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26 February 2007 @ 02:34 am
Liebe Macht Blind  
Mission: Liebe Macht Blind
Place: Shinjuku Ward
Date: Friday August 18, 2006


"So--" Omi paused mid-thought, handing the vendor a few coins in exchange for several skewers of takoyaki. Following people from an unnoticeable distance took quite a lot of energy, after all.

Shinjuku at midday was kind of like walking through a flock of seagulls. Car horns honking from every direction and people flooding past and parting around anything stationary without thought. Some walking and in cars still trying to get back to the office after lunch, never mind that it was almost 2 o'clock.

Nice, sunny day though, warm enough to necessitate shorts but not too hot. Vendors everywhere and the smell of takoyaki and ramen and unagi on the breeze.

Good day to kill someone.

Omi handed half the handful of skewered dumplings to Ken before continuing. "I don't know, she kind of looked like she swallowed a bug. I don't think that's a normal reaction."



"We should catch up with Youji. Ask him what a normal reaction is. If anyone'd know, he would."

He wasn't really hungry. Didn't get it. Right up until Omi had actually handed him the takoyaki he'd just bought them both, Ken had thought he was extremely hungry. Hadn't eaten much of anything at breakfast, hadn't been hungry then either, but had been all up for food right up until the moment Omi had actually given him something to eat.

Now? Just looked at the dumplings like he wasn't quite sure what to do with them, or even if they were entirely edible.

"So," Ken said simply for the sake of saying something, to camouflage the fact that he really didn't feel like eating all of a sudden, "what are you gonna do about it? Keep trying to talk to her, or what? Maybe she's shy. Maybe it was a bad moment. Maybe she did just swallow a bug. Weirder things have happened, right?"



"Well, barring that... I don't know." Omi sighed around the food he was chewing, turning to set a leisurely pace through the streaming crowd back towards the car. Kritiker's car, borrowed for the day. One of those times Aya's porsche would have come in handy, though there was no chance in hell he'd let anyone else drive it--

"It's like--" He paused, frowning, waving an empty skewer in the air ahead of him for emphasis. "It's off. She's a nice girl and all, but..." Another pause, frustration, not quite able to distill what was bothering him about Sayaka. Nice girl, genuinely liked him, the sweet kind that would make him bento and want to watch cherry blossoms but still have enough spirit to talk him into teaching her to ride a motorcycle. He could see the future of their entire relationship if he thought about it hard enough, really. Not to mention the fact that sooner or later it would have to end, no matter who got hurt in the process.

Finally sputtered out, "You know what I mean?" Stared sideways at Ken and wondered if he was going to eat or just follow along with that blank look.



"But?"

He wasn't pushing it. Really, he wasn't. Didn't want to know but what, just wondered why the Hell there had to be a 'but' to this at all. It could be so simple, if only Omi would just stop analyzing it for a second and just let it be...

Ken knew he didn't want to hear about the 'but'. Suspected it would be a litany of perfectly sensible, reasonable, everyday objections to this girl's obvious interest delivered in a perfectly sensible, reasonable tone of voice, and knew that none of those reasons would have anything to do with it. Not really. Not when the only thing that was holding Omi back would be the danger. Perfectly sensible, reasonable objection, but none one to voice out loud. Not in public. Maybe not ever. It was there all the same.

Dangerous for the girl, extremely. Whoever she was it would be dangerous. Barely less so for them.

(Had to stop this...)

Should never have started it, of course. Shouldn't have flirted - flirted? Had he done that? Hadn't noticed. He'd just talked. Was that so wrong, to stand and talk to a girl? Hadn't noticed a goddamn thing until it was too late to do anything about it and by then - cheeks flushed with anger and stained with tears, breathing hard and just like that her arms about him: just like that, as if it was easy, as if she hadn't just shouted, and slapped him - he just hadn't wanted it to stop. Still hadn't stopped it. (Had to stop it. Why won't you stop it, Ken?) Selfish of him. Stupid of him.

"Yeah," he said absently, "I think I know what you mean. I guess we're just not cut out for nice girls, right?"

So who the Hell was he trying to kid?

But, he thought. But was it so wrong of him, really so wrong, to just want things to be normal? Just some things, just some of the time?

Already knew the answer to that one. (You never learn, Kenken.) Shouldn't have started this. He had to stop this, had to do it soon. It had gone too far already and the longer he left it the harder it would be, the more it would - why couldn't she just get bored of him, God damn it? Why couldn't she - smiled a little at this - move away, or something? Had to step back and how? How the Hell did you end something like--

He had been lagging. Realized it only when Omi stopped, and turned back to him, an impatient look in his eyes (Get it together, Hidaka). Ken smiled at him, apologetically, and hurried to catch up. Put up a token show of interest in the takoyaki and told himself there was nothing to worry about and no reason to believe they couldn't handle this...

He still wasn't hungry.



Omi could make a good guess where Ken's mind had drifted off to; he wasn't exactly hard to read to begin with. That faraway I'm-thinking-of-girls look in his eye and a stiffness to his posture and the barely-nibbled snack still in his hand.

Thinking about Haruka. Worrying about Haruka. Worrying even more about Yohji underneath all of that.

Well, that couldn't continue much longer.

What Ken needed was a better frame of reference. Small talk and food wasn't helping his nerves, not like a normal mission day. This mission, though, wasn't precisely normal.

Omi paused by the car, leaned against the drivers-side door and finished off his second skewer, expertly flipping both spent sticks into a nearby trash can. Looked up at Ken grimly and tapped the earpiece half-hidden under his hair, looking enough like a cell phone accessory to fool the average passerby.

Remember this? Suppose it's time to focus?

"If you don't want to finish that, save it for Yohji-kun. He didn't have any breakfast, and he'll probably be hungry when we pick him up."



And there were any number of things Ken could have said in response to that - far-too-casual motion of the hand, pressing almost accidentally against the earpiece Ken had, in truth, forgotten about almost completely; a deliberately offhanded mention of Youji - but the middle of the day was not the time for them, and the middle of a crowded street was not the place for them. Safer by far to take the statement at face value and comment on the edibility or otherwise of hours-old takoyaki which, to his mind, hadn't tasted all that marvelous in the first place.

Holding up the stick as if he were debating what the Hell he was supposed to do with the thing Ken frowned and said, far too casually, "You think he'll go for this cold?"

(You think he'll be in any state to?)

Forced himself to finish the first skewer just for the sake of it, dropping the stick into the trash, and followed Omi to the car. "You drive," he said unnecessarily, opening the passenger door and slumping ungracefully into the seat. "I think there's something the matter with me."


~*~


"Thanks. No, that's absolutely no problem, madam. No, thank you. You're welcome. Have a nice day."

Godalmighty, now she decided she wanted to get friendly.

Any other afternoon, he thought as he turned from the woman's door, sighing and letting the entirely plastic shopkeeper's smile fall from his face, the attention of a young woman - another man's bored, beautiful wife at that, tired of staring at the same four walls and keeping the bed warm for the same colorless little creep night after night - wouldn't have been unwelcome. It would have made for a pleasing break in the seemingly endless run of deliveries he'd been assigned to: same old streets, same old customers. Plain-faced, bosomy matron in a care home - would you mind taking them to her? Room 217. I've got to-- and already bustling away. Scowling secretary in a smart accountant's, irritated that he wasn't Omi.

And, all the time, a certain uncertainty and nagging doubt.

(What happened if he missed his mark? If the target got the drop on him before he could warn them - what would happen then? Should he try and fight, take the guy down alone? Would Nagi pick it up anyway, just from his movements? What if - I'll see him, he'd said, and he'd tried to sound offhand... but what happened if he didn't?)

He was on the defensive and Youji Kudou did not like being on the defensive. He was nervous, and he didn't like that either. He was watching the streets, scanning the number plates of cars and the faces in the crowd as he waited in traffic. Had he seen that car before? What about that man? A car had followed him for three blocks; pulling over as if to check an address, he'd watched out of the corner of one eye as it purred slowly past him. The driver was an old woman, a pair of those infuriatingly yappy little dogs who looked rather like ambulant dusters scrabbling about in her boot. Two days of this and he was going nuts. God damn it, just take the bait. I want my life back.

Should he keep moving? From what they'd been able to glean, which wasn't very much, this freak was little more than an enthusiastic amateur, sheltered not by any kind of skill but only by money and connections. A couple of the victims - ordinary people with ordinary minds, quite wrapped up in their ordinary little concerns - had mentioned that they'd thought someone was following them, hours or days before they'd been targeted. Nothing precise, mind: just the sensation that someone was out there, circling. Closing in...

And then the strike.

Description was next to useless too. Slender, dark-haired, about thirty... could have applied to half the young men on the island. (Could, at a pinch, have described him.) An educated, accentless voice. All that told him was it wasn't Ken.

Would it not have been better to spend the day at some pavement cafe somewhere, let the guy come to him?

Two more deliveries, two more faces: sorry about the delay, sign here please. Youji was beginning to regret skipping breakfast. Beginning to wonder if perhaps - screw the situation - he should hang back for a while, go get something to eat. Nothing complicated. There was a noodle bar not far from here: about half a mile out his way all told and hey, nobody ever said he had to go hungry just because he was asking to go blind. He could just go for some ramen. Hesitating in the lobby of the office block he'd just delivered to (camellias for a charmingly startled office lady: one look at the girl and the 8,900 yen bouquet seemed cheap at the price), he pulled out a cigarette with a casual flourish, raising his head and gazing casually down the street.

Hesitating.

Tucking the cigarette slowly back into the packet, Youji walked casually back into the building and over to the prettier of the two receptionists, giving the young woman a winning smile.

"Do you have a phone I could use?"


~*~


Omi eased off the break only to crawl forward another two inches, leaning an elbow on the window frame and glaring shuriken at the two salarymen arguing over their bright shiny cars currently playing at modern art in a mesh of painted metal and plastic, bottlenecking the traffic on either side of them. Even the officer trying to document their collision finally gave up, parked at the curb and walked through the midtown parking lot to reach them. The sun was getting hotter, the glare off other people's rearview mirrors getting brighter. Yohji was more than two blocks away by now, and that was not exactly part of the plan.

"Dammit." Kept that low, hissed under his breath, because it was really an epithet to himself. Should have known better, taken midday traffic into account. Especially delivering in Shinjuku and Toshima.

If all else failed, he supposed they could always run.

Omi cast a glance to the left to see how Ken was doing, habitually only for an instant before returning his eyes to the road; which was ridiculous as he wasn't even moving. Still, long enough to note the tension in his posture, the thumbnail between his teeth and--

Bzzt.

"Bombay, Balinese needs an oleander arrangement." Nagi's voice cool and even, metallic over the earpiece and otherwise could have been sitting in the backseat. A pause. "Soon."

Omi caught himself jerking his head up and away from the knuckles it had been resting on, and was pretty sure he'd heard Ken start. Well, good to know someone could still get the drop on them.

"Where should we deliver it?" He asked the question while still wracking his brain on how to get out of this vehicular zoo, sighing as another cop joined the first and tried to direct some traffic, the two trying to convince the salarymen to move their cars. Better work fast, Omi thought, checking his watch almost absently. Two thirty-seven. Much longer and the entire Ichigaya would be gridlocked.

"Yotsuya station."

Omi bit off a blatant curse before any more of it could carry out the window and some other unfortunate motorist thought he might be trying to start something. He frowned, looked around along the street to get his bearings, then turned to Ken. "You have change for the subway?"



"Shit."

It sounded understated, hardly like a curse at all. Ken raised his head, glanced up at Omi from the corners of his eyes. He needed, he realized, a haircut; stupid thing to think, stupid time to think it, but there you had it. Raked one hand back across heated skin and through his untidy fringe, holding it back, just for a second. It'd all fall back into his eyes the minute he lifted his hand away, but--

Oleander. God damn it, shouldn't even have surprised him. It weans, after all, only exactly what they'd been waiting for - shouldn't have felt like a punch in the gut. (This isn't happening. It can't be.) Why did his throat suddenly feel so tight?

(Oleander: pure white, soft pink, hot pink, blazing yellows and peaches - or delicately blushing, the petals barely brushed with the faintest hint of color. Heavy fragrance and something about poison, if you were daft enough to try and eat it, but it was just another flower, there was nothing special about it. What the Hell had oleander done to deserve it?)

Twisted in his seat to stare out of the passenger-side window, quietly amazed that everything could be the same as before.

Streets were a mess. God, the fucking traffic...

"Wait," he said. Letting his hand fall, Ken turned back to Omi. Concern in his eyes, or something very like it - assassins commuting to work whatthefuck. What was this, some stupid sketch show? A four-panel comic? "We're taking the fucking subway?!"



"We've got to take something, unless you think you can lift this car and carry it a few blocks." Omi checked the mirrors and flipped his blinker on--a fraction of space and maybe he could get to the curb in five minutes or less. Maybe. If the lady in the white Honda let him in...

He reached back to the earpiece, flipped the microphone forward. Time. Watch again, clicked right onto two-forty. "Korat, do you have a timeframe for this delivery?"

"Balinese will arrive at the delivery location in approximately eleven minutes." Nagi's tone of voice never changed. Ever. He could have been talking about the price of bread at the corner market.

Omi checked the mirrors again, another fraction of space and--yes, white Honda waved him in, merged left and now, there was a parking space just a car length away, if the plumbing van in front of him would just move...

"Ken." Omi flipped the mic back before using a proper name, spared a glance for his partner. A serious look, not time for arguing, friendly banter or not. "Get the bag out of the back seat and be ready to run."



And that, it seemed, was that. He didn't question it further - it's not the place and not the time. Ken simply didn't question Omi - Bombay - when he spoke in that tone: his friend's voice paradoxically quiet, his tone curt and his words clipped, and that's an order, Siberian. Some things a guy didn't need to be told.

Said nothing. Didn't even nod in acknowledgement. Just went for his seatbelt and reached around, feeling for the rucksack Omi had stowed there - couldn't see a goddamn thing, couldn't even feel it, where the Hell had he put the thing and we don't have time for this! Cursing colorfully and comprehensively, Ken pushed himself up and scrambled through the gap between the seats in an undignified rush, wasn't room for this and no time to spare for anything else. Heard Omi yelp; must have jostled him or knocked his arm or something, at least they weren't moving--

There. On the fucking floor, would you credit it? Brilliant fucking idea, Ken agreed.

"Got it!"

Hooked the bag's shoulder straps over his wrist, letting them slide down to rest in the crook of his elbow, and slid across the back seat to the door, one hand resting on the handle and god damn, the sidewalks were barely less crowded than the roads were. How strange that it was that it was only now, now he had something to do and some way to help, that he truly began to feel himself helpless.

Just waited. (Stupid fucking traffic!)



Omi rubbed his arm and hissed under his breath--not so much at Ken for kicking him but at the foot-and-a-half or so of van that was keeping him from that parking spot. It was right there, dammit, and--okay, breathe. Commanded himself to calm--it won't take long, and if you could afford to just leave the car you would have already.

His thumb tapped against the steering wheel like a metronome, counting the passing seconds. The number of steps Yohji was taking--and yes, he was still taking them, he had to believe that because otherwise they were all well and truly fucked.

He wasn't infallible, after all; he just made sure no one else knew that.

"Oh hell." That damned plumber finally crept forward, a few inches and then a little more, and--

Omi took it. Aimed the car at that space barely wide enough, heard the bumper of the van and the parked car on either side scraping against the paint (that's coming out of your cut, Bombay). Squeezed through and slammed on the brake, threw the gear shift into park and kicked the door open--winced when it hit that stupid car again (hope Kritiker has insurance). Heard Ken scrambling out of the back and there wasn't time to worry about it; keys in his pocket and door closed and the concrete crunching under his sneakers.

Ran.

Ignore the people startling and staring. Ignore the car horns, ignore the glare off the windows and the buildings. Three blocks north, two blocks east, and Ken right on your heels. Just that.



Jesus, Jesus Christ, this could be going so much better--

Ken knew he should have taken the time to get the bag on properly. Shouldn't just have let the thing bang against his side, not when it contained half a hundredweight of bizarrely-shaped metal things, all spikes and points and uncomfortable angles. Already he was going to have bruises. Pain shooting down one side, across the shoulder, the side of the ribs: he had no option but to ignore it.

And crowds, the clamor of conversation and the grumble of trapped cars, and choking city heat and grime: the sun in his eyes and the pavement hard and heated beneath his shoes.

Caught up with Omi by the entrance of the subway, grabbing his teammate's arm before he could disappear into the mouth of the building. No time for this and there had to be, had to make time, had to get it right now or - Mother of God - didn't like to think about the or...

(You look like someone's about to go for your--)

Trust us, he'd said to Youji this morning, and winked.

"Wait, Omi!" Ken shouted it; had to be heard. Had to cut through the crap because there wasn't the time for this-- Felt like he was halfway through an argument that had, in truth, never even begun. "Where are we going, God damn it?!"

Do you even know?



Omi paused and wanted to curse, right there, the air pushing out of the tunnel wafting over him. Ken's hand on his arm and why the fuck did we STOP?

Breathe.

"Yohji," he said, had to stop and catch his breath--distance running was more his thing, really, not this sudden sprinting. "Is within spitting distance of Yotsuya Station, and hell if I know how he got that far without us noticing, but he is. It's the next stop on the line. Are we going?"



And that seemed to be enough; Ken didn't even bother answering, just ran down the stairs two at a time like Schoen herself was on his heels (and wasn't that an odd thought to have at a time like this). Omi followed, took the last small flight at a jump and took off from the landing. Ken out of the corner of his eye, weaving through the midday crowds, voice on the overhead system that the train was leaving in--

Shit.

Ken shot him a look; nodded, broke aside of the token line and leapfrogged over the row of sentried turnstiles. Heard someone yelling in the distance but--did it matter? Salt of sweat in his mouth and they were making a break for the doors. Halfway closed with that mechanical bell counting fractions of a second--



And (and wasn't it always the way?) there was a small girl there, all pigtails and huge brown eyes, staring at them in undisguised wonder, and an older woman - forty-five, fifty years if Ken was any judge - with a fishy look on her face, like she'd just smelled something bad. Ken watched as she drew her knees in, placed her handbag on her lap and rested her hands on top of it. All defensive and disapproving. He fancied he could almost hear the hiss of her indrawn breath.

Ridiculous goddamn woman. Okay, so Omi was still catching his breath and he himself was flushed and disheveled and rubbing at his side where the bag had attacked him, but he didn't think they looked all that disreputable, for assassins.

The doors slid closed with a hiss and a heavy thump.

Ken ignored the child, ignored the disapproving look in the matron's eyes. Didn't even want to look at Omi. Instead, he gazed out of the windows at the station, at the walls of the tunnel, and settled down for some heavy-duty worrying.

Times like this, he could almost wish he still bit his nails...


~*~


Smiled at her as he put the phone down, letting his hand linger atop the smooth plastic for a moment. Let his eyes (pretty green eyes, such pretty eyes you've got) linger on her face for just a moment longer than they should have. Ah, a dear face she had, nose slightly tip-tilted, and shell-pink lips - perhaps a shade too generous but sweetly curved, smiling enquiringly up at him. And eyes, warm brown, a little too light but still--

(Remind you of someone?)

"Is there anything else I can help you with?"

She smiled back - showing slightly crooked teeth teased by the tip of her pale tongue - ducked her head, flushed slightly and tucked a stray strand of hair back behind one ear. Pale hands she had, with slender, delicate fingers, unpainted nails: Maiko, said the nameplate pinned above her left breast.

Any other time he might have been tempted. Today, he just didn't have the heart. Couldn't find it in himself to slip lovely little Maiko his card and the promise of a meeting timed just right - just far enough in the future for her to start to dream a little, to fantasize this stranger... He couldn't do it, and couldn't think why, when it never used to matter that he might not make that meeting.

"No, no. That's quite all right. Thanks."

Granted pretty Maiko a sleepy smile - at he could still give her that - and a hand raised in farewell, and turned and walked away.

(Yes, thank you, Maiko. You stay safe.)

He retrieved the forgotten cigarette packet from his pocket and, sighing, stepped from the lobby. Might as well try to look casual, calm and completely unsuspecting - he'd left the watch at home, as much to stop him from acting on instinct and trying to defend himself as anything. Couldn't do that. It was going to be hard, so damn hard to just go quietly... The city heat hit him like a wall.

Sometimes Youji thought he envied Ken his faith, though the poor kid claimed it barely meant a thing any more and it certainly didn't seem to make him happy. At least he had something to call out to. Oh God, he thought, oh God - it didn't mean a fucking thing to him. Ken said it like he meant it, and that made all the difference.

Inhaled. Closed his eyes, just briefly - saw red, the color of light on the retina. He wondered what color the world was, when you were blind. Would he have nothing but blackness? The total blueblack nothing you got when the lights were out, forever? Or would he still get that reddish cast to the darkness that betrays the presence of light? Opened his eyes again, gazed absently around him - shit, how quiet it was! - and tried to remember the face of the girl.

(The way Ken frowned when he thought, lips pursing and brows drawing down...)

Youji could have wished for something better to see.

He hummed a snatch of song to himself as he ambled over to the delivery bike - hadn't heard that song in years. Aya had liked it, their Aya that was, the familiar stranger they'd lived with all that time, though he'd never let on that he liked it and Youji had never let on that he knew. Made a production number of tucking away the order book and checking in his pocket for his keys, as if he couldn't quite remember where he'd left them.

Come on, you bastard. Come on. You're never going to get a better chance than this--

Could have stopped him, easily, amateur that he was. The scrabble of scuttling footsteps, the hiss of fabric on fabric, a soft sigh of breath against his collar - could have been words there, but Youji only heard the sigh. He was fast, but not fast enough--

And it took all the self-control he possessed not to reach for a weapon that wasn't there, to drive one elbow into the target's gut, to turn on the spot and snatch for his shirt - to make him hurt, make him bleed, make him pay for the poor, stupid girls whose lives he had stolen. It would have been so easy. To hurt him and leave him smashed and bloodied on the paving and run back into the office, to little Maiko and her telephone...

Youji could have stopped him right there, but he didn't.

He stood still. God help him, he stood still.

--and pain. A sudden stab of agony in the back of the thigh, and numbness creeping after. (The girl's face. The smile in her eyes.) Could still have fought, even now, he'd come through worse. (Ken in the kitchen, head bowed as he concentrated on his pans.) Could still have run, maybe - and lassitude creeping up on him, his muscles turning to water. (The empty street, the blazing sun, so bright he thought it would blind him--)

Couldn't keep his eyes open. Eyes--

(I'll never be beautiful again.)

Trust us, Ken said. His smile was like summer.


~*~


Omi followed Ken out of the subway, emerging onto the street, sudden light and heat like passing through an invisible barrier. Nothing much different here than at the last station, still flooded with cars and people hurrying about their normal, stressful lives. Nothing nearby that looked like it might be a helpless florist being drug off by a psychotic eyeball thief.

Like that would be easy to miss.

"Korat." Pulled the mic back down--couldn't yell. Couldn't pace or frown or bare his teeth at the disgusting normalcy surrounding him. Omi wouldn't have, anyway, but there were days...

Today, though, it was really that vital that he look like nothing more than a college student talking on his cell phone, probably waiting to meet someone at the station. Just one of a million twentysomethings in Tokyo, not something for anyone to concern themselves over.

He watched Ken as he spoke, the white background over the comm ringing in his ear. "We're at Yotsuya. Where's Balinese?"

That moment of dead silence was enough to kill. Enough to drown out everything else, the people and traffic and the sizzle of unagi frying in the kiosk on the corner.

"In transit southbound, three blocks and counting."



In transit. How stupid it sounded. Totally goddamn undignified, like Youji was a box or something. Probably containing computer parts. Like he wasn't a man at all but something inanimate, or something dead. Ken wanted to tell Nagi, don't talk about him like that. He's your teammate, Korat, he's a person, not a parcel-- but what the Hell good would it do?

Three blocks and counting. Better save your breath, Siberian, you're gonna need it for running.

So--move.

Turned and ran, not waiting to see if Omi was following (is this south? I think it's south. Fuck, I really hope I'm going south or this was a pretty goddamn stupid move), pushing through the crowds that thronged about the mouth of the station and did none of these people have jobs to do? Didn't they have courses to do or places to be or anything at all, whatever the hell and wherever the hell just as long as it's not right in front of me and fuck your dog madam this is kind of important...

Just moved. Heat and light and the world whipping past him, blurred patterns of light and shade and movement stilled. Dodge the old guy with the stick and too bad about the pushchair, lady, that kid's quite old enough to be walking by now anyway why the Hell are you still chauffeuring it round? (And watch your fucking language, too, that kid's picking up a hundred words a month, last thing you want is for him to start calling Granddad an asshole and why do some people bother breeding?) Split a group of giggling girls neatly down the center, why aren't you in school?

Lights changing at an empty crosswalk - fuck it, he'd make it. Ran for it, ignoring the impatient roar of engines, a blaring horn, a shouted curse - fucking moron!

Fuck you too, mister, you and your shiny knob extension. Hope you fucking crash.

Stopped short on the other side of the crosswalk, snatching for orientation. Omi - where the fuck was... Ken met his teammate's eyes from across a steady stream of traffic, cars and vans slipping past in a madness of dust and fumes, a keening ambulance weaving its way through the chaos. Shouldn't even have surprised him, that...

Raised one hand to the comm, hoping against hope he merely looked distracted and knowing he didn't and couldn't and what could he do?

"Hey, where's Youji?"

(Sounded far too panicked for a simple enquiry - for fuck's sake breathe!)

"Two streets up, take a left, another street. Vision One Eyecare."



Ken used a proper name--he'd have to bring that up later, nicely, understanding the slip at the time but really, he should know better. Right? Could see Ken's nod and apology already, five years of this, every day spent working with him--might as well not say anything at all.

Omi tapped his foot impatiently on the sidewalk, waited for the light to flash green and caught up with Ken, felt the resistance to their movement in the city around them, regular pulse and beat to it that two average-looking boys running a marathon through didn't quite fit with.

Absently, somewhere amid the breath and movement of limbs, Omi wondered if he'd remembered to lock the car. Wondered what time it was he'd told Aya's roommate to bring her belongings to the shop. Wondered what on earth Ken had done with the rest of that takoyaki.

(Don't I have class at four-thirty? Fuck!)

Almost ran into Ken at that last corner, skidded to a halt with one hand on a lamppost and followed where Ken was looking. Nondescript little building, name screen-painted on the windows in white, showroom of glasses and an empty receptionists desk, lights off.

Nobody home in an optometrists at three in the afternoon on a Thursday? Not likely.

"Here." Murmured it for Ken, unnecessary really, just vocalizing what they were both thinking. Crossed with the light and wandered to the door, casually, looking over the glassed-in showroom and squinting through the blinds on the windowed door. Tried it--not conspicuous, might have had an appointment. Maybe that explained why he was tearing down the streets at top speed seconds ago.

"Cover me?" Nodded slightly to Ken, picks already waiting in his palm. Caught a glance at his watch--two fifty-three.

Almost there. Almost.



--and nothing.

Darkened shop front and waiting area, so gloomy after the glaring streets that it took Ken's eyes a while to adjust and nothing much to see when they did. Nothing a normal, blameless man running an optometrist's practice would have counted out of place. (Had he found victims here, too? Would he have risked that?)

Wide sweep of floor, all blonde wood, slightly scuffed but still shiny. Racks and racks of glasses - round frames, square frames, frameless - narrow rectangular things with clothing-brand names and schoolmarmish half-moons. Empty reception desk with a little plastic and cardboard display stand set up on it, pimping out various mystifying little bottles and sprays of overpriced optical cleaning products. Behind it a slumbering till, its display screen showing date and time, a rank of blank-faced filing cabinets.

A tired-looking dracaena. A collection of low-slung leather chairs huddled together around a small glass-topped table on which someone, probably the receptionist, had laid out a collection of out-of-date magazines, all rather the worse for wear. Cool in here, after the oppressive heat of the outdoors. Ken couldn't claim it was unwelcome.

Two white-painted doors, closed and locked. No light seeping from beneath their frames - consulting rooms, Ken guessed, and not even worth the bother of opening. Too dark here, too quiet. Certainly wouldn't have risked operating somewhere the public might have come. And a darkened corridor with blank white walls, leading them to - what?

It gave Ken the creeps. It shouldn't have been so normal.

He slung the rucksack down onto one of the chairs, unzipped it. The rasp of the zippers sounded too loud; Ken fancied he could hear Omi's breathing. Bending, he delved inside the bag, retrieving Omi's jacket and tossing it to his teammate before - there - finally located his bugnuks. (Too hot for his own jacket; shouldn't even have bothered bringing it.)

He felt different with the gloves on. Older. Angrier. Hardly like Ken at all.

"Okay," he said to nobody at all. (Spoke softly - could hardly hear his voice over the distant rumble and purr of traffic, the beating of his heart.) Glanced over at Omi: his own face a study in tension, his dark eyes paradoxically calm. "Let's go."



Strange how easily the switch came, passed through the door and suddenly their footsteps were light, soundless, no further talking, all communication in familiar motions and looks.

Omi caught the jacket with barely a rustle of fabric, felt for the goggles out of one pocket--probably wouldn't need them but pulled them around his neck anyway. Gloves, as a necessity. Reached in the other for a handful of shuriken, fit them one by one between the fingers of his left hand. Cold metal, calm presence in the back of his mind. Left the coat with the backpack for retrieval on the way out.

There must be a back entrance, he figured, shifting down the corridor with the calm rumble of Ken's breath behind him. For Yohji to get this far from Ichigaya, this fast, the mark must have been in a vehicle, and there hadn't been one outside. Dragging a body in would have drawn attention, of course--so there must be parking in back.

All this was good to know.

Paused at the door, stark black plate, 'storage' in blocky kana across it. Glance back at Ken before trying the knob, slowly. Can't make a sound, and hope to god the hinges don't creak because time was a factor here and oiling hinges would cost too much--

Stairs leading down, cold fluorescent light shadowing its way up and water running, metallic clinking, footsteps.

Here. Now.

Left the door open that centimeter or two of space, looked back to see the set of Ken's jaw. Quick motion of hands--you take point, I'll cover you--and a nod.

Two more shuriken out of the sheaths hidden against his hip. One in his mouth, taste of steel and--



Pushed past Omi, gently. Nudged him out of the way and stepped past. Ken had barely even noticed how quietly he was moving, how deliberate his movements. How quiet he could be, how soft and sly: didn't even have to think about it any more. Once upon a time - years ago now, how many years must it have been? - he would have had to check himself, bitten his tongue to keep back the response to Omi's simple gesture. Now all he did was nod. Okay, I'm with you. Let's do this.

Wouldn't even know how not to trust Omi, now...

Couldn't hear his footsteps, but could hear himself breathe: quiet, tidal sound. Nothing more. (What's going on in there?)

Ken found himself walking down - looked like a corridor, darkened. Long and narrow and only good for storage, and just about wide enough to push a flat-bed gurney down. Had this always been here? Could have touched both walls, palms flat, had he stretched out his arms, cruciform. The only illumination was the light that fell through the open doorway at the far end - he could see nothing, though. His eyes had already adapted to the gloom; the room beyond was just too bright. Just that and a dim glow, like aquarium lighting, from... where? Beneath the shelves, looked like - shelves?

Shelves. Ken stopped short, glancing about himself suspiciously. Squinted into the gloom and forgot to breathe. (Oh Christ, oh Jesus--)

Eyes.

Eyes, caught behind glass and suspended in the middle of preserving fluid. All in cylindrical glass containers of a neatly uniform shape. A pre-printed label stuck to the front of each specimen jar, the details filled out in a careful, scholarly hand. The writing of a man who liked everything just so: tiny black kanji, crawling insectlike against a plain white ground...

Sancta Maria Mater Dei.

Electrified, Ken had drifted closer, momentarily mindless of where he was, what he was doing. Eyes. Pretty green eyes, in jars--was this all it was for, all it was about? Was it all for the sake of - nearly laughed out loud: bit that back - all for his decorator scheme?! (It's like - good Christ - it's like eyeball porn.) Fuck, Ken thought, he's sick--

Don't touch, something whispered, don't touch, dammit: something still remembered why he was here...

It was the labels that chilled Ken's blood; it was the labels, he knew, he would remember later. The jars, each carefully catalogued with time and date and place. (Jesus God, how long had he been doing this?) The gender of the victim, their approximate age - their name, if he knew it. May 17: Risako Adachi, 20. April 28: Mami Takada, 17. April 15, name unknown, 25-28. April 2, Teruo Kotani, 29... why the names, God damn it, why the fuck had he cared what they were called? God, that he'd take it that far--

Oh Christ, Youji!

August 18, 2006. Unknown male of twenty-five. Ken felt sick. It couldn't happen to Youji, too. It just couldn't. He wouldn't permit it...

(Then move it, Siberian!)

Go toward the light.



Omi paused at Ken's back, laying a calm hand on his shoulder, taking in the eyeball mausoleum. He'd expected something like this, sort of, maybe something approaching this, but... god. (Don't look.) Slight push on Ken's shoulder, gentle reminder that yes, we're here to do a job and yes, you ought to get moving now. The sound of running water still emanating from the room ahead, but any second now it was going to shut off. Any second and the man in that room would be picking up a scalpel.

He bit down a little on the shuriken still between his lips, swallowed the saliva collecting in his mouth, felt everything from the movement of air from Ken in front of him, taking careful steps, to the brush of clothes against his skin. How many years he'd been doing this, and it was still the same, that prickle of anticipation, rush of adrenaline, the sheer high of not knowing just what was around that corner...

(Don't look at the shelves.)

Ken paused, right on the edge of that stream of light pouring through the door, paused and that was it--that moment, muscles coiling like a snake preparing to strike, crouching and mentally calculating each possible move to be made next--if he moves right, I'll do this, if he bolts I'll do that--rapid succession of thoughts settling in. Omi followed his lead, back pressed against the wall, taste of blood in his mouth (cut your lip again), felt the metal in his hands sticky with perspiration from holding them still so long.

Breathe in. (Don't look at the shelves.) Heard the water shut off, pat of footsteps across the floor. One. Two. Three.

An eternity of silence and then--

Breathe out. Move.

--felt Ken, first, breaking into the light and the doorway, Omi moved half a step behind, close enough to cover and far enough for range of movement. Shifted into the light first to give his eyes that split-second of time to adjust before going through that door.

Into--

Gray metal gurney and Yohji was there, strapped on top of it and still in the clothes he'd worn that morning. Still in his apron. Strap of canvas across his head and retractors holding his eyelids open. Blank green stare up at the ceiling.

Too vulnerable there, that isn't right. Wasn't right to put him in this situation--bespectacled man hovering over him, surgeon's cap and mask covering his features, scalpel in his hand and--

(Fuck no.)

"Hey!" Ken's voice like a drop in temperature, the man blinking over his facemask and that blade still just fucking hovering.

Omi never even thought about it, the shuriken in his fingers and a flick of his wrist, the perfect amount of space to whiz past Ken's ear and thunk! Metal hitting flesh and that goddamn scalpel hit the floor.

Goddamn doctor staring at the knife sunk in his bleeding hand in disbelief. Horror. He actually had the nerve to look horrified.

Omi wanted to puke.



Don't look. Don't look at anything.

Not the room - cramped and cluttered as a dressing station in an old movie, reeking of bleach. (But not enough of it.) Not the gleaming tray of - stuff - resting by the mark's elbow. Stainless steel this and titanium alloy that, all gleaming malignly in the too-harsh light, light that washed everything out like an overexposed photograph. Bright. Clean. (But not enough, not nearly.) Certainly not at Youji: he felt angry enough already. They always arrived too late.

Just don't look, Ken. Not at that.

Concentrate.

Met the eyes of the target, wide and pained and panicked. (And brown, perhaps a shade or two lighter than his own: funny, the little things the mind chose to pick up on at times like this.) Just the eyes, caught between the crisp white mask and mint green cap - nothing else that was human there, nothing to hold onto, the human form swallowed up by the surgical gown that shrouded him. Eyes. The irony of it was just--

Closed door to the far right, the gurney blocking the target's path. Open door at his own back. No other exits. No windows. The game was already over.

(And if he moves right I can cut him off, can't get far in those drapes and if he comes closer - he won't come closer, forget that. Can't make a run for it, that'd mean going past me, won't want to do that. Gotta go round the gurney whatever he does and that'll mean moving closer and - gonna back himself in the corner. Might grab another scalpel. Might try to fight...)

Target backing away, stumbling on the hem of his gown. Thigh knocking against the instrument table: the scalpels and forceps and wickedly curved retractors jumped and rattled as the table tipped, spilling its burden to the floor. Wince there. Terror in his eyes as he snatched for the mask; audible gulp, sound catching in the throat.

Trying to speak. To question, or to plead.

(... no, he won't try to fight. Not this one. Nothing in those dull brown eyes but disbelief, frank terror. Who are you, what do you want, please don't kill me!)

Fuck that.

Moved again--

--there. Ken felt it like the trip of a switch, something winking out in his mind, something torn forcibly from him - didn't know what it was but it was gone and he knew that, some day, he wouldn't be able to pull it back after...

And the world was different. Changed. The air tasted like rancid metal, like breathing in blood. Target in the corner, backed against the wall. Blood streaming in ribbons down one latex-gloved hand and smeared across the front of his gown. (Blood pattering onto one of Youji's cheeks: moved.) Arms raised, protectively - knew what the game was, always had. Eyes wide and wild with terror. Drew away. Drew away. Trapped and knowing it.

Another sound: God knew what he was trying to say. It got lost somewhere between the mind and his mouth, turned into nothing more than a low moan.

This man might well have been dying already.

Soft sound, metal scraping against metal, a soft click: he'd have known that sound anywhere and nothing. Target cowering in the corner, eyes like prey. Nothing. Just drawing back. Hesitating. Tensing, just for a moment: muscles hawser-tight, the rasp of someone's breath, it might even have been his own, and the blood singing in his ears and someone was screaming--

Flash of light on shining steel.

(--and up and under and the soft thud of flesh connecting against too-tense flesh and give there, something yielding - sudden catch and resistance and pulling, and twisting until it was torn right through, easy now. Something coming free with a soft sucking sound and a gasp, a gurgle and sudden oppressive weight and a wrench and a twist and a falling away--)

And blood. Spattering clothing and skin, falling soft and warm as spring rain across his cheeks, his neck. Blood flowing over his hands, gentle as a caress.

Ken wanted to laugh, he wanted to scream. Wanted to do it again, soon, now--

He didn't know what he wanted, so he didn't do anything at all.



Omi paused, just shy of rounding the gurney; pulled the shuriken out of his mouth and held it ready, tonguing the sliver of blood on his lip and waiting. Waiting for that scream to die, waiting for Ken to straighten and retract his bugnuks, for that moment when the target was dead. Paused and tensed and waited, and only once that scraping -metal sound of the claws sliding back echoed in the abrupt, bloody silence did he relax.

He'd been going for the door; no telling what was beyond that, the target had taken an interest in it for a moment, though. Ken was still, immobile and staring down at--better leave him be. Yohji still prone on the table but--

Security first.

Omi let the door swing open gently, watched it hover and gradually fall back before peering around the frame, listening sharp for any movements. Small room, boxes, old exam chair; storage. Stairs leading up to a door, frosted window showing daylight. And there's your back exit, Bombay. Congratulations.

He shut the door just as silently, found sheathes at various points on his person to squirrel away the rest of his shuriken, and turned to Yohji. Ken still trapped in--wherever it was he went during the kill. Still staring, and one of these days, really, Omi was going to ask about that...

Started with those retractors holding Yohji's eyes open; that couldn't be comfortable, the whites already reddening with dryness. Worked the metal implements off gently, took the moment to check Yohji's pulse before moving on to the restraints. Ken shifted, then, just minutely, enough that Omi noticed. Finally.

"Siberian." Kept his voice soft; there was something fragile about a room and the silence after a kill. "Find some saline eyedrops. And watch your footprints."



--saline.

(Funny how quick it all comes flooding back.)

Saline. Raised his head, the breath catching in his throat - exhale, inhale - a sudden, sharp sound, too loud in the sudden silence, like everything was too loud: Omi's footsteps, the sound of his voice, the measured drip, drip of the tap the target, whoever he was underneath all those drapes and after all that fuss, hadn't quite managed to turn off. That quiet sound, the tick of water against stainless steel, punctuated the stillness like the tick of a metronome.

Find some saline, Omi said. His eyes were calm, the tone of his lowered voice was a nothingness. Flat, businesslike words, but there was something there, some kind of edge to it which betrayed - and Ken couldn't put his finger on it. Something there, though. Not quite nothing. No, not quite...

Made the mistake of glancing down at the corpse huddled at his feet, blood (God, there was so much of it!) welling slowly from the tears in his chest. (Wanted to hurt something. Wanted to hurt, to revel in sensation, the proof that he could still feel, that he was still here: concentrated on the ache in his ribs. Inhale. Exhale. Just keep breathing.) Blood slipping gently about the edges of a fallen scalpel, still gleaming in the too-garish overhead lights. The edge of the target's green paper gown, torn and gore-spattered, was trapped beneath one of his boots. Ken was cold.

Whatever madness had been driving him it was gone now. Just gone.

Ken looked away, erasing the body with the turn of his head, the averted plane of his cheek. Felt--

(Needed a shower. Wanted to strip off his clothes and burn them.)

Stained.

His gaze drifted, eyes focusing on Youji, lying on his back on the gurney. His eyes closed now, and freed from the restraints, Youji could have been playacting, feigning sleep, or death. He could have been posing for a painting, but the posture was wrong, it all was. Youji looked out of place. He should never have been here at all - they should never have permitted this, never--

"Saline." His voice sounded flat, lifeless: nothing there at all. "Right."



"Ken." Omi said it under his breath, low enough not even a top-of- the-line bug would have picked it up. Ken, snap out of it. "He could use some eyedrops. I need you to take care of him while I go get the car. Okay?" Watched the turn of Ken's head, the blink and vagueness in his eyes. Flash of his throat as he swallowed, nodded. Looked down almost helplessly at Yohji.

Was it okay to leave them like this? (There's no one else here, place is clean, no accomplices. They'll be fine.)

Omi turned, avoiding stepping in the steadily widening pool of blood, back into the hall and (don't look at the shelves) pulled the mic on his earpiece down. "You there, Korat?"

"Yes." Nagi sounded bored--but maybe, under that, there was a bit of tension. Closest he'd ever get to worry, probably.

"The oleander has been delivered. Balinese will be back in the shop within the hour."

"Understood."

He walked up the stairs slowly, checking to make sure he hadn't tracked anything with him. Puffed out a little breath and ran a hand through his hair, pushing back a little sweat and stepped through the door at the top and--

"Who's there?"

--step back and shuriken in his fingers and heart thumping rapidly, shit, shit, shit! Woman's voice--concern, goddamnit, witness, and fuck he hated killing girls--

"Hello?" Woman wandering in from those other doors, hanging open now and stairs leading up (apartment up there, maybe?). Pleasant-looking but unremarkable woman, somewhere approaching thirty, face pulled a bit with fear, walking with one hand against the wall. Staring at--

Nothing. Wait--

"Takanori? Is that you?" She padded a little closer, gaze fixated at a point just over Omi's shoulder. Her eyes were green.

"Ma'am." Omi affected a Kansai accent--he knew it wasn't perfect, but most people in Tokyo would buy it--and bowed, because even blind she could tell. "So sorry, did I startle you?" Took the moment of bowing to put the shuriken away.

"Who...?" She was backing up already, come up with something quick, dammit--

"Sensei called me in, I'm sorry ma'am--it seems there's a bit of a pest problem in your basement." So to speak. Woman was lucky she couldn't see. "I'll be out of your way in about twenty minutes."

"Oh." Look of understanding across her face, she relaxed a bit, a tiny smile on her lips. "You spoke to Takanori? Did he say when he'd be back?"

Oh god--

"Well--yeah, sensei did say something to that effect. Said he'd be home in time for dinner." You're an ugly person, Tsukiyouno. "You must be quite the cook, ma'am. Sorry to run, but if you'll excuse me--"

"Can I get you something to drink, young man?" And thank god she was moving back towards the stairs, back up to her cozy little apartment to wait for the man that would never come home.

God. (There's a special place in hell for people like me.)

"Thank you very much, ma'am, but don't trouble yourself. Have a lovely evening." Omi stood there, fake smile she couldn't see still painted on his face, until the doors closed and her footsteps echoed away up, up, and disappeared.