The sun sank into a welter of gold-limned clouds, falling behind the blocky false horizon of the cityscape. Shadows swept over the streets, laying cool swathes of darkness over sidewalks and bringing lines and angles into sharp relief.
A coil of cigarette smoke bled into the evening sky, curls of pale grey catching the light for a moment before fading into the dusky ether.
Yuki Eiri exhaled a fresh plume before casting his butt away to spark on the curb. The tall blonde stuffed his hands into his jacket pockets, tossing loose hair from his narrow amber eyes, and as the light changed over he crossed the street. He really needn't have waited; there was no traffic on this particular stretch of road, besides the occasional scooter which could easily be heard coming blocks away, but it never hurt to be cautious.
Not like Shindou Shuuichi. Had he been present, the young singer would undoubtedly have been prattling on nonstop about nothing in particular or whining like a kettle with a swift leak as he walked and would very likely have stepped out onto the street without a glance at the lights, completely mindless of the danger. He had done so before and Yuki had little doubt he would do so again.
Yuki winced, his sharp features drawing into an unpleasant expression. Even when he was all alone, he was haunted by the spectre of his young lover. Why? Why should he be thinking about what Shuuichi would do if he were here when the boy *wasn't*?
It made no sense, and he tried to dismiss it with an impatient shake of his head.
Casting his gaze further along his path, Yuki blinked in startlement. Rather than shaking the elusive spectre, his wandering thoughts seemed to have called it into being. For wasn't that his "koibito" now, emerging from a shop and plowing along the sidewalk not ten feet ahead of him?
It *had* to be his lover. Shuuichi was almost as lacking in good fashion sense as he was in talent as a songwriter. Who else over the age of twelve would be caught dead wearing shorts at an hour close to eight in the evening? And a strange-looking leather cap with goggles... Goggles!
Yuki shook his head, his lips thinning. He'd thought he'd seen all that Shuuichi's wardrobe had to offer. Even considering that he was a successful rock idol, and the way those people dressed, the boy stood apart with his unerring taste for the ridiculous.
At any rate, what was Shuuichi doing here at this time of night? While not particularly late, the boy ought to be either at the studio or at home. He certainly hadn't informed Yuki of any plans to roam, and he tended to broadcast his schedule with a single-minded need that Yuki know where he was every moment of every day. Yuki had to admit, if only to himself, that it was nice to know when Shuuichi was going to be home early or late. But, as with everything else, the boy took it to an extreme level.
Yuki couldn't remember Shuuichi mentioning anything about roaming today. So what was he doing here?
"Shuuichi!" he vocalized, faintly irked that he must call after his lover, as Shindou so often did in screeching his name.
The slim figure plugged determinedly onward, sneakers slapping against the dry pavement. He was a twinkle of bare legs and a flash of leather over sharp elbows in the dusk. In the dying light of evening his hair shone like dark gold.
Yuki scowled. "Shuuichi!" he called more loudly. There was no way the boy could have missed hearing him this time, but there was no response. Not so much as a falter in his stride, nor a twitch of his shoulders.
A stormy look upon his face, Yuki made to give chase. He couldn't say what impulse prodded him to follow his errant lover. He had always tried -- vainly, it seemed -- to foster independence in Shuuichi, trying to impress upon him that he could not and should not look to Yuki for all his happiness. But being ignored with something else entirely. Yuki was not above feeling snubbed, though he was loath to admit it. And he felt more than a little suspicion. Why had Shuuichi not responded to his voice? Did this have anything to do with Tohma or his sister?
Yuki spared the building the youth had exited a glance as he passed it. A flower shop with an odd name; what had Shuuichi been doing in there? Especially seeing that the business had closed its shutters at least an hour ago....
Something was definitely up, and Yuki was determined to find out what it was.
Even with his longer legs and a brisk stride, Yuki had difficulty in keeping pace with the darting figure before him. He huffed irritably, pausing a moment as Shuuichi abruptly turned right and vanished into a narrow alley. They were in an area of the city that Yuki didn't recognize, and in addition to the unease this caused, he was inordinately unsettled by Shuuichi's strange behaviour.
Condemning his agitation as an unwilled weakness, Yuki stepped forward. The alleyway was dark, even darker than the city streets, and he had to quash a sudden spasm of apprehension.
Calling himself all sorts of an idiot, Yuki pressed onward. If Shuuichi could make his way down this alley when he professed to be afraid of the dark in their safe apartment back home, then Yuki shouldn't have any reservations.
So fixed was Yuki upon finding his errant koibito, that he focused in solely on the small figure crouched behind a large garbage can and had almost called out to him in exasperation before he took note of the rest of the tableau playing itself out before him.
There were two or maybe three men, nothing more than bulky shades of black against the darkness of the alley. If their hunched postures hadn't been enough to scream a warning, then the fact that they were speaking in low gravel-cracked whispers while conducting their business -- whatever it was -- in a deserted alley behind an empty shop should have been more than enough to jangle on any sane, thinking person's nerves.
Yuki faltered, brows creasing in a confused glower. He felt for a moment as though he had stepped into one of his own novels. One of the more preposterous, melodramatic ones. But he was no stiff-jawed hero, and Shuuichi was certainly no damsel in distress! And unlike his novels, nothing that happened here could be reversed simply by holding down the 'delete' key. This was dangerous, and it was entirely real.
Yuki wanted nothing more than to grab Shuuichi and get the hell out of here... only there was now no way to do so without calling unwelcome attention to himself. He was in too deep, and it was only through some miracle that the strange men hadn't made note of his approach already, for he had not taken any sort of care to mask it.
Yuki stood frozen, his gaze swinging back and forth between the boy squatting behind the garbage can and the men. His blood felt chill in his veins, and he was consumed with a feeling of dread.
What the hell was Shuuichi playing at?!
Suddenly, unexpectedly, the youth stood. Yuki's eyes flew wide, panic clawing at his lungs as this abrupt movement drew the attention of the shadowy figures.
The cry seemed ripped from his throat, his body already in motion. With a low, guttural curse one of the men plunged his hand into his jacket. Anyone who watched television or movies would instantly realize what this meant. The other man who had been standing in the darkness took off running, only to stumble and suddenly fall.
Right hand still raised, as though he had just thrown something, the boy turned toward Yuki in startlement.
"Watch out!" he yelled, diving for Yuki's knees. The voice was not Shuuichi's; not even remotely. This was the only thing that Yuki could focus on in this suspended moment of action. Not Shuuichi....
Yuki fell, his world spinning around him in confusion and uproar. The sound of a gun firing shattered his senses, clapping through his body like slamming into a wall. Like slamming *through* the wall, into the other side, into agonizing remembrance. It picked him up and tossed him like a ragdoll.
By way of contrast, the sharp sting of fire that suddenly creased his left arm was an almost negligible irritation.
He hit the pavement hard, his teeth rattling together, his skull feeling jarred into bits. Stars sparked before his eyes. There was a warm body slung over his legs... he thought it was still breathing... he thought *he* was still breathing.... Thick, hot liquid was moving down the chilled flesh of his upper arm....
Pain slammed into Yuki, slicing into his heart, grinding into his guts, spraying his thoughts into a million bloody shards. Salt-water burned his eyes. But it was all internal. His ears were still ringing with the echoes of the first gunshot -- the first real, up-close gunshot -- that he had heard since... since that time, and even though he knew that the boy tumbled over him was calling out something, he could not hear.
The man had the gun aimed at him, its open mouth hungry to deal him up its final deathblow and Yuki could not move. Perhaps this was his punishment. Perhaps this was what he deserved.
Before his dazed stare, through the dancing sparks, a piece of the night peeled itself free of the wall. There was a flap of black leather. a splash of a crimson crown, and the whine of a sharp blade arcing through the air.
In a wet gout of blood, the man was cut down, his gun spinning into the shadows, his head going in another direction. Darkness grabbed Yuki, spiraling him away into senselessness. So much blood.... There was so much blood.... And the gun... and he had... he had....
It was Shuuichi. It was his lover's warmth that caught him up in a strong embrace, cradling him close, holding him together even while he felt he was unraveling into the darkness.
It had to be. It had to....
"G-gomen..." Yuki mumbled thickly as he slid away into the ease of senselessness. His eyes fluttered closed and he fell lax to the filthy pavement.
"It's a good thing that it happened so close to the shop!"
With a quirk of his brow, Kudou Yoji intercepted the glare that their red-haired teammate directed toward Tsukiyono Omi after the young man had chirped out his cheerful observation.
The four Weiss members were ranged about the interior of the flower shop they used as a front for their real business, discussing this unexpected complication to an otherwise successful mission.
After facing down death and mass-destruction and coming back from a watery grave, they had taken back up their mantels as white killers in the night, dispensing the justice that those bound by the law were unable to effect. It might not be their occupation of choice, but none of them could sit by quietly while bad things happened around them. Even though Este had been destroyed and their evil network taken out at the root, there was still a lot of darkness in the world.
And for some of them, there was no other life they could choose to live. Justice might not be much, but it was a reason to keep going day after day. Protecting those unable to protect themselves. Ridding the world of the evil ones who would prey upon the innocent.
After diverting his scowl to rest upon his tall teammate for a long moment, Fujimiya Aya turned his face away, his expression smoothing over into a stony mask.
Not that Yoji couldn't sympathize. It wasn't to say that the mission had failed, because both the targets were dead. But to have been interrupted by a civilian who had then been wounded in the course of the mission had to be more than a little irritating; especially to the group's resident perfectionist.
"So, who is this guy?" Hidaka Ken asked diffidently from where he straddled a folding chair, his arms crossed over its back. He hadn't been involved, and so he wasn't inordinately upset.
"Hmm. Let's see...." Omi opened the thin black leather wallet that he had lifted without a prick of conscience from the insensible man's pocket.
"More to the point, what are we going to do with him?" Aya asked coolly, his amethyst eyes hard. "He's a witness to an assassination. And he got a good look at Omi's face."
The youngest Weiss member flushed. "I don't know why he was following me," he offered meekly. "I've never seen him before."
"He called you by some other name, didn't he, Omi?" Ken asked curiously. "Maybe he thought you were someone else?"
"I still don't understand." Omi's mouth pursed, his golden brows wrinkling in confusion.
"Hn." Aya frowned thoughtfully where he was standing against one wall, his arms folded. He had removed his jacket and was dressed in sleek black, which made his pale skin and flaming hair even more striking. All whipcord muscle and carefully contained tension, he looked more dangerous than a naked katana blade.
Ignoring the others, Yoji rose from where he had been lounging against the table. Lighting up a cigarette, he moved with lanky grace toward the back room. They'd settled the wounded man Aya had hefted back to the flower shop on the sofa they used for their breaks. Here, Omi had disinfected and bound his arm, ascertaining that the bullet had only grazed the surface. After checking the tall blonde's pupils, he had stated that the stranger was in shock but otherwise seemed unharmed. This was scant relief when they couldn't decide what to do about his troublesome presence.
Yoji fell against the door frame, tapping ash into a large empty pot nearby. Emerald eyes widened above ever-present sunglasses as he took in the countenance of their unexpected guest.
"Ho~! That's Yuki Eiri!"
"What?" Omi fumbled with the man's wallet, frowning over the I.D. card, then fixing his older teammate with a curious azure stare. "Who?"
Yoji turned, puffing on his cigarette, but not moving from where he slouched against the doorway. "Yuki Eiri, the famous novelist." He glanced about, taking in the three flat gazes facing him.. "Ch'!" He loosed the sound with a gout of smoke. "Can't believe no one recognizes the name."
Omi blinked, glancing down at the laminated card in his hand. His brow crinkled. "Yuki... Eiri.... Doesn't he write romance novels?"
Yoji shrugged one bony shoulder, sucking at the butt end of his cigarette. "Well, they're categorized as romance. There's a lot of other elements; danger, violence.... I've never read one myself, though." He tossed thick chestnut waves of hair out of his face.
"Uh-huh." Ken looked skeptical.
Yoji frowned, ignoring the others, his expression thoughtful. After a few moments his eyes brightened in understanding.
"Ah!" He straightened, raising one finger. "I see! That explains why he got in the way of the mission!"
All the other men in the flower shop stared at him blankly.
"Enlighten us, Yoji."
Yoji sighed, ignoring the dry sarcasm in Ken's voice. "Anyone know who Shindou Shuuichi is?"
Thin red brows rose but Aya would admit nothing.
"The lead singer of Bad Luck," Omi and Ken chorused, almost as one.
A moment of silence fell over the Koneko no Sumu Ie 2.
Ken seemed unaccountably embarrassed, as though he had just been found out to be in possession of contraband information. Omi just looked confused.
"Anou.... What does he have to do with this, Yoji-kun?"
Yoji's wide mouth curled up in a broad smirk, his emerald eyes gleaming. "Well, you look a lot like Shindou, Omi. Especially in the dark. Yuki probably thought that you were Shuuichi."
This pronouncement did nothing to enlighten the others, though Omi seemed inordinately pleased by this comparison.
"And?" Ken finally asked, even as Aya opened his mouth. "What has Shindou Shuuichi got to do with Yuki Eiri?"
Yoji rolled his eyes broadly. "Maa, you're all hopeless. Shindou is Yuki's lover!"
A long moment of stunned silence was his only response to this exasperated declaration.
"H-how do you know *that*, Yoji-kun?" Omi was finally compelled to ask.
Yoji sighed again, even more heavily than before. "It was all over the television. Na! You were in the shop the day the news broke live, Aya. Don't you remember all the girls squealing and shrieking?" He fixed the redhead with a piercing stare.
Aya glared back. "They do that all the time. How am I supposed to remember a particular day?"
Yoji chuckled, taking this in stride and plowing onward. "So he must have thought that it was his lover he was following. That would explain why he interfered with the mission; especially if he thought that Omi was in danger."
The tall brunette was quite smug over unraveling this minor mystery. Aya and Ken eyed him with irritated expressions, but didn't seem inclined to argue.
"That still doesn't tell us what we should do about Yuki-san," Omi said anxiously.
"Well, he's famous, and was innocently involved," Ken mused, rubbing his chin. "So we can't kill him."
"Ken-kun!" Omi gasped. "That's awful!"
Ken shrugged, unrepentant. Those were the hard facts. It was sometimes necessary, in order to keep their secret lives hidden, to take out all witnesses. Omi had pierced enough security guards with his darts that he ought to know this.
"I've already contacted Manx," Aya spoke up shortly. "She should be calling back any time. We'll do whatever she says."
Even as the last words left his lips, the shrilling of a cell phone splintered the late evening stillness of the shop. Without a twitch, Aya reached into his pocket and brought the phone to his ear. "Hai."
Yoji yawned widely, striding over to stub out his cigarette in the ashtray on the table, paying no heed as Aya brought their superior up to speed in terse sentences. "You should give the man back his wallet, Omi," he drawled. "Whatever happens, he'll need that later."
"Oh!" Omi tucked the I.D. card back into its pocket and rose to his feet. "You're right!"
Sneakered feet scampered over the tiles and Aya finished his conversation, hanging up with a sharp snap.
"Well?" Ken wondered, moving to stand.
"Manx is on her way," Aya said, his deep voice calm and even. "She'll have Yuki Eiri taken to a hospital as a regular mugging case, and no mention will be made of the targets. Manx will make sure that we're not involved."
"Well, that's a relief," Yoji said, running a hand through his dark waves of hair. He grinned. "See, Aya? Things will work out just fine."
"Hn." Aya frowned at his flippant teammate. Omi, returning to the main room of the shop in time to catch the plan, flushed again. He obviously felt responsible, even though the mistake in identities had not been of his doing.
"So how long will--" Ken began, but he was interrupted by a sudden pounding on the metal grill that covered the front of the shop after regular working hours.
Yoji and Ken stared blankly at one another. The pounding only increased in volume, until it sounded as though a veritable thunderstorm had broken out directly in front of the Koneko no Sumu Ie 2.
Aya twitched. Seeing that no one else was inclined to move, he strode over and dragged the grill up in one smooth yet violent movement.
The boy who had been making all the racket took a step back in startlement, eyes wide, mouth open.
Aya blinked. Except for the pink hair and the violet shade of those round eyes... he might have been staring at Omi. Everything from the round cheeks and snub nose to the guileless nature that shone through in his gaze; even the determined set of the pointed chin was similar.
"Where's Yuki?!" Shindou Shuuichi demanded stridently.
Abruptly, Yoji's hypothesis clicked into place... and it became painfully clear that things were about to become a lot more complicated.
"Yuki.... Open your eyes.... Please wake up.... Yuki.... Yuki!"
The milky pastel fabric of dreams and memories which had wrapped him up in a smothering embrace began to fray at the edges. The fantastic jumbled together madly with reality, filling his mind with curious images and thoughts. One recent snapshot frozen from swiftly spinning time stood out stark and chilling, overtaking all of his slowly rousing senses.
Shuuichi had been in danger! The gun-- But he had been holding the gun... hadn't he? He had... he had.... But he hadn't! Was... was Shuuichi all right?
Slowly, Yuki peeled his eyelids open, relieved beyond words to find a familiar face peering anxiously down at him.
"Are you all right, Yuki?"
He had not yet regained the power of speech, his tongue feeling leaden and unfamiliar in a dry mouth. His left arm was beginning to throb with a deep, fiery ache that was driving itself into the forefront of his muddled senses and so he was careful not to move it. He lifted his right hand, instead, reaching to cup the curve of Shuuichi's jaw. It was inordinately relieving to ascertain that the youth was real and warm under his fingertips.
"Yuki?" Shuuichi looked confused and concerned. "Are you all right?" he repeated, doubt seeping into his voice. Yuki was grateful his lover was keeping his tone relatively soft -- Shuuichi could be amazingly strident most of the time, and Yuki could feel his pulse pounding in his temples with a steady throb that threatened to break out in a full-fledged headache at the slightest provocation.
"I'm...." Yuki broke off, clearing his throat as the word creaked through his lips as an inarticulate jumble of sounds. His brows drew together in a scowl. Things were coming back to him.... That hadn't been Shuuichi he had followed into the alley, so what was the young man doing here? And for that matter, where was here? The men -- and the gun -- and he'd been shot, hadn't he? The last minute or two was still a blur.
"Quiet!" he growled, rationality beginning to return to him.
With a spasmodic effort, Yuki levered himself up onto his right elbow. His left sleeve was torn, rusty with drying blood, and his upper arm was bound neatly with white gauze. He could see his jacket slung over the arm of the sofa near his feet -- so he was lying on a sofa. But where was this sofa situated? It was an ugly orange color, stained with what looked like soil, but it was cushy and comfortable under his abused body.
Ignoring his lover's reproachful look, and waving aside his fumbling attempts to help, Yuki twisted his neck, trying to take in his surroundings without setting his pending headache off.
It was a small room, from what he could see, with bare walls and two doorways. The sofa was the only piece of furniture, aside from a desk with an old computer on its surface and a battered chair before it. There were sturdy wooden crates stacked to one side, and an upside-down pile of terra cotta pots that looked as though they had seen some good use. Yuki frowned, taking in the air. It smelt of clean earth and fragrant flowers... and of cigarette smoke.
Recalling the flower shop that he had seen the youth he had mistaken for Shuuichi leaving, Yuki surmised that this was where he had wound up. But how had he gotten here?
Now he turned his attention, belatedly, to the other occupants of the small room.
Lounging in the doorway opposite the sofa was a tall, lean man, unfamiliar to Yuki, wearing sunglasses low on his nose and a nearly indecent crop top over tight jeans. Dark waves of chestnut hair spilling to frame a face of delicate yet definite masculinity. He was puffing on the cigarette Yuki had noted, and sported an expression of faint amusement.
Shifting his gaze away from the man's heavy-lidded emerald eyes, Yuki felt a start of recognition, a chill running through him. The pale redhead seated stiffly on a tall crate was the one Yuki had seen cut a man down in cold blood. He had shed his dark jacket and the gleaming katana was not in his black-gloved hands, but it was unmistakably the same -- there couldn't be two men in the city with hair of such a striking shade. The man's sharp features were set in a bland expression, but his violet eyes bored into Yuki, vivid and hard, nothing at all like Shindou's innocent gaze of the same shade.
"How are you feeling?" Yuki turned his attention to the third stranger in the room as he spoke; a dark-haired young man with an open face and a much less remarkable demeanor than the other two. He appeared almost normal, and might have actually cared about any possible answer to his question. "Omi's getting you some water," he added, stepping forward with his hand outstretched, smiling warmly. "I'm Ken."
Yuki glanced toward the redhead as he caught a faint shift in his posture. Those brilliant eyes were now fixed on the friendly youth with a decidedly angry light sparking in their depths. Thin, pale lips tightened, but he did not speak.
"What do you want with Yuki?!" Shuuichi demanded forcefully, ignoring the proffered hand. He glared fiercely, scooting closer to his older lover while Yuki shifted as carefully as he was able into a more upright sitting position. "How did he get hurt?! Who are you guys?!"
"Shuuichi, be quiet," Yuki commanded snappishly, resisting the urge to massage his temples, which had indeed begun to ache.
Shuuichi retreated into a wounded silence after Yuki snapped at him again. The dark-haired young man stepped back, his smile fading and a curious look coloring his features. Yuki drew a breath, but at that moment the tall brunette in the doorway moved aside to make way for a lithe youth who bustled in, balancing a laden tray with no difficulty.
"Sankyuu, Yoji-kun," he said huskily.
Yuki stared for a moment before he caught himself. He had thought it a trick of the poor light of evening but even here, in the steady glow of overhead bulbs and at close quarters, he would have been hard put to find a lot of difference between Shuuichi and this boy. He looked maybe a little younger, his coloring was more natural, and the features weren't truly identical, but there was no ignoring his remarkable resemblance to Yuki's lover.
Suddenly Yuki felt a lot better about the mistake he had made in following the boy into the alley.
Though he still wanted to know what that little drama in the shadows had been all about, what had happened after he had been shot and lost consciousness, who these strange young men were, and what was going to happen now.
"I brought you some water and aspirin," the youth was saying, his voice polite and subdued, entirely unlike Shuuichi's, stepping up to the sofa on quiet sneakered feet. He had removed the goggles and jacket Yuki had seen him sporting, but he was still wearing shorts. Yuki couldn't restrain himself from glancing down and noting with slight relief that Shuuichi was clad in a reasonable pair of dark jeans for a change.
"How do we know it's not drugs or poison?!" Shuuichi leapt immediately to the defensive. Yuki stifled a long-suffering sigh, repressing as well the urge to give his lover a good shove onto the floor. Not that Shuuichi didn't have a point, but it sounded pretty silly when he put it like that.
The youth's blue eyes rounded, a slightly hurt expression coloring his face for a moment. If anyone could have looked more harmless and innocent.... And yet, Yuki was fairly certain, in thinking about it, that the boy had had something to do with the first man who had fallen in the alley. As well, there was the silent, disapproving presence of the redhead in the corner, who Yuki *knew* had killed, and who was clearly a comrade of the young man.... Yuki had learned long ago, the hard way, never to take anyone for what they appeared to be.
And yet, he didn't think that this petite blonde meant any harm. Not to him. It wasn't the boy's fault that Yuki had followed him into the alley and involved himself in a private matter. And he didn't seem the sort who would poison a guest -- even an inadvertent, possibly unwelcome one -- in cold blood.
The redhead Yuki wasn't so certain about. But fortunately he was keeping his distance.
"Oi, kouzo," the lanky brunette spoke up for the first time, his voice a low, pleasant drawl. "Be nice. We didn't have to let you in, you know. We could've left the shutter down, and then where would you be?"
"I'd have found some way in!" Shuuichi declared vigorously, reaching over and grasping Yuki's right arm in a possessive clasp. "Nothing can keep me from my Yuki! Even if I don't have a passport, I'll always find him!"
"Eh?" The dark-haired young man blinked chocolate-brown eyes, looking confused. As well he might.
Yuki sighed heavily. His head ached, his left arm was burning, and he was growing increasingly irritated by both the uncertainties of his situation and Shuuichi's usual energetic theatrics.
"Get off of me," he gritted, trying to pull his captive arm away without jarring the left one too badly. "Shuuichi, let go!"
"Now!" Yuki scowled horribly. He had decided he'd had enough of playing the invalid. He waved the young blonde closer then swung his legs over the edge of the sofa seat.
"Be careful, Yuki!"
Ignoring his overly concerned lover, Yuki grasped the glass of water and bottle of aspirin that the small blonde proffered. He noted with gratitude that the cap was already loosened. Even though he was beginning to recover from his shock and what was probably at least a small amount of blood loss, he was still feeling shaky and weak. As well, he didn't want to jar his left arm any more than necessary.
Shuuichi was still uselessly sounding off beside him, but Yuki continued to ignore him. Sometimes that was the only way to deal with the young man, especially when there were more important matters to deal with.
Yuki swallowed as many aspirin as he felt he could safely take without upsetting his ulcer. The young blonde set the tray carefully on the cushions beside him before moving respectfully back. There was a glass of orange juice in addition to the water, a plate that bore some swiftly but skillfully made onigiri, a few cookies in plastic wrappers, and a small ikebana arrangement that was strikingly lovely in its simplicity. Shuuichi reached past him and grabbed some of the cookies, beginning to munch on them, seemingly forgetting his fear of poison or drugs.
Yuki's thoughts raced swiftly, trying to draw some lines between all of the fragmented facts he was in possession of.
He had interrupted some sort of "hit" in the alley that had involved the redhead and, improbably, the smiling young blonde. He had been shot -- he had to admit, mostly through his own stupidity -- and had passed out. Then, evidently, he had been brought back to a secret base of sorts that was situated in a flower shop.
This was growing more far-fetched by the moment, and yet there was not one detail that Yuki could deny.
He had caught the names of three of the strange men in the room. Yoji was the brunette, Omi the young blonde who looked like Shuuichi, and Ken had introduced himself. He, at least, felt they had nothing to hide. Yuki had not heard the redhead's name, and he did not feel inclined to ask. Of them all, he trusted that hard-eyed young man the least.
He was less surprised by Shuuichi's presence than he had been upon awakening, now that he could think rationally again. After all, if Shuuichi could find him in a deserted tenement in New York City, across an ocean and deep in the heart of a city where he did not speak the language, then what was there to stop him from finding Yuki only a few miles from their own apartment?
This left him with several blanks, but they were the most important ones, as far as Yuki was concerned. Who these young men were, who those men slain in the alley were, why they had been killed, and what was going to happen to Yuki -- and Shuuichi -- now.
Yuki wasn't inordinately worried. While he was wounded and surrounded by men who seemingly had no compunctions about killing, these men did not seem unreasonable. They had brought him back here, after all, and bound his wound. Those were not the actions of a group that intended to dispose of him. As well, he had his cell phone in his pocket. He could feel its slight bulge against his hip, so his hosts had not taken it. If worst came to worst, one punch of a button would bring Tohma in with reinforcements.
But Yuki preferred to try to deal with this himself. He wanted to know what he had gotten involved in, and he was ready to assume, until it was proven otherwise, that he was going to walk out of here unmolested as soon as he decided he was finished.
"Are you feeling all right, Yuki-san?" the blonde asked earnestly, thick golden lashes flickering over azure pools of serious intent. "Does your arm hurt very much?"
"What did you do to Yuki?! How did he get hurt?! Who are you guys?!" Shuuichi demanded forcefully, before Yuki could so much as open his mouth to reply.
The blonde, Omi, took an involuntary step back in the face of this barrage, his eyes widening. Dark-haired Ken matched him with a step forward, placing a hand on one of the youth's shoulders, his expression stormy.
"I'm sorry, Yuki-san," Omi was saying, bowing slightly at the waist, his hands clasped together before him. "I feel as though it's my fault you were hurt--"
"Omi!" Evidently rather hot-headed, Ken leapt to the smaller youth's defense, thick brows beetling, hands closing over both the blonde's delicate shoulders now in a protective clasp. "Don't say that! It *wasn't* your fault!"
Yuki tended to agree -- it had been coincidence and happenstance that he had run across a boy who looked so much like Shuuichi and had followed him into what had unexpectedly proved to be a shady situation -- but before he could say anything, the other men in the room went on alert.
Yuki had not heard anything, but he levered himself to his feet anyway, not wanting to be caught seated for whatever was occurring. With a stifled yelp, Shuuichi jumped up as well, pressing up against his right side, presumably to act as a crutch of sorts.
The redhead stood and stepped away from the crate, his pace deliberate and unhurried. All four had turned their attention to whatever lay beyond the doorway that the tall brunette had been busily propping up. Now that he was listening more closely, Yuki could hear the sharp clicking of heels on ceramic tile.
"Manx!" Yoji called out to someone not in view. At least, that was what Yuki thought he had said -- was that a name? Spinning to stride out of the room, the lanky brunette raised a long hand in a languid salute, cigarette still smoldering where it was lodged between two graceful fingers. "Glad to see you're final here!"
A crisp, clear female voice spoke in a response that Yuki could not quite make out.
Omi's features brightened, and he smiled cheerfully at the two men standing near the sofa.
"Come out into the shop, please. Manx will answer your questions."
Yuki wasn't entirely trusting, but he followed the group of bizarre young men anyway. He didn't see that he had a lot of choice. Besides, he wasn't leaving here until he got the full story.
Manx folded her arms, watching as expressionlessly as she was able while the members of Weiss trouped out of their back room, followed by Yuki Eiri and... a pink-haired young man. Manx glanced sharply back and forth between his heart-shaped face and Bombay's. The youth looked familiar, and not just because of his resemblance to Bombay.... After several moments, she internally identified him as Shindou Shuuichi. She wasn't entirely up on pop culture, but that much she knew.
One perfectly plucked auburn brow rose high. Well, that would explain the sheepish looks that her boys were sporting. But she had to wonder what the lead singer of the popular group Bad Luck was doing in the Koneko no Sumu Ie 2.
She glanced at Balinese, who grinned, raising his pinkie finger and inclining his head toward the two newcomers. Then Manx recalled the fact that had been all over the news a while back; that Shindou Shuuichi of Bad Luck was the male lover of Yuki Eiri, famous romance novelist. An odd pairing indeed.
"Who are you?" Shindou demanded as soon as his gaze fell upon the tall, statuesque woman, before anyone else could say anything. Yuki Eiri was wearing a distinctly harassed expression, his amber eyes darting toward his voluble lover with irritation, but he did not try to quiet Shindou. Perhaps he knew better. "What are you doing here? What's Yuki doing here? How did he get hurt? Are you planning on holding us for ransom? You'd better let us go! Yuki--"
"Shut UP!" Yuki finally snapped, taking a swift step toward the youth who was bouncing and spinning around like a hyperactive top set loose on a rapidly wheeling merry-go-round. The tall blonde author stopped, hissing through clenched teeth and clutching at his left upper arm with his right hand. "Shuuichi...."
His deep voice was a warning growl. Manx assessed the situation. Shindou did not seem likely to become silent any time soon. Abyssinian looked on the verge of explosion, though he was masking it as well as he was able. Bombay seemed bewildered and Siberian bemused, fighting a small smile. Manx caught Balinese's lazy emerald gaze, fielding a slow wink with a bit of exasperation and more than a touch of shared humor.
Reaching a decision swiftly, Manx overrode the babbling Shindou with clear, crisp tones of no-nonsense.
"Balinese. Will you please take Shindou-san with you to purchase food for a meal?"
"Ara?" Shindou stopped still, blinking in confusion. "What?"
The use of Kudou's codename was not lost on Yuki Eiri, whose uncanny amber eyes narrowed, fixing Manx with a suspicious stare.
"Sure thing," Balinese drawled, grinning broadly, his eyes twinkling. "Though how you knew we didn't have any food in the 'fridge...."
"You forget, I know everything about you, Balinese," Manx replied archly, with only slight exaggeration. While she might not be aware of the state of the kittens' larder, she knew most of the things that the boys considered to be their personal secrets. She was relieved that Balinese was sharp enough to play along, and willing to take on the task of looking after Shindou.
"Is that really necessary?" Yuki was asking, sounding cranky.
Heavily rouged lips curved in a confident smile. "I believe we could all benefit from some food while we sit and talk things through." Her dark burgundy eyes twinkled at Yuki, indicating to him silently that they might also have more freedom for speaking if his lover was not present. She knew that the wounded novelist understood, and probably agreed, while being reluctant to let Shindou out of his sight.
"Don't worry, don't worry!" Balinese waved his hand and beamed reassurance. "I'll take good care of him for you, Yuki-san."
"I'm not going!" Shindou threw a sudden but not entirely unexpected wrench into the works. Manx remained silent, waiting to see how Balinese would deal with the situation. "I'm not leaving Yuki alone here! I won't leave Yuki! You can't make me!! I won't go!!!"
Abyssinian was grinding his teeth, and Manx had to admit that Shindou's loud protestation was quite ear-piercing. And he had such a pleasant singing voice....
"Maa, maa." Balinese swept forward in a smooth, well-practiced motion, draping a long arm over Shindou's shoulders before the young man quite realized what had happened. He leaned in close, intimately, his face colored with what even Manx had to admit was charming sincerity. "But if you don't come with me, Shindou-chan, then who will be there to make sure I buy the sorts of foods Yuki-san likes to eat?"
"Eh?" Shindou blinked again. "Hey! How did you know our names?" he asked suspiciously.
Balinese' grin broadened, and he straightened, though his arm was still loosely slung about Shindou's shoulders. "Are you kidding?! How could I not recognize the lead singer of Bad Luck?" he asked cheerfully. "I got your first single when it came out -- maybe if you get a chance, you can autograph it for me!"
"Really?" Shindou's face lit up like a neon bulb after the switch had been flipped. "Did you buy our latest release?"
"Mochiron desu!" Balinese was unobtrusively steering Shindou toward the door. "It's your best work yet. Your lyrics are a lot of fun, and your voice just keeps getting better!"
"You really think so?"
Manx breathed a little easier; it appeared that Shindou had decided that Balinese was an all right guy after all. Yuki appeared torn, his eyes fixed on the arm Balinese still had around his lover, which had slipped down to ring Shindou's narrow waist, but he made no move to stop the two as they exited the shop. Bombay and Siberian were a bit stunned. Manx was amused to note that Abyssinian was considerably pissed off, though he was doing a decent job of hiding this.
"Now." She turned toward Yuki Eiri, all business. "Yuki-san--"
"Wait!" The blonde author forestalled her with a raised hand. He fixed her with a baleful glare. "I am going to go get my jacket and then I am going to have a cigarette. Then I am going to smoke several more while we talk."
"By all means." Manx smiled sweetly. After all, she could be perfectly reasonable when the mood took her, and Yuki Eiri had already been through a lot this evening.
After Yoji and Shindou had departed, the others had gravitated to the wide battered wooden table that stood in the back of the shop. This was where the more elaborate arrangements were usually put together but it was bare and scrubbed clean now. The shop *had* been closed hours ago, after all.
Yuki Eiri was industriously filling the air with a thin haze of burnt tobacco while he drank the rest of his orange juice. He looked as though he wished it was something stronger. Omi had vanished into the apartment kitchen to make some coffee, and for some reason Ken had gone with him.
"What were you doing in that alleyway?" Aya demanded, jumping in before either Manx or Yuki could speak. He was standing beside the table, leaning down so that he could stare Yuki in the face.
Aya did not miss the faint pain lines crinkling the skin around those hard eyes or the paleness of the lips that pulled smoke from the cigarettes. But there was something about Yuki Eiri that Aya just did not like, and he wasn't going to pretend. The blonde novelist came off as arrogant, antagonistic, and angry. Everything glanced off of his narrow wolf-gold eyes, no honest emotions making their way through the flat, mirror-like surfaces. He was handsome but his features were currently set in an unpleasant expression. He looked as though he was both expecting and daring them to lie to him.
"Abyssinian..." Manx said warningly.
Yuki snorted, flicking his cigarette into Yoji's ashtray. He fixed Aya with a flat, unfriendly stare. Aya did not flinch, but gazed back coldly. "Shouldn't that be my question?"
Aya glared more fiercely, violet eyes flashing, mouth pulled tight.
"Actually, I am a little too well aware of what you did there," Yuki continued with a small wince. "My question should rather be... why did you do what you did there?"
"That is none of your business!"
"Then how about I go to the police and make it my business?"
"You still haven't answered the question! Why were you in the alley?!"
The locked voltage of chilled amethyst and crackling amber broke, and two pairs of narrow eyes shot in startlement toward Manx. The woman had half-risen, slamming her hands violently down on the tabletop with reckless disregard for perfectly manicured nails, her gaze fiery as it swung back and forth between the two verbal combatants.
In the doorway, Omi froze, blue eyes huge, another laden tray held before him like a shield. Ken peered over his shoulder at the tense tableau, his expression wary. Manx rarely lost her temper, and they didn't know if they had ever heard her speak so loudly and forcefully.
Manx tossed her head, bright auburn curls bouncing over her shoulders, as she relaxed back into her chair. "I think I can handle this, Abyssinian," she said coolly. "I'm sure you didn't call me in to help only to override my authority."
Aya's nostrils flared but he restrained any other reaction, except to stare balefully at his irate superior. Without a word, he stood and strode away from the table.
Omi slowly released a long breath that he had not realized he had been holding and advanced into the shop. "I've got coffee, Manx-san," he declared cheerfully.
"Sankyuu, Bombay," Manx said, taking the white mug of steaming dark liquid that the young man proffered.
Yuki set aside his empty glass of orange juice with a faintly distasteful twist of his mouth. He accepted his coffee in turn, but instead of sipping it he continued to puff on his cigarette.
"I apologize, Yuki-san," Manx said as Omi and Ken seated themselves at the table. From his corner, beside the cold case that they used for both storage and displays, Aya shot the woman a venomous look.
Yuki shrugged, with his right shoulder only. "It's my own fault for getting involved. But now that I *am* involved, I would very much like to know what it is I am involved in."
Aya restrained a snort. Yuki's tone of voice made it clear that what he had just spoken was a command rather than a request.
"After all," Yuki continued, seeming blithe, but surely fully aware of the impact of his words, "I just saw two men killed and was shot myself."
"Gomen nasai, Yuki-san!" Omi clasped his hands together and bowed his head. "You won't really go to the police, will you?"
The novelist's harsh expression softened slightly, probably against his will, as the young man raised big blue eyes to fix earnestly, ruefully, anxiously on his own.
"It depends on what I hear here," Yuki said calmly. "But if I see good cause for your actions, then there should be no reason to involve the authorities."
Manx cleared her throat. "Actually, Yuki-san, I am a bit curious. I would like to hear how it was that you happened across the situation...?"
Yuki shifted in his chair uncomfortably. Impossibly, it seemed the faintest of pink shades touched his pale cheeks. Aya lifted a brow, a humorless quirk to his lips.
"Yes... that.... I... appear to have mistaken your young... Omi, was it? Mistaken him for Shuuichi."
"So Yoji was right!" Ken exclaimed, sounding surprised.
Aya glanced over, unwilling to pass on the opportunity to see Yuki squirm. However, the novelist now had Ken fixed with a sharp stare, ashes falling unnoticed from the tip of his cigarette to sizzle in his coffee.
"What does that mean?" Yuki asked sharply.
Manx continued to calmly drink her coffee, simply waiting for her chance to speak once more.
Omi's smooth cheeks flushed an attractive shade of rose. "Yoji-kun thought that... that you followed me into the alley because I looked like Shindou-san. That's all."
"How did he know of my... connection to Shuuichi?" Yuki asked warily.
"Yoji said he saw it on television," Ken replied, jumping to Omi's defense again. He grabbed his chair, straddling it once more, and slurping at his hot coffee in a way that set Aya's teeth on edge. "That you two are lovers, that is."
"Mm." Yuki subsided into a contemplative silence. Ken had stated that last as a matter of fact, the words brash and plain, without a hint of censure. He could find nothing of offense there.
Aya scowled, leaning back against the cold case. Yarou Yoji.... Always had to be right when it came to relationships, and yet he couldn't seem to keep up one of his own. Then again, how much of that was actuality, and how much of it was a clever smoke screen?
Aya didn't feel he was being overly cynical in thinking that one Kudou Yoji wasn't nearly so flagrantly heterosexual as he touted himself to be. As far as he was concerned, his supposition was the result of more than three years spent living near or with the other man. He couldn't help but see certain things, and after a while, to read meaning into them.
Like the way Yoji dressed. The way he wore his hair. The way he sat on the sofa; more like a sultry sprawl over the cushions, as though begging to be debauched.... The music he liked, the jewelry he wore. Even the way he smelled was suspect.
It wasn't as though Aya was condemning him for his orientation. That would be hypocritical on his part. But he did *not* approve of the fact that Yoji went out of his way to hide it, behaving as though he was this grand playboy. That may have been true once, but no longer. Aya was certain on that point.
There had been the whole thing with Asuka reborn as Neu, working to convince Yoji that their past could be redeemed. That had, naturally enough, ended badly. And since that time, Aya had not seen Yoji with one woman. Not one. Even though Yoji still spoke poetically and flagrantly of the more delicate sex and their charms, even though he flirted with every female that came into the shop, even though he still tried to hit on Manx every chance he got, even though he was ever ready with the witty double entendre....
But the fact was that he flirted with *every* female that entered the shop, including each white-haired, wrinkled Obaasan, as well as the schoolgirls well under the age of eighteen. And when he made his plays for Manx it had the seeming of rote, or of the simple attempt to get a rise out of their liaison with Kritiker. Aya wondered a moment, with evil facetiousness, what Yoji would do if Manx ever actually responded to his overtures.
No, Yoji put on a good show, but he was not the killer of ladies that he made himself out to be. Perhaps he had once been, but Aya was beginning to doubt even that. He had been less observant and that way easier to fool when he had first joined Weiss. But now that his revenge had been dispatched and his sister assured of a safe and happy future far from him, he had turned his attention to the people around him. And he had focused mainly on Kudou Yoji, who was not half so enigmatic as he liked to consider himself.
Not one date. Aya was sure of this; especially since they were all living in the same large apartment now. Comings and goings could be clandestine, but there were no secrets. Not anymore. Yoji went out clubbing on occasion, but he always returned alone. Or, on those rare nights when he stayed out and did not come home until morning, he did *not* smell of a woman. No matter how hungover and otherwise bedraggled, he was always clean and smelled of powerfully generic soap. Aya found this to be more suspect than anything else.
Yoji had assumed a persona as the consummate playboy, and had settled in behind his mask. But it was too overblown, too exaggerated to be real. Aya had come to the realization, slowly but surely, that there was more depth to Yoji than the face he showed the others. And he thought he knew what it was that Yoji was hiding.
For someone who claimed to hate males, Yoji had been incredibly smooth in shepherding Shindou out of the shop. Aya recalled the long arm his teammate had wrapped around the young man's waist, and he gritted his teeth. Yoji had no right! Especially when they had not even been out of the eyesight of Shindou's lover!
Even now he was surely out showering Shindou with further blandishments. Whether he meant them or not, it was shameful.
And while it was doing Aya no good to dwell over the whole matter, he just couldn't seem to help himself.
With a concerted effort, Aya pushed the matter from his mind. He briefly entertained the thought of taking Yoji to task for his actions after he returned, but the man would only feign ignorance, and that would end up pissing Aya off even more.
Besides, it was none of his business, and he could think of no way that he could claim that it was. So he really would have to leave well enough alone.
If he was lucky, maybe Yuki would slug Yoji upon his return, wounded arm or no.
"Yuki likes stirfry noodles, but he hates celery! His sister said that once he ran away from home because they made him eat celery!"
"Really? I know someone who feels the same way," Yoji chuckled, cupping his hands around the end of a new cigarette as he lit it. Shindou was bouncing alongside him like a big puppy, seemingly over the worst of his mistrust.
"Yuki doesn't like stewed leeks, either. We should get some strawberries -- are they in season? How about tuna?"
"I tried cooking onigiri for Yuki once! But then he told me never to go in the kitchen again, unless I was making instant ramen." The pink-haired young man drooped like a wilting orchid. He popped up again, raising one finger. "But that doesn't mean that he doesn't like onigiri -- maybe we should get some of that! Oh, wait, your friend made onigiri -- never mind. Well, what about yakisoba? Or sashimi? Or how about--"
"Oi, Shindou!" Yoji clapped a hand to one narrow shoulder. When Shindou rambled on without pause, seemingly without even drawing breath, there was no choice but to interrupt.
"Yes, Yoji-san?" Wide violet eyes turned up, gazing at Yoji expectantly.
The tall brunette grinned, amused despite himself by the irrepressible nature of this young rock idol. What the hell ever was someone as genki as Shindou Shuuichi doing with a dour, surly individual like Yuki Eiri?
Well, but Yuki *had* witnessed an assassination, had been shot, and had regained consciousness in the back room of a flower shop. That would be enough to rattle the most stalwart of individuals. Maybe he wasn't normally so bad. He had seemed pretty cheerful in that live broadcast, from what Yoji remembered.... Although, he also remembered feeling as though there had been something somehow wrong about that whole scene. Shindou had seemed... off. More confused and upset than could be explained by the sudden surprise of being outed on live television by his own lover....
Maa, well, maybe not.
Yoji's grin broadened as he pushed up his shades. "How about first thing we do is get Yuki a new shirt," he suggested smoothly. "Since his is all torn and stained."
"Mmmm." Shindou's generous mouth twisted, his amethyst eyes anguished. "But whatever I pick out for him, Yuki will hate it."
Okay, so maybe Yuki Eiri *was* as cranky as he had come off seeming in the Koneko no Sumu Ie 2.
Yoji frowned faintly, then forced a cheerful smile. "I'll help you pick something out for him," he declared. He caught Shindou eyeing his crop top and tight jeans rather dubiously. "I can find you something nice," he hastened to add, before Shindou could disparage his own sense of fashion. Not that the young man had a lot of room to talk. "We'll get him a shirt like the one that got ruined, how about that?"
"Is Yuki going to be okay, Yoji-san?" Suddenly Shindou was latched onto Yoji's arm, eyes huge and liquid, his voice wobbly. "How did he get hurt? He got shot, didn't he? How did that happen?"
"Er...." Yoji didn't want to say too much, because he wasn't sure what Manx was telling Yuki back at the flower shop. "He'll be fine, Shindou-san," he replied, picking out the one question he felt reasonably safe answering. He squeezed one of Shindou's hands comfortingly. "The bullet only grazed his arm -- he shouldn't even need to see a doctor, unless he wants to. It'll heal up just fine, you'll see."
Shindou sniffled, sounding miserable, pressing up against Yoji like a lonely puppy. Yoji was about to sling a comforting arm around the unhappy young man when Shindou abruptly pulled away, sky-rocketing forward, running along the sidewalk ahead of him.
"Come on, Yoji-san! Let's hurry up and get everything so that I can get back to Yuki!"
Yoji had to smile. Shindou's enthusiasm was almost infectious, and he certainly was cute. What he saw in such a sourpuss as Yuki Eiri....
Oh well. It took all kinds. And they did say in America that opposites were attracted to each other.... Not that Yoji believed much in worn cliches. But he couldn't think of two more opposite personalities than Shindou and Yuki, and they were, undeniably -- publicly even -- a couple.
It took them almost fifteen minutes to pick out a shirt for Yuki that Shindou approved of. Yoji thought that white was a rather plain color, but seeing that Shindou was the one who lived with Yuki, he was the one who had the final say in the matter.
Yoji paid for the article of clothing out of his own pocket, after they discovered that Shindou didn't have enough cash on him, and then they headed for the market. Most of the shops would be closed, since it was after ten, but they ought to be able to find some place they could buy food. Even if it was only instant ramen.
"Yes?" Shindou was clutching the bag containing the shirt to his chest, his eyes sparkling with happiness that they had found something he was certain Yuki would like. Yoji thought again that the youth was cute, and he wondered....
"Is Yuki always like he was in the shop?"
"What do you mean?" Shindou blinked, his heart-shaped face colored with confusion. "Yuki is Yuki."
"Hm." Yoji's brow creased. "So he's always so... cranky?"
"Yuki's not cranky!" Shindou immediately leapt to the defense of his lover. Then he relented. "Well, he's kind of hard to get to know. But Yuki is really a sweet and kind person inside!" Shindou's vibrant eyes shone with conviction as he hovered on tiptoe, doing his best to impress upon Yoji the truth of his words. Then he sank back, his face losing some of its brightness. "He just... doesn't like to show it."
"Ah." Yoji nodded, perfectly willing to leave it at that. It was, after all, absolutely none of his business. He was just curious, and a bit confounded by the interactions between the two. But Shindou must be getting something out of the relationship, or he wouldn't stay with Yuki. Yoji at least hoped so. After all, in the first moment after Yuki had regained consciousness he had expressed a hint of tenderness toward Shindou.
Still, Yoji was having a hard time in his mind, merging what he had seen of Yuki's true personality with the man's role as Shindou's lover and his occupation as a writer of popular romance novels. Romance! When there didn't seem to be a romantic bone in the man's body, so far as Yoji could tell.
Yuki Eiri had a very real talent for writing, and though the romance in his books was understated and subtle, it was very much present. Yoji had skimmed through several of Yuki's works while browsing in his favorite bookstore recently. Since he had not purchased them nor read them all the way through, he didn't consider his words to Ken to have been an untruth. He had seen enough, however, to have gotten a feel for Yuki Eiri's prose, as well as being able to understand why the author was so popular with teenage girls.
But when he wrote fiction with such a strong core of romance, of love winning out over all else, and of two people caring more for one another than anyone or anything around them... how could Yuki treat his own lover so coldly? That was the quandary Yoji kept arriving back at, even though he continued to remind himself it wasn't his concern.
"Na! Yoji-san! Let's go through there!"
Yoji blinked. Shindou had already entered the alley he had indicated, and with a sigh Yoji moved to follow. Even though the alley was unlighted and the hour was growing late, it would be shorter to go through, directly to the center of the market. He felt the urgent need to get back to the flower shop as soon as possible, before Shindou began asking more questions he dare not answer.
The flare of his lighter limned Yoji's cheekbones and flashed in the mirror lenses of his sunglasses as he lighted a fresh cigarette. His attention thus diverted, he didn't hear Shindou's startled squeak until it was too late.
A large shadowy figure had grabbed the young man, and there was the flash of white as a broad hand pressed a handkerchief over Shindou's nose and mouth. Yoji knew what that signified. He loosed a low curse, dropping his lighter and going for his wire, before he remembered that he had left his weapon in the drawer of his bedside table back at the Koneko. Shimatta! He'd have to charge in bare-fisted, then. Shindou was squirming, but soon he would be overwhelmed.
Before he had taken more than one step forward, Yoji felt a dull blow to the base of his skull. Crimson starbursts flared at the back of his eyes, obscuring his vision of the struggling young man and his captor. Stupid of him to think there'd only be one of them....
With a muffled groan, Yoji collapsed onto the pavement. He held onto the edges of consciousness, still trying to fight back. He'd be damned if he was going to let Shindou be kidnapped before his very eyes!
Then his lower face was engulfed in sickly sweet cloth in turn, and Yoji had inhaled before he realized. His thoughts began to swim in a morass of rapidly rising darkness and there was no way to shake himself loose of the effects of the drug.
One thing stuck in his head as he lost the battle to remain conscious.
Aya was going to kill him.