Aya stopped at the top of the stairs and listened to the voices that floated up to him. Although he couldn't tell what they were saying, it sounded like everyone else was in the kitchen. The redhead took a deep breath, steeling his resolve for the fight he knew was coming. It had been a little over a month now, since he had come home, and he had decided it was time to resume training. He was out of shape, and he had to get back to mission-ready status as quickly as possible. So far, Kritiker had gone pretty easy on the team. Manx had said it was because of his injuries, but Aya suspected it had more to do with the fact she had forced Weiss into that last mission, despite his protests the team wasn't ready. Whatever the reason, he was grateful for the respite. The last thing he wanted was to become a liability to the rest of them. The thought of having to stay at home while the other three went out and risked their lives made him sick.
Aya believed he could keep the others safe just by being there. Stupid … irrational … but, all the same, it was how he felt. He knew Kritiker's patience was growing thin. The organization never had liked keeping its best team out of the field for long, and he had to be ready when Kritiker's patience finally broke. There was no way his team was going out without him. They were his responsibility, after all.
Unfortunately, Yohji and Omi hadn't been on board with his getting-back-into-shape plan. Yohji, in particular, had been a singular pain in the ass. He could bully Omi into giving him his way, but not Yohji. So far, the blonde had stymied all Aya's efforts to resume training. So, today, the redhead had decided he was going to have it out with Yohji, once and for all. He was going to get the tall blonde to spar with him, figuring it was the only way he could convince Yohji he was ready to get back into shape. Plus, he hated to admit it, but he'd grown used to the idiot's company. He and Yohji had sparred in the past, but not that often. Their fighting styles were too different, but, right now, a dual practice session seemed like an enjoyable way to get back into the swing of things.
He tightened his grip on the sheathed sword, which he carried in his right hand, grimacing with the effort. Much as he hated it, Aya had to admit Yohji was probably right. He didn't feel ready for the punishing rigor of training, but, he didn't have any other choice. Time was running out for Weiss, and he had to be ready to go when the rest of his team needed him. So, he would have to hide the way he really felt, suck it up, and get on with things. He figured it shouldn't be too difficult. After all, he was good at hiding stuff. But, he couldn't hide much from Yohji, which was part of the problem. He just had to hope the tall blonde would understand enough to get over his protective streak.
Aya squared his shoulders and gathered his resolve. Once he felt mentally prepared, he continued down the stairs, his bare feet skillfully avoiding the squeaky spots in the old wood. He didn't have a plan of action, but he figured it couldn't be too hard to goad Yohji into a sparring match. After all, he knew Yohji as well as the tall blonde knew him, so he knew just what buttons to push in order to get his way.
Fifteen steps brought him to the bottom of the staircase. He stood there for a few minutes, staring at his reflection in the TV, which, for once, was turned off, and debating over how he should approach things in the kitchen.
'Fuck it,' he thought, shrugging his shoulders in a gesture that caused him to wince in pain as bright-colored flashes of light danced in front of his eyes and dark spots clouded his vision. He gripped the banister and told himself he couldn't pass out here. If Yohji came out to find him passed out at the foot of the stairs, the blonde idiot would never agree to spar with him.
'I'll just have to talk him into it. If that doesn't work, I'll throw something at the asshole,' Aya thought, once the dizziness had passed and he could see clearly again. With his mind made up, the redhead stalked toward the kitchen, determination written in his steely blue-violet eyes and the grim set of his expression.
Twenty-nine steps brought him across the living room to stand in the kitchen door, watching the oddly-familial scene playing out in front of him. Something was cooking on the stove --- Omi's miso soup, judging from the savory smell, which made his mouth water. Aya couldn't help but think that Omi was an odd duck. He seemed cheerful and innocent, even though he had been raised as an assassin. To look at him, you'd never guess he'd been killing people practically his whole life. With anyone else, it would have been unnerving, but, with Omi, it wasn't … and the kid could make some damn good miso. Aya knew the young blonde had been making the soup a lot lately for his sake, having found out it was one of his favorite dishes, but he damn sure wasn't going to complain about it.
Omi sat at the table, facing the doorway, a book spread out before him. He was so engrossed in his reading material he failed to notice Aya's presence. The swordsman craned forward a little bit and stood on tiptoe, just enough to glimpse glossy pictures and what looked like paragraph after paragraph of descriptive writing. He rocked back into his previous position with a slight grimace. Every so often, Omi would decide they needed to do something "fun" together, planning and then dragging them off to one touristy outing after another. It looked like the kid had his "tour guide" hat on once again, which meant they were in for a day of enforced fun in the very near future. Yohji and Ken were behind and off to one side of the young blonde, near the outside door. They stood on either side of the right-hand door jamb, staring at the space between them and conversing in serious tones about something on the wall.
"Why don't you just kill it? You're a man, aren't you, Ken-Ken?" Yohji asked, leaning forward to poke at a dark spot on the wall. He jumped back, pulling his index finger away as if it had been scalded, when the spot started to move.
"Shit!" Ken hissed, jumping back, as well. "Stop poking the damn thing. And, why do I have to kill it? You're a man too, at least, according to all those dates you keep bringing home. You kill the damn thing."
Aya squinted at the dark spot until it materialized into the shape of a spider. It wasn't the smallest spider he'd ever seen, but not the largest, either. He figured it was about half the size of the palm of his hand. It was hairy, though … and creepy-looking. He couldn't help but feel a little relieved he wasn't standing near it.
"That, my little friend, is different," Yohji said. He straightened up and leaned back from the wall long enough to light a cigarette. Once his stick was ablaze, he leaned forward again to peer at the spider over the rims of his sunglasses. "I'm a lover, not a fighter. And, definitely not a killer of anything with more than two legs," he said, with an air of finality, blowing a steady stream of smoke onto the arachnid as he spoke.
The spider bounced in response and skittered a little further up the wall, prompting both Yohji and Ken to jump back at its sudden, jerky movement.
"Little bastard!" Ken hissed. It wasn't clear whether he was referring to the spider or to Yohji, who just shrugged and offered a crooked grin in response. Ken gave the tall blonde a narrow-eyed glare full of hatred and snarled, "Quit irritating the fucking thing like that, I said!"
"Look," Yohji replied, his tone taking on an air of reason, as if he was the only sane person amid an asylum full of loons. He leaned forward to inspect the spider once it stopped moving, "If you just kill it, you won't have to worry about it moving around any more. If you leave it, it'll just show up later in your bed … or in your shoe … or the shower, when you're in there naked."
"Stop it!" Ken yelped. The brunette shuddered at the thoughts Yohji's words had conjured. "How the hell am I supposed to kill it, anyhow?" he asked, following the older man's example and leaning forward to stare at the arachnid once more.
Yohji shrugged and blew a second stream of smoke onto the irritated creature. This time, the spider didn't bother trying to skitter further up the wall. Instead, it hunkered down and waited for the smog to lift from its tiny part of the universe.
"I dunno," Yohji said, giving another nonchalant shrug for emphasis, "The usual way. Squash it."
Ken cocked his head to one side and sighed in irritation, spearing Yohji with a sneering, mocking expression. "With what, might I ask? The thing's fucking huge, for crying out loud!"
"Your shoe," Yohji replied, obviously proud to have come up with a solution to their dilemma. The tall blonde hated making decisions, yet he seemed to love being the "answer man". It was an odd dichotomy none of his teammates understood.
Ken reached over, careful to do so slowly for fear of setting the spider moving up the wall again, and knocked his fist against Yohji's head. "Hello!?" he sneered, "I'm barefoot here, in case you didn't notice." He added, just under his breath, "Fucking moron."
"It's not that big," Yohji replied, cocking his head to the side and, once again, stabbing an exploratory index finger in the spider's direction. He withdrew it when the creature hissed at him. "Hardly worth mentioning, really," he said, in an effort to cover up his hasty retreat. "Use something else, then. Um … a spoon … or … a ladle ... or a plate … or …"
"You're not using any kitchen utensils, dishes, or eating implements to kill that spider," Omi ordered, without looking up from his book. The vision of shattering plates had been enough to draw his attention, briefly, from his duties as Weiss's self-appointed tour guide.
Yohji sighed, irritated at this new turn of events. It was becoming more and more obvious by the second that this spider-killing thing was not going to be a simple matter. "Fine," he said, never turning his attention from the angry arachnid skulking on the wall in front of him, "Use a paper towel, then."
"A paper towel!" Ken squeaked, his voice shooting up an octave or two. Both Yohji and Omi winced at the sound. "A paper towel! It's fucking huge. It's as big as my head … and you say use a paper towel?! What the fuck is wrong with you?"
"Only dogs can hear you now, Ken," Yohji smirked, wiggling his finger in his ear. "I never knew a grown man's voice could go that damn high."
Ken growled in irritation. Omi laughed. He tried hard not to, as he knew it would only make Ken angrier, and, thus, worsen the situation, but he couldn't help it. It had been damn funny. The younger blonde tried hard to stifle it by clamping his hand over his mouth, but his snicker reached Ken's ears, prompting the ex-goalie to turn a withering glance on the youngest assassin. He could only spare a second to glare at the back of Omi's head, though, as he had to reserve all his attention for the malevolent critter lurking on the wall a few inches away from him.
"Look," Yohji said, again, the voice of reason, "It's simple. You wait here and watch the spider. I'll go find a shoe and bring it back here for you to kill it." He blew another smoke stream at the object of their discussion, jerking backward when it raised a leg in protest.
"Me wait here with it?" Ken squeaked, his voice once again ratcheting off the upper octaves. "Why the hell can't I go get the shoe while you wait here and watch it?"
Yohji shrugged. "Because it's your spider," he replied, as if it made perfect sense.
"IT IS NOT MY SPIDER!" Ken yelled.
He managed to spray the spider with spit in the process, something that irritated it only slightly less than Yohji's smoke. It hissed and raised a second defensive leg, which, actually, made it look a lot larger and a lot more threatening. The two assassins backed away a bit, giving their arachnid foe a little more breathing room.
"Now, you've made it really mad," Yohji whispered, eyeing the spider warily. "You're gonna have to kill it now. It's kill or be killed, Ken-Ken --- you or him, just like any other mission. You let him walk away, and he's gonna show up in your underwear drawer, for sure."
"Why my drawer?" Ken snapped. "And, I made it mad? What about you? You were the one blowing smoke all over it!"
"Yeah, but you spit on it," Yohji replied.
"And don't call me Ken-Ken," the brunette snapped, in almost the same breath. "I fucking hate that damn nickname!"
Yohji shrugged, "I know … that's why I do it."
Ken rolled his eyes and threw his head back to look at the ceiling in a classic "why the hell me" gesture. Why did he have to be saddled with this fucking lunatic moron for a teammate and housemate? Wasn't it bad enough to have to live with a sociopathic neat-freak and an overly cheerful, psychotic tour guide wannabe? Oh, and don't forget the biggest fucking spider to ever walk the earth. When was it going to be enough? When was Fate going to decide she had dumped enough shit on Ken Hidaka's head?
'Clearly, not today,' Ken thought as Yohji's voice cut through the brief silence.
"So?" the older man prompted, giving Ken a one eyebrow raised look over the rims of his sunglasses, "You gonna kill it or what?"
"You kill it," Ken retorted.
"No, you," Yohji answered.
"No, you," Ken snapped.
"No, you … no backs!" Yohji yelled, a look of sheer triumph on his face.
"Oh, for crying out loud!" Omi snapped, twisting around to face his two teammates. "What are you … third graders or something? It's just a fucking spider!"
"Will you kill it?" Ken asked, his voice holding a tentative, hopeful tone.
"Me?" Omi replied. The boy shook his head, "Huh uh … don't get me involved with that thing." He leaned to one side, using the table for leverage to keep from falling, and took a good, long look at the spider. "It's hairy … and creepy-looking. Plus, I think it's watching us."
"Well, sure it is," Yohji replied, "Spiders have, like, a bazillion eyes."
"A bazillion?" Omi challenged, his tone indicating disbelief of Yohji's statement.
The tall blonde refused to be daunted. He nodded, blew yet another stream of smoke at the creature holding down that little patch of their wall, and replied, in a confident, sure voice, "Yep. Bazillion. Saw it on TV … Discovery Channel … it's educational, you know."
Omi cocked his head to one side and regarded Yohji for a moment or two before asking, in a suspicious voice, "When did you ever watch Discovery Channel?"
Yohji shrugged and waved his hand in a dismissive gesture. "Other day. You know, that channel isn't what I expected."
"You thought it was porn, didn't you?!" Omi exclaimed, letting go of the table to point at Yohji. He almost lost his balance.
Yohji shrugged. "With a name like that? Of course I did. Who wouldn't?"
Omi shook his head and turned his attention back to the guide book. "I thought we could do something fun this weekend … you know … all together, since we don't have a mission and the shop's closed."
Aya saw Yohji and Ken tear their attention from the spider long enough to give each other a knowing look --- the look that passes between people who have been dragged off to one fun activity too many and have made a pact never to let it happen again. Aya recognized this look because he had the same one pasted on his face, although none of the others had noticed his presence.
"Stop giving each other that look," Omi snapped, without even turning around. "It'll be fun. I was thinking we could, maybe, go horseback riding. There's a place near downtown. It's kinda new, but a few of the girls who come into the shop said it was fun. It's even listed here in the guide book."
Aya decided it was time to make his presence known, before Ken and Yohji agreed to a day of enforced fun from the dizzying heights of horseback. He shifted his weight and cleared his throat before saying, "No horses."
All three of his teammates jumped at the sound of his voice. Yohji gave the redhead a little wave of greeting before turning his attention back to the spider. Ken glanced at Aya but, likewise, quickly riveted his eyes back on his canny arachnid foe. Omi looked up from the guide book, and smiled, a warm, genuine smile of greeting. Aya was surprised to realize Omi was truly happy to see him. He didn't know why. The kid was always happy to see any of them, but, still, it surprised him. Maybe because he never expected anyone to be happy to see him.
"Oh, Aya," Omi said, still smiling. "I didn't see you there. Been standing there long?"
Aya shook his head. "No … not long," he lied, although there was a ghost of a smile on his lips, which he was certain told Omi he'd seen most of Ken and Yohji's spider act.
If the kid didn't believe him, he didn't give any sign of it. "I was just thinking we could do something fun this weekend …" Omi started to say.
"No … horses," Aya cut him off. He felt a little bad about it, as Omi looked disappointed, but he had to draw the line. A man had to take a stand on some things, and, in Aya's opinion, horses were one of them.
Yohji looked away from the spider and gave Aya a teasing, playful grin, "Why? You scared of a little horsey?" When Ken laughed, Yohji glared at him and snapped, "Shut up, spider-boy."
"No," Aya said, cringing at how defensive his voice sounded, "I'm not scared of them. It's just … not … well, safe. They're huge, and have teeth … and their feet are really … well, big." He blushed as the words tumbled out of his mouth with a life of their own. It wasn't the speech he had prepared or the imposing, forbidding manner he would have preferred to project, but it was the best he could do under the circumstances.
"What," Yohji asked, never taking his attention from the spider, "Do you have there?" He waved his hand in Aya's general direction, as if that would give emphasis or explanation to his question.
Aya frowned, puzzled. After a moment or two, he answered, "A sword?"
"Right," Yohji replied. "You play with a sword, you're an assassin … but you're afraid of horses?"
Aya blushed and twisted his mouth into an irritated grimace, "It's not the same thing. Besides, swords don't kill people …"
"I know, I know," Yohji said, cutting him off in mid sentence and waving his hand behind his head in a dismissive manner, his attention still riveted on the arachnid, which had resumed its slow, cautious creep up the wall toward the ceiling, an air-conditioning vent, and, hopefully, freedom from its unwanted audience. It stopped when the tall blonde blew another stream of smoke at it. "Swords don't kill people … you kill people," he continued once he had halted the advance of his malevolent and particularly cunning foe, "Heard it all before. But … horses don't kill people, either."
Aya frowned at the triumphant tone in Yohji's voice. If he backed down now, he'd never hear the end of it from that blonde idiot. He had to see this argument through, no matter how stupid and childish it made him sound. "No," he agreed, "Horses don't kill people … falling off does. They're not small and manageable … like, say, a spider." He emphasized the word "spider" to drive home the point that he knew Yohji was afraid of that spider, just as much as the rest of them were. They all knew it, and he wanted the tall blonde to know they knew it.
"It's Ken's spider," Yohji muttered in response, but Aya was satisfied to see a slight, embarrassed blush creep across the older man's face.
"It is not!" Ken hissed, careful to avoid spitting on their arachnid companion this time. "Stop saying that!" He turned his attention toward Aya long enough to challenge, "If you're so brave and mighty, you come over here and kill it."
Aya gave Ken a narrow-eyed glare, but the ex-goalie noted, with an air of satisfaction, he didn't make any move toward spider ground zero. The brunette turned back toward the spider with a triumphant smirk, an unspoken "right … thought so" that made Aya's skin crawl and his teeth itch. But, he refused to give Ken the satisfaction of arguing with him. Yohji was one thing. He could stand acting childish and arguing with Yohji, but to do so with Ken was unthinkable.
Instead, Aya pretended he hadn't even heard the ex-goalie's challenge. He ignored Ken and said, "Yohji, I need to get back into shape. Kritiker's going to put us back in the field soon, and I need to be ready. I thought we could spar."
Omi glanced up from his guide book and gave Aya a questioning look, but the boy was smart enough to keep his thoughts to himself. Still, Aya could see them written in Omi's eyes and the expression on his face, and he had to admit it grated on his nerves. He glared at the kid until Omi, wisely, looked back down at the open book.
Yohji turned away from the spider, momentarily forgetting about the creature, and gave Aya a long, searching look. He ran a practiced eye up and down the redhead's body, calculating the injuries Aya had suffered in his last foray: the fractured skull, the injuries to his face, the multiple lacerations and contusions on his torso, the broken collarbone, the fractured ribs, not to mention the internal damage. It had been a couple of months since then, but those kinds of things didn't go away overnight. Normally, he would have jumped at the chance to spar with Aya. Testing his skill with the wire against the redhead's blade was a huge treat, but, now, he was afraid of Aya pushing his body too far too soon. Sure, the redhead was healing, but Yohji knew he was still in a lot of pain. It would be too easy to re-inflict some of the most serious injuries. After several seconds, Aya began to squirm under Yohji's scrutiny. He never had liked people staring at him.
Finally, the tall blonde shook his head and said, "Nah. Don't think so. You still look like crap, and you shouldn't be doing anything with that sword --- other than polishing it, maybe. Even if we get a mission, you're not going."
"Oh, shit! It's moving! It's moving!" Ken yelled, making Yohji jump and focusing the older man's attention back onto the spider, which had begun to skitter, at breakneck speed, up the wall --- an obvious, desperate, last bid for freedom.
Omi was the only one who wasn't focused on the spider, so he was the only one who saw the way Aya's mouth pulled itself into a grim, determined, straight line, the way the redhead's lips went white, and the way his eyes glittered with anger. The younger blonde swallowed and, silently, exited his chair, moving off to the side just as Aya reached into a nearby drawer and retrieved a paring knife. He hefted it in his hand for a moment, flipping it from blade to handle, and then, back to blade. It wasn't very well balanced, and it wasn't very sharp, but he supposed it would do. In one lightening-quick, fluid motion, he threw the knife toward the spider, which was racing up the wall under the watchful gaze of his teammates, just inches from their heads.
The knife split the air with an almost poetic, aerodynamic ease, making only the smallest humming sound as it passed. It sliced cleanly between Yohji and Ken, causing them to jump backward in shock, although Aya was maliciously happy to see it took a good chunk of Ken's hair with it and prompted an "eep" from the ex-goalie. It struck the spider dead center with enough force to embed the blade a good couple of inches into the door jamb, the knife handle vibrating and humming from the force of its impact.
A heavy, tense silence descended on the kitchen, rolling into every corner of the room and blanketing the small space like a thick roll of cotton batting, while Yohji stared at Aya. After a few seconds, the tall blonde ran his hands through his hair, pulling it loose from its low ponytail, and pushed his sunglasses up on his nose. He leaned forward and poked at the knife with his index finger, flicking it with enough force to set the handle vibrating once more. He frowned at the kitchen utensil, clearly lost in deep thought. Sighing, he gathered his hair back from his face and, once again, fastened it in the elastic tie before turning to face Aya.
"Maybe you're not as sick as I thought," he commented, sending a meaningful, sideways glance at the knife embedded in the wall a few inches from his head. "OK … I'll spar with you. I just have to go upstairs and get my …" The clink of something metallic flying toward him cut Yohji off mid-sentence. He plucked the object Aya had tossed out of the air and glanced at it as he finished, "wire."
Without another word, he crossed the kitchen and shouldered past Aya to precede the redhead up the stairs and to the roof. Aya turned to watch Yohji's exit just in time to see him wave his hand in response to Omi's warning of "Don't hit him in the head!"
The redhead turned back toward Omi and gave the boy a meaningful glare. "No. Horses," he said, before turning on his heel and following Yohji.
Omi sighed. "Well," he said, "I suppose we could go to the amusement park again. What do you think, Ken?" He turned around to regard his friend when Ken failed to answer. "Ken?" he prompted.
The ex-goalie was still staring at the knife embedded in the wall and the sizable chunk of brown hair speared on its end, along with the deceased spider. He reached out and placed his forefinger against the handle's tip, to stop the blade from vibrating, and then looked at Omi with wide, surprised eyes. The young blonde took one look at the startled expression on Ken's face and laughed. He knew the brunette had, somehow, made his peace with Aya and come to accept the stubborn, quiet redhead as a true member of Weiss. But, it looked like Ken was having second thoughts at the moment, judging from the way he stared at that knife.
"Remind me again why we're happy to have him back?" Ken asked.