Authors note: We haven't given up! And we haven't lost our enthusiasm for this fandom or this fic! So, here's the proof that we HAVE been working! A nice, long, full-length chapter!

As always, we want to thank everyone who has stuck with us so far, patiently awaiting our embarrassingly long take between updates. A special thanks goes out to everyone who has taken the time to review! Your feedback is greatly appreciated!

Chapter 10

Seimei… I've been on probation 5 days already. Have you forgotten about me?

In some corner of himself, Ritsuka had found this new worry sprouting. Resentment toward Soubi's decision had given way to a softly kindling desperation. This could last weeks; MONTHS. And how much of an impression had Ritsuka made on Seimei, anyway?

One prostitute. He was only one in a line-up of forty or so. A single boy who was much too scrawny and much too inexperienced to be anything special in this kind of business.
But he just couldn't let go of the hope that Seimei had finally found in him a favorite, even if during his absence Seimei took up with the other boys as was his custom. Kio wouldn't tell him if Seimei had even be by, let alone who he took. Part of Ritsuka was relieved. Part of him didn't want to know.

This morning he had woken up early. Not because he was reverting back to his old schedule-oh, no. He would be ready to stay with Seimei all night the moment he got the chance again. It was simply that he had too much going on in his head to sleep. He had tossed all night, getting fragments of broken dreams and nightmares whenever an inch of sleep found him, and finally he gave up trying around 8am.

After dressing slowly, he took to roaming about, haunting the hallways like a ghost for some 20 odd minutes now, destination undetermined. He ran his hand over the gold and white wallpaper as he went along, pausing minutely to look out a window or peek into a mysterious looking room every so often. Soubi's House was a lot bigger than he had imagined. And nice.

Yeah, it was a pretty nice place to live even if you couldn't tell from the outside. Even now it didn't feel like a jail. He wasn't imprisoned within the walls anyway; probation, as it turned out, didn't mean he was on lock-down. But it created another problem: he didn't know what he was going to do today.

He was supposed to be helping Soubi, but he'd refused to go anywhere near that man the first two days, and after that Soubi had simply stopped trying. A curious thing, too; Ritsuka was waiting to be booted out, but Kio kept telling him that Soubi liked him too much to ever do that.
The thought made Ritsuka snort out loud. He was sure Soubi must really hate him to torment him like this.

From somewhere behind him, the now-familiar voices of Natsuo and Youji sounded faintly, growing louder by the second. Ritsuka paused at the top of the staircase, hand on the railing, and turned to wait for them. When they appeared around the corner, Ritsuka could see they were both in pajamas- long sleeved, matching pants numbers in blue for Youji and purple for Natsuo. Youji's had a cute puppy face on the shirt pocket and Natsuo's had a teddy bear that covered the whole front.

For not the first time, Ritsuka wondered if the cutesy things they wore and the stuffed puppies they sometimes carried around were some kind of ploy to trap unsuspecting persons into believing they were sweeter than was fully the truth. But for what reason, Ritsuka couldn't imagine, and he was pretty sure he was better off that way.

"Morning, Ritsuka," said Natsuo.

"Where are you sneaking off to at this godforsaken hour of the morning?" Youji cut in.

"It's 9 am," Ritsuka pointed out.

Youji made an noise caught somewhere between disbelief and annoyance. "We could have slept another hour or two."

"I'm going back to bed," said Natsuo, then paused, snapping out his arm to halt Youji. "Wait! I smell something."

Youji and Ritsuka sniffed reflexively. It was sweet and doughy and made Ritsuka's stomach rumble.

Youji cried out in joy. "KIO'S MAKING PANCAKES!" And bolted down the stairs.

"Wait!" Screamed Natsuo, running after him. "I want some too!"

"I'll share mine with you!" Youji called back, and then they were both gone.

Ritsuka hesitated for a moment. Soubi might be down there. Then again, why should he go hungry just to prove a point? Soubi already knew Ritsuka was mad, so screw him.

"Guys, wait up!"

They didn't, of course, and were crowded around Kio at the stove when Ritsuka entered. There were a few other boys at the table- Ritsuka had been introduced to probably everyone at this point, but just like school, they all had their own groups they stuck by. A few of them smiled and said good morning as he tried his best to be invisible and cross the oversized kitchen to Kio.

Soubi was just outside the large sliding doors by the banquet-sized dining table (necessary for so many boarders), sipping from a mug and looking through papers. He didn't seem to notice Ritsuka just inside as he slipped in behind Natsuo.

"I want chocolate chips in mine," Youji demanded.

Kio made a disgusted noise. "Who says these are for you?"


"You're already making some," said Natsuo, who seemed to be the voice of reason between the two.

"Alright fine. But I'm only making them plain."

"I want chocolate chips!"

"Natsuo not sweet enough for you?" Kio said, smirking cruelly. It really didn't suit him.

"That's such a lame thing to say," said Youji. "Sex and food are completely different things. Love and sex are different. Food and love are different."

Ritsuka's mind was reeling at the "love and sex are different" part. It made him feel a little queasy that he was beginning to understand exactly how that could be.

"Why would you even compare the two? I have sugar in the bedroom and now I want it on my plate."

"You're such a brat," said Kio.

"I want some too," said Natsuo.

"Fine, fine. And would you like a heart-shaped spray of whipped cream on top while I'm at it, dear sirs?"

Youji smiled triumphantly. "Whipped cream would be great. But you don't have to make it in the shape of a heart. It's not like we're picky or anything."

Kio sighed in a long-suffering way, and Natsuo laughed. Ritsuka figured this sort of exchange must not be new for them. Maybe they always asked for special things, and maybe Kio always indulged them, even if he acted like it was a huge chore. Kio really was a caretaker for the boys, Ritsuka thought to himself. It didn't seem like he got enough thanks for it.

"Ritsuka?" asked Kio, looking up from the stove. "I'm already making chocolate-chip ones for these two...individuals. Do you want some too?"

Ritsuka nodded. He didn't want to bother Kio but he was hungry...and it wasn't like Kio wasn't already making food, so...

"Then would you mind being my special helper? We'll need to get out some more plates and all the sweets."

Ritsuka didn't mind helping Kio at all, but being the designated "special helper" had him feeling a bit indignant. He wandered to the oversized refrigerator feeling distinctly eight years old, with the vague recollection of helping his mother in the kitchen. The memories weren't pleasant ones. Cracked eggs on the floorboards, spilt tea, a knot the size of a walnut on the crown of his head. He rubbed at the spot now, seeing the blood drip off his bangs in his mind's eye.

"Are you hurt?" asked Natsuo, popping up behind him.

Ritsuka started and yanked his hand down. "No... just thinking too hard."

"Thinking isn't my specialty either," said Youji.

Kio snorted. "We knew that without the announcement."

"I'll help you find things," said Natsuo, handing Ritsuka the can of whipped cream.

Youji yanked it away, tilting his head back with the clear intention of spraying the contents into his mouth. Kio snatched it up, straightening his glasses with calm superiority.

"Wait until you are served. Now, why don't you make yourself useful for once and take these to Soubi?" He was a holding a plate of plain pancakes, the syrup on top forming a heart with a smiley face in the middle. The pat of butter that served as a nose was beginning to slide off center.

Youji opened his mouth, as if to retort, but Kio cut him off. "Just hand him the plate or you don't get any."

Youji tore away the plate from his hands and stomped toward Soubi, muttering colorful profanities beneath his breath. Ritsuka saw him pick off the butter and flick it into a bowl of cereal one of the other boys was eating.

"He can't do anything without rebelling somehow, can he?" Ritsuka asked.

Kio shook his head. "It certainly seems like he can't." He poured more batter into a huge frying pan in front of him, making several small circles. Ritsuka watched as the bubbles surfaced around the edges.

"Soubi has the right idea - ignore his antics," Kio continued. "It's his natural reaction."

Ritsuka looked over at Soubi again, finding that Youji was shoving the plate of pancakes under his nose unceremoniously. It looked like a few words were exchanged, and then Youji stomped off with a look of distaste, while Soubi was left smiling to himself.

Ritsuka turned back to Kio, who was also watching Soubi. Kio's expression was unreadable. There was a particular gleam in his eye, though...the only thing Ritsuka could tell for sure about it was that it was a mark of great interest.

"Kio..." he finally had to say. "The pancakes are burning."

Kio jumped and immediately flipped them all. The damage seemed minimal - just a too-dark browning in the middles; but Kio still grumbled beneath his breath, too quietly to tell if he was actually cursing.

"He doesn't want them." Youji clanked the plate onto the countertop so carelessly Ritsuka was sure it would leave a crack, or at least a chip, in the corelle. "Apparently he's swallowed so much cum since last night he couldn't possibly eat another bite. Natsuo's cum. Which I know for a fact is NOT TRUE."

"Then why are you so upset?" Ritsuka asked.

Youji's amethest eyes locked onto his. "What?"

"If you know it isn't true, then why do you let him get to you?"

"Because it's immoral to talk about someone else's property that way. That's why. He's being a bastard on purpose."

"Property?" Ritsuka felt indignant on Natsuo's behalf.

"You can't OWN a person! That's so-"

"Hot," Said Natuso. He had been listening at the adjacent countertop while pouring a ridiculous amount of syrup over a stack of pancakes. The whipped cream topping it was not in the shape of a heart like Soubi's rejected stack, but resembled a rather explicit and surprisingly accurate design of the male anatomy. "Of course I'm his property. I even have a tattoo of ownership printed across my-"

"We don't need to know this." Kio cut in, waving the spatula at them. "You already know this."

"But RITUSKA doesn't."

"I think it's kind of sweet," Ritsuka admitted, half reluctantly. He wasn't sure Youji and Natsuo would appreciate being called sweet, but it seemed at least to sate Youji's foul temper.

"Damn straight it is," he said, and smirked at the whipped cream display on the pancakes Natsuo handed to him.

Kio passed Natsuo a second plate and snapped at them both to go away before his sick headache came back. "I swear, Ritsuka," he said, shaking whisps of green hair out of his eyes. "Those two are by far the most difficult part of my job. If it wasn't for them, I would almost have it made."

"Just almost?" The newest set of batter started to bubble in the pan.

Kio indicated the bag of chocolate chips with a point of his finger, and Ritsuka scooped up a handful and began dropping them into the pancakes in a spiral pattern.

"Just almost. I rarely work the streets and only do voluntarily when I need to keep my mind off things, primarily Soubi when he has one of the boys in his office while I'm at home." Kio paused to sigh. "I have all the money I want and I enjoy making you boys look presentable for clients. I'm good at it and it's fun for me."

Rituska watched him flip the pancakes, revealing perfectly golden circle with lightly crisped edges. His stomach rumbled impatiently.

"There's little flaws here and there, but it isn't anything I can't deal with."

Ritsuka hesitated a moment before speaking, choosing his words carefully. "Kio? Are you and Soubi more than friends? More than... more than what he uses the other boys for?"

Kio's expression was a peculiar mixture of pain and pleasure, but at the very least, he didn't look put out by the inquiry. "It's complicated," he said after a measured pause. He pressed down the spatula firmly against each pancake, making the sound of frying hiss a little louder as he did. "He keeps me at an arm's length very deliberately. I tolerate it because I know the reason for that is because if he didn't, we WOULD be together. He feels something for me, I'm sure of that. The problem lies within his past."

"Because of Seimei." Without meaning to, Ritsuka said Seimei's name with an edge of longing and tenderness.

Kio peered at him over the top of his glasses. His voice was a touch sharper when he spoke. "You'll do well to remember why you are on probation right now. Wipe that melancholy, love-sick look off your face and do me a favor." He picked up the plate of pancakes Youji had dropped onto the counter, the whipped cream heart now melted completely. "Take this to Soubi and make him eat it."

"I can't MAKE him do anything, Kio," Ritsuka protested as he took the plate. "He gives ME the orders, remember?"

"That doesn't matter. He LIKES you, Ritsuka. It may be for all the wrong reasons, you being the spitting image of Seimei and all, but he's particularly fond of you. He's been sulking ever since your probation begun and hasn't eaten enough to keep a mouse alive. He'll listen to you, Ritsuka. Please."

Kio's eyes were a sharp leaf green, big and wide and pleading behind glass circles. Ritsuka sighed and turned to take the plate to Soubi, who was still sitting with his nose buried in a log book.

At first, he didn't look up; Ritsuka knew he wasn't really reading anything on the page because his eyes weren't moving. He resolved not to say a thing and wait until the impossible jerk acknowledged him first. Small victories, after all.

It took a few seconds, but Soubi's jaw finally hardened slightly.

"If I've told you once..." his voice trailed off when he looked up, and his expression softened into something akin to wonder. "Ritsuka. Good morning."

"It's not a good morning," he replied, bluntly. "Even so, breakfast is important." He thrust out the plate. "Chow down."

Soubi glanced at the contents of the plate for a fleeting half-second. "I've already told Youji-"

"That you've ingested too much cum since last night and couldn't possibly have another bite." Ritsuka said this with his eyes raised to the heavens, exasperation oozing out in a huff of breath.

He was a little surprised how much the information DIDN'T bother him. Wasn't it just last week he felt a stab of resentment toward Kio for having such a profound physical affect on the pervert? Now he just wanted to get back to the table and eat his pancakes and didn't give two blue marbles whose cum was occupying Soubi's stomach right now.

Soubi closed his book and set it aside. "The story doesn't have any truth to it. The reason I-"

"I don't care," Ritsuka cut in. "All I know is that you haven't been eating enough to keep a mouse alive for days now and it isn't healthy. You're wasting away to skin and bones."

The corners of Soubi's mouth quirked upward, just slightly, and his eyes seemed to melt. "Are you worried about me, Ritsuka? I was under the impression you despised me and wished multiple forms of harm and misfortune to rain down upon my person."

"Just because I'm mad at you doesn't mean I want you to get sick or die," Ritsuka snapped. "Besides, Kio made this specially for you. He does a lot of things specially for you and you don't seem to appreciate any of it. The least you can do is eat his stupid heart-shaped pancakes."

Soubi took the plate first, then the fork Ritsuka held out to him. "I'll try my best."

"You'll eat them all, and you'll like it. That's an order." He stomped away, back to Kio, who held out a plate of chocolate chip pancakes with a smiley swirled on top in whipping cream.

"He's eating it!" He said, practically squeeing in joy. "And he's smiling! Ritsuka, I would hate your guts if I weren't so relieved for his well-being."

Ritsuka smiled tiredly and took his plate to the table, sitting at the far edge.

Soubi, he noticed, was actually eating his food. Kio had pulled up a chair next to him and was chatting away while taking delicate bites of what looked like a fruit and yogurt parfait. Figured: A fattening breakfast for the rest of them and something light and healthy for himself. But that was okay; Kio didn't indulge them often or Ritsuka would be suspicious of a conspiracy. That in mind, he turned to his own plate and dug in.

It didn't take more than two bites for him to appreciate exactly why Youji and Natsuo had practically tumbled over each other in their haste to get to the kitchen earlier. Kio's artistic flair absolutely did not end at the easel or his chrome-cased nail design kit. This man had the ability to change anything he touched into magic.

Ritsuka closed his eyes and actually moaned as another bite of pancake melted on his tongue, the perfect blend of crispy-fluffy-sweet-buttery filling his mouth. Kio was amazing, and Ritsuka was pretty sure if he were a lesser person he'd develop a ridiculous crush on him for his culinary abilities alone. Soubi must really be an idiot.

Ritsuka had never indulged purely in the sense of taste before, but he closed his mind to everything and took a vacation from his thoughts with the rich flavors of breakfast heaven. The problem was that he was quickly becoming full, and he wasn't sure he had the willpower-or the desire, for that matter-to lay down his fork. He'd made his way about halfway through, but they were enormous, taking up an entire dinner plate and stacked five high, and his stomach was beginning to stretch and hurt.

"Aw, man." Kano slunk into the chair beside his, tousle haired in a plain shirt and blue checked boxers. As usual he looked too handsome to be allowed, especially in that state. "I missed Kio's cooking again."

Ritsuka wordlessly shoved over the remainder of his pancakes, dropping his fork onto the plate in the process.

"Ritsuka, you don't have to -" Kano protested, beginning to push the plate back.

"My stomach's going to explode if I eat another bite," argued Ritsuka. "And if you hadn't come along, I would have done just that. You're doing me the favor, honestly."

He let his forehead drop onto his folded arms on the table, feeling overfull and sleepy. There was also something about the image of Kano that made Ritsuka's belly ache. Probably because the image of Kano called forth images of Mr. Taco Grease Takahashi.

"Well. Thanks, Ritsuka." said Kano. There was a warm, too-tender smile on his face when he spoke the words. He didn't waste another second before tucking in. Ritsuka could hear him chewing from the first bite. It was loud and ravenous. Kano ate like a man half-starved, which Ritsuka found to be strange. The food was free in Soubi's house. Why was he so hungry?

Ritsuka picked his head up just enough to see, and he noticed that Kano looked thinner than he had the last time Ritsuka had seen him. And he was already thin to begin with.


"Yes?" He said, musically. Though he swallowed before speaking, he immediately pushed another bite past his teeth.

"Is everything alright?"

Kano looked over at him, his chewing slowing, and raised his eyebrows in a show of inquiry.

"It's just, you're look thinner since I saw you last. I hope you haven't been sick."

"You're looking thinner, too." Kano poked him playfully in the stomach. "Residual side effect of the horrendous evening we spent with dear Mr. Takahashi, no doubt."

Ritsuka covered his stomach with both hands. "Ugh, don't remind me."

"Good thing you get some probation time, right? That's what I heard anyway."

Ritsuka nodded. "Does everyone know why?"

Kano laughed, then paused to take a few gulps of the milk he had brought with him to the table. "There's all kinds of rumors floating around. The most ridiculous one is that Soubi got you pregnant."

"WHAT!?" Heat flushed Ritsuka's face, the brush of humiliation and anger. "That's the most ridiculous piece of-"

Kano yanked him down by the arm. He hadn't even realized he had shot up. "Ritsuka, no one believes it, even if it is being whispered in the halls."

Ritsuka sat down with a soft flump, eyes darting around self-consciously. He might have over-reacted there but so what? The thought of Soubi knocking anyone up - much less Ritsuka - was enough to freak anyone out. Soubi as father.

Ritsuka shuddered.

Kano stuffed another bite of pancake into his mouth. "These are amazing. Anyway, mostly people are saying it's about Seimei."

Ritsuka went into an abrupt coughing fit, clutching at his chest and trying to stop his eyes from watering.

Kano thumped him on the back a few times with one hand and continued to shovel pancakes into his mouth with the other. He swallowed hugely and continued, "I haven't really heard anyone say what ABOUT Seimei is the problem, but they all pretty much say he's involved somehow."

Finally managing to get himself quiet again, Ritsuka rubbed at his nose and muttered, "It's not Seimei's fault."

"I know. Obviously, it's Soubi's fault. He's the one who dished out the 'punishment,' although usually it's more like a vacation. From what I've pieced together, Seimei isn't at fault but he is the REASON for all of this. Soubi has a jealous streak when it comes to certain issues, and you're certainly an issue with him. I've never seen him dote so hopelessly on one of the boys before. The fact that there's something dark and sinister in Soubi's past linking him to Seimei, coupled with the rather curious favoritism Seimei's been heaping on you, and Soubi's favoritism of you himself... well, it's not hard to see that Soubi had a raging tantrum about the possibility of uprising feelings between the two of you and decided to severe the connection."

Blinking stupidly, Ritsuka could only stare. "You figured all that out on your own? Through pregnancy rumors?"

Kano grinned. "I have my ways. I know more about the going on's around here than probably even Soubi and Kio do combined. I'm right, aren't I? About Seimei?"

As far as Ritsuka knew, Kano had never lied to him. He didn't see a reason to return that honesty with anything less - especially since lying wasn't going to him back to Seimei.

"'re right." Ritsuka sighed. He wished he had another plate of pancakes in front of him, if only for something to play with to keep his hands busy. Kano had demolished the rest of his original stack. There was nothing left but crumbs.

Kano nodded quietly. "That's hard. Emotional connection to clients. It's never happened to me before, but..." Kano shrugged elegantly, making the gesture seem commiserating, not indifferent.

Ritsuka didn't know what to say to that, so he stayed silent.

"If it's any consolation," Kano went on. "I found something that might be of interest to you."

Though he knew he shouldn't, Ritsuka felt himself perk up a bit. Kano knew how he felt about Seimei, and that's basically all he knew about Ritsuka. As far as he was aware anyway. Maybe it was about him; maybe Kano knew which boys Seimei had been taking home! He felt a part of himself retreat, like a sand crab startled back into its shell. Did he REALLY want to know? And what would he do with the information if he did?

"But not here," Kano went on. "Not now. We're being watched by Soubi, rather creepily if I do say so myself."

Ritsuka glanced in Soubi's direction. Kio had gone, but Soubi was still there, steady in the cloud of smoke veiling him. He was holding up his log book as if reading it, but one violet eye was visible around the right side. His expression, though Ritsuka could only see half his face, was dark and calculating. It sent a chill down his back.

"Later on," Kano said, snapping him back to his immediate vicinity. "maybe we'll happen to meet up in the hallways. There can't be certain time because Soubi's schedule is maddeningly unpredictable. But try to wander by my room a few times this afternoon."

There were a few breaths before Ritsuka could make up his mind about whether or not to trust Kano. On the one hand, he was inviting and warm and friendly and Ritsuka felt comfortable around him, which not a lot of people made him feel. At the same time, he was beginning to see a pattern: Kano was charming, clever, and cunning. It was a dangerous combination if there ever was one. He had gotten a kiss out of Ritsuka within two seconds of meeting, he had tricked Mr. Takahashi out of what he had paid a hefty price for, he had figured out the situation with Seimei, and he knew Soubi was watching them even though he had never so much as glanced in that direction the whole duration of their conversation.

Kano could be an incredible ally, that was for sure; he could also be the worst mistake Ritsuka ever made if it turned out Kano took no ally's and would eventually turn on him.

But for once, Ritsuka was just too heartsick to care.

"Okay," he finally said. "This afternoon."

He looked back up at Soubi, at the curious violet eye. For a moment their gazes locked, and then Soubi drew back behind his book, disappearing completely.

It had become something of a custom for Soubi to seek out Ritsuka personally every hour or so from about 10 AM until 2 PM in an attempt to get him to cooperate with part of the probation rules, which was a laundry list of errands and light office duty.

So far Ritsuka had studiously ignored him, flat-out told him 'no', and invented a multitude of ridiculous excuses that he knew for certain Soubi would know was pure cheek; things like, "I'd like to help you, but I'm not allowed to offer my services to anyone more than once and I've worked for you before," or "I don't talk to creepy older men."

Soubi would then walk away without a word, only to return again the next hour in a new attempt to persuade him.

Today was different, though, and it was almost scary. Ritsuka had taken his sketchpad to the back garden and was creating a careful outline of Seimei's hands. He was sure when he closed his eyes that he was remembering them accurately: the soft, warm palms and strong fingers with smooth, blunt nails clipped short and straight. But he couldn't focus as deeply as he would have liked since he was expecting every moment to be interrupted by Soubi's low, serene voice.

Only it never happened.

Ritsuka took lunch on the patio with Kio-take out bento boxes of steamed rice, spring rolls, and lemon chicken that Soubi had apparently ordered for all the boys from the depths of his office. His behavior was peculiar, avoidant and yet oddly cheery and Ritsuka couldn't figure out why.

He decided to count his blessings and stop worrying about Soubi and his strange behavior. Maybe it had just been the pancakes that had him feeling generous and anyway it was ideal if he wanted to meet up with Kano.

When the common areas began to quiet as the boys found places to nestle in and nap for the afternoon, Ritsuka found himself quite nervously approaching Natsuo. Youji was present, but had his head in Natsuo's lap with his eyes closed while Natsuo read what appeared to be a manga novel. Ritsuka silently prayed that Youji really was asleep. He didn't want him to hear what he needed to ask.

"Um, Natsuo?"

"Hold on, they're about to have sex, I think. Doggy Style." Natsuo flipped to the next page, and Ritsuka fell silent and waited. "Awww, they were interrupted again! No one is that unfortunate in real life. Come on!" He looked up. "You were saying?"

Ritsuka blinked and pulled at the hem of his sweater. "I just... can you tell me where Kano's room is?"

Youji's eyes sprang open, revealing gleeful (and wicked) mint green. He turned his head without lifting it from Natsuo's lap, fixing his gaze on Ritsuka.

"Kano's room, you ask?" he said. "Ritsuka, don't tell us you've got a booty call with our resident ex-model. And by that I mean, do tell us, and give us details when it's over."

Ritsuka glared. "You were supposed to be asleep. And no, I don't have a booty call with Kano."

Youji only smirked. "A quickie then? A one-afternoon-stand? A long, smoldering, passionate love affair?"

"We've been reading too much manga," Natsuo laughed. "Why DO you want to see Kano, Ritsuka?"

Internally, Ritsuka fumed. This was the problem with asking for help-people always wanted to know your business. Seimei never did that to him, he realized. Seimei would ask questions only insofar as was polite, never deeply personal ones, and he never gave the impression that he only wanted the answers for gossip. Ritsuka missed that- along with everything else about Seimei.

"He's my friend." Ritsuka said, simply. "Will you tell me where his room is or not?"

Youji laughed before straightening out on Natsuo's lap again, letting his eyes slide shut once more. "Oh, the old "just friends" routine. A classic. Well, Ritsuka, his room's not that far from ours. Keep going down the hall past our door and his is the last one on the left."

Ritsuka stalked away without so much as a muttered thanks. He had thought if he could talk to Natsuo alone he would get at least a somewhat normal answer with minimal innuendos, but he realized now that that had been a ridiculous idea. When were the two of them ever alone? And of COURSE Youji hadn't really been asleep. Everything that boy did was deceitful.

Ritsuka could hear the two of them chittering and snickering to each other all the way up the staircase. But whatever. Everyone already knew he and Kano had been special ordered together and probably assumed they had "come together" that night. So what if any of them thought they had decided to carry it on during their free time? With any luck, word would get around to Soubi that he was taking up with Kano and he'd relax his grip on the whole stupid probation thing. Then he could finally see Seimei again.

Actually, now that Ritsuka thought about it, he was glad Youji had been awake. This is exactly the sort of rumor about him he needed spread around.

Now hoping he WOULD be caught, Ritsuka quickened his footsteps and straightened his spine. Just as he reached the end of the hall, before he could even come to a stop, the door opened, fingers dug into the front of his sweater and he was yanked inside. He found himself pressed to the wall, Kano's hand pinning him there by the shoulders.

"How did you know I was coming?" Ritsuka asked once he had swallowed down his surprise.

"Intuition," Kano said mysteriously. "Soubi wasn't around anywhere, was he? or Kio?"

Ritsuka shook his head. "I haven't seen either of them for hours."

Kano released him and went to a small, cedar wood dresser in the corner. "Have a seat. Mine is the top bunk."

The room was roughly the size of the one Ritsuka stayed in, but this one seemed more tidy and serene. There weren't pictures or posters or crazy colored lights. It had plain, light mocha-colored walls, dark blue curtains on the windows (which Ritsuka noted there were two in this room) three identical dressers, a single bed, and a set of bunk beds, all with matching brown and white patterned coverlets.

Ritsuka climbed into Kano's bunk. Despite having been invited there, he felt oddly like it was an intrusion into Kano's personal space. Maybe, reflected Ritsuka as Kano dug around in the dresser, he felt that way because Kano's wasn't the bed he really wanted to be in.

Trying to distract himself from that depressing thought, Ritsuka said, "Where are your roommates?"

"Who knows," Kano replied nonchalantly, head still buried in the dresser. "We don't really keep tabs on each other. They're cool guys and all but we pretty much do our own thing. ...ah hah!"

He emerged with a small square of paper in his hand. From what Ritsuka could see, it was entirely blank. Whatever Kano wanted him to see must have been on the opposite side.

"THIS," said Kano triumphantly, "is what I wanted to show you."

"What is it?"

"A photograph. I'll come up there and show you. I have a feeling showing it to you from here wouldn't do the thing justice."

Ritsuka scooted over to make room as Kano mounted the small ladder. When he had settled in place, Ritsuka was surprised to see he was actually trying to suppress a smile, and it wasn't working very well.

"What are you-"

"You're going to love me forever," Kano said eagerly. He had the photo pressed to his chest, concealing whatever image it was on. "I was at Soubi's apartment last night and couldn't sleep, so I decided to make myself useful and I happened upon this." He held it out, full out smiling now.

Ritsuka stared back at him a moment, caught off guard by so much information. Then he looked down. His heart stuttered and then lurched into triple-beat.

It was a picture of Seimei.

If Ritsuka had to guess at his age, he would have said early twenties...and look, there was a messenger bag slung over one shoulder. Seimei must have been in college with the photo was taken. There were trees in the background, orange and yellow leaves dotting every branch. Maybe a scene from campus grounds in autumn? There was a casual, easy smile on his face. Seimei looked as though he didn't know he was being photographed, but something told Ritsuka that in reality, Seimei had been very, very aware.

Seimei was alone in the frame. Ritsuka could only guess at who had taken the picture.

College Seimei didn't look very much different than the Seimei that Ritsuka knew. His hair was a bit shorter…his eyes a bit wider…but overall, his expression, his clothing, his posture…it was all Seimei. Ritsuka would have recognized him in the picture 20 feet away. But when Ritsuka looked closer, he saw that there was another difference: it wasn't just that Seimei's eyes were wider, they were also duller. Ritsuka knew Seimei's eyes to be warm-glowing sometimes-hot other times...always there was an element of fire in them. But in this picture, Seimei's eyes were nothing but ice.

"I don't have to give this back, do I?"Ritsuka asked, his voice dazed.

Kano chuckled. "Keep it. Soubi has a few dozen of them and I'll bet my hooker-heeled boots he's got more stashed someplace else. He won't miss it. Probably won't miss a few more either. It all depends on how methodically obsessed with the man he really is, but I doubt he has the time to count his picture every night. He's got no reason to be suspicious of thieves."

It was kind of embarrassing for someone to be so unflinchingly sure that he was so head-over-heels for Seimei that he'd be dying for a photo of him, but Kano really seemed to pass no judgment on the matter-maybe even understood firsthand what it was like.

"I don't know how to thank you."

"No need for that. I wanted to make you smile."

And the words, almost like magic, DID pull a smile out of Ritsuka. Because he now had a solid image of the one person he'd be happy staring at forever.

"There it is," Kano said, giving Ritsuka cheek an affectionate pat. "Just don't let anyone see. There would be pandemonium if Soubi found out. And hey... I wouldn't mind a little kiss either."

He pointed to his own cheek and Ritsuka shrugged. It wasn't like he was asking for tongue. He leaned forward and planted a kiss on the apple of Kano's cheek.

"We should go find a good place to keep that thing stashed," Kano said, slightly flushed in the face.

Ritsuka paused to stare. He hadn't given much thought to it before, but Kano seemed suspiciously keen on him for someone who hadn't known him that long. He was blushing, and it wasn't like Kano didn't receive much more intimate gestures on a nightly basis. The action alone couldn't possibly be the cause of that kind of reaction.

Nervously, he climbed off the bunk after Kano, feeling guilty for his unrequited feelings and unsure what he should do about the whole situation. But Kano was obviously aware of Ritsuka's feelings for Seimei, and maybe that was enough. He had also spoken fondly of Soubi… maybe crushes were simply a running theme for him.

When they stepped into the hallway, Ritsuka asked, "You said you spent the night at Soubi's apartment. Does he do that often with the boys?"

Kano kept straight ahead and didn't seem bothered by it at all. "You know, sometimes. Like every healthy man sometimes he wants a full night of festivities instead of just a quickie over his office desk. He thinks it's easier on Kio, too, since he's not around to really witness anything, but he's wrong. It's a thousand times worse. Hey... Ritsuka, put that thing away."

Ritsuka still had the photo in his hand and kept glancing at it as they spoke. As he slipped it into his belt buckle, a voice made him stop dead, icy fear racing over him.

"My, my. If it isn't the two darling partners in crime."

It was Soubi. Right behind them. Ritsuka stayed stationary, his eyes cutting to Kano's in terror. HAD he seen the photo?

Kano's expression betrayed no worry, but Ritsuka could see his pulse racing in his throat. He turned to Soubi and with cool pleasantry said, "Hey, Soubi. Bit odd seeing you in the hallways."

"If by 'odd', you mean, 'completely within my rights as title-holder of the building,' then yes, it is odd." Soubi replied blithely. "May I see you two in my office? We have business to discuss."

Something about his tone made Ritsuka very sure it was not actually a question. HAD Soubi seen the picture? Was he planning to reprimand Ritsuka and Kano for it, saving that for a private setting, where he could force them to "repay" him for the theft? Ritsuka's heart shook inside his chest. He could stomach a reprimand, even a session of badly-performed desk sex, so long as he didn't have to give back the photograph of Seimei. Right now, it felt like the only lifeline he had to the man.

Kano shrugged nonchalantly. "Sure, I'm not busy at the moment." He made it sound like he and Soubi were business partners instead of employer and employee.

Soubi's eyes glinted with what seemed like mild irritation and swept away, leaving Ritsuka and Kano to follow.

A look of puzzlement twisted with a strand of trepidation passed between the two boys. Then Kano smiled with warm reassurance and gestured at Soubi's retreating back. "Shall we?"

Ritsuka exhaled audibly and fell into step beside him. If nothing else, at least he wasn't facing this alone.

Once inside the office, they took their seats opposite Soubi's desk and waited for him to close the door, the curtain's that lined the glass window in the door, and tuck himself into his executive chair.

Soubi templed his fingers in front of himself, his eyes closed for a long moment. Finally he spoke. "Late this morning I received a call from Mr. Takahashi."

"I am NOT going!" Ritsuka burst out before he could stop himself. His legs began to tremble with the onset of an emotional meltdown.

Kano coughed, hiding his mouth behind his hand. Soubi's lips twitched, as if he were suppressing a smirk.

"Fortunately, Mr. Takahashi is not requesting another encounter." he said.

Ritsuka sagged in his chair, relief pouring through every nerve ending. He couldn't handle another "encounter" with that man. He couldn't.

"What he is requesting is, in fact, a recording."

"You mean a video? Of the two of us?" asked Kano. Ritsuka saw that his posture had straightened almost imperceptibly.

This time, Soubi DID smirk. "Precisely. You and Ritsuka would perform in front of a camera. Mr. Takahashi - and anyone else willing to pay a small fee - would receive the tape."

"A video of the two of us," Ritsuka repeated, hesitantly. "Like… jumping on trampolines, spraying each other with squirt guns, giggling….?"

He knew it sounded stupid even as he said it, but he was hopeful. Kano was becoming his friend and the idea of being intimate with him was more embarrassing than thinking about performing on a stranger he'd (hopefully) never have to see again. He had shared pancakes with Kano that morning and he couldn't really see such comfortable interplay continuing if they had to elicit sexual gratification from one another.

Soubi had the audacity to chuckle, which infuriated Ritsuka to no mild extent. He bit down on his tongue to keep from lashing out again.

"My dear boy." Said Soubi. "That sort of play is all good and fine at perhaps a… gentlemen's club," he shrugged airily. "But Soubi Productions is nothing but the highest quality in entertainment. The two of you will be engaged in highly intimate foreplay and copulation."

Rituska's face felt like someone had taken a blowtorch too it. He kept his eyes glued on Soubi's spidery fingers, which were now doing gleeful pushups against each other, but could see Kano's hands tighten on the arms of his chair.

Soubi went on, completely unabashed. "Mr. Takahashi raved about the two adorable little angels I sent him. He was completely charmed by Ritsuka's shy reluctance and the way he clung so wantonly to Kano."

Ritsuka covered his face with his hands, every cell in his body flushed with humiliation. He had only a second to wonder if Kano was as horrified as he was when he heard him say, "It was quite adorable, it's true. Ritsuka's behavior had a rather pleasant effect on myself as well."

"Excellent." Soubi stabbed his index finger toward Kano, all smiles. "That's what the video will be. Two young boys in love. Kano, you'll gently seduce Ritsuka until he's clinging and writhing against you. Then you take him sweetly but passionately. I want to hear you both-"

Ritsuka couldn't hear another word. "WHOA!" he shouted.

Soubi turned to face him, raising his eyebrows with almost comically exaggerated interest.

"What if I don't WANT to be seduced by Kano and cling and writhe against him? What if I don't want to make a video AT ALL?" Ritsuka demanded.

He watched Soubi blink a slow, sardonic blink and tried to ignore the way Kano sagged in his chair, mouth drooping into a glum line.

"Well, Ritsuka, it's not as though you aren't aware of what living in the House entails..." said Soubi delicately.

"I'm already on probation! Now you're making me do THIS?"

"If I recall, you've so far declined my offers of more modest labor..." one of Soubi's hands lazily twirled in the air as he continued. "Re-alphabetizing my list of client contact...categorizing my receipts by date and out those dusty filing cabinets..."

Ritsuka stuffed his hands under his thighs, refusing to capitulate.

"If you WERE inclined to acquiesce to such tasks," Soubi went on. "I would gladly forget this business of video camera and Takahashi. It's not really something I'd enjoy forcing you into, after all."

Ritsuka snorted inwardly. Yeah right.

"But, sadly," sighed Soubi. "You seem determined to take the more difficult path...sow wilder oats...choose to put yourself between rocks and hard places..."

"Alright, alright!" he finally exclaimed. "I'll work in your damn office!"

Kano, obviously coming out of his temporary case of disappointment and self-pity, covered Ritsuka's hand with his own. The gesture didn't seem to insinuate anything disrespectful, and the blatant kindness of it made the back of Ritsuka's eye sting with tears. Sometimes Kano's behavior reminded him of Seimei, in a fragmentary sort of way. It definitely was not exact, but it was enough. Enough to make him long for Seimei more than he already had been, but not enough to make him turn to Kano instead.

He sat stonily, refusing to blink and bring any of those hidden tears to the surface. He'd already shown Soubi how outraged he was—he didn't need to show him how deeply it actually burned.

"Very well." Soubi stood and took from his top drawer a plain silver lighter and pack of cigarettes. Fleetingly, Ritsuka wondered why he wasn't using his usual butterfly patterned zippo; but he didn't care enough to let the thought gel. "Meanwhile, I'm a little dismayed. It seems something of mine has been misplaced, something immensely personal. The two of you wouldn't happen to know of anyone around The House with sticky fingers?"

Ritsuka felt himself stiffen, and the picture tucked into his belt felt suddenly hot and sharp against his skin. He didn't seem to suspect Kano, or at least doubted any suspicions he may have harbored because his gaze paused longer and more piercingly on Ritsuka.

"No..." Kano said thoughtfully, lifting a few fingers to his chin in mock contemplation. "I can't say that I do. You, Ritsuka?"

Ritsuka wasn't too far gone emotionally to realize he should said no. Part of him wanted to shout at Soubi that HE took "immensely personal" item, that he knew it was a picture of Seimei, and that Soubi was pathetic to still be hung up on a man who regularly paid young boys for sex.

...then Ritsuka remembered that he himself was hung up on that same man. He sunk down into his chair, heart twisting painfully.

"Hmmm..." Soubi murmured. "Well, I'll be monitoring The House a bit more carefully from now on."

Kano straightened to attention, a hint of excitement creeping into his tone. "We'll keep a lookout for you as well. It might be kind of fun doubling as junior detectives. Mix things up a bit. Right?" He nudged Ritsuka in the ribs with playful show, but the sharp look in his eyes left no room for joviality.

"Right," Ritsuka said, trying to inject as much enthusiasm into the word as possible. It came out flat and hoarse.

Kano frowned at him. He shot a concerned look Soubi's way. "Sir? Would it be alright if Ritsuka had one more free evening? He seems to still be shaken from the memories of Mr. Takahashi, as I'm sure you understand. It's my night off. I can take him out and get his mind off certain clients."

Soubi's eyes flashed with a hint of understanding, but he lowered his eyelids so quickly that Ritsuka wondered if he had imagined it. Soubi considered Kano for a short moment, then softened. "Of course. Take Ritsuka out and help him settle down. But I expect the both of you to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed tomorrow."

Kano nodded. "We will be, sir. I could even help Ritsuka clean - I know that's not really his favorite pastime but I don't mind it. And the work will go faster with four hands instead of two."

At this, all of Soubi's previous softness vanished. "No. Ritsuka needs to do it himself. This is his probation, Kano, not yours."

There was apparently enough sternness in his tone even for Kano, because Kano gave no argument.

Ritsuka didn't know if he preferred to have Kano's help or not, anyway. It was true that another pair of hands would make the work go faster, but he would also have to deal with Kano's none-too-subtle crush. Ritsuka was starting to feel increasingly guilty about it. He was profiting from Kano's feelings: Seimei's picture, help with Mr. Takahashi, and so on. But he had no intentions of going any farther with Kano than friendship - and he was starting to feel like he was leading Kano on. No, he hadn't implied that he and Kano WOULD deepen their relationship, but Ritsuka also hadn't made it perfectly clear that it would never happen. Maybe it was wrong of him not to.

On the other hand, the fact remained that Kano HAD gotten him the photo of Seimei. He was perfectly aware of Ritsuka's feelings for Seimei, seemed to want to help him even. And yet, maybe it was better to lay all the cards out on the table so there wasn't any embarrassing miscommunications. He resolved to tell Kano that night, he just wasn't sure how.

"Come on," Kano said, snapping him out of his reverie. He was standing in front of Ritsuka's chair with his hand out. "We'll have fun. I promise."

Something in his warm smile made Ritsuka believe him. He reached out his own hand, smiling back.

The sun was already making its expedition downward by the time they reached the city square. It was bright and orange in the periwinkle sky, about midway to the horizon and casting long, sharp shadows across the streets and sidewalks. The buildings in this part were tall, making Ritsuka feel more dwarfed than usual. It wasn't a bad feeling, though; it made him feel as if there was so much more out there for him besides Soubi's House and The Street.

He was happy to note that not one person had looked at him inappropriately. This may have been due to their modest wardrobes, which consisted of actual pants that weren't skin-tight, boys boots, shirts with long sleeves, and coats with matching gloves. Ritsuka had even found a blue and purple scarf to throw around his neck. But mostly Ritsuka thought it had to do with the fact that he was walking next to Kano, which many people seemed to recognize, and because Natsuo and Youji were trailing along behind them, making obscene comments.

The tail end of one such comment caught Ritsuka's ears.

" - and then I'm going to make you scream, baby." Youji's voice.

Ritsuka knew where this was going and he CERTAINLY didn't want to hear any more. He turned around, hissing, "Ugh! We can HEAR you, you know."

Youji laughed. "Who said we didn't want you to?"

Kano chuckled, and Ritsuka glared at him. "It's not like we have virgin ears, Ritsuka," he said good-naturedly.

"Oooo, you KNOW how it turns me on when you talk dirty to me." Natsuo murmured in a stage whisper, wrapping an arm around Youji's waist. Then he looked pointedly at Ritsuka, grinning wickedly.

Ritsuka couldn't help it. He sighed. Long and loud and in that ill-tempered, scary way his mother used to sigh right before a fit was about to come on. Ritsuka didn't feel fitful though; just exasperated.

"We have think about that sort of thing almost every night of the week," he said. "Don't you have any other interests? ANY at all?"

The couple looked at each other, smiles widening in such a sinister way that it made Ritsuka momentarily petrified he had asked.

"Ice cream!" They both shouted, and bolted past.

Kano looked at Ritsuka, a winsome smile on his face, hands in his pockets. "Sounds great to me."

They caught up with Natsuo and Youji at an Ice-cream Shoppe three blocks away. The two of them were already seated at an outside table, Natuso slurping Strawberry ice-cream from a waffle cone and Youji making a show with his raspberry big stick. A woman cried out in outrage and covered her small daughter's eyes with her hands and they skittered off. Youji smirked like he'd just won first prize for biggest slut in the region and couldn't be more proud.

Ritsuka felt a migraine coming on. Maybe some ice cream would numb his brain enough to dull the pain. He didn't have to eat it like Youji was, at any rate...

With that optimistic thought in mind, Ritsuka approached the stand and ordered one mint chocolate chip waffle cone from the cashier - who looked spectacularly un-enthused. Just when he was reaching into his pocket to pull out money to pay, Kano gently caught his wrist.

"Don't worry, Ritsuka. It's on me." he said smoothly. Then he held out a few bills in the cashier's direction.

The cashier didn't look like he could care less who was paying for what. With a wide yawn, he handed Kano his change and turned around to retrieve Ritsuka's order.

"Thank you," Ritsuka said, rubbing uncomfortably at his arm. His face felt hot. He wasn't used to being around people who acted this way toward him, and he wasn't quite sure how to tell him that his kindness was welcome but that's really all that was. He didn't mind so much how touchy Kano seemed to be—he'd noticed he seemed to be that way with all the rest of the boys and even Kio. He just wasn't sure where to draw the line or how to tell him that he didn't want any special treatment he wouldn't give anyone else.

The cashier handed Ritsuka his cone. He wrapped a napkin around the base, then said, "Kano," and abruptly stalled. Kano had gotten a cone exactly like his. "I… you like mint chocolate too?"

Kano shrugged. "Never had it before, but I like to live on the wild side."

Ritsuka snorted a short laugh. A new ice cream flavor was much less of a risk than sleeping with the first person of the night to open his pocketbook.

"You know what I think, though?" Kano went on, stepping closer to Ritsuka. He leaned in as if he were about to whisper, casting his eyes about suspiciously.

Frowning curiously, Ritsuka leaned in. "What?"

"I think yours will always taste better." Quicker than Ritsuka could begin to work out that riddle, Kano grabbed his wrist and took a generous half-lick, half-bite of his ice cream, then shot off down the street, laughing like a first grader.

Stunned, Ritsuka stood frozen, then gasped and gave chase. "Hey!" he shouted, but he wasn't angry. He felt happy for once, and lighthearted, and like nothing in the world would please him more than to take a bite of Kano's ice cream for revenge. Twice as big. Then stick out his tongue and dance away.

Ritsuka couldn't seem to catch up, but he kept Kano in view for a good two blocks. When he slipped around the corner of a stone brick building, Ritsuka doubled his efforts, pummeling through shocked and crabby pedestrians. He had just turned the corner himself when he ran flat into Kano's back and landed theatrically on his bottom. Somehow, he'd managed to hold up his cone and keep the ice cream from falling off the top.

"Hey, what gives?" He asked Kano's back. He was standing stationary, and from his angle on the sidewalk, Ritsuka could just see the side of his face and that his mouth was hanging open. Ritsuka followed the backward tilt of his head to trace his gaze at whatever had rendered him so completely immobile.

Above them was a group of men, four or five, Ritsuka wasn't sure because it only took seconds for his gaze to lock on one of the men leading the group. The handsome man with the long, grey jacket and dark hair, curling delicately around the collar.

"Seimei…" Ritsuka breathed out the name absently, staring up with unblinking eyes.

Seimei seemed to have been talking casually to the rest of the group. His violet eyes danced with what looked like amusement, one wrist curling in the air to gesture along with whatever words he had been speaking. A light smile played across his features as he turned to focus on the sidewalk ahead of him, and that's when his eyes suddenly locked with Ritsuka's.

The moment dragged on for an eternity in Ritsuka's mind. He hoped and prayed to be granted knowledge of just what Seimei was thinking. Was he happy to see Ritsuka? Was he merely surprised? Was he dismayed? There was no clue to be found on Seimei's face - it was only flash-frozen in his previous expression. Ritsuka never did find out what Seimei was thinking in that instant. All he knew was that there was SOMETHING going on in Seimei's painfully handsome head.

Ritsuka ached with desire for him.

"Ritsuka..." Seimei said - and Ritsuka could only hope that Seimei's smile really WAS widening, and that it wasn't simply his imagination playing tricks on him.

One of the other members of the group, a rail-thin man with a dark ponytail, cleared his throat before speaking up. "Am I missing something here? Are these boys clients of yours?"

Ritsuka watched Seimei's dark eyelashes flutter as he blinked raptly, as if coming back to reality. "Forgive my rudeness, gentlemen." He held out a hand to Ritsuka, who dazedly took it, sparks sizzling through his fingers at the contact as Seimei helped him up."Allow me to present Ritsuka. He's a very fine young artist. I plan to commission him when I redecorate my office next month."

He was definitely smiling wider. And he hadn't yet let go of Ritsuka's hand. And Ritsuka had been called a fine artist. And Seimei wanted to commission him. And Ritsuka's complexion was six shades of red. And he couldn't find his voice. And there were still about ten-thousand volts racing through his veins, charging his heart to a ferocious lub-dub, lub-dub, lub-dub that he was sure could be seen against his ribs even through the bulk of his thick coat.

All the men, save one, nodded and murmured vague how-do-you-dos. Ritsuka tried to make himself respond in kind but something was stealing his voice away. He coughed awkwardly. The one man that hadn't yet spoken a word was blond, like Soubi, but his hair was cut shorter - a rough chop that ended just above his collarbones. Like Soubi, he wore glasses, but the frames were rectangular. He was dressed like the rest of the group: long coat over an expensive-looking suit.

Ritsuka looked to Kano, hoping to be spared the responsibility of responding. Kano was usually reliable in that area. This time, however, Kano was (if possible) even more speechless than Ritsuka. He was still staring, open-mouthed. Belatedly, Ritsuka realized WHO he was staring at. It was that silent man...and he seemed to be staring with equal single-mindedness at Kano.

"Ah..." said Seimei, glancing back and forth between the two. "And this is his partner in crime, Kano -"

"Yamazaki," the blond man broke in, the beginnings of a smile curling around his lips. "We've met."

Ritsuka heard Kano gulp. His ice cream dripped with a splat splat splat on the sidewalk..

The smirk on the man's face, Ritsuka thought, was quite frankly creeping him out; he looked like he wanted to eat Kano, and slowly. Ritsuka prodded Kano in the ribs with his elbow, trying to break through his trance, but Kano was completely immersed, prey and predator blind to the world surrounding them. Flocks of people moved passed them, oblivious to the strange atmosphere clouding their group, their intrusion of personal space too trivial to break the spell.

Helplessly, Ritsuka looked up at Seimei, whose eyes cut to him in the same moment, wearing an identical mask of wry bemusement. Rituska raised inquisitive eyebrows, and Seimei smirked.

"And may I introduce my coworkers," he said. "Ritsu Minami and Nisei Akame."

Nisei, the dark-haired man, narrowed his eyes in suspicious contemplation. His watery-dark irises darted between Ritsu and Kano, and then surveyed Seimei and Ritsuka.

"He looks like you," he said finally, and nudged his pointed chin toward Ritsuka. "That one. Bit of a coincidence, wouldn't you say?"

Seimei blinked. It was the closest Ritsuka had ever seen him to being taken aback.

"I suppose," he said. Then there was a long pause. "I never really…saw it before."

Privately, Ritsuka had no idea what this Nisei Akame person was talking about. Seimei was an Adonis and Ritsuka was anything but. Ritsuka would concede that, sure, they both had dark hair, but the physical similarities ended there. Ritsuka could never see himself being the subject of anyone's secret fantasies. Seimei, on the other hand, was the textbook example of a person that others would dream about – night and day.

Suddenly, Ritsuka realized that Seimei was looking at him. Had been looking at him, actually, for many moments now. His expression made him look like someone who had stumbled upon a treasure map, or a mirage, or a hidden oasis deep in the desert.

And then Seimei seemed to come back to himself. He cleared his throat quickly and said, "Ritsuka has quite a talent with both landscapes and portraits. He was kind enough to show me a little of his work recently."

"Interesting," said Nisei, though he looked like he thought it was anything but. His eyes were still narrowed at Ritsuka, a trace of irritation mixed with amusement flittering across his face. "Maybe he can capture a few of you in your true nature. Cold, vicious, merciless." He smiled. It wasn't a kind smile. "Loveless."

Now Ritsuka blinked, uncertainty gripping his stomach. He remembered Kio's warning about Seimei, and Soubi's ominously bedraggled expression whenever his name was brought up.

A sudden rage bubbled up inside of him. "Seimei is not—" he began, and was cut off by Seimei's gentle touch on his shoulder.

"Nisei is referring to my abilities when court is in session. Lawyers aren't generally known for their compassion, I'm afraid." He offered an apologetic smile.

Before anyone could comment further, a man appeared at Nisei's elbow. He was stout and curly-haired, wearing a plain white apron over his workman's clothes. He was holding a box of roses, each of them rolled with a bundle of baby's breath in a sheet of translucent cellophane. Ritsuka could see red, soft orange, shell pink, and butter yellow.

"Excuse me for interrupting," said the man. His smile showed the large gap between his two front teeth. "Roses? Perhaps to take home to a misses? A gift for the fine young boys?"

Ritsuka instantly blushed crimson; he could feel his cheeks burn with it, sudden and sharp and hot.

And Kano STILL hadn't said anything! What was WRONG with him? It wasn't like Ritsuka to be the one in their friendship to do the talking. Ritsuka elbowed him again, hoping to be relieved of the responsibility as soon as possible. If someone didn't say something immediately, it was going to get VERY awkward VERY fast.

Because Ritsuka WANTED a rose. He really did. And there was no question of who he wanted it from, or what color he wished it would be. The one fabled in fairy tales and Disney movies and Hallmark cards. The one that decorated every shop during Valentine's day. Red. The deepest, darkest red. A red rose could only mean one thing. It was the symbol of true love.

...Kano didn't say a word or move a muscle.

The impending Crisis of Awkward was averted, however, by none other than Ritsu. He managed to tear his stare away from Kano and smiled at the florist in a brisk sort of way, a way that Ritsuka knew meant Ritsu hadn't really seen the man at all.

"One of your yellow roses, please," he said to the florist. He reached into his coat pocket and carelessly drew out a few bills in payment.

"Of course, of course!" cried the man. He greedily snatched the bills and pocketed them, then pulled from his box a pale yellow rose, the wrappings making delicate crinkling sounds as it was passed from the man to Ritsu and then offered to Kano.

Finally, freaking finally, Kano's eyes moved from Ritsu's face and down to the gift. He stared at it wondrously, as if a tiny angel had sprouted wings in Ritsu's palms and he could hardly believe such a miracle existed. Carefully he reached out his boyish, but perfectly manicured hands-nails polished a dark candy-purple—and took the flower.

Ritsuka watched in amazement as the laid-back, smooth talking Kano swallowed hard and stuttered out a quavering, "Th-thank you," and then promptly flushed the color of fresh humming bird nectar.

Ritsuka was stunned. And jealous. Kano hadn't said a word, had barely moved a muscle since Seimei and his group had approached them, and he got a rose. Admittedly, not a red one, but a rose nonetheless.

Ritsu's eyes visibly glittered. "You're most welcome, Kano."

If it was possible, Kano flushed an even deeper crimson.

A subtle cough caught Ritsuka's attention suddenly to his right. Looking up, he fairly jumped out of his skin. Seimei was right next to him. When had he come so close? How had Ritsuka not seen him move?

"I don't think this one is at all inappropriate," Seimei said with a grin, "given how much I've enjoyed our time together thus far." And he drew a rose from behind his back - a single delicate flower, petals only just beginning to unfurl and bloom. His smile turned warmer, and more secret somehow, as he handed the rose out to Ritsuka.

Ritsuka's hands shook as he took it. He held it carefully in both, raising it to his nose and inhaling deeply of the heady scent.

The rose was a red one.

His legs were suddenly unsteady beneath him. He felt a sudden and severe urge to bounce up and down, dance, fly…something! Here he had been worrying himself nearly sick over the possibility that Seimei had forgotten all about him, and the truth was that Seimei not only admired his ridiculous sketches, but honestly and truly enjoyed the too few nights he had spent in Ritsuka's inexperienced company.

He wanted to fling his arms around Seimei's neck and kiss him full on the mouth, and in his moment of elation probably would have if Nisei hadn't stepped in, rapidly losing patience.

"Are we done here?" he hissed. "I'm getting desperately bored with all this ridiculous man-flirting."

"Nisei grows jealous of his insufficient charm," quipped Ritsu. "Being that I'm suddenly in a charitable mood, I'll spare you. Shall we, gentlemen?"

Seimei chuckled and shook his head, looking fondly exasperated at his coworkers. "I suppose we shall."

Everyone but Ritsu and Seimei muttered vague goodbyes and turned to go. They seemed preoccupied (all except Nisei, who seemed plain pissed-off) rather than particularly rude.

"I hope I'll be seeing you around," said Ritsu, clearly to Kano, before turning to follow them.

Kano nodded at him without speaking and smiled with closed lips. He looked as shy as Ritsuka had EVER seen him. Shyer than Ritsuka could have imagined him EVER looking.

Seimei stayed put, though, lingering until the others had gotten quite a few paces down the sidewalk. They either didn't notice or didn't care that he hadn't followed the group.

"The same goes for me, you know, Ritsuka," he said. Then he winked.

Ritsuka's stomach felt like it had somersaulted inside him, exploded in butterflies, and then flopped into a messy puddle of chocolate pudding.

And with one last smile, Seimei was turning away and following the others down the street.

Ritsuka stared after him, feeling a strange mixture of sadness and boundless joy resonate through his blood.

Kano began to murmur softly beneath his breath, staring after Ritsu Minami with all the burning longing Ritsuka felt within himself.

"..Burden of honey-colored buds to kiss… and capture 'twixt the lips apart for this."

"What's that?" Ritsuka asked. Seimei was no longer visible amid the throngs of pedestrians.

"Victorian poetry," Kano said. He blinked and at long last met Ritsuka's gaze. "R. Browning. I've been known to be a hopeless romantic." He looked back toward the fading sunset, where the men had disappeared. "Sometimes."

"Who was that?" Ritsuka said. "He looked like Soubi."

Kano laughed. "Maybe the hair."

"Is he a client?"

"No...not a client." said Kano, beginning to slurp at his ice cream once again. He did so thoughtfully-as though there was more on his mind than simply responding to Ritsuka's questions.

"Then how do you know him?"

Kano laughed once more. He turned on his heel and began walking back to the ice cream shop. It was clear that he was going back to Youji and Natsuo and that he expected Ritsuka to follow him. "That's a story for another time, I think."

Ritsuka couldn't find it inside himself to be annoyed, though at any other time, he would have been. There was too much to be happy about right now. He had seen Seimei again, and he had shown interest in him, and he had given him a rose. Ritsuka looked down at it again. It was so unbelievably perfect. But wait...

"Kano?" asked Ritsuka hesitantly. "Does your rose have a tag on it?"

Kano jerked to a halt mid-step. "A tag?" Ritsuka saw him inspect his yellow rose. Kano turned around abruptly and Ritsuka did indeed see a tag tied neatly to the stem.

Ritsuka had already thoroughly gone over the tag on HIS rose. It had writing on it, in an elegant cursive script.

Rose Color Meanings - Red
A red rose may symbolize any of the following:
Love, Beauty, Romantic Love, Desire, Sincere Love, Devotion, Undying Love

He read it over again, slower, more deliberately, and out loud this time. Had Seimei even noticed the tag was there? And if so, had he read it? Furthermore, did he pick this rose specifically because of its symbolism?

His heart cartwheeled dizzily, and he had something new to mull over. Romantic love? Sincere? Devotion, undying, beauty, desire? His head exploded with hope and possibility. Tears burned beneath his eyelids, the enormity of what this might be overwhelming his sensibility.

"Promise of a new beginning..." Kano said, reading from his rose's tag. "Welcome back...Remember me..."

"That's what yours means?" asked Ritsuka absently.

"Yeah..." said Kano, sounding just as dazed as Ritsuka felt. "That's what it says...I have to wonder if he knew..."

"If who knew what?" came a bounding, energetic voice. Ritsuka was pulled forcefully back to reality when he saw Youji and Natsuo approaching, ice cream stains on both their shirts and huge, carefree smiles all around.

Youji was the first to reach them. "Don't tell me you guys are discussing work again," he said sternly.

"No..." Ritsuka told him, feeling completely honest about the answer. The four of them fell into step together naturally and began the journey back to Soubi's House. "This isn't about work at all."

To be continued...

AN: WAHAHAHAHA! *clears throat* Reviews please! :D

Yours Truly,

MM and BC3