The mornings weren’t so bad,
not really, though you’d have to put a gun to Kudou Yohji’s head to get
him to admit it. There was hope in the breaking line of dawn, a golden
thread of promise that spoke of possibilities in the day to come.
The fiery sun of each new day was like rebirth.
If anyone heard him admit he liked mornings, they’d turn to him and say ‘God, Yohji-kun, did you hit your head?’
Well, he’d carefully cultivated a reputation of hating mornings. That way, if he fell asleep when the dawn finally came, he’d have an excuse for being late to work. In all actuality, it was usually Fujimiya Ran - everyone still wavered between calling him Ran or Aya - that was usually late to work.
Just like this morning.
Yohji waited in front of the metal shutters and smoked a cigarette, listening to the faint groan of his stomach. It was true, he probably should have eaten some time this morning. He’d had plenty of time. However, the thought of a cup of Ichiban ramen didn’t exactly appeal, and that was about all he had in his cupboards. It was time to go shopping again.
Well, if he was to be strictly honest with himself, almost every day was ‘time to go shopping again.’ He continually understocked his cupboards because half the time he went out to eat. Yet when he was home and he wanted something, there wasn’t much there.
“Kudou Yohji, the eternally underfed,” he muttered. Maybe it was true that you needed a woman to take care of you, even when you were an adult. But he wasn’t so sure it was true you were half a person, unless you were married.
He flicked his cigarette butt and sent it skittering and sparking to the curb. He hated waiting outside, hanging around like some homeless cat, but Ran had the keys and Yohji had misplaced his.
Yohji leaned against the metal slats, making them rattle faintly. There was a young person in uniform jogging across the street, heading for the flower shop, and he looked up with interest.
“Koneko no Sumi Ie?” the young teen in uniform, probably a part-timer, questioned him. There was a bulky envelope tucked under his arm. At Yohji’s nod he held up a clipboard. “Sign on the X, please.” He sounded eager and accommodating enough not to have been doing the job for a very long time.
Curiosity pricked, Yohji signed the form. It wasn’t often that they received packages before normal business hours. Generally one or more of them was in the shop at this time anyhow, but Ran seemed to be late this morning.
“Arigato gozaimashita!” the boy beamed, handing him the envelope, then tucked the clipboard under his arm and jogged across the street to where his scooter was parked.
“Interesting,” Yohji murmured, tearing it open. A black, unlabeled video tape fell into his hand. Yohji grimaced and rummaged for the note he knew had to be in there. True to form, he pulled out a piece of notepaper covered with Birman’s neat lettering. He could recognize a woman by her legs or the shape of her hands, and he could also recognize a woman he knew by her handwriting.
*From ‘Manx.’Yohji scanned it over and stuffed it in one tight pocket. Things were a far cry from the old days, when mission failure or quitting Weiss meant they could be killed. At that time, everything they did or didn’t do was a matter of life or death. But now, Manx had assumed charge of Kritiker, and as far as they knew, Persia’s position in whatever department he’d occupied. Yohji had never known the details, and didn’t care to. He was sure Omi and probably Ran had found out somehow or another. Yohji was fairly certain it had something to do with the higher levels of police. But for the most part, he was convinced ignorance was bliss.
Weiss Kreuz was given their option to run missions through Birman. There were some they had turned down, from time to time, for various reasons. Yohji assumed at that point Manx turned the mission option over to some other group. With a woman whose mind was as wonderfully devious as Manx, one couldn’t assume that Weiss was the only organization she had running. Especially when they were given the ‘option’ now - and some day, he was quite sure, they would quit altogether.
Yohji had been a flower man for a long time, though. He was kinda acquiring a taste for it, and after all, the Koneko had been turning a profit for awhile now. He wasn’t sure how the others felt about it, but once Omi went off to college, as he inevitably would, and when Ken decided he wanted to change careers, Yohji was thinking seriously about offering up the money to buy out their shares in the shop.
And as for Ran...
“What are you doing waiting out here?” a low rich voice demanded from behind him. “I thought you would have at least started opening the shop by now.” ‘Moron,’ the tone seemed to add without actually saying so.
Speak of the devil, and he shall appear. Yohji twitched.
“Well, excuse me,” Yohji said, irritated and swinging around. “As it happens, I can’t find my shop keys. I think I’m gonna need to get ‘em replaced.”
Fujimiya A-Ran gave him a level, cool violet stare as if evaluating the truth of that statement. “Why haven’t you done it yet?”
“Well, I *just* lost ‘em,” Yohji retorted, raking a hand through his loose chestnut hair. “Are you gonna open shop, or what?”
Ran looked at him a moment longer, and just when Yohji was starting to feel uncomfortable - wondering if he’d grown a third eye or had a really big zit or something - the younger man turned in a fluid motion to unlock the metal siding.
“Nanda kore wa?”
Yohji held up the video tape. “Mission da yo.”
“Ah.” Ran’s eyes held an odd glimmer in the instant before he flipped the shop lights on. “Good.”
Still the same old Aya, Yohji thought to himself, turning to grab an apron off the peg. Nothing much had changed with him, even though his sister was awake and alive, safe and living with him. Nine months ago, he’d almost chosen to have not even that much of his sister, living anonymous elsewhere in a Tokyo apartment, convinced he wasn’t good enough for her, or something like that. Yohji and Omi had gone to drag him back, to yell some sense into him.
Actually, Ran wasn’t so bad around his sister. Or around Omi. Well, kind of around Ken, too. If Yohji were the paranoid type, he’d think that it was only him that Ran was still cold and closed-off to.
Well, he and Aya had never been what anyone would call *friends,* even though they were comrades. Or maybe it was just that Ran still hadn’t forgotten that time when he’d barged through the apartment door with Omi in tow.
Omi was hard to hate, it was true, but Yohji made a good scapegoat.
They opened the shop with a minimum of conversation; nothing beyond the necessary. Sometimes Yohji tried to break the tension he perceived by teasing Ran about Aya-chan, or his own taciturn attitude, or nothing in particular. This was not one of those mornings, and he was in no mood for the cold shoulder. Ran started in on a list of arrangements, and Yohji opened the front door and settled behind the cash register.
It was going to be a looooong day.
“Enter Aya-chan, front and center!” the girl entered the shop laughing, arm in arm with Sakura.
Aya’s eyes softened as he looked towards his sister. The shop was full of noisy, chattering girls; so packed, in fact, that he was hard-pressed not to snarl. With repeated admonitions, Omi and Ken had forced him not to drive away potential customers along with the loiterers using harsh words. ‘That’s simply not *done* in Japan - why are you acting like a Westerner!?’
“Oniichan, how’s business?” Aya-chan sidled up to the counter, giving Omi a poke in the ribs on the way over.
The boy ‘eeped,’ clutched the planter in his arms, and kept trying to navigate the crowded shop floor.
“Busy, as you can see,” Aya replied dryly, rubbing the back of his head and allowing himself to look harassed.
Aya-chan grinned at him, unrepentant. “Of course, you’re always busy! With the four of you working here, it’s an easy lure for high school girls.”
“I’m so flattered,” Aya shook his head, a slight smile tugging on his lips, “I can’t even begin to tell you. I’m twenty-two and my biggest draw is the high school crowd.”
“Well, you don’t get out much,” Aya-chan teased him, her expression impish.
“What time is it?” Aya glanced at the shop clock. “Where have you been? It’s almost five-thirty.”
“Mou! Oniichan!” Aya-chan blew wisps of dark bangs out of her eyes. “You know I had clean-up duty after school today; I told you this morning! And after that, I went with Sakura-chan to get ice cream.”
Sakura nodded and looked up at him with a tentative smile.
Aya gave her a brief nod and turned his attention back to his sister, who tilted her head and gave him a ‘ne?’ kind of smile. With the vibrant real thing before him, he wondered why he’d thought Sakura looked like his sister - the resemblance was slight and, now that she had bobbed her hair again, they didn’t even look close enough to be cousins. Perhaps it had been the shape of her eyes that reminded him, or just the general expression at the time, or an association of wishful thinking.
Now that Aya had his Aya-chan back, he was glad that she and Sakura could be friends, but he wasn’t interested in the girl. Besides, she had just turned fifteen and he had no predilection for young, underaged girls.
Actually, he had sublimated his sex drive for so long during his period of vendetta, Aya hadn’t had a clear notion of his preferences once it was time to resume a more normal lifestyle. He was beginning to get an inkling.
“Omi,” Aya spoke up, catching at the boy’s sleeve in passing to get his attention, “did you call Ken?”
Omi, arms full of a window box with trailing ivy and morning glories, shot him an irritated look. “Mou, Aya-kun! Ask Yohji-kun! Do I look like I’ve had time to make phone calls?”
Aya’s mouth twitched, both at the fact that Omi had called him ‘Aya-kun’ again without realizing, and that he’d been speaking quite sharply, by Omi-standards. “All right, where is Yohji?”
“Don’t ask me!” Omi’s voice trailed over his shoulder as he disappeared - briefly - into the back room. “He left the shop five minutes ago!”
Smoke break. Aya clamped down on his irritation. If he didn’t know Yohji better, he would say the man used his smoking habit as an excuse to take breaks more frequently. A few particularly loud squeals reached his ears and he winced, pinching the bridge of his nose. There was an imminent headache welling up there. More likely, he was using his cigarette break in this case to snatch a moment away from the crowded shop.
“Aya-chan, tanomu!” Aya clasped his hands together, bending his body in his sister’s direction.
Aya hopped off the counter where she had been swinging her legs. She folded her arms, giving him a jaunty look. “You want me to take the register again, don’t you?”
Aya gritted his teeth. He hated to beg. “Just for a moment,” he said, giving her a trace of a hopeful smile.
“What’ll you give me for it?” Aya-chan said pertly.
“Aya-chan!” Sakura exclaimed, looking shocked.
Aya thought rapidly. He needed to get Aya-chan out of the shop soon, in any case, because they were closing up and Birman would be coming some time during or after the mission tape viewing. “I’ll give you money for you to go out for dinner,” he replied, fishing for his wallet.
“And Sakura-chan?” Aya-chan prodded.
Aya’s mouth tightened.
The girl looked away, taking a step back, obviously embarrassed. “It's okay, Aya-chan...”
“All right,” Aya conceded, pressing crumpled bills into his sister’s palm. He lifted off the apron and pressed it into her other hand. “Sankyuu, Aya-chan.”
“No problem!” Aya-chan beamed.
“Omi should be giving the closing announcement in a few minutes,” Aya told her. He himself had been barred from doing so, because he tended to take the task a bit too seriously. Or maybe it was just his attitude. “I’ll be back soon, all you have to do-”
“Hei, hei,” Aya-chan sighed. “Ring the register and say ‘arigato gozaimashita.’”
He turned and squeezed his slow-motion way through the shop. Outside, there was a cloud of wisping smoke that was his immediate clue to Yohji’s location. To his credit, and Aya had noticed, Yohji never went far during his breaks and he always took exactly the length of the cigarette, no more time than that.
There was probably no need for him to come out here. Ken would surely get here around the time the shop closed. Then again, if Yohji hadn’t made the call, this was Ken’s day off - so in that regard, Aya supposed he needed to know.
All the excuses in the world couldn’t change the fact that he’d seize any pretext.
He stopped a foot away, not yet able to feel Yohji’s body heat but knowing it was near.
“Something you want, Ran?” Yohji asked without turning around. He exhaled another plume of smoke.
Aya clenched his fists. He stood, and stared at the back of the glossy chestnut head of hair, and breathed deep.
Omi waved and smiled at the few last customers, then turned to see Aya glancing sidelong at him, one hand locked over the other in an unconscious fidgeting gesture.
“Nani, Aya-chan?” Omi returned, moving to the front door and flipping the ‘CLOSED’ sign to face the window. He glanced around. Sakura-chan was in a corner screened over with greenery, looking out past the front displays.
Aya-chan was chewing on her lip. She took off her brother’s apron and approached him, violet eyes taking on that look of determination she sometimes got.
“Omi-kun...” she began, dropping her voice as she got near him. So Sakura-chan wouldn’t be able to hear, he realized. Her next words emerged in a rush. “I know something happened to my brother while I was in a coma for so long. He won’t tell me, but he’s changed so much, and I know it must have been bad, worse than just seeing me on a hospital bed day after day. He wouldn’t even s-see me right after I woke up, not for months. So I know...t-there must have been something... Tell me - please tell me what happened to Oniichan. Please, I need to know.”
Omi blinked at the sheer onslaught of words. “Aya-chan,” he said, troubled. It wasn’t his place to tell her, and besides, Ran-kun would kill him. Well, maybe not literally...maybe... “You should ask Ran-kun.”
“I know!” She folded her arms tightly and glared at him, and he could almost see Ran-kun in that face now. “Do you think I would be asking you, Omi-kun, if he would tell me? When I try to get him to talk about it, he goes cold and quiet. He’s so stubborn!”
He rubbed the back of his head, feeling torn. “M-Masaka,” he laughed weakly, “someone more stubborn than you, Aya-chan?”
“Oh, very funny!” she flared, then her eyes widened and she clapped her hands over her mouth.
Omi glanced over her shoulder at Sakura-chan. The girl hadn’t even looked up. He felt a momentary surge of pity for her - though Sakura-chan had strong feelings for Ran-kun, it was clear to him those feelings weren’t returned.
“Omi-kun,” Aya-chan said in an intense whisper, forcing his attention back to her. “Please. *Please.* I need to know, and you’re the only one I can ask.”
Omi wanted to shrink back away from her. Women were scary when they got this focused on something. What was worse, she almost reminded him of Ouka in her moments of determination. Thinking of it that way, it was hard to say ‘no’ to any request. But he couldn’t help feeling she was right.
Aya-chan should know what happened to Ran, to make him take up the name ‘Aya’ and a killer’s sword.
“You gonna stand there, or take a seat and join me?” Yohji turned around partially, the edge of his vision registering a green sweater and a lanky body. He was relieved. He would’ve looked really stupid, talking to the air or someone else and assuming it was Ran. But he’d felt the prickle at the back of his neck that meant he was being watched. It wasn’t like catching a couple of giggling teenage girls looking over at him. He could recognize the feeling because he’d caught Ran giving him that oddly watchful look more often than not, recently.
Still silent, Ran moved around the table and seated himself on the chair opposite Yohji, turning it backwards and folding his arms over the curved back.
“What?” Yohji had to look away first. He tried to blow a smoke ring to show his nonchalance.
It wasn’t strange that Ran looked good in that particular forest-jewel shade of green. He knew Aya-chan must have picked it out for him. Green suited redheads, but this color did more than that, making him look vibrant instead of sallow, complementing his auburn-red hair. ‘Aya’s’ days in clashing sweaters were over.
Ran’s days as ‘Aya’ were over. Maybe that was part of his problem.
He looked out of the corner of his eye, and Ran was still looking at him. “What?” Yohji repeated, now unnerved. To counteract it, he faced Ran again and put on a teasing smile. “Like what you see?”
Ran twitched visibly, and his mouth flattened to a humorless line.
“Hey, hey,” Yohji waved his smoldering cigarette. “It was a joke, okay?”
“Did you call Ken?” Ran spoke at last, not sounding amused.
“Is that what this is all about,” Yohji muttered, shifting in his chair and facing the street again.
A couple of departing girls passed, waving and calling ‘bai-bai’ to both of them. Yohji lifted a hand and grinned.
“We look forward to seeing your lovely faces again, though you put our flowers to shame!” he called in farewell.
“Oh!” They blushed and hurried up the street, chattering excitedly to each other.
When Yohji turned back, Ran was still unsmiling, the faint crease between his brows speaking volumes. Yohji sighed.
“You should lighten up a little,” he suggested. “Smiling once and a while wouldn’t hurt, either.” Though he probably didn’t need to say as much, because he knew Ran smiled more often around Aya-chan or Omi or...hell, just about anybody but the poor Sakura kid who still hung around from time to time.
Yohji frowned, trying to pursue that thought. There was something relevant there, if he just thought it through...
“Well, did you call Ken, or not?” Ran sounded impatient now.
“Mattaku! Get off my case, will you? Yes, I called him!” Yohji flicked the ass-end of his cigarette at the curb, hitting it squarely and showering a small cloud of sparks into the gutter. “I’m not such an airhead that I can’t take care of one simple thing.”
Ran snorted. “The way you act when anything female is in the shop, one would never-”
“Hey!” Yohji interrupted, now incensed. There was no call for this, none at all. “Are you trying to start a fight with me? ‘Cause why don’t you just say so, and I’ll-”
The shout came from across the street. Both Yohji and Ran looked up, and Yohji pushed himself to his feet, grateful for the interruption. He had no idea where Ran’s fit of temper was coming from, but that could have gotten ugly.
“Am I late?” Ken huffed, jogging across the street. He squinted. “Someone put the ‘Closed’ sign up, and I don’t see anyone, but...”
“Aa, we were waiting for you,” Yohji interjected, giving Ran a hard look and pulling his apron over his head. He balled it up in one fist. “I don’t think we need to wait for Birman, so let’s get inside and close the siding.”
“Right,” Ken agreed, pushing his way into the shop. Leaving him alone out here with Ran.
Yohji turned, grinding his teeth, prepared to offer an apology or demand that Ran name a time or place; whichever would resolve it quickest.
Ran was brushing past him, following Ken into the shop.
Yohji felt a tight knot beneath his breastbone, like a fist holding anger and dread had been shoved into his chest. Whatever this was about, Ran wasn’t the type to let a grudge slide. The last five years were a testament to that part of his character. Still, he was completely bewildered as to...
“What the hell was that all about?” he wondered aloud.
Ken palmed open the door of the ‘Koneko,’ grinning at the cheery jingle. This mission was coming at the perfect time; he needed money and if it was easy, he was going to take it.
Omi and Aya-chan were inside, and he was about to wave and call out when he heard Aya-chan saying, voice low and forceful, “Please. *Please,* Omi-kun.”
“Umm...” Ken blinked and thought about backpedaling, but Ran was right behind him.
“Ken-kun!” Aya greeted him, turning away from the boy with a smile. “How are you! I didn’t know you were working tonight...ara, but the shop’s already closed.”
“That’s right,” Ran said, putting a hand on his sister’s head, “but we have some weddings coming up, and we need to discuss the arrangements. Plus, we need to work out next week’s schedule, so the four of us are having a little meeting right now.”
“Oh, boring stuff,” Aya-chan wrinkled her nose. “You can have it. Well, Sakura-chan and I will just go have dinner, then!”
“Go ahead,” Ran said. He put his hands on Aya-chan’s shoulders, then released her. “Have a good time. And be safe.”
“Mou!” Aya rolled her eyes. “Daijoubu, Oniichan. We know our way around Tokyo.”
It was true, but Ken could see that Ran’s expression wasn’t entirely peaceful as his sister walked out the jingling shop door, sidestepping Yohji, then grabbing Sakura’s hand to drag her up the street. They would no doubt have a gossipy evening and stuff themselves with sweets and put off doing their homework for way too long, but otherwise have a safe evening.
Still, no one could fault Ran for worrying. It was amazing enough that he could actually let his sister out of his sight long enough for her to entertain the possibility of getting in trouble.
Yohji pulled down the metal shutters after them, rolling them down all the way to the bottom, then closed the shop door and locked it. “All right,” he nodded.
“Let’s go to the mission room,” Omi said.
Ran moved towards the back rooms first. Ken followed. He didn’t know about the others, but there was a whisper of adrenaline in this simple action, merely going to the mission room, that was a prelude of bigger doings. They didn’t kill so much anymore, and that was the difference. Maybe it was the fact that Manx was in charge now - and he knew she was; he’d talked about it with Omi before and the boy had spoken as if everyone knew it, a matter of course.
There were still rescues to be performed, data to collect that couldn’t be gotten within strict legal guidelines, suspects to be tailed when paperwork for that sort of thing would be dangerous. When Birman had asked them to resume operations as Weiss, she had mentioned something about how even Homicide detail got rotated to another division after a certain amount of time. No one could go on killing forever, even if it was for a living.
Because what if you started to enjoy it?
Ran had kept the lights off and it was Yohji, walking in behind Ken, who flipped them on. That was when the redhead turned and looked back, eyes connecting with Yohji at a point past Ken’s shoulder. Whoa. That...was a weird vibe. Then Ran turned his back towards them and seated himself on the couch, and it was like it hadn’t happened.
“Ho? This is new,” Yohji murmured as the tape flickered, started, and the shadowed figure of a woman filled the screen. “So she’s actually ‘admitting’ it.”
“Shh, Yohji-kun,” Omi told him.
“Weiss,” the woman on-screen began. Though it was filtered and distorted somewhat, it was recognizably Manx’s voice. “We have a new mission for you, should you choose to accept it.”
“Oh, *she* has been watching too many re-runs of an American show,” Yohji snorted, putting a hand to his mouth. “Or maybe that new movie with Tom Cruise.”
“Be silent!” Ran snapped.
Ken grimaced. He could practically feel the air blistering between them, and he was between them. Dammit, why had Omi taken the single armchair? They must have gotten into some sort of fight.
“There is a new type of chemical weapon being smuggled into Japan by a ring of Chinese gangsters. They are negotiating with a Japanese weapons dealer based in Tokyo, who owns several popular nightclubs as a front for his borderline-yakuza dealings.”
“The yakuza?” Ken heard Yohji mutter indistinctly. “This isn’t Osaka, this is Tokyo...”
Ken slouched. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Ran glaring.
“We aren’t sure if the Chinese have some purpose other than making money, but we have obtained files and photos of human testing run with this drug, and the results are cruel and terrible.” A few photo stills flashed over the screen. Omi gasped. Ken felt his gorge rising. Chemical weapons had to be the worst way to make war. “The gangsters must be stopped, and the transaction must not take place. The goods should be coming through on a truck or cargo van of some sort.
“White hunters! You must hunt the tomorrow of these dark beasts! Make sure the dangerous cargo does not get away, because once it changes hands, we may never be able to trace it past the night of the transaction. Kills are at your discretion. The chemical weapon is the top priority.”
Ken closed his eyes briefly. Those pictures had been terrible; bodies welted and oozing red and yellow, bubbling pustules covering the skin in hideous clusters. Soft tissues had begun to melt away.
“One more thing. Do not get caught. We may have a leak reporting higher up.” The tape flickered and went to static.
Omi pressed the stop button. His hands were steady but his mouth might have been trembling; he bit his lip, looked at Ken, and glanced away.
“You can see why the top priority is the cargo,” a feminine voice said behind them.
“Birman!” Ken hefted himself up, twisting and draping himself over the back of the couch. “That was cruel...they never should have... Well, it was horrible.”
Birman tilted her head. Her hair was down today, which made her face look softer, although they all knew she was a hard-as-nails operative. “Are you in on this one, Ken?”
Ken nodded. “I’m in. The thought of anyone using that stuff again...” He looked down, jaw tightening.
The brunette looked around. “We’d prefer all four of you,” she said mildly, “but I’m sure something could be worked out. It would help if two went into the nightclub, to find out the location of the transfer, and two acted as backup. You see, these gangsters are very cautious - until the money changes hands and there is trust, they won’t turn over the cargo.”
“We need the data,” Omi spoke up.
Birman held up a thick folder. “I brought it. Names, faces, and the club where the transaction will be taking place.”
“No killing?” Yohji spoke up.
“It’s up to you,” Birman replied. “Actually, no killing would be preferable. There would be no need for police involvement and the incident would be an embarrassment to the gangsters, Chinese and Japanese, that they would have to resolve amongst themselves.”
“I assume none of this data is admissible in court?” Yohji said carefully. “Otherwise, there would be no need for this ‘assignment’ to come our way.”
Birman said nothing, in that typical way they had come to regard as silent assent.
“It’s enough to take action,” Ran said. “I’ll do it.”
“Yohji?” Birman said, slight tension in her voice.
“I’m in,” he said at last. He put on a sliver of his usual smile. “Gotta pay the bills somehow.”
“You mean the bar tab,” Ken snickered.
“Hey! I do *not* go clubbing nearly as much as people seem to think I do,” Yohji said, sounding hurt. “And I’m no drunk. In this line of work, that’s dangerous.”
“What, being a florist? Are the arrangements going to eat you?”
“Why you, I’ll get you-”
“Enough,” Ran’s voice cut across their bickering, bringing it to a dead stop. He was looking at Birman. “When?”
“Tomorrow night,” Birman said.
“Mou! You don’t leave a lot of time to prepare!” Omi complained.
“Someone will be dropping off a van tomorrow in the back alley way, and they will leave the keys under the sun visor,” Birman said with a hint of a smile. “You might find some of the ‘misplaced’ equipment to be useful, but we’ll need it mostly intact by Sunday, so be careful.”
“It’s not one of those big white surveillance vans, is it?” Yohji made a long face. “Those are too obvious; everyone knows it’s the police parked on the curb...”
“It’s got a delivery service logo stenciled all over it,” Birman promised, “and it’s battered and old enough that it doesn’t look like any department would touch it.”
“All right, we’re all on this one,” Ken looked around. “So who goes *in* the nightclub?” He raised his brows.
Four pairs of eyes were riveted on him. Yohji raised his hands. “What? No, oh no...*why* does everyone always look at me first in these situations?”
“I wonder,” Ken said with a quirky grin.
“You have cultivated a reputation in that direction, Yohji-kun,” Omi said with a hint of reproach. “How can you expect us *not* to rely on you to volunteer?”
“Oho, so I’m supposed to volunteer now?”
“Well, everything should be fine as long as you don’t go skirt-chasing in the middle of the job...”
“Listen, you-” Yohji began, voice rough, but he was cut off by Birman.
“In any case, you, Yohji, would be better-able to handle yourself in a nightclub situation. Of course, we can’t force you, but the other choices...” she trailed off discreetly.
Yohji understood. The other choices were Ken or Omi in his place. Ken wouldn’t last five minutes; he would probably get into a brawl with one of the yakuza for knocking over his beer. And Omi was more likely to be molested than anything else, let alone be taken seriously. A kid like him in a nightclub looked very out of place.
“All right,” he conceded gracefully, waving a hand in acquiescence. “I’m sure I can dig into my closet for some clubbing gear.”
“Not that deeply, I’m sure,” he heard Ken mutter.
Yohji ignored him.
“Let’s see, and the other...” Birman tapped the file against her open palm.
“I’ll do it,” Ran spoke up from his corner of the couch. Somehow, it wasn’t much of a surprise.
“You sure about that?” Yohji couldn’t resist needling him. “You don’t exactly look like the type who goes to clubs to have fun.”
“No,” Ran returned, “I look like the type who goes to the club to pick up a date and leave.”
Yohji’s eyes bugged out. “Uso. Aya, have you really-”
“Whatever the case,” Birman interrupted, sweeping past that shocking statement, “the two of you need to get close enough to find out where and when the cargo transaction is taking place. My guess is that half of the money will change hands tomorrow night, and the other half when the Japanese have received the cargo.”
“Only, they won’t be receiving that cargo,” Ken spoke up.
Birman nodded. “Here are the files. Go over them carefully. Needless to say, there won’t be any second chances.” With that, she left them to their own devices.
“They’re trusting us with this one,” Yohji observed. “It sounds pretty important.”
“Idiot,” Ran snorted. “It sounds like a set-up.”
“Hey, have you got a problem with me!?” Yohji demanded, half-rising from his chair. “If you-”
“Maa, maa...” Ken put a hand out, expression chagrined. He looked from Yohji’s angry face to Ran’s impassive one. “We can’t be fighting like this the night before a mission.”
“Who’s fighting?” Ran did, indeed, look perfectly calm. “I said it sounds like a set-up. And it does. Look at that file. With all of that careful documentation, they still don’t have the legal go-ahead to send a legitimate team in. That means there’s pressure coming from above, and they have to send in a covert team, off the books, off records. Manx warned us herself.”
For Ran, even now it was a large speech. His violet eyes challenged Yohji to say something.
“’We may have a leak reporting higher up,’” Omi murmured.
Yohji looked away, feeling sourness in his stomach. He’d been so ready to take offense at that. But Ran wasn’t the type of man to drag an argument into a mission - not *usually.* It galled him even more that it seemed like Ran was right.
“Let’s just go over these files, hey?” Ken suggested, flipping open the manila folder. “Unless you’re suggesting we refuse the mission.”
Ran’s mouth quirked. “As long as we know we’re walking into a trap, we can hope it won’t be much of a trap.”
Omi took the top sheet. “The name of the club is LiveWire,” Omi said, shuffling through the few papers. He looked up with an innocent blue blink. “You know it, Yohji?”
“Very funny,” Yohji growled, taking the papers as Omi passed them. There was a picture of a nightclub, followed by several glossy prints of men. The top five pictures were Chinese, judging by their facial structure; two had wildly-streaked hair, two had tattoos creeping up their necks or arms, and the fifth looked seedy but his eyes were sharp and alert.
“We’ve got two groups to contend with here, the Chinese gangsters and the yakuza-wannabes,” Omi said, still passing around photos.
“But all we have to do is avoid them, right? I mean, we just need to get in there and get close enough to find out where the cargo is changing hands,” Ken said.
“Let’s take a look at the information,” Omi suggested.
“It can’t be that easy,” Yohji agreed.
There was silence for several minutes as they passed around the data Kritiker had compiled. Yohji read stats on the club, information about the gangsters involved...the Chinese would have only five men coming in, but while the Yakuza guys seemed few, the club had understated but heavy security, and it was a good bet whose pay they were taking. Two of the Chinese gangsters were almost pretty, and they all had weird English names; Cash, Decker, Gauge. All of the Yakuza guys were ugly, and most of them had facial scars.
Yohji shook himself mentally. What was he thinking? Even though one of them was pretty enough to be a woman... No, he wasn’t gonna go there!
“Yeah, it’s not going to be that easy,” Ken said after a long moment. “Dodge both of those groups, somehow get onto the top floor of the club...”
“And we can’t kill anyone,” Ran said.
They all blinked. “Well, I know it’s optional, Ran-kun, but...” Omi put forth, a little surprised.
“If we start killing, someone will sound the alarm,” Ran said calmly. “Then both sides will clam up and we’ll never find out where the weapons are going to.”
“Good point,” Ken nodded.
“If only we had someone undercover,” Yohji sighed. “That would make it really easy.”
“Well, everybody memorize the schematics before we leave tonight,” Omi instructed.
“Ha!” Yohji snickered. “We don’t really need to, since you’ll be sitting in the van as backup.”
Omi leveled a reproachful look at him. The kind that said, ‘since I’m going to be doing a lot of work, everyone is going to be doing equal shares.’
“I’m going to need to make copies,” Ran said curtly. “I have to get home soon. Aya-chan won’t be out to dinner all night.”
Yohji bent the photograph he was holding until it creased. Why should Ran get special privileges? Well, of course, he had his sister who might suspect... It was supremely unfair. The rest of them didn’t have anyone, and they lived so nearby.
“All right,” Omi was saying.
Yohji passed over the photograph he held. Ran’s fingers touched his and the younger man practically snatched the picture away. He held his breath. What the hell had he done to make him so angry?
“Anybody up for some takeout?” Omi said hopefully. “We should go over everything until we have it memorized.”
Yohji dug into his wallet. Nai. “Um, no.”
“You’re broke again?” Ken looked exasperated. “We just got paid today!”
“Yeah, well, I haven’t had time to cash it yet,” Yohji retorted.
“I’ll spot you,” Omi said, to forestall argument. His tone said ‘again.’
“Forget it,” Yohji threw up his hands. “I’ll copy the files, too and study them at home.” He didn’t feel like dealing with all of this camaraderie tonight.
“And I’m not doin’ it so that I can slack it!” Yohji said angrily. “I didn’t get much sleep last night, and I stuck around the shop until we closed. I need to go home and nap before I can think seriously.”
“A-All right,” Omi capitulated, subdued.
Ken looked ready to take offense at the outburst, then visibly clamped down on it, looked at his hands, and mumbled, “Whatever.”
Upstairs, there was a copy machine in the back room where Omi did a lot of his paperwork. And of course, the rest of them when they actually did paperwork. They let some of the kids use it sometimes, for a charge. Ran was sliding all of the files under the hood and copying one after another in a steady, methodical process.
One eye slid to glance at him out of the very corner. “What are you doing here?”
“Same as you,” Yohji shrugged. “Copying the files. I need to get home soon.” Uncomfortably, he wondered if he should have waited until Ran was finished before coming up here. There was a tension in the redhead’s stance and he was starting to suspect it *was* just him - Omi or even Ken would never have elicited this kind of defensive reaction.
“What, to prepare for a hot date?” Ran’s lip curled.
“Cut the crap!” Yohji growled. “I’ve barely gotten any sleep in the past week. And everyone seems to have an exaggerated notion of my love life.”
“If it’s exaggerated, that’s because of you,” Ran told him. “You encourage that kind of thinking.”
“I’m sick of you getting on my case all the time,” Yohji clenched his fists, taking a step forward. Right now, all he wanted to do was plant one square on Ran’s cheekbone and see how much of a welt he could make.
“Try it,” Ran growled back, stepping up with his own hands fisted.
Yohji forced himself to relax. Instead, he summoned up one of the most infuriating grins in his repertoire. “What’s wrong, Ran, are you jealous?”
Ran hit him.
He barely saw it coming, only a blur of arm and an impression of knuckles moving before he felt the impact and sprawled on the floor, face feeling numb for a second. Then his cheek started to hurt and throb dully. Yohji stared up in astonishment at the cold expression on Ran’s face as he rubbed one hand over his right fist.
“You prick!” he breathed, touching his face. The skin hadn’t split, but he didn’t have to look in the mirror to know he’d have one hell of a bruise in an hour or so.
“You asked for it,” Ran said, and then turned back to the copy machine.
Yohji didn’t bother getting up. He threw himself at Ran’s legs, bringing the other man crashing to the ground.
They began to wrestle like infuriated cats, kicking at each other’s unprotected faces and grabbing hair and throwing ineffective punches. There was a great deal of thrashing and then Yohji got the upper hand for a moment and tried to put Ran in a headlock.
There was a rattle of steps moving up the staircase. “Yohji-kun, wha-YAMERO!”
With a guilty start, the two men broke away from each other, breathing hard. Yohji raked a tangle of hair out of his face. Ran got to his feet. Yohji could see blood on his knuckles and he touched his face again - no, swollen but not bloody. The skin on Ran’s knuckles must have split.
“What the hell is going on here?” Ken pounded up the stairs. He started to grin when he saw them. “Were you two fighting?”
Yohji struggled to his feet. “I walked into a door.”
Omi looked at him, then at Ran. “Aya-kun?”
“I walked into a door,” Ran said flatly. His lip was trickling blood and starting to swell.
Ken snickered. “That must have been a hell of a door.”
Yohji checked the mechanism of his watch for the third time while he waited by the battered old green van. Birman hadn’t been lying; it looked like it was falling apart, it had the logo of a local food delivery plastered all over it, and it was the last kind of vehicle that would be used for surveillance by the police. The paint was actually starting to peel and it had been in more than one auto accident. That was why it was perfect.
They would be frisked for weapons before they went into the club, but bouncers would never find the one Yohji used. What Ran was going to do, he had no idea - he wouldn’t be able to show up in a trench coat tonight, but he didn’t put it past his teammate to smuggle in a tanto, at the very least.
Omi was running a sound check. Yohji rubbed his finger over his ear, feeling the tiny plug in there - flesh-colored and smaller than the tiniest hearing aid on the market, it was even better than the stuff they used on normal missions. Of course then, as assassins, they didn’t have to worry about passing through security. They had killed security.
“Balinese, testing.” The voice was a soft whisper directly into his skull.
“Bombay, check,” Yohji responded, replying subvocally to the decorative stud on the collar of his tight black T-shirt. It was a simple outfit, a black tee adorned with a single silver star in the center of his chest, low-riding black jeans with a silver chain belt completing the ‘look.’ If it were colder out, he would wear a coat but the weather was mild, evenings nowhere near approaching cool. He had let his chestnut hair swing free around his face and of course, a superfluous pair of dark sunglasses rode low over his nose.
“I copy, Bombay,” he heard Ran murmur nearby.
The redhead wore a black kerchief over his bright hair. His lip this evening was puffy and had caused many girls in the shop that day to coo and commiserate; almost as many as had exclaimed over Yohji’s bruised cheekbone. Ran would have more admirers if he didn’t drive them all off.
There was certainly something to admire, tonight. Yohji could admit, somewhat uncomfortably, that Ran looked good in the dark maroon shirt, fine sheer material made of silk or something like, with spun blood-red flowers running through the body panels, but not the sleeves. He wore black leather pants and a pair of dark low-heeled cowboy boots.
“Aya-chan bought that outfit for you, didn’t she?” Yohji said aloud.
Ran cast him a thin violet glare. “What makes you say that?”
“Well, it just looks...” Yohji floundered. Ran had never showed an interest in clothing before; why start now?
“I bought it.”
“Okay,” Omi poked his head out of the back of the van. “We’re ready to go.”
They climbed into the van. Omi was taking up one wall with his equipment, laptop shoved into a corner of the makeshift desk. Yohji had to squeeze in next to Ran, and to shut the door, their thighs pressed together.
For some reason, Yohji had never been this aware of a male body next to his own.
No, he had...NO, he didn’t want to think about that! He turned his head and stared out the back of the van, its heavily tinted window keeping them safe from prying eyes. But Ran’s leg was still a line of warmth against his own. Yohji shifted and tried to move away, but there was nowhere to go. He didn’t know why it bothered him so much. It wasn’t as if Ran was a sexual creature...
He looked good tonight. And Yohji hadn’t had a date in many moons. That was all it was, he told himself, a visceral pull towards beauty...it had nothing to do with that time.
Schuldich stepped out of the back alley, eyes speculative.
“Curiouser and curiouser,” he murmured in nasal, mangled English. He grinned.
The pretty kitty was awfully hard-up for a date, it seemed. Well, that only made things more interesting. Schuldich pondered the morass of Kudou’s thoughts that he had dipped into. He wondered if Kudou was saving himself for something - he didn’t seem to be, but then, it didn’t have to be a conscious decision. And there was a quagmire involving Kudou’s past that he wanted to explore thoroughly.
Not right now; it would mess him up too bad.
Hmm...now, did he follow or leave it alone for the night? Schuldich folded his arms and smirked. Of course he’d follow; there was potential in Kudou tonight that he just couldn’t resist.
With a couple of energetic bounds, he sprang to the rooftop. He knew of ‘LiveWire’ and a fast way to get there.
From the moment they stepped into the packed club, Yohji swayed unconsciously to the pounding beat of the hard techno music blasting over the stereos. It had been a long time since he’d been to a nightclub. When he was dating, he usually preferred to browse for pretty ladies in the cafes and livehouses; it was a gentler, less edgy stratum.
Here, people bumped into each other and spilled drinks and knocked bodies, and when face connected with pretty face, asked one another to dance.
Ran was behind him, a silent presence he could nevertheless feel at his back. Yohji wasn’t sure if it was a comfort or if it contributed to his nerves.
They drifted to the railing at the edge of the dance floor. Yohji leaned in close as Ran’s mouth started to move.
“Have you given any thought,” Ran projected his voice, “to how we’re going to do this?”
Yohji grinned. “Easy! Sidle up to a pretty lady with low cleavage, and ask if she wants to dance!”
Ran’s mouth thinned.
Yohji held up his hands in defense. “Joke! It was a joke!”
Ran leaned against the railing, looking out over the dance floor. In the darker lighting of the club, the split at the corner of his lip was barely noticeable. He scanned the club over once, twice.
“Relax!” Yohji put his elbows on the railing. “I’m sure they’re not here yet. And try to look like you’re enjoying yourself, not like you’re dissecting everything with your eyes.”
The redhead gave him a look. He returned to making his visual circuit.
“There!” Omi’s voice sputtered in both their ears. “Abyssinian, hold on that spot. I’m going to try to zoom in.”
Yohji peered into the corner Ran was fixed on. He spotted a dark gold-streaked head. Ran’s lips moved.
“Yes, that’s one of them,” Omi confirmed.
Ran surveyed the club for a moment longer, then he was moving close to Yohji, body invading his personal space, a hand on his shoulder as he nearly touched Yohji’s ear with his lips. “Get up there. I don’t care how you do it. I’ll provide the distraction.” Then he was off and brushing his way through a sea of people. Yohji stared after him a moment longer. There was no reason for a simple touch to set his body buzzing.
A moment before, Yohji wouldn’t have been able to say if Aya had ever touched him. Now he knew, that had been the first time.
“Balinese, get moving!” a voice hissed in his ear.
“What the hell is he going to do?” Yohji bent his head and scratched his neck, speaking to his collar.
“He asked me where the yakuza security is. I think he’s going to start a fight.”
Yohji glided out onto the edge of the dance floor. If Ran was going to kick up a fuss, Yohji had better be in position to take advantage of it. “He’s not going to blow the whole thing, is he?” He had to raise his voice a bit to speak into the contact button.
“No...he’s staggering now...I think he’s pretending to be drunk.”
“Well, damn.” Yohji side-stepped all the gyrating girls who reached for him, faces indistinct with reflecting glitter, tight little breasts poking up bra-less from their crop or halter tops. He forced himself not to see any of them and was surprised how easy it was. There was a room across the floor, and he had to get to it - and from there, somehow up to the top room without anyone the wiser.
This was crazy.
He danced and swayed his way through the crowd to the other side of the room. Then he was bumping elbows with the boy across the room and he stopped and steadied himself. The boy whirled - it was the one with gold streaks in his hair, the pretty one. Jack. Shit, why did it have to be the pretty one?
“Hey, is this the line for the bathroom?” Yohji grinned.
The boy’s face showed only incomprehension.
“You speak English?” Yohji tried.
“Ah...yeah, a little,” Jack replied in the same language. He looked guarded. “What do you want?”
“These stairs go to the bathroom?” Yohji said, indicating the low gray steps visible beyond the open door.
“No!” he waved his hands. “Off limits.”
Yohji leaned close and cupped a hand to his ear. “What?”
“I said,” Jack shouted towards him, “off-” He stopped and his eyes widened as he looked over Yohji’s shoulder.
Yohji turned his head. Even from here, he could see the flurry of bodies that meant...Aya had started a ruckus. When he did things, he didn’t go by half measures.
Jack made a movement towards the floor then controlled himself. He looked at Yohji and his jaw hardened.
“If you’re going to do something, do it now!” Omi’s voice blared in his ear.
K’so. He had to...couldn’t be helped. He just wished he could turn off Omi’s camera first.
He grabbed Jack by both shoulders and kissed him full on the mouth. Hands slammed against his chest and he rocked back, fingers still gripping Jack.
Dark eyes glared up at him, hard and angry.
“What’s the matter?” Yohji feigned an easy attitude. “Don’t want to get to know me better?” He slid one hand to Jack’s neck and glanced over to the doorway.
Jack knocked his hands away. “Your timing sucks.”
“What, a little fight never got your blood going?” he grinned. He took a step closer, committing ultimate violation of private space. “I’m Yohji.”
He could hear Omi’s voice making strangling noises in his ear. Too, there was a faint cry of ‘Yohji did WHAT!?’ Chikusho, was he ever gonna pay for this later...
“Jack,” the boy said, and licked his lips briefly, a nervous gesture. He glanced over Yohji’s shoulder again at the fight on the other side of the dance floor.
“C’mon,” Yohji said, putting a sway into his walk as he strode past Jack and beyond the open door.
“Hey, wait-” Of course, Jack followed.
Yohji put a hand to his watch.
Jack stumbled into him in the darker area of the unlit hallway and Yohji steadied him. The boy turned up his face again. He was gorgeous...almost pretty as a woman... That thought made him want to shove Jack away but instead he curled his fingers on Jack’s shoulders again. When his hands met at the base of Jack’s neck, he’d pull the wire...
Unexpectedly, Jack grinned. He put a finger to his lips, then pressed one finger to his ear.
“Really?” he said, followed by a string of rapid-fire Chinese. But he wasn’t talking to Yohji.
Jack pulled away and locked a hand around his wrist. “Hurry up,” he said in English. “We’ve got to go.”
“What?” Yohji was confused. Jack hustled him up the hallway. There was strength in his body that didn’t show in his slighter build. He hit the door at the end of the hall - a fire escape - and dragged Yohji out into the night and a dank alley. Just as he did, Yohji heard the staccato of footsteps followed by gunfire. “Shit! What the hell is going on!”
“Your friend started a fight and things got ugly,” Jack told him, face unsmiling. “Don’t you know how jumpy these people are? Both sides are ready to blow each other away if so much as a drink gets thrown in their face.”
“Explain,” Yohji demanded. He looked up and down Jack’s body, hip-hugging pants that clung to his legs, geometric-patterned T-shirt, leather jacket. He didn’t *look* like an undercover cop, but then, their van didn’t *look* like a surveillance vehicle.
“Can’t,” Jack said. “Right now, I gotta get back in there and tell them I ‘took out’ some of the competition.”
Then, most stunning of all, he winked. Yohji stood there, speechless, as Jack disappeared through the door.
“What the hell happened in there?”
Ran had appeared in the mouth of the alley, kerchief gone, red hair mussed. He was glaring fit to kill.
“Hey, don’t blame me!” Yohji glared back. “You’re the one who started the damn fight that blew up in everyone’s face!”
“You’re the one who-” Ran began, heated, then checked himself. His face shut down, all emotion wiping away. “We need to get out of here.”
Yohji was only too happy to agree.