Part Four: Bruised Flesh

    Yohji paused halfway down the stairs to let Omi pass him. The boy's face was pensive and worry danced in his eyes. Yohji knew what Manx wanted from them. She wanted their perspectives on Aya. She'd been here several times in the past few days- to help Yohji, when he was alone, to find out where Omi had been when the boy finally showed up, and to consult them on Aya's position with Schwarz. The poor kid had gotten less sleep than Yohji did, it seemed.

    He reached out and gave Omi's hair a reassuring ruffle. The boy flashed him a small smile as he passed. The door closed with a soft click behind him.

    Yohji stepped down to the floor of the basement, eyes going to Manx. He debated whether or not to flirt with her and decided against it. This subject was too serious, and besides, he was too tired anyway. He hadn't had any decent sleep since the explosion. First, the shock of living through it. Second, not being able to find his teammates. Third, Ran and Schuldich. Fourth, Omi. And the same day Omi arrived, Kritiker chose to tell him that they had Ken in their care. They'd found him three days previous, but hadn't told Yohji until his condition had dropped from urgent to slow recovery.

    Five days, and he'd smoked more cigarettes than he had in the past month.

    He sat down in his favorite chair, leaning back because he didn't have the strength to sit up straight. Manx was silent for a while, considering her options. Finally she spoke. "I'm sure you're glad to have Aya home." Yohji nodded. "I'm also sure that you know what problems his presence creates."

    "He was with Schwarz," Yohji answered.

    "Aa." She crossed her legs, baring more thigh. "He has only been home for five hours now, but it's easy to see two things about him. One is that he's hiding information about what happened with Schwarz. Two is that he's changed." She tilted her head to one side, seeking confirmation.

    Yohji nodded. "Hai, I see it." How could he miss it? Aya's clothes were enough to point out that something was strikingly different about the way the redhead thought. He was wearing snug jeans and a white long-sleeved shirt that might have been made of silk. His shirt was cut to the hem of his jeans, so when he reached above his head, it rode up on his abdomen. Yohji put a mental picture of Aya in his orange sweater next to the Aya in the white shirt.

    Very different.

    "I will allow him to go on the mission tonight," Manx said, getting his attention again. "The only reason for that is because we've seen what happens when only a few people take a mission. You'll need all the help you can get. However," she stressed, "_you_ are placed in charge of watching him. Keep a close eye on him. For all we know, Schwarz can have him bugged."

    "I understand."

    She paused. "Is something wrong?"

    Yohji hesitated before answering. "I noticed some bruising on Aya." Manx's expression cleared. Yohji stood. His own shirt was the same length as Aya's. He pulled the hem up with one hand and trailed two fingers along his sides right above his hips. "Here and here."

    Manx leaned forward. "Did he say what they're from?"

    Yohji shook his head. "He dismissed them as bruises from the explosion, but he seemed a little too...I don't know...Half-fascinated by them but eager to keep them covered. Besides, they're too fresh to be from debris and too well shaped." He released his shirt and shoved his hands in his pockets, unsure what else to do with them. "I know he was abused, I just know it," he said quietly, looking away.

    No matter how much Aya tried to hide it, there was something about him that just screamed abuse. He was distracted and kept drifting into his own thoughts. He was bruised. Manx said he left out parts of his story of Schwarz. There was a strange air about him, the air of a man with a deep problem. So if Aya was abused by those monsters, why wouldn't he come clean? Was his pride so great that he couldn't ask his friends for help? That he couldn't ask _Yohji_? They'd been close friends for a year now. Yohji had thought he'd finally gotten Aya to the stage where the man would trust him if he had a problem.

    He sighed quietly.

    Apparently not. It was disappointing to realize, after all that hard work. He'd come to Aya with his problems several times. Now and then Aya would mention something that was annoying him, but he still had yet to come clean and say when he needed help. It was like trying to unravel a knot, but the strings he pulled at only seemed to make the knot tighter. He'd spent the past year going all the way around it, giving soft tugs here and there to loosen it. He'd finally gotten a good head start, then Schwarz had come along and messed it all up.

    ~I know I need a cigarette if I'm trying to be poetic,~ Yohji thought wryly to himself.

    "Just watch him tonight," Manx insisted. "Don't let anything happen to him. If you think he's about to collapse or he might be in danger, get him out of there as fast as you can."


    The door at the top of the stairs opened. The two in the basement looked up to see Aya crouched in the doorway, expression impassive. "Lunch is ready." After a few moments, he added, "There is enough for four." He didn't wait for an answer, but stood and disappeared from sight.

    Yohji looked over at Manx. "Are you going to stay?"

    "For further observation, yes."


    Omi obediently leaned to one side so Aya could set a large bowl on the table. Aya glanced up as Manx and Yohji entered the kitchen, then went to get the pitcher of freshly made ice tea. He carried it to the table as the others sat down, then seated himself. Omi began to serve himself from the bowl close to him, and the others waited patiently. As Omi passed the bowl to Aya, he spoke.

    "I've worked out the details on what we'll be doing tonight," he announced, meeting each of their gazes briefly. "This mission should be relatively easy. The complete floor plan will take only a few moments to go over. I'll go in first to get into his security system. He has three main groups of bodyguards stationed on different ends of his company." Omi began scribbling a rough sketch on his napkin. "One is on the east wing, another on the west, and one in the south. The north wing is the loading docks and has enough security on its own that it doesn't need much manpower. That's the entrance we'll be taking."

    He moved the napkin into the middle of the table. Aya and Yohji both observed it silently, taking in the picture. "I'll go in first," Omi continued. "I'll alert you two when the security is down, and you guys can follow. The directions are simple- first right, third left, third left, straight ahead. That'll take you directly to his room. While you two take out Svenska I'll make sure that you remain unbothered. The best time for us to strike would be towards nine o' clock, when the other entrances are having a guard shift."

    "That's a long wait," Yohji murmured, glancing towards the clock. He sighed and ran a hand through his hair, scratching his scalp briefly and stretching. "I hope there's something good on TV."

    Aya glanced towards Manx, meeting her gaze. "What about Ken?"

    Her eyes betrayed nothing. "What about him?"

    "Will I be allowed to see him?"

    There was a short, tense silence, and Omi and Yohji watched the two. Manx took a sip of her tea and set the glass down delicately. "Iie." When Omi opened his mouth to protest the restriction, Yohji touched the boy's shoulder as a command to stay quiet. "The only reason you have anything to do with this mission is for the manpower," she told Aya, her words calm. "Until we can be positive that you are not bugged and not suffering any remaining physical or psychological injuries from your time with Schwarz, you will be placed under several restrictions." That was to be expected, but it was still unwelcome to hear. Aya's lips thinned. Manx's eyes were giving him a clear message: Accept the help of Kritiker's counselors or be refused his proper freedom within Weiß. "Yohji will be your escort tonight."

    "My babysitter?" There was slight scorn in those words, and Aya tilted his head to one side to eye her.

    "Something like that," Yohji agreed. "You should be honored to have the honorable Kudou Yohji as your escort." He grinned, trying to ease the tension that was growing between Manx and Aya with each passing second.

    "I'm flattered," Aya murmured dryly, keeping his eyes locked with Manx.

    ~I will never seek the help of your counselors. I do not need help. I am not the one of Weiß that needs help. Iie...Make Omi go. Make the boy you ruined at such a young age seek help before he snaps under the pressures of what you make him do. Make Ken go, before the pain of what he does seeps into his soul and he is lost among the blood you shower him in. Make Yohji go, before his internal struggles and darkness catch up with him. I found my escape. I found my balance between life and death, found a way to keep sane.~

    ~Do you know that?~ he mused. ~Do you realize that I am no longer devoted to the mission and the blade of vengeance? Can you see that when you look in my eyes? Can you see that for once I do not care about seeking revenge of the innocents or putting wrong to right? All I want now is the chance to live and spend life with Brad. I am no longer Kritiker's puppet. I will not let you manipulate me. Not this time. Not when I would lose so much by putting the leash and collar on again.~

    "Seconds, anyone?" Omi spoke up hopefully, trying to end the staring match between them. When no one answered, he tried again. "This is really good, Aya-kun. I didn't know you were such a good cook."

    Aya slid his eyes from Manx with an expression that said he was through dealing with her. It was a clear dismissal. Out of the corner of his eyes he saw her own narrow. "I've had days of practice," he told Omi, pouring himself more tea.

    "So you cooked for Schwarz?" Omi asked, blinking. "Kind of like a servant?"

    A servant? No...More like playing a role that only he was capable of doing. The thought of the pristine Schwarz leader dipping down to cook a meal was amusing and impossible. Trying to imagine Schuldich or Farfarello even allowed an attempt at making food was absurd. Perhaps Nagi was the cook, then. "It was a volunteer thing," he answered vaguely. It was something Ran had felt comfortable with. Now he knew why- because of his past job working at a restaurant.

    "Ah..." was all Omi said in reply, and silence fell on the group for several moments.


    Aya slipped a hand in his pocket and closed it around the watch, dulling the sound. His eyes sought out the napkin again. ~Schuldich?~ he sent.

    It didn't take the German but a moment to reply. /Here./ Aya closed his eyes and imagined the picture of the napkin. /Got it./

    He opened his eyes once more so as not to raise suspicion and took a bite of his vegetables. ~Omi thinks 9 is the best time for an entry, because the guarded entrances will be changing shifts. Weiß will be going in the back way, by the docks.~

    /You miss half the fun that way,/ Schuldich drawled. /Not as many guards to kill./

    ~More deaths equals a better chance at alerting everyone else we're there,~ Aya answered easily. ~The element of surprise is a good way to work.~

    /Ch'./ There was a pause. /My, you work with dull people./

    ~What are you up to?~ Aya asked. He didn't approve of Schuldich rummaging around in his teammates' minds and didn't hide the edge that laced his question.

    /Calm down, kätzchen./ He could hear the smirk in Schuldich's words. /You should know that their main concern about you is that you were abused. I can see why. I was there when you stumbled out of bed in just a sheet. You look like you're polka dotted./ Aya didn't answer. /They blame them on me, you know./ Schuldich's sniff was derisive. /You should hear their line of reasoning...Crawford has a broken arm, there aren't knife wounds, and Nagi is down for the count. That leaves me./

    ~They're just doing their job.~

    /And you sound so pleased about it, too. Do you know what worries them the most?/

    ~No, but I'm sure you're going to tell me.~

    /Quick one, aren't you?/ Schuldich drawled. /They don't like the bruises on your hips. They're not positive where they came from, but they can guess. Your lady friend has seen some rape victims that had similar bruising. What would they do if they knew that you were willing and the initiator?/

    ~Schuldich...~ Aya was not amused.

    /I think they'd have an aneurism. Want to see for sure? I can send them some choice images from your memory if you want me to./

    ~You do and I'll run you through with my katana.~

    Schuldich laughed. /Ja, kätzchen, but you'd have to catch me first./ He paused, and Aya got the distinct impression that he was being spoken to. /Farfarello and I will be there tonight to make sure the job is done correctly./ He slipped out, leaving a small vacancy in Aya's thoughts as he went. It was an odd feeling, slightly uncomfortable.


    Aya blinked, pulling himself from the conversation. The other three were watching him, waiting. They'd asked him something..."What?"

    Manx frowned. "Why do you keep phasing out like that?"

    Aya stood and collected his dishes. "It's called thinking." When her frown deepened, Aya added, "Try it sometime." He was aware that his teammates were gaping at him as he went to rinse his dishes off. Omi's eyes were still wide when he returned to the table to gather the rest of the empty plates. He stopped by Manx's place. She was staring straight ahead, her entire form radiating displeasure and annoyance. "Are you finished?"

    She met his gaze slowly, after a long pause. "I'm disappointed in you, Abyssinian." She'd switched to his code name, a sure sign that he'd angered her. "You're smart enough to know you need help, but not strong enough to accept it."

    Aya didn't miss a beat. "I asked if you were finished," he stressed, lifting a hand to gesture at her plate. She stood abruptly and stalked from the room. Aya took her exit as a yes and cleared her place, taking a small amount of satisfaction when he heard the back door slam. He dumped the half finished lunch in the garbage and rinsed the plate. He heard a chair scrape back and the sound of footsteps leave the room. The other person remained. Aya didn't look back to see who it was until all of the dishes had been cleaned and set aside to dry.

    Omi was standing by the table, gazing at its surface. He lifted his eyes to meet Aya's when he realized the man was watching him. The smile he offered was hesitant and wistful, with a wary edge. Then the boy turned and left the room to entertain himself until mission time.

Part 5