Still Life With Cats
Spoilers for the first series. For a friend, the Yohji I know.

It's early in the summer when Yohji discovers the strays. It's funny--funny weird, not ha ha ha, though an outsider might find both true. He's an overgrown Balinese wading through a pack of cousin shorthairs. An assassin entering the alleyway with haughty delicacy, ankles neatly turning to place one foot exactly in front of the other. Kitten-minces as he sneaks back home.

There are at least five of them picking at the garbage bin. Mixed-breeds. They're scrawny enough to slip underneath the green mesh-net intended to keep out the crows, and their tails jerk and wiggle as they burrow into the mess of trash bags.

The air swims with fish. It's discount sushi night at the local bar; the chefs must have dumped the excess carelessly, because there's a prickle of sake needling Yohji's nose.

He tries not to disturb the cats. They hear him anyway, bodies going rigid at the first scrape of gravel, human boots on human pavement. Yohji freezes as well, awkward in mid-step, but the damage is already done.

One minute, they're in stand-off. The next finds the smaller felines scattering, dark fur boiling through the shadows, and suddenly Yohji is alone.

Fair enough.

He bypasses his apartment and chooses the flowershop instead, checking in like a good assassin, if a little late.

Omi has left a dart case on the stairs. The label claims it's a safety playing set, but Yohji cranes his neck as he picks his way down, and decides that the package is too innocent to be real.

"Oi," he calls out, thumbing up his shades as he clatters down. "You left your toys out again, Omi."

The younger killer pokes his head out from underneath the desk. A clump of dust is sticking to his lashes; squinting to protect his eye, the boy attempts to puff it free. "Just--pff!--move them to the side, could you? I'll be done here in just a minute or two."

Yohji twists his shoulders, trying to get a good view. "What are you doing down there?"

"Upgrades!" Omi's cheerful announcement comes muffled; one of his heels bounces against the floor as he squirms back behind the computer tower. "Have to keep ahead of technology, before it catches up with us."

Omi's fully underneath the desk by the time Yohji sticks out his tongue, a pink slug peeking forth in childish amusement. The older assassin could have entered with more subtly, but he's too weary to pad velvet-toed, sneak sneak back home. Work made him rough it for five days, cramped up on rooftops, and the only thing Yohji cares about now is unwinding.

He drops his bag on the table. It sighs street dust upon impact. Inside are stained lab samples and a bloodsoaked rag that Yohji used in place of a field dressing; he'll empty the sack out later, routing the data to its proper sources along with a request for antibiotics.

The bag is covered with grime on one side where Yohji landed on it after sliding down a stairway head-first, feet upended and wildly flailing. When he touches the stain, his fingers come away dirty.

Another job well-done.

The whole setup is kind of crazy, to be honest. Shopkeepers by day. Justice by night. Makes them sound like superheroes--Captain Abyssinian and the Death Florists, fighting evil on prime-time television slots. Made-up characters that little kids dream of being, race to buy the action figures and talk avidly about statistics during lunchtime. Yohji plans to rank at least second in popularity, because losing to a soccer junkie and champion dart-player would be a crippling blow to his coolness factor. He'd never recover.

Manx shows up when Yohji is halfway through unlacing his boots. Her arms are folded neatly across her waist, fingers cupping her elbows; the metal-hooped belt jingles when she walks, sashaying like the best of club dancers. She blinks when she notices Yohji's presence, drawing herself upright with a pursed-lip pleasure. "You're finally back, Balinese?"

"Uhm. Yeah." Responding slowly to his code-name, Yohji moves towards the couch. It squeaks when he drops his weight onto it. Plastic-wrapped pillows, blow-up cushions. Perfect setting for a team of assassins who double as flourists; Omi pointed out once that it's hard to wash blood out of damask, so Yohji supposes the porn star look works.

Watching the alleyway cats took longer than he thought. The nearest clock blinks green 3 a.m. digits, and when Ken joins them, he does so covering his mouth with a hand to hide nonstop yawns. The air smells like old coffee, and Yohji's mouth has the back-of-the-throat rust of sleep deprivation, warning him how exhausted he'll be tomorrow. When he lets himself feel it. If he does.

"Balinese? Yohji, are you even listening?"

Searching randomly for the thread of conversation, Yohji hazards a guess. "There weren't any problems with my half of the job." Grunting as he yanks off his left boot, the assassin fingers the back of his heel, wincing when he finds a spot that's raw. "Easy in, easy out. I could have pulled it off earlier and still saved time for a date. Speaking of which," he purrs, the muscles in his throat working smooth, supple, "you wouldn't happen to be free after this, would you?"

This earns the reaction he'd hoped. Manx frowns, her cherry-stone lips wrinkling. "Not during an assignment," she sighs, politely cross. "Some of us have actual business to attend to, remember?"

Yohji presses the back of his wrist to his head. "My life, it's withering away." The moan is gauzy as an old man's. "I'll die childless. My lineage is to be terminated here. Just listen--ah, those were the moans of my grandparents' ghosts, crying out--"

The inflatable pillow hits his mouth with a pornographic squeak. Yohji bats it away, laughing. Manx resumes briefing the rest of the team on the next step of the job, so Yohji only rolls over and buries his nose in the washable sofa, closing his eyes and choosing to nap.

By the time Yohji works his life back to the alleyway, someone else has discovered the strays. Blue plastic bowls are scattered around the trash bin; a scrabbling of kibble is left in one of them, orange and brown mew-mew mix.

Summer is in full swing. Air-conditioning units thrum in every apartment block, beaming a circadian hum directly into Yohji's skull. It's hot, but not sweltering, so Yohji is mystified to see furry lumps stretched out across the concrete, kitty-lungs heaving for breath.

He takes another step into the alley. The cats don't move.

Frowning openly, Yohji kneels by the closest feline. Its eyes are a sliver of color, pupil dilated to a glossy ink-puddle that nearly swallows the entire iris. It doesn't move when he touches it; Yohji is hesitant at first, and then forceful, shaking the animal before he rolls it entirely over and watches its limbs shudder.

The next two cats that Yohji checks are dead.

Curiosity urges him to the food dishes. There's an odd sheen on the kibble chunks, and when Yohji bends his head to sniff at the bowls, he finds his nose wrinkling in a primal wariness.


Ungloving one of his hands, Yohij runs a fingertip over the tainted food and touches it to his tongue. The taste is sweet, dangerously so, and Yohij spits until his mouth is dry as noon.

One of the neighbors must have set this trap deliberately. Yohji can't tell how long ago the food was set out; he doesn't know all forms of home-cooked poison, but he's heard of antifreeze before, the cheap man's bullet. The cats could have fed off the toxin for days. Maybe shorter. However recently the trap was placed, it was long enough to cause fatalities.

At first Yohji can only brood in deja-vu--the grim ornaments of parallels, how he slips out every night to kill people, while average men and women perform similar exterminations without a second thought. His work is called murder, and justice.

Theirs is simply pest control.

The kindest--the only thing the assassin can do would be to kill the cats now, so that they won't be forced to suffer, but when he puts his hands upon their soft-furred throats, he can't do it. He tries. But Yohji's thumbs go weak, his palms ache, and he gives up after the second attempt.

He ends up sitting on a back stairway instead, cigarette in hand, watching the ongoing spasms.

"Ah," he says eventually, tasting the cloud of smoke that expands from his lips.

Yohji knows all about strangulation. It is his preferred means of killing. Bloodless, easy. Somewhat time-consuming, but if Yohji is in a hurry, a simple twist of his fingers can bring the razor edge to bear and the fight would be all over.

He could garrote them all with little effort. String them together all at once, and hoist their bodies up from the fence, so that their paws would kick in rabbit-jerks.

He could kill them. He should.

As he perches on the stoop, silent as a vulture, Yohji notices a small motion out of the corner of his eye. He knows better than to turn his head. Instead, he only scrolls his eyes over, letting the breath drain out of his body until his lungs feel as empty and peaceful as the grave. His is stone; he is made from it, chipped out and carved. He is nothing.

Eventually, a small grey blob detaches from a shadow and creeps across the asphalt. It keeps its ribs pressed against the ground, inching forward, flat as a pancake. The ears swivel. The little cat doesn't stop to investigate the casualties dotting the alleyway, but only inches towards the scraps of poisoned kibble left in the kiddie-blue bowls.

Yohji should stop it. He could shoo it away.

When he moves, the kitten bolts instantly for the nearest crate to hide behind. Yohji catches it swiftly, looping out a wire net that traps its legs together and hauls it screaming out. There's no way to stop the hysterical wail of its voice, so he drops his jacket over the tiny creature and holds it tight until it passes out from oxygen deprivation.

Cat food is expensive. More than cigarettes, and when he adds up the cost of kibble, gravel and cheap plastic litter pans, Yohji decides that a tracheotomy would be more cost-efficient for his life.

The only vet that was willing to book an appointment on such short notice had overcharged him for the trouble. One round of shots and a flea collar later, and Yohji had called a cab rather than risk the subway with a yowling, psychotic beast taped inside a makeshift cardboard box.

Asuka had been an animal-person, and Yohji had picked up enough sense from her through osmosis that he knows to prop open a spare closet and slide the litterpan in there. He excavates the towels, coats and spare knives, leaving the nook free for the kitten's use alone.

Introducing the creature to its toilet isn't hard; it leaps the instant that Yohji cracks open the box, squashing itself into the furthest corner of the closet and staring back at him with a gaping, needle-toothed mouth.

When he gets tired of listening to its wheedling growls, Yohij stands up and uncricks his knees. He thinks about what to do, and then grabs his coat for work.

No one in his team is told about the cat. Yohji doesn't bother to inform them, and there's nothing in his actions that betrays his pet. Or whatever the creature is--he has no rapport with the feline, no affection. It doesn't obey when he tries to coax it out, attempting patience and treats, gentle tones and inoffensive motions.

Since the kitten doesn't respond to him when he talks, Yohji stops trying to pick a name for it, spending his time in mutual silence with the furball.

He can't wrestle up the interest to tame the thing. If the cat wants to be wild, he figures, it could be, and there's nothing Yohji can really do about it otherwise. Just like Aya stomping around in the flowershop, antisocial to the core--Yohji can't do anything about that either, and he doesn't care, he doesn't care.

Which fits in with the rest of his life, currently. Yohij's realized that his essential boredom with being alive is that there's no subtlety involved. Flirting requires no effort. He'd like to pretend that killing takes more, except that the bodies have all gone faceless years ago. Blank expressions, crime lab victims. Yohji's a complex man, but there's no call for it, and he thinks he's getting stupider with each passing, frivolous day.

Asuka used to say that Yohji had a problem with getting stuck in the same rut. Inertia, he always would retort. Thousands of synonyms for how he's drowning now in recycled days, killing by night and trimming flowers for schoolgirls on the side. Just a photograph running on autopilot. Smiling blandly during jobs, coaxing interest from women. Staying in practice keeps him going. By the end of the day, Yohji can almost entirely forget about the future, burying it under a stack of napkin-scrawled phone numbers and girlish giggles. Society helps him feel alive. It's the sole opiate he needs to pass the time.

Asuka called him a flirt. Asuka said a lot of things, and Yohji finds his face screwing up in a wince before he glances down, and realizes he crushed a lit cigarette between his fingers.

One of Yohji's many other flaws: he likes to leave the windows open in his apartment. Realistically he knows he's inviting theft, but Yohji tells himself that he likes living dangerously.

Whenever he's too lazy to use an ashtray, Yohji pops open the screens and tosses his dead cigarettes outside. His fingers pick up dirty smears like this, coated in a fine grey dust; bitter smoke, a toxic grime that limes the mesh from tobacco fumes congealed.

When the assassin comes back from a job to find one of the screens half-shredded and the kitten hiding guiltily behind the toilet, Yohji realizes that he has to keep the windows closed now.

He's trapped inside with his cancer.

After a while, Yohji starts leaving the house when he needs to light up. Then he gets tired of peeling off his shoes only to put them back on again, so he takes an extra cigarette on the walk home and dawdles until it's done. Yohji likes to smoke when he drinks, too, and he likes to drink when he eats, so eventually he just starts going home only to sleep. This way, he barely sees the kitten. It takes over his apartment, skittering around whenever he pushes open the front door. The rooms begin to smell like musk and stale piss.

There's cat shit in his closet. Yohji leans his head in and instantly regrets it. He spins away and lurches for the window, hands clamping down on the sill before he remembers why he doesn't expose his home to fresh air anymore.

Fuck it, he decides, and yanks it open.

August has an executioner's mercy. Heat waves smother Japan, trebling in humidity over the course of the day and refusing to yield for rain. Yohji spends more time at the flowershop, picking up hours under the excuse that he needs to earn more pocket-money without losing valuable sleep on single missions.

But he doesn't go home.

All three of his teammates believe him when he claims his apartment is too dirty for guests. That's good. It means he doesn't have to introduce them to the animal prowling through the rooms of his life, to reveal the thing hidden underneath his bed that is becoming more and more feral with each passing day.

One particularly long mission takes Yohji out of the city for almost a week. It leaves him with double bruises up his calves and thighs, marks of a steel pipe that had rattled across his body in an attack. The weapons they fight become stranger and stranger, but Yohji can't complain--his favorite wire spool is in the shop again for resharpening. The criminals become odder and odder, but Yohji works with floral assassins and answers to a feline codename. He's not one to talk.

The hunt for Schwarz continues. Yohji's not really sure why he's participating in it now, except that they attacked Weiss first, or they masterminded the whole thing, or maybe it's just something to do. He's dying in little steps each night and all the Balinese can think is that it'd be nice when Schwarz was dead because that would mean another paycheck and maybe a few days off.

When he staggers back into his apartment after the extended job, flicking the light switches on one by one, he sees the kitten's food dish lurking halfway across the front hall. It's licked clean as bone. Empty.

A guilty oath explodes out of the assassin's mouth as he realizes his neglect. The mission had been slated for two days, and that's exactly how much kibble he'd left out, not an ounce more. He hadn't even thought about the cat until now. He must not have left enough water either--but hell, he'd left the toilet seat up, it must have survived off that.

After he refills both bowls and sets them carefully beside the fridge on a ragged dishtowel, Yohji flops to the ground and waits.

The kitten doesn't show.

If he's very quiet--if he holds his breath and ignores his own heartbeat--Yohji can hear the rustles of a small, furry body moving through the foliage of his apartment. But it doesn't reveal itself, and it doesn't approach, and eventually the assassin gives up and goes to take a shower.

"I can't believe how sick some of these people are." Aya's growl is laced with vibrant anger; a display of passion that Yohji suspects is actually directed at the ghost of Takatori. Aya's fantasizing again. He's thinking about his sister instead of the job.

The blonde doesn't feel like arguing. "It's terrible," Yohji simply agrees, and he even means it, but the truth is also that crime happens every day in the world. Atrocities are not exactly uncommon. Hell, Weiss itself is a pack of murderers; ask the countless families they must have devastated, all those dead security guards and soldiers whose only faults were that they took a shit job to put food on the table.

Yohji never points this out. Aya would react poorly at best; Ken is too wrapped up in an innocent righteousness, his head full of downtrodden unfortunates that he would defend. Omi would shrug in that wonderfully practical manner of his, and return to rewiring electronic panels.

Reminding them about facts wouldn't change the overall picture one bit.

Yohji flips the mission folder over in his hands before tossing it onto the table. He predicted Aya's response, just like he already knows that when Ken disappeared fifteen minutes ago, it was to double-check the flower shop before preparing it for an early close. They're repeating the same tasks over and over again. Only the surface details change--who did what to whom, and how swiftly Weiss has been assigned to kill them for it.

They don't have to mobilize until later this week. Omi will spend the rest of the night hacking into their target's database systems, downloading the passcodes and schedules that will let them bypass security locks and finish the kill in less than twenty minutes. It's miserably hot today, and Yohji doesn't want to leave the flowershop's basement. He woke up sweating that morning and forced himself to crack a window, just an inch, so that he could fall back asleep again.

"Yohji." Someone has been saying his name; it only penetrates him now, and he shakes himself out of his daze to focus on Manx's face. "Yohji, are you paying attention? You look distracted. Are you all right?"

"Hey, hey. I overslept." Concealing the kitten, and how it had ranged through his apartment making tiny, desperate calls all night. Yohji had flicked on light switches, had tried to lure it to him or simply ignore the noise, but it hid whenever it heard his approach and resumed its wails only when he returned to his bed. "It's probably the weather's fault."

"Is that all?" Manx's weight shifts back and forth on her heels, side to side, hips sliding in an ocean of red satin. "It hasn't been that long since we fought Masafumi and... and Schreient." She's tactful enough to reword names into enemy categories. Skipping Neu. Ignoring Asuka. "Yohji... are you sure you don't need to take a longer break from work?"

Memory hits Yohji's chest like a sledgehammer. He closes his eyes against the impact. "I'm over all that now," he replies calmly, very calmly, and then turns away from Manx's glossy-lipstick concern.

He makes it through the rest of the work day flawlessly, but halfway through the mission prep, Yohji goes quietly into the back storeroom and sits down. He lets his arms dangle on his knees, feet together, head bowed.

By the time that Omi comes mewling to find out where he's gone, Yohji already has his sunglasses back in place and is lighting another cigarette.

Temperatures soar the next day. Yohji shoves the bedroom window up another fraction with his fingers, and then squeezes his hands against the ratty screen, desperate for a breeze.

He's in critical care for a week after the grotto collapses upon the team. Ken is in for longer. Aya and Omi both survived through some miracle--Yohji's not sure about the hows, or even why he himself managed to make it out alive with a struggling redhead in his hands and German words spat into his face. It was freak chance that saved all their lives. They woke up on shore after clashing against Estet and it was only Omi who was still able to walk, struggle up to the road and flag down a car for emergency assistance.

Yohji is released from the hospital after fourteen days. Most of that time was spent drugged. Weiss pays for his cab ride home, and he spends the hour bumping gently against the window, head nestled against his shoulder while he drowses.

He dreams of the ocean. The waves are blue, pure and clean and bloodless. The water is free from salt.

The instant that he steps into his apartment, Yohji knows that something is wrong.

His instincts don't give him much more information than that, despite how well-practiced they are in the service of keeping his skin intact. Intruder? Trap? It could be Schwartz returned to kill him--if they survived, if any of those supernaturally gifted demons lived--but Yohji's bones ache and he just doesn't care.

Stumbling through the rooms gives him no clues. There's nothing out of place except a colony of mold in his refrigerator and the rapid-fire blinks of fifty messages on his answering machine. Only when he turns the corner to his bedroom and feels a lone breeze touch his face does Yohji understand what happened.

The window's still open.

The cat is gone.

Moving forward gingerly, Yohji squints at the tattered screen. It couldn't have been his carelessness alone that gave the kitten its escape route. The window is up further than he remembers, and a few grey hairs are clumped on the sill.

It must have been determined as hell, Yohji decides, examining the ragged claw-marks.

He can't blame it.

The first week must have found the kitten ravenous. The second, worse. Until it was willing to push its skinny way through the gap in the window, widening the crack with shoves of its head until it could finally tear its way to freedom. Yohji can envision how desperation had forced the creature to use its face as a lever, forcing the window up inch by painful inch. Nose to eyes to skull, fishing its legs in to claw at the screen while lying half on one shoulder.

It must have fallen off at least once like that. Yohji's windowsill is not wide.

But it never stopped trying.

The apartment feels emptier without the kitten. It was dismal already, has been ever since Yohji had caught the stray, but now it seems as if the rooms are doubly abandoned. The assassin's not sure what to do about the food and water dishes, or about the litter pan, so he ends up sticking them in the nearest trash pick-up bin.

He doesn't see any other cats around.

Yohji finishes the cleanup all too quickly and finds himself standing in his bedroom again, staring blankly at the hacked-open window. The sunset is a cotton-candy nuke, a mushroom cloud melting into lava on an ice-cream sky. Yohji can taste the soft butter of humidity in his throat when he breathes.

Smells like rain at last.

When he goes to sleep that night, Yohji leaves all the windows open, just in case there's anything left inside that needs to escape.