"It's better than it was"

-Omi-

Is it just me, or is Ken acting really weird lately?

I suppose it is 'just me' as there's no one else here for me to ask.

But seriously…he's starting to freak me out a little. Well, only a little. Ken is fairly susceptible to bouts of weirdness. But this is a whole new brand of weird I've never seen before. No, seriously. From the moment we left the Koneko, it's like he's turned into some kind of skittish absent-minded zombie.

I almost believe that he's getting sick.

Except that I've never seen Ken get sick--not even with a cold.

You'd think from looking at us that Aya would be healthy one. He's got the sort of obsessive compulsive nature you'd expect to go with that, right? The truth of the matter is that I wouldn't be surprised if Aya was in worse shape than Yohji. I rather doubt the man would ever eat or sleep if the rest of us weren't around to keep an eye on him.

Ken though…I suspect he never quite un-trained himself from his pro-athlete routine. He eats and exercises like he suspects that any day now someone might call him up and say, 'Hey, Hidaka. You know that whole drug thing? Total mistake. When can you make it to practice?'

Is it horrible of me that I'm glad he'll never get that call?

Yeah, it probably is.

Well, anyway, I've been up for about 4 hours now, and he's still in bed, so maybe he really is sick. I've been trying really, really hard not to wake him up.

I'm getting bored.

Did I say getting? It's actually more like, I'm minutes away from losing my last shred of sympathy for invalids. His 12 hours of sleep is about to get abruptly cut short.

You can only watch so many movies by yourself in an impersonal hotel room before you start getting depressed, after all.

Maybe if I get close to the bed and stare at him he'll wake up. That technique seems to work pretty good for cats….

I creep over and silently balance myself on the edge of the bed. Ken is completely still. Almost too still, if you ask me, it's a little bit suspicious. But then, everything about Ken has been suspicious lately. It's taking me a lot of effort to believe he's sick.

He has to be sick.

If Ken isn't sick, then something else is drastically wrong.

It's taking me even more effort not to think about what that something else might be. My mind keeps trying to concoct explanations that are so unrealistically self-indulgent that I have to stamp them out before the thought can even complete. It isn't healthy for me to think like that.

If Ken said he's sick, then he's sick.

I really need to start trusting people more.

Now's not the easiest time to start though, because I can tell from the way he's breathing that Ken is awake. If that weren't enough of a giveaway, the way he flinched as I leaned over him would have sealed the deal.

He flinched.

I…I'm not sure how to feel about that.

"Feeling better?" The cheerfulness in my voice is painfully fake. I don't really care if Ken can tell.

He responds by shutting his eyes tighter and shirking back into the blankets. If I can't see you, you're not there.

"Keeen kuuuun," I poke him in a way that I can only hope is annoying. "You promised we'd go to the beach toodaaay."

I honestly couldn't care less about the beach. Just save me from this boredom.

Ken mumbles something inaudible, and retreats further into his tangled fortress of sheets.

This is ridiculous. If Ken was sick, really, honestly sick, he would have told me specifically what was wrong. He wouldn't have practically dropped a barbell on my head before bolting out of the gym last night. He wouldn't be…well, I have to admit it to myself…he's avoiding me. Again.

I don't understand how he can go from smothering me with attention, to this bizarre state of….

It's not like I enjoyed being smothered by him, you know. It's just that I feel….

Well. "Led on" isn't exactly the right phrase, but it's the first thing that comes to mind.

"You're not sick," I say, daring him to look me in the eye—I've leaned in so close he can't not look me in the eye—and contradict me, "I know you're not sick. So just tell me what the hell is your problem." I am not too surprisingly met with silence so I add, "Or I'm going back to the shop. This isn't fun. I thought we came here to relax, wasn't that your excuse?"

I've gotten too in his face for the blanket retreat to work, so Ken shuts his eyes and turns his head before muttering, "Telling you my problem isn't going to help you relax."

"Says you," I counter, "I can't think of anything more stressful than knowing that there's a problem, but not knowing what it is. You could tell me you're acting as a double agent for Schwarz and it would still be better than not knowing."

Ken cautiously opens one eye and glares at me, as if he thinks I really seriously might have suspected him of working for Schwarz. Yeah, right.

"Think how much angst Aya and Yohji would have saved if they'd just told us they had a problem before they disappeared on us," I drive my point home.

Ken's other eye pops open and he abruptly sits up—which means narrowly missing a collision, considering how much I had just been invading his personal space.

"This is different!" He snaps.

I think I might have pissed him off with that comparison. This is a positive development though. Mad Kens are positively hopeless at keeping secrets.

"So try explaining to me how it's different?" My arms cross to make it clear that I'm not backing down. I'll utilize classified Kritiker interrogation techniques if necessary.

"It's different because…" he starts, "I mean I l—" his eyes drop down as he trails off and turns red, "I mean, I really…" now he's looking at the ceiling….

The sentence fragments are killing me.

"My problem is," Ken's looking at me again, only now he's wearing an expression of such grim determination that I can't help feeling disturbed, "My problem is that I've been thinking about you too much."

Why is he apprehensively watching me like he expects me to punch him?

And….

What the hell does 'thinking about me too much' mean?

I mean…I can think of things it might mean.

…I can think of what I want it to mean….

…Well, I can think of what I think I want it to mean….

…I can't believe I'm even letting myself think about what I think I want it to mean….

I feel a little light-headed all of the sudden.

A glance at Ken's gloomy mask of doom helps ground me again. From a guy like Ken, those words really could have meant anything.

No point in getting my hopes up.

"I fail to see the problem," I state diplomatically.

He scrunches his eyes shut like he's irritated at me for failing to read his mind. "Perverted thoughts," he mumbles.

Ah, Ken. Poetically blunt, as usual.

Okay, so there's only one thing he can mean by that, right?

Well, I could think of others, but I'd be really stretching it.

I'm pretty sure that coming from Ken there's only one thing that could mean.

I had better be right about this.

Ken doesn't get a chance to elaborate, because I've very rapidly moved from sitting in front of him to occupying his immediate space and interfering with his ability to breathe.

Breathing is totally overrated.

"I still fail to see the problem." I try to keep my voice cool, but it somehow manages to morph into a question as I notice the complete lack of participation my kiss elicited from Ken.

Oh shit, was I wrong?

…Or maybe I was just bad. I'm pretty sure Ken has more experience than me.

Oh, crap, I bet I was awful. Girls don't tell you that sort of thing, do they? I could be like…the world's worst kisser and not even know it!

But Ken doesn't really look like someone who just received a heinously atrocious kiss. He looks more like someone who just went into epileptic shock.

I'm back to thinking, oh shit, was I wrong?

Maybe whatever Ken was thinking about me was accidental, and he's so disgusted that he can't even stand to look at me anymore? Did I just do, like, the very worst thing I possibly could have done?

Yeah, probably.

Well, whatever the hell Ken's mental problem is, it's apparently contagious. What was I thinking?

Obviously I wasn't. Ten minutes ago, the possibility of kissing Ken was most definitely the very last thing that would have occurred to me. In fact, I don't think it's occurred to me at all. Ever. Where the hell did that come from? This is, um, a somewhat unexpected development. I would use the word 'interesting' if not for Ken's unfortunately disturbed reaction to it. Damn.

Ken's still staring at me, whatever emotions he's currently feeling utterly blanked out with astonishment. Methinks now would be a swell time to get the hell outta Dodge.

I actually make it all the way to the TV before he tackles me.

"Don't you even think about it," he gasps. "Just. Don't even."

I'm scared to look at him, so I fix my eyes on the cat, who is currently staring back knowingly, quite obviously aware of his current status as the only sane creature in the room. My mind is still caught in a skipping loop of why oh why did I DO that? I must subconsciously be trying to completely alienate him. Or…something.

"What…" Ken starts, and then I feel his hand tighten on my shoulder. "Hey, lookit me."

I don't want to look at him. This is the train wreck moment that's slowly been culminating ever since Yohji and Aya disappeared. Impending sense of doom realized.

The possibility that this is anything other than an epic catastrophe doesn't even occur. Good things just don't happen to me.

Hey, just when did the idea of Ken wanting to kiss me turn into a good thing, anyway?

Did someone slip me some drugs?

"Omi."

Crap. I'm gonna have to look at him.

I try to call on the Bombay half of my mind, the part that can somehow magically stay calm in any given situation. The part that can evenly dish out orders to my teammates (friends?) that might possibly lead to one of their deaths at any random moment. It's not working. Apparently I find it easier to get shot at than I do to make eye contact with my own best friend.

Just in case you'd forgotten that I'm not a normal teenager.

The grip on my shoulder turns into a tug, so I listlessly comply. "I'm—" I start to say….

"Shut up," Ken cuts me off.

Okay, not the reaction I was expecting.

I look up. His face is flushed, which isn't all that unusual, being something that happens whenever he's embarrassed or mad (both more common than you'd think.) I'm not reading either emotion from him though, which is unusual. He looks….nervous. Which I would have considered weird (Ken is confident. Period) until I place that nervous is exactly how he's been behaving almost non-stop for almost two days straight. Ken, nervous? Huh. I wouldn't have thought….

There I go again, not thinking.

Sheesh.

"Don't apologize," he quickly amends. "I don't want to hear that you're sorry, cause I'm not." He stops and looks (stressfully) thoughtful for a moment. "I mean, unless you really are. In which case, then I guess I am too."

Huh?

I look at him blankly, trying to untangle the exact meaning of his hasty declaration. "You're what?"

"I'm hoping to find out whether you actually regret that or not." His face is more guarded than I'm used to seeing.

"Ah…." I'm not immediately sure of the answer myself.

Wait, does that mean that he actually…?

No way. For real?

Nuh uh.

"Did you like it?" Damn, now I think I'm blushing too.

The corner of Ken's mouth twitches like he wants to smile, but is trying not to. "First I want to know whether you did it because you actually wanted to, or if you were just trying to make me happy."

A perfectly reasonable question (did Ken just admit it made him happy?) but it kind of rocks me. I've never before felt quite so…transparent. And again, I don't even know the answer. Do I really cater to the others quite that much? Yeah, I guess so. I didn't realize that it showed.

I back up a little; I need some space from him in order to properly mull this over. For some reason it's hard to keep my thoughts coherent in close proximity to Ken. That didn't used to be a problem….

But anyway, it's not like I'm a pushover or anything. It's just…I've spent almost half of my life as an assassin. It never seemed all that likely that I'd get the chance to grow up. What's the point in making plans for a future that probably won't even be there? It's easier to make an immediate difference around you by making others happy. My friends are the only thing that I've allowed myself to care about. When they're happy, so am I.

But…I wasn't thinking like that when I kissed him. Heh, as I said, I wasn't thinking at all. My only awareness was of the building sense of…amazement…that Ken's been thinking about me. It made me way happier than I ever would have guessed.

Woah. I guess I did want to.

I nod, forgetting to actually answer his question.

"Well?"

"Yeah. I…wanted to." I wish I had managed to make my voice sound more confident than I actually feel.

"Really?"

Damn, Ken's gonna draw this out forever.

"Yep."

Is it my imagination, or is Ken suddenly a few inches closer to me than he was a second ago?

And…he's grinning. Well. In a nervous shifty sort of way.

"Well in that case," he says, "I most definitely liked it."

I kind of feel like up till now my life has been some sort of horrible soap opera, and someone just unexpectedly changed channels on me. I don't know how to react to this plot development. It's too…. Hm, 'normal' certainly isn't the word.

Auspicious?

"You didn't act like you liked it," I say defensively. I'm having a hard time believing that he isn't still just trying to cheer me up.

"You surprised me," he shrugs. "I didn't think there was a chance in hell you'd ever do that."

Honestly? Neither did I. Go figure.

He coughs and looks away slightly. "I'd be happy to make it up to you if want to give it another shot."

I stare at him, a little disbelievingly. My brain isn't wrapping around this whole scenario very well. I guess it doesn't need to though, as my head nods on its own accord.

The next thing I know I've been knocked flat and Ken's proving to me the sincerity of his enthusiasm. Not to mention the fact that he's a much better kisser than I ever suspected.

Not that I've thought about it….

Okay, so maybe fleetingly.

Ken finally pulls away and gives me an expectant look. He's rewarded with a shaky 'thumbs up' because my mind still isn't functioning well enough to give him cohesive verbal feedback.

Kissing Ouka wasn't like that.

He's still in his pajamas and completely disheveled from sleep. He looks just like….

"That was okay?" He breaks my train of thought with another round of concern.

I nod, and try to sit up, but Ken's in my way. "Very." My stomach feels like I've swallowed a tangled mess of knotted rubber bands. I'm not sure exactly what that means, but it's very distracting.

"Only okay?" He probes.

"Ken kun," I say, finally breaking out into a grin myself, "I think it's my turn to tell you to shut up now."

"Make me," he says.

I'm more than happy to comply.

A/N: I really apologize for the delay. This chapter took ridiculously long, even by my standards (which I admit are excruciatingly slow.) I originally intended to take it in a different direction, which turned into a disaster. I had to walk away from it for a while and then do a massive re-write. The next chapter shouldn't take nearly so long, really.

Also, I've done a bit of editing and fixed some stuff in previous chapters that had been bothering me (unfortunately the epic plot hole still remains intact.) Hopefully they were all minor enough issues that no one will catch the difference.

Thank you all so much for still reading.