She's waiting there when I look up from my arrangement. There's no warning to say that she's arrived; the jangling of the bell was lost in the squeal of the girls around Ken. I wonder how I missed Omi's call until I remember that he's downstairs working on our next mission. At least someone noticed her arrival- I can feel a heavy gaze on the back of my head as I stare over purple blossoms into her upturned face.
       She's beaming, glad to have surprised me, glad just to see me. She's expecting me to be happy to see her. I remember belatedly to offer her a vague smile. I owe her that much at least, don't I? She was very kind to my sister on my behalf, and I don't know what Aya would have done without her in those years that I couldn't tell my sister that I was indeed alive. I owe her a smile. No, I owe her much more than that.
       "Your shop looks busy today," she says.
       "We have a new hybrid in, just in time for summer," I answer, and wipe soil off my hands before gesturing towards Ken's demonstration. "Everyone is… pretending to be excited by it."
       She giggles at that and reaches up, wiping a stray bit of dirt from my nose. "They might be excited," she says. "You shouldn't think everyone's feelings are so shallow. It's a bad way to go through life."
       "I've been taught otherwise," I tell her, and I see her cheeks darken. I regret that she's thinking I mean her and I have to look away, turning my attention on my flowers once more. The arrangement is already perfect, but I move around a flower or two before putting them back in their original spots. Sakura watches as I carry the pot over towards the window, and she meets me as I start back for my counter.
       "I can't stay today, Ran," she says quietly, still a little red in the face. I don't want to hear the apology in her voice. I know it shouldn't be there, and it is all I can do to not look up from her to the lean figure on the other side of the room. "But I was wondering… My school is having its recital tonight." Fingers twist in her shirt, nervous and hopeful, and it's her turn to look away for a moment. She gathers her courage and looks back, offering me another one of her bright smiles. "I was wondering if you would come. If you have the time, I mean. I know you're always so busy in the evenings…"
       She's referring to Weiß, and I think about Omi's work. I wish I could say that the job will be ready tonight, but... She genuinely loves Aya… and me. And because of the first, and because my job has put her life on the line, there is no way I can lie to her. Even if I know what he'll say later, I can't lie to her.
       "What time?"

Let me know that I've done wrong
When I've known this all along
I go around a time or two
Just to waste my time with you

       I'm in the back room when he catches up to me. I've come back here to get more potting soil, something a little more practical than his likely excuse of a cigarette break. It doesn't really matter how he came back here; it's enough that he came. I listen to the door click shut and I don't have to look back to know it's him. I can smell his cologne in this small room. It's stronger when he's hot, and with June almost here, we've been struggling to stay cool in our busy shop.
       Hands touch my shoulder blades before skimming down to my hips, and I let my hands go still against the shelves as he tucks his fingers in the pockets of my apron. "She looked happy to see you," he murmurs against my ear.
       "She always does," I remind him.
       "Did you smile at her, Ayan~?" Yohji wants to know. It's been months since he first started calling me Ran, but the 'Ayan' name has yet to leave his vocabulary. I can't say I'm overly bothered by that. "I saw her face light up."
       "Couldn't you see whether I did or not?" I ask. "You were watching us."
       "Who says I was?" he wants to know, nibbling at my neck.
       "Kritiker never taught you subtlety," I remind him.
       "Oh, right." He tugs at me, trying to turn me, but I close my fingers around the shelf and refuse to budge. He sighs and I feel his breath ruffle my hair. "So what did she want?"
       "You know that, too."
       "I'm glad you think so highly of my espionage skills, but keep in mind that those girls were screaming about Ken's flawless skill with all manners of green and growing things. I couldn't hear her. I did see your face when she left, though. Looked a bit like resignation for a moment. What did she want?"
       "She's in the music club at her university this year and she wants me to come to her recital tonight."
       "I see."
       I return to checking the bags and Yohji lets go of me when I move down to find the appropriate soil. At last I find the one for African Violets. "I have to go," I remind him.
       "I didn't say anything."
       I just eye him, and he offers me a lazy smile and a shrug. His subtlety needs a bit of work, but Yohji's lying is an art. Even I have trouble figuring it out, but I'm learning. But knowing he's lying doesn't mean I have to admit that I do, and I just incline my head to him. "Omi would appreciate your help tonight."
       "You're taking her out to dinner afterwards?" he wants to know.
       "I hadn't planned it."
       "That's because your etiquette skills are in the toilet," he says, digging through his pockets for his cigarettes. I'm not sure how they fit in there, considering how tight his pants fit against his skin. It's hard enough getting them off that I can't imagine fitting a hard box of cigarettes and a lighter in, not without using some sort of magic trick and a crowbar. "This is her big day. You can't show up, clap, and send her home again. Invite her out for a drink or something."
       I frown at him, thinking that over, and he pulls his box free at last and wiggles it at me. "Take it from me. I'm an expert."
       "You never bought me dinner," I point out, bringing my bag towards the door.
       He catches me by the strings of my apron as I pass, pulling me up against him, and I don't fight as he buries his hands in my hair and kisses me. He tastes like cigarettes already. Maybe it's a permanent taste. I hated cigarettes and cigarette smoke until him. Somewhere along the way they've become something more than what they were, something more than cancer in a stick. With him, cigarettes are twisted sheets and heat and a lazy smile.
       "Maybe I'll get you dessert if you survive dinner."
       The doorknob turns. He moves his hands to his own hair before Ken manages to barge in, and our second youngest comes stumbling in. He looks thoroughly exhausted and he latches onto me, offering me a pleading look. "Aya, you've got to save me," he begs. "Take over the demonstrations this afternoon, won't you? At least one. I can't take it anymore."
       "Himeko groping you again?" Yohji drawls, and Ken scowls at him. Yohji sets a cigarette between his lips and grins at us around it. "Imagine! All the indecencies of a Tokyo train line, right in our own flower shop. No worries. No one dares to touch Aya, right? Their digits would freeze off."
       "Sounds serious," Ken agrees with a sage nod. "But speaking of groping, wasn't Sakura here? I was going to try and drag you into the middle of the crowd but I saw you talking to someone that looked like her."
       "She was here," I answer, starting for the door.
       "And?" Ken wants to know.
       "And she confessed her undying love," Yohji says.
       "Liar," Ken accuses him. "But it would be about time."
       I shift my grip on my bag to get the door, but Yohji reaches past me to get it first. I glance back at him and he offers me a lazy smile, waggling his cigarette back and forth with his tongue. I force my eyes up from his mouth to his amused stare, looking past the amusement to the cooler edge in the back of his eyes. "Take Ken on break with you," I tell him. "He needs a rest."
       "Aya, you're my hero." Ken's out the back door just a moment later. I hear it bang shut behind him, but there's never the second click of a door closing. I set my bag down on my counter before looking back, and Yohji's still standing in the doorway to the storage room.
       "Don't want a break after all?" I ask.
       He mimes burning himself on something. "Like ice," he drawls.
       "You have room to talk."
       He just smiles. "I won't get frostbitten," he assures me. "I'm smarter than that."
       "Of course."

I'll keep you my dirty little secret
Don't tell anyone or you'll be just another regret
Just another regret, hope that you can keep it
My dirty little secret

       Sakura waits until after her performance before looking to see if I've come, and as I neatly fold my program into a small square, I debate how to interpret that. Rather, I know what it means, and I wonder how I'm supposed to react. She found her school friends and her parents as soon as she moved up onto the stage with her small group; I saw the nervous smile she sent them. But it is only now, when she doesn't need the focus for her music anymore, that she skims the crowd to find me. The smile she sends lights up her entire face and I swallow a sigh, lifting my hands where she can see them to clap.
       The musicians file out of the room into the atrium of the auditorium to wait on their family and friends to catch up. I push myself up from my chair and follow the crowd out, refusing to hurry out to her side. Sakura is a popular girl. She will still be there when I arrive, and probably already in several conversations by then. I've already seen what happens when I show up while she's talking to other people and it's not something I want to repeat tonight. This was her show and her friends and classmates want to share it with her. If I approach, she'll drop them in favor of me.
       I stop for a sip of water at the fountain, turning over the words I need to say. I puzzled through them all the way here, wondering both about where to go and what her parents would think of it. If I am lucky, they will have already made plans. I'm obligated to come, so I came, and manners dictate that I should invite her out, but that doesn't mean I have to want to go. Sakura is… She is a nice girl. I am fond of her, in one way or another. She was wonderful to Aya and I appreciate having someone outside of Weiß understand what we do, even though I know what danger it puts her in. She's matured a great deal since I met her, both because of what she's been through and learned because of Weiß and because it's natural for her to mature as she ages. She's a sophomore in college now, a large step up from high school.
       Ken and Omi both warned me about her growing up, taking great delight in harassing me about her, but… Things have not progressed as they thought- and hoped- they would. My interest in her wanes the older she gets, and with Aya so far away, it grows dimmer still. My sister is Shikoku now, attending school there. She went there for her own safety and for the renowned physical therapy clinic and she fell in love with the area. Sakura went with her for a time, sent there by Kritiker, and she returned when she enrolled in the University of Tokyo.
       I was happy to see her at first, admittedly, both because she brought news of Aya and because… Well, I'm not sure. But as the months drag by, I find myself wishing more and more frequently that she would return to Shikoku. I'm not sure if Yohji has anything to do with that. Frankly, I have no desire to ask myself and find out, mostly because it wouldn't change anything.
       There's no more time to stall, and I step through the archway into the lobby. It's easy to find Sakura among the rest of the crowd; her voice carries over the rest of the noise. I'm too used to listening for it to be able to lose it in the chatter. I turn my feet that direction, sliding easily through the clumps of excited students, and end up coming up behind her.
       "Ah, Fujimiya," her father greets me, spotting me before I can say anything.
       She whirls around, immediately forgetting whatever she was talking about. "Ran, you came," she says, mouth curving into a pleased smile. "I wasn't sure you would."
       "I said that I would," I remind her.
       "Thank you for taking time out of your schedule to come listen to her," Sakura's mother says, offering me a soft smile that's a little too knowing for my tastes. "We hear from Sakura all the time about how busy you are. I'm sure it means a lot to her that you came."
       "Mother," Sakura sends her, cheeks coloring.
       "It was a good show," I say, and follow Sakura's beckon to join her little ring. As soon as I do that, it sets off a small chain reaction. Sakura's classmates spot another friend in the crowd and they excuse themselves with giggles and waves to go talk to the other girl. Sakura's mother wonders if the concession stand is still open, and the parents abandon us as well. I stifle the urge to sigh at the setup. It may make the invitation easier, but it also means there can't be interference from her parents regarding prior plans.
       "Your parents must be proud of you," I say.
       "They're required to be," she answers. "They're my parents. It means more to me if Ran is happy."
       "I'm glad I came," I say, because lying is really the only thing I can offer her. "Will you be going home after this?"
       "I think so," she hedges, fiddling with her shirt. She's watching me carefully, and I remember Yohji saying that she would expect something more. I guess he was right, not that I'll tell him that.
       "If your parents wouldn't mind my intrusion on your performance night, I was thinking I would buy you ice cream," I tell her, and she can't hide the delight fast enough. I watch as she bites down on her lip to try and mute some of the expression, but she has never been good at hiding her emotions. She's like Aya in that sense. "As a celebration," I elaborate, not that it really matters. She doesn't care what it's for.
       "I'd love to!" she gushes. "I'd just have to tell my parents that I'd be home later. I'll just… I'll go tell them!" She offers me a slight bow and then she's away, scurrying through the crowd as fast as she can politely squeeze past the other performers. I feel my phone buzz in my pocket and pull it out. It's a text from Yohji, and a press of a button opens it up.
       "Fall asleep yet?" he wants to know.
       I erase the message and put my phone back in my pocket.

Who has to know?

       Sakura picks the booth while I wait on the ice cream, and when I turn with the cones in my hand, I find her in the corner booth by the window. She lifts her hand and waves and I pick my way down the aisle towards her. It's rather crowded tonight, as it's getting to the time that even the evenings are warm. I can spot two other musicians in the crowd, one with her friends and the other with his family. There's no reason for me to recognize their faces but their matching suits are a dead giveaway, and I feel their eyes on me as I sit down opposite Sakura.
       She accepts her cone from me, blushing a little when our hands brush, and we sit in silence for a few minutes as we start on our snacks. Sakura feigns to be interested in everything but conversation until she's made it down to her cone, and then she finally lifts her eyes to me before shifting her gaze out the window.
       "Have you heard from Aya lately?" she wants to know.
       "She's getting ready for her exams," I answer, though I'm sure she already knows this through her own correspondence with my sister. "She'll be up here in Tokyo for part of her summer break."
       Sakura smiles. "It'll be good to see her again, won't it? Will she be staying at the shop?"
       "In my room," I agree.
       "Oh?" She thinks on that for a moment. "If you worry about her being at the shop with… You know." She glances towards the next table over. "Well, she could always stay with me. Mom and Dad adore her and we have that extra bedroom now that my brother's off at boarding school. It might be safer."
       "I couldn't ask you to do that."
       She smiles. "You know how much I love her," she reminds me needlessly. "It wouldn't be any trouble at all, and then you wouldn't have to worry about her being around three other guys and… well. Things. Not that I don't trust your partners, but I worry about how she would take living with them in such a small space."
       I'm not stupid enough to not realize the real reason she wants Aya in her house, but I can't exactly say that.
       "At least think about it?" she urges me. "I'm not trying to keep her from you. You know that."
       "I know," I agree. "I'll think about it."
       "Good." She smiles again- still?- and nibbles delicately on her cone. I think of Yohji's mouth on my neck and decide it's time to come up with a new conversation topic. Sakura beats me to it and sends me a cautious look. "Ran?"
       "Mm?" I ask around my ice cream.
       "Do you ever worry about Aya being so far away?"
       "Of course I do."
       "That was a bad way to word it," she admits. "I mean… I was just thinking about her going back to the shop, you know? And… Well, she's nineteen now and a university student. She has female roommates but her next-door neighbors in the dorms are boys, and both of her roommates have boyfriends. Do you ever…" She tries to think of a delicate way to word it.
       "She hasn't expressed interest in anyone," I say, but I wonder then if she would have told Sakura and not me.
       The girl is quick to reassure me, waving her free hand at me. "Oh, no. No, she hasn't. But I mean… Well, would it bother you if she did?"
       I offer her a small frown. "What makes you think that?"
       "It's just…" She struggles for a minute and then sets her cone down, touching her fingers lightly to the sides to keep it from falling over. She takes a deep breath to steel up the courage and I know already that I won't like what comes out of her mouth. "She worries about you, didn't you know? It was probably the wrong hypothetical situation, but it is a possibility, right? She worries that you'd be upset if she did get interest in someone, but at the same time, she's worried about you because you… Because her brother isn't with someone. It's like she's waiting on you before she feels like it's okay. She's worried about you being alone up here when you've been alone for so long."
       Ah, my intuition was right. I know what she's trying for, and I don't want to deal with it today.
       "I'm not alone up here," I answer, and Sakura finds it hard to meet my gaze all of a sudden. I'm talking about Weiß, but I can't clarify myself without being forced to include her in that group. After all she's done… She is a sturdy companion to everyone in Weiß, as much as she can be, anyway. She brings us gifts and cards from time to time and she watches carefully for injuries from our night jobs. I can't make myself say out loud that she is important because she'll misconstrue the manner of her importance, but I wouldn't be able to correct her. I tried years ago to push her away, and look what's come of it instead.
       "Ran, I…"
       Don't say it.
       "Ran, you have to know by now… that I like you, right?"

When we live such fragile lives
It's the best way we survive
I go around a time or two
Just to waste my time with you

       When faced with an awkward and overdue confession from a girl, there are a number of ways a man can respond. The crudest would be to laugh, which pretty much guarantees that another such confession and night out will never be repeated. Down the line it gets gradually softer, ranging a flat out no to a gentle letdown to a return of the awkward confession, perhaps not as awkward when encouraged by said girl's, with a number of things in between each stage.
       If it was any other girl, I would go with the "no" option and leave it at that. The truth hurts, but in my line of work, the truth can keep one person safe and damn another. But this isn't any girl, and I can't just brush aside her words.
       Silence settles between us for a few moments as I try to come up with an intelligent way to respond, and at last I say, "You know that it's difficult."
       "I know," she answers, and there's a pleading edge in her tone. "But I've known you for years, Ran. Doesn't that mean anything? It's not a high school girl's crush. Maybe it was in the beginning, but I… I know you. I know about you. And I understand. Doesn't that make a difference? I can understand what you're going through. Isn't that enough?"
       I debate my responses, but Sakura doesn't give me long enough. "Or do you still think of me as your sister?" she asks, almost too soft to be heard.
       I have the distinct feeling that I'm damning myself with these words, but they have to be said. "You're not my sister." She flicks me a hesitant look, searching my eyes for more than I want to give her, and I force myself to keep talking. "It's just difficult. You understand why. I can't afford for you to get hurt."
       "Do you worry about me, Ran?" she wants to know, a hesitant whisper.
       "I don't want you to get hurt." It's the truth, even if it's not the truth she's looking for. But she can't tell the difference tonight. She's too distorted by her own feelings on the matter, too raw and hopeful tonight. I see her eyes glisten at my words and she looks down, toying with her ice cream cone.
       "One step at a time?" she asks me. "That's all I want. Just… a little time."
       I have the distinct feeling Aya would be very pleased by this. She certainly mentions Sakura enough in her letters. I've been taking them to be semi-subtle hints for months now, though I've made sure not to mention Sakura in my letters back. But this? What do I do about this?
       "Please, Ran," Sakura says under her breath. "I just… You mean so much to me."
       I don't want to.
       I don't want anything to do with you if it's anything about this.
       "We'll have to see," I answer.
       She smiles and wipes at her face, looking a little embarrassed by the tear. I'm feeling a little trapped myself, but I manage to keep my expression unchanging when she glances shyly up at me. "One step at a time," she promises. "I know it'll be hard, but… I'm sure it'll work. I'll do my best to prove it to you."
       I know it's her misconceptions of my side of things that give her that false hope, but I say nothing to bash them. "One step at a time," I hear myself answering, and I already know I'm going to get a phone call from Aya tomorrow about this. Sometime between now and then I'll have to figure out what I'm supposed to say.
       I have the sudden urge for a cigarette.

Tell me all that you've thrown away
Find out games you don't wanna play
You are the only one that needs to know

       Yohji is in my apartment when I return. I don't remember giving him a spare key, but it's not like any of us need keys. Lock picking is just another one of the many talents Kritiker shared with us. I try to scrounge up a sense of intrusion when I spot him sprawled out on my bed, but I feel nothing. I just close the door and lock it behind me. He watches as I toe my shoes off at the entrance but doesn't bother to push himself up as I start across the room towards my closet.
       "You look absolutely thrilled by your evening out," he decides. "How out of tune was she?"
       "She played very well," I answer, shrugging out of my dress shirt. I consider it as it dangles from my fingers, debating whether or not I wore it long enough to classify it as dirty. At last I toss it towards the laundry basket in the corner of my closet. I find my sleeping pants folded up on the foot of my bed and feign not to notice that Yohji watches as I change.
       "How were the drinks?"
       "Ice cream," I correct him.
       "Ooo," he sends back.
       "Stop being unreasonable," I tell him as I tote my pants over to the laundry basket. "It was your advice to take her out afterwards."
       He just shrugs, watching as I make my way back towards him. "It was the proper thing to do," he says. "Maybe you should take a class in common courtesy from the local university. You should ask Sakura if they offer it. I mean, why not? You don't have any money going towards medical bills anymore."
       "I still have Aya's education to take care of."
       "True, that." He pushes himself up as I stop in front of him and I follow his beckon to seat myself on his lap, knees pressed into his hips. He wraps an arm around my waist and his skin is almost too warm to be comfortable. I suppose he just got out of the bath, except his hair is dry. I decide not to ask, dismissing it as unimportant, and instead focus on his mouth as he presses it to my chest.
       "You don't smell like sex," he decides.
       I tangle my fingers in his hair and give the locks a jerk, not at all amused with his comment. He offers me a lazy smile, completely unbothered by the tug, and keeps his eyes on mine as he nips at a nipple. His smile widens at the way my breath hisses through my teeth and he slides his hands under the hem of my pants. A tongue darts out, lightning quick and light, just enough to taunt, just enough to get a quick taste.
       "Suppose you'll fuck her one day?" he wants to know. "I can already see her stomach swelling up with a bunch of baby Ayans."
       "Don't talk about her," I warn him.
       "Don't talk about her, or don't talk about her like that?" he wants to know.
       "I'm tired of thinking about her."
       "Good answer," he purrs, scratching his fingernails up my back to watch the way I arch into his hands. He lowers himself to the bed, bringing me with him, and he shifts against me to hook a leg around one of mine. "Do you still taste like ice cream?" he wants to know, sliding his hands through my hair to pull me down. It's a soft kiss, softer than I expected from him. He still tastes like smoke. "Should I guess at the flavor?" he asks against my mouth.
       "You should fuck me," I answer.
       "That's an even better answer," he decides, and this kiss is more familiar. He bruises me with his mouth, twisting the pain into something I need, into something I've learned to want. It's almost hard enough to cut my lips on my teeth but I don't care. It wouldn't be the first time I've tasted blood when lying here mouth to mouth with him, and definitely not the first time it would be from one of us. I let him push me over onto my back, let him slide on top of me. He's careful to keep his weight off of me as his fingers lace through mine, and he shoves my hands into the mattress to either side of my face. He's a line of hard heat against me and I've been waiting for it all day, ever since his promise to me in the storage room.
       "You just make sure," he says, pausing to nip at my throat, "that you remember who I am. If you call her name," another bite, this time at my stomach already, "then I might forget not to use my teeth."
       "Fuck you," I growl at him, clawing at his hands as he draws them back.
       "Ayan~," he sends back, pure mockery. He catches at the hem of my pants, yanking them down, and I lift my hips to help get them free. I can feel his breath on my thighs before he offers pale skin a small kiss, and then his fingers are hooked in my briefs and he's prying them free.

I'll keep you my dirty little secret
Don't tell anyone or you'll be just another regret
Just another regret, hope that you can keep it
My dirty little secret
Who has to know?

       I'm temporarily saved from my current problem when we have our mission the next day. Sakura shows up at the shop, only to be gently turned away by Omi. By some bit of fate I'm on break when she drops by and I'm saved from having to go out and see her. Omi tells me about it when I come back and I accept his message from her in silence, mentally brushing aside her words of concern and encouragement. Omi's gaze is sympathetic as he watches me but he's looking at it from the wrong side. He and Ken wouldn't understand.
       Strangely enough, Yohji's the one who really understands. He understands why I don't discourage her, though it's more than a little obvious that he doesn't approve of her. I know he would handle this the same if he were me, and yet he's the one who pushed me down into my mattress last night. We both understand why I can't just cut all ties to Sakura, but I still told him to fuck me less than half an hour after I left Sakura at her doorstep with a quiet farewell.
       But I don't have time for these thoughts. We have a mission tonight, and Omi is trying to tell us the strategy. I tuck both Yohji and Sakura aside to deal with later, whenever that later turns out to be, and watch as Omi sketches colored lines on his printout of the Ikima factory. It is easy to forget them in favor of this work and I curl my fingers tighter around the hilt of my katana as I memorize my path. Omi checks to make sure we all understand what's required of us and then passes out our headsets.
       Ken waits until his earphone is in place before tugging on his glove, and he gives a clench of his fist to snap his claws free. The blades glitter in the overhead light, spotless and clean for now. I'll give them another hour before they're just as dirty as always, spattered and chunky with someone else's insides. Ken tends to get as messy as I do; the only reason his bugnuks ever fail to keep up with mine is because he can punch a smaller hole with more damage. If he puts enough force behind his hands, those claws can shatter a man's breastbone and glue his heart to his spine. I tend to take broader sweeps just because my one slender blade can't make a mistake. If I don't kill someone in the first swipe, then I've given him a chance to give away my position or to strike back.
       Looking at Ken's blades brings my attention to my own, and I draw my sword from its scabbard, listening to it hiss as it slides free. Ken glances my way, surprised to see my blade free before we reach our target sight, but he doesn't ask. Omi's too busy with his gear to notice, but Yohji's eyes are knowing and taunting behind his sunglasses. I ignore him, more intent on checking my blade for any scratches. I count the five I know are there. Two more and I'll have the blade replaced. Seven is an unlucky number and I refuse to carry a sword with that number of nicks on it. I would have replaced it at four if four and five hadn't happened in the same night.
       "Are we ready?" Omi wants to know, and Ken retracts his blades. "Ken, I'm with you."
       Ken nods and leads the way up the stairs, and Yohji pushes away from the wall and starts for me. "A little eager, aren't you?" he asks as he draws near, keeping his voice down just enough that the other two can't hear him over the clanging of their shoes on the metal staircase. "Just don't let your excitement get you killed."
       "I'll keep that in mind," I answer.
       He steps towards me, pressing up against me, but my sword is already moving. The flat of the blade digs into his throat before he can lean in towards me, and he smiles at me over it. "Whatever," he drawls. "Wouldn't want to break your little bloodbath mind setting. Let's go."
       I follow him up the stairs and out back to his car, sheathing my sword before I make it out of the storage room. He twists the key in the ignition as I buckle up in the passenger seat, and although I can hear Ken's motorcycle, it has already roared out of sight. We're taking different routes to get there out of necessity, but as long as we all get there and get the job done, it doesn't matter. I'll see them again in a few hours. Until then, I just have Yohji and some soon-to-be corpses to get through.
       "Is she going to stop by?" Yohji wants to know.
       "You don't need to think about her tonight," I remind him. "We have more important things to do."
       "Pah," he answers carelessly. "What's more important than going into battle knowing there's a pretty face waiting on the other side? I rather liked it when she played nursemaid last time. Didn't you?"
       "The blessing of having a sword is that I don't need to be within arm's reach to use it," I decide.
       "I have you beat there," Yohji returns easily, hearing and ignoring the threat like he always does. "Do you know how many times I've woken up hard enough to hurt just thinking about tangling you up in my wire? I even sat down and thought about what I'd have to put on your wrists and ankles to keep it from cutting through too far. I can see it already: dark blood and white skin and nowhere for you to move."
       I can see it, too, and I switch my gaze out the window because it's the safest place to look. I try to squish the hunger that curls in my stomach. "You should be driving," I tell him.
       His hand is in my lap, pressing down against my pants, and he leans across the seats to press a kiss to my jaw. "I guess you like that idea, too," he decides, and I don't bother to push his hand away. It's welcome pressure even if I shouldn't accept it right now. "I did come up with the perfect restraints, you know."
       "Drive," I remind him.
       He laughs, tightening his fingers before drawing his hand back. "Tonight?" he asks.
       "If Sakura doesn't come by," I answer.
       "Why, you planning on letting her spend the night if she does?"
       "Tonight, then."
       "Good." He presses a kiss to the corner of my jaw and then finally turns his attention on getting us to where we need to be. I spend the ride not thinking about his wire and touch, because I don't need the distraction when I'm in the middle of our hunt. It takes a while before my pants fit comfortably, however, but all that really matters is that they do.

The way she feels inside
Those thoughts I can't deny
These sleeping dogs won't lie
And all I've tried to hide
It’s eating me apart
Trace this line back

       I'm not altogether surprised that Sakura is indeed waiting on us, and despite Yohji's taunts, I know he's not happy to see her there. Manx must have invited her over based on the team's reaction last time to having someone waiting up on us to worry over our injuries and success. To Ken and Omi, who have lost so much, it means a lot to think that there is someone out there outside of Kritiker who knows what they do and who still worries herself sick over their wellbeing. To Yohji, she is an unwelcome presence. As for me, I am resigned to putting up with her for half an hour. We're back late enough that I know she can't stay longer than that, because she wouldn't intrude on us to give her a ride home after such a night and she has a limited time before the trains stop running.
       She's waiting still and tense on the couch as we file downstairs, a pitcher of water and our med kit off to her sides. She waits until she counts all four of us, each moving with our own energy, before she lets her shoulders relax. Her smile is not the bright one she turns on me so frequently, as it would look obscene in this setting, but something warm and loving just the same. Omi and Ken murmur greetings to her that she returns, but it doesn't take her long to look past them to me.
       "Come sit, boys," she says, a quiet encouragement, and we arrange ourselves around the room. Ken struggles to get his glove off and Omi reaches over to help him. His hands are cleaner; his fingers slip less against the straps. We smell of blood so thick that I can taste it, or maybe I have some in my mouth and I haven't noticed. Either way, Sakura doesn't seem to notice. She is a good actress that way, and she pours us each a glass of water.
       It doesn't erase the taste, but I drain it just the same.
       "Is everyone all right?" she wants to know, ready to lavish affection and first aid on anyone who admits to the contrary.
       "Ahh… Just scratches," Ken says, but scratches are rarely scratches in our line of work. Sakura is at his side in an instant, helping him shrug out of his coat. He has to peel off his sweater as well and I realize then that it's not sitting where it usually is. He tied it higher up from his waist, using it to help staunch blood from a cut. He ignores Sakura's distressed sound in favor of offering it a critical look. "I think it's stopped bleeding."
       "It's a bullet wound," Sakura says quietly, sounding a little subdued. "The men were armed tonight?"
       "It's just a scratch," Ken is quick to reassure her. "A graze, really."
       "Take off your shirt?" she asks, and I can see from the angle that her cheeks are a little red at having to ask such a forward question. Her embarrassment infects Ken, and I see his cheeks darken a little as well. He darts a glance my way. I understand why, but I don't appreciate it. I give him nothing as a response, more interested in taking off my own gloves than in watching them.
       In the end Ken lets Omi and Sakura both help him out of his shirt, as he flinches at the pain when he tries to do it himself. Sakura sets to work, using what Kritiker taught her during a crash course in medical care they gave her when they decided to let her live with the secret of our double lives.
       I'm done cleaning my sword by the time Sakura is done with Ken, and Omi waves off her inquiry with quiet words of appreciation. I'm about to do the same when Yohji interferes, and I idly wonder if he expects to get any of my attention tonight when he's acting like this.
       "Aya's been hurt," he volunteers.
       "Aya?" Omi asks, looking my way. Ken arches an eyebrow at Yohji, suspecting some sort of ploy, but Omi's not as quick to expect even our unscrupulous Yohji to make something like this up. "Are you all right? You haven't said anything."
       "He got hit here," Yohji says, indicating the spot on his own thigh. I flick him a cool look that he ignores. "He wasn't moving right. I saw it when he came out to the car."
       "Ran?" Sakura asks, distressed, and immediately scoops up her kit and abandons the bandaged Ken for me. She kneels in front of me and I find it hard to look down at her. I'm too used to looking down at Yohji; it seems strange to see her face there. I keep my eyes on her through sheer force of will alone, and she touches a careful hand to my knee. "Is it bad, Ran?"
       "It's fine," I answer.
       "You were bleeding all over my upholstery," Yohji corrects me, lighting himself a cigarette. "I'm going to bill you for it."
       "This isn't the time to worry about that," Sakura chides him gently.
       "A man's got to have priorities," Yohji answers easily.
       "Ran, let me see?" Sakura pleads.
       "Don't be shy," Yohji encourages me.
       "Be quiet, Yohji," I send him.
       He smirks at me around his cigarette and I shift my coat to one side, undoing the lowest buckle to spread the front enough. It gives her a view of the gash going down my leg, and she makes a low sound in her throat at the sight of ripped cloth and bloody flesh. Omi shifts closer to see and I see him wince out of the corner of my eye. "How did this happen?" Sakura wants to know, digging through the med kit for cloth to clean it with. "Does it hurt?"
       "It happened," I answer, because I don't feel like going into the details. "It'll be fine."
       "Here." She offers up a bottle of painkillers. I set them to one side and she pushes them back into my hand. Omi chooses to interfere by handing over a new cup of water, and it's Bombay looking at me instead of Omi. I take the pills, but not without offering him a cool look over the rim of the cup for taking her side. He ignores my stare and watches instead as Sakura tries to patch up my leg through the hole in my jeans. Yohji ends up offering her a knife to cut away more of the cloth, and I wonder if Sakura's face will ever return to a normal shade.
       "Maybe you should just take them off," Yohji suggests.
       "That's enough, Yohji," Omi says, making a pointed gesture at Sakura behind the girl's back. Yohji just smiles to let Omi know that he knows very well how embarrassed Sakura is, and Omi gives him a disapproving look. It doesn't do anything to Yohji's amused façade, but he does drop the less-than-witty commentary. The room drops into silence as Sakura works and I know Omi wishes he could step in for her. As much as he appreciates Sakura's help, he's used to taking care of the rest of us, and with a gash like this, he'll want to double check her work later. I have a feeling Yohji will volunteer to check it first.
       At last she is finished and leans back. The clock is chiming on the top of the TV stand and she glances back at it, looking a little dismayed that it's time to go already.
       "Thank you for coming tonight," Omi says.
       "Yes, Sakura," Ken agrees, offering her a kind smile.
       She glances towards me, hesitant, still concerned. "Thank you," I make myself say, and I can feel Yohji's eyes digging holes into my face. I ignore him as best as I can, but I really think someone should teach him subtlety one of these days. How our teammates haven't figured anything out is a mystery to me. Then again, if he was subtle, we probably wouldn't be sleeping together.
       I'm not sure whether I should be grateful or not.
       "Please be more careful, Ran," she whispers, voice thick with pain and concern. "I have nightmares about-" She makes herself stop, wanting desperately to say the words but afraid that it's too much. I say nothing, and she pushes herself to her feet. Omi murmurs something about how he'll take care of the med kit but I don't think she hears him. She's still looking at me, searching my eyes again. I wonder if she still sees nothing there. I wonder if she can see 'obligation' written in the gaze I turn on her.
       I suppose not, because in the next instant she's leaning forward. There's nowhere to go when I'm sitting in this chair, not that I would let myself lean backwards away from her, anyway. I feel her hand on my face, her fingers that are so much smaller than mine and Yohji's, and then she's pressing a careful kiss to my lips. I knew when she leaned in what she was going for, but I rather expected it to be a little less bold and land on my forehead. She doesn't give me long enough to react to being kissed on the mouth and then she's already pulling away.
       Only Yohji remembers to call a farewell after her as she hurries up the stairs, but Yohji's not looking at her when he says it.

I'll keep you my dirty little secret
Don't tell anyone or you'll be just another regret
Just another regret

       Yohji and I are set to work morning shift the next day at the shop. Omi is off at Kritiker and Ken is on the other side of the city, scouting out a new supplier we're considering. It leaves Yohji and me to open the place for the day, but Yohji is late. I'm not altogether surprised and don't bother to scrounge up the energy to be annoyed. Instead I work on getting my counter as spotless as possible before moving on to the others. I have just finished Yohji's when he shows up, and I return his morning greeting with silence.
       He comes up behind me, taking hold of my arm. I let him turn it and join him in considering the lines that go across my wrist and the pale flesh of my underarm. Yohji's try at a way to keep the wires from cutting through worked for the most part, but he didn't really take into account just how much we would be moving or how hard I could push against the strings when his teasing turned almost unbearable. At least we were doing it on his bed. It means he can worry about the blood and I don't have to.
       "Suppose they'll scar?" he wants to know, twisting my arm enough to press a kiss to the scabs.
       "Suppose anyone would notice?" I return, drawing my hand back when he lets go.
       "Ah~, no one knew the red-haired kitten was suicidal," he sends me.
       "Set up your counter," I tell him, moving back to my own. He offers me a quiet laugh and gets to work, and I water the plants that need to be watered. The window display is still looking good, save for the pot in the corner, and I lift it from its spot and bring it with me to my workstation.
       "So," Yohji says as I empty the weakening plant into my trash bin. "I bumped into Sakura this morning."
       "Purely by chance, of course."
       "Of course." I listen to his tools clatter against his counter top. "She had something interesting to share, you know? Turns out that she's under the impression that you're dating now."
       I don't answer that, and I feel his eyes on me. He gives me a minute to respond, but my silence is answer enough. "Ah," he says at last. "I should offer congratulations, right? It's about time you screwed up the courage to ask her."
       I flick him a cool look for the mockery. "You already know why I told her yes."
       "So you made her ask you," he deducts. "I expected that. Coward."
       My mouth thins to a hard line as I stare across the shop at him. "Shut up."
       "So what are you hanging around here for?" he wants to know, lounging against his counter. "Shouldn't you be off impregnating her or something? Or are you a gentleman enough that you can wait until she's got her degree? Wouldn't want to interrupt her education, right? Just promise me that you won't be thinking of Aya when she's caterwauling against your sheets."
       "Fuck you."
       A little bit of the ice thaws from his expression. "That was wrong of me," he admits.
       It's an apology, but I don't care. He still said the words and I won't forgive him for them. I turn my back on him and stare down at the freshly emptied pot, struggling to focus on what I have to do today. It's a little hard with Yohji's gaze boring into the back of my head and I hate him suddenly for staring at me so often. How does he expect me to think when he's doing that?
       "She's coming by," Yohji tells me. "I told her you were opening up shop. She'll want to know about your leg."
       "You could have told her how it's doing," I answer.
       "You wanted me to say that we messed up all of her hard work last night?" Yohji asks. It's an attempt at humor. I can hear the smile in his voice, but I don't have to look back at him to know it's not in his eyes.
       "If you ever do…" I warn him, but I don't have to finish the sentence.
       "Now why would I get in the way of the future Mrs. Fujimiya?" Yohji wants to know. "Can I be best man, or is that a little crass to have your former lover in your wedding? It might make things awkward."
       "What do you care?" I demand, turning on him, and I can watch his expression bleed off his face at my flat accusation. For some reason, it irritates me to see it, but I don't know if I'm more irritated that he reacted that way or that I'm glad that my words hit where I wanted them to after his reference to Aya. "Don't behave like a child. You've known ever since she arrived in Tokyo that I would have to take her into account. You know what I owe her. You know why I won't tell her no."
       "Fuck you, Ran."
       I turn my back on him and start for the storage room to find a bag of soil, but he isn't discouraged by my attempt to walk out on him. "Fucking icicle," he sends after me. "You're going to have snowmen for babies, you hear me? I hope they freeze her fucking crotch on their way out, all eight million of them."
       I whirl back on him in the doorway to the storage room, one hand on the doorframe. "Stop acting like this," I snap at him.
       "How do you want me to react?" he demands, shoving away from the counter and stalking towards me. "Yes, you fucking told me that she was your precious little obligation. Do you think I care? Just because I understand doesn't mean I have to like it. You sure as hell don't, so why do you expect me to?"
       He reaches for me. I smack his hand away and he catches my hand, jerking it to one side so he can catch at my chin with his free hand. "God damn it," he says, searching my gaze. Everyone wants something from me. Everyone's looking for something from me. I don't know what I'm supposed to give any of them; I don't know if he finds what he's looking for when Sakura has always failed. "I don't want to lose you to her. Don't you get it?"
       "There's nothing you can do about it," I tell him, and he grimaces at the words. I reach up to lace my fingers around his wrist, and for a moment, I feel a spark of what I've been trying so hard not to feel: pain. "There's nothing I can do about it, either."
       "Fuck you," he says again, but he's already leaning in to kiss me.

I'll keep you my dirty little secret
Don't tell anyone or you'll be just another regret
Just another regret, hope that you can keep it
My dirty little secret
Dirty little secret
Dirty little secret

       The work table in our storage room shudders as I'm shoved back roughly against it, but I barely notice it. There's a flare of pain in my lower back where I hit it, but it's drowned out as Yohji seals himself against me. I have to catch at the edge of the table with one hand to keep his weight from bending me over it; the other hand wraps around his neck to help keep me pressed up against him. His mouth is hot and hard on mine and for once he doesn't taste like ash and smoke. I wonder what he did to his morning cigarette or if it's just become so much a part of him that I can't taste it anymore. It's just a fleeting thought and I let it slip away, more intent on the feel of him against me.
       There's something new in his kiss and touch. I'm not sure if it's possession or desperation, but I can feel myself reacting to it just the same. His fingers slide down my sides to push my shirt up and I tilt my head to one side to give him access to my throat. I want to let go of the table to feel him, but just a slight loosening of my fingers is enough that the table digs in hard enough to hurt. I hiss at the pain and tighten my grip again, pushing myself away from it as much as I can with Yohji leaning so heavily against me. He's hard already; I can feel it and I can't stop a low groan as his hands work their way up my chest.
       "What the fuck would you do with her, anyway?" Yohji growls against my throat. "You wouldn't have a fucking clue what to do with a woman. She doesn't have what you need. She can smile pretty and bandage all your bumps and bruises, but she will never understand like we do. She's too pure, Ran. You know that."
       "I know," I answer. "That doesn't change anything."
       "Like hell it doesn't." He forces a leg between mine and sinks his teeth into my shoulder as I arch up against him. I hear ragged breathing already and I'm not sure which one of us it's coming from. I think it's me, and I loosen my grip on his neck so I can slide my arm around it. Raw lust and sticky heat; that's what Yohji is. He's something battered and jaded and bloody. He doesn't know what niceties are. He burned the last of them away long ago, about the time that he first tried to strangle one of his female dates. I'm what gave him back his sanity, or so he's claimed on more than one occasion. He can't forget who I am when he's fucking me; he can't forget who he is.
       We go out and kill people together; we come home exhausted and reeking of blood and share a few drinks and a bed. Kyoto was a nightmare and we're not sure how we survived any of the madness there. Rather, I don't know how Omi and Ken survived, though they've been doing much better since we returned to Tokyo. My survival is right in front of me and in the form of letters in my bedside table, notes from Sakura telling me about Aya's therapy.
       Sakura doesn't measure into this anywhere, except as an obligation I can't shake. In this moment I hate her for intruding into our group, just as I hated Yohji a few minutes ago for refusing to let go. He knows as much as I do what it will mean for me to attach myself to her; he knows that I will stick with her for as long as we're both alive because of what I owe her. But to go through the actions day after day; to return from missions and to have a home elsewhere, somewhere separated from Weiß and this… I don't want to imagine what it will be like.
       But Sakura will be happy, and Aya will be happy, and that…
       "Stop thinking," Yohji warns me. "I don't want you to think about any of that."
       "I'm not," I lie, and he tilts his head towards me, meeting me halfway for a kiss. I bite down on his lower lip as he rocks against me and can already feel the imprint the table is leaving on my back. He groans deep in his throat as he pushes harder against me and I gasp against his mouth, trying not to lose the kiss but unable to keep my breath.
       "Just think about me," he commands me.
       "I am," I answer, lost enough in this heat to be honest. "I'm thinking about losing you."
       "Fuck," he groans against my mouth.
       I've tried for months to detach myself emotionally from this relationship. We've both tried, not that we really thought there was much to back away from, considering how it started. Ever since Sakura made her reappearance in our lives, we've been struggling. But it was only after we started to shut ourselves down that either of us just realized what we had at stake to lose, and it hits harder today than it has before. Her mouth was so different from Yohji's. It was too small, too soft. I can still remember how it felt, even as he sucks my breath from my lungs with his kiss.
       I wish he could burn it away.
       "Just me," he insists again.
       "Just you," I answer, not knowing if he noticed my drifting again or if he's just too lost in this frantic rhythm to know what he's saying. I'm not going to ask him. I just let him carry us up and it hurts to fall back down.
       He sags against me in the new stillness and I can feel his heavy breathing through my shirt. Somehow he remembers what I'm leaning up against; maybe he can see my hand from where his head has fallen against my chest. Either way, he moves his hands to my sides to catch at the table, pushing himself just up enough that he's not putting his weight on me. I have enough wriggle room to dislodge the table edge from my lower back, and Yohji's hand settles on mine in an apology.
       I tangle my fingers in his hair, pulling his head up to meet mine, and our kiss is lazy and slow. He presses a small kiss to my throat afterwards, and then I can feel him completely tense up against me. He even stops breathing, and in the silence from him, I can hear the sounds of someone else's shaky breaths.
       I twist against the table to look back. Sakura's sitting against the far wall, just to the side of the back door. With the guard still pulled down in front, she had no other way to get in except through this room. I don't know how long she's been there; I didn't have a chance to see the room before Yohji shoved me in. I wouldn't have noticed her anyway, not with her sitting down like that, and it makes me wonder if she heard any of the argument from the shop. Whenever she came in, she's been here long enough, judging by the blank look in her eyes and the tear tracks on her face.
       I'm sure there's an appropriate remark to be made here, invented somewhere in the history of all awkward dating, but if there is, I don't know it. I can just stare across the room at her, my breaths still uneven from Yohji's touch. A minute stretches by between us before I watch her eyes shatter, and then she's on her feet and wrenching the back door open.
       It slams behind her and leaves a deeper silence in its wake.

Who has to know?
Who has to know?

The End
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