Note: This is a pretty dark fic. So dark (at least to me) that I had trouble finishing it. I'm rating it PG-13 for now ... but, truthfully, I'm not sure what the rating should be. So, if anyone disagrees with the rating ... please let me know. Anyhow, for the record ... you've been warned of impending darkness and lots of angst ahead ... proceed at your own risk. Thanks! tex-chan

Aya sighed. Resting his head on the table, he pillowed his chin on his arms and stared at the kitchen sink. The apartment was almost oppressively quiet, even this room, which, if it was possible for buildings to have a soul, was where the Koneko's lay. The kitchen was the one room where they all gathered on a regular basis --- to cook meals, eat, and, sometimes, just talk about their adventures for that day. They all gathered in the basement briefing room, too, but, considering what they discussed down there, no one could ever think of that space as harboring any kind of "soul". Aya would never admit it to the others, but he enjoyed those times when everyone was together like that. They were easy and comfortable. The domestic sounds of food being prepared and the gentle, good-natured teasing and banter among Omi, Yohji, and Ken reminded him of when he had had a family … when he had had a home. When everyone was there, he was able to worry a little less about the others. They were always targets. That was part of being Weiss. The others chose to pretend otherwise, and seemed to live in blissful ignorance of their fate, but Aya found he couldn't ignore it. He was fiercely protective and jealous of those he cared for, tending to hold tightly to the things and people he felt were important, just so he wouldn't have to suffer the pain and grief he'd gone through when he had lost his parents and sister. If he could see them, he knew they were safe.

He hadn't been part of Weiss for very long --- maybe 8 or 9 months --- but, he had, much to his chagrin, already developed a certain fondness for the rest of the team. He didn't want it, had tried so hard to cut himself off from the rest of humanity, to never feel again, just so he couldn't suffer the soul-shattering grief that would happen when he lost someone else. He had known, from the very moment he'd watched Reiji Takatori brutally run his sister down with that big, black car, he'd never be able to stand up to that kind of mind-numbing, heart-wrenching pain ever again. It was the kind of thing you could only survive once. In his mind, losing someone else wasn't just a dim possibility; it was inevitable. People died --- especially people around him and for whom he cared. It was a fact of life. But, in the end, he'd been too weak-willed to deny his almost innate need for friendship and companionship. He couldn't bring himself to express it to the others, but he had, over the months he'd spent in Weiss, begun to consider the rest of his teammates as a kind of surrogate family. He thought of them as brothers --- even Ken, although their initial meeting had left a very bad taste in Aya's mouth, not to mention a couple of small scars above his right eye. Aya grimaced as the feel of Ken's fists smashing into his body came back, still vivid despite the time that had passed since the incident. The ex-jock might act like a total moron, but he could throw a hell of a punch.

Still, they had to keep their distance. They were important to him; that was the very reason why he had to remain aloof and removed from them. Even if he could have forced himself to reach out to the others, to express his feelings, Aya knew they wouldn't reciprocate. Inside, he knew he didn't deserve any friends, didn't deserve the companionship he craved. He was nothing more than a murderer, no better than the "evil beasts" Weiss hunted for Persia. Keeping them at arm's length was the only way he could protect the others from who and what he was.

Normally, the flower shop and their apartment were so full of the sounds of everyday life that he could barely put two coherent thoughts together. If he closed his eyes and concentrated, he could imagine them now --- Ken bouncing his soccer ball against the kitchen or living room wall; Omi tapping away on his computer; Yohji whining loudly about having to work the morning shift; the television, which was almost always on; the girls who crowded the shop every day screaming and giggling; and, even, his own voice carrying over all the background noise as he yelled, "If you're not buying anything, get out!" But, now, it was so still that he could only guess everyone else had gone to sleep hours ago. The kitchen's quiet, punctuated by the soft ticking of the clock on the opposite wall, folded around him like a big, thick blanket.

The peaceful quiet of the sleeping house usually comforted him, and Aya often awoke during the night or early in the morning, especially if the nightmares were particularly bad, to have some time alone before facing a new day. Projecting an aloof, callous, hostile image toward the others didn't come naturally to him, and he often had difficulty maintaining the icy façade his teammates had come to accept as his "normal" personality. As a result, Aya often sought out silent times during the night and early morning, when he would have the peace, quiet, and isolation he needed to reconstruct his cold, unfeeling mask before, once again, facing the world and those closest to him. Normally, he even enjoyed the quiet time. Building the wall back up, brick by brick, made him feel protected and safe, and it made him feel as if he was protecting the rest of them, men with whom he lived, worked, and killed --- men who had come to mean so much to him in such a short amount of time. Tonight, though, Aya was surprised to realize he would welcome an intrusion into his "alone time". Where he usually found the silence comforting, tonight it was unnerving and oppressive, and he fought back the urge to yell, just to hear something other than the loud, screaming silence and the deafening tick, tick, tick of the kitchen clock.

He glanced up at the clock, breaking his depressing train of thought, and sighed when he realized it read, "3:00 AM". Aya rubbed his hands over his face and tugged them through his hair, a gesture of irritation and frustration at realizing this would be one more in a long string of sleepless nights. The clock's ticking mocked him. He was exhausted. He wanted to sleep, but he knew better than to try. If the mission file he was currently poring over didn't haunt him, the nightmares would. Either way, it was a lose-lose proposition.

He ran his hands, once again, through tangled, already-mussed, red hair, pausing long enough to give an extra tug at his bangs, and thought that he needed to get them trimmed as he turned his attention back toward the manila folder in front of him. It contained the details of Weiss's latest mission. "Details" was too generous a description by far. And, Aya knew the lack of information within the folder was, in large part, responsible for his frustration and for more than a few of his sleepless nights.

Ten days ago, Manx had shown up at the shop, around closing time, as always, and had handed him this manila folder, which, she swore, contained all the information Kritiker had been able to gather regarding their newest mission and latest target. Aya spread the sparse contents out on the table in front of him --- glossy, 8x10 photos of dead boys. There were ten of them --- one for each victim of the serial killer Persia wanted Weiss to track and eliminate. The victims had all been killed in different ways. Two had been strangled, three had been shot in the head, three had been stabbed, one had been beaten to death, and the last one had, apparently, been buried alive. All of the victims had been found in different locations around the city. There seemed to be no connection at all among them, no rhyme or reason to their deaths. But, where the police had seen only a string of unfortunate, yet unrelated, murders, Kritiker, always on the lookout for some new malevolence gnawing at the city's underbelly, had seen a serial killer at work, because the boys had all been between the ages of fifteen and nineteen. That had been it --- all the information Kritiker had had to give their white hunters of the night.

After two days of Internet surfing, Omi had discovered each of the victims last had been seen alive at the same club --- The Crazy Geisha, which was operated by some huge British conglomerate. It was a well-known gay and bi-sexual hangout and pick-up joint. After discovering that connection, Omi had taken back to the 'net in the hopes of finding some other clue to their beast's location and identity. Even the tiniest scrap of information, even a rumor of a rumor, would have been something. It certainly would have been more than they had gotten from Persia. But, the youngest Weiss hadn't been able to find anything other than the club name, and, after giving the boy five additional days of web crawling and hacking time, Aya had been forced to admit there just wasn't anything else. If there was, Omi would have found it. He was confident of that; the boy was that good.

Reluctantly, after some strenuous urging on Manx's part, Aya had decided they would have to begin moving on the target, even though they still had no information on the killer. Finding the club connection had confirmed, in all their minds, that Kritiker had been right. It had to be a serial killer; there were just too many coincidences for the slayings to be random. After several team meetings, they had put together a rather sketchy profile of their target. Actually, "sketchy" was a generous description. "Useless" would have been more accurate. Their best guess was that the killer was a man, either a homophobe or someone who was gay and not yet out of the closet, based on the victims all being young men, all picked up in a gay hang-out, and all killed in such vicious, brutal manners. So, they were looking for a possibly gay man who frequented the most popular gay bar in the city, and, not for the first time, Aya couldn't help but think the "profile" was really helping them on this one. In a city as big as Tokyo, it narrowed the potential targets to, probably, a quarter or more of the population. Helpful … not. Worse yet, considering the club as the only real lead they had, Aya was afraid to interview any of the employees or regular patrons. The killer could have been anyone at the club, and he was afraid of spooking the target by asking too many questions. In short, the White Hunters were going into this mission with less than zero, if such a thing was possible.

Aya sighed again and picked up the nearest photo, holding it up to the light. The pictures had haunted him ever since he had first reviewed the mission file. Each of the victims seemed to stare out at him with glassy, dead eyes, as if they were pleading for help. They all looked so young --- just boys, really --- young people with their whole lives in front of them. Even covered in blood, they, somehow, still looked pure and innocent. He saw them in his nightmares. Whenever he closed his eyes, they were there … staring at him with unblinking eyes … begging for help … begging for justice.

Although he hadn't shared it with the rest of the team, Aya had already decided Omi would serve as the bait to draw their target out. He planned to have the boy start hanging out at the Crazy Geisha tomorrow night. The cold, calculating part of his brain --- the part that led Weiss --- knew this was the best plan, but the other part --- the part that was still human --- hated everything about it and this mission. There were too many unknowns, and Aya hated walking into anything blind. Yet, blind was the only way they could walk into this situation. The whole thing had made him even more jumpy, irritable, and angry than normal. The string of sleepless nights he had spent poring over the mission folder, hoping to find something else, looking for something that wasn't there, searching desperately for another plan of attack, hadn't done much to better his mood. Neither had the fact that he hadn't been able to come up with any better alternatives. The thought of Omi's face in those pictures … of Omi's eyes staring out at him, begging for help, was making him crazy, but, even with that incentive, he hadn't been able to come up with a better plan. He hadn't even been able to come up with a plausible alternative. Using the boy as bait was the only plan. He hated this mission. He hated everything about it. He hated himself for agreeing to take it, and he hated Kritiker for foisting it on them without an adequate background workup.

"This plan sucks. This whole damn mission sucks," he muttered as he flipped through the photos one more time before tossing them onto the table.

Omi padded down the hall from his room and took the stairs to the kitchen one floor below, gripping the banister to keep from stumbling in the dark. He had gotten up to use the bathroom and noticed the door to Aya's room was open. Curiosity was a laudable trait in an assassin, but giving in to it had led Omi to more sleepless nights than he liked to admit. And, it looked like this was going to be one more. He cursed himself for giving in to his naturally inquisitive tendencies and looking into Aya's room. He wished like hell he hadn't, because, then, he wouldn't have noticed the un-slept-in bed. But, he had seen the damn bed, and, having seen it, he couldn't ignore it. So, instead of heading back to his own room, to lose himself in blissful slumber, he was stumbling down the stairs to look for an errant teammate, and feeling oddly angry at himself for being so damn curious, and at Aya, for not having the good sense to know when to go to bed. As he made his way down the stairs, avoiding the squeaky spots in the old, wooden floor, Omi rubbed at his face and tried to focus his bleary eyes on his watch. After several moments of struggling, he succeeded in reading the time.

"Three A.M.," he muttered. "What the hell is that idiot doing?"

The boy shook his head as he cleared the last stair and saw the light shining from the kitchen. He approached quietly, and stood in the doorway, watching Aya. The redhead was slumped over the table, his head resting on his crossed arms, and his back to the door. Even from his spot just outside the room, the young blonde could see the photographs spread out around him. Omi frowned and debated over what he should do. Aya always seemed super-focused, especially when they were about to undertake a new mission, but this didn't seem like normal behavior, even for Aya. He had a sneaking suspicion something about this mission was eating away at the red-haired swordsman. It wasn't in Omi's nature to ignore someone who was suffering, not if he felt he could help at all, even if "help" meant doing nothing more than lending a friendly ear. But, where Aya was concerned, the young blonde tended to hold himself back a little, almost never offering the friendly ear or supportive shoulder he freely provided to Yohji and Ken. It wasn't that he didn't like Aya. If anything, he didn't know the man, despite the time Aya had spent living, working, and killing with them. He knew Yohji had developed a fondness for the quiet redhead, a fact that struck Omi as odd, since the two of them seemed complete opposites in every way. Ken, on the other hand, professed a deep and abiding dislike for Aya. Their initial meeting hadn't gone well at all. In fact, they had ended up beating the crap out of each other within about the first ten minutes of their association. Yohji jokingly referred to it as Ken and Aya's "getting acquainted" period, much to the redhead's chagrin. At any rate, relations between the ex-goalie and the quiet swordsman hadn't improved much in the ensuing months. Omi tried to remain open-minded about people, even though he felt a little foolish for being that way, considering what an odd personality quirk it was for an assassin, and he had refrained from forming any solid opinion of Aya. He sensed that Aya, despite all outward appearances to the contrary, really needed friendship, companionship, and the moral support of those around him, and that played upon his innate tendency toward being a peacemaker and comforter; it made him want to reach out to their newest teammate. Yet, Aya carefully held everyone at arm's length, refraining from becoming involved in the daily lives and concerns of his teammates --- except for Yohji, he supposed. The tall blonde tended to shadow Aya and keep the redhead company most of the time, so Omi figured they probably talked about something --- although he couldn't, for the life of him, figure out what … and the idea of Aya carrying on a non-Weiss-, non-Koneko-related conversation with someone seemed foreign to the boy. Yohji might have learned to ignore Aya's icy attitude, or, maybe, he had recognized it for the façade it was, but it was still enough to keep Omi at bay. As a result, he just didn't know how to approach Aya. He had no clue how to start a conversation with the man, how to get Aya to open up and share what was bothering him. And, he usually found himself feeling uncomfortable, tense, and tongue-tied in Aya's presence.

Omi had just about decided to turn around and silently retreat back to his room when the picture of Aya's bed flashed through his memory. He didn't think Aya had slept in it for the past two, maybe three, nights, and he wasn't sure if the redhead had slept at all during that time. Omi was normally the first person to get up every morning, and it had become his habit to make his way to the kitchen and prepare coffee for everyone else. For the past three days, he had come down to find Aya at the table, as he was now. He thought about going upstairs and waking Yohji, so the older man could come down and talk to Aya, but he had to dismiss that idea almost as soon as it occurred to him. Yohji was out clubbing, Omi remembered, cursing silently. The tall blonde probably wouldn't be home until well after sunrise.

'Well, guess that just leaves me, then,' Omi thought, with not a little irritation.

He didn't want to talk to Aya. He wanted to turn around and go back to his room, as if he hadn't walked down here … as if he hadn't seen Aya's neatly-made, un-slept-in bed … as if he hadn't seen the quiet man torturing himself with the gory, gruesome photos in their latest mission file. But, he had seen all those things, and, having seen them, he couldn't just pretend he hadn't. It wasn't in his nature to do so, no matter how painful trying to help Aya might be. Omi sighed and shifted his weight from one foot to the other. The slight movement made the floor squeak, and Aya started at the small noise, his awareness of Omi's presence now making it impossible for the boy to retreat upstairs.

Omi moved into the room, mumbling, "Sorry, Aya. I didn't mean to startle you."

As Omi dropped into a chair across from him, Aya gathered up the photographs and shuffled them back into the folder, as if he didn't want the boy to see them. At the same time, he glanced over at Omi and said, with a slight, tight, rather forced-looking smile, "It's OK. Serves me right for sitting with my back to the door. An assassin should know better, right?" He paused for the briefest span of time … a heartbeat, maybe two, before continuing, "What're you doing up?"

Omi gave Aya a puzzled look. If anyone else had made that back-to-the-door crack, he would have known they were joking. But, with Aya, he wasn't sure. He thought it might have been an attempt at a joke, albeit a rather pathetic one, but, then again, he couldn't remember hearing one joke or wisecrack out of Aya during the eight or nine months the man had been with them. In fact, the four sentences the redhead had just spoken were more than he had heard Aya say on most days. He had expected icy aloofness, if not outright hostility, but Aya's tone of voice held a tinge of some emotion Omi couldn't pinpoint. If he hadn't known better, he would have thought it was guilt, but he immediately dismissed that as ludicrous. Aya didn't seem the kind of person who would feel guilty about anything … but, then again, Omi had to remember he didn't know the man all that well. He knew something drove Aya to seek revenge against Reiji Takatori, something had driven the man into Kritiker's arms, and, then, into Weiss. He had always believed simple vengeance and hatred fueled Aya's actions, but, perhaps, it was something more. The need for revenge was there, but, maybe, guilt was working just as strongly within the quiet man.

Omi jumped when Aya cleared his throat, a small, uncomfortable noise that sounded loud in the almost oppressive silence that had fallen between them. He tore himself away from his thoughts, realizing, with more than a little embarrassment, that he had been staring at Aya for several minutes without saying anything.

Omi smiled, an imitation of Yohji's crooked, little-boy grin that he hoped would cover his embarrassment. "You don't have to hide those. I've seen them, too. We all have," he said, nodding toward the photographs Aya was still trying to conceal within the manila folder.

Aya sighed and gave an irritated shake of his head as he stuffed the last photograph, none too gently, home into the file. "What're you doing down here?" he repeated, spearing Omi with a searching look that made the younger man uncomfortable.

Omi hated it when Aya looked at him like that. It was almost like the redhead could see right through to his very soul, as if he could pull the thoughts right out of his brain, like that crazy Schwarz telepath. Just the thought of the off-balance German inside his head was enough to make the boy shudder. All in all, he supposed things could be worse. Considering all the negative karma he, Yohji, and Ken had probably racked up by now, they could have easily gotten stuck with Schuldich as their fourth team member. Aya might not be the friendliest person he'd ever met, but at least the redhead wasn't off-balance. Well, maybe he was off-balance, but at least he wasn't a telepath, at least, not that Omi knew.

The boy pulled himself out of his thoughts when he realized Aya was still staring at him, waiting for an answer to his question. He tried to cover his discomfort by prying the mission folder from Aya's fingers. "Had to go to the bathroom," he replied as he opened the file and looked at the photos, carefully schooling his expression so that it didn't betray the disgust and nausea he felt welling up within him.

After a few moments, he glanced sideways at Aya and said, his tone quiet and a little hesitant, "I could ask you the same thing. It looks like your bed hasn't been slept in at all. Everything OK?"

Aya sighed and rubbed his face with his hand. He recognized Omi's question for what it was: a tentative extension of friendship and support. He wanted to take it. He wanted to reach out and take the offered hand, wanted it with all his heart. But, to do so meant he was weak. It meant putting himself in the position of, once again, having to face the fear and pain of losing someone. It was bad enough he'd slipped and let Yohji in. He hadn't meant for it to happen, but, almost before he realized it, the tall blonde had, somehow, wriggled himself into Aya's life. Now, he was firmly entrenched there. He couldn't do it with anyone else. He just wasn't strong enough to bear the consequences of losing anyone else the way he'd lost his parents and sister. He kept his face hidden in his hands for a moment, composing himself so that he could face the boy with the icy, unemotional mask he knew would keep Omi at arm's length. Once he felt mentally prepared, he speared the young blonde with what he hoped was a cold, angry glare, and snapped, "You spying on me?"

Omi started a little at Aya's question and the redhead's icy tone. It was true. He had been spying on all of them, feeding information to Persia and Manx about his teammates' mental states and mission-readiness. Aya had known about it all along, and he had told Omi not to trust Persia, Manx, or Kritiker. Omi hadn't believed him, but, after they had used some of his information against Aya, he had had to admit the redhead had been right. After that, he had stopped spying, had sworn he would put his teammates first, and he hadn't given anything to Persia or Manx in months. He thought Aya had forgiven him for it, but, it seemed the quiet man still held a grudge. Omi couldn't blame him. He knew he'd never truly be able to get through to Aya, to convince the other man of his good intentions. He'd already messed up so badly that he couldn't ever hope to gain Aya's trust, let alone the man's friendship. Still, he had to try. He hated being at odds with anyone, especially someone he had to see every single day. His better judgment told him to leave it alone, to forget about Aya and give up on any kind of friendship with the man, but the peacemaker in him couldn't let it go. Besides, he had promised himself, at the moment he had taken that first step into the kitchen, he wasn't going to back down … even if he was a bit afraid of Aya.

He swallowed, and said, in a soft, quiet voice, "N … no, Aya. I'm not spying. I told you … I won't do that anymore, and I meant it." He paused for a moment, and then, gathering up the courage that made him such a good assassin, he continued, in a cold tone that matched Aya's, icicle for icicle, "Should I be?"

Aya didn't reply. He didn't say anything. He just stared at Omi with that disconcerting, piercing gaze. As always, it made the young blonde shift in his seat. The boy was surprised Aya hadn't used the offensive jab as an excuse to retreat from his presence. Normally, that was what the redhead would do, and the fact that Aya was still sitting across from him, fixing him with that unblinking stare, gave him the courage to continue reaching out to the man.

Omi sighed and said, his voice softer, less defensive, "It seems like you're really beating yourself up over this mission. What's the deal?"

Aya shrugged and pushed his chair back to get up from the table. Omi took this as a sign their conversation, if you could call it that, was over, and he expected the redhead to gather up his mission file and leave the room without another word or a backward glance. He was shocked when Aya leaned over to stand, head hanging and palms flat on the table, resting his weight on his arms, and replied in a quiet, almost embarrassed voice, "This damn mission. Sucks."

Omi didn't respond right away. He was surprised he'd gotten this much out of Aya, and he wasn't sure what to say to keep the other man talking. He covered his uncertainty and shock by leafing through the mission file once more, unable to hold back a grimace at the photographs. Those pictures had gotten to all of them. They were particularly gruesome, and, if Aya had been up for the past three nights poring over these, he could understand why the man was acting so strangely. He shoved the photos back into their folder and said, "Yeah, well, they all do. What's so special about this one?"

Aya shrugged and moved from the table to the sink. Just when Omi was, once again, beginning to think the conversation was over, the swordsman replied, without turning around to face the younger blonde, "I … I just feel … wrong about this one. Yeah, they all suck, but … this one. There's no information, no concrete leads on the target, no way we can really be prepared. We're going in blind, and I don't like it. It's too dangerous."

Omi frowned and stared at Aya's back. He didn't think he'd ever heard Aya talk this much, and, even though he'd asked for it, hearing the redhead openly express his uncertainty over the mission made Omi uncomfortable. Aya was always confident, always secure, always sure of himself … or, was he? Omi found himself questioning everything he thought he knew about the quiet man, based on the past few minutes' conversation. And, with a little sense of dread, he wondered exactly what Aya meant when he said this mission was too dangerous. All their missions were dangerous, so what made this one any different?

Omi stared down at the table and thought about their past missions. For every one of them, he could remember Aya drilling them, over and over, about every little detail, until either Ken or Yohji or both of them, threatened him with bodily harm. Even after the other team members mutinied, Omi had seen Aya continue to pore over the mission documents, hour after hour, night after night, until he had memorized every little detail about the mission parameters, the target, and the kill location. Like Yohji and Ken, the boy had always figured Aya was a control freak, but, now, for the first time, Omi realized the redhead was trying to protect them, to ensure that everyone came home unharmed. He jolted himself from his thoughts when he realized Aya was staring at him.

"I've decided on the best way to pursue this assignment, but we won't do it if you don't want to," Aya said. His voice was calm and even, and his eyes, never wavering, fixed Omi with that unnerving gaze.

Suddenly, the boy was certain he didn't want to hear the rest of Aya's statement, but, like a moth drawn to a flame, he heard his voice asking, "Yeah?"

"You go into the club as … bait. With one other member as backup inside, and the other two as backup outside." He paused and watched as his words sank into Omi's sleep-muddled mind. As the boy realized their true meaning, Aya saw him come suddenly, completely awake. He resumed his seat at the table, across from Omi, and looked into the boy's eyes, "I … know … it's not a great plan, but it's the only possibility I've come up with so far. And, believe me … I've given it a lot of thought. We just can't get any information on this guy … if it even is a guy. But, you fit the victim profile, so he might come after you. If that happens, we can get him." He sighed again and ran his fingers through his hair, tugging and pulling at the tangled strands --- that one, small gesture speaking worlds of irritation he couldn't find the words to express. "Shit," he hissed, "This plan fucking sucks. I hate it. I fucking hate it. But, it's all we have. If … you don't want to do this, you don't have to. We'll call the mission off."

Omi stared at Aya, wide-eyed. He wasn't sure which surprised him more: the unexpected, almost emotional, outpouring of conversation from the stoic man, or Aya's offer to allow him to bow out of an uncertain and, potentially, extremely dangerous situation.

"We … we already accepted," he stammered, almost at a loss for words. "Can … we even call it off? I mean … does it … does it even work like that?"

Aya nodded. "Yeah. I won't hesitate to call it off if you don't want to do this."

"But," Omi replied, "… Persia and Manx … I … I can't believe they'd let you call it off. It doesn't seem like …"

Aya cut the boy off with a wave of his hand. "There will be certain … consequences," he replied, cutting his words off, as if he was searching for just the right phrasing. He continued, emphasizing his sentence with an emphatic shake of his head, "It doesn't matter. I don't care. It's your decision."

"What kind of … consequences?" Omi asked, his eyes narrowing in a frown.

Aya looked at Omi with a steady gaze, and, for the first time the boy could remember, there was no anger or coldness in the blue-violet eyes --- just exhaustion, and, maybe, a hint of unease or fear, whether for the "consequences" of which Aya had spoken, or for Omi if he accepted this mission, the boy couldn't tell. "It doesn't matter, Omi," he said, his voice barely carrying across the table. "It shouldn't affect your decision."

That told the younger blonde everything he needed to know. He was struck by the sudden urge to protect Aya. It was something he hadn't felt before, and it surprised him. To him, Aya had always seemed to stand apart --- strong, self-assured, neither needing nor wanting anyone's protection or help. But the man sitting across from him wasn't at all like the Aya he thought he knew. Maybe it was the pale, haggard face, the deep bluish-purple circles under his eyes, the trembling hands --- all of which told a story of sleepless nights and decisions Aya didn't want to make, but to which he was inevitably drawn. Maybe it was Aya's genuine concern for his safety, which surprised and touched him. Whatever the case, for the first time, Omi felt protectiveness and genuine fondness rush through him, just as he felt toward Yohji and Ken. It was almost like the boy finally felt, for the first time since Aya's arrival, that the redhead was truly a member of his team, a part of the family, so to speak.

Omi looked down at the folder for a moment, and then replied, in a soft, almost inaudible voice, without looking up, "It does matter. I'll do it." He looked up at the older man and managed a somewhat reassuring smile as he finished, "Besides, we can't let this guy get away with this. So, who'll be my back up inside? Yohji? He'd probably be the most comfortable. He does like clubbing, after all. I think it's what he lives for."

Aya surprised Omi with a laugh. "Yeah," he replied, "Yohji in a club "working". Why not just let a thief guard the bank, while we're at it?"

It was a night for surprises. If he didn't know better, Omi would have thought Aya had just made a joke, but that couldn't be true. Aya didn't joke. In the several months he'd been with them, Omi hadn't seen the man so much as crack a smile. Not only that, but, although the redhead's statement about Yohji had been harsh, the tone behind it was amused, and there was none of the familiar, cold disdain in Aya's eyes. Omi had known Yohji was quite fond of Aya, but, for the first time, he realized that fondness might just go both ways. He stared at Aya for a few moments, open-mouthed with shock, and, then, embarrassed at his reaction, he laughed in response.

Aya had paused while he watched the emotions and reactions play across Omi's face. The boy could be such an open book, and it was obvious he'd surprised and shocked the younger blonde. For some reason, Aya was amused and rather pleased at being able to get such a reaction out of the kid. He knew, after tonight, Omi would wonder if they had been reading him correctly all along, and he liked throwing people off balance that way. It wasn't that he was mean-spirited. It was just that, in his past experience, keeping people off balance around you gave you a slim advantage that, in the end, could mean the difference between living and dying. It didn't matter that Omi was a teammate. He hadn't been with Weiss for very long, but Aya had worked as an assassin for several years, and the need to have that slim advantage on the margin of life and death had become almost second nature to him.

Finally, he continued, in a soft, serious voice, "Besides, this is a gay club. It's not really Yohji's cup of tea, is it?"

"Well, it's not mine, either!" Omi squeaked in protest. He stared at Aya with wide, shocked eyes.

"If you're implying it's mine, you'd be sadly mistaken," the redhead replied with a short, harsh laugh. "I don't think Yohji could hold it together enough to preserve his cover in a place like that. He's great at undercover … but, I'm not sure he's that great. Unfortunately for you, I would probably be able to blend in better than that idiot."

"Why do you say "unfortunately for me"?" Omi asked.

"Well," Aya replied, looking down at the floor in an effort to cover the embarrassed flush that colored his face, "Yohji's probably a lot more fun to be around in a place like that." He paused, staring at the table in front of him, and muttered, almost under his breath, as if he hadn't meant to and didn't realize he was saying it out loud, "Probably a lot more fun to be around … wherever."

Omi smiled sympathetically at Aya's statement. It had sounded so sad, almost regretful. Just one more surprise in a long string of them. He hadn't ever heard Aya sound like that. He couldn't believe how much the redhead was letting his emotions slip, and he thought Aya must be exhausted if he wasn't able to maintain the tight, icy grip he normally kept on his feelings. Omi figured the slight mental lapse had to be a surer sign of Aya's fatigue than his physical appearance. Impulsively, he reached out and gripped Aya's hand, which rested on the table, about halfway between them. He gave it a gentle squeeze, surprised again when the older man didn't withdraw at the physical contact, and rose to exit the kitchen.

When he reached the door, he called back, over his shoulder, "Yohji might be fun, but I probably stand a better chance of leaving there alive if I'm with you. You should get some sleep, Aya. You really look like shit, you know. I'll take your early shift tomorrow, so you can sleep in." With that, the boy disappeared up the stairs leading to the floor where their rooms were located.

"Thanks, Omi," Aya muttered, knowing the young blonde was already too far up the stairs to have heard him.

He gathered up the file. He hated it as a sign of weakness, this need for reassurance and companionship. The boy's confident words had lifted his spirits, filling him with hope that, maybe, despite his misgivings and forebodings, they could pull off this shitty mission. He hated that, too. And, he hated himself for needing and wanting exactly what Omi had given him. He thought about it for several minutes, and then followed the boy up the stairs.