Crossroads

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chapter 5

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Cassandra sat as close to the cliff’s edge as she dared. The smell of brine filled her senses, overwhelming the scent of myriad flowers, the sound of crashing waves all she could hear. Yet, as if to taunt her, the gentle breeze would, every now and then, turn violent and rain cherry blossom petals all around her like pink-tinged snowflakes. She shuddered in distaste at their beauty and tried to push the guilt from her mind. If only she could delve fully into the madness, but the time wasn’t now.

No, now was the time of betrayal. Oaths would be broken for the crossroads were at hand. Death’s time had come.

The Knight would have to choose, and that decision would affect Death and the Magician, would send ripples through their world. Had she given him enough warning so he would choose wisely? Should she have concentrated her efforts more on Death, rather than on his lover? Time would tell. The damned brat would arrive soon, either crowing in triumphant or furious in defeat. May he not leave until she was dead.

The wind howled, sounding like the cackle of blackbirds. More petals rained down on her and she cringed from their silky touch as if they were sharp razors. Oh so long ago, and earlier this spring, she had set the future into motion. The paths were many, but they would all lead to one ending. The evil ones would pay for their crimes, too numerous to list. So numerous, they probably could not recall the death of a certain scholar and his wife. So unspeakable, they probably saw nothing wrong with what they had ordered done to her over the years.

She would make them pay. That oath had been sworn long ago, before any of the ones to be sacrificed now were born, and she would honor it. She just wished… she just wished she could retreat fully into the madness and not have to witness the path that oath took, the destruction it would leave behind. She wished that Death had never taken to wandering in her garden, or that she’d never haunted the Knight’s dreams. Things were too personal now, and there would be pain.

Regardless of that pain, she would not put a halt to things.

*******

Aya sat on the bed and stared at the bedroom door. He’d washed as soon as he’d come home, and upon hearing Yohji’s arrival, had retreated here. He’d heard Yohji, footsteps heavy as if he carried something, walk down the hallway toward the spare room. Heard the sound of a hushed argument coming from next door.

At least Yohji hadn’t tried to bring the bitch in here. Aya’s hands clenched around the hem of the over-sized sweatshirt he wore as anger tore through him. There was no way in hell he’d allow one of Schreient in his bedroom. It was bad enough that Neu was in the Koneko, in his home. His katana leaned against the nightstand, close at hand for when she tried anything. He didn’t believe that she’d been badly hurt, didn’t believe that Schreient would ruthlessly run down one of their own. Those four women stuck together, tied to one another because of their love for that bastard Masafumi.

How dare they take Aya-chan in retaliation for Masafumi’s death? He’d happily killed the man for being a filthy Takatori, a person too self-centered and insane to care about all the people he’d hurt with his experiments. Aya-chan was an innocent, utterly harmless and unable to protect herself. And Schreient had gone and made her a pawn in their battle. They’d die for that, as soon as he got his sister back safe and sound.

Guilt and anger battled inside him, his thoughts whirling between how he’d let Aya-chan down and Schreient’s audacity. He tried to concentrate on something other than who was in the room with Neu, on what had happened earlier tonight, but always failed. Then the guilt and anger would fade beneath a barrage of pain.

He shifted uncomfortably on the bed before deciding to lie down. He barely got any sleep last night, too focused on the new mission to relax, and he felt worn-out as a result. He was also freezing, a coldness that started in his chest and spread throughout his entire body. After making sure his katana was readily available, he turned off the light and slid beneath the covers.

The sheets smelled of spice and cigarettes - of Yohji. Unable to restrain his treacherous thoughts any longer, Aya hissed in pain and curled up on his side. The bed was cold, as it always was when his lover wasn’t here to warm it - and him - up. But Yohji was next door with Neu.

It was so damned hard to understand what was going on. Yes, Neu looked like Asuka but she’d tried to kill Yohji tonight, and him as well. She was the enemy. Yohji had seen his old lover shot before his eyes, knew very well that she was dead, so why did he lose it whenever he saw Neu? What disturbed Aya so much wasn’t just Yohji pleading with him to not kill the woman, but the light of hope he’d seen in his lover’s eyes. Part of Yohji truly believed that Neu was Asuka, believed it strongly enough to risk antagonizing the rest of Weiß and bring an enemy into their home. Not to mention what Kritiker would do when they found out that Weiß hadn’t simply killed a member of Schreient, as they had been ordered.

The pain in his chest intensified. Yohji believed that his old lover had returned to him – so where did that leave Aya, other than alone in their bed? Yohji claimed to love him and had downplayed the issue of Neu/Asuka just this morning… but now he threw the team into complete chaos because of his inability to let go of a dead woman.

How could Aya ever hope to compete? Everything that happened tonight made the task seem nigh impossible. Neu had beaten the shit out of him, from the bruises on Yohji’s face, and still Yohji refused to think any ill of her. He wanted to protect Neu, one of the women responsible for kidnapping Aya-chan and killing how many people? A woman who had tried to kill Yohji earlier that year and who had also tried to destroy Weiß several times.

Aya shivered and pulled the comforter up around his shoulders. He couldn’t rid himself of the fear that he was losing Yohji. As much as he wanted to go next door and shake Neu until she told him where his sister was, he didn’t want to see Yohji holding her, protecting her. He didn’t want to push it now and find out how far his lover’s delusions went. A niggling voice that sounded a lot like Schuldig’s warned him that it wouldn’t be far at all. He knew that Neu wasn’t Asuka, knew there was no hope of bringing Asuka Murase back to the land of the living. That thread was forever gone, faded dark these past couple of these years. But Yohji….

Yohji clearly hoped that Neu was Asuka returned to him and didn’t care about the consequences of that being true. Yohji wanted his old girlfriend back that much. Aya knew his lover, knew how stubborn and blind to reality Yohji could be when he got a particular thought in his head. That determination had been part of the reason he’d given in to Yohji’s wish for a relationship between them, had led him to trust Yohji as a lover. Anything Yohji wanted that much, he would move heaven and earth to make his. Aya had foolishly believed that blind determination meant that Yohji’s love for him could be trusted.

// As for Kudoh, he still pines for his first love. You’re just a replacement, precious Aya.//

Aya moaned and buried his face in his hands as he forcefully shoved that thought aside. What was he going to do? There was no sense in confronting Neu while she was unconscious, and most certainly not while Yohji was at her side. He’d have to wait until morning, until Yohji calmed down, to ‘ask’ about his sister. If Neu didn’t tell him…. Rage warred with the pain for a few seconds. He hadn’t been able to do anything these past few months to find Aya-chan, and now that one of her kidnappers was close at hand, he wasn’t going to let anything stop him from getting the answers he needed. If his sister had been left unharmed, he’d grant Schreient a quick death. He wouldn’t spare Neu just because she looked like a dead woman.

But what about Yohji? Would he stand by and let Aya get the answers he needed, would he do nothing if Aya killed Neu? After tonight, Aya couldn’t be sure of the answer. If Yohji couldn’t get past this delusion, it would probably be ‘no’. What then? Aya couldn’t let Schreient go, not when they had his sister, but he didn’t want to drive Yohji away, either.

He loved the man too much. His palms smacked into his forehead as he thought about how much of an idiot he might be proven to be. He’d known about Asuka, about why Yohji had joined Weiß. They were so much alike in that regard. Just as Aya wasn’t able to turn his back on his sister, Yohji couldn’t do the same with his dead girlfriend. So why had Aya believed that he’d replaced Asuka in Yohji’s heart? Why had he allowed himself to think that Yohji might love him just as much, if not more, than Asuka?

//You’re just a replacement, precious Aya.//

Was he? Was that all he really was? Someone for Yohji to fuck? A warm, willing body who was always nearby to save Yohji the effort of going out to find someone? Aya was so easy, too. He didn’t need flowers, fancy dinners or expensive gifts. He just needed to believe that Yohji loved him. In return, he loved Yohji and allowed the man to fuck him. Wasn’t he the perfect substitute for Asuka? Even their names were similar. How many times had Yohji called him ‘Asuka’ and he’d allowed himself to hear it as his own name?

"Stop it." He smacked himself again, trying to stop the downward spiral of his thoughts. Yohji loved him, the past few months had proved that over and over again. But the doubts kept growing, kept hounding him with more and more proof that Schuldig had been right about Yohji, pointing out the fact that his lover was next door and not here.

<Problems, precious?>

That wasn’t a memory. Aya moaned and jerked the comforter over his head, as if it could work as a shield to keep Schuldig out of his thoughts. <Go away,> he thought furiously, not able to put up with any mind games right now.

<Sorry, but that’s not going to happen. We’re linked, remember? That’s why I feel the pain pouring off you tonight, Aya. What has the Schwanzlutscher done now?> There was an amused edge to Schuldig’s thoughts, a hint that he was looking forward to hearing the explanation. His mind pressed against Aya’s, a warm, cheerful presence that made his anguish all the stronger by contrast.

He couldn’t take this right now. <Go away,> he repeated, unwilling to hear Schuldig’s gloating, to listen to him go into great detail about how wrong he’d been to believe that Yohji would never betray him. He didn’t want any ‘I told you so’s’ just then, it would just grind in to his shattering heart how he allowed himself to be used and tossed aside by Yohji.

That thought sent a stabbing pain through his chest. Yohji had his precious ‘Asuka’ back now so there was no more need of him. It was over. Why had he ever been stupid enough to believe that anyone would want him?

<Aya.>

He was a freak. He was something twisted and abnormal, both body and mind. Nobody would want a lover as odd looking as he was, would want to love someone who wasn’t human. Why had he let himself believe that for even a second?

<Aya, stop it.>

He ignored the voice in favor of the pain, his fingers buried in his hair and yanking on the awful coloured strands. It was just another outward sign of how freakish he really was.

<You’re not a freak.> Schuldig sounded angry now, his amusement all gone.

Yes, he was. Schuldig was just upset because that made him a freak as well, the both of them with their talents, utterly unfit for human company. Unfit for love. Hadn’t their entire lives taught them that? No one loved or wanted them. They were just handy weapons to be sent out on missions and, once the task was done, hidden away from decent people. He never should have thought, even for a second, that he deserved something that belonged to those decent, *normal* people. He never should have believed that Yohji could ever love him.

<*Stop it.*>

Curled up in a ball, Aya kept pulling on his hair, hoping that pain would eventually overwhelm the sensation of glass shards piercing him. The worst of it was that he’d believed Yohji, had begun to put his lover before his sister. His teeth bit into his lip at the thought of that betrayal. He cared just as much for Yohji as he did for Aya-chan - but Yohji was still there, still awake. Aya didn’t need to always be strong for his lover as he had to be for his sister. He allowed himself to believe that he’d found someone who would always be there. And what happened? A copper taste filled his mouth as he thought about it. Yohji betrayed him for one of the bitches who had taken Aya-chan and were hiding her away. As badly as Yohji had betrayed him, it was nothing like what he’d done to his sister for daring to put lies, no matter how wanted, before her. He was a filthy, tainted thing, totally worthless and-

<STOP IT! Stop it now, Aya! You’re none of those things.> Warmth flooded through him, along with a sense of panic and pain that wasn’t his own. He was alone in his bed but there were hands pulling his away from his head, forcing them to open and release his abused hair. There was the sensation of someone holding him, of soothing touches along his skin and strong arms holding him close.

<It’s not your fault. Stop hurting yourself! You’re anything but worthless.> Schuldig’s thoughts were in his mind and disrupted the dark, castigating ones that drove him to punish himself. Aya closed his eyes… and found himself lying in bed with Schuldig, the telepath’s warm arms wrapped around him and holding him tight.

<Leave me alone, Schuldig.> He didn’t want to hear about Yohji’s betrayal, didn’t want his thoughts messed around with and definitely didn’t want any more pain. He was too full of it already; any more and he would split right open.

Long fingers slid through his hair and gently massaged his abused scalp. <No. You’re not at fault here, Aya. I… I won’t mention that asshole other than to say this: It’s Kudoh’s fault, not yours. *He’s* the worthless idiot for not realizing what he’s throwing away.>

It hurt to even think about Yohji, to be reminded about his own stupidity. He tried to pull away from Schuldig’s embrace before he heard anything more.

<Shhh.> He was held tightly as warm lips pressed against his forehead. <I won’t mention him again, I promise. You didn’t betray your sister, Aya. You couldn’t have prevented what happened to her, even if you’d been… single at the time. In a way… in a way she’s safer where she is, away from Kritiker. She’s being taken care of, I’ve made sure of that, and you’ll see her soon.>

The mention of his sister gave him a glimmer of hope. He uncurled a little to look at Schuldig. <She’s all right?> The threads had whispered the same to him, but it was something else to hear it, to have it confirmed. Schu never lied to him. Hurt him with the truth, yes, more times than he could count - but Schu never lied. Much to Aya’s pain and regret.

Schu smiled, a bit sadly. <She’s… the same as always. Schreient’s kept her stable.> He shifted closer to Aya and brushed back his bangs. <You know they’re planning to use her against you, don’t you?>

<I know.> The guilt returned, this time for involving his sister in his dark world. <I don’t care what they do to me, as long as she’s safe.>

Schu made a sound of disgust and ran his hands through Aya’s hair. <You should care. Mein Gott, you almost pulled it all out by the roots, you know. I’ve always liked your hair, it’s such a lovely colour.> His hand cupped Aya’s chin. <You’re lovely, never doubt that for a second.>

Things were starting to get blurry, Schu’s touch and warmth were the only things solid in this odd dream. Even the pain felt so far away…. <What are you doing to me?> he asked, not really caring now that Schuldig was once again messing with his mind. He felt too tired and broken for that.

<Just giving you a chance to rest.> Schuldig leaned forward and, even expecting the telepath to try to take advantage of the situation, Aya couldn’t force himself to fight back. Right then, he didn’t see why it mattered. But all Schuldig did was kiss him lightly on the lips and hold him closer.

<I’m sorry. I never thought about how badly the pain would affect you. Rest, Aya.>

Schu’s voice washed through him, pushing the pain and guilt back until they were only a dull throb in his chest. Latching onto thoughts of his sister, of her not being hurt for his failures and foolishness, he let Schu hold him and retreated into the darkness.

*******

Schuldig lay on his bed, his arms outstretched as if holding someone. With his eyes closed, he could see Aya sleeping beside him, looking worn and battered.

Idiot. He’d known that Aya wouldn’t take Kudoh’s betrayal at all well, so why hadn’t he realized that it would break his heart as badly as this? Why hadn’t he expected this pain and self-abuse? Of course Aya would twist everything until he became convinced it was his own fault. That boy could out-guilt a good Catholic. All the anger and hurt that should have been turned on Kudoh had instead been focused on Aya himself, a bitter, potent scouring of emotions that had almost broken him.

Schuldig believed he’d fixed it - for now at least. He’d calmed Aya down, banked the emotions enough that they wouldn’t shatter Aya – or him either. That should hold for a while, at least until Kudoh did something even more stupid than earlier tonight. A quick scan of Neu’s mind informed him that the woman was going to play Kudoh’s confusion and guilt for all it was worth, meaning there would be many opportunities for Kudoh to do just that. At least that was going according to his plan.

Even though it was producing the results he’d longed for these past few months, he felt a brief burning of rage at the thought of what Kudoh was doing to Aya. In the end, the man-whore’s actions would give him exactly what he wanted, but for Aya to suffer like this…. Kudoh didn’t deserve him.

People would probably argue that Schuldig didn’t deserve Aya either, but that didn’t matter. He’d keep Aya from shattering - and would make the pain fade away. There was a flash of guilt as he thought about Schwartz’s plans for Aya-chan but he had spoken the truth earlier. She was safer with Schreient, and would even be safer in Esset’s clutches, than she would be with Kritiker.

He hugged the image of Aya closer, filled with longing for the time when he’d actually have the man in his arms like this, in reality and not some dream. Aya, on his end of the link, sighed and tucked his head under Schuldig’s chin. His talent was responding to its own desires and to the dreams Schuldig had sent him, quietly knotting threads to bring both of them about.

Schuldig could only let it work for a short while longer, and then would have to once more cage it behind Cassandra’s cloak. Aya couldn’t have control of his power during what was to come since too much rested on Schreient falling, on Schwartz taking Aya-chan. He’d only released it in the first place to help him reach Aya and shake him from his destructive thoughts. Schuldig could only enjoy just a few more pleasant minutes of holding his heart in his arms and then he’d have to end this dream.

He savored it for as long as he could, and then forced himself to cloak Aya’s power once more. Aya moaned and shivered when it happened, his hand clutching Schuldig’s shirt and pulling him close. Schuldig smiled at that, patted Aya’s hand and reached out to wipe away the trickle of blood on his beloved’s chin. One more kiss and he ended the dream.

A quick scan revealed that Aya remained asleep, though not as deeply now, his punishing emotions muted but not banished. It was enough, however, that the guilt wouldn’t almost drive him over the edge again. There were blocks in place now that should help prevent that from happening, at least long enough for Schuldig to reach through their link and help Aya again if he needed it.

Forcing himself to dampen their connection until Aya was just a faint presence in the back of his mind, he opened his eyes and sat up in bed. His scalp ached and his lip hurt, remnants of the damage Aya had done to himself earlier, but the pain slowly faded away as the link dimmed. He rubbed his face with his right hand, the star-shaped scar that Cassandra had given him months ago chill against his flesh. He didn’t mind it as it was one more sign of his link with Aya, of their unbreakable connection. He wondered how good it would feel when Aya was at his side, the cloak gone and no shields up between them.

He straightened his appearance and wandered through the house, toward Crawford’s office. A quick scan of his teammates revealed that Farfarello was still sulking over being deprived of any kills tonight, and that Nagi was composing a letter to his sweetie. Huh, as if Tot would understand half of the words. Crawford was a familiar buzz of concentration, emotions cloaked by that damned power of his.

Schuldig didn’t bother with knocking on the door - he just opened it and entered. The only light in the paneled room was from the small lamp on Crawford’s desk and the screen of the computer. Crawford sat facing the door, as if expecting him.

"Guten Nacht," Schuldig said as he closed the door behind him and leaned against it. "Dare I hope that you’re still up because you’re combing the Net for porn?"

Crawford’s lips twitched, whether in a frown or a smile he couldn’t tell, since the precog quickly forced them back into a straight line. "There’s this concept that you’re not familiar with, Mastermind, one called ‘work." He gave Schuldig a cool look. "You know, the thing that you studiously avoid when at all possible and even when it’s not? I’m sorry to say that since we’re not currently working for the porn industry, looking at pictures of naked men and women occupied in both real and simulated acts of sex doesn’t fall under part of our job description."

"You’d best be careful, Oracle, that sounded dangerously close to a joke just now." Schuldig crossed his arms over his chest and grinned. "You wouldn’t want to ruin your image as the team’s resident ‘stick up his ass’, would you?"

"I only appear uptight in contrast to you and Berserker," Crawford pointed out. "Now, is there a reason for this little visit?" He sat back in his chair, the light from the lamp reflecting off his glasses, creating a reflection that hid his eyes from sight.

"I just thought you might be interested to know that Schreient’s gonna try to play Weiß for fools, and thanks to that asshole Balinese, they’re going to do a pretty damn good job of it." Really, the man truly did have shit for brains. Aya was much better off without him.

Crawford appeared to concentrate on the news for a moment, but Schuldig didn’t feel any flash of pain or discomfort that usually signaled one of Oracle’s visions. "Keep me informed of what happens. I don’t ‘see’ anything that indicates that Schreient will destroy Weiß, which is good. If Weiß manages to realize that they’re being tricked and destroys Schreient, then that’s less work for us." Crawford then turned to his computer as if Schuldig wasn’t in the room anymore.

Recognizing a dismissal when he saw one, Schuldig saluted his leader in the manner of a German SS soldier. "Heil Crawford." He smiled when he saw the precog’s shoulders twitch and bit back on a laugh. Crawford really did hate the Nazi references.

Schuldig left the office to go to the kitchen for a late night snack. He would need the energy in the upcoming days, both in restraining Aya’s power until it was safe to release it, and in keeping Aya together after Kudoh broke his heart. The happiness he felt at the thought of Aya finally being his was tempered by the pain he knew was still to come.

*******

Yohji sat on the edge of the bed and looked down on Neu’s unconscious form. Even now her face was impassive, betraying no emotion other than a hint of pain. He couldn’t understand it. Even when she was asleep, he could always tell what Asuka was feeling. Whether she was having a pleasant dream or not, if he should get up first and have the coffee brewing before she woke, or if they were going to skip work that day to laze about in bed. He’d missed that openness, missed Asuka’s little smiles and pouts and sly grins, the way her brow furrowed when she took her troubles to bed. He hadn’t found anything like it with any of his other lovers - at least, the few he’d stayed around long enough to watch them sleep. It was just something else he’d lost when he failed to save his lover all those years ago, something he’d missed until he’d woken up in the middle of the night to see how peaceful and young Aya looked when he slept….

He groaned and leaned forward, resting his forehead on the palms of his hands, fingers pulling at his hair. What a damned fool he was. He hadn’t found the strength yet to go next door and talk to Aya, especially after Ken had chewed him out for bringing Neu here against Aya’s wishes. Oh, he told himself that it would be best to remain here until the doctor showed up and checked out Neu, but he was really hiding from Aya, from the hurt he’d caused his lover. Now that Neu was safe, if only for the time being, and he was home, his brain slowly kicked back into gear and showed him how right Ken and Omi were to be upset with him.

Gods, could things be any more messed up than they were? He was sore as hell and wanted nothing more than to curl up in bed with his boyfriend but here he was, looking after an enemy. An assassin who resembled his ex-girlfriend. And next door was the man he loved, thinking gods knew what. He hoped the damned doctor arrived soon so he could go over there and….

He didn’t have a clue what he was going to do, but he knew he couldn’t let Aya suffer in pain and not do anything about that. If only he had a clue about how to end that pain, but so far he’d thought of nothing. Over all, thinking hadn’t been an integral part of his night. Once he’d seen Neu, somehow, his brain had just short-circuited and all he’d been aware of was the overwhelming guilt he felt over Asuka’s death and the fervent hope that she wasn’t really dead. All he could think about was whether or not Neu was somehow Asuka. If she was, then he wasn’t responsible for the death of the woman he loved, and that he wasn’t a failure doomed to hurt everyone he loved. So Neu had to be Asuka. What the hell were the chances of him running across an assassin who looked just like his old girlfriend?

He just wanted some time to find out if it was possible or not if Asuka survived that day long ago. A bitter laugh escaped him. Wasn’t there an old saying about being careful what you wished for, because it might come true? Well, here Neu was, mostly safe and sound, not even appearing badly injured from being struck by a car. Until his teammates changed their minds about trying to get some answers from Neu, she would be safe for the time being, and when she finally woke up, he would get those answers. He would know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, if he’d failed Asuka or not. If his ex-lover really was dead… he would hand Neu over to Kritiker for some more answers. But if she wasn’t and his wish had come true….

He reached down to brush back the strand of dark hair that had fallen onto Neu’s cheek, and couldn’t help but linger over the birthmark there. There, in exactly the same spot as Asuka’s. It couldn’t just be his mind playing tricks on him. There were way too many similarities between Neu and Asuka for it to just be his imagination, warped by guilt into thinking they were one and the same. It just might very well be Asuka lying here.

But, as his conscience reminded him, waiting next door was Aya, his lover. The man he knew he’d hurt deeply tonight, even though he hadn’t realized that until he was on the way home. Realized what Aya must have been thinking to see him losing it over an enemy, one of the women who had kidnapped Aya-chan who happened to look just like Asuka. Gods, what an idiot he was.

Aya must have broken every single speed limit on the way home from the warehouse because Yohji, desperate to explain what was really going on, hadn’t been able to catch up to him at all. He’d come home to find Omi waiting for him, down in the kitchen. Omi had already called a doctor, one they trusted to remain quiet, and suggested they put Neu in the spare bedroom. The room that was filled with Aya’s things. While carrying Neu there, Yohji had passed the door to their bedroom and found it closed, a weak beam of light shining through the gap at the bottom, and his heart had clenched at that ominous symbol. Once inside the spare room, he’d been briefly distracted from the pain when Omi let him know in no uncertain terms what he thought of Yohji’s ideas regarding their guest and how he was risking all their lives, not to mention his relationship with Aya, over a mistaken, ludicrous belief.

That made the pain even worse, not so much being reprimanded by Omi of all people, but Omi pointing out the fact that Aya was hurting because of him. The thought of all that suffering made Yohji groan in misery and move away from Neu. He leaned against the door and watched the sleeping woman, trying to tell himself that Omi and Ken were right and he was only imagining the resemblance. Yet, try as he might, he couldn’t convince himself of that. Neu was just too much like Asuka. He wouldn’t hurt Aya like this if that wasn’t the case.

He had to hope that Aya could understand what he was feeling. Hell, his lover had allowed Sakura Tomoe to witness Abyssinian in action and hadn’t killed her as he should have. Weiß would be up shit creek if Kritiker ever found out about that. Aya also put up with the girl, with her clumsy attempts of winning him over, just because she looked like Aya-chan. Aya damn well knew Sakura wasn’t his sister.

Well, Yohji didn’t know for certain that Neu wasn’t Asuka. Maybe the only way he’d ever be sure was with a DNA test, but he would wait until she woke up to seek his answer. Without the rest of Schreient around, hopefully he’d be able to get the truth from Neu.

He had some ideas about what he’d do if she was Asuka. He knew he couldn’t reclaim the past - that was long gone. Besides, he was deliriously in love with Aya now. He wasn’t giving that man up, not at all. He just didn’t know how he could live with himself if he had a chance to save Asuka now, after failing her so miserably before. This was something that would eat at him until it drove him mad. Besides, sometimes he felt as if a curse was hanging over him, waiting to snatch away the people he loved. First his mom, then Asuka, and even Maki, who he’d just liked and admired. He couldn’t take it if his nightmares came true and Aya died as well, another death for which he was responsible. He *had* to break the damned curse before it cost him Aya.

Stalking around the room, he glanced irritably at the door. Where the hell was the doctor? He knew that Omi called the man they used when they didn’t want Kritiker to know how badly injured they were, who was probably busy tonight patching up gunshot wounds for members of the yakuza. It usually took the doctor some time to show up but…. He needed to go see Aya, even if that thought scared him. He needed to repair the damage his stupidity had done to their relationship.

He expected his lover to have burst into the room by now, waving his katana about and demanding that Neu wake up and tell him where Aya-chan was hidden. The fact that Aya hadn’t shown up made him nervous as hell. What was Aya thinking right now? Maybe he was sitting in their room, having decided to wait until Yohji explained things to him. Yohji snorted at the thought. Yeah, right. He couldn’t be that lucky. There was no way in hell he’d be sitting quietly next door if Aya was in here with an enemy, no matter who she looked like.

In a little while he’d go over there and set things straight. Aya wouldn’t be in pain for much longer. No, he’d probably be pissed as hell at Yohji by the end of their talk, but Yohji could deal with anger. He’d let Aya call him an idiot about the whole matter and, sooner or later, Aya would forgive him and understand why he’d done the things he did tonight. If Neu told them where Schreient was holding Aya-chan, that would be a big help in bringing Aya around.

If they could just get the girl back and Neu somewhere safe, free of Schreient and able to work through what they’d done to her mind, then things would be fine. Yohji had to believe that. Fate couldn’t be cruel enough to taunt him with the hope of Asuka alive and well and make him risk things with Aya this much. Neu had to be Asuka. Fate owed him that much. And once he made Neu remember who she was, maybe the nightmares would stop. He couldn’t take the dreams of losing Aya much longer and remain sane.

*******

Omi stared at the closed door of the spare bedroom and sighed. He walked down the hallway, paused before another closed door, and sighed again. This time the sound was much louder and more heartfelt as he debated knocking on the door to see how Aya was doing. But what could he say? ‘Hey, Aya, I just wanted to make sure you were okay with Yohji tending to a member of Schreient. Oh, and there’s no reason to worry about him thinking that she’s his dead girlfriend. He won’t forget about you in favor of the woman who not only drove him to Weiß in the first place but inspired him to sleep with half of Tokyo before you two got together.’ Oh yeah, that would certainly make Aya feel better.

Shaking his head, he decided to go see how Ken was doing. There was nothing he could do up here – at least, nothing that wouldn’t cause one of his two best friends more pain. He couldn’t comfort Aya and he couldn’t believe Yohji’s claim that Neu was Asuka Murase but didn’t want to argue about the matter any more. Time to go see if he could find any answers downstairs.

Ken was sitting at the kitchen table, large hands busy turning a floppy disk over and over, when he finally tracked him down. "Hey."

Ken looked up at him and smiled, the expression making him feel a little better. "’Hey’ yourself. You didn’t stay up there with the doctor?"

"No." He shook his head and sat down beside Ken, and gasped in pleased surprise when his friend draped an arm over his shoulder. He hid the sound behind a faked yawn. "It seems that Neu just woke up, and Yohji’s still with her. The doctor thought that Neu would be more relaxed if there weren’t as many people in the room, and Yohji wasn’t about to leave."

Ken grunted and gave his shoulder a squeeze. "The man’s finally lost it. I can’t believe he thinks Neu is his old girlfriend. I mean, I know she tried to kill him and all, but that’s still not proof." He turned to look at Omi who had groaned at the pitiful joke and smiled weakly. "How’s Aya doing?"

"I don’t know." He grasped Ken’s hand and interlaced their fingers. "He’s still in their room."

"He’s probably busy sharpening his katana. The question is, is he going to use it against Neu or Yohji?" Ken slumped in his chair and pulled Omi closer. "I know I’ve asked this already, but what the hell is Yohji thinking?"

That was what Omi wanted to know. "I’ve… I’ve seen pictures of Asuka Murase, and I have to admit that Neu looks an awful lot like her."

Ken snorted at that bit of news. "And the one old lady who comes in on the third Monday of each month looks just like my fifth grade homeroom teacher. I don’t care how much alike they look, what makes Yohji think he’s going to find his old girlfriend hiding out with Schreient? First off, she’s supposed to be dead. Secondly…." He shook his head. "I’ll be the first to admit that our lives are really, really weird, but I won’t buy that somehow Asuka came back from the dead and ended up involved with Masafumi, just so her path would cross with Yohji’s again. There’s such a thing as too much coincidence."

But Aya was involved in the matter, so who could say what was possible anymore? The reason Omi had a problem with that theory, though, was seeing why Aya would want to… do whatever his power did to involve Yohji’s old lover in their lives. He loved Yohji too much to risk losing him to Asuka. If anything, Neu should have dropped dead by now.

"I think Yohji’s chasing after ghosts," he said after a moment, unwilling to break the comfortable silence that had fallen between him and Ken. They each had their sore spots from the past, the people they’d loved and lost. While Aya had pursued his own vendetta against the Takatoris, he hadn’t involved Weiß as deeply as Yohji was doing right now over his foolish imaginings. Having Neu here was just inviting trouble, especially when Kritiker was paying such close attention to them.

Ken gave his hand a squeeze. "How long do you think the doctor’s going to be up there?"

"I guess that depends on how badly Neu is injured." He enjoyed Ken’s presence for a few more seconds before forcing himself to stand up. "If Neu’s going to be spending the night, I better go get a few things for her." Ken immediately frowned. "I don’t want her using any of our stuff, all right?" he explained. "Besides, she’ll be our guest until we find out where the rest of Schreient is, and where they’re keeping Aya-chan."

Ken appeared mollified by that. "Okay, just don’t take very long. I don’t like the idea of you being out there by yourself but I don’t want to leave the Koneko with Yohji and Aya both acting so weird." He rose to his feet, standing in front of Omi. "Be careful," he said, before leaning in for a kiss.

Omi wanted to savour the moment, to stay here with Ken for as long as he could, but the nearest convenience would be closing soon. "I will," he said, a little out of breath, when he finally managed to pull away. Reaching for his jacket, he slipped it on and pulled out the darts he’d hidden up the sleeves earlier. "See, I’m officially armed and dangerous."

"Yeah, and ready to kick the ass of anyone stupid enough to bother you, I hope." Ken pulled him in for a hug, almost getting stabbed by one of the darts in the process. "Keep an eye out for Schreient, okay? I checked her for any trackers earlier, but that doesn’t mean that Schreient won’t know where to find her."

"I will." He gave Ken one more squeeze and hurried to the door, wanting to get the task done as soon as possible. Part of him couldn’t help but notice that even though Ken was upset with his decision to back Yohji earlier, his friend wasn’t taking it out on him. It mattered to him that Ken respect his orders as Bombay yet still be able to see him as Omi once the mission was over. The faint hope he’d nurtured these past few weeks bubbled up inside him. Maybe this could really work out. Maybe he and Ken could have a real relationship. Then he felt a stab of guilt over the fact that as his personal life seemed to be thriving, Yohji and Aya’s was falling apart.

He was very careful while out on the street, constantly aware of his surroundings and the few people who approached him. Making it safely to the store, he spent the next several minutes blushing furiously as he picked out various hygienic products for Neu. He’d never paid much attention to the more feminine versions of the products he used all the time, and was highly conscious of all the pink, lavender and powder blue filling his basket. The cashier gave him a broad wink as he checked out, and once everything was paid for, he raced back to the Koneko.

When he didn’t find Ken in the kitchen or living room, he told himself not to panic until he checked out the rest of the Koneko. After all, he didn’t see any signs of a struggle or fight. Cautiously making his way up the stairs, he caught a glimpse of Ken peeking into the spare bedroom so he hurried down the hallway.

He thought he heard Yohji’s voice, and then Ken quickly backed out of the doorway, his face bright red. Staggering about, Ken managed to knock into Omi and grabbed him when he tried to enter the bedroom.

"Ken-kun? Is everything all right? Did the doctor leave?" All Ken did was gasp and gibber as he held on tightly to Omi’s arms. "You’re weird, you know that?" Omi said with a teasing smile as he reached for the door.

Only to have Ken reach for him again, arms waving about madly. "No no no no no! Don’t open the door! They are…."

The door opened, and out came an amused Yohji. "Peeping tom," he said to Ken as he leaned in the doorway.

Eager to know what exactly was going on, and not understanding the ‘peeping tom’ comment, Omi stepped forward. "What did the doctor say?" It was time to be serious and stop being so foolish.

Yohji’s amused expression fell as he turned away. "Multiple contusions, but fortunately no bones were broken." He sounded as if he was quoting the doctor. He walked back into the room so Omi followed with Ken at his heels.

Neu was tucked into the bed and looking out the window. She appeared to be wearing a shirt of either Yohji or Aya’s and didn’t pay him or Ken much attention, not even bothering to look at them as they came into the room. Yohji stood beside her and rested his hand on her shoulder, a lost look on his face.

Unsure how to interpret the touch, Omi set the bag of personal items down on the table. "Good, I’ll leave this here." He paused, unsure of what he could say in front of Neu. "I picked up a few things for her." When there was no answer from either Neu or Yohji, he sighed and turned to leave. "I guess we’ll talk more in the morning." It didn’t seem as if Yohji was leaving the room any time soon.

"Omi?" He looked over his shoulder to find Yohji smiling at him, albeit a bit sadly.

"Yeah?"

"Thank you for everything." For a moment it looked as if Yohji was going to add something else, but he just shook his head and returned to Neu’s side.

Telling his friend that he was welcome, Omi left the room, closing the door behind him. Ken was waiting for him out in the hallway. "Is that what the doctor told you?"

"Yeah." Ken scowled at the just closed door and shook his head. "He said to give her a little time to calm down from the accident. She’s lucky she wasn’t badly hurt." There was a look on Ken’s face that said he didn’t believe in that luck.

Neither did Omi. "Come on, Ken-kun. I want you to help me look through the information we picked up today."

"Huh? Okay." Ken laughed, the sound quiet and forced. "It’s not like I’m going to bed any time soon. Something tells me I won’t get a good night’s rest tonight." He glanced meaningfully over his shoulder at the spare bedroom. "Is he really going to stay in there all night?" he asked, sotto voce.

Omi shrugged. "I hope not. He really needs to talk to Aya." His heart ached for his quiet roommate, still ensconced in his room. Things never went well when Aya was as quiet as that…. "Before we go through the files, I’m going to set the security system to go off if any of the doors are opened without the code being given first." He wished he’d gotten around to rigging the windows as well, now that summer was over. Guess he hadn’t thought that a member of Schreient would be spending the night here, and Mastermind had shown a preference for using the back door.

"I just hope we find something on those discs," he continued as they made their way toward the kitchen. "Something we can ask Neu detailed questions about."

"So do I. Then we can wash our hands of her," Ken muttered. "I’ve a really bad feeling about all of this."

He wasn’t the only one. What the hell was Yohji thinking? Was he even thinking at all? Omi frowned as he reset the alarm system. Neu being in the Koneko wasn’t the only thing he had a bad feeling about.

*******

Aya’s eyes opened when he heard the bedroom door open and close. Through the weak moonlight streaming in through the window, he saw Yohji standing by the door, as if too apprehensive about coming any further into the room. Even though he knew the man couldn’t see it, he glared at his lover. The bastard. Hurt and anger welled up inside him and chased away the last of his sleepiness.

"Aya?" When he didn’t answer, Yohji stepped cautiously towards the bed. His hand patted the mattress gently before fumbling for the lamp. As light flooded the room, hurting Aya’s eyes, he sat up and cursed.

"What are you doing over there?" Yohji asked.

He realized that he must have shifted over onto Yohji’s side of the bed as he’d slept. Squinting his eyes until they adjusted to the light, Aya tried for another glare but failed miserably. He gave up on the effort and decided to go for impassiveness, refusing to let Yohji know just how much he was hurting. "What are you doing here?" He avoided the question by asking one of his own, even if he didn’t want to hear the answer. A quick glance at the clock showed that he’d been asleep for a couple of hours, and his boyfriend had probably just now left Neu’s side.

Yohji sighed and sat down gingerly on the bed, his arms curled around his chest as if he was cold or sore. Aya recognized the pain on his lover’s face and, for a moment, was concerned over how badly he was injured before reminding himself about Yohji’s… ‘guest’, the person responsible for those injuries.

"It’s my room, too," Yohji answered, his voice tinged with exhaustion and pain. "I was planning on getting some sleep here."

"Who’s watching Neu, then?" Someone better be. He wasn’t going back to sleep if a member of Schreient was free to wander around and kill them in their beds.

"Omi and Ken are still up; they said they’d check up on her." Yohji sighed again and, moving as if each motion hurt, slowly pulled off his shirt. "Not that I expect her to be up and about any time soon. The doctor gave her something that should make her sleep like the dead until morning. The good news is she wasn’t badly hurt." He paused, as if debating whether to say anything else or not. "She, ah, doesn’t remember anything," he finished weakly.

Aya tossed aside the comforter and sat up in an instant. "What doesn’t she remember?" If Yohji was telling the truth and not trying to get him to leave the bitch alone, then it had to be a trick on her part. He didn’t believe for one moment that she was suffering from amnesia.

Yohji crumpled his shirt into a ball, dropped it to the floor and reached for the pack of cigarettes on the nightstand, not answering the question and making Aya sick of their stilted conversation. Pulling one from the box, Yohji rolled it between his fingers instead of lighting it. "She doesn’t remember anything, Aya. Not a thing about being Asuka or Neu."

So it was a trick then, one that Yohji either believed or was willing to support, both of which was just more proof of his choice. Aya, feeling brittle with the cold, gathered the comforter around him, intending to storm out of the room and spend the night on the couch downstairs. He didn’t have to stay here and listen to this, to Yohji defending the woman responsible for his sister’s kidnapping, who was destroying his life. He didn’t. He’d spend the night downstairs or, better yet, out in the hall, keeping a close eye on Neu. Not for one second did he believe that she’d forgotten everything. The purring voice inside him was all but shrieking that she was lying, that all she wanted was to hurt him and Yohji. However, he had no solid proof to give his lover and even if he did, he knew that Yohji wouldn’t listen to him. The man could be a stubborn bastard once his mind was set on something. Besides, why would he listen to a substitute for his precious lover, miraculously returned from the dead?

But when he started to rise from the bed he felt as if there were ropes tied around his body, refusing to let him go. He glanced down and saw brilliant, golden threads all around him, a thick skein that bound him to Yohji. As he stood up, the strands started to fray and fade. The voice, now a faint whisper, solemnly told him that if he walked out that door, if he left Yohji now, there would be no coming back. He’d be responsible for bringing his greatest fears to life. He’d be the one doing the choosing, and things would definitely be over between them.

"Aya! Don’t go, please don’t," Yohji pleaded. "We need to talk." He slid off the bed to stand in front of Aya, a barrier in his path to the door. He looked as if he wanted to touch Aya, wanted to do something but his hands only hovered around Aya’s shoulders before falling down. "Listen, I know I’ve been an asshole tonight. I’m sorry. I want to explain things to you but I can’t if you leave!" he pleaded, a desperate look in his eyes.

Aya stared at his lover, trying hard to think while he was being beset by so many conflicting emotions. Anger and jealousy and fear fought inside him, adding to the hurt he felt from Yohji’s actions, but he was still unwilling to walk out the door and end their relationship, no matter what the purring voice urged him to do. If he did that… there would be rain and coldness and the faint scent of sweet peas. German words of endearment, thick hair sliding through his fingers, pleasure and grief and a sense of inevitability. The knowledge that Yohji would be lost to him forever. As badly as he hurt over being Asuka’s substitute, it would hurt even more to leave while knowing how terribly things between them would end.

He’d lose one lover, yes… but gain another, the voice said. One who would complete him, would allow him to be who and what he was; no more hiding. One who would understand his true nature and wouldn’t see him as a substitute for someone else….

"Shut up," he hissed, unable to stomach its purring whispers anymore. He felt utterly confused, the emotions from earlier welling up inside him as he struggled to breathe properly. When the voice didn’t listen to him, he repeated the order, his voice harsh, his face set in a scowl as he tried to control that traitorous part inside him. This decision was too important to leave to that lying voice, so much like Schuldig’s. Cassandra had told him that much.

"I’m sorry," Yohji repeated, his voice quiet and broken. Aya jerked at the caress to his cheek and stared up at his lover’s bruised face, at the heartbreak and regret he saw there. He realized that Yohji thought the words were meant for him and didn’t know how to reassure Yohji that they weren’t. He didn’t even know if he wanted to reassure his lover about anything, and he definitely didn’t want to confess that he’d been talking to a part of himself, to his talent. Yet again that night, he was left without words.

As they stared silently at each other, the gold threads continued to fade. There was a brief memory of them doing this before, Aya’s breath catching in his throat as he recalled almost losing Yohji a couple of months ago. It hurt just as much now as it did then, the thought of Yohji going away. The agony spread through his body with each beat of his heart, overwhelming the pain created by his doubts.

Maybe he didn’t know the words, but he’d always had a stronger belief in actions anyway. He knew that he’d probably regret this choice when he was proved to be a fool yet again, but he just couldn’t allow himself to let this relationship go without a fight. Forcing himself to move, he dropped the comforter to the floor and grabbed Yohji’s arms. His lover winced and gasped out his name but allowed himself to be pulled over to the bed. Once there, Aya pushed him down on the soft mattress.

"You should have let the doctor treat you," he said, his voice still harsh, this time from worry and the angry thought that Yohji cared more for Neu than he did for himself. "Are your ribs all right?"

Yohji looked at him with stunned amazement for a moment before closing his mouth and settling on the bed. "I’m pretty sure they’re not broken. I mean, they hurt like hell but not that bad." He let out a yelp of pain when Aya started to press against the bruised area. "Gods, can’t you take my word for it and leave them the hell alone? That hurts!"

All Aya did was grunt and kept pressing. He wasn’t going to save Yohji some pain now and let the man go to sleep, only to have a broken rib stab him in the lung during the night. He thought that maybe he should be enjoying this, causing Yohji some pain, but all he could feel was concern and, once the ribs proved to be whole, relief. "They’re all right." Besides, focusing on the injuries kept the treacherous voice at bay, along with all his doubts and self-recriminations about his decision.

"Yeah, I told you that!" Yohji mumbled something under his breath about having the sense to know when his own bones were broken. Aya chose to ignore it as he fished through the nightstand drawer for some of their medical supplies. He found several wipes and some muscle ointment.

Yohji fell silent as he carefully cleaned the few abrasions, none of them more than scrapes and scratches. His lover was more battered than cut. Still, Yohji was going to be sore as hell in the morning. He squeezed some of the ointment into his hands and rubbed it about, his own skin tingling from the cream. "Raise your arms." When Yohji did as he was told, he carefully massaged the ointment into the bruised flesh. It should provide his lover with some relief. There was no way he was handing out powerful pain meds while an enemy was sleeping next door, though.

Once the cream was all rubbed in, he grabbed some tissues to clean his hands and urged Yohji to scoot over on the bed. "Get some sleep now. Isn’t that what you came here for?" he couldn’t help but add, the bitterness in his voice mostly hiding the pain. He refused to look at Yohji after that, instead making sure that his katana was still there before picking up the comforter off the floor.

Yohji slowly moved to his side of the bed but remained sitting up as Aya lay down, the comforter wrapped around him. He didn’t want to see the look in Yohji’s eyes right now, full of hurt and confusion, so he rolled over onto his side and faced the door. Yes, he’d decided to stay, unwilling to break those golden threads even though his common sense and more urged him to, but he didn’t have to make this easy on Yohji. Chances were very good that things were already over between them, that Yohji would just take his time before telling Aya that he no longer wanted him, but it wouldn’t be his fault then. No more than it already was, with him being such a freak that only another of his kind could truly love him.

"Aya?"

He didn’t answer Yohji. There was nothing he could possibly say, other than ‘I love you’, and he refused to say those words and mean them to a person who maybe didn’t love him back. He was a needy, pathetic fool - but he still had some pride.

Yohji repeated his name, and after a minute of silence, sighed. There was a low groan as he slowly lowered himself onto the mattress, his arm draped over Aya as he settled against Aya’s back. "Are you going to ignore me now?"

Aya closed his eyes and pressed his face into the pillow. There was a fleeting thought of Schuldig holding him, and how the pain and dark thoughts had quieted under the telepath’s touch, unlike with Yohji’s. All this closeness did was remind him of what he was soon to lose.

"Aya…." Yohji sighed in irritation. "I came here to talk to you, and you won’t even look at me."

"You said you were here to sleep, so why don’t you?" Aya found himself saying. "I guess there’s no room for you next door." Not with his old, single bed.

Yohji started to pull on his shoulder, trying to make him roll over. "Aya, I’m sorry about what happened but you’re not-"

He knocked Yohji’s arm aside and sat up. "Fine, I’ll sleep over on the couch." His feet didn’t even touch the floor before he was jerked back onto the bed, Yohji looming above him. "Don’t touch me," he warned, his voice low.

There was a slightly angry look on his lover’s face and he was released. "You’re staying here." As he glared back at Yohji, the look was replaced by one of guilt. "Dammit, Aya, I’m trying to explain things to you. Won’t you please listen to me?" His eyes once more grew pleading. "I thought… I thought that when you chose to stay that you were willing to hear me out."

"What is there to hear?" Aya asked, utterly worn out by his emotions and trying to figure out what the hell Yohji was thinking. He began to suspect that the man wasn’t thinking at all. "You got your wish, Yohji. Neu’s here, safe and sound. Maybe she’ll remember things in the morning and you’ll have your Asuka back." He refused to let his emotions color his voice, to reveal just how much he was hurting and jealous. He wouldn’t break down in front of Yohji, not over this.

There was another hurt, guilty look and then Yohji caressed his face, tucking back the bangs he was hiding behind. "That’s not what I want." At Aya’s incredulous look, Yohji had the grace to blush. "I mean… yes, I want her to be Asuka. I want to go in there tomorrow and find out that her memory’s returned, that she’s once again my old… partner." The stabbing pain in Aya’s chest increased with each word.

Yohji smoothed his hand down the front of Aya’s sweatshirt. "I want her back, love, but not… not as my girlfriend. I just want her to be well and whole." Yohji closed his eyes, as if in pain. "I want the nightmares to stop, to no longer see Asuka falling to the ground before my eyes, dead. I want the guilt to end." His eyes opened, a shimmering green that drew Aya in even through his misery. "I’m not trying to recapture the past, I swear it. I just want to put it to rest. If I knew Asuka was alive and well, out there somewhere living her life, then all the pain would go away. I *need* for it to go away," he said, voice little more than a whisper.

Aya lay there, unsure of what he was supposed to believe. He didn’t sense that Yohji was lying… but he wasn’t sure Yohji himself knew exactly what he wanted. Aya could understand the urge to lay demons to rest, but he also knew that it didn’t happen very often. None of his had faded after Reiji Takatori’s death. Maybe that was because his sister never woke up, maybe not. But if Neu really was Asuka, he didn’t see the woman going away, never to come between him and his lover again. No, her specter would always be there. He didn’t see Yohji ever letting go of her.

"What if she isn’t Asuka? What then?" He knew that the woman wasn’t Yohji’s old lover - what he didn’t know was how to convince Yohji of that fact. When his boyfriend didn’t answer him, he pushed up onto his elbows. "She’s responsible for my sister’s kidnapping, Yohji. She’s behind all those women’s deaths. Being Asuka Murase doesn’t absolve her of those crimes."

"Dammit, Aya, I know that!" Yohji hissed as he rocked back onto his heels. "She’s covered with blood, just like we are. What makes us any better?"

"We don’t kill innocents. How many people have you snatched off the street and ripped out their spines, just to perform some arcane ritual? How many comatose girls have you kidnapped?" Anger washed through Aya, helping to center him.

Yohji’s mouth twisted into a grimace, a sure sign that Aya’s comments had hit home. "How can we hold her responsible for those crimes if she isn’t well? Masafumi probably did something to her head when he erased her past. She’s not thinking on her own."

"I don’t see it that way," Aya said, wondering why he was continuing with such a hopeless argument. "She’s not constantly looking to the rest of her team for instructions. She doesn’t fight as if she’s trying to hold back. You’d be dead now if she had her way. All she cares about is Schreient and Masafumi Takatori."

"That sounds like classic brainwashing to me." Yohji’s voice was rough with pain. "Asuka would never willingly have done any of those things."

So why couldn’t Yohji see that Neu wasn’t Asuka? Aya fell back onto the bed and wished that the argument would end. They were getting nowhere. "I know what I am, and I don’t expect any absolution for what I’ve done. I don’t deserve it. Why does she?" Part of him already knew the answer. Because Asuka was the woman Yohji loved with all his heart.

Yohji sighed and shook his head. "Because it really isn’t her. If I can bring back the real Asuka, she won’t want to do those things anymore."

He was tired of all this circular logic. "I want my sister back, Yohji. And we have our orders."

"Kritiker doesn’t need to know that we didn’t kill ‘Neu’." Yohji regarded him quietly for a moment and leaned over him again. "What if I get her to tell me where your sister is? What if she helps us fight Schreient? Would you let her live in peace then?"

Could he really walk away from his revenge if Aya-chan was returned, safe from harm? If Yohji wanted Neu’s life that much? "If she tells me where to find my sister… and if the rest of Weiß agrees, I won’t argue with the decision." Why did he always give in to Yohji? Did he need someone to love him that much? He truly was pathetic. "However, she better tell me where Aya-chan is in the morning."

"If she remembers," Yohji said, a slight smile on his face. Of course the man was happy, he’d just gotten his wish. "But once she does, I’m sure she’ll tell you."

*******

Yohji smiled down at his lover, who just gave him a blank look and closed his eyes. Aya didn’t appear to put much faith in his promise and instead just pulled the comforter up to his chin and rolled onto his side, as if to go to sleep. That wiped the smile off of Yohji’s face, since he didn’t think they were done talking just yet.

"Ayan." He gave Aya’s shoulder a shake but his boyfriend just brushed his hand aside. Just great, Aya was still upset. He’d been hoping that since Aya had stayed, had actually talked to him about Neu, that he wasn’t that badly hurt over tonight. However, this was classic ‘Aya in pain and refusing to show it’, which meant that his lover was still very upset over his actions tonight. He wished there was a way he could kick his own ass.

Instead, he slid his hand beneath the comforter and rested it on Aya’s shoulder, feeling the tense muscles beneath his palm shake slightly. There was a sharp pain in his ring finger, as if something had constricted tightly around it, but he didn’t move his hand to investigate. No, he continued to lightly grip Aya’s cool flesh, half afraid that if he let go he’d lose the man he loved.

He felt as if he was trapped in a half-forgotten dream. For a moment he smelled flowers and blood, saw his reflection in a silver mirror. There was an accented, feminine voice telling him that he had to make his decisions with care, that he could lose Aya if he made the wrong choice. He felt a flush of heat along his face as he thought about how he’d been reacting and not thinking, pretty much all night long. Maybe he had Asuka back, but he also had hurt his lover.

How did he reach him? Aya was still here, so that meant his lover wasn’t quite ready to dump his stupid ass. But he knew that Aya wasn’t happy with the situation, and that if he pressed the matter of Neu much further, that Aya might get up and leave, for good. He felt torn between the past and the present. He hadn’t lied; he didn’t want to try and resume his old life with Asuka, but he couldn’t see much of a future when he was still eaten up by guilt over her death.

Sliding under the sheets and curling up behind his lover, he pressed against Aya’s back, his arm wrapped tightly around Aya’s chest. "I don’t want to lose you. I want us to have a future together, a happy one. I just… how can it happen if we’re both obsessed with the past?"

There was no response from Aya, other than his muscles becoming even more tense. Yohji carried on, desperate to convince the man. "I want the nightmares to end. I want us to be able to talk about our pasts without worrying about hurting each other. If we’d killed Neu earlier tonight, I don’t think the past would ever rest. I’d always wonder about Asuka, always dream that I’d killed her again. Give me some time with Neu so I can lay that ghost to rest." There would still be Aya-chan, Aya’s ghost, but if Neu told him where Schreient was hiding the girl, they could get her back. Then Aya’s sister could sleep away the years in safety, and Aya wouldn’t feel guilty about enjoying life while the girl was missing.

Aya remained quiet, still too tense to be sleeping. Yohji sighed and, tired as he was, started to massage his lover’s back. He couldn’t fall asleep until Aya talked to him, until he revealed what it was that was bothering him so much. Yohji had just trailed his fingers down Aya’s spine when his hand was knocked aside, Aya whirling about to glare daggers at him.

"Stop it." Aya’s cold voice was pure Abyssinian, a piercing, icy rage that was saved for their enemies. It matched the look in his eyes.

Yohji stared for a second, his left hand throbbing from the hit as he took in Aya’s fury. "I was just-" he began, hoping to defuse the dangerous situation.

"I know what you were doing," Aya spat, his eyes glowing and his face pale. "What, Neu is too badly hurt for you to fuck tonight, so you came back here? You figured that way you’d get some and keep me wrapped around your finger?"

If Yohji thought he’d been stunned before…. "I was just giving you a massage, trying to get you to relax," he said, still a little dazed in the face of Aya’s anger. "I didn’t come back here for sex, dammit!"

Aya’s temper didn’t seem to be cooling any. He scooted back to rest against the bed’s headboard and folded his arms over his chest, his thick bangs falling down over his lovely, drawn face like a mask. His eyes, still full of rage and pain, glittered through the ragged strands. "And the massage was just your way of saying ‘good night’?"

Yohji ran his hands through his hair and barely resisted the impulse to give it a good tug. Maybe he was too tired and just imagining this discussion. "I was trying to help you relax and hoped once that happened, you’d talk to me. I don’t think you believe a word I said tonight, and I don’t want you to fall asleep until you do."

Aya’s response was an inelegant snort as some of the anger slowly bled from his eyes – only to be replaced with more pain. "I don’t want to lose you, Yohji, but I can’t do this. I can’t stay here and let you continue to use me until ‘Asuka’s’ all better. I can’t keep on being her substitute. If you’re going to leave, just…," he closed his eyes and rested his head against the headboard, "… just go now."

At first all Yohji was aware of was hearing his lover say he didn’t want to lose him. He didn’t want to lose Aya, either, and if they both were determined not to let tonight split them apart…. Then the rest of the words sank in through his growing euphoria, ultimately shattering it. "What… substitute?"

Aya nodded, his eyes still closed. That way, he didn’t realize Yohji had reached for him, not until he was shaken.

"You damned fool, you actually believe that, don’t you? How many times do I have to tell you that you’re wrong?" Yohji yelled, unwilling to let something he thought he’d fought successfully before ruin his relationship. Why did he have to fight the same battles over and over again?

Aya grabbed his arms and tried to make him stop, but he was too determined to shake some sense into his lover’s head. "Who told you that you were a substitute? Is that more of Mastermind’s lies?"

"I don’t need anyone to tell me the truth." Aya let go of his arms and smacked Yohji instead, the blow startling him enough that his hands fell from Aya’s shoulders.

"You told me just this morning that you loved me, that you didn’t think Neu was Asuka. All this time, and you said you were over her. Then you run into Neu tonight and it’s as if I don’t even exist, Yohji." Aya’s knees were bent and hugged to his chest, the anger back in his eyes but his voice was pure pain. "You ignored the mission, you let yourself be hurt and you insisted on bringing that woman back here, never mind the risk. Then you don’t leave her side until just now, come back here and tell me more promises along the line of this morning’s. The past is gone, Yohji. You can’t bring back the dead by trying to twist someone who looks like a person you lost into being that person. And you can’t keep on fucking me just because I’m close at hand."

Cupping his sore cheek with his hand, Yohji struggled with his anger until he was sure he wouldn’t lash out at Aya. He wouldn’t bring up Aya-chan, wouldn’t mention how Aya was just as lost in the past as he was. "I fuck you because I love you." Why couldn’t Aya believe him?

Aya smiled, the expression filled with sadness. "You do it because you have a thing for your partners. No wonder you always want to be on top; it destroys the illusion if you’re the one being fucked, doesn’t it?"

"I love you." The words had no effect on Aya, other than to make his smile even sadder. For the first time that night, it began to really sink in to Yohji that he’d probably driven his lover away. He was losing another person he cared about, and it was all his fault - again. "I didn’t fall for you because you’re like her, Aya. I fell for you."

"You fell for someone who had barely said more than ten civil words to you, who drives you crazy half the time. For someone nobody else wants." Aya rubbed a hand over his face and huddled over even more.

"That’s bullshit." Yohji reached over and brushed back the crimson bangs falling down on his lover’s face. "Honjyou wants you. That bastard Mastermind wants you as well." He stared intently at Aya as something occurred to him. "You know, the man who showed you the pictures this morning, who can’t pass up an opportunity to mess with our heads? Who’s to say he’s not behind what happened tonight?" Maybe that explained why he seemed to stop thinking the moment he saw Neu.

Aya shook his head, but there was now a hint of doubt in his eyes. "You loved her before he started playing games with us, Yohji. Enough that Neu almost killed you that one time and you never said a word about what you suspected. Don’t blame tonight on him."

"I didn’t know she was Schreient back then." He scooted closer to Aya, his hand cupping his lover’s cheek. "I was able to fight her before, but tonight…." He tried to make sense of his thoughts back in the warehouse. "It’s like… once I saw her all I could think about was Asuka. That here she was, back in my life and I had a decision to make. I couldn’t do that and fight her at the same time."

He leaned forward so he could look deeply into Aya’s eyes, his expression as earnest as possible. "The Bastard made Ken try to kill me and Honjyou, he made Omi forget all about you the other day and he’s tried for the past few months to convince you that I’d cheat on you. He wants you, Aya, and he doesn’t seem to care how he goes about getting you."

"I won’t deny my feelings for Asuka, I can’t and be telling the truth. But I’m not lying about the way I feel about you, and I’d never willingly hurt you like I’ve done tonight." Yohji took a deep breath and tried to think straight for once. "Part of my actions tonight resulted from the guilt I feel over her death – but is that the only reason I’ve been such an idiot? All night long I’ve felt as if I couldn’t think straight. Maybe my emotions are getting some outside help in messing up my head."

"He…." Aya closed his eyes and shook his head. "You brought her here, Yohji. You’re the one who believes that your lover, the woman you joined Kritiker to avenge, isn’t dead. Perhaps Schu-ldig is responsible for some things tonight, but I think you’d still be acting a lot like you are now even if he wasn’t around."

"You’re probably right," Yohji admitted. He tucked back his hair and rubbed his neck while forcing himself to not look away from Aya. He felt ashamed and like a fool. "I can’t blame everything on him, but I still think he’s behind tonight somehow. I’d never hurt someone I love as much as I do you like I have tonight, yet that seems to be all I’m doing right now. And he’s the one who benefits the most from us breaking up."

Aya frowned at him, but more of the anger faded. "You expect me to believe it’s all his fault?"

"Not all of it." He sighed and draped both his hands over his lover’s shoulders and began to knead the tense muscles. "If I was trying to think up an excuse, don’t you think I could have done better?" He smiled weakly since he was still utterly afraid of losing Aya, but then his expression brightened when he saw Aya’s frown smooth out. "I swear to you, Aya, I’m telling the truth. My thoughts have been so screwed up tonight that I really do think that someone’s been messing with them."

Sighing, Aya slumped forward, his hands weaving through his hair and scratching lightly at his scalp. "Tonight has something to do with the dreams Mastermind sent to make me doubt you. I just remembered that a short while ago." He winced, as if in pain, and dropped his hands back into his lap. "Everything’s so damned mixed up right now, I don’t know what to think."

Taking a chance, Yohji tilted up his lover’s face. "You told me you don’t want to lose me. Is that the truth? Because I sure as hell don’t want to lose you, now or ever. I swear to you on my mother’s grave that I never thought about leaving you tonight. I never thought about us breaking up so I could be with Asuka." He put all of his emotions into the words, baring his soul to Aya so his lover would be convinced of the truth. "I just want her to be alive so the fucking nightmares will stop."

Aya stared at him, his face too impassive to gauge his emotions, and then a hint of coldness entered his eyes. "If Mastermind’s behind tonight, then that means Neu isn’t Asuka."

Yohji hadn’t thought of that but he couldn’t believe that he was mistaken. "Maybe, but I doubt it. Neu’s too much like Asuka." When Aya started to frown again, he quickly tried to explain. "I noticed the resemblance months before he came back into our lives. He couldn’t have anything to do with that. Also, Persia told us before he died that his brother was connected to the things that drove all of us to join Weiß. He owned Liott, which Asuka and I were investigating before her- when she got shot." If there wasn’t any connection at all maybe he could believe Aya’s and the others’ doubts, but there was just enough of one to give him faith. "The Bastard couldn’t have arranged things that far back. But he could take advantage of the situation and twist it for his own purpose."

The doubt was back in Aya’s eyes, but it was very faint. Knowing that they’d just argue back and forth until someone said something they’d regret, something that might make them react without thinking and push things beyond mending, he came up with a hasty bargain. "Listen to me, love. Give me… a day or two to see if I can’t make Neu remember who she really is and to tell me where Aya-chan is."

Aya’s body tensed at the mention of his sister, and he stared intently at Yohji. "A day. I’ll give you one day." When Yohji started to argue, he glared, his lips pressed into a thin line. "There’s no telling what Schreient will be up to, now that we have Neu. They might harm my sister in retaliation."

He had a point. "Okay, one day to tell me where your sister is being hidden. But if she does, you give me another day to see if she remembers anything." Yohji could tell that Aya didn’t like the bargain from the way the glare intensified, but after a few seconds, he nodded. His glare faded, only to be replaced with worry.

Taking a guess as to what was bothering his lover, Yohji smiled reassuringly and leaned in until his head was resting against Aya’s. "I want to know the truth, kitten, nothing else. I’m not trying to reclaim the past, I promise. If she’s Asuka…." He closed his eyes and swallowed with a dry throat. "I can’t possibly resume my relationship with her, even if I wanted to – which I don’t. We’ve both changed too much. All I can do now is make sure she’s safe and hope she finds happiness with someone else." If the real Asuka did return, she’d never forgive him for becoming a killer. She’d believed in life too much to even fire a weapon, which was why they hadn’t been able to fight back against Liott’s goons that day.

"I don’t want to lose you," Aya whispered, pulling him back from the dark memory. "I don’t want to be a substitute, either. That would hurt too much."

"You’re not a substitute, I swear it," he said as he stroked his hands through Aya’s tousled, silky hair. "If you were, I’d have moved on after a week or two. As hard as you find it to believe, I really did fall in love with you." His voice was hoarse from exhaustion, both from the long day and the fact that he kept having to beat against this wall. "The only thing you share in common with Asuka is that I’m afraid of losing you just like I did her." He couldn’t take that happening again, not if he wanted to keep on living. Aya’s death would shatter him much more than Asuka’s. "I want *you*." He’d made his choice.

The doubt still lingered in Aya’s eyes, but his lover leaned forward for a kiss anyway. Eager as always to have his actions try and convince Aya when his words couldn’t, he rocked forward until their lips met, his arms wrapping around Aya’s shoulders as he fell sideways onto the bed.

Aya gasped as he fell down with him, opening his mouth in an invitation Yohji couldn’t pass up. He delved deep into his lover’s mouth, adoring the way Aya tasted, knowing he’d crave it until the day he died. His hands slipped beneath the large sweatshirt to stroke soft skin spread taut over muscle and bone, skimming over old scars in search of sensitive spots that would earn him more gasps and hopefully a moan or two of pleasure. Aya arched beneath his touch but remained oddly distant, as if he wasn’t really ‘there’.

Guessing at what was causing that distance but unable to think of anything that would convince Aya how much Yohji wanted him when words were failing miserably, he tried to think of how he could reach his lover. If he pushed for sex, intent on showing how much he *wanted* Aya, would he think he was just being used again? They’d been down this road often enough that Aya might see sex as nothing more than him being horny and wanting some relief. Yet if repeatedly saying ‘I love you’ and swearing never to leave Aya didn’t work, nor did making love, what was he left with? Proposing marriage would probably end up with him being kicked out of the room and he didn’t know of any tattoo parlors open right now so he couldn’t get Aya’s name inked over his heart. He also couldn’t let Aya kill Neu, not until he got his answers

So he had no other option left but to try and explain his emotions, always a risky endeavor. Yohji broke off the kiss but kept his arms around his lover. Mindful of the sore ribs, he rolled onto his back and pulled Aya with him. "Love…. Sometimes I feel like I’ll go insane if it wasn’t for you. The thought of losing you…." He shook his head and hugged Aya even closer, sore ribs twinging in protest but sternly ignored. "I’ve tried telling you before about how much I need you, and things haven’t changed. They never will."

Aya looked a bit skeptical but he seemed to be listening, eyes intent on Yohji’s face. He brushed back the ragged bangs falling onto his lover’s face, fingers sliding through the silkiness to cradle the back of Aya’s head. "I’ve never thought of you as Asuka’s replacement. Until the nightmares started, you’d made me mostly forget about my life with her. I’ve never wished that you were her."

"Then why can’t you let her go?" Aya asked, his voice quiet but calm.

"Because I failed her. Because if I ever did truly forget about her, I’d forget that one important fact and maybe repeat it again." Yohji’s fingers clenched in Aya’s hair, as if his boyfriend would just vanish if he didn’t hold on to him tightly enough.

Aya seemed to think about that for a moment, and slowly relaxed in Yohji’s arms. "You can’t be afraid of things like that, Yohji, not in our line of work. You can’t let your fears ruin one of the few good things we have."

"I know, but no one ever said emotions were rational things." Yohji smiled tenderly and wrapped an eartail around his fingers. Maybe he was making some headway, for once. Now to lay another concern of Aya’s to rest. "As for our sex life, I’ve been acting like a selfish idiot because of a few lousy experiences when I was a bottom, when I first started dating men. Looking back, I can see that all they wanted was a quick fuck and couldn’t care less about me, especially if I was enjoying it or not. I guess I got so used to turning down being the bottom over the years that I never stopped to realize that with you, it wouldn’t just be about getting off."

Aya stared at him for a few seconds. "So now you think you might be open to trying something different in that area?" He didn’t appear so suspicious anymore but curious instead, and a little perplexed.

"Probably. I adore fucking you, I won’t lie about that." Yohji leaned forward to brush the ends of the eartail he was playing with against his lips, ignoring the protest of pain from his sore body. "It feels so good, being buried inside you, having you tell me to go even deeper, harder." His voice was husky just from thinking about it, and he was growing a little aroused, especially when Aya licked his lips and shifted about on top of him. "I never stopped to think about how so damned greedy I was being by not letting you feel the same way." He leaned in for a brief kiss, unable to resist tasting his lover for a few seconds. When he pulled back, Aya moaned, ever so softly.

"You confuse the hell out of me." Aya didn’t appear too happy about that particular state of mind, but anger was much better than sadness and pain in Yohji’s opinion. "You say that I never open up and talk when you’re just as guilty. No wonder Mastermind finds it so easy to twist things between us."

"I swear to you, I don’t do it deliberately." He couldn’t resist running his fingers along Aya’s spine, thrilling at the way his lover reacted to his touch. "I guess it’s always easier to see someone else’s faults than your own."

"I know." Aya’s face grew thoughtful for a few seconds before smoothing out, his eyes staring into Yohji’s. "I should have thought about him and the dreams, earlier, especially when-" He abruptly shook his head, as if trying to clear it. "Who do you really love more, Yohji?"

Yohji didn’t even hesitate to answer. "You."

Aya took a moment to consider something. "One day. I’ll give you one day with her to try and find out where my sister is being hidden. If she doesn’t tell you, then you’ll have to choose." There was no doubt what Aya was talking about, of what he’d have to choose.

There was also no doubt in his mind that, if he didn’t forget about this sudden obsession with Neu, that after that day, Aya would no longer be his lover. That thought filled him with fear, pain and anger. "I’ve already chosen, dammit," he cursed. "I picked you."

The look on Aya’s face clearly said ‘we’ll see’, but instead of risking an argument, Yohji decided to drop the subject. Aya wouldn’t be convinced of his sincerity if he started screaming at him. He leaned forward again for a kiss, one as tender and sincere as he could make it, and then let his head drop back onto the pillow.

"We need some sleep so we can both think clearly tomorrow," he said as he pulled the covers up over Aya’s back. "I’ve a feeling it’s going to be a long day."

"So do I." Aya made himself comfortable, sliding off Yohji some but leaving his head to rest on his chest, his arms tight around him. "I love you, Yotan."

"I know, or else you’d never put up with all this shit from me." Yohji’s arm settled around Aya’s waist. "You’ll see, things will be better by tomorrow night."

"I hope so," Aya sighed, his body slowly relaxing as he drifted off to sleep. That wasn’t surprising, considering how stressful the last few days had been. Yohji felt utterly exhausted himself, and just wanted tomorrow to come so he could get through it and find the answers he needed.

In his arms, Aya let out a deep breath and snuggled closer. Yohji buried his face in the soft hair tickling his chin, his thoughts fading as he joined his lover in sleep. The last thing he was aware of was the sensation that somewhere, someone was pissed as all hell at him.

*******

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