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"I'm so sorry."

That didn't even begin to cover it, Katou thought. Even under the best circumstances, at least this feeble apology was called for. Surely it was needed even more under the worst.

His bad hip had set up an insistent ache as he knelt awkwardly on the tiled floor just inside his front door. He kept his eyes down and focused on the shiny black shoe tip of his visitor, who was perched incongruously on a fruit crate in the dirty hall.

"I'm sorry, " he repeated uselessly, trying to keep the alarm out of his voice. "Please, if you could just let me have one more week."

He said it mostly because he didn't know what else to say. One week, one month, one year—it really didn't make a damned bit of difference. His luck showed no sign of improving. Worse, he suspected the man in front of him knew that as well as he did. He glanced up, but his visitor, oddly, was paying him no mind. A handful of papers had captured his entire attention.

"Hmm? What are you telling me, Katou-chan?"

Katou didn't dare apologize again, and he certainly wasn't in any position to object to the over-intimate endearment.

The man finally looked up and delicately crossed his legs at the ankles like a chaste schoolgirl. "This is the third time you've asked me for more time. It's not going to work this way."

Forcing himself a little lower and ignoring the sharp stab of pain in his spine, Katou said, "Well…well, what can I say…" He pasted on a sad expression and cautiously looked up through his lashes, but again the papers had won the battle for attention. What the hell was in them, anyway, that was so fascinating? Or was this just one more move in their cat-and-mouse game? If the man was about to destroy him, he should damned well look a little interested in it.

"Ooyasan," he began, although this guy looked more like a movie star than a landlord.

"Oh, call me Yui," the man said with an engaging smile, which was so wholly unexpected that Katou was shocked back into silence. Was this guy coming on to him? The signals he was getting were so mixed he didn't know which one to process first.

This man was nothing like the one who'd originally leased him his tiny apartment. How or when the building had changed hands was never explained. One day, three weeks ago, Yui appeared at Katou's door, asking for the rent with the confidence of someone used to having his requests met at once. If Katou had had the money, he would have been more than happy to comply. But as things were now…

"Hmm," Yui said, alternating between a leisurely pull of his cigarette and a flourish of documents. "Wow. On top of you not paying your rent for five months, you've stopped paying off these loans, too…."

Katou was stunned, first that his landlord had found out about his other debts and then by how he must have come by the information. A trickle of sweat slid down his back.

Yui finally spared him a look, strangely bland considering the bombshell he just dropped. Then he quirked his thin lips into another cold smile. "Maybe you should pay up with your life insurance."

Fear knifed through him. "Please, no, give me a chance! I—I don't have a job at the moment, so I don't have the money right now."

"Well then, you'll have to find one right away."

And orphans just have to find parents, he thought wildly. Was Yui such a fool? The fruitless six months he'd spent vainly scrabbling for some kind of rehab after his injury had left him flat broke. Worse, in the shape he was in now, he had no way to bring in any money to cover his bills. Twenty-eight years old and this was what he was down to—one final conversation away from being homeless. Or worse.

"I'm trying to, Ooyasan—Yui-san, I mean—but no one will give me a chance. It's because I have a herniated disk in my back and a bad hip. I can't do jobs that require a lot of standing or any heavy labor."

"That bad?"

Katou thought he heard a tiny note of sympathy in Yui's voice, and he grasped at it. "Yeah. I was working my way up to chef at my last job, but after I got hurt, I couldn't stay on my feet all day, so they let me go."

"How long ago was that?"

"About seven months."

"Huh. Let's see…"

Yui reached forward and grasped Katou's chin between immaculately manicured fingers. For a long, uncomfortable moment, he simply gazed at Katou's face, his eyes serious and searching—for what, though, Katou had no idea. Maybe he fancied himself some kind of amateur doctor. Katou was willing to try anything at this point, so he didn't flinch away.

"Not bad. You're kind of cute, but you're really worn down," Yui finally said, releasing Katou with a graceful flourish. "You're too old, too. I don't think you're sellable material."

His face flushed hot with shame as he took in the comment. "Sellable?" he echoed in disbelief. He didn't know which was worse—to be judged as a potential prostitute or to be found wanting even for that.

That Yui was unusual in several ways was fairly clear. Not every young man in Tokyo wearing an earring was gay, of course. Nor was every man who dressed so meticulously in tailor-fitted trousers, a soft cashmere sweater, and a long wool overcoat. But adding in the elegant, exaggerated gestures, the languid walk, the high-pitched voice, and the way he used 'chan' and not the customary 'san' made it fairly clear he was homosexual. Outlandishly so.

But there was something else about Yui, something hard and sinister lurking below his flamboyant camaraderie, that made Katou say, "Yui-san… You're not just any regular landlord, right? You… I mean, you don't really look like it, but you're… involved with the yakuza, aren't you?"

To Katou's relief, Yui didn't seem angry by the question. In fact, he seemed more pleased than anything, like an actor recognized in the street for the first time by an adoring fan.

"You know, then? Ah, Katou-chan, you clever boy. You managed to figure me out all by yourself."

The confirmation fell hard on Katou, and he remembered the earlier remark about paying back his debts with his life insurance. Not that he had any, but… Just last week, he'd watched the police fish a body out of the Sumida River a few blocks away, one with no hands or head to identify it. Yakuza, they'd whispered. Katou's heart started racing in panic.

"Please don't…don't kill me!" he cried, bowing repeatedly. "I really will repay you!"

"Can you?"

He would have to if he wanted to keep on living, but his mind was utterly empty of ideas on how.

Yui took another careful draw of his cigarette, and Katou, who'd been forced to kick the habit he could no longer afford, fought down his craving.

"You know, Katou-chan…"

"Y—yes?"

"It's not that I can't wait. But… If you help me with a job, I'll give you three more weeks. How's that?"

"Yes. All right." What would Yui expect him to do? Rob a store? Rough up an enemy? Maybe even kill someone? Whatever it was, he'd just agreed to it. Not that he was in any position to refuse.

Yui, who was carefully folding the papers and tucking them back into his pocket, laughed. "Oh, Katou-chan, you agreed so quickly, and without knowing what I'm asking. I'm touched that you trust me already! You'll want to be careful, though. Someone more unscrupulous than I am just might take advantage of your generous nature."

Katou allowed Yui to celebrate his win by forcing out a laugh at the weird comment, bowing twice more for good measure.

"All right, Katou-chan, all that bowing can't be good for your bad back. Sit up, then, and let me explain what I need you to do. That's right, up you go. Listen. Our group just expanded our territory, and we've ended up with an apartment building that used to belong to another group. Oh, not this one. Another one, not too far from here."

"I see."

"Oh, you probably don't," Yui said with a quick grin and a flutter of hands. "Because it's all just in-fighting and turf wars and so utterly bo-o-o-oring, if you want the truth. The upshot is that we have plans for that place. But there's one itty-bitty problem. Heh. You see, there's a guy still living in one of the apartments. And he hasn't taken the message to heart that it's definitely time for him to leave."

"So you want me to…"

"Convince him."

"But, uh, look, like I said, I don't really have much strength right now. Unless you expect me to… but I don't own anything like a, you know, a gun…" The last word was a mere whisper.

Yui threw his head back to let out a full-throated laugh, although Katou didn't see what was so damned funny about it.

"Katou-chan, what are you thinking?"

"Well, uh. You said he wouldn't listen, about leaving. So I suppose you want me to, uh, you know… Make him an offer he can't refuse?"

That sent Yui into another bout of laughter. "Oh, Katou-chan, you've definitely seen too many gangster movies," he managed to choke out through his giggles. "Not that I'm going to tell you how to do your job or anything, but maybe you should start off by just—oh, I don't know, asking him?"

"Asking him? To leave, you mean? But I thought you already did."

"Yeah, I did. Sort of. Well, I'm not the guy you want to have delivering bad news, you know what I'm saying? Not my thing, really. You, though, I bet you have the touch. You know how to handle people, right Katou-chan? I knew it the first time I clapped eyes on you."

Yui was writing something on a card, which he handed over with an elegant flick of his wrist. Despite Katou's attempt to hide his scrutiny of Yui's fingers, he managed to determine that there seemed to be no missing parts. "There you go. There's still time today for you to pay our friend a little visit."

Katou squinted at the large scrawling handwriting. "Ono Izumi."

"That's right." Yui stood up and carefully brushed off the back of his dark wool coat. "But promise me you won't shoot him on your very first visit!"

"No, I won't."

As far as Katou was concerned, anything that caused his landlord to leave in such a cheerful mood was fine by him. He just wished he could shake the feeling that there was something that Yui wasn't letting on about the mysterious Ono Izumi.

~~~~~~~~

Yui didn't go very far. Instead he tucked himself in at the front table of a nearby restaurant and waited for Katou to emerge.

Which he did, about ten minutes later, wrapped in a scruffy anorak that Yui wouldn't be caught wearing to a cat-drowning. Yui watched him travel partway across the Asakusa bridge and stop. When he lingered there for far too long, staring off in some reminiscence that Yui didn't think looked all too happy, he began to grow concerned. Was his emotional well-being, as the psychologists called it, already too far down some dark path? Yui began to despair of his plan.

He released a slow sigh. Sometimes people made it so hard.

When Katou began walking again, Yui smiled and rewarded himself with a long draw of his cigarette. Not too far gone, then. Good, good. Maybe this little scheme of his wasn't going to go off the rails after all.

The trick, though, was to keep him out of the grabby hands of his older brother, who had the infuriating habit of snatching away any of his minions who let on that they had more than a single brain cell. He was damned sick of it. He vowed then and there never to let Katou get anywhere near Gou-san. And maybe one day, if he got lucky—

He didn't bother to finish the thought, instead crushing out his cigarette with sudden irritation.

~~~~~~~~

Katou walked down the darkening street and contemplated the erratic nature of luck. To be specific, his luck, which lately had been unrelentingly bad. Only a moment ago he'd been bemoaning how he owned only a single mateless glove and his right hand was cramping up from the freezing night air. And seconds later, on the ground in front of a shut-up bakery, he'd found a lone right glove. Not only that, it fit him almost like his own and matched it so closely that they'd pass for a pair.

So was this a good omen or a bad one? Was luck something finite like the hours in a day, only twenty-four no matter how much you could use more? If that was the case, he'd just managed to squander his meager supply of luck on something trivial. Or was luck infinite like the wind, so that when you felt the first strong tug on your scarf you knew that you were in for a good long blow?

If so, he could use a typhoon of luck right now.

His nerves were already frazzled because of Yui's visit, and now his errand was stretching them beyond the breaking point. He had been pretending that his trembling hands were from the cold, but the truth was he was scared to death. What kind of guy was this Ono anyway? Big and tough, certainly. He'd have to be, to have chased Yui off so easily. Yui wasn't huge or anything—he was fairly slender, actually—but he was pretty tall. Plus, he was yakuza. Not someone easily frightened off.

He'd known a guy named Ono back in Kyoto who was roughly the size of a whaling ship. Maybe the Onos were a race of giants or something. What chance would he have against this guy if he got violent? He couldn't even run away very fast.

The apartment building was as nondescript as every other one on the block. In the dim street light, he peered at the address in his hand, squinting to pick out Yui's flowery writing. Jeez, he even wrote like a girl! Was that number twenty-five or -nine?

He painfully hauled himself up the stairs to the second floor and opted for twenty-five. There was a doorbell, its working order unknown, so he pressed it and listened hard. He gave the door a few knocks for good measure, then waited. And waited.

"He's out?" he muttered. Of course not. Yui had said the guy never left the place, not even for food. The place was probably outfitted like an old World War II bunker, the kind those crazy forgotten soldiers holed themselves up inside. Although they usually hid out on remote islands, not in the middle of Tokyo. And now the guy was probably grabbing all his weapons and drawing a bead on him, and why the hell had he ever agreed to come here in the first place?

He made himself look as benign as he could and gave the door another few raps. "Excuse me!"

He nearly died from a heart attack when a noise erupted close by—not from the door but from the clattering of the adjacent window opening. There was no screen, and he could clearly see the slim figure of an attractive young girl peering at him curiously through overlong bangs.

Clearly he'd guessed the wrong apartment after all. "Ah. Um." He was interrupted before he could stammer his apology.

"Wait. I'll open the door."

Not a girl after all, judging by the voice at least. The long hair had fooled him.

As promised, the door opened and the young man glanced at him. The glance transformed into a soft and heartwarming smile, as though Katou had just shown up to deliver the post office lottery prize. It was unnerving.

"Hope you didn't wait too long," the young man said, opening the door wide and tugging him in by the sleeve.

"No. I mean… Are you Ono-kun?"

"Yes, that's right. You can call me Izumi if you like."

Katou felt out of kilter by the way he was being greeted as an honored visitor. Not that he wasn't glad that Ono wasn't built like a sumo wrestler, but the friendliness didn't make any sense when the guy should be expecting eviction at any time. Anyone with any brains should never have opened the door. Unless he somehow thought Yui had forgotten about him already. Maybe this guy wasn't quite right in the head. That would explain why Yui had been so vague about him…

But it wouldn't begin to explain why the guy was suddenly stripping off his clothes. Shit!

"Is this your first time?" Izumi practically purred. "Who sent you? Was it Ken?"

"What?" he managed to gasp.

"Who told you about me? Never mind. Did anyone ever tell you that you look a little like Takeshi Kaneshiro, the actor? So handsome." Izumi was nearly out of his sweater by then, and Katou finally got it. Damn Yui anyway. That pansy was probably laughing hysterically at his little joke on Katou.

"Wh—whoa, wait!" Izumi froze, arms tangled half-in and half-out of his sweater, and looked at him carefully. "I'm not a customer," he admitted. "I'm kind of here to evict you."

"What?" All his former friendliness evaporated with that harsh shriek, and he had his sweater back on in one fluid motion. "You were sent here by that gay yakuza guy, weren't you?"

"Uh, yeah, I guess so…"

Izumi exploded into action, launching himself against Katou and shoving him back forcefully towards the door. "Get out! I'm living here now, and I'm not leaving! I have legal rights for this."

"No, I just need to talk to you…"

"I have nothing to say. Go away!"

Izumi was a dynamo of churning energy and had the benefit of his momentum. Katou's bad hip made it difficult to plant himself against the onslaught, even though he probably outweighed his opponent by a good fifty pounds. He found himself propelled to and then through the door.

"Wait!" He managed to twist around. One more second and he would have had his knee wedged in the door, but instead his nose took the brunt of it as it slammed shut.

"Ah, shit!" His hand came away wet with blood. "That little bastard."

There was nothing for it, and Katou didn't bother trying to get back inside. He would have to work out a new plan; after he fixed up his nose, anyway.

He was even more determined to come back soon when he got to the street and discovered he'd managed to lose both of his gloves in their scuffle.

"Damn, damn, damn," he bellowed to a surprised cat. "Fuck and damn!"

~~~~~~~~

Katou had been lurking around the nearly-abandoned apartment building for half an hour without trying to be obvious about it, a more difficult task than he'd expected. He'd been sitting on a step across the street, ignoring the stares from strangers and combing yesterday's newspaper—twice—until his hip had started bothering him. Now he was inconspicuously waiting with a small group at the nearest bus stop, angling himself to watch Ono's door for any sign of activity. If a bus showed up, he was screwed. "There's no helping it now," he thought. "I've got to get back in that apartment somehow."

There'd been no sign of a living soul in any of the other apartments, oddly notable considering Tokyo's usual crowds. It was almost as cold as last night, and he wrapped his hands around the bag of still-warm nikuman he'd brought with him as a peace offering. The bandage on his nose was starting to itch from the cold. Luckily, the door hadn't broken it but had just given him an ugly scrape.

He perked up when a door on the top floor opened and an old woman waddled out. She had her arms full of something, and she could barely hobble down the stairs. He maneuvered closer to keep her in sight. She managed to make her way down the two flights of stairs, and looked as though she was heading down the long outside corridor that led to Ono's place. This could be the chance he'd been waiting for.

From the bottom of the stairs, he could still see her slow progress. But as she came to the cursed door that had dealt him his ignoble defeat last night, she seemed to have noticed something that halted her in her tracks. Disappointed, Katou saw her turn around and make her way back to the stairs.

He met her on the landing.

"Obasan, you've got quite a load there. May I help you with that?"

He had the bundle in his arms—clean laundry, it turned out—before she could resist.

"No, I—"

"Please, let me just take it up these stairs for you." He had already managed three steps before she could stop him. Luckily, she stayed behind him the whole way up and couldn't see him wincing with each step.

Feigning ignorance of where they were headed, he let her point the way back to her own door. Suspicion was written all over her face.

"I won't come any further," he said, and her face relaxed a little. "You can take them from here. Too bad Izumi isn't home. Now you'll have to carry this heavy load back down again."

"Do you know him?" The suspicion was back again.

"He and my youngest brother were schoolmates," he lied, wondering how far he could embroider his story before she caught on. "I haven't seen him in ages, but my brother told me he was living here. Looks like I missed him, though."

"Oh, he's not out," she confided. "It's just that he has another visitor right now."

"Then maybe he wouldn't mind more company."

"No, I wouldn't bother him now if I were you."

"But—"

She leaned forward and told him in a low voice, "He has a lot of visitors. Men. I don't really know what goes on in there. I keep my nose out of other people's business, you understand, but he asked me never to interrupt him when he has a visitor. I don't ask questions. I just do what he says. Around here it's better not to ask too many questions."

"You seem very wise." He shifted the load in his arms, his bag of nikuman jostling against his leg, and wished she'd tell him to put it down somewhere. She didn't take the hint. "So should I wait around, do you think, or should I just come back another day?"

"Well, most of them stay only an hour or so," she admitted. "And when they go, he'll take away the red cord hanging in his window, and you'll know he's alone again."

"Oh. All right. So then, Izumi, he's doing well? It's been ages since I've seen him. Did he ever marry that sweetheart of his?"

She gave him a funny look and frowned. "Oh, no, he lives here by himself. He and I and my grandson Senichi are the only ones living in this whole building," she told him, then looked terrified at what she had admitted.

Katou pretended he didn't notice her alarm. "Oh, well, I always thought Hisa was too flighty for him anyway. But I didn't think he was the sort to live alone."

"Well, there was another man who used to hang around here a lot. I can't really say if he was living here with him. But he hasn't been around for a while. Ken, his name is."

"Oh, a short, kind of round guy, laughs like a donkey?" he improvised. "I think he was a cousin or—"

"No, this one's tall, very flashy dresser, dyes his hair like those wild boys do. The wrong sort, I always thought. I don't know how Izumi fell in with him. I told him, I said, 'Izumi, I don't know why you're waiting for that man to come back. You ought to move away like the landlord asked you to and not make trouble for yourself.'"

He hoped he looked surprised. "The landlord wants him to move out?"

"Not just him. Everybody." She dropped her voice again. "I heard that the building was taken over by yakuza. That new landlord—he's a strange one, let me tell you. Funny. But I shouldn't complain, because he's letting me stay to watch over the building for him. He gives me a little money and lets us live here for free."

"But he wants Izumi to leave?"

"Oh, yes. And he won't. He says he's waiting for this Ken fellow to come back, and he's not going anywhere until he does."

"Well, Izumi always was stubborn, even back at school. It used to get him in trouble with the sensei, his last year. Of course, I think my brother egged him on."

"Really? He's so quiet and shy now. Between you and me, I think…well, it's just, I have a sister-in-law with the very same problem."

The sudden change of subject threw him. "What problem's that?"

"Deathly afraid to leave the house. Those fancy doctors, they have a name for it, but what it is, really, is just plain fear. And Izumi, that poor boy, he's the same way. He never goes outside. I don't think he's able to. One time, I invited him to take tea here with me, and he couldn't even bring himself to come even this short way. Sad, just sad."

"But how does he survive? How does he get food and…"

"Oh, my grandson and I, we help him. I take in his laundry, as you can see, and Senichi runs errands, does his shopping. Oh, and brings him books. He reads like a professor, all sorts of things, and he sends Senichi to the library for more. Izumi pays him. Well, Senichi's only nine, it's all a fortune to him! But Izumi doesn't ask for much—and what he eats wouldn't keep a mouse alive."

"I'm sorry to hear that."

"Well, life comes down harder on some people than others, and there's no accounting for it, I always say. It's hard to watch him living all alone like this. Me, I at least have Senichi to keep me company. Izumi has those men, but as far as I can see, not a single one of them has been willing to lend the poor child a hand. It's a shame."

"Yeah, it sounds bad."

"So, you see, you should wait for him. I'm sure he'll be happy to see an old friend. Tell you what, there's an old chair in a little nook just a few feet past his door. You can sit there and wait. That Ken used to sit out there and smoke. Blabbered on all the time on his telephone, too. To his girlfriends. Plural. I don't mind telling you, I never liked that man."

Well. Once the old gal got started, she certainly carried herself along on a tide of her own words. "All right. I'll just give him his laundry, too, while I'm there. Save you the trip, how's that?"

"Thank you very much." Somehow he must have convinced her of his unearned honesty, because she didn't seem worried that he'd abscond with the pile of sheets and clothing.

He made the trip down those buggering stairs one more time and collapsed in the rickety old chair she'd told him about. If he angled it a little, he could watch the door and still keep mostly hidden. Perfect.

As he waited, he tried not to think about the sad irony of his situation: in order to avoid eviction himself, he was chucking out another poor sap who probably didn't deserve it either. There was a moment when he nearly got up and left in disgust at himself and the whole fucking world. Maybe he'd be better off back on that bridge. This Ono Izumi, for one, would definitely think so.

The old lady's knowledge proved good because not ten minutes later the door opened and he heard voices. An old guy, dressed in salaryman's suit and tie, emerged, then turned back. Katou could see Izumi lingering behind him in the doorway.

"Come again, okay?" he heard Izumi say. "Same time?"

"Yeah, see you next week," the old man replied. Then he leaned in and lewdly kissed Izumi right on the mouth.

Gah! Definitely a customer. A regular, from the sound of it, with a weekly standing appointment, just like his mother kept with her favorite hairdresser. He wagered that the old obasan upstairs knew exactly what this guy was here for, too. She just didn't dare admit she knew. Katou watched the old man scurry away down the hall, while Izumi surreptitiously wiped off his lips on his shirt sleeve.

Katou left the laundry on the chair and sprang toward the closing door. He managed to slip in his foot before it shut. "Ah, hey, wait!"

He'd caught Izumi by surprise, but happily all he did was glare back through the crack in the door. "What?"

"You! You're pretty dangerous with the door."

A pause. "Your nose?"

"You hit me when you closed the door last time."

Izumi had the decency to look abashed. "Sorry."

"Look. I'm not going to do anything rash, I promise. Can we just talk? Besides, I'm not on an errand for the yakuza guy. I brought your laundry," he said, without moving his foot from the door. "Uh—it's over there."

Izumi looked at him and at the pile of slightly wrinkled clothing, then finally eased open the door a little with a resigned sigh. Katou could tell Izumi didn't believe a word he'd just said, so it surprised him to hear, "Come in."

"Thanks." Katou took a chance that the door would stay open a little longer and retrieved the laundry. Izumi took it with a polite nod, beelined for the bedroom, and set everything on top of an overturned cardboard box.

"There's no real furniture," he told Katou. "But sit anywhere you find comfortable."

Now that he was finally unburdened, he remembered the bag he'd brought that was still dangling from his wrist and thrust it toward Izumi. "You want some? I bought a lot of nikuman. I can't really finish all of these, and I thought you might like them."

A look of surprise crossed Izumi's face, quickly erased. "Thank you."

Katou thought it important enough to establish some territory now that he was inside, so he plopped himself down on the futon, letting out an involuntary yelp when he twisted the wrong way.

"Ouch. I have a bad hip. Sorry for sitting on your bed." He was even sorrier, and not a little embarrassed, when he realized it was still warm from activities that he didn't want to think about.

Looking around, Katou had to agree with Izumi's assertion: apart from the bed, there was nothing much in the way of furniture. The room they'd passed through had the barest necessities to be called a kitchen — sink, tiny refrigerator, microwave oven, a counter the size of a lady's handkerchief. Through another doorway, he could see a miniscule bathroom. And this room had little in it apart from the futon. Izumi had tacked up several photos from magazines and a few ink drawings as relief from the stark white walls. Looking closely at the cardboard boxes pushed against the wall, Katou saw that they were artfully adorned with hand-drawn designs, but the carefully outlined drawers and handles were merely a wistful imitation of real wood furniture.

Izumi eased down the wall to sit on the floor, clutching the bag of food to himself like a treasure, but with a look that said he wasn't going to talk without force. Or surprise. Katou made a quick introduction and decided he'd go with surprise.

"The guy you're waiting for still hasn't come back?"

"No, not yet. How did you—"

Katou smiled at his success. "Look, I'm not the bad guy you seem to have pegged me for. I just want to help you out here. All right?"

"But—"

Now that Izumi was sitting still, Katou could see how thin and pale he was, as if he were going to disappear at any moment. He wondered if anyone besides the lady upstairs would even notice or care.

"Are you eating proper meals?" he couldn't help asking.

"Yeah."

He just needed to keep the guy talking, draw him out and relax him a bit, and he'd always found the best way to do that was to get them going about themselves. Most people never got enough of that. "How old are you?"

"Twenty-one."

"Any family?" Maybe he had a brother or sister he could be talked into moving in with or—

"No. My parents died in an accident when I was pretty young, and there wasn't anyone else."

"So…what, you were brought up in an orphanage, then?"

"Yes, until I was eighteen," he said softly, hugging the bag of nikuman tighter to himself.

Was he serious? "That must have been rough."

"I don't know. It was okay, I guess."

"I guess you really didn't have anything to compare it to," Katou said, then wanted to kick himself, because Izumi looked more uncomfortable than ever. Of course he didn't want to talk about his lousy childhood. But before he could come up with a cheerier subject, Izumi gave a little smile.

"That's where I met Ken."

"The guy you're waiting for? He was an orphan, too?"

"No, he worked there, and then we became…friends. But when I turned eighteen, he asked me to come and stay with him, so I did."

"So, Ken, huh. When exactly is he coming back?"

"Not sure…we haven't talked…"

That lost look was back, and Katou, out of pity, blurted, "What is he to you? A lover?"

Izumi froze. Wrong, wrong, wrong thing to say. Katou tried to backpedal as fast as he could.

"No, look, I didn't exactly mean it as a gay lover or anything…."

Still not looking anywhere but the floor, Izumi replied, "No, don't apologize. You're right. He told me to stay here until he comes back, then he left…"

"Does he know that you're staying here illegally?"

Izumi sat up abruptly, looking frightened at last. "I'm just doing what Ken told me to."

"Yeah, okay, calm down." That was probably the way Izumi had learned to get along growing up in an orphanage: don't make trouble, blend in, do what you're told. He'd probably never had a rebellious thought in his brain—until now. It was almost certainly tearing him up, refusing to leave like htis. That gave Katou an idea.

"Listen, Izumi-kun, that gay—I mean Yui-san. The landlord. He said to tell you he'll give you some money if you leave right away."

"No, I can't. I have to be here when Ken gets back."

"But—"

"No. I'm sorry." He looked near tears. "I think you should go now."

"All right. Looks like I'll be coming back again, though."

"Why?"

"Well, I'm worried about you and whether or not you'll get in touch with Ken." He didn't dare say what he was thinking: that Izumi's lover was long gone and hadn't had the balls to admit it first. "My neck is on the line for this too, you know. But I'll only try to persuade you, don't worry. And, hey, I'll bring you something more nutritious next time."

He struggled to rise from the thin futon on the floor, and was surprised when Izumi offered him a hand up. He couldn't help noticing how soft his skin was, like a girl's, and how easily he could feel the bones underneath.

"Katou-san, right?"

"Yeah?"

"I just wanted to tell you that it's useless for you to do this."

He smiled. "Well, that's okay. There's still time for you to change your mind."

Izumi shook his head, looking for a moment like a child refusing a spoonful of strained peas, then stopped. "Oh, I nearly forgot." He carefully opened one of his faux-bureaus and handed something to Katou formally, with both hands, as if it were an expensive gift.

His missing gloves.

~~~~~~~~

"You're here again," was all the welcome he got on his next visit. Once again, Izumi looked unwilling to let him in when he knocked — after first checking for the red cord the old lady had told him about.

"I said I'd come every day. Any sign of Ken yet?"

"No. Not yet," Izumi said and reluctantly held the door open wider. Katou, his arms full, slipped in.

"Here, take this. It's a pretty old blanket, but your futon's not in good shape, either."

"Why?"

"Don't you get cold?" he said noncommittally, but that was only part of the reason he'd brought it. As long as he had to spend time sitting on Izumi's bed, he wanted as much separation as he could get between him and its other less savory uses.

Izumi took the blanket from him and buried his nose deep into its folds. "It smells like the sun," he said, sounding surprised.

"Yeah, I aired it out for you."

"Smells nice," he said, and treated Katou to that full-watt smile he'd seen at their first meeting. It totally transformed his face and made him almost beautiful.

Flustered, Katou looked away and said, "Look, I brought food, too. See? I'm a man who keeps his promises."

He waved the bag temptingly at Izumi, who asked the predictable poor man's question: "How much did it cost?"

"Nothing. I made it."

"Oh yeah? Is it edible?"

"Rude, aren't you? Or maybe you just think I'll try to get rid of you with poison?"

"No, I didn't mean—"

"Anyway, don't worry. I used to work in a restaurant."

"Wow."

"Well, I was fired, though. I'm using your microwave, the rice got a little cold on the way over."

"Were you a chef?"

"Well, kind of. I wanted to be, but I couldn't keep up with it because of my hip. Too much standing. Then I couldn't pay back my loans, and now I'm doing this. Running errands for the yakuza. Coming to pay visits on ungrateful wretches like you. Here, eat."

"Hey, it's good!"

"Don't sound so shocked, you'll hurt my feelings."

Izumi lapsed back into silence as they ate. Katou recognized the ingrained trait of someone who'd been alone a long time, because he did it so much himself.

He was careful not to mention Ken, or Yui, or the real reason he was here. This visit was meant to regain Izumi's trust—he couldn't afford another mistake. The consequences were too high if he failed, and he tried to squelch the images of his own dead body floating in the Sumida River. Did the yakuza chop off your hands before or after they killed you? No, those thoughts were leading him nowhere good.

He made his goodbyes and had just reached the street, his thoughts still in the room he'd left, when he was jarred into awareness by a man who gave him a filthy look in passing. When the man made a sudden turn and headed up the stairs, Katou was forced to remember just who and what his new acquaintance was. Even then, he was left feeling that something inside Izumi remained fundamentally untouched by it all.

~~~~~~~~

Nearly a week had passed, and Katou was no closer to prying Izumi out of his apartment. Even with his bad hip, he could probably carry out the tiny Izumi over one shoulder and be done with it, but he couldn't do that to him. Not yet, anyway. But the search for his missing lover was going nowhere.

"I can't believe you don't own a cell phone, Izumi," he grumbled. "You must be the only person in Japan who doesn't."

"Ken said I didn't need one," Izumi replied.

Yeah, right, Katou thought. He just didn't want you calling him and finding out about his girlfriends.

"But now you can't even get in touch with him." Frustration was making him short, and Izumi frowned back.

"He'll come home. Something bad must have happened."

So Katou dutifully called the nearby hospitals, then the not-so-nearby ones, but the results left him certain that wherever Ken was, he was still hale and hearty.

"What about his work?" he'd pressed Izumi, who'd apparently been entirely indifferent about Ken's life apart from him.

"I'm not sure. I think he said something about a jewelry store once."

"Don't you even know that much?"

"Don't snap at me! Ken said… He didn't like me asking a lot of questions."

A day's worth of calling jewelers proved useless as well. Worse, Izumi continued to dig in his heels at the idea of leaving and changed the subject every time Katou so much as mentioned it.

"So you live alone, too?" Izumi asked him over another shared meal of gyudon.

"Yeah. I came from Kyoto and my mom's still living there. But I've been here for a long time and never went back."

"You don't have a girlfriend?"

"You should know. I've been coming here for how long? Anyway, girls are too much trouble." After a minute he added, "A girl's the reason I got hurt."

"Really? What happened?"

He didn't know what made him want to tell Izumi this story. "I was at a baseball game, about seven or eight months ago, and I went out to the concession stand. This big guy was there, pretty drunk, and he was yelling at a woman. He had her by the arm, then he took a swing at her. She ducked the first time, but I could see he was getting ready to let her have another one, so I grabbed him. Well, he didn't like that one bit, of course, so he lit into me instead. I ended up with my back pretty well messed up, and my hip, too."

"Oh my God! You're lucky he didn't kill you. Men can get pretty violent when they're drunk."

"Well, I was in the hospital for a week. So then I couldn't work any more, and I couldn't pay for the hospital, either. You could say I had my fill of women after that. They cost too much, anyway. How about you? Did you ever have a girlfriend?"

Izumi shook his head. "No, only Ken."

"Well, they say if you can get used to living alone, you learn to love it."

"Yeah, maybe. If you get used to it," Izumi said, but he didn't look convinced. Well, the way he was living wasn't exactly a model of peace and harmony. In the end, this kind of life must be painful in all kinds of ugly ways.

Still, even though he hadn't managed to convince Izumi to leave and despite his failure at finding the elusive Ken, he found himself looking forward to his daily visits.

Had they somehow come to an equilibrium of loneliness?

~~~~~~~~

Katou was only a few blocks from Izumi's apartment, headed home, when he noticed Yui stealthily following him. Except on closer inspection he saw it wasn't Yui after all, but someone who looked uncannily like him, down to the pale eyes and hair. But this man's expression had none of the amused tinge that set apart his odd landlord—it was instead cruel and ruthless.

Fear added speed to his steps. He took a chance that he knew the neighborhood better than his unknown pursuer, and insinuated himself into a sudden crowd surging from the subway exit. Doubling back and sliding into an alley he often cut through, he found himself back on the street leading home. Safe.

But then the pale hair appeared once more, this time ahead of him. Shit!

Was this it? Had he taken too long at his assignment? Was this man — obviously some relation of Yui's by his appearance — sent to kill him? It was nowhere near the three weeks he'd been promised, but—

At first, by necessity, he kept to the main street, frantically trying to plan some kind of escape. And then like a cloud his panic lifted, and he remembered the night he'd stood on the Asakusa Bridge staring down at the water, and at the boats anchored along the river, and at the hidden footpath that led to the boats—

Darting back into a noisy, chattering group just exiting a taxi, he edged along the street until he could see the bridge. Taking a chance by scurrying out into the open, and feeling imaginary hands grabbing him at every turn, he managed to squeeze himself underneath the bridge decking and down below to the path.

He wedged himself into a shadowed niche and waited. His breath sounded as loud as a steam engine and his hip ached horribly, but he didn't dare move.

Ten minutes, and no one followed. Twenty.

After thirty minutes, he dragged himself back up to the street, his hip cramping painfully. The pale-haired man was nowhere to be seen. But he didn't relax his vigilance until he was at last back in his apartment, and even then, it took hours to fall asleep. He kept waiting for a threatening knock on the door.

~~~~~~

Ten days after his first ill-fated visit, he noticed that all his free time was spent with Izumi. He was careful not to travel there the same way twice, even though he hadn't seen Yui's twin since that terrifying night. The mere reminder, though, gave new sense of urgency to his mission. Unfortunately, Izumi's mind hadn't changed one whit.

Yui never said a word about his mysterious look-alike. At least once a day, he would have Katou run other errands for him, which gave him a bit of spending money. Still, when Katou first signed on with the yakuza—if you could call it that; he hadn't seen anyone else in the group so far but Yui—he never imagined that one of his jobs would be visiting Yui's 70-year-old maiden aunt every other day. "She makes me too nervous, Katou-chan," Yui told him. "She just needs a bit of company now and then. Go on. She likes you."

On his way to Izumi's after a tedious afternoon filled with gossip about other old women, mostly, he found himself walking past his former workplace. He left with a box of delicate fruits dipped in chocolate, dusted with sugar, done up with doilies, and nestled in an elegant white box.

"The shop does all this, look."

"You shouldn't spend your money on me," Izumi chided him when he saw the treats, and he wouldn't take the box.

"No, I want to."

"But—"

"Hey, don't worry about it. Look, I got some for me, too. I just didn't want to eat them all by myself. Once I start, I won't stop, and I'll get so fat I'll be like one of those enormous guys they have to hoist out of the bedroom with a crane."

"Oh, Katou-san! Well…okay. In that case, I'll have that strawberry one. Unless you want it—"

"No, I don't care. It's the chocolate I'm after anyway."

Izumi laughed. "Me, too."

Izumi lit up with that singular smile of his, and Katou looked away, embarrassed. At the moment he was finding it awkward standing so close to Izumi. He'd woken up this morning to messy sheets and the fading images of an erotic dream he'd had about him. Not that it meant anything; dreams had a strange way of twisting reality, and you couldn't be blamed for the bizarre things your mind came up with. He must have been thinking about Izumi's customers before he fell asleep. Still, he found it hard not to imagine…well, it had been a nice dream, anyway.

Katou gobbled down his dessert in three ravenous bites, then sat back to watch Izumi's slowly disappear with delicate nibbles and licks, interspersed with soft sighs of delight. When Izumi finished, he smiled with such unspoiled contentment that Katou wanted to feed him the rest of the box just so he could watch him do it all again.

That's when he realized, abruptly and disconcertingly, that his waking thoughts about Izumi were also becoming…complicated.

~~~~~~~~

Yui's phone call that morning had left him anxious.

"Still not yet? Katou-chan!"

"I'm sorry. I'll try harder," he'd promised.

But after two weeks of showing up at Izumi's door, the part of their visit that touched on Izumi moving out had become mostly a ritual. Izumi would greet him by saying that there was no news of Ken, Katou would express concern and urge him to leave anyway, Izumi would respectfully decline, and then they'd begin their real visit.

This time, he didn't even bother with the ritual. Yui had sent him across nearly the whole of Tokyo to deliver a package. It was already dark when he finally made it to Izumi's.

"Come out and see the moon," he said the minute Izumi opened the door. "It's so beautiful tonight! It's almost full, and there's a ring all around it. You have to see it, come on. Where are your shoes?"

He rummaged around the room, pulling out a jacket that looked like it had barely been worn and shoving a pair of shoes at Izumi. Among all the activity, he didn't pay much attention to Izumi's mild protests.

"Put these on, hurry. You'll love it, you'll see! Just come on."

Even with his bad hip, he still had to wait for Izumi at the bottom of the stairs. "Come over here. The wall blocks some of the streetlight here, and you can see better."

It finally hit him that Izumi hadn't moved away from the stairs. "Are you coming?" he said, and then, "Are you all right?"

Izumi wasn't all right. He was shaking from head to foot, his eyes were squeezed shut, and his face bore a look of sheer terror. Too late he remembered what the old lady had told him—Izumi was agoraphobic. And while it was Katou's habit, as the saying went, to believe half of what he saw and none of what he heard, it turned out she was dead right about this.

"Izumi!"

"I…I can't."

Katou was at his side in an instant, and he pulled Izumi close.

"Yes, you can. I'm right here, see? You'll be fine."

"Katou-san, I'm afraid." He was hyperventilating now, and his voice was panicky.

"There's nothing to be afraid of. Look, just walk beside me, I've got you. That's it. You're doing great, just a few more feet. Okay, see? You did it. Now look up."

"Oh!"

"Didn't I tell you it's beautiful?"

"It's…been a long time since I've seen the moon like this."

They stood that way for a few more minutes. Izumi was still trembling and his fingernails were carving valleys into Katou's arms, but Katou didn't want to say anything and spoil things. Finally Izumi said, "Can we go back now?"

"Yeah, sure. Come on."

Izumi moved a lot faster on his way back to his room. He collapsed on the futon in a heap and wrapped Katou's blanket tightly around himself like a cocoon.

"I'm sorry, Katou-san. I didn't want you to know how useless I am. Ken says I'm pretty messed up—"

"Ken's full of shit, if you ask me," Katou barked, suddenly angry. "Sorry, I know he's your lover, but it's true. We all have issues, you know? Hell, you should see how weird I get around snakes."

"Why are you so nice to me?" Izumi asked. He seemed serious about the question, but Katou didn't know what to say, so he tried to make a joke of it.

"I'm nice to everyone. My mother brought me up right, that's all."

"No, it's more than that." A sly smile crossed Izumi's face. "Still, that doesn't mean I'm going to move out because you ask so nicely."

It took Katou a second to realize that Izumi had just made a joke, too. "Oh, yeah?" he retorted, and grabbed the nearest thing to hand to throw at him, which turned out to be a towel. "We'll see about that!"

The mock battle only lasted a few minutes because Izumi was giggling too hard to aim properly. Katou collapsed beside him and waited until their breathing slowed. From nowhere, the memories of that dream about Izumi came back, and he was horrified to find himself becoming hard.

"So what did you do today?" he asked as a distraction. He still wondered how Izumi managed to fill his days the way he somehow did.

"I made a Go board. Do you want to see it?"

They played Go for a while, then he showed Izumi how to cook a simple soup with the odds and ends of his leftover food.

"That would have been better if we hadn't had to use a microwave," he said, wiping the last bowl and dropping the dishtowel. "All done."

For some reason, Izumi's nervousness was back, and Katou wondered if it had something to do with their earlier foray out-of-doors.

"Is something wrong?" he finally asked.

"Oh. Sorry, it's just that a customer's coming in about ten minutes."

A customer. Such a harmless word. Izumi made it sound like he was running a dry cleaning shop, and a man was stopping by to pick up his suits.

"Oh. Okay. Then I'll leave."

"Okay. Do you— Okay."

There was something odd in the way he sounded. "Is everything all right?"

"Yeah. It's just he's not one of my nicer customers. It'll be okay, though."

If Izumi could be all businesslike about it, then Katou could too. "Hey. If you never go out, how do these guys find you?"

"Most of them have been coming here for a while. They know where to find me."

"So how much do you get paid?"

"Uh…five to ten thousand yen. Tonight will be closer to ten, I think."

Katou had seen a single fish on the docks of Kyoto sell for more. "Seriously? Isn't that too little?"

"Men get less than women in this market."

"Is...is that so? Look, why do you do this?" he asked, even at this late date trying to get used to the whole idea. "I mean, do you like it?"

The minute the question was out of his mouth, he felt like twelve kinds of idiot. Izumi had every right to be angry at him for even asking, but instead he just looked self-conscious and sad.

"No, that's not…. In the beginning, Ken brought me here. Then I just kind of—"

The full meaning of what Izumi had said hit him like an ice-cold tsunami. So, that mysterious and enigmatic prick Ken, who Izumi pined for day after day, wasn't some long-lost boyfriend who'd gotten cold feet one morning and left. He was Izumi's pimp.

"You told me he was your lover!"

Izumi flinched as though he'd been struck. "I… I can't survive without doing this. I can't work outside—you saw what happens when I try to go out. You don't— You don't know what it's like, Katou-san."

He needed to get out of here. It was easier to make his excuses when they weren't looking at each other, so he made a fuss over gathering his things. "It's fine. I shouldn't have said anything. You don't have to tell me this. Look, I'll see you later."

He mustered up a smile to let Izumi know he wasn't upset with him, not really, but Izumi was busy too, tying and retying the red cord to his window sash.

~~~~~~~~

He should just go home. It was late, he was tired, and stalking the streets like this wasn't doing him one bit of good. It just gave him more time to think.

Shit. Why was he letting this getting to him? This was weird.

What he should probably do was go back to Yui and tell him that he was the wrong man for the job. If Yui was really serious about getting Izumi out, he should get a couple of big guys to go in and bodily haul him out and…

He couldn't even allow himself to finish the rest of that thought.

No, better yet, Yui should have those two big guys track down that scum Ken and beat the shit out of him for what he did to Izumi. He let himself imagine that happy scene for three more blocks.

How stupid that he hadn't realized the truth about Ken all this time. It was so obvious now. Izumi had said they'd met at that orphanage, that Ken worked there. The creep probably only got the job so that he could troll for guys like Izumi, kids who were trusting and willing and ready for some asshole like Ken to come along and promise them love. And oh, by the way, you wouldn't mind whoring yourself out a little? I'll still love you, honestly, and it won't mean anything.

The worst part was, Izumi really did seem to think Ken was his lover. Well, how would he know any different? Katou barely understood love, and he'd had a family and a girlfriend or two in his past. Izumi, who'd had no one, was ripe for the picking.

He'd finally managed to walk off a lot of his tension, but something about the way Izumi had described his customer tonight kept nagging at him. Maybe he should just stop by to make sure everything was okay. It would only take a minute, and he wasn't that far away.

The red cord was gone, but Izumi wasn't answering the door. Katou twisted the handle and it gave under his hand.

"I'm coming in. Izumi?"

No answer. Fear had him to the bedroom door in a ragged heartbeat.

"Izumi!"

He was lying face down, sprawled across the bed like he'd been tossed there. Oh, God, no— But just as he was about to cry out again, Izumi gave a low moan, and Katou nearly collapsed with relief.

"Izumi, hey, what's wrong? Come on, wake up—"

He knelt on the bed and helped Izumi roll over and then sit up. It was like trying to arrange a rag doll. He was naked, and Katou could see angry red marks on his chest and the beginnings of finger-shaped bruises on his shoulders and thighs. He tried not to stare.

"What happened to you, Izumi?"

Izumi's eyelids fluttered a few times and then stayed open. He finally seemed to recognize Katou, but there was an odd grogginess about him. Had he been drugged?

"I'm okay," he eventually said. "The customer was…a bit much, is all."

"Are you sure?"

"Yeah." But his voice was strangely hoarse, and he wouldn't look at Katou. And then Katou noticed the raised lines and chafed skin around his neck.

"Shit, what's this?" he demanded. "Did he try to strangle you?"

Shame was not what he expected to find in Izumi's eyes. "He… I don't think he meant to… I mean, he never went that far before… It just went wrong…."

"You let him," he said, and the full meaning of what that meant, what Izumi suffered because of what he was, made his stomach turn. "You let him do this to you. Izumi…God, Izumi, why?"

Izumi shook his head, tried to speak, and failed.

"Did Ken make you do stuff like this?"

"No, not this. This guy, he was afraid to, before. If he hurt me too badly, he knew Ken wouldn't like it. But he found out somehow that Ken's not here right now, so…"

…He does whatever the fuck he likes to you and figures no one cares any more.

Katou held on to Izumi just a little tighter. "Promise me you won't let him come back."

"Katou-san—"

"Please!"

Izumi's voice was barely more than a whisper. "I promise."

He felt the muscles in his jaw relax a bit, although he knew if he were anywhere near the sick bastard who'd done this, he'd make the guy sorry he'd ever been born. He forced away thoughts of bloody revenge and focused on rubbing the tension from Izumi's thin shoulders. Finally, Izumi gave a soft sigh and pulled away.

"I'd like to take a bath now."

Katou detected the musky smell of sex and pushed it back out of his mind. "Sure."

Izumi looked at him more closely. "Katou-san? Are you all right?"

His frustration made him want to say something cutting like, What gives you that idea? I just thought you were lying here dead, but this was not the time. "No."

"You don't seem well. Does your hip hurt?"

That Izumi could so quickly shake off his own injuries and was instead anxious about Katou's left him wordless. He let Izumi move so close that their breath warmed each other. Then he felt Izumi gently touch his face.

"Do you…you know…wanna do it? There's nothing else I can thank you with…"

He froze, shocked at the proposition. When he felt Izumi's other hand begin to caress him in a far more sensitive place, he lurched back and instinctively pushed him away.

"Stop it! That's not the reason I'm here. I came to kick you out, remember?"

"Katou-san…"

Hurt and humiliation filled Izumi's dark eyes, and Katou had to turn away. More softly, he said, "Go take your bath. I'm leaving now."

Silently, Izumi stood up, still looking a bit shaky, and walked to the bathroom with his back to Katou.

"I'm sorry," Katou said, but Izumi closed the door between them and didn't answer.

One he was back on the street, he glanced up and thought he saw Izumi's face in the window, watching him. He wasn't sure, it might have been a trick of the light, but it looked like he was crying. Then he was gone.

~~~~~~~~~

Clearly, Yui's daily phone calls to Katou weren't cutting it. As much as Yui hated to interfere with his underlings, he decided he'd better pay a visit in person and find out exactly what was going wrong with his little project.

Even though it was already mid-morning, Katou answered the door looking as though he'd just dragged himself out of bed. His short hair—never especially well-groomed, and Yui could tell he cut it himself with dull household scissors—spiked out at odd angles all over his head.

"Good morning," Yui said brightly. "Don't you look like shit!"

Katou scratched at his stubble and blinked. The fear that always underscored their conversations was back in his eyes. "Yui-san. Uh. Yeah, I… didn't get much sleep last night."

Yui didn't wait for an invitation, but breezed into the apartment. The only chair that wasn't buried under piles of clothes was a repulsive mix of colors not seen in nature and which should be banished immediately as an outrage against the civilized world. He closed his eyes and sat in it anyway.

"And how are things with you?" he asked.

"Uh, fine." Yui waited out the long pause and Katou added, "And you?"

"Fine. Peachy. Couldn't be better, as a matter of fact."

"That's good."

Yui extracted his cigarette case and made a show of selecting and lighting one. He was rather enjoying Katou's nervousness and wondered just how long he could spin it out before Katou finally got up the nerve to ask why he was here.

"Auntie Oyuki is expecting you to visit her tomorrow. Give her my love, won't you?"

"Oh. Yes, all right."

He looked pointedly around the room for an ashtray, but Katou's brain must still have been sleep-fogged because the ash nearly dropped on the floor before one was offered to him. Afterwards, Katou sank down on the floor in a formal, if belated, kneel. Yui chuckled.

"So. How is our darling Izumi-chan?"

"Oh. Izumi? Uh. Okay."

"Good, good. He must be busy packing his things, then, am I right?"

Katou sank a little lower. "Not quite. Soon, though, I think."

Yui let the irritation seep into his voice. "Exactly how long are you going to take? You really need to be more useful or else—"

Katou looked like he was about to wet himself with fright. "I still have about five days, don't I?"

"You're taking too long! The people at the top are getting impatient. We're shorthanded as it is. What the hell is that kid doing, anyway?"

"He's the lover of some missing guy. He's waiting for him to come back."

"Jesus, Katou-chan. You make it sound like a romantic Hollywood tragedy. His 'lover' is just a good-for-nothing hoodlum from some other gang. I thought you would have at least gotten that far by now."

Katou's head shot up. "What?"

"Izumi's just a piece of old property to him. I don't know what use he has for him anymore. None, I suspect."

"Yui-san, what do you— why didn't you tell me this before?"

"I didn't think I needed to. You've been going over to visit Izumi every day. You should have learned it from him on your first try. What do you dears talk about anyway, hmm?"

"I know he has a lover named Ken—"

"Had a lover named Ken."

"—who disappeared one day. I've been trying to track him down all this time."

"Well, I suppose that's something. But tell me, didn't it strike you as odd that this hoodlum took all his stuff with him? To me that doesn't sound like someone who's exactly planning on coming back."

"What?"

Yui laughed. "Katou-chan, don't tell me you didn't even know that! What, do you just sit there and let Izumi weave his charming tales of true love with Prince Ken and swallow every word of it?"

"No! I mean—"

"Hey. You're not just going there to take advantage of Izumi, are you?"

For the first time, Katou looked angry. Well, well. "No. I wouldn't do that."

"Good. I didn't think so, but I was starting to wonder. You can't tell me you've made a whole lot of progress here."

"Listen, Yui-san, maybe I'm not the right person for this. Is there another job I could do for you? Maybe you should—"

As he spoke, Katou was anxiously tugging at his little finger. Oh, hell, did he think Yui expected him to chop it off now as a sign of his failure? He struggled to keep a straight face. "Oh, come on, Katou-chan, don't start feeling sorry for yourself. You're not the first guy who's been taken in by a pretty face. Give me a minute, okay?"

Yui flipped open his cell phone and stabbed at a few buttons. Much as he hated to call Matsu, who worked mostly for his brother these days, it was probably the fastest way to get what he needed.

"Matsu-san? Yeah, it's Yui. Fine, fine—" and they were engulfed in family niceties until Yui saw his opening. "Listen, that guy who used to hang around, the one who was sweet on that Chinese girl at the baths, Ken, do you remember him? Yeah, that guy. Any chance of finding out where he is now? Great. Hang on—" He waved his hand, and Katou came through with paper and pen. "Okay, thanks, later." He rang off.

"Here you go. The hoodlum's address."

Katou looked at it blankly. "What should I do?"

"What do you think? Tell him to take Izumi back. Go on now, hurry up."

"What? No, Yui-san, I can't do that!"

Well, that was certainly unexpected. "And why not? Isn't that the whole problem?"

"But… It's just that he…well, he's not really Izumi's lover. Izumi just thinks so. He's really only a pimp!"

Yui's sides began aching from laughing so hard. "Of course he's a pimp, Katou-chan, what did you think he was?" he said, in between gasps for breath. "You are so unbelievable sometimes."

"I'm sorry to be so stupid," Katou muttered, and added a clumsy bow, but Yui could tell he was seriously annoyed. About time his minion showed a little spine.

"Oh, don't be like that. I'm not laughing at you. Well, I am a little, but— Never mind. Just hurry up, go on. This is the only way we're going to settle this. I'm losing my patience with both of you."

Katou grabbed his coat and walked to the street with him without saying another word. They parted at the foot of the Asakusa Bridge, but this time Yui watched him walk all the way across without stopping.

~~~~~~~~

There was no apartment number on the note Yui had given him, so with a resigned sigh, Katou knocked on the first door he came to. Luckily, Ken must have been locally notorious, because the man who answered gave him a disgusted look and jerked his head up toward another door. Stairs again, Katou thought grimly.

This time—and Katou was checking very carefully—a genuine young woman opened the door, wearing too much makeup and not enough clothing.

"He's here, hold on. Ken?" she called over her shoulder. "Ken!" Through the open door he could see that the apartment was crammed with garish stuff—an enormous television was blasting a car chase loud enough for his mother in Kyoto to hear. He couldn't help comparing this place to Izumi's empty rooms, and knew that Izumi's paltry earnings had helped furnished it.

Katou hated Ken on sight. He hated his too-flashy clothes, his smarmy smile, the pointed way he stepped into the hall and pulled the door nearly closed behind them at the mention of Izumi.

"Oh, shit, Izumi? He's still there? Jesus effing Christ."

"What are you going to do about him?"

"Nothing. What the fuck did you expect? You would think he'd have figured out by now that I'm not coming back. He could have left if he'd wanted to."

Anyone who'd spent even ten minutes with Izumi would know he'd never leave on his own. Katou despised Ken a little more for even suggesting it. "But he…"

"Another group's taken over there, right? You belong to them, don't you?"

Katou heard the woman's shrill voice calling, "Ken! What are you doing out there?"

"Shut up, I'm coming." He turned back. "What the fuck's the point in me staying at a place like that? And who are you anyway? His bitch?" Ken laughed smugly at his own joke.

"No," Katou replied coldly. "Especially since he's still waiting for you to come back."

"Really. He really is pitiful. You should take care of him. Shit, somebody needs to." Suddenly Ken was speaking to him as though they were cronies, fellow businessmen having a friendly gripe session together over the failures of a shared contractor. "I'm warning you, though, he's more trouble than he's worth. I mean, who ever heard of a rent-boy who won't even leave his goddamned room? How the fuck is he supposed to meet customers! I'd have to go out and find them for him, and let me tell you, that got old fast. When I think of all the money he could have been making in a brothel bar somewhere. He's just the pretty type those old men go for, you know?"

Ken suddenly peered at the cigarette in his hand as if surprised to find it there, then took a long, thoughtful drag. Blowing out the smoke in a pretentious stream, he said, "They complained to me that he never talks when they fuck him, though. He won't give them that. Well, I guess he thinks he needs to keep something for himself."

He loves you, Katou wanted to scream at him. He loves you even though you're a pathetic, cocksucking parasite trying to pass as a human being. He still loves you even after you pretended you cared for him and then sold him out in the worst way one person can betray another. He loves you even though you're no better than shit on the bottom of his shoe.

He needed to leave before the urge to slam Ken's teeth down his throat became too overwhelming. He took some pleasure in the raised voices behind the door as he left, and hoped Ken's new girlfriend was a screeching harridan who made his life a waking nightmare.

But as his rage subsided the farther he got from that hellhole, the only thing he could think about was Izumi. What was Katou supposed to say to him now?

~~~~~~~~

Shooing Katou off to visit Ken was all well and good, Yui thought, but it couldn't hurt to work the other half of the puzzle. After all, they said every chemical reaction needs a catalyst. Why should it be any different with people?

He had his knuckles mere inches from the door before he stopped. Izumi would never let him in willingly, and he didn't care to conduct their little chat through the door. As far as he knew, there was no known etiquette on the proper way to invade someone's home. Ah well, the whole apartment belonged to him anyway, in a roundabout way of looking at it, so he might as well make himself at home. The unlocked door just made it that much easier.

"Katou-san?" Izumi called from the bedroom.

"Good evening."

Izumi looked up in alarm when he heard Yui's voice. "Yui-san?"

"Aw, what's with the scary look? I won't do anything, I promise."

He must have just come from the bath, because his hair was still clinging in damp tendrils around his face. Even with that frightened rabbit expression, he was a pretty little thing. Not Yui's type at all, but still very easy on the eyes. He would love to know what Katou thought of him.

The poor boy was looking so miserable that Yui didn't have the heart to toy with him the way he had with Katou earlier.

"You're just going to do everything it takes to stay."

Not surprisingly, Izumi ignored that, although he couldn't completely mask the fear in his voice when he said, "Can I help you?"

"I'm looking for Katou-chan."

"He left to go somewhere. On one of your errands, I thought." And then, apropos of nothing, he added, "He's a good man."

"Oh? Does that mean that you seduced him already?"

Izumi frowned. "He's not like that to me. He only comes here to talk me into leaving."

"Really? He doesn't seem to be making much headway."

"Anyway, he only likes girls."

"How do you know that, hmm?"

Izumi bit his lips closed, as if he didn't trust his will alone to keep him from answering.

"Oh, I see. Turned you down, did he?" No response there, either, but his face telegraphed yes.

"Then what about you? I know you don't like girls one little bit, do you? So…do you like him?"

Izumi retreated behind stern formality. "Katou-san's not here right now, and I don't know when he'll be back. I'll tell him you stopped by." He scowled and added, "Or you could call him on his cell phone, like you could have done all along."

"Touché."

Poor Izumi. Katou had been his last, best hope, and Yui had done everything he could think of to help that along. Still, not all good things come to pass—sweet little Izumi probably knew that better than most—but even then, it had been a good plan, and Yui was sorry to see the wreckage.

Well, when life gives you lemons… Izumi probably needed the money, too, not that it was a complete hardship to help him out…he was awfully pretty….

"Look, Izumi-chan, I'm free right now. Wanna make a buck?"

"What?"

"Strictly business. Come on, come over here."

Izumi came, as Yui knew he would. Because Izumi clearly knew the importance of treating his customers well.

"Good boy."

The blanket felt old under his palms but looked clean, for which Yui was grateful. Izumi didn't waste any time, either, and had him unzipped in an instant. Hell, Yui hadn't even managed to take off his coat yet. Well, no matter.

He went from idly interested to fully hard in seconds, because, damn, this boy was clearly a professional and knew exactly how much pressure would feel good this soon, and when to add a little bit of teeth to make things that much sweeter, and where to curl his tongue in the perfect spot and tease across it, and… well.

"You're good," he said, moments before the point where speech was going to be a problem. "I can have you go to work with this. How about it?"

Sadly, Izumi pulled off so he could answer. "But what about Katou-san…"

"What about him?" And then—speak of the devil and he will appear—he glanced up to see Katou unexpectedly scowling at him from the doorway.

~~~~~~~~

Katou chose to return to Izumi's apartment by the slowest possible route. At the very least it should be raining, he thought. The sky itself should be weeping fat, rainy tears over man's casual inhumanity to his fellow man. The wind should be howling its protest. That it was instead a mild, moonlit night seemed to him just one more betrayal.

The red cord was gone from the window, but the door was oddly ajar. Nervously, he pushed it all the way open and stopped dead when he heard voices coming from the bedroom. Izumi and another man—and drawing closer he recognized Yui's unmistakable drawl. What was he doing here?

Alarm propelled him the rest of the way across the room to the bedroom door, and shock stopped him there in his tracks. It was Yui, all right, casually sprawled on the futon—on the very blanket Katou had given to Izumi, whose head, at this moment, was bobbing vigorously in Yui's lap. But even though Izumi was kneeling solidly on the floor, Katou could only see him falling, falling…

Yui noticed him first. "Ah, you're back," he said in a voice made lazy by pleasure. For all the concern he showed at being caught like this, he might have been getting a shoeshine.

Izumi, at least, was far less sanguine. "Katou-san!"

"Ah, don't stop," Yui grumbled, but Izumi was ignoring him and pinning his horrified gaze on Katou alone.

Three long strides had him at the bed. In one swift movement he had jerked Yui up and halfway across the room before he knew what he was going to do to him. Yui set up a most aggrieved protest at that.

"Ack! What are you doing? Have you lost your mind? Get your hands off me!"

"Katou-san!" he heard Izumi cry from somewhere behind him.

Yui had been caught utterly off guard and could muster no more than a feeble resistance as Katou roughly shoved him into the other room and slammed the door between them.

"Ow! Eh, why? Katou-chan, you're so mean!"

Leave it to Yui to know a lost cause when he met it, because he stopped pounding on the door almost immediately, and Katou forgot about him almost as fast. The only person in his world that mattered right now was Izumi, who looked up at him in puzzled silence for a long moment, then said quietly, "Katou-san…"

All the carefully chosen words he'd labored over as he walked here vanished, replaced by hot anger. "How can you do that? How? You know not to mess with him!"

"He wasn't going to do anything bad, he said—"

"Are you crazy? He's trying to get rid of you! Why did you even let him in?"

"I didn't. When you left, you… the door was unlocked, and I was in the bath."

Katou felt a flicker of guilt for leaving him unprotected like that, and he wrapped himself tighter in his anger to smother it. "What the hell did he want?"

"He said he was looking for you."

"So… then what? You thought you'd just suck him off to while away the time? Are you willing to do anything for money? It's because of that, you know! That's why that bastard Ken told me he left you."

He watched that stab into Izumi, knife-sharp and even more damaging. This time, no amount of anger could smother his rising guilt. Worse, it wasn't even true: Ken had left because he was a selfish asshole, not because of anything Izumi had done.

"What? You saw Ken?"

Katou suddenly had no more words.

"I see," Izumi eventually said, sounding as though he was speaking from a distant country. "So he's doing well?"

"Izumi, he—I'm sorry."

"Katou-san… I don't care. Ken's already thrown me away. I knew it all along. I just thought…it's stupid, I know, but…if I didn't say it out loud, it couldn't be true."

"Izumi." This wasn't at all how he wanted this conversation to go, but he was helpless now to change it.

"But I… This is the only place… I don't have the courage to go out alone…"

Izumi was falling apart, and it was all his fault. What right did he think he had to criticize Izumi anyway? He was what he was, what other people had made him into; he didn't owe Katou a damned thing.

"Listen, Izumi—"

But Izumi was staring sightlessly ahead and didn't seem to be listening. "I forgot about Ken a long time ago. But if I was here…I…I would be able to keep seeing you."

What was he talking about? Did he mean— "Hey. Look, I didn't know."

"But all I've done is cause you trouble. I'm sorry for everything." And then he said the two words that Katou had been desperately praying for days to hear but that only left him feeling hollow now: "I'll leave."

"No!"

Izumi was ignoring him, struggling to stand and looking around the room as if already saying wordless goodbyes. "I'll talk to Yui-san."

"Izumi! What…what will you do? Are you even capable?" he asked, knowing that this was no time for empty civilities. The thought of Izumi trading one uncaring owner for another was making him physically ill.

"I'll…find something. Yui-san talked to me about working for him."

"You want to be doing more of the same?"

He'd never watched a human being break right in front of him, and if he lived a hundred years he would never erase the image of Izumi's face right then. It held the terrible and tragic look of someone who had finally given up hope.

"What else can I do?" Izumi whispered, and the tears finally spilled out.

His arms wrapped around Izumi before he could think twice.

"Hey… Izumi… Hey, it'll be all right. Stop crying, come on." On an impulse, he stroked his hand against Izumi's cheek, then again. Izumi's eyes were pressed against his shoulder, and he could feel warm wetness soaking into the thin cloth of his shirt. They clung to each other, and even his complaining back and hip couldn't stop him from planting himself there and holding on to Izumi as tight as he would let him, for the rest of their lives if he needed it. Katou murmured random words of comfort as they came to him, words he didn't know he knew, until Izumi's trembling slowed and his breath no longer was expelled in heaving sobs. And then, in the stillness, Katou asked the only question he had left.

"Do you want to live with me?"

Izumi looked up in surprise. "What?"

"It's a cramped apartment, nothing special. But it'll be okay for two people."

"But…why? I'm a guy. You don't like—"

"It's fine!" He said it so forcefully that Izumi flinched in his arms. He deliberately made his voice softer and repeated, "It's fine. Come with me. Please."

"Really? Are you sure?" He looked as though he'd been offered lodging at the Imperial Palace and not the cage-sized hovel Katou called home these days, and the thought made him smile back.

"Yeah, I'm sure."

"But you know that I…I like you, Katou-san. Is that okay?"

It was that simple question that finally clinched things and drove away his last doubts. After everything Izumi had been through—the betrayals and disappointments of his short, craptastic life—to hear him wish that Katou might find his affection tolerable and to watch him ask for Katou's permission simply to like him… To see Izumi willing to trust someone with his heart one more time… Hell, it wasn't okay. It was a miracle.

The last thing Katou noticed before he leaned in and his eyelids fell shut was Izumi's wide-eyed look of wonder.

This kiss—because that's what it was, with no room to act as if this was still simply consolation—carried a lot of things he wanted to say, only a small part of them sexual. Mostly, he wanted Izumi to know, in a way that he'd never have to question, that it was indeed okay. More than okay.

"Katou-san…really?" On Izumi's face was that amazing smile, the one that a whole roomful of poets could write about for a solid year and never come close to describing. Even the tearstains couldn't detract from the beauty of it.

He kissed him again in reply.

Izumi wasn't a girl, and no amount of squinting or pretending was going to make him one, but Katou was surprisingly all right with that. There was time later to work out why that was so.

Izumi seemed to have no reservations about his body, which made Katou all the more self-conscious of his own, especially about the ungainly way he had to practically flop into the bed to avoid the ache of moving the wrong way.

"Like this," Izumi said, and rolled them both to face each other on their sides, easing Katou's leg over his own hip with gentle hands. Katou's pain vanished. All those customers—old men, mostly, with bad hips too—must have led Izumi to learn this particular trick, and he was suddenly mortified.

He made up his mind not to imagine the other men who'd been here before him, but of course they became all he could think of. It wasn't fair to Izumi, he knew that. But the way Izumi moved with such assurance in bed—with a confidence he so clearly lacked outside of it—made Katou clumsy and sluggish in comparison. That was until Izumi said, "I never thought you would let me touch you this way."

Because it wasn't only the words, which warmed Katou as he thought about how those other men had never heard them. It was the way Izumi's voice faltered from too much emotion when he murmured them to Katou alone.

After that, he concentrated on Izumi and not on his own infirmities.

Katou's experience before this, with girls, had been ordinary and, he suspected, a little dull. The things that Izumi was doing to him were anything but dull.

Kissing, for example. With each kiss Izumi gave, he could almost imagine him whispering, "Now I'm making your earlobe mine, and the top of your shoulder, too, and the sensitive skin right here inside your thigh? That's mine now, too. Don't forget."

And suddenly, kissing became something sweeter and wilder, as if Izumi were telling him, "See, now I'm tasting your very soul with my mouth," and Katou wanted to echo it with his own tongue.

"Izumi…What should I do to make you feel good? Tell me."

Izumi, partly underneath him, was rubbing up against him like a lithe cat, again and again, and it felt marvelous. Izumi looked so lost in sensation, just from squeezing his cock against Katou's thigh, that it was like watching a god come down to earth, too holy for mortal eyes. Katou had to look away, to instead watch Izumi's fingers splayed out on his arms, so that he wouldn't be turned to ash from the vision and the heat.

"Ah, hold on. Katou-san…Ahhh…"

Izumi, faltering, lost his rhythm and stiffened, and Katou felt a splash of hot come spread between them. God, that was…he didn't have words for how amazing it was. But he would learn them, he was determined.

"Are you all right?" he breathed into Izumi's hair.

"Yeah," Izumi panted back. "You? Do your hips hurt?"

Like a son of a bitch, since he was anchoring himself above Izumi and trying so carefully not to hurt him, which is why he answered, "I'm fine."

Izumi saw right through the lie. "I'll get on top. Hold on."

He maneuvered himself like a dancer, and before Katou could follow his movements, Izumi was on top of him. A few seconds later, he'd also slipped a condom over Katou's erection, which was something Katou always messed up when he'd done it to himself. Before he could worry over the implications, Izumi had done something to prepare himself and was lowering himself onto Katou, God, so tight, and now they were fucking in earnest.

He passed the point of being self-conscious then, letting his grunts and moans tell Izumi how much he wanted him. Abruptly, he remembered what Ken had told him: Izumi never talks when he fucks…he won't give them that. But Izumi wasn't silent now. He was spurring Katou on with urgent words and soft little noises that were arousing him more by the minute: Please, Katou-san, I've waited so long to be yours just like this, please…

He fought to keep his eyes from shutting out the gorgeous sight of Izumi thrusting himself again and again on Katou's hard cock. His skin shone with a fine patina of moisture, the slight muscles beneath straining to hold him up, and his bed-tousled hair swung forward with each move they made together. But it was Izumi's eyes, gazing back so transfixed that Katou wondered what it was that he saw, that stirred him most.

Then his own steady rhythm became hopelessly erratic as he buried himself in the heat of Izumi's body, and he felt himself coming hard and long. Its power left him breathless and with his heart racing. After a while, he became aware of Izumi's fingertips threading through his sweat-damp hair, over and over, and now and then he felt the press of lips against his forehead.

"Good?" Izumi murmured.

"Very. Yes. Good." One-syllable words were all he could manage for the time being. "Come here."

Izumi gently slid off and tucked himself alongside Katou, carefully keeping their legs entwined as if he didn't want to separate just yet. Katou curled several lazy fingers into Izumi's hair and brushed his mouth over the tips of the dark strands. They were still slightly damp from the bath, a lifetime ago, and smelled a little of peaches.

He watched the reflection from a distant car headlight flare across the ceiling and slide down the wall. Once the darkness settled in again, he said, ""Izumi. Will you come back with me?"

Izumi sighed a little and rolled over so that they were face to face. Taking Katou's chin in his hand, he tipped it up and touched their lips together.

"Tomorrow," he said. "We'll go together."

~~~~~~~~

There was no avoiding it. Katou needed to phone Yui, and soon. After unceremoniously throwing him out of Izumi's room last night, though, he wasn't looking forward to it. Still he had to admit that a phone call would be much less hazardous to his health than seeing Yui in person. He waited until Izumi was safely out of earshot in the bath behind a steady hiss of spray to hide his call.

"Yui-san? It's, uh, Katou."

"I know who it is." The voice was distant and frosty, with no trace of its usual feminine lilt. Not good.

"Well, look, I mean… I want to say I'm sorry for being a little rough last night. I didn't mean to hurt you or anything."

"I see. You're sorry if you hurt me. Not for throwing me out in the first place, though, am I right?"

"Uh…"

"What was that all about, Katou?" There was no 'Katou-chan' this time. Not good at all.

"Well, Yui-san, I have good news!"

A long silence greeted that. "Well, go on, I'm listening."

"Izumi's agreed to move out."

Yui's tone became noticeably milder. "Well, well, congratulations. So you talked his old boyfriend into taking him back after all?"

"Uh. No. Not exactly."

"Not exactly. Well. So where's our little darling moving to?"

"I…I asked him to move in with me."

"What?!!"

"I know the apartment's small, but we won't be a bother. I just thought it would be better if—

"You just didn't think at all! Katou-chan, you are seriously starting to annoy me. All this time I was doing everything I could to try to help you out, and you turn around and stab me in the back!"

Just that quickly, the conversation took an unreal, bizarre turn, and Katou felt like a dreamer who can't make his unwilling body do or say the right thing. Two nights without much sleep had left him groggy and slow. "No, listen—

"Well, all I can say is, I hope Izumi doesn't mind doing his customers in dirty alleys. Because as of this instant, dearie, you can both just rot out on the street together for all I care."

"What? But why?"

"You thought you'd set him up for yourself, did you, after stealing him from me? Or didn't he tell you I made him the same offer? Let me tell you, you're going to find out that there's more to being a pimp than—

"Wait, what? What did you just say?"

"Did you really think I'd look the other way while you picked up where Ken left off? Ridiculous! Not when I found him first."

In a dream, words are useless, but Katou had no other tools. "No, Yui-san! You've got it all wrong. Izumi isn't going to—there aren't going to be any customers. He's giving that up."

"What are you saying?" Yui asked, very quietly.

"I'm saying he's done with all that. He's moving in with me, but I'm not…he won't…we…"

Yui's laugh started as a low chuckle but was soon a full-blown howl.

"Oh, Katou-chan, you're too much. Tell me you haven't fallen for our little squatter. Oh, you poor thing, you have, haven't you? And all this time I thought you were straight! Hell, even Izumi-chan thought you were straight. He told me so last night, right before we…ah. Oh, Katou-chan! It's all making sense now."

"You thought I wanted Izumi to keep doing…uh…"

"Well, that's what it sounded like, you silly boy! And here you threw me out on my ear because you were jealous! If I'd known you were interested in him that way, I'd never have asked him for that blow job. I was just trying to throw a little business his way, you know? Although I admit he was very talented…. But I suppose you know that by now. Oh, to have been a fly on the wall last night! What on earth happened after I left, hmm?"

Katou felt his face flare with sudden heat and wondered how to wrestle back control of the conversation, which was heading toward things he didn't want to share, not with Yui. "So now you know I wasn't trying to be like that bastard Ken."

"Ah, Katou-chan, I don't think you have it in you."

He was threading his way around the subject because he was pretty sure that Yui already had a few guys like Izumi working for him, and he didn't want to offend him again. "Look, I don't really know much about how this works, really. I never met anyone before who was a…someone like Izumi. I'm not saying that being a…" what was the term they used in the newspaper? "…sex worker is always a bad thing. It's just bad for Izumi."

"Well, Izumi was bad at it, too."

Katou felt an irrational need to object. "I thought you just said he was good."

Yui laughed. "Good at sex. Bad at selling it. You probably don't understand the difference."

"Not really, no."

"Izumi-chan's too kind for this sort of thing. That's why he never made much money. You need to make your customers work hard for your attention, otherwise they don't think you're worth it. The ones who make the most money selling themselves are real bitches, trust me on that."

Katou felt suddenly brave. "So why did you want him to go to work for you if he's so bad at it?"

"Well, it's like Auntie Oyuki always says: Don't expect sake from the water jug."

"I don't understand."

"It's the only job I had to offer him. I'm supposed to watch out for the interests of my group, you know. Running a rehab clinic for abandoned hookers isn't exactly one of those interests. Anyway, last night I didn't know you were about to make him a better offer that he couldn't refuse."

"Then you're okay with it?" he said cautiously, still not sure what surprises this dream was about to spring on him.

"Sure, why not?" A long exhale of breath followed, and he could almost smell the cigarette that fueled it. "Here's something else Auntie Oyuki always says: Sometimes it's easier to work out your own problems by helping someone else with theirs. I found out myself that's true."

There followed such profound silence that Katou thought their call had been disconnected, but then Yui's voice piped up again. "You have to remember, Katou-chan, Izumi only got into this business for love, and that's a terrible reason for any business decision. Now he's getting out of the business for love, so I guess it all balances, right? Really, everything turned out much better than I'd planned."

"Planned? What are you—"

"Oh my goodness, would you look at the time. I really have to go. Hey, listen, come by later, all right? No rush, don't drag yourself away from anything more important, you get my drift? I have an errand for you. Now that you're working for two, I suppose I need to keep you twice as busy."

Katou hand flew up involuntarily to cover his embarrassment, even though Yui couldn't see him. "Visiting your Auntie Oyuki again?"

"Something like that. Smooches, darling. Love to Izumi, buh-bye."

Katou was still trying to work out what Yui had meant by 'planned,' when he glanced up. Izumi was standing there quietly, watching him and wearing nothing but a questioning smile. The sudden gymnastic leap his insides performed at the sight took him by surprise.

~~~~~~~~

"Are you done over there?"

"Yeah."

Katou knew that Izumi was packing at a snail's pace, but he let him fuss and rearrange to his heart's content as long as he was still making some progress.

"You don't have a lot of stuff."

"No, most of it came with the apartment." Izumi's tone was flat and distracted.

Carefully unpinning the drawings from the wall, he wondered if prolonging things was helping or hurting. Maybe it was time to go, before Izumi's anxiety reached the breaking point.

"These need to be protected," he said, kneeling down beside the box that Izumi had already rearranged four or five times. As he tucked the drawings in beside the few books Izumi owned, their hands brushed, and Katou suddenly found himself hard from it. Just from feeling that little bit of Izumi's skin. God, he was pathetic. He hoped Izumi didn't see how much he was blushing right now.

But Izumi was apparently too worried to notice.

"Hey. Don't look like that, Izumi. It'll be okay. I don't live that far from here."

"Okay."

Katou reached over and stilled Izumi's hands. Finally attentive, Izumi looked up at him and offered a shaky smile. Izumi's hands in his weren't enough, though; he had to touch more of Izumi, now. He remembered something he'd once heard about addiction: that sometimes the first taste alone was enough to hook you for good. Now he knew exactly what that felt like.

Maybe they weren't going to make it out of the apartment quite yet after all…

"Katou-san," Izumi whispered. "I need to tell you something. I think I'm in l—"

"Hey, you guys! You there?"

Apparently, closed doors meant little to Yui. Reluctantly, Katou unwound himself from Izumi.

"Yeah? Hello, Yui-san."

"Hey, Katou-chan. Look at this!"

Yui was waving around another sheaf of papers, shoving them at Katou with far too much enthusiasm. Katou hauled himself up from the floor and wiped his dusty hands on his shirt before taking them. Reading slowly, he tried to unravel their contents.

"This is about my loan."

"Yeah, look through it."

He found himself stumbling over the unfamiliar language. "What's a panda loan?"

"I've taken care of it so that you can pay me back instead."

"What? Is this an illegal loan?"

Yui scowled at him. "Hey, don't say anything to damage my reputation! This is a legal transaction, look! I've even suspended the interest. So find a job and repay me as soon as you can. Here, here's the name of a guy who owes me a favor. He's legit, too. I think he can find you something."

"But I thought…don't you want me to keep working for you?"

Yui's lips pursed with clear distaste. "No. My brother finally caught wind of you somehow, and if you stick around, I expect he'll swoop in like a vulture to steal you away. Believe me, Katou-chan, you do not want to work for him! No, no, you're better off on your own."

"Your brother?" he said, suddenly interested. "Does he look a lot like you?"

"Oh, you've seen him, have you? Damn him, I thought he seemed a little too familiar with you. It doesn't matter, though. I told him you were utterly useless, so hopefully he's lost interest."

Katou relaxed and stared at the papers again, not able to believe that such good luck had come to him, but after a few minutes it was apparent that Yui was telling the truth.

"Wha— Ah, it's true. Tha—thanks. Thank you very much!"

"It's fine. You did your job right, that's why."

Katou was so flabbergasted by Yui's declaration that he couldn't speak. After the chaos and confusion of the past few weeks, Yui still managed to think he'd done what he was supposed to? He wasn't going to argue the point, but Yui was definitely delusional. Regaining his composure, he managed to say, "Thank you."

Yui accepted the thanks with the grace of an emperor. Then, to Katou's unease, he turned a serious eye toward Izumi.

But Izumi, more than up to the challenge, returned one of the most elegant formal bows Katou had ever had the privilege to watch.

Yui's quiet chuckles erased any leftover awkwardness. Even more uncanny was how he seemed mysteriously pleased with himself. "Well, I won't keep you from your work here. Take care, you two. Bye."

Silence followed in his wake until Izumi finally spoke what they both had been thinking: "He's a really weird yakuza."

"Yeah, Izumi-chan," he said, in his best imitation of Yui's lilt. "And to think that when I was little my mother used to tell me such horror stories about the yakuza to get me to behave."

They didn't stop laughing for quite a while after that, and Katou found himself so grateful to Yui for easing Izumi's earlier tension that he vowed to pay him back as soon as he could.

"We should go. You bringing that blanket?"

"Yeah." Izumi crooked his head in playful challenge. "Is that a problem?"

"Okay, no, it's yours now. Bring it if you want to. Come on, let's go."

He held out a reassuring hand, and Izumi's fingers curled into his own.

"I'm ready. Give me back my hand, though, or I won't be able to carry my stuff."

"Are you sure?"

"Really, Katou-san, I'll be all right. Well, better than before, anyway. I found a book about agoraphobia, and it said one of the things that causes it is—"

And he was off, earnestly describing how his past, and Ken, had quite possibly made him the way he was, and how being with Katou was going to change all that…

Katou listened to him with one ear and thought: It'll be a very long road. The damage Ken and his ilk have done to you won't be so easy to fix. But one day, we'll find a home. For both of us.

Something tickled his memory. "Were you going to tell me something before Yui showed up?"

Izumi ducked his head, apparently trying to hide his expression. "Nothing."

"No, what was it?"

Izumi turned back with a bright smile and gave him a quick kiss on the cheek. It would have been as unexciting as one from Yui's auntie except for that lewd bit of tongue at the end. "Later. I'll tell you later. We've got lots of time, right?"

Time. Something that Katou had nearly surrendered the night he'd stared at the dark water below the Asakusa Bridge. Just then a warm breeze wafted through the open door, smelling of new life and green, growing things. Spring was returning and along with it his capricious friend, good fortune.

He took a long look at the man who had changed so many things for him. "Yeah. We have all the time in the world. Come on, let's go home."

~~~~~~~~

The end