore. Ken and Omi were merely friends and teammates; Aya was that and so much more.

Aya was quiet for a moment then heaved a deep sigh. "’S’not your fault," he mumbled against Yohji’s neck before he pulled away enough to look Yohji in the eyes. "Any of what happened – it’s not your fault."

Yohji was shocked by both the words and the sincerity behind them. He knew that Aya hadn’t been too happy with him before the mission, that the issue of… Asuka… wasn’t yet resolved. As for Aya-chan… it could be argued that if Yohji had listened to Aya’s doubts about ‘Neu’ then they might have found the girl and saved her before Schwarz had appeared. "You don’t mean that," he replied, his voice shaky from the hope that he was wrong.

Shivering in his arms, Aya shook his head. "No. I don’t blame you. I… I can’t." He sighed again and slumped against Yohji, his body wracked by violent trembling as it sought in vain for warmth. "Schwarz and Schreient are the ones responsible; they’ve played all of us for fools. Blaming you just gives them what they want." Yohji’s waist was hugged even tighter. "I’m not losing anyone else because of him."

Because of Schuldig, Yohji guessed as he placed a kiss against Aya’s right temple. He didn’t think that Aya’s forgiveness was from a sudden altruistic streak but he wasn’t about to argue. Not if it meant that Aya didn’t hate or blame him for what happened in the last two days. "I’m not going anywhere," he said in a soft voice, and then remembered his actions during the mission. "I’m not going to do anything stupid, either." At Aya’s soft, derisive snort, he smiled and gave his lover’s temple another kiss. "Which means I’m not going to let you stand here soaked to the bone and dressed in wet clothes any longer." He had to force his reluctant arms to unclench from around Aya.

Aya stood there shivering for a few seconds with his eyes closed before he nodded once. While he pulled his shirt off, Yohji helped to remove his pants, eager to get the wet, cold fabric away from his lover’s chilled body. Even with Aya’s shuddering lack of coordination, they soon had him naked. Yohji grabbed the last dry towel and began to vigorously rub pale, goose-pimpled skin in an attempt to warm Aya up.

He debated dragging Aya to the bathroom for a hot shower but suspected that Ken or Omi was probably there already as they’d been just as soaked. Hurrying to the bed, he flipped on the electric mattress pad before he snatched Aya’s sweatshirt up. "Here, put this on and then climb into bed."

Aya glared slightly at being ordered to do something but he accepted the sweatshirt and quickly pulled it over his head. Yohji blinked in surprise at being obeyed, half suspecting that his lover would argue about spending the night trying to track Schwarz down. Not that he thought they had any chance in hell of doing so; they had never once managed to do that once during all the time they had fought the other team.

"We’ll find her, Ayan," Yohji murmured as he tossed his towel aside and climbed into bed beside his lover. "I promise."

Busy adjusting his pillow, Aya looked up and scowled. "Don’t, Yohji," he growled, his voice rough and menacing. "We’re dealing with Schwarz now, not Schreient. We won’t find my sister unless that’s what they want."

"Dammit, Aya, you have to have faith." Yohji sat up in bed and reached for his lover’s shoulders. "You telling me that you’re giving up on her?" he demanded in a loud voice.

"No!" Aya attempted to shove Yohji’s hands aside for a moment before he slumped forward, his head bowed until his face was hidden by crimson bangs. "I won’t give up hope of rescuing her, it’s just…. We never really seem to win against them," he continued in a hushed tone. "No matter how hard we try, they always seem to get what they want and this time, it was my sister." He trembled for a few seconds and looked up at Yohji, his eyes shadowed with sorrow. "Why would they take her?"

Because they could use her against Aya and Weiss, Yohji thought but didn’t say. "They haven’t always won, Ayan. We’ve kicked their asses before." He didn’t mention the last time that Schwarz and Weiss had fought, of how things had come to a standstill because to hurt The Bastard was to hurt Aya. "Don’t give up before we even begin to fight, dammit." He gave his lover a gentle shake to emphasize his point.

This was not how he had expected the night to go. He hadn’t thought to have Aya’s forgiveness so easily or that he would be the one to argue for hope in rescuing Aya-chan. "We’ll make them give her back."

Aya closed his eyes and nodded. "Yeah," he breathed, his body slumping forward some more until his head rested against Yohji’s right shoulder. "I can’t let them win this time. I just… I don’t know where to begin. "

"We’ll figure it out once we’re rested and thinking straight." Yohji tenderly cupped Aya’s chin in his left palm and pushed until his lover looked up. "We’ll do whatever we have to and get her back." That was his vow to Aya, his way to make up for all the pain he’d caused over Asuka.

"I can’t let them harm her." As he spoke, Aya’s eyes lost focus, seemed to turn inward and a sad expression settled on his face. "No matter what I have to do." The words were little more than a whisper and they caused a chill to race down Yohji’s spine.

"Whatever *we* have to do," he responded in a rush. "You don’t have to do anything alone, kitten."

The old nickname made Aya focus on him once more, his eyes narrowed in a scowl but a smile curving his lips ever so slightly. "What, you’ll annoy them to death while I rescue her?" he asked Yohji.

"If that’ll work, I’ll come up with a whole bunch of nicknames for those bastards. How about ‘stinky asshole’ for Schuldig, hmmm?" Yohji leaned closer as he spoke and brushed his lips against Aya’s. He was so happy to see that smile and wanted nothing more than to make Aya happy as well. If he could get his lover’s mind off the loss of Aya-chan for even a few hours, that would be good. He didn’t want Aya to beat himself up over this, didn’t want things to start to spark or another fight to come between them. Aya wasn’t the only one who had lost someone lately and Yohji refused to lose anyone else.

When Aya didn’t pull away, Yohji pressed closer and let go of Aya’s shoulders so he could wrap his arms around them. In return, Aya moaned deep in his throat and shifted forward, his arms sliding over Yohji’s shoulders as he straddled Yohji’s lap.

Even though they had made love the other night, Yohji felt as if it had been years since he’d held Aya close like this and kissed him. A ravenous need filled every inch of him, a potent desperation to touch and stroke and taste his lover. There was no distance between them when they were like this, no chance for someone to come and snatch Aya away. No way for Asuka-

He let out a sharp breath and cut short the kiss when he thought of his dead lover. At Aya’s confused look, he nuzzled his lover’s right ear and tried to focus on the now. "Are you still cold?" he inquired, his voice husky with desire. The way Aya shivered in response made him smile as he licked along a cold earlobe. "Do you want me to warm you up?"

"I want you," Aya moaned, his voice so deep that it rumbled like a cat’s purr.

That was all that Yohji needed to hear. His hands slid beneath Aya’s sweatshirt so he could pull it off. Then his hands cupped his lover’s ass, fondling the still chilled flesh until Aya gasped his name. At the same time his mouth was busy nibbling on Aya’s neck in an attempt to make his lover squirm in his lap and moan some more. He adored the soft noises that Aya made during sex, the way his name was spoken in such a husky, deep voice.

Intense hunger spurred his actions on at a fast pace, the goal not taking pleasure but taking Aya, in proving that Aya wanted and trusted him, that nothing had changed between them. They were still lovers who needed each other almost desperately, driven to each other in a manner that would never be broken or denied.

His mouth once more claiming Aya’s, Yohji shifted forward, one hand on Aya’s lower back and the other tangled in his damp hair as he tenderly laid his lover on the bed. The feel of Aya beneath him, of long legs quickly parting so he could settle between them was a balm to all his fears and doubts that Aya didn’t want him any more. His lover’s hands clung to his shoulders and he was kissed back with a fervor that made the breath catch in his throat.

Once Aya was stretched out beneath him, he began to stroke his hands down his lover’s side to warm still slightly cold flesh and make Aya tremble in pleasure. He closed his eyes to savor the feel of Aya’s skin, the scent of wet hair and musk, the sound of moans muffled by kisses. His cock ached to be buried in his lover’s body, to sink into warmth and velvet tightness until the world faded away in bliss. That was what he craved more than anything, a pleasurable union that would lead to oblivion.

Strong hands stroked down his back, calloused fingertips pressed almost roughly against his skin while Aya’s left leg rubbed against his right. Slowly, Aya’s flesh became warm, the dampness of the rain replaced by that of sweat as they languidly writhed against each other in attempt to feel and touch as much as they could, creating such delicious friction that Yohji had to arch his hips away from Aya’s for a few seconds before he embarrassed himself.

"Yotan." The way Aya uttered his name was so wanton and needful that it made Yohji shiver and open his eyes. He spared a quick glance at his lover’s flushed face framed by tousled crimson hair and closed them again as he groaned loudly. This was so perfect, so wonderful, a connection of body and heart that eclipsed anything he had with Asuka-

Yohji’s mind was suddenly flooded of images of Asuka and him in bed together, a quick parade of scenes that ended with her dead at his feet, his wire around her neck. With a loud gasp he pushed away from Aya, hovering over his lover’s body as he fought for breath. Aya gazed at him with concern, touched his left cheek gently and stroked fingers into his hair.

"Yohji?"

"I’m all right," Yohji stuttered. He would be, too, he just needed to clear his head of those unwanted memories. The fact that his cock was still hard disturbed him, but at least he didn’t have to explain *that* to Aya. He didn’t think his lover would take it very well if he showed what appeared to be a sudden lack of interest in sex.

Leaning forward again, he kept his eyes open as he resumed caressing Aya’s body, his right hand tracing abstract patterns on twitching skin as it made its way lower and lower. Aya’s teeth bit into his lower lip when Yohji’s hand wrapped around his cock. Yohji smiled in satisfaction as Aya’s fingers dug into his shoulders in reaction and he reached to the nightstand for the bottle of lube. His breathing began to speed up as he thought about pushing his fingers into Aya’s warmth, greasing the way for his cock to sink into a delightful tightness that was more pleasurable than anything he’d found in a woman’s body, in Asuka’s-

This time he cursed out loud, his hand fumbling for the lube even as he released Aya’s cock. "Dammit." Why couldn’t he get her out of his head? Did she have to haunt him when he was awake as well as in his dreams? All he wanted was to make love to Aya and prove that things were still fine between them.


The feel of Aya’s fingers trailing through his hair made him start. "Yohji, what’s wrong?" Aya asked, a hint of steel to his voice which Yohji realized meant that an explanation was expected.

Unwilling to tell his lover that he kept thinking about Asuka, Yohji desperately tried to figure out something that wouldn’t end up with him gutted by a sharp katana and bereft of a boyfriend. Would Aya’s new sense of forgiveness extend to ‘sorry, love, I really want to have sex with you but I can’t stop thinking about my dead girlfriend’? Somehow, he didn’t think so.

Taking a deep breath to calm himself, he slowly combed his hands through Aya’s hair, continuing downward until they settled on Aya’s tense shoulders. "I love you," he whispered, the words just as true as always. "But…"

"’But’ what?" Aya asked before he could think of something else to say. Aya’s voice was angry and hurt as he pulled away from Yohji. "But you don’t want this any more?" Pain was the sharper of the two emotions that time.

"Oh hell, no," Yohji cursed and pulled his lover against him despite Aya’s struggles. "Just listen, okay?" He let out a stuttering breath and wondered how he could fix this, how he could dispel Asuka’s memory and save things with Aya. There was the terrified thought that if he let her ghost come between them now that she would never go away. He didn’t want to be afraid to touch his own lover. "I… we… this isn’t right," he said in a rush and almost groaned when Aya’s face went from flustered to impassive. Shit, could he mess this up any more, he wondered with growing desperation.

He tightened his hold on his lover so Aya couldn’t pull away and leave. "I’m just saying that things need to be different, okay?" he continued to try to explain.

Aya allowed a hint of emotion to be displayed on his face, a slight sign of curiosity. "Different? How? We’ve tried just about everything *I’m* willing to allow." He sounded exasperated and Yohji was certain that he’d soon be the only one left in the bed if he didn’t patch things up *now*.

"No, not everything." In his attempt to think of how of something that would rid himself of Asuka’s memory, an unlikely solution became plausible. "Aya… I want you to fuck me." No longer was it important that he be the man on top, fearing that he wouldn’t enjoy sex as much if he was the one being fucked. Right now he just wanted to connect with his lover, to prove to Aya how much he loved and needed him. A potentially sore ass would be a minor price to pay for that and, judging from his lover’s surprised expression, might be a very good thing for their relationship.

Yohji trailed his finger along Aya’s jaw until he tenderly cupped his lover’s left cheek. "Ayan.... I trust you with my life and I never want you to doubt that you can trust me the same way. I’m not afraid to give anything of myself to you." Maybe if he could prove that to Aya, there would be no more talk of failing or ex-lovers, no more need for past mistakes to continue to haunt them. "I can’t think of many other ways of proving that to you than this." He didn’t want there to be any more doubts between them.

Aya seemed uncertain for a moment and then hesitantly returned the caress. "Are you really doing this for me?" he asked in a quiet voice, his eyes dark with what Yohji sincerely hoped was passion.

"I’m doing it for us." As he spoke, Yohji leaned forward to place a kiss against his lover’s lips. "A fresh start for us, a relationship with more… balance and trust." The words were spoken in perfect honesty. Whatever it took to heal the breach created in the last few days, he would willingly do.

There was silence for several heartbeats while they remained still, their mouths pressed together but lips closed. Then Aya let out a slow breath. "I love you." The words were quietly spoken yet heartfelt, and his arms embraced Yohji yet again.

This time it was Yohji gently lowered to the bed with Aya kneeling between his knees and hunched over to continue the kiss. Closing his eyes in satisfaction, Yohji tapped the back of Aya’s right hand with the bottle of lube. "You better damn well use this," he mumbled against his lover’s demanding mouth. "And you better use it now." Before he said the wrong thing again and lost Aya forever.


The comment was rewarded with a low chuckle as Aya pulled away. "Always have to be in charge, don’t you?" Aya teased, all the sadness and indecision from before gone from his visage and voice. Yohji focused his attention on his lover’s beautiful face in an attempt to deny the memories of Asuka any more power over him.

"You do know what you’re doing, right?" he couldn’t help but ask in a sudden bout of nervousness when Aya flipped the bottle open. He wasn’t about to change his mind, however he couldn’t help but recall the few times he’d been fucked before, back when he first started dating men. Tonight’s sex wasn’t really about pleasure but it would be nice if there wasn’t any pain involved, either.

Fixing him with a slightly annoyed stare, Aya made a show out of pouring a hefty amount of lube onto his fingers. "I’ve let you fuck me for the last several months so I think I’ve a pretty good handle on the concept." Once his fingers were slick, he leaned closer to Yohji. "This is where I tell you to ‘relax." There was a distinctly pleased note to his voice as well as obvious eagerness.

"Smarta-ah, mmm." Yohji’s retort was muffled by a searing kiss, one that made his body relax indeed, almost against his will. The feel of Aya’s body against his, of long fingers sliding into his hair, a hot, slick tongue demanding attention… when he felt Aya’s fingers touch his ass, he focused on those other sensations. Yet that gentle, probing touch helped to ground him in reality as it was an unfamiliar one during sex.

He knew the basics as well, having put them to good use for all these years. Breaking the kiss off, he did his best to control his breathing, to not allow tension to take control of his body. Aya helped by nibbling on his left ear in such a skillful manner that he couldn’t help but moan in delight. The feel of a slick finger pushing inside registered despite the pleasure, but as he prepared for his muscles to clench, he found himself able to fight the reflex. This was Aya touching him so intimately, Aya who whispered loving encouragements into his ear. There was nothing to fear or worry about, nothing that he would regret.

"Don’t drag this out forever," he ordered in his eagerness to have Aya inside him, to feel how much Aya wanted him. For an idea that he had resisted so long, he was completely caught up in it now, in what he could give to the man he loved more than anything else.

Aya nipped his ear rather harshly in response. "I’m not going to mess this up and have you complain about it until the day we die. So shut up." There was a faint tremor in his voice, a hint of uncertainty in his eyes, so Yohji did as he was told. He didn’t want to break Aya’s confidence right now, not when they both needed this so much. If he ‘messed up’, Aya would probably never try to be on top again and Yohji couldn’t live with having caused more doubts in their relationship.

Despite his verbal objections to Yohji’s demand, Aya carefully added another finger inside Yohji, who moaned loudly in thanks. There was a slight sting from being stretched but Aya did a great job of distracting him again. Yohji’s neck was nibbled and kissed, his collarbones licked and sucked upon until he couldn’t stop writhing beneath Aya. When Aya’s left hand curled around his cock, Yohji’s upper body jerked upward and earned him a glare as Aya barely moved in time to avoid being hit. "Shit," he stuttered as he collapsed on the bed, his hips busy thrusting into that too-loose grip. "Don’t you dare stop."

The smile Aya gave him contained no more uncertainty. "I won’t." Aya’s voice was deepened by desire, so low that it was little more than a hoarse whisper. He didn’t say anything else, much to Yohji’s dismay, but his hands didn’t stop moving. Yohji’s cock was stroked and squeezed, his foreskin pulled down to expose sensitive skin to the soft brush of calloused fingertips while his hole continued to be stretched. The first time Aya pushed against his prostate, Yohji couldn’t hold back a loud cry of delight. That seemed to spur Aya on, his left hand pumping faster while the fingers of his right twisted about.

Between the jolt of ecstasy from having his prostate touched, the expert manner in which he was being jerked off, and the knowledge that Aya was about to fuck him, Yohji found himself so hard that he felt ready to come. He fumbled for his crotch to push aside Aya’s hand. "That’s… that’s too good," he tried to explain, the words distorted by panting breaths.

"I know." Aya sounded just as short of breath, his face feverish as he slicked his cock with some of the lube. "Yohji, do you feel-"

Yohji did the cutting off this time. "Do it. Can’t get me much more ready than you already have," he muttered and pulled Aya closer. His hands clenched around Aya’s ass as he urged his lover into position. "I’m about to come in three more seconds, so it’s not like it matters that much." He was desperate for release and to consummate this before something ruined the moment again.

Aya looked as if he wanted to argue but gasped instead when his cock rubbed against the curve of Yohji’s ass. He scissored his fingers inside Yohji a few more times and pulled them out more slowly than Yohji would have liked – not that he was about to complain. The care that Aya showed now only made him that much more certain that he was doing the right thing.

He didn’t look away from his lover when Aya settled between his thighs and something hard and slick pushed against his entrance. A low groan escaped him as he was carefully entered, Aya’s cock sliding inside centimeter by centimeter. When Yohji’s body clenched around it, Aya stopped immediately, his body held up by shaking arms as he stared back at Yohji, an indescribable expression on his flushed face.

Yohji took a few deep breaths and realized that they probably could have done this a little differently since he hadn’t been fucked in so long, but he wasn’t about to complain or change positions. He pumped his cock a few times, relieved that it hadn’t softened much during the last minute or two and concentrated on relaxing his body. After a few strokes, his body unclenched and Aya slipped in a little further, the motion startling gasps from the both of them.

"Fuck, I want to move." Yohji urged Aya to go faster with his left hand while his right clutched his lover’s ass once more when Aya took over jerking him off. "Want *you* to move, too," he mumbled, his knees splayed wide to allow Aya to thrust even deeper inside him.

"Just wait," Aya gasped and pushed in that last bit of distance. Yohji hissed a little, not so much in pain as surprise. He felt so stretched and full, felt a slight burning ache that made him very aware of Aya’s cock sheathed inside his body. Aya remained still for a few more seconds, something he was grateful for as his body adjusted to the intrusion, and then his wish was fulfilled.

He yelled in pleasure when Aya pulled back and thrust forward, the motion slow and languid unlike the tight pumps along Yohji’s cock. Forcing his eyes to remain open, Yohji stared at his lover, amused by the look of intense concentration on Aya’s face. He felt the slight ache turn into a pleasurable burning sensation that spread throughout his body and set his nerves on fire, the ecstasy intensified with each stroke of Aya’s hand.

 

His hands and voice urged Aya to move faster as his body burned toward completion; a hard push against his sweet spot was almost enough to force him over the edge. Aya’s thrusts sped up a little and took on an uneven tempo, his hand almost too tight around Yohji’s cock. "Yotan… sorry," Aya mumbled and his hips jerked frantically a few more times before he cried Yohji’s name again and came.

Yohji’s hand joined Aya’s on his cock to continue the frenzied strokes. The fact that he’d made Aya come so quickly coupled with his own sensations of ecstasy sped Yohji to his release as well. He yelled again as he came, body twitching as bliss coursed through him in a fiery rush that seared all of his nerves.

Afterwards, they lay wrapped around each other for a few minutes, their harsh breathing eventually calming down and bodies stilling from the after-sparks of pleasure. "Damn, Aya, I am such an idiot," Yohji said once he was confident that his voice had returned. That hadn’t been the most satisfying bout of sex he’d ever had but one of the most intense, made that way by shared emotion and trust. No doubt he’d be sore in the morning but all he felt now was a minor ache. What was more important is that he’d gone through with it and that things hadn’t been marred by thoughts of a ghost.

Aya placed a lingering kiss on his chest right above his still-frantically beating heart and slowly withdrew from Yohji’s body. "Sorry, didn’t think I’d be that quick." He didn’t look at Yohji as he curled up beside him on the bed.

Forcing his unwilling body to turn onto his right side, Yohji flopped his left arm over Aya’s waist. "You were slow where it mattered, love." He pressed a kiss against Aya’s sweat and hair-covered forehead. "I’m not complaining any. Probably wouldn’t be able to walk tomorrow if you lasted much longer." Like that one time when he’d let his buddy Taki fuck him and the man hadn’t come for almost fifteen minutes. Yohji pushed the unpleasant thought aside and snuggled against his lover. "It’ll be better next time."

"Hmm, so there will be a next time?" Aya sounded tired and curious, his expression a little hopeful.

Yohji lovingly brushed aside the hair that clung to Aya’s face. "Hell yes. I like you doing all the work sometimes," he teased. He’d enjoyed himself tonight, no matter why he’d finally allowed it to happen, and if it made Aya happy then he was perfectly willing to do it again. "But am I going to have to fight you for top from now on?"

Aya shook his head. "I liked it and it really felt good." He paused in his explanation to yawn, his eyes remaining half closed when it stopped. "I guess maybe I prefer for you to ‘do all the work’ most of the time." A content smile curved his lips, the warm emotion behind it echoed in his voice. "But not all the time."

"That’s because I’m so damn good at it." Yohji laughed at the derisive snort he received at that statement. "I’m the best and you know it." He couldn’t help but give Aya’s still smiling mouth a kiss, one that made his heart speed up again and his breathing ragged. The libido might be more than willing but the body was utterly exhausted, he thought with much regret and broke the kiss off. "I like making you happy, kitten," he said in a hushed voice.

"You do, Yotan," Aya replied as he closed his eyes. "And I know you’ll help me get Aya-chan back." He placed his right hand over Yohji’s heart. "I know you won’t let me down."

Yohji smiled, more touched by those words than when Aya had said ‘I love you’. "Damn right we’ll get her back. I promise." He would pay whatever it cost to save Aya-chan and make Aya happy. His left hand settled on top of the one resting against his chest and gave it a squeeze. "I’m all sticky, you know." While he didn’t want to ruin the moment, he didn’t want Aya to fall asleep thinking about Aya-chan, either. "Do I get to be the one to grumble and whine until I’m cleaned off?"

Aya opened his left eye to glare. "No, and I don’t whine," he said, sounding terribly offended.

"Whatever, Ayan," Yohji teased as he forced his body to move from the bed. "I’ll be back in a minute, and don’t even think of leaving me the wet spot after this." He chuckled when he heard Aya grumble in earnest and paused to snatch up one of the wet towels. This would be good enough for now he decided and wiped himself clean. Handing Aya another wet towel, he shooed his lover to the other side of the bed and stretched out between the sheets. Once Aya’s neatness obsession was appeased, he snuggled against Yohji, body slightly chilled now that the warmth of passion was gone.

They both lay in bed for several minutes before they allowed exhaustion to drag them into unconsciousness. Yohji fervently hoped that his dreams wouldn’t be haunted by a familiar visage as he held Aya close, the room quiet except for the sound of rain and their slow breathing. He didn’t want this happiness to be ruined, this sense of hope to be dimmed. There had been too much pain and loss the last few days, he and Aya deserved a break. They needed a chance to focus on what was important and gather their strength for the upcoming battles. Yohji was certain that Schuldig would do something to try to fuck with Aya’s mind now that he had his sister, so Yohji would need to be extra vigilant in the future. He refused to allow Fate to take from him the person he loved most. Whatever he had to do to keep Aya safe and by his side, he would do it.

*******

There was warmth and darkness, the very rare sensation of peace, and then Aya found himself in the middle of a familiar garden. He sighed as he recognized Cassandra’s dreamscape, the tenuous emotion of peace changing into annoyance and wariness. "What do you want now?" he inquired in a cold tone, wanting nothing more than to get through whatever bit of nonsense or malice the madwoman insisted on telling him so he could go back to enjoying his rest.

"That seems a terribly rude way of saying ‘hello’," a clear, young-sounding voice remarked in German. He whirled around to face the speaker and stared in amazement at a young girl who wore a plain, old-fashioned blue dress. She smiled shyly and ducked her head, her long, light brown braids sent swinging by the motion.

"Who are you?" Aya asked, confused and even more wary than before. Was this some trick of Cassandra’s… or Schuldig’s?

The girl glanced up, through her straight bangs. "I thought Japanese people were supposed to be polite." She frowned and took a step closer, her head no longer bowed. "Although you look pretty funny for a Japanese man. I thought you all were supposed to have black hair and yellow skin, and your eyes…." Her frown grew more pronounced as she approached.

Much to his dismay, Aya found himself taking a cautious step back. Yet even as he moved, his wariness slowly began to fade for some odd reason, along with the belief that there was something to fear from the child, but she did disquiet him a bit. "My eyes?" he stuttered in confusion.

"Yes, your eyes." The girl’s hands lifted and pressed against her temples, pulled on tan skin until her eyes were elongated slits. "I thought all Japanese had slanty eyes. That’s the way they were in the newspapers. But your eyes aren’t like that even if they’re very pretty. Also, you don’t sound funny when you speak." Thankfully, she came to a stop and let her hands fall to her sides, the frown no longer so pronounced.

"I don’t sound funny?" Aya just realized that he was speaking German as well and did some frowning of his own, determined to do something other than repeat the girl’s words. "Who are you and why are you here?" Why was she making such ridiculous comments about his eyes? He knew he didn’t look normal but he’d never had it pointed out in such an off-hand manner.

"No, you don’t." The girl clapped her hands together and laughed. "See, I told Seishirou that we’d get along fine but he didn’t believe me." She tilted her head to the side and gave Aya an amused smile. "Although you look a little scary when you frown like that. I’m not here to hurt you. In fact, I’m here to help."

"Who are you?" Aya repeated, feeling even more confused than he usually did in Cassandra’s garden. Once again, there was an overwhelming urge to accept and trust the child, the sentiments supported by the whispering voice of his power. He didn’t sense any danger from her but he refused to trust her just because she said she’d do him no harm.

"There’s no reason to doubt me," the girl replied in a serious tone as if she had read his thoughts. "But I imagine after what *she’s* done to you, you would be suspicious of anyone in this garden. Let’s go somewhere else, all right?" Her smile grew brighter as she clapped her hands and, after a brilliant flash of light, Aya found himself in his mother’s garden.

The landscape looked just as it had the last time he’d seen it, the day before he and Aya-chan had gone to his father’s office and…. He shook his head violently to dispel the thought and the agony it caused. There was no way to change the past so he refused to dwell on it when there were more important matters at hand.

Glancing around, he noticed that all the flowers and trees were in bloom: plum, cherry, magnolia and camellia trees, azalea and hydrangea shrubs, vines of wisteria and stalks of multi-hued irises amid clumps of chrysanthemum and all the other seasonal plants his mother had insisted upon. The garden had only seemed colorless in the winter, save for the koi pond well-stocked with the gold, white, red and black fish. Turning to his left, he could see the pond, could almost hear Aya-chan’s voice as she laughed in excitement over being allowed to feed the fish.

The only thing that was out of place, that didn’t belong, was the bush of white roses with the blood-red edged petals that bloomed a few feet away from the pond. "Why is that here?" he asked in a sharp voice, drawn to the sweet-scented flowers even while he was annoyed to see something of Cassandra’s here.

"Because it’s a part of you," the girl explained. "And you can never escape yourself."

"Are you going to spout nonsense just like Cassandra does?" he asked with a fierce scowl. "I’m getting very tired of being jerked into other people’s dreams and being told riddles and lies." He reached for his power, however futile the effort might be, in hopes of managing *something* that would free him from this new dreamscape. He didn’t want to be here, didn’t need to be reminded of all he’d lost.

When he focused on his power, it stubbornly refused to do anything. Sighing in annoyance, Aya rubbed the heels of his hands against his eyes and wondered why this stuff had to happen to him. Weren’t things screwed up enough that he had to have yet another person decide to mess with his dreams and head? "Go the hell away."

"I’m sorry but I can’t do that. Maybe I should have let Seishirou come here instead." The girl sounded so uncertain, so apologetic that for a moment he thought about Aya-chan and the time she’d ruined his favorite book. Reluctantly opening his eyes, he found the odd girl standing beside him, a sorrowful expression on her face as she wrung her hands.

"Who are you and what do you want?" Maybe if he repeated the questions enough times she’d finally answer one and then leave him alone.

The girl blinked in surprise and ducked her head again. "I’m sorry. I should have introduced myself, shouldn’t I? I’m Geli." She glanced upward and gave him a shy smile. "And I’m not here to mess with your head, I promise. If anything, I want to undo the damage that *she* and *he* have done."

Another person who seemed to have a thing against speaking people’s names, Aya thought with some exasperation. "You’re Geli and you’re here to help me." He arched his eyebrow in a disapproving manner. "Is that all you have to say? Usually Cassandra would be babbling on about something by now." Or attacking him in some manner.

"I’m not *her*," Geli spat, for a moment sounding much older than her years. "As for saying more – would you believe anything I told you right now?" she asked, her head cocked to the side and her demeanor rather serious for a girl who appeared barely older than twelve. "Would you reveal more of yourself to a stranger who does nothing but glare and bark questions?" There was now a hint of amusement to her voice, a sense of playfulness that stabbed into his heart because it was so similar to Aya-chan’s.

"No, I don’t believe I would," he admitted with great reluctance and wondered if the reason he was so drawn to the child was because she reminded him of his sister.

Geli nodded and giggled, the sound soft and pleased. "No, you wouldn’t. Not that I blame you after everything that’s happened lately." She quickly turned around, the pleated skirt of her dress flaring around her slim legs. "You should be cautious because there are a lot of people out there who want to use you. Catalysts are always in danger and should never let down their guard." She went to the koi pond and squatted beside it, her knees drawn together and her skirt tucked around her legs in such a demure manner that Aya smiled, momentarily reminded of his mother always chiding Aya-chan to be more ladylike.

Then Geli’s words sank in. "’Catalyst’. What is that?" he asked, trying to recall if Schu or Cassandra had ever mentioned it to him. For some reason, it sounded very familiar….

"That’s what you are." Geli looked at him and rolled her eyes. "It’s what you do. You know… the thing with the threads and heat." She motioned with her right hand and for a few seconds, the dreamscape was filled with multicolored strings, a brilliant, complex lattice of fine lines. Aya couldn’t help but notice all the red, green and gold threads that intersected at the rose bush. Then there was another wave of Geli’s hand and the strings vanished. "But you’re not ready for that, yet. You haven’t fully awakened."

Going to the child, Aya squatted beside her and stared into the pond. No matter how much he tried, he just couldn’t remain suspicious of her for very long. There was something about her - perhaps her resemblance to his sister - that put him at ease and inspired confidence. That and she seemed willing to answer things that Schu and Cassandra always tried to avoid. "Schu told me that my… talent was awake. I could use it if weren’t for him," he said, his voice bitter with the thought of what he could have done in the last few days, the pain he could have saved both himself and Yohji if only he could use his detested power.

Geli patted his arm in a comforting manner, her sweet, pretty face once more marred by intense sorrow. How she was so deeply familiar with the emotion he didn’t know, but he *knew* it was no mask, no lie. "Again, I am sorry."

"Can you read my thoughts?" he asked as he drew back slightly, uncertain he could trust a telepath after what Schuldig had done to him.

"No." Shaking her head so vigorously that one of her braids almost hit Aya, she repeated the denial. "Well, not exactly." She bit her bottom lip as if uncertain about something. "I’m not a telepath, I’m just… we are very much alike, Aya. That’s how I can guess what you’re thinking," she tried to explain in a quiet voice.

He didn’t even ask her how she knew his name. At least he didn’t have to fear having his head screwed up any more than it already was. "What do you mean about my talent?" he asked, hoping to distract the child from her sorrowful thoughts. Even though he had just met her and she was an invader in his dreams, he… he didn’t want her to suffer.

"Oh, yes, that." Geli seemed to shake off her pain and smiled once more, though the expression was tinged with sadness. "I’m sorry but there’s a lot I can’t explain right now – but I promise to do so one day." She held her right hand up when he made to complain, to retort that he was sick of being kept in the dark. "Please, listen to me. In a way you did awaken to your power – but the time wasn’t right. You’re not ready to accept it and it has been chained by *her*." The way she mentioned Cassandra was as if she was uttering a terribly foul word. "The time will come when your talent is both unchained and welcomed, and then you will truly awaken." The pain returned as darkness in pale blue eyes that were oddly familiar. "You will know so much and the only one who will be able to restrain you then will be yourself," she whispered as if reluctant to say anything.

Could everyone see the future but himself? Aya had to wonder with annoyance. "What good is the damn thing? It didn’t save my family, didn’t spare me or those who I love any pain," he spat and rose to his feet in a jerky motion. "All it does is make me a target for sadistic German telepaths and nutcases." Roughly combing his fingers through his hair, he stalked through the garden, the plants’ leaves brushing against the sweatpants he usually wore to bed in the real world. "I’m sick and tired of being so cold all the time, of being so *damn* helpless. I’m sick of being a freak," he snarled, desperate to vent all the pain, confusion and fear that he’d harbored for the last few months and certain that Geli would understand what he was trying to say. "I wish I could get rid of it."

"And that’s why you were chosen to bear it." At the child’s hushed voice, he turned to face her and saw her standing by the rose bush, a just-bloomed flower cradled gently in the palm of her hand. "All catalysts are chosen for that reason – given immense power but no true desire to use it. That way, the power isn’t abused – at least, not willingly on the catalyst’s part." As she stared at the flower in her hand, tears slid down her face. "But catalysts can be so weak, can be broken so easily. That’s why certain people are chosen to protect them, to keep them safe. A catalyst should know enough suffering so as to be driven to save others from it, but should also be sheltered from too much of it. Yet you and… and the last catalyst were not protected. Oh, how it *hurt*," she moaned, her left arm clutched around her chest but her right hand still curled tenderly around the flower.

He wasn’t sure why he did it, why he felt so drawn to the child, but he was instantly by her side. He tentatively reached out with his right hand and brushed her braid aside so he could give her left shoulder a gentle squeeze. He wanted to ask her why she felt so much pain, why waves of suffering poured from her but he couldn’t form the words, couldn’t invade her privacy that much. All he needed to know was that the emotions were genuine and he could do nothing but put his faith in her. "I’m sorry," he whispered in a broken voice, well aware that the words weren’t enough.

Geli started at his touch and sniffed, her left hand rising to wipe at the tears on her cheeks. "S’not your fault, Aya," she mumbled, her voice thick with emotion. "You’re a victim, too." Something flashed in her eyes, something that once again teased at his memory and made him think that he should recognize the girl – and not for any resemblance she bore to his sister. There was an iron resolve reflected there, a determination that would not allow itself to fail.

"They’ve entangled you in their plans, their schemes and desires." For a moment, Geli’s resolve crumbled slightly. "*He’s* tied himself to you too tightly, but I can check *her* at least, and hope to free you enough so you can choose your own path." Looking down at the rose, she tenderly stroked its petals as her resolve seemed to return. "Sometimes dreams can be nothing more than dreams if that’s what you wish them to be."

Aya wanted to ask her about the nightmares and find out more about catalysts but suddenly the wind picked up in the garden, the air becoming filled with petals from all of the flowers. "What’s happening?" he asked as the wind forced him to take a step back.

"You are waking to something that has already been set in motion." Plucking the flower in her hand free from the rose bush, Geli quickly offered it to him. "Think not of sweet peas but of roses. Your knight has proven true, do not forget that! Whatever you feel, whatever you believe may be owed, that love will always remain," she shouted to be heard over the wind. "Like a rose bush, what may seem withered and lifeless in the cold of winter will bloom again once enough time has passed! Do not believe the dream must come true or the rose will be lost!"

Thorns bit into Aya’s palm and fingers as he accepted the flower, and the wind turned into a gale force. He tried to answer Geli but a wave of petals crashed between them, whirled around them and –

And then he woke in his bed, a rose of white petals with crimson along the edges clasped in his right hand. Yohji slept beside him, snoring softly, and outside a thunderstorm raged. The darkness of the room was briefly filled with a flash of lightning, the loud crash of thunder made Aya twitch and take a sudden, deep breath.

He let it out slowly as the sound of rain filled his head. As if in a daze, he vaguely recalled that there was something important about waking up on a dark, cold and rainy morning. There was something he had to do, someone he had to meet. Holding the rose tightly in his hand despite its thorns, he rose from the bed as silently as he could so as not to disturb Yohji. There was somewhere he had to be, an obligation that had to be met. No matter that he didn’t want to leave his lover, something whispered to him that he had to go because of Aya-chan. So he dressed quickly, returned to the bed for a tender kiss to Yohji’s cheek, placed the rose not far from the sleeping man’s face and hurried down the steps to the kitchen. With blood trickling from his right hand, he picked up an umbrella with his left and went out into the storm.

*******

Schuldig stared out the window set in the hotel suite’s living area, his right hand pressed against the cool, damp glass. The touch soothed the ache in his scarred right hand that had inexplicably begun about an hour ago. He knew it had something to do with Aya but not exactly how since his heart had been sleeping when the pain had commenced. He wondered if Cassandra had anything to do with the ‘wound’, but didn’t sense any anger or confusion from Aya to indicate that something had happened while he’d been dreaming.

"Now you’re just looking for a distraction," Schuldig whispered, his breath fogging the glass with each word and obscuring his view of Tokyo. Whatever the cause for the pain, what really mattered was that Aya was on his way here… and Schuldig had no clue what would happen once he arrived. Unlike in all those dreams, Aya wasn’t broken-hearted, wasn’t *broken* and thus open to manipulation. Over their link, Schuldig could sense his love’s anger and resolve. Aya was coming here to confront him instead of give in – but there was still a chance that he would offer himself in exchange for his sister’s safety.

Swearing in German, Schuldig pushed away from the window and let the curtain cover the fogged glass. What was he supposed to do? With the man-whore still firmly entrenched in Aya’s heart, would pushing Aya to leave Balinese turn that anger into resentment? Would it only strengthen the bond between the two men? Schuldig wished he could consult Crawford on what to do but the precog would probably insist on being fully informed of the situation before he revealed anything – not to mention be unbearably smug over the fact that Schuldig was asking for his help. No, it would be best to see Aya’s reactions before he made any decisions, to think on his feet rather than risk exposing Aya’s true nature to Crawford.

Sensing his heart growing near, Schuldig stalked over to the bathroom and collected two of the large, soft towels that hung on the towel rack. Then he made sure the door was left slightly open, and as he stood in the middle of the room, forced a pleased smile on his face and waited.

Aya arrived two minutes later – with a closed umbrella in his hand, his clothes mostly untouched by the rain. A few wet spots darkened the too big green merino wool sweater and blue jeans, the cuffs of which were damp. Setting the umbrella by the door, Aya toed his wet shoes off and stepped further into the room, his face drawn into a dark scowl but his mind slightly clouded by confusion.

"I knew you would be here." Aya’s voice was tinted with that confusion and wasn’t the rough growl he intended it to be. "Somehow… I knew I had to come here." Both the scowl and sense of confusion increased. "Why do you have to keep fucking with my mind, Schuldig?"

Tossing the towels aside, Schuldig took a cautious step closer to his annoyed love. "Actually, this is something that was set into motion months ago." He stared eagerly at Aya and focused his talents on that irresistible mind, those delicious emotions in search of how best to proceed. He had the impression that if he used his talent too much that Aya would know and then flee in anger. However, the catalyst power whispered in his head, murmured that all would be well and that his desires would eventually come true.

"Because of the nightmares," Aya spat as he folded his arms across his chest and continued to glare. "Because you can’t stop being a manipulative bastard." When Schuldig tried to speak, he unfolded his right arm and slashed his hand through the air. "Don’t try to lie about that. I’m not here because of those dreams or even to fight you. All I care about now is my sister. Where is she?" For the first time since he entered the room, his composure cracked to reveal the fear that he felt. "I want her back."

Schuldig sighed in exhaustion and frustration as he combed his right hand through his hair. What was he to do? All his careful plans, all those months of manipulating Aya… and he could only stand here filled with stomach-churning guilt and uncertainty. There was a spark of anger at what he was reduced to and hate for the man-whore failing to break Aya’s heart, but neither of those emotions would help him now. "You’re not getting her back. I’m sorry." He truly was, which shocked him almost as much as it did Aya. "I told you, Schwarz has orders to keep her."

Aya was still for a moment, torn between upset and pain, then he burst into motion and quickly closed the distance between them as his hands grabbed the lapels of Schuldig’s green jacket. "I want her back!" There was a note of hysteria to his voice, his violet eyes wide with despair and a hint of madness. "You promised!"

Schuldig didn’t try to defend himself, he merely wrapped his arms around Aya’s trembling shoulders. "My promise was to ignore her as long as my… employers remained unaware of her presence. I never mentioned her to Takatori the entire time I worked for him, never made a single note of her in any official report." He ached to enfold Aya in a close embrace and kiss him until the pain was forgotten but even though Aya wasn’t fighting him, there was a warning glare in those tear-filled eyes. Aya stood in front of him, not even half a foot away, his beautiful face twisted into a scowl. "They didn’t find out about her from me."

Because of their link, Aya didn’t argue with him over that fact as he could feel Schuldig’s sincerity. Schuldig allowed the link to remain open even if it exposed him to Aya’s brutally intense emotions, because even if he couldn’t make Aya *his* right now, he at least wanted the hate and anger quickly gone. In the past few months he’d done his best to eradicate at least the first emotion from the catalyst’s heart, and he wasn’t going to lose any ground now. He had already lost too much in the last day.

The emotions gradually quieting down with each heartbeat, Aya’s glare faded slightly. "Who told them?" he asked and the question filled Schuldig’s head with visions of a katana’s gleaming blade sullied with blood. Trying not to seem too eager, Schuldig spoke aloud the answer in a hushed voice.

"Cassandra." The name provoked such a wave of hate, anger, betrayal and acceptance that he almost moaned in pleasure. He dampened the link slightly so Aya couldn’t sense his gloating happiness. The next time his love stepped into the old witch’s garden, she was in for one hell of a surprise. He couldn’t help but smile at the emotions’ scorching intensity – all directed at Cassandra and not him.

However, the smile faded at Aya’s next question. "Why didn’t you stop her?" The virulent emotions were evident in Aya’s voice but his expression was the slightest bit softened by confusion. "Why didn’t you protect Aya-chan?" He stepped away as he spoke, his hands releasing Schuldig’s coat so they could try to brush aside the arms draped over his shoulders.

Schuldig reacted instantly, motivated by the fear that Aya could end up blaming him for everything after all. He rushed them both toward the nearest wall and pinned Aya against it, trapping him there with his body. <Because I’m not omnipotent, dammit! Because I have my hands full trying to keep those bastards from finding out about *you*.> Anger rushed through him, fueled by how nothing he did seemed good enough for Aya. He almost sent the thought that he could only keep one Fujimiya hidden at a time and he hadn’t chosen the vegetable. Fortunately, he managed to stop himself in time thanks to Aya’s power flaring to life in response to his loss of control. There were some things that couldn’t be revealed just yet.

Aya struggled to be free, but his actions became lethargic when his power whispered to the both of them about the dreams and drew upon the memories of what should be happening now. He and Schuldig were left trembling from the images, Aya now desperate to push back against the wall, to put some space between them even as his hands clutched at Schuldig’s jacket once more. Feeling only slightly less dazed than his heart, Schuldig pressed close and nuzzled Aya’s neck. That made the power purr and swamp them with even more of those dream memories.

"That… didn’t happen," Aya gasped, yet he tilted his head to the side to expose more of his neck to Schuldig. "Those were… just nightmares."

"They were promises of what’s to come," Schuldig replied, his voice silky-smooth as his fingers tangled in Aya’s hair. "This is what’s supposed to be happening now." He licked along his beloved’s neck and jaw, intent on stifling any more complaints.

Just as his lips brushed against Aya’s, he found himself shoved away. Aya forced his arms straight out to keep some distance between them, his breathing heavy and irregular. <Sometimes dreams are just dreams.> His head swirled with a kaleidoscope of images, of flowers and gardens, koi ponds and Yohji sleeping, Schuldig surrounded by cherry blossom petals…. At the last image, Aya’s power sullenly withdrew, leaving them both chilled in its wake.

Utterly confused, Schuldig had the impression that something had just happened here, something both good and bad. He shook his head in an attempt to clear it, to try to think straight, but too much was being thrown at him to make any sense. Sighing, he pushed against Aya’s arms with determination as his shoulders hunched forward, his head hung down.

Aya did his best to keep the space between them even as his arms trembled. "That… you… you knew they’d take her," he stuttered, his emotions as turbulent as Schuldig’s. "The nightmares… for months now, they’ve been about this day. You *knew*." Clearly he was trying to work up more hate but that brief flare of power left him too drained. Instead, he settled for staring at Schuldig in hurt accusation.

Doing his best to rescue this fucked-up situation, Schuldig sighed again and quit trying to bridge the distance between them in favor of brushing Aya’s bangs back. "Only after Cassandra told them about the girl. That’s when I began to prepare you for today." He skated a perilous line between truth and falsehood; thankfully, Aya was too shaken to tell the difference. "There was no way to stop my employers since they’ve been searching for your sister for so long. Instead, I focused on saving you. You’re all that matters to me."

Aya glared at the comment but didn’t try to shrug off the caress. "My sister is all… my sister is important to me." His voice was very soft in the quiet room but the significance of that statement could not be ignored.

<I know, mein Herz,> Schuldig replied, his eyes closing for a moment. Dammit, how did Balinese manage to win over Aya’s heart so thoroughly? Forcing his eyes open, he gave Aya a reassuring smile. "She’ll be fine, I promise you that. While she’s in Schwarz’s custody I can make sure that she’s looked after and protected," he swore, his voice as quiet and intent as Aya’s.

Nothing had gone according to plan today, not even Schuldig’s own reactions and emotions. Balinese hadn’t betrayed Aya, Aya hadn’t been broken, he hadn’t been able to take advantage of a broken Aya. Schuldig choked on a bitter laugh and stepped away from his love, his arms falling to rest at his sides. Because of Cassandra or Crawford or Fate being a bitch, he had no choice but to wait for that night under the cherry trees, to hold onto his longing for some time to come. He’d fought that truth all through the night as Aya’s pleasure and love for the man-whore had washed through him. He’d hoped to force things to remain unchanged here in this room but now had to concede defeat. This time the bitter laughter did escape him, his hands clenching into fists as he fought not to shred Balinese’s mind to shreds.

Aya watched him the entire time, his expression wary and bewildered. Schuldig regained control of his emotions after a couple of minutes and recovered his composure. An uncharacteristically reassuring grin on his face, he bowed slightly to Aya. "I swear to you, Aya, that your sister will remain unharmed as long as I watch over her." He couldn’t use her against Aya while the man still loved Balinese, so he had no choice but to soothe Aya’s pain as much as he could. Pain that he could feel right now and affected him more than it should.

There was silence between them for a few more minutes; Schuldig could sense Aya trying to determine if his word could still be trusted. As much as he wanted to influence that decision he held himself back, uncertain that he could mask the action. Another ‘betrayal’ on his part could destroy any faith and trust that Aya still had in him, could destroy months of hard work.

"You were going to make me leave Yohji and join Schwarz, weren’t you?" Aya eventually asked, his voice rough and broken with anger. "You were going to use my sister against me."

"Yes." Schuldig didn’t see any sense in lying now. "In the visions of the future that Cassandra provided to me, Balinese was supposed to choose Neu over you." But the fucking bastard hadn’t. "I wasn’t so much going to use your sister against you as give you a good enough reason to leave Weiss." That was pretty much the truth, and he could tell when Aya realized it. His heart’s glare faltered and thoughts turned to Balinese and how the man-whore had waited so long to kill Neu.

Schuldig was heartened by that memory. Maybe he hadn’t gotten what he wanted today because Aya had strengthened his bond with Balinese, but all was not well in happy kitty land. He began to have faith in the cherry blossom vision, to see how he would one day get what he wanted.

"Why don’t you try and do that now?" Aya inquired in a voice even rougher than before as he shoved thoughts of Balinese aside. "You must realize that I’ll do anything to keep her safe."

Yes, Schuldig did realize that and always wondered what it was about the girl that made Aya so damned desperate to cling to her soulless body. "In the dreams, you had no one else but me," he tried to explain, his right hand seeking out Aya’s tousled bangs once more. "If I ordered you to make that decision today, you very well might choose your sister over Balinese, but you would still love him." He would only allow Aya to love one person, to love only *him*.

Aya grunted softly and captured Schuldig’s hand in his own, held it centimeters from his face as he stared intently as if trying to spot some sign of falsehood. "Why is it so important that I love you?"

The question shocked Schuldig and made him wonder why himself. He knew he was possessive but his quest for Aya’s love had taken on an almost frantic edge these last couple of months. "Because we’re made for each other. There was a connection between us from the moment we met." He could still remember the confusion from that day several years ago, how Aya had haunted his thoughts ever since that chance meeting. He’d risked so much in sparing the life of a target’s son, and only because he found the boy’s mind interesting and face pretty. Licking his lips, he met Aya’s stare and held it. "Why do you think the link formed between us so easily? Why I can enter your dreams with but a thought and you can speak to me from anywhere in the world? We’re both very powerful talents who belong together, Aya." Again, the words were the honest truth, the longest he’d gone without speaking any lies that he could recall. "Your power will tell you that much."

His attention suddenly turned inward, Aya did seem to be consulting his power. Schuldig felt his mind being probed for the truth and his real intentions and didn’t hide anything. He felt terribly naked but something whispered to him that this was the right thing to do, that he’d get nothing from lying or fighting this morning. His actions today might be uncharacteristic for him, but his goal was the same one it had been for almost a year now.

Letting out a loud gasp, Aya shuffled backward until he bumped into the wall. He held his head between his hands with his eyes tightly shut, and the immense confusion he felt kept Schuldig from being able to read his thoughts. There were brief flashes of warmth as Aya’s power flared and then settled back in its chains, muttered curses as Aya seemed to fight himself. That went on for a very long minute and then Aya calmed. He let out a slow breath and straightened up, his darkened eyes slowly opening.

<You promise to keep Aya-chan safe as long as you can and ask nothing from me in return?> Aya’s mental voice was so cold and focused that Schuldig shivered and resisted covering his ears with his hands in a foolish attempt to shut it out.

<Yes.> He somehow knew that to lie or taunt right now would cost him everything. Something prodded him to respond with more than that simple confirmation, something that wanted the pain Aya felt to lessen. <I can’t give her back to you; we both know that will lead to my employers hunting us down and taking her by force. However, I can help you rescue her when the time is right *if* you trust me.> He wouldn’t ask Aya for anything in return but that trust - and would be amply rewarded. His lips curved as he quietly congratulated himself on a sudden bit of inspiration. What he suddenly envisioned would lead into Crawford’s visions of Weiss taking on the Elders.

Aya seemed to catch a glimmer of his thoughts and frowned, but since Schuldig did intend to honor his promises, after a few doubting seconds Aya merely shook his head and broke their link off. The darkness slowly bled from his eyes, leaving them their usual violet color and slightly dazed. "You *owe* it to me, Schu. Keep her safe until I can save her."

"Yes." Unable to hold back a wide grin, Schuldig tenderly tucked Aya’s left eartail behind his shoulder and caressed his cheek. "I promise. I’ll keep you updated on everything that happens to her." He now had an excuse to ‘talk’ to Aya as much as he wanted, all thanks to the poor little vegetable.

His frown increasing, Aya stepped forward until he stood right in front of Schuldig. Abruptly wary that he’d accidentally sent that thought, Schuldig frowned himself and wondered what was about to happen. Aya’s thoughts on anything unrelated to his sister were still too fractured to read correctly. So Schuldig was a bit stunned to find his lapels grabbed yet again and himself jerked forward – right into a kiss.

At first his mind couldn’t register what was happening, that Aya had initiated a kiss. Then the feel of warm lips against his own and the purr of Aya’s power in his mind told him this was real. Aya’s thoughts were still too disoriented for him to figure out why this was happening, other than his need to express gratitude and the after-affects of those manipulative dreams. Whatever the reason, Schuldig didn’t really care. He wrapped his arms around Aya’s shoulders and pulled him close, his entire being thrumming with pleasure and happiness.

All too soon, the kiss ended, right as he slid his tongue enticingly along Aya’s lips in hopes of making them part. Aya pulled away with a startled gasp, his right hand lifting to wipe his mouth. Schuldig reluctantly let him go, his lust-muddled mind aware that if he pushed too fast he would lose whatever it was he’d just gained.

"I want to hear from you every day," Aya mumbled, the back of his hand still pressed to his lips. "Tell me *everything* about my sister so I know she’s safe." He only remained long enough for Schuldig’s agreement and to put his shoes on before he hurried from the room, not even bothering to grab the umbrella as he left.

Schuldig watched the door slam shut and stared at it for several minutes. A content smile on his lips, he took a deep breath and smelled cherry blossoms instead of cleaning chemicals and faded potpourri.

Now, it didn’t seem so bad to have to wait a bit longer for what he wanted.

*******

Crawford dreamed about his mother. He knew he was asleep and dreaming because he’d never met the woman before, had only seen her face in a photograph once. She had faced the camera squarely, unsmiling with a distant, closed off look in her pale blue eyes, the one feature he had inherited directly from her. Yet in his dream, she was a happy presence, her smile exceedingly cheerful and her motions affectionate as she alternated between hugging him close and fussing over his clothes and his hair.

Oddly enough, there was no sound. Her lips moved but there were no spoken words. Crawford supposed it was because he’d never heard her voice and so had no idea what she should sound like. He stood there uncomfortably and tried to decide what to do, if he should let the dream continue, if there was a reason for it. This didn’t feel like one of his prophetic visions so he was of a mind to end it and get some rest. Just as he came upon this resolution – things changed.

His mother suddenly stepped away, her expression now sad as if she was aware of something that troubled her deeply. Her left hand lingered in a caress to his cheek and then fell away moments before the dream changed again. There was a flash of bright light and then his mother lay naked and still on a metal table, her blue eyes staring blindly at the ceiling above. Her belly was distended by the pregnancy that had caused her death, and off to the side a man whose face was hidden behind a medical mask prepared for her autopsy. He stopped arranging gleaming steel instruments when three people entered the morgue, two old men and an old woman.

Hate caused Crawford’s body to flush with heat and his mind to sharpen when he spied the Elders. Once again there was no sound but he didn’t need it to know what was happening. The Elders were here to witness his mother’s death and find out if there was anything salvageable. They wanted information for their precious breeding program, wanted hope that they’d be able to continue the valuable bloodline that they had traded and sacrificed so much for.

He stared coldly at the scene before him, distanced from it in the dream and wondered why he was being subjected to this nonsense. Nothing was revealed that he didn’t already know, and he had no affection for what had basically been the human broodmare who had birthed him. There was no need for anything to strengthen his resolve to take down the Elders, to destroy their empire as thoroughly as he could. Whoever was behind this – and he had the very strong suspicion that someone was indeed provoking this dream – was being unnecessarily heavy-handed. The lack of skill directing the impressive power to breach his shields annoyed him enough that he used the emotion to force himself awake.

He lay in his bed for several minutes, eyes closed and breathing even as he sought to establish who was behind the dream. Despite the clumsiness of the dream, he found no trails to follow, no imprints that would allow him to figure out who had been the culprit. That caused him some concern as he knew of few people who could manage such a feat and leave no trace of their presence behind. For a moment he worried about Rosenkreuz… and then realized that if one of their elite had been behind the intrusion, he would be dead. Once they had enough proof of his intentions, they would immediately put him down. They already had what they wanted from him, after all; he was now officially expendable.

Pushing aside such dark thoughts, he forced his body to move, to get up from the bed and prepare for the day ahead. No longer stymied by the person responsible for that ridiculous dream, his power whispered in his mind hints of things to come and past visions to be proven true. Crawford went to the shower to quickly and efficiently wash his body and hair while he considered those whisperings. Nagi would be arriving soon and Schuldig wouldn’t be far behind him.

Crawford stood before the bathroom mirror and prepared to shave. There was still that sense of obscurity, of cloaking waterfalls that hid something so very important from his sight. Grunting softly in frustration, he forced himself to focus on the task at hand, to shave the black stubble that covered the lower half of his face. Once he was finished, he quickly washed the remaining shaving foam away and brushed his teeth before he returned to his bedroom to dress.

Thankfully, the wave of… *something* hit him there and not a few minutes earlier when he’d held a sharp razor to his throat. There was a deafeningly loud ‘click’ inside his head, the overwhelming sensation of cold water coursing over his body and then… nothing. If it were not for his blurred vision and trembling body, he would think that he’d imagined what had just happened. If it weren’t for the very faint sensation of victory, the assurance of future success, he would think that it had just been an after-effect of the morning’s dream. However, something had just occurred, something subtle yet profound, and he was certain that those obscuring waterfalls would be that much more translucent in the future, that a little bit more would be revealed in his visions.

That certainty filled him with languid warmth. His lips twitched and then curled into a smile as he pulled his pale grey dress shirt on and remained like that while he finished dressing. He caught sight of himself in the mirror, his dark grey suit impeccable and his expression so very pleased and a little cruel. Fighting to smother the grin before it revealed something to his teammates, Crawford did not leave the room until his face was expressionless once more. Suspicions would be raised if he appeared so satisfied this early in the day, before any blood was spilled or chaos sown.

Besides, there was something important that required his attention now. A quick glance at his watch revealed that Nagi should be arriving shortly. Leisurely making his way to the penthouse’s foyer, Crawford considered what must have caused that irreversible shifting of the time stream. There was an almost immediate answer – Schuldig. What exactly his teammate had done, Crawford wasn’t sure, but he was willing to bet that it had something to do with Fujimiya. The boy must be a very powerful ill wight; so powerful it left Crawford wondering just how Schuldig could control Abyssinian so thoroughly, especially since Crawford’s power revealed that the telepath wouldn’t get exactly what he wanted for months to come.

There were unanswered questions in this matter, something that he was never comfortable with and they annoyed him. Trust Schuldig to create a bevy of riddles by his irresponsible actions and leave Crawford to try and solve them before Schwarz was undone by some unknown factor. He had spent too many years manipulating things and bowing his head to his ‘superiors’ to allow Schwarz to fail. The Elders would soon be dead, Rosenkreuz would be destroyed from the inside and he would finally have his revenge.

The sound of the foyer’s door opening shook Crawford from his thoughts. Carefully composing his expression once more, he impassively watched Nagi creep into the penthouse. The telekinetic’s uniform was torn and stained with the dirt and soot that painted dark streaks across his pale face.

Nagi stared blindly at him for a few seconds and it was an uncomfortable reminder to Crawford of his dead mother’s expression at the end of his dream. Before he could chide himself for such fanciful thoughts, Nagi blinked and bowed his head, his chin almost to his chest.

Crawford let the silence stretch for a few more seconds before he gave the boy a reprieve. "Clean yourself and get some rest. I have no need for your talent today." His voice was stern yet quiet, betraying neither disappointment nor relief. He had known that Nagi would return to Schwarz heartbroken from the painful lesson of the previous day. He knew that Tot was dead, her body mysteriously found over two miles from the wreckage of Schreient’s mansion. This had been revealed in his visions and from a careful search of police databases; the only thing he didn’t know was how Abyssinian had kept Nagi alive and propelled Tot’s body so far away.

"Yes, sir," Nagi answered, his voice so faint as to be almost inaudible. He slowly lifted his head to look Crawford in the eye, and whatever he found there enabled him to sigh in utter weariness and begin to move toward his bedroom. "I’m sorry, sir," he whispered as he shuffled past Crawford.

"You’re still young, Nagi, I understand that. I expect you to still need to learn various lessons. However, I *don’t* expect you to ignore what you’ve learned from them," Crawford replied, his voice the slightest bit softer than before. Nagi only nodded in response but the droop of his shoulders lessened a little, and his neck was no longer so bowed.

The telekinetic would spend the day in bed recovering from his ordeal and Tot would never be mentioned again. Schwarz would remain whole… for a while longer. Crawford carefully considered the timelines he could clearly see and refused to let his personal feelings cloud his judgment. He had never thought that he could gain his revenge without some sort of sacrifice, and in the end, his teammates would have suitable futures. Perhaps not the futures that they envisioned for themselves but they would find some form of contentment nonetheless. Crawford did his best to ensure that much for his men.

They would help him gain his revenge and he would give them their freedom. He had never spoken to them about this deal and never would – just like he would never break it. There would be many betrayals in the future, some of them on his part, but that would never be one of them. His life did not allow him the luxury of honor but he did understand the concept of loyalty. He just found little reason to put that concept into practice – except for his teammates. That loyalty would face some interesting choices in the future as it became very apparent that the time would soon come when Abyssinian would be a part of Schwarz.

*******

Soft, warm rain falling upon her and slowly plastering her clothes to her skin, Geli knelt by the rosebush in the dreamscape she had created from Aya’s memories. The bush was just as real here as it was in Cassandra’s garden, and was better protected so she could conduct her work in peace. Geli wished she could rip it from the other dreamscape but knew that would put Aya in danger, would cause irreparable damage and that was something she was not going to risk. He had already suffered so much and would continue to do so in the future that she would never willingly cause him any more pain. In a way, he was more her child than the daughter she had borne.

Kneeling on the well-trimmed grass, she used her hands to dig through soft, wet soil near the rosebush’s base and form a hole. Once she was satisfied with its depth, she deposited a cattleya orchid in it, careful to make sure the plant’s roots were adequately protected. When the soil was firmly packed around it, she rubbed one of the plant’s deep lavender petals between her fingers then stroked along a flower’s lone violet petal.

Much of her power was beyond her now that her heir had taken on its burden but she still had some influence on things. She let a trickle of warmth flow from her hands into the orchid and envisioned it growing entwined with the rosebush. The next time she returned here, she hoped to find the two plants entangled with each other, even though that was in neither of their natures.

She would do what she could to ensure that gold and red were never parted for long; that they would always return to each other just like the stems of these two plants. There would be curves and kinks and loops, times when her wishes would matter little thanks to Cassandra’s meddling but it would all come together in the end. So much was beyond her at this point but she would hope fervently for that, she and the others. Too much depended on Aya retaining that which kept him sane and whole, that which centered him. The loss of his sister had been a staggering blow but they had done what they could so Aya would find someone else to be his protector and anchor.

If only they had foreseen the German telepath. Geli let out a sharp breath of anger as she held her hands up so the rain could wash them clean. Yusuf argued that perhaps Schuldig served some sort of purpose but she didn’t agree. The only good thing he had done so far was to cloak Aya from Rosenkreuz’ searching ‘eyes’. If that was the only thing he’d done, she would be eternally grateful to the young man but that wasn’t the case. No, he protected Aya by chaining Aya to him.

"Yes, but at a cost."

She hurried to her feet when she heard Seishirou’s quiet yet wry voice. Whirling around, she caught sight of her dear friend standing untouched in the rain. His orange and white monk’s robes were dry and his bald head gleamed with the little bit of light that remained.

He smiled, the expression gentle and warm, and approached the rosebush. "I can always tell when you think of him, you know. Your brow furrows so and I imagine that you’re about to tear something to shreds," he explained even though she was aware that he knew her well after several decades. "Such a shame, bringing ugly emotions into a beautiful garden."

Geli snorted in amusement and wiped the remaining mud that clung to her hands onto the skirt of her dress. "Oh, and it’s not as if you looked anything like those demons of yours when you first realized what he’d done," she teased and was rewarded by seeing her friend’s usually placid demeanor twist in annoyance. "Your eyes went all squinty and I thought you were going to breathe fire."

Seishirou arched his left eyebrow and shook his head. "Yes, but my knowledge of German swearwords greatly increased that day." He reached out and cupped one of the blooming roses, his touch reverent and light. "As much damage as Schuldig and Cassandra have done, the roses still bud and bloom. There is hope, Geli. You foreigners just need to get over your belief that life is supposed to be all light and happiness for it to be good. Pain and suffering serve their purposes, if only to strengthen one’s resolve. Aya will gain what he needs to be a proper catalyst from these trials. He has the necessary support." Seishirou released the rose so he could brush some dirt that clung to one of the orchid’s leaves away.

"Yes… for now." Geli went to her friend and, once he straightened up, rested her head on his right shoulder as she leaned against his back, breathed in deep the scent of incense and soaked in the radiance of such wonderful warmth. "They’ve made sure that will not always be the case."

"You have done what you can to check their actions." She could feel Seishirou’s sigh more than she could hear it. "He needs the time to stand on his own, Geli," Seishirou continued, his voice softer than usual as he broached a subject that always caused her anxiety. "All catalysts must find their own balance or else always be someone’s pawn."

She was well aware of that, *painfully* aware of that but she didn’t have to like it. Her arms tightened around Seishirou’s waist and she lifted her head so she could look over his shoulder at the plants. She could easily see how the red and gold threads were braided together, bound much tighter after last night. No matter how they would fray and split in the future, she had hope that they would be so entangled again. Aya and Yohji would pay for others’ interference… but the price should not be an eternal one, not as long as they remembered their love for each other.

"Why couldn’t I…." Her voice drifted off, her throat tightened by pain. Aya was so fortunate to have Yohji and she was heartened to see that he had passed this trial, that he realized just how much the man meant to him. However, the next trial would be Yohji’s, and thanks to Cassandra’s meddling….

Seishirou turned so they were face to face. "You should know better than anyone that it isn’t the present that matters but the future. When the time comes, there will still be a future to hope for, remember that," he reassured as his small hands gently brushed aside the wet hair that clung to her forehead. "This is but one crossroads, and, as you told Cassandra, others lie beyond it."

"I thought you normally preached about the precious ‘now’," she sniffed but was cheered by the advice. Because of her past, because she’d been so young, she had a terrible tendency to not think ahead far enough.

A warm laugh startled her so much she had to pull away from her friend and stare in wonder. Seishirou’s plain, normally unlined face was creased with amusement, his eyes almost entirely closed. "What can I say, I was a terrible monk." He laughed for a few more seconds and heaved a deep sigh as he wiped tears from his eyes. "Geli… you can’t protect him forever." All traces of amusement were gone from his countenance, his voice low and serious. "That is as dangerous to him as not enough protection."

Geli sighed and once more rested her head on her friend’s shoulder. "I know. Everyone warned me that this would be difficult, shielding him enough but not too much, and they were right." But there was so much stacked against Aya and that was partially her fault, no matter what Seishirou and the others said. She hadn’t been strong enough so Aya had to face more pain and turmoil than he should. If he failed…. Shivers wracked her body at that thought. The world had shifted so much because of her weakness; she wasn’t certain how much more it could take. "Maybe it shouldn’t have been Yohji-"

"No, he is the one best suited for Aya," Seishirou sternly interrupted. "Don’t make me explain the concept of yin and yang to you yet again, Gerri."

The use of her mocking nickname made Geli laugh and hold her hands up in surrender. "I may be an ignorant Westerner, but between you and Lin Yao, I think I grasp the concept now."

"Good." Seishirou nodded once and turned to face the rosebush. "Look upon what you have done. Reflect upon your past actions. Aya is not without protection or allies, even if he believes some of them to be enemies. There is also the fact that the one who would twist him the most has not taken into account what it means to tie himself to a catalyst." A sharp edge crept into Seishirou’s usual calm voice. "As the green threads entwine with the red, they become affected by how the red twists and knots. They no longer are solely directing but have become caught up. Schuldig does not fully understand what a catalyst does and overestimates his control over Aya’s power. If it can affect Aya against his own will… what is stopping it from doing the same to Schuldig?" Seishirou was openly gloating now. He had been blessed in Fate’s choice for his protector and always took offense at those who sought to use catalysts for their own wishes. Little pleased him more than seeing those people pay for their arrogance and cruelty.

"I won’t let them win this time," Geli whispered, her voice rough with iron resolve. She would not allow this catalyst to be broken or his protector to be twisted into a betrayer. That would *not* happen this time. The pain would not outweigh the joy, the gold and the red would not be separated forever. If she had to allow the green to remain so Aya would have the support he needed at the most trying of times, she would grudgingly do so but Schuldig was not chosen to be Aya’s protector. Even if he had been, he had lost that right by his past actions. Yohji was the one, and while he might stumble in the future, she would at least ensure that his sufferings made him stronger as well.

Only then would her past failures be put to right.

*******

Aya heard the back door to the shop open and close so he wasn’t surprised when someone approached as he sat at his workstation, busy assembling one of the day’s orders. However, he was a little stunned to realize that it was Yohji who set a mug of green tea on the table, a similar dark blue mug filled with what smelled to be coffee in his hand.

"Morning, Ayan," Yohji murmured as he leaned in for a kiss, his voice gruff with exhaustion. Aya cupped his lover’s face between his hands and kissed back, for a moment completely at peace just being alone with Yohji. Then he reluctantly pulled away and carefully eyed his lover, noting the dark circles beneath Yohji’s eyes.

"Your shift isn’t until eleven," Aya commented and tucked Yohji’s long bangs behind his ears. "You can still go back to sleep."

Yohji shook his head and smiled, the expression a little sad. "It’s not as enjoyable if you’re not there." He gave Aya a wink and raised his mug to just below his lips. "I can’t sleep properly if there isn’t someone hogging all the covers and putting their cold feet on my legs."

Aya’s eyes narrowed at the description, his lips pressed into a thin line. "Ha ha. At least I don’t snore like chainsaw." Both of them were over-exaggerating but there was something pleasant in the familiar complaints, something that was necessary on a morning when Yohji had obviously been woken up by a nightmare. He’d suffered too many in the last week, usually when Aya wasn’t in bed with him.

"You’re mistaking me for Ken." Yohji winked again and leaned against the table as he sipped his hot coffee. After a few swallows, he let out a heartfelt sigh. "That’s just what I needed." He motioned with his head toward the mug of tea. "I promise that I brewed it properly this time; I even warmed the mug first before I filled it with tea."

Cradling the heated mug between his hands, Aya took a cautious sip then imitated Yohji’s sigh. "Thank you." The smile he gave his lover was in earnest as just the sip of tea and the warm mug helped to dispel the cold that always filled him a little bit.

They drank their beverages in the peaceful quiet, their attention focused on each other and the occasional smile and wink that made up their silent conversation. Once his tea was finished, Aya set the mug on the table and rose from his stool so he could stand beside Yohji. He wrapped his arms around his lover’s shoulders, filled with a sudden wave of protectiveness. In the past week that feeling had strengthened as something whispered to him that Yohji was more fragile than he seemed and needed an extra bit of support. Aya refused to dwell on what it was that kept his lover off-balance, especially since Yohji wouldn’t talk about Neu.

Yohji set his cup aside as well and hugged Aya close. A gentle kiss was pressed against his right temple. "Did you hear from the Bastard yet?" Yohji asked, his voice gruff once more but not from sleepiness. He didn’t appear happy but he had stopped arguing over Aya being in contact with Schuldig two days ago. Yohji had finally accepted that no matter what the danger in speaking to Schuldig on a regular basis, Aya needed to know how his sister was doing. Neither of them mentioned the possibility that Schuldig might lie about her, not that Aya felt that he would.

"No, but he said something yesterday about being busy last night." Aya refused to worry about the lack of Schuldig’s report on his sister’s condition. For the past few days, the telepath had kept his promise, and the same thing that urged Aya to watch Yohji more closely also urged him to be patient.

From the expression on Yohji’s face, it was clear he wanted to say something more about the topic but he didn’t, instead he just tilted Aya’s chin up for another kiss. Aya eagerly responded, a low moan in the back of his throat at the feel of Yohji’s warm tongue sliding leisurely into his mouth. Memories of last night, of how they’d kissed for what seemed like hours before making love flooded him with desire, made his hands tighten in Yohji’s silky hair and his hips rock forward.

"Uhm, Aya, don’t forget about the early pick-up for the Watanabe arrangements." Judging from his voice, Omi was clearly amused to have caught Aya and Yohji in the act and, once Aya broke away from his lover, he found that emotion echoed in the teenager’s wide grin. "Good morning, Yohji."

"Well, it was a good morning before you showed up, chibi," Yohji grumbled but he was smiling too, his hands clinging to Aya’s hips with determination. "Shouldn’t you be at school?"

Omi shook his head and motioned toward his uniform. "I’ve half an hour before it’s time for me to leave so I thought I’d help Aya a little." He chuckled as he approached the worktable to pick up one of the completed arrangements. "I guess it’s a good thing that I did or Watanabe-san wouldn’t get his flowers."

Aya patted Yohji’s hands to get his lover to release him so he could finish the arrangements. "If you’re not going back to bed, I need some more baby’s breath and yellow carnations." He hoped that the threat of being put to work would encourage his lover to get more rest.

Yohji grunted softly and scratched his head. Once Aya was seated on his stool, he came around the work table to give Aya a hug. "Hang on, let me run upstairs and see if Ken wants to switch shifts. Then we’ll be finished early this afternoon and I can take you out to dinner." He kissed the top of Aya’s head and then sauntered away.

Staring after his lover, Aya felt a smile curl the corners of his mouth. An evening spent with Yohji would be wonderful. After all that had happened in the last few weeks, the lost opportunity to rescue Aya-chan and Neu’s death, these days of normalcy were so very precious. Something whispered inside his head, the voice sounding very much like the girl from his dreams, that he should embrace and enjoy these days as much as possible. He didn’t need any encouragement, not when his relationship with Yohji only seemed strengthened after so much loss. Yohji did his best to not worry over Schuldig contacting Aya about his sister and Aya no longer blamed his boyfriend for what had happened with Schreient.

Aya reached for a carnation so he could finish the arrangement. Looking at the flowers, he noticed that some of their stems had overlapped and formed a cross. A sudden chill wracked his body, followed by a hint of warmth and a quiet purr that filled his head. Unbidden, he remembered his last conversation with Cassandra and her talk of crossroads. He recalled her warnings and promises about future choices. As his hand trembled above the flowers, he heard Geli’s voice.

//Sometimes dreams can be nothing more than dreams if that’s what you wish them to be.//

He hadn’t dreamed of visiting hotel rooms on rainy days or lying in bed with Schuldig in the past week. In fact, he could barely remember the details of those nightmares after he went to see Schuldig. Walking away from the room and being grateful to Schu for his promises seemed to have cast a veil over the memories. However, there were new dreams the last few nights, and Yohji wasn’t the only one suffering a loss of sleep. The dreams had something to do with cherry blossoms and an injured throat, of facing Yohji while his lover’s wire was wrapped around his neck, Yohji’s face twisted in anguish.

Aya didn’t like to reflect on them once he was awake. Whenever he did, the good mood he strove for was ruined by anxiety and sorrow. If the nightmares had been about his sister he’d understand, but oddly enough, he felt at peace in regards to her. He had hopes that he would rescue her one day soon and for the first time in months knew how she was doing on a daily basis.

"Okay, looks like you’re stuck with me for the next several hours!"

Yohji’s cheerful voice broke Aya free from his confused thoughts. He looked up in time for Yohji to plant a quick kiss on his lips. "What are you in for the mood for tonight, Ayan?" Yohji asked, the circles beneath his eyes appearing lighter when combined with such a warm, bright smile. "I heard about this new Italian place you might like."

"That sounds good." Aya managed a smile in return and nodded. "As long as it’s not too crowded."

"Nah, shouldn’t be too bad on a weekday." Yohji picked the empty flower bucket up and, after a quick tug on one of Aya’s eartails, quickly stepped away from the worktable. "Baby’s breath and yellow carnations. I’ll be right back!"

Aya watched him leave, his smile more genuine as he reflected upon their night out. He forced all thoughts of dreams out of his mind, unwilling to deal with them on what promised to be a good day. All that mattered was that they *were* dreams and that he’d do his best to make sure they remained that way. If Cassandra and Geli were right about some choices being open to him, then he would pick the ones that allowed him to remain by Yohji’s side and ones that would return Aya-chan to him. That was all he wanted, not power or Schuldig or anything else.

*******

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